Erin woke up to the sound of snuffling. She opened her eyes fast; when you hear something large and unfamiliar moving around your face, sleep tends to be a lesser concern.
To Erin’s relief she wasn’t being attacked by mutant caterpillar pig monsters. Instead, she saw Mrsha, the small white-furred Gnoll rooting around her cupboards. She was pawing through Erin’s meticulously organized shelves, sniffing at what she found.
Erin said it softly, but Mrsha still freaked out. The Gnoll turned and scampered out of the kitchen, fur standing straight on end.
“No, wait, I didn’t mean—”
The young woman rolled out of her blankets, tried to stand, tripped, and smacked her toe against cupboard.
When Erin had stopped whimpering she found Mrsha in the common room, hiding under a table and staring at Erin. It was like having a wild animal in her inn, except that Mrsha’s eyes were far more intelligent than any animal Erin had ever seen. She stared at Erin warily as the girl halted.
“Hi Mrsha. You’re awake, aren’t you? Are you hungry? Do you want food?”
Erin kept her voice low and soothing. Mrsha made no move, but she backed up a bit as Erin stepped forwards. The girl stopped.
What should she do? Ryoka was currently upstairs, sleeping, and Erin had no desire to wake her. Carefully, Erin walked back into the kitchen and looked around.
Mrsha’s nose twitched as Erin came back out a few minutes later with some fried sausage and scrambled eggs. She stared fixedly at it, but she retreated to another table, hiding between the chair legs as Erin approached.
Carefully, making no sudden moves, Erin put the plate on the floor. Mrsha stared at it, and then watched as Erin retreated to the kitchen. Erin hid herself behind the door frame and waited.
After a few seconds of staring at the plate and Erin’s half-visible head, Mrsha made her move. She darted out from the table and stopped at the plate. She began to gobble down the food on the plate, licking her paws greedily as she scarfed the food.
It was adorable to Erin the way Mrsha licked the plate clean with her tongue and washed her paws and face. Adorable, and heartbreaking. Ryoka had told her what had happened to Mrsha’s tribe. She was all alone now.
What was she supposed to do next? Mrsha burped and Erin decided to attempt contact once more. Her ankle still hurt from Mrsha’s bite yesterday, but she had been punching Ryoka at the time.
When Erin approached again, this time with a glass of water in her hands, Mrsha tensed, but didn’t run.
“Hey cutie. Here’s a glass of water. Are you thirsty?”
Mrsha peered suspiciously up at Erin. She accepted the glass of water and drank messily. She was still clumsy enough that she slopped a lot of water onto the floor, but Erin didn’t care. Mrsha flinched a bit as Erin sat next to her, until Erin offered her a hand.
“I’m sorry I kicked you last night. Ryoka and I just had a fight. But I’m not mean, okay?”
The Gnoll child blinked at Erin’s hand. Then she sniffed it. Erin kept very still as Mrsha’s whiskers tickled her skin. The Gnoll grabbed Erin’s hand with her own paws, and Erin was relieved not to feel the sharp claws, but instead the much softer pads on the Gnoll’s paws.
Mrsha inspected each of Erin’s fingers with great interest, flexing them, pulling them apart and together, even patting them. Then she hesitated, and licked Erin’s skin.
“Hey! That tickles!”
Erin laughed and pulled away. Mrsha looked alarmed, but when she saw Erin laughing something changed. The Gnoll put her paws on Erin’s leg and looked at Erin inquisitively.
“Go ahead. I won’t move.”
Erin did her best, but she wasn’t prepared for Mrsha’s curiosity. The Gnoll prowled around her, poking at Erin’s body, her sides, even patting Erin’s breasts which elicited a yelp of surprise. The small Gnoll was soon all over Erin, and Erin was laughing as she finger-combed Mrsha’s hair when Ryoka walked downstairs.
Ryoka Griffin was still numb, but better. Incomparably better than yesterday, in truth. She remembered the empty bleakness in her soul like a nightmare. Now she was still hollow, but there was something inside of her. Something warm that came from a full night of sleep in a warm bed and hot meal.
She walked softly down the stairs and saw Mrsha sitting in Erin’s lap as the young woman ran her hands through Mrsha’s soft hair. Erin was humming a song under her breath, and Mrsha was swaying to the sound.
Ryoka paused and watched the scene for a little while. Erin was singing the doe rei mi song.
“Me, a name I call myself. Fa, far, a long, long way to run…”
Mrsha’s eyes were closed. The child wasn’t smiling, but her face was…peaceful. Ryoka wiped her eyes and waited until they finished stinging before she walked into the room.
The Gnoll’s eyes shot open at Ryoka’s name. She leapt out of Erin’s lap and ran on all fours around Ryoka.
Ryoka raised her hands as Mrsha leapt around her like an excited dog. Mrsha stood up and reached for her. Ryoka hesitated.
Erin lifted Mrsha up. The Gnoll squirmed, but then started licking Ryoka’s face and sniffing her. Ryoka recoiled, but held in place as Erin stared at her.
“Did you sleep well?”
Ryoka scratched at her hair. She avoided staring at Erin. The two stood awkwardly until Mrsha wriggled out of Erin’s hands. That broke the spell.
“You want food? I’ve got lots.”
Ryoka sat awkwardly at a table as Erin disappeared into the kitchen. Mrsha tried to follow Erin in, but Ryoka called her back. Mrsha sat on the floor and fidgeted until Erin came back with crepes of all things. Ryoka stared at the steaming food until Erin plonked down some butter and a bowl of sugar.
It wasn’t that Erin had made the crepes; it was that she’d been in the kitchen for less than twenty minutes and she’d already fried up a stack large enough for Ryoka, Mrsha, and Erin herself. And she’d managed to cook some more sliced sausage up on another plate.
“Oh, I’ve got [Advanced Cooking] and I figured out how to make pancakes earlier. Try some, they’re really good!”
Erin handed Ryoka a fork and then dug into her own plate. Mrsha was already patting one of the hot crepes with a paw, waiting until it was cool enough for her to eat.
“No, here, darling.”
Gently, Erin wrapped Mrsha’s paw around a fork and showed her how to cut and pick up the crepes. Mrsha was clumsy, but she soon began to spear oversized bites of crepe and dip them into butter and sugar before transferring them into her mouth.
Normally that kind of excessive gluttony would be remarked on—at least in Ryoka’s house. But Erin was doing the same and Ryoka herself put back quite a number of crepes before she even began to feel full.
“That was good. Really good.”
“I’m glad. You ate more than I thought, but we’ve got leftovers. I guess Lyon can eat them.”
Erin covered the plate with a cloth as Ryoka frowned.
“Lyon? Who’s that?”
“Oh—oh, right! I forgot, you haven’t met Lyon! She’s probably still sleeping upstairs.”
Ryoka’s eyes flicked to the stairwell. She hadn’t even noticed there were other people in the inn. But now that she was finally thinking again, a hundred questions and thoughts were pushing through her mind.
