The Village of Erb: Chapter One

Since it’s so nice this weekend, you should stay in and read this first chapter! Obviously.

Chapter One

Before there were songs about Ellraf the dragon hunter, he was a man wandering through the Village of Erb; a village mostly remarkable only so far as how each day was more unremarkable than the last. Travelling up the sheer cliffs south of the village, Ellraf knew his destiny would be a great one. His heart skipped as he stood face to face with the dragon of Erb Mountain. After years of training, sacrifice, sweat, tears, and convincing people those tears were in fact more sweat, his journey to become a hero could begin with the swing of his blade.

The dragon – who didn’t take kindly to sweaty brutish men with pointy swords who tried to kill it – ate Ellraf. It immediately regretted the decision as sweaty brutish men tended to have nothing but tough oily muscles that stuck between a cleft palate. It was, however, further proof that being a hero was not all it was destined to be.

The dragon – gentle, fire-breathing, purple, and a herbivore until recently – took up residency in Erb Mountain almost a millennia ago at the start of the Age of the Sun. Somewhere between the first bone-crunching bite and the indigestion from the steel plate, the dragon concluded three things: first, people consider it heroic to kill a dragon in its sleep; second, heroes don’t tend to live much longer than their mid-twenties; and finally, heroes are jerks so dragons shouldn’t feel bad for eating them.

In fact, if someone was destined to either become a hero or a chimney sweep, they were better off with the broom. They would live longer, and exhaling black rings of soot was a neat trick at parties. It’s on par with tying a cherry stem with your tongue and there’s a far smaller chance someone will poke your eye out with a knife or you’ll be eaten by a dragon. Overall, it was remarkable how many people still opted for a career as a hero when chimney sweeping held so much more job security.

Interestingly enough, the second most remarkable thing about the Village of Erb was a halfling named Logtar Pantsonfire. Logtar was a thief and remarkable for two very important reasons: first, he didn’t believe in destiny; and second, he was the only halfling who preferred to wear shoes.

Most nights Logtar drank at The Hoodwink, the local tavern and heart of many nightly disturbances. When a streak of unremarkable days counted as a remarkable thing in a marketplace of blacksmiths, tailors, butchers, general stores, and vegetable stands, it’s not difficult to understand why the locals put so much importance on alcohol. The tallest elf to the shortest gnome filled The Hoodwink to the brim, and on most nights about thirty people needed to leave before someone could find the brim-point.

Navigating through a tavern as popular as The Hoodwink took the utmost of skill. Walking from the entrance to the barmaid involved stepping on a few feet and a lush or two. Many would argue that building the bar on the back wall was a design flaw, but those were the same people who had to regularly order multiple drinks to cover ones they clumsily knocked out of someone’s hand.

“Here are your drinks, Logtar,” the barmaid passed two mugs toward the halfling leaning over the counter. For someone of half-average-size, the journey through The Hoodwink could only be described as treacherous.

Halflings, as the name implied, were roughly half the size of the average human. Most came to just above the waistline. Their stature was almost as iconic as their feet – disproportionately oversized with leathery soles and small tufts of hair on the top. Halflings dictated status based on the trim, shape, and neatness of their feet-tufts.

Logtar wore shoes, but with the residue of stale drink and dried peanut shells littering the bar floor, not going out barefoot was definitely his third-best decision.

Logtar winked and took the two mugs of ale, “Thanks cutie.” He hopped down from the stool, dreading the walk back to his booth in the opposite corner. It started off promising as he weaved through legs and ducked the occasional knee not too far from his face. The halfling manoeuvred his hands to ensure his drinks didn’t spill, regaining his footing after one particularly close call to the nose. He moved forward twisting, turning, sliding, and finally contorting in such a way that it looked like it should have hurt if anyone had noticed.

Logtar’s journey across the tavern abruptly ended when a man deliberately stepped in his way. The drinks spilled to the floor, running down the halfling’s pants and staining the man’s shoes. “Look at what you’ve done, you stupid halfer!” the slur of his words rolled over his lips, trailed by a spray of spittle. Logtar’s body shivered from the cold ale squishing in his shoes and between his toes. The alcohol-soaked fabric clung to his skin. He apologized with a string of phrases ending in sir – all forced, practiced, and routine.

