Hargus Hurryhouse Adventures - Book 1, Chapter 7

"Get up!" Agnese had his sword drawn as he stood over the young man. He didn't look like a criminal mastermind, but he was a thief, and Agnese was not going to take any chances. "I said, get up!"   "I can't". The youngman's voice trembled. If he was faking pain and fear, he was a world-class actor. Courtenay pointed at his leg. "He's right, Ag. His leg's broken. He's not going anywhere."   "I have to get this grain home. They'll starve!" The young man may have been in pain and afraid, but he had an urgency to his speech.   "A thief's a thief. You're going back to town and they can deal with you." Agnese wasn't going to let up on the kid.   "Who'll starve?" asked Courtenay.   "My village. We've lost so many already. This grain has to get there. I don't care what happens to me, just get the grain to my village!" The young man implored, "Without this grain, more will starve. Please, get this to them!"   "What's the name of this village?" Something in the young man's voice struck a nerve with Courtenay. She wasn't one to be easily scared, but she recognized the sound of fear in someone's voice. She believed he really was just looking to get the grain back.   "I don't care." Agnese would not budge. "We're taking you back to Tremer to face the music."   "Why don't we take him to Fubdo and see what he wants to do with him. After all, he did hire us. And it's not like this kid is going anywhere on his own." Courtenay had a point. The young man was in no condition to escape anywhere. "He needs healing. Maybe Beivalur can help him."   Agnese reluctantly agreed. Taking him to Fubdo was the job they had been hired for, and with the break in the young man's leg, he was incapable of doing much without help. "Alright. Let's get him back to the wagon. We can load him up, pick up the rest, and head for Fubdo's."   Courtenay took one side of the young man, Agnese the other, and they headed back to the wagon.  
  Beivalur had begun the process of treating the young man's break. But healing him outright was ruled out. At least, not until Fubdo had decided what to do with him. He'd already tried to get away once. "What's your name, young man?"   The young man sat looking straight ahead without answering. Beivalur chuckled. "Ah, the strong silent type. I can continue to call you young man, but since I'm working to heal your leg, perhaps we can be on a first name basis. Mine is Beivalur." He continued splinting and wrapping the broken leg. He closed his eyes, and uttered a simple incantation, laying his hands on the young man's legs. "This will take the edge off the pain. It won't make it go away, but it should make it tolerable." Beivalur sat back in the wagon. Ninette and Courtenay also sat in the wagon atop the supplies, while Agnese rode on the bench alongside the driver.   "Ulrin."   Ninette looked up at the young man. He was talking to Beivalur. "My name is Ulrin."   Ninette used this as an opening. "I am Ninette. You said you needed to get back to your village with this grain. There are no villages near here. How were you going to get there?"   "There is a village near here. But everyone has ignored that we are there and made us pariahs."   "What is the name of your village, Ulrin?" asked Ninette.   "Kerran."   Agnese turned and angrily responded. "I told you he's nothing but a thief! There hasn't been a village of Kerran in at least 10 years. Just a liar, trying to get out of trouble."   "NO, we do exist! We've been forgotten and abandoned and we're dying! But I swear, we do exist! I'll take you there!" Ulrin was nearly crying.   Ninette sought to calm him. "Ulrin, how is it that an entire village is thought to have disappeared? My understanding was that Kerran was destroyed years ago by a plague of some sort. Trees died off, nothing grows in the ground, water is poisoned. The village was abadoned and died."   "No," replied Ulrin, "we were abandoned. No one would trade with us, no one would come to the village. And it is true, our crops died, the water was spoiled. But we are still there. This grain is all we have a chance to use. We mill it by hand to make simple bread."   "He's just trying to get you to ease up on him. He's a thief. Don't fall for it," Agnese admonished over his shoulder.   "Oatspell, what if he speaks the truth? Should we not attempt to help?" Beivalur asked.   "Don't tell me you're falling for this fabrication! Seriously? A village that no one has seen for more than a decade? Are you that gullible?" Agnese's voice rose in what sounded like anger.   "Hey, ease up, Mr. Lawman," chided Courtenay. "How about we take him to Fubdo, let Fubdo decide what to do. And we can go check out the story. If it's bogus, we can let Fubdo know, and he does what he wants with the kid. If its the truth, mabe we can help."   Ninette added, "It certainly cannot hurt us. Yes, the young man stole the grain. But there might actually be a reason that we can assist with."   "I can't believe you three are falling for this." Agnese shook his head. "Fine, we'll take him to Fubdo. That's all we were hired for anyway."   The four remained quiet as they passed through Tremer, the sun having given way to an increasingly dark night. Fubdo's farm was just a few more minutes down the road. The market had closed for the day, but the farmhouse at Fubdo's was easy to make out and acted as a guiding beacon. They pulled the cart into the farm. and the driver tied the horses up to a hitching post.   