She stared at the tree full of corpses swaying in the wind. "Is that real?" she muttered to herself. "It can't be. No one wou- " But then the breeze picked up and she began to gag. "Oh, gods. Real. Definitely." She clamped a hand over her mouth and made a detour to avoid the flight of steps leading down toward the gnarled, leafless monstrosity, choosing to skirt the edge of the encircling wall instead. Nothing in the half-deserted village gave her any idea of which way to head next. It all looked equally dismal - rock-strewn fields, crumbling houses, dirty streets full of broken cobblestones, and a few ragged villagers who cast an uneasy glance her way, then pointedly ignored her. Near the empty shell of some ruined building on the far side of the tree was a small group of men, better dressed and fed than the rest, who caught sight of her as she walked slowly along. The man in front, with his dull skin and lifeless eyes, looked as dead as everything else.
"You must be one of the new settlers," he croaked, moving towards her. "Welcome to Gilded Vale. I am the magistrate, Urgeat, and you'll be pleased to know that we've had some recent vacancies here."
"Is that so?" She plastered on a pleasant, mostly convincing smile. "How very... fortunate."
"Of course, I'll need to make some inquiries. The inestimable Lord Raedric VII has taken great pains to insulate our town from Waidwen's Legacy." He paused and his eyes flicked rapidly over her. "Normally, the first question is whether you have ever conceived a Hollowborn child, but I see in this case it is unnecessary."
One of her eyebrows twitched, but her tone stayed even and polite. "Don't you think that's a strange question to ask?"
"Lord Raedric has our best interests at heart," Urgeat said. "Now, do you intend to settle here, in Gilded Vale, or are you only passing through? Our lord has offered to provide new, loyal citizens with land in his domains, as you may have heard."
"A generous man. I'm sure he'll also provide the rope if he decides to hang me." The magistrate narrowed his eyes, but her smile didn't waver. "I'd only planned to spend a few days here. Is there an inn?"
"There is." His grey face turned slowly toward the tree. "I should warn you, stranger. Here in Gilded Vale, we have a special place for dissidents, charlatans and those who would hide a curse in our midst."
She coughed. "Yes. Well. You've apparently been very busy clearing out all those, er, disreputable individuals."
"It is unfortunate, but not everyone has accepted the measures necessary to keep the village safe. Ever since Lord Raedric banished the mothers of Hollowborn, some have taken up arms against him, and while he's been searching for a cure, he's been beset with frauds and opportunists."
"Oh, dear. How difficult for the poor man."
"Indeed. We've had ciphers, wizards and animancers come through town, taking the lord's coin and promising to end the curse. Lord Raedric finally decided to make an example of those who would profit from our tragedy." His sunken eyes returned to hers. "His lordship's wife is with child. You may find his decrees strict, but I suggest you follow them. And do not cause trouble."
"I wouldn't even dream of it."
"See that you don't. Farewell." Urgeat and his fellows stalked off, without, of course, giving her directions to the inn. She groaned a little and pushed her aching legs onward, away from the rotten stench and buzzing flies, down what she hoped was the main road. It was lined with even more dreary, lifeless houses, inhabited by even more dreary, lifeless villagers; when, after a few minutes, she heard raised voices ahead, she was almost relieved - at least someone here still realized that they were alive. She soon found the source of the commotion: three loud, angry Dyrwoodans clustered around a slim figure in a hood.
"I meant no offense. Let's put this matter to rest over a round, shall we? My treat," the hooded figure said in a strong Aedyre accent. The elven woman in the group spat at his feet.
"Hoping to soothe our pride with a few Aedyre coppers, eh? We don't need your coin."
"Mocking us even while he shelters in our village. Just goes to show you what those fancy Aedyre manners are worth." The human's eyes were red and bleary from drink, but the finger he leveled at the outsider was steady enough. "We don't take that kind of treatment. Not from foreigners, and 'specially not from Aedyrans."
The second human, who stunk of cheap tobacco and sour ale, moved a step closer. "Go on. Say it again. I'm itching for an excuse."
"Fye, you're itching for the kindling touch of your sister, ye coxfither." The town's newest arrival was quite close by now and she blinked in surprise. The words came from the hooded man, but his accent, his tone, and the very sound of his voice had suddenly changed entirely.
