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Tag: Fantasy

Briars’ Rest Inn

Author’s Note: Good afternoon all! I’m trying something new. If you follow me on Instagram you’ll know that I make a lot of maps. I like making maps. It’s relaxing to me, but I wanted to try something a bit different. Instead of just posting up the map and a little blurb, I wanted to try actually writing out some details on the place. So, without further ado here is my first simple foray into that sort of thing – the Briars’ Rest Inn. If you are a TTRPG player or game master looking for inspiration, feel free to borrow or use anything below. If you use the maps or stories, I’d love to hear about them! Let me know what you all think of this new idea. Thanks!

And, all the images below were made in dungeondraft.

The Briars’ Rest Inn

The Briars’ Rest Inn is one of the last stops before the road fades into the forest, about a day’s ride out of town. It serves as an easy stop for those passing into or out of the woods. The Inn is rarely full of patrons but is frequented nightly by hunters and foresters.

The building is a simple wooden building, built from the local trees nearby. It isn’t particularly well maintained or well-built but serves its purpose and is sturdy enough to be a warm place for the night for those passing by. It stands off the long dirt road leading to and from the city. It is in a small clearing just shy of the forest itself, with a small creek about half an hour’s walk behind the Inn itself.

The tavern is of typical quality. There won’t be any outlandishly expensive or high-quality goods to be found there, but that isn’t its purpose. This place is merely a way stop; a safe place to rest for the night, a decent place to get some food or a few supplies, or just a stop to catch wind of the local rumors.

The People of the Briars’ Rest

The Inn Staff

A woman by the name of Ladria owns the Inn. She inherited it when her husband died. She is notably slender and sickly looking but has a kind voice. Her general appearance can be a bit off-putting. Those that know her do enjoy her company after speaking to her. She seems to enjoy little more than talking to those that pass by her Inn.

Her daughter, Varya, works as a waitress in the tavern. She is a bit less friendly than her mother. She wishes to visit the city but rarely gets the chance to do so. She can be a bit fiery compared to the rest of her family.

After her husband died, Ladria’s sister Saria came to help take care of the Inn. She generally tends to the business aspects of the Inn, and she cooks most of the meals. She rarely speaks to the clientele for much more than a moment or two, and when she does, people agree that she is sad and quiet.

All three women have very similar appearances, being that they are related. They all have long black hair and slender features. They tend to dress in simple clothes, and for protective purposes, each does carry a dagger or sap with them while working. Varya is a young adult, and Ladria and Saria are both middle-aged, with Ladria being the eldest sister. Both Saria and Ladria have deep green eyes, but Varya has brown eyes.

In addition to the family, two other employees live and work at the Inn. Perhaps the most common is Lesan, a young half-elf who serves as both a waiter and as the apprentice tavern keep. He does much of the work around the Inn that would generally fall to a hired hand – cleaning, preparation work, and the like. He also serves as the tavern’s inhouse minstrel, playing the pan flute some nights.

Finally, there is Rain, a Kenku of indeterminate age. He is quiet and doesn’t work on the front end of the establishment due to his trouble communicating. Primarily, he gathers firewood and watches over the Inn during the night. In the early mornings, he brews fresh teas for guests. He also serves as the first line of defense against the dangers of the forest when need be. Thanks to the local foresters, that part of his job have become less needed.

 

The Regulars

 Ceci is a halfling Forester from the city. She is an ill-tempered ranger with a dire rat companion and a penchant for violence. She is rarely cleaned up, generally sporting matted and dirty hair and grungy leather armor. Her crossbow and spiked mace never leave her side. She rarely has anything of use to give those passing through other than warnings that they aren’t ready for the dangers of the forest.

Gerta is Valdred’s long-suffering half-elfin daughter. She is young, not quite a teenager. The daughter spends her time stuck at the tavern helping the sisters cook. She is shy usually but has quite a lot of anger directed at her father when pushed. It has even set Ceci’s hair on end in the past.

Pallas is a human hedge wizard that lives nearby. He doesn’t often come to the tavern except to meet traders for needed goods. The wizard doesn’t much like the sisters but tolerates them. They’re kind to him though, inviting him in to wait for who-ever it is he meets nearby, especially during Rain or snow.

Togrish is a haughty dwarven adventurer who stops at the tavern on his adventures. He is a skilled warrior, more than able to hold his own against the dangers of the wilds beyond. He always has a good rumor to pass along and a drink in his hand. He seems kind enough, but the party with which he travels is never the same.  

Valdred is a local human farmer who spends more than his fair share of time drunk at the tavern. He is not very aware of the surroundings but comes to trade goods with the sisters and then stays and drinks himself stupid. The older man shouldn’t act like that and is likely a danger to himself, but his fresh food keeps the Inn stocked, so they give him a pass.

The Inn’s Offerings

Drinks

 Like any good tavern, the Briars’ Rest offers a few staple drinks.

Creekside Mead – The local Creekside Meadery in the city makes a rather strong drink with a significant bit of sweetness to cut the strength of the alcohol. It is a serviceable mead and goes well with a salty meal. It costs three copper per mug or two silver per bottle.

Goat’s Milk – This goat’s milk is fresh about once a week when a local farmer brings in a batch. Getting luck and getting it around then, it’ll be decent. But if you missed the delivery, it might be a few days old. A mug will set you back one copper.

Local Ale – For two copper pieces, one can order a mug of warm ale will. Its made locally and is of poor quality. One can taste the old barrels it was made in, but it isn’t the worst offering.

Rain’s Tea – Rain, the Kenku, makes tea in the mornings. It is a dandelion tea brewed fresh in the morning. It has an earthy taste and often has flakes of flower still floating in it – but it is warm and served with enough sugar to wake one up for sure. The price is two copper per pot.

Well Water – Fresh well water in a clean glass. The Inn serves it free for those that want it.

Worker’s Beer – Supplies fresh from the city. It sells the same beer it pays out to workers to the Inn. This stuff might as well be dirty water in taste, but one copper will get you two mugs.

Food

 The staff of the Inn makes food every day for themselves, and food to order for those visiting the tavern. It is subject to availability.

 Cabbage, Carrots, and Wild Onions – All grown by the sisters outside the tavern, these are generally fresh and ready when one wants it. They frequently served it baked but will grill them from time to time. A single serving will cost one copper.

Creek Trout, Salted – Stored in a salt rub and tossed in the fire when ordered, this Creek Trout is served with the skin. Usually, they only serve the smaller trout caught this way. As such, a single Salted Trout will cost one copper.

Creek Trout, Filet – A bit more time is put into the more delicate trout. They will be served grilled and with a side of Cabbage and Carrots. This meal will cost four copper per serving.

Creek Trout, Breaded – A rarity, but something the sisters are more than willing to cook when able. This meal is backed with breadcrumbs and goats milk to make a breaded fish filet. It is quite good, and foresters in the region swear by it. A single serving will cost five copper and is served with Cabbage and Carrots.

Goat Cheese and Curds – Made from the milk they have that isn’t quite going to make it, a serving of this cheese and curds will give a boost of much-needed protein to passersby. Generally, they suggest having it alongside the venison or bread but don’t charge much for it. A single serving costs three copper pieces.

Salted Venison – Brought in by local hunters, salted venison is a bit of a treat for the tavern. A single serving will cost three copper and does not come with anything. It isn’t always available, unfortunately.

