Chapter 2: Concerning the Flora and Fauna of the Bunderhilt Mountains
You will notice I have sent extra funds. Please give Sephonie and the girls their usual share. The rest is for you as I must ask a favor: does foxbane still grow among the gardens of Hearthstone? I will take as much dried flowers and seeds as you might get. If I remember correctly, the flower was loved as an ornamental and also among beekeepers?
I am immediately going south to secure foxbane from Bouge lands. By the time this reaches you, I shall be halfway home with a small supply of my own – yet I will need more than I can carry. I only go for a small batch to tide me over until you can see a delivery sent from Hearthstone. Do not worry for me. I will stay far from Kezodel and his Degorouth henchmen.
Your loving brother,
Krumpus stepped along an abandoned road as one question repeated in his mind. What happened to this land? Years ago, he traveled through the area and wondered at the great colonies of foxbane. Large swaths of the mountain landscape were painted yellow with delicate blossoms. With the scent of sunlight wafting on the crisp mountain air, he could sense a magic about the flower. Intrigued by the sight, Krumpus picked several heads and draped them over his pack to dry. Desiccated and brittle, he crushed the dried flowers into a soft leather bag.
That was years ago. Now that he knew what foxbane could do, and wanted as much as his horse could carry, there was none about – and there were no people to ask about it either. There was nothing of the land he remembered, except for the ruin of buildings and roads to prove there were once people here.
What had happened? The last time Krumpus came through these lands there were numerous villages, and no end of farms. Now, there was nothing but ruins – and the traps and scat of bugbear. That was a problem. He did not wish to run across any bugbear. The vermin tended to hunt in numbers and employed several poisons. If he should run across a rabble, there'd be no fending them off, and they may chase him for days.
For a time, Krumpus thought maybe bugbear had driven off the Bouge peasantry – but the more Krumpus explored the land, the more it seemed the bugbear were simply settling open country. Although there were certainly signs of bugbear in the area, there was little strangle vine, only the youngest poison sycamore, and little other cultivation of the usual bugbear crop. Yet the ruins of the Bouge people seemed long abandoned, certainly long enough for strangle vine to mature, and for poison sycamore to be twice the height of a man. Something else emptied the land of the Bouge...
Despite the danger of bugbear, Krumpus wasn't about to turn back without any foxbane. There was too much at stake. It took many years for Krumpus to realize the value of the flower. The first foxbane he harvested settled to the bottom of his pack as Krumpus was immediately distracted. The first thing to demand his attention was a judge named Kezodel. Krumpus was in a large town near the Gopi border, where he treated people for various infirmities with an array of tinctures, poultices, creams, and tonics. A local apothecary, with an eternal scowl and some of the saddest wares Krumpus had ever seen, accused the shaman of thievery. Kezodel took one look at the shabby traveler and sentenced Krumpus to have his hand cut off.
Thanks to his skill and kindness among the people, Krumpus had many friends among the local populace. The fair people of the town immediately began to agitate for his release. Kezodel and his Degorouth clansmen would have ignored these protests, but other troubles surfaced for them. A girl of thirteen – abducted from a strong family and missing for nearly a year – escaped from Kezodel's own mansion with the help of a young slave boy. Her story spread like wildfire through the town and surrounding farmlands, and galvanized the people. Tired of the judge's graft and corruption, the opposition swelled and surrounded the court. Militiamen poured into the town from miles around and demanded that Kezodel step down. Some wanted a trial. Many wanted a hanging.
Kezodel realized a storm was building and thought it was likely to sweep him under. Convinced he might lose his head if he stayed, Kezodel and his Degorouth henchmen gathered their riches and prepared to flee. As they snuck out through a secret tunnel – with the county's coin and property in tow – Kezodel made a great show of releasing his prisoners. A man of such villainous character, Kezodel took the time to threaten the shaman's life before his release. "If I shall ever see you again," Kezodel snapped at the silent man, "I shall have more than your hand." Then, as Krumpus made his way through the front gate of the court – to the delighted cheers of the crowd – Kezodel slipped out the back and rode for Ebertin with his tail tucked between his legs.
