A PREQUEL WITH THE CHALLENGER

by Jesse Zimmerman

Chapter Eleven: Epic Log

I’VE SINCE HEALED and returned to Northsphere (Nortsphere as some call it). When enough time passed, and I could process all the happenings, I wrote this last part.

There was a cheer when we first returned to shore, though it was amidst confusion and disbelief that the scourge of Tenth Town was truly gone. Almost immediately we were taken to the Healing House, tended by, among others, Ura.

K’Nat was in one of the beds with us. The big fisher was wearing his usual wide grin when he saw us. His healthy complexion had returned. After some kind words from him, assured that my friend was healing, I slept for a long while, waking late in the morning, possibly two days having passed. I smelled a grand feast being prepared below. 

The tavern down the stairs was more bustling than it was the first time I came to Tenth Town. A huge fire burned in the central hearth, while Pruza and Meela moved between the main room and the scullery from which they brought out portions of the bay’s harvest. Bits of moose and deer meat were spread among the denizens and guests of the tavern, gifts from the herding folk.

After Meela handed me a steaming cup of tea on the house (for a hero, she said), I made my way to the bar to drink it. Beside me were seated some fishers. Flexi, among them, greeted me warmly. He told me that his nephew, Chuck the Little, was in the Healing House, expected to be better soon. He also told me that, despite some bad wounds, no one was lost in the battle, and so we raised our drinks to miraculous luck.

Looking towards the hearth, I spotted next the bald priest, Korym. The older man was speaking in front of the bunches of townsfolk who had gathered, telling them of his journeys. I remembered then that he once knew the Challenger.

‘Oh, right, Challenger!’ I said to myself, glancing around to see if he was near the bar. I saw only fishers and a few herders at the stools. Taking my steaming mug towards the firepit, I began looking above me at the roof, trying to spot the Challenger among the criss-crossing timber beams, but all I could see were some small treebirds that had flitted in from outside.

I asked around for the Challenger, mostly answered with shrugs. Korym, after waving a friendly hand to me, told me he spoke with him earlier on the outskirts of town.

After a quick feast with the priest, I walked out the front door onto the porch, finding Meela there. She was smoking on her husk pipe, smiling at me.

‘It’s been quite the storm for this town,’ she said. ‘Not used to such things, but we knew that you all would help.’

‘Not so sure I expect to survive in truth, the more I think about it,’ I told her, sipping the last bit of my tea. A cart rolled slowly by us, followed by a bunch of workmen. I asked Meela what had happened in Tenth Town in our absence.

‘Much,’ she said, laughing. ‘Good and bad. More heroes came, as you know. K’Nat told us all about your adventures! And the Ophus? Well, the Ophus helped unite the town again! Pruza didn’t think we’d be so hopeful so soon.’

‘Really?’ I asked, my mind thinking back to the power the Ophus had gifted me. ‘Did the Challenger tell you that the Ophus is gone?’

She nodded, becoming solemn. The doors at our side opened and her husband stepped out, a pair of antlers fitted upon his head. With a shine upon his face, he said, ‘A gift from the herders! Ah, the townsfolk want speeches promptly! They are gathering just down the square, near where that storage blockhouse was burned down!’

‘I am a mere scribe,’ I told them.

Pruza returned with a little shrug. Another came out from the tavern doors, Korym. He carried a horn of ale in one hand, took a swig of it, then wiped his bare chin with his sleeve.

‘Enjoy the speeches!’ he said to us. ‘I must be off! Please give my regards to Challenger, it has been a long time since we crossed paths, me and that rascal! I will one day make my way back to Tenth Town. Blessings all!’

Pruza and Meela waved as the older man parted from us, walking against the growing crowd that was headed down the street towards the square. We three followed this crowd, going with the current. Flexi and other fishers joined in after us. Passing by the House of Healing, we saw K’Nat emerge from the door with Ura at his side. K’Nat stood proudly, though he leaned a bit on her.

‘Praise be to Maeth!’ called the fisher as he saw us.

‘They spoke of heading northward for ritual,’ said Pruza.

‘Oh yes, something about completing mourning,’ added Meela. ‘Other fishers plan to go with them. A kind of union of gods, they speak of, Maeth and Delipha.’

‘Melipha? Lots happened offscreen, it would seem,’ someone said from behind me.

I turned around, shouting, ‘Challenger!’ as I saw him.

He half-smiled. There he was, the ranger, his green cloak no longer caked in mud at the base, a clear sign he had put some effort in cleaning. His loyal sword rested firmly in his scabbard, and upon his back he bore a new wooden bow.

Thick arms suddenly grabbed hold of him, emerging out from the moving procession, hugging him like a bear grabs a tree full of honey. K’Nat, his arms covered in tightly-wound cloth, a single crutch under one of his armpits, squeezed the ranger. His dark locks of hair covered the Challenger’s flushed face for a moment, and then Ura came in, placing her strong arms around all of us.

