The Great Plains of Izril, as they were called, were central to the southern half of Izril. A vast, wide, rolling landscape suitable for grazing flocks, fed by rivers—lush, in short. A plentiful land if you knew how to live in it.
Harsh for those who did not. The lack of fruitful forests and vegetation en-masse would repel Lizardfolk, who had long used all the wonders of Baleros’ forests to be tools, medicine, building material, and more.
By the same token, nomads of Chandrar used to Zeikhal, the Great Desert (there was a pattern in naming conventions), would see an abundance of potential, in the water alone.
Drakes hated it. They built cities, defensible strongholds, out of stone and wood if they had to. It was one reason why they had not colonized this vast area.
The second reason was that it was not theirs. The second name for this stretch of lands was the Gnoll Plains. Because the many tribes of Izril refused to give up this last place that was entirely theirs.
Many tribes moved across Izril of course. They mingled with the Drake cities, made their livings in places where the land was not fully claimed by the walls of their sometimes-enemies. But they had slowly been forced out of many places they used to call home. In the past—they had known more plains, in north and south. No longer. Humans claimed that now.
And here was the truth many people forgot: the Plains Gnolls and City Gnolls that divided their species up broadly into two categories was a lie. Or a falsehood that had slowly become the new truth.
Once, there had been more. Gnolls of the forest. Gnolls who lived in the mountains. Gnolls of sea and yes—even those who were more at home underground. But their homeland had dwindled to a fifth of its size with the Human occupation of the north and Drake cities.
Small wonder some Gnolls called this the Waning World, the era of decay. And yet—five times a century, every twenty years, the tribes gathered.
The Meeting of the Tribes. While everything faded, they still came together. From as far as it took. To remember the past.
They were not gone yet.
Hundreds of tribes had made their journey into the heart of the Gnoll plains. Small—only a hundred at most—or large, passing a hundred thousand or even more, coming together in full strength at last.
Not all Gnolls; some sent representatives, not their full number. But here was Gnoll strength. The Az’muzarre tribe guarded the Meeting of Tribes, their descendants bearing Dragon-arms. And more tribes of similar power, old and new, were gathering.
Steelfur, who had created the Steelcloth armors so prized, superior to chainmail for their lightness and flexibility.
Gaarh Marsh, whose great protector, the Earth Elemental, had destroyed the walls of Drake cities.
Ekhtouch, paragons of their kind, known for their superior displays of physical ability…and superior attitudes.
Plain’s Eye tribe, one of the vastest, with many smaller or related clans, who trained the [Shamans] that held the magic of Gnoll-kind.
Weatherfur, who produced mighty leaders, a [General] of Pallass, and commanded the rains themselves.
The Ruinstrider Tribe, who had been a small, scavenging tribe until one of their own acquired a Relic-class artifact, and became a Named Adventurer.
Woven Bladegrass, who had engaged in multiple victorious campaigns against the Drakes.
And more. They were all gathering, meeting, exchanging ideas and of course—gifts. For the Meeting of Tribes would see each Gnoll tribe present something to be shared by all. During this time as summer ended, they would all benefit, and a tribe’s status would fall or rise depending on their actions here.
A small tribe might ally with a large one, or make beneficial marriages, acquire gifts or insights—or a large one be humbled as other tribes passed judgment.
This was the event that had begun four days ago. Let all Gnolls who remembered tribe and tradition gather! They had all arrived by the Summer Solstice, the countless Gnolls moving by foot or vehicle or mount.
…Except for the band of Gnolls riding quickly into the Great Plains. They were a group of about five dozen Gnolls, two thirds mounted, the rest jogging along the riders and pack horses.
They were late. Late! Their leader, a female Gnoll, was kicking herself—and the others. Mostly with verbal tongue-lashings. The Gnolls set a dogged pace, but without movement Skills they’d only now arrived, and they had further to go to get to the Meeting of Tribes in the center of the plains!
“We must be the only group of Gnolls so slow! Move up!”
Krshia Silverfang shouted at the group of five-dozen. It wasn’t even a large group. She had thought to take as many as three hundred, but decided there was no need for that amount of cost. Smaller moved faster, anyways, and they were rejoining their tribe. The Silverfang Tribe, known for wealth as they were canny [Traders] and, well, silver from mines of old.
However, this group from Liscor, where part of their tribe had gone to settle and work ten years ago? Laaaate.
They had been delayed on the road. They had been making perfect time to arrive by the Summer Solstice or even before. But something had halted their progress on the road.
News from their home—Liscor. They were not Plains Gnolls, not really, anymore. They were used to the city. And from their city had come terrible tidings.
Erin Solstice. They had stopped a day—then another—to learn what had happened. To mourn—even debate going back. Eventually, after conferring, Krshia had decided to go on.
She could not help Erin Solstice in Liscor. But perhaps at the Meeting of Tribes…
It still slowed their steps. It made what should have been a joyous, excited group yearning to see their kin again after a decade’s absence silent, depressed. Clearly, it was all Erin’s fault for getting killed.
Or…not killed? A Gnoll panting after having jogged for three miles mounted the horse he’d been letting relax. He sat in the saddle, drooping, as the animal harrumphed at the new weight on its back. Tkrn leaned against it.
He didn’t know exactly what had happened. It was hard for the Gnolls to even explain. Krshia had tried—Erin was in a kind of stasis? Not dead, but unable to be revived and healed. Frozen?
Why would that stop her from dying? Tkrn didn’t know. It sounded…stupid. Even if someone had explained it to him fully, the idea of cryogenics was not something Tkrn would have accepted at face value.
To him—Erin was gone, barring some great miracle. And he sniffed into the horse’s mane.
They were all much the same. Krshia, for all she snapped, didn’t push the Gnolls of Liscor. Tkrn looked ahead at the front of the group.
There was Raekea and her husband, Jekss, a Drake. There was Beilmark, sans family, riding with a grim expression. She was Senior Guardswoman—and ahead of her Krshia herself, talking with one of the best [Potters] in Liscor, Heriml.
Many of the Gnolls riding in this group could be called that. Best [Smith], Raekea. Best [Guardswoman]—Beilmark, and another Senior Guardsman Gnoll. Krshia, the unofficial leader of the Silverfangs and Gnolls in Liscor and Councilwoman of Liscor…and so on.
And then there was Tkrn. [Guardsman]—not Senior Guardsman. And unofficially, that Gnoll who had nearly been fired for letting a group of Drakes and Gnolls nearly kill a prisoner, Calruz, and looked the other way while they tortured him.
…Fitting? Tkrn sat in his saddle. Erin aside, he didn’t feel like he belonged. Of course, he knew he was security—a good half of the non-important Gnolls were [Warriors], [Archers], [Hunters]—those who could escort the group the long ways here from [Bandit] and monster attacks.
But why me?
It seemed to the young Gnoll that he was undeserving of the honor of representing the Silverfangs of Liscor. He had a black mark. In fact, he had a black page in terms of how close he’d come to disgrace.
Zevara had been on the edge of firing him for his conduct. Everyone else had been released from their duty as a member of Liscor’s watch, without bonus or pension or so on. Tkrn had been allowed to stay…
But he’d been demoted back to a rookie guard’s status, forced to work with the rookie patrols, and given unenvious assignments. He’d debated quitting with all the hostility towards him—but he’d stayed.
What else would he do? He already had the class and…it was what he knew. Fortunately, some of the Watch had at least talked to him, like the rookies. Jerci for instance—a new Gnoll [Guard].
She was riding with the group too, mainly because she had relatives in the Silverfang tribe and her mother, a high-level [Scribe], wanted her to meet them.
But Tkrn…he urged his destrier forwards as the group slowed to cross a bridge moving over a long river. The ancient stone path funneled the group—but he managed to slide ahead of the others.
“Aunt. May I have a word?”
Tkrn saw Krshia’s head turn. She looked…well, the same as ever. Tall—Gnolls were tall, male and female, with no difference in heights, brown fur thick, her eyes sharp. She was an expert [Shopkeeper], a former Plains Gnoll who had come to the city to work, and now a [Councilwoman] of Liscor.
The younger [Guard] had always known his aunt—twice removed—to be a leader of the Gnolls, ever since he was small. He barely remembered being a Plains Gnoll—he’d left when he could barely walk on two legs to go to the city of Liscor with his family.
But he did know that Krshia had been important in the Silverfang tribe. Her sister was the [Chieftain].
“Tkrn, what is it? Trouble?”
Krshia looked at him, brown eyes glinting behind her frown. Tkrn shook his head as his horse stopped alongside hers.
“No. Aunt—a word if you’re not busy?”
She hrmed, but nodded. They rode at the head of the group, as some Gnoll [Hunters] scouted ahead.
“What is it, Tkrn?”
“I—I’m just wondering what will happen when we reach the Gnollmoot, Aunt.”
She looked blankly at him.
“The Gnollmoot. Er…the Meeting of Tribes, yes?”
Tkrn corrected himself. Krshia gave him an odd look.
“Who would call it a Gnoll…moot? Who told you that nonsense, nephew?”
Krshia’s ears drooped. Some of the Gnolls listening glanced up. It was hard to have a confidential conversation; normally Gnolls didn’t try to listen in, that was respectful. But every Gnoll knew that if you wanted to talk secretly, you dug a hole, cast a [Silence] spell, and then hoped no one was listening.
“Ah. I forgot she called it that. Silly…hrmph. The Meeting of Tribes will be a grand event, Tkrn. With plenty to do! Not that I do not expect you to keep watch and obey! There will be time for that and festivities. I hope you have money saved.”
Tkrn dully patted his coin pouch. It was the last thing on his mind. Who wanted to have fun? If he wanted to have fun, he’d have stayed in Liscor and hung out at Erin’s inn for five minutes.
His aunt seemed to understand that and sighed.
“It is hard, Tkrn. But we will do business on behalf of the tribe and thus deliver our gift and enrich all. That is important. We can do little in Liscor right now and may do good here.”
“There’s a war going on between us and Hectval. I should be there. The Watch will be fighting.”
Tkrn mumbled. He heard a snort from behind him.
Beilmark. The Senior Guardswoman, paired with Jeiss, the best [Swordsman] in all of Liscor, shook her head. Tkrn had never known what she was known for; maybe just being reliable and good and high-level.
“We should not have gone to war, no! At least, not without an army. Liscor’s Watch is not large enough and we don’t train our [Guards] to fight in wars! In streets, in units, yes! We nearly lost a huge number of civilians. What is happening? We should be there—at least to represent on the Council.”
She looked pointedly at Krshia and Raekea at that. The two Gnolls frowned.
“Elirr is there.”
“He is only one. That’s an all-Drake Council.”
“Alonna and Jeiss are to be trusted, Beilmark. Even Lism, yes?”
“Hrm. If you say so, Krshia. Two months ago you would have cursed me saying his name. How things change, eh?”
Beilmark gave Krshia a long look. Raekea the same. The female [Shopkeeper] fidgeted slightly—but Tkrn had no idea why.
“What did you want to say, nephew? You will see the Meeting of Tribes soon enough. Which reminds me, we should explain to the young ones what to expect, Beilmark.”
Krshia coughed into her paw, changing the subject. Tkrn saw her look at him. He hesitated, but came out with it.
“Aunt. Why did you choose me to come with you? Of all the Gnolls in the city?”
The older Gnoll frowned mildly. She was in her early forties, but still yet to show real signs of age; grey fur and so on.
“You are a [Guardsman], Tkrn.”
“You know what I mean, Aunt. There are more Gnoll [Guards] than just me. Jerci I can understand more than me. You know I’m…in disgrace.”
Tkrn’s ears drooped. If his tail had been wagging, it would have done the same. But you couldn’t get more depressed, even thinking on his mistakes.
Krshia exchanged a glance with some of the other Gnolls. They slowed a bit and she and Tkrn rode ahead.
“Everyone knows what I did, Aunt. Or failed to do.”
When the group of [Guards] and civilians had begun…punishing Calruz for his actions in the dungeons and with the hateful Raskghar, Tkrn had turned a blind eye. He had been angry. But he had also known that the Minotaur was a prisoner.
He had wavered, but not told anyone. Not stopped it. Not even done more than talk—until Mrsha had been in danger. Then, and only then he’d drawn his sword with the Watch Captain.
But not enough. Tkrn felt as though his fur was painted…red with shame. As though everyone were always thinking of what he’d done when they looked at him. They probably were.
Krshia knew this too. She eyed him, pursing her lips, as if to say something. But as she glanced ahead, across the incredibly flat landscape, her lips quirked.
She almost smiled. It was not a super-happy smile, but it was still…Tkrn saw her reach for her side and pull something out.
“Ah, it is much to say, Tkrn. But saying…here.”
She handed him something. He stared as she proffered…a belt knife?
It was hers, made of good steel by Raekea’s forges. Worn—probably years old. There was even a notch in the handle, worn smooth but made by some cut or accident long ago. Tkrn blinked as he took it.
“What, Aunt? What is this?”
And with that she kicked her horse lightly and it shot forwards. She left Tkrn with the belt knife. He stared at it.
“Something wrong? Krshia, let me—”
Beilmark shouted after Krshia, riding after her. She paused as she saw Tkrn with the object.
“What’s that, Tkrn?”
“I asked Aunt—I asked Krshia why she took me after what I did, Beilmark. And she gave me this.”
The Senior Guardswoman eyed the knife. She blinked, wrinkled her brow, then groaned.
“Oh, the knife. Bite my fur, she’s doing that? Well, do your best.”
She shook her head. Almost amused, she rode after Krshia. Tkrn stared at her back. Another Gnoll passed.
“It was a bit of armor for me. Ah, this brings back memories!”
Chuckling, he rode with Beilmark after their leader. The Gnolls passing Tkrn as he slowed chuckled, or shook their heads. They seemed to know what it meant, the older ones. Jerci just gave Tkrn a blank look. But that gesture somehow made the Gnolls look ahead, straighten slightly, even in their grief.
They were heading into the plains. For them…home.
They were coming home. Tkrn stared at the belt knife. He looked around.
“But I hate riddles.”
His plaintive voice was ignored by all.
Later that day, Krshia looked up as the others were having a brunch on the road. Tkrn had patted his horse down and given it a bit of stamina potion and they were just about to go.
“Ah, nephew. Do you have my belt knife yet? Or have you not understood?”
She smiled as he squatted down around the small fire and boiling tea. He hesitated—Beilmark, Raekea, and some of the older Gnolls were sitting there. They looked up and he flushed under his fur—but he nodded.
“I think I do, Aunt.”
He proffered her the knife. Krshia regarded it, but didn’t take it. Tkrn had thought for about two hours as he rode; there wasn’t much else to do. The Gnoll Plains, love ‘em or hate them—got sort of similar after you stared across the flat, flat landscape for a while.
“It’s a lesson. You want me to understand it. You gave me the knife because…of this.”
The Gnoll indicated the one obvious thing on the knife. Raekea didn’t stamp her blades; she trusted the quality to will out. The tool was old, but still sharp as a razor—he’d cut his finger while playing with it. Yet that notch on the handle was noticeable.
“It’s damaged. A bit. You should really fix the gap.”
“I’ve been meaning to replace the handle for years. But I never get around to it. Your point, nephew?”
Tkrn took a breath. He thought he was right; it was obvious and there was no other answer he could think of.
“Well, the knife is me, isn’t it? I’ve made a mistake. But I can still fight and…and do what’s needed. That’s why you took me, right?”
He waited, as the small group of Gnolls looked at each other. Their faces were unreadable, but then Krshia stirred. She took the belt knife, carefully put it in her belt, and patted the notched handle.
“Hm. Hrm. Well now. I like that answer. I think I’ll take it. What do you all think?”
Tkrn blinked. He saw the other Gnolls grin toothily. Beilmark slapped one knee as a laugh burst from her throat.
“I like it too! Good answer, Tkrn! Although, if it were a notch on the blade I’d disagree! I wondered if he’d come up with something.”
She chuckled. The others did too. Tkrn looked at his aunt.
“Wait. Was that the answer?”
“I have no idea. It sounds good, though.”
His jaw dropped.
“But I thought—you gave me that knife because—why did you give me that knife?”
“To see what you said.”
She winked at him. The young Gnoll’s eyes bulged. The other, older Gnolls laughed harder because of it. Raekea pulled herself upright and fondly patted Tkrn’s leg. She offered him a fresh cup of tea, chuckling.
“Sit, Tkrn. Don’t be too mad. My mother did the same to me when I was your age and ruined one of her crucibles. It’s a time-honored tradition…although among Plains Gnolls. Krshia, is that what inspired you?”
The [Shopkeeper] ducked her head modestly.
“I thought it was appropriate. I wondered if Tkrn’s parents had done it to him, but he was always dutiful.”
Tkrn turned redder as the others chuckled.
“You mean, you didn’t know what I’d say and you didn’t have a lesson?”
“Mm. Pass the tea, Raekea. What’s this flavor? Mint? Eugh. I hate mint.”
Krshia sipped from the cup as she sighed.
“It’s a good answer, Tkrn. It has bones in why I did take you. You are my nephew—more than that? I thought it would be good for you to see the Meeting of Tribes. But that is a Gnoll way of teaching. Every Gnoll of the Tribes learns that lesson. It helps us understand how you think. Sometimes the answer is very good. Sometimes, not. Right, Beilmark?”
How, he thought? Tkrn blinked. He turned to the Senior Guardswoman. Embarrassed, Beilmark scratched behind one ear.
“Ah, well, many are younger than you when we are given something. I spent two days with the dagger my father gave me after I lost a horse. I wanted to know, ‘why do you put up with me even though I make such bad mistakes’? Came up with many stupid suggestions he refused to take. In the end…I got him to take it back.”
“What was your answer?”
Grinning, and very amused, Raekea’s husband leaned forwards. The Drake was treating this as a holiday; he was the best [Smith] for tools and weapons, Raekea the best [Armorer]. Beilmark chuckled ruefully.
“I think I said, ‘because I can carry things for you’. He laughed and decided that was good enough.”
The others guffawed. Another Gnoll, a [Tracker], raised a paw.
“I bought my mother a new bow after she gave me hers. I thought that was what I was supposed to do. Saved up for two months. She laughed herself sick and took the bow.”
More laughter. Tkrn began to feel a bit better. Although he was still flushed as she sipped at the hot mint tea.
“Children travel a lot and get very impatient, you see, Tkrn. We have to think up ways to keep them silent on the move—and hopefully actually grow!”
Krshia reached over and ruffled the fur on Tkrn’s head. He sighed and sniffed.
