When Isra woke up, it took her a moment to realize where she was. It was her second time staying at an inn, her second time in any house that wasn’t her own, really, and it was strange just how disorienting it was. Isra had camped out in the woods plenty of times, and she had never felt the sheer sense of dislocation that she experienced that morning in their small room in the Hare’s Rump inn. Gradually though, she came to herself, and listened to the birds chirping outside the window. They were tame creatures, scavengers of the town, but pleasant all the same, in the way of birds.
Alfric was still sleeping at first light, but he stirred as soon as Isra began moving. They had decided to share a room, which had taken a little negotiation, in part because they were so unsure of each other. Isra had worried, briefly, about sharing a room with a man, but Alfric hadn’t had so much as a brief moment of physical contact with her. She had wondered, as she was about to drift off to sleep, whether she needed to be worried.
In the morning light, things were more clear. Isra had woken in the middle of the night and seen Alfric sitting up straight, but she’d fallen back asleep, and wondered whether she had dreamed it. He hadn’t crossed to her side of the room. The dagger she’d kept beneath her pillow hadn’t needed to be drawn.
“Alright,” said Alfric as he stretched out. He went to look out the window and judge the time of day. “Early start then?”
“Yes,” replied Isra. “Breakfast on the road.”
Alfric frowned at that, but said nothing, and Isra decided not to inquire. She wondered whether he hadn’t brought his own food with, but if he hadn’t, then he was in luck, because she’d brought plenty to share. It was better not to inquire, given that there were so many mistakes she might inadvertently make. Even offering him food was a risk, since it might mark her as weird in some unexpected way. Her father hadn’t had enough time to teach her all the ways to avoid missteps. Silence was the easiest path, she’d found.
“I think the others will be happy with the results of the sale,” said Alfric as they took their first steps away from Tarchwood. “Even if it’s quite a bit less than I thought. Still a windfall.” He glanced at the bow on her back, but said nothing about it. She looked at his pack, which had the large book, now with many of its pages filled with rocks. He’d found that odd, but she didn’t care. “It’ll make it easier to convince the holdouts that it makes sense to do more dungeons.”
“Mmm,” said Isra. She now knew Alfric better than the others, if only by virtue of the scant conversation she’d had with him during the twelve miles of walking they’d done thus far. “It’s easy money.”
“There’s some risk,” Alfric admitted. “It’s easy money until it isn’t. One bad dungeon and everyone winds up dead.”
“Does that happen?” asked Isra. She kept her voice level, but the thought of it made her heart beat a bit faster. There could be anything in the dungeons, that was part of the allure, as she understood it, and if you found something that you couldn’t fight, or worse, that you couldn’t run from … well, she could understand how a person could die. The creatures there were so wrong, so disordered.
“Every now and then,” said Alfric. “You hear stories. Usually it’s younger groups that go places that are too tough for them. Sometimes there’s an uproar, and people try to put a stop to it. The League does help stop the worst of it, but they’re a bit of a trivial roadblock. Between the entads and the ectads, there’s too much profit to be had. We made out well in terms of rings, but the things we sold will almost immediately turn into profit for the people we sold them to, to the tune of twenty to thirty percent. They’d no more shut down the dungeons than they would shut down the mines or stop the foresters from chopping trees or — well, I hope you get the point.”
“There’s nothing from the dungeons that people need to live,” said Isra. She was thinking of her own trade, hunting. If she was forced to stop, it would mean less meat in the village, and people did need meat to live.
“Well, yes and no,” said Alfric. “Strictly speaking, I suppose you’re right, but those pipes we took from the dungeon will be used to make waterstones, and without those, people would be reduced to drinking well water, or river water.”
“I drink water from the stream,” said Isra.
“Oh, well,” said Alfric. “Is that … safe?”
“Why wouldn’t it be?” asked Isra. She was getting that tight feeling, like she’d once again said something wrong.
“Disease, I thought,” said Alfric.
“In the cities, maybe,” Isra replied. “So long as people follow the rituals, there should be no problem.”
“The rituals?” asked Alfric.
“For waste,” Isra replied.
“Oh,” said Alfric, in a way that suggested he didn’t know the rituals for waste, or thought her odd for mentioning it.
