Journal

Dark Secrets Player’s Journal

Cast of Characters

Ember (Bob): 16 years old, lives in farming area, father built mining supports, parents deceased
Osreth (Dan): ? years old, lives in NWN mines area, miner who survived a recent collapse in one of the mines
Proffit (Chad): 22 years old, travels across the world, trader with a good reputation and solid credit, literate
Nera (Kylie): 20 years old, lost her mother at 4, lost her father at 19, lives at Brenda’s in Coaltown, literate
Jeremy Lannion (Paul G.): ? years old, farmer from the well-respected Lannion family
Mallion (Paul C.): 17? Years old, lives in farming area, treats Ember almost as a younger sister, wild at heart
John Bentham (Alex): 48 years old, has a bad leg, loves to tell stories, knows Irwin
Irwin (Rod): 15 years old, engagingly curious, has a mysterious lock of coppery hair, respects his Aunt Jo
Tybrus (Robin): ? years old, hunts in the northeastern woods and foothills, seems to follow his own agenda
Xavier (Kevin): 25 years old, comes from a respected family in Bridgetown, sees himself as a guardian

Unexpected Gathering in Coaltown [Year 12, Days 65 to 75]

Tybrus, for reasons entirely mysterious to everyone else, had been traveling since before the most recent moon across the farmlands on his way to a meeting he spoke only haltingly about. He met up with John and Irwin who, for their own reasons, had agreed to travel together to Coaltown. The three of them agreed to travel the few-days’ trek across Bridgetown, around the south of the Dark Woods, and into Coaltown. None of them had been to Coaltown before. They arrived late on day 75.

Osreth had been in Coaltown for a few days, with some of his mining friends, drinking away much of their remaining credit, but also in celebration of the lives of the miners that were lost in the recent collapse. Nera lives in Coaltown, has a room at Brenda’s, and had some interest in Osreth and his circumstances because she herself was born and raised in a mining town (Osreth is from the poorer north mines, Nera was from the better-off south mines, though these are relative terms—in absolute terms, almost all mining towns are places of poverty). Nera’s mother Amelia was killed in a mine collapse in the east south mines in the previous Year 23.*

* The world calendar is a 27-year cycle that repeats; since most people don’t live through more than three such cycles, it’s common to refer to the years as the previous, current and next year. It is currently Year 12, so previous Year 23 was 16 years ago (and next Year 23 will be 38 years from now, while the current Year 23 will be 11 years from now).

Mallion and Jeremy were traveling together from the farms to Coaltown to make deliveries for their families. Ember has heard about the collapse in the mines and wanted to investigate since people might think that one of the reasons for the collapse was some error in her father’s work. This would damage his reputation and therefore her reputation. She didn’t believe his work was the problem, but she needed to see it for herself. Since Mallion was traveling at the same time, the timing was convenient. On the trail there, they met up with Proffit, a respectable trader they all had met before. And, since traveling in groups is usually preferable and safer to traveling alone, they trekked as a group. This group also arrived on day 75.

Xavier did not travel to Coaltown, but was in Bridgetown when each of the other groups (not including Nera or Osreth) traveled through Bridgetown on their ways to Coaltown. There is so much traffic through Bridgetown that Xavier doesn’t usually pay much attention to the folks who don’t raise suspicion. However, in this case, he remembers John, Irwin and Tybrus because they seemed so unusual as a traveling group. First, foothill hunters don’t usually come through Bridgetown, second, Irwin was a bit chattier than most (which is always suspicious), and third, John clearly was suffering from pain in his leg and this stood out. The groups were moving, separately and without knowledge of one another, quickly from Eastside to Westside and, as is the norm, passed through Centertown (where Xavier works) on their way through. This happened on day 72.

Scuffle in Coaltown [Year 12, Day 76]

The various characters either witnessed or were thereafter affected by a scuffle in the streets in Coaltown. Lieutenant Jasper was engaged in a heated argument with Carla and Marcus. Lt. Jasper, folks later learned, is a lieutenant of the East South Mine; Carla and Marcus are partners who run a very nice establishment in Eastside (the eastern and wealthier part of Bridgetown) known as the Dappled Inn.

Apparently the Dappled Inn had purchased a wagon-load of high-quality coal but at least one bag was mislabeled and contained lower-quality coal. By their reasoning, Carla and Marcus were owed a 20% difference and were there to get restitution. By Lt. Jasper’s reasoning, if there were some kind of problem it wasn’t his to solve. He’s just a lieutenant for the ES Mine (which, admittedly, is where the higher quality coal passes on its way from the top-quality mines south of there on its way to Coaltown for processing and distribution). He didn’t see this as his problem and didn’t seem at all interested in helping them solve their problem (which, some of the characters later learn, could probably have been dealt with more efficiently through the warehouse supervisor, but perhaps, as the characters also later learned, the warehouse supervisor wasn’t available at the time and didn’t have a proxy authorized to handle the dispute).

The fiasco eventually led the various visitors to Coaltown to come together, and to meet Nera and Osreth, despite their otherwise varying reasons for being in town (with the exception of Tybrus who, again, was engaged in other tasks and seemed otherwise only tangentially interested in what was happening). When Ember learned that Osreth was from the mining area she needed to investigate, she was interested in traveling with him back to those northern mining towns. Before then, she and the others did some exploratory work in Coaltown and came to understand about how the coal trade (and other things) operate in the cities. They decided to travel, mostly as a massive group, to the west north and north west north mines to learn more about the collapse and also to assure themselves that the coal that had been delivered to Carla and Marcus really was from those mines. (Osreth could have assured them that it was, but he seemed distracted the entire time—probably from an admixture of grief and drunkenness.)

Exploring the North and West Mines [Days 77 to 79]

As some of the characters explored the areas around the West North Mine and then the North West North Mine they discovered that most of the homes are in terrible shape, and most of the people are obviously poor and suffering. It didn’t take long for Ember to discover that the collapse was not in fact caused by any of the work her father had done, and some of the other members of the group decided they wanted to investigate the area below the surface but above the site of the collapse. A full day of digging without getting anywhere was enough to persuade them that, whatever the problems were, they weren’t worth pursuing.

