You will not believe my misfortune.
“Visit the refuge on Cinder Peak!”
“They will throw revels for you!”
That’s what they said to me, that band of fawning press-gangers, and they painted it like a wonderland of the senses. Well, hyperbole it was not. My senses are indeed tickled—for all the wrong reasons! But I get ahead of myself.
First of all, my apologies for escaping auntie’s quaint keep. I fear it was too suffocating for me. Your hospitality was appreciated, but let’s be honest—the place was never going to succeed at containing Roland of Stendhall.
So, after our final meal together I simply... exeunt’d, I’m afraid.
I’ll skip the tedious hours of walking and being accosted by wretches and blighted squirrels, and all the myriad other blessings that come with fleeing one’s adoptive home.
“Get to the interesting bit!” you rightfully cry out.
Yes, yes, you ingrates, you spineless darlings who’d never dare to thwart auntie.
I reached Cinder Peak after weeks of miserable outdoor camping and yearned for a hot bath.
“We are so very honored to have you here, Roland of Stendhall,” the refuge’s elder groveled. “Here’s a list of chores, because we know how fantastic you are at everything.”
“If you insist, good sir!” I said. “But first I’d like to make use of your bathing facilities. As you can imagine, I’m perfectly coated with the outside and I can’t wait to get it off of me.”
The elder very nearly prostrated himself before me. “I beg your forgiveness, we never bathe in this corner of the world, so we didn’t think to build any such thing!”
Needless to say, I was aghast at this revelation.
At this juncture I was starting to second-guess my decision to leave auntie’s little hellhole. (Second-guessing yourself is a very unfashionable look.) I have resolved to fix this problem myself, the elder’s tasks be damned. Personal hygiene first, so-called “defensive necessities” much later.
Give my heartfelt support to uncle.
Love has uttered my name and my heart has warmed to its fragrant breath!
It has been several days since I climbed the tabletop mountain. In this time I have claimed a space to put up the tent I purchased with the last of my moneys.
I’ve spent my waking hours planning how to make my thermal hot spring a reality. A friendly evoker with geological inclinations informed me this mesa consists of something called “dissected lava flows”, hinting towards the existence of a subterranean well.
“So all we need,” I extrapolated, “is a piping system running hundreds of meters deep to allow the boiling water into my gorgeous bath environment?”
The geologist saw all sorts of difficulties in this plan and was keen to magesplain them to me. “There’s the difficulty of locating the water first, and digging a hole isn’t easy. Plus, if we’re not careful, we’ll create an access point into the refuge. I doubt the elder will support this.”
“I have the elder’s complete confidence in the matter,” I lied magnificently, which is always preferable to telling a dismal truth.
Having pumped the geologist for the information I needed, I set out to charter professionals for the job. My thinking on this was extremely clear: the best water-dowsers would naturally be people born in the driest of lands. I asked around and was directed to someone called Desert Mouse. A promisingly arid name.
Finding her in this shantytown was another ordeal altogether. The place is lousy with shacks and unkempt adventurers, sharpening their axes or peddling wares.
I finally found her sitting on the edge of the cliff, feet dangling over the landscape.
“You have the pleasure of acquainting yourself with Roland of Stendhall,” I said casually. “Are you Desert Mouse?”
Then she turned around and her languorous eyes cast a net over my whole being. Though her mouth was veiled, eyelashes longer than sunflowers swayed at me and her pupils were eclipsed moons drawing me in.
“What of it?”
For the sake of readability I will pretend I spoke the following coherently: “I heard you hail from the water-starved places of our world and need your help in getting to a well deep beneath the earth’s crust.”
“I assure you, my intentions are genuine! Wouldn’t you like to, ahh, bathe together, I mean, on your own, if you want, but we might also—”
See, it’s impossible to even pretend I wasn’t fumbling through the conversation.
“If it’ll get you out of my hair,” she sighed at last, “I’ll help you if you assist me first. I have a friend convalescing in the healer’s tent. I want to have a custom shield made for her, but she mustn’t know it’s coming. You seem like the sort who could tease out what kind she’d love and order it into production.”
“I am certainly that sort!”
She turned to the view again, ignoring me wholly.
Now let it be known that Roland of Stendhall is an equal-opportunity love-maker. I’ve always held that it would be monstrous to deprive half of the scant human population left of my affections, so I distribute it among men and women alike; but in this my heart was simply unable to resist. My passions are so easily captured! Desert Mouse has given me the coldest shoulder to date and I want her all the more for it.
