112. Dog Day Afternoons

It wasn’t all that surprising a beastman, even a very young one, would have greater natural affinity with beast magic than me. It was still annoying, though.

“You’re not supposed to play with them, you’re supposed to eat them.”

Attica thrust his whole head into the water and came up with a large red and green trout-looking fish in his jaws. He sat up on his knees with the fish held up like an offering for his master. A completely inappropriate thought since he wasn’t a dog, he was a person.

The fish screamed and Attica dropped it, bounding away like it had bit him, rather than the other way round. I took my sword and stabbed the fish in the head.

Attica looked at the fish warily.

“It’s dead. Nothing to worry about.”

“I know that,” said Attica a little snootily, probably to hide his embarrassment. “After death there is nothing to fear.”

What was that? Some kind of saying? Bit morbid to teach a kid, but that’s life in the wild, I guess.

After lunch, Attica took over fishing duties and I had a nap. When I woke up, there was a pile of fish lying on the ground, their heads all missing. My sword was stuck in the ground next to them. I hadn’t given him my sword so he must have taken it while I was asleep. He could have quite easily cut my throat.

Now that we were fishing buddies, Attica was more open to answering my questions. He was just a kid so it was hard to know how accurate his understanding of things was, but it would still be better than mine.

The village was built from scratch every evening and taken down next morning. Everyone went off to do their own thing and only came together for safety’s sake. The jabberwocky didn’t like to come too close to the water. Now that there was a Worm King this might change, but Attica didn’t know too much about it.

The trading and bartering system was interesting, and very complicated. You had to remember what you owed and to who, and what they owed you. No one wrote it down. There was also an agreed evaluation of how things measured up. So a duck egg was worth two carrots. Obviously.

There was some haggling based on quality. I mean, if it’s a really nice carrot, then that’s going to be worth more than one duck egg, right?

“So you have farms over here?” I asked him.

He looked at me like I was an idiot. There had been a lot of that. “What’s a farm?”

“Where they grow things. You know, like carrots.”

He got up and walked over to a large tree. He sniffed around the base, then grabbed a tuft of brown grass and pulled. A red root came out of the ground. He handed it to me. I gave it a wash and tried a bite. Tasted like carrot.

We spent the whole afternoon him fishing and me asking questions about Monsterland (they didn’t call it that, they called it Home) and about Cheng (a great leader who looked after everyone).

They were childish answers and some of them were probably not the most reliable, but it gave me an idea of how different things were over here. Very.

I still hadn’t told him about his dad and it was getting to the point I felt I had to say something, but I handled it the way all men my age do when it comes to unpleasant tasks. I procrastinated.

By the time it started to get dark, there was still no sign of anyone else.

“Shouldn’t they be putting the village back up?”

Attica walked over to the water’s edge and called out. “Asther? Where’s the village tonight?”

Two eyes on stalks appeared, and a tentacle pointed to the far side of the lake. I wondered what Asther looked like under the water. Perhaps it was better not to know.

We collected the wooden box Attica used to store his stuff and filled it with fish. I took down the tent I had slept in (no one had asked for it back so I considered it mine) and realised I had no idea how to put it back up. The pieces went in the box.

Attica showed remarkable strength for his size. He bent down facing away from the box, hooked his fingers under the box and lifted. I grabbed the back and we set off around the edge of the lake. The sun dropped quickly and I made a ball of light to see better. Attica paid close attention to the hovering ball but didn’t ask me how to make one.

By the time we reached the village it was all built and looked like it had been there for years. Attica directed us to a space between two shacks and immediately set up his own tent. Took him about two minutes. I sat there looking at the sticks in my hands. Oh, how I missed those Ikea instruction pamphlets.

Attica took some fish and ran off. He came back with firewood. Then he went off again and came back with grilled meat. I’m not sure what it was, but it wasn’t fish which was all I cared about.

Despite the lake being right there and full of fish, our supply proved very popular and Attica quickly traded it all away for various goods. He seemed very happy running around making exchanges and striking deals.

Once I set up my tent—okay, it was lying in bits on the ground, but it wasn’t going to rain, so good enough—I walked through the village to the drinking spot at its centre to see if I could find out what happened to the others.

The wolfgirl didn’t  exactly look pleased to see me, but she didn’t jump over the bar and rip my throat out either, so I can’t complain.

“Hello,” I said, sounding horribly nervous. “I was here yesterday, you know, one of the humans who defeated the jabberwock.” I was hoping to come over friendly and agreeable, but I’m sure I sounded like a braggart fishing for thanks and a free drink.

“Yes,” said the wolfgirl.

“I was wondering if you knew what happened to the rest of my party.” Any way you look at it, the only way I could have lost the others was if they snuck off without me. Me desperately trying to locate them only made it worse. Like I was some clingy loser who couldn’t take a hint.

“They left for the city,” she said.

“They did? Why?”

“So they could be rewarded for their deeds. They are to be feasted at a great banquet. Given prizes and awards, I should think.”

“Oh,” I said, “that’s nice. And will they be coming back after that, or no?”

She narrowed her eyes like she wasn’t quite sure if she should tell me. “It’s a day’s ride to the city. They should return with the Worm King in a day or two. If they wish to return.”

