Teller of Fortunes 2-4: I Could Do More

(Welcome! Teller of Fortunes is a serial work of fantasy fiction. Click here for the previous section, or click here to go to the beginning.)

The caravan has been sacked by bandits.

Naturally, the most immediate consequence is a forced march to escape danger — albeit just two days this time. It’s enough to put some good distance between the caravan and the bandits, just in case they get an appetite for more. Road-rations are once again brought to the wagons, though they’re slightly more meager this time. Fortunately, it seems the caravan’s food stores were largely untouched; the bandits, fat and sassy from raiding the nearby hunting lodge, were more concerned with gold and silver.

For now, Ane has more time to herself — unfortunately, she ends up spending it arranging bags of puffroot and trying to fix her door. Some of the frame is splintered, so she can’t do much without a carpenter, but she does manage to rig up the upper and lower halves in a way that keeps it from banging every time the wagon moves.

Around midday, the first after the robbery, there’s a sound of large, fluttering wings above Ane’s wagon. It’s followed by the familiar, booted footfalls of Vasht, thumping heavily on the roof. A few moments later, after a hop and a slight thud, the sounds move to the small threshold outside Ane’s door. After a moment of rustling, there’s a firm knock on what remains of her door — a polite one, in stark contrast to the knocking from the day before. 

“Ane?” Comes the voice of Vasht, the knife-thrower. 

“It’s as open as it’s able to get, Vasht,” she calls out in reply.

There’s an audible sigh of relief. 

“Are you alright in there? I would’ve come by sooner, but I’ve had to scout along the back for awhile now,” he says in his usual rough, dry tone. While talking, he takes Ane’s reply to mean he can enter — though how is another question. He begins jostling the door, lifting it up and angling it to see if it will move. He’s surprised to find it almost falls over, and he immediately braces it. As he does so, his head of black hair peeks up over the gap. 

Ane waves from her seat by her stove. She’s wrapped in her blanket again, one hand clasped around the amber-colored neck of a bottle of taistberry wine. It’s a bit of hair-of-the-gelthound, here — ever since the robbery, she’s been in a state wavering between “tipsy” and “hungover.”

“Fine as possible under the circumstances. How’s everyone else holding up?”

After a few grunts of exertion, Vasht finally gets the door askew just enough. He gives up on getting it open completely without tumbling off, but at least there’s some space for him to lean against the other door and be seen from within. As usual, he looks to be lacking sleep, but that’s par for the course with him. What’s different now is the way he fails to hide his fatigue and concern. There’s also something else hidden in there, with his downcast gaze… Perhaps guilt?

“Most are alright, albeit with lighter pockets. The clown is covered in puffer burns. Brair bumped his head after his bender a few days ago.” He sighs. “Some wagons are damaged,” he says dryly, glancing at the door. “Overall, though, everyone’s alive. Luckily.”

“That’s good. Dynkala and Vaidna tending to the clown?” 

He frowns grimly. “Yeah. He’ll be fine. Most of the trouble’s all in the hypothetical,” he says somberly. “What those bandits could have done, and…” He breathes out slowly, and shifts his gaze towards Ane. His usually-sharp eyes seem somewhat blunted by the ordeal. “Well, Jarrik was up to some nonsense before this. Who knows what he might do now?”

He grits his teeth, tightening his jaw.

“I wish I could have protected us… But without enough guards, there was nothing. There had to be a dozen in that raiding party, and even more in the woods,” he says through clenched teeth, as if steeling himself during surgery. 

Ane fixes him with a long, steady hum. After awhile, she scoots over and jerks her chin toward the vulre carpet.

“Siddown for a minute.”

He glances inside, looking in the direction indicated.

“Sure,” he breathes, and begins to slip past the door. It takes him a few moments, mostly to wrangle his sets of wings through. Once he’s folded the last pair enough to fit past the doorway, he wanders in and sits down, legs in front, with a hand bracing behind him. 

She holds the bottle of wine out to him with one hand, while the other begins fumbling for some puffroot and a bit of cattail paper. When he takes it, she starts deftly rolling and twisting a fresh cigarillo atop her blanketed thigh.

“‘S not your fault, you know,” Ane says, “Though it is going to be your responsibility when you get yourself killed. You worry yourself, you don’t sleep enough, your reaction time turns to shit, and then the rest of us’re fucked. Plus,” she continues sternly, as she holds the twisted paper end to a coal, “Then we’ve gotta figure out what to do with your corpse. Here.” She passes the puffroot to him without bothering to ask — there’s a definite sense that she wouldn’t pay his answer any mind even if she had.

“Hrm,” he grumbles, and takes a swig from the wine. It’s just one swallow, before he’s set it down on the wagon beside him, stilled by the palm of his hand. “Yeah, I could probably do with more rest. I just wish I could do more,” he says, and accepts the cigarillo with a grunt — possibly of protest, possibly of thanks, maybe both. Either way, it’s lit, so there’s little he can do with the thing aside from smoke it. He takes a drag, then lets out a fluffy cloud of exasperation.

