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 in the parks and wilds around Hearthstone? If so, I will take as much dried flowers and seeds as you might get. If I remember correctly, it was loved as an ornamental and also among beekeepers.
Why do I request this flower, you might ask? Because it is a most potent cure for the distress! But I have run out of it and can't find it in this land. Immediately, I go south to secure some from Bouge lands – where I first noticed it. By the time this reaches you, I shall be halfway back to Melmorahn with a 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. We may have found a cure, but we have yet to figure out what is causing the disease. Do not worry for me. I will stay far from Kezodel and his Degorouth henchmen.
Your loving brother,
~!@#$%^&*()_+ 2.2 +_)(*&^%$#@!~
Krumpus stepped along the abandoned road as one question repeated over and over in his mind: what happened to this land?
Years ago, he traveled through the area and wondered at the great colonies of foxbane, as large swaths of the mountain were painted yellow with its delicate blossoms. Intrigued by the flower, he sat among them for half a day, and contemplated their nature. He watched and named the various insects that played upon their branches, leaves, and petals. He considered the wind and rains, as he watched, listened, and felt the rocky landscape, and the simplistic beauty of the plant. After a week of watching the flowers grow and bloom in the bright spring weather, he wished to get back to his former work, so he picked several of the most mature plants and draped them over his pack to dry. Desiccated and brittle, he crushed the dried flowers into a soft leather bag and put them away for further investigation.
In those days, Krumpus walked the lands and treated the people for various infirmities and diseases, in hopes of making a pretty penny while seeing new people and places. He carried a wide collection of tinctures, poultices, creams, and tonics – many of his own clever invention – and treated the people for their various illnesses, sicknesses, and diseases. From his home in Hearthstone, he traveled west into Bouge lands, even beyond Lake Kundilae. For a while, he considered going all the way to Salyst and seeing if he might not help with their troubles. But news coming out of Salyst in those days was never good, and usually quite grim. By the time he approached the area, it was said most of the people were either captured and taken for slaves by the Ministrians; or escaped, either scattered among the other Trohl nations or escaped into the wilds beyond the high desert. He turned away from the doomed city.
After walking the Bouge westlands, Krumpus turned north. Just below the Gopi border, he stepped into an apothecary intent to resupply, before heading on toward Melmorahn, and was greeted by some of the saddest wares ever pushed on the consuming public – not to mention the eternal scowl of the proprietor. After rounding the store and seeing nothing he wished to have, Krumpus silently slipped away, only to be accosted by several members of the watch. The apothecary accused Krumpus of thievery. Kezodel, the judge that presided over the city, took one look at the shabby shaman and the ramshackle state of his supplies and tongue, and locked the man away.
Thanks to his kind treatment and skill among the locals, Krumpus made many new friends in the area. These fair people immediately petitioned the court and called for his release. Kezodel and his Degorouth clansmen would have ignored these protests – as was their standard response to the people's displeasure – but another trouble surfaced for the judge and his goons, and their opposition was soon bolstered by a righteous fury. 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, only to tell of atrocities and shame among the most powerful of the court. The story of her kidnapping spread like wildfire and added to years of graft, corruption, and long knives in the night. The good people were beside themselves as their long simmering indignation boiled out of all control. Militias took the streets and surrounded the buildings and neighborhoods controlled by the Degorouth. Support for the opposition poured into town from miles around and the people demanded a trial (though many wished to skip the talking and get straight to the hanging).
Kezodel realized a storm brewed and thought it likely to sweep him under. More opposition arrived daily, and he knew he'd get no support from the feckless courts of Ebertin. Convinced he might lose his head if he stayed, Kezodel and his Degorouth henchmen gathered their riches and prepared to flee. Despite his haste, Kezodel took the time to threaten Krumpus personally. After all, the judge's most recent difficulties started with the shaman's arrest. "Test me again, vagrant, and I'll have your head," he glared at Krumpus, then left the prisoner to rot in his cell. In the middle of the night, Kezodel and a good number of his Degorouth lieutenants abandoned their offices with the county's coin and property in tow. Once it was discovered the Degorouth fled their posts, the local militias cut the locks and freed most of the prisoners, to the delighted cheers of the gathered crowd – though a few of the inmates were too terrible to be released.