Unleavened Bread – The sisters bake unleavened bread and serve it almost as rolls with food when requested. Each piece of unleavened bread costs one copper. The dough is incredibly bland.

Wildberries – The foresters and Rain often bring in wild berries that grow in the region. A handful of these will cost three copper pieces. They are tart but provide a good bit of flavor to an otherwise bland menu. Their tartness does not work well with the alcohol on offer, though.

Services

The Inn has a few services one would expect. A few standard rooms, private rooms, and baths for the weary traveler. Each with its own cost.

Craft, Bowyer – Rain is a skilled bowyer, and is generally happy to make arrows or repair bows as needed. The cost varies per task and the availability of supplies.

Common Room – Only two copper per night, and you’ll be set up in the larger common room upstairs, with a bed and a chest. The room has seven beds total, so it’s not unlikely that you’ll be sleeping alongside other visitors if there are any.

Drawn Bath, Simple – The Inn boasts a few simple baths. For one silver piece, the staff will draw a bath for you. The bathing chambers aren’t exactly private or luxurious, but the Inn does include pure soap with the tub. After a long trek through a dangerous forest, it can be quite relaxing.

Drawn Bath, Warm – The Inn staff will draw up a warm bath for those willing to pay a bit extra. For two silver pieces, you can enjoy a warm bath. Again, like the simple bath, it isn’t luxurious compared to other establishments.

Private Room, Large – For one silver piece per night, one can rent a large private room upstairs. This room has a larger bed able to accommodate at least a couple of sleepers, a full wardrobe, and a couple of windows overlooking the outside. The place is private with a door that does lock, but the Inn only has one such room available.

Private Room, Single – For five copper per night, one can rent a private room upstairs. This room just has a single bed, chest, and a window looking out of the tavern, but it is private. There are two available rooms.

Repairs, Tailoring – The sisters are skilled tailors and will repair items if needed. This service generally costs about a single silver per hour of work.

Rumors

There are always rumors in any given inn. Here are a few tales one might hear about the surrounding area.

A pack of Dire Wolves has been spotted around nearby farms and has been poaching livestock.

Gnoll raids have been uncomfortably frequent lately, and the city guards have put out a bounty for any gnolls brought down.

Rumors from the south edge of the forest are that hobgoblins have been training up local goblin tribes. Local authorities would pay for information on the situation.

Some foresters have told stories about stone statues being found deep within the darkest parts of the forest and otherworldly growls emanating from the area. Foresters are suggesting people leave the place be – but the rumor of a basilisk’s hide has brought a few monster hunters to the city.

Some merchants have been talking about a strange fellow who has been buying up arcane implements for a ritual. The rumors have reached a local wizard who is paying for someone to look into it.

Game Master Notes

Author’s Notes – These were just the notes I wrote up for myself after making the maps. The idea of the story is broad, and not designed for any specific system. Feel free to take the ideas (they’re simple), expand on them, or adapt them.

On the Characters

The Owners of the Tavern are a Coven of Hags, and their staff are thralls. The sisters will generally let people stay and will not actively do anything to harm those passing through until they’ve developed a report. Once they have, though, they act slowly unless otherwise provoked. Generally, once a person is comfortable with them, they will start adding more and more to their plan. They will add sedatives to foods, cast spells and curses while they sleep, and slowly chip away at their prey. Once they are weak, they will strike – sacrificing those that are without comrades or family for their dark rituals, and slowly turning others into thralls or cultists if possible.

Lesan is a cultist of the Hags, serving as part of their plans. While he isn’t typically part of their ordeals if they were attacked he would move quickly to their aid. He is their most loyal of cultists but is not the only one. The other ‘regulars’ tend to fall under that banner as well.

Rain is a thief and loyal ally to the Hags. He is more than willing to steal for them and will take any opportunity to steal from those that stay at the Inn – but he isn’t careless about it. He’ll only steal more significant things once the Hags have begun their plan, and their prey is a bit more susceptible to their charms.

Ceci and Valdred are both enthralled by the hags, though both to a lesser extent than the others. They will defend them, though, if something were to happen.

Togrish is thoroughly enthralled and will bring adventurers into their clutches if possible. He tends to bring along new and young participants as prey, as they tend to be the easiest to claim were lost or decided that adventuring was not for them.

Pallas is not enthralled yet, but they are trying to work on him. His status as a hedge wizard makes it a bit more challenging for them as he is aware of the dangers in the woods. They are slowly but surely chipping away at him, though.

Perhaps the saddest of them is Gerta, Valdred’s daughter. While it may be evident to some, she is a daughter of the coven – though she has not yet met her transformation. She is not quite old enough, but slowly but surely they are working on the ritual for her final corruption into her true hag form. They are protective of her, and Valdred is somehow unaware, even though her apparent race matches neither his race of that of his late wife.

On Secrets and Treasures

 There are a few secrets within the Inn. First and foremost is the escape tunnel in the basement. This tunnel is used by the Hags to move more freely into the woodlands. It is the easiest way to get to their true lair.

 In addition, Rain has buried some of his personal favorite finds behind the tavern.

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Giants

Author’s Notes – Good morning (or whatever time it is where you are when you are reading this). The following is a small micro-fiction I wrote on my phone after taking a little picture during lunch. I just had the idea and thought it was a fun exercise in trying to find inspiration in the little things. I hope you enjoy, and as always, let me know what you think!

This was a land of giants, a land his mothers had long warned him against traveling. The lure of plentiful food had drawn him here though, with red-backed prey abundant and without much cover. And the giants had not walked these lands in ages – if they were even real. He had followed the prey that day, from the great green wilds across the sunbaked rocks of the gray flats and to that giants’ tower. The tower let off heat, baked in the sun but protected by the shade of the legendary palaces beyond. He climbed the tower to make his nest. This would be his hunting grounds and a place he could make his home. 
 
But in the days after he arrived, something changed. There came a great shadow that blocked the sun. Shade fell on the tower, and it’s very form twisted and turned. In fear, he leaped free of the soft branches of the towers and down to it’s central tier where the black webs wove a great disc. There he saw them. There were the giants. 
 
He had not believed the elders, but their stories did not do them credit. They were nearly as large as the tower. They came to with booming voices. He sought a place to hide and his legs carried him swiftly across the black rock webs towards the core of the tower. But there he met a giant up close. One had reached out and taken hold of the tower. It’s hand was massive. It wrapped about the tower – which had stood here for generations – and with one motion the being uprooted it and the landmark was moved. 
 
He had found a place to hide for a time, but knew it was best to escape. Along the central tier he moved, hoping to avoid the gaze and the anger they would feel at his taking of their hunting ground. But one saw him. It reached out towards him, a massive digit moving to crush the little thing. He scurried away. It was no use. He could not hope to flee such a creature and in fear he froze.
 
The digit descended. He felt fear and little else. Then a brush against his leg. Though the creature was massive, it did not crush him. Instead it merely brushed him. It was another soft touch. It ushered him off the web and to the safety of the edge of the disk. The massive creature looked at him and for a moment they locked eyes. Then it moved away from him. It went back to what it was doing. It had changed the tower but had kept him safe. When the giants moved on they left the tower for the him.
 
