Monthly Archives: May 2012

Another Time, Another Place

The Martian soil was cool and dry in Erich’s hands. He brought it up to his nose and inhaled, wondering how it would smell compared to the rich wet soil in his garden.

There was nothing. Perhaps the faintest scent of iron, but that may have been his imagination. The dust made him sneeze. He let the soil fall back to the ground and wiped his hands on his pants.

“This is weird.”

“This is fun!” Iris said. “Come on, when was the last time you were on Mars? Was it never? Of course it was. You’ve never been to Mars.”

“I’ve still never been to Mars.”

“Don’t be like that,” she said, but she didn’t even look at him. She was off walking towards the endless horizon, and he had no choice but to follow.

They walked in silence, her looking at every rock, every crevasse with a sense of child-like wonderment and him only occasionally glancing aside, thinking about Paris, about Los Angeles, about what wilderness there was still in Alaska. And here they were, “on Mars.”

Be happy, he thought. She’s happy, and you should be happy, too.

“This is really something, isn’t it? I used to love astronomy when I was a little girl. My favorite vacations used to be when my dad used to drive us all out to the mountains. It took eight hours, but the sky was so clear that you could see the Milky Way. Not the way it looks in pictures, but still. There it was.” She paused, looked around. “I wish we could be here for nightfall. God, just think of the stars.”

“The surface temperature of Mars is hundreds of degrees below freezing at night, you know.” He paused, thought about it. “And probably never hotter than San Francisco during the summer down at the equator.” Iris stared at him, her expression not angry but annoyed. She had known Erich for long enough to accept that this was simply how he could be, and that in time, he would apologize for his behavior. She accepted it. He had other qualities that made it tolerable.

“Mars doesn’t have any atmosphere to speak of, you know. Nothing to trap the sun’s heat,” he went on. Iris walked up to him, put her arms around his neck, and kissed him. The sensation of the kiss startled Erich. He could smell her, taste her, the lavender perfume she used, the subtle undertone of alcohol still lingering on her breath from the wine they had shared at lunch. Her bare skin on his was warm, warmer even than the improbably warm atmosphere of this desolate, unreal place.

“Baby,” she said. “Shut up.”

“Okay.”

They walked on.

* * *

Some time later they came across a cave, and at her insistence they went inside to explore it. They turned on their flashlights and entered, Iris idly wondering what had created the cave and Erich volunteering that it might have been carved out by water millions upon millions of years ago.

“It seems like a good place for a bear,” Iris said. “If this were Earth, I could totally see a bear living in this cave. Hibernating in the winter, you know?”

“Probably nothing in here but rocks,” Erich said. He was silent, thought about it, said, “Maybe there’s some hibernating bacteria! I bet we could find some really ferocious Martian bacteria in here.” He reached forward and wrapped his arms around her waist, pulled her close, kissed her neck. She laughed, closed her eyes, smiled. He had his moments.

They stood there for a few moments, holding each other. Gradually, Erich slowly became aware of another smell, harsh and oppressive. Rancid. Like a predator. Something sucked in air and snorted. He opened his eyes and saw it by the light of their flashlights, enormous and pale and blind, its head covered in protuberances that wriggled and twitched of their own accord, and its muzzle opened wide to reveal sharp, yellowed teeth.

There was no time for thought. Erich pushed Iris behind him. “Run!” he screamed. “Run!”

The creature recoiled, as if startled by the sound of Erich’s voice and it backed up uncertainly. Iris saw the thing, screamed, and took off back towards the cave entrance. Erich was only a few steps behind her, and the thing only a few steps behind him, charging after him in a great loping gait. He bent down, picked up a rock, and threw it behind him, almost losing his balance but hitting the creature in the center of its head. It stopped, shook its head, and roared. Whatever it hunted, it was not used to its prey fighting back.

Outside the cave, Iris screamed Erich’s name. He was running as hard as he could, his mouth dry from terror and from the Martian dust. The entrance was just ahead, growing brighter and brighter, the beast’s heavy panting growing louder and louder. Erich burst forth into the sunlight, fully expecting to be struck down at any moment, alien teeth tearing into his flesh. But nothing happened. He ran into Iris’s open arms and tried to carry her with him, to make her keep running, but she resisted. “Look!” she said. “Erich, look!”

He turned. Back at the entrance, the creature stood growling and pacing, unwilling to step into the light. Erich stood, trying to catch his breath. “Well,” he said in between pants. “It must be blind. Doesn’t want to step into the light. Sensitive skin and eyes, probably.” He paused, thought about it. “What in the hell is that thing and why is it on Mars?” he shouted.

Iris didn’t respond. She pulled him close, kissed him, ran her hands over his chest. “My hero,” she whispered into his ear.

* * *

Iris smiled at Erich through the vid-screen. “See? Wasn’t that fun?”

“It was exciting,” he admitted. He grinned. “I liked the ending. The technology’s very… very realistic.”

Iris smiled. “You can really feel everything, right?”

“Everything.” He winked. She stuck her tongue out at him and laughed.

They talked a bit more, made plans to interface back at one of the virtucation centers as soon as possible, to see each other when their schedules and their finances permitted, and they said their goodbyes. Erich went about his day, occasionally rubbing at the scratches on his back she had given him that were not really there.

This concludes my experiments with flash-fiction for now. Hope you enjoyed it! Be here on Friday when I return to short stories!

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Creatures of the Night

Tonight he called himself Ares, and he sat at the counter taking in the Sanguine Lounge, his back to the bar and a Bloody Mary in his hands. His eyes moved with deliberate purpose, like a hawk surveying a meadow from atop a tree, and there was the slightest hint of an amused smile playing at the corner of his mouth. Every city had places like the Sanguine Lounge, and they were playgrounds for children all. Playgrounds for children who wanted to dress up and act out their fantasies. They imagined themselves as beings of darkness, creatures of the night, but they were not. Not like Ares.

He brought his drink to his mouth, sipped it, and pondered which woman he would take home with him tonight. There was no shortage of them in this place. The Sanguine Lounce was a living thing, a beating heart. Its walls pulsed the rhythm of the music, and women, laughing, smiling, dancing, smoking, drinking were the blood that flowed through its chambers. A shy one looking for an excuse to forget her inhibitions? A wild one thinking that she has complete control of the situation? Something different from the last one, or something exactly the same?

Ares’s smile widened into a grin for a moment before shrinking back down. It didn’t matter. He would be gone in the morning, anyway, gone without a trace. Just another bleary-eyed businessman at the airport, the night’s indiscretions nothing but a memory.

