Lolita

Adelard Shortwick scrambled over the bales of wool, trying to steer the raft as best he could. It was normally a two person job, and navigating the rocks with only a single oar would have been trying for him even if he wasn't in such a panicked state. His wife, Lavinia, screamed in pain, and Adelard nearly fell right into the river. It would be quite an irony, he thought, to have them all be killed by his negligence on the day they truly became a family. He had begged Lavinia not to come with him, telling her that instead she should stay with family while he hired someone to ply the rivers with him. She had argued against him, telling him that her condition was not so urgent, and that with a baby on the way they would do better to keep the money that would have to be spent on a hireling. She had not earned the name "Deftmind" for nothing.

In this place the Nentir grew shallow and flowed faster, and Adelard pushed his long oar hard against the sandy bottom. The raft moved leeward, aided in part by the stiff breeze, and narrowly avoided a large rock which would have shattered the small raft. Adelard pushed his mind from thoughts of his wife, and focused his mind entirely on the task of taming the river. He had earned the name "Watertender", one of the highest honors that a riverfolk halfling could get, and today he hoped to be equal to that name. He had met Lavinia when she was working with a traveling carnival, and had fallen hopelessly in love with her. She had done death defying acrobatics, quick releases from suspended bars which sent her tumbling through the air. There was a beauty and grace to her movements which Adelard had found absolutely enthralling. She also had a stage presence, which was a necessity for someone as small as a halfling playing to a large crowd. Now her belly was full with child, and she could barely move at all.

After the show, Adelard had slipped past the guards and snuck over to her wagon. She opened the door when he knocked, smiling and face shining with sweat. She had noticed him watching, and had in fact intended to seek him out later in the day. Over the next several hours they had talked endlessly; she touched light fingers to his oar-callused hands, and he ran his fingers through her damp hair. They were married the next day, and when she became pregnant it proved the perfect excuse for her to quit the carnival and come work with him on his very own river-raft - a wedding gift from his father, Pimpernell "Laughingbottom" Shortwick.

Adelard's mind had wandered again to his wife, and the raft had again moved into a collision course with one of the larger rocks. It was coming too quickly for him to push off against, and when he tried the oar snapped against it. By the grace of Yondalla the raft held together as it struck the boulder, though Lavinia let out a loud cry of pain. Adelard picked up the other oar, the one which his wife traditionally used, and began navigating the river again. The waterfall was perhaps two furlongs away, and he began to prepare himself.

The Nentir River has three waterfalls, one a few miles upstream of Fallcrest, one in Fallcrest itself, and another much further to the north. The waterfall that Adelard's craft was approaching was about three hundred handbreadths. It emptied out into a fairly calm pool, after which the Nentir began its gentle approach to Fallcrest. Traditionally a trading raft such as Adelard's would be pulled to the sunward side of the river by the porter's camp, and the men would be paid to make the trek down the winding trails, carrying all of his goods and the raft itself. On this day, however, Adelade could not bear the thought of making his wife suffer through the laborious process of portage. Her midwife was in Fallcrest, and that was where Lavinia had been begging to go since she had gone into labor.

Adelade muttered under his breath, an obscure incantation that his father had taught him. He scrambled around the boat, checking the runes on the tin runners, and placing the small honey-wax candles at the four corners of the raft. With a quick breath, he climbed up on top of the bales of wool, and released a pinch of alkanet root powder into the wind. He could hear the sound of the porters, shouting at him to bring his raft closer to them so they could pull him in. Adelade raised his voice, the incantation now a shout. Purple runes floated around him, and the water began to bubble. The raft was at the edge of the waterfall now. With a shout from Adelade, his raft launched into the air, sailing over the waterfall and gently floating back down to the river below. It splashed down with barely a ripple, and Adelade exhaled a sigh of relief.

