The word that travelled north was brief, but noteworthy. Amid the surge and ebb of tensions among the city-states and local aristocracy, it stood out.
Around the city of Liscor that marked the sole safe passage between the northern and southern parts of Izril, news was seldom good. The Goblin Lord was only the most recent of bad tidings; the Human cities were always facing some minor crisis. After all, they bordered not only the ill-tempered Drake lands, but the High Passes, from which bands of monsters occasionally emerged to wreak havoc.
In addition, the city-states that far south were far newer and less well-developed than their northern counterparts. Celum was a far cry from a northern city like Rectes, let alone a major hub like Invrisil.
But the whisper that came north by mage [Message] was hopeful. It was a simple line that made those in the know sit up:
Esthelm has risen.
Esthelm has returned.
Esthelm is not dead.
The city lives. The people rebuild the walls, and pledge to stay and fight rather than give way to the Goblin Lord’s armies. It was a small miracle, but what was far more miraculous was hearing where this sudden surge of life and hope had come from.
Esthelm had received aid…from Liscor of all places! No, not just Liscor—the Antinium of all species had come to help them. And somehow, Celum had sent a convoy down the roads without it falling prey to the Goblin armies.
Such boldness from the southern cities and generosity from the Antinium and Drakes was unprecedented. But with this, Esthelm might well recover and survive another Goblin assault and the remaining winter.
For a few seconds, hope blossomed in the cold. But just as quickly as it had been heard, the news of Esthelm would pass from the minds of all but a few listeners. Oh, some [Merchants] would mark down Esthelm as a prime target for business in the future if it survived, and a bold [Trader] might calculate the odds of making it to the city alive with a caravan, but no one else would pay attention to such news.
Almost no one. In fact, only two individuals of note paid attention to the news of Esthelm, despite their urgent business. The most powerful [Lady] on the continent listened to the news of the city’s revival and wondered, and the most infamous [Lord] frowned and adjusted his plans slightly to account for this discrepancy.
And then they too returned to business. Esthelm was put out of mind and the world continued to move onwards. Just for a moment though, it had shone brightly for all to see. For a moment, the world had stopped and stared at the small spark glowing there.
And who had lit the spark? It was a conflagration of many hands and claws it was true, but the young woman from which it had all started was a young [Innkeeper]. She dozed lightly as a wagon trundled down the road back to Liscor just before dawn. It was far too early for such a trip she felt, but the roads were clear, and Termin had wanted to go now.
“After all, that second army of Goblins has been raiding and burnt down a town not fifty miles north of here. If I’m moving my wagon, it’s with a convoy or clear roads or not at all.”
Thus, he’d persuaded the reluctant Erin to ride back with him to Liscor, escorted by the Horns of Hammerad as before. They lay asleep in the back of the wagon, exhausted from a day of work.
More traffic would soon flow south to Liscor. The majority of wagons would head back, as would the Gold-rank adventurers, Zel Shivertail, and a good portion of the Antinium who’d come north.
Only a day had passed since Esthelm had received aid. That was too short a time to effect that much change, although the Antinium had managed to repair a good deal of the walls themselves. But the convoy had done its job, and staying longer would do no good. Extra hands to help meant extra mouths to feed, and the food and supplies that had been brought would go to waste that way.
So the adventurers who had been hired would stay, the extra [Guardsmen], [Hunters], [Healers], and so on would lend their expertise, and a group of Antinium Workers and Soldiers under Anand’s supervision would stay to complete construction work. Everyone else would leave.
That suited Erin just fine. She woke up a bit as the cold air blew into her face. But after adjusting her head so she was sheltered by the wagon’s sides, she dozed off.
Woke up again. This time Erin saw Liscor in the distance. She blinked around blearily and decided a few more minutes wouldn’t hurt…
“Miss Erin? We’re here.”
A hand shook Erin gently. She groaned and then opened her eyes.
The wagon was parked right next to the hill the inn stood on. Erin looked at Termin, and realized he’d stopped here for her.
“Oh, thanks, Termin!”
He smiled at her, and dipped his head slightly.
There was much more to say, but it was too early. Erin got up and woke up the other Horns of Hammerad by yanking the blankets off them. They swore at her—Ceria nearly hit Erin with her skeletal hand before she opened her eyes. But they did get up.
It was customary to tip drivers, even if they had been paid. Erin fished around for a coin but Termin waved her away.
“Treat me to a meal tonight, miss. You’ll be open? Then I’ll be there.”
He gently flapped the reins and Erma and Fox began to plod off.
“Bastard. It’s not a minute’s travel up the hill.”
Pisces glared at the wagon as it rolled through the snow. Erin glared blearily at him, shivering already despite the blanket she’d draped around her shoulders for extra protection.
“That’s a lot of work for his horses. We can walk. Come on.”
Silently, the adventurers trudged up the hill after Erin. She pushed open the door to her inn and they practically fell down the steps to the basement. Erin paused only to make sure they had enough blankets. Everyone but Ksmvr was already back asleep.
Silently, Erin wandered over to the fireplace and added a few logs that had been piled up next to it. The glowing embers set fire to the wood as she blew carefully at it.
The ash made her cough. Erin took a few steps back and stared as the temperature in the common room began to rise. She glanced towards the window.
It was still night. But there was light there, too. It would be dawn soon.
If she were back home, Erin would have been dead asleep—or going to sleep if she’d pulled another all-nighter playing chess online or studying games. She would have never contemplated anything remotely resembling hard work at this hour, and probably would have slept in till one.
“Huh. I guess I’m a morning person now.”
Erin smiled, and bowed her head as she shivered and sat at an empty table in her inn. She closed her eyes, but that was a mistake.
Yes, if she were back home, she’d be lying in bed with her laptop, covered with blankets as the snow fell outside. Maybe she would be thinking about getting a part-time job, or what college would be like next year. She’d be studying chess or chatting online with a friend and—
It hurt. Erin bit her lip, so hard she nearly punctured skin. She stood up and sighed. Swaying on her feet, Erin frowned. She was still waking up.
“…not now. But it’s Christmas time. Time…?”
The mumbling attracted attention. Erin heard the creak of someone descending the stairs and saw Lyonette rubbing her eyes as she walked down. The young woman froze when she saw Erin standing in the center of the room, but then she relaxed.
“Oh. I thought—”
Erin nodded at her. Lyonette silently stumbled down the steps. Both girls stood in the room, staring at each other. Without saying anything, a consensus was reached that it was far too early for anything resembling conversation.
Erin sat back down. Then she stood up with a groan and went into the kitchen to prepare food for the masses. Lyonette went outside with a bucket for water.
Some things were easiest to do on autopilot. Erin mechanically made crepes in a batter and fried them up. She was munching on a buttery crepe before she properly woke up. The hot food was burning her hands, but it was food so she didn’t care.
The sun was coming up. Now Erin could think, she wandered back into the common room, leaving a heap of crepes in a bowl covered with a towel. They could always be reheated, and she had too much work to do to stay in the kitchen.
“Time to get to work.”
Lyonette paused mid-bite, a piece of crepe halfway towards her mouth. She blinked blearily at Erin. The young woman waved at her [Barmaid].
“I said I’m going to work. A lot. Today’s going to be busy, Lyon. I think you’ll have to stay in the inn most of the time, but I’ll be running around like a chicken with its head cut off.”
