Chapter 10

The rest of the ride to Avo was uneventful, much to everyone’s happiness.  Martell was out of her bandages and sling by the time they got there.  The caravan finally stopped at a building with a faded Velgrey crest above the main doors.  Adjacent to the building were stables and warehouse space.  The compound was starting to show its age in areas, but looked structurally sound.

“Welcome to your family’s office in Avo.  You are welcome to stay here,” Tsuminoe spoke. “Your quarters will be the ones previously held by the late Ziegman. He passed away a few months back, tragic mishap with some highwayman outside of town.  Your father has yet to replace him, he alluded that might be part of your job here.”

Oren had been given direction to appoint Ziegman’s assistant Eston to the role. That was assuming he found no reason not to.  Ziegman’s death was more what his father wanted him to focus on and using his quarters would allow him ease of access to his belongings and work.  Ziegman was a former mercenary with his father.  He had been fought alongside Flynn on the Jacobo’s Plains, but had fared much worse from injuries.  Ziegman had lost his right arm due to an infected wound from the fight.  Over time Ziegman had been brought into Oren’s parent’s plans as a set of eyes in Avo.  The last word that they had received is that he saw someone with the crest of the Wolves in town. But it was not until a month later did they heard that Ziegman had been murdered.

“Yeah, it is one of the things I am here for,” admitted Oren. “I will let you know if I need your help.  Also, let me know the day before you are headed back north.  I will let you know if Martell and I will be heading back with you.  Thank you for your team’s help in getting here.”

“Certainly sir.” Tsuminoe mocked playfully and continued in the same tone “Lady Martell, you and your sword are always welcome on the roads with us if the excitement of this town gets to you.”  With that he left them to their business.

The two made their way to the Velgrey house.  Inside they were greeted by a man with red hair and black eyes.  He stood slightly shorter than Martell; his face had a certain youthfulness that was betrayed in the hands and the sunburned neck.  “Hello Oren, my name is Eston,” he held his hand out to shake Oren’s.  “Welcome to the Velgrey trade house of Avo.  I would have liked more notice you were coming, but what I hear from the wagon drivers, this was all short work and snap choices.  I take it your father’s years of urging you to take up the family business finally paid off.”  He then turned to Martell, and politely kissed her hand. “And if I was not better informed I would have assumed you, Lady Martell, were only a bodyguard.”

Martell blushed slightly

“Stories of you taking down an ogre in one hit are spreading.  I hope that is the reputation you are going for,” Eston continued.  “Now for rooms, I have the housekeeper preparing two rooms.  Oren you will be in the Master and Martell you will be down the hall. I will have a meeting made for you with the Lariant family tomorrow.  I also assume you will want to start reviewing the accounts today.  Ziegman’s records are already up in the room you are in Oren.  My books will be brought to you at the end of the day.  I have to log in what just arrived first.”

“Thank you Eston.” Oren broke in, “I think your schedule will work for me. Can you find time to talk with me after my visit with Lariant?  My father has business I need to discuss with you during my visit.  I will also need arrangements made for me to call on the Tethinger guild, if you can set that up as well.”

“It is good to have leadership back here again, sir. If I may be excused, I will start making those arrangements.” He then grabbed someone traversing the entry way. “Young Rab will be more than happy to show you around the trade house. Won’t you?”

“Yes, yes I will.  As soon as I take this message to Tsuminoe,” he spoke gesturing to a message in his hand.

And with that the two of them were left alone in the space.  The quiet was welcome after all that.

Settled in his room, Oren cracked open the first drawer in Ziegman’s desk.  The wood on wood of the drawers creaked as the wood had expanded over the years tightening the two together.  The drawer had familiar writing utensils in it along with several scraps of paper.  Oren leafed through but only saw quick notes on departure dates or lists of goods being transported. He moved on to the second, this was filled with old ledgers and shipment invoices.  From what Oren could make of it, his dad did good business in Avo. He poked around on the shelves in Ziegman’s office, but found nothing.   He then went back over to the desk pulled out the drawers and felt around looking for a secret compartment or some place that may have been hidden.  Maybe there would be a note Ziegman had not had time to send or something.  Finding nothing, he straightened up the room.

Oren then went over to the nightstand and started checking for anything that may be out of place and direct him.  But again, he found nothing.  Finally, he decided under the bed was the last place to look.  There he poked up at the bed and found nothing.  As he rolled over to scoot out, he saw a pattern in the floorboards and a small string coming up from them.   He pulled on it and a few of the slats from the floor moved with it. Inside were some correspondence signed by his father. In addition, there was a note addressed to Flynn.  He opened up the letter and read.

