The past year had been one of growing humility for me. And as such, I was willing to admit three things. Firstly, in matters of fashion, I conceded Addie as superior. Secondly, in regards to occupation, Ladd was a far better employee. And, thirdly, in regards to all things martial, worldly, or sylvicultural, Tunic vastly surpassed me. But my bailiwick, and I was most confident in it, was that no one knew Kennbridge and its residents better than I.
Armed as I was with the task of finding a home for Michelle and Gertie, I was determined not to allow any diversions to interrupt my concentration. Kennbridge was bursting at its seams, but not ready yet to break. I’d find a gap in our gestalt community and squeeze Michelle and Gertie into it, of that I was well sure.
I trotted into my house, bellowing a, “Morning!” to my mother. I didn’t stop to hear if she replied, merely knocked twice on my bedroom door and then opened it. Addie and I had agreed to knock before entering, but I was too impatient to await her approval to open the door. Not that it mattered, Addie was still tucked in bed.
“Nari?” she blinked, her eyes heavy with sleep. “You’re back already?” Addie’s hair was neatly pleated around her and she wore a nightgown that could have been acceptable for royalty. The ease at which she had always coasted through life frequently irked me. She had never worked – ever. Though, she often complained that it was not so, for her father had required her parade around town displaying his latest masterpiece. Rafferty had become famous for his garment making throughout the southern continent and as such, he desired for his daughter to live a worry-free life – hence the bizarre “occupation.” But even if Addie had retained her royal-airs, I had to remind myself that her father had perished in the battle with the monster of Keegan Heights. And, though I may never have said so aloud, I blamed myself. After all, it was I who had provoked the beast and it was I who had chosen the roof of the Rafferty home to confront the monster from.
Addie and her mother were residing with us because of that unspoken guilt; I had pleaded with my parents to take them in. All that remained of their home was the four walls of the back room. Addie’s brother Cade resided there, in the husk of their old home.
“I’ve been gone for three hours, at least,” I remarked.
“Oh,” she muttered, still half-slumbering. “I hadn’t realised. Did you see Ladd this morn?”
“Not that I recall,” I replied.
“Oh… You have grime on your face by the way.”
I flashed a glance in the mirror and scowled at the congealed wolf blood now baked on my face. I scrubbed down in a haste, pondering for but a moment about the changes in my life since befriending Tunic. My ruminations were cut short as I reached into the top drawer of my dresser and shuffled the contents to find a concealed parcel. I pulled out a leaf of pure white paper and a writing utensil. I seated myself in the bed beside Addie and she watched as my hand hovered over the paper.
“What are you doing?” She finally asked when several minutes had passed without ink touching the paper.
“I have a mission,” I muttered. And then, so as to appear productive I decided to list the names of all the households in town. I moved from the north end of town and wrote the names of every home; I’d map them out and then evaluate whether they had room for two more members.
Fifteen names down into the list, I had forgotten about Addie’s presence. That is, until she deduced my efforts and piped in, “You missed the Laherty family.”
Laherty had been a widower for a few years now leaving their home with just him and his three sons. I was irked that I had not thought of them first; surely, they would welcome a woman into their home to help clean and cook.
I continued my list, but the names were all homes already too full or incompatible with a young girl and her nurse.
I got to Mrs. Hedda and paused to consider if she was a possibility. She and Gertie had similar personalities and I’d feel bad supplying Michelle with a second Gertie. Nevertheless, desperate times did not permit a luxury of choice. I circled Mrs. Hedda’s name.
In the end, I settled on three probabilities: the Laherty family, Mrs. Hedda, and Harley Nekun.
“Whatever you’re doing, you made some odd selections,” Addie commented on my list.
I smiled knowing it was perfect.
“Just you wait and see, this is exactly what it should be.”
“Are we going somewhere?” Addie asked, springing from the bed and into action. Addie utilized her supernatural ability to transform from slumbering princess into a sentient work of art in less time than it took for me to find wherever I had stashed my work gown. She was waiting for me at the door – glimmering as usual – by the time I was ready to depart. Looking from my drab work clothes to her polychromatic gown, I couldn’t help but want to deny her accompaniment. I hadn’t intended for her to join me, after all, but better sense reigned. I may have found Addie to be tiresome, but the neighbourhood was nothing but sympathetic for Rafferty’s widow and daughter. In other words, Addie’s presence could do nothing but improve my success.
