It was a thunderous night, the kind that only gave pause to deafening booming for the eerie silence that accompanied every flash of light, where the constant downpour was so unrelenting, the rapid pattering of rain didn't even factor as noise anymore.
It was a thunderous night, the kind that made the air heavy with pressure that hurt sensitive goblin ears and was heavy with moisture that clung to one's skin—very unfortunate for one as scrawny and bare clothed as the goblin woman curled up in the corner of her cell, sitting upon straw because the humans found it funny to treat her like a farm animal. At least the straw kept her warm, she blearily thought, long ago begrudgingly nestling into it for the comfort it brought despite the laughter it brought in equal measure from the guards.
It was a thunderous, dank, hauntingly loud night, but when the entrance doors to the jail opened, Nott heard only painful silence and smelled only crisply burnt air. A smoke heavier than the rain in the air spread through the jail quickly, smelling of small game held over a fire for cooking and musty wood that had become cinder quickly.
Silence had prevaded the calamitous night, but it couldn't last. Rough footfalls and choked cries echoed, quieter than the storm but consuming all Nott could hear. The peals of thunder fell to background noise as Nott's keen goblin ears zeroed in on the one—two—guards and their charge, jerkingly making their way through the small jail.
Despite the small town, the jailhouse had several cells. Three, as best as Nott could figure, not sure if there was a holding area down below or if her belongings they stripped from her the day she was brought here were in some other building entirely—or most likely, gotten rid of.
One cell was unusable, since the floor was a crumbling mess and the door had been blown off, jagged iron bars making way for an exit hole of a blast that was suspiciously human sized. One cell was empty save a cot, and the guards would sometimes take naps in it when they were certain none of their other colleagues were coming by anytime soon. It had to be rather boring watching the only other cell during the long stretches of night, Nott supposed, seeing as the only other cell held a single goblin woman, who was made to sleep on a bed of straw and her own filth.
She expected that the cell that was always left open, the one with the cot she often envied, would now be filled. A human, or elf, or whatever other tall creature she could hear them bringing around the corner from the processing room to the holding room, would be treated with more respect and be given proper sleeping accommodations. She had lived her life as a goblin long enough to not even find this unfair, just enviable.
A human, Nott confirmed, as she saw a pale redhead being pulled into the center of the room. It was as she watched from her pile of straw, that she realized all the scuffling wasn't because the prisoner was protesting and trying to get free, but because he didn't seem to have the will to move of his own accord. His feet shuffled, more uselessly than if he went completely slack and let himself be dragged.
Nott found it an interesting spectacle, certainly more interesting than the countless nights she had nothing but the sleeping form of a guard to watch. She found it even more interesting when her cell was being opened, and the new charge was being thrust into her cell, rather than the open one like she'd suspected.
One guard had peeled away from the new prisoner to hold his standard issue sword on guard as he opened the cell, ready to cut her down should she make a break for it. She didn't have the energy or care to try and escape. There was nothing out there in the free world for her, other than maybe a quicker death than rotting in this cell.
She watched the human be pushed into the cell, confused as he didn't brace for impact with the ground. He was lucky they'd thrown him onto the straw pile. Nott was further confused by how he was obviously drenched as anyone who'd stepped foot outside tonight ought to be, but he smelled of dry, burning wood. A stench of burnt hair clung to him as well, though his was untouched.
As she continued to examine the human, who did nothing but curl up his knees to his chest and remain on his side, she noted his hair was the only thing that had been left untouched. His beard was patchy, as if trimmed half heartedly early in the week, and the hair on his head was wild and unruly. His clothes, plain trousers and a tunic, were about as beat up as hers—impressive as she had spent her whole jail time in the same set of clothes, which had included three early escape attempts. His face held a look of being lightly brutalized, despite the lack of fight he'd seemed to put up.
"Hey," she called a little time after the guards left her and her new companion alone.
His eyes, which she found hadn't blinked and were somewhat disconcerting in the shallow depth they held, didn't even move towards her. She called out again, but he again ignored her.
"Hey, why do you smell like a bonfire on a night this rainy?" She asked, throwing her voice loudly in case his earlier ignoring of her was simply because his small, weak, human ears couldn't hear her over the sound of the storm.
This made his eyes slowly pan over to her, but they didn't focus on her, and Nott grimaced. "Cut it out, that staring thing. It's creeping me out."
A boom of thunder crashed outside after her command, and she flinched and screwed her eyes shut as if it were punishment for her insolence. Nott's heart was racing, fear making her stomach flip flop. Her eyes opened back up a few seconds later as she realized he wasn't going to retaliate for her bold speech. Even more confused, she cocked her head and wondered what was wrong with this human. Humans loved to hit goblins, or at the very least verbally berate them.
The human was so odd, and Nott couldn't help but take pity on him. He must be defective in some way, he was shivering but had made no move to burrow into the straw to warm himself.
"You're going to catch a cold, and with the guards' concern, probably die, if you don't… try to stay warm," Nott offered, her advice limited but accurate.
The human finally spoke, but it was in a language she couldn't understand. Maybe he couldn't understand her, despite her use of the common tongue of mankind. "Hey, you should try to stay warm," she said once more, but this time in halfling.
He said the same thing as before, and she guessed he either still didn't understand her or he wasn't paying attention.
She had mind to let him freeze and go back to sleep, but the patheticness the human radiated as he shivered and continued to stare without focus made her push herself to her feet and amble over.
Though her stay hadn't been particularly long, their cruel and unnecessary strikes against her had made moving more difficult, and she found the longer she didn't move, the even more difficult it became. Something in her gut motivated her to move though, watching the sad frame of the human tremble helplessly.
He gasped, panic clear in his quick breaths that followed, when she threw her first small handfuls of straw over him. Nott looked to him with concern, unsure why she felt so strongly for a human, especially one that had yet to much acknowledge her.
