With a sky the color of steel concealed by thick overhanging branches a colorful caravan wove its way through the murk of a rainy evening. The colors on the wagons, painstakingly applied seemed like a feeble attempt to ward off the gloom that seemed ever present in the thick forest that surrounded them. The ribbons braided into the manes and tails of the horses seemed tattered and dull in the fading light. The colors which had been chosen to ward off the dark now seemed to be dulled by it, drained to something lesser.
This was not a friendly land, the grey sky seemed to say as it slowly released its contents down upon them in cold, trickling misery. Go away, the forest muttered as the shadows shifted, avoiding the lantern light that shone from the small, shuttered papered windows of the wagons. Those few eyes peering out might swear they saw faces in the shadows, leering visages among the knotted limbs of trees starved for sunlight and mysterious motions in the underbrush that could conceal a thousand terrors. Even the animals of the forest were quiet, the night beasts not yet having woken and the day beasts long since having fled to shelter so all that was left was the creak of the wagons, the hiss of the rain and the low moaning of the wind through the trees.
The Travelers, for that’s what they were, were undaunted. They traveled these roads with a secret purpose as well as an obvious one. They brought entertainment and news, joy and tales from the parts of the world that were not so drowned in misery. They tried, but often failed to deliver one precious cargo: Hope. Regardless of whether or not they succeeded in this, their primary purpose in their travels was darker, more dangerous. Wherever they went, they sought out the darkness the shadows tried to conceal and they destroyed it.
What a wet, shitty day, Abesoloma Purrun thought to himself as he huddled on the front seat of his colorful Traveler’s wagon and clicked his tongue at the sodden horse who thought as much about the day as he did. He had a tightly woven wool blanket over his lap, red and yellow checks and the heavy lanolin content in it made the water bead up and roll off onto the wood at his feet. Despite it he was not warm and hadn’t been since he’d left his bed-roll that morning to a cold camp. The wood had been too wet for a decent fire. He longed for warmth or at least something to fill his extensive belly.
“C’mon Charger,” he said pleadingly, his deep rumbling voice making the very wood of the wagon almost vibrate in response. The horse, one Charger by name, flicked his tail and let fall a load of manure in response and did not pick up his pace one bit. Abe shot the horse, a long companion of his, a frosty glare which the horse ignored just as much as it had the urging and kept plodding on at a careful pace. Abe supposed it was just as well, the roads were awful, mucked over with the incessant drizzling.
The last rune-stone they’d passed had been leagues back which spoke to how deep into the woods of Western Ferralin they were. He wasn’t certain he’d ever been down this road before, which wasn’t all that odd and under better weather conditions he might have been excited to be some place new. However everyone had seemed a little grumpy to him, even Chavi, which worried him. Was the girl coming down with something? It wasn’t like her to be less than sunny. With something to worry about besides the road and the shitty morning Abe found himself chewing over it like a good wad of pine-sap, satisfying but of no real substance.
Inside the wagon, for her part Chavi was sitting cross legged on the floor with her favorite cake molds and a wooden box filled with fine sand. The molds were prized possessions purchased by her mother and made of bright copper. They were fanciful things, domes with intricate designs expertly hammered into them and they shone as bright as the day they’d been purchased, tended to with love by the two Purrun women. With these molds she made cakes that their audiences couldn’t resist. The people they entertained paid a pretty penny for them and ceased grumbling about the cost the moment they bit into one. Unbeknownst to the consumers the rich, spiced flavor was not only delicious but it contained a blend of herbs meant to help ward off the malicious spirits that seemed to be ever-present here in Ferralin.
She shivered to think of them, the way their shadowy vapor-forms seems to shift when one looked at them, never still but somehow forming the shapes of one’s nightmares. It was a gift of her people to be able to see them, but it was a gift she could have done without. She shivered and traced a ward in the air in front of her before lightly sprinkling some of the sand into a mold and with a sturdy cloth began to polish it singing as she worked. She sang a nonsense song that was pulled from her distant memories of her mother singing her to sleep. She’d long lost the words but had replaced them with nonsense syllables that spoke to her of love and made the work go smoother. It had been a rough day, cold and wet and not even her sweetened rose petal tea had done much to raise spirits. She was out of honey too and so could not make cakes to sweeten anyone’s mood. She hoped they found a village soon, they had been travelling long enough down this winding road.
She looked up and grinned as she heard as well as felt the rumble of her father’s voice as he goaded the horse who was almost as stubborn as he. She had just reached up to brush back a stray black curl when a loud crack ripped through the evening and the whole wagon lurched. She cried out in alarm, her verse cut short as she stumbled forward, her precious molds scattering and the box of fine sand spilling.
Before she’d even oriented herself or puzzled through what had happened her father was ripping open the back door, his face as pale as the moon as a long string of curses in all the known languages poured from his lips. Her eyebrows rose, not because she hadn’t heard the words before, she certainly had, but that he was so willingly using them in front of her.
“Papa!” she said as she righted herself, her hands seeking out the molds that had scattered on the now sloped floor just as her father’s big arms reached in and pulled her out. She let out a squeak of surprise but did not protest as he held her like she was a child despite her years.
“I’m fine Papa. What happened?”
She heard commotion behind them as the other wagons slowed and reacted to the change of pace and winced as three more loud cracks were heard. She looked past her father’s bushy head of hair and saw three wagons akimbo. Her life on the road told her immediately that an axle or four were broken. They’d had that happen before but not four at once. That was odd and she felt a prickle of fear dance over her skin.
“I must have hit a rock or something in this cursed mud. We are lucky, it looks like none of the horses were hurt, but still, they will need to be looked at.” Her father grumbled, putting her down and striding off to see what needed doing and if anyone were hurt.
“Mino!” he bellowed, “Simza!” he called as he strode away, more a leader now than a concerned father.
She wrinkled her nose and shook her head, peering into the wagon and gathering up her precious molds, her song begun anew. She shivered and tried not to think of what might be lurking in the shadows all around them. Circling the broken wagons like predators around a weak and injured herd animal.