(The Wandering Inn’s audiobook is available for preorder here! It comes out September 10th!)
Day 57 – Ryoka
After seeing Mavika at work, Ryoka found herself coming back to Riverfarm. And she knew three things.
Firstly, [Witches] were cool and scary as they came, especially Mavika. Also, her stomach was still hurting. In fact, it was getting worse since this morning. And finally…she didn’t like Durene.
It wasn’t that she didn’t understand the half-Troll girl walking back with her and it wasn’t as if Ryoka didn’t feel for her. But there was something about Durene’s personality that irked Ryoka. If she had to sum it up, it was hesitancy.
Charlay had decided to go for a quick trot in case that settled her stomach. Ryoka wished she could join her, but it would have been rude to run off and leave Durene. Old-Ryoka would have done it in a heartbeat and honestly, new-Ryoka was tempted too. Instead, she walked and talked with Durene.
“That was terrifying. All those crows and that huge raven—! Hiring Mavika to help with the fields is good, right? You thought so, otherwise you wouldn’t have negotiated for Prost, right?”
“I don’t know. I think it’ll be fine, but Prost will have to watch Mavika. I did what I thought was best; offending her would be a bad idea.”
That was Ryoka’s honest opinion. Durene didn’t seem reassured by it. She glanced sideways at Ryoka, bit one cracked lip and glanced around conspiratorially.
“So have you had any more ideas?”
“Nope. I just got here, Durene.”
She didn’t like the expectant look in Durene’s eye, or the disappointment that followed after Ryoka’s reply. The half-Troll girl scuffed at the ground.
“Well—maybe helping with stuff like Mavika was what Laken wanted. You could show Prost those ‘pestithings’ you were talking about. He was worried about the layout of Riverfarm with Laken missing. Maybe you could look it over? Because you’re both from…”
“Yeah. Maybe. Only, I’m not an [Architect]. I don’t know how Laken did it. I’ll try.”
It was the same tone Ryoka used when someone asked her to do something she really didn’t want. ‘I’ll try’ was code for ‘only if you make me, and I will give this the most minimum effort possible’. But Durene was nodding happily.
“Prost will appreciate the help. Or Lady Rie! Or me. I was thinking you could explain more about [Paladins]. Laken said he wanted me to level up in my class. I wanted to, but since he’s been gone…”
She waved an arm vaguely as if to say ‘that was that’. Ryoka frowned.
“[Paladins] are a fighting class. Not just fighting. They do good deeds. And they might be able to use…uh, magic. Faith being what it is…”
Ryoka shook her head as she walked back towards the village.
“Hasn’t training helped you level? Or…what kind of stuff have you been doing to help people? If you’re Level 16, it’ll probably be a bit harder to level. Are you sure it’s not working?”
“I don’t know. I haven’t been training. And I help out, but doing construction work or lifting stuff doesn’t sound [Paladin]-like to me.”
“Okay. Then—what about training again? You could do that, right?”
Durene shrugged self-consciously.
“I can’t. The army’s disbanded. We used to have daily sparring and exercise, but Beniar says his [Riders] need to rest since they patrol all day. When Laken comes back—”
“He’ll see about reforming the army. Right.”
Ryoka shook her head. Durene did remind her of some people she’d met in her world. She tried again.
“What about sparring? Or practice by yourself?”
“Who would I spar with? And I can’t practice; I know how to hit things, but I’m not an expert. I don’t have a Skill and I didn’t train that long.”
“So why not try and reform the army before Laken gets back?”
Durene exhaled exasperatedly and nodded, missing the look on Ryoka’s face.
“That’s what I keep saying. But Wiskeria won’t do it. She’s our [General], remember?”
“Right. And without a [General], reforming the army is a hopeless task. We should give up on it completely.”
“Well, I’m working on Wiskeria. She’ll come around or Laken will persuade her.”
Ryoka sighed again, louder. She stared at the village. It was bustling. She saw a team of wood cutters marching back with wagons full of lumber, pulled by a pair of mules. They had to wait to get in; more work was being done at the edges of the village. The [Builders] could put up a house in hours. And the fields were vast; Ryoka had seen how much was being grown and peeked in the store houses.
Hell, they’d need to make a grain silo soon just to store the produce! At the same time, Riverfarm lacked a lot of basic amenities. It was trying to complete itself, take in the excess population flooding it, and tend to security, social problems like Lancrel’s troublemakers, and the [Witches] all at once.
What the village needed wasn’t a bright idea, but a leader who could manage it all. It needed Laken. And since Ryoka wasn’t him, she felt like adding anything would make the precarious balance break. Still, he’d asked for her help. Grimacing, she pointed back at the field.
“Durene, do you know what a grain silo is?”
She hated the way the [Farmer]’s eyes lit up and she stopped.
“No. What is it? Did you have an idea?”
“No. Well—this is what it is. It’s just an upright building, like a tower. And you pour grain inside…”
Ryoka explained and Durene frowned.
“You mean, like a warehouse.”
“Why do we need one of those?”
“It’s…efficient? Good for bulk storage? Things don’t rot or decay fast in them, I think. Then again, you’d need a grain elevator—you know what? Forget it.”
“Well, if it’s as good as a [Preservation] spell, that’d be great. Why don’t you talk to Prost about it?”
“No, no—it was just a thought.”
“But it could be a good idea! Laken said you had some really great ones. What if you shared the other ones he wanted?”
Ryoka could barely remember all the things she’d suggested to him. Crop rotation? Efficient hand-plows? Had she talked about windmill-based power? She shook her head.
“My ‘ideas’. Yeah. Tell me again about the Goblins. The second group. Not the raiders. Especially the part where you attacked them first.”
“We didn’t do it first. Goblins were raiding us all over the place! This was the biggest army yet, and Laken said he sensed them attacking another city’s army. So he laid a trap!”
Durene corrected Ryoka severely. The City Runner frowned. She’d missed that part in Durene’s last catch up.
“They destroyed an army?”
“That’s what Laken said. What does it matter? They started attacking us afterwards. They destroyed Lancrel and the raids that burned down half the area around Riverfarm was that tribe’s doing!”
The [Farmer] clenched her fists angrily. Ryoka eyed her hands and shook her head. She spoke carefully, clenching her right hand and unclenching it as she spoke.
“I know they’re dangerous. I met that Goblin Lord. He wiped out a Gnoll tribe for no reason. Or maybe it was just because I…”
She shook her head. Durene stared at her. Gnolls? She’d never met one, only heard of the furry, tribal people that lived among the Drakes. Ryoka’s expression was bleak. She looked down at her right hand and curled her three fingers.
“I know they’re dangerous. But I’ve also met ones that didn’t kill everything in sight. They’re a people. And Laken decided to attack this tribe and keep fighting when their Chieftain sued for peace.”
The criticism in her voice finally reached Durene and she got what Ryoka was driving at. The half-Troll girl folded her arms. She was younger than Ryoka.
“Yeah. But they destroyed—”
“And Laken used poison gas. In his surprise attacks.”
“That’s what I said. It worked too! If we’d have gotten more of them, we wouldn’t have lost at Lancrel.”
Ryoka stared at Durene. There wasn’t a bit of guilt or hesitation in her tone. Ryoka shook her head. That was a conversation to be had with Laken. She sighed.
“I’m not going to comment. Hell, I’d probably try that if I had an army of Goblins coming at me. But he took those trebuchets and attacked Liscor. A Drake city.”
She walked on, stomping towards Riverfarm. The city needed walls too. No wonder the Goblins had attacked it so easily. Durene strode after Ryoka, worried.
“Rie and Prost said that Lord Tyrion Veltras was only—”
She stopped and Ryoka spun around and stomped back towards her. Ryoka glared at Durene. She opened her mouth and caught herself. It was hard not to shout.
“Do you not…make opinions of your own? And do you believe everything Laken says? Just like that?”
“Yes. So what? He explained why he did what he did. I was there when he made all his plans. So was Prost and Rie. I mean, I have opinions. But I agree with Laken. What’s the problem?”
Durene looked challengingly at Ryoka. The City Runner inhaled furiously. And as she did, a searing pain erupted in her abdomen. She doubled over as Durene stared in confusion at her.
“You—I think your problem is—hold on. Gah!”
“Ryoka? What’s wrong? Are you okay?”
The half-Troll girl bent anxiously. Ryoka clutched at her stomach. Uh oh. There was a familiar rumbling pain there. She gritted her teeth.
“It’s my stomach. Do you have an outhouse around here? I might need to throw up or use it. I’m not sure yet.”
“Yup. We have some there and there—”
“Where’s the closest?”
Ryoka turned and immediately began striding the way Durene had pointed. She was afraid to run. But she heard a bunch of hoof beats and turned to see Charlay making her way towards them. The Centauress looked just as pale as Ryoka all of a sudden as she returned from her walk.
“Ooh. Ooh. Ryoka, Durene, where’s the toilets? I’ll even take a latrine! Moving only made my stomach worse.”
The two hurried towards the row of outhouses in the distance. Durene followed, worried.
“Was it something you ate? Last night? I don’t feel anything, but I don’t get sick that much; I’ve never gotten food poisoning.”
Ryoka was in no mood to compliment her on her superior stomach due to her ancestry. She gritted her teeth as she tried to speed up. Charlay was holding her horse half. Was that where her stomach—? Ryoka groaned.
“I think it was the meat. Charlay and I had omelettes before you woke up. Do you know—what was it? Maybe it spoiled? It looked fresh, and I thought if I fried it, everything would be fine.”
“I thought it looked fresh! Did you cook it?”
“Of course I did, I’m asking Durene—”
The two Runners looked back. Durene was staring at them. She shook her head.
“Ryoka, I didn’t bring any meat back with me from Riverfarm last night.”
Ryoka paused and looked suspiciously at Charlay.
“But you gave me a handful of meat to make with those omelets. What the hell did we eat, then?”
Charlay frowned. Then Durene made a sound.
Ryoka turned around. Durene hesitated.
“Well, maybe it was Frostwing’s food? She was really angry when I woke up this morning, remember? I usually leave out some scraps in case she gets hungry at night.”
The City Runner felt a sinking in her stomach. Slowly, Ryoka looked at Charlay. The Centauress was avoiding her eye contact.
“…What kind of meat does Frostwing eat?”
The pregnant pause told Ryoka all she wanted to know. Even so, the stupid part of her had to listen. Durene pointed in the direction of the fields.
“Rat meat? We feed it to the cats and Frostwing and Bismarck since they’ll eat it. It’s probably not rotten, but—”
She got no farther. Ryoka and Charlay raced towards the outhouses. There was in fact a small queue, despite the large number of smelling stalls. Riverfarm’s population was huge. The villagers and city folk looked up as Ryoka and Durene raced towards them. Charlay screamed.
“Move it! I need an outhouse!”
Ryoka leapt into the first stall. She heard Charlay racing around and shouting, still in distress as Ryoka tried to yank off her pants.
“They’re all too small! Where are the large ones?”
“That’s the largest we have.”
Someone replied outside, bemused. Charlay shrieked.
“Dead gods, don’t you have ones for Centaurs? What’s wrong with you people? Ryoka! Ryoka!”
She hammered on Ryoka’s stall. Ryoka was sitting and deciding whether or not to make herself puke as her inside started a revolution.
“I’m busy, Charlay! Go find a bush!”
“What? That’s barbaric—”
There was a moment of hesitation and then rapid hoof beats.
“This isn’t faaaaaaaair—”
Charlay’s wail fled into the distance with her galloping hooves. Ryoka stared at the wooden toilet. Then she felt her stomach. Rat meat. She swore.
“I’m going to kill that horse!”
And then, well, life was unpleasant. The next ten minutes or so saw Ryoka regretting ever existing. She was also deeply, extremely unhappy to realize that her toilet was not a contained box. In that the other people doing their business could probably hear a lot of what was going on. But the less said about it the better.
Ten minutes later, Ryoka was relieved to know Riverfarm did have a form of toilet paper. Only, it was apparently a corn cob. She stared at it. There was some sense; after all, it was cheap. But corn cobs in a bucket? Really? She decided to use the pricey toilet paper she’d bought in Walta. That was a justifiable expense as far as she was concerned.
Ryoka left the outhouse at last. Her stomach still sort of hurt, but the worst was behind her. Hopefully. She was looking for a place to wash her hands and realizing that basic hygiene was not something Laken had fully implemented in Riverfarm yet. That was when she heard a voice.
“Bad day, Miss Griffin?”
Ryoka turned red. She saw a man coming out of an outhouse, buttoning his trousers. Mister Ram laughed as he held out a hand.
“We didn’t get to talk before. But I remembered you and Helm and the other Riverfarm folk were telling me about how you delivered all that food to them during the winter. Wonderful thing. You’re a City Runner, right? I’m Ram Shackl, [Rancher] mostly, but a [Farmer] for now.”
Ryoka hesitated, but the hand was out and both hers and Ram’s looked clean. Even if they weren’t. Gingerly, Ryoka shook the hand. The foremost question in her mind was, ‘did he wipe?’ But Ryoka was also trying to hold a conversation. And more people were coming in and out of the stalls. This was not the place, but Ram didn’t seem to mind.
“It’s a delight to meet Runners who’ll make the trip this far out without giving lip or treating the letters like trash. Let alone a big City Runner. It used to be hellish getting any letters delivered to my farm—I can’t pay silver for a delivery, or gold! And there’s no Runners about Riverfarm. Some former Street Runners, like Beycalt, but that was years ago! All of Lancrel’s Runners just found work elsewhere. Lucky them; they’re in demand.”
“That’s Runners for you.”
Ryoka smiled weakly. A woman walked out of another stall, a [Hunter] by the bow she’d left propped up by the door. She grabbed the unstrung bow and walked over.
“Miss Griffin? I’m Califfy, one of Riverfarm’s [Hunters]. I’d like to say hello too and thank you! I heard you talking with Ram.”
Ryoka realized more and more people were looking over and recognizing her. And what was worse, they apparently had time to come over and shake hands, whether or not they were about to use the restroom or just had. Ryoka tried to smile, touch hands as lightly as possible, and endure the backslapping.
“It’s really great you’re here. I don’t want to trouble you—Prost said you’re about his Majesty’s business and weren’t to be bothered. But if you could make a few deliveries on the way back…? You see, I have this cousin abouts and I haven’t heard from him in…well, not since I left Windrest. Unless you’re busy?”
Ram was talking to Ryoka. Durene was watching from a distance upwind. Ryoka frowned.
“I am a City Runner. I can totally do that. Uh—where did you say he was?”
The [Rancher] brightened.
“Oh, about thirteen miles thataway. I can find him on a map if you have one. Otherwise, I could tell you the way—er, but I’m afraid I can’t afford to pay much. I gave what I had to Prost to buy what was needed for Riverfarm. But I could find a few copper—er—silver—”
He looked embarrassed as he patted at his belt. Ryoka hesitated.
“I don’t need to be paid. Durene’s putting me up in her cottage and your uh, [Emperor], did give me a lot of money to come here. To help. I’ll check on your brother, no problem. If you write a letter, I could even deliver it today. It’s only thirteen miles.”
“Really? Then—would you check on someone I know, Miss Griffin? I don’t need a letter, but there’s a family I know just a bit up that way.”
The [Hunter] named Califfy Ryoka’s shoulder urgently. Ryoka turned and nodded.
“Of course! I’d be happy to. Uh—”
She looked around and realized what she was getting into. A lot of villagers waiting to use the toilets were looking hopeful. Ryoka hesitated, and then nodded, making a split-second decision.
“I can’t go too far, but if you all make letters and tell me who’s in, say, a twenty-mile radius of Riverfarm? I’ll go for a run and check in on everyone I can. Free of charge.”
The crowd let out an exclamation and then cheer of approval. More pushed forwards, and Ryoka found herself shaking hands, being introduced—all while more people came out of the outhouses. A woman, Miss Yesel herself, Prost’s wife, was talking to Ryoka, placing one of her hands on Ryoka’s arm.
“I still remember it. We were worried about having enough before his Majesty got back—not that we didn’t trust him to come! But those snows were terrible. And then you showed up—with presents for the little ones, no less! We’re all planning on remembering that day. Christmas, you called it?”
Ryoka stared at the woman’s smiling face. She looked down at the arm on her hand. Then she snapped. She stepped back, raised her hands, and shouted at the eager crowd.
“I’m sorry, but excuse me. Do you have any soap?”
The villagers blinked, and then guffawed. Come to that, the townspeople and city folk laughed too. They laughed, and then laughed harder when Ryoka got out her personal travel-pack and insisted they all wash hands first.
Ryoka sighed as she emptied a pail of soapy water into one of the outhouses. And now she was committed to delivering letters. Which was fine. It was a good deed, and the people of Riverfarm were legitimately worried for their friends and relatives. But…
The Asian girl looked up as Durene finally came over, looking worried.
“Ryoka? Are you okay? That’s a lot of deliveries everyone was asking you about. I can tell Prost to talk to them if—”
The City Runner shot out of the outhouse. Durene blinked as Ryoka tossed the bucket and turned to her, grinning. Her eyes had lit up.
“I’m a genius. Durene, I figured out what I can do to help! Two things, actually.”
“Really? That’s wonderful, Ryoka! What can I do?”
Durene breathed a sigh of relief. She looked eagerly at Ryoka. The City Runner hesitated.
“You? Well…nothing. I need to talk to Lady Rie. It’s not that big, but it will help. Especially moving forwards. I just need to speak to her.”
“Oh. Okay. I can find her. Let’s go into the village.”
The half-Troll girl looked disappointed, but pointed immediately back towards Riverfarm proper. Ryoka nodded seriously. Then she looked around.
“Thanks, Durene. Uh—have you seen Charlay? We’ll need her too.”
“Charlay? I think she’s still out uh, finding a bathroom. She ran out that way.”
Durene pointed down one road. Ryoka groaned. Of course Charlay was still gone. She was the most Erin-like person Ryoka had ever met. Only, without Erin’s charm and with an extra set of hooves. It did not make her more endearing. But Ryoka had to admit, she liked the Centauress. A bit.
“Well, let me know when she comes back.”
She just wished Charlay didn’t have such a knack for causing her headaches. Shaking her head, Ryoka went into Riverfarm to find Lady Rie and talk about her ideas. And hand washing. That made three things.
He found her because he had been waiting for a meeting like this. Waiting for a while, really. That was his purpose for the moment. Waiting and talking. It wasn’t glamorous work, but the wanderer had a mission. He strode towards the Centauress he’d spotted galloping into the brush and raised his voice. He didn’t want to spook her. He wasn’t here to harm at the moment, just talk.
“Hoi there, Miss! Can I have a word?”
For a second he heard nothing from the brushes. Then Charlay shouted back.
“Go away! I’m busy!”
The traveller tugged at the large, dark hat on his head.
“I don’t want to disturb you, Miss! But I’ve been on the road and I have to ask—is this Riverfarm?”
“Yes! That’s Riverfarm over there! Don’t come any closer!”
The female Centaur’s voice was snappy and preoccupied. The traveller shook his head.
“Then this is the domain of the [Emperor]? The one I heard about with Lord Tyrion Veltras’ army?”
“That’s right! Please shoo! I’m very busy!”
“I just want to ask a few questions if I may. Miss—”
“I ate something bad, alright? Go away while I do my business!”
The man with the hat realized there was a smell in the air, coming from the bushes. He sniffed, recoiled, and backed away.
“Ah. I’ll wait until you’re done.”
That took a while. When the Centauress finally emerged from the underbrush, she looked quite unhappy. She stared at the Human man wearing a pack and travel-worn clothing and glared.
“Yes, that’s Riverfarm. Good for you. You have eyes. What do you want? Do you just find people doing their business and bother them?”
