It hadn’t rained in twenty days leaving the road to Valtheed cracked and the grass a brittle brown. The wagon rocked as the wheels followed the impacted grooves through the dirt detailing years of travels. It was the Merchant’s Road that spanned the length through every major city in the East. Before the time of war it used to lead far into the West.
Askalithe peered out of the wagon window as she pushed back the curtain with two fingers. Her younger brother, Kovet, sat on the bed trying his best to read one of the books they managed to snag off the shelf in the inn. It was only a book on the identification of poisonous plants and remedies to counteract them, but any book to Kovet was worth the time to read.
“How soon to Valtheed?” he asked without looking up from the page. Askalithe scanned the parched hills and wilting trees for a moment longer.
“An hour, I think,” she responded, and then pointed out into the clearing where stones marked the ruins of a tower. “We’re just passing the tower ruins. Remember when we stayed there overnight?”
She turned around just in time to see the start of a nostalgic smirk curve his lips. “Shyel had us believing the ghost stories all night and didn’t think we’d get her back in the morning.”
“The look on her face,” Askalithe said. “I’m sure she really thought you were dead.”
They shared a fond laugh, Askalithe’s eyes looking up to the wagon’s ceiling where her sister likely sat to steer the horse. Shyel, being the eldest of the trio, took on the responsible and protective role after their parents’ passing. It made her far more serious and severe the past year. They hadn’t even yet broken into adulthood and were forced to learn the ways of the world and left them with little supplies left to sell.
To that, Askalithe returned to her day’s task list: take inventory and refer to Mother’s log for merchant pricings in Valtheed based on what they needed. There was a woman who owned a small stall on the west end of town that sold bitterdill and needlewheat at a better price than the alchemists and healers, and the Lodge had better bases worth their price.
“I’m not sure if we are going to make it to winter,” she said after a time. Her finger trailed down the inventory they had left while she kept their collective coin in mind. A few gold pieces, a handful of silver, and mostly copper. If they didn’t have so much to consider and pay for the gold alone would last them several winters.
But supplies were dwindling and they weren’t very skilled in alchemy forcing them to either attempt it on their own or pay for an alchemist to make it for them with a small fee, if it were reasonable.
“How much do we have left?” Kovet asked. He had looked up from his reading to watch his sister, concern across his childish features. He was just a boy, yet all too quickly he was acting all grown up. Askalithe knew his interests in such matters were out of necessity and not exactly innate curiosity. She felt the same, after all. Bookkeeping was now just another chore on the list that had to be done.
“We have enough to plan ahead,” she answered. “Valtheed at least has a few good merchants we can even barter with. And I think we can check in with the local alchemist to see if he wouldn’t mind giving us a lesson. Mom’s notes say ‘Alchemist Luvar of the Wayward Nook is friendly.’ She wrote down what he looks like and everything.”
“Wait, she wrote down what people look like in there?” he asked. “I always thought she just knew everyone.”
“She did, eventually,” she said as she eyed through their mother’s penmanship. It was scrolled like art yet sprawled in quick pacing that made the text less uniform.
The cart halted, and the pair inside listened to the muffled sounds of the Valtheed guards as they spoke to their sister asking questions about their reason for coming and if they had plans to cross the border. Valtheed was nestled closely to the Dominion lands to the West, and was once a part of the Western Folk a little over a generation ago. The governing bodies still felt paranoia in rebellions and suffered through a few groups attempting to turn the whole city back to their roots. The Covenant was given the city in the last peace pact in exchange for the lives of the men and women that once guarded its walls. While under the laws and jurisdiction of the Covenant, Valtheed is still a city split in its people while still attempting to merge. Those who try to incite rebellion are exiled, and so most who remain typically support the change.
Thinking little of the routine outside their vardo, the pair were surprised when the door swung open. The harsh sunlight beamed into the small quarters wreathing the silhouette of the guard who inspected the interior. His boots clattered, and the wagon rocked with his weight as he stepped inside. Askalithe pressed herself against the nearest wall to allow him room to walk the five paces to the bed uninterrupted. Kovet sat against the opposite wall on the desk, feet propped up on the table and eyes fixated on the soldier who did not regard them until all looked to his liking.
The man nodded to the pair and grumbled, almost as if he had wanted something to be amiss. “They’re good to go,” he said to the other guard as he hopped out of the vardo. Askalithe didn’t shut the door back until the wagon began to roll away into the city limits.
