Chapter 32.1

This was part of a reader input I did over at RoyalRoad a few weeks ago.

“I can’t believe I have to travel to that godforsaken place. Stupid no named traveling Merchant. Why the hell did he even know to report an unmarked settlement?” Aldwin Sala cursed to himself as he traveled down the lonely road. His escorts had distanced themselves from him as soon as he started asking questions about their income levels and taxable receipts.

Aldwin Sala. A normal name for a mostly normal tax collector. Normal in the sense that the Salas family was known throughout the kingdom as the trusted Kingdom Tax Collectors. But if you asked any of the shopkeepers in Cidale, they would have quite a different opinion. At a hair less than six feet tall, he was known as the broody, moody, alcoholic who liked to most of the day away, except tax day. But deep within his unkempt exterior laid a smart, resourceful man.

As the lone tax collector in the little town of Cidale, he enjoyed the peaceful days of quiet and relaxation. He only had to visit each shop every few months to receive the taxes due to the town and the nation. But with the news of a settlement in the Echoing Woods, he now had to travel at least once a year to check in on them. For safety reasons. He couldn’t just let refugees die because of negligence; that would haunt him for the rest of his life.

“Maybe I can hire someone next time. I’ll need to check the local regulations on that, but I am pretty sure I can authorize a mission to the guild to check on them in my stead.” He muttered, coming up with a reasonable plan of action.

But an errant thought struck him, “That Merchant said there was a Teacher living there. Crap. That means Madam Thompson will most likely be checking in as well. But what are the chances she’d ask me about them?” He thought for a moment and sighed. “More than likely she’ll want some information on them. There hasn’t been a new Teacher in these parts for years.”

“Mister Sala sir, we are approaching the woods. Did you want us to follow you?” A young woman’s voice sounded out from beside his carriage, just out of view from where he was laying.

“Of course I would, Miss Rain. Unless you think the donkey can find his way there by himself.” He responded lazily.

“Apprentice Warrior Cindy Rain to you, Mister Sala.”

“If you want to pull rank and force me to call you an Apprentice Warrior then you can call me Head Tax Collector of Cidale; officially appointed by the Royal Family to govern the collection of taxes within this region of land. I already know which one holds more weight.” He paused for dramatic effect. “Of course, once you become a specialized warrior I will call you whatever you like. Until then though, I will be calling you Miss Rain, or Party Leader Rain if within earshot of your party.” He knew better than to burn all his bridges in one go. ‘Politeness will get you far in life. Sometimes.’

He could hear the girl muttering under her breath, “Of all the nerve…”, but didn’t bother to respond. He knew full well that they were getting paid with the town’s tax money, and he would be sure to delay payment if they even couldn’t even bother to take him all the way to the settlement. Clearing his throat, he caught the girls attention. “The job description clearly stated ‘escorting one person to the newly located settlement within the Echoing Woods.’. Which part indicates the job is done once you escorted me to the edge of said woods’”?

“…None sir.”

“Okay, then take me into the woods.”

“You know these woods have a certain…” Party Leader Rain started.

“Yes yes, it is impossibly hard to navigate. Which is why the mission required someone with at least a low affinity to nature, or [[Trail Finder]].”

The wagon stopped, causing Aldwin to frown. “Why did you stop the cart? I was almost asleep,” he lied as he continued to lay there. In truth, he just did not want to get up.

“I didn’t do anything. Your pack animal stopped by itself. Looks like I can’t budge him either. Walking it is.” Miss Rain said with a hint of humor in her voice.

“I swear if I get up and he moves, I’m deducting a gold piece from the mission request for blatantly lying to the requestee.” A few tugs on the cart indicated that she was indeed trying, but the donkey refused to go forward. “Well, it feels like you aren’t lying. Great, just my luck to find an animal that won’t willingly go into the woods.”

“Why do you think we requested a raise on the mission request? Every party knows these woods are dangerous, for more reasons than one.”

“Eh, Is it really that dangerous?” Aldwin said suspiciously. His lack of interest in anything outside the town was starting to show, and not in a good way. As he sat up, he looked over to the girl. She was wearing only leather armor and had a semi rusted iron shield strapped to her back. Probably a family heirloom or perhaps an ill-fated adventurer’s equipment, he supposed. Her bright blue eyes were framed with freckles on her cheeks, her reddish-brown hair pulled back into a braid. At just over five feet tall, she had to look up at him, even when he was just sitting up in the cart. ‘Not my type of girl, but she’s probably more fit than any other girl I’ve met.’ He caught himself staring a little too long and stood up, dusting imaginary dirt away.

Partly Leader Rain looked askance at him. “You requested this mission without even knowing how dangerous it is? There are all kinds of rare materials hiding in these woods, but the number of people who die there yearly can fill an entire lot at the cemetery. These woods are unofficially called ‘The Land where Novice Parties go to die’. Over three hundred different predators live in there, you know.”

Aldwin’s eyes started twitching. “And this is inspiring confidence how?”

“We have new bows to fight with. If we stay on the path, we hopefully can pick off any monsters from a distance.” Cindy said with a small chuckle. “Lou, William, York, form up!”