“I have spotted a second man with the wolves crest.  They have both been near the Tethinger Order, but I have not seen them enter.  Should I warn the Knights of Tethinger or continue in silence?  They have heeded none of the warnings for this year.”

Oren folded the paper back up and put it into his backpack.  He would bring this back to his father.  Oren tossed the remaining letters from his father onto the fire and made sure they were only ash, as he had been instructed to do.

Martell entered the room to find Oren poking at the ashes in the fire place. “Something on your mind?”

“This,” he said motioning to the large room, “I run a shop back in Aleto, nice and easy.  This is one of three places my dad runs outside of Aleto.  He does that while helping my mother.  How does he find time?”

“Slowly, I would imagine.  He has a good network and relations with people here.  Besides, it is not like he is giving you control of it all when you return.”

“But he is pushing for me to take it over.  He has been for years,” And I don’t know if I want to.”

“Then what will you do? Spend forever in your shop?  That you could do, but I could not.  Being back on the road with the caravan or in the heat of combat defending someone important to you, that is where I need to be.  Not safe in my home without any adventure.”  Martell trailed off, not sure if she had offended Oren.

He let the crackling of the fire fill the void before responding. “No, I cannot stay locked up there anymore. It was three years ago last month that I lost my wife.  She was returning with me from her parent’s when we were attacked on the road home. We had left the protection of the city to go home, despite her parents imploring us to stay.”

Martell searched for words to comfort Oren, but found none.  She had known his wife had died but till now the details had been left unsaid.

“There were five of them that surrounded us.  They wanted our money so I gave them that.  Then they wanted her necklace and we gave that too.  Finally after talking they decided not to let us live. They stabbed her twice in the gut and the slit her throat. Then turned to me and got one blow in my stomach.  I still have the scar from it.  They were ready to finish the job, but by then the town guard patrol was approaching and they ran for it.”  He paused fighting back a feeling of wanting to vomit. “They caught all five and hung them a few days later.  Sonia survived the attack, but her injuries became infected.  She put up a month long fight against the infection, but ultimately it killed her.”

Martell sat Oren down on the edge of the bed, holding him.  There they sat quiet for quite some time.

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Chapter 9

The sun had been up for about an hour before the caravan started down the road.  The wheels creaked with the moisture that had built up on the axels overnight.  A light fog had settled in, reducing visibility of the horizon, but not obscuring the length of the caravan.  Autumn was felt in the morning chill, and everyone knew in a day or so rain was coming.  Tsuminoe was going to push for a fast pace today, he hoped to avoid as much of a muddy go as best as possible.  Oren and Martel were riding near the front of the caravan today.  The lead guards were still visible to them. With the fog they were not travelling out of sight of the caravan today.

The morning passed without incident and the sun started to burn off the fog.  The increased light brought a certain ease of tension across the travelers. It was getting more humid as the day went on making for an uncomfortable ride.  They broke for lunch late in the day as they were hoping to ride out the fog before resting.  The haze had thinned, but still lingered in the small dips of the landscape. As the company was cleaning up, they could hear approaching hoof beats from down the road.  The whole group readied themselves as it could just as easily be friend or bandit riding toward them.

Two men rode at full speed toward the camp.  If the visibility had been better they may have been more prepared for the caravan.  As it were they seemed more concerned with what was behind them.

“Hello,” One of them shouted to the caravan, “At ease we are not seeking conflict.”

“What is your business?” Tsuminoe called out.  The guards held their ground.

“There are ogres about a half mile down the road.  Perhaps closer, they may be in pursuit.” The men slowed up as they approached the encampment.  Their face showed the fear and concern from what they had seen.

“How many?  Are they armed?”

“At least three.  They are armed with large branches or tree trunks from what we could see.  One threw a rock the size of your head at us.”  The men were talking over each other in the excitement. “The two of us thought that we could get by unnoticed and had left Avo to head north.”

“How long ago did you last see them?”

“About five minutes ago?  We did not think we were that close to Xomen’s inn. “

“You aren’t.  We have been traveling a good part of the day.” Tsuminoe was cut off as a large stone went flying over the caravan. “Everyone, on your guard.  They will be here soon.”

Word spread fast once the ogres were in sight, three approaching from down the road.  The wagons were circled forming an outer defense wall for the group. Twelve of the guards were mounted on horseback and went off the road to flank the ogres when they got closer.  Eight more of them had gotten out their bows and were taking aim for an initial volley on the approaching enemy.  The remaining four were watching for additional ogres.

The first wave of arrows downed one of the ogres.  Another one screamed in pain as it was hit. The remaining two started a charge at the caravan.  The archers prepared for another volley.