The man hesitated, but then gave Charlay an apologetic smile. It was an odd one—toothy, with teeth. A wide smile that Centaurs usually interpreted as being very aggressive. It was still friendly, but Charlay immediately didn’t like it. She folded her arms as the ancient animal senses in her head saw the teeth and prepared to fight or run.
“What do you want? And you have a creepy smile, Mister.”
The traveller looked abashed.
“My apologies, Miss. I get that a lot. I’m just a man on the road. I’d like to enter Riverfarm, but I’ve heard you have guests. The kind no one likes to meet. So long as they’re here, I think I’ll keep my distance. And warn anyone I can.”
“Guests? You mean, the [Witches]?”
The stranger nodded cautiously. He tugged at his long hat.
“You could call me a concerned traveller. But I’d like to warn you, Miss Centaur, that staying in Riverfarm would be dangerous. Have you heard what [Witches] do? Particularly those [Witches]?”
He pointed at the village. Charlay tossed her head impatiently.
“Nope. I know one of them and she’s a jerk. So what? You’re the suspicious one. You’re just wandering about; warning people there are dangerous [Witches] here for no reason? That’s not suspicious at all.”
She pawed the ground as she peered at the traveller. He didn’t look particularly dangerous and Charlay was sure one good kick would do him in. The traveller might have sensed her thoughts, because he stepped back, lifting his hands and smiling apologetically.
“I’m just doing a thankless job, Miss Centaur. I’m staying in this region for a bit. The [Witches] are a problem and I’d like to make people aware of how dangerous they are.”
“Really? What’re they going to do, curse us all?”
The man shook his head, pursing his lips, vexed.
“Have you studied history, Miss? [Witches] used to fight in wars with the north. When the Five Families first invaded, some of them helped topple the Drake cities and drive the Gnolls south. Of course, that was many thousands of years ago. These days they keep to their covens. But they’re dangerous. So much so that some of them, especially the tall one? The one with the black horse? She bothers me. Have you heard the trouble she brings?”
“Belavierr? No. Not at all. Now, if you’re quite done saying suspicious things, I’m going. You can come to Riverfarm if you want. But if you bother me again, I’m kicking you.”
Charlay turned around and showed the man her back hooves. He stepped back with a sigh.
“Not for the moment, Miss. But you’ll see what I mean soon enough. Trouble’s coming. I’m just trying to warn you all. If you’re wise, you won’t stay around those [Witches]. They bring it.”
“I’ll bear that in mind.”
The Centauress shot over her shoulder. She trotted back to Riverfarm, glancing back at the traveller. She didn’t like him being behind her. But after a moment, he began walking back the way he’d come. She frowned and trotted faster towards Riverfarm. First [Witches], now suspicious men on the road. She shook her head.
“This place is weird.”
Then she broke into a gallop and went to find Ryoka.
“This is where he was?”
Five minutes later, Ryoka was at the spot where Charlay had been. She stared at the scuffed ground and stared at what might have been a footprint on the packed soil. Or just random dust. Charlay nodded, glancing around.
“He was really suspicious. And he wanted to know if this was where that [Emperor] guy lived. But he was most interested in the [Witches]. He tried to warn me about them.”
“What did he say?”
“I didn’t really listen. Just suspicious stuff. Don’t trust them. They bring bad stuff. You know; suspicious stuff.”
Ryoka glanced up and sighed. Charlay had run to find her and Ryoka had come right back to see what was up. She looked backwards and saw Durene jogging towards them. Slowly. The City Runner stood up and Charlay began to jog with her, back towards Riverfarm.
“He’s gone now anyways and I don’t want to follow. What else did you notice, Charlay? What did he look like?”
“Um, he had…a hat? Dark clothes? Big smile. And a backpack.”
Ryoka shot Charlay an aggrieved look. The Centaur spread her hands innocently.
“He wasn’t that noticeable. But what do you think he wanted?”
“I don’t know. But I intend to find out. Durene! Let’s find Lady Rie!”
It didn’t take long to find the [Lady]. Rie was distracted as she strode to meet Durene, Ryoka, and Charlay. But she heard them out and instantly her brows knitted together.
“A suspicious man on the road, talking to you about [Witches]? I wish you’d been able to bring him into Riverfarm, Charlay. That man’s been spotted three times by other people, and that’s what I’ve heard of today alone. Each time he asked about Riverfarm and the presence of the [Witches].”
“Suspicious. See! I told you!”
“But what does he want?”
Ryoka frowned. She looked at Lady Rie. The woman raised two delicate eyebrows.
“It could be he was simply trying to cause trouble. Or he’s after one of the [Witches]. Maybe this Circle of Thorns? I somehow doubt they’d be that obvious.”
“Me too. But I think there’s a definite connection with the [Witches]. Damn. It sounds like he was trying to make sure they were in the village. And if that’s so—Charlay. What did this guy say exactly?”
“I can’t remember! I was sort of busy through half the conversation.”
The Centauress stamped one hoof. Ryoka sighed and massaged her forehead. She had a sudden, worrying thought.
“Okay, fine. But try to recall any specific details. Did he say anything about an inquisition?”
“Then was his hair silvery and grey and did he have two swords? Did he say anything about a [Witcher]?”
“Not a thing about his class. What’s a [Witcher]?”
“Just a class. I suppose he’s not a [Judge]. If someone here was named ‘John Proctor’ I’d be really worried. Then again, this is a rural farm…”
Ryoka scrubbed at her face as Rie and Durene looked at her oddly. Great. It could just be a coincidence, but she didn’t like the timing. If you wanted to go Occam’s Razor, it was probably someone from Lancrel spreading rumors or an actual traveller who knew about one of the [Witches]. Like Belavierr or Mavika. Lady Rie pursed her lips.
“It seems trouble is brewing. I’d suggest we table this until the man can be found. I will let Beniar know to apprehend him if he’s spotted again. But for now, let’s focus on other matters. Durene said you had something to speak to me about, Miss Griffin?”
“What? That’s right. Yes! I know what I can do to help Riverfarm, at least.”
Lady Rie’s eyes sharpened. Durene looked hopeful as she hopped from one foot to foot, eagerly.
“What is it? What’s your idea, Ryoka?”
The young woman took a breath. She looked around and indicated herself and Charlay.
“We’re going to start a Runner’s Guild in Riverfarm.”
For a moment all three women blinked at her. Then Charlay’s hand shot up.
“Dibs on Guildmistress!”
The plan was simple. A bit audacious, but only a bit. Truthfully, it was simple, easy to execute, and it mattered. Lady Rie didn’t see it at first, but she got it after a little bit. Durene was the one who had no frame of reference.
“Why would a Runner’s Guild matter? We don’t have Runners in Riverfarm; we don’t really need ‘em.”
“True. But that was when Riverfarm was a small village. If Laken wants an empire, he needs a Runner’s Guild. And he needs one today, not tomorrow or in a few months. Because if you have Runners, you have communication. Not many people can afford [Message] spells and you need a [Mage] to receive them. But Runners are cheap and we go everywhere. As it stands, this entire region is pretty much isolated from, say, Invrisil or anywhere else. But if Runners start visiting here, even a handful and you train your own, Riverfarm becomes a destination.”
Charlay was nodding as Ryoka laid out the plan. The Centauress took over, leaning over one of the maps the City Runners both carried in their packs.
“You know Runners won’t visit this place normally, right? Not more than once a week at least. It’s not worth the run. But if there’s a Runner’s Guild here and you have your own Runners or you steal some from another town…”
“We build a network. Of course. It’s completely logical. Where Runners go, trade and travel tend to follow. And it would certainly allow us to keep in touch with local settlements. I do think we could set up the beginnings of one, at least before Emperor Godart arrives. Yes, it’s not hard to set up a guild in theory.”
Durene looked astonished.
“Really? Doesn’t it need a building? And—and [Receptionists] and all kinds of organization? The Runner’s Guild we visited in Invrisil was huge.”
“Yes. But you can run a Guild out of a root cellar. In theory, you only need some Runner’s Seals, something to write down requests and store letters. And money to pay Runners, of course. But a Runner’s Guild takes a cut of deliveries. And most importantly—”
Ryoka was watching Rie’s face. The woman was sharp. She completed the sentence for Ryoka.
“—Miss Griffin and Miss Charlay can both advertise the fact that Riverfarm has a Runner’s Guild in the interim. Of course.”
The [Lady] nodded at Ryoka appreciatively. Ryoka smiled. It was a publicity stunt like the one Laken had pulled at the Merchant’s Guild in Invrisil, as well as a smart investment in the future. She was proud of the idea. So was Charlay.
“Can I be listed as Riverfarm’s top Runner? It’s between me and Ryoka and I’ll win that competition.”
Ryoka scowled at the Centauress.
“You could be Guildmistress if you wanted to retire.”
“How much does it pay?”
“Absolutely nothing. But they’ll give you all the wheat you want to munch on.”
Charlay looked like she was actually considering it for a moment.
“Hm. Pass. But it’s a good idea, right?”
“I’ll make preparations at once. We can convert a new warehouse and set up a guild. Come to that, we might as well plan a commercial district. Which is what you’re suggesting next, Miss Griffin, isn’t it?”
The Asian girl nodded thoughtfully.
“Merchant’s Guild, Mage’s Guild—those are the basics. You could make an inn and a few shops too while you’re at it. I don’t imagine you get many [Traders], but if Riverfarm has any drop by, you could tempt them with some of your fresh produce. Until you get an actual product of some kind, that is.”
Rie coughed delicately.
“We do have some marketable items, in fact. Chess boards, carved items; but you are correct, Miss Griffin. Establishing shops would also give our artisans time to work. Some, like the [Potters] have been clamoring to use the clay deposits around Riverfarm. But a Runner’s Guild is a fine first step.”
She smiled and Ryoka returned it. She saw Durene shaking her head slightly behind Rie. Ryoka understood; it wasn’t an earthshattering idea. But it was smart and it was based on things Riverfarm could do, rather than making, say, a waterwheel.
“I think Emperor Godart would have implemented much the same idea as you’re proposing, Miss Griffin. Prost and I have been so busy trying to carry out his plans and dealing with the issue of sustaining the village and housing, we haven’t tried to develop Riverfarm further. However, if you’re willing to help us by doing some of the local running deliveries, I will write a letter to the Runner’s Guild in Filk. Would you be able to make it there and back?”
“I’ll definitely do the deliveries. I might have to wait until tomorrow for the letters to be written and plan out my run. Filk. I don’t know the town. How far’s the run?”
“Thirty two miles there and back.”
Ryoka scowled out the window.
“Oof. That’s hard. It’s already past midday. I could try it tomorrow. There’s something else I want to do there. Unless—”
She looked sideways. So did Rie and Durene. Charlay paused.
“What? Aha! So you admit I’m the better Runner?”
She looked triumphant, and then the Centauress frowned.
“But—hold on! There are [Bandits] about! Why do I have to risk my neck and run thirty two miles?”
“Because you’re the gracious Centauress, Dustrider Charlay? And because—”
She leaned over and whispered in Charlay’s ear as Durene and Rie frowned. The Centauress blinked.
“Hey! That’s a good idea! But what if I can’t find one? Okay. Okay, really? Huh. I don’t have a contact. But I still have to run there and back! That’s a lot of work!”
She stamped a foot, annoyed. Ryoka sighed.
“Oh, okay. Just because you asked. I want to know too.”
The Centauress acquiesced at last. Ryoka sighed in relief; she didn’t want to do a thirty mile run out of the blue either, stamina potions or not. They took a few more minutes to finalize things and Lady Rie found some stationary and wrote a quick letter. And then Charlay was out the door, muttering about unpaid work. Ryoka saw her off with Durene. The [Farmer] girl looked mystified as Charlay galloped off.
“So we’re getting a Runner’s Guild? Is that your big idea?”
She looked at Ryoka. The young woman sighed.
“Partly. Charlay’s also going to dig up some information on the [Witches] if she can. Look, it’s a good idea. Riverfarm needs to do business if you want it to become a town or even city.”
Durene gnawed on one lip, dissatisfied.
“I guess—but it’ just not anything big. Don’t you have some other ideas?”
Ryoka did. She just refused to say. And she was getting tired of the questions.
“Not at the moment. Look, Durene. I’m just running blind here. Laken didn’t exactly give me a plan.”
“But he thought you could help.”
That apparently meant Ryoka should know exactly what she was doing. Exasperated, Ryoka looked over Durene’s shoulder at Lady Rie. The [Lady] gave her a slight nod and twitch of her lips. Ryoka shook her head.
“I’ll try, Durene. And I think I can help with the [Witches]. I want to know more about them, at least. Actually, aside from Mavika, the others seem relatively stable. Maybe they’ll just wait for Laken in peace—”
She saw Rie’s expression and stopped. Ryoka hesitated.
“Something wrong, Lady Rie?”
Durene turned and frowned. Ryoka frowned too. Lady Rie was biting one painted lip, a sure sign of stress because it was smudging her lipstick. She hesitated, and then replied cautiously.
“Perhaps. While you were attending to Witch Mavika, there was an…incident. With Rehanna, one of our troublemakers. And the [Witch] known as…Belavierr?”
She relayed this morning’s incident to Ryoka. The City Runner felt a slight chill when she heard about Belavierr’s offer to Rehanna. She lost a husband and a child. What would a [Witch]…?
There were a lot of things Ryoka could think of, none of them pretty. And Belavierr might not be a [Necromancer], but Ryoka knew Alevica could summon skeletons. How strong did a [Witch] have to be to copy what say, Pisces could do? Or more? She looked at Lady Rie.
“I think I’d better find some of the other [Witches]. Or even Belavierr. I wanted to talk to her.”
She felt a skip in her stomach just thinking about it. Durene looked uneasy.
“Are you sure, Ryoka?”
Lady Rie had a similar expression on her face.
“I don’t know if Miss—if Witch Belavierr is the most able conversationalist, Miss Ryoka. Or…stable. There might be some risk. Wiskeria seemed to imply as much. As did Miss Eloise.”
That was probably true. Even Mavika had given Ryoka strong fae vibes. As in, one misstep might have landed her with her eyes being pecked out by a murder of crows. But—damn it, she also wanted to know. Why did she like scary immortal monsters so much? Right, because they were cool.
Ryoka smiled weakly.
“Let’s just say I have some experience with people like her, Lady Rie.”
The [Lady]’s brows rose slightly.
“Really? Well, I believe Miss Eloise has relocated her tea circle. And you may find Wiskeria there as well. Belavierr might still be standing in the street. Or she may have moved.”
“I’ll—uh—I’ll—go feed Frostwing.”
Durene wavered and then decided not to follow Ryoka for once, much to the City Runner’s relief. Ryoka grinned, nodded, and with some apprehension, went to find the [Witches].
It wasn’t hard. And indeed, Ryoka found Eloise sitting outside Riverfarm, by the banks of the river. She was having tea again. Only this time—Ryoka paused.
The [Witches] were there. At least, five of them. Eloise was sitting on the grass, having spread a travel blanket to cushion a tea kettle and some snacks. And sitting with her was the strict [Witch], Miss Califor, and her apprentice, Nanette. Wiskeria was also sipping tea with them, and all four [Witches] looked like they were there purely by chance, because it was a lovely day and a nice place to sit. Not because they were watching the fifth [Witch] who sat under a tree. Not at all.
Belavierr was resting under a tree, doing something with a thread and needle. She sat, her large, pointed hat bowed, consumed by her work. You could’ve missed her if you looked past her. Until you saw how the shadows of the tree seemed too long, and how nothing, not birds or insects seemed to be making sound anywhere near her.
Ryoka wondered what you had to do to generate your permanent creepy field around you. She headed towards the four picnicking [Witches] first. Wiskeria saw her coming and got up. Ryoka stopped in front of the tea circle awkwardly. Califor and Eloise regarded her, one with a piercing look, the other a kind smile. Nanette was eating a scone.
“Hi, uh, Wiskeria, right? I’m was hoping I could chat. Am I interrupting anything? Sorry, I’m Ryoka Griffin.”
Wiskeria nodded, adjusting her spectacles.
“Oh, yes. We met earlier. The one Laken sent. I haven’t had time to introduce myself properly. I’m pleased to meet you. And if I can help you, let me know. Emperor Laken did call for you.”
She held out a hand and Ryoka shook it. The Asian girl smiled and got a polite one of her own. Well, this was going swimmingly. Ryoka hadn’t had to introduce herself by outing Wiskeria as a vampire, and she hadn’t needed to save Wiskeria from a magical monster just to say hi. If she could avoid punching her within the first ten minutes of meeting her, Ryoka was golden.
“Sorry. Again. I know it’s odd that Laken sent me out of the blue. We’re uh, acquaintances.”
Wiskeria nodded and didn’t ask any questions, which Ryoka appreciated. Her eyes flickered as she looked Ryoka up and down. She took in Ryoka’s features, missing fingers, and bare feet all at once; that was pretty good. Most people fixated on one or the other, but Wiskeria was as sharp as Durene had said. Then the [Witch] smiled and adjusted her pointed hat.
“I try not to be surprised by anything Laken does. But what brings you here? Is there anything I can help with? Is Mavika…?”
“Oh, no. She was at the fields, but we sorted it out.”
“Really? Did she make an offer? I can talk to—”
Wiskeria looked instantly worried. Ryoka grinned.
“We sorted it. I helped Prost negotiate and Mavika’s flock gets some of the corn in exchange for killing all the pests. They’re at work now.”
Wiskeria glanced up and Ryoka saw a few birds in the distance. The [Witch] exhaled.
“That’s a relief. And that’s a standard contract Mavika offers, don’t worry. You helped Prost agree? Was there trouble?”
“Not really. The [Farmers] didn’t want to accept. I just talked them into it.”
Wiskeria looked surprised, and then she smiled.
“Thank you. Mavika really doesn’t have any ill will. She’s just hard to deal with. Even for other [Witches].”
“I’m familiar with the sort.”
Ryoka’s rueful look was one Wiskeria clearly understood. The [Witch] chuckled, and Ryoka laughed. The two relaxed and Wiskeria gestured at the [Witches]. Califor was speaking sternly to Nanette and the young [Witch] was nodding, pointing her wand at a scone. Ryoka realized she was trying to make it levitate and both Califor and Eloise were coaching her!
“So, did you want one of us for anything?”
“Nope. I’m just here out of curiosity. It’s an interesting class. [Witch], I mean. I was hoping you could explain more of it to me. I don’t know if it’ll help, but—”
Wiskeria was nodding.
“Of course. I can answer any questions you have. Although I’m afraid you might be misunderstanding things. Being a [Witch] isn’t half as interesting as you might think. At my level, it’s closer to being a [Hedge Witch]—that’s a name for a self-taught female spellcaster. I’m afraid I’m just a glorified adventurer with a few odd tricks. Real witchcraft is hard to pull off. This coven’s probably your best example of that. I can’t do much to keep them in line. But I can put out any fires, with luck.”
She nodded to her mother for that. Interesting. Wiskeria wasn’t half as broken as Durene had made her out to be. Maybe she’d come around, but Ryoka thought the [Witch] seemed pretty put together. The Asian girl nodded, and couldn’t help herself.
“Preventing them from turning people into frogs and stuff like that?”
Wiskeria’s laughter made Nanette look up. The wobbling scone dropped out of the air. Ryoka smiled and then hesitated and gestured at Belavierr under the tree. Wiskeria’s mother hadn’t even twitched at Wiskeria’s laugher. Nor had she moved or changed positions once. Her hands and the needle and thread were the only things moving in her world.
