Sunday, May 24, 2015

Last of the King's Men, Chapter 10

"I'm sorry, Dag, but I cannot tell the Oakensprings how to conduct their own business."

The short, stocky, balding old man was not at all happy with this statement. His usually-pale face had developed a slight purple hue, and he began to grind his teeth in frustration.

"But… they're selling an inferior product! If enough people find out, it'll drive me out of business and then there will be nobody to repair any of their barding or anything else when it breaks!"

Jael shook her head, shrugging softly and holding her hands up.

"Then so be it. If you're so concerned about your loyal customers, then perhaps you need to focus more on your own product than someone else's. Oliver and Opal own the general store, and you know that there's no way they can compete with you for leather sales. Just do an honest job, show your customers some respect," she emphasized that word, "and they'll come back. You've been in business long enough to know that."

The old man muttered something under his breath for a moment or two, then spat on the floor, brushed the dust off his pants, and turned around to stomp into the back storeroom. Jael stayed for a moment, in case he decided to come back for a last word, and then turned around to exit the shop. As the bell over the door tinkled quietly, she said a silent blessing to her deity Azimuth, wishing the old curmudgeon health and prosperity. The small wooden building was the northernmost structure in town, its front door overlooking the Kellon River as it rushed along peacefully. Behind her, a wooden sign next to the door read Daggit's Tannery, and below it, a semi-permanent addition read, "Apprentice Wanted".

Jael walked on the path back towards town, taking in a deep breath of air as she got away from the tannery, hoping she wouldn't have to return for another complaint before the day was out. Next to the tannery was the town's fishing pond, and even at this early hour two fishermen were already sitting in their canoe at the center, half a dozen fish laying hooked against the side of the boat. She waved at the two of them, and they waved back, calling out a morning's greeting to the priestess. On the far side of the pond she could see Ben Arons' house sitting atop its steep hill. She hadn't seen Ben all morning; where could he be? Probably out with that girlfriend of his. She had heard tell of some dark-haired beauty, and rumors that the two of them had been seen running off north of town- Jael shivered in the morning's light breeze at the thought. The northern hills had always given her a bad feeling, but she was never quite sure why.

Past the pond Jael crossed the two streams connecting the pond and the river, passing the mill along the way. A few logs had already been reined in as they were delivered down the river, and within the next few hours the town would be filled with the noise of the saws. Down the road she saw Edward, one of the boys working at the mill, on his way in to work. She waved to him and he smiled and waved back. He looked tired; like he had been up late, probably working into the dark hours of the night. Tyffina, the owner of the mill, can be a bit of a slave driver sometimes; or maybe he was hanging around the tavern. In any case, it was none of her business.

Passing the mill, Jael came to the town's square, where several people were getting their shops ready for the day. Oliver Oakenspring, the halfling owner of the general store, had already opened up and was sweeping the dust out of the door. The tiny man smiled and waved at her from across the square. For a moment Jael wondered if he knew that Daggit had taken such offense to him; but she had been the legal arbiter in the area for many years, and she knew the importance of confidentiality. She wanted everyone to know that she was someone they could trust, and depend on. In a way she thought of herself as part of the community's backbone- being both the resident spiritual leader, as well as the town's source of medicine and advice on anything related to nature, her time was valuable. Her father Hael had left the position to her when he died nearly fifteen years ago, and while it took the stubborn village folk some time to grow accustomed to a new doctor and judge, it did happen.

As she left the square she saw that Primm, the bartender at the Rusted Drake, was opening up his doors as well. He nodded curtly to her as she passed, and then hobbled back into the building, his peg leg tapping against the floor as he did so. She walked along the road next to the stream, eventually coming back to the temple of Azimuth, her home and the town's only public place of worship. The small wooden building was surrounded in flowers, growing in the grass all around the building and some even twisting among the vines that gripped the sides. At first glance one might even think the inside of the building had been overrun with a rainbow of petaled plants as well- but every bouquet inside the temple had been placed and cared for meticulously by Jael during her free time. She loved their colors, their smells, and the feeling of being surrounded by the beautiful bounty Azimuth had provided. Around her neck she wore a long plain string necklace, holding a palm-sized seashell given to her by her mother when she was a child. Jael often placed a flower in the shell as a reminder that Azimuth was always nearby.

After gathering some medicinal herbs and salves, she left the temple on the way to the Grett farm. There was a flock of sheep grazing out in the pasture outside the homestead, and a few hired hands were watching them and guiding them along their way. As she opened the gate and stepped into the yard, the family's dog happily ran up to greet her, its black-and-white tail wagging and sending its long fur flopping in every direction. Jael laughed as the dog jumped up to place its paws on her stomach, its mouth open and its tongue hanging lazily out to the side.

"Down, Patches. Come on, girl!"

Calthie Grett was standing in the doorway to the homestead, taking off her large apron as she called to the dog. Patches reluctantly released Jael from her embrace and ran back to the house, snorting as she did so. Jael met Calthie in the doorway and followed her inside, pleasantly smelling the remnants of their breakfast lingering in the air.

"How has your morning been so far?" asked Calthie, her light brown hair matted with sweat against her forehead.

"It's been well… just making my rounds," she replied.

"Have you eaten? We have some leftover eggs and oats if you're hungry."

"No, thank you, Calthie. I've already eaten. I appreciate the offer."