He sat and he watched the people come and go, and in time, he saw her. She was small, thin, pale, with limp brown hair and eyes that looked like they were perpetually on the verge of tears. She looked frightened, frail, overwhelmed.

She was alone.

Ares’s smile became a grin once more. Oh, he thought. This will be fun.

He finished the drink, stood up, and walked over to where the woman sat by herself.

* * *

She said her name was Alisyn, and every time she laughed at one of Ares’s jokes, she covered her mouth with her hand, turned her head away slightly, looked back, turned away again. Ares smiled. It was a sincere, albeit predatory, smile. She was meek, eager to please, naïve. She was perfect. He couldn’t have asked for a woman more perfect for what he intended to do to her.

Ares imagined her naked beneath him, her eyes rolling back, her lips parted, her breath escaping in short shuddering gasps. Movement, frantic and desperate, and then stillness. Stillness.

“So,” Ares said in between sips of a new drink. He’d bought her a drink as well, and when she sat with her hands in her lap, her drink clasped firmly between them. “Tell me about yourself. What’s your story? What brings you here tonight?”

Alisyn played with her hair, caught herself, smiled nervously without exposing her teeth. “Oh, I come here about once or twice a month. I just get the mood to go out every now and then, you know?”

Ares nodded.

“Plus, I just like the name of the place. ‘Sanguine Lounge.’ Makes me think of… life. And passion.” She turned her head towards him and smiled that close-mouthed smile. “And blood. You know?”

Ares nodded again. Oh, he knew. He knew.

“Do you want to dance?” he asked her.

She shook her head. “I’m not a very good dancer.”

“I bet you’re a fantastic dancer,” he said. He gently put his hand on her leg and smiled at her. He raised his glass to his lips and finished it, motioned for her to do the same. “Come on, let’s go dance!”

Alisyn was actually a very graceful dancer, moving her hips and her feet in time to the music in a way that suggested natural talent honed by a considerable amount of practice. Ares asked her about, having fully expected her to be an adequate dancer but surprised to see her doing well at it, and she simply shrugged. “I took lessons years and years and years ago. Back when I was young.”

“You’re still young,” Ares said, not missing a beat. “Younger than me, anyway.”

She smiled. “That might surprise you.”

* * *

Hours passed, and the club closed. Ares approached these evenings out with a script in mind. Things didn’t always go the way he wanted, but tonight, they had gone better than he could have ever imagined. Clean up the evidence, dispose of the body, and leave the city never to return. It was a simple plan that had served him well so far.

They took a cab to her apartment, and as soon as they stepped in the door, she was upon him, kissing and licking and touching and rubbing and breathing heavily. So meek and shy in the club, so wild and hungry out of it.

And for her part, Alisyn was hungry. His scent had been burning in her nose all night, and it took all of her willpower to keep from leaping on him inside the Sanguine Lounge. There was something about this one that was different from her usual fare, something inside him that she knew would not let her stop with leaving them drained and dazed and confused. No, things would not stop there. Not tonight.

She excused herself from his presence, put her hand over her mouth and giggled and slurred a line she liked to use about having to go to the bathroom to freshen up. “Take off your clothes and get on the bed,” she told him, and of course he was too happy to comply.

Inside the bathroom she looked in the mirror and took a deep breath. Even through the closed door, she could smell him still, the heat of his blood flowing through his neck, his wrists, every artery lurking just beneath the surface of his skin. She looked in the mirror, allowed herself her first grin of the night, and watched the light shine off of her teeth, row after row, so sharp, so white.

“Alisyn?” he called out from the bedroom.

“Coming, lover!” she said, not looking away from the mirror.

Oh, she thought. This will be fun.


The Shadow at the Edge of the Frame

This is a shorter, more experimental piece. I’ll be doing these for the remainder of May, each one different and unrelated to the others. Enjoy!

I have in my possession a video of a commercial from years and years ago.

It begins with a bed, a bed with a figure lying atop it. The hands are folded neatly atop the chest, and the look on its face is so serene, so serene, so serene that it is entirely understandable why one would notice such an expression before one noticed the bright colors, the motley, the makeup. The eyes, open. The mouth, a soft pleased smile behind the bright red greasepaint staining the face.

An alarm goes off. Not the comical crowing of a rooster, not the sound of a mother calling her children to get ready, but an alarm, harsh and grating and as artificial as an air raid siren. There is nothing pleasing or nostalgic or idyllic about it. There is only a terrible urgency, and the figure on the bed leaps up without even the pretense of waking up. Why should it? It wasn’t awaiting the morning; it was awaiting a summons.

“Oh, boy! Breakfast!”

In their own way, the words are just as harsh and unnatural as the siren. Setting aside the contrivance of someone speaking to themselves about anticipating breakfast, the emphasis and the weight given over to the syllables is off, the Rs drawn out like the growl of a rabid dog. Brrrrreakfast.

It bounds from the room, the alarm still sounding in the background, and for just a moment we see another figure in the bed, the head turned away from us, an arm limp at its side. The blankets and sheets on the bed are a mess, hinting at a frenzied motion that preceded the stillness that opened the scene, and before it is clear whether or not the second figure is breathing, the video cuts away.

A kitchen. A doorway. It slides into view, oversized shoes slipping on the hardwood floor. One almost expects to hear the noise of tires skidding, or else the cartoonish beating of bongos, but the sound is not there. There is little sound at all.

It steps forward, its walk surprisingly smooth, like a cat stalking prey, and it stops before a bowl of cereal, a glass of orange juice, a plate with two pieces of toast. It gasps, its lips pull back in a grin, and for a single moment, its teeth are as gnarled and yellowed as an addict’s, as some wild predator’s. But then its lips slide back into place, and the moment is over, and it is impossible to say if it ever occurred at all.

It produces a spoon from some unseen pocket and picks up the bowl of cereal. With theatrical relish, it brings to the spoon to its mouth, its lips somehow not moving to reveal the truth about its teeth. There is the sound of chewing. Its eyes close for the first time and a shudder passes through its body, suggestive of something that while not in the slightest bit sexual is the embodiment of orgasmic.

Its eyes open, and it smiles. “Sugar Puffies! Mmm-mmm! Nothing beats the taste!” It holds the bowl up for inspection. “Sugar Puffies is made with puffed rice, corn, and wheat, and then swirled with honey and sugar for the sweetness all the little children love!” It looks up, its eyes an unblinking white and black against the garish red of its face. “And don’t worry, Mom. They’re fortified with eleven essential vitamins and minerals, so it’s good for all the little children, too!”

