Merry Christmas everyone! Hope the holidays treat you well!
“Look for a house in the woods, he said. It’ll be easy to find, he said. Tch, this is why you don’t trust Rangers away from their elements.”
Tyler walked through a long-abandoned village, the houses already in various forms of disrepair as nature strove to recover its original land. He walked carefully around, not touching any of the houses, but rather looking thoughtfully at the ruins.
It was easy to tell that a battle had taken place here, and was a hard one at that. None of the houses were burned down, no, but his keen eye noticed damage that was intentionally done. A broken door here, a gate there. A fence panel there.
‘Nick said there were traitors. But can he trust the intel he received?’ Tyler stopped as he stood by a ruined door, the top of the door kicked inward. His eyes narrowed as he noticed how the wood had splintered.
Arrowheads. Broad-headed ones at that. He got down on one knee and peered at the holes. Whoever had been shooting had shot a lot of arrows at the house.
Running his hand down the door, his eyes narrowed as he ran into jagged pieces of wood. He could already tell that the arrows had been pulled out afterward. Whoever cleaned up the battlefield did a remarkable job at it. The wood was too worn to tell if there had been blood, but he would have guessed not. He lightly pushed the door to see the other side. Clean. It hadn’t punctured through the entire door.
‘No Skills from what I could tell, but a lot of arrows were shot.’
Turning around, he glanced upwards for a bowman’s perch. There had to be one inside the village as well. There were no watchtowers or any semblance of a fence, but the high ground would perpetually be the best vantage point for someone with a bow.
‘Nick said that there were at least three Rangers here guarding the village. And him, if he were here. Four Rangers, with a healthy amount of ammo could account for all of the arrows punctures, but then what were they aiming at, and why did they miss?’
His eyes narrowed as he caught sight of a roofline close to the village center. A gathering hall, from the looks of it. It could certainly hold a fair amount of people, though as Tyler counted the houses, it was actually larger than what the village would have normally required. Even if it was used as a bazaar, the exterior walls were far sturdier than he’d expect for a village.
A fortified keep. He stopped and stared at the roof, imagining the angles an archer could get from there. Getting up, he walked backward while keeping a hand on the walls to track where the arrows had landed. Most were aimed at the chest height, though most of the damage was along the walls of the house instead of the doorway.
‘They were aiming at something moving alongside the houses. People must have been leaving the houses, which would account for why there were less pockmarks as they got closer to the door. They slowed their fire just in case someone was trying to get out.’
He stopped moving as he lost sight of the keep, his brows furrowed as he looked around for more clues.
‘A secondary kill zone. If I was setting it up, I would have another attack location solely to hit the blindspots of the main defensive spot, but would still cover the most ground. Two Rangers at defensive locations, and one more to patrol within the kill zone to provide ground-level cover fire would be ideal in a village like this.’
He paused as he looked toward the ruins of a house, set further back among the rest of the village. That would have been his first choice. But whoever had been in there had died almost instantly, if the crumpled remains of the house was any indicator.
‘Killed the backup outright. Then the attacker moved steadily forward. Tanked a few dozen arrows at the very least, and then what?’
He eyed the house, and then the pockmarks on the walls. It made sense, but what could make a Ranger miss? And why did they not use Skills? But without the bodies, how was he supposed to find the truth? Everyone was supposed to have been sacrificed, but he only saw wanton destruction, not a methodical slaughter that it should have been.
Tyler shook his head. A conundrum for sure, but it would be helpful for Nick to know. This wasn’t important to him. All he came to do was find information. ‘Northwesterly edge of the village, follow an old path to a house in the woods. Old couple would have information.’
He walked north, passing the ruins of the village. He still took a look into each house, though he stopped himself from walking past the threshold. It wasn’t in his nature to loot the dead, no matter how long ago it was. No bodies, no graves, and no altar were found, even after checking every house he passed. He looked up at the keep as he passed it. He spied no damage to the roof, which meant that the enemy had either bypassed it completely or killed the Ranger from where he was shooting.
The doors were locked tight but through the damaged wall panels he spied a messy interior; the tables and chairs thrown about haphazardly. A mess, but no bodies in that one either. And no bloodstains, at least from where he was standing.
‘This is getting creepier and creepier.’
His nerves were now starting to tingle, an unknown sense of dread urging him to be careful around here. Tyler paused and slowly walked away, heading to the edge of the forest. It was clear that whatever happened here was not pleasant. That much was certain.
He found Nick’s house after another hour of walking. It wasn’t that his directions were off. Rather, it was Nick’s. His house was isolated from the village, even by Tyler’s own standards. If not for a slightly worn path, he would have missed it entirely.
The house was in much better condition than the rest of the village, the low stone wall still stood around the courtyard, though a few tree saplings had started to root in the now unkempt yard.
