WARNING: Other players should not read this until Chapter 1 is complete.
Toria looked up at at the imposing figure looking down at her and trembled. Somehow she managed to keep her wits about her enough to try and think of something that might keep the man from sending her far enough away that she couldn’t be found. They were stealing medical supplies, so maybe they could use the help of someone who knew what to do with them?
She drew in a shaky breath and spoke, “Th-those supplies you were taking? I know how to use them if you… if you have any sick or injured people. I’ve had some training.”
Jagger grunted at Toria and grumbled to his siblings, “She’s from the Hall, even worse”.
His intense green eyes never left the girl, “You could earn your keep here, sure enough, but we both know you’ll be a good little thrall and go squeaking back to your betters first chance you get”.
A flash of fear went through Toria and she tried to not fall to pieces in front of the man. He wasn’t wrong, she would try to get away as soon as possible, but she also remembered Master Valora’s words to her in the Turnover letter she sent.
She nodded and gave a half shrug, “Please, if you need help… I’ll, I’ll do it. You must have taken those supplies for a reason. If there are people here that are sick or injured, it’s my duty to help. Please don’t sell me.”
Toria’s voice wobbled at the end, unable to contain her fear at the thought of being sold, like cattle, to a stranger.
Jagger’s impressive eyebrows furrowed as he regarded the young Healer. “What happens after that?” he asked gruffly. “You go back to them who own you now, set the guards on us, and then keep studying ’til they give you leave to sell yourself?”
Anger coursed through Toria, briefly overriding the fear she felt. “They don’t own me! I’m choosing to study to be a Healer and help those who need it! Maybe people here need it.” She paused, unsure, “Stealing from supplies bound for Fort Hold is wrong, but… maybe you can work something out if you really need some of them?”
Jagger looked like he wanted to slap Toria but restrained himself with some effort. His voice was quiet but filled with anger, “Work something out? Are you daft, girl? We’re not vassals, we’re not permitted to work anything out…“
The black-haired woman laughed darkly, “She doesn’t see it, she’s just a child. She only knows what they’ve told her. You’re wasting your time.” She patted Toria on the head like a child might pet a puppy. “What a good girl. So loyal, so trusting.”
Toria wasn’t sure if the black-haired woman was trying to manage her brother’s temper, just being condescending, or perhaps both, but either way, she was not inclined to make Jagger any more angry. She looked between the woman and Jagger and put on what she hoped was a ‘woe is me’ look and spoke quietly, “I’m sorry, I don’t understand. What don’t I see? Please… just tell me how I can help.”
[Skill check: Acting 6 (IQ-5 default), rolled 13.]
[Attribute check: IQ 11, rolled 8.]
Jagger was clearly unmoved by Toria’s words, perhaps not convinced of her sincerity. She could almost see the gears turning in his mind.
The woman took Toria by the arm and gave her a stern look. “You can help by not running off and making me send the canines after you,” she warned before turning to Jagger. “I’ll put her to work,” she assured him as she led Toria away.
Toria could feel Jagger’s eyes digging into her back.
“If you’re smart, girl,” the woman began once they were out of earshot of the men, “You won’t cause any trouble. And don’t start with that ‘I just want to help‘ prattle. I’m taking you to Dezzie, she’s the eldest and she won’t tolerate any foolishness.”
Toria was led into a rough-hewn living cavern inside the cliff face. The air smelled smoky and the walls near the hearth were discolored by a thin layer of soot. The light was dim despite several glow baskets, probably due to the oddly vaulted ceiling. Several more people in simple clothing were busy with chores but stopped to stare openly at her.
Toria was dragged in front of an older woman, not the plump, neat Headwoman that one might find at a Hold, but a formidable woman with long, grey hair, sturdy work clothes, and rough hands. She looked Toria up and down, then raised an eyebrow and waited for an explanation.
“We found this one following us from the stash cave,” Toria’s captor began, “She’s a holdbound milksop, but she claims to be an Apprentice from Healer Hall.”
Toria clenched her jaw at the woman’s words, but said nothing. She looked around the cavern with curious eyes before looking back at Dezzie. Some part of her was just grateful to not be in front of Jagger any longer. He scared her more than anyone ever had before. What were he and the woman talking about earlier, what didn’t she get? Also, what was with his talk of people owning her and selling herself? He seemed bitter over something, she just didn’t quite know what.
Dezzie’s words were surprisingly mild. “Oh now, she can’t be that bad,” she replied, “She followed you lot instead of rabbiting back to her Hall.”
The cothold’s matron turned to Toria, “I’m Dezzie and this one’s Runa. What’s your name, child?”
Startled at the woman’s words, it took her a moment to reply, “Toria, ma’am.”
Dezzie smiled, “That’s a proper cotholder’s name. You’re not Hall-bred, are you. Where are you from?”
