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Category: Story Time

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.

Story Time: Tell Me A Story

Guess who missed Fina! It’s me. Some mentions of alcohol and drunkenness in this one friends. Please take care of yourselves.

*

“Tell me a story?”

Ioan Butterbuns looked up from mending his shirt to meet his little girl’s eyes. “A story, eh?”

Fina’s eyes were huger than normal. Ioan had once heard some human say there was nothing cuter than a halfling child, and although Ioan was of the opinion that said human had no children and knew few halflings, where his own daughter was concerned, he thought they might be right. She blinked those big old eyes at him winningly. “Pretty please?”

“Hm.” He faked solemnity and continued sewing. “How about a story about a monster?”

“What kind of monster?” Fina scooted up close to his chair from her seat on the floor.

“Oh, a fearsome one. A terrible one, that eats people alive.”

She grabbed his leg. “What did it look like?”

“It had a long, horrible horn,” Ioan intoned, sticking the needle into the seam so he could gesture safely and tracing the horn in the air in front of his forehead. “Imagine if a unicorn went horribly wrong.”

“Oh no!” Fina cried, and Ioan was unsure if she was playing along or genuinely scared.

“Oh yes!” he went on. “And only one horrible eye as well! And that’s not even talking about the wings.”

“It can fly?” Fina demanded in childlike disbelief.

“A truly fearsome creature.” Ioan nodded gravely. “In fact, the great bards of the past wrote a song about the beast, as a warning to all of us.”

“How does it go?” Fina asked.

“Oh, no, I couldn’t,” Ioan said, placing a demure hand on his chest.

“Sing!” Fina shouted, throwing her hands up in the air.

Ioan laughed. “All right, all right, I give in.” He reached for his old guitar, took a few seconds to tune it, and started to play. “It…was…a…one-eyed one-horned flying purple people eater…”

And Fina dissolved into giggles.

*

“I know you don’t like Aaron, I’m just asking you to not prank the wedding,” Ioan said, taking the shears to another sheep.

“Why are you asking me to be something I’m not?” Fina said blithely. She shook the worst of the dust out of the last fleece and threw it out over the pile on the cart.

Ioan sighed. “Fina…”

“And it would be so easy, too!” Fina opened the gate and took a handful of another sheep’s fleece, steering it out of the pen toward her father. “Aaron is so sensitive. Hair trigger for pranks.”

Ioan snipped the last shreds of fleece and patted the sheep’s flank. She bleated and wriggled out into the field. “I’m being serious,” he said, trading Fina the new sheep for the fleece.

Fina again shook it out and spread it on the cart. “In fact, if Tim wasn’t so boring, I would recruit him to help me. That’s what you do with brothers, right?”

Ioan didn’t answer, just focused on shearing this sheep.

“Dad, I’m joking.”

“Oh, I’m aware,” he said mildly, finishing up and giving the sheep a pat of dismissal.

Fina brought him another. “Gods, Aaron is such a bad influence on you. You’re getting so stiff.”

“I’m ready to have a serious conversation when you are,” Ioan said, meeting her eyes. “This is important to me.”

She pulled a face. “I know.

“So?”

“So I’m not going to prank your wedding.” She traded him sheep for fleece. “I’m not heartless.”

“Thank you,” Ioan said simply.

Beehhhh,” said the sheep.

They worked in silence for a moment.

“It’s not that I don’t like Aaron, okay?” Fina said finally. “He just doesn’t get me. Or us, for that matter. What he has with Tim is different than what we have.”

“You’re feeling misunderstood?” Ioan asked gently,

“A little,” Fina admitted, as if Ioan were dragging it out of her. “Look, I know you love him. I know things are going to be different now. I know you’ll be paying attention to him and Tim as well as me and you only have so much attention. I know that.”

“But?” Ioan prompted.

“I don’t want you to change,” she said, shrugging.

Ioan hummed in understanding and started on another sheep. “We all change, Fina. We have to. That’s life.”

Again, they worked in silence for a while, the sheep in the pen dwindling while the sheep in the field rolled around and pranced with newfound freedom.

“Tell me a story,” Fina said presently.

