Chapter 9: A Proficient Hand

Perhaps a note concerning bugbear is warranted. Very well. Here are my observations concerning these vicious, snarling, sharp-fanged devils: bugbear may weigh as much as 150 pounds, but are usually less than 100. Their features are sharper than other bears, indeed some say they have a more wolfish appearance. Unlike true bears, they have a highly social structure and tend to live in large groups. These groups are called rabbles as they can be heard from quite a distance.

Bugbear utilize a great deal of tools, some rather complex, but always made of rudimentary materials. Their weapons are stone and wood. Although they are found possessing metal, it is always stolen, forged by humans, or other elder races.

There are several plants bugbear abhor and routinely destroy, most of which are beneficial to men. Instead, they raise some dozen noxious plants among their own rough gardens, most notably strangle vine, rot thorn, and wobble weed. But this is a pittance when it is remembered that humans raise thousands of plants as food, materials, or simple ornaments – not to mention man's capacity for husbandry. Men raise hundreds of different animals for food, work, and pets. In contrast, there is no record of any bugbear valuing creatures outside its own race except as meat, and most immediately so. They may allow an animal to live a few days while it suffers the rot, but they do not care for them in any meaningful fashion.

Unlike the elder races which suffer estrous throughout their adult life, bugbear go into estrous only during the summer and fall. Pregnancy lasts about six months and usually results in one to three live born pups, though it is possible to have more. By age three, they are nearly full grown and sexually mature, thus populations can increase rather quickly. When numbers become unsupportable, bugbear are known to maraud en masse – a phenomenon known as a war of bugbear. A war of bugbear usually numbers many thousand and can do an astonishing amount of damage. They are known to travel hundreds of miles in pursuit of blood, plunder, and glory. Villages and towns on the edge of the wild are highly susceptible to these attacks.

- The Elder Races of the World: Considerations, Arguments, and Refutations, by Aogostua Veribos, page 825


Toar threw several rocks into the trap and caved in the loose cover of leaves and twigs. With the cover destroyed, Toar leaned over the edge of the slight pit that he might inspect its crafting. Spikes lined the bottom of the pit at a depth of perhaps two feet. The pit was deep enough to break a leg and the spikes would easily hobble most big game, but the trap would not capture its prey. Not that it mattered. Each was tipped with a dark resinous substance – rot root – and wobble weed powder. Injured and poisoned, the victim would not get far.

Toar was frustrated. The further west he went, the more bugbear plagued him. Indeed, this was the fifth trap he'd come across since leaving Woodring! He was beginning to think it was impossible to get to Salyst. Although Toar managed to dodge the beasts and their traps, he'd stepped in their foul scat twice, and it always took too long to rub that smell from the sole of his boots.

At the ford of the river Quick, Toar decided to take a break and think over his options. He climbed up a slight slope where an outcrop of rock overlooked the river. He sat in the freckled shade offered by a jumble of small aspens. Below him, the road forked. In one direction, the road ran north and west, toward the ruins of Salyst: two day's journey in good weather. Across the ford, the road ran south and west, in the direction of Wibbeley: a good day's journey. Toar poked at bits of a makeshift lunch as he gazed up the valley. He rolled bits of cured meat between his fingers as he considered going forward and going back. Before him lay the mysteries of Salyst. Where'd the people go? Did any still survive? He'd long heard they were not all taken for slaves. Some simply disappeared. Toar believed they'd gone across the Red Desert, into the wilds beyond, in order to start over. Still, he could not resume his search until he passed the ruins of Salyst, which seemed to be overrun with bugbear. As for going back, well, there was no reason to go back. He said his goodbyes and blessed every step that put distance between himself and his past.

More and more it was impossible to go forward. There were simply too many bugbear and their traps. He was fairly certain the beasts now claimed Salyst for their own. After the Salystians abandoned it, the Ministrians lost interest and did nothing to keep it. There was no one to keep the rabbles of bugbear from coming down out of the Cloud Mountains and taking over the place. And so, the question arose, where else might Toar go? It was a question without an answer.

Grunts, curses, snorts, and murmurs carried down the road. Toar ducked out of view and pulled his supplies off the rocks. He stuffed everything back in his bag and prepared to run as a hunting party of bugbear crawled along the road, laden with their success. The rabble carried a great number of carcasses as they approached the ford: raccoons, foxes, squirrels, skunks, a fawn. There was a boar tied to a long rail and carried by four of the beasts. Blood dripped from its massive snout and eyes. Unlike the boar, several animals were still alive, drugged and lashed as they mewed and pleated with frightened eyes. These limped from wounds sustained from snares and traps and now festered with the bugger rot.

