The rapier thin willow stick slashed through the air to land soundly on the rump of the donkey. The donkey, though, made no move to acknowledge the disgraceful whipping. Neither with the fidgeting of ears nor trembling of skin. It continued to pull the rickety two-wheeled chart along the narrow, branch-filled tunnel of a road. Not two hundred paces earlier its stubborn master had made another ignorant move and wrestled it upon this rut and tumble wooded path. Hadn’t the grayed two-leg picked up at least some travel etiquette along the way, it wondered. Truth be told, they’d traveled together long and far. Ease and comfort. That was the donkey’s way. The much smoother main road to Korth was by far the better route. But, it knew two-legs, stubborn as stones. Better just to struggle on through. Step by step.
As the cart gradually creaked along, the skeletal canopy of deciduous trees receded. Ahead, a small glade was revealed scattered with bright spots of color – the hardy blossoms of early spring. A short ways in, the sound of willow kissing donkey ass ceased and with a patience borne of divinity so did the forward momentum of the cart. Donkey ears flicked forward and back, scanning the destination.
The wielder of willow, hunched into the bench of the cart, struggled noisily to stand. “You boys! Give Ol’ Man Woody a hand here. Would yeh? Mine bones be as crickety-rickety as this here old box on wheels.”
From behind the cart piled high with hardwood, a figure appeared, stepping nimbly as if making a show of crossing the short distance, made a flourish and ended it with a bow that could be straight out of the Carnival of Shadows for its practiced elegance. “May I be of service grand elder?”
“Sure as a maiden’s milky tit could whet my thirst. ‘Course, boy. Give me a hand ‘ere so I can get down off this dried-out-dryad, rockbed of a seat. Would yeh?”
With a face-splitting grin that gave a telltale as to the young elf’s adolescence, Oscolo presented the elder his hand. The man-child sized hand that in turn met his looked as gnarled and brown as aged oak but held too that selfsame power of an ancient tree concealed within. It took only a slight pull to get Old Man Woody, as he had introduced himself as a short time ago on the road to Korth, into a standing position.
Taking a deep breath and with arms reaching tall Old Man Woody stretched to his full four feet of height. Bringing his hands down he began to flatten and rearrange his homespun robes of earthy tones, but then up again they went to readjust his wide-brimmed pointed hat. His wrinkled face broke into a grin and clever, brown eyes met Oscolo’s, who stood patiently with hand upraised to help the old halfling down. “Now aren’t you a regally-beagley sort of elf folk. Why thank your youth and uprightness. As tall as a silver birch you be.” And with a grasp of hands the gray haired halfling brought himself down to the grassy turf.
“Over here be me ol’ fire pit. Quite some pheasant been roasted on that fair hole. And over yonder, there behind that weeping witch willow, you’ll find yerself a crick of water as fresh as Siberys’s tears. Down and behind that craggily old oak you’ll find a couple faggots of dry timber – good for cooking. Well get along, youngsters, mine bones be too crickety-rickety like me old cart to be of much good use for quick work. But cook something to fill Ol’ Man Woody’s belly up nice and warm an’ I’ll spin you all a tale or two.”
At this, a man of average height and average build and even more unusually, average looks, stepped out from the dimpled shadows of the incoming trail. Raising intelligent eyes, he surveyed the meadow critically. “Looks quite nice, Old Man Woody. Thank you for the hospitality you’ve shown by sharing your campsite. We’ll you heard him Hal. Get to work – a fire and something to eat.”
“Why’s it me doing all the war-cursed work,” a tall, well-built man muttered. “Hal fetch the water. Hal feed the horses. Hal make some stew. I ain’t nobody’s manservant and I sure as the Wastes’ ain’t nobody’s slave.” For a moment, he touched the curved long daggers hanging from either side of his hips, a dangerous gleam in his eyes. But then a haunted look passed over his face and his pride deflated. He turned to the stunted oak and with a frustrated snort headed over.
“That reminds me Hal. Deal with the horses first, then the supper. And try to make it taste better this time,” smirked Bigubu Beaze. “I’ll make the fire, so, not to worry about that tonight. Don’t go shirking your duties tomorrow, though.”
Under his breath Hal retorted, “Sure thing I’ll fetch some horse dung for your soup, master sir.” Then he presented to Bigubu’s just turned back a sarcastic smile and shallow bow, followed up by a complex gesture that looked rather rude.
Trailing in last from the forest path, came a more unnerving sight, if the donkey had anything to say about it, which it did by voicing a pathetic hee-haw. Long and sleek, the snake drake eased into the clearing with a two-legged grace no horse could ever match. Snaking its neck to watch the donkey, it touched its forelegs to the ground, and a small figure catapulted from its back. “Friend of mine, Hal. Talon is lucky today in forest. Not like stupid deer. Hunt two rabbits. Good stew tonight, not only root food.”
(Edit: need to fix the drake’s description)
Hal turned from unsaddling a massive black riding horse, which could easily have been mistaken for those bred for war. Giving Talon a genuine smile he replied, “Thanks muchly, Talon. Now only if we had something to make it not taste of only tubers and salt.“
“Yes, more luck too. I find some utullu flowers on road side. Maybe seeds come with birds from Talenta Plains. Use flowers in stew. Give nice talenthae taste. Try, try. Very nice. But no smoke or burn, make you see guylenna. We no have galandra drink. Cannot go for spirit walk.” He ended in a frown that stayed for but a moment and then quickly sprung back to a smile.
“Okay…” Hal answered looking more than a little confused.
(Edit: Add in part about the blood root and the black hats)
At that, the group got to work, well most of it, anyways.