“Can’t knife a whole group of monsters by myself… And Jarrik spent all his time on getting that klorr. Couldn’t recruit anyone, since they all got word that we went through the shadowlands.” He takes another drag, then mutters, “And now we’re gonna end up drawn into whatever the next scam’s gonna be, to get us outta this.”

Ane murmurs in agreement, as she takes the wine bottle back. She wipes the mouth on her sleeve before taking a sip.

“That’s always the way, though, isn’t it? I mean, when it wasn’t Jarrik, it was his dad, granted his ideas were usually a bit less shit. Mercs might be more inclined to go through the shadowlands if he didn’t come up with so many excuses not to pay them.”

“S’ a bit different now,” Vasht huffs. “I may’ve been a kid back then, but I know the old man wouldn’ta done any of this. Nor would Jarrik, come to think,” he reflects, and takes another pull from the puffroot. Once it’s had a chance to slacken his hard expression, he adds, “The man’s a coward. He’d normally avoid somethin’ like that forest,” Vasht appraises.

“Not that I wanna think about him in the first place. Too angry. We coulda died this time,” he figures, digging a heel against the floor. “I just gotta get ahead of him. Figure out a way to stop it from happenin’ aga-” He shakes his head, as if dismissing some thought. “… To get some more guards. And maybe take up somethin’ more than knife throwing, I don’t know.”

“Easy, easy,” Ane says, trading him the wine bottle for the puffroot. She takes a deep drag of it, flaring the ember on the end into brilliant orange heat, and holds her breath for a moment before exhaling a thick, fragrant plume from the corner of her lips. “Next place we stop, we’ll find more sellswords,” she assures him, “We just need money.”

“That we do,” he agrees, now holding the wine bottle. He takes a swig-and-a-half this time, permitting himself a bit more. Vasht seems quite fond of taistberry, so it’s a bit more persuasive at getting him to relax. His shoulders slacken slightly, as he wipes his lips with the back of his sleeve. “I’m all outta ideas lately, though. We’ll probably end up in S’varga… It has guards, and money,” he appraises. “The two things we need right now.”

“S’varga…” Ane says the word pensively. Even though it’s a predominantly shasii city, the name feels strange in her mouth. She takes another drag, speaking through a lungful of puffroot smoke. “I’ll think of something,” she attempts to assure him, “Just make me a promise.”

“What’s that?” He asks, lofting one brow wryly. A flap of the wing covering his eye spoils the effect, and he ends up having to  puff at it and bat the pinions from his cheek. 

Ane purses her lips to hide a laugh, but it doesn’t quite work. She ends up trying to disguise it as a cough, but amusement shows on her cheeks and swirls as plain as shardlight.

“Promise me you won’t ask me any stupid questions,” she says, attempting to trade him the puffroot for the wine, “And Animus alive, go to sleep.”

He tries to stifle a smirk, but the laugh is infectious — even if at his anatomy’s expense. He sighs in resignation, leaning back. 

“I’d ask what you mean by stupid questions, but I’m afraid that might count…” He shakes his head. “Anyway, we’re gone from those bandits at least. I guess I could allow a nap. There’re no more people to check on anyway, since you’re near the front here…”

And he probably doesn’t want to check on Jarrik. Vasht lets that go unsaid, however. 

“You’ll be fine. We’ll be fine. We’ll come up with something,” Ane reassures him. “And, if not, at least the next pack of bandits’ll ensure we never have to worry about this gurrshit again, right?” She half reaches out to pat his shoulder, but refrains, hand hesitating in midair for an uncertain moment — instead, she redirects herself to the wine bottle.

“Yeah. Maybe,” he agrees half-heartedly. He shrugs it off, then presses his hands to the floor and pushes off, rising to his feet. “Well, if you come up with anything, I’m keen to help out… Gotta do something after all that,” he grumbles, glancing back out the door.

“I’ll see what I can figure out,” she calls after him. For now, she’s probably going to continue to nurse her hangover, if not earn herself another one.

They need money and guards. Food can be stolen, clothing can be repaired, even medicine can be foraged, but nothing is going to protect them from more misfortune besides money and guards… Well, money, really. Guards can be bought. 

The image of The Clap-vole card she drew days before leaps to mind, unbidden – the furry little paws with the egg of a woeful beast in-hand, ready to dash it against a rock and unleash horror…

Ane exhales another silvery plume of smoke in a deep, thoughtful sigh.

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

Teller of Fortunes 2-3: Robbery Delivery

(Welcome! Teller of Fortunes is a serial work of fantasy fiction. Click here for the previous section, or here to go to the beginning.)

The caravan doesn’t even get a full day of peace as it trundles through the outlands.

BANG BANG BANG!

“ROBBERY DELIVERY! Your money or your life!” A ragged, bellowing voice calls through Ane’s wagon door. The wagon had only stopped for a few minutes, and already bandits are pouring out of the bushes to shake down the train. The voice on the other side of the door even sounds rather bored by it.

“Unless you’re a clown! Clowns are fine.”