At the release of the second volley, the sound of fighting in the direction of the mounted guards could be heard. There was a mixture of screams, both human and ogre.  The traveling family huddled close together as far as they could be from both battles.  The wagon drivers scrambled to their weapons, uncertain on how many ogres there were going to be.

A second ogre was felled by the third wave of arrows.  The final one was going to be close by the time they could get another draw.  He was wounded, but enraged.  They would try to take him down fast.

Martel hopped on one of the horses, “Oren stay here.  I am going to check on the other group.” She rode out between the wagons in the direction of the other fight.  Oren did not have much choice as to what to do.

Martel rode fast to find two ogres standing against the guards.  A quick assessment told her that at least two guards were dead, but they had taken out three ogres so far. She drew her long sword and charged the back of the remaining two.  She focused on the sword while riding full speed at them.  The sword started to glow as she brought it back for a swing at the first ogre’s spine.  The odor of charred flesh could be smelled as the sword cut through the ogre’s skin.  It continued on through the bone of its spine as if it was cutting butter.  The blade cauterized the wound as the puncture was made, but the wound ruptured again with the blades withdrawal.   The second ogre wheeled around and knocked Martel from her horse.

Meanwhile back at the wagons, Oren watched as the final ogre came rushing at the defenders.  The ogre charged the wagon straight in its path and rolled it back into the circle.  The chaos gave it the moment it needed to grab at one of the guards and throw him across the open ground.  The men were quick enough to recover their senses and turn the attack back on the ogre.

Oren ran over to aid the unfortunate man who had just been bowled across the dirt. He was scratched and bruised, all over.  He was alive but his legs were unable to move without pain.  Oren helped him back further from the fray.  Oren watched as the guards finished off the last ogre, its screams of pain piercing Oren’s ears.

Martell lay there winded on the ground.  She watched as the group of guards pounced at the opening she created.  Outnumbered and alone the ogre was quickly slain.  The guards helped her back up and then moved on to tending to their comrades as best they could.  The group made slow progress back to the caravan, trying to make the injured as comfortable as possible.

Back with the caravan, the decision was made to move further down the road to put some distance between the carnage and where they would be stopping for the evening.  The two north bound travelers went on their way to spread the news that the ogres had been defeated.  Tsuminoe was all smiles, congratulating his men on a job well done, eight ogres in all and only two men dead.  That was a feat that would spawn stories back at Xomen’s inn.

That evening Oren tended to Martell’s injuries.  Luckily, aside from the bruising and abrasions, she had only sprained her ankle and her shoulder in the fall.  He had decent skill in first aid and wrapping up an ankle and making a makeshift sling were easy.  Throughout the evening, guards stopped by thanking Martell for her assistance and quick action. A couple asked about her sword, curious as to its origins.  Finally she confessed to one of the guards it was indeed enchanted on some level, though she kept vague what the enchantment actually did.  The guard took away that it was something to keep it keen at all times.  That was a somewhat common enchantment by amongst heirloom weapons.

Japsert

In the mountains east of Saj-Graf, there are many trails to take.  Most of the mazes of trails lead to dead end, but if you happen to know the right turns you can pass through the mountains without a care.  The main pass is called Anjin Col and from it there are many paths branching off.  Certain ones lead to various mining endeavors while others lead to mountain hideaways for hermits, and yet others lead to networks of caves that hold each their own mystery.  There are many in Saj-graf who would hire themselves out as guides through the mountains to a place called Pigback point.  Pigback is about halfway through the mountains, and allows for a nice look back at the progress one has made for a day’s journey.  By edict of the king no guide shall take anyone beyond Pigback as this is the edge of where they can provide protection.

This is where Jaspert left his guide.  Jaspert did not need the guide as he knew his way around here like the back of his hand.  Yet he did like the company they provided and Jaspert was a believer in the idea of not traveling alone when possible.  Really if he had it his way he would have only traveled with his guide three quarters of the way up and then sent him back to town.  Only, that would raise questions as to what Jaspert was up to.

The following morning Jaspert would travel down the path looking for the right turn off, marked with a small outcrop of gneiss shaped like an eagle wing.  It would be easily overlooked if one was not certain this was the marking they were looking for.  From there he would need to follow the directions indicated by his enchanted sapphire. It would probably a confusing half day as he still misread its directions from time to time.  But then he would get to the cave he was looking for.