Tyler paused within sight of the house, but not out of the woods. He bent down and looked for something in the piles of dead leaves. Nick would have trapped his surroundings. He was certain of that much. Tyler had the feeling that Nick would have been an overprotective parent had he been home all the time.
And then add in the fact that he was a High-Class meant that he would have the expertise and time to install booby-traps.
Did install. Tyler looked forward at the remains of a tied rope and looked toward the end, where the weathered crossbow now sat, the wood now overrun with moss and a snapped string. An empty crossbow.
A clever trap, since the crossbow had a clear line of sight along the full length of the rope line.
‘Clever, though seeing how they shrugged off arrows in the village, its doubtful that the crossbow would have done better.’
He followed the rope to the break and moved forward, carefully checking his surroundings as he moved. Whatever had set of the first trap had continued moving toward the house in a straight line, setting off every trap without fail.
Moving into the clearing, he paused as he bent down, looking at the shards of wood, noting that they were laying sideways. The remains of an arrow shaft. Pocketing them, he followed a trail of shafts that led toward the side of the house.
He paused as he spied a piece of cloth caught on the underside of a log. ‘They tried to escape. Or maybe make a stand. So there was enough of a notice to run. Or maybe they were already prepared.’
He stopped as he looked around. ‘This would have been the best place to make a stand, assuming the house and tiny stone wall could funnel an enemy toward it. But the wall is untouched.’
Tyler stood there, trying his best to glean clues based off what he could see. But whatever transpired here happened too long ago, any traces already worn down by the power of time and nature.
‘Back of the house, tiny, unused game trail.’
Tyler backed away slowly and adjusted his bag, taking care to keep his sword and shield ready. He could usually tell if there was a Scout nearby, but something about the area unnerved him.
He left, walking away from the village as he strode into the woods beyond, keeping a careful eye for any long abandoned game trails.
And for the next several hours, he wandered the woods, searching for a clear path. And he would have missed it entirely had he not been on the lookout for it. A small, dried stream was all that remained, yet as he followed the path it took through the forest, it would have led back to the house. A perfect cover, yet easy enough to overlook if you were not searching for it.
Tyler warily followed the now dry stream, keeping a close eye out for any monsters. He recognized it now, as he mentally calculated his route. The stream must have been a very tiny offshoot, probably only overflowing during the rainy season, and atypically at that.
“Why didn’t he just tell me it was a stream? Gods, I’ve basically spent all day here only to find some broken arrow shafts.”
He stopped as he heard movement ahead, the ‘thunk’ of someone chopping firewood echoed from afar.
“Hello!? Is someone there? I’m a Merchant!” Tyler called out ahead, hoping not to scare anyone off. He knew there was supposed to be a house, but an older couple wouldn’t be able to chop wood nearly as consistent as he heard.
“Halt, this is private land! What could a Merchant possibly be looking for out here?” A young man called out warily as the sound of wood chopping stopped echoing in the woods.
“I’m from ‘cross the border. I have a Boywer who’s looking to sell some bows. When I mentioned that, I followed some advice from the border guards, and they sent me to a deserted village. Unhelpful bastards. Can’t a man make an honest living?”
He shouted back, waiting to hear a response. Nick had said that people were prejudiced here about foreign bows. He hoped that would be enough to dispel any doubts about him being there.
“Come forward thirty paces. I already have an arrow at you. Any funny business and it’ll go straight through you, shield or not.”
Markus doubted that, but he saw no reason to argue with the younger man. Holding his hands up, but with his sword and shield still grasped tight, he walked forward while counting his steps aloud. Trust was the best currency for a merchant, and this was an unusual circumstances to be meeting a merchant.
He walked out of the woods and into a small clearing in the woods. An older structure sat in the middle. Not so much a hunter’s shack, but more a lodge than shack. The two story structure stood there, massive wood columns tying the corners of the building together. Not many windows on the ground floor, but the top floor was slotted with openings between wooden posts. Intentionally made to let light and smoke filter through the openings.
All in all, not what he was expecting when Nick said a small house owned by an older couple.
“Stop there. First, show me the bows.” The young man called out warily as he stood there, his hands calloused with hard work. An arrow was notched on his bow, though Tyler could tell he was aiming for his chest.
Planting his sword in the ground, he moved his hands slowly and opened the top of his bag. Unlatching a carabiner, Tyler slowly withdrew his hand from the bag, the straps holding the bow loosening enough for him to grab one as it fell.
The man whistled lightly as he saw one of Nick’s rougher made bows, intentionally done so that he would have a reason to visit outlying villages. But even so, it was a fully functional bow, and with a varnish and care, the bow would probably be good enough to pass down one day.
“I have a rather large inventory of bows I was hoping to sell to a village, but…” Tyler said
“Ah. Someone told you wrong then. That village’s been abandoned for almost seven years now. May I?”