"I'll cut that barrel-licking tongue out of your head!" the reeking human roared, putting a hand on his knife, and the Aedyran stepped back quickly.
"This is a misunderstanding," he said, his voice smooth and refined once more. "I didn't say... whatever it is you think I said." But then he took a firmer stance and the second voice growled out, "We've nye quarrel."
The elven woman put a hand on her own blade. "That's where you're wrong."
"Don't tell me you're falling for that." The villagers whipped around at the sound of a strange voice, but their retorts died on their lips. They stared while the newcomer continued. "I've seen this from Aedyrans before. They make themselves look harmless, provoke a few kith who were just minding their own business, and then act outraged and start demanding compensation when they're attacked - after they kill the ones they were insulting, of course." She waved a dark hand in the foreigner's direction. "You think that rapier is all he's got? It's not even what he's going for - look." She pointed to the fingers hovering just inside his cloak. "He's reaching for a wand or a throwing dagger; he's been biding his time, waiting until you're angry enough to give him justification. I knew he wouldn't fool you, though. It's an old trick."
"Yeah, we're not falling for that one," said the red-eyed man, backing off a little.
"We're done for now. But this one better watch his step around here because we're not going anywhere," sneered the woman. The group moved off, casting suspicious glances back over their shoulders and the Aedyran lowered his hand with a sigh.
"Thank you. I think."
"My pleasure." She took a closer look at him in the darkness of his hood, picking out the smooth features of an elf. "Just out of curiosity, what were you doing?"
"Doing? Nothing! It was all a matter of misunderstandings and mistranslations." He picked at a bit of fraying embroidery on his glove. "It doesn't help that people in these parts remember their war with Aedyr like it was yesterday."
She gave him a skeptical look, but didn't press the issue. "If you say so. Let me introduce myself - my name is Huani. It's a pleasure to meet you."
"Courtesy is a rare pleasure in these parts. Though your accent suggests that you are no more local than I." He bowed slightly. "Aloth Corfiser, at your service."
She laughed. "You do have fine manners - sometimes. Is it Master Corfiser, then, or simply 'Aloth,' or... ?"
"'Aloth' will suffice. I've found that it doesn't do to appear too pretentious in these parts."
"Aloth, then. I don't suppose you'd know where I can find the inn?"
"I do indeed. I'm staying there myself." He turned up the road, beckoning for her to follow him. As they fell into step he gave her a sideways glance. "Forgive the observation, but you don't look well."
"What a coincidence - I don't feel well, either." She smiled ruefully. "This inn - can I get food, a bath and a bed?"
"Approximations of all those things, yes. For instance, until this morning, the only meal available was porridge."
"Porridge. For almost a week." He sighed dismally. "Fortunately, the cook - wait." He gave her another sharp look. "Are you the one who found him?"
She was taken aback for a moment. "Found him? Which - I mean, who?"
"The cook. Tenfrith. You match the description he gave, at least."
"Oh! Yes, of course. He'd fallen in with some bandits, and I, well, I have ways with people."
"He said they took one look at you and ran off screaming."
"Yes, that's, that's one of them. The ways I have." She ran a hand along one of her crescent horns uncomfortably. "It helped that it was dark and I was, er, glowing. As one does, you know." She cleared her throat. "So! I'm glad to hear he made it back safely. And that the inn is no longer reduced to porridge, though, after two days without food, even porridge sounds heavenly."
"Two days?" His eyes swept over her equipage, which consisted solely of some worn, dusty traveling clothes and a beaded leather pouch. "What happened to you?"
"It's a long story, and honestly, I'm not sure how much I should tell. After that warm welcome and a good look at this charming place, I'm starting to realize that things are... complicated."
"Fair enough. Here is the inn, up ahead. The Black Hound." He gestured at a large, solid-looking building which, like the rest of Gilded Vale, had seen better days. The inn was nearly empty inside; it was also dark, and dingy, and the few tapestries thrown up for decoration were threatening to collapse onto the stone floor. Aloth did his best to knock the caked dust from his pair of fine leather boots, and the noise brought a young woman bustling out of a back room.
"Hello, and welcome to the- Oh! It's you! Tenfrith told us what you did for him. It's such a relief to have him back! I can't thank you enough - consider yourself a favorite of the house. "
"Thank you. Are you Pasca, then?"
