It was near the end of the second day of travel that they saw the signs of civilization start to fade from beside the road. The last watch towers for the city were fading over the horizon behind them. It was here that Oren started to note the change in the spirits. There were more of them out here, but none of them were vying for his attention. They were content staying off the path, as if they were indifferent to his presence.
“Hey Oren, so are you going to take up trading in something more than books with this trip?” Tsuminoe asked. “They are all well and good, but there is more money to be made in other goods. I have been trying to get your father’s ear on running a route of cloth from Gromdash to Avo. The weaving processes in Gromdash are far superior to anything out this way.”
“I might, but my dad wants me to meet with the Lariant family. They are who he negotiates with for his timber. Kind of a renew the bonds between the families thing.”
“That will be easy work for you, Oren. The Lariant family has no desire to change who handles there wood flow to Aleto. Your father pays them well for quality wood.”
Conversations of this nature went on for the following few days. Tsuminoe would poke for information on what Oren was doing and his trade strategy. Then he would have suggestions on what Oren could do and how he could use Tsuminoe to carry it out. Tsuminoe knew that change in which Velgrey he answered to would come over time and wanted to make sure he would still have favor in the house if he wanted it. Based on conversations he had with Oren, he felt assured that he was in no threat of losing his position.
Oren spent the evenings with Martell, either practicing his combat skills or getting coaching on how to control spirits. He learned that Mediations on Umbra was a text used by the Tethinger Knights in training. The book itself was a rather old tome that was used by many in their studies. The knights could not do half of what was described in the book, but some principals did crossover. It was a good aid to the knights with how to handle countering a channeler’s abilities. What Oren caught on to after reading the text was there was far more knowledge contained in the book than Martell had understood. The principals made more sense if you actually were one that could interact with the spirits. He was also starting to think that if this was the basis others used for defense of his abilities it; his studies might also lead him to circumvent the attempts.
Early on Martell spent her time evaluating the guards on the caravan. She confirmed they would be able to handle any threat on the trails, but was certain she could just as easily put them in their place if the necessity arose. Though for both Oren and Martell, the jobs at hand were the priority for now, neither did anything to hide or downplay the relationship developing between them.
It was on the fifth day the easy going venture of the caravan was disturbed. They came across another caravan approaching from the other direction and headed back to Aleto. Tsuminoe stopped and talked to the head of the other convoy. He passed on word to them that they would have an easy trek back into Aleto. The news was returned to him was not so upbeat. South of the Xomen’s Inn there were ogres attacking people on the roads. Word had been sent to the Auben family requesting their soldiers help clear it up, but no response had been heard yet. They should wait at the safety of Xomen’s Inn till the problem was fixed.
When they arrived at Xomen’s inn, it was the afternoon of the sixth day. In addition to a large inn, the place was a gambling hall, several stables, wagon storage, two blacksmith shops and a warehouse. Tsuminoe directed the wagons to hold up in specific stables label for the Velgreys. This was the only building labeled for a specific occupants. The wagons were lined up behind the stables. The stables not labeled for the Velgrey family were full from individual travelers and at least one other caravan.
Tsuminoe explained to Oren and Martell, “The Velgreys’ have their own stable because your father changed the trade route from Avo to Aleto to come through here. Previously goods had to flow through Auben’s Manner. Not his home directly, but the city that is named the same. That route added another six days and a cramped city to the movement of goods. Also sometimes things go missing in a large city, and unless you have pull there, nobody cares.”
“So then what now, who do we talk to for information on the status of the roads south?” Oren asked.
“Simple, we go see the inn owner, Diago. If the road is clear we move on. If they have not cleared it of ogres, we take a vote on what we think our odds are of risking it. I don’t plan on staying here more than a day if we don’t have to.”
The problem of ogres on the road was a common one in the caravan world. Oren had encountered one on a small trip just outside the city wards with his parents to collect some plants. He did not recall the reason for the trip. He was in his early teens at the time and was far more interested in the new surroundings than the reason. The ogre stood around eight feet. It had a bear shaped face and was hairless from what he could recall. Its hands were dexterous enough to pick up objects. They had watched it hunt a dear with a sling safely from a distance. It was probably the most terrifying thing Oren could recall from his youth and probably one of the reasons he felt little need to leave Aleto. He and his parents waited in hopes it did not notice them and would move on. Lucky for them it caught the deer and moved on from the area.
