They're only badass by accident...
Vola might be new to this whole adventuring thing, but she's pretty sure this isn't how you're supposed to save the day. No one at her academy wanted an orc as a paladin, so they've sent her to the back end of a swamp, hoping she'll never find a quest good enough to earn her shield. Well, screw that. Vola's got divine help, and even a laughingstock of a goddess can do some righteous smiting.
Armed with a new mission to find some missing orphans, Vola just needs a team to help her track them down. Beggars can't be choosers but couldn't her goddess have sent her at least one competent fighter? Now she's stuck with a hyperactive halfling, a klutzy spell caster, and a cloaked mystery who's a little too good with their knives. Can a half-orc paladin keep her new party alive in a swamp that's determined to eat them, or are all the naysayers right and Orcs really can't be heroes?
"The setting was just immersive enough to complement the fun and brisk plot such that I happily started and finished this story in one sitting! I genuinely laughed out loud multiple times. Lastly, I can't stress enough how skillfully the author represented some very underrepresented people/characters while completely succeeding in making that representation a nonissue to the plot. I can't wait to read the next installment of this saga!"– Goodreads Review
"A treat for any fantasy RPG player or lover of character driven light adventure!"– Amazon Review
"Merritt drew me in with By Winged Chair, and now with this set, she's convinced me. I'll be picking up all her stuff. She's got a reader for life."– Amazon Review
Volagra Lightbringer, Paladin Candidate of the Whiteshield Academy and wandering adventurer, rode into Water's Edge on a broke-down, bare-backed horse with nothing more than sheer determination, a rusted sword, and a purse that echoed.
Her dusty, dun-colored horse stumbled step by step down Main Street, wheezing all the way, before coming to a crooked stop in front of a brightly painted sign that read:
"Becky's Tea and Tap Room. Please wipe your feet."
Her companion reined his horse in beside her without so much as a twitch.
Vola leaned forward to give the nag a sympathetic pat. But the horse's head jerked up, and it shied away from her touch. The ancient beast had one more good buck in it, and it caught Vola by surprise, dumping her in a heap of chain mail on the dirt before it tottered away, making a zig-zaggy break for freedom.
A knight who couldn't even keep her seat on a geriatric horse. This was going so wonderfully already.
There was a shrill neigh and a splash from around the corner of the building.
"I'll go fish it out of the swamp," Henri said with a chuckle. Her companion hid a smile and turned his own horse to go rescue the stupid creature as it floundered.
Vola heaved a sigh and pulled herself out of the dirt. The afternoon sun had made her sweaty under her chain mail and sweaty and dirty always equaled itchy.
Her mom always said when life gives you lemons, make lemon cake. Of course, that had a slightly different tone when you watched her crushing citrus with her bare hands.
Her Aunt Urag made it simple and just said "Screw life; it's trying to screw you anyway." Which sounded much more poetic in orcish.
Vola wished she had some lemons to crush right about now. At the very least, the feel of pulped fruit between her fingers might make her feel better.
Henri returned, the nag trotting at his side, now wet and muddy. Vola caught its bridle and dragged it back toward the horse trough.
Its nostrils flared.
"All right, all right," Vola muttered. "You've made your point."
She tried to remind herself that it wasn't the horse's fault that its distant ancestors had looked at people like her and thought "monster." At least the poor beast had gotten her here, to the thriving metropolis of Water's Edge.
A couple men sat on a porch across the street, their boots up on the railing and their stained hats pulled low over their eyes. Their wives chattered idly nearby. The only movement within miles.
Henri pulled his mount up beside her, a sleek gelding who'd weathered Vola's presence with the same aplomb as it had weathered heated battles.
Vola eyed the nag. "I think it's time the poor thing was retired," she said. "Maybe find a buyer who'll take it off our hands."
"And if no one wants to pay for it?" Henri said, giving the horse a sideways glance.
"Give it away," Vola said. "To some farmer who will treat it nicely before it dies. I'm not going to subject innocent horses to monsters anymore."
Henri gave her a look like she'd insulted his favorite kind of pastry. "You know I don't like it when you call yourself that."
He pulled the helm from his head and ran a gloved hand through his short silver hair. He smiled at her to take the sting from his words, his expression pulling at the scar that ran from the corner of his eye down his neck.
She rolled her eyes to cover the twinge of shame in her gut.
