The Pursuit of Happiness
The Merchant and the Dancer
The wind held something in it that brought tears to the eyes. The bitter cold that followed froze them. It was difficult to move quietly in the early morning frost. Everything was so crisp, so loud. The forest air could carry a sound, distorted and hollow, from miles away, or from just behind the next hill. One could never tell. Fur padding on the shoes helped a little. They looked ridiculous but helped to muffle the sound of crunching leaves and breaking twigs. At this point it didn’t matter, Brian knew, as he was being followed. He had been since two days ago. He was unsure as to why. He carried nothing of any real value. He was a simple merchant who found himself in the shoes of a messenger. He had half a mind to just stay put and wait for his pursuer. Better to face the devil than to let his mind build up who it may be. Was it a hunter? Any hunter worth his salt would know the tracks he left was not made by a forest animal. But yet, he was still followed. Not a good sign.
He ducked behind a large oak to catch his breath. The tell-tale smell of fire had disappeared with the shifting of the wind. He would have to be more cautious now. He had no weapon save a whittling knife and a walking stick and even that wasn’t straight. It would make a poor spear. The blood pumping in his ears was a constant drumbeat signaling danger. When he paused for a breath or a drink, it created a cacophonous soundtrack to his current prey status. Annis would have shimmied up a tall pine and held her bow silent until the interloper showed himself. It had always amazed him how she could stand, unmoving, for hours. But Annis wasn’t here, and age weighed heavily on Brian’s considerable body. His days of climbing trees were well past. If it weren’t for his current situation, the notion would be humorous.
It was a week since he had left the village of Crydon. It had been more like a group of six farms that butted up against each other with an inn and a statue of a farmer in the middle. But the food had been well spiced and the company was friendly. He spent a few nights over a bowl of hunter’s stew consisting of both deer and rabbit in a thick brown sauce served over cubes of bread and mugs of the local ale. He was fairly sure that he had made no enemies in the nights he had rested there. He had done his best to keep any conversations to simple things like the crops and weather. He gave no complaint when he saw that the prices were just slightly higher for outsiders. Who was he to deny them larder for the winter? Coins were just rocks from the ground that someone polished pretty. They came and went like the seasons. You quickly got the idea from the ready smiles and the tavern songs that nothing terrible had ever happened there. Crydon hadn’t had any sense of local government, just a group of local people who knew that there was comfort in numbers. So be it. He hadn’t noticed his tail until three days ago. He doubted that anyone from the village had ever travelled so far. That left two answers. That he had recently picked up his follower or that he had been followed for long before Crydon. The latter was unsettling.
He unwrapped his roll and took out one of his few remaining loaves of bread that he had purchased in town. The thick brown crust staved off the bread going stale. Thinking always came easier with a full stomach and he certainly had some thinking to do. Just continuing on to his destination wasn’t really an option. He had pledged, long ago, never to reveal the location of his destination. That would not be a conversation that he would like to have with the priests. They were skittish enough as it was. The need for secrecy with this group was paramount although Brian could never figure out why. The priests were a quiet, unassuming people who lived quite closely attuned to nature. They hid no gold and had little to fear from outsiders. But still they kept themselves unknown to the world. That was the way they liked it and the world got along just fine without knowing they existed. It did, however, narrow his choices. It was unlikely that he could lose the person following him, he was too close now, and he could not lead them any closer. If he did that, the priests would never let themselves be found. There was really only one option. Better the devil you know. If he was met with a sword, well, that he could handle if he had to. His girth hid a quickness that surprised most. He did make for a fairly easy ranged target, however. It was best to lay low until he was in striking range. He figured that he had about two hours, on the outside, before they would meet. Strategy was key here, he put to mind as he surveyed the outlying landscape. The ground was relatively flat, so no adjustments could be made for higher ground. Even the trees had thinned out for the past few miles. This was hardly an ideal place to make ones last stand. Chewing slowly, he weighed his options. Eating always made him think better. He wiped the crumbs from his chin as it came to him. He found a stump, sat down and smiled. It was worth a shot.
By the time the silhouette crested into view Brian had a roaring fire burning and some root vegetables slow roasting. It wasn’t a rabbit, by any means, but it still left a comforting aroma on the breeze. He was fortunate enough to find a few ripened roots over the past few days. It was foolhardy to waste resources as such. Root patches don’t show up every day, especially in this frost. But, it was most likely a pretty strong signal to whoever was coming that he knew someone was behind him. The pops of the dry wood burning and the ensuing sparks floated on the breeze towards the interloper. If this didn’t work, he knew he was in trouble. He pretended not to notice the large man approaching as he poked his stick in the food to test doneness.
