The Roc Song Company – Episode 5

Zoiya: Company

Zoiya joins the company recruits for a drink, still conflicted about her next course of action.

I file inside the inn behind the others. There’s no music playing or loud rumble of conversation. If last night was a party, this was deadlands. Only a few candles were kept lit, leaving the empty edges of the establishment in shadow. Just a few of the other tables were taken, occupied by one small group and several individuals. The others have been cleaned of empty tankards and finished plates left by previous patrons. There’s only one table long enough to fit such a party, the rest better fit for the more common visiting of lone rangers.

As soon as Jorta is inside, she calls the bartender to bring her a “Blue Mountain Ale.” He looks up sharply from his task of drying glasses and spots such a large group entering his establishment. He immediately starts shuffling the glasses under the counter. We get a few odd looks tossed our way from the other dining customers.

The recruits fan out towards the one long table. I watch the innkeeper’s eyes widen in surprise when Tok enters last, and the two of them make eye contact. The man pauses his quick shuffling and leans on the counter, gaze flickering over each one of us.

“So, you finally managed to convince some idiots to go with you, eh?” He clicks his tongue in amusement.

“And you said no one would be interested,” Tok replies proudly, gesturing to all of us. He struts to the head of our table.

“We’re hoping to join his adventuring company!” Margot says as if that wasn’t clear. She’s the only one other than Tok to show outward excitement for the formation of the company. The others keep their emotions more concealed, whether it’s excitement, indifference, dread, or desperation that brings them to start adventuring from the peaks of the world.

Zachary feels the need to comment that I chose my seat on the end. “Even when you’re surrounded by people you act like, you just want to be alone.”

He says it like it’s a bad thing to want to be alone. Maybe he ‘s so constantly surrounded by admirers that he’s never practiced being good company to himself. “Maybe I just don’t feel comfortable pinned between strangers.” I swing my legs over the bench, committing to my seat next to Margot. She shifts her robes and apologizes after I accidentally sit on them.

Zachary pulls the green strip of cloth from his hair and works on retying the ponytail. It had come loose during the fights. “They’re not strangers; they’re your future brothers-in-arms.”

I say nothing and turn to face the table. Zachary is now the only one left standing, the others having claimed their seats and now dig through their pockets for coin to spend.

“Well, forgive me for not saving you from these strangers, but I’m going to sit over here, so someone other than you is graced with my company.” He steps around behind the other bench and wedges himself between Jorta and Tok.

The innkeeper throws the towel over his shoulder and selects a bottle from the shelf behind him. He lines up seven glasses in anticipation of us all ordering drinks and responds to Margot’s cheery comment. “That’s a great way to get killed, your guts spread all the way down the mountainside.” He pours into one glass in no rush and does so without spilling a drop.

The conversation continues from halfway across the tavern floor, and no one has to speak any louder to be heard. “Some of us have adventured before,” Landon says defensively, “but those of us who haven’t are still aware of the risks, I’m sure. We volunteered. We want this.” There are collective nods amongst the group.

“And I want to keep my head on my shoulders by not running headfirst into a dragon.” He picks up the single ale he poured and delivers it, leaning my end of the table to set it in front of her. He takes the coin she had already put at the end of the table. He rolls it across his knuckles before tucking it into a pouch. Even after paying for her first drink, the stack of coin Jorta has ready to spend placed in front of her is higher than everyone else’s. We had a couple dwarves in the tribe that spoke of how integrated drinking is to their culture, but I hadn’t expected the very next dwarf I met to live up to this as well.

“You’re making it sound like it’s all terrible,” Tok says, somewhat sadly. Behind the silver piece he prepared, he’s placed his flute in front of him rather than leaving it in his pocket. We’ve had to space out our seating further than usual to account for everything strapped to our backs and sides, but no one else has put their weapons on the table.

“And I bet that you’ve told them that it’s all sunshine and rainbows,” the man says, then asks for all the remaining orders in an end to the conversation before Tok gets a chance to defend himself.

