The wagon made an ear-splitting racket.
“Whoa!” called out the driver as he reined in the yoked double-tandem. The horses, draped in bright, motley-caparison, came to a halt with the garishly-painted wagon shuddering to a stop immediately after, right in the middle of the road, the sound of pots and kitchen utensils still clanging from within. The driver, a heavy-set man flamboyantly dressed in a vivid green tunic and trousers striped vertically red and white, scrambled down from his seat, lighting upon the ground with a bit more grace than a man of his girth should have been capable of. A number of people started to file out of the back of the wagon; a tall, young man approached the driver.
“Why’ve we stopped so soon, Boss? Somethin’ wrong?”
“Maybe”, the driver answered. “Were the foodstuffs checked ‘fore we left Porter’s Grove?”
“Sure were.”, the young man replied. “I saw Miri checking ’em as we was packin’ up. Why?”
“Can’t you smell it?”, the big man asked. “I wasn’t sure at first, but now we’ve stopped, I am. I think we’ve lost those eggs we just bought. You couldn’t smell it inside the wagon?”
“No, nothin'”, the young man replied, shaking his head. “But I can sure smells it now. How is it we can smell them bad eggs out ‘ere, but not in th’ wagon?”
The big man scrunched up his face as he thought a moment, turning his head slowly toward the line of trees at his back. “Because the smell’s not coming from the wagon, that’s why. Get the wagon off the road and tell the company we’re stopping to check things out. Go ahead and pull the caparisons off the horses so they’ll be a little more comfortable. Then meet me at those trees. I’ll see if I can find where the smell is strongest.”
As the big man made his way toward the trees, the young man ascended the driver’s seat, took up the reins, whipped the team into motion, and guided them to the shoulder of the road opposite the woods. A slender young woman, her long hair falling to the small of her back called up to him.
“What’s happening, Nelson?”
“Boss caught a whiff o’ somethin’ he din’t like.”, he responded.
“Oh, that is a rank smell”, she agreed.
“Boss thought ’twas the eggs gone off, but it can’t be that”, Nelson told her as he stepped down from the seat and started removing the horses’ caparisons. “It’s definitely somethin’ ’round ‘ere. I’m to go help ‘im find out what.”
“Oh, it won’t be dangerous, will it?” she asked as she helped the young man with the horses.
He turned and regarded the girl with exaggerated seriousness. “Oh, extremely. No telling what might be lurking deep in those woods. In fact… I could be going to meet my death.”
She paused in her folding of the caparisons, trying to gauge the young man’s seriousness. His mirth betrayed him, however, and he couldn’t maintain the farce, his feigned gravity crumbling all at once as he exploded in laughter. The young girl smacked his bicep hard, which only made him laugh all the more.
“You’re a scoundrel, Nelson!” she yelled.
“That’s me!” he admitted, playing along. “I’m High Lord Scoundrel of the Great Ernesto’s traveling band of players! And you love me!”
“Aw, you do!” he teased with a charming grin.
I don’t!” she insisted.
“Then tell me, my dear, sweet Landa, why is it you’re always so close by me, eh?” he pressed.
“That’s because you don’t stink as bad as the rest, though you could still do with a proper scrubbing”, she shot back.
“See? I knew you cared for me. Tonight, I’ll make off with Miri’s wash tub and you can see to my proper scrubbing.”
“You’re incorrigible!” Landa grumbled.
“Yes, but you love me.” he said again.
“I do not, now stop it!” she replied as Nelson packed away the caparisons in the stowage beneath the driver’s seat. When he looked up, he saw Landa’s amused expression had grown serious.
“What is it?”
“It’s that smell. I don’t like it and I don’t know why you have to go poking into those dark woods. It could be some hedge witch up to mischief and could lay some sorcery on ye.”
“See? I knew you cared”, he said through a smile.
“Stop playing. I mean it, Nelson. You don’t know what’s in there. Best to leave it be.”
“I’m like-minded with you, Landa, but I’m not the boss. This is his show, you know that.”
Landa sighed. “Okay, Nelson. You just be careful, okay?”
“Ain’t I always?” he grinned back.
Returning his attention to the line of trees, he saw the driver at the edge of the woods about 50 paces back toward the direction they’d come, retracing his steps slowly back toward him along the treeline. He jogged over to meet the man.
“It’s strongest right about here, although it’s shifting with the breeze”, the big man said as soon as Nelson came within earshot.
“Are you sure about this?” the young man asked.
The driver smiled, though there was little mirth in it. “You know I can’t abide a mystery, boy. Let’s go have us a peek, shall we?”
The big man entered the shadowed wood with Nelson at his side. Several paces into the dimly green gloom, he stopped, held up his hand for silence, and cocked his head to listen.
“What do yer ears tell ya, boy?” he asked.
“That faint scraping sound off in the distance? Is that an animal?”