When Ane catches a glimpse out the window…

Ah, there was a hunting lodge after all! The smoke on the horizon surely came from this peaceful little cottage… 

It just happens to be a burnt-down hunting lodge. Its cinders are currently on their way to becoming smaller cinders. It must’ve been burning for quite some time before the caravan’s arrival. There’s no signs of life left there, though there are a few lanky alosin hitched up to a nearby post. They’re probably also bandits.

Sometimes, it just doesn’t pay to be right.

The knocking sends her heart pounding in her throat. She had been sleeping, fortunately — she only bothers to bolt the split door when she is. Unfortunately, it means the next few minutes pass in a bewildering daze. She scoops up her pocketbag and her jewelry from the half-seashell on her vanity, and stashes them in one of the costume-cubbies. The little stone slipshell gets secreted under her bed. Several sacks of puffroot are given pride of place near the entrance.

For now, she doesn’t open the door — if they want it open that badly, they’ll have to defeat heavy wood and the bolt securing it in place. Instead, she crouches on her bed beside the window, with the gurran jawbone held high over the point of her shoulder.

“Oh, com on, just open the door… I wouldn’t be the knock guy if I couldn’t…”

THUD, THUD!

The door begins to splinter, groaning against the blows. It sounds as if something hard and metallic is striking into the wood, cratering near the lock.

“… Knock!” The man bursts out laughing, a thick, throaty cackle. 

Still, Ane waits. He might break her door’s hinges, but she’s definitely not going to invite him in.

“… Alright then.”

There’s a small, rickety whirring sound, as if some old contraption is kicking into life. Then, with a loud, grating rumble… 

KRRRRACK!

A massive impact strikes into Ane’s door, punching through the latch as if it were set in paper. With that broken beyond repair, the door creaks on its hinges, slowly flipping open to reveal…

By the Fires, one of the most unsightly men she’s seen in some time.

The huikkaran has some flies buzzing around his head, occasionally landing on a gleaming, fist-sized wen on the side of his neck. He’s a bit wall-eyed (which means a lot for his kind), and neither of his two massive pupils seems to want to cooperate in pointing the right way. There’s a strawlike, sticky-looking mop of straggly hair atop his head, and a smug little smile over a deeply recessed chin down below.

“See? I told you I knew how to knock,” he says with a gleeful chortle, raising his right arm. On the end of his otherwise-stringy limb is a large, stony contraption of some sort — it’s shaped like a glove, with a large, notched circle on the back of the palm. A set of cords runs back from there, looping around (and through) a notch near his elbow, somehow set into the bone. The whole thing is puffing out gouts of black smoke, and that notched metal circle even glows with heat.

He steps in, waving his other hand around the room. “Alright, let’s see the gold… The last lass had at least seven. C’mon now, so I don’t have to flip all this over misself.”

Welp, Ane thinks to herself, This ugly fuck is how I die, I guess.

Her mouth is almost too dry to speak. Faceless are one thing — they can’t be reasoned with, but they also don’t really have a concept of cruelty. This guy thinks this is a joke. She clears her throat before she attempts to speak, talking slowly to keep her voice from wavering.

“Do I,” she says, gesturing to the many bags of puffroot on her floor, “Look like I have any gold left?”

There’s a pause as he tilts his head this way and that, buggy eyes alternating at the task of focusing on the pillowy sacks propped by the door. Seconds seem to stretch into an eternity — the only thing that even marks the passage of time is the lazy circuit of the flies around his head, and the steadily-thickening smoke puffing from his mechanical arm. 

If Ane’s hands weren’t occupied, she’d be making as many good luck gestures as she can think of. 

“Well,” he mutters, scratching the thing on his neck. “I guess not.”

With that, the man plunges his hand into one of the bags, coming up with a grimy fist full of shreds of puffroot. He gives it a good sniff, punctuated with a deep sigh of satisfaction. Once he’s finished sampling the product, he gathers up the two pillowcases. 

“Good quality. That’ll do. Stay high,” he bids her, and promptly stomps his clumsy way out the door. 

Well, through what remains of the door, anyway.

Ane watches the splintered door swing haphazardly on its remaining hinge as he stomps off. Part of her is amazed it worked — most of her is convinced he’s only taking the puffroot before he returns to kill her. Not that she’d make for an easy target, but what in the name of Firin’s fiery tits was he made of?

She exhales deeply through pursed lips, trying to slow her racing heart. Shaking hands move to light her stove, though she drops the firesteel a few times before she can get the tinder to catch. There isn’t much water left in her bucket, but there should be enough for some tea… Something to occupy her hands and help her calm down. 

Is the rest of the caravan safe? She doesn’t know. The bandits could’ve taken some of them captive, or convinced some of the camp followers or mercenaries to turn on the others. Some might’ve tried to stand up to the bandits and been injured, or even killed. Granted, any bandit that willing to scoop up a couple bags of puffroot and continue on his way probably doesn’t have any real intention of killing anyone, but still.

While the water boils, Ane hums cautiously through her door. Her ears stay perked, keen for the sound of distress.