The recruits make their requests haphazardly. Nevahl speaks up first, despite being between Landon and Margot and not making it easy to just order around in a circle. Zachary and Landon also know the exact name of the drink they want, but Margot stalls when the bartender looks at her.

“Erm…a cider? Do you have cider here?”

He exhales in a small laugh, says, “Yes, we serve cider here,” and moves on. Margot looks embarrassed.

Tok asks the bartender to surprise him with one of his custom drinks. The tension between them appears to have ceased, and I suspect this isn’t the first time they have argued on the subject. When he looks at me, I tell him I’ll pass on a drink for the evening. He leaves, and Nevahl leans in to ask me, “Do you not drink?”

“I do, I just…” I hesitate. “I’m a bit short on coin right now.”

Nevahl reaches into a pouch and procures a second silver coin. He slides it across Margot to me. “You’re in for the next rounds.”

I stare at the coin. If I could, I’d rather just keep the whole silver and still abstain from the drink. Nevahl probably has no idea how badly I need it. But I know that’s not how gifts work, so I nod and scoot the coin closer to me for use when the bartender returns.

I focus on the candlelight flicking across the silver. I knew buying drinks for others wasn’t an uncommon social practice, but I expected it to happen amongst close friends, not strangers too. I would never have said no to either Zachary or Nevahl’s offer, but I’m amazed at how willing other humans are to just give away what they rightly earned.

“So…” Zachary draws out the word as he looks up and down the table, “how was everyone’s day?”

It was a joking question to jump-start the conversation, but Margot does answer anyway. “I’ve been reading this book on complicated, arcane practice]. I bought it at the market here a few days ago, and it’s rather fascinating, actually. One of my professors at HIAA once mentioned the art, but this is the first time I’ve seen mention of its actual practice. Once I read through the book, I’m going to try it myself.” I get the sense that given the chance, Margot could talk for hours, walking anyone through the exact process of this unique magical art.

“You can learn just by reading?” I ask, trying to imagine learning how to track in the forest just by reading about it.

“A great deal of the arcane arts are shared only through text.” Margot smiles and shrugs. “I even plan to do it myself one day.”

Is it really possible to learn entire skills by reading? That seems rather simple. Is there a whole array of skills that I’ve missed out on because I don’t have books? If I ever get the chance to speak to Margot again, I might ask her what books may be useful to me.

“I went to the blacksmith and made sure my axe was extra sharp for tonight,” Jorta says flatly, putting a hand on her axe beside her, which she took off and leaned up against the bench before sitting down.

“I could tell.” Nevahl winces at the memory. He puts a hand on his shoulder as if holding the wound, then jolts slightly upon remembering that it’s no longer there. Since my fight, I’ve checked the places I got cut, and every time I have a similar reaction. I always expect them to be there, or at least to see a trace of where they once were, but no physical mark supports the memory. It’s such a strange experience that someone could probably convince me I never got those cuts in the first place.

“I live here, so today was just like any other,” Landon tells the group. “I work in the paper shop at the market.”

“How long have you lived here?” Margot asks.

“Ever since I left the mercenary company.” He folds his arms on the table. “I’ve just been waiting for my next opportunity.

The innkeeper returns with everyone’s order. He passes them out, sliding the glasses across the wooden table. I ask him for an ale, Nevahl’s silver piece enough for two rounds. He takes all the coin and leaves to serve another table. The tavern is so quiet. Without music playing, the atmosphere is so hollow that each group is consciously keeping their conversation low, except ours. A few of the individuals at other tables are eying us as though we are disturbing their peace.

When the innkeeper leaves, the group turns to me. I had intended to keep quiet and instead observe the conversation from the outside, but it seems they’re not going to let me avoid things. “I went hunting,” I answer, hoping to leave it at that for what I did today. I’d rather not explain my situation to all of them.

Unfortunately, Nevahl immediately perks up with interest. “Did you bring anything back?”

