I don’t know how long I laid there. Maybe a day, maybe more. Every so often, I’d try and push myself to my feet, but the pain in my shoulders flared up, and so I laid still some more. By the time I did finally stand up, the growl in my stomach had turned into a roar. There was probably some food in the keep’s larder, but I couldn’t stay there. Not with the dead fellers rotting away without the wizard’s magic to keep them alive and the wizard soon to join them. Besides, what if the adventurers came back? I knew I couldn’t beat them so long as they could use their magic to freeze me in place, and they weren’t going to make the mistake of not making sure I was dead a second time.
Before I left, I gathered my weapons and went to take one last look at the wizard. I didn’t know how to feel about him dying. He was never a friend to me, not like the friends I would have later, but he was the first person I’d ever known. That has to count for something, I suppose. But he’d died with that ugly sneer on his face that he always had. He died cursing the adventurers. He’d never had a kind word for me, not that I’d ever expected kindness from him.
There was nothing to be said, so I left. I guess that’s what being a man like the wizard gets you. When you die, there’s nobody to say nothing about you, good or bad.
I left the wizard’s chambers and went out into the hallway. I went through the keep on my way to the larder, passing by a few rooms the adventurers hadn’t gone through. The dead were doing whatever the last order the wizard had given them was, whether it was standing guard or filling a pot with water or chopping firewood. I shuddered. The rotting fellers would fall apart eventually, but the skeletons… Those might stand there forever. I imagined the keep crumbling but those skeletons still standing, a rusted sword in one hand, a worm-eaten wooden shield in the other.
I think in that instant I began to understand why so many people came to kill the wizard over the years.
The longer I stayed and thought about the keep and everything that must have happened in it, the more uncomfortable I became. I grabbed a sack from the larder and loaded it with a few loaves of bread and hunks of cheese, some dried meat and fruit, and I left.
* * *
For three days, I walked through the woods that surrounded the keep, not having any destination or direction in mind, other than “straight away from the keep.” I’d never spent so much time outside before, and the brightness of the sun and the way the stars and the moon shined at night awed me. The woods were alive with noise, with birds chirping and bugs making their bug noises and little furry animals of all kinds doing whatever it is little animals do. I even thought I saw some of the little green guys, but even now, I don’t know if that was my imagination or not. I like to think that I did, though.
By the end of the second day, I’d eaten all the food, and by the morning of the third, I was hungry again. I wasn’t sure what I would do, not knowing how to start a fire or how to hunt back then, so with no better plan, I kept walking. But I was lucky. It turned out there was a human village not far from the keep. I didn’t know what to expect from the villagers, but I was hungry enough that I didn’t care. If they ran away screaming, then I’d just help myself to their food. If they tried to fight me off, I’d beat them senseless and then take their food anyway. It seemed like a good plan to me. I figured that not every human was an adventurer, right? Most of them were probably as frail as the wizard, but without any magic to protect them.
I was half-right. The villagers weren’t adventurers, but they weren’t frail either. Most of the people who lived in the village of Quail’s Leap, as I’d later find out it was called, were farmers or hunters. They were good, tough folk, used to having no one to rely on but themselves and used to having to be tough enough to survive in a world full of things that could kill them. So when I stumbled into the fields around their village, dirty and smelly and hungry, they didn’t run away scared. But they didn’t challenge me, either. The first human I encountered, a thickly belt man plowing his fields with some cattle, stood tall and watched me, confusion and caution in his eyes.
I held his gaze. I was too hungry to be cautious, and I wasn’t going to let any human stare me down anyway. Instead, I just said, “I’m hungry. Where can I get some food and drink?”
The human said nothing. Maybe he was surprised to hear me speak. We stood there in silence, and finally, I repeated my question.
“Willem has an inn that way,” the human said, pointing deeper into the town. “He’s got food and drink. Don’t know if he’ll do business with ye, but he’s got food and drink.” I grunted in reply and began walking in the direction he’d pointed out.
* * *
I came across a few more humans in the streets as I walked, females and children. Some of them gasped when they saw me, and the little ones stared at me with wide eyes, but none of them ran. They just stood their ground in front of the huts they lived in, smallish things no taller than they were and built from wood and straw and mud. I knew that I was different from the humans. I’d never seen myself in a mirror, but I knew my skin was the color of the needles on the trees and the humans’ skin seemed to be every color but that. I was taller than almost all of them, too.
I didn’t know which building was supposed to be the inn, but when I reached the end of the road a lot of the little huts were built on, there was a taller building, made from thicker pieces of wood and with a wooden roof. A sign with a painting of a loaf of bread and a tankard hung from the outside wall, and I could smell the scent of cooking meat coming from inside and hear the sounds of people talking and laughing, so I figured it was the right place.
When I went inside, the building was all one big room and full of people, some of them dressed in the simple clothes of the villagers, and some of them in outfits that looked more exotic. There was no one dressed in metal armor like the adventurers I’d seen, but a few folks had swords or knives or clubs on their hips. Some of them might have been farming tools, but most of them didn’t have any purpose other than splitting someone’s head open.