Brian waved his cooking utensil at a stone that he had placed at the other end of the fire. The large man slung his pack from over his shoulder and onto the rock. His broad, bearded face showed no emotion as he rummaged through his pack, producing a fair sized parcel made of what appeared to be birch bark. He was a large man, exceptionally so. His beard hung long and the state of his clothing suggested that he slept outside more often than not. His thick fingers struggled with unwrapping the delicately tied package.
“Ho, stranger.” Brian said. “What brings you to follow in my path? You are welcome to share my fire. My roots appear to be almost cooked. I am called Brian and am glad for the company.”
The hulking mass lifted his head to meet his gaze for but a moment before returning to his task. The grey eyes immediately told Brian that this was not a man that would put up with witty banter. He needed to re-evaluate his plan and quickly. Cleverness would be unlikely to win the day. A quick exchange of a meal and quips would have suited him for most folk. He would at least know where he stood. This man was different, unnerving. This open air meeting would, most certainly, be an error of judgment on his part. He sat and watched silently as the man finally was able to unwrap the package. He pulled out a metal tin that, when opened, contained meat packed in salt. The meat had been pre-set in skewers that were carefully lifted, shaken to remove any excess salt, and set above the fire to toast. He then pulled a fur blanket from his pack and set it next to the rock near the fire. As he began to clap his hands together to remove the excess salt, Brian attempted to verbally engage him again.
“I have water…”
He was cut off short as the man spun more quickly than Brian would have ever imagined and put one hand to his mouth; fingers up in the universal sign for silence. Brian froze mid-word; his eyes open wide in anticipation of attack. He had no idea what to expect next. The man slowly lowered his hand and turned back to his pack. He removed a deerskin pouch, opened it and threw a pinch of the contents into the fire.
Immediately, the cooking fire exploded into a blaze of color. Brian quickly brought up his arm so as not to be blinded. When he saw the light at his feet diminish, he peeked up above his forearm and saw the most curious thing. The large man who must have weighed at least seven stones wan dancing on the rug in a fervor that Brian would never have thought that someone of his size could muster. His arms flung about haphazardly in a rhythm that was unheard but clearly felt. The man’s crazed movements depicted (as near as Brian could tell) the flight of some angry bear-bird who wished to give thanks to the mountain god. Or something like that. His dance interpretation skills were far outweighed by the realization that if this man wanted him dead, there would be nothing he could do to stop him. His shaggy frame belied a quickness of motion that was eerie. Brian was watching a human thunderstorm.
And as quickly it had begun, it was over. The man gave a final shake of his body; much like a wet dog would, and sat down with a thump that Brian felt in the ground from across the fire. He ham fistedly grabbed the two skewers from the fire, the heat apparently causing him no discomfort, and tore a ragged piece of meat from the stick. Curiously enough, the meat that had been packed in salt now appeared to be juicy and sizzling with crackling fat. It dripped down his beard, though he seemed to pay it no mind. The large man just stared at Brian, chewing slowly, his large jaw working back and forth. Further study of the man in front of him raised far more questions than it answered. He had hair everywhere. His long hair and ample beard hid most of his face, but the parts that it did not hide were the most unsettling. Upon closer inspection his gray eyes seemed almost too large for his head. Even his hands, or what he could see of them poking out of his long sleeves, had tufts of long, shaggy hair. He wore no boots but all he could see of his feet that wasn’t completely covered by hair were his enormous toes. The large vest that he wore was made out of woven leaves….
He was staring across the fire at a treeman.
All thoughts of getting an upper hand in the situation fled his mind. He sat down with a considerable thump of his own on the log he had placed near the fire and let out a long, whistling breath. The treeman immediately copied the sound with the added effect of a small bird landing on his shoulder and picking a bug out of his ear.
From what he could piece together from childhood stories, the treemen were little seen guardians of the forest. According to his mother, they stole away children who wouldn’t wash their clothes in the river. He doubted if that particular piece of folklore held any merit, but the man sitting before him certainly fit the description. Brian could not recall any stories about them being particularly violent but it was best to be safe. Mostly they were known for their reluctance for contact with anyone except for their own kind. This meeting was unprecedented. He became sorely afraid that the reason that there were so few stories about the Treemen was due to so few surviving the encounter. His behavior did not shout out killer as much as it did child. That man sitting across from him, however, was in no way a child.
Chapter 2: As the Arrow Flies
Annis pressed her back against the stone wall and listened. Three corpses lay at her feet, two with arrows sticking in their torsos, one with his neck at an unusual angle. Once she was sure that the footsteps she heard a few minutes ago were not returning, she squatted down to see if the projectiles were still serviceable. Pulling an arrow out of someone’s back is not as simple as one would think.