“Um. I know it’s a hard sell for you to talk about this if it’s secret, but I’d also like to know more about some of the [Witches]. Especially your mother…? I heard she did something this morning. Can you talk about it? Or could I talk to her? Ask questions?”
Wiskeria’s smile cut off. She hesitated and tugged her hat a bit lower.
“I can try. Eloise was working on the woman—Rehanna—but my mother got to her first. She offered Rehanna…something. I don’t know what it is. I could guess, but there are a number of things my mother would offer. Few of them good. Still, if you want her aid, I can get her to give it.”
Ryoka’s eyebrows rose.
Wiskeria nodded casually.
“I’m her daughter. I don’t like taking her help for—anything. But that’s my choice. I could introduce you now if you want.”
Ryoka hesitated. She did want that, but experience had taught her caution. She looked at Wiskeria.
“I’d love to ask her some questions. But uh, is there any etiquette I should use? A way I can address her? Would she be offended if I just made conversation? What are the consequences of a mistake? That’s a better question, actually.”
The [Witch] blinked at the barrage of questions. She gave Ryoka a strange look and shook her head.
“The worst that will happen is she’ll just ignore you. Actually, that’s very likely without me around. Or she might make you a deal. But—”
She looked Ryoka up and down and the young woman got the feeling she was being inspected in more ways than just visual.
“—I don’t think you have what she wants. There’s a bit, but not much.”
“A bit of what?”
The [Witch] winced.
“Sorry. That was rude. The answer’s pain. Or regrets. Or—well, you’re not in despair or desperate at the moment. There’s a bit of that. Sorry, it’s a [Witch] thing. I can explain. Why don’t we have a seat first? Eloise has tea out and she can help explain.”
So saying, she led Ryoka over to the blanket. Eloise brushed a strand of white hair out of her eyes and smiled. Ryoka sat down and found herself with a cup and scone in hand in moments. Eloise smiled and Ryoka felt like she was speaking to her grandmot—wait a second, her grandmother hated her. A therapist, then.
Ryoka knew it was a Skill, and part of her mind pushed back on it. But since Eloise was all genuine, at least as far as Ryoka could tell, the hospitality still put her at ease.
“Good evening to you, young woman. Ryoka Griffin, am I right? I’m delighted to meet you. This is Califor and Nanette.”
The strict [Witch] sniffed and regarded Ryoka with one piercing gaze before sipping from her cup. Ryoka awkwardly introduced herself. Both Eloise and Califor seemed to know who she was already. The elderly [Witch] smiled.
“Of course we do, dear. You’re the one Belavierr pointed out to us.”
Ryoka choked on a scone. Califor looked disapproving and Wiskeria leaned out of the way as Ryoka coughed crumbs onto the grass.
“She did? That’s what Mavika—er, what did she say?”
Califor frowned. She reached out and plucked a wobbling scone out of the air as Nanette managed to get it to eye-level. The [Witch] took a bite and nodded, chewing briskly.
“That you feel like the wind. That’s unusual enough. But I agree. There’s an odd affinity with the wind about you, but you’re no [Mage]. How did you come by that gift, young woman? It’s not an artifact either.”
“I…learned it from a friend.”
Ryoka’s evasive answer got her another piercing glare. Califor swallowed, opened her mouth, and received a gentle but firm look from Eloise. She frowned, but dropped it. Eloise smiled and went on.
“Then what brings you here?”
“I—I’d like to know about [Witches].”
Nanette sat up. Wiskeria and Eloise smiled. And Califor snorted.
“If your goal is to fly like Witch Alevica, Miss Griffin, I would forget about it. She is a prodigy and it took her six years to learn how to fly. Moreover, none of our coven is looking to take on apprentices. I’m afraid I only have time to teach Nanette. And Wiskeria if she wishes it.”
She nodded at Wiskeria as she pointed at something upstream. Ryoka leaned over as Wiskeria frowned and didn’t reply to Miss Califor’s comment. Was that a hat floating downriver? No. It was Alevica. She was swimming in the river! And she was stripped down to her undergarments. Except for her hat. Nanette giggled at the sight and sat up straight when Califor glanced at her.
“I…don’t want to fly, Miss Califor. I just want to know about [Witches].”
The older [Witch] stared at Ryoka, seeing right through the lie. Ryoka sighed.
“Okay, I’d like to know how to fly. But I don’t think I could be a [Witch]. And I don’t intend to be one.”
“You could be. You have a bit of what it takes. But let’s let that lie. You want to know about [Witches], Miss Griffin? What do you know about us already?”
Eloise tapped the cooling tea pot with a finger and Ryoka saw a trail of steam rise from the tea the [Witch] poured into her cup. The City Runner thought and answered slowly.
“I think I understand a bit. Durene described Wiskeria making her brew. It sounds like [Witches] rely on rituals as opposed to [Mages] who cast direct spells they memorize. Chanting, more uh, traditional spellcasting and the ability to tame familiars, perform alchemy—it makes [Witches] a broader class than most spellcasters. But there’s something else to it, right? Durene mentioned Wiskeria was gathering emotions.”
She looked around. Eloise smiled approvingly and Califor’s eyebrows shot up. She nodded grudgingly. Ryoka felt like she’d earned a rare gold star. Eloise nodded.
“You’re quite observant, Miss Ryoka. And you’re also entirely correct. [Witches] use emotions and feelings in our spells. Well, it’s wrong to say just emotions. We use regrets, grudges, as well as places of power.”
“Places of death. Or life. The nature changes, but power is power. What matters is how a [Witch] uses it and to what end. They must take care they are not consumed by what they try to wield. Remember that, Nanette. And wipe your mouth.”
“Yes, Miss Califor.”
Califor struck Ryoka as someone with a lesson for every situation. Ryoka hesitated, trying to process what she’d just heard. So [Witches] used emotions to fuel their spells?
“Is that confidential? If it is, I can keep a secret.”
Califor snorted and Eloise laughed so gently that Ryoka blushed. Wiskeria settled back, letting the two older women talk as she showed Nanette how to levitate a scone with her own wand.
“None of this is a grand secret. It’s simply that no one asks, young woman. And that [Witches] prefer to keep their methods private. We don’t gossip about our talents. But this is a time of unusual circumstance and you are unusual yourself. So yes, [Witches] use feelings like power. We gather it. And ritual, incantation, that is all a way to harness that power. It is not as obvious or loud as a [Mage]’s spell. And it lacks the force of that magic. But it can do what regular spells cannot. It is not greater or worse. Just different.”
Eloise nodded and put down her cup.
“Like each [Witch]. You may have noticed this, Miss Griffin, but [Witch] is as wide a class as [Mage]. We all have our talents. Mine, as you may have noticed, is tea. Tea, sociability, medicines—I put my magic into that. Take this for example. This is my tea I’ve sold to some of Riverfarm’s villagers.”
She produced a packet of dried tea and offered it to Ryoka. The Runner Girl took it, opened it, and frowned. Califor nodded.
“It’s just a basic root tea. What makes it special is her magic. Try it. Here. Nanette, fill this kettle and then warm it up.”
She gestured to Nanette and the apprentice dutifully got up, filled the pot from the stream, and put it on the ground. She looked hesitantly at Miss Califor.
“With a spell?”
“Yes. [Hot Hands]. It’s a basic Tier 0 spell. You do need regular spells as much as incantation. But use it to burn the kindling. Here.”
“Wouldn’t it be easier to heat up the water by holding it?”
Nanette looked wistfully at the pot. Califor sighed.
“It would. Igniting a stick requires focusing the heat of your spell into a hand or finger. It requires concentration, but it means your control over a basic spell will be much greater. [Hot Hands] is useless if all you can do is make a kettle steam. If you can ignite a fire, however, it means the spell has utility. And what does a [Witch] value?”
Nanette blushed as Wiskeria and Ryoka burst out into laughter. Eloise smiled and Miss Califor’s glare sent Nanette fumbling to ignite the sticks. It took her eight tries, in which time Eloise had prepared a second pot. All she had to do was touch it; Califor pointed that out as an exemplary use of the same spell.
“Now, these are two identical mixtures, Miss Griffin. The difference is that I’ve put my magic into one. It’s a simple process, and it’s not much magic. But it’s different from enchanting it. I put my craft into it.”
Ryoka eyed the two identical, dark teas. She looked up.
“By craft, you mean…”
“She means the particular magic she desires. Each [Witch] is different, Miss Griffin. Eloise looks for different things than I do. You’ve seen her tea parties. That is not a simple charity. Nor is what Hedag does. Or Alevica. Our craft is what we seek, what defines us as [Witches]. What does Eloise do when she sits with others and offers them tea and advice? Nanette.”
The apprentice jumped and stuttered.
“S-she helps them by making them feel better? And um, making them feel nice?”
“And what does she gain from doing that?”
“She takes…she takes…”
The apprentice panicked. Wiskeria spoke quietly as she brushed crumbs off her dress.
“She takes a bit of their happiness. Their goodwill and cheer. Not all of it; just a bit.”
Califor sniffed, but nodded.
Ryoka sat up and looked at Eloise. The older [Witch] closed one eye as she poured a cup.
“As Miss Califor says. I’m sure Nanette knew that, but identifying exactly what I take is difficult. I like to think I’m quite subtle. But yes. I make people feel better and in exchange, I take some of that good feeling. Just a bit. But—here. This is a cup of tea. What do you think?”
She offered it to Ryoka. The young woman sipped. She tried not to let her face change. Well…it was a tea. Eloise smiled knowingly.
“Hmm. Rooty. Tastes a bit like dirt. But yeah, it’s tea-like.”
“It’s from local roots and herbs. Very inexpensive. Free, in fact. But it does lack for taste. Now try this cup.”
The second cup made Ryoka pause and sniff it suspiciously. She’d looked at both packets and they’d been identical. But this tea smelled completely different! And when she tasted it—
“Take my money.”
Ryoka slapped a few silver coins down on the cloth and Nanette giggled with delight. Eloise laughed as Ryoka drank from the cup. It was amazing! The taste was there, but it was as if you’d taken it and improved it in every was possible. Instead of dirt, the taste was earthen, deep. The older [Witch] waved away Ryoka’s coins.
“I’ll sell you some of my teas. Only one or two though. I’m afraid it won’t do you any good to keep them for more than a few days, Miss Griffin. I could sell you some longer-lasting teas, but even if you tried to use a [Preservation] spell, it wouldn’t do you any good. Bags of holding don’t work either.”
“Really? Why? Wait—is it—?”
The City Runner’s blinked down at her cup. Nanette sat up eagerly, but Ryoka’s mind raced towards the connection. She looked up and her eyes shone.
“Of course. It’s goodwill. It runs out quick.”
This time Eloise’s laughter made Alevica, floating past them, raise her hat and stare at the group. Califor blinked and nodded grudgingly. Wiskeria and Nanette looked impressed. Califor sighed.
“You could be a good [Witch], young lady. If only you’d been called earlier.”
“Hey! Is that Ryoka Griffin over there?”
Alevica called out and then swam over. She walked over to them, shedding water. Ryoka saw her flick her hands and her clothes flew from a nearby tree branch towards her. She dressed herself as the water steamed off her body. Califor rolled her eyes at the display. Ryoka was intensely jealous.
“It is you. I knew you were interesting when I met you. Eloise, pass me a cup of whatever’s in that, will you? What’re we talking about? I’m so bored here I feel like flying off and killing some of the [Bandits].”
The Witch Runner sprawled out. Eloise poured her a cup as Califor eyed Alevica severely. Ryoka looked at Alevica’s cocksure grin.
“I’m asking about [Witches].”
“Oh? Well in that case, why didn’t you ask me? You’d probably be most similar to me anyways. What, did Eloise explain her magic to you? That’s right. She uses goodwill. Now, here’s the real trick. What do I use?”
Alevica shot Ryoka a challenging grin. She reminded Ryoka…of Ryoka. Only, more confident than Ryoka could ever remember being. More dangerous too. Ryoka remembered Alevica laughing as she killed the [Bandits]. The young woman thought for a moment. Alevica. She hadn’t seen her harvesting any emotions from the brief time she’d met her.
Or had she? Ryoka looked up and met Wiskeria’s eyes. She recalled Charlay’s fear of Alevica. Ryoka glanced at the [Witch]’s smirk.
“You’re taking their fear. And hatred.”
Alevica’s brows rose. She looked at the others.
She turned back to Ryoka.
“That’s right. Fear, hatred, loathing, envy, I take it all. I don’t need to pretend to like people or listen to their sad, sordid little lives. I do what I want and that makes me powerful. What I take lasts far longer than any goodwill.”
She winked at Eloise. The older [Witch] gave her a resigned smile. Ryoka looked at Eloise.
“So does that make you a ‘bad witch’?”
Alevica sprayed tea across Nanette and Califor as she laughed. Nanette flung up her arms, and Califor scowled. Not a drop of tea landed on either.
“Alevica. Mind your manners.”
“Sorry. Sorry! ‘Bad witches’? Yeah, I’m a bad [Witch]. I guess that’s how some people look at it. I just think of it as looking after myself. Why do I owe people anything?”
“Oh, perhaps only because they deserve respect. Or that their efforts create the world which you can enjoy. A [Baker] bakes her goods and works hard.”
“And I pay her, Eloise. And if someone wrongs me, I get even. I don’t owe people for anything. Hey Nanette, remember that. A [Witch] can do as she likes. That’s my craft.”
Alevica drained her cup and looked around arrogantly. Nanette was looking equally nervous and awestruck by Alevica. Califor frowned.
“Tell me, Alevica. Does your brand of witchcraft improve this world in any way? Or is it self-indulgent? You rely on others more than any of us, only you expect their hatred. What you have will not last. Every [Witch] falls. When you do, will it be alone?”
The Witch Runner paused. She tossed her cup down and sat up. Ryoka felt something pass by her as the two [Witches] locked gazes. Wiskeria muttered.
“Oh not again.”
But whatever contest was in the air, Alevica clearly wasn’t in the mood for it. The air turned hot for just a second before she looked away. Annoyed, Alevica rose to her feet.
“I’m sure that’s what these wonderful covens are for, Califor. I’m being a good little [Witch] and helping [Witches] everywhere, aren’t I? Don’t lecture me about magic. Not all of us have to hold hands and sing songs. Later.”
She turned. Her broom shot towards her and Alevica hopped up. Her feet landed on the broom and she disappeared, shooting across the ground just a few feet into the air. Ryoka watched her go enviously. Califor just shook her head.
“That would be an example of a [Witch] whose craft is both powerful and self-indulgent, Miss Griffin. Alevica is the most gifted [Witch] of her generation at her age. But her magic is self-destructive. [Witches] like that often end up in early graves.”
There was silence after that pronouncement for a bit. Ryoka sipped from her cup. Alevica had come and gone like a storm. But she had reminded Ryoka of Mavika.
“Wiskeria said Mavika was like Alevica. A bad…I mean, selfish to some degree. What craft does she use?”
She looked at Wiskeria. The [Witch] frowned.
“Not all [Witches] need just emotions. The strength of her flock is probably part of her power. I’m sure she uses some stuff. Fear, loathing, uh…superstition?”
She looked at Califor and Eloise for confirmation. Califor nodded.
“It’s an old way. Too cumbersome for my taste.”
“And imagine feeding all the crows. But Mavika is old. And quite powerful.”
Eloise sighed and shook her head. Ryoka nodded. She forbade asking who was most powerful; it seemed like Alevica was lower on that totem pole than Califor, at any rate. Ryoka glanced around and jumped. She’d nearly forgotten about the shadowed [Witch] under the tree. She hesitated, and then plunged into it.
“Okay. Then…do you mind me asking what Belavierr uses?”
The picnic went silent. Nanette edged closer to Califor and the older [Witch] lowered her cup. She and Eloise looked at each other.
“Loss. Among other things.”
“I see. Is she—different from the rest of you?”
“Only in the sense of age. Any [Witch] might become as powerful as her. In time.”
Califor sniffed, but it was quietly. Eloise shook her head.
“Any [Witch] might. But you could regard her as the most powerful [Witch] present by some margin, Miss Griffin. And Belavierr is extraordinary. Let us leave it at that.”
Ryoka wanted to. But she had promised Laken, damn it. Exactly what she had promised and how much she owed him was up for debate, but Belavierr spoke to Ryoka of every movie cliché and old story possible. If there ever was a big, bad [Witch] who was going to cause trouble, it was her.
“Sorry, Eloise. But I do have to know. What did she offer Rehanna? Why were you two fighting over her?”
Eloise paused. She put down the packet of herbs and looked up slowly. She didn’t scowl, not exactly, but Ryoka felt the pleasant air go still for a moment. Eloise’s voice was sharper as she glanced at Belavierr.
“Both she and I have different philosophies towards what should be done with Rehanna. We both offer resolution of a kind. In this instance, Belavierr got to Rehanna first. I wish it hadn’t been so. I don’t know what she offered.”
But she could guess. Wiskeria, Califor, Eloise—none of them wanted to say. Ryoka glanced at Nanette. The girl just looked slightly frightened as she glanced at Belavierr, and awed.
“I take it she’s a legend among [Witches]? A Weatherwax, if you will?”
“What kind of name is that?”
Califor frowned and shook her head. Ryoka recalled what Wiskeria had said. They were all legends. But then, did that make Belavierr a myth? Ryoka hesitated.
“I’d like to ask her some questions. If I could. Wiskeria?”
“What? I can help you with that. It’s fine.”
Wiskeria said that as much to Ryoka as the other [Witches]. Califor and Eloise traded a glance and nodded. Reluctantly. Ryoka saw that and grew considerably more apprehensive as Wiskeria got up. But the daughter walked over to Belavierr as casually as could be. Ryoka, following her, felt the shadows seem to grow as she approached Belavierr’s tree.
It was…dark here. Darker, despite the shining sun and clear skies not a foot away. The shadows of the tree made Ryoka’s skin break out into goose bumps as she walked under them. It was quiet. She saw Belavierr sitting, the hat hiding her face. And the [Witch]’s hands were moving.
A pale needle flashed between long fingers. A pale, flesh-colored thread was moving, as the needle stitched. The [Witch]’s hands were so fast that Ryoka couldn’t follow them. The needle moved, in out, changing, a hypnotic dance. It made Ryoka uneasy. The rest of Belavierr was so still. Part of Ryoka told her not to approach.
But Wiskeria was there. The [Witch] looked down at her mother and frowned. But she was unaffected by the nervousness that touched Ryoka. She looked at Ryoka. The young woman gulped. Her mouth was suddenly dry. She coughed.
“Belavierr? Um. Witch Belavierr. I’d like to speak with you. If I may?”
There was no response. And that was the scariest part of all. Belavierr didn’t move. It was like she hadn’t heard a thing. Ryoka tried again.
“Witch Belavierr? I seek an audience. Witch Belavierr? I’d like to talk…”
It was very dark. And Belavierr’s hands kept moving. Ryoka took a step back uneasily. There it was again. That feeling in the air. Like she got with Fierre or the fae. Or Teriarch, come to that. A sense of timelessness. Belavierr had that quality. But also what she’d sensed from the things around the fire. Az’kerash.
Another layer of wrongness. That was it. It wasn’t as…strong as the things around the fire. Az’kerash had been terrifying in another way. But Ryoka sensed that she did not want to see what Belavierr was doing. She looked at Wiskeria. The [Witch] was staring down. She didn’t feel it?
But Belavierr was her mother. And the daughter looked at Ryoka, realized Belavierr was still stitching, and bent.
No response. Wiskeria grabbed Belavierr’s shoulder and to Ryoka’s horror, shook her slightly. The [Witch] moved, but kept stitching.
“I think she’s busy—”
“She’s just not paying attention. I hate when she does—hold on.”