The young woman sitting at the table nodded. She paused, frowned, and woke up a bit more. Then she thought about what Erin had said.
“Do they actually do that?”
“Chickens. Do they really run around when you…I mean, if you…”
Lyonette gulped. Erin paused.
“Maybe? I dunno, I’ve never actually tried it. It’s just what people say where I come from.”
The two girls stared at each other. After a second, Erin coughed.
“We don’t do that all the time. It’s just…”
“No, I understand.”
“Right. Well then…I’m off to the city!”
Awkwardly, Erin edged out the door. She came back in to grab a money pouch and fill it with coins. She was feeling the rush of sugar and adrenaline now. She put a smile on her face and fixed it there.
“Do we need anything, Lyon? I mean, Lyonette?”
“Um. Lyon’s fine I guess. We need some more flour, a few tomatoes if you want to make that ‘cats-up’ stuff, and some salt. I think we’ve got enough for tonight.”
“Alright, got it! Oh, and one more thing—”
Erin poked her head back through the door. Lyonette looked at her expectantly.
“Christmas is coming.”
“It’s a holiday! Everyone’s going to get presents and have fun, so…think of some gifts for people, okay? You’ll have to get presents for uh, two other people. It can be food, something small or fun or anything like that. Just think of something nice to give someone else.”
“Thanks! I’ll explain the rest later!”
It was just a smile, but Erin wore it like a shield. Smiling helped. Smiling made you think the day might not be horrible after all. Not that she thought today would be horrible, but she had a lot to do, and she was going to do it cheerful or she’d kill herself.
Or someone. Like the sleepy guardsman at the gate. The Drake on duty just stared at Erin as she stood outside the closed gates. After five minutes he managed to get them open enough for her to slip through.
“I have so much to do!”
Erin groused to herself as she stomped across the streets of Liscor, trying not to slip on the snow-covered paving stones. There was practically no one up yet, but she found Market Street at least partially occupied. While pedestrians had yet to hit the streets, the shopkeepers were setting up, miserably trying to stay warm while they opened their stalls.
Erin found one familiar Gnoll grumbling to herself as she dusted snow off of her counter with a paw. Krshia Silverfang turned before Erin could call out to her. The Gnoll sniffed and smiled as Erin approached her small stall.
The young woman beamed at her. The Gnoll smiled and beckoned Erin closer. They huddled beneath her stall’s flimsy walls from the wind while they chatted.
“Erin Solstice. It has been far, far too long since we have spoken properly, yes?”
“Yes! How are you doing, Krshia? I know we talked a bit at the party, but there’s so much that has happened!”
“Indeed. We must catch up. But first—have you business with me?”
“I do! Here—oh wait, I don’t have a list. But I know what I need.”
“Hmm. Let me fetch a piece of parchment and charcoal, yes?”
Erin chatted with Krshia as the Gnoll wrote down her shopping list and told her it would be delivered to her inn by the end of the day. Erin put a few coins on the table and got three bronze coins in change. Then she took a deep breath and got to the real reason she’d sought Krshia out so early.
“Krshia, I know Lyonette’s um…well, I know she did a lot of things while I was gone.”
“That is so. Hrm. You say you have done much in Celum while you were away, yes? Well, Lyonette has…also done much here.”
Erin peeked up at the tall Gnoll’s face. Krshia’s expression was hard to read, but her ears weren’t flat. That was a good sign.
“I know you didn’t want her back in the city. But she came in, didn’t she?”
Krshia paused, and her ears did twitch then. But her voice remained level and calm. Or seemingly calm.
“She was allowed back in the city by Zel Shivertail, no? What is a Gnoll’s pride before the famous hero of the Antinium Wars? We will do nothing to her, not when the Council is against us.”
“I’m sorry. But she came back to—”
“Save the child Mrsha. I know. It makes it better, no?”
“No. Well, yes. Maybe. But she only did it because of that. She won’t come back otherwise. And I had a chat with her, and…well, she’s sorry and she’ll try to make amends.”
“So I have seen. But her debt is large, Erin.”
“I know. I just wanted to say that she’s going to try and stay out of the city unless it’s an emergency. And a bit of the money she gets paid—once I actually pay her—will go to you for your shop. It’s not much, but it’s what she can do. What I can do.”
Krshia blinked down at Erin. She didn’t immediately reply. Erin shivered.
“I know it’s not enough. But she’s trying, okay?”
“Hrm. I understand.”
Krshia shook her head. She looked tired as she flicked a bit of snow that had dared to land on her counter off onto the ground.
“That Human child is odd. Odd, but I see her trying. It is not enough, but it will do. Let us not talk of such things, Erin. You have just returned—again. Let us talk of good matters, or as much good as there is on such cold days.”
Erin smiled at Krshia and saw the Gnoll bare her canines in response. After a second, Erin frowned.
“Krshia, what’s the Council? That’s the group that rules Liscor, right? Who are they? I’ve never seen them.”
The Gnoll shrugged. She glanced hopefully up and down the street, but Erin was her only customer. A few Drakes were starting on one end of the street, but it would be several minutes before they got to her.
“The Council is made up of important people in the city. It is a Drake thing. The foremost people sit on it and decide what must be done from time to time.”
“Really, who are they?”
Another shrug. Krshia frowned a bit as she replied, which made Erin think that Gnolls didn’t get much of a place on the Council.
“The head of the Adventurer’s Guild, the foremost [Mage], usually head of the Mage’s Guild…hrm, the Captain of the Watch, Zevara, the head of the Merchant’s Guild…Olesm…”
“He is chief [Tactician] in the city. He must advise on matters that may be military. He has a voice.”
“Wow. I had no idea he was actually that important!”
“Well, it is a civilian council. While the army is away they leave such people in charge. You know Liscor’s army is a mercenary one? They are a power unto their own, but they rarely return to the city.”
Erin thought about that for a second. Then she stared at Krshia. The Gnoll wasn’t shivering, but she looked miserable, standing in her small stall waiting for customers as the snow fell down again.
Miserable. Perhaps it was her stall. It was too small. Erin remembered how it had looked before, how many wares Krshia had had on display. Now…
“I’m sorry about your shop. Did I say that before? I’m really sorry about it. I know it was hard—and I’d like to help if I can.”
Krshia blinked at Erin and shook her head.
“You say it as if it was your fault. It is not.”
“But I need to say it. I hired Lyonette, and I know you were upset. It must be so hard—if I can do anything, I will. That’s what friends are for.”
The [Shopkeeper] just shook her head.
“I must have new wares to sell, and that costs money. To sell I must buy, and I have less coin than I did. My friends in the city and those from my tribe aid me. They lend me coin and I buy and sell with that. It is enough. It is not as if you can give me more business—unless there is something like those hamburgers I may sell?”
She looked inquiringly at Erin, but without any real hope. Erin hesitated, and then smiled.
“I do have some ideas. Maybe not things I can make, but—I’ll try.”
“It is all I ask, yes? But where does this spirit come from?”
“I did a lot of thinking. Well, mostly on the wagon ride to Esthelm and back. I think I can help, and not just by giving you a bunch of coin or anything. I just—I want to make sure my friends are doing okay. Which reminds me, where’s Brunkr? I heard he was sick from Klbkch!”
Krshia paused. She had been smiling a bit at Erin. Now the smile vanished into the cold.