Perhaps the stories were wrong. There was nothing monstrous about them. Possibly, even, they had hoped he would watch over the tower and it’s changes while they were away. And so he would – as long as he could.
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Winter’s Oasis

Here is another map! This was a practice in going a little overboard with Inkarnate. The above image is in HD, so you can zoom in quite a bit and see more details. While I didn’t add people or carts and crates, I might. However, even at this point, I was starting to get a lot of lag.

The city pictured isn’t based on anything. I came up with an idea while working. The idea is that it is a western coastal harbor bordering a great desert to the south and east, and frozen wastes to the north. The general idea is that the city is ruled by a Taren (a noble title of elvish origin) who is rather mysterious. The city’s important location on the end of the river and as the only major trade city in the region has made it a very desired location by various nations and empires. Try as they might, the city has never been conquered. Many assume that it is the great walls and many fortifications – but those are more for protection against smaller local powers. It is the Taren and his men that protect the city from outside powers. The locals trust their Taren and his powers, claiming that there are none who can best him. It was the Taren that came to the end of the river and made the village there into a town, who tended the forests around the river and made fertile farmlands for the people, despite the wasteland that surrounded them. He built the land from nothing. He took in the local tribes of people, regardless of how they were viewed in other lands. So long as they worked to better the city, they were welcome.

He was a hero to the people there. But, his health seemed to wane. The once-proud man they had known, who walked their city streets as one of them, withdrew to his towers. He still tried to help where he could. But his health would cause him to stumble and struggle. To make matters worse, from across the sea, his epitaph among the elves has made itself known to the people.

Taren Avana – in the common tongue, the Banished Prince. And their trust in him was shaken.

Now, years have passed since any have seen the Taren. He no longer speaks to the people or walks among them. In his stead, others have stepped up to take leadership of the small city-state – some for just causes, and some for their own benefit. It was a discrete change at first, but as time goes on many factions have become more brazen.

That turned into notes pretty quickly. I think there could be a lot of story here, and I hope to start writing it out some soon. We’ll see. Hope you enjoy the map, and if you have any questions, let me know!

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Towers (Elevator Pitch)

Author’s Notes – So, this is what I call an Elevator Pitch sometimes in my notes. I’m sure that isn’t the technical term used by the industry, but it was something I picked up from a business class somewhere along the way I’m sure. It’s designed to be a quick read, something that people can take a look at and see if the world might be interesting to them. Take a look, see what you think about “Towers” (its a working title), and let me know. Would you want to see more of this world?

               This world was always one of surreal beauties. A pair of distant stars warmed the skies, each shimmering in the other’s light. The world was circled by great silver rings that traveled with them through the darkness of space. Many small moons dotted their skies as well; each followed its given path like great clockwork. The world was vast with great stretches of wilderness, from towering forests to intense mountains and crystal seas. There was every color imagined there on its surface, and the world wanted for little.

               There were no natural things that compared to the great, ivory towers that dotted the lands. These towers were as great skeletal pyramids, each leg curved and rising to a central spire that rose far beyond the clouds and into the skies. Their purpose was unknown, as were their builders, but few had not heard of them or wondered at what purpose they served. They served as the center of many great cities and holds – with many people finding solace in their long shadows. From the towers, many mysteries spread. It was these places where wondrous items sat hidden, and where magic seemed to emanate.

               There came a summer night, warm and humid, but clear when a great sound caught every ear. It was like a snap of a whip coming from the sky. Eyes of the people twisted towards the sound, and there in the sky fell a storm of stars. Bright lights exploded and rained down in a meteor shower, the debris erupting into a fire that brought daylight to that night sky. Ripples of flame coursed across the sky, smoke, and debris in the clouds. The sight lasted for hours before there was a cracking of the sky itself, and a small group of falling stars streaked towards the ground. With a deafening rumble of thunder, they crashed into the ground in the distance. There was a silence for a moment before the winds raced away from the site. The winds were hot and strong, shattering windows and pushing the weak to the ground. Then the night returned to silence – but some people began the trek to nearby the tower where the event had taken place.

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The Old Mother

Part of the Bloodstone Bestiaries

Author’s Notes: Hello all. This story is my first unfinished part of the Bestiaries that I am posting up. I’ve had trouble with writing lately, partially due to all the things going on in the world at current – partially due to general struggles with this story. The idea is about half written, and I intend on finishing it. I think it will end up being about two thousand words, so consider this a preview. I couldn’t let myself continue to struggle on this piece and hold up my writing, so I’m going to take a break from this story.

               The nightmares that had plagued her had been near endless. Every night her dreams were invaded by a whisper. She could never make out the voice, but each night it seemed to find her. The whispers woke her up in a cold sweat. It wasn’t a small uncomfortable sweat, but rather one indicative of someone coming down from a run. She lay covered in a small layer of sweat that had cooled as she rose out of her dozing state. Her legs ached as if some travel had occurred, but her bed showed no sign of her having left during the night. Still, each time she heard the whispers, she felt as if a chase had only just ended, and awaking was the escape.

               On this night, nothing was different. She sat panting as she woke, moments going by ever so slowly as she regained her breath. Her hands rested lightly on the feather stuffed mattress; her gaze fixed on her knees as she waited for the calm to return to her. She hoped that it would be swift, but it wasn’t. There was slight nausea as adrenaline calmed throughout her system. Her throat burned as she breathed, cold midnight air on rough flesh within.

               For nearly an hour, she sat in the dark, alone and trying to determine what the whispers had said or meant. She could never understand them, or at least when she awoke, she never understood them. She finally gave up and pushed her covers off her form. Her head fell to rest in her hands, and she gave a long, sad sigh as a sense of failure pushed into her mind, replacing much of the earlier fear that had overwhelmed her.

               She eventually swung heavy legs over the edge of her bed and felt the cold dirt floor of her family roundhouse. Nothing was moving in the house, not her parents or the rest of her siblings in the room. She could hear no animals braying out in the fields and no bugs chirping in the fresh night air. It was all silent. She carefully stepped away from the bed. Even her light movements made one of her sisters stir somewhat, but no one awoke.

               She took careful steps away from each. Her footfalls were soft, nearly silent, and it was a common enough occurrence that few would wake even if she made an errant step. Still, she did not want to wake anyone. Her mind was still reeling. The whispers had felt intensely alien to her. They were something that in and of themselves sent a cold shiver down her spine, but she could not place a finger on why. There was no tone to the whispers, nor were their words or inclinations. There were no growls or other sounds, but she could feel a sort of anger and pressure building each time the dream came to her. Every time it had gotten worse, and it had been so frequent lately, she felt a sort of unease when thinking of going to sleep.

               The young lady found her way outside. There she stepped into the nearly frozen mud of their farm and walked in the dark out to her favorite spot. She had found a secluded line of trees, just a few minutes’ walk from her home. It had been this grove that she always found herself going to when she needed some time to think. It was something she had learned from her mother, a place they shared as a spot where they could find calm. So, it was here that she decided to calm down from the nightmares.

               There was a pleasant silence to the early, crisp morning air. The dew settling on the trees gave a familiar and pleasant scent. What little wind there was this time of day was distant and gentle, rustling leaves and moving on without a care. For what short time she had alone in a family like hers, these moments of respite came too few but lasted a good while once they did. Mornings were a time of solitude, a time when she could feel alone – like dreams should have been. This morning was different though.