I keep my head down, tightening one of the straps holding fur close to my forearms as makeshift bracers. “Just a goat. Didn’t find much.”

“Well, of course you didn’t find much,” Landon says. “Have you seen these mountains? Have you been in the storms? Do you really think anything good lives up here?” I make eye contact and open my mouth to defend back, but he keeps going. “To stray off the path around here isn’t a casual hunting trip, it’s monster hunting. The kind that only a very experienced adventurer would attempt on their own. You’re lucky you’re even sitting here.” He sips from his drink in finality.

I tense at being lectured. I knew the risks, and I took them anyway. I had to, or else I’d be sleeping in the snow tonight. I was hunting to live. Landon’s probably well off from that mercenary company. It’s so easy for him to say that one should choose when they go headfirst into danger, but has he ever had to do it to survive?

“I have faced monsters before. I can fight,” I say finally, forcing myself to stop there instead of rattling off every other thought I have.

“But well enough to face anything big?” His tone is proud and skeptical. 

He’s making me sound careless. He’s wrong. The tribe taught me how to work in a group and how to go it alone when it was necessary. I grew up in patrols and hunting parties. We fed our elders before ourselves. If a larger than average threat pushed against our land, we studied it and found the best way to respond. Sometimes, if the danger was more than we could handle, we got it to move on. We didn’t just fight everything we saw. Our tribe would have been crushed underfoot of a giant if we hadn’t sent sheep running the other way.

An adventuring group can’t handle carelessness-they have to take calculated risks, deciding together what works for everyone instead of just one individual. Landon’s statements undermine my caution and skill. Will that affect Tok’s consideration in whether or not I could be in the company?

I look at Jorta, to Zachary, both smirking like they thrive in the drama, and finally at the half-orc. He’s watching Landon, though his expression reveals nothing about whether he agrees with him that I was, in fact, mad for traveling off the mountain path alone. I want to defend myself further, to rebuild the strong image that Landon just tore down, but Margot moves the conversation forward, obviously trying to dissolve the tension through distraction.

Tok’s gaze switches from Landon to the young wizard and is successfully distracted from whatever conclusion he had been drawing. He taps his mug on the table and smiles. Two orc tusks rest prominently amongst the rest of his teeth. “I prepared for testing you all for my company! What did you think I did?” He says it like it’s obvious.

Margot pauses in feeding her fingers through her black hair. “You spent the whole day planning those two activities?”

“Technically, there were three,” Tok says, pointing a finger. “And yes. I wanted them to go well.”

I share looks with the others. The activities weren’t intricate. They probably could have been planned in an hour at most, especially because Tok already owned the puzzle boxes. I wonder if this shows more about his enthusiasm for forming the group, or if the company leader commonly overcomplicates things. Tok looks oblivious to our skepticism, sitting with his chest puffed out and yellow eyes shining.

“What made you want to start a company?” Margot asks, still driving the conversation with her questions. She takes a sip and watches him carefully, as though his answer is that important.

Tok holds the end of the flute and twists it around in his fingers. “The world needs heroes to save common folk from the things they need saving from,” he answers.

“Whoa. Saving people is quite the leap. That’s a lot of responsibility.” Jorta uncrosses her arms and flattens her palms on either side of her drink. Her red braids are long enough that they fall over her chest and disappear from view beneath the table. “From what I know of adventurers, they just kinda kill the monsters threatening towns, retrieve ancient artifacts hidden in dangerous caves, et cetera, et cetera.”

“Yes, and we will do that too,” Tok says. “But with the intention that one day we will have enough experience to do bigger things that help more than just one person at a time.”

“Are you opposed to saving people?” Nevahl asks pointedly.

“No.” Jorta shrugs. “I mean, whatever makes the coin. I’m just excited to fight something more fearsome than my brothers.”

