Zachary: A New Standard of Living
Zachary has committed to the group lifestyle, and they all begin learning what it means to be a “we” instead of a “me”.
What an interesting bunch this will be. A musical half-orc, a holy man, young blood, and the woman of the wilds. And me, of course. I wonder how they would label me and how I will end up fitting into all this. Small town man looking to broaden his horizons with misfits from the mountain settlement.
They never shared what brought them all the way up here. Landon is the only one who actually lives here, and he’s still from somewhere else. Jorta explained her reason for traveling if she is to be believed. But they did not make the company, and the others’ reasons are unknown. A curious mystery. Except for Zoiya, of course. Honestly, it’s a bit disappointing how ordinary she is. Seeing someone of her barbaric appearance in a conventional establishment was immediately intriguing. I demanded to know her story, only to discover that she was following the whimsy of so many others, thinking a location change can solve your problems. But joining the company shows she might have realized her mistake and broken this illusion. I suppose more will unfold as we begin our travels.
“So…what now?” Margot asks.
What now indeed. We all look at Tok for instruction.
He starts slightly, as if only suddenly realizing why we are doing so. “Oh, yes—just so you know, while I brought us all together, I’m not a leader or anything. We all have equal input here.”
The half-orc appears genuine in this belief. Interesting, and honestly, a bit unexpected. We would accept him as leader without question, and he instead chose to give up that opportunity.
“Does that mean there’s a leadership position up for grabs?” Nevahl asks. I wonder how innocently the remark is intended.
“No, no. This group will have no leader.” Tok looks offended at the thought. “I did have some ideas on how to start, though. I think a good first step would be to share what we all carry and figure out what supplies we might need to buy.”
“What if we don’t have any money?” Zoiya asks.
Tok gives her a prolonged look, with no explanation of the meaning behind it. “I have a little bit of money that can be used to buy essentials. Any bigger purchases will have to be funded by our quests.”
“And what quests are those, exactly?” I ask. We all joined this company blindly without an idea of the task at hand. Which doesn’t particularly bother me, but I figure now is as good of a time as any to find out.
“First step is to get off this mountain. I’m looking forward to warmer weather,” Tok slings his backpack off his shoulder and tips it upside-down, emptying the contents onto the stone.
“Maybe you would be warmer if you wore shoes.” The comment would’ve been sarcastic if it had come from anyone other than light-hearted Margot.
“Me mum was a frostblood, so the cold doesn’t exactly bother me,” Tok explains. “I just don’t enjoy it. Really prefer the sun.”
“Frostblood?” Zoiya asks.
“Frostblood orc,” Nevahl clarifies, showing off knowledge learned from who knows where. “Mountain orcs drank white dragon blood, and eventually over time, the lot of them could withstand harsh temperatures.”
“Normally, I’d be grayish and look more like I belong here, but I got Dad’s colors.” Tok gestures to his own green skin.
I take in the items that Tok has dumped on the ground. His flute is in his pants pocket, so it didn’t clatter to the stone and get damaged. There’s a few rations of food, a bedroll, rolls of vibrant cloth that appear to be a set of nobleman garb—I imagine there’s quite the story behind a man like him acquiring that—and a collection of strange wooden tokens.
“Okay…” Tok looks defeated down at the pile. “So I don’t have a lot. But we’ll collect a lot more on our travels, I promise. The coin will start flowing in when people catch word of us.”
“You have more than me,” Margot says, shrugging. “I was a student. I don’t really have my own possessions.”
“Just the weapons I hold and the clothes on my back,” Zoiya agrees.
I swing my own bag around and poke through it. “Well, I have this set of dice. At least we can keep ourselves entertained.”
“I believe keeping ourselves protected is the main concern here,” Nevahl says, missing the point entirely. “But unfortunately, I cannot contribute much while we are here. I brought only the necessities of my possessions with me to travel.”
“Well…” Tok looks to each one of us, clearly disappointed by our measly contributions. “I’ll use my coin to buy food rations since we can’t go without those. We can save what’s left to stock up in the next town. Come on, let’s go to the market.”
