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Home is that place where, when you run away from it, you still want them to take you back in again. I was almost ten before I learned the cruel truth of that glib phrase. My understanding arrived one night, after a mild beating accompanied by the promise of something far worse later. I’d fled the house, leaving my parents to drink themselves into sufficient stupor they’d be unable to finish what they’d started. The pattern was familiar, but this time, I found the courage to try to break it. So I fled, taking nothing but the stained clothes on my back and the scars they concealed.
Just then, anything would have been better than staying another night in that place, yet I soon found that escape would not be so easy. The world has little love of a dwarf with neither money to purchase acceptance nor an employable skill to barter for food and a place to sleep. I spent my first night, cold and hungry, on the streets, and it was enough to cast my home in a very different light. That first night, I escaped being murdered for my clothing solely because it would fit no one but me. I was too sore and too scared to sleep well, and I eluded a different class of thief largely because when he’d drawn close enough, he soon saw there were more lucrative prey elsewhere.
Shortly after, I escaped a rapist because I was able to kick him in the belly when he reached for me; he was too drunk to avoid my blow. As I ran, I wished I’d had the courage to take his money, but I was new at this, and too scared of this new form of abuse to risk staying within reach. Later, I escaped the feral dog that cornered me because he’d recognized the desperation in my eyes and slunk off seeking easier prey.
The next day I discovered that although there was no shortage of work for those with strong backs, nobody wanted a weak young dwarf when normal men could be hired for the same price. Moreover, none dared risk bringing some of my curse down upon their household by making me a part of it. One innkeeper reluctantly fed me after I fainted from hunger on his doorstep, but that courtesy arose from guilt; the meal was hearty, but it was one meal, and my benefactor made it clear there was little likelihood of more in the future.
With nowhere else to turn, I headed home, sick to my stomach with fear and certain I’d be beaten senseless for my act of rebellion, yet for all that, somehow comforted to be somewhere familiar again, with familiar and survivable challenges. But when I returned home, I found the door barred against me, and when I knocked, my mother flung a stone hard enough to draw blood. Before I could knock a second time, my father came out after me with his favorite cudgel, but his bad leg saved me and I outdistanced him. I fled again, this time to the country, for I’d heard of country charity and had hopes farmers would be more hospitable. They were not, and for the same reason as the innkeepers: enough runts were born to their livestock already that they’d no wish to bring any additional curse upon themselves.
All this time I’d kept the deepening pain locked deep within, years of practice letting me keep it from ever showing; enduring pain without protest was simple survival, I’d learned. But now, despairing, I wandered into the nearby woods, the fresh air and clear daylight making it a pleasant place, and figuring that there’d be nuts and berries and other things to gnaw upon. And at the back of my mind, there was the certainty that should a wolf chance upon me... Well, at least it would be over, and no more painful than what I’d already learned to endure. Instead, I was found by the man who eventually raised me and taught me faith in myself. With few exceptions, that first foray into the woods also marked the last time I let self-pity rule my actions.
Many years later, older and somewhat wiser, I made my way back through the darkening streets towards the palace, where I’d found considerable—albeit grudging—acceptance and where they’d never yet turned me away. Arriving at this new home, I was stricken with a sense I’d returned to the home of my earliest years, and an old fear awoke in my belly.
Old habits led me to stride towards the guards, readying a ribald comment or two to purchase my passage, confident this would suffice, for I was well known to the troops. But their wariness as I approached warned me, and I belatedly recalled that “Modred” was a stranger to the Court. Though I’d left the palace easily enough earlier that day, there was scant chance the guards would let a stranger enter and avail himself of its facilities. Leaving had been easy because there’d been no reason for the guards to keep anyone within, absent an alarm. Getting in would prove more difficult.