Fubdo came out, saw the grain, and skittered excitedly to the wagon. "My grain! Is this the hoodlum who was stealing it!?"   "That he is," replied Agnese. "He had ambushed the driver and taken a sack of grain. Unfortunately, the sack was torn and we couldn't recover it, but the rest is here. And so is he."   "Well done, friends! And what do you have to say for yourself, young man?" asked Fubdo angrily.   Ulrin stared into the distance, not speaking. Beivalur, however, did. "Good Fubdo, are you familiar with the village of Kerran?"   "Kerran, the cursed village destroyed by plague? Of course. What of it?   Beivalur continued. "This young man says he is from that village, and that it is not gone as many believe."   "Kerran? Not possible. That village died years ago. It's not put on maps anymore, and the road to the village is overgrown and virtually impassable. What ever they did to bring the curse upon themselves, no one wants a part of it."   "WE DID NOT!" Ulrin shouted, taking the group by surprise. "We did nothing to deserve this and now we are dying! And people like you allowed it!"   "People like me? How dare you! A common thief judging me?" Fubdo's calm demeanoe had melted and now his face was turning a furious red.   "Yes, people like you! When our crops started failing, did you offer help? When our people started dying, where were you? You let us die!"   "Your people were dying of a plague! Why would we endanger ourselves for you?"   Agnese's expression changed. "Wait a moment - you knew they were sick and offered no assistance? You knew the village was in trouble?"   "Well, it was obvious they brought it upon themselves. Why else would the gods bring a plague down upon them? We certainly do not deserve such a fate." Fubdo suddenly seemed very different than the farmer they had previously met.   Agnese looked at Beivalur. "Heal the boy. Young man, if your story is true, take us to your village. If you try to escape, I will personally hunt you down."   "But he is a thief!" protested Fubdo.   "If his story is true, and you indeed were one of the people to abandon neighbors in need, then you are no better than a thief. Young man, once Beivalur finishes his ministrations, you will take us to your village."   Fubdo stammered "He is MY prisoner! Who will pay for my grain that was spilled?" He was nearly spitting the words out.   "Take it out of our pay," replied Courtenay. Agnese smirked.   "Pay? I have no intention of paying you! You were to deliver him to me! Now you are letting him go!"   "No, he'll be with us. And if he has lied, he will be returned to you. But your behavior tells me there is more truth than lies in his story" responded Ninette.   The young man looked shocked, but relieved. Beivalur lifted his hands from the young man, and asked "How does that feel, young Ulrin? Better"   "Yes, thank you." Looking at Agnese, "Do you really mean to help?"   "I am a man of my word. You are still a thief, but if your story bears out, then there are circumstances to be considered."   Fubdo was apoplectic. "I will not pay! The merchants will hear of this!"   Beivalur gave him a stern look. "Yes. Yes, they will."  
  Ulrin led the group to the old Kerran road by traveling along the treeline. "I don't go through Tremer. It's farther and much too exposed." When they reached the road, it was obvious that the road was little used. In fact, not more than 100 yards in, the trees and foliage had grown over the road, narrowing it to a small path. "Don't worry, this area's safe. Not even the animals want to be near us." His voice was melancholy, defeated.   The growth was so thick, even the moonlight did not penetrate. Courtenay picked up a stone, and qith a quick cast, turned it into a source of light. The trees cast ominous shadows that flickered and moved with the group, as if watching them. "Ulrin, how far is it to the village?"   "About five miles. Through this brush, it takes about an hour until we reach the dead zone. After that, the traveel is much easier."   "The dead zone?" asked Ninette.   "That's what we call the area around our village. It stretches for three to four miles around the village in every direction. Nothing grows." explained Ulrin.   "Any idea why, young Ulrin?" Beivalur asked. He had never heard of Kerran, or any stories related to it.   "It happened a little more than a decade ago. My village was well known for mining and shaping Blackglass. It's very brittle, and our artisans were the best at shaping it into vessels and utensils for the the wealthy and special customers.   One day, the miners came back from the mine with a story about finding an new material in the mine. It was a yellow substance that was a bit chalky. They had never seen the mineral before.   Within a few weeks, the miners who had contact with the material became ill. Within a few weeks, they died. The miners sealed off that section of the mine, placing warnings about the contents. A few months later, a man no one recognized came into town. He introduced himself as Zorander Umbra. He addressed the village elders and explained that he had heard of the yellow mineral, and that he was very interested in it. He was willing to pay for the mine, paying the village enough that no one would ever have to work again, including mining the blackglass. But he would have sole access to it."   "That sounds a bit fishy." Courtenay had a puzzled look. "Why would this guy want something that is obviously killing people? What's so special about it that he'd want to keep all of it to himself?"   "I don't know." Ulrin shook his head. "It made no sense, which made some of the elders balk at the offer. But he was willing to pay a vast sum for it and that weighed heavily on them. Until Mr. Hurryhouse came to the village."   "Hurryhouse? As in Hargus?"   "Yes Mr. Oatspell. He often came to the village to buy blackglass crafts as gifts for people he knew. He had come into town a few days after the this Umbra character. I think I was nine or ten years old. Anyway, he met, as he always did, with the village elders. When they told him about the offer, he was very concerned. He urged them not to take the offer, as it would likely result in very bad things happening. Like all of us dying. They decided not to take the offer."   Ninette was curious. "Why would they listen to Hurryhouse?"   "They used to trust him. They believed he was a good guy. Some still do, but not many."   "Used to?" asked Beivalur.   "Many believe he is reponsible for what happened to the village."   "What do you mean?"   "He told the elders to sell the mine. So when Umbra came back in five days, like he said he would, they told him that they would not sell. He asked why, and they told him that Hargus had advised them not to. That seemed to set him off in a rage, ans he stormed out of the village. He came back few months later and took it out on us."   "How?"   "He rode into town and jumped off his horse. He started swearing and saying we would rue the day we crossed him. Then, from the milddle of the village, he raie his hands and a fog emanated from them. At the same time, something sprayed from his fingertips shopting out all the way to the treeline. He circled the village, shouting and spraying. The smell was noxious. The just as suddenly as he rode into the village, he rode out. Within a few days, crops and plants were dying. Some of the people that were hit with the spray began having trouble breathing. Trees began dropping leaves. Within a few weeks, all the crops had been killed. We had no grain for the livestock. The trees died. And so did many villagers. If the elders had not listened, this wouldn't have heppened.   As if on cue, the trees around them became thinner. The path was easier to find. Foliage at ground level was gone. While the trees were still thick enough to block the view more than 100 yards or so, they were dead, gnarled trunks with defoliated branches, a horror to look at, and ominous.   "Is this the dead zone" asked Agnese.   "Almost."   The group moved in silence. The feeling was of entering a graveyard. Quiet, solemn, melancholy. As they crested a rise in the road, the pale moonlight revealed the total devastation. Even at night, you could see there was no real color to the landscape. Brown and black silhouettes were all that remained of trees. What was once a vibrant forest now stood as a botanical graveyard. The Dead Hills had been named so eons ago, but now, they truly resembled their name. The only sign of life was found in a depression between the hills. A flicker of lantern light is the breeze. The sight was truly one of a cursed land. Whatever happened here was destructive and lethal. No fire, no flood. Just living things that appeared to have died as they stood. The road was no more clear, but not maintained. It snaked down the ridge to the valley below it, a thin path through the dead landscape.   "That's my village."  
  It would still be hours before the sun would light the scene, and it was cold. Beivalur was the first to speak. "Would there be somewhere in your village where we may rest and warm, Ulrin?"   "Yes, most of the homes in the village are empty. There are few of us left. I must warn you, however, the village is understandably very wary of strangers. I will stay with you to ensure there are no misunderstandings."   The party followed the trail all the way to the village. As they came closer, they could see dwellings with windows missing, curtains tattered and blown through the broken windows by the breeze. The lone lantern they saw from the ridge hung from a lamppost in the center of the village, perhaps a marker for those who returned to the village at night. Most of the buildings seemed empty. The village art shops still had signs that swung lazily from one hook, twisting in the wind. Taking them to a house at the outskirts of the village, Ulrin opened the door and Courtenay shone her light inside. The floor was bare in the one room dwelling, but there was a table with two chairs, a fireplace and a cooking pot. Some firewood had been left by the fireplace, and Beivalur moved to quickly get a fire going for heat.   "You'll be alright here," Ulrin assured them. "I'll sleep by the door. This house has been abandoned for some time, so it might raise suspicion if they see signs of the fireplace going. If they come in the door, I can stop them from getting too confrontational." Ulrin settled himself on the floor, leaning up against the adjacent wall. He pulled his collar up to guard against the cold. Beivalur, seeing Ulrin's action, removed his massive cloak and draped it on the young man. "Where I am from, this is summer weather." He smiled and went back to tending the fire.   The rest of the party had settled in as well, using packs as pillows and pulling cloaks and coats around the, as the room slowly warmed.