Ioan looked up in surprise. It was the first time she’d asked in a while. She usually, he realized, didn’t have to ask, but he’d been so occupied with the wedding plans and the merging of his and Aaron’s households…

“Once there was a father and a daughter, who were very happy together,” Ioan began, methodically snipping the shears. “The daughter was smart and beautiful and well-liked by everyone.”

“Ah, a true story,” Fina commented.

Ioan chuckled. “Not quite. For you see, the father remarried when the daughter was only just old enough to start thinking of herself as grown, and the man he married was a horrible, wicked man.”

“Real vote of confidence, dad,” laughed Fina, and Ioan laughed with her.

*

Ioan paced in the living room, in front of his daughter and stepson. Aaron had been so angry that he’d had to step out before he lost his temper properly, leaving Ioan alone to parent.

“You two are nearly adults,” Ioan said, taking care to keep his tone level. “You should know better. You should know far better. What were you thinking?”

“It wasssn’t—” Tim cleared his throat, clearly still drunk. “It wasn’t my idea.”

“Oh sure, blame it all on me!” said Fina, who evidently was much better at holding her liquor than her stepbrother. “Who’s the one who said we should take Aaron’s whiskey from the still?”

“Only after you sh-s-said we should sssteal it from someone else!” Tim attempted to snap back. He turned a penitent eye to Ioan. “I thought it’d be better if we borrowed s-some from dad.”

“So you planned to steal liquor,” Ioan said sternly. “And then what?”

“The fireworksss weren’t my idea either,” slurred Tim. “I didn’t—didn’t know the piggies were down there.”

“I didn’t either!” cried Fina.

“Enough,” sighed Ioan. “Tim, go…sleep it off. Your father will have words for you in the morning. Not to mention the village elders, after you caused that stampede.”

“Oh my gods,” Tim groaned, standing unsteadily. “I knew I shhouldn’t have listened to you.”

“When are you going to learn to have some actual fun, Tim?” Fina demanded.

Tim didn’t answer, just stumbled off to his room.

Ioan sat down across from his daughter. “I just…I just don’t understand.”

Fina crossed her arms. “I know you don’t.”

This was far from the first time they’d had this conversation. Things had been fine! For a few years! True, Fina seemed restless, but she always had before too, and that wasn’t new. And then all of a sudden, in the last few months…this. This and worse, but before today she hadn’t got Tim involved.

Ioan leaned back in his chair, massaging his forehead. He was out of tactics. He didn’t know any new parenting tricks. Maybe he could try an old one.

“Tell me a story,” he said.

Fina looked up, surprised and for a moment disarmed. Ioan tried to keep still, lest he give away his gambit.

Slowly, his daughter resituated in her chair. She thought for a bit before beginning. “Once upon a time there were two kings. They had a son and a daughter who they loved. Their kingdom was well taken care of and had plenty of everything they needed. Every subject was happy. Far away, there was a dragon, hiding in a cave in one corner of the kingdom, but the dragon hadn’t bothered anyone yet.”

Ioan nodded. “I’ve never heard this story.”

“Of course you have, it’s as old as the hills,” Fina scoffed.

Ioan smiled, just a little. “Oh, silly me.”

“Yeah,” Fina said, and paused. “One day, the daughter asked her fathers for permission to go speak to the dragon. They asked her why, and she didn’t have an answer, just that she wanted to. They told her no. And the daughter shrank, just a little, and lost a little of her color.”

Fina paused and swallowed. Ioan listened intently.

“Another day, she asked them again. Again, they told her no, for she didn’t have a reason, and she shrank a little more, and lost more of her color. Once more, another day, she asked them permission, and they said, ‘Are you not content here in the kingdom? Are you not happy helping us shepherd our people? Are you not our daughter, and should you not be like us?’ And they told her no.

It was many weeks before they realized how small and gray their daughter had become. ‘What is the matter with you? Why won’t you sing and laugh like your brother? What happened?’”

“What did she say?” Ioan asked quietly.

Fina looked like she might cry. “Nothing. She couldn’t give an answer.”

“You feel trapped here, Fina?” Ioan suggested.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Fina said, looking away. “This is just a story.”

Ioan took it as a good sign that she was still being glib. He swallowed, trying to choose his words carefully. “I never meant to make it seem like you couldn’t leave, if that’s what you want—”

“You didn’t have to,” she interrupted. “Aaron did.”

