Spen spied the haze of sand and dust in the distance before she saw the banners. Then she smelled the beasts. Shaggy camels, long-faced tarpans, giant-lizard guanas, and steppe mammoths with their enormous tusks. The caravan stretched as far back as she could see. Her eyes gleamed with excitement as the caravan passed. Elfin adventurers stood gallant on their chariots, high-elfin champions on proud camels, high-elfin lords and ladies in lavish tarpan-pulled carriages, and at the back, the tarpan wagons, baggage guanas and mammoths, and a long tail of human footmen and handmaids, altogether making a slithering pace westward towards the unseen Imperial city of Flamesmight.
There were more than two thousand heads, Spen supposed, with two hundred being elfin. She thought this was a staggering number of people for a caravan. Surely, more than a few of them held the means to complete her own quest.
Spen considered the banners flapping in the wind. They bore the silver-on-purple Imperial glyph of House Plum, a great house in the Springsteppes. The Plums held vast tracts of farms and plantations in the Imperial North. She admired the beautiful flowing strokes of the Imperial glyph, different from the strong square-lined glyphs she was used to.
A tarpan chariot carrying two elfin, and a human driver, passed her. The older elfin had an air that was familiar to Spen. His eyes had seen more than his fair share of conflict and hardship. This seasoned elfin had short upward-pointing ears, the same as herself, a wild-elfin. The younger elfin had the pink skin and the long sideways ears of a high-elfin. Unlike the other highborn lords and ladies, his clothing was faded and worn, nor did he ride on the camels or in the carriages with the rest of them. He could not have been more than a year older than herself. These two elfin made an odd pair, she thought. The highborn seldom made company with their wild kin. The chariot driver was human, unremarkable with ugly round ears.
“Good day, uncle!” She called out to the old elfin on the chariot. He looked to be of the next highest standing, after the highborns. “My name’s Spen, from a long line of traveling merchants. I am headed to Flamesmight as well.” She thumbed to the bulky merchant-pack on her back. “Scepterwood and herbs for sale. Can I join you?” She took a cloth packet of dried herbs from her robes. “A gift for you, my family’s own mull of hashish. I have been walking for days.” She smiled as she offered the packet of hashish.
The elder elfin stayed his hand and regarded Spen, making her chase after the chariot with an outstretched hand. She persisted on, knowing that this caravan would make an easy passage through the gates of Flamesmight. The highborn lords of Plum were unlikely to dally with a low merchant. But this grizzled wild-elfin, hard as he seemed, might.
“Aren’t you too old to be teasing girls, Jonen?” With a silly smile, the high-elfin youth faced Spen. He received her packet of hashish and pressed it into the elder elfin Jonen’s hand. “Our merchling friend here looks parched and her load looks heavy. A good day to you too, Spen. I am Ardal, of Lightstone-“
“I’m too old to be questioned by a youngling like you.” The elder Jonen looked insulted.
“It was an innocent jest,” the youth Ardal stated.
Jonen hawked and spat. Spen hid her disgust. She shared an uncomfortable gaze with Ardal. “You took the girl’s hashish, you take responsibility for her,” Jonen said. For a heartbeat, Ardal seemed to mouth a protest, then closed his lips again. “And you best make certain she brings no trouble or you answer to Lord Plum for it. You make certain she more than pulls her load in the lord’s caravan.” He fixed a stare at Spen. “We’ll have no freeloaders here.”
“Right away, caravan-master!” Ardal brightened and stepped off the chariot. “Follow me, Spen. I’ll show you to our wagon. And your duties.”
Spen thought this was a strange turn. She had expected Ardal to be disdainful like the rest of the high-elfin, and Jonen, a fellow wild-elfin, to be more pliable. But now the opposite seemed true. Still, she trusted none of them and was even more cautious of Ardal’s friendliness.
The chill of the evening had come. The caravan arrived at the Red Cliffs where the land was cracked and crumpled with rifts and cliffs. For protection against the cold winds, they made camp in the shadow of a cliff. Spen thought campsite perilous. The jut of the ridge and the rocks perched close to its edge seemed like they would crash down at the slightest provocation. The caravan was arranged like a coiled wurm nestled against the cliffside. The head of the caravan, carriages of the high-elfin lords and ladies, was in the center of a spiraling chain of chariots and wagons. The high-elfin camped on the good ground, rough and solid bedrock. Owing to the size of the caravan, there was not enough bedrock to hold everyone. The tail of the caravan found themselves making camp on soft sandy earth instead.