“My nephew? He is poor. He rests in my home, Erin. He will…be better after he gains the courage to do what must be done, I think.”
Krshia looked uncomfortable. She shook her head and glanced around the street.
“Better if you see for yourself. I would let him explain or you see, but not say it. Hrr. Perhaps there is time before more come to shop. Would you like to see?”
Erin hesitated. Krshia was clearly upset. If she wasn’t saying…
It was a quick walk to Krshia’s apartment. Erin opened the door and recognized the cozy home. Nothing much had changed since her last visit, save for what looked like a heap of rugs on Krshia’s couch. Then someone groaned and the pile of rugs turned into Brunkr, wrapped up in blankets as he lay in Krshia’s home.
“Brunkr? I have come back, yes? And brought someone to visit.”
Krshia spoke quietly to Brunkr. He made no reply. He was lying with the blanket wrapped around his huge frame. Something stank horribly. Erin made a face and suppressed the urge to gag. She peered at Brunkr, but couldn’t see anything, cocooned as he was.
“What’s wrong with him?”
“Go away, Human.”
Brunkr’s voice was muffled but distinct. She saw him roll and then two dark brown eyes glared malevolently at her.
“Leave me, Erin Solstice. And take your cursed doombringer far away from me. Leave her yourself unless you wish to end up as I do.”
Doombringer? Erin frowned and then realized he meant Mrsha. Krshia frowned at Brunkr.
“Nephew! Be silent. Do not blame bad luck on the Mrsha child.”
Brunkr ignored his aunt. He sat up with an effort, groaning as his legs slowly unfolded and he shifted the blanket. The smell grew worse. It was the smell of…Erin’s stomach roiled and the crepes threatened to come up. The Gnoll warrior was breathing heavily and sweat was staining his fur as she stared at Krshia.
“Is it time to cut it off? Is that why you have come?”
“Cut? Cut what off?”
Erin blinked at Brunkr. He stared incredulously at her, and then snarled. He tore off the blanket from his frame and thrust his right hand at her.
Both Human and Gnoll recoiled. Erin saw yellow dripping pus, oozing around red broken skin covered in horribly stained fur—in an instant she realized where the smell was coming from. The blanket Brunkr had tossed to the floor was also covered in dried yellow gunk.
It was horrible. And disgusting. Erin swallowed hard and forced her stomach to stay still.
“What’s that? How did you…?”
“Your cursed one bit me.”
Brunkr snarled at Erin. He cradled his hand, unable to touch it as more yellow pus dripped slowly out of the infected injury on his arm. Erin couldn’t look away from the horrible sight.
Whatever Mrsha had done, and Erin vaguely recalled her biting Brunkr only a bit, that small injury had turned into a full-scale infection that had taken over a good portion of Brunkr’s forearm. It was horrible, and clearly not healing.
Both Brunkr and Krshia stared at Erin. She gulped again.
“That’s real bad. Um, Brunkr. Mrsha did this? Have you—I mean, I’m sorry, but she didn’t mean to do that. Have you had that looked at by a [Healer]? Or gotten a healing potion or something? If you need to, I can pay for—”
The male Gnoll made a sound of fury and turned away violently. Krshia pulled at Erin’s arm and whispered to her as the two stood by the door.
“It is not something curable with a healing potion, and the [Healers] cannot fix such an injury, Erin. Not ones from Liscor—and not ones from Celum, I fear. It is too far infected now. Only magic might save it, and few know healing spells for this.”
“Oh. Oh no.”
Erin didn’t know what to say. She understood the problem. Maybe Brunkr would be okay in her world, but here a healing potion and [Healer] were the only types of medicine available. And neither one was specialized in fighting diseases or infections.
“It is my doom, brought upon me. It will fall on the rest of you as well.”
Brunkr stood in a corner, holding his arm, not looking at the other two. He had heard every word they had said with his acute hearing.
His arm. It was a ghastly sight, but Erin couldn’t look away for some reason. She kept waiting for Brunkr to turn so she could stare at it again.
Her right hand twinged. Erin stared down at it, and remembered a similar sight. She looked at Krshia questioningly.
“Back when my hand was all cut up Klbkch gave me a healing potion. It worked, even though it was sort of infected. Are you sure a healing potion—a good one—wouldn’t…?”
Krshia shook her head instantly.
“Light infections, perhaps. The body will fight it off in the end, yes? So a healing potion makes it faster. But deep rot such as this…no. It will only speed up the infection.”
“So what can you do?”
Krshia didn’t reply. But she stared at Brunkr and Erin saw the Gnoll’s entire body tense up. Erin went pale.
“No! Not yet!”
Brunkr’s voice was full of anguish. He bent over his hand, making a sound that was more animal than word. Erin saw Krshia staring at her younger nephew with deep sorrow—but also something cold in her gaze.
“It must be soon, nephew. Erin, even she can see your hand is gone, yes?”
The echo came from Erin’s mouth. Both Gnolls stared at her, Brunkr turning his head to look. Erin was shaking her head.
“No, Erin Solstice? But you see his hand. It must go or the rot will consume him as well.”
“No, it’s—maybe something can be done. Krshia, let me—I think something can be done.”
Brunkr snapped at Erin, showing his teeth. Erin felt her heart beating faster, but not from fear. She stared at Brunkr’s hand and thought of doctors, hospitals. She had no idea—only a vague recollection of taking tablets and getting shots, but maybe…
“Let me try to help, okay? I think I have an idea. I’ll come back—”
“Do not lie to me, Human.”
Brunkr glared at Erin, seemingly more infuriated by her offer to help than his aunt’s words. Erin held her ground as he stumbled towards her. Brunkr’s voice was slurred by pain and grief, but he was still a warrior of a Gnoll tribe. He towered over her as he glared and Erin saw Krshia staring warily at her nephew.
“Humans—hrr. I hear Humans say try and give up in an instant. What can you do that my tribe—my aunt cannot? Can you save my hand? Tell me. If you lie, I will know.”
“I can try.”
Erin looked Brunkr in the eye. He stared at her. The anger was replaced by dull resignation in an instant.
“You will fail, and say you did all you could. Your words are empty.”
“I don’t give up that easily. Here.”
Erin stepped past Brunkr, to a pile of rags that smelled horrible. She found a bucket of water and washed the rags briskly as Krshia guided Brunkr back to the couch. Erin wrung the cloth and pressed it on Brunkr’s head. The Gnoll groaned and lay back. Erin turned to Krshia and silently the two females left her apartment.
“If you can help, I will give all to save his hand. But is it possible?”
“I don’t know. I don’t know, Krshia, but I know who I can ask.”
That was all they said on the matter. Back at Krshia’s stall, Erin stood in front of it, feeling heavier than she had when she’d just woken up. She couldn’t get the image of Brunkr’s infected hand out of her head.
Krshia seemed equally weighed down, despite Erin’s assurances. She looked so tired. It hurt Erin’s heart. The girl cast around for something, anything that could make the Gnoll feel better, and then remembered one of the things she had decided to do. She put a smile on her face and made it stick by sheer force of will.
Lighthearted tone. Erin took a breath and did her best.
“I know Brunkr’s in bad shape, but can I tell you about something that’s going to happen a few days from now, Krshia?”
“Hm? What is this thing, Erin Solstice?”
Krshia eyed Erin as the girl tried to summon the powers of the holiday spirit. She spread her arms.