She couldn’t help it. It was her nature. But part of Ryoka felt she shouldn’t be wondering and planning. Everything she did hurt people. What good were her opinions?
But then Ryoka looked at Erin as the girl laughed at Mrsha’s attempts to steal sugar from the bowl. Flawed as she might be, she could still help Erin who sometimes didn’t think enough.
“So this Lyonette is a new employee? Did you hire Ceria too, or is she in the city?”
“Um. No. Ceria’s gone north. She’s gone back to adventuring.”
Ryoka held quite still as her thoughts paused. She didn’t swear, and she clamped down on her immediate response. Because Mrsha was sitting in her chair, happy and bloated. Ryoka would slice off the rest of her fingers before she disturbed the child’s moment of peace.
“I guess a lot has happened. You’d better tell me all of it, Erin.”
“Oh—sure. But uh…”
Erin’s eyes slid sideways to Mrsha. The kid was staring at a crumb on the table.
“Uh, what are you going to do about her, Ryoka?”
“I don’t know.”
“You said she’s by herself? Does she have any…anyone…?”
Ryoka closed her eyes. Something dark squeezed her heart.
“I don’t know. I…doubt it. And I have no idea who to ask.”
Memory flared in her head.
“What about that Gnoll you know? Krshia, right? Could we ask her for help?”
Mrsha’s ears perked up at the word ‘Gnoll’. She looked over at the two Humans. They exchanged a glance.
“Um, well, the food was good, right Ryoka?”
“How about I find something for Mrsha to do? Hey Mrsha, you must be bored. Do you want to play with uh, some things, sweetie?”
Mrsha cocked her head at Erin. Ryoka stared too, raising her eyebrows silently. Erin hesitated, and then ran into the kitchen. Both Gnoll and Human heard banging and doors opening, and then reemerged with an armful of ladles, rolling pins, and other cooking equipment.
As a ploy to distract Mrsha, Ryoka thought it could never work. But she’d forgotten that Mrsha wasn’t a child in a first world country, and she’d probably been banned from hanging around the cooking pots in the Stone Spears tribe’s camp. She immediately scooted over to the cooking equipment and began inspecting it with interest.
Erin sighed as she and Ryoka relocated a few tables down to talk. They kept their voices low, in case the young Gnoll was listening.
“Good thinking, Erin.”
“I guess she’ll play with those for a while. But I don’t know what to do, Ryoka. She needs someone to look after her, and proper toys and stuff. Not…”
“And she’s so sad, Ryoka.”
“You can tell?”
Ryoka stared at Mrsha as the Gnoll inspected the various cooking utensils Erin had brought out. She was half like a normal toddler in that she tasted everything, but she was clearly older and smaller. It must be a Gnoll quality to want to smell and taste everything.
“She’s just like a kid. I mean, a Human kid. She’s really curious, but every now and then when I was playing with her she’d…how bad was it?”
Ryoka saw the Gnolls falling around her, and the Goblins screaming and cutting both Drakes and Gnolls apart. She shuddered. Erin stared at Ryoka, and then looked at Mrsha.
“What should we do with her?”
We. It was just like Erin, to immediately put herself into the problem and look for a solution. Ryoka half-smiled.
“I guess we need to talk to Krshia. She’d probably be willing to help, right?”
She vaguely remembered Erin having a good relationship with the Gnoll, but now Erin hesitated. She looked at the table and twiddled her thumbs.
“Um. There’s this thing with Krshia. ”
Erin began explaining in a rather confused way a story about Gnolls and burning shops when Ryoka heard someone moving upstairs. Ryoka turned, and saw Lyon.
The young woman stood staring down at the room. Mrsha had gone silent as she appeared at the head of the stairs, but Lyonette’s eyes were fixed on Ryoka and Erin. She stared at the two girls, and then spoke in a haughty voice.
“I am awake. Where is breakfast?”
Ryoka watched Erin’s face change in a second. Her bright smile disappeared and she sighed. Ryoka stared at the other girl.
“Who the hell is that, Erin?”
The other girl had heard her. She descended the stairs with chin raised.
“That is Lyonette de Marquin, peon.”
She was wearing somewhat ragged travelling clothes, and her hands were dirty from work. But she still conducted herself like some of the haughty girls Erin had sometimes seen, those born into money.
“Ryoka, meet Lyonette du…something. She’s uh, an employee I’ve hired.”
“I am pleased to meet you, Ryoka. I trust you will conduct yourself with the appropriate manners in my presence?”
Ryoka eyed Lyon as Erin scowled. She shrugged.
Lyonette’s brows flashed together, but before she could speak, Erin interrupted.
“I’ve got some crepes in the kitchen, Lyonette. You can have them or some porridge. Or cereal. Help yourself.”
The haughty girl sniffed, but she went without another word. Ryoka stared at Erin.
“Sort of. I mean, yes, but she’s not a good one.”
Erin rubbed at her eyes as Lyonette poked her head back into the common room.
“Where are the forks?”
“The drawer next to the cutting board.”
“So, is she some kind of noble?”
“Yeah, she says—”
“Where are the cups?”
Erin’s left eye twitched.
“I’ve told you, it’s in the cupboard above the forks.”
Ryoka watched Lyonette disappear. Mrsha had stopped playing with a ladle and was staring at the kitchen with interest.
“She reminds me of a female Pisces.”
“Even he wasn’t this bad.”
“So why haven’t you fired her?”
Erin shrugged helplessly.
“Because I can’t. She’s got nowhere to go, Ryoka. And if I send her north a monster will eat her. And she can’t go into the city because all the Gnolls want to kill her.”
Ryoka raised both her eyebrows. Erin shook her head.
“It’s a long, long story. And it’s actually why I’m not talking to Krshia, actually.”
“Then tell me. Start with—no, tell me what happened from the start. Let’s do this right.”
It took a while for Erin to relate the entire story, but for once, Ryoka managed to listen to all of it without many interruptions. Lyonette returned with her breakfast and ate in a corner. Mrsha abandoned her playing to stare at Lyon. Both girls tensed when Mrsha sniffed around Lyonette’s legs and the other girl froze up, but surprisingly, Lyonette let Mrsha paw at her without any screaming or noticeable revulsion.
“…And so now I can’t buy anything from any Gnoll shopkeepers, and I haven’t talked with Krshia since. I’ve been meaning to, but after all these adventurers came by and Magnolia wanted to chat…”
Erin spread her hands out helplessly. Ryoka nodded absently as she looked at Lyonette. She hadn’t exactly had a good impression of the girl from the start, but she was now right above Persua on Ryoka’s dislike list.
“And that’s what’s she’s like all the time? Just…”
Ryoka waved a hand at Lyon as the girl stared at Mrsha and the Gnoll stared back. Erin nodded miserably.
“I know. But I didn’t know she was like that!”
Both girls watched as Mrsha scooted closer. Lyon hesitated, but then she gently patted Mrsha on the head. She began to scratch Mrsha behind the ears and the Gnoll child leaned into Lyon’s side. For once, Lyonette wasn’t scowling.
