Shak had not been having a good summer. In fact, as far as he could remember, it was the worst summer of his life. Worst, of all the myriad things that vexed him, he had been sober and straight for over a month.
After he had lost Mokha, though he had been sure his friend was right behind him when he ran from the bandits, he had found the road and headed west. If Mokha and he had been separated they had an established agreement to go back to the last civil place they had entertained for pay. It had seemed like a good idea.
Wikkersak had been that place. In fact they had entertained at three taverns and at the homesteads of a few of the local landsmen. One of the few towns east of GreensBridge where they had been well received.
Though Shak had hardly returned to Wikkersak before he ran afoul the Marshal’s son and his little posse of deviants. After having been driven from the tavern just for his differences he had waited for the crew to leave the establishment. Shak had followed them to a house near one of the larger bridges. Shak waited on a nearby commons and when, later in the day, most of the crew departed the premises, he went over to the fancy house and through the kitchen door. There was a cook, but he waited until she was busy with the oven then crept past. He proceeded to rob the place of everything he thought he would need to survive for a week along the road, and some easily carried valuables.
On his way out Shak stopped in the kitchen as there was no one else around at that point. After securing a large sack of food he headed out, only to come face to face with the cook as he stepped into the back garden. He attempted to push past her, she threw her small harvest basket at him and drew her belt knife. She had managed to stab him high in the back, just under the shoulder, as he darted past.
Shak had managed to get out of Wikkersak, but that was the last good thing that happened for days to come. Much of that time was confused and there were gaps in his memory, sometimes he had woke in unusual places. He was wounded, likely with an infection. He could not easily care for the wound other than cleaning it when he found fresh water. The withdrawal from the drugs he had been taking most of the last fifteen years had been wretched. Confused and feverish he had unknowingly wandered south. Along the way he lost most of his belongings.
In his delirium he had wandered across the migratory path of the wild elves onto the southern plains.
Besha had found Shak, near death, passed out near her chicken coop. She was young, with two children and widowed. Luckily for him, her grandmother had taught her the plants and rare elements, tinctures and salves and how to shift the energies of the body. She and her two kids were the only people for a yateer, he remember the way she smiled when she said, “Its like I’m my own freehold.”
Shak thought she was one of the bravest people he had ever met. She saved him, helped him regain his health and he had fallen in love with her. She never stopped; kitchen, garden, the animals, sing the rising of the sun, kitchen, check the pasture and hay fields, clear the snares, gather the plants, walk somewhere different on the property keeping an eye-on-things, gather, hunt, kitchen, animals, kitchen, sing the suns setting, mending and small tasks, sleep. Then she did it all over again, every day while caring for him and teaching a young child with a one year old often on her hip. She was always happy, wise beyond her years and full of little stories she told the kids.
Surprisingly, some of the stories he knew, or at least knew the Tannican versions. Maybe the originals were Tannican, told around this region near a thousand years ago when these lands had been part of the Empire. The rest of the stories were new to him, drawn from the Elquin, Pwhanna, Loopee, the wild elves and other more diverse sources he could only guess at.
It had taken him over a month to heal and regain his strength, the two of them had become close, sleeping in the same bed and working together over the past two weeks, eight-days as she called them. He was torn, lost in the domestic dream he had awoken to, while wondering if Mokha was alive or looking for him. Also he found himself wanting to wander on, to return to the life he had chosen. His path was that of the mystic and he had been on a visionary quest to defeat death. He was Aggedrah, he lived in the wonder of the sacred plants.
He also missed his lute, it felt strange to not be playing an instrument daily.
It was another two eight-days before he finally left. A few days before his departure a pair of travellers stopped briefly to rest their horses and trade for food. They were heading north to Sharlok’s Hold. They had come up by way of Bowder, after having been in a mage’s town, Els’Marithe. A town they claimed had not been more than a hamlet near two years ago when they had last past through Allark’s FreeHold.
The new town was built over the old hamlet and ruins that were once there. Now, everything was massively built from stone, a great circular wall aligned to the stars, with five tall towers, the tallest being the mage’s own tower. Jander Prodancruq, renegade mage from GreensBridge, was the one responsible for the new town. It was a place of wonders built from the local earth and stone, shaped with magic, deep wells and heat from the earth, advanced aqueduct systems, forges, smithy and armoury designed and run by a friendly dwarf. The common hall was near thirty paces tall, sixty wide and ninety long, the southeast end of the building had walls of transparent crystal, seamless from the rest of the structure. It all sounded too amazing to be true.
