Ghost of the Stone Forest
Chapter 1: Stranger in Town
The sun had just crept over the horizon when Mazuera came down the wooden steps of her cottage. Her pale blue eyes, still cloudy with sleep, were trying to convince her that it was much too early. She walked over to her fireplace, threw a few twigs into the firebox and gently prodded the dying coals until the kindling began to smoke. Satisfied that she would soon have a nice fire, Mazuera walked into the small pantry to fetch some tea. She was getting the kettle from its place on the shelf, when a loud knock rattled her door. A little annoyed at the early hour visitor, she continued to prepare to make her morning tea. She reasoned that if it was important they would knock again, and more loudly. A patient would be insistent if it were an emergency; a visitor would begin to consider the hour and correctly reason that it was much too soon in the day to accept callers.
She wasn't being rude, in fact, no one in the entire Village of Harne would describe Mazuera anything but but polite. No further knocks came as the healer swung her iron teapot into the fireplace on it's arm. Mazuera went and got a rasher of bacon and a some potatos from her larder and busied herself with the very important task of breakfast. There were a good many things that she took seriously, but none more important than her breakfast. Her grandmother, who was the original owner of her cottage, had preached to her the importance of a good breakfast.
"Mazzy, she would say, you can't start the day right without a decent meal in you. Why, how can you listen for someone wheezing when they breath, if your stomach is growling so loud that you can't hear it?"
Even though she had been gone now for six summers, Mazuera missed her Nanna. After her mother drowned, Nanna had insisted that she and her father move into the cottage. With Mazuera's father being the Village constable, Nanna had been the one who cared for her while he was away. After he had died, there was just Nanna.
Mazuera was cleaning off her table when the knocks returned. This time, the knocker's identity was no mystery to her. The slow, measured pace of the knocks, which sounded solid were made by the heavy ring on a man's hand. She made her way to the mirror that stood in the corner of her parlor, quickly making sure she was presentable. Her dark hair was tied back into a loose knot, a few strands left out to lessen the severity, framed her oval face. She untied her apron and brushed away the imagined wrinkles it left in her tunic.
"One moment Bluso." she called towards the door. Bluso was the Mayor of the nearby Village of Harne. At thirty-three, he was six years her senior, but was still one of the youngest Mayors to preside over Harne. As such, he frequently took walks in the mornings and evenings through the Village and to the out-lying residents near the stone forest to the east. Mazuera crossed the small parlor and opened her door. As she had expected, there was Bluso. Dressed as he usually was in loose fitting trousers, today in a light fawn color. The bronze necklace of office draped over his light brown tunic. He wasn't what you would consider a tall man, or particularly handsome. But he had kind hazel eyes that shone from under his soft brown hair.
"Good morning Mazuera," the young Mayor said bowing slightly to her as she opened the door. "Have you had your breakfast yet?" Her habits were well known to all of the villagers since they were, mostly, the habits of her Nanna.
"And good morning to you, Mayor. Please come in," she said, gesturing to a chair in the parlor. "I was just getting a fresh cup of tea. Would you join me?"
"I'm sorry, no, much as I love your tea. I have a visitor with me this morning." Moving to the side, Bluso gestured towards a man standing behind him. The stranger stepped forward. His green cloak was stained and shabby-looking and spoke of long use as a shelter as much as for a garment. A stout stick was propped under one arm and had been covered with strips of a dark cloth at one end like a crutch. And indeed when he stepped forward, he leaned upon it heavily. "Mazuera, this is Cale. Cale this is Mazuera, the finest healer in our Village." Despite his ragged appearance, Cale placed his right hand above his heart and bowed his head.
"I am honored, my lady. You are much younger and lovelier than your reputation led me to believe."
"You honor me, sir. But I am the second healer in this village with the name Mazuera. The first was my Grandmother, it's her that I am named for. Please, come inside." The stranger bowed his head again to her, grabbed his makeshift crutch with both hands and hobbled inside with Bluso's help. Once he had been settled in front of the fire and given a steaming cup of tea, Bluso beckoned Mazuera over to the door.
