6 August, 2008
I haven’t posted up any short stories in a while. I found an old one I had worked on previously and figured I’d post it up for the enjoyment of all.
Caravan of Lost Sousl
I knew I had found it as soon as I was immersed the unnatural blue light. The caravan’s glow made the surrounding area look even less tangible than it already did in the storm in the darkest of night. After asking a few wandering people, mostly drunk, I finally found my way to the inn where the master was himself drinking.
The inn was a humble structure, made of rough wood fastened onto strong beams. Torches sputtered along the walls as rain leaked in from the ceiling. There was a low bar with a barkeep and barmaid lounging around lazily. In the back was a draped door leading to what one assumes would be a common sleeping room. The main room was full of rough wooden tables made of bound planks of wood on a single central leg, with low stools around each table. Sawdust covered the crude wood floor, which was cracked and warped in a few places. The room was barely occupied, a few people in groups who were generally sleeping more than they were drinking.
I saw him in the far corner of the main room away from the doors, tankard in hand and a wide area abandoned around him. No one dared sit near him, probably fearful that the blue glow that overpowered even the nearby torches would possibly contaminate them. Even I, a schooled adept of no minor power, felt ill about approaching him. I considered running off for a moment, but gripped my book tightly and found my courage.
“You are… the caravan master?” I said hesitantly as I approached.
“’Course I am, boy, you see anyone else around here glowin’?” he responded in a gruff voice. He tipped the tankard up and drained it dry as I stood there.
I was paralyzed a moment, words had abandoned me but then came to my senses. “Yes, a dumb question,” I admitted.
“Admittin’ it makes you smarter than most I’ve seen,” he replied then looked at me expectantly.
What should I say? “Allow me to buy you another ale,” my mouth finally said without my mind seeming to make any decisions in the matter.
“Smart boy. Keep this up and I’ll be sharin’ my secrets with you yet,” he said to me with a sly smile. “Maybe not all of ‘em, though.”
I nodded dumbly and set down my book. Reaching into my robes, I took out my money pouch. I had a few coppers and one last gold piece to my name. The voyage here had been expensive, but I hoped it would be worth it. Somehow managing to catch the barmaid’s attention, I held up my companion’s empty tankard. She gave me a lazy nod of acknowledgement.
Lowering myself onto the stool near me, I let out a weary sigh. The dawn of the day had seen me start my travels, and the road had not been easy. I had gone as fast as I could in order to make it here in time to catch the caravan before it moved off. I might be sore because of it, but I was not going to let this opportunity escape me now that I was so close. A rote glamour opened my book and got out my quill and ink from their places in my travel pack.
“Do you get many questions?” I asked, trying to be conversational.
“Not particularly, no,” the caravan master replied. “Most folk don’t like bein’ near, as you an see. But, you aren’t most folk, are you?”
Staring at his pale face, I shook my head in response.
“The scars are barely even healed, seems. They mean you focused on illusions at the College, right?” he asked.
“Yes. You know about thaumaturgy, I presume?”
“Boy, you learn a lot of things in my line of work. ‘Specially with my caravan,” he chuckled. He went to take a drink from the tankard, but found it still empty and scowled a bit. We sat in awkward silence for a minute or so.
The barmaid finally came over with a new tankard of ale. I pulled out my last gold and handed it to the barmaid. “Bring me a plate of bread and cheese, and keep my companion’s tankard as full as he wants it.”
“His companion wants it as full as you can keep it,” the caravan master replied with a wink. So much for the rest of my money. This had better go well or tomorrow I will be laboring for my lodging and food.
“Certainly,” she replied looking at me and ignoring the caravan master. She probably recognized my robes and didn’t trust my kind, especially one cavorting with the caravan master. Not that I really blamed her, some that wear the robes are not always kind to the powerless.
I inked my quill and started to scratch a fey glyph into the table using a mug stain as the sustaining circle. I added a few flourishes and knew that would not be disturbed by just anyone.
“Impressive bit o’ work there,” the caravan master said after I was done.
“You know what it is?”
“Yeah, nice hex there. I see you let the waitress in, though. They teach you kids good these days. I can recognize ‘em, but I can’t draw ‘em like that.”
I nodded. It wasn’t anything powerful or permanent, but it was something beyond the reach of most other graduates of the College. I studied the glyph again with a bit of pride.