Wiskeria made a disgusted sound. She looked reluctantly at her mother, and then glanced at Ryoka. Then she coughed.
“Um. Mother, I need your help.”
Ryoka had privately been thinking that if Belavierr suddenly looked up or started crawling towards her like some Japanese horror movie, she’d soil herself and run away. And when Belavierr’s head suddenly snapped up, Ryoka got close. She stepped back as the [Witch]’s ringed eyes fixed on Wiskeria.
Wiskeria looked like she was sucking on pieces of glass. She glanced at Ryoka.
“I have someone here who wants to ask you questions.”
The head slowly turned and the eyes fixed on Ryoka. The City Runner froze. How could Belavierr be scarier than Fierre and her entire family put together just by turning her head?
“I—I—uh, greetings, Witch Belavierr.”
The [Witch] stared at Ryoka. Then she stood in one fluid motion. She stared down at Ryoka.
“My Daughter asks me a favor. Something I have not heard in years. You have questions. Ask and I will answer.”
Ryoka hadn’t been prepared for that. She stuttered, looking at Wiskeria, who looked fairly surprised herself.
“W-well, I’m just curious about your uh, craft. Your coven is uh, surprising. Since it’s here in Riverfarm, I mean. I uh—could I ask why you’re—I mean, I know why you’re here. So um…”
The glowing, orange stare was going right through Ryoka. Belavierr didn’t look away and she didn’t blink. Ryoka realized she was waiting for a question. She fumbled for the first one she could think of.
“What—what’s your craft, Witch Belavierr? What do you…do?”
At last, the [Witch] blinked. She raised one hand and Ryoka saw her holding the needle.
“I stitch. Thread. Cloth. My craft is stitching. Sewing. Connection and binding. It is important for a [Witch] to know her craft.”
“Of course. Of course. Uh—”
Ryoka was sweating. She wiped at it. Cold as ice.
“What can you do with stitch magic? I mean, it sounds great. Amazing. But uh, I met Eloise and she makes tea—which is great, but I sort of thought that a [Witch] of her level would have more powerful magic. No offense to Eloise. But what’s her end result? I mean, say she’s Level 80. Does she make tea that can kill a Dragon or something?”
She was blabbering. Wiskeria shot her a glance and stared at Ryoka’s pale expression. She hissed.
“What’s wrong? She’s not going to hurt you.”
Easy for you to say! Belavierr’s eyes flicked to her daughter. Then she shook her head, slowly. Her gaze went to Eloise at her tea party.
“What is simple is not weak. Tea is a part of a whole. When Eloise brews tea, her magic is one thing. It could be many things. Poison and medicine are two halves. Tea is a medicine or food or aspect of society. Her magic may destroy. In time, it may create.”
“Create? Like tea golems?”
Ryoka tried to laugh. It sounded a bit hysterical. Belavierr shook her head.
“I doubt Eloise wishes to create life. She may create happiness. Something to induce love or sadness. Fear or regret. If she wished it, she could create something like life through herbs. It would not be wise. Such was the arrogance of those that created the first true Cloth Golems with thought. String People.”
Ryoka and Wiskeria both stared at Belavierr’s face. Where did they get to String People? And had Belavierr just implied…? The [Witch] blinked. Once.
“The first Cloth Golems that became String People were made by masters of the craft. [Golem Artificers], [Weavers], [High Mages]. And [Witches]. That is a part of my craft. But the act is creation. Connection. It is one part. Does that answer your question?”
The young woman gaped at Belavierr. At last, she managed a response.
Belavierr nodded. She looked at her daughter, and then seemed to recall something. She looked at Ryoka.
“I am pleased to meet you, Ryoka Griffin. I hope you will take care of my daughter.”
It sounded like she’d memorized that line. And coming from her, it didn’t sound like a threat. But they fit Belavierr not at all. Ryoka nodded quickly.
“Of course. Rather, it’s her taking care of me. And Riverfarm. I’m just a City Runner! Wiskeria’s the [General]—er—[Witch].”
“Yes. Both paths lead towards danger. One is not hers. It was given. The other she chose. And in both, she has not yet walked.”
Belavierr frowned. She turned away from Ryoka and looked at Wiskeria. And for the first time, she really seemed to focus on Wiskeria’s face. That timeless tone seemed to vanish, and Belavierr…woke up? Ryoka stared, fascinated, as the [Witch] looked at her daughter, who was fiddling with her hat.
“Daughter. You should continue your training. Develop your craft. You are no [General], but a [Witch]. You have yet to make use of your power.”
Wiskeria shook her head, exasperated.
“I’m fine, Mother. I’m an adventurer. That’s good enough for me. And I chose to be a [General]. Laken just gave me the class.”
She looked away from Belavierr, at Ryoka. As if the mile-long stare didn’t work on her at all.
“Well, Ryoka, you got your answer. Any more questions? Actually, we can ask later. Good to see you, Mother.”
Without waiting for a response, she took a step back. And stopped. Belavierr had stepped around her, blocking her path. It was so fast Ryoka jumped. The [Witch] bent down, intent on Wiskeria.
“You will die without a craft, Daughter. You have potential. But you refuse to fully become what makes you a [Witch]. We have discussed this.”
“Mother. I’m fine.”
Wiskeria turned away. Ryoka realized she was watching a mother-daughter argument, albeit the scariest one she’d ever had. She jumped as Wiskeria pointed at her.
“Ryoka’s not putting me in any danger. And I’m fine in Riverfarm. I’ve been fine since I left. I don’t need your help. If I get into trouble, I get into trouble.”
“A [Witch] is incomplete without her craft. I am concerned, Daughter. I would not wish your death.”
So saying, Belavierr reached out and adjusted Wiskeria’s hat with the hand that held the needle. Her daughter flinched away. She stared at her mother, vexed.
“Mother! I don’t want to learn from you.”
Belavierr relied steadily.
“I did not suggest myself. Califor is an excellent teacher. Mavika is of your coven. Both could teach you—”
“I’m fine. I’ll decide what I want to be. Not you. Mother.”
Wiskeria glared. Belavierr stared. The two only broke away when they noticed Ryoka edging back. She stopped as both looked at her.
“I’m just—uh, I’ll leave you to it.”
“No, I’m done. Mother, you can continue your work. If Ryoka has questions, she’ll come back and ask. Okay?”
Wiskeria walked away from Belavierr. The other [Witch] didn’t reach out to stop her or move. But her eyes fixed on Wiskeria as she hurried with Ryoka away from the tree. She kept staring long after Ryoka had hurried back into the warm, glorious bright day. But she was still there, standing and staring.
Eventually, she went back to sitting down. When Ryoka wasn’t looking of course. One second she was standing and staring, the next time Ryoka looked, she was sewing again, in the shadows of the tree, as if she’d never stood.
Not creepy at all. Ryoka shuddered as she sat with Wiskeria. The [Witch] looked embarrassed. She tugged her hat over her reddish cheeks as she sat back down.
“Sorry. I don’t have a good relationship with her. We’re…we have differences of opinion.”
Ryoka stared at Wiskeria. That was what she thought Ryoka was bothered by? Then again—that conversation had been pretty bad if you ignored Belavierr being Belavierr.
And here Ryoka thought her relationship with her mother was bad. From the outset, it looked almost similar. Almost. Angry daughter vs distant, if caring mother. Okay, Ryoka’s had more been ‘angry daughter and distant mother’ without even the caring bit. In this case…Ryoka looked at Belavierr and suspected Wiskeria had a good reason for not wanting her mother’s help.
Even so, that had been one intense conversation. And Ryoka was cursing herself for not thinking of something important to ask. But—her eyes widened as she looked at Wiskeria. Eloise was sipping tea and Califor had been teaching Nanette how to perform Alevica’s trick. They looked up as Ryoka pointed back at Belavierr.
“Did your mother just say the first String People were cloth golems, Wiskeria?”
“I…think she did.”
She stared back towards the tree. Ryoka stared at her. Wiskeria blinked a few times and Nanette’s jaw dropped. Ryoka looked around at the other [Witches].
“Hey. Hey, isn’t that kind of a big thing?”
Eloise’s brows rose. Califor frowned. She tossed the water cupped in her palm back into the stream.
“It is news to me. I imagine the String People of Chandrar know. Or at least, some of them would. It’s hard to tell, but it is valuable to know to some extent.”
“That is Belavierr for you. She can be very casual with information and secrets. I’ll try to find a book. Perhaps it is a well-guarded secret. Or just secret. Or simply history everyone has forgotten.”
The [Tea Witch] nodded to Califor. Ryoka spluttered.
“But—but how does she know that?”
Califor frowned as Nanette created some steam from her palmful of water.
“From other [Witches], perhaps. Or it may simply be something she learned. She is a master of needle magic. Hmf. She might have been there herself, even.”
It sounded like a joke so Ryoka laughed.
“She’s not that old. Right?”
Eloise and Califor paused uncertainly. After a second, Califor coughed and shook her head briskly.
“No, of course she isn’t. Did you find the answers to the questions you sought?”
“I…didn’t have a good one to ask. And I froze when I was talking to her.”
Ryoka put her head in her hands. Wiskeria shrugged, looking annoyed.
“We can go back and ask. Do you have anything you want to know?”
She made it sound so casual. Ryoka didn’t know. Put like that, she had a hundred and one questions. What could you ask an immortal [Witch] with creepy eyes who might have been around when Octavia’s entire species had been created? Ryoka’s mind obligingly coughed up a list with a few hundred entries.
What kinds of foods do Dragons like? How do you bribe them? Know of any good treasure buried nearby? Do you have a magical wand I can buy for like, 50 gold pieces that’s worth two thousand times the price? How do you fly—
How do you bring back a dead friend from the land of the fae? Do they truly die?
Sitting on the grass, the young woman looked up. And the [Witches] sitting around her looked up sharply. Four, young and old. Ryoka didn’t notice. She stared up at the blue sky. And she reached into her pocket and felt something cold. Slowly, she shook her head.
“No. No. I think—it’s fine. Sorry. I’ve got to go. I uh—have some deliveries to do. It was really nice to meet you all.”
She touched her heart and got up. Ryoka turned away and walked back towards Riverfarm. Then away from the village. Suddenly, she wanted to be alone for a bit. She walked past a tree where Alevica was stretched out, using her floating broomstick as a footrest. Away. Her heart filled with memories that snatched her away from the present.
The [Witches] saw it on her. And they were sympathetic or indifferent or kind as each wished to be. But none of them stopped Ryoka, although Eloise looked wistfully at the cup she’d been about to offer Ryoka.
And that was that for the day. The [Witches] began to pack up the small gathering. They had work to do in Riverfarm, or they simply didn’t need to stay here. They left soon after. But one [Witch] remained. She was stitching. Working on something with cloth and thread, the rest of her unmoving. Until she paused. Then Belavierr looked up.
She turned her head and stared at Ryoka as the Runner girl ran away. And Ryoka had a bad day. But that was nothing new.
Later that evening, the small Runner’s Guild in Filk had a visitor. A Centaur trotted through the open doors, much to the amazement of the [Receptionist] on duty. He stuttered as she walked up to the desk.
“Uh—how can I help you Miss…? Are you here for a delivery?”
“Nope! Doing one! I just came here from Riverfarm. I mean, Riverfarm’s Runner’s Guild. I’m their top Runner. I’m Charlay the Dustrider, by the way. Famous City Runner. You may have heard of me?”
Charlay grinned at the expression on the young man’s face. After a few seconds of frantically whispering with the [Receptionist] next to him, he shook his head.
“Excuse me, Miss Charlay, but Riverfarm doesn’t have a Runner’s Guild. We’re one of the only ones around for miles since Lancrel fell!”
He said that with a bit of pride. Charlay just fixed him with one eye.
“Well, we’re a Runner’s Guild. They just made one. So give me some seals and stuff for the Guild! Lady Rie’ll pay for all of it.”
She slapped a letter down on the counter. The [Receptionist] spluttered, but Charlay was the best Centaur for this job. Mainly because she refused to go away until he gave her what she wanted. Then she happily trotted out of the Runner’s Guild as he spread the news. And wasn’t that big news? Someone had made a Runner’s Guild in Riverfarm? Why? Was something there? You heard about that [Emperor]. Hold on—
And news travelled. But Charlay wasn’t in a place to see the effects. In fact, her next stop in Filk came after she halted three Street Runners, the third of whom pointed her in the direction she wanted to go. As Ryoka had learned in Reizmelt, Runners needed certain services. And one of those services came in a very small room with a greasy man who arrogantly put his feet up on his desk and wasn’t at all impressed by Charlay. She glared at him as she folded her arms.
“Well? Can you do it?”
The man sneered across his desk.
“Of course I can. I’m Filk’s best [Fence] and [Broker].”
“Yeah, and that means what, exactly?”
He twitched a bit at that. The man was a Runner’s Opener and he dealt in letters, but he also had ties to what little of Filk’s criminal underworld there was and he didn’t like Charlay’s tone. But she also looked ready to kick something in his office, so he weighed his options and replied in an annoyed tone.
“You’re asking for information, but how do I know you’re good for it. You’re not local. You could be with the Watch or trying to rat me out to the Runner’s Guild!”
He was just being annoying and both he and Charlay knew it. If he thought she was what he’d claimed, she wouldn’t have found him. Charlay stamped one hoof on the old floorboards.
“I’m cool! And it’s not my request. Check your stupid list. This is from Ryoka Griffin and Fierre of Reizmelt vouches for her. That good for you?”
The man sucked his teeth irritably, but nodded.
“Fierre of Reizmelt. Yeah, I know her. Let me check.”
He was actually a decent [Broker], because he had a file of Runners. Ryoka was a recent addition Charlay noted as she craned her neck to see. The man looked up, covered the sheets of paper and glared.
“Can’t. Your room’s too small.”
He looked ready to curse her out. Instead, the man decided to up his price. Gold soothed hurt pride. He nodded grudgingly.
“Ryoka Griffin? Your recommendation’s good. But I want payment in advance! No telling how many people I’ll have to ask for information on Rhir-cursed [Witches].”
“Five big ones.”
“Go eat your tail. One.”
“Don’t be a mule. Three.”
“Take it back!”
“Three’s my final—”
“Take it back or I kick you!”
It was not an idle threat. After a few minutes, the haggling was done. Charlay passed over three gold coins. Mainly because there was a broken floorboard that needed fixing now. The [Broker] leaned back as he accepted the coins and glared.
“Come back in four days. You or Ryoka Griffin. And bring more gold, got it?”
“This had better be good. If it’s not, Ryoka will kick your face in—”
“’It’s good! And if it’s not, we’ll talk about fees. Now get out of my office before you kick down a wall!”
Charlay stuck a tongue out at the man as she left. She grumbled as she trotted down the stupid stairs and prepared for a long run back to Riverfarm. Three gold coins? Highway robbery! But it was a down payment and Ryoka might get a lot of information on the [Witches] or none at all, depending on what the [Broker] could find. She could negotiate with him next time.
The Centauress, peeved, began her long run back to Riverfarm. All the things she put up with. And for what? She shook her head, sighing.
“Ryoka’s lucky to have a friend like me.”
Day 58 – Ryoka
The next day, Ryoka Griffin ran. She had avoided Durene all of yesterday except for that night when Charlay had come back. And then Ryoka had distracted the conversation from more ‘ideas’ by thanking Charlay and buttering her up. And today, she’d set out early on the deliveries Ram and the other villagers had wanted her to make.
She still felt bad after yesterday. It wasn’t right, Ryoka knew. But sometimes, thinking of Ivolethe could just send her in a spiral. She was dead. Ryoka thought she was dead. Maybe she wasn’t. That was the hope Ryoka sometimes clung to. The fae were immortals. Although even gods could die.
But either way, she was gone. And when Ryoka thought of her, she thought of her mistakes. In a way, she identified with Wiskeria. How could you make up for so many?
So Ryoka ran, to keep her mind off how she felt. It wasn’t a hard run; the dirt roads were deserted. Charlay ran with Ryoka, yawning and complaining, but soon split up to do some of the deliveries. Then Ryoka ran alone. She ran through empty stretches of forest, flat land, up hills, down them.
Rarely did she see settlements. Usually they were small. Sometimes it was a single home, a cottage made by someone who wanted to live alone. Other times it was a small village. Usually it was a few houses. A lonely farmstead.
The first home she came to was a [Fisherman]’s hut. He lived on the edge of the marshlands. When he opened the door it was warily. Ryoka thought she saw the flash of a knife as he tucked it back into his belt; she’d been on edge after passing a burnt field and had put one hand on a Tripvine Bag. But the man was welcoming enough. And he was very surprised by the letter.
“From Riverfarm? Ram? He can afford a City Runner to just send letters about?”
He incredulously read the letter, sounding some of the words out. It was a short message from Ram, mainly checking on how he was. Ryoka nodded.
“It’s a service, for uh, his Majesty, Emperor Laken Godart. If you want, I’ll take any letters you write on my way back. In a few hours at the latest.”
“Really? Well, I’d better write a response! That’s just grand of you, Miss Griffin. Not many Runner’d do that. And I’d like to write something. Could—could you maybe help me with some of the words?”
Ryoka did just that. The [Fisher] was only too happy to send a lengthy, rambling response. He finished with an invitation for Ram to drop by at some point.
“It’s been a while since I’ve seen anyone around here. Not that I mind, you understand? Only, well, I go into this nearby village to sell some of my fish sometimes, see. Windrest. Only now it’s…gone.”
The young woman looked up.
“Some of Windrest’s people are at Riverfarm.”
“Oh, I know that. But they’re gone and ain’t coming back. And a lot of my neighbors are gone too. This bloke eight miles thataway—I hated the bastard, but now I miss him. Funny.”
The [Fisher] squatted by his rack of dried fish as Ryoka paused, looking the way he pointed. The man spat close to one of his fish.
“Goblins. At first it was the raids from that Great Chieftain what got killed. You heard of him? Tremborag. What kinda world is this, where Goblin Chieftains have names? Let alone an army that large!”
“So everyone fled them?”
“Yup. Them Goblin raiders. They burnt and pillaged the area. I stayed because I’ve got my fishing spear and I ain’t about to run, but I can’t blame the others. I saw some of them, you know. Goblins riding wolves. Hundreds of ‘em! Even with an army fighting them—two armies when Lord Veltras arrived!”
“Did they attack your home?”
The man shook his head darkly.
“Not me. It’s hard to find, see? But lots of places aren’t so lucky. And even though the Goblins are gone—there’s less folk about. That’s dangerous. For me and anyone living hereabouts. Hey, would you mind checking in on some I know?”
Ryoka reluctantly nodded.
“I could. But what’s the problem? If the Goblins didn’t get them, they can keep going on as normal, right? Unless it’s the [Bandits].”
“Not just [Bandits], Miss. There’s always some lowlifes about. But if there’s less folk, we can’t group up if there’s a need. You understand what I’m saying? In the past we’d have run a local [Bandit] group off. But if there’s fewer of us left…”
The young woman thought about what the man meant.
“Less people for a militia, you mean.”
“Exactly. If something big arrives, we come together and fight it. Time was, there were always enough folks with a few Skills like [Long Range Shot] and a good bow, or someone who’d been a [Guard], or a [Warrior]. But less people means more danger. And what with all the places the Goblins burned, there are [Bandits] now, too. Bad times, Miss. Bad times. I worry, but I’ll stay here. I always have. Here. I can’t offer you pay, but take this for the road and share ‘em if you see anyone I know, will you?”
Discontented, the [Fisher] selected three of his fish and offered them to Ryoka. She took the fish and nodded. The [Fisher] was well enough, even if he reminded her of Lupp, intentionally isolated. But he was an outlier.
