Bright green leaves had begun slowly knitting together the canopy that would in a few short weeks shade the forest floor. The smell of the cool damp forest drifted out onto the clay and gravel track, reminding Bode of sandy pine forests 300 miles to the north, where he hoped to arrive by month's end. The small cart of trade goods clinked quietly along behind him as he bore the yoke across his shoulders. He had traveled south with the first signs of spring, taking with him clay vessels that had been baked in the three hundred year old kiln his family had built way back in the high times. His great, great... he couldn't quite keep the number of generations strait anymore, but his family had been making pottery along the banks of the creek ever since those amazing, mythical times when trips such as this were only a matter of days, not weeks and months.
The "high times"... Bode often wondered what all the ruins looked like full of people. They were just dangerous places now, mostly taken by the surrounding jungle, or walled off sometime after the high times, maybe to keep something in, maybe to keep something out. Generally, small villages were more successful, easier to pick up and move, or to build defenses around. War with other groups was pretty common, but for the most part, there was a sort of peace for the past several decades. Maybe it had to do with the sickness, maybe people were just tired of fighting. All he knew was that there had been no raid on Foxhollow since his early teens, and that was a fine thing.
A troupe of raccoons waddled towards him, headed in the opposite direction along the road. They stopped and sat up as he ambled past, waving a friendly hello. The curious coons just watched, neither alarmed nor overly interested.
The oral tradition of Bode's people told that men once flew in machines, as well as rolled over the land at incredible speeds. Bode had seen a small land machine once, rolling through a meadow. A tinkerer from Tinesville had been steadily improving his tools and had made something called a "cyclical". The man claimed he could travel 5 to 10 times as fast as a man on foot, or about as fast as a horse cantering, simply by the exertions of his own two legs. It seemed an expensive contrivance, and a waste of time to Bode. It didn't plow like a horse could, and it didn't haul like his cart could, which presently was stuffed with wine, preserves, smoking weed, and woven blankets, which carefully cocooned the fragile load.
Such a long trip was a bit of a venture. He could have taken his pottery to the nearer towns, but such wares had been pouring out of Foxhollow for generations, and the value of the ornate stoneware had brought less and less in trade as time went on. Bode's father had first established the Southern route with a large band of traders from other nearby towns, and the road they had cleared across the land had been maintained by a thriving trade for about 20 years before the sickness. Now it was a narrow track, travelled with much less frequency, and there were more animals to deal with. Between his bow and his two blades, Bode was well prepared for most of those, but every so often, a half-hearted bandit would present himself, offer terms, refuse for a time to take no for an answer, but quickly retreat when Bode unsheathed Marebreath. The weapon, according to family tradition, had been crafted from a part of something called a "spring leaf" or "leaf spring"... memories were foggy on this point. It had been tempered in the kiln by one of the more gifted metalsmiths in town and ground to a mirror finish. The length of it was part of the intimidation factor, taking the form of what some might call a cutlass.
At this stage in the trek, the weary caravaner was not too far from Stone Bridge, an amazing structure from the high times that had fared unusually well over the centuries. Similar things he had heard of in many places, especially to the East and West of Stone Bridge, but many of them had been destroyed or pulled down long before his grandfathers time. Stone Bridge was a bridge made of steel and poured concrete, something his family had tried to duplicate for years but found the materials just weren't present in the regional geography to duplicate the right hardness. Beneath the bridge was a vast inn crafted by hand from rubble by skilled craftsmen many generations prior with steel hammers and other tools legend said had been left functional for many life times after the high times. It was a beautiful refuge in the wilderness along the great "state" as the nearly invisible road that would have run right through the inn in the old days, and still did in the carriage house, was called.
Smoke curled lazily from the chimneys at both ends of the inn as it came into sight, a good sign which told Bode enough travelers were staying at the inn to require both hearths to be in operation cooking meals and boiling soup. He might have some luck lightening his load, or even sell the entire lot! He pulled the cart into the stable area and checked it with Tins, the squirrely son of the owner, giving him an ornately painted strip of leather as payment for keeping his wares safe. The smell of roasting deer and forest onion filled the air, bringing a broad smile to his face.
The old, massive, plate metal door swung noiselessly open on its gargantuan hinges, delicately brushing the hanging wind chimes to announce his presence as he ushered a stream of daylight into the hazy interior. As his eyes adjusted to the gloom, he located an empty table and sat his dusty, sweaty body down for a rest. Arnt, the owner, swept across the room, stretching his arms wide. "Bode!"
"Arnt, my old friend. How goes it?"
"Well, my boy, well! Business has been slowly picking up lately. I'll tell you more after you've had something to drink and eat. What can I provide?"
"Some of that deer I smell, and clean water would be just the thing."
"You'll have it! You'll have it. I'll be just a moment." Arnt retreated behind the bar into the kitchen, attracting the gaze of another traveler in the corner. His clothes were unusually clean and had a highly crafted look to them. Compared to the skins and rough woven tartan Bode wore, the man looked almost royal, or something more orderly - tough but disciplined. It gave Bode several seconds of puzzlement before his mind settled on the simple explanation that he was not a widely traveled as his father had been.
Art returned with a carved wide bowl filled side to side with cooked carrots, onions, and seasoned chunks of venison. A stoneware picture, one sold by Bode to Arnt many years back, was set on the table along with a cup of like provenance and a small loaf of bread. The delicious scent and sight almost brought bode to tears. "Praise be to the Mighty, Arnt, this is a fit meal. I thank you, thank you deeply."
Arnt stood beaming as Bode lifted a bite of food on a wooden fork, poised to enjoy it. At that moment the man in the corner exploded into action rushing from behind his booth, wrenching the door open, and darting out into the light.
"What by Lore!" exclaimed Arnt. Bode had frozen the moment the man began moving, his eyes alone following his path out the door. He loaded the food into his mouth and began to chew as the door feel shut silently.
Speaking with his second bite in his cheek, he said "I think he must have needed to go badly." Arnt wiped his hands on his apron and looked around, still a bit stunned.
"I knew there was something odd about that fellow when he came in. He kept talking to his hand in whispers. Strange. I hope it is no bad omen."
"I would make nothing of it.", counseled Bode. "He looked to me to be one of those men you would hear about in the old tales - a frighter? No. A fighter. His clothes looked tough. I suspect Marebreath would give him no concern, fine a blade as she be."
"Oh? And if a fighter is on the road, why be it so? It gives me worry, it does. I would spose there are more near by. What tell you make of that then?"
Bode washed down more food with cold clear water, and paused the ritual stuffing of his gullet. "Maybe just a band of men looking to make names? Maybe something more. But we all know, things is as things go, so I would give it no thought."
But he did. That night, resting in the inn, every small detail about the man in the corner ran through his mind. Why was he there at Stone Bridge? Why had Arnt thought he was talking to his hand? Why the hurried departure? Where was he from and how many like him were nearby? Eventually he drifted off to a fitful sleep and disturbed dreams.
Two men stood in the road as he hauled his wares, dressed in slick green cloaks, wearing strange masks with overly large eyes and a strange bowl attached where the mouth should have been. Smooth helmets that looked like stoneware, but dull and green, covered their heads. They wore staves over their shoulders on straps. As Bode approached them, a roar filled his ears and a great beast, or machine darkened the path as it passed overhead. He became full of fear and fell to the ground, but the men only turned to watch the horrifying thing pass over.
When he woke in the morning, he had the strangest feeling that he knew what was going on around him but that he had forgotten something important. As the dream faded, the shining bits of metal on the staves stuck with him well into the morning. He knew they were familiar but he couldn't remember how or where from.