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Next up, moving on to the country of Telubra. Because those Sunds are crazy people and the less time spent there, the better.

Too bad it's worse in Telubra.
Updated 12/06/11


Previous

Part 2: The Wasteland

“Tell me you didn’t,” Carmen said with exasperation. “Petra, the entire point of a courier job is to not touch the messages.”

“I didn’t read it on the way over,” Petra said. “He brought it with him to the house. And left it right there on the table.”

“It should have been obvious those were his messages from his sister,” Odette scolded. “Honestly, Petra, what are we going to do with you?”

“It was addressed to me,” the redhead replied, unimpressed.

After dropping the lay priest off in Reeds, the band of women had started for the Telubrin border, following yet another rumor of a gray-hued beast of a half-orc. There couldn’t be all that many on Caldonia, they reasoned, since the mountain range the first orcs had hurled themselves down from was half a world away. The people they had spoken to about Crunch knew of the race only through the stories of minstrels and sailors.

“Oh really?” Carmen said, disbelief thick in her voice.

The redhead pulled a folded-up sheet of paper out of one of her many pockets. “I even kept it for proof.” She scowled at it. “I hate being told I’m going to do something. Her message wasn’t really all that long.”

“So why mention it now?” Tae asked from where she strode beside Athena.

“Because we don’t have Edric with us anymore, obviously. I know it was addressed to me, but that doesn’t mean he wouldn’t have gotten upset with me going through his things.”

Carmen and Odette pinched their noses almost in unison. “Petra,” Carmen dragged out her name.

“Death waits for you in Telubra,” Petra said, tossing the paper to Odette.

“Me?” The sorceress bobbled the letter before managing to grab onto it.

“She just said ‘you’, nothing specific.” Petra kicked a pebble down the road. “I hate diviners. They think they’re so mysterious, when really they’re just useless until after the fact. Why do they even bother?”

“She must have addressed it to Petra because even without the gift, ‘tis easy to tell she’ll have her nose in everybody’s things,” Carmen said, trying to read the short letter as Odette unfolded it. Odette nudged her with her elbow, wanting some space.

“Anything interesting?” Athena asked.

Odette cleared her throat, and started to read. “Teugyrlel-”

“You mangled that horribly,” Petra interrupted. “It’s Toy-ghir-lil, not Tie-ger-lil.” She enunciated each vowel slowly, as if teaching a small child a new word and its proper pronunciation.

“Obviously why you translated it to Moonhawk for those of us without your gift of tongues,” Odette said, raising an eyebrow at the interruption.

“Sorry, sorry, please, continue.”

“Teugyrlel,” Odette repeated. Her enunciation was even worse, Athena noted. “I can see your sorceress reading this letter, but I saw you pick this up, so take that as you will. To thank you for saving my brother- though really, I can only assume this is so, he is too dear to my heart for me to distance myself enough to view him in my visions, but Selene Ysmay tells me this will pass, should all go well- I have a warning for you. I do not know if this is a true seeing or one you can change, but I must at least try to return the favor. Death waits for you in Telubra. I do not know why you go there, only that you must. And you will find what you seek. Death will find you first, though. Be careful, Ailith.”

Athena crinkled her nose up. “So Crunch will be in this town we're headed for?”

Petra kicked another pebble down the road. “Or he's there right now and dies before we get there. Or one of us dies before we find him. Or it's a metaphorical death and Tae decides she'd rather be a priestess of Elisar Ibryiil instead of the Protector-”

“I would rather chew glass,” Tae interrupted. Petra shot her a wicked grin.

“That goes for the rest of us,” Athena said. “Just because you chose the Court's god of mischief for your patron doesn't mean we want him as one.”

“Some of us also would not be accepted as worshipers by the Court,” Odette pointed out. The pantheon of the Court was for those of fey heritage and neither Carmen nor Odette would be wholly welcomed, even if they were sincere in the request.

“Have you ever wondered if the different pantheons' gods were just different aspects of one true set of gods?” Carmen asked.

“No,” Tae said shortly. “The Protector's symbol may be the sun, but he and Jadus are two totally different gods and I will thank you to not mention it again.”

