Chapter 2: Home Sweet Home

Virpan yawned as she arrived on the edge of a wide stream. The dawning light shone through the trees, mocking her. After a quick scan of the surroundings she lightly hopped from stone to stone across the creek. Soon she found the well tamped trail which lead to her home village. Mud brick huts topped with broad leaf roofs were clustered around small gardens or refuse pits along the edges of earthen pathways.

At the centre was the stone paved square where an ancient, ornate fountain provided fresh spring water for the townsfolk. When she neared the square, Virpan noticed a large crowd packed in around the fountain. It appeared as though everyone in town had turned out for whatever was happening. Though a part of her wanted to go straight home and stow her hard won treasures in a safe place, Virpan’s curiosity got the better of her.

After hiding the haul in an old tree’s roots, she cautiously approached the mob to see what the hubbub was about. Through the shifting mass of bodies she could see a pair of cloaked men speaking to the onlookers. Virpan edged closer, trying to close enough to hear what was being said. One of her neighbors turned around, his eyes going wide when he saw here.

Without warning he seized her arm. “Got another one!”

Before Virpan could react the entire mob acted in unison, pulling her through the mass of humanity and depositing her in an undignified heap beside the fountain. She looked up, finding out what everyone had gathered around to see. There standing before the fountain were the two robed brothers of Valtor she had seen the previous night.

The brown robed one grasped her wrist and pulled her to her feet. Then the ancient Red robed brother grasped her other arm.

“Hey!” She exclaimed, trying to pull away.

The old man was apparently still quite strong, as he kept hold of her as he slid up her sleeve exposing the tattoo of her birth-sign.

“Allune, the great mountain,” he whispered, “A strong sign, but not the one we’re looking for.”

“What’s that mean?”

“It means you can leave,” he replied casually, turning back to the crowd. “Is there anyone else who has not yet come forward?”

Before she could utter a word the crowd pulled her back through its mass and spit her out the other side. Sprawled on the ground for the second time, Virpan looked disdainfully at the crowd. After shaking her head, she stood and brushed herself off. The crowd paid her no further attention, so she slinked back to the tree where her treasures where concealed.

“Should’ve just gone home,” she muttered.

Having collected her prize from the tree roots, she dashed back to her tiny home. At her door Virpan turned and took one final look at the crowd, reminded of why she detested large gatherings. Then she swept through the curtain and into the cramped interior. Hanging across one end was her hammock, while at the other end was her tiny fireplace. Beside the fire circle stood a collected pantheon of ceramic statuettes.

As the curtain swung back down, a small dog jumped from her hammock and dashed to her feet. She reached down and scratched his ears, receiving a playful yip in response.

“It’s eggs for breakfast, Waviwi,” Virpan said, showing her pet the treasure she had found.

She proceeded to drop the eggs into a stone basin which she nestled amongst the kindling before sparking a fire to life. While waiting for the water to boil, she received a an incense pouch and a jar of oil. She poured a measure of oil into a thimble sized offering dish and sprinkled in a pinch of incense. Then she placed the concoction at the feet of the largest of her ancestor spirit statues before setting it alight. The small flame reflected off the statuettes’ polished eyes, appearing almost lifelike as it burned.

“You get the good stuff today,” Virpan whispered quietly, closing her eyes for a moment. “Hope you are happy, wherever you are.”

The smoke of the offering wafted throughout her hut, making Virpan feel light headed. For a time she lost herself in the fragrance’s embrace, seeing visions of long departed loved ones.  However, her hunger soon overpowered the visions. She broke the moment of silence to eat. After pulling the basin from the fire, she carefully tipped out the boiling water and dropped the eggs into a cup of cold water.

Once she could touch their shells, she shucked the eggs and broke them open in a chipped ceramic boul. Warm yolk ran down around the gooey white spheres, the sight making her mouth water. She glanced down at Waviwi, who was wagging his tail in excitement. Virpan scooped out half of one of the eggs and placed it on a leaf for the dog to eat before sprinkling a little salt on hers.

Just as the first morsel neared her mouth there was a rustling at the door curtain. She glanced towards it, seeing the ancient man who had been whipping up the mob entering her hovel.

“Huh, what are you doing here?” She asked, dropping her eating sticks.

“Please, may I sit with you?”

“I suppose,” she said uncertainly, “uh, what do you want? Eggs?”

“No, no, I am quite well fed,” he replied, taking a seat on the old stool. “I am Father Sanja, head of the Lulna’ap Monastery. I have come because I require someone of your skills.”

“Oh really,” Virpan said dryly, “what do need with a gatherer? Fresh fruit?”

“I need you to guide one of my pupils to the Krags; it is of the utmost importance you agree.”

“Really, and I should do this why?”