The second place Ryoka visited was in a tiny settlement, barely more than thirty people, which translated into around twelve buildings, not all of them actual homes. This time she halted on approach; the arrow that blew by her cheek froze her in place.
“Not a step closer or I loose! Back off and turn around! There’s nothing for you here!”
An [Archer] standing on a crude watchtower shouted at Ryoka. She threw up her hands and shouted back.
“City Runner! I’m a City Runner!”
There was a pause.
Ryoka had trouble doing that because the bowman didn’t want her to throw her Runner’s Seal or come closer. Eventually she managed to persuade him by divesting herself of her bag of holding and belt items and he confirmed her seal at a distance. Then he let her collect her things and approach.
“Sorry, Miss Runner. But none of us expect a Runner these times. It’s dangerous, you should know. Not worth risking your life over for silver coins.”
The man lowered the longbow, looking embarrassed, but not ashamed. The [Archer] nodded.
“There’s a bad group led by a [Pyromancer]. Some bastard who throws [Fireballs] with a staff. If you see them, I’d surrender. We’ve been safe because we take turns watching and half of us can hit anything in range with bows.”
He pointed around the flat land this small settlement had chosen to build in the center of. Ryoka nodded appreciatively.
“I’ve got some letters. You can send a reply if you want. Tell me, how is it around here? I met a [Fisher] who said it was getting dicey?”
“Dicey? Oh—my wife’ll want to read this. Can you take a letter back? I can pay you a bit—”
“You’re too kind. But step inside and I can give you something to drink. And yes, it’s bad. But we keep on. We always have, so long as we watch out. In a bit, the [Bandit]’ll move on. There’s not much for them; I don’t know why they’re here to begin with. I was a [Watchman] in a big city before I moved here and I know most [Bandits] like valuable targets, not what they can scavenge. And this group’s nasty. It’s absorbed all the desperate folks. That damn [Mage]—”
Ryoka wondered what the Pithfire Hound’s Captain, Levil, would have made of the rogue [Mage]. She found herself missing those adventurers. She was far from home. What was she doing here? But then, when the [Archer] led her into the small settlement and people came out to meet her, Ryoka felt ashamed.
They were welcoming, offering a drink and asking for the news as the [Archer] resumed his post. Ryoka got to ask one question as they scrambled to send replies back to people they knew in Riverfarm.
“Have you ever thought of moving? Getting away if it’s so dangerous?”
“And how would we do that with the roads occupied by [Bandits], Miss? We’d be a huge target. And we’d be homeless. Besides, my great grandfather built this place. We’ll be fine. But I appreciate it. You come right back and I’ll give you a hot lunch or dinner, you hear? Just wave or my man’ll put an arrow between your eyes. Although he might recognize you, as distinctive as you look! Such lovely hair.”
The wife of the [Archer] pinched Ryoka’s cheek as the other occupants of the houses cursed and looked for their inkpots and something to write a reply with. It was a pleasant experience, and Ryoka ran on.
The third place she visited wasn’t so uplifting. It was burnt. Ryoka slowed warily in front of the large home that could have held a family and a half. Fire had consumed it. She couldn’t tell how old it was, but she did notice a fragment of cloth when she steeled herself to walk inside and look for bodies. It was attached to a beam where someone had carved a deep message and planted it—after the fire.
Going to Melon’s. Look for us in Filk if not there.
Ryoka didn’t know who ‘Melon’ was. But the next two homes saw her at a wary [Herbalist] living by herself and an abandoned home, respectively. The third was Melon’s farm and he greeted her with a pitchfork at the door.
Say what you wanted about [Farmers] and the dangers of monsters preying on them, but Ryoka pitied the fools who’d try their luck against Melon, the [Farmer] who grew his namesake. His Skills turned the simple pitchfork into something that could go right through a barn door. He happily showed it to Ryoka, before telling her the missing family was here. Then his face crumpled up into his bushy brown beard.
“This letter’s from Helm? If it’s Helm—tell him I’ve got three families under my roof. My stores can’t handle the burden—if he can spare anything, coin, wood, food—”
He gestured back at his farm home. It was large, but filled to bursting with his family alone. And apparently three more had come seeking refuge at the doughty [Farmer]’s when trouble had started. What was worse, he couldn’t support them all; his melons were a luxury. Already the adults had left to make ends meet.
“Half the folks are working in or around Filk, but we’re afraid to try and send the others that way. There are too many folk on the roads. They burnt down Kalya’s two weeks back. Tell Helm.”
Ryoka frowned. Melon shrugged.
“Don’t know. They haven’t come this way, thank the stars. But I saw smoke Kayla’s way.”
He pointed. Ryoka hesitated.
“Did this Kayla make it out? Her family?”
Melon planted the pitchfork on the ground and shook his head slowly.
“It was just her. And she did not. We found a zombie wandering about and put her back to sleep, properly. Tell me—is that [Emperor] back in Riverfarm? I remember seeing a bunch of [Riders] who were hunting down the Goblins. Where’d he go?”
“He’s not back yet.”
“Damn. Well, I hope to all hells he gets here. There’ve been worse times, believe me. We once had Crelers here. An adult if you can believe it. We had to get a Named Adventurer to come this way, but he turned up fast given the emergency. But who wants to fight [Bandits]? Gah. If it goes on, we’ll have to have a whip round and see if we can muster the gold to hire a Silver-rank team to take the [Bandits] on. But I’d settle for that [Emperor].”
He shook his head. Ryoka stared at Melon. So Laken was wanted. At least by one man. The [Farmer] trooped back to the house, waving at the frightened faces peeking out at him and Ryoka.
“Now, let me write a reply. Can I offer you a melon? Helm can have one. I owe him for this pitchfork anyways. Uh…just say I forgot to give him his money when you were here. Slipped my mind.”
The man’s words stayed with Ryoka throughout the day. And his words were only reinforced by the other places she visited. There were four more wrecks. One fresh. Ryoka saw a body only once. And when she did, she ran; the ash looked fresh. She marked each spot, and all the people she’d met. Two hadn’t let her get close and five more had asked for help if it could be spared. She went back, collecting letters and messages. And all the while she thought.
“This isn’t good.”
Riverfarm was rural, one of those unsettled places on the continent. If they were further north, there might be more bigger towns or cities nearby, more populated land. But Humans had spread more slowly to the south; wars with the Drakes had erased some cities and towns over time, and frankly, there was just more space here yet.
“Sort of like the wild west of the United States, I suppose. Too much land for anyone to settle. Not like home right now. But they have to worry about more than wild animals, starvation and criminals in this world.”
And they did. Oh, they did. The spirit of the [Fisher] living alone by himself with his spear told Ryoka what those early settlers must have been like. Some people took to isolation. And you could live happily here. But sometimes calamity happened. And the Goblins had been just that.
An [Emperor] was needed. Or maybe an [Emperor] was just…helpful. Like it would be if someone killed the [Bandits]. The people could live here even if no one helped. Or rather—some would live. Maybe the area would be vacated by all but the most hardy and slowly repopulate, but people would return barring some kind of major disaster. But that said nothing of the lives Ryoka had met. She thought of Melon’s farm and the [Archer] and his family and realized they were faces she wouldn’t easily forget.
“This is really depressing. And we’re not getting paid.”
Charlay summed up the experience at the end of the day as she and Ryoka ran back. The City Runner glared at her.
“I wouldn’t put it exactly like that, Charlay.”
“Well, I would. All these people were whining to me about how dangerous it is or asking me to carry back supplies. I’m not a pack horse!”
Charlay was indignant. Ryoka sighed and nodded. It was true. There was no profit for them as City Runners to use their talents here. That was why Riverfarm needed a Runner’s Guild so badly, with local Runners who would run for cheap. Hell, it needed patrols. And a damn army, or at least, ten times as many Darksky Riders to keep the place safe. Or a Laken. She ran with Charlay and after a few minutes, the Centauress looked over.
“Don’t get me wrong. It’s okay to help now and then. I’m fine with not earning money for now. I’ve got lots. Well, compared to these people. But we can’t do anything. We just deliver stuff.”
The two City Runners returned to Riverfarm for dinner. Durene and Wiskeria joined them for a dinner in the cottage. Wiskeria informed them that the [Witches] hadn’t caused any trouble. Today, at least.
“It’s not really in their nature to make trouble, besides. They mainly just practiced their craft again today. Eloise, Hedag, Mavika, and my mother, that is. Califor’s teaching Nanette, Alevica’s bored. I guess that’s all we can ask for.”
“Think they’ll hold until Laken gets here?”
Ryoka looked up hopefully. Riverfarm seemed to be decent. Then again, Durene reported that Councilwoman Beatica was trying to get people upset about the [Witches]. But it felt stable. Ryoka wondered if she could just…leave. Laken was still practically two weeks away. Did she have to stay here the entire time? She didn’t want to.
What could she do? Durene kept staring at her. Ryoka thought the answer was nothing. She changed the subject to Hedag, the only [Witch] she hadn’t really met. Ryoka had heard about the infamous head-chopping of course, but the woman herself was a mystery. Durene frowned.
“I saw Hedag performing tricks for the children. She sold a few trinkets to the women, but is that enough?”
“It’s her craft. She’s not in it to make money. All the [Witches] have other things to sell, though. They’ll do it if they feel like it.”
Ryoka looked up as she sipped from a very filling stew. Charlay was trying to keep hers away from Bismarck.
“I understand Eloise gathered goodwill, and Mavika fed her flock. Belavierr, Califor and Nanette aren’t gathering today, right? But Hedag. What did she gather from the children?”
It seemed like a pertinent question. Wiskeria paused.
“Nothing. Not yet. But believe me, you’ll know when she does.”
That was appropriately ominous. Ryoka was about to press Wiskeria when Durene interrupted.
“No, I do not have a magical idea to fix Riverfarm!”
Ryoka shouted at the half-Troll girl. Bismarck, Frostwing, Wiskeria, Charlay, and Durene all stared at her. Durene looked hurt. Ryoka groaned internally.
“I’m sorry, Durene. But I don’t. I shouldn’t have shouted. It’s just that I’m having a bad day. I get them now and then. Actually, that’s an excuse. I just don’t know what to do.”
She stood up. The small cottage watched her as Ryoka turned around, frustrated.
“I don’t even think I’m needed. Okay, there’s a lot that could go wrong here but you have Lady Rie and Prost. Hell, Miss Califor will probably kick any problems into next Sunday. And you have Beniar and his [Riders]. Even if Councilwoman Beatica riots, so what? You’ve got warriors on your side. What can I do?”
She looked around, shrugging. Durene frowned.
“But Laken sent you when I asked for help.”
Ryoka groaned. She sat back down heavily.
“I don’t think he knows what to do either.”
“Don’t be stupid. Of course he does.”
Durene looked shaken at the thought. And that was the problem, wasn’t it? Ryoka didn’t, couldn’t, reply. The dinner ended like that and they went to sleep silently. Ryoka alternated between kicking herself at lashing out at Durene—even if she felt like the half-Troll girl sort of deserved it—and thinking over her day’s run.
They remained in her memory long after that. Frightened faces. The desperate set of [Farmer] Melon’s jaw. [Bandits] on the road.
This was not her village. Not her place. But she was here, wasn’t she? Ryoka tossed and turned until Charlay threatened to kick her. Her conscience was pricking her. But she had established one fact long ago. She was no fighter. She was no killer. Erin was more likely to wipe out the [Bandits] than Ryoka was. And she was no Erin, no leader.
She had given Laken trebuchets. What would happen if she tried that again? Ballistae? Ryoka would rather eat more rat meat. What was the point of a water wheel? She couldn’t kill [Bandits]. What would Laken do? What was best for Riverfarm? What could she do?
She was spiraling. She wanted to help. But what Ryoka really wanted was not to be here. She was no leader. She knew she was no hero.
But she still cared for everyone she’d met. When had that happened?
Day 59 – Ryoka
The next day, Ryoka went for a longer walk with Nanette and Wiskeria before she embarked on more deliveries with Charlay. It was a spontaneous thing; she encountered the two younger [Witches] picking herbs outside Durene’s hut on her way to Riverfarm. Apparently, Nanette had been assigned to gather a certain amount of herbs by Miss Califor as homework and Wiskeria was helping her out.
“Hello, Nanette. Wiskeria.”
Ryoka was still down in the dumps. Part of her just wanted to pull the plug and run off into the sunset and forget Riverfarm existed. But she knew she’d regret that too. So instead she walked with the two younger [Witches]. At least the [Witches] were fascinating.
“Um, hello Miss Ryoka.”
Nanette greeted Ryoka quietly at first and Ryoka bent to shake the girl’s hand. Nanette was twelve or so, and clearly used to life on the road. But her hat and robes fit perfectly and her hair was combed. Come to that, she was fresher than both Ryoka or Wiskeria who hadn’t bathed in a day or two.
“I hope I’m not bothering you. I can take off if you want to—I’m just trying to clear my head.”
“Oh, no! I wouldn’t want to be rude. And uhm—Miss Wiskeria was just saying how three eyes were better than one! Three pairs, I mean.”
The young girl shot a glance at Wiskeria and the older [Witch] confirmed the lie without blinking. Both looked sideways at Ryoka and she realized they could probably sense her funk. That only made her feel more depressed. Especially when Nanette solemnly tried to cheer her up by talking to her about all the herbs Miss Califor had ordered her to fetch.
She had the youth of a girl her age, which translated in her case into shyness, and then a forthright earnestness that both Wiskeria and Ryoka envied. But the [Witch] aspect also showed itself to Ryoka; the girl occasionally had flashes of maturity far beyond her age. Young and old at the same time. But mostly young.
“She’s very strict with you.”
Ryoka watched as Nanette expertly harvested with a razor-sharp sickle. Not exactly the tool Ryoka would be comfortable handing a girl her age, but Nanette looked quite competent with it. The girl looked up, smiling.
“She wants me to be a good [Witch]. And she’s very kind too. Sometimes.”
“What’s it like, being a [Witch]? Do you travel a lot? Or is it all variable?”
Ryoka was curious. Wiskeria shrugged.
“It depends on the [Witch]. Some of us have permanent homes like Eloise. But a lot travel. I think only Eloise has a village. Well, Mavika has her usual haunts. But I hear Miss Califor goes where she’s needed. Isn’t that right, Nanette?”
“That’s right! She used to stay in one place when I was small. But ever since I was…eight? She took me with her. All over the place! One time she helped kill a nest of Shield Spiders. Hundreds of ‘em! And another time there was a dam that broke and she helped the local [Witch] relocate the villagers. Miss Califor goes where she’s needed, or so she says.”
“Is that part of her craft?”
Nanette paused as she hunted around a tree and discovered a white toadstool.
“No…she says she takes whatever she wants. Goodwill, anger, all kinds. She’s so good she doesn’t need one emotion or other!”
“Really? And you like being with her?”
Ryoka’s brows shot up. Wiskeria made a face and mouthed the word ‘legend’ at her. She pointed at the white mushroom.
“Deathcap. Remember to wash your hands later. And check for spores and mold before you pick it up.”
Diligently, the girl did just that and came up with the mushroom twenty seconds later. She put into the sack and then looked at Ryoka.
“I do like it. Being a [Witch] is fun! Hard work sometimes, but it’s all I’ve ever wanted. Miss Califor raised me since I was a baby, you see—”
She broke off, looking awkward. Ryoka glanced at Nanette. Ah, so she wasn’t a student who’d come to Califor to learn. Wiskeria had said that Miss Califor had never had a student who followed her about. She looked at Wiskeria. The [Witch] tugged at her hat and cleared her throat.
“Well, you met my mother. It’s not common, but it happens. There are cases of [Witches] either adopting a child who was lost or even buying them from [Slavers]. Striking deals for a child—that’s old stuff. Sometimes a [Witch] even has a baby, but most of those cases are young. Old [Witches] rarely take in kids either way.”
Wiskeria adjusted her hat, looking uncomfortable and Nanette looked down. Ryoka sensed it was a touchy subject and immediately steered to port.
“Miss Califor once took on a nest of Shield Spiders? That’s impressive. Was it by herself?”
“Then she’s got to be pretty impressive. Heck, this entire coven is. They all feel like they could take on half a dozen Gargoyles and walk out fine.”
“Maybe! Although…Miss Califor says that a good [Witch] never tries to solve things with force the first time around. We’re not as strong as regular classes, at least, not directly.”
Nanette dutifully recited the words. Ryoka nodded. Wiskeria rolled her eyes, but gently. She pulled out a wand and tapped it.
“We rely on tools a lot. Like [Wizards]. They’re our counterparts in a sense. Take Alevica for instance. She’s good at magic and she can summon undead, throw spells, but I think [Lightning Bolt] is her best offensive spell. In exchange for that, she can use poisons, her crossbow, a shortsword, not to mention fly—”
“She’s amazing. Isn’t she? I heard she was the most brilliant [Witch] in a hundred years—”
The young girl breathed, and then realized Wiskeria was making a face. She went on, blushing.
“Not that you’re not amazing too, Wiskeria! I didn’t mean that!”
“You don’t need to make me feel better, Nanette. I’m sure Miss Califor has a lesson about being realistic. I know I’m average. My mother tells me I need to improve all the time.”
So why don’t you? The question hung in the air unasked. Wiskeria tugged on her hat and answered slowly.
“It’s hard to use my craft. You see, a [Witch] does what she is compelled to do. Her craft is her purpose, in a sense. She draws strength from it. That’s also how a [Witch] is made.”
“How you’re made? And how’s that? You don’t just get the class?”
“Oh no. You have to have a moment that defines you as a [Witch]. A moment of…passion. It’s a calling. You also need a talent for magic or to want to be a [Witch], but some of us are called to it. Others just become [Mages]. But we’ve all had one. I was surprised Nanette was a [Witch] so young.”
“I got my class when I was six.”
Wiskeria looked astonished. Nanette nodded cheerfully. Wiskeria tugged on her head.
“I was fourteen. Of course, I wanted to be a [Witch]. But I never got the class. And when I did—well—”
She trailed off. Nanette pretended to be busy peeling bark off a tree. Ryoka hesitated. Now this was the heart of what was Wiskeria’s problem with Belavierr. She waited a beat, and then asked.
“What made you become a [Witch], Wiskeria? If that’s not too personal?”
“It always is. But it’s fine. It’s no secret among [Witches]. Nanette could tell you.”
The girl squeaked and began to deny it shiftily. Wiskeria shook her head. She turned to face Ryoka.
“You know my mother’s Belavierr. And you know she’s…extraordinary. Even among other [Witches]. I always thought it was, well, not normal, but she was my mother growing up. But she’s old. The oldest, perhaps the strongest. I’m not joking, Ryoka.”
“I know. Even I can tell that.”
“Well then. I always thought I’d be like her. I learned—you can learn magic, you know, even if you don’t have a class. Not many people know that. I was a [Mage] and a [Sewer], but I wasn’t a [Witch]. Mother always told me it would come. And I wanted it. And when it happened—well, that’s when I left. And Miss Califor taught me for a while, and my coven. But you could say I’m incomplete as a [Witch]. Certainly for the daughter of Belavierr, the Stitch Witch.”
The words were spilling out of her. Wiskeria took a shuddering breath, her normally calm façade gone. Ryoka waited as Nanette stared wide-eyed at the older [Witch] in the forest.
“What made you into a [Witch]?”
Wiskeria looked around. She closed her eyes.
“Seeing my mother for who she truly was.”
No one spoke after that. Wiskeria looked at them, and Ryoka silently helped her and Nanette peel more bark. Ryoka felt guilty for asking. What did she expect? After another long moment, another confession burst from Wiskeria’s mouth.