The angle changes. The camera is above it now, looking down at its bald head, its comically undersized cap. But its posture does not change. It does not move to speak to the camera, but continues to address the empty space, the nothing before it. And there is, in fact, nothing before it. From this angle, the illusion is broken. There was never an audience, there was never anything there at all but a void.

But there are other things that are visible from this angle. A knife sits on the counter, dark spots staining the edge of the blade. Rust? Sauce? Blood? It’s not clear.

Another question. Why is the knife there in the first place? This is a commercial for breakfast cereal be marketed to children, to families. There’s no need for a knife in this fake kitchen.

Another. Is this a fake kicthen? It doesn’t appear to be a set. From this angle, it is plain that the floors are tile, that the countertops extend past the point where they would have been visible from the earlier angle. There are dirty glasses in the sink, dishes drying on a rack. If this is a set, then it has an air of verisimilitude that is, frankly, entirely unnecessary for the purposes of filming a commercial. If this is a set, it is an exercise in pointlessness.

A final question. Why why why did the director choose to shoot from this angle? Why would anyone with any sense at all choose to shoot from this angle?

There is another oddity visible from this angle. A shadow, in the lower-left corner of the frame, between its oversized shoes. A flat dark surface with a long thin strand trailing from it, winding like a snake coiling in on itself. A child’s shoe, toe pointed up towards the sky, and a shoelace.

The camera angle changes again. It is a close-up of the bowl, and to the credit of the makers of Sugar Puffies, the cereal does look appetizing. A white-gloved hand descends into the frame from the top, grabs the bowl, and disappears. The speed with which it moves is startling, and there is a darkness to it that suggests dirt and damage, and then it’s gone. The sound of messy, enthusiastic chewing fills the air, and the camera lingers on this empty shot, focused on the empty foreground. The background is a blur. The sound of chewing is heavy and insistent and constant. Like the prone form in the bed, like the figure’s teeth, like the child’s shoe, there is no way to be certain of what has just been observed. Observation has failed us.

And then the hand descends, sets the bowl down, and lingers. It lingers.

It is gloved, yes, and the glove is dirty, yes, and the glove is torn, yes. The skin visible through the rips and tears in the fabric is stained with dirt, dirt caked into the folds and creases. There are tiny dark brown stains on the glove, almost lost amongst the dirt, but they are there. Droplets. Tiny dark brown droplets. The alarm can still be heard sounding in the background, faintly, faintly.

So much answered. So much never to be answered.

And then the video is over.

This is it. This is all there is. A sensation of unease, the insinuation of something terrible, and then nothing. Shadows at the edge of the frame, and then nothing.


Fighting and Winning, Pt. 6

Yikes. Sorry about the profoundly late post.

I let Sir Perceval’s right-hand man, Blake, drag me into the woods by my ankles, doing my best not to give any indication that I was awake and waiting for the man to let his guard down. All I needed was for him to get away from the town, away from the other armored men, and I’d snap his neck. I’d wait until night, sneak back into town, and slit their throats while they slept. And when I came across Sir Perceval, I’d drag him from his bed and out into the street, no sword or armor or men waiting to follow his every order, and I’d kill him with my bare hands.

A scream pierced the air, high and shrill. I gasped. “Victoria!” Blake stopped in his tracks, turned and looked down at me, a stupid expression of shock written all across his face. There would be no surprise, then.

I roared. Blake dropped my legs and stumbled backwards. I scrambled to right myself, and before he could draw his sword, my hands were around his throat, bashing his head against the ground. I didn’t bother to make sure I killed him; I just did it until he went limp, and then I grabbed his sword, knowing Sir Perceval and his men were certainly already bearing down on me.

I was right. I turned just in time to see one of Sir Perceval’s men charging at me, his sword raised high, shouting a battle cry of some sort. I ducked low and rolled under his blade, swinging my sword at his shins. I didn’t cut through his armor, of course, but the force was enough to send him toppling head first into the ground. Before he could recover, I pounced on him, sliding the tip of my sword in between the plates of his armor and straight into his heart.

A heavy blow struck the side of my head, sending me sprawling on the ground, my vision blurred and my ears ringing. Instinctively, I rolled to the side, just in time to hear the sound of a sword rushing through the air and a stifled curse as the sword stuck itself into the ground.

I shook my head and focused on my enemy. Unlike the others, he had a short sword and a shield. Hitting me with the shield had been a stupid mistake; if he’d used the sword, he might have killed me. Instead, he was off-balance and struggling to free his sword from the foot of dirt he had embedded it in.

I grabbed at the his heavy wooden shield and pulled myself to my feet. He pulled back, but he couldn’t match my strength, and with a single yank, I’d pulled him from his feet and thrown him over my shoulder, his sword still stuck into the ground. He held up the shield to try and ward me off, but it didn’t do him any good. I grabbed the edges and pulled, tearing it free from his arm, and then I brought it down on his neck, crushing his throat. “Ought to wear a helmet, human. Neck piece might have saved you.” I muttered. I stood up straight, and an arrow burst forth from my shoulder.

I spun around, glaring. Sir Perceval’s last man was standing next to him, a smug look on his face and a complicated looking contraption in his hands. He calmly turned it over, loaded another arrow, pulled back on the contraption, and leveled it at me. I stumbled backwards a step, the feathers of an arrow jutting from my chest. He kept looking at me with that cocky expression, not even bothering to reload his little hand crossbow, as if I wasn’t made of tougher stuff than that, as if I hadn’t choked the life out of every cocky grot that had ever given me that look before.

Staring him in the eyes, I reached over and pushed the arrow in my shoulder through. The one in my chest, I just snapped off where it entered my skin. Then I started walking towards the man. His eyes filled with uncertainty. He began fumbling with his crossbow, trying desperately to reload it in time to shoot me again.

He couldn’t. I took it out of his hands and smashed it to piece in my grasp. He stood completely still, frozen with shock. “Run,” I growled. “Run and don’t look back, and maybe you’ll live long enough to tell your children of your cowardice some day.”

He ran. I couldn’t help but chuckle at the sight of an armored man pushing women and children out of his way so he could flee from someone without any armor or weapons. But Sir Perceval’s voice cut me off.

“Do you see?” he said to the gathered crowd. “He slaughters without mercy. He taunts the fearful. Can there be any doubt in your hearts that it was black magic that created him? Who knows what souls the necromancer imprisoned, what demons he bargained with, to create this beast?”

“You still won’t fight me, will you?” I said. “You’re nothing but talk without wizards to protect you and men to die from you.”

