The small tavern had the smell of tobacco lingering within its walls. A drunken worker stumbled out from one of the few boarding rooms upstairs, crashing gut-first into the bannister that circled the tiny balcony. An unfortunate soul, who wasn’t fast enough on his toes, received the man’s dinner. You shake your head at the spectacle and take a swig from the mug on the table. Swill. Apparently most of the balcony man’s diet last night. You gaze up him as you swallow the last of the potent stuff to see the man swagger on down the stairs, both hands on the railing, and trying to order another round for the house. Another shake of your head, you turn your thoughts inward as you make your way to the exit.
It has been 7 months since you arrived in Stagmead, the small lumber community sandwiched between a profitable forest and (by most local accounts) the deadliest forest in all the land. You had to admit the stories were plausible, as you knew of at least 5 people that went into that place. You haven’t seen them since. The forest had no official name, but most everyone around called it “The Skeleton’s Closet”. You chuckle every time you hear that. Your foreman had a closet in his office that no one has seen the inside of, causing quite a rumor about a lazy worker that disappeared without a trace 5 years ago. You are fairly certain the local workers take not to kindly to their foreman’s task mastering. Another chuckle escapes your lips. You think about how little of the world these people actually know and smile slightly at that particular knowledge you actually possess.
In your room, actually more of a bed space with a drawer end table, you scribe the days events in a journal you picked up on your last expedition. Nothing outstanding to recall, but comforting nonetheless. It is good to know that you haven’t lost your sense of recollection. The day was quiet, with little murmur. No one new in the community, certainly no travelers had been by since your arrival. Interesting, that. You pause in your accounting to reflect on that simple fact. No one has arrived or passed through in just over 7 months. Very interesting. You make a note of it on the day’s margin. Another hour passes by before you retire for the night. A calm overcomes your usually pondering mind, and sleep finds you gently for the 7th straight month. Interesting, that. You were fast asleep before you could think anything more on it.
The cool, crisp morning of the forest village gave you enough energy to get out of bed, but just enough hesitance to venture out and about too long. The lumber camp’s large iron bell struck 6 times. Work. You place the journal back in the drawer and replaced the lock. You had made that contraption out of habit and not out of threat. The folk around here wouldn’t know what stealing was. Everyone shared everything. Even their share of the day’s pay! A chuckle escapes your lips as you shut the door behind you and begin yet another day of axe swinging and log pulling, your smile as enthusiastic as ever.
Stagmead was more of a hamlet than a village or town. In fact hamlet was a generous designation, for the little community was comprised of no more than two lumber camps, a tavern, a couple supply depots and a single outpost near the Skeleton’s Closet, which was only built to comfort the supply merchants, whose establishments were back-end to the dark forest. Indeed this place was no hamlet. It was a speck of dust on an old forgotten path that wasn’t recorded on any map – save your own.
The tavern was the hub of Stagmead, with its own brewery underneath and a few available rooms to rent. It even had the largest room of all the buildings, a grand dance floor if there ever was one; though it was rarely, if ever, used as one. Meetings and festive gatherings were common here if weather prevented them from being outside. Even though each of the supply depots were bigger in overall size, the tavern bested them with communal design: a room for every function.
The supply depots were across the narrow road, a wide path really, from the tavern. They housed all the material and goods the folk needed. From grain brought in via wagon once a year to the goods the lumber camps produced. Smithies made the tools while the tanner/tailors made clothes and cloth. Even though the supply depots were separate buildings, only a thin-board wall acted as the divider. Most of the merchants would agree that tearing down that pesky wall would greatly improve efficiency and morale within the depots.
The lumber camps were exactly that. A few tents scattered around a cleared portion of land. Each camp had a foreman (or in the case of the northern camp, a surly woman of no more than 40 winters) that planned the day’s course. The rest of the tents were for the workers: one for mealtime and the others for storing goods. The workers themselves had no shelter whist out on the job. It was common practice for each camp to compete with the other – to see which could get more timber in a given workday. In the seven months you have worked for the southern camp, your company had always won.
The outpost was really a thick, tall tree stripped of its limbs with a wooden ladder up to the top where a small wooden crow’s nest-like basket sat. Every 4 hours, a member of the community would take turns and stand watch. Being the tallest manmade structure it did provide for quite a view of the immediate surrounding. Being the closest to the Skeleton’s Closet however, had caused some pause to the few volunteers that did climb up to stand guard. The community had agreed at the time of it’s construction, that any able-bodied person willing to guard the outpost would be granted an extra ration of suppies each month.
