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.

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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…

 

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Teller of Fortunes 26: Warm Reception

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“High?” Jiselmo offers glibly. 

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

“‘S enough out of you.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vila gives her a cross look, and huffs. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Teller of Fortunes 16: Strange New Friends

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

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

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

She is momentarily perplexed, until-

Oh!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ane shrugs a shoulder, cheeks stuffed full with pancake. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Well. That hits minimum,” Jiselmo concludes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

A spectacle.

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

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

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

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

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

Teller of Fortunes 15: Dreams and Pancakes

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When Ane awakens, she’s blinded by the faint glimmer of a memory.

A vast forest looms, fraught with buzzing lights and drooping shadows. Strange figures move about, all hiding their faces beneath wicker and burlap. Unlike the happy, aimless meandering of Paako’s citizens, they all move with purpose, surging towards a shape on the horizon… 

Her vision swoops down from the canopy, like that of a bird, diving between the mud-root huts and the sleepy town squares. Like phantoms, the strange figures are gone. Finding no evidence of their passing, she glides upwards once more, soaring high, cresting over top of the squalls that pass along temple walls. Beneath her, the massive step-pyramid of the Eternalists lingers in shadow, looming like a colossal sailwhale beneath an ocean surf, or a turtle hiding within its shell. 

In that moment, Ane’s “eyes” flare to life, and she sees color — or at least, a memory of color. It’s a deep, glowing violet, ensorcelled somewhere beyond the body of the temple. It calls out, not with a voice or a language, but with a feeling — a sense that it wishes to fly from here, as she soon will. And like a prisoner that watches the jail door swing closed, it knows its time is quickly slipping away. 

All this comes minutes after waking, once the mind has had time to adjust. 

Meanwhile, a familiar smell wafts in through Ane’s window — thick, creamy, buttery, cooking over an open bonfire. It can only be one thing: the dancer triplets’ patented sweetroot pancakes. They only make them when they’re in a particularly good mood. Sausages and other fixings are likely to follow as part of this rare, somewhat special occasion. Perhaps they’re pleased to be back in Paakoponde? Whatever the case, everyone’s likely to be in the camp for breakfast this morning. 

Purple.

Ane finds herself fixated on her dream. It’s strange — she’d never had, nor wanted, much truck with the Eternalists. Odd that their temple would appear to her now, though maybe not so very odd considering she’d seen it yesterday. Still, she knows better than to think this is a coincidence.

Nothing is ever a coincidence.

Ane avoids letting the memory get to her as she gets ready for the day, brushing her hair, washing up, and dressing for breakfast. When she emerges from her wagon and saunters over for some pancakes, she’s the picture of well-rested, unruffled calm.

This portrait of insouciance is met with a familiar sight — the food line. It’s rather long today, though it seems to be moving quickly,  perhaps almost three times faster. This is fortunate, because people seem rather eager this morning. They shuffle as they stand, watching the backs of those in front of them with a deep, hungry impatience. 

Soon, Ane arrives at the front of the line, where she’s greeted by the conjoined fuhajen triplets. Rather than dancing, this time they’re serving out food in a rather coordinated manner. Wila is to one side, flipping flapjacks on a set of iron pans, pausing to let each new serving sizzle over the fire. Beside her is Vila, in the middle, who smiles and hands out plates full of the morsels.

“Enjoy breakfast, it’s our specialty,” says the usually-sardonic middle sister, today with warmth.

A couple of seconds later, Zila, the “youngest” of the three, offers up the sausages and dollops of either jam or butter. 

“I love it when she’s like this, so much easier,” she confides, pretending Vila can’t hear. 

Of course, all three of them are joined at the hip this entire time. It’s really remarkable what six arms can do in such a confined space. 

“Thanks,” Ane says brightly, as she accepts a plate piled high with cakes, flanked by sausage, and drizzled with butter and jam. She moves swiftly out of the way, to let the rest of the line progress, as she hums over the assembled caravanners to find a place to sit.

After a few moments of wandering, Ane finds a place at one of the larger circles. There are still no tables — lest the caravan more deeply flout the local customs — but the troupe seems used to eating with plates on their laps regardless. Ane’s spot is right between Nelea and Jiselmo (sans Korin), seated neatly on a log. A few others are nearby, including Vasht and Brair. 

As Jiselmo notices her presence, he pauses eating and begins to beam excitedly.

 “Ah! The one responsible for that glorious spectacle last night,” the shasii comedian says, glowing with mirth.

“And the one who cured Korin,” Nelea the animal tamer adds dutifully, chastising Jiselmo with a pointed look.

“Fpecacle?” Ane says, around a mouthful of pancakes. She swallows, gently licks a stray trace of jam from the edge of her lower lip, and says again, more clearly, “Spectacle?”

“Why yes,” Jiselmo replies, leaning back. “A wondrous sight happened upon me as I returned from my grocery run… why, it was truly radiant!”

“Oh, I know where this is going,” Vasht the knife-thrower grumbles, rolling his eyes.