“So… what is it?” I finally asked, breaking the short silence.
“What is what?” the caravan master responded.
“You know, the caravan. What is it?”
“It’s a caravan! Guess you’re not as bright as I thought.”
I ground my teeth together before I stopped myself. I was letting my fatigue get the better part of me. “I mean, what do you know of its history?”
“Oh, why didn’t you say? Anythin’ in particular you want to know?” he said around another swallow of ale.
“Well, where did it come from?”
The caravan master laughed, then pulled a long drink from his tankard. “Nobody knows that, not even someone like myself. That truth’s lost.”
“Ah,” I said, considering his words. “But, you are not the first caravan master, right?”
“No, I was once a mortal like you. Well, not ‘xactly like you, I was to be a barber,” he said in a slightly disconnected voice. “Not, you know… scarred,” he finished in a hoarse whisper. It was odd that someone like him had the simplistic peasant fear of my profession. I nodded politely.
“When did you, uh, become the caravan master?”
“Oh, maybe ‘bout 20 years by your reckonin’,” he said. “Maybe 21.”
“And it was given to you by the previous caravan master?” I asked carefully.
“Yeah,” he nodded and stared me in the eye. “This leadin’ where I think it is, boy?”
“Could be,” I hedged. “I had heard rumors….”
“Yeah, rumors. Well, they’re mostly true. So here you are, askin’ the questions to see what you could be getting into, eh?”
I nodded. Just then the barmaid came over with a full tankard and my dinner plate. She gave me a bright smile as she set down the food and drink then gave a small curtsey as she walked away. She probably struck the coin I gave her and found out it was real. More money than this place sees in a week.
The caravan master’s eyes followed her as she crossed the room back to the bar. “That’s the thing I thought I’d miss the most, but I don’t really,” he said without taking his eyes off her.
“How do you mean?” I asked in my naivety.
“The wenches like that. She looks particularly lusty.”
“Oh, I can. Just few enough of ‘em want to get near. They fear the ‘taint’, as some call it.”
“Of the caravan?”
“Yeah. They think it’s some forsaken disease they can catch. Except for a few who find it appealing. They tend to be the real bizarre ones, though,” he said with a dirty smirk.
“Oh,” I muttered, focusing on cutting off a bit of cheese and bread to make a little sandwich. I crammed it into my mouth to avoid the conversation while he kept his eyes on the barmaid.
“Too bad,” he muttered to the air.
I swallowed my food and looked at some of the notes in my book. “Where do, uh, they come from?” This was perhaps the oldest of my questions.
“Oh, all over, really. One of ‘em says it was an ancient death cult that caused them to be here. People wantin’ to cross the void, but wanting to come back. Well, they come back to serve the caravan.”
“So you can talk to them?” I asked. That was my second oldest question I had been preparing.
“Oh, sure. Not that I really like it. I thought it’d be fun at first.”
“At first?” I asked, a bit disappointed.
“Oh, sure. The problem’s most of ‘em ain’t the savory type, if you know my meanin’,” he said with a chuckle. “I think perhaps they were turned away from both the Pale and the Jet gates, and they have to work off their sins.”
“I see,” I said, scratching down a few notes in my book. “But, you do not consider yourself a sinner like they are?”
“I won’t claim to be one of the beatified,” he said, “but I lived clean. Even now I don’t use the caravan to terrorize people, as the stories say some of the old masters did.”
I frowned a bit, remembering the stories he was referring to. “So, you have some control over the caravan?”
“Not really, no,” he said. “The caravan goes where it wants. It needs to be at certain places at certain times to collect some of the souls and leave others. I can divert it slightly, as long as it gets to where it needs to go in time.”
I raised my eyebrows at him. “But, you trade, right?”
“Yeah,” he nodded and drank again from his tankard. “But, I just make good decisions. Buy up cheap goods, or buy up goods I know will be in demand soon. After 20 years, I’ve learned prices for goods and can spot a bargain.”
That made sense. I inked my quill again and scratched down a few more notes into my book. I cut off a bit more bread and cheese and ate it.
“So, let me ask a question,” the caravan master finally said, breaking the silence that had accompanied my eating. “Why?”
I double-checked the fey glyph then looked directly at him. “I studied illusion, but I wanted to study another art. The one the King outlawed…” I trailed off.