Instead of provoking a confrontation, I bent my path so I passed just in front of the guards. I nodded politely enough, but kept on walking past the palace, hoping I’d avoided creating any suspicion, which I’d surely have done had I withdrawn as soon as the guards first noticed me. I felt their eyes on my back while I crossed to a small fountain across the open square fronting the palace’s massive stone structure. Sitting beside the fountain as the colors of the day took on that softer tone they achieve around sunset, I turned my thoughts towards finding an excuse that would get me back into the palace. At the time, I never considered whether this was necessary, and whether anything in my small room called to me; I could have been far more comfortable at any of the expensive inns at my back that faced the palace across the square.
I found no solution until Grey awoke and grew bored with my inactivity. He freed himself from my arm, yawned, then dropped to the packed dirt beneath the fountain, and began playing with the hardy weeds that grew where cracks in the fountain permitted the escape of water. I watched him with amusement, enjoying the simple pleasure of companionship with something wild enough to need no care from me yet tame and sufficiently “human” to seek my company. I was less amused when a small insect leapt upon my lute, and the cat pounced upon it, turning it into a small stain on the polished wood.
Angered, I made as if to sweep the cat from my lute, but halted my arm before I came too near the cat. Grey rewarded my mercy with a nip at my hand that drew blood. I withdrew my hand and sucked at the wound, frowning. I raised my hand to strike at the cat again, then fought down my anger; I would not let it master me. Grey watched without cringing, as if knowing I would forbear the second time. I raised my hand higher, then thought the better of it.
“Enough of this. You’re distracting me from finding us a way to lodge in the palace tonight.” The cat cocked his head as if listening, then all at once swept one paw, claws sheathed, across the lute’s strings. The instrument emitted an awkward sound, and I glared at the cat. “Have a care, beast. I don’t want that scratched.”
Then I blinked in surprise at the superior look on that small triangular face. All at once, it became clear my companion had provided a means of entry. “Good cat,” I said, ruffling his fur. I picked him up, shouldered my lute, and headed back across the courtyard with more confidence. The guards watched my approach with more interest the second time, for none of the others who shared the streets with me, still bustling about their business in the fading light, were at all interested in the palace. They crossed their halberds as I approached, barring entry, and their leader stepped forward to intercept me.
“Good evening, Sir. Might I inquire as to your business at the palace?”
Keeping a careful grip on Grey, I swept out a deep bow. “As you can see, I’m a minstrel.” Reflecting upon how clean my clothes were, I hastened to elaborate. “I’ve spent some time in your fine town, but I’m finding it an expensive place to live and not nearly so lucrative as I’d hoped. I was hoping your king still followed the old practice of bed and board, and perhaps a few coins, in exchange for a performance and news of the land.”
The guard nodded. “Yes, he does, but you won’t be performing for the King this night. He already has a visitor to sing for him, freshly arrived out of the west, which is the only place he’s likely to want more gossip from. You don’t sound much like a westerner, so...”
I frowned, not liking the way this conversation was headed. “Would that be your polite way of telling me I’ll be sleeping on the streets tonight?”
The guard started to nod agreement, then changed his mind. “Not necessarily. If you’ll accept less in the way of accommodations and food, we can find you space in the servants’ quarters. Would that suit you?”
“Far better than cold stone for my bed and water from a fountain to break my fast. Lead on, sir guard.”
He laughed. “You want an escort, do you? No, you’ll have to find your own way. Head down that corridor,” he gestured, “until you come to the servants’ quarters. Someone there will get you straightened away. And mind you don’t stray off the path. There are guards and patrols, and they’ve got a poor sense of humor where trespassers are concerned.”
I sketched out another bow and proceeded down the corridor he’d indicated. Once out of sight of the gate, I took the first passage that led me to my own quarters; I knew the locations of all the guards and the general schedule of their patrols, and had no fears I’d have any difficulty. I did encounter one patrol, but I was walking with such certainty they gave me no second glance on their way to more important things. I suspect the cat helped; thieves and assassins rarely carry a pet.