“Purest ivory! Right there, bright and shimmering in the shardlight! It was the pale, contorted belly of my friend and compatriot Korin. Like a loaf of twist-bread or a young girl’s braid, he twisted ‘round towards the sun, splashing himself so copiously with old bathwater! All to apply the curse-cure you gave him.”

Ane purses her lips and furrows her brow incredulously at the actor.

“Aw, leave Korin alone… He’s gotten enough grief from you and your trinket-lady already. Besides, it fixed him, didn’t it? And,” she concludes, spearing another bite of pancake, “How’d you know what the Void ‘ivory’ looks like in the first place? You’re a shasii like me, you don’t even have eyes.”

“Why, dear Ane, we are masters of the dramatic,” Jiselmo waxes on, gesturing with a skewered pancake. “I may not see ivory, but I know it by its passing!”

“I think that meams,” Brair the firebreather mumbles through a mouthful, “That he made it up.”

“Oh, the color may be in my mind, but the spectacle was not! And he was so dedicated in his craft. When I approached, he looked on towards the sun in rapt determination… A true tragic hero,” the shasii continues, gesturing dramatically. 

“I assume you were the cause of his misfortune, Jiselmo?” Nelea supposes.

“I cannot cause such bravery! The way he leapt in front of that crone’s eldritch claw was truly the stuff of song,” Jiselmo declares wistfully. “A true epic, featuring the wise Ane and her remedy, as well as my twitching compatriot with his visceral fondness for puns.”

“… It was Jiselmo’s fault,” Ane explains, “Or, as the trinket-seller apparently put it, Korin’s ‘pet blabrel.’”

This wins a sudden bout of giggles from the animal tamer, who has to stifle herself, lest she lose some of her breakfast along with her high-pitched giggles. Once the callosian has herself under control, Nelea mutters through teary eyes, “It’s true! He is so like a blabrel…”

“Such japery,” Jiselmo faux-chides. It’s not very convincing — he’s often lobbed worse at longtime friends in jest. “I am so much more majestic! Like a soaring silver skarrow, or a sociable clap-vole…”

“If by that, you mean you bring about buzzing horrors by smashing their eggs,” Vasht contributes, “Then yeah, sure, maybe a clap-vole,” he concludes with a wan smile. 

“Still,” Ane continues, “You can’t mock him for doing what he needed to do to get your curse off of him — just be happy I didn’t have him dump the water on your side of the wagon.” She points her fork at Jiselmo, as if it were a wizard’s wand from a fae tale — as if she could strike him with some kind of buttery, jammy bewitchment from where she sits.

“Bwah!” Jiselmo recoils, just barely ducking an imaginary ray of jam. He stumbles back, and nearly knocks over a pile of clothes that’s heaped up between him and the cook-fire.

A head pops out of the pile. It is a shasii woman wearing a dark bandanna over a mop of curls. 

“Be careful. I am toasting,” the scarf-pile chastises him. Vaidna the medicine peddler, apparently.

Jiselmo stops in place, frozen, furrowing his brow. He turns to the pile, then to Ane. 

“I’m… sorry?”

It’s another strange day in the caravan.

Teller of Fortunes 12: The Enigmatic Peddler

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The Teller of Fortunes’ new customers are decidedly unlike the last. The vast majority tend to be either cultivators or fishers. Many are visibly covered in mud, leaves, and other signs of rough living, with bodies adorned in shells, clad in fabrics made from root-fibers. Most are primarily concerned about their day-to-day subsistence, whether it’s fishing hauls or the amount of good root and cattail cuttings that they find. Peculiarly, the cultivators are more driven by luck than most farmers; they almost treat their craft like foraging or mining, as if they spend most of their time wandering around for the best results.

As a result, Ane makes quite a lot of money for a short stint in farmland — four gold mitres and change, when you convert all the silver upwards.

Typically, the caravan might stay longer in these sorts of outlands. However, after that deadly stint in the shadowlands, the caravan master Jarrik is eager to get things moving. There are higher “marks” in the city, and much more in the way of the creature comforts of which Jarric is quite fond. After just six hours, the call goes out to uproot the tents and move into the wagons. Normally this would be a paltry work period, but the many “village squares” of Paakoponde offer a higher clientele, and they’ll have more provisions during the post-city stint…

Ane is pretty satisfied with her take, anyway. She requires little in the way of materials — not like Brair’s need for fuel and burn salve. She should have plenty enough to buy the supplies she has to replenish, and perhaps some dye, thread, ribbon… Maybe even a new dress or a pair of trousers.

She tries not to get her hopes up too high as she rolls the canvas tent back up and stashes it in her wagon.

As she gets ready to travel once more, Ane feels a strange sort of silence about the camp. Usually, there’s a lot more going on… Sure, all the performers are still accounted-for. Brair is snuffing his flames, Jiselmo and Korin are stashing their costumes, the triplets are closing down their stage… There’s even that mercenary that Ane met during the trip — Narue, probably. She’s walking and talking to…

Nobody. She’s alone, walking in pensive silence.

