"So, are you nervous, Leo?" Midas asked.
Leopold was sitting on top of the ruined tower again, looking out over the fields at Castle Rajikline. Compared to him, Midas climbed like a drunken ogre, and he had known that the older boy was coming almost as soon as he touched the old, decaying stones. Leopold looked at Midas who sat down beside the younger boy. The two boys had become fast friends since they had met three years ago. They had shared many dangerous and even death defying experiences and had come to depend on each other. In the absence of real families, they had come to look on each other as brothers.
"It actually kind of surprises me, but no, I'm not nervous," Leopold said. "This is the most dangerous thing that I have ever done and here I am feeling perfectly fine, not even butterflies."
"Nothing, huh?" Midas asked.
"Nope," Leopold answered. "It's like the day that we met, you remember right? I was there in the market getting beat up by those rich boys. I'm not sure when exactly I saw you, but suddenly you were there, throwing them off of me and beating them until they had had enough. Well, I was scared before you arrived, but as soon as I saw you, I knew that you were going to take care of me. It's like that now except that I don't know who is going to take care of me."
"Well, whoever it is, it can't be me this time no matter how much I may want to help," Midas said. "I'll be sitting back here in this tower waiting for you to come back alive and in one piece with..." he paused and looked at Leopold with a strange look. "What is it exactly that you're supposed to be stealing from that place?"
"That's going to be the hardest part," Leopold answered. "I'm supposed to be rescuing a man from the castle's dungeon. Can you imagine that? Me rescuing someone. I've killed and I've stolen before, but I've never rescued before."
"Rescuing a prisoner?" Midas asked. "That's not at all what I thought this was going to be. From the way Daniel talked, I thought it was going to be an object. I wonder why he deceived us."
"He probably thought that you've have reservations about it if you knew what the mission was," Leopold said. "Daniel would never lie to you except for a descent reason."
"So you think that you can get him out?" Midas asked. "It's not going to be as easy as lifting a crown or a painting or even an animal. Think of trying to sneak around with me in tow."
"That would be a pain in the butt indeed," Leopold said with a straight face.
"Oh shut up, I'm not that bad," Midas retorted.
"Really?" Leopold asked. "When you were climbing the tower just now, you climbed so loudly I think the people in the castle heard you. You sneak about as well as an elephant with bells attached to its feet."
"Well, that's what trying to get this guy out is going to be like," Midas said. "You think that you can do it?"
"I don't think it," Leopold said, "I know it. I'll be in and out with the prisoner and something else as a memento of the mission. Think of it, we'll have something from inside Rajikline!"
"Just remember, it's 'Mission first, souvenirs after,'" Midas said. "Keep your eye on the prize and you will get through this, of that I am certain."
"So, what about you?" Leopold asked. "What are you guys going to be doing while I do all of the heavy lifting?"
"Just sitting here twiddling our thumbs and drinking hot cocoa," Midas said with a grin. "Actually we'll be lining up transportation for when you come back."
"I'd like a horse and carriage this time, if you can manage it," Leopold said. "There's nothing worse than finishing a mission, especially one like this, and then having to stay awake to ride to a safe house. I'd rather just pass out in a wagon."
"I'll see what I can do, Leo," Midas said as he stood up and slapped the younger boy on the shoulder. "You're starting tomorrow night, I guess, so don't fall asleep now. Raven's taking the first watch to keep you up."
"Alright," Leopold said. "See you on your turn."
Midas gingerly back stepped onto the wall and inched his way down. Leopold shook his head as he watched his brother climb. He really was no good at it. At the bottom, the older boy exchanged words in a low voice with Raven. After a few moments, Midas headed to where Daniel was already bedding down for the night, and Raven began to climb the wall. She was much better at it than either of the other two members of the Group, and Leopold respected her for that.
"You need a hand?" he asked when she neared the top of the tower wall.
"I've got it," Raven answered as she searched with his fingers for another good hold. He always offered to help her even though he knew she would refuse. Something deep down told him that it was the right thing to do. He also liked to rile her up and given enough time, this might do the trick.