My love to you, cousins, and in the spirit of generosity a kiss on auntie’s cheek as well.
Your favorite scamp
Have you ever been to a healer’s tent? Let me soil your imagination with the following picture: it’s worse than our pigsty on sausage day.
I headed into this most dismal of places.
“May have your attention?” I announced.
Twenty unfortunates laying on cots all turned their blighted faces my way and were healed the moment they set eyes on me.
“I’m on a mission of mercy. Is there a Dottir here?”
A physician pointed me to a section of the tent where the long-stay patients rested. There I found her. It was obvious that this Dottir had once been a fierce woman, one who’d fill me with a modicum of worry between the sheets—but not an unpleasant modicum. Now, however, she looked withered away.
I started my fib: “I’ve been sent here by the refuge’s historian. Could you tell me what happened and, specifically, your favored equipment?”
Dottir spoke with long pauses where she struggled through some inner anguish.
I’ll spare you her full tale, which was quite dreadful. All mountain monsters and sticking flesh parts together and it was sausage day all over again.
“A shield-maiden flubbing her shield, what a joke.” She finally got to the useful part. “Couldn’t even manage a half-tower, they should’ve just given me a wooden buckler and sent me off.”
That was all I got from her, so I thanked her and when I stood outside the tent I reviewed my notes and realized I don’t know the first thing about shields. Thinking only of Desert Mouse, I resolved to bluff my way through the whole venture. Where my knowledge of shields was lacking, I would just have to take it to an expert.
Plumes of dark smoke served as my beacon. I traipsed around the alleyways, following the exhaust fumes back to its source: “Chiani’s Forge”, or so the sign said. Inside, the air was dense with evaporated metals.
“Excuse me, I need a shield crafted.”
In the center of the smithy stood a giant furnace with flames blasting a stone fire pot. The forge-mistress stood beside it, her face protected by a mask. She held a pair of tongs and carried a slab of metal from the conflagration into a slack tub, where it hissed.
“What kind?” she asked.
“That’s something of a mystery.”
I relaxed and leaned onto the equipment, depressing one of the bellows. Without warning the fire leapt into action. Chiani gave me a glare.
“You’ll need to be a bit more specific.”
“It’s for a friend in the healer’s tent. It’s a secret. A present.”
“Square, round, metal or wood, fortified, type of frame, rivets, weight, runes or jewels, straight or curved?”
Chiani brought the tempered iron to an anvil and took hold of a blacksmith’s hammer that was itself a work of art. Under its relentless din, I tried to guess the right attributes.
“Let’s make it a nice big shield... with a horizontal curve... something pretty on the inside, silk or lace... the outside should be iron, but beautiful too. Maybe sparkly gemstones along the rim. Can we color it? Is taupe too drab? Make it mauve.”
“Strangest shield ever, but fine. The price is three hundred sparks, one hundred up front. It’ll be ready in two weeks.”
I was rooted to the floor. Money! I had completely forgotten about it! Had Desert Mouse set me up into paying for her expensive gift? Was she laughing at me right now? I felt keenly stupid—as I am very, VERY broke and destitute!
Please send an allowance as soon as you read this.
To all enraptured readers,
Love dares you to do the unthinkable. To cough up the required fortune for the damnable shield, I had no recourse but to humiliate myself.
I stepped up to the elder’s abode. His hut is the nexus of decision-making in the refuge. Its people come here for guidance, reprimands and to beg for coin. Well, I do, at least. I hoped I might persuade the old man to lend me a sizeable sum.
His court was occupied by several people. I brushed past the handsome bird-master in charge of aerial communication lines, the cartographer drawing perfect circles on a map, an old woman in furs, and then faced the elder.
He looked at me angrily. “I have no time for you, wizard.”
I forget, did I tell you in an earlier letter that the elder was kind and even a bit submissive to me? That was a falsehood—the man is positively intimidating.
“And,” he added, “I have no men to spare for you either, matriarch.”
The woman, who I now saw to be blind, huffed. “I suppose you have this lot fooled with your busywork. You’ve lost the guts to send your people into danger.”
“Watch your tongue.”
“All this effort to build a wall. Fortification is a coward’s strategy.”
“If that’s supposed to motivate me to lend you a hand...”
“It’s supposed to insult you enough to wake you out of your stupor.”