A well made arrow, at least the kind used against people, should be a difficult thing to remove. She thought back to her mentor, Gilliad, and how he would have her forge her arrowheads wider than any she had ever seen. When asked why, he told her: “When you shoot someone with an arrow, you are gifting him with death. It is not wise to allow your victim to throw away that gift. When you make an arrowhead wide, it will become twisted with their insides when they try to remove it. It will hasten their death, which is only kind, as an arrow is a painful way to die.” He then showed her how to make the outside edges very sharp but to leave the back of the head with no edge at all. Little notches along the back would ensure that even if the arrow could be dislodged, it would take important bits with it. Her mentor Gilliad may well have been the most dangerous man she had ever met, but even he did not know the secret of removing a well made arrow, especially, when he didn’t see it coming. But how could he have when she was the one holding the bow. One’s libido doesn’t tend to be as threatening when the only thing stiff down there is an arrow in your groin.
Spitting the hair out of her mouth, she inspected the first arrow. The shaft was cracked. Useless. She pulled the head off and threw the rest into the tall grass. These ruins provided pretty decent cover, but there was no need to force the issue. This close to the encampment was not a safe area to be in the daylight. Roaming patrols, such as the one that lay dead at her feet were a certainty. It was time to hunker down and wait for nightfall. Lifting her head over the ruined stone wall, she saw nothing. She slid back down and began to rifle through the clothing of the three gentlemen that would be keeping her company until nightfall. She named them Gerrod, Benj and King Tem.
She held a war conference with her new friends to find out what the best way in to the encampment would be. Sat up against the wall, they looked like royalty with nary a care in the world. She had tried to make a crown out of leaves and sticks in Tem’s hair, but the results were disappointing. His broken neck was poor at holding his head up and the leaves kept tumbling off. The long grasses that she had stuffed in his now stiffening mouth were a noble attempt at, but did not quite mimic, a kingly beard. She had smashed out all of Gerrod and Benj’s teeth with a rock in hopes of making them look like a queen and a princess with red, pouty mouths, but was disappointed with the results. The red around their mouth did add to the illusion but she had accidentally caved in Gerrods head in the front. If you have never caved in someone’s skull you probably wouldn’t know how bad brains smell. Not very princess-like at all.
None of them were very forthcoming with a good route into the camp. She could tell that they were far too afraid to give up anything. Tarol Undershine was not one to forgive betrayal. The stories that crossed the plains were of heads on pikes marking the path that his caravan moved through the world. Undershine did not hide. He left a path of heads for anyone foolish enough to follow. The unlucky ones that did, more likely than not, became part of the path. From what Annis had seen, there did not appear to be a shortage of fools. What stories she had heard, mostly from cowering peasants, told the tale of a wandering tyrant and his tireless army. Undershine was a superstitious king and believed himself to be cursed to never take root in one place. He was also known for looting any town, village, city or fortress he came across. That was what had caught her attention. The stories that were whispered, that of an army that never slept and carrying an ancient treasure, she could dismiss. She had already seen that his army sleeps just fine. In fact, he was pretty sure that the queen in front of her was dozing off.
That was royalty for you.
Chapter 3: Word as law
The marketplace bustled with moving carts, stalls and barkers. The smell of roasted meats mingled, uneasily, with that of horse’s shit. Thick smoke from various small blacksmiths in the area combined with the haphazard layout of the market to make visibility low. Parrid was in a particularly foul mood this morning, having had his breakfast unceremoniously thrown out the tavern window by an irate inkeep demanding payment. The mindless shrieks from this overweight pile of excrement still rang in his ears. “No coin, no room! No coin, no food.” Even if he had had payment for the bloated innkeeper he would never see it now. To think! Charging a warrior priest for lodging? That would never do. Lord Saaban (may his name reign fire down upon the ages) did not create this world so that the people that infest it could profit from what was made to offer freely. Such an offence to a warrior priest of Saaban should not go unpunished, but it was difficult in a city where the Lord of the Red Heavens name was not known. Lashing out in self-righteous anger would not serve the cause. These ignorant sheep must be hand-held to glory.
As much as he was loathe to do so, Parrid approached, then mounted, the stump of a great old may tree that stood in a clearing of the market. He loathed this part of his calling. The Jeers, the clumps of dirt thrown at him riled him quickly. These people did not deserve salvation. The endless time spent spreading the word of Saaban to deaf ears grew tiresome. His only audience, an occasional drunk who overheard the closing to prayer “May the taste of my enemies blood be ever in my mouth!” That usually rouses a halfhearted hurrah from boys and people who have never actually seen a battle. It was rare, however, to have someone listen to the whole of his word. He let the red hood fall behind his head and allowed his steely grey eyes to search the crowds unhindered, searching for someone with an ounce of steel to listen to his message. His countenance did not inspire fellowship, or so he had been told. His nose was long and sharp and his mouth was tied into a constant scowl. It made him look older than his 36 summers. The streaks of grey in his hair didn’t help either.