Writing a novel has been a goal of mine for years. I've done a few children's books, but every attempt of mine to do an adult novel usually fizzles out pretty quickly.
I'm not oblivious to the reasons why. I've spent a long time trying to write big SERIOUS stories. The thing is? I'm not sure I'm especially suited for that sort of writing. If nothing else, I've recognized that I'm struggling to finish something in that vein.
The Useless Cleric is me trying to do something a bit different. I'm just going to try writing a generic, sometimes silly fantasy story, and see where it takes me. My hope is to put out a chapter a month until I have a full book. The version you're reading here won't be the final one. It is a version I'm confident enough to share, though. I hope you enjoy it.
Sleep was illusive for Oben these days. The waking world too often gave way to old memories that he’d rather forget. Memories chased his dreams like wolves hungry for the flesh of his peace.
Luckily, he could always just get drunk. He never slept better than the nights he guzzled himself into a stupor.
It didn’t take much to get him there, either. He’d never been much of a drinker. Oben had spent the last two years making up for lost time, but he was still a lightweight compared to the other unsavories that frequented the taverns where he stayed.
It saved him coin, at least. Smalltusk and Thaddock had the stamina to drink their way through a fortune. There weren’t many stereotypes Oben believed in, but experience had taught him that nobody could drink like orcs and dwarves.
The sound of his name was distant at first, but quickly grew louder as Thaddock’s familiar voice echoed in his skull like a quickening chant. Oben lifted his tingling face from the table boards. He started to open his eyes but could only manage a squint.
“Oben!” Thaddock repeated one final time.
“I’m up,” Oben grumbled.
“It’s about damn time,” Thaddock snapped. “I’ve been looking everywhere for you!”
Oben chuckled groggily. “Come now, Camden can’t have that many lousy taverns.”
“You ought to have just stayed at The Bronze Boar with the rest of us.”
“Not my sort of place,” Oben replied. “Too pricey.”
“Didn’t used to be.” Thaddock looked around. “It’s amazing you weren’t shanked in your sleep. I’ll never understand why Arbane trusts you with the company purse.”
“Did you need something Thaddock?” Oben sighed, rubbing the last of the fading bleariness out of his eyes. “Because I’m quite capable of waking up on—”
The dwarf’s face was bruised and battered. His lip was split and scabbing while the skin below his eyes was purpled with a bruise.
“What in the hells happened to you?”
“That’s why I’ve been trying to find you!” Thaddock complained. “I need your help. Smalltusk’s locked up.”
Oben raised a brow. “Again? What did you two do this time?”
“It wasn’t his fault!” Thaddock snapped.
“I’m sure,” Oben was definitely awake now. “Just like it wasn’t his fault when he stole that silver tankard in Bolswick.”
“He thought I wanted it!”
“Or when he threatened to gut that magistrate’s son back in Vulma?”
“He insulted me!”
“And the donkey?” Oben narrowed his eyes. “What about the time he punched the donkey in Freeland?”
That gave Thaddock pause. “The donkey had it coming!” Thaddock clenched his jaw. “It really wasn’t his fault this time, Oben. And even if it was, what are you going to do? Just leave him there?”
Oben sighed. “Of course not.” He rubbed the bridge of his nose. “Let me eat something, change my clothes, and then we’ll head down to the jail.”
Thaddock looked like he wanted to argue, but after a few seconds he merely nodded.
“I’ll be waiting outside.”
Thaddock left. Oben ran a hand tiredly through his thinning hair and called for the tavernkeeper.
“Food,” he grunted. “Whatever you have that’s warm.”
The tavernkeeper frowned. “Warm might be a problem. I have a soup in the works for lunch, but it won’t be ready for a time yet. I’ve been busy.” He scratched at stubble on his folded chin. “I might have a few biscuits left from breakfast. They were made yesterday, though. Probably stale.”
“Those will do.” Oben tried not to wonder about what breakfast had been at The Bronze Boar. “Maybe a cup of ale to soften them.”
The tavernkeeper gave him a dubious look. Oben fished a few coppers out of his purse, which was miraculously unpilfered.