“Christmas! I know you don’t know what that is, but listen. Back where I come from…back from my world, we have a tradition. Every year, in the winter, just before the new year starts, we celebrate Christmas.”
“Hrm. The longest day of the year, the winter solstice is yet a few days away. Before this is Christmas, you say? What happens on this day?”
“We celebrate. We give each other presents, eat lots of food—oh, and Santa Claus comes to give things to everyone!”
The Gnoll just stared at Erin. The girl tried to explain. She got most of the points across, although Krshia still didn’t understand why a fat man would run around with presents and coal to give to everyone. But the Gnoll was smiling when Erin had finished.
“So you intend to celebrate this—this day of giving soon?”
“Yes! Tomorrow, maybe? Or the day after? I know there’s not a lot of time to get gifts, but we can all try, right? But we have to do it before the new year’s. That’s very important. So…do you want to join in? I’m going to have everyone give gifts to two people so everyone gets presents. We’ll have a huge party at my inn and everything!”
Erin held her breath as Krshia thought about the idea. The Gnoll rubbed her face with a furry paw, and then smiled again.
“Christmas. Yes, it could be a nice thing to do. And I must give gifts to two others? Whom? Or will it be a surprise?”
“I think that could get weird. I’ll come up with a list and tell everyone who their people are. I’ll uh, also make sure you don’t get Lyonette and she doesn’t get you. I guess I should keep Klbkch and Zel from being Secret Santas too.”
“Hrm. That may be wise, yes.”
Krshia bared her teeth in a smile. Erin smiled back.
“Okay. I’ve got to go. But I’ll be back. And—I’ll be back.”
“I know. Go safely, Erin. And have a merry…Christmas, yes?”
The girl waved and hurried off down the street. Krshia watched her go, and then sighed. The thought of her nephew was like a burden on her, a heavy stone. But somehow, she thought of it differently now. She managed to smile, and perhaps it was that which attracted a middle-aged Drake across the street to Krshia’s stall.
The Gnoll smiled wider, and began to talk with the Drake. Perhaps she was only there for a chat, but Krshia thought she could smell an opportunity here.
“Hello, Tesha. Have you heard of an interesting Human tradition? No? It is called ‘Christmas’. I tell you because it is coming soon, and you may wish to buy presents if you wish to partake. You see, on Christmas…”
So much to do, and so little time. Erin was trying to figure out which street to go down when she saw a familiar face and scales in the crowd. She called out at once.
“Erin? I was just going to see if you were back!”
The Drake beamed at her. They stopped in the middle of the street, the vapor trails of their conversation floating upwards as they talked and shivered.
“How are you, Olesm? We barely talked before—Lyonette says you were a huge help to her while I was gone. Thank you so much!”
“Aw, it was nothing—well, actually, it was sort of hard.”
Olesm frowned as he nudged Erin. They stood aside to let a grumpy Drake wearing armor and a group of other armed Drakes stomp by. The Drake wearing the most impressive regalia snorted as he saw Erin talking with Olesm.
He passed by and Olesm shook his head.
“Sorry—what was I saying? Oh yeah, I was happy to help Lyonette. But it’s a good thing she managed to patch things up with the Gnolls so they’d deliver to her. My arms nearly fell off trying to haul all the food she wanted up to the inn every day! I don’t know how you do it!”
“You get strong. See?”
Erin tried to flex her arm to show Olesm, but all the clothes on her body made that futile. Olesm smiled and then fidgeted.
“I don’t suppose you’re free right now, Erin? I’d love to chat with you—I mean, there’s so much I’ve been meaning to show you, and I’d love to play a game if…”
Erin sighed and Olesm’s face fell.
“I’m sorry, Olesm. But I’m so busy! I have to go to the Mage’s Guild after this, and then…”
“I completely understand. I’ll ask again later.”
Olesm raised his claws and made to back away. Erin felt a pang as she saw how disappointed he was—and how hard he was trying to hide that fact.
“Why don’t you come to the inn after lunch? I’ll definitely have time to talk then. We can play a few games of chess and—oh, I can show you how to play Shogi!”
The blue-scaled Drake paused. His tail began to wag hopefully in the snow.
“Really? You mean it? I won’t be interrupting?”
“I’ll make time. It’s a promise, okay? After lunch. You can make it, right?”
“I’ll be there! No problem! Let me just—I’ll have to get my notes, and a bottle of fresh ink—and I can show you all the letters I’ve received. I’ll be there! At your inn, right? Definitely!”
Erin smiled as Olesm rushed off, practically jumping for joy. Then she frowned.
“After lunch? Gotta go faster, then.”
She stomped down the street, searching for the Mage’s Guild. In truth, Erin had never been there, but it wasn’t hard to find the place.
There wasn’t a line this early in the day, and the Drake at the counter was clearly bored. He didn’t seem any happier to have to serve anyone, but Erin gave him her best smile anyways.
“Hi there, you do messages by spell, right? Can I send a message to…Invrisil? How much would that cost, actually?”
The Drake stared at Erin, and grudgingly pointed his claw to a large sign with prices listed right above his head. Erin turned red and stared at them.
“Payment is up front. We don’t send packages by magic either; you’ll need to go to a Walled City or another city for that.”
The Drake’s voice was testy. Erin nodded a few times.
“Got it…not too pricy, huh. Okay, I think I’d like to send a message to my friend! Can I send it now, or do I have to wait?”
The Drake pointed to the sign again.
“There’s a fee for quick deliveries. Just tell me your friend’s name and I’ll have it addressed to her.”
Erin gave him Ryoka’s name, spelling it out for him as he frowned over the odd spelling, grumbling about Human names. Her message was simple, and was written verbatim.
“Hey Ryoka, this is Erin! I need help! I just spoke with Krshia—you know she’s got a nephew, Brunkr, right? Well, he’s got an infected hand and I was wondering—okay. Wow. That much? Um, Ryoka, lots of money to send this, so…how to heal infected hand? Also, when are you coming back? Christmas is soon. Come back soon!”
After that, Erin had to pay and wait for the [Clerk] to take the letter upstairs to the [Mage] on duty. She got a small receipt and her change—she was paying in gold coins since the Gold-rank adventurers didn’t seem to have smaller denominations.
Erin wondered if Ryoka would get the message. She was about to hurry back to her inn when the Drake at the desk suddenly called out after her.
“Miss? Miss Human!”
She came back to the counter. He was frowning at something that had just shot down a small tube from upstairs. It was a slip of parchment, folded up. He showed it to Erin.
“A reply just came back. It seems your friend has already received your message. She is at the Mage’s Guild in Invrisil this moment.”
Erin stared at the [Clerk.]
“That’s a weird coincidence.”
He didn’t look as astounded as Erin felt.
“It happens. Normally we would take in her message with the rest as it comes in, but she paid to send a reply back fast.”
“Oh. Well then…can you tell Ryoka I’m here? Or do I have to send another message?”
The Drake paused. He looked reluctant to be awake, and more reluctant to have to speak with an uninformed customer, but Erin’s smile wore him down and he decided to be helpful.
“Why don’t I send a message requesting a two-way communication between you two?”
“Wow. You can do that? Thank you! But will it cost a lot?”
The Drake coughed, looking around the empty building.
