Teller of Fortunes

Teller of Fortunes 2-21: Join the Mad King’s Joust

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When Ane returns to the camp, there’s quite a commotion around one end. People have gathered in a large, oblong circle, faces turned expectantly toward the center. The din of chatter raises high on the air, and alosins chuff loudly.

There also appear to be… banners? At least, Ane’s reasonably certain that the hanging clothes were intended to look like banners.  An even more motley collection has been draped all over what was probably Vasht the knife thrower’s wagon. Then, up top, a seat of some sort has been placed there.

Vasht’s wagon looks like a very odd nucleus for the whole thing, really.
And it all has a certain air about it.
You might call it “whimsy.” 

Oh.

Oh no.

What did the fweep-fweep do now? She’d thought Vasht was safe — if there’s one word she’d never use to describe him, it’s “whimsical.” But now there’re banners? And a group? With tables? She drops the things she’d collected from the undercity, a chair leg and hound’s skull, in her haste to go see what level of fuckery the caravan and her mind-controlling pet abomination have gotten up to in her absence.

As it turns out, they got up to quite a lot.

Ane has to push past the throng of observers, which is growing thicker by the minute. As soon as she finds a spot with a low shoulder, she darts her gaze around…

The first thing she spies is a scraped-bare strip of land, save for a rope fence running down the middle. When her gaze pans left, she sees… an alosin. Though that’s hardly the strange part. On the alosin is Brair, wearing a sheet as a sash and a large, ashen pot upon the top of his head. It sits jauntily on his brow, oddly complimenting the stark, firm expression on his bronzed face. The fire-slinging callosian today wields something else instead: a tall, wooden pole with a pillow tied around one end. 

Then, Ane pans her gaze to the right…

There’s another alosin, and this one is carrying Vasht. He has a curtain slung about his chest, in a most barbaric fashion (if barbarians had a thing for Valistean lace). His many sharp, sweeping tattoos paint a rather ominous picture; this, complete with the kettle perched upon his head, make him the perfect “dark knight.” He’s wielding a pillow-spear, similar to Brair’s. He also wears an expression of grim determination, though there’s a glimmer of chagrin in his eyes. It’s the look of a man that’s gotten himself into something, knows he looks ridiculous, and just has to commit to the bit.

And lording over the center, in the midst of the “banners” lining Vasht’s roof is an old oaken chair, perched imperiously right in the middle. Upon it sits a certain round, fuzzy creature, with an air of comical gravitas. Its little beak-mouth is set firmly, as if it too is pretending to take this all very seriously. It’s not bouncing or fweep’ing at the moment, but it nearly vibrates with an excited sort of energy. Its barely contained glee is almost childlike, under its  veneer of pretend-play. 

It has a small, yellow prop-crown on top of its head.

It is King Fweep-Fweep the Whimsical. This is his joust.

Ane groans to herself immediately before she begins to try to shoulder her way through the crowd. Brair and Vasht can have their pillow-fight for the moment — she is going to retrieve that fweep-fweep before someone loses an eye (or an ear, a wing…).

As Ane makes her way towards the wagon, the festivities begin to unfurl in earnest.

Jiselmo, standing in the center of the lanes, steps out wearing the full costume of a royal herald. He even has a long, brass horn with a flag on the end to match. 

“Hear ye, hear ye,” he calls out, “We gather today for the match of a lifetime! Today, two knights shall do battle for their honor. In the blue corner…”

He flings an arm out in the direction of Brair.

“SER BRAIR! Honorable knight of flame, lord of the pints, baron of the exploding wagon!”

Cheers erupt while Brair trots his alosin in a small circle, pounding his chest and waving his spear.

“And in the red corner… SER VASHT! The wicked dark knight, lord of edges, slayer of boards and fruits alike!”

Vasht receives a mixture of cheers and boos, as villains are wont to, though they’re all mixed in with laughter. Vasht, for his part, foregoes the grandstanding and instead raises his spear and points it towards Brair — a challenge!

Jiselmo cuts in, “Once more, simple rules! A knight who is lanced must remove their sash. A sashless-knight who is struck is DEFEATED! And if a knight falls off his alosin, he is both DEFEATED and VERY SILLY…”

Ane gently pinches the bridge of her nose. She knew the little thing was persuasive, but this. Half of the participants here have to be indulging it for fun. There’s no way something the size of an appo and a half could turn the caravan into this.

“Hey!” She calls sternly up to the fweep-fweep, “Either you come down, or I’m coming up.” 

Somehow.

“Fwip fwip fwip fwiiip fwip… fwep fwep…” The thing squeaks and whistles, babbling on, as if imitating a person’s speech. It doesn’t seem to be paying any attention to Ane. In fact… is it acting like a king? The crowd is silent, as if it’s officiating the start of the battle.

“Fuip… fwep… FWEEP!”

Cheers erupt as the alosins huff, scuffing their feet on the dirt. Then in a burst of activity, they LEAP! Both knights charge at each other valiantly, Brair in his ash-pot helm, Vasht wearing his kettle. The thunderous sound of galloping alosins fills the air, as a large dust cloud kicks up behind their springing legs.

The fighters lean low, gaining swiftness, ersatz pillow-spears held tightly to their sides and braced in brawny arms. The alosins leap with their heads low, charging for speed. 

There’s a moment of silent suspense.

Then, in a flurry of motion, the men pass and the spears flash into action! Brair goes for a very straightforward charge, but Vasht… oh, he’s a dark knight. And being the deft fighter he is, he ducks aside at the last second and thrusts his spear! His muscled arms tighten with tension as he swings his ‘weapon,’ striking Brair straight in the stomach. He takes the full weight of the alosin’s charge, coupled with the deftness of Vasht’s strike.

“Bwaaaahfuck!” Brair cries out, sent sailing off the (in hindsight, not-all-that-fast) alosin. He falls back while it charges onward, and he collides into the spongy tunnel ground with a thump.

At the other end of the lanes, Vasht brings his alosin to a stop. He then plants the haft-end of his spear in the ground, stands tall, and puffs out his mighty tattooed chest. 

“SER VASHT IS VICTORIOUS! A DECISIVE BLOW,” Jiselmo calls out, frantic with excitement.

He then toots his brass horn to make it official, while Brair sneakily wanders off to find a pint for his bruised pride and his jostled rear. 

“Right. I’m coming up,” Ane says, as she begins attempting to find hand- and footholds among all of the clothing hanging from Vasht’s wagon. If he ever did manage to find the time to do his shirt laundry, he’s going to have to do it again — the kicked-up dust from the alosins has not done them any favors. 

When she arrives at the top, the little fweep-fweep is looking quite fat and sassy in his “throne.” It’s currently rocking back and forth, cheeks pooched, looking very satisfied with itself. It’s still wearing the little fake crown, though it’s slid over its little tufted head at an angle.

Down below, the aforementioned actor is now busking the camp followers, guards and passers-by that clumped around this event. He moves amongst the thunderous cheer and applause, shouting. 

“Thank you, thank you! We accept appreciation in the form of CURRENCY and LOTS OF BOOZE. Brair seems a bit sore, so we won’t be getting more any time soon!”

Jiselmo!” Ane shouts down to him in horror. It’s bad enough the fweep-fweep is responsible for this without him capitalizing on it for liquor and coin. “What the Voi– Alright, you know what?” Perched atop Vasht’s wagon beside the makeshift throne, she reaches out to pluck the crown from the tiny creature’s head. 

“Fwep fuip fep… Fip f– FEEP!” It cheeps, eyes wide with alarm as its divested of its authority. Almost immediately, the fweep-fweep seems aware that the jig is up. Rather than attempt to reason with Ane or feign sleep, it instead lets out a big, gaseous “FWIPPPT!” and jets off into the nearest piece of laundry — a pair of Vasht’s britches — to hide.

Ane holds the tiny crown, pinched between thumb and forefinger.

“No crown, no kingdom. Those’re the rules,” she admonishes the fweep-fweep. For now, she allows it to hide — from the sound of things, whatever ensorcelment it worked seems to be breaking, giving her an opportunity to survey the damages from up on high.

Jiselmo rides out of this place on a tide of money and beer, taking the crowd with him to boisterously retell this event around a fire and a barrel of something brown and potent. 

This leaves Vasht standing in the middle of the field, contemplating his life choices. Furrowing his brow, he plucks the kettle off of his head and throws it to the soil with a clatter. He turns to the alosin, giving him a one-eyed look of sympathy. Then he looks up towards the fweep-fweep. 

Vasht rubs the side of his head, thoughts clearing, and then he sees Ane. His face goes slightly pale. 

Ah, yes. This is what social mortality feels like. 

What,” Ane says, arms held wide in bewilderment, “Happened?” 

She knows what happened. The same thing that got her to dress the fweep-fweep in makeup and jewelry and a tiny stone slipshell hat happened. What she does not know is how the creature escaped its cage and managed to affect the entire caravan.

The dark knight, Ser Vasht, stands dumbfounded. He doesn’t respond immediately, instead tossing his pillow-spear aside and crossing his arms behind his back. It’s like some last-ditch attempt to retain the scraps of his dignity. 

He calls back up to Ane, “Your ‘king’… and also, Jiselmo!” His expression firms. “Yeah, Jiselmo’s definitely to blame for at least part of this…”

“Yes,” Ane says with a slow nod and the tone of voice one might use to ask a small child why their mittens are currently floating in the privy, “But how did the ‘king’ get from safely inside a cage to… to…” She makes a flailing gesture toward Vasht’s britches, which are currently trembling in a perplexing fashion.