The place was not that far away, slightly over an eight-day’s walk. He had also heard of Bowder, or more to the point the Bowders. One was located at the southern edge of Sharlok’s Hold, the other had once been a large free town, although use of the roads had changed a generation back and the town had slowly died as people moved away. The two Bowders were often confused with one another. While he had been in GreensBridge he had picked up some interesting news about the southern most Bowder; according to his source there was a House of Rashammon poppy plantation in the hills west of the old town. A reliable place to acquire quality opium, in the middle of nowhere.
Besha knew that he was leaving before he told her. She had readied a travel pack, given him another set of her dead husbands clothing, his razor and knife, as well, provided a tarp and blankets, a water skin, hard bread and cheese. She let the children say their goodbyes first, then held onto him tightly for a long time.
“Thank you for stopping by.” She finally said with a smile, no tears and only a touch of sadness in her eyes.
“Thank you for saving my life.” He felt his throat constrict a bit. “Ah, I know there is a tradition wherein I owe you for my life-”
She stopped him with a finger to his lips, “The balance has already been paid Shak. Please believe me when I say you saved my life as much as I yours.”
He kissed her finger and held her hands, “Thank you then. When my path takes me this way again I’ll make a point of stopping in.”
She smiled and nodded, “Peace be with you.”
The days had passed pleasantly, travel was easy and moving on to what was next felt like the right thing to do. He had no chance in finding Mokha now and this mage’s town seemed worthy of a great ruddah. Even the nights were fine, warm and a beautiful sweep of stars crossed the sky. Ants were the most persistent of the insects, they were big and cranky and liked the hard cheese Besha had given him. He saw a couple bears after he had been in the hills for most of a day, they did not seem too interested in him and he gave them plenty of space. Oddly he heard neither coyote nor dog during his journey.
On the fifth day of his journey he ran out of food, mostly because he had not been gathering from the land as Besha had likely assumed he would. Shak had tried, but he was not a man of the wilds, having spent most of his time in large cities. He had set snares though he had yet to actually catch anything, a few times he tossed a stone at birds, but he always missed. Luckily water had been plentiful, there were many small streams and springs in the hills, also a wide variety of shrubs and other plants, most of which he did not recognize. This was the first time he had been this far east and it was also the first time he had been in the wilds by himself.
He hoped he would find a homestead or village soon and kept a good pace through the day. Late in the afternoon he came across an old battle field, though not very old, maybe two years ago. The battle had taken place on the low ground between two lines of hills, grass had grown over most of it, but the skeletons of two land-striders and half a dozen horses poked above the grass. There was also a rotting pavilion still partially standing. Shak also spotted a much more recent camp near the far group of hills, though it looked like it had been smashed and strewn about the place. As he picked his way across the field he saw that the dead soldiers were Tannican, they seem to have been left pretty much as they had fallen. As he neared the wrecked camp Shak noted that the dead soldiers were recently displaced and stripped of nearly everything, he passed a large pile of bones. A row of thirty or more skulls lead up to the camp. He saw fresher bodies.
An arm and leg here and there, half a goblin smashed on a rock, bits and pieces trailing in a large splatter arc, a couple of large indentations in the ground and an area of smashed stone. It looked like the goblins attempted to flee but he found two crushed goblin bodies, a couple of goats and half a dozen dogs. The recently dead looked only to be a few days rotted, well picked over by animals and insects. He wondered why there were no birds around.
There was also more than enough bits of flesh left on these more recent bodies that there should be dogs and creepers and other wyrms. He felt an unease as he slowly looked all the way around the area surrounding him. Nothing moved, there was no breeze, the grass was still across the field, hills with bushes and strewn rocks and a few standing stones, the cloudless sky and the sun just above the western horizon.
Closer at hand he spotted a couple of large footprints in the earth and a number of head sized stones that had smashed against other stone or were splattered with blood. He turned to the southeast and started walking as calmly as he could manage.