A Stranger in These Lands

Submitted into Contest #161 in response to: Write about a character who lives a seemingly charmed life.... view prompt

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Fantasy Adventure

The farmer that picks me up notices immediately that I am a foreigner. Though my long, hooded cloak is nondescript, his careful eye lingers on the fine embroidery of my long-sleeved shirt, the glint of metal beneath it. He says nothing about what he sees or assumes; I see him eyeing the space beneath his legs and surmise that there is a weapon there. Nearly an hour passes without him speaking to me.


“Is this your first time traveling through Avern lands, madam?” he asks, not turning around. The cart carries us over a large stone in the road. I brace against the farmer’s boxed goods.


“Yes,” I said.


“Traveling further than Athant?” he inquires. The mare, a large, bay draft horse, plods on, swishing its tail at flies. The day is just heating up, and the horse will be happy to stop for water soon. I have been hearing the trickling sounds of a stream.


“I may be,” I reply shortly. Then, because there is a chance he has the information I need, I go further.


“I’m looking for someone. A wizard by the name of Hyto. Have you heard of him?”


The farmer turns to look at me, assessing me openly. His eyes fall on the armor breastplate hidden beneath my shirt, and he sighs. He doesn’t know that the armor is secondhand. I had plucked it from a fallen foe. It was intact despite the many times I struck him. Oddly, it fits my form perfectly.


“Aye, lady, I do know of him.”


I lean forward, keenly interested. The next part of my adventure is about to unfold.


“Do you know where I can find him?”


The farmer purses his lips, considers what details he should let slip. I have already given him a golden piece for this ride, and I consider giving him a second. But he shrugs to himself and speaks.


“I cannot in good faith fail to warn you: the Wizard Hyto claimed residence in the hills to the west of Athant months ago. Since then, it is rumored that he preys on the city’s children, grinding their bones for his spells. You aren’t the first would-be hero passing through here. Would be a shame to die as the others did.”


He returns his gaze to his horse’s ears and the road beyond.


“Why do you warn me?” I ask. “I’d heard for every hero he slays, he spares a child.”


“He spares neither child nor adult,” the farmer replies bitterly, spitting off the left side of the cart. “Would be a pity to die for nothing. Brave you may be, and talented, but no man or woman has killed him yet, nor gotten close.”


The road ahead curves to the left around a lake. The sound of a stream gets louder, and I see the source – a bubbling brook that feeds into the otherwise vast and placid lake. The farmer utters a word to the horse, and we pull off to the side and come to a stop beneath the shelter of a tall oak tree near the edge of the lake. I get out and wordlessly help the farmer release his horse from the cart. He walks her to a small pine tree and loosely ties her to the trunk so that she can drink from the stream and graze among the shore grass and undergrowth.


Milling around, I discover a small box near the shore. I remove my hand-ax from its leather straps at my side and hack open the wooden frame. Inside, I find apples, cheese, and bread, as well as a rare healing potion. One can never have too many healing potions (the capacity to store them is problematic, though), so I slip the potion into my bag.


“Here,” I say, my arms full of goods. “Let’s have lunch while your horse rests.” The farmer nods, and we both sit beneath the oak tree.

The farmer doesn’t thank me and we both dig into the food in near-silence. There are so many boxes with food and goods in the countryside, it’s a wonder anyone starves. Birds take flight across the lake, their chirps and squawks the only sound beyond chewing.


“These are the days of rumor,” the farmer says, swallowing a piece of bread. “Rumors of wizards and wild magic. Rumors of prophecies being fulfilled in these dire times. How is a person to know truth from rumor?”


I say nothing, so he continues.


“Rumor has it the great beast Nevive has been seen again after generations. Rumor has it that these are end times – fire and famine and drought afflict every known land. But rumor also has it that there is someone who can fight, who can save us. A man doesn’t know what to believe.” The farmer looks at his hands, strong, calloused hands, and wipes the crumbs on his pant leg.


I am about to response to his strange speech when the first arrow hits the trunk above our heads.


“We’re under attack!” I scream. We both take cover in the slope of the shore, and the mare whinnies in fear and pulls at her rope as more arrows descend.


“In the tree line running along the shore!” the farmer screams. He’s right – and has a spotter’s tact for it. I file this information away for later and draw a bow from my back. It snaps into the right shape and I’ve already loosed two arrows when the farmer runs ahead, toward the tree line.


“Come on,” he shouts. “We have to expose their cover or we’ll never be rid of them.” Without confirmation from me, he continues darting, sometimes crawling, up the shoreline. I follow closely until I can see the first of them – brigands, by their mismatched style of clothing. I draw out an arrow, aim, and fire – but the brigand isn’t stopped by the blow. With the arrow in his shoulder, he runs toward us, screaming. The farmer stabs him once, then again, with a large dagger. So that’s what his hidden weapon had been back at the cart.