Rather than answer immediately, Vasht wanders aside and gathers up the thing’s cage. Its door swings open tellingly. With it in hand, Vasht spreads his rows of wings, catches the air, and flaps his way up to meet Ane on the roof of his wagon.

Once he’s safely landed, he dusts off his shoulder.

“Well, I first meant to keep it in my wagon… but when I saw it, it did something.” He sighs, staring at the wriggling pair of pants. “It kept giving strange ideas, and some would’ve wrecked my things.” He coughs. “Important things. Keepsakes. So…”

He makes a vague, spinning gesture with his fingertip.

“I took it outside, it got ahold of Brair and convinced him to open the cage.” He explains all this in a rather careful, measured fashion, as if that can make the result a bit less silly.

Ane rubs a spot in the center of her forehead. With her free hand, she waves at the tiny, quivering pile of underpants and fweep.

“So it’s Brair’s fault, you’re saying,” she concludes. “At any rate, it doesn’t matter. Just… Put it back in the cage so I can get it somewhere where it can do less damage, I’m not going to go rooting through your underthings.” 

“Well, not his entirely. I should’ve kept him from opening it, though my back was turned. After that, he said he ought to take care of it, feed it some of his booze…” Vasht goes on, walking towards the pair of waggling trousers. He takes it by the legs, positions the waist at the mouth of the box, and begins to gently shake the garment. Soon the fweep-fweep pops out, tumbling into the cage, whereupon Vasht shuts the small door.

He takes in a breath, and continues, “So, we got into an argument… Jiselmo strolled by, and suggested we decide it with a contest. Then, a while later, I look up and this is happening,” he says, gesturing towards the scene laid out beneath the two of you. 

Ane shakes her head as she takes the cage, muttering to herself.

“Can’t go anywhere, Animus alive… At any rate, thanks for keeping an eye on it. Sorry about your laundry. And,” she nods toward his ‘knightly’ getup, “All that.”

“Mm, might want to keep it hidden when you’re away,” he agrees, gruffly running a hand across his cheek. “Seems only to do that when people see it.”

Vasht then shrugs a shoulder, and smirks with chagrin. “Well, I’d say you’re welcome, but I’m more sorry that I let it start a monarchy. And knight me, I guess.”

A faint grin tugs at the edge of her lips, in turn. “A tiny tyranny, complete with bloodsports. Out of curiosity, though — why did your laundry end up all over the outside of your wagon?”

Seeing Ane’s smile seems to lessen his embarrassment, somewhat, and he finds himself doing the same. He lets out a theatrical sigh, and plucks one of his scarves off of his wagon’s roof. “If I had to guess? The critter needed heraldry, and somehow Jiselmo knew that. So while we got ready, he went around throwing my clothes everywhere.” He furrows his brow at the scarf, and adds, “Also, they were nearby… I’d just finished washing them.”

She pulls her lips inward, pressing them tightly together in her teeth to keep from laughing outright. Instead, she manages a stiff nod and a subtle quiver of her shoulders before she turns away from Vasht (and his “heraldry”) and begins the process of climbing down the dangling shirts, belts, and trousers.

As she does so, he leans forward and aims a few pokes at her side. “I see your giggle fit,” he saccuses. “Making a getaway with your tiny trouser bandit,” he adds, watching Ane flinch to avoid being poked as she clambers down his wagon. He hops down himself shortly after.

“Hey! Careful — some of us don’t have wings. Or a head harder than that kettle to break a fall with,” she chastises him as she disembarks from a muslin shirt. 

He crosses his bare arms, regarding her dryly from the bottom. “Well, I can help with that. There’s a spare kettle over there, for your safety.”

“Wouldn’t fit without crumpling my ears. Anyway, thanks again, Ser Knight.” 

“At your service. Or something,” he agrees, offering a sardonic half-bow.

With the fweep-fweep safely in its cage, she makes her way back to where she deposited the hound’s skull and chair leg she found earlier. The chair leg is useless to her now — let it sit here and raise questions in whatever hapless wanderer finds it next — but she has a lot of soaking and cleaning to do before the skull is in a keepable condition.

Which means, unfortunately for him, she needs to bother Brair (and his wounded pride).

 

Teller of Fortunes

Teller of Fortunes 2-10: Bugbeard’s Brawl

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When dinner time finally rolls around, it only takes a quick glimpse outside to see a fair commotion brewing.

Off to one edge of the camp, a wide V of armed individuals approaches. Their heavy boots sink soundlessly against the spongy undersoil, while their half-polished chainmail and plate-bits shine in the torchlight. None of them bear the markings of the city guard, and it’s no wonder, because they’re not all shasii; they’re a rather motley crew, with everything from a big, patchy-bearded callosian to a lithe huikkaran with shaggy hair. 

There’s one piece that makes it all make sense: Vasht, in the center, leading this band of armored misfits towards camp. He walks proudly and with a broad smile on his face, as if feeling his first taste of relief — and triumph — in quite some time. He’s even a bit better kept today, with his hair combed and his clothes not all a-ruffle. It’s the start of what seems to be a recovery from his many sleepless hours along the road, though even that can’t account for the confidence in his posture, or the sureness in his strides.

Ane shakes her head at the distant display. He really missed his calling — he should’ve been a town guard or a sellsword, instead of a knife juggler. Now he’ll be swaggering until Jarrik manages to lose this batch of mercenaries.

 

Vasht and the group don’t head all the way into the camp, instead heading for a large rectangle marked along the ground. There’s a line down it, bisecting it so there are two sizable sections on either side. On one side stands Narue, who waits there with a quarterstaff in one hand, a round, wooden shield on the other arm, and a length of chewed tunnel reed parked between her lips.

As this scene begins to unfold, the members of the caravan gather and clump around the rectangle with their meals. Some pull up barrels, crates, or actual chairs, pressing them into service so they can watch whatever’s about to happen. 

Ane sits cross-legged on the ground, with a wooden bowl propped on her knee. Inside, a few chunks of chopon meat float in a lake of floury gravy dotted with the occasional root vegetable. It’s a bit heavy, but the biscuits are good. 

Though she doesn’t move closer to the action, it doesn’t mean she isn’t paying attention. She dips her head in between bites of biscuit, peeking at the show through the spaces between chair legs and sets of knees. 

Of course, what ensues is a long line of would-be mercenaries showing up to take a beating. Vasht must have offered a pretty substantial sign-on bonus, because there is quite a drove of them. Scanning across the lot, a fair number are just average civilians: Laborers, brawlers, bar bouncers, maybe a town guard or two down on their luck. 

Most of them end up soundly trounced (and sometimes flounced) by Narue. For all her casual, country affect, she’s able to deliver a mean beating with that stick-and-board. Some get tripped, some get jabbed in the gut, others are shoved out of the ring from a whack in the butt. Generally, she seems a cut above them, but who wouldn’t be after the shadowlands? Her victories aren’t necessarily an obstacle to someone signing on, though — several last long enough to trade blows with her, and they make a good enough effort to get a nod of approval. 

Then, of course there are the odd ones… 

A huikarran with shaggy, curly hair steps into the ring. Her bangs even come down far enough to obscure her eyes, which is really saying something for her kind. There’s a slight twitch to her movements, though granted, a huikkaran crawling on the ground never looks quite natural. And here in the ring, she’s at a clear disadvantage, whereas she might have a good leg up on foes when clinging to the side of the wagons. 

She’s scrawny, but adult-sized, though the look of her crawling about with such wiry limbs is enough to make Narue chuckle.

“Ya ain’t gonna be wearin’ that smirk fer long, feathers,” the woman threatens, as her shoulder suddenly jerks.

“We’ll see. Get up here, maybe it’ll be a smile by then,” Narue quips, to some laughter from onlookers.

Near Ane’s seat, Aedas seems to have moved a log and taken a seat. 

“Ey Ane, wanna place bets?” He leans over and whispers, “Might make this a bit more interestin’…” 

She shouldn’t. She knows she shouldn’t. And yet-

“Three scutes on Narue,” Ane says, around a cheek full of chopon.

“Deal!” Aedas grins widely.

The call is sounded, and the match commences!

Narue goes in for the strike first, noticing the odd stance of the huikkaran and hoping to catch their bad form. She sweeps the legs… And the woman hops up with all four limbs, like a spider! While she’s midair, Narue brings down an overhand strike… And the huikkaran rolls, clutching her stick and dropping the shield. She seems to have no intention of using it, but her overconfidence soon wins her a swift, wooden THOCK to the chest.

This strike sends the huikkaran reeling, still going, but almost blooded. It’ll probably leave a good bruise. Narue may not have hit many times, but when you’ve got her sort of farmgirl arms, you often only need to hit once. The fact that the huikkaran is still in the fight is to her credit.

Then, the shaggy-headed huikkaran really starts to twitch. She suddenly becomes a flurry of activity, scrambling and rolling about, each time thwapping Narue with the thick training-stick. Each one is about her arms and shins, not enough to bring her down, but it soon wears on Narue, who just can’t keep up. With a sigh, she winces and raises her shield, giving the smaller woman a good shove just to stop the assault.

“Alright, alright, I yield; you’ve proven yerself plenty.” Rather than give a thumbs-up straight away, she nods towards Vasht. “Go talk to him.”

The others are a bit in awe, both that the huikkaran “won,” but also that it didn’t mean an immediate sign-on. 

“Might be that temper’a hers,” Aedas figures. “Anyway, I kinda figured she was walkin’ good for wunna us on flat ground.”

Damn.

“Looks like I owe you for that one, then,” Ane says glumly. 

