The gentle splashing of the oars, keeping time with the falling rain as they plunged beneath the surface, mingled with the waves to create a sort of melancholy melody. Alethea liked it. She found herself humming along as she paddled. Several times her boat filled with water to the point where it started to sink. She merely picked up her bucket, scooped the water out, and continued humming, occasionally even whistling, as she drifted along toward the distant wooden houses. The village of Flockgrove, the one reason she had spent almost a week sailing through the unending monsoon, was just a short distance away.
Rainy season in Flockgrove brought whole weeks without a single ray of sunlight piercing the canopy of black clouds. During such times, the nearby lakes overflowed, turning the streets into canals. The city was built to accommodate these floods. The homes followed a unique architectural design. All houses possessing a second story to serve as the living quarters while the bottom story housed various aquatic gardens containing a number of water dwelling plants bred for food and sustenance.
Alethea liked visiting the village this time of year, a time when most other people, discouraged by the treacherous waters and torrential rain, avoided the town. Merchants preferred visiting after the rainy season when they could barter for the various exotic herbs and spices harvested from the aquatic gardens. Non-merchants, typically rare in these parts anyway, also found little interesting to do, other than simply congregating at the tavern, drinking ale and waiting for the weather to pass.
Paddling down the flooded streets, Alethea heard the sound of laughter and mirth drifting toward her ears from the nearby tavern. Alethea spotted a covered boathouse in front of the structure and, steering her vessel inside, struck a large silver bell hanging by a string from the archway.
The boathouse was pitch-black. Maneuvering through the darkness, Alethea inadvertently struck several docked vessels rocking in the turbulent waters. The villagers must have heard the collisions or the bell; because, about that time, a light appeared in the distance. A door opened, illuminating the face of a stout man in his upper twenties carrying a hooded lantern.
Directing the light toward Alethea, he tilted his head, trying, in vain, to peer beneath the hood of her brown traveling cloak.
“Identify yerself stranger,” the man called in a deep drawl. “You don’t look like you’re from ‘round these parts. And I, for one, don’t like the look of ya. State yer business.”
“You don’t like the look of me?” Alethea called back. “Well, maybe I don’t like the look of you either, Arthur McGavert. The gods only know how your poor wife puts up with you!”
The man’s face broke into a grin.
“Alethea!” he cried. He turned back toward the door, shouting inside. “It’s Alethea! Alethea is here!”
His words brought an instant reaction. Excited cheers and shouts of children rose from inside as if someone had just announced the beginning of a new holiday. Streams of men and women, hurrying from the door, raced down to the docks - the men pushing aside the boats to clear a path, while women bobbed upon and down in unrestrained enthusiasm. Arthur tossed a rope, which Alethea caught, securing it to the front of her boat. Together with the other men, Arthur pulled her to the dock.
Nearby, an older woman stood smiling beside a teenage girl, who bounced on her heels, practically dancing with excitement. Once the men helped Alethea and her possessions from the boat, the two rushed to her side.
“Child, yer soakin’ wet,” the older woman drawled, undoing the straps on Alethea’s cloak. “Get yerself inside right now and sit beside the fire. Lydia, get some hot water from the stove.”
“Yes, Momma Burke,” the teenager said, darting inside.
Momma Burke, as everyone called her, removed Alethea’s cloak, tossing it to Arthur.
“Thank you, Momma,” Alethea said, pecking her on the cheek. “How have you been?”
“Too old to complain anymore, Sweetie,” she answered. “But, look at ya. Yer all skin and bones. Don’t ya e’er eat anythin’?”
Alethea laughed. Momma Burke was always fussing over her weight.
Momma led her inside to a large room filled with men, women, and children. All leapt to their feet with shouts of joy, their voices forming an unintelligible cacophony as they swooped in around her. Pushing them aside, Momma guided her toward the hearth, where a large fire burned. Alethea, still shivering from a week’s travel through the cold wet wilds, allowed herself to be steered toward the warmth.
Though the people crowded so thickly around her one might think she would suffocate, Alethea only laughed. Of all the towns she visited, no village showed more delight or welcomed her more hardily than Flockgrove. For a wandering minstrel, like Alethea, such celebration was its own reward. Free food and lodging didn’t hurt either.
“Aunt Alethea, tell us a story,” peeped the voice of a blonde-haired boy foremost among the throng.
“Hush Cedric,” a short brown-haired woman, chastised her son. “Miss Alethea jus’ ‘rived. She needs food and a hot broth. Do ya wan’ her catchin’ cold? You ain’t gonna get no stories if she’s sick.”
“But maw,” the youngster protested as his mother pulled him back.