That’s what’s missing. Mercenaries. Normally, this picture includes a group of them, often drunk and sassy on the alcohol that the caravan provides. Right now, though, it’s just Narue wandering about. One can practically draw a dotted line to mark where the others are supposed to be. This silhouette’s holding a tankard, that one’s smoking puffroot, the other is scratching his- well, nothing right now. They’re not here.

Of course, it’s not like there was a mass death in the shadowlands… More like a “slight death,” or a “middling death.” But whatever the size of the supposed die-off, others seem to have decided that after such horrors, the farming life is for them. Some others have even been seen donning a foresty sort of ceremonial garb, then marching off deeper into the trees, presumably to find some monastic vows to take and put all of this far behind them.

Plus, one or two of the remainder seem to have the sniffles. So does Korin, but that just helps with his “straight-man” schtick.

Ane doesn’t worry about it much — mercenaries come and go, though such a mass exodus is certainly unusual. Still, so long as Jarrik doesn’t have any more jaunts through the shadowlands on the docket, they should be fine until they can round up more dewy-eyed farmers’ get with ill-fitting hand-me-down armor and adventure on their minds…

Once everything is gathered into the wagons, the caravan then spots for a brief but chatty dinner. While Ane washes the bowls, the others all chat around her. She doesn’t overhear much, save for bluster and curiosity about the recent trip; easy enough to ignore.

She finishes scrubbing the dishes piled in the washbasin and retires to her wagon to change clothes and dig through her stock of herbs to double-check what needs replacing before she ventures out to find it.

Soon after, the caravan hitches-up again and begins to roll into the “city”… Though in this case, it defies most conventional notions of such.

While Ane is getting ready, most of the short trip into Paakoponde goes unseen.

But, when she steps out…

It’s more like stepping out into a painting than any kind of settlement. Sure, there are the huts, the shanties, the rows of homes. But all of these are dug out underneath tall, sweeping trees that dwarf most others. Many are so wide, that the gaps and “knees” of their roots are spacious enough to accommodate actual dwellings. The main body of each tree bears a peculiar, diagonal striation that spirals up to the top. The twisting looks almost synthetic as if someone walked around the outside while urging the tree, “Yes, keep going! Just a few more dozen feet, come on now. Up you go, on with it!” And by the Fires, judging by their bark, those trees must be far older than most men can count.

Up above is a veritable explosion of foliage, many trees with their leaf-shapes depending on their apparent age. Each seems to be the grandest specimen of its time, preserved in perpetuity…

Then all around are the shardflies, which now sometimes form large, swarming clouds of light. There seem to be small sparks of heat when they draw too close to one another, promptly repelling and expanding the cloud. It’s like watching a creature breathe. It would probably be rather hazardous to walk into one of those super-heated clouds of shardflies.

At times, the shardflies rush to the trees, seeming to feed on the sap. Whenever they do so, the spot seems to radiate light, moisture, and heat just a little bit, as if it’s receiving a sudden burst of nutrition. Soon after, a local in a heat-retardant smock rushes by, either encouraging the creatures with a vase of liquid or shooing them away with a wide, feathery fan.

Then, in every gap along the far horizon, there’s a massive stone structure with blocky stone steps, ascending between a set of wavering, stone-carved walls. They together lead up a tall, tapering pyramid, which itself seems to house several mega-trees that jut out of pits made into the structure. It’s as if they built the temple around these trees, then continued to modify and excavate the stonework whenever they expanded many, many times over.

Though all of these sights are overwhelming, they’re strictly in the background. After a few moments of adjustment, they become much easier to ignore in passing.

When Ane leaves the campgrounds, she’s certainly not the only one; many others are being sent off as runners to collect basic supplies, whether they be food, wagon parts, or other needs. She spots the wing-eyed knife-thrower Vasht being sent off in one direction, while the finely-dressed form of the caravan master, Jarrik, arranges for transport in another.

At some point, a pair of hands passes Ane a shopping list to append to her own, followed by a leather pouch of coins. The list sports several medicinal herbs and compounds — most of which Ane could probably gather in her sleep, while Grandma Dynkala can scarcely leave her wagon. There’s also her usual note:

 Remedies for the camp and all its sniffles. Keep the change, avoid the sneezes! 

– Dynkala

Fortunately, Ane can remember some of Paakoponde’s layout from the circus’ last pass through. There’s some logic to the streets, at least in a rather organic sense. Markets tend to be in population centers, and herbalists often prefer places that lend best to plant growth. Soon she finds herself in a sunny city “square” (more like a clearing), the middle of which is covered by a line of root fiber open-air tents. Each is well-stocked, sporting a wider variety of flora than one may expect in nearly any other city. There’s everything ranging from the practical — medicinal herbs, oils, incense — to the mystical — good luck charms, ritual components, psychoactives.

