We avoid the field because we can take a hint.
The beasties seem to have run off, but I think it’s best not to tempt Fate, who in my experience has no willpower. We follow the well-trodden path around the huge golden wheatfield, keeping a nervous eye on the stalks in case the little monsters burst out at us again.
Luckily, me chopping them up and Nom eating them seems to have put a dent in their morale. Soon, we’ve skirted the field (stopping only to clean the worse of the monster blood and innards from my weapon and, in Nom’s case, her chin) and are approaching the town.
The crashed ship’s cargo pod towers over us, sticking out from the hillside like some colossus’ hurled spear. From it, the various thick cables woven from straw strain downwards to the dome-like, woven structures. You can hear the cables creak and twang in the breeze.
People are going in and out of the buildings at ground level like they’re some public convenience, though I can’t tell what, maybe shops. The folk in this town have brighter clothes than the lot in Ash End and their expressions aren’t permanently locked in some weird poker-face. In fact, gods be praised, they’re smiling at each other.
The town doesn’t have even a wall, but there is a guard.
He’s wearing woven straw armour, with a flat, wide-brimmed hat/helmet and has a large, stone-headed, hammer weapon. He looks like he knows how to use it too. As in Ash End, nearly everyone is small, slightly built and blue, including the guard. He’s smaller than me but that won’t stop him braining me with the hammer if he chooses to.
Right, best get the standard guard threats out of the way. I try to grip the spear in a non-threatening manner and cautiously approach him. He sees us and his face lights up.
Wait, that’s not right.
“Visitors!” He says in tones of delight, he has a square-featured face that erupts in a mesh of well-worn laughter-lines. “Oh, happy day! The joy that a visitor brings to our town can only be surpassed by one thing.”
I exchange a glance with Nom. She shakes her head to signify she doesn’t know what’s going on either and hides behind my legs.
“What’s that?” I asked, carefully.
“The joy they feel from discovering the delights within. Welcome to Gold-under-Shadow, friends. Welcome! Welcome!”
I give him a brittle and uncertain smile.
This is not normal guard behaviour. They’re supposed to intimidate you, so you don’t do anything naughty. They tell you they’ve got their eye on you, brandish their weapons, maybe follow you if they’re feeling energetic. This one is leaning on his warhammer in an extremely carefree and non-threatening manner. It shouldn’t be allowed.
I find it quite threatening actually.
“You seem very, um… nice,” I say, looking around for whatever it is that’s going to attack us. Maybe his mates are hiding behind the woven building, giggling, with coshes and sacks to put over our heads.
“How else would I be?” he says, confused. While he’s talking to us, he keeps stopping to give a cheery welcome to people passing by. “I’m Jaff by the way. I’m the first (good morning!) thing a visitor sees. I will always look my (Lovely day, madam!) best and try to provide the finest welcome it is in my power (How are you doing there?) to provide. They are a guard’s main duties after all.”
“What about, um, guarding?”
“Well, yes, obviously (good day, Sir, Madam, Nu!) I guard. Guarding’s a given. It’s just there’s not much (Hello, have you lost weight? Looking good!) to actually guard from.”
“There’s not?” I say, thinking of the savage things in the wheat and the town of cannibals we’ve just come from.”
“No, until recently it was mostly snow (Good morning), very few snow creatures, the Critters keep to the straw, and there’s just Ash End down the road there. Ash Enders for their part are (Good day! Wonderful hat!) no bother. Yes, they have their ways, but they rarely come here, and they behave themselves when they do.”
“By ‘ways’, you mean the cannibalism,” I prompt.
“Yes, sadly, they eat people,” he says, and he does for a second look sad before brightening up. “But not here of course, no, never here.”
I notice that he said they eat ‘people’ and not they eat ‘moots.’
Jaff continues to talk, “and then there’s (hello there, have a great day) the empirical capitol further North however they have their own things going on, so…”
But I’m looking around at the people.
Now I look, there’s not just the diminutive, blue-skinned folk here, I can see a few moots too. There’s a pig-man walking around like anybody else and a lizard-lady in a shimmering dress, there’s a badger-headed man in a tweed suit. There’s not many of them, but they’re there, mixed in with the crowd. They’re just walking around. No-one’s glaring at them or trying to eat them.
Jaff is still talking, “and may I say you have a just gorgeous warm shade to your skin. Is that pale peach? (Good morning! going shopping, are we?) We don’t see that much. Had a purple person a few years ago, like a pale blueberry they were, I still remember…”
I look down at Nom.
She’s already noticed the happy moots and comes out from behind my legs, looking around with wonder.
“Shoo!” She gasps. “Can you see?”
“I can,” I tell her.
“Hello, little one,” Jaff says, leaning down. “Why, you’ve come out just like the sun from behind clouds.”
“You don’t want to eat me,” she says in tones of disbelief.
“Well of course not! When you’ve tried our famous pastries, you won’t want to eat anything else either. Plus, nutritionally, they’re the whole package!”
“Gosh,” she says.
“I know, right? I think you’ll like it here,” Jaff says, giving her a big smile.
“I think I will too,” she smiles back
I get in on the smiling thing and smile at both of them.
We all smile at each other, bit weird, but it feels natural.
Okay, it doesn’t. It feels really freaking weird, but I can ignore it.
Tentatively, I’m starting to come round to the idea that nothing horrible is going to happen in Gold-under-Shadow. Statistically, it had to happen eventually. I decide to be cautiously hopeful.
Even better, Nom seems to like it.
Which is extra great.
Because maybe I can leave her here.