(Hey, I’ve got news! Volume 2 of The Wandering Inn might come out as an e-book soon! The Audiobook is scheduled for September 10th! Madness! Find out more details here!)
Day 55 – Durene
Help was on the way. That was the thought that Durene held in her head when she woke in her cottage. It propelled her out of bed, and had her rummaging through the pack of food that Prost had provided her with last night. It made eggs, fresh from Riverfarm’s chickens, fried new potatoes grown from Riverfarm’s fields and uh, got water from the creek that fed Riverfarm’s river.
Okay, it was just a good mood. But Durene welcomed it. She had spoken to Laken. Not face-to-face, and he was yet far away, doing things with Goblin prisoners and she was not happy about that. But she’d missed him. It felt like now, she knew that he remembered her. Was thinking of her.
It mattered a lot. Durene dumped a bucket of water in what was supposed to be her pig’s trough. It was her bucket, so it filled the trough halfway and woke the new occupant of her cottage’s fenced-in perimeter. Bismarck yawned, exposing rows of yellowed teeth, and padded over to the trough for a drink. Durene eyed him, and the Mossbear sniffed the air. He tried to proceed towards the cottage for breakfast—Durene caught him.
“No. That’s my breakfast, Bismarck. You can have these potatoes.”
She dumped a small pile on the ground, and the bear sniffed them. Then he sniffed the air and decided fried potatoes and eggs sounded a lot better. He padded towards the cottage—this time Durene wrapped her arms around his midsection.
“I said, no.”
The Mossbear, affronted and surprised, looked back at Durene. He made a gaoing sound and pulled. Durene, her feet slipping in the wet soil, pulled back. And both she and Bismarck had an unpleasant surprise.
He was strong! Durene had met few things in this world that could really bother her. Wagons, trees, even Hobgoblins had felt weaker than her. But Bismarck was a Mossbear, bigger than regular bears. And he—Durene slipped across the ground, and then pulled back, harder.
The bear was surprised too. He wasn’t used to anything being able to hold him in place, or get in his way, come to that. He strained to go forwards, and Durene hauled him back.
“Stay. Bad Bismarck! Stay—”
That was when it began to rain. Again. Both the Mossbear and half-Troll girl looked up as the clouds opened up. A downpour instantly soaked both, and the potatoes. Bismarck eyed Durene and the cottage, and then the pile of wet potatoes on the ground. Durene bared her teeth. The Mossbear considered his chances of getting into the hut, then dejectedly padded over to his potatoes, and began wolfing them down. Durene sighed.
It was the beginning of another day.
Another day. But a better one. As Durene dried herself, she remembered yesterday and smiled. By the time Wiskeria entered the cottage, dripping with water, Frostwing was eating his raw meat and Durene had food.
“Hello, Durene. It’s another rainy day.”
The [Witch] sighed as she shook water from her clothes and hat onto the floor. Durene was about to ask if she needed a towel, and then she noticed Wiskeria wasn’t actually wet. The water slid from her garments leaving a dry, if hungry, [Witch] behind.
“Wow. Is that magic? Here. Want some eggs and potatoes?”
Wiskeria sat down at the table, smiling slightly. She accepted the food and ate ravenously; Durene joined her a moment later with a much larger plate of her own food. Frostwing pecked at her bowl of meat and balefully eyed the egg-eaters.
“It’s magic. Not magic robes; just a little charm against water. Good thing I put it on the tent or I’d have been soaked this morning. I think it’s wearing off, though; I got a few drips.”
Wiskeria pointed out Durene’s window. The half-Troll [Farmer] glanced outside.
“Huh. Charms? Is that like regular spells? I don’t know much about magic.”
“It’s small magic. Spells are quick to cast and last…hours at best, usually. Charms require a bit more work. For a charm against water, I sprinkle some dust over the tent and make it deflect water. It lasts for a few days, so if I forget to apply it, I get soaked. Same for the hat and clothes.”
“That’s so handy.”
Not powerful, though. Just handy. Durene could be as happily dry as Wiskeria with a towel and a minute of work. The [Witch] nodded, eating fast.
“Small magics. I have a lot of them. It’s not as good as casting [Barrier of Air] or something like a [Mage], but it’s pretty good. That’s how my class does magic, anyways. We get other things in return.”
“You mean, like bringing dead crow heads back to life?”
Durene stared across the table. Wiskeria paused with some potato stuffed into her mouth. She chewed, swallowed, and slowly looked outside.
“Uh…yes. If we want to. [Witches] learn a lot of disciplines. General magic, alchemy, hexes, charms, beast taming, even fighting skills—”
“I don’t know any spells to raise the dead.”
“I really don’t. Look, [Witches] aren’t all the same, Durene. We’re—it’s a wide class.”
Flustered, Wiskeria adjusted the hat on her head. She never took it off, even indoors. She wiped her spectacles on her robes and Durene let the matter drop.
“So what’re you going to do today? Prost and Rie say they’re going to make an announcement this morning. In the village. Want to come?”
The [Witch] hesitated, and her good mood palpably faded a bit. Durene just stared at her. Wiskeria mumbled as she finished her plate.
“Maybe. I could…come by.”
“Laken asked you to.”
“Yes, he did. I’ll think about it.”
And there was another thing. Yesterday, Wiskeria’s answer would have been a flat rejection, Durene was sure. But she’d been in the room with Durene and heard Laken’s [Message]. He’d asked her to help, and the [Witch] looked bothered as she glanced out Durene’s window again. Because, as different as she was from Durene, with her quick wits, magic, and now, deep guilt, she and Durene shared the same thing that bound them together in unlikely ways.
Loyalty. Durene had been glad to see it yesterday—surprised that she saw it in Rie’s face—and relieved herself. Something, someone was coming that would make things better. But just as importantly, Durene had realized what she needed to do while Laken was away. Keep Riverfarm safe. And with that in mind, she felt energized today. Durene got up and put both plates away. She looked at Wiskeria.
“If you’re coming, do it soon. I’m going into the village. With Frostwing. If she behaves herself.”
She reached for the bird and Frostwing squawked, but slowly hopped onto Durene’s arm. The bird pecked at a loose thread on Durene’s clothing, but didn’t scream or protest this time as Durene picked up an oiled cloak and held it over the bird. She walked over to the door.
“See you later?”
Wiskeria smiled as Durene left the cottage. She watched as the door closed, and the sudden shower of rain began to let up a tiny bit. The [Witch] stared around the cottage, sighed, then stood up as well.
This morning, the people of Riverfarm broke from their routine for a gathering in the one building large enough to hold them. The village’s center, the meeting hall that doubled as the throne room of sorts. The carved throne that sat on a small dais on the other end of the room was unoccupied. And it had been for nearly two months.
Even so, the people who came to listen to Prost speak stared at it with the same expectant stare they had on day one. They were Riverfarm’s original folk, Windrest’s, the people of the villages who’d first come here. Not all of them; there were six hundred ‘original’ people. Loyal to their [Emperor].
Many had duties that called them away even before this early hour, but it still felt good to Durene to see them there. She stood next to the throne, listening to Prost speak. The [Steward] was a simple public speaker, but an efficient one; he wasted no one’s time.
“His majesty is but two weeks away. Maybe a bit more, maybe less—he’s still got all the [Engineer] teams with him. We just have to wait for him. He is being escorted by two [Lords] after all.”
The people in the meeting hall nodded reluctantly. They’d been hopeful, but not exactly unpleasantly surprised by the [Message] from Laken. Durene gathered that this update on his progress wasn’t new by now. Prost let the murmurs die down before turning to Durene.
“One last thing. Our Durene’s awake and fully recovered from her injury. You may have seen her on her feet these last few days—she can be hard to miss. She’ll be helping around Riverfarm as she might—and it’ll be a help, you can be sure! Yesterday, she and Beniar caught the [Thief] who’d been stealing for the last few weeks!”
That garnered a lot more interest. Everyone turned to Durene and she blushed as a small cheer rose from the crowd. But then a man shouted from the crowd. It was Mister Ram, the [Rancher].
“We finally caught that bastard! When’re we giving him a beating, Prost? Or is it just exile? He deserves more than that if you ask me!”
There was a swell of agreement from the crowd. Prost grimaced as he raised a hand. Rie wasn’t here; Durene guessed she was tending to the rest of the village.
“There’s no beating being done, Mister Ram. Or exile—yet. We know who the [Thief] was, and he’s high-level, but figuring out the exact punishment will take a bit. He’s being confined in his house under watch, so I don’t want anyone doing anything until Lady Rie and I pass formal judgment. What’s important is that the thefts will stop, at least, from him.”
That didn’t sit well with the crowd. There was a lot of frowning, and then a woman called out.
“Why not? That man stole from our [Traders]—stole money we made for the village!”
“There’s complications, Miss Prise, the man’s from Lancrel—”
“So? They came to Riverfarm, they have to obey the laws, same as everyone else! What makes this [Thief] so different?”
Durene, watching, saw most of the villagers nodding. She nodded as well; there was only one recourse for a [Thief]. Either you taught them a lesson so they stopped for good, or they had to leave the village. In a small community, you couldn’t have people like that. Prost just grimaced.
“It’s not that simple. The [Thief] that Durene helped catch? It’s Master Elmmet.”
There was a moment of stunned silence, and then a roar of outrage from the crowd. Durene blinked as fury swept over the familiar faces. Ram shouted out, his face red.
“That snooty [Councilman]? And the Lancrel lot said the [Thief] wouldn’t ever be one of theirs! Just goes to show! Let’s tar and feather the bastard and run him out today! I’ll get the tar myself! Who’s with me?”
Half the men and women in the room shouted, and some seemed ready to do it right this instant. On the dais, Prost shouted for silence, then gave up. He put two fingers in his mouth and issued a piercing whistle. Everyone, Durene included, clapped their hands to their ears. Frostwing, who’d been content to perch on Durene’s shoulder, shrieked happily in accord.
“No one’s punishing Elmmet for anything, so get that out of your heads. Especially you, Ram. He’s under guard.”
“Put him in the stocks and let us throw some rocks! Under guard in his home? You’re not treating him special on account of him being from the city, are you, Prost?”
Ram’s glare bounced off Prost. The [Steward] frowned, and Ram, realizing he might have gone too far, hesitated. Prost’s voice shut down every murmur as he replied with iron in his tone.
“Not at all. But Lancrel’s folk are insisting their [Councilman] did nothing wrong. Never mind that he was caught by Beniar. They insist it was a setup—”
Another roar of outrage. Prost shouted over them.
“I know, I know! Shut up all of you! We’ve got work to do—stop acting like wet-bottomed babes before I spank the lot of you!”
The affronted crowd shut up. Prost, breathing heavily, glared at them.
“That’s what Lancrel’s lot says. But they’re not in charge and justice will be done, I promise you. What we’re doing is—we’re setting up a trial. With a truth stone. Lady Rie sent for one from her estates, and it’ll be here by the end of today. Tomorrow, we’ll be having a public trial for Master Elmmet to show everyone he was the [Thief]. His sentence will be handled then.”
The angry crowd quieted a bit. A woman shouted out as she lifted a girl up to see Prost from the back.
“What if Lancrel’s folk don’t want him punished? There’s more’ve them than us, Prost. Them and the other villagers who came here. They’ve been saying they deserve the best houses and more consideration—as if we weren’t here first!”
Durene saw more aggrieved nods. Prost sighed.
“They can say what they want. But justice will be done tomorrow. I’ll be handling the trial myself. You’re all free to watch. With that said—we have jobs to do! There might be rain, but I want more fields being plowed and sown! And we’re putting up more houses for our crafts folk! That means more of you all will be doing your primary class’s job soon enough! Think of that and don’t let me catch any of you starting a fight with Lancrel’s folk! They’ll be here right after you, and they’ll hear exactly what you said.”
“Us? Start fights?”
Ram looked innocently around. Prost glared.
“That’s all for now. Anyone who’s got a complaint? Find me when I’m checking in on you! Get to work!”
Grumbling, but good-naturedly, the villagers dispersed. Durene watched the back of the crowd begin to troop out of the room with no more than a few complaints. They were hardy folk, the [Farmers] and [Woodcutters] and so on. And more than a few stopped to greet Durene. The first was a bald man with huge arms and an apron.
“Durene! Dead gods, girl, it’s good to see you.”
He spread his arms and gave Durene a hug. She grinned and hugged him back.
The [Blacksmith] beamed as he stepped back. He was one of the leaders of Windrest, a respected man and the highest-level [Blacksmith] in Riverfarm at the moment. He shook his head as a small crowd gathered around Durene.
“I didn’t think anything could keep you down more than a day, girl. When I heard your wound got infected—it’s a terrible thing. But you’re back and in a day, you caught that damn [Thief]! And that slimy Elmmet no less! He’d have never been able to get away with it for so long if his Majesty were here.”
Durene nodded soberly. Laken would have sensed Elmmet stealing right off. Helm sighed, but then he adjusted his belt.
“Not long now until he gets back, though. I’m looking forwards to it—he can restore order. Not that Prost and Lady Rie don’t do a good enough job, but Emperor Laken—he’s the one who can get things moving. There’s always more houses that need putting up, I’d like half a dozen more hands helping me churn out what Riverfarm needs—get us ore instead of having us having to smelt or buy the damn stuff ourselves—”
Someone elbowed Helm in the side and forced him back. Another woman stepped up, scowling at the [Blacksmith].
“Don’t monopolize Durene with your complaints, Helm! How are you, Miss Durene? Ignore Helm. He hasn’t changed from Windrest. When Emperor Laken comes back, kicking Helm into shape’ll be his hardest task, I have no doubt.”
“How dare you, Mallie! You think I haven’t been working from dawn till dusk?”
Helm spluttered at the [Washerwoman] as she shook Durene’s hand with two of her own, smiling. More of the villagers crowded around and Durene, surprised and touched by the affection, shook hands and exchanged hugs, trying not to blush.
She failed. Durene liked Windrest’s folk. They didn’t have any baggage with her past, and they’d known her and Laken for months before the battle at Lancrel. She didn’t know them all of course, and some of the villagers in this meeting were here just to meet Durene.