“That’s odd. Normally she runs away from anyone with fur or scales. Or dirty hands.”
Ryoka nodded. Then she spoke the thought that had coalesced in her mind ever since Erin had described meeting Lyonette.
“She’s a princess.”
Erin paused. Then she turned and stared at Ryoka.
Ryoka nodded at Lyonette.
“She’s a runaway princess. She has to be.”
“Well, I know she says she’s noble, but a princess?”
The incredulous look Ryoka received did nothing to faze her. She shook her head.
“She is a princess. How can you not see that?”
“How are you seeing that?”
The other girl began to tick points off on her fingers.
“Running away from a royal family, calling other people peons, countless powerful magical artifacts, haughty attitude.”
She looked at Erin.
“How many stories do you know of where the princess runs away? Look at the way she acts—not to mention the fact that she seems to think Magnolia would just take her in. We’re in a world that has dragons and magic, Erin. Lyonette is a princess from Terandria. They have several royal families there.”
It was a lesson in facial expressions to watch Erin’s face. Incredulity turned to thoughtful contemplation, and then uneasy suspicion which became shock and realization, which finally merged into reluctant acceptance and deep regret.
“Oh my god.”
Ryoka patted Erin on the shoulder as the girl slumped to the table.
“She might not be princess. But she’s probably among the high nobility, at least.”
“How could I have not seen it?”
“The important thing is what happens next.”
Erin looked up.
“Like what? Send her home? How would I even…? You said she’s probably from Terandria? That’s another continent. I can’t send her back there!”
“I’m not suggesting you do. But you have to do something about her. She’s a danger to you if she stays here.”
“Because someone will come looking for her?”
Ryoka nodded. Her mind was already racing with possibilities.
“To bring her back—or kill her. Or use her as a hostage. Either way, you’ll be a loose end to tie up. Maybe she’s not that important if Magnolia isn’t interested in her, but she’s clearly some rich person’s daughter.”
Erin moaned as she covered her face in her hands.
“Why is my life so hard? What do I do? I don’t need this!”
She lowered her hands and stared at Ryoka.
“What do I do? What can we do?”
Ryoka tapped the table.
“Calm down. Just think. Lyonette is a problem, but from what you’ve told me, she’s not the only thing on your plate. You’ve got lots of problems.”
Erin looked down.
“And I’ll help you with them.”
There was a pause, and then Erin looked up. Ryoka didn’t exactly meet her eyes. She cleared her throat awkwardly. Her face was hot, but she knew what she had to say. It was just hard.
“I…said a lot of things I shouldn’t have last night, Erin. I’m sorry.”
“What? No, Ryoka, I know it was really tough. I’m sorry for hitting you.”
Ryoka rubbed at her chest. Her ribs still hurt.
“No, it was my fault. It’s just—a lot of things have happened. That army of Goblins is a real threat. But from what Magnolia told you, that might be the least of the things that’s about to hit the continent. And we’re about to be caught in all of it.”
Erin caught her breath. When Ryoka said it like that, everything seemed so much more overwhelming. She had no idea what to do, and said so.
“What should we do, then? I mean all these problems—what are you going to do, Ryoka? Do you have a plan?”
She had nothing like a plan. Ryoka stared at her hand. She had nothing. She didn’t know what to do. But now Erin was counting on her too. She had to keep going. She couldn’t falter. Not now.
“Next? I guess the next thing I have to do is collect my reward from Teriarch. Once I do that, I need to deal with Lady Magnolia. Then…I don’t know.”
Ryoka stared down at her maimed hand.
“I’ve got to finish this delivery. When I do, I’ll come back and help you.”
She looked at Mrsha. But then felt something. Erin touched Ryoka’s good fingers gently.
“Don’t go. Stay here for a while.”
The taller girl shook her head. Her legs felt like lead and her mind was still heavy. But she had to see this through. She had not told Erin who Teriarch really was. A Dragon. Maybe he would have the answers to all of this. Maybe—
“I have to go. I have a job, Erin.”
“Yeah, but you don’t have to go today. Or even tomorrow. Ryoka, you looked half dead when you came in! And then there’s Mrsha and all this stuff that’s happening here…stay here.”
Ryoka hesitated. She looked at Mrsha again. The Gnoll was leaning against the table where Lyon sat, eyes closed. Could she just leave Mrsha here and run on?
No. Of course not. Ryoka closed her eyes and nodded.
“That was stupid of me. I’ll stay. At least for a day.”
“Good! Then we can do something together!”
Ryoka opened one eye and stared at Erin.
Erin looked at Ryoka. She smiled in excitement.
“We’ve never actually done anything together. I mean, we went into the city that one time and I sang on the inn’s roof, but besides that…”
Ryoka nodded slowly. She looked at Mrsha, and then at the inn. This inn. This place where she felt safe. Somewhere to go home to. Slowly, she began to realize what she had to do.
“Okay. Let’s do something.”
The [Innkeeper] smiled.
“Great! What should we do? We could get a bath. You and Mrsha, uh, sort of smell. Or we can visit the city. Or—”
“Let’s go see Krshia.”
“What, now? But—”
“As long as Lyonette’s here, she’s a problem. Those Gnolls won’t give up after just one attempt, at least, that Brunkr might not. I want to be sure you’re safe. And I…need to tell them what happened.”
Erin nodded slowly. Ryoka stood up, and stared out the window. The sky was clear, but snow had fallen heavily. Her body was tired, but she kept moving. She had to keep moving.
She had a duty now. A mission.
Ryoka stood, and shouldered the debt she carried. It weighed her down and gave her a purpose. She looked at Mrsha and knew what she had to do.
Erin walked down Market Street in Liscor and felt like nothing had changed. And yet, the feeling in her bones was like that of a traveller coming home after many years.
How long had it been since she’d walked down these stalls looking for that familiar brown fur and calling voice? Too long. Just a week or two had passed and yet—
She missed her friend.
It took Erin a while to spot Krshia’s shop. That was also because she was walking with Ryoka and Mrsha; while Ryoka could easily keep pace, Mrsha was not so quick. The Gnoll child kept pausing to stare around the market or dart off after some interesting sight or smell, and Ryoka and Erin kept having to go after her. Eventually, Ryoka ended up dragging a reluctant Mrsha along by the paw.
But at last, they were through the market and nearing the intersection when Erin saw two familiar figures. Krshia stood behind her shop’s counter, arguing with her nephew Brunkr.
It was all the same. And yet, it wasn’t. Not nearly.
Erin remembered Krshia had always been in the center of Market Street, with one of the biggest shops and many customers. But now—
Now she had a small stand, with a few items on display. It was so far from the bountiful shop she’d kept stocked that it hurt Erin’s heart. And neither was the Gnoll smiling and laughing with her customers. Her ears were flat against her skull and she was snapping at Brunkr.
“—go back if you are so impatient! Tell them, yes, tell them of my failure! But here I am still the leader, am I not? If you go against my wishes, you defy the Chieftain!”
