Most people who lived in our fair city were slightly prejudiced in some way. It almost seemed a fact of life. Cram that many people into tight quarters, and someone will dislike somebody else’s cooking, or say that they smell, or that they worship their Gods the wrong way. My partner was a good example, being uneasy around magic or the steam-tech modified or being blatantly bigoted against the Ronan. And he was mild compared to some people I’ve met!
But then, you get out into the country. Now, these people were usually suspicious of strangers (just a defense mechanism, to be honest, since unless a King’s Guard patrol swept by the nearest place of safety was hours away), but it was never about race…well, almost never. To be fair, if a horde of Goblins or a caravan of Kobolds rolled up, I wouldn’t blame them if they pulled out a bunch of bows and crossbows and told them to keep on rolling. But then again, I’ve never met a bug-eye or a lizard-rat I liked either…damn. Guess I’m prejudiced too.
Anyway, most villages would take in whatever people were willing to roll up their sleeves and get dirty, and this village seemed no exception. Besides the common Human language, the signs above the small shops were also done in Elven and Gnome, which was really cool in my book. And it would help Dorf feel right at home, since Gregory was an Elf and (supposedly) had been teaching his husband some of the language. I mean, I spoke Elven of course (have I mentioned how many languages I speak?) but I would let my partner practice on anyone that didn’t want to speak Common. You would be surprised how many races despise the Human tongue, claiming it’s too primitive and pedantic. But that’s neither here nor there.
One thing I did notice though was there was no Ronan caravan parked either in the village circle or located right outside of the fence. That in itself wasn’t that unusual; lots of villages, even though they depended on the trade that the Ronan brought with them, didn’t want them hanging around where they could corrupt their youth or some other such nonsense. So that didn’t mean they weren’t here, though I was praying to whatever God would listen that they were, since I really didn’t want to drive another four hours to the next closest village.
“That’s strange,” Dorf muttered as we walked to the center of the village. Like most villages, they all seemed to form around a center, usually a well that they all drew from. Then, around the well were the shops such as a blacksmith, an apothecary, and a pub/inn. Usually next was the mayor’s house, plus a meeting hall (rarely bigger than a normal house) and if they saw a decent amount of criminal activity, a small sheriff’s office and jail. I’ve been to a few villages that didn’t even have that, but that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. Plus, if the King’s Guard made frequent stops, they paid for a Guard hall that their patrols could rest in, not taking up rooms in the inn that could go to other travelers. Too cramped and cozy for most city denizens, but I liked it. As I’ve said, places like this remind me of my childhood and the good times.
As we slowed down, I picked up on what my partner was saying. After ringing that bell, even now with it being dinner time, at least somebody should have come out to see who had rang it. Whether it was the mayor, the owner of the pub, a member of the local militia (in these small villages, every able body spent time helping patrol and keeping the peace), or anybody in authority, we should have been greeted by now, even if it was cautiously. But still, there was nobody around. All of the houses or buildings that should have been occupied seemed lit by torch, candle or lantern, but I could detect no movement inside of them. Our senses heightened for any trouble, we both looked at each other and nodded before heading towards the pub. Out of all the places here, that one should definitely be filled with people enjoying their dinner if they didn’t feel like cooking. The silence was very unnerving, to say the least.
Dorf drew his steam pistol and cranked it a few times to keep it charged, while I drew one of many throwing daggers I had stashed in my duster. While I know that I could cast a spell, not knowing anything about an adversary (if indeed there was one) meant that whatever spell I prepared could be the wrong one. It was safer to have good cold steel in my hand, and to use magic only if I needed to, like mine or my partner’s life being in danger. He looked at me, I nodded to him, and he pushed the pub door open with the toe of his boot. Inside, it was cheerily lit, and there was a nice fire going which helped to banish the cool autumn night air. But the only sound we heard was the crackling of the wood in the fireplace. Nerves stretched taut, we cautiously went inside, as careful as a cat walking through a room filled with sleeping dogs.
Inside was one of the stranger things I’d ever seen, and all the hairs on my arm stood on end as if my body instinctively knew something was off. Food was laid out on many of the tables, still fairly fresh, since the butter on the bread hadn’t even congealed yet. Tankards of ale and glasses of wine were set out, some partially emptied from what I could see. And, all of the chairs were still pushed in instead of being knocked over, like they would be if the occupants had left in a hurry. “It’s like they all just stepped out right when the food was served,” I whispered, looking around and not finding a single man, woman, or child in the place. Dorf nodded in agreement, arms rigid as he spun around, using the light generated from his steam-pistol to help shine into every shadow or corner. He found nothing either, which wasn’t reassuring.
We went back through the kitchen, down into the cellar, even upstairs where it appeared the pub owner and his family lived, along with a few extra rooms they probably rented out to travelers; we didn’t find a single soul. In silent agreement, Dorf and I went back outside, feeling too creeped out to spend another minute inside the pub more than we had to. Then, something else occurred to me that added to the dread I was feeling. “Hey Dorf, you remember how when we were driving up you complained of how much like shit the livestock smelled?” I said in a soft tone. It just didn’t feel right to be all loud right now, like it was disrespectful or dangerous.
“Yeah, so?” he shot back just as quietly.
“We could smell the animals, but where are they? Cows moo and horses neigh; while I’m sure the chickens are already sleeping, we should have at least heard a pig snort or some kind of noise, especially after we rang the bell and walked into the village. So, why don’t we hear them?” Dorf’s craggy face grew pale as he stopped and listened intently, all in vain.