Toria shook her head and replied, “No, I’m from Katz Field.”
Toria heard shuffling and noticed that several people were trying to eavesdrop on the conversation. When one teen locked eyes with Toria, he quickly went back to cleaning a row of leather boots.
“I know that place,” Dezzie assured her, “I’ve kin out that way. So tell me, Apprentice Toria, why did you follow our wagon? Did you have a plan or were you just too curious for your own good?”
Toria considered her options. For all that the older woman seemed kindly and trustworthy, she didn’t want to give away too much. She settled on the bare-bones truth.
“Not much of a plan, no. I was curious why the medical supplies were in the cave out in the middle of nowhere.”
Runa watched Toria carefully, standing slightly behind the girl with her hands on her hips, the disapproval plain on her face.
Dezzie asked, “Your parents must be very proud of you, a proper Apprentice. Are they craftsfolk, too?”
“No, they’re not craftsfolk. They learned from their parents how to tend animals,” Toria replied, trying to keep her answers simple.
Dezzie patted Toria’s arm. The gesture would have been affectionate from a relative, but from a stranger it was a bit uncomfortable. “So you’re the first in your family to make it to a Hall. Well done,” she praised the girl. “You know, Tarrik was smart enough for training, but no Hall would take him. He was born to me here at Spearstone, you see.”
Toria started, “You’re his mother?” Taking that in for a moment, she ventured a question of her own, “So, have you lived here in uh, Spearstone long? It’s rather far out from the Hold. Is that on…. purpose?”
Dezzie asked Runa to pull up chairs by the hearth and gestured for Toria to join her. “Well, child, Spearstone used to be a gypsum mine. It’s a mineral, it makes fertilizer and chalk and other useful things. Back then, everyone was beholden to Fort.”
Runa brought Dezzie a pillow for her back and a mug of klah, no longer scowling at Toria.
“We tithed as the Lord Holder demanded. Most of our work was for the Hold, not much for ourselves. We did alright, I suppose. I was about your age back then,” Dezzie reminisced. “When the mine ran out, what little we got from the Hold stopped, too. The Lord Holder told us to tithe or move to another cothold and live under someone else’s roof.”
Dezzie sighed sadly and sipped her klah. “My Da’ had too much pride in him for that. He wasn’t about to take orders from a younger man, a stranger, and take his family away from everything we’d built. So that was it, no tithe, no Hold… and when you’re holdless, you’re not allowed to trade with anyone beholden.”
Toria frowned at Dezzie’s story. She hadn’t thought about the plight of the holdless very much before. It seemed unfair that they had been punished for something that wasn’t their fault. Still, they had taken medical supplies belonging to Fort Hold. That was wrong… wasn’t it?
“I’m sorry, that sounds awful unfair,” she responded, because what more could she say? It would probably just get her called a holdbound milksop again.
Dezzie nodded, “We think so, too. It took a Turn or two, but we found other ways to make ends meet. My boys aren’t Hall-trained but they’re good with their hands. So, about the goods in the cave…”
Runa stepped in front of Toria, hostility visible in her body language. “Plenty of folk don’t want to live like a thrall. They want to chose their work and get fair reward for their labor. They want to be free!”
Dezzie leveled an icy glare at Runa until she sat back down. She smiled as she turned back to Toria. “Runa isn’t wrong, not everyone gets to choose their craft, but here’s the crack in your shell. Those folk get us the goods you saw. Kind folks that know fair’s fair. If you went back and made a fuss, they’d get in trouble. Your Hall would be shamed before the Hold. And what do you suppose they’d do to Jagger, Tarrik, and Runa? They’d beat them within an inch of their lives and turn them out the gate, that’s what. And all to keep their old Ma’ and Da’ from falling ill.”
Toria listened to the woman’s words while chewing on her lip. On the one hand, she made a compelling point. On the other, they were still taking supplies that weren’t theirs to take and might result in people not getting the treatment they needed for what ailed them. And why would Healer Hall be shamed? There had to be some solution to this problem that didn’t involve supplies being stolen!
“But…” Toria furrowed her brow as she thought hard, “There has to be something that can be done to help you without resorting to stealing!”
Runa snorted, “Oh does there, does there have to be a way, really? Yes, we can just talk it out, why didn’t we think of that?” Sarcasm dripped from her voice. “I told Jagger,” she said, turning to Dezzie, “She’s a thrall.”
Dezzie held up a hand to silence Runa again. “Toria, tell me this… if our friends made the supplies and sent them to us, is it really stealing? They only hid them because it’s against the rules to help us.”
Toria glared at Runa and turned her attention to Dezzie. “I suppose not,” she said slowly.
Dezzie continued, “They’re told to make a hundred bandages and give away ninety but they don’t want to, they want to send twenty five to us, but that means they’re not tithing as they should. So you see, if they put the bandages in a crate and the crate gets stolen, they’re not at fault.”