  Morning came quickly, far sooner than the group would have preferred. The sun rising over the Dead Hills was muted by a brown haze, a mix of dust and who knows what else. The party, along with Ulrin, began to rise from their rest, warmed by the coals of the dying fire in the fireplace. The murky light from outside barely lit the room, and enhanced the somber mood. Agnese rose and went to the door to get a breath of air. Opening it, he was momentarily stunned by the acrid, thick scent in the air and the devastation he could see. When they had arrived, the village was mere shadows. But now, in the hazy daylight, the true condition could be seen. Everything was covered in brown dust. It was as if a sepia color had been painted in everything. No bright colors. Banners that once were likely bright and proud were now dull, muted, and tattered. There were no leaves on the trees, nor any green foliage to be seen. Across the village was a small fenced area containing a few head of cattle. The animals were thin, barely skin and bones. If they were meant to produce milk, Agnese couldn't believe they would be very productive.   Agnese felt a gnawing in the pit of his stomach. He had doubted the young man. He was still a thief, but his reasons were plain to see. The young man was trying to stave off the death of his village, his people, and Agnese had simply dismissed him as a common thief.   "Gods." Courtenay had joined him at the door. "What happened here?"   Ulrin answered as he helped put out the coals in the fireplace. "This is the result of listening to Hurryhouse and not selling to Umbra. Umbra cursed us. And now, this is all we have left." He said the name "Hurryhouse" with disdain, something he had not done before. Why would Hargus have interfered?   Courtenay shook her head. "This isn't Hargus' doing. And I don't think it's magic. It doesn't feel right. There's something else going on. We need to help these people."   Agnese nodded. "Agreed. Ulrin, can you make an introduction for us to the village elders? If we can help, we'll need more information."   "I can, but understand they are very wary of outsiders. But if you think you can help, they might just listen. I'll need an hour or so to talk to them. Stay here. You won't be disturbed."   Ulrin gave them a nod as he exited the house and made his way toward what appeared to be a meeting house that was nearly falling over in disrepair.   "I must also agree with you Nightglade. The damage here is not a curse, or magic. This is nothing I can heal. I sensed that the moment we arrived. This was created in some other way. I do not know how, but this is certainly not a curse."   Agnese looked puzzled. "If not a curse, or magic, what then? And why? And why blame Hurryhouse? That yellow stuff sounded dangerous. It wasn't bad advice." He looked out across the village again. "No, if this was not magic, then someone meant to send a lasting message. But I've never heard the story of this village. So the message didn't get far."   Ninette had seemed quiet, even for them. But they finally spoke up. "I have heard of this Zorander Umbra. He has been tied to stories of offworlders. If the stories are remotely true, it would not surprise me that he would be involved."   "Offworlders? That nonsense? Don't tell me you believe in that claptrap!" Agnese was incredulous.   "There have been some things that have not been explained. And certainly, this Umbra individual is real. The question is, how did he wreak this damage? Someone who can do this is indeed dangerous." Ninette, shook their shrouded head. "I agree with the rest of you. We need to help this village. How we best can help will need to be determined."   With all in agreement, they waited for Ulrin's return.  
  "I spoke with the village elders. Only one would agree to speak with you." Ulrin had returned after meeting with the elders regarding the party's request to meet. "Irion will meet with you this afternoon."   "We look forward to it, young Ulrin. What about your family? How have they fared? asled Beivalur.   "My father was one of the miners who found the yellow powder. He died slowly. Took about three monhs before his body gave out. My mother died not long after. I have been taking care of myself ever since."   Beivalur nodded. "I am sorry for your family, young Ulrin. Truly, you have suffered."   "It's alright. Others have lost much more."   "So, if the village didn't sell the mine, why aren't they still mining it?" asked Agnese.   "Well, the best miners were always the ones assigned to exploring new veins. So when the yellow rock was found, they were all in contact with it. Within a few months, we lost all of the experienced miners. There was much grief in the village, and many refused to return to the mine. But after about four months, even the more brave could not return. They were being attacked by what they thought were kobolds. But these beasts were too big for kobolds. Stronger. They took over the mine. It's believed they have built a warren there. Without access to blackglass, our lifeblood was gone. We had nothing of value to trade. And the village was dying. We became weaker, unable to take back the mine from the kobolds. The Dead Hills Mine is gone to us."   "Kobolds usually have a leader that they follow. Likely one took up space in the mine as a lair. If you had access to the mine, is there anyone left that could work it? And work the blackglass?" Agnese seemed to making up a plan.   "Maybe. But it's been at least ten years. I don't think there are enough if us to do anything of value in the mine. And we'd still have this curse on the village."   "One thing at a time, Ulrin. We'll meet with Elder Irion. And perhaps make a trip out to the mine."
All Images created BY Kahuna the Elder, with source materials from Pixabay, Pexels, Unsplash, Artbreeder and public domain sources.

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