“That’s why I don’t take a piss in the dark.”
I stay with Kiara until Fae joins us, then we talk about our lives.
It was hard, but I think that I spun a believable lie about my birth in a small village. My parents were no mages. They spent their short lives as simple farmers, so it was a surprise when I developed magic. The talent skipped a generation from my grandmother's side, who was a well known hedge-witch. She had no proper training, but knew enough to recognize my ability.
After my talent surfaced, I apprenticed first with my grandmother and then with the wizard of a nearby coastal village. The settlement was too small to be shown on any map, which isn't that rare. Without technology, cartography is a very obscure skill. Only aristocrats of large nations have access to detailed maps. There are also a lot of illegal settlements which are only known to locals.
My talent with earth magic made it possible to make a pretty coin and pay for my apprenticeship.
My teacher had a mediocre talent, which explained why he was living in an unimportant village. But he taught me the necessary skills and I soon left his tutorship to fend for myself.
I travelled the world and picked up spells and knowledge wherever I managed to get my hands on them. My parents have been dead for a long time. I have a whole bunch of relatives in my old home, but no connection to them. They are all normal villagers without magic or the money to pay for youth preservation spells. I didn’t want to watch them grow old and die, so I packed my things and left when my parents died.
At the end of my story I almost believe it myself. I just hope that I don't forget the pile of lies which I dished out.
Kiara and Fae gave me their stories in return. Kiara had a normal life with her tribe until her talent surfaced. When it became clear that her ability was strong, her tribe sent her to the military academy as tribute to the Alliance. There, she got a proper education. She served for three years on the Eternal Battlefield between the Alliance and the Empire.
There, she met Fae and the others, who have similar life-stories. Though Fae is an exception. All of her people have at least a little magic. The elves select the people who have to join the military at random. Apparently, every race has to add a certain number of soldiers to the Alliance's armies, but they are always taken from the big cities. So my own story isn't that far off.
After they had served their time, the five of them decided to become adventurers. Their military service earned them good coin, but not enough to live happily ever after. So they simply continued with the business which was drilled into them. Their plan is to continue on as adventurers until each of them has enough money to realize his or her dreams.
In Kiara's case that's to buy enough land to start a farm. She wants to breed her beasties and find a nice, strong man to knock her up and have a family.
Fae wants to open a magical shop in her home-town. At an age of over a hundred years, she already has enough funds to realize her dream at any time. But she wants to stick with the others until they reach their goal.
I allow myself an hour of idle chit chat with the two of them, but then I say my goodbyes. There is a distinct possibility that I'll have to endure this every evening from tomorrow onwards. Sadly, they are still suspicious of me. It was clear that my story wasn't as sound as I wished it to be.
I just hope that they’ll explain it away with me not trusting them.
On the way back to the inn I stop at the market place and buy the smallest and sturdiest carriage they have. It's a two wheeler with not much in terms of loading capacities. But what got me hooked on the thing are the two large springs which cushion the undercarriage.
That's something my sore ass definitely needs. After a few days in the saddle, my butt had started hurting like hell. This body is far from untrained, but the muscles which are necessary for riding are totally different from what's needed in daily life.
It's handy that the merchant who sold the carriage had it delivered directly to the inn, so I simply returned and hit the sack after a nice and long bath. Probably the last one for the next few weeks. Oh, how I loathe medieval societies.
The next morning, I get up early. There is simply no way that I'll miss my ride. After concluding my business with the inn, I double check my room and my equipment to make sure that I forgot nothing. Then I head out to the eastern gate where the caravan is supposed to meet.
To my surprise I find out that many adventurers had the same idea. I am greeted by a crowd of at least sixty people. There are some who are definitely merchants, but most are adventurers. I find Kiara and Fae with their group among them, but I don't approach and stay with my carriage. Nobody pays me any attention, so I simply sit and wait.
When the official meeting time is a few minutes overdue, a dwarf in heavy plate armour shoves his way through the crowd. He is flanked by a beastgirl and a man. Each of them carries a large barrel. In front of the crowd, they plant their barrels on top of each other, then they help the dwarf get on top of them, so that he can look down at us.
The dwarf's physique makes it look like he is the third barrel. This causes a lot of chuckling from several people and I have to admit that the whole scene looks a little hilarious.
“Shut up! Or I'll squash you like the flies you are! I am the one who decides if you can stay or if you have to go home!” He looks around until everyone is silent. “I am Norwick! I and my party are level nine adventurers and we are the ones who are in charge. Do you understand that?