"So you've got first watch again?" Leopold asked when Raven was finally sitting beside him. "Sorry in advance for not being good company."
"Leo, people can accuse you of a lot of things," Raven said. "And I mean a LOT of things, but being bad company is not one of them."
"Well thank you," Leopold said. "I'll pretend like I believe that. Every time that we do this, I'm always falling asleep and you're always keeping me awake. Thank you, by the way. Not sure I've ever thanked you for staying up with me through these nights."
"No need to thank me," Raven said. "I'm just doing my job. That came out a little wrong. I enjoy staying up and talking to you."
"Thank you just the same," Leopold said. "I know taking the first watch is the hardest and you always do it."
"It's not so hard," Raven said. "Besides, this is when you are the most awake out of the whole night. It's practically the only time that I actually get to talk to you one on one. I imagine that the other two do a lot more poking to keep you awake and considerably less talking." She gave him a good jab in the ribs with her elbow to emphasize the point.
"That's true," Leopold admitted, dropping his own elbows to protect his ribs against a similar attack. "Although Daniel likes slapping better than elbowing."
"For real?" Raven laughed. "He slaps you to keep you awake?"
"On the face," Leopold added. "Says the stinging does more to keep me awake than anything else would do."
"Does it really?" Raven asked. "I think it would just annoy the heck out of me."
"It does that if nothing else," Leopold agreed. "Nothing like a good slap in the face to get your blood racing and ready for a fight. I haven't told Daniel, but there had been a few times that I've reached for my knife with the full intention of gutting him before I caught myself."
"That's not good," Raven said. She added in a sarcastic tone, "He does get us the contracts, you know."
"Well, you don't see my knife on me right now, do you?" Leopold asked, raising his arms and baring the leg that normally held his knife. The sheath was still strapped to his thigh, but it was empty.
"Smart move," Raven agreed. "His contracts are what keep us in food and clothes."
"And besides that, he did rescue us," Leopold added, a touch of seriousness in his voice. He could handle some teasing about Daniel, but not too much. The wizard had done too much for all of them to be afford that discourtesy.
"That is true," Raven agreed, suddenly serious. "God knows I was in a bad place when he got to me."
"So was I," Leopold said. "You ever heard the story of how he rescued me and Midas?"
"I was there when it happened, dummy," Raven said. "Of course I remember."
"Oh yeah," Leopold said. "Come to think of it, I've never heard the story of when he found you."
"You're right," Raven agreed. "You've never heard that story."
"And?" Leopold prompted.
"Not right now, not tonight," Raven said. "Ask me later when we have more time."
"Very well," Leopold said. He had to respect her privacy, even if curiosity was eating him up. He would, however, ask her about it later as she had invited. He had no doubt that it would be a story to remember.
"So what about you and Midas?" Raven asked. "You were together when Daniel and I found you, but I know you're not brothers like you say. How did you meet?"
"I was actually just talking about that with him before you got up here," Leopold said. "It's not a very interesting story, I'm afraid, least ways, not if you weren't there."
"It's you," Raven said, then added, "and Midas. You're my friends; I'm always interested in your lives."
"Fine, but you have to promise me one thing if I tell you this," Leopold said.
"That depends on what it is," Raven said. "I have a policy against promising things that I don't know or making promises that I can't keep."
"Promise that you'll actually tell me that story about how you and Daniel met," Leopold said. "You're my friend too, and I care about you as much as you do about me."
"I can make that promise," Raven said slowly. He didn't know what he was asking or what he was saying, and that frustrated her. "It's not a pleasant story, but I'll tell it to you if you really want. Later though; I'm not ready to tell it right now."
"Late it is," Leopold agreed. "So then, about how I met Midas. Well, as I said, it's not all that exciting of a story. I mean, I find it exciting because I was there, but you probably won't. Anyway, where to start? How much do you know about me?"
"Nothing really," Raven said and was shocked to realize that it was true. Though she had known the two brothers for approximately two years, she still knew very little about their pasts.
