At last Erin slid her last rook into position. Olesm stared at the board and then tipped over his king with a trembling claw.
Erin cracked her fingers and grinned. It wasn’t her best game, but she’d gone for style over efficiency. Her opponent had a single king left in the middle of her pieces and she had a small army surrounding him. She smiled up at Olesm who’d turned pale. Her audience was gaping at her and the chess board.
“Good game. Let’s play again sometime, okay?”
She reached over and patted Olesm on the shoulder. The Drake looked slightly shell-shocked and made no reply. Erin shrugged and stood up.
Klbkch and Relc made their way through the crowd to her. Relc was gaping at the board.
“You won. But how did—but he’s—you won!”
“Congratulations on your victory, Miss Solstice.”
“Why thank you, Klbkch.”
Erin grinned at Klbkch. The ant man nodded back.
“May I ask how you managed such an incredible display? I would not have thought it possible, nor deemed it prudent to bet against Olesm in a game of chess until this moment.”
Erin shrugged. There was no harm in telling. Besides, both the shopkeeper and his nephew were still staring at the board.
“You said he’s played for a year, right?”
“And he is a Level 22 [Tactician]. There are no higher-level Tacticians even within the Liscorian army.”
“Good for him. But I’ve been playing chess for twelve years now. I started a bit late, but I used to play at least three games before I went to sleep each night. He might have a fancy skill, but a rookie’s still a rookie.”
This time it was Klbkch’s turn to do the staring with Relc. Erin smiled at both of them and then tapped the shopkeeper on the shoulder.
“I want my money back. All of it, thank you. And while you’re at it I’ll buy the chess board and pieces too.”
The Drake gaped at her. Then the color returned to the scales in his face and he backed away.
“I—that game was—”
Erin interrupted him.
“If you’re about to say it was rigged, don’t bother. And if you want a rematch, I’ll gladly play again if you double how much you owe me. But otherwise, don’t bother. I want my money.”
The Drake blanched and his scales turned pale. Erin smiled at him. His tail was twitching hard in agitation.
“My mind is…slightly hazy. I’m afraid I have no recollection of how much you spent. Unless of course you could tell me?”
Erin gave him a winning smile.
“I have no idea. But I’m sure Klbkch and Relc could help you find out.”
The shopkeeper turned pale. Klbkch nodded seriously and bowed in his direction.
“As a Senior Guardsman we would be happy to provide assistance in assessing all financial income for your business, as well as any unpaid taxes that may be extant. For now we will have to order your shop closed while we begin a thorough investigation of your wares and inventory.”
Relc grinned evilly.
“Right. Let’s start flipping over tables until we find a receipt.”
The Drake shopkeeper made a strangled shrieking sound. He tried to block Relc, but the other Drake was already happily trashing his store. Erin hid a grin.
Olesm walked up to her, his tail dragging low on the ground.
“I must congratulate you, Mistress Solstice. I have been truly humbled by your skill. Please, accept my sincerest apologies for questioning your ability.”
Erin fidgeted awkwardly. She hated this bit.
“Oh no, you were a good player too. I really shouldn’t have played like that as well against a rooki—another player.”
“You are too kind. But I know when I’m outclassed. I have to ask—are you a [Tactician] by any chance?”
“Me? No. I’m not. Sorry?”
Olesm drooped further. Erin could practically feel him kicking himself. She tried to cheer him up.
“Don’t feel bad. I’m not a professional player, but I’ve won a chess tournament or two in my time. I even played a Grandmaster, once. One of the few female ones which was really cool. But I was so nervous at the time I totally forgot to castle, and I lost my rook to—”
Erin broke off and cleared her throat, blushing. It was a bad memory, but at least Olesm stopped looking like a kicked puppy-lizard. Indeed, he was staring at her with vivid interest.
“Is this Grandmastery you speak of a class? Is it possible—could I take such a class myself?”
An alarm bell went off in Erin’s head. She tried to think fast and failed.
“Um. Maybe? It’s more like a title where I come from. Besides, Grandmasters only play chess. I’m not sure if that’s a class.”
Olesm nodded. Erin could practically see him taking notes in his head.
“Perhaps it’s a class only obtainable at high level in the [Strategist] class line. If ever I have the opportunity I shall take that class at once.”
“You can do that?”
Erin blurted it out. Olesm nodded again.
