Erin walked through the city, feeling the unwelcome sun warming the back of her neck. She was hot, sweaty, and tired. But most of all, she was anxious. It was a terrible, biting pain in her stomach that refused to leave her no matter how much she tried to relax. Because she couldn’t.
She was lost. Not just geographically, but in every sense. Right now, she was making her way to the market Selys had told her about. But she was still lost.
She didn’t belong to this city. The people had been a mix of unfriendly or—well, not all of them had been bad, like Selys and that first Drake, but Erin was the outsider, and it wasn’t a pleasant feeling. She tried to take her mind off things by admiring the city.
It really was like an older city. True, there was a lot more roundness in the architecture of the buildings—a lot of gently sloping roofs and open rooftops rather than the angular buildings Erin was used to. Stone and wood and yes, glass, but it felt to Erin like one of the older cities of Europe—hallmarks of older architecture without the steel or metal that was everywhere in a modern metropolis.
It was pleasant to stare at this foreign architecture and feel like a traveller to some part of Earth she had never experienced before. The people were what really got to her.
They weren’t Human. No matter how long Erin stayed in the city and walked its streets, she couldn’t get over that. Every face she saw in the crowd was inhuman, and the majority of them were Drakes. There was the occasional Gnoll or other furry face in the lot, but they were mostly reptilian.
All kinds of reptilian, too. Long snouts, delicate spines on the neck, elongated neck, big eyes, slitted eyes, stub snouts. They all had very large teeth, though. Only rarely did Erin glimpse a walking ant man—or ant woman, she couldn’t tell—walking by.
Klbkch’s people were few and far between. Erin saw them scurrying along, sometimes in groups, other times by themselves, mostly with tools in hand, heads down, clearly on a mission. People avoided them almost as much as they avoided her, but it really said something that a Human was the person people stared at, even more than insect-folk. It was also adding to Erin’s anxiety.
She wished they’d stop looking at her. That was the one thing that made walking through this city so hard. While she was staring at the exotic sights and people, they were staring right back. And it seemed that they didn’t like what they saw.
Erin tried to walk quickly down the street. That way she’d avoid offending anyone else. She didn’t have a good record at the moment.
“Kicked out of three shops. And two homes. And then the Adventurer’s Guild.”
To be fair, some of them looked like shops. Why no one put up any signs so people could tell the difference was beyond Erin.
“Well, there are signs. I just can’t read them.”
It was a funny thing. Erin could speak the exact same language as Relc and Klbkch, but for some reason, she couldn’t read anything they wrote. It was probably because…of magic.
“Magic. Either that or they’re all bilingual. Or trilingual. Or something.”
A Drake walking the opposite way down the street gave her an odd look. Erin shut up. Her habit of talking to herself was making her weirder than normal.
Still, that alone didn’t explain why it seemed like the entire city hated her. True, she kept walking into places and asking where she was, but that was…okay, that was really annoying. But she was just as unfavorably received on the street, it seemed.
“Move it, Human.”
“Out of the way, smooth skin.”
“Watch it, fleshbag.”
Actually, no one had ever said that last one to her. Or the second one, either. Or the first, in point of fact. They didn’t say anything at all, really. Almost all of the Drakes stared at her, while the Gnolls and other furry people walked as far away from her as possible. But they all watched her constantly.
Some glanced out of the corner of their eyes. Others were less discreet and openly stared at her. Erin saw a few small Drake-children pointing at her and felt out of place. In a sea of scales and fur, she was the only Human. She felt so alone it hurt.
Erin turned right and found herself on another kind of street. This one was wider, had cobblestone paving, and a lot of wooden stalls. It was a market.
Erin sighed with relief and walked forward. She’d finally reached her destination, and it had only taken her…an hour. Possibly two.
And better luck, Erin seemed to be in the section selling food. Tons of shopkeepers stood or sat in their shaded stalls displaying bins full of food. Here was a Drake selling weird blue-leaved plants that looked like oversized white carrots…or dead maggots. There was another Drake cutting meat for a waiting customer as flies buzzed around his stall. And there was—
Erin passed by a larger stall than most, tended to by a tall Gnoll, although they were all tall in her eyes. This one seemed to be selling a lot of stuff, and not just food. Erin was tempted to stop and browse, but the Gnoll shopkeeper complicated things. She was dithering when the Gnoll spotted her and roared out above the general hubbub.
“You, Human! If you’re looking for a bargain, shop here!”
Erin’s heart jumped. Gnolls were, like Relc, loud. And her voice had put every eye back on Erin.