“Because this message may hold the key to the fate of our people, neigh, the world itself.”

“Uh-huh.”

Father Sanja sighed. “There will also be a substantial reward upon your return.”

“That’s more like it.”

“Such desire for material possessions,” he sighed, fingering his golden amulet. “You must leave by sundown, lest Karriv’s men catch wind of this.”

There was another rustling at the door. The other man barged in looking quite worried.

“Father, we mustn’t wait any longer,” he hissed, “I told you this was a waste of time; now I fear word has gotten out.”

“I must leave,” Sanja said rising from the table. “Just before sundown, go to the west edge of the village. I will be waiting there.”

Before Virpan could utter another word the Brothers were gone. For a few moments she sat quietly, pondering what had just happened. She leaned forward, finally looking down at Waviwi. The dog looked up at her hopefully for more attention.

“What do you think boy?” Waviwi wagged his tail and nudged her leg again until she scratched his head again. Then Virpan’s stomach growled. “You’re right, I should eat.”

Once the last morsel of food had been devoured Virpan put her bowl in the dirty pile before making certain she was alone. Certain the coast was clear, she walked to a nondescript patch of her dirt floor and cleared the soil away, revealing a trap door. Beneath the stained wood was a small treasure of accumulated goods.

Virpan slid her new jar into the stash. While taking a moment to admire the collection Waviwi came over to take a look, poking his nose into the hole. She patted him lovingly before replacing the trapdoor. With that taken care of she took stock of her provisions, discovering that she was running low of salt and fat. After grabbing a few coins she had stashed away, Virpan headed back out into the village.

The crowd from earlier had dispersed leaving the square nice and vacant. Just down the pathway stood her neighbor, Walhik. She was cradling her baby while keeping a close watch on her young daughter who was playing with sticks just a few feet away. Virpan paused for a moment, seeing a vision of her own life if her father had not given her his knowledge. The young mother blinked her tired eyes, appearing quite fatigued.

“Ki’a, you put that bug down!” she cried, nodding as her child reluctantly obeyed.

“Hello Walhik,” Virpan said quietly.

“Oh, hello Virpan,” Walhik said in a tired voice, “You doing alright for yourself?”

“I manage,” she replied, yawning heavily “A bit tired at the moment though.”

“Yeah, I know that feeling.”

“So, what were those Brothers after, exactly?”

“Checking people’s birth signs, for some reason or another.”

“Do you know why?”

“Haven’t the foggiest.”

“How very odd.”

Virpan shook herself, refocusing on the task at hand. She strolled through the village square, passing a couple roughhousing children. On the other side of town lay the market.

Or at least what was left of one.

The last merchant’s cart still selling looked quite barren. After a short exchange with the trader it became clear that she could afford Salt or animal fat. She weighed her options, eventually purchasing two measures of salt. Now broke, Virpan trudged back to her hut trying to think of a good place to trap a hog. Most of the old hunting grounds were barren now, new people having driven the animals out.

She sighed; saddened that she would have to put off her next adventure. While strolling back to her hut she looked over the manioc and maze fields to the south of the village. A few farmers were walking amongst the tilled rows, caring for beloved their crops. None of them remembered the old ways, of living off the bounty of the great jungle around them. Her mind slowly wandered back to her own predicament; to the empty purse hanging from her belt.

“Sanja,” Virpan said quietly.

A dangerous trek to the mountains would have to pay well. She returned to her hut, weighing the question of taking up Father Sanja’s offer. Inside Waviwi was waiting for her, wagging his tail excitedly. She leaned over and scratched his ears.

“What do you think?” She asked quietly, “think you can stay with Walhik for awhile?”

“I think that’s a great idea,” Avuksik said, reclining in her hammock.

“Grah! Just what do you think you’re doing?!”

“I saw the old man leaving your hut. Wasn’t hard to put two and two together, so, I had a little chat with him.”

“What?”

“I’m in, partner,” he replied, hopping upright. “Ought to make up for last night.”

“Get out.”

“Alright, but, if you want to explain why you’re risking his accolade’s life by leaving your other half behind…”

“My, what did you tell him?!” she exclaimed,

“Enough to ensure an equal part in this venture.”

“Oh, fine, fine, just get out. I need some sleep.”

The intruder removed himself, vanishing from sight. Virpan sighed, flopping onto her now warm hammock. After tossing and turning a few times, she found a comfortable spot and drifted off to sleep. An ancient pyramid materialized in her mind. In it was wealth beyond imagining. She walked its hauls, decked in gold chains and jeweled pendants, piles of treasure on either side. Then a chest toppled off one pile and landed on her. She awoke with a start, taking a few moments to realize it had been a dream.

For a few moments she looked around, unsure of what to do next. There was something important she was forgetting. Waviwi rubbed against her leg.