It’s quite the place to window-shop. And past the row, there seems to be a particularly wide, well-stocked tent towards the end…

She follows her sensitive sense of smell — first a few candles and ten pounds of wax from this seller, scented richly of honey-sweet cave bee combs. Then a pound of geltsear leaf tea, redolent of freshly-split vanilla pods. After that, a pound of powdered spiralis dye, with its sharp, dusty, dried-herb scent. Ane may not be able to see its bright green color without riding the mind of a creature with eyes to see by, but refreshing her clothing with a new bath of dye goes a long way toward maintaining her image as the mysterious Teller of Fortunes instead of presenting the somewhat threadbare reality.

She lets herself linger by a tent with samples of fine brocade hung around the outside. Having clothing made for her is far too rich for her blood, but her fingertips trail longingly over the sleeve of a cotton gauze shirt. It’s a loose garment, as things made for nobody in particular tend to be, given shape by laces at the neckline, shoulders, and sides. The laces themselves are ribbons cunningly worked with tiny fern leaves — this, more than anything, gives her a pang of want. She worries her lower lip in her teeth as her hum roves over the garment. She wouldn’t be able to get the colors right, whatever they might be, but she might be able to buy some ribbon and re-work one of her old shirts. The cut wouldn’t be the same, and the fabric would show its age, but…

Standing in between the patterns and floral flourishes of the brocade, it feels like being in a completely different jungle. There’s something a little disorienting about standing amongst all of these different shades, patterns, and textures — textures which Ane can see as only a shasii might, sightless and with a sight-hum to sense texture. The hum bounces strangely, sometimes blending one texture with another in echoes.

The cotton shirt, though… Its gauzy sleeves are like an island in this sea. The pleasing texture and the relative simplicity are both soothing in this sort of environment.

Deeper in the tent, an aged fuhajen sits against the tent wall. There are streaks of gray in his thick hair, and he waits with a sagacious sort of patience. He’s watching customers with his three, inscrutable eyes, but only just barely, and offers no particular pitch or price. He must be the sort of merchant that lets his wares sell themselves, and otherwise just treats salesmanship as a nice occasion to sit and enjoy the midday breeze.

If he wasn’t so old, and this wasn’t Paakoponde, she would just steal it. The feeling of guilt wouldn’t nag at her as much in Skil’houros.

Instead, she clears her throat gently.

“How much?” She asks the man, casually holding up the edge of the sleeve as though it were no more than a handkerchief.

The fuhajen raises a brow as if his attention were diverted until just now.

“One gold piece,” he replies placidly, with a downward glance at the garment. “Less if bought with trousers or a skirt. Together, one and five.” He sounds rather serene, enjoying his day even as he tries to ante-up with a bundle deal.

She feels her resolve harden, and prepares herself to argue.

“I’ll give you one and two for both.”

“One and four,” he replies as if discussing the weather.

“One and three.”

“Sure,” he agrees as if answering his thoughts. This conversation feels oddly one-sided.

She exhales in relief, though it still pains her to hand over so much money. Ane hadn’t sweated buying the dye, or the tea, or the candles and wax… Those are all useful things. Clothing, on the other hand, is largely a concession to the local constabulary and indecency laws (however pretty its ribbons may be).

After picking out a pair of cotton trousers in something close to her size, she lets her sensitive sense of smell lead her back outside of the tent, past the alluring fragrance of perfumes, the beckoning scent of skewers of spiced meat and honeyed dough, and beyond… to the bittersweet, sharply green smell of dried herbs and the alcoholic sting of tinctures.

She doesn’t see the medicine seller at first when she approaches — she’s mentally going over Dynkala’s list. Her hum is fixated on the wares spread out on the table under the canvas canopy. There’s a jar of stomach powder, next to what looks like neatly-labeled pots of chest rub…

An abrupt, monotone voice greets her:

“There is everything from nullwither tincture to wagon wheel oil. Choose wisely.”

Glancing up at the seller brings great confusion. It looks like Ane took a wrong turn and ended up back at the textile tent. She sees scarves, cloaks, tunics, veils, head-wraps, and they all appear to have banded together and formed a Garmentry Union. Granted, they’re all very nicely coordinated by both texture and shade, though they don’t seem to align to any sense of function. They all just heap up and around a…

Huh, that is a person, isn’t it?

Peeking up over them all is the face of a young woman, shasii and paradoxically un-veiled despite wearing veils. She has a dark-shaded silk bandana tied over tumbling curls. Her smooth lips are set into a thin line.

“I feel like I was just in a different tale… How abrupt,” she comments, in her perpetual one-note voice. “Anyway, take your time. There are many travels and trials ahead.”

Ane’s hand pauses over a packet of ale-head tea.

“Travels and tri–? Of course,” she says. The other woman must’ve deduced that she isn’t from here. That probably isn’t hard to do. “I need four jars of chest-rub, six ounces of headache powder, a pound of digestive coal,” she hesitates for a moment, thinking before she continues, “Some dried blue bolete, cherry bark, a gallon of hearthfire vinegar, and a pound of dried sightwort. Is that it?” Ane frowns gently to herself. “I think that’s it. Oh! And some healer’s honey.”

“Oh my, sightwort,” the medicine seller comments flatly. “That’s the good shit.”