Yet, the Gnoll woman had bared all her teeth then caught herself, closed her mouth in a tight-lipped smile, and beckoned Erin over. She wore a kind of animal hide sarong, albeit lined with some soft cloth on the inside, a breastband of the same material, and little else. Mostly because her shop had a thin canopy that meant she got the most of the sun, standing or sitting in it all day.
Her fur was spotted with jet black dots, but the rest of it was russet brown and, Erin thought, neatly combed or maintained. She was at least six-foot-something, and her smile was direct, even if her eyes were slightly calculating. But she did smile without a hint of anger or annoyance, and she’d called to Erin. So the young woman hesitated and then walked over to the stall.
As she approached, the Gnoll’s nose wrinkled and she waved a paw in front of her face. Erin’s heart sank, but the Gnoll made no comment.
“Well, what are you seeking?”
The Gnoll looked intently at Erin. She looked angry, or maybe Gnolls always sounded brisk and impatient.
“Oh, um. I’m just looking.”
“Can I get you anything? What are you looking for?”
“I’m—I’ll just look around if that’s okay.”
“I…could help you find what you want. Krshia’s Silverfang Goods. Do you have anything you want or—?”
It was entirely reasonable, but Erin began sweating at once. She backed away a step.
“No, I’ll just wander around and—look. Thank you.”
Erin edged back from the Gnoll’s shop. She really didn’t want to be chased out of the market yet.
“Hrmf. Suit yourself.”
The Gnoll looked away. She was definitely annoyed now, even if she hadn’t been before. Erin backed away and looked towards the next stall.
This one looked equally promising. And better yet, it was tended to by a Drake. Which wasn’t that much better, true, but at least he wasn’t wrinkling his nose. Maybe because he wasn’t looking at her.
Erin approached the stall carefully and gazed at the many items on display. Let’s see. There were lots of bags piled up neatly, and in front of them there were little bins of their contents on display. That was good since Erin couldn’t read any of the words on the store signs.
But there! She saw flour, salt, and even sugar on display along with other dried goods. The Drake was selling dried sausages that hung from hooks at the top of his little shop, dried onions and garlic in baskets, and a number of dried roots and spices in one corner of the shop.
“Hi. Is this a food shop?”
The Drake looked over at her.
“What does it look like, Human?”
Erin winced internally at the tone of his voice. But he wasn’t wrinkling his nose still or glaring. He just looked annoyed.
“Oh, I’m looking for food. Lots of it.”
She heard a very loud and angry snort come from the Gnoll shopkeeper. She winced, externally this time.
“What you see is what I have.”
The Drake indicated his goods with a wave of one claw. That sounded like an invitation to Erin, so she stepped inside the stall and peered around. Flour was what she was most interested in. With that and a bit of oil, salt, etcetera, she could make bread, pasta, and other filling things. It was the best place to start. She bent down to examine the flour—
“No touching the food with your filthy hands unless you’re buying!”
The Drake’s voice made Erin jump away. She caught herself before she fell backwards. He was glaring at her.
“Don’t touch. You’ll stink it up with your Human smell.”
Erin backed away from the goods on display, hands raised. She guessed she really did smell.
The shopkeeper directed his full and unhappy attention towards her.
“What do you want? Name it and I’ll fetch it for you.”
“Um. I’m looking for a few things, actually. Uh, do you have any butter?”
“It’s right there on the sign.”
The Drake tapped the little piece of paper pinned to the stall. Erin looked at it desperately, but just saw squiggles and lines in all the wrong places.
“Uh. I can’t read that. Sorry.”
He hissed softly in annoyance. Erin winced again.
“But I’d like some. Butter, that is.”
He slowly and grudgingly turned and pulled out a small pot with a small cork for a lid.
Erin wasn’t sure if she should ask to see how much butter was inside. She wanted to hold the little pot too, but the shopkeeper’s expression also vetoed that idea.
“And, uh, I’d like some oil too. Do you have another jar…?”
The Drake sighed loudly in annoyance.
“I don’t have all day to play fetch for you, Human. Just tell me what you want to buy first.”
He wasn’t throwing things or chasing her away, so that was as good as it was going to get, Erin guessed. She took a deep breath and rattled off whatever she could remember she needed.
“I’m looking for some flour, salt, butter, oil, and sugar. Oh! And yeast. I’ll need yeast too. If you have it.”
The Drake didn’t move.
Erin looked around quickly.
“Um. Those sausages. How much do they cost?”