There were maybe twenty bugbear in the rabble. They were all mature and well armed. They brandished swords, axes, spears, clubs, and knives aplenty. Some of these were genuine bugbear weapons made of chipped rock with wood handles. Others were metal. The metal weapons were rusty and heavily dinged, mostly taken from men in wars long past. The native weapons were not as straight or as hardy, but were in much better condition.

A small llama bawled as it struggled against it's leash. One of its legs was visibly lame. A bugbear cursed and walloped the young creature with the flat of his spear. The slap of the blows rang off the rocks. As the bugger beat the llama, its pleats increased and became hysterical. The blows ended and the cries stopped shortly after. Toar was close enough to hear the satisfied grumblings of the llama's tormenter.

The rabble stopped at the ford of the river and prepared to take a lunch of its own. Toar was cut off. The way down from his ledge was visible to the bugger rabble. He could try and climb up from where he was, but the slope was steep. He felt such a route was folly at best. He wouldn't attempt going up unless the buggers forced him. Instead, he sat back in the dappled shade, content to watch the beasts and wait them out. Several of the beasts arranged a series of traps on the bank of the river Quick. Toar rolled his eyes. So many traps! He wondered if this was a new technology, or if the increase in traps was simply an indicator of a growing population.

Something clicked in the distance as another sound carried on the wind. Something clacked. The hollow sound of a distant laugh followed and Toar realized men approached along the southern fork – men from Wibbeley. Toar hoped the bugbear would flee as they were want to do. Then he could watch Ministrians suffer and curse the bugger traps. He grinned with anticipation. He lost no love on Ministrians and their foul allies.

The clomp of hooves grew as the horses approached. Conversation carried on the breeze. A raucous laugh rolled through the trees. The bugbear caught the sound over the rush of the river and became quiet. The laugh sounded again.

In a silent rush, the buggers scattered. Several kicked out the fire. A half dozen bugbear took the living animals up the road with all possible haste. The remaining buggers hid in the thick undergrowth at the edge of the river and shook with anticipation. There was a lot of vegetation. Even knowing they were there, Toar had a hard time spotting them.

Eventually, the men appeared. They laughed and conversed, unaware of the lurking danger as they moved along the road. They weren't Ministrians at all, and there were only three of 'em. Two were Saots and the third was of a sort Toar could not identify. His skin was dark as night. He'd never even heard of such a thing.

The bugbear squirmed and glared at the men, unconcerned by their color. There were at least a dozen bugbear on the bank, and they had the element of surprise. Toar did not want to get involved. There were few people in this part of the world that weren't slavers or slaves, and these three looked decidedly more like the former. Toar stayed safely out of view and decided to let the ambush shake out.

As Toar watched the oblivious approach of the strangers, something queer happened. One of the bugbear turned and looked directly at him. The beast locked eyes with Toar and showed its long fangs. It snapped at the distant Trohl – a threat of things to come.

Toar felt the hairs on the back of his neck stand on edge. The men stepped into the river, and the waters climbed over their ankles, past their knees, and up their stomachs. The deeper they went, the more the sinking feeling caught in Toar's chest. These strangers would soon be dead, and Toar would die soon after. He looked up the steep slope, and thought it impassible. He looked down the way he came and wondered if he moved first, might he outrun the buggers? At best, it'd take hours. Buggers were relentless and might chase him for the better part of a day.

The men in the river Quick were across the deepest part of the channel. They climbed into shallow water, down to their thighs, then the tops of their shins, If Toar was going to act, he had to do something now. Without another thought, Toar picked a stone off the ground and chucked it at the bugbear that glared at him. Before it hit, Toar launched several more stones into the bushes, down around the ears of the other bugbear. He grabbed more and more stones, and flung them at the buggers as quick as he could, no longer concerned with hiding. Several stones hit the edge of the stream.

It is not often that rocks fall from the sky, and rarely in such quantity. The first stone caused the men in the river to jump back and pull weapons. The youngest swore. "Balls..." he said as he looked up at the rain of stone. He pulled a pair of small weapons from the back of his horse. Likewise, the others turned to their weapons.