Listening closely, Ane can hear something…

It sounds like raucous laughter, coupled with confused shouts and honking noises. Presumably, that bandit finally found the clown in the caravan. He might be flicking the tail ends of puffroot cigarillos at the painted huikkaran right this very moment.

Beyond the confusing cacophony from the clown’s wagon, she doesn’t hear anything else — not counting the cracking of the burnt-down lodge, of course. While the clown is certainly in a situation of sorts, it sounds like this group of bandits isn’t the hostage-taking type. Either that, or they just don’t think any of the troupe is worth anything. 

Except maybe the clown. 

Then again, it might just be that one bandit who’s into that. 

Ane sits back down on the edge of her bed as the kettle begins to whistle. If they made off with enough of the caravan’s money, it’s going to make the next town interesting. 

“Interesting” in the way that two-headed gurran calves are interesting. 

She makes a mental note to buy more mica, or see if Vaidna has any — Ane is probably going to need it when Jarrik inevitably begins pushing them to do more Half-Light Shows. She rubs at the side of her face with a soft groan, momentarily ignoring the shrieking kettle. The robbery may be done (or nearly so), but she can tell the effects are far from over.

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

Teller of Fortunes 2-2: Foreboding Peace

(Welcome! Teller of Fortunes is a serial work of fantasy fiction. Click here for the previous section, or here to go to the beginning.)

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…

 

(Thank you for reading and please like, share, and comment below if you enjoy! We love to hear from you.)

Teller of Fortunes 26: Warm Reception

(Click here for the previous section, or here to go to the beginning. Thank you for reading, please like, share, and comment below if you enjoy! We love to hear from you.)

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 24: Half-Light Show

(Click here for the previous section, or here to go to the beginning. This episode has elements that may not be safe for work. Thank you for reading, like and share if you enjoy! )

Once more, Ane awakens to the swirling lights of the shardflies that call Paakoponde home. This time, she finds that it’s on the way out of town; the wagon underneath her bed is moving, and must have been hitched-up during her sleep. Fortunately, the fortune telling tent was already packed away, so no input was really needed on Ane’s part. This isn’t the first time she’s fallen asleep during the caravan’s start at transit, and certainly won’t be the last.

The trip likely won’t be long; she heard word yesterday that they’ll be stopping in the farmlands on the way out of the region. It might just be another hour or two before they make that brief stop. For now, it’s a decent time to start on her morning toilette before things get going.

As Ane looks to the vanity, something is amiss. It only takes a moment for her to realize that it’s the small painting she made — the rather cryptic item from her sightwort-fueled ritual. The mere sight of the pciture calls forth memories of her hallucinogenic trance, in which she painted with blood and pigment alike, driven by some strange, prophetic whim. Most of the picture remains as it was before. There’s the infinity-and-semicircle symbol, the marks of blood, the hole in the page, and the nine empty spaces amongst the pastel marks above… There’s only one difference. Previously, a strip of those gaps was filled by a single smear of blood.

Now, another blood-mark has appeared, painted dark and thick by hands unknown.

It filled in a nearby white space with a quick, jagged mark. And not only does Ane not remember making this mark… But she hasn’t even bled since the ritual. Thinking back, there’s no way to account for this change.

She frowns at the drawing spread across the tabletop. At first, she rubs at the stain with a fingertip, but the mark is too dry to make much of a difference. It has to be blood — even without being able to see the color, she can tell by the consistency of the smear and its sharp, metallic odor. 

Part of her wonders if Jiselmo the actor trying to poke fun at her, since she uncursed Korin, his unfortunate companion, and robbed him of his sport. However, it wouldn’t be much like him to sneak into her wagon to deface a picture; Jiselmo isn’t that sneaky nor mean-spirited.

Besides, if it was him, he would’ve drawn a smiley face.

Ane hurriedly finishes combing and braiding her hair before she takes a seat on the thick, shaggy vulre hide rug in front of her stove. While she puzzles over the mysterious appearance of the mark, her hands go through the motions of making some succory root coffee. It’s a process she’s gone through so many times, she’s able to repeat it almost purely from muscle memory. A few minutes later, the copper kettle is empty, the rich, dark roots are steeping in her cup, and she is no closer to an answer.

Unfortunately, the answer doesn’t decide to show up after that either. And it’s such a small detail to have had to notice… Could it have happened a day ago? Maybe two? The only certainty is that it was sometime after the caravan arrived in Paakoponde. And if it’s happened once, it could happen again… Albeit a maximum of five more times, though that’s likely to be of little comfort.

Divination really is an unsettling sort of thing.

Some minutes later, the caravan stops in the outlands of Paakoponde. The surroundings are even more forested this time, with thicker tree-walls and smaller clearings. The straw-mud huts are just as numerous, but now they seem like an afterthought in the overgrown environment. There’s a thick, cool sort of mist settling over the boggier areas, lending an air of uncertainty to the area. It’s nothing in comparison to the forests of the shadowlands, but it feels a fair bit less friendly than the center of the capital… even if the people are still more or less the same.  

Ane ventures out to set up her tent. It’s more of a challenge now — the ground is swampier, which makes finding stable ground tricky. She eventually does, though, for a given value of stable. So long as nobody goes in the rear left corner of her tent, everything should be fine. 