“For the food and drink.” He handed them over. “And to hold my room for another day.”
The tavernkeeper nodded. “Coming right up.”
The biscuits were stale, as promised, and cold to boot. The ale was sour.
His stomach full, Oben pushed himself out of his seat, groaned, stretched, and started up toward the room he’d failed to use the night before.
The tavern’s spare room was barely bigger than a closet, housing a small bed and nothing else of note. He gazed at the bed for a moment and imagined how much better his neck might feel if he’d slept with his head on its meager pillow instead of the hard wood of a table.
His things were where he’d left them, at least. He’d pried up a loose floorboard under the bed the evening before and stowed his traveler’s bag in the space beneath. He pulled it out and retrieved a fresh set of clothes and his war mace. It couldn’t hurt to appear a little more intimidating when he and Thaddock arrived at the jail to free Smalltusk.
Once he was dressed and his dirty clothes set aside, Oben reached into the bag a final time to check on the company’s purse. He wasn’t really worried he wouldn’t find it. If his bag was there, the purse would be too.
The bag was enchanted; made to hold more than any normal linen sack could ever carry. The trick was you had to remember what you’d put in the bag to get it all back out.
Oben wasn’t sure about the full depths of its capacity. There was undoubtedly a collection of odd items floating around inside its magic void right now - leftovers from past owners. Smalltusk sometimes liked to borrow it to see if he could reach inside and guess his way to an unexpected treasure. It had only worked once. Oben had been at a loss for why anyone would save a rotting apple core, but the orc had been delighted.
Oben reached inside, focused his thoughts on the company purse, and nodded to himself as its jangling weight materialized in his hand. He tied it to his belt and stood up, slinging the bag over his shoulder. Finally prepared, he headed outside to meet Thaddock.
“Took you long enough.”
“Breakfast was an effort.”
“You mean lunch?” Thaddock rolled his eyes. “I still can’t believe you stay in places like this. Does it even have a name?”
Oben shrugged. “The price is right. That’s what matters.”
Thaddock gave one final disgusted look at their surroundings. “Let’s get out of this pit.”
Oben might have thought the dwarf was being dramatic if the neighborhood wasn’t one of the worst in town. Thaddock, Smalltusk, and Arbane had stayed in the finer part of town. Oben’s tiny no-name tavern was smack in the middle of the slums.
There were certainly detriments to staying in such places. Cutthroats were more common, things smelled worse, and one had to keep a closer eye on their belongings. On the positive side, however, things were far cheaper, and the guards tended to spend less time in lower class places.
“Smalltusk probably wouldn’t have been nabbed if you’d been staying in a place like this,” Oben offered.
Thaddock scoffed. “What? So we’re supposed to sleep with bed bugs and eat cow pies for dinner just because ‘decent’ folk get antsy every time they lay eyes on an orc?”
“There weren’t any cow—”
“Smalltusk and I weren’t even doing anything!” Thaddock shouted. “We were just eating and drinking like the rest of the evening crowd. Then that prick guard walked in and started making cracks about me.”
“What sort of—”
“The usual.” Thaddock cut in, face flushing an angry red. “It was like the clever fuck thought he was the first person to ever think of a short dwarf joke before.”
Oben frowned. “Smalltusk punched him over a joke?”
“No!” Thaddock cried. “He punched him because when I tried to ignore the cock-less dolt, he shoved me out of my seat! Things kind of progressed from there.”
Oben nodded, not surprised that Smalltusk had wound up behind bars. Bards liked to sing songs about barbaric orcs and marauding clans - and not without reason. The average orc was stronger and more intimidating than the average human any day.
As with most things in the world though, the truth was more complex than songs. For every roving tribe of bloodthirsty orcs, there was a peaceful stronghold. Just like every tranquil human hamlet had a brigand band to match it.
And just like humans, many orcs had no tolerance for people mistreating the ones they loved. There was nobody in the world that Smalltusk cared about more than Thaddock. The guard was lucky the orc warrior let him off with only a punch.
Oben glanced over again at the dwarf’s battered face.
