Before the Toscavs had invaded Bryke, Vioré had been a miserable collection of thatched farming hovels, barely deserving to be called a hamlet. Now, one of the last towns in Bryke that the Toscavs didn’t see as worth the effort to raze and pillage, it had transformed into a sprawling labyrinthine amassment of lean-tos, tents, and huddles. Over ten times its original population, Vioré's cancerous multiplication in size somehow made it look even less inviting than when it had been a hamlet.
It was a sort of midway point between those Brykians that remained steadfastly hopeful that they would soon reclaim their lost land and those who pragmatically decided to seek asylum in the lands of their neighbours. Of course, there was one undisputed center to the disorderly slum-township that was Vioré; Walfus’ Commodities.
3rd son of Maehume Engleburry the merchant lord, Walfus Engleburry was a man that knew human nature inside and out, and thrived emotionally and economically of his exploitation of that selfsame knowledge.
When Torkish patriots staged a bloody rebellion-turned-civil war last year, who had been the shadow organization backing and arming them?
Walfus Engleburry, that’s who.
When the Torkish royalists started torching rebel cities and tainting rivers and wells, who supplied them with exotic chemicals and cutting-edge weaponry?
Walfus Engleburry, that’s who.
When all of Torkdom had been reduced to ashes, who was the man who gallantly headed the restoration efforts, buying up the scorched farmlands and denuded forests, all to found Eiropa’s richest diamond mines?
Walfus Engleburry, that’s who.
And now, who lay sunbathing with a new book of Brykian poetry as all the while, profit rolled into Walfus’ Commodities, the one supply depo capable of feeding the boom-town’s rapid growth?
Walfus Engleburry, that’s who.
It was this man that Brogan sought out, leading their train of horses though muddy alleyways and around rope-fenced lots to that commercial hub of Vioré.
“Charming place.” Philius commented sardonically, as two drunks rolled out of the swinging doors of a tavern, fists flying, only to fall into the tavern on the opposite side of the street, still brawling.
“It grows on you.” The red-haired bandit laughed, his eyes flashing from bar to bar.
“So does fungus.” Chrysalism shot back. “The sooner we leave this hell-hole the better, I say.” She rode on ahead.
“What’s got her knickers in a twist?” The bandit whispered to Philius.
“She’s worried that Swim will do something stupid since we left her behind.” Philius explained. “Honestly though, I agree with her.”
“About Vioré, or about the World-Gardener?”
As anyone who knew Walfus would tell you, he had two moods; Disingenuously cheerful, or broodingly melancholy. Today, his mood was the latter. For all intents and purposes, Vioré was another successful venture; business was booming, and a new influx of refugees from the town of Ballous indicated it would continue to be for some time. Unfortunately, that meant everything was running perfectly.
And perfect was boring.
Where was the farmer’s revolt, the sudden appearance of the Toscav’s army, the assassination attempts? The closest he’d gotten all week was a drunken guard that had tried to pick a fight. Unfortunately, he had turned out to be all bark and no bite, and so Walfus had made short work of him, even after he specifically handicapped himself by only using a sharp stone.
You see, from the day his family had realized he was not only strong, but fiercely clever, he had been in mortal peril. His older brothers, who had thought themselves sure to inherit their father’s industry, found him devoting far more attention to their business-savvy younger brother, and far less on them, a fact that threatened their impending fortune.
Walfus’ entire teenage years had been spent dodging his older brothers’ paid assassins and poisoners until, on his seventeenth birthday, he irrevocably and viscerally established himself as the sole Engleburry heir.
The paranoia never left though, instead turning into a twisted fascination; how close could he get to death while still evading it, and for how long? This never-ended game of “chicken” with fate had left his body toned and his nerves frayed, and he wouldn’t have it any other way.
That’s why when his long-time client appeared at his door asking for weapons and armour for his merry band of thieves, Walfus began to perk up. It smelled of danger, and more specifically…
It smelled of sweet, inescapable death.
“That’s right, sirrah. Weapons and armour for twoscore. I’ll also need hard tack, oats, bacon, water, vegetables, beans, and oranges.” Brogan listed.
“Oranges’ll cost ya.” The burly shopkeep ground out between his sizeable canines and pronounced underbite. “Been a bad year fer the orange orchards.”
“That won’t do at all.” The General mused, pulling at his ‘stache. “I’m on a tight budget as it is.”
“Lots of other buyers happy to pay.” The man shrugged.
“Now the O’Bren, that’s no way to do business!” A chipper and lethally-edged voice rang out from behind them as Walfus waltzed in, a half-full wine glass lackadaisically balanced between two fingers. “Obviously the good General is after citrus for his troops, as an aid to prevent scurvy. A good merchant would bring to his attention that we recently cut a deal on Odurrian limes, which we’d be happy to sell at a bulk discount.”
“Walfus!” Brogan smiled, as he greeted the merchant prince with an extended hand. “How’s business?”
“Running like clockwork.” Walfus grinned back, seizing the proffered hand. “You know, sometimes I positively disgust myself with how brilliant I am.”