As she places her cushions and sets up her table, the thought of someone sneaking into her wagon continues to gnaw at her. She even almost wonders what the point of working today is. It’s not like she’s likely to pull in much money from a handful of huts on the fringes of the city. Really, she’d rather be secreted away in her wagon, waiting to see if any more picture-defacing interlopers show up.

In fact, thinking back on it, the latch on her door was completely undisturbed. Someone might have gone in through the windows. There’d be no way to really tell if they did. Then again, someone would have probably seen it happen, or they might have disturbed some of her items upon entry. As far as Ane can tell, everything was exactly where she had left it. It just makes the dilemma that much more troubling. 

Nonetheless, Jarrik must have his cut of her coin, so the Teller of Fortunes must sit and pull cards for as long as the clientele holds up.

The first half of the day goes by at a very slow pace. It seems the farmers out here are not as drawn to the caravan’s many sights and wonders. Most of the cultivators are just wondering about their day-to-day problems, like root crops and fishing yields. 

It’s around then that Jarrik presses his clown into service as a crier, and sends it wandering around the camp. Its shouts are partially muffled by the tent walls, but it’s familiar and clear all the same: “Time to ante-up! Tops off, muscles polished, it’s time for the Half-Light Show!”

Groan.

Of course, it’s to be expected — what better to wring the last couple silver scutes out of the local populace than a bawdy show? Ane, half-dressed already, strips off her chemise and sits back at her vanity. She slouches for a moment, before sitting upright and pulling her shoulders back. Her bare breasts — firm handfuls topped with apricot-colored nipples — jut from either side of the feathers tattooed on her breastbone. Ane smooths a few drops of fragrant oil over her skin, to give it a soft sheen. A generous dusting of mica comes next, followed by a few dabs of her favorite amber perfume. In the soft light, she almost shines like a pearl from her slim neck, across her chest, down her lissome arms, all the way to the thin silver and wooden bangles on her wrists. 

Ane ties the lodolite necklace around her neck, sitting it high, like a choker, to nestle the gem in the hollow of her throat. Beneath that, she places a silver-dipped needleshark fang on a beaded cord hanging nearly to her waist. She turns her head this way and that, humming down to gauge her appearance. 

The effect is subtle, but striking — a combination of artistic color and texture, shimmering pearl and rough gemstone, feminine softness and needleshark tooth. Ane secures her veil, and goes to her tent to recline on her embroidered cushions behind the veil of incense smoke.

It’s time for the Teller of Fortunes’s Half-Light Show.

Even now, the flow of patrons is slower than usual for farming settlements. Apparently, even a bit of bared skin isn’t enough to have them flocking to the attractions.

Soon enough, however, the entryway to Ane’s tent fills with someone seeking answers. Looking up, she comes face to face with-

Another topless woman.

The fuhajen floats there, blinking as she examines her surroundings. She’s clad in a half-robe, covering only her lower body, with bangle-drapes doing the same for her hands. She seems a bit older than Ane, with her bare breasts presented under a sort of dark paint. In addition to her tattoos of swirling miasma, lingering mists, and other such things, there are animal designs of sap-paint and the occasional mica-fleck scattered across her bare cleavage. 

When she sees Ane, she beams, lighting up her colorful eyes.

“Hello! This is the tent that allows not shirts?” She asks, apparently working with a thinner grasp of Skilhouran-Common. It doesn’t seem to impede her speech much, however, and she carries a sort of firmness to her tone.

To be fair, many people in Paakoponde do dress like this. Ane typically doesn’t pay much attention to the styles of dress in the cities she passes through. This particular custom wasn’t as common in the first farming settlement, but maybe it’s particular to this side? Women went without shirts in the city, but they blended into the crowd all the while anyway.

Whatever the case, here floats one of them ready for the fortune telling. 

The Teller of Fortunes opens her mouth to deliver her usual greeting, but-

“Y-yes?” She says, suddenly made uncertain. It is a tent that allows toplessness, obviously, but it is not necessarily the tent that does so. There are several implications in the woman’s question and Ane’s reply… And, really, they’re all far more perplexing than seeing a topless fuhajen in Paakoponde, of all places.

The Teller of Fortunes clears her throat softly, to cover her slip back into character. Her berry-painted lips part softly in a smile, as she gestures to the cushions in front of her. It doesn’t sound like the woman’s asking for a reading, but she’s here and it’s better to make the best of the situation.

“Greetings. It’s five scutes for the first three cards, and five more for each three thereafter. What answers do you seek?” She asks, in her smooth, sultry, almost lyrical tones.

“Ah! Then I am in the right place,” she beams, and floats forward. When she arrives at the pillows, she floats down to a sitting position. Now that she’s sitting closer, it’s obvious that while her breasts are technically ornamented — paint, tattoos, mica and such — it’s clearly not to attract wandering eyes. Really, the breasts just seem incidental in the overall picture. Even the glimmering mica is probably accidental, given the mud-and-sap combination being used.