“So, what exactly are we doing?” Addie asked as she opened the door for me.
“Weston returned with his sister and her nursemaid,” I finally explained. “They need a place to stay.”
“And you think Mrs. Hedda’s place is a good one for them?” Addie gasped.
“It’s not unreasonable,” I countered. “Everyone’s had to make adjustments in the wake of the monster’s assaults. I’m sure even Mrs. Hedda can– “
“She hates children! Always sitting at her window waiting for an opportunity to tattle on some perceived offense– “
“That’s speculation,” I retorted, though not wholly convinced of it myself. “Besides, I’m not starting with her. We’re going to the Laherty’s first. You’ll see. One of them will certainly work. I know this town better than I know myself.”
“Okkaaayyy,” Addie assented.
The Laherty’s were only a few minutes walk down an alley of tightly knit homes. I rapped on the door with my knuckles and it was opened by a lad dressed in naught but his undergarments. “What you want?” he demanded.
Addie gaped, but I was hardly befuddled. “Where are your trousers?” I scolded.
“None of your business– “ he argued, but was cut off when another, older lad, snatched him by the waist and tugged him back into the house.
“That’s not how you talk to people,” the older boy’s voice could be heard from within the house. “Forgive my delinquent brother,” the older son said as he stepped into the light of the door – also only in his undergarments.
This time I reddened. My hand shot up to my eyes, covering them. Did this family have any sense? He was at least fourteen and too old to be tromping around trouser-less.
“Nari,” Addie tugged my dress, turning me towards her, “perhaps you best abandon– “
“No,” I replied. I had promised to find a place for Michelle and I was not about to be deterred yet.
“What did you need?” the lad asked leaning on the door, nonchalantly.
“Is you father home?” I asked, inspecting the eaves.
“At work,” the boy replied, “Won’t be back ‘til late.”
“I’ll go find him there, then,” I replied.
“Probably just a waste of time, lady. He’s workin’ the forge today. I doubt he’ll be allowed visitors.”
“I’ll come back,” I decided. This sort of negotiation required finesse, it wasn’t the sort of thing you left a message about and relied on secondary source to deliver. Especially when that secondary source didn’t have the sense to put on clothes before answering the door.
My decision was reinforced as a shout came from within the building, followed by the stomping of feet and the shriek of a child.
“You little shi–“ a voice roared.
“Will, what did you do?” The lad in the doorway shouted back into the house.
There came another crash and then the young boys shrill cry of, “I hate you! Don’t touch me, I hope you diiiiieeeee.”
“You bastard,” the deeper voice answered, “I’ll kill you.”
“Shut up you idiots, there’s someone at the door,” the teen in the doorway called back into the house. “If you don’t cut it out I’m going to murder you both!”
Whatever happened next, I can’t recall for Addie had seized my arm and yanked me down the street. “You are not letting a girl live in a house like that,” she insisted.
“But…” I trailed off, still hearing screams and crashes coming from the house halfway down the street. Abruptly, three semi-clothed boys raced into the street picking up rocks and sticks to toss at each other. The biggest one tackled the youngest, and they went spinning to the ground, rolling into a grassy heap as the middle sized boy caught up. He attempted to pull the youngest boy out of the grasp of the eldest as the little one screamed that his arm was being dislocated. Addie was probably right.; there had to be a better alternative.
On to option number two: Addie directed us to the solitary abode of Mr. Harley Nekun. Harley was something of an oddity as a teen, I remember gawking at him during Einsday services. Truthfully, I didn’t know much about of him aside from the fact that he largely kept to himself. And try as I might, I couldn’t recall having seen him in the past half dozen years. But he lived alone, of that I was certain. His home was the oldest in Kennbridge – one of the original buildings from when the town had been nothing but a farmstead. Harley had moved into it upon the death of his grandmother, as her sole grandson the estate had been passed to him. And despite being old, the house was well maintained and, most importantly, large. Even if Harley wished to abstain from socializing with his new housemates, it would be easy for Michelle and Gertie to avoid their landowner. In my thoughts, it was a perfect match. I just needed to convince Harley of it.
I knocked on the door as Addie and I idled on the porch. We muttered some comments about the weather as we waited. When no reply came, I rapped on the door again. Though not certain of how he was employed, Harley’s parents had insisted that he did work. It was some sort of government job or something that could be done from home. I surmised some sort of paperwork or maintaining accounts or something, but was hardly well enough informed to be certain. But if that was the case, he should be at home. I tried the door knob.
