Gristle And Crusts
Elaby wove his way through alleys toward what was obviously the town tavern. The noise, the smell, the plaque carved in the shape of a foaming mug swinging above the open doorway – even a faun could not mistake the obvious signs. This was the Sympathizer’s famed Crooked Chimney. Food and ale in abundance, and all there for the taking. If one could figure out how to take it . . . The faun paused before entering, drawing the coat closer around his slumping torso, turning his half-human face away from the glow of the firelight that was issuing from the front door.
How to go about this? he wondered. This was what he often did – improvisation. Often he managed to pass his actions off to his friends as simply part of a bigger picture, a master plan. But the truth was there never had been an honest-to-goodness well-thought-out plan – and not that much of a picture, either. A rough sketch, a line hastily drawn here or there. Elaby trusted his brain to get him through, come up with the next step right before he put his hoof down. So far it had not failed him. It would not fail him now. In fact, he relished the slight quiver of uncertainty before the flooding gloriousness of a new scheme, the way a thirsty man loves the feel of a parched tongue while ice water is overflowing the beaker halfway to his lips.
Due to a definitive lack of money, the faun thought, there are three options: perform, beg, or steal. Well, he could not very well perform; they were trying to keep undercover. The lingering tale of a mysterious juggling man with a strange face – and the most incredible pair of bowlegs in the world, Elaby thought grimly, looking down at his ill-concealed hind legs – would provide a snooping Maurus with unnecessary clues.
So that left begging or stealing.
A thick, sweaty hand suddenly grabbed Elaby round the upper arm. The faun stiffened, feeling his tail rise in fear in the confines of the Sympathizer’s cursedly tight seat.
“Where’s Alice?” demanded a young man in a slurred voice. “I wan’ Alice, but she’s gone.”
“Alice,” Elaby hissed, slightly relieved. The man was drunk. For a moment he had thought it was Master Thom and his whip. “I don’t know any Alice.”
“Alice,” whined the man, pawing in Elaby’s pocket as though he might find the girl he sought within. “Please.” He pulled out a folded piece of paper. Holding it up to the light of the doorway, the man leaned back and squinted at it, nearly tipping backwards. “Was’sis?”
“Nothing,” Elaby grabbed the paper back for no particular reason. It tore in the man’s bulbous fingers. The faun stuffed the parchment back into another further pocket. “Go away.”
“You’ve got a f-funny face,” the young man told Elaby, leaning in close so that his bristly beard hairs caught in the faun’s sideburns. “Don’t like it.”
“I think I saw Alice go that way,” Elaby pointed down the street in the first direction that came to mind.
“Alice . . . Allspice . . . Cinnamon? No thank’ee, don’t care for any . . .” Despite his sudden disinterest in the previous topic, the drunk began staggering off in the direction the faun was motioning. After several steps he turned around, a perplexed look on his face. “I don’t like cinnamon.”
“Then you’d best run on,” Elaby urged, waggling his fingers urgently. “Before it comes back.” The man obeyed, turning on his heel and dashing helter-skelter down the cobblestones, reeling from one end of the road to the other. Elaby raised his eyes in a silent thanks to the gods. That could have been messy.
Now where was I?
Ah, yes. Begging or stealing. Begging, he realized, would be out of the question as well, as even those generous enough to grace a man with the scraps from their kitchen would only supply enough for one meal. The others were counting on him to bring back more than gristle and crusts.
“Stealing it’ll have to be,” Elaby decided, hissing a deep inhalation through clenched teeth. He drew himself up before collapsing in on himself: rolled shoulders, lolling head, dragging feet – the picture (at least to the unwitting observer) of a weary, footsore traveler.
The tavern was very crowded. Elaby groaned internally as soon as he entered. It was not the press of bodies that disturbed him – he was, after all, used to spending his days and nights in a single wagon with six others. It was the humanness of the creatures surrounding him. Having his space invaded by the drunk man in front of the Chimney had been bad enough – clammy hands, bad breath, the stench of sweaty earth and decay. Now, surrounded by the shuffling, bustling, retching, guzzling, spewing, shouting, singing lot of them, the faun felt positively ill.
All these heavy, clumsy lumps of rotten clay walking about, he thought, trying to shimmy past a group of particularly rowdy drinkers. Tuck’s holy butt, how do they live in these terrible dense bodies so full of sickness? Already falling apart. And they say we are the lesser species.
The faun worked his way toward where he guessed the kitchen was – at least it was the place all the barmaids were filing from with their small pots of steaming soup and platters of crusty bread slices arranged in piles. One girl passed right under Elaby’s nose. It was all the faun could do not to reach out and snag the plate of food from her hands. His stomach began bubbling in protest at its neglect, and Elaby forced himself not to count the days he had gone without a decent meal.
Find food, take it, and get out. Then you can eat, he told himself harshly. He attempted to sit at a corner table. With a sickening ripping sound, the trousers tore. Elaby felt his tail spring free – oh glorious moment of freedom. He hurriedly stood up and backed against the wall, upsetting the chair as he did so. Glancing apologetically at a barmaid who had turned to look at him, he put one hand behind his back and surreptitiously pushed his errant tail back into the hole. He need not have worried too much had he been seen. Even those patrons who would know they were sober enough to have really seen a man sprout a tail would not be believed once they told authorities they had witnessed this spectacle inside a crowded tavern while holding a pint of beer.