After a pause, she adds, “Right over there, prices are tagged. I’m the only one in the city who believes in forestry, let alone convenient labeling.” The pile of scarves gestures about, sweeping that blanketed hand over each item in the list. The sightwort, however, is accompanied by a knowing nod.

“I’ve been into snakeleaf roots lately,” Ane confesses, “Though it’s better if you tincture them and drop them on some sugar, first.”

She begins to amass her purchases, counting out the coin from Dynkala’s pouch first, then her own. As an afterthought, she adds a few more herbs — some mint, an ounce of fennel seeds, some Skil’houran snowsage…

“Alright,” she finally says, laden with about as much as she can bear, “How much?”

“Snakeleaf. Interesting,” the medicine seller comments. “Very messy foreshadowing. My last dose was unpleasant, rather ominous stuff. Anyway,” the medicine seller totals up Ane’s selections. At least she wasn’t kidding about the convenient labeling.

Ane sighs softly as she parts with her coins. It’s painful, but necessary — she doesn’t haggle with medicine sellers, because she doesn’t need any of them hedge-magicking at her after she leaves. Besides, good herbs are worth paying for.

“One gold and eight, right. Thanks.”

In one day, she’s nearly destroyed her take from her last three workdays. Hopefully, Jarrik knows what he’s about here…

Before Ane turns to leave, the medicine speaks up in a slightly louder (though no less flat) voice:

“If you lack for spending money… I will ignore the one and eight, and discount the rest slightly. You do seem to know your craft well, and I can appreciate that.” Strangely, there is a slight curve to the edges of her lips — a smile, albeit a very mechanical one. It’s as if she has to signal the muscles her good-will, rather than have them react on their own.

Ignore more than half the price?

Ane pauses mid-stride, before turning back around with a wary tilt of her head.

“I’m listening.”

The medicine seller folds what Ane can only assume are her hands, nodding as she regains her attention.

“Simple. Secure me a spot somewhere on your caravan,” she replies. “It can be small, so long as it is warm. I fit in a space of approximately two square feet.”

After a beat, she adds blandly:

“… I also have a tincture for square feet, though I don’t think that will be necessary.”

“Two sq- Are you a contortionist?”

“Not professionally.”

This is at least slightly baffling. Two square feet? For an entire medicine seller? Doesn’t she sleep?

“The caravan is in a clearing three miles that way,” she says, pointing. “Ask for a man named Jarrik — tell him the Teller of Fortunes told you to come because she and Dynkala need help with the sickness in the camp.” Even if Jarrik would be cross with her, he would be less likely to question the aged herbalist needing an extra hand.

“Wonderful,” she replies, seemingly incapable of the enthusiasm that the word requires. “I shall do so. I would have looked silly as a mercenary anyway.”

With that, she holds out a limb of scarves and veils, then drops three gold coins out of the pattern-work and into Ane’s hands.

She quickly pockets the gold, as if afraid the medicine seller might change her mind in the face of not receiving a more tangible agreement. It’s between her and Jarrik, though — she has little power to add employees to the caravan at will. Besides, it’s not like another person will be noticed while Jarrik busies himself with scraping up more hired guards…

With the gold securely in her pocketbag, Ane gathers her purchases and makes her way back to the caravan.

Teller of Fortunes 11: The Big Show

(Click here for the previous section, or here to go to the beginning. Thank you for reading!)

Truth be told, there’s no “entering” into Paakoponde. There’s no border, no walls, no guards, and no welcoming committee. There is only first a marsh, with the land turning wet and damp, the air thickening, and the trees growing fewer but, at the same time, larger and larger. Their willowy limbs begin to drape impossibly wide. The fronds are thick enough that it feels like a loose ceiling, allowing only shardlight to pass through. 

Though, perhaps there is a welcoming committee of sorts…

The very first thing seen upon entering into Paakoponde is light. This time, it doesn’t come from the sky, nor the trees, nor even the hundreds of pale-torches that some cities use. No, this time the light comes from thousands, perhaps millions of flying, buzzing “shardflies”. Many of them are simple creatures, with almost stone-like thoraxes that radiate improbable levels of light and heat. They buzz around with a vivacity that’s far removed from any normal insect, seeming to travel miles without eating, drinking, or even landing. They make this obvious by how they buzz around the caravan, following along like a strange little entourage. It’s as if they’re attracted to… Movement? Life? People? It’s hard to say, for they also buzz around the plodding trumba that pull the wagons.

On closer examination, the term “shardflies” proves to be woefully lacking, for not all of them are flies at all. The term proves to encompass an entire category of insects, ranging from beetles to wasps, to even the rare sparkling flutter-by. They form entire fields of light, first infrequent enough to be misperceived as will-O’-wisps, then thick enough in the air to give the illusion of full shardlight. 

One by one, small huts appear between the trees, each made from tree-fronds and other leavings. None are crafted from logs, bearing no marks of hatcheting or cultivation. Instead, these huts are largely modest, questionably stable, and patched by sticky sap gums and mud. Each tends to accompany a small pier over the march, similarly constructed to allow easy fishing and diving into the centers of the larger marsh-ponds. 