With their ambush ruined, the bugbear attacked. One stood on a fallen tree and cursed Toar for his interference. Toar scoffed. Bugger curses did not worry him in the slightest. Still, the creature ran for him and began to make its way up the slope. Toar continued to throw rocks, now aimed at the creature that scrambled up the hill. His right hand glanced the pommel of his sword to be sure it was there. He may still need it. A bugbear stepped from the brush and shot the eldest of the three strangers with a blowgun. The dark man leapt forward with his lengthy spear and struck the offending bugbear before it could dodge back into the brush. The attack was a masterful stroke. The bugger shrieked and dropped into the waters of the Quick as life fled.

Several more buggers jumped from the bushes and confronted the dark man. They leapt into the river and pushed the man back with their spears and swords. The metal tip of the dark man's spear flicked and whistled as he used it to keep the buggers at bay. He nicked another beast and the bugger howled in pain.

Several leather balls flew from the hedges. Most missed their target, or scored ineffective hits, but one caught the youngest man full in the face. Blinded, he leveled his weapons in the general direction of the offending bugbear. Toar frowned. The weapons appeared to be little more than sticks. What could he possibly hope to do? A puff of smoke appeared at the end of one weapon. An incredible explosion boomed across the water and echoed off the stone. Blood exploded from the bugbear's arm as the racket create by the slight weapon startled the entire rabble. The afflicted bugbear howled in pain. The beast turned, pulled itself up the bank of the river, and ran up the road as it gipped its injured arm.

The oldest of the strangers also had a musket. He pointed and fired at the buggers that faced off against the dark man. Another clap of thunder roared through the air. Toar and the buggers flinched. One bugbear flopped back as if smashed in the chest with a hammer. The creature collapsed in the water as blood swirled about. Lifeless, the bugbear dropped in the water and slowly drifted down stream as the current caught it.

Two of the bugbear were dead, two were injured and one had retreated. Rocks continued to rain down from Toar's perch. Having suffered so much, and inflicted only light damage, the vermin panicked, broke rank, and ran. The remaining bugbear retreated up the road, toward Salyst, as they snarled and gnashed at their adversaries. Toar's heart sunk to see the bugbear retreat toward the ruins of the old city. He knew he could not return to Salyst or the Red Desert beyond. He had not expected so many buggers to be in the area. How had their number increased so dramatically? It was only, what? Five, six years since his first foray? If any Salystians survived in the fecund wilds beyond the Red Desert, Toar felt he would not find them.

With the enemy fled, the three men in the river waved and beckoned to Toar. He watched the men, confused by their strange Saot tongue. He only hoped they too would go away, but they did not. Instead the old man switched to Ministrian, and though he despised the language, Toar knew it well. "Come down here, that we may talk," the old man said. "My name is Dandifrod, and these are my men; Carr and Baetolamew! We are far from home and care for your council!"

"Stay in the river!" Toar yelled. "There are traps!"

He had not saved them from the ambush only to have them all poisoned. The three men waited at the edge of the water. Toar grabbed his pack and hurried down the slope. He approached the river and searched for the traps. He cut a thin leather line and the first trap fell apart. The second was a bit more elaborate. Toar took his time looking it over.

"Thank you for your warning. Twice you have saved us. We are increasingly in your debt," Dandifrod smiled.

Toar huffed. He ignored the man and tried to puzzle out the second trap. If he cut this line, the whole thing should fall apart. He put his knife to the thin strand. The leather separated, but the trap did not break. It activated. Several darts flew through the air and just missed Toar's face. Toar breathed a sigh of relief. A face infected with rot was not a pleasant thought.

"Are you okay?" Carr asked. The tip of his spear dappled with the blood of his enemies.

Toar stood and turned to the three men. His face soured. "I did not save you. I saved myself!' Toar snapped. "Go back home! This is no land for Saots!"

"We cannot go back," Dandifrod answered with his hands up and helpless. "We cannot return to Wibbeley."

"You do not belong here," Toar replied. "This is a land for buggers alone!"

"Those creatures?" Carr pointed up the road.

Toar gave a nod.

"Are these not the Trohl Freelands?" Dandifrod asked.

"In name alone," Toar shrugged.

"Are you not a Trohl?"

"I am an exception," Toar stated. "We are a good week from the nearest Trohl settlement."

"We make for Hearthstone," Dandifrod continued. "There is no other course for us. It is a matter of justice."

Toar snorted. "There is no justice in this land. There are only bugbear, slavers, and the ghosts of the innocent."