Over the years, Oren had since picked up on a few more bits of information from books. The ogres generally lived in small clans but never had been seen in a group larger than twenty. In general, they did not seek out humans, nor was there any records indicating they ate humans, despite rumors to the contrary. Often the attack came from them wanting a resource that the humans had. They seemed most drawn to places they thought could get them either wine or fish as there was no indication they had the knowledge required to make alcohol and they seemed very poor fishermen.
Tsuminoe left the company at the stables and took Oren with him to Xomen’s Inn. The inn felt like it had seen better days. The tables wobbled and the chairs creaked when you shifted your weight. The bar had no seats, standing only. The floor was a mixture of dirt and layers of straw, near the walls you could see at one point there had been a wood floor. The walls had grooves and nicks from where impromptu dart and knife throwing contests had taken place. Upon entering the place, an older man at the bar waived over at Tsuminoe.
The man was using a cane to hobble over to the group. He favored his left foot, as one would assume with his mangled right leg. The left side of his face was heavily scarred, and the eye appeared to have a milky complexion. His dress, in contrast to his looks and the inn, were well put together. “Tsuminoe, it is good to see you back through here again.” His voice was rather proper sounding matching his attire rather than his looks. “You hear that we have ogres sighted on the path south of here? The Auben’s are deciding if they want to send anyone to deal with it. But I think they are trying to shut this road down and get the caravans going back through Auben Manner.”
“Good to see you Diago. So they haven’t even started on clearing the path for me? I got a large group this time. We are on the run for the winter timber. I also have your request for the building material coming in when I turn around in Avo.”
“My estimate is that you will lose a week here over the Auben’s indecisiveness. And that is assuming a quick response from them.”
“You know I can’t be idle that long. Any idea on how many ogres we are dealing with? Two, five, ten?”
“Four is the consistent number I hear. Though the reports from travelers is anywhere from zero to six. Some have been lucky and ran across none.”
“Sounds like we will have to consider making a push through.” Tsuminoe paused, “Oh, may I introduce to you Master Oren, Flynn’s son. His father indicated we needed to get him to Avo as soon as possible. He is to work on making contacts there, and his father wanted him to be able to make it back before the first snow.”
“It is my pleasure to make your acquaintance. Your father is a good and fair man. Did good by me even though I was costing him money. All ended well though, got this place now.” He made a gesture to the building. “With his help we have grown the route through here. The extra business means soon I will be able to restore this place to something more proper.”
“I can see the potential here,” Oren remarked. “So is there an obelisk here that provides wards?”
“There are remnants of one, much weaker than it was in the past. If you traveled about half a day to the west from here you would run across remnants of a larger town. But there are no records of the town or what happened to the obelisk. My guess is the ruins have long since been picked over for any treasure that was there. Though I am willing to bet someone determined enough could find some clues as to the history of the place.”
“Sounds like you have already looked into it. You should reach out to one of the universities; they may be able to send out an expedition.”
“I would but I have neither the ear of the patrons nor the money to entice such a thing.”
“Diago, if you would pardon us,” Tsuminoe broke in, “We need to go back to the caravan and figure out what the vote is on action.”
“Certainly. In the meantime, I will prepare rooms for you for the evening.”
The two departed back to the stable. “Do you want to hear what happened to Diago?” Tsuminoe asked.
“I was a bit curious.”
“On one of the last caravans he was on, we were working together. We were camped out on the road among the unprotected lands. At night, the guards on duty had fallen asleep and sprites attacked the camp. They came in controlling two bears. The bears killed several horses, before the sprites relinquished control and tried to manipulate the members of the caravan. Despite fighting it, they controlled Diago. They made him go up against one of the bears. He wrestled with it better than you would think a man would do. During the fight, the bear killed the sprite freeing Diago. We were quite certain we had lost Diago, but he managed to pull through that.”
“That is quite the story,” mused Oren.
“I tell you the story so you can keep in mind what we are voting for back at the stables. It is not just quick run to Avo. It also is to let you know, that even though you may be thinking we are going to fight ogres there are often unexpected complications on the roads. You may not be as lucky as Diago was.”