Ioan frowned. “He did?”

“He said you depend on me,” Fina said, as if it was an accusation. “He said this was all going to be mine one day, so I should get used to being responsible for it all.”

Oh. Ioan winced. He remembered that conversation with Aaron—Ioan had expressed some worries about how their children should inherit their land and herd. Aaron must have taken what action he thought he could on Ioan’s behalf.

“Do you want to leave?” Ioan asked, as gently as he could.

Fina’s eyes suddenly sparkled with tears. “Don’t you want me to stay?”

“Of course I do!” Ioan was starting to choke up too. “But I want you to be you more than anything. That’s what matters.”

Fina looked away, sniffing. Ioan did some of that himself.

“Look,” Ioan said finally, rubbing the back of his head, “whatever the village elders decide, you do what they say. Make up for what happened tonight. And then, if you want…go make your way.”

“What about the sheep?” Fina muttered.

“Tim can take care of them.” Ioan waved a hand. “He wants to anyway.”

Fina cleared her throat. “Dad?”

“Yeah?”

And she leapt forward and threw her arms around him.

Story Time: Friends Everywhere

Here’s a little story about real friendship, from everyone’s second favorite bard (after Fina of course). Enjoy!

*

Max has friends everywhere.

That was the first thing Killiker learned about Maximillian Allerus. It was a mutual friend who introduced them, a windblown storm cleric named Sunny.

“You’re gonna like this guy,” she’d told Killiker. “They’re seriously the best.”

“How do you know this Max fellow?” Killiker asked.

“Everyone knows Max!” she’d said. “He’s got friends everywhere.”

And then Max burst into the tavern, demanding a drink and slapping the other patrons on the back. They did know everyone, or so it seemed, and everyone was glad to see them.

“So, Killiker, you’re a bard!” Max said, once he had taken a perch on a stool with a companionable arm around Sunny. “What’s your medium of choice?”

“My voice,” said Killiker, projecting his most personable self, as he always did when he was trying to make a good first impression. And under normal circumstances, Killiker would watch in relish as his golden words settled on his audience like a dove, immediately endearing him to the listener.

But Max accepted the words with a smile that looked almost…hungry. “Incredible.”

And suddenly Killiker had an idea of what it was like to be drawn in by a handsome, charming stranger.

*

Max has friends everywhere.

It seemed that every stop meant a restructure of the party—a member bidding them farewell or joining up. Killiker had never met so many astounding adventurers in his life, and he’d been adventuring for a couple of centuries. Max drew them all in to himself, attracting them like planets to one of the suns, in the sort of social dance that would make a politician dizzy. Max was universally beloved, universally respected, and almost no one could say no to them. Killiker included.

“What is the point,” Max had demanded one day, waxing poetic, “of being out in the country with no city lights if you don’t take the time to look at the stars?”

Which was how, against Killiker’s better judgment, he and Max found themselves lying in an open field with no fire looking at the night sky, along with a wizard called Cybilene and a dragonborn fighter called Yak, who had been friends with Max for years.

“Look for shooting stars,” Max trilled. “I’m sure we could all use a little luck.”

“Except you, maybe,” Cybilene teased. “I swear, there’s no one as lucky as you.”

“Max has had their woes,” Yak scoffed.

“Is that so?” Killiker asked, ensuring that his tone was light even though he wanted the information very badly.

“It’s true,” Max said, with mock solemnity. “What a hard life I’ve had.”

Cybilene chuckled. “Yes, I’m sure it’s very difficult being friends with everyone you meet.”

“A curse!” Max declared, and the gathered party laughed along with him. “No, but Yak isn’t entirely wrong. There was a time when my life could have looked very different. So much more…boring.”

“It’s hard to imagine you being boring,” Killiker said, watching the stars twinkle in the heavens.

“Why would you choose that?” Cybilene asked.

“Ah, that’s the thing, isn’t it?” Max said, almost merrily. “It wouldn’t have been my choice. A family that claims to love you can build you a gilded cage.”

Despite the characteristic glibness, a silence fell on the four stargazers.

“How did you get out of that cage?” Killiker asked gently.

Max readjusted in the grass next to Killiker, sighing, but not discontentedly. “My dear Killiker, I realized the truth of things.”