Stagmead was indeed small. You had wondered why none of the buildings were named. The tavern was plainly referred to as “The Tavern”. Likewise with the other dwellings. Even the signs above the doors were all engraved as such! You inquired as to the place’s namesake, Stagmead on your first evening in the village, but got nothing but cryptic stories of someone’s great grandfather’s brewing style to a wandering deer that ventured too close to the dark forest. You had gathered quite an extensive knowledge of the common folklore, but none of it helped in your cause.
Bold and steadfast Justine Severlake, or better known as “Sevvy” and a timid smithy by the name of Grapple were the only people you would call friends. Everyone else was either too scared of your big stature or just too within their own tedium to care. You didn’t mind. Large groups usually made you nervous. Grapple and Sevvy were enough.
With broken axe slung behind your bare back, the low sun warming you just enough, warding off the winter shivers, you trek your way through rough paths made by you and your co-workers, “log-pulls” they called them. Indeed they were used in that fashion as it was easier to pull a tall oak than it was to hoist it up with all hands. You jog past the foreman’s tent and glance inside. Good, he isn’t inside. Most likely on the northern end of camp, scouting out his “competition”. You let out a small laugh at that. You breeze past the forest edge and slow your pace. You take a peek at the top of the outpost. Just your luck. Grapple was up there. Another half smile to yourself as you adjust the axe, and head off toward your friend.
“I don’t think I can right now.” Grapple answered from his high perch. “Besides, I be needin’ that extra ration anyway.” came a pleading follow-up.
“Why don’t I just take your watch for you so you can.” You say, feeling hopeful. Grapple only stood watch if he really needed the extra supplies, as he was afraid of heights, the dark, and especially the dark forest. No. Grapple wouldn’t last long in this argument. “Don’t worry, you can still have that extra ration. I won’t need it.” You finish.
“Well in that case,” came a feigned sigh of defeat as Grapple turned around to climb down.
“Many thanks” you say. “How much will it be for the repair?” You ask as Grapple set foot in front of you. You know the answer, but ask it more out of respect seeing as this timid little man is the best smithy you have seen in many years. And to think, he resides in the smallest of small villages unspoiled by the normal traveler fair you witnessed only just over a year ago! No, this man was unrivaled in his trade, as far as you were concerned. That is why you get him to fix your tools.
“Ah.” Grapple took his chin in his rough hand and stroked it, pretending to come up with a price. “Payment will be a pint of the tavern’s finest stout once you are done with your watch.”
“A fair trade.” you reply as you turn to head up the outpost and take over for your friend.
Four hours high above the buildings was always a nice change to the sweaty work of the lumber camp. You take a slow pace around the platform, doing your duty. Keeping watch. The sun’s intensity was waning as it set beneath the forest canopy. The outpost was tall, but not tall enough to see much past the dark forest’s treeline and a few miles into the other, less dense forest. In the months you have actively volunteered for guard duty, only a handful of events were worth alerting the community. Three of them, you had personally spotted. One of which was unsettling more to you than any of the village folk. A flock of ravens had taken flight just above the dark forest and dove into a gathered mass into the center of Stagmead, mostly scaring anyone walking out on the path. To you though, it was yet another reminder of your greater journey. One in which you held dear and most private. A cold gust of evening air wakes you from your daydreaming. Another slow pace around the basket and that nagging feeling is gone. Four hours high above any distractions was also dangerous.
You gaze into your opponent’s eyes, sensing hesitation. You make your move. Blocked. Again you take your time and plan your next move. Your opponent seems neither afraid nor confident as the next move is made. An opening. You snag it and mark your plan accordingly. Your turn. Sweat pours from your brow as you consider the risks involved with such a maneuver. A sigh from your opponent signals your time’s up. You move. Surrounded. Damn.
Sevvy was one of the best chess players this village had to offer, and she didn’t hold back when it came to the ‘sparring’ matches you and her shared. Justine wiped her equally sweaty forehead and sat back to admire her latest victory. “Just look at that board, John.” She smiled, “Just look at that board. A work of pure genius I tells ya. A work of pure genius.” Now she was just boasting, you noted. Still, a smile crept up your face nonetheless.