If I’m going to steal, I’ll need to know the layout of the place. Can’t do that from out here. A sack or bag wouldn’t be unwelcome, either. Can’t carry all the food in my pockets.
Swallowing, Elaby reached out to the next barmaid. His hand closed around her naked upper arm and he pulled her closer to him, simultaneously attempting an intimate moment while hiding his face from the light. “Excuse me, little girl, but I don’t suppose you could let me into the kitchen for a moment, now, could you?”
The barmaid hiked up her sagging blouse, pouting defiantly, but she didn’t make a move to get away from the faun. Elaby swallowed, feeling the firm meat and soft peach fuzz of her arm slicked with sweat, his own and hers. Her eyes glittered with a glazed animal look that appealed to him; he felt the soft place beneath his tongue tingle with a coppery ring that worked its way up into his jaws and temples. She was pretty. Human girls – ripe fruit, so soft and sweet as to be almost rotten: a delicacy.
“Could you?” he asked again, bending forward and wrapping both arms around her waist. He began untying her apron strings.
“Not allowed,” murmured the barmaid, unaware of what he was doing. “But I could let you into one of our guestrooms upstairs . . .”
Elaby froze, then groaned internally. She wanted to lay him. Of course he couldn’t . . . for so many reasons. His friends were waiting for him, and he could never pass for a human without the Sympathizer’s trousers. And besides all this, Elaby muttered to himself, Maurus had me gelded the day I was captured.
Internally cursing the troupe master, he slipped the apron off the girl’s waist and crumpled the ragged thing up in one hand as he drew away from her. “What I really want is a peek into the kitchen. You see, my friends here tell me that it gets so hot in there that the maids occasionally . . .” He mimed an unbuttoning of an imaginary blouse with his free hand.
The barmaid snorted with laughter and was suddenly all business, insulted that her offer had been rejected. “Sorry, sir. Orders. Speaking of, what’s yours? Ale? Wine? Bread? The venison is quite good.”
Elaby felt as though someone had given him a rousing slap to the face or dumped a bucket of cold water over his head. His stomach was suddenly churning with nausea. Venison. She eats deer meat, the faun thought miserably, and suddenly he was extremely conscious of the lower half of his body, and for a completely different reason. “Nothing,” Elaby managed. “Thank you.”
With a final flip of her hair, the barmaid turned and left. Ah, well, he thought, staring after her retreating back. Looks like gristle and crusts after all.
Elaby had not performed a spell since they set up the wards at camp yesterday, so he felt refreshed enough to attempt another one. Something unable to be distinguished as magic, but would cause enough distraction to allow him to get to the tables and snag the food off the plates of the patrons.
He thought a minute before turning around to face the wall, shielding his movements from the humans’ view. He whispered into his palm, pressing his lips against the heel of his hand. The tips of his fingers buzzed with an orgasmic burst, and a silvery smoke began rising from the pores of his skin. He could feel his energy leaving him with the smoke, sweated out of him by magic. His heartline and lifeline glowing suddenly like crags of blue lava, he spoke to the darkspell in a soft voice, telling it what to do and where to go. After the implicit instructions had been given, the faun spread his hand wide, as though releasing a bird or a moth into the air. The thin smoke poured out from between his fingers like water out of an overflowing vessel, pooling on the floor and making its stealthy way between the legs of the patrons and toward the roaring hearthfire in the corner.
Elaby turned around again to face the crowds, a self-satisfied smirk on his face. This will be entertaining, he thought rather grimly, counting to ten under his breath. As soon as his lips moved to form the word “ten”, the fireplace exploded with a deafening bellow of fire. Elaby ducked behind a table as some flying shrapnel struck the wall where he had been standing. The rip in the trouser seat tore even further. The liberated flames leapt about – tables and chairs suddenly looked like nothing more than miniature bonfires, and the rafters were wreathed in golden, flickering garland.
There was a screaming rush and scramble as everyone attempted to flee through the tiny front door . . . or through the kitchen. The barmaids, followed by several of the patrons, overturning furniture and other people on their way, dashed toward the swinging kitchen door. Elaby launched himself over the table, somersaulting over a man who was standing in his way, and landed in the middle of the pushing, heaving group of human bodies.
The kitchen was hot. Elaby felt as though he were stepping into a large oven. Ignoring the closeness of all these inferior beings, Elaby concentrated on keeping his footing in his dangerously floppy shoes and on looking for anything to snag on the way out. He banged against a table and slipped a round loaf of bread into the makeshift sack he had fashioned out of the barmaid’s apron. Shouting in feigned panic, he allowed himself to get knocked away by a fat man’s elbow, banging into a counter where sat some beautiful crusty cheeses. He stowed a rind, then stood up again, stumbled a few steps, only to be spun off kilter into a shelf of preserved fruit and dried herbs. Stuffing these hastily down the top of the buttoned coat with feather light fingers, he stumbled toward the door and out into the street.