“Maybe”, the big man answered. “But I doubt it. Let’s keep going. Best be on your guard.”
Nelson nodded as he followed. As they grew closer, the scraping sound gradually became more obvious, and clearly not an animal. It was definitely something hard being dragged quickly across something soft, rapidly and repeatedly. The two men continued, stepping cautiously over a fallen hollow bough that lay across the path, or as near to a path as existed in this section of the wood. The trees did seem to be spreading apart a bit here, the dim light taking on a golden hue, making it a bit easier to see. The scraping sound grew steadily louder apace with the increasingly pungent odor as they came upon a makeshift lean-to facing away from them, the back side overgrown with vines. The sound was definitely coming from that spot. But as they came closer and about to round the corner to see in front of the lean-to, the sound abruptly stopped.
Very gingerly, the two men crept around the corner, some 20 paces away from the secluded structure, and saw a simple camp laid out in front of the lean-to. A pit for a cooking fire dominated the center, which a rudimentary chair carved from a fallen log faced toward. A patch of saturated animal hide lay on a bed of leaves in front of the chair with a rock holding it down. A larger pit was situated a couple dozen paces away from the camp that seemed to be sunken into the ground. The smell seemed to emanate from the roughly bowl-shaped stone resting on a handmade bier positioned almost against the coals.
“I wonder what’s going on here”, Nelson asked.
“Just removing the fur from a bit of hide is all.”
The voice was feminine. Both men returned their attention to the lean-to, where the voice had come from. A young woman with long, golden hair, clothed in a vest and loincloth, both made of fur, was sitting in the chair they had just noticed a moment before. The two men looked at each other, puzzled.
“Have you been here the entire time?” Nelson asked.
“Aye”, the woman responded, returning her attention to the stone and skin in front of her.
“Then how come we-” the young man stopped mid-sentence as the driver’s elbow nudged him roughly in the ribs.
“What my friend here meant to say was how come we didn’t notice such a beautiful lass as yerself straightaway? In some faiths ’tis a sin to be gifted by the Gods with such beauty and keep it hid from the world”, the driver said smoothly, his face lit with a beaming smile.
“You’re mocking me. I’m no great beauty like you say”, she replied, scraping the stone against the skin to remove the fur.
“Ah, but you are. Any fool can see it”, the driver continued. “But allow me to beg your sweet pardon for our rude intrusion and make amends by way of an introduction or two. This strapping young lad is called Nelson. And I am known far and wide ’round these parts as The Great Ernesto! Keeper of Secrets! Friend of Kings and Known to the Gods! Thrilled to make your acquaintance and proud to stand at your service am I!”
The driver waited for a response. The woman continued to scrape at the skin with the rock.
“But, uh… you can call me Earnest”, he added almost sheepishly.
The woman never paused or looked up from her work. The driver shifted uneasily before changing the subject.
“So, how many are you here in this camp?”
“Just you? And how long did it take for you to set all this up yourself?”
“I was never very good at this sort of thing, so it took me a while”, she answered. “It took all the first day just to make some tools. I scavenged for food and slept the first night in this tree. The second day, I used the tools to build the shelter, made fire, fished the lake, had my first hot meal, and slept under the shelter. Third day, I started to catch some small game. That gave me more hot food, entrails I could use to make catgut thread, and fur skins like the ones I’m wearing.
“You mean, you came here with nothing but your own skin?” Nelson asked, incredulous.
The woman sighed. “I’m afraid so.”
The two men looked at each other, bewildered. “And what’s that over yon?”, the big man asked, gesturing toward the smoking pit.
“It’s to be a tannery, though a crude one”, the woman replied. “I’m having trouble getting everything I need for it. In the meantime, I’m using it to make cleansing vapors for the catgut thread, in case I need it to sew mine own skin.”
“Cleansing vapors?”, asked Nelson.
“Aye”, she replied. “From brimstone.”
The driver shot Nelson a dubious glance. “There’s been no brimstone in this area for generations. How’d you come by it?”
“Well, it’s not just lying about, no. I had to extract it from some firestone I found near the lakeshore.”
“You can do that?”, Nelson asked, his eyes widening.
“I admit that it took me much longer than it should have; but I managed it in the end.”
“Brimstone”, the big man said aloud. “So that’s the smell that drew us. And you say you been having trouble getting the tannery set up?”
“Aye, I’ve been at it all day, trying to find the things I’d need. I would have known just where to look in The Halewood, but around here I’ve had no end of trouble finding things and getting them set up properly.”
Both men looked around the camp at the cookfire, simple chair, lean-to, the woman’s furs, all produced in a matter of days with no tools to start. “Aye”, the big man answered a bit absently. “We can see you’ve had trouble.”
The young woman let the skin and rock drop from her hands as she sighed in frustration. “I had such high hopes for my life among humankind, but it doesn’t seem as if I’m starting off very well.”