Erin pointed to the sausages hanging from a hook. They looked mouthwateringly plump. She had the idea she could fry some up with the pasta. Just the thought was making her stomach rumble.
The Drake’s eyes flicked over to them.
Erin rummaged in her pocket and pulled out her precious coins. She saw the Drake’s eyes widen just a fraction as she showed him the mix of silver and bronze and two gold coins.
“Well, if I’ve got enough, I’d like to buy a few of those. And some onions.”
There weren’t many vegetables here. Only some garlic and shriveled roots in one bin. But she could always go to the Gnoll and ask—well, maybe not the Gnoll. But there were probably other shops that sold produce.
The Drake eyed the coins in her hand and flicked his eyes up to her. Erin felt like she was being assessed, and she didn’t enjoy the feeling. For all she was a paying customer, he still looked like he was angry at her for some reason.
At last the shopkeeper seemed to come to a decision. He flicked his tongue out of his mouth and glared at her.
“Two gold coins. Eight silver. That will buy you a bag of flour, oil, butter, four sausages, two onions, and a bag of sugar, salt, and yeast.”
Erin hesitated. She eyed the meaningless symbols on the little plaque again. The Gnoll shopkeeper to Erin’s left seemed to be having a breathing problem. She was choking on the air. Erin glanced to the side.
“Are—are you sure that’s the price? I mean, it sounds like a lot—”
“Are you calling me a liar?”
The Drake raised his voice angrily. Erin could see other customers and shopkeepers looking around.
“No, no! I was just saying that—”
“Typical Humans. Walking in here, stinking up the market, and insulting any non-Humans you find. You should be grateful the Guard doesn’t run you out of the city! First that damn [Necromancer] comes here, and now this smelly one that can’t even read.”
The Gnoll woman hissed, but he ignored her. The Drake seemed to be inflating with rage. Erin didn’t know what she’d done to set him off—besides the smell—but she tried to be diplomatic.
“Look, I was just asking about the price.”
“I just gave you my price. Take it or leave it.”
“But can we negotiate? I mean, how about two gold coins? What’s the price of the flour? If I pay you—”
The Drake shopkeeper let out a strangled hissing sound.
“Human, I have a business to run and a store to manage! Either pay me my price or be gone. You won’t find a better offer in this market.”
Looking around, Erin guessed that was true. She was getting unfriendly looks from the other shopkeepers down the street, especially the Gnoll whose wares she’d walked by.
“Okay. I’ll buy it all.”
She placed the gold and silver coins on the counter since he wasn’t holding his hand out. He eyed the coins, sniffed once, and swept them away.
“Here. Your food. Take it.”
The shopkeeper began grabbing items and slamming them down on the counter. He shoved them all together in a huge untidy pile and threw a few dented copper coins down too. Some rolled onto the ground.
Erin hesitated, but the shopkeeper’s scaly back was already expressively turned away. She heard what sounded like hissing laughter and muttered comments from behind her and turned red.
Slowly, Erin bent down and began picking up the fallen copper coins. She tried to avoid looking at anyone or anything.
When she finally stood up, the shopkeeper was looking at her expressionlessly. He flicked one claw towards her.
“If you’re done grubbing in the dirt, I have more customers to serve.”
Erin knew her face was red. Her eyes were burning, but she was determined not to do anything else. She took a deep breath and tried to steady her voice as much as possible. Still, it wobbled a bit as she said one last thing.
“…Can I buy a bag?”
Erin sat in the shade of one of the buildings and stared silently at the four silver coins in her hand, which was all she had left after buying a large cloth bag and the food. It wasn’t so bad. She still had some money, and she’d bought enough food for now. It was just enough for…well, she didn’t know. But it certainly wasn’t enough for a lantern, much less a sword. She doubted it was even enough for her clothes.
She’d started out with two gold coins and a full handful of silver and copper ones. And in an instant, they’d been spent. True, she’d bought a lot of food. Stuff like sugar was expensive, right? Especially in a place that wasn’t modern like this. It was just…she couldn’t help but feel it was a mistake.
She hadn’t seen any other shoppers trade gold coins for what they’d bought. Not one and especially not that much for some food. She had a bad feeling in the pit of her stomach. She thought—
No. She knew she’d been ripped off.
And it hurt. It really did. Erin wanted to go back there and punch the Drake shopkeeper in the face, but she had a pretty good idea of what would happen if she did. Plus, he could probably eat her face if she tried.
So. Erin sat and stared at her hand. Four silver coins.