That got to him. His nostrils flared, and his voice dropped to a low growl. “I am Sir Perceval Roderick of the Westlands,” he said. “Trained by the greatest weaponeers of Freiburg, tutored by the monks of the Athos Monastery, and heir to the Crown of the River King. I am a hero. And you… you are vermin.”

I shook my head. “No hero punches a feller in the back of the head instead of fighting him. No hero decides that a village needs to die because he has a funny feeling that there’s something wrong with them.” I thought about it. “And there ain’t. They’re decent folks, once they stop trying to kill a feller just for being different.”

His lips pulled back in a snarl. “Pick up a sword, you swine, and let us end this. I was made to slay monsters like you.”

I smiled, reached down to pick up a sword as he drew his own. “I was made for something else.”

He shouted a battle cry in a language I didn’t understand and charged at me, his sword held overhead to cleave me in two the moment he got into range. But he was angry and not thinking, and it was easy to sidestep around him. I swung my sword at him, hoping to startle him or knock him off balance, but something strange happened. My sword connected with his armor and sparks flew.

I drew back in surprise, and he turned to face me, a grin on his face. “I need no mage to beat a creature like you, beast. It will take more than your mundane weapons to break through the enchantments that protect my armor.” He swung his sword at me, and I barely dodged in time, a cut opening up across my chest in the blade’s wake.

Now that I think about it, the human’s arrogance probably saved my life. If he hadn’t told me that weapons weren’t going to be any good against his armor, I would have kept trying, tiring myself out until I was easy prey. Instead, I tried something different.

I danced about him, staying just at the edge of his reach with the sword so that he had to chase me. If we were moving, I’d outlast him. I didn’t have to carry a heavy sword or a couple dozen pounds of plate armor. Soon, he was starting to show signs of slowing, and I made my move.

I let him swing one last time and when I dodged the blow, I dropped my sword and punched him in the face with all my might. He stumbled backwards, his hands slipping from his own sword.

I hit him again, laughing and taunting him more to keep him unfocused than anything else. “Come on, human! Fight me! Maybe that’ll teach you to wear a damn helmet!”

He got his hands up to block my punches, and my fists clattered uselessly of his gauntlets. And then he returned a few blows of his own, and before I knew it, I was flat on my back seeing double.

Getting punched in the face with gauntlets hurts a lot worse than you would think.

Soon he was on top of me, spitting curses and punctuating them with blows. I did the only thing I could think of to defend myself. I reached up and wrapped my fingers around his throat. I squeezed as hard as I could, all the while he clawed at my hands and face.

Just a few seconds passed, but I became aware of a crowd gathering around us. Some of the villagers, Ethan and Willem and Victoria and a dozen others whose names I could only half-remember, stood over us, watching and judging, like the gods the humans like to believe in. Sir Perceval reached out a hand to them, and I realized that if they wanted to kill me, there’d be nothing I could do about it. There were too many of them, and I was flat on my back, pinned by a man in heavy armor. Even if they waited for me to kill him, I couldn’t stop them all. And they’d just seen me fight five men and win. They wouldn’t make the mistake of assuming I was dead.

It was Ethan who spoke. He looked down at Sir Perceval’s outstretched hand, and looked into the dying man’s eyes. “Two strangers came into this village,” he said. “They were both monsters, but only one of them decided that he had to kill us.”

He turned his back on the scene and began walking away. The others followed behind him.

* * *

I don’t know how long I laid there, not doing anything but hurting. My shoulder and chest burned from where I’d been shot by arrows, my every muscle ached, and my entire head felt like one giant bruise. But I would survive. Part of being made for fighting and winning means being made to survive.

It was already starting to go dark by the time I pushed myself to my feet and stumbled towards the inn. I opened the door, but this time, the gathered crowd was already silent as I entered. They parted before me, and there was an open spot waiting for me at the counter, a plate of food and a tankard of ale just sitting there.

Willem and Victoria were standing there, and I noticed for the first time that the whole left side of Willem’s face was bruised. One of the bastards must have struck him. That was probably why Victoria had screamed.

I sat down, slow and stiff, and didn’t say anything. It was Willem who spoke first. “We made a plate for you,” he said. “It might be cold by now, but we could heat it up for you, if you like.” He frowned. “Might not be a good idea, though. It’s lamb. When you try to heat lamb back up, it tends to dry it out.”

“It’s fine the way it is,” I said as I reached for the tankard of ale. I thought about it for a second, and then added, “Thank you.”

Willem smiled, nodded, walked away to tend to some other customer. Victoria came up and gently poked the wound in my shoulder. I hissed, not at her but at the pain, but she jumped all the same. She was only scared for a second, though. “You ought to have somebody clean that for you and put some bandages on it. I can do it, if you want. My mommy taught me how.”

“That’ll be good,” I said. I didn’t know if it would be. I’d never have anyone clean and bandage my wounds before. The gods know the wizard certainly never did it.

Ethan came up to me then and put a hand on my good shoulder. He didn’t say anything, but the way he looked at me and then looked away said it all. I nodded and said, “I know.” He turned red, like he had when I’d first beat him in a fight so many months ago and just said, “Good.” Then he turned and walked back to the table he’d been sitting at.

Things picked up inside the inn after that, people laughing and joking and making a lot of noise. Another tankard of ale, and I joined in, boasting about all the men tougher than Sir Perceval I’d beaten and trading bawdy songs with the men who worked the fields and vowing that so long as the villagers kept ale and food in my belly, they’d have nothing to fear from delusional madmen.

Before long, everyone had either left or gone to sleep, and the only ones awake were once again Willem and me, Victoria sleeping in the corner. But he wasn’t focused on cleaning like he had been so often in the past. Instead, he poured himself a tankard of ale and sat down across from me. “Is it true what Sir Perceval said?” he asked. “Did… did the necromancer…”

I just nodded. Willem took a deep breath and sighed.

“Ork, I know you to be a good person. Quick-tempered and boastful and a little too eager to solve your problems by acting without thinking, but no monster would have spent these past few months in the village with us.”

“The wizard made me,” I said. “He told me to do things and I did them, but he never… he couldn’t just order me around like the living dead he kept as servants. I chose to do the things I did.” I turned to look at Willem, frowning. “Some of them because I didn’t know any better, but some of them because I enjoyed them. I like fighting,” I said. “I like fighting loudmouths who think they’re better than everyone. I like the look on people’s faces when they realize I’m the biggest and strongest feller around. And if that makes me a monster…” I trailed off, stared at the green skin of my knuckles, my hand, wrapped around the handle of the tankard. “Well, then I guess I’m a monster.”