Their back-and-forth, though delightful to be privy to, went on and on. Even the bird-master rolled his eyes. It was obvious to both of us: these people were engaged in some elaborate mating ritual that neither of them was willing to admit.
I interrupted their bickering. “If I may, drawing on many years of conflict resolution...”
This certainly got their attention.
“It seems to me the root of your problem is that the refuge needs all its hands to build its defenses, while the wolf tribe has use for additional fighters. As there’s a daily influx of new adventurers, why not split these evenly among yourselves? It is a small sacrifice for you, elder, as it will still further your construction efforts, while it will prove invaluable to your campaign, oh lofty matriarch.”
Wodania appraised the plan and found it satisfactory. The elder, however, had to give in first.
“That’s,” he stopped squirming, “acceptable.”
“Let’s shake on it.”
She stepped forward and unerringly took hold of the elder’s right meat hook. They shook hands and she left, her feathers-and-fur coat swaying gracefully.
(Let’s just hope they quickly get to sleeping with each other, relieving an un-Titanly amount of tension.)
Having the elder’s private attention, it became time to disgrace myself.
“I have a small request. I am in dire need of lucre—not for myself—and I’d like to make a demand on the refuge’s coffers. Three hundred sparks should suffice.”
The elder looked at me as if I’d just slapped him.
“Is this your reason for mediating? To extort me for money?”
“No, absolutely not! Think of it as a retainer! And I’ll gladly perform any chore that needs choring.”
Why did I say that?! I hate chores! My life has become a string of chores of late!
But the words were spoken and the elder produced the seediest glint I’ve ever seen in someone’s eye. “I’ll put you on a retainer alright. A hundred up front and then every month, but you’ll work for it. Your first task will be to check in with our blight scribe, Korrus. Anything he needs, you arrange for him.”
I left the elder’s hut in something of a daze. I have the blacksmith’s ransom now, but heavier on my mind weighs the disastrous escalation of errands I’ve been sent on:
I need to become a servant to Korrus in order to get money from the elder, with which I can pay Chiani to forge a shield for Dottir, all so I can impress Desert Mouse into making her locate—the hot spring! I almost forgot about the bloody hot spring!
To all those sold into servitude,
With hesitation I stepped into the library that served as the evoker’s home. The place was impossibly dusty. No sooner had I entered, than Korrus yelled at me.
“Close the flap, you fool!”
Yes, Titans forbid a breath of fresh air might pump some livability in this place!
But it wouldn’t do to antagonize the bastard straight away. I pulled the canvas taut and ran a rope through the lower loops. Korrus was hidden behind piles of books. I inched my way through the labyrinth and bowed with a flourish.
“I am Roland of Stendhall.”
“That is of no concern to me, young man.”
“I’ve been sent here to offer you,” I swallowed, “my services.”
He put down the magnifying glass, having peered at the minutiae of a priceless jewel lit by multiple candles on his desk. “How is your memory?”
“What is the root of seven hundred thirty-nine?”
“Is this a rhetorical question?”
“Please state all the volumes you saw upon entry, in order of verticality, starting with the bottom ones going up.”
“You mean those stacks of tomes? Auntie tried to get me to read once and it was an absolutely... undecipherable experience.”
Korrus sighed hard and pinched his nose. “Then you are of no use to me at all. Go away.”
Frankly, that was the best command I had received all week. Finally, someone who didn’t want a piece of me.
“In that case, I am terribly sorry to have disturbed your pursuits, oh lofty magus—”
I was already halfway out when the scribe interjected: “If you’re keen to help, however, go and find me a proper assistant. Someone who can add numbers together and has some rudimentary powers of observation and retention.”
And with that grand insult imbibed, cousins, I was on my merry way! Fortune had smiled on me again: if I could just find an aide for the cantankerous wizard, I’d be able to pocket the elder’s monthly stipend without doing any of the work.
Out of all the hundreds of potential servants in the refuge, though, how was I to locate the right specimen for Korrus? After interviewing three ruffians, one uncouth ne’er-do-well and no less than five inveterate barbarians, my desperation peaked.
“Impossible!” I fulminated, migrating between campsites.
Then, if you’ll believe it, out of the shadow of a crooked pillar stepped a woman perfect for the role: charmless, bespectacled and utterly brainy. She nearly tripped over a rock as she approached and her small dog tried to leap from her arms to bite me, barking.
“I’m so sorry,” she apologized, cradling the pet in her arms. “I couldn’t help overhearing you.”