“Oh,” she murmured, patting him gently. “I need to take you to Walhik, don’t I?”

Virpan quickly slid on her skirt and tunic, before leading Waviwi outside. The sounds of Walhik and her husband arguing emanated from the neighboring hut. Hesitantly she tapped on the doorframe, silencing the squabble within. A moment later Walhik poked her head out through the curtain.

“Oh, what is it Virpan?” She asked in a tired voice.

“I was just, well, wondering if you could look after Waviwi? I’ll be gone for a few days and someone has to feed him.”

“That would be fine, I suppose,” She said reluctantly, “You will owe us something, perhaps, some Jilote blossom, ‘ote is starting to teethe.”

“Sounds fair, I know where they bloom,” Virpan replied. “Waviwi, you’ll be staying here for awhile, alright? Be good.”

Walhik lured him inside with a scrap of food. With her companion secure, Virpan turned and walked back into her hut, recovering her bow and quiver. After fitting the quiver to her belt, she collected a small pouch of remedies and a water skin. After a moment’s pause, she reached up to a small hiding place in the ceiling and retrieved her bronze dagger.

She ran a finger down the flat of the blade, feeling her father’s name glyph. Smiling, she fitted it to her belt. After one last look around, she headed out for the west side of the village, hoping that Father Sanja would pay well. As promised the old monk and his accolade were waiting by the edge of the jungle.

The boy appeared taller than Virpan, and had a nervous quality about him. He wore a sad looking brotherhood robe which she knew was quite unfit for jungle travel. He gave her a shy wave.

“Excellent, you’re here,” Sanja said quickly. “Where is your partner?”

“Ok, about that,” Vurpan began.

“I’m right here,” Avuksik exclaimed, bounding out of the nearby bush. “When do we leave?”

“When you take that off,” she said, pointing at Avuksik’s large bag.

“Woah,” he said grinning, “I thought I’d be a few days before…”

“That thing will weigh us down,” she snapped, grabbing it from his shoulder, “I’m not going to be slowed down by useless-is this Tobacco? Ugh.”

“Hey, settle down,” Wukkar said calmly, “We need to appreciate one another, if we are going to get through this.”

“Yeah, I’ll bet…” She sighed. “…You think that anyway”

“Well, you’re all here now, so we can begin.” Sanja said, clapping his hands. “This is indeed an auspicious…”

“Cut the crap gramps,” Avuksik snapped, “We’re wasting daylight.”

“For once I agree,” Virpan said quietly, “can we please hurry this along? Oh, and some pay would be nice.”

“Very well, I will give to you a down payment,” he said, handing over a small pouch of coins. “And here is the message, Wukkar, guard it with your life and, please, remember what I have said to you.”

“Of course, Father,” he murmured, accepting the scroll

Virpan tapped her foot, hoping they could get moving. Her wish came true, as Sanja walked off without another word. With a sigh Virpan took the lead and urged Avuksik and Wukkar to follow, knowing this would be a long night.

-#-

As the trio vanished into the jungle, Sanja turned to watch them leave. A warm feeling washed over him for the first time in years. He breathed deep, sensing something in the air. Several minutes passed before Brother Panto strolled up to him.

“Where our young accolade?”

“Gone, carrying with him our last hope.”

“Oh, I had wanted to wish him luck.”

“I imagine you had,” Sanja said quietly, “but, it was not to be. Shall we take our leave then?”

“The other brothers are no doubt awaiting your return. Let us make haste to them.”

With that Sanja turned to the west, the setting sun warming his face. For once he decided to leave his hood down, and let the light wash over him. It was a good day, he thought, starting down the path to the monastery. He felt a spring in his step that had been absent for many years. Panto trailed behind him at a respectful distance. The Father slowed on their trek to admire the pastel blue Pilejra blossoms.

In the blink of an eye a dozen of Karriv’s elite Eagle warriors poured from the bushes on both sides. He lurched to a stop, mouth agape at the sight of the foul men. They were in full battle attire, feathered head dresses, bone belts, and blood red skirts.  Each held their spears and obsidian maces aloft. Sanja recovered his wits and reached for the amulet of Allushuk to attempt an escape, only to find that the talisman was gone.

“You must be searching for this.” Panto sighed. Sanja spun around to see the Brother dangling the medallion by his fingertips.

“What did that monster promise you?”

“A future for the order; you couldn’t believe that The Brotherhood of Valtor would be allowed to continue if we acted so recklessly.”

“Traitor, the prophecy will guide us back to the light.”

“I think we both know that’s not true, Father Sanja.”

“You will pay for this.”

The Eagle warriors moved forward to take Sanja into custody. As they closed in, Sanja closed his eyes and told himself that the messengers had gotten away. The warriors reached him, blackness taking him into its embrace.

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