               She realized after some time that the wind had stopped. She felt no more bristling of the cold morning breeze, the leaves no longer waved in the distance, and there was no more dripping of disturbed dew from overhead within her grove. Instead, the was stillness – but the sound of the wind remained. The realization caused her a moment of pause and confusion. She didn’t know why that had happened until she listened close. The wind must have dissipated some time ago, instead replaced by the whispers that haunted her dreams each night.

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The Caryatid Grove

Part of the Bloodstone Bestiaries

               If one travels beyond the great city-states, north along the coast for a few weeks times, where towns give way to villages, and villages to hamlets, one will come upon the foothills of the high black mountains. Once within the foothills, if one stays near the within sight of the coast, they will eventually see what remains of old quarry cranes in the distance. Thick slabs of wood held together by long rusted iron bolts rise from the hills, partially reclaimed creeping and climbing vines and weeds. The weather of a shoreline cut them down, and few remain standing as tall as they once did. The remnants of fallen beams litter the approach to the hill. For the keen-eyed, an old cobblestone road stretches down the hill and towards the coast, but no docks mark the shore any longer. Only a few scattered stone foundations and pillars remain, long rounded by the constant wind and mist of the seas just feet beyond.

               Finding the overgrown road leads to the sea sprayed quarry. The veritable mine drills down in stepped layers. Each carved from the surrounding earth. Each flattened where stone blocks were once hauled free of their home before being taken to faraway lands. The sharp, uncut marble lines the walkways, chisel marks from generations ago still perfectly visible. So too were the tools abandoned. Rusted hammer and pick heads litter some areas of the mine, and rotten crates falling to dust and grime sit as reminders of a once-thriving economic powerhouse of a place. There were luxuries here, once, for those who spent their lives and bodies cutting luxury from the earth for others.

               It would be wise to stop one’s explorations here on these first steps of the mine. Those who have come this far, though, will have seen the grove. At the bottom of the mine lies a new ecosystem. A small pond of stagnant seawater has given rise to all manner of flora one would tend to overlook – but the colors are vibrant. Deep greens and pearlescent white and gray mark the blooming plants and flowers. Another circle around the quarry and another step lower, and one begins to feel the weight of the place. Something in the air is heavy, and it burdens the breaths taken. Each step towards the goal is more of a struggle. Each is an acknowledgment that going further is taking a choice into your own hands and accepting the dangers below.

               For those that travel this far, it is almost always wanderlust that drives them. None come here in search of treasure, or fame, or fortune. Whatever lies at the heart of this place takes none of that and wishes nothing but solitude, but its mere presence and existence beg the curious to come forward and venture deeper.

               The scent joins one the third step of the quarry, accompanying the sight below. There is nothing quite like it, except to say that it smells almost like a port. Rotting flesh in stagnant water mixing with the ample salt creates a particularly potent cocktail of scents, even before being stewed in a natural stone pot warmed by the grace of an unblocked sun. The mix of ancient dirt unearthed by mortal avarice and its reclamation by the earth is potent. It isn’t only the quarry itself that the soil has reclaimed, however.

               Hidden among the white and gray of the marble are the bones of the miners. While once they likely lay open to the sun, the rains that eroded the base rocks away brought a thin layer of silt to cover them and hid them away. Deeper still in the mine, as one approaches the mire of its bottom, there is a change. The birds and other beasts of the region have not traveled here. They have not pushed this deep. There are no hissing of bugs, chirping birds, and no croaking of toads. The hallmarks of a wetland are missing, despite ample plumage from the plants that have taken up residence here. Then the reason becomes clear.

               At the bottom of the quarry, where the earth was opened for deeper veins and to wash away excess water, there stands a figure of marble. She sits on her knees, her face looking up slightly with her hands raised to protect herself. Her clothes are draped across her, even appearing wet and clinging near her knees. Every curve, every wrinkle, was painstakingly preserved in stone. No stray chisel marks exist, no stray hammer falls to cause even a single blemish. This point is as far as most will ever go. This statue, in all its lifelike quality, is the thing of legends. Tales of the monster within the quarry are many.

               Our lady statue’s last gaze is frozen in time, so lifelike that she must be real. She must have been a person at one point. At least, this is the legend. Stories of a weeping woman seen deep in the quarry, near the statue, are told by local farmers tending their flocks nearby. A landwyrm preys on the beasts nearby, according to local hunters. So, one must venture deeper to know what monster on which one may stumble. One has.

               Within the mine, there is little but death. Whatever took residence there, did so with great anger and violence, and it has not left. Deep in that mine lies the reservoir of water collected over the years, a deep underground lake, and near that lake stand a dozen statues. Each statue is of the same woman, perfectly replicated to exacting details, and all stand watching the entrance of the mine for their maker. There is no growth of the natural here; no animals or plants have overtaken these statues or this lake. Beyond these statues, though, the old mine is long forgotten. None of have ventured past here and survived. The only one who has tried came back a broken man, mumbling about the stone maidens, but never finishing his tale before he would panic and escape the conversation through guile, or breaking down into a weeping mess of a man.

               There have been a few others who tried to venture into the quarry, who attempted to investigate the mine. Those wise enough stopped at the stench. Those with experience stopped at the first statue. Those that ventured deeper never returned. For whatever has taken the quarry, only one thing remains, the drive to create and maintain the Caryatid Grove.

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Dragonslayer

Part of the Bloodstone Bestiaries

               For whatever reason, he had agreed to this particular job. He had a reputation to uphold, he supposed, but each one of these was trying his luck. He had found his way to a cave system were reports of a dragon sighting had originated. They told stories of fire bathing the farms outside of town, great wings blackening the sky, and a roar that could throw men off their feet. All of it sounded rather harrowing when you heard them say it. All of it seemed as if the town was at the edge of its rope. They desperately sought a hero. Of all the towns he had to wander into – theirs happened upon him at the wrong time.

               His spelunking into a cave gave him ample time to think and put together what he had heard from the townsfolk. It was mostly outlying farms that were attacked. Very little was killed in the attacks, primarily beasts and often only single beasts. This dragon in the wilds had been picking off livestock one at a time.  None of the townsfolk could give him a good description of the dragon himself, but he could see the damage. Outbuildings burned, fields turned to ash, and livestock lay slain. But only a few people were killed. Only three or four townsfolk died overall.

               When he found the lair, his suspicions were confirmed. Townsfolk were superstitious folks and people that didn’t have the experience needed to identify monsters. Peasants knew only a hand full. All undead were zombies or skeletons, all apparitions were ghosts, all otherworldly beings were demons – and all great lizards were dragons. Of course, how they had mistaken this thing for a great lizard was beyond him. He had spotted what it was from the cave entrance. Well, that was a bit braggartly. It had been evident to him as he walked through the caves. There were burn marks along the wall, from where this thing had brushed up against them. All along the walls and floors and ceilings. It was something else entirely – something that dripped fire.

               The thoughts lifted when he arrived in a large chamber. His hooded lantern had cast just a dim light around the corner as he entered, but as soon as it breached the chamber, there was a flickering glimmer that rose from the ground. Then the color became clear. Silver and gold lay strewn about, piled next to a thick wooden chest marred and eaten away by the supposed fire of the beast within the caves. With that realization, he felt a smile cross his face. He was not disappointed. Foolish common folk thought a gift of coin would sate a great serpent like a dragon.

