Chapter 5: A Bit of Countryside

Xeno travels north with a companion. The land is peaceful.
North of the Chalcis city walls, fields of wheat and fruit orchards grew on the rolling plains of the lowlands. Hostelries, small shops, and taverns gave way to homesteads as the land opened up. The road leading north to Mycoll Forest was wide and easy, supporting the many wheels, boots, and sandals travelling the route between Chalcis and Innsmouth for business or pleasure. Xeno considered his mission to be a pleasant mixture of both. He would heed the call to aid his citizens, and the money would go a long way towards growing his trading network. He had travelled this particular run through Mycoll many times, and the frequent waypoints ensured brigands kept away from the main road. Mostly. Xeno anticipated an uneventful journey and looked forward to the grandeur of the forest itself. In a few days, when he reached Mycoll itself, perhaps he might spy a rare mushroom poking its way through the undergrowth. The day was bright, and the road ahead beckoned. There was only one hitch: his council-appointed travelling companion. The council had arranged everything the day before. They had paid the chaise fee at the wagon porter, and had given Xeno enough coins to purchase supplies for the trip. Kiren had agreed to stake some of his personal goods to sell on the way to Innsmouth. When all was ready, and Xeno had awoken fresh and eager to embark, he found Murg outside his boarding house ready to embark as well. Murg was along for protection, but to Xeno it seemed as if he would invite more trouble than resolve. Murg walked alongside Xeno and the chaise with a purposeful, stalking gait. His solid kobold frame leaned forward as if against the wind. His shortbow was strapped onto his back, and two curved falcatas hung menacingly at his sides. “I’m just saying, the way I sees it, the Council shouldn’t keep whatever it is that old codger cooks up to themselves. Sure, toss a few coins to support the arts, or science, whatever, but message out the results to the Fame Keepers and let some other crazed wizard build off it,” Murg said. Xeno walked and nodded, surprised. He led the reins of the Ken and chaise to the side of the road as a larger caravan passed. “Thats...a really good idea. I wonder why they don’t do that already. The knowledge is stuck in books, basically inaccessible, but if it were summarized and presented as fameworthy…” “It just makes me want to slit some throats,” Murg said. “Keep it to yourself, that’s a nick, and you do it again, sssshhhhhk, the real thing.” “You would want it to be that extreme?” Xeno asked. “Put it this way. Dash and Dot here,” Murg patted the two short swords on his belt, “I got ‘em myself from an ironmonger up in Castony. Good pals, too. But suppose the the Council gave ‘em to me. Suppose they put down the coin. Well then, any throat I slit, even on my own time, well they would belong to the council. And where does the coin come from? You pay taxes, don’t you?” Xeno gave a half-smile of discomfort. “I see your point,” he said. Xeno rubbed his throat in thought. “Maybe we can talk to the Council when we get back.” Murg grunted in assent and eyed the road and countryside with a scowl. The two kobolds walked in front of the Ken, which pulled the chaise, piled high with goods. A canvas tarp tied over the chaise’s bed hid chests of cassava silk, sacks of tapioca powder, and the smaller packs holding camping supplies and food for the journey. The adventurers would eat mostly wheat mull cakes, but treats for the road like apples, mushroom jerky, and a few bottles of throatfire were tucked away safely in the wagon. The early evening sun cast long shadows over the fields near Chalcis. Xeno marveled at the peaceful patches of produce in the fading light. Before the next High Node Day the crops would be ready to harvest, but for now, the farmers could spend their days as the pleased. Xeno saw lanterns burning in the homesteads far from the road. The occasional color dancer flew up across the sky, its message flashing high in the orange sky. Off to the side of the road ahead, Xeno and Murg could hear shouts from a small camp. As they walked closer up the road, they could see two women from Nordak squaring off beside a high campfire. They had the striated light grey and white skin common in Nordak, and their flecked grey eyes glared at each other. “And it was your brother’s fault,” one woman said, “that he’s gone anyway! I’m done with the whole thing!” “He wandered off deep into Mycoll! The old fool, what was he thinking? And Warren did nothing,” the other woman said. “You’re right he did nothing! He’s done nothing this whole time!” Murg raised his eyebrows at Xeno, and they gave the women a wide berth by passing on the other side of the road. They watched the argument unfold nearly to blows, as the two women each placed a