Having left a large bowl of food for Beardy in his stable and making sure the gate does not lock the pet out, Ichabod cracks his knuckles and heads for the kitchen. He tightens the belt of his soft bathrobe and wiggles his toes, which are warm within his blue slippers. Picking up a list of chores that his wife left behind, the adventurer wonders if his week-long break from family and work is really a trap. The repairs to the roof are minor, but he is rather suspicious of the request to clean as much as he wants. Remembering the last time he followed his heart, Ichabod knows that the answer is not a single room. Wandering the large cabin, the dark-skinned man finds every creaky board and loose step that needs to be fixed. With a yawn, he gets a piece of chalk to mark every spot for later since he knows it is a job that will take half the day.
Heading into the armory, he groans at the weapons and armor that have been put in the section they reserve for filthy gear. He holds his nose as he gets closer and curses at the sight of gore on one of the swords, the blade reeking of demon blood from his wife’s last job. Not wanting to risk a curse going off, he tosses the enchanted weapon into a large container of purification water that bubbles and hisses. Scrubbing a few drops off the floor, Ichabod considers throwing the rest into the vat, but the idea of adding mopping to his lengthy list has no appeal this morning. Taking out a pack of magical cleaning rags and expensive polish, he sets up a table for later before heading upstairs.
Picking up toys as he heads for his son’s room, Ichabod notices a pile of books on the living room’s coffee table. He frowns at the stack, which he has been creating for the last six months in case he got some time off. The adventurer barely remembers the last time he sat down to read anything other than a contract or a weekly news report from the nearby town. He shudders at the thought of having gotten more information and entertainment from passing bards than the books in his own library. Hearing Beardy snort and roll around the yard, Ichabod nods and goes to the kitchen.
“Everything can wait for tomorrow!” he announces with pride. A twinge of loneliness strikes his heart when he notices how quiet the house is after his echo vanishes. “I can get through at least one book if I start now, forget getting dressed, and put out enough food to keep me going. Let’s see what we have. I’ll cook up some pancakes, here’s some sausage I can cook up, this beef will keep in one of the heating pans, and I know I saw some potatoes in one of the cupboards. Carrots are always good. Jar of cookies, chicken medallions, apples, and I think that should cover the food. Whatever I don’t eat can be saved for tomorrow. Thank you, Angela, for all these enchanted pots and pans. Feel like I’m missing something.”
Snapping his fingers, Ichabod sets up all of his food to cook before hurrying to a large closet. With a grunt, he drags out a half full keg of ale and sets it up on a stool that is within reach of his favorite chair. After checking on the sizzling meats and boiling potatoes, the adventurer searches for a mug that his son chipped years ago. While not the biggest cup in his collection, Ichabod cannot think of using any other during his vacation. Grabbing a large dish that is usually reserved for parties, he piles his snacks and vegetables on top before carefully carrying it to the table. The smell of cooked meat fills the house, telling him that the rest of his food is done and his day of relaxation can begin. The house shakes when Beardy bangs into the side, forcing Ichabod to open the window and toss out an extra bag of food.
“That should be enough since there are all those moths and roots out there,” he says before settling on his chair. Running his finger along the stack, he tries to decide on what book to start with. “Now I remember why this pile kept getting bigger. History might be fun, but I’ve been meaning to learn more about dwarven legends. Poetry can wait for when I’m in a more somber mood. Who would have thought a vacation could be so exhausting? Well, I can ease into it with an adventure book. See how . . . These are all about me. I think my wife is pulling a prank on me from afar.”
“May I recommend the orc fairy tale collection?” a feminine voice asks from the open doorway. The tall woman with blonde hair and small tusks holds up her hands when Ichabod spins his seat around to face her. “I’m sorry for intruding, but the door was open. My name is Ephyra and I have traveled for days to reach you. I need your help and am willing to pay whatever you want. The yellow ogres have kidnapped all of the shamans from my region and are taking them to the Swamp of Lupo. I’ve heard of you from the stories and hoped you would help me. There is nobody else for me to turn to and time is running out.”
Ichabod groans as he struggles to get out of his comfortable chair and take a better look at his unexpected guest. The beautiful orc has cuts on her palms and arms, the wounds covered in dirt from her travels. Her clothes are simplistic and colored to help her blend into the forests of her homeland. Ivory wolf teeth are threaded into her hair, each one an incisor that has been sharpened. A sling is tied to her belt, but the ammunition bag is too flat to hold more than a single stone. With no backpack or money pouch, Ichabod wonders how far she has traveled to reach him. It is the hopeful glint in her bright green eyes that prevents him from tossing her out of his home and continuing his vacation.
