The traveler walked alone down the hard-packed dirt road, all his worldly possessions bundled upon his back, his even grace marred by a nearly imperceptible limp. He was solidly built, and of roughly average height. Salt-and-pepper hair lay across his brow, made long and uneven by weeks upon the road, and his strong chin bore a thick and rounded beard. His weathered face held a peaceful smile, as he admired the canopy of trees eclipsing the sky above.
Though he’d never in his life walked this part of Annaria, Brother Francis knew the town had to be close, a few hours away at worst, and the weather was excellent for walking. It had been a long journey on the ancient road from the Empire of Travan, and he was looking forward to seeing the town of Ironwood for the first time. With the permissions of his superiors in the Del monastery, he had undertaken a pilgrimage to view the Shield of St. Thomas, one of the more famous relics of the region. He was unclear when the idea had come to him, but it was a perfect excuse to escape the monastery. The monk loved the road, and the unique charm of every town and village it brought him to. The thought of exploring a new one left him alive with anticipation. He had always been prone to deja-vu, and surely it was the poignancy of the moment that gave him the sense that he was meant to be here, that the path before him had populated some dimly remembered dream.
As he topped a small hill, Francis saw that Ironwood was not hours away, after all. Revealed in the distance was a grassy plain, and just beyond a low but sturdy wall, over-topped by scores of thatched roofs. The gate was opened wide to show its whimsically carved interior, and seemed almost naively welcoming. The heavy oaken frame extending from each wall could surely support a more serious barrier, but unlike the fortresses of Travan, Ironwood didn’t see the need. Instead, the portal featured an arbor decked in ivy, and engulfed by all the flowers of spring. The cobblestone path beyond led all the way to the structure at Ironwood’s center, which itself was dressed more like a stately mansion or summer cottage than a town’s keep. On its parapets, richly dyed banners in Ironwood’s brown and green proclaimed its pride as Margon’s eastern-most center of trade. Within its walls, shops beckoned, and the freshly painted shutters of its cottages were all thrown wide to the day.
The middle-aged monk furrowed his brow briefly as he tried to recall what he had heard of Ironwood. Supposedly, it shared the mixed blessings of many small towns: a strong sense of honor enforced by the long memories of neighbors. Yet Ironwood’s dependence on trade gave it something of a worldly air, and its history was widely known.
Over two centuries ago, a group of farmers, loggers, and artisans had crossed the narrow pass through the Iron Mountains to make a new life. Such expeditions had previously ended in sorrow, but the Ironwood settlement had a secret weapon: the skill and charisma of St. Thomas. In the town’s first years, a slow barrage of raids had led to months of siege, culminating in a desperate battle for the region. To the surprise of all, the settlers had won decisively, and afterward established a then-rare accord with the nearby sons of Kharshe. The details of Ironwood’s founding and its hard-won peace under St. Thomas were local legend, earning its founder’s shield the status of a holy artifact: a symbol of God’s protection against the faithless.
Since then, Ironwood had grown steadily. Initially independent, it had been peacefully reabsorbed by Margon over the past few generations, at least in name. In recent years, it had used its location to arrange caravans from Margon in the West to Travan in the East, or south to Chaltan and the Free Cities. By the legend of St. Thomas, and the prowess of its armed guard, Ironwood had established an oasis of peace and prosperity beyond the wall of the Iron Mountains. Well, mostly. Being a member of one of the sprawling villages that surrounded the town was not entirely without risk.
Yet Brother Francis had seen no evidence of conflict on his way to Ironwood, and as he continued to the end of the dirt roadway towards the wooden gates, the inhabitants seemed confident and relaxed. Some of the shopkeepers looked up hopefully at his arrival, and a few of the would-be customers had a quick smile for him as he approached. He, of course, answered with a broad and genuine smile of his own, and a friendly wave to the children. By tradition, Francis would pay his respects to the local Lord and his priest, and offer his services in return for their hospitality. Still, there was no need to hurry the process; he would have some time first to wander. In this moment, he was simply grateful for the day that God had made, for it was surely a beautiful day.