There would be a price paid later, of course. The porters were not keen on magical circumventions, and most of them had become porters simply because it paid better than thuggery, with a much less chance of injury or death. As the river widened, deepened, and became more calm, Adelard went into the raft's small cabin to be with his wife. She smiled faintly at him, face damp with sweat, and he smiled back with a worried look.

Five hours later, in the town of Fallcrest, Lavinia delivered a small girl, Dolores Shortwick.

~~~

Mother Halfmoon was in a foul mood. Working as a river bandit had certainly not been her first choice of career, but after she had been expelled from the thieves guild there had been very few options left open to her. She had wrangled a group of four other bandits, and together they made assaults on the traders and travelers who went up and down the Nentir. The assaults usually amounted to nothing more than coming alongside the raft, making threats, and extorting food or money from the traders in return for being left alone. It was better for all involved if things never came to violence. The bandits were armed to the teeth, but if the traders died there would be questions asked, and too many deaths would probably mean a local barony mounting an expedition to wipe them out.

The principle of non-aggression had been violated the day before, by one of their new members. Like Mother Halfmoon, he was a halfling, and he went by the Pervince "Faststep", though it seemed unlikely that he had earned that name. Unusually for a halfling, he wore a full beard, and his Common was twinged with A'muntarian inflections. He had probably been a mercenary, and certainly had a dangerous cast. Mother Halfmoon had made a place for him only against her better judgement, and only because "Smiling Eyes" Joe had found his lady love and become apprenticed to her father. Besides that, Mother Halfmoon liked the thought of having another halfling in their gang.

The trouble had come with a fairly routine assault, a flat bottomed raft of the sort which was favored in the fast, shallow water of this end of the Nentir. Pervince "Faststep" had been with her on their small dugout, with the other three on another, larger canoe. The plan, as usual, was to converge on the small craft and demand a ransom, then retreat to the shore with the goods and gold. The raft in question was loaded down with animals, mostly likely the docile goats which were bred in great quantity further north, but it was difficult to tell from a distance. The traders were human, a father and son.

"Oy!" shouted Mother Halfmoon to the raft, "Where ye goin'?" The father continued to stare straight ahead, but the boy turned his head slightly to watch their approach. This was standard for these sorts of things. If the father had been trading on these rivers his whole life, it was likely that he had been held up more than a hundred times. Held up was a euphamism, but so long as everything went well it was apt; the whole process would take a mere sliver of hour.

"Faststep" held two hand crossbows, and had both of them squarely aimed at the son. Mother Halfmoon saw it and frowned, but said nothing. There was an old proverb known by the river people, something to the effect that the greatest weakness of evil is that a wedge can divide it against itself. Mother Halfmoon didn't consider herself evil, but it was still best not to talk about these things when they were on a job. Mother Halfmoon herself had a bandolier of daggers strapped across her chest, but it was mostly for show. She stopped paddling and threw a grappling hook over to the raft, and pulled their dugout closer.

Mother Halfmoon tied the two craft together, and drew out a dagger.
"I done ask where ye were goin', traderman."
The father finally looked at her.
"We just goin' downstream, t' Averly, tradin' goats. Not got no money fer ye."
"Ah traderman, I don't not believe that none. E'rey traderman brings some crowns fer ta trade with, ta bring back tools an' such." The other dugout, with the three humans on it, had also pulled alongside the raft. Mother Halfmoon watched as the father tightened his grip on his oar. A few summers back she had been smacked hard across the face with one of those oars, and lost a tooth in the process. It had put her in a foul mood for weeks.
"If I ha' no gold for Averly, no gold can I bring back ta me fam'ly. I s'pose a few crowns could I spare for beggars such as yerself, if I must." The father began reaching into his pants where the small pouch of gold was kept.

