“And that’s how you milk a goat,” Tannin announced as he stepped back away from the animal. There was a satisfied look on the old man’s face.
“Fascinating, I feel enlightened by your succinct yet thorough explanation of this wonderful natural process,” Gerahld replied from a few feet away. He was smiling in a way that looked very forced and unnatural, almost as if he was being sarcastic.
Both of the men were standing in a large dirty shed. Piles of hay littered the floor and there were several goats wandering around. The grey beasts were mostly ignoring the humans. They all seemed focused on chewing things, although Geralhd had no idea what. He hadn’t seen any of them eat anything.
“I may not be a scholar of any sort but I know what sarcasm is,” Tannin answered dryly.
Gerahld coughed and made an effort to reply in a more polite and respectful tone. “It would be unfair to hold your circumstances of birth against you. You seem like a very wise man to me.”
“I wasn’t born in this village, young man. You’re just digging yourself deeper. Like you, I stumbled upon it and then eventually decided to take up residence,” Tannin explained as he walked out of the shed.
He immediately looked up at the sky. It was a cloudy morning outside but it didn’t look like it was going to rain. The white clouds were slowly but steadily being dragged across the sky by a lofty wind that was barely touching the land below.
“No one in my group is settling down quite yet. We’ve merely been forced into taking a temporary reprieve from the road,” Geralhd replied as he followed the older man out.
“Your speech sure has grown fancier since you got here. I don’t like it.”
“I had different priorities during the adventure that led me to your door. Sleeping indoors and proper meals also agree with me, but I will be leaving when the time is right.
“That’s what I thought as well, when I first arrived. It didn’t last.” Tannin said as he headed down the main road towards the center of the village. “Your bunch has the look of people with nowhere else to go. I can tell you’ve got demons on your tail that you can’t outrun. Finding somewhere to lay low is probably your best bet and there’s nowhere better for that than here.”
“You sound like you’re speaking from experience. Why did you settle down here?”
“The people were halfway decent when I got to know them, and no one here ever tried to tax me or declare themselves my better by virtue of their blue blood.”
“I can appreciate that sentiment, but what were you running from exactly?”
“Trying to pry into my past, eh? That’s alright; it’s ancient history. I was accused of being a thief by a noble and had to disappear. My father was a carpenter and the noble didn’t want to pay him what his work was worth. Or at least that was what I told my wife. The truth may be more complicated,” Tannin explained as he gave Geralhd a conspiratorial wink.
The young man smiled awkwardly in return and then looked away. “Ah, that’s quite similar to another tale I’ve heard. A woman I once knew was in a similar situation.”
Tannin ignored the sad look that appeared on Geralhd’s face and kept talking. “That doesn’t surprise me, but let’s speak about something more relevant to the here and now. Did your education happen to include anything useful? The other members of your group have been helping out with farm work or heavy labor, but you haven’t been contributing much, and you didn’t seem to be paying much attention when I was showing you how to milk that goat. Maybe you know medicine or some sort of trade perhaps?”
“I learned nothing even remotely that pedestrian. My tutors taught me the higher fields of study such as philosophy and math.”
“Well, if I need someone to count the local chickens I will come find you,” Tannin huffed.
“Not that I don’t appreciate your generosity, but you’re being awfully welcoming to me and my friends.”
“Bah, you’re a young and healthy bunch. That’s the kind of blood that we need around here. There a few young widows that have been giving you a few sideways glances.”
“Huh, I’m sure there are, but I’m personally not in the least interested in settling down. This place doesn’t quite offer the lifestyle I crave, or any other sort of style, really.”
“Give it time. It’ll wear you down.”
“I wouldn’t put money on that. I’m not the village living type. One way or another I’m going to be headed back to society,” Geralhd said. He spoke in a stubborn tone that was as much for his own benefit as anyone else’s. He much preferred the finer things in life over the simpler parts. They tended to smell better for one thing.
The pair was passing by another shed when something caught Tannin’s eye. He turned and scowled at the base of the building. Geralhd followed his glance. Something had dug up under the wall and into the shed. The bottom of the wooden siding had been torn up as well and straw from inside had been dragged out.
“Gods damn it,” Tannin cursed.
“It’s just a little hole,” Geralhd replied calmly.
“That’s the third mess I’ve seen this morning alone. People keep reporting small thefts and pests getting into their supplies. We don’t have the resources for this type of nonsense. We need everything we have for when winter comes.”
“Is something causing this? What do you think it is?”
“Goblins. You can see the prints in the dirt there,” Tannin answered angrily as he pointed towards the hole in the wall. “The green pests get into everything, but it’s not usually this bad. A pack of the damned thieves must have denned-up somewhere nearby.”