“I…saw you, didn’t I? When the army of his—er, Emperor Godart—sent them to fight the Goblins harassing our village. You were with them. I’m Miss Baker. A pleasure. Miss Durene?”
A small woman peered up at Durene, looking cautious, but managing a smile. Durene nodded.
“I’m a [Paladin], Miss Baker. I uh, I fought with the army. I might be doing that again, but today I’ll be helping out.”
“Oh! A [Paladin]? I’ve never heard of that class. What is it about, please?”
The woman’s eyes widened respectfully. Durene felt a surge of pride and a smile flashed around those in the know. Durene used the easiest explanation she knew.
“A [Paladin] is a special a kind of [Knight] that serves [Emperors], Miss Baker. A bit more than that, but you could think of them as…a [Knight] among [Knights].”
“Amazing. And you’re…I mean, will we have [Knights] when his Majesty returns? There’s that dashing [Cataphract], and he’s as good as any [Knight]. Adventurer Beniar.”
Miss Baker’s eyes were shining at the prospect. Durene felt a flutter in her chest at the thought. Hadn’t Laken thought about that? No, wait—he’d complained that he’d given most of his titles, including knighthoods, to the Frost Faeries.
“I imagine Laken could knight a few people, Miss Baker. If they were deserving.”
The woman shook her head. The others nodded proudly or with the same amazement. [Steward], [Paladin]—no, they even had a [Lady] among them! It was more than any of them would dream of in their normal lives.
Durene was smiling and introducing herself to the last of the people as the crowd slowly filed out of the meeting hall when there was a pause, and then a susurration through those still in the building. The people at the doors paused and a space cleared. And walking through them came a young woman with a familiar blue hat.
Wiskeria. Durene looked up and a silence fell over the room. The [Witch]’s face was pale, but she looked around the room as she walked into the center of it. Prost, talking to Helm and a few of the villagers with authority, looked over and his eyes widened. Wiskeria gulped and spoke.
Durene breathed her name, and she wasn’t the only one. Every eye focused on the [Witch], and Durene, looking across the crowd, saw a mix of emotions. Surprise, sadness, a flash of anger on a few faces—but generally, just uncertainty. The [Witch] tugged on her hat, and then, slowly, took it off. She looked around the room as her dark hair fell slightly.
“I’m sorry for—I’m sorry I haven’t been more active of late. I’d like to change that, help where I may. I’m not reforming the army. Beniar will be handling things with his Darksky Riders until Emperor Laken returns. But I do want to help.”
Silence greeted her statement. Durene held her breath, looking around the room. To her, Wiskeria had nothing to apologize for. Nothing—but then Durene remembered the cemetery. And she couldn’t bring herself to be the first one to speak.
Nor could Prost, apparently. He hesitated, and opened his mouth uncertainly. But before he could speak, someone else pushed her way through the crowd.
A girl. She was young, a village child from her trousers and general appearance. She marched right up to Wiskeria as the [Witch] put on her hat and stared up at her. Wiskeria stared back, uncertainly. The girl looked Wiskeria up and down and then asked in a loud, carrying voice, as only a child could do.
“What’re you, Miss?”
Wiskeria blinked. The question wasn’t exactly rude, but it was a bit out of place.
“I’m a [Witch]. A [Witch] and a [General]. But mostly a [Witch]. My name is Wiskeria. What’s yours?”
The girl considered this.
“Agathy. Are you a bad [Witch], Miss? Mother says you’re not. But my brother, Randil, he followed you to kill the Goblins. And he never came back.”
And there it was. Durene paused, and in the crowd around her, the folk at the doors, the good mood was swept away and replaced by silence. Outside, the rain blew in, drenching those at the doors. But they held still, looking back at Wiskeria. The [Witch] hesitated. She tugged her pointed hat lower over her brow and knelt, bending down towards Agathy.
“I’d…like to think I’m not a bad [Witch], Agathy. But I don’t think I’m a very good one. I let your brother down.”
“Ma says it weren’t your fault. Nor his Majesty’s. She said—but who’s to blame? Them Goblins?”
Agathy stared at Wiskeria. Her voice was loud, strident even. Bordering on accusatory. Wiskeria hesitated.
“I was the [General] in charge of the army. We were fighting Goblins, but I should have led better. I’m sorry.”
The little girl nodded. Durene was…surprised to see her not crying. But it had been fifty-five days since then. It felt like yesterday to Durene. She closed her eyes. Then Agathy looked up uncertainly.
“Was he brave?”
A tremble entered her bold tone. A quaver. And the room waited on Wiskeria’s response. The [Witch] looked up. Perhaps some of those in the room had fought on that battlefield. Durene recognized some faces. She had been there. But she didn’t remember Agathy’s brother’s face. She didn’t even recognize his name. Wiskeria paused, and then she closed her eyes. Then she smiled down at Agathy.
“Oh yes. The bravest. I promise you that.”
“He was a hero.”
The statement was no question, but it begged for an answer. The little girl stared up at the [Witch]. And Wiskeria nodded. Agathy went on, her large eyes filled with no tears. But the words poured out, in a rush.
“He had a spear. A-and he practiced every day. He was a Level 14 [Warrior]. He killed a lot of Goblins, right?”
“Yes. And he helped the rest of us get away.”
“That’s what I thought.”
Agathy nodded. She stared up at Wiskeria. And then she looked lost.
“How did he—how did—”
She broke off and rubbed at one eye. At last, a woman came through the crowd. She had been wiping at her eyes. She pulled Agathy back. The girl protested, but quietly. The woman bowed to Wiskeria, hesitantly. The [Witch] looked down, then forced herself to meet the woman’s eyes.
“I’m Agelica. Agathy’s mother. And Randil’s. Please forgive Agathy.”
“No, it’s perfectly…I’m sorry Miss Agelica.”
The woman shook her head, her eyes bright.
“We know you did your best, General. And you had the wrong orders. Emperor Laken didn’t order that charge. It was someone else. A traitor, isn’t that right?”
The word came from Prost. He stood on the dais, looking down at Wiskeria. He met the eyes of every person as he slowly turned around the room.
“Emperor Laken didn’t order the attack. Someone did. Knocked out Nesor. Wiskeria did the best with the information she had. But we’ll find that traitor. Wiskeria, it’s good to see you.”
She nodded to him. But when she turned to Miss Agelica, the [Witch] could only bow, to her and her daughter.
“I’m sorry. Your son was a hero. If he hadn’t fought, more of us wouldn’t have escaped.”
Agelica nodded. With dignity, holding Agathy’s hand, she turned to go. Durene let out the sigh she’d been holding. Too quickly. Frostwing fluttered in alarm as someone stormed past her. Another woman, wearing a dress, pointed a finger at Wiskeria.
“Sorry? Sorry doesn’t bring back the dead!”
Prost called out sharply. Durene recognized her, although it took a second. She had been one of the villagers who’d refused to accept Laken’s rule when she’d came to Riverfarm. Durene had disliked the woman’s ingratitude then. And she hadn’t changed. The woman stormed up to Wiskeria as the [Witch] turned.
“You have some nerve, showing your face here after what you did. You were the [General]. You should have won! Or—or retreated sooner! Instead, there were thousands dead! From Riverfarm and every village, city, and town that your [Emperor] levied troops from! How dare you come in here and—”
She flinched as Durene put a hand on her shoulder. The half-Troll girl glared down at her. Durene’s voice boomed around the hall.
“Wiskeria saved as many lives as she could, Miss. It wasn’t her fault someone lied to her. She fought the Goblins! You weren’t there—”
Wiskeria looked at her warningly. Rehanna spun, her eyes flaring with hatred. Hatred and disgust.
“So what if I wasn’t? I can say what we’re all thinking. If it weren’t for her, our people might not have died at Lancrel! And for what? A bunch of city-folk who come here and steal our food while complaining all the while? If we’d had a proper leader in charge instead of this—”
The woman cut off as Durene clenched a fist. Durene made no other move, but it was a big fist. Rehanna backed up. Durene glared at her.
“Don’t you dare insult her. You weren’t fighting. You weren’t there! How can you insult Wiskeria?”
Someone pulled at Durene’s shoulder. Prost. He couldn’t move her, but he interposed himself between her and Rehanna. He glanced up at Durene and shook his head.
“Wiskeria isn’t to blame, that’s right enough, Durene. But Miss Rehanna’s entitled to her grief. Her husband was among those that fought at Lancrel.”
Suddenly, Durene’s righteous anger burnt out in her chest. She stared at Rehanna. The woman’s face was red as she glared at Durene. She pointed a shaking finger at Wiskeria.
“My husband followed that bitch into battle. For your [Emperor]. I warned him. I told him what would happen, but he didn’t listen. And he died.”
Without another word she turned and stormed out of the room. No one spoke for a long while after that. At last, Wiskeria bowed her head.
“I’m sorry. I can’t make up for what happened. I did what I could. I know that’s not enough, but let me help if you can accept it.”
Prost nodded tiredly. He looked about, and clapped his hands.
“Everyone, back to work. We’ve wasted enough time as it is. Tell everyone who’s working in the village on the second shift to come by when the sun’s overhead.”
He marched towards the door, ordering the first wave of people to the fields and the early-morning work. But, tellingly, he didn’t stop a small crowd who lingered around Wiskeria. A man stepped towards the [Witch], taking off his wide farmer’s hat.
“I don’t know if you’ll remember her, Miss Wiskeria. But if you’ve a moment—do you remember my girl? Iglief? She was an [Archer]. Caught an arrow or so I heard. I…I’d like to know if that’s what happened.”
Wiskeria turned and bowed to him. She looked up once, at Durene. And the half-Troll girl silently stepped away. Wiskeria turned to the [Farmer] and the moment of hesitation was so quick that only Durene noticed it.
“Iglief? I remember her. She had—blonde hair, right?”
She looked at the man. He ran a hand through his dark blonde hair and nodded, looking relieved.
“That’s her. As fair as wheat. And a clear shot with a bow. She could kill a rat at a hundred paces with it.”
Wiskeria closed her eyes.
“Of course. She would’ve been with our archers. The Goblins overran the right. Before Lord Pellmia came, they had to fight and hold them back as we were retreating. Your daughter—”
She looked at the [Farmer]. Durene, walking towards the door with Frostwing, saw the man bow his head. Wiskeria reached out and he took Wiskeria’s hand. Shook it. When he moved away, it was slowly, but he put on his hat and headed past Durene towards the doors, and there was a firmness in his step. The next person, an old woman, stepped up and urgently grabbed at the hem of Wiskeria’s robe. The [Witch] turned to her.
There she stood, surrounded by people who’d lost someone. All asking, wanting to know how the dead had fallen. And the [Witch] gave one answer. Heroically.
It was a lie and it was the truth. It was the only answer any decent person could give. And Wiskeria, as she adjusted her spectacles, tugged on her hat, bowed, and lied and told the truth, looked both relieved and in more pain than Durene could ever remember seeing someone. But she had stopped running. So Durene left her to it.
The rest of the day, Durene worked. Not in bits or pieces, lending a hand here or catching a [Thief], but actually got down and worked. It wasn’t hard. There was no end of tasks to do, and Durene might be a [Paladin], but she was a [Farmer] too. Prost didn’t put her in any working group, so Durene did what she knew she could do best. Lift things.
She was in the farms first. Or rather, the group clearing new land for fields. The [Woodcutters] had cleared a huge amount of land, but in their hurry to acquire lumber for the new houses going up, they’d neglected to remove the stumps and roots.
That meant the grumbling [Farmers] not assigned to sowing or tilling had to handle it. Durene had the chance to chat with some of them. They were all cut from the same cloth; [Farmers] who worked in the small villages weren’t high-level by and large, but they all dreamed of getting that rare Skill, or having a few big harvests that helped them level up.
Many wouldn’t fulfill that dream, but they had more classes than just [Farmer]. You’d be a [Farmer] who specialized in a bit of [Blacksmithing] on the side for coin and to repair your tools, or one with a [Rancher] class, or perhaps a [Farmer] and a [Hunter].
They were hardy and their grumbling was largely good-natured as they worked in the rain, uprooting stones and roots and hauling them off to wagons. The wood could be dried and used as firewood or bits for the [Carvers] and the stones were good for laying foundations or a cobblestone street, maybe. Durene knew it was a good sign that they were working with a will even in the rain.
“It ain’t nothing hard. In fact, I’d say I’m happier here then at my old farm, for all I miss it dearly. It’s a small place up north—but I’ll admit, it does my heart good seeing all those shoots coming up. I wish I had that Skill, but I’ll be content helping out until I level up.”
One old [Farmer], Rickmeld, chatted as Durene carefully dug around a large stump in the ground. He pulled some dirt back with a hoe, and Durene nodded.
“You like it here, Mister Rickmeld?”
“Compared to being ate by a Goblin for lunch? Yes I do! But there’s more’n that. I just need to work and I don’t have to worry about food. I wasn’t a married man, but now instead of having to cook, I get someone with [Advanced Cooking] making my meals. And my bed! Feels like the softest cotton when I lie down. That’s spoiling me; I don’t know that I’d return, even if my farm magically rebuilt itself. If it weren’t for all these upstuck city folk, I’d be happy as my pigs. I can’t wait to meet this [Emperor] everyone’s telling me about.”
The [Farmer] sighed as he and Durene finally got under the stump. Durene nodded.
“Lancrel folk, huh? What’re they like?”
Rickmeld eyed Durene and sucked his teeth thoughtfully. He might have been wondering if she were a spy for Prost—Durene was not—but he answered anyways, with a [Farmer]’s bluntness.
“Upstuck. Like I said. Can’t handle rain, complain about sleeping in the big storage rooms and barns—as if we didn’t all do that! Worst is the rich folks, or the ones who were rich. They keep demanding to get houses first, and saying that there should be privileges. What’re they offering? Some of ‘em are decent, but the worst are the [Mayors].”
“[Mayors], [Aides], [Councilwomen]—you know the sort. We didn’t have a [Mayor] in our village, just a [Headwoman] and she was alright. But a lot of the places that fled the Goblins had people whose class was in leadership. People of importance.”