“Do you want me to take a look at that when we’re done?”
Thaddock shook his head. “I’ve been through worse. Let’s just worry about Smalltusk.”
The town was well into its day. Camden was the sort of village that sprung up simply because people on the road needed a place to stop and rest on their way to somewhere else. The streets were filled with travelers of all sorts and most of the peddlers and shops were stocked to meet the needs of people on the move. They passed one shop seemingly dedicated to portable cookware. A food vendor was shouting -over and over again- about the quality of their dried meats.
And, of course, there were inns, taverns, and brothels. The Inn of the Striped Cat. The Bearded Dragon Tavern. Madam Volga’s Den of Ill Repute. Oben may have settled on his little place in the slums, but there had been a cavalcade of options he could have chosen instead.
“How do they come up with the names, you think?”
“I don’t really fucking care, Oben.”
Oben sighed. Thaddock was surly, in general, but he was doubly unpleasant when he was worried. Luckily, Smalltusk was unscathed when they arrived to rescue him.
He was lounging peacefully against the wall of a cell inside the town jail when Oben and Thaddock walked in.
“Hi guys!” He called out to them, waving with a smile through the gaps of his rusting prison bars. “I was wondering when you’d show up!”
The guard on duty, a young gangly man with an ill-fitting uniform, intercepted them swiftly.
“Can I help you?” He asked nervously, his eyes trailing down to the weapons dangling from their belts. Bringing the mace might have been overkill.
Thaddock wasted no time. “You’re gods damned right you can hel—”
“What my friend means to say,” Oben cut in. Thaddock grumbled at the interruption. “Is that we’ve come to secure the release of our companion.”
“Which one is that?”
“The one waving to us from the cell.”
The guard nodded but said nothing for a space.
“I . . . Um . . .” He reached back to scratch his sand-hued hair. “One moment please.”
The guard disappeared into a side room.
“I’ve been good, Thaddock!” Smalltusk called. “I didn’t give them any more trouble after the first guard.”
“I know,” Thaddock said gently. “You don’t need to tell me.”
Oben smiled, despite himself. He would be the first to admit he’d found the pairing between the dwarf and the orc nearly inexplicable at the beginning. Smalltusk was on the shorter side for one of his kind, but still stood at nearly twice Thaddock’s height.
Such differences weren’t necessarily obstacles, of course, but there was more than that. While an uneasy peace had taken hold over the past decades, the dwarven kingdoms and orcish clans had a long history of vying for and fighting over the territories to the north. Many of the first “orcs are pure evil” ballads to echo in human halls had come south on the tongues of migrating dwarves. Even in these times of peace, there was bad blood aplenty to go around.
Thaddock had expressed such sentiments when Arbane first recruited Smalltusk to join the band. For months, he’d looked for every reason and excuse he could find to complain about the orc, berating and insulting him for the slightest of offenses.
Smalltusk, friendly by nature, never responded with anything less than good humor. He greeted Thaddock warmly every morning, saved the dwarf a seat at the table if he arrived at the tavern late, and paid for his drinks whenever he had coin to spare.
The cracks in Thaddock’s obstinance had been small at first. The insults and barbs began to stop. The dwarf started repaying the orc’s kindnesses in turn and they grew to become the closest of friends. It had been a surprise when Oben woke up one morning and found the two sharing the same bedroll, but it seemed to fit somehow.
The guard returned with an older man, dressed in the same garb as his younger companion. He looked over Oben and Thaddock, passed a glance toward Smalltusk, and frowned.
“You have business with this creature?”
Thaddock bristled. “Creature?”
“Yes,” Oben cut in again. “We’ve come to pay for his release.”
The older guard’s frown deepened. “I’m not overly keen on having this brute loose on the streets.”
“Were you planning on keeping him, then?”
The guard frowned. “No, I wasn’t,” he admitted with a relenting sigh. “If you can pay, he’s free to go. Things won’t go well for him though if he doesn’t behave.”
Oben couldn’t stop Thaddock this time. The dwarf pushed past him, practically snarling at the two men. “He wouldn’t even be in there if your fuckwit guard hadn’t been hassling us!”