“If you were paying for a mage to be on standby, yes. But it’s clear around here and I know Invrisil has mages to spare…we’ll deliver all your messages sent immediately for an upfront fee, and every message sent afterwards. It’s not cheap, but if you have the gold to spend you can get a reply right away.”
“In that case, let’s have a chat!”
Erin plonked gold coins on the counter and the Drake sighed only slightly before scribbling down on a bit of parchment. He had to talk to the [Mage] on duty—and then send a message to Invrisil to Ryoka and the people there. But in the end Erin found herself dictating responses to him and waiting for a response as Ryoka got messages back on her end and replied.
It was a thousand, no, ten thousand times worse than the most disjointed Skype call. Erin had to dictate a message to the [Clerk] and then wait for as many as ten minutes for a reply. She passed that time chatting with him and introducing the idea of Christmas to his world, but it was still arduous.
When all was transcribed and done, the conversation the [Clerk] had written down for Erin read like a chat session, albeit one marked down with ink on parchment.
[Erin] – Hi Ryoka! This is Erin! Are you okay? How are things? I’m in Liscor right now! The Horns of Hammerad brought me back! How’s Magnolia doing? What’s up?
[Ryoka] – Don’t waste money. What’s this about infection? Describe. How bad; symptoms. Any complications on return?
[Erin] – Sorry. No bad things! Met Teriarch—mean! Brunkr has tons of pus—yellow and stinky! Mrsha bit, now whole arm is bad! Krshia says choppy-chop. I say no! How to fix?
[Ryoka] – Will talk T later. Brunkr needs antibiotics. Can’t heal with time; penicillin is best bet. Can tell how to make, but too slow. Chop might be only way, but must make sure new wound does not spread. Let me think. Wait for response.
The message looked like Ryoka had had to spell out penicillin letter by letter for the poor [Clerk] on duty. Erin had to wait eight minutes for the next response.
[Ryoka] – P recipe: needs to let mold grow. If you know origin—poultice. Must grow greenish-blue mold on orange or bread. But must isolate. Not all molds are P obviously. Very difficult; hire O to do it. In meantime, best bet is disinfection and honey.
[Erin] – Honey? Really?
[Ryoka] – Yes. Honey can have antibiotic if natural. Clean wound thoroughly. Use hot, salt water. Clean area, apply clean dressing. Think germs. Change dressings regularly. Honey must be applied after cleaning.
[Erin] – Got it. Will try! And…new thought! What about matches?
[Ryoka] – Matches? Why?
[Erin] – Christmas! It’s Christmas soon! You must come back with presents! We will have party! Can you take carriage back? Tell Reynold he is invited too!
[Ryoka] – Will try. Much to do here. Matches—talk O. Needs P from Periodic Table for striking box. Powdered glass, P…striker. Combine with sulfur and other things for match head. Other ingredients can figure out. Understand?
[Erin] – Sort of. I know P from table!
[Ryoka] – Red P. Not sure if discovered. See if O knows. May be substitute. For striking box, understand? Can use sandpaper maybe instead.
[Erin] – Got it! When coming back?
[Ryoka] – Unsure.
[Erin] – Come, please! Party is in two days! Come for Christmas! Tell Magnolia she is Scrooge! Ressa is cool.
[Ryoka] – Will try. Leaving now.
Possibly there had never been such a confusing conversation for any [Clerk] to record. Both girls didn’t bother with grammar when delivering their messages and indeed, the only reason the words were spelled correctly was that the [Mages] couldn’t handle texting slang. Erin left the Drake at the desk with her money pouch lighter, but newfound hope in her heart. She strode out of the guild, muttering to herself and thinking fast.
“Penicillin, matches, and honey. I can get Lyonette to help with that, but Ryoka sure knows a lot. If she knows how matches work…hm…I should have asked about…wait, that gives me a great idea!”
Erin patted at her pockets, looking for something to write with, and then marched back inside the Mage’s Guild to borrow the [Clerk]’s quill for a second. She ended up going back to Krshia to buy an inkpot and ink.
It was hard to scribble on parchment and walk, and in the end Erin had to wait until she got back to the inn to write on the back of the piece of parchment. She’d already tripped once and stained quite a lot of snow black.
When Erin was hiking up towards her inn, she noticed a good deal more activity going on. That was confirmed by a ball of white fur that shot out the door as she got close.
“Hey Mrsha! I’m back! Whoops, don’t make me spill this on your fur. Let me just write this down…bicycle…there!”
Erin laughed, tried to fend off Mrsha, and get inside all at once. When she finally made it in, she saw that the Horns of Hammerad were up.
“Hey guys! Are the others not back yet?”
“They’re still on the road. But they should be back by tonight.”
Yvlon blinked at Erin, still looking tired. It was still early morning Erin realized. Everyone was having breakfast as Lyonette heated up Erin’s crepes.
Putting Mrsha on a table, Erin grabbed a crepe and devoured it with her gloves still on. Then she turned to Ceria.
“I just had a chat with Ryoka?”
All of the Horns of Hammerad sat up. Erin nodded as she gulped from a glass of water Mrsha rushed over to her. It was half-empty from being spilled as the Gnoll ran with it, but Erin appreciated the effort.
“I was talking with her! She was in Invrisil, and she sent me [Messages]! She’ll be back soon—in time for Christmas, I hope! She says she’s got messages for you too, Ceria! Apparently she identified all those items you found!”
The Horns of Hammerad were out of the door like a shot. Pisces only stopped long enough to grab as much food as he could hold; Yvlon, Ceria, and Ksmvr didn’t even wait to do that. Bemused, Erin stood aside and watched them storming down the hill, slipping and sliding in the snow. She could hear Ksmvr shouting after them as he brought up the rear.
“What is Christmas? Pisces, please ex—”
“Hey, Pisces moves really fast with that [Flash Step] spell. He can eat and outrun Ceria! Wish I could do that.”
Erin stared at the figures rushing towards Liscor. She shook her head and then turned. Mrsha and Lyonette were staring over the remains of the half-eaten breakfast. Erin smiled at both and then clapped her hands.
“I need more honey. And bees.”
“Honey? You mean—we have half a jar left.”
“I know, but I’ll need an extra jar for something special. You told me we can get it from the hive without Toren. Could you show me how you do that now, or is that no good?”
Lyonette hesitated. Her eyes went to Erin, and then the door. She hesitated, swallowed hard, and then stood straight and nodded.
“I can do it. Just give me an hour or two and I’ll be back with honey.”
“No, I’m coming with you. It’s dangerous, right? I’ll do it with you.”
Erin smiled at Lyonette. The girl smiled back. Both girls went over to the box of faerie flowers.
“They’re blooming nicely. Wow, I see new shoots already! Do you think it’s the mana in the inn?”
“It might be. Um—I’ll need to take a few, but the dead ones work best I think. We just need to start a fire in front of the bee cave you see—”
“Got it. What happens if the flowers don’t work? Do we run or hide?”
“And if the bees start waking up when we’re in the cave?”
“…Let’s take all these flowers, okay?”
Erin grabbed empty glass jars as Lyonette found the sharpest knife in the kitchen. Both girls were ready to go when they heard an anxious whine. They turned and saw Mrsha, huddling by the door.
Mrsha was shivering. Lyonette hurried over to her and stroked Mrsha’s head as she whispered comfortingly to the Gnoll.
“You don’t have to come. In fact, you’re staying far away. And no following me this time, okay?”