"Will you be alright alone with him? I could reschedule my day and stay here if you wish," he spoke softly to her.
"You're sweet, but no. I'll be fine, I'm sure. If he tries to rob me, I'll take his crutch. That should slow him down enough to be easily caught," she teased the Mayor. "Besides, I treat wounded strangers all the time. It's what I do. And you know what Nanna always said, 'Just because a man is good looking doesn't mean he acts that way'."
"True, but I worry about you being out here alone and with strangers. I wish you would reconsider moving into the village."
"No" she said gently. "Now, you go about your day and let me see to my visitor." Smiling, Bluso turned, waved farewell to Cale, and headed off back toward the village. Mazuera closed the door behind him, and turned her attention to her guest. "So Cale, what is it can I do for you?" she asked pleasantly.
"Well, my leg, of course. I would think you could tell!" he said a little too sharply to her.
"Cale, what did I have for my dinner last night?" she asked him, just as sharply.
"I wasn't here last night, so how would I ......"
"Exactly!" she interrupted him. "We just met. I wouldn't know if you were injured last night, or if you had been born with a mis-shapen foot. I don't make assumptions, sir, and you would be wise to do the same." Dejected, Cale cast his eyes down, not wanting to meet the young healer's gaze. He said nothing, but Mazuera knew by his actions he was properly chastened. "So, tell me what's wrong with your leg."
"My company and I were ambushed by Snakemen out in the Burning Waste. I fell from the crag where I was keeping watch, when I was struck from behind and knocked unconscious. When I awoke, I was in a small cave and couldn't move my leg. It took the better part of a day, but I finally crawled up out of the pit, only to find that all of my companions were either dead or gone. Taken by the Scaled savages as slaves, no doubt."
"While I have no love for Snakemen, I am certain they are not savages. The Reptons are have contributed to Eternia's science college with many bright students."
"Pardon, miss, but I'm not talking about Reptons. I mean Snakemen. The true Snakemen who escaped the Fate of King Hiss and his conquering armies. Big, savage and aggressive... they are no friends to Eterniains." Mazuera had doubts that much of his tale was true. But she decided to continue with her examination.
"Well" she sighed, "there's nothing I can do for that, so let's focus on you leg. Pull down your trousers and let's have a look at it."
"MY LADY!" he exclaimed.
"Now, don't be fussy. I've been treating the townsfolk for most of my life by birthing their babies and burying the dead. There's no shame in seeing you naked," she stated matter-of-factly.
"But, I'm neither babe nor corpse. I'm a healthy living man!" he protested.
"Man you may be, but healthy you're not. Lest you wouldn't be in my cottage arguing about keeping your pants on. More likely you'd be at the bar at the inn trying to take them off!" Mazuera snapped at him. Resigned, the man leaned on her table and stood. He unbuckled his sword belt and dropped his trousers, exposing his leg and the funniest pair of shorts the healer had ever seen. Little horses romped around the waist of the grass green undergarments. Stifling her chuckle at the warrior's embarrassment, she looked up and down his left leg. It was badly bruised, deep purple and yellow blotches marred the man's skinny thigh. It had been badly broken, and by the amount of fading in the yellow, more than six of seven days ago.
"How long ago did you say this happened?" she asked.
"A few days ago. Less than a week I'm sure," he said, a little quickly.
"Well, the bone has already started to heal itself. It doesn't look like it set too badly, just slightly off. You shouldn't need the crutch after harvest time."
"Harvest?!" Cale said, dejectedly. "That's weeks away yet. Isn't there something you could do to help it along? I can't leave..my lord's service for that long. I have to get back."
"To report the attack and you missing comrades?" Suspicion creeping into her questions.
"Yes. Yes, of course. Can you do it?" Cale asked, hopefully.
