The potent smell of unbathed bodies filled the rowdy tavern, covering the sweet scent of mead that lingered in Dennis's empty mug. Once more, the persistent nudge urged him to look over his shoulder, and once more he ignored it. They wouldn't come looking for him in a place like this.
Drunks at the surrounding tables whistled as barmaids refilled their drinks. The sound was mildly distracting, but more distracting was their constant laughter and crude jesting.
Rubbing the pad of his thumb in small, deliberate circles over one of his worn cards, Dennis eyed the five other players calmly. Maybe even slightly arrogantly. With a smooth smirk, he tossed in a couple denarii. A round of slight gasps came from their onlookers, and the other players eyed him with disdain.
"There's more where that came from, gents." Dennis's delicate accent contradicted his sly, and slightly, wicked smirk.
More denarii tinkled as a large man with a red beard tossed in more denarii. "We know," he growled. His dark eyes pierced Dennis, and his thick fingers seemed to tighten around his cards. Hands like those could squeeze the life out of someone. Someone like Dennis.
As the game wore on, Dennis had earned himself several more glowers, and the urge to flee rose within him. But he was no coward. If he was going to win the game, he would. If he was going to get pummeled for it afterward, he would do that too.
*Outside the Tavern after the Game was Won*
"Fair and square!" Dennis insisted for the tenth time. "I won, fair and square!"
Without warning, the red-haired brute from the game slammed Dennis against the grimy wall and punched him in the gut. Several other losers snickered in delight, taking pleasure in the wheeze the punch pulled from Dennis.
"Come on," Dennis moaned. "It was a fair game." Sweat caused from the blistering, afternoon sun burned his eyes and soaked his finely woven tunic. It would have to be washed. Or completely replaced depending on how the next few minutes went. "There is no need for this. I won fairly."
Another punch to the gut. It took all of Dennis's self-control not to vomit. The last thing he needed to do was humiliate himself further. If it hadn't been for the hand pinning him to the wall, he'd have collapsed.
The brute's lip twitched with despise and his eyes bore deeply into Dennis's with cold bitterness. "You don't belong here, boy."
Dennis's heart hardened. He'd never hated his surname more in that moment. "I'm not like them. I belong here."
The man didn't look believing. "If you fall into debt, you call on your petty father to come to your rescue. Likely, the money you used tonight wasn't even yours. When none of what I said is true, then tell me you aren't like your family, rich boy." With a harsh shove, he backed away.
Dennis gave the man a dull look. "I'm not like my family," he stated blandly. "Besides, it's not the money used in the game, it's the player, pal. And you're just a really bad player."
Getting pummeled wasn't fun unless one deserved it. Insulting this idiot seemed to be the only way to make things more enjoyable.
Before the predicted fist could come flying for his face, someone cleared their throat. "What goes on here?"
Not him. Dennis cringed. Anyone but him.
"Ah, another rich boy," the brute sneered. "Here to rescue your pathetic brother, are you?"
Pathetic? Not charming or very likeable? Crud. Arrogant would've also worked.
Dennis turned slightly, getting a glimpse of his exalted eldest brother. "What are you doing here, Sam?"
Samuel ignored Dennis and leaned his muscled shoulder against the crumbling wall. His serious face rarely smiled, but a faint smile pulled at his mouth. "Go ahead and finish here, I'll carry him home when you're done."
Dennis turned back to the brute with a nervous chuckle. "He's jesting."
Popping his knuckles, the red-haired nightmare grinned. "We'll be done momentarily."
Wonderful. This would be quick, and his dashing features would likely be marred.
An ugly fist came flying for his nose and Dennis braced for impact. Why did it always have to be the nose?
"You didn't have to do that," Dennis muttered. Wincing, he pinched a towel to his nose.
Samuel was lounging on the sofa in the common room, while Dennis limped before the furnace in an attempt at pacing. "I didn't lie to him, Dennis. You were in the city testifying what you believe." He was gazing into the flickering flames and their shadowless fingers danced light across his stern features.
"Testifying what I believe?" The words were muttered as he tossed them around in his head, but he wasn't focusing on them. What the bearded man had said sparked something inside Dennis. He didn't want to be lumped with his father everywhere he went. He wanted more than what was offered here. The pleasures of the world called to him. What would it be like to gamble without worrying he was doing wrong? He supposed it was freedom he wanted.
The thick, wooden doors opened silently, and five young men bombarded the room like a pack of hyenas.
"Good, you're alive."
"Dennis! What happened?"
"What did you do to yourself?"
"Goodness me! You've got to know to use your words, kid!"
"Tell me you didn't start another fight."
Dennis waited patiently for his elder brothers to all get a word in. He tossed the towel down and faced them. Each one visibly winced as they got a look at the blackened eye and crooked nose.
