A Tale by Michael DeAngelo
Chapter Two: Refuge in Revenge
His muscles ached, a painful reminder of the hours he’d spent in his hole, avoiding the scrutiny of the Ebon Hammer. Frederic hadn’t encountered any more of the mercenaries while he rested behind the bridge’s pier, but he reminded himself repeatedly that he couldn’t scurry away until the darkness had enveloped the town.
The mud was caked onto his skin then, leeching away any warmth he might have been able to muster. He dared not rake it off though—even after he entered Tiltham Forest—just in case prying eyes in marvelous helmets were pointed in his direction. With luck, any of the heat his body gave off then would be construed as a squirrel or a rabbit, and he’d be ignored.
Frederic didn’t care that he’d entered the woods hours before. The Ebon Hammer was relentless, so he had to be as well.
Tiltham Forest was the smallest major forest in Blacklehn, and, surrounded by the Grand Falmere Forest—the largest woodland not only in the country, but indeed, the continent of Draconis as well—it would have seemed a miniscule speck on a map of the region. But for a single man, traversing at night, it was a dangerous trek and one that would not soon be finished.
The exhausted warrior traveled light, only the clothes on his back and his sword at his side. In days where he could have better planned the treacherous journey through Tiltham he would have prepared a bow and a quiver of arrows, with hopes that he could acquire a meal during the trip. But on that dreary winter evening, he knew that even had he risked bringing a bow, he would never have felt confident that his cooking fire wouldn’t be seen, even miles into the forest. There were eyes everywhere, he reminded himself.
Still, he would have to break from his seclusion eventually. There were no guarantees of a derelict house at his next destination, and he would have to start his search for others who were willing to help him in his quest to bring down members of the Ebon Hammer. And, if he was lucky, he could find someone willing to feed him in exchange for manual labor.
On the other side of Tiltham, a small town called Galden stood. They were known for being hunters as well, though they didn’t prey on people. They were good people from what Frederic heard of them, and they mostly kept to themselves.
That might not have served him well, as he knew he needed those who had been gifted by the Strain, or at least their sympathizers, if he hoped to stand a chance against the mercenaries who had caused such trouble for his country.
Galden sat closer to Grand Falmere than it did to Tiltham, and Frederic knew that even when he emerged from the forest, there would be a long leg of his journey left to complete. As the morning light began to shine through the canopy behind him, he thought to forage for whatever food he could find that wouldn’t require a cooking fire.
Frederic happened upon mushrooms and berries more plentifully, but he didn’t feel confident enough in harvesting them—his memories of his mother’s warnings about toxic plants were distant things then, but he couldn’t help but consider how foolish he would have felt lying in the woods dying of a poisoned mushroom when he was planning on overtaking a villainous mercenary guild.
When he happened upon a persimmon tree, though, he had no reservations. Those fruits that clung onto the branches through the early winter were wrinkled and ripe, and he knocked a few of the ones most easy to reach down with his sword.
It was as though he hadn’t eaten in weeks. Frederic lingered underneath the tree, looking for the rougher-skinned fruits. He ate his fill, finding that the sweet meal sated his thirst, as though he was drinking a juicy nectar that tasted of honey. He arrived at the right time, it seemed, for he had heard that persimmons could leave one’s mouth feeling dry as though they’d been chewing on cotton plants. And while he had found a few puddles here and there along his travels, he thought better than to drink from any of them, knowing that another hard day’s journey would have him close to Galden.
Frederic clung to hope that he could reach the town without incident. As close as it was to the Grand Falmere Forest, it was rumored that it was under the protection of the elves of Blacklehn—the one race that the humans were unable to drive from the land that they claimed was theirs. Thus far, the Ebon Hammer hadn’t brought war to the elves of the eastern forest.
It seemed they knew that they would be outmatched.
A tenuous agreement kept the humans and the elves apart in most cases, but everyone in Blacklehn knew that the time would surely come when one side or the other would break the unspoken treaty. The elves knew that those with magic were persecuted, and who else but the elves would be in danger next once all those humans with the Strain were rounded up and locked away in some old forgotten dungeon? And Frederic was certain that the Ebon Hammer was not about to wait for such a time that the elves would make the first move.
At any time, it seemed, another war was bound to begin on Blacklehn’s soil.
