The sun was setting, Rowan could feel it. It was time to go to work. He brushed moist earth from his silk smallclothes and stood. Creeping forward, he felt along rugged, rocky walls until his fingertips brushed against the glass of a lantern. With a hard swipe of his dagger and a hunk of flint, a fire erupted inside it, bathing the cave in a haze of yellowish light.
Two simultaneous groans rang out from the floor. One was followed by a curse. Its owner turned over on his makeshift bed of moss and linen strips. The other man got to his feet, his amber eyes blinking hard.
“Wolf,” Rowan said, turning up one corner of his mouth. “Rest well?”
“About as well as Charlie after he tried to snatch from that druid in the Elderwood,” Wolf replied. “Doth thou besmirch my deified pockets?” he mimicked. “May night be your bane, foul brigand, for under the moon you shall perish.”
Rowan hooked his lips into a full grin. “How did that bloke end up passing?”
“Last I heard he was still scouring the High Road. Only at first light, mind ye. He’s still too afraid to leave his cave in the dark.” Wolf gave a name-sake howl and dropped to his knees, rocking in his laughter.
Rowan scanned around for his boots. He found a sturdy fox-hide pair a few feet from his goose-down pillow. A matching hide vest, covered in metal scales, lay beside it. “He was quite a snatcher, that Charlie. Never saw a lock he couldn’t pick.”
“Much better than Wasp, for sure.” Wolf patted the head of the still-sleeping man.
“I heard that,” Wasp said. “You two mongrels woke me from a wonderful dream. I was pick-pocketing the King while he sat on a gilded throne.”
Wolf snickered. “You and your dreams. The guards would have your head on a pike before you could cross the bailey.”
Wasp turned, a scowl plain on his face. “As if you could get past the gate with that hair of yours. They’re likely to think you truly are canine.”
“The Queen has more hair on her chin than you have on the full of your face, Wasp. How will you ever dream yourself a wife for lack of whiskers?” Wolf taunted. He stroked his thick beard.
“What do you know of women, Wolf?” He put up one bony fist.
Wolf shoved Wasp against the wall, howling. “I was promised back in Riermont when I came of age. A plump maid, that Molly.” He looked over at Rowan.
Rowan grunted. “Her name was Mary and she was my sister, if you recall. A gentle, pious girl, two things you’ll never be.”
Wolf bared his teeth. He swapped his smallclothes for a pale green tunic, layered beneath a thick leather shirt. “She was pretty too, enough to bear the praying. Yet not as pretty as Rowan’s lass.”
Rowan’s heart sunk. His eyes darted to the cave mouth. A large man stood guard there. He turned around and gave a short bob of his head. “It’s time to scour.”
Wasp hauled himself up and began switching clothes. “You never told me about this lass.”
“She died,” Rowan said. He strode toward the faint moonlight ahead, beckoning the others to follow. Moisture welled up in his eyes. He forced back the tears. “And I was to fault,” he added, under a shaky breath.
Wasp shivered. “Oh.”
“Cold, Wasp? Or are ye scared of old Rowan?”
“We’ll be snatching wool soon, Wolf. If you haven’t noticed, it’s nearly Frosttime.”
“No need to lie to us. Rowan is quite scary when he wants to be.”
Rowan nodded, paces from the exit. “Yet a coward in the worst of moments,” he muttered. In a higher voice, he called out, “Valter.”
The burly guardsman took a step toward him. There was nothing but stone in his grey eyes and weathered face. A white line ran from his right cheekbone to the edge of his chin. “Ready?”
“Aye, Valter, a snatching we shall go.” The party left the cavern in silence.