She could still go shopping with that much money. She could find another market, find another shop, and…
And do what? She didn’t know how much money things cost, and she didn’t know how to buy clothes for herself.
Everyone in this city wore clothing, but the definition of that really varied. Some of the male Gnolls wore extremely exposed clothing, sometimes leaving their chests completely bare save for a light cloak, while the female ones usually had more on. Still, even that was varied because it seemed showing skin—or rather, scales—was the fashion around here. Only the Drakes seemed to adhere to a dress code she was used to.
It was one of the hidden truths of the world. Money was useless if you had no idea what to spend it on and everyone ripped you off.
Everything would be so much simpler if she could read. Was that too much to ask?
Erin put her head on her arm and closed her eyes for a moment. Her head jerked up, and she nearly smacked it against the building behind her as she realized something.
She couldn’t read. But she knew people who could.
Relc. Or Klbkch. Either one of them would know all about clothing and money and stuff like that.
Erin stood up. She pocketed her silver coins and wished she’d thought of this before she’d lost all her money. But maybe four silver coins was a lot of money? She’d have to ask. And they’d help her, surely. Because that’s what guardsmen did, right? Just like how police officers were so willing to help anyone who came to them with a problem.
Erin pushed that thought out of her head. Guardsmen were not police officers. They were allowed to kill people without due process, for one thing. But Relc liked her pasta, and he and Klbkch had been kind to her. Now all she had to do was find the guardhouse without being able to read the signs.
She started walking down the street, looking around for anything that screamed of jail cells or law and order. She tried very hard not to think about what she’d do if Relc or Klbkch were both off-duty.
Relc was off-duty. So was Klbkch. But for the moment, Relc was lounging around the mess hall of the guard’s barracks. He was playing a game where he tossed a wickedly sharp dagger up into the air and caught it as it fell back towards the floor. Half the time, he caught the dagger. The other half, he missed or knocked the dagger flying. He sat in a widely vacated corner of the room.
Only a few other Drakes were sitting at the long wooden benches, chowing down on hard bread, cheese, and unidentifiable strips of meat. Well, unidentifiable to Humans. It was more grey than red.
One of the guards was talking with his fellows. He stood up and approached Relc cautiously. Unlike Relc, his scales were a very pale blue, and he was smaller if not shorter than the other Drake. He cleared his throat while standing at a respectful distance from Relc’s game.
“Hey Relc. I hear there’s a Human wandering around the city.”
Relc looked up and missed the dagger as it flipped down.
The other guardsman sighed as Relc sucked at the point of red blood oozing from his scales.
“You’ve got no talent for that game. If you didn’t have [Thick Scales], you’d have cut your hand off years ago.”
Relc smiled smugly.
The blue Drake rolled his eyes.
“That explains everything. What kind of level do you have to be to get that, anyways? No one else has it, so it must be high level.”
Relc began trimming his claws with the dagger. Although in his case, he wasn’t making the nails shorter, just sharpening them.
“It was the last skill I got from my [Sergeant] class. I think you get it in [Spearmaster] as well, but I don’t know. Either way, it’s a life-saver.”
“I’ll bet. No wonder you don’t worry about hurting yourself, you smooth-scaled bastard.”
“Now, now. Don’t be jealous.”
Relc swept the nail clippings off the table with one hand.
“Too bad I never got any dagger skills. I can’t understand how this stupid flipping works.”
“Then stop flipping. It’s annoying, and you keep nearly hitting people. Remember poor Tkrn the day he signed up? He still flinches whenever he sees a dagger.”
“No. If Klbkch can do it, so can I. Anything that damn bug can do I can do better. But hey, what’s this about a Human? Is it that female one I was telling you about?”
This time, another green Drake jumped into the conversation.
“Belsc—the guy on eastern gate duty—he didn’t say much other than that he thought it was a Human female. What was the name of the one you met?”
Relc scratched his head and looked up at the ceiling.
“Um. Erin something. Sol? Solace? It was something like that. Erin Solace? Did he mention anything else about her?”
The blue-scaled Drake bared his teeth.
“Yeah. He said she was really annoying. And she talked too much.”
Relc laughed. The other Drake shook his head as a few more [Guards] glanced over.
“Humans. I don’t know why you’re interested in this one. It’s certainly not the smell, to hear Belsc talk.”
“Yeah, you get used to that.”
Relc leaned back in his chair and played with the dagger. He smiled to himself, warming to his theme of stupid Humans. It was a popular topic in Liscor—especially with the annual Blood Fields battle almost upon them. He felt a tiny bit guilty, but he was also still mad about yesterday.