“She’s not my mother either. She found me and took me in. No one could believe it, apparently. She doesn’t…show kindness to children. But she took me in and she says I’m her true daughter. I wish I could believe that with all my heart. But I’ve known my mother and I’ve never met anything in this world she loves.”
Except for you? Ryoka thought of Belavierr focusing on Wiskeria. But she bit her tongue. Because part of her didn’t know if she believed it either. Nanette looked between Wiskeria and Ryoka. She was so nervous she cut her hand as she harvested a bit of Sage’s Grass.
Ryoka fumbled for a healing potion at the same time as Wiskeria. Nanette looked at the deep, deep slash on her arm and fainted. When she came around, she sat up, protesting weakly.
“I’m fine! I’m fine! I just—don’t tell Miss Califor, please? A [Witch] should never faint. Other people do the fainting, but we have to be awake or who else will?”
Wiskeria and Ryoka shared a shaky laugh. Ryoka pointed down at the girl’s healed arm. Not a scar was left, but Nanette’s eyes widened as she saw the dried blood.
“I think we should tell her. You’re healed, but that was dangerous.”
“No! She won’t trust me with herb gathering again!”
Nanette looked horrified. Wiskeria hesitated.
“I don’t want to disappoint her. She let me use a sickle just last year.”
The girl looked close to tears. Ryoka scrubbed a hand through her hair. Wiskeria hesitated.
“That’s unusual. Califor believes in learning by experience. I sliced my hand to the bone and she just told me to practice a mending brew on it. I guess she’s careful because you’re young, Nanette. But really—”
“Come on, we’ll tell her it was our faults. But she should know. She’s your teacher. What’s the worst that’ll happen? She’ll turn us into frogs while cackling? It’s fine, Nanette. But you should tell her.”
Ryoka gently teased the girl. Wiskeria caught on.
“Exactly. She’s not going to punish you, Nanette. Maybe scold a bit. But she’ll hardly get on a broom and race about with a black cat casting hexes.”
“Oh? You’re familiar with the [Witches] I know? Don’t forget enchanted scarecrows and dancing around naked by moonlight. Hey, Wiskeria, give me an evil cackle.”
The City Runner grinned at Wiskeria. The [Witch] laughed and Nanette calmed down a bit. Chuckling, Wiskeria helped her clean off her arm.
“I don’t know any [Witch] that cackles, Ryoka. I’m sure my mother could do a splendid one, but I’ve heard her laugh exactly twice in my entire life. Hedag’s got a great laugh.”
“And a booming voice. That’s a great laugh; you’re right. But I can’t imagine her cackling. I could imagine Mavika cackling, though.”
“You think so? I haven’t heard her do it. Mind you, when she gets angry she will screech and scream. You don’t want to see her cast a hex. And believe me, she can do a nasty one.”
“I heard Miss Califor cackle once.”
The two young women looked at her. Nanette nodded.
“She only did it once. She was embarrassed afterwards. She says it plays into uh—uh—stereotypes about [Witches].”
“That it does. But I think she’ll be fine when you explain about the cut.”
Ryoka smiled and Nanette reluctantly nodded. Ryoka straightened up. It was fun being together with Nanette and Wiskeria. Fun! They resumed gathering and Nanette announced that she was nearly done with her collecting! As soon as she did, Ryoka realized she’d have to face Durene and her questions. And Riverfarm. Her good mood sank through her bare feet and into the ground.
Wiskeria snapped her fingers.
“And you were cheering up. What’s wrong, Ryoka? Was it yesterday, meeting all those people? Or is it Durene? I know she’s insistent, but she trusts you. She thinks since Laken sent you, you can make things right. She really misses him. I’m sorry she’s so…”
She waved one hand. Ryoka nodded. Durene was persistent, stubborn, and clinging. Which made sense if you remembered that she was a half-Troll girl who’d lived her entire life as a social outcast. Laken had clearly been the first person to see her as a person, and Ryoka remembered the way he’d been protective of her as much as she was of him in Invrisil. But even so. She shook her head as she walked back with Nanette and Wiskeria through the forest.
“I just don’t know how to help her, Wiskeria. Or Riverfarm. I’d like to do something. But I don’t know what. I’m no [Emperor]. And I can’t give Riverfarm a grand idea. I just…”
She thought of the people. Damn it. Why did she have to care? Charlay cared, but in a sympathetic way. But Ryoka?
Ryoka was a girl from Earth. A girl who read stories about dying people, crises of humanity in Darfur, or monsters pretending to be men. Dying people. People in need. And greed and indifference in her home. And she was angry. Had been angry. An angry girl. At herself, her father, at injustice. Part of her still was. But what could you do?
Nothing. Everything. But she was no [Emperor]. Ryoka stopped, closing her eyes. And into that silence, Nanette hesitantly spoke. The young [Witch] adjusted her hat and spoke up in a clear, carrying voice.
“It’s fine just to do what you want. So long as it’s something you won’t regret. You only live once. And I won’t die with any more regrets on my hat. Uh—that’s what Miss Califor says. Not me.”
The bright voice went right through Ryoka, like an arrow. She felt the words sink into her, but without barbs. I won’t die with any more regrets.
Mrsha and Ivolethe. The Horns and the Pithfire Hounds. You couldn’t go back. But you could go forwards. Without regrets? Ryoka had many. But she didn’t want to leave Riverfarm with another. She bent, and a smile crossed her face. It was rueful, because Ryoka knew it was a stupid idea she’d had. But it was hers. And this was something of her world. Why not? She straightened, and looked at Nanette. The girl was watching her cautiously.
“Miss Califor says that? She’s a great [Witch], isn’t she?”
“The best in the world.”
Nanette shot Wiskeria a daring glance. And the older [Witch] only smiled and tugged on her hat. Ryoka stared down at Nanette. And she wondered if she’d ever been like this. And Wiskeria—Ryoka could have been looking into a mirror. But for the paler skin, yellow-green eyes, shorter height, and glasses. A mirror.
Ryoka shook her head. When did she start seeing so much of herself in the women and girls she met? No—in so many people? She straightened, took a breath, and smiled.
“I’ve got to go. Thanks, Nanette. Wiskeria. This really helped me.”
“Anytime. But where are you going, Ryoka?”
“Back to Durene’s cottage. And then into Riverfarm. I have to find Lady Rie and Prost. Catch up soon—you might want to be part of this! Got to run! Thank you! Again!”
The two [Witches] watched as Ryoka took off, running at full-speed through the forest. And they felt it, radiating off her. Where Ryoka had been dark, depressed, the clouds had lifted. Much like the blue skies overhead. But now something else poured from her. And it was—
Wiskeria nudged Nanette and the girl started. She looked up hesitantly.
“Go for it. She won’t feel it and she won’t mind, I’m sure. You can tell her later.”
The young [Witch] nodded, then she turned and stared at Ryoka’s rapidly disappearing back. She hesitated, then she cupped her hands pulled and Wiskeria felt her tug a bit of the emotion from Ryoka.
It wasn’t something you could see. One second Nanette pulled, and then she had it. It rested in her hands in a metaphorical sense. Wiskeria could sense it. A bit of…happiness.
Pure happiness. Wiskeria almost couldn’t look directly at it. And it was no emotion she’d ever use. What [Witch] would try to base her craft around something like that? Happiness? As fleeting and hard to grasp as a butterfly in a tornado. And surely, useless! Who could make something out of that? How would it last?
Nanette held it and smiled, with ease. With grace. And in her hands, it pulsed, a burning, bright feeling from Ryoka. And it didn’t flicker out. Because happiness lasted longer in her hands. Because it was her.
In that moment, Wiskeria envied Nanette more than she could say. She carefully cleared her throat.
“What will you make of it?”
“I don’t know. I have a few charms, but I think I’ll ask Miss Califor. I’ll put it here.”
So saying, Nanette reached up and lifted her hat. She tipped the little bit of happiness under her hat and smiled. And Wiskeria sighed. But then she gestured and they walked on through the forest. Two [Witches]. But of the two, one was growing, leveling. The other had stopped leveling years ago.
Day 59 – Durene
“You want to send food and supplies to the people in the outlying farms and villages you met. Food. Supplies. Wood.”
“That’s right. As much as Riverfarm can spare. And not just that. I want to take as many people back to Riverfarm as I can. Anyone who wants to come. Beniar and his [Riders] will need to provide us with an escort in case the [Bandits] are about.”
Lady Rie and Prost stared at Ryoka as she outlined her plan, pointing to a map of the area. So did Durene. Ryoka had raced into her cottage all excited. Durene had thought she’d come up with a good idea after yesterday. But no—Ryoka had told her to come to the village, gotten the two leaders and now she wanted…
“And what exactly does Riverfarm get out of this? Out of giving…how much food and other materials away? I could see us taking in more people, but are we asking for coin for all this or what? Because I know these folks and they won’t have much.”
Mister Prost was frowning at the map. Ryoka spread her hands on the table.
“No. We don’t ask for anything. This isn’t a give or take. It’s all give. If they need food, they get food. If they want to come back—and we should try persuading them—they can. But anyone who asks for help gets it.”
“Charity. You’re telling us to give away Riverfarm’s resources.”
Rie massaged her eyes with two painted fingernails. Ryoka nodded.
The four listeners in the room paused. Durene looked incredulously at Ryoka. This was the big idea that she’d come up with? It was terrible! Alright, it would help people out. And Durene understood they were in trouble. But…she clenched one fist and looked to one side.
Rie and Prost traded looks. Rie shook his head and Prost sighed. Even Charlay was looking uncertainly at Ryoka. But she was standing by her friend. The [Steward] addressed Ryoka curtly.
“Miss Griffin, I feel for the folks who’re caught outside Riverfarm. I do. But it’s their choice to stay where they are. Some now, some might want to come to Riverfarm and I could say yes to seeing whoever wants to join the village. We could use more hands, although we’ll have to build a home for them. But see here, giving food away—it’s a noble thought—”
He looked at Lady Rie. She nodded and took over.
“Exactly. It is a noble’s thought. Something one of my peers might come up with. And few enough of them. It’s giving away gold or the equivalent needlessly. The point of charity, Miss Griffin, is laudable. But it’s a well-known fact that people level in times of adversity. And harsh as it may be, one cannot hold the hands of others. They must survive on their own. Generosity is acceptable, but this? This is madness.”
Ryoka listened to Rie calmly. But all she did after the [Lady] was done was shake her head.
“I get that. And I understand the reasoning that goes into that. Especially with levels. But Lady Rie. Do you know who you remind me of when you say that? Magnolia Reinhart.”
Lady Rie gasped. And her eyes flashed. Durene looked nervously at Ryoka. The young woman didn’t blink as she met Rie’s furious gaze.
“I know it’s not practical. I know people level under stress. And I know many would. But guess what? For every person that manages to level up, to survive this, people will die. That’s reality.”
“Yes. But we can’t save everyone, Miss Griffin. I understand your point. But I’ve been a [Farmer] for decades. And I know about lending a hand to a neighbor in need. But sometimes, on a cold winter, there’s not enough to give. Not if you want you and your own to live. Those are the hard choices we make sometimes.”
[Steward] Prost looked at Ryoka. She nodded heavily.
“That’s true too. But is this winter, Mister Prost? I’ve seen your fields. You could pay Mavika’s fee. You have [Farmers] with plenty of Skills. Is wood an issue? Will Riverfarm starve if it emptied its storehouses tomorrow?”
“Maybe not today. But what of this winter? What of the future, the guilds you suggested building? Would you destroy all of Riverfarm’s potential by giving it away?”
Rie snapped, her eyes flashing. Ryoka met her eyes and shook her head.
“No. But if you can give. Give. If you can save a life by reaching out, would you? Prost, Rie. Durene. I know this doesn’t make sense to you. And it won’t help Riverfarm. But it’s something I have to do.”
She looked around. Ryoka’s eyes were bright. She looked more animated than Durene could remember seeing her. Not just that. She was smiling slightly. She spread her hands.
“It’s what’s right. And it’s what I know. If you have a problem with it, talk to Laken. And I hope he’d agree with me. But I’ll do it myself if I must. I’ll buy your produce. But some of those people won’t survive if they don’t come here. I’m not saying to empty all the storehouses. But if you can do something, do it.”
“And what if they come back next month, begging for more? If they rely on us? If we give and that makes them targets. Or we give and it’s not enough? If we give a third of our field’s harvests to them?”
“Mister Prost. You’re speaking in hypotheticals. I’m not telling you to do this forever. If they become leeches, that’s a problem you deal with. If Riverfarm is in trouble, you should absolutely make sure the people here are safe. But this is a crisis. And you’re in a position to help. Aren’t you doing it already, with Beniar and his patrols? If the Goblins were back, ravaging the landscape, wouldn’t you try to get those people to safety?”
Ryoka looked around. Charlay smiled and gave her two thumbs-up. Rie was shaking her head. Prost was troubled, silent. Durene felt she had to speak. Part of her wanted to believe in Ryoka. But it wasn’t practical.
“Ryoka. I think it makes sense to bring people back here if they want to come. But giving food away? That’s asking for trouble. What’ll happen if the [Bandits] hear we can just give out stuff? Or—if we have a disaster—”
She fumbled. Her tongue felt heavy. It was hard to argue against. And Ryoka met her eyes. Two calm, brown eyes. And the Runner girl shook her head.
“Durene. I know. It doesn’t make sense. And it is hard. But where I come from. In my home and Laken’s, people say the same things. Some days it feels like there’s an emergency every other moment. And how do you deal with that? Crime. People in far off-countries. People you’ll never see. But we could help.”
She looked far away, past Durene.
“We could. And it could be glorious. It’s never easy. Sometimes it costs you. Sometimes you fail.”
She raised her right hand and stared at it. Durene looked at the place where two fingers should have been. Ryoka closed her eyes and her hand.
“But. I’d rather try than regret it. It’s called giving aid. Because people need it. Because you can. I don’t have any argument weaker than that. And it reminds me of a village I heard about, once. A place that was in the middle of nowhere. It didn’t have much. And—hell—it got buried by an avalanche.”
Durene and Prost froze. Ryoka looked up.
“And then it lost all of its winter stores. There was no reason for anyone to help that village. None at all. But someone did. He found people in the snow. And he asked me to deliver them food in a blizzard. Because he cared for people when no one else would. If he were here, what do you think he’d do?”
She smiled slightly as she looked around the room. Lady Rie bit her lip as she glanced at Prost’s face.
“I’ll—I can have Nesor send a [Message].”
“No, Rie. I think I know what his Majesty will say.”
Prost sighed. He looked down at the map, filled with tiny dots. Durene looked down. They were so small. But they were. People’s homes. People like her. She scrubbed at her eyes. And she looked at Ryoka. Why did she have to make so much sense?
“We can spare some wagons. And Beniar. It’ll be just food and wood, mainly. But—arrows? We can send a few bows as well. I’ll see what we can spare.”
Prost strode out of the room before Rie could object. Ryoka smiled, relieved, and Charlay patted her on the shoulder. Rie sighed loudly, but she followed him without a word. Ryoka turned.
“It makes sense. But it’s going to be costly. I know it’s what Laken would do. I guess—is this something a [Paladin] would do?”
Durene looked at Ryoka, hoping the answer was yes. But Ryoka just shook her head.
“I can’t answer that. And I have to tell you something Durene.”
She took a deep breath.
“I don’t have a brilliant idea for you. I gave up on trying those after Laken used his trebuchets to attack a Drake city. But I do know what’s right and what’s wrong. And I want to do what’s right. But I have to tell you—I can’t help you, Durene.”
The words stung. But Durene had expected as much after Ryoka had shouted at her yesterday. The half-Troll girl looked down.
“That’s fine. So long as you stick around for Riverfarm…”
“No, I mean, I can’t help you, Durene. You need to do that to yourself. That’s what I’ve been meaning to tell you. I didn’t get it at first. But that’s your problem.”
Ryoka walked around the desk to look up at Durene. Her face was concerned. Durene blinked at her.
“What do you mean? Help myself? I do plenty for myself. It’s just that I don’t know what to do for everyone else.”
The shorter Human girl shook her head slowly.
“I don’t think that’s the problem. Listen to how you speak, Durene. I have. Laken says this. Prost and Rie say that. Wiskeria won’t make an army, so that’s that. You don’t make decisions for yourself.”
“I do! All the time! It’s just that I trust Laken. And he has better ideas that I do!”
Durene recoiled, strung. Ryoka sighed.
“But he doesn’t. That’s the problem. You think he does, but Durene—he’s just a guy.”
The half-Troll girl felt a spark of fury in her breast. How dare Ryoka? She didn’t understand Laken at all.
“He’s an [Emperor].”
“And what was he when he arrived in Riverfarm?”
“But—he just didn’t have the class. He was always—”
Ryoka put a hand on Durene’s shoulder. Or rather, tried to. She settled for Durene’s arm and squeezed gently. Durene started at the contact. People didn’t really touch her. On purpose. Laken did, but—Ryoka looked up at her.
“Durene. I’m not saying Laken’s all wrong. But—the person who’ll tell you what to do? The person you’re waiting for. It’s not me. And it’s not Laken! Neither of us are perfect role models. Or even good ones!”
She spread her arms, helplessly.
“You can’t rely on him to tell you what to do. I know. He helped you when no one else would, right? He gave you a class. Gave you…a purpose. Worth. But he can’t give you everything. And if you come back, you’re the one leaning on him. If you can’t make your own decisions, your own choices, if you’re not you without Laken, you can’t give him anything.”
Durene rocked back. This hurt. More than any insult could. She clenched a hand, realized what she was doing, and unclenched it.
“But—I’m his protector. I can do that for him! What am I supposed to be if not that? I’m not good with words, Ryoka. I can’t do what you do. See? And I can’t be smart like you, or Lady Rie.”
“I’m not asking you to, Durene. I’m just asking you to decide what you want by yourself. You can ask for help. Everyone needs help. But I can’t carry you. Like Prost said. What I can do is reach out if you’re drowning. But you do have to learn to swim.”
The half-Troll girl bent down. She felt crushed by Ryoka’s words in a way nothing had hit her before. Not even that Hob. She had to sit on the ground. Hug her knees. Ryoka’s words made sense. But—it was so hard. She didn’t know what to say. But Ryoka wasn’t leaving; Durene could still feel her arm on her shoulder, patting awkwardly.
“Durene. I know it’s hard—but you’re the toughest girl I’ve met. Literally. You can wrestle Bismarck. Not just that. You’re kind. You helped Wiskeria where no one else would. You took Laken in. You’re not a brute. And you’re not a monster. You can be a [Paladin]. You can be a [Farmer]. But you do have to choose.”
The half-Troll girl didn’t respond. Ryoka paused, and then went on.
“I can swim.”
Durene didn’t look up. She muttered.
“I can swim. I taught myself. Riverfarm has a river. I can swim.”
Unseen by her, Ryoka smiled.
“There you go. And look—I don’t mean I’m going to just shut you out. I’ve been rude to you. But I can help. Not tell you what to do.”
“But who am I supposed to be?”
Durene didn’t like the petulant note in her voice. She looked up, ashamed by the stinging in her eyes.
“I wasn’t anyone before I met Laken, Ryoka. Just some girl no one liked. And I’m strong, but is that it?”
“No—no. You could be—”
Ryoka hesitated. Durene shouted.
“Aha! See? What am I besides the half-Troll girl?”
“Well, you are one. Half-Troll, that is.”
The voice came from behind Ryoka. The City Runner looked around. Charlay waved a hand.
“Hi. I’m still here. You forgot about me, didn’t you?”
The two girls paused. They had. Charlay trotted forwards a few steps. She pointed at Durene.
“Charlay, this isn’t helping—”
“Shush, Ryoka. Let me finish. Durene. Listen. I know what your problem is.”