Just then there was a sharp twang and a short gasp, and the boy stood quietly with his mouth gaping open. A bolt was stuck in his thigh, his poorly sewn pants quickly soaking through with blood. Mother Halfmoon turned to look at "Faststep", and he looked like someone who had just eaten a bug. He was trying to be tough though, and act as if it hadn't been a mistake. As she turned back to the father and son, she saw an oar come out from the water and slice inwards towards her. She tried to roll with it, but it struck her in the gut.

"Hold!" she shouted. There was a tension in the air, and if she didn't do something in the next few seconds to defuse it there would be a great deal of bloodshed. From the corner of her eye she saw that the son had drawn a weapon, a dagger he had hidden somewhere on his body. "I say hold!"

"We dinna want no trouble," said the father. He was holding the oar behind his back, ready to swing it around and at her again. He threw the small bag of gold down on the raft before her. "Take it, leave. I see ye again I kill ye." Mother Halfmoon took a step forward and carefully scooped up the bag. She moved back onto the dugout and untied the crafts from each other with one hand. She waited until they had drifted well out of sight to slap Pervince hard across the face.

There were harsh words exchanged across the campfire that night. Pervince tried to point out that they had gotten more gold than they would have, but the injury of an innocent wasn't a fair price to pay for that. Innocents, people who weren't hired to defend themselves against these sorts of threats, got much more attention when they were killed. There were stories of river bandits who attacked a small trading raft only to have the traders throw off their cloaks and loose a hundred bolts into their would-be robbers. The Nentir was adjacent to hundreds of small fiefdoms, and any one of them might send a group of their knights, or worse, some mercenaries, to deal with the bandits. While Mother Halfmoon was equal to any man in a dagger fight, large men armed with large swords were a more difficult proposition.

They embarked on their next raid a week later, having traveled to a town a few miles over and spent through their gold on food and wine. Mother Halfmoon was tempted to simply leave Pervince behind, but there was always the possibility that he would report their location to a local lord. There was also the option of simply killing him, but Mother Halfmoon was a large believer in honor amongst theives - which had been the reason she had been expelled from the theives guild all those years ago. She gave him a short sword from their cache, and one of her daggers for his offhand. Crossbows were too dangerous.

The mark this time was a larger raft, this one manned by two halflings, a woman and man. They seemed happy enough, piloting the flat bottomed boat with a skill that comes from large amounts of time spent on the Nentir. For a moment she wished that she could let them go by, but only stealing from the rich and corrupt was a fantasy held by street urchins. She called out to them, "Oy, where ye goin'?"

The man turned to her with a big grin, "I'd know that voice anywhere!" he shouted, "Jillian Halfmoon!"

Mother Halfmoon paled. Adelard Shortwick been born in the same halfling colony as her, and they had grown up together for more than a dozen years. The last memory she had of him was a kiss he had given her before his family had moved away. And now he was here, trading goods up and down the Nentir. It was not the most fortuitous circumstances under which they could meet. He put his hand over his eyes to look at her, and saw the weapons she and Pervince were weilding. There was a visible frown on his face, and Mother Halfmoon renewed her rowing. Some hidden part of her was upset with him.

"Who is that Addie?" asked the woman.
"Just an old friend, Lavvie. I think she's here to rob us."
"Some friend."
"Jillian!" called Adelard, "Don't you think it would be better to leave us alone? You remember how powerful my family is, don't you?" Mother Halfmoon's dugout was pulling in closer, and she threw out her grappling hook.
"An' I'm right in thinkin' ye ain't want nuffin' to happen to 'at wif a yourn?" replied Mother Halfmoon.
"Did she just threaten me?" asked Lavinia. "Did you just threaten me?" With a swift movement daggers appeared in her hands, as if from thin air. "That was not wise, 'friend'."
"Threatening the wife isn't a good idea, Jillian."