We follow Tok across the square to the first entrance into the market. It’s a door directly against the hillside, near the fire pit structure in the center. I’m told it’s some big ritual event in this town to gather and light a fire there on a night of clear skies, celebrating a break from the storms. It’s hard to believe any fire could survive lighting up here with the wind, but I suppose that’s what the short stone walls covering parts of the sides are for, to offer a little bit of protection while still allowing those that gather to have view of the bonfire. I stop analyzing the fire pit square and head inside.
While most of the doors lead to specific shops that follow through to the pathways underground, we enter at the end of the main boardwalk that navigates through the mountainside. No one looks surprised by the strange layout, suggesting we’ve all been here at some point in our visit. Tok turns to the rest of us. “You all stay here while I go buy things. I’ll come back and pass them out.”
“Why do we have to stay?” Margot asks.
“Because I’m paying,” Tok answers, then turns and starts down the boardwalk towards the line of shops.
When he’s far enough away, Margot says to no one in particular, “Was that a reason?”
I clap my hands together and turn to face everyone. “So, how do we fill this time? Boulder-parchment-shears? Riddles? Invasive questions about our past lives?”
Margot tilts her head at me. “You can’t be serious.”
“That implies you have a past life. Is this not just continuing your current life with a new chapter?” The shadows cast from the lantern light combined with the number of fur coats leave Zoiya looking like she could be a beast in the dark.
“Ah, but you see, new chapters are a way to be reborn.” I flourish a hand in the air at the thought. “A way to make up for past mistakes and be even better than you were last time.”
She looks at me, curiously. “And what past mistakes do you have to make up for?”
“Guess we’ve chosen invasive questions!” I lean against the back wooden wall and cross my arms.
“I suppose it’s important, though,” Margot pipes up. “I mean, if you’ve like, killed someone, we should probably know. Since we’re a group now and all.”
“Oh yeah? And what’s the worst thing you ever did at that wizard school? You were probably one of the good ones. I bet your biggest mistake was, like, mixing up ingredients and making the room smell sickly instead of sweet.”
“I imagine our lives will become known when they are relevant,” Nevahl adds, his tone far more relaxed and level-headed than mine. “No sense in hashing it all out now. We don’t need to share everything to earn each other’s trust.”
“Well, and Tok,” Margot leans her head in slightly and drops her voice.
We wait for her to finish her thought, but she doesn’t, as if that was enough to explain everything.
“What about him?” Nevahl asks.
“Well, just…he seems nice, but we know so little about what we’re actually doing here.”
“I believe the point is that we are on an adventure,” I declare. “It wouldn’t be so adventurous if we knew exactly what was going to happen.”
“I’d just like to know I’m actually doing something important,” Margot says defensively.
“What could be more important than saving the world?”
She huffs but doesn’t retort back.
“I expect Tok will explain more on our journey,” Nevahl says. “He’s probably just in a rush to leave, now that we’re out a day later than he planned.” He glances sideways at Zoiya, and I notice her catch it. If it fazes her, she doesn’t react.
If Zoiya hadn’t already recognized his meaning, she would after Margot blurts out a defense. “Hey. We’ll likely be putting our lives in danger. Any extra help is worth the effort. Maybe Zoiya will save your life someday.”
Nevahl throws his hands up. “I didn’t say I was upset about waiting for her to show up. I told Tok he should let her join, remember?”
“Was the group actually waiting for me?” Zoiya asks, a blank expression masking her feelings on the matter.
I push off from the wall. “There was a chance you were still around, and when we discussed preparations before heading off, it just made sense to stay an extra day.”
“Especially to avoid traveling during the hangover,” Margot says begrudgingly.
“Speak for yourself,” I say with a wink.
After a few more minutes, Tok returns with five small pouches, passing one out to each of us. I peek inside, tilting towards the lantern light. The bag is filled with nuts, and a bunch of shriveled up things that I assume are an assortment of dried fruits and meats.
“It’ll get better once people start to know us,” Tok says apologetically.
Zoiya stuffs the small pouch into the slightly bigger one attached at her hip. “No one complained.”
Well, she’s not. This array is probably pretty standard for her, coming from a group you could barely call civilized. The others, not so much. Margot appears to be battling letting worry show on her expression. HIAA probably had no problem magicking up elaborate meals for their students every night. Hunger is likely not a feeling she’s had much experience with, hence her worry. Nevahl’s situation is less clear, but while his expression remains unchanged, he carries himself like he comes from a higher society. Where money—and good food—isn’t hard to come by.
