When the Teller of Fortunes awakens, it’s to the pitch and roll of her wagon. Just as she expected.
She slips a finger in her mouth, fishing out the last dregs of the sightwort from under her tongue. Pulling a bitter face, she tosses the small, sawdusty clump out of the window as the wagon trundles on. There’s not much she can do while the caravan’s in motion, aside from solitary, quiet activities, so she sets about the minor tasks that mark her waking.
First, some roasted root coffee. Unlike the Rhytalan stuff, the faintly bitter brew isn’t a stimulant. It’s definitely nice to wake up to, though. She sets a few coals into the little round-bellied iron stove beside her bed, stirring them to life with a little tinder, a firesteel, and the edge of a good, sharp knife. Once the coals glow, she pours a bit of water into a small copper pot, and an equally small measure of dulcis root into a muslin bag. She floats the bag atop the rippling water, and attends to the rest of her toilette.
Seated at her vanity, she rubs a little herb-infused oil into her skin and the ends of her hair, before combing through the thick, dark locks with a comb carved from polished snailwhale shell. She prods gently at a small blemish on the angle of her jaw — nothing a little grain spirit and some clean Paakoponde mud won’t dry up — and ignores it in favor of retrieving the little copper coffee pot from her stove.
With coffee in hand and her robed knees drawn up to her chest, Ane sits on her bed beside the window to watch the grasslands roll past. The rhythmic rattle and creak of the wagon is soothing in its gentle repetitiveness, and it’s only with effort that she keeps herself from lapsing into sleep again.
For those accustomed to the road, trips tend to pass much more quickly. What may be a long, ceaseless experience for some can start to feel like a chain of the smaller, more significant events. In this case, the breakfast and lunch of that day pass by without much fanfare. Brair cooks again, though it seems the others talked him out of using more of his peppers. Naturally, he responded by saying he didn’t want to use them all at once anyway. Either way, it makes the next two meals satisfying and flavorful in a more conventional sense.
Sometime later, around mid-afternoon, the caravan stops again to let the trumba graze upon prairie shrubs. Ane’s content to stay in her wagon with some coffee and a book, at least until she hears a knock on the door. It only comes as half a surprise — it’s not at all rare for the other carvaners to turn up on her doorstep, either for divination or for more medicinal needs. Even seasoned travelers have things they wonder about life, and as for medicine… well, one may not always want the care of an octogenarian klorrian grand-matron.
Whoever it may be (and whatever it may be), the knock is firm and steady, but not urgent. When her keen ears flick toward the sound, she’s in the midst of letting her hum drift lazily over a book. She was just at the point where the dashing bandit was about to tear through the heroine’s bodice like wet paper… Or was it the effete courtier? Never mind, it isn’t important. The raised-print words are little more than something to keep her swirls busy; she’d begun daydreaming three chapters ago.
“Who is it?” She calls out, setting the book on the other end of her bed. She swings her legs over the edge and waits to get up — if it’s something that can be handled by yelling through a door, she’d just as soon stay where she is.
“It’s Aedas!” Comes the reply, from a rather deep, thick voice. “Think I pulled something, but also, there were strange tidings at the time!” His way of pronouncing things tends to come off as a bit brash, as though his tongue tends to crash into syllables. Some mountain-people talk in a similar manner, but really, Aedas’ mannerisms are uniquely… Aedas. “So, uh… Medicine and ‘terpretation? Those,” he finally concludes.
Probably hurt himself having a bad dream, she figures, again.
“Arright, ‘s open,” she calls out as she stands. If he’s pulled something, he probably needs a little heat and some salve. Maybe there’s some more of that salt solution she picked up in Aed’harth…
Her hands deftly maneuver through a collection of pots and bottles in one of her cabinets, before retrieving a small tin of something gray, gooey, and unctuous, an earthenware bottle of something clear and viscous, and a lumpy sack. She parks the sack before the round-bellied stove to warm.
Given permission, the door creaks open. In hobbles the taut, lumbering form of Aedas. As a huikkaran strongman, he’s tall, though purely in a technical sense due to the way he is forced to crawl into the room. While moving about on all fours through their tunnel homes is perfectly natural for most huikkarans, Aedas usually avoids it at all cost. This time, pain seems to mark his departure from custom. The result is a sight that’s mostly muscled back and striped tanktop held up on short, thick legs, and long, muscular-to-bursting arms.
The picture changes somewhat when he struggles to raise his head and offers a shy smile. Aedas may not be a handsome man, but he’s an earnest one. His chin is a distinct wedge, if not fully symmetrical, set below a pair of very large, shining brown eyes and a mop of dark-blond hair.