They walked in silence for a bit. That was how it went with Alfric, and seemed to be how he preferred to spend their time together, silence punctuated by verbalizations. They were silences that she didn’t particularly like, because it seemed as though he was carrying on the conversation in his head, looking for ways to keep it going, which made her feel uneasy.
The silence was interrupted though, as a rustling of grass came from the grazing field beside them. By the time a ball of black fur leapt up over the stone wall, Alfric had his sword drawn and Isra’s dagger was in her hand.
It had to turn a bit to find them, but when it did, the dog started barking its head off.
“Back!” shouted Alfric, brandishing his sword. He lowered the point of it, aiming it at the dog, which was barking ferociously and showing teeth.
Isra slipped her dagger back into its sheath and stepped forward. “That’s not how you handle a dog,” she said. She moved to step in front of Alfric, between him and the dog, while the dog continued his barking. “Stop,” she said, using her best commanding voice.
The dog stopped immediately, closing his mouth and straightening up somewhat to look at her.
“Sit,” she said.
The dog sat on his haunches, now fully at attention. Isra got closer and stooped down, patting him softly on the head, then feeling around his neck for a collar, finding none. She frowned slightly, then stood back.
“You’re not a wild dog,” she said to the dog. “Someone should have put a collar on you. Go back to your owner.”
Without another sound, the dog hopped back over the stone wall and could be heard rustling through the grass, away from them. Isra turned to Alfric with a smile, but he was staring at her, and her smile fell.
“What?” she asked.
“How did you do that?” he asked.
“Have you never had a dog?” she asked. “They must be less common in the city.”
“That is not how you handle a dog,” said Alfric. “How did you — how did he know what you were saying?”
“They’re very intelligent creatures,” Isra replied. “More than birds or cats.”
“Yes, but,” Alfric said. “You can’t just get a dog to stop by telling him to stop.”
“You can,” said Isra, feeling confused. “I did. If you haven’t been around dogs before — you just tell them and they listen. Say it like a command.” She started walking again. Seeing the dog had made her feel good, though she’d have been happier if she’d been able to return him to his owner. They were new, strange people walking by his pasture, he hadn’t meant anything by coming at them. Alfric’s questions, and further, his insistence that she’d done something wrong, rankled. People talked to dogs, she knew they did, it was something she’d seen a dozen times before. There was nothing that should have been confusing or strange about it. She found herself walking a little bit faster than strictly necessary, and the way that Alfric lengthened his stride to catch up made her feel even worse, like he was chasing her.
“Sorry,” he said, once they were walking side by side, still at an unsustainably fast pace.
Isra slowed. “It’s how you deal with dogs,” she said.
“Okay,” he said. “I’ll have to trust you on that.”
There was more of the slightly uncomfortable silence between them, but it gave Isra a chance to think. She had grown up in the woods with her father, and never spent very much time with other children. She had always felt that her father had taught her well, but when it came to other people, she was on uneven ground. Her father had friends, especially later in her life, but they were perhaps not the best to learn social matters from. It had never been clear to Isra just what her father had done back east, but clearly he’d been educated, and he’d raised her to know much about the world. And still, she felt like there were simple things she knew nothing about. Over the past year, she had discovered the Pucklechurch library, where books could be borrowed freely, and she’d been making full use of them, enjoying the strange people and their strange customs. It gave her some insight into the people of Pucklechurch, she thought.
She had also learned, through experience, which things were safe to talk about and which needed to be avoided. Animals were a sticking point, and the merchants were stingy, always ready to argue about whether her meat was good or what kind of furs she had, even when it was perfectly obvious. There was an herbalist that sold various tinctures and dried roots, and Isra steered clear of her after they’d had a rather heated altercation. The tinctures and roots did next to nothing, and Isra couldn’t understand why people were convinced by words when their own senses should have told them otherwise. She had learned that people had their rituals and their mysterious ways, and you weren’t supposed to question them. She hadn’t figured out why the herbalist sold these things, or why everyone seemed to accept it, but she’d come to accept it as one of those subjects which would make things awkward if it was brought up, even in the most gentle of ways.
“Are all animals like that?” asked Alfric.
“Like what?” asked Isra.
“You said that dogs were smart,” he said. “But do they all … listen to you?”
Isra thought about that. “I don’t know what you mean,” she said. She didn’t know what he meant, but it was also a safe answer, one that wouldn’t invite ridicule.