He eyed the crates of spear-tips and riveted leather armour. “Looks like you’re upgrading the lads.” He noted. “Going from being bandits to mercenaries, are we?”
“Something like that.” Brogan returned evasively. “It’s a bit of a long story.”
“Well, that won’t do.” Walfus protested dramatically. “We both know I can’t abide long stories, unless they’re about me.” He locked eyes with the General “Or unless they offer decent entertainment. Care to talk about it over supper? My dining room has a fine view.”
“I wouldn’t want to impose…” Brogan started.
“Nonsense, you’ll have to eat tonight anyway, so it might as well be with me. Never pass up an opportunity for something free, I always say!” He laughed, throwing an arm around the general and sloshing wine on him in the process as he led him off.
“O’bren, give the general discount “J” on his goods, and load them up into a cart for him.” He called to the ogrish Shopkeeper. “We’ll be a while.”
“It won’t take a minute!” Philius pleaded with Chrysalism.
“The General strictly told us to wait for him here.” Chrysalism retorted for the fifth time, a little more sharply now.
“But boomtowns like these are treasure-troves when it comes to black-market deals! If you play your cards right and keep trading up, you can start with a pair of old sandals and end up with a fortune! How do you think I got my sword and sheath?”
He indicated his finely crafted saber, set with an emerald pommel stone, which lounged comfortably in a silver-inlayed leather sheath.
“And what happens when the people you swindle realize they ended up with a pair of old sandals?” She asked.
“That,” Philius explained “Is why you never stay long in one town.”
“Do you even have anything to trade?” She asked exasperatedly. “You won’t be much good to us if you sell your sword.”
“I rolled a drunk earlier and took his purse.” The Chronian explained. “He was carrying silver! You don’t get to be an Elder like me without picking up a few tricks along the way.”
“You put that back this instant!” Chrysalism scolded him. “Rolling drunks indeed! You never know where that purse has been!”
Any objections from Philius were cut off by the sounds of a chase headed unmistakably in their direction. Rounding a corner, a gorgeous woman in a leaf-green dress was sprinting barefoot towards the pair with the form of an Olympic runner, while a trio of thugs gasped and cursed in pursuit several blocks back. Without warning, the lady skidded to a stop in front of the pair.
“Thank Vaeafortanoe I found you two!” She started, he speech formal and oddly familiar. “I seem to have caused a misunderstanding with those three gentlemen. Perhaps you might intercede on my behalf?”
Both Philius and Chrysalism spoke at once, as recognition dawned on them. The World-Gardener had shrunk herself to human proportions, altering her bark-like flesh to the colour of creamy birch. Her root-like hair was so fine, if it weren’t for the fact that it appeared frozen in place despite her brisk dash, Philius would have assumed it real hair. Also, her stunning leaf-motif dress was on the daring edge of fashion, leaving little to the imagination. Her eyes retained a golden hue, but now they were fringed with a white sclera, so as to look human.
“What are you doing here?!?” Chrysalism exploded.
“I was terribly lonely by myself, so I thought I’d go meet you two.” She explained matter-of-factly. “as you can see, I disguised myself to avoid notice.”
“No, I definitely think you’re attracting notice.” Philius coughed, still trying to find a safe place to rest his eyes. “Why exactly are those men chasing you?” He gestured to the three hoodlums now regaining their breaths.
“I met them while I was on my way to you.” She explained. “They were very kind, and said some terribly flattering things. They even offered me money to come with them for a bit.”
“You didn’t!” Philius exclaimed.
“For some reason, they seemed terribly disappointed.” Swim continued. “I don’t understand. I’m perfectly irresistible, aren’t I?”
“That there tree monster tricked us!” One man complained. “She may look like a woman, but she ain’t human at all!”
“Give me back my money!” Another exclaimed.
“They paid in advance?” Philius asked.
“I insisted.” Swimfa’alafr nodded. “It’s not every day one gets to lay eyes on one of the Elder Races in the flesh.”
“I doubt that’s what they were looking for.” Philius muttered. “Look, can’t you just give the money back?”
“Nonsense!” She huffed. “I upheld my part of the deal. I earned these six gold pieces!”
“Six gold pieces?!?” Philius exclaimed, turning to the men. “Come on, she’s not worth all that!”
“Are you blind, lad?” The third man disagreed. “For a woman like that, anything less than six would be an insult!” He paused. “Well, barring her being a tree and all.”
“One gold piece is pretty generous, at my reckoning.” Philius waggled a finger in his ear. “Maybe two.”
“Three gold, or I’d have to fight you for the lady’s honour.” The man countered.
“You’re money.” Philius shrugged, turning to Swimfa’alafr. “I talked your value down to three gold pieces, be a good sport and return the other three.”
“I’m appalled.” Chrysalism exclaimed.
“Me too.” Philius agreed. “I wouldn’t price her at more than 80 silver, myself.”
“Actually, we want all the gold back, not just the three pieces.” The second man cut in. “Just sayin’.”