“Well,” she says in a hush, carefully drawing out five silver scutes. “The shaman of our village is getting old, and is too terribly sick to read the skies… So I must ask for all of us. When is the next Storm of Chaos come?” The woman asks, in a confiding tone. 

Of course, Ane is familiar with such storms; she’s experienced many of them while out travelling. They rain the hallucinogenic liquid known only as “Stormwater,” but that’s not the most of their effects. The problematic thing is that anyone — and anything — caught in them could be subjected to strange, seemingly random effects. People describe them as a storm of lights in the sky, with a large variety of wild colors, but… Due to the other two properties, people have also described rays of darkness and vulre raining from the sky. It’s best to take these things with a grain of salt.

They’re fairly common in this part of the world, though they’re not predictable like other weather patterns. In any case, now there is a topless woman in Ane’s tent asking about when the Scourge of Vurumaji is going to wreak havoc.

The next Storm of Chaos? 

The Teller of Fortunes’s lips draw into a pensive pout. It’s not a question she was anticipating, but she’ll give it a shot. She reaches for the stack of suited cards near her left elbow, and begins to shuffle them while she thinks. The mist is rising heavily from the bogs, but that can only foretell a regular rain storm, at best. Vurumaji would never be so predictable — it wouldn’t be a Chaos Storm if it was. After a few moments, she overturns the topmost card.

“The Ace of Cups,” Fitting, she thinks, “If the events of the world continue on the path they are on, it will be one month’s time.”

The woman observes, awed by Ane’s certainty. Looking down at the card, she reaches forward and gently taps near it. 

“This… Does it mean there will be a lot of stormwater?” She wonders, her eyes glimmering as she looks back up at the fortune teller. This question seems to be of great importance to her, at least by the way the firmness in her expression wavers. 

“Not… necessarily. Many things can influence the abundance of the Scourge of Vurumaji, it is a difficult thing to anticipate like this when it can change so easily,” the Teller of Fortunes says. At least, she assumes so. She doesn’t often get serious inquiries about Stormwater, unless they are from people looking to drink it. “In other contexts, this card can indicate an overwhelming emotion or sudden creative inspiration. This may point to a large quantity of Stormwater, given it’s ability to stimulate the imagination.”

Really, that last part’s a bit of an understatement — unless you consider vivid hallucinations “stimulating.” Most people don’t, but Ane has always had a rather charitable view of them.

The woman nods, tapping her chin. While some of Ane’s words may have been lost in translation, their general message and intent seem to have gotten across. After a moment or two of deliberation, she continues.

“I know you are a foreign, so this may be tricky question… What does your fortune say of how to prepare?”

Despite calling Ane ‘foreign,’ the woman seems rather comfortable here. It may be that Ane’s bare-chested state imitates local culture. In fact, it may even be a way of distinguishing this village — or tribe — from others. It might also be Ane’s performance thus far. Whatever the case, the fuhajen’s posture is relaxed, and she seems to smile occasionally.

How to prepare for Stormwater? A good book, a strong door, and a lot of buckets, mostly, Ane thinks to herself. 

Nonetheless, she turns over a card from the stack near her right elbow.

“Ah, The Pirate-King reversed,” she says, laying the card down between them. She lightly runs a finger over the klorrian pirate’s resin-painted face. “This card, in its negative aspect, indicates selfishness. Prepare to look out for yourself and your loved ones, but do not close yourselves off to helping others who may be vulnerable to the Storms of Chaos.”

The woman cants her head to the side slightly, bundled hair spilling over her shoulder.

“So it means we avoid selfishness?” She asks, folding her arms over her lap. She seems a tad perplexed.

“So it says,” the Teller of Fortunes gestures to the cards with a graceful wave of her hand, “Prepare by preparing to take care of the least among you. Don’t leave anyone out in the storm.”

Her eyes widen, and she nods hurriedly. 

“That is wise… what Vurumaji brings is unknown. Does that mean he is feeling vicious in this passing?” The fuhajen asks, touching her fingertips to her lips. 

The Teller of Fortunes divides her left-hand deck into two piles, and overturns the topmost card on both.

“The Six of Coins, and… The Nine of Arrows. It does not appear that Vurumaji is spiteful this time, no,” she attempts to assure the woman.

The woman blinks. “Is that good?”

You never really do know with chaos storms. Perhaps the worst prediction could be that Vurumaji is feeling silly. Whatever the case, the Fuhajen doesn’t know what to make of coins and arrows, and looks to Ane for this last bit of guidance. 

The Teller of Fortunes grimaces. She’d been hoping to avoid this part.

“Well… No. Probably not. The Nine of Arrows is a sign of nightmares and panic, neither of which are good omens for a chaos storm.” Apt ones, surely, but certainly not good.

The woman’s eyes widen.

She looks down, first considering the card — a man hunched over in bed, possibly weeping, in front of an arrow-covered wall. When she looks back up, her countenance is changed. Perhaps this news has hardened her. But then when she glances at the other card, and sees a man giving out coins in charity, it reminds her of the prior reading — that it will be important to support one another in this time of need. 

