The sharp smell from Ethnila’s stew filled the air of the small shelter, bringing with it memories of home. It had been a long time since she’d last cooked, and she didn’t really have the right ingredients available this far from home, but at least it smelled somewhat passable.
The fire warmed her cheeks and chased away the chill of the damp air, its flames crackling quietly behind the dull thrumming of raindrops against the roof. An old man was curled up asleep on a pile of furs in one corner of the cramped shack, a traveler already there when they arrived; his only movement the steady rise and fall of his chest.
“You say you bought these in Zoryx?” Across the fire Loriana was looking at the sticks with curiosity. “I’ve never heard of eating utensils like these before, so I’m surprised they’re from so close by.”
“No, no. Like this.” Between them Marnius shook his head, showing again how to hold them. “The peddler who sold me my first set had found them at the bazaar in Zheath’s Hold, but whether they are Aernuan or from elsewhere I do not know. No matter whence they came, I find it easier to whittle new ones when I need them than to acquire forks and spoons that fit my big hands.”
Ethnila watched from the corner of her eye as Imaerla, sitting across from Marnius and a little further from the fire than the rest, quietly copied the grip. She picked up their use surprisingly quickly, but perhaps that was simply her natural dexterity.
Marnius grabbed his bowl and took a few gentle sniffs at its contents. “This has quite the pleasant aroma, lady Ethnila.”
“Indeed, my compliments,” came Imaerla’s voice. The woman was eating quite heartily, showing a surprising fondness for the spicy food. “It reminds me of a… porridge, I believe is the word. With cinder root and…” She turned to Loriana to ask for a translation of some fey word, but received only a shrug in reply. “My mentor used to make it when I-” Her features suddenly hardened as she steeled herself, pushing aside some unhappy thought or painful memory.
A sudden gasp from Marnius drew everyone’s attention then, followed by dry coughing as he struggled to breathe.
“Surely you’re kidding, Marn? It can’t be that bad?” Loriana laughed, struggling to pick up a piece of carrot before giving up and just putting the bowl to her lips and pushing the food into her mouth. She raised her eyebrows in a look of ‘what’s all the fuss’, but a heartbeat later she began blinking profusely as her eyes began watering.
Apparently, Denesh food was not for everyone.
Ethnila felt the slightest twitch pull at the corner of her mouth as she watched Imaerla help herself to another bowl of food while the others were still recovering. At least someone appreciated her homeland’s cuisine, however poorly cooked it was.
The old man in the corner let out harrumph as he cleared his throat, then slowly rolled over and grudgingly pulled himself into a sitting position. He sniffed at the air, then took a deep breath and licked his lips before turning to look bleary-eyed at the group.
“Oh… Uhm… Evening, travellers,” he said, squinting against the light. “I do not suppose there is, in your fair pot, enough food to share with a poor skald?”
Marnius, still wheezing slightly, held out his bowl to the man with a warm smile. “Careful, it has heat quite unlike the usual spices of the region.”
The old man gingerly plucked up a piece of meat with his fingers and plopped it in his mouth, chewing it thoughtfully while colour rose to his cheeks. There was an air about him as he sat there that Ethnila didn’t like, but she couldn’t put her finger on why.
“Spicy, if a touch discordant, but I imagine that with proper balance and fresh ingredients it would be quite tasty,” he said after a while, then promptly drained his bowl of its contents with such haste that plenty ended up on his shirt and in the tangled mess of his chest-length beard.
“I apologize if we woke you,” Marnius offered, trying to draw the man into conversation.
He flashed a gap-toothed grin at the large man and waved dismissively. “Not at all, not at all. I am in your debt for this meal, and as I have little to offer but my talents as a skald, may I suggest remuneration in the form of a song?”
“Oh, think nothing of it.” It was Loriana’s turn to wave dismissively. “We have plenty, and expect nothing in return for sharing a simple meal.”
The man smiled at her, but it was a forced smile meant to cover something more than express any joy. “No, no, I insist,” he replied, then took a deep breath and launched into song before anyone could argue.
Accompanied by the drumming of rain against the door, his deep voice held an almost haunting quality as he began to weave the tale of a wyrm living deep within the forests. A mighty beast with thick scales and vicious fangs, yet a heart filled with sorrow. The ballad spoke of how this wyrm fought a fierce battle against adventurers, leaving it wounded and waiting to die.
The next verse told of a maiden fair that found the beast and cared for its wounds, bringing into its life a light to ease the pain of its heart as well as the wounds upon its body. Yet the wyrm knew when the maiden left, it could not follow and soon its heart ached twice what it had ever done.
