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.”