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The Sundering of a Fellowship

Adventuring 103

By Meredith HarmonPublished 2 months ago Updated 2 months ago 13 min read
Pretty, but little value. Unless you know their real worth as distractors.

Why do they always appear when I'm not home?

This time when I walked back from market, with a basket laden with fresh vegetables, they were sitting on the bench and around the well. The whole typical crew – paladin, brick, healer, thief, druid, archer, and... something not quite human. Look, I don't judge, I just don't know how to class them any more. Every time I try to keep up on the latest names, the more the younger generation tries to obfuscate it.

It think it is the way of the world. I did the same when it was my time to go adventuring, so I can't say anything on that score. I do my best.

Paladin tried to scramble to their feet, but I waved them back to their seat. “Be at ease, younglings. The front yard is relatively safe, you can strip and have a nice wash from the the well there. I hope you like vegetable soup, because that's what I'm making for dinner. Perhaps with roasted eggs, if the hens aren't broody yet. I'll have to see. Come inside to help prepare when you're refreshed, you can fill mugs of water and a bucket to help clean up, and there's a tub over there for washing. The soap's in a bag tucked under it.”

I stepped up to the door and turned the handle, but caught the muttered “But it's locked, I tried it myself!” from the thief as the door opened.

I turned to look into their face, made ratty by the pinched look they were giving me. I simply arched an eyebrow. “Then perhaps you should check your intentions at the door? It will go better for you if you do.” I saw their insouciant head tilt and smirk as I stepped inside.

Ohhh, that will be a difficult one.

I saw eyes wink throughout the room before they vanished. So my friends knew, and they would help. That was heartening. Friends are the best defense against difficult house guests.

So, it seems my small attempt to stay off the major trade routes was no help. Gods above and below, I'd become an Adventuring Stop. Oh, joyous and wondrous, watch me as I caper in ecstatic circles at the news.

Pardon me if I don't stop to clean up the hip-deep puddles of my own sarcasm, the soup won't cook itself.

I was well into peeling and cutting and chopping when paladin and archer darkened my doorway. I set them up with the cutting boards and paring knives while I took another basket and asked the hens quite nicely about possible eggs. They very kindly allowed me to take enough to feed one apiece with a few spares to spread among our friends.

I returned to discover the brick, healer, and druid had joined the chopping brigade. Which was more than sufficient, everything edible went in the pot to cook. I showed them how to pack the eggs in a sand pot to roast, with the strict injunction that they only get one each, the others are bespoken. I then took the healer and druid out to the garden, not only to pick herbs to season the soup, but also to show them a few new things that I'm sure they would not have seen before. They returned happy, with a few sprigs of some truly rare things in their pouches, stored against a time of need.

We walked into a tense situation.

The wolf-like one and the thief had joined us, and they did not look happy.

I already knew. No, don't ask. “Thief, I thought I told you to leave your intentions at the door. On the table, everything you stole.” They looked like they were going to argue, but I shut down that nonsense. I don't have time for the theatrics. “Now, if you please. Or if you don't please. I do not care.”

I have the compelling voice when I choose. I call on the gods above and below, but the below ones are the most amenable to certain pleas. And I was quite the literal hellraiser in my own adventuring days. They helped me out of some certain shenanigans I traipsed into, and gave me certain gifts. So, yes, being off the beaten path was both punishment and reward. And it seemed as if certain overlooked debts were coming due, and this party was about to take a chunk out of that debt.

Wondrous. Once again I dance in delight at the serendipitous situation. Mop bucket's in the back closet, I'll wait.

Under compulsion, the little rat-faced thief slowly drew out items from their pouch. A pinch of rare herbs, some unusual spices, two eggs, a few crystals from the windowsill, two knives. Their hand trembled, and I knew, so I snapped, “All of it! Everything you stole!” And out came other items, that I certainly didn't recognize, but everyone else there did...

“My bracelet!” “You said you didn't know what happened to my comb!” “That's the only glass phial I had, I needed that for the healing potion!” “You knew my grandmother gave me that for luck, you poisonous brat!” “I bought those arrowheads with my own coin!” “So that's what happened to my knife!” “Owooo arrrgaaaahhh!”

I tsk'd a lot. “First rule of adventuring, thief: never, and I mean never, betray your mates. I think you got into adventuring for all the wrong reasons. I wonder how long you'll last with two broken hands? It would be interesting to watch.”

The thief moved fast, but the paladin was quicker. Paladin and brick dragged the thief out the back door, and we could hear the rather lopsided fight through the open door.

I collected my things, and put the eggs back in the pot to roast. The others slowly collected their belongings. I set the crystals back on the ledge. No, they mean nothing. A pretty distraction, that's all. The real wardings are buried, or in the walls, or painted on the windows, or disguised in clever and unusual ways. The real crystals that have meaning are hidden where only I can get to them. These are doped glass, bought from a penny peddler. They do their job efficiently.

Paladin and brick returned, sans thief. Brick shrugged at my arched eyebrow. “Ran off towards the woods” was their brief reply. I nodded. One dealt with.

