Strangers in an Unforgiving Land
It was a satisfying job if nothing else. At times it could be difficult to obtain supplies and fresh food, especially when the winter gales made it almost impossible to stand upright, but she was mostly self-sufficient. Moira had never been tolerant of the cold, which was not an unusual difficulty for an Aisha. Still, it made Terror Mountain seem an odd choice for her residence. Perhaps not, though, since inside her inn it was always warm. A fireplace was kept constantly lit in every room, radiating heat and flickering light out the doorways and through the corridors. All of the furniture was cushioned and comfortably worn from years of use. She liked it that way, finding it infinitely preferable to the stiff, brand new look that so many other inns were careful to maintain.
The guests usually staggered in half-starved and nearly frozen from their travels. They almost always stayed at least a week, and some would remain all through the harsh winter months before setting out again. Moira enjoyed the opportunity to get to know the travelers, who always had fascinating tales to tell, even if some were a bit exaggerated. The guests seemed to enjoy the warmth and comfort of her inn, as well as the low rates, and some of them returned year after year. There had once been a complaint about the number of petpets that roamed throughout the inn, but it had come from a cranky Yurble whose traveling days were rapidly drawing to an end and she didn’t pay it much heed.
The petpets were what made the inn stand out in the minds of visitors. There were at least thirty of them, but she had lost count some time ago. Guests would select a favorite petpet to be their temporary companion during the stay and spend many hours with their chosen petpet. For that reason Moira had been careful to choose tolerant and social species. Kookiths and warfs were generally the favorites, but even the lone meowclops was appreciated. There were few sights more pleasing to Moira than several guests sitting around the fireplace in the lobby, each reading or sitting quietly with a content petpet nestled in their laps.
There was one petpet, though, that was a problem. It was a small black gruslen that had not been bought from the store like all the others. Moira had found it out in the snow a few months ago, weak and helpless. Carefully, Moira had nursed the tiny creature back to health, but when she set it free to run about the inn it hid away in the shadows. Anyone who attempted to touch the gruslen and was stubborn enough to ignore the snarls would come away with painful scratches. Not even Moira could comfort or make contact with the petpet. Occasionally she would see it skulking around the inn, but it rarely showed itself.
Moira was sitting behind the counter reading Pazo the Lonely Aisha when Kookie, one of the warfs, raced towards the entrance, yapping excitedly. A moment later the door swung open, sending a knife-sharp gust of wind slicing through the room. A tall figure wrapped tightly in a black cloak swept into the inn. It paused a moment to shake off the snow and then removed its hood to reveal an angry looking Darigan Kougra beneath. Moira hesitated briefly. Darigans never came to her inn and she’d been grateful to never have had to deal with them. Still, she couldn’t just turn down a customer in need based on the assumption that he would cause trouble.
“Good day, sir.” She smiled, rising from her seat and stepping over to the counter. “How may I help you this morning?”
The Kougra glanced around, disgust evident on his fierce features. He glared maliciously at the lupe sitting by the fire watching them. The lupe hurriedly looked away, busying himself with a copy of the Neopian Times.
“I need a room for the night,” the Kougra said, his voice as low and gravely.
“Just one night?” Moira asked.
“That’s what I said,” he growled, glowing red eyes narrowing.
“Very good, sir.” Moira’s smile faltered at his heated tone. “That will be twenty neopoints, including dinner and breakfast.”
“I don’t want food,” he snarled. “I just want a place to sleep.”
“Oh,” Moira said quietly. “Umm... could I get your name?”
The look he shot her could have frozen a puddle solid. He slammed twenty neopoints onto the table and stalked off toward the stairs.
“Room 30 is open,” she called out as he disappeared through the doorway.
Thankfully the Kougra stayed in his room all day, the door tightly closed and locked. In the late afternoon she heard a pitiful squeaking from upstairs, almost certainly a kookith whining at a closed door (they didn’t like being shut out). There was no doubt as to which door it was and after a few seconds of constant noise, there was an angry yell. There was a frantic scampering of paws and the kookith dashed into the lobby, looking upset and shaken.
A few hours later, Moira herself headed up the stairs. Knocking timidly at the door, she called, “Dinner’s ready!”
“Go away!” came the Kougra’s snarling voice, “I already told you I don’t want any food! And keep your stupid petpets away from me!”
As Moira stood glaring at the door, she heard him mutter, “I hate petpets.” With a snort, Moira turned on her heel and flounced down the stairs. If he wanted to be like that, fine. He was only making himself miserable; it was no concern of hers. Still, she couldn’t help but feel a wave of pity for the lonely Darigan.
That night Moira tossed and turned in the small room that branched off of the lobby. For some reason she simply couldn’t get to sleep. Picking up Pazo the Lonely Aisha, she attempted to interest herself in reading, but her efforts were in vain. At last she reached the conclusion that she must have forgotten to do something; perhaps the back door wasn’t locked. Moira climbed out of bed to check.
Opening the door quietly, she stepped out and froze in surprise. The Darigan Kougra was sitting in one of the cushioned chairs and staring into the flickering fire. It was odd to see him sitting there so relaxed, but even that wasn’t the truly shocking part. In his lap was the tiny black gruslen that no one else, not even she, could so much as touch. A soft purring noise came from the gruslen as the Kougra stroked it gently. Moira backed into her room, silently closing the door.
The next morning Moira was out in the lobby just as the sun began to peer over the horizon. It was her favorite time of day. The inn was quiet, everyone else still asleep with the petpets snoozing at the ends of their temporary owners' beds. The brilliant tints and hues of the rising sun reflected off of the crystal snow, turning the landscape into a brilliant ocean of color. Her mind filled with thoughts of what she had seen last night, Moira set about with her tedious duties.
At exactly 7:00, the Darigan Kougra descended the stairs and walked over to the counter. Moira pretended not to notice the black gruslen that followed him silently.
“I wish to check out,” he said.
“I hope you had a good stay,” Moira replied cheerfully.
“It was sufficient,” came the reply and Moira smiled.
He turned to leave without further comment. Moira glanced down at the gruslen. It didn’t move from its seated position on the floor, but instead watched the Kougra walk away, a shattered look in its eyes. Moira felt her heart break for the tiny creature.
“Wait!” she cried as the Kougra reached for the door handle. He stopped and turned, glaring at her suspiciously.
“Won’t you take the gruslen?” Moira begged. “It doesn’t have anywhere to go and it can’t stay here. It isn’t happy. Please take it; it needs you.”
The Kougra stared at her silently, then gazed down at the gruslen. He appeared to be weighing the consequences of his answer. Moira was suddenly frightened, not for herself but for the gruslen. If the Kougra left it here, the gruslen would be condemned to a life of distrust and solitude.
“It’s a she,” he said at last.
Moira smiled in relief. The Kougra stepped forward, bent down, and picked up the gruslen. It nestled into his arms and instantly began to purr. Without another word, he left. As the door slammed closed, Moira felt tears welling in her eyes. Who would have thought that a damaged, untrusting gruslen would choose an antisocial, short tempered Darigan Kougra to be her owner?
Stepping over to the window, Moira gazed out. She could see the rapidly receding figure of the Kougra with the gruslen racing alongside him in the snow. Their dark colors made them no more than silhouettes against the overwhelming brilliance of the morning. They seemed out of place, strangers in an unforgiving land. Yet at the same time it was obvious that this was exactly where they were meant to be.