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Story Time: Home

Hello everyone! A shorter story for you all today about baby Tessa. Enjoy!

*

There were a lot of things to be said about the Harvest Festival, Tessa thought. It was one of two parties that the orphans got in a year, for one. There was food in abundance, and it was the good kind of food too, not their usual thin vegetable porridges and bread that was somehow stale even when it was fresh. People got adopted during the Harvest Festival—not many, but a few. They got new clothes during the Harvest Festival. People seemed to give half a damn about them, which was a nice change.

The best part about the Harvest Festival, though, was getting out of Split River.

Split River was a drab, awful little mining town. They mined for silver, and though the veins of silver were drying up, people still went into the caves to work every day. Tessa had heard adults joke that Split River’s main export these days was orphans.

Gods, how dearly she’d like to be exported.

But now it was time for the Harvest Festival, and like every year she had memory of, she was loaded up into a wagon with all the other orphans and taken out of the horrible gray streets of Split River, to the village of Larkdale.

Maybe it was because it was smaller and not so dirty. Maybe it was because the castle Whitetower was up on the hill, watching over the town, that made them keep things shipshape. Maybe it was just that it wasn’t Split River? But Tessa wished she lived in Larkdale instead.

“Hey, look.” Thin little Reevis, who was probably Tessa’s best friend if she believed in things like getting attached to people who could vanish out of her life at any moment, pointed a thin little finger out over the side of the cart.

Tessa had to twist around in her seat to see where he was pointing: a building. A moldering old inn, looked like. There were roof tiles hanging off, and windows broken. The sign, which hung from a single chain, said, “The Giggling Crane.”

“What about it?” Tessa asked.

“That wasn’t there last year,” Reevis said authoritatively.

“Look at it,” Tessa scoffed. “It’s clearly been there forever.”

“No it wasn’t,” Reevis returned, squirming in his seat. “I remember cuz last year it was a field. It had a big lumpy rock in it that looked like a walrus.”

Tessa opened her mouth to argue, but she remembered Walrus Rock too. Instead, she took a second look.

The orphanage was a squat, horrible little building made of stone. Cold in the winter, cold in the summer—just cold, generally. This building, this Giggling Crane, looked like it had been designed to fit in between buildings, though, and reached up and around rather than sitting like a frog in a mud puddle. It was shaped…friendly.

“I heard Lord Samuel might come and play with us,” Reevis said, evidently no longer impressed by ruined buildings appearing out of nowhere. “He’s our age, you know.”

Tessa rolled her eyes. “I know. I’ve seen him more times than you.”

“Do you think he’ll play with us?” Reevis said. Gods, she could see the stars in his eyes.

“Why would he play with us?”

“Because he’s our age,” Reevis repeated, as if that explained anything.

“He’s a little princeling noble boy,” Tessa griped. “He doesn’t want to play with a bunch of orphans. He’s our better.”

“What makes him better?” Reevis said, scowling.

Tessa felt like spitting, but the matron was looking this direction and would give her a lecture and probably a cuff for good measure. Instead she just said, “Born lucky.”

Reevis kicked his toe into the floor of the cart. “Now I don’t want to go. You ruined it.”

This didn’t bother Tessa very much. She’d been ruined for these kinds of festivities for the last few years. It was hard, seeing all the wealth and privilege little Lord Samuel had, and knowing that for one day’s taste of it, she was supposed to be grateful.

Then again, Reevis looked so crestfallen.

“Cheer up,” Tessa said, nudging him a little. “If he played with us, we’d have to do whatever he wanted to do anyway. We’re about to eat the best meal of our lives.”

“I guess so,” Reevis said, but he looked a little less dispirited. “I wish I was born lucky. I could live in a castle.”

“I don’t think I’d want to live in a castle,” Tessa said thoughtfully. “It’s so big. It’d take so long to clean.”

“Where do you want to live, then?” Reevis asked.

“Here, maybe,” Tessa said thoughtfully, and then threw a hand out at the Giggling Crane, which was getting smaller and smaller in the distance. “There. I want to live there.”

“It’s so old, and abandoned, though,” Reevis said, squinting at the disappearing structure.

“I could fix it up,” Tessa declared. “It could be home.”

“Home,” Reevis repeated. “Sounds nice.”

“Yeah.” Tessa watched the inn until the cart turned a corner, and it was gone.

January Story Time: Ascendance of the Chief

This one is a morose sort of story, but I missed Betty. If your new year hasn’t started well, then she’s here to commiserate. Content warning for discussions of death, grief, and reference to (and brief description of) corpses.
(Remember, our Patreon supporters get first dibs on Story Time every month, and they can suggest prompts too.)
*

A teenage Betty walks away from the last camp of her clan.