They headed the rest of the way back to the stables in silence. Oren was left to mull the story over. Was Tsuminoe testing his resolve to go to Avo? Or would he talk to Diago later tonight and find out this was all lies and he got hurt in a bar fight. Either way, he was going to talk to Martell before any decision was made. He would trust her counsel on the actual danger ahead.
“The story sounds reasonable,” Martell opined. “But let us disregard it for now. Your parents said that it was urgent for us to head south. My guess is they do not want us to do anything to get hurt though. My experience would say if all the guards are as seasoned as they say they are and they all vote to go forward we should be able to handle four ogres.”
“And what should I do if we encounter them? Hide?”
“That may be best. But your staff will be more useful than a sword in your hands if it comes down to it. Besides, this is the type of thing I was hired to protect you from.” Martell winked at him.
The two headed over to the group. Everyone else had been off in smaller groups discussing their thoughts and slowly was drifting back together. After a short while, Tsuminoe called the group to order for voting. It was no surprise that one of the families decided to wait it out. The other, which was just a couple, decided to brave it if the rest of the caravan was going. The rest of the company was for pushing on.
“Pay this to whichever company will take you the rest of your way.” Tsuminoe handed the fare for passage back to the family staying behind. “We will push out tomorrow after we eat. Guards, get your rest, you will need to be sharp from here on. The rest of you rest, for the day. I will see if I can get any more information from those here that arrived from the south. With any luck, the ogres have had their fill and moved on by the time we are passing that section of road.” With that, the group broke up to go about their business.
Oren and Martell went looking for a place to practice. Although no sooner than leaving the stable and Oren was detecting a familiar aroma. He was mildly confused as he had not noticed any spirits nearby. The idea of running away crept in the corners of Oren’s mind. He felt the need to go where no one else was.
Martell sensed something had changed in Oren’s demeanor. He looked as if his consciousness had left the present. “Oren,” she spoke. “Are you ok?” He did not say a word, and started off walking west, away from the inn and stables. She was uncertain on how to take this change. “Oren, wait up.” She said trying to get his attention. He looked back at her and she saw a face full of fear and dread.
Oren had not run this fast since he was a kid. He heard what Martell was saying. He wanted to reassure her that this was only temporary. He went to talk but nothing came out. He only could watch as his body decided to disobey his thoughts and he left the area around the inn. The spirit’s touch had a strong pull over him. This reminded him of the one that had encouraged him to research about Dawsil, but this one pushed fear over curiosity.
Martell ran after Oren. She was not sure if she should tackle him or let him wear himself out first. She called to him again hoping for something. All he did was ignore and kept moving. This went on for twenty minutes till they found themselves well west of the inn and approaching some ruins. Martell had fears that they had left the protection of the wards. Lucky for them, it didn’t look like anyone was out here scavenging.
Oren came to rest and caught his breath inside a corner formed by two stone walls. He was starting to gain control back. Where he had run to was starting to process as well. The stonework at his back made him finally coax a bit of security. He saw Martell had followed and smiled as she caught up to him.
“Oren, do I have you back?”
“Yes, mostly. I am still fighting back against some urges from a spirit.”
“So why these ruins?”
“I don’t know. It was a fear and desire for solitude that lead here.” He looked at the stonework; the walls were of decent craftsmanship. The stone was nothing from around this area from what he could tell. He saw that a seal had been crafted on one of the stones. “Martell, do you know that?”
The seal was of a vulture with its wings splayed out. In its talons were seven arrows. Above its head was a crown with five points. “Not any house I know. But given the age of this place, the family could easily have been long dead.” She looked at it a minute longer, “Nope, no one I know.”
Oren reached in his bag and pulled out some paper and a pen. He made a copy of the symbol and made a few notes about the location and details he couldn’t quite get right.
“Shall we go back to the inn and safety before something finds us out here?”
“Agreed,” quipped Oren. “I think it is time I look at the next chapter in Meditations. It looks like it will discuss how to control contact with spirits. That would have been useful a little while ago.”
“So at what point do you want me to take you down when you get one of these encounters?” asked Martell. “When can I throw you down and make sure you go nowhere?”
Oren just smiled back.
Back at the inn, no one had noticed their absence. Most everyone had gone inside and been enjoying a meal that was other than trail rations or rabbit over fire. The two joined the rest of the company at a cluster of tables. It was a sober evening, with everyone cutoff after one drink. Tsuminoe wanted them at their best. There was a little grumbling but they knew he was right.