A Brave Heart and a Decent Sword
We are not like them. We were not made for their life. That was what my father always told her. I never knew whether he said it for her sake or his. For most of my childhood, I’d always assumed it was the former, as those who lived the life of an adventurer did not often live to see their hair turn to silver or their skin begin to wrinkle.
Still, it’s no stretch of the imagination to say that most people dreamed of life as an adventurer at one point; what one wouldn’t give to be one of those rescuing damsels, battling ogres, or uncovering hidden civilizations. Not everyone can, though. Some of us are farmers, some of us are merchants, some of us, like myself and the rest of my family, work in the very taverns those adventurers frequent when they need a break from it all. We’re the very people those adventurers are protecting when they face the forces of evil. Most of us rarely, if ever, questioned it. Sure, if you lived far enough away from the big cities, like we did, you had the occasional goblin raid, but the rest of it all seemed so far removed from our lives. Not everyone felt that way, however.
In the short winter months before my sister left, her yearning for adventure had almost entirely swallowed her up. Kastra’s aspirations for greatness had become a cauldron at a rolling boil, overflowing with foam and bubbles that fell into the fire beneath. To then be told those words by our father, though, felt as if he had overturned that cauldron unto her. In a form of silent retaliation, she took to sneaking out of the house in the dead of night with a blade that she’d bought in secrecy. She had to save up nearly a year’s worth of tips she’d earned tending the bar of our family’s tavern.
Every night, she would sneak back in through our window, smelling of sweat and a metallic scent I’d soon learn to be blood. “Y’okay, Kassie?” I’d ask her. “’Course I am,” she’d reply with a devilish grin. I never asked her where she went but I’d willed myself into believing she was off “practicing,” perhaps with one of the neighborhood boys who’d been trained by their fathers. Then, on the last week of winter, she left.
On Lunae, the first day of the week, an adventuring group that would pass through every few weeks came. As was standard for a party like theirs taking up quarters in the tavern, their first night in from the wild saw the bar turn into a raucous celebration. The minstrels played their songs the loudest they could while folks drank and danced through the night. As a server, I ran back and forth from the kitchen, dishing out customers’ orders until my feet felt like they were going to fall off. Towards the end of the night, my job died out with people favoring a drink to food. This meant Kastra was still swamped behind the bar, though you’d never know it by her demeanor. She lived for this. The entire night, she sang along while she poured their drinks and, as the night wore on, she took to a conversation with the elven woman from the adventuring group. I had been told to clean the tables but found myself lingering by the bar, not close enough to be part of their conversation but close enough to listen.
The elf spoke to Kastra about all the far-off places she and her party had gone. They’d even left the country and traveled to the island continent of Ethis where the dragon people lived, something I’d never thought possible without the king’s naval fleet.
“Oh, how I wish I could come with you,” Kastra professed.
“Y’ever thought’a leavin’?” the elven woman asked.
“No,” interjected a stern voice from behind sister. Kastra, startled, jumped while the elf’s warm gaze soured into a look of annoyance as she laid eyes on father, who now stood immediately behind Kastra. In his arms were a tray full of clean, wooden mugs. He set them down roughly onto the countertop beside Kastra and returned a look of disgust to the elf.
“We are not like them. We were not made for their life, child,” he told Kastra, then looked at the elf, “Discuss this with my daughter no further, knife-ear.”. The slur stung but the elf didn’t show it. Most of Shajara was diverse and accepting of others but we lived in Aldder, a small, rural town, where non-human racial intolerance was, unfortunately, not uncommon.
The energy of the bar eventually died, with Kastra and the elven woman companioning each other in the silence of an empty bar. Kastra, leaning her entire upper body on the bar and propping her head in her hand, poured herself a glass of rye whiskey and promptly downed it with only the slightest of a wince.
“I…I’m s-” Kastra began, breaking the silence between them, but the elf spoke over her.
“Don’t be,” she said, reaching out to put her hand over Kastra’s. “That’s hardly the worst I’ been called. And you’re not your father.” Before the quiet could consume them once more, the elf stood up and left for her quarters upstairs.
* * *
For the next couple of days, Kastra seemed present only in body. She was not prone to sulking after one of father’s chastising, so I could tell things were finally coming to a head. It wasn’t until another adventuring group arrived that she started to perk up.
This group, one who I’d never seen before, was much rowdier than most. They barged through our doors and proclaimed that they had slain a dragon. It was a mighty feat indeed if they were to be taken at their word, which no one in the bar did. They didn’t need to be, however, as we learned when the final member of their group entered our tavern. He was a massive half-orc who stood taller than anyone else in the room and in his large hands was the severed head of a blue dragon.
“Let it be known,” the half-orc bellowed, “That I, Arazar Jadhav, have slain the great blue dragon of Lake Cyne!” He marched to a table near the center of the bar and plopped the disembodied head onto the table, which shook and knocked the plates and mugs from its surface. I then wondered if he had carried the head, which was about the size of a merchant’s cart, for the entire five leagues from Lake Cyne to Aldder or if he hauled it by wheelbarrow and only just now picked the thing up for a dramatic entrance.
“You do mean ‘along with these other arseholes also’, don’t you?” asked another from Arazar’s party. He was one of the littlefolk, or a halfling as they were called in the city, and looked like one of the swashbucklers from those romance books the young girls like Kastra liked to read.
The rest of their party found themselves a booth while Arazar and the littlefolk saw to holding up the bar. I’d never seen a half-orc before. I’d heard the stories but never seen the proof until then. Arazar’s tusks were shorter than that of a full-bred orc, his skin only a greenish-tan, and his brow much less pronounced, but he was intimidating all the same.