Still too afraid to enter it, he would wait outside trying to ignore the growling and snarling from within.  He did not know how, but eventually the old man to come out.  He always came out wearing a gray robe and sandals; his beard always was longer than the last as if compensating for his bald head.  The old man was well kept for living out of a cave.  He would then instruct Jaspert to carry a package to the shop of Lyph and leave it with the old lady.  She would then pay him for his services.  He was not to open the package which always varied in weight but was consistently small enough for Jaspert to carry home in his belt pouch.  His instructions were always to burn the parcel if he could not deliver it to the shop in three days.

So Jaspert waited for the old man as always, watching clouds pass overhead.  The noises inside the cave eventually calmed down and out came the old man, this time leaning on a crutch and missing a foot.  Jaspert looked puzzled but did not ask any questions.  The old man smiled at him and told Jaspert that there would only be two more deliveries and to pass on this bit of information with the package.  The old man then hobbled back to the cave, whistling a tune that Jaspert swear he had heard before.

Halfway down the mountain, Jaspert would recall the tune the old man whistled.  He had heard it from a condemned man last autumn as he had made his way to the gallows.  The criminal had put his head in a noose and smiled a knowing smile, as if he knew some secret the town was unaware of.

Ermore Inn

The winds blow across the moon filled grass planes causing them to sway with the winds.  A sole light flickers in the upstairs window of the Ermore Inn, as Dorian tends to the books for the week.  His records are not of the inns business but a census of his customers.  He is on retainer for the Prince and records all who travel past are sent on to him to monitor.  Dorian makes careful notes on the number of merchants that pass through and the goods they are transporting.  He has tried himself to make sense of what the Prince is looking for in this information, but nothing obvious to what Dorian sees.

As the ink dries and the candle burns to a nub, Dorian closes out another week of numbers.  Tomorrow the currier will be by to pick up the work and in exchange Dorian will be paid in coin.  He focuses on the dying flame thinking back that he has done this for almost ten years and no one is aware they are tracked.  Darkness wins the fight with the flame and Dorian closes the book and files it back on the shelf, where it looks like his other ledgers.

Dorian had worked at a counting house back in Saj-graf till an Uncle of his left him the Ermore Inn.  It had come as a shock that he would inherit something from a relative he hardly had ever seen. It turned out that the uncle had no immediate family and as the next heir in line for all of his uncles good he got the Inn and a sizeable windfall.  He turned his resignation in at the counting house and never looked back.  An agent of the Prince had told Dorian of his uncle’s arrangement with him and saw no reason not to continue it.

When Dorian came down the stairs to go to bed, he met one of his guests.  A tall woman by the name of Cerridwen, she had arrived early in the afternoon.  Traveling alone with her horse she decided to rest at the inn when Dorian had told her Saj-graf was still a full day’s ride ahead.  She smiled wryly, as Dorian noticed a glint of metal in her hand.  It was the last thing Dorian would recall before being found the next morning by another guest of the inn.

No one else recalled seeing her arrival or departure and indeed her room did not look touched.  Going out to the stables the stall her horse had been at was empty and unused.   Looking around his office after recovering it looked like all was in order and the report for Prince was still there.     Dorian was never as comfortable at the Ermore Inn after that day.  Never certain as to when Cerridwen would appear again.