“You are not the sole leader here, Aunt!”
Brunkr wasn’t wearing his sword and shield, but he was still taller than Krshia. His fists were clenched, and both Drakes and Gnolls were walking wide of him. Erin stopped as she saw the two, uncertain.
Someone bumped into her. Ryoka cursed under her breath as Mrsha tried to tug her into a queue of people lined up to buy some grilled meat that smelled wonderful in the cold air.
“Mrsha, no! You can’t—Erin! Can you hold her?”
Ryoka looked over and saw Krshia and Brunkr. She paused, but didn’t let go of Mrsha who was practically drooling.
Krshia was growling at Brunkr, and he was making the same noise. It looked as if they were about to attack each other at any second. In short, not the atmosphere Erin wanted to have a reunion in.
“Yeah. Should we—?”
Ryoka hesitated for a second. Then she thrust Mrsha’s paw into Erin’s hand. Erin lifted the Gnoll into her arms and watched Ryoka. The young woman walked straight into the argument between the two Gnolls.
“Krshia Silverfang? My name is Ryoka Griffin. We need to speak.”
Both Gnolls shut up and stared at Ryoka. Erin held her breath and Mrsha stared as Ryoka faced both Gnolls down without a hint of fear. Tall as Ryoka was, both Gnolls were taller and bigger than she was.
Brunkr glared at Ryoka.
“Another Human? Go away. We are busy. This is a matter between me and my Aunt.”
“I’m a friend of Erin Solstice’s.”
Ryoka jerked a thumb over her shoulder at Erin. Krshia’s eyes widened when she saw Erin and Mrsha, but Brunkr just growled.
“I do not care. Go away.”
He tried to loom over Ryoka, but she didn’t even bat an eyelid.
“And who are you supposed to be?”
“I am Brunkr, warrior of the Silverfang tribe. And I—”
“Okay. Piss off. I need to talk to someone important.”
Erin’s mouth fell open. Mrsha’s ears flattened and suddenly she was the one clinging to Erin. Brunkr’s eyes narrowed and he opened his mouth.
“You dare? You dare to insult me? You?”
Cold sweat ran down Erin’s back. She’d thought Ryoka had gotten better—or at least she wasn’t crazily angry anymore. But she wasn’t showing many signs of sanity at the moment. What should Erin do?
But Ryoka seemed to have a plan of her own. She calmly stared at Brunkr as the Gnoll drew back his lips and bared his teeth.
“I dare. I dare because there are more important things than you, little Gnoll. Krshia Silverfang. The Stone Spears tribe is gone.”
The street went silent. Ryoka’s raised voice caused a hush and a pause as every single Gnoll on the street within hearing—and that was quite a radius—stopped and stared at her. Brunkr had drawn in his breath to roar, but now he froze, eyes wide.
Krshia stared at Ryoka. Her eyes flicked to Erin, and only now seemed to notice Mrsha. She took a step back, and for a second her eyes were filled with fear.
Then the moment passed. She looked at Ryoka, and shook her head.
“You speak the truth?”
“To the best of my knowledge. I witnessed their end.”
Krshia nodded. She looked at Brunkr.
“Close the store. I must hear this.”
He didn’t argue. The street was full of silence as Krshia gestured. Ryoka walked after her, silent. Erin hesitated, but hurried after the two, Mrsha in her arms. She sensed Gnolls following her. And now that all eyes were on her and Ryoka, they saw Mrsha too. She heard muttering, and felt a twinge of unease in her heart.
They were all Gnolls, and Krshia was her friend, even after Lyonette. She didn’t seem angry at Erin, even if Brunkr was a jerk. But then why were all the Gnolls staring at Mrsha? And why was she holding on to Erin so tightly? And why—
Why did they all look so afraid?
I think I have it figured out. I’m Ryoka Griffin. I’m a Runner, and an arrogant young woman who thought she was better than she actually is. Because I was a fool, people died.
Maybe I couldn’t have saved them anyways. But I could have been stronger, and maybe that would have made a difference. Regardless though, they died. The people who helped me died. It may not be my fault, but I still have a debt.
A debt to the dead.
One person still lives. A kid, a child. I will keep her safe. But I will also pay off my debt. And the first part of that is confession.
I sit in Krshia Silverfang’s apartment, a cup of weirdly bitter tea in my hands. There’s a bowl of chopped meat on the table, but I’m not sure if it’s raw so I don’t take any. Erin and Mrsha have already eaten several cubes.
Krshia sits across from me, with Brunkr by her side. She’s clearly in charge; she was the only person to ask questions as I told her what happened. Whatever their beef, Brunkr is clearly subordinate to her in this matter.
And there are Gnolls outside. I look towards one of the windows and see a bit of fur disappear. Gnolls are standing outside the apartment, maybe even on the roofs. I doubt it’s an ambush. I think they’re listening in on our conversation.
Small wonder. The news I have is bad, as bad as it gets. I can tell that just from the look on Krshia and Brunkr’s face.
“A Goblin Lord.”
That’s what Krshia says after I finish. She stares down into her cup of tea, untouched, as her nephew clenches his fist. She looks up at me gravely, and I nod.
“A Goblin Lord. And he’s got an army.”
“An army strong enough to defeat Zel Shivertail. It is an ill thing. Worse, he has slain the Stone Spears tribe to the last.”
Krshia’s eyes flick to Mrsha. Mrsha’s sitting next to Erin, but she seems uneasy around Krshia. No more than Krshia and Brunkr seem uneasy around her, though. They keep looking at her.
Because of the fur?
“These are dark tidings you bring us, Ryoka Griffin. But I am grateful you speak to us of what has passed instead of letting others spread the news.”
I nod, my attention back on Krshia. In truth, I have no idea what this Gnoll is like. I knew Urksh, fairly well for someone who’d only spent four days in his company. But Krshia is a stranger, for all Erin says she’s ‘nice’. I have to watch her, and at the same time, I have to help. A good start is being honest.
“I owe them. The Stone Spears tribe saved my life. Their Chieftain was kind to me.”
Krshia nods. She closes her eyes for a second, and I see a bit of pain cross her features.
“I knew Urksh. He was not the strongest Chieftain, not as a warrior, but he was wise. That he is gone is a true loss.”
“That the tribe is gone is a disaster.”
Brunkr growls as he clenches his fist. No tea for him. He looks at me, eyes full of passion and fury.
“What of the mining expedition? They may yet live. Gnolls will not die to Goblins so easily.”
I shift in my seat and shake my head.
“I had the same thought. But that army had over a hundred Hobgoblins in it. Even if the mining expedition wasn’t found…”
Krshia nods. Her expression is bleak.
“They would throw themselves upon the Goblins rather than live without their tribe. They are gone, Brunkr.”
“All except one.”
I nod at Mrsha. She blinks around as both Gnolls stare at her. Erin pats Mrsha on the shoulder soothingly, but Mrsha just edges towards her, away from Brunkr.