“Very well, Aunt. But really—am I supposed to just learn and enjoy myself?”
She became more contemplative at the serious tone in his voice. The others looked at Tkrn and he felt that unpleasant feeling. But at last—Krshia shook her head.
“No, Tkrn. I did take you because I thought it would be good. But I could have taken many Gnolls, yes? I took you because we are related, because I know you, because you are a decent level—and because you did do the right thing in the end.”
“Only at the last moment, Aunt.”
He hung his head. Krshia nodded.
“Yes. Only then. Not enough—but at least, nephew, I know you will do the right thing then. Next time, do it sooner.”
It was a painful relief to hear. Tkrn looked up and she smiled at him. Then she sipped at her mint tea and gagged.
“Enough wasting time! We are close to the Meeting of Tribes! I want to be there sooner! Sooner! Tea break ends in five minutes!”
“You mint-tea hating tyrant.”
Beilmark huffed as she sipped at her cup, and then produced a canteen for more on the road. That was Tkrn’s first introduction to Plains Gnoll tradition. It would be far from the last. And as midday came, the rolling plains began to rise slightly. They crested a hill—and saw the first smoke trails rising in the distance. Hundreds of them, thousands. A vast encampment in the distance. The Gnolls pointed and shouted—
There was the Meeting of Tribes. And the Silverfang Tribe, their kin, were waiting to greet them.
She heard and smelled them before she laid eyes on the Gnolls.
To be a Gnoll was to experience the world in ways that Humans and Drakes could only understand a fraction of. Their sense of smell and hearing was so poor! Then again, they could happily walk through places that had rank odors and barely complain about it.
And as Krshia had observed, keeping secrets was hard around a people who smelled and heard everything.
Still—the wind. She sniffed the air and smelled the odor of thousands of fires, albeit terribly far away. Smoke, cooking scents, even blood—oils and steels in countless profusion. And the natural scent of the Great Plains.
To her, it was home. But she heard the howls from behind and in front of her as well. Gnolls stood in their saddles and howled greetings from afar. And the answering ones?
There was a timbre and pitch unique to a tribe. The Silverfang’s were long, loud, with a curious warble thrown in. Krshia bared her teeth. Raekea exclaimed with a laugh.
“They’re waiting for us!”
The Gnolls picked up the pace, their maudlin mood forgotten for a moment. Krshia smelled a new scent coming directly at them as the wind sent it downwind.
Silver and spice. Not necessarily each Gnoll having one or the other, but there was that mix of both scents on the natural odor of Gnolls and so on.
Silverfangs were great [Traders], and they also had claimed old silver mines and worked them. Moreover—as the new Gnolls came into sight, loping across the ground from where they’d been camped, outside the central profusion of tribes—Krshia saw decorations on their fur.
Plains Gnolls. Less clothed then their City Gnoll kin, except for the warriors. Also, bearing earrings, armbands, and of course, dyed fur.
Silver streaks in their fur, rather. Tkrn blinked as he saw the curious pattern on one of the Gnoll warrior’s fur along the mane of her neck. Krshia recognized it.
Warrior’s markings. In the past, they were more than symbolic. You decorated the neck and down your back and even your arms with a special silver dust dye. To ward away ghosts and…bad things.
Krshia remembered wearing the same dye proudly herself. She had been a [Hunter], apprenticed to the [Shaman] for a year or two…her heart swelled with nostalgia and memory. In this moment though, it was more good than not.
The howl came from afar. Two of the Gnolls were riding back towards the Meeting of Tribes. Krshia slowed her gallop and laughed as she raised her hand.
“Silverfang kin! Do you recognize us at sight alone?”
It was a group of a dozen, minus the two heading away. They slowed, waving up at her as she slowed. Huge, toothy grins. They were half-warriors, half other Gnolls, wearing the traditional silver ornaments. Silver and ivory, silver and jewel—the Silverfangs had a motif and they let people know they embraced it.
“Is that Honored Krshia of Liscor? Councilwoman Krshia, or so we have heard! Greetings, Aunt! We were told to sit here and not return until you arrived! We are glad you did; we want to join the Meeting of Tribes!”
The female Gnoll with silver dye running in stripes down her mane and back spread her arms. Krshia dismounted. The two embraced there and then, and Krshia sniffed the younger Gnoll politely as she did the same.
“We were delayed unavoidably. We are sorry, yes? I shall tell my sister—the Chieftain the same! Is Chieftain Akrisa close?”
Akrisa, her sister. Long had it been since they’d seen each other. The younger Gnoll beamed—then turned her head and sneezed.
“Well met, Aunt Krshia! Yes—she camped the way you would be coming. And two of us rode to get her. She’ll be here soon—how many are there? Sixty?”
“I—achoo! We were ready for ten times that number if need be! But that is well. Honored elders, greetings!”
She bowed, very politely to the older Gnolls in front in turn. That included Tkrn, which amused Krshia. Until she realized it was her mistake.
“Tkrn, move back. You’re not Honored yet.”
Beilmark laughed as she nudged Tkrn. The other Gnolls were dismounting to pat the Silverfang Plains Gnolls, hug—they were more intimate physically than Drakes might be, or Humans with formal handshakes and whatnot.
Some of the Silverfang Plains Gnolls began sneezing, and apologizing. Krshia raised her eyebrows.
“Allergies? I forget—I have not asked your name.”
“No, Honored Krshia! Forgive me! I am Dekava! [Hunter-Warrior] of four full years since my markings. It’s just—you smell of the city! Oil and dust and Drakes all over you!”
Krshia blinked. They did? She hardly noticed, but if Dekava insisted, it must be so. She self-consciously sniffed herself, then smiled.
“Not that bad, surely!”
“No! Just different! Apologies! Will you introduce us?”
Krshia nodded. Ah, yes. This was back home alright. The request was more than just formality—she pointed, singling out the six Gnolls.
“This is Honored Beilmark, Senior Guardswoman of Liscor. Honored Raekea, [Armorer] and Councilwoman of Liscor…”
The eight Plains Gnolls bowed slightly to each in turn. Memorizing the names of the six Honored Gnolls. Of course, Tkrn and the others knew them as the same, but Krshia noticed Tkrn blink as Dekava bowed to Beilmark, placing her paws together as she bowed.
“A warrior of the cities! Honored Beilmark, it is good to meet you! We would love to see how they fight there later. And an [Armorer]! We knew you were coming, Honored Raekea! Our smiths will wish to exchange knowledge.”
“And I will be glad to do so. Well met, Dekava. And you are…?”
They made a point of saying ‘Honored’ each time. Which was much like City Gnolls. Except…Tkrn coughed.
“Beilmark. Do you want the guards to spread out or…?”
“I think we’re fine, yes, Tkrn? The Az’muzarre tribe patrols. Just keep them nearby.”
Dekava’s ears perked up. She turned to Tkrn.
“Ah, you must be Honored Beilmark’s son?”
The other Plains Gnolls blinked.
They eyed Beilmark. She snorted with laughter. Tkrn shook his head.
“I’m Tkrn. [Guardsman]. Regular Guardsman of Liscor.”
Dekava’s look of confusion turned to one of understanding. She smiled and seized his paws. She shook his hands vigorously with hers.
“Ah, I see! Pleased to meet you, Tkrn! They’re [Guards]. The same group.”
Ah. The others nodded. Krshia coughed, but only half in amusement. She was going to have to remind the others to always say Honored Beilmark and so on. She’d forgotten how seriously…
Ten years. Her head turned as she heard another howl in the distance. Massed voices—she looked around and stopped.
There came the true Silverfang Tribe. Nearly a thousand Gnolls loping across the ground, and leading them, a familiar form and voice. She howled again and Krshia answered her.
Akrisa Silverfang was, in fact, shorter than Krshia. But far more athletic. She did not stand behind a counter all day. She raced across the grass, her tribe racing past her.
Tkrn stared. He had scarcely seen so many Gnolls at once! No—that wasn’t correct. He saw countless Gnolls every day in Liscor. But here was a mass of furry bodies, fur ranging from blonde to black—and not a scaly tail to be seen among them.
A Gnoll tribe. They bounded forwards and, abruptly, stopped. Krshia and the sixty or so Gnolls from Liscor were on foot, hurrying forwards.
“Sister! It is good to see you, yes!”
Krshia called out joyfully. She saw her sister raise a paw, smiling. But she had abruptly stopped. And the thousand or so Gnolls she’d brought abruptly halted behind her, leaving her in front. They raised their heads—
And Krshia halted. She had been going to run and embrace her sister as much as Dekava. But the sudden halt in the mad rush of exhilaration at seeing her kin was jarring. She eyed them—
“Er, form up behind me.”
The other Liscorian Gnolls blinked. But they formed a rough wall behind Krshia and advanced, slower.
“Who comes before the Silverfang tribe?”
A voice shouted before Krshia could close the fifty or so feet between them. Krshia stopped again, blinking. That was ritualistic—she answered reflexively after a pause to search her memory.
“Kin from afar! Seeking to meet those with our blood and will!”
The Gnolls ahead of her paused. One shouted—not Akrisa. A Gnoll next to her. Krshia recognized a [Shaman]’s markings and blinked again.
“We greet our kin from Liscor! What do you bring, kin who have been gone so long?”
Krshia frowned, hesitating. She hadn’t meant to do this in front of all.
“We bring ourselves, and our knowledge from a city far away! To join Silverfang to Silverfang once more!”
She replied. The [Shaman] standing next to Akrisa paused. She saw him whisper to her sister. And Akrisa shook her head slightly.
“What else do our kin bring?”
A murmur of surprise ran through both sides. Krshia hesitated. She turned, and whispered.
“Tkrn. Go with Jerci and the others. Grab the book.”
“The book, aunt?”
“Yes. Now. Hurry.”
Tkrn and a few younger Gnolls hurried back to a horse with only one burden in the center of the caravan. Even now—a group of eight Gnolls stood around it, as they had the entire way here.
Of course, it looked just like a covered bundle in a blanket. But as Tkrn and the others fussed around it, unstrapping it and lifting it—although even Mrsha could have dragged it, light as it was—it was revealed to be a vast square of something.
A tome. They brought it over and the Silverfang tribe stirred expectantly. Krshia was staring at Akrisa. But her sister refused to look at her. She was staring at the sky as the [Shaman] called out.
“What does our kin bring from the city where they have been gone for so long?”
“We bring knowledge! A gift for the Meeting of Tribes!”
Krshia called back. She was getting…not angry, but perplexed. She recognized the forms. She motioned the three Gnolls supporting the tome. As they passed her, she stopped them…then removed the blanket.
The giant magical book shone in the light. The writing on the tome, bound in some magical leather she had no way of identifying, was as pristine as if it had been printed a second ago. Not a sign of age—
The pages were brilliant, beautiful, without imperfection. Far from common parchment. The book, to even Krshia’s limited [Shaman] knowledge, glittered with power. Even for Tkrn, who had no knowledge of magic whatsoever, he felt a presence. His fur stood on end.
The Silverfang tribe sighed as they saw it appear. The [Shaman] himself made a sound.
“That—is that what the Silverfangs of Liscor bring?”
“Yes. And this one presents herself before Chieftain and tribe. Are we welcome, kin?”
Krshia approached as the book was brought halfway forwards. She spread her paws, looking at her sister. Uncertainly, Tkrn and Jerci and the third Gnoll tilted the book so all could see.
Then—and only then—did Akrisa look down. Krshia saw her sister’s face.
Older. Older by two years. Not that much—and yet it was when you grew up together. Still young. A younger Chieftain now, compared to their mother. Silver beads hung in her mane; she had a single earring on the left, a miniature silver fang, the tip marked by ruby. Their mother had worn that.
A variation on the warrior’s patterns on her mane. Like Plains Gnolls, she only wore a type of breast band and loincloth in the hot summer air. Both patterned fabrics, comfortable and beautiful.
She carried a spear—the Silverfang Chieftain’s spear. Appropriately, an enchanted spear, closer to a glaive since it was curved.
She met Krshia’s gaze now, brown eyes deep, and her voice was softer than Krshia’s, but calm as she nodded.
“You are welcome, kin. Present yourself.”
Again, Krshia hesitated. This was not what she had imagined. But she approached, and then, knowing she should, knelt in the grass. She looked at Akrisa—the [Chieftain] was already moving. She touched Krshia’s arm, and gently bade her to rise. Then, she embraced Krshia.
“Kin. You are welcome, my sister. You and the Gnolls of Liscor! And you bring a great gift with you! A gift worthy of the greatest of tribes! Let it be said!”
Her voice rose and she turned with Krshia’s arm in hers, thrusting it up into the air. Then—the Silverfangs with her howled and shouted, throwing themselves forwards to cluster around the magical tome, grabbing the surprised Tkrn, Jerci, hugging them—
All as it should be. But why the ceremony? Krshia turned to Akrisa, and the two shared a look. What should have been them embracing and laughing turned into a single moment of…
“Honored Krshia! Honored Krshia-aunt!”
A shape hit Krshia in the leg. She staggered—and saw a little Gnoll racing around her. His fur was darker—a mix of her and Akrisa’s brown and black. He had two black spots around his eyes, such that he looked almost like he had a mask on.
Akrisa’s pause turned into a note of exasperation. The little Gnoll clung to Krshia’s leg. Then he let go, running about the two.
“Mother, this is Honored Aunt Krshia, yes, yes? And that’s a magic book! Are there more! Can I see it? Mother—they smell! Mother—”
“Cers Silverfang, enough.”
The [Chieftain] of the tribe was exasperated as she spoke to her…son? Krshia stared. But she had received news of it. It was just—he was nearly Mrsha’s age! A bit younger, and so full of life and chatter it reminded her of, well, Ekirra. And if memory served—
“Satar. I told you to watch your brother.”
Exasperated, Akrisa turned. And there a blonde Gnoll with the [Shaman]’s staff trotted forwards, looking hugely embarrassed.
“I tried, M—Chieftain. But he escaped me. Because he bit my arm.”
She glowered at Cers. He flattened his ears.
“I did not.”
Satar Silverfang and Cers. Krshia knew one and had heard of the other, though he had not been born last time she visited. Satar had been just a child, and shyly greeted Krshia with an embrace.
“Honored Aunt Krshia.”
“Satar. It is good to see you. And this must be Cers, yes? I am your aunt.”
“Hello! I am Cers!”
He laughed, purely full of energy and excitement. Unrestricted and untamable—like many Gnoll children his age. In fact—possibly worse than a City Gnoll because the second thing he did was dash at the horses.
“Wait, that’s dangerous k—”
Beilmark called out. But the young Gnoll leapt onto the back of one of the horses, swinging himself onto it. Bareback, he rode the surprised animal forwards.
His ears flattened and he dismounted as his mother looked at him. It was an adult-look, the kind that told a child this was the last straw. Krshia was busy inspecting Satar.
She looked like her father. Krshia wondered if she’d meet him. Cers on the other hand? He was…clearly…not Satar’s fur type. Nor was he from the same father.
The [Shaman] had black fur, and a speckled pattern of russet-red on his tail and ends of his legs and arms. Cers hadn’t inherited that, but Krshia greeted him.
“Shaman Cetrule, it is a great thing to meet you once more.”
“Indeed, Honored Krshia.”
They exchanged a more formal hug, sniffing each other. Krshia was still taken aback at how she’d met her sister. She looked at Akrisa.
The one word stunned Krshia into silence. Akrisa looked at her warningly, then raised her voice.
“Silverfangs! Back to the camp! Quickly! Put that blanket on the artifact. Shaman Cetrule—can you mask its magic? Even I can feel it upon my fur.”
“I will try, Chieftain. Honored Krshia, did you bring anything to mask it with?”
“We used a blanket…”
“Some mud, then. We did prepare. The mud-blanket!”
Krshia blinked. Suddenly, the Silverfangs were moving. The Plains Gnolls brought something she half-recognized.
It was a ‘mud blanket’, a word for a rather peculiar Gnollish invention. It was, well…mud encased in a holding material. It was usually fabric, woven such that the mud didn’t escape.
Why did you need a blanket of mud? Well, to keep the heat in! It was an insulator that they used in some yurt-type housing that needed to resist super-cold situations or the opposite, heat. You could create steam-baths with it since it really helped keep the moisture in.
However, this was a special one. Krshia saw-smelled silver mixed liberally in with the mud. The heavy fabric was draped over the tome. Instantly—the magical aura faded.
Impressed, Krshia blinked. She turned to Cetrule.
“You came up with that?”
“At the Chieftain’s request. We will use that to hide it. Bring it to my tent. I will safeguard it, until the Chieftain desires it presented.”
Krshia opened her mouth again—then saw her sister look at her. She closed her mouth.
“To the camp, then. We return in celebration! Our kin have returned and our great gift is here!”
The Gnolls cheered. They helped the Gnolls from Liscor mount and return, whooping and howling—before being admonished to keep it a secret. Still, the mood was celebratory.
Only Krshia was confused at how she had been welcomed.
The Silverfang camp was on the edge of the gathering of the Meeting of Tribes. And Tkrn, swept up by the chaos of it all, saw the Meeting of Tribes at first as a vast, sprawling network of lights.
He understood more as he approached. It was not, at first glance, the largest sprawl of tents and Gnolls imaginable, a chaos of people. It was in fact organized. For a given value of organization.
Each tribe had their own area. Each one with tents, eating, cooking spaces, and so on. Not all were one tribe; some were mixed.
But between each tribe was a generous amount of space. A kind of neutral ground in which other things were set up. Places for smiths to sell goods, activities, communal eating grounds—
Private and public was a good way of looking at it. Obviously as well, there were good places; the areas near the river where the Meeting of Tribes was taking place was already filled with countless tribes—not right at the border, but close enough to make gathering water simple.
Most tribes wanted to be in the center of it, such that the center of this sprawling area was filled and there were only gaps on the outer rim where the latest tribes to arrive were placed. Thus, the worst place to be was the one where you had to walk to both river and to get to the center area.
…Which was where the Silverfang were. In fact, they hadn’t even properly camped.
A thousand Silverfangs had come to greet Krshia and the others and Tkrn had naively assumed that was all there were. He was wrong.
Nearly ten times that number or more were spread out, a vast conglomerate of tents and Gnolls. They looked up as the ones who had greeted him came racing back, howling the good news.
“We will establish our position at last! Now we know our kin are here! Inform the Plain’s Eye and Az’muzarre tribes!”