“Heh… Hello, Ane! I’m getting back to my roots today,” he says jovially, gesturing to his crawling frame. He sighs. “You got a pillow or something I can flop flat on? Pain’s in the lower back,” he finishes, with a wince.
Ane cants her head, sizing up the huikkaran’s posture before she allows him to sit — is he fully upright? No, she can see the subtle tilt of his shoulders, the faint curve of a spine protecting one side. Are his legs even? It’s difficult to tell without seeing him walk farther, but, even standing, his hips might not be perfectly level… She nods swiftly as she sets a square cushion near her little pot-bellied stove. It was once a costly decorative item, covered as it is in faded embroidery, with bits of ricrac and mirrorwork along the edges, now pressed into service in a purely utilitarian fashion.
“Sit there. Right or left side?” She asks, as she turns away to face the stove. One hand works the tinder into life, while the other adjusts the sagging bag of faded muslin before the stove’s door. Its lumpy shape attests to its contents — about a pound and a half of dry, rather aged grain hulls.
He flops chest-first onto the cushion without ceremony. He’d probably crush one of the tiny mirrors, if his weight weren’t spread out across an arm span wider than he is tall. It seems he has interpreted the word “sit” in his own way, by hugging the floor like this.
“Ngh… Lower left?” He guesses, tilting his head towards his back. “Pulled the muscle while doin’ my morning overhead lift. I was facing off towards the Skyral, like I always do, and then I saw a flash of black light unner the shardsign ‘a Jjokar the Tyrant! That’s when I…” He rambles on.
The Skyral. It’s the last thing that marks where the sun once hung in the world’s hollow belly — a swirling vortex of magical energy, half dark, half iridescent. Ever since the Shattering, chunks of the broken sun dot the landscape like fragments of a dropped teacup, and the Skyral turns in the sky with the pointless motion of a piece of forgotten machinery. If you look hard enough on a clear day, you can even see through the sky, past the Skyral, and to the sun shards dotting the land on the opposite side of the world. Geonomers use the constellations of sun shards to tell fortunes and create horoscopes. Some people prognosticate using the turns of the Skyral. Ane’s always preferred her cards, but she’s never shied away from dabbling in a little geonomy where it proves prudent.
“Flash of black light?” She asks. One hand holds the edge of the sack of grain hulls, letting it fall open as the other adds a few drops of the clear, fragrant liquid. She binds the sack closed with a deft miller’s knot, and sets it atop the stove to warm. Before long, the sharp, greenly pungent smell begins permeating the rest of the wagon.
“On your back, please.” The Teller of Fortunes kneels on the threadbare rug beside the brawny strongman.
He wrinkles his nose at the smell, but doesn’t complain. Then with a grunt of effort and a wince of pain, he turns his weight, flipping himself onto his back. He groans with pain as some of his weight falls on his back, and he wriggles vainly to readjust.
“Yeah! ‘Twas, eh… right there, in the blue sky! And this horrible, Void-damned buzzing noise, like nothin’ I’ve ever heard! Took me right off-guard, had to shrug off the weight and…” The words almost have to fight to get through his protestations of pain.
“Did it go to the right, or the left?” She asks, as she takes one of the huikkaran’s short, muscular legs in hand. She cautiously bends the limb at the knee, before placing one hand on his opposite shoulder, and pushing his knee until his spine twists to one side.
“The weight? Why, it fell to the left… Can’t be good, dropping all sinistra- Nnngh!” He grunts in the midst of a loud popping sound, signalling a few of his vertebrae snapping in and out of place. He’s a rather strange sight in this pose, like a farm-boy’s head atop some kind of bizarre man-pretzel. “Whatsit- Agh! … Mean?” He asks in between.
It takes quite a bit of strength to pop his back, or even move him at all — like trying to bend a wagon wheel. He’s patient and accommodating though, so with a few attempts, the Teller of Fortunes manages to produce a satisfying crack.
“No, no…” She says, as she patiently unknots him. Then, she gently maneuvers his other leg in the opposite direction. “The flash of light. Did it go off in one direction, or the other, or stay still? And describe the buzzing.”
The two of them now look like a strange piece of performance art. Then, soon, he’s cracking twist-wise and suppressing more of the same sounds.
“Oh, the right… Nn- then I felt a sharp pain in that eye! The buzzin’ was fast, terrible, just Void-damn horrible…” He shakes his head.
Her lips press into a flattened frown.
The Teller of Fortunes leaves him to rest there for a moment, as she retrieves the steaming muslin bag from the top of the round-bellied stove. She takes a doily from the recesses of the shelf above the window, and makes a looping gesture at Aedas.
“Turn onto your stomach again, but, before you do… Let me see your eye.”