Toria nodded in understanding, not quite able to get rid of the feeling of wrongness, but also heeding the older woman’s words and feeling sympathy for the plight of those who have found themselves holdless.
“I think I get it,” she said quietly.
Dezzie rewarded Toria with a warm smile and said to Runa, “You see, she’s a smart girl, they don’t take idiots as Apprentices.” Dezzie had one more question for Toria. “Our friends at the Hall are kind people. You might know some of them. Would you want to see any of your friends beaten and made holdless for helping them who are?”
Toria pondered Dezzie’s question for a long moment, giving it much thought in her head. If all that the woman had told her was true, it struck her as indeed unfair to punish those trying to help the holdless merely try to live. Master Valora wished for her to have sympathy and understanding and this seemed one of those moments to her young mind.
“No ma’am, I wouldn’t,” she said, looking Dezzie firmly in the eyes.
Dezzie clasped her hands together and beamed, “Thank you, Toria. I could tell straight away you’ve a good heart. I’m so happy I won’t have to worry about soldiers beating my brave boys down. They take an awful risk looking out for their kin.” She turned to Runa, “Tell Tarrik to hook up the cart and take Toria back to where she wandered from.”
Runa’s eyes narrowed as she regarded Toria with mistrust. “Yes, Ma’,” she answered quietly. She reached for Toria’s arm but stopped short. “Come with me,” she commanded.
Toria felt tears of relief well up in her eyes as she got up. She reached in her bag and took out the vial she had put in it earlier, offering it to Dezzie. “Here, I… took this out of the crates earlier, in case it came in handy. Do you…” she paused, trying to find the words, “I mean, if I wanted to help at the Hall, who could I go to?”
Runa stopped and turned back to regard Toria with surprise.
Dezzie stood up and hugged Toria gently, “I couldn’t ask that of you, dear child. Someday, when you’re older, you can decide for yourself. If you’re ever in need of a home, you know where to find us.”
“Thank you,” Toria replied.
Runa caught Toria’s attention and nodded towards the tunnel leading outside. As they stepped back into the sunlight, Runa asked, “Did you mean it? You’d help us?”
Wincing at the sun in her eyes after having adjusted to the dark of the cavern, Toria nodded. “I don’t know what I can do, but… people suffering because they’re unable to tithe a Hold seems wrong.”
Runa looked thoughtful. She found Tarrik stacking empty crates in the barn. The mountain-bred man was taken aback at the news of Toria’s return home.
It wasn’t long before Toria was riding beside Tarrik in a five-by-five cart made of old pallets and scrap lumber. He stank of sweat. The dreybeast seemed much happier pulling the light load. It moved swiftly over the rough terrain. Toria couldn’t find a comfortable way to sit with all the bumps and wobbles.
Toria quietly watched the scenery pass by as the cart moved along the uneven ground without really seeing it, having gone between in thought. She’d faced the very real possibility of some awful fate and was relieved beyond words to be heading back towards Healer Hall. Had she bought into an elaborate ruse or been misled? She didn’t think so, but she couldn’t be entirely sure. The whole situation seemed to be as faceted as dragon eyes and it made her question some things she hadn’t before.
She knew there were holdless people, but until now, she’d thought of them as shifty, no good criminal types. Dezzie made her want to reevaluate that assumption. What were people to do when fortunes turned and they had few or no options for tithing to the Hold?
Toria shook her head to get herself back in the present. Looking over at Tarrik, she asked a question she was most curious about, “So… was Jagger really going to sell me to his cousin?”
Tarrik regarded Toria and asked, “Do you think you’re worth a draybeast?” His expression was difficult to read beneath the full beard and windblown hair in desperate need of a cut.
Toria gave the man a wry look as a small grin found its way onto her face, “You know, I’ve never thought about that before! I’d like to think so, but…” she paused, sobering up as she thought about the people of Spearstone and even her own family at the cothold, “animals can also be a big help to those who need it.”
Tarrik sat in silence for a few moments, rocking back and forth gently to the sway of the cart behind the plodding dreybeast. “Once you’re a Senior Journeyman, you can live anywhere you want. Most people can’t. You’ll have to haggle over what you’re worth. Don’t sell yourself cheap. You aren’t free but… you’re still worth more than a dreybeast, or at least you could be,” he offered as advice, staring off down the road ahead.
Toria felt like she’d been socked in the stomach at Tarrik’s words. She blinked several times as she sucked in a breath as she looked at Tarrik with a shy smile before quickly looking over at the passing scenery. This was not at all how she’d seen things ending when she’d first been discovered. Not at all.
“Thanks,” she managed to get out. “I um, I come out this way to pick Needlethorn sometimes, so… if you ever need anything small enough for me to be able to do, you could leave a note in the cave or something.”
