It was a dark, moonless night when the stranger came to Plaintown.
Bobbie was done with her daily chores, and her baby brother was fast asleep. For the first time all day, the house was still and quiet, and Bobbie found her gaze drifting out her bedroom window.
She saw movement beyond the torchlight.
At first, she thought her eyes were playing tricks on her. It was hard to see anything on a night like this one, when the moon was blocked by dark clouds and the torches set up around town only served to deepen the shadows. She drew closer to the window; she squinted into the darkness.
There—she’d been right. It wasn’t a trick of the flickering torchlight, and it wasn’t Shepherd Ellis’s sheep running loose again. It was a person moving out there. But their movements were strange. They shuffled slowly forward, reaching out with both arms as if for balance.
Bobbie thought it might be a zombie. She’d heard stories about them: mindless, rotting creatures with putrid green flesh and sunken black eyes. They were dead things that stalked the night to prey upon the living.
She was revolted—and curious. She leaned in for a closer look.
As she watched the figure, it seemed to totter and sway, like little baby Johnny had when he’d taken his first steps. Then it stumbled, as if tripping over its own feet, and dropped to the ground right beneath a lit torch.
In the light, Bobbie could see the figure clearly for the first time. It wasn’t a zombie at all. It was a boy. And he needed help!
Bobbie’s parents honked in protest as she ran past them and threw open the front door. She ignored them. She knew very well that it was against the rules for villagers to leave the safety of their homes after the sun went down. But she also knew that she’d be forgiven for breaking the rules if she could help someone in need.
“Hello?” Bobbie said as she approached the fallen figure. “Can you hear me? I’m Barbara—Bobbie.”
The figure raised his head. “Poison,” he said weakly.
The word chilled Bobbie to her core. Poison. Did that mean someone had done this on purpose?
“I need to get you to our cleric,” she said. “Do you think you can make it? It isn’t far.” She took his arm and put it around her shoulder, helping him back to his feet. He took shuffling, uncertain footsteps, but as long as she supported his weight, she knew he wouldn’t fall again.
She wouldn’t let him fall.
Plaintown’s temple was only a few doors down from her family’s home. She didn’t bother knocking. Cleric Avery, surprised by the intrusion, rushed down the stone stairs to question her.
“He’s been poisoned,” Bobbie explained.
The cleric grumbled, gesturing toward a table. Bobbie helped the stranger climb on top of it. His iron armor clanked against the wood surface. In the bright interior light of the temple, she could see how bad he looked. No wonder she’d thought he was a zombie; he looked half dead.
Cleric Avery examined the boy, honking their conclusions at Bobbie.
“Wither?” she said, doing her best to understand the cleric’s gestures and utterances. “Is there a cure? Do you have a potion . . . ?”
The cleric’s answer surprised her. But she knew better than to ask if they were joking. In Bobbie’s experience, Cleric Avery didn’t tell jokes.
Bobbie ran out into the night, heading to the northernmost edge of town. That’s where the animals were kept: two sheep, twice as many chickens, and a cow named Daisy.
Bobbie had never milked a cow at night before. But this was an emergency, and although Daisy gave her a funny look, the cow didn’t complain.
As soon as Bobbie had returned to the temple, Cleric Avery forced the stranger to drink the milk, straight from the bucket.
“Did it work?” Bobbie asked, impatient. “Will he be all right?”
The cleric grumbled in response. The worst of the danger was over—the milk had cured the wither poisoning—but the stranger was still weak. He needed rest.
“In other words, it’s time for me to leave,” said Bobbie. “I can take a hint, Cleric.” But she hesitated on her way out the door, turning back to smile warmly at the villager. “Thank you for your help. I knew I could count on you.”
Cleric Avery grumbled again, uncomfortable with her gratitude. The cleric, like most of Plaintown’s residents, didn’t enjoy surprises, interruptions, or any sort of deviation from their daily routines. And tonight’s events were certainly unusual. Adventurers came through the village every so often, usually to trade for goods or to use a crafting station. This was the first time an outsider had really, truly needed the villagers’ help, though. And Plaintown had delivered.
Bobbie felt a rush of pride and satisfaction. She basked in the glow of a good deed done well.
She might have felt differently, if she’d only known the trouble that the stranger would bring to her life.
Copyright © 2022 by Nick Eliopulos. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.