Little Cat – Story

The sun beat down on a little cat.  She was sitting at the corner waiting for her favorite person to come by.  He was there everyday rain or shine with a small treat from his lunch.  Some days it was a scrap of fish, other days a chicken or if she was really lucky he brought her ham.  She would do her normal dance of turns and nuzzles responding in kind to his hand gliding over her skin.  After a few moments, she would meow and in turn he would surrender her reward.
It was not that she was incapable of finding her own sustenance, far from it, but the interaction was also a safe place to relax.  It was like the safety zone in a child’s game, a brief respite from the dangers of everywhere else.  He had tried to take her home once, but she would have none of that.  She had talked to several house cats before and each boasted of the pleasure of a day lying uneventfully in the sun.   But this kitty knew that life was not for her.
For her, this kitten needed excitement.  The thrill of chasing a rat for a city block, matching wits on who knew their turf better.  Little did the rodents know that with each loss, she learned a new trick.  Where to evade predators one week or another place to hide form the rain the next.
Lost in her daydreams of an excellent chase she almost missed the man.  He was looking for her and she sauntered over to him, from behind a bush to the sidewalk.  She started her nuzzles against his leg.  He made noises too, she assumed it was whatever the humans made as a sign of affection and submission to her loyalty.  After a few moments he reached down, this day with some turkey.  She grabbed it form his hand as always and took it over to the bushed to nibble.
She looked up at him between nibbles and tears at the meat.  He was smiling, watching the completion of their daily ritual.  He turned to walk off as he normally did to wherever it is that humans go.  And she trotted happily off to her own agenda of the day.  The gray cat had told her where there was a cat nip bush growing and today she was determined to see if that was truly the case.
She pulled up close to the buildings, her dark coat helping her hide from casual observers.  To get to the lot where this plant grew she would have to cross several other cats‘ territories and evade a few dogs along the way.   The cats were easy as for the most part she wanted nothing to do with them and often the feeling was mutual.  The dogs were the hard ones to avoid. They shared their territory and would chase in packs.  Sometimes they had their humans with them too.  The humans were even less predictable.
For example there was her favorite one that fed her.  There were others that would offer up food too.   However there were the wee ones that would chase for no reason, with boundless energy it could go on forever.  Then there were the ones that just plain did not like cats.  Those were the ones that she feared most.  They could be mean and lock her up or worse.
But no matter, this was a warm and sunny day and she was off to find something and maybe even toy with a mouse or lizard along the way.  The melted into the shadows of an alley and in stealth mode made her way to her destination, a grassy lot with a choice plant to have.
She arrived in the lot through a hole in the fence.  It had been a communal garden at one point, there were several plots of land each with their own crops.  In one there were peppers and another had beans growing.  Some of the plants looked like they were all flowers an no leaves at times.  Flowers were good because they brought the insects which brought the small lizards to snack on.  There was a small shed which provided shelter in the winter from the cold and rain in the spring.  In the summer the place was littered with areas to hide from the sun and the tattered fence provided shelter from the windy days of autumn.
She was uncertain as to whom the nice one had been that brought something as wonderful as nip here.  She also knew that she was not the only cat who would come to this place.  They had all come to the conclusion fights were not allowed here otherwise you would lose your privileges of the refuge. The garden belonged to no one and though you may spend a night, it was scarce on sustainable food.
She found the plant she had been questing for and gave it a nuzzle, and released a long purr.  She imagined it is what it must be like at the places the humans gathered and tasted their fowl smelling drinks.  Or maybe it was something similar to when they dined for hours through the brown concoctions they wasted perfectly good milk on.  Either way it set her at ease and made her indifferent to the world.

Little Cat and the Moon

You sing to the moon

Calling out names that no one knows

A prayer for those that no one hears

Do you feel the dark coming soon

The moon does not care if you sing of woes

Yours is a song full of hope and tears

You know nothing but joy

Yet yearn for the comfort of others

The moon is bright today

But you are not its toy

You are left your druthers

Singing a song that chases dark away

Chapter 8

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.

Ertle

If you were in Saj-graf, at the Jit tower and looked out you could see for miles from each direction.  Jit tower is the highest point in the city and mandated that no other structure can be taller than half of its height.  Watchmen are forever at the top of the tower looking out in each direction for whatever approaches whether man made or not.  Looking to the west you would see desert.  If you watched the desert long enough you would see the sand flowing in currents with the wind.  Observing to the North you would see the ocean crashing upon the shore, rocking boats in all directions.  To the south lays the tall grasses, waist high in the summer and cut short in the fall.  They ebb and flow with the changing seasons.  To the east you would see the snowcapped mountains, in late spring you could see the flow of ice changing to water until summer when the rivulets become streams leading to flooded the rivers.  Looking up at the skies was a constant scape of clouds, thick in the winter and wisps in the spring.

 

These surrounding had led many to name the city Saj-graf the city of the five seas.  To a merchant however there was a sixth sea, fueled with the flow of commerce.  Many a trade house flourished with the season and the changes in the kingdom’s politics. The master of the sixth sea was the Merchants guild and the leader of this guild was Ertle, bastard son of King Vincent VII.  Ertle had the respect of the peers he could not keep company with and had power over those that chose not to keep his company.  With large sums of money it was easy for him to make others see his point of view.  For those pious enough to be immune to such charms, the law was willing to step in on his behalf.  If perhaps one was both above the law and just that pious then they were of no concern to Ertle.

 

But for every merchant of Saj-Graf, Ertle was of concern.  He was able to hold up farmers at the town gate if he did not feel their produce was good enough for the town.  If iron was in short supply, one could count on Ertle to have a stash large enough to sate everyone’s need.  If a caravan leaving town needed guards, Ertle knew who to ask to get a fair price. He was no lord and did not require that level of respect.  And he did not wield his power merely to settle a grudge.  His goal in life was profit with a good story.  This was his weakness, and the one reason he funded even the most bizarre of expeditions into the hills or catacombs.  Ertle accepted failure in many of these endeavors, and what he did not accept were thieves.

Kadin and Kaisu

They say many things about a person when they come walking in to town from the desert alone.  When his face is concealed and his arms wrapped in bandages, he may have faced the harshest of winds that gnaw at the skin.  When he comes in with a mangled branch and most his weight supported by it he is hurt or weak.  His trying to stay upright, drawing the last shadows of life from the dead wood.