“I think so,” he beams. It’s Aedas, though; by the jovial shine of his eyes, one can tell he cares more about winning than any of the payout. He’d even probably forget the wager if left to his own devices.

Narue, a bit battered, still seems up for testing more hires. She takes a moment to drink a flagon of water and tap at her shins, but after that, she’s ready to go back at it. 

At least, she is until a looming tower of a callosian steps into the arena. He’s as wide as he is tall, too, with layers of thick muscles packed under a generous cushioning. Every visible inch of him is practically covered with hair, wherever the callosian hide permits it to exit. He’s also got a big, mean set of horns that curl right up beside his head, before tapering back behind him. They may not be great for ramming, but there’s certainly a statement being made.

“He’s like a smeerp,” Ane points out to Aedas, “All armored plates set into fuzz.”

But all of this is secondary to his big, dark, fluffy callosian beard, all patchy where it has to slip past his thick skin. It looks like he had to scratch calloused surfaces away just to let it out. It’s a rare sight; most callosians aren’t predisposed towards beardedness, but there are occasionally exceptions — particularly where their lineage blends with shasii.

As he looms over Narue, she looks up and sighs. 

“Arright, that’s hilarious. Alright. What’s the number on this wagon I’m about to be run over by?”

“Bugbeard,” he answers gruffly, with a voice thick as a fur coat. “Pleasure,” he says, then widens a wild grin.

“Ah…Like the creature, but you have a beard… Haha,” Narue says dryly, with a look of resignation about her.

On the sidelines, Aedas leans over and mutters to Ane.

“Should we even place bets on this one…?”

Ane shakes her head firmly, lips pressing into a line. Void, she wouldn’t blame Narue for stepping down from this one, though she doubts Vasht would be that much more willing to take her place.

“Yeah, I didn’t really think so… This won’t be their kinda fight,” Aedas appraises.

And when the signal is given, Narue raises her weapon and shield, and Bugbeard just…

WHOOSH.

He sprints forward at full speed, making only a token effort to keep his shield raised. Without even slowing down, he just slams with the full weight of his body into Narue. She doesn’t seem to be hurt by the collision, but it does send her stumbling. The tzuskar gets in one or two swipes, with one even connecting, but for all its impact Bugbeard doesn’t seem to give a damn. 

Instead, he just digs in his teeth, leaps forward, and…

There’s just no other way to describe it. He catches Narue in a stumble and bellyflops her into a winged pancake. Underneath, she manages to push him back for a moment… But her stick and shield are useless, and she’s very out of sorts. After that, she’s just a mess of arms and wings underneath a towering frame. Soon, Bugbeard has an arm wrapped around her head — rather than choking, he’s just flexing until she can’t breathe anymore.

“HNNN- Yield! Gah,” Narue chokes out, and Bugbeard lets go and rolls away into a crouch. Narue lays on the ground and gives a thumbs up, before shuffling off to get some water. 

There’s mild cheers and applause, as Bugbeard stands up and puffs his chest.

On the sidelines, Aedas is positively shaking with excitement. 

“Like I said Ane, this is ain’t their kinda fight… It’s mine! I gotta get in there!” He says, standing up and beginning to clamber past others.

“Aed- Aedas, no!” Ane shouts. She leans forward in an attempt to grab his wrist, ankle, something to keep him from happily bounding into the middle of the ring like an oversized gelt puppy, but all it earns her is half a bowl of chopon gravy accidentally upended in her lap.

An excited Aedas is pretty hard to deter.

While Bugbeard is grandstanding, Aedas clambers into the ring, all overmuscled and swollen with might. He raises his head of ratty blond hair in defiance, and gestures Bugbeard over with a long, bulge-ridden arm. 

“‘EY! You wanna wrestle, well, take your test with the wrestler!”

Bugbeard lets out a big, guffawing laugh, and smacks his chest with his palm. 

“That right? I just trounced yer vet’ran. Who’m I havin’ to fight now?”

“The stronnest man in these wagons, lad,” Aedas boasts, smacking one of his muscled arms under a striped sleeve.

“Well, let’s jus’ see who’s the lad, then!” Bugbeard blusters, before his heavy, booted strides charge forward.

The crowd roars, some even leap to their feet. Somewhere nearby, Brair is sloshing tankards and Jiselmo is cheering, from his perch atop Korin’s winged back. Korin seems none to pleased, but nonetheless resigned — he’s dealt with being his partner’s ersatz chair often enough before . Nelea is watching intently with hands clasped, occasionally shouting, while the triplets usher Narue away to tend to her. Ane, meanwhile, picks bits of boiled peas and chopon meat off of her trousers. Overall, quite the crowd.

By the ringside, Vasht at first opens his mouth to call a stop to this, but reconsiders. There’s an amused glint in his uncovered eye, as he crosses his arms and leans back against a nearby post, grinning. As duty-bound as he can be sometimes, apparently he can be a fool for this sort of thing too. 

In the middle, the two men are now clashed shoulder-to-shoulder, each making grabs at each other’s thighs. Presumably, the objective is to trip one another to initiate a grapple while on top. In practice, though, it looks like two bulls locking horns, or two very big men struggling to figure out how hugs work. 

Needless to say, tryouts will probably be put on hold for awhile. 

Once Ane has evicted most of her meal from her lap, she watches the fight with bated breath. It doesn’t seem to be going anywhere — the two competitors are evenly matched. There’s a brief,  incredulous look at Vasht, standing there with his arms crossed and a cheeky grin, then back to the wrestlers. At this rate, they’ll be here all day watching them swat at each other’s pantlegs.

In time, the two of them push each other back and their forward momentum pauses. They begin walking in circles around the arena, facing one another while they grandstand.

“Y’got arms,” Bugbeard rumbles. “But let’s see if you can put a man ‘ta the floor with ‘em!”

“I’ve tossed heavier things than ya,” Aedas rebuts, swinging his arms in preparation.

“Oh, from all the way downthar? Wun’t wanna squish yer head when ya try!” The callosian boasts, fluffing his patchy beard. There are no apparent bugs, but it does kinda look like it’s jutting out from under a shell.

Aedas, who has no riposte for this, immediately rushes Bugbeard.

This time their clash is much more kinetic, and Aedas makes a skilled grab at one of the man’s legs. His thighs are like lumber, but Aedas has flipped lumber before. In a second, the massive callosian is flat on his back. Aedas quickly leaps atop him, and their grapple becomes a complex tangle of thick limbs, bulging backs, and very loud grunts.

This, Ane muses, is more suggestive than I anticipated.

She rises from her seat, making a half-hearted attempt to brush the dirt from the backs of her legs. Really, after the incident with her bowl, these pants are going to need a thorough scrubbing anyhow. She gives up halfway through, and gathers up her dish and spoon to bring them to whatever eager caravan follower is washing dishes today. 

Today, it’s the monk. Yesterday, it was the monk. A week before that, right out of Paakoponde, it was the monk. Apparently he is a dedicated dishwasher now.

He nods his short-horned head. 

“Thank you. How were the guard tryouts? I could hear it all the way from over here,” he says warmly, nodding down towards his mobile washbasin. 

“Oddly sensual,” Ane replies, as she sets her bowl in the wash basin, “Are you sure this is what the cards had in mind when they said you should find something to challenge yourself?”

He shrugs his robed shoulders. 

“I hate washing dishes,” he explains. “It’s a very ascetic task for me to do. It also occupies me, so I don’t consume the alcohol that’s, uh, sloshing over there,” he says, motioning towards the commotion with his scrub brush. 

“I wouldn’t recommend it. Brair’s tastes are of the ‘extremely acquired’ variety.”

“Hrm. Makes me wonder where he found those tastes,” the monk figures, while idly scrubbing one side of a bowl. “Wherever it was, it was probably on fire at the time.”

In the distance, the silhouette of Brair can be seen amongst the crowd. He is very clearly running a betting racket now, collecting coinage in his recently-emptied tankard with a fresh full one in his free hand. At one point he confuses the two, and almost downs a whole mess of mitres and scutes. Fortunately, the coldness against his lip tips him off just in time. 

Ane shakes her head.

“That’s Brair for you. He’s alright, though. Won’t be anything wrong with him that a day’s rest, a few gallons of water, and some headache powder won’t fix. At any rate,” she says, as she hums down at the murky, soapy water, “Good luck with your,” A chunk of half-chewed yam floats to the top of the basin, “Lifestyle.”

“Asceticism,” he reminds her plainly. “Bye!”

Teller of Fortunes

Teller of Fortunes 2-7: The Miraculous Concoction

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Ten minutes later, Vasht the knife thrower is well at work gathering the ingredients for the big plan. Gathering materials and accomplices for a scheme is always quite an undertaking. Even now, Vasht knocks urgently on Brair the fire-eater’s door. When the door opens, Vasht speaks in a hurried clip. 

“Brair, I need some liquor, some hot peppers, and all your empty bottles.”

“Uh, sure,” the scaled callosian mutters, moving slowly to grab something from behind him. He moves at an almost glacial pace, causing Vasht to bite his lower lip with impatience.

Vasht rushes in, followed by a clattering noise, then rushes back out with a heap of liquor, bottles, and izash peppers piled into his empty laundry hamper.

“Thank you, Brair, I’ll tell you later, goodbye,” he bids him, and wanders off to the next task.

“Alright… Sounds fun though, gotta be a scheme,” Brair grumbles, and wanders back into his wagon before shutting the door to nurse his hangover. “I wanna do a scheme…”

Next is the clown. Vasht cringes at the notion of having to talk to him. As social as the knife-thrower can be, he really doesn’t like the vibe of that man. He simply can’t fathom asking him for anything…

So instead of doing that, he wanders up to the clown’s window and picks the latch. 

