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The Ballad of Rika Strong-Arm - Episode 6

by EJ Baumgardner 2 months ago in Series
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City of Wonder

The Ballad of Rika Strong-Arm - Episode 6
Photo by Josh Carter on Unsplash

It was several miles before we saw any buildings. Amelia explained that the elves lived high up above in the trees, and I frowned when I couldn’t find them. Where were the walkways? What about bridges between trees and the houses built around the trunks? Looking up at those massive trees, I could only see branches so tightly interwoven that they were nearly a solid mass.

Apparently, the elves lived in houses shaped by the trees themselves, encouraged to grow according to the society’s needs. That roof of interwoven branches above us formed the city streets they walked on, and their homes were hollows where branches and trunks joined. It was impossible to tell them apart from the trees because they were the trees. We were walking under the city, and I had no idea until Amelia told me.

“You don’t really know much about the world, do you?” she asked. I wasn’t a fan of the way she talked down to me, like I was a child. Still, she wasn’t wrong.

“I come from a small island nation in the freezing north that is months of travel away from the mainland”

“Yeah, and you wear it on your sleeve” Amelia huffed. What was that supposed to mean?

“Pardon me for not having any experience with this fantastical stuff. The most magic I ever saw was from the one guy that nobody liked because he’s a creep” I said, a foul taste in my mouth as I thought about Cameron. Amelia gave me a pedantic smile.

“Was he a creep though, or was he just misunderstood? Maybe, judged poorly and unfairly by those who were confused by him and decided to express themselves through casting him from their society” she offered. Perhaps, there was some truth to what she said… but that didn’t change what kind of person he was.

“He’s a creep” I insisted. I still hadn’t told her what he had done to me. Not that I could remember, anyway.

“Whatever. Once we get to the gates, just let me do the talking. You’ll probably come off as too weird to let in” she chuckled. I was getting tired of things not making sense.

“I thought we were in the city already?” I said, looking up.

“We are under the elven city. The lower city, the one where people mix, is just up ahead. See the buildings?” she directed my gaze to the road ahead. I could, in fact, see the buildings in question. They were quite similar in architecture to those of New Port, though they gave less thought to roof structure. Then again, I couldn’t imagine rain or snow making it down to the street.

“Oh, thank Solarre” I sighed, feeling the ache in my feet I had been trying to ignore for three days now, “We are not leaving our room for at least a day and a half. My feet are killing me” I groaned. I was ready to pass out in the first inn we came to, regardless of how clean it looked.

“Easier said than done, my love” Amelia replied, “Someone’s got to earn some gold first” she reminded me.

“I thought you were going to take care of that…” I said, eyeing the two pairs of guards standing on either side of the road. One of the two guards on our side began to walk up to us.

“Oh, now you’re okay with me picking pockets” she rolled her eyes, “Well, I only steal from bad people. And I don’t want to get on the wrong side of any local thieves; they usually don’t like it when you encroach on their turf. This needs to be legitimate, Honey. Now, let me take care of this” she said and stepped up to the approaching guard, meeting him a few steps ahead of me.

“How many are in your party?” he asked in a bored tone. Was that question necessary? He could plainly see us both. Was it likely we might be smuggling an invisible person into town?

“Two. We’re both human” Amelia answered honestly.

“What are your intentions in Tarethia?”

“Just a stopping point on the way to Cooper”

“Are either of you people of renown or infamy?” he asked, raising an eyebrow, and looking over at me. Why was that important? Were there more questions if we answered yes to either of those?

“No, but she’s pretty good at writing. You might read one of her books someday” Amelia shrugged. He looked back to her, uninterested.

“I’ll keep an eye out” he replied dryly, “You may enter. Don’t cause any trouble” he told her. Perhaps, he’d heard that comment about picking pockets…

“Thank you, sir, enjoy your evening” she said sweetly. He nodded curtly and moved back into his stationed position. I tried to smile and nod at him encouragingly, but he paid me no mind.

The first thing we did was check out the bulletin boards that bordered benches in the median between the two wide lanes of traffic. One side was a community bulletin board for normal things like freelance cleaners offering their services, posters asking for help recovering lost pets, or flyers concerning upcoming events. There were a few jobs posted that might get us some money, but we had arrived too late in the day to start working. That meant we needed to check out the adventurer’s board on the other side of the bench.

Like its sibling, this board was full of papers stuck to the cork with pins. Only, the posts were much more interesting. There was an Adventurer's Wanted post offering a bounty for anyone who could bring proof of killing the massive spider that threatened travelers along the road. A few others had job offers, such as providing armed escort for high-profile individuals. Those were beyond the two of us. A few were impressive resumés of adventurers seeking parties, and the only post that seemed to be at our pace had already had all its contact tabs removed.