"Is it safe now?" Dandifrod asked, still undeterred, as he pointed to the bank of the river. "This water is cold, and we would be out of it."

"If you insist," Toar shrugged. The men climbed from the river as Toar considered his options. He thought perhaps he should go east, even as far as Hearthstone. He could not proceed west, and he never wished to return to Ebertin. If he could not go beyond the Red Desert, why not go beyond Ebertin, and into the lands of the Jindleyak? If Hearthstone did not contain the things he sought, perhaps he would continue east toward ancient Tallia... Now there was an idea...

"Thank you for breaking the ambush," Carr said and held out a hand. Toar did likewise, and the dark man shook his hand, as Saots are known to do. "We are lucky you were around."

"You are," Toar agreed.

"I am poisoned," Dandifrod held a small dart out to the young man. "Do you know what those devils use?"

Toar took the dart and examined it. He saw what he expected. "The oily substance is rot root. You can smell it."

"How bad is it?" Dandifrod asked.

"It is bad," Toar admitted. "Without treatment, you will get sick and die. May I see the wound?"

Dandifrod lifted his shirt. There was an angry red pock mark low on his right side. Toar gently pressed his fingers about the puffed dot. The old man tensed. "It is very delicate," Dandifrod noted.

"The bugbear use the rot on many of their game. They consider tainted meat to be something of a delicacy, and will eat anything that can be infected." Toar spit. "Or so I am told."

"Is there an antidote?" Carr asked.

"There is a treatment, but it is beyond my skill. You are lucky. The wound is far from your heart, and I can delay the rot. Normally, you would die in a day or two. I can give you a week, maybe two, depending on your strength," Toar explained. "I know a witch. She lives eight days from here – six if we hurry. She can heal you if you live that long," he shrugged. "It's good odds."

"If you shall take us, we will be forever in your debt," Dandifrod bowed.

Toar frowned. "Let it not be forever." He opened his pack and handed a slight jar of ointment to Dandifrod. "Rub this on the wound."

The man took the jar and applied a thin ribbon. "It bites," he complained.

"Add more," Toar told him. "You do not look well. How do you feel?"

"To speak the truth, I am weak and nauseous," Dandifrod confessed.

"It is the dust sprinkled over the resinous rot," Toar nodded. "It is wobble-weed: quick and disorienting, that the bugbear might easily catch their prey. It'll wear off before the sun goes down."

"It is not lethal?" Dandifrod asked.

"Kill the quarry and you stop the spread of the rot," Toar explained. "If the point is to get a meat that is thoroughly marbled, the victim must die by the infection itself. You are lucky they were hunting. They have more immediate poisons," Toar searched among his bag. He grinned to see his pouch of fio and offered a small spoon of the green powder to Dandifrod. "Try this."

Cautiously, Dandifrod ate the fio. He ground the powder against the roof of his mouth. Toar could tell it was working before the man swallowed. His eyes got wide and he stood up straight. "This is marvelous!" Dandifrod smiled at Toar. "What is it you give me?"

"Fio," Toar said in a bit of a whisper. He took a spoonful for himself. He imagined it would be a long day among these strangers and wanted the extra strength and centering.

Dandifrod was taken aback, "But fio is white. You give me a green powder."

Toar shook his head. "This is the proper form of the medicine," he smiled. "What you know is the fio of Minist, and their attempts to isolate the drug's euphoric and energetic effects. The Ministrians would addle your brain and make you an addict."

"Yours is not addictive?" Baetolamew asked.

"Not as addictive," Toar corrected.

The old man smiled to hear that. "I thank you."

"You are welcome," Toar offered a spoon of the powder to Carr and Baetolamew. Carr declined immediately. Baetolamew thought on it before he finally shook his head. With a shrug, Toar returned the pouch to his bag. "If there is nothing else that needs our attention, I suggest we go. The buggers are just as likely to come back as they are to stay away. I'd prefer not to be here in case they return."

"I have a question," Baetolamew pointed at his watery eyes. "That devil hit me with something. It stings," he explained.

Toar leaned close to the man. He could see remnants of the dust about the man's face, caught in his lashes and brows. He pulled several long, thin spines from Baetolamew's face. He showed them to the man. "Moon thistle," Toar stated. "It is used to blind, But it is not lethal. You are lucky. There are no spines stuck in your eyes, only the dust. You will be okay. Wash your face in the river. Be careful not to push any spines into your skin. They will irritate, and can become infected."