All in all, Krumpus spent nearly a month in jail before the winds of change finally blew Kezodel away. By the time he was freed, the weather had shifted and winter threatened. An early storm swept through the mountains, and the shaman realized his plans to go north were ruined. Krumpus decided to go home instead.
In Hearthstone once more, Krumpus met Sephonie, and the foxbane was almost completely forgotten. Krumpus might have stayed in Hearthstone forever, but years later, the grumblings of a sickness in Melmorahn pricked the shaman's ears and stirred his wanderlust once more. With the excuse of wanting to help its people, Krumpus packed his bag and tried to convince Sephonie to go with him. She refused. In the end, he could not blame her. A city that suffered some unknown plague was no place to raise their children. He promised to send money – and she swore to burn his letters.
Krumpus reached Melmorahn to find the plague in full swing. The number of sick continued to increase and the death toll crept into the thousands. The people of Melmorahn moved about the city with scarves and rags over their pallor, scarred faces. Krumpus set to work on solving the problem and found himself swimming in patients. Though many recovered, the distress might wear on a man for weeks, even months. The majority survived the sickness, but it killed one out of three. As the months marched on, Krumpus noted those that lived often caught the distress again and again. Hobbled by sickness, Melmorahn threatened to fall under its own weight.
Krumpus strived against the sickness with little real success. He kept his patients hydrated, fed, and comfortable. He poured over his various medicines, potions, powders, and recipes. He scoured the local markets and tested anything that looked promising – and when all this failed, he attempted anything else he could conceive to try. The plague continued to get worse. Krumpus caught the sickness twice, though he managed to get better.
At wit's end, Krumpus decided to go for a ride in the country, that he might commune with the spirits and beg their help. He planned to gather samples of plants, and trap a few native animals, on the off-chance that something – anything – might reveal some secret of the distress. Could he hope for a cure? The gods willing... As he began to pack, he found the soft leather pouch of crushed flowers settled at the bottom. He opened the pouch and was astounded by what he found. The foxbane smelled of summer's light and clean mountain air. From the very first second, it seemed like the perfect thing to treat the distress!
For a week, Krumpus ate nothing and drank only foxbane tea, that he might understand its affects on a human body. Each day he liked it more than the last, and felt better about it. The last day, he ate the thin bits of flower he'd steeped and wondered at his vibrancy. It caused him no issues at all and quite possibly leant him a subtle energy that made him feel strong and vigorous.
Convinced it was safe, Krumpus decided to give the flower to the most dire patients and see what effects it might have against the distress. He served foxbane to a dozen patients that hung on the verge of death. Each morning, he gave them a cup of tea with their breakfast. The effects were quick and startling. The aches and pains of the sickness subsided within the first hour or two. At ease, the patients enjoyed deep and restful sleep. By the third day, they pooped properly and refused to stay in bed. By the end of the week, the lesions about their eyes, mouths, and noses were completely cleared up. The foxbane was an unmitigated success!
Krumpus immediately gave the tea to as many as he could and managed to cure twenty-nine of thirty-one patients! He was very pleased with the flower and himself. He took a disease that killed one in three, and brought that down to one in fifteen among the very worst cases. The only problem was that he'd exhausted his supply of foxbane, and he could not find it growing anywhere around Melmorahn.
Still, he knew where to get it. This time, he'd be across Gopi lands in three weeks and back before the proper start of summer – or so he thought. Now that Krumpus was in the Southern Bunderhilt, there was no foxbane, and there were no people to tell him what happened to the flower. It was the invasion of Salyst all over again – only among the greater population of the Bouge. There were only ruins, dilapidated and overgrown. Indeed, they looked like they'd been uninhabited for years.