Humans acknowledging her didn't tend to go well for her though, she thought, but this human didn't seem capable of harming another living creature. Perhaps she took solace in the thought that a bigger creature didn't want to hit her.
The human shut his eyes tightly, and tears began to stream down his face, wetting his nose before snot could even get going. He made pained whimpers and repeated that damned phrase in the language she didn't know. It sounded so guttural, which would be almost comforting if it wasn't being said so desperately. Despite having no home left with her tribe, she often missed the guttural speech of her kin, the soft words of the local humans grating against her ears after being the only language she'd heard for almost a month.
She continued to cover him in a light layer of straw until she was confident he'd stop shaking… eventually. Then, she curled up in her own pile of straw and fell asleep, never letting herself fall into deep sleep because she didn't trust this human not to change his mind and hurt her later in the night.
She awoke weary from the fitful sleep she'd had. Not only had she been on edge from having a new cellmate, she had more of her traumatic dreams that sometimes woke her to complaining yells from guards.
The human had made progress, she thought as her eyes instantly found him in her cell. He now sat with his knees pulled into his chest.
She sat up as well, and cautiously tried greeting him. "Good morning, human who doesn't seem to speak common."
His eyes skitteringly rose from his feet to her face, and Nott pressed," A human who seems very…" She didn't know a word for it in this language, so she awkwardly danced around describing the word she wanted," not up to violence, quiet… small though he is large…"
"Passive… Subdued…?" The human offered quietly, wincing at how his voice cracked. From how salt dried on his face, Nott guessed he'd been crying again, or had never stopped from last night.
"Sure," she agreed, only vaguely positive that one of those words worked. "Those words."
He looked to her with the most clarity he'd seemed to possess yet, and after a moment's pause, nodded silently.
"Won't you say more?" Nott asked when it became apparent he was content to let his gaze drop back to his feet and sulk quietly.
"I would not fight those descriptors," the human said faintly," And I'm not sure what else you would have me say."
"Um, your name would be nice," Nott decided.
The human chose that moment to become mute again, and Nott grumbled in frustration. She pouted as her small noise of complaint brought the human's attention, his brow drawn up in fear. Someone to distract her from the monotony of her daily routine had arrived, but he was as willing to talk as the straw she slept on, and smelled even worse.
She only got fed once a day. They only got fed once a day, she corrected, looking over to the human who had spent the whole day alternating between sitting, curled up; and laying, curled up.
She frowned and corrected herself once more. She only ate once a day. He had yet to touch his stew and bread. So the bread was a little moldy, and the stew somehow even blander than the bread should be… He should eat. He was as scrawny as she was, but larger so it looked more concerning.
"If you don't eat soon, they will take your food away, and skip your meal for tomorrow," she warned, though she shouldn't feel the need to be concerned over his wellbeing as she was. She knew first hand how much one could miss this awful meal after being made to skip a few days of eating.
He made a low sound of protestation, burying his face in his arms that were crossed and propped on his knees. "Human," she called out, having given up on getting his name or much else out of him. "They will starve you if you waste the meal." And beat you, she added in her head.
Later that night, she had to look away as she was proven right. The human didn't make much noise through the altercation, but it was the prolonged whimpers of pain later that night that gripped her heart.
She was used to this treatment. Honestly, her time in jail had been easier than her time before, if more demoralizing. By the dullness in his eyes, and the preemptive but useless way he flinched when the guards were readying to kick or punch him, it was clear he was not.
The first week went by with very little said, a few unanswered questions and curse words, and more than a few nights where he woke her up with his cries in the middle of the night. Of note, was the night she almost lost her life and scored a few nasty burns.
Nott woke to the same muttering in that low, thick language the other spoke. She'd found after the last few nights that sometimes he'd shut up if she placed her little hand on his cheek. He must have taken comfort from it, because he would lean into the contact and his whimpers would quell.
Tonight was different though, and while she didn't yet know how, it was apparent immediately. Her stomach twisted at the uncertainty that suddenly clutched her. Something seemed wrong.
He was tossing and turning, when he usually stayed stock still, and his muttering was picking up in volume enough she worried he'd pull the attention of the guard who sat by the door around the corner.
"Human, we really don't want to draw that guard over here if we can help it," she whispered shakily, crawling over quickly.
She patted his cheek softly, making a soft cooing sound that she hadn't heard herself in a long time before two days ago. Light, dark in its arcane impossibility, began to illuminate his eyes, hidden under his eyelids aside from the small slit as his eyes began to open uncertainly. Nott couldn't make out his pupils or irises as his eyes opened entirely, but she could make out the pain they creased with and how his brow cinched with something like guilt.
He pushed her away, not roughly like other humans did so that she would fall and get hurt, but gently, just as a means of making distance. He was an odd human like that. While physical contact soothed him at night, he shrunk away if she tried to approach him during the day. He never once tried to intimidate or hurt her though, and he hadn't the words to insult her. The human just seemed to want to keep to himself.
His teeth were bared, clenched tight enough that a vein almost hidden by his growing beard bulged, and he pushed himself to sitting upright. Nott knew all the syllables now; the phrase he was currently muttering held no meaning to her, but she knew every word.
The human held up his hand, muttering the small phrase over and over, and it was only when Nott looked to the hand that her eyes bulged. It was black, in contrast to the sickly pale he was, and a smoldering pattern of coals could be made out. Heat radiated from it like she truly was just over an arm's reach from a fire that needed stoking.
This fire didn't need stoking, Nott decided, looking down to the straw with worry. Her glance bounced over her shoulder as she hoped the guard on patrol tonight was a heavy sleeper.