               Then his heart sank. It even skipped a beat. There, tethered to the chest by manacle, was a young woman. She was unconscious it seemed, and it was clear that she had been left down here as part of the sacrifice to sate the dragon and stop the terror that had been rocking their township. He moved closer to her and watched her in the silent and dimly lit cave. Her chest rose and fell. She was breathing, at least. That gave him some hope that he wasn’t too late. His relieved sigh fell on her face, though, causing her to stir just slightly.

               Her eyes crept open and met his for a split second. She was tired, frightened, broken by her experience of being cast aside until she saw his face. He saw the light of life flash in her eyes. He knew the realization that she had just made before she said it, but he could not react quickly enough to stop her from saying something.

               “They sent a hero to save me?” She spoke; the woman’s voice a whisper at first, but the excitement of being saved grew. As it did, so too did the volume of her voice. “You, noble dragonslayer,” The adventurer shook his head, mouthing the words ‘no’ and ‘quiet’ to her as she continued, she either ignored him or couldn’t see them. “have my eternal thanks.”

               “Be quiet,” The adventurer whispered harshly, pressing a gloved finger against her lips, “Don’t say anything.”

               “But you are a dragonslayer, sent to rescue me. Surely you do not fear,” The woman spoke slightly muffled through his finger.

               “Shut. Up.” He cut her off by putting his palm on her mouth as she spoke. It warranted a little squeal from her, surprised, and suddenly unsure what was happening. There was a hint of an echo of the noise that reverberated in the room. He kept his palm pressed hard on her mouth. He could feel his palms beginning to sweat under the leather and cloth, and his mind drifted from her to listen for any sound he could.

               Aside, of course, from her mumbling under his palm. He listened close for a minute before he heard nothing that alarmed him, and then he gave a slight nod to her. He raised his other hand, still holding the lantern, to his mouth and shushed her again. Then he slowly moved his hand from her mouth.

“Did you not kill the dragon?” She seemed to realize something was wrong, but at least she wasn’t talking loudly now. She was whispering at least to the best of her abilities.

“There is no dragon,”

“Then why are we being quiet?”

“Because there is a monster. So. Shush,” He said before setting the lantern next to her. He moved over to where the manacles met the chest and set the lamp down next to them. He paused and took a breath before a hand reached one of the many pouches on his belt, and he pulled a small thin, and well-worn lockpick from the pack. He fidgeted, working the lock as a seasoned professional, and it seemed as if he had barely started before he finished, and the lock popped open.

“If it is not a dragon, what is it?”

“What part of shush don’t you understand?” He all but hissed back at her. He pulled the lock pick slowly back and released the manacles from the chest they had been attached to and turned back to face her. Of course, as soon as he had released the lock, she moved forward, dragging the iron manacles across the cold stone cave floor with a loud clanking sound. “Fucking really?” He hissed at her action. She stopped as soon as she realized what was happening.

“Sorry,”

“Just shut…” He paused midway through the statement. Something had caught his ear. It sounded almost like a struggling breath, a quick hiss of air. Then there was a crack. Creaking claws against the stone of the cave. The woman backed slowly away from the sounds, while the adventurer cursed repetitively under his breath. The sound was still distant, but it was growing closer, and while she might not have realized it, it was clear to him that they were caught in its lair now. He finally snapped into action, putting a hand on her shoulder. “Look at me,”

She did what he said and turned to face him. “I…”

“Just listen. In a few seconds, one or two giant beetles are going to come through the entrance. Whatever happens, don’t get close to them. Don’t touch them, don’t be near them. Even if one attacks you directly, keep moving,”

“What?”

“Trust me. Tearing your own skin off to get away from it is better than getting the fire on you,”

“Fire?”

“More like burning oil. Doesn’t come off,” The adventurer reached to his back and pulled the crossbow from between his back and backpack. “Have you ever used one of these?”

“No,”

“It’s idiot-proof. Perfect for you,” He grabbed the charging handle and pulled back the bow, yanking a bolt from its quiver on his belt and balancing it against the string. “Take it. Keep it flat. When you see the monster, press in this lever,” He tapped the lever at the bottom of the bow lightly. “Aim for the big ass of the thing. Not it’s head. Just the bulbous ass. Got it?”

She nodded quickly.

“Okay. Wait until I say loose. You’ve got one shot,” The adventurer said before bounding over towards the cave entrance. The sounds were getting closer, a deep rumbling hum growing ever louder, echoing through the cave – like a growling and rising roar. He worked diligently, while the woman stood frozen in place, shivering in fear.

He poured out pouches of something on the floor – sand or dust in a long repeating line between the sounds and the lair. He tossed the bag in the middle of the lines and twisted his arms to let his backpack fall to the ground behind him. He pulled a handaxe off the side of the bag and leaned his lantern against it, facing the hole where the monster would be appearing. Then he took a breath and steadied himself. He pulled back and stretched, preparing to throw the ax.

It took a few seconds before the lantern’s light revealed the oncoming beast. It was massive, with an ashen chitinous hide. It stood twice the size of a horse, with rapid beating wings rising from its back and beating like a hummingbird – giving the nature of the sound of the roar. From its form, slick oils dripped to the ground with sizzling hisses as each hit the ground. Short moments of light would appear as the oils melted the rock, for split seconds, the heating rock glowing from the sudden hits.

“Now?” The girl sputtered with the panic in her voice rising. The beast turned its head towards her. Its massive mandibles clicked and dripped bile to the ground below, ready to launch after this newest threat.

“No, beasty,” The adventurer barked at it, and let the ax fly. His entire body moved. Every ounce of strength he had pivoted on his hip, his arm arching wide to let loose the shaft. It spun across the cave room and stuck hard into the beast’s side. It pierced the hide, chitin crumbling away from the impact point, and thick oily blood oozing from the wound. As the blood covered the blade, it began to glow, to warm. The handle burst into flame, and the beast itself had a new target. It turned away from the woman and rushed towards the adventurer instead. He cursed under his breath and twisted to one side, running away from the thing but watching its position closely. Once it hovered over the dust he had laid, he called out to the woman. “Now! Loose!”

She pressed the crossbow lever quickly, aiming to the best of her ability. Her eyes locked on the bulbous backside of that creature, where the glowing ax-head still rested. It gave her something to concentrate on – somewhere to focus her shot. The crossbow let off a resounding twang. The bolt flew from the crossbow. There was a sickening thud, and the creature let out an agonized hiss, and it crashed to the ground where he had laid his trap. Then it twitched, its wings falling silent, and its hissing stopped.

The adventurer stopped running. He turned back towards her and barked, “What the hell? I told you don’t aim at the head! If you had…”

“I was aiming at the backside.”

“Oh,” He said, his tone calming from the earlier anger, “Good deal. Good miss. You are lucky as they come,” He said with a deep breath. He stepped over towards the beast, just a pace or two. He held a hand out towards her, motioning for her to stay still. “Let’s make sure it’s…” As he spoke, a drip of the creature’s fiery oil hit the dust. There was a flash of fire and light, and a loud thunderous noise before the dust erupted into a burst of fire around it and engulfed the creature. Parts were torn away from its body by the force of the blast. The oil-like blood and viscera rained across the cave floor. “Dead. Good. That went way better than planned.” He clapped.