Then one day it found her once more, bathing in a stream. It watched her from the shadows, enraptured by her voice as she sang songs from beyond the forest. Day after day, it found her there, singing and relaxing in the clearing. And every day, men in strange clothes came to lead her away in the evenings.
The wyrm beseeched the forest, pleading of it for a way to follow the maiden when she left at night. And the forest listened. For deep within its shadows were faeries playing games, and hearing the wyrm’s desperate plea, they came to him. And they made him an offer, that they would grant him the power to follow the maiden out of the forest, but only once.
For the fey always make a trade, and when next he set foot in a forest he would be bound within it forever more. And the wyrm, heedless of the price, agreed. The faeries swarmed about him, and the next day he waited in the clearing for the maiden, no longer forced to hide in the shadows. And when the maiden returned the next day, she found not a wyrm hiding in the shadows but a man waiting amidst the grass and flowers.
That evening, the wyrm traveled with the maiden into human lands, only to find them strange and unwelcoming. Yet he refused to leave, and the next day when the maiden went to the forest again he stayed behind in the village. Without the maiden there, the strange men grew hostile and drove the wyrm away.
Night after night, the wyrm sought a way back into the village to meet the maiden, but each time was driven back by the men in strange clothes. Until one night, he found the maiden’s house empty. Fearful of the villagers’ glances, the wyrm dared not ask where she had gone and instead returned to his forest.
Heartbroken and hopeless, he stood on a hill taking one last look at the human world. And there he saw her, far away surrounded by men in strange clothes, all riding horses. So he ran. Day after day, he followed them. Never catching up but determined not to lose the maiden again. For many months he tracked them, until one day he found himself in a new forest.
It was a strange forest, one of flowers he had never smelled and filled with animals he had never eaten. In the forest he found a city filled with people in strange clothes. And in the forest city he found the maiden. Yet in their reunion, he awoke the jealousy of another who would have the maiden. One who would claim her by sword, and in doing so mortally wounded the wyrm.
As he lay there in a strange land, crippled and dying anew, the wyrm saw the jealous man drag the maiden away against her will and he beseeched the forest, as he had done once before. Yet this time the faeries refused, telling him that he had not yet repaid the debt of their last deal. And so the wyrm passed, leaving the maiden fair to be rescued by another.
But the forest had heard his plea and though the faeries soon forgot all about the wyrm, the trees did not. Years later, when the maiden called out for a champion to save her when evil seized the city, the forest responded by sending her the spirit of the wyrm. And there he fought valiantly, finally saving the maiden fair and allowing her to escape from the city.
But in the ruins of the forest city he was trapped, bound within it as payment to the faeries that had once set him free. For fey, they always collect on their debts.
Throughout the ballad, Ethnila had felt magic creeping through the shelter. Slithering in shadows that seemed to move on their own, flying on the notes of the man’s song, and filling the air with its stench; yet it was too weak for her to properly understand its source or its purpose. All she could make out was that it was the magic of dreams.
“The lady seems to know Charren better than she has lead us to believe.” Marnius leaned close to Ethnila and threw a meaningful glance at Imaerla.
Ethnila didn’t take her eyes off the skald, but nodded all the same. “She followed the tale easily, though the magic may have helped. I had less trouble than usual, too. I believe she may know it, though a different version. One without a maiden, at least in part.”
“I wonder what other secrets she keeps,” he mumbled, straightening out before addressing the old man. “That was quite the tale, sir bard. And skillfully applied magic, if I may offer my humble opinion. I do not believe I have heard the story before. Is it local?”
“It is the Ballad of Wyrm’s Wood. I have been told it tells of how the place got its name.” He shrugged. “I don’t know that it is much true, though. I’ve never heard of any forest city in there, for one. I do find it good tale about the importance of paying one’s dues, either way.”
“I prefer the tale of the Founding, myself,” Loriana said. “It’s a touch darker, but not so sad.”
“The Founding?” Imaerla seemed more curious about this tale than she had the other, and Marnius looked to be interested as well. Ethnila, however, had heard enough tales for one evening and decided to curl up in her bedroll in an attempt to sleep.
As she lay there half-slumbering, she heard Loriana regale the others with the story of how some king arrived in the land long ago. About how he made a deal with the spirits of some haunted graveyard, and how he failed to uphold his end of the bargain and so his wife was claimed by the spirits. And of how he had disappeared and now stalked the land in search of souls to pay his debt by joining his kingdom of the dead, and only the rule of his rightful heirs would keep him from claiming all that had owed him allegiance in life.
It was a story Ethnila had been told by many a peasant during her travels through the region, though she had to admit that Loriana told it far better, and in a way that made it far more vivid than even the old man’s song had felt.
Indeed, the others seemed to feel the same way, for the campfire was kept well fed that night.