"Human," she said, and she abstractedly thought she said that term with some level of endearment when she used it for her cellmate. "You can't wake the guards," she said in hushed tones, almost pleading. She didn't care if they beat her, but the thought of them touching the human again made her sick. The way he cowered but then let it happen like he deserved it made her stomach curl.
"I can't," he echoed eerily, chewing the air like these were foreign words and he was trying to parse their meaning by repeating the motion of saying them over and over. "I can't…"
His hand began to pulse lightly with power, sparks beginning to crackle and fall from the tips of his fingers. Nott watched them fall and put them out with her bare hands, afraid of the sparks growing rapidly in the straw.
"Please," she said again, though he was largely unresponsive to her presence. "You can't wake no guards or they're going to hurt you more."
With more clarity than he'd had most of his time here, he looked to Nott and said," That is a double negative. I can't wake any guards or they're going to…" His words fell away as his now clear eyes looked over to his hand and widened with panic. He shook his hand quickly and put out the spell, a look of surprise capturing his whole visage.
As the hand returned to normal, he screwed his eyes shut and pulled at his hair as he muttered that same phrase with the guttural sounds. Nott didn't want to lose him to his mind again, so she quickly asked," What's a double negative?"
His frame fell slack, then he looked up timidly and answered," When you use two negatives in the same sentence that should cancel each other out, like no and not."
"That my name!" Nott said excitedly.
"My name's Nott," she introduced. She looked to him expectantly.
"… Caleb," the human—Caleb—answered.
His gaze had been somewhere over her shoulder, apparently not being one for eye contact, but it fell to her hands which she held a little painfully.
"Your… Did I burn you? Let me see your hands." He beckoned for her to come closer, and Nott inched forwards awkwardly. No one had ever asked to look over her injuries before, and his voice held such concern.
He took her by the wrists so he could examine her burnt fingers and palms. "Meine Götter," he muttered," I'm so sorry. I didn't mean…"
"It's just the straw below would burn so fast, and I didn't want us to get in trouble," she said dismissively. It made her uneasy to have him looking over her injuries and apologizing. "You're a weird human," she commented.
He let go like she'd burned him.
Nott brought her hands back to herself, curling them against her chest and taking up as little space as possible like she usually did.
Caleb rubbed at his eyes and groaned lightly. "I'm sorry… Nott." A strangled cry left him and he repeated," I'm sorry, Nott."
She looked over him sadly and awkwardly admitted," I don't know what to say to you saying sorry."
He let his arms fall to his side, though one hand stayed and covered much of his face. "How about 'fuck off' or 'I don't forgive you'?"
Nott thought about his response for a moment, then let a small grin come to her face. "I don't not forgive you," she piped up, almost bouncing in place with a small bit of pride.
His hand dropped a little so she could see his haunted eyes, then the warm crinkle that came to them. His eyes darted to her, but couldn't maintain contact for more than a brief second. They'd been happy through, relieved.
"Uh, good night, Nott," he said, looking back down.
"Sweet dreams, Caleb," Nott offered.
"I'll try… Thank you," he said with a small bob of his head. Then he curled up on his side once more, and closed his eyes.
Nott woke the next day and found Caleb was still sleeping. He looked guarded, even in his sleep. She had woken because she was cold though, and his tight curl he always went to bed in had loosened enough that she could easily fit if… Poor impulse control and fear had always battled over her actions, but she gave in and crawled over, pulling herself to nestle in between his knees and stomach.
She was very good at being sneaky, so he didn't even notice. It was easy to fall back asleep curled up with someone who was so warm, and so much bigger than her. It felt like he could fend off anything that may come their way, even if he looked rather weak. He had magic! He could protect them, if he tried.
Another hour passed, and for the first time since she got here she was plenty warm. It came to a calamitous end when he must have woken; she was brusquely pushed away and she heard a startled shout of something in that other language. He only pushed her enough so they were separated as he got to his feet, so he must be planning to hit her if he kept her so close.
She raised her thin arms in defense, but a blow never came. She looked through her bent, knobby arms with confusion in her eyes. Nervous laughter left her, but it fell silent as Caleb sank to the ground and held his head in his hands.
"C-Caleb? I d-didn't—"
"Why? Why were… curled up with me? Touching me?"
Nott began to panic, and she couldn't get a coherent answer out. She didn't want to incur his wrath. "I was—I am so—please—It was—"
"Nott," his voice came clear but softly. "I'm not going to hit you."
She hadn't realized how she tensed up again, expecting a blow. She let her arms tentatively lower to her sides.
"I already hurt you," he said regretfully, eyeing her scabbing hands. "I'll never hurt you again."
She shouldn't trust him, and she didn't entirely, but something in her gut told her he deserved a chance.
"But," he broke into the growing silence pointedly," Never touch me without my permission again."
She nodded furiously, anxious to let this be over. "Oh, I swear it. Crossing my heart and all that human stuff."
He relaxed at her promise, but he still had a sour, confused look. "Okay, while still breathing this time, why were you curled up with me?"
Nott hid her face, peeking out from behind her fingers. "I'm sorry, Caleb. I was cold. I-I–I—"
"It—" Caleb looked around their tiny cell and the room just outside of it. "It is rather cold in here, ja?"
Nott nodded quickly. "Th-they took all my things. My wrappings and mask and shawl and baubles." She let her hands rub over her arms self-consciously. "It's cold with so little clothing."
Caleb nodded, taking it all in. "I usually have a coat and scarf, gloves and whatnot, myself," he weighed in. "This bare tunic and thin pants schtick is frankly manticore scheiße."
Nott cocked her head and asked," What does scheiße mean?"
Caleb realized what he said, and quickly blushed. "It doesn't mean anything. Certainly not a word young girls should be repeating. I should watch my language."
"But I'm not a little girl," Nott protested.