“If you,” began Alfric, hesitating. “If you told the birds to get off your roof, would they listen to you?”
“Why would I ask them to do that?” asked Isra.
“I don’t know,” said Alfric. “It was just an example.”
“Part of the reason I get along with the birds is that I don’t tell them what to do,” said Isra.
Alfric fell silent again, and Isra wondered whether it was him that wasn’t making sense, or her. He came from some enormous city to the north, and from what she knew of enormous cities, they had far less in the way of both plants and animals. Tame plants and tame animals. As of the day before, the largest city that Isra had been to was Tarchwood, which was nearly ten times the size of Pucklechurch, but still a small place in comparison with Dondrian. Isra’s father had come from a city to the east, but hadn’t spoken of it all that much, especially not as Isra got older. She got the sense it was a place that he wanted to forget, even as he still celebrated some elements of its culture. Few birds in the city though, few animals. She wondered how they got along.
“When a woman goes off into the wilderness and has a child alone,” said Alfric. He was speaking slowly and deliberately. “If the child is then kept from other people for several years, it gains a connection to nature.”
“My mother didn’t have a child alone,” said Isra.
“Well, yes,” said Alfric. “I was listening when you said that yesterday. But … do you think that you might be a druid?”
“No,” said Isra. She paused, wondering whether the question would get her one of those pitying or befuddled looks that people occasionally gave her. “What’s a druid?”
“I’m not sure I should say anything, because I would probably just embarrass myself,” said Alfric. “But from what I know, they have command of plants and animals, along with some sense of the natural landscape.”
Isra frowned. That didn’t sound like her. “And you think I’m one of those, because of the dog?” she asked.
“I don’t know,” said Alfric. “But if you are a druid, or you have that power, then … well, that would be surprising, but also important.”
“Would it?” asked Isra. “Why?” So far, Alfric had not laughed at her for her ignorance or strangeness. He hadn’t scoffed or narrowed his eyes in frustration. That was a strong point in his favor.
“You would be able to use it,” said Alfric. “Some of the things in the dungeons, surely they count as plants or animals, don’t they? If it’s a skill you have, it’s a fairly rare one. You could meet other druids, learn from them —”
“And if I like my life as it is?” asked Isra.
Alfric faltered. “And … do you?”
“I do,” replied Isra, with more conviction than she felt. There were rather a lot of rings stored away that formed the basis of an unexamined plan. She hadn’t quite decided what the plan was, only that it needed money. East, to Tarbin, where her family was, or perhaps somewhere else, where she could start fresh. A place where she wouldn’t feel compelled to hide from people who came near her house.
“Then I don’t want to dissuade you. But why are you going into the dungeons with us?” asked Alfric.
Isra hesitated. “It’s good pay for not much work,” she said. “Like you said.”
The entire year following her father’s death had been a blur. She wasn’t entirely sure how, at thirteen, she had survived it. Her father had friends, and they checked on her from time to time, but none of them had tried to take her in, and she hadn’t made the request. Instead, she hunted as she’d been taught to, foraged the verdant forests, and narrowly made it through the winter with the foodstuffs she had put up with her father. Her father had died in late summer, before they could harvest the autumnal bounty, but the work they’d done in spring and summer had been with the anticipation of feeding two mouths rather than one. It had been enough. That had been the time of the horrendous theft, but the thief had left the food, at least, alone.
In the four years after that, Isra found a rhythm to her days, and to the seasons. She went hunting and foraging, did skinning and tanning, made repairs to the house, went into the market every three days like clockwork, and stored away the rings she made. There were always things to do. When she was fifteen, she made a stone fishing weir across one of the local rivers and for that entire summer, smoked and sold whatever she couldn’t eat. When she was sixteen, she took a bounty on a black bear that had been rooting around Pucklechurch and brought it across the hex boundary, admonishing it to be good. At seventeen, she’d taken up collecting in a more serious manner, spending much of her free time looking for specific stones and plants, putting the former up on the shelves, and pressing the latter in her books.