The [Chieftain]—Akrisa—was shouting. His Chieftain? It was an odd thought. Tkrn was so caught up as he, Jerci, and the other younger Gnolls stared at the kin they had never met or known, that he nearly missed Krshia turning.
“Tell the Plain’s Eye and Az’muzarre tribes?”
“Az’muzarre has organized this, Honored Krshia.”
Chieftain Akrisa spoke—a bit stiffly for sisters, Tkrn thought. He saw Krshia hesitated.
“Of course. But Plain’s Eye?”
“They are forming a map of all the tribes. They would want to know. In fact, I have not yet met with their Chieftain. I was holding off until you arrived. They will want to meet us.”
There was a second layer running to the camp that Tkrn did not quite understand. He did not, but Beilmark looked up and blinked.
“Plain’s Eye must be even more powerful if we’re presenting ourselves to them. Ah, we’re back not a minute and it’s like we never left, huh, Raekea?”
She sighed. Tkrn turned to her.
“What do you mean, Beilmark?”
He saw the Senior Guardswoman frown.
“It’s Honored Beilmark, Tkrn. We should have remembered—but it has been nearly a decade. Call me that unless we’re around friends. Raekea too.”
“Do I have to do that, dear?”
Her husband wondered aloud. Raekea laughed.
“They make an exception for outsiders, Jekss. But—it’s tribe matters. We should have explained—”
“What’s there to explain? Just be polite. We’re ‘City Gnolls’ these days. Did you hear that introduction? Kin from afar.”
One of the older Gnolls sighed. The Gnolls of Liscor murmured, but quietly. Tkrn blinked. He began to understand that greeting was more than mere tradition.
“What was that, Akrisa? We have been sisters for four decades and you did not acknowledge me until I presented our gift?”
The Chieftain of the Silverfang tribe lived in a tent far bigger than Krshia’s apartment. Contrary to what many might think—you could build some fantastic ‘temporary’ structures with bags of holding. Krshia could have fit three apartments of hers into this space and had room to spare.
A vast, domed ceiling, thick walls with the mud blanket insulators that kept sound out—all enchanted of course. She recognized a [Shaman]’s markings against insects on the walls, one against prying, and one more for cooling.
Three marks—an extravagant use of power for all but a [Chieftain]. Each one took a toll on the [Shaman] to upkeep, however slight. Well, Silverfang was plenty large enough to support the spell easily and perhaps it was one of the other [Shamans] who had cast it.
Thirty minutes had passed since the welcome. The other Gnolls were in camp, getting settled, being welcomed.
Krshia was in Akrisa’s tent. She would sleep here—the Gnoll families did. In fact, there were rooms within the huge tent, formed by walls of cloth.
Luxury beyond Krshia’s apartment. But she was too upset to appreciate it. She turned to Akrisa—the [Chieftain] had put down her spear and was sitting.
“Silkap. I have some. You must be hungry. Silkap and bread?”
Akrisa looked past Krshia. The Gnoll’s furious glare did nothing. Krshia folded her arms.
“Yes. Please. We only had brunch.”
“There’s a jar there. I’ll get some bread.”
The [Chieftain] rose—rather—she got someone else to get some freshly baked flatbread. Krshia had already undone the jar and put a huge amount of the Gnollish spread in a bowl. She was glaring as Akrisa reappeared. Krshia grabbed the bread, tore a piece off, and held it up sarcastically.
“This kin from afar thanks the Chieftain for the food. We share it as Silverfang alike.”
She pasted some silkap onto it and bit. The fact that it tasted really good after her long trip didn’t help. Hot bread, silkap tasting of meat, some chive, strong with lard like their mother made it—mm. She masticated furiously.
Rather than rise to the bait like she normally would, Akrisa just helped herself.
“That’s quite good. You should say that tonight when we eat in public.”
The City Gnoll stopped mid-chew. Her eyes narrowed.
“What? Akrisa, you are tempting my patience.”
“I am, yes? Well, that is terrible, no? For kin—much less sisters—I should have given you an embrace. A kiss and welcomed you without ceremony or gift! How could I?”
The [Chieftain] murmured softly. Krshia nodded furious agreement.
“You humiliated me in front of my people.”
“Hrm. Your Gnoll-people. Your Liscor-Gnolls. Your…City Gnolls.”
“We are of Liscor, now! But we are still Silverfang! What has gotten into you to make you so distant! What’s wrong with you? You should be rejoicing! I have brought a great gift! I—”
Krshia was snatching another piece of bread when Akrisa’s paw moved. She reached out and, before Krshia could dodge, snagged Krshia’s ear.
Between two fingers. Krshia yelped.
“What are you—”
Her older sister twisted her ear.
“You little brat. You were always like this. Why are you so mean, Akrisa? Why do you not hug me? What happened to the dozens of spellbooks we sent money for you to buy, hrm? What about the [Fireball] you told me blew up our gift? Why are you three days late?”
“Ow! Let go of—”
Akrisa twisted her younger sister’s ear harder. Krshia yelped. And she had forgotten.
Firstly, that her sister had never been less temperamental than she herself could be. Second? She was an older sister. And some things never changed.
“You come here late, and you think I can just run over on all fours and lick your cheek? Twist my tail, Krshia! I am a [Chieftain] now! I have to establish you are returning and make you follow some traditions or let half the tribe accuse you of being favored! Which you are! You are mad that I made you show everyone the gift our tribe has labored for ten years to bring after you said it was exploded?”
“I told you we got a new one!”
“And there were weeks of the entire tribe fearing we had lost all! For that matter—you act like there is nothing wrong? What happened to the warriors I sent to you, hm, Krshia? What happened…to Brunkr?”
Abruptly, the fingers let go. Krshia leaned away—but suddenly her anger was gone.
Akrisa looked at her, almost disbelieving. Krshia hung her head.
“If you say you forgot, your cousin will kill you. And she will have to find a way to turn you into a zombie, because I will kill you first.”
Akrisa’s eyes flashed. Krshia raised her paws.
“I did not forget, sister. I would never. It is just—another important person was lost to us recently. That is why we were delayed. We were grieving.”
The older Gnoll’s face flickered. Abruptly, her ire went out and she sat down.
“More death? Another Gnoll…? No? Either way—that city seems to bring death. So many. Not that the plains are ever safer. But Brunkr…Menoa mourns. I made her stay. But she will want to speak with you.”
“I brought his ashes and belongings.”
They sat once more. This time, Krshia didn’t take the silkap. She had…forgotten. Somehow, Erin had wiped the memory of it.
“Warriors to aid you—killed by Gazi Pathseeker before she rejoined the King of Destruction. Brunkr—lost to a Named Adventurer who turned out to be false. Regrika Blackpaw. Our kin, eaten by our foe thought lost to time, lost in battle with monsters from the dungeon. This is what I hear, Krshia. I have feared for you for the last year.”
Akrisa spoke now, directly to Krshia. The younger Gnoll hung her head.
“I sent word each time. But—it must have been harder to hear it.”
“It was. Time and again? Six times, the tribe asked whether your going was a mistake. Whether it would be best to travel to Liscor to bring you all back, rather than to leave you in what seemed to us to be death and danger. What is happening there?”
“Much. A dungeon, a…there was an inn. I cannot explain it, Akrisa. It is a longer story. And a sadder one. The Human I wanted to bring? She is…gone.”
Akrisa’s gaze darkened.
“More sadness. Krshia—”
She reached out. Krshia guarded her ear, but this time Akrisa just drew her into a one-armed embrace.
“I am sorry, Krshia. I am. We have much to say. It is just that I could not welcome you with open arms. Not after what was lost. You had to present yourself, and even then, I did not make you ask or wait upon my judgment. Some wanted that. If only to preserve my power.”
“What? Preserve it? Are that many trying to unseat you as Chieftain?”
Krshia blinked. Akrisa let go of Krshia and gave her a crooked smile.
“Aside from the usual malcontents, you mean, yes? Only one. And she sits across from me.”
Krshia’s mouth fell open in denial. Akrisa waved at it as she took some silkap and bread.
“You have done too well. A year before? I could have welcomed you, the loss and accidents aside. Now? Councilwoman Krshia, who sits on a Drake city’s Council comes here. Some wonder if you are a Chieftain of the Liscor Tribe instead of a sister to the [Chieftain].”
“I would never—”
“I know. But they said it. That should have quieted them down. Just do say something before we eat.”
Krshia stared at her sister. She saw Akrisa sigh. Then look up. Unbidden, but in unison, the two began to chuckle.
“I’ve been gone too long from the tribes. Not a day back and it is all the same.”
Akrisa’s chuckle was more rueful.
“A bit. Some things have changed, but I did not upset the old ways of the tribe. Ah, Krshia. It has been too long. Sit. Tell me what needs telling before Cers scampers in. He will want to know all the stories—but some things must be told only to me, mustn’t they? Well, perhaps tonight with Cetrule.”
Krshia relaxed. Now—now she felt like she was back. The uncomfortable welcome began to make sense. And her own guilt? She remembered it.
Brunkr. It felt too long for how shortly ago it had been. She ducked her head—but more silkap was offered—and Akrisa got up.
“Some cheese! I have goat’s…unless Cers took it to snack on. Aha! There it is.”
She produced some crumbling cheese—and then a brie for contrast. And some baked yellat, and some wine. It was hardly the most expensive spread, but it was filling and tasty. The two properly broke bread now.
“There’s too much to say, Akrisa. Erin—I can tell you all her story. For it is a good one. But enough to let me say that I am a Councilwoman thanks to her. And that Liscor is a city with its own troubles. Vast ones. The Antinium…”
“Madness. The thought of you living with them under you? I still shudder.”
Akrisa shook her head. Krshia sniffed.
“They are quite nice. In fact—they have names. They are a people now, a proper one. Perhaps even allies.”
“You must be joking, no?”
“Not at all. But that is for you and Cetrule—even Honored Gnolls to hear. Let me think. For us two? Well…I am a bit mixed on how I feel, but I am a [Royal Shopkeeper] now. Level 33. And I have some interesting Skills there. A Level 11 [Councilwoman]—oh, and I leveled up in [Shaman] after all these years.”
Akrisa’s eyes widened.
“Royal? How did that come about?”
“Part of the story. I met a [Princess]—there is one living in Liscor. I did not write to you of that. But it is my hope we meet her, when we summon Mrsha.”
“The Doombringer? You wrote of that, Krshia. The [Longstrider Scout] I sent—Vvrow? He thought you were mad.”
She had sent Vvrow to coordinate things. He had been impressed by Krshia’s class—but perhaps that was one of the reasons Akrisa had had trouble. Krshia sniffed.
“White Gnoll-child. Not a Doombringer. I intend to prove that to the tribes.”
“Good luck. I cannot believe it myself—but I will listen! Do not give me that glower, Krshia.”
Akrisa took another sip of wine. Krshia sighed.
“She is a good child. A [Mage]! She learned magic from the book, Akrisa. It can be done!”
The Gnoll [Chieftain] coughed.
“Stop telling me things while I drink, Krshia. It is going to come out my nose. So many developments in one year! Because of that Human?”
Krshia’s face fell. Still—she waited as Akrisa took a longer draft of wine.
“I’m also sleeping with that Drake I wrote to you of, Lism. On the Council.”
Akrisa sprayed wine onto the floor and her fur. Krshia laughed so hard she fell over. Her older sister threw the empty cup at her.
“You little—you are mad! Mad and—Lism? I thought you wanted him dead!”
“Things change. Oh—and by the way. If you want me to get you better wine, give me a barrel and I’ll give it back to you after a month or two. [Appreciating in Value] is my Level 30 consolidation Skill. I have some gifts from Liscor that have increased in value in my care.”
Akrisa’s jaw dropped.
“What? You must be joking with me.”
“Not at all. Here, let me just…”
Krshia went to her bag of holding and belongings. She reached in and fished out the first of the gifts she had brought from Liscor. She handed something to Akrisa. It was a bottle of wine.
“I bought this for barely a few silver on bargain. I didn’t taste this one, but I had a second bottle of the same and it was the cheapest, foulest wine I could think of. It’s been in my care since I got the Skill, about four months now.”
Her sister eyed the label and cheap glass.
“It looks like it’s not worth the cost of the bottle.”
“Well? Let’s have a try.”
The Chieftain of the Silverfang tribe gave Krshia a long look.
“I’m reminded you were a trickster, Krshia. If this is one of those pranks like the time you covered our old [Shaman]’s tail in sap…”
“You wound me, Akrisa. I’m dignified in Liscor. People respect me.”
“I’ll bet. Well—”
They poured a cup. Akrisa sniffed suspiciously and Krshia held her breath. She hadn’t opened the bottle, and the uncorking made her heart flutter. But the first sniff made both Gnolls do a double-take.
“That can’t be right. It smells like—”
Akrisa dipped her tongue into the cup. She did a little taste and her eyes went round. Krshia inhaled a proper bouquet. She took a sip and gasped.
“Oh, that is good.”
“Marvelous. But it’s—”
The two looked at each other. Then they both began to laugh. Krshia chortled and Akrisa took a huge draft and smacked her lips. Then she began to guffaw.
“Cers! Cers, where are you? Come here and have a drink of your aunt’s ‘wine’!”
She laughed as she poured a cup of the finest grape juice Krshia had ever had into a cup. It tasted like it was made of excellent grapes, but—Krshia was laughing as the tent flaps opened and a Gnoll raced through.
“Grape juice? Where? It smells so good!”
The little Gnoll could detect the quality even more than they. Krshia scratched at her head, bemused.
“It must have been closer to grape juice than wine! Either that or…? I don’t know how my Skill works!”
“Have you tested it? Sip, Cers! We’ll share this at dinner with the others. It’s the product of your aunt’s hard work!”
“It’s so goooood! Do they have this in Liscor all the time? It’s so tasty! My tongue feels like it’s sparkling!”
Cers took a sip, and then rolled about on the floor happily. It was such an innocent thing Krshia laughed and felt her heart gladdening for the sight. She talked as the boy raced out with the cup to show his friends.
“I have tested it! Kept it secret, mainly—but the key is that it takes time. A week is barely enough time to notice much! Mind you—I have tested it.”
“It works on two objects at most. There is a…a limit to the expense I think it can reach. And as of yet, it does not work on magical objects.”
“Ah, these limits make sense. And you are only Level 30.”
Krshia nodded. She was an odd Gnoll, she would admit herself. She had reached Level 30 by consolidating her [Trader] class—but she had still achieved it in ten years of coming to Liscor. And she was a [Huntress], a [Shaman], and a [Councilwoman] now. All parts of her life.
“So we cannot give you magical weapons to keep. What about quantity?”
The Gnoll winked.
“Well, I had tested it on smaller objects since people ask questions—it has to be where I sleep, you see? In my actual care, not my shop. But if you would like to roll a barrel of something into my tent…”
“People will think City Gnolls drink wine like water! I will have it done. Then what did you try it on, besides this juice?”
Akrisa chuckled. Krshia shrugged.
“Since I had this maturing for four months, only one thing at a time. I experimented. I put some grit in butter—in a week, it was all gone. Two weeks and it was good butter. Then I tried it with a rock.”
“Nothing. It was a rock. I think it has to have actual value. I gave that up, and then I did water.”
Akrisa snorted. Krshia held up a paw.
“Listen. It was fresh after three weeks. I could swear it was like a minor stamina potion, yes? Excellent water. I could make money from doing nothing! Although…it’s not much.”
“Amazing. And you got this Skill because a [Princess] helped you? Here I work for my Skills and I feel mine is suddenly less worthwhile than yours! I can protect us from monsters with [Tribe: Warding of Safety]—all but the worst! But yours is so fun.”
The [Chieftain] huffed. Krshia gave her a little smile.
“I suppose it is in our natures. You became Chieftain, after all. It is not a ‘fun’ job. And I…”
She stopped, the cup halfway to her lips. Akrisa sighed.
“You had to leave. Well—you have done well, Krshia.”
She smiled, and so did Krshia. Ten years ago, Krshia, [Trader] for the Silverfangs, had proposed the idea to the new Chieftain of the Silverfang Tribe, Akrisa. She had been granted the Gnolls and funds to go to Liscor and try this great venture. Because her mother, the old Chieftain, had refused her. And because…Krshia did not fit into the tribe. Because, she had told her sister then, she needed something else.
Because being a Plains Gnoll was not for me. Krshia sipped quietly, savoring the taste. Soon, Cers would race back in, with his sister, and she would greet Akrisa’s new partner. Say her apologies to Brunkr’s mother. Mourn and bear her burdens and respectfully show deference to her sister.
She was willing to do all of it. She was glad to be here, now. But it reminded Krshia—
This was not her home. There were reasons she’d left the tribes. She would always be a Silverfang. But not all that Plains Gnolls did was right. So she felt. But for now, she drank grape juice and looked at her sister’s family. Ah—
She was just a bit jealous.
Tkrn did not know what he had been led to expect since he had no expectations. So he couldn’t really complain about the Silverfang tribe.
Not that he would. But if he did—
It was just a bit weird. That was all.
The introduction to the Silverfang tribe hadn’t been that odd to Tkrn, although he’d noticed the older Gnolls eying each other during the ritual greetings. But soon they were in camp and Tkrn had a real welcome.
Gnolls were not afraid to put paws on each other and one practically dragged Tkrn off to give him a celebratory drink. And again! No complaints!
Tkrn felt odd drinking by day since a [Guard] was always sober on duty, but the Velrusk Claw was a fine, more savory mead. Also, purple. But he liked it and it wasn’t as astringent, which Gnoll palates shied from in large. Drakes loved Firebreath Whiskey for the same reason. Tkrn could only stand oozing from every pore for so long after each shot.
“You’re from the city, yes? What’s it like? Do those Drakes give you a hard time? You brought the magic book—tell us about that—no, this dungeon first!”
“Is Liscor like Oteslia? Smaller? Did Honored Krshia bring anything else back besides the magic tome? What happened to the other spellbooks?”
“Guardsman. So do you get [Warrior]’s Skills or is there some difference in class? Show me your best one!”
It was like being at a family reunion, only, he was the center of attention rather than the cousin expected to greet everyone and not get in the way of the adults. Tkrn rather enjoyed that.
He also enjoyed meeting Krshia’s family—he didn’t know there were two children of Chieftain Akrisa! Tkrn memorized names dutifully.
There was the [Shaman], Cetrule, who had…not married [Chieftain] Akrisa. But they were a couple so it was a technicality? Let’s see. Satar was a half-sister to Cers, the little Mrsha-age cub who kept running around offering grape juice to everyone.