"The academy was never going to give someone like me a valuable animal right after graduation." She planted her hands on her hips and looked around. "But I can't help but feel they were trying to throw up as many roadblocks as possible. Do you really think I'll find a quest good enough to earn my shield in this…town?"
Henri eyed the main street with its collection of mismatched cottages and storefronts.
Vola could smell the swamp that stretched just on the other side of the buildings, like a million wet feet packed into one little cabin. Water's Edge was a nice way to put it. But if anyone with a nose had been around for the naming of things, the town would have been called something much worse and probably a lot more accurate.
There were a decent number of homes and shops, though, and over the roofs rose a low hill, topped with an impressive manor house.
"A quest is just an official way to help people," Henri said. "And there are people to help—"
"Anywhere you look," Vola finished for him.
Henri grinned, tying his helm to his saddle. He wore an eclectic combination of leather and steel armor, supple enough to keep him mobile, but Vola had seen him absorb hits that would have felled a line of knights.
He cocked his head at the town. "Sometimes you do have to look harder. I've never seen a countryside so amazingly clear of bandits and highwaymen."
"I know. No one tried to rob or murder us at all. It's weird." Vola's eyes widened in realization. "They sent me here on purpose, didn't they? They sent me to the middle of nowhere so they can claim any quest I find isn't good enough to earn my shield."
A face wavered in her mind, vivid enough to feel real even this far from the academy. Knight Commander Imralen's flint gray eyes narrowed at her, his face as hard as granite with the sharp edges to match.
"Good will always prevail over evil, Volagra," he'd told her the last time she'd seen him. "I will not allow you to besmirch this academy with your evil, no matter how hard you try to deny it."
She'd ground her teeth and clenched her fists, but in the end, there had been nothing the master of the academy could do to keep her from riding out with Henri. Thank the goddess.
Henri's fingers gripped her shoulder, pulling her from the memory just as red flickered at the edges of her vision. She blinked back at him.
"They're not the ones in charge of giving you your shield," he said, knowing full well what she was thinking. "I am. If they didn't like that, then the masters shouldn't have put me in charge of training paladins."
Vola's lips twisted. "I know what comes next. Get off my butt and stop moping."
Henri took his reins and Vola's with a shrug. "Your choice. Not mine."
The old trainer disappeared around the corner, urging the nag and the gelding to follow him.
Vola blew out her breath and glanced around the town again, wondering what kind of quest she could find in a place like this. She was already getting strange looks from the housewives on the street and their men had sat up to glare, bushy eyebrows lowered and waiting for an excuse to spring at her. She fought down the urge to bare her teeth and settled for resting her hand on her sword hilt instead. They didn't have to know it was almost rusted through. They only had to know she was willing to wield it.
Vola scowled at the little town. There was no way anyone here would have anything that would help her earn her shield. Paladin academies were pretty particular about what kinds of things were considered heroic. Saving a town from a raging dragon. Heroic. Picking turnips for a crotchety farmer. Not so much.
This place probably didn't even have a job board. She should just call Henri back and keep moving down the road. She'd have better luck riding through the swamp, listening for calls of help.
Just as she was seriously considering turning around, a bell tolled, striking deep in her bones and making her stagger. The townsfolk, who'd been giving her shifty looks, fell to their knees, holding their heads. The resonance shook the buildings and weighed on Vola's chest, making it harder to breathe.
As far as Vola could see, the town didn't have a bell tower.
She caught a glimmer out of the corner of her eye and turned to see a brief, bright aura light up the colorful storefront where her horse had thrown her. Becky's Tea and Tap Room.
The bell didn't toll again, but it didn't have to. Vola could take a hint. She'd heard the blasted thing often enough before.
"Fine," she grumbled under her breath. "I'll check it out. If you could tone down the signs and portents, though, that would be great. Thanks."
A cloud passed over the sun for a second, making it seem like the sky winked at her, and Vola rolled her eyes.
She climbed up the front steps of the building and pushed through the door.
She knew she'd made a mistake the moment she crossed the threshold. She should have announced her presence, called out a warning, or done something—anything—other than walk in the front door like a normal person.
Screams echoed in the cake and beer-scented air as bodies scrambled away from the door, the strong trampling the weak in their haste to escape. The tinkle of crashing glass carried across the room as the mob made a back door where there'd only been a window before.
Sheesh, Vola thought. I haven't even smiled, yet.