No one noticed me at first, but as I walked towards the big wooden counter where a man dressed in an apron was pouring drinks and taking orders, folks begin to see me and stop talking. By the time I reached the counter, everyone was silent and staring at me. I ignored it and sat at one of the stools at the counter.
“I’m hungry,” I said. “I want some food.”
The man behind the counter, a little paunchy and bearded with thinning hair atop his head, blinked stupidly, as if I’d just asked him a question in a language he didn’t speak. “Uh… What’ll you have?” he asked.
It was my turn to blink like fool. I’d never had an option before. I only ever just ate whatever the wizard gave me. “Whatever’s good,” I said. I looked around the room at the other patrons, and my eyes settled on a fair-skinned man in fine clothes with a plate of roast meat and potatoes and some leafy green vegetable. I pointed at the plate. “I want that. It smells good.”
“Roast beef isn’t cheap,” the man said uncertainly. I didn’t know what cheap meant, so I just repeated myself. “I want that.”
The man turned and shouted at a young girl who was tending to the fire in the back of the room. She jumped to attention and began assembling a plate for me. “You want anything to drink?” the man asked when turned back to me.
I thought about it. “Mead.”
He shook his head. “We don’t have mead. We have ale, though.”
A look of shock skittered across the man’s face, more shock than he’d expressed the first time he noticed me. There were some murmurs from the back of the room. “Ale’s…” the man began. “It’s like a mead that’s made from grain instead of from honey. It’s not as sweet, but it fills you up more.”
“I’ll have an ale, then.”
The man turned to a cask and filled a tankard full of some dark brown liquid with foam on top. The young girl came with a plate of the meat and the vegetables and set it before me. I took a deep breath, and I tell you, I’d never smelled anything so good before, and I’m not sure I’ve ever smelled anything so good since. I tore into the food, eating it with my hands and ripping at it with my teeth. I took a long drink from the tankard; the ale was more bitter than I was used to, but it went nicely with the taste of the meat. And the meat! It was amazing. Carefully cooked and seasoned, unlike anything I’d ever had before. The room was silent save for the loud noises of me eating.
As I finished the meal, gnawing on the bone from the center of the roast, I began to feel uneasy again. The looks of uncertainty and caution had been replaced by disgust and mistrust, and I could feel a familiar but strange tingle at the back of my neck. Like when I was getting ready to fight someone in the wizard’s chambers, but different. Like instead of being excited to be fighting again, I was on my guard, waiting for someone to try and hit me. But the man behind the counter wasn’t looking at me like that. His face didn’t have any expression at all, but his eyes were darting around nervously, like maybe he had the same feeling I did. “How are you going to be paying?” he asked.
“Paying. You know. Money. Silver. How will you pay me for the food you just ate?”
“I don’t have money,” I said. “Can I pay you without money?” The man frowned, but not as if he was angry. More annoyed, like it occurred to him a while back that I didn’t have any money and that there wasn’t anything he could do about it and that he didn’t like finding out he was right.
Before he could respond, though, there was the sound of something clattering to the ground behind me and an angry voice shouting, “It says it doesn’t have any money, and we’re supposed to just let it get away with that? Look at the beast! It ain’t natural!”
I turned to look and see who had had the guts to call me a “beast” and an “it” and smash them good for it. It was a big man, as tall and as muscular as I am, with a red complexion and a hateful look on his face. Not as hateful as the wizard could get, but close. “Where’d you come from, you rotter?” he asked. “What filthy hole did you crawl out of so you could come here and eat our food and terrorize our women and children, huh?”
I said nothing. I knew a lot of folks hated the wizard and it wouldn’t do me any good to mention him. And then I thought about it a little bit more and I started to wonder where he got all the dead bodies he used to make the skeletons and the rotting fellers, or even where he got the food we used to eat. No, it wouldn’t do me any good to say anything at all. So I sat there and was quiet, and the big drunk human just worked himself up more and more, muttering and closing the distance between us. “Calm down, Ethan,” the man behind the counter said. “I’m sure this… fellow… doesn’t mean us any harm. He can work off his debt by washing dishes and mopping the floor same as anyone else.”
But the drunk human wasn’t having any of it. In an instant, he was in my face, and in another, he was winding up his fist and throwing a punch square into my nose. I fell out of my seat, and a gasp went up through the crowd. I could hear a high voice shrieking, “Why’d you do that? He wasn’t hurting anyone! He wasn’t hurting anyone!” and the man behind the counter shouting, “Gods damn you, Ethan! Get out of here!” and the chatter of every last human in the bar. And then the taste of blood hit my lips, and a flash of anger burned through me.
I put my hand to my face, and it came back bloody. My nose was bleeding, and just like that, I was back in the wizard’s keep, staring down some foolish human that didn’t know to leave well enough alone. I could feel my lips pull back in a grin, revealing my teeth, my fangs, my tusks. I’d never fought a human with just my bare hands before, but that just meant it would be new and fun.