Shyel looked shaken by the time they found the market. She spoke to the locals with a hint of a waver in her voice as she inquired into a vendor permit. Eventually, an older merchant directed her to the town hall across the market square.
“Keep watch while I get our permit,” she said to them. “Hopefully this time it won’t take the whole day.”
“Is everything alright?” Askalithe asked before she had the chance to scurry off. Shyel nodded shallowly.
“I always get worried they’ll just decide to take our home,” she admitted.
“Are you still worried about it or something?”
Shyel shrugged slightly as she hesitated in her answer. “It’s probably nothing,” she said. “I heard one of them say mom’s name and something about it being suspicious.”
“They might come back, then,” Kovet said. “The one that came inside looked disappointed on his way out.”
“They didn’t have a warrant to look through anything, but they could come back with one,” Askalithe said, and then lowered her voice to a whisper. “Do you think Mom might have stolen something?”
“Do you mind going through everything while I’m gone?” Shyel asked. “Try to find what they’re looking for before they get back.”
“And then what?” Askalithe asked, but Shyel shook her head.
“I don’t know. We’ll figure something out. We always do.”
As their older sister left to handle the legalities of their stay, Askalithe exchanged a wary glance with her brother. “What do you think makes us look suspicious?” he asked as they walked back into the vardo.
“Mom was just an herbalist,” she answered, matching her brother’s confusion. “She never looked like she was in trouble or suspicious.”
They looked through the vardo for the vague something that would seem suspicious. Occasionally Kovet would stop to skim through a journal or book to see if anything stood out strangely. They were constantly looking over towards the door or pausing to listen outside if someone walked too closely to their vardo.
Shyel was gone most of the day, returning after sundown with the permit and a hot meal they graciously ate in silence. They sat with only their thoughts for a time wondering about their late mother’s secrets she seemed to have kept so well hidden. Why would the soldiers on guard in Valtheed know their mother by name? Why did they find it suspicious she, or her vardo, would return to a city she liked to do business in? Askalithe produced their mother’s journal once again from where she had kept it in her jacket pocket and flipped through to her notes on the vendors and local merchants in Valtheed.
“Is it normal to have notes on people?” she asked.
“Didn’t she do that for business?” Kovet asked. “So she could remember people better.”
“That was my thinking too,” Shyel said. “Do you think her notes into these people might be something more?”
“Maybe these people would at least know her significance to the guard,” Askalithe suggested. “I was thinking we could visit the Alchemist Luvar to get some supplies and maybe some help in making remedies. Mom’s notes say he’s friendly. Maybe they were close enough for him to open up about it to us.”
“It’s worth trying,” Shyel said. “We can go first thing in the morning before our supply run. Then we sell what we can and spend the rest of the day making more. I’ll check with the church and see if they need any healing remedies too.”
Askalithe had difficulties hiding her reservations as she fiddled with the frayed cuff of her sleeve. Their mother had only been gone a year, but it felt as though they were never allowed to forget her absence. Were she with them at this very moment she would offer the best of assurances, and perhaps clear up the confusion and uncertainty the trio felt in regards to her mystery. Their mother had kept a few secrets from them, it seemed.
The following morning was met with an unanticipated eagerness as they sprang from the bed at the faintest light of dawn. They went their separate ways after a quick breakfast. Shyel chose to investigate more on the business front to see if they can earn more with a hands-on approach. Kovet decided to ask around town as he bought supplies leaving Askalithe to the alchemist.
The Wayward Nook was nestled to the west end of the Burrows where the oldest buildings presided. The structure was quite old and still carried pocks and markings from battles long ago. Her entry into the alchemist’s shop was heralded by the chime of a small bell above the door, and from the back she heard the faint call of the owner.
“I’ll be right with you!” he assured. Askalithe did not respond, and instead eyed over the shelves of dried herbs and ground ingredients bottled neatly and labeled with a skilled calligraphy.
“How can I help-“ Alchemist Luvar’s words were cut off as he rounded the shelf to find the young girl, likely taken aback by a patron of such an age. She looked up at him warily as she looked to see if he truly looked as friendly as her mother had claimed in her book.
He had a friendly smile despite his surprise, framed by a thick beard, black and streaked with grey like the long hair atop his head he kept tied back at the nape of his neck. His robes were simple, but he carried himself like a man with importance or prestige as he kept his back straight and his right hand behind him.
“Sorry to bother you,” she began. “My mother used to do business with you. Ebanna?”
“Used to?” he repeated. “I would say she’s my best resource. I would hope she wouldn’t end our trade.”
