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A Boy and His Spider

By RolandGrey

Adventure / Fantasy

The Lost Tribute

The fence had been broken and some of the lizards had gotten out.  Colin cursed under his breath as he surveyed the damage.  Already, the field hands were wrangling the other lizards and pulling them into the neighboring field.
 The fence was really more of a low rock wall, carefully shaped to slope inward in order to discourage the large reptiles that served as the meat staple of Avernum from climbing out.  It was an engineering trick that he’d learned a few years ago, when his mother sent him away to learn more than their farming community could teach him.  Right now it was failing at its purpose with the gaping hole in it.  A trail led from the damaged section and off to the west.
 “What’re you gonna do?” his younger brother asked.
 Gabriel was the more serious of his siblings, his mind filled with all the expenses and earnings of the farm.  Colin could only imagine what kind of headache was developing behind his brother’s eyes.
 “I guess I’m gonna have to go look for ‘em,” he grumbled, “Can we afford the loss?”
 “Yeah, but...” Gabriel walked over to the fence and looked over the damage, “Somebody’s going to need to bring this up to the guard.”
 “You noticed the tracks, too, huh?”
 They recognized the lizard tracks, but there were a lot more than just the footprints left by three large reptiles.  Also, the wall had clearly been broken with some kind of high-impact magic.  There was a scorch mark on the ground and small stones and mortar strewn about the area.  Colin instantly regretted how much mushroom ale he’d drank the night before, it was the only explanation for how he could have disregarded such a noise.
 “Somebody stole our lizards,” Gabriel sighed, “What do you think?  Goblins?  Bandits?”
 “I don’t know,” Colin replied as he looked over the marks on the ground, “Gobbos and bandits usually wear boots and shoes.  These look almost like the lizards’ tracks, but the Slithzerikai don’t steal food this way, and they’re MUCH bigger…  On top of the whole…  Not raiding farms, especially this far from their lands.”
 “And the sliths don’t let their kids leave the tribe to go harassing towns.  So…  What did this?”
 Colin shrugged and started heading back for the farm.  He was going to need some equipment in order to begin his work.
 "A mystery to solve, I guess.  What burns me up is that these were our tribute lizards.”
 “So, are you really gonna go looking for them?” Gabriel asked as they neared the barn, “Knowing something has them…  Something that did…  That…  To the wall?”
 Colin nodded and unlatched the barn door.  Inside were a couple of the thin, sad-looking cattle that every farm seemed to have in the caverns.  They gave bitter, watery milk, but the cattle’s diet of magic lichen and fungus made the fluid a wonder against rickets.
There were also Colin’s tools of the trade, his long knives, gauntlets and boiled leather vest.  He used them to slaughter the giant lizards on the farm, and unlike most lizard farmers, he had a knack for it that kept him from getting horribly maimed every time he did it.
 That wasn’t to say that he was always skilled with the work.  Rolling up his sleeves revealed a wicked scar running up his right arm, flanked by other tiny claw marks.  His left arm had similar claw marks, but no major scars like the right.  It had been years since he’d last been scratched by one of the lizards.  The gauntlets and heavy boots helped, but it was the skills he’d learned when he was sent away to study that had really improved his time as the resident Lizard Butcher of Mertis.  He’d been taught how to properly thrust a blade, where to aim at the animal’s throat to spill its blood faster.
 “Mom’s not gonna like this,” Gabriel muttered as Colin pulled the vest over his head and donned his knife belt, “She’d say we should just tell the guard.”
 “The Guard will do what they always do.  Captain Jarl will take the information down, post a note on the bounty board and they’ll all cower inside the walls, hoping some wanderer will take up the task for them.  And we’ll have to pay the bounty anyway!  No.  No more.  I’m taking care of this myself because I can.  Have Milner fix the fence, he’s been looking for a project anyway…”
 He had other reasons, but they all boiled down to the same thing:  He was angry.  He was angry with knowing that his once-promising underground nation was now just shoveling off its food and riches to fill the horde of the great dragon, Melanchion.  Granted, he knew that the dragon had done much to build stability in the underground, but Avernum had been the nation that fought and bled for it.
 Mertis was one of the few regions able to withstand the blight that had consumed so much of the magical fungus crop that served as the primary staple of Avernum for generations.  Part of it was diversity, the grounds were “fertile,” and allowed the farmers to grow many kinds of mushrooms, from the common Whites and Puffballs to the unusual Spotted Redcaps and even the rare Violet Coral Mushrooms.  To help survive the plague, the farmers turned to more lizard ranching and cave tree cultivation.  The cave trees were strange forms of fungi, but they weren’t affected by the plague, and they deposited sour, stringy fruit that helped stave off hunger.  With the help of some local Nephilim tribes, they were even able to set up fishing ponds for slimy, eyeless fish (to either eat or feed to the lizards).  All in all, Mertis had helped save Avernum as surely as any army or adventuring band.
 Yet this led to another thing that bothered Colin.  His community had to contribute the most to the tribute.  Not Silvar or Almaria, which grew fat off their trade revenue with the other underground nations of the Slith or Nephilim tribes, the Vahnatai embassy of Tenevra, or even Melanchion’s Realm itself.  No, they were weak when the tribute had to be made in the first years, so the burden fell upon Mertis, the only town that still had food.
 Even now, years later, Mertis provided the bulk of the tribute.  Melanchion’s Realm was built on the old lands of the Cave Giants, and after years of misuse by the forebears, the lands were barren and destitute.  Only the most hostile creatures ventured into those lands, many of which were cunning and intelligent, and weren’t shy to pledge fealty to the wyrm, and almost all of them were incredibly inedible.  As it stood, Mertis had to provide food to the nation, but so long as it was tribute, they couldn’t be paid for it.  The Castle was trying to find a way to reimburse the farmers, largely due to the complaints of the Meanders, mostly Colin’s mother, but Council politics continued to slow the process of change.
 Losing three of the lizards they’d set aside for tribute tipped Colin over the edge.  He had to get some killing done.  He had to find who took his livestock and make them pay, personally.  His skills were good enough for slaughtering the wickedly clawed and sharp-toothed animals, they should be fine dealing with whoever stole them.
He just needed to find them, first.  With Gabriel shouting to his back about how he was going to take his things if he wound up dead, Colin stormed off to the west, following the trail of the rustlers who were making his life even more miserable.

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