"Perhaps" Mazuera said. "Go back to the inn and I'll come tomorrow after I consult my books."
"No!" he said sharply. Then he continued, more calmly, "No, I wouldn't want you to go to the trouble. I can make the short journey here. Besides, there may be others who need your tender care. I wouldn't want to deny someone truly sick you healing over a simple broken leg that's already begun to heal," Cale finished smoothly, his tone softening as his speech continued.
"As you wish. I'll expect you after the mid-day meal, then?" she suggested.
"Fine, fine," he said through his clenched teeth as he stood. Cale made his way back to the door as Mazuera followed. Opening the door, the man bowed slightly and turned towards the path. Mazuera watched the man make his way through her small gate and down the path towards the village.
He's hiding something, she thought. He's not evil, she didn't sense that, but she knew he wasn't telling her the truth. Of that there was no doubt. She pulled her cloak from it's peg next to the door and threw it over her shoulders. Clasping the deep purple trim tightly with a brouch. We'll just see what Bluso has to say about our wounded traveler. And with that thought, she stepped out of the cottage door. Securing it behind her for the first time in years.
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After escorting Cale to the healer's cottage, Bluso wanted to know more of this stranger in his village. Although they saw a fair number of travelers passing through the village, this one made him uneasy. Bluso was suspicious of his claims that he was the sole survivor of an attack by Snakemen. There hadn't been any Snakemen on Eternia for centuries, for starters. And he had a hard time believing that a group of Rovers, some of the best warriors and scouts in the world, could be bested by a band of rogues from the burning wastes.
Bluso knew that he couldn't persuade the town council to detain the stranger with only his distrust as a reason. Nor would Victus, the village constable, investigate Cale's story without proof of any wrong doing. No, Bluso decided, whatever the truth of the matter was, he would have to find out on his own. He decided that searching what belongings Cale brought with him would tell the man's tale; proving either the truth of it, or exposing it as the lie Bluso suspected it was.
A few moments later, the Mayor entered the village's only Inn, the Laughing Dragon. The typical group of patrons occupied the Inn's common room, enjoying a late breakfast or a steaming cup of tea. Looking around the room, Bluso didn't see the Inn keep, Dale, anywhere.
"Hello Mayor," came the voice from behind him. Turning around, Bluso saw the round pleasant face of Harne's innkeeper. "You looking for something? A nice tea or hot breakfast, perhaps? I'm sure Leena wouldn't mind cooking up something special. Lemme just go an tell her." Dale started off towards the door he had come through, when Bluso placed a hand on his chubby arm.
"No, no Dale, it's nothing like that I'm after. Leena has plenty to do already, I'm sure." Glancing around to insure they couldn't be overheard, he leaned in closer. "I'm looking for the room that our limping friend took here this morning."
"Really? Why? He didn't die, did he? I thought that he looked worse than just that limp. Twitchy and jumpy as he was."
"He didn't die, but that's exactly what I'm talking about. He seemed...shifty somehow. Up to something, or hiding something." Reflecting upon Cale's behavior, Bluso ceased talking. Not being one who knew what a comfortable silence was, Dale took this as a hint.
"Well, I can tell you that the bundles and saddle bags he has were real heavy. Nearly did his horse in. And me too after carrin' them up to his room. Felt like they were full of lead bars. You think they're full of Eterinium?"
"What, no-no, probably not. But I mean to find out. Which room did you give him?
"The suite at the end of the hall. You gonna go search his belongings, Mayor?" Dale put an imaginary sound of disbelief in his voice. In truth, he hadn't stopped thinking about what could be in those parcels that made them so heavy. "I could help! Be your look-out in case he comes back before you're done."
"Yes, that would be a big help, Dale. Go and tell Leena that you need to fetch something and then follow me up." Bluso held out his hand
to the inn keep. Puzzled, Dale looked down at the younger man's hand.
"Your master key, Dale. I'm not going to kick in the door, am I? That would pretty much do away with any stealth I possess." Flushing slightly at his own thick headedness, Dale fished out the requested key from his apron pocket and put it in Bluso's hand.