Orc clans are semi-nomadic. They might go to the same places year after year, but they never stay. Eventually the weather changes, the hunting and gathering conditions change, the trade changes, and they move on. Betty knows she must do the same. The wind direction could change any day now, leaving this spot, which currently huddles in the lee of a hill, exposed to precipitation.

Orcs do not bury their dead. Betty considered it even so; better not to see them anymore, better to honor her human mother by adopting her practice for honoring the dead, since apparently Betty is not orc enough to die.

She decided against it in the end, because she knows that the other clans will hear of this tragedy, will come to pay respects, will be puzzled and perhaps angered to find them stuck into the ground like potatoes. They will find out that she is chief—old Darguuz, the last elder left, handed her the necklace with her dying gasps—and they will cast judgment on her actions, because all orcs cast judgment on their chiefs as a matter of course, and an orc is not afraid of anything, much less critique. And furthermore, how is Betty to know if the poison of their illness will not seep into the ground and spread?

So Betty burns them, as is tradition. It takes a long time, and several fires. Betty keeps her mind carefully blank as she works, and after the task is done, she won’t remember anything of it except the end, watching the fires to be sure they don’t spread, fashioning herself a mask to keep out the smell.

The fires burn for days, and Betty watches them, only falling into fitful sleep when the last one is burned down to embers. She sleeps for nearly a day and a night.

She leaves behind her pits of blackened detritus, as well as the still-pitched tents of her people. She scratches a warning on an exposed rock face on the hill, so that other orcs will not be tempted to go into the tents and catch the same disease, just in case the smoking bones are not warning enough. So much lost. So much left to lose.

She camps, avoiding people, because the darkness of night and the sounds of its denizens are a comfort in her solitude, her grief, as she whispers the stories a chief is supposed to know over and over, wracking her brains for the bits she can’t recall until the wee hours of the morning and then sleeping into the day, only to keep walking, following the same roads as her people always have.

One road travels along a human trade route. Normally the clan reaches this place just in time for a slew of caravans to trade with, or fight with, but either way it’s welcome company. Betty doesn’t see them when she reaches the road; perhaps she’s traveled too fast, without the herd of her family to temper her speed. She meets only one person, a human, with a donkey-drawn vegetable cart.

“Hey! You!” the human calls. A man, she thinks, a human man, who looks at her without the tenor of fear that her people usually get. He recognizes her as merely half-orc, Betty is sure of that.

He speaks Common, and Betty responds in kind. It’s not her first language—it’s nobody’s, not even the humans—and the words are thick on her tongue. “What do you want?”

“You look like a strong girl,” he says, and waves a hand at his cart, which has a wheel stuck in a rut. “Can you help me lift this out?”

A chief cares for her own people, but a chief also parlays with outsiders, and one good turn deserves another. Betty shrugs and lifts, digging in her heels and finding it hardly a trial with the man’s help. She sets it on solid ground, where it will not be stuck again.

“Thank you kindly!” he says, wiping his brow. “I thought I was going to be in trouble there. Say, can I offer you a silver piece for your trouble? Or perhaps a ride to the city?” He throws a thumb over his shoulder, the wrong way.

Betty considers, and then looks back over her shoulder. The smoke has long faded, but she remembers where her people lay.

She didn’t have a plan. She followed the paths of her forefathers blindly, grief-stricken, with no motivation or need to do anything different. But she is chief, and no chief would let a single emotion rule them, not without considering all angles. A chief has a plan. A chief is not moved by whims, but does what’s best for the clan. Even if the clan is only one person.

“Both?” Betty suggests, looking back to the man.

The man smiles and digs a coin out of his pocket. “It’s a deal. Hop on!”

This is the first coin Betty makes as chief. It will not be the last.

December Story Time: Customer Service Voice

December Story Time! This month we bring you a tale of terrible customers. Treat your service industry professionals with respect, folks!

 

ZARA
(uncharacteristically bright; a service industry voice)
Hi! What can I get for you today?

 

CUSTOMER
Wow, um…sorry, you’re my waiter?

 

ZARA
(customer service with a knife edge)
Yeeesss?

 

CUSTOMER
Wow, didn’t. Didn’t expect…

 

ZARA
Expect what?

 

CUSTOMER
Well, someone like you.

 

Zara takes a breath to steel her dwindling patience.

 

CUSTOMER
Anyway, yeah, can I get a meat pie and ummm…what’s good here to drink?

 

ZARA
The dark ale is good.

 

CUSTOMER
Ew.

 

ZARA
(disgusted)
There’s also a summer cider.