Satar was a [Shaman] in training, or a new one. Cers was clearly beloved—if rascally as most Gnolls his age. Everyone seemed to respect Akrisa, which was good.
No problems! The only issues were when Krshia brought out an urn of ashes and the objects of…Tkrn saw her approach an older Gnoll. The Gnoll took the urn, the belongings, heard Krshia out, and then punched her.
Brunkr’s mother. Also one of Krshia’s cousins. Half the tribe stirred and Akrisa held up a paw. Some of the [Warriors] began to move, but Menoa was already walking away.
“Whew. If they had to drag her off, it would have been worse.”
Raekea breathed. Her husband, Jekss, was coughing out his drink.
“That wasn’t bad enough? She nearly broke Krshia’s jaw in front of everyone!”
“Her son was killed while under Krshia’s care. Shouldn’t she be angry?”
The Drake blinked. One of the Plains Gnolls sniffed at him. They regarded Jekss much like the Gnolls from Liscor.
Outsiders. Curious and in the case of the other Silverfangs, beloved, but strange. Tkrn saw Krshia rub at her jaw. She didn’t immediately heal it either, although it was gone by dinner.
That was uh, interesting. But the real interesting stuff? It came after dinner.
Dinner was a huge affair. It took place over hours since not all the tribe would eat at once. Tkrn listened to Akrisa’s speech—and Krshia thanked her as kin once more, which seemed to be approved by everyone.
Silverfang food wasn’t as outlandish as anything Tkrn might have expected—again, if he’d done that. Because, obviously, Silverfangs comprised most of the Gnolls in Liscor and they had brought their cooking with them!
There was more of an emphasis on dried foods, however. A bit more dried meats rather than fresh cut you could buy at markets, and not so many vegetables that couldn’t be easily acquired. The Silverfang tribe transported their food, so they didn’t have the luxury of warehouses with preservation spells.
“Our [Shamans] can delay the food rot, but we don’t sit and grow food. Only the Greenpaw tribe and a few others stay in one place.”
Dekava laughed in amusement. She was eating with Tkrn, Beilmark, and some of the others; the Gnolls of Liscor were spread out, to socialize with their kindred. Dekava had attached herself to Tkrn, Beilmark, and Jerci and her parents. Not out of sheer politeness or the Chieftain’s command, either. She was clearly interested in Tkrn and Beilmark and Jerci as [Guards]—it was she who had pestered them to show their Skills off.
Tkrn was uh, politely, average for his level and age. Which meant he was a Level 16 [Guard]. Not exactly impressive. His best Skill?
[Fast Leg Sweep]. A variation on the traditional [Leg Sweep] Skill he’d gotten at Level 10. It meant he performed the Skill…fast.
He could take down even a Senior Guard if they weren’t careful and it was definitely useful in a scuffle! However, it wasn’t uh, the ability to strike three times simultaneously or a [Blade Art].
Dekava had given Tkrn a polite smile before demonstrating her [Hunter-Warrior]’s ability—[Pinpoint Strike]. She could place any arrow or blade wherever she wanted once. It was considered similar to [Unerring Throw] or Skills like that, but superior in accuracy, if limited in uses.
She wasn’t that higher-level than he was. Only…Level 19. Soon to be Level 20. And she was a year younger. Tkrn was at least glad Beilmark had agreed to show off one of her Skills.
“Well, how do you get your food then? You can’t buy all of it.”
The Gnoll [Warrior] bared her teeth in a grin—then realized he was serious.
“We raise herds! Most Gnoll tribes do. The plains have lots of food. Just not for us. Sheep for clothing, goats for milk—cows if you can stand herding them—horses to travel, pigs for meat—all of it for meat in the end.”
Indeed, it was meat and dairy as much was vegetables. Tkrn chewed appreciatively; Gnolls were not meant to live on legumes alone.
By the same token though—fruits were a delicacy. Which was why Krshia’s grape juice gift was so welcome. Tkrn wondered how much she’d paid for it. He hadn’t gotten any since they had brought it, but it smelled heavenly.
“We do get fruits now and then. From Oteslia. We trade with the cities or other tribes for things we don’t have. But we stick to our lands. Where the silver mines are. We can’t leave them anymore; we left two thirds of the tribe there.”
Tkrn looked around at the vast sea of Gnolls. But then he remembered; Liscor was far larger than the Silverfang tribe these days, even with their full numbers. It was just that they were all in one place!
“It’s rare for them too, Tkrn.”
Jerci’s father leaned over as he snagged another piece of gristle, his favorite. He chewed happily and spoke while chewing.
“Normally, Gnolls work and carry out their tasks and don’t see the entire tribe except for special occasions like this. I grew up in a smaller camp and only saw all the Silverfangs once or twice a year. Some tribes send younger Gnolls to work in cities, and so on.”
“Hmm. Those days were nice. Sleeping wherever you wanted, always seeing something new, hunting…that was how we met!”
Jerci’s mother snuggled closer to her father. The rookie [Guard] looked horrified.
“I never should have come here. Gah!”
She stood up to get a drink. Tkrn laughed and saw Dekava nearly falling over. They looked at each other. The Plains Gnolls really weren’t that different from City Gnolls!
“Honored Beilmark! Will you show us your Skills?”
Before Tkrn could say something, Dekava leapt up. Beilmark groaned.
“I just ate. But I suppose since we’ve all settled in…one time.”
Some of the younger Gnolls looked around excitedly. They clustered around and from the Chieftain’s fire, Akrisa and Krshia glanced their way. They watched as Beilmark massaged her back.
“I can put on armor if you like, Honored Beilmark! What shall we do? Spar? Or will you demonstrate if it’s dangerous?”
“I’m not putting on armor after days of riding in it. You can use your spear or dagger or attack me with bare hands if you want, Dekava. I’ll show you my Skill.”
Beilmark sighed. She wasn’t reaching for her weapon though, and Tkrn knew she could use a number at will. Dekava noticed it too. Her eyes narrowed slightly.
“Won’t you draw a weapon, Honored Beilmark?”
The Gnoll woman smiled slightly. Tkrn saw Dekava’s ears flatten slightly.
“I am a full warrior, Honored Beilmark. I wouldn’t want to hurt you. I was told [Guards] of Liscor were only half as prone to combat as a [Warrior].”
There was a murmur and ooh of laughter from the watching Gnolls. Tkrn frowned—but Beilmark just smiled.
“That’s certainly true, Dekava. My job is to keep the peace, not fight all the time. Although I do both. I can tell if you’re guilty, and stop you if you steal something. But I wouldn’t want you to take me lightly. Go on.”
She spread her paws. The younger Gnoll frowned as her friends and onlookers laughed. She hesitated—and then grabbed for her spear on the ground. She whirled it up and thrust at Beilmark.
Tkrn made a sound, but it was butt-first, not spearhead. It was still the kind of blow that could crack a rib if—
Beilmark knocked the tip wide with one arm and stepped in. Which wasn’t necessarily good because Dekava was already moving her spear up to clip Beilmark’s j—
The Senior Guardswoman touched Dekava and the Plains Gnoll was suddenly lying on the ground. She blinked up at the fading sky as everyone gasped.
Beilmark knelt on her chest as Dekava struggled to rise.
“And you are under arrest. This would be where I take away your weapon and restrain you. Guardsman Tkrn, see to the criminal.”
Tkrn stood up, grinning, as Dekava struggled—but Beilmark had her pinned. The older Gnoll let go and grinned as the others demanded to know what she’d done!
“[Immobilizing Touch]. Locks up someone for just a few seconds depending on their level. Relc barely stops. But if you want to end a [Thief]-chase…”
She walked back to her seat. Jerci’s parents were applauding her and laughing. Dekava got up, flushing.
“But that’s not a [Warrior]’s skill you use in battle!”
“It got you.”
Beilmark was unruffled. Dekava was spitting mad, but Tkrn was delighted by the rebuttal from one of the Watch’s best [Guards].
Skills and perspectives. It was going well, and Dekava was pestering Beilmark for a rematch with a group of the new [Warriors] of the Silverfang tribe when Krshia stood up.
“Kin! We are honored to be here. And it is my honor to return to my tribe. By the Chieftain’s will—”
She nodded to Akrisa, and her older sister inclined her head with a slight smile.
“—we bring more than the great gift for the Meeting of Tribes! We also have smaller tokens from our city. We will share them now.”
“Oh, the gifts! Jerci, get ours.”
Her mother called out. Tkrn brightened up and Dekava’s head swiveled. The Gnolls of Liscor had brought gifts—tons of them, in fact! They’d packed their saddlebags and bags of holding with things from home.
Things the Silverfang tribe needed or personal tokens of affection. Apparently, they should share them now, so Tkrn dug out some of his.
He’d been given some money by Krshia and bought items the other Gnolls had said would please. Tkrn hadn’t been sure…but after their brief chat, he understood the value of his gifts more now.
“Whetstones! Good ones, too!”
“Straight from Esthelm. I know it’s nothing fancy, but they’ll put an edge on any steel you have.”
Beilmark was passing hers out to the other [Warriors]. Dekava crowed at the high-quality equipment—better than what Tkrn owned. He grinned.
“Will you take a gift from me, Dekava?”
She spun, and then looked at him quizzically.
“What is this?”
He gingerly—very gingerly—proffered one of his gifts.
“Please don’t drop it. And don’t open it either! It’s…a weapon.”
She stared at the glowing green liquid in the glass jar. A little black fleck floated in it—a dead fly.
“What is…this? Not a potion.”
She dubiously inspected the glass jar as the others clustered around, admiring the glow.
“It’s acid. Don’t drop it! You throw it at a monster and they uh, melt.”
Dekava nearly dropped it and everyone dove back as she stared at the acid jar.
“This is a powerful weapon! This is your gift?”
She looked at him admiringly. Tkrn coughed. He felt he needed to be honest.
“You can actually buy them cheaper than you think. I also have some oil for blades, and um…”
Besides the other acid jars he’d bought from The Wandering Inn, he had oil for maintaining steel weapons, and the last thing he was sure the Silverfangs didn’t have. Dekava practically grabbed the long, flat box and sniffed it—then sneezed again.
“Another [Alchemist] thing? What is this?”
“Matches. You take them out, strike them and—you have fire! I thought it would be useful for someone without flint or tinder.”
“I should have thought of that myself. I’d forgotten they were cheap. Good work, Tkrn.”
Beilmark gave him an approving look as Dekava experimentally tried out a match. She struck it too slow the first time, but the second time it lit on the red stuff on the box’s side. She nearly dropped it into the match box, but then waved it about!
“It’s so fast! Faster than a flint and tinder and—hot! What is this? From Pallass? It’s new!”
“Don’t let it burn your fur! No, an [Alchemist] in Liscor made it! It was all the rage a while ago.”
Tkrn puffed out his chest, delighted at the reaction. Then he saw the other Gnolls storming over.
“Tkrn! Friend Tkrn, may I have a box?”
“No, me! I have to scout out and I’m sick of trying to start a fire when it’s wet and raining!”
“I want an acid jar! Great friend Tkrn—”
Amused, he was passing out his collection of goods when Dekava and the other younger Gnolls squabbling over his awesome gifts abruptly fell silent.
“Those are useful tools, both. Our cousins bring back much of use, Dekava. Perhaps it is so useful you would consider letting the older [Hunters] and [Warriors] inspect them?”
Tkrn’s head turned. He saw one of the older Gnolls, a senior [Warrior] by his dye and well, age, step forwards. He expected Dekava to argue. Her face twisted—but after only a second, she proffered both acid jar and matches.
“I would be delighted, Great Warrior.”
The other Gnolls who had fought so avidly over both acid jars and matches turned. Instantly, they offered their gifts to the other senior [Hunters] and [Warriors].
Tkrn’s mouth opened but he felt an elbow hit him in the ribs at once. Beilmark. He closed his mouth as he saw something peculiar take place.
The older Gnolls liked his gifts as much as the younger ones. So much so that they instantly put them in their bags of holding if they had them, or took a match box, remarking how handy it was if you didn’t have a [Shaman]. The younger [Warriors] looked longingly, but then they began to fight over the whetstones and blade oil—those that were left.
What was that? Tkrn looked at Beilmark. She beckoned him aside and whispered very quietly.
“More honored Gnolls get preference. Dekava gave up her gifts for the tribe. It’s customary. Don’t worry—she got something in return.”
What, exactly? But Tkrn already saw the Gnoll whom Dekava had given her items to, advising her on how not to wear down the whetstone and her smiling.
“Status. Now that brings me back.”
Jerci’s father had stopped smiling as much. He chewed on the same bit of gristle as he watched the younger ones fight over what was left. Tkrn looked at him.
“Mister Orrl…is that normal?”
“In the tribes, lad? You see that all the time. It’s one of the reasons I left.”
The Gnoll spoke more like a city person than one of the Plains Gnolls. And Tkrn remembered—he made axles. Not a useless occupation here, but more of a city thing. The Gnoll stretched out.
“Let’s say you’re a [Hunter] and you find a dead adventurer’s scabbard or something. Enchanted. Well—if you were in Liscor, I’d say that’s your luck. Here? The right thing to do is to show it to the Chieftain or [Shaman] or a senior, Honored Gnoll. Maybe they let you keep it if you’re lucky, but chances are you give it to the best Gnoll who needs it.”
“Or most senior.”
His wife murmured just as quietly. Orrl nodded.
“But you’ll be credited for it! Your status in the tribe goes up, especially if you give something good. And someday you’ll be in that spot so…that’s the tribe for you. Tribe first, Gnoll second.”
Tkrn blinked. His first thought was: well, that sucks. But he wisely kept it to himself.
The second peculiarity of Gnollish culture came moments thereafter. Gnolls were drinking now, and a second wave assailing the cooking fires and eating merrily—and talking about the gifts!
“A blacksmith’s puzzle? You shouldn’t have.”
“Oh, it’s just this little thing. You can experiment with how to solve it…”
“Really, you shouldn’t have. How much did this cost compared to those matches, say? Or that lovely cookbook? Thank you so much…”
The point was that most people were happy with their gifts. Also, that Tkrn’s second-cousin Zekoon couldn’t pick out presents.
Another Gnoll waved something at Orrl.
“Er—Orrl. What is this? A cheap club? Couldn’t you even add metal to it? And what are these? I can’t use them in my sling and they’re not much better than our balls. Even our young have some enchanted ones. As for these…gloves…”
Orrl grinned as he threw an arm around the perturbed Gnoll.
“My friend, you will enjoy this. Have no fear! Have you ever heard of…?”
Tkrn was grinning as he saw Orrl begin to explain. Then his face fell as he remembered why the Gnoll knew of that game at all. And then his ears perked up as he saw the first drinkers begin talking loudly around one of the fires.
“I’m glad our cousins enjoy Liscor enough to live there for a decade. But I’ve been to Drake cities too. And you know what my experience is? It’s being called ‘dog’.”
Tkrn’s head turned as a Gnoll groused to the others. Some of the City Gnolls were blinking.
“It’s Drakes. Not only do they go to you first if someone’s stolen something, they’re always saying it. The bad ones don’t even lower their voices. ‘Smells like a dog’, or ‘untamed savage’. You know, I once worked under a [Foreman] and after a day of hard work, he actually said ‘good dog’ to me. That’s what it’s like living in a Drake city.”
The [Guardsman] actually laughed at that. The listeners turned to him as he trotted over.
“Wait, are you serious? That can’t be true.”
The Gnoll complaining had slightly ragged fur, and looked rather upset. He must have had a bad day; burrs were still tangled in his fur.
“You think I’m joking?”
It was a large group around the fire, and their heads turned to Tkrn and the speaker. The [Guardsman] raised his paws.
“No! I mean—it sounds incredible.”
“That’s never happened to you in Liscor? Not once? Your fellow [Guards] don’t talk behind your back?”
Tkrn couldn’t even imagine it. The other Gnoll scoffed, but Tkrn scoffed at the idea. Zevara would string that person out to dry!
“No shopkeepers or people on the street?”
“Not a one. They’ve done stupid stuff before. There are plenty of Drakes who’ve had issues with us—well, before the Humans came along. Now they mostly hate them. But we don’t stand for it.”
“How do you mean, don’t stand for it?”
A curious question from Dekava. Tkrn shrugged.
“We just boycott the shop or business. There was a problem with Wishdrinks not letting in as many Gnoll groups. So we all stopped going and they changed their minds. Well, the new manager did. I’ve never had what you describe, mister…?”
“It’s Serral. And you must be exaggerating. I know what other cities are like. Ever heard of Paworkers?”
Tkrn had, but only recently. He spread his paws out.
“That’s some cities. It’s not what living in Liscor is like. Believe me, it’s fine.”
He told the other Gnolls, trying to inject some reality into the rant. He didn’t mean to offend Serral—but realized that was what he was doing.
The other Gnoll bristled.
“Oh, so Liscor is perfect, then? Tell me, until recently how many Gnolls were on your Council?”
“And how many Watch Captains were Gnolls? Has there ever been a Gnoll Watch Captain?”
“No, but we have a good one. So no one’s lining up for the job…”
“And if they did, would they get chosen, or would a Drake be chosen first? For that matter, if your precious city is so good, why haven’t I heard of other Gnolls having wonderful experiences in theirs? Who here has been to Drake cities and had that kind of experience?”
The Gnoll looked around angrily. No one raised their paws, although some of Liscor’s Gnolls looked uncomfortable.
“Maybe it’s one city where you think everything’s fine. But is it really? Or do you just not see what’s wrong?”
He challenged Tkrn. The [Guardsman] hesitated.
“No, I admit there’s things that are wrong. It’s just—not all cities are bad—”
“And you have been to more than me, yes?”
“Well, I’ve been to Human cities—”
“Where there are tons of Gnolls, yes?”
Something was happening. The group around the fire, including Dekava, was growing, and Gnolls were nodding or talking to each other as Serral spoke. Tkrn had invoked something by accident. Not knowing the rules, he tried to reply.
“Look, Liscor is really nice, Serral. The Drakes are kind, nice. Some other cities might be bad, I don’t know.”
“You speak kindly, Tkrn. But you are naïve. Young.”
Serral scoffed back. He turned, and he was addressing the listening crowd around the fire as much as Tkrn. He took a swallow from his drink and went on.
“Maybe the only reason Liscor is so good is that there are enough Gnolls to force the Drakes to treat us civilly. Maybe if there were not so many Silverfangs and so organized with Honored Krshia, we would see exactly how ‘nice’ the Liscorian Drakes are. What I experience is tolerance at best, and incivility and insults and suspicion most of all. But why trust my opinion, no? I’ve lived and travelled to more cities than young Tkrn here…but that’s all.”