“Sorry,” Carmen said.

“I apologize for snapping,” Tae said, reaching a hand forward to tap on Carmen's elbow in a placating manner. “I can be too defensive about my choice.”

Athena slipped her hand into Tae's. She aborted a motion to jostle Tae's shoulder, not wanting to bruise herself on the other blonde's armor. “He's a guardian, cousin. You're a healer willing to throw yourself between someone and danger. It's a perfect match.”

“We should still be careful in Telubra,” Odette said, returning them to the conversation they had been having before getting sidetracked. “Helios Edric said his sister's vision was the best the Isadors had to offer and it would not be wise to ignore her warning.”

“He also said that visions from Isis were often of things we could change through foreknowledge and free will,” Athena said. “We were already going to be careful entering Telubra. There aren't many precautions we can take. And Tae will do her best to keep us alive. Right, cousin?”

Tae squeezed her hand in acknowledgment. “And what if it is me who dies, dear?”

“I'll ask the spirits to reincarnate you. They like me.”

“As much as I dislike breaking up this macabre little heart-to-heart, I'd just like to say,” Petra swept her arms grandiosely before her, “welcome to Heron’s Rest.”

It was a village. Or it had been a village at its peak. The houses were placed lengthy distances apart, wide fields of crops separating them. To the west, there was a cluster of buildings a good distance from a lake. The land, like it had been since a few kilometres past the Telubrin border, was dry and cracked, only the hardiest of crops growing from it. The houses were drab and dark. As far as Athena could tell, the only reason the villagers hadn't given up and moved to better climes was the lake. She could tell it was drying up- the buildings near the lake had likely once been waterfront. With another few years without rain and the villagers making huge demands of it, it would be as dry and barren as the rest of the land.

“They've been reduced to subsistence farming,” Carmen said, her nature-wise eyes obviously seeing the same thing Athena did.

“Something tells me they don't have an inn for us to stay in for the night,” Petra said. “Nor would money to stay in a barn be of much use to them.”

“We could barter something,” Athena hesitantly brought up. “It won't solve their problems forever, but betwixt the two of us, Carmen and I could coax the land to grow greener crops for a time. They'll starve afore their next winter lets up, elsewise.”

They turned to approach the cluster of buildings. Athena could make out the sign of the sun on one- a sure sign of a temple dedicated to Jadus- and another had the basic appearance of a general goods store. There actually was an inn, though it was in such a state of disrepair Athena didn't think there were actually any rooms to let.

“We ain't got nothing fer da selling,” said a bored-looking man sitting on the front step of the store. He was chewing on a blade of wheat. He was obviously trying to play up the yokel as thickly as he could for their benefit. Athena wasn’t terribly impressed. “Soldiers already made off wi' da works six months back and dere's been no merchant 'vans since.”

“We were hoping to rest someplace for the night,” Odette told the man. “It has been a long walk from Khoresbar.”

“Didn't know anybody was left dere,” he said indifferently. “Big mess of 'em came by 'most a month back. Didn't stop, jes' kept rolling right on to Felaya furder north. Didn't talk much either, jes' said trolls was invading and dey'd drudder face da soldiers 'cause dey leastwise wouldn't eat 'em.”

“There are not many people left,” Odette replied vaguely. “The trolls looked to be run back into their caverns, but the drought will probably keep the ‘Barens from going back.”

“Da soldiers’ll draft 'em afore dey let 'em back across da border. What sort of trade ya got fer beds? Don't need no money, not wi’ da 'vans stopped.”

“We have a wood-speaker. She might speak to your crops.”

His woebegone slouch vanished and he squinted his eyes narrowly. “Nature witches? Why ya traveling by foot? Ya could magic yerselves ter where ya wants.”

“We're looking for someone,” Athena explained. “We can only follow his trail by keeping to his footsteps.”

He noticed Athena's canine shadow. “Sniffing him out den, eh? Best o' luck wi' that. Dem ‘Barens covered it, more like as not. But we could use da help wi’ da crops. Seems lahk da soil jes' dies unner 'em. Was planning on sending m'boy up to Felaya to try an’ trade fer food, fer we ain't growing enough fer da lean season.”