Willem shook his head. “You’re not,” he said. “You’re… Sir Perceval came to our village once before, a few months back. That’s when he and three others went to slay the necromancer. I suppose you would have met him then.” Willem was silent for a moment, and I turned to look at him, uncertain what point he was trying to make. “He was brusque, then. A very to-the-point fellow. Not unfriendly, exactly, but very much in the habit of putting his business first and being personable second. But he kept saying that slaying the necromancer was important because he’d been preying on the countryside. It wasn’t about glory, or good and evil, or anything like that. It was about protecting people.” He paused again. “I guess what I’m trying to say is that Sir Perceval died a monster, but something changed him. He wasn’t always like that.”

I didn’t have any kind of response to that. It was strange to think that someone could change that much.

“Ork,” Willem said softly. “You can’t stay here. The villagers… they won’t all understand. You have to go.”

I didn’t say anything. I had already figured that I wouldn’t be able to stay, not once the villagers learned about my past with the wizard. And if a man like Sir Perceval would take the time to try and hunt me down, then there would be others coming after me, or others coming to find Sir Perceval. Maybe that one soldier of his I’d let go would go and raise an army, and then what would I do?

Victoria interrupted my train of thought, running and up and shouting, “No!”

“Victoria, go back to sleep!” Willem said.

“He can’t go! He needs us, and he protects us!”

I smiled at that. I didn’t need anyone, and I didn’t really protect them. I just came and ate and drank, and they came to me and talked and asked for help. No needing, no protecting.

“Your papa’s right,” I said. I mussed her hair. She was a good kid, Victoria. “It’s better for everybody if I left, at least for a little while. Maybe I can come back again someday.”

“But where will you go?” she asked. Tears were starting to well up in her eyes, and damned if it didn’t tug at my heart a little to see her crying over a feller like me.

“I don’t know. Out. Around. As far as my feet will take me.”

“Will you come back?”

I looked at Willem. He shrugged. “Maybe,” I said. “At least, I’ll try.”

She didn’t say anything to that, and then all of a sudden she threw her arms around me, or at least as far as the spindly little things would go. I put my hand on my back and gently patted her. She was a good kid.

“Will you do me a favor?”

“What’s that?”

“Don’t let them call you Ork anymore. That’s what men like the bad wizard and Sir Perceval want to call you, but don’t let them. You need a new name.”

I chuckled softly. “And what am I supposed to call myself?”

“How about Mr. Tusky? ‘Cause you got tusks.”

I laughed at that. “How about not? How about just Tusk?”

She nodded. “That’s okay.”

Willem came around to us and gently picked her up. “Come on, Victoria. Time for bed. Let Tusk have some peace before he goes to sleep.”

“Okay,” she said. “Good night, Tusk!”

I smiled. “Good night.”

Willem carried her up the stairs, and I sat there drinking my ale and trying to decide whether to spend the night in the inn, or to head out into the wild as I was. I stretched my muscles, feeling every little twinge of pain and tenderness in them still. Better to sleep in the inn, I thought. A good rest, and then I would gather my things, say my goodbyes, and find some new place with new people.

I chuckled. Someplace new, with people who would look at me suspiciously and try and fight me and wind up flat on their arse.

That would be a good laugh.

That’s the end of “Fighting and Winning!” Unfortunately, there will be no update on Friday, as I will be travelling to attend a wedding. Be back on Monday for the beginning of my next story, “The Shadow at the Edge of the Frame!”


Fighting and Winning, Pt. 5

I suppose at that point it had been two or three months since I’d first encountered Sir Perceval in the wizard’s keep. I did not examine him closely then, but it felt as though some kind of a change had come over him. There was a darkness to his eyes and an anger to his face that hadn’t been there before. He’d had no sense of humor before, but this was different. He wasn’t just bossing around other warriors like him and he wasn’t shouting at a wizard who raised the dead to do his bidding. He was just standing there. But he looked like he was aching for a fight.

No, that’s not it. It was different. He didn’t look like he wanted to fight somebody; he looked like he wanted to hurt somebody.

Willem stepped forward to meet the warrior. “Is there anything I can do for you, Sir?”

Sir Perceval stook out his hand and pushed past Willem. “Stand aside, fool. I am here to destroy that beast.”

Willem turned to look at me. “Who, Ork? He might not look like us, but he isn’t a beast.”

“He is a servant of Oulos Vale, the necromancer of Kher Keep.” A gasp went through crowd in the inn. I felt… bad. Like everyone was looking at me, like they thought I was even worse than the first time I’d ever walked through the doors. I looked at the ground. “He is an agent of evil, and for the safety of all, I am going to slay him.”

Willem sputtered. “But… but you told us you and your allies slew the necromancer months ago!”

Sir Perceval nodded, his eyes locked firmly on me. “We did. But like a rat abandoning a sinking ship, this vermin must have escaped.” His reached behind himself, seeking to free his sword from its place slung across his back, when Victoria ran up and put herself between the two of us. “No! He hasn’t done anything wrong!”

Sir Perceval looked at the girl the same way he looked at me: with nothing but contempt. He turned to Willem and asked, “Is she yours?”

He nodded. “Just me and her. Her mother passed away a few years back.”

“I suggest you get her out of the way before she gets hurt.”

Willem’s eyes went wide. I don’t think he could decide if that had been a suggestion or a threat.

Me, I thought it was a threat. I stepped forward and pushed Victoria behind me. “She’s not going to get hurt,” I said. My words came out in a low growl. I was angry. Not annoyed, not excited, not even scared. Just angry.

Sir Perceval sneered at me. “Oh? Surrendering? I would have thought such sensibility would be beneath you.”Surrender? You mean give up? To a grot like you?” I grinned. “Never even occurred to me. In fact, I was just thinking that this ought to be fun.” I let my hands drop to my waist, where my sword and my mace hung from my belt. “Just you and me. No wizards protecting you with their magic, no tricky humans stabbing me in the back. None of that… dishonorable stuff from last time.”

Sir Perceval’s nostrils flared. One of his flunkies stepped forward, drawing his sword as he did so, shouting, “How dare you question Sir Perceval’s hon–” but the great Sir Perceval, reached out his arm and pushed the man aside, knocking him to the ground.

“It’s fine,” he said. He took a deep breath, tried to regain control of his temper, and forced a smile. “The words of a stupid brute like this have no effect on me.” He turned to address the crowd. “But, if it will show the fine people of this village that Sir Perceval Roderick watches over them, then I will gladly dispatch him in personal combat.” His smile turned in a frown. “Honorable combat.”

“You sure talk a lot, human. Let’s just settle this.”