The man delivers my drink, and I relax, now having something to hold. I rest my elbows on the table and lean over my cup, the steam tickling my nose. Jorta catches the innkeeper as he’s about to leave and orders a shepherd’s pie. Zachary and Landon pipe up, suddenly reminded they are hungry, and order lighter meals as well. The bartender is getting less and less cheerful with each pass at our table.

Margot takes notice. “Sorry to make you go back and forth so much,” she apologizes for the group.

He flips a coin he took from one of us and catches it perfectly. “I’m just happy to serve paying customers.”

He takes another step to go put in the food orders, but Margot reaches out a hand to catch his attention again. “Sorry—what’s your name?”

He pauses, and the corner of his lip tugs upward, either out of warmness for the recognition or amusement that it took this long for anyone to ask. “Victor.”

Margot nods and removes her arm from where she had crossed over me to gesture towards him. She apologizes for getting in my space, having now apologized for just about everything she does. This girl is annoyingly nice. I wonder if Helgerra also teaches their pupils the art of being pretentious.

“I would like to help people.” Nevahl chimes in, “That seems like the best use of my skills. And that is why I am here—I assumed this would be the hero-kind of adventuring, not the bandit-kind.”

“Both have their merits,” Zachary says lightly. “One creates trouble. The other cleans it up.” He tips back his head to take down the rest of his drink, then taps it down on the table. He reaches into his pocket and counts out another five copper, already preparing for the next round.

“Well, I’d rather not create more trouble for anyone,” Nevahl replies, his smile fading, seemingly bothered by the thought.

Zachary leans back on the bench. “I’d say why I’m here, but I think we all know.”

“You want fame.” Jorta’s head now rests on a closed fist, leaning fully on the table.

Zachary leans his head to either side, weighing over her assessment. “Yes and no. I think I can do a lot that deserves recognition, and I would like to be recognized by someone other than just my grandma.” He pauses as Nevahl and Tok chuckle. “But fame? Well, that’s if only I happen to do something really cool.”

Fame? I wouldn’t even know what to do with it if I had it. Is everyone here expecting that adventuring will bring the group fame someday? Would they be well-known, the eyes of the people on their every move? If that’s where this company leads, maybe I’m better off with my quiet life in the forest.

I shift uncomfortably in my seat, feeling like I’m watching this exchange from afar rather than being a part of it. It’s very right and very wrong at the same time. I’ve never talked with a group like this that haven’t all grown up together and instead talk about the day’s patrol or new innovations for the tribe while sharing a drink. But here, everyone’s back at square one, knowing nothing about each other’s lives, like staring at a blank canvas that slowly fills with color as you interpret what they tell you. It feels too vulnerable to share the things that build that color with strangers. And yet, it’s all so very curious. 

But there’s a pit in my stomach calling me a liar, even though I lied about anything. I never told them that I shared their sole dream and ambition of turning adventuring into a career. But a part of me says that should be the case if I’m to belong here. These people came out to drink and are getting to know each other as future comrades, and I just feel like I shouldn’t be a part of this conversation.

I catch Margot side-eyeing me through the strands of black hair cut across her forehead. When Zachary finishes telling everyone what he would do if he happened to gain fame, she turns to me and opens her mouth. I assume she’s about to try and get me involved by asking why I wanted to join the group, so I immediately deflect by asking, “What’s with the bright robes?”

Her eyes widen as she’s slightly caught off guard, but she looks down and pulls at the loose fabric. “We got these from HIAA when we graduated. They’re ceremonial—supposed to announce to the world our new status as practitioners of the arcane.”

“Well, they certainly do that,” Landon says and looks away as he drinks.

Margot flinches. “Yes.” She adjusts them again. “Honestly, I kind of hate them. The first thing I would buy with our commission money,” she looks at Tok at “our”, “would be something not so flashy.”

“You don’t want the world to know how smart you are?” Jorta scoffs.

Margot folds her hands on the table. “I’m proud of my accomplishments at the Institute,” she says, “but I’d rather be known for what I achieve with all the knowledge I’ve learned rather than because of it.”

