Updated: Sep 6
<---------Previous Next----------> “So,” Wheeze began, gazing down the path splitting the snowy fields. “We be huntin’ a Marques… and we jus’ fought some. Call it a day, tell the lord fella the buggers didn’ have nothin’ worth looting. Not even much of a lie, truth be told.”
“No!” Elena insisted, unrolling the bandages from Skelly as they all broke down their camp. “Who knows what kind of mischief one of those… things could get up to if it was left unchecked with a possibly magical item!”
“Why are you thinking the scepter is magical?” Needles asked, licking the edge of a newly rolled cigarette. “Smytheson mentioned nothing about an enchanted item.”
“The markings!” Elena said, nodding to Melfice as he walked back into camp, bladder now comfortably empty. “Melfice, those markings on the scepter!”
“Yes?” He asked, curious. “What about them?”
“You said they were Elven, and old ones at that, right?” Elena demanded.
Melfice nodded. “Yes, if the descriptions concerning them are right, those are older sigils.”
“Do they make things magical?” She pressed.
Melfice leaned back, thinking. “They can, I guess? Magical item creation isn’t my forte, sad to say. I focused more on combative magics and illusions… that being said, a scepter with old writing like that? Most likely enchanted.”
Needles swore. “Damn, we should’ve asked for more money! Enchanted shit always makes a job more difficult.”
Skelly heaved a sigh, breathing deep now that he wasn’t wrapped up in medical bindings. Posnev rolled at his feet, one head chewing idly on one of the Render’s ulnas while the other lapped at his outstretched hand.
“We wouldn’t just lie and say the job is complete either way, Wheeze. Have a little dignity.” The old druid chided.
“Dignity?” Wheeze replied, snatching the cigarette from Needles with a grin. “Nev’r had tha’ ta begin wit’!”
“It’s true,” Needles said, shaking his head. He started rolling a new cigarette for himself, chuckling when Wheeze let out a wracking cough after the first drag of the morning. “Seen him drink from a spittoon someone spilled an ale into.”
Melfice gagged at the thought, sparing a glance at the warrior. “Ye gods, are you serious? Why would you do that, you madman?”
Wheeze snorted, rasping as he exhaled a plume of acrid smoke. “Was thirty wha’ can I say?”
“You are likely diseased!” Elena nearly shouted, a manic gleam in her eye. “I was planning on checking you over before we went into whatever hole we’ll be forced to explore, but you can’t just—”
Skelly raised a hand, silencing the priestess. “Enough, El. The man will not change overnight, best thing to do is try to teach him what is acceptable and what isn’t. Now then, we almost ready to head out boys?”
Skelly’s question, directed at Wheeze, Needles, and Melfice, was met with a trio of grunts. “Cooked up a mess of the Render meat,” Needles said, scratching at his chin as he lit up his new cigarette. “Wrapped in canvas, we got maybe an extra week and a half of meals for all of us, less if we treat Posnev.”
“Buried the shitter,” Wheeze continued, taking a long drag as he spoke. “Same wit’ our trash. Rolled up tha bags, got four tied down inta one pain in tha ass pack.”
Melfice rolled his eyes at how crass Wheeze was, doing his best to placate Elena before they could hear a rant. “Mapped out the descent into the marshes, skirting around the woods as best we can. We’ll be stopping in a small village at the edge where we can load up on whatever supplies we need last minute.”
“There’s a village that close to the marshes?” Elena asked, packing up her medical bag. “They must direly need a healer to visit them…”
Melfice shrugged. “Small place called Czermoon. From what I’ve read, it’s an herbal trade village, has a dozen family’s worth of citizens.”
“The perfect spot for us to lay our heads for a night,” Skelly nodded. “We should be able to make it by sundown if we don’t dally. Come on, Pos, let’s get going.”
The two-headed hound stood up at the command, allowing Skelly to heft himself to his feet using the animal’s weight as a brace. He wobbled, but waved Elena aside when she rushed up to offer support. “No, I have it. The day I can’t move on my own is the day I need to go in the ground.”
Wheeze gave a choking laugh, jerking a thumb at the druid while talking with Needles.
“This guy gets it!”
“Druids man, they know how the world works!” Needles laughed, shaking his head.
Skelly joined in, chuckling. “Literally, actually. Now, let’s finish cleaning up. I want us marching in under twenty, we all clear?”
The rest of the party gave their affirmations before splitting up and completing their list of chores. Posnev ran between them all off and on, barking and seeking treats from any (“El, stop spoiling them! I need them hungry in case we get into another fight!”) willing to give them.
Once they started on their way, they killed time telling each other about what led them to being mercenaries.
“Me an’ Needles, we go way back!” Wheeze laughed, slouched in the front of their line walking down the road, a light trail of smoke floating away from him as he worked on his third cigarette. “Met ‘im in this one warband, wha’ were they called Needles?”
“The Iron Vanguard.” Needles supplied, strolling next to the larger mercenary with a carefree smile.
“Yeah, them. Righ’ batch o’ assholes, tha lot o’ them! The head bitch, Kassiora, she didn’t split loot wit’ anyone. Didn’t sit righ’ wit’ me, ya know?”
“Makes sense…” Melfice mused, looking up at the clear sky.
“So I cut ‘er throat and made off wit’ as much as I could carry!” Wheeze continued, leaving Melfice shocked.
Elena sputtered in rage while Skelly looked on with a raised eyebrow. “Such is the nature of this business, El. Mercenaries aren’t all kind and giving as I have been, nor as knowledgeable as Melfice. Most of them are dirty, criminal, and violent.”
“Yeh say tha sweetest things, Skelly!” Wheeze chortled.
Elena didn’t seem convinced. “What’s stopping you from killing one of us, then Wheeze?”