Another brigand comes screaming out after her companion. She doesn’t seem to see him, dead on the ground, and stomps on him. The crossbow in her hand is replaced with a dagger, fierce and jagged, and she engages me. I pull out my ax and swing it toward her. It hits her in the arm, and I swing again, and again, until she has fallen in a pool of blood. The farmer looks at me and nods, his dagger still raised.


I am bending down to see if there is anything of interest on the brigands’ bodies when a loud roar and shuffling sound comes from deeper in the copse of trees the brigands had staged their attack from. The farmer and I don’t have to wait long to see the source of the horrific noise – a beast with grey fur and black scales emerges from the forest, its dried-blood-brown eyes wetly taking us in before charging. I keep the ax ready in my right hand, and with my left fumble for a potion. My fingers alight on the right one. I toss the brown glass container at the beast precisely at a moment it shrieks so loudly I think my ears will burst. The farmer cowers, his dagger over his head. For a minute, I worry about the potion – was it strong enough? Will it kill the monstrosity before it can sink its teeth into my soft flesh? But then the beast howls, this time in pain, and begins to bubble. It falls to its knees, if the twisted knobs beneath its scales can be called that, and its breath rattles and slows. It dies quickly. I peer at the creature, not knowing if there is anything salvageable beneath its stinking hide.


“You killed a craycaw,” says the farmer breathlessly beside me. He is wheezing every couple of breaths.


“Can I sell the teeth? Does the blood have any magical properties?” I query him.


“The teeth were once used in spells,” he replies, catching his breath. “But no one has killed a craycaw in generations.” The farmer looks at me with a new respect, then realizes I have caught him staring. He buckles to his knees and lowers his head. In an instant, I gather the craycaw’s teeth and secure them in my bag. It is none the heavier, despite each tooth being as large as my fist.


"My lady," he says in a low tone. “I can see you are made of sterner, rarer stuff than I had thought."


“You managed yourself well in the heat of the fight,” I reply, pleased at his obeisance. “I assume you have some training? Strange for a farmer, but these are strange times, as you’ve said.”


He chuckles as he lifts himself to a standing position. “In my younger years, yes. And although I told you I am a farmer, I lied. I am Earl of these Avern lands, and I make it my business to meet and monitor any strangers or strange things traversing my land. But none are stranger than you – prophecy brought to life.” He is looking at me again, his eyes soft like one who has seen a miracle.


“Which prophecy?” I ask, knowing the main one I’m supposed to be the incarnation of – the Widow Goddess, who rights the balance against evil and remakes the five territories. I’ve had that one lobbed at me by nobles and peasants alike since slaying the dragon that was menacing Tyriac.


“A family legend,” he says smiling. “Of a shining lady who would save the last true heir to the throne of Athant from Nevive, a craycaw.” He bowed at the waist. “I am the last true heir. I have no children.” He doesn't explain why he is Earl, and not King, and I don't ask. Better to not get sidetracked from my mission.


“Lady,” he continues. “I have an heirloom to bestow upon you, now that I can see you were destined to cross my path. Perhaps you are destined, then, to slay the wizard, and begin eliminating the great evils that have crept up from each craw and crevice of the five territories.” He pulls a necklace, a ruby encased in silver hung from a thick silvery chain.


“This is the Heart of Bastow,” he proclaims. “It will protect you from fire. You will need it to kill the wizard.” He hands the necklace to me. I put it around my neck, liking the thudding sound it makes when it strikes my armor. I pull out a list and check off “Obtain Heart of Bastow”. It’s the last thing I need to do before accepting the bounty the King of Athant had secretly placed on the wizard’s head.


***

A shiver goes through me as we cross into Athant. The sounds of the city are immediate and nearly overwhelming as the Earl pulls into building with a small courtyard.


“My sister’s place,” he explains, then turns and enters the front door. Inside, the sounds of drinking and eating prevail over the lonely notes of a harp.


The Earl’s sister had called a conference of the area’s top merchants earlier in the day, and they gamble, eat, and drink at her expense now. Much business had been settled earlier, she explains to us as we find a seat at one of the tables.


I wander around, listening in on the merchants’ conversations. Finding a leather merchant at the end of our table, I discover he happens to have a steel-reinforced pair of boots for sale that are exactly my size. I purchase them and move on to the next merchant – a woman with a small, button nose, and big purple eyes that mark her as an apothecary of the magical sort. She agrees to sell me a firebolt spell and a potion that will heal wizard’s shock. Remarkable to find both here in the city beneath the wizard’s lair.


When I am done buying from the merchants, the fire grows dim. I am shown to my bed, and I sleep deeply and dreamlessly.


The Earl’s sister wakes me in the middle of the night. Thunder rumbles, and lightning casts pale strips of light on her face through the window.


“I know what you’re here to do,” she says. “The time is now – the wizard is out of his tower and seeking children. Go now to his tower and lie in wait. Attack him when he returns. It’s your only chance.”