The big man took several steps toward the girl, his expression softening. “Well, at least you don’t have to worry about all of this anymore.”
The young woman cast him a puzzled look. “What do you mean?”
“I mean, you’re very lucky that we came along when we did. Now that you’ve been rescued you can have a fresh start”, he explained.
“Rescued? What are you talking about? “
“To get you out of here and deliver you from the struggle of all this primitive living. There’s no need for you to suffer alone in these woods. Don’t worry, you’re going to be fine now. We just need to get you away from this frontier and to a decent-sized town with a decent number of people, is all.”
“I don’t think so”, the woman responded. “I’ve not had much luck with the people I’ve met so far. I don’t think meeting even more people is the way to set things right. Thank you, but no. I’ll take my chances here.”
The big man sighed. “It’s a fool’s venture, uh… I’m sorry, what did you say your name was?”
“Just… call me Kara.”
“Look, this here is a fool’s venture, Kara. These woods aren’t for just settling down in. They’re part of the baronial estate. It’s true there’s no baron; but if the vacancy is filled, the new baron will not take kindly to finding you squatting in his woodlands. And if the vacancy isn’t filled, it’ll just be a matter of time before the baron’s liege will want to come ’round to look after these lands. It’s just not safe for you to stay here, Kara.”
The young woman’s jaw tightened as she stared down at her cooking fire. Earnest’s face softened as he observed her unspoken distress.
“Look, I can tell you’ve gotten off to an unlucky start, but there’s really no need to fret. You’ll find life much more pleasant among better folk. Where we’re heading there are plenty of towns along the way. You’d be safe in any one of them.”
“You don’t understand”, Kara said sullenly. “I just want to be left alone.”
Earnest placed a hand gently on Kara’s shoulder.
“I do understand”, he replied, his voice thick with sympathy. “But I don’t want to see you nabbed for poaching or aught else. You may want to be left alone, but this land… all land, in fact… is owned. You can’t just find a place that you like and stay there.”
“This doesn’t make any sense”, Kara protested. “I find open woodland like this and you tell me it’s owned by some baron, but then you tell me there is no baron? What sort of fool do you take me for? Why would you think I would believe such a ridiculous story?”
“Well, when you put it like that, it does sound ridiculous, I suppose”, Earnest began. “But it’s true. It’s just how things are done in the civilized world. All land is divided into estates and all estates are held by someone, from the largest cities to the villages, and all the farmland and the whole countryside. That’s just how things have always been.”
“It sounds a bit over-civilized to me”, Kara replied.
Earnest sighed as he ran out of patience. “Kara, Nelson and I came here to make sure there wasn’t some sort of fire or some other sort of danger in the woods. And now that we see there isn’t, we’ve no need to stay. I’ve got a schedule to keep. You can remain here if you want to, but having warned you of the risk, we’ve done right by you. Nelson and I will head back to the wagon now and make ready to travel. I still recommend you join us, but I won’t waste more daylight trying to convince you. If you want to come with us, meet us at the wagon before we set out. Otherwise, good luck to you. Come, Nelson, let’s leave the woman to her paradise.”
They turned to go, leaving Kara staring into her fire.
The two men said nothing until after they had left the young woman’s camp.
“Nelson, that may well be the most beautiful woman I have ever laid my eyes on.”
“Best not let Miri hear you say that.” Nelson replied.
“Why would I give two coppers’ worth of care about that?” Earnest fired back. “Miri knows her place. But don’t tell me you didn’t see how pretty Kara is. I’ll declare you unfit if you try to sell me that worthless bauble.”
Nelson walked on quietly, but Earnest wouldn’t let it drop.
“Don’t worry, I won’t tell Landa you said so. I know you’re sweet on her.”
“Fine, she’s pretty. But I’d still take Landa and not think twice.” Nelson admitted.
“Nelson, I’m starting to lose faith in you. You’re much too good-natured for this line of work.”
They said nothing more, remaining silent as they exited the woods and returned to the wagon where they found Landa brushing out the horses while two figures sat on the small porch at the back of the wagon. Earnest grunted in a show of disgust only Nelson could hear, calling out as he came within earshot.
“Chastain, would you care to remind me why I ever hired your lazy carcass?”
The young man at the porch grinned.
“Because I bring in thrice the coin of anyone else and you’re smart enough to know better than to leave good silver in a marked man’s purse, that’s why.”
“All the same, don’t think I won’t toss you out on your soft hide if you refuse to do camp work.” Earnest shot back. “I’d rather have a humble worker in my crew than a vainglorious sloth.”
The young man chuckled. “Nah, what you really want is both the coin I bring and a full day’s camp work. I’m no fool to sell my labor so cheap, Earnest. Find another sucker if you’re so good at it.”
