by Amanda Cast
Rubio trudged tiredly behind Pandora. The dimensional bag helped to ease the burden a great deal, but some things could not fit. Pandora carried the majority of the packs as well as the pelt. Rubio carried the blankets and smaller items that made camping easier.
It had taken Pandora longer to lure a bear to her than she originally intended. Usually the bears of
Pandora knew little about the culture, but she did know that it revolved around bears. Why? She could never guess. She would be sacrificed first thing if they saw her, and that was the last thing that she wanted.
“Mother, I’m tired,” Rubio whined again.
“I know, dear. We’re almost there and then Grizzle will let you rest for a bit.”
He kicked a rock and it skirted over the ground, hopping and jumping over the bumps in on the surface of the narrow trail. It struck the back of Pandora’s heel lightly and she craned her head back and gave him a stern look.
He sulked and adjusted his pack. This caused her to realize how much the straps were biting into her skin and muscle. She jostled the packs around so that the straps rested in different areas of the same parts of her body.
“See, look,” Pandora said and tossed her head in the direction of smoke rising up over the trees. “He’s home.”
“Thank cheese,” he said.
“Cheese?” Pandora said dryly.
“Sure, cheese. Gotta thank something.”
“You could thank me,” she teased with a gentle smile he could not see.
“You get thanked for everything,” he said, “I think cheese should get thanked, too. Do you think that Grizzle will let me have some cheese?”
“I don’t know,” Pandora said. “He might be feeling generous and he might not. It’s hard to say.” All she wanted was to take a load off her shoulders. Soon she would get her wish, but sometimes soon just was not soon enough.
Rubio sniffed the air. “Oh, it smells like bread!” he said. “You and Momma never make bread.”
“That’s because neither of us know how to bake,” she said. “And we can’t afford the flour.”
“Is that why we eat that weird nut thing you make?” he asked.
“It’s wholesome. Greg said so,” she told him. She frowned. “You should be grateful for what you do have. We all sacrifice every day so that you and your brother and sisters don’t go without.”
“And soon you’ll be leaving us.”
“We’ll be back,” Pandora said. “You should no worry so much.”
“You worry,” he counted.
“Yes,” Pandora agreed with strained patience. “But I worry so that you don’t have to. You’re just a child. I want you to be able to act like one.”
“Do you even know how children act?” he asked, incredulous.
“Like you are now,” she said sharply and he clamped his mouth shut and did not say another word the rest of the hike. They reached Grizzle’s cabin and Rubio dropped all of his things at the edge of the clearing and ran toward the door. “Grizzle!” he shouted.
The door opened and Grizzle stood in the door way wiping his hands on his apron. Pandora could see the flour handprints on the stained garment. “Hello, hello,” he said warmly. “I see you have another pelt for me, Pandora.”
She nodded. “I do. Can we come in and rest for a little bit?” she asked.
“Certainly,” he agreed.
“Rubio, go and get your things and bring them in,’ she said.
“But I’m tired, Mother.”
“Maybe I should have brought Emmy. She never complains,” Pandora said to the tree passed Rubio. His face turned beet red, but he stormed over to the pile he had left behind and started to layer it back onto his body.
“Did you need all of that meat?” Grizzle asked. “Nothing like a good bear meat sausage in the morning.”
“I’m sure we can work out some trades,” Pandora said. When she stepped inside she draped the pelt over her left arm and started to unload the right side of her body. The packs of dried, salted, and otherwise preserved meat dropped with a heavy thud onto the wooden floor.
“So, Claws,” he said, addressing Pandora. “Still hunting in
“That’s why I get paid so well. They’re pansy bears anyway. They’re so used to having food handed to them they don’t know what to do when it fights back.” She gave him a mild smile and finished dropping the other packs. “I came for some healing potions.”
“Healing potions, huh?” he asked. “The usual?”
“I have some deerskin and a couple of wolf pelts, too,” she said. “They’re not healthy ones though. Got them in the winter and they weren’t eating well.”
“Shame,” he said. “You know, I’d be willing to make a nice trade for that bag of yours.”
“I know you would, Grizzle, but my cousin would kill me,” she said. “Have you heard any news from the outside?” She watched as Rubio waddled into the cabin and chunked his burdens on top of Pandora’s. He scowled at her and went to go sit on one of the stools by the fire.
“How that kid can stand the heat,” he muttered and then turned his attention back to Pandora. “All I heard is that there is a new Empress,” he said. “Sweet young thing about your age, I’d reckon.” Grizzle was only middle aged, but he liked to pretend he was older sometimes. He scratched his head thoughtfully. “Her name is Liara. They’ve only been married for about two months and he’s already whining that she might be barren.”
“Only two months? And you heard about it already?”
“News like that travels fast. I heard it from the elves, actually. They don’t pay any attention to what they say to me. It’s almost insulting, but I imagine they thought they were doing well to wait a few weeks before telling me.”
“Probably right,” Pandora agreed. She only knew one surface elf in her life, and he was dead.
Grizzle shrugged his broad shoulders. “So, Claws, what else do you need for your little family?”
“I think that Shaggy would like a book to read. Do you have anything?” she asked.
“What time does that poor boy have for a book?” he asked. “You and your cousin are always leaving him to watch the little ones. Parenting is full time.”
“You did all right with your son, didn’t you?” Pandora asked. “Anyway, he finds his time, and the kids aren’t so bad.”