“Well,” she continued, fumbling a bit to find the right words while attempting to maintain an air of business. He was still looking at her like a child, but still welcomed her words without interruption. “She’s passed away.”
His smile quickly faded as he brought his left hand over his mouth in disbelief. “That’s awful to hear,” he said solemnly. “She was a light in the darkest times. And so soon after…”
He stopped that thought as he remembered his company, looking over to the young girl with pity creasing his aging face. “Your business is still welcome here. What can I do for you?”
“A few things,” she said quickly to brush away the look she had come to hate seeing. “We’re running out of supplies, and we don’t know how to make a lot of the things Mom used to make. Some of it we figured out, but we were wondering if maybe you could teach us some remedies while we are in Valtheed.”
“Of course, of course,” Luvar agreed. “I won’t turn down an opportunity to teach. I believe your mother said there are three of you? You and your siblings are welcome to join me tonight for supper. We can discuss the nature of your apprenticeships then.”
Askalithe’s spirits brightened, and she smiled widely at the kind offer to take all three of them under his wing. Alchemist Luvar was truly as friendly as her mother’s notes had stated, and it was the first time in a year she felt hopeful. Luvar could see the visible appreciation on the girl’s face and chuckled at her response.
“Thank you, sir!” she finally said.
“Now, as for supplies,” he continued. “Do you know what you wish to make? I carry more of the rarer ingredients as the Market tends to bring in more of the common supplies at a fair price.”
Askalithe pulled out her mother’s journal when she realized she’d not thought of what exactly they should make. The journal contained a list of supply and demand. Sometimes certain towns or cities desired more of the raw herbs whereas some desired more of the elixirs or poltuces. Their next stops would be along the northern roads headed up towards Maldra where, according to the journal, they often asked for anti venoms, pain relief, and sleeping droughts. She relayed this to the patient alchemist who nodded his head thoughtfully as he turned.
“I do have a collection of anti venoms,” he said as he briskly walked to another shelf. Askalithe followed after the alchemist curiously and noticed he always carried his right hand at the small of his back behind his jacket. She wanted to ask as to why, but knew it to be rude to pry into something that seemed quite personal and inappropriate. Besides, Luvar had been pleasant and welcoming to her thus far. She didn’t desire to mar that with her curiosities.
“Up north there’s quite an array of venomous creatures,” he continued as he plucked a few vials from the shelf. “If you get a chance to extract any venom while you’re up there, we can make an arrangement. Venom for anti venom.”
“How do you extract venom?” she asked. He turned and handed over the vials of anti venom, each marked on their label as to what creature it countered.
“Hmm, I suppose I’ll need to show the three of you,” he answered thoughtfully. “It will be useful for you all to know.”
The alchemist continued on, handing over a few items here and there as he chattered about their properties and applications. He didn’t give her much time to process as she tried to focus on his every word. But eventually he paused as he noticed the worried look on the girl’s face as she looked at all the items cradled in her arms.
“Everything alright?” he asked.
“We’ll just take the anti venom if that’s alright,” she answered meekly. Knowing they didn’t have much in the way of money, she knew the cost of everything she was holding was likely far too much for their entire savings. She also did not wish to outright state she didn’t have the money. He was being generous, but this was also a matter of business.
Luvar nodded his head slightly, fingers stroking the end of his beard as he pondered a prospect in his head. “The arrangement your mother had with me still stands,” he said. “Essentially, we helped each other and opened up more of an exchange. The venom, for example, in exchange for anti venom. Procure any rare supplies and I’ll be happy to exchange to match the price or buy from you should I lack anything to your interest. Feel free to discuss the continuation of this agreement with your siblings before deciding. Regardless, you’re all still invited for supper this evening. Let’s say, at the eighth bell.”
“Thank you, Alchemist Luvar,” she replied with a respectful inclination of her head, and then held up the anti venom. “I would like to purchase this before I head back, please.”
A warm smile etched the alchemist’s features that deepened the crows feet around his eyes, and he obliged her business before she set back towards the vardo. It felt good to Askalithe to have something in hand after her endeavor as it gave her a feeling of success she had been craving since their mother’s passing.
When the trio reconvened at their vardo, they all relayed what they had encountered in their day. Kovet returned with a basket of supplies he mostly procured through bartering to save a bit on coin. Shyel managed to find the hospital was running low on burn salves after a fire nearly wiped out an entire district just three nights ago. Askalithe shared her encounter with Alchemist Luvar and his gracious invitation for supper. He was a stranger, and so Shyel was naturally hesitant at the offer.