A day’s ride. I hadn’t seen any horses or other large animals so I wondered what monsters rode. Each other?

I slinked away wishing the ground would swallow me up. It’s bad enough being left behind—having people looking at you like they would have done the same is no fun.

When I got back to our camp, Attica had put my tent up for me. I think it was the first nice thing someone had done for me since… I couldn’t think of a previous example.

We ate the rest of the food and went to sleep. Maybe this would be my life from now on. Not so bad.

The next day I woke to find the village gone again. They really knew how to shift in the mornings. Attica was sitting on his wooden box waiting for me.

We found a spot that looked fishy (don’t ask me, I wasn’t the fisherman in the group) and soon had another pile of fish. Attica’s natural talent for fish magic was far in advance of anything I could do. He even managed to lure them to the edge of the water and leap onto the shore by themselves!

As we ate our breakfast of grilled fish seasoned with various herbs and spices Attica had acquired through trading, I decided to tell him the truth about his father.

“Attica, I need to tell you something. It’s about your Da.”

“I know he’s dead” said Attica between mouthfuls.

“You do? Oh. And you’re not upset? It’s okay if you are.”

“After death there is nothing to fear. He prepared me for life without him, and if I don’t survive…” He shrugged his tiny shoulders. He inspected the bones in his hand intently. “I wanted to say thank you. You showed me a way I can live happily. Now that I can catch fish… Thank you.” He looked up from the fish bones and stared at me with complete sincerity. “And if, one day, we end up fighting on opposite sides, I will let you live. If I can.”

When he grew up he probably would be able to gut me on the battlefield, but hearing it from a pup who came up to my knee made me want to smile. I resisted, but it wasn’t easy.

“Thanks. But don’t force yourself. If you have a girl you want to impress, feel free to rip my heart out of my chest and show it to her.”

He looked confused. “Why would I want to impress a girl?”

He continued to fish although we had caught more than enough. He was trying out different moves and getting the fish to do all sorts of things fish don’t normally do. Like whistling.

As I watched from the shore there was a cough behind me. I turned to find a frogman standing by a tree. He was fairly large and old, bu8t not as old as Nabbo, and his skin was redder, but other than that he was your basic amphibious humanoid.

I leapt to my feet and drew my sword.

He raised his hands. “Ho there. I mean you no harm.”

I scanned the surroundings but he appeared to be alone, although there could have been a hundred of them in the water for all I knew. “What do you want?”

“Please, I know you are one of the humans who defeated the jabberwock. I would not attempt anything nefarious in such esteemed company.” He did a funny little bow.

“Okay. But what do you want?”

“It is about the pup.” He indicated Attica who was out in the lake and paying no attention to my problems.

“What about him?”

“You have taught him beast magic. They are all talking about it in the village.”

“Yes. So what?”

The frogman came a little closer, wringing his hands and looking uncomfortable. “It isn’t right. Kobolds aren’t meant to possess this knowledge.”

“He’s just a kid.”

“Yes, but he will grow up, teach his own children and from there it will spread. I understand you did not know, but he can’t be allowed to continue. It isn’t right.”

“What do you propose to do about it?” I asked. “He can’t unlearn it, can he?”

“No. But he need his fingers to cast the magic. If we cut off his hands—”

“Are you fucking joking? Nobody’s cutting off his hands. Your hands, however…” I took a step towards him.

He stepped backwards, hands behind his back. “Please, I wanted to do this in a civilised way.”

“There is no civilised way to cut off someone’s hands!” I could hardly believe he thought I would agree to his idea.

“You don’t understand our ways. What you have done could destroy the delicate balance between the tribes.”

“So could killing the jabberwocky, but you seem fine with that change. If your ways include cutting off children’s hands, then your ways are wrong. I’m sorry if I crossed some invisible line that only you can see, but what’s done is done. Adapt to the new meta. Now fuck off.”

The frogman hurried away. Perhaps he would come back with friends. I should have handled it better, come to some compromise, but I didn’t think there was a middle ground. I’d have to keep an eye open and hope the others came back soon. If I took Attica along with us he would be safe. And Flossie would probably explode with joy.

The rest of the day passed uneventfully. The thing in the lake told us where the village was and we made our way there as night fell. The fish we caught bought us plenty of food and supplies. Attica came back with a spear for me.

“Perhaps you’ll be able to catch some fish with this. If you get lucky.” Cheeky little shit.

There was still no sign of the others and I considered moving on. If Attica came with me, he might prove useful as a guide.

The next morning I crawled out of my tent to find the village gone and with it Attica. His tent was still next to mine. I had a bad feeling.

“Attica! Attica!” There was no response. I ran around like a madman but I had no idea where he’d gone. If the frogman had taken him, my chances of tracking them down were minimal at best.

I didn’t do any fishing. I ate nothing. I felt sick.

The day passed in a daze and I just sat staring out over the water. When dusk finally came I stood up. “Asther! Where’s the village?” There was no response. “Asther, please," I screamed. "I think Attica’s in trouble. Where’s the village?”

A tentacle rose out of the water and pointed.

I raced around the lake hoping that somehow I wasn’t too late.

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