“Hrr. Yes. Young Mrsha.”
Krshia gets up from her chair. She bends down and Mrsha scoots back, but the other Gnoll’s face is nothing but kind. She growls something low and soothing and Mrsha’s death-grip on Erin’s arm slowly releases.
Mrsha doesn’t speak—she can’t—but she does reach out with one paw. Krshia lets Mrsha put a paw on her cheek, and then nuzzles the smaller Gnoll gently. White fur brushes against dark brown and I look away.
Brunkr looks at me, his eyes serious. I stare back. I don’t like Brunkr. He’s probably a solid, serious guy, but he doesn’t strike me as smart. And it’s smart I need right now. Smart, and willing to talk and compromise.
“What of the other tribes? Did you run and warn them? Or are they at the mercy of this Goblin army?”
Krshia steps back from Mrsha and looks disapprovingly at her nephew.
“If it is Shivertail, he will have had the Gnolls in his army howl, yes? The tribes will be warned. This Goblin army will not catch them so easily.”
She shakes her head.
“No. They are warned, but a meeting must be called. The tribes must either flee or band together to destroy this threat before a Goblin King arises.”
“I will lead the warriors south, to defend our tribe—”
Brunkr rises, but Krshia glares him back down.
“And do what? A few spears will make no difference against such a horde. Besides, you are weeks away and our tribe is secure. You are needed here.”
“To do what? Guard ashes?”
Brunkr’s hackles raise as he stares at his aunt. She glares back, and the mood in the room goes sour again. Mrsha edges away, and Erin looks worried. She hasn’t said much—I guess she’s worried about saying the wrong thing.
But I? I don’t care if the mood’s wrong. I just want to resolve this. So I clear my throat and get the two Gnolls to break off the staring match.
“That’s the second thing I need to talk to you about. Krshia Silverfang—”
She waves a paw.
“You are a friend of Erin’s. I am Krshia.”
“Krshia, Mrsha here is without a home. I don’t know anything about Gnoll customs, but you’re the only Gnoll that Erin knows. Is there any way she could stay here?”
I’m not prepared for the look of horror Mrsha gives me. She tries to struggle out of Erin’s arms towards me, but the girl holds her. She’s giving me a look too. What?
Krshia hesitates. She casts an eye at Mrsha, and I see her expression as she looks at her white fur.
“Brunkr. Will you go and give Mrsha some food? I have some snacks from home she may like.”
It’s the cheapest of tricks, but Mrsha’s ears perk up at the word ‘food’. Brunkr glares, but he stands up and walks into the kitchen. Erin’s the only one who protests.
“Mrsha’s had a big breakfast, and a lot of these cubes. Maybe she should—”
I glare at Erin and jerk my head towards the kitchen. Her face goes slack and I nearly slap my head as I see her put the pieces together.
“Oh. I’ll uh, let’s go eat something, Mrsha!”
She leads Mrsha into the kitchen. But the kid still looks over her shoulder at me twice on the way there, and I see her peeking back to make sure I’m not leaving.
Damn it. I didn’t mean I’d just run off. But I just meant that—
Krshia moves towards me and lowers her voice. I focus back on her, leaving recriminations aside for a second.
“Ryoka Griffin. The situation is more complicated than it seems, yes?”
I keep my voice low as the Gnoll sits next to me so we can talk. I can sense her body heat, and her fur makes me feel like I’m next to a bear. But her eyes—her eyes are just like any person’s eyes. I focus on that.
“This news you bring is terrible. My heart hurts for Mrsha. And yet, the situation here is complicated.”
“I know. Your people want to kill Lyonette, and Erin’s protecting her.”
“Among other things. It was a terrible thing Lyonette did.”
“She destroyed your store, yes. And she did a lot of damage to other Gnoll’s shops. But there’s something else, isn’t there?”
All of that was bad from the way Erin described it, but it still doesn’t quite square with a Gnoll hit squad going out after Lyonette. Krshia hesitates, and I stare at her.
“I’m not Erin, Krshia. Let’s speak honestly.”
Her lips quirk into a bitter smile.
“It is something that I have wished for. But circumstances have conspired against me speaking so before now, yes? What you say is true. The thieving girl destroyed more than simply my shop. She destroyed something…precious to my clan. Something we have labored to accumulate for many years.”
Fuck. That’s not what I wanted to hear. But it puts the pieces together. I nod.
“So Erin, by saving Lyonette, is also preventing you from righting the wrong.”
“She has taken on the debt, yes.”
Krshia nods. I scowl.
“That’s bullshit. It wasn’t her fault. She did nothing that warranted an attack.”
Krshia’s eyes are steady as she meets mine.
“No, she did not. That was wrong. But the debt of the thief cannot be erased except by blood, and Erin Solstice bears the cost so long as she protects her.”
Gnoll customs. In my stay with the Stone Spears tribe, Urksh explained some of their customs to me. They take debts like this seriously, and their idea of guilt is transferable. I scowl into my cup of tea and drink some. Not bad, and it gives me a second to think.
“Do all the Gnolls in Liscor think like this?”
“Some. The young do. We who are older understand Erin Solstice. But even so, it is hard to accept. The thief must be punished. The debt must be paid.”
“But she has nothing.”
“Nothing but her life.”
The old customs. Blood settles all debts. The most ancient of customs. Sometimes I think the Gnolls are just like us—well, what the hell am I saying? That does sound like us.
Damnit. Fine. Let’s see just how bad this is.
“And what is the worth that Lyonette cost you? How many gold coins would it be equivalent to, for instance?”
“Fifty thousand gold coins.”
I blink, and stare at Krshia. She stares back. I open my mouth, and close it. If I’d said something like ‘you can’t be serious’ or ‘this must be a mistake’, I’d probably have to stab myself to erase the embarrassment.
Krshia is serious. And so I’ll answer her. I stare at Krshia.
“So long as Erin has that debt, you won’t help her, will you?”
“It would be…harder, yes. We have given Erin Solstice aid before, as we have you.”
I remember the Gnolls that helped fight Gazi and nod.
“You know she’s from another world. And you wanted her to give you something useful. Something you can bring back to your tribe.”
Krshia inhales softly. I hear Brunkr growling to Mrsha in the other room and her knocking about.
“You are quick, yes? You think differently than Erin does.”
“Not necessarily better.”
“No. but you are correct. We did hope. We offered much in exchange in hopes of receiving more. But—”
“The thief cost us too much. It was poor luck, but my tribe will pay for it. I do not believe Erin will be able to offer anything worthy of such a debt.”
“So you’re trying to talk Brunkr out of trying to kill Lyonette.”
Krshia’s eyes flicker. She inclines her head.
“Very quick. It would undo years of work in Liscor and do more harm than good. But the debt still remains.”
“Fine. I think I understand the problem.”
I sigh, and put down the tea cup. Then I face Krshia, and raise my voice so the Gnolls listening at the doors and windows can here.
“I will take on Erin’s debt. And I will pay it.”