More agreement. Tkrn felt himself shrinking as he struggled for a response and found his tongue wasn’t quick enough, especially with the food and drink in him.
Someone came to his rescue before Serral could go on. Tkrn jumped as he felt a paw on his shoulder. He looked left—
And there was Krshia. She cut off Serral.
“You say that despite not having been to Liscor, Serral. It seems there is a lack of knowledge on both sides, yes? And I have been to more cities than both of you combined. And am older than both! What if I told you that Liscor truly was good?”
The angry Gnoll turned. There was a murmur and Tkrn felt Krshia nudge him back. Suddenly—it was Serral and Krshia. They were…
Debating. Tkrn saw the crowd’s heads swing back and forth, listening. Now hundreds of Gnolls were listening from afar as Serral scoffed.
“And was Liscor so wonderful as Tkrn described, Honored Krshia? Or was it just as I said, and Gnolls had to fight for their rights?”
“No. It was not always so nice.”
Krshia held Serral’s gaze as she dipped her head. He smiled—but she undercut him with her next sentence.
“However, Tkrn is not wrong. He speaks from his only viewpoint, which is just as honest as he says. Liscor was uncomfortable with us when we first came. But it was not force that made the citizens warm to us, but that we were there and they grew used to us. Just as they grew used to Antinium. Because both species mixed and mingled. Perhaps the problem with other cities is that they only know Gnolls who come and go, not settle in numbers.”
A second murmur, of intrigue. Serral frowned.
“And why should we, if they treat us so?”
“Perhaps because Gnolls of the plains sometimes come to Drake cities with as much disdain for them as they do for us, Serral. Or do you show up to your job smiling?”
Polite laughter. Krshia waved a paw as he began to growl.
“I am not saying that you are wrong, Serral. Only that you call all Drake cities one thing. When I say it depends on how well they know us. There are good cities with good people—perhaps many cities, only some ruled by hostile Drakes or not used to us. And I say Liscor is one such. That is all.”
He hesitated. But after a moment’s thought, the inebriation seemed to be too much for him to tack on a coordinated response. Defeated, Serral just growled.
“Would that every city were Liscor, then.”
He stomped off to get another drink. Krshia looked around and so did Tkrn. He heard murmurs of agreement, some sharing their own experiences. Then Krshia turned to him.
“Your first day in camp and you must start a debate, hrm, nephew?”
She pinched his ear roughly. He yelped.
“Aunt! I hate when you do that! What did I do?”
“You participated in a debate, Tkrn. Do you not know one when you see it? And you very nearly made yourself and Liscor look like fools, yes?”
Krshia indicated the crowd. Tkrn, wincing, pulled his ear to safety.
“I don’t understand. Did you win the debate? Serral just stormed off.”
She gave him a long look.
“So? I persuaded the ones who matter and thus I won.”
She indicated the listeners. Tkrn saw they were nodding at her, and even the Chieftain looked approving.
“I don’t understand.”
One of the Plains Gnolls chuckled. It was Cetrule. The [Shaman] nodded to Krshia, who smiled.
“It is a custom of tribes, young Tkrn. When Gnolls argue, others listen. Whomever is judged most right ‘wins’, even if the two never reconcile. The goal is to persuade those who listen of your correctness, not to simply talk. And the one who wins often sees the other side come around if all agree.”
Serral hadn’t, but he was having a longer drink then going back to the conversations, which were indeed skewing positive. Tkrn shook his head.
“I can’t imagine trying that in Liscor. Some of my fellow [Guards] would never admit they’re wrong.”
“Well, they are Drakes. We are Gnolls.”
Cetrule laughed. Tkrn hesitated. He’d meant his coworkers in general, which now included Humans. Jerci was incredibly stubborn.
“It is good you had Honored Krshia with you. She is quite renowned and her tongue has not lost its skill, I see. Silvertongue Krshia was your nickname, wasn’t it?”
Cetrule addressed Krshia. She rolled her eyes.
“Silvermouth they called me, since I picked too many arguments. Well, you will hear more such debates, Tkrn. Larger ones, between tribes. Then—the audience is [Chieftains] and [Shamans] and the outcome matters. Try not to cause any more trouble tonight though, yes?”
Chastised, Tkrn nodded. He slunk back to his tent—which was a rounded dome shape, small though, and he was sharing it with two more male Gnolls. But it was protected from the wind and he had drunk and eaten well. The Silverfang tribe was welcoming.
It was just a tiny bit different. That was all.
To Inkar, the Gnolls had never been that different from her culture. At least, they had many overlaps.
Magic sheep? Magic sheep were different. And so was this.
She knew horse fairs. She knew cities. But the Meeting of Tribes was a wondrous event, such that the young woman was glad to have come to this world.
Despite the heartache. Despite the loss. Despite danger and death.
She still felt sad when she thought of the crashed airplane. But enough time had passed that she had stopped mourning and come out of her shock. More importantly—this was the time when she might find her answers.
The Meeting of Tribes. She was practically bouncing to see all the things here. You could trade for valuable goods! Pay to learn secrets, have fun seeing each tribe’s wares and antics, and of course, play games.
However, it had been four days since the Summer Solstice begun and the Longstalker’s Fang tribe had arrived and she had yet to go out and see everything.
The first day they’d just arrived and setting up and finding a space with Eska negotiating for room for their herds had taken all day. Inkar didn’t begrudge that.
Or the next day, when they had to build some temporary fences. After all—thieving and poaching existed in the tribes and the rare animals of their tribe were valuable. Inkar had hoped to go into the main Meeting of Tribes, which was already bustling that night, but she’d been asked to keep Deskie, the [Magic Spinner] who was so important and Inkar’s friend, company.
Sometimes Deskie needed help since she was older. And Inkar’s clothing was proof of their great friendship. Deskie had woven the fabric of Waisrabbits into the lining of Inkar’s clothing.
So two days had passed. And on the third day, there were all kinds of activities to be done! Water needed to be hauled, the sheep fed—you could spend an entire day just doing tasks for the tribe and apparently they were shorthanded so Inkar had no choice, even though some Gnolls who should have been helping if they had all this work were already coming back talking about what they’d seen.
“There’s Lehra Ruinstrider in the camps! People are surrounding her tribe’s camp and asking to meet her!”
“I met one of the Steelfur clan! They have…steel fur! He let me touch it! It’s not painful—not much, but it’s spiky!”
She wanted to join in, but Eska said there was an emergency with the Greenpaw tribe’s [Cook] and they just needed Inkar to help make some of her lovely dishes. So Inkar made some of her dishes from Kazakhstan.
…On the fourth day she figured out what they were doing.
“Inkar, I know you must be anxious, but could you help us build a new spinner? We can’t quite figure out how all the pieces work.”
One of the [Spinners] looked at Inkar a bit too innocently. And Inkar knew that the entire weaving group could put together the spinners by hand, and carve the pieces themselves if need be.
She went to find Eska.
“Why am I not allowed to enter the Meeting of Tribes?”
The [Chieftain] was talking with some of the Honored Gnolls from the Greenpaw Tribe and the Longstalker’s. Inkar knew it was a breach of etiquette, but she was too angry and hurt to care.
Eska looked up and made an excuse to the others. She sighed and took Inkar away to her Chieftain’s yurt to talk.
“Inkar, the Meeting of Tribes is for Gnolls. I would let you join in if I could, but we must make sure you are…allowed to participate. Few outsiders of your species are allowed to go to more than the periphery.”
“Then can I at least go there?”
Inkar pleaded. Eska sighed.
“I fear you may get into trouble or stand out, Inkar. And you are something of a secret that I hope the Chieftains will discuss. But it will be celebrations and politics will not come for a while.”
“I must wait until then? It is not fair! Please, Eska?”
The [Chieftain] hemmed and hawed, but she would have been blind and heartless not to see how cooped up Inkar felt.
“Very well. Tomorrow, though. I will ask the…Plain’s Eye tribe to make a statement to the other Chieftains about outsiders this Meeting of Tribes. I have been trying, Inkar, but they are busy meeting with the other great tribes. But tomorrow, even if I cannot secure their agreement, I will send someone with you.”
Inkar was content with that. She spent the rest of the day brushing the Shockwoolies—her clothing allowed her to do it without those nasty static shocks—and cuddling the friendly animals. Although, part of Inkar remembered that the ‘friendly sheepies’ could and would cluster together and stop someone’s heart if they detected a threat.
Well, good for them. They liked her, and she liked the animals. But she was restless all night, waiting for her chance to explore the meeting of tribes!
The next day, Eska yawned as she rose bright and early. She sighed. Another day of waiting to meet the more important tribes. Skies willing, her tribe’s fortunes would change after this year…
“Oor. What are you doing loafing around? Is Inkarr not up yet?”
She spotted a male Gnoll taking his ease at one fire, having, well, a meat sandwich. More meat than sandwich, really. He was toasting the bread. He looked up.
“Inkarr, Chieftain? No, she woke an hour ago. Practically bouncing to see the Meeting of Tribes.”
“And you’re letting her wait?”
The [Chieftain of Herds] frowned. Oor had befriended Inkar, along with Orreh—not surprising since they were from the same family. But since the [Stalker Hunter] was busy making eyes with one of the Ekhtouch tribe’s [Warriors], Eska had picked him.
The Gnoll gave Eska a blank look.
“Why would I make her wait, Chieftain? She went into the Meeting of Tribes already. Barely stopped to appreciate good food.”
The [Chieftain] looked at him.
“…And you are not with her.”
Oor nibbled his sandwich delicately, savoring the crisp bread, the juicy meats mixing flavors.
“I will catch up, Chieftain. You did say I should show her around. Just as soon as—”
Eska nearly kicked him into the fire.
“I told you to escort her! That does not mean let her wander off, you idiot, you! Go find her! If she gets into trouble—”
Oor scrambled to his feet. He ran past Deskie as the old [Magic Spinner] tsked. But then she smiled.
“Do not worry, Eska. Inkarr is a good child. She would not cause mischief. Worry more about our other Gnolls than her. We have many of our tribe exploring out there. She is not alone.”
“I do. But I do not worry about what Inkarr will do. I worry about what other Gnolls will do to her!”
Eska was right to be worried. Because despite Oor assuring her it was fine and that he’d catch up in ‘five minutes, just as soon as I prepare a proper breakfast, yes?’ He did not. And an hour later?
She was lost.
Not metaphorically lost. Not spiritually lost, or morally lost. Just lost. Physically, among the countless tents and places of the Meeting of Tribes.
In theory she wasn’t. As Tkrn had observed, Inkar had seen the same; each tribe had their own grounds. The areas between the camped tribes was neutral space where everyone could walk.
The problem was—there were no signs. And she couldn’t just walk up to random Gnolls. Well—she could—but she was suddenly shy. Everyone was staring at the lone Human in the crowd! Inkar tugged the hood over her face. Like that, she was just a short Gnoll.
She wandered through the Meeting of Tribes, staring, smelling the delicious roasting meats, seeing a Gnoll breathing fire—and then run around shouting as he accidentally caught the hair on his face on fire.
Gnolls of every type were here. Artisans like Deskie, [Warriors], [Shamans]—
No, that wasn’t right. All kinds of Plains Gnoll were here. Few of the cities. Some came, but they were almost as much outsiders as Inkar. Twice, she saw Gnolls laughing at an ‘overdressed’ Gnoll who had a suit of all things, or a dress!
It was a culture unto itself, as fiercely proud of being nomadic as Inkar had known from home. City versus countryside. Old versus new.
She was content to wandering until Oor found her. But Inkar was lost. And getting more lost by the minute. The problem was mainly that…she didn’t have a good nose.
Tkrn understood how the Meeting of Tribes was laid out. Similarly, while he’d have a chance to wander, Krshia impressed on him and the other younger Gnolls not to get lost.
“Remember the scents of the camps around ours. We are setting up our boundaries now, but if you get lost—try to find a similar scent.”
That was how they did it. Scent! No signposts—and why would they be needed among Gnolls? Each tribe was marking their area. Tkrn eyed the [Shamans] and Gnolls assigned to the task.
“Er, Aunt. I mean, Honored Krshia? How will we mark our area? By…peeing on the ground?”
Krshia’s head slowly rotated. Jerci stared at him. Dekava, who was tasked with helping guide the City Gnolls, laughed so hard she nearly threw up her breakfast.
“Bite my fur, Tkrn. Are you insane?”
Beilmark slapped the back of his head. She pointed.
“We’re using scents. What are we, animals?”
Indeed, the Silverfang clan was burning some incense in bags along the border of their camp. Spice and silver. That was their scent. It would be easy for Gnolls to pick it out from afar, even with all the other thousands of scents.
Tkrn rubbed the back of his head as the others made fun of him until they were released. Dekava was still laughing.
“Shall we explore the Meeting of Tribes together, Tkrn? Or would you like to help mark our territory first?”
She teased him. Tkrn glumly knew everyone in the tribe would hear of his idiocy by nightfall. He shook his head. Think of the fun stuff!
“I would like that, Dekava. Er—exploring the Meeting of Tribes! Not the other part.”
She laughed. He felt like he had two left feet around her. Why, oh why did he turn into a fool? Especially because he thought—
Tkrn was reminded of another ‘date’ he’d gone on, at his aunt’s insistence. With a young Human woman who’d come to the city just a month or two ago…
His heart sank again. Erin was like a shadow over everything. Sometimes he forgot for a moment. But it was still fresh.
Dekava noticed the sudden slump but clearly pretended she didn’t.
“There’s so much to do. I want to see the Steelfur tribe and how much they sell their Steelcloth for. I don’t have much gold…does being a [Guard] pay much?”
“I wish. I haven’t been saving up so I can spend like…a gold piece, at most.”
That was his entire savings, not including some money Krshia had given him for the event. Dekava shook her head at him.
“We’ve been saving for years for this day! What were you doing?”
She meant the other Silverfangs. Tkrn hunched his shoulders defensively.
“I didn’t know I’d be coming! I thought—well, there’s still a lot to see, right? Can we meet some of the Named Adventurers, do you think? I’ve always wanted to meet one. I mean—I have. But a Gnoll one. Like Gamur the Axe. I had a toy of him when I was small. He’s here, right?”
“Is he a true Gnoll? Of course he is! But I don’t know if we’ll be able to meet him. I want to meet them too, and all the Chieftains.”
Dekava sighed. Tkrn looked blankly at her.
“Why not? This is the Meeting of Tribes. If they’re here…”
“Tkrn, did you not hear your Honored Aunt?”
“Er…I was thinking about peeing on doors.”
She rolled her eyes.
“We can’t just walk into another tribe’s camp! Only the free ground. And I’ll just bet the important Gnolls won’t let us in. Unless we’re invited by a member of the tribe or we’re given dispensation…”
Tkrn realized each tribe would have guards at the entrances. The areas outside of each camp were free game, which was why Gnolls were setting up there. But his dream of meeting his childhood hero—he drooped.
“Come on. Someone had better make sure you remember all the rules. What’s this about peeing on doors?”
“I thought it was something you did! We did it as kids all the time—”
“So you’re saying you did this recently? As an adult?”
Tkrn had a terrible feeling Dekava was laughing at him, not with him. They entered the Meeting of Tribes as he wondered if he could bribe her not to tell.
Inkar had no special nose. Special hearing thanks to her gift of friendship as a [Worldly Traveller]—yes. But not the nose of a Gnoll, which was what she needed here.
She wasn’t helpless, though.
She handed over some coppers for a stick of meat. It was very cheap, but good. The Gnoll minding the rotisserie where he was slicing off bits of meat and putting them on sticks gave her an odd look, but he took her money.
She savored the hot bite. Of course, she could have eaten in the camp, but there was something to this. Buying food, walking around, eating it…
It was so exciting! Look! There were Gnolls showing off weapons to each other. They carried everything from wood and ivory to iron and steel and enchanted weapons! Inkar was no warrior, but she found it fascinating, like the warriors of old in her world.
Some were competing—others just talking, catching up with friends from afar. And they were old and young!
A little Gnoll ran up, sniffing.
“What’s that? Where did you get it?”
She was on all fours. Inkar smiled at the child as an exasperated parent pushed after her.
“Do you have to pay for it? Can I have a bite of yours?”
“Vrers! Enough! I am sorry, Miss—”
The mother snatched up her daughter, and then did a double-take.
“A Human? Here?”
“Oh. I’m sorry—”
“Who let you in? This is the inner area, not—”
Inkar ducked back as heads turned. She saw the mother stare at her, then look around. Inkar turned quickly, pushed past some Gnolls, and vanished.
Where was Oor? She was going to give him a hard time! Maybe she needed to find her way back to the Longstalker’s camp, or failing that, maybe move out of the inner area. Inkar looked around.
The problem was that there were very few easily-accessible high spots. The plains were flat. And Gnolls did not build up, but out. She frowned.
Then—she saw something peculiar as she scanned the sky. Was that…a bird?
It was not the Roc, the gigantic bird that could be ridden by multiple Gnolls, even before fully grown. But neither was it a proper bird. It was too large for that. Was that a bird…person?
Yes! The figure was flapping in the distance, circling, then descending. Inkar stared.
Garuda? She knew only one species in the world were native fliers—besides the Oldblood Drakes. One of them was here?
Oor forgotten, she headed in that direction. She had to meet one! She passed down the street, avoiding a tribe’s camp. The [Guards] were armed with some shiny metal—but a Gnoll was shouting.
“Demas Metal Tribe! We are accepting orders! Our Chieftain will talk to yours about the metal! No peeking!”
Inkar half-turned—but the guards in front of the tribe were frowning at her and she certainly couldn’t afford a commission.
Human. So she hurried on, and found the edge of the inner camp.
Perhaps it was wrong of Eska to have camped in the inner area. But her tribe was next to Ekhtouch and Greenpaw’s smaller contingent. A place of honor thanks to the Ekhtouch and it would have been wrong to abandon Greenpaw, who were really too small on their own.
Still, the inner camp was not for outsiders. Inkar saw some Gnolls with a distinctive ‘eye’ dyed onto their fur or armbands manning a kind of checkpoint. She gulped as she realized she was on the wrong side of one.
She didn’t know how they’d react. She knew they were Plain’s Eye—Deskie called them powerful traditionalists. And she didn’t want to cause trouble for her tribe and Chieftain. So…Inkar edged forwards. She strode towards the Gnolls idly waiting at the checkpoint and sipping tea—they really weren’t doing anything other than turning away outsiders. Before they noticed her coming up from behind she called upon the magic and—
Inkar appeared past the checkpoint and a tent. A Gnoll jumped as she saw Inkar appear.