She’d chosen a [Necromancer] over him. Which was just Humans sticking to their own kind, so Relc kept talking as he trimmed at his nails.
“Still, she’s interesting. Erin, or whatever her name is. She makes a mean plate of pasta, let me tell you. And she’s tougher than she looks—I didn’t think any Human could survive out in the Floodplains that long. She’s funny too.”
He grinned as the other guards made disparaging noises. Relc raised his voice.
“Hey, I’m telling the truth here. Little Miss Human isn’t that bad. You should meet her. But let me tell you, she can also be pretty annoying. Remember that [Necromancer] guy I told you me and Klbkch tracked down? She wouldn’t let us kill him even after he blasted us both with a few spells. Just kept saying that he wasn’t that bad.”
Relc nodded in agreement with the other guard.
“They’re interesting and entertaining, but they don’t have much inside their fleshy heads. I’d never trust a Human to have my back. Drakes stick together and Humans do their thing in the north, am I right?”
Relc looked around for confirmation as the other Drakes laughed with him. He laughed boisterously until he saw the young woman staring at him across the mess hall. His laughter cut off instantly.
The other Drakes looked over in curiosity at the Human female. She wasn’t that special to them; one Human looked much like any other. She was staring at Relc, who looked extremely uncomfortable.
He cleared his throat.
The door closed behind Erin as she walked out.
A nasty silence fell over the mess hall. Relc looked at the others.
“How long was she here?”
The blue Drake shrugged.
“Dunno. She must’ve walked in while you were talking.”
“Oh, bite me.”
Relc leapt up from his chair.
“Hey, Miss Human! Wait! I didn’t mean it!”
The other Drakes watched as he dashed out of the room. Then they turned back to their conversation. One of the Gnolls flicked his gaze towards the blue-scaled Drake, who looked slightly smug at how everything had gone down.
“So. When did you spot her?”
“Right at the start. Did you see her expression? Relc’s not gonna have an easy time explaining that.”
“Serves him right. But did you smell her?”
“Yeah. Humans. They don’t wash.”
“I hear they roll around in their own filth.”
“Disgusting. Why’s Relc interested in one anyways?”
“Why do you think?”
“I still don’t get it. There’s no scales, nothing firm to grab. What’s the point?”
“Search me. Maybe it’s just Relc. He’s weird.”
“Anyways, Humans. Haven’t seen one in a long time. Did you see it? So fleshy.”
“Disgusting. Let’s go eat some meat.”
Erin walked out of the city gates and through the grass. She walked as fast as she could, which wasn’t very. The cloth bag she was carrying was more like a satchel, and it was loaded down with a lot of stuff. She was impressed that it could fit the bag of flour and other ingredients she’d bought without the fabric breaking, but it also meant she had to carry all of that on her shoulders.
The bag of flour was quite heavy. But Erin carried it anyways, ignoring the pain in her right shoulder. Her left one was already sore. She’d switch shoulders when the pain became unbearable.
“Hey! Miss Erin! Wait!”
Erin kept walking.
“Oh come on. Please?”
Relc appeared next to her in a blur. He was quick for such a huge guy. Erin turned her head so she didn’t have to look at him directly.
“So, how’s my favorite Human doing? Good? Bad? Um. I, uh, don’t suppose you heard what I was saying. It was just a joke, really. I didn’t mean…”
She kept walking. Erin’s feet were already sore, but she put one foot in front of the other. She had a long way to go to get back to the inn, and the bag she was carrying was heavy.
“Look, I know I was sort of—okay, I was rude, but let’s talk. Hello? Are you listening?”
Erin didn’t look at him or speak. She just kept walking. Put one foot in front of the other. She was so tired and sore she barely felt hungry.
Eventually, he went away. Erin kept walking though. She was trying to make it back to the inn before the sun set. It was going to be a close race.
She was about halfway to her destination when the first stone flew over her head. Erin instinctively ducked and so the next two stones missed her and landed in the grass. She looked around.
At first, she couldn’t spot where the stones were coming from. Two more missed her, but the third struck her on the shoulder.
Erin spotted the origin of the stones. It was a Goblin. The small creature was hard to spot in the fading twilight. It was standing on a hill and hurling rocks down at Erin. And it wasn’t alone.
Two more Goblins screeched and threw stones at her from their hilltop, making her flinch away and pull the bag up to shield her head. But then they just pelted her legs. They were bigger than the first one and staring at her burdens.