While halflings naturally had pleasant dispositions, loved to laugh, and loved ale even more, their small stature became associated with their worth; specifically, half of everyone else. The nobility forced most halflings into a life of servitude.

Logtar was not one of them.

The drunk knocked Logtar out of his path in one last effort to start his fight. “Nacker,” he taunted under his ale-thick breath. The term was slang for necrophile and was derived from the stereotype that a halfling could only find companionship in the cold arms of a corpse. As far as insults go, it was pretty high on the list. Of course, a nacker should not be mistaken for a necromancer, and although they might raise the dead, it was purely for the purposes of evil, and they wanted nothing more than to be just friends.

Logtar, still stunned from the human-sized knee that struck his chest, hobbled to his seat. “Sorry, Oigres,” he said to the gnome in a short gasp. “But your drink is dripping down my legs.”

“I saw.” Oigres peered through the crowd, but could no longer see the drunken man who had been pestering customers. Oigres’ attention turned back to the halfling when he heard a quiet giggle. “What? Logtar, what’s so funny?”

The halfling reached into his ragged cloak. The low flickering light played tricks on the eyes, making the fabric appear dull and brown instead of a deep green. Oigres pointed at the small coin purse Logtar pulled out from under his sleeve. The gnome’s jaw dropped and the sudden wave of anxiety made his tongue dry. “Is that…”

“From the drunk guy,” Logtar finished the gnome’s thought, struggling to control his smile.

“You stole that from him?”

“Yes.”

“Just then?”

Logtar leaned forward, “It’s why I let him bump into me when he left.” His excitement forced him to keep moving in his seat. “Plus he owes me for ruining my shoes.”

Oigres snatched the small velvet bag and slid it out of sight, “You stupid halfling. Someone is going to see!”

“We’ll be fine,” Logtar sank into his chair and slipped his arms behind his head to use as a cushion. “Now stop dwelling. You’re supposed to have a map for me.”

With a calming breath the gnome reached for a scroll rolled up in his breast pocket. Oigres’ yellow vest paired with red pants was a unique combination. He preferred fancy clothing over rags, choosing neatly woven jerkins over bland leather patterns. Gnomes were known for their eccentric appearance but not to the degree of clashing colours.

Oigres skillfully combed his hair to stick straight up and twist into a point at the top. Not only did it give the illusion of height, it complimented the gnome’s sharply pointed ears; a feature that caused many to associate gnomes with tiny elves. However, whether they were making cookies in trees, giggling while hidden behind tall blades of grass, or assembling intricate items in finger-numbing climates – they were all gnomes.

Oigres gently laid the map on the table and stretched it out with both hands. A drop of sweat traced the edge of Oigres’ nose. The fleshy lump could only be described as bulbous. “This is the floor layout for Gordner’s mansion.”

Logtar pushed the strands of curly unkempt hair out of his eyes to properly study the map; a giant square with a large X drawn in the middle. “I don’t get it. What am I looking at? What did you point to?”

“The map.”

“Who drew this?”

“One of the servants.” Oigres’ eyes rolled to the side, as if trying to look up the information stored somewhere in his head. “I think he was disgruntled. Or fired. Maybe that’s why he was disgruntled.”

Logtar pulled the paper from Oigres’ hands, letting the gnome ramble to himself. He tried to hold it up to the light in different positions. After a few twists and folds he dropped it back on the table. “This is a rectangle,” Logtar choked on his frustration. “There’s an X in the middle and an arrow pointing at the X. How does this help me?”

Oigres pulled the map from the halfling and looked at it a second time, “Hang on, let me think. How did he explain…” his voice trailed off as he studied the drawing. “Okay, I remember now. The X is where the diamond appraisals are being held. You’re the arrow.” He traced his finger along the line to demonstrate. “So you just go like this, and you’re done!”

“Are there guards inside? Other servants?”

“I assume so. If there are you’ll want to avoid them.”