She exclaimed as Inkar appeared. The Waisrabbit cloth—expensive, highly prized—whispered in Inkar’s clothing. She’d used up the magic charge to hop a tiny bit forwards.
Inkar apologized. She rounded the tent as she backed away from the Gnoll and her companions. The Gnoll adjusted her spectacles, staring.
“That was so cool. Did you see that?”
She turned to her companions. Adventurers? The Gnoll was wearing spectacles, and there was a Human man next to her. Inkar blinked. Another Human! Then she did a double-take and stared.
Wait a second. His skin was dark—a bit darker than hers, and he had a different clothing style—a type of robe made of one piece of cloth looped around his body.
But he was…not Human. Not unless they looked like that movie with the monster made out of parts in it. His arms, his neck, his ears all had little stitch marks in them!
“Emper, did you see that? She just appeared!”
“I saw. Good morning, miss.”
The Stitchman replied. He half-bowed to her. Inkar caught herself bowing back.
“Stop being so impressed, Lehr—Lenna. It’s a minor teleport spell.”
That came from someone standing next to the Gnoll with spectacles. Inkar’s head turned. She saw a five-foot high…
If she had stared at Emper, the String Man in surprise, her eyes nearly popped out of her head at the second person standing there. And her gaze was answered by five eyes.
The…the person was short. And she had five eyes. Had Inkar mentioned that already?
Three central ones. Top, left, right. Like a triangle, occupying most of her face. Nose? She had two nose holes, much like a Drake’s. But she was not…similar to Gnolls, Humans, String Folk, or Drakes, who all alternated on the basic humanoid shape.
For one thing, this person had oddly-segmented arms, fingers, and though Inkar could not see them, feet. An odd curl to her ‘fingers’ on each hand—and she only had four of each.
She was squat. Her neck, if she had one, was not one that allowed her to crane her head. That didn’t imply she wasn’t flexible; it was only that her head wasn’t the flexible part. Her lower body seemed to have far more articulation.
Her skin was a dark orange, neither fur nor skin as Inkar knew it. Call it a hide, then. But it transformed to a kind of green the lower it went down her body, in a striating pattern. Oh, there was more to add to her—she was as alien as Inkar had ever known. But the main thing were the two…tendril eyestalks looking Inkar up and down.
“Waisrabbit fur in her clothing. Very lovely stitching.”
The Gazer announced. The Gnoll snapped her fingers.
“So that’s what it is. I should buy some! Imagine me teleporting like that! Bam!”
“Grandfathers spare me from the thought, Lerh—Lenma. Whatever your name is.”
A short woman added. Inkar saw a Dwarf—practically the least interesting member of all four. Aside from the Gnoll, who wore a shining armband and…spectacles?
They were all wearing spectacles, Inkar noticed. The Gnoll adjusted hers and then nudged the Gazer.
“Suxhel. You’re staring.”
“Don’t touch me, please, Lemm. You know how much I hate it.”
The Gazer swiveled an eye-stalk without turning around. Her voice was mild. She did something odd—her eyestalks dipped rather than head nod or bow or anything else.
“Greetings, Miss Human. Apologies for staring.”
“No—I—I—I am pleased to meet you? I am sorry, I have never met…any of your people!”
They smiled at that. Inkar saw Emper turn to Suxhel.
“And she does not scream or run. I told you your fears were unfounded, Suxhel.”
“That is statistically one Human out of thirty eight, Emper. They have a poor track record.”
Emper, Suxhel, and the Dwarf woman held out a hand.
“Another Human at the Meeting of Tribes? I’m Elgrinna Geostrand. Pleased to meet you.”
“Inkar. I—are you a Dwarf?”
“Ah! Yes I am.”
The woman grinned. Meanwhile, the Gazer had discussed ‘how many good meetings’ she had observed versus poor with the Stitchman. The Gnoll was bouncing about.
“Do they sell Waisrabbit fur stuff? I want to buy some!”
She addressed Inkar. And her name was…Lemm? Lenna? Lenma? Inkar blinked and shook her head.
“No, this was stitched by the best [Weaver] of the Longstalker’s tribe…”
“Really? We should visit them, guys! Magic clothing for all! It’d help us get away from Niila and Lord Dragial every—”
All three of the Gnoll’s companions shushed her. Lemm fell silent guiltily and they all adjusted their spectacles.
…Which had no glass, Inkar noticed. They might have been magical, but she didn’t see any magnification in the places where the lenses should be.
“Where are they?”
“Inner camp, I think. Sorry guys—you can’t go in just yet. Chieftain’s talking about it—”
“Well, we can check later. And you’re not spending our gold on teleportation gear, Lemmy. You’d just teleport yourself into a Creler’s stomach. Nice meeting you, Miss.”
They nodded to Inkar and strode off. The Gnoll was protesting.
“Name one time I’ve make a mistake like—”
“This morning. You kicked over an entire barrel of fresh fish.”
“Ah. But on the other paw—we have fresh fish for dinner. There are no unhappy mistakes, right, Emper? You believe in goodwill and stuff, right?”
“There are. I’m a [Monk], not a [Saint], Leena.”
Inkar stared after them. The Gazer had to stride to keep up with the others. And Inkar was relieved to see other people doing double-takes as well as her.
There were more species than just Gnoll in the outer areas of the Meeting of Tribes. Gnolls still predominated by far, but there were Humans and Drakes and other species trying to capitalize on the event.
Inkar felt more at home here anyways. She’d see about getting back to the Longstalker’s tribe later. For now? She strode past the checkpoint, smiling. It didn’t occur to her that her brief appearance where even a team of adventurers couldn’t go might have raised a few eyebrows.
And Gnolls had exceptionally thick eyebrows.
Tkrn lost Dekava. It wasn’t his fault! One second they’d been talking, the next?
Poof. She’d run off the instant someone shouted that the Woven Bladegrass was holding a sparring tournament. Winning warrior got an enchanted weapon of their choice!
“Dekava! Dekava! Where did…?”
Tkrn gave up after ten minutes of searching. He hadn’t seen where she’d run off to with the other [Warriors]. Nor…secretly…did he want to watch a fighting tournament, at least right now.
Crossbows. They’d shot Erin with crossbows. Tkrn found some benches installed and sat down on one glumly. He was still processing that.
He wished Dekava well, but this Meeting of Tribes mattered more to her than him by far.
“I might be able to join another tribe, Tkrn! If a Chieftain sees me and likes me, she might offer me a position in her tribe!”
“Do you want to leave Silverfang?”
“Yes! No. It’s just—I want to be important, and it will take a long time here. I can make my fortune during this event. Anything can happen. That’s how Satar, the Chieftain’s first daughter, came to be, you know. Last Meeting of Tribes, the Ekhtouch and Silverfangs made an agreement for children.”
Children. So Satar was a child of a union between this Ekhtouch and Silverfang—and that was one of the agreements that could be reached here. A Gnoll could be headhunted by other Chieftains. Tribes could buy vast supplies of armor, or a powerful artifact…
Tkrn realized he didn’t know what Krshia or Akrisa hoped to gain from this event. He wondered if the magical tome would be the most important thing on display. Surely so.
Anyways, the seat was nice. It was a shame he couldn’t find Dekava—
“Fighting tournament on the fourth day of the Meeting of Tribes! There have been four winners! Everyone who wants to participate, this way! Gnolls only!”
—Not a chance of finding her. Tkrn watched the Gnolls march past excitedly. He wished her the best of luck. Wherever she was.
He was going to see if he could find wherever his idol Named Adventurer was, or check out the sights. Tkrn had seen a Garuda flying above just a minute ago, and he was smelling good food…he was still a bit depressed and sort of at a loss, really, though.
Erin was dead. He wished she were here. She’d be running around, shouting something and Krshia would be exasperated, but she belonged at an event like this. She was the event. She was Liscor. If she had been there last night, he wouldn’t have needed to explain there were good people who thought kindly of other species.
She’d be dashing past him shouting something like—
“Are those flying pigs? Pigs can fly? I mean, of course they can! Did you see that?”
An excited voice. Higher-pitched, more…Tkrn’s head spun. He shot to his feet.
A little figure hopped through the crowd. Tkrn saw a Lizardman, using a stick like, well, a jumping rod. He hopped with amazing distance, bracing his one good foot on the stick. The other was missing—so he jumped rather than walked.
For all that, he was fast. And an exasperated person was trying to follow him through the crowd. A big Gnoll with paint on his fur—Tkrn heard him calling out.
“Viri! Come back!”
“Merish! Merish look at that! Flying pigs!”
Where? Tkrn was distracted by both things. He heard a squeal and a shout. A…pig with wings flew past him, loose of its tether.
Tkrn stared at it. Yes, it was a pig. Yes, it had wings. But those two things conjured a much different image than the flesh-colored wings on the pig’s back, not feather but a kind of horrible membrane reminiscent of bat’s wings…he shuddered.
Some things should not be allowed to exist.
“Careful! It bites! It’s carnivorous! Someone grab my pig!”
And flying pigs were only one thing to see out of all of it. But—and this was perhaps a problem only for him—there was such a thing as too much to do. Everywhere Tkrn looked there was an activity. Something he should spend all of his time looking at since he might not see it for twenty more years.
And what he really wanted to do was go to an inn far, far away, and visit an [Innkeeper]. Or just sit and process it still. Pee on Hectval’s walls. Pee on their damned Council.
So, then—when Tkrn heard the sound, his head turned. He stood up—and smiled for the first time that day. He went back the way he’d come. Because that sound made even the people clustered in the Meeting of Tribes’ outer grounds look around.
It was a crisp sound. Meant for summer. It reminded Tkrn of where it had come from. An idea—and a gift from a city. He remembered an inn. And a glorious day.
Crack. Inkar’s head turned when she heard the sound in the distance.
It could have been nothing. One sound among many. But she had the gift of Gnoll hearing. And that sound was…distinctive.
It was not the most important thing in the world to her. But she had heard it enough that it lodged in the memory. A bit of familiarity. She nearly went back to admiring the Gnollish pieces—they did wonderful tapestries and she wished her smartphone were working so she could show Deskie. Well, maybe the older Gnoll would want to visit? Inkar was marking the place in her memory and trying to create a map of the Meeting of Tribes when she heard it again.
Crack. More Gnolls looked around. And that keen sound made Inkar remember it. She walked the way it was coming from.
It could not be. It was probably only something similar. And yet—and yet. She did not truly believe she’d see it, but as she passed by camps, towards the edge of the Meeting of Tribes closest to her, she saw a familiar gathering. She heard that sound and saw the bat swing.
Crack. The baseball bat met the ball and it went flying. The Gnolls stared at the ball soaring through the air and someone ran in a mad pelt to grab it.
Inkar stopped, eyes wide.
“It cannot be!”
But it was. One of the Gnolls pointed as the ball was thrown a bit clumsily back.
“And what did you call this? Wait—I’ve seen it on the television the Drakes broadcast. It’s called…”
“Based ball. One of my kin from the cities gave us a set of the playing tools. We’re playing a game.”
“That sounds like fun. Entertainment for the Meeting of Tribes! Have you seen the Foot The Ball game?”
“We have one of those too!”
“Really? But I heard it was all the way from Liscor! Is there a tribe that’s gone that far north…? Or has someone figured out how to make those balls? The ones with the black and white dot-things?”
Gnolls were congregating to a new activity. And it seemed the tribe putting on this impromptu game and providing the tools was…Silverfang? Inkar wasn’t up to date on all the tribes, but she knew this was a bigger one.
And it was status, status, even for providing free things. The Silverfangs were tentatively setting up a field with some Gnolls with more clothing explaining the game. The Plains Gnolls listened, some drifting back to the Meeting of Tribes, some willing to give this a shot.
Inkar looked at both games. And she knew.
Oh—she hadn’t actually seen the broadcasts. The Longstalkers had debated getting a scrying orb, but Eska had called it frivolous and their [Shaman] agreed. They didn’t need to stare at something all day—although Deskie had privately told Inkar that the weavers were going to buy a cheap one so they could work and watch!
But Inkar had not seen…anything…yet. Until a week or two ago she had thought she was the only person in this world.
Then she had seen the crashed airplane and known. Now? She saw the game and had another thought.
“Excuse me. Excuse me. Do you know this game? Baseball? Where does it come from?”
She began asking the other Gnolls around her, urgently. Most had no idea, but a watching person uncrossed his arms long enough to inform her in a slightly surly voice.
“Baseball. Comes from Liscor. It’s been on Wistram News Network. Liscor, again. We need to head there, Merrik.”
“Later. We still can’t move Yerra.”
The Minotaur snorted. Inkar gave him a wide-eyed look, but thanked him, ducking her head. He nodded.
“Maybe I should try it. The swinging of that ‘bat’ seems very much my style.”
“Well, if I play, it’s going to be that. You’re not going to get me running after a ball all day. Peki’s down for it, though.”
The Dwarf indicated the Garuda, who was already joining the Gnolls kicking the ball around and listening to the rules.
“Tkrn! Will you help us explain the rules? I forgot how many players there are!”
A Gnoll waved at a younger one trotting across the ground. Inkar looked at the Silverfangs. It was unlikely they knew—there was not a Human in sight here. But she had to ask.
She walked forwards. And someone grabbed her roughly.
“That’s the one. Colorful garments—smells of animals. You, Human. How did you get into the inner camp?”
Inkar looked around. The Minotaur and Dwarf turned back. An angry Gnoll—in fact, three of them with an unfamiliar tribe’s markings were glaring at her.
“What? I—I wasn’t anywhere.”
Inkar lied desperately. She might have told the truth—but these were not friendly-looking Gnolls. They weren’t necessarily warriors either. They looked like camp-Gnolls. But angry ones.
“Liar. One of ours saw you in the inner camp! No non-Gnolls are allowed there! The Decles Tribe is going to find out how you got in. Come with us.”
One took Inkar’s arm in an unfriendly grip. She shook her head.
“No! I am with the Longstalker’s Tribe! Let me go!”
She protested. One of the Gnolls snorted.
“Longstalker’s? That’s some tale. They’re good, traditionalists. Not like the mavericks.”
He cast a glance at the Silverfang tribe and shook his head. Inkar didn’t see what was wrong with this game, but the Gnoll clearly did.
“If you are, the Chieftain will find out! Come with us!”
His grip tightened. Inkar yelped.
“Here now. At least escort her without tearing her arm off.”
Merrik, the Dwarf, scratched at his beard. The Gnoll from the Decles tribe snarled at him.
“Back off, outsider! This is tribe business and this Human broke our laws!”
Merrik frowned, but the Minotaur put a hand on his shoulder.
“Tribal business, Merrik. We respect the laws or Feshi would have our horns.”
Inkar wasn’t resisting. She marched with the Gnolls, reluctant to cause an incident—and besides, Eska could sort it out. It was uncomfortable, but she was moving with the Gnolls right until a Gnoll ran into the four, panting.
Oor. Late by a minute. The panting Gnoll had run everywhere, trying to track Inkar’s scent through the Meeting of Tribes. He would have arrived sooner if he hadn’t lost it at the checkpoint.
“Wait! She’s with us! Longstalker’s tribe! My Chieftain sent me to go with her!”
He gasped. The three Gnolls halted. One eyed Orr.
“We’re Decles tribe. This Human was in the inner camp—”
“Yes! Yes, she’s with our tribe! Sorry—she’s with us.”
Orr! Inkar sagged with relief. But the three Gnolls didn’t seem happy with that. One eyed Orr suspiciously.
“You might not be Longstalkers. You could be a random Gnoll. And why would the Chieftain of the Longstalkers make such a foolish mistake?”
Orr bristled at that. So did Inkar.
“Chieftain Eska has her reasons. And both Ekhtouch and Greenpaw know a human is with us!”
The Gnolls snorted at ‘Greenpaw’, but frowned at Ekhtouch. They looked at each other uncertainly, but their leader bared his teeth.
“Fine. Then our Chieftain will investigate both matters! Come on.”
He tugged Inkar and she yelped. She was willing to go with them, but did they have to drag her? Oor frowned.
“That’s not necessary. We’ll go to Longstalker’s first if we have to. Let Inkarr—Honored Inkar go.”
The Gnolls around looked up. The Decles Gnolls gawked.
“You must be mad. Honored…? This is a bad ruse. You’re both coming with us.”
Oor reached for Inkar.
“I don’t think so. If you want to ask—ask Longstalker’s or Ekhtouch! Inkarr, I’m sorry. Let’s—”
The other Gnoll pushed Oor back. The [Warrior] stumbled—and then his eyes narrowed. He looked at the three. They glared back, fur rising. Inkar tried to say something.
“Oor, it’s fine. We’ll sort it out. Peacefully.”
“I’m not going to let them drag you to another tribe’s camp like a criminal, Inkarr. I am Longstalker’s warrior! Let her go!”
The other Gnolls shook their heads. One growled.
“Decles doesn’t answer to Longstalkers. Follow us if you want to, but we’re taking her—”
He yanked Inkar and she stumbled. That was the last straw. Oor went for him. Which, in the annals of combat decisions wasn’t the most intelligent.
There were three of them and one of him.
Tkrn was busy showing the other Gnolls proper form for swinging. He didn’t notice the fight and commotion at first. Then he heard a shout.
“Stop! Stop it!”
He looked up. So did other Silverfangs and Gnolls. One called out.
“Fight. Two other tribes. Don’t worry; Plain’s Eye or Az’muzarre or a Chieftain will sort it out.”
Reassured, the other Gnolls went back to the game. There was always minor stuff like that; even this morning, Tkrn had seen Akrisa break up a fight between the children of the Silverfang tribe. But his attention had been diverted. Then he heard the second shout.
“Stop! Help, help!”
He turned and dropped the bat. It was unconscious. In the outfield, Jerci’s mother, an avid player of the game, was warming up her glove. She saw Tkrn turn and go running.
He was a [Guard]. A member of Liscor’s Watch. He might not have been Beilmark or Klbkch-level, but there was one thing a member of Zevara’s force learned and that was that if someone called out, you ran.
[Guards] got paid to run towards danger.
Not blindly of course. Tkrn was already scanning the crowd. Looked like a classic brawl to you. And that was a female voice shouting for someone to stop.
It never occurred to him that he was out of his jurisdiction. Baseball had brought him home. So Tkrn bellowed, reaching for his side reflexively.
“City Watch! Out of the way!”
