Part 3 – Something Rotten
Shunning the pathway that snaked its way into the ancient trees of the dark eastern woodlands, Jala opted to walk westward and head to the settlement. She checked her weapons and tightened her load then strode onward away from the point where the trail split. Her resolve was like Kubavarian iron and her curiosity was piqued by the promise of the town that lay before her.
It was a promise of shelter and food – a place to perhaps gather supplies and rest weary bones after her weeks of hard travel through the wilderness. Jala was tenacious and resilient but now, drained by her travails across the expansive northern icelands, she felt tired. A chance to take stock and re-stock would definitely be welcome and with a spring in her step she walked along the westward path to reach the dwelling.
The settlement also brought the promise of contact with other humans, for it had been a long time since she had set eyes on one of her own kind. Since the dawn of her departure from the camp she had only come across the birds and beasts of the wild and they were rare sightings indeed in the frigid north.
Unlike Fyůlra – the mercurial roving druid who roamed the regions she once called home – Jala didn’t understand animal tongues. What’s more, she had no desire to converse with the prey she hunted. Her hunger drove her to bring quick death upon the animals she slew with axe and dagger and forming false companionships with indifferent creatures was a futile endeavour. She was not a fool like Fyůlra and those of his ilk – she was a hunter and she intended to keep hold of her pragmatic nature no matter what she might encounter as she ventured into the unknown.
Nevertheless, in spite of her determination Jala had found herself lonely at points on the road and she had looked ahead to the settlement with optimism. Even as an eternal loner, she knew that she would benefit by associating with other people awhile.
It would make a pleasant change after days of silence pierced only by the odd stab of birdsong or the howl of the chill northern winds. What’s more, Jala had to her surprise found herself gradually becoming interested in encountering the folk of the foreign lands. What were they like? What were their customs and were they in any way similar to her own people?
Raised on numerous tall tales and myths of the men and monsters who resided in regions over the mountains, Jala was keen to investigate further and find some firmer truths. She hoped that the settlement might provide her with some answers or at least a better understanding of the world beyond her own limited comprehension. The weeks on the road had shown her just how huge that world was and how insular life in the camp had been. This was, indeed, an epic adventure and, her eyes and mind opened wide, Jala now longed for experience.
Looking to learn and find a few comforts, she’d trudged on down the path towards the wooden walls. It was quite a small town – a solid encampment ringed by thick palisade, forbidding spikes pointing skyward. Only a few thatched roofs and wooden towers were visible from outside, for the fortified circumference prevented any clear idea of what lay within.
As she had gotten closer to those stake-walls Jala had begun to feel an acute sense of unease. In Elder Linna’s stories the great towns and cities of the southlands had always been bustling, busy places of noise and clamour. This settlement, however, sat serenely and presented no obvious signs of active life. Only two smoky tendrils climbed upwards from the inside of the fort and slowly wisped their way to the clouds above. The hubbub she had expected – the sounds of daily life in a habitation or the sight of travellers coming and going – were entirely absent.
Treading warily onwards, Jala had also noted a disquieting odour on the air. Looking around she saw that patches of grass around were discoloured. Studying the flora of the vicinity she’d observed that the few plants were shrivelled and that the bark of the trees was moulding and rancid.
The combined effect was that Jala’s hopeful optimism had swiftly been replaced by worried concern. Coming around a bend on the path and passing by a rotting orchard, she came within view of the town’s gateway and what she saw only increased her circumspection.
The gateway was clearly the main thoroughfare into the settlement and was the only evident, open means of egress and ingress. Moving in closer Jala had been struck by the detailed ornate etchings and rune sigils written into the wood staves around the archway. The craftsmanship that characterised the entrance was outstanding – a jarring proposition that stuck out from the overall austerity of the environs.
The great gate, studded with bolts of faded bronze, was slightly ajar which further increased Jala’s puzzlement about the eerie place. What kind of a settlement – especially one with walls as strong and fortified as this one – doesn’t keep its doors barred or, apparently, guarded?
The ramparts were clearly unmanned but as she got nearer Jala espied a solitary figure scrunched up and propped against the stake-wall by the gateway. This sentry, if he was a sentry, was clearly not on duty or was not performing his duty well. With his head buried in his chest and a helmet covering his vision, Jala knew that she had arrived unseen.
She’d crept stealthily closer to get a better look. The man-made no movement and still silence echoed around. Something was definitely not right and Jala had steeled all her nerves and readied her wits. Intuition and gut feeling guided her cautious footsteps towards the entrance and the slumped sentry. She could not be certain if the man was dead or merely sleeping. With uncertainty rippling through her mind and the weariness of the journey now bearing down upon her body, Jala braced herself and realised she would have to take a bold step and find out what was happening here.Voting closed at noon BST 12th May
This instalment of our ongoing saga was written by James Clayton