Return to Coaltown [Days 80 and 81]

Most of the characters returned to Coaltown by traveling on Day 80 and a bit of Day 81. While in Coaltown, resting at Brenda’s, Alan came into the establishment, ordered a whiskey, and then promptly said to Jeremy “I don’t know what you said, but it worked. Supervisor Grady told me to tell you that the Dappled Inn situation has been resolved, that Carla and Marcus have been properly compensated and restored, and that there’s no need to pursue the matter further.” No one was quite sure what to make of the fact that Alan, of all people, needed a whiskey before telling Jeremy that, but some of them speculated that Grady might have been upset about the whole situation and Alan recognizes that if things go sideways there could be trouble.

Out of Coaltown [Day 81]

Tybrus never stopped in Coaltown but instead stayed on the road to make it to the East South Mine by dark. He made that choice because of reasons that he kept to himself. While he was in the northern mines with the rest of the party, he mostly kept to himself.

Everyone else decided, after the rather showy display by Alan, to get on the road right away and get to Bridgetown to verify Alan’s story with Carla and Marcus themselves.

On the Road to Bridgetown [Days 81 to 84]

The larger party (now to include John again, eager to get back to the farms), spent a few days trekking south of the Dark Woods and to Bridgetown. There was evidence of other travelers (such as at the two common campsites south of the woods) but the party didn’t encounter anyone (which isn’t unusual). The group did enjoy the clear night sky on the night of Day 83, as it was a new moon. Some of them thought about friends or family back home, since people often choose not to work on moon days. Perhaps, some of them thought, they didn’t meet people on the road because they were traveling so near a moon day.

On the Road to East South Mine (Tybrus) [Days 81 and 82]

Tybrus’s trek to East South Mine was uneventful. He was surprised when he arrived on the outskirts of town that it was so much better than the northern mines. The houses, inn, livery and other establishments seemed to be very sturdy and of high quality (at least, they were comparable to those in Coaltown). Tybrus began to get some of the information he was after.

Explosion at East South Mine (Tybrus) [Day 83]

While at the livery, Tybrus noted all the horses became startled. Shortly afterward, people from town were running in the direction of the local mine. Tybrus headed to the inn to get a sense of what was happening when he met Steve, the man who runs the inn, and later Hal, the man who oversees the livery (but who was busy when Tybrus had been there earlier). Steve was friendly and had more information for Tybrus. He was also, however, aware that dark times were in East South Mine’s future since the explosion seemed to be very, very bad indeed. Tybrus borrowed a horse and took off west of town. He returned later (having gotten the information he was after), and proved himself reputable to Hal and Steve.

While traveling, Tybrus overheard a name, Mikkel, that he’d heard while in the East South Mine town. Tybrus made some other contacts and gathered some more information pertinent to his own private affairs, but the information he gained, ultimately, led him to track Mikkel. Mikkel, he’d learned, was a trader who was traveling with a cart and a donkey. The trail led into Westside (the westernmost portion of Bridgetown).

In Bridgetown [Day 84]

Coming into Westside, Irwin noted again a terrible smell. Mallion pointed out it was the tannery. The Westside of Bridgetown has more of the craftspeople whose work requires use of the river than is the case with the Eastside, because of the differences in the strength of the flow and the depth of the river when it splits around Bridgetown. The Centertown area is really a bustling place of daytime activity that mostly dies down in the evening. Almost no one is in Centertown after dark (except sometimes during some of the hibernal periods when so much of the day is in darkness). At any rate, the party passed through town quickly because they were eager to meet Carla.

At the Dappled Inn, a child named Melda (Esmerelda, they learned later) greeted them and did a fine job making sure they found a table. Melda was striking in that she was very dark-skinned and had nearly black hair. (The only other person they’d met with similar features was Marcus, who is a co-owner of the Dappled Inn, but no one seemed to consider this fact.)

Another person, Joni, a woman about Ember’s age, but with honey-colored instead of red hair, arranged for the party to have food brought to them, and fetched Carla.

Carla confirmed the report given by Alan, and told Jeremy that, in thanks for his help, the meal would be free. While the party enjoyed their meal, they overheard tales about the explosion in the East South Mine (and this was the first itme they’d heard about it). Nera was saddened to hear of the passing of a crew leader named Jim who, she realized, was her mother’s friend many years ago (and someone she sometimes visited in the years in between since her father was also a friend of Jim’s). They also learned of someone named Frank (who Nera didn’t know) who was the crew leader who was scheduled to be in the mine that day, and that Frank was taking this rather hard. They also heard of a community elder named Hersh who, it seems, was well-respected in town (Nera didn’t know him either, but then she hadn’t really lived in the East South Mine for over a decade), and who died in the explosion. Apparently, about 20 people were killed, and the news of it had spread all the way to Bridgetown fairly quickly. Interestingly, Ember also heard a couple of people mention the name Mikkel, and by the sounds of things, he’s someone “of interest” to some of the folks in East South Mine.

Trailing Mikkel [Day 85]

Whether together or not, at least some of the members of the large party, in addition to Tybrus, have reason to find out more about Mikkel. The party doesn’t know anything about him. Tybrus knows he’s a trader. The party is unaware that Tybrus is in Bridgetown, and Tybrus is unaware that the party is in Bridgetown, but it’s reasonably likely that they’ll run into each other on Day 85 at some point.

By the common calendar, Day 85 is the first day of the Autumnal Season (Day 84 was the last day of the Serotinal Season). Everyone expects the Autumnal Starshower will begin on Day 101. Everyone also knows that, by the time of the red starshower, most days are crisp and cold and sometimes by the end of that starshower, some of the northern farms (and some of the hills) have already had a snowfall (though it’s a rare thing indeed that such an early snow would accumulate or last more than a day).

A Day in the Rain [Day 86]

Ember, Mallion and Irwin had decided at the end of the previous day that even though Mikkel was suspicious, they all had personal matters that were more pressing. In particular, Ember and Mallion wanted to get back to home and family as there was work there to do, and Irwin wanted to check on Aunt Jo.

No one knew which direction Mikkel had gone, though everyone suspected he’d gone northeast, which is the same direction Ember, Mallion and Irwin had to travel, so most agreed to at least leave together after an early breakfast.

The morning was dreadful. Thunderstorms had swept in late at night, waking the light sleepers and preventing them from getting a full night’s rest. The wind and rain by themselves wouldn’t have been so bad, but they brought some of the nearby foul odors with them. In addition, the rain left everything drenched and muddy, and the wind scattered debris—mostly bits and pieces from trees in the area—all throughout Bridgetown. Those with the hardiest appetites ate breakfast despite the smells, some of the others chose instead to wait until they were far enough from Bridgetown to eat on the road.

