(Note – I suddenly became annoyed by the inventory and list at the end every post and moved those to their own page. For anyone who cares.)
After watching the elder statesmen (and one stateswoman and one statesrat) of a cult dedicated to sexual deviancy, human sacrifice, and cannibalism be devoured by a massive death worm I was tempted to spend a few days with the Halflings of the Shoddy Hills – seeing that kind of thing with your very own eyes makes you want to rest and relax for a while. You know how it is.
But as they say, no rest for the gorgeous. I didn’t get terribly familiar with the philosophy (is that the right word?) of the goat cult people while they were busy trying to kill me but as I understand it they believe they can live outside of the natural cycle by emulating the Dark Mother who is her own food and her own parent – some manner of cyclical self-cannibalism and incestuous restitution. So maybe for them being eaten by a giant worm is not that bad of a way to go. Best not to speculate on the motivations of such people.
The Halflings shook their head in sorrowful reproof of my haste to leave. One of the shirriff’s commented that we overly large folk are “Always in a big hurry to get from something foolish to nothing at all”. Once again they’re not wrong, but revenge is a stern mistress. And not the fun kind with leather clothing. I asked them if they could lead me through worm-tunnels to Eree and they looked at me like I was insane. They’re the ones that were snuggling up to a beast the Kostelos call “the Clan Eater” like it was a tame petting goat and somehow I’m the crazy one? Typical. They did lead me back through the hills on worm-safe paths and sent me off with several rucksacks full of sweetened dried fruit, aged sausage, hard sharp cheese, honey cakes, and a mixture of roasted grains, nuts, and molasses. They believe that a full belly strengths your resolve – there’s a lot to like about these little folk.
Once the Halfling ballyhoo was ballyhooed I headed south towards Tybhurst, as was the plan before I got diverted by all this nonsense. Sometimes I really do think that some God or Gods is taking measures to keep from ever making progress on my goals. Mostly though I think Gods have better things to do. What those things might be I can’t imagine, but they have to have them. Right? As I traveled I saw an owlbear prowling around at the edge of the hills but I stayed well away from it. I have no desire to be ripped to shreds by one of those things. How is it that replacing the head of a bear with that of a tiny bird somehow resulted in a creature that is stronger and more vicious? I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – magic is crazy.
I never found the road so I must not be heading the right away, or I’m misremembering the topography of this area, but despite that fact I still somehow managed to encounter a large gathering of people. I must be drawn to them unconsciously by the longing in my soul for civilized areas. The reason for this gathering in the middle of nowhere was odd, although I guess there isn’t a reason for a gathering in the middle of nowhere that would be normal.
Dueling is illegal is most jurisdictions although enforcement is spotty at best – people love watching two rich guys hack each other to bits. Those duelists that are concerned about getting in trouble with the law simply meet outside the city limits to carve each other into bloody chunks, unless a forest warden happens along who’s going to arrest you? Two fellows from Caeptil who should be old enough to know better decided upon a duel on account of one of them cheated the other in a deal or some kind and then someone’s wife was dishonored and this and that and so on. Word got around, as it does, and the mayor put his foot down – they would be no dueling in or AROUND the city. In order to bypass this the rare show of law enforcement the aggrieved parties decided to head south of the Shoddy Hills to spill blood.
A lot of people had no intention of missing this duel so they also made arrangements so travel south of the city to watch it go down. A group of wandering players heard about this and they decided they would turn up and put on a performance beforehand. Then a traveling circus heard about it and joined in and next thing you know you’ve got yourself a festival going. Usually they don’t end with two gentlemen stabbing at each other, but there’s a first time for everything. Except things that never happen. There’s not a first time for those things.
Normally these festivals are crawling with low class types but this was an upscale affair – after all it’s not like your average person can afford to go haring off at the drop of a hat to watch a duel. The crowd was mostly compromised of merchants and the retinues of the two dueling lords – who did their part to support their lieges by giving each other dirty looks and stepping on each other’s boots as they waited in line for candied apples. One such merchant was more than happy to let me borrow his fine pavilion and actual bed for the night while he slept under a tarp with his manservant. I’ve gotten so skillful at talking people into acting against their own best interest it’s almost not even fun anymore. Almost. It was a delightful surprise to get the sleep in a fine bed in a decent pavilion rather than on the ground like a filthy mole.