“You bring important news… We must prepare,” she says firmly, straightening her posture. “Very well. I will go to tell the others. Though still…” She bites her lip, glancing at Ane’s coin bowl. “We do not have much money, as a people. Is there something we can do for you? We have many sorts of roots and tubers, and some raise vulre… Others are fishers.”

Ane thinks for a moment. She’s not really supposed to accept readings without payment, but she also isn’t quite sure how to politely negotiate with the woman. Their language barrier is slight and certainly not unnavigable, but etiquette is a very subjective and tricky thing. 

“If you have some appoh fruits to spare,” she says, “The fire-breather would appreciate them. Tell him they are from the Teller of Fortunes.”

She furrows her brow, then nods. 

“Anything for you?” And of course, she passes two more silver into the bowl. It’s not enough for another reading, but she seems to be tipping in any case.

The Teller of Fortunes’s lips purse as she thinks. It’s too bad this conversation wasn’t taking place the day before — she might’ve been able to parlay it into some cattail liquor or blue boletes and saved herself a little time.

“A bit of puffroot might be nice…” It gives a nice, pleasant high, at least.

Suddenly, the woman grins, reaching all three of her eyes in its mirth.

This we can do…” The woman departs in a hurry. She practically flies out of the tent, moving on both ground and air.  She leaves behind a quite literal whoosh of air, causing the opening to flap slightly.

It takes less than an hour for the puffroot to begin rolling in.

Villager after villager, heap after heap, they move in with a remarkable haste. It turns out, this village is just absolutely wretched with puffroot. Before long, it’s pouring off of Ane’s table and onto the floor, and from there heaping around her ankles in little bundles. They started by throwing it in the coin bowl, but that overfilled in a matter of minutes. And moreover, no matter what, these villagers simply can’t be dissuaded. Most of them don’t even speak more than a few words to her — the only thing they say in Skilhouran Common is, “Thank you, foreign shaman,” before smiling and dumping another load.

She stops one man, a thin, reedy fuhajen with a neck like a knee and a broad, if uncertain, smile on his weathered face.

“Thank you for all of this, really, but are you sure you can part with so much?” She asks, with a gesture toward the pillowy mounds of shaved puffroot currently eclipsing the surface of her card table.

“Thank you, foreign shaman!” He replies, with a broadening of his smile and a bob of his head.

“No, really, it’s no trouble, I just don’t think I’ll be able to keep all of thi-” She tries, in extremely optimistic S’vargan.

“Th-thank you, foreign shaman,” he repeats, with a sidelong dart of his three eyes toward the door of her tent.

The Teller of Fortunes hums at him for a long, curious moment. 

She begins again in very uncertain, stilted Paakoese, while making a firm (yet what she hopes is polite) declining gesture. With luck, it’ll be the right dialect and she won’t accidentally instruct him to go do something impolite with a melon.

The chopon lands in the west. No more cheese, it is very blue.”

“… Thank you, foreign shaman?” His knobby throat bobs with an anxious gulp. The Teller of Fortunes can see him beginning to nervously twist the hem of his shirt in his square, clay-stained hands, and she relents with a gentle shake of her head.

“You’re welcome,” she replies, with a smile resigned to figuring out how the Void to turn puffroot into food, furniture, and clothing.

Teller of Fortunes 23: Appohs and Hearthfire Vinegar

(Click here for the previous section, or here to go to the beginning. Thank you for reading, like and share if you enjoy!)

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 21: Stories Everywhere

(Click here for the previous section, or here to go to the beginning. Thank you for reading, like and share if you enjoy!)

The caravan arrives at its next station within the city, moving ever closer to the opposite end. 

The Teller of Fortunes decides to skip breakfast in favor of setting her tent up quickly and having some time to take a bath and read a little before she’s expected to work. When she finally emerges from her wagon, clad in her veil, gauzy skirts, and the lodolite and copper pendant tied around her slender neck with a thin ribbon, she is every bit as relaxed as she was when she got home the day before — either the puffroot was uncommonly good and long-lasting, or something about spending time dreaming with the little slipshell effigy left her exceedingly well-rested.

Ane settles herself on her short stack of embroidered cushions and begins to shuffle her cards. With luck, this will be another good day for business. It’s not likely, given how well the previous day went, but maybe…

The spectacle of the caravan is still fresh, and there’s a whole new flock of clientele now that the wagons have rolled to a new spot in the city. People line up outside, eager to see what future awaits them. This keeps Ane rather busy, sweating under her incense to catch up with the tempo of fortune telling, at least until the middle part of the day. Around then, the line dwindles down and there’s an occasional gap between customers, providing little breaths of fresh air. 

Around then, a strange glow gathers around the tent-flap. It seems to be a gathering of shard-flies. Their little glows circulate and shift behind the canvas, slowly becoming denser. Around then, an arm sweeps back the tent’s entrance flap. There, standing in the opening, is a shasii wearing a rather striking headress. It appears to be made from a skygg’s skull with the tattered fur trailing down behind it into a mantle. Beneath this is a young shasii woman, with the eyeless swirl-span of her upper face half-covered in long, braided mid-shade hair. She has a rather mystified expression, seeming rather misplaced in time and space with her wrapped chest and limbs. A few shardflies cling to her back, trying to stow their way with her into the tent.