Some may assume he was yet another poor soul gone in search of a higher power.  A mystic or sage hoping that in isolation the two may finally be free of distractions to commune with one another. The speckling of blood on his clothes may be attributed to some sacrifice of either himself or an animal.

There may have been speculation that he was a man on the run.  No one was certain how many days one would be in the desert to cross it.  The occasional wagon that passed through was always headed north to Saj-graf where the desert was narrower to cross to Pinkstone.  Word periodically circulated that there was a bandit hideout some four days ride to the west, hidden among giant stone out crops abutting the wastelands.  The stones were there from when Mount Ghi-fann exploded a thousand years ago.  But no one ever saw bandits and no one knew how they would live in such a remote place.

When the man methodically makes his way over to the town well and drinks a bucket of water, they know he has been out in the harsh environment to long.  No one would say a thing as hospitality and town law deem it rude to deny one something so essential to life. The town would go about its business as if he did not exist, letting him collect himself collect his mind.  Alone he is left to fight off the toll of torrid days and frigid nights out in the open that almost certainly brought the drifter to the brink of madness.

He looked down into the dregs of water clinging to the bucket, as if pleading for it to yield them to his parched body.  A young lady walked past him, indifferent to his existence and focused on her task at hand.  She grabbed another of the buckets at the well and lowered it down till she felt the tension of the water push back.  Satisfied that it had gathered what she was after she reversed her turning of the crank pulling back on the bucket.  Having not seen his approach from the desert, she interpreted his out stretched hand as a request for coins.

She fished around in her apron for something to give, until her hand settled on a few coins in the pocket.  Her mind raced debating if his need outweighed her desire for the bobbles she had been saving up for.  Somewhere her conscious broke through the clutter and she reached out depositing them in his hand.  She whispered a small word of blessing and salutation to him before she returned to emptying the bucket into her own container.

After her departure the man looked into the bucket to see it half full of water still.  With gusto he drank down the liquid and finally felt hydration returning to his body.  He felt a breeze of hot air and sand brush against his face.  The desert wind reminded him of his trek so far.  He sat listening to the sand cling against the metal and glass in town he almost felt like it was playing a soothing harmony.  It was almost a sirens call to return, but when he turned away it changed to a gentle reminder that he was still within its grasp.

This was all that went through Kaisu’s head when she thought back to the first time she had met Kadin when she was fourteen.  Kaisu had called him old man back then though he was only thirty-two and now twenty years later she still called him that more than Kadin.

Kadin had been in the desert to escape being pressed into the service of King Vincent VIII from the lands south.  After thirteen days of hiding he had become lost and turned around he could not find his way out.  After another thirteen days of just making it by on his own skill and dwindling supplies, Kadin had received a vision form a being calling itself a the god Arubless. Afterwards he found an oasis that nourished him back to his former strength.  Unfortunately for Kadin, the oasis was used by marauders and they returned and bound him up as a prisoner with several others.  That was not too bad till a botched attempt to free the prisoners by an outside party left him the only one of them alive and he escaped in the chaos.  From there he wandered the desert headed in the direction of sunrise every morning. After 13 more days in the desert he ended up at the well where they met.

Kaisu had been out retrieving water for her father to cook lunch with when she encountered Kadin.  She had offered him a few coins as charity to buy himself some food when he left for the next town.  Kadin had all intentions of leaving town, but one of the farmers took pity on him, and put him to work in the fields a week later.  Kadin ended up staying in town.  It was not till the wars between King Vincent VIII and King Hannon forced the town to disappear.  It was not the legions of armored infantry battling where wheat had once grown, but the scars left by the Enchanters and their magic.  The land was parched by their destruction, and the desert grew in power.  Fire rained down from the sky, destroying what shelter the city had offered. Neither knew which side had done the work.  Her home and family were now gone.

The survivors went their own ways, while some to other family in hopes to find empathy and relief.  Others joined the cause of each king angered by rumors that the other was to blame.  Kaisu and Kadin went with a handful of others to Saj-graf in search of stability and safety. In search of opportunity to return to their respective easier lives they once had in a town now forgotten.

In the years that had followed he had taken her in as his daughter, helping protect her from the realities of the world. She had taken him on as a student; explain to him the nuances of culture in the northern cities.  They had settled into Saj-graf quite well over the past twenty years.  They had managed to get a plot of land and worked it to a successful yield.  Kadin revealed certain wisdom to him that many from the small town had come to rely on for discernment in many matters.  His name, though not known in many circles, was known by those that had once lived in the town and they too would seek him out on matters of importance.