"Right, then. I'll go tell Leena that I'll be busy for a little while. You go on. That way no one sees us together.
"Perfect," the Mayor said, and watched as Dale half tiptoed, half waddled into the kitchen where his daughter was working in the kitchen.
Dale's wife, Marleen, would still be in bed this early, being the person who ran the Inn after lunch until it closed. It was a tidy arrangement and suited the couple well.
Dale was a large and happy man. He was a large and happy child as well. Bluso remembered Dale's parents used to say that one day his
brain would catch up with the rest of him. Dale wasn't terribly bright, but what he lacked in intelligence, he more than made up for in goodness. He was one of the kindest people in the village, leaving baskets of bread and cheese at the doors of the less fortunate families of the village, so they wouldn't feel like it was charity. He was also one of largest and strongest men the area. So if he said Cale's things were heavy, there had to something interesting in them.
Making his way up the narrow stairs, Bluso walked down the hall as quietly as he could manage. His heart thumping louder and faster the closer he got to the door at the other end. With a quick glance behind him, he inserted the key into the lock and turned it. With a quiet click, the door swung in silently on its well-oiled hinges.
Stepping inside, Bluso looked around the room for a place to start. The main room was roomy and well furnished. A table flanked by two chairs stood in its center. Under the room's only window sat a small desk with a stool in front of it. Turning to his left, Bluso went to the last piece of furniture in the room, the wardrobe. He opened the double doors, half expecting to find a small treasure horde. Instead, he found only a few dust motes, stirred up by the light breeze from the opening of the doors. Turning, Bluso walked over to the other side of the main room. He cringed every time the bare wood planks creaked as he made his way to the door that led to the bedroom. After what seemed an eternity, he reached the door and lifted the latch.
The Mayor was rewarded with what could only be described as a well-constructed mess. Several large bags lay on the broad bed, resembling a row of fat children snuggling tightly together on a cold night for warmth. Bundles wrapped in a deep green leather were strewn across what little of the floor that the bed didn't sit upon, creating a treacherous stretch for Bluso to cross. Bluso guessed that that most precious, and perhaps the most revealing, of Cale's possessions would be in the sacks upon the bed. With great care so as not to trip, Bluso reached over the foot of the bed and grabbed one of the bags.
Dale was right, he thought, these are heavy. Pulling the bag over the footboard, Bluso sat the bag on the floor, wincing at the hefty thump it made. After a few seconds fumbling with the complex knots which the drawstrings were tied into, he opened the bag and saw two large books. Their bindings covered with iron straps and plates. Hastily, retying the knots as best he could, Bluso hefted the sack up onto the bed and reached for a smaller bag. He found himself beginning to think the man had to be a sea-farer after seeing another group of knots. He was not disappointed after opening the bag. Reaching inside, he pulled out a small iron box. Heavy bands crisscrossed it's surface, meeting on the front of the box where a heavy lock secured whatever treasure lay within.
Meanwhile, Dale had been trying unsuccessfully to take up his post as lookout. Leena, despite his many protests, had had a few things she needed before he ran his "errands". He was just bringing up a pair of heavy potato sacks when he saw the door to the inn open up. Much to his dismay, Cale had returned. Dale immediately dropped the sacks and rushed over to the stairs to intercept the man.
"Master Cale, back so soon?!" Dale said loudly leaning back towards the hall stairs. "I'm surprised you're back! Have seat by the fire and I'll bring you some breakfast, Cale!" the inn keep continued, louder than before.
"I want nothing but some rest, Innkeeper," Cale responded, obviously annoyed by Dale's odd behavior. "I may wish something later, but now I wish only my bed." Having no other options, Dale stood aside as the stranger pushed past him and made for the stairs. Moving slowly, but inexorably up the stairs, Cale headed for his rooms. Unaware of the unexpected visitor that was already waiting for him there.