A few hours after they’d left Bridgetown, about halfway to Aunt Jo’s, Nera and Osreth realized that they both knew Hersh after all—indirectly, it turned out. Hersh was probably the oldest person that either of them would have known—he was the grandfather to several grandchildren, all of whom had died since 10*.

*It’s common here to refer to years by a number between 1 and 27; after Year 27, another Year 1 starts, and even though some formal people would say “Year 10” most people just say “10” and everyone knows what that means.

The rain had let up somewhat, and it wasn’t raining. But the skies remained gray and the drizzle was relentless.

“Come to think of it, I think that I met Hersh’s daughter and the man she lives with. They were pretty thick.” Osreth didn’t mean to be insulting. It was common enough for above-grounders to underestimate the intellect of the miners, and he was well aware of both this bias and its errors. What he meant was that, even by the standards by which above-grounders used to mistreat miners, these particular people were particularly dense.

“What makes you say that?”

Irwin was just as curious as Nera, and had made sure he was close enough to hear the rest of the conversation, though he didn’t speak.

“I’ve been to Coaltown lots of times,” Osreth nodded to Nera, knowingly.

Nera nodded back. Nera lived there, and generally made the best life she could for herself. Orseth came there around the moons to spent his credits at Tom’s.

“I’m sure it was the daughter’s partner who was there some moons ago. Everyone knew it was him because people just knew about his little boy who’d died mysteriously.”

Nera nodded, remembering.

“The thing is, I’ve seen people struggle with afterdamp and blackdamp and even though some of the other signs weren’t there, it seems close enough to me that maybe there was something like that going on.”

Nera nodded. She had heard of these things, since she spent a fair amount of time around miners, but she had never experienced any of the damps directly.

Irwin didn’t really know what Osreth was talking about, but knew it was something bad.

“If I remember right, he also had lost a nephew and niece.”

“I remember that too,” Nera said in a quieter tone.

“Anyway,” Osreth returned to the point he’d been making, “he was pretty thick. I think maybe he’d been exposed to a damp over and over and it just left him scrambled. Probably killed his kid.”

Irwin thought Osreth’s tone was dismissive and rough, but he didn’t say anything.

“He described his partner’s father, and that matches the description of Hersh that people were talking about yesterday.”

Nera shot him a raised eyebrow.

“You know, well-respected and all that.”

Nera nodded.

Irwin tried to follow the conversation as best he could. A few minutes later he said, “Hersh—the old man who bought the pick from Mikkel, the guy we’re not really following.”

Osreth and Nera both nodded.

Irwin nodded back, indicating thankfulness for their confirmation.

Nightfall came early, partly because the red starshower was only about a moon’s width away, but more because the cloud cover never let up. Fortunately, Aunt Jo was inviting and there was enough room in the house and outbuildings so that no one had to sleep out in the wet.

Returning Home [Day 88] (July 4, 2020)

After a leisurely dry and cool day visiting with Aunt Jo and helping on the farm, Nera and Osreth bid their farewells to the others early in the morning and headed back to Coaltown; they expected to get to Bridgetown by nightfall. Ember, Jeremy and Mallion left for their own families as well, though their destinations were closer and so they left after an early lunch of tubers and nuts. Tybrus and Proffit were also both headed east, though their ultimate destination was much farther away, and so they left with Ember, Jeremy and Mallion, splitting from that trio when they all arrived at the edge of Mallion’s family’s farm. As Tybrus and Proffit were willing to be silent for entire days in one another’s company, they had no problem continuing toward the foothills together, aiming to separate much later after they’d traversed most of the farming regions; they did decide to camp just east of Mallion’s family’s farms though, as darkness was coming and the temperatures were substantially cooler in the days before the autumnal starshower.

John remained with Irwin and Aunt Jo. He didn’t mind helping at the farm. The pace here was slow and there were no expectations that he’d work through or beyond the pain in his leg. He was glad for the break from travel. He had much on his mind, and the farm chores didn’t distract him from his own wandering speculations. Most times, he found himself thinking of his previous nights spent in the outer regions of Bridgetown when he was younger.

Before the unusual group split into pairs or trios, everyone had agreed that whoever Mikkel was, they were unlikely to find him, and it likely wouldn’t amount to much anyway. However, they also agreed that, should any of them learn that he was indeed somehow connected to the explosions and other mishaps in the mines, whoever learned of these things would find ways to get news to the others.

Full Moon [Day 96] (July 4, 2020)

Nera remained in Coaltown after she and Osreth returned to the mining area some days ago. As was typical for the period of a few days around a moonday, Coaltown was bustling with people from the small mining towns in the area, eager to diminish their earned credits with drinks and to laugh away the struggles of spending so much time toiling below ground. As this was also just on the cusp of the red starshower, with a new moon arriving just after those showers, many of the revelers were looking forward to a prolonged period of days of rest from work. This meant more than the usual share of work at Brenda’s but Nera was suited to the tasks.

Osreth had returned to Coaltown with some of his current crew a few nights ago, but hadn’t visited Brenda’s (nor did he usually). Tom’s Saloon was a far more lively establishment than Brenda’s, and Osreth had been there until last night. Last night he spent at the new place, across from Sal’s. Nera hadn’t been there herself, and she was curious to hear from Osreth about it.

The days had grown colder, as they always do just before the autumnal harvests. Sure, there were still some warm days, especially when rain was a couple days off and the air grew sticky. But the last several days had been mostly sunny with those very high, billowy clouds, a sight more usual for the late vernal period than just before the autumnal starshower. Because the skies were mostly bright during the day, they were also nearly cloudless at night and as night was now longer than day, the warmth from the sun never quite restored heat to the land.

“First red shooters ‘r’ gonna be-in-about five nights,” a tipsy older man, drinking alone, shared with Nera as she was wiping down a counter.

“Sure will” she replied with a bit of professional-sounding optimism. She noted his soiled overshirt, stained some years ago with grease, it appeared, and his short, disheveled dark-brown hair. There were more than a few streaks of silver on the hairs on his head, though it was mostly still dark—the color of the bark of most of the trees in the Dark Woods. The stubble on his cheeks and chin was mostly white though. He was probably one of those rare elders who’d made it to his fifty-fourth.