“Hey, we talked about this!” Philius objected.
“I earned this gold, I’m not giving any of it back!” Swimfa’alafr complained.
Philius sighed. “It would appear negotiations have broken down.”
“Aren’t you going to fight them for me?” Swim asked indignantly.
“To be honest, I’m kind of on their side.” Philius admitted. “But out of respect to you, I won’t help them.”
“I’ll give you one gold piece if you fight them for me.”
“Now you stay out of this, kid!” The third man cautioned, pounding a fist into his palm threateningly. “Just give us our money back, and we’ll let this…”
Philius cut off his next word with a flying roundhouse kick that sent him reeling. “Call me a kid one more time and I’ll kick you.” He warned. “I’m an Elder, you hear?”
“You already kicked me, damn you!” The man yelled, lashing out at the Chronian’s leg and knocking him to the ground in a cloud of dust.
“What in Yoru’s name is going on here?” Smigg, the patch-eyed bandit, exclaimed as he and the rest of the bandits rounded the corner. “We step out for a bite to eat, and you pick a scrap with the locals?”
“They made passes at Swim!” Philius shouted back, trying to avoid being throttled.
“Our Guardian Diva?!?” The bandit sergeant roared, leaping in and sending one of the men flying with a solid right hook.
“Hey lads, these blokes stole out gold!” The first man yelled down an adjoining alley at a passing group of men.
“Gold?” Smigg looked questioningly at Philius.
Before Philius could answer, the second man landed a dizzying haymaker into the bandit’s gut, doubling him over.
“Hey boys, they just downed the sarge!” The red-headed bandit yelled, charging the offending man with a flying tackle. At that moment, twenty-odd men streamed out of the alley, joining the three that called out to them.
“First man to grab the broad gets a gold piece!” The first man yelled, wrestling on the ground with the bandit sergeant.
“Over my dead body!” Smigg growled, slamming a heavy boot into the offender’s shin.
Down the street, a tavern door flew open, followed shortly by a drunken miner. Staggering to his feet, he noticed the fierce mêlée through bleary eyes.
“Hey lads, today’s fight’s already started, and there’s two of them!” He bellowed, diplopia from his drinking in full effect.
An answering stampede of feet was heard, as the dozens of bars, saloons, and taverns regurgitated their contents into the street. Nerves were strained to the breaking point in Vioré on the daily, and even the most stoic citizen needed a way to vent.
As such, scraps like these were a regular and anticipated occurrence, and quickly exploded into a full town event. Tents and people were trampled, and windows and bones were broken as every man, jack, and boy took out his lot on his neighbour. Any man churlish enough to draw a weapon was swiftly trounced by his peers, so while the bonesetter was set to expand his operations, the undertaker found himself fervently praying for accidents.
As for Swimfa’alafr and Chrysalism, as soon as the fight had begun in earnest, they found themselves dragged by the scruff of the neck into an adjacent general store by a burly woman whose strong grip brooked no discussion. Near-carrying the two into her store, she quickly barred the door after them with an adjacent plank prepared for the occasion.
“The name’s Xandria.” She introduced herself brusquely. “It’s not safe out there for decent womenfolk. Give it a half-hour, and they’ll tire themselves out and go back to drinking.”
“This happens often?” Swim asked, looking with interest at the rowdy mob outside.
“Every day like clockwork.” The woman grumbled. “Too much pent-up anger and frustration, they need to work it out somehow.”
“Why didn’t they fight back against the Toscavs?” Chrysalism asked. “They don’t seem to lack spirit.”
“it’s easy to be a part of the crowd.” Xandria shrugged. “But a resistance needs a leader, and when the Toscavs came knocking, our leaders packed their valuables and left.”
She sighed. “In our legends and plays, whenever Bryke of old faced danger, a mighty hero like Abromaeus the Bold or Deadeye Jaxin arose to lead us to victory, but it looks like heroes only exist in tales.”
“What nonsense.” Chrysalism scoffed. “Abromaeus was a pompous little man who just happened to be more afraid of losing face than of death, and Jaxin was a rabble-rousing war criminal who killed for the sport of it. The only thing heroic about the two of them…” She paused, a look of understanding dawning upon her.
“…Was what?” Swim asked. “I am lost. What was the heroic part about them?”
“It was that they took action when no one else would!” She exclaimed. “I’ve got it!”
“That’s good, because I am completely in the dark.” Swim admitted.
“Never mind that!” Chrysalism barked. “Get me on top of this roof, big sister!”
“That I can understand!” She smiled, shedding her human disguise like leaves in Autumn. With one smooth motion, she unbolted the door and glided out, her little sister cradled in her arms. Then, extending her limbs like tentacles, she gently lifted Chrysalism up, placing her firmly on the shop roof. Then, she turned to the woman.
“Best to pay attention, this is going to be a sight to see.”
“What is she going to do?” Xandria asked, more than a little shocked at the sight of the World-Gardener.
Swimfa’alafr smiled. “I haven’t the faintest idea.”ns22.214.171.124da2