“Of course. I am merely a lowly [Tactician], the first of the strategist class line. But should I advance in level and learn more skills I might qualify for the [Strategist] class. And perhaps after that I might one day become a [Grandmaster]…? It makes my scales shiver to imagine such a class.”
Olesm stared dreamily off into the air. Erin edged away from him a bit.
“Right, well good luck with that.”
She wanted to go back and get her money, which the Drake shopkeeper was practically begging Relc to take as the other Drake frolicked in the destruction of his shop. But Olesm had her cornered and now Klbkch was on her tail.
“Miss Solstice. I believe this is your wager.”
He offered her three gold coins and a few copper and silver ones. Erin took them gratefully.
“Thank you, Klbkch.”
“I am merely fulfilling my duty as a member of the Watch. And once again may I congratulate you on your victory? I would greatly enjoy playing a game against you once I am off-duty. ”
Olesm nodded in fervent agreement. Erin smiled and wondered whether they’d follow her back to the inn.
“Another game? Sure, sure. After I finish my shopping—maybe another day?”
Klbkch nodded while Olesm visibly drooped. Erin felt bad, but she also knew his type. As in the type of player who would challenge her to another game day and night unless she said no.
“Tell you what, next time we can play a few games. Not just chess—if you guys have got other strategy games I’d love to play them too.”
Olesm’s face lit up.
“Do you like these kinds of games, Miss Solstice? I’m sure you must be quite good at any game you play.”
Erin grinned and waved a hand self-deprecatingly. She noticed Klbkch glancing at Olesm silently, but then the ant man returned his attention to her.
“Oh, I love all kinds of strategy games. I always surfed Youtube for—uh, what I mean is I used to watch and play tons of chess games. And not just chess; I learned how to play shogi, go, and even a few card games. But I couldn’t gamble so there was that.”
Erin shrugged. Klbkch stared at her blankly.
“Excuse me, but I am unfamiliar with these games. Is ‘shogi’ another game of strategy as chess is?”
“No, no. Shogi is a game that originated in Japan. And uh, Japan is…and…um…”
Erin trailed off. Klbkch and Olesm stared at her intently. She could practically see the Drake’s eyes lighting up in eager interest.
It occurred to Erin that trying to explain a game that originated in a country in a world that no one had heard of that used a language based off a culture which also didn’t exist would probably be a bad idea. But they were both staring at her.
“Um. Never mind?”
Liscor had several markets that were open at any given time during the day. It also had many streets. So it had more than one Market Street too. But only one had a human walking down the stores and admiring the displays.
Erin’s feet hurt. She felt that was ridiculous. After all, she’d been playing chess while sitting down for nearly an hour. But then again, she’d had to stand around and creatively lie and avoid the truth with Olesm and Klbkch for another hour until they went away.
“At least they’re gone now.”
Erin jingled the money pouch at her belt. Klbkch had helped her buy one to carry all the money she now had. It was wonderfully heavy and made lovely chinking sounds as Erin walked, but she was also worried someone would steal it.
That was why she had to spend all of it fast. Erin hesitated, and then walked a few stores down from where the Drake shopkeeper was screaming over his destroyed shop and cursing Relc and humans in general. She approached another stall, filled to the bursting with all kinds of goods. It looked nice. She’d thought so just the other day, too.
Unlike before though, this time the Gnoll shopkeeper standing in front of her shop did not greet Erin. Instead, she looked at her as she approached and gave a loud sniff.
Erin winced inside, but there was nothing for it. She stepped closer and waved at the tall Gnoll.
The Gnoll looked down at Erin. She—it? wasn’t smiling.
“Human. What do you want? Are you here to look down your nose again at my goods?”
“What? No, no. I’m actually here to uh, apologize.”
Erin tried to gauge the Gnoll shopkeeper’s reaction. It was hard to read her face. Like Relc and Klbkch, a Gnoll’s face didn’t display the same expression as a human one. But Erin didn’t detect the same amount of hostility in her features.
“Oh? What do you have to say then?”
The Gnoll raised one eyebrow and her ears twitched back. That was a human reaction so Erin went on quickly.
“It’s just that I was having a bad day and I met this other Gnoll who really didn’t like me. So uh, I was kinda afraid you would get growly at me too. But I’m sorry about that. I shouldn’t judge by uh, species.”
The Gnoll looked at her. Erin still couldn’t read her face. But—weren’t Gnolls kind of like hyenas? They looked like it. And hyenas were cats. Or maybe they were dogs. Either way, Erin peeked at the Gnoll’s ears.
