Shak scanned the hills he was approaching and then checked back to the other side of the field. On top of one of the far hills, strewn with old standing stones, he saw one of those stones stand up. Or, rather a monster with grey and black speckled skin stood and raised a great mace into the sky and roared a bellowing treat. Light preserve! It was a hill troll.
Shak ran. Something thrummed above his head and a stone landed twenty feet ahead of him, thumping deeply into the ground. Shak crested the peek of the hill as another stone glanced off a rock just a few feet to his right, the cracking sound of stone on stone made him cry out in fear. He bolted down the hill and angled towards clear ground. He did not look back again and he sprinted harder than he had since he had been a child. He kept running, until there was no more sun to light the way. Behind him he heard another roar, it encouraged him to keep going, picking his way across the rough terrain in the grey twilight.
Eventually he had to stop, scraped and bruised, worn out from his flight he fumbled around with the water skin, took a drink and fell asleep clutching his bedroll.
Shak was pleased and somewhat surprised to wake up in the land of the living. Or, he at least assumed he was in the land of the living by the gnawing hunger twisting his guts. As well, he still bore the scraps and cuts he had received the night before during his flight from the hill troll. After assessing his surroundings and having found no food he headed in a southeasterly direction, hoping he would find a homestead soon. As the morning passed he wound his way through the hills, the summer heat becoming oppressive by midday. Near the edge of a line of hills he was able to see for many yat, southwest the hills gave way to open plains again, though to the southeast he could see smaller hills with swaths of trees and brush running across them. From beyond one of the nearer clusters of trees he could see a few wispy columns of smoke rising skyward. Civilization of some sort lay in that direction, so he headed towards the smoke.
By mid-afternoon he passed through a small copse and down out of the hills, three homesteads were clustered within shouting distance of each other near a cart track. He could see that they had erected a watchtower made of rough cut timber. By the time he came across the back pasture of the nearest homestead a posse of nearly twenty armed people were ready to greet him. If he had not been so hungry and in need of direction he would have moved off without disturbing these people. However, chances were the locals were more concerned with hill trolls than a lone wanderer.
Shak raised his hands in greeting, “Hello, I’m passing through on my way to Els’Marithe, I’m guessing this is Bowder or nearly so?”
They gave him long hard looks and Shak was distinctly aware of being alien to these people, his darker skin and accent marked him as being Tannican. The moments stretched out and then a whistle from the direction of the watchtower seemed to relax folks enough that they lowered raised weapons and stood easier, a few spared quick glances, one to the other. Finally a burly man stepped forward, raised an open hand, “Peace be with you outlander.”
Shak bowed deeply, “Light be praised.”
The big guy seemed unimpressed with Shak’s greeting, however he answered the earlier question, “This is part of Old Bowder, though the village proper is another yat east of here. Els’Marithe, though we hardly called it that even before the mage showed up, is about a days walk eastward of our village. Stick to the east bound track and you will pass through both the village and the mage’s town.”
“Thank you for that information.” Shak pulled a few silver weight from his pouch, “I have coin and could use some food for the rest of my journey. Have you spare?”
“We can give you a meal and some bread for the road, but you’d be best picking up extra at the village. We’ve had troubles here for some time. Most recently a hill troll has moved into the area north of us. Our resources are tighter than usual.”
“I met your northern neighbour last night. It nearly pulped me with a stone. It’s how I came to look so scratched and hard worn.”
“Lucky to be alive then.”
“Oh yes, on that you are more than correct.”
“Is it still near the battlefield?”
“Yes, it seems to have recently killed of a gaggle of goblins.”
“Well, no loss there. Before the troll we were having problems with goblins. It was that way even before the Tannican soldiers showed up a couple of years back. The druid lady fixed them good enough though, made some big old magic spiders that like the taste of goblins more than anything else. But now we have this hill troll to deal with, it never ends.”
Shak nodded sympathetically, “I noticed the slain soldiers, I was unaware the Empire had made any incursions this far east. Did the mage, Probancruq, slay the soldiers?”
“No, that was the new baron and a handful of his men, back before he was the new baron.”
“A handful of men you say. Great warriors they must have been, I saw over a hundred dead in that field, wyrms as well.”
