The Thirsty Penguin (short story)
Title: The Thirsty Penguin
Author: player of Charna Ja'Varrel'Kav
Pot-bellied, yet limber, the diminutive innkeeper made her way across the room and placed a board covered with slabs of roasted rolton, sour dough breads, and creamy rolton cheese in front of the slight girl at the corner table. The girl smiled politely, her fingers raking back a lock of damp rust-red hair from her eyes. She had known the innkeeper since the first time her brothers had brought her to the Thirsty Penguin, and it never ceased to amaze her how the much older Halfling always seemed to be timeless.
The smaller woman took on the maternal air that Charna was used to experiencing in the winter-bound town's Inns. At one point, all of her brothers had wheedled each Innkeeper's wife into watching the girl after their mother had died; some sixteen years past. The boys were always off on some con, some scam, or in Ghrym's case, some hunt, or chase. Before they left for such excursions, the boys would figure out which Inn had been hit the least and dump the nearly wild child on the keep there. She'd roam the back kitchens of the Owl, she'd pilfer treats from the bakeries back doors, and even the inn beyond the western gates had a crate that she could get lost in while the men brawled. However, the Thirsty Penguin had been her favorite with its rich history, its constant tales, the visits of Uxbri the grand storyteller, and of course, Trevor.
Coming back to herself, she noticed that Banthme, the current keeper's wife, was watching her expectantly. She obligingly scooped up a piece of the roasted rolton, and the mug of tea. Stuffing the rolton into her mouth, she used her fingers to push the herb-flavored juices in as well. Her display seemed to appease the innkeeper, whose hands had fallen to her hips, for as soon as Charna swallowed the other woman turned around and returned to the bar where many of her regular patrons were consuming large quantities of her more fiery brews.
A dusky grey mass slinked across the floor from the inn's lone door, the claws of his massive paws clicking on the warped floorboards. Technically, the large mastiff wasn't allowed into the inn, but if Charna kept him quiet and could keep him hidden under the inn's small tables, well, then who would say anything?
Charna's mind wandered to the evening that had passed, her brow wrinkling and her ordinarily pleasant eyes hardening. It had been a strange, strange night.
Her musings were interrupted when a gaggle of Halfling children blew through the salon-style double doors of the Penguin and charged into the curtained room off to the side. A chill wind followed the children and kept the doors swinging in and out far longer then they were intended to, the curtain rippled in response.
Trevor was beyond that curtain, Charna thought. Trevor who always told tales of his Heroic brother, Talbot, to the children of the town and any that would listen.
She wondered if anyone would tell tales of her and her brother's when they were as gone as Talbot was.
A strange haunted sound filled the air and she was surprised to find it was the dull echo of her own laughter. At the sharp glance from Banthme, Charna quickly closed her mouth to keep the sound from leaking out any further and applied herself to her meal.
Her brothers. She missed them horridly, she suddenly realized. Rakish Fleckle with his scams a minute. The last time she'd seen him had been in the Shrine in Solhaven. He had said good-bye to her, as they both admired how much the statue in the Painlord's Shrine looked like one of their other brothers. She hadn't realized that day that he was saying good-bye. It had never occurred to her that she wouldn't see him again for a long, long time. He had given her Aunt Nalla's blade, the only blade she truly loved. Storm Bringer. She wondered briefly where she would be if that blade had never fallen to her, and sent a quiet thanks to him via the wind.
An old nursery rhyme, one that she'd been taught just days after the death of their mother, bubbled up to her lips unbidden and fluttered on the warm air of the taproom.
"First came Fleckle, who found Drigore who was second, Then came Ghrym who found me in the woods. She's long since dead, but she's managed to twist and enlighten us all."
Not much of a rhyme, she suddenly realized. Why did her brother's have her remember it that way? They'd always said it was a nursery rhyme. That was before she'd know Ny was one of theirs as well. But Ny had been the lucky one, he'd been saved by her father. Only Ny and Charna shared the same parents.
Why had her father picked only Ny?
An insistent tug at her arm drew her mind to the present; she'd started to sing the rhyme again in her rich, light contralto without even realizing it. Banthme was at her side, her tugging growing more urgent.
"Don't you dare sing that drivel your brothers taught you in here, Charna Ja'Varrel'Kav," she chided the half-elf.
"I'm sorry, Banthme," she replied meekly, and hid her face in her mug until she could school her features away from the grin she felt spreading.
"I could sing one of Ny's songs," She finally replied feeling a fine blush creep up her cheeks.
Banthme laughed, "As if you could get it out of your fine lips without falling into a puddle of embarrassment. That scamp can sing a sailor into blushing, and woe nearly any lass out of her skirt."
Charna shared a laugh with the older woman. When the laughter died down, she quietly asked, "Do you remember my brother Fleckle, Banthme?"
"Aye, lass, I remember your brother. What of him?"
"Do you remember when he became a priest?"
"You mean the time he pretended to be a priest, Charna? And stood by the temple up the way? If memory serves me right, the rogue begged for days from the people of this town. They gave all the coin they had, and while they were giving, he was cutting their purse strings."
"Oh, right" she said a bit crest fallen.
"Well, what of the time he married Zuzama?"
"Oh yes, I remember that all to well. I think the memory will haunt any decent person in this town. He prayed to Onar that the young girls husband would pass, all the while wooing her. The man's death cries haunt us still."
The small Halfling made a warding sign that was popular in these parts for shielding against the evil eye and, shaking her head she moved back to behind the bar.
While the woman's back was turned, Charna slipped a bit of the rolton meat under the table to the mastiff and let her mind wander back to the strange rhyme.