“What’s the truth?” Cybilene asked.

Killiker could hear the glee in Max’s voice when he responded: “I can do whatever I want.”

*

“Max, please, listen to me,” Killiker said, and he didn’t bother trying to hide the magic in his voice when he put forth this request, despite the fact that he knew Max would hate him for it.

Max said nothing, only kept walking out into the dark of the night.

“Please don’t leave,” Killiker insisted to no avail. “Not like this.”

Max did stop now, abruptly, staring up at the stars. They were sharp and cold up here in the glacial mountains, like pinpricks. They seemed somehow farther away.

“I expected Cybilene to turn on me, you know that?” Max said.

The statement left Killiker baffled. “Turn on you?”

“Family is a gilded cage,” they went on, still looking only at the stars. “One Cybilene locked herself into weeks ago.”

Killiker stepped forward, in front of Max, to look him in the eye. “You think asking you to let this go means she’s betrayed you?”

“You don’t see it, do you?” snapped Max, finally meeting Killiker’s eye. “She’ll never be on our side again. She belongs to them now.”

Killiker was stunned. “She doesn’t—she never belonged to you.”

Max glared. Technically speaking, they were shorter than Killiker, but when they got like this, things like actual physical facts didn’t tend to matter. Killiker found himself afraid.

Finally, Max said, “Don’t make me lose you too.”

*

Rosie had put a drink in Killiker’s hand. Killiker had threatened her with a sword yesterday, and today she’d bought him a drink. And she wasn’t even flirting. It was a drink of camaraderie.

He watched the crew of adventurers that Cybilene had coaxed him into, for once at a loss for words. Cybilene and Tode didn’t so much converse as vibe—they weren’t making up for lost time, it was as if they’d never been apart. And the rest of them laughed, chatted, passed attention from one to another easily. No politics, no headgames, no cult of personality.

Killiker had forgotten what that was like.

The guilt from his last conversation with Max still hung heavy over his shoulders, but it was beginning to ebb. Maybe he had spent too long in the company of someone who really wasn’t a good person. Not that Killiker considered himself a good person, but he was beginning to wonder if he shouldn’t change tack.

As for Max…well. They’d be fine. They didn’t need Killiker.

Max had friends everywhere.

Story Time: How I Met Your Mother

Wow, I regret that title already.

Anyway, have a little Rashomon for your Thursday! Remember, if you have a story idea to suggest, you should definitely join our Patreon, and for a mere $20 a month you can bend my ear as much as you like.

*

KILLIKER
Ah, you want to know a tale about lost love? I have a sad story I can share, and unlike many of my stories, this one happened to me.

 

DARIA
Yes, I suppose it’s time I told you the rest of the truth. I won’t go into details, mind.

 

KILLIKER
You don’t want details? Ah, fine then, we will keep things…family friendly. It all began when I was traveling over hither and yon, seeking stories and fortune.

 

DARIA
It began much like any other day. Every day was the same at the time. Samuel was…particular about how the household was run, which meant that even in his absence, there was little for me to do. It was more than just boredom, I was…terribly lonely. And sad, I’m afraid.

 

KILLIKER
I entered Larkdale without a care in the world. Lovely little town, although the inn there didn’t look like much. It was odd, a local told me there was another one “sometimes.” Now I wasn’t sold on the inn that was permanent, but wouldn’t you know it, there was a beautiful castle up on the hill, the Castle Whitetower.

 

DARIA
The castle is lovely, but it didn’t feel like home to me. Not until you came along. How can a place feel like home when there’s nothing there for you?

 

KILLIKER
I could tell right away that this was the place for me. I’m no snob, you see, but it’s hard to pay money to stay somewhere mediocre when there is the possibility of staying in a beautiful castle for just the cost of my bardic services. So I set out up the hill.

 

DARIA
Reevis told me there was some sort of…I believe the exact words he used were “elvish clown.” Yes, there was an elvish clown who sought audience with the liegelords of the house.

 

KILLIKER
Would you believe I’ve actually been there before? It was years ago, though. Maybe three or four decades? I had heard there was a new lord and lady of the house, but I don’t usually have any trouble with first impressions.

 

DARIA
What can I say? It wasn’t as though I had plans.