"Yes, and you're Huani, if I remember rightly. Are you after a meal and a room? Tenfrith said he wanted to whip up something nice for you. He's already back to work in the kitchen."
"Yes, please. If there's anything ready to serve, anything at all, I'd be very grateful if you brought it out."
"Of course. Anything for you, sir?"
"Just a glass of wine, please," Aloth said, resignation in his voice.
"Of course. It'll be up in a minute." She bustled off and the travelers seated themselves at a nearby table. When the wine arrived Aloth stared at it in disgust for a long moment before bringing it to his lips.
"Not good?" Huani said.
"Not at all, but it's all there is." He sighed. "I'll be very glad to leave this town."
She cocked her head at him. "What brought you here? Not the cuisine, clearly."
"Clearly." He gave her a wry smile. "I'm a wizard by training and an adventurer by necessity. I was born in the Cythwood, part of the mainland of the Aedyr Empire. Both of my parents served the nobility, which afforded me an education for which I'm grateful. However, there were no open positions in those houses, and so I decided to seek new means in a new land. Instead, the magistrate gave me a story about the local lord's expectant wife. Since then it's been lumpy beds, overcooked meat and no sign of a land grant."
They were interrupted by an enthusiastic dwarf carrying a tray of food. "Ah! It's you! My savior. It's so good to be back!" He set the tray down with a flourish. "This isn't my best work, but stick around a few days and I'll show you what I can do. Nothing's too good for my rescuer, and one of Ondra's chosen to boot!"
"You're very welcome, Tenfrith," Huani said, her eyes fixed greedily on the plates.
"Don't mention it! Enjoy!" He bounced off and she tore into her meal with a vengeance. Aloth watched her, sipping his wine, his face half amused and half thoughtful.
"Have you decided yet how much of your story you're willing to tell?" he asked when the devouring began to show signs of letting up.
"Mmm? Mmm." She chewed contemplatively for half a minute before swallowing. "Let me ask you this. Do you know what a brîshalgwin is?"
"Some sort of Glanfathan warrior, I believe."
"Exactly. As Mab the Magnificent put it, 'A practitioner of a Glanfathan martial tradition focused on the mysterious powers of the mind.'" She flourished her free hand in an overly dramatic fashion, drawing a laugh from her companion.
"Mab the Magnificent?"
"Oh yes. He was a traveling orlan entertainer who washed up in the Living Lands about twenty years ago. I was fascinated by him; I could tell he was something out of the ordinary. It took a week of coaxing and cajoling, and a bit of bribery, but he agreed to teach me what he could in the time left before he moved on. And he did." She took a few more contemplative bites. "He said that the brîshalgwin here had started working with animancers to perfect their art, and I've always wondered what more they learned - what more I could learn. I'm a historian by trade, and some of the things Mab said his people could do were... Well, imagine just picking up an object and knowing where it's been!" She sighed wistfully. "When the opportunity came along to travel here, I couldn't pass it up. And the journey was going well until -" She stopped short and looked down at her plate for a few moments. "The caravan was attacked, north of here, by tribesmen accusing us of trespassing. Oh, and then there was this little thing called a bîaŵac."
Aloth's eyebrows climbed into his hood. "And you survived? I've heard such a thing was impossible. It seems you either have a knack for timing or the favor of the gods."
"Favor. Curse. Maybe the gods don't know the difference." She poked at a bit of potato. "I'm the only one who made it out alive. I was ill, and honestly, I don't remember much of the next day or so. I just knew I had to head south, towards a town called Gilded Vale. Gilded Vale." Her voice softened. "It... doesn't live up to its name, does it?"
"No," Aloth said quietly. He sat in silence as she finished her meal.
"I'm going to turn in," she said, rising from the table. "I know it's early, but I'm exhausted. Thank you for keeping me company."
"My pleasure. I may turn in early myself. I'm not eager to indulge in the entertainment planned for tonight."
He smiled grimly. "I hear they're adding to their... collection." He nodded in the vague direction of the tree.
"Gods save us. And that poor soul, whoever they are."
"It seems the gods have abandoned Gilded Vale - the ones the Dyrwoodans haven't killed, that is."