Transcript – Refuge

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Scroll & Dagger presents
The Pensive Tower
Episode Eight: Refuge

[A click, and the strange whirring of the venoscribe begins]

This is the memory of Billem Docker. Human, aged fifty-eight, identified as male. Memory regards a new arrival in the crofting community around Tarran Hill, and was donated on the Fourth of Chillintine, in the year 728. Inscribed by Paxton Ferox on the Twenty-eighth of Trevall, 729.

We Begin.

I’ve been a crofter my whole life. Can’t say I know many who haven’t been doing it their whole lives. It’s all I’ve ever known. I work the same land my father and his father before him worked. It’s not grand or impressive, not like this city or some of the folks I’ve seen here, but it’s a good life. Honest, you know?

Our little… well, I hesitate to even call it a village really. It’s about twenty small farms and the families that work them all sort of gathered round a small hill which goes by the name of Tarran Hill. I doubt you’ll have heard of it, it’s way up north from here. Far enough, that you’re probably wondering why I dragged myself all the way down here.

Well, there’s something happened up there. Something none of us can explain. Sure, I’ve come here to give you my story because I reckon it should be remembered but I’m hoping you can go some way towards explaining just what was going off with it all.

I should probably tell you something of us first.

Everyone pitches in up there. We all know each other and, when you live with that sort of community, everyone knows that it’s only right that we share any load that might need shouldering.

And, when someone joins that community, we are very welcoming. That might surprise you, we’ve all heard the sort of thing southern folks say about the northern crofts, about how insular and backwards we must be, but it’s not like that at all. Sure, we might like to keep to ourselves, but we do visit the nearby villages, especially for the markets or festivals. My father actually met my mother at the Snowdrop Festival in Winnagate and when she moved to Tarran Hill with him, she was treated as if she’d always lived there.

So, when we heard that some mysterious outsider had bought the old Pallen place and was soon to move in, obviously this got most folks quite excited.

Thom Pallen had lived on that croft for as long as anyone could remember, along with his wife and daughter. Tara was actually the first lass I ever took a shine to but she moved away when she came of age, to go become a lawyer or some such, I think. Anyway, she had apparently signed over ownership of the croft to this fellow.

As you can imagine folks were talking of little else, especially in the Stone Circle. That’s the tavern. I mean, in truth, it’s actually just Allie Tanner’s living room. Her and her husband grow malt and barley and the like on their land and Brice has a knack for brewing so they opened their main room out as a public house.

All sorts of rumours were floating about this new fellow. He was an escaped convict, some said. No, he was a deserter from the Federal Army, no it was the navy. No, he had been the lover of some high society lady but he had had to run when her husband discovered ’em. No, he was the socialite but had given up the glamour to come live a simple life up in the moors.

Everyone had their own idea on who he was, or who he had been. I don’t usually care for gossip and even I got sucked into it all.

Can’t say any of it prepared for the real thing. It was me who first saw him. At least I think so. I was out in my field, tending to my goats, putting down the millet and that, and that’s when I saw the cart.

There was nothing remarkable about it. We get a few carts come by Tarran Hill on their way to and from places, but somehow I knew this was the new resident. I didn’t see him then, not his face anyway. The driver was wearing this thick wool cloak with the hood pulled up. Not unusual, certainly not for that time of year, it was starting to get cold and the rain was falling misty that day.

The cart was being pulled by this big chestnut horse, seemed far too big to be pulling such a little wagon, the thing was just about big enough for the rider and the few bags he had loaded behind him. Whoever this fellow was, he’d not brought much.

There was no-one with him. No other wagons. Just him, the horse and a few bags. That confused me. The Pallen croft hadn’t been worked for nearly three years by that point, it was overgrown. And there were no animals living there, they’d all been sold off, either at market or to other crofters, same with the tools. There wasn’t anything there to make the place workable. I remember thinking this fellow hadn’t thought things through. That he must not have any idea of what he was doing.

We didn’t see him for the first few days. I mean, some folks said they saw him out walking, either on his land or up on Tarran Hill, or else over in Southdown Wood, though what he was doing there was anyone’s guess.

No one had been close enough to get a look at him and he always seemed to be wearing that cloak. No one went to the Pallen place. The way we saw it, he could come and be part of the community, but we weren’t going to force it. Or, I suppose it could be that we were wary of this outsider and wanted to learn more of him before we started trying the niceties.

It was two weeks before any of us saw him up close.

In all that time, the croft remained overgrown. That caused a few raised eyebrows and puzzled expressions. If the croft was overgrown, it couldn’t be worked and if he didn’t work his land, how was this fellow expecting to eat? We didn’t mind helping a fellow in need out but that didn’t mean we were going to give him our harvests if he couldn’t be bothered to work for himself.