He leans forward, opens one large, dark-irised eye, and Ane sees… A single, diaphanous strip of wing tissue wedged into one of his long eyelashes.
It’s a Void-damn wing from a fly.
Ane hums directly at his eye, almost making the shiny, wet surface vibrate under her gaze. She folds the corner of her robe into a small point, then deftly dabs the fly’s wing off of Aedas’s eye.
“Well,” she concludes, “If I had to guess, I’d say you should stop lifting where the trumbas shit.”
The strongman looks at her blankly, uncomprehending. As said before, Aedas is an earnest fellow, but he certainly isn’t a bright one. He looks at the end of the robe, staring for a moment before he notices the fly’s wing. It then takes a few more moments after that before he connects it all together.
“Oh.” He furrows his brow. “A fly.”
“A fly,” she assures him, before flicking the insect wing off of her robe with a soft thwat of her fingernail.
“Ah. So…” Aedas pauses, now drumming his fingertips on his chin. He’s still game for whatever Ane has planned to make his back feel better, but he’s rather dumbfounded by this. “So… What does that mean?”
“It means you should be more careful where you exercise. And,” she admonishes him with a friendly sternness and an almost comical wag of her finger, “While we’re on the subject, more careful about lifting in general. Now, if you would,” she gestures to him to finish rolling over onto his stomach.
“Oh. Arright,” he agrees, and flips himself over. Now the rocky slab of his back is facing the ceiling, and his perplexed expression is directed at the floor. His voice is a bit muffled when he adds, “So, no bad omen if I lift in cleaner places?”
“I shouldn’t think so,” she assures him, as she gently raises his shirt over his muscled back and begins lightly daubing his skin with oily grey liniment. “And lift more carefully.”
She lays the cloth doily across his lower back, then places the sack atop it. The grain is hot, but the fabric helps keep the worst of the heat from his skin. He’s so rugged and calloused, though, that it’s hardly likely he would’ve noticed even if she hadn’t put something down first.
He now looks like a very fancy (albeit bizarre) table for tea. Aedas doesn’t really react to the heat, aside from uttering the occasional sigh of relief. That may be either the advice or the treatment, though; it’s hard to say which. He nods, nose about an inch from the floor.
“Thank ye. I’ll do my best to be more careful,” he says contentedly, with an air of determination.
“That’s good. And make sure you stretch before you start. No skipping it just because you think it’s boring,” she gently admonishes him, as she returns to half-paying-attention to her book.
“Alright…” He says glumly, but obediently.
The rest of his treatment passes without incident, and soon he’s able to stand on his hind legs and walk just fine. Once he’s no longer bearing the doily, he rises up and begins to amble towards the door.
“Thank ye, Ane! See you ‘round,” he bids her, then makes his way out. Once again, the Teller of Fortunes has completed her duties for the time being.
“Be careful, Aedas,” she says, waving a goodbye from the cushioned bench beneath the window.
The rest of the day passes uneventfully, with plenty of time for Ane to read the rest of the bodice-ripping tale. As usual, the wishy-washy heroine chooses the dashing thief-with-a-heart-of-gold over the diplomatic courtier. All this, despite some glaring personality flaws in both men. Based on Ane’s knowledge, the dynamic reverses in the next volume; the bandit is framed for a crime, and the courtier so charitably offers his aid in busting him out. This allows the focus to swing his way, and the courtier rips the bodices for awhile. It’s almost as if the protagonist herself were just a blank lens, and this story is some kind of battleground for two tormented souls to battle over bodices till the end of days.
The story has some nice descriptions of flower arrangements, though.
In any case, a few mealtimes pass with much merriment, but little incident. The only hiccup in the routine comes towards the end of the day, when the caravan stops at a pristine stream rolling alongside the road. Strangely, there’s a long, impatient line forming in front of the cauldron of boiling water. This is baffling, though really it’s easier to just go along with it and wait her turn.
It’s only when Ane gets to the front that she realizes what is going on.
Aedas is sitting beside the bubbling cauldron, seated atop a stack of boards. He has a heap of iron weights at his side, as well as a scrubbing cloth and some lye soap. It appears he’s been taking time in-between people to wash his weights, his lifting platform, and just about everything else within reach. Whenever someone comes up to take their turn at the cauldron, Aedas pauses cleaning to perform some warm-up stretches. When Ane approaches, he gives her a nod and a thumbs-up.
“No bad omens,” he says with a grin.
Her lips purse and her brow furrows in bafflement.
She gives the strongman a perplexed thumb up, as she scoops a bowl of clean, steaming water from the cauldron. With a small shake of her head, she turns to carry it back to her wagon, where a clean scrubbing cloth, a fresh towel, and a bar of honey soap await.