“So what brings you out into the real world, miss?” the stranger asked as they climbed over a grassy hill.
“I have to sell my wares,” Jothal patted her pack, “and then I can become a Journeyman blacksmith. I’ve been practicing for just about four years now.” The man looked impressed.
“I applaud you, miss. I never could settle on any one thing for very long. I prefer the life of a vagrant. There’s nothing more vitalizing than the scent of Lithilen’s untamed grasslands, the sight of the Shadow Mountains in the distance, or the crunch of earth beneath one’s feet.” The man inhaled deeply, sighing with contentment. “I’ve always been drawn to the promise of adventure. “ Jothal glanced around her. A carpet of grass spilled across the hills and valleys ahead of her. Tall trees with thin, spindly branches punctuated the earth. The sun shone brightly overhead, but the air had a brisk chill to it. Jothal’s burlap cloak blocked most of the gusts from reaching Jothal’s skin. Her companion didn’t seem to mind or even notice the chill. Perhaps because of her predilection for the encompassing warmth of the forge fire, Jothal could have sworn by the Great Creator that it was getting colder with each carefully placed step. “Look over there.” The man continued, pointing to a shimmering line a few miles off. “That river leads to the city. It’s a windy path, but it’s sure and safe. However,” he swung his pointing hand towards a hilly cluster of trees and rock. “It’s a tough route if you don’t know the way through, but it can get you to the city by nightfall. Lucky for you, I happen to pass through this rocky mess quite often.” The man winked at Jothal and turned towards the crag.
The man’s “path”, if you can even call it that, through the jagged hills was a crevice where a large boulder had split in two. Moss and debris had been packed into the bottom of the crack in order to provide a thin strip that could be walked on only by placing one foot in front of the other. Jothal’s pack scraped along the rocky walls as she struggled to keep up with the man, who was obviously well acquainted with the area. Jothal’s feet were already sore from the uneven ground.
“Hurry up now, miss.” The man called back to her for what seemed like the fiftieth time. If he tells me to hurry up one more time, Jothal fumed, he can find his payment of weapons sticking out of his spine. The two trundled along until the sky turned red and orange with the descent of the sun.
“I thought you said we would arrive at Farthingsor by sundown?” Jothal called ahead of her, mockingly.
“Well, miss…” the man teased back. “If you could crawl a little faster, you would see that we are already here!” Jothal’s eyes widened and her pace quickened. Finally. Jothal thought, forgetting about her throbbing toes. She jogged past the last few yards of stone and emerged from the rocky crevice into a small cliff on the side of the crag. From here, she could see the flaming torches of Farthingsor and the tower where the king and his officials lived. The city was circular and grand, with whitewashed walls and neat houses arranged in a grid pattern. From their perch out in the open, Jothal could now see that the sky seemed to turn dense and black over the city. Reminds me of Mainstay… Jothal mused.
As the pair walked hastily to the city gate, Jothal felt the air grow dense as well. The man coughed and loosened the neck of his tunic.
“You alright, nature boy?” Jothal laughed. The man cracked a sheepish smile and then fell into a fit of coughing again. “You must have been in a city before.”
“I have, but – cough cough – it’s never been this – cough – unbearable before.” The man reached for a skin of water and poured its contents down his throat. Jothal rolled her eyes at the man. And he thinks I’m helpless… He wouldn’t last a day in Mainstay. Jothal walked up to a guard by the gate.
“Hello. My companion and I are requesting entrance to the city. I have wares to sell and he has business in the area and needs to stay the night.” The guard nodded and signaled to another guard on top of the city’s walls. Jothal noticed that they were covered by a full set of armor and carried swords that looked well used. Everything but their eyes were clothed with metal or cloth. Jothal noticed that their mouths were particularly covered by thick cloths. Maybe I can sell a sword or two to one of these guards… They sure could use it. The gates creaked open, letting Jothal and the man enter. They streets were nearly empty from the hour being so late, so Jothal led the still coughing man into an inn for the night.
“Mead.” The man gasped, plopping down in front of the inn’s bar and throwing one gold kret in front of the innkeeper. He swallowed the mug of liquid in one long gulp and breathed a sigh of relief.
“Is the dark givin’ ye trouble, friend?” The innkeeper asked the man, cleaning the mug with a rag.
“Is that what is causing this gods-awful air? I feel like my lungs have been filled with dirt.”
“It would seem so… The cloud came from the east two days ago. That’s when ev’ryone seemed to catch this nasty cough that jus’ won’t go away. I wouldn’t go outside without something to cover yer mouth with.” The innkeeper mimicked the act of covering his mouth with the rag and then resumed cleaning glasses and plates.
“You mean this is unusual? Back home, our sky is filled with smog, too… No one seems to mind.” Jothal questioned, taking a seat next to the man at the bar.
“Not like this, lass. Farthingsor has always been blessed with the radiant light of the sun and clean air.” The man paused. “Well, maybe not clean but at least breathable. This thing that hovers over us night and day is not natural, I can tell ye that.” The man nodded and then sighed. “And it’s not just the air. The critters and such have fled the fields around Farthingsor, plants grow small and withered… It’s just not right…” The innkeeper looked down at his hands before shrugging and looking back to Jothal and the outdoorsman. “Well, what’s an innkeeper to do? Anyway, ye must be wantin’ a room for the night?” Jothal and the man nodded. For three gold krets each, the innkeeper showed them to their rooms. They were small, and devoid of any luxury, but resting on a proper bed again made Jothal feel like a Queen.