"Eh, sorry. My mistake," Caleb said, then because he apparently wanted to shove the foot further in his mouth, continued," It's just you're so small and…"
"Halflings are small."
"… Yes," Caleb conceded.
"I'm small and what?"
With sudden, intense interest in the floor, Caleb became silent.
"I'll drop it, I'll drop it," Nott panicked as she saw him shrinking back in on himself. "Please, I like it better when you talk." Or are at least willing to talk, Nott corrected in her head.
Something was wrong with the human she shared her cell with, something made him quiet and… distant. He wasn't there even though he was, and made her worry—not for him necessarily. She'd only known him but a week. It was unsettling though, and she didn't like the thought of what it must be like for him.
"I'm not much of a talker," Caleb confessed, his eyes focusing on her.
She sighed in relief and said," That's okay. I don't understand half the words you say anyways. What's that other language you speak?"
"I've never heard it before. It's nice. Calming."
A surprised and quick exhalation was what constituted for a laugh, and Caleb commented," I've never heard Zemnian described as such."
Nott shrugged and said," I like it."
His look was guarded, but offered hesitant amusement.
A guard came in from around the corner quickly, ruining any moment that may have been being had by shouting," To your feet, hands on your head."
Caleb seemed too shocked to listen, and Nott looked over after following the commands and hissed," Well?" They weren't going to wait all day to replace the straw.
The human, the magic wielding human who still wilted under the guards' touch, spent the rest of the day curled in the corner of their cell, holding his stomach from the aching the guard's retaliation left. He didn't speak anymore that day, perhaps in too much pain or dealing with that problem where he got stuck in his own mind.
He didn't get a meal served that night either, and Nott guiltily looked down at hers.
"Caleb," she called over to him. His unresponsiveness made her sigh. It had been nice to hold a real conversation with someone who didn't want to crush her into the ground. "We can share," she offered, holding out her cold stew that had ingredients perhaps dangerously beyond their prime.
She hesitantly padded over, her joints aching from disuse, and left the bowl next to him. She had taken the bread from the meal; she wasn't a saint. She went to shake his shoulder for his attention, then remembered her promise. "Is it okay if I touch you?" She stuttered in her question, not sure how to ask or if it sounded right.
He was silent long enough for her to take the answer to be negative, and almost a minute later, Caleb looked over his shoulder timidly as he breathed," Nein."
"Nein," Nott repeated, only a slight question to her tone.
"No," Caleb made clear and looked back to the wall.
Nott sighed and went back to the straw pile. She regretted that the guards changing it out had led to yet another beating for Caleb, but it was always nice to have fresh straw. It was drier, for one. Cozying up into the pile, she looked over to the human who was beginning to shiver with the cold night air.
A moment's pause before," Ja."
Nott almost asked what that meant, but maybe his use of Zemnian was a clue he didn't want to talk to her. She frowned and thought that was only fair. She was just a goblin, and one he was being forced to share a cell with to boot.
It was two days before Nott got more than a sentence out of Caleb, and it took her all to make sure he ate his meals. Taking care of him was so much work, but she found when she focused on him, a large hole in her chest was filled, and it was easier to get through each day. She felt there was reason to think about life on the outside again.
She had to work to get him to speak, but he seemed to do a lot better if he spoke at least a few sentences here and there during the day. It kept him present.
She hadn't meant to ask what he was in for, it had slipped out, and she nervously watched for his reaction, realizing this was much more personal than anything they'd talked about thus far.
"Law enforcement fucked me… Everyone in here's innocent, didn't you know?" Caleb said with a wistful look and wry smile. His eyes were elsewhere, unfocused. "I… read that in a book," he said as his eyes came back to look at Nott.
"You like to read?"
"Oh, yes. I read a lot. Many books in many languages."
Nott looked to him with awe and said," You're so smart."
Uncomfortable with the praise, Caleb deflected. "Clearly not smart enough; I ended up in here."
"I'm very smart and I ended up in here," Nott countered. "You seem even smarter. You can do magic and read books!"
He seemed unprepared for her assessment, and cleared his throat. "Hard to read books in a place like this."
"Then we should get out," Nott said excitedly.
"Not so loud," Caleb quickly hushed.
Nott lowered her voice to a raspy whisper and repeated," we should get out!"
"And how would you propose that?"
"Well, as innocent as I may be… I may have gotten in trouble for my ability to steal… from locked rooms."
Caleb paused and listened to make sure the guard was still snoring. They didn't pay close watch to Caleb and Nott, which Caleb was thankful for. He couldn't handle anymore of their attention.
"We would need a tool for you to pick the lock with," Caleb dismissed, easily dispirited.
Nott frowned at his easy submission. "Can't you make something…? Conjure a tool?"
"If I had Frumpkin, I could find us tools to pick the lock easy."
"What is a Frumpkin?"
Nott stared at Caleb like he'd started speaking gibberish.
"I have a familiar, a small animal, feline, friend. That is magical—I am not explaining myself well," Caleb sighed and covered his eyes with one hand.
"Where is this Frumpkin?
"I would need to summon him, but it takes very fine materials, or a lot of them."
Caleb shrugged. They could never gather all they needed from this cell. "Charcoal, incense, herbs… and it has to be burned in a brazier—brass specifically."
"I have incense," Nott whispered excitedly, though her whisper was just as loud as her normal speaking voice.
The human looked to her doubtfully. He probably didn't believe she knew what she was talking about. Her eagerness to prove to this smart human that she did—she did—know what she was talking about weighed against her desire to keep her collection safe. With narrowed eyes, she asked," You won't tell the guards if I show you my collection, will you?"
"No, I would keep your collection secret and safe."
With excitement, Nott found the floorboard that she discovered was loose on her first night here. Lifting it the few inches it would rise, she stuck her thin hand in and began pulling out the contents.
