A Kerrnish Birthday

This story was written for Chuck Wendig’s @YouAreCarrying prompt. Rather than travelling all the way to an outfitter or mercantile, I hopped on Twitter. A tweet later, I’d been granted an inventory of items to include in my story:

I decided to go with a light-hearted fantasy setting for this one, relying more heavily upon dialogue than I usually do.

Critiques are
always welcome! Without further ado, then.

A Kerrnish Birthday

Erin Bek entered the apothecary carefully, grimacing at the scent of Kerrnish tobacco. The herb gave off a distinctive, burnt-hair scent when smoked, which was so unpleasant to most residents of Berat that it was used primarily for its considerable medicinal properties. Even then, its application was a last resort – the distinctive aroma clung to clothing for days, and few found the smell pleasant except the Kerr themselves. That was Erin’s first clue to the identity of the burglar.

Sure enough, as the apprentice apothecary opened the door to the store room, she found Khas Merren sprawled across the floor with her back propped up against a oaken shelving unit. Her eyes were unevenly dilated, and she still clutched a bone pipe in her right hand. The pipe was carved with a caricature of an orc, and Khas frequently insisted to whoever would listen that her grandfather had carved it from the bones of an actual goblin. Erin suspected that Khas had stolen it, as she had so many other things, but had never dared to question her on the subject. There was a matchbook nearby, heavily burnt as if Khas had forgotten to close the cover before attempting to light the tobacco. What remained of the stiff, paper booklet bore the name of their favorite local tavern, The Thieving Bastard.

“Khas Merren, what the hell are you doing in my shop?”

“One – this is not your shop. B – I’m just sampling the mishnat. It’s my birthday, after all.”

Khas savored the word birthday, accompanying it with a soft, throaty rumble which made Erin think of the purring of a cat. She blushed at the thought, knowing how harshly Khas would admonish her for such a bigoted comparison. The Kerr didn’t celebrate birthdays, and Khas had never really grokked the idea, as much as Erin tried to explain it.

“What do you mean, your birthday?”

Khas held up a small envelope, opened at the corner to reveal a piece of aged parchment.

“Well, this gift came for me – found it on my doorstep. It’s a map of some sort, or at least I think it is. It’s too dark to read in here – you might want to tell that master of yours to invest in some lamps. Plus, you dropped this key, which is how I’ve come by the mishnat. Two gifts in one day, so it must be my birthday, right? Let’s go celebrate – the Bastard should be open by now.”

Erin’s eyes widened as she grabbed at the key, which could unlock any door in the shop. Khas was a thief, and a bit of an asshole, which seemed to make her choice of pub particularly fitting. On the other hand, they were the best of friends, and the shop was closed on temple-day, while the pub would indeed be open. The logic was flawless. Erin pocketed the key before taking Khas’ hand and helping her to her feet. Mishnat had a tendency to fuck with depth perception as well as light sensitivity, and Khas steadied her lean, sleek frame against Erin’s shoulder as the two crossed the street to the pub. A pint or two would set Khas right in no time.

~~

A few hours later, Erin was beginning to flag, though Khas continued to drink with typical Kerrnish aplomb. Some local farmhands had been seated at the bar when Erin and Khas entered, and had been striving in vain to keep up with Khas ever since. Accordingly, they’d been growing louder and less coherent, and the loudest among them was staring unheeded daggers at Khas across the maple surface. Erin was glad that Khas didn’t seem to have noticed this – it had cost them each a silver piece the last time Khas had started a brawl. Her relief faded, however, when the farmhand began taunting Khas directly.

“Fucking Kerrnish drunkards – don’t you know you’re not welcome here?”

The tavern keeper placed yet another pint of beer in front of Khas – strong barleywine that would have been served in a half-pint if Khas had not been so insistent. The Kerr returned the farmhand’s stare, glaring silently as she tipped the pint back, draining it halfway without breaking her gaze. She took a deep breath before returning the frosty glass to her lips, continuing to drink as one of the other hands chimed in.

“You deaf, Kerr? Go on, get out of here! Shoo, Mittens!”

The slur crossed a line. Finishing the pint, Khas slammed her cup down before leaping up onto the bar itself. The man’s drunken guffaw was cut short by the sound of glass shattering as Khas’ padded feet swept the surface clear of dishes. Erin blanched, swiping clumsily at Khas’ arm in an attempt to rein her in. After a second try, she caught the Kerr’s leg, arresting her progress before she turned the confrontation into an outright brawl. Helping Khas down from the bar, Erin fished in her pockets for some loose pieces of cotton from the apothecary. She stuffed the cotton in Khas’ pointed ears, hoping to block out the farmhand’s continuing taunts, then slapped a few coins down on the counter and dragged the stubborn Kerr out the door.

“You heard what that bastard called me, Erin. I ought to scratch his eyes out.”

Khas had long ago ceased to grow her fingernails out in the Kerrnish fashion. Even so, the threat was hardly an idle one – the nails of her feet were veritable claws, and she could undoubtedly have maimed the bigot for life if Erin hadn’t stopped her.

“He’s not worth it. Besides, we’ll have to replace the mugs you broke as it is, and I can hardly afford to cough up another silver piece if we’re caught brawling again. I don’t suppose you have enough cash left to pay for the damages?”

Khas responded with a sheepish, awkward grin.