Her food. They wanted her food, and they’d laid an ambush! Erin tried to shield her head with the bag of flour and got a sharp strike to the chest.
She covered her face with her arms. The stones kept flying. And they hurt. Even at this distance, the rocks cut her arms and bruised her flesh. Already, she felt blood trickling down one arm.
Erin knelt on the ground and shielded her head with her bag. That made her less of a target, but the barrage of stones continued. It wasn’t as if the Goblins could hurt her, not so long as they kept hitting her back, but they just didn’t stop. And if she got up, they’d aim for her head.
What could she do? Erin felt the stinging hail cut into her back. She had to run. At them? Away? They’d steal all her food if she did. But could she attack them? Fight? If she got any closer, the stones could gouge out her eyes, injure her badly. What could she do? What could she—
Something moved past Erin in a blast of air. She flinched and looked around, but it was already gone. Then her eyes travelled to the hill. Someone was rushing at the Goblins, ducking under the stones and deflecting the ones that came close to his head with a fast-moving…spear…?
“Hey! Slither off, you little bastards!”
The stones stopped flying abruptly. Erin heard a high-pitched scream and several heavy thwacks. Cautiously, she got up and looked around.
The Goblins were running away in full retreat. Relc stood on the hilltop, spear in hand. He waved at her and leapt down the hill in a few long strides.
“Hello there, Miss Erin. Fancy meeting you here.”
Erin stared up at him. He offered her a toothy grin and a hand up. She stood up by herself and picked up her bag.
Relc cleared his throat expectantly.
“It’s not often I get to rescue a damsel in distress. That’s what they call Human females, right? Damsels? Anyways, I saw you were in trouble, so I immediately rushed to help.”
Erin began walking again. She heard Relc follow after a second’s hesitation.
“Okay, okay. So they weren’t that dangerous. And I was just doing my job; true. But I am sorry. Really. I said too much back there.”
She said nothing. Her vision was blurring over from the cutting pain of the bag’s strap as it carved a groove into her shoulder.
“That looks heavy. Here, let me carry it for you.”
Relc reached for the bag. Erin pulled away.
“No. I’m fine.”
“Oh come on. Don’t be like that. I just—well, it was just me being careless, alright? Let’s talk. Please?”
Erin tried to walk faster, but her legs were already giving up. Relc easily kept pace with her. He was even able to walk backwards faster than her.
“Look. I’m very sorry, Miss Erin. Let me carry your bag. It must be quite heavy, and this way we can talk without one of us falling over.”
Erin grudgingly slowed down. It was a tempting offer. Her legs were screaming at her to accept Relc’s generous offer and have him carry her as well. Her shoulder was already in another dimension of pain.
She unslung the bag, wincing as blood returned to her arm. Relc lifted the bag with one hand and slung it over his shoulder. Then he kept pace with Erin as if nothing had happened.
Relc scratched the spines on the back of his head, looked down, looked up, and sighed.
“I really didn’t mean it. It’s just—[Necromancers], y’know? They’re dangerous. And it’s best to kill them on sight. You ever seen a thousand zombies trying to eat anything in sight? Even if they’re low-level, even if they play nice, I could never trust a [Necromancer].”
“Especially not if they’re Human.”
“I didn’t say that.”
“But that’s what you think.”
Relc didn’t have anything to say to that. They both walked on in silence, faster now that the bag wasn’t weighing Erin down.
“So. You bought food, huh? Making lots of pasta tonight?”
“I’m going to sleep.”
“Right, right. But, uh, good to see you made it to the city. So how’d you like it?”
Relc was clearly casting around desperately for subject matters. He peeked into the bag. Erin could practically feel him salivating.
“Sausages. Mm. But hey, why didn’t you buy any clothes? I thought all females loved clothes, Drake or Human.”
Erin’s stomach twisted. She avoided his gaze and mumbled.
“I didn’t have enough money.”
Relc looked at her askance and peered into the bag he was carrying.
“No. I mean, there’s food in here, but that’s only a few silver coins at best. I’m sure you had more than that, right? How much did you spend?”
Erin felt her face heating up. She looked at the ground.
“A couple gold coins. Some silver ones.”
He stopped. Erin didn’t. She heard him muttering to himself and then swearing. It sounded like swearing. He loped forwards and was next to her in an instant.
“Really? What kind of rotscale sold you—why did you spend that much money?”
She stared at the grass as she trampled it. It was tinted with a lovely deep orange color in the sun’s fading glow.