“I was admiring your style, actually,” Nevahl says, and I blink in surprise when I realize he’s speaking to me. “So…primitive.”

I narrow my eyes as they flicker over his display of shiny chainmail. “Yes, well, that is what tends to happen when your chance of survival is reliant on whatever scraps you piece together from what you manage to take from the savage wilderness.”

An awkward tension falls among us, which means the innkeeper arrives in perfect timing to deliver the food. He sets the steaming shepherd’s pie in front of Jorta first, and she immediately grabs the fork and takes a large bite before Victor has even handed out the rest. He sets a bowl of murky soup and a plate of fried chicken wings by Landon and Zachary. Landon picks up the bowl and begins sipping from it, where Zachary doesn’t even bring the dish closer to him, instead just grabbing a wing and tearing off a bite.

“This place was so much busier last night,” he observes, speaking through a mouthful. He looks around at the two calm groups off to the side. “Honestly, this is kind of dull.”

“Finally, someone said it. At least the drinks are…well, they’re all right.” Jorta takes a big swig.

“You never really know what it’s going to be like here.” Tok flips his empty tankard over at the end of the table. “I’m sorry it’s not more fun.” He sinks slightly in his seat.

Landon dismisses the thought with a hand. “Another time, another tavern. There are some pretty wild places across Vos’ahria we can hit.”

Margot’s eyes widen. “Like what? What have you seen?”

Landon leans in onto his elbows. Margot leans in with him. “There was this place in Ovago that…” he pauses, then backs off the table. “I think it’s better if you just experience it for yourself.”

Margot sighs. Tok taps his flute on the table. He’s thinking something, but I have no idea what it is.

“It was also near Ovago that us mercenaries finished what was probably our best achievement of the time.” Landon’s eyes unfocus, losing himself in the memory. “The town had been being raided by goblins for years. Every few months, they’d come by and steal from their crops, attacking anyone who got in their way. The townsfolk asked for our aid many times in fending them off when they would come, but it never stopped them from showing up again. The mayor finally hired us to find where the goblins were coming from and stop them for good. It took us about a week of searching, but we located the nest and defeated their king in a harrowing battle. Goblins haven’t bothered Ovago since.”

Margot stares at Landon throughout the theatrics of his retelling, though my interpretive guess would be more in envy than awe. I think I catch Jorta rolling her eyes.

“I’m sure the townsfolk were very grateful,” Tok says. “Your team must have been proud of how you came together to solve that problem.”

Landon shrugs. “I mean, it was our job. We sort of have to work together, or else we can’t feed ourselves.”

“A goblin king, wow,” Jorta says pensively. It’s not openly sarcastic, though I wouldn’t be surprised if there were underlying meaning there. “I’ve only ever fought other dwarves, never monsters. Well, I’ve fought some monstrous dwarves.”

Margot gasps, her eyes wide. “Do you guys actually fight amongst your people?”

Jorta makes everyone wait for her to continue as she chews the last bite of her pie. “Not antagonistically. I fight in the gladiator tourneys. There’s my passion—whacking on other sweaty dwarves until they bleed, and the crowd cheers.” Her voice gets lighter, speaking fondly of the experience, and legitimately smiles for the first time since I met her.

“If that’s your passion, then why are you here, may I ask?” Tok asks. With all seven of us, it’s sort of amazing that we’re all keeping to a single conversation. It shows how attentive we all are in maintaining composure while we wonder if Tok’s still gathering information for his decision.

Jorta slides the plate picked clean to the edge for Victor to collect. “My brother asked me to trek up here to buy some fancy stone that’s only sold at this market. Heard you advertising for a group that fights things and thought, eh, why the hell not.”

Don’t ask me to share an accomplishment, I silently plead. I haven’t won a tournament or killed a goblin king. The tribe doesn’t focus on individual achievement, and I’ve wracked my brain while listening and concluded I’d done nothing noteworthy. Having nothing to share if they ask me would be a sure-fire way to show I’m unqualified.

