Fruben Daleborn and the Demented Shopkeep
By Nick Foster

“Fruben Daleborn? One of the Daleborns?”

Fruben let out a sigh. It was the same routine each and every time he came by the apothecary whenever the old shopkeeper was around. The old man was ancient, crippled, and deranged, which added nicely to the atmosphere of the shop he kept, but made Fruben’s regular restocking of mystical reagents a tiresome chore.

“More of a chore,” he thought. Fruben would’ve liked an apprentice to deal with such things. A sturdy young lad who’d be amusingly traumatized by the ramblings of the demented old shopkeep, rather than merely frustrated like himself.

“Yes, Fruben. No, not one of the Daleborns. My family’s never even been to the valley.” Fruben muttered under his breath: “Nor shall they ever be, you foggy old crust.”

The Daleborns, to which the old shopkeep alluded, were a family of fantastic wealth and prestige, who’d famously forged a trade empire that spanned the length of the Wyvernspire Peaks. Fruben, on the other hand, had come by the name quite by accident — “Daleborn” was a corruption of his grandfather’s name, which had been of goblin origin and was thoroughly unpronounceable without a throat full of phlegm.

Fruben gathered up the bundle of ritual ingredients and gestured emphatically to the promissory note the old man was still examining. He stared impatiently around the room as the shopkeeper sniffed the note experimentally.

“Everything in order?” Fruben quaked with contempt for the old man.

The shop itself was small and cramped, not unlike its keeper. Musty herbs and old, exotic spices from distant lands mixed with things soaked in unguents or brined. In his years studying under the master, Fruben had worked with all manner of strange reagents, many of which he recognized on the shelves. Some of them still, he’d rather have remained ignorant of — particularly entrails.

Fruben loathed working with entrails.

The shopkeeper peered at the promissory note from a few different angles, as though expecting it to vanish if viewed in the proper light. Fruben occasionally wished he had the moral flexibility, let alone the imagination, to pull off such a prank. He’d just have to make due with honesty and the considerable resources his master had bequeathed to him. He had the feeling that if his mentor were still alive, he’d be the type to swindle a hard-working apothecary out of its hard-won wares. It was just a feeling he had.

Fruben heard a croak, which turned out to be the old man’s voice: “This isn’t enough.”

“I- What?” Fruben’s heart made a perilous leap into his throat, and he uttered a sound not unlike the one produced by the shopkeeper. A veritable chorus of croaks.

The old man hunched his shoulders to appear more menacing, and said in a forceful tone: “You don’t have enough for these items.” He quickly added a moment later: “I won’t take a promise of payment from you, either.”

Fruben wondered if the old fool knew what a promissory note was even for — he sighed with resignation and put the armload of reagents back down on the counter in front of him.

“Careful!” croaked the old man. “Don’t damage anything, I still have to sell those!” His old voice rasped on Fruben’s patience such that he thought he could feel little pieces of it curling off and fluttering to the floor. He cast a glance down as if to watch one.

“Do you even know how much these are worth!”

Fruben looked back up at the shopkeeper when he realized the old man was still ranting at him. From the man’s inflection — and at this point Fruben wished he could recall the old man’s name so he could properly frame a curse — he couldn’t tell if his words formed had been simply been an exclamation, an honest question, or an accusation of stupidity on his part. It was too much to hope the old man gave Fruben credit for knowing the value of the goods, let alone their agreed-upon price. They’d only haggled nearly a quarter of an hour, Fruben would hate to start the process over again.

The old shopkeep manhandled the packages Fruben had been holding only moments earlier, turned and scanned the table behind him for a place to deposit them, and callously overturned several rare, expensive, and, in a general sense, far more valuable things out of the way so he could put the things out of Fruben’s reach.

It was the gesture was what bothered Fruben most, the attitude of “you can’t have this,” or “this isn’t for you.” He resented the pettiness with a passion of dramatic proportion. The bundle had traveled less than five feet, and Fruben secretly fumed at the perfectly irreconcilable nature of the man’s words and actions.

The man barked at Fruben in a manner that he would have liked to compare to a particularly old, crusty, and demented dog, but none were sticking out in his mind, and none of the dogs that came to mind were the type he would have considered contemptible.