“We could tell,” Carmen said sympathetically. “And while we cannot do it for everyone's fields, if ye could pick out the ones that will have the least yield, Athena and I will try to fix things up a bit for ye.”

He scratched his chin. “Best talk to Yates,” he said. “He knows jes' about everyding about da fields and been complaining da loudest about da soil. He'll know who's treated der fields worst and worked ‘em too hard to produce anything but dust.”

Athena shook her head. “We can't do anything about the dead ones.”

The man shrugged. “Yates is still yer man. He's da only one looking at having enough for winter an’ more like as not, he an’ his will be working yer fixed fields.“

“Which house is his?”

“Head nor’east a bit an’ look fer a real green house. Had his boys paint up t’ place to keep 'em out o’ trouble during da winter last year. Hadn't nudding better to do, an’ da drought's done away wi’ da snow too.”

“Much obliged,” Odette thanked the man.

“Jes' tell him Galfrid sent ya or he'll be running ya offa his land. Real worried about someone taking what crops he's managed ter grow.”

They continued their northerly trek. After around twenty minutes, Athena understood why the man's directions were just to 'look for a real green house.' She wasn't certain that color could be found in nature.

“That has got to be the hugest eyesore for ninety kilometres,” Petra said in an awed voice. “That man must hate his neighbors. And his kids.”

“And his lot in life,” Carmen added in a dour voice before grinning. “He's got to get his kicks in somewhere.”

Barring the unfortunate paint job, the farmhouse was a testament to the original owner's ability to build. And his paranoia. It looked to originally be a bastle house- the main portion of the building was a three story stone monstrosity with a few arrow slits to act as windows and exterior stone steps to the second story. Additions had been made to the house over time, judging by the different materials of stone used. They had not been so severely defensive in their design, but the sheer size of it loomed down upon them.

There was no barn for the animals, so Athena could only assume the ground floor of the house had been devoted to their stabling. Considering the civil war the country was currently embroiled in, it was a wise decision. The troops couldn’t take what they couldn’t see. Athena thought a barn for camouflage wouldn't have hurt, but wood was obviously too scarce a commodity for it.

“He's not built to withstand a siege, but it's a close thing,” Petra said as they overcame their shock and continued up to the house.

A tall sturdily-built man appeared at the top of the stairs. He had his arms crossed over his chest and glowered down at them.

“I'll ask ya once to get off my land,” he shouted down without preamble.

“Galfrid sent us,” Carmen hollered back.

“And what's that drunken sad sack of lumps want?” he said, not looking any more inclined to welcome them.

“'Tis more what we can do for ye, sir,” Athena said, stopping close to the stairs. “We be needing a place to stay for the night and, knowing ye've no need of money, we thought to bargain in trade.”

His head moved from one woman to the next.

“Two of us be nature witches,” Carmen added before he could say something insulting. Athena winced at the horrible name, but erroneous though it might be in Carmen’s case, it was at least descriptive.

“And you'll freshen my crops for a bed for the night?” he questioned, disbelief evident.

“Not yours, good sir,” Athena replied, shaking her head. “Ye’ve taken good care of your fields. The work is best on something worse off, since using it on either your good crops or your neighbor’s poor crops would produce the same yield.”

“Then why’d that rascal Galfrid send ya to me?” His silhouette had lost some of its tenseness and he came down the stairs to stand directly in front of them. Up close, he was still just as huge, and his bushy beard only added to it.

“He felt you would know whose crops we should work on,” Odette said. “When times are tough like this, the entire community must pull together to survive, and while it may be one man’s land that we change, the crops we work on would have to be split among everyone.”

“Ya’ve obviously seen how right poorly neighbors are when nobody has a thing and everyone fights to hold what they do got. I knows a couple who are poor farmers but goodly folk who will let others work their land so that everybody will have stores for the winter. Still seems an awful lot of work for just a night’s rest.”

Carmen shrugged. “‘Tis the skills we have that ye need. If ye had plague, we have a healer, but ye have drought. We cannot bring back the rains, but we can strengthen some crops back to the yields of the good times.”