“Hey, you guys are getting mighty loud over there.”

We all turn towards the direction of the new voice. It’s one of the customers at his own table, an older gnome with long gray hair and numerous wrinkles and spots on his face. He turns over a cup, adding it to the group of three at the end of the table. He snaps at Victor to bring him another round, then turns his squinty eyes back to our group. “I’ve had a long day, and I’m trying to enjoy my drink. I’d appreciate it if you could keep it down and let me unwind in peace.” He smiles while speaking, but it’s not a friendly smile.

We exchange looks, making sure no one in the group thinks we should actually have to submit to his request.

Jorta swings a leg over the table and turns her full torso to face him. “It’s a bar. We got every right to be here as you do. If you don’t like it, take your drink somewhere else. I doubt anyone would be around to bother you if you sit out in the snow.” She swings back.

Victor arrives with the gnome’s next drink, far more in a rush to fulfill his request than he was for us. The gnome doesn’t even look at him when he sets it down but criticizes him anyway. “Not doing a very good job of supporting your loyal customers.”

Victor straightens. “There are seven of them and one of you. Combined, they have bought far more drinks than you, so yes, I’m going to let them be.” He returns to behind the counter. The gnome scowls and knocks his drink back, but is sufficiently put in his place.

Margot gathers up everyone’s empty mugs and sets them at the end of the table. “That was rude.”

“Us or the gnome?” Zachary looks slightly offended when she takes his mug from his hand.

“The gnome, of course,” she clarifies.

“Good. Now I know we can get along.”

The gnome thought we were the most disruptive thing, but that changes when the door of the inn suddenly bursts open—a rush of freezing air swirls into the room. Everyone looks up to see who made such a forceful entrance. Two men step out of the faint mist. They’re both human, wearing full plate armor with a golden crest of [animal] displayed boldly on the breastplates.

Nevahl lets out a small gasp. “It’s the castle guard.”

“What are they doing all the way up here?” Margot asks.

“Probably looking for me.” I can’t tell if Zachary is joking.

A woman sitting alone sees the men and jolts up from her table. I had barely even noticed her presence before, she had sat so quietly in the shadows. Her plain brown cloak is wrapped tightly around her, concealing whatever she wears underneath, and the hood falls from her head as she stands. I can now see her eyes are full of fear as she flattens against the wall.

“Catch her, she’s a witch!” one of the men exclaims as the guards lunge across the room for her. But before they can weave through the table to get to her, she mutters something and waves her hands, drawing threads in the air. Suddenly her form blinks from existence. The men stop. “Where’d she go?”

“There!” Margot points through the open door of the inn.

The witch’s form is just visible through the gap, where she blinked outside the entrance to the building. Our whole company leaps up and goes for the door. She’s running down the hill. We make it out before the guards. I sprint for the woman, experienced in running on uneven ground. Her cloak is pulled sharply by the wind, tangling around her legs and slowing her descent. I catch up to her and grab her arm. She yanks away, but I grip on tight, hearing her heaving breath against the wind and feeling the goosebumps on her skin. I’ve stalled her for a few moments, long enough for Nevahl to join my side. He swipes at her other arm, taking several attempts to grab it. 

She lets out cries of frustration while struggling in our grasp, and out of the corner of my eye, I see that it’s called the attention of more than just the tavern folk. Nevahl locks his whole arm to hold her just as the witch freezes, unmoving. Margot stands at the front of our group at the top of the hill, her hands poised as she finishes off the spell.

The momentary paralyzation allows for the guards to catch up and take over restraining her. Nevahl and I back away as the woman begins flailing again, but these men are still stronger than her, as we were. Her arms are pinned, and one of them pulls out a long and thick black cloth. He ties it over her eyes.

“What’s that for?” I ask.

The witch slows her struggling, appearing to realize defeat. The blindfolding guard returns both hands to holding her other arm. “If she can’t see us, she can’t hex us.”