Seventeen had also been the year that Isra had finally bought a freezer, which had changed things more than she’d expected it to. Being able to keep large quantities of meat in her house meant that she was able to make more on market days, and also meant that she was able to do more with larger game. She had always found hunting to be fairly easy, at least in comparison to how much puffery there was about it from other people, and in no time, the freezer was full, and then she was bringing so much meat to market that she couldn’t sell it all.
And through the rhythms of the days and the longer rhythms of the seasons, Isra was mostly happy. When she turned eighteen and celebrated her birthday alone, she didn’t feel sad that the celebration was happening without anyone to share it. What she felt instead was a sense that her life might continue on forever like this, each year the same as the last, and that brought a definite dissatisfaction. Something was missing, but she hadn’t been able to put her finger on what. She had started saving up the money after that, without knowing where it would eventually go.
“A party tends to be more than just a money-making venture,” said Alfric. “It’s inevitable, with the channel, with how much time you spend together … there’s more than just the individual abilities of those involved and their ability to clear a dungeon, or whatever they’ve come together to do.”
“Friends,” said Isra.
“Well, possibly,” said Alfric. “But if not friends, then at least something like family to each other. The channel is a part of it. Being able to speak to each other at will, even when you’re some distance from each other means that the people you speak to most often are the ones in your party.”
“You can’t leave family,” said Isra.
“Of course you can,” said Alfric. “But I agree, the bonds of a party, especially a short term one like we have now, are far easier to break.”
“And this is what you want?” asked Isra. “This is what you came to Pucklechurch to create?”
“No,” said Alfric. “I came to find a team, and it seems that I’ll be more lucky than I thought I’d be, especially if you really are, somehow, a druid. But a stable party inevitably becomes something more. Dungeoneering runs in my blood, as I think I’ve mentioned, and growing up the members of my parents’ parties were like aunts and uncles to me.”
“They didn’t adventure together, your parents?” asked Isra.
“No,” said Alfric. “With their skills, they would have been doubling up on a role. It was better for them to each have their own party.”
Isra wondered what that role was, but Alfric didn’t offer it, and she had some sense that his thoughts had escaped him.
Isra hadn’t known her mother, and her father never spoke much of the old days. They had both been from Tarbin though, had escaped, in her father’s words, and back there, they had been people of some means and education, which Isra had been slow to understand as she got older. Isra’s father had trained her as she got older, and sometimes it felt like that was the only way for them to relate to each other. Her father had been somewhat short on affection, at least in comparison to what she saw from some of the children in Pucklechurch.
Yet even as she got older, Isra hadn’t felt a longing for other children or a keen loneliness that she sometimes read of people having in stories. A party was, in some sense, unwelcome, as was the channel, having people able to speak into her head at their whim. She enjoyed being solitary, and whatever it was she found disagreeable about living her life as she had over the last five years, she was fairly sure that joining a party was not the cure. That was especially so when the party had these particular four other people in it. Hannah spoke too much and Mizuki had the wrong kind of energy, and while Verity had a grace and poise that Isra could appreciate, there was something alien about her, perhaps because she, like Alfric, was from the city.
Isra did like Alfric though, or at least had come to appreciate the way that he operated. He was very direct and straightforward. He hadn’t made any comments on her appearance, nor asked about her headscarf, and he exuded a competence and professionalism that the others did not. With Alfric, there was little in the way of frippery or filler. He hadn’t lied to her about obvious things, in the way that people sometimes did.
There was wildlife all around them as they walked, especially as the farmland became less prominent. Alfric, like most people, pretended not to see or feel it. A family of long-legged skinks hid beneath a hedge, a stub-necked squirrel raced up a tree, and a flock of night birds sat motionless on a tree, waiting for the sun to fall. Isra looked at the plants too, trying to see if there was anything they didn’t have in Pucklechurch. Most of the trees were the usual mix of ash, larch, birch, and aspens, but there were a small handful of the migrant trees that moved a foot a day, and some of the wild puckleberries and burstberries were of different varieties. Isra thought about what Alfric had said, about druids being able to see the world. But if she were a druid, then what did he see when he looked around him?
“Do you want to talk about the fact that you might be a druid?” asked Alfric, several miles later.
“You said that it happened only when a woman birthed a child alone in the woods,” said Isra. “My father was with us.”
“Yes, I was thinking about that,” said Alfric. “But I don’t know enough to know whether that’s only the typical case, or if there might not be some other ways for it to happen. We’d have to find someone knowledgeable to discuss it with. Perhaps if there’s only a single parent, that’s enough.”