Sir Perceval nodded. “Very well. Outside, then.” He turned around, his men parting before him, and walked out the door. I snorted, drew my weapons, and followed after him.

He walked out into the middle of the street. I was the next one out, and then the villagers who had been inside the inn came out, eager to see how things would progress. I could hear them whispering amongst themselves.

“Did you hear what the knight said? Ork used to serve the necromancer!”

“But he seems like such a decent sort! Maybe the necromancer was controlling his mind?”

“I never trusted him. Look at him! How can you trust anyone who looks like that?”

“Never trust an adventurer. They come and go. Ork has at least stood by us!”

Sir Perceval turned to face me, that fake smile back on his face. “Let this be a lesson to all of us about the nature of evil and how we must deal with it.”

I drew my weapons and crouched into a stance. What was this human playing at? He was strutting about talking when he should have been drawing his weapon and preparing himself for a fight. Instead, he was standing there, stock still, just staring at me. We made eye contact, and he smirked. He nodded.

Something hit me hard enough in the back of the head to bring me to knees. My weapons dropped from my hands and lights were flashing before my eyes. I caught myself, tried to scramble away, push myself back up, but a heavy boot came down on my back, and another struck me in the head. The last thing I heard as I blanked out was Sir Perceval’s voice, mocking and condescending, saying, “And that lesson is that we must eliminate evil through any means necessary. Wholly. Unhesitatingly. Unapologetically.”

* * *

I wasn’t out for long, though. I came to with my head pounding and feeling too weak to stand, Sir Perceval above me in the middle of some speech. “But then, we must consider the facts. Your village has been harboring this abomination for weeks now. Months. If the taint of the necromancer’s evil is upon him, if it is, in fact, an immutable aspect of his very being, then is that taint not subject to being spread? Is it not possible that your village, that you villagers have yourselves been exposed to a corrupting influence?”

One of the villagers, a man I did not recognize, stepped forward to argue with Sir Perceval. “Now look here, you can’t just come in here and start accusing us of… of… of who knows what!”

“Stand down, peasant,” Sir Perceval said, his voice calm to the point of being cold.

The man faltered for a moment, seemed to cower away from Sir Perceval, but he balled his hands into fists and took a deep breath, doing all he could to assert his defiance. “I will not stand down! We didn’t ask you here, and you got what you came for! Just take Ork and leave us be!”

Sir Perceval shook his head. “By the gods, you know the thing’s name? How fallen are you? Do you even know? Can you even see, or are you blind to its influence on your minds, your souls?”

The man’s face twisted in anger, and he stepped forward, his finger pointed in Sir Perceval’s face. “You–”

“Blake,” Sir Perceval said. One of the armored men at his side leapt into action, his sword unsheathed and shining through the air in less time than it took for the villager to finish his sentence. He plunged it into the man’s body, reached a hand behind him and grabbed his shirt so that he was not just pushing the blade forward, but shoving the poor villager down along its length.

The villager let out a choked cry. The crowd gasped. A woman screamed. The armored man, Blake, pulled his sword from the villager and let him fall to the ground, dead. Sir Perceval watched the entire affair dispassionately.

“Another lesson, then: the wages of sin is death.” Sir Perceval turned to the unoccupied men and said to them, “There can be no doubt that the majority, if not the whole, of the village and its people are corrupted. Search every home and building for any sign of evil. We will execute any who dwell within a home with such signs.” He looked down at me. I laid there perfectly still, trying not even to breathe. “Drag this filth into the woods and cut it to pieces. It shall serves as the kindling for the flames of our righteousness.”


Fighting and Winning, Pt. 4

There was something fun about doing that work in the inn. Not the work itself. That was just as boring as the dead had made it look. But the looks the humans were giving me, that kind of wide-eyed, unbelieving surprise, that was always a laugh. I hadn’t seen it since I don’t even know when. Probably one of my fights back at the wizard’s keep. Funny how a cocky adventurer flat on his back with a blade at this throat gets exactly the same kind of look as a villager who can’t believe he’s watching a tough guy push a broom around because a little girl told him it was the right thing to do.

It took some time, but eventually, folks got back to talking and drinking and going about their business. They’d peek over their shoulders and look at me, but soon, they’d convinced themselves there was nothing odd at all about what they were seeing.

I’ll give humans that; they can adapt to most anything faster than you’d think.

But the peace didn’t last. Soon, Ethan returned, as big and as ruddy and as angry as when I’d first seen him. But he’d brought friends with him this time, two men nearly as large as he was, all of them armed with heavy wooden clubs.

“I heard you’d come back, monster,” Ethan said, each word falling slowly from his mouth. “Guess you just couldn’t leave well enough alone, huh? You’re not going to give us any peace until we bash your head in, are you?”

“Get out of here, Ethan,” the innkeeper said. “I don’t need you stirring up trouble tonight.”

“I’m stirring up trouble? I wasn’t the one who said that he’d be coming back looking for a fight! And what’s it doing back there? Did it walk in, push you aside, and announce that it ran the inn now, Willem? Is that it?”

“He’s helping!” the girl shouted. “He’s working off his debt, which is more than you do, Mr. Fromley!”

The crowd laughed at that, and Ethan blushed. “I wasn’t talking to you, Victoria. This is between the adults, so you just stand there quiet like a good little girl.”

“Leave, Ethan. I’m warning you.”

“Or you’ll do what? I ain’t going nowhere, Willem. I ain’t leaving until that… that thing does!”

“I won’t fight you,” I said. Everyone in the bar turned to look at me. Ethan blinked in confusion, as if he had forgotten that I could talk, that I could understand his words. I smiled, trying to smile that cruel, mean smile like the wizard used to. “You’re weak. I already beat you. There’s no fun in it.”

Ethan’s nostrils flared. His lips pulled back in a snarl. He took a step forward, and in response, I snapped the broom I was holding in my hands right in two. I grinned. Ethan and the others stopped dead in their tracks and just stood there, staring at me. “He’ll be the death of you,” Ethan finally said. He shook his head, and his shoulders slumped, the club hanging loosely at his side. “He’ll be the death of us all.”

He turned and walked away, leaving the inn behind. The bar was quiet until finally the little girl, Victoria, spoke. “You’re going to have to pay for that broom, too, you know.”

* * *

By the time I finished the work that Willem the innkeeper and his daughter kept giving me, most of the villagers had either left the inn or else gone to sleep. Victoria had fallen asleep in the corner, on a pile of sacks and hay that was either kept in the corner for that purpose, or else carelessly tossed there as Willem received and prepared the foodstuffs he sold. Willem came up to me with a sort of embarrassed look on his face. “You’ve… you’ve done more than your fair share of work tonight, so if you want to sleep here, the room is free.”