“Most people knock before entering a house,” Ichabod points out as he gestures for her to take a seat. Bringing over his platter of snacks, he smiles when the orc takes handfuls of carrots and stuffs her mouth. “I was wondering when you last ate. Try not to make yourself sick because I’m not in the mood for cleaning. Now, this is where I usually ask for information, but you blurted that out fairly quickly. Then again, I never heard of yellow ogres. Are they very different from the usual ones?”
“We call them that because of their hair color and they are smarter than most ogres,” Ephyra explains while she picks food out of her teeth. Pulling out a waterskin, she shakes the last few drops onto her tongue. “I don’t know what they want the shamans for and they usually leave us alone. A few skirmishes over the years, but we’ve always pushed them back. This time the yellow ogres came with more aggression than I have ever seen. Those who stood against them were either killed or horribly maimed. My village was wiped out entirely, except for me because I was trapped beneath my home.”
“This sounds like a job I’ll take without a contract,” the adventurer calmly admits. Putting a hand on the young woman’s shoulder, he stops her from happily jumping to her feet. “That doesn’t mean I won’t ask for something. Know that my wife and son are away for a week, so I would like to get back with enough time to get at least some of the chore list done. Yes, I’m aware that you can’t guarantee that, which is why I’m not having you sign a contract. That would require a timeline. Instead, I would like you to return home with me and explain this situation to my wife.”
“Are you scared of her?”
“I may have recently broken a few promises to get chores done because of my work.”
“Your honor and pride is at stake.”
“Once when she was a soldier, my wife made her commanding officer cry.”
“Is there any way we could get her to help us?”
With a furrowed brow, Ichabod grabs two more bags of Beardy’s food and puts them in a container that the pet can access when hungry. Heading to his bedroom, the adventurer leaves his guest alone for a few minutes while he changes into the only pair of clean clothes that he can find in his closet. The white shirt is missing a button and he finds one of his pants pockets has a hole in it, which reminds him that laundry was on his chore list. Returning to the living room, he skewers some beef on a long fork and swallows it with a shot of ale. Staring forlornly at the food he has to leave behind, Ichabod grabs a backpack off a hook and checks to make sure he has enough trail rations for two. His stomach rumbles at the thought of jerky, hard biscuits, and whatever dry fruit he was in the mood for when he packed.
“I’m sorry if this is rude, but why are you so quick to help a stranger?” Ephyra asks while she stuffs her pockets with food. She eyes the enticing keg of ale, but accepts a glass of water instead. “I feel like I should apologize or try to tell you more about my people. The stories make you sound a lot more cautious than this. Some of the bards even say that you refuse to help those that even remotely anger you.”
“Only one bard says that because I broke his lute or something over his head,” Ichabod replies, smiling at the fond memory. Filling three waterskins, he tosses them onto the table and thinks about what he might need from the armory. “As far as trusting you, it is true that I’d say no to someone who barges into my home. The only reason this is different is because I didn’t hear Beardy voice any concern about you being here. He’s still grazing out there and showing no sign of being afraid, which means he trusts you. Who am I to disagree with a dread boar and his instincts?”
The orc looks out the window and waves to the metal-hooved beast, which snorts in her direction. “I found that he was quite friendly. Although, I don’t understand why you gave him that name when he lacks a beard. Thank you again for helping me and I promise to defend you against your wife. With my village and loved ones gone, I have no reason to stay behind when you return. I’m sorry. That sounded more morbid than I intended. Rest assured that I have come to terms with my loss and am determined to honor their memory by stopping whatever the yellow ogres are planning. Will we be leaving immediately?”
“More or less,” Ichabod answers before walking down to the armory. His voice comes out of a horn embedded in the wall, the enchanted device squeaking when it activates. “This isn’t something I can charge into because I don’t know much about these yellow ogres. Sounds like they’re nothing more than smarter and a different color than what I’m used to. Also, if these things are acting strange then there could be something controlling them. My hope is that it’s merely a more elite leader that’s taken over the group, but it could be a demon, necrocaster, or anything. I’ve got a bad feeling that I’m out of my depth here.”
“What will you do?”
“Calling on an old friend and praying every chance I get.”