Grizzle gave the sulking Rubio a long stare and then directed a meaningful look at Pandora—eyebrow raise and all. “If my son acted like that I’d blister his bottom.”
“Oh, wait. Gold. Do you have any gold jewelry?”
“Gold? What is with you and gold? It doesn’t do you much good in the mountains, does it? Who are you showing off for?”
Pandora frowned at him. “Does it matter what I need gold for? I have good stuff to trade with you for. I just need gold.”
He snorted. “I had you in mind when I made this trade,” he said and went over to his bed. He kneeled down and pulled up a plank of wood and then pulled out a box. “It’s not pretty, but the girl and boy I got them from were running off to live happily ever after and left this behind. They’re nothing fancy, but they’re pure gold.”
“Rubio, come here,” Pandora said. “I need you to inspect this.”
“You don’t trust me?” he asked.
“Oh, I trust you, but not the people you might trade with,” she said. “I can’t afford to skimp on quality. I hope you understand,” she said and Rubio came up to her, sniffing the air. She could see the excitement in his eyes, but she hoped that Grizzle was not yet wise to the reason.
Grizzle lowered the box so that Rubio could get a closer look at it. He plucked out one of the pieces and examined it. After a long sniff, he said, “It’s the real deal. Those are real rubies too.”
Pandora nodded. “Twenty pounds for that.”
“Outrageous,” Pandora said, “But I’ll be fair and go up to twenty five.”
“That isn’t fair, Claws,” he said. “Forty-five is the best you’re going to get. Take it or leave it.”
“Well, unless you have some dragons passing by to trade scales, you’re never going to lose the jewelry here in this outpost. You might as well level at my twenty five and take the jar of bear eyes.”
“Bear eyes?” he asked. “You have bear eyes.”
“Yeah, I also kept the other organs.”
“Fine, twenty-five and the eyes. I’ll reimburse the preservation jar.”
“Deal,” she said and they shook hands. Rubio took the jewelry and clenched the earrings and rings in his hands tightly until Pandora reached down with her open palm. He grumbled, but handed them to her. “Do you have anything else?”
He tapped his chin thoughtfully. “What do you need?”
Pandora shrugged. “How many healing potions do you have?”
“I only have twelve left,” he said. “Four for the pelt, usual deal, but if you want more you can always bargain with something else.”
“How about two more for a quart of blood.”
‘Not really,” Pandora said. “I know a bit about magic. The mages that frequent your little hut would pay a nice gold or so for a few drops. A quart is near priceless.”
“And you only want two more?” he asked.
“I can be fair. Besides, it doesn’t do me a lick of good, and I can always kill another one.”
“Fine,” he said and he shook hands with Pandora. She could tell from the waver in his face that he did not believe her, but so far she had been honest enough with him, so he would take her word. “You said you wanted some books?” he asked. “I might have a couple.”
Grizzle had a small book shelf in the corner of his living room. It was usually bare, but occasionally someone would come by and trade a book for some wires or any other number of things. It was the elves that bought the pelts, and they brought the survival tools and sometimes delicate dishes.
Now there was one lonely little tome. It was dusty and smelled of wet leather, but Pandora picked it up anyway. She blew off the worst of the dust and wiped off more with the tips of her fingers. “Children’s stories,” she said. “It will do, I guess.”
Their trading went on well into the night and Grizzle offered to let them spend the night and they ate some of the bear meat along with some vegetables from Grizzle’s small garden. The next morning as Pandora was packing everything up Grizzle stopped her.
“Claws, I have been wondering…”
“Hm?” Pandora asked, preoccupied.
“Have you ever thought of marrying?” he asked.
She froze in mid action and then slowly turned to him. “Are you asking me to marry you?” she asked.
“Uh, no, not that I wouldn’t be flattered,” he said quickly, “But I was thinking more to my son. You’re like a daughter to me, really.”
“Oh,” she said, half relieved. “No, I haven’t thought about marrying,” she said. “I am usually very busy with taking care of my household.” She finished stuffing the potion box into her bag and tied it around her waist as she stood up.
“Well, would you think about marrying my son? You would make such a wonderful trade and a wonderful mother to my grandchildren. I think you’d make a wonderful wife.”
She took a deep breath, held it, and then sighed heavily. “I’m sorry, Grizzle, but I can’t marry your son.”
He rubbed his hands together. “Why not?”
“Well, for one, he and my cousin were once lovers, and…that would be wrong. It would cause problems between my cousin and me. For another thing, I have four… I mean, three children to look after as well as Shaggy. I can’t get married and leave them behind. Your cabin would not fit us all. Plus, I am not cut out for marriage. I lack passion. Your son would cheat on me. I would kill him.”
“Why would you kill him?”
“Because he would insult me too much,” she said. “It is best that I never marry. I lack the passion to make a man happy. That is just the way I am.”
“Oh,” he said and his shoulders slumped. “Well, think about it. I think you would make a good tradesman’s wife.”
“I can’t promise even that, Grizzle. You son was a lover to one of my family. It is just too strange. Perhaps he and she would be happier. It is obvious that it is her he prefers.”
“There are women men sleep with, Claws, and then women they marry.”
“I am neither, Grizzle. I am sorry.” Pandora started to load herself up again. The items she now had were much lighter. “It is no insult to you, Grizzle, but I am not cut out for making a man happy. I’ll see you.”