The Gnoll licked anxiously at Lyonette’s face and reached for her, but Lyonette made her sit. Erin watched the two hug before Lyonette got up. She was silent at first as they marched towards the cave in the snow. But then Erin felt compelled to speak.
“No one’s dying today. Right, Lyonette?”
The young girl’s face was set with determination. It was a long, hard march in the deep snow to the cave, but Lyonette knew the way and in short order she’d built the fire in front of the cave. There were ashes from the last one. Erin watched as she tossed the flowers in the fire and then both girls huddled in the snow outside of the cave.
It didn’t take long for them to hear the bees come after the fire—and then fall asleep. Lyonette hurried into the cave with Erin right behind her. The girl froze as she saw a sea of fallen bees resting on the floor, but Lyonette stepped past them towards the massive bee hive in the back. Despite harvesting from it several times before, the hive looked as obscenely bloated as before.
“Oh my god. I’d never have the courage to do that myself.”
Erin watched with admiration and horror as Lyonette began to slice into the hive, many times over as large as she was. It filled the huge cave, and Erin wondered how many bees were inside. She prayed they were all sleeping.
Then Erin remembered she had a job to do as well! She hurriedly fished around in the rucksack she’d brought and pulled out a pair of tongs. She began picking up bees and dropping them in the jars, counting as she did.
“One bee, two bee, three bees…this one’s twitching. Ew. Four bees, five bees, ooh, big bee! Seven bees…”
They worked in sweaty, quick silence until Erin had two jars of bees and Lyonette two jars of honey, honeycomb, and other parts of the hive. Then they hurried out into the snow.
“We made it! Are we okay?”
“I think so.”
Lyonette was pale, but triumphant. She was a mess, covered all over by the hive. She jerked her head back towards the inn.
“We should get away as fast as we can. The bees get really, really angry when they wake up. We don’t want to be anywhere near them.”
“Got it. Let’s go!”
Erin had to heft both jars as she struggled through the snow. They’d brought a small sled to carry the jars on, but the jars kept falling off no matter how the girls tried to lash them onto the sled—and they didn’t feel like trying to tie a good knot so close to the cave.
They made tracks, huffing and puffing as they tried to force their unwilling legs to move faster. When they were a good distance from the cave, Erin relaxed slightly.
“I think we might be okay. Lyonette, do you do that every day?”
“Yeah, but having someone else helps.”
Lyonette gasped as she panted for air. She looked at Erin with a smile of triumph and then turned pale.
“Erin. The jar…”
Erin looked down at the two massive jars she was holding and nearly screamed. The bees she’d put in the jar had woken up. And they were alive.
She’d only seen them after they’d suffocated or died of the cold. But these bees, freshly put to sleep, were still able to move. And they did. They wriggled and tried to flap their wings obscenely in the crowded confines of the jar. The pulsating mass made Erin want to drop the jar, but she hung on for dear life, checking the lid to make sure it was secure.
“It’s okay. They’ll die quick. Let’s just put it on the sled and—I need to have a bath after this.”
Gingerly, Erin lashed the two jars securely to the sled. The bees wriggled angrily and tried to sting her hands through the glass, but they could do nothing. Erin continued onwards, pulling the sled as Lyonette followed her.
“So you did this three times before I got here? That’s amazing!”
Erin was trying to be as congratulatory as possible, and she meant it. Lyonette really had turned over a new leaf, and this one was massive. The girl beamed with pride as they passed by a huge mound of snow sitting in the middle of a flat part of the snowy plains.
“I had to. Honey’s the only thing everyone really likes. It was so scary—I nearly peed myself the first time! But your flowers really are incredible.”
“I know. I’m wondering what else they might be able to do! I’ll do some experiments—hopefully I can grow enough so that—”
Danger. It wasn’t a word, just a thought, a bell rung at maximum volume in Erin’s head. She broke off and turned her head around immediately.
The girl halted at once as Erin let go of the sledge and reached for the knife she always carried when she left the inn. Something was around them. She looked at Lyonette and the girl got the vibe at once. She drew closer to Erin as the [Innkeeper] eyed the ground.
“What is it?”
“[Dangersense]. But I can’t tell from where. Is it Shield Spiders? Are we at their nest or—”
A spark lit up Erin’s mind. They had just passed something. She hadn’t noticed, but it stood out to her suddenly. Why was a mound of snow in a flat plain—
She turned, just as the Rock Crab, camouflaged by the snow, stood up and sidled closer to her. It scuttled a few feet towards the girls, and then dropped down into the snow, looking like just another white part of the landscape. But Erin and Lyonette had seen.
It was less than fifteen feet away. Lyonette froze up and Erin felt her heart stop in her chest.
“Rock Crab. I told you—it’s too close.”
“W-what do we do? Run?”
“It’ll catch us.”
Erin knew that for a certainty. She clenched her teeth tightly, feeling the useless knife in her left hand.
“Seed cores would scare it away. But we don’t have any except at the inn!”
“In that case…”
“Just don’t move. I think it’s waiting for us to move. Let. Me. Think.”
Erin held very still as Lyonette shivered next to her. She knew the Rock Crab would strike sooner or later. When it did—
What could kill it? Adventurers. They were far away. Seed cores. Erin didn’t have any. Goblins? None around here since Rags was gone. Magic? No. Toren—
No. Erin closed her eyes. Fight while Lyonette ran for help? She’d be dead in a second. But if that was her option—
No. Wait. Something else struck Erin. She opened her eyes and stared at the sled she’d stopped pulling. At the things wriggling in the glass jars.
“Lyonette. Get ready to dive into the snow.”
Lyonette’s eyes widened as Erin slowly, very slowly, waded over to the glass jars. Erin carefully lifted both jars of angry bees out of the sled, keeping her eyes on the mound of snow the entire time. Was it lifting up a bit?
She raised the first jar over her head and braced herself. Yes, the Rock Crab was moving. She saw it lift up, and then two long, flexible…
Were they eyes? Either that, or antennae. They stared at Erin and she stared at it. The Rock Crab hesitated, and then it lifted itself up, exposing a dark, red-brown body under its snowy shell and huge pincers that—
Erin screamed and threw the first jar right into the Rock Crab’s shell. Inside of it, in fact. The glass broke and Erin heard a roar of buzzing as the bees were freed. She didn’t hesitate. She threw the second jar and then dove into the snow, digging herself deep as the bees buzzed in fury and the rock Crab clicked.
That was the sound. A deep, echoing click of a sea creature. It was a counterpoint to the thunderous buzzing.
Erin didn’t know if Lyonette was alive. She could only hear the bees, the crab—and then silence. The buzzing faded, growing more muted, but never completely ceasing, but the crab…
After a while, Erin chanced raising her head out of the snow. She looked around and saw the crab’s shell, lowered to the ground. For a second she thought the crab was alive and her heart pounded wildly—but then she realized the truth.
The girl screamed when Erin found her in the snow. But Lyonette realized it was just Erin and came up to see what had happened.
Erin pointed shakily to the Rock Crab’s shell. She could see a few dead bees, smashed or in pieces around the shell, but only a few. The rest must have flown off. Lyonette stared at the shell and touched her ears.
“I can still hear buzzing though—”
“Yeah. The bees are inside the shell.”
Erin pointed to the shell where she could hear the dim thunder of wings as well. Lyonette grew pale as she realized what had happened.