"I heard old Daggit called you up this morning… what's that grump been up to lately? Probably fired another apprentice I take it?"

Jael nodded. "That he has- but what else is new?" The two of them laughed. Jael could tell Calthie was trying to pry more information than that, but none would be given.

"Are you going to the town meeting this morning?" asked Calthie, putting away the last of the breakfast.

Jael sighed slightly. "Yes, although I may miss the beginning of it. And yourself?"

Calthie shook her head. "No, I've got too much work to do around the home. Malleck  will be there, though. He certainly knows my thoughts on Ben Arons and his silly dreams."

"Well," began Jael, "I suppose we'll have to see what Telstedler thinks we should do. Now, you said one of your lambs was injured?"

Calthie nodded, and led her outside. Next to the barn, one of the sheep was lying in the shade, one leg tucked under its body. As they left the house, the dog Patches came with them, hurrying off to pick up a stick in the hopes of convincing them to play a quick game of fetch. Calthie absentmindedly grabbed the stick and threw it far away, and showed the injured lamb to Jael.

"While one of the boys was taking the herd out yesterday, they wandered close to the forest. I'm thinking it might have stepped in a hunter's trap."

Jael took a look at it, and saw some small cuts and gashes marring the white hair on the lamb's leg. After examining them, she shook her head. "No, it looks like it wandered into some thorn bushes. See…" she pulled out a thorn nearly as long as her finger, and the wound it had caused began bleeding. The lamb tried to get up and get away from her, but she quickly took hold of the animal and held it close, comforting it. "I'll be able to get her bandaged up, but she'll require near constant attention for the next day to make sure it's healing."

Calthie was not happy with the diagnosis, but she nodded. "I'll get Marie to watch her. That girl's been spending too much time with that Edward boy, I'll tell you. Malleck  caught him sneaking to meet her after nightfall last night- that boy's lucky he wasn't waiting with his pitchfork! And plus, just the other day…"

Jael pretended to listen, but she was busy applying some salves to the wounds on the lamb's leg. She was whispering small prayers for the creature, which helped to calm her as well as provide some measure of protection against infection. The lamb licked Jael's hand as she finished, causing her to smile.

As she was finishing up, Jael stood, realizing that Calthie was still talking.

"…always running around with it on his shoulder, and now he's got two of them…"

But Jael was distracted. She could see, off in the distance, a group of people walking towards town. They came from the east- likely from the forest- and she didn't recognize them, especially at this distance. Calthie most likely noticed them as well, as she stopped talking about whatever it was she was saying and followed Jael as the two stepped closer to the edge of the property, watching the group approach Kellonville.

From this distance, there appeared to be five of them- one was a draconian (a red, from the looks of it), a human boy with red sleeves, an elderly human male, a female- elf, maybe? And the one walking in front of them all was a trystborn, as recognized by his red skin and tail. They all wore cloaks, most of them with hoods drawn, and the draconian, trystborn, and human boy all were clearly wearing armor. Though none of them were drawn, all but the old man had weapons. They walked in a tight-knit group, never one straying far from the others. All five were on alert, watching everything around them, but at the same time, trying not to look like they were on alert. All of them looked exhausted and ragged, as if they had been traveling for weeks. But if they were traveling on foot, as they were right now, where could they have come from? There were no other settlements within traveling distance, even if they had horses. Who were these people?

They stopped only for a moment in front of the sign at the eastern edge of town, maybe speaking to each other as they did so- it was difficult to tell from so far away. Then they continued on the path, once again looking suspiciously like they were trying not to look suspicious. It became obvious, then, that Calthie was frantically trying to snap Jael out of her trance.

"Jael, did you hear me? What in the world should we do? We haven't had visitors here in… months, years even! Not since Marie was a little girl! What do you think they're here for? Where do you think they're from? Where are they headed? Do you think we should-"

Jael cut her off. "We shouldn't do anything, Calthie. For all we know they're just passing through. Passing through isn't a crime, and neither is stopping in town and buying supplies or even talking to the townsfolk. This doesn't need to be a big deal unless they make it a big deal. Do you understand?"

Calthie tried to protest, but in the end kept her mouth shut. She turned around and hurried, wordlessly, back into the house, gesturing for the dog to follow her. Jael had lost sight of where the visitors had gone off to, so, following her better judgment, decided to continue with her rounds for the time being. She passed by a few more farms over the course of the morning, and it seemed all of them had already heard about the visitors- though it seemed each home had a more extreme opinion of them than the one before. In every case, Jael urged them all to go about their business, and that if anything happened they would be notified immediately. The last thing she wanted was for the xenophobic townspeople to run these visitors out of town without any provocation.

After finishing her rounds, the sun was at its highest in the sky. The town meeting was supposed to have started at noon, so she made her way to the Rusted Drake. Near the building, she could hear raised voices from within, so she assumed the meeting was well underway. As she crossed the square, however, she felt a sudden, sharp gust of wind blow a cloud of dust past her face, and it stung her eyes. As she rubbed them to regain her sight, she realized she was standing in a massive shadow. She suddenly felt a freezing cold creep across her body, and she saw her breath come out as a fine mist. She turned around, almost paralyzed with fear, and saw what caused it.

Inside the tavern, the townsfolk were interrupted by a bloodcurdling scream.

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