Mother Halfmoon could see the humans in their dugout draw closer, scowling at her. They had lost some of their confidence in her leadership last week, and this complication didn't help things. Mother Halfmoon had pulled the dugout in close to the raft, and tied it off. As she got ready to jump up to the raft she found a dagger under her chin. She stared up into Lavinia Shortwick’s eyes, and heard a small explosion off the other side of the ship. The other dugout was gone, and in its place the frantic splashing of humans and purple smoke. Adelard’s father had been a warlock too, and if she had been thinking with her head Mother Halfmoon wouldn’t have been so surprised.

“Addie dear, when was the last time we paid a bandit?” asked Lavinia.
“I can’t recall Lavvie my love, I believe it must have been just after we met,” replied Adelard. “You convinced me that it was a poor use of our funds.”

Mother Halfmoon kicked out as fast as she could and caught Lavinia in the stomach. Before the wife had time to recover, Mother Halfmoon lauched herself up onto the raft and attacked again, trying to drive one of her daggers between the other woman’s ribs. One of the humans had pulled himself up the other side of the raft and over the bales of wool that were stacked on the deck. He tried to stab downwards at her, but the high ground was less of an advantage with his weapon and she swiftly moved out of the way. Her hand jerked out with a flash of silver, and the man clutched at his bleeding leg.

Mother Halfmoon had always boasted that she was the equal to anyone in the realm when it came to daggers, but Lavinia was making her doubt that boast. Adelard was engaging the three humans and Pervince, but the two women were locked in a battle of daggers that would have impressed even the flashiest of gallow birds. Every jab was met with a parry, or turned away with twist of the forearm. Mother Halfmoon noticed small cuts appearing on her person from the near misses, but none of them went to deep. She worried that the blood would start to flow until the daggers became slippery under her grip.

There was a small purple explosion at the periphery of her vision, and twinned cries of anguish. Mother Halfmoon risked a glance, and saw Adelard and one of the humans writhing on the deck. Pervince stood over them, his face white as a sheet. Adelard’s flesh seemed to be melting from his face, wisps of smoke rising from between his clutching fingers. He did not seem long for this world. There was a brush stroke of pain across her left cheek, and Mother Halfmoon turned back to her battle. She was starting to think it was one that she wouldn’t win. Her only hope seemed to be Pervince, even if the coward only helped to momentarily distract the other foe.

Both women were slowing down now, glacially slow daggers slicing through the air only to be met with a parry of dodge that came just in time to avoid the severing of a major artery. Mother Halfmoon’s hair was matted down to her forehead with sweat. She didn’t think she had the stamina to keep this up much longer. Her biggest worry was that Lavinia would realize her husband was dead. The ensuing rage would likely decide the battle. Just then, Mother Halfmoon spied Pervince climbing up over the bales of wool. Lavinia saw her eyes dart up, and twirled around quickly in the air to meet the new threat. Her dagger sliced through Pervince’s stomach, spilling his guts onto the raft. It was an impressive maneuver, but when Lavinia had come around to face Mother Halfmoon again, she found a dagger at her throat. For a brief moment they locked gazes, then Mother Halfmoon drove her dagger as far into the other woman’s neck as she could.

The raft was slick with blood, guts, and melted flesh. Mother Halfmoon laid there for a time, panting heavily. Her life as a river bandit was most likely over, and the future stretched out ahead of her like a blank canvas, terrifying and vast. The raft crashed into a rock, and Mother Halfmoon was woken up. There was no way for her to pilot this raft on her own. The smart thing to do would be to take the valuables from the bodies and let the raft crash over the waterfall. The porters would see it, and report the carnage to the local lords. They would hunt for her.

Mother Halfmoon rose like one of the undead, compelled only by survival and not conscious thought. She pulled the weapons and trinkets from Lavinia’s body, then moved on to the others. She wasn’t sure what spell Adelard had used which had so horrific a consequence, but his flesh liquefied, the skeleton laying in a pool of it. She removed everything important looking from the corpse – you could never tell what might be magical – and moved on. There was no gold on their bodies, so Mother Halfmoon moved to the cabin. It was there that she found the baby, still sleeping soundly after all this time.