I had fallen asleep completely clothed and armored, as I always do, so I run immediately from the household. Skirting a square, I notice the source of the lightning – Hyto is using it to attack a house. He stands some seven feet tall, and his face is lit with the fury of the storm. He doesn’t see me as I wind my way through the side of the square and creep up into the foothills.


It isn’t long before I find the tower, and in fact a sign announces its name to me: Hyto’s Tower. I sneak into the unlocked front door and climb up two narrow sets of stairs. At the tower’s top, I find Hyto’s laboratory – the remnants of charred bone are scattered on a long table, and potions are secured behind a locked, framed-glass cabinet.


I hear Hyto arrive behind me, clamoring for the stolen children to climb the steps, and I prepare my firebolt spell. The children – a boy and a girl – ascend the stairs before he does. They see me and somehow understand what is about to happen – they dash for cover behind a table in the far side of the room. Hyto enters the room next, and the onslaught begins.


I throw a firebolt at him, and he returns with wizard’s fire. The necklace protects me from the fire, but not from what comes next: a blast of ice so cold, I feel my bones begin to warp. Stifling a scream, I cast another firebolt at him as I take a healing potion. Momentarily relieved, I hack at him with my ax, but this doesn’t damage him much. He rounds on me casting ice again, and I suffer. I dig in my bag for my last healing potion and drink it – casting fire, and then tossing poison at him. A purple cloud surrounds him. The poison is doing its work, but not fast enough. He casts the ice at me again, and this time, I have no more healing potion. My bones warp, then snap, and he howls in victory, even as the poison eats his skin from his face. My last image is of his ghastly eyes, the lids torn away, and his howling laughter.



I am restored at the entrance to Athant. The Earl pulls his horse up to his sister’s house and hops heavily out of the cart. “My sister’s place,” he explains.


I will get another chance to slay the wizard Hyto. I am the prophesied Widow Goddess, and I will fulfill my mission, no matter how many deaths it takes me. 

August 30, 2022 19:52

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14 comments

Carolyn Brown
15:21 Sep 09, 2022

I got the idea of the game the minute she "milled around" and came up with a box full of food. Then, reading back, I caught a lot of clues that should have tipped me off sooner, like the armor, oddly undamaged, fitting perfectly. Your style conveyed the slightly stilted movement of a game (not that I've played many, but I remember that they suddenly introduce items and information of use). You used a lot of subtle humour based on the game format, and I think you could play with even more. Like, after she sleeps, she could awake fully rec...

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Jen La Plante
19:29 Sep 09, 2022

Thank you! Yes, after I first submitted it, I had similar thoughts about making it more apparent. Something for me to think about in a rewrite.

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Kathleen Fine
21:05 Sep 07, 2022

I'm not much of a fantasy reader, but I enjoyed reading this. Nice work!

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Jen La Plante
19:29 Sep 09, 2022

Thank you, Kathleen!

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Graham Kinross
11:04 Sep 06, 2022

This reads a bit like a Skyrim novel, the spells, the necklace of fire immunity. Is she in a computer game? It feels like that. I like that she can respawn. Interesting plot device, probably better to work it in early so that it doesn’t feel like a deus ex machina.

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Jen La Plante
21:58 Sep 06, 2022

She is a character in a game! I was trying to show how game characters live "charmed" existences - they are essentially "the one" and can respawn and find food and resources easily. The notes of Skyrim were intentional :-). Thanks for the comments.

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Graham Kinross
22:01 Sep 06, 2022

Ok. The idea that she gets to have death as a learning experience is really interesting. They used that in Battlestar Galactica for the bad guys meaning that they got tougher every time because they learned the tactics of the people they were fighting. Is it the kind of story you’ll revisit? Not necessarily a sequel but something along the same lines or did this satisfy your interest?

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Graham Kinross
09:31 Sep 06, 2022

“He doesn’t know that the armor is secondhand. I had plucked it from a fallen foe. It was intact despite the many times I struck him. Oddly, it fits my form perfectly.” So the man she killed was wearing a woman’s armour or she has a masculine physique or they were both quite generic in frame?

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Jen La Plante
22:01 Sep 06, 2022

More commentary on how objects/loot in games automatically fit the character (and/or somehow fit in their bags) and no one really questions it.

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Graham Kinross
22:09 Sep 06, 2022

Yes. Some books I’ve read actually come up with a fantasy explanation for how people can carry all of that stuff, like a limitless sack. A bit like the suitcase the MC from Fantastic Beasts has.

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Jen La Plante
22:12 Sep 06, 2022

Or Mary Poppins

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Graham Kinross
22:58 Sep 06, 2022

I hadn’t thought of that! What did you think of the new one? I wasn’t really into it, weird to have someone who’s famous for writing great songs and to just have him singing in a really bad accent.

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Jen La Plante
23:51 Sep 06, 2022

I haven't seen the new one, tbh. I liked the other one so much as a child, and as an adult, it retains its charm (despite Dick Van Dyke's atrocious accent).

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