The last thing Juniper Tattleberry expected to find in a china shop was a bull. Actually that wasn’t quite true: she had gone in there to find one, but the example she was after was ceramic and preferably no more than ten centimetres tall. Local prices were notoriously high and the Kudosian traders were known to only haggle upwards, so Juniper knew, the moment she saw the giant half-man half-bull figure advancing down the aisle, she was probably the first ever customer of this store to get more than she bargained for.
She backed up against the counter. The monster snorted and stomped resolutely towards her. The fragile wares were clinking and clattering on their shelves, like a lot of fully laden tea trays in a lot of shaky hands.
Juniper was suddenly conscious of the figurine she had chosen just minutes earlier, still in her hand.
YOU PAY FOR ANY BREAKAGES, the notice had said in stern black lettering above the door. It was one reason Brother Trogladon had decided to wait outside for her. That and the sweltering heat. “Sorry, I’m not traipsing around in there while you pick out a gift. It’ll be like a kiln in there,” he had said.
“I don’t think they actually make the goods on the premises,” she’d told him. Although she didn’t know for sure. Any of the numerous souvenir shops along this row may have had their own kilns out the back, but no columns of smoke were spilling up over the rooftops. Just as well, as they would bake well enough in the sunshine without any additional help from hard-working ovens.
“Well, besides,” her friend had said, gesturing at the store, “it’s already crowded in there. I don’t think they’ll want an Ogre taking up valuable browsing space.”
Juniper had looked her friend and adventuring partner up and down and had to admit that he had a point. As a monk, trained in many arts – both mystical and martial – he was the least clumsy Ogre in the world, but there was no denying he took up a fair amount of room.
“It’s fine,” he’d assured her. And jerked a thumb behind him, indicating the grocer’s stall directly opposite. “I’ll go get myself some refreshment. See if they have any coolfruit.”
“All right,” she’d said. “I won’t be long. I’ll see you out here in a few shakes of a lamb’s tail.”
And that had been that. And oh, how she regretted those words now. Not only because of their optimism in terms of the likely timescale, but because she would have given anything right then to be confronted by a mere lamb. The great beast marched – CLOMP-jingle! CLOMP-jangle! – along the aisle, each menacing step jarring her nerves as well as the china.
A selection of thimbles, delicately painted with local scenes and labelled, in exquisite golden calligraphy, SUNNY KUDOS were jiggling their way closer to the end of the nearest shelf with every tremor. If the encounter didn’t prove fatal, it would be hideously expensive.
Juniper stared at the monster bearing down on her. Night-black velvety hide, permanently flaring nostrils and beautiful ivory horns, lowered and aimed forward both as a threat and to avoid scraping great furrows in the ceiling. Massively broad shoulders filling the aisle, its enormous muscular arms ended in mighty clenched fists and its ebony tree-trunk legs were mounted on gigantic cloven hooves. It wore a skirt of silver chainmail and slatted armour-plate.
There was no sign of a purse about its person. And although Trogladon had been right and the place had indeed been crowded when they had arrived, the customers had since slipped out and the other aisles were deserted. All of which added up to the damages coming out of her pocket.
Except she and Brother Trogladon were on a budget. They weren’t in the business of adventuring for the money and generally only carried a few coins for essentials. It was why she had wanted a small figurine – not the smallest, since her generous nature wouldn’t permit such a cheap gift, but something reasonable to take back to Tortenschloss to show her sister she had been thinking of her on her travels.
Carefully, she set the figurine down on the counter top behind her. “Um,” she said, “thanks but I won’t be wanting this, after all.” Hopefully by clearly stating her intent not to purchase she would be absolved of any responsibility for the item from here on. The merchant said nothing. He was probably still hiding down there somewhere. He had dropped out of sight as she had approached to pay for the item. His terrified stare had been the thing that had first alerted her to a very large something at the far end of the store. Which was when she had turned and seen it for herself.
The figurine, as it turned out, was a poor imitation of the real thing. Its sculpted musculature looked puny in porcelain, the horns were far too tiny and the golden nose ring the artist had given it made it look a bit silly. Whereas the real thing was anything but that.
It came to a stop a few short metres away and blew out another furious snort. This time Juniper felt the heat of its breath on her skin. She gulped and glanced down at her slip of leaves and vines. Some of the leaves looked in danger of wilting, but maybe that was just her. At least no part of her outfit was currently in bloom. Depending on the season she could sprout flowers of all colours and now was definitely not the time for a splash of red.
The beast appeared to be waiting for something. Perhaps for her to faint away, to crumple and collapse. To show some sign of fear in the shadow of its intimidating bulk. Well, she was scared, she wasn’t about to pretend otherwise. The creature had only to close one of those fists around her and it could break her like a twig. But Juniper Tattleberry’s natural response to danger was simply to pluck up more courage.
Fear was the seed. Bravery grew from that.
Although it occurred to her that right now it could use a little nurturing sunlight. She had no doubt that if it came to a fight, Brother Trogladon would come charging in to her aid. Indeed, he was probably throwing aside his coolfruit right this second, concerned at the sight of all the customers vacating the store and ready to run in to find her. But Juniper paled at the thought of the resulting destruction.
The floorboards under her bare feet offered a source of new growth with which to entangle the beast. But she doubted the ability of greenery to hold this monster for more than a few minutes. Valuable time, maybe, but it would probably involve enough thrashing about to put paid to most of the wares on display.
Better – much better – if she could lure the beast out into the street, where she and Trogladon could deal with it (relatively) safely between them.
Slowly, slowly – with the patience of a waking plant – she slid sideways along the counter, fixing her gaze on the monster. Its malevolent eyes tracked her progress, suspicion burning in their depths. But so far so good – it was staying put.
It snorted. It scraped a hoof on the boards. It watched her.
Juniper liked to live by certain principles. If she was going to live the next few minutes, she decided she would live them by one rule:
No sudden moves.
[To Be Continued…]