Baetolamew muttered as he washed at the edge of the river. With that finished, the group started east along the main road.

"It is lucky you know Ministrian," Dandifrod stated as they walked.

Toar shrugged. "Half the world knows Ministrian – or so I am told."

"I have heard this. You speak it quite well."

"I was raised in the courts of Kezodel. It was a difficult upbringing, but it afforded an excellent education. I speak Ministrian and all eight dialects of Yak," Toar assured him. "I have also made a minimal study of Tallian, and can sound it in its written form."

"That is impressive," Carr noted. "Who is this Kezodel?"

Toar eyed the men suspiciously. Did they really know so little? "Kezodel is the Muaha of the Bouge. He is supreme leader and keeps his court in Ebertin. It is on the route to Hearthstone – though I advise against a visit," Toar stated. "You do not want to meet the man. He is no good."

"I am confused," Dandifrod noted. "What is a Bouge? When do we arrive in Trohl lands?"

Toar stared at the strangers. These men had no knowledge of bugbear, Kezodel, or even the Bouge! They knew nothing of the land in which they traveled! What chased them into this country so unprepared? Toar considered the question. "When shall we enter Trohl lands?" He repeated. "That depends on who you ask. Many including Kezodel say this is Bouge land – a tribe of Trohl, as you say. I should think this is properly Minist territory if it belongs to anyone. They patrol it and keep it in the order they care to maintain – which is none at all. Instead, they allow bugbear to proliferate," Toar continued. "As for Trohls, there are nine Trohl tribes. There are the Bouge, Pulbouge, Jindleyak, Gopi, Untu, Gramgoar, Melmore, Mormosse, and the Indrah. The Salystians used to be among this number, but they are all gone; dead, enslaved, or disappeared beyond the Red Desert." Toar answered.

"Nine tribes? How big are they?" Carr asked. "How many men does this Kezodel command?"

Toar thought on it. "There are some ten thousand among the watch of Ebertin. They answer to the office of the Muaha, but they are mostly decent men, and hope only to keep the peace. His house guard is two thousand strong, and they are all fanatics. They will do anything the Muaha commands. Peace is not in their nature. Lastly, there are the militias, perhaps four or five hundred thousand in number."

Baetolamew gave a whistle, impressed by the numbers. "Now that's an army."

"It is not that many. The militias are filled with men of all ages, from boys of twelve to men of sixty, seventy, even eighty years. Anyone that can carry a weapon and is willing to defend his home is welcome in the militias. Some even allow women," Toar shrugged. "Nobody really knows how many troops the militias can muster for sure. For one reason or another, the militias all fudge their numbers. Most are rather secretive."

"Do they not all serve the people?" Dandifrod asked.

Toar shook his head. "If the people were threatened, they would fight – but they do not agree on what threatens the people. Some are very loyal to the Muaha, and will carry out Kezodel's various corruptions. Some are critical, a few openly so. Mostly, the militias keep to themselves."

"Ebertin must be quite the city," Dandifrod noted.

"It is the largest Trohl city – or so I am told. Most of the militia will not leave Ebertin, to Kezodel's delight. This allows him to empty the western countryside," Toar noted. He turned on the three men and eyed them critically. "What of you? Where are you from?"

"We are from Gaurring, far to the south," Dandifrod answered. "It is on the west bank of the river Breck. It is a land of rolling hills green with streams, creeks, and forests."

"Are you not Saot? Subject to King Gred duReb?" Toar asked.

"It seems that all of our histories are a little more complicated," Dandifrod noted. "The Saot is made up of different people. There are Gaur, Dans, Ewile, Kelmish, Noethrin, and Fietsch in the kingdom. Ministrians are among our cousins, though they maintain their own empire and pretend to oppose us. The Breckers also have their own kingdom, though they are recognized as Saots. Gaurring has political ties to Danyan – as few as it can manage – but we are taxed, and must in many ways serve the will of the throne. Still, it cannot last. Soon, we will also be as free as the Breck."

"I see," Toar turned to Carr. "What of you? Are you a Saot?"

"I am, though my native home is Borzia, to the south of Ewile and across the Sea of Danyan," Carr admitted. "Borzia suffers. There is constant conflict, with Minist and Danyan splitting the spoils. I much prefer my adopted home in Gaurring."

"This war in Borzia, is it a false war, as we have here?" Toar asked.

