On a waning summer eve, a warm breeze gently waved fields of long grass into an ocean-like sound that blended with the leaves rustling on large trees. A weathered man sat on the rim of a stone well in the center of what he hesitated to call a town, running a hand over the receding stubble on his bowed head and down his bent neck. The short hairs gently prickled his calloused fingers, the sensation an unconscious but welcome distraction from thoughts held at bay. A rising chorus of cicadas joined the din of the wind, and lightning bugs echoed the lanterns flickering to life inside the buildings nearby.
He heard footsteps grind and crunch on the dark path approaching the well. He never understood why the town insisted on cinder paths. They were comfortable to walk, but caused an awful mess, and every footfall made just the hint of an annoying squeak. Glancing up, he saw a trio of foreigners approach him from the main street into Elocant. He closed his eyes and lightly shook his head as he contemplated the ultimate destination of the group. Here on the Berm, travelers usually headed into the Hollow, foolishly seeking abandoned riches. Whether you were a scavenger, looter, or liberator depended on how rich you were to begin with.
He unfurled his body upward, grabbed his walking stick, and adjusted his cloak. Exhaling a deep breath bordering on a sigh, he looked at the three travelers, then smiled with at least his mouth, and gestured with his free arm. “Welcome all, to Elocant: the edge of everywhere, and the gateway to nowhere!”
“Hail, old timer.” The largest of the three solemnly held up a hand in greeting. He was a tall young man, physically imposing, a look augmented by the enormous broadsword he carried scabbard-in-hand, but any hint of threat was offset by the enthusiastically friendly and open expression on the lad’s face as he leaned on his sword.
Even so, the older man bristled at the epithet. Yes, his hair stubble was almost white, as well as much of his full beard, but he was still only in his fifth decade. He ran his hand down his beard, then admitted to himself that he often lost track of his exact age, and maybe he did tend towards ‘grizzly’ these days. He regained his composure as the youth went on.
“I’m Ahden, this is Devis—”
“Call me Dev.” This shorter man flashed a tired smile, then dropped an enormous pack to the ground. It clunked and tinkled, with two shields and myriad other accoutrements attached to the outside. The whole thing possibly approached his own weight. The lad sat down, cross-legged and leaning forward.
“—and Omega.” The young woman wore pale leather trimmed with white quilting and fur, and carried little but a canteen and knife. Her most striking feature was a pair of peculiar goggles. The pattern of slits on the otherwise opaque goggles gave her away as a titular seer, more commonly regarded by him as charlatan, but he had met enough to occasionally feel pity for one who actually needed such protection from the darklight of the Hollow. If she were truly a seer, she would rarely take them off this side of the Berm.
“We are from Whithom in the northwest,” finished Ahden. All three were dusty from the road, bordering on haggard and unkempt. Their attire and light armor were at once fine and worn, on closer look repaired skillfully many times. They shot thirsty glances towards the well.
“Aye, I’ve heard of the place. Hail yourself. They call me Nōm. Not many, if any, travel such a long way these days.” He raised his eyebrows in mild interest, and gestured them closer. “You must have a tale to tell and questions to ask, but let’s draw water to quench your thirst.” He began cycling the well, giving the newcomers a fresh appraisal with occasional glances up from his task.
“Nōm, water would be most welcome,” panted Omega as she knocked some road dust off her white jacket, her expression inscrutable behind her eyewear. Despite the obvious fatigue displayed by the young men in the evening’s heat, Nom offered Omega first dibs from the bucket when it surfaced, motioning with his fingers for her to hand over her canteen. She waited, visibly fidgeting, then snatched back the container barely half full.
He filled the remaining canteens, and one for himself. He smiled inwardly as he pulled off the handle from the well-crank, and replaced it with a spinner he had devised. He dropped the bucket back into the well and poured water on the spinner as it twirled, propelled by the falling bucket. The small breeze flung a mist of water onto the young travelers, briefly cooling them, which tugged at the corners of their mouths. Nom joined in their collective grin as he set about pulling more water, and waited patiently for them to satiate their thirst.
Finally Ahden said, “We seek the Senex of Elocant. Do you know where they are?”
“Senex?” Nom chewed on the word, rubbing his beard. “I don’t know of such a title. Sounds a bit like senator, a bit like pontifex, but we don’t have those either. Elocant barely has a presence in the regional—”
“Or the darkseer—are they here?” blurted out Omega, with some desperation. The three men turned their heads silently to look at her, the travelers in consternation, Nom in grim surprise. His hand paused on his beard, finger slowly dragging across his lip. Omega turned to her companions, “There’s no point in hiding it, we need to find one; that’s the whole point of everything we’ve been through!”
Nom held up the finger from his mouth and said softly, “Best keep that to yourself. Around here that’s a word not often used, and never welcome.” Other townspeople were starting to gawk, and Nom ended the discussion with a subtle placement of his finger on his lips, before continuing more loudly, “—Lotham’s Outfitter will provide you with the best supplies for your venture. But make your first stop the inn.” He gestured across the square. “Rest up, clean up, talk to the town. If you’re there, guaranteed everyone will be there.”
The sun dipped below the trees, and the lamplighter began his rounds, casting everyone into flickering chiaroscuro. Omega cast Nom an inscrutable look, until Dev stood and urged the others into motion. As they walked across the square, she continued to look back over her shoulder until the three disappeared into the doorway of the inn.