Being a city boy at heart, Dorf hadn’t stopped to think about how animals react to strangers in their vicinity, but being raised on a farm I knew that we should have at least caused some type of disturbance. Everything was eerily quiet. The only sounds I could hear was my partner’s and my breathing; even the wind wasn’t blowing through the trees. If I didn’t know any better, I would almost say that someone had worked out some type of spell to stop time; but, since that was impossible (and we were still moving around), there had to be some other explanation for what was going on, and something told me it wasn’t innocent or peaceful.
“All right, let’s put this aside for the moment, since we just seem to be spinning our wheels here, and go past the village to see if we can find the Ronan. You don’t think they did this, do you?” Dorf asked me, suspicion coloring his tone.
I shook my head. “From everything I’ve heard or read about them, the Ronan are a very peaceful people. Usually, if threatened with violence, they will just try to leave the area; if pushed, they are all trained in this type of combat that is purely defensive in nature, but they only use it as a last resort. I can’t even imagine a Ronan going insane enough to murder someone.”
Snorting in disgust, Dorf neither agreed nor argued with me, simply saying, “Let’s go then.” Still cautious, we slowly walked out of the village towards the nearby forest, figuring that would be where the Ronan would be, preferring a more natural setting. I think I’d only ever seen a Ronan inside the city once, and that had been a special case. Apparently, a wandering cleric had come across one of their caravans, and the boy had been dying of a severe injury acquired when they drove off a pack of worgs, which are giant wolves. The cleric had saved the boy’s life, and in return asked that the boy come to his home in Aerendor and be his apprentice for a year and a day. After the boy had served out his sentence, as that was what it seemed like to him, he fled the city never to return. While the cleric had been disappointed, I’d known that he wouldn’t stay. Once the whole world is yours to roam, being locked down must seem confining.
Another thing I wasn’t sure if Dorf knew, but the forest at night has its own vibrancy. There are plenty of nocturnal creatures that come out once the sun goes down, and at this point the sun was down and the moon was out full and bright. It did seem a strange juxtaposition, being able to see the stars and finding that peaceful while we got the feeling that something ominous was happening and we just didn’t know what. Anyway, I knew that by now we should hear an owl hooting as he went off in search of prey, possibly some deer foraging, crickets chirping, wolves howling; instead, we only heard the silence. It was starting to become maddening, and I almost wished for something, anything to attack us, just to stop waiting around for the other shoe to drop. Unlike in the Arcane Market alley in Aerendor, wishing it didn’t make it come true this time.
After about ten minutes of walking, I could see the campfires that the Ronan must have lit, but there were no dogs joyously barking in play, no fiddles summoning a dancing tune, no sounds of people talking or eating or singing. In short, just like the village. Their camp was as empty as the pub had been, things left in various states as if they had just went out for a walk.
“I gotta tell you, partner, this is beyond weird,” Dorf muttered, and I couldn’t agree more. “Same thing as before, check all the wagons?” I gave him a nod, and we split up to search all of the wagons that the Ronan used both as transport and as home. They were all very colorful and sometimes mismatching, as the Ronan believed that their domiciles should reflect their lives, both chaotic and joyful. Some people say looking at them gave them headaches, but those were usually the same people who believed that they stole young children and spirited them away.
Normally, being around the Ronan would bring a smile to my face, for there was quite a few times a small caravan would stop by my parent’s farm when I was younger. My parents never sheltered me from them, and I still have memories of a few evenings spent dancing around their campfires as they played their accordions and guitars until I passed out from exhaustion. Seeing it like this just made me feel like something innocent and precious had been taken away, and I mourned for it. Twenty minutes later, we both exited the last of the wagons. “See anything?” he asked, and I just simply shook my head. “Well, fuck me running,” he exclaimed, and I echoed his frustration.
Suddenly, out of the corner of my eye, I spotted a small darting movement. Since I hadn’t seen any animals since we had got here, I was hoping it was a humanoid. The figure had ducked under one of the wagons by the edge of camp. Motioning to Dorf what I wanted him to do, I silently stalked behind the wagon while my partner clomped over to the front. When he saw I was in position, he exclaimed, “Gotcha!” really loudly while trying to reach down and grab whatever it was hiding underneath. As expected, the figure retreated from his lunging hand and tried to exit out the other side of the wagon – where I was waiting. I picked up the tiny struggling figure, and held it tightly while I stepped towards the nearest campfire, hoping to get a good look at it.
Imagine how shocked both Dorf and I were to discover that what I had gotten a hold of was a little Ronan child, hair a tousled dirty blonde, eyes clenched shut tightly with tear streaked cheeks, and to my surprise, tiny pointed ears sticking up and out from her head. She quivered as if she expected to be killed, and my heart nearly broke. “What do you make of this?” Dorf asked me softly, nodding towards the wiggling child in my arms. I was afraid if I put her down, she would bolt and we would never find her again, even though I could tell she was terrified.
Keeping my voice soft, I said, “I think we just found an eye witness, don’t you?” Reluctantly, my partner nodded, as we both sat down on some log stools to try and get some answers from this poor half-Elf. As she struggled to escape from my lap, I finally got a good look at her. She was dressed in a yellow blouse that was a little too big for her, along with a black floor length skirt held in place with a purple belt and what appeared to be brown cow leather boots on her feet. The ‘typical’ Ronan style, as it were.
I made sure that I held her just tight enough that she couldn’t escape, but not so tight that I caused her any pain. After all, if she had escaped from whatever took her folks and the villagers, she’d already been through enough. Offering up a small prayer to whatever deities might be listening, I just hoped that we could provide some kind of answers to any questions she had, and that she could do the same for us. Lives may depend on it.