 

After that, it only takes a bit of pawing around towards the huikkaran’s “vanity” to find the paint. At one point, his palm hits a rubber nose, causing a loud, “Squee-wook!” A shiver runs all the way through Vasht, and he dashes off with the paint (and an empty bottle from the clown’s dresser full of something he’d rather not question).

As for Dynkala’s pestle and mortar, well… he knocks on her window shutter, and in seconds, the smiling, wizened face is there to greet him. 

“Dynkala, I need your … Bowl, and, uh, grindy thing, to, erm, herbs,” he explains, mostly with hand gestures. “Urgently.”

“Why, sure dear,” she agrees. Shortly, a scarved limb hands it over from out of view, followed by a strange monotone:

“Enjoy the shenanigans. It is good to enjoy one’s youth,” Vaidna drones. “Also, here are the bottles you forgot,” the scarf-covered interrupter adds, and pours several into his basket.

And then, off he goes.

Now for recruiting. For these, he hits each wagon rapidly in order. First, the actors:

Knock, knock, knock… Creeeeaaaak.

“Korin, I need you — and your pet blabrel — to go to Ane’s wagon in an hour. Bring empty bottles.”

“Whaa-” Korin stammers.

“Ooh, a grift!” Jiselmo chimes.

Slam.

Then again… This time, the conjoined dancing triplets.

Knock, knock, knock… Creeeeaaaak.

“Wila, Vila, Zila, I need all of you to go to Ane’s wagon in an hour. Bring empty bottles.”

“What?” “Why?” “SURE!”

Slam.

Knock, knock, knock…

“Wait. You don’t have a room,” he mutters, realizing that he’s just knocking on a storage wagon’s door.

“It’s open!” Narue the wagon-less mercenary calls from above, and peers over the edge of the wagon’s roof. 

Vasht blinks at her.

“I need you to-”

She flaps a hand lazily. 

“Yeah, yeah, get all bottles and go to Bones’ wagon, I gotcha,” she tells him. “Really, as if I couldn’t hear you from up here!”

“Errh. Damn.” He looks around. “Slam.”

Then he runs off.

 

A half an hour later, there’s more insistent knocking — this time on Ane’s door.

When she glances out, there is a ridiculous crowd of people, including Vasht with a basket full of stuff. The triplets float nearby, and the actors sit on the edges of her wagon’s small porch. Narue is standing off to the side, and the monk managed to invite himself — even without a formal invite, he seems to have tagged along regardless.

“Assembled,” Vasht says grumpily, and blows a pinion off of his cheek. The bottles in his basket clatter together with the motion. 

Ane pokes her head through her still-broken door. She’s wrestled it aside for the occasion, all the better to allow for easy ingress and egress for the ragtag troupe. Her arms are full of a veritable riot of water-stained silks, balding velvet, and faded cotton — enough that she has to crane her neck to see everyone.

“Alright… You,” she says, pointing at the callosian Eternalist with her elbow, “You lot are good at writing, right? Neat letters and whatnot?”

Generally, the whole group looks pretty bewildered.

The monk looks pensive for a moment. 

“Well, we are all taught to write from a young age. I’m not the best at calligraphy in my class, but I am passable,” he replies.

“Great!” Ane replies eagerly, as she drops the pile of clothing on the threshold of her wagon with a flump

She disappears back into its interior, before emerging a moment later with a folded-up bit of cattail paper. Leaning over to hand it to the man, she points to the brocade tablecloth staked out on the spongy ground. “Take this, and the paint, and do it to that. Don’t worry about what it says, just work on making it look professional. Wila, Vila, and Zila, take the peppers and mortar and pestle, and get as many of them mashed as you can. Jiselmo, Korin, Vasht, and Narue, come inside for a minute. ”

The monk puzzles over the tablecloth. 

“You mean copy? Like a sign?” He asks, while the others bustle into the huddle.

“Just like it is on the paper!” Ane calls out, as she heads back into her wagon.

The triplets all shrug in unison, and take the materials. Wila begins the task dutifully, while Zila curses and mutters. 

“You’re making it splash, sis! There are nine eyes to watch out for here.”

As for the other four, they all give each other a look, before stepping forward into Ane’s wagon. The three tzuskar all have to hunch low and fold their wings tight, lest they knock something over or flap each other about. Jiselmo, being a shasii, just ducks down under the rest of them and crouches on the floor so he doesn’t take feathers to the face.

Once inside, they are greeted by the sight of…

A lot of laundry. There are several piles, none of which seem to make sense. Nonetheless, Ane begins doling them out, carefully choosing who to allocate which pile to.

“First, Korin,” she says, handing the dour tzuskar a velveteen greatcoat, linen trousers, silk cravat,  muslin shirt, and long brocade scarf. 

He furrows his brow at the clothes, with a mutter.

“This looks like something Jiselmo’d wear…”

“And Jiselmo,” she continues, handing him what looks like the dregs of a city’s rubbish pile. There might be pants and shirt in there somewhere, but it’s hard to tell under all of the stains and patches.

“This looks like something Korin’d wear…” He snickers.

“And Narue,” she moves on down the line, handing the mercenary a tiered skirt, ruffled bandeau, and wide, painted leather belt with ribbons for laces.

“Oh my. It’s fancier than all the dances I’ve ever crashed,” she comments, plucking at the ribbons.

“And Vasht,” she hands him what may have once been either a heavy skirt or the bottom of a long coat of patterned velvet, cut to knee length, and a pair of silk scarves. 

“I get to wear clothes with this, right?” Vasht asks, though no one answers.

“So… Find somewhere to put those on, I’ve got stuff to do and there’s no Void-damned room in here.”

While they dress, she rummages through her stash of herbs. There’s the puffroot, of course, maybe some mint and fennel seed. Nothing too exotic or expensive, and just enough of each to make their fragrant presence known. The triplets are mashing the peppers, the monk is lettering, everyone else is trying to figure out what in the name of Animus she’s dressing them as, and Ane…

Ane is beginning to fill bottles. All the bottles, mismatched as they are. There are bottles of ale, jugs, little bottles that once held resin gum, amber tincture bottles, swirled glass lachrymatories… No bottle goes ignored.

First, a generous dollop of spicy izash pepper paste. Then, an equally generous helping of shredded puffroot. She tops each one off with a heavy pinch of powdered mint, and another of fennel seed. Lastly, she pours a generous measure of Brair’s surrendered liquor into each. 

A short time later, they all return wearing the required outfits. Jiselmo and Korin are now doing impressions of one another’s affects, and they are really far too good at it — with Korin flipping his hair, and Jiselmo sniffing and furrowing his brow. Narue does a spin in her new outfit, feeling rather elegant this evening. As for Vasht, he shoved on the required outfit and decided to follow instructions. As a result, more of him is on display than he seems strictly happy about — from a tattooed expanse of chest, to his toned lower legs. Still, he seems willing to shrug it off. It’s no different than a half-light show.

Ane holds an armful of different bottles of the clown’s paint, filched from the monk in the midst of his writing. She can’t see the colors in each, but it doesn’t really make a difference for her purposes.

“Now, Narue,” she says, as she dips a finger into the greasy mixture. “Take these two bottles, and paint yourself wherever you can reach. Like this.” she draws a white line around the other woman’s upper arm, fringing it with small triangles and lining it with fingertip-width dots of color. 

“Ooh, I get the fun job,” she says with measured joy, and gets to painting her self with triangles, squares, rhombuses and the like. 

“And Va-,” Ane dips another fingertip in a different bottle — red, though she can’t tell — and turns to the knife-thrower. She pauses, frowning at him quizzically for a moment as she hums him over. “Animus alive, when’d you get so big?” 

Ane doesn’t often leave her tent during Half-Light Shows. In her mind, Vasht had never stopped being a skinny, mop-haired teenager — just taller, grumpier, and with more scars. In lieu of a demonstration, she just thrusts a pair of bottles at him before turning away to continue assembling the rest of the plot. 

Vasht shrugs his shoulders. 

“I have to throw heavy things,” he explains.

“If you’re done painting… I need you to take these candles, and seal the bottles,” she says, offering him some of her cave bee wax candles. Wasting them on sealing bottles will deplete her store, but having candles to burn isn’t nearly as important as having guards to make sure they don’t all get murdered in their beds.

The callosian monk, having finished his prior task, now stares down with abject confusion at the candles and bottles. Rather than ask questions, he figures he ought not interrupt, and begins to seal each bottle, making trips into the wagon to melt the wax on Ane’s stove.

“Vila, Wila, and Zila, once Narue’s done painting herself, I need you to do her hair and makeup. Everyone else’s, too — the more disguised, the better. You can use mine, I’ve got enough of it lying around. I’ve got a few more things to do.”

“Not a problem,” Wila says with authority. She’s been doing the makeup for the other two for years, and she presses her sisters into service helping her do-up everyone else. 

Soon enough, they all finish with their respective tasks. By the time the triplets are finished, practically no one looks like themselves — even down to the occasional added birthmark, longer nose, or carefully-applied bit of prosthetic putty. 