This was the topic of conversation in the Stone Circle when the man himself appeared. The minute he walked in, silence fell across the room.

Without a word, he took off his cloak, hung it by the door, scraped his boots on the mat and moved towards Brice Tanner and we all finally got a good look at the new arrival.

He was dark skinned, and I don’t mean like most people, I mean dark dark, like almost black as coal dark. His hair was even darker, flecked with grey and he wore it long, tied up in a braid that hung down his back. He wore a fine coat, not fancy, no embroidery or jewels or anything like that, but definitely high quality, and he wore it open despite the cold, showing a white shirt and brown trousers. His boots were good quality too, same as the coat, not fancy or anything but they were the kind of boots a working man would be proud of. But maybe the strangest thing about him was that he wore a sword.

And I don’t mean those little duelling swords I’ve seen folks wearing around the city, I mean a real one. It was long and nasty looking, sheathed in black leather, and he walked like he was used to the weight of it. I don’t think any of us had seen a real sword before, I mean why would we have? We all kept weapons, spears and bows and such, but they were for chasing off bears and the like. I could tell I wasn’t the only one wary from the sight of it.

Poor Brice looked about ready to have an accident when the stranger stepped up to him and asked for a drink. He spoke softly, but he had a rich voice that, quiet as it was, seemed to fill the room, though that may just have been down to the fact that no one else was talking. To his credit, Brice didn’t buckle, said the first mug was on the house and went to fetch it.

The stranger found a stool. Before he sat down, he undid the sword belt, resting it against the wall.

Brice soon came back, handing the stranger a mug of ale. The stranger thanked him and took a drink. Nobody spoke, I think all eyes were on him. The stranger hardly seemed to notice, he seemed deep in thought.

I was about to move over and introduce myself, I figured someone had to go first, when Arty Baler beat me to it.

Arty has never been a likable man. He’s a man who likes being the biggest and strongest in the district and likes knowing that everyone else knows he’s the biggest and strongest. Sure, he’d been a bit of bully when we’d been younger but he’d grown up and was now just a bit of a bother. Made himself useful when needed, don’t get me wrong, and as long as he didn’t think you were trying to cross him, he tended to just leave you alone. But he’d had a few by this point and Brice brewed his beer strong.

I don’t know what he was about, don’t think anyone did. Maybe he was trying to assert his position in the community, make sure the stranger knew the way things were or maybe he wanted to knock someone around for a bit of fun. Whatever he was trying, he definitely bit off more than he could chew.

Arty planted himself next to the stranger, like a tree looming over a wolf.

“Evening to you, Outlander.” he said, smiling a smile that any victim from his childhood days would recognise. “Nice to meet you at last.”

The stranger looked up at Arty like he was examining a horse at market.

“Good evening,” he said, his rich voice sounding oddly resigned, like he knew exactly what was about to happen. He might have, thinking about it.

“Been noticing your land since you moved in,” Arty went on, his speech a little slurred, “you planning on doing something about that? Not going to be much good for planting if it’s all overgrown like that.”

“I am waiting for the proper tools,” the stranger replied, his voice never rising above the soft almost whisper. He didn’t elaborate. Arty sniffed.

“Reckon this should do a good enough job,” he said, casually reaching for the sword.

Quick as a wheatsnake striking for a mouse, the stranger’s arm shot out and caught Arty’s wrist.

“Please do not touch that.” The stranger’s voice was still soft and calm but there was a heat in his eyes now when he looked at Arty.

I held my breath then. If there’s one thing guaranteed to rile Arty up it was someone challenging him like that and, true enough, I saw his face getting darker.

He grabbed the stranger by the front of the shirt.

“Listen you-“

He didn’t get further than that. I wasn’t even able to follow what happened then. The next thing I knew, Arty was face down on the floor, his arm pulled up behind his back with the stranger holding it there, pressing him down. Arty let out this angry squeaking sound, mixture of fright and anger, I think.

A few of the other lads, including myself, rose up at that. Arty might not be well liked but he was still one of us. But, before we could do more, the stranger let him go.

“You have had too much to drink,” he said. He didn’t even sound out of breath from holding Arty down. “I think it would be best if you went home.”

Arty staggered to his feet. His face was still dark, but more with embarrassment now than anger. He shot the stranger a murderous glare then left, slamming the door behind him.

Brice was looking nervous, clearly unsure of what to do. Some of the other lads were looking at the stranger angrily. Fortunately, that was when Allie Tanner came in.

Tarran Hill doesn’t have a village council or elder or anything like that but Allie is close as we have to one. She’s a strong, matronly woman, hardened by her years of honest work and more than a match for any man. She held a long wooden spoon like a sword and brandished it at us.