This is what Paakoponde considers to be farmland, and it’s a halfhearted venture into the concept at best, if not an outright aversion. Even the sap-taps are unintrusive, barely penetrating the trees; it’s as if they avoid harming them with a religious zeal. Then, strangely, there are animal hides, feathers, and other signs of hunting that adorn various windowsills and doorways. The locals seem to have no qualms about harming wildlife, so long as the trees are treated with respect.

Upon further examination… Those shardflies do seem quite fond of those tall, willowy trees. 

Ane takes a long moment after waking to watch Paakoponde through her window, blanketed knees drawn up to her chest. She even sticks a hand outside of her wagon to test the weather, only to withdraw with a glowing shardfly clinging to her fingertips. She sends it on its way with a soft puff of breath and wriggles out from under her covers to begin her toilette. 

She’ll be working in a few hours, and it takes time to prepare.

Fortunately, as quick as the creatures are to flock to Ane’s hand, they make no attempts to enter the wagon. Nonetheless, it’s customary to seal wagons tightly when in these lands. If too many shardflies gather in a dwelling, it can cause several problems. Most of them simply boil down to “too hot, too bright, and damn bugs in general,” in Brair’s words, and when he complains about brightness and heat, there’s bound to be something to it.

Outside, the actual weather is relatively cold, balancing out the temperature. Without it, the bugs would burn hot and keep people awake in their dwellings. Without the bugs, well… Perhaps this would be a “twilight land,” one permitting some of both life and un-life. 

The caravan continues to roll, and in time it comes to a stop. Here the huts are more dense, though the troupe has yet to enter Paakoponde-proper. This tends to be the customary approach: draw in the farmers on one side, roll into the city to get supplies and attract the wealthier takers, then get the farmers on the other side when leaving. 

The metallic clanks of the wagons being unhitched echoes past the walls. 

Ane combs her long hair, fashioning it into a thick, doubled-over braid fastened with a pin of carved snailwhale shell. She smooths a few drops of shimmering, mica-flecked oil over her skin, lending a soft glow to her cheeks under the dancing light of the shardflies. One fingertip dips into a small pot, before lightly painting her lips with a sheen of burgundy. She ends her efforts with a light dab of rich, warm amber perfume at the nape of her neck, her wrists, and atop the bouquet of feathers tattooed in the center of her chest.

Her tent is usually warm, but it won’t permit any shardflies — with Paakoponde’s breezes, she may need something extra to cover up with. She sorts briefly through the racks and boxes of odds-and-ends of clothing at the back of her wagon, sifting through strongmen’s singlets, spangled leotards, and her small collection of clothing. She comes away with a silk skirt (carefully tied so the tear doesn’t show), and a loose muslin shirt with an embroidered neckline that sweeps daringly down around her upper arms. Not enough to scandalize, but maybe enough to entice a few extra coins.

She drapes a tatted shawl over the curved points surmounting her shoulders, pins her veil atop her head, and steps out into the cool, damp air to finish setting up camp.

Outside, others are doing the same. No one needs a signal to start their work; this process has been done over a thousand times, and will naturally be done over a thousand times more. It’s so automatic, that things seem to be in roughly the same configuration each time, albeit allowing for local anomalies in geography. For example, Jiselmo and Korin’s theater-wagon is almost always stood up at the side of camp opposite from the triplets’ burlesque tent-stage. Then the “oddities” show will always be on the side of camp perpendicular to them, with the master’s wagon positioned on the side opposite that. 

In the middle, the strong man set up his weight bench, his arm-wrestling table, and his “Tower of Broken Skies” — a vertical, interlocking, modular obstacle course made of salvaged wood and fake, painted-on steel. He sets it up surprisingly fast. Over the last few times, Brair helped by adding what he calls “pyromajicks,” which are really just torches that fume from the top of the tower at certain times, sometimes over perilous gaps. This time, the tower is set up on one of those muddy piers, simultaneously adding the illusion of extra peril and a quick way to douse the flames. 

The location of Ane’s tent is at a nearly random position but generally fixed, like how a student may choose a desk on whim but in time commit to the position. At least, except when new acts appear; hers is the easiest to reposition, lacking both outdoor features or the drama that determines some of the others. Today, habit arranges the tent in between the triplets, the knife-thrower’s range, and the “Tower of Broken Skies,” though comfortably remote enough to give a sense of isolation and mystique. 

That’s the curse of having a tent instead of bringing people into her wagon — it has to be set up wherever the ground’s flat and hard enough, and that isn’t always consistent. Still, at least the nature of her trade helps her here.

If someone wants a diviner, they’ll seek one out.

She paces over the patch of ground for a few moments, kicking a few stones and fallen twigs out of the way before she lets the rolled-up canvas flop off of her back. Setting it up is a relatively simple affair: Flatten it out, slide in the poles, prop it up, and hammer the pegs in at the corners. Once it’s standing, it’s just a matter of ferrying in cushions, her folding table, her little katagon brazier, and other bits and pieces from her wagon.