As soon as the last forehead is daubed with pancake makeup, Ane emerges from the costume cabinets at the rear of the wagon. Like the others, she’s dressed up in a barely recognizable fashion. A wide indigo scarf of nubbly raw silk trimmed in silver embroidery serves as a skirt — a paste gem brooch secures it at her hip, leaving a generously long opening for one pale, painted leg to emerge. Like Narue, she has a ruffled bandeau tied around the swell of her bosom, and bold, geometric designs adorning her arms. A brass chain encircles her stomach, with a large, teardrop-shaped glass pearl dangling just below the shallow dip of her navel. Her hair is still braided with its twists and flourishes, now fixed in place with silver pins capped by more glass pearls. The effect is, at the very least, unusual — any onlooker would have trouble pinning down whatever corner of Uruvalei she hails from. 

“Alright,” Ane says, adjusting one pearl-decked pin. “So, you’re all probably wondering what this is all about. Monk,” she nods to the man, “Hold up the sign.”

When he does, his handiwork is unfurled for all of the others to see:

DOCTOR LARTIMUS ~and~ HIS MIRACULOUS CONCOCTION

(the heat lets you know it’s working!)

 

They all gasp in awe.

“You, Korin,” she gestures to the actor with a painted hand, “Are the good doctor. Jiselmo,” she says, turning to his compatriot,“Is the one he’s going to heal. The three of us are your assistants from a foreign land, there to make sure you don’t get fucking robbed or decide to spend all the money on props.”

Korin puffs out his chest and adjusts his collar. “My mum always did want me to be a doctor…”

“And my mom always told me I’d be a beggar or an invalid. Now I can be both!” He grins. “That’ll show ‘er, eh?”

“You’re a regular overachiever, Jiselmo,” Ane says flatly. 

Narue, now fully makeupped and painted, speaks up.

“So, do we just… Go to a town square and start hollering?”

“Pretty much,” Ane shrugs, “Preferably one far away from a legitimate apothecary.”

“Good idea,” Vasht agrees. “We might have to make a break for it, if some sort of Union or Guild comes after us.”

Narue nudges one of the bottles. “How are we going to carry all of these? Vasht’s laundry basket?”

“I’d hope not. My clothes would smell of izash pepper for months,” he replies.

“Pinch a handcart? Load up an alosin?” Ane suggests, “There’re some crates full of old costumes in my wagon that we could use, but we’d still be carrying them all by hand.”

Narue smirks, flapping the attendant wing. 

“Not a problem. The guards get a couple of alosins; we can just use one of those. I’ll grab it on the way.” 

“Well, everyone in the camp probably knows about this anyway,” Korin sighs. “We haven’t been subtle or anything.”

Ignoring Korin, Vasht adds, “And the alosin means we have a quick get-away. Jiselmo and Ane can use it in a pinch, while the three of us fly away.”

Ane flaps a hand. 

“We’ll be fine. Just get the alosin and some saddlebags, and let’s get this over with — this paint is heavy and sticky, I’ve no idea how the clown stands it.”

“Insanity,” Korin says flatly. 

And on that note, the triplets and the monk all head off and pretend none of this happened. There’s the sound of banter as they exit, though it’s hard to tell which sister the callosian is talking to.

For everybody else, the grift is underway.

(Thank you for reading! Please like, share, and comment below if you enjoy! Best, P&R.)

Teller of Fortunes

Teller of Fortunes 2-2: Foreboding Peace

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Almost immediately after the wagons stop, people begin to pile out and prepare for mealtime. People tend to get anxious when cooped up for so long, and it sends them rushing out to socialize and meal in one another’s company once again. 

 Ane changes out of her robe for the first time in a few days, after what felt like an interminable stretch of waking up, washing up in her wagon, combing her hair, and putting her robe on again. She’s happy to get out onto solid ground — enough that she whistles while she walks to take her place in line for dinner. 

As Ane walks out amongst the troupe, many others are similarly carefree. The mercenaries are strung tighter than a bowstring, but everyone else’s pleased as pie. By the look of things, one group has immediately gathered near Brair’s tent and started to crack open his stash with him. It won’t be long before they’re all busting out into song, celebrating this reprieve from abject boredom and (assumed) sobriety. 

Not everyone is sharing in this mood, however. Some of the troupe, like Vasht the knife-thrower and Nelea the animal tamer, seem to be sharing in the same wary temperament as the guards. It’s a simple sort of wisdom: when the people protecting are nervous, it might be a good idea to keep one’s eyes open. This isn’t particularly typical for them, either; during good times, they’ve been known to get as sloshed as everyone else.

Today, the actors Jiselmo and Korin are cooking. Generally, they never agree to let the other do it alone. The reason why is immediately apparent when Ane arrives at the two of them. 

“Oh come now Korin, you know I can be trusted,” Jiselmo says in a wounded tone. “I’d never prank anyone after so long in the wagons.”

“I’m not so sure…” The many-winged Korin says with a sigh. “Hello Ane,” he greets the Teller of Fortunes, and passes her a plate.

“Hello!” She says brightly, eagerly holding out her plate for something that isn’t jerky and berries. If nothing else, her stomach (and, by extension, her wagon’s chamber pot) will be grateful for an actual meal.

 

Jiselmo, with a fae glint in his eyes, passes her a hunk of honeyed vulre, spiced to perfection. It’s steaming and radiating a savory, fire-cooked scent that really sets the senses alight. When Jiselmo is behaving, he really is an excellent cook. “Ane, tell him that I am virtuous and pure, and would never do such a thing,” he says with an impish smile. 

She gives Korin a deadpan hum.

“Jiselmo says to tell you he wouldn’t prank anyone,” she replies, before turning to abscond with her dinner. 

She isn’t sure where to sit today — Brair’s group seems a bit much right now, and she doesn’t want to be pressed into sampling his concoctions at the moment. Vasht and Nelea, while quieter, have a jumpy aura that’s bound to rub off on her. 

Ane finds a log to sit on. She can catch strains of conversation as they’re carried on the breeze, enjoy her meal in relative peace, and take in the open sky without anyone’s drunken singing or anxious whispering. 

As Ane sits and observes, the two groups both seem to be progressing in their own respective moods. There’s laughter and song coming from Brair’s group, which swells as the time passes. In contrast, Vasht and Nelea are now collecting a small huddle of sorts. Their anxious demeanor seems to have faded, firming instead into a sort of resolve. A couple of others are seen joining them, including Aedas and, occasionally, the tipsy Brair who would amble over to try to spread his cheer. The mercenary Narue also joins them for a time, before wandering off herself.

Soon, the armored tzuskar approaches, currently with a lazy gait and a plate of honeyed vulre. She’s wearing her hair down today, apparently feeling a fair sight more relaxed than she did in the shadowlands. She wanders up to the log that Ane is using as a seat, smiling in her usual, easygoing way.

“Hello, got room on this log?” She asks.

“Sure,” Ane replies, scooting over a few inches. There’s plenty of room, but it’s as good a welcoming gesture as any when her hands are sticky with honey sauce. 

Narue the caravan guard sits down with a light thump, not bothering to cushion the weight of her armor. Fortunately it’s a sturdy log, and Narue is otherwise lean besides.

“It’s like lookin’ at two different camps today,” she appraises, forking into the meat. “I could cover one eye and switch troupes.”

“Mm… I wish I could say that that’s just Brair and Vasht for you, but I’d be half-lying. Brair needs a tankard of Rhytalan coffee, and Vasht needs about seven naps,” Ane says, as she pulls a piece of meat from the bone, “They’re dealing with the shortage of guards in their own particular ways, I guess.”

“Seems like it,” the tzuskar appraises, glancing between the two of them. Brair’s group has even kicked up into a silly dance contest of sorts, with the triplets and Jiselmo (leaving the cooking to Korin) trading off first. Jiselmo can’t help but add in a little slapstick, bellyflopping to the ground before hunching his shoulders and arching his back, edging along to the beat like an inching worm.

She chews for a second, then shrugs. “Yeah… That other group seems to be strategizin’. Not really my thing. I just fly around and bop things. Gracefully, mind, but not strategically,” she says with a bob of her fork. 

“Not sure how they’re going to strategize against an enemy they don’t know exists yet, can’t see, and don’t have enough bucketheads to beat back even if they did,” Ane replies, “No offense.”

“Well, about that first part…” She swivels in her seat slightly, and uses her fork to point off further down the road. Somewhere off the main path, there’s a rather large column of smoke. 

Narue shrugs. “It could be nothing. But if I had to give ya my gut’s feeling — y’know, aside from feeling full of this meat — I’d say they’d benefit from coming up with something.”

“Could be a cabin or a hunting lodge. Either way, we don’t know if it’s none, three, or thirty attackers– what’re we even able to do that we aren’t doing already? Force a faster march?” 

“Something weird, probably,” she says simply. “That’s what this sort of troupe is supposed to do, right?” She asks with a grin.

“Sure,” Ane says, growing quietly pensive for a moment, “We’re just performers, though. Aedas is strong, Nelea has gelthounds, Brair has fire, I can swing a club, and Vasht is… Vasht, but weird doesn’t mean powerful, really.”

Narue shrugs a shoulder. “I can vouch for you swingin’ a club, but I’ve heard about you pulling off something clever once in a while… and whatever got you that puffroot pile,” she says, with a playful smile. “Anyway… I think that lot’s kinda stuck,” she says, nodding towards Vasht, Nelea and Company.

“They tried to rope me into their talk, but I’m not good at all that… so I said I was gonna come bug you instead. They seemed int’rested in what you’d have to say.” She shrugs. “I recommend poppin’ by, they could probably use a fresh thought… and some puffroot,” she smirks. 