Earnest muttered to Nelson. “He’ll be the one to find something if he don’t shift his attitude, and it’ll be a blade at his throat.”
“What was that, Ernie?” Chastain asked him as the two men approached.
“Just talking to Nelson, Chas. Let’s get ready to continue on up-road. Nelson, help Landa with the horses. Miri, make sure the wagon is secure. Chastain, do what you usually do.”
“On it, boss.” he grinned as he remained sitting on the porch, leaning his chair back, folding his arms across his chest and closing his eyes.
“So, what was it, Ernie?” asked Landa as Nelson began to check the horses’ hooves.
“A woman. Eldarine blooded to be sure, wouldn’t you say, Nelson?”
“Aye, and her name was all gibberish for another clue.” Nelson replied.
“They say Eldarine women are beautiful.” Landa said.
“Aye, and this one sure was.” Earnest responded. “And she’s smart. Set up a camp all on her lonesome with naught to start with, not even clothes.”
“She was naked?” Landa asked, her voice sharp.
“No, she’d made furs to wear and she was starting to make leather when we found her camp.” Earnest reassured her. “The girl knows something of alchemy like tanners do, talking about getting brimstone out of firestone and making vapors for some other purpose. Didn’t make a lick of sense to me, but she sure knew what she was doing. I tried to talk her into coming with us.”
One of the horses whinnied in distress and kicked back as Landa brushed him too hard. “Is that so?” she asked, her voice turning cold.
“Careful, Landa.” Nelson advised as he went to soothe the animal.
“Well, why don’t you say what you think about all this, Nelson, seeing as how you’ve been so quiet since you got back. Someone might say you had something on your mind.” Landa said.
“You know how it is, Landa.” Nelson said. “Ernie’s the captain and it’s his show. We just play our parts.” He paused, scraping a pebble from one of the horse’s hooves. “But I don’t think she’ll come. She didn’t seem too keen.”
“Is that why you’re so quiet, then? All sad on account of the pretty girl wont come?”
Nelson put down his tools and stood up. “Landa, I think I liked you better when you were denying that you loved me.”
Landa’s face turned red. “Why you son of a… you know, I think you have been bewitched!”
“Don’t be so hard on the lad now, Landa.” Earnest said. “Nelson was a perfect gentleman and he’s being a lot more level-headed than you are. You’re just embarrassed that you’ve let your feelings show. Now swallow that and let’s get on with getting ready to travel. I’ve let this company get far too lax of late. If you don’t want me to change that tune real fast, I suggest you all get your heads straight and do your jobs.”
“Well, that tears it.” Landa said low enough for only Nelson to hear. “That was a hedge witch in there and she’s bewitched the both of you. She’s probably some ugly old crone that deals in sorcery, saw you two coming, and worked some craft to make herself look beautiful to lure you in. You’re probably lucky you two came back from that woods at all. Though that don’t mean I’m liable to forget this anytime soon.”
Nelson picked up his tools without a word and put them in the strongbox under the driver’s seat, pulling out the harness and traces. As he started hitching up the horses, Landa sighed in frustration at his silence, threw the horse brush into the strongbox and slammed it shut as she started to walk toward the back of the wagon.
Chastain grinned as he heard her approach. “Looks like our redhead is showing her fire.” he said lazily, keeping his eyes closed.
Landa reached down and yanked upward on one of the raised legs of the chair Chastain was leaned back in, sending him and the chair crashing to the wooden floor of the porch.
“Ah!” he yelled, rolling over to his side as his hands went to cradle the back of his head. “Bitch!”
“Enough, Landa!” Earnest said. “And you shut your mouth, Chastain. You brought that on yourself.”
“Sod that.” Chastain said, his voice strained with pain. “That rotten whore is going to pay for this, you mark me.”
Nelson’s arm appeared at the corner of the back porch, his fingers grabbing a handful of Chastain’s hair and spinning him around where he lay as a knife appeared at his throat. “One more word said against Landa and it’ll be the last word you’ll ever say. Get me?”
“Fuck.” Chastain swore under his breath. “When did you grow a pair, horse boy? Fine, I’ll keep my mouth shut about your woman. Damn. I had no idea you two were so serious.”
“Neither did I.” Landa said, looking down at Nelson with a hint of a smile as he let go of Chastain, sheathing his knife.
“So…” Earnest began. “does everyone have all the rancor out of their humours now?”
Miri nodded for no particular reason as Nelson and Chastain agreed. They all turned to look at Landa, waiting for her to agree.
“Oh, fuck me.” Landa swore as movement caught her eye and she looked toward the trees.
Kara walked slowly toward the wagon, dressed in her furs, her golden hair streaming in the breeze.
“I think this is the worst day ever.” Landa said.
“Well, you’d better get over it, Landa. Miri’s too short to lend her proper clothes, so you’re going to have to see to her wardrobe.”
“I hate you, Ernie.”