He spat. Durene, about to bend over, eyed the spit on the stump and sighed. Rickmeld looked apologetic.
“Rain’ll get that. Anyways, they’ve banded together. Formed a ‘governing body’, only, we’ve got that in Prost and Lady Rie. Prost is all we need if you ask me. He’s a right sort. Good [Farmer], knows his stuff. And Lady Rie! Why’d you need anyone to tell a [Lady] how to manage things?”
Durene thought about Lady Rie and grunted.
“This other group wants to, though?”
“They have suggestions. And they have a lot of folk who respect them or who’re displeased. I say let them leave, but I suppose it ain’t possible. Lancrel’s lot sticks together and listens to this body. And there’s a lot of them…”
Durene nodded. She saw the issue. There were two thousand people in Riverfarm and more stragglers incoming by the day. If there were more people like Rickmeld and Riverfarm’s own, they could tell the other groups where to shove it. But the group from Lancrel outnumbered the villagers two-to-one, never mind that the rural folk had started all this.
“Well, Laken will sort it out when he arrives. Until then, Rie can handle it. And Prost. And Beniar.”
“What about you? I hear you’re his Majesty’s er, consort. What’s a [Paladin] do all day?”
Durene shrugged, embarrassed.
“Help out. But I’m nothing special, Mister Rickmeld.”
So saying, she crouched, put her hand under the base of the stump, and heaved. The [Farmer] shielded his face as the roots of the tree ripped up out of the dirt in a shower. He gaped as Durene lifted the stump and roots up with one hand and wiped some dirt from her face with a grimace.
“I…see. Nothing special?”
His voice was faint. Durene shrugged.
“I’m a [Farmer]. The [Paladin] bit I’m working on, but I don’t quite know what to do. Hey, should I dump this on the wagon?”
She waved the stump at the other farmers as Frostwing flapped her wings and issued a complaint over the dirt covering her brilliant plumage. That was the morning. After a wet opening, the rain poured so hard the [Farmers] decided to take a break. Durene trooped into the village with them for a hot, warming meal inside one of the buildings the [Cooks] used to make and serve food. The [Farmers] went back out when the storm began to die down to a drizzle, and Durene decided she’d pulled up most of the big stumps. So she went to find the [Builders].
One team was being led by Beycalt, the [Forewoman] whom Durene had met the other day. She was only too glad to have Durene help unload the heavy, wet wagons. It gave her a chance to address some of the grumbling [Builders] in her crew.
“Working in the rain? Building in it? We should all be indoors!”
One man was simply unable to handle the light rain. He was protesting to Beycalt, and the woman was having none of it. She pointed as Durene trooped past her with some freshly-cut boards.
“It’s just rain. It doesn’t affect houses. And we can put a temporary shelter up when we start adding floorboards. I don’t know how you did it in Lancrel, but you can raise a building in storm or sun, Mister Felp. Stop complaining and help unload those wagons. We can throw up this house in the hour with Durene’s help if you’d all stop whining and do half of her work.”
She pointed and Durene paused, on her way back to the wagon. The man, Mister Felp, paused and stared up at her. He hesitated, and his face paled.
“Uh—uh, the Troll? She’s going to help with everything?”
Beycalt frowned. Durene just smiled and held out a hand.
“Half-Troll, sir. [Paladin]. I’m here to help defend Riverfarm in case it’s attacked.”
Felp stared at her, and Durene had the sinking feeling he was surprised she could speak. His handshake was timid and limp and quick—Durene already didn’t like him, or most of the other Lancrel people who were working in Beycalt’s group. They were all unused to the rain and quicker to complain than the rural folk.
Still, some of them worked with a will, and as Durene helped them set up the frame, she got a chance to talk. A woman nodded at her, spitting nails into her gloved hand one by one and driving each one into the wood with a practiced swing. It was a neat Skill.
“Don’t mind Felp, Miss, uh, Durene. He’s just not used to the wet. I’d be concerned if we were leaving this wood out, but we can raise a house in hours. Amazingly quick. Not to say it isn’t hard…”
“Something wrong with Riverfarm, Miss [Builder]?”
Durene looked at the woman as she lifted the frame up, one-handed. The woman hesitated.
“It’s just hard, moving from a city to here. We’re grateful, of course. Those damn Goblins that attacked the city and there were few places to turn—”
“If they could’ve gotten our city back, I’d have been happier.”
One of the men working on Durene’s left groused, and then looked away when she stared at him. The female [Builder] snorted and nearly ate one of her nails.
“Return to that place? It’s more ruin than not. I’m just saying that—look, it’s not simple. I er, listened to your [Steward] at lunch. That man Prost. He was saying…”
She trailed off. The other Lancrel [Builders] looked up and around warily. After a moment, the female [Builder] moved over and whispered to Durene while Beycalt was busy helping unload roof tiles.
“Elmmet. He’s a good [Councilman]. You didn’t really catch him stealing…people are saying there might have been a mix-up. The [Thief] could change faces. What if he set up Master Elmmet?”
“I saw him change his face. It wasn’t anyone else. Frostwing found him too—he was looking like a woman right until she started attacking him. It’s him. Beniar caught him and no one got a chance to slip away.”
Durene frowned as she informed the group. The Lancrel folk looked at each other, frowning hard. One of the men shook his head.
“If that’s so, he’s been stealing all along. Hey, we did have a bad [Thief] problem in Lancrel. If it was Elmmet all this time…”
“Don’t say that. Dead gods! How’d our Watch Captain not deal with him?”
“Nothing’s proven yet. We’ll see tomorrow. It’ll all be settled under truth spell, right?”
One of the other men interrupted. Uneasily, the Lancrel folk nodded. Durene looked at the silent group as they got back to work and felt a twinge of her own uneasiness. She helped for another hour, and left when the framework and everything heavy had been set up.
For the rest of the day, Durene just carried things. She was faster than the wagons that were getting stuck in the muddy streets, and she could lift a lot with just her two hands. A paved street was one of the things everyone she met agreed that Riverfarm needed next. It was just that laying paving stones was an arduous task and there were more important things to do first, like making sure that Riverfarm wouldn’t starve.
“Even so, we could subdivide. Set er, forty men on the task and I guarantee they’ll make good progress each day. All we need is a few experienced [Builders], a [Digger] or two perhaps—it’d be an efficient use of time, wouldn’t it?”
A man wearing a fine cotton coat was taking a break with some other city folk under the eaves of a roof as Durene trotted past with a huge tub of water for the [Cooks]. Durene slowed down to listen as the man went on.
“It’s not hard. Why not spare some men? The answer is that Mister Prost and Lady Rie don’t think it’s necessary. But why not? They’re always rushing about so why not appoint a supervisor to deal with the roads? Come to that, why not organize the village with more officials? There’s no hierarchy here, just those two.”
“There’s more than that. They have [Foremen] and people in charge of each area.”
One of the women wiped some rain from her cloak. The man with the nice coat paused.
“Ye-es… but I’m talking people with authority. People used to managing—there are a few, but they’re all from the villages. What about us?”
“They were here first, Rodivek. We’re newcomers.”
“But we have the classes they don’t. What’s a [Headman] know of managing a few thousand people? I was a [Mayor] of my town. And Beatica was a [Councilwoman] for over two decades! Don’t you think it’s slightly unfair that so many of us have no say in how this place we’re building is developed?”
Durene watched as the crowd shifted. Some people didn’t look convinced by Rodivek’s little speech, but more than half were nodding uncertainly. She walked away quickly.
Rodivek and Beatica. Those were two names she’d heard more than once on the tongues of people who identified as city folk. She didn’t like the man. As for the woman—Durene met her that night, as she took her dinner in one of the mess halls.
Durene was tending to the bird as people ate their dinners or collected them for eating elsewhere at the queues in the cookhouses. Her bird had been much better behaved after a few days around Durene, but Frostwing was still somewhat feral. And when she was hungry, the bird was hard to control. She kept trying to peck at other people who hurried past, guarding their food. Durene eventually had to grip the bird against her chest and, ignoring Frostwing’s furious pecking, collect some meat and her dinner.
“Screech and you don’t get any meat, understand? Just sit here and be quiet.”
The half-Troll girl knew that Frostwing could understand her. And after a glare, the bird meekly hopped onto Durene’s arm and began to gobble food. Durene sighed, and tore into the hot, toasted bun filled with bits of fruit and some goat’s cheese. To her delight, there were bits of meat in her meal as well! It tasted like…game. Rabbit maybe, or some other small animal. It was hot, filling, and Durene realized her portion wasn’t nearly enough. With the bowl of onion soup it might be for most folks, but Durene’s stomach was still growling.
“I need two more portions.”
A bit ashamed, Durene went back to the [Cook]. The man opened his mouth to protest, looked Durene up and down, and silently gave her two more sandwiches and filled her bowl. The half-Troll girl blushed at the looks from some of the other people around her, but was too hungry to complain. She was sitting at one of the tables in the building, letting Frostwing peck at one sandwich, when she heard a woman’s voice.
“I simply cannot understand why you won’t accept our modest proposals, Lady Rie. Nobility is one thing, but I would like to remind you that we are speaking for all of Lancrel. A city has a voice, you know.”
Durene looked up. She spotted Lady Rie at once. The woman had for once decided not to wear a completely formal dress, but her clothing was still very elegant. A [Lady]’s riding dress perhaps, although white and yellow, as if that wouldn’t smudge instantly. She’d kept herself clean, though, and dry. She was also frowning, her colored yellow lips pursed as she faced a small group of women…Durene frowned as she spotted the woman in front.
Beatica was a woman in her early forties, but she certainly didn’t lack when it came to beauty herself. Her hair was styled, her clothes practical, but more expensive than anything anyone in Riverfarm would own. She had no jewelry save for a large and clearly expensive ring on one finger—oh, and she practically radiated confidence. Durene looked at Beatica and when the woman smiled, she felt like standing up and following her.
At least, a part of Durene did. It was instantly quashed by another part of Durene, which stared at the woman and felt an uneasy sense of familiarity. Her presence, the way the people around her hung on her every word—it all reminded Durene of one person.
Laken. Only, if he was a beacon of inspiration, Beatica was a torch. It was still effective, and Durene felt her attention immediately going to the woman, fixing on her argument with Rie. Moreover, most of the people in the room turned to listen as well. Beatica flashed them all a smile, and then focused on Rie.
“We’re proposing to help Riverfarm. We have come here and worked these lasts weeks, haven’t we? Don’t we deserve a chance to use our classes to their fullest extent? Give us a chance! I am a former [Councilwoman]—there are [Mayors] such as Rodivek from Hewlat—we can take over some of the tasks that have clearly left you and Mister Prost running ragged. Let us manage a few small groups. We are familiar with our citizens—we can take care of pressing issues, like paving the ground.”
She gestured outside to the muddy streets. Lady Rie did something like a smile with her face, but her voice was somewhat icy as she replied.
“While I understand your enthusiasm, Miss Beatica—”
“Councilwoman, please, Lady Rie. I didn’t give up my class when I left my city. And I consider myself in charge of my people, even though we have lost our home.”
The woman interrupted Rie smoothly, gesturing to the crowd behind her. But that wasn’t what made Durene sit up in amazement. The half-Troll girl saw Rie’s mouth open and close while she spoke, but no words had come out. Beatica had used a Skill! Lady Rie made a sound and then glared at Beatica.
“I would appreciate you not using your Skills on me, Miss Beatica. And while I appreciate your…zeal in taking care of your people, I remind you that you came here. And this is Emperor Laken’s domain. Not Lancrel. He may appoint leaders among Lancrel’s population when he returns. Until then, I believe Riverfarm is adequately handled between Prost and I and the people we have chosen.”
A murmur of agreement rose from some of the rural crowd in the room. Beatica pursed her lips. She clearly didn’t like Rie’s response, so she turned and appealed to the people from Lancrel and the towns.
“You say that, Lady Rie, but you’ve been saying that for nearly two months now! This talent is going to waste lying unused! Don’t we have [Tailors] without work, [Secretaries] whose Skills could be used setting up businesses—”
“We have no need for business at this moment, Miss Beatica. The money Riverfarm earns goes to build Riverfarm. Private ventures can wait until everyone has a roof over their heads, don’t you agree?”
It was Rie’s turn to sweetly interrupt Beatica. The woman narrowed her eyes.
“How will we earn a living then, Lady Rie? So far we have generously donated to Riverfarm’s construction, but many of us would like to earn money, would we not?”
That got a round of nods, mostly from the city dwellers again. Rie looked around and raised her voice.
“This is not a city. I remind you that this is the sovereign territory of [Emperor] Laken. His majesty has allowed any number of Lancrel’s folk to come to his city, provided shelter and food despite having no obligation to—he even fought for Lancrel, when the city’s own militia abandoned it, didn’t they?”
She looked pointedly at Beatica. The woman colored.
“The army failed to liberate Lancrel—”
She hesitated, and her eyes flicked around the room. Many of the villagers had folded their arms. Beatica switched sentences so fast Durene blinked.
“—and we appreciate their sacrifice of course! But there is such a thing as democracy, surely? Don’t we, as citizens of his Majesty Godart’s ah, empire¸ deserve a voice? Or is his will the only one we are permitted to follow?”
Uneasiness followed her words. Rie’s brow twitched.
“Of course you will have a voice. But I invite you to wait for his Majesty to return, Miss Beatica. This is all quite forward of you. In fact, the fourth day in a row you’ve made this a public subject. I was discouraged to learn that you spent little time helping in your assigned task. One would almost imagine that you regarded the effort of washing clothes beneath you.”
All eyes swung back to Beatica. The woman hesitated, and flushed.
“Not at all. I’m simply concerned with the wellbeing of—”
“Lancrel. Indeed. I would suggest you help clothe them, then. One cannot work with sullied garments. All of Riverfarm is working, Miss Beatica. Which reminds me, I must get back to my job. Enjoy your break.”
With that, Rie swept past the [Councilwoman]. Durene felt oddly pleased to see Beatica’s eyes flashing furiously as Rie and her bodyguard, the [Fistfighter] Geram, swept out of the mess hall.
“Wow. There are people even Rie has trouble with.”