Krumpus wondered if he shouldn't just go back to Melmorahn and await the shipment of foxbane from his sister. He was quite pleased he'd sent the letter and only hoped foxbane was still in fashion as an ornamental and among beekeepers. Back east, he never saw it growing in massive colonies that might paint an entire ridge yellow – but there was certainly plenty of the flower. So long as the flower still bloomed in the gardens of Hearthstone, Krumpus would have an ample supply before fall. Yet, a panic caught the shaman – unfounded and irrational though it may be – this fear gripped him for some time as he wandered. What if there was no foxbane in Hearthstone? What if the flower was pulled from its beds wherever it grew? As he marched, his mind kept coming back to this unsubstantiated worry. He wondered if foxbane wasn't gone from the earth altogether. He could not believe he should stumble upon such a miraculous cure for the distress only to find the cure no longer grew anywhere in the world. But such were the twists of fate and the humors of gods.
The shaman arrived at the main road between Ebertin and Wibbeley. For an hour or so he sat at the side of the road and considered which way he might go as he nibbled his lunch. To the east was Ebertin, not only the largest city of the Bouge, but the largest city of the nine Trohl nations. To the west were the ruins of Salyst, if he should turn north at the ford – or if he should turn south, the Saot city of Wibbeley.
Krumpus turned west and thought he might see the ruins of Salyst. But after only a few minutes he came across a bugbear trap more elaborate and beastly then any he'd ever seen before! It was not a single trap, but a series of traps, and it spread into the woods on each side of the road. There was such a massive tangle of spines, spikes, holes, wires, and loops! As he stared at the monstrosity, he decided it a sign and turned back the other direction, toward Ebertin, and Kezodel. But Ebertin was such a big city and his banishment was so many years ago. What was the chance he'd have to go all the way to Ebertin anyway?
Caught in his thoughts, Krumpus came around a blind corner and took several jaunty steps before he realized what was right in front of him. His heart jumped, his eyes widened, and the shaman stopped dead in his tracks. Before him, a great serpent curled on a boulder just off the road. It was a tawny color with mottled red patterning and emerald green highlights. Coiled like a rope, the serpent sunned itself with its long head resting between the shoulders of its wings. Wings! Krumpus thought. It must be a wyrm.
Although the tongue of the wyrm flicked from time to time, the eyes remained closed. Krumpus realized he was downwind of the creature. It would not detect him if he decided to sneak away.
Then he thought perhaps the wyrm knew where he might find foxbane. The elder races were all said to be as bright as men – and just as capricious – so the beast might very well help him find the flower. Maybe it also knew what became of the people! Of course, the wyrm might attack, and was likely quite dangerous. Wyrms were said to possess a deadly venom, and their hides were said to be as hard as stone. They were also said to be very charismatic, and able to glamour the unassuming. Indeed, one writer spoke of their ability to control minds – but Krumpus thought that was unlikely.
Krumpus frowned. Now that he rehashed the claims he'd heard over the years, he wondered if any of it was true. There was no end of exaggerations, speculations, and unsubstantiated claims concerning anything as exotic as the elder races. Beside, so long as he was kind to the creature, it was likely to reciprocate. Or so he assumed.
Krumpus smiled as he tied his horse to a tree and gave the mount several calming strokes. There was a wyrm before him! What a wonderful thing! He must wake it! He decided to rouse it with a song. He began to hum. He started with an ancient song, sweet and whimsical. He clapped and danced with his staff as a prop – just in case he needed a weapon to defend himself. He also kept a respectful distance.
For several seconds, Krumpus danced as he stared at the wyrm. The eyes opened and the wyrm stared back at him. Slowly, it began to uncoil, and stretch itself. It fanned its great wings, as wide as a man's arms. It yawned and showed wicked fangs, several inches long.
Krumpus stomped the dirt of the road and swung his staff about in a great show as he continued to hum his song. The wyrm closed it mouth, and the dagger-like teeth disappeared. The creature folded its wings and locked eyes with the shaman as it waved back and forth in time to the song. There certainly seemed to be a keen intelligence in it's eyes. Krumpus continued to dance as the wyrm approached ever so slowly and with a submissive air.