When I reached my room, I was alone in the passageway, so I entered without incident and closed myself away behind the locked door. Then I lay curled upon the bed so I’d fit, to think and to rest my eyes after the day’s hard work of reading. The bed that had been large for Morley was far too short for Modred, and the room felt stuffy. Grey was displeased too, and stalked about poking into things, sniffing, and peering at me in evident disappointment before moving on. I had little experience with cats, and no idea whether such behavior was natural.
Later, my stomach began making its needs felt. I gathered the few possessions I felt I could call my own—a very small bundle indeed—then unbarred the door and left the room, realizing I had no intention of ever returning. Though this home had neither scarred me nor chased me away, it was something I’d outgrown. I made my way to the larder, where I felt confident I could procure sustenance for myself and my new charge before seeking new quarters.
The larder and kitchen were tucked away in a large area at the rear of the palace, with unshuttered windows installed high on the walls for ventilation. Despite this, the smell of stale smoke and old grease grew stronger and stronger as I neared the chimneys that had replaced the old hearth. My mouth began to water, reminding me of how distracted I’d been until that moment. After sniffing the air, Grey clambered from the crook of my arm to my shoulders, where he settled down and purred his contentment.
The kitchen was nearly empty, as most of the kitchen staff had made their way to bed to snatch a short night’s sleep before an early morning’s awakening and another long day. Of the people I saw there, the one I recognized was the burly lad tending the fires, a fellow orphan named Brand who’d beaten me once or twice before I’d come under the King’s protection, and later Bram’s. Today, he watched as I entered and made my way towards the larder, and I reminded myself he’d never seen the new me before. I nodded to him, and put down my bag and lute next to the wall. As I placed a hand on the larder’s wrought-iron door handle, his voice came from behind me.
“I wouldn’t be doing that if I were you, stranger,” Brand spoke loudly, for the benefit of the few others still in the kitchen.
“I beg your pardon?” I turned towards him.
“I said I wouldn’t be doing that if I were you. I don’t recognize you, and we’re not in the business of charity here. Go beg your meals elsewhere.” He smiled insolently, one scarred hand toying with a heavy earthenware rolling pin. Grey hissed at him and dropped from my shoulders to the floor.
I decided to ignore Brand and proceed anyway, but wasn’t foolish enough to turn my back on him. A wise choice, for he came after me, weapon swinging by his side, and aimed a vicious kick at the cat. Enough was enough. “Leave my cat alone, Brand.” I towered over him, hand on my dagger and making the most of my new height.
His eyes widened, and he took a step back. Confident in my new ability to impress, I turned half away to open the pantry door. But it takes more to intimidate a bully than size and a brave front. Even as I turned, he darted forward and swung on me. I had neither time nor room to dodge, so instead, I brought up my right arm to block the blow, cringing as the heavy rolling pin caught me on the side of my biceps, numbing the arm. He drew back for another blow, his smile broadening, but I threw myself at him, my greater weight bearing him backwards, off balance, both of us crashing to the ground. I landed on my good arm, rolled away from him, and came to my feet, shaking but turning to face him. But he’d stopped where he fell, and to my astonishment, lay there, pale and rigid.
Grey crouched before him, all coiled energy like the rope on a ballista, his very lack of motion an unmistakable threat. The cat had puffed up until he looked twice his normal size, and he was a large tom to begin with, as large for his kind as I was for mine. But it was the way his eyes held my antagonist that kept that unfortunate pinned to the floor. Brand had the look of a condemned man staring into his executioner’s eyes, knowing there would be no reprieve—or like a warrior meeting the eyes of an opponent he knows outclasses him. Then the tableau dissolved as I approached, right arm still dangling numb, and the tension went out of Grey like water from a tipped pot.