The guard captain cast a glare down at Thaddock.
“Big words for a—”
“Small man,” Thaddock interrupted, groaning. “What is it with assholes only knowing the one joke?”
“I think we’re getting away from the point here.” Oben said, trying to reclaim the reins of the conversation. “How much is Smalltusk’s fine?”
The older guard sighed, reaching up to scratch at the tip of his chin.
“Three silver for striking an officer of the law. Two more the dwarf’s insolence.”
Oben swallowed. Five silver pieces was a decent chunk of what they’d made from their last job. It was enough to keep a frugal man fed for months. Arbane wouldn’t be happy.
She would never leave Smalltusk behind though, and neither would Oben.
He paid the guards and cast a warning glare toward Thaddock to stay quiet as they went to go unlock Smalltusk’s cell.
The elder guard pulled a ring of iron keys off his belt, taking a moment to find the right one. It slipped into the keyhole of Smalltusk’s cell and turned with a mechanical click. The cell door swung gently open and Smalltusk, smiling, rose from his spot on the floor.
The younger guard, startled by the orc’s towering form, took a few steps back. His hand drifted to the dagger sheathed at his side and, for the briefest moment, Oben feared things might turn to violence.
It never came to that. Smalltusk shook both guards’ hands, thanked them for the “accommodations” and their trio marched back outside into the afternoon bustle.
Thaddock hugged Smalltusk, the top of his orange-topped head barely reaching the curve of the orc’s chest.
“Damned fool greenskin,” he mumbled. “What in the fucks were you thinking?”
“Sorry Thaddock.” Smalltusk embraced Thaddock back. “But you know how it goes.”
The dwarf laughed and took Smalltusk’s hand.
“I suppose I do.”
The rumble of Smalltusk’s stomach put a stop to the tenderness of the brewing moment. The orc grunted.
“I’m starving,” he said. “You guys want to head back to the inn for some lunch?”
Oben shook his head. “I just had breakfast.”
“Another one of those nights, Oben?” Smalltusk inquired with a laugh. Oben frowned. “Come back with us to The Bronze Boar and celebrate! I’ll buy you something good! My treat for getting me out of the clink.”
“We’ll see if the two of you have any coin left after you finish paying back the silver we just spent.”
Smalltusk waved him off.
“Come on, Oben! It’s been forever since you had a good and proper meal with us. You spend all your time skulking around those dives.”
Oben gave an exasperated sigh. “You two are paying?” Smalltusk nodded and grinned, baring his eponymous tusks for all to see. “All right.”
“Good deal!” Smalltusk clapped him on the shoulder. “Let’s get going before my stomach growls again and someone thinks I’m threatening them.”
They made their way through the town to The Bronze Boar inn. It wasn’t luxurious, but it may as well have been compared to the place Oben had been staying. Its wattle and daub walls were well-tended and the roof looked freshly thatched. A small stable sat along its side, loaded with horses munching quietly on hay and oats.
Even just the size of the building was like a dream. Oben’s nameless tavern in Camden’s slums had clearly been converted into one after the fact. The Bronze Boar had been built from the ground up for its purpose. Oben could already envision a warm common room and spacious bedrooms. Gentle tufts of smoke floated out of the inn’s stone chimney, tinged with the mouth-watering promise of good food.
“I wonder what they’ve got cooking!” Smalltusk speculated with relish.
Despite the stale biscuits still rocking around his stomach, Oben felt the pangs of hunger inside him. There was no substitute for a quality meal. They made their way through the front doors.
Before they could find a seat, however, Arbane found them. She was sitting at a table close to the entrance, picking the last scraps of greasy meat from a chicken bone. She scowled at the three of them as they walked in.
“Where have you lot been?” She demanded, voice colored by the faintest hints of an elvish accent.
Thaddock scratched the back of his head sheepishly. “It’s a long story.”
Arbane caught sight of the bruises on his face and shook her head.
“I don’t even want to know. Grab a bite and gather round. We’ve got a job.”