"Non. Borzia is a bloody and deeply troubled land," Carr informed. "There are hundreds of tribes in Borzia. Danyan and Umsuppa play various factions against each other, and reap the profits of war and slavery."

"They say blood and money flow free in Borzia," Dandifrod added. "Blood for the natives, and money for the foreigners."

"Is that a joke?" Toar asked.

"Of a sort," Carr noted. "Though it is not very funny."

"It sounds like the jokes told among Kezodel and his henchmen," Toar gave a grim nod.

They continued to speak of their peoples as they proceeded east. With the setting of the sun, the company made camp. They built a fire against the side of a large boulder, that it should not be seen at a distance. Toar scavenged wild vegetables and heated them over the fire. They enjoyed these fresh foods with hard tack and preserved meats provided by Dandifrod and his men. As they ate, Toar inspected Dandifrod's wound once more.

"It is growing," Dandifrod worried.

"It is still smaller than the palm of my hand," Toar noted. "Today was a good day for you. You may yet live."

"Will the road be so quiet all the way east?" Dandifrod asked.

"No. It is quiet until it is not. We will likely run across more bugger traps. There are less and less of the vermin as we travel east. There are also several Ministrian posts, and a couple watch towers we will have to dodge. Due to the bugbear, the Ministrians tend to travel en masse. It is usually large caravans that pass with plenty of guards."

"I should not like to be stopped by Ministrians," Dandifrod admitted.

"Nor I," Toar smiled. "It is quite easy to avoid them so long as we are vigilant. With so many feet, they tend to make a lot of noise."

Although Carr, Dandifrod, and Toar ate with fervor, Baetolamew continued to poke and curse at his makeshift meal.

"Why do you not eat?" Carr asked. "What is wrong with you?"

"I can barely taste it. I can not smell it at all," Baetolamew complained. "What did that devil do to me?"

Toar approached that he could get a better look at Baetolamew's face. The man-at-arms was flush. His eyes watered and snot ran from his nose. "This is not moon thistle," Toar thought out loud. "...and it is quite warm and late in the season to have such a cold..." He considered other possibilities. He gently poked at Baetolamew and checked his eyes, ears, nose, and mouth, though Baetolamew was suspicious. Toar realized there was something familiar about his symptoms. He asked, "Did you lay with a Trohl? Maybe in the last week?"

Baetolamew looked at Dandifrod and Carr. Shame overcame his face. After a long pause Baetolamew sighed. "There was a woman, in Wibbeley. She said she was half Trohl."

Dandifrod's eyes went wide as he gave a long whistle.

"A bit of celebration?" Carr asked, his eyebrows arched.

"Garf and several men approached on the street," Baetolamew explained. "I hid in the first hole I could find."

Dandifrod smirked.

"And it happened to be a brothel?" Carr asked, somewhere between consternation and amusement.

"They were not established in what I would call a fine neighborhood," Baetolamew complained. "The street was filled with whores, and men in blue and white with time and metal on their hands. It was vexing to stand idle, so close to those that would capture and kill me if only they knew my heart. Yet, I stood, waiting, as if I had nothing to hide – until Garf stepped down the street with a dozen men in tow! He came right at me, and I concealed myself as I could! I used the wrapping arms of a half Trohl girl to disguise myself – that is true. I did what I must. I knew my duties. I had no interest. But I paid, and she pressed herself upon me," His words trailed off weakly, but he began again with gusto. "It is because of my error that I got my hands on Banifourd! My failure became my success!" he added defiantly.

"Whatever else happened, this girl has given you disease," Toar stated.

"What do I have?!" Baetolamew asked as his concern crept toward hysteria.

"Many call it the drips, or the Tikatis trickle. It is an affliction Ministrians and Saots sometimes suffer when coupling with Trohl. Untreated, you will become dehydrated and weak as you continue to snot and ooze. It is a slow process, and may not subside for months. Your kidneys may fail. You may die."

"Months!? By Naharahna's tits! I'm going to die!?" Baetolamew stood and backed from Toar. He pulled Gore Tongue from its sheath. "It's just a ball-sucking cold, you scandalous liar! You tell my master he has the rot and will live a week, then you claim that I'll die soon after!" Baetolamew ripped a second knife from its scabbard and spun blades in each hand. "Draw your metal! I will have blood for your lies!"

Carr stood and put a hand out toward Baetolamew. "Sit. Relax. He is here to help."

Baetolamew wiped his face and eyed the mess on his sleeve. With a huff, he put his knives away and sat back down.