Durene murmured to Frostwing. She was glad Rie had won, though, and fairly convincingly so if the nods from the people around her were anything to judge. Even so, there was a murmur among Lancrel’s lot as she left and Beatica instantly turned to her crowd and addressed them, looking apologetic and slightly outraged. Durene didn’t listen to what was being said—she grabbed Frostwing and hurried towards the door, hoping to catch Rie.
On the way, Durene passed Beatica and the crowd of well-dressed folk. Durene did nothing but stride past them, but as the first heads turned and noticed her, a woman recoiled and cried out. The shrill shriek was echoed by exclamations from the crowd. Durene paused and turned.
The Lancrel city folk stared up at Durene, faces pale. Councilwoman Beatica smiled, but she visibly placed her hands beneath her back as everyone but her stepped back.
“Nothing at all. You’re Miss Durene, aren’t you? I apologize—my people have never met someone ah, as notable as you.”
“You mean, a half-Troll.”
“Ah. Of course.”
The woman hesitated. Durene turned to her.
“I’m a [Paladin]. One of Riverfarm’s protectors. I was at Lancrel fighting the Goblins. I’m glad to see so many people made it out alive. We paid a heavy price that day. How do you do?”
She held out a hand. The people behind Beatica murmured and looked at her. The woman hesitated. She looked at Durene’s hand and held out her own. When she shook Durene’s hand, it was very, very quickly, and her touch was so light—the woman withdrew her hand and gave Durene a charming smile. Durene wasn’t fooled. She’d felt the sweat on the palm.
“We are all grateful of course. And I hope to meet his Majesty, Laken Godart and convey my personal thanks. Ah—I notice you have a companion. What a radiant fellow.”
She indicated Frostwing. Durene looked at the bird and Frostwing fluttered her wings. Some in the crowd admired the bird’s brilliant blue plumage.
“It’s a she.”
“How magnificent. I’ve never seen the species.”
Beatica reached out for Frostwing.
“I wouldn’t. She pecks.”
Frostwing lashed out, and Beatica withdrew her hand just in time. She eyed the bird and winced as Frostwing screeched.
“I—see. Well, it’s a pleasure to meet you, Miss Durene. Do I understand that you’re um, deeply acquainted with his Majesty?”
She looked Durene up and down. The half-Troll girl flushed.
“He and I are in a relationship.”
The murmur from the Humans behind Beatica this time went quiet as Durene looked at them. Beatica smiled thinly.
“How incredible. I do hope you’ll introduce me to his Majesty. Until then?”
Durene nodded. Without a word, she turned and Beatica stepped back. Durene felt the woman’s eyes on her all the way to the door and out of it. And she began understanding just how worried Prost and Rie were.
Beatica reminded Durene of a weasel, and Lancrel’s folk like anxious chickens who’d convinced themselves she was one of them. Frightened chickens, gathering together en masse. Only, if you’d ever seen chickens pecking one of their own to death, you understood why that was a problem.
That night, Durene met Wiskeria at the cottage. She hadn’t seen the [Witch] all day, but Wiskeria’s exhausted face told her the [Witch] had been working hard in her own way. Durene made them tea as Frostwing huffily settled herself in her nest. Outside, Bismarck groaned at the door until Durene threw out some freshly grown produce to shut him up.
“How was your day?”
Wiskeria sipped from her drink and shrugged.
“It wasn’t great. Wasn’t bad either. I mainly—talked. With families. And survivors. There are a lot of us.”
“No. No army.”
The [Witch] put down her cup with a grimace. She looked at Durene.
“I saw you for a bit. You pushed over a tree.”
“It was a small one. And it’s faster than cutting.”
Embarrassed, Durene felt at her hair. Wiskeria shook her head. She stared into her mug and then spoke, pensively.
“You know what most of the [Soldiers] called me? The ones who fought? ‘General’ Wiskeria. As if I deserve the name.”
“You have the class.”
“I don’t deserve it. You remember what that woman, Rehanna, said to me?”
“She was just angry. She wasn’t right—”
Wiskeria shook her head. She adjusted the hat and looked down.
“I’m no [General]. That’s just something Laken gave me. It’s not my true nature. I was playing at being a [General]. When push came to shove—I collapsed. I should never have accepted his offer.”
“But you gained the class. You led an army. You led me, Wiskeria. Or didn’t fighting all those Goblins mean anything?”
The [Witch] shook her head.
“It’s not the same as a real battle. I could do some things, but when I found a real enemy to fight—strategy, tactics, leadership—I could make a lot of people move in one direction, feed them, set a few traps with a few hundred. But in that battle I was swallowed, Durene. I couldn’t lead, and that’s part of the reason we lost. There’s no other reason.”
Silently, Durene put down her cup. She looked at Wiskeria and took a slow breath.
“I’m a [Paladin], Wiskeria. Laken gave me that class.”
The [Witch] nodded.
“And I’m a [General]. Do I look like one to you?”
She touched her hat. Durene inhaled to protest, and then she looked down at her hands. Her grey skin. She looked around at her cottage, hand-built, out her window at the garden that Bismarck had torn up looking for food, and then at Wiskeria. The young woman looked back.
A witch and a farmer girl. They held each other’s gazes a moment and then burst out laughing. They laughed as if it were the funniest joke in the world. The saddest. In the end, Durene caught herself before a laugh could turn into a sob. They sat together then, as the light faded and a candle Durene lit flickered low on the table. It was dark. Frostwing tucked her head under one wing.
“I want to be a [Paladin], Wiskeria.”
“I know. And I think you can do it, Durene, I really do. But I don’t want to be a [General]. I can’t do that again. I can’t be responsible for all those lives.”
Durene nodded. Wiskeria was looking down at the table. At last, the [Witch] looked up.
“What is a [Paladin], by the way? I never asked. It’s like a [Knight], but…is it some rare class variant, like Beniar’s [Cataphract]?”
Durene shook her head. She played with her empty cup as she recalled asking Laken just that.
“Laken says they used to be just trusted military leaders in service to some [Emperor]. But apparently the word changed. It began to mean…well, a [Knight], but one dedicated to heroism and chivalry. Someone who does good deeds.”
“Isn’t that what knights are supposed to do?”
Durene smiled. She quoted Laken.
“A [Knight] is a retainer. A warrior pledged to a cause. A [Paladin] is someone who crusades. Who goes out and…helps people. Apparently, it’s perfect for me. I just want to help people. But I haven’t leveled for a while. I think I’m missing something.”
Wiskeria nodded. She stared at Durene, and then took her hat off and looked at it.
“I’m a [Witch]. Do you…know much about my kind?”
“No. I hear stories, um…but Riverfarm never had a [Witch]. Other villages do.”
Durene bit her tongue before she went on. From the stories she’d been told before meeting Wiskeria, [Witches] weren’t to be trusted. They could make potions and do some magic. But they were shifty, dangerous even. Wiskeria smiled bitterly.
“I’m sure you’ve heard stories. And like I said this morning, [Witches] are complex. We do magic, but we have a wide variety of abilities. Alchemy, magic—even beast taming and gardening and more. But we’re not specialists, like say, a [Beast Master].”
The half-Troll girl nodded, then she had a thought.
“Hey, Wiskeria. Can you make potions? I heard a [Witch] can make potions like an [Alchemist]. Mister Prost was saying that if we could get a good [Alchemist] here, we’d be able to heal all sorts of things without needing to buy potions. What if you made them? I’m sure everyone’d appreciate that!”
She looked at the [Witch] hopefully. Durene had always wanted to know how potions were made! That was real magic, as powerful as any spell. But Wiskeria shook her head.
“No, that’s a myth. Or an exaggeration of the truth, really. I made poison when Laken asked me to. Enough of it to poison the Goblin army. Healing…I can’t do potions. [Alchemists] do complicated reactions in bottles and I don’t have the equipment or the knowledge.”
Durene felt a bit let down by that confession. She had an image of a [Witch] hunched over a cauldron full of magic. Wiskeria hesitated. She touched her hat and thought for a second, then looked up.
“I can’t do potions. I can do a brew, though.”
Day 55 – Ryoka
Running was fun. Running was good for the body. Running relaxed Ryoka. It could also be boring, though. That was why, surprisingly, it was fun to have Charlay running with her as Ryoka headed south, down the increasingly less-populated main roads towards Riverfarm.
She had a delivery. And she had a lot of money waiting for her when she got there. And a possible crisis. But unlike her run to Walta, Ryoka wasn’t pushing it. Nor could she, really; the wind had been unhappy yesterday and it was upset today. Not that it mattered; Ryoka had run for eight hours yesterday, and for nearly eight more today, with a few breaks and she was still far from her destination.
It wasn’t one day’s journey, or even two. Ryoka thought they’d reach Riverfarm in another day at their pace. It was good enough for her; Laken had said he needed her there soon, but he wasn’t paying for a lightning-fast delivery. Charlay couldn’t resist complaining, though.
“I’m tired. When do we get another break?”
“When we find an inn, or another village. Why? I thought you were the fastest runner in Walta.”
Ryoka teased the Centauress as they ran side-by-side down a deserted road. Riverfarm was far from a populated hub, so sometimes they could find themselves running with few to no travellers for hours at a time. Charlay glared at Ryoka as she folded her arms, trotting to keep up. She had sweat on her brow and she looked displeased.
“I said fastest! I don’t normally trot everywhere, you know.”
Charlay was tired after eight hours. To be fair, Ryoka was too, but she’d only used one stamina potion on top of her breaks. Charlay had used two and might need a third, which was slightly dangerous. But she was genuinely tired, not just complaining.
She had the endurance of a horse, which meant that she could run much faster than Ryoka on flat terrain, but she tired faster too. And since she had to chain herself to Ryoka’s pace, it was ironically Charlay who struggled more.
“If I was doing my deliveries, I wouldn’t have to run at your slow pace. All my Skills are devoted to galloping fast or doing tricks, not long-distance! I wish I had [Lesser Endurance]. Or [Greater Endurance]. Or [Second Wind] or something. Hey, what Skills do you want to get? You never told me what level you were.”
Charlay’s complaints instantly switched back to chatter. Ryoka sighed.
“Sorry, trade secret.”
She ducked as Charlay tried to shove her with one arm. The Centauress galloped further to the side, away from Ryoka, looking affronted.
“What? I thought we could share Skills! Well, fine. I won’t tell you my class or my Skills either, then!”
She tossed her head, as she always did, but Ryoka saw she was genuinely hurt this time. Charlay was…Ryoka could best describe her as dramatic, like a caricature of a girl who took everything personally and never said what she was really feeling. But apparently it was typical of Centaurs, who were all about appearance.
Ryoka had figured that out, and Charlay was really actually fairly sensitive underneath her bluster. The young woman sighed as she tried to figure out a possible excuse—or make up a bunch of Skills, when she spotted something on the road ahead of her.
“Hold up. Charlay, you see that?”
The Centauress was pouting, but she looked up at the tone in Ryoka’s voice. She slowed from her trot, and Ryoka went from a fast jog to a walk. She stared at the building up ahead of her. Or rather, what was left of it.
A blackened ruin of a building lay just off to the side of the road. A farmstead, destroyed and abandoned. The two Runners looked at each other and ran closer, but hesitantly. Ryoka felt at her bag of holding and Charlay pawed the ground with one hoof, uneasily.
“[Raiders], do you think?”
“Maybe. Do we check for people?”
Ryoka eyed the buildings. They looked long abandoned, and she was reluctant to investigate. You never knew what might be lurking in places like that. Said [Raiders] or monsters. Charlay shook her head.
“If it was still smoking, maybe. But look—the field was burnt over there, see? It’s already started to regrow in places. This is abandoned.”
Ryoka noticed the field beyond the farmstead and nodded. Someone had set flame to the field beyond, but the blackened soil was already showing bits of green.
“Let’s go, then. Keep an eye out?”
Charlay nodded silently, her tiff with Ryoka forgotten. The two Runners moved on, now cautiously scanning the landscape. But they soon found that whatever had afflicted this one farm wasn’t a singular occurrence.
“Oats. What happened to this place?”
Charlay stared at the eighth ruin they passed by. Ryoka just shook her head. This road they were taking south wasn’t the only one, but it painted a horrible picture. Every single place they’d come to was like this. Lonely houses, even a village, all lying in ruin. Something had swept down this way, leaving only destruction in its wake.
Burned farmlands. Houses pillaged by fire. Ryoka didn’t know if it was [Bandits] or…she eyed a ruined mill and wondered how many [Bandits] could do this much damage. Surely villages and towns had militias. Or what about local cities? Adventurers would hunt [Bandits] just like monsters. What had caused this?
“This is Laken’s home? What the hell happened here?”
She muttered to herself as she ran. Charlay turned her head to stare down at Ryoka.
“Laken. That’s your client, right? The [Emperor]? Is he really an [Emperor]? And how does he know you?”
The young woman paused.
“It’s uh, a long story. I was hired by him in Invrisil.”
“And is he really an [Emperor]?”
“…Maybe? How do you know about him?”
Charlay snorted and stamped a hoof. She ran ahead of Ryoka so she could twist at the waist and glare down at the young woman.
“Informants of course! I can buy information just like everyone else. And everyone’s heard the rumors. An [Emperor] was with Tyrion Veltras—he’s claimed the lands around Riverfarm—but it’s in the middle of nowhere! An [Emperor] should have a huge amount of land! And a, you know, empire?”
“Well, he’s got one village. And he hired me because I met him once.”
“Really? To deliver a bunch of low-grade potions to a [Lady]?”
Charlay eyed Ryoka, arms folded. The Runner girl shrugged.
“Maybe I am. But you’re coming with me, so you can see what I’m doing.”
“You’re not going to tell me why you know this [Emperor] or he wants you? We’re friends, Ryoka.”
“And friends don’t pry into each other’s secrets, Charlay. You’ll find out soon enough. Don’t kick dirt at me or I’ll hit you.”
“You deserve it! I’m going with you out of the goodness of my heart and you won’t even tell me why—”
Bickering, the two were climbing a slight rise when Ryoka saw movement below them. She took one look down the shapes below them and held out a hand. Charlay nearly ran her over and reared.