“I hope you do, because I won't mention it twice! We are organizing the adventurers and we'll decide if you get paid at the end of this mission. If I say at the guildhouse that you didn't jump when I ordered it, you don't get paid.” He speaks very slowly. “No money. Understood?”
He clears his throat and looks around. “So, before we do anything else, we have to give you sorry lot your assignments and check who is here. Make a line and if you have companions with whom you work well, approach me as a group. Tell me your name and your specialities. I want at least two strong parties. My group will take the lead of the convoy, another keeps watch for stragglers and a third party stays in the middle.”
Oh, man. I can already tell that this tour won't be easy. But at least it seems like someone with a plan is in charge. I would seriously consider to try my luck on my own if we had ventured out as a large mob. Sighing, I get off my cart and head over to join the line.
It takes a while until it's my turn in front of Norwick. The dwarf already assigned a group of six people to keep watch of the middle of the caravan. Kiara, Fae, Tristen, Halberd and Brian were taken aside. I assume that he wants to use them as the tail-light.
Most of the lone fighters were assigned as bodyguards to their own merchants. They’ll be spread out all over the caravan. It's clear that Norwick intends to use the larger parties as core groups. In case of an emergency, the other adventurers can assemble around them. A complete party is also less likely to splinter because of an ambush.
Instead of forcing Norwick to ask me questions, I decide to shorten the procedure by providing all the answers. I already had more than enough opportunity to listen in on the most common questions.
“Hi, I am Joyce, level one adventurer. I am good at body magic, but my forte lies in a wide field of spells. If you want something destroyed in a flashy manner, I am your man, eh, woman! I am also better than most at reconnaissance.”
Norwick raises his bushy eyebrows, but his harsh face doesn't show any other reaction. “You are the chick who beat up that sorry excuse of a level four and became level one in a day. Hmpf, you are probably stronger than level four. Do you feel like you can keep up with level five and level six adventurers?”
I am not sure? “I've no reference to go on.”
“Make a barrier, a large one.”
I don't get the time to finish my question. Norwick jumps up into the air, much higher and farther than I would have expected from someone with such stubby legs. I throw up my hands and weave a quick barrier against physical objects. Blue energy flares and a flat disk with a diameter of five metres snaps into existence. The dwarf bounces off with a grunt and lands rather unceremoniously.
But he is instantly back to his feet and charges the barrier with an impressive battlescream. My barrier flickers when he uses his entire body as a ram. Swearing, I see myself forced to enhance the barrier with a second layer. Then he starts pummelling the shield with his fists. At the third strike he stops and grunts with satisfaction. After considering me for a moment, he gives the barrier a loving pat. “Good barrier. You'll join Tristen's team. They are missing a mage.”
I drop the barrier and nod, scowling inwardly. After yesterday's discussion with Fae and Kiara, I found them to be tolerable, but the paladin in their group is a nuisance. What was his name? Brian. I need to have a word with him about using his flashy light spell. “I'll do my best.”
Then I head over to the waiting group. With me, they are now a complete team of six, just like the other two parties. I try to smile upon approaching them. They were close enough to listen in on my assignment, so I get straight to the point. “Hi, seems like we are comrades from now on. Do you have any particular wishes about my role in the party?”
Tristen clears his throat. “Greetings, oh beautiful mage. And yes. We already have Halberd and Brian as our front-line bruisers. Together with Kiara's pets, they pretty much cover our close combat needs. Kiara can fight by herself, but she mostly relies on tamed monsters. Fae is our only real ranged fighter. She can imbue her arrows with magic and has some impressive magical abilities, but she is not good when it gets personal.
“Ideally, your role would be to stay with Kiara and Fae to cover them with that barrier of yours. It would be great if you can cast a few area of effect spells, but the barrier alone will make the battle much easier. Until now I always had to dart back and forth to assist Kiara and Fae in tight situations. As a rogue, I show my full potential when our ranged fighters don't get knocked over by a single enemy who manages to close the distance.”
Wow! That was a long speech, even from Tristen. I smile. “I guess that I can do that. I only wonder why Norwick assigned me so eagerly to your group. There are several other mages as far as I observed.”