United again, we merrily made our way to the old burned square, the townspeople cheering us along all the way, and those who could not leave their homes called out from their windows. A stage was set upon the ruins of the stockhouse. Pruza went forth to speak after the rest of us had told him we were shy.

‘Greetings to all the folks of Tenth Town! We have some shy warriors with us this day!’ More cheers rose out from the crowd..

He went on, ‘As of this day the floating island that menaced our calm lands has been destroyed! And as we know, Dorf Trot has fled from the city, exposed by Korym the Wandering Priest, as well as the wisdom of the visiting Ophus!’

‘A town master who flees when things get dangerous?’ asked the Challenger, shaking his head.

‘This happened when?’ I asked and Meela told me it was two days prior. Dorf Trot took all the wealth he could, fitting jewels and bits of metal on his clothing, and then parted. Most of the builders who worked for him wanted better pay, which clinched his decision to make off.’

Someone in the audience shouted, ‘Pruza! Pruza! Pruza!’ and others followed the chanting until our friend at the podium accepted to take over the position of Dorf Trot, but he insisted that it is only temporary, citing a fuller process of election to take place at the end of the season.

‘I will run for town master if he doesn’t by then,’ Meela told us under her breath.

‘I promise you all that peace, and the prosperity that comes with it, will return to Tenth Town and all surrounding parts!’ Pruza carried on his speech. ‘Already, the fishing folk have found bits of coins and other shining things floating to our shores, part of what was stolen and other treasures! With more gold sighted farther out, we have no doubt that we can bring Tenth Town back to how it was before! But we’ll do better and make sure that the wealth reaches all the folks!’

Hundreds of calls of praise followed until Pruza then waved for us to speak before the crowd. Ura and K’Nat merely waved as their names were called out by the crowd. The Challenger, whispering to me that he hoped not to be asked, stepped forth, standing with Pruza.

‘Dorf Trot, the fool, elected on a fluke, has done everything he could to divide Tenth Town while we were gone!’ the ranger called as he stood beside the new leader. ‘He built a wall that snakes through the streets and outskirts of Tenth Town, cutting off herders, fishers, traders, and the like; Mister Pruza, tear down this wall!’

I had to cover my ears for the next round of jubilance. Far beyond the heads of the crowd I could see the piers and the open bay, the sun shining freely upon the shore, no longer impeded.

‘This community will thrive in time,’ the Challenger went on, showing a side of himself so different from the rugged loner he first appeared to be. ‘And if there is treachery again, who will help keep us safe? You all will, I am sure of it. Why, it could be you,’ he said, pointing randomly, then he added, ‘Or your children, or your grandchildren.’ 

Afterwards they praised us, and then that praise turned into laughter and song. Strings were played, as well as woodwinds and deep drums that became a melody both soothing and triumphantly uplifting.

‘To the walls!’ declared K’Nat, holding aloft his corral crutch. Fishers echoed his cries, and then workers bearing hammers and axes stepped forth. The crowd began moving with Pruza and Meela at the lead, the music still going strong as the bards and the muses carried on alongside the procession.

‘Will you be staying long?’ Ura asked me as we walked along the front of the procession. K’Nat was at her side, giving the two of us his warm gaze while Flexi helped him along on his crutch only just a little.

‘A few days,’ I told her. ‘Then I go home and get all my notes together and I start writing.’

‘You mean to write it?’ she asked, winking.

‘Yes!’ I laughed. ‘I know some publishers! Folks in the cities will want to know what happened here. News will flow. People will want to read from a firsthand account.’

‘Yes,’ says the herdswoman, nodding, then she waved her hand towards K’Nat as she told me, ‘We will spread with words, bring our story northward first.’

‘You and K’Nat?’ I asked her and she nodded again.

The big man had gone a bit ahead of us. She said in a hushed voice to me, ‘When he was at his worst, the first night and day of his wounds, we thought we would lose him.’

I took note in that moment of how miraculous it really was that we made it through all of that, having lost one, Achalay, and nearly lost a second.

And the Ophus. We lost the Ophus too.

Ura then handed me a bottle of Milk of the Woods.

‘I will be heading northward to ancestral lands. I will be back at the early thaw. Find your way to these parts again one day, friend. You will always be served the finest of everything!’ she said to me.

I straightened the satchel on my shoulder as I held the bottle gifted to me. Ura went forth, touching my shoulder gently, and then she followed K’Nat and Flexi. I fell back a bit here, watching the townsfolk and others pass, many of them waving to me.

While I stood alone I thought I smelled something, a sweet zesty scent.

 

Keeping most of my things in my room at the inn, I ventured out to the edge of Tenth Town, this time renting a horse-drawn cart. The wagoner drops me off farther out from the border of the town, telling me that they can meet me back at the edge of the woods in a bit more than an hour. I brought out a small sack but they refused my coins.

I soon found the path along the wooded ridge. It was early in the day, so I could see most things around me, even if the canopy was thick. Since the day before, I sensed the zest, little bits of it, and I could almost smell my way to his clearing. Once there in the old grove, I was about to announce myself when the little rope ladder dropped down.