 

CUSTOMER
Why didn’t you say that to begin with?

 

ZARA
Maybe because I can’t read your mind.

 

CUSTOMER
What was that?

 

ZARA
Nothing.

 

CUSTOMER
Look, you are being really rude. I don’t know if this is some kind of diversity hire—

 

ZARA
Excuse me?

 

CUSTOMER
—but frankly I think tieflings shouldn’t be the forward face of service industries.

 

ZARA
Oh really.

 

CUSTOMER
Look, I’m not a bigot, okay! People will just think a certain thing about the place if a tiefling’s serving them.

 

ZARA
And what exactly will they think.

 

CUSTOMER
Well…you know…

 

ZARA
Yessss?

 

CUSTOMER
I mean…if there’s a demon on staff then what other evil magics are going on in the place?

 

ZARA
Evil magics?

 

CUSTOMER
Woah, hey now, don’t get defensive. I’m just saying.

 

ZARA
You’re ‘just saying’ an awful lot—

 

CUSTOMER
See, demons are just evil. They can’t help it.

 

ZARA
You think I’m evil!

 

CUSTOMER
It’s not your fault if you are.

 

ZARA
Gods, you’re stupid.

 

CUSTOMER
Excuse me! I’d like to speak to your manager.

 

ZARA
(voice echoing, becoming louder)
I bet you would.

 

Fire noises…

 

ZARA
(later)
I’m not going to apologize.

 

MANAGER
I mean I wouldn’t either. That guy sucked.

 

ZARA
Then I’m not fired?

 

MANAGER
Oh you’re very fired.

 

ZARA
Fine, I didn’t want to work here anyway.

 

MANAGER
Then why did you apply?

 

ZARA
Shut up!

November Story Time: Equestrian Pursuits

Hey, it’s November Story Time! A deleted scene for your enjoyment.

 

VELUNE
How did we do?

 

STERLING
Unfortunately our money only went so far. We managed to acquire three horses.

 

BETTY
You could’ve argued lower.

 

STERLING
I think perhaps the hostler was just a bit distracted by you holding a lumpy rug.

 

VELUNE
I’m sure three horses can manage four people.

 

MELTYRE
Depends on the horses. Betty, you better take the biggest one if you’re not going to let go of Fina.

 

BETTY
I’m not.

 

STERLING
Excuse me, I’m used to riding larger horses, as a paladin—

 

MELTYRE
It’s not like the principle changes when they’re smaller.

 

STERLING
Do you expect me to ride this elderly mare?

 

MELTYRE
She’s not elderly

 

STERLING
A paladin of my skillset—

 

MELTYRE
If Velune and I are sharing, we’ll need the younger horse.

 

VELUNE
(relieved)
Oh, are we sharing? That’s fine.

 

BETTY
Hm.

 

STERLING
Surely you don’t expect me to approach my family’s historic home riding an old nag.

 

MELTYRE
She’s not a nag! And me and Velune together weigh more than you, even with your armor.

 

BETTY
Velune, do you know how to ride a horse?

 

Pause.

 

VELUNE
I…I wouldn’t say that, exactly—

 

STERLING
My gods.

 

VELUNE
I am quite familiar with the theory!

 

STERLING
Nothing for it then, we’ll have to teach you.

 

BETTY
We don’t have time.

 

STERLING
When beginning to study equestrianism, it’s important to remember the posture—

 

BETTY
We don’t have time.

 

STERLING
I’m afraid you may be right—

 

MELTYRE
Look, I’ll help, okay? I taught my sisters, it’ll be fine.

 

VELUNE
(unsure)
Yes, I’m sure.

 

MELTYRE
Okay, so the main thing is to sit up straight and to hold on with your knees. And if you think you’re falling off, just say something.

 

VELUNE
All right…

 

MELTYRE
Now c’mon, I’ll give you a boost.

 

Scrabbling around.

 

MELTYRE
…That’s the wrong foot, hang on.

 

VELUNE
Whatever do you mean, the wrong foot?

 

MELTYRE
You’re going to end up on the horse backwards.

 

VELUNE
What in every god’s name are you talking about?

 

BETTY
Trust him, you will. And hurry up.

 

VELUNE
All right, all right.

 

STERLING
How do you know how to ride a horse anyway?

 

MELTYRE
I grew up on a farm.

 

STERLING
(mystified)
Really?

 

MELTYRE
Yeah.
(grunt)
There you go.

 

VELUNE
Oh! This is! So much higher than I was expecting!

 

MELTYRE
It’s okay, I promise. Hang on.
(horse mounting sounds)
Okay, ready?