“What floor is this?”

“The first floor.” Oigres paused for a moment, leaning forward to look at the map yet again. “It’s probably, maybe, the first floor.”

“Where are the rooms!”

“It’s all open-concept. You know how these rich-types are with their space.”

“Oigres, this is the worst map of ever. In all of cartography.”

“This is no time to criticize my handwriting, Logtar.” The gnome smiled; winning a personal battle as he brought the conversation back on track.

“I’m starting to question this entire plan. Forget the fact we’re stealing diamond appraisals – and not diamonds.”

“That’s all the client wanted.”

“It’s convoluted!” Logtar struggled to keep his voice down. “Who sells substandard gems with authentic documentation? Especially if there are perfectly good diamonds around that have already been authenticated. Probably in the same place.” Logtar pulled away from the table, but quickly shot back in as another point came to mind, “If I find the diamonds I’m taking them for us.”

“But that’s only going to make Gordner angry.”

“It doesn’t matter what we steal – of course he’s going to be angry. Gordner doesn’t have a reputation centred around kindness to thieves after that incident with his wife.” Logtar pulled the wet fabric sticking to his legs, feeling more frustrated than before. “We’re supposed to be a team, Oigres. You do the research stuff, and then I do the sneaky-thing.” The halfling picked up the drawing to look for some semblance of reason. “Why are you so quiet?” Logtar flipped down the corner of the map. He didn’t wait for an answer when he saw the gnome’s attention shifted to a barmaid wiping down one of the tables. “Can you take your eyes out of Ashipattle’s cleavage for a minute so I can finish yelling at you?”

“What was that?” Oigres snapped his head back, returning to the conversation.

“Never mind.” Logtar dropped his chin into his palm.

“Even though I’m a gnome and she’s a human, do you think she’d go for a guy like me?”

“Guy-like-you short, or guy-like-you stupid?”

“You picked those because they both end in no, didn’t you?”

“You really need to ask her.” Logtar’s eyes followed Oigres’ and drifted toward Ashipattle. Her white low-cut top tightly hugged her body – the only feature Oigres and Logtar noticed. The flowing blonde hair, the leather boots slid up along her firm legs, and the kilt that barely made it to her thigh disappeared into the background.

Logtar reluctantly stirred from his seat, “Are you going to talk to her, or can we go?” Once again Oigres’ attention had slipped. No answer came. The halfling reached across the table for the stolen purse of coins. He had it in his hands before Oigres notice Logtar reaching for them. “Ash! Put this toward our tab.”

She nodded, caught Oigres mid-stare, and blushed a smile.

The gnome quickly averted his eyes, slinking out of the booth. “Maybe we should go.”

The noise from The Hoodwink carried outside to become a regular part of the evening’s subtle orchestra of insects and other nocturnal animals. Logtar and Oigres followed the interlocking stone path that stretched between the gates in the east and west of the city and served as the main road in the village. Logtar waddled, constantly fiddling with his pants to keep the ale-soaked fabric away from his skin. He swung his legs outward without bending his knees. If Oigres had been doing it, Logtar would have called him embarrassing. Luckily the gnome was a much kinder person.

“I’ll leave midday tomorrow,” Logtar spoke into his chest, focusing all his attention on his pants. “That should get me to Gordner’s place by nightfall.”

“Even if I did ask out Ashipattle, where would we go? I feel like there’s nothing to do in Erb. Except go to The Hoodwink. And I guess she could get us a good table and free drinks, but I somehow don’t think girls like to be taken to work on dates.”

Logtar stopped. He dragged his fingers through his hair with the sudden urge to start ripping out some of the strands. “Seriously?” he managed to form a coherent sound after a series of grunts, grumbles, sighs, and a few indistinguishable throat noises.

“You’re not crazy about the idea either, eh?” Oigres nodded. He scratched the side of his bulbous nose as he continued to think about the possible options.

Logtar’s shoulders fell as he gave in, “Ash is shy, you can’t do something that will draw too much attention. She’ll get nervous, blush, and if she’s self-conscious it’ll turn into an awkward disaster.”