In the belly of the caravan, a crowd of elfin had gathered around Spen the merchant. It would be a feat to escape from this crowd. The misfit bands of elfin adventurers all seemed to take instruction from caravan-master Jonen. They were most like on an escort quest for House Plum. The high-elfin wore wood-and-hide armor and robed in Plum colors of silver and purple. A few humans dared to venture a look from the sides. Spen supposed these were of higher standing than the rest of their round-eared kin.
Her merchant-pack laid half-open on the ground. Its drawers and compartments revealed their contents: rows upon rows of wooden rods. Hardwoods. Softwoods. Some a dark ebony, some pale as milk. Some were fine-grained, others had large open grains. Most had perfect straight grains. Some had spiraling grains. A few had large knots in their grain. Spen was halfway through instructing the crowd on the nuances of sceptercraft.
“These aspen rods are perfect for our firemage brothers here. Fine-grained, highly resistant to burns, soft yet strong, easy on your hands. My rods are all flawlessly straight-grained so you can channel your ki through cleanly,” Spen bragged.
“They aren’t all straight. I saw some knobbly ones.” A tall elfin disputed her claim.
“These?” Spen took a cream-colored rod, textured with ugly dark knots, from its compartment. “You have good eyes, my friend. You are correct. The grains are indeed knotted. And for a valuable reason, too. The knots allow the rod to store ki! If you ever find yourself in a life-or-death fight and you have expended all your ki, this rod and its knots could very well save your life! Here, hold it for yourself.” She tossed the rod to the tall elfin. “This one is already charged. Don’t use up the charges though, or I will consider it sold.”
“I can feel the ki!” The elfin exclaimed.
The crowd murmured with excitement. Spen saw her opportunity to strike while the rod was hot. “Are there any distinguished lords here? My lords, are your loyal retainers as yet using the crude wands and staves of their grandfathers? Consider rewarding them with a right proper scepter today. Acclaim your generosity and have peace of mind on the same night. Sleep easy knowing you and yours are protected with the newest and highest quality in sceptercraft. I lower prices when you buy more!”
“You keep a keen tongue, merchling,” a voice said. The crowd hummed to a quiet, then parted. Three figures moved to the front. They all had long-sided ears. Two of them were likely house-champions, or high-ranked guards, flanking their house lord in the middle. The high-elfin in the middle spoke again, “I am moved by your words, merchling. I am an admirer of scepters. So far, what you have offered is rather plain. Mine own tastes are more exquisite. What else do you have that is more… extraordinary?”
The high-elfin, from his manner and fine silver-and-purple robes, was of high standing in House Plum. For certain, he was a lord, perhaps even the highest lord in this caravan. Spen searched her memories. Who was the current lord of the Plums? Was he Tyvin? Or Tyvar? No one would expect a low merchant to recall the names of every lord in the realm, but one should at least know the great lords of the great houses. She was a girl again, struggling with her lessons. Just address him as Lord Plum, you stupid egg, she chided herself.
“Your presence honors me, Lord Plum. Your feats in the Unity War are legendary.” Spen greeted the lord, pressing her hands together in the fist-in-palm gesture of the high-elfin, and took a deep bow. “There are indeed special scepterwoods that I have been saving for a most respectable person like yourself.” She made a show of donning soft lambskin gloves and retrieved two cases from her merchantpack, leaving the third behind, and opened the first.
“I present to you the finest sliver of Rainwood from a thousand-year-old Raintree. It all but hums with natural ki. Try it, my lord.”
Lord Plum took the Rainwood and tested its weight, swinging and turning it in his hand. Spen and the crowd jolted in surprise when a bright blade of red flame sprouted from the top of the Rainwood. The lord had channeled his ki through the rod, turning it into a fiery weapon. Even he looked astonished when the red flame turned into blue. The blue flame now and then flickered with red. A cloud of mist began to spill from the scepter. The lord’s fiery ki had mixed with the wet ki of the Rainwood to create mist. The flaming blade disappeared and the fog dissipated when he withdrew his ki. “This Rainwood disagrees with me.”