They were twitching. And once Erin saw that she saw the Gnoll’s lips were twitching the merest fraction. Erin tried out a smile. To her surprise, the Gnoll smiled back. And laughed.
“It is the first time I have heard a Human apologize. A good day, yes? It is good you come to make amends. I will forgive you, and forgive the smell you stink of as well.”
Erin frowned. Was this good or bad?
“Sorry, I don’t want to make you mad again. But—do I really smell that bad? I just had a bath.”
The Gnoll shopkeeper laughed again. She – and now that Erin looked she was definitely a she – clapped one hand on Erin’s shoulder. Erin’s knees buckled.
“I do not mock you, Human. But I laugh because I forget others do not have our nose. Forgive, please.”
Erin rubbed at her shoulder surreptitiously.
“You’re totally forgiven. But I really do smell, then?”
The Gnoll shopkeeper nodded, turning serious.
“You smell of burned ash and trash. No; not just that foul smell. Even burning trash smells better. I know not what it was, but I can still smell it on you.”
Erin sniffed at her arm experimentally, but she smelled like she always did. Better, actually since she had new clothing.
The Gnoll wrinkled her nose.
“Oh yes. It’s not too bad now though. All that blood and oil covers it up.”
Erin froze. The Gnoll laughed at her expression.
“Think I can’t smell it on you? Every creature with half a nose could tell you were in a fight. And that you won. First blood. You don’t stink of fear anymore.”
“It’s nothing to be proud of.”
Erin replied automatically. Her stomach was dropping out of her legs, but the Gnoll shopkeeper didn’t seem to notice.
“Are you not proud of your kill? You have blooded and killed your first prey. Is it not good?”
Erin cut the shopkeeper off flatly.
“It’s not anything to be proud of. At all.”
The Gnoll stared down at her. Erin met her gaze. At last the Gnoll shrugged.
“Hrm. If you insist. Humans are odd creatures.”
That last remark stung. Erin gritted her teeth.
“Why do all of you say that? I’m human. So what?”
The Gnoll grinned at her with all her teeth.
“Because you are Human. Few of us have ever seen your kind here, let alone talked to one.”
Erin smiled sourly.
“Well, you’re the first Gnoll I’ve talked to. The first one that wasn’t angry at me, at least.”
The Gnoll shopkeeper laughed and slapped Erin on the shoulder again.
“Hah! You are a spirited Human! I like you. So I will introduce myself. I am Krshia, shopkeeper and seller of goods. And you are the Human who slew the Goblin Chieftain! What is your name, brave little one?”
“I’m Erin. Erin Solstice.”
Erin stuck out her hand but found herself grabbed and squeezed tightly by the Gnoll shopkeeper. It was a bear hug by a creature that looked sort of like a bear. She was strong enough for a bear too, and Erin felt oxygen quickly leaving her body.
The Gnoll must have heard Erin squeak or felt her dying because she eased up on the pressure. She sniffed at Erin, only wrinkling her nose slightly. For Erin’s part, she smelled spices, sweat, a strong doggish smell, and that earthy smell that came from a day or two of not bathing. Then she was on the ground blinking up at the Gnoll.
“There. We have met, and we are now friends. Come into my shop Erin Solstice and tell me what you want.”
Erin blinked at her, but stepped inside the stall and looked around.
“Wow. Okay. That’s a lot of stuff. But that’s good, because I need a lot of stuff. Like food, clothing, um, soap. Toothpaste—do you have—?”
Krshia cut Erin off.
“I am not an insect-creature, with perfect memory. We shall fetch what you want and I will write it down. It will take time, but you will get what you want.”
Erin nodded. Krshia bared her teeth at her again, but Erin was pretty sure it was a smile.
“I will give you a fair price. Not too fair; you have much money. But I will not charge you more than any other customer. And then I will have your goods delivered rather than make you pay for a bag.”
“Delivered? You do deliveries?”
“Of course. Did you think many would carry off bags of flour as you did? It is too hard. No; the stupid shopkeeper Lism, fur sheddings that he is, didn’t tell you and gave you the bag on purpose.”
Erin glanced over at Lism. He was still screaming at his store and his nephew. It looked like Olesm was recreating the game they’d played on another chess board. Erin had already bought the one she’d won on.
“I feel bad about that, actually.”
Krshia stared at Erin in surprise and then laughed again.
“Humans are strange. He would not give you the same if he were in your place, he surely would not.”