"You started another fight," Remus, the second eldest, said dully. His weathered hands were placed on his hips, and he stood as though he thought himself in charge.
Anger spiked through Dennis at his brother's quick assumptions, and he glared, then winced as the motion shifted the bruised muscles. "I didn't start that blasted fight!" he roared. "I won that-" His clamped his lips and cringed. It wasn't the first time he'd slipped, but he knew he wouldn't be able to cover this one with a lie. Not one that was believable, that is.
Silence overtook the room as it dawned on each of the room's occupants.
"You were gambling," they said in sync. Their faces were crestfallen. Horror, sorrow and something else shone in their eyes.
As usual, Samuel said nothing to confirm even though he knew exactly what Dennis had been doing for the past few months. Letting Dennis sort out his own problems seemed to be a hobby of his. Even if it meant letting the baby of the family get his nose broken and his eye blackened.
Dennis could take it no more. His glare turned hateful, and he wanted to smack the looks of shame off their faces. "Like you all are so perfect! I just want a life! A normal life. This place does nothing but drag me down! You all do nothing but drag me down." His last words came out in a near snarl. His bitterness stunned him slightly. It stunned his brothers too, from the looks on their faces. They stood in shock, as if Dennis had slapped them in the face. Even Sam looked hurt.
Remus swallowed, opened his mouth. "Dennis," he said softly, as if approaching an injured fawn.
But he wasn't an injured fawn. He was a young man yearning for a freedom outside of his father's walls and rules.
Before Remus could say another word, Dennis stalked out of the room. It was time he started living his life. When he reached his chambers, he started packing his bags. He didn't take much. Just denarii, a bar of soap and a change of clothes.
He was out the window before anyone knew to look for him.
As he tore down the road to the city and away from his father's land, Dennis didn't look back.
*Two Days Later*
The high sun beat against the city like an angry overseer. But the heat didn't bother Dennis, because he no longer had to work in it.
A beautiful servant girl came to him and refilled his wine goblet. Most men in the quiet tavern let their eyes linger on her. The first day Dennis had done the very thing, had maybe even been looking forward to playing with the dame's hair. Now, the very thought made him so sick he thought he'd vomit up his wine. Though he was away from his father's home, everything he'd learned from a young age still clung to him like a briar.
The tavern door swung open, and Dennis squirmed in his seat. Oh dear. The brute who'd given him the lashing stepped in.
Brutish scanned the room and his hard eyes instantly landed on Dennis. His lip lifted in a sneer. Dennis contemplated on running for his life, but he refused. He wasn't a coward. If the man wanted to give him another lashing, he'd take it like a man. A man who was terrible at defending himself.
The brute moved toward Dennis in sturdy steps. No swagger, no intimidating saunter, just solid footfalls that managed to scare the living daylights out of Dennis.
"What are you doing here, boy?" the man asked gruffly. "You aren't looking for another fight, are you?" He took a seat without asking.
Dennis took a sip from his goblet. "Only if you're looking for another game to lose."
Faint amusement flashed through the man's eyes. "I've never seen you here before."
"That's because I've never been here before now." Dennis picked at the smooth table, trying terribly hard to find a splinter that would wake him from this nightmare.
"Do you think this is somewhere you belong?" His tone was demeaning, and implied he knew exactly the kind of standards Dennis grew up with.
"I figured this place is better than the streets." He winced as he found the splinter. Unfortunately, he didn't wake up.
In confusion, the man's eyes narrowed. "Streets?" In shocked Dennis to hear the slight concern lining the man's voice.
Dennis gulped the last of his wine down. "I left home, ruffian. I told you, I don't belong there." He nearly slammed the goblet down in his attempt at setting it down gently.
A short chuckle escaped the man. "It's actually Ren. But you were close, both start with R." He rubbed his jaw in thought. "Didn't think you had it in you, honestly, rich boy. Seeing as how you had the guts to do it, how 'bout I show you a bit of the city someone like yourself has never been."
A smile curled at Dennis's mouth. "You'd be willing to help someone like me?" He waved the barmaid away as she attempted to refill his goblet.
Ren smirked. "You mean someone homeless? Of course." His eyes twinkled. "Come on. We've a lot of places to see."
Dennis didn't move at first. His stomach tightened to think of the places he wasn't about to enter. But this is what he wanted. This is the freedom he'd been seeking. He pushed out of his seat, watching the ground sway beneath his feet. "Lead the way, Ren."
Ren let out a burly laugh. "How much wine did you drink?"
Dennis rubbed his temples. "I've been here two days, and wine is the only thing they serve. What do you think?"
Ren stood and came around, looping his arm under Dennis's arms. "Let's find you some food, then. The only places you know how to find are taverns."