"Well then, I'll start at the beginning," Leopold said. "I think that I was born somewhere around the city of Rochester since that's where my first memories are. I could be wrong; perhaps I was swept there after my parents threw me out. Whatever the case, I ended up on the streets of Rochester with a few boys that I knew. Through a series of events which is an entirely different story, I ended up on my own at the age of eleven.
"I did a pretty decent job staying out of the way. I took whatever jobs I could find, but work for an eleven year old boy is not plentiful to say the least. Mostly I did work for a nice chimney sweep, but even with that job, money was scarce. I spent the money that I had but still had to steal on a regular basis to stay in food and clothes. That's where I started learning all of my sneaking skills.
"One day, I was walking down the street when I saw a rich boy strutting along. He had a set of clothes, the cost of which would have kept me in food for a month. Attached to his belt was a coin purse that was quite full. Even without seeing the contents, I knew that it would feed me for a solid three weeks with a new set of clothes on the side. It's been a year since my last set of clothes and two days since my last meal, so I was hungry enough to try it, even though I'd never attempted a direct pick-pocket before.
"Well, to spare you the boring details, I got up alongside him and tried to lift the purse, but he figured it out and pushed me away. I told you that I was eleven at the time? Well this kid was at least fifteen or sixteen. He put me down with one punch.
"He could have just walked away and that would have been the end of it, but apparently he was too insulted that a commoner like myself would try to lift his purse. I don't know if he was meeting a group of his friends or if he had a deal with the devil to have them at his beck and call, but suddenly about a dozen kids, all dressed in expensive clothing like his, were surrounding me, kicking and punching.
"I was scared to death, curled in the fetal position and protecting my head when through the legs of the kids around me, I saw Midas. He was only fourteen at the time, probably a good two years younger than a lot of the kids and outnumbered a dozen to one. The only advantage that he held was his size; at the age of fourteen, he was already at least six feet tall and larger than most men. To this day, I'm not quite sure what made him do it, but he started grabbing my attackers and flinging them aside. From my position on the ground I saw many of them smack painfully into the cobble stones.
"When Midas reached me, he put out his hand to help me up. I remember looking up at him watching unable to speak as one of the rich kids jumped on his back and tried to put him in a strangle hold. Midas reached over his back, grabbed the kid's shirt, and flipped him sideways into a market stall like he was a sack of feathers. Without anymore hesitation, I took Midas' hand, and he pulled me to my feet. With the sound of the town guard approaching, we ran away as fast as we could, losing them in the allies and side streets. Apparently even as big as he was, Midas was still not ready to take on the whole town guard."
"Something that he's not afraid to do anymore," Raven noted, sensing that the story was wrapping up. "Give him a sturdy sword and shield and I believe that he would attempt to assault Rajikline by himself."
"Right," Leopold said. "He had that fire back then, just not the skill to back it up. Luckily he was smart enough to realize it or he might not be here today."
"So since then you and Midas have been like brothers," Raven finished the story. "I know that I actually thought that you were when I first saw you two together. You were so close and wary of strangers that it was difficult to get to know either of you at the beginning."
"What tipped you off to the fact that we weren't related?" Leopold asked.
"Hair color was my first hint," Raven answered. "I suppose it's possible that you be brothers and have blond and black hair, but it led to the realization that you two looking nothing alike."
"That's true," Leopold admitted, covering a yawn that had jumped unbidden to his lips. "We're kind of opposites when it comes to looks."
"And yet you match well," Raven said. "I don't think I've ever met a pair of brothers that were more alike than you and Midas."
"Right, and how many brothers have you known in your life?" Leopold asked though he already knew the answer. In response to this question, Raven had admitted that she had only known one set of brothers besides Leopold and Midas.
"Shut up," Raven said and, since she could not get at his ribs, punched him in the arm. "You know what I mean."
"I do, and thank you," Leopold said. "It means a lot to hear that said."
The two friends continued to talk as the moon floated overhead. Raven's turn would take a little over two hours which gave them time to talk about anything and everything. These talks were good, Leopold realized, especially before a tough mission. They helped him center, to remember that it was not just for himself that he had to complete this mission but for his comrades. They would not be getting paid either if he failed. For the first time in his life he was part of a team, surrounded by people that he cared about and that cared about him.