“Still, it’s not nice. And the law should be equal for everyone.”
Again, Krshia stared at Erin. She shifted uncomfortably.
“Well, that’s what I was always taught.”
The Gnoll shook her head.
“Humans. If one is greater, they are greater than others, yes? There is no fairness in the hunt. And the sharing of the kill only comes after the pack leader has eaten her fill, yes? You have friends. And you have more courage than foolish Lism. You two would never be equals, no.”
“I guess you’re right. But I still feel bad.”
Erin changed the subject.
“So. These deliveries…how do they work?”
Krshia smiled. She pointed to a small wooden bowl filled with brightly painted wooded triangles. Erin looked at them and saw each had an intricate little design of red and gold that made up a pattern around the edge.
“These are Messenger Seals. They are for Runners. When I give you one, I will keep its twin, yes? Then when a Runner delivers your goods you will give him the Seal you have, and then I will know my goods have been delivered. It is simple.”
Erin picked up one of the pieces of wood.
“So you’re saying it’s like a postal service?”
“Um. A delivery service?”
“That is what I have said, Erin Solstice.”
Erin blushed while Krshia grinned toothily at her and laughed.
“Right, sorry. I just haven’t ever heard of these Runners before. What do they do, besides make deliveries?”
Krshia gave her a long look. She seemed to be checking whether Erin was making fun of her.
“Runners run. They are quick ones, those who can run long distances to earn money. Sometimes they deliver letters, other times valuable things. Goods, yes? Magical items, messages that must only be spoken to one person. Such are expensive requests though. Only the best carry such things. Most just deliver goods very cheaply. I can call one and have all that you buy delivered to your inn for a good price.”
That sounded good, but Erin had learned skepticism here.
“What’s a good price?”
“It is the broken inn a few miles west of here, yes?”
Erin nodded. Krshia scratched her chin.
“Four silver coins. Not a small price. If it were the city it would be one, or maybe coppers for a small delivery. But it is far, yes? And if it is heavy and monsters lurk, the price goes up. You are lucky the Goblins are scarce and the Rock Hiders do not travel this late in the season.”
Erin thought about that. It sounded really good. Better than carrying anything herself.
“I like it.”
Krshia grinned at her again. This time Erin grinned back using all of her teeth.
“I knew I liked you for a reason. Then tell me what you want and let us not waste the light, eh?”
“Sounds good to me.”
Later that evening Erin sat in her inn and felt at her money pouch. It was a lot lighter now, but she felt a lot better about it. She felt a lot better about life, actually.
She had fresh clothes on, and she no longer smelled of…well, she no longer smelled. Instead her skin had been bathed in a minty scent from the soap she’d used. And she hadn’t had to dodge fish in the stream while bathing either. She’d gone to a bathhouse in the city.
The day had been full of busy things, and none of them had been entirely bad. After she’d bought all of Krshia’s goods and even haggled a bit over the price the Gnoll had shown her to the bath house to have a proper wash. Then Erin had gone back to her inn, eaten the rest of the pasta and she was now enjoying a minor food coma as she sat in a chair in her inn.
Erin played with one of the chess pieces on the table. She’d carried the chess board and a few essential items like soap with her back to the inn. She hadn’t wanted to let it go. It was incredible, really. Chess? In a world like this? Actually, it made sense but Erin was still amazed. She had to keep touching the pieces to make sure they were real.
But she had to focus. Erin dragged her mind back on track. Krshia told her the Runner would deliver her stuff tomorrow at some point. Until then, she could clean up the inn a bit. Or maybe play a game against herself. That was fun too. It was just—
Erin stared down at the chess board. She murmured to herself.
“Knight to D4. Pawn to E3.”
Suddenly her good feeling vanished. Erin felt cold. Suddenly the food in her stomach was dead weight instead of comfort, and she felt sick. Her hands shook as she put the pieces back on the table. Everything was better. It really was. But…
—If she closed her eyes Erin could still see a Goblin lying on the ground next to her. If she opened her hands she could still feel the dead weight between her palms.
Erin moved a pawn up and took the knight. She stared at the pieces on the board.
“It’s kill or be killed in this world, after all.”
She put her head in her hands and rubbed at her eyes. Yes. That was what she’d learned. And she hated it. All of the good that had come to her seemed like it had been built on the bad.
The bad. The dead. A game of chess on a pile of corpses. Erin stared at the chess board.