It was clear the place had been a bar once, but evidently, some new management had heard the words "tea room" and tried to replicate the feeling using clippings from lady's magazines.
Frilly lace curtains draped the windows, and the booths had been re-covered with a bright, floral fabric that made Vola's eyes water.
"Here you a—wait. Where'd everybody go?" a bright voice asked. A woman with a mop of gold curls fading to gray and a cheery red face appeared through the door marked 'employees only.'
Vola sized up the short, stout woman and gave her the least intimidating smile she could manage. "They left in a hurry," she said, trying very hard to speak around her tusks without accidentally lisping. Or growling.
The woman blinked, a lone soldier facing an ogre.
"I love your curtains," Vola said with a calculated gesture at the window. "Did you make them? They're lovely."
The words broke the woman's paralysis, and she beamed. "Why, thank you so much. Aren't you the sweetest...thing?"
Vola didn't miss the hesitation. Her eye twitched.
The woman set down the tray she'd been carrying, her gaze traveling from Vola's worn steel-tipped boots all the way to the thick black braid hanging over her shoulder. Her head didn't quite brush the ceiling, but it was a near thing.
"And, er...what sort of thing are you exactly?"
Vola could have bristled, but she'd heard the question often enough. Usually in much less friendly tones.
"I'm a paladin, ma'am," she said, deliberately misconstruing the question. "Trained at the Whiteshield Academy."
"Oh." The woman clapped her hands. "A real paladin. You must be here on a quest. The mother of sharp kitchen implements must have heard my prayers." Faster than Vola thought possible, she hurtled around the end of the counter and threw her arms around Vola's waist, ignoring the green skin and chain mail.
Vola deliberately didn't mention that she wasn't a full paladin. Not yet.
"Who do you serve? A Greater Virtue? A Lesser Virtue? Do they talk to you? Sit, sit." The woman bustled back around the counter. "Let me get you something to drink. Tea? Coffee? Or would you like something a little stronger?" She winked and pulled a flask out from under the counter and sloshed the liquid inside.
Vola held up her hands. "Just tea, thank you. I only drink to celebrate victory. Never before. It angers the gods."
The woman's face fell a little, but she took a swig from the flask and brightened considerably before setting a dainty teacup decorated with pastel roses in front of Vola.
"I'll take another if you're offering, Mistress Becky," a voice said from the air around Vola's waist. "I have no problem drinking before a victory, after a victory, during a victory."
Vola jumped as a hand reached up over the bar and clunked an empty mug onto the counter.
"You've had three already," Mistress Becky said. "How are you still standing?"
"There's a lot less of me to fall over when I get drunk," the voice said.
Vola tilted her head to peer down and down until she finally encountered a pair of hazel eyes in a nut-brown face under a thatch of curly roan colored hair. "Are you even old enough to drink?" she asked the girl, who stood less than three feet tall.
The girl scowled. "Is that a short joke?" She turned to the bar stool beside Vola and scrambled up like a squirrel to sit with her feet swinging in the air. In the second it took her to get to the top, she was grinning again, clearly not one to hold a grudge. "That's all right," she said. "We can't all be as tall as trees."
Vola had seen enough halflings to recognize one, but she'd never had a chance to talk with one before. It was hard to imagine someone that small being competent at anything except maybe catching mice. But then people made a lot of assumptions looking at Vola, too, so who was she to judge?
The halfling leaned forward to cradle the mug Becky handed her and disappeared completely when she raised it to take a swig.
Shuffling noises from the back of the bar indicated the return of the frightened customers.
"Becky," someone hissed. "Becky, there's a monster at your counter."
Becky glared at the man who'd spoken. "You leave my customers alone, Will Cartwright. This one's a paladin, here to help the town. And she likes my curtains," she added as an afterthought.
There was some grumbling, but gradually the bar room filled up again with a crowd.
The halfling glanced at Vola out of the corner of her eye. "I've never seen an orc before."
"Half-orc," Vola growled. Then she braced herself for a rude question. There was always a rude question.
"Is it always like that?" The halfling cocked a thumb over her shoulder, indicating the humans milling like frightened sheep.
"Mostly," she said.
"Hmm. I'm sorry." The halfling stared into the distance. "You know, I've always wanted tusks."
"What?" Vola barked a laugh.
The halfling tapped her own pearly whites, eyes unfocused. "They just seem so...effective."