After his meeting with Oldo, Lee-Lack wandered around town and visited a few of the other taverns. In fact, there were more than a dozen of them. There were so many of them, it seemed half of the population was in the business of providing lodgings, meals and drinks.
“How do they survive? Tarbalainn is not that large a harbor. I suppose some trade is going on, and sailors are known to be generous spenders when on land. Add to that a few people fallen on hard times or looking for a new career, far away from their place of birth, and it might be just enough to make the inns and taverns viable.”
At the outskirts of the town, on the eastern part of the bay, for the first time he noticed some fishing boats. They must have been at sea when he had walked by the same spot that afternoon.
Again his eyes were drawn to the large black structures, almost leaning against the rocks, resembling barns. For all Lee-Lack knew, that was exactly what they were, except there was not enough arable land to warrant so many of them. No, they had to be warehouses. He had guessed as much earlier. They were large enough to contain the cargo of several vessels, but Tarbalainn wasn’t known as an important merchant port. He suppressed the urge to immediately go and investigate. Tomorrow would do as well after he had made some discreet inquiries.
When dusk fell, the August heat lingered, trapped between the cliffs of the bay. Most of the inns kept their doors and windows open, inviting the patrons to enter. The lights shone upon the quay, giving it an illusion of safety.
Lee-Lack made his way back to the Rudder. He felt hungry, tired and uneasy. The first two conditions he meant to remedy at his lodgings. He couldn’t put his finger on where the feelings of unrest came from. There had been something odd about Oldo during their conversation. Something that hadn’t been quite right. Something, something… but what? He tried to shake the unsettling feelings but wasn’t very successful. Maybe he just missed Yllyesh. He smiled thinking how fast he had gotten used to having the young Mukthar around.
“How long ago since I met him? Almost a month?”
He traced the time back as precisely as he could. He was astonished when his calculations were finished.
“Not even two weeks. How strange. It seemed longer.”
Before ordering a meal, Lee-Lack went upstairs to his room. He stopped on the landing, just before turning a right corner that led to the hallway.
“It’s not my turn to clean out the stables tomorrow,” he heard Erwick say in an angry tone. “It’s yours, Oojar.”
“It’s your turn when I say it is, baby brother.” The reply came in a threatening tone.
Lee-Lack turned the corner. To his surprise Erwick was talking to the two men he had seen earlier at the table of the first mate of the Cormorant. All three turned their head when they heard him coming.
“Ah, Erwick,” he said, “I’d like a word in private, please. If I’m not interrupting anything important, that is.”
The two older brothers glared at Lee-Lack, and for an instant the robber thought they were going to fight him. Then the siblings noticed the sword on his belt.
“You’re not interrupting anything, Master. We are done here. For the moment, anyway,” the oldest of them said. Then he turned to his youngest brother. “This isn’t over, runt. We’ll continue this friendly chat tomorrow.”
Erwick didn’t reply to the barely disguised threat. The two other men nodded at Lee-Lack and went downstairs. The robber kept silent until he heard a door downstairs being opened and closed again.
“Come into my room,” he said to Erwick.
The young man followed Lee-Lack without a word.
Once inside, the robber removed his cloak and took off his belt, putting both items on a ramshackle table.
“Are you in trouble?” he asked.
“With them?” Erwick smirked. “Always,” he answered his own question. “I had just finished cleaning your room when they came looking for me. You arrived shortly after.” He scratched his head and grinned. “Oojar has ten years on me and Ulmaz four. You know how it is with older brothers. They think it is their duty to terrorize the younger ones and make their lives miserable.”
“Are there more younger brothers?”
“There were. Arlun is two years older than I am. He ran away.”
Erwick lowered his head.
“That’s the second one who goes all morose on me when I ask him about the past,” Lee-Lack thought, puzzled.
“I’m sorry. I seem to have touched a sore spot. I didn’t mean to and I don’t want to pry,” he said.
Erwick let out a deep sigh.
“It’s no big deal, I suppose. I’m sure Arlun isn’t the first to run away from home and neither will he be the last. In fact—”
“You want to run away too?”
“Yeah. If only to escape Oojar and Ulmaz. Father is getting old and he relies more and more on my oldest brother to manage the Rudder. As long as he lives I’m getting paid, at least, but the moment he closes his eyes forever that could change.”
“I see. Why didn’t you go with your brother… eh…”
“Arlun. That was the plan. He swore he wouldn’t leave without me.”
Erwick didn’t elaborate further. His chin sunk to his chest once again.
“Maybe he didn’t,” Lee-Lack said, regretting his words almost immediately.
“I know. You… you’ve seen them, Oojar and Ulmaz.”
“Oojar is the elder of the two, isn’t he? The other one seemed quite a bit younger.”
“He is only two years older than Arlun. Oojar is almost thirty.”
“That’s roughly the age difference between Yllyesh and myself.” Lee-Lack grimaced. “Does he see me as an older man? People have always told me I don’t look my age, though.”
“Until a few years ago it was us three against Oojar who tried to order us around as if we were his serfs,” Erwick said.
“Let me guess. Ulmaz changed sides.”
Erwick produced a sad smile.
“Yeah. At the time Arlun and I thought Oojar had somehow bribed him, though we didn’t know what he had used to convince Ulmaz. A week or so later Arlun ran away.”
“Are you sure he ran away of his own accord?”
“Can you really be sure of anything? One evening — it was almost midnight — I saw him saddle his horse. He didn’t know I was in the stables, watching, and I kept out of sight. He led his horse outside, taking care to make as little noise as possible. I couldn’t decide whether to call after him or not. I didn’t want to draw the attention of our older brothers to him. Anyway… he was gone and out of sight in minutes, long before I had made up my mind.” He let out a self-derisive short laughter.
“What?” Lee-Lack asked.
“I’m such a fool. Do you know what I did? I went to my room and packed my best clothes and what little else I possess in two large saddlebags. Oh… and a bread and a piece of dried meat.” He gave ~Lee-lack a shy look. “I wanted to be ready for the time Arlun came for me. For two weeks I changed the bread daily and the meat every few days.”
“Then I unpacked everything. Arlun wasn’t coming. But even now, once and again, I have this feeling that one day he will come. Maybe he’s waiting for Oojar and Ulmaz to go away for a few days. Maybe he is preparing a place for us.”
“He’s not coming back, my young friend. There’s a good chance he’s dead. If you two really were that close, he would have found a way by now to let you know how he was doing and what his plans were.”
“It’s possible, isn’t it? All kinds of things could delay him, but he could still come for me one day.”
“Yes, of course. He’s probably waiting for the right moment.”
Erwick turned around and looked through the little window that gave out onto the inner courtyard. He stared at the stables through his tears.
“No, he isn’t. He isn’t coming back. He would have returned to get me a long time ago if he were alive.”
“You don’t know—”
“Yes, I do, and so do you. Thank you for lying, though, Sir.”
Lee-Lack nodded for want of anything helpful to say.
“I should never have split up with Yllyesh. Not here. Not in a pirate’s den.”