He raised his carved mug, sloshing a bit of the watery drink as he did. “To Harvester!”* he loudly proclaimed before taking another drink.

* As everyone who knows the story “Once There Were Gods” knows, Harvester was to the ancients the god of the autumnal starshowers. He’s usually described as a large, muscular man with coppery and curly hair and a beard to match. It’s still fairly common for the more superstitious folks to say “To Harvester!” when the autumnal starshowers are due.

“To Harvester” Nera replied courteously with a nod. She didn’t mind the slogans and prayers of others, though, like most people she knew, she found saying these things to be nothing more than ceremonial.

“You’ve been here a while, haven’t ya?”

Nera noted that his right eye was closed when he said this. Probably he’d had enough to drink. She reminded herself to mix his next drink with water and not reduce his credits—he wasn’t going to be awake much longer. “I have,” she replied, “Brenda’s given me work for a few years now.”

“She’s a fine one,” he noted, referring to Brenda. “Too young and full of energy for me though.”

Nera smiled. It was true, of course. Brenda was full of energy—one of the most powerful women in Coaltown. But Brenda was older than Nera and so Nera couldn’t quite think of her as young.

The hours passed and miners and some others came and went, or fell asleep in their chairs. Perhaps six hours after the sun had set, Nera fixed the latches on the doors, finished cleaning, and headed to bed. Her room upstairs was far enough away from the snores in the common room that she wasn’t bothered by the noise. As she was falling asleep, she was thinking about the last red starshower she’d spent with her father.

~~

Tybrus and Proffit had walked for many days, moving at the slower pace of the trader. Often, regardless of the weather, Tybrus would leave Proffit for several hours at a time, often moving ahead of the older man, and somehow return from the same direction as if he knew the path the traveling trader would take. Proffit hadn’t considered this strange, assuming that, as the storytellers told, hunters had an uncanny knack for traversing the natural world.

As they’d approached this moonday they’d stayed awake past dark thanks in part to the brightness of the moon on the empty fields. While they were still several days’ travel from the swamps, the eastern mountains continued to grow larger on the horizon and so the wildlife had changed from what it had been when they were deeper in the central farmlands. Out here, still in good farming land but much closer to the forest and hills, birds and game animals were more common by day, and predators more common by night. Thanks to the filling moon, they’d had less to be concerned about than usual, and Proffit’s untethered donkey wasn’t suitable prey for the few wandering beasts.

They arrived at the cluster of homesteads that passed for a town in the middle of an errant rain shower. “Strange,” Proffit had said, glancing up at the rain falling on them.

Tybrus didn’t consider it strange at all that it was raining, and instead found it strange that someone with as much traveling experience as Proffit would say so. He didn’t shrug or speak, keeping his thoughts to himself.

Proffit pointed to a building next to a cooking shed. “Let’s stop there for the moonday. I’ve been through here before; they’re kind folks.”

Tybrus nodded. He agreed with Proffit about the folks there being kind, though he knew this from observing them from afar and not because he’d spent any time with the people. Tybrus preferred to remain outside but was aware of the customs and was mindful of the importance of customs to most other folks in the world.

The cooking shed was a typical for a place like this. It was perhaps 15 feet on each side, with an opening rather than a door, a roof shaped in such a way as to serve as a chimney. Inside there were three stone ovens, each near the center of a wall. There were wooden shelves in the building containing various stone pots, kettles, and other implements for cooking. Each oven had a different kind and size of opening suggesting that each was specialized for its own kind of cooking. Except for the one wooden bucket of coal on the table in the center of the room, the coal for the fires was kept in the nearby coal shed. The families in the area arranged in advance who would be using the shed at what times and for what purposes. The ovens were used to smoke meat after a kill, to dry grains, to boil water for tea or stew, to bake breads or any of the other many things people might use ovens. It was often exceptionally hot in the cooking shed, though the opening to the shed was tall and wide enough that anyone could exit to cooler air without difficulty. There was a river within two miles and several wells in the area, so water was easy to come by.

“Oi! It’s Proffit!” A girl of maybe 5 years was squealing and clapping as she jumped. She must have been with someone who was still in the shed.

Proffit remembered her name, Sara, and her mother’s and father’s and brothers’ names: Jena, Handsome, Fray and River. “Sara!” Proffit called out as they approached. “How nice it is to see you again. And only days before the harvest shower!” Sara ran to the donkey pulling Proffit’s wagon. The donkey took little notice.

“Are Fray and River well? Does Fray still need leggings for the white season?”

Sara nodded though she didn’t know the answer to his question. “Mama’s fixin’ stew.”

“Is she now? I thought that’s what I smelled.”

Tybrus surveyed the area. Most others were working on projects near their homes; no one was in the fields at the moment. The rain hadn’t been strong enough or lasted long enough to drive anyone indoors; he suspected, based on the time of year, that most of the projects that needed attention were about preparing for the upcoming revelry of the harvest shower.

“River and Papa are makin’ arras; Fray’s only watchin’.” Sara walked backward, toward the cabin and cooking shed, reaching up to try to touch the donkey.

Proffit nodded as he walked forward slowly. Fray wasn’t so young that he couldn’t learn about fletching, arrow-making and the like. “River and Papa are makin’ arrows are they?”

“Yep. Fray can’t. Arm don’t work.”

Proffit raised his eyebrows. “Well that’s no good. We need our arms to work.” He smiled at Sara, hoping that the injury wasn’t so bad that the boy couldn’t really use his arm.

“Come see!” Sara excitedly rolled her hand in the air toward herself several times indicating for Proffit to follow her to the small cabin. She took several quick steps backward.

Jena, sweat soaking through a sash wrapped around her head, stepped out from the cooking shed. “That’s enough now Sara. I know you’re excited to see Proffit, but let’s find out why he’s visiting before we share our troubles with him.”

Sara walked over to her mother and stood next to her leg. “I don’t know that other man mama.”

Jena didn’t either, but since he was traveling with an honest trader she had no reason to be suspicious. “I don’t either Sara. Let’s learn his name together.”

Tybrus, who hadn’t remained where he was but also hadn’t moved as close as Proffit had moved, spoke loudly and clearly, “the name’s Tybrus.”

“Well met Tybrus,” Jena said, “I’m Jena and this,” she stroked her daughter’s head, “as you’ve learned from the good trader, is Sara.”