~~~
Belladonna Amster carried her daughter Dolores in a small pack strapped to her back. Her husband had been killed by a wild boar while hunting for food, and now she needed work from whatever lord might be able to provide shelter and a meal for her and her daughter. She had been to two keeps so far; both had turned her away. It was nearing dusk, and she didn’t want to spend the night in the cold.

Belladonna was upset. Going straight wasn’t supposed to be this hard. Her own childhood had been marred by the death of her parents, and she had promised herself that she would never knowingly do that to a child. So now this child would be hers, and Dolores would grow up with no knowledge of the street life. But it shouldn’t be so damn hard to make an honest living, especially when a person was willing to do it without the stipend.

There wasn’t much about Belladonna and Mother Halfmoon that was the same. Thanks to some walnut juice, her hair was darker, and the makeup had been rubbed from her face. Her clothes were no longer fine and flashy, instead being the traditional clothes of a halfling commoner. It wasn’t the most convincing disguise in the world, but it should have been enough to find temporary employment, which would give her access to the materials necessary for something more permanent. It was more than a disguise though; it was a persona, and that is why it worked.

This keep was larger than the others, which meant there was more of a chance that they would need help. Two turrets framed the large double doors, both of them with a number of arrow slits. The keep was obviously an old one, and Belladonna doubted that it was still actively used for defense. The lords didn’t go to war much anymore, instead preferring to hunt down the large beasts that might threaten them or their serfs. The area near the Nentir was the most civilized of the lands in the Vale.

Belladonna knocked hard on the door. A small latch slid back, and a wary eye looked outwards, and then down. Sometimes Belladonna cursed being a halfling. Humans tended to look on her without the same respect they would show someone of their own size.

“Who’s ‘ere?” an aged voice called out, “Whatta you want?”
“I’m searching for an honest day’s work, sir, and I ask nothing more than a roof over my head and a small plate of food. This poor child’s father was killed last week, and she’s all I have left.” She forced a meek sound into her voice, and quivered slightly when she spoke.
“I don’t reckon we need any ‘elp ‘round ‘ere,” croaked the voice.
“Please sir, we haven’t had a bite to eat in ages,” said Belladonna. The man was grating on her.
“Wilikins!” came a new voice, “Who is that at our door!”
“No one,” replied the aged voice, “Just another of those looking for a handout my lord.”
“Well open up and let me see the pitiful wretch.“
The door creaked open, and Belladonna stepped quickly into the torchlit hall. It was a small entryway, the floor of polished stone and the walls draped with tapestries. Two men stood looking at her, an older man stooped low to the ground who appraised her with a wary eye, and a younger man dressed in neat clothes who watched her with a smile spread across his face.

“This is no urchin, Wilikins, just a young girl lost in the wilderness!” said the younger man with a wide smile. “Why, what sort of knight would I be if I left her to starve out there?”
“Sir,” said Wilikins, “I think she’s not so much a young girl as a halfling; she has a child with her.”
The younger man’s face fell. “And you said that there is no room for another servant?”
“I did not say that sir, I said that we don’t need the help.”
“Then find a place for her. We can at least give her a roof over her head for the night, especially if she has a young child with her.”
“Sir –“
“I am your master, and you will do as I say. Give the woman a room, then give her some work to do.”

Belladonna spent the night in the servant’s quarters, and the next morning she went to work cleaning the keep. The lord had some friends visiting for a hunting party; it was rumored that there was a troll in the area. She cleaned the floors, made the beds, and generally did all of the work the other servants would normally do while they chatted in the background. Between chores she checked in on Dolores, who slept for most of the time. She was a gentle child, and thankfully past needing milk; Belladonna didn’t know whether or not she intended to raise her, but she seemed an easy child to raise.

The lord of the keep was Baron Frederick Ableforth. He was young for a lord, his mother and father having died early from one of the plagues. He spent most of his time playing parlor games or hunting, and often took long trips to visit other lords. Belladonna heard quite a bit of gossip about the lord in her first week there; his unwillingness to take a wife, his reckless behavior in battle, his fondness for small women – that last one was never said when they knew she was around, but she was very good at hiding.