“I just thought it was the right price, I guess. I didn’t want to argue.”
Relc muttered under his breath and sighed in exasperation.
“Well, I could go back to the market and ask around. But—I don’t suppose you caught the name of the store.”
“I can’t read the language here.”
Relc sighed again. Deeply.
“Right, right. Well, if you remembered his face, I could find who sold you all that, but I doubt anyone’d bear witness against him. And there’s not much for me to go on. I mean, he sold you overpriced goods but it was your fault as well. No offense meant, Miss, but how’d you trade a gold coin for a sack or two of flour?”
Erin couldn’t think of anything to say to that.
They walked on in silence. At last, the inn was in sight. Erin trudged up the last incline, her legs screaming all the way. She paused at the door.
“I can take the bag now.”
“You sure? I can carry it in—”
Erin accepted the bag, and her legs wobbled. She opened the door with one hand.
She wanted to close the door, but Relc held it open effortlessly. He scratched at the back of his neck awkwardly.
“Look, I’m still really sorry about before. I didn’t mean—well, I’m sorry. I’ll make it up to you, I promise.”
Erin looked up at him. She just wanted to close her eyes. But he seemed sincere. So she mustered a bit of sincerity herself.
“Thanks for helping. With the Goblins.”
Relc gave her a wide, toothy grin.
“It was nothing. They’re no threat to me or anyone with a few levels in any warrior class. But don’t worry about those pests. I said I’d make it up to you, didn’t I? I’ll do something about them.”
Maybe it was an empty promise. But it made Erin smile a tiny bit.
“Thanks. Good night.”
Relc curled his tail up and flicked her a salute with both hand and tail at the same time.
“Until later, Miss Erin.”
Erin watched as he rapidly disappeared into the dark landscape. She vaguely envied the speed and effortless grace with which he moved. Then she closed the door.
The moment she threw the first stone, the littlest Goblin felt bad. Especially when it nearly hit the Human in the face. But she had to, because the two older Goblins made her.
They’d found her sneaking around the inn and had pulled at her ears. Hard. She was wasting time when she should be gathering things, making grass baskets, or doing something for the tribe.
She had screeched and protested, but then they’d all seen the Human coming back to her inn. With food. They could smell it.
The older Goblins, male and female, had debated. They knew that the warriors had lost to her and they had no chance of killing her even with their rusted daggers. But if they threw stones, she’d have to drop the food. Then the littlest Goblin could run down, grab some, and run off.
The littlest Goblin was so hungry—always hungry—that she did what they told her to. They were tossing stones down at the Human as she shouted at them. Just some food! Just drop the bag! The older Goblins were aiming at her eyes, but the littlest Goblin pelted the Human’s arms.
Then the scary Drake appeared, and they ran. The littlest Goblin fled, screaming, then hid in the grass and crawled away. Only after an hour did she get up and run back to her cave.
It was a bad day, and she was hungry. And—the littlest Goblin was sniveling already when she got back to their hidden cave—the two older Goblins would tell the Chieftain she had wasted time and that they hadn’t gotten food.
They were always mean to her. Always made her go with them gathering food or sharpening knives…or told her to stop counting birds and help gather food. They poked and prodded and pinched her ears more than most, because they had made her.
Somehow. Just like Goblins were born, the littlest Goblin had a vague idea of how it all worked, but those two were hers. Not that it meant they were nicer; they found her when she sat and tried to think or have fun and dragged her back.
Sometimes the two gave her food even when there wasn’t any to go around and showed her how things worked. Sometimes they got mad and poked and hit her if she wasn’t working, but it seemed to her like they always found her even when she was hiding, as if they knew her better than even the Chieftain.
She skulked into the tribe’s cave, wishing she had a Skill to make herself hide. She was waiting for the Chieftain to roar at her or just for a swat. But the tribe was busy eating.
Spiders. Cooked spiders in a big pot with water. It was…not good. Even for them. But it was what they had, and a few eggs made it taste like something. The littlest Goblin actually got a bowl and brightened up.
Maybe she wasn’t in trouble! She was sure she’d get only half her food because she was in so much trouble. She looked around for the two older Goblins and didn’t see them. Maybe they were still after the Human’s food?
She felt a pang in her stomach at the thought of being punished later. So she went back to her collection of sticks and rocks and thought of how much food that big place had to have. A city. The Chieftain sometimes said the other peoples had all kinds of good food, but behind those walls. They couldn’t even raid a caravan; there were too many dangerous Drakes or Gnolls or Humans, with steel armor and magic.