Talon took over unsaddling and brushing down the horses from Hal. After that he brought the horses to drink their fill from the small crick that bubbled up from a pile of moss covered rocks to meander deeper into the woods. That done, he let the horses graze on the lush grasses filling the meadow. Going over to his uncle’s raptor drake, he pulled the elaborate riding cantle from its narrow back. Then, leading it away from the donkey and horses, he fed it a third rabbit still moving, which it made quick and bloody work of.
Meanwhile, Hal got to work on preparing a stew of assorted tubers, all local Karrn varieties, care of the farmers they’d ran into earlier that day. Into it he added the rabbit brought in by Talon and a packet of dried berries Old Man Woody offered. The smell of the stew wafted deliciously over the camp, and when Hal added the utullu flowers, everyone demeanor became relaxed to the verge of sedate.
Turning its head to the fire with a mouthful of grass, the donkey continued to observe the gathering of two-legs. He had come to a conclusion. There definitely seemed to be a disparity in the work being done. So, it wasn’t only four-legs that those silly two-legs abused, but other two-legs as well. Bizarre behavior, the donkey mused. Absolutely bizarre.
A fire had begun to blaze, courtesy of Bigubu who had followed Old Man Woody’s instructions and stacked up a nice pile of dried oak, which he had ignited with a tiny metal box concealing an inner flame. Beside the fire, sat Oscolo engaged in pleasant small talk with the old halfling. Old Man Woody had brought out a heavily polished long-stemmed pipe carved of redwood in the shape of a fox. The smell of sweet pipe smoke and uttulu-scented stew mixed together in a dreamy kind of way, hinting of the Talenta Plains.
Bigubu sat opposite Oscolo, and by the failing light of the evening and the growing light of the fire studied a strange contraption help upon his lap. About as long as his forearm, the long cylinder that took up most of its length ended in a partial globe encircled by a ring that further curved perpendicular to the length into what appeared to be a handle to grip the contraption by.
The arcane looking device was melded together with distinct parts, each being composed of a different material. Metals both hard and precious could be seen glinting in the firelight. Various crystals had been embedded along the ring and complex glyphs and arcane geometries had been etched or engraved upon the surface.
However, the most unnerving feature of “the infernal contraption”, as Oscolo liked to refer to it, would have to be the set of demonic looking eyes crafted into the globular head. This feature would become all the more unnerving if one were to see the device in action, or even more so if the observer were to face the device eye to eyes. At this point of view, the destructive potential would be all too obvious.
“You finished tinkering with your monstrosity,” muttered Hal who stood hunched over the fire stirring a cauldron full of stew set up on a tripod. “Were about ready to eat and I don’t like the way that thing looks at me.”
“Mind your business Hal, not my work. Serve the stew. What I do with the GSC is none of your concern.”
“Ain’t gonna be no stew till that demonic crossbow is put back in its case,” Hal returned, exemplifying his decision by tapping a wooden spoon on the rim of the cauldron.
Smiling wickedly, Bigubu met Hal’s eyes, then slowly brought them to rest on the arm holding the spoon. “How’s the Fang’s mark feeling now, Hal? Any more blood? Has it started to stink of rotten flesh yet? Obvious signs of zombification…”
“I ain’t turning to no damned zombie!” Hal shouted, the color draining from his face.
Oscolo, wearing a whimsical smile, looked from one of his companions to the other and shook his head. Just like the academy, he thought to himself. Then, he coughed into the tension. Both immediately looked his way.
“Come now, boys. Let’s play nice and not ruin the serenity of this meadow with talk of the rotting undead and infernal contraptions. The stew smells ready and Ol’ Woody here promised us a tale or two.”
Giving Hal one last evil grin, Bigubu eased the GSC back into its tooled leather case. At this, Hal reached into a set of saddlebags and pulled out a stack of wooden bowls and began to dollop fragrant stew into each one. Talon, coming over from the outskirts of the meadow, reached into another set of bags and pulled out a paper-wrapped package of trailbread and a clay pot filled with a sharp, creamy Karrnathi cheese.
Bowls in hand, scooping chucks of tuber or rabbit into their mouths with slabs of hard, crusty bread, the group of five fell quiet enjoying this warm meal. The satisfied air lasted until bowls grew empty, where upon seconds were scooped out of the cauldron.
“Mmmm… this stuff is pretty good, Hal. You’ve definitely out done yourself,” Oscolo commented, scrapping the last of the stew from his bowl with a sliver of bread.
“Mmmm…good,” Talon agreed mouth overstuffed with stew, bread and cheese.
Nodding his head, Bigubu added his assent. “See, Hal. You shouldn’t complain about your chores. If nothing else, this trip will enhance your next to nonexistent culinary skills.” But all Bigubu got in return was a cool glare. “You are definitely improving. This stew is actually edible.”
“Oh me oh my,” Old Man Woody exclaimed, placing his empty bowl at last on the ground after filling it to the brim four times. “Faeries dancing on me belly,” he added patting his rotund little pot, “that be some graciously good stew, Hal, me sir.”
“Well, it’d be time for a bit ‘o story telling, I imagin’.” All eyes came up from finishing their meal to alight with interest on the elderly halfling. Old Man Woody rubbed his gnarly hands together to produce a rough sound. A glint of something unknown could be seen in his gray eyes as he opened his mouth. “Well this story me grandpap passed down teh me, from a time his pap was a young feller.” As the old halfling fell into the role of story-teller, a strange thing happened. His strong Karrnathi country-dialect disappeared, replaced by a deep, sibilant voice used to captivating listeners with poetic intonation and pause.
“This is tale of passion… Passion bred beneath the dark boughs of the Nightwood in a time when King Galifar still walked these lands.”
* * * Continued in part 2 * * *