The others often have similar concerns, albeit more tailored towards their wagons. Frequently, they employ boards to stop the wheels from sinking into marshy spots. As for the “Tower of Broken Skies,” well… That thing almost topples over about three times, before the stubborn strongman finally relocates it five feet further down the embankment. 

 

With everything in place, a wild, tinny turn-box tune begins to play, made by the slow grating of a song crystal inside the mechanism. Now Brair begins to make his rounds, lighting all the camp’s torches and braziers. Here, the bugs render them mostly unnecessary, though the differently-colored flames give a certain sort of ambiance. For Ane, this is a haunting pinkish-purple, though she wouldn’t know it herself.

A flick of the match, a light of the powder, and that rush of flame… And the show begins. 

It’s not just any show, but the big show — The Wondrous Varroon Troupe, limited time only. Bring your wife, your kids, Void, bring your hounds! The thrills are cheaper than the tickets, but they’ll light your pants on fire! Except for the hounds. The hounds get in free because Jarrik loves them. Everyone loves a good hound. Granted, the “Custom Fur-Shine Kindness Treats” (available in packs of twelve!) are always a few silvers each.

It’s better than what the herbalist gets stuck peddling, though. Her pitch burns the ears; it’s amazing what an old lady with some dried herbs and a shadowy windowsill can sell. 

Ane tugs gently at the corner of the neatly-painted fabric banner pinned over the entrance to her tent. 

FORTUNES TOLD

DESTINIES UNVEILED

5 S ea.

 

It’s not quite as flashy as the other displays, but it doesn’t need to be — people find their way well enough. Once she’s satisfied with the appearance of her post, she heads inside to light the katagon, shuffle her cards, and relax on a small pile of cushions until someone shows up to hand her some money.

In time, there’s the sound of footsteps approaching, then a sweep of the entry-flap…

The first patron of the evening is a tall silhouette of a man. This is to say, he’s not very visible underneath his many layers of travel gear. Between his cloak, his hood, his doublet, and some old, tattered banner, it’s really hard to make out their actual features. Marking him, however, are many trinkets hanging from his neck and shoulders: fangs, feathers, claw tips, and all manner of things dangling from him as he walks. When he approaches and lifts his hood, revealing a shasii half-veiled in the traditional style. There’s little else remarkable about his features; straight, firm, and with a token scar or two about the chin.

“Hello,” he greets her, looking about as in bewilderment. The man has the appearance of someone who just wandered in from being lost in the forest. Like most patrons, it seems he doesn’t know what to do or say upon entering; he stands confused within the atmosphere Ane has arranged.

 “Greetings,” the Teller of Fortunes says with a smile. She gestures to the cushions in front of her table with a lissome hand. “It’s five scutes for three cards, and five more for every three thereafter. How may I help you?”

She returns to shuffling the cards as she eyes the man up and down. Shasii, so he may have some social mobility concerns. He appears to present as male, so that makes it doubly likely — his trophies show he has a rather unconventional idea of the trappings of wealth, but it’s something to keep in mind regardless. He has a few scars, too; judging by his apparel, they probably come from animals, but he may have an enemy. He doesn’t look too young, and few people get into his apparent line of work if they have other means, so his parents are likely deceased. No trust fund. She nods subtly to herself. Money, enemies, dead parents. Her smile widens a fraction, touched with growing confidence.

The man follows her instruction, albeit with the typical delayed reaction. When people step into Ane’s world from the very, very different places outside, it usually takes time for their sense to catch up to them. This man, well-traveled as he seems, is certainly no exception. 

He kneels, then folds his legs underneath himself as he sits. The result is a dark heap of a man, mostly cloak, veil and trophies. He reaches a leather-gloved hand into his cloak and draws out an “approximately five” amount of scutes. The figure seems almost surprised that this place accepts his currency, and as a result, he hardly counts — though fortunately for Ane, it comes out to six. 

It soon strikes him that he’s supposed to ask a question. He purses his lips, then forces the words out in a low, grizzled tone. 

“I am looking for something… A creature. It’s a thing of myth in this land,” he explains, looking left and right as if he might see it slipping under the tent-walls. 

“Mm?” The Teller of Fortunes murmurs inquisitively, with a subtle raise of her brow beneath her veil. “And what information about this creature do you seek?”

 “How to find it, and how to kill it,” he replies bluntly. It seems he has little notion of how this process works; it’s sometimes a common thing for people to walk in with such misplaced expectations. 

She nods subtly. 

Void, it’s one of these. Welp.

“I can’t give you an exact map, mind — it would not be useful if I did, for creatures are prone to moving, no?” She asks, with an amused purse of her lips. “But let’s see what I can find for you…”

She leans over the table, as the trail of smoke emitting from the katagon brazier gives a rather theatrical little billow. The first card she turns over is…

“Ah, The Shard reversed,” she says, with a soft tsk and a shake of her head. “This signifies frustration, which I’m sure must be unsurprising to you.” Her hum raises coyly to meet his scarred, veiled face, before she continues in a conspiratorial tone. “But more than that, it signifies delay. The first steps on your journey to tracking down this beast are to release your frustration and relax your attempts to look for it. Counterintuitive, perhaps,” she cants her head, “But important things are often found just as we stop looking for them. Besides, after this…”

She turns over another card.