He scratched his beard, thinking the matter over, and then seemed to come to a conclusion. “Let me go and speak with the others then. Have Galfrid set ya up in the public house for a meal while ya wait.”

“Thank you for your time,” Odette said to the man before they turned to leave.

Athena watched him cut across his fields. “Should be interesting,” she said as they headed back to the road.

“Boring, you mean,” Petra finally spoke up. “Give me some place with a sign of life any day. These people have been beaten down so far they’ve no spark left to speak of.”

“War does that. There is nothing we can do about it but try and stay away from the fighting,” Odette told her.

“No problem there. We’re going through the dry lands and most of the fighting is further east where the weather hasn’t completely gone all to hell yet.”

“Is it just bad weather or is the drought the sign of a ritual working?” Tae asked.

“There is no way of telling,” Odette replied. “My personal belief is that it was a working of rain someplace else that messed up weather patterns, but it might just be bad weather. It certainly is not someone actively taking the rain from the area to use- this area was not known for its rains to begin with. Nor is there anything here that could give a weather-worker cause for vendetta.”

“Unless all of Telubra has this weather,” Carmen pointed out. “One of the spirits might have shown its displeasure in the civil war by taking away the things that made Telubra a place one would like to live.”

Athena shook her head in disagreement. “The weather gets worse the further north you go. The lowlands are where they are fighting.” She wasn’t entirely certain about the truth of her statement. The poor weather in the north was obviously tied to one of the earth spirits bound there, but the greater earth spirit that oversaw all of Telubra could have stopped it had it desired. Its lack of action said a great deal about its feelings about the warfare in the east though.

“What happened to the weather really isn’t important to us,” Petra said. “A better question is how bad the fighting will be when we turn and start heading east.”

“We should be safe so long as we are careful. Most of the fighting is in the south, though there is some along the eastern border. You remember the Berungan border guards that turned us back from Telubra on our original journey across, do you not?” Odette paused as Mantha took the opportunity to leap from her shoulder, speeding towards a mouse they had frightened into the open.

Tae took up where she left off. “They said the entire length of their border seemed to be one big battle. And the commander thought it could be a feint so the Telubrins could cross and start conquering Berunga. Either it was, and the Telubrin soldiers are busy fighting in Berungan territory, or it was not, and the soldiers are busy fighting each other in Telubrin territory. So that leaves few here in the west to fight.”

“Judging by the contenders for the throne,” Petra said sourly, “they may well think a fourth participant needed in their bloodshed. If the Telubrin king had had the good sense not to foster his sons in Valencia, this wouldn’t have happened. But Valencian nobility is trained from birth to be vipers, and they taught the Telubrin heirs the same dirty tricks without teaching them the number one rule- don’t touch royalty. You don’t kill your king; you throw the other contestants for the throne into a nasty smear campaign that makes you the logical choice as heir.”

“The former king was not one to inspire respect to begin with,” Odette said. “A land is tied to its king. If it is a bad king, the land will not flourish. This drought has been going on for years, but it has only been two since the king was assassinated.”

They had arrived back at the general store. The man on the steps looked like he had not moved at all in the hour they had been gone.

“Ya found him then? Yates set ya a’rights?” He asked by way of greeting.

“He went to speak with the other farmers,” Odette explained. “He asked us to wait in the public house while they came to their decision.”

He eyed the abandoned-looking inn. One of the upper story’s loose shutters slipped off its top hinge and creaked noisily before catching against something and holding still. “They do have good vittles,” he said slowly. “But da rooms ain’t been open to let in a dog’s age. Ya don’t plan on staying there, do ya?”

They looked the dilapidated building over for a moment, and then Carmen spoke what they were all certainly thinking. “I’d rather sleep on an anthill.”

“Verra wise,” he said with a wide grin. “Mal’s a good cook, but he ain’t rented out rooms since his wife died nigh on twenty years ago. She wore da pants in tha’ marriage and did alla da repairs and housekeeping. No telling how big da mice nests in those beds are. But I suppose Yates was right to send ya thar to eat. Only other place to eat is Geva’s an’ she don’t hold wi’ spices.”

“Thanks for the warning,” Petra said.