hand on their swords. Both were focused on the scene from the camp and didn’t notice another man from the other side of the road tackle Xeno. The man and Xeno both rolled across and off the road into a field. Murg unhooked his shortbow from his back and took aim in one swift motion. Before Murg could fire, the man had already stumbled back onto his feet and continued through the field, running towards the camp. His gait swayed as if on the high seas, rocking to one side and the other. In the camp, the two Northerners were locked in combat. Two longswords clanged against each other with a dull ching and pressed into blade lock. For a second they froze, two equal forces balanced in time, hair trailing back wildly and backlit by the fire in the gloaming light. One of the combatants let out a grunt and shoved herself back away from the campfire. The other advanced forward with an upthrust, blocked by a downwards deflection. The blocker circled her sword around with a swipe from the side, and the original attacker was forced back to avoid the leading edge. She followed her empty fade with an immediate lunge, and the other was forced off balance, turning her body away from the point, and noticing the man tottering towards them. Before she could shout anything, the man barrelled into her, and he tumbled down once again, hair, coat, and swords flying. They all caught their breath, panting and watching each other warily. “You’re drunk,” Warren’s sister said. Fifty feet away, Xeno and Murg watched in safety. “Stay out of it,” hissed Murg, but Xeno was already creeping closer to the camp. He could hear them argue over a missing person, and whose fault it was that he was missing in the first place. One of the women clasped at her neck. “The Finder!” she exclaimed, and they all scrambled to search for it. “There, in the fire!” Xeno could see a silver necklace set with a black stone, and the metal setting was already melting in the blazing campfire. The man tried to reach for it and drew back in pain. Xeno saw the filigree of the necklace curl and separate into fractals, and metal shone with the greasy glow of the instability just before liquefaction. He hated to see such a lovely piece destroyed. He ran from his hiding place in the field, shoved his scaled arm into the blaze, and clawed the necklace out between the burning logs. Xeno’s arm scales glowed red as they cooled off in the night air, the necklace held high in a triumphant pose. “Give me that, now,” a Nordak woman said. She had found her sword and pointed it at Xeno. “Oh, ha, right.”
Xeno and the three Nordaks sat around the fire, their grievances forgiven with a bottle of throatfire from the chaise. Murg sat a few paces away, restringing his shortbow and watching the strangers with suspicion. After Xeno introduced himself, they gave an account of their journey and present situation. Over the past year, they had traveled south from the great stone bluffs west of Sky City in Nordak, protecting a rich hermit on his way to Chalcis. They had nearly completed the long trek, until a few weeks ago, the hermit had gotten lost in the Mycoll Forest. They spent a few days searching for him, but gave up and now were completing their trip to either deliver the bad news to his family here, or hire an experienced tracker to find him. Warren and his sister Roselyn favored hiring a tracker, as the hermit would reward them greatly, if he were still alive. The other woman Mara wanted done with it, and wanted to drink away the whole journey in Chalcis. “He’s probably dead anyway,” Mara said. “Ooh, this stuff is pretty good. The kobold’s brew has a little venom in it, tastes like.” She winked at Xeno. “I can sell you a few bottles,” Xeno said. Murg grumbled at that. “I think I’m already in your debt enough,” Mara fingered her necklace. “We don’t have much, but we might have some information you traders may find useful. We tramped deep into that damn mushroom jungle searching for the fool, getting nothing but muddy boots and fungus growing out of our scabbards for our trouble. But we did find some interesting areas where the mushrooms seemed less poisonous. Here, let me get my map.” Xeno and Mara compared maps beside the fire. Even Murg seemed interested in the locations of secret mushroom groves. Mycoll was vast and not a little terrifying: its geography changed every year with new mushroom growth. Only the main North-South road to Innsmouth was maintained with constant use. Maps needed yearly updates, and Xeno scribed changes to his own maps under Mara’s advice. They stayed up late in the night, Mara telling the tales of her journey, and Xeno listened with an easy smile. The brother and sister sat by the fire, discussing plans in low voices. Murg and the Ken rested nearby, one munching an apple, and the other laying and grazing lazily on the sweet autumn grass.
Next -- Chapter 6: The Tip of the Obelisk