Oh.” The gnome answered.

“And you’d already know all of this if you didn’t insist I buy all the drinks.”

Oh,” his reply was slightly more defeated than the last.

Logtar squeezed Oigres’ shoulder to get his attention. “She wants to own the bar one day, not live there. You realize those two things are different, right?”

Oigres said nothing. The two of them continued aimlessly walking down the main road. Their footsteps followed the cobblestone, drawn to the few segments lit up by oil street lamps.

“You’re not saying anything,” Logtar pushed Oigres to the side to knock him out of his thought.

“I’m thinking,” Oigres said.

“I wouldn’t.”

“Wouldn’t what?”

“Whatever you’re thinking about – doesn’t matter what – I just wouldn’t.”

“You don’t know what it is yet.”

Logtar shrugged. “Okay, what are you thinking about?”

“What if I suggested a trip to the Royal Gardens?” Logtar didn’t acknowledge the thought.

The Royal Gardens in Meridian Towers were known as the most beautiful, extravagant, peaceful, elegant, and breathtakingly romantic spot in all of Elfarenth. The King, Fellom Faeware, hired exactly twenty-eight florists, forty-two groundskeepers, and thirteen tour guides each year. Six halflings were ordered to act like living statues and expected to have unique poses every day. The spring attraction carried through until the fall and many couples walked the grounds in hopes of stealing an intimate roll in the petunias; although most got lost and separated in the hedge maze.

“What – bad idea?” It was the innocence in Oigres’ smile that annoyed Logtar the most.

“You’re picking a city where anything standing waist-high is a servant. People would think you were either her property or a part of the scenery.”

“Good point.”

Logtar stopped at the village stable to admire the new stock of horses. He pulled his chin over the metal bar to steal a better look of the stallion in the stall. The dank smell of body odour and stale feet hit Logtar before he could steal a look at the horse. In the adjacent cell, four halflings shivered for warmth and dreamt of a haystack to sleep on. Logtar grunted in disgust, pushing himself away from the barnyard to escape the repugnant stink.

Logtar looked at the plank of wood with the prices scribbled by an illiterate hand; ninety-five gold pieces for each horse, two silver pieces for each halfling. “Overpriced,” Logtar flicked his hand against the sign.

Oigres continued along the path despite Logtar’s detour. A collapsed mine drew the gnome’s attention. An uneasy feeling welled in his chest as his eyes searched for the familiar landmark bump along the horizon. The tightly packed dirt and rocks unnaturally sank the earth into a misshaped valley. A few hand-picked wreaths made out of weeds decorated the entrance in place of flowers. In a few weeks, the rubble would concede to the offerings. “When did this happen?”

“Two weeks ago, I think?” Logtar caught up. “I thought you knew about the cave in at the mine.” The halfling continued past the rubble, forcing Oigres to follow, “I have to change – I don’t want to get sick.”

Oigres rubbed his palms together, trying to dry the sweat, “Logtar, about tomorrow…”

“I’m going to buy a new horse with the money we make from this!” Logtar stretched out his arms and folded his hands around the back of his neck. He strut down the pathway staring up at the stars. The familiar silhouette of his home slowly came into view. Originally owned by an elf, it was exactly three times too big for a halfling. “Personally, I think there’s more money in things that are actually worth something. But, the client can sell rocks and fancy paperwork in whatever manner he sees appropriate. I’m not one to judge.”

Logtar pulled a thin transparent thread to unlatch the gate. The wire glistened in the light spilling from the lamps along the path out of town. The gate opened with a steady glide. “Well, I guess I would judge – but I also don’t care so I think it balances out.”

“You’ll be careful, right? I heard Gordner can be dangerous.” Oigres crossed his arms and looked to the floor.

“I’m always careful. Besides, I can’t be gone for too long. Who knows what you’d do to Ashipattle without any of my advice.”

“I somehow doubt rolling your eyes after all of my suggestions counts as advice.”

“Eye-rolling is the highest form of constructive feedback,” Logtar let a small laugh escape.

