The blanket of snow did not seem as thick in Kandarin as in our own lands, but the ground beneath us was not frozen. Every step I took seemed to turn the ground beneath me into mud.
"It can't be far now." Reinn pointed out a row of rocks in the distance. These must be the demarcation of the barley fields.
We had no idea what lay ahead of us other than what the stories of other people told us. It was nothing more than a small village, no doubt, but what kind of people lived there? Would they be friendly, or would they consider us as enemies? None of us had ever visited this place.
We soon got an answer. The village we found was so small, it did not even have a name, and was only known for some of its unusual inhabitants.
Seers they called themselves, people who study the past and meditate the present, all in order to predict their future. I had my doubts. If they could really predict the future, wouldn't this place be overrun by people seeking to benefit from knowing their futures? I decided not to bring it up.
We were welcomed by one of the very few people that were outside that day. They too had felt the harsh winter and while it somehow seemed milder out there, no one went outside unless they absolutely had to.
"Here," the villager said, "help me carry these and I'll pour you all a bowl of soup." He tossed us a bundle of firewood.
Not much later we were all inside the man's house, enjoying some flavoured water that was to pass for soup. Warm food is still warm, I supposed.
"So," the villager started again, "what are you all doing so far away from home?"
"You live amongst the fortune tellers, you tell us." Armod did not appear to be a believer either. I gave him a sharp look. To avoid any unforeseen insult, he would do wise not to bring it up again.
"Well, let's first introduce ourselves shall we?" A quick round of introductions followed. As it turned out he was named Frederick and had lived there with his wife and children, none of which I had seen.
"So you're from up north? Interesting." Freyleif looked visibly surprised. None of us had said why we are there, or where we were from. Our names probably gave it away.
"You didn't come all the way out here in this weather for a chat. You're here for something, something crucial enough to risk your lives for. So it's either food or supplies. How am I doing so far?" He squinted at Freyleif, who at that point dropped her jaw completely.
"Impressive. Can you help us out?" Sigmar did not want to give the man too much credit.
"How'd you like your soup? Be honest."
"Well," Sigmar looked around nervously, "It could use a little..."
"Exactly." Frederick interrupted him, and sat down with a deep sigh.
"This town doesn't have much, but it doesn't need much either. We grow our own food, brew our own drink, and entertain ourselves with philosophy. That is all we truly need."
"Excuse me." Reinn interjected. "You mentioned a drink?"
Being the only one to actually finish his plate, Reinn looked a bit barbaric, even for a Fremennik. Frederick didn't seem to mind, though.
"Strong man, aren't you? I think we can spare you all a cup. Follow me."
We walked to the south side of the village, where a small temple stood. Frederick was understandably adamant about giving away food, but he did not mind if we cut down a couple of trees for some firewood in the forests south of there. After all, how much wood could the ten of us really carry? Every bit helps I suppose.
"Johan, open up, we have visitors from far away!" Frederick pounded the door of the temple repeatedly. It creaked open and an old man with white hair opened up.
He invited us in and to take a seat. We all got poured a small cup of a liquid that looked like cold tea.
"Bottoms up, fellas." Frederick drank his all in one go, encouraging us to do the same.
That hurt. I'm used to drinking the ales served back home, but this brew was a good deal stronger. Some of us coughed and gasps for air, and while Signy almost spilled all of it back on the floor, Reinn asked for more.
Frederick declined and gestured us to pay attention to Johan. He had started to tell a story about a man in ancient times. Try as we might to listen to his story, some of us got distracted. Through the coloured glass we saw something that I thought had abandoned us. I'm sure the drink helped, but it was the sun made me feel warm for the first time in what must have been months.
Artwork by Tripsis
We had said our thanks and goodbyes to Frederick and Johan and were on our way to another village nearby. Reinn actually managed to talk them out of a jug of that vile liquid. I was actually worried that he'd kill himself if he drank it all at once.
We were heading south-west now. We got some directions from Frederick to a couple of other villages that were known for their variety in food.
The town of Hemenster was less then a day's travel away. Upon entering it seemed just as sleepy as that Seer's village. But we couldn't be more wrong.
Hemenster is host to a large fishing industry, and the fields around it are fertile as well. Judging from the warehouses and stocked shops even at this time of year, they could surely help us out. We could even be home before the harshest part of winter.
We decided to split up to cover more ground. I went with Svidi and Hild to one of the greengrocers. Others went to the docks and the farmers at the edge of town.
The instant I opened the door, the shopkeeper and his only customer stopped talking. I looked at some of the wares, but felt the prying eyes in my back.
"Can I help you?" The shopkeeper either did not have a friendly voice, or was not friendly himself.
"Yes, you can." I replied, "We're looking to buy a sizable quantity of food to help feed a hungry town. Is there any surplus of food in this town?"