“Well, if they need some, they know where to find it,” Ane grouses through the wry smile tugging at honey-stickied lips, “Maybe we’ll luck out and find bandits that like smoking. I can get my wagon back, and get them to leave us alone…” She pinches the end of a picked-clean bone in her fingertips, before tossing it aside for one of the strays following the caravan. “Of course, if it’s advice they want… Be vigilant, but for shit’s sake don’t overthink it. We got through the shadowlands alright, we’ll just have to batten down, be prepared, and not lose sleep. I know Vasht takes security seriously, but he’s going to send himself to an early grave if he doesn’t learn to let go.”

“Heh, sounds like good advice,” she appraises, examining one of the bones she’s nibbled-clean. “Might wanna figure a neat place to hide your coin, though. If it’s bandits, and those geniuses don’t get a keen idea,” she makes a looping gesture towards the lead wagon. “We’ll probably just have to let ourselves be robbed. It ain’t pretty, but sometimes it keeps your head on your neck. I know we don’t have enough guards to do the same.”

“Great. I can tell ‘em my money’s at the bottom of a sack of puffroot. Maybe I’ll get lucky,” Ane remarks dryly. 

“You’ve got several sacks to choose from, if I’ve heard right,” Narue says, with a grin that sends her smirk-wing a-flutter. “Hey, at least if we get robbed, I can see what the bandits around here look like! I hear they look all crazy, with golem bits n’ whatnot stuck to ‘em.”

“Probably. Just set Jarrik loose on ‘em, let him talk them into becoming the next part of the show. People elsewhere might pay some decent coin to see a man-golem.”

“I know I would! I bet it makes them all strong-like,” she figures, tapping her chin. “Maybe if we get robbed, I can just… shake one of their hands really hard,” she supposes. “You know, steal it and be the one with the neat gimmick.”

“I don’t think getting golem parts is an outpatient procedure, Rue,” Ane’s never seen one, granted, but she doesn’t exactly think she needs to in order to draw some conclusions.

“Aw,” Narue wilts, drooping her wings. It’s hard to tell how serious she’s being. “I can’t just slip on a golem-glove and start doing heroics? That’s too bad.” She kicks a nearby stone across the grass. “Oh well. I oughta go figure out a new life goal,” she says, and hops to her feet. “See you later!” She waves briskly, about to wander off on her way. 

“See you,” Ane says with a nod. She stands as well, dusting chips of bark from her backside before she goes to return her plate to the communal wash basin. 

As she makes the short walk back to her wagon, a sense of foreboding begins to gnaw at her. Will Vasht ask her to be a lookout again? Possibly, though there’s no reason to ask her over any of the others with actual eyes. The shadowlands was one thing, but here… 

Her nostrils flare slightly as she breathes deep, straining to pick up the scent of smoke. It seems like ordinary woodsmoke from here, and tells her nothing. It could be a hunting lodge — is probably a hunting lodge — but there’s no way to tell from this distance. 

From Ane’s vantage point, that column of smoke could be a lodge… though it’s rather thick, like what one may expect from an open flame. Then again, it might just be a big fire outside of a lodge, or a big lodge. 

Vasht’s group does certainly look concerned enough. They’re still in the middle of talking, even now that the plates are mostly cleaned. During one of the lulls in the conversation, Nelea glances up with a worried look, seemingly in Ane’s direction. She’s a rather shy sort, so she doesn’t call out or beckon where another might. There’s a tentative look about her. Seconds later, the conversation tugs her back in. 

Ane catches her look, but she may just want her to try to talk Vasht down from… whatever it is Vasht is currently Vashting. If it’s that important, Nelea knows where her wagon is. She gives her a small wave, but she’s already been pulled back into the circle. 

With a shrug, Ane turns away to return to her wagon. As nice as it is to have gotten outside, even if it’s just for a meal, she can feel herself growing antsy. A vision would be a welcome way to pass the next stretch of the journey, but it strikes her as a bad idea — as helpful as it might be to ride a passing bird or smeerp and see ahead, that would also leave her virtually helpless until her limbs decide to reawaken and her mind falls back into itself. 

Twenty four hours later…

 

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Teller of Fortunes

Teller of Fortunes 26: Warm Reception

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It’s the morning before the caravan leaves Paakoponde. Shardflies are buzzing against the curtains, rears aglow with warm light, some starting to slip in across the windowsill. Normally the wagons would have been rolling by now, but the ground is rather marshy and uncooperative in these parts. Sounds of labor last night signalled trouble with one of the wagon wheels. Given the ingenuity of the troupe, the caravan’s sure to be moving again after breakfast.

As Ane shifts, a bundle of puffroot gently thwaps against her forehead. It must have been precariously shoved into a cupboard during her attempts to wrangle the tide of local “gifts.” She’s managed to stay in her wagon since then, but others are bound to be curious. After all, there was a literal procession of bundle-bearing locals heading in and out of her tent, all thanks to her unintentionally standing in for the local oracle. Anyway, the scent of sizzling, savory eggs soon wafts its way into her wagon, sending out the call to go join the others. 

She mutters a soft curse as she bats a shardfly away from her head, before easing herself into a sitting position with a broad stretch. The scent of the smoke has long since dissipated, leaving behind only the barest traces of its sweet, fruity aroma mingled with incense and the smell of dried puffroot. It’s far from an unpleasant smell, but it’s one that’s probably going to start wearing on her after awhile.

After washing her face, combing and braiding her hair, and dressing in a comfortable chemise and a skirt of saffron-colored cotton, Ane heads out to pick up some breakfast and see if anyone she knows is a closet smoking enthusiast.

This morning, peering through the mist, Ane sees that the food line is rather short. All around, the more able-bodied members of the camp are already getting busy prepping the wagons. Apparently many had to awaken early to continue the work of last night. At the moment, it seems they’re almost finished; there are boards under the wagon wheels, the trumba are hitched, and there’s a clear path back to the main road. 

The food line passes in a breeze — a quick step up to Vasht, the sleepy-eyed knife thrower, who’s taking a rare shift at cooking. It’s just as well, since he only really knows how to cook eggs, and there’s a small stock of them leftover from the city. He gives a worn smile when Ane arrives, and uses a spoon to scooch breakfast onto her plate. 

“Welcome to the morning. Glad to see you didn’t float off on a cloud last night,” he says with a hint of mirth, while preparing the next batch. 

Ane gives him a wry, sheepish grin as she accepts the eggs.

 

“That obvious, huh?” She says, briefly catching her lower lip in her teeth, “Well… What can I say? I’m good with customers.”

He lets out a chuckle. “Right… Well,” he smirks, and motions off towards the current circle of people eating. The lot of them, including Brair the fire breather, the dancer triplets, the actors Jiselmo, Korin, and the animal tamer Nelea are all looking in Ane’s direction with amusement in their expressions. There are more than a few sets of lofted brows amongst them.

Vasht, scraping off a pan, adds, “Maybe you can share some of your tricks, and a cigarillo or two.” He gives her a wry smile that sets the vestigial wing over his left eye a-fluff. “Off you go, can’t keep them waiting all morning,” he says, scraping off a pan. 

Ane darts a glance over her shoulder at the lofted brows and amused grins. When she looks back at Vasht, her lips are pursed in an expression that’s half chagrined, and half miffed at his teasing. 

“Careful what you ask for, or you’ll have six pounds of puffroot on your doorstep,” she chides him, as she turns to find a place to sit. She’s tempted to find somewhere where she’ll endure less ribbing, but, after yesterday, she at least owes them somewhat of an explanation…

When she arrives, the atmosphere is certainly jovial. Jiselmo even raises his hands to begin clapping, though Korin intercepts by smacking them down. Perhaps after the ribbing he endured himself previously, he’s inclined to return the favor for Ane. This doesn’t stop the more mildly amused of from grinning, with Brair being the first to comment.

 “Well… I see our troupe’s other top performer just decided to wake up.” He beams, then bites into an appoh — likely one of many. Munching around it, he says, “Thoughf I don’f think it waf my shirtlesh fire twilin,” he swallows, “had them flocking!”

The others chuckle. The triplets lean forward in unison, with Zila pillowing her chin on her hands. 

“Ane, you just have to tell us your method. We practiced very hard at being triple-topless, and now you’re a puffroot magnate!”

Ane sits down on the edge of the group, shoulders hunched a little over her plate of eggs. Her cheeks burn with embarrassment and she prods the fluffy mass with her fork, muttering softly.

“I just pulled some cards, that’s all.”

Even so, a grin — somewhere between amusement and self-consciousness — tugs at the corner of her lips.

Jiselmo kind of shimmies his head, not a shake, but a general spasm of bewilderment. “Well what did you pull for them? Did you predict that their vulre will go on to a top university?”

“None would even explain their activity,” Nelea says, while petting one of the troupe’s trained gelts with her broad, gloved hand. “It was truly bizarre,” she says, looking at the creature. 

“Not even the ones that gave me appohs would explain it! They just kept spouting, ‘Thank to foreign shaman’ and left to get more!” He says, practically in a laugh as he throws his arms wide. “They didn’t even give a damn about all the fire, either!”

Okay,” Ane says, pointing her fork accusatorily at Brair, “In my defense, I didn’t know how many appohs they had. Or puffroot,” she says, before taking a forkful of eggs, “Obvioufly.”

“To Jiselmo’s point,” Nelea says, “It must have been quite a fortune to tell. I’ve had three vulre go off to college, and I wasn’t that excited,” she says with a warm, albeit dry, sort of humor.

“Yeah! Why were they so grateful? It must have been a pretty high-quality grift,” Jiselmo appraises, crossing his arms and nodding authoritatively. “It’d make ‘ol Jarrik green with envy, with that kind of yield!”