“That’s all and enough of that,” she said, “you’d all best be sitting yourselves back down and enough of that nonsense!”

Nobody wanted to get on the wrong side of Allie Tanner. Everyone sat back down, including the stranger. Allie went over to him to apologise for Arty and to offer him a refill.

Most folks went back to their own drinks, their own conversations but I made a decision in that moment that I was going to talk to the fellow and it had nothing to do with Allie giving me a pointed stare.

I approached, a little warily, I’ll admit, I had just watched this stranger throw the strongest man I’d ever known around like a sack of flour.

He saw me coming and seemed curious. I’m guessing he saw from my posture that I wasn’t about to start anything.

I began by offering my own apologies, seemed like the safest way to start, and assuring the stranger that we weren’t all like Arty.

He answered by saying that he was sure we weren’t but there seemed to be someone like Arty nearly everywhere in the world, at least everywhere he’d been to. Which, as it turned out, was quite a few places.

I asked if I could join him and he said of course. I introduced myself and, in turn, he gave his name as Wiljun. Wiljun Farstride he said folks called him which, to hear him talk, was a name well earned.

It probably won’t surprise you to hear that I’m not a well-travelled man. Coming here is, by far, the furthest from home I’ve ever been. I’ve never left Senteria or seen any of the rest of the Federation, much less the countries that lie beyond. Wiljun had. By the sound of it, he’d seen them all.

He’d been to Sangland, spent time with the Bull-Tor of Grazia, had even fought in the border disputes. That’s where he got the sword, he said, a gift from one of the captains, called it his most treasured possession.

He’d been to all five seas, explored the Wind Islands and crossed the Sand Sea and back.

I took in all his stories like I was a five year old again, listening to my old grandfather telling tales by firelight. The one thing he was vague on was why, after all that, had he come to settle here. How had a man who had apparently enjoyed the company of military leaders and merchant princes ended up in the middle of nowhere owning, by the looks of things, nothing more than the clothes on his back, a sword and a small patch of farmland?

I asked him all of this, though obviously a little more politely. He never seemed angry or nervous, but he went all quiet with this look in his eye. It was not a threatening look, but it was one that made me certain I shouldn’t ask him questions like that.

Well, maybe some of the rumours had been right. Maybe there was something in his past that he would rather forget and had come here to try and get away from it. Well, I’m sure he wouldn’t be the first to come to this life to escape an old one. I said no more about it.

Instead, I brought up the same thing Arty had, though obviously a lot differently, namely the fact that his land was overgrown. I asked him if he wanted any help with clearing it.

He said no, he couldn’t let me put myself out, surely I had my own land to deal with. I told him, with the winter setting in, there wasn’t really much to do now except tend to the animals which wouldn’t take all day.

He protested, saying he was just waiting on a delivery, he would have his own tools and was happy to do it himself. I told him there was no sense in waiting; the sooner it was done, the sooner he could relax until the spring.

He agreed, reluctantly.

I’m not sure why I was so determined to help him. Maybe I’d just taken a liking to the man. He was interesting to talk to and there was this air about him, a likability. He was just the right amount of humble, you know what I mean? He didn’t want to inconvenience anyone when he felt he could take care of it himself.

Well, the next morning, after I’d let the goats out for a run and put their food down, I loaded up the barrow with a hand-scythe, a hoe and a good machete I always made sure to keep sharp and wheeled it over to the old Pallen Place, or Wiljun’s place as it was now.

He was waiting for me, sitting on the wooden fence that ran around the edge of the overgrown paddock, smoking a long-stemmed pipe.

When he saw me, he tapped out the pipe and jumped down and we got to work.

It took nearly two weeks to cut back all the brush, bramble and bracken. It was slow going at first but eventually that delivery Wiljun was talking about showed up.

He arrived in the early hours of the morning, I happened to be there to help hack back this wildberry thicket which had taken over one of the plots. He was driving a wagon that looked almost the same as the one Wiljun had showed up in.

The chap driving it was an interesting looking one. He was short, and bald with skin that was bronze and scaly, I think he was one of those snake folks, you know, a diman. Never seen one of them before, I heard they prefer it down south where it’s warmer. But here was one driving a wagon loaded with farming tools and a couple of chests full of I don’t know what.

He didn’t stay long, didn’t even stay the night with Wiljun. As soon as his cart was unloaded he gave a click to the horse and it began trotting away. Maybe he stopped the night in Winnagate, though I was there a couple of days later and no one there remembered seeing anyone that looked like him.

Still, that wasn’t the strangest thing that happened. No, that happened about two months after.

It was mid-winter by then. Me and Wiljun had been able to clear his land just in time to beat the first snows. He’d really started acting like a proper crofter by then and he was being treated like a real part of Tarran Hill. I had been worried that that dust up with Arty might have spoiled things, but Arty hadn’t really been seen much since then, keeping to his own land or heading into the village.