 

STERLING
I suppose.

 

BETTY
Finally, let’s go.

October Story Time: Ghosts

Welcome to our first story time! This one is a sad one, and contains discussion of parental death and grief. Please take care of yourselves.

Lydda felt like a ghost.

She was sort of used to being the responsible one at this point. Meltyre had been gone for four years. It was always kind of nice when he came home, and she could take a break from being a mother hen and let him do it for a while. He was really good at it. She was okay, but it wasn’t something that came naturally to her.

Except for today, when it had.

She was still feeling sick. Not feverish anymore, but definitely ill. Seri and Min were almost better. It was lucky they were, since they’d all had to pitch in as the fever sapped what was left of their parents.

Lucky.

Yesterday, her mother and father had died. She had stopped thinking except in purely mechanical terms. The farm wouldn’t run with just the three of them, not enough hands. She knew her parents were paying for Meltyre’s school, but she didn’t know where they were getting the money and she couldn’t keep that up. And Meltyre needed to know anyway.

So like an automaton or a golem, she’d written a letter, rode into town to hire a messenger with what was left of the market money, and then came back to do the things one did for the dead. Wash the bodies. Hold a wake. A couple of neighbors had come by to pay respects, asking what she planned to do next, as if she was an adult and not thirteen years old. She had answered them respectfully. Her brother was coming and they’d figure it out. She’d accepted notes that turned out to be offers on the land and the farm.

One of the neighboring farmhands came at the end of the wake, early in the morning, and helped her dig a large joint grave on the hill overlooking the orchard, beside the road. Make sure it’s plenty deep, the farmhand had said, and Lydda made sure of it. And then she’d buried her parents, her sisters sobbing in the background while she stared at the grave, floating through their paltry little funeral like a ghost.

And then it was daytime, and her sisters insisted she go to bed while she insisted they do their chores because the animals didn’t wait for anyone. They managed to follow her directions while she tried in vain to follow theirs, staring at the ceiling for hours.

And then night fell again, and her sisters were fast asleep, but Lydda was still awake, floating through the darkness. At least ghosts belonged here, in the dark.

Now she sat and watched the night go gray with dawn, wrapped in a blanket on the porch. She had the blanket less because she felt the cold and more because she knew her father would have suggested it. It wasn’t cold. At least, she didn’t think it was cold.

A distant sound, a horse’s whinny, made her look up. A cart was coming over the hill where her parents were buried, via the road. The cart stopped, and one figure hopped off, pausing for just a moment to talk to the driver before taking off down the hill.

Lydda stood up. The figure was holding a pointy hat on his head.

Meltyre arrived out of breath, gasping like a beached fish, but he didn’t stop running until he reached the porch, where Lydda had hopped down to meet him and was enveloped in a hug.

“I came as quick as I could,” said his voice behind her head.

It was as if her soul poured back into her all at once, and she was no longer a ghost, she was a girl, and she wasn’t alone anymore, but she had had to bury her parents this morning.

“I’m sorry,” she said, barely choking out the sentence past tears that were suddenly bubbling up from her like a spring. “I didn’t know what to do.”

“Hey.” Meltyre released her most of the way, still holding onto her shoulders as if he was afraid she’d float away again. “You shouldn’t have had to deal with this in the first place. It’s okay.”

Meltyre was here. It was going to be okay.

“Where’s um…where are mom and dad?” Meltyre asked.

Lydda pointed to the hill. “We buried them this morning.”

“Okay, okay, and where’s Min and Seri?” She could hear the knife edge of anxiety in his voice, but it didn’t matter, because he was her brother and he was here.

“Asleep,” Lydda said. “In bed.”

“Okay, and did you sign anything or agree to anything with anyone?”

“No.” Ghosts can’t make legal agreements.

“Good.” Meltyre pulled her in for a hug again. “You did everything right, Squirt. I mean it, everything.”

“What are we going to do?” Lydda asked into his shoulder. He smelled like library dust and campfires.

“I don’t know, but we’re going to figure this out together.” He released her again. “I promise.”

Gods, he was so sad. But his face was mechanically blank, his assurances more confident than anything Meltyre could sincerely give.

“Don’t be a ghost, okay?” she said.

He frowned. “What?”

“We need you here, every part of you,” Lydda told him. “Even the part that is too scared to do anything but cry.”

It took him a minute, but he figured out what she was saying. He always did. And then he nodded, his face collapsing in a grimace of despair. “I didn’t get to say goodbye.”

“It’s not fair,” Lydda agreed, tears leaking out of her again.

They stood there, leaning on each other. They were not alone, not anymore, as the color seeped back into the world.