----

Odette watched Athena and Carmen pace the borders of the first of the three fields that had been chosen as the most under-utilized while still salvageable. At the advice of Yeoman Yates, Lucas- a sheepish-looking young man whose parents had moved to the village fifteen years ago- had planted the more drought-resistant barley wiser farmers used -but had let weeds overgrow large swatches of it, choking out the less hardy barley. He had also somehow managed to over-hydrate one large section. The plants there were yellow and wilted, possibly already dying from root rot as the water took up all the space in the parched soil that the roots needed.

The wilted plants were left alone at Athena's instruction, while Yates had gotten his boys- twin teenagers with identical surly slouches- to pull the weeds out overnight. They were currently seated on Lucas’ porch on opposite sides, studiously ignoring each other while simultaneously taking turns to peg each other with small stones when one’s head turned too far to see the other.

“I see why you had them paint the house,” Odette murmured to the big farmer as a pebble missed and went clattering noisily on the ground. “They have the boundless energies of youth and all the spitefulness of someone with a sibling who always gets the good presents.”

“They’re a right handful, they are. Good lads, though, and hard workers. They just can’t be left idle too long or they’ll have tussles over imagined wrongs,” he replied. “They didn’t mind being turned out of their beds for the work. They’ll probably be arguing over which of ya slept in which bed afore the day is out.”

Odette rolled her eyes and he laughed. “Ye may not have ever been that age, my lady, but I was and I’m not blind now. Two beds, five women? They’ll be fighting over the whole matter for months.”

Odette diplomatically let the topic of conversation drift. “The beds were much appreciated. I know Tae was tired of having to put her armor on in the morning after sleeping on rocky ground and Petra certainly felt more at ease staying in your bastle house than in that abominable public house.”

“Was only too happy to oblige, what with what yer girls be doing now.” He nodded towards the two woodswomen, who had finished their circuit and were crouched on the ground, tracing something into it, murmuring softly.

They looked to be still in their planning stages. It would be a complicated working. They would have to pull the nutrients from deeper in the soil, or else infuse it from their own energies, though that would leave less for them to use with the second part- coaxing the plants to maximize their yield upon maturity. They would also have to ration the energies they expended on the effort- there were still two more fields to do.

“Where did the other two go?” he asked, interrupting her thoughts.

“The temple,” she replied. “Tae to offer her respects, Petra to dig through their archives if the priest will let her.”

“Helios Osgar don't do much record keeping past deaths, births, and marriages,” he told her with a confused look. “And land surveys. Knowing where to stop planting be important. Silly to waste wood on fences, so we use stone and there are some that'll try moving the stone markers to make their property larger.”

“I think she was actually interested in the religious texts. We came across a spiral pattern in an abandoned temple and could not tell who it was dedicated to. She gets curious about these things and frankly, this business bored her. If you think your sons are bad, try a young elf with a penchant for legerdemain. She had Tae thinking a mouse had gotten trapped in her armor.”

“She's a witch too?” he asked, surprised. “Seems a mite small for it. Don't dress to look it either. Dresses like a caravaner, all those layers.”

“Size does not relate to power when it comes to magic. She dresses that way because she gets cold very easily. Little people, you know,” she explained with a smile, “no insulation to speak of.”

He tugged on his great beard. “'Tis true. When my boys were small, they were never happy in winter unless they were curled up in the fire.”

She laughed at the image. “That must be why it is her element of choice, then. If you do not mind my asking, how do you folks plan on working these fields?”

“Galfrid's kin have agreed to look after the fields for Deril's lands- he and his will be working this one and teaching Lucas the proper care procedures, the damn fool. For all that they're citified folk, Galfrid and his kin don't have bad farming habits to break and follow directions well. And they know how important it is to have as much extra stores as possible. There's no sign of the drought ending and we can't hope for good folk like you to come along again.”

“Not until the fight for the throne is over,” Odette agreed. “And maybe having a king will help the land.”

He shrugged, not persuaded. “Our kings have never been proper land-kings. Time was when this land was green and beautiful, but it ain’t been that way for generations. The kings of the east don’t care about the miseries this side of the Bodach Range. ”

As a man of the earth, he would know better than she what the Telubrin land felt about its rulers. She dropped the subject. “What about the other two fields?”