*The Following Night*
After meeting several people Ren knew, Dennis felt he'd made the right decision coming to the city. Surprising enough, it hadn't been his money or his statis that had caused people to dislike him. It had been his cockiness and his unwillingness to take responsibility. Now that they knew he was trying to fend for himself without his father's money, they readily took him in.
Low snores filled the room Dennis was staying in. He wasn't accustomed to sleeping with so much noise surrounding him. But he didn't mind. It was... exhilarating. Living life on the edge was so much more than he could've imagined. There were no rules. Though, his bag of denarii was noticeably lighter than when he first began. He was sure it would all work out. He could find a job. Probably.
A low creak came from the door as it opened. A dark form slipped into the room and the door shut just as quickly. Nimbly, the form stepped over the sleeping lumps scattered across the floor. Dennis squinted his eyes to try to see better, but the room was too dark. Before he could move out of the way, the form stepped on him. With a surprised gasp, they jumped back.
"Hey!" she snapped. "You're in my spot." Her voice was husky and rough. Never before had Dennis encountered a woman who trampled over a man's authority. But from the tone she was using he guessed it was something this one did quite often. He couldn't bring himself to dislike it.
"My apologies," Dennis said smoothly, watching as her form went rigid, likely because she noticed his accent. "There is plenty of room, allow me to find someplace else to lie." He gathered his mat and slid it across the floor near a snoring man with a large belly.
The woman said nothing as she reclaimed her spot. Dennis could feel her eyes digging into him. With hate or curiosity, he couldn't tell.
*The Following Day*
"You sleep a lot."
Dennis slowly opened his eyes, wincing as light seared painfully across his vision. "I'm also awake a lot. I don't like having one without the other." His voice was groggy. He rolled over and sat up, surprised to see the room empty save for a woman standing at his feet. "Who are you?" he asked.
Her hazel eyes scanned him curiously, and he noticed the feint hint of amusement. "Ren's sister. He won't be back until the full moon. I'm to be your guide and protector."
Dennis's eyebrows slowly rose. "Protector?"
She smirked. "Ren said you have the tendency to run your mouth in the wrong areas. Your bruised skin is a testament to that." Again, that amusement filled her eyes. "Let's break our fast and get on with our day. Ren wants me to take you to the heart of our city."
Dennis was on his feet in an instant. "The heart of the city! That sounds exciting." He grinned. Her mouth turned up in a sly manner and suddenly, Dennis grew slightly concerned. "That sounds exciting, right?"
*In The Heart Of The City*
The heart of the city wasn't what Dennis was expecting. It was loud and full of exotic colors. Bright banners hung from every wall, piles of spices filled bins, dried herbs were bound in thick bundles, and laughter bubbled from everyone's lips. But the most exciting part was the two wrestling men in a small dust pit. Those cheering and taking bets surrounded them.
"What..." Dennis's eyes were wide. "What is that they're doing?"
The woman's arms hung loosely like the scarf around her neck. "It's a less bloody version of the Gladiator Games." Her grin was broad. "Ren thinks you'd be good at it."
Dennis's stomach dropped. "He what?"
She chuckled, gazing at the two sweaty men pounding each other's faces. "He says you don't run. And besides, you need a way to make a living if you aren't going to rely on your father."
Dennis suddenly didn't like the heart of the city. "I don't run because I'm a really bad runner," he hissed. "Fighting isn't my forte. Ask Ren."
She laughed. "He didn't say you should do it, Dennis! Goodness no. You'd be dead before the fight was over. He just thought you could eventually be good at it." She winked. "We're here for that." Dennis followed her gaze to a quieter area where several men sat under a canopy around a table.
His stomach churned with greed. That was something he was good at. "I do know how to play a good game," he mused.
The woman nodded. "Ren said as much. If you can watch your mouth, he thinks you could be good at it. I'm here to make sure you do. And if you don't, smooth things out with diplomacy."
Dennis made a face. "Diplomacy is overrated."
"Come on," she said. "We can get in in on the next game."
Dennis grinned. This would be too easy. It wouldn't even be working. No sweat, no muscle aches, but lots of money.
Once the game was over, the next one began, and Dennis was able to get in. He placed his money down and he was given his cards. His fingers tingled as he scanned his cards. He won, of course. And he won every other game after that. His name was spread through the city because of his skill. Dennis liked that.
The more known he became, the more he was invited to certain places that made his stomach churn. Each time he turned down the invitations. People thought it was because he was scared, and that he was still a boy, but it wasn't that. Gambling was one thing, but he couldn't defile himself. The more invitations he turned down, the less games he managed to get into. They didn't want a nonchalant player who didn't "play". Maybe his father had rubbed off on him too much. And for once, he wasn't entirely ashamed of that.
