There so many travellers found themselves, pushing out of the thicket-clogged forest along the Wood Road, that eternal trade route that winds through so many kingdoms. Brushing away the needles and barbs clinging to their worn travel wear, they spotted a campsite just up the way and off the path, and began their final walk of the day.
The campsite was busy, the cacophonous exchange of meals and stories melding with the sizzle of fat dripping from open spits, stews bubbling in fragrant stock pots, the symphony of the day’s end. As was common, each group shook hands, embraced, and parted ways with few words, filtering into the scattering of tents, fire pits, hovels, lean-tos, parked caravans, and makeshift homes that filled the clearing.
This was no temporary encampment, despite appearances, but rather an ever-shifting mobile tavern, emptying and refilling as merchants passed through and adventurers set off to seek wealth and glory. Some sat in solitary silence, staring into the crackling embers and flickering wisps of their fires; others found companionship sharing their simple meals. All conversations carried a similar ring: Who are you, traveller? What has brought you here, and where are you headed?
Theo leaned into the fire’s heat, shaggy hair dangling in front of his curious, glassy eyes. The stalker’s body was compact, a lithe coil of knotted muscle bound inside a heavy great coat. He was a thin man, wiry, and painfully lean, with calloused hands hardened by combat. His voice was timberous, though not quite deep.
“I don’t remember much,” he said, shaking his head. “I know I used to be sick, but when I woke, I was not.”
“Healed by miracle, eh?” The tallest and broadest of the four clapped a hand on his knee and gave the stalker a wolfish grin. Slayter’s face was boyish and cocky, too square-jawed to match his slight elven features. A paladin of the Order of the Great Dragon, he was as bulky as a half-elf could be, musclebound and husky, though with much more done up than would be expected.
Theo shook his head with slow stoicism. “No miracle. I wasn’t entirely well. Covered in blood and scars. I felt…nothing good.”
“It must have been a hellish battle you were nursed from,” the paladin guessed, overeager confidence in every word. “From where else would you claim your grim blade?”
The stalker looked to the scythe folded in two pieces at his side, a curved handle and a wicked blade. “It is a curious weapon,” Theo murmured. “I couldn’t bear to leave it behind.” He shrugged and straightened. “It holds my weight as I walk. Regardless, if you’re bound east, I shall earn your company.” He gave a shaky smile and as he looked around the circle, kind eyes greeted him.
Slayter laughed and stabbed the fire pit with a stick, carved to act as a poker. “That’s quite a story, friend, and one hell of a trick weapon. Still, strong in arms, strong in mind, eh?” Slayter grinned, looking around at his new companions. “Myself, I washed in with the tide. Also from the west, toward the southern coast of the Alkodo Woods. Did you ever venture there?” Three heads shook in response. The dwarven woman next to him began to speak, but the paladin continued over her.
“Well, it’s quite a place. I got my greatscissors reforged; the witches there employ some of the best smiths around, I hear tell. Still, you’ve got to follow the flow of coin in this world, eh? Came across the kingdoms with a handful of caravans. I was their guard: You pull a sword on a brigand, they might try their luck, but every bandit that saw me, my greatscissors leering wide for their necks, they turned tail and ran. That’s how I travelled, bringing each convoy to its destination and then jumping to the next one. Pretty comfortable ride along the Wood Road, all considered. Figured I’d wait here for another caravan who’d be interested in protection. I’m bound east, you see, I’m returning to my order with my spoils. It’s a small monastery, let me tell you...”
The paladin continued on for a time, rambling about trials he had faced and the dangers he had fought. Eventually, he turned to the cleric seated next to him, who introduced herself in crisp tones as Brandy. She was stout and toned, with long braids framing her tanned face. Dressed in a knitted shirt and a long skirt, she’d appeared surprisingly tall when standing. Only once she rose to feed the fire a log did the substantial platforms on her boots become noticeable.
“I used to be a priest,” Brandy said, “mother to a dutiful congregation. My flock was eager and attentive, and I strove to do right by them.” Slayter applauded and opened his mouth to speak, but her stern look commanded attention.
“A letter came and drew one of my flock away to their birthright, a distant inheritance.” A bitterness crept into Brandy’s voice. “We all saw him off. No news came for a time, then the letters started coming weekly. News of adventure and fortune for those willing to brave the lands surrounding the growing hamlet.”
She spat into the crackling fire The resulting sizzle lingered in the evening air before she continued her tale.
“I lost half my congregation to that blasted hamlet before making the journey myself. What I found was blasphemous. There were more fresh graves in the cemetery than fresh-made beds in the inn. I dove into the fray, hunting and protecting, healing where I could. It made no difference. I overreached. My god proved a false idol, a hollow effigy propped up by something else, something other. So I left and came south, hoping the Wood Road would lead me to better fortunes and a new, stronger faith.”
Those seated around the crackling fire nodded. A silence settled over them as the embers glowed beneath the flickering flames. A soft, whispery voice asked, “What became of the hamlet?”
“Death. Ruin. There was a terrible fire.” Brandy looked to the hidden figure bundled in numerous layers of murky fabrics, shawls, and scarves.
“I see,” Finde said with an air of begrudged finality. Her haunted, yellow eyes flicked between her new companions. “I am bound east as well. I likewise know my way around dark corners. My previous party, they—I never learned what became of them,” she said with a deep, mournful sigh. “There wasn’t much I could do but keep walking, find something to pique my interest. There’re many odd and eerie corners in these regions; Someone has to scour the dungeons for relics and treasures, yes?”
On that the four agreed as they traded bone-weary smiles and understanding nods. The night wore on, leading each campfire to a quiet, somber charring, sullen embers fading into the darkest shadows. The next morning, the four wanderers broke camp, packed up their possessions, bid their farewells to other travellers, and set off along the Wood Road together, eager to find new fortunes with new company.
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