“My daughters will work my fields while the boys and I do Willard's. I don't trust him not to sneak out in the night and make 'corrections'. He don't hold with advice and his papa did him a bad turn sending him to Hallovar for learning. He keeps growing wheat, though he knows 'tis drought and the crops will be sickly, because that's what Hallovar teaches because those eastern farmers grow wheat. There ain't no use telling him we've different weather and land here in the west. And he pays no mind to the fact they sell most of their wheat to the city folk and live on potatoes.”

“The weather is so different there?” Odette asked, surprised. “I know the mountains do strange things with it-”

“Rains mostly come from the east. So their side gets plenty and then it hits the mountains and stops, so we gets to make do with what manages to make it across Sundabar without clearing. Was never much to start with, but now we get none.”

“And for Giles?”

“His field wouldn't be so bad if he hadn't have broke his legs right afore planting season. He's too proud to ask for help and his young'uns did the best they could with his directions, but he couldn't actually get out there to stop them when they started going wrong. With yer healer laying hands on him, he can take care of his own fields. Gran'ther Regenwald said he'll keep an eye on him, just in case, so that one's no cause for worry.”

“He is lucky that wall collapsing on him didn't break his back. Likely if he had been a few steps backwards, it would have killed him.”

Yates snorted. “That's his sort of luck. Fer sure, the wall didn't break his back. But if the wall had fallen five seconds later, he wouldn't have been hurt at all. He's unlucky. If he were luckier, his bad luck would kill him. Instead, his bad luck makes his life miserable.”

Carmen and Athena finished their discussion. Athena was scrounging through her backpack, likely looking for tools for the ritual, and Carmen stalked off towards the center of the field. Athena found what she was looking for. It seemed to be a bundle of small sticks.

“Woodworkers, eh?” Yates said, seeing the same thing. “She won’t be growing trees out there?”

“Nothing of the sort. Trees have long roots though, and I think nature magic uses that symbolically. Rather than skimming the surface like a small plant, they, will draw power from deep underground like a tree would. She is likely deciding which type of wood will work best. They have different strengths.” Odette doubted a lecture on nature magic was really what the man needed, not that she knew more than the general basics Athena and Carmen had explained over the years.

“So there’s a reason the sun-priests always insist on an oak altar for their festivals? Wouldn’t be so bad if they didn’t keep burning the damn things at the end. Helios Osgar always waves around a birch wand for blessing the fields.”

Odette cocked her head, thinking it over. “Basically. I do not know the reasoning behind which wood is best for what occasions. Oak is strength, of course. The enduring light of the sun. Birch could be for growth. Athena will likely have Carmen use that, while she uses one for healing.”

“‘Tis all beyond my ken. I’ll not argue with the experts. If they was to dance naked and throw peppers, I wouldn’t disagree with them. Talking with the spirits of things is their calling and they will know what be needed.”

“I doubt there will be any dancing involved,” Odette said dryly as they watched Athena start to walk the perimeter of the field again, wand in hand. She occasionally stopped to place light fingers down among the yellowed plants. Odette could not tell what the blonde was doing- looking for something, or perhaps marking something.

“A shame that,” he said, eyes admiring Athena’s curvaceous figure. “‘Tis for the best, I suppose.”

“Indeed. Your wives would be outraged and we would be run out of the village before we finished.”

“Only too true,” he said with a sigh. “I should get the lads back to the house for naps or they’ll sleep through the working hours tomorrow. And I know yer girls would prefer not to have watchers. Ye witches can be mighty secretive and I’d rather they not ask ye to turn me into a hare for bothering their working.”

Odette chuckled. “I would not tell your young men they need to take naps. At that age, their pride is so easily wounded.”

----

Heron’s Rest’s temple to Jadus was a larger affair than expected. It had one large chamber for worship and a small three-roomed wing, giving the building an L-shape. One room had been remodeled into a living space for the temple’s sole priest, complete with a small stove for cooking. Another was set up as a private chamber for meeting with the priest one-on-one. The third was filled with cluttered bookshelves, with a small desk and chair shoved into one corner.