The Ashfire Bees had stung the Rock Crab to death—from the inside. But they were trapped in its shell as well. Both groups were dead or soon to be dead if no one disturbed them.
Erin laughed, shakily. Lyonette looked at her as if she were crazy, but then uttered a strained laugh herself. Both girls laughed and laughed and then Lyonette sat down and cried while Erin went to find their sled.
It was smashed on one end, but one of the jars of honey was intact. That would do. Erin brought it back and she and Lyonette made their way back to the inn.
Neither one said much. Lyonette was sticky with honey and other fluids from the hive. Erin held the jar of honey as Lyonette struggled onwards, wiping at her mouth and spitting occasionally. She said not a word of complaint, but Erin saw her shiver more than once as the cold air froze her wet clothing.
When they got back, Erin let Mrsha leap on Lyonette as Lyonette hugged her and cried in relief. Erin pointed upstairs as Lyonette tried to stop Mrsha from rubbing her furry body all over her honeyed one.
Both Gnoll and girl looked at her. Erin smiled.
“Go take a bath, Lyonette. Don’t worry about cleaning or anything else. Just have a nice time—and bring Mrsha with you too! She’s all sticky.”
“I can make it quick—”
Erin mock-scowled at Lyonette.
“Bath time is a special time. It’s the most special time. You take a long hot soak, or I’ll fire you. I’m going back into the city—after I talk with Octavia. Go on! Shoo!”
She waved at Lyonette and then remembered what else she wanted to say.
“Good work. I mean it.”
“But we lost the bees and most of the honey—”
“That wasn’t your fault.”
Erin looked sternly at Lyonette.
“You did amazing, getting us the honey. The Rock Crab…from now on, neither you and I are leaving the inn without seed cores, okay? And we’ll be twice as careful—I’m going with you each time. But we survived.”
“Yeah. We did.”
They left it at that. Erin went to the kitchen with the jar of honey before she remembered what she had to do with it. She put the honey on a table and sat down for a second.
Only then did Erin let herself shake uncontrollably. She trembled so badly she couldn’t stand or hold the glass of water she’d poured herself; it slopped everywhere.
Just for a few minutes. One. Five. Then Erin stopped. She stopped shaking, stood up, drank the rest of the water in the glass, and sighed.
“I’m alive. I’m alive. I’m alive and—I need to get back to work.”
Erin stumbled towards the door. She had to come back and grab the jar of honey.
When she opened Krshia’s door this time, Brunkr was awake. Sort of. He was staring at his hand on the couch, not doing anything really. He didn’t look up as Erin came in.
“Go away, Human.”
“I have something that will help, Brunkr. I know how to help heal your hand.”
He looked up, full of hope and scorn. He frowned when he saw the huge glass jar of honey. Bits of honeycomb were stuck to the insides.
“What is that? Do want to fatten me up before I lose my arm? Or is that for my aunt to sell?”
“It’s for you.”
Erin put the jar on the table, and turned to face Brunkr, hands on hips. She felt a bit better, although the smell of Brunkr’s infection didn’t help her stomach any.
“This honey is something Ryoka—do you know Ryoka? Well, it’s something that will help.”
“What you’re going to do is—well, first, let me tend to your hand.”
Erin walked over to Brunkr. She’d brought a towel and a bag of salt. She put both down and he watched, confused and irritated as she found a basin for her. When Erin mixed some water she’d boiled in the kitchen with the salt he reacted poorly.
“You’re not splashing that on my hand.”
He yanked his hand away as she reached for it. Erin glared at him.
“You need to get your infection clean. For god’s sake, why haven’t you cleaned it yourself? It’s disgusting!”
“It always comes back.”
He growled with gritted teeth as he backed away from Erin. She put her hands on her hips and glared at him.
“I’m washing your arm. With that water.”
“No. I’m not having you pour that on my arm. I’ve suffered enough without your crazy Human remedies!”
“I’m not giving you a choice. Come on—”
Erin reached for Brunkr and he hit her. It was a fast punch that caught Erin on the side of the face. It wasn’t too strong—for Brunkr. Erin stumbled back and shook her head. Then she threw up.
Brunkr eyed Erin as she panted and stared at the mess on Krshia’s floor. He saw the Human girl look at the vomit puddle, and then at him. He snarled, full of hurt and anger. But Erin just turned away and went into the kitchen.
She came back with more water and a cloth. It took a bit of time for Erin to get the vomit out of the rug, but she had a skill. She tossed the dirty water out, cleaned her hands. Then she stopped in the living room and stared at Brunkr. He stared back.
Erin sighed. She took two steps over to Brunkr and he raised his hand threateningly. This time Erin drew back when he clenched his fist. She eyed him—
And then hit him in the stomach.
Brunkr doubled over as Erin belted him. He swung at her, but she ducked. Erin stomped on Brunkr’s toe and punched him in the chest. He didn’t fall from that, so she kneed him in the groin and then hit him in the face.
He hit her back. Erin stared up at the ceiling and then got up fast. She kicked the charging Brunkr in the groin again and shoved him on the couch as he doubled over, howling in pain.
She shouted it so loudly the house rang. Brunkr tried to stand up—Erin raised a fist. He halted. His ears flattened, and the fight went out of him. He lay back on the couch and stared up at the ceiling. Erin breathed in and out heavily, and then reached for the basin of salt water.
“Does it hurt?”
“Sorry. I need to get the wound clean, though.”
Brunkr hissed through his teeth as Erin carefully dabbed at his red wound. She pressed at it and she saw his claws sink into Krshia’s already threadbare couch—but he didn’t say a word.
“You’re doing great. I know it hurts, and I’m sorry. I really am. But you need to keep it clean. All this pus and nasty stuff? It can’t stay in the wound.”
Brunkr growled, vexation clear in his voice.
“I know that. But it keeps—agh! Keeps coming back.”
“So keep getting rid of it! Who’s tougher, you or pus?”
Erin scowled as she took away the dirtied rag and dipped it in another bucket. She sighed, and stared at his arm.
The red, gaping injury did look awful, but it was better than the oozing mess of before. She had—against Brunkr’s wishes—also snipped off a lot of the hair around the injury to keep it from getting in. Now Erin fetched the jar of honey.
“Why honey? It won’t work.”
“Have you ever tried using honey on your injuries?”
“Of course not. Who would—argh!”
Brunkr yelped as Erin began spooning honey over his infected arm. She coated his open flesh liberally, making sure it was all covered by a layer of glistening liquid.
“There. That looks right.”
“And this is supposed to do what? Heal me?”
“It’s a salve. It’ll help keep germs away. Um—keep the infection from getting worse, and make it better.”
Erin pointed to the jar as she got the bandages she’d bought out and began wrapping them around Brunkr’s arm.
“Don’t eat the honey, obviously. It’s going to get really nasty over time I bet. Lots of hair, dirt…actually, wash your arm before you put the honey on it. But just keep putting it on, okay?”
He eyed her.
“All the time! When you’re awake, when you’re asleep—all the time! If you can, keep honey on the injury every second. After you clean, again. Clean at least three times a day, and then reapply the honey salve. It’ll help get rid of the infection. Here, I’ll show you how to wrap a bandage over it…”
She finished tying the bandage over Brunkr’s arm. He stared at it and shook his head.