We had just as much luck checking other boards along the road; it looked like we would be sleeping on the streets. I wondered if the guards would allow us to set up a tent in town. It didn’t seem likely.

Suddenly, Amelia took me inside a building. I had written off the Rat’s Nest Inn as an experience I did not need, until she pulled me through the doors. I was pleasantly surprised to see that the inside was not what I had expected.

Yes. I had expected a horrifying mess. Judging by the name of the inn, I was prepared to see a literal rat’s nest that filled it entirely. That is not what greeted me.

A cheery fire burned in the grand hearth, over which a large cauldron steamed with something pleasantly spiced and it filled the interior of the inn with a hearty glow. The walls were a soft cream color that contrasted the exposed timbers of the rafters and columns, and the tables all had white cloths draped over them tastefully. A small candle burned in the center of each table, and the chairs had open-framed backs that allowed the tails of those sitting in them to comfortably find a relaxing position.

Most of the patrons had tails. Fur, scales, and feathers filled the room, though a few people looked more like us. No one paid us any attention, save the rat-like waitress who eyed us quietly, her whiskers wiggling as she wrinkled her nose. Her tail had an open-ended sock over it. Amelia led the way to the bar, weaving between tables, and I did my best to stick to her shadow without literally ruffling any feathers. The waitress walked by and dropped the load of dirty dishes she had gathered into a bin of soapy water, wiped her hands her apron, and then came up and leaned against her side of the bar. I realized she was not the waitress, but the innkeeper.

She was a ratfolk. From the furry snout with whiskers, to the tip of her pink tail, she was clearly a rat. That did not make her less of a person though, and the eyes that gazed at us were far from animalistic. There was emotion and understanding, and not a hint of judgement. I thought, maybe, we might not be welcome in a place like this. She didn’t seem to mind us at all.

“What can I do for ya?” she asked us with a lovely voice. I wanted her to read poetry. Her strange, bouncy accent would only make it better.

“We’re travelers, looking for a place to stay for a few days. Do you have any jobs we could do to earn a bed?” Amelia said honestly. Surely, that could not have been a smart thing to say. Wouldn’t she kick us out for having no money?

“Nah,” she shrugged, “I ain’t got no jobs for ya. But you’re welcome to try makin’ some tips on stage. Kendra there’s about done for the night.” She said with a gesture towards the dancer I had been doing my best to avoid staring at. I had heard of belly dancing when the sailors talked about it, but seeing it now was an experience I never forgot.

The woman, Kendra, dancing on the stage had vivid red hair that came down to her waist. She also had a fluffy red tail with a white tip, and fuzzy red ears with black tips. Her face was sharply featured, beautiful and sleek, but still mostly human. Her body followed the same formula. Her skin glistened in the light, her shadow on the wall dancing with the flickering of the flames.

Shining metal discs on tassels jingled as she danced, the sights and sounds hypnotic. Lacy clothing revealed more than I was used to seeing in public and kept me entranced. And then, she was done. She stopped dancing and bowed, displaying her cleavage, to a chorus of applause.

She smiled sweetly to us as she walked by, a towel wrapped around her shoulders. I blushed and tried to regain my train of thought. Then I remembered that my train of thought had been focused on her. I blushed harder and ducked my head. She was already sauntering off down the hall towards the rooms, her tail swishing, and her hips swaying. I could hear her jingling with every step. Amelia pushed me toward the stage, and my concentration shattered.

She wanted me to do something on stage. And I was supposed to do it now. I looked at her in a panic, and she ushered me toward the small stage.

“Yeah! Come on, more dancing!” one of the patrons called out sloppily. I stepped up on the stage and took my pack off. My heart was racing worse than when I had been pinned by a spider that morning.

“Um, I will actually be reading something for you” I told them. My voice seemed to travel farther than it should for how loud I was. At least, I wouldn’t need to worry about being heard.

“Oh, please dance” the drunk called out again. Someone in the crowd shushed him, and I turned to my pack, pulling out my journal. I flipped through the pages, trying to find a section that might be a good fit. Many of the adventures at sea were enjoyable, having strong characters who stood out from one another. But where was the substance? How would my audience relate? No. I needed something with feeling. Something passionate. I knew what I should read, but it scared me to do it. I kept my finger stuck on the page and continued to flip through the rest of the nearly full journal. I was hoping to find something, anything, else.

A few chairs began scraping as people stood up to leave. I was out of time. If I didn’t do something soon, we wouldn’t be sleeping in beds tonight. The rest of the book was forgotten, and I looked down at the page I had been avoiding. I swallowed the lump in my throat and began to read in a shaky voice.

“I never meant to fall in love” I said to the room, the page open before me. My heart pounded in my chest. One of the people stopped getting up, a curious look in their eye. Everyone in the room was watching me intently, save the few who were putting their coats on. I took a deep breath and looked at Amelia before continuing.