“Aye, that is so. Though west of here there is the ruins of one of them Tannican churches, a big one. There was a battle there as well. Jander and the new baron with their men and some of us locals fought nearly three hundred of the soldiers and they had priests with them as well.”
Curious, the story was getting stranger by the moment, “I had heard that there was an opium plantation west of Bowder, was that near the old church?”
“North and somewhat east of the old church, not far from here really, but the new baron has taken over the operation there as well. You’d be best going to Els’Marithe, or Jander-town as we now call it.”
“Janderton, fair enough.”
“Come over to my place we’ll get you some food and make sure we set you on the right path when you leave.” The burly fellow invited. That also seemed to be a signal for the others to return to what they had been doing previous to Shak’s appearance.
Shak had been well fed and given a loaf of hard bread for the road, even though his destination was only a little over a days travel from the homestead. Despite his hunger, it was the stories of what had been going on locally that he had been most interested in. It had all seemed wonderfully fantastic and it had come out in bits and pieces from the burly fellow, his wife and their two oldest children as they ate.
Besides a dislocated Tannican army; more like a quarter of an army by the sound of it, but Shak saw no reason to tell the locals a proper Imperial army was about four times what they had faced a couple of years ago. The fact remained that less than a hundred people had fought and won against four times their number under the leadership of Baron Soivad, Shak learned the name over lunch.
Then there was the town the earth-mage had created and roads of stone radiating out from Janderton and reaching out to the various parts of Allark’s Hold. As well, the White Road, the mage had uncovered a great swath of the ancient road, somewhere north of his new town.
There was also the druids and a magical tavern that one of them created. Goblin hunting spiders had also been breed, to a massive size. These druids had helped the mage design his town so that it would be in greater harmony with the natural world. The locals also believed that these druids lead a great cannibal cult and had amazing powers of healing and longevity. There was also mention of something about “cannibal law”.
To top it all off the mage had a dwarven friend who crafted the most amazing weapons, armour and apparently they were presently working on a magic flying ship. The locals said between the mage, the druids and the dwarf they could combine their skills and create nearly anything they could set their mind to.
As he heard more and more of the wondrous things that happened in and around Janderton, Shak began to think that most of what he was hearing had to be made up or misunderstood. Not that the locals were lying or even trying to have some fun with him, he could see they truly believed all the things they were telling him, even seemed to be proud of these fantastic things. All in all though, taken together, it seemed unlikely.
The oldest lad walked with him to Bowder, just a yat down the trail, taking some produce to the village in a large basket that he wore like a backpack. He made sure to take Shak to the road that Jander, the earth-mage, had built up to the edge of the village. Sure enough there was a wide stone road heading eastward, two heavy wagons could have easily passed by each other without either one having to pull over to make way for the other. The lad smiled at the expression on Shak’s face and bid him fair travels then wandered back into the village to deliver the produce he had brought.
Shak set off along the mage-road. More and more curious about what lay ahead.
A hard rain began falling not long after he started out along the nearly pristine road, the water quickly washed the dirt and dust away. The countryside road was nearly straight despite the once again hilly landscape, a few tall trees, an occasional copse as well lots of rock and brush. The highway really was impressive, there were regular way markers indicating the length of each yat. The road rarely crested the rises, sometime a hillside had been cut away and small bridges spanned the low points between the hills, regardless if water flowed between them or not. This helped keep it mostly level. Later in the afternoon he stopped at a crossroads with a way station made from the same stone, with a colour variation for the arches of the doors, shutters and windows frames. It was a blending of the best building techniques from across the continent. Drainage runnels and the grade of the road, as well the structure’s foundation, made sure water did not collect on the surface nor within the buildings. A bunkhouse and a carriage house with a row of stabling along the north wall, built side by side, the building was considerably longer than it was wide. A large paved yard surrounded the rest stop. A sun dial was marked at the intersection and used the building’s weather vane’s shadow to mark the progress of the day. Really, looking at it he was of a mind that most of the lords and gentry within the freeholds would have been envious of what was here.
He had come in from the west, the road continued east, southeast and south. Shak spotted a few wild goats in the distance though saw no other animals nor people. No one had been at the way station, so, despite the rain, he continued east with growing anticipation of what he would find in Jander’s town.