The cat relaxed and padded contemptuously past the fallen man, shot me a too-human look of disappointment, and vaulted to my shoulders, startling me so much I almost tipped him back onto the floor. Behind him, Brand lay still, face pale and lips trembling. I smiled as coldly at him as I could, but the effect was wasted; his eyes were only for the cat whose claws dug into my shoulder whenever my body swayed. From the downed man came the unmistakable odor of loosened bowels.
I couldn’t bring myself to stay and gloat over his downfall, for the rest of the kitchen staff had fled the kitchen while we sparred, no doubt gone to summon a guard, and my arm had begun tingling. I began dusting myself off, but changed my mind as Grey growled a warning, and instead gathered my belongings. Then I hastened towards the back of the kitchen, where a large unguarded window that I knew of was kept open to catch the evening coolness and provide the workers with breathable air.
I reached the window just as Brand’s plaintive voice sounded from the kitchen behind me. Without pausing to listen, I climbed a crate so I could reach the window sill, then raised myself up, swung outward, and lowered myself until I hung suspended at arm’s length. My right arm now ached, and Grey dug bloody furrows in my shoulders, but the size of my new muscles had protected me and I’d sustained no permanent damage from the blow. As I hung there, Grey climbed down my body, drawing blood the whole way down, then sprang onto the cobbles.
The drop was short, so I readied myself, then let go. I landed easily, relishing how my powerful new legs absorbed the impact. Then I glanced around, realizing just how tempting a target I made for any sneak thief lurking about. The alley was empty save for a large brown rat that bared its fangs at Grey before slinking into a shadow behind a pile of moldering garbage and vanishing. I walked the other way, breathing through my mouth to minimize the smell.
Once out on the street, I reconsidered my options. Rather than trying again to find a place in the palace, it seemed wiser to choose someplace nearby where I could spend the night in safety. I had a momentary qualm about leaving the palace before Orgrim returned, but suppressed it; the mage clearly had no problem learning where I could be found. His money jingled at my hip, promising a warm, clean bed in any of the expensive inns adjoining the palace. A half-formed plan of visiting Bram the next day tantalized me, but I would have to think hard first if I wanted him to greet me with anything more than polite curiosity—or outright fear if I revealed my identity and what had happened.
I made for the Golden Kettle, a few hundred paces down a side street that gave out onto the square fronting the palace. Grey’s purring preceded me, drawing strange looks from the townsfolk I passed. The inn itself was empty, but the chiming of the door’s bells as I entered attracted the serving maid’s attention. It was still early, so I had my pick of tables. I chose one near the bar, and when the woman approached, I ordered a meal without paying much attention; Grey, I was certain, would fend for himself. My meal soon arrived, a thick loaf of brown bread and a healthy slab of beef, with delicious, salty brown gravy.
The woman sat across from me behind the bar, leaning forward to display her bosom to greatest advantage, letting me know that more than the meal was for sale, but I was no longer in any mood for company. I’d grown weary all of a sudden, and my body still ached at night from the transformation and now, from the blow I’d received. It was all I could do to concentrate on my meal. Once she’d figured out I wasn’t interested, she concentrated instead on the cat, who’d sprung up onto the bar and begun disporting himself to attract her attention; soon, Grey had the barmaid absorbed in tearing off strips of greasy meat from a joint sitting on a tray and dangling them before him. Grey rolled over on his back to paw at the proffered prizes before dragging them to his mouth and bolting them. In between feedings, he wormed his way up to the woman, rubbed himself full length against her, and purred until he’d coaxed another morsel from her.
When I was done satisfying my hunger, I arranged for my room. The coins I produced disappeared with remarkable speed, and I was led upstairs. After a last hopeful but fruitless sway of her hips, she left me alone for the night. I made for the bed in sudden urgency, for my day’s activities had fatigued me more than I’d expected, and I fell asleep in seconds despite the throbbing in my biceps and the dull ache from the rest of my body. Grey stretched out across the top of my pillow. I remember thinking with considerable pleasure as I fell asleep about returning and thrashing Brand.
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