“If mom’s notes say he is kind,” Shyel began thoughtfully, “then perhaps he is.”
“He also seemed to know her well,” Askalithe added to try and sell the meal and apprenticeship more. “Maybe he knows something we don’t. Maybe he knows why the guards are interested in her.”
“Should we even look into it?” Shyel countered. “Our ignorance could be what is keeping us out of all of that.”
“What if they come back and take all our things because we don’t know?” Kovet asked.
“I think they can do that even if we do know,” Askalithe said solemnly. “But I think if we know we can at least find what they were looking for before they can get to it.”
The sigh that followed from Shyel denoted defeat in the face of her younger siblings’ persistence. “Let me ask the questions into it, alright?” she said, and then set the basket of procured supplies between them. “Let’s go over inventory again and start making salves. We’ll head to the Alchemist’s before the eighth bell.”
Askalithe and Kovet shared excitement at the prospect of both a meal they didn’t have to prepare from scraps and the possibility of an apprenticeship. The mystery surrounding their mother was a minor thought by comparison, and one that was pushed far into the backs of their minds as they laid out what Kovet had gathered and removed from the journal what he had used to barter.
Shyel seemed a little more focused, if not distant from the younger siblings’ chatter. It was the part of her that had to grow up too soon that now shown through the visage of youth. She was just within her early teens, face still cherubic as it held onto the last bits of her childhood. It was the only indication of her true age, for her maturity had presented her with that of assumed authority her younger siblings never questioned. And just like they had done with their mother, they didn’t notice the worry that pushed Shyel’s brows together or the silence she now carried when having to deliberate the life of not only herself, but the lives of her younger siblings.
She flipped through their mother’s log to the page where she had written Luvar was kind. There was nothing on the page indicating much else in regards to his character, and so she found herself idly flipping through the pages and admiring their mother’s penmanship. She missed her still even after all this time had passed. Looking at her handwriting was the last intimate connection they carried with them, and she decided she would dedicate her words to heart. After all, there was a purpose to the notes. Their mother had a methodology that was detailed in her business.
Shyel suddenly found it odd that their mother would make note of vendors’ appearances and character, often writing a bit about even their schedules. At first she thought it had to do with figuring out the best time to conduct business and who best to do it with, but something felt like there was more to these notes. She flipped back to the page about Alchemist Luvar with a different mindset.
Alchemist Luvar of the Wayward Nook is friendly.
Business hours are between the seventh bells, sunrise and sunset.
Tall, dark, greying hair, bearded. Keeps right hand behind back. Deflective.
Wayward Nook located in Burrows. Home above shop. Windows facing tea shop.
Luvar does not leave premises. Reclusive.
It looked innocent enough, yet with the curious encounter with the guards, she now wondered if there was more to the entries. Her gaze turned to the journals secured in the glass case above the desk where their mother had written notes from every city and village they stopped in her time. She had seen so much, and written enough down to know a person’s daily life. What if she had seen something she shouldn’t have? What if that something was written down with an innocent appearance of business?
Askalithe had been watching her sister study the pages of the journal more intently, finally noting the focus on Shyel’s features. “Did you find something?” she asked, and her sister’s eyes darted back to her siblings quickly.
“There might be something in this journal,” Shyel said as she held up the journal in her hand. “I’m not sure, but it does seem strange mom kept notes on vendors and their schedules.”
“It’s not to make sure to get to their shops on time?” Kovet asked.
“I think it’s made to look like that,” she continued. “I think mom was keeping tabs on people.”
“Why would she want to do that?” Askalithe asked. “She was just a traveling merchant. She helped people.”
It was clear by the confusion on their faces that they did not see the clear line of thought she saw. Shyel grimaced slightly as she hesitated explaining. They were young and she didn’t have enough evidence to suggest their mother was anything but the good person they believed. It was only just a hunch.
“You’re right,” she said. “I got caught up in a fantastical thought. Too much fiction, I suppose. We can ask the Alchemist if he knows anything.”
Doubt lingered on Shyel’s features, her hands carefully closing the journal as she looked to the vardo’s floor boards. Kovet was less interested in Shyel’s thoughts and idly traced over the small window next to the desk he sat upon. Askalithe pretended to check over their inventory notes as she watched her sister from her peripheral. Could their mother have been into something more deep than alchemy? Shyel seemed to think so, even if in her now quiet thoughts.