“Don’t do that! I could have hurt—”
She shut up as Ryoka whirled.
Charlay wheeled and Ryoka sprinted back down the hill. The Centauress crouched, although she was still far bigger, and Ryoka turned her head, her heart suddenly racing.
“What? What’d you see?”
“Let me check again. Stay there.”
Ryoka flattened herself to the earth and crawled back up the slope. Charlay ran a bit down the rise and Ryoka peeked over the edge. She came crawling back and then ran at a crouch to Charlay.
“Oh shit. [Bandits].”
The Centauress froze.
Ryoka nodded. Down the hill was a straightaway and what looked like marshland up ahead. They’d have to cross through the edge of it, but what had caught Ryoka’s eye was a bunch of distant riders. Normally Ryoka would have assumed it was a caravan, an adventuring group—but she’d seen the corpse on the ground before Charlay.
“I only saw a few people on horseback. You’re sure it was [Bandits]?”
“Either that person on the ground is napping, or they just killed a traveller.”
Ryoka snapped back, checking her belt. She’d counted sixteen, and half of them mounted. Some local group? A wandering band, using the marshes as a base? Charlay pranced nervously.
“One of them might have been injured—”
“He was napping in blood, Charlay.”
The two City Runners looked at each other. Ryoka felt at her belt. Her hands were shaking a bit. She’d run into [Bandits] on runs before, but this was the first time she’d seen them before they saw her. And this was a larger group than most.
“We can try going off the road and sneaking around them. Or going back and taking another route.”
“Maybe. They won’t stay there for long, though. They’ll hide and then we won’t know where they are.”
Charlay looked uneasily at the group up ahead. Ryoka nodded.
“So what do we do? Try and break through? They’re on horses. If I could use the wind, I could try blinding them. Or using caltrops, but it’s risky—”
The Centauress looked shocked.
“What? I was saying let’s go way around them! Miles away! Are you crazy? I’m not tangling with a [Bandit] group if I can help it.”
Ryoka blushed. She looked at Charlay.
“But you do have some Skills, right? If they attack us, can’t you whip out a bow and fight them off?”
“I don’t use a bow! Do you think all Centaurs use a bow? That’s racist!”
“Excuse me. How do you fight back, then?”
“I…have my hooves? And two wands. And this!”
Charlay pulled out a dagger and waved it uncertainly at Ryoka. The young woman stared at it. Charlay turned red.
“It works! I outrun people, mostly. And I can knock someone off a horse with my wands. That’s usually all I need. And I can make a dust cloud.”
“Right. Dustrider Charlay.”
Ryoka sighed. She supposed that was all Charlay needed. She stared at the rise and shook her head.
“I’m no good without the wind. And I agree; I’m not fighting [Bandits]. We’ll have to go back, find a really long way around. Damn.”
“Better than having them chase us. Let’s go before they finish and come this way.”
Charlay pointed back down the road. Ryoka nodded. She felt…guilty, leaving the [Bandits] there. And the person on the ground—were they alive? Ryoka bit her lip. She couldn’t dwell on it. She was no hero. And neither was she a killer. Sixteen [Bandits]?
She and Charlay might be able to break through if Ryoka was certain the wind would come to her. If she conjured a dust storm she’d be pretty confident they could get away. But that still was only for getting away. City Runners didn’t take unnecessary risks, and running ten miles around that group was preferable to risking any kind of fighting.
Slowly, Ryoka began to jog down the road after Charlay. The Centaur was trying to trot as quietly as she could, which was not that quiet at all. She beckoned to Ryoka, and then froze, pointed. Ryoka inhaled sharply.
Someone was coming down the road. The figure was far distant, and moving at a brisk walk, but they were definitely headed this way. Ryoka and Charlay exchanged a glance.
“No. Just a traveller. Let’s warn them. Come on!”
Ryoka was instantly worried. Not for them, but for the traveller. She and Charlay were going to run to get out of the [Bandit]’s line of sight, but whomever this was might not be able to get away. And if the [Bandits] came over the rise and saw them—
Ryoka and Charlay raced towards the distance figure, a few hundred feet away. As they neared, Charlay called out.
“Hey! Hey you! Stop! There’s [Bandits] up—”
She halted in her tracks, staring. Ryoka, catching up, halted as well and stared in astonishment. Alevica tipped up her purple hat and regarded Ryoka and Charlay with a blink of surprise. Her bright pink eyes flicked from Ryoka’s face to Charlay’s.
“You two again. What a surprise.”
She smiled, a flick of sardonic amusement. The young woman, still older than both Ryoka and Charlay, looked at the two and then past them.
“What’s your rush?”
Charlay backed away from Alevica, looking frightened. Ryoka glanced over her shoulder and spoke tersely.
“[Bandits]. They’re on the road ahead, just before the marsh.”
Alevica’s brows rose, but that was it.
“Really? You’re sure?”
“I think they killed someone. We’re heading back. You should too. There are sixteen of them.”
The other City Runner put her hands on her hips and smiled slightly, looking at Ryoka. She shook her head.
“You’re running from the [Bandits]? I thought the Wind Runner was tougher than that. I’d expect this from Charlay, but you?”
The amusement hit a button marked ‘Anger’ in Ryoka’s chest. She gritted her teeth.
“I’m just being practical. There’s at least eight on horseback and some could be [Mages]. I have no idea what level they are.”
Alevica looked around the deserted landscape.
“If this is where they’re hiding, I’d say it’s low. You can hide, but I’m heading this way. I’ve done my delivery and I don’t feel like wasting time.”
So saying, she reached into the pouch at her side and began rummaging around in it. A bag of holding. Ryoka stared at that and then Alevica.
“Wait, you’re going to fight?”
“Sure am, Miss Wind Runner. You’re free to join me. Charlay, you can hide over there. There might be a bush large enough to hide you.”
Alevica pulled out something from the bag and shook it out. Ryoka stared as she fastened it around her head. And then with a start she recognized what they were.
Goggles. Crude, compared to the modern, streamlined kind. Glass lenses set into leather. But goggles nonetheless. Alevica secured them, and then reached into her bag of holding a second time.
“How about it, Ryoka? I’m sure you like [Bandits] as much as I do. Want to show me how good Reizmelt’s top runner is?”
Ryoka looked at Charlay. The Centauress was shaking her head, her eyes wide. Ryoka looked at Alevica. The young woman paused. Then she pulled out a broom from her pouch. Ryoka’s eyes went wide.
Alevica tossed the broom on the ground. It was a broom, but it wasn’t at the same time. Ryoka was familiar with brooms, sweeping brooms, plastic-handled, with wide, flat bottoms from her world. This one wasn’t. The handle was wooden, long, and the end was thrush, tied together in a way that didn’t look at all appropriate for sweeping. But it did look like—
Ryoka looked up and met Alevica’s eyes. And in her mind, something exploded. It couldn’t be—
“Well? Last chance.”
Alevica grinned as she put one foot on the handle of her broom as it lay on the dust. Ryoka hesitated. She looked at Charlay and took a bit too long in replying. Alevica sighed.
“Too bad. I really expected more from you. I’ll do it myself, then. Up!”
So saying, the [Witch] placed her other foot on the broom’s handle. And it rose from the ground. Ryoka stumbled back, staring. Alevica, standing on the broom as if it were a skateboard, as if it were solid, winked down at Ryoka. She put one hand on her hat. And she flew.
The broom shot forwards like an arrow, carrying Alevica with it over the rise in the hill. As she flew, Alevica laughed, a wild, free sound. She shot over the hill, faster than Ryoka could sprint. Ryoka’s jaw stayed open. Charlay danced over to her.
“Ryoka! We have to go! The [Bandits] are going to—”
She halted as Ryoka whirled to her and pointed. The Human girl shouted, forgetting about the [Bandit].
“She can fly!?”
“She’s a [Witch]! What did you think she could do, lay eggs?”
Ryoka stared at the air where Alevica had been. Yes! She knew Alevica was—but they could actually—Charlay was tugging at Ryoka.
“We have to go.”
“She just went right towards the [Bandits]!”
Ryoka protested. Charlay shook her head.
“It doesn’t matter! She’s fast on that broom! She could outrun them! But what if she sets them on us?”
“She wouldn’t do that? Would she?”
The two stared at each other. Charlay’s eyes were wide and frightened. Ryoka felt a lurch in her stomach.
That was when the screaming started. The two Runners jerked as a shrill scream split the air. Charlay bolted—Ryoka whirled, grabbing a handful of caltrops from her bag of holding. She called for the wind, but it only blew into her face.
Charlay beckoned. But Ryoka, listening, heard a second scream split the air. It was a man’s voice. The first had been a woman’s. Neither sounded like Alevica. She looked back at Charlay.
“I have to see.”
The Centauress’ eyes widened as Ryoka ran for the rise, caltrops in hand. She hesitated, and then ran after Ryoka, pulling out a wand from her bag of holding. Ryoka was first to the top of the incline. She stared down as Charlay appeared next to her. The Centauress stared down.
Her breath caught in her chest. Below them, on the road where the marshy forest began, the two saw the group of [Bandits]. They were scattering, running, horses galloping left and right. Some were shouting, waving swords or trying to take aim. But the rest were running. Dying.
A [Witch] on a broomstick was swooping down on the [Bandits], holding something. Ryoka saw a flicker, and one of the [Bandits] fell, screaming. Alevica’s broom swerved as a [Mage] aimed and shot a bolt of lightning at her. The lightning crackled through the air where she’d been and the [Witch] threw something. Ryoka saw the vial break and a plume of smoke and a small explosion—the [Mage] disappeared in it, but she heard his voice, screaming.
“Dead gods. She’s fighting all of them?”
Charlay breathed. Ryoka stared down the hill. The [Bandits] were fleeing this way, trying to regroup. Alevica dodged down, avoiding an arrow, and, laughing, shot something back at a woman who dove to avoid it. The [Witch] was still standing on her broom, circling, diving, turning at a pace the [Bandits] couldn’t follow. Like a bird in the sky. A hunter.
But it was one against over a dozen. Or—was it? Ryoka looked down the hill at the [Bandits]. Something was wrong. They were turning, fighting something besides just Alevica. The ones with bows and magic were futilely shooting at her, but the rest—
“Look! Dead gods, Ryoka, look! Undead!”
Charlay saw them before Ryoka could make out the distant shapes. Ryoka saw a pair of skeletons slashing at the [Bandits] from the side, advancing with iron swords. And more were appearing, thrusting their way out of the earth.
A trio of skeletons were dragging one man down into the ground they’d emerged from, pulling him into the earth, tearing at his face with their fingers. The man was screaming, trying to fight them off as they tried to pull him into the ground. His friends fought the undead, but Alevica refused to let them save him. She dove lower, and pointed something at a man trying to pull his friend up.
Ryoka and Charlay both recoiled at the distinctive sound and noise. The man stumbled back, and a feathered shaft of wood appeared in his chest, going straight through his leather armor. Alevica had fired it from point-blank—her broom accelerated, carrying her past the other [Bandits], who chased her before she took into the air again. Ryoka stared at what the [Witch] was holding.
A crossbow. And her other hand was reaching for her bag of holding. Alevica flew up, high, high overhead angling her broom up. Her feet slid down the handle until she stopped, forty feet overhead. There she calmly reloaded the crossbow.
The roar from below came from a woman on horseback. She had a spear, but Alevica was far out of range. Two [Bandits] fired, and one pointed a wand. Alevica glanced down, and her broom casually carried her forwards. The arrows and ray of light missed. Alevica turned, sat side-saddle down on her broom and pulled the other thing out of her bag of holding. Ryoka saw a glint of glass. And she saw the small smile.
The broom dove. Alevica shot down as the [Bandits] scattered. The woman with the spear, the [Bandit Leader], refused to move, though. She aimed and as Alevica dove, threw her spear with a roar.
It was a good cast. Alevica blinked as the spear flew at her. Ryoka saw it happen in a moment. The [Witch] turned, flying around the spear, but the spear turned to catch her. Alevica’s eyes widened—
And then the broom twisted. Alevica, sitting upright, rotated underneath the spear and flashed back up as it passed her. The spear tried to twist again, but it had lost momentum. It struck the ground. And Alevica flew at the [Bandit Leader]. She fired and the horse the woman was riding screamed. The woman grabbed at her reins. Alevica flashed past her. Her other hand lashed out and she threw something in the woman’s face.
A vial. It broke and Ryoka saw a flash of fire. The [Bandit Leader] screamed, clutching at her face as the fire erupted along her face, her arms and shoulders. She writhed on the ground, rolling, but the flames wouldn’t go out. Alevica laughed, mockingly, and the rest of the [Bandits] fled. One threw down her weapons. Alevica flew towards her and Ryoka saw her lash out. The shortsword slashed through part of the [Bandit]’s neck and she collapsed.
The rest, seeing the fate of the one who’d thrown down their weapons, turned. They fought and died.
The last man disappeared as the skeletons surrounded him, hacking with bloody weapons. They looked up as Alevica flew past them and stopped, their bones and blades red. She made a sign and they collapsed, turning to…dust.
It was silent after that. The [Witch] landed, and investigated the bodies. She went from each one, checking them, rolling them over. Taking something from each. She spent only a few minutes there, and then the broom flew over to her. With one foot, she stepped up, and turned the broom. She aimed towards the marsh ahead of her, the road, and began to fly forwards. At the last moment, she stopped and looked back up towards the slight hill, and the two figures who’d watched her the entire time.
She was too far away, then, for Ryoka to see. But she knew Alevica was grinning.
Silence. After Alevica had gone, it took Ryoka and Charlay a long time to go down the hill. It wasn’t for fear of Alevica returning. It was just frightening in another way.
The [Bandits], and they were [Bandits], had died hard. Several had fallen to Alevica’s crossbow bolts, two to the vials she’d thrown. The [Mage], whose corpse was still emitting smoke, made Ryoka and Charlay keep a wide distance. The [Bandit Leader] had stopped burning, but her upper body was charred.
Ryoka stared around at the dead sixteen. Some had died to skeletons. The last few Alevica had chopped down herself, with the shortsword. She stared at the woman who’d thrown down her sword and noticed something else.