All in all, Krumpus spent nearly a month in jail before the winds of change finally freed him. By the time he returned to his journeys, the weather had shifted and winter threatened. As Krumpus hastened his way through Gopi lands, an early storm swept through the mountains. The passes to the north were thoroughly blocked until the spring thaw. His plans to winter in Melmorahn, ancient home of Rigel, were ruined. Krumpus decided to go home for the winter. In Hearthstone once more, the foxbane was further forgotten when Krumpus met Sephonie.
He might have stayed in Hearthstone forever and never realized foxbane's potency – except the grumblings of a sickness in Melmorahn grew loud, pricked the shaman's ears, and stirred his wanderlust once more. With the excuse of wanting to help these unfortunate people, Krumpus packed his bag and tried to convince Sephonie to go to Melmorahn with him. Despite his pressures, she refused. In the end, he could not blame her. A city that suffered an unknown plague was no place to raise their children. Krumpus promised to send money – and Sephonie swore to burn his letters.
Krumpus reached Melmorahn to find the plague in full swing. The number of sick had increased and the death toll had crept into the thousands. The people of Melmorahn moved about the city with scarves and rags over their pallor faces. The healers of the city struggled against the distress with no real success. Krumpus found himself swimming in patients.
He set to work solving the problem. Though many recovered, the distress might wear on a man for weeks, even months, before it finally left him. Victims were lethargic, suffered irregular stool, developed sores about their eyes, mouth, and nose. Too many were overcome and eventually died.
Krumpus did his best to keep his patients hydrated, fed, and comfortable. He poured over his various medicines, potions, powders, and recipes to find a cure. He scoured the local markets and tested anything that looked promising – but recovery was always slow and sometimes didn't happen at all. As the months marched on, survivors often caught the distress over and over again. Krumpus caught it twice himself, though he managed to recover.
A year passed and the plague only got worse. 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 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 foxbane at the bottom of his bag. He opened the pouch and was astounded by what he found. Years later, the crushed flowers still smelled of summer's light and clean mountain air. Krumpus had a sneaking suspicion that foxbane was the perfect thing to treat the distress. He immediately canceled his trip.
But he would not rush its administration. He had to be sure it was safe. For a week, Krumpus ate nothing and drank a growing amount of foxbane tea, that he might understand its affects on a human body. Each day he liked it more than the last. The final day, he ate the thin bits of flower he'd steeped and wondered at his vibrancy. The foxbane lent him a subtle energy despite his lack of other sustenance.
Convinced it was safe, Krumpus gave the flower to his most dire patients. He gave them a cup of tea with each of their meals. The effects were quick and startling. The aches and pains of the sickness subsided within a few hours. 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 cleared up. The foxbane was an unmitigated success!
Krumpus immediately gave the tea to as many as he could. In the coming weeks, he lost only three of his most dire cases! He was very pleased with the flower. It took a disease that killed one in four, and brought that down to one in fifteen among the very worst! Not only did his patients recover, they recovered quickly! The only problem was that he'd exhausted his supply of foxbane – and he could not find it growing anywhere around the city.
Still, he knew where to get it. This time, he'd be across Gopi lands in two weeks and back before the proper start of summer – or so he thought. Now that Krumpus was in the Southern Bunderhilt, he could find no foxbane, and there were no people to tell him where it might be hiding. He wondered if it wasn't the invasion of Salyst all over again – only among the greater population of the Bouge. Perhaps if he was not so obsessed with the distress, Krumpus might have heard word of what happened here – but then, he'd barely stopped at all to hear the talk of the Gopi as he passed through their lands.
Nor did he hear talk of the bugbear! There was plenty of traps and scat. For a time, Krumpus wondered if perhaps the bugbear chased out the men – but it soon became evident that the men disappeared and the bugbear simply inherited their empty lands. Still, he'd have to be careful. There were too many tales if men getting eaten by bugbear.