The human watched unimpressed at first. Buttons, a stale cookie, and a dented flask were not going to get them out of this jail. Nott had known what she was talking about though, and his eyes widened as he saw the tightly bundled sticks of exotic incense be pulled out. He held out a dirty hand and muttered," Let me see those."
She begrudgingly did as he asked. She smiled widely as he inspected the item and nodded appreciatively. "This, is exactly what we need," he said, shaking the incense lightly. "…You're whole collection seems… nice."
"Thank you," Nott said with a coy chuckle. "I stole it all myself."
"From the guards?" Caleb asked incredulously.
"When they change out the straw or sleep over there." She pointed to the cot that was just barely in her short arm's reach through the iron bars.
The human actually smiled, the first time she had seen since she got her new cellmate, and muttered something under his breath with a joyous tone.
"What did you say," Nott inquired, thinking she heard Zemnian.
Caleb looked to her, then as he gave her back her incense said more clearly and slowly," Das ist super geil." He let her mouth echo each syllable under her breath before explaining," It means 'that is great'. Super cool. A phrase like that."
Nott set to putting her collection away safe and sound, and asked," How much more do we need to make a Frumpkin?"
"Some herbs, rosemary and such; charcoal, which we can make out of the floorboards; and a brass brazier," he recounted, but then shook his head. "If we saved herbs from our meals for a couple of weeks, we might get enough, but how will we get a brass brazier?"
Nott chewed on her lip carefully, her teeth could a number if she weren't careful, and asked," What defines a brazier?"
"A, um, pot for coals in some manner. It usually has legs to hold it up or hangs in some fashion? I suppose the definition is rather loose."
She looked to the cell with the cot. From her vantage point, she could see the pieces that held it together under the bed roll portion. She pointed to the frame of the cot, a spot that a shallow dish like piece held two supportive slats together.
Caleb had to crawl over and ease himself onto his chest, craning his neck to see, but sure enough. A brass plate could be a brazier. "That is brilliant, Nott," he said as he righted himself and sat cross legged. "Your skill for observation and dexterous hands just might get us out of here."
Something in Nott's chest soared, she felt so proud. He was the first human—person really—to compliment her over and over, and he hadn't said anything disparraging about her race, even though without her normal wrappings it was plain what she was.
A guard came in two meals in hand, and she looked to Caleb with a pointed look. He didn't look particularly excited to eat, and she figured she was going to have to cajole him again. He seemed to take a readying breath and nod to himself as the guard set their bowls down and slid them into the cell.
"He, I understand saving space," Caleb began as he took his food. He dropped his voice and took a derogatory tone as he groused," But do I have to eat like a goblin too?" He forced eye contact with the guard and shrugged. "Maybe a sprig of rosemary, a bayleaf?"
The guard stood tall once more and sounded sorry as she said," Arrangements were set by the director—"
"Throw a dog a bone," Caleb pleaded. "I have to sleep in its filth. Just an herb or two."
The guard gave Nott a look of detestation, one that Nott was very familiar with. The warm feeling in her chest of just moments ago was dashed and now she felt hollow as she regarded Caleb and the guard, both looking at her like she was a gross, undesirable animal. She felt two inches tall.
"I'll see what I can do," the guard said measuredly.
"Danke," Caleb said," I appreciate it."
She left them to their meal, and after all the nights of trying to get Caleb to eat, Nott suddenly felt unable to take a bite.
With a hushed tone so the guard couldn't hear, Caleb leaned in and whispered," You know I don't feel that way, ja?"
She realized he was handing her a bowl of food, and she begrudgingly took it. Nott found it hard to believe he didn't believe the things he had just said. He was human, and she had gotten ahead of herself thinking he might not think of her the way other humans did. Her fingers were stiff as she grasped the bowl, and he held onto it until it seemed she wouldn't drop it upon his letting go.
"I had to curry favor with the guards, to get the last ingredient: herbs," he expounded. "You got two of them, I'll get the other half."
"Why don't you? Hate goblins, I mean. That's what humans are good at," she said, a nervous edge coming to her breathing as she asked something so directly. What if he was just saying that, but her nosiness would show he was a normal human? She was already tensed for impact.
"Humans are good at kicking the downtrodden, ja," Caleb agreed. "I was a beggar, like my parents before me; I know how cruel humans can be. I am sorry."
Nott took her first bite, an unsatisfactory bite into poorly cooked rice. The kernels cracked under her teeth, though she didn't notice much.
"We will get out of here, away from these racist beasts keeping us in this cage," Caleb promised.
"Away from their beatings," Nott added, sadly looking at the bruising that was fading from his jaw.
"Ja, away from all of it."
She began to ask every night if she could curl up at his feet, until one night he finally said," You don't have to ask anymore."
"O-okay, it's just you said—"
"Thank you for accepting what I said, and not questioning it," Caleb interrupted. "That was what I needed. Now… You… You have standing permission." His words were so hard to get out, and with his thick accent, it sounded like he was choking on them. "I am a private man; I do not like others entering my personal bubble, but you are a person I find I don't mind doing so."
"So I can curl up against you?"
"Ja, unless I tell you I don't feel like it."
"I can touch your face?"
"S-sure, if you want, I suppose," Caleb stuttered over, not expecting the particular question.
Nott was practically bouncing as she asked," I can wipe your beard when you get stew in it?"
"I, ah, g-guess—maybe still give me warning on that one."
She was content with that and ready for bed—and without asking for further permission—curled up by his feet and used his thigh for a pillow.
"Tell me a story, Caleb," she bid as she got comfortable.
She had been rapt with the idea he knew many stories. No one in her clan had been able to read, and only the high elder orated stories with any skill. Caleb had at first insisted he didn't know tales to tell in common, but she had then requested a story in Zemnian. It didn't matter if she could understand the story so long as it was a good one.