"There is a cure," Toar said.

"Oh, there's a cure!" Baetolamew mocked. "The witch has it, a week from here!"

Toar ignored the interruption. "There is an herb that grows in abundance. It is very effective. We will make a tea. Tonight, you will feel some bit of comfort, and tomorrow you will feel quite a bit better. In three or four days, you will forget that you were ever bothered. I will show you this herb. If the affliction should return, you can make this simple tea and it will clear up in short order."

"I shall suffer these drips for a lifetime?" Baet asked.

"It is the luck of the draw," Toar shrugged. "Some drink it a few days and never see the drips again, others must drink the tea all their lives."

"It is but a tea, you say?"

Toar nodded. "This plant grows everywhere throughout the Bunderhilt. I am told it grows in the mountains about Minist. Likely, there is much of it to the south, in your own nation, among your own mountains. It is pleasant with honey or sugar to sweeten it," Toar stood and walked from the fire light. "I go to find the herb."

For some time, Toar wandered. He was in no hurry to find the distinctive silversage and return to the fire. Although the older man and the dark man were amiable companions, the younger Saot was full of piss and vinegar. Toar did not like him. Still, he found a large clump of silversage and took several branches from it. When he had enough for a few days, he returned to the fire. He examined his findings and stripped the outer bark into a small pot of water. Toar discarded the young leaves, slight flowers, and remaining bulk of the silversage into the fire.

"Why do you junk the bright young foliage? Why is it you break up ragged and shaggy bark, adding only the rough bits to the water?" Baetolamew asked.

"Silversage is a precarious plant. It is toxic and dangerous as it first blooms. But the toxins shift and mellow as it ages, becoming subtle medicines. Make sure you use bark that has suffered at least one winter," Toar explained.

"He will kill us all," Baetolamew muttered under his breath.

With a pained smile, Toar set the pot on the edge of the fire. It took several minutes to boil. When it finished, Toar pulled the tea from the fire and poured a cup. He handed the cup to Baetolamew.

Baetolamew looked to Dandifrod and Carr. Both men watched him with curiosity. Baetolamew lifted the liquid to his nose. "Balls, I cannot even smell it!" He fumed.

Carr waved the fumes to himself. "It has a subtle perfume that might make it enjoyable. It does not smell too bad."

"I do not trust it!" Baetolamew set the cup aside. "He would poison me and let the old man die! Then, there is only Carringten between him and all we have!" He said to Dandifrod.

"If that is so, I will kill him," Carringten stated, nonchalant.

The statement was a bit of a shock for Toar, but the words were light. Carringten looked at Toar and shrugged as a way of apology. It did not seem to be a threat, only a reassurance meant to calm Baetolamew, and Toar forgot it easy enough.

For several seconds, the drink sat alone. Finally, Toar took the cup. Fear shot across Baetolamew's face as he expected the Trohl would dump it. Instead, Toar sipped at the hot tea. He made sure it was an audible sip, and gurgled to prove it was in his mouth. With a smile, he swallowed and offered the cup back to Baetolamew.

"It is safe," Toar told him. "Though it is still quite hot."

But it was not Baetolamew that took the cup. It was Dandifrod. The old man looked to Toar. "Any reason I should not?"

Toar shook his head and gave a shrug.

Dandifrod sniffed the drink and took a slow, ponderous gulp. "Not bad," the old man noted. He passed the cup to Carringten.

The dark man sniffed the concoction and sampled it. With a bit of a nod, he passed the cup. "You must try it Baet. It is almost pleasant."

Carringten and Baet – nicknames and full names. Toar wondered if was he given the ones they didn't normally use. He looked to the old man. "Dan?" He said, "Dan?"

Dandifrod perked up. "Nobody calls me Dan," he replied.

"Dan is a common name, is it not?" Toar asked.

"Which is why he don't use it!" Baet snapped. "Does he look like a common man?" Irritated, Baet turned back to the tea and finally took a sip. The others watched as he finished it without further complaint. With the initial cup down, Baet turned to Toar. "Is that all, or should I drink the rest of the pot?" he asked, his temper all but faded.

Toar shrugged. "It cannot hurt to have more."

Baet took up the pot and calmly poured another cup. He picked bits of bark from the tea, careful not to singe his fingers. "It is not terrible," he stated as he brought the cup to his lips once more. Toar watched as the young Saot drank the silversage tea and was happy to note the accusation and hostility was finally gone from the man's eyes.