She lowered the crossbow and looked over to him. He gathered up his bag and lantern and moved over towards the chest. “What now?”

“Well,” He spoke as he pressed up against the chest and opened it. There was a shimmer of gold and silver from within. “Normally, I’d worry about a second one. But they didn’t hunt enough for two, so this was a young one still looking for a mate.”

“That was a young one?” She squealed. “It’s enormous,”

“I said young, not small. They grow fast.” He put gold and silver into his bag without looking at her – as much as he could fit.

“What are you doing?”

“Taking payment?”

“From the town’s offering? Not satisfied with what they offered you?”

               He paused and shook his head, “No, not really. They did not pay well.”

               “Then… you came to?”

               “No. I didn’t know you were here.”

               “Then, why did you come?” She asked.

               “Because they admitted they gave an offering to the dragon,” He said with a sigh.

               “So, you’re going to steal it?”

               “Yes.”

               “How could you even?”

               “Look, before you get all high and mighty,” He said, turning around towards her, “There are monsters out here. And they sacrificed you to try to appease them, so,” He shrugged, “You can go back there and always know that they left you out here to die. Or,” He pointed to the gold and silver,” You can stuff your pockets full of coin and make your way in life. Find somewhere safe and away from idiots. Your choice,” He said with a wave towards the coinage before he moved back to collecting some for himself.

               That realization sank in swiftly. The woman didn’t know what they had thought that would accomplish now that she was thinking about the idea. She had felt that she was protecting the town. Even if it had been a dragon, how would leaving her have done anything but give it a snack? She swallowed and steeled herself a bit. Maybe he was right.

               “And where will I go?”

               “I don’t know. What can you do?”

               “Nothing. Cook. Clean.”

               “Well, there is a tavern in every town. I’m sure you can find work,”

               She paused, “What about following you?”

               “No. Not an option.”

               “Just to the next town.”

               He sighed, “No. I don’t do charity,”

               She paused for a moment, and then gave an option, “I can carry more gold for you if you take me.”

               He perked up at that thought – and so began their partnership.

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An Imaginary Friend

Part of the Bloodstone Bestiaries

               When I was a child, we lived in a village on the edge of the forest. I suppose it is more accurate to say we lived in the woods outside the village, though. My father was a woodsman and my mother a fletcher, so it was only natural for them to be out in the wilds, and they took us with them. I enjoyed my time in the wild if I am honest. It was quiet and calm, and if you knew and respected the natural, it was even rather safe. Nothing was outstanding or special about those years, to my memory – though at the time, I did not write everything down as I do now, so I may have missed something.

               This story, though, is not about my life there. As much as I would like to discuss that, you asked of my experience with monsters, and the mundane details of the life of a woodsman’s children aren’t what you sought. What is necessary is an understanding of who we were, though. We were not educated folk, at least at the time. My skill for memory and aptitude for learning eventually allowed my parents to secure me a spot as a scribe’s apprentice, but it was nothing less than exceptional that they were able to do so. It was, in all descriptions, a changing of stars for me. This did lead to some unwelcome changes.

               I had been blessed to have a younger sibling, a sister. She was a few seasons younger than me, and well and proper followed in our parents’ footsteps. From an early age, she enjoyed exploring the woodlands. She learned bow craft while working as a fletcher, and she learned to hunt while following my father in the woods. Even though she was young, she was skilled – and she enjoyed the wilds. She loved nothing more than run in the wilds.

               It was a lonely life for her, I imagine. There were few children her age, and I was almost always busy with my studies and the constant need to practice script. She played alone for much of her life, as did I, I suppose. But I always had my studies on which to focus my attention. I believed then that loneliness engaged her imagination. She found a way to deal with that on her own. She began telling us stories of Eremurus.

From her descriptions, he was a young boy about her age. The other details, as they so often do with children, tended to change. His appearance or his demeanor often seemed to change based on her whims for that evening when telling the story. At first, it was harmless fun. It was just a girl who needed a friend creating one for her own. She told stories and tales of their adventures out in the wilderness. These were stories of fun, of jumping creeks and running through briars. These were things that friends did in this village, silly and pointless fun. It was healthy for children to play, and so my parents and I wrote it off. It was the same as anyone would have done.

But it became odder. Her descriptions over time became clearer, and they became less friendly. It was clear that her friend had an unhealthy streak. At first, it was only small things. Items were misplaced, things moved to strange locations in the night. Whenever my sister was confronted, she would deny it, and say that it was Eremurus. She was adamant, regardless of the minor punishments that were doled out to her. She never hesitated to claim her innocence and fought our parents’ accusations in earnest.

Things did grow worse and worse. More things disappeared, and anytime my sister would be blamed, it seemed that she would act out. She would fight back, crying, and wailing that she hadn’t done anything. It eventually became unbearable. Finally, one evening, a fire was set in the house – and again, my parents blamed my sister, though I believed her when she said it wasn’t her. Her blaming Eremurus was almost with a tone of defeat in her voice. She was sad, almost betrayed in a way. After a few weeks, the events stopped.

Then, if I am telling the truth, I don’t remember her speaking of Eremurus much. I believe she mentioned him from time to time, but for the most part, his name was no longer mentioned as far as I remember. We grew up, and while the occasional misplacement remained, the stories of the boy in the woods faded to memory.

Things were not good, though. It was in those years that the war came to our little village. Conscripts were sought out, and the men of the village were called to service. I was lucky. I was a scribe. I was given the role of a messenger, given a horse, and spent much of the war riding back and forth with messages for commanders. It allowed me to send letters home rather often. I spoke to my sister and mother often enough in this way. The letters were short and often abrupt.

A year into the war, these letters stopped. I would hear soon after that our village had fallen to you and your kind. I often wondered what happened to my father, and when. At least with my mother and sister, I know when something happened to them. When I returned here, I found many people had been killed, including my mother and sister. Such is war, unfortunately. So many of us ended up orphans.

I supposed when your forces dragged me here that it was for something military-related. I would never have expected you to want me here for more superstitious reasons. I was even more curious when your men wouldn’t follow me. They walked me to the edge of town and told me to walk to the home in the forest – my home. And so, I did. I had every intention of fleeing when I arrived there. But I saw my house burned down, and I felt a grief I’ve never felt before. You had taken everything from me, and there was a moment, a few moments, really, of overwhelming vulnerability and loss. I was alone, for the first time in my life, truly alone.

But I had been listening to the troops you brought with you. I listened to the superstitions. I heard them worrying about the pranks, the misplaced and missing items, and I suddenly remembered his name. Eremurus. Was that what you had found? Was that what was causing you trouble? I asked him. It was a foolish thing. There was no one in the woods, so asking an imaginary friend to come out was nonsensical. A foolish prayer from a lonely spirit to another.

Imagine my surprise when he answered. He looked like my sister described. He was constantly shifting his form, not sure which to be. He was an animal, a boy, something in between – all at once. He was so excited to see me. So happy one of the family came. And he excitedly asked if I would play with him if I had brought my sister. It took me some time to explain to him what had happened, to explain the concept of death and war.