Maybe, she thought, it was a way to remember the order of the family. Fleckle was the oldest, after all, by some hundred years or so. No one ever discussed his father, it was as if one day their mother had no children and then suddenly she had Fleckle. But the second part of the rhyme says that he "found" Drigore who was second. What did they mean, he found Drigore? Drigore was their brother. How do you find a brother? Granted, of all of them, Drigore had the purest of blood. Their sylvan mother had coupled with a dark elf, and the result had been Drigore. He was nothing in body like the rest of her brothers; he was sickly and dark, with his pale skin and baldhead. He was very bony, almost to the point of emaciation. Drigore, of all of them, looked nothing like them, except the eyes. All of them had their mother's eyes; hazel with some kind of gold or red flecking.
Charna lifted her head, "Banthame" she called, "Do you remember Drigore?"
A shiver set the woman into a brief spasm, her arms moving to encircle herself against a chill that had nothing to do with the night.
"Yes, Charna," the Halfling replied patiently.
"Do you remember his fiance, Ashden?"
Again the woman's spine seemed to try to remove itself from her back, and she began to briskly rub her arms. Her eyes seemed a bit haunted, as she replied.
"Would I could forget. He would run around with that manacle of his, tapping it as he gazed into the poor dears face. She was so lost to him. I think he bewitched her. He would bite her neck, every night while they sat side by side. He would bite for all to see, and then tap that manacle. She would go from calm to wild with laughter and then," She said her voice growing very quiet. "And then one day she was gone, never to be seen from again."
Charna blinked briefly, her eyelashes fluttering against her freckle-dusted cheeks. She bent her head over her meal and began to question the reliability of the woman behind the counter. Charna remembered Ashden very well; she'd always been a nice woman. And as far as Charna knew, Drigore didn't drink blood. Ashden had been called away to attend a sick sibling or something in her hometown, Charna never did remember the name of the place. Where do these stories come from, she wondered.
Glancing surreptitiously at the bar from under her bangs, she lowered another slab of rolton meat to the mastiff under her chair and began to think of Ghrym.
He had been so tall and gallant. He'd been the entire reason that she'd learned the route of the forests around the Trace. His strides were quick; his movement's swift and sturdy. She remembered him so vividly in her mind's eye, he with his dark hair, his prominent jaw and proud carriage. He was the one that found her that fateful night alone in the woods; the night that their mother had died.
She remembered it in that brief moment where the silver laughter ended and the warm fire made her lazy as if for sleep. The ground crunched with the sound of someone passing over snow. She'd held her mastiff toy close in hand, her arms covered in the light nightshift she'd slunk away from the house in. One of her mother's men had come, one of the drunk ones. He'd wanted them to be alone, but her mother was in one of her moments and the man had left. Without anyone to spend the fury of her moment on, the woman had turned to her children, but for whatever reason, this night she'd been alone without her brothers to keep her safe. She'd been five, and dodged as many of the flying things that came to her as she could. Its what they had told her to do.
Run Charna, they had said. When she gets this way, just run and don't look back. Someone will find out, we are your brothers. We will always find you.
And she had run. She'd run until the small hovel was a speck of orange flame and the snow had begun to cover her footprints. She'd run until her mastiff toy had been lost, buried in her tracks somewhere behind her.
When the screaming started she'd curled herself into a tight ball, her bruised and cold spine protesting from the new abuse.
She never cried that night, nor ever shed a tear. Ghrym had found her that way and commented on her bravery. He'd uncurled her tiny frame, and pulled her into his blood soaked arms. Ghrym, who followed the Huntress, never let Charna go back to that house but instead took her to the Trace where she would visit inns and one day follow in his footsteps. He'd helped found Willow Hall, and given her a home amongst others.
No one ever spoke of that night, but it was a few days later that the strange rhyme had begun. Ghrym, who found me in the woods.
Now, Ghrym was as lost to her as their mother was. She never did find out what he had done to cause him to become part of House Chescylia, nor what had caused him to become enslaved to that cursed house. She hated them for taking his pride, she hated them for the taunt that fell from their dark lips. Hated them when they said he would kill and that they would make sure he knew that the one he killed had been the one he saved, the one that loved him more then any other person in all of Elanthia ever would.
She sighed quietly, her fingers playing with the juices left on the board where the rolton used to be. Beneath the table, Cosain whimpered petulantly for more scrapes. His whining brought the keep's eyes back on Charna and she moved purposely through the room to the now somber girls side.
"Now Charna," she began but was interrupted by the sound of laughing and excited children leaving the curtained room.
"Do you think there will ever be anyone telling stories of me and my brothers behind a curtain to the children?" she asked quietly as the last of the children charged into the cold night.
"Stories? Of you?" the Halfling's incredulous tone was filled with mirth. "Why would anyone tell tales of you, Charna?"
"I saved the world once," She replied quietly, her eyes lifting with a bit of challenge in them.
"Now, now, Charna, you really must get out of your head. When did you ever save the world?"
"When the Castle was high in the sky, and the creatures were burning the town just before the end of summer."
"That was not you, child. Do you really fancy yourself some kind of Angel for Elanthia? Setting right the evils, keeping the balance? Now really, why don't you find something useful to do with your time? Get yourself a nice man, have fat babies and bring them to see Trevor when they are old enough. They can learn about a real hero like Talbot."
Charna felt her stomach grow cold as ice, and her vision blur with a silver light. She stood, the woman before her slack jawed with shock that the little girl with the strange delusions of grandeur would rise so angrily from her table and the fine meal she'd provided.
The Thirty Penguin had been her favorite place as a child but she left it that night without ever looking back and she never returned to hear the tales, or sing the songs. She did, however, stop by the temple and put a silver in Onar's coffer before finding a bed to lay in.
Fleckle would have been proud, Drigore would have smirked, Ghrym would have chuckled, and Nyrithorn would have stolen the silver out of the coffer before returning to the Penguin for a chat.