 

KILLIKER
The butler—frightfully proper man, absolutely no fun at all—led me to a drawing room, where I had the honor of meeting Lady Daria Whitetower.

 

DARIA
Now Reevis is a bit fussy, so I knew “clown” had to be an exaggeration, but even so I wasn’t expecting—that is to say—he caught me off guard. He was…

 

KILLIKER
Never in my life had I encountered such beauty. She was immaculate, pristine…nearly fragile, as if she was porcelain you would be afraid to break. This was just at first glance, of course, her posture and bearing…but a second glance, deep into her eyes, showed her steel, her will. Such eyes. What a beauty.

 

DARIA
Well, after all, you take after him, don’t you? I don’t need to tell you that you’re handsome.
(beat)
I admit to being rather taken aback.

 

KILLIKER
She spoke immediately with such authority and confidence that I knew: this lady of so noble a bearing was unlike anyone I’d ever met before. I pledged my services to her immediately, without condition. I would have slept in the stables if she’d asked me to—it was a privilege just to be near her.

 

DARIA
You must understand, a handsome stranger promising me his undivided attention was not something I had experienced before. Samuel never lied to me, but he was also not what you’d call attentive. Or loving.

 

KILLIKER
Daria was kind enough to offer me proper lodging, but rather than stories asked for conversation. I got the impression that she wasn’t very intellectually challenged by that husband of hers. I was glad to oblige, of course. It was at this point she mentioned a crucial point: Lord Samuel Whitetower was not home.

 

DARIA
It was just good manners to say so.

 

KILLIKER
I don’t go out of my way to be a homewrecker, you understand. Whatever decisions people make with their lives are theirs, and it’s not my purpose to change their minds. But I will admit that I was glad.

 

DARIA
And so we talked. For a week or so. I liked him.
(beat)
Oh, don’t give me that face. I mean it. The…emotional crux of our time together was a consequence of several days’ worth of getting to know each other. My decision was neither impulsive nor rash.

 

KILLIKER
I could tell she was chewing on something while we talked, her mind working out a problem. Little did I know that the problem was me. Though she needn’t have worried, I would have done anything she asked me.

 

DARIA
When I actually made the decision…now what was the final tipping point?
(beat)
I remember. He made me laugh.

 

KILLIKER
And when she finally decided, I did everything she asked.
(beat)
What, too much?

 

DARIA
He left it up to me, you know. It was clear enough what he wanted, but he made no move until I let him. I was…unused to people not taking what they wanted, with little regard to the consequences. It was refreshing.

 

KILLIKER
Coerced? How dare you, sir, I would never use my magic to coerce someone into sex. What kind of a monster do you think I am?

 

DARIA
He didn’t need to convince me with magic. Not hardly.

 

KILLIKER
How fondly I remember those days. Our time together was short—we decided it would be wisest that I not cross paths with Lord Samuel, and I left before he came back.

 

DARIA
I admit I toyed with the idea of leaving Samuel and going with Killiker, but the political situation was still such that my family was counting on me to stay. I do wonder, sometimes, what might have become of us, if I had chosen to go.

 

KILLIKER
I thought of her often after that—I still do, though less so now. I did try to visit a few years later, but alas, she would not see me.

 

DARIA
I couldn’t have Samuel seeing you and seeing Killiker and making connections. Samuel had many faults, but he was not dense. I felt awful to do it, but the risk to all of us was too great. I couldn’t even write a note.

 

KILLIKER
The stories of our lives are winding and strange, and it is to be expected that some people would come and go. It is of course a matter for grief, but I wouldn’t want to avoid getting to know people on the off chance I might lose them. That course of action leads to such lonesomeness.

 

DARIA
No, I don’t regret it. Not at all. It’s the reason I have you, isn’t it?

 

KILLIKER
I do not regret it in the least. Say, why so interested in this story, young sir? Have we met before?

Story Time: The Mean Streets

March is my birthday month, and so this month I thought it was only fitting to write about the character in the Crew who is most like me personality-wise, Knowles. Content warning for usual policing nonsense, but no violence or corruption.

(Remember, Patreon supporters get first dibs on Story Time every month, and $20 patrons can even suggest prompts!)

*

“Let me go,” the child said, struggling mid-air, throwing punches in vain.