“Tch, just my luck. Know what happened?”
“Yeah. Some cultists got to it. That’s what happened. A shame too, my grandparents had some friends in that village. Broke their heart so much they left to greener pastures in Alcudia. Too dangerous for them here now, with the cults and all.” He tested the pull on the bow and nodded, clearly pleased with the finished product. He handed it back, a little hesitantly. “Good draw, that bow.”
“Tell you what, I’ll trade a bow for two weeks of travel rations. Got anything else you’d like to sell for a little gold? I’m not making any profits on this little trip.” Taking his bag off his back, he pulled out his travel papers and Merchant log, the Cidala Merchant Association seal and border stamp clearly visible on the bottom.
The man visibly relaxed as he saw that Tyler was a true Merchant. “Yeah, I can do that. I have a few local products that might get you a fair sum abroad. Though I can tell you that your Bowyer fairly decent in his trade.”
“You said your grandparents moved to Alcudia? Want me to pass anything to them on my way back? I’ll have to pass through the eastern part of the country to get back to Cidala.”
“Sure, but it’ll be tough to find them. Barely sent my mom a letter saying that they were moving. Scared my mom half to death, but the border patrol did confirm they passed through, and the signature matched, so it must be true.”
Tyler nodded, though he knew there were ways to fake that if someone really tried. “Sure, just give me a name and I’ll see if a tax assessor can find their location.”
Tyler sighed as he passed back into Alcudia, carrying less than what he started with. Nick would be furious that he traded the bow for so low, but the intel he got was worth it in Tyler’s opinion. He wasn’t able to check the border patrols record, not without a valid reason that couldn’t be traced back to him, but he took it on good faith that the man wasn’t lying.
Well, good faith and decades of serving as the Royal Guard Captain.
Still, he was glad to be back in his native country. There was just a tad too many trees in Leit for his liking.
Walking to the closest border town, Tyler sighed as he sat down in an old tavern, the smell pleasant enough to whet his appetite, yet big enough to have a stable and empty rooms available to rent. He was glad that some things hadn’t changed. It would be too hard for a merchant to get reliable pack horses otherwise if the government hadn’t made cornered the market.
He settled down and thought about what he had noticed as he came to the town. It hadn’t taken him long to realize that the townsfolk he had passed were nervous.
Not towards him, no. But about something. Something he hadn’t heard yet.
“Hungry?” An older woman asked him as she passed, cleaning the tables one by one with a dirty rag. He mentally made a note not to clean his own utensils.
“Yes. Is the innkeeper in?”
“Yea. He’s making food right now. What’dya want?”
“Whatever’s available. I want to talk with him as soon as possible.”
“Hm? Got beef with him? He doesn’t need another merchant selling him stuff either,” she grumbled angrily.
“No, just had a question to ask him, that’s all. About the local market. He’ll understand.” Tyler spoke carefully and slid three silver coins over discreetly. Tyler hoped a few coins would ease the conversation.
The old woman looked at the silver coins and grumbled under her breath, Tyler flushing a little as she called him a cheapskate. Sure, three silver coins wasn’t much, but he wasn’t asking for much to begin with either. Tyler sighed and pulled out two gold coins, hiding it under the dirty rag the old woman had placed on his table.
“Better. He’ll be out in a moment,” she said as she pocketed the silver and grabbed her dirty towel, sweeping the gold underneath straight into her apron pockets.
“Bob! Ya got a customer here. Get out here!”
“Don’t push me, woman! If my parents didn’t like you, I’d-”
“Doubt it. If I wasn’t here, you’d be swamped in work.”
Tyler waited until the worst of the argument passed before coughing politely. The tavern was deserted now, since no one liked to listen to an argument drunk. “I need news. What’s happened within the last three weeks?”
Tyler noticed the woman and man exchange glances, the woman pouring a pitcher of water for him from a dirty cup. Tyler picked it up and waited.
“I don’t know what you’re talking ab-.”
“May Alcudia’s light shine bright in the darkness. The country needs you,” Tyler interrupted. He hoped that the passcodes hadn’t changed any in the last seven years. No real reason to, unless there was a security breach or something that warranted updating an entire network of people.
And reality proved he was right. As soon as he said that, the innkeeper paused and shot a look at the old woman, who ducked into the back rooms.
“May it shine in the darkness. What does the Queen require from us, sir?”
It was good to see that the Queen still had support. “Information. Local, rumors, and citizen reactions to news. Standard rate.”
The man’s eyes lit up, though it dimmed just as fast. “I have nothing worth the standard rate. Everyone’s jittery, sir. With the beginning of the war and all.”
Tyler paused. “The war?”
“Yeah. The war with Trent’s been restarted. Conscription notices are starting to appear too. No one wants to fight a losing battle, after all.”