Wiljun and I had become good friends by then. He was still a bit cagey about his past but in all other matters he was open and friendly.

We were heading towards the Stone Circle, it was late afternoon about midway through the week. We’d been discussing going over to Stunburr for the Longnight market. He was talking about finding me a good woman. This had been a topic of conversation for a while now. I’d told him about my Zara, about the Red Flu had taken her back in ’01. He’d been trying to convince me that she wouldn’t want me to mourn forever, that she wouldn’t want me to be alone. I told him even if that were true, what woman would be interested in me? Especially at my age. I always thought I was lucky to convince one woman to marry me, I didn’t see that happening again.

He didn’t answer. I turned to him but saw he was gone. I looked around and saw three people I’d never seen before. There were two humans, both male, and an orklin. I think they were male as well but I couldn’t be sure. Haven’t been around enough orklins to really be able to tell I’m afraid.

They were all armed with swords and they each wore a brace of pistols over black coats with this patch sewn to the lapel, it looked like a grey tree. I thought they were coming towards me so I stopped to wait but they ignored me completely, just went right past and up the street.

It took me a minute to realise they were heading for Wiljun’s place. I had no idea what was happening but I decided to head after them. As I began following, I noticed I wasn’t the only one watching the black coated strangers. Arty was there, leaning against a fence. He had this smile on his face as he watched the strangers heading towards Wiljun’s house. He noticed me then and gave me a smile and a wink before heading off towards the Stone Circle.

I didn’t waste time on Arty. I knew I had to get to Wiljun’s, I had to make sure my friend was alright.

They moved quick, not quite running but definitely moving faster than a walk. I was being careful to mind my footing, making sure I didn’t slip on any ice, but they didn’t seem to think of it for a moment. Because of this I arrived at Wiljun’s house in time to see one of the black coats, the orklin, kick down the front door.

I froze in my tracks. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. This sort of thing didn’t happen here.

I was even more surprised when, before the three could enter the house, Wiljun came charging out, his sword drawn, flashing in the winter sun.

He bowled the orklin over and aimed a kick at one of the others. I remembered the pistols they’d all been carrying and thought for sure Wiljun would be shot but the three of them instead drew their own swords and attacked.

Now, I know nothing of swords or fighting with them, but it didn’t look like they were really trying to kill Wiljun. Just subdue him, like a trio of pigherds trying to tie down a hog.

I wanted to help but I had no weapon on me and, though I liked Wiljun, I didn’t really want to get killed for him. So, I just watched as the four of them fought.

Wiljun was a ferocious fighter but he couldn’t deal with all three at once. They backed him up against the wall of his house. I thought for sure they would have him. I noticed then a few good-sized stones lying on the road. I have quite a good throwing arm, I thought I could distract the black coats, give Wiljun and myself chance to run. I was just bending down to grab them when something happened.

It sounded like a thunderclap, as if lightning had struck not five feet from me. I felt like my bones were being rattled inside me, I fell to the ground, clutching my ears. I couldn’t see, it was as if the world was ending. I felt something then, on my shoulder. It was light, like someone was resting their hand there.

I don’t know how long I lay there but eventually I was able to blink away the bright light in my eyes and the ringing in my ears faded away. I stood up, a bit shakily. The black coats were still there, looking as dazed as I was. Wiljun was gone.

I turned and ran.

I didn’t see Wiljun again. He vanished without a trace. Arty had called the black coats, of course. He never really admitted it but the way he talked about Wiljun being gone being for the best left nobody in any doubt.

I didn’t ask why. I didn’t want to know, still don’t. I just miss my friend. And that’s why I’ve come here. To see if you can help.

Final Notes. Unfortunately, we were unable to help Mr. Docker solve this mystery. I would certainly have liked to, this Wiljun sounds like he has an interesting tale to tell. But it is quite impossible.

I will add what I can, but there will be little enough of that. Local records confirm the deaths of Thom and Marelle Pallen, their will leaving all their worldly possessions, including their crofting land near Tarran Hill to their daughter Tara. There is also a record of the subsequent sale of the crofting land to this Wiljun, who gives their surname as Far. Likely an assumed name but it does at least prove the man exists.

And that is all we will be able to prove. The involvement of the Ironwood Bureau, these, uh… black coated strangers, means this is a matter classified by the Federal Government and no independent investigation will be tolerated. We decided against following up with Mr. Docker. If he escaped the notice of the Bureau, I certainly don’t want to be the one to draw him to their attention. If he didn’t, well, there will be no point in reaching out to him now.

Inscription Complete.

[The venoscribe clicks, and the whirring stops.]

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