There was an obvious gloom over this village. Rhian could smell the salt from the nearby sea, and was enjoying the rather warm air. It was such a change from the chill of the north. However the sky was gray, and seemed more than overcast. It looked as if it was going to drop torrential rain upon them at any moment but Rhian stopped and sniffed, eyes closed. She couldn’t smell the storm, or feel its energy. Some, mages included, were sensitive to the weather, to the animals, and some extreme cases, the plight of humans.
Rhian had no such sensitivity to humans, but she fully believed that her only purpose in life anymore was to help them. She’d often done things that didn’t require magic, she had no healing spells, her gifts were more of an offensive nature, but she could sew wounds, wash bandages, grind herbs into poultices or set broken bones. She has delivered babies, searched for lost livestock, helped plant crops, harvest crops, shoe horses, cook meals, watched wee ones, chopped firewood, and basically any odd job that could be thought of. In her travels along the roads she has defeated bandits, wolves and any number of creatures that tried to eat her. This was the first village she’d ever encountered that was covered in such a dreary haze. It was as if all the sadness and despair of the village had manifested over it.
It was a walled village, with a wide portcullis, it was up and from the rusted chains visible on the wall above it, and it hadn’t been lowered in quite some time. So this village did not have anything to fear from outside it would seem. She walked under the portcullis and the packed dirt of the road she’d been traveling gave away to sand packed by many feet. From the portcullis she could see the ocean as it lapped upon a shore that seemed rather absent of fishermen. Normally these seaside villages were nothing but.
Just inside the wall was a stable that instead of containing horses or mules were oxen. The individual stalls had been removed and it was nothing more than a large indoor paddock. The rest of the village looked like sandstone houses, some of them built on top of each other with crude stairs or simply ladders to get to the upper homes. A larger building seemed to be an inn, but it had no signage of the such. It had double doors and were both wide open, revealing a rather inn like counter within. Of all the buildings, other than the barn, it was the only with doors open.
Rhian looked left, and then right, no one was on the streets. Granted from what she could see from her spot just inside the portcullis, the town only had three avenues that could be labeled as streets. There were no cobbled walkways, everything was packed sand. There was a market row of sorts; the stalls were unmanned, but not empty. She could see mushrooms and pumpkins and carrots and peas in trays on tables. Other tables held glass objects, which considering the road materials, she wasn’t surprised.
Even though Rhian’s internal clock told her it was sometime about noon, she kept feeling it like it later, like the sun was setting. Lights flickered from within windows, not to be mistaken with panes of glass, but these were simply holes in the sandstone houses, some were covered with cloth. As she walked down the street no one poked their head out to look at her, and the doors were already shut. Rhian had come across many a distrustful village that had shuttered up as soon as they saw her passing by with her staff. She did not have it emblazoned across her brow that she was a mage, but she was dressed in robes, a cloak, and carried a very nice staff with its teal gem at the top. The problem was this village seemed shuttered up already, as if a storm was coming, or perhaps a mage had just passed before her and they were shuttered because of that.
She walked to the inn, and expected it to be one of those inn/tavern places, but it did not have a room with fireplaces and jovial patrons drinking ale and eating. The inn was quiet and as she gazed about, seeming rather empty.
“Hello?” Rhian called into the depths of the building. A stair was next to the counter and beyond that a simple kitchen, a really simple kitchen, and a table with chairs. Rhian supposed the inn offered board along with room.
The man who appeared from behind the stairs was not tall neither was he slender but he was young, but had lines on his face as if from a life of hardship that his middle didn’t seem to agree with. He didn’t seem pleased to see Rhian standing in his inn, either.
“Hello,” she greeted him as warmly as she could. Rhian was cursed to not feel emotion, but one could easily fake kindness. His sour expression didn’t change. “May I rent a room?” For a moment Rhian thought he was actually going to tell her no, but he walked or waddled rather to the counter and pulled out a well-worn ledger, that only seemed to have writing on a few pages. He pulled out a quill and a tiny bottle of ink. The ink had dried, so he hawked, spat into it, put the stopper back into it, shook it, opened it and eyed it, then placed it on the counter.
“Put yer mark ‘ere,” he said with an accent that Rhian wasn’t familiar with. Rhian looked down at the dates and names on the page before her. Her brow furrowed at the last patron to the inn having been several years ago.
“Not many visitors to these parts?” Rhian tried to make conversation. Surely the man would offer some explanation, they were out of the way, they were besieged by monsters, they didn’t always have people sign the book, the inn recently changed hands, all the innkeeper did was grunt and gave a nod to the stairs. “My room key, sir.” The man suddenly guffawed in a way that was both vile and snorting.