The Gnoll blinks at me. Once. Twice. I grin, the wide grin of an idiot who’s betting everything with nothing in their hand.
“You are confident, yes? Do you have something of that worth?”
Eight hundred gold pieces, which I don’t actually have at the moment. 1.6% of Erin’s debt. I don’t say that out loud, though.
“I’ll find a way. I am from another world, just like Erin.”
Krshia blinks at me. But she doesn’t seem surprised.
“Mm. But that does not mean you have anything more than Erin Solstice, yes? And should this not be a great secret?”
“Things have changed.”
A certain group of idiots in Magnolia’s care proves that.
“I will pay the debt. I will find something that will erase Erin’s debt. I promise.”
Krshia studies me.
“You are confident, yes?”
I hold her gaze. After a second, she nods.
“Soon. If you would erase the debt, then you must do it soon.”
I am so fucked. But it’s just one part of the debt I owe. I look at the kitchen as I hear Brunkr growling and Erin laugh.
“What about Mrsha?”
“We will take her. My tribe is far to the south, but we will raise her here until we journey back.”
I hesitate. That’s what I had planned, but I remember the look in Krshia and Brunkr’s eyes.
“And she will be safe?”
Barely a flicker. But it’s there. I stare at Krshia.
“Her fur is white. I thought it had to do with the Frost Faeries who saved us, but does that mean something in Gnoll culture?”
Krshia’s gaze wavers. She picks up a cube of meat and pops it into her mouth and swallows it without looking at me.
“You mean it’s bad luck. Or an ill omen.”
“What does it mean, exactly?”
“Don’t lie to me, Krshia Silverfang.”
She glares at me. I glare right back. Krshia sighs and scratches at her neck.
“Too quick. You are prickly, like a thorny bush, yes? But you are right. White fur is a sign among my kind. No Gnoll has white fur, except those touched by disaster.”
“Those who have lost their tribe. Those who have survived calamity. And, it is said, those who bring it.”
My throat closes up. I’m suddenly very, very glad that Mrsha is in the other room.
“None of what happened was Mrsha’s fault.”
Krshia traces a pattern on her leg.
“I am sure you tell the truth. But my people believe in such signs. Can you be certain that none of it was due to her?”
The Frost Faeries. I clench my fist and feel my nails digging into my skin, puncturing it.
“No. But she is still innocent.”
Krshia studies me and nods.
“I will take her. She will be safe with me.”
I shake my head. Now everything’s changed again.
“No. She’ll stay with Erin. I saw the way Brunkr looked at her.”
“He is young.”
“But if he acts like that, so will the other Gnolls. Would Mrsha even be safe in Liscor?”
Krshia nods, but only after a second. I feel grim. Literally grim.
“If you can’t be absolutely sure she’ll be safe, she’ll stay with Erin. And anyone who tries to hurt her will have to go through me and every damn guard I can find.”
“She will not be harmed, Ryoka Griffin. But perhaps it would be best for her to stay in the inn.”
I shake my head. This has been complete crap, but at least I’ve got something else to focus on. What the hell can I give the Gnolls? I know there’s something.
Gunpowder aside, there has to be something. Advancements in archery? I saw the Gnolls using shortbows and longbows, but what about composite weapons or compound bows? Can I even make that?
Some kind of medical advancement? Education? But it has to be something truly valuable. Damn it, how will I keep Mrsha safe? I haven’t seen Erin’s skeleton—she’ll have to keep him around the inn at all times. How soon is ‘soon’?
Krshia interrupts the whirlwind of thoughts in my head.
“Why do you offer to take up Erin Solstice’s debt, Ryoka? Is it merely friendship or something else?”
I look at her. The answer is burning in my chest. It’s the only thing I can do. What I must do.
“I have my own debt to the Stone Spears tribe. That’s why I’ll help Erin and give your tribe something of worth. I owe Mrsha more, though. Remember that.”
“And what do you owe Mrsha?”
Krshia’s brown eyes are fixed on me. I meet her gaze, my eyes serious.
Something else happened before Erin and Ryoka left Krshia’s house. Ryoka was just finishing her discussion with Krshia when she heard a yelp, and then a shout from the kitchen. She’d leapt out of the couch and was running into the kitchen before she knew what she was doing.
Brunkr was shaking his arm and shouting in agony. Ryoka saw Mrsha biting his hand, teeth gnawing at his flesh as he tried to throw her off. Erin was holding him down.
“Get her off!”
“Mrsha, let go!”
I run to Mrsha and help drag her away from Brunkr. Her mouth is bloody and she struggles like a wildcat in my grip, snarling silently at Brunkr.
He roars at her and bares his teeth. I push Mrsha behind me, but Erin and Krshia block the way.
“She drew blood!”
Brunkr snarls at Krshia, but Erin stands in front of him. She raises a fist.
“Get near her and I’ll punch you.”
That makes Brunkr hesitate. He eyes her, and I hustle Mrsha into the other room. I’m about to shout at her when I see her face.
Mrsha’s teeth are covered in blood and she’s still snarling. But she’s also crying. Tears roll down her face as she strains in my arms, trying to get free.
In the end, Brunkr goes back into the living room as Erin and I sit with Mrsha. I don’t know what Krshia said, but a few words from her in the Gnoll’s growling language made Mrsha stop trying to attack Brunkr.
“I don’t know!”
Erin accepts a wet washcloth as she mops at Mrsha’s face. The Gnoll wriggles away from her at first, but then lets her clean up the blood. She spits onto the cloth and I offer her some tea to wash the blood away.
“All I know is that Mrsha was fine, then Brunkr growled something at her and then—she attacked him!”
Brunkr looks defensive as Erin pauses to glare at him. Krshia gives him a death look and his ears flatten.
“Brunkr. What is it you have done?”
He glares at the floor as he mutters a reply.
“I just told her…her tribe is gone. Gone, and never coming back. Gone because she brought disaster with her. Because she is cursed.”
Silence. I stare at Erin, and then Mrsha. She’s crying again.
Erin stands up. She doesn’t say a word. She just punches Brunkr hard enough to send him crashing into a wall. Krshia nods in approval.
“My deepest apologies, Erin Solstice.”
“I think we should go.”
Erin looks sadly down at Mrsha. She’s crying, and clinging to me. I feel her claws piercing my skin, but I just hold her. Krshia looks sadly at us, her eyes lingering on Mrsha’s white fur.
White as snow. A pure color. White, the color of purity, innocence.
And also death.
It’s a slow procession home. I carry Mrsha, even though she’s heavy. She’s still crying. I have to stop twice for her to throw up. All the food she ate comes up and she just clings to me harder.
Another failure of mine. I’m not worthy of even staying around her. But if Krshia can’t protect her, somehow I have to.
Erin and I don’t talk much on the way back, just slog through the deep snow. It looks like it will snow more tonight.
“Aha! I see the mortal fool has met the one who serves food! ‘Tis good!”
“But they move so slowly! Like ants! Like bugs!”
“Should we drop more snow on them? An avalanche? Hail?”