Kaisu tried to explain to him who Arubless was, but Kadin was from a land without gods and could not see that the god had given him a gift.  Kaisu eventually gave up on explaining such things to him.  Those who sought his wisdom knew who guided Kadin and thought him all the more humble for not mentioning the god by name.

Chapter 7

“Why does a Knight of Tethinger come to Aleto?”  Evie cut into the conversation between Oren and his father.  “Your call to me was through one of their blades.  And now that I think of it, why are you dressed as a Neffian Knight initiate?  Do not think my directness crass, but I need to know for my own safety.  It would not be first time Knight of your order has tried to make use of my services.”

“Lady Velgrey, the name is Martell, and I assure you I am not here for your services.  I left the Tethinger order a few months, with my only option to find service in another order.  I went to the Neffian Temple as they would take my services.  As you know the blades that are given to the Knight of Tethinger are theirs to keep since they pay for them.  Other than that, what can I say; I have a taste for expensive steel.”

The seriousness of things settled down a bit as better introductions were given over lunch. From there, the conversation turned towards Oren catching up everyone on what had gone on the prior two days and the results of his research. In turn, Oren’s parents explained a little more of the safety that their house had, which till now Oren had been oblivious to.  It was decided that the book collection should be moved from Oren’s house to his parents and that the lamp at the shop should be moved there as well.

“Oren, we do need to ask a favor of you.  We do believe that Dawsil or Lord Casapan are still operating in the Drémore Vales.  Avo would be a good point to start with along with the Tethinger Order.  They are not the allies they once were to your grandfather. Changes in leadership have seen to that.  Further, they also feel that Dawsil and the Wolves are no longer a threat.”  Flynn spoke expecting to be turned down, but continued. “We had a contact in the area but he died this spring.  We need someone to investigate his passing.  Would you look into this?”

Oren sat contemplating this quietly.  He was balancing it against alternatives he could imagine.  This was all unexpected. The thought of moving out of his daily rut both excited and scared him.

“There is a caravan leaving in two days, you could use this as your chance to build up contacts there.”

Oren took the afternoon to mull over his choices.  Naturally, he wanted to help his parents, but this would be leaving further from home than he ever had.  The idea both excited and worried him at the same time.  With no idea where this would lead or how long it would take, the uncertainty of it all was eating at him.  Funding the excursion was not an issue as he would have credit on his father’s behalf in Avo.

“Oren,” Martell called out looking for him. She found him outside in his parent’s courtyard.  “Your parents have made an offer to pay the Neffian Temple for my services if I were to accompany you on the way to Avo.  They think I may also be able to persuade the Knights of Tethinger into to giving you an audience.”

She didn’t seem sold on it.  Her tone came across to Oren as if she was as undecided as he as to whether this was a good idea. “I don’t know what to tell you. I did not expect things to lead here.  Three days ago my biggest decision was what time to open my shop.  Now in two days I could be leaving town for some undeterminable period.”

“You know for me, this is far better than just babysitting scholars.  Reminds me of some of my days as a Knight of Tethinger.  I guess I have two questions you need to answer before I tell them my choice.  First, are you going to go?  Second, do you want me to go along with you?”

“They are my parents and only family I know.”  Oren thought aloud. “Yeah, I will be letting them know I am going to go for them.  As for you, yes I want you along.  I am good with defending myself with a staff, but alone with no allies?  I do not like that prospect in the least. At least here I know the system and can get a town guard to aid me.”

“I will send a message to the Neffian temple today with your parent’s request. I warn you they will have their own request of work for me.  They will want me scouting south and reporting back. I plan on complying with it once the order is received.”

“What if they call you back to Gromdash?”

“I am free to leave their service at will, though I think they will want the armor back. But I prefer to decide that when the situation arises.”

“We should let them know of our choice so we can get everything in order for the trip.”

Oren prepared his house for his absence.  He would have a neighbor watch over it till his parents could get a tenant to take care of it.  Arrangements were made for his library and shop inventory to be consolidated.  His mother gave a list of books to bring for safer keeping at their house.  The shop was to be managed by his deceased wife’s family.  The order given to sell anything that anyone wanted to purchase, since the tomes of value were removed.  Oren was very open about his travel to Avo, the premise given that he was renewing family trade ties and looking to expand the book collection.

