The crowd stood around the debris in shocked silence. Splinters of the timber walls littered the ground like pine needles on a winter forest floor. Shards of iron, too, lay scattered in the ruin.
Hundreds of eyes were locked upon the spot where the barracks had been and now were not, trying to understand what had happened.
“Didn’t see a thing,” the guard said. He’d been in a different part of the building that was miraculously still standing, though it was now a creaking, fragile slump of wood.
“You saw what we all saw,” a man next to him said. “Giant dragon burst out. How that even possible? Ain’t no dragons been round these parts in ages.”
“Hadta been some sorta fierce magic,” the man’s wife said. “Ain’t no other explanation.”
“Did he eat the prisoner?” The guard wasn’t thinking straight. He couldn’t, not with his ears still ringing and his stomach still clenched.
“Don’t be dense,” a goblin said. “He was the dragon.”
“Didn’t look like no sorcerer I ever saw.”
“That’s the problem with mages, see,” an older woman offered. “Never know what tricks they hidin’ till they ain’t hidin’ anymore. Menaces, the lot of ‘em.”
“Don’t be stupid,” shouted someone else. “Mages ain’t shapeshifters. Cursed are.”
“Mages can be cursed.”
“Ain’t nobody gonna curse themselves, though.”
“He had the mark,” another insisted. “I saw when they drug him in there. He had the mark.”
Akura’a now found her way to the scene and was relieved that there was no soft flesh among the carnage. “What happened?” she asked a man next to her.
“Orcs now, too? What more do we need? This place’s gone to shit.” He threw his hands up in exasperation and walked away.
A dwarf nearby approached, chuckling sympathetically. “Don’t mind the locals. They ain’t used to this kind of excitement.”
“You’re a dwarf,” Akura’a said.
“You’re an orc. Now, where we go from there?”
“Do you know a dwarf named Haveraul?”
He kicked at the dirt, his head shaking. “You think we just all know each other?”
“Oh.” Her shoulders slumped and she shrank back a bit. “Sorry. I’m no better than they are.”
A chortle burst from the dwarf’s belly like a cannonball. It was a compact, heavy laugh, and its recoil left his chest and stomach heaving. “I’m just teasin’ ya, lass,” he said. “I am Haveraul. Ol’ Haveraul Got-the-Goods.”
Relief washed over her, and Akura’a felt like she could have plucked the plump git off the ground and squeezed him till he wasn’t round anymore. “I needed to find you. I’m so glad I did.”
Her ran his fingers through his beard and nodded. “Well, that’s good to hear. I’m glad you did, too. Now you mind tellin’ me why? You lookin’ for something? It’s true; I got the biggest selection around.”
“No, no. I need your help. But…did you see what happened here?”
He nodded gravely. “Barracks blew up. Dragon flew out. Made a right mess, as y’can see. Pretty unbelievable stuff, even I have to admit.”
“But where’s Garridan?”
“The lad they brought in today?”
“You saw him?”
Haveraul shook his head. “Naw. Just hearin’ the rumors. Think your friend was a wee weredragon, lass.”
“Weredragon? Never heard of one.” She looked back over to the ruin and saw the claw marks gouged into the dusty ground. “Werewolves I know. Had to fight the gnolls off before. They hunt our livestock.”
“Aye, can be proper pests. But weredragons are a thing, too.”
“Had no idea.”
“You can be a were-anything, I’d s’pose, if the curse is strong enough.”
Nothing about this made much sense to Akura’a, but she was just happy to know that Garridan was alive–wherever he was. Whoever he was. Whatever he was.
Haveraul stared as the thoughts sloshed silently in her head. He cleared his gravelly throat to prompt her, but she was still distracted. “Umm,”–waving at her–“you said you needed my help?”
“Oh, sorry.” She nodded. “Yes. I need a way out east.”
“Ah, forget werewolves and weredragons, you just need a bit of wherewithal.” He grinned, pleased with his little witticism–such were the kinds of delicacies dwarves savored.