‘Thanks!’ I called up as I ascended, finding strength in my arms and legs.

Inside the Challenger’s treehouse was cluttered with bits of his clothing, a few boots, a pair of wide snowshoes, extra cloaks, and ceramic plates and bowls, among many cloths and wood planks, as well as little bits of leaves and pinecones. There rested a wooden basin against the far wall from the entrance. This whole interior space was only about twenty paces in area, with so very little room to move because of his belongings. I found a seat though, a stool across from a makeshift bed made of furs piled on top of one another. There, the ranger was strewn out like a rolled over badger.

Most surprisingly, there are shelves nailed to most of the walls, shelves with books.

‘I keep a lot of old things!’ the Challenger called across from me, inclining back on the uppermost bunch of furs. He noticed me looking at the shelves that line every wall. There are some bottles among them, most acting as bookends.

Facing him, I raised my own bottle, showing him what I brought with me. ‘From Ura, a parting gift I thought we could share.’

‘Thanks,’ he said. ‘Take what you will of it, maybe leave me the rest.’

‘How are you?’ I asked, opening up the bottle to take my first swig.

‘Recuperating,’ he told me, stretching his legs. He is clad only in his long breaches and a torn tunic, his green cloak hanging on a hook near his basin.

‘Adventuring takes a lot, doesn’t it?’ I said to him before gulping down some of the sweet milk,

Sunlight beamed on his face from a hole across from him. I drank more milk, and then I told the ranger that I planned to leave Tenth Town. He asked me to make sure in my writing that I give credit to everyone in our team, to which I assured him I would, promising to send some writings his way through Pruza and Meela.

And then I asked him about the Ophus, something that had been on my mind since we dropped our friend down into that abyss.

‘The magi-merchants, including that one pasty blathering fool of a being, is gone, I know that,’ the Challenger said, scratching his scruffy face as he leaned up more against the treehouse wall behind him.

‘Is the Ophus gone?’ I asked plainly, downing my final swig of the milk.

‘Cannot say. I have been reading some old notes,’ the ranger said, motioning his head towards the shelf nearest his bed, waving his arm. ‘All I could find is that an Ophus, like many Djinn, has the goal of sacrificing itself for a greater cause. I also read, though, that some scholars have speculated that an Ophus never is really destroyed.’

‘Truly?’ I asked him, vowing in my mind to do my own research at the libraries back home when I reached there.

He shrugged, saying, ‘It’s vague, but we’re here, Tenth Town, all of us, because of the Ophus. The magi-merchants would have wanted revenge for their plans being foiled, that’s what the Ophus told us. It comes with the territory of being a hero, I guess, losing friends sometimes.’

‘Yes,’ is all I could say back, corking up the bottle of milk. I placed it on an empty bit of floor at the side of the stool.

‘Oh, some treasure to take back!’ said the Challenger, suddenly tossing me something shiny. Though startled, I managed to catch it, my reflexes seemingly having gotten better since the adventure. Opening my palm, I gazed down at the ring, having gasped a few times. The band looked to be made of gold, or at least something close, while the headstone was an orb-shaped red jewel. I could tell it would fetch a good price back home, though I wondered too if I ought to keep it. Placing it on my finger then taking it off smoothly, I asked him where it came from.

‘I think it was Dort Trot’s ring,’ said the Challenger with a dry chuckle.

‘What?’

‘You know, the Town Master?’

‘I know, yes,’ I answered. ‘He fled into the wilderness, did he not?’

‘I saw a wolf coughing it up the other day,’ said the Challenger, then he added, ‘No need to worry, I washed it!’

Putting the ring in my coin sack, I passed him the bottle from Ura with my foot over to him. The ranger had some of the milk and we talked for some time, but after a few hours I told him that I must leave or else miss my ride home, and so he climbed down with me into the clearing, wishing me the best.

‘Come to Northsphere one day?’ I said to him as we stood in the grove that was bathed in noonday light.

‘One day. I have adventures ahead of me, I know that,’ he answered, wiping dirt off the front of his tied cloak. ‘Yes, many adventures on my own and with others! But today, there is some foraging I must do.’

‘Until then,’ I said to him, placing a hardy hand on his shoulder.

‘Fare thee well, Chainmail!’ said the gruff ranger, smiling back, placing his own hand on my shoulder. This was the parting of two friends.

I waved until I was far enough that he vanished into the foliage. And then I made my way back to where the cart, driver, and pony waited for me. On the way back to Tenth Town, as I look on at the serene landscapes we pass by, I feel a warmth.

My hand, the one that once held power, tingled a little, and as we neared the edge of the town, there grew a faint glow on my palm, a faint reddish and pink glow, yet both the glow and the warmth faded as quickly as they emerged.

The next morning I parted early, bidding my final good-byes before I left the sleepy seaside town that was once set upon by a great commotion.

THE END
 


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