He struggled to understand, at least at first. I had to find a way to explain to a nature spirit the concept of pointless violence, inflicted upon the less fortunate by the selfish. It took me time to find the words, but once I had succeeded, I returned to your guards to tell you what I had discovered. The thing that has been haunting you was a playful spirit, looking for his friend. But listen closely. You’ve only heard my words for the past few minutes. Aside from my speaking, there has only been silence. Do you hear it now?

That’s what happens when you anger a nature spirit. The forest itself has turned on you – but, I could only explain war to it one way. It was simpler than I expected, once I found the word.

Wildfire.

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A Young Fisherman

Part of the Bloodstone Bestiary

               From time to time, there comes a story of lost ships being found just out of sight of the shore. The stories were all similar; lost ships devoid of its crew but otherwise no signs of distress to be found. Stories varied on what had happened. Most were ships found long after they had left port, and madness offered as the most common explanation, but those of piracy, starvation, and storm sometimes arose as well. The dangers of the sea were many, and any long journey would prove to be a perilous one even for experienced sailors.

               One such ship, though, was found on a calm afternoon by a local fishing vessel. The ship had left the harbor only the day before. There had been no foul weather and no sign of danger. Fishing vessels had been out in the region that day, and there had been no reports recently of things such as raiders or privateers. And yet, the ship was found adrift.

               When the fishermen drew their boat up against the ship, they were able to climb aboard. The ship’s hull was undamaged. Its deck was undisturbed, with all the ropes, sails, and tools each in their proper locations. Further exploration by the fisherman revealed much the same across all sections of the ship. There were tables set with meals, half-drunk mugs of ale, and games of card and chance left unfinished. Throughout the ship, nothing was distressed. Most things were still as if members of this ship’s crew had vanished.

               Despite this, under the bright sun and calm winds, the ship felt peaceful. There was no feeling of ill will or danger. It seemed that everyone had just vanished. The exploration was slow but thorough. They sought every possible hiding place and looked for any given clue. When they found only the ship’s stock, they gathered back on the deck of the ship and discussed what could have happened. It was as if every member of the ship’s crew had just disappeared. But they left behind riches. There was a hold full of goods; steel, fur, and silver for trade. It was a wealth unseen before by any of them. Now it was theirs.

               There was a discussion on what to do. The crew sat around the deck and spoke to one another for a time. The youngest of the fisherman, who was still a new member of the team, was less comfortable than the others. He didn’t know them well, and as they talked about what to do, he merely watched. He could not put names to the suggestions being made, nor could he keep up with the variety of ideas put forward. The fishermen believed that they had found an abandoned ship, one that could easily lead them to more wealth than a life of fishing would bring them. There was some disagreement between them, though. Return to the harbor, collect the reward for the ship, take what they wanted; all came to the deck as a possibility.

               Then a man from their crew spoke up – despite all that he could, the young man could not remember his name or place his face, but he was familiar. He was one of them. Why not take the ship? It lay abandoned, but it was stocked well for a long journey. They could sail to a nearby port as traders, and there they would find their wealth. There, they could start anew.  

               They discussed their options for a time. They debated. The debate never grew genuinely heated, though, at times, voices did become louder. It was all on minutia, though. How would the wealth be split? How would they chose and treat new lives? Would they stay a crew or go their separate ways? After all, this was piracy in a way. They were considering taking the ship of the dead for their benefit. There was no sign of a crew though, not even notes or logs from the captain and crew remained. It was a blessing adrift.

               There was some debate on taking the ship just back to the harbor from which they had left. Each time it came up, the truth came that the ship would be confiscated if discovered. The fishermen would be without their prize. So, they made their choice. They would take the ship to a nearby port, sell the goods, and start over.

               Despite his youth and relatively new position with this crew, the young man did speak up. But he did not do so boldly. He meekly disguised his question as one about what would happen to the old fishing boat. The question seemed to perturb them. Why did it matter? But he pressed the matter, again and again. They relented. He would take the fishing boat back, let the harbor know that they were trying to salvage a ship. When they did not return, he could come looking for them to get his part of the treasure.

               The young man left the ship, took the fishing boat, and returned to port. His conscience got the better of him, though, and he reported the situation to the authorities. With the information, he was taken into custody and brought aboard another ship. That ship would take him to the Capital, eventually. First, it stopped by the planned destination of the fishermen. And he waited.

               No ship had come to port.

               When the navy searched nearby ports, no ship matching that description was found.

               The young man served several short conscription terms for his dealings. He lived a life of little substance, struggling to make ends meet. He always listened to the rumors, but the ship and the fishermen were never heard from again.

               That was, at least, until he was very old. A stranger came to town, seeking the young man who spoke of a lonely ship – only to find a wizened old man ravaged by the passing of ages. The visitor asked him about the ship he had seen of the story from that day. He asked if anyone had believed him. The old man, of course, said no. No one had, despite the story remaining the same throughout his life. The visitor was enthralled by the story and thanked the old man for sharing it. He asked the man if he had gotten what he wanted in life.

               The old man shook his head. He had not. He avoided the fate of his crew, but another fate had followed him.

               The visitor needed to return to his ship, and he asked the old man if he would walk with him and share stories of his life. The old man agreed. That was all he wanted – for someone to believe him. The stranger was happy with that and admitted he believed every word.

               After all, the old man was the only one to get away from him that day.

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The Baker and the Widow

Part of the Bloodstone Bestiary

               There was a Baker who owned a small shop in a small village on the edge of a small gray creek that fed into a small, slow-moving river. There was nothing special about this Baker or his shop. Nor was there anything special about the village or the creek, nor the river that it fed. The village was a simple place, off the beaten path, but large enough to have built a community of families. It was a small friendly place, not known for danger or excitement – and there was little that happened that would throw off the routine of the place.

               That was until the Smith got sick. A healthy man who supplied the town with all its iron needs, the Smith came down with an illness rather suddenly. He had recently married, and his new wife tended to him dutifully. Being that she wasn’t from the town originally, though, rumors were quick to spread as they do in small communities. She was a stranger, and as she wasn’t one of them, she couldn’t be trusted.

               As the Smith grew weaker, the rumors only grew more vicious. The Baker heard rumors of her in his shop; she was a poisoner, her goal was to take his wealth, or she only came here to spread illness. None of this was true, he knew. No one else grew sick, despite the Smith’s Apprentice and family visiting to assist her in taking care of the ailing man. The Smith was no rich man, and frankly, the Baker had seen her coin from the city more often than the Smith’s trade since they wed. As for poisoning her husband, that just felt like a stretch made up by frightened minds.

               Eventually, at the edge of winter, the Smith passed away. Like so many in the village, the Smith would find his final resting place in the town cemetery. The once strong man had withered away, and his family wept. His Widow was inconsolable, though. While she tried to appear strong, she could not do it. She wept at his graveside for days and nights, only coaxed into leaving his side when tiredness overtook her, and the Smith’s family was able to carry her back home. Then she disappeared into their home. The Smith’s family left for their own homes to prepare for the depth of winter.

               The Widow rarely left their home, but the rumors stopped for a time. She gave the Smithy’s shops and all its contents over to the Apprentice, keeping only their home for herself. There she stayed alone for the season, only ever venturing out to purchase much-needed food and drink. She was a broken woman in those days. Her once beautiful smile and bright eyes had faded to a distant and unmoving stare. There was a nothingness that had taken her husband from her, and her eyes had locked onto it. She barely spoke, whispers only answering questions pressed to her, and once she had what she needed, she would return to her home.