A surprised cough escaped from Geralhd’s mouth and he turned away to hide his guilty expression. He had a fairly good idea what, or who, was causing Tannin’s problems. It was probably the goblins that had come with Blacknail. Geralhd wasn’t surprised that they were making trouble, although he had been hoping Blacknail would keep them under control. At least they were only stealing small things and food, and not something that would really anger the villagers, like children.
“Huh, weird. I have absolutely no idea what could be causing that sort of phenomenon, none what so ever. It must be just one of those weird little things in life that can’t be explained,” he said aloud.
Something in Geralhd’s voice drew Tannin’s attention, because he threw the man a suspicious look. After a second, he just grunted and looked back at the shed, though.
“Well, I’ll let you go. I’ve got to deal with this mess, among other things, and I know you’ve got your own things to do,” he said.
“Very true. I’ll see you later,” Geralhd replied as he started to hurry away. There was no point sticking around and Tannin was a little too perceptive.
Without looking back, Geralhd headed down the dusty dirt road that ran through the village and towards the homes that had been lent to the bandits. He soon reached his destination and stepped inside. It was a small house that looked worn down. Immediately, he was confronted with the sight of several people seated around a wooden table. They were all former members of Herad’s band, and they looked his way as he walked over to them.
“There you are. We were waiting for you. What took you so long?” one of the bandits asked. He was a blonde man with a sly smile.
“I was speaking to Master Tannin. He wanted to talk to me after he finished trying to get me interested in animal husbandry,” Geralhd answered with a shrug.
“About what?” a woman asked suspiciously.
“I think he was fishing to see what our plans were and whether we are going to stick around.”
“Then he knows about as much as we do, nothing. That’s what we’re here to discuss. So let’s get to it,” the blonde man said. “I for one have had enough of this place. They have me helping with the planting. I don’t plan on settling down to become a dirt farmer. I became a bandit for a reason.”
“They’re talking about getting work parties to cut the bush back at the edge of the clearing. That’ll be hard work and dangerous,” a tall bearded bandit agreed. “On top of the falling trees you have to worry about pissing off a mimic or just ending up in a hungry beast’s gullet. It’s no wonder they have lost some of their people and are looking to replace them.”
“It’s not really any more dangerous than serving under Herad. That wasn’t exactly safe. In fact, it was probably much less survivable, especially at the end there,” the woman countered.
“Maybe, but it paid a lot bloody more, as in more than nothing.”
“It’s far from perfect here, but it’s much better than anywhere else I’ve seen since leaving my family farm with a press gang right behind me,” a shorter bandit interjected. “I wouldn’t mind settling down here. There is a young widow that fancies me.”
“You should marry her. That sounds like a great way to waste away to nothing out here in the middle of nowhere,” Geralhd replied sarcastically. “I’m getting out of this pit the first chance I get.”
“Which brings us to the main point. Can we come up with a realistic plan to leave?” the bearded bandit told everyone. “We’re stuck here with no money, shabby equipment, and a horde of enemies laying in wait for us out there. I’m also worried about our guide going native if we leave him out there too long. He’s a hobgoblin so who knows what’s going through his head. Without human contact he might go feral and disappear on us. Then we will really be stuck.”
“Should we just leave right away and risk it all on the road? If we wait it doesn’t seem like that will improve our odds any,” the blonde bandit asked.
“I hate it here, but that trek through the woods sounds like suicide to me. Count me out,” the bearded bandit interjected stubbornly.
“I think you’re over exaggerating the risk. Werrick has no reason to spend so much effort chasing a few survivors like us, and once we get back to civilization we can earn some coin easily enough, Beardy,” another bandit laughed.
“My name is Ralphi Livistanius, and I take great pride in my family lineage. If you use that bloody nickname again I’ll knock your teeth out of your skull. The hobgoblin may get away with calling me what he wants, but you’re not him,” the bearded man replied angrily. His face was red as he rose up from his chair.
“Alright, settle down. Let’s stay on topic. No one else here wants to listen to you argue about nicknames,” Geralhd told them. “Now, it doesn’t seem like a good idea to leave right away. I want out of here more than anyone. The thought of never again enjoying a good vintage of wine crushes my soul into nothingness, but we need to wait until we can gather some equipment and supplies at least.”
“What about the hobgoblin? What if he disappears?”
“Blacknail’s got Khita with him, and I have a hard time seeing him going feral,” Geralhd explained. “He’s too intelligent for that and he enjoys his little comforts as much as any of us, if not more. He certainly whines a lot if he runs out of cheese. No, I’m more worried about him getting bored and causing a ruckus here. Blacknail will be fine in the forest, where he is safely out of the way. How much trouble can he get into out in the bush?”
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