The Centauress nodded with complete certainty.
“Absolutely. You’re thinking like a Human. They do this all the time. Ryoka doesn’t, but no one told you because you live among Humans. Typical.”
“Shush. Durene. You’re half-Troll. I’m a Centaur! Look at me!”
Charlay spread her arms, gesturing towards her horse-half. Durene looked at her. Charlay was as unique as she was. No—more so. The Centauress was different in one respect though; she was proud. She poked a finger into her chest and then jabbed Ryoka in the side. The Human girl yelped.
“You know what Humans do? They always say ‘you have to be like me’. All the time. And anyone who’s better than them is weird. I hear it in the Runner’s Guilds. ‘Ooh, look at Charlay! She’s a horse! That’s why she runs so fast! Well, that’s all she can do. Because she’s a stupid horse.’ Yeah! And so what?”
She stamped one hoof, angrily.
“I’m a Centaur! What do you think, I’m good at scratching my butt with my hands? That’s disgusting! And that’s why I have a tail! I’m good at running, and I’m half-horse. That’s what I am. What’s the problem? Yes, I’m better at running fast! Horse! Humans have different talents. They can’t run fast as I can. I can’t do stairs well. What’s the problem?”
She pointed at Durene. The half-Troll girl gulped.
“But I’m part Troll. Isn’t that—”
“What? What? Bad because you have skin like a rock and you can punch a hole through Ryoka’s head without trying? Because you’re one in like, a million? I’ve seen Trolls in Baleros. They don’t get sad when people insult them. They mush their brains, then go off and do Troll things and they’re fine with that! I’m fine with being me, too, even though all these Humans keep pointing at me as if I’m the weird one. You know who’s weird in Baleros? Humans.”
Charlay tossed her head. She pointed down at Durene.
“Ryoka’s right. You need to do your own thing. And if that involves hitting things because you’re good at it, hit things! I’m good at running so I came to Izril to be the best Runner on the continent. And that’s fine. I’ve never been sad about being me. You have problems. You should fix that.”
She jabbed a finger at Durene. Then she turned.
“Come on, Ryoka. Let’s go deliver food to some Humans. Nice speech, by the way. That was really cool. I knew I hung out with you for a reason.”
She trotted out the door. Ryoka and Durene stared after her, and then Ryoka got up. She looked at Durene and smiled ruefully.
“And just when I thought I knew her. I knew I hung out with that Centauress for a reason. Durene—I’ve got to run. But I could use some help. If you want to give it. And if not—you know who you could watch for inspiration?”
“The coven. They’re [Witches], yeah. And their class is different than yours or mine. But look—they know themselves. They’re women. And they’re not ashamed to be themselves. Neither am I. You shouldn’t either.”
Ryoka patted Durene on the shoulder. And then she was gone. The half-Troll girl sat on the floor of Rie’s home for a while. She looked down at the floorboards. At the open door. She thought about what Ryoka had said. Charlay. Then, slowly, she got up.
It seemed like the thing to do.
An hour later, Durene was part of a crowd watching a bunch of wagons being loaded. They were being filled with goods. Food, oil for lanterns, wood, nails—anything that might be urgently needed. Even seeds for planting. It was Riverfarm’s hard work being prepared to be sent away, and many people weren’t happy about it.
“Why should our hard work go to feed people who will give Riverfarm nothing?”
Councilwoman Beatica was on the attack. But Ryoka faced her down.
“Councilwoman, why should Riverfarm have taken you in when it was their people who died and Lancrel and their village, homes, and food you needed? Why was it an [Emperor] who came to Riverfarm’s aid? Perhaps because it was the right thing to do.”
The [Councilwoman] bit her tongue and [Mayor] Rodivek shouted after a second. Some of Lancrel’s people voiced their dissent as well. But for every person scowling at the waste, more people were listening. Especially Riverfarm’s own—no, anyone who’d received help. And that was everyone, when you got down to it.
But it was more than that. Durene stared at Ryoka. She was animated, moving from place to place in front of the wagons, talking with Prost, addressing the crowd, planning the route with Beniar. She was…shining. In a different way than Laken. But Durene felt like shading her eyes, as if Ryoka was giving off a light.
She wasn’t the only person to see it. The coven had gathered. Not Belavierr, but the rest. They saw the same thing, more concretely than Durene. Eloise was smiling. Alevica shook her head as she eyed Ryoka.
“You know, she’s like this, apparently.”
“Who? Miss Griffin?”
Nanette was smiling as she held onto her head. She cupped more of Ryoka’s emotions and Califor nodded approvingly. Alevica shrugged.
“Yup. She saved a Gnoll kid from the Goblin Lord’s army, apparently. Does emergency runs for adventuring teams; that’s a suicidal decision if ever I saw one. And this? She’s an odd one.”
Hedag laughed. The huge [Witch] tipped her hat up, regarding Ryoka with a big smile.
“You’d do that if you cared about whether people live or die. There goes a girl who’d put her life on the line for copper pennies because she weighs lives like gold, Alevica.”
The Witch Runner scowled. She jerked her head at Ryoka.
“She has her up days and down days, clearly.”
Eloise nodded thoughtfully.
“Yes. I’ll sell her some teas later. But it’s a wonderful up, isn’t it?”
Durene heard no more, because she was pushing through the crowd. Ryoka spotted her; of course she did. She swung herself down from a wagon and looked expectantly at Durene. The half-Troll girl took a breath.
“I’m coming. If that’s alright. I mean, I’m going whether you like it or not.”
She had a walking staff and she’d brought a lunch. Ryoka’s smile made Durene answer it. She nodded.
“Great. Then we’re set. Mister Prost, how’s it looking?”
“We have the wagons loaded and Beniar says we can make the trip in a day and have you all back tonight so long as you keep moving. The problem is animals. We’re two short and I don’t know if we can spare more. Can you manage with three wagons?”
Ryoka grimaced. Prost looked apologetic.
“We have few enough draft animals as it is. The Darksky Riders have our best horses and the rest are needed for plough work and the like. I can give you exactly four wagons, but the last one can’t be pulled. You’ll have to fit the rest into what you can carry.”
“I’ll load my [Riders] up with a bit in the saddlebags.”
Beniar offered, smiling. Ryoka nodded.
“It’ll do. I have a bag of holding. So does Charlay. We’ll run ahead, coordinate who’s coming back if any, and the wood and food can keep going. We’ll run back to resupply.”
“Are you sure we can’t get anyone to pull the last wagon, Mister Prost? It’s not that heavily loaded.”
Durene objected as she pointed to the last wagon. Prost shook his head.
“It’s too heavy, and Beniar needs all his [Riders] mounted. What with the [Bandits].”
“Yeah, but just one donkey? We could even help push it. It’s heavy, but—see?”
The half-Troll girl set herself and pushed. Ryoka, Beniar, and Prost stared as the wagon rolled a bit. They stared at Durene. Charlay raised two thumbs. Durene smiled at her, and then her eyes widened as she had a thought.
“I have an idea for a horse!”
Ryoka blinked. And then her eyes widened too. She looked over her shoulder. Charlay’s eyes narrowed.
“Who—wait a second. It better not be me. No way. No way—”
Charlay stared as the wagons rolled down the road. She looked at the giant, green, miffed bear and blinked.
“Oh. That’s much better than what I thought you were going to say.”
Ryoka stared at Bismarck. The Mossbear gaoed as it tried to reach the potato on a string in front of him. He padded forwards, growling slightly, and the wagon obligingly rolled after him. Charlay blinked at the harness.
“Can a bear pull a wagon? By himself? Really?”
Ryoka tried to calculate it. It certainly looked like it.
“Well, Bismarck weighs more than one. And he’s like a grizzly and…no, twice…? Three times the size of a black bear? He’s massive. So long as the straps don’t bother him and you can get him to move, I think it’ll work.”
“Leave it to me. If he looks tired, I’ll let you know.”
A voice called from the front of the wagon. Wiskeria tipped her pointed hat and grinned. Ryoka smiled and Durene nodded. The [Witch] had decided to come with them on their relief-giving mission. And her presence was welcome. Beniar laughed as he rode towards them. He saluted Wiskeria on her wagon.
“General Wiskeria! Your orders, ma’am?”
“Shut up, Beniar. Just ride ahead and make sure there’s no [Bandits]. Move in groups; you don’t want to get picked off. You’ll stay around the wagons with a few [Scouts] going ahead. Ryoka and Charlay will alert the settlements and figure out if we’re delivering aid or getting them to come back with us.”
“Yes, Ma’am! You heard her! Darksky Riders, move out!”
Beniar rode forwards with a whoop of excitement and the [Riders] followed him. Durene couldn’t remember him looking this excited in a while. But maybe it was because Wiskeria was giving the orders. The [Witch] nodded at her and Ryoka. The City Runner peered up at her.
“I thought you weren’t being a [General] for a while. What changed your mind?”
“Miss Califor’s always right.”
Ryoka laughed. The wagons set off, and Durene strode with them. On a mission of mercy.
This was how it went. A young woman ran across the grass, waving her arms. In his tower, an [Archer] drew an arrow reflexively, but he untensed when he heard her voice.
“Excuse me! Hey! It’s me! Don’t shoot!”
Ryoka Griffin ran into the settlement as the people came out of the houses. The [Archer] blinked at her.
“You’re back? What is it? Another delivery?”
“No. It’s aid. From Riverfarm. And if you need it—we have an escort waiting to take you back to the village!”
The people were confused. The [Archer] was even outraged.
“Do you think we’re in need of handouts? We can manage ourselves.”
Ryoka faced him seriously.
“It’s not just for you. I toured everywhere from Riverfarm and almost up to Filk yesterday. There are burned out houses and people in trouble all the way there. If you don’t need help, we’ll move on. But if you need food, wood, nails—we can deliver it.”
“In exchange for what?”
The suspicious question came from a woman armed with another bow. Ryoka shook her head.
“Nothing. This is a crisis. Look, I’d prefer if you didn’t need anything. That way we can get it to whoever’s in trouble most. But if you need something that you’ll be in trouble without—ask. Otherwise, consider moving to Riverfarm. I came to you all first because I know you’re some of the best-off. We’ll be transporting families and as much as we can back to Riverfarm soon. They’ll be safe there.”
The people exchanged a glance. The [Archer] leaned on his bow thoughtfully.
“And the village will take them in?”
“It took in a lot of people from Lancrel. It can take more. It’s your choice. But we’re doing this because Riverfarm’s in a position to help. And the [Emperor]—no, the people of Riverfarm believe in helping people in need. With a bit of encouragement.”
Ryoka looked around. The [Archer] hesitated. And they conferred. At last, he shook his head.
“We don’t need anything. And we’re safe enough here. Thanks for the offer, Miss Griffin. But we’re fine. With that said—we might come to Riverfarm to trade. And we appreciate the offer. Do you have room on those wagons you mentioned for some bows? We can spare a few, and arrows; we have a stock. If Riverfarm’s in need, or if we have a scrape—maybe we can help out.”
He reached out. And Ryoka clasped his hand, smiling. She ran on after taking five bows and arrows.
Farmer Melon’s eyes widened. The wagon rolling towards him halted and the people poured out to stare at the contents. Wiskeria nodded as she halted. Bismarck chewed on the potato, oblivious to the stares.
“That’s right, sir. Anyone who needs to can come back with us. You’ll be able to work in Riverfarm and I guarantee you’ll be fed and have a good place to sleep. His Majesty, Emperor Godart guarantees it. Otherwise, we’ll spare what we can. To get you as far as you need and get these families sorted. I can’t promise we’ll come by twice.”
“Move to Riverfarm? But what about the others? They’re in Filk!”
Wiskeria raised her voice.
“We’ll get them too. And we can send word. But if anyone’s worried about [Bandits]—anyone in the area—we can accommodate you at Riverfarm!”
Farmer Melon chewed on his beard as he stared at the wagon. It was loaded, with enough supplies to keep his and the three other families supplied, even build more rooms. Plant a field. He looked at the others and the uncertainty on their faces. And then at the [Witch]. She was a [Witch]; you could tell by the hat. And at the Mossbear, the half-Troll girl.
“It’s a lot to consider.”
“I know, sir. And I don’t want to rush you. We can stop for half an hour, or come back on a return trip. But you must decide quickly. Either way—we do want to help.”
So said the [Witch]. In the end, the families at Melon’s farm had to discuss it. The wives, one husband, two of the oldest children, and Melon and his wife talked it over in conference, arguing, debating options.
But Melon kept remembering the wagon. If Riverfarm could spare that—he looked at his farm, which he’d built himself. But you could rebuild a farm. Grow more melons. He looked towards the burned cottage and grave he’d dug and swore.
“Damn. I’m going to have to pay Helm for that pitchfork after all. Hey! Grab what you can and pack up! We’re moving!”
Ryoka saw the first wagon riding back from Melon’s farm as she jogged down the road. Beniar and a group of eight [Riders] were accompanying them, to the delight of the children who stared at the [Cataphract]. Melon waved at Ryoka as she passed. And he wasn’t the only one.
More and more wagons were coming down the road. Not all the ones Riverfarm had sent either. Over half of the settlements that the relief teams visited decided to pack up and move rather than stay. There was something more to it than just a desire for safety with [Bandits] and in light of the Goblin raids.
It was Laken. His reputation. His name. People had heard there was an [Emperor]. They’d seen the totem poles, seen Beniar and the patrols and heard who’d been fighting the Goblins. And had failed. But Laken had been there, where before the Goblins would have rampaged until a local city or noble or adventurers drove them off. So they came.
And Ryoka ran. From house to house. Her legs tired. She drank potions. And the wagons rumbled after her. First it was three hours. Then six. Ryoka stopped for a break at the [Fisher]’s hut and found he was packed.
“What’re you doing? I thought you said you were fine here!”
She exclaimed. The old man grinned at her as he hefted his spear.
“Right. But Riverfarm has fish, don’t it? And truth be told, everyone’s leaving and I think I’ll miss the company. You have room on those wagons for me?”
They did. But Ryoka had to flag one as it came this way. It was the one being led by Wiskeria. Bismarck growled unhappily as the [Witch] halted him. Durene jogged to keep up; she was still going. She’d helped load the wagons, reassure people—Ryoka remembered her bellowing at a frightened group that had shot arrows at Ryoka without letting her come near.
“I know it’s your farm. But it’s not safe out here! Come to Riverfarm and we can come back and gather whatever you need. Bring your valuables but don’t stay! We can take you in! I swear we’re not [Bandits]! She’s a Runner and I’m a [Paladin]! Honest!”
Surprisingly, that had worked. Now, Durene smiled as Wiskeria pointed.
“That’s right. Just down the marsh. I’ve got half the guy’s stuff in his bag of holding. We’ll meet you there.”
“Alright. Come on Bismarck. Let’s—aw, no!”
Ryoka heard a thump and a shout from the passengers. Wiskeria looked down, askance. She’d driven right into a pothole. Bismarck growled and strained, but the wagon was heavier and he gave up, panting. Ryoka swore.
“Damn it. Okay, let’s get everyone off. Beniar’s nearby, maybe he can help—”
“Don’t worry! I’ve got it!”
Durene cheerfully waved a hand. She stepped around to the back and bent down. Ryoka saw the wagon lift, people and cargo and all. Durene growled as she heaved it out of the pothole.
The surprised Mossbear did. Ryoka saw the wagon move down the road, out of the pothole. Durene, panting, massaged her back.
“Wow! That was really heavy!”
The half-Troll girl grinned at Ryoka. The City Runner closed her mouth. After a moment, she nodded.
“Well then! Onwards!”
That was the third trip back to Riverfarm. The sun was setting fast and Ryoka found that even the two stamina potions she’d used weren’t helping. She had to heal her bruised feet, but even then, she was yawning as she and Wiskeria escorted the last group of people back towards Riverfarm.
Charlay was dozing as she trotted forwards and even Bismarck looked worn down as he pulled the wagon. But still, Durene was right behind him. She was pushing the wagon, helping the weary Mossbear. Without complaint. And she’d kept up with the wagons all day. On foot. Now she was doing most of Bismarck’s work.
Just silently pushing it forwards into the night.
Ryoka turned back and smiled. Durene gave her a silent thumbs-up. She looked more relaxed than Ryoka had seen her as well. Perhaps—well, Ryoka wondered if she’d been wrong. Durene had been indecisive. But perhaps she really did just need to put her talents to use. To find a challenge worthy of her. Either way, she smiled as Durene yawned.
The half-Troll girl was tired, despite what Ryoka thought. She was sleepy as she leaned against the wagon, pushing it. So tired in fact that she kept drifting off, accounting for their slow progress back to Riverfarm. They were the last wagon. But they weren’t more than—
Durene yawned. She leaned against the wagon. Just for a second.
[Paladin Level 17!]
[Skill – Iron Skin obtained!]
She opened her eyes. Ahead of her, Wiskeria, yawning, stood up and peered over her hat. She had a ball of [Light] and she raised it with one hand.
“Durene? You okay? We’ve stopped moving.”
The half-Troll girl yawned and stood up straighter. She smiled up at Wiskeria and saw the [Witch] smile too.
“I’m awake! Sorry, Wiskeria. I just drifted off. But guess what? I just leveled!”
“You did? That’s gr—”
Durene heard the voice, but she didn’t understand it at first. Then there was a bright light. Wiskeria spun. She held up a hand—
And the fireball exploded, blowing her off the wagon. Durene threw up her hands and her ears rang. She stumbled backwards as a blast of heat washed over her.
Night 59 – Ryoka
Ryoka heard the voice. She saw the [Fireball] hit the wagon and explode. The passengers in front disappeared. So did Wiskeria. Bismarck roared as his fur caught fire. He rolled and pieces of wood rained down from the sky. The City Runner just stared.
Someone grabbed her. Charlay. The Centauress was pointing. Ryoka turned. She saw another fiery ball of light. Her body moved faster than her mind. She and Charlay ran before the [Fireball] exploded five paces from where they’d been. Ryoka felt the heat.
And out of the night, they came. [Bandits]. They rode down on the City Runners and the destroyed wagons, loosing arrows, and the [Pyromancer] holding the staff shot a stream of flames that nearly cooked Ryoka. The wind saved her; it blew the flames up as Ryoka and Charlay split.
Over the ringing in her ears, Ryoka could hear the [Mage] shouting.
“Get the [Witch]! Get her hat! The hat’s worth gold! Kill the others!”
Charlay shouted. There were [Riders] baring down at her. She turned, wide-eyed, as one lifted a sword. The Centauress bolted left. The [Pyromancer] saw and raised his staff.
“Charlay! Behind you!”
“Gyaaaah! [Spray Hoof]!”
A spray of dirt hit the [Pyromancer]. He swore and his spell missed. Fire flashed over Charlay’s head as half the [Bandits] went after her. There were—twelve? Not many. But the [Pyromancer]—
Ryoka saw Charlay racing away. She heard the Centauress’ voice.
“[Lightning Gallop]! [Duststorm Kick]!”
She took off. The [Bandits] following her ran into a dust storm. They halted, coughing. And the [Pyromancer] shook his staff.
“Ignore the horse! Get the wagon—”
Something flew at his head. He ducked and the Tripvine Bag exploded. The vines nearly knocked him from the saddle. He turned, snarling. The caltrop hit him in one eye.
Ryoka screamed the words over the [Pyromancer]’s howl. She spun. The wind was howling. Dust and flying caltrops blew through the air. The [Bandits] riding down on her cursed as their horses reared and screamed.
The Runner screamed back. This could not be happening. Wiskeria! The passengers! Smoke was everywhere, but the front of the wagon was gone. Someone was screaming, caught in the flames. Ryoka couldn’t save them. The [Bandits] were on her.