They could have their war, the road-weary warrior thought to himself, if it meant he could save those who were trying to escape persecution and suffering. The elves of the east had sat back while the dwarves, the elves of the west, and the minotaur were driven from the country.
Frederic bowed his head then, remembering that his people were the ones who were truly responsible, and that even those whose ideals differed from the king’s had done nothing to stand against the tyranny. It was folly to pray that the elves would offer reprisal or sanctuary to the humans who wouldn’t stand for their neighbors or their kin. And in time, when no one was left to subjugate for their magic, there was a certainty that there would be other reasons to ostracize and torment people.
He knew he was one man, but Frederic swore he would play his part to end the upheaval and eliminate the Ebon Hammer.
Before long, the warrior passed beyond the edges of Tiltham Forest. The trees were far behind him then, and a long stretch of farmland separated him from the bare fields ahead. The crops had grown and were never harvested, leaving pale yellow stems and stalks, many of which had been picked apart by birds and rodents. Frederic wondered if the farmer and their family had succumbed to a natural passing in the harsh country, or if they were in fact one of the few people who demonstrated signs of the Strain. Had the mercenaries invaded the farm and ripped them from their lives to rot the rest of their life away in some prison?
The traveler shook his head. It was all mere conjecture, he knew. He needed something to help him pass the time, and it seemed sullen musings were all that he could conjure.
It was a lucky thing that he was able to wrench himself from his thoughts then, for he heard the distant whinny of a horse. He dropped to his knee, hiding in the scattered, bare crops, hoping that whoever was making their way about the surrounding fields hadn’t seen him. Before the farmer had died or left—of their own volition or otherwise—they had set to work creating a partition of stone around their livelihood. Hunched low as he was, Frederic couldn’t see much beyond the wall, but he heard the approach of the horse and the wagon it pulled. Slowly, the warrior crept toward the wall, and dared a peek over the barrier.
A sole traveler journeyed forth, an uncovered wagon behind him. Considering all the dangers in eastern Blacklehn, Frederic couldn’t help but feel uneasy at the sight of someone who risked so much with no one at his side. The fellow did not wear the look of a fighter, but that of a merchant.
And with only one town between the farmhouse and the Grand Falmere Forest, Frederic knew that they were heading to the same place.
Blowing out an anxious sigh, the hidden man rose from his spot, and hopped over the retaining wall. He walked along the flatter stretches of the field alongside the farmland, his eyes set to the west as though he hadn’t heard the approach of the merchant or his horse. He had hoped that his sudden presence wouldn’t panic the traveler and believed that appearing to walk away from him might help him.
As the merchant drew near, he realized that he rode along a more beaten path. The trader rolled forth, until the two men traveled parallel to one another. The merchant looked over at the man and offered a wave, but he kept moving on ahead, his horse easily helping him to outpace the lone warrior.
“Ho!” Frederic called out. He hadn’t expected to make an appeal to the stranger, but as the wagon slowed, he found that he couldn’t stop himself from exercising a light jog to reach him. “I take it you’re heading to Galden?” he asked when he arrived beside the wagon, keeping a gap between them to alleviate any anxiety that the merchant might have had of traveling alone.
“Aye, I sell my wares out that way once a fortnight or so,” the trader said. “Are you heading there yourself?”
“That I am,” Frederic replied. “And I’m not one to usually ask for assistance, but I could use a decent meal and a comfortable bed to sleep in more than I’d care to admit. If we’re both traveling that way, perhaps I could offer my sword in protection to you in exchange for a quicker trip there?”
“Well there’s the thing,” the merchant said. “A hungry warrior has a touch of a disadvantage against a well-fed one, isn’t it? And if we’re beset upon by bandits on the way to the town, what good will your empty belly do for me?” He paused, watching a look of disappointment stretch across the other man’s face. He couldn’t shield a grin, then. “Look, mate, I’m just joking with you. Honestly, it will be nice just to have the company.” The fellow shifted in his spot, leaning over the seat of his wagon to reach behind him. “Here,” he said, grabbing a handful of something from his stock. When he turned, Frederic was still on the ground, looking as though he was waiting for a more formal invitation. “Well come on then. I said I’d help you get to Galden, didn’t I? But I won’t be waiting here much longer, so you’d better make up your mind about whatever it is you’re trying to get going, alright?”