After a bit of silence, Toria recalled something Dezzie had mentioned to her and she looked over at the shaggy haired man beside her. “Dezzie mentioned you could’ve been trained, but no Hall would take you. What would you have been trained in? Why wouldn’t they teach you, just because you were holdless?”
Tarrik nodded once, “You’d get more help if you were diseased than holdless. Derrok says I’m a fair blacksmith. I like working with fire and hammers.”
Toria burst out, “But that’s not fair! It’s not your fault the mines dried up and your family didn’t want to move from their home. It’s not right you can’t get trained in a Hall because of that.”
Toria felt helpless in that moment, not being old enough or experienced enough to know how to solve this problem. Ideas swirled in her mind, most of them likely amounting to nothing.
Tarrik replied, “Does no good to bellyache. Just go where you’re told, do what you’re told, don’t question how things are done, and you’re welcome. It’s easy to be a thrall when you’re fat and happy. Not everyone can live that way. Someone gave you a choice, you didn’t earn it yourself. Who was it?”
Chewing on her lip, Toria responded to Tarrik’s question, “The Healer in Katz Field, she started training me when I showed I had an interest in, and the stomach for, healing. She recommended me to the Hall. But without my parents sending me to foster at Katz Field, I wouldn’t have even had the opportunity.”
Tarrik scritched his beard, “Sounds like you owe that Healer quite a debt.”
Nodding in agreement, Toria softly said “Yeah, I think I do.”
She’s always appreciated what Master Valora had done for her, but it really started to sink in just how her life path had been altered by the Healer. Her life could have looked very different with just a few changes. She wouldn’t be wasting this opportunity.
She gave Tarrik the location of the Needlethorn she had scented earlier in the day. She would have to harvest it and run back to the Hall so as not to miss curfew by too long.
A thought occurred to Toria after a few minutes of thinking and she turned to Tarrik. “When I eventually get sent out somewhere as a Journeyman, is there a way that you know of to… find holdless communities like Spearstone? If I wanted to offer my services as a Healer that is.”
Tarrik shrugged, “There are always rumors. You can find a few talking to traders at any Gather, if you don’t spook them.”
Tarrik followed Toria’s directions to the field of dormant Needlethorn. He stopped the cart well away from the prickly plants, just in case a few were still dangerous. A painfully poisoned dreybeast would be even more dangerous. “I guess I don’t have to tell you,” he said in parting, “If you hurt my family, there will be vendetta between us.”
Getting off the cart and adjusting her satchel she looked up at Tarrik and nodded. “I won’t, not if I can help it.” Holding out her her hand towards him, she said, “Thanks for bringing me back. Take care.”
Tarrik’s handshake was strong, dirty, and far from what Toria expected when they first met. She watched as he drove the cart to a nearby pond, watered the dreybeast, and then disappeared over the next rise.
As soon as Tarrik left, Toria heaved a deep breath, exhaled, and walked with purpose toward the Needlethorn, already scoping out likely bushes to safely harvest from. Dropping her satchel, she got out her gardening gloves and got to work. The process required more focus than most herb harvesting, but even still, her mind wandered to the events of the day. She went from thinking she was going to die or be sold into slavery to realizing that there were some people who, through no fault of their own, found themselves holdless.
She didn’t know what she could do now, other than stop by the cave to check for notes or leave donations when she was out on harvesting trips. She could also crochet some scarves for the cold winters.
Her words to Tarrik earlier were the beginning of an idea in Toria’s mind. Maybe when she was a Journeyman and traveling to various places, in addition to helping those at the Holds, she could seek out the holdless, offering supplies or medical care as needed.
Toria eventually harvested enough Needlethorn for Master Rentin and after securing the barbs in her satchel, she looked up into the sky and sighed. The sun had just gone down and it was starting to get dark. Breaking into a jog, she made for Healer Hall.
[Attribute check: HT 10, rolled 13.]
She was forced to take several breaks, her breath coming in sharp bursts and her sides in stitches. Eventually, about an hour after curfew, Toria made it to Fort Hold. She made for her dorm and only Madi was still up, probably having recently come back from spending time with her Harper boyfriend.
“Where were you? It’s not like you to be out so late!” Madi said, with a touch of concern in her voice.
Toria grimaced and lifted her satchel, “Master Rentin asked if I would harvest some Needlethorn. I fell on my way back and twisted my ankle enough I had to rest for a few hours. Barely hurts now. I’m pretty exhausted, so I’ll see you in the morning!”
Madi nodded and Toria made for her room.
Toria threw on some sleep clothes and grabbed the wherry claw, which had something of a calming effect on her. Out of almost nowhere, the stress of the day caught up with her and Toria started crying. Crying for thinking she was going to die, crying for the people of Spearstone and other holdless, crying for trying to look strong when she felt weak. She cried herself to sleep and slept deeply that night.