“Easy,” Wheeze answered with a careless shrug, “we don’t use tha same shit, so I won’t ‘ave to fight ya fer my own lot.”
“Huh?” Elena asked, looking to Skelly. Needles was the one to offer an explanation.
“The reason I didn’t turn him in when I caught wind of his little murder,” Needles said, twitching his wrist to have one of the long knives flick up into his hand from the holster.
“We use different tools, so we’d never want the same thing. We make a perfect pair, he uses heavy blades and bows, I use light knives and cudgels. Virtually all weapons appeal to one of us, but we’ll never argue over one as we both have different skillsets.”
“Wha’ ‘e said, but not as fancy.” Wheeze nodded, motioning to Elena with his cigarette.
“’Sides, you put my ass back together. No way I’d kill tha’ one fixin’ me up so much.”
“I’m not just a healer, you guys are aware, right?” Elena asked, annoyed at the conversation. “I can fight too. I just… couldn’t afford a weapon.”
“Are you serious?” Skelly asked, annoyed. “I could have found one for you somewhere, my girl.”
“It’s not important, I was just saying… we could fight over a nice mace or something at one point. Would you attack me over something so trivial?”
“Yup. Na’ ta kill, mind yeh, jus’ ta get tha weapon. Might need ya fer healin’.”
Elena let out an exasperated sigh. “I give up…”
“So what brings you out into the ugly world then El?” Needles asked, tossing a small bit of a ration towards Posnev.
Elena righted herself, standing tall. “If you must know… I need money. Or rather, my order does.”
“Your order? As in clerical order?” Melfice asked, looking up from his grimoire. “I don’t believe you’ve mentioned belonging to one.”
“Just that you follow the Red Harvest.” Skelly interjected, glancing at Elena for confirmation.
She nodded just as Wheeze threw the crumpled remains of his cigarette in the snow. “Who’s tha Red Harvest?” He asked, looking at Needles.
Needles shrugged while Elena rolled her eyes. “By the… are you serious right now? How can you not know about the Red Harvest and be mercenaries?”
“’Unno, jus’ don’t.” Wheeze replied.
Elena’s eyebrow twitched as she struggled not to yell, and instead calmly explained. “My deity is the Red Harvest, an agender entity that reaps that which has grown full. Be it fields of wheat or lives lived too long, the priestesses of the Red Harvest are arbiters of when something needs to be ended.”
“Ended?” Wheeze echoed.
“Killed.” Elena clarified.
Wheeze turned a bleary eye on Elena before cracking a smile. “You jus’ got more interestin’.”
“Thanks?” Elena replied, unsure of what Wheeze meant. “But don’t get excited, only the High Mother can direct when executions happen so easily. I’m a Wealdenar, barely above an acolyte.”
“Wha’s tha’ mean?”
“It means that I am hired out as a healer, or as a mediator.” Elena said.
Melfice perked up at that. “A mediator? A legal one, for local governments even?”
Elena gave him an odd look before answering. “Yes? I’m registered with the church, and so long as I can get word to an area before I go, I can act as a juror and mediator legally.”
“And you’ve chosen to help close wounds on men that drink from spittoons, rather than acting as a mediator?”
Elena gave a sidelong look at Wheeze, who was taking a long pull from his hip flask while fishing for another cigarette, before clearing her throat to answer. “I… I’m not the best at debate, or being a judge, okay? It’s easier to patch up people than pick them apart.”
“Fair enough…” Melfice said. “You all know why I’m here, just your typical roving wizard looking to gain knowledge, money for experiments, and notoriety.”
“Notoriety? Why in the world would you want that?” Skelly asked, confused.
Melfice shrugged. “Some more relaxed jobs wizards can get are as court mages. Even the smaller counties in backwater kingdoms have one court mage per government, and they always get paid well for relatively little demanded work.”
“Sounds lazy…” Elena disapproved.
“It is what it is. I really want to go into research, maybe create a few rituals of my own, something that can help people…” He continued.
Skelly chimed in. “I can understand the desire for wealth and expanding knowledge in the form of magical research… but to rely on word of mouth to secure employment? Seems a tad… unreliable if you ask me.”
“People seek you out if you do dangerous assignments successfully, right?” Melfice countered. “If you want to charge well for your services, prove you are worth the coin, right?”
“I know, just the thought of being used through only rumor of your deeds… it leaves a foul taste in my mouth is all.” Skelly said, shaking his head. “It’s a fine goal lad, one that I’m sure you’ll achieve. Here’s to hoping I help you along the path you seek.”
“And you, Skelly?” Elena asked, turning to walk backwards so she could face the old druid as she spoke. “Why are you risking life and limb for mere coin, hm?”
Smiling at her dramatically asked question, he rubbed at his beard. “To be honest, I just like staying active. I too like to study, though my work is in plants rather than books. I can spend years figuring out how best to grow a sunflower if I let my mind slip… so I take jobs twice a year, both to allow my mind some time to wander and to get some extra coin for when I need to go shopping.”
“So we’re all here for the coin then?” Melfice asked, looking at his nodding companions. “Huh, guess we’re all just greedy then, huh?”
“Yeah,” Wheeze sighed happily, “Isn’t it great?”
The rest of the morning gave way to a cold, yet bright afternoon spent descending a gentle slope into a frozen mire. Great stretches of stagnant water lay to either side of the road, chunks of ice floating along the surface while great mounds of snow and frost huddled over the banks.
Czermoon was on the horizon as the sun dipped, bringing a heartened cry from the mercenaries. For Melfice and Elena, it meant getting off their feet and having a delightful meal. For Skelly, it meant new bargains to strike while also checking if the Render had warranted a bounty.
For Wheeze and Needles? It meant more booze and young village girls that didn’t know any better and wanted to upset their fathers.