“Nari!” Addie hissed, seizing my hand. “What are you doing?”
“I have a promise to keep,” I replied without muffling my voice.
“You can’t walk into someone’s house uninvited,” she continued, refusing to release my hand.
I contorted my fingers so I could slip them from her grip. “I have to do this,” I told her.
I walked through the door alone. That was fine by me. “Hello?” I called into the house.
It was dark. Most of the windows were covered with curtains and those that were not had a dark film covering the inside of them, dampening the light.
Something moved at my feet, startling me. I jumped to the side. A mouse? No, it was much too big to be a rodent. For some reason my heart was pounding. “Oy!” I shouted to frighten off whatever it was. The creature moved forward though, not away from me. “Scat,” I called, waving my leg out in front of me to push whatever it was away.
There was a thud as something fell to the ground behind me and then the pattering of feet. It was not the only newcomer either, out of the corner of my eye I saw a silhouette down the hall. I felt a furry body brush against my leg. I shuddered and moved to push it away, but it, to my great relief, greeted me with a lonely, “mrrreoow.”
I released the breath I had been holding. They were cats, not oversized rats or starving coons. More shapes moved towards me, curiosity driving some of them in a skittering pace and gravitating others in a gradual saunter. Regardless, the room was becoming filled with cats. “How many does he have?” I wondered aloud.
I stooped to pet the one encircling my legs and was thanked with another demanding, “meow.”
A head bobbed towards my unmoving hand, using my fingers to itch behind a set of furry ears. After a few more minutes of kitty cuddles, I stood up and called out for Harley. I waded through the sea of cats – seriously, how many lived in this house? My pace was hardly stealthy as I tripped on more than one feline form. I went from room to room, but could not find the owner of the clowder. I would have been concerned at Harley’s disappearance, except that dishes of fresh food and water had been left out for the kitties.
Perhaps he was just out. I’d come back later. Or so I told myself, trying not to feel disappointed. Harley would have been the best option.
My third choice was Mrs. Hedda. I really didn’t want to visit her, but Michelle needed a roof over her head tonight and that meant I needed to hasten myself. Offering the cats a final caress, I slipped out the door.
Addie was pacing nervously down the street. “Don’t do something like that again,” she scolded.
“Yeah, yeah,” I brushed her off, growing irritated at her cowardice.
“You seriously have no sense,” Addie accused.
I glared at her, this coming from the girl who had never worked a day in her life. “Are you still coming with me?” I asked tersely.
Mrs. Hedda’s house was near the trail to Tunic’s home and as such, it was a familiar sight to me by now. Yet, even being the most familiar, it was the one I was most hesitant to approach. It was not that Mrs. Hedda was a nasty person, she was just that neighbour. The one who plagued your childhood. The one who wanted children to be still and quiet. I wouldn’t describe my relationship with her as pleasant, but she’d accepted more than a dozen apologies from me – all made at the insistence of my father.
The door opened as we reached it. Mrs. Hedda looked at us without speaking. I got the distinct feeling that Addie and I were unwelcome.
“Uh, hi Mrs. Hedda,” I greeted, feeling quiet immature under her glare.
Mrs. Hedda didn’t reply.
Realising that my reticence would do me no favours, I force my shopkeeper’s smile onto my face, “I was wondering if we could talk for a moment.”
“A moment, no more,” Mrs. Hedda replied.
I was hoping she would invite me in her home, but we remained lurking at the door.
Now that I was here, I realised I should have prepared a segue into the question. Too late for that though, I would just have to work my words around afterwards. “Do you know Weston, ma’am? He moved to Kennbridge some time ago and he’s been a great help to the community during the rebuilding. Well, he has a younger sister and, as you know, Weston has been living with Tun– err, that is Bramwell. But Bramwell’s house is really just one room and not at all meant for a whole family. So, I am trying to help Weston with finding a home, well, a place to stay, really, for his sister and her nurse–just for a short time, you see. And I was wondering if you might have a room to spare for them. She’s a really good girl and she had a good nurse. The won’t trouble you and I’m sure they will help and that Weston will pay you rent and…”
Mrs. Hedda’s brow raised and it made me lose concentration. “You would dare ask me for help?”
I wasn’t expecting that.