It was to this third room the snowy-bearded priest had led Petra and Tae at Petra’s request to view the records. The priest had shown little interest in their reasons, saying that the only reason they even kept the old records was for visiting Jaden clerics. Locals had no interest in the past beyond if family lines were far enough apart and where property lines were supposed to be.

“So what are you looking for?” Tae asked, peering at the papers Petra had pulled out of the temple’s small archives.

“That spiral design. I think it’s related to the beast that was driving the trolls out. Here, flip through these. Set aside anything that looks useful.” Petra passed Tae a sheaf of papers brittle with age.

She glanced at the one on top. It was full of cramped squiggles running down the page. “I cannot read this.”

Petra shot a glance at the sheet and shrugged, unconcerned. “I doubt there’s anyone alive who can read that. But it’s got some illustrations. It looks like all the really ancient papers are written in it. High Allekheirn or some such. The newer ones are in the current tongue. The original Allekheirn language was apparently lost some time during the rise of the empire.”

Tae skimmed the papers, carefully setting them down as she finished each sheet. “Did you just grab everything you could find or was there a method to your madness?”

Petra grinned at her toothily and Tae half-expected her to say she just grabbed everything that wasn’t a list of dates. “Used a bit of magic to point me to anything older than two centuries. I’m not really expecting much, Heron’s Rest is far too small to really have anything interesting. But it was probably around back during the time of the empire, so there could be something here. Mostly though, it’s busy work. Watching Athena and Carmen set up for a nature magic ritual isn’t quite as boring as watching paint dry, its close.”

“Any reason for choosing things two centuries old? Allekhor collapsed long before that.” Tae set a page off to the side for a better inspection.

Petra carefully unfurled a scroll so old its lettering had almost completely faded. “Not really. I didn’t want to exclude anything the Telubrins might have discovered. Heron’s Rest’s shrunk- most village public houses don’t have rooms to let, so Heron’s Rest probably was a town at one time, with more than just one priest to serve the community. One of them might have been a history buff.” Petra extended the scroll to her. “Hold this open for me.”

Tae took the edges gently between her fingers. Petra held her hand over it, frowning with concentration. Color slowly bled back into the faded ink and Tae was surprised to see that the scroll she held looked freshly pressed and inked.

“It will only hold for an hour or so,” Petra said, seeing the look on her face. “But this one looked important.”

Tae peered over the scroll. It was written in the same language as the original paper she had looked at. “How are you going to read it?”

“Behta,” Petra spoke by way of answer. Tae watched the glyphs rearrange themselves into elven script. It was upside-down to her and she tilted her head, trying to read it.

“It’s a description of a battle that took place near here. Their dates don’t translate well- not unless this thing predates the empire,” Petra said with a frown. “I didn’t think there was civilization here that far back. Humans settled this continent from the one to the south. Their ancestors were good shipwrights. Well, thieves, really. The gnomes were the real shipbuilders.”

“Gnomes build ships?” Tae repeated. “I doubt they built the ships to human scale. How did the southerners get away with it?”

“I think the gnomes just wanted them out of their cities. The ancient southerners were basically a howling horde of barbarians, and gnomish civilization was at its peak at the time. If the Umberan gnomes hadn’t stuffed them onto ships, they would have sacked and burned the coastal cities. Or possibly burned, then sacked. Barbarian hordes aren’t that bright.”

“I guess that was clever of them,” Tae said, frowning. “Not that the history lesson is not nice, but is there anything actually of use on this scroll?”

“Maybe if we were archaeologists,” Petra said with a sigh. “There’s not a lot here about who the two opposing sides were. The author mostly just calls his adversaries the heretics.”

“That could be a good sign,” Tae pointed out.

“Only if he stopped recounting each individual contestant and mentioned who these heretics were the followers of.”

Tae pointed to one of the illustrations. “What about this step pyramid? Did any of the old gods use that as a symbol?”

“The ziggurat? You’d know better than me. Wonder why he drew it upside-down, though.” Petra gently took the scroll from her and rolled it back up. “So now that I’ve got you alone, would you care to explain why we’re dawdling here in the back of beyond? I know there’s a better reason than doing a good turn for these folks.”