The orc was unmoved.
His face scrunched into a knot of wrinkles, but he waved her along. “Come back to my camp. Let’s talk a bit more.”
They left behind the crowd, hearsay still swirling about–the last thing Akura’a heard was an indignant man certain this must have been some sort of Deepvale sabotage, terrorism to thwart the merging of houses.
Haveraul showed her to a caravan parked in a circle on the outskirts of the town square. A few other dwarves were milling about, one helping a customer, the other packing goods into the back of a wagon.
“That there is Laterra Thinks-a-Lot, and the one finishing up with the customer is Darben Twice-as-Glad. Don’t know where Rovel is. May have been back at the crowd ‘round the barracks, actually. He’s always nosin’ about.”
“Now that ain’t a sight you see every day,” Darben chirped. He handed the woman’s change back to her and she followed his eyeline. She went pale as she saw Akura’a’s hulking figure approach and she hurried away, clutching her purchase tightly to her chest. “Who’s this you’re bringin’ us, eh, Haver?” Darben said. “What she need? Gotta little somethin’ for everybody.”
“Not a buyer,” he said.
“More likely a companion.”
Laterra stopped what she was doing and dusted her hands on her trousers. “A tagalong orc, eh?” She wiped her brow and planted her wrists firmly into her hips. “Well, would be nice to have some extry muscle, that’s for sure.”
Haveraul guffawed. “Looks like you’ve been hired already.” He pointed to a stool sitting beside a haphazard display of goods–books, weapons, leathers. She sat, and he leaned against some stacked crates, eyeing her up and down. “Headin’ out east, eh? To Deepvale, or further?”
“Think it would be safest if I went further.”
“Opposite’s true for most. But you maybe right, bein’ an orc and all. But see, now you worryin’ me a little. Talkin’ bout what’s safe. Gotta make sure my folks is safe. Don’t wanna be exposin’ us to nothin’ dangerous.”
Akura’a nodded, stared at the dirt. “I won’t lie: it might not be safe to take me. They’ll be sending a Retriever. Probably already looking for me.”
He squinted, like he was trying to see past her pebbled skin. “What’d you do?”
“I ran. No more serious a crime to orcs than that.”
“But what did you run from?”
She now looked at him, her eyes glassy and sad and innocent. She didn’t know how to answer. But whatever he saw in them, it was what he needed to. He pushed himself off the crates and patted her on the back. “Let me talk to the others.”
She watched as the three conversed. Darben smiled the whole time, nodding agreeably. Laterra was stoic, her hands still on her hips, her face inscrutable. Akura’a looked around, trying to find anything else to give her attention. She picked up a filigreed book and ran her hands gently over its fine cover. It was simply titled Ruminations. She flipped it open and read:
“I once knew dwarves in down-deep Larrigan,
Who drowned all their sorrow in pray’r and gin.
So blurred were their words
The Lords heard horrid slurs
And smote the dumb lumps fer blasphemin’”
“Ah,” Haveraul said, approaching. “That’s a good’n. Barull Way-With-Words. He’s our finest wordsmith. One of our great thinkers. Love his stuff.”
She flipped to a new page:
“There once was an orc from the south
Who had a rough, tough, toothy mouth.
Despite this clear danger,
Th’orc knew not a stranger
And gave oral, do you think it uncouth?”
She held it up to him and frowned. “What is this?”
“Don’t take no offense, now. I’m sure plenty of orcs can actually–”
He cocked his head at her. “Yeah, you know, like, thoughts.”
“I know what–” She closed the book and sat it back amongst his things. She was afraid she wasn’t helping her case.
“Anyway,” he said, “I talked to the others. You can come with us. We make a few stops along the way–won’t be a straight shot to the Far-flungs. But, you lift some boxes–and lighten up a bit–and we’ll be glad to have you along. Sound good?”