“Blue flame burns hotter than red,” Spen pointed out. “And a fog could be your advantage in a fight, my lord.”
“I prefer the old ways. I see one other case. Show me the rest of them.”
“This is Gold Ivory from ancient sandwurm bone. They say the old sandwurms feed on secret veins of gold deep under the Sandsteppe. We all know certain metals are the bane of ki, yet somehow Gold Ivory channels ki better than wood. Today, we are blessed by the godemperor to look upon this rare ivory.” Spen the elfin girl disappeared and Spen the traveling merchant was in full performance.
This time the Gold Ivory made the lord’s flameblade burn flat, sharp, and golden-yellow. His lordship seemed pleased.
“The ivory is difficult to socket but I am well-learned in sceptercraft. If Lord Plum allows me a look at your current scepter, I can tell if the gems in yours will take to this one.”
“I did not say I was interested in your Gold Ivory, merchling.”
Well, it was plain on your face, Spen thought, but did not speak.
Lord Plum unholstered the scepter at his waist. “But since you have shown me such rarities, it would be proper that I show you mine own.”
“You honor me, your lordship.” Spen inspected his scepter with care. The rod was a feather-light ivory, perhaps griffon or manticore. It was well-maintained, with a thick coat of lacquer. Spen could tell it was old and well-used. The top of the rod was circled by red gemstones and the bottom was capped by a simmering pink opal. The clearest of diamonds were socketed along the rod. Spen knew the red gemstones were firestones that amplified fire magic, and the diamonds focused the wielder’s ki. No doubt, the rod itself was ancient, while the sockets were carved much later for magic gems to set into. “Wonderful gemcraft. What a fascinating age we live in,” Spen said. She lingered on the pink opal.
“This is a fine scepter, my lord.” Spen turned the scepter. Along with the scepter, glyphs were inscribed. She could barely recognize the ancient glyphs. “A true hero struggles”. She said the words aloud. The words brought sadness to her heart.
“No doubt, there is a story behind those words, but that story is lost to the past,” Lord Plum said.
Spen moved to seal his patronage. “These gems can be easily set to the new scepter. But I need tools that are not at hand until we reach Flamesmight. If we are agreeable, my lord, perhaps we should decide on a pledge for the Gold Ivory first?”
“Perhaps. But I prefer not to discuss my purchase in front of a crowd.”
Spen liked Lord Plum’s yurt. She enjoyed the bold, colorful gold-silver-and-purple motifs. Had the lord given her leave to, she would have moved closer to inspect the various bamboo stands of wood-and-hide armors. One helmet had an elaborate plume of feathers that reminded her of the berb clans of the Springsteppes. Next to them, she saw a seven-stringed zither and a jade flute. Behind the bamboo screens, Spen supposed, were the lord’s bedding and personal effects. The yurt was bright, tidy, and, above all, clean. Incense filled the yurt with the sweet fragrance of cinnamon and milk balm, incense known to ward off bad miasma.
They sat on woven mats with a low rosewood table between them. Two guards stood within earshot outside the entrance, yet it would be an easy matter to slip in and out from under the other sides of the yurt.
“Twenty gold coins for the rod and setting of gems from your scepter to the new one, your lordship,” Spen asked a low price for her Gold Ivory.
“Your price is lower than I expected. What is wrong with the rod to fetch such a low price?” Lord Plum frowned.
“The Gold Ivory is true as the Godemperor’s will, my lord. You wielded the rod yourself, had you not? It will make a splendid scepter.” Spen explained, “With my low price, I had hoped to beg a favor from you…”
“My intent was to sell my stock of scepterwood at the Heroes Contest in Flamesmight. Yet, if every lord and chief in attendance to the Heroes Contest brings a like-sized retinue like yourself, I am certain the inns and resthouses of Flamesmight will be more than full to brim. A low merchant as myself will have trouble finding a place of stay in Flamesmight.”
“And what of the favor you beg?”