“Mantha told Odette that someone has been tracking us. She thought we should wait for them to catch up to see what they wanted.”

“And if they have violent intentions?” Petra questioned, flipping idly through the papers she still had left.

Tae returned to her own stack of unintelligible scrawl to look for the spiral design that had Petra so interested. Nothing really popped out, though none of what was left was in the same ancient language. “Either they will wait for us to move on or we will be attacked someplace we have allies.”

“Now that’s thinking ahead,” Petra said approvingly. “Why didn’t you mention it to me?”

“You would have been even twitchier around the locals. And they would notice, Petra. Carmen and Athena just know that Odette wanted to take a break here. If they do not approach us by tomorrow, we will continue on to Felaya.”

“And then strike east to the Lothar Heights,” Petra murmured.

“Where hopefully we will find Crunch. How we will return to Folly is another matter entirely. Do we continue on the road east, across the jut of mountains that splits Telubra and chance the eastern battles or do we go south and chance those battles? The yeomen of the villages will not know where the heirs will move their battles. Probably wisest would be to take the shortest path back to Sundabar and retread our route through Valencia.”

“They won't be as nice to us coming from Sundabar as they were sending us. But their Telubrin border is even more fortified. All Caldonia seems to be going to hell in a hand basket. But none of that will matter if he isn't in Lothar either. What possessed him to wander this way?”

Tae shrugged. The workings of a half-orc mind were beyond her. “Do not be so pessimistic.”

“Plan for the worst,” Petra countered. “Be pleasantly surprised when it doesn't come to pass. Optimists get their hearts broken every day by wishing for the best.”

“That was uncalled for,” Tae said, hurt coloring her voice.

“Hells,” Petra said, running a hand through her hair. “I'm sorry. I don't know why I'm the weak link here, but I keep taking it out on the rest of you.”

“Bad memory affiliation. You have lost someone else,” Tae replied, setting aside the papers to lean against one unsteady bookshelf. At Petra's flinch and wide-eyed look, she added, “You occasionally ask the wrong questions for someone looking for a half-orc.” She pulled herself away from the bookshelf as it creaked suspiciously.

“I try to catch myself. I know he's not here,” she murmured. “It still doesn't mean I should take my frustration out on you.”

“Not really, no.” Tae agreed.

Petra reached over to look at the sole sheet Tae had removed from the papers she had been given. “Is this the only thing you could find?”

It was an obvious change in conversation, but Tae let it slide. “There was a spiral doodled up at the top. I doubt it has anything to do with temple in Khoresbar's former dedication.” She pointed at the drawing at the top. Its ink was not as faded as that of the rest of the document.

“There's another upside-down ziggurat,” Petra said, one finger tracing the design. “Do you think there's any relation?”

Tae wrinkled up her nose and took a few moments to think over the matter. Most gods used blatantly obvious symbols as their signs, or else themed ones- like the heavenly bodies of the Protector's Court, or the minerals of the dwarven Shield Brothers. The spiral could be viewed as a symbol of the sun, but the dark purple Odette and Petra had described it to be did not mesh with that idea. The pyramid was usually used as a symbol of wisdom, though the steps could mean that it related more to climbing. Inverting a symbol usually meant the opposite. But there was not a god of foolishness. Bad luck, perhaps?

She shook her head. “None that I can think of. But religion here is different. The major cities are the only places we have seen temples dedicated to a deity other than Jadus. It is possible there is a deity of this continent not known on our own.”

“Maybe it's not a symbol of a god,” the redhead mused. “What's the symbol for the kings of Telubra? No, that's a lion rampant. So unimaginative. Should we have the time in one of the big cities, I want to stop by a library. It could be it wasn't a temple at all, but some ancient duke or prince's house. Hopefully not, it's easier to find information on ancient religions than ancient insignificant nobility.”

“Do you think there is still time to catch Athena and Carmen's last ritual working? I find myself curious.”

“Probably. Let me put these papers back where I found them and then we can ask Galfrid which field they are in.”

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