“Whatever, Logtar! I’m beginning to think your eyes naturally roll when I open my mouth. I could suggest something ridiculously simple like a picnic in the Emerald Green Forest and you’d still find a problem with it.”

Oigres waited for Logtar to roll his eyes.

“Yeah – go with that!” Logtar nudged Oigres with a punch to the arm. “Take her there at sunset – the leaves are supposed to sparkle.”

“Really?”

Logtar nodded, “Yeah.”

Oigres panicked for a moment. His mind went blank and he needed to look around to gather his bearings. Finally sure that he was pointed in the right direction he ran back to The Hoodwink, afraid it would close before he got there to speak to Ashipattle.

Logtar couldn’t find the same energy. He stumbled inside his house. He peeled the wet pants from his legs and passed out on the couch rather than make the journey up the stairs. He didn’t stir again until well past midday.

Logtar left home a few hours later than expected; riding toward Gordner’s mansion closer to dusk than noon. The wind whipped at his cloak and tugged at the fabric. Logtar checked that the poorly drawn map was still folded and tucked way in his pocket. His hand moved under his cloak to the neatly poised daggers in his belt; a precaution in case something went wrong. Logtar travelled by horse until sunset. Torchlight followed him the rest of the way. The sky was home to a crescent moon and starlight did little to guide the halfling on his path. Gordner’s mansion loomed in the distance. Only the faintest hint of lamplight directed the thief.

The babble of Amos River hid the sound of the thief’s approach. Dowsing the flame, Logtar crept up to the homestead. He stopped at a tree just at the edge of the property. He left behind what remained of the torch, a bag of a few travelling supplies, and his shoes. A halfling’s foot was silent on any type of floor.

The thief cautiously approached a window at the far side of the house. Logtar carefully unhinged the lock, tugged at the frame, pulled harder because it appeared no one had ever opened this window before, and crawled inside. Taking refuge behind the thick velvet curtain, Logtar pulled back the fabric to gauge his surroundings.

He could see from one end of the mansion to the other – no rooms or no walls – exactly as the map depicted. In the centre of the house stood a staircase to the second level and the X on the map. Logtar could see gems and trinkets shine from their display cases.

There were no shadows to hide in.

He slid back behind the curtain, completely unprepared. Logtar cursed to himself, you can’t be seriousit’s all open-concept!

Logtar ran to the stairs. His feet pattered across the tiles in silence. He felt a thin film of sweat building between his toes as he prowled to the second level. He searched for his diamond prey. A jungle of display cases along the sides of the balcony hid the thief. A large window looked out at the river and the world beyond it. A piano stood off to the side. Mannequins in armour lined the path toward the pedestal in the middle of the room. It caught Logtar’s eye. This was the centre piece in a collection of rarities and guarded by the gaze of faux warriors. The mannequins stood as stuffed predators in a hunter’s study. Barbarians were decorated with blades larger than themselves and suited in bloodstained armour. The spikes along the shoulders acted more like weapon than protection. Masks covered their conquered faces, hiding them from shame to protect their honour.

Logtar watched the eyes of the stuffed trophies, carefully moving toward the X on the map. He lightly grazed his fingers along the glass. The display case was empty.

Logtar dragged his fingers down the pillar in the centre, moving the silk fabric to the side and revealing the safe below. With his attention stolen by the dial and complex tumblers, he failed to notice the silent warrior step down from his perch.

The safe opened, but the diamonds and their appraisals were gone. In their place was a green pendant – fastened inside by a thin gold string. Logtar cut the thread. A hand grabbed his leg, throwing him to the side. The halfling crashed into one of the warriors with spikes for armour. The steel picked at his back. He slipped out of his cloak to escape the tangled metal thorns.

The warrior reached out for Logtar a second time. The halfling resisted, stabbing a dagger into his palm. Another blade appeared in Logtar’s hand in an instant – whipped across the room toward the back window. The halfling ran, throwing another dagger, followed by another. Each one struck the glass, cracking the pane further. Logtar braced his arms to protect his face, and jumped. Shards of glass joined the halfling as he crashed into the river below.

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