“So, what next?” Nevahl asks.
“We need to start heading down, but it’s late. Better to leave at dawn. Luckily, I’ve got a place for us to sleep.”
“Er, you do?” Nevahl scratches the back of his head.
“Friends in town have a couple extra rooms. They’ll let us stay there tonight so we can save our coin for our travels.”
“Great idea,” Margot says.
“Alrighty then, let’s go,” I say and gesture for Tok to lead the way out of the market.
We step out into another storm. The sun has disappeared behind dark clouds, strong lanterns supplementing light for the paths through thick fog. Tok leads us past the market and into the cluster of houses on this ridge. Folks have built wooden boardwalks that connect the different levels of housing to avoid the struggles of these steep slopes. Half the boards are split and cracked beside pristine planks of wood. Carpenters likely get work often, replacing faulty boards in the aftermath of storms, especially if the alternative is someone breaking through and falling to their death.
We follow across, down, and left, and back up across the boardwalks, circling the mountain. Tok eventually stops at a small two-story homestead against the cliffside. Like the roofs of all the houses, this roof is heavily slanted, reaching a point at the top to keep off snow. There are few but many windows around the outside, a faint orange glow emitting from within them. The steps creak when Tok puts his weight on them, stepping up to knock on the door.
Not long after, the door opens. Two male half-orcs stand at the threshold, both of the gray variety like what Tok described earlier. They wear simple cloth clothes, and I immediately forget all apprehension about sleeping in a stranger’s home when I realize it must be pretty warm in there for them to be comfortable wearing so little. They clear the way for us to usher inside, minimizing the amount of heat that can escape.
The house packs only the essentials. The bottom floor is one open room, swiveling from a couple couches around a hearth and fireplace to a dining area to a minimal but functional kitchen. A staircase splits the middle of the room to the second floor.
“Thank you for letting us stay with you,” Margot says, always polite.
“We weren’t going to leave Tok and his new friends stranded when they were in need. We have the space, so we thought we’d help out.” He wraps his arm around the other half-orc. “My name is Borugur, by the way. This is my partner, Kisk.”
“Welcome to our home. I hope your stay will be comfortable,” says Kisk. He smiles at his partner before breaking from the hold and walking over to sit in front of the fire. “We can fit half of you down here and the rest in the spare bedroom upstairs.”
“Perfect. The ladies can take the couches, and we’ll head up,” Tok says to Nevahl and me.
I see Zoiya bristle, either at being called a “lady” or to insist on sleeping on the floor. Both are likely. If she plans to protest, though, she doesn’t get the chance before Nevahl pipes up with, “Of course.”
“I go fetch some blankets to help in addition to whatever you have yourselves,” Borugur says and hops up the stairs two at a time.
Zoiya and Margot walk over to each claim a couch to sleep on. Tok looks at all of us and says, “It’s an early night. Please take it, so we’re rested for travel tomorrow. Also, please don’t run away in the night. I look forward to our adventures.” Then he nods in conclusion and leads the way upstairs.
The lights from downstairs are out even before us boys are set up. There’s only one child-sized bed in the room, so we opt to push it against the wall and lay our three bedrolls on the floor. A draft seeps in from the window, so I claim my space first at the farthest corner from it. Tok can sleep near there—after all, the cold doesn’t bother him.
Nevahl takes his time removing all his armor down to the basic clothes underneath, the chainmail rattling loudly against itself. Then, surprisingly, he changes into a whole separate set of nightclothes that he happens to carry around. I usually only remove the largest leather pieces. Tok crawls between the blankets directly, weapons and cloak, and all.
“We’re safe here, but think about getting comfortable sleeping in everything,” he suggests, pointing at Nevahl’s pile of armor pieces. “Don’t want to fend for your life in your breeches.”
Nevahl stares at him for a moment until Tok turns over to face the wall.
The two of us take a few more minutes getting settled and then agree it’s time to blow out the candle. The room becomes dark, with only a faint blue glow of moonlight shining through the small window. I would have preferred to sleep with the curtains drawn, but Tok insisted on leaving them open, so we are encouraged to wake with the sunrise.