“Yeah. Good game, Sevvy.” you finally say after wiping your own forehead. The fireplace was the best place to play since it provided the best lighting. It also provided the best heat too! You slump back into the hide chair and look at the board before asking, “Where did you learn to play?
“Me pa teached me how ta play da game well enough as a kid.” Sevvy said with a quick response. Too quick.
You know that no common peasant can learn to play the way she does, but held in that little bit to yourself and replied with, “That so? Good for you and your pa then.” instead.
“You might’ve learned a few things o’ two iffa you’d watched those matches.” she said before starting to put the game away.
“I’m sure I would’ve learned quite a lot.” you reply knowingly. You stand and stretch, letting the day’s work slough off your shoulders, and with a large yawn bid your friend a goodnight. Sevvy gave a slight nod and headed out of the common room and into the tavern proper. You look at the empty chess table beside the fireplace, where Sevvy had placed it, and gave a small laugh. She was good. Especially for a peasant. Your respect you have for your friends seem to amaze even you.
The day’s journal would include both of your friends this time. It was good to have them. Friends in far away place. Far from home. Far from reality. The journal practically wrote itself as the evening wound down to a close. You gazed out your small window to catch a glimpse of the rising moon; it was half full tonight. Not good. You estimated you had another month and a half. At the most.
The stagnant air in the chamber was overwhelmingly heavy, causing you and another lumber worker, Hemmish, to take small shallow breaths. The thickness of the air weighed you down. This was unnatural.
Hemmish had felled a large ash earlier that day only to discover a small opening at the base of where the roots had been. You were called over and the two of you, axes in hand and a torch decided to explore the hole. It turned out to be no hole, but an entrance of sorts to the chamber in which they now stood.
You signal your companion to hand you the torch, as talking only exasperated the thickness and both of you realized that quite quickly so then resorting to hand signals. Hemmish gazed past you and handed the torch over, not wanting to take lead. You take the que and head into the darkness, taking a slow, steady pace as not to exhaust his lungs, which were fighting the room for air at every turn. Not long into the chamber’s exit, you spot a dead rat on the side of the wall, next to a piece of cloth. Blue. You point to the cloth and signal Hemmish to grab it. Forgetting their air supply predicament, he says aloud, “The rat?! Why would I…”. That was all he could say before he started wheezing badly. You put the torch down on the ground and help the man maintain his stance. That was close. This is extremely unnatural you think to yourself. After a few quiet minutes, Hemmish signals that he is OK. Both of you also signal that it would be just fine if you left this place. You grab the torch, slip over and grab the cloth and lead the way out.
Back outside, the sun still bright enough, you extinguish the torch and pocket the strip of cloth before Hemmish caught up. You didn’t want him asking too much about it. It might be nothing, you tell yourself. It could also be something. The sound of Hemmish breaking the newly felled tree’s loose twigs shook you out of your thoughts. “Well we better tell foreman Charn about this.” Hemmish said matter-of-factly.
“Not while he’s scheming about the day’s haul we won’t.” You reply firmly. You didn’t much care for Charn, especially when he was planning his next day’s work to “maximize efficiency and boost productivity”. All that meant to his workers is that the day would be a grueling one. Adding knowledge that two of his best lumberjacks had stalled work to go exploring would cause the gruffy man’s head to implode in sheer anger. No, they would keep this little excursion to themselves.
“I’m fine with that.” Hemmish agreed. “Besides, he’s quite the puffed-up bird when he’s a’ plannin’.” With that, Hemmish started work on clearing his latest tree.
You heft your axe on your shoulder, take a deep breath, and head off to finish your plot of trees.
The tanner stood firm, arms crossed over his chest. “Two shares and no less.” He was a burly sort, with a scruff around his face that would impress a dwarf.
You sigh with resignation and reply, “Fine. Two shares it is then.” Not letting the matter drop completely, you add, “But don’t forget who found you that herd’s hiding den.” A smile on your face. You win.
“OK, OK. The next time you in my shop, I give you one ration free, OK? The bearded man bartered.
“Sounds good to me. Thanks Duval.” And with that comment, you grab your supply ration of hides and head out of the shop and into the supply depot market.