*A Month Later*
Dirty and unfed, Dennis sat in the streets of the city tempted to eat the leather of his sandles. He hadn't eaten but what little scraps people tossed to him. When Ren had returned to find Dennis's reputation "dirtied", he was forced to keep away from him. As was Ren's sister. Which was quite a shame. Dennis happened to like her a lot.
A low growl from his stomach reminded Dennis just how hungry he was. Maybe he'd made a mistake leaving home. What was so bad about having high morals and hard work? Living on his father's land had never been a bad thing. Now surely his father never wanted to see him again. He could imagine how ashamed the man was of his youngest son. Dennis himself was ashamed of how he'd acted. He'd been so ungrateful. His father had given so much, and Dennis had done nothing but throw it all away. He'd practically spat in the man's face.
Such an idiot, Dennis. Stupid, arrogant idiot.
An ache dug into his heart, and it amused Dennis. After all those years thinking he despised them, he missed his brothers. Likely they'd forgotten about him long ago. Probably happy to be rid of him.
"Look mommy, a beggar." A little girl pointed in passing at Dennis. The mother didn't give Dennis a passing glance.
Humiliation burned in Dennis's chest, and he looked away. If his father could see him now. Nothing more than a beggar in a prosperous city.
A pair of leather boots stopped by Dennis. Fancy, well-tailored. The man's garment was expensive.
"It took me awhile to find you."
Dennis froze. That wasn't a snobby noble.
Slowly, as if fearing it was a dream, he looked up. A dream or a nightmare, he wasn't sure. "Father?" Dennis squinted to keep the sun out of his eyes. "What... What are you... What are you doing here?"
His father's kind eyes gazed down on him. "What do you mean by that, son?"
Dennis tried to swallow, but his mouth was too dry to swallow anything. "I've..." He cleared his throat and ended up coughing.
His father bent and offered a canteen of water. "Here, son. Have some water."
Dennis hesitated, feeling so guilty for what he'd done that he let the canteen hang in the air between them. The canteen pressed into his palm and his father uncorked it as well.
"Drink, son." Gentle, full of love and compassion, was his father's voice.
Dennis drank deeply, greedily, until he remembered whose water it was.
"Why did you come here?" Dennis asked, wiping his mouth with his dirty sleeve.
His father's eyes only twinkled, as if he thought it a silly question. "Why wouldn't I?"
Dennis shook his head. "I... I've been so ungrateful. I left home without a word. I've lost all of my savings. And I..." He let his head drop. "Father, I was so ashamed to be associated with you and what you stand for. I just wanted... freedom."
"Hmm. And did you find your freedom, son?"
Dennis looked up. "I could've. But I couldn't..." He clenched his jaw, unable to finish his sentence.
His father nodded in thought. "I understand. And what do you want now?"
Dennis's throat tightened. "Father, would you let me come on as a servant hand? Not even for denarii or a place to sleep, just for food and water."
His father smiled. "A servant hand?" He scoffed with a gentle shake of his head. "Why on earth would I do that?"
Dennis hung his head. He deserved worse. A slap in the face and scorn filled words. "I understand."
"I would never allow my son to work as a servant. You are my son, and though you have your tasks to complete, you won't ever be my servant. You are my heir same as your brothers."
Dennis was confused. "But aren't you ashamed of me? For what I've done?" He dared to look his father in the eye, to search them for truth.
There was no scorn there. Just gentle warmth that radiated his love. "Dennis, even though you ran, you're still my son. You'll always be my son. And though I can't support the life you've chosen for yourself, if you should choice to come home, I'll welcome you with open arms."
Tears pricked Dennis's eyes. "Oh, father. I've been so ungrateful. Can you ever forgive me?"
His father's eyes twinkled. "You were forgiven before you asked." He stood and lent Dennis his hand. "Come, let us go home and feast. Your brothers will be glad to see you again. They've all been worried."
Dennis arched his brow in surprise. "Them, worried?" He scoffed. "I doubt it. I'm sure they're all ready to clobber me."
"True that," his father said. "But they understand you more than you realize."
"How do you mean?" He took his father's hand and stood. Instantly, his father helped support him with his strong arms.
He looked down at Dennis with a strange smile. "They were like you once. Wanting a life outside of the one they were given." He chuckled and led Dennis to two waiting horses. "Why do you think Sam always knew to go to the taverns to find you?"
Dennis's jaw hung open. "You don't mean..."
His father nodded. "I do. I never loved him less because of it. I was just waiting for him to see where he truly belonged." He glanced at Dennis. "Like you, son."
Dennis clasped his father's arm and hugged him tightly. "I don't deserve a father like you. I don't." He sobbed.
Despite the filth that must've been on Dennis, his father hugged him back firmly. "Let's go home, Dennis."
(Author: Hope Robens)