“You mean, Necromancy?” the master asked out in the open.
I looked around nervously, but no one had seemed to hear. “Yes,” I hissed quietly. I straightened up in my chair, leaned toward him, and spoke in a low voice. “The caravan is my best chance to study those between life and death without being branded a traitor for disobeying the King,” I said quickly and precisely.
The caravan master looked at me, then sat back and stroked his chin. “I guess I can see that. I can tell you’re an adept of no mean power, so it makes sense.”
I sat there, tense, wondering if I had given too much away. I looked at him, wondering if I had made a mistake.
“Oh, don’t worry,” he finally assured me. “I will make no judgment about your motives, and I won’t say anything to anyone else. No sense getting myself into trouble, and I know you won’t be able to get into trouble, either.” He took a long pull from his tankard and thumped it down, empty, on the table.
“I… I appreciate that,” I said, not knowing exactly what else to say.
The waitress came over with another ale and collected the empty tankards on the table. She smiled broadly at me, and then walked away back to the bar.
“So, any more questions?” the caravan master asked me.
I looked over my notes in my book. I had so many questions, but few of which I thought he could answer. I shook my head carefully as I closed my book. “How do we do it? The transfer?” I asked.
“Simple, boy, just take this ring from me and wear it,” he responded, holding out his hand.
The ring wasn’t much to look at: a pale metal band with a fleck of stone in it. It was hard to tell what kind of metal it was, since the blue glow overwhelmed the reflective surface. I reached out for the ring and hesitated.
“It’s not so bad, really,” the caravan master assured me. “You’re damn near immortal when you’re near the caravan. And, eventually you can pass the ring off to someone else when you get tired.”
“Tired?” I asked. Thoughts I hadn’t considered filled my head.
“Well, sure. It’s not a bad life bein’ a caravan master normally. And there’s other benefits as well for masterin’ this one. But, this isn’t the life to lead if you want to find a woman and settle down, you know?” The caravan gave a wistful smile and glanced toward the barmaid as he held his hand there.
I nodded. That thought was still far from my mind at that point in my life. Although people joke that graduates from the College take vows of celibacy, the fact is that we tend to be too busy for a woman and family. I reached for the ring once again and pulled it from his finger.
I looked at the caravan master in shock as he changed. He sat there in drab clothing, changed from a spectral man into a normal one. The unnatural blue glow had left him, but the ring still had it reflected on the surface. Strangely enough, the ring did not give off the blue glow itself. I took it in my hands and studied it, turning it over repeatedly.
A wail arose from outside. “Fool!” the caravan master hissed at me. “Put it on before you break the enchantment on the caravan! They know what’s goin’ on!” Realizing my folly, I put the ring on my finger quickly.
I am not sure how to describe what happened next. The world collapsed on top of me, and I couldn’t breathe. Then the world sprung back into place, but I was sitting in the caravan master’s chair, and he was sitting in mine. In front of me I saw my book, my ink, and my quill, all with the blue glow. In front of him was a tankard, which he picked up and drained completely.
“That’s a bit strange, eh?” he said, wiping his mouth on his sleeve. “Seems to be part of the enchantment. But, it didn’t happen too many other times while I was caravan master.”
I looked at the ring. My hand had the eerie blue light coming from it, shining on the nearby table and walls. I looked at the ring, which was warming against my finger.
“I wish you the best of luck, I do,” the former caravan master said. “I’m off to find myself a little company for what’s left of the night. Good trading.” He stood up, gave a small bow. He started toward the barmaid, then though better of it and made a beeline to the door. “Feel free to take what’s owed me,” he called back over his shoulder as he left the inn.
I remained there for a while, taking in the new sensations available to me. To be honest, I didn’t feel all that much different after taking the ring than I did a few hours ago as I entered the tavern. I opened my book, inked my quill, and took down some notes stating this.
I sat there, letting the ink dry. I ate the rest of the bread and cheese from the plate, although it didn’t taste quite the same, I thought. Perhaps it was just my imagination wanting something, anything, to be different. I scratched a few more notes in and let that dry as well.
Finally, I closed my book and stood up. I used a simple glamour to put the ink and quill back into my pack, both to save time and to see if I could still work my spells. I got my answer as all the items went easily to their places.