That left six. Before the meal, and during, I questioned them – their quest, their goals, their skills, how well they worked together. I was quietly dismayed by their scattered answers. Archer was running away from overbearing parents, and not very knowledgeable about the world. Druid didn't say it out loud, but they were only in this group to get a bit of protection to travel to the nearest academic town, to get into university. Brick wanted to get away from all the prejudice they were experiencing at home. Understandable. Wolflike wanted to fit in. Healer wanted an apothecary shop.

Paladin... was a piece of work. Paladin wanted guts, gold, glory, deity. Reluctant answers from the various parties were met with self-righteous frowns and grabbing at their sword hilt, like they were ready to lop off a head for the wrong responses. Disturbing. Paladins shouldn't be bullies, and it was clear they chivvied this party together as a backdrop to their own interests, and would chivvy them all back home again as props in reflected glory. Never mind that the rest did not want to return “home.”

Lovely. This party would splinter before their first orc, never mind a wyrm. I longed for the sweet bliss of an empty cottage.

I trooped them outside to gather their supplies, showed them better ways to pack, how to bivouac. How to set proper watches. How to use their strengths to work together. How to set up for a fight.

Years of my own adventuring experiences, distilled into a few hours' worth of intense teaching. What would my family think of this?

I knew the answer to that one. And stuffed it deep down again, to concentrate on their issues.

Raven was keeping a quiet eye on them from the top of a nearby tree, out of sight of archer's arrows. Cat had emerged, and wolflike was giving it the best side-eye I had ever seen. And I've had experience with dragons, so that's saying something.

Healer was trying to convince paladin to quest in the direction of the nearest large-ish town, most likely to get themselves apprenticed by the quickest path available. Brick was quiet. Druid was finally paying attention to all the animals, and was setting up their bedroll at a rather large holly bush, to commune. Considering who that holly bush used to be, I thought the conversation would be quite enlightening.

With the party finally settling in, I finally checked the back of the cottage. As expected, I found a large, confused rat, with two broken forepaws. After sternly warning it that it would be spitted if it bit me, I settled it in with the rabbits with a bit of baked potato. The rest of the menagerie got the remains of supper, with the eggs evenly distributed to the carnivores. I could hear the head buck roughy telling the shivering rat what would happen if it thought to mess with anyone, and the scrawny rooster dropped by to sharpen its spurs threateningly on a rock brought in by the raccoon.

How did I become a zoo keeper? Trainer of adventurers? Guider of lost souls? What shenanigans did I do, to be saddled with generations of younglings?

The gods above and below didn't answer me, but I heard quiet chuckling from above, from below, from the in-betweens and sharp edges and darkest corners as I drifted off to sleep.

I slept well, but little. I don't need much, these days.

But not long enough, it seems. I could hear the paladin shouting from my cozy bedroom.

My nightgown is sturdier than it seems. This would not be the first time I was roused to action from dreams.

Two were missing. The brick and wolflike, packs and all. And paladin was taking it rather personally.

My entrance did nothing to dispel their mood. As I crossed the threshold, paladin swung and finally drew that sword on me. “This is all your fault, witch! God is most displeased with you!”

Which one, you insufferable prick?

I didn't even think. My forearms are padded, and I keep myself in shape. Cross block, twist, leg sweep, deer darts in and antlers twist in perfect union with me, raven drops and the visor slams because of course they slept in their armor, deer springs back and lets bear charge through to play bell ringer with that shiny, shiny helmet. While sitting on their chest and legs.

The rest were still in their bedrolls, though sitting up with jaws swinging wide in the breeze. I almost laughed, but that would break the mood. I arched the other eyebrow at them, for a bit of variety. “You need to do better, people, if you wish to live. Archer, you should have had arrows flying. Druid, you need to make more friends among the animals to assist. Healer, you should have had a distraction already prepared – smoke vial, surprising noise, something. Things to think about for the future. Now, do you three want breakfast? Bruin, Stag, when you're done, let them up to leave, and just keep an eye so they don't circle back.”

Flapjacks with fresh berries are nothing to sneeze at when you're adventuring. I discussed travel plans with them: for instance, if they left by the back door and took the forest path – and made every effort to not disturb the forest – they would find a university town on the other side. With a lovely apothecary that I happened to know, who would welcome a person with my letter of recommendation. And a professor friend in said university, who might also look kindly on a bright student with another introductory letter. And caravans, who would appreciate a greenie archer with some skill. And I might know some caravan masters, here are some names, with another letter of introduction.

There were many round eyes around the table. One of those sets of eyes was the raven's, nestled in the crook of the druid's arm.

Finally the archer found their voice. “Who are you? You're no witch – er, not just a witch? A warlock? I'm confused.” Nods all around.

I laughed. “Younglings, I am a former adventurer. Life is an adventure, really. Whether you stay home, or travel, or find a place to call home, or not, the adventure is there with you. Some must leave, because where you are is unsafe. Or boring. Or you yearn for a thing, not knowing what it is, but you yearn all the same, so you go to find it. But life throws you the lessons anyway, here or there or in-between, and you learn the lessons. Or not. And then you take the penalty or reward. You win the lesson, but lose the treasure. You take the chance, but lose your friends. Follow the advice, but regret where it leads. Choices on an ever-expanding map of experiences.