Knowles rolled their eyes. They were holding up the child by their vest, which was the only piece of clothing Knowles was certain was sturdy enough to hold the kid’s weight. They were ragged and dirty and looked like every kid Knowles had known growing up. “This is what happens when you steal.”

“No it ain’t,” the kid spat. “This is what happens when you get caught.”

Knowles had to concede this point. “And what do you think happens next?”

The child stopped their struggling, face falling. Their expression wasn’t even anger or petulance, it was…resignation.

It was the saddest thing Knowles had ever seen.

They sighed. Being a guard was supposed to make things easier, but the work was thankless. The people from their old neighborhood understood why they did it, but those people also didn’t talk to Knowles anymore. Of all the calculations that had gone into this decision, Knowles had forgotten to account for how much the guard was disliked. Turned out that Knowles was not past caring about such things, even when they were past caring about so much else.

“Look,” Knowles said to the kid suspended in their hand, “why were you stealing bread?”

“Why do you think, guard, I’m hungry,” the kid growled.

“Right, you’re coming with me.”

 

The kitchen had given Knowles an extra bowl of thick, hearty stew without question. The stew came from the king, and the king always had food to spare. The child’s resignation had turned into bewilderment when, rather than being tossed into the cell in the corner of the guardhouse, they were sat down on a bench and given something to eat. And they ate, furiously, without so much as a thank you.

Knowles puttered around the guardhouse for a few minutes, straightening things, tidying up, watching the kid out of the corner of their eye. After a bit, they settled on the bench too, far enough away to give the kid the security of distance, and started picking the mud out of their boots with a knife.

“What is this?

Knowles looked up to find Captain Brindle, pointing one long finger at the kid. The kid, for their part, was frozen, spoon suspended in mid-air. Everyone knew about Captain Brindle, the ruthless watchdog for the king.

Knowles stood up without much urgency, falling into a respectful posture with ease. Captain Brindle didn’t bother them. She was terribly predictable. “Just a stray I picked up, Captain. Thought I’d give them a meal.”

Captain Brindle would try a power play next. Knowles watched their statement click into place in her head, followed by a deepening scorn. She was highborn, and had little sympathy for her peers and none for those she considered below her. She stepped forward, standing too close to Knowles. Power play. “Does this look like a poorhouse, Knowles?”

“No, ma’am,” Knowles said, and didn’t add that the dinged-up armor most of them wore could have fooled them.

“How about a debtor’s prison, does it look like one of those?” She took another step closer.

Knowles didn’t budge, except to blink slowly. “No, Captain.”

She leaned in. “Then get this street garbage out of my guardhouse.”

Knowles stood their ground. “Yes, Captain.”

She stared at them a little longer, waiting for them to break, and then seemed disappointed when they didn’t. With whatever dignity she thought she had, she whirled out of the room, muttering something under her breath about new recruits.

Carefully, Knowles wiped the spit off their face. “You can finish your stew, kid. She won’t be back for a few more minutes.”

The child shoved the still-suspended spoon into their mouth and swallowed it immediately. “Then what?”

“What do you mean?” Knowles said, sitting back down on the bench.

“What are you gonna do to me once I finish this?”

Knowles shrugged. “You heard the captain. You’re free to go.”

The kid revealed the tiniest, crookedest smile Knowles had ever seen before shoveling the next bite into their mouth.

 

Knowles proceeded with leisure down the street. They didn’t spend a lot of time here anymore. It was just a block over from the flea trap where they’d grown up. Most of the shops and booths had changed over. They wondered, idly, who had died and who had just left.

They arrived at their destination, a bookseller’s stall, and stopped to peruse. The bookseller saw their armor and the stripes painted on it first, and said, “Sergeant.”

“Morning,” Knowles said, taking a book off one of the shelves and flipping through it.

“Oh, it’s you.”

Knowles looked up at the bookseller. They had a small, crooked smile, which rang a bell… “Have we met?”

“You probably wouldn’t remember,” the bookseller said. “It was years ago. But you caught me stealing and gave me something to eat.”

Knowles had done that a few times, but the first time did tend to stick in one’s head, didn’t it? Which of course made what they were about to do all the worse. They put the book back. “I do remember.”