Frost Faeries fly down out of the air. I stare up at them. Now’s not the time, but they laugh and grin as if nothing’s wrong.
“Ho, travelers! Give us your coin or we shall bury you!”
“Brigands, we! Victims, thee!”
Erin winces, but she doesn’t respond to the faerie’s provocations. I have no such inhibitions.
“Get lost, you lot. Now’s not the time.”
Erin hisses at me, but I just stare at the faeries. They pause.
“Ooh, the mortal has teeth! Are we disturbing you?”
I point to Mrsha. She’s buried her face in my clothes and hasn’t moved. I feel her tears soaking through my layers of clothes.
“You’re bothering her. Go away.”
The frost faeries hesitate. They stare at Mrsha and seem to confer. Then, without a word they fly away.
Erin gapes at me.
“How did you do that? They never listen to me!”
I shrug, adjusting my hold on Mrsha.
“Hit them where it hurts. They like children.”
As if to spite me, I feel something gently smack me in the back of the head. Erin wipes away the snow as I grit my teeth.
Another snowball taps me on the back lightly. Erin shakes her head.
“I think they like you.”
“I’ve reached an…understanding with them.”
“That’s so…uh, well, it’s good, right?”
We walk on. In a few minutes we can see the door of Erin’s inn at the top of the hill, and something else.
“There’s a crowd at your inn.”
“Oh! I guess everyone thought I’d be in!”
Erin darts forwards, and I hear her calling to people ahead of me. I barely recognize any of the people who’re standing in front of the inn. A female Drake…Selys? And the Antinium’s either Pawn or Klbkch—no, Klbkch is the only one with two arms, so it must be him. And there’s an older guy in his thirties who I know I’ve never seen. He’s wearing leather armor and he looks like a fighter. And…
Goblins. My footsteps stop and my heart freezes in my chest. The small Goblin—Rags is standing next to a Hobgoblin in the snow, apart from the rest. I quickly look down at Mrsha, but she’s still oblivious to the world, clutching my chest.
Erin returns, beaming at me.
“Everyone’s here! Looks like I’ve got a full inn—what’s wrong?”
Only now does she see the expression on my face. I point with one hand to the Goblins.
“Them. Get them the hell out of here.”
Erin turns. Then she looks back at me, troubled.
“Ryoka. They’re guests. I—”
“I’m not asking you!”
I point at Mrsha and Erin’s face changes. Reluctantly, she goes up the hill. I see her talking to the two Goblins and pointing back at me and Mrsha. I don’t know what she says, and I don’t care. I walk up the hill, away from the Goblins. By the time I reach the top, they’re gone.
Erin had that disappointed look on her face, but I don’t care. I push into the inn, ignoring the others who greet me. Only when I’ve put Mrsha down do I look around.
“Hello! You’re…Ryoka, right?”
I hear a friendly voice and look around. Selys, the female Drake, is smiling at me. She looks down at Mrsha. She’s curled into a ball in one of the chairs.
“Aw! Who is this?”
“Mrsha. She’s had a bad day.”
Selys nods and walks quietly away from Mrsha so she can speak to me.
“I know we barely got to talk, but I heard a bit of what happened from Erin.”
Inwardly, I curse as I hear the words come out. I’m still really hostile from seeing the Goblins, but Selys just gives me a smile.
“Don’t worry. I get it. Erin is a little oblivious, but if you ever want to talk, I’m willing to listen.”
I stare at her. Well.
“I guess [Receptionists] have to deal with a lot of crap, huh?”
“It’s part of the job. And after hearing about that Goblin Lord—Ancestors, I’d hate to imagine that. Is that Gnoll child—?”
“She’s the only one who’s left, yeah.”
Selys’s eyes are full of pity.
“Poor girl. Let me know if I can help, okay?”
Is it really that easy? Can you really just offer to help like that? I hesitate, and then nod awkwardly.
“Just let me know. And I think what she—what’s her name? Mrsha?—what she really needs right now is some sleep and quiet.”
But when Selys and I try to bring Mrsha upstairs, she starts slashing at both of us the instant we get near. She bites at me even when I try to sit next to her. And it turns out that claws hurt even if you have scales. We have to leave her alone. Selys and I retreat as Erin bustles around us, chattering to Klbkch and the Human.
“Oh, Ryoka! Have you met Halrac? No? This is Halrac. Um, he’s a Gold-rank adventurer.”
I nod at the grizzled man. He nods back. Unfriendly guy*. His eyes flick to Mrsha as he sits at a table.
*Wait, what the hell did Erin say about him being Gold-rank?
“Ryoka Griffin. You have my condolences.”
I turn. Klbkch, one of the damn Antinium—no. He’s one of Erin’s friends and he died once to save her. I nod to him.
“Yes. Allow me to reassure you that I will conduct patrols of the area south of Liscor when possible to ensure the safety of Mrsha and this inn.”
That’s…suspicious. Why would Klbkch take so much interest in Erin? It must have to do with the individual Antinium thing and Pawn. Damn it, Erin.
But any help is welcome, so I nod. Klbkch looks at Mrsha. She’s crying again. Her small body shakes, and I feel my heart ache.
“I regret what has occurred. Rest assured, if the Goblin Lord’s army passes near one of the Hives, it will be destroyed.”
There’s nothing to say to that. I just nod. But Mrsha’s crying puts a damper even on Erin’s good cheer. She does her best, cooking up food and insisting we all sit together at a table, but she can’t get Mrsha to move and so Lyonette brings us our drinks—hot water for me and Klbkch and ale for Selys—in silence.
I glance over at Halrac. He’s sitting alone, but he keeps staring at Mrsha. Is he bothered by her? Well, of course he would be. He stops Erin as she passes a table and points to Mrsha. And then, for some reason, I see him point to a bunch of flowers on a table near one of the windows.
“Flowers? Why the hell are there flowers in here?”
Selys looks over as she bites into some spaghetti with meatballs.
“Oh, those? I think they came from the faeries. That’s what Erin says, anyways.”
Klbkch and I stare at her.
“The Frost Faeries gave them to her? Why?”
“I dunno. For some meal she cooked them. Erin was pretty mad about it at the time.”
Oh my god. She didn’t. They didn’t. I stare at the flowers as Erin goes over to them in horror. Golden flowers. Is it too much of a leap of logic to assume…?
“Did she think they were golden coins?”
Klbkch stares at me as if I’m crazy, but Selys nods. She slurps down a noodle.
“That’s right! That’s what Erin said! How did you know?”
I put my face in my hands and groan. Did Erin just not remember those old stories about faeries? I hope she didn’t waste that much food on those bastards*.
*Is bastard the right word, here? Bitches might be more gender specific, but it doesn’t really encapsulate how much I sometimes hate those damn faeries.
“Pardon me. Am I to understand these flowers were enchanted to look like coins?”
I nod at Klbkch. It feels really odd to be sitting and chatting to an Antinium, much less Klbkch the Slayer. I want to talk with him, but not with Selys around.