“No, I… Wait! I’m forgetting my birthday gift – there’s bound to be at least a handful of coin at the spot marked on the map! It’s obviously a map of Berat, and it looks like there’s an X drawn right over the temple spire!”

Almost certain that Khas had drawn up and mailed the map herself, Erin decided to humor the Kerr.

“Sounds like a plan, Khas, although I’ve no idea how we’re going to get inside on temple day.”

Khas brightened visibly.

“Oh, don’t worry about that. There’s a ladder in my bag.”

Erin squinted at Khas, obviously skeptical.

“A rope ladder, dummy, with hooks at the ends. It… comes in handy, sometimes.”

~~

The street was mostly abandoned, with the majority of the population in either the temple or the tavern. It only took a couple of tries to hook the ladder to the tower’s door, and they were climbing in no time. Erin didn’t expect that they would actually find anything, in spite rumours that the Church deposited valuable artifacts in the spire of each house of worship. Reaching the top, Khas dropped softly into a small chamber, followed by Erin, who, lacking Khas’ height and agility, lowered herself gingerly from the sill before tumbling the last foot to the floor. Khas tapped her on the shoulder, pointing toward a podium which held a tapered length of aged wood and a thick, white book.

Without a word, Khas leapt upon the book, flipping through the pages with an expression of increasing disappointment. Shutting the volume, she took the wand before turning to Erin and shrugging.

“Just a damn psaltry. Wonder why they’d keep it all the way up here… No coin, either, but at least I won’t leave empty ha-”

She was interrupted by the sound of heavy feet outside the chamber’s single, heavy oaken door. The door was barred from the inside, but from the sound of whatever was approaching, Erin wasn’t convinced that that would do much good. Khas turned toward the door, brandishing the wand as if it were a bladed weapon.

“Give me the wand, Khas. You’re no mage!”

“Says the apothecary’s apprentice!”

“An apothecary’s nearer a mage than a sneaky fucking runaway blacksmith! That’s a delicate and finely tuned magical instrument, not a club or a dagger.”

“Still, we found it using my birthday map, and besides, I don’t have any other weapons. If my ears don’t deceive me, that’s a god-damn troll out there.”

“You’d have a broadsword if you hadn’t traded it for that glass ‘emerald,’ like a greedy fool.”

“I keep telling you, it reminded me of my mother’s eyes. My poor, dead mother! Is an orphan entitled to no sentimentality?”

Erin knew that Khas’ parents were alive and well back in Kerrn, but Khas didn’t much care for them, and generally insisted that they had both been slain by orcs in her early childhood. Flayed in front of her, she claimed, and had shown enough commitment to the farce that she had wept into her ale for over an hour when she’d first spun the tragic tale.

The troll was upon them now, pounding its oversized fists against the oak door. The wood shuddered and splintered as the monster rushed in, lumbering toward them with deadly intent. Erin turned and ran for the window, but stopped dead in her tracks when the troll spoke in the mumbling, dull bellow characteristic of its species.

“Bad kitty!”

Khas responded with a hiss, and Erin could tell that her teeth were bared before she even turned around. The Kerr’s toenails clattered against the stone floor of the chamber as she ran forward, vaulting off the floor and wrapping an arm around the troll’s massive, tree-trunk neck.

Khas gripped the wand, her knuckles growing white as she stabbed the troll repeatedly in the throat. Too shocked by Khas’ ferocity to fight back, the brute succumbed to her onslaught. With a ponderous groan, the hulking monster came crashing to the floor. Erin hurried around the corpse to find Khas gleefully rummaging through the monster’s satchel.

“Trolls are just the best, Erin. They scavenge whatever they can, even if they don’t have any use for it. This one could have hired a decent butler for a month or two with silver pieces alone. Not only that, but he’s a big motherfucker. He’ll make an excellent stepladder.”

With that, Khas looped the satchel around her shoulder, climbing onto the troll’s back and leaping to the open window. Still in shock, Erin followed, descending the rope ladder with haste. Pulling a cord at the bottom, Khas released the hooks and packed the ladder away, whistling a jaunty tune as she did so.

~~

That night, the successful treasure hunters celebrated at the Thieving Bastard. Even after settling debts with the tavern owner, there had been a tidy sum left – perhaps even enough that Khas could actually pay for her next few packets of Kerrnish tobacco. They nursed their drinks for hours, enjoying their good fortune. About a quarter after midnight, Khas grew dejected, hanging her head over her plate of roasted chestnuts. Confused, Erin placed a comforting hand on the Kerr’s shoulder.

“What’s wrong, Khas? I’d say you’ve had an excellent birthday.”

“I just can’t stop thinking about that troll. As I stabbed it to death with my ‘delicate magical instrument’, it looked right into my eyes. They were so big – wide, actually, as if it didn’t understand what was happening.”

Khas looked up, and Erin saw that her eyes were welling with unshed tears.

“Its eyes were just so deep and beautiful. They were emerald green, Erin – just like the eyes of my poor dead mother!”

Ever the dramatic, Khas released the torrent which had been building in her tear ducts as her shoulders began to shake with pitiful, throaty sobs. Relieved, Erin signalled the bartender.

“Bartender – we’ll each have a glass of your finest barleywine! We’re celebrating a Kerrnish birthday over here!”