I pushed aside the chair and started to walk to the exit of the inn when something stopped me. I realized the ring was chilled slightly against my finger, and I figured that had to mean something. I stood there for a moment, as a thought came to me. I turned to the barkeep and said, “You owe me money.”
The barkeep eyed me with distaste. “I owed it to that other man,” he said, obviously uneasy about giving me money.
“No,” I replied, “you owe it to the caravan master. That is now me.”
The barkeep looked like he wanted to fight the issue, unwilling to part with the cash he had that he owed.
“You heard the other man, he said I could have what he was owed,” I said simply.
The barkeep smirked at me. “Yeah, I guess I did. Here,” he said as he unceremoniously shoved a handful of coins at me. Four gold and fifteen silver coins, exactly what I was owed, the ring let me know. I put the coins into my nearly empty money pouch. I could spend it on a good bargain.
I gave a small bow and went out the door. The first light of dawn was appearing over the horizon, and the rain had stopped falling while I had been inside. A few people were slowly milling about, setting up shops or getting horses and wagons ready for travel. I walked past one man preparing a small merchant stall, a simple counter under a wide leather canopy to protect against the weather. I stopped, eyeing the crates around his stall, the ring telling me that there was something here.
“What do you sell?” I asked as he was busy checking the poles holding up the canopy.
“Grass mats, woven from the plains grasses around here,” he responded, not looking at me. “Great for decoration or elegant table settings.”
I saw one of the mats out on the counter. It had gotten a bit wet, but it was very ornately woven. I agreed with his assessment.
“How much?” I asked.
“One silver coin per crate, or two coppers per mat, sir,” he responded while still adjusting the poles.
A fair price, I felt, but I could negotiate. I counted up the crates in his stall. “I’ll give you a gold coin for all your crates here.”
“Now, that’s not exact…” he started as he turned around. The words abandoned his mouth has he turned around and got a good look at me. The color drained from his face, and his mouth opened and closed uselessly.
I took out the gold coin and held it out for him. His arguments had left him, but he finally decided to take the offer. Wordlessly, he held out his hand to take the coin.
“I’ll have a hauler come by within the hour to collect the crates,” I said as I put the coin in his hand. I had to head south to the city of Forestmoor, the ring told me, but I would have time to collect the goods before the caravan would be ready to move.
I walked away from the stall, following the soothing blue glow to where the former caravan master had left the caravan. Finally, I laid my eyes upon it: it was nothing more than a large caravan surrounded by pale workers. They were busy getting things in order, moving the large wagons into place.
“Go back about 200 paces to a stall selling grass mats and collect the crates,” I instructed two well-built men leaning against an empty wagon. They nodded curtly and ran off in the direction I had just come from. Striding along the caravan, I looked for my place amongst the activity.
About half way along the caravan, I spotted it: a comparatively small wagon with a cushioned bench and some sort of heavy fabric draped along some poles at the top. One worker was applying some sort of grease to the top of the canopy while another was putting a writing table in place in front of the seat, fitting the legs into some grooves in the wagon’s floorboards. That would be a suitable place for me to write while the caravan was not moving.
I took my seat and put my book on the table in front of me. I used my rote glamour to draw out the ink and quill again, both resting in the proper locations on the table. I smiled slightly, feeling strangely at ease. I once again inked my quill and scratched a few notes about how the ring had communicated with me.
From out of nowhere a figure approached the caravan. From a distance, it looked like no more than a shadow, but as it approached the figure took on more substance and started to glow as the rest of the caravan did. As the figure approached my wagon, it clearly became the figure of a woman.
“A new arrival?” I asked the woman as she approached.
“Y..yes,” she stammered.
I considered her for a moment, then asked “Do you have a head for numbers?”
“I ran a household for a noble lord,” she said, “I can do some numbers.”
“Good. We needed a quartermaster. Take your place in the back of my wagon, you can start inventory at the next town.” The ring had told me everything I needed to know.
She nodded slowly, and got into the wagon. She took one of the cushioned seats in the back, hidden between the barrels and crates in the back.
“What’s your name?” I asked her.
“I don’t… Deidre,” she said, hesitantly, as if saying it for the first time.
I nodded to her. I hoped my book, inked my quill, and scratched down her name. All around me, the caravan was taking care of itself and had a few minutes to myself.
“Tell me, Deidre, what is your story?” I began.