Two

“Is it safe to do this here?”

Garridan shrugged, not because he was unsure–he just didn’t care. “They know my business.”

“But they don’t know mine.”

“They do now they’ve seen you with me.”

Across the tavern, Potz eyed them suspiciously. The goblin stabbed one of his long, knobby fingers at the pair. “Anybody know the bloke with Garridan? If’n you do, might wanna sleep with one eye open.”

Hugh slid him a tankard. “Shut up and drink your ale, ‘fya know what’s good for ya.”

Potz downed it in a swallow and wiped his mouth with his arm. “How you think that conversation goes down? Don’t understand it.”

Berta shook her head. “Don’t think normal folks is meant to.”

“Seems like a waste of coin to me,” Wayland said. “If you ain’t got the stomach fer doin’ the killin’ yourself, just buy a pint and drown yer sorrows.” They all stared across the room, not caring to hide it, and watched the strange ritual unfold.

Garridan had shown up two, maybe three years ago. Hugh and Berta couldn’t be sure. Time at this tiny outpost didn’t roll on so much as evaporate, the days dispersed by the wind like tufts of dandelion, impossible to track or count. Garridan arrived one blustery night, silently staking his claim to a table tucked in the corner near the hearth. Didn’t ask for food, didn’t ask for drink. Didn’t talk to anybody. He just sat in the back and smoldered like one of the logs in the fire. Berta had eventually wandered over and offered him an ale, which he took. But it wasn’t until morning was ready to break across the hills that he finally approached the counter and asked for a room. He’d stayed there ever since.

Night after night he hunched in that corner, sitting like a scorch mark, wrapped in his dark leathers, his presence searing into everyone else. They couldn’t escape him. Even if they kept their eyes on their ale, their backs turned to him, they could still feel his presence. Eventually, Berta and Hugh adjusted. Nobody knew what he did, but he paid for his room and his drink, so they were content. But once in a while, he would receive visitors. Faces were always grim and serious. Eyes were always askance. Money was always exchanged. So the next time Garridan would pass a coin to Berta or Hugh, something would gnaw at them.

Potz had been the one to put it together. He’d spent some time in the Far-flung Territories and had met many men who offered such services. They called them “dusters” out east. He’d seen the hushed meetings, he’d moved among the lurking forms; goblins had a history as prey, and they had long ago learned to recognize predators. Stories began to swirl among the tavern’s regulars, the strangest claiming that the scar near Garridan’s eye was the mark of Drah’Kull, that he was a thrall of the Dread Dragon. Potz didn’t buy all that, but he knew better than to cross Garridan. Hugh and Berta wondered whether they should still shelter the assassin, but they eventually decided every deal they saw was a deal where they weren’t the mark.

Aware of his audience, the client leaned in and whispered, “How are you going to do it?”

Garridan tapped the table. “Money.”

“Half now?”

“Half now.”

The client reached into this tunic and pulled out a small sack. He opened it and showed it to Garridan. “This should do?”

Garridan nodded.

“So, how are you going to do it?” he persisted.

“Probably while he’s asleep.”

The man recoiled. “Doesn’t seem very honorable.”

Garridan didn’t care to waste time pointing out the irony. Instead, he just pocketed the coin. “Honor costs extra.”

At that moment, the door to the tavern creaked open and a bulky, robed figure sulked in. It lumbered toward the bar and took a spot next to Wayland. It felt oppressively close to him, nearly pushing him off his stool, its size devouring space wherever it moved. It rested a massive hand on the counter and their eyes all went wide as they saw the green, pebbled skin and razor claws.

“I’m looking for a room,” Akura’a said.

Hugh turned to Berta and she shook her head. He shrugged an apology at the orc but refused to stare her in the eye. “All booked up. Sorry.”

Akura’a looked about, gauging the faces around her. Fear had stricken most of them like a plague, and now their features were pulled tightly back, their eyes wide, begging for mercy even as their words stuck in their throats. She simply asked for an ale.

Berta handed her one with a tremoring hand.

Akura’a found a seat near the fire. Two men were at an adjacent table, and as she sat, one scurried off like a roach from an overturned rock. The other was a statue, his gaze granite and unyielding. There was no terror in his eyes, no disgust. He gave a slight nod which she returned.

A deeply uncomfortable silence began to inflate through the tavern, pushing the air out of the room, pressing on everybody–except the orc and assassin. They seemed immune, each taking slow, steady sips of ale as they watched the others squirm.

“Some sort of joke?” Wayland finally whispered. “An orc walks into a bar…”

Potz grimaced. “‘Punchline’ might turn out too literal for me. Think I’m gone.” He quickly gathered his things and was on his way to the door when he heard Akura’a ask Garridan about the pale blue light on the horizon.

“Is it a settlement?” she wondered.

Potz was mostly in to self-preservation, but occasionally the reflex was so strong that it produced something resembling concern for others. Even he couldn’t let this poor, thick lunk head into certain doom. “Never go to the blue light. No one goes to the blue light.”

“Why?”

“Only death there.” He pushed the door open and the chilled night air slithered in, tickling at the fire. He turned, his eyes narrowing around her like a vice. “Don’t say I didn’t warn you.” And with that, he scampered away.

“Where are you headed?” Garridan asked.

“I need to find a caravan heading east that will let me join.”

“That’s why you’re looking for a settlement–you need a trading post?”

The orc nodded.

“Aren’t many places or people gonna be sympathetic to an orc.”

Akura’a looked toward the bar at what remained of the audience. Their stares scattered like vultures from carrion when a bigger, hungrier scavenger comes along.  “Not accustomed to it, anyway.”

“You’d do best sticking to the shadows. I can help with that.” He pushed his chair out, scraping it loudly against the planks of the floor and motioned for her to follow him. “You can stay in my room for the night. Hugh and Berta won’t mind.”

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