“Well met,” Tybrus nodded. He could feel their welcoming nature and though he preferred the community of other hunters, specifically those of his own dispositions, he was confident he was with trustworthy folks. Farmers who lived within a day’s walk of the swamps were a different sort than the others. These swamps in particular were full of peril; this likely shaped the hearts and minds of the people so near.

“The community is preparing stew and other food for the harvest starshowers,” Jena noted. “There will be more than enough if you’ll be staying that long.”

“If we stay here for the rest of the day, then spend another day of rest,” Proffit gestured upward to indicate that it was a moonday and so resting from travel was customary, “then I’d probably be just leaving the swamps for the forest on the first night of the shower.” He was thinking out loud about his journey. There was a town north of here that he wanted to visit as well, before planning his trek through the swamp. Tybrus would likely join him through the swamp as it was nearly always better to travel in groups, and the donkey wasn’t much of a companion for that. The passage he’d planned to take was the only one in this area that was suitable for a large, slow animal and a wagon anyway. If he were on foot without a wagon, or on one of the few well-trained horses, he could get through the swamp passage in three or four days instead of the six of seven it was likely to take.

“Perhaps we’ll stay tonight and tomorrow and then be on our way.” Tybrus finished Proffit’s thoughts.

Proffit nodded. “Tybrus has it right. We’ll spend the starshower in the northern swamp town instead of here, though we’re honored at the invitation. To Harvester!”

Sara giggled while Jena replied “To Harvester!”

Autumnal Starshower Year 12 [Day 101] (9/20/2020)

The starshowers began for everyone on a cool, mostly cloudless evening. As was often the case, the first streaks, more dull white than even pink, came so fast and far apart that anyone not looking at the darkening pale blue sky would miss them. While twilight wasn’t as long in the red season as it was in the green season, it was still long enough that the full brilliance of the crimson, scarlet and ruby glittering was still a few hours away. If it weren’t a holiday, most children would be dressed for sleeping, probably playing quietly in a loft, as the coal burner was being lit to warm the cabin from the main room where the elders sat. It wasn’t yet cold at this time of day, and nighttime frosts were uncommon until after the red showers, but it was still chilly enough after the sun set that most families could afford to use just a little coal so that no one would be too cold for falling asleep to be uncomfortable.

John had spent a considerable amount of time with Irwin and Jo, getting along just fine and enjoying the pleasant distractions of company. Jo was maybe five years older than John, though as he was one of those people others called an “old soul,” the two of them were peers. Irwin was, if they’d guessed correctly, on his way back from a recent visit with Ember and Mallion. The three of them were more intrigued by the recent adventures in Coaltown and the surrounding area than the others in that group had been, and they were all roughly of the age where adventure was appealing.

“I reckon Irwin will be back before it’s truly dark,” Jo noted as she handed John a stone bowl of stew.

John nodded thanks to Jo as he accepted the bowl, “Likely,” he agreed. Several quiet minutes passed as they ate.

“Which of the showers do you most prefer? Or which did you prefer the most when you were younger?”

He paused, as he usually did, before he replied. “The White” John noted, as he looked up at the sky. He paused and Jo waited for him to continue. “When I was Irwin’s age, I suppose it was the Green, just because they happen during the easiest time of year. I think most folks our age prefer the Red,” he gestured vaguely at the sky since the autumnal showers were just beginning. “I’m not entirely sure why.”

“It’s a mystery,” she agreed, “like the showers themselves.” A few more minutes passed. “Why do you prefer the White?” She paused this time only for a second, “And do you prefer the White, or do you secretly wish for the Gold?”

All the star showers displayed considerable variation in color. In the autumn, the showers were red: very light pink during the early twilight in the first and last days, bright red most of the time, and deep red during the darkest hours of the middle of the shower. In the estival, the showers were green: almost transparently light green just after sunset and just before sunrise at the beginning and end, and deep, dark green in the middle. But when the world is covered in snow and cold, the star showers are a mix of gold and white—more white, most of the time, and by tradition they were referred to as the White showers, but many people preferred the bright gold streaks to the white ones. During the Ruby and Emerald showers, even the very light streaks have color—only during the hiberal are there ever any truly white star showers.

“I prefer White,” John said. “The white steaks make the greatest pronouncement against the blackness of the sky.”

Jo nodded as she finished her own bowl.

A minute later John added, “I understand those who prefer Gold, I really do; and I’ve nothing against their optimism—I find it refreshing, but it’s not me.”

Jo nodded. She waited a while for him to ask her which was her favorite. When it was clear he wasn’t going to ask, she answered anyway. “I still prefer Green.”

John nodded as he continued eating.

“The estival showers last the longest and they’re the most fun.” She was smiling, clearly remembering fond times from earlier in her life.

“That’s true,” John agreed.

A particularly bold streak of coppery red shot low across the sky and they followed it with their eyes. As the last bits of color faded from the dissolving streak, they saw Irwin headed their way from that direction.

~~

As he’d predicted, Proffit was just leaving the swamps for the forest as the first streaks of pink appeared in the sky. “Well that’s it then,” he noted conclusively. He offered Tybrus a handshake.

Tybrus shook Proffit’s hand. The two weren’t so different after all, Tybrus had come to realize. Their age difference wasn’t that great, not really. It was true that when Proffit was Tybrus’s age, Tybrus was only a boy, not yet old enough to hunt on his own, but not so young as to be unable to take care of himself provided there were elders around. Proffit wasn’t nearly as old as the Elder Hunters, and while Tybrus couldn’t imagine himself as one of the Elders he could imagine himself at Proffit’s age. Tybrus had only been a man for a couple of years, able to travel entirely on his own, though not quite old enough to feel confident as a father, should he ever make that choice.

“As we agreed earlier,” Proffit noted, “I’ll send word if I hear anything more about the problems from moons ago in the mines.”

Tybrus nodded, “Same.”

Proffit continued east toward the mountains and Tybrus angled toward the north. “Be well good trader,” Tybrus added as they parted.

“Be well,” Proffit replied. “May the white be one of comfort and not one of hunger.”

Tybrus was familiar with the saying. Hunters and others who lived in the forests, hills and mountains had very different sorts of hazards to overcome in the hibernal, compared to the farmers to the west. He nodded to the trader, “May you be met with the same.”