“If you can’t pay then get out, I’ve other customers to attend to!”

Fruben couldn’t resist looking around the small, dirty shop with a plaintiff look but he managed to quell his pithy arguments that the statement simply wasn’t true, being that there simply were no customers apart from Fruben.

A wicker mask painted to resemble a skull was all Fruben had to sympathize with in the shop. With brief consideration, he reversed the feeling, realizing that the mask had to put up with the old man far more often and for a far greater length of time than Fruben. By virtue of simple comparison, Fruben’s frustration was brief.

Fruben cast his thoughts about the room, and reeled them in when he felt a nibble of an idea. His catch was a quibble, which he threw out immediately, and he tried his luck again. For all his fishing, the best thing he could come up with was a contingency: and a feeble one that wouldn’t have fed anyone.

He let the idea flop around in his head and gasp while he tried, in vain, to come up with other possibilities. With a disheartened sigh, he retrieved an item from his tunic, the magic wand his master left to him, and presented it to the shopkeeper for inspection.

“This is all I have at the moment,” he heard himself say, and he tried to distance himself from the most grievous of errors he committed by allowing another to lay a hand on the item. It wasn’t that Fruben required the wand to complete the ritual he was buying, he needed the results of ritual to pay for itself and to help keep his practice in practice. Rather, it was the idea of making sacrifices just to make ends meet, and the justification of those sacrifices were an evil unto themselves.

The lesson he missed most, which his master had failed to impart, was how to achieve one’s intellectual pursuits while keeping a full stomach and a roof over one’s head. His master had always made it look so effortless.

“When I have payment, I’ll be back for that wand.” He added: “I should easily have it to you in the next few days. If you haven’t seen me by then,” he swallowed hesitantly. “You can keep it. Or, well, you can sell it.”

The shopkeeper accepted the wand from Fruben and turned it over in his hands, peering at it with disdain. “Why must it always be with such disdain?” thought Fruben. The wand was worth more than the bundle of ritual components he hoped to use it as collateral for, and it was unthinkable after years of faithful patronage that the old man wasn’t more trusting.

No, it was thinkable. All too thinkable. More importantly, not only was it thinkable, it was happening. Fruben could only attribute it to the old man’s dementia as a temporary measure to cool his simmering anger.

He watched in pained silence as the shopkeep tested the wand for strength and solidarity. Fruben knew it would take quite a bit of strain to break the wand, but he winced with sympathy as he pictured the weathered old hands snapping one of his fingers, or perhaps his wrist, in half.

“This will do,” said the old man, after an agonizingly drawn-out examination of the item. “If you don’t pay me–”

Fruben interrupted, “–you keep it, I know.” There had been hesitation present from the start but hearing the old man infer potential ownership was enough to escalate Fruben’s mere hesitation to outright revulsion.

Some of the feeling faded when he saw the shopkeeper’s face, it seemed like the man was annoyed to be interrupted. “Good,” thought Fruben, “he’s annoyed. He can have a taste of his own medicine.” The pun was lost on Fruben in the moment.

The shopkeeper tucked the wand in his robes, a fate only slightly better than Fruben’s imagination had conjured up, and the old man gathered up the bundle of reagents to give to Fruben. Rather, he might have extended such a courtesy if he hadn’t simply dumped the bundle back in front of Fruben with the grace of an avalanche. “No care to be spared,” thought Fruben. It was an awkward transaction.

Fruben carefully picked up the bundle and had already started to imagine the worst things that might happen if he failed to return for the wand in a timely manner. The old man using it as a back-scratcher was one such delightful image that crossed his mind, and far from the worst. It also occurred to him that the man might sell the wand to the first person who happened in, but that thought was ridiculous when he reassured himself that he was the only notable, never mind regular, customer the old man had to begin with. There was nothing to worry about, he told himself again and again, however he was still given to worry.

The odd angle at which Fruben now found the bundle aligned meant he had to brace it against his chest, and he found he couldn’t see his feet. He found his way to the door and resolved to realign his load when he had safely evacuated the area. He had no desire to remain a moment longer than was absolutely necessary.

“Remember,” the shopkeeper called after Fruben as he struggled out the door, “if I haven’t been paid in the next few days–”

And then he was mercifully out of earshot.