“Well, if Jarrik wants to figure out how to fence about three dozen pounds of puffroot, he’s welcome to his cut,” Ane says sourly, “Besides… You all know what I do. That one lady asked a question, I answered it, she asked how to pay me, since she didn’t have much money… I asked her to give Brair some appohs. She asked if I wanted anything for myself, I figured a pouch of puffroot might be nice. I never expected it to end up so…”

She gestures toward her wagon with a vigorous wave of her hand. 

“High?” Jiselmo offers glibly. 

Ane pins the end of her egg-laden fork with a fingertip, poising it to catapult its payload straight at him.

“‘S enough out of you.”

Through some kind of age-old reflex, Jiselmo immediately ducks behind Korin. He peers over the tzuskar’s upper-wing, not even disturbing the man as he continues to eat. “Just saying!” He calls from behind his fortification, then ducks down.

“Well, it’ll make ya good money in the next city,” Brair figures. “As for me, I’ve definitely got enough for that ‘drink the dragon’s fire’ trick,” he says with a grin, rubbing his massive palms together.

Nelea sighs and shakes her head. “Just don’t test it on us or the animals.”

“Really, it’s not a bad idea,” figures Vila, the middle-sister. “You could make some money for Dynkala, if you tell her to prep belly-remedies ahead of time,” she says with a wiley gleam in her eyes. 

“It sounds dangerous to me,” says Wila, clutching her pearls as always. “Really, how ever did you get such a notion…?”

“And if Dynkala doesn’t want to, the other herbalist probably can — whatsername. Vaidna,” Ane adds, “Though honestly, Brair, you could probably start brewing your own liquor from scratch with all those appohs.”

“Huh, you’re right,” he agrees, furrowing his ridge of a brow. “A lot of it, too… Might go well with the other stuff. It’d be easier to sell than all the blasted appohs, if we don’t eat them first,” he figures, while a camp follower wanders by and takes his empty plate for him.

“At least Ane won’t have to be on backup-duty for the medic wagon when you get them all sick,” Wila chides him. “Really, hearthfire vinegar,” she shakes her head, as someone wanders by and takes the triplets’ empty plates. 

“Thank you, such a dear,” Vila mutters, as the three of them settle back into their seats. 

“Phf, a little digestive charcoal, some white clay tablets, a bit of stomach powder… hearthfire vinegar never killed anybody,” Ane replies.

Then a robed callosian wanders by and accepts her empty plate with a broad hand.

“Thank-,” she begins to say. Something about him jogs her memory, though, as she eyes his robe with a curious hum. That is certainly an Eternalist robe. Is he… the monk she met a few days ago? He never gave a name.

“You are most welcome,” says the dark-braided callosian, bobbing his head.

As he takes Jiselmo’s plate, he shrugs and thanks him as well. Jiselmo has still been hiding behind Korin’s back this whole time, but finally seems to be forgetting Ane’s promise of catapulting.

Korin’s the one who blinks, and as the callosian wanders away with the plates, he wonders aloud. 

“Wait a second… why is a burly monk doing our dishes?”

“I can get used to it,” Zila says cheerfully, with a waggle of her eyebrows. 

Vila gives her a cross look, and huffs. 

“Well, he might be some use against a bandit raid,” she says, averting her gaze. 

Ane presses her fingertips to her temples, and attempts to stifle a soft groan. So far, she’s netted the caravan thirty six pounds of puffroot, probably four times that of appohs… And one adventurous monk.

“I’ll see you lot later. I’ve got to go before anything else shows up.”

“See you later, Ane!” Brair calls to her, waving his arm. He seems quite happy with the outcome, given his wealth of ale-fodder.

“See you, Ane,” Zila bids her dreamily, resting a hand upon her flushed cheek. Naturally, she’s not even looking in the fortune teller’s direction, but rather, at the monk currently scrubbing dishes with his oh-so-strong hands. 

Like a fly-trap, the caravan accumulates strange travelers and friends by the day.

Teller of Fortunes

Teller of Fortunes 23: Appohs and Hearthfire Vinegar

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The trip back from Ane’s foraging is peaceful; unlike some other places, random violence and danger seem to be a rarity around Paakoponde. The locals are all relatively friendly, even waving at passing strangers. There’s only the faint reminders of danger — faded banners bearing the likenesses of grinning, crimson dragons, marks of the militant remnants of the Skilhouran Empire. On this side of town, the plate-armored soldiers are a rarity, with only the occasional gleam of their pauldrons to mark them out. According to what Ane has seen and overheard, most of them hole up in an ancient fort on some catapult-blasted hillside outside of the town’s limits. Long defeated, they hide behind walls and lick their wounds.

What’s important to Ane is that they’re far enough away from her own route, and the caravan has no interest in a bunch of stoic (or drunk) soldiers. 

When Ane returns to the campgrounds, a few people are gathered with meals they’ve brought in from the city, sharing it in a hot-pot in a circle. This reminds Ane that she still needs some liquor from Brair, the fire-breather, to treat her mushrooms and herbs. Ane catches sight of him wandering back into the camp alongside Nelea and one of the mercenaries. The three of them seem unimpressed, but safe, as if they didn’t turn up much in particular during their own travels.

“Brair!” She calls out, giving her basket a heft. It’s probably enough for him to guess what she’s about to ask.

The stocky callosian looks up from his group’s light conversation, lofting a fluffy brow. When he sees the basket of mushrooms, he dons a smile that’s halfway to a laugh. Without hesitation, he raises a thick arm and waves her forward as he begins to walk towards his wagon. That’s where he keeps all of his chemicals, including both the alcohol and all of his “pyromajiks.” It’s a wonder he hasn’t burnt to a crisp after knocking over a candle or something. 

Ane smiles as she walks over, though the expression is tinged with chagrin. She always feels like a kid asking for a sip from someone’s tankard when she does this, but so it goes.

“I’ve got a lot this time,” she admits, lightly brushing the topmost of the bright blue caps with the tips of her fingers. “How was your walk?”

“Hah! So deep into the bottle you go,” he says jovially. “If I didn’t know how potent those ‘shrooms are, I’d tease you for having private parties.” He catches his breath, smiling as he runs a hand over his reddish shock of hair. “Well, it wasn’t too ‘ventful. Vasht went for some ruins, and didn’t find anything sharp. Nelea and I went lookin’ for animals, but didn’t find anythin bigger ‘n a zool. Me, well… I got lost,” he says with a warm sigh.

 

“Getting lost could be fun. I found some slipshells yesterday, out behind the temple,” she says absently, as she plucks a stray leaf from her basket. “Maybe you’ll have more luck tomorrow, if Jarrik leaves us enough time to ourselves before we roll out.”

Brair ambles around the side of his wagon, then begins to pat his weighty hands across the wooden surface of the wagon’s side. It’s the side currently facing away from the camp’s edge, and he seems to orient it this way every time to protect its contents. 

“Hrm… Well. I don’t know how a bunch of slipshells are fun, but I’ll take your word for it,” he says with a shrug. “One sec. I never can find this blasted thing…” 

He begins pounding his fist across the side of his wagon, each thud in search of a secret catch somewhere in the woodwork. 

She shrugs gently, as she steps aside to give the callosian a wide berth in which to thump the side of his wagon.

“They’re cute. I like the way they pop out of the mud.” 

“Hrm…” THUD!  “Point..” THUD. “Taken! AHA!” He grins, as suddenly a large, rectangular section of the wagon’s outer wall pops loose. Underneath is a metal hatch with a padlock on the handle. Brair pulls out a brass key and twists it in the lock. “If those slipshells’re from the temple, they must be… philosof’cal or somethin’. Did they get you into an argument?” He asks mirthfully, stepping back to survey his side-stash.

There, arrayed in front of the two of you, is a broad selection of small casks, bottles and barrels. Most of them are marked with black paint, though some bear their original labels. His collection represents everything from Pellan brandy to the ‘dragon water’ of the Skilhouran region. There’s not much in the way of ale and beer, since they’re not as easy to keep; it seems he mostly focuses on the strong, flammable stuff. There’s even cattail liquor and some local “root juice,” though that one’s not too popular. In the corner he keeps a very old vintage of taistberry wine. Brair’s been saving it for a “special occasion” for at least nine years now.

“So… Which of these did you need again?” He asks, scratching the back of his head. 

“Nothing fancy — Just plain grain or cattail alcohol, if you’ve got it. Whatever’s strong, clear, and doesn’t taste like anything in particular.” 

“Ah, yes — the really flammable stuff!” He now remembers, nodding. He reaches out a meaty hand and grabs hold of some cattail booze, kept in a tall, thick bottle. Brair passes it along to her readily. “That should do it! I only ever use it to light, so it won’t be missed; got plenty else that can do the same.”

“Great!” She says, taking the bottle from him eagerly. “It’ll be put to good use — this’s enough to last me for awhile, thank you.”

“Muchly welcome!” He booms. Brair then reaches up and takes down a bottle for himself, some of the cattail liquor. The callosian gives it a once-over, inspecting the brownish liquid. “By the by, you know anythin’ that’d spice up the local swill? I know some people are into it, but that earthy taste needs some kinda backin’ as I figure it,” he appraises, swishing it around in front of one eye. 

Being considerably smaller than Brair, she has to stand on tiptoe and lean forward to try to get a scent of the brownish liquor. 

“Hmm… Could pinch a couple of appohs or a few silverpeaches and warm them in it for a little bit. I’ve got some healer’s honey back at the wagon, that’ll help sweeten it and add a little spice… Or, if you’re feeling really daring, you could go half-and-half with some hearthfire vinegar,” she says, with a playful wag of her brows. Some people take gulps of hearthfire vinegar as a tonic, but not often. If anyone was going to drink it recreationally, though, it would probably be Brair.