"Very well… This one is about a little girl and boy who travel through the forest with breadcrumbs…"
Nott smiled as she listened to the Zemnian tale, its hard consonants and long worded structure lulling her to sleep. Caleb had said earlier that they almost had enough herbs, that they were almost home free. She didn't have a home, and she would miss this, she had thought in that moment. Caleb was a bright boy with so much promise though, and she wanted to see him free, which meant getting them out, even if he didn't want to travel with her anymore on the other side. She could live with that disappointment, she knew, with the knowledge he was free.
She pressed her face against his leg to hide her expression, and to get the most out of what might be once her last chances to have… this.
Caleb was holding her a foot off the ground, and she was reaching the best she could. Straining her reach through the iron bars so much so that her neck was twinging, Nott could get a half turn on the brass plate from under the cot. It hurt, and it was tedious, and she had to focus intently because she couldn't let it fall when it finally came loose, but she was slowly but surely twisting it free.
"The guard exchange is almost done," Caleb whispered. "We're going to be checked on in two—"
"Got it," Nott cut him off, carefully bending her elbow and bringing it closer at the right angle so she could pluck it from the other side with her waiting hand.
As soon as it was on their side of the bars, Caleb took it and stashed it in the straw, then put distance between himself and Nott. They had been playing that they hated each other's company in front of the guards, and it had lead to a little more spice in Caleb's meals.
The guard who came in at sunset was typically the bearer of meals as well, and today she brought something that smelled bright with thyme.
"Ah, danke, Süße," Caleb said as he accepted the nicer food. He purposefully left the other bowl where she set it, and had eyes only for her.
She giggled, and dismissed his thanks. Nott had noticed over the last two weeks that she had begun to really hate that guard; Caleb deserved better. It was part of their con though. As Nott got to know Caleb a bit better, she could see the flair he added talking to her, the way he forced smiles and eye contact that he didn't with Nott—in short, the effort it took to talk to her.
Sometimes the guard, Nott knew her as Süße, would stay a few moments more than necessary to talk to Caleb, and Caleb always played the part of being very interested in what she had to say. She would inevitably have to return to her post though, as she was doing now.
Caleb sighed, deflating from his conversational air. He always seemed tired after forcing that confident presence. He began to pick out the thyme specks, and Nott provided the wrapping they'd been using to collect tiny scraps of herbs. Bay leaves were easier.
"I think we have enough," Caleb said as turned about the food in his hands, getting sauce all over his fingers. "And you got the brazier. We just need to wait for a guard to be distracted…"
"The guard that comes in tomorrow morning, the brunet," Nott suggested excitedly.
Caleb nodded and said," Yes, sharp mind. He is next in rotation."
"And he snores!"
"That he does, so then would be a good time," Caleb agreed. He wrapped up the herbs they had collected, a motley sort of cut up spices and coagulating sauces on sprigs of mismatched herbs. The linen had protected the incense long enough that it still smelled of it, and he could only hope that it would help the spell along. "This is the barest bones I've ever cast the spell with before, but it should work."
"I have full confidence it will," Nott assured him with a little pat to his shoulder.
Wiping his fingers on his shirt, he passed the bowl over to Nott. "Here, I ate last night's soup."
Nott pushed the bowl of better food back and said," Oh, Caleb, you don't have to. You need your energy for your big spell!"
"I'll get just as much nourishment from your dish," he insisted, grabbing the possibly molding dumplings suspended in too thick of a broth.
"A-are you sure?" Nott still couldn't quell the feeling he might expect he deserved more as the resident human one of these days, but he won the argument most nights, and she ate the better meal most nights too.
"Routine inspection. Get on your feet and hands on your head," the morning guard announced as he came into the holding room. He started to open the lock, and another guard came in with a drawn sword to shut down any ideas.
Caleb had a look of biting down an argument. He had said they had a day and a half before their next scheduled inspection. Nott was inclined to believe their timekeeping was in error. It couldn't be Caleb's.
Nott's eyes darted to the brass plate they had salvaged, hidden in the straw, and stretched like she was waking up to covertly move it closer to herself. She would need another second to hide it in her clothes without detection, and she sent Caleb a furtive glance to convey as much.
He stood as soon as the guard came their way, and he quickly put his hands on his head, but he shrugged and said,"I think your words might be lost in translation. Goblins are not very smart, you know."
The guard looked to Caleb, and it was the second Nott needed. She quickly shoved the plate against her stomach and rolled over to hide it.
The guard grumbled at her insolence and complained," Even dogs learn simple commands. Stand!"
She curled up instead.
"And when a dog disobeys…" The guard threw open the cell door and approached Nott with an angry stomp to his walk.
"Nein, No! Wait! She probably is just slow after waking up, she can—"
Nott cried out at the kick to her head, but kept the plate safe. It was too important to let be found, so she couldn't grab her throbbing head.
"I said stand, you lazy vermin," the guard growled as he grabbed her by the ear and pulled up. Hard.
Tears sprang to her eyes, but Nott let herself go limp and be pulled off the ground a hand's width or two. Play unconscious, and the guard might let her go.
"Ugh, goblins are so useless. I don't know why they didn't just give her death. We really need to keep up pest control, even in these small villages," the guard complained back to his partner, and it was met with agreement. He gave another kick for good measure and Nott let herself get pushed back harshly.
She was pretty sure she broke her nose in the rough roll, but didn't dare move. She swallowed the taste of iron back and listened for when it was safe to move again.
A lot of shuffling happened. She could hear the sword scrape across the floorboards, probably stirring the straw while trying to avoid touching it. From her strewn about vantage point, she could barely make out her human's face without being obvious. Caleb's face was blank, and it made Nott's chest ache more than her physical injuries.