“The spirits feel strong here,” she remarks, perhaps a bit obliviously. 

Not as strong as the spirit I’m probably going to need when this is over, the Teller of Fortunes thinks to herself. It’s challenging enough reading cards while trying to tactfully navigate the context of Paakoese spirituality, and people are often willing to argue when the “wrong” cards turn up. She does not know what this young woman’s particular metaphysical context is, but she can sense a sudden, sharp uptick in difficulty. 

“Greetings,” Ane says, with her practiced warmth, automatic smile, and a graceful gesture toward the cushions in front of her table, “It’s five silver for three cards, and five more for every three thereafter. What answers may I help you find?”

The woman wanders forward and kneels down onto the cushions. She furrows her brow, looking thoughtful — at least, as much as one in her garb can look thoughtful. 

“How may I find my guardian spirit?” The woman asks, after a moment or two of consideration with shardflies buzzing around her head. “You seem like someone who knows them well…” The customer’s swirls are wide, as if she’s either really impressed, really off her rocker, or both. 

The Teller of Fortunes’s hands pause in shuffling for a moment. She could just tell her the answer, but a reading is a reading. Ane begins to deal out the cards.

“To seek your guardian spirit… Ah, here we have The Sun Shard reversed. You’re asking me because you’ve been trying, to no avail. You’re feeling frustrated at your lack of success.”

The woman nods hurriedly, causing her skygg-headress to bob with the motion. She’s certainly an excitable sort.

Really? I didn’t actually need a card to know that.

Nonetheless, she continues. She flips over another card with a practiced air, setting it to flank the first.

“Here is The Rogue reversed. You may be feeling that you’ve fallen victim to deception… Perhaps some charlatans have attempted to guide you in the past?” 

The woman frowns gently, perhaps at some rueful memory. This individual probably has some choice words for whoever she’s thinking of… 

The Teller of Fortunes nods gently as she turns over the third card, setting it to form a rough triangle with the other two. 

Void, that isn’t good.

She takes a deep breath. To say that this requires sensitivity is a bit of an understatement. Beside her right elbow, the little katagon-bowl exhales a smoky sigh, as if commiserating. 

“And here is The Tyrant Dragon, reversed. This indicates avarice — you will find your guardian spirit only after you have overcome frustration, deception, and greed. These may be things to beware of when you’re seeking a mentor, but we sometimes overlook characteristics we harbor within ourselves. It is good to be aware of our own negative aspects, in order to acknowledge and integrate our internal light and shadow. When you are able to do this, you will find your guardian spirit,” the Teller of Fortunes’s neatly-manicured fingertips drum lightly on the trio of cards as she pauses for a moment.

“And,” she adds, hesitantly, “If that doesn’t work… Drink about a cup, cup and a half of sightwort tea on an empty stomach and see where it gets you.”

Her mouth drops agape slightly, not in shock, but as if she’s too deep in thought to regulate her expression. 

“Well, there are many charlatans!” She blurts, after a moment’s pause. “Some claiming to be shamans, or men pretending they’re fellow warriors of the spirits… Still, if I want to avoid greedy folk, I need to stop wanting things so badly,” she reflects, resting her fingertips upon her chin. “But sightwort? Really?” She asks, uncertainly. “I heard it just makes people see strange things, but… There is really something about the air here,” she says, looking around. “I suppose I will believe you.”

The Teller of Fortunes shrugs a pointed shoulder. Some of her mystical air has been dropped by now — once you’ve reached the point of telling someone to solve their problems with hallucinogenic tea, there’s not much reason to try to keep pretending. 

“Sure, but nobody sees strange things coincidentally,” Ane supplies. “You can meditate looking up at clouds, and learn things based on what your mind picks up. It’s not that these things necessarily have any special virtue themselves, they provide a space for your mind to play on — like the backdrop for a puppet show. It might just be a backdrop, but it doesn’t mean there isn’t a story there.”

The woman nods studiously, listening with rapt attention. She begins to gently dispense silvers onto the table as a tip — more than another reading’s worth. Apparently she deems this sort of information much more valuable. Moreover, she finds Ane has more than established her credibility. 

Once Ane has finished dispensing her wisdom, the woman beams. 

“That makes a lot of sense! I’ll try some of that; maybe I’ve been stressing too hard to please the elders… and myself.” She sighs, and then drops another couple of silver. “Just a tip, to get a head-start on lessening my avarice,” the would-be animist says with a smile. “Well!” She hops to her feet. “I’m glad I asked about that, instead of my next yield of shardfly eggs. Thank you for the advice,” she says, her disposition now much sunnier, almost literally so with her halo of swirling, glowing bugs. 

“No problem,” the Teller of Fortunes says, with a wave of her hand, “Just make sure the sightwort isn’t dusty and hasn’t gone moldy — you’ll be gassy for hours otherwise.”