They parted. It would be very dark in a couple of hours. The red showers were only starting and so the night would only be sparsely interrupted by the twinkling red stars and occasional streaks. If they’d waited a few more days, they’d be passing through this area with a bit more light from the showers. But waiting longer always meant taking greater risks even though neither frost nor snow had yet begun. They’d planned to part with enough time to make their separate destinations after dark but before time to sleep. The region here, where swamp gave way to solid ground, just before the hilly forests, was not quite as perilous just after twilight and before deep darkness. Traders and hunters knew the world well and were suited to its challenges.

Indeed, as the sky darkened and as the streaks became more red and less pink, Proffit recognized the stones and other markers on his path and knew that he’d be to the trader’s cabin with enough time for a meal and some discussion before sleep. He was happy for his choice and patted his donkey’s neck with assurance.

Tybrus was confident his recent traveling partner would be fine. Traders aren’t quite as capable in the vast expanses of the world as hunters, but they’re skilled enough to avoid all but the most extreme dangers. As the skies flashed with occasional bursts of red, Tybrus remembered with fondness the autumnal showers of a few years ago, when the Elders had visited his family. He wondered about the community and how it seemed to have changed recently. His mind remained split in this way—even as his body moved effortlessly through the wilderness, far from anything that others would call a trail, his concentration was on his memories of when he’d been outside of Coaltown so many moons ago, and he’d discovered confusion and concern in those from whom he’s expected clarity.

~~

“To Harvester!”

Osreth leaned against the bar, drink in hand, watching others as they danced, laughed and drank at Tom’s Saloon. Musicians and poets were telling harvest stories set to song. Many other young patrons, like Osreth, were already several drinks into the evening. Some of the older patrons, and those who were notable in Coaltown, were taking it all in stride and were drinking the fermented fruit drinks a bit more slowly than the others.

Despite the merriment, Osreth’s attention wasn’t really on those in the tavern. He was thinking of those he’d been with at last year’s Red Shower who weren’t with him this year. He was remembering the strange trips to the other mining towns with the farmers and others from out east, and he was wondering where they were and what they were doing. People’s lives intersected in strange and often unanticipated ways, and sometimes those same people wouldn’t meet again for another 27.*

* The phrase “another 27” indicates a 27-year period. Since the moons and starshowers repeat in 27-year cycles, and since most people’s lives are measured by these 27-year cycles (with most people living into but not through their second 27), this is a common way of understanding long but meaningful passages of time. To say that something happens “once in a 27” is about the same as saying “once in a generation,” it’s considerably more notable than “once a decade” would be to people for whom decades are common measures of time.

The showers happened just rarely enough that they were strong reminders of loss in people’s lives. Anyone might remember the first full moon after the passing of a friend, but after a short while, the passing of moons were no longer the kinds of markers that the passing of showers were. And, for those who spent their lives above ground, the showers marked the passage of time differently than for the miners. For those who worked in the mines, the showers represented a much greater proportion of time spent above ground than for others. The times of the showers were, for miners, a different kind of break from the daily toils of life. Farmers enjoyed the showers in and around the same fields they worked; miners could spend half a moon** above ground during a shower, a far longer time above ground than for almost any other reason.

** The phrase “half a moon” refers to a period of 5 to 7 days. There are 12 days between a new moon and a full moon, and so “a moon” used to represent a period of time means 12 or 13 days. When “a full moon” means the period of time between full moons (and not the full moon itself), it usually means 24 or 25 days

“Evening Osreth.” A woman’s voice interrupted Osreth’s reflection.

Nera was smiling, cider in hand.

“Evening Nera,” Osreth replied, “I’d have thought you’d be all night at Brenda’s.”

“I’m smart about the days I don’t work,” she replied, still smiling. “Taking it slow?” she asked, noting that his own cup was still mostly full.

“Taking my time,” he noted.

“How’s the new place? Not as fun as Tom’s?”

“It’s alright,” he paused and looked around the saloon. “Not as fun as Tom’s.”

“I wonder what’s become of the farmers and the travelers,” she mused.

“I was just thinking of them. About how strange it is that their lives intersected with mine, right as the lives of some of my friends came to an end in the mines. I was wondering if I’d see them again.”

“I think we will.” Nera took a drink from her cup and then nodded. “Have you been out to see the showers yet?”

“Not yet.”

“There were a few, mostly pink, on my walk over here. Things will probably pick up in a couple of nights. They always do.”

Osreth nodded. “They always do.”

“Nice to see you again Osreth. Keep in touch.” Nera offered to touch her cup to Osreth’s. Osreth obliged.

As their cups struck one another, Osreth nodded once, wishing Nera well with his glance.

Nera smiled, turned halfway, and headed into the crowd.

Autumnal Starshower Year 12 [Day 104] (9/26/2020)

The middle of any starshower is the most active and unless the sky is overcast it’s also the most festive. During the starshowers, children stay up later than usual. This is easiest during the Green Shower because the days are long and the nights are short and everyone knows people are supposed to be awake most of the time anyway—after all, 13 of the 20 hours have light during the green season. The hardest is the White Shower because everybody knows during the white season only about 9 of the 20 hours have light and so people should sleep more.

The Red Shower is the tricky one. Since the days have been getting shorter for a couple of moons by the Red Shower, people are getting used to fewer hours of light—usually it’s about 11 hours during the Red Shower and people’s bodies are preparing to spend more of every 20 hours asleep. Children and the elderly often stay up later than usual, but even they don’t usually stay awake as long as they would during a Green Shower. Some people only sleep during the days during the Green Shower since everybody knows that’s a time of celebration and not work, and besides, when the Green Shower is over, there’s still more than four moons of time until the Red Shower, and that’s a lot of time to work!

So during the Red Showers, mostly people from about the middle of their first 27 until the beginning of their second 27 will stay up for the whole thing. It’s just too hard for others to stay awake. The people whose bodies are almost grown and the people whose bodies have recently stopped growing tall are the people who stay up.

~~

Ember and Mallion were drinking fruit cider, the kind that the younger children don’t like, when they weren’t lying on their backs on the wagon Mallion had fixed in the middle of serotinal. The wagon was far enough away from the homes, cooking sheds and coal sheds that they could smell the autumnal night air mostly undisturbed from the smell of coal or burning coal.

“Do you wonder what Jeremy and Irwin are up to? I wonder what they’re doing.” Ember had been musing on and off since the showers had started, reflecting on events of the previous year, as people often did while they watched the sky twinkle.