“Humans have to pay to sleep?”

“They do if they want to sleep here.”

I snorted. But the inn was warmer than sleeping outside, and I didn’t much feel like walking far enough away from the village that I could be certain someone wouldn’t disturb me. “Well, a room would be good, then.”

Willem nodded and turned to scoop his daughter into his arms. “Give me a few minutes to set things up for you. I’ll leave the door open so you know which room it is.” He began walking up the stairs before stopping and turning to look over his shoulder at me. “And… thank you. For helping tonight. And for not killing Ethan.”

I stood there just staring at him. After a few seconds he said, “ ‘You’re welcome’ is the traditional response.”

“You’re welcome, then.”

He just nodded and went up the stairs. I followed him up a few minutes later like he said to, and walked towards the open door. The room was plain, with just a bed, a chair, and a simple little dresser to store whatever belongings I may have had. I put my sword and my mace on it, and laid down on the mattress.

I tell you, as good as that first meal may have been, sleeping on a mattress may have been even better.

* * *

Victoria woke me up the next morning. I was sleeping peacefully in the bed when all of a sudden I felt a presence standing over me. I opened my eyes just a little, and there she was staring down at me. “Wake up! Are you going to sleep all day?”

“Go away, human.”

“No! There’s work to do! Running an inn is full-time work!”

I rolled over in bed. “I don’t run an inn. I just sleep in one.”

“Well, if you want to keep sleeping in one, then you have to pay us! And if you can’t pay us, then you have to work.”

I glared at her. She was a tiny thing. “I could eat you, you know.”

Her eyes opened wide in surprise, but she quickly frowned. “Maybe, but you won’t. You’re not the kind of monster that eats people. Now come on! You’re already dressed! Let’s go chop firewood!”

She was right. I had fallen asleep in my clothes atop the sheet on the mattress. All I had to do was put on my boots and I would be ready for the day’s work. I cursed under my breath and rolled out of bed.

I won’t bore you with the details of chopping wood. It was fun to swing the axe and bring it down and cleave each log in two, but it got boring after a while. Or at least it did until Victoria blurted out, “You’re amazing! I’ve never seen anyone chop like that! Not even Mr. Fromley! Aren’t you getting tired?”

“I don’t get tired,” I said. That wasn’t quite true, but it would take a lot more than swinging an axe to tire me out.

She ran off to get her father, who was just as impressed as she was, although he did a better job of hiding it. Soon, a small group of humans were gathered watching me work, suggesting more tasks. I scythed through wheat. I moved crates full of supplies. I scaled the side of the inn to look for the spot in the roof where it leaked. The humans began to look on me not in fear, but in awe. And for my part, I was having a great time. There was no task they could come up with that I couldn’t master, no expectation they had that I couldn’t beat. I knew that whatever they came up with, I was the biggest and the best.

* * *

After the humans saw how useful I was, and they worked up the courage to ask me to help them with things, they stopped looking at me like I was a monster. Even Ethan stopped looking at me like he hated me for being different (although he still didn’t like me on account of embarrassing him in front of the others. I was just this strange guy who was always coming and going, helping out anyone with interesting work in exchange for a hot meal. But I couldn’t stand staying in the village for very long. A guy like me can never stand being in one place for too long, and as nice as the bed at the inn was, there was always too many humans about, making noise and smelling funny and making a guy feel crowded. I spent about as much time in the woods as I did the village, and I thought things were better that way. They wouldn’t get sick of me, and I wouldn’t get sick of them.

Every now and then, some traveler staying at the inn would get too drunk and need some straightening out. That was always good fun. Impressing all the humans always made me smile, but nothing made me grin like walloping some stupid grot who thought he was the greatest fighter to ever walk the earth. Some of the humans even got a laugh out of it, looking to me expectantly when some fool would start shooting off his mouth and causing trouble.

I got along pretty good with Victoria. She was a bossy little thing, but she wasn’t afraid of anything and she was always straight with you. Not like the other humans could be. She tried to show me how human society worked, her and Willem both. Most of the others were just content to use me to do their work for them. Not that I minded, but it was nice that her and Willem were nice to me, even if he only was because she was.

One day, we were sitting in the inn, her being nice to me and trying to explain all the gods the humans worshipped to me, when a man dressed all in shining armor walked into the inn. Just like it used to with me, the conversation stopped and all eyes turned to look at the stranger. Even mine.

He had fair skin and light hair and blue eyes. He was tall. Not as tall as me, but tall, and he carried himself the way humans do when they think they’re better than everyone else. He looked around the room like he was looking at a midden heap. He walked up to the counter and cut into a conversation Willem was having with one his regulars. “Roast beef, if you please. And ale. And I want the beef well done. No sense catching something unpleasant while I’m here.”

Willem forced an insincere smile. “Right away, sir.” Victoria was just frowning. It wasn’t often, but plenty of inconsiderate folks came into the inn from time to time. Nothing to do but bear it, take their money, and hope they never came back. But this human was different. He didn’t seem like a simple traveler. He seemed to have a purpose at the inn itself, something other than stopping for a quick meal and a night’s rest on his way somewhere else.

He glared at me the entire time, like he couldn’t quite decide what to make of me, but he knew he wouldn’t like it when he did.

He didn’t stay the night. He left after eating, and we tried to put the memory of him behind us, figuring we’d never see him again. But we would.

He came back the next day, four more men armored and armed just like him, and the Sir Perceval Roderick leading them. “So,” he said when he walked into the inn. “The rumors were true. One of the necromancer’s abominations survived him.”


Fighting and Winning, Pt. 3

And the post is slightly late. I am filled with shame.

There’s no sense in going about the details of the fight, because there wasn’t all that much to it. The human, Ethan, went down like a sack of manure. He was drunk, he was big, and he’d probably never had to fight someone his own size before. And humans aren’t made to fight and win. They’re good at a lot of things, but no human without years of fighting experience has ever beaten me, and none ever will. I punched him in the mouth, and he stumbled backwards. I stepped forward and hit him again, and he fell flat on his back, crashing into a table on his way to the ground.

The fight was over, but I was surging with energy. I was grinning, looking around the room for another challenger. “Well? Come on, then! Who else? Who else? I’ll fight all of you! I’ll fight the best you have!”

Ethan was shaking his head, trying to get his senses back, when he heard me taunting the crowd inside the inn. He pushed himself into a sitting position and slapped at the leg of the man next to him from the ground. “Are you lot just going to let that thing stand there and mock us? Get him!”