“Perhaps,” said Isra. The exact methods to produce a druid did not interest her at all. “You think I should find another druid.”
“I do,” said Alfric. “They’re the subject matter experts. They would be able to tell if you really were a druid, or if you might be something else, and they could give you some insights into how to increase your power. Though …”
“Yes?” asked Isra.
“Druids aren’t usually,” he paused. “Hunters.”
“No?” asked Isra.
“They’re typically vegetarians, I think,” said Alfric. “I’m not sure why. Of all the people with some kind of aetheric talent, druids are probably the ones I know the least about. For obvious reasons, they’re rare within the city. I don’t know how far you’d have to be from Dondrian to be able to be a mile away from another person, which I think I read was the minimum.”
It sounded horrible to Isra. She often spent some time in Pucklechurch on market days once she was done selling what she had, either visiting the temple to make her prayers, or the library for a fresh book, or the stores to pick up things she couldn’t make herself, especially anything metal. Even that small amount of people sometimes felt suffocating by the time the day was through. Once, Isra had come into town during one of the large regional celebrations and been immediately overwhelmed by the crowds of people from who-knew-where. She’d lasted thirty minutes before stalking back off into the woods.
That was what she imagined Dondrian being, all of the time, only bigger, more crowded, noisier, and with buildings that towered above her like large cliffs.
“Did you enjoy living in the city?” asked Isra, after another of their periodic bouts of silence. They had started up the hill at the hex border, having to go through a long, winding path to get to the inconvenient edge.
“It’s faster there,” said Alfric. “More … ordered. There are aspects of it I miss already, and others that I wouldn’t be sad to never see again. Sometimes in the city it feels like everything is constantly calling for your attention, and at the same time, it feels like everyone is also ignoring you.” They crossed another few paces. “But I can see already that there’s less of the rich variety you get in the city. Even Tarchwood had only three stores of note for adventurers. In Dondrian, there are entad emporiums and a whole quarter of the city devoted to ectads. There are stores that specialize in not just henlings, but specific kinds of henlings, with enormous amounts of selection and choice. I’d always known how spoiled for choice we were, but I’m not sure that it really set in until yesterday.”
“Yesterday you said that Dondrian had dangerous dungeons,” said Isra. “Too dangerous for people to go into.”
“Yes, of course,” said Alfric, nodding. “Too much magic floating around means the dungeons are supercharged.”
“Then where do these things come from?” asked Isra. “How are these warehouses filled?”
“Oh,” said Alfric. “Well, from people like us, or if not quite like us, then close. Teams go out into the world and engage in dungeoneering, clearing as many as they can before injuries or apathy catch up with them, and the entads, ectads, henlings, and other things eventually flow back toward Dondrian, where the people are, or a smaller city, like Plenarch. Some of what we sold yesterday will be kept as stock in those stores, but quite a bit of it will flow through portals and down leylines until it makes its way to one of those cities.”
Isra thought that was an interesting view of the world, but had no idea whether or not it actually made sense. She simply didn’t know enough about the wider world. She didn’t think she particularly liked the viewpoint though, not if it meant that places like Pucklechurch existed partly to funnel things to a big city somewhere very far away. Perhaps that was what it looked like to the citizens of Dondrian, but Isra brought meat and furs to the people of Pucklechurch, and none of that was sold on to someone far away. Was it? Isra supposed that she didn’t actually know.
“Anyhow,” said Alfric. “One of the big benefits of going into the dungeons is that we get the best pick of what’s there, and all it costs is our labor and the risk we’re taking, which isn’t actually all that high. The bow you have would probably have fetched more than all the rest combined at auction. If we can convince the others that it’s worth it to do more, we’ll be practically dripping in entads by the end of it.”
“The end of it?” asked Isra.
“Well, you know,” said Alfric. “People slow down, get old, want to start families.” He shrugged. “I don’t expect we’ll stay together forever, especially not as things are now, but five or ten years is realistic if we can make it through the next month or two. And if it crumbles, I’ll have bona fides and equipment that will help me find a more … professional party.”
“Your parents still do this though,” said Isra.