“You know, I looked you up after that day,” the bookseller said. “You grew up not far from here, didn’t you? It was Teric, right?”

Knowles tried not to draw back in revulsion. Their mother was the last person who’d called them that. It had been years since the name had even been spoken. They swallowed. “That’s right.”

“Back home for a visit?”

“Not exactly.” Without much ado, Knowles rested their hand on their sword, hanging at their side. “I’m here about some reported counterfeiting.”

The crooked little smile disappeared off the bookseller’s face. They licked their lips, suddenly nervous. Knowles waited.

“I heard you grew up in the same tenement as my cousins did,” they said finally. “Heard that your whole family died. Everyone. Mother. Siblings. A twin, even.”

Knowles swallowed back whatever reaction was trying to come out of their throat. This wasn’t the time.

“So you remember what it’s like,” the bookseller went on. “You must remember. I mean, you know what it’s like to be hungry. Or else you wouldn’t have helped me, years ago.”

“I remember,” Knowles said quietly. “But the law’s the law.”

The bookseller’s expression hardened. Now they resembled the child they once were, struggling mid-air in Knowles grip. Furious, petulant. But not resigned. “What do you want from me?”

“We just have some questions, to start.”

The bookseller nodded. “Do you mind if I grab my coat?”

“Of course not.”

“It’s just back here.” They slid aside the curtain at the back of the booth and slipped behind it.

Knowles waited. Odds were the bookseller wasn’t getting their coat…

And there they went, fast footsteps taking off; Knowles caught glimpses of them disappearing behind the other booths.

And Knowles started counting down from five. Because for someone from the old neighborhood, for someone who had already been through so much, the least they could do was try and even out the odds.

Five. Four. Three. Two. One.

Story Time: Adventures in Babysitting

A little light AU for your reading pleasure! For those of you who are unaware, it is 100% canon that if Tode and Cybilene grew up together, they would be Creepy Twins. We get to explore that through the eyes of their cousin/babysitter Augie. Enjoy!

*

Bartholomew and Cybilene aren’t normal.

Yes, obviously, “normal” is kind of an insulting concept, I know, Kibs. Like yes, the big folk are the weird ones, and definitely need to get their priorities straight about creativity and community and joy, yes, blah blah blah—

But that’s not what I’m talking about, okay? Bartholomew and Cybilene. They’re just…strange.

All right so for an example—I’m babysitting them last week. Auntie and Uncle had some errands to run and needed an extra set of eyes. So I’m making them some dinner and I call them, like hey Cyb and Bart, come eat. Now they don’t answer, but I figure they’re just playing and I turn around.

And they’re right behind me, being completely silent. Holding hands. And they say—in unison, mind you—“Yes Augie?”

Why are you—no it was creepy, Kibs, I’m telling you!

Maybe you had to be there.

Okay but then I’m tucking them into bed, right, and then I say good night to Cybilene and she says—and this is verbatim— “Will you tuck our friend in too?” And I’m of course like, what friend? I’m thinking she’s talking about a teddy bear or something. But no, Kibs. She points to an empty corner and says, “The Shadow Man.”

The Shadow Man, Kibs.

And then Bart says, “He doesn’t like you.”

Like.

What am I supposed to do with that.

No, Kibs! No! It was not a joke! They are too young to do pranks! Their idea of pranks is coloring something with the wrong crayon!

All right fine, you want the kicker?

I closed their door. Their parents told me to and they have a night light, it’s fine. And then I sit down in the kitchen and make myself a snack and read my book.

And then.

I hear a noise outside. And you know how it is when you’re babysitting, you get paranoid. So I grabbed a cricket bat from the umbrella stand—

No, Kibs, I don’t know why they have a cricket bat in the umbrella stand.

Anyway, grab the bat, and then I open the front door.

And Kibs. I swear to the gods. They’re standing there on the porch.

I don’t know, I said the first thing that came to mind! How did you get out there! And Cybilene says, “He’s sleepwalking.” And mind you, his eyes were wide open.

Yeah, I put them back to bed immediately, and just for funsies I check the window. It’s locked from the inside, Kibs.

All I’m saying is that Cybilene and Bartholomew are creepy. They are not normal.

…I’m gonna ask Aunty and Uncle for a raise next time.

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.

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.