“I never meant to fall in love, it just happened.

I never meant to be different, it just happened.

I have a hard time understanding myself and how I fit in with the world.

I have felt out of place and unwelcome all my life.

Everywhere I went, everyone I met,

Everything made me feel unwanted by the world.

Most of the people had sat back down now, giving me their attention. The conversation died. The tremor in my voice was gone, but my heart was still pounding against my ribs as though it wanted to escape my chest.

And then, I met you.

And it was easy to be with you.

Being with you is as easy as being alive.

You make room for me to be myself, no matter what that may look like.

You allow me to exist as I am, a grace I fail to extend to myself.

I did not realize that I hated myself, until I fell in love with you.

I want to be a better person; a better me.

The innkeeper was out from behind the counter now, walking between the tables with a collection jug. She was gathering tips from the crowd, barely drawing their attention as she did so. It was mostly the glint of copper pieces, but it was more money than I had when I walked in. I took another breath and finished.

I don’t know if I can forgive you for what you’ve done.

I was so comfortable in my hatred of myself before I met you.

I blamed myself for not fitting in.

I thought that it was my fault that I am different.

You showed me that there’s nothing wrong with me.

There is a place where I belong in this world, after all.

And that place is with you.”

I finished my poem and put it down. I looked at Amelia, grateful I’d found a good opportunity to share the poem with her. It had been hard to keep it from her, as she enjoyed browsing my journal. I was running out of pages. Something was off about the look in her eyes. They were extra shiny as she sat there at the candle-lit table.

The kindly ratfolk woman beckoned us to join her over at the bar and poured my tips out when we arrived. I was surprised to see the regular glint of silver mixed in among the coppers. She shuffled through the pile and pulled out a single gold piece. She handed that over and scooped the rest toward herself.

“All this will get ya four nights with food and drink, so long as ya stick to what’s on tap. That sound fair to ya?” she asked, gesturing to the pile. It seemed a decent offer, though we were still free to count out what we owed for one night and keep the rest. Amelia smiled widely at the lovely rat lady.

“We’ll take it!” she said, brushing off interest in the coins. I did not understand her. She was willing to pick pockets for spare change, but turned down money we had earned? The lady turned her gaze to me, next.

“If’n ya don’t mind, I’d like ya to read some more, when ya can” she said, a twinkle in her eye, “it’s nice to know there’s others who feel the same as us. Mayhaps, if we work this right, we can get a performance between you and Kendra. She can do interpretive dance too, not jest belly” she said with a grin. I flustered at the thought of being on stage with the beautiful fox woman. Fynn had told me there was an entire nation of Kitsune, as they were called, and they were a mysterious and sly people.

“Yeah, let’s see what we can manage” Amelia smiled, brokering the deal on my behalf. The lady waited for my response, and I eagerly nodded.

“Where are my manners? My name is Tilly” she said, shaking her head. We all shook hands.

“Amelia, and this is Erica” my friend introduced us. Why was I so comfortable letting her speak for me? Tilly seemed nice enough, what made it so hard to talk to her, then?

“Nice to meet ya. I’ll have some dinner out in a moment” she assured us and made for the kitchen.

“Thank you, kindly” Amelia said as she walked away, and then we found a booth.

I received congratulations and compliments on my poem, though I had thought it was a wandering mess. It had no real structure and failed to rhyme or keep rhythm in any sense. It was more like a jumble of thoughts fighting to be heard over one another. The somber attitude of the people we passed, however, said that it had touched them, somehow.

By Randy Fath on Unsplash

Dinner was mashed potatoes, loaded with vegetables, bacon, and cheeses. Two ceramic mugs filled with spiced wine from the cauldron came with the plates of food, and I felt the ache in my feet melt away as I settled in to eat. The wine was hot, sweet, and fragrant, the dinner hearty and filling, and the conversation easy. Oddly, Amelia did not ask about the poem until we were under the blankets of our bed.

“When did you write that poem?” she asked me. I was glad she couldn’t see me blushing in the dark.

“The day before we got into the forest. You were off gathering firewood. I had to put it a few pages from the back of the journal, so you didn’t accidentally come across it” I admitted. She snorted once.

“Oh? Were you scared of sharing it with me?” she teased. I knew she was only being playful, but this was important to me. I searched for the words.

“I… I wanted to do it properly” I said. The excitement had drained out, leaving me exhausted and spent. The wine was beginning to take effect as well, and I found myself drifting off peacefully.

“Well, declaring your social insecurities and unorthodox love for me before an inn full of misfits seems to have worked out for us... I knew you were exactly what I’ve been waiting for” she said with a yawn.

“And you’re everything I never knew I needed” I mumbled.

Sleep came easily that night.

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About the author

EJ Baumgardner

A writer through and through, I just want to perfect my craft and build a community. This place would not exist without both, you and me.

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