Filch stared at the noisy gnoll cub and cursed himself. A few drops of dragon's blood, mixed into milk or water or other benign liquid, made a powerful curative. The same amount of dragon's blood, mixed into wolf's blood and consumed by a human or elf, was likely to create a werewolf. Apparently, as far as the dragon's blood was concerned, gnolls were more "hyena" than "man". The part of Filch's mind that had never stopped being a sorcerer's apprentice was fascinated; the part of his mind that kept track of matters of survival was disgusted. Of course, Filch DID know a great deal more about the care of infant gnolls than he knew about infant elves, and that had some definite advantages.
The chest sling Filch had been using to transport the child would have been barely adequate for a conscious elven infant; it was useless for dealing with the teeth and claws and greater strength of a gnoll cub. Filch had to either put the boy back to sleep, or find some other means of transport, and given the available resources, sleep was much the better option. Fortunately, it was also fairly easy to arrange. He still had a bit of human meat left over from the teamsters; he diced a small amount of it as finely as he could, added a few ounces of his own blood and a half-ounce of whiskey, and fed the mess to the child. The cub ate greedily and was sound asleep by the time Filch had finished his own breakfast and packed his gear; Filch re-installed the cub in the chest sling and continued on his way.
Filch was forced to let the cub set the schedule for the day's rest stops; gnoll infants were capable of consuming prodigious amounts of alcohol relative to human or elf infants, but there was still some risk of overdose. The child was far hungrier as a gnoll than he had been as an elf, and the combination of magic and blood loss took their toll on Filch. His hope of making it to the next town before nightfall was not realized; he camped again, and continued wearily the following day.
It was late afternoon before he finally trudged to the town gate and requested permission to enter. He was informed that the town had no gnoll enclave, but that he would be allowed to trade at the market on the condition that he must be outside the walls by sunset; Filch agreed wearily. He asked questions, purchased supplies, and then retreated into the woods to make camp once again. The following day he was in the marketplace when it opened and bought a wheelbarrow and used it to commandeer a small space in the marketplace where he offered his services as a healer and scribe. He suspected that his behavior wouldn't have been tolerated if he had not had the child in tow, but that was only fair; if he had not had the child in tow, he would not have been forced to operate in such a fashion.
It was harder work than Filch was used to, since he didn't know how long he was going to be there and therefore had to be scrupulously honest, a circumstance that made his Trickster's soul ache. He upgraded the wheelbarrow to a small four wheeled cart with a canvas enclosure, and kept his eyes open for someone he could hire long term; going back to pick up the rest of his goods was going to require a larger wagon and some pack animals, and Filch didn't want to try to handle that AND the baby at the same time.
The dead caravan was found, of course; Filch was relieved that no one associated the old gnoll with the cub with the event. Wild animals had been at the bodies after Filch had left, and the discoverers had not been sufficient woodsmen to deduce Filch's involvement. Filch offered a prayer of thanksgiving to the Trickster gods, and stole several day's wages from the town sheriff playing three card shuffle to demonstrate his gratitude.
Filch's personnel problems were solved after about six weeks, when a young gnoll appeared at the edge of Filch's camp. Filch looked at him curiously, while mentally measuring the distance from his right hand to the nearest weapon. "Good evening," Filch said quietly. "What might I do for you?"
"Hospitality, Grandfather?" the gnoll replied. "I have come a long way, and I am cold, and tired, and hungry."
Filch looked him over. He was wearing a ragged loincloth, a belt, and a dagger. He was almost dangerously skinny, and his fur seemed thin; it was clear that he had not eaten well in a long time. "What's your name, boy?" Filch didn't quite growl.
"Skulk, Grandfather," he replied. "I am from Mildew Village."
"That's a long way. How long have you been on the road?"
"Two years and a bit, Grandfather."
Filch looked at him, and could read much of his story. He had left his home village in the spring of his fourteenth year, as custom demanded; he either had a poor family, or no family at all, and therefore had had no destination arranged; he had apparently chosen to try to make his way in the wild rather than beg his way into a community. He hadn't thrived, but it hadn't quite killed him, yet. Filch threw him a chicken leg and told him to sit down; the boy sat, stripped the meat off the leg in two quick bites, and began to eat the bone. Filch smiled. "Are you tired of the road, yet, boy?"
Skulk looked up warily. "I'm tired of being cold and hungry. But I don't want to spend the rest of my life shoveling manure for the Mothers, either."
"Smart boy. There are alternatives, though." Filched tossed Skulk some more meat, and it disappeared as quickly as the first sample.
Skulk bit through a bone and looked up. "Such as?"
"I'm not ready to leave the road just yet, either, but I need to start working out of a wagon instead of a back pack, and I could use some help. Are you interested?" Skulk said nothing, but stared at Filch intently. "I'm talking about an apprenticeship of sorts; I will teach you anything I know that you want to learn. There will be reasonable amounts of food, fairly adequate shelter, clothing and blankets, and a few coins occasionally."
Skulk continued to stare at Filch; Filch glanced at him, then set to tending the fire. He knew that he had the boy, he just needed to seal the deal. "What do you have to teach, Grandfather?" Skulk asked.
Filch looked at Skulk and grinned. "I can read and write," he said, holding up his index finger as if counting points. "As well as a few other things." The tip of his index finger burst into flame in response to Filch's muttered spell; Skulk's jaw dropped open slackly, and Filch smiled. "Close your mouth and say, Yes, boy", he said, and then blew out the burning finger. Skulk nodded vigorously, his mouth still gaping. "Good," Filch said, and he thought that tomorrow would be a good day to give the sherriff another lesson in three card shuffle.
March 1, 2006