               For that first winter, the Baker believed that she would die of heartbreak. She could not have taken care of herself in a way that any would survive. The chimney of her home rarely smoked despite the cold, the food she bought was a bare minimum, and she abandoned all hope of socializing. He couldn’t let that happen. He took it upon himself to visit from time to time, to bring her fresh bread, and to check on her. She rarely spoke to him for more than a moment. She would greet him at the door and pay him for the bread. When he asked if she was okay, if she needed anything, she would shake her head and go back into the building.

               This habit became a routine through even the spring, until one day she seemed in better spirits. She met him at the door, and for the first time, he saw a small smile on her lips. She spoke to him and told him that the Amarant was blooming. It had been her husband’s favorite flower, she explained. The Baker just returned the smile, knowing for the first time she might recover.

               As the summer continued, she tended to her Amarant around the house. She began to act more like she once had. He still chose to drop by and see her from time to time to check up on her. As fall approached, she even ventured out into the village and brought him much of her harvested grain from her gardens. They traded amicably, and he then watched from afar as she turned the fields behind the old house into a small farm. She tended it with a couple of the other widows of the town. She worked with diligence and purpose that he hadn’t seen of her since before her husband had died, and it warmed his heart to see.

               Through winter, he baked bread and took it to her as he had the previous year, though it was a bit rarer an event. She would greet him with some excitement. They would speak for a short time, most often about the bread and how he was finding ways to use the grain of the Amarant to extend the wheat supplies he had. By spring, it was clear the two had become friends.

               In the summer, when the Amarant bloomed, she would come to the Baker with fresh stocks. Now with hectares of the plant growing in her home, she had more than just seeds to share. The two began to dream up new recipes and treats with the plant. It made his shop a rather popular stop in the village, almost overnight. While the new bread became rapidly popular in the village, it came with rumors of the Widow and Baker. 

               Others had noticed their friendship. Others noticed them working together at odd times. Others noticed the way the Widow smiled more when the Baker was around. Rumors swirled of an affair, an affair that did not exist and that the Baker had never sought. Though as the rumors reached him, as people asked how long he and she had been falling for one another, he realized something. The rumors had found a truth that he hadn’t been able to admit.

               For nearly two years, he had visited her often. She had become one of his closest friends. Her smile filled him with warmth, and he felt more comfortable and calmer around her. The rumors, he realized, were true. He had been falling for her in the past years. There was a pang of guilt that came along with that realization. It was a sort of sense of betrayal to the memory of the Smith. It was a feeling that at first he could not shake off.

               One night near harvest, the two had met to exchange one last batch of the Amarant seeds before winter. When she arrived, they set to work in roasting them in his shop and chatted about the harvests and upcoming festivals. Small things, those that require no deep conversation, they were those that could fill the air and keep him from admitting anything deeper.

               Still, he found himself glancing at her. He found himself watching her when she wasn’t looking. She was beautiful. She always had been. These past years, though, as they grew closer and closer, he knew he noticed more and more. The way her smiles wrinkled the edge of lips, and seemed to even to reach to her eyes, the way she constantly readjusted her hair to keep it in place, the warmth of color in her skin from working with her plants, she never seemed to appear to him different than she had the first time they spoke as beautiful as ever – all of it must have entered his mind many times before. Now, it was stuck there, gnawing at him. But that night, she caught him staring.

               She asked why he stared, and her nerves caused her to brush her hair away from her face.  

               The Baker paused. He hesitated a moment. The flickering light of the fires of his kilns baking away filled the room with the smell of soon to be fresh flour, and in that moment of seeing her in the light of a fire, he could not stop himself. He admitted that she was beautiful, that he found himself falling for her.

               She now hesitated and gave a weak smile. Her voice whispered a short thanks, but there was a quaking there, a palpable unease. Then she said the words the Baker feared she would. She admitted she was not ready for a new lover, and with the sentiment, she ended the night. She stood up to leave. But, in a moment of weakness, he reached out and caught her hand. Her hand was warm, much as his was. Both were nervous. The Baker admitted that he needed her to know his feelings, but he had no desire to betray her feelings for her husband.

               The Widow waited a moment before answering. Her hand gave a squeeze before she pulled away. She spoke that now she knew his feelings. With that, she left.

               Winter fell, and the Baker felt that he had ruined something great. Each evening, it ate away at him. He would sit and watch the fires of his bakery, and he regretted ever saying anything to her. Then, he would wonder if it was anything but lust that had driven him. Midwinter, he decided to apologize again.

               From time to time, he would visit her home and drop off some fresh bread. She would greet him at the door and accept kindly. When the topic began to fall from his lips, though, she would end it and reenter the home. She shut him out night after night, time after time.

               Finally, one night the snow fell hard, and he stood at her door. He offered her bread when she greeted him, as always. She accepted, and he asked her if she would let him say his piece one last time.

               She protested, she refused, but she slipped up in her refusal. For a split second, a single word slipped out and revealed her truth to the Baker. She felt the same way. She could not, though. She would not let herself fall in love with him.

               There the two stood silently as the snow fell, watching one another quietly. Neither spoke a word. Finally, the Widow apologized. She asked the Baker not to return, and she closed the door.

               The Baker took a long walk back to his shop. There, crestfallen, he threw himself into his work. The snowstorm continued to build up around the village, but with his heartbroken, he paid little attention to that. Travel in the village stopped for a time. He gave in to despair, and one night the snow piled high on his home and ice packed against the chimney. When the warmth of the kilns melted just enough, there was a small collapse. Thatch fell from the ceiling to the fires. The villagers were not able to react quickly. The night was dark, the village covered with high snow, and no one noticed the building slowly catch aflame.

               No one except the Widow.

               The Baker awoke in the night to the flames, cutting him off from any escape. On the second story, above the source of the fires, he felt himself burning. The fires reached him in his bedroom, the heat of the fires lighting the walls and raising from the stairwell. He coughed, unable to breathe. He knew this was the end, and he was afraid.

               Then, in the fires, he saw her – the Widow.

               She stood at the top of the stairs, flame jumping around her form. The fire had burned away her clothes, and the Baker saw her truly for the first time. She stepped toward him. Her form was untouched by the fire. Time then was slow. Despite the fire, he felt cold. He could barely keep his eyes open as she approached, his life force dwindling as his lungs desperately sought a breath in the smoke-filled room. When she reached him, she leaned in, placed her lips against his. He felt nothing else. A moment of bliss and then silence.

               He awoke in her home, days later. The fire had taken from him much of his strength. His strength would never return, and slowly but surely, the Baker faded away. Still, the two had one more year together. For that last year of his life, he lived with the Widow. The rumors swirled once again; the two were lovers, the Widow had set the fire, the Widow had walked through fire to save him, she stood unburned – some were true, no doubt. Yet, the two were happy, for those short seasons, and when the Baker finally died, the Widow was inconsolable. She lived there for another year or two before she left the village.

               The Amarant still grows there as an ever-present reminder of the Widow’s love, renewed each season. All through the lands, the same story still is whispered by superstitious townsfolk. Many villages have a small home with Amarant growing in its garden – and with some there lie a single lonely grave, tear-stained by the cursed Widow that like her favorite plant, is made new with each fallen love.

 

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