“We have the Cradle reversed,” she swears silently to herself. It’s hard to make reversed cards sound good, and bad omens don’t get much money. “It is a symbol of nurturing, but a cradle is also a place where one is looked down upon by one’s betters — when you find this creature, do not underestimate it. You may be tempted to treat it as any other conquest, but such would surely be your downfall. Now, to end your quest…”

She flips the final card. 

“Ah! The Gurran upright.” Finally, an upright card. “This indicates a stoic nature. Whatever the result of your quest, you may find yourself with greater reserves of mental fortitude for having done it.” 

The man is mostly silent during the reading, though occasionally his lips part in-between cards as if to ask a hurried question. He’s a disciplined patron, however, and holds his queries for the end. In any case, Ane certainly grabs his attention; something about her statements keeps him on the hook, as if he’s accepting them as immediate truth. This is the benefit to people who expect concrete results from the cards; sometimes, they become convinced that they’re receiving such results. 

His jaw is set firmly, with a dogged sort of determination. 

“So I will see more trouble in this… and be stronger.” He blurts out, “But will I find the beast?” He’s raptly attentive, even leaning slightly forward. “Oh,” and as an afterthought, drops four more silver scutes into the money bowl. 

The purse of her lips tightens a little as she tilts her head as if silently chastising him for his impatience. 

He slumps a little, chastened. 

“The beast is important to you, but the important things in life are only won with patience. Now…”

She turns another card, silently praying to any deity that’s listening to let it be something she can spin as a good omen.

“The Shroud upright,” the Teller of Fortunes says, with a soft sigh of relief. “This card, specifically, indicates putting old matters to rest — either you will find this beast, or you will abandon it for better quarry. Either way,” she says, as her soft, berry-colored lips ease into a smile once again, “You will reach the end of this goal. As for how long it’ll take…”

The tension in the man’s posture eases. His look of determination melts slightly, as he finds himself in a state of ambivalent calm. There’s still a shine of hope to the curve of his lips…

She reaches over to another stack of cards near the brazier and flips the topmost one. 

“The Two of Hearths,” Void damn it, “It won’t be soon — a year, at least, likely two.” 

THUNK.

The man promptly drops his head face-first against the table, pillowing it under his arms. It’s a look somewhere between despair, acceptance, and just plain old melodrama. He looks like he just lost a raffle, or sold his most prized vulre for a bargain-bin price. There will be no crops this flowering, no presents for him this Turnabout. 

In a surprise turn, he raises a fist slightly and shakes it, “Damn, that Void-ridden Great Mymbis! The beast evades me even in the cosmos,” he bemoans, scarcely realizing how any of this is inappropriate. All the while, he’s still covered in cloak, banner, and veil, making it all the stranger a display. 

The Teller of Fortunes hums at him flatly for a moment. She’s seen a lot of emotional displays, but none for a… What was it he said? 

“Tell me — what sign were you born under?” 

“Vurumaji, the stormwater,” he answers glumly, raising his head just slightly enough to do so without being muffled by his arms. 

Figures.

“Ah,” she says, with a sympathetic murmur. Her hum lands on him almost like a caress — like a gentle, reassuring pat on the hair. “In that case, you should keep a piece of iridescent rock crystal on you. For best results, tie it in a square of blue cloth, and keep it around your neck. This will improve your luck.”

She has no idea how he’s going to figure out what “iridescent” or “blue” are, but neither of those things are her problem.

He lowers his head slightly, now fixated on the recommendation. 

“… How… How do I find these?” He asks. “I have no eyes,” he answers, humor tempered by his deep, utter openness to superstition.

“Weeeell…” She trails off. Does Paakoponde’s market have a gem seller? Or a tailor? “You should check the market if you’re unable to dig your own,” she offers, “Just ask until you find someone who sells precious stones, or fabric.”

I need to start selling them myself. 

It’d be so easy, too. She can picture it already: A neat little display beside her table, full of little jars of herbs, stones, and bones…

The man nods, and even makes a tentative pat at his pouch — just checking to make sure he still has money for it. He’s not the sort to keep careful track. With this done, he begins to rise from the cushions, bracing himself upon his knees. “Very well… I shall do this. Thank you, Fortune Teller,” he says in an exasperated tone. “Maybe I do need to think about this…”

“Any time!” She says brightly, “Come again! Tell your friends!”

He’ll probably have to explain it anyway, at least when he returns to the hunter’s lodge and asks for a new assignment. It’s just as well; The Great Mymbis can’t be caught by everyone, otherwise it wouldn’t be legendary. 

With a whoosh of shifting fabric, the man is out of the tent and off towards whatever he next sets his sights upon.