The guard left, and Nott heard the click of the lock to their cell's door. Still, she waited, for the sound of the chair being pulled out, the sound of the guard sitting and ignoring them in the other room.
Once she was sure he wasn't paying them any mind, she groaned and let her taut muscles relax.
"Nott," Caleb cried out with concern, and she found he was already kneeling at her side.
"I kept it safe," she said, smiling up at him with bloody teeth.
"You did," he said proudly, but the edge of worry consumed his voice once more as he asked," Are you alright?"
"He was a very mean man," she settled on. Her head was spinning, and she was pretty sure that was an answer to his question.
"You're completely right," he said distractedly as he began to check her over for injuries. "Does it hurt when I—"
"Yes," she hissed. "Yeah, it pretty much all hurts." Her ear especially hurt, and she kept seeing dark spots, which she felt had to be connected to when his foot connected with the base of her skull. Her ear may be in agony, but it was good enough to hear their guard had begun to doze off. "Sounds like he still can't stay awake in the mornings. You better start your spell, Caleb."
"I can't, Nott," Caleb said tentatively. "I'm sorry."
"You can't not do it, Caleb. We can't stay here," she protested, looking up to his eyes. They were doing the unfocusing thing again. "Please, you said you could do it, and I believe in you."
"I… I haven't done magic in a long time. Hadn't done magic in a long time. That night…"
They had never spoken of his first night here, but Nott could recall the strong smell of burning that shouldn't have been possible on such a rainy night. She couldn't think of anything to say with how badly her head pounded though. She couldn't think of anything to make Caleb feel better or more confident. Nott felt like a failure.
She gingerly pulled the shallow dish out from under her shirt. Her hands shook, and she felt she should be stronger if she was going to protect him. She realized she really wanted to.
Larger, soft, human hands enveloped hers, and she could hear Caleb say," Alright, I will do this for you. You're right, we can't…" His voice kept speaking, but it slowly became slurred together and incomprehensible to her.
She fell asleep to his comforting voice.
When she woke, Nott saw a curious creature much too close for comfort. "Ah, ahh, what is that?" Her panic was loud and the source of her panic instantly vanished, making her cries even more shrill.
The current guard came stumbling into the holding room, and Caleb quickly dismissed," She saw a rat. Still woozy from the head injury, I'm afraid."
"It'll keep the racket down if it doesn't want another."
Caleb put on a sterner face face and nodded. "I'll see to it that it shuts up."
This was enough for the guard and he ambled back to his post.
"Nott," Caleb said in a much softer voice," Please don't scream again."
"I won't," she promised.
Caleb brought the beast back, and she had to clasp her clawed hands over her mouth to keep back the shriek she almost made.
"This is Frumpkin," Caleb introduced.
Nott eyed the beast and asked," Can we eat it?"
"We cannot afford the components to resummon him, so nein, we cannot eat him."
Frumpkin licked his paw and blithely rubbed at his ear.
"Now," Caleb said in the voice he used for explaining things. "I'm going to find tools to lockpick with, but while I do that, I need you to hold my hand. I won't be able to hear or see anything, so I'll need you to keep watch, and squeeze my hand should anyone come."
Nott sat up and held her head as it pulsed in pain. She saw the human cross his legs and sit against the wall and she moved to sit beside him slowly. It hurt to move, and he must have noticed, because he winced and asked," Can you do that?"
"Oh, yes, this is nothing," she assured him, picking up her pace to join him and hold his hand. It felt weird to hold a human hand. It was so fleshy and large, and it made her self-conscious of her claws. Her fingers were tiny compared to his, but she latched on and looked ahead for any threats, her ears tuned in for any danger.
Though she was doing her best to be good on her watch, she couldn't help but glance at Caleb's face from time to time. Her stomach would flip-flop seeing the blankness in his eyes. The determination in his brow gave him a much more grounded look. He wasn't lost like he sometimes got, he just wasn't here.
The Frumpkin came back, maybe ten minutes later, a few fine pieces of metal dangling from his fuzzy lips, and as the cat approached Caleb pulled away. His eyes were present again.
"So you can connect with the Frumpkin, and control it?"
"Yes, he's my cat, a magical one. I can scry through him in a sort of way," Caleb answered holding out his hand as the cat elegantly weaved itself through the iron bars and came to give what it had found to Caleb.
The human held out his hands and accepted the odd pieces of metal, then held them out to Nott. "Will these work?" With one hand extended towards his companion, the other stayed back to affectionately rub behind Frumpkin's ears.
Nott took them and examined them quickly. "Yes, I should be able to pick such an easy lock with these." She tentatively reached towards the cat and pat his head twice as thanks, then darted to the door with nervous energy from having touched the terrifying creature.
It was simple with the tools at her disposal, just a quick tap, tap, tap, on each tumbler and turn.
She turned back to Caleb. "Do we leave?"
The human had a serious mien, obviously contemplating what they should do next. "Nein," he finally decided. "There's a second guard outside the jailhouse. Our best bet is to try to get them to leave so we don't have to fight our way free."
"Your magic! You can scare them off with your frightful beast!"
"Unfortunately, most would not qualify Frumpkin as a frightful beast. I'm afraid I don't know many spells."
Nott looked to Caleb and debated whether she should even mention it. "Well, there was that one night you used magic…"
As he looked away horrified, Notte lurched over to his side and insisted," Yes, you can. I believe in you."
He looked to her wearily. "I respect your choice to believe in me, but I will disappoint you."
"Set the straw on fire," she suggested, her usual air of jumpiness flattened under the necessity to protect her human. If the guards came by and found the cell door open, they were done for. They couldn't fight their way out. "When it's on fire, we can call for the guards help, they will let us leave the building and we'll be better able to run."