“I propose to be under your employ and hospitality, as a member of your retinue at Flamesmight. I can make camp with your quested adventurers as I have now. I require no upkeep, just a safe place to stay. In return, I shall be of good service to you. I shall be your eyes and ears in the merchant circles. I shall open my eyes to rare scepters and gemstones for your own collection. I shall open my ears to the trade rumors and market gossip and report any interesting news to you. A great hero is attuned to the ki waves of his environment. A wise lord feels the pulse of his surroundings.”
“What is your name and how old are you, merchling?”
“I am Spen of Reka, my lord. I am seventeen since spring.”
“You are a wildling of the river Reka? You are a long way from home. You are young but of age. Have you no betrothed in Reka?”
“I like being a traveling merchant. And I am good at it. Am I not, my lord?” Spen smiled.
“I have no doubt you have a sharp tongue, Spen of Reka. The Empire needs more sharp-tongued talents. The heads of far too many of this generation have been filled with tales of battle and heroism. The young like to fight. I am old enough to have seen the follies of war. This generation has only known peace and craves only war.”
Lord Plum pondered. “Clever and persuasive. Would that be you were a man instead… No matter, talent is talent. Fine, be my eyes and ears in Flamesmight then. You will serve my house during our stay at Flamesmight, in return for my hospitality. You answer to my caravan-master Jonen, just as any adventurer in my employ does. I will instruct him on our arrangement.”
He turned to look at the bamboo screens, perhaps looking at his scepter behind the screens.” I change my mind on resetting the gems from my family scepter to the Gold Ivory. I’d rather keep my family heirloom as it is. My first instruction to you is to find a new set of gems for my new scepter.”
In the dead of night, the ground shook and trembled. Under dim starlight and flickering torchlight, Spen, at last, made her way to where all the unrest was. The outer wagons had half-sunk into the soft sand. A few of them had been smashed and broken and opened like half-eaten carrion. The metal stink of blood and the putrid stench of entrails fouled the air.
Elfin commanders shouted orders at their human footmen. The footmen formed up in ranks behind their shields, with spears facing the monster. Ardal and Jonen were among the elfin adventurers, scepters ready in one hand and bucklers on the other.
The sandwurm was immense, perhaps five wagons long, and that was just what was exposed above the sands. Its giant maw heaved a bloody mammoth into the air, where it chomped and swallowed the carcass whole. A wave of bolts, loosened by crossbowmen behind the walls of shields, bounced off its plated carapace.
“What in the Godemperor’s name is a giant sandwurm doing in the Springsteppes?” Jonen the caravan-master asked. Sandwurms were native to the Sandsteppes up north and usually found in loose sandpools. It was rare to encounter even a normal-sized sandwurm in the Springsteppes where hard ground was commonplace.
They are doing it all wrong. Spen grew frustrated at their lacking. The wurm was here to feed and the surviving pack-animals were still on the soft sand. At least the baggage guanas had the good sense to scurry for rocky ground. Everyone, elfin, human or beast, should be moving to the hard bedrock.
“Spen? What are you doing here? Draw your scepter and help.” Ardal approached Spen. “Or fall back to our wagon.”
“I am not good with magic,” Spen excused herself. Then again, Ardal did help her enter the caravan. “But I can help.” She drew her cream scepter spotted with dark knots. She would need its ki charges. “First, you need to stay on rocky ground. Wurms can’t move in hard ground. Don’t you high-elfin know anything?”
“It’s the first time I’ve ever seen a sandwurm, let alone a giant one.” Ardal turned to the caravan-master. “Jonen, we’ve got to move the animals inwards, to the hard ground!”
“How many sandwurms are there?” Spen asked.
“How many? Is one not enough for you? Look at the size of that monster!” Ardal replied.
“Wurms brood in pairs, you stupid egg. Your monster troubles will double soon.”
A cry from the open steppes pierced through the commotion. A human boy had wandered away from the caravan and his mother screamed after him. Ardal discarded his buckler and ran for the boy.
“Leave the human be. There is a second wurm out there,” Spen warned after him.
“All the more I must reach him first!”
Spen observed the distant sands shimmering under the moonlight. That stupid egg is about to get himself killed.