Charlay was breathing hard, her face white. She looked over as Ryoka pointed down.
“She took their money pouches. Potions too, I think.”
“O-oh. Well, that’s normal.”
Ryoka glanced up. Charlay nodded.
“If you kill [Bandits], you might as well sell their stuff, right? Adventurers do it. So why not…I don’t know any City Runners who kill [Bandits], but I heard…”
She broke off. Stared around at the bodies. Ryoka stared at the Centauress.
“You knew Alevica could fly?”
“Everyone knows. She can’t do it forever. That’s why she takes the carriage. But everyone knows she’s a [Witch]. She can do witchy things. No one messes with her, even though she’s got a bad reputation. But I’ve never seen…”
Charlay stared at the burnt corpse and shuddered. Ryoka stared down the road, at where Alevica had gone. Part of her wanted to be impressed. Alevica had taken out a [Bandit] group. Low-level perhaps, but one had known a lightning spell, and she’d beaten sixteen of them by herself! But Ryoka couldn’t be impressed. Alevica had cut the rest down mercilessly, even when they’d tried to surrender, to run. It was—cruel.
But she had flown. The wind stirred. Ryoka touched her chest and felt her heart racing. She had flown. She looked at Charlay and after a beat, pointed.
“Come on. We’ve got to report this.”
The Centauress started and nodded uncertainly. Someone had to know this [Bandit] group was dead. They’d report it at the next Runner’s Guild they came to. Ryoka doubted Alevica would even mention it.
It was very quiet as the two ran on. Very, very quiet. They never caught up to Alevica, and that night both stopped at the town they’d come to. They made a short report at the Runner’s Guild. And it turned out Alevica had reported the encounter. She’d asked about a bounty on the [Bandits]. There had been none.
Ryoka left the guild as the [Receptionist] confirmed her report. She and Charlay ate quietly, and went to bed in the only inn without saying much. And Ryoka thought of her.
The Witch Runner, Alevica.
And she wondered what Ivolethe would have made of her. Alevica’s laughter haunted Ryoka’s mind. But it wasn’t a cackle. And in a way, Alevica was everything Ryoka had wanted to be. That thought kept Ryoka up late into the night.
The next day, she arrived in Riverfarm with Charlay.
Day 56 – Durene
Durene and Wiskeria ate breakfast together in her cottage. They did not go into Riverfarm right away. Instead, after eating the bread and tossing the crusts out and watching Bismarck trying to catch them, they grabbed a basket each and headed into the forest. It was just the day for it, too.
The morning was amazingly, refreshingly, dry. The sky was clear, with not a cloud to be seen. And the sun’s warmth was welcome after so much drizzling. In fact, it had warmed the forest floor enough that neither Wiskeria nor Durene needed boots to walk about. The two walked, talking lightly, chatting, as Wiskeria led them into the forest on a hunt.
Frostwing flew from branch to branch, sometimes shrieking and diving after something in the forest. The rest of the time she was restless, but she did stay in the general area around Durene and Wiskeria. Bismarck was more placid. He just ambled along next to the two, snuffling around for anything edible.
“I think she’s smarter than he is by a bit. Frostwing misses Laken, I can tell. And she’s smart enough to know where I keep food and she can follow orders. Even if she never wants to. Bismarck is simpler. He’s just a stomach with legs.”
Durene had brought both this morning. Frostwing was obvious, but to her surprise, Bismarck had come with as well. He currently had a basket strapped to his back with a bit of twine, and he didn’t seem at all bothered by it. When he heard his name he looked up hopefully, as if expecting food.
Wiskeria smiled. She walked ahead of Durene, scouting the forest path they were using.
“You’re sure you said I could find everything I said I needed? Especially the Sage’s Grass?”
“I think so. The forest’s got a lot of good stuff growing in it. And I’ve seen er—what did you call it?”
“Sage’s Grass. It’s slightly magical, and it’s a great ingredient that’s easy to grow. It’s slightly red and green, and it grows so long—”
Wiskeria indicated and Durene nodded.
“Yes, I’ve seen that! It grows in clumps in the forest. Meadows usually. It’s worth something, isn’t it? One of our [Farmers] tried to grow it to sell at one of the other towns. He had a great big field of it. Only, that didn’t go so well.”
“Ah, I’d have warned him if I heard about that. It’s not good to try and grow if you’re not prepared.”
Wiskeria smiled and tugged on her hat. Durene nodded.
“Well, it was going well at the start. He bought a lot of expensive seed and got it to sprout, but he was having to pour lots of soil on it, fertilizer and such. And water. And when it did begin to grow…”
“I think I know what happened. A monster?”
Durene shook her head, then hesitated.
“Well, sort of. It was a pack of huge rats. Each one as big as a dog. They just appeared and ate everything in the field. And everywhere else as well! We had to burn the field, and send for as many dogs as we could to hunt them down. But I still found two trying to eat my piglets the week after.”
She shuddered at the memory. Wiskeria shook her head, but she didn’t look surprised.
“It’s a risky business. I’m surprised that [Farmer] got the grass to grow at all. He must have had a Skill or gotten lucky; Sage’s Grass feeds on mana. It produces it too, but there’s the problem. Magic attracts monsters. And farms, let alone ones with Sage’s Grass, are a magnet for anything hungry. [Alchemists] love the stuff, though.”
“Does anyone grow it? I can’t think of anyone around here who would. Not after the rats.”
Durene was curious as a [Farmer]. Wiskeria pondered the question, her head on a swivel for said grass or anything else on her list.
“I think a lot of Sage Grass comes from some farms up north, around…Reizmelt? There’s a swampland there. Oh, and some from Celum in the south. Apparently some [Farmer] specializes in growing them. It makes him rich. A double handful is enough for us, though. It’s not the most magical thing, but I can make do.”
“And you’re sure this’ll work? With mushrooms and some magical grass and stuff?”
“Yes. And there are no mushrooms necessary, Durene. Although if you find some edible ones, we can toss them in there. For variety and taste.”
The half-Troll girl frowned. But Bismarck was the one who interrupted the two. Wiskeria stepped aside as the bear lumbered forwards, suddenly snuffling.
“What is it?”
The Mossbear instantly headed off the path, into several large trees. He wove around them and Wiskeria and Durene, following, saw him rooting at something. It was a large stand of—Durene and Wiskeria identified it at the same time.
The Mossbear was happily tearing up the grass and consuming it. Wiskeria bent and took out the sickle she carried. Bismarck gaughed as she swept some up. Durene pushed his head back as he tried to nibble at Wiskeria’s bundle.
“Back off, Bismarck. We need that, right Wiskeria.”
“It’s a component. I’ll need to extract the juices, but yes. If we can find more and prevent Bismarck from eating it—”
Wiskeria tossed it into the basket on his back. The Mossbear immediately tried to get it, but Durene grabbed his head.
“No, Bismarck. Help us find more of what Wiskeria wants and you get a potato. Understand? Potato.”
She bribed the bear with one, and he bit the ripe potato and licked her hand. Durene wiped it on his fur with a sigh. It had been a good idea to bring the Mossbear; his senses were better than hers or Wiskeria’s. It was just hard to control him.
“What else do we need?”
“Sage’s Grass. Barley grass…Tindleflowers, maybe dandelions or Americ if they’re budding…we’re going to be here for a few hours. Don’t worry, though. It’s not an exact recipe. The basis is really Sage’s Grass plus some extras. And I have dried herbs.”
Wiskeria patted her pouches. Durene nodded and they coaxed Bismarck back to the path and let him snuffle onwards. Frostwing screeched overhead; she’d caught a baby bunny. Durene sighed.
They were making a brew. That was what Wiskeria had decided to do last night. As she’d told Durene, potions were out of her expertise. But [Witches] had a unique set of talents of their own.
“It’s between cooking and alchemy. Closer to alchemy, really, but I’ve met a few [Witches] who could make magical dishes. But mostly, it is just stuff in cauldrons. It’s easier with water and heat. That’s where that image of [Witches] comes from, you know?”
Wiskeria led Durene through the forest. The half-Troll girl grunted as she peeled off some bark from a tree. You could actually eat the bark and Bismarck was trying too, but Wiskeria didn’t want much. She was investigating patches of plants, picking them up, comparing what she had in her pouches and basket, and tossing some, keeping others. The [Witch] was so business-like about that Durene didn’t feel like they were doing magic, just preparing a forest soup. Which was close, apparently.
“[Alchemists] buy all kinds of expensive and highly magical ingredients to make their potions so powerful. [Witches] don’t often have that kind of money, so we make natural recipes. This is just a healthy, restorative brew. It doesn’t need to follow an exact recipe like a Stoneskin Potion or something.”
“And where do wild strawberries figure into it?”
Durene peeked at a few red fruits in the basket Wiskeria held. The [Witch] smiled.
“They’re tasty? Seriously, though, strawberries feature in some recipes I know. Not this one; there aren’t enough and they’d ruin the taste. Don’t worry, Durene. I know what I’m doing.”
“I’m not worried. It just doesn’t feel like magic.”
The [Farmer] girl complained as she yanked the basket off Bismarck’s back. It was full after three hours of scavenging and he was trying to take it off and couldn’t be bribed. She walked back to the cottage with Wiskeria. The [Witch] needed her biggest cauldron.
“Will mine do? It generally just holds spare vegetables.”
Durene anxiously washed it out and plopped the heavy iron pot down outside. Wiskeria frowned as she ground up some of what she’d brought, including the bark.
“It should. Okay, we need to fill this cauldron with about half water—and we need some milk.”
“Preferably. Oh, and some broth. I know there’s some in Riverfarm. Can you get it?”
Durene looked dubious.
“What kind of broth?”
“Uh—chicken? Beef would do, or pork, but I think chicken’s simplest. It’ll have to be enough to fill the rest of the cauldron so high.”
Durene stared at Wiskeria. The [Witch] stared back, hands busy grinding. She looked over—Bismarck went for her bowl and she slapped him across the face. The Mossbear groaned and retreated.
“Hurry up, will you? I can’t keep Bismarck busy for long. Hey! Fetch this potato! Oh, we’ll need more potatoes, Durene. And carrots. Actually, I have a list here—”
The half-Troll girl hesitated, but she was too far in it to back out now. She took the list, did a double-take, and frowned at Wiskeria. But then Durene tromped down into the village. It was abuzz with activity. More than one person had abandoned their job; Durene found out why as she caught hold of Miss Yesel and Chimmy helping pass out food. Miss Yesel blinked at the list, but she had Chimmy help source the ingredients willingly enough.
“What’s going on, Miss Yesel?”
The woman frowned as Chimmy helped fill a handcart for Durene to go back.
“The trial’s what’s going on, Durene. My Prost’s going to show everyone that so-called Master Elmmet’s nothing more than a [Thief]! But the Lancrel folk aren’t happy. They’re already saying he’s innocent—whereas everyone with sense wants him out of Riverfarm or flogged! Or both! But there was already a fight when Prost tried to put the [Thief] in the stocks!”
She glared. By ‘everyone’, she’d meant all of the villagers. Durene nodded, glancing out the window as Chimmy put a closed-lid pail on the handcart with a grunt.
“I think we need at least two more pails, Chimmy.”
“Goodness, what’s all this for?”
“Magic, I think. I’ll be back soon, Miss Yesel. Wiskeria’s making something, but I’ll come to Riverfarm before the trial. What’s it in, an hour?”
Yesel nodded, looking relieved.
“I don’t expect any trouble, but it’d be good to have you about, Durene. Just in case. Everyone’ll see that Elmmet’s a monster, but just in case. That everything Wiskeria wants?”
Durene nodded and scowled at her list. She had a deep suspicion—she stomped back up the way to her cottage, pushing the handcart and taking care not to spill anything. Wiskeria was mixing the ingredients in the cauldron when Durene came back, and she’d started a fire.
Durene smelled a few acrid hints from the pot, but the rest looked just like edible stuff. And the Sage’s Grass. She had to admit, the red-green herbs swirling around in the pot with their slight glow that illuminated the water made the soup look more properly magical.
Wiskeria didn’t look the part, though. Oh, she had a hat and robes, but she was stirring the pot with a long-handled spoon. And when Durene set down the cart, the [Witch] brightened.
“Oh good, you’re here. I was worried I’d boil this all too long. Okay, we’re going to dice the potatoes and carrots and toss them in here. Along with the broth. Did you get the spices?”
Durene eyed the pot and folded her arms. Wiskeria nodded.
“We don’t have to peel the potatoes. Just wash them. We’ll bring the brew to a boil, let it simmer for about twenty minutes, then add the cream. And then—”
The [Witch] jumped as Durene stamped her foot. Bismarck, sneaking up with his mouth open to the handcart, backed off hurriedly. The half-Troll girl glared at the [Witch]. Wiskeria looked at Durene warily.
“This isn’t a brew! This is potato soup!”
The half-Troll girl howled in outrage. There was nothing magical in the soup besides some edible plants and the Sage’s Grass! She’d made soup like this a hundred times! Wiskeria turned red.
“No, it’s a brew. It just looks like potato soup to you. And it’ll taste a bit like it. The milk’s what I normally add—”
“You’re just making food! That’s not magical! How am I supposed to believe it’ll do anything besides fill my stomach?”
“You haven’t seen the final step. Besides, we added Sage’s Grass. That’s important.”
Wiskeria weakly protested. Durene glared.
“If I’m not impressed, I’m going to dump the entire pot over you. This had better be magic, Wiskeria. People need magic. Not food.”
The [Witch] opened her mouth to protest, and then her gaze grew distant. She tugged her hat lower and adjusted her spectacles.
“Food’s important. But this will be magic, Durene. I swear it by my fingers. If I lie, you can feed them to Bismarck. I swear it by the dead. It may look like fun and games, but I swear there’s magic here, by a [Witch]’s name.”
And when she said that, and looked at Durene, her eyes were suddenly, scarily serious. Durene hesitated.
“You don’t have to do that. I mean, I like a good soup…”
She smiled lamely, suddenly disconcerted by Wiskeria’s change of mood. After a second the [Witch] smiled and everything was normal.