“Probably Jeremy is awake right now, watching the same sky we are, drinking cider with his brothers and sisters out in the fields. His folks are probably watching from closer to the house. Irwin is harder to figure out. I bet he’s telling Aunt Jo about something going on in his head and missing out on the sky.”

Ember laughed about Mallion’s description of Irwin. She didn’t know if he was right but she could imagine it. She remembered Jeremy fondly—everyone knew the Lannions, of course, and he was very mature for someone their age, almost more like Nera or Osreth than Mallion or herself. She wondered about that—Jeremy and Irwin were the same age and both just a little younger than she, and yet she thought of Jeremy as a little older than herself and Irwin as much younger. She wondered how their lives and their experiences might have something to do with how old she felt they all were compared to how old they really all were.

Mallion sat up and finished the cider from his wooden mug. “I’ll be back,” he said after he stood up and as he jumped off the wagon and walked into the field further away from the house. Ember refilled their mugs from the small barrel. She noticed she was hungry and so unpacked some of the food they’d brought.

Hours had passed and it was getting quite cold. Others might have found it strange, the two of them lying under a blanket in the wagon under the Red Shower, but they’d been friends their entire lives and were perfectly happy to be in one another’s company despite what anyone else might think about their intentions.

“I wonder about Osreth and Nera,” Ember said, breaking a very long silence.

Mallion had been drifting toward sleep but wasn’t yet there. He mumbled a reply.

“You falling asleep?” she jeered.

“It’s not the Green,” he explained, “and it’s cold.”

“Osreth lost friends since the last Red,” Ember reflected.

“Yeah.”

“He’s probably been in Coaltown for a few days now.”

“Probably.”

“Nera’s probably been cleaning up after drunks.”

Mallion laughed an assent.

“I wonder how they’re doing. It was fun, earlier, being in Coaltown, and then wandering around to the mining towns. I mean, I’ve been to them before, with my Dad, but never quite like this last time.”

Mallion was thinking about and missing Clariss and was also thinking about her son Ranson. Ranson’s eyes were nearly a perfect match for Mallion’s own and, frankly, the two could be and probably were related. Mallion smiled about that as he reflected on his recent past. His thoughts turned to Gregg, the man who’d given Clariss that wicked scar. Mallion was imagining the encounter and the surprise Gregg must have experienced when Clariss defended herself. He didn’t know what happened, and he didn’t know Gregg at all, but he knew Clariss, knew that her mother’s family had connections to the Barrens (at least, that’s what Phen and Clariss say, and there’s no reason to think otherwise), and so Clariss probably has some Barrens Blood in her and probably did something to Gregg when he thought he’d had the upper hand. He was, after all, probably much stronger than Clariss since she had such a small build, like her mother.

“Where are you?” Ember broke in on Mallion’s thoughts. She’d been watching him stare at the sky but she knew he wasn’t actually paying attention to the twinkling red stars.

“At Phen’s.”

Ember pictured the bald man’s shiny, curly, bearded face. She liked Phen. He was probably the best crafter in the world, and he seemed to think of this as a gift he should share with everyone. It was a shame his daughter Clariss hadn’t seemed to have had the same sort of luck. Ember was sure this was due to Clariss’ mother—as far as Ember remembered, no one talked about her anymore, Ember didn’t even know her name.

“I wondered,” she replied. She knew that Mallion was thinking about Ranson and Clariss, and not really thinking about Phen.

“Think she’s okay?”

“Hope so.”

“We should visit again, before the white season.”

“Yeah. We should.”

A moment later, the sky briefly became so bright that they could see one another and the things in the wagon as clearly as if there’d been a bonfire nearby or as if there was a full moon. Ember and Mallion scrambled quickly to their hands and knees, throwing the blanket aside, knocking over items in the wagon. They saw a red star racing across the sky westward, almost tracing a path to Coaltown. Unlike most of the other shooters that night, this one appeared far in the eastern sky, shot low overhead, so low that they could imagine later that they’d seen that it was a bright red glowing rock, and streaked south and west, disappearing near the horizon.

Autumnal Starshower Year 12 [Day 105] (10/4/2020)

John wakes up with a sore neck. Sleeping in a cart, he acknowledges, is better suited to younger bodies. Judging by the daylight (the sun is hidden behind a sky of light gray clouds), he’s missed breakfast and would soon be missing lunch. His stomach growled. He shouldn’t miss lunch.

John eats the same crummy food he’s been eating; the mule is happy enough with grass. He figures he’ll get to Mallion’s in a few hours, certainly before dark. The trip is uneventful. John notices a stray chicken as he approaches Mallion’s place. The chicken is a brownish red chicken and it reminds John of the star.

Mallion and John agree to leave in the morning on Day 106 to head west. Irwin shows up as it’s getting dark.

Autumnal Starshower Year 12 [Day 106] (10/4/20)

Ember wakes everybody up. John had only gotten about four hours of sleep and was still quite tired. The room was warm from the coal heater. The knocking on the door woke him up and he was having one of those confusing dreams about Mallion, Ember, Irwin and John finding the rock. When they find the rock, there’s a light that’s similar to the light he remembered (on the day he thought it was a boar). In the dream, John sees Mallion, every injured, hovering on death’s door. Ember is in the dream, she’s fine, but not as close to John and Mallion as John and Mallion are to each other. The setting is a big crater or quarry, John imagines the rock that fell was big enough to have created an impact zone. They’re standing at the site of the impact and it’s very bright outside. The feeling is confusing. The bright light is hopeful, but the situation is stressful. The fear is that Mallion could be killed and Ember could be separated from the others. The hope is that the bright light felt really, really good.

Ember, Mallion, Irwin and John set out for Bridgetown as the sky is just becoming light, still a little while before sunrise. The four of them are traveling in a wagon pulled by two mules. The day’s travel is uneventful. They meet Xavier, one of the Centertown guards, who remembers them from moons ago. Mallion and Xavier exchange pleasantries. Later, Xavier is given a task by a supervisor to follow some of the scores of people who are headed west. Xavier remembers that Mallion, John and their other friends were going to get some food in Centertown before leaving, and he was happy to meet with them as they were leaving Bridgetown. Mallion invited Xavier to join them and he agreed. They travel west together, headed for Coaltown,

As they traversed around the south side of the Dark Woods, there were scores of people camped at each of the Day stops. Rather than delay their progress, the party decided to continue traveling to Coaltown. There were enough people on the roads, with torches, that even though it was dark and cold, the trail was safe and so they pressed on. When they got to Coaltown, they first stopped at Brenda’s and secured a room (after meeting one of Brenda’s employees named Jay, a young woman with short brown hair and a friendly smile). Afterward, they traveled to Tom’s to get a few drinks, noticed both Osreth and Nera in the tavern, and spend some time relaxing over some cider. Later, at Brenda’s again, Mallion tells everyone a cool story over drinks, about an hour before everyone goes to bed. The story is about stars that fell to the sky, many 27s ago, and people used it to create amazing tools that never rusted and that lasted longer than any human life.