Frederic nodded, and climbed into the seat beside the merchant, who held his hand out, palm down as his new passenger arrived there. As Frederic lifted his hands to gather up whatever the merchant bestowed upon him, he nearly dropped a handful of dried nuts.
“Black walnuts,” the merchant said. “I’m supposed to be selling them, but to be honest, around this time of year, I end up eating most of them. Just putting on my winter coat, I guess,” he continued with a laugh.
The fatigued warrior took a closer look at the foodstuff in his hands and tilted his head in appreciation—and in confusion.
“They’re already shelled,” he said.
“That they are,” the merchant confirmed. The road can be a bit mundane, so on some nights, when I’m waiting to feel a bit more tired, I spend my nights cracking the things just to pass the time. The good news is that I can sell them for a better price just because of the extra work I’ve done.”
“If you don’t eat them,” Frederic said, half-teasing when he spoke.
“If I don’t eat them,” the merchant said. “The name’s Olafur. No need to shake my hand, as I can see you’ve got yours full.”
With a grin on his face, he snapped the reins, urging his horse forward once more.
“I’m Frederic,” the warrior said as he munched on a few of the walnuts. “I appreciate you lending your seat on the way to Galden. And for sharing your food. All I had to eat this morning were a few overripe persimmons, and I don’t think they were going to sate my appetite throughout the day.”
“Well, maybe you would have made it through the night,” Olafur suggested. “But you wouldn’t have made it to the town before the day was done. Even if you walked on through to morning, you’d still have half a day. It’s a bit harsh of a trip, you see. We’re going uphill for most of it.”
“Then it seems I owe you more thanks than I initially thought,” Frederic said.
Olafur waved his hands. “Think nothing of it. But I would ask you this: when you get there, what are you planning on doing? You didn’t have the money to purchase a horse or even provisions for the trip, I’m guessing. How were you hoping on paying for a meal when you arrived in Galden?”
“I know some people there who I’m hoping could help me get on my feet,” Frederic replied. The statement was full of mistruths, he knew. But for the same reason that he had hidden from the people of Ellingsor, he felt it pertinent to keep some secrets from the merchant. “If I’m lucky, I can trade knowledge and strength for a little assistance.”
Olafur grinned once more. “Here I thought I could put one over you again. Even if you didn’t know anyone there, I’ve found that the people of the town have been among some of the kindest souls I’ve ever met. Sure, they’re a little off the beaten path, but maybe that’s part of the appeal.”
Sending a sidelong glance toward the merchant, Frederic wondered if perhaps Olafur had his own reasons for avoiding the lands east of the forest.
“It is a long way from any other settlement,” the warrior said. “With only Ellingsor on the other side of the Tiltham, and maybe Twin Rivers a ways to the southeast being the closest, it’s got to be hard making a living selling your wares in this closed off little place of Blacklehn.”
“Well, there are a few places that you might not be aware of,” Olafur replied with a laugh. “They aren’t on any map, for sure. But you’re right to some extent. Galden isn’t close to anywhere else by any means. And you might think that it’s one of my last stops as I make my rounds, but in truth, it’s my first. I come here to trade, yes, and sure enough, the humans of the town will give me a few copper or silver for the food that I have—they’ve always been very hospitable—but I don’t come here with selling first in mind. I come here to buy.”
Frederic arched his eyebrow then. “What does Galden make that’s worth coming all this way?”
Olafur raised his finger as though he knew that to answer would potentially cause problems for one of them. “That’s the kind of question that can get someone in trouble. But you did say that you were hoping to sell your sword in exchange for the ride to the town, yes?”
“If we run into any bandits or other dangers between here and Galden, I’ll fight for you,” Frederic agreed. “You have my word.”
“Then at least for a little while, you work for me. And there’s a certain code of workmanship between merchants and their sellswords that says we have to tell each other the truth to help each other avoid the dangers in this world.”
Frederic shifted in his seat, a little worried by what the trader might be suggesting.
“You’ll not run into any bandits between here and the town,” the merchant insisted. “They know better than to risk any run-ins with the elves. Now, other dangers…” He waved his hand, trying to keep to the point. “The people of Galden have made decent enough friends of the elves, and that’s who I come to see. Over the years, I trade for their goods, since you won’t see many other vendors in Blacklehn who would risk elven wares in their stock.”