"You people are not from around here are you?" Again he spoke with an unwelcome tone.
"I don't think it matters where we are from. Why, is something wrong?"
"We're closed today. Goodbye."
At that point I wanted to get unfriendly myself, but Svidi stepped in and took me outside. We decided to see if the others had better luck.
On our way to meet the others Svidi told me that he got an unwelcome feeling the second we entered the town, as if outsiders were not wanted there.
It turned out he was right. The others encountered similar situations as we did. Not sure what to do, we decided to set up camp some distance away from the town, so we could ponder our next move away from prying eyes.
On our way back into the forests we were approached by a young gentleman named Heinz. He told us we will not find what we sought in this town, unless we were also looking for trouble. Intrigued and not afraid of a fight, Sigmar invited him to stay with us to tell his story.
He told us of how the people of Hemenster were all but slaves to the city of Ardounge. They provide the people of the city with whatever food is needed, and in return their houses will not be burnt down, or worse.
Heinz told us also that they were allowed to keep what they needed for their families, and it is that borderline comfortable situation that especially the older people of the village have grown accustomed to. This feeling got even further bolstered when the armed guard of Ardounge quickly dispatched of some goblins that had been stealing some food.
"So much so that they'll now rather defend this systematic slavery, than die for their freedom."
"No offense," Sigmar started, "but this is not our problem. We need some food supplies for our own town, or people will die there."
"That's quite alright, I did not tell you this to enlist you in a fight against the King's forces. There are others who feel the same way I do, but nowhere near enough to wage a war. If you want I'll take you to meet some of them tomorrow"
Armod jumped up. "Why don't we help? This is the perfect opportunity for both our peoples. We help you fight and teach you to defend yourselves, and in return we get the food we need to save our own town."
"Thank you for the offer," Heinz was visibly pleased that others were willing to help him, "but I must decline for now. If we could truly rally the town behind our cause, then maybe we have a shot at this. But as I said, the people of Hemenster are simply not willing to die for their freedom."
Sigmar had to agree here. "We can teach you a thing or two about war, but we are not a military unit."
Armod sat down with a severely aggrieved look on his face. "Perfect opportunity." he muttered.
The next day we went with Heinz to meet some of his friends. A small and barely noticeable camp in the forest was host to about a dozen people. Some were practicing archery, some were making arrows, some were discussing possible recruits, and some were just having lunch.
Vemund and Signy were very interested in the arrows being made. They were without metal point, but seemed just as effective against an unarmoured foe.
Beigarth and Reinn showed a few of their moves in a stick fight, figuring real swords would be a bit dangerous.
Sigmar, Svidi and I were discussing the possibility of trading some weapons for food. This seemed like a good idea, but we had no weapons to trade and they had no food to spare. Perhaps in the future.
"Where have your friends gone off to?" We all suddenly noticed that Armod, Hild and Freyleif had gone.
Everyone, including Heinz and a few of his friends sprinted back to town, but it was too late.
We arrived at a scene where Armod stood upon a box with Freyleif and Hild to either side of him, speaking to a gathered crowd. Half the town must've been here.
"Stop! Wait." Heinz waved at everyone to stay out of sight.
We all tried to listen to his speech, but were too far away to hear anything. But it was as we all feared.
Obvious shouts of discontent and disapproval came from the crowd as Armod tried to rally them against their own slaveholders.
Sigmar, Reinn and Beigarth started to walk slowly towards Armod, who hadn't seen us yet.
I leaned over to Heinz, "I guess this is goodbye for now, good luck with your cause. Until we meet again."
The villagers had gotten angrier. Armod tried to salvage the situation. "Wait, please just listen!" It was useless.
Soon the first rock was thrown at him. "Go away, outlander!" and "We don't want you here!" He only barely managed to dodge it.
Everything happened really fast after that. Beigarth grabbed Freyleif and Armod and started to run towards the edge of town, followed by Hild. Reinn managed to wrestle a torch from one of the townspeople. With that and Vemund with his axe had hoped to keep the now full-blown mob at bay.
Signy, Svidi and I had stayed behind, covering our retreat, running deliberately in a different direction than Heinz and his people would have.
And Sigmar tested his new bow and arrows, shooting directly over the crowd. It did not have the desired effect. They still came after us.
"Reinn! That jug!" Sigmar shouted.
Reinn was not at all amused that he had to sacrifice yet again an item he recently acquired, and with all his anger he smashed the jug on the ground. He then dropped his torch on it and a huge fireball became a sufficient barrier between us and the angry mob.
Back in the woods Sigmar was furious. He had been silent all this time, but I had seen it in his eyes.
Armod, Hild and Freyleif were at the back of our group, dragging their feet. Oh I did not want to be in their shoes at all.