“Yes, they do,” he said. “But they don’t have the same hunger for it that I do, almost no one their age does. Mom does ten dungeons a year, if that, though they’re longer, more dangerous ones. Dad aims for fifteen and always ends up doing less.” He shrugged. “But I expect when I’m their age, I’ll be doing the same. They say once you hit fifty, your career as a dungeoneer can be considered over, and both my parents are approaching that.”
“Eventually you run out of dungeons,” said Isra.
“Well, yes, that too,” said Alfric. “Right now, we’re looking at the low-hanging fruit, the simple ones like the Pucklechurch dungeon that shouldn't cause problems. But the more we do, the more we’ll end up ranging, and there’s travel times to consider until you get a travel entad, or can purchase one. Even then, it’s pretty rare to be able to cut out travel times completely. Ideally you’re able to chart a path that allows a dungeon a day or sometimes, two, but that can only last for a limited amount of time, because there aren’t that many hexes in the world, and a lot of them are either impossible to get to or too dangerous to attempt.”
That Alfric seemed to like talking about dungeons seemed like an understatement, but Isra found herself not minding too much. Her least favorite part of talking with others was the pleasantries that they felt the need to lob back and forth at every opportunity. It had never been like that with her father: if there was nothing to say, they would stay silent. When things needed to be communicated, especially from someone who knew a lot to someone who didn’t, conversation felt a lot more pleasant, at least to Isra.
“Your parents were both dungeoneers,” said Isra. “Why aren’t you better equipped?”
“Ah,” said Alfric. He faltered. “Two reasons. The first is that my parents didn’t want me to depend too heavily on their support. The boots and the sword were a gift, as was the shield and my armor, but they didn’t offer more than that, and I think that if I’d tried to press them on it, they’d have given me a lecture far before they’d given me any of their more valuable entads. I was given money, but only just enough to settle myself. I do sorely need something for travel though, especially so that the team can be called in. The second reason is that the feeling of going into a dungeon and gathering new gear for yourself is, to them, something that makes you appreciate what you’ve earned. Once I get a good suit of armor for myself, something that resizes to me, at the very least, I’ll know that it was gained through the sweat of my brow. The same goes for a travel entad, and a storage entad if we find something better than the book, and entads that work with our own particular talents.”
“You think your parents were right,” said Isra.
“Yes,” said Alfric. “Absolutely. They were good parents, with many valuable lessons. Our family has a fair amount of prominence in Dondrian, and there’s a good reason for that. Honesty, disclosure, hard work, self-reliance, duty to others … I do my best to live by those values. Part of that means making my own way and not strolling into my first dungeon dressed in half the family armory.”
They saved their breath as they went up the hill, taking the path as it came. At a certain point they had to climb a set of stone steps. The path would have been impossible for a cart and the lizard that would pull it, and Isra wondered how much time it would add on the journey to and from Tarchwood to go through a pass in the hills somewhere.
They took a break at the top of the hills, by the markers for the hex boundary. Isra drank from her waterskin, and Alfric from his. Their packs were lighter, but the hill had been higher, and quite a bit steeper. Alfric still had the storage book, and Isra felt bad that he was having to carry it, but he did so without complaint.
“Sorry for not showing trust,” she said.
“No, it’s fine,” Alfric replied. “I understand. We don’t know each other, and it’s a lot of rings. I can’t say I’d have done the same, but I don’t fault you for it. Sorry if it was a waste of your time.”
Isra shrugged. “It’s further than I’ve ever been from home.” She had gathered quite a few rocks from that beach as well, and in the course of their wandering, had seen many more things that she would like to bring home with her. She had never quite realized how different it could be such a short way from Pucklechurch.
“I’m sorry if I offended you, speaking about druids like that,” said Alfric. “I do think you have a gift, but … I could have phrased it better.”
Isra shrugged. “I don’t know if you’re right.”
“I don’t either,” said Alfric. “But if you need help, or want me to find a druid for you to speak to, I’ll do what I can. Part of being members of a party together means you support each other.”
Isra felt a bit of warmth at hearing those words. From Alfric, she felt like she could trust them. “And you?” she asked. “Do you need support?”
“I need for us to do more dungeons,” said Alfric. “Anything that helps make that happen, I’ll consider support.”
“Deal,” said Isra, nodding. She packed her water away and went to the gate, continuing on home.