After securing my lodgings for the night I wandered the merchant stalls and other perused the offerings of the opportunist and then headed to the “grand concourse” to watch the players mount a decent effort at the first act of Dawnflower’s Gold and laugh internally at a singer that couldn’t hold a handle to me. She was pretty, very pretty, but she couldn’t sing worth a damn. I was leaving when I spotted a face from the past – one Jonah Hillless.
Jonah is cursed with one of those babyfaces, last time I saw him he was eighteen and looked like he was eleven. Now all these years later he looks like he might be all of seventeen. He was a pawn in the tradition of fostering that nobles sometimes like to do – the ritual exchange of hostages dressed up all fancy like to be something else. Some lords take their duties as surrogate father very seriously. Others play more into the hostage aspect and treat their wards little better than prisoners. The Duke couldn’t be bothered to care about Jonah. He was basically left on his on (sound familiar?) and was usually so meek an unassuming that people forgot he was there at all. He probably would have starved to death if the kitchen staff and the servants in general didn’t adopt him as a mascot of sorts.
He was wearing those same cheap spectacles that the girls used to tease him about. He’s slightly cross-eyed without them but I don’t understand why he doesn’t buy a better pair. His family has plenty of money. He was one of the only nobles at court that was truly devoted to his faith – attending Adariel’s services religiously (pun) which served to make him all the more liked by the lower class types. He was kind and generous and totally out place in the Duke’s court. It’s a good thing he was so inconspicuous, if anyone took notice if him he probably would have ended up a pawn in someone’s game and then ended up dead shortly thereafter. Even though his face was still that of a boy he had grown tall and athletic where once he was soft and weedy. As he was heading back to a tent of his own I fell into step beside him.
“Fancy meeting you here.”
When he looked over her literally tripped over his own feet in surprise, but managed to avoid falling just barely “Ela?”
I held my arms wide like a magician revealing a trick “The very same.”
He was incredulous “But . . . how . . . everyone said that you were dead.”
“Oh I am, can’t you tell by the decay ravaging my body? I’m a revenant you see, back from the grave for revenge. Come kiss these rotting lips.” He blushed furiously at the very idea and took an involuntary step backwards. I laughed good-naturedly. “Good to see you haven’t changed. What are you doing all the way out here? The Jonah I knew isn’t the kind to be interested enough in a little bloodshed to travel all this way.”
“Well, duty calls.”
“You’re not in service to one of these fools are you Jonah?”
“Not in the way you mean. I’m here as the proxy for Lord Hovecraft.”
I was almost as surprised by that as he was to see me “You’re joking.”
He shook his head “I’m afraid not My Lady. My family has fallen on . . . hard times. The only asset we have at this point is my skill at battle.”
I put my hand on his arm “Don’t take this the wrong way Jonah, but I don’t remember you having much in the way of skill at battle. Didn’t one of the kitchen boys beat you senseless with a broom one time?”
He winced “I’ve gotten . . . better . . . since then . . . somewhat. My father’s sword is very powerful . . .” he shrugged helplessly “It’s all I can do. Things . . . are . . . not going well.”
“Good Gods Jonah, how is you getting killed going to help your family? If you have this great sword and you need money why not sell it? I’ve learned that people pay a lot for that sort of thing.”
He gasped as if I asked him to sell his mother’s virtue on the street corner – even Jonah isn’t immune to the stupidity of the aristocracy. Better to hang onto a family heirloom than your life. I bet if I offered him money he wouldn’t take it either, because of “honor”. What a bunch of crap. These are the people we’re putting in charge of the world?
He turned to enter his tent “It’s good to see you Ela, but I really need to rest up for tomorrow.”
I grabbed his shoulder “Wait a minute Jonah, is Lord Brandymoore fighting himself or does he have a proxy too?”
He gulped “Elkin Brevoy is fighting for Lord Brandymoore.”
“Wow, he must have learned how to fight with his left hand. Good for him.”
Jonah looked confused “How did you know about his hand?”
“I’m the one who fucking took it!”
His confusion only deepened “What are you talking about? After defeating Fenrir the Fearless Brevoy cut off his own hand because no one could match him and he wanted a challenge.”
“Ha! Talk about spitting shit onto gold eh Jonah? I tell you plainly that I bit off his hand and ate it. It’s a whole story.” I put my arm around him and walked him into his tent “I’ll tell you all about it while we discuss the plan for the duel.”