But what if you could get in there? Could you hide and steal some food and live there? Could they have a city like that?
The littlest Goblin was so caught up in the idea that she distracted herself for a long time, wondering what that Human had done to get an entire bag of food. Flour. She knew it from the older Goblins coveting the powdery stuff. You could make all kinds of things with it. Thick soup, crunchy bread, or just eat it raw and…
A growl brought the littlest Goblin out of her stupor. She jumped in fright and then saw the huge Chieftain’s face an inch from hers. She tried to run, and he grabbed her by one leg.
The time for punishment had come. The littlest Goblin dangled there as the Chieftain held her. She began to babble excuses—she meant to steal the Human’s food—and saw a quizzical look on his face.
He shook her and gestured eloquently to the two empty pallets of dried grass. Then the littlest Goblin realized…he didn’t know about her sneaking off and wasting time. He wasn’t mad at her for that.
He wanted to know where the other two Goblins were. The littlest Goblin stared at the blank pallets and realized there had been a bit more soup, because they’d never come back with her.
Were they still out there, trying to steal the Human’s food? Maybe sneak in when she was asleep? She babbled an explanation and instantly got a bonk on the head.
Sniveling, she clutched at her head as the Chieftain roared at her. Go find them! And bring back food!
She was afraid of the dark, but more afraid of his wrath. So she wormed her way out of the cave and ran back to the inn. She searched around a few hills, hoping the other two would see her and scold her and she could bring them back to the Chieftain. If they had to steal from the Human…
Then the littlest Goblin smelled something on the air. Something wet, like iron. She froze in place, and a Drake stretched as he stood up.
“Got you bastards. You can’t run from Relc! Damn, I thought there were three of you? Whatever. If Erin doesn’t love this—now I need to find some wood. Damn. I should be having dinner!”
He chortled to himself and whirled a spear up and brought it down in one movement. So gracefully. The littlest Goblin didn’t understand what he was laughing about, but she smelled something familiar in the air. Something like metal. Something like…
She stared down at the two bodies in the grass. The Drake hummed as he drew his sword.
“Two coppers per ear…nah. Stick. Stick. You’ve gotta put them on sticks and—you know what? She can figure out how she wants to mount them.”
He gathered a pair of round objects up as the little Goblin stared down at him from her hiding place. She didn’t move. She didn’t breathe. She just looked at the two little bodies the Drake kicked down the hill. He walked off, humming under his breath in the night.
It was just before dawn when the little Goblin crawled into the tribe’s cave. The sleepy [Warrior] on duty growled at her—then noticed she was still alone. He nearly swatted her, but then smelled her. Then…he backed away and pointed to a slumbering mass.
The Chieftain woke up with a huge growl of anger. He looked at the littlest Goblin, raising a fist—
She didn’t think she said anything. She just sat there, mumbling down at the ground. And the Chieftain…
The grumpy Chieftain sat there and did not hit her. Though it was surely her fault. He picked up the littlest Goblin, tossed her into her sleeping pallet, and sat there.
Head lowered. Head bowed. The other Goblins in their tribe sat around him or worked mechanically, dully and silently.
But the Chieftain just stared at nothing. Stared at the smoky embers of the fire. Though the smoke stung his eyes—he did not weep. Goblins didn’t weep. Even the littlest Goblin. But the Chieftain stared down at the ground. Then he reached for something.
His axes. He stood slowly and asked one question of his tribe.
Where was that Human? The littlest Goblin didn’t know if he’d heard her wrong or if he was looking for the Drake. The Chieftain walked out of the cave.
She did not stop him. She just sat there. Wondering why today had been like this.
There wasn’t much light, so Erin just put the bag in the kitchen and lay down on the floor of the common room. The old linens she’d piled up to make a bed made her sneeze.
“I need to buy fresher pillows. And blankets. Or laundry detergent. When I have the money for it.”
Instead, she just used the cloth bag she’d bought as a pillow. Erin tried to get comfortable on the hardwood floor, but the very nature of it was giving her a…hard time. Besides, her shoulders ached. Her legs still hurt from the long walk. And if it were only that which hurt, she would already be asleep.
But instead Erin lay in the silence, listening to her heart beat. She wanted to say something, to think something, better. But there wasn’t anything. So she stared at the hazy shapes in the dark room. It took a long time before her eyes closed.
[Innkeeper Level 6!]
This time, she said nothing at all. She just cried for a bit before she fell asleep.