“You followed the paladin because of bright but false promises, and chose a different path when I gave you solid advice. This portion of your path is easier, but you might not thank me when you're hip-deep in studying, or caravan mud. Paladin may find what they're looking for, but I doubt it. Perhaps they will find some like-minded and go off to slay evil, but most likely they will slay the wrong ones, and then they will learn if their god will get them out of the fire they themselves lit. But you will not be there to see the fires burn, and perhaps get consumed by their madness.”

The raven nodded. The druid glanced down, startled.

“Me? An adventurer who tried to retire, not realizing the adventure of living never ends. I desire to be left alone, but my skills are too valuable to retire. So I was placed here, blessing and curse rolled together into one, as is all life. To be a guardian, a teacher, a keeper, and a jailer of sorts. And a guide to younglings, starting the next chapter in their own life adventure. Giving you skills and advice to save your skins, so maybe you have an easier time than I did.” I glanced out the door, where a dented and less shiny figure was stomping down a very dusty road sans breakfast and guidance. “Though some just can't be taught, I guess.”

The archer shuddered. “If you don't mind, we should get going. In a different direction.”

I agreed, and pointed to the back door. “Follow the path through the woods. I think the forest will take pity on you. There will be a clearing you stumble across come noontime, where you can stop and have a chunk of your bannocks in that basket there. I'd share with any creatures that come close, if I were you. There will be raspberry canes at the forest's edge, stop there for the night. There is also a fresh spring. Follow the path for two days, and you'll find the town rather easily. If you use what I have taught you, you'll find food along the way. Keep your eyes sharp. Be polite. And set watches.”

They thanked me, gathered their packs, and set to it. Once they passed under the forest's shadow, my friends came out.

Raccoon was shaking its head. “I'm so glad they chose to take their own path! That paladin would have led them straight to death!”

“Indeed, you speak truth. Where's the sword?” Cat mrrow'd from under a cabinet, and carefully pushed it out. I took it – well, at least it was sharp. I oiled it properly and wrapped it in some leather, since I didn't have a scabbard lying about. I wondered who would inherit it as I stowed it away with the other things I've collected, waiting for their new owners.

Then I walked out front. “Come on out, there's still flapjacks!”

The brick and wolfling crawled out from under the holly, which for a bush, was inordinately pleased with itself.

The brick's voice was rather soft for a barbarian. “How did you know?”

“I do recall being called a witch. That'll suffice as an answer, I guess. Good as any.”

Wolfling was staring at all the creatures that were no longer hiding. “Aroo? Gnah.”

“Well, no, I don't own them. If they choose to tell you their stories, that's fine, but don't be surprised if they ignore you. Stories like yours, I'd say. Like you don't want to say if yours is a curse, or born that way, or a spell on your parents. Or something else. Very personal.”

“Urf. Awwah? Arr-grah urnnn.”

“I don't mind if you stay. No eating anyone, though, there are very strict penalties for killing fellow guests. If you want fresh meat, Bruin can take you hunting in the forest, show you what's safe and what isn't.” The bear nodded and grunted, and wolfling relaxed. They were petting one of the rabbits, who didn't seem to mind in the slightest.

The brick seemed close to tears, and I got them to the bench and in a big hug before they fell in earnest. Oh, this one I knew the answer to, but it would be hard, so hard. “I know, sweetheart, I know. In many ways, your path will be the hardest. Yes, I have friends, and if we can get you there, they specialize in the spells you need to transform your body. It must have been hard to grow up with the barbarians, they don't have much tolerance for such things. You've come this far already, that is an amazing journey in itself. And with a paladin! Impressive disguise, to get here!”

She sniffled, and produced a nice handkerchief out of her furs. “Stupid clothing. But I got some decent linen and cotton when the traders would come through, and that's how I snuck out, in one of their wagons inside a nest of cloth bolts.”

“Excellent escape! Well, here we simply don't care what you were born with. I'll give you some sewing lessons, and send a few messages, and see what we can do. In the meantime, both of you can learn some new skills, and help me with the menagerie.”

The deer snorted, and the bear groaned.

“Oh, hush, both of you. Flapjacks, then bedding accommodations. I don't know if you want bed, hay loft, or den. We'll figure it out. Stag, don't even think about having your morning graze in my herb garden! I see where your eyes are going.” The deer snorted again and pranced off, the bear grunting and following.

It seems I have two more guests.

And I hear chuckling, on the edge of hearing, on the beam of sunlight, on the gust of wind...

Adventure

About the Creator

Meredith Harmon

Mix equal parts anthropologist, biologist, geologist, and artisan, stir and heat in the heart of Pennsylvania Dutch country, sprinkle with a heaping pile of odd life experiences. Half-baked.

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    Meredith HarmonWritten by Meredith Harmon

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