Baron Ableforth wanted her close to him, that much was clear. He would be sitting in his study, reading books of lore, and call out for a plate of meat and bread. “Have that halfling woman bring it,” he would say, as if it were an afterthought. When she brought the plate in, he would watch her, or ask her questions about the keep. There was a hungry look in his eyes, but when she came back to the study to clean up after him, she would find the plate of food uneaten.

Perhaps a brief digression into anatomy would be appropriate. The tallest halfing stands just a few inches over four feet tall. Though their features are mostly proportional to that of a human, a halfling can still be mistaken for a human child. A human child at that height would be between seven and ten years old. Relationships between the smaller races and the larger ones are taboo for that reason; it calls to mind to much the corruption of the young. Beyond that fact, it must be noted that the size difference means that halflings and humans means that they don’t fit together.

Life fell into a patten. Belladonna raised the child she had orphaned, and tried to stave off the advances of Baron Ableforth. He would call her to his room while he was in the middle of getting dressed, and she would bear witness to his nakedness while he asked her to do some menial task. He would ask her to wash him. With every passing month, his advances would grow stronger, more insistent. One night, when he was very drunk, he told her that he wished “to hold thee lightly on a gentle knee and print on thy soft cheek a parent's kiss”. Belladonna would have left, but two things kept her in that place. The first was the child, Dolores, for whom she felt great affection. The second was that she was a wanted woman – the raft full of corpses had been found, and someone had given her description. She was fairly well known, and it was likely that both the local lords and her old thieves’ guild were after her.

Baron Ableforth called her into his bedroom late one night, nearly a year after she had first arrived.
“Yes sir? What can I do for you?”
“I would like to ask for your hand in marriage,” replied the lord.
“I –“ Belladonna swallowed. “I do not think that would be the wisest decision for your barony.”
“You are the light of my life, the fire of my loins, my sin, my soul,” the baron replied. “I care not what happens to the barony so long as I have you.”
“I am sorry, my lord, but I do not feel the same way.”
Baron Ableforth let out a small sigh.
“I know who you are, Mother Halfmoon.” The name felt uncomfortable as it hung in the air, something from a past life, dripping with thievery and murder. It was a name that could kill her. “I am the lord here, and could kill you where you stand without anyone so much as batting an eye. If you try to trick me, and run away from here, I will have all the hounds of hell after you. I assure you that I have had much experience against greater foes than you. I know that you will never love me, but I have warmed to you, and you will be my wife.”
Belladonna thought about this for a long time.
“Think of the child,” said Baron Ableforth.
Eventually, Belladonna nodded her head in assent, and the lord swept her up in his arms, kissing her roughly on the lips.

The wedding was small, and poorly attended. The marriage was taboo. There was talk around the keep, and further around the Nentir, about the unnaturalness of the union. For a time, it was expected that the king would step in and strip the baron of his title and land, but he was far away and dealing with a rogue dragon. Eventually the talk subsided, but Baron Ableforth entertained very little after that, keeping his bride locked away in their bedroom. She could have escaped, of course, but her skills had begun to rust, and she had worn the mask of a servant too long. There was also Dolores to think of.

The child was almost supernaturally quiet. For a time Belladonna worried that the child was slow, or that she had been somehow affected by the loss of her parents, but as time passed and the child grew, she was able to walk and talk. She never cried though, and rarely laughed. Most of the time, she wore a bemused smile, as though the whole world was a joke being told for her benefit. Once she was able to walk, she would wander about the keep, silently watching people go about their work. Occasionally there was a shout from one of the servants when they turned around to see the small child watching them. Ableforth doted on the child, but this seemed to be a genuine affection rather than something more sinister. He hired a nanny for her, and in this way Dolores learned to speak both Dwarven and Goblin.

Roughly once a month cries would issue from the master bedroom, and the next day the servants would be charged with washing blood from the bedsheets.

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