“Kill the Runner!”
One swung at her. Wind blew him from the saddle. Charlay and Ryoka’s dust clouds were whipping the air, throwing the [Bandits] off. But Ryoka was alone and there were twelve, the [Pyromancer] and men and women with weapons, riding at her, fighting their horses. Twelve. And Durene was—no, wait. Eleven?
Something moved in the cloud. Ryoka saw a man jerk and fly off his horse. He hit the ground and Ryoka saw what had knocked him from the saddle.
A quarterstaff. As the man lay, winded, the hands holding the quarterstaff withdrew. He sat up and Durene’s foot came down. The man screamed before Durene stomped. The other [Bandits] looked up.
“Dead gods, what is that?”
They hadn’t seen Durene behind the wagon. The [Pyromancer] turned in alarm, pointed his staff.
The half-Troll girl raised her arms. The second explosion engulfed her. Ryoka screamed. No! She ran forwards; saw a woman swinging on her from the right. Ryoka tried to dodge. A blade clipped her back, laying it open. The pain made Ryoka scream, but she ran. The [Bandit] followed her. She raised her sword for another strike—
And someone roared. Ryoka jerked, dodged left. A huge shape crashed into the horse. The animal and rider went down. The [Bandit] turned and saw a huge mouth snapping at her. It was her turn to scream.
It was the last sound she made. Bismarck bit, worried the corpse, tossed it, and turned. The other [Bandits] descending on Ryoka noticed the Mossbear through the dust too late. The Mossbear tore a man from the saddle and dropped on him. The paw hit the man’s chest with a dull crunch.
“It’s a damned bear! I told you!”
“Kill it! Kill it! Mafial!”
“Move clear you idiots!”
The [Pyromancer] bellowed. He shot a thin stream and Bismarck roared, flinching away from the fire. The [Pyromancer] lifted his burning staff as the other [Bandits] rode clear.
A huge hand grabbed his horse. The [Mage] jerked and looked down. Durene howled as she tossed the man from the saddle. The man flew and Durene swung her staff. A man riding towards her caught the blow. He was wearing chainmail, but the metal did nothing as his ribs snapped. He fell, screaming, choking.
Ryoka stared. Durene lifted the staff and swung it, still screaming in pain. She was half-blinded by the [Fireball], but it hadn’t brought her down. In fact—her staff caught another [Rider] and he tumbled.
An arrow hit Durene in the chest. She staggered and the [Bandit] holding the crossbow lowered it, dumbfounded. The arrow had stuck in Durene’s skin, barely two inches deep. She howled and the man on the ground raised his shield. He had a shield. Armor. And all she had was a staff.
But it was thick. A walking staff. A quarterstaff. And it came down with all of Durene’s strength. The thud as it struck the man’s helmet stayed with Ryoka as she stumbled forwards. She flung a caltrop, called the wind.
The [Pyromancer] was alive. He was winded, but he got up as Ryoka tried to bombard him with grit and caltrops. He snarled, pointing his staff at her as his bloody eye and good one focused on her. Ryoka leapt sideways.
The two faced each other as the [Bandits] circled, fighting Bismarck and Durene. Ryoka grabbed for another Tripvine bag, her caltrops—the [Pyromancer] raised his staff and she knew she was too close. She tensed—and her eyes widened.
The [Pyromancer]’s head turned. Someone was walking out of the destroyed wagon’s front. It was…a [Witch].
You could tell by the hat. But nothing else. Oh, and the wand. Wiskeria stomped and raised it. She was completely naked except for her hat. But she was also unharmed. There wasn’t even soot on her. Ryoka stopped. The [Pyromancer] turned and stared. His eyes bulged.
“What the f—”
“[Fox Fire]. [Icy Shard].”
The first spell tossed blue fire into the [Pyromancer]’s face. He clawed at it, screaming. The shard of ice hit him in the cheek and he screamed louder. Ryoka leapt forwards and kicked him in the back. Wiskeria drew a knife and jumped on the man as he raised his staff.
The Runner ducked as fire blasted past her. Then she looked up. Wiskeria stabbed the man twice more in the chest. But he was already dead. She stared at Wiskeria. The [Witch] was shaking, wide-eyed. But she was alive.
A shout made Ryoka look up. The [Bandits] were fleeing. Durene was swinging her staff and there were six bodies around her. Bismarck had killed another. And then Ryoka heard the furious voice.
“Riverfarm! Riverfarm and Laken!”
Beniar and four of his [Riders] thundered forwards. Just in time to catch the last of the fleeing [Bandits]. The [Cataphract] got one himself. He whirled, and Ryoka saw Charlay racing after the last with three [Riders]. Beniar looked around, blinded by the dust, if not the darkness.
“Dead gods! No, no—Wiskeria! Durene! Is anyone—”
He caught sight of Durene, panting and leaning on her staff. Beniar leapt to the ground. And then he saw Ryoka and Wiskeria.
“I’m fine. I’m fine. It was the charm.”
Wiskeria was babbling, her own eyes wide. Then she realized she was naked. Ryoka had to give Beniar this; he only stared for a second and then he turned his head.
“What happened? We were just a minute ahead! We thought they’d never dare attack—”
“They were after Wiskeria. After a [Witch]. Here—anyone got a blanket?”
“I pulled one out. The rest didn’t make it.”
Wiskeria shook her head. Ryoka opened her mouth and heard a wail.
“Ryoka! Where are you? Tell me you ran away! You slowpoke! Where are you?”
“Charlay! Over here!”
The Centauress galloped towards Ryoka.
“Ryoka! Thank goodness you’re—Wiskeria? You’re alive? And naked?”
The rest of the Darksky Riders converged. There was a minute—then six—of panic, which resolved itself. The [Trapper] who’d been riding on the wagon was badly burnt, as were Durene and Bismarck. When potions were distributed, Ryoka found Wiskeria. She was wearing one of the emergency blankets and still looked shaken. Charlay was babbling.
“I’ve never seen anything like it. She was dead. I saw the [Fireball] explode in her face! I couldn’t pay for a charm that does that. That’s like a Gold-rank charm right there—”
“How’d you do it, Wis? A spell?”
Beniar stared at Wiskeria. She shook her head.
“I don’t know—there’s no way I have an artifact like that—it had to be—”
She paused. Ryoka saw her raise one hand shakily and feel at her hat.
“Wait a second. There’s only one thing it could be. It’s—Mother!”
She exclaimed as she prised something from the side of her hat. Ryoka saw her toss it onto the ground. She stared. It was hard to see in the darkness until Ryoka pulled out her iPhone. Beniar stared at it and then the object. He and the Darksky Riders could see perfectly of course, but they couldn’t understand.
“What in the hells is it, Wiskeria?”
“A thread charm.”
It looked like a bug, or maybe a spider, made of thread. Dark blue, the exact color of Wiskeria’s hat. But whatever it had been, it was burnt nearly to ash, as were Wiskeria’s clothes. But the [Witch] herself was completely unharmed. She pointed at it shakily.
“It’s my mother. She must have put it on my hat when she touched it. Typical—”
She looked almost angry. Ryoka shook her head, eyes wide with amazement. She stared at Wiskeria.
“She saved your life.”
The [Witch] paused. She stopped shaking and nodded slowly. She stared down at the bit of thread.
“That’s true. I forgot she even made ward charms like this.”
“Your Mother made this? Dead gods, Wis, that’s a Gold-rank artifact, disappearing clothes or not! Do you think she’d sell it to us?”
Beniar’s eyes went round. Wiskeria shrugged. She was still shell-shocked by her near-death experience.
“I…yes. If I asked her to. It never crossed my mind. She doesn’t usually sell stuff like this. But yes—yes, I’ll definitely ask her to.”
“She put it on your hat just by touching it. Without you knowing. She must have been worried about you.”
Ryoka spoke slowly. The adrenaline rushing through her body had faded. Now she felt sick at the death. Tired. But amazed. Wiskeria paused and nodded again.
“I guess she is my mother. And she has a very strong sense about this kind of thing.”
She managed a smile. Ryoka stared at her and nodded. She wanted to smile, but she had seen Wiskeria die. How had Belavierr known? Maybe it was a guess. Either way—Ryoka looked about.
The [Paladin] looked up. She’d survived her own [Fireball], albeit at a far greater cost than Wiskeria. If it hadn’t been for her new Skill, she probably would have died. As it was—the healing potion had only healed some of the burns. Durene’s voice was raspy.
“I’m okay, Ryoka.”
“Sure you are. We’re going to get you back to Riverfarm. You got the [Bandits], Durene.”
“Yeah. I wish I could’ve saved the others.”
Ryoka shook her head. She stared at the six [Bandits] Durene had killed. Her hands shook a bit. She’d been trying to kill the [Pyromancer]. But Durene had squashed the others like flies with her quarterstaff. It was still bloody.
“Does it—does it bother you?”
Durene looked confused. She glanced at the bodies and blinked before shaking her head.
“They’re [Bandits]. I don’t feel bad about killing them.”
And that was all. Ryoka nodded. Slowly, painfully, she walked back towards Beniar. He was seeing to the wounded [Trapper].
“We’re close to Riverfarm. Damn—this guy needs a [Healer]. I don’t think the burns all healed and I don’t want to try another. There could be an infection. I’ll ride him back, and you all wait here.”
“We can walk.”
Durene got up. Beniar opened his mouth to protest, and saw Bismarck lumber forwards. The bear’s fur along his back was burnt away. And while he was healed, he was growling. His teeth were still bloody. The [Cataphract] nodded.
“I’ll ride back and send back everyone in case there are more [Bandits]!”
He took off into the night. The last three [Riders] joined Ryoka and the others. The City Runner walked forwards, then turned to stare at the wagon. It was gone. Some of the goods could be salvaged, but not right now. Charlay looked at Ryoka, and then Wiskeria. She sighed.
“Climb on, Wiskeria. I’ll carry you back. Come on, Ryoka. Let’s go.”
Wiskeria blinked, but didn’t object. She held the blanket around her as Charlay trotted past Ryoka. Durene and Bismarck followed and Ryoka brought up the rear. She kept looking at the place where the first [Fireball] had gone off.
That was true magic. True magic. And it had been done with such a small thing. A bit of thread. Ryoka began to understand what Belavierr could do. She wanted to talk to the [Witch] again. Thank her. And perhaps her daughter did too. Wiskeria kept pinching herself as Charlay bore her back.
The weary procession returned to Riverfarm in high spirits. Not because they were glad of the fight. Three of the passengers had been killed by the [Fireball]. And the others had been wounded. But their spirits were still high out of the sheer, giddy feeling of being alive. Ryoka was grinning despite herself, trembling with her own after-fight exhaustion. She headed straight into Riverfarm, seeing the lights in a few windows. But the village was mostly dark without magic or electricity.
Ryoka expected a huge crowd that had heard about the battle. And there was one. But it was not for her or Durene or the riders. She stopped as she saw the turned backs. The silent, staring faces.
They were not looking at her. Nor were they making any sound. The people of Riverfarm were quiet. Deathly so. They stood together, so close as to touch. As if to remind themselves they weren’t alone.
They filled the street as the procession halted. Ryoka stepped forwards uncertainly. Wiskeria rode forwards, craning her neck. The street was motionless. The people voiceless.
But it was not quiet. There was a rhythmic sound in the air. Quiet. Then louder. Insistent.
It was faint, plaintive, cry. A wailing sound every person knew. A baby’s cry. Ryoka heard it, but it didn’t connect with the faces around her. The haunted looks.
“What’s…what’s going on?”
No one responded to Charlay’s uneasy question. Wiskeria looked up. Silently, slowly, she slipped off the [Rider]’s horse. The villagers looked up. Saw her. They parted. Ryoka saw Wiskeria move forwards. And the young woman felt a sense of trepidation.
They stood in the center of the gathering. Six [Witches]. Hedag. Eloise. Alevica. Califor. Nanette. Mavika. Watching silently. Hedag’s expression was a mirthless smile, harsh and pained. Eloise had closed her eyes. Califor was half-blocking Nanette’s view. The girl was shuddering. Alevica looked uneasy. As close to fear as Ryoka had ever seen. And Mavika? The [Witch] looked at Wiskeria and Ryoka. And she nodded.
Closer still. Ryoka pushed forwards with Wiskeria. Prost and Rie stood in the inner circle. Their faces were white. They had lost their voices too. They turned as Wiskeria moved forwards, towards the center. The crying was louder, insistent. And there was a voice now. Someone whispering. Cooing sweetly. Trying to soothe the baby she held—
Ryoka saw Rehanna, standing in the center of the silent crowd and for a moment, she felt relieved. Because there was nothing wrong. The woman was sitting on the ground, rocking an infant in her arms. It was a normal scene. Ordinary.
For a moment, Ryoka could believe it. Then she looked up at the tall figure standing like a shadow behind Rehanna. As tall as a nightmare, her hat wide, pointed. And her eyes, the rings of orange glowing in the twilight. And the illusion broke as Ryoka saw what Belavierr had done.
“Hush my child, don’t make a sound. Your mother’s here and treats abound…”
Rehanna sang as she held the child to her breast. The infant wailed and Ryoka saw it at last. It was right in all the right ways. It was the same size. It had the same color. And it made sound. It moved. It looked like an infant.
But it was not. It was not alive. It was no baby. The thing wriggled, writhed, opened its mouth and exposed black insides.
It opened its eyes and raised a hand. Ryoka saw stitched cloth waving. Or was it flesh? Moving fingers, wriggling.
A mockery of life. A thing. It was not alive. But Rehanna bent her head and one hand grasped the hand.
“Yes, little one, go to sleep. Don’t wake or cry or you’ll make your mother weep…”
She sang to it. Ryoka couldn’t take her eyes off the thing she held. It was all wrong. It was too close to reality. The cloth had been sewn, given magic. But it was no baby. But it’s eyes. Ryoka saw no life there, but it was realer than any mannequin. She tasted bile. Ahead of her, Wiskeria was frozen. She stared at the woman, her face drained of color.
The woman looked up. She spotted Wiskeria and stood. Her face beamed with happiness. She stumbled towards Wiskeria, holding the thing proudly. But carefully as any mother.
“Wiskeria! She did it! I didn’t believe her, but she did it! Your mother, Lady Belavierr! Look. Look! She brought him back. See?”
She held out the not-child and Wiskeria recoiled. Rehanna stopped, looking hurt.
“What’s wrong? He’s as healthy as can be. Look—touch him. Don’t cry, little one—”
Another wail. Ryoka stared at Rehanna. She had seen the woman once, lying on the ground, clutching at her ruined hand. She was not the same woman as then.
Her hair was faded. Her hands pale. But she was smiling. Laughing with tears in her eyes as she turned to Wiskeria. The young [Witch] was shaking.
“She brought my baby back. He won’t ever leave. He won’t die. She brought him back.”
Wiskeria looked up slowly. Rehanna laughed and turned, gesturing to the tall figure. And the orange eyes found Wiskeria.
Belavierr walked forwards and the world drew back. Rehanna returned to rocking her child, soothing it. And the thing’s voice faded as Belavierr stepped towards her daughter. She stopped there and stooped. Wiskeria looked up at her mother. And Ryoka saw her eyes.
They were the eyes of a daughter who had seen who her mother truly was. Belavierr looked into Wiskeria’s eyes. And after a moment, the [Witch] smiled. Awkwardly. Perhaps even tenderly. She looked Wiskeria up and down and then glanced at Ryoka. She paused, seemed to think, and then spoke.
“Daughter. Did you have a good journey? You appear to be naked.”
Wiskeria did not reply. In the silence of that dark night, as Ryoka looked upon another piece of true magic, the only sound came from a woman. A broken woman. Bereaved. Torn by grief and loss. Perhaps a cruel woman. Spiteful. But broken. And now—mended. With thread. Holding something that sounded and looked like a child.
Rehanna rocked it, standing in the street. She was overjoyed. She smiled and laughed. Oblivious to the world. Holding her baby.
A dark dream walked Riverfarm. But elsewhere, the world turned on, unaware of the ways where nightmares and waking merged. Other concerns kept people’s hearts. Even if the hearts were cold.
Fierre, the Vampire who acted as a broker to Runners in Reizmelt was standing in a place few people knew of. It was a spot where people whose faces were wanted—or anyone who needed to send a [Message] in private—could hire a [Mage]. She spoke curtly, her sharp nails digging into her palms.
“Tell him that if he so much as breathes word she’s there, I will come down to Filk myself and rip out his throat. You hear me?”
The [Mage] shuddered. He thought he knew Fierre. But he had never seen the look in her eyes. He nodded, relaying the [Message]. Fierre stared down at the parchment she held. It held a [Message] or rather, a report she’d obtained for Ryoka. The [Broker] in Filk had one too. And he knew where the [Witches] were. But that wasn’t the problem.
“Leave a [Message] for Ryoka at Filk’s Runner’s Guild. Mark it as priority. I’ll pay you. Got it?”
She was too panicked to care. The rattled [Mage] sent the [Message] and Fierre stormed out of the room. She hesitated after she slammed the door, but there was nothing more she could do. Short of trying to run to Filk herself. And it was too late for that. All she could do was lean on the man in Filk. And pray Ryoka ran for it as soon as she got the [Message].
Fierre hurried back to The Huntress’ Haven, her home away from home. Madain looked up from his usually empty inn and grinned.
“You sort out that thing with Ryoka yet? Where is that idiot Runner?”
“Where the hell’s that?”
Fierre was too rattled to respond. She only pulled out the report.
“I got this—”
Madain’s eyebrows rose. He knew of her profession of course. Anyone who wanted to could find out. He sauntered over carelessly.
“Got herself into some trouble, has she? What’s that, then? Hey! [Fist Fighter], look at this.”
Alber looked up from his cold meal. He thought about it, and then got up. Fierre held out the parchment shakily.
“It’s someone in Riverfarm. A [Witch]. Ryoka wanted to find her record. This is it.”
“Ooh. A criminal? Scary. You know, I have a bounty.”
“Not like this one.”
Fierre promised Madain. The former adventurer laughed contemptuously.
“Hah! How bad could it be? What’s Ryoka gotten herself tangled up—oh.”
His laughter cut off abruptly. Alber frowned as he came over to see. He looked at Fierre and then peered over Madain’s shoulder. His eyes widened. Fierre slowly took the parchment back from Madain. He stared at her along with Alber.
“Is that real?”
It hadn’t even been hard to get. It was, after all, a public record. And if she knew—Fierre didn’t know how Ryoka had met her and she didn’t care. She just wanted Ryoka to run. Before it was too late. Slowly, she read the list of charges attached to the file.
Murder. Kidnapping. Torture. Injury of a royal. Unlawful use of dark magic. Theft. Murder of a child. Extortion. Murder of a [Knight]. Murder of a [Guardsman]. Destruction of a city. Mass murder. Mutilation. Murder of a [Prince]. Freeing imprisoned slaves. Murder of a [Slaver]. Murder of a [Mage]. Seduction of a [Prince] (unconfirmed). Destruction of a village (uncomfirmed) and mass murder via hanging. Summoning of an unknown; mass deaths by unknown. Creation of monsters. Bribery—
The list of crimes ran on and on. Fierre had seen criminal charges for members of the Bloodfeast Raiders that were shorter than this! At last, her eyes went back to the top of the page. She read out loud in the silent inn.
“The Stitch Witch, Belavierr. Wanted in Terandria. Currently being pursued by the Guild of Hunters, and the Order of Seasons. Believed to be in Izril. Current bounty…eighteen thousand total gold pieces. In Terandria. Twenty thousand pieces. From the Slavers of Roshal. Three thousand gold by Wistram…”