Gnolls turned and moved aside as he rammed through them. It worked—although their response was a bit different than Liscor’s citizenry.
“What did he just say? City…?”
Tkrn halted as he saw the scene. Zevara had taught him well.
Assess the scene for critical threats. Weigh the odds.
It was three Gnolls beating on a fourth, with a young Human woman being held back by one as she tried to drag them back. By the looks of it, the Gnoll being knocked around had given as good as he got; two Gnolls had bloody noses and looked a bit battered.
But three versus one wasn’t an easy fight. And it was definitely this Gnoll receiving a classic beat down now. Tkrn strode forwards.
“Alright, break it up! City Watch! Who started it?”
The tone of command worked everywhere. The Gnolls and crowd turned. They stared at Tkrn.
“City Watch? Who are you?”
The one holding back the young woman blinked. And Tkrn remembered that he was not in Liscor. His authority wavered—and went out.
“Er—Silverfang tribe. You can’t just beat that Gnoll to death!”
He pointed at the Gnoll [Warrior] who was trying to swing dizzily. One of the Gnolls growled.
“Stay out of it! We’re Decles tribe, and this Human was in the inner camps! A Gnoll tribe brought her in! We didn’t start this either—that Gnoll came at us.”
Tkrn saw one knock the dizzy Oor backwards. He nodded—and unconsciously interposed himself between the fighting Gnolls. Oor stopped. And the crowd murmured.
He’d done it now. But the [Guardsman] in Tkrn was telling him to do one thing—his brain another. What was he doing? Krshia would have his tail. But he remembered what she’d said.
You did the right thing in the end. Next time, do it faster.
“I think he’s had enough, don’t you? Let’s all calm down.”
The Gnolls eyed him, but it was another skill that any member of the Watch learned. Reasonable tones got you a long way in a heated situation.
“Fine. We have the Human.”
“I didn’t do anything wrong! Oor! Are you okay?”
The young woman protested. Tkrn frowned. He was stepping on the edge, he knew, but he held out a paw.
“Hold on. What has she done wrong?”
“She was spotted in the inner camp!”
The leader was losing his patience fast. But the crowd was watching and he needed to justify himself—even if he clearly thought it was a waste of time. Tkrn looked at him.
“You have eyewitnesses? On what authority are you taking her?”
“Eyewitnesses? We’re not conducting some city-investigation! One of ours saw her and we identified her! We’re bringing her to our Chieftain. Stay out.”
The Gnoll snapped back. Tkrn tilted his head.
“I have a truth stone. You didn’t even ask her if she was in the inner camp?”
That was proper procedure. Some of the Gnolls looked amused as the Decles tribe Gnolls stared at Tkrn.
“He’s got a point! Leave the poor Human alone! So what if one slipped into the inner camp?”
“Shut up. This is our tribe’s business!”
“Your tribe’s business? Says who? You’re Decles. Not Plain’s Eye.”
“We’re traditional! And Humans shouldn’t be allowed at the Meeting of Tribes! Any more than these other outsiders! Drakes especially!”
The Gnoll snapped. He gave an unfriendly look to all the non-Gnolls around. Tkrn frowned. The atmosphere was turning ugly. Confrontation did that. He wished he had a calming Skill.
The Gnoll behind him tried to push forwards, heedless of the danger.
“She’s not an outsider! She’s part of our tribe! Our Chieftain calls her Honored! She’s our guest to the Meeting of Tribes! You have no right to take her!”
The Gnolls listening were surprised. The Decles Gnolls? Contemptuous.
“That’s reason enough to bring her!”
“So—you’re arresting this Human because she went into the wrong camp? Despite being there because she came with a tribe?”
Tkrn made sense of it at last. One of the Gnolls shot him a warning look.
“She’s a Human in our sacred grounds. That’s enough. Now, we’ve wasted enough time! Move aside!”
He went to shove past Tkrn. And both Oor and Tkrn blocked him.
“No. That’s not good enough. You’re not Plain’s Eye and this Human has a right to be in the camp if a Chieftain vouches for her. It’s your tribe’s will against…”
“Longstalker’s Fang! And Ekhtouch and Greenpaw vouch for her!”
The crowd blinked at Ekhtouch. The Decles Gnolls snarled—but they sensed they were losing ground.
It was a debate—or a quasi-one. Tkrn blocked the path of the Gnolls…but he had a bad feeling he knew where this was going. And he didn’t have any backup. He looked around—
The Gnoll in front of him took a swing as Tkrn’s head turned. The [Guardsman] was ready for this, though.
“[Fast Leg Sweep]!”
The Gnoll’s fist never reached him. He went over backwards with a shout of surprise as Tkrn moved. Oor leapt over him and tackled the second Gnoll. The third growled and Tkrn reached for his baton…
…And remembered he wasn’t on-duty. Also? Not wearing his leather armor or chainmail. He raised his fists and blocked a furious punch. Ow. Tkrn lurched backwards, his hand-to-hand training coming to him. It was Relc who taught that. And Relc taught—
Tkrn’s fist hit the other Gnoll in the solar plexus. The Gnoll coughed—and the one Tkrn had downed was scrambling up, Tkrn obligingly kicked him in the stomach. Oh—
Shit. Suddenly, it was a fight. The two Gnolls took on the three from the Decles tribe as the crowd watched. Tkrn moved back, keeping them from getting around him. Watch training. He was actually better than a Gnoll [Warrior] in this kind of scramble. His heart was pounding. But more than that?
He knew Krshia was going to kill him.
It was one fight among many in the Meeting of Tribes. And in an area of miles upon miles, no one was coming to break it up right away.
Anyways, it was normal. So many Gnolls of different tribes and there was always a quarrel. Sometimes you had to let it ride out.
The danger was in…escalation. But as of yet, the crowd was just watching. And to the surprise of the Dwarf, he wasn’t holding the Minotaur back. If anything, Venaz was calmly holding him back.
“Not tempted to join in, Venaz?”
“What am I, a savage, Merrik? This is clearly a dispute over law. We’d be interfering in a serious way if we got involved. That Gnoll with the leg sweep is doing well.”
Indeed, it was three versus two, but the Longstalker [Warrior] and the Silverfang city [Guard] were holding their own. The three Decles Gnolls weren’t exactly the highest-grade trained combatants. And no one was throwing out more than a [Quick Strike] or [Leg Sweep].
A proper brawl. But only five contestants. The young woman was hovering, but wisely not actually joining in. All five Gnolls were fighting as more Gnolls abandoned the game or came over.
“What’s happening? Are they fighting? What’s the issue?”
Some of the Gnolls turned their heads, catching more interested parties up.
“Fight over a Human being where she shouldn’t. Those two are defending her. Silverfang and Longstalkers, I think—the other tribe’s Decles.”
“Hrm. And the Human broke the rules?”
“That’s what they’re fighting about. Hey, you want a pop-the-corn?”
A Silverfang Plains Gnoll offered some of his gift to the newcomer. The Gnoll snorted. He watched as Tkrn, bloody-mouthed, got one of the Gnolls in an arm-bar.
The Gnoll wheezed. Another Decles Gnoll was on the ground, stunned or unconscious. Oor was beating down the third in a reversal.
Tkrn was reaching for his cords, which he did have on him. And he was wondering what to do next. He didn’t have Zevara or a patrol of [Guards] to help him haul the Gnoll off. He should just find Krshia, Beilmark, or a Silverfang and…
Someone broke the ranks of the circle of onlookers. Tkrn was restraining the cursing Gnoll. He heard a voice.
“Which one of you is Decles tribe?”
The two Gnolls on the losing end of things shouted. Tkrn turned his head. He saw a Gnoll with thick, almost metallic gray fur nod.
Then he grabbed Tkrn and hit him with an uppercut that sent Tkrn flopping off the downed Gnoll. Tkrn stared at the sky for a second and then jerked. He sat up. The Gnoll with the strange fur was standing over him.
“What are you—”
The other Gnoll kicked at him. Tkrn rolled away. He saw the Gnoll advance—then pivot and kick Oor off the third Decles Gnoll. The two awake Decles tribe Gnolls jumped the Longstalker [Warrior] again from both sides.
“What are you doing?”
“Supporting allies. Steelfur tribe.”
The Gnoll cracked his paws. Tkrn scrambled up. He hesitated. Did he just say—
The other Gnoll lashed out with a much faster punch than the other Decles Gnolls. Tkrn dodged it and countered. His fist struck the other Gnoll in the jaw; the Steelfur Gnoll didn’t even try to dodge.
Tkrn felt like he’d just punched chainmail. Spiky chainmail. He stared at the other Gnoll’s fur. Steelfur. Oh Rhir’s hells—
“Now what’s happening? I can’t see. Give me a ride on your back, Venaz?”
“I would rather die. Another Gnoll’s joined the fighting. Seems to be on the side of the Decles tribe. He’s taking apart both of the other Gnolls. Well, it is three to two again.”
Venaz was commentating to Merrik and Peki. The Garuda was fluttering up.
“Steel fur. Not fair, not fair.”
Venaz agreed. He was munching on some popcorn. He offered the Silverfang Gnoll some coins, but the crowd was passing around snacks.
“Isn’t anyone going to help the Silverfang? His tribe’s here!”
Merrik exclaimed. Some of the Silverfangs looked uneasy. They glanced sideways—
Seven Steelfur Gnolls looked around. They were watching the fight where their lone friend had joined in. Merrik sighed.
“Ah. Superiority by numbers. Good lads.”
A few Gnolls shared Merrik’s opinion, but they had reservations.
“We should do something.”
“They’re Steelfur. You fancy fighting armor for fur?”
Some of the Silverfangs were whispering. Someone was already running to get Akrisa, Cetrule, or another Honored Gnoll. In the meantime?
Tkrn felt like he was fighting mini-Relc. Not as strong or as fast, but nearly as tough, at least without anything more than his fists.
The young woman was trying to stop them, but a Gnoll shoved her off her feet. Oor was down again—Tkrn growled.
This wasn’t right! He felt…he looked at the young woman, who had been singled out for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, but mainly for being Human. He remembered someone else who had had a bad entrance to a good city. His city.
“Give up and lie down.”
The Steelfur Gnoll advised Tkrn. The [Guardsman] shook his head. His face hurt.
“Not a chance.”
He backed up though. Even one-versus-one, he was going to lose. The Gnoll advanced and Tkrn saw his buddies keeping back the Silverfang tribe. Tkrn’s head was ringing. Was he in Liscor?
Assess the situation. Weigh…
Brawl incident. Escalation with member of Liscor’s Watch. Danger of accidental death or injury. Human civilian in dispute. At this point in time, [Guardsman], what is the correct move?
Zevara was bellowing in his ear. He knew the answer. Tkrn dizzily reached for his neck. He produced something. The Steelfur Gnoll went cross-eyed. Inkar, lying on the ground, stared. Then she reached up.
She covered her ears before Tkrn blew on the whistle. Every Gnoll in a hundred meters shouted in agony and clutched at their ears. Tkrn blew again before the Gnoll knocked it out of his mouth. Then he punched furiously.
Reinforcements! Another Watch patrol would be here in—
A fist knocked him back into reality. Another one threatened to knock him out of consciousness. Oh, right. There wasn’t more of the Watch…
But the sound had definitely attracted even more attention. More people were asking what the heck was going on. Including some Gnolls investigating the weaving who recognized Inkar’s voice.
“That can’t be Inkarr, can it?”
One of the weaving group looked over. More were hearing.
“It’s a fight over a Human! Some Gnolls want to kick them all out! Steelfur and Decles are kicking the fur off anyone who disagrees!”
That was the garbled version of the truth that made its way out of the immediate event. Other Gnolls looked at each other. More went running for Krshia or Akrisa, but they were deep in their camp, discussing white Gnolls and Humans, ironically.
And Tkrn was out of time. Dizzily, he looked up; the other Gnoll had a grip on him and was punching him. He blocked—then his arm slipped. The Steelfur Gnoll raised an arm—Inkar was being held back by the third Decles Gnoll, on his feet.
Someone grabbed the arm. The Steelfur Gnoll twisted.
“Enough. Stop this. Let the Human and these Gnolls go.”
Someone spoke. Tkrn was too dizzy to make it out. The Steelfur [Warrior] wasn’t about to listen to that, no matter how reasoned the tone, though. He spun—
He hit the other Gnoll in the stomach with all his might. Tkrn heard a whoof and groan from the crowd. The other Gnoll growled. The Steelfur Gnoll went cross-eyed, staring at his fist. Then the answering punch laid him flat.
Everyone saw the Gnoll hit the ground. They waited for the Steelfur [Warrior] to rise. His eyes were rolled up in the back of his head.
The other seven Steelfur [Warriors] rushed forwards. They charged Tkrn and the other Gnoll—the second Gnoll spun. The Steelfur’s Gnolls were fearless. Their fur was steel thanks to their Chieftain! They—
—saw the magical sigils light up. They tried to stop. Merish hit a second Gnoll with an elbow in the jaw, then picked up a third and tossed him. The [Shamanic Warrior] squared off against a fourth and punched.
Tkrn got to his feet. His head was ringing. Suddenly—more Gnolls were fighting. One seized him and he saw more Decles warriors flooding into the fight. They jumped the lone [Shamanic Warrior]—for all of five seconds.
Then more Gnolls shouted.
“That’s Merish! Plain’s Eye tribe to me!”
Gnolls spotted one of their kin under assault by Steelfur and Decles. They charged away from their posts and entered into the fray.
“Wait, stop, st—”
Tkrn kicked the Decles Gnoll who was shouting. Too late for both! He grabbed Inkar and dragged her back.
Protect civilians in a brawl—
He shouted. She nodded, wide-eyed.
What had been a five-person fight was now in the dozens. And the reason was getting more muddled by the second. Three more [Shamanic Warriors] and a number of Plain’s Eye Gnolls without [Warrior] classes ran forwards.
“What’s happening? Merish! Merish!”
An angry little Lizardman was hitting Gnolls with his staff. But he was one of the few using weapons.
“What’s happening? Why are they brawling?”
“It’s a fight over whether Humans should be allowed into the Meeting of Tribes at all! They’re trying to kick that Human out!”
The anti-Human Gnolls were increasing in number. Whereas Tkrn and the Gnolls embroiled in the fighting—now Silverfangs—were trying to shelter the one Human in the midst of the chaos.
Three students of Baleros watched, increasingly antsy despite the Minotaur assuring them it was a Gnoll affair and they were compelled not to interfere. They saw some of the Decles Gnolls grabbing at Inkar as the [Guardsman] tried to block them. It was looking bad—
The Steelfur Gnolls were just too tough for anyone but Merish and the [Shamanic Warriors] to go fist-to-fist with. Two joined the Decles group and they were dragging the young woman away. She blinked out of existence and the Steelfur [Warrior] snarled. He turned and saw her running.
He ran after her. Tkrn was shouting.
But he was embroiled in the fighting. The Steelfur warrior lunged at Inkar and ran neck-first into the arm. The second figure threw him to the ground.
“I like Humans! Who’s bullying people?”
She cracked her knuckles and removed the spectacles. The coughing Steelfur Gnoll tried to get up—the female Gnoll hopped on his chest and then leapt forwards. Merish was tangling with four Gnolls at once.
“Emper! Elgrinna! Get over here!”
She leapt and drop-kicked one of the Steelfur Gnolls in the back. They both fell down—and the unknown Gnoll hooked a leg as she came up. Then she shoulder-tackled another in the gut.
The angry two tribes found more outsiders joining into the fight. A Stitchman stopped a charging Gnoll with a palm to the chest. Inkar saw the Gnoll go flying and stared as Emper lowered his hand.
“[Force Palm]. Stay behind us, Miss.”
The [Monk] bowed to her again. The Dwarf just grunted.
“I’m going to kill Lemming—Suxhel, watch our backs!”
She lowered her head and charged headfirst into a groin. Emper strode forwards and the other Gnolls around Inkar were flung back. Not by a physical blow, but by a look.
The Gazer’s five eyes swung from target to target, moving them by force of…something. The four adventurers were joining in.
Venaz was vibrating. Merrik was staring at the female Dwarf, frowning.
“I swear I know her. How many female Dwarf adventurers in Izril are there? Venaz, are we just going to stand here with our beards up our asses?”
“No! Dead gods! For the House of Minos!”
Venaz charged into the fight. Peki and Merrik grinned. Although—at this point it wasn’t clear whom the Minotaur was fighting. It was just a brawl, and as Tkrn could have told you, at some point the reason behind it was lost.
The Gnoll staggered out of the fighting, spitting blood and feeling as though he’d cracked at least one finger. He looked around for Inkar and staggered towards her. Something began to pick him up, lifting him into the air—
“No! He protected me!”
Tkrn was dropped. The Gazer shifted her attention away. Inkar rushed forwards.
“Who? That guy? He’s—”
Either enmeshed in the fighting or out of it. Tkrn looked over his shoulder.
The fighting was still making its way towards her. Some of the Decles Gnolls were rushing past them towards the Gazer and Tkrn and Inkarr. They passed some older, female Gnolls.
“It is Inkarr! She’s in trouble! Go find Chieftain Eska! Or Deskie! Now!”
A Gnoll exclaimed. One went bolting through the crowd. The Decles Gnolls passed the weaving circle Inkar had made friends with—
One of the [Weavers] grabbed a Decles [Warrior]. She was twenty years older than he was, but she put him in a chokehold and two more went down and the older Gnolls began kicking them.
Tkrn was laughing even as he towed Inkar away. It was—he looked at the young woman. She was different. But it reminded him of her.
Chaos for the right reasons. Merish yanked Gnolls away from Viri as the Lizardman insulted his opponents, hopping away.
“Where’s the Human? I—”
Someone charged into him and punched the Gnoll. He howled and knocked his opponent flat.
“The Human’s not here! Back away!”
He snarled at his smaller opponent. The Gnoll with white stripes on his cheeks hesitated, his paw raised to strike.
Merish stared at him.
“Why are you here?”
“We heard there was a good fight!”
The Gnoll grinned and punched Merish—then regretted it.
Venaz was carefully demonstrating the superior fisticuffs of the House of Minos. He was aiming for the Steelfur warriors, who were a proper fight, when he saw an old Gnoll walking through the brawl.
Instantly, he snapped out of his fight-mode.
“Old Gnoll! You! Honored elder! It isn’t safe!”
The Gnoll was short for his kind—closer to five foot five, which was a short Gnoll. He was gray, as old as the oldest Weatherfurs Venaz had met. The Minotaur blocked the combatants as he tried to steer the old Gnoll away.