Aldwin looked behind and groaned slightly. ‘I should’ve checked the party members before I laid down in the cart!’ Two young boys and one girl headed for the cart, each of them carrying a wooden short bow. Their ages couldn’t possibly be over the age of twenty! He looked over at Miss Cindy with a dark gleam in his eye. Unfortunately for him, a sheet of paper was dangling in front of him. “Escortee requests the cheapest party available that can hopefully fulfill this request to the Echoing Woods. Notice which two parts the receptionist pointed out. For a measly twelve gold, we are already pushing it with this mission.”

“…I probably shouldn’t have shouted at her. Crap.”

“Probably not. Louise and William will guard our backs. York, stay close to Aldwin. I’ll take the front. Shoot anything that moves with an arrow first. York, use a spell if you think you can hit the target, otherwise use your bow.”

“A mage? Apprentice?” Aldwin’s hopes perked up but were soon dashed by reality.

“Hah, not quite. He has the mana capacity to be a mage, but he hasn’t received the class yet. A few tricks are all he can do right now. But I’m hoping that winning a few battles will change that soon. Overcoming trials and all that.”

As they walked into the forest, Aldwin noticed something odd, something he hadn’t felt for a long time. “Stop. My mana is resonating with something. That’s usually a bad sign” Although he had grown up and become a professional Tax Collector, he couldn’t quite rid himself of his dream to become a Mage.

“No, someone mentioned in the last few Guild reports that mana here is unusually hard to control. Best not use any skills, lads, unless you really need to.” Cindy said to the group as she buckled her iron shield to her shield arm.

The walk through the forest was unusually tense, the stillness of the forest unsettling him. No, not just him; even the Party he hired was nervous, Aldwin noticed nervously.

“Are we getting close?” Aldwin spoke aloud, his voice echoing in the quiet woods.

“Shh! Don’t draw attention to us. According to the Merchant, it should be around the next few bends.”

On cue, a pair of dilapidated houses appeared in front of them shortly, parts and pieces of the buildings were a different color, obviously new wood. Clearing his throat, he called out loudly: “Tax Collector, in the name of Queen Rebecca the Third, I order you to show yourselves.”

“Huh, you arrived pretty fast.” A young woman voice called out from their side, startling them all. Cindy turned abruptly and Willaim fired an arrow on instinct.

“Watch out!” Aldwin yelled, cursing the novices. If he had to file a death report…

Turning, he saw a young woman holding an arrow in her hands, eying them warily. “Careful kid, you could’ve killed someone like that.” A wooden hoe was stuck in the ground beside her. Probably a Farmer, judging by her outfit. She looked over the group carefully, noting the weapons each of them had. Aldwin noticed the woman’s eye glance at his foot and his shoulders, clearly marking where his weapons were hidden. Formal training or retired mercenary? She’s definitely not just a farmer…

“A Tax Collector huh? Well, welcome to our humble abode. Want to talk out here in the fog or in the house?”

Fog? What fog? It’s a perfectly clear day. Great. The first person I met is already delusional.’“We’ll talk right here. The Merchant said there were four people here. I need the Names and Classes of anyone present. Where are the others?”

“Ah, a census I see. I’m Paige, a simple Farmer. Zenith, the Teacher, is out with Nick, the Bower. Both are gathering supplies,” the farmer replied. Peh, simple Farmer she says. Never met a Farmer who can pluck arrows out of the air. Farmer Conscript maybe.

“Can the Teacher teach magic or nonmagic classes?” Aldwin said, writing down the responses.

“Magic classes.”

“And the last person is…” Aldwin supplied suspiciously.

“And a baby is with them. That makes four.” Paige said with a deadpan voice, her eyes narrowing slightly.

“All settlements are required to have at least one battle-oriented class. Alcudian Settlement Rule #15. You have to vacate the premise immediately.” Aldwin stated happily. So long as she didn’t confirm she was a Conscript, if he could make them move out of these woods, his whole life would be simpler.

“Alcudian Settlement Rule #23-4b. A settlement may forgo the need for a battle-oriented class so long as two rules are followed: One, a marked boundary with sufficient defenses suitable against monster attacks; and Two, a sworn affidavit acknowledging that the nearest town will not be able to help during an emergency.” Paige said lazily in response, challenging Aldwin’s grasp on the kingdom’s law. He knew that there was something like that stated, but was it stated exactly like that? “Give me a piece of paper and I’ll sign it. To appeal against a settlement, the Royal Family must state their case against the settlee in person, and provide sufficient remuneration in regards to the loss of property. I don’t think the Royal Family will be coming this way any time soon.”

“Bu, Tha, A, A, A, A three-foot stone wall is hardly a defense against a black bear! Or any other monster in these woods!” Aldwin screamed. The thought of having to come out here constantly was starting to bother him immensely.

“Bah, says the person not living here. I think it is fine, so it is fine. Just settle down in the house and wait for the others to come back. Can’t you see that I am busy tilling the fields? Of course, you can always grab a hoe and help if you’d like.”

“No thank you. We’re leaving now. Just remember taxes are to be paid in either gold, services, or trade goods. And don’t die. Just in case you don’t know, watch out for the monsters in the forest, as well as any bandits. The last people to come here fared…poorly against both threats.”

“Oh, we will be just fine. I can guarantee it. Next time make sure you get up around daybreak to make it here. I’ll have some fresh food when you come here next quarter. Hahaha.” Her laugh echoed behind him mockingly as he walked quickly away, determined to check the local laws again.

And of course, that farmer would be right.

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