“Mind if I trouble ya’ll for a drink?” he asked, addressing both Kastra and I. He flashed a charismatic smile and suddenly it wasn’t intimidation that I felt.
Kastra coolly asked his preference and he requested an ale for his friend and himself. She poured them each a large stein with that frothy foam spilling over. As the two took their drinks, the littlefolk made a comment about Arazar’s impoliteness and then told us his name. I can’t quite recall what it was, though I think it started with a “G”.
For the next hour, Kastra schmoozed with Arazar with interspersed moments of actually doing her job. The littlefolk grew increasingly annoyed the more Arazar spoke with Kastra but he paid him no mind. He told us of how he and his group battled this dragon, which had long reigned over the great lake, taking out any who attempted to make it to the island in its center, which was said to hold a great treasure. Even those who fished in the lake were often subject to the dragon’s assault.
“But you didn’t tell them you died,” the littlefolk jeered with the expression of one in the presence of rotten eggs.
“Ah, that I did. Thanks for keeping me honest,” Arazar chuckled but quickly noticed mine and Kastra’s look of horror. “It’s an occupational hazard, but that’s why you always make sure there’s a cleric in your party.” He then unbuttoned the first few buttons of his shirt and exposed his incredibly muscular chest, on which there was a large scar that covered the entirety of his left pec. I didn’t know whether to roll my eyes or swoon but I’m fairly certain I did both.
“Went all the way through,” he told us before rebuttoning his shirt. It must not’ve gone how the littlefolk had planned, as he further sunk into his seat in idle frustration.
“But still. You fought a dragon,” Kastra said in a sigh of longing, once more wishing that tonight’s adventurers would whisk her away. It may have been funny to watch if it weren’t so heart-breaking.
“You don’t sound frightened at the thought of it,” Arazar speculated, cocking his head in intrigue.
“Well, of course not. I’d do anything to do what you do,” Kastra replied.
“You know any jackass with a sword can do that, don’t you?” the littlefolk interrupted. Kastra didn’t answer that question, instead hanging her head in pre-defeat.
“Look, kid, I like you,” Arazar said to Kastra, who raised her head slightly, “I don’t want to see you get hurt or nothin’, but if you think you got what it takes, we’re lookin’ for someone to help with the horses and equipment. Sounds juvenile, I know, but it still requires a brave heart and a decent sword, if ya don’t got any magic blood in those veins a’ yours. Our last kid turned tail and ran when he saw ol’ blue.”
Kastra laughed but she still looked downtrodden, “I’m sorry, ser, but I can’t-”
“Can’t what?” came father’s voice, along with his dreadfully poor timing. Arazar sat up straighter in the bar stool as he addressed father.
“Ser, I was just talking to this young woman and-”
“Well, don’t. You come here to drink or chat up my child?”
“Father, please-” Kastra tried.
“No,” father cut her off, holding up his finger to her sternum, “These people come in here and you start filling your head with nonsense. How many times do I have to tell you-”
“‘We are not like them. We were not made for their life’,” Kastra recited, “Yes, I know the lecture, but did you ever happen to think that maybe I was?” I felt her words strike my chest and I could only imagine father’s anger as his face turned as red as a ruby. Still, he did not yell when he finally spoke.
“Leave. Go to your room, now,” he hissed before turning to me, “That goes for you, too. I will close up the bar tonight.”
Like a mouse when the lamp is lit, I fled as quickly as I could, going to the stairs of my family’s wing of the tavern. Kastra, though, took as long as she could. When she reached me at the foot of the steps, she looked back to see Arazar mouth an “I’m sorry” without father noticing. Kastra only replied with a half-hearted smile, then grabbed my hand and ushered me up to our room.
The rest of the night passed slowly, in silence, until I had fallen asleep, and when I woke up the next morning, Kastra was gone.
I haven’t seen Kastra since that night. She would go on to send me letters every month or so. Turned out, she’d packed her things and fled with Arazar. Their group didn’t last much longer after that, though. One by one, they all went their own way as the months went by. Soon, it was just her and him. They went all across the land, even going to Ethis like that elven woman and her group did.
Often times, I’d think that she had surely met her match. If I recall, the longest she went between letters was a year and a half, but I always wound up receiving a letter when it was most needed. She tried sending father letters, too, but he never replied. He and I ran the tavern until I came of age. I wound up working in a bookshop in the city not far away from home. Then I met a boy. Then he broke my heart. Then I met a girl. She didn’t, and a few years down the road we adopted a little boy. He’s almost a man himself now.
Father passed last week. It still doesn’t even feel real while I sit here and write it. I sent Kastra a letter, but I doubt it’ll find her for a few months or so. While I was cleaning out his room in the tavern, I found a box of journals he had written.
We are not like them. We were not made for their life. That was what my father always told her. I never knew whether he said it for her sake or his. In my childhood, I’d always assumed it was the former. But I’m an adult now. I’ve lived to see my own child reach adulthood, and now here I sit here with one man’s life of regrets contained in one small box. I think that when father told her that because if she left, it meant that he could’ve too.
Andrew Olvera (he/him) lives in Tucson, Arizona, where he works as a teacher for students with special needs and runs a middle school D&D club. He is the co-founder of Lazy Adventurer Publishing and heads both press’s magazines, Prismatica Magazine and Collective Realms Magazine as Editor-in-Chief and Publisher. His work can be found in the two magazines as well as Selcouth Station Press and in the upcoming issue of Theta Wave Magazine.