“Safe? Ah, it’s a fight. A fight. Good…”
The old Gnoll looked around. He was naked except for a single, very traditional, loincloth. He looked at Venaz.
He grinned. Venaz stopped. His internal warrior’s senses were tingling. He saw the Gnoll’s eyes open wide—and then his teeth bare themselves. Venaz saw veins stand out under the old Gnoll’s fur—then tendons.
Then the Gnoll’s eyes developed that spark of…rage…that Venaz recognized in Minotaurs. His body seemed to convulse. And was—he suddenly taller? Like, an entire foot taller at least?
“Ah—elder. I don’t want to—”
Too late. The old Gnoll [Berserker] grabbed Venaz’ arm. And the Minotaur suddenly had serious reservations—
“Did someone just throw that Minotaur?”
The female Gnoll who had been wearing spectacles blocked a punch with her armguard. Some of the brown paint flaked off and revealed—instead of the disguised leather—a brilliant glow beneath. She punched back, then whirled.
Someone behind her! She raised a fist—
And Tkrn held up his hands, shielding Inkar.
The Gnoll looked at Tkrn. She blinked.
“Ah! It’s the Human! Get her to safety!”
“I’m trying! But it’s chaos!”
Even the nearby tents and stalls were involved in hundreds of Gnolls fighting. Even if that was only throwing things or cheering on their favorite tribe. The Gnoll adventurer grinned.
“Follow me! We’ll get you out! Emper! Where are…?”
“There! There is the Human who started this!”
A howl from the left. Tkrn and Lehra turned. Inkar, looking around for Oor, froze.
Warriors from the Decles tribe, including the original three. But this time—
They’d drawn their weapons. Tkrn groaned.
“Oh no. Escalation.”
The Watch knew this. Let a fight go on too long and eventually, if it wasn’t contained or just a spirited brawl, it turned ugly. Someone drew a knife. And that wasn’t necessarily the dangerous part. The dangerous part was—
“They have weapons!”
One of the [Shamanic Warriors] with Merish shouted. Instantly, he drew a steel throwing axe. The Steelfur and Decles warriors around him scrambled back. And they went for their weapons.
“No! Stop! No bloodshed!”
Someone cried that out. But it was too late. Ill will or the desire to fight had turned into real bloodlust. The Decles Gnolls advanced. Tkrn reached for the sword or baton he hadn’t brought—because the Meeting of Tribes was supposed to be safe.
“Stay behind me.”
“No, I’ll run! Don’t—”
The female Gnoll adventurer looked calm. She blocked the way as the armed Gnolls advanced. They aimed their weapons at her.
“Move aside! We are Decles tribe and we will have that Human even if we have to draw blood to do it!”
They were beyond reason—and indeed—the inciting incident was too petty for this. The female Gnoll held her ground.
“No. You’ll have to go through me to do that. And you don’t want to do that.”
“Watch out! They’re not going to stop!”
Tkrn shouted at her. She just grinned at him. He heard more howls.
Silverfangs had arrived at last. Dekava had arrived with her spear, but that was just adding to the danger. It was going to be a battle!
“Enough! This has gone on long enough! By my authority, that Human’s under my protection!”
The female Gnoll shouted. The Decles Gnolls charged, heedless. Tkrn looked around for a weapon. A torch on a pole. A baseball bat! Something to save the suicidal brave Gnoll—
The adventurer raised her arm. And the flaking brown paint on her armguard fell off. The Gnolls staring at her saw a flash of light on a metal beyond steel. She raised her arm and shouted.
“In the name of the City of Stars!”
The gauntlet glowed. And then—the Blade of Mershi flashed. The Gnolls around her cried out. Tkrn shielded his gaze. And when he looked again, the Gnoll was holding a spear. Her body was covered in segmented, glowing armor.
The armor of stars. Drake armor. The last heirloom of the Walled City of Stars. The Decles tribe halted as Lehra Ruinstrider, Named Adventurer, lowered the blade.
Everyone halted. Merish, panting, shielding Viri. Venaz, Peki, and Merrik, as Feshi and some Weatherfur Gnolls halted, skidding forwards.
Krshia and Akrisa, with Beilmark and some of the Silverfang tribe’s best warriors.
Wide-eyed, Dekava, Tkrn, and the others turned. Lehra lowered the spear, looking a bit embarrassed. She scratched at the back of her helmet.
“Darn. And here I was hoping to keep my cover for at least a day!”
She laughed as her team formed up around her. A Gazer [Wizard], a Stitchman [Monk], and a Dwarf [Axe Thrower]. Members of one of the most famous Gnoll-led teams in the world, and one of the few Named Adventurers of her kind.
Stargazer’s Promise, and Lehra Ruinstrider, the [Magical Warrior].
The fighting stopped. Mad with rage they might be, but the Decles tribe wasn’t suicidal. Nor did anyone want to challenge the Named Adventurer. Not even Venaz. Tkrn, panting, saw more Gnolls flood forwards in the sudden silence.
“Is that Lehra? The Stargnoll?”
Chieftain Eska stared for only a moment. Deskie didn’t even stare.
“Inkarr! What happened? We heard the Decles tribe was kicking up a storm after you and came. Are you hurt?”
The old [Magic Spinner] checked Inkar over, and then the Longstalkers were surrounding her. Not just them; eighteen of the Ekhtouch and Chieftain Orelighn of the Greenpaw tribe was there with his people too.
“What is happening? Why are my warriors engaged in a brawl—”
Another Gnoll strode through the chaos. Krshia and Akrisa approached as Chieftain Eska looked up. Lehra turned and gasped.
The Chieftain of the Steelfur tribe was one of the most famous Gnolls living, such that even Tkrn knew his name. And Steelfur’s might was founded on his Skills.
His fur looked like metal itself. And it was apparently tougher than even steel…sort of a misnomer for the tribe, then. Tkrn saw him halt.
Silverfang. Greenpaw. Longstalker’s Fang. And Steelfur. The Chieftains regarded each other in the aftermath of the fighting. And this too was familiar. Tkrn looked around.
“All you need now is a crazy Human to serve cake.”
He saw Inkar jump and look at him. Krshia stared at the slightly-dizzy grin on Tkrn’s face.
“What happened here? Lehra, those are my warriors you’re pointing your spear at.”
The Chieftain of the Steelfur Tribe was first to speak. Iraz looked at Lehra. The much-younger Gnoll looked guilty.
“Sorry, Chieftain Iraz. I didn’t mean to pick a fight with them. It was just—they were going to throw this Human out and I had to stop them.”
“Throw a Human out?”
Iraz’s brows came together. Instantly, the Steelfur warriors protested. They hurried forwards, clearly worried.
“Not that, Chieftain! We were coming to the aid of Decles, who were in a fight over custody of the Human who broke the Meeting of Tribes’ laws.”
“She did not!”
A howl came from the back. Oor stumbled upright, extremely battered but furious. Eska gasped.
“Oor! Who did this to you?”
“Those brutes went after Inkarr for being in the inner camp! Even though I said Ekhtouch and our tribe vouched for her!”
Chieftain Orelighn added. Iraz looked around.
“Chieftains Akrisa, Eska, Orelighn. Are your warriors mixed up in this?”
“It appears so. One of our kin came to the aid of Longstalker’s Fangs. We just heard of it, Chieftain Iraz.”
Tkrn winced as Krshia and the other Gnolls glared at him. But not too long. Oor was still talking.
“They didn’t take our word for it. Nearly twisted Inkarr’s arm off and said that their tribe would decide things even after I told them to go to you, Chieftain Eska!”
“Is this true?”
The Decles Gnolls were off-guard and unhappy at the sudden change. They glowered, and one spat.
“The Longstalker warrior attacked us first! That Human was in the inner camp and we did exactly what we should have when one of ours spotted her!”
“You didn’t think to ask Plain’s Eye or the tribe involved before dragging her off? As for my warriors—did you jump into the argument without even establishing whether Decles was right?”
“And who would not take Ekhtouch’s word? If we vouch for her, one has either lied and used our word without our consent—or there is nothing to say.”
One of the Ekhtouch Gnolls sniffed haughtily. That actually helped since every Gnoll rolled their eyes at this. The Decles Gnolls were quiet. Iraz looked around, vexed. It was Krshia who coughed.
“No tribe is entirely without fault. Perhaps we should make amends and come to the truth later.”
“Well said. Inkarr, you will come with us. And if anyone would like to argue, come forwards!”
Deskie snapped. The esteemed weaver looked around for a challenge—even Decles wouldn’t step up to that one with her.
But they weren’t happy. Tkrn relaxed slightly as the mood deescalated. Iraz turned to Akrisa, Eska, and Orelighn.
“I will speak to Decles’ Chieftain. He will be furious—let us talk later.”
“Skies willing. Thank you, Chieftain Iraz.”
He nodded curtly and strode off. Half the Steelfurs went with him, but the other half remained to help fix the damages.
In the aftermath of a fight in Liscor, Tkrn was used to outrage. Drakes coming out in safety to assign blame, the Watch taking names and damages for punitive fines and so on.
This was different. The tribes were helping fix the damages, talking, making up—and, surprisingly, doing so with a fair amount of goodwill. A Steelfur warrior rubbed her jaw as she offered a paw to Merish and he took it.
“Good fight. Nice to see other tribes can still punch.”
Another Gnoll commented. Tkrn shook his head. This would have been the start of some serious grudges in Liscor. But the Plains Gnolls had a different attitude towards fighting. Sometimes it was necessary.
Then again—the Decles tribe’s Gnolls just spat and stormed off back to the inner camp. Someone tsked.
“They drew weapons first and they can’t even acknowledge a good fight? Someone should have slapped all of them as cubs.”
A Gnoll with those markings on his fur who had come for the good fight groused. It was an old Gnoll with grey fur—the same one Venaz was avoiding—who walked over and kicked him.
“You don’t beat children, you fool. You beat adults. Children are too small to understand, and too fragile. That was a good fight. But we missed it because all of you were too slow!”
He growled. Tkrn, reaching for a potion, eyed the newcomers.
“What tribe is that?”
Dekava glanced over as she produced a potion to help tend to his and the other Silverfang’s wounds.
“That has to be Wild Wastes. They train [Barbarians]. [Berserkers] too. If I know that old Gnoll, he’s a famous one.”
“Too right! And there was no one to fight. I wanted to take on another Named Adventurer.”
The old Gnoll had heard her. Lehra Ruinstrider was surrounded by admirers, but he seemed to be interested in her for entirely different reasons. He grinned.
“You were two feet taller in the fight.”
“[Berserker]. We’re Wild Wastes tribe. And those Decles Gnolls needed a good initiation ritual. I am Berr. Some called me Honored Berrigral. But I don’t care. You, youngling. You fight well for a City Gnoll. Shame you haven’t fought enough.”
He gave Tkrn a gap-toothed grin. Here was a scary old Gnoll. He reminded Tkrn of Tekshia.
“Initiation ritual, Honored Berr?”
“To toughen up young Gnolls. We don’t beat cubs. But we do kick out the stupid of our young warriors when they’re nearly of age. Every Gnoll thinks he or she’s the toughest [Warrior] in the world. So. We make them fight a cow when they’re sixteen.”
The two young Gnolls looked at him.
“You mean…a Razorhorn Bull or something like that, Honored Berrigral?”
He looked puzzled.
“No. I mean a cow. An angry one.”
“So just a bull.”
“Mm. They don’t have to be male. We don’t give them any weapons. They get to fight with their paws versus a cow. All those spitfire Gnolls think they’re so strong until a cow sits on their legs. They usually don’t die, though. That’s what those Gnolls need. Traditionalists. Always arrogant.”
“Isn’t Wild Wastes a traditional tribe?”
Berr gave Dekava a blank look.
“I suppose it is. But we don’t care. Good fight, younglings! Call me if you have another. Especially if you get Iraz. I want to see if he’s any tougher.”
He wandered off. Tkrn stared after him. Truly, the Meeting of Tribes brought all kinds of Gnolls.
Krshia smacked him. Then she pinched his ear.
“And what were you doing?”
“Aunt! I was just trying to help—my ear!”
Tkrn whined. Krshia was in the middle of tongue-lashing him when someone came over.
“Excuse me. Please do not be too angry at…Tkrn? He helped me. I would have been hurt otherwise.”
Tkrn and Krshia turned. Inkar had come over with the Longstalkers to apologize and thank him. Chieftain Eska nodded, a touch warily, at Akrisa. Krshia let go of Tkrn. She smiled, ruefully.
“At least he did some good this time. You are…Inkarr?”
“Inkar of the Longstalkers. Yes.”
“Inkarr the Traveller. And she is Honored Inkarr. I think of her as a granddaughter!”
Deskie put in fondly. Krshia blinked, but she smiled.
“Honored Inkarr. I am Honored Krshia. And this is my nephew who causes much trouble, Tkrn!”
He hung his head. But Inkar nodded at him.
“Thank you, Tkrn.”
“It was nothing. I’m uh—a [Guard]. I just acted on instinct, Miss Inkar.”
“Say that again.”
“I acted on instinct?”
“No, my name.”
The young woman was delighted. She clapped her hands.
“I knew someone could say it!”
Tkrn realized he hadn’t put the rolling r’s on the end of her name that every other Gnoll did. A city accent—Inkar was laughing.
“Oh good, she’s safe. And is this Silverfang? I was going to play baseball.”
A commotion. From the side came Lehra Ruinstrider, as some of her tribe kept the crowd back. Tkrn and the others stared. Half the Gnolls bowed—but she grinned.
“Hello. Is it Tkrn and Inkar? I’m Lehra.”
She casually stuck out a paw. Inkar hesitated, then she took it, and Tkrn did likewise. He blinked at her.
“You’re the Stargnoll. The youngest Named Adventurer in…”
“Don’t call me that. Just Lehra is fine. And you’re from Liscor, right? The city with…popcorn. I’ve been dying to try it, but not even Oteslia had any!”
“And cake. I heard you have special, tall cakes. And ice cream and…”
The Gnoll looked longingly at her team. Half of them rolled their eyes—and when a Gazer did it, that was something.
This was the moment. Merish was shaking his head, a bit embarrassed. But he too was looking at the Human. Tkrn was speaking.
“Thank you for helping. I just—we have Humans in my city. So when I thought someone was trying to get rid of one because she was Human—”
“I like Humans. My entire team is like me!”
Lehra grinned. Merish looked at Viri, who was hopping forwards, excited to meet a Named Adventurer. And that was the attitude. He himself remembered a glorious company. It had been so short…
“You too. Hello. Thank you so much for coming to help.”
Inkar smiled shyly at him. Tkrn turned and began to thank Merish profusely. The [Shamanic Warrior] waved it away.
“I am warrior Merish—of Plain’s Eye. I only did what I thought was right. This is Viri, from Baleros.”
What a strange group. Venaz listened from afar, remembering his own business in Liscor. Tkrn was trying to assure Lehra that it wasn’t actually that hard to get popcorn.
“You can make some with dried corn and oil. And salt. And…yeast, although that might be optional. But we have some if you want. And cakes, I think.”
“Really? Can I buy some?”
Tkrn shrugged. A second later, Chieftain Akrisa nearly knocked him flat. She smiled at the Named Adventurer.
“The Silverfang tribe would be honored to give you as much as you want, Adventurer Lehra. You and your team! And to a warrior of the Plain’s Eye tribe—please, you are all friends this day.”
Merish ducked his head, more reserved than Lehra, who was practically dancing at the idea. She turned to Akrisa.
“Chieftain—are you all from Liscor? Did the Silverfang tribe go there? I hear there’s all kinds of exciting stuff that way!”
“Not our tribe, Honored Lehra. But our kin work there and have come all this way to join in the Meeting of Tribes. This is Honored Krshia, my sister, who leads them. You know Guardsman Tkrn. Here is also Honored Beilmark…”
They did the introductions. Tkrn felt odd, standing next to such an important Gnoll. He saw Inkar keep glancing at him—and then at the baseball field, currently being repopulated—and then her Chieftain.
“Is this where baseball comes from? They are playing…baseball, Eska.”
A meaningful look. Tkrn nodded, without seeing the way Krshia’s eyes sharpened at the correct pronunciation of the game on first go. And…a Human among Gnolls. She nudged Akrisa ever-so-slightly as Eska’s ears perked up and she stared at Inkar.
“Yes. A Human in Liscor invented the game. Actually—I know Joseph, the Human who made soccer. Football, rather.”
Different emotions. Viri was excited and Merish, tired, was happy to see that in the Lizardman. Simple and plain. Lehra was interested.
Venaz curious as he came over to introduce himself.
Inkar? She blinked. Krshia Silverfang looked at her, and then saw Eska and Orelighn looking at her sharply. She smiled.
And she knew. She stepped back as she let Tkrn talk to this chance group, of extraordinarily important people. Feshi, who trained under the Titan of Baleros and whose tribe was as great as the Plain’s Eye tribe represented by Merish? The Named Adventurer, the Stargnoll?
That was one thing. But most importantly—she looked at Inkar. Whom they called Inkar the Traveller. Krshia bared her teeth as Akrisa watched her.
Later that day, Elirr, taking a break from another Council meeting to discuss the war with Hectval received a simple missive from the Silverfangs at the Meeting of Tribes. He read it, reading the hidden code in the [Message].
Please prepare Mrsha to come. She will be needed.
Also—send one of the Humans. We have met another.
His eyes widened. And the Meeting of Tribes truly began as Tkrn met new friends and people after a game of baseball and a fight.
It was almost like the old days.
Author’s Note: Why~ is it such a long~ chapter~?
I might have been able to do this in two parts. The tradeoff would have been a more boring chapter—but more expansion on the Meeting of Tribes and scenes.
There is definitely more to say, though, so perhaps this is fine. Either way, I hope you enjoy! We are three chapters in and I’m already tired of counting.
But I might be getting back into the stride of things. At least, I am enjoying Gnoll culture—are you? The Meeting of Tribes was actually supposed to be before this…by like a Volume or two before I realized how much there is to say.
So it goes. But more Gnolls and people are meeting. And I’m sure there will not be any dramatic results from all of this.
Ahem. Thanks for reading and I’ll see you next time!
Simon-Erin by LeChat, commissioned by Gunmandude2!
Stash with all the TWI related art: https://sta.sh/222s6jxhlt0
Erin playing chess by asfaitita, commissioned by Maher!
Torsion Crossbow, Facestealer, Ivolethe, and Stitchworks by MrMomo!