The man hesitated for just a moment before charging me, but when he moved another four jumped into action. None of them were as big as Ethan, but then fighting five humans at once is a good laugh all in itself. The first one to charge me I stopped dead in his tracks by smashing him with a headbutt. One of them jumped on my back and started punching me in the head, but I grabbed him and spun and threw him to the ground where he hit with a real satisfying thump, like a squash or melon will if you rap it on its side. But I was off-balance, and one of them got in a good shot at my face. I roared, and I swear, the coward fainted away dead on the spot. It was at this point that the other two began to rethink just how smart it was to rush in and fight me. It’s not everyday someone walks into your little village’s tavern and starts busting heads.

I mean, they started it. But still. Humans tend to forget who started what pretty quick, in my experience.

So there I am, standing in the middle of this crowd, breathing heavily and smiling, grinning, through the blood trickling down my face. Everything about me is different, from the color of my skin right down to the fact that I’m the only person in the joint who’s having a good time. They’re all watching me, looks of shock and horror on their face, and I do the only thing I can think do.

“You humans are a bunch of no good grots, attacking a feller while he’s sitting down eating and trying to gang up on him when he beats you fair and square. Just a bunch of no good grots.” I grinned a little wider, exposing my mouth full of teeth and fangs and such. “That’s why when I come back next time, we’re going to have a proper fight. No punching fellers when they ain’t ready, no jumping on them, no biting, no nothing. Just me and the biggest, meanest guy there is in this place.”

“You already knocked him flat on his arse!” someone in the crowd shouted. Ethan, who still hadn’t stood up yet, turned red as the blood rushed to his face. I laughed at that. I’d never seen a human turn red before, and when I laughed, he turned a little redder, even.

“Then get two! Or three! As many of you grots as it takes to make it a fair fight! Or at least a fun fight.”

And with that I left, leaving the humans to pick themselves up and figure out what to do next.

* * *

I spent the next two weeks in the woods, gathering whatever berries and leaves I saw animals eating, and catching whatever I could with my bare hands. It wasn’t easy, and I realized right away why the humans banded together in villages; it’s just easier to get along if you have someone else helping you with the work. The wizard knew that to, I think, except he decided to lock himself away in his keep and yell at the dead instead of dealing with other humans. Seemed smart to me at the time, but I didn’t think that way anymore. I started to get lonely like without anyone to talk to or look at. The dead didn’t talk to you, but at least they’d acknowledge you. Get out of your way like, or follow whatever orders you gave them. It let you knew that you were really there, and that the world had to react to you.

Of course all the little animals would get out of my way, too, but that didn’t do me any good. You can’t eat something you can’t catch, after all.

By the time the full moon sat high in the sky, I was ready to go back to the village. I was good and hungry, I was bored of hunting and gathering, and I figured that if I went too the village too often, they’d start to wait for me so they could ambush me, fair or no. Like the first time, I went in the middle of the day, after the sun was at its highest in the sky and it was starting to cool down some. I walked straight to the inn without talking to anyone, but I heard a lot of gasps and windows and doors slamming shut as I walked by. Word had gotten around about my last trip to town, it seemed.

When I got the inn, I threw the door open, and stood there for a minute just smiling. All the laughing and joking and shouting stopped instantly, and I walked up to the counter where the man and the girl from last time were both working serving their customers. I sat down at an empty seat and put my elbows up on the counter, waiting for the man to come and talk to me. He didn’t at first. Just stood there staring at me. But I locked eyes with him, and eventually he came over, even though he didn’t want to.

He stood in front of me for a second, as if he couldn’t decide what to say, and finally he just gave up and said, “What do you want?”

“You got any more of that roast meat from last time?”

“The beef? No. We have chicken tonight.”

“I’ll have that. And ale, if you got it.”

He frowned at that, his eyes narrowing in anger. “Of course I have ale,” he said. “What kind of–” He stopped mid-sentence, like he just remembered what had happened the last time I was around and he decided he didn’t want to make me angry.

I laughed. The silly human didn’t understand me at all. I hadn’t been angry at all last time. Annoyed, sure, but it all turned out to be a lot of good fun.

I turned around in my seat and looked around the bar. A lot of the others were whispering to each other, but they went silent and looked away when they saw me looking at them. I was amused by how scared they were of me, but at the same time, I was a little worried that there wouldn’t be anyone to fight that night.

I guess it wouldn’t have been so bad. I got a good hot meal out of coming to town, but food alone will never be as good as food and a fight.

When I turned back around, there was a plate of food and a tankard of ale waiting for me. The chicken was good, like a meatier, juicer version of the birds I sometimes caught in the woods. I devoured the meal and pushed the plate away from me, enjoying having a full belly for the first time since I’d last been in the village. The girl came up to take the plate and put it in tub full of soapy water.

“Do you have money this time?” she asked. I was surprised to hear her speak. She was a small thing, not fully grown yet, with a thin body and light-colored hair. Her voice was high, and I realized that it was her who had screamed that I wasn’t hurting anyone when that human Ethan had started the fight with me.

“I don’t,” I said.

“Sweetheart, leave the… the fellow alone,” the paunchy man said.

I’d never heard the word “sweetheart” before. I looked at the man, then back at the girl and saw that they shared a lot of the same features. Same color hair, same color eyes. I figured they were related. Father-daughter, not that relationship meant anything to me at the time.

The girl ignored her father, and said, “Customers who can’t pay have to work off their bill. That’s the rule.”

“Sweetheart!”

I looked at the girl, considered her carefully. She wasn’t afraid of me the way everyone else in the village was. Maybe she was too young to be afraid of someone that looked as different from the rest of them as I did. Or maybe growing up working in an inn meant that she was used to all kinds of strange folk coming through the doors, and when you grow up with all kinds of people coming and going, one stranger’s pretty much the same as the next. “How do I do that?” I asked.

“You can help us with the dishes or help us mop the floors or wipe the down the counters. There’s always lots of things to do.”

I’d seen the dead mop the floors of the keep before after the wizard or I had killed an adventurer. It looked boring, but then, everything the skeletons and the rotting fellers did looked boring. But more than that, it had looked easy, and if pushing around a stick with bristles at the end was the cost of such a good meal, then that was more than fair.

“Alright,” I said. The girl smiled. Her father’s eyes went wide, not in fear, but out of surprise.

“Good!” she said.

She walked over to the corner of the inn where they kept the mop and the broom, and brought them over to me. I got to work, vaguely aware that the entire building was dead silent other than the sound of the girl humming to herself as she went about her own work.


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