As Krumpus searched for the flower, he wondered if he shouldn't go back to Melmorahn and simply await the shipment of foxbane from his sister. He wondered if the flower was still in fashion as an ornamental and among beekeepers. It'd been nearly two years since he'd seen Jindleyak lands. Since he was among the Bunderhilt and no longer saw the large colonies about, irrational fears began to spin wildly out of control as Krumpus wondered if foxbane was gone from the earth altogether. What if Jindleyak groundskeepers pulled the flower from all the lands near Hearthstone? What if some pest ripped them all out where they grew among the Untu tribes? What if the flowers of Gramgoar – that is, among the sparse flowers of that uninhabitable clime – what if all the foxbane perished for whatever wet-dry, hot-cold reason that made Gramgoar so inhospitable in the first place? But then, Krumpus was only imagining the worst. There was always the possibility of finding foxbane around the very next corner.
The hypotheticals became more rational. Krumpus wondered if that one year oh-so-long-ago was simply a banner year with conditions just right to see such a proliferation. Perhaps, the colonies were simply smaller, tucked among the underbrush and not so out in the open. Perhaps he simply needed to look a little closer.
Krumpus arrived at the main road between Ebertin and Wibbeley. For a time he sat at the side of the road and considered which way he might go as he nibbled an early lunch. To the east was Ebertin, the largest city of the Bouge, and said to be 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 the Saot city of Wibbeley if he should cross the river and go south. But he didn't want to go any of these directions, he simply wanted to find a flower!
Krumpus turned toward Ebertin. He'd heard rumor that Kezodel had established himself in the great city – but then, it was such a large city. Even if Krumpus ended up going all the way to Ebertin, what were the chances Kezodel or any of his men would recognize the shaman, especially after all these years?
Caught in his thoughts, Krumpus rode his horse around a blind corner and took several steps before he realized what was right in front of him. His eyes went wide and his heart jumped as he pulled his mount to a stop. Before him, a great serpent curled on a flat smooth boulder just off the side of 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. As soon as he saw it, Krumpus knew it was a wyrm.
Krumpus was downwind of the creature. It would not detect him if he decided to sneak away. Yet the wyrm might know where to find foxbane. It might also know what became of the people. The elder races were all said to be as bright as men – though it was also said they were just as capricious. The wyrm might help him, and it might attack. It was quite likely to be 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 charismatic, so much so, they might glamour the unassuming. Indeed, one writer spoke of their ability to control minds.
But Krumpus thought that was unlikely. He frowned. Now that he rehashed the things he'd heard of wyrms over the years, he wondered if any of it was true. Indeed, he often wondered if the beasts themselves were real. Everyone had their ideas about the elder races – but few people ever caught more than an occasional glance. To think there might actually be dragons, naga, and thunderbirds about, roaming the wilds of the world!
Eventually, Krumpus decided that as long as he was kind to the creature, it was quite likely to reciprocate. Even at the worst, he should be safe, if only he kept his distance. He smiled as he tied his horse to a tree and gave the mount several calming strokes. There was a wyrm before him – and he meant to wake it! He thought a song was the proper thing for the job, and so he began to hum. He started with an ancient song of the spring, sweet and whimsical. He clapped and danced with his staff as a prop (just in case he needed to defend himself) and kept a respectful distance. For several seconds, Krumpus stared as he danced for the wyrm.
The eyes of wyrm opened and the creature stared back. As Krumpus danced and hummed, the wyrm began to uncoil and stretch itself. It fanned its great wings which were as wide as a man's arms. It yawned and showed wicked fangs, several inches long, as it shook away its sleepiness. Krumpus stomped the dirt of the road and swung his staff about in a great show as he continued to dance and hum his song. The wyrm closed it mouth and the dagger-like teeth disappeared. Then it locked eyes with the shaman and slowly began to wave back and forth in time to his song. Krumpus could tell there was a keen intelligence behind its eyes. He continued to dance as the wyrm approached him ever so slowly, with a curious and submissive air.