Oren was given two talismans by his parents.  The first one was a necklace with a single raw crystal, the size of a matchbox, for protection of the mind; he would now not have to fear a repeat of complying with requests against his will.  The second one was a wood staff with multiple metal bands; its enchantment protected against tracking, and this would prevent any further Scry Sprites and other beings from finding him.   Oren’s mother went on to explain certain markings on the talismans. There was one character for the crafter.  Another one for the enchanter, in this case her father.  The third mark indicated if it was meant for an individual or a group or an opponent. The fourth mark was a rough description of its power.   Evie elaborated, not every talisman was so easily marked or readable.  There were also times an enchanter had intentionally mismarked work.  There were also the less scrupulous merchants that may forge markings on useless trinkets to try and increase the value of a rather worthless talisman.

Martell was given a white and cobalt blue tabard with the Velgrey coat of arms.  The coat of arms was a white plumed helmet atop an ornate cobalt blue shield outlined in silver, with the Shield flanked by a silver Wyvern and Griffin.  The tabard was enchanted like the talisman protecting Oren’s mind.

Oren had spent the two days prior to departure reading through Meditations on Umbra.  The principals in the book were easier understood than practiced.  He would need at least a few weeks to get the basics down of being able to draw and repel spirits.  The first couple attempts at the drawing them closer resulted in several hour breaks till the emotions subsided.  The reverse was not as easy of a skill.

The book had some advanced skills such as using a spirit to relay what it saw in another room or to come get you if a door was opened.  Nothing fancy or life altering compared to ideas he had gotten from Martell and his parents. Those would be a ways off without a proper instructor.  But really walking down the street and not having to wonder what mood would hit that day was a nice concept.

Martell had intentionally delayed on sending her dispatch back to the Neffian temple.  She was enjoying the prospect of adventure.  She was also enjoying her time with the Velgreys, especially not sleeping in what amounted to a dormitory at the Cloak and Frog. The ale was not quite as free flowing but the tradeoff balanced out.  She also got a taste of Oren’s skill with a staff the couple times they sparred.  She was surprised with his skill for being just a shop keeper, but was still able to overpower him relatively easy. She noted that they would need to work on his skills.

The caravan consisted of ten wagons.  Three of them were bringing a shipment of cloth and iron to Avo.  There were two carrying families headed to the city of Avo permanently. Another two were full of supplies for the trip down.  The remaining three carts were empty.  The caravan would be heading back full with wood for Aleto as the demand would go up in the winter.  If all went well, Oren would be ready to return with the caravan after a week in Avo.  The caravan was well manned so all Oren and Martell had to do was ride along and keep up.

The trip would take two weeks or so of travel.  It would leave the protective wards around Aleto on the second day and go through wilds for most of the travel.  It would be around the thirteenth day in the afternoon they would reach the haven of wards around Avo.  There was a protected way point around halfway called Xomen’s Inn.  Other than that, they would have to be on guard.  There were a total of twenty-four guards for the caravan, two per cart and then an additional two on forward point and another two at the rear.  The complement of guards worked such that throughout the day while there was always at least one set of six fresh on duty, another six finishing up, six more relaxing and a final six sleeping.

The caravan master was named Tsuminoe.  He was around Oren’s age, but had been running caravans since he was sixteen. Flynn had been letting Tsuminoe run his goods to Avo for the last six years.  He had convinced Flynn to let him take over the route from his predecessor based on his record and argued he could cut the travel time by two days.  Turns out, Flynn’s prior caravan master enjoyed his time at Xomen’s way too much.  In the end it turned out well as he was now the owner of Xomen’s inn after a great night of gambling.  Though he held a grudge against Tsuminoe, he had no problem with Flynn letting him go.  After all running an inn was a safer occupation for his older years.

The team of drivers doubled for most the remaining tasks that could come up, from blacksmith to cook to wheelwright. Between the families there was another ten people.  In total there were forty-seven people in the caravan.

Tsuminoe ran a good crew; all of his men had been with him for at least five years. He knew the route they were taking by heart, as he made the trip several times a year.  It was on the start of second day they passed one of the granite obelisks that acted as a ward against the denizens of the wilds.  Simply leaving the wards was not a guarantee of attack.  Rather it allowed city life to continue on daily without threat of running across sprites as you went to the outhouse or perhaps ogres when you went to fetch a pale of water from your well.

No one knew specifically who constructed most of these obelisks.  It was general knowledge that at some point enchanters had done the work in conjunction with artisans.  But currently, if asked how to erect another, one the enchanter’s guild would not be able to fill the request.  How much further out the effect of the wards would protect from the obelisk was a guessing game itself.  No one really sat there measuring the exact distance; rather the general assumption of the masses was that they went for about a mile out.  One could search the distance to the next obelisk and make an assumption it was half that for the pillar.  The problem is that could be completely incorrect as the strength and reach from the pillar was not the same for all pillars.  One may have a five mile radius, while another is only two miles.