“Only one room up there,” he answered her, wiping laugh tears from the corners of his eyes. “Now, we charge-“ He held out his hand and though the amount was not much, actually the cheapest room she’d ever stayed in, other than the free lodging offered by those she had helped, she dropped the coins into his palm. He examined them. “What are you trying to pull? These ain’t real coins!” He snapped at her.
“Take this one then, and give me change for it, you can bite it to see it is gold,” he tossed her coppers onto the counter as she plunked the heavy gold coin down. He did as she suggested, even though he eyed the stamp on it just he had her coppers.
“Eh, gonna take a while for me to make change for this,” he said, “I need to have it weighed.”
“By all means,” Rhian allowed and began to walk towards the stairs.
At the top of the stairs Rhian should’ve guessed. This was a simple country inn. It was not more than several beds, and in this case, cots, in one large, and in this case, not so large room. The only actual bed seemed to be taken by someone. The covers were thrown back as if someone rose from it and never made the bed after leaving. Under each cot was a small wooden and metal box with a lock with a key in it. The foot of the actual bed was a much larger, but old trunk, locked and its key gone. Rhian chose one of the cots, propping her staff against the wall, as she sat on it. The cot was nothing more than a straw mattress on an oxen skin stretched between the wood of the cot frame. Out of curiosity, she walked to the actual bed of the room and prodded it. That mattress was feathers.
Rhian shrugged her pack from her shoulders. It didn’t contain much, her meager possessions, a book, a pencil, and her provisions for when she moved between towns. The food was nearly gone, only a moldy apple and some stale bread were all that remained.
She opened the book and looked at the last entry she’d written in:
<i>Been walking several days upon this road, if it can be called a road. It is no more than a game trail at times. I chose this road because no one from Vusale could tell me where it led to. Some seemed to think that it led to the sea; others swore there was a village at the end of it. Some said it just ended in the forest that could be seen from Vusale. The air is warmer, saltier, and so far, free of wandering beasts or monsters. I encountered only one group of bandits and once they discovered I was a mage they fled. Once again I seem to be in a land that isn’t welcome to those who wield magic.</i>
Rhian began the next one:
<i>A town, I don’t know yet the name of. I’ve taken lodging in an inn with what seems to be a jackass as a proprietor. I should not be so hasty to judge, but I’ve already taken a disliking to his mannerisms and he has done nothing that I could consider offensive. I’ve apparently changed kingdoms as he declined my coins from the last one. A gloom hangs over this town, I should inquire if it is unnatural.</i>
Rhian closed the book, and placed her pack and things into the wooden box under her cot. She removed the key and slipped it into one of the pouches on her belt. She wondered about the staff. Usually when she wandered a town she left it behind at whatever inn she was staying, but she wasn’t comfortable with the idea of just leaving it on her cot. Rhian was one of the most trusting and gullible people ever born, but she eventually did learn. There was an ole saying, <i>Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.</i> Sometimes it took Rhian being fooled three of four times, but she would eventually catch on. Rhian had had her staff stolen and/or broken in the past by those who feared magic. Though the magic came from within Rhian and she could easily melt someone’s face without the staff, the staff was a focusing point. Without it she’d probably melt someone’s face along with a huge piece of land around them, or miss the face completely.
She chose to leave the staff even against her better judgment. She needed to talk to people and the staff seemed to scare them. Rhian walked down the stairs, and found the innkeeper gone. Most likely he was weighing her gold coin and checking its purity.
Back outside the gloom had not changed and there was still no scent of storm in the air. She could see sunlight on the ocean, and she’d walked through sunlight to reach the village. What was gripping it so?
Rhian still found no one milling about. Fishing nets and boats were on the shore, and from the amount of sand on the nets, they had been there for a while. This was a fishing town, what was keeping them alive without fishing?
Finally she spied another soul, a boy, was digging in the sand. There were several holes around him as if he had buried something and had forgotten exactly where he’d buried it.
“Hello,” she said kindly to him. The boy went rigid as if he’d been struck by lightning. He was dressed simply in pants that someone had seemed to have mastered the ‘tube’ and tied ropes around the ankles and waist. His skin was darkly tanned and a mass of unkempt black hair down his head. “I did not mean to scare you. My name is Rhian, what is yours?” She was only met with silence and his deep stare. “Are you looking for something? I can help you find it.” She continued to encourage him to speak to her. “I promise you I won’t take it from you. I’m really good at finding things.” She was beginning to wonder if he was mute. She’d not encountered someone who had not responded to her like this.
“Kanec!” Shouted a woman’s voice in distress. Suddenly a woman, who had the same had lines on her face, the same dark skin and black hair as the boy, but the mid-section that could rival the innkeeper’s, nearly comically ran from a house across the sand to snatch the boy.
“I apologize if I have scared you,” Rhian said politely to the woman who glared at her. “I was offering to help him find what he has lost.” She indicated the holes in the sand with a wave of her hand.