She was good at chess. She liked chess. She’d grown up playing chess and other games like that, despite the fact that girls weren’t common in chess tournaments. Chess had been fun to her, until she’d grown up and realized she’d never become a Grandmaster herself. She was good, but not great. But chess had still been her hobby. Chess was fun. It was about outwitting the opponent, about using strategy—
It wasn’t at all like killing someone.
Erin stared at her hands. They were quivering. She could still feel them burning. It was all a game, though, wasn’t it? A game with levels and classes. A game like chess.
“It’s just a game. Just a game?”
Erin stared at the board. Pieces. If she thought about it like that, then death seemed to matter less. She’d done the right thing. She’d defended herself, killed the monster.
Killed the monster.
She stared down at the three dead Goblins. They were so small. Like children. And they had family. Friends. Those who loved them.
The ragged Goblin. The ones hiding outside her inn, scrawny and afraid. They were the enemy too, if she played the game like chess. The right thing to do would be to hunt them down and kill them. That was how all games worked.
That was how you played chess.
Erin sat up. She remembered the Goblin’s hand in hers, the feeling of his skin. She remembered his smile. She remembered laughing.
And then she understood. Erin put her hand underneath the chess board and flipped it off the table. Both white and black pieces soared into the air and clattered against the floor.
Erin stood up.
“I remember why I got bored of chess. There’s only one winner and one loser. The best game for both players is a draw.”
She walked over to the door and yanked it open. Then she stopped and turned. She raised her middle finger and flipped off the chess board a second time.
“I’ll make my own rules. And anyone that doesn’t like it can go to hell.”
The door slammed shut as Erin walked out. A few minutes later she rushed back into the inn and carefully put all the pieces back onto the chess board.
“Still a great game, though. Don’t take it personally. Let me just get a quick snack for the road. And I need some soap. Proper hygiene and all that. Where did I put the soap? Soap, soap, soap…I should really organize all this stuff. Maybe tomorrow.”
Then she was gone, running down to the city. There was still plenty of daylight left in the sky. And she had one more thing left to do. The most important thing of all.
The sun sets on the grasslands. Shadows lengthen and fall upon the old structure, hiding flaws and concealing the age of the building underneath an evening shroud. The sun is setting. High above this world, in a sky twice as high it sets slowly.
After a while the young woman walks back towards the inn. She is carrying a bucket and a brush. And a piece of wood. And some nails. And a hammer. It’s quite heavy and she mutters and curses as she drags her burden along.
Eventually though, she reaches the inn and sets her many burdens down. Then she looks up.
Above the inn a faded sign bears the traces of letters, but the young woman cannot read the language. Nor does she care what was once written there. She only has eyes for the sign. The inn has lost its name it needs a new one.
The girl picks up the bucket and brush. Then she looks up at the sign and down at the ground. The plaque above the inn is several times her height off the ground.
The young woman looks up at the sky and shouts an obscenity. Then she goes back down to the city once more. She comes back with a tall ladder, panting and muttering to herself.
It takes a while for the young woman to realize she needs to anchor the ladder or else she’ll fall right off. She picks herself off the ground and this time she gets to the top of the inn. Once she’s steady she goes back down for the bucket and carefully walks back up the ladder with it.
She dips the brush in the bucket and paints a stroke on the wide plaque above the inn. The dark paint glistens in the sunlight and the young woman smiles and hums in satisfaction. She begins painting on the sign above the inn.
It takes her a long time and several coats of paint. Black paint for the letters, white paint to erase her mistakes. A paint-scraping tool to get rid of the paint when it becomes too thick. A hammer to hit things while she vents her frustrations.
But eventually the sign is done. The young woman sighs in relief and then picks up the piece of wood she has brought. She takes the paintbrush and writes on it briefly. Then she hammers the sign into the ground and walks into her inn. The tools she leaves on the ground. She’ll pick them up tomorrow.
The sign is done, and the paint dries in the fading light. The lettering is crisp and clear, catching the eye of any traveler that passes by. But no travelers are nearby. No visitors come to the inn, and indeed, none will come this night.
It doesn’t matter. The sign is what matters. The name and message are what matter. They have been written, and now they are here to stay. As is the young woman.
So as she sleeps the sun fades and the last bit of light catches the plaque above the inn. The letters glow in the dusk.
The Wandering Inn.
Next to the inn, a large sign is hammered into the earth. It reads:
“No Killing Goblins.”
Thus begins the story of The Wandering Inn.