It’s hard to forget the shared presence in the room. Every few minutes, one of them will shift, making a bunch of rustling noise. Or Tok will sniff or huff loudly, pulling me out of the drawl to sleep. I didn’t protest sharing sleeping arrangements since Tok would have probably just given another “get used to it” speech. And I will have to get used to it. But for all that Tok has stressed the importance of getting lots of sleep tonight, I’m guessing I won’t, trying to sleep near others in a group for the first time.
“Has today been good?” Tok’s whisper breaks the silence.
Surprised by the sudden question, I hesitate. “Yes?”
“Is that an actual yes or a lying yes?”
“I was just confused.” I roll onto my back, so I’m not facing directly away from him when I speak. “Today’s been fine.”
“Okay.” He sounds reassured of something.
After a few moments, Nevahl joins and whispers, “Why do you ask?”
“Just making sure.”
“Are you really afraid people are going to bail?” I ask.
“No,” he pauses, as though thinking it over and making sure that’s actually his answer. “I just really want this to work, you know?”
“I’m not sure we do,” Nevahl responds. “We volunteered, but it sounds like you have an attachment to this idea far above any of the rest of us.” He waits, then goes a step further and asks, “Why does this mean so much to you?”
High winds whistle against the window glass. “I hope one day this group means as much to you all as it does to me.”
Tok’s dodge of the question feels conclusive, and no one says anything more after that. I roll back over and adjust my position several times before finding a way to be half comfortable on this floor, and sleep eventually comes.
I awake not to the sun but to the high-pitched sound flute notes played by an overzealous half-orc.
I groan loudly with a drawn-out “Why,” and turn over. The sky is just barely brightening. This guy is out of his mind.
The flute noise stops. “Sorry. I thought it would be gentler than shaking you awake.”
“That screeching thing is gentle?” My words are slightly slurred.
“Is my music not good?” Tok sounds hurt.
I sigh. “That’s not what I meant.” I roll back over to face them and see Nevahl up and already putting on his armor.
He meets my gaze from still being on the floor and shrugs. “It’s not uncommon for the royal guard to greet the city and the sunrise with music.” The chains rattle together as he pulls on the armored shirt.
“And I suppose you come from the royal guard then?” I sit up and pull back the blankets. The frigid air hits the entirety of my body, and I curse and shiver. How insane we are to think we’re actually going to walk in this stuff. All day.
Tok nods. “Gather your things together. I’m going to wake the ladies.”
Before he makes it out, I suggest, “Maybe think of another way to refer to them.”
He turns back. “Why? They are ladies. What else would I call them?”
“It’s just odd,” I say. “Ladies” is a term that feels very courtly and formal, and this group is neither of those things. “And,” I reach out to pause him again, “do them a favor—stash the pipe and wake them up normally.”
Tok nods, puts his flute in his pocket, and leaves the room.
I stand and start rolling up the blankets. “Sleep well?”
Nevahl is fastening the last pieces of his armor, two studded leather bracers. “Hardly. I’m not complaining, though.” He swings his backpack around his shoulders. “We chose this voluntarily.”
“I know that,” I say in defense.
“I know you know that. I was saying that for myself.” Nevahl grabs his shield by the edge from where it leans against the wall. I suppose he can usually strap it to his back, but he’s left to carry it by hand when carrying both the shield and the backpack. “Think we’ll eventually get horses, or will all travel be on foot?”
“I think it’ll be a while before we can afford horses, mate.” I stuff my blankets into my own backpack and pick up the stack of folded blankets that belong to our hosts. “If we’re lucky, before too long, we can at least earn a mule to take some weight off.”
Nevahl and I leave the room and head down to the first floor with all of our belongings in tow. Tok and the girls are standing by the door with everything prepared and ready to go. Margot sees us coming and widens the circle for us to join.
“Should we thank Borugur and Kisk again?” she asks Tok, clearly already planning on it.
“They’re asleep. They knew we were leaving early,” the half-orc responds, then grabs the handle of the front door.
“Wait.” They all look at me as I readjust my coats underneath my backpack straps, then shake out a few limbs. “Sorry, I just needed to prepare myself for the freezing tundra that we are about to subject ourselves to.”
“Better than covered with gas spores,” Tok says in a way that suggests he’s actually been through fungus infested lands. He whips open the door, and the frigid wind immediately slices at our skin. “Let’s go!”