“It’s something the faeries do. They trick people into accepting gold that turns to flowers or disappears the next day. Erin got taken for a ride.”
“I see. This is unfortunate.”
“Yeah, but Erin says the flowers are actually useful.”
All three of us look over to the flowers. Erin is picking some and…squeezing them? Yes, she’s adding them to a mug and Halrac’s watching her with an intense expression. What the hell is going on?
But then Erin walks over to Mrsha with a mug full of ale and a few drops of that flower nectar mixed in. I frown as she gently touches Mrsha.
“Mrsha? You okay, honey?”
Mrsha swipes at Erin, but the other girl is out of arm’s reach. Erin touches Mrsha again.
“Hey, I don’t want to bother you sweetie, but I’ve got a drink. It’ll help you relax, okay?”
“The hell is she doing?”
Is Erin trying to get Mrsha drunk? I stand up, frowning, but Klbkch tugs on my arm.
“Please wait, Ryoka Griffin. I believe Erin Solstice may be attempting to do something beneficial.”
I hesitate. But then, this is Erin. I look back at the flowers, and then at the way Halrac’s staring at the mug. Flowers. Illusions.
Hallucinogens? Not the craziest thing I’ve heard of.
Even as I watch, Erin coaxes Mrsha out of her ball. The Gnoll sniffs at the mug, but curious as ever, she tastes some. I watch her gulp a few mouthfuls of the drink down with butterflies in my stomach. Mrsha’s eyes go wide, and then she sighs. She closes her eyes, and then goes limp.
Erin turns towards me as I approach. She lets me take Mrsha. I feel at her anxiously.
“She’s just asleep, Ryoka. Or…in a trance. Halrac says the drink helps. I’ve tried it before, and it does make you feel better.”
I turn. Halrac, the Gold-rank adventurer is standing behind us. He nods to me.
“Miss Griffin? Erin Solstice has a unique drink. It’s liquid memory.”
“Memory? You mean it’s some kind of drug?”
I glare at Erin. She raises her hands defensively.
“It’s just the flowers and some alcohol! It’s part of one of the skills I learned, Ryoka! It’s called [Wondrous Fare] and Halrac says it makes you feel better! He’s had lots!”
Erin looks over at him and the adventurer nods. He stares at the drink on the table.
“It…brings back happy memories. For a time. I imagine the Gnoll child will sleep after drinking it, in any case.”
I stare at Erin. Faerie flowers can be made into a magical drink? Why did I not think of that? No—is Erin a genius or just insane?
“Are you sure it’s safe?”
“Why don’t you try some?”
Erin offers me the drink. I accept the mug and stare into it. Halrac looks at the piss-colored liquid as if it’s liquid gold, but I’m not so sure.
“It’s not bad?”
“The alcohol is swill, but I’ll vouch for its effects. I’ll have one myself, and pay what you want for it.”
“Really? Ooh, what should I charge?”
“Is that drink for everyone? I’d like to try some too if we’re having samples.”
Selys stands up and stares at the mug, as does Klbkch. Erin picks some more flowers as I stare at the liquid.
It’s not like I haven’t tried…certain medicinal herbs…before. But that was just once, and I’ve never smoked or taken any hard drugs. I love to run, not mess up my body. But if Erin was confident enough to give it to Mrsha—
At the very least I should see what effect it has. I hesitate, but Erin’s already mixing up another three mugs. Cautiously, I down the drink.
Yep. That’s some crap. Did Erin buy the cheapest alcohol available? I frown as I swallow. I don’t sense any other taste, but it was just a few drops. How long does the effect l—
The world dissolves around me. Into rushing air. Into mist and smoke that drifts up from the fire.
I stare at Urksh as Mrsha sits next to me, staring up at me. The Gnolls in the camp bustle around, laughing, talking, as I stare at him. He looks up from a bit of hot fish and grins at me.
“You look shocked, Ryoka Griffin. Is this not what you wished to see?”
“No. No, I—”
I falter. Mrsha looked up inquiringly, her brown fur shining in the firelight. Urksh laughs.
“It is well. Rest here a while before continuing on your journey.”
“I will. I just—”
A piece of hot fish—mackerel, maybe, is resting in my hand. Hot enough to nearly burn my skin, but not quite. So warm and tender that I can bite into it and banish the cold of the night air. The fire in front of me warms my skin, and Mrsha sighs as she snuggles into my side.
I look at Urksh. He smiles as he sits in the cold winter air. The Gnolls laugh as they prepare to sleep for the night.
“I just wanted to say I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”
“I know. But it is not you who must apologize, yes? We paid the price as we wished.”
“Yeah. It’s just—”
He shakes his head.
“Eat, Ryoka Griffin. And then, perhaps, tell us another story. The one about the [King] with the sword was particularly good, I thought.”
Mrsha nods. She sits up eagerly, and I raise the fish to my lips. The scent makes my mouth water, and I see Gnolls drifting over. They sit together, warm, happy, full. The cold air blows, but it is banished by the warmth here. I open my mouth, and my teeth sink into the hot food—
“Ryoka? You’re doing the same staring thing. Are you okay?”
The vision fades. I stare at Erin. She smiles nervously at me.
“No good? Everyone’s gone silent. I tried the drink, but I only had a bit and I just felt happy when I remembered playing chess against Pawn. Is it too strong or good like that?”
I stare at the drink. It’s still half full. I put it to my lips and drink the rest down. The world spins, and the last thing I feel is myself falling backwards. And then, for a few moments, I’m sitting around a camp fire again. Laughing. Happy. And I ask for their forgiveness and know peace.
Until I wake.
Outside the inn, the Frost Faeries watched as Ryoka Griffin collapsed backwards and Erin scrambled to catch her. They hovered outside in the cold, staring through one of the windows. It wasn’t that they couldn’t enter; it was just that they didn’t mind the cold and they didn’t want their conversation to be heard.
“The drink is made from the flowers. The innkeeper made it.”
“That’s not supposed to happen. Mortals don’t use the flowers we give them! They’re supposed to throw them away!”
The faeries watched as Erin laid Ryoka down and then looked at the other patrons of her inn. They all had the same far-off expression in their eyes.
“Should we remove the flowers?”
“But ‘twas a gift! We cannot take it back!”
“What if we gave actual gold? Would that suffice?”
Inside the inn, Erin brushed against Klbkch. The Antinium had gone completely still after drinking his mug, just like Selys and Halrac. Now the slight nudge sent him toppling backwards, and like a domino the Drake and Human toppled over as well. The faeries watched as Erin began to panic.
The faeries paused. They looked at each other.
“I wonder what the drink tastes like?”
“Swill, I heard.”
There was only one way to find out. The faeries swooped into the inn.
“Innkeep! A mug of your finest swill!”
And both Ryoka and Mrsha slept soundly, dreaming of a happier time. That was, until they woke. But though the dream faded, part of it remained, filling them up. Mending cracks in their hearts. Like a flower, growing in the snow.