“You who brought the calamity to our village. You who have so disturbed the neighbourhood since your infancy, with your ramblings about at all hours of the night and your inability to dampen your voice. You would ask me to invite another troublemaker into my very residence?”
I blinked. Had I ever seen such animosity from her before? I know I had irritated her in the past, but I never imagined it to be to such a degree.
“We’re sorry to have disturbed you,” Addie curtsied and then linked arms with me, guiding me on to the street.
“What was that about?” I muttered, still in shock at the blatant hostility.
“Nari, don’t let it get to you,” Addie consoled me. “Folks are just folks.”
“What does that even mean?”
Addie sighed. “It means that most people have a plan for how they want their life to go. Kennbridge has always been peaceful and rather isolated and last year things changed drastically. Everyone’s had to make adjustments and mostly in ways they never wanted to. And so, people like Mrs. Hedda, probably would want to be helpful, but things are already so different from what they wanted them to be and more change just seems so overwhelming. When you get weak you want to blame something. That’s all it is.” Addie placed a hand on my cheek, “The same thing happened to mom and I when we were trying to find a place to stay. You think your family and friends will help you in times like this, but then they just don’t. And you think to yourself, if I was in their position I would have opened my doors to them. But can you ever really say that unless you are in their situation? Just don’t let it get to you.”
I couldn’t believe Addie was so accepting of such a thing. “No! That’s not right. Things change and you get over it and move on. That’s how life is. You can’t keep lingering in what was or could have been. There are real people out there who need help.”
“And we need people like you to help spur others into action,” Addie encouraged, “But Mrs. Hedda needs to go at her own pace.”
“It’s not good enough. There are people here right now that need help. What are they supposed to do while Mrs. Hedda decides whether or not she’s going to be a decent person?”
Addie gave me a sympathetic look, I turned away from her. “I’m going to find someone if I have to knock on every door in Kennbridge,” I insisted.
“Nari!” Addie attempted to seize my arm but I dodged.
I ran to the nearest house and pounded on the door. Dammit, I thought, it wasn’t really my fault that the monster was killing people. It was because humans and elves rejected each other that Ezebel had power. Just because the monster hadn’t come to Kennbridge yet didn’t mean it wasn’t going to come eventually. If people would just think about each other just for once we wouldn’t be in this mess.
I lost myself somewhere there. I could feel my body moving of its own accord. I kept telling myself it was because I was so disappointed in everyone, but I suspect I was feeling a sting of guilt that I really had been the one to ruin Kennbridge. After all, the monster may never have come to our adventure-less community. On the other hand, it probably would have destroyed many other places. If I hadn’t gotten Tunic involved, would another half-elf have been willing to stop Ezebel? Yet, even if my quest had served the ”greater good” it had harmed those closest to me. And isn’t that always the way of things, those closest to us are the ones who feel the pain of our foolishness? Even I realised I was doing the exact same thing as Mrs. Hedda, blaming others for the pain I felt. But, I couldn’t stop myself from debasing the residents of Kennbridge as they turned me aside. Tears burned hot on my face as a door was slammed and someone I knew from childhood shut me from their home. I shouted some terrible words at them and moved to the next house. Doors weren’t even opening anymore, such a spectacle was I making.
I hadn’t even realised Addie had slipped away, so when a hand seized me I assumed it would be her soft grip.
It was not. The weathered hand of a hunter ensnared my wrist. We were too small a community to have a police force, so the hunters were often called in to stop the rowdy when they’d had too much to drink on a Siebenday night. Apparently, someone had called the hunters to deal with me too.
“Alright Nari, time to get on home,” Rowan told me.
“Unhand me,” I insisted. “I have work to do.”
“Not anymore,” Rowan insisted. He was much larger than me – as a third generation hunter, he’d been snaring game since his sixth year and could draw an adult sized bow by his tenth. Rowan was the quintessential man’s man: broad shoulders and iron legs. I could sense a glimmer of delight from him as he felt me squirm in his grasp.
“Don’t touch me,” I spat.
“I’m just going to escort you home so you can get some rest,” Rowan told me.
“You’re just like them,” I accused. “And don’t pretend you aren’t. I know what you’re really like. You were going to leave me to the dire wolves, I know you were. I heard you, you know, when you were sent out to bring me back last year. I was right there, o mighty hunter, hiding at your feet.”
Rowan’s grip loosened slightly and I wasn’t going to waste the opportunity.