There was no fire in his eyes, how could he be expected to create any with his magic?
"You can do this," she encouraged," You're brilliant and gifted. You wield magic!" Her speech was cut short as she listed to one side and almost fell over. "I-I'm fine, you just need to… worry about…" She could only point to the straw as her ears began to ring alongside an agonizing spear of pain through her neck that washed over the base of her head.
She wished she could tell him not to speak so loud right now. By the time clarity came back enough to think to mention it, she was staring up in awe as he let his hand darken to black coals, thin cracks of orange revealing the flame's potential just before he summoned his first bolt of crackling fire and threw it to the far corner of their cell.
Fire took hold instantly, it's dancing form spreading quickly.
"Guards," he called as loudly as he could," Fire! Fire!"
They heard the front door open and close, and no one came for them.
"Th-they just left us," Caleb whispered under his breath, the shock ringing through his taut shoulders.
"Then it seems there's no one to stop up leaving," Nott said, already edging for the door. The cell was getting hot quickly. She looked back when she realized Caleb wasn't right behind her. "Caleb?"
His gaze had returned the the blaze he started, and jaw had fallen slack. It took Nott a couple of cursory steps as her vision swam again, but she made it to his side and pulled on his hand. He was so big and she was so small, though. "Please, Caleb," she implored," Please, let's go."
He didn't budge under her pull, and she resorted to something stronger than she wanted to. "Ich wollte es nicht zu machen," She repeated, the same phrase he'd woken her up with so many nights with.
He looked to her, and with the blaze lighting his face and the angle he had to look down at, his expression was momentarily horrifying. He followed suit and rasped out," Ich wollte es nicht zu machen."
"It's okay," she said," Whatever that means. It's okay."
"I didn't want to do it," he forced out through dry breaths.
"Ich wollte es nicht zu machen; I didn't want to do it. I didn't want…" He broke off into coughing that made her dizzy.
Their throats were already dry and possibly roughed up from smoke inhalation. They needed to go now. She pulled again, but this time he followed. He paused before they left the jailhouse proper, and said," Our things." His voice was so reserved, it scared Nott. Had she done the wrong thing and only broken her human further?
"We don't have time to find them," she said, though she was sad about the prospect of leaving her prized possessions behind.
"I found them with Frumpkin, they're over here." He walked mechanically to a shelf and grabbed a box with a label.
"Alright, let's go," he said, holding the box with one hand, and grasping her hand with the other.
She led them the best she could out of the fire consumed jail and onto whatever lay ahead. She was leaning on him—using his steadiness for support and direction—within less than a minute, but they were moving forward.
They found an inn the next town over, conning their way out of town and into a couple silvers. The first day in the woods, Caleb had said nothing, stared vacantly, but followed Nott wherever she led him. Her ability to see in the dark helped them find a path in the wilderness.
That night he slept fitfully, only resting once she curled up in his arms, small hand on his face.
The next night, he felt so full of energy that he couldn't imagine stopping, and he continued through the early morning light, Nott's knobby arms folded around his neck and little legs curled around his stomach.
When they finally had a room, it was cheaper to share and they were used to it. Caleb slunk into the bed and sighed.
"You got me out of there, Nott," he said, staring at the ceiling dully, but very present.
"It was your skills, really."
He sat up and shook his head. "If you weren't able to lockpick, we would have been roasted."
"You made Frumpkin," Nott pointed out, refusing to accept the credit. Over the last few days, she'd begun to be less wary of the beast, but she was still tentative to pet the cat as he weaved around her legs, seemingly trying to half heartedly trip her.
"We both… We both made it happen. We worked well as a team," Caleb decided. He reached out and Frumpkin came over to rub against his knuckles eagerly.
"We did," Nott agreed, but her voice was thick and sad.
She had pulled her hood down when they entered their rented room, but now she pulled it back up and bowed her head. Now it was time for her to move on. No human wanted a goblin companion; it had been cooperation out of desperation, surely. She did her best to keep her voice from warbling as she said," I can head out in the morning."
"What?" Caleb sounded genuinely surprised.
"I mean, I'm sure you don't want a little goblin on your heels, bringing you attention. I would just get in the way. You have a future. You're well read, a-and, you have magic," her control was slipping, and few tears had already begun to wet her cheeks.
"Come here," he bid softly, holding his arms out so she could join him on the bed. She did as he asked, having to hoist herself onto the mattress. "If this is because you think I would be ashamed to travel with you, that is utter scheiße. You are very smart, Nott. You have a keen mind, and a good eye, not to mention your roguish talents," Caleb said, his voice soft and warm.
"All you need is a teacher. I had to be taught to read."
"Really?" She half figured that humans just learned the same way they did speech. They certainly seemed to learn all their social rules—and they had a lot of social rules—that way.
"Really, and I could teach you. If you wanted to stay, that is."
Nott smiled, her lips pulling over all of her teeth in such a way that made most humans flinch away, but not her Caleb. He smiled back, a wan, tight lipped thing, but coming from him it was a glowing declaration of joy.
Patting the two books he had, he took a moment to place which one was in common and pulled it out. Trepidation sent a chill down his back; he didn't share his heirloom texts. He didn't have his life saved by a goblin, typically, either though.
"I don't exactly have particularly good books for learning to read, but A Book About the Finer Somatic Elements of Spellcraft will have to do. Let's get started shall we?"
They nestled up in bed, Nott curled under his arm, and they rested against the headboard, and he held the book on his bent knees with one hand so he could point with the other as he read. They read into the night, until Nott had fallen asleep in the crook of his arm and Frumpkin took residence on his stomach. It was practically law that he was pinned where he lay now, so he sighed warmly, set the book on the nightstand and whispered," Schlaf schön, meine Zaubermaus und Kätzchen."