“Yes, but nobody who can create a barrier as strong as yours. Do you see that guy over there?” Fae points at a man in red robes. “He is a level five and would've been assigned to us if you hadn't shown off with your barrier. Unlike you, he is a glass cannon. We don't need that in our party configuration. Most of the others are just level two or level three. Small fry. The only other mentionable mage on this adventure is the demoness in Norwick's party. She is a level ten and probably the only one who can match your defensive capabilities.”
Halberd nods. “Norwick is from the Iron Anvil family. They are good fighters and no fools who judge an adventurer just by his level. Given enough time, anyone can rise in level. After seeing your fight with Chaz, he probably determined that you can complement our group. Otherwise Norwick would've been forced to assign a whole bunch of fighters to assist us. The other choice would've been to assemble a completely new group. But given the available people, that group would be weaker than ours is now. He wants someone strong to take the rear.”
I shift uncomfortably. “Is all this preparation really necessary? It feels as if we're expecting a large scale attack.”
Kiara shrugs. “I told you that this trip won't be fun. Whoever attacked the last two expeditions was strong. Better to be prepared than to be sorry.”
I guess that's true. “Then I'll go and get my cart.” I am sure that all three men in the group were surprised by my declaration, but I ignore them. It takes just a little while to return with my possessions.
Halberd shakes his head. “How do you intend to fight on that thing?”
I look at the cart. “Not at all? It's for transport. I hate riding. When I mined in the mountains, I also used a cart. Unfortunately, it broke down a while ago. When I have to fight, I'll jump off and use my body magic to run. Over a short distance, I am much faster than any lemu.”
The dwarf shakes his head. “You are a strange one, lass.”
We talk while Norwick organizes the rest of the carvan. It takes until midday until we are assigned to our position at the rear. It's our job to look out for dangers and to alert the leading group if there is trouble with the merchants. Norwick's biggest concern is that some idiot decides to rest while the caravan travels on, something that happens quite often according to him.
I use the chance to make some modifications to my new armour and to my weapon. Both of them won't do me any good in their current state. First are the enchantments to lighten their weight. Then I add magical defences and barriers to increase the defensive capabilities.
All of that could be easily achieved by casting spells, but having an enchanted item saves time and concentration. All I have to do, is to feed it power. The same applies to my mask. I keep working in my cart while the caravan travels east.
The fact that I busy myself with work also saves me from committing additional blunders which could impede my chosen identity. During the first day, we have to stop the caravan several times to wait for stragglers.
It becomes better on the second day. But I suppose that's only because we entered the dark Marshwoods, which cover a large distance of our treck. Not even the laziest merchant wants to stay behind in this forest. The trees are high and their trunks are too big to put my arms around. I can immediately tell that this is an old forest.
The underbrush restricts our vision and in some places the trail narrows down to the width of my cart. The environment is depressing.
Several times, something brushes just at the edge of my senses. I dismiss it the first two times, but at the third I am sure that I didn't imagine it. I put down my chisel which I used to engrave runes into my shield. Looking around, I focus my attention on Kiara. “Do you sense anything? I feel like something is following us at a respectful distance.”
She nods. “Yes. It's a fellbear. I am tracking it with Tonto.” She gestures at the black bird which is following us by flying from branch to branch. So its name is Tonto? What a cheerful name for a pet which eats eyeballs.
Kiara turns around and studies the trail behind us. “I don't think that it's an adult one, otherwise it would've attacked a while ago. This is a youngster who searches for easy prey. It won't attack unless someone separates from the caravan.”
For a moment I consider to ask what a fellbear is, but I dismiss it. It would just show that I don't know much about the world outside a city. If the animal attacks, I'll find out.
So I return my attention to my work until the last daylight fades away and the caravan puts up camp on a glade. The adventurers camp at the perimeter, while the merchants get the comfortable and safe spots in the centre.
The sky is clear, so I don’t bother with a tent. Instead, I sleep on the carriage.
Our first night in the Marshwoods passes without incident and I wake up when the morning sun teases me awake. I grumble and get up, just to witness a commotion. Several adventurers are having a wild discussion with Kiara and several others in the middle of it.
Norwick is eyeing them with his arms crossed in front of his chest. He doesn’t look happy.
I slide off the carriage and yawn. Then I try to find out what’s going on. Upon reaching the group of people, I notice the corpse on the ground. It’s a man, at least I think that it’s a man. Hard to tell with all the blood and gore. The leather armour was ripped open like the packaging of a Christmas present. Something took its time and chewed off all the fleshy parts, including the face.
Well, I’ll be damned. Looks like the night wasn’t so uneventful after all. And I slept right through the fun!