The throng steered Alethea to a rocking chair, beside a rickety old table, near the fireplace. Sitting her down in the chair, they laid her bundle beside her. A moment later, Lydia reappeared with a large mug of hot mead. Lifting the drink to her lips, Alethea sipped the homemade brew, savoring its sweet aroma. Heat radiated through her body, as the steaming liquid trickled down her throat, infusing her cold, wet skin with fresh vigor. She lowered the mug as someone placed a loaf of freshly cooked riddyan bread before her.
Riddyan was the principle trading good produced in the semi-aquatic town. The underwater plant blossomed in the soil, where it was harvested after the water receded. Similar in texture to wheat, and lasting nearly forever without going bad, breads, barleys, and other foods made from riddyan possessed a unique bitterness prized among nobility throughout the land.
Alethea’s mouth watered as she took a bite of the bread. Chewing slowly, with her eyes closed, she seemed determined to treasure every ounce of heavenly flavor drifting across her tongue. Opening her eyes, she looked around. Everyone in the common room was watching her with restless anticipation. The children’s smiles of excitement, as they awaited her stories, mingled with the expressions of others just happy to see her. These moments made the entire trip - the rain, the paddling, and the cold - worthwhile.
She continued eating until, at last, the wet chill of the weather left her bones. In younger days, she could simply shrug off such harsh conditions. Yet, as years passed, she discovered her body no longer handled adversity with the same ease. Not that she was old. She was only in her mid-thirties. Soft delicate skin and long brown hair gave the impression of even greater youth. But years of traveling had taken their toll, even if they didn’t show.
Handing the empty plate and the mug to a young man, who rushed to refill them, she rocked backward in her chair, gazing at the expectant faces. The tension grew as they awaited her next move.
Leaning forward, with slow, deliberate movements, she lifted the wet green bundle off the floor beside her. The crowd followed every gesture, shifting anxiously in their seats. Repressing a laugh at their breathless anticipation, she untied the course leather drawstrings, flinging the sides open with a flourish. Gasps of astonishment rose from the onlookers as they gazed at the dry contents beneath - contents which, only a few minutes before, had been sitting submerged in the bottom of a water-filled boat. Alethea smiled at their surprise. They had no way of knowing the cloth was enchanted. No water or weather could penetrate its folds.
A small wooden lute lay in the middle. Alethea heard the shuffling of excited children, and even a few adults, as she rested the lute in her lap, strumming the cords. Though still firm, the strings were a little off key. Humming to herself, she tightened them until, at long last, each note was pitch perfect. She looked out at the audience and grinned.
“So,” she asked. “What story do you want to hear today?”
“Tell us the story of the Averbach Troll!” shouted one child.
“Nah, tell us the story of Jessica,” shouted another child.
“I wanna to hear the ‘Legend of the Chronomancer’,” shouted a third kid over the rest of the crowd.
“Me too!” joined another.
There were other recommendations but ultimately everyone agreed upon the ‘Legend of the Chronomancer’. She wasn’t surprised. The story was popular with her audiences. Other bards and minstrels avoided the story or only knew parts of the legend. She was one of the few who knew the whole tale and the even fewer who didn’t fear telling it.
“Well, if you want to hear the story of the Chronomancer, you know what you need to do,” she said in a hushed whisper, bending low toward the children.
Several kids leapt to their feet. Half of them raced to the windows, sealing each pane and bolting every shutter. Others ran to the doors, securing them with keys and planks before racing back to sit at her feet. Soon there was no air passing through the room and no light, except for the flickering fire. A dark oppressive atmosphere gripped the chamber. Alethea increased the tension by strumming several gloomy chords.
Closing her eyes, she drew energy from the air, her body stiffening as though an invisible fist squeezed the cabin. Muttering several slow repetitive phrases, no one else understood, she released the energy outward. The listeners thought she was just setting a tone. They didn’t know the words were a spell.
The spell wasn’t difficult. She was, at best, only a neophyte in the magical arts, who, over the years, had learned a few random charms to aid her story telling. Still, the spell served her purposes. The room grew darker in response to her magic. The light of the fire, though fierce as ever, became barely sufficient to illuminate the face of the nearest onlooker. Only Alethea remained clearly outlined, the flames giving her features an eerie expression as her tale began.
“Evil times haunted Zarethea. The world’s largest empire, Lamoria, lay on the brink of civil war. The death of King Daveen by a Moravian assassin left King Aldon battling his power crazed relatives for control of the throne. Lamoria’s arch nemesis, Moravia, also struggled, its wealthy merchants helpless before armies of Reigan raiders and the mysterious influx of monsters streaming from the Cackature Mountains. While the isolated city of Nextrak lay quietly inside its strange imprisonment, the neutral kingdom of Mystas remained the lone beacon of peace in the growing storm. Yet, even within this tranquil haven, a dark undercurrent threatened to plunge the world into an abyss from which it would never rise. Amid this cesspool of building evil emerged the one man capable of preventing the world’s inevitable demise.”
Her music grew softer and the waning day grew darker as she plunged into the story.