“Don’t you think I’ve done all this before? I’ve put the poultice the [Healer] gave me over my arm—it did nothing. I ate all the different meat my tribe mates gave me, I drank as many foul stews as my aunt made. Nothing worked. I burnt my wound with fire—”
“What? No wonder it’s so bad!”
Erin glared at Brunkr. He glared back. He tried to put anger in his tone, but there was more defeat than anything else.
“Your cure isn’t going to work. What makes a Human trick better than my people’s knowledge? All you’re using is honey.”
“It may just be honey, but I know this honey works. Ryoka knows it works. It’s not some quack medicine, okay? Cleaning your wound regularly, using honey and salt water—it’s all part of the healing. You have to do it all or it won’t work. Have faith.”
He glared at her. Brunkr grabbed Erin’s arm as she rolled up the rest of the bandage. It was a firm grip, but not meant to hurt.
“Faith? In what? This—this is just a fool’s cure. Why should I believe honey will cure…”
His voice broke.
“I will lose my hand. After this, it must be cut off. Not just my hand—my arm as well. I will lose it, and I will be a cripple. Not a warrior of my tribe—a half thing. Useless. Good only for the easiest chores.”
Erin stared at Brunkr. She didn’t know him. She’d only met him once or twice, and it always ended up in a fight, or so it seemed. But she could understand his fear, understand what he was going through.
“I know it’s scary. I know it’s hard to believe. But believe.”
“In what? In Humans?”
“No. In me.”
Erin grabbed Brunkr’s good arm with her own. She squeezed it hard, looking the Gnoll in the eye.
“Have faith in me. I want to help. And I know what I’m doing.”
He stared at her, and she saw the hope in his eyes that she was telling the truth. But then he looked away.
“Everyone says that.”
Erin sat with Brunkr as he let go of her and stared dully at his arm. She began tidying up in silence. After a minute, she spoke.
“You know, back home we don’t have magic.”
Brunkr looked up.
Erin shook her head as she sat the jar of honey in one corner of the room, balancing one of Krshia’s ladles on the lid.
“Nope. Not at all. Not a single [Mage]—heck, no one knows a single spell. Wild, isn’t it?”
“How could your people survive? Even we have [Shamans]. How do you…do anything?”
“With technology. With things other than magic. You see, we study a lot of things. We’re not tough like Drakes or strong as Gnolls…we don’t have good noses or the ability to cast magic or anything else. But we think a lot. And we write everything down. And one of the things we write down is how to cure people.”
“Everyone does that. My people have cures—if I were back at home and it were summer, my aunt says she could have found the good dirt—”
“No, see that’s where you’re wrong. We’re not the same. Where I come from, we don’t have cures. It’s not a mystery whether people will get well or not. We know what causes what, and if we don’t know, we find out. We don’t say you might get better. We invent cures that work all the time, or nearly all the time. That’s why I know the honey will help, and the cleaning.”
Erin nodded. She sat with Brunkr on the couch. He stared at her like Mrsha did to Lyonette when the girl talked with her. He wasn’t an adult, but a child, needing to believe all would be well. So Erin opened a door in her heart and remembered.
“I’ve heard of people who were blind being cured. I’ve seen people who lost a hand—and then had it sewn right back on! Where I come from…we don’t use healing potions. We don’t rely on alchemy or magic. We use medicine. And this—this is medicine.”
She pointed to the honey.
“It will work. It has antibodies—and it’s useful for fighting infections. When you need healing, you keep the wound clean and don’t let anything get on it. That’s the basics. I’m going to talk with an [Alchemist] after this and see about getting better medicine made, but this will do in the meantime.”
“And you’re sure it will work? How can you be?”
Erin met Brunkr’s eyes.
“I’m sure I’m doing the right thing. I’m not sure it will work. But I am sure that this is the only chance you have.”
It wasn’t what he wanted to hear. Brunkr looked away. Erin grabbed his paw. She waited until he looked back at her again.
“Believe me, please. If this doesn’t work, I’ll come back with a saw. Because you’re going to lose your hand otherwise. If you won’t do exactly what I ask…you’d better hurry up and chop your arm off before the rest of you gets infected. But until that day comes, I’ll tell you to do this. Because I know what I’m doing is right.”
The Gnoll stared at Erin for a long time. She could feel his pulse beating through his fur and skin.
“I wish I could believe you. I almost do.”
Brunkr hesitated. He looked away and sighed.
“I will try. I have nothing left to lose.”
“No. You have your hand to lose. But it’s not going to happen. It’s going to be okay. It’s going to be okay. Understand?”
She hugged him. The Gnoll froze, but Erin wrapped her arms around him and squeezed hard. Brunkr made a small sound, but she just kept repeating the words.
“It’s going to be okay. You’re going to be alright. It’s going to be okay. Your hand is going to get better. I’m going to come back and you’re going to keep changing your bandages, and it’s going to get better. I promise. It’s going to be okay. Okay?”
He said not a word, but put a paw on her shoulder. Erin felt him squeeze, and hugged tighter. She couldn’t see his face, but she felt him, as tightly as they were holding each other.
He was trembling.
When Erin left the apartment an hour later, she saw Krshia waiting for her outside. Snow had piled up in the Gnoll’s fur, but she hadn’t come inside. She nodded at Erin.
“I heard what you told my nephew. You give him hope. But it is not certain, no?”
“I didn’t lie.”
“I know. And I will trust. And hope.”
“There’s more that can be done. I’m going to try and find something else that’ll help more than the honey. I’ll let you know. Just—help him, okay?”
“I will. He has hope, thanks to you.”
Krshia hesitated. She bent closer to Erin and whispered, so softly that only the girl could hear it, not Brunkr, sleeping inside.
“I tell you, I did not believe when I gave him all those remedies before. I did not believe, because I thought his hand was lost. But you believe. I can smell it, and so can he. Thank you for that.”
“That’s just who I am. A silly believer.”
Erin smiled. She squeezed Krshia’s arm and the Gnoll hugged her briefly. Erin stepped away and walked out of the city.
She was tired. So tired. Erin yawned, and stared at the sun.
It was just past midday. Erin blinked and rubbed her eyes. She felt so tired. So—incredibly tired. How was it only that early? But then she heard a shout.
Someone—a group of someones were waving at her. Erin automatically waved back and saw Pawn, Klbkch, Belgrade, Bird…walking together with Klbkch and the wonderfully strange blue Antinium. Further away, she saw Zel and the adventurers making their way to her inn.
Something like a sigh escaped Erin, although she kept a smile on her face. More people, all of whom wanted to see her, or at least wanted to eat something hot cooked by her. She felt so tired, so endlessly tired.
But the day wasn’t over. And Erin had a job to do. She began to walk more quickly back towards her inn, and then stopped. She stared at the sky.
The sun was shining bright. It was shining in a sky full of clouds. Erin could see more on the horizon. Soon they would turn the world dark and grey, and pour snow down again. It would grow colder. The world would be washed away by ice once more.
But for a moment the sun shone. Then a cloud passed before it. Erin felt her spirits drop as the light faded. But it would come back. She had to believe that. She wanted to sleep a thousand years, but she looked at her friends and took a smile out of her heart and wore it bright on her face. Because if she didn’t smile, who would?
The sun would come out again. Erin knew it. She whispered as she walked back to her inn, feeling exhaustion in every line of her body. It was a simple thing. It was all you had to do, even when everything else was uncertain.