Nevahl and I walk back up the hill to the group. I hear the buzzing of whispers and conversation. Residents nearby were drawn out of their homes through the sounds of a scuffle and witnessed the event. A small crowd now stares at the seven of us, standing awkwardly apart. They point between the guards and us while they whisper. I imagine it’s quite the sight—a group of seven from so many different backgrounds and castle guards in their secluded town. I shift further back into the group and wish we would go back to our table now. Leave them all to speculate.

One of the guards notices the crowd that’s formed. He nudges the other. They appear to reach a silent agreement that they need to address it somehow. “Thank you.” His volume is louder than necessary. I’m sure even those still in their homes can hear. “You’ve done a great service in catching this witch. She was developing a ritual to summon a demon to ravage this town.”

A ripple of gasps runs through the Windreach folk. The size of the crowd grows, more families popping out of their homes to investigate the commotion. I would imagine they don’t get much happening here, that this may be the big event of the month.

Tok steps to the front of our group and absorbs the praise. “Of course. Let me assure you, this is the first of many good deeds my party will complete. We are a public service to all those in need, aiding the people of Vos’ahria across the land.”

A half-orc from the crowd steps forward from his wife holding a child. He points a clawed finger at us. “That your new group, Tok?”

“Well…” Tok shifts awkwardly. “Pending approval and acceptance.”

The resident tips his head. “Thank you, Tok’s Company, for savin’ our town from a witch and her demon.”

There’s a pause, and then families across the gathering echo the sentiment. “Thank you, Tok’s Company.” 

My whole body tenses, and I just want to go back inside. I need to get away from all this. The castle guards have already left, dragging the witch to some prison. It’s over. All we did was grab her. Just let me disappear.

Amidst the gratitude, Tok looks over his shoulders and says, “Er, don’t worry, we’ll fix a better name.”

After they thank us, the several households return inside, and we get a chance to go back into the tavern. It’s just Victor and us now, the other customers having just left after the scuffle. The event certainly ruined whatever chance at peace that old gnome was hoping for. Victor goes to their tables to begin cleaning what they left, while the group stands gathered inside the entrance, knowing it’s likely we would soon be calling it for the evening.

Tok is the only one who doesn’t seem to get the cue. “A round for all of us, on me! But, you know, something cheap.” Victor nods and rushes the dishes back to the counter. “It has begun, you guys! Now all of Windreach will remember us, and we’re not even an official group yet! We will toast!”

I’m focused on weaving my fingers through the string of my tooth necklace. I can’t calm my heartbeat and the pit in my stomach that this isn’t where I feel I should be right now.

One man cannot save the world. He can only save the world he chooses—himself, his family, his people, and his home. That is his world to save, and that is where his responsibility lies.

I drop my necklace and tuck my hands around my waist. “I’ll skip the drink.” I nod at Tok, a focused movement, hoping he interprets the gratitude for the day I’m trying to show. And that the others see, I’m grateful for them, too. “But it’s been a long day. I have to get some sleep.”

I leave for the stairs and don’t look back, guessing that if I did, I would convince myself to change my mind. Just as I separate from the group, Victor fills my spot in the circle to pass out their drinks, distracting them from my sudden leave and dissolving any questions they might have had. What I don’t notice is the second set of footsteps following behind me.

Zachary grabs my arm and my whole body tenses at the touch. “You’re leaving?”

I whirl around. I had been trying to hold in my bubbling thoughts, but Zachary’s grasp brought a whole new rush of panic. The other five are loudly toasting, probably somewhat drunk by now. “I don’t want this. I don’t want to be known by strangers. I don’t want a public reputation. I don’t want fame. I just want to make my own path and for people to just let me be.”

He scowls. “You really do just run away from everything that scares you, don’t you?”

I stare at him, anger burning like fire. I rip my arm from his grasp with more force than needed. I hope I yanked it so hard it hurt. “Don’t you ever call me a coward.”

I turn my back and stomp up the stairs to my room, never wanting to see the sight of Zachary again.