“Well, it does have my favorite word in it,” Brair says with a grin. “Appohs and hearthfire vinegar! I’ll have to think up a glib name for the drink, maybe pitch it at the next tavern I hit…” He rubs his palms together, really getting on board with this idea. 

Ane settles back on her heels, nose wrinkled slightly at the alcoholic burn of the cattail booze. 

“Don’t know that you’ll find many takers, Brair. Not many have the ability to guzzle hot things like you do.”

Or the desire, for that matter.

He purses his lips, considering this. The cogs are turning in that singed head of his.

“Maybe I’m thinkin’ about this all wrong, then… I could bill it as a challenge, maybe charge for the attempt! The man who finishes the bottle gets three times the price o tryin’, but I’ll knock out dozens before the day’s done.” There’s a sinister gleam to his eyes. “That could work… Either way, I’m into this vinegar stuff! You got that and some appohs? If not, off to the market with me.”

“I think I’ve got a couple of appohs left from the last town, but they’re a little worse for wear… Ask Vaidna about the hearthfire vinegar, I bought it from her right before she joined up. She should have some more, if she brought her stock,” Ane says, with a little bounce of the basket over her arm.

“Ah, the blanket-woman? Sure… I think she was last seen sitting on a roof somewhere,” he figures, looking out across the wagon-tops. He then shrugs, looking back at Ane. “Anyway, sounds like a plan! Enjoy your mushroom party,” he bids her, and begins re-sealing his “secret” stash.

“Good luck with the appoh brew,” she says in return, as she turns to head back to her wagon. She’s got a few hours of cleaning jars, filling them with bits of mushroom, and pouring liquor over them, so it’s best she get started.

About an hour later sees her with a neat row of glass vessels and stoneware crocks, set up on the running board of her wagon to dry. Ane sits on the steps leading to the wagon’s door, pulling the stems from the blue boletes and cutting each plump, spongy cap into quarters. Their insides bruise a light bluish-purple, and it’s all she can do to keep them from staining her fingertips as she tosses them into a waiting basket.

Once she’s through, she packs each vessel with chunks of mushroom cap. Brair’s liquor pours over the top to cover them, readying them for the long, patient process of turning into the cobalt-blue tincture that facilitates her strange journeys.

By the end of the day, her cabinets are full to nearly bursting with containers of tincture-to-be. She has to secure them with ropes tied to eyes screwed into the frames of her cabinets, to keep them from jostling and spilling (or worse — breaking) during the long, bumpy wagon rides ahead.

Satisfied with her day’s work and a successful foraging trip, Ane settles into bed to idly draw pictures of dream-creatures with a stub of charcoal. She can still remember the feeling of stretching the strange spider-bird’s wings as it flitted through the shadowlands… A fascinating, but faint dream here in the peace of Paakoponde. She hopes this peace will last for some time longer. 

Teller of Fortunes, Uncategorized

Teller of Fortunes 16: Strange New Friends

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The dinner group of caravanners stares at the strange woman bundled into a ball of scarfs. She’s unperturbed by their stares, and speaks in a monotone:

“Greetings,” the scarf-woman nods politely, “I am Vaidna, your new friend. And good day.” With that, she promptly recedes back into the motionless scarf-ball. There’s an empty plate sitting beside her, as if she had just recently eaten while no one was looking. 

The three of them all exchange glances, shrugging, ultimately giving Ane the same glance of bewilderment. 

She is momentarily perplexed, until-

Oh!

“She’s a medicine seller,” she stage-whispers to the triplets, “I told her to talk to Jarrik about tagging along.” She fails to mention that the two of them prattled on about hallucinogenic herbs for twenty minutes when they met.

The triplets glance down at the pile each in turn, coordinated in the same way that they’re conjoined. Wila shrugs, Vila smirks, and Zila whispers:

“Well, I hope she’s being paid in pancakes!”

The head pops back out. As ever, Vaidna’s face is expressionless.

“Yes. Negotiations were successful. As a result, I am the new friend. The pancakes were delicious.” She pauses. “You may tell me your names, I will memorize. Except Ane and the blabrel, I already heard those.”

Once again, glances are exchanged, followed by short introductions. As soon as this is finished, Vaidna unceremoniously returns to her blanket pile.

“Well. Seems you found someone of our calibre, Ane,” Vasht the knife-thrower remarks.

“Yeah, our level of weird,” Brair the fire-breather elaborates. 

Ane shrugs a shoulder, cheeks stuffed full with pancake. 

The others nod amiably. Moments later, Vasht suddenly stops eating and looks up over the shoulders of the others. He has to tuck the small, vestigial wing covering his left eye aside to get a better look.

“What level of weird is that?” He asks, pointing with his fork.

A group of people arrive at the other edge of the camp. At their center is the caravan master Jarrik, who strolls along with his tall hat, bejeweled cane and his high white breeches. He walks with his head held high and shoulders drawn wide (and his belly pooched out under his coat). He’s travelling with an entourage of sorts, likely just a group of copper-bit hirelings; they’ve a very temporary look about them, in a number of senses.

That’s all normal, of course. The real spectacle trails on behind them, hemmed in between a few nervous men with spears.

There stands a tall figure, looming almost seven or eight feet — tall for a klorr, though not improbably so. This is made more ominous, however, by the tattered burlap tarp thrown over his head, shoulders, and arms as if to cover the scene of a grisly murder… Below, his arms hang down in massive, strange lumps of burlap long enough to touch all the way down to his shins. By their silhouettes in the sacks, they hardly seem like arms at all and more like gnarled, misshapen clubs. His slitted eyes practically glow from the holes in the threadbare tarp, catching some odd trick of the shardfly-light. He looks like some strange, lost titan, or an experiment gone horribly wrong and now on a mission to wreak havoc, befriend blind people, and tragically kill his father in a frozen wasteland. 

The bend of his back is strained and wretched, as if he struggles to lift his own arms.

Ane watches the caravan master and his entourage approach with mild curiosity.

Abruptly, the Caravan Master turns on his heels and shouts some kind of curse. He wags his cane at the hirelings, motioning towards the klorr. They soon bow their heads, and quickly rush up to the figure. It seems Jarrik has instructed them to remove the tarp, and perhaps for good reason. A complete aberration might be accepted by the caravan, but someone in an ominous hood? No chance in the Void for that. Jarrik has to unveil the lout before people flee in terror.

The face, of course, turns out to not have glowing eyes at all. He’s just a tow-headed klorr, albeit with his nose slightly askew, a dull look in his eyes, an an odd cant to his head. Then the shoulders, they’re fine… But those arms. Even before the tarp-wrap is removed, they look profoundly wrong. The silhouette defies definition. It leads one to think that the burlap wrappings themselves must just be very, very thick. 

When they’re removed, this is proved to be false.

The man’s arms are thick, and absolutely twisted. They proceed as normal from the shoulders, then bulge out irregularly at the upper arm, and at the elbow… They split. Each arm divides into two halves, like branches of the same bone, which proceed to twist around one another. They spiral all the way down to the hands, which are knobby, blunted versions of the usual klorrian claws. They face off in odd, impractical angles, with the claws still of course being on the misshapen fingertips. 

The klorr, for his own part, squinches his eyes shut — either to block out the light, or to hold back the tears that ripple at the edges of his eyes.

Somewhere in Ane’s company, a fork drops, and she catches herself open-mouthed with shock. 

“Well. That hits minimum,” Jiselmo concludes.

In all of her time getting acquainted with blue bolete, sightwort, and snakeleaf root, she has never seen anything like this. Even in her wildest, post-vision nightmares, she has never seen anything like this. The sight of him makes her own arms ache — even though she doesn’t know what it’s like to have a set of long, klorrian claws, his blunted hands seem agonizingly wrong.

She diverts her hum to her plate. It’s bad enough Jarrik is practically encouraging everyone to stare at him — she won’t be complicit in stroking his ego at the unfortunate man’s expense. Just because he’s enlisted to be gawked at for coins doesn’t mean he should have to bear the weight of stares from the rest of them. 

While Ane’ss looking away, the hirelings escort the klorr off to a wagon on the far side of camp. To all onlookers, he seems surprisingly unmoved by this whole proceeding, numb to it by the time his eyes are closed. 

In time, the group lets out a collective sigh of tension and begins finishing their plates. 

“I hope he is given good quarters… he might need help with those arms,” Nelea muses.

Brair shrugs his shoulders. “I’m just glad Jarrik got rid of the getup. I’ll take an odd sight any day, but covering him like that was terrible. I hope he just came like that, and it wasn’t a…”

A spectacle.

The rest goes unspoken. People may think of Jarrik as not a good man, maybe even a bad man… But they don’t like to think of him as a cruel man. It seems to help morale somewhat that he personally walked with the new arrival on the way to the wagons. Still, the group is a tad shaken, and many are beginning to get up and stow their plates. 

Ane hasn’t touched the plump links of sausage at the edge of hers, but she no longer wants to. Something about the display puts her off the rest of her food and, like everyone else, she goes to scrape her plate and set it in the wash basin to be scrubbed.

Before she does, though, she tosses the sausage to a skinny stray gelt sniffing around the perimeter of the camp. The creature looks older than its years, with a hide patchier a teenager’s beard and strange, sunken hollows beneath its dark eyes, but she imagines it’s grateful for a meal.

With her belly full and her plate handled, she returns to her wagon to ready herself to work.

Behind her, in the silence of the campground, a bundle of blankets marks the first of the tragedies to come into their midst.