“That’s part of it. Good food is good magic, or so one of the [Witches] who taught me used to say. But there’s more to witchcraft than everyone thinks. It’s not the kind of magic [Mages] understand…let’s put in that broth. Do you have a spare cutting knife? I hate using my dagger.”
It was a potato soup. From the way the two diced the carrots and potatoes—Wiskeria had forgotten celery—to adding in spices and letting the soup simmer and thicken. Wiskeria even offered Durene a taste and the girl had to admit it was good. Not magical, though.
But the magic was coming. Wiskeria’s solemn oath was first. As the soup was boiling and she had Durene stirring in the creamy milk from the cows, the [Witch] walked around the cauldron. Six times clockwise, three times counterclockwise. She traced a perfect circle each time, her steps all the same width.
Durene, busy tasting the soup for consistency as she added milk, barely noticed at first. But then she noticed that with each circle, the flames of the fire at the bottom of the cauldron were jumping slightly. Higher and higher with each of Wiskeria’s circuits. Durene nearly dropped the ladle.
“Wait, are you doing magic? Am I in the way?”
Wiskeria didn’t answer at first. She completed the third circle counterclockwise and then turned to Durene. The Troll girl stared. She had never thought of it, but Wiskeria’s eyes were a faint, yellowish green, weren’t they? Only, they looked more yellow than green. And they seemed to have the faintest luminescence in the morning.
Morning. Durene looked around her cottage. Trees all about, and the road leading down to Riverfarm was normal. It was just that there were a few more shadows. As if it were evening all of a sudden. But the sun was rising in the sky when she looked. Bright…except when you looked down.
“Wiskeria? Is this the magic bit? Are you going to cast a spell?”
Durene tried to chuckle. And to her relief, Wiskeria laughed lightly and smiled.
“Just a bit of preparatory stuff. It’s just a ritual, Durene. [Witch] magic is more like rituals. We cast a few spells like my [Fox Fire] spell, but that’s [Mage] magic. This is about patterns.”
Neither one laughed at that this time. Wiskeria just smiled. She glanced at the simmering pot. The soup was turning an appetizing creamy color, spotted with the spices and bits of herbs and carrots Durene had tossed in. The smell made Durene’s stomach rumble.
“It’s about intent. Intent, bits of magic—but mostly…will.”
“Oh yes. Good will, bad will…I’m sorry, I can’t explain. What’s left?”
“Uh—nothing much. It’s pretty close to done. Hey, this is a good soup. But it’d be better for some bacon or something. You know, for taste? I could run down and get some—”
“No. No meat. No dead flesh.”
Wiskeria’s head snapped up. She stared at Durene. The half-Troll girl froze.
“That’s not the intention here. This pot is made with goodwill. To heal. For regrowth. Meat would spoil it. And I can’t do it twice. Give me a second.”
Wiskeria knelt and began adding wood to the fire. Durene felt like the soup was hot enough; any hotter and they’d burn it. But she only watched as the fire grew and the brew began to bubble.
“You couldn’t make it twice? Why not? There’s enough ingredients in the forest and in Riverfarm to make a hundred soups like this, I wager.”
Wiskeria glanced up. She stood up slowly, and the fire ate up the wood, greedily rising.
“I can’t make a second brew or soup. Just like I can’t cast a hex the same way twice. The emotions are wrong. The history makes the magic. The wrongs I’ve done are going into this brew.”
She pointed down into the pot. Durene peered in and chuckled nervously. She looked around. Were there shadows in the cottage? She glanced up at the sun for reassurance, but it felt paler.
“I didn’t see you throwing anything bad in there.”
“It’s not just about what goes into it. It’s what’s done. Where’s the knife?”
Durene paused. Wiskeria found it and nodded. She reached up and without hesitating, cut a lock from her hair. Not much. She went back to the pot with it.
The [Witch] tossed the hair onto the fire. Durene closed her mouth and the flames ate the hair greedily. The stench of burning hair filled the air—and then it vanished. Durene blinked. She felt at her nose. Suddenly, the smell of the soup was there, but not the hair smell. And it smelled better than before.
“Um. Wiskeria? Is this more magic?”
The [Witch] turned back. Her eyes were glowing. She took a few breaths and blew over the pot’s surface. And the liquid inside moved as if she were stirring it.
“Nearly done. The magic’s there. The stew’s good. All that’s left is the incantation.”
The [Witch] murmured to herself. Durene hesitated. She wasn’t sure she liked this anymore. The shadows were longer, she was certain. And—suddenly, Durene realized she hadn’t seen Bismarck. The greedy Mossbear would love this soup. So why wasn’t he…?
She looked around. Bismarck was nowhere to be seen. Slowly, Durene looked at Wiskeria. The [Witch] was walking around the pot, doing that perfect circle again. Murmuring under her breath.
Goosebumps raced up Durene’s arm. Quickly—just to make sure he wasn’t going interfere—she went around the cottage. She found Bismarck huddled in his den. He stared at her as she paused in relief.
“There you are. You’re uh, not going to eat the soup, right? It’s important you don’t.”
The Mossbear stared up at Durene. He didn’t look bored or hungry like he always did. Rather, he looked—wary. She reached for him after a second.
“You want to eat some scraps?”
Bismarck resisted Durene’s pull. He growled and then snapped as she tried to pull him out with more force. She let go at once. The Mossbear huddled in his den.
“Okay then. I’ll leave you.”
Disconcerted, Durene backed away. The fire was hot at the cauldron. And the smell of the soup filled the air. There was another feeling too, a sense of tension. Almost like the feeling before a storm, but different. Wiskeria was bent over the cauldron. Durene couldn’t see her face. The half-Troll girl looked around. She didn’t like this anymore.
The bird was inside Durene’s cottage, but hiding in her nest. Her head was under her wing and when Durene tried to bring her outside she flew back. She didn’t scream, that was the thing. She was silent, but she fought Durene coming out. At last, Durene walked outside and saw Wiskeria standing there.
Watching her. Durene halted. The [Witch] stood in front of the cauldron, and her eyes were glowing. Orange mixed with green. Wiskeria spoke slowly.
“Remember what I said about [Witches] being different, Durene?”
Durene quavered. Then she straightened. This wasn’t something to be afraid of! It was just—Wiskeria had told her she wasn’t above Level 30 in her [Witch] class. It was just a spell. If Durene kicked over the cauldron—her eyes flicked to the pot.
Kicked over the cauldron? She didn’t want to do that. That felt like a…bad idea. But Durene was unnerved.
“This isn’t like regular magic, Wiskeria.”
The [Witch] smiled slightly. She breathed in and out—she was sweating hard, Durene realized.
“No. This isn’t like a regular spell. It’s the best I can do. I need to finish it now. Don’t worry; it feels…bad. I know. But the worst thing I could do is stop. There’s a lot of guilt in the air. Guilt and regret.”
Durene nodded. She stared around the cottage. Wiskeria breathed in and out, rhythmically.
“I gathered it. That’s a thing [Witches] do. That’s what’s making this brew powerful. Now I need to perform the incantation. Durene, this is the most important part. You can listen. But don’t speak.”
Durene opened her mouth for a flippant remark and closed it. Wiskeria nodded. She turned back to the cauldron. And this time, she walked around it. Not in the perfect circle, but urgently, bending, investigating the liquid inside. The soup swirled, as if following Wiskeria. And then she spoke.
“For a drink to warm the heart and body both,
I offer this harvest, by [Witch]’s ways and humble host
Sage’s Grass, gathered without cold iron’s sting,
Mushrooms, plucked from a faerie’s ring
Herbs grown in garden plot and nature’s walk,
Eleven dried things from [Merchants] bought
To bind it all, a liquid draught of ritual wrought
Come together now, to cure from this humble pot.”
It was a slow chant. Rhythmic. And with each step, the fire beneath the cauldron flared up a bit. Durene watched, breathless. It felt like the shadows were gathering around Wiskeria and the pot. And the smell was beautiful, enticing. Durene felt her stomach gurgle. But what was the unease in the air. Wiskeria pointed.
A red glow sprang from the soup. Durene jumped until she realized. The Sage’s Grass. It was glowing in the pot. The [Witch] stepped closer, and Durene saw she had a knife. The half-Troll girl’s stomach clenched in unconscious anticipation and she opened her mouth before she caught herself. Wiskeria murmured.
“And grief. And regret. And despair and death. And hatred, I add all of thee. Be swallowed and changed by goodwill. For a [Witch]’s repentance. Mercy.”
She flicked and something flew into the pot. Durene saw it go, or did she feel it. The hum in the air intensified. Now she saw it. Wiskeria was struggling with something, pushing the shadows into the pot. Her face twisted with guilt, anguish, like Durene had seen in the meeting hall when she’d spoken to the families of the dead. She raised the knife in her left hand.
“And for power. A sacrifice for blood lost. Come now, come hither! Mend wounds and give life, for those who died in winter’s frost!”
The knife flashed down. Durene saw it slash across Wiskeria’s wrist. She stared in horror as blood splattered the cauldron, the sides—none fell into the soup. It ran down and into the fire. The fire flared up, roaring for a moment, engulfing the cauldron. Wiskeria stumbled.
Durene rushed forwards. She couldn’t hold it in anymore. Only the [Witch]’s hand stopped her. Wiskeria put one hand on the cauldron to steady herself and Durene saw and heard her hand hiss on the metal. The [Witch]’s face turned with pain, but she looked up at Durene, panting.
“I’m fine. It’s not done. Hold on.”
The fire had died down. The boiling soup was still. Durene, hesitating, realized the shadows in the cottage had returned to normal. But there was still something left. Wiskeria reached for the stirring spoon. With her good hand, the one not burned and cut, she lifted some of the broth to her lips.
It was a thick, creamy soup that Durene saw Wiskeria sipping from. But it looked deeper, more complex, better than any soup Durene could remember eating. Ever. Wiskeria gulped down the soup hungrily, and then looked at her right hand, the cut and burn there. And Durene gasped.
The wounds were closing! Slowly, so slowly. But Durene could see the flesh knitting, the blood stopping. The burn disappeared as Wiskeria and Durene stared at it. And when the [Witch] lowered her hand, her eyes were green and yellow, sparkling, and her cheeks flushed with pride. Pride and life. She looked at Durene and smiled, tired, jubilant.
“It’s done. Want a taste?”
Durene stared at Wiskeria, then the soup. She stared at the offered ladle, felt her stomach rumble, and threw her hands up in the air.
“What was that?”
That was all Wiskeria said when Durene had calmed down. She was grimacing, trying to figure out how to load the cauldron onto a handcart to transport it to Riverfarm. It wasn’t going to be easy; the cauldron was full, but neither she nor Durene could countenance wasting a drop of it. And it needed to be eaten from the cauldron, apparently.
“It’s the vessel it was made in. You can’t just bottle it, Durene. Well, you could, but it’ll be weaker. And it’ll lose its power after the first day, most of it. People need to eat this fresh!”
“And it’ll cure them? What did you do? I’ve never heard someone chant like that. No [Mage] could do that! What was with the shadows? The fire?”
“It’s [Witch] stuff.”
She hesitated as Durene made a fist. Wiskeria sighed.
“I can’t tell you everything, Durene. Like I said, this is old ways. Witchcraft is all about ritual. Using power that’s not our own, you understand. We’re not walking mana batteries like [Mages] or able to mix…Unicorn hair and Kraken teeth like [Alchemists]. We have to get our power from other things.”
The [Witch] paused for a moment.
“Emotions, for one. That’s what the shadows were about. I was gathering all the regrets I had. Some of the ill will, the pain from people who lost their families.”
“Oh. But why was it so—”
“Sinister? It wasn’t so bad. I just built up there. If I’d let it all out, it could have been nasty. But good will, bad—it’s all power. I burnt it up, don’t worry.”
“With your hair? And blood?”
Wiskeria shrugged, smiling a bit. She touched her healed hand and made a face.
“Everything requires a sacrifice. And because of what I offered, you helping me, I think this will be a good stew. It’ll heal wounds, energize people—make them feel better about what happened.”
“All that in this?”
Durene stared at the cauldron. She’d had a mouthful, and she didn’t feel different. Okay, she felt good, and like she could plough a field with one hand—but stamina potions did the same. Only, this felt better than the burst of frantic energy a stamina potion gave her. Wiskeria nodded when Durene said that.
“It’s magic, Durene. A magic soup. It’ll do a lot of things. It’s what I’m good at. Soups, alchemy. That’s my specialty as a [Witch]—I’m not great, but I can do a bit. Poison doesn’t require as much. That’s just vapors and steam. But this is magic. Not as good as potions I guess. But it’ll do.”
“It tastes better than any potion. I’d use this every day if I could.”
Wiskeria nodded. She pushed Bismarck’s head out of the way as the Mossbear went for the pot for the twelfth time. He and Frostwing had come out of hiding once the ceremony, ritual—Durene wasn’t sure what to call it—was done. And now he really wanted what was in the pot. Wiskeria ticked off points on her long fingers with a sigh.
“It is good, but it won’t last, you can’t transport it so easily, and potions are faster. Easier to make too, I guess. It’s too bad; there was a time when [Witches] were very valuable. Because [Alchemists] weren’t so good at what they did. We could earn a living this way. Now it’s only good for rare occasions.”
“That’s too bad.”
Durene mumbled. She felt humbled, at peace after seeing the ritual, despite the blood Wiskeria had shed. It felt a bit like forgiveness, if you could make that into a spell. Wiskeria nodded. She looked relaxed too.
“You think? You should hear the old [Witches] in my coven complain about it. They’re all too young to remember, but they know all the stories and they moan about the good old days—do you think you can carry it?”
“I do. Just watch the front so it doesn’t spill out?”
Durene lifted the handcart with a grunt. It was well-built, but the cauldron was heavy. She and Wiskeria watched the cart anxiously, but it felt sturdy, so after a moment, Wiskeria nodded and Durene proceeded carefully.
“I think I want to meet more [Witches] after this. Well, not that Mavika one. The crows were scary.”
“She’s not so bad. But she is a part of my coven. One of the senior members.”
“Really? But your coven—it’s full of good [Witches], right? Like you?”