“That’s quite alright. Eavesdropping is one of the finer virtues.”
“I came here with a caravan of others. I’m no use on the battlefield, but anxious to earn my keep. You were saying something about employment?”
I straightened my cape. “Yes! Tell me, how well can you count? Say, divide a hundred million by... a hundred!”
“That’s a million.”
I’ve never seen someone juggle such large numbers so effortlessly! I hired her on the spot and led her to the blight scribe. Korrus submitted her to a real test, of course, but lo and behold—she passed it. The lady, who introduced herself as Hildegard, thanked me.
Feeling pleased with myself, I bid them adieu and absconded.
Having performed all my required duties, I was ready to confront my love again.
Desert Mouse, kindling to the bonfire of my passions, was visiting the armory, where an old man rushed to and fro with her collection of murder tools.
“My lady, I return!”
“Ah, you’re that man I asked to get Dottir’s shield. Did you?”
“I most certainly did. I gave the blacksmith her advance and she fired up the old blast furnace right away.”
Desert Mouse pulled down her face mask and smiled. It was the first time I saw her lips.
“Then I thank you, mage.”
“No trouble at all, and please call me Roland.”
She bowed courteously to me, then her veil went back up and she returned to her inspection.
I cleared my throat.
“Desert Mouse, I hate to interrupt you, but there is the matter of our agreement.”
Stupid, stupid! This wasn’t supposed to be a transaction, but a prelude to romance! Woo her, you idiot!
“You’re right. Sorry, I’ve got a lot on my mind. There’s another town out there and we think it’s overrun by vespers looking to spread their, err, whatever their religion is. Tentacles, I guess.” She selected two daggers, one of which glowed with the inner light of Aetheri manufacture, and had the rest stored in the armory. “Lead the way.”
I brought Desert Mouse to the spot the geologist had examined.
“So,” I said genially, “do you require any sort of dowsing apparatus?”
“To find the water source?”
The young woman leaned down and placed her hand on the ground. She closed her eyes. I felt mystical force gathering around us. The hair on my arms stood on end.
“Not a clue,” she announced.
The energies dissipated, or maybe I had been imagining them. “Come again?”
“I have no idea where there’s water here. I mean, I said I’d help you, but I figured you knew where the well was located and needed a hand with the excavation.”
“Well, no, I gathered, I mean, I thought, with your persuasion...”
“You thought I could sniff out a pool of water hidden hundreds of meters inside a mountain?”
“Yes! On the grounds of you being from the desert.”
Desert Mouse fell silent and gave me a disturbing look.
“I assure you,” so started my salvage operation, “I have only the utmost respect for you, in fact, I adore you, I think you’re the prettiest flower on this garbage heap of a refuge.”
She scowled at me. “I like this place. Don’t call my home a garbage heap.”
“Ah!” (I was now reduced to cries of raw emotion.)
“If you think like that, maybe you should leave. A hot spring won’t change who we are, and it certainly won’t change what you are.”
Letting me stew in my misery, Desert Mouse stomped off. Or flitted, really, I shouldn’t lie about her effortless elegance in motion—not even after ripping out my heart.
The gloomiest man alive
Let me tell you what happened the night after Desert Mouse rejected me.
I slumped back to my tent and spent some time moping and rifling through my wardrobe, when suddenly there was a proverbial knock on the door.
It was the bird-master from the elder’s throne room.
Had I mentioned he was quite the looker? Nice jawline, good shoulders, and he moved with a commanding grace I suspect is necessary if you’re looking to order hawks around.
“You’re Roland of Stendhall, right?” he asked. “We met the other day.”
“I recall I brushed past you, yes.”
“In my coop there’s a nest full of eggs that are about to hatch. Want to come look?”
I tried to discern whether this was a joke, but the bird-master gazed at me with unmistakable earnestness. There was something else sparkling in his eyes besides. Shrugging off my tiring melancholy, I allowed him to lift me up by the hand with a smile.
For some reason, I’ve always been much more in my element being the wooed party, rather than the reverse.
He took me to his coop, nestled in the top of a wooden tower. There I was witness to a new generation of hawklings being born, and it filled me with appreciation for nature. Then the bird-master and I hit the hay, which filled me with something else altogether.
Reminiscing on this strange week of mine, I’ve come to a bizarre conclusion. I might just have found the right place for me. Tell auntie I probably won’t be coming home anytime soon.
Cousins, I love you all.