“And for good reason,” Frederic said, though it was clear he spoke without judgment. “Elven goods are considered contraband throughout the country.”
“As are all things not crafted by human hands,” Olafur said. “How long before Fowler and his men start raiding towns looking for items that were forged by a magic touch and smashing them to pieces?”
Frederic didn’t realize it, but he breathed a sigh of relief. The idea of the man beside him sharing the same insights allowed him to let down his guard a bit, and he tossed another small cluster of walnuts into his mouth for good measure.
“Anyway, it’s that contraband that keeps me fed for the year,” Olafur went on. “You’d be surprised about how many people have come to enjoy the workmanship of elven wares, or even their food, though I’ll admit, I haven’t much of a taste for it.
“So yes,” the merchant continued. “Galden is my first stop, and it’s a lucrative one indeed. And it doesn’t hurt that the Grand Falmere Forest just feels a little warmer this time of year. I’ll probably be relaxing here for a while as the winter frosts come in. If, that is, you don’t secure the last room in town.”
“If it comes to that, you can certainly have whatever the inn offers,” Frederic assured. “While I was hoping for hospitality as well, I don’t have the means or the time to spend most of the winter there.”
“Ah, well then it sounds as though perhaps you’re not for wanting to get help getting to your feet. Perhaps there’s something else you’re getting at?”
Frederic looked at the trader, and something compelled him to speak the truth.
“I’ve been on the run from the Ebon Hammer,” he admitted. “They tracked me to Ellingsor, but I eluded them. They’re—”
“A pox on this land,” Olafur said, nodding his head. “It used to be that the people of Blacklehn could trust in one another to make it through the harshest nights. Now, it seems, our neighbors and brothers are a risk to us, and could bring danger down all around us just by parting their lips and letting a secret slip through. You should not have told me they were after you. I’ll keep what needs hiding, but I could just have easily been a clandestine member of the mercenaries who were after you.”
“If you were, I wouldn’t be making it off this wagon alive,” Frederic suggested. “These walnuts would be poisoned, and you’d have the type of gear that would have me roped up before I even leapt to the ground.”
“It’s a sad situation we find ourselves in when we have to second-guess every passerby who we meet. I’m sorry that you’re being hunted, but I assure you, the people of Galden will put you up and ensure your safety. We don’t even have to tell them about your gifts if you don’t want. As I said, your secret is safe with me.”
Frederic bowed his head and looked to his hands. Free of food, they looked so empty. “I don’t have a power,” he insisted. “My wife though…”
Olafur looked to his new companion, as though the weight of Frederic’s burden was now shared with him. “You aren’t going to Galden to hide.”
“As I hear it, there’s someone in town whose had run-ins with the Ebon Hammer before and lived to tell the tale. If anyone can help me determine where my wife was taken, it’s him.”
“It won’t be easy,” Olafur said. “Finding an Ebon Hammer hideout is one thing. Trying to overpower them is another altogether. My wagon was searched by a pair of them about a month back, and the one had a spear that looked as though it had just touched a storm cloud.”
Frederic intertwined his fingers, leaning forward as he considered the difficult task ahead of him. “They employ all sorts of magical relics because they know they need an edge against people with powers. And they typically have the odds in their favor, because they find scared citizens who are off on their own. If only the people of Blacklehn would rise up as one, perhaps we’d…”
“It’s too late,” the merchant replied. “Fowler’s army drove a wedge across the country, and the Ebon Hammer are picking the weeds that remain. Everyone is too afraid to do anything except hide and run for refuge. I’ve heard a lot of people in the eastern side of the country began fleeing south for Raleigh and Cracius.”
“Perhaps that’s where the farmer went,” Frederic muttered. “The farmhouse you picked me up in front of looked like it had been abandoned for some time. Whoever lived there abruptly ceased their tasks. I’d like to think they knew the Ebon Hammer was going to be scouring the countryside and they took the opportunity to flee while they could.”
Olafur looked ahead, his sight on the road ahead. “We could all use some of that optimism in these dark days. Whoever you’re looking for in Galden, I hope you find them.”
“So do I, Olafur,” Frederic said. “So do I.”