The cool dusty air mingling about tickles your nose. You sneeze. The morning sun barely poking through the thick cloud cover. A brisk winter day to get things done, you think to yourself. The tailor is your next stop. The seamstress went by her full name, Julianne Fresmoore O’Hailigann-Shea, and would remind whomever forgot to say the whole thing. You repeated her name all the way into her stall.
“A fine morning to you, Miss Julianne Fresmoore O’Hailigann-Shea. Would you happen to have some cloth for me today? You blurt out in a single breath, your cheeks shining brighter after the ordeal.
“And a fine day to you Mr. John…” She paused, “..Excuse me, but I seem to have forgotten your name! My this is embarrassing.” Julliane said with an honest flush.
You went through this every month since you arrived. It was hard lying to such an honest woman, but you had too. “Just John. Nothing else.” you reply, knowing that you’d get a quip or two about it.
“Just John?! What kind of name is just John?” She said, honestly confused. “Well I am sorry, Mr. John. I truly am. What can I help you with today?” She looked at you a bit longer before she bowed her head and pretended to look for something under the counter.
“Blue roll of cloth. A yard should be enough.” You say, thankful the incident didn’t escalate further. You take a look around as Julianne went to take a look in the storeroom.
“I fear I might be clean out of blue at this time, John.” She yelled from the back room. “Would a dark green bolt suffice?”
You thought this might happen. “No thanks. I need blue.” You recalled the scrap of cloth you recovered yesterday. A thought occurred at that moment. “Actually, I would only need a scrap or two of blue. No need for a full yard after all.” You knew Julianne to keep scraps around for quilters and other odd-jobbers.
“You can see for yourself, Mr. John, over by the front gate”, she said, pointing to a large steel tub filled with scraps of cloth, yarn, and all sorts of linens unfit for sale. “If you find some of that cloth, consider it discounted…”
You smile. Luck was with you this day. Tucked in the corner behind a badly wrapped bolt of sackcloth, was a square of blue cloth, no bigger than your hand. “Yea, found it. It’s about a hands-width. What is that worth?” You reply even before she finished her sentence.
Julianne comes over and takes a quick look and states, “No more than 10 copper I’d say.”
Knowing her to be a bit assertive in her bargaining, you agree without a word. A flip of your belt, you produce the local coins to the woman and nod your thanks before heading out. “Thanks Julianne.”
“Julianne Fresmoore O’Hailigann-Shea.” Julianne quipped a split second later.
“Sorry.” You apologize, “Thank you Julianne Fresmoore O’Hailigann-Shea.” You departed quickly.
A sweet fragrance swelled about the air on the walk back to your room at the tavern. Ghost Iris. A flower that normally blooms in the early spring. You stop and take another moment to allow the scent to sink in. Silky. Bittersweet. You ponder another moment before it hits you. “Of course” you say out loud. The aroma was of the yearly influx of cool-air pollen that traversed the canopies of large forests. Carried mostly by flocks of birds, but occasionally over the warmer air currents above the larger forests. A great event indeed. You had a quick thought before you jogged back to your room.
The small vial was just big enough for ten pieces of pollen. The trick would be catching the things, for to touch them with your skin would cause the seed pockets to burst, rendering them useless. You position yourself facing the southern breeze, allowing the pollen to come to you. A piece of paper torn from your journal in one hand, waiting; with the other holding the vial, unstoppered. Patiently, quietly, you stand atop the outpost and let one, two, then three pollen softly land on the paper. After an hour of standing still, you had your desired amount. You nod your thanks to the current watch guard, a young woman by the name of Lilith. She gives you a shy smile and asks, “So why did we have to be so still? It was hard to watch the forests if I couldn’t go around you.”
You just nod your thanks again and quickly reply, “So that you may enjoy some beauty up here in the sky.” as you gently fold the paper and ease each pollen into the vial.
“Oh.” was all she said before continuing her guard shift.
You stopper the vial after the last pollen was inside, and head down the ladder.
You just made a fortune. Too bad no one around here would know it. Back home, just one of these pollen could fetch as much as a full months rations here. You silently thank the gods for such luck, and tuck the vial securely inside your vest pocket. You plan on saving these for a rainy day. The breeze fell away just then. Clouds rolled in quickly, quietly. The afternoon sun swallowed by an enormous cloud, gathering above the small village. An air of impending doom settled across the place. You just smiled.