Wiskeria smiled slightly and shook her head as they walked. The sky was beautiful and dry. Durene was smiling, despite managing the wagon. A black bird flew overhead, and even it sounded welcoming.
“It’s full of [Witches], Durene. Good, bad, we band together. Mine’s one of a few on Izril. I don’t think there’s many covens in the world, but we’re most numerous in Izril and Terandria. Few, if any, live in Chandrar or Baleros.”
“Why? People don’t like [Witches]?”
“No…I just think few want to live in the desert or fighting off snakes. And not all species take to [Witches]. I hear Humans make up most [Witch] covens. It’s a very specific class. We have a history.”
“Huh. So what’s your coven do anyways? Why haven’t I heard of them?”
“We’re spread out. Covens can be very large—mine’s all the [Witches] in about, oh, three hundred miles. Like I said, there are only a few—mine’s the Marshlands Coven.”
“Marshlands? But there’s only a small one up north. Are there more far from here?”
“No. I think there was a lot more marsh in the past, though. My coven’s old, Durene. Members come in and out, but we’ve been here on Izril since Humans first came. Before that, maybe. [Witches] are—”
The two broke off from their chat as they entered Riverfarm. Durene saw a crowd of people walking down the street, many heading to—she looked up.
“Oh! Perfect! It’s lunch!”
Wiskeria looked up. It had taken all morning to make the cauldron of enchanted soup! She smiled and Durene called out. The half-Troll girl’s voice echoed down the street, attracting attention.
“Hey! Everyone! Come over here! Wiskeria brewed a magic soup for you to try! Come on! It’s fantastic!”
Heads turned. Durene saw to her pleasure that it was mostly villagers, Riverfarm folk about here. She waved at them and spotted a girl skipping towards them. Chimmy. The girl gathered with Ram, Miss Yesel, and some of the other villagers, including an entire host of [Wood Cutters]. They stared at the cauldron as Durene carefully placed it on the ground. They were just outside one of the cookhouses, but even the [Cook] came outside when they smelled the pot.
It smelled marvelous. And magical; you couldn’t deny that magic was a scent when you inhaled the magical potato soup. It felt like there was more than just the ingredients inside, and as Durene proudly shouted, more and more people stopped.
“This is a magical soup, General—I mean, Miss Wiskeria?”
Ram looked into the cauldron, half-warily, but licking his lips. Wiskeria nodded. She addressed the curious crowd.
“It’s a brew. More like a soup than actual potions. It’ll accelerate healing in the body. Scratches, small cuts—they’ll disappear overnight or in hours of drinking. Even bigger injuries. Plus, there’s some stamina-ingredients too. You can eat it with breakfast and it’ll work all day. But this will go bad in two days, three at most.”
“What’s it for?”
Miss Yesel pushed back Chimmy as the girl tried to peer inside the pot. She looked interested too, but wary. Wiskeria was a [Witch]. Durene hurried out with some bowls and spoons as Wiskeria tugged on her hat’s brim.
“Goodwill, Miss Yesel. Call it goodwill, and an apology. A bit of magic to help everyone today. That’s all.”
Miss Yesel looked dubious, but Chimmy, her eyes shining, reached for a bowl.
“It smells even better than your soup, Ma! Let me try?”
Yesel looked scandalized, but that provoked a laugh from the crowd. More people drew over as Durene took the bowls and handed them around. Wiskeria smiled as she explained more to Ram and the others.
“It’s nothing much. But it is tiring to make. I can’t mass-produce anything like an [Alchemist] can.”
“And it’s safe? It’s just helpful?”
Ram hesitated as he took a bowl. Durene nodded.
“It’s good! I had some, don’t worry, Mister Ram! Your only complaint will be there’s not enough after you try it! Here, who wants to be first? Anyone want some?”
Chimmy waved her arm excitedly. Yesel stopped her, looking apologetic.
“Maybe if someone else tries it first?”
“Of course. I can have some, or Durene. But if anyone else wants to try…”
Wiskeria looked around. The street was crowded, but no one was moving. A crow alighted on the building opposite; a dog wandered forwards, sniffing. But no Humans. Durene impatiently eyed the crowd for volunteers and nudged Ram repeatedly. Once one person tried it—the villagers hesitated. Then a quavering voice spoke up.
“I’ll—uh—I’ll have some, if you wouldn’t mind. That smells like a wonderful soup. And clearly magical. Not magic I know, though.”
Durene saw Nesor, the timid [Mage] appear in the crowd. He walked forwards and looked awkwardly at Wiskeria. He hesitated. Wiskeria bit her lip.
“Nesor. I haven’t seen you in a while.”
“I uh—avoided you. Wiskeria. I’m sorry about—you know, it was me who was sending [Messages] so I’m sorry…”
The [Mage]’s stutter hadn’t improved. He hesitated, and looked around, then shrank a bit as he lowered his head.
“I’m sorry about that.”
A moment of silence followed his words. Wiskeria nodded tiredly.
“I am too.”
The two looked at each other, until Ram cleared his throat.
“It wasn’t your fault, Miss Wiskeria. Nor his Majesty’s. It was them Goblins. And whoever knocked out poor Nesor.”
Everyone nodded at that, to Durene’s relief. Nesor nodded to. He couldn’t meet anyone’s eyes. Instead, he eyed the magical soup with a [Mage]’s interest.
“I’d gladly try the first bowl, Miss Wiskeria. I’ve always heard [Witches] make powerful concoctions, but I haven’t ever tried…would you allow me the honor?”
Wiskeria smiled and Durene offered her a ladle. She poured the soup into a bowl, and Nesor took it. He sniffed the soup, and smiled timidly. Then he took a spoon and without hesitation, took a bite.
His face changed at once. It grew peaceful, content, and his eyes brightened. No one needed to know what the soup tasted like, but the crowd waited anyways as Nesor finished the bowl, eating quickly and hungrily. He looked up, realized everyone was staring, and blushed. But then he pointed at the cauldron.
“This is the finest soup I’ve ever had. And—powerful! I feel reinvigorated, as good as any [Alchemist]’s concoction. I urge you all to try it! Please!”
He waved a hand and the crowd moved forwards. Durene, smiling and laughing, reached for the ladle, and Wiskeria’s smile was no less wide than Nesor’s. Chimmy hopped into place, bouncing for a bowl. Durene reached for the ladle and the shout behind her nearly deafened her.
Rehanna ran forwards. The woman hiked up her dress, and before anyone could stop her, as Durene and Wiskeria were turning, she kicked at the cauldron. With a cry, Durene turned, but it was too late. The iron pot overbalanced with Rehanna’s enraged kick. And it was a good kick; the heavy pot tipped over and gravity did the rest.
The liquid in the cauldron poured onto the street, mixing with the wet earth. The pleasant aroma in the air faded, and turned sour. Wiskeria leapt back as the magical soup stained her feet. And the pleasant liquid was suddenly brown, mixed with the soil unpleasantly. Rehanna, panting, eyes alight with hatred, pointed in triumph at it.
“See? It was a trick! It wasn’t good at all! Poison, it looks like!”
Mister Ram roared in fury. He threw his bowl down as the convivial, pleasant atmosphere turned just as hostile. Wiskeria was in shock, but the [Rancher] advanced on Rehanna furiously.
“You just kicked over enough food to feed everyone here! And the best smelling soup I’ve ever had! How dare you! Prost will put you in the stocks! You should be thrown out of Riverfarm on your ear for that! After Miss Wiskeria—”
“Don’t you fall for her lies! She’s a [Witch]! She was trying to buy you all with her fake magic! You think she can make you a stew and beg your forgiveness? Did you forget what she did?”
Rehanna bellowed back, her face red with fury. There were tears in her eyes. Ram recoiled, and Rehanna pointed at the foul-smelling liquid now staining the ground.
“You see that? Can’t you smell it? I knew it was a trick! The same trick that made everyone think she was a [General]! It’s just black magic!”
“It wasn’t bad magic.”
“How would you know, you half-rate [Mage]?”
Rehanna spun on him and he flinched. But he raised his voice, gritting his teeth.
“I know just as certainly as I knew any magic from Wistram. Miss Rehanna. That was no poor spell. It was a [Witch]’s brew, not alchemical, but there was good magic there. I’m afraid you ruined it.”
He pointed at Rehanna. The woman’s face turned even deeper crimson, and there was a rumble from the villagers. She pointed at Wiskeria, and her voice was a screech of fury.
“Say what you will, but I know who killed my husband! It was her! Her and your mad [Emperor]! And if you had half the sense I do—that Lancrel’s people do come to it—you’d see the truth.”
“You’re drunk, Rehanna. And you’ve been listening to those idiots from Lancrel’s Council.”
Miss Yesel looked disgusted. Durene realized not all of Rehanna’s flush was from anger. The half-Troll girl clenched her fists. How dare she?
And yet, more than one person was eying Wiskeria’s spoiled soup uneasily. The smell was foul. They looked at Wiskeria. She was standing, feet still in the wet soup, head bowed. The rest of the crowd rumbled ominously. Rehanna had insulted Laken too. But the woman just looked around with a sneer.
“You think I’m wrong? She’s a [Witch]! You know what they do! How would you ever trust a bloody [Witch]? A witch!”
No one replied. Disgusted Ram turned and spat.
“Someone help me. We’re hauling you to Prost. He can deal with you—he’s taking care of that [Thief] right now. Or Lady Rie. Where is she?”
He reached for Rehanna. She tore herself away, stumbling back. She retreated as Ram and a few other men and women reached for her.
“Don’t touch me! I want Councilwoman Beatica! She’s smart enough to see through that bitch’s lies. And she knows what’s right about everything else! Don’t touch me! Riverfarm’s going to have proper laws. Proper laws and—”
She was backing away towards the cookhouse door. Rehanna reached for it, probably intending to barricade herself inside. Ram, growling, reached for her, but the woman seized the doorknob—and shrieked.
The sound split the air. It wasn’t like her scream of fury earlier. It wasn’t a Human sound, but animalistic. Pain. Pure pain. Rehanna’s shriek froze Ram and the others in their tracks. Durene saw the woman flail back from the door, clutching at her right hand, the one that had touched the knob. And then she held it up.
Red, burnt flesh and blood trickling down her hand. Scorched skin, part of her hand torn away—
The crowd stared in horror. Rehanna opened her mouth to say something, but another shriek tore its way out. She could only wave her hand and scream, looking around, begging them to do something. But everyone was frozen. Durene’s mind was locked up. What had just—
“I didn’t do it! I didn’t touch her!”
Ram was shaken, white-faced. He stared at Rehanna’s hand. Then someone behind him uttered a strangled oath.
“Ram! The door—”
The man looked and froze. Durene saw a bright light. She stared at the doorknob. It was ordinary brass. But something was wrong. The door knob was burning white with heat! Somehow, it had grown hot as metal in forge’s fire. And it had burned Rehanna’s hand when she’d put it on the doorknob.
Some of it was still there. Parts of her palm sizzled and cooked on the doorknob. Durene smelled the scent of cooked meat, but her stomach roiled as she saw Rehanna holding her mutilated hand. Someone behind her gagged—it was Miss Yesel.
“What on earth—how did this happen?”
Ram stared at Rehanna, and then he turned.
“Healing potion. We need a—”
Half the people felt at their belts. The rest stared in horror. But it was Nesor, face white, who ran for one. As Rehanna collapsed to her knees unable to speak for agony, in the silence, heads turned.
“Who did this? Why?”
Ram whispered. Then he turned. He looked. He couldn’t help it. Neither could Durene. She stared at Wiskeria. The [Witch] was frozen in the street. She looked around, started.
“It wasn’t me. I didn’t—”
The shock on her face was apparent to everyone. But still, the eyes searched the street, then went back to her. If not her, who? Rehanna made another sound, a groaning, weeping scream. Miss Yesel clutched at Chimmy, who was white with fear.
“I didn’t do it. That was not my spell.”
“Was it a spell?”
Ram looked at Wiskeria, and then past her at Nesor, who’d rushed out of a building with three vials in his hand. Wiskeria hesitated.
“It was not Wiskeria who cast that spell.”
Durene breathed in and out, trying to clear the smell from the door. The knob was turning red, cooling. But the damage was still done. Ram looked around, clearly disconcerted.
“If not Wiskeria, then who? Who—”
The voice came from above from behind. Durene spun. Ram, Yesel, Chimmy, Wiskeria, everyone, looked up. And there they saw her.
A woman perched on the roof of the house opposite the cookhouse. At least, she looked vaguely like a woman. Her arms were thin, her posture hunched. She was dressed in grey rags, and she had a dark grey hat. Pointed, and bespectacled with feathers. But the woman’s frame looked—wrong. Too long. And as she hunched there, in a crouch, Durene saw she was not alone.
A flock of crows were sitting next to the woman, silent as could be. Durene hadn’t even noticed them arrive. Now they turned their heads, their beady eyes staring down at the crowd. More than one person shuddered. Not just for the crows. But for the woman. She looked like they did. And her eyes, when they stared down, were piercing. And the irises were nearly back.
“I cast that spell, Master Ram. If you seek a [Witch] to blame, here I am. But such is consequence for rudeness done. That woman’s pain was justly won.”
Ram stuttered as he pointed up at the woman. Wiskeria had gone white. She looked up and the woman—no, the [Witch] stood up. The villagers backed away as the crows took flight, circling the air, cawing. And the woman’s voice was loud, as Rehanna screamed on the ground.
“Remember this well, people of Riverfarm: Those who scorn a [Witch]’s gift must pay the toll. Discourtesy shall be matched with discourtesy, and ill for ill. In equal measure do we reap kindness or misery each. Such is humanity’s will.”
The words came out like a chant, like a spell. The woman who was as much bird as person leapt down, and the murder of crows flew low overhead, cawing, and the people ducked or shouted. They backed away. But Wiskeria held still. She stared at the woman with the hat. The [Witch]. And she said one word.
The [Witch] bowed slightly. And a smile crossed her lips. Yellow teeth—Durene shuddered. Mavika looked at Wiskeria. And she looked around and said only this:
“I am the first.”
The rest followed soon after.