Autumnal Starshower Year 12 [Day 107] (10/4/2020)

The party awakens early and travels from Coaltown to the mining towns. They stop in East South Mine (the town that had had a very bad mine explosion a couple of moons ago, and was still reeling from many deaths), grab some breakfast, chat with the locals, and then move westward. They don’t stop in Central South Mine, and instead press on to West South Mine. While there, they note how the conditions of the mining town are still very bad. During their explorations, Xavier managed to find out from some local folks that, yesterday, three men, well-dressed (in leather gear, one of whom also wore a hat), traveled through town, without stopping, on horses. As if this weren’t peculiar enough (it’s rare that anyone has a horse in WSM), the horses were also adorned with saddle bags, and, according to the locals, those bags were full of gear.

The party decides to head west, following those three on horseback, into the areas of the desolate mines. They’ve never met anyone who has been this far west, and are all excited about it. There are perhaps three hours of daylight left, and the party makes the best of it.

Two mules pulling a wagon can travel about 15 miles in three hours in normal terrain. The party expects that they traveled about 10 miles this evening. The bleak terrain west of the mining towns was difficult for the mules, and the wagon proceeded slowly. Xavier was able to spot the tracks of the three horsemen, and while he was an excellent guide, the terrain was so foreign that they couldn’t get very far.

Just after sunset, the party set up a camp. Mallion, Ember, Irwin and John had packed plenty of gear in Mallion’s wagon: a coal burner (it’s cold after the Ruby Shower), a bucket of coal, plenty of hard tack and water, a net, some rope, two bows and a quiver, a few hand axes, a woodsman’s axe, Mallion’s forge hammer, a couple of clubs, and several hides and bedrolls.

Mallion got the burner going; it seemed cold enough that here would be a frost overnight. No one in the group had ever been this far west—as far as they knew, no one they knew had ever been this far west, and probably only a few people alive had ever been this far west. Long ago, maybe three or four 27s ago, some of these mines were still functioning, and so there were mining towns here. But these mines had stopped being productive so long ago that even John’s mother, Elizabeth, probably didn’t remember anyone working in these mines.

They watched the very last night of the autumnal starshower together, in a way that they’d never previously done. There were very few streaks in the sky, most of them were pink. There were no more blazing rocks flying low in the sky.

Autumnal Starshower Year 12 [Day 108] (10/4/2020)

Irwin and Mallion woke first. Xavier slept badly. Xavier woke many, many times during the night, listening for sounds, wondering if there were predators on the barren lands. Each time, he checked for the mules, checked for the people in the group he’d only recently joined, and finally, after several minutes of worry, tried to fall back asleep. Each time, he eventually returned to sleep, only to wake again shortly thereafter, in a bit of a panic, worried about what might befall them. When he heard Irwin and Mallion chatting as they got the coal burner going, he was pleased that it was morning, but frustrated that he was exhausted.

John noted, upon awakening, that he slept just fine, and dreamlessly. Ember woke last, and felt refreshed upon awakening. She was happy, again, to be in the company of Mallion and these other strange folks—even John, the older, unusual guy who didn’t quite seem as fully engaged as the rest.

The sky was overcast and the camp was covered in thin, cold fog. The day felt so different from the night before. Last night was the final night of the autumnal starshower, and even though they weren’t at home, or at an exciting inn in Coaltown, they at least had company. Even so, this morning felt dismal and bleak. It was as if the fog and cold were a physical manifestation of their mood.

The party followed the horse tracks for hours, stopping a few times to rest the mules and stretch their legs. By evening, they had arrived at an enormous lake. But, this lake was unlike anything they’d ever experienced. First, it seemed entirely devoid of life. There were no birds or animals (they hadn’t seen any for hours) and there weren’t any plants or insects (though a lack of insects made sense, since they were in the autumnal period). Second, the air smelled strange. None of them had ever experienced this much salt before. The water itself was salty, far saltier than tears. And, like the white stains left on a shirt, the sand around this lake was covered in white residue. When they got closer, they noticed that the white was itself some kind of incredibly salty material. [People from this world don’t have anything like salt mines, and except possibly for blood and tears, almost no one knows anything about salt.]

After some investigation, everyone decides it would be a good idea to gather some of this salty water and some of this white residue, and return it. In particular, Xavier wants to return some of this to his supervisor in Bridgetown.

The party ultimately decides to follow the horses’ tracks around the lake, even though it’s getting dark. They eventually find that whoever came before them stopped and camped on the other side of the lake. It’s dark enough that they decide to do the same.

Autumnal Starshower Year 12 [Day 109] (10/4/2020 and 10/22/2020)

In the morning, even though there was once again fog and an overcast sky, the party decided to press on. Once it was light enough to make sense of the tracks, Xavier noted that whoever came before them had traveled a few hundred yards south. The ground became much sandier and a little less stable, and it appeared as though that other group had left their horses behind and continued on foot. The party decided to do the same—they secured the mules and wagon, and then proceeded across what turned out to be a sandy land bridge on foot. There was clear evidence that the others who’d come before them had filled bags with something, and dragged those bags back to the horses.

They walked across the sandy pathway (maybe 100 feet wide) onto a small island in this salty lake. Strangely, the island was covered in weedy, viny vegetation. It was clear to everyone that the other group had dragged something heavy across these weeds, leaving torn vines and damaged weeds in their wake.

It was clear to Xavier that the other group had probably crossed from the campsite to the island at least twice, dragging bags full of heavy content. They walked to the island from the campsite, and then dragged bags, filled with something, back to the campsite.

After a few hundred yards of slow, careful travel, the party noticed that many of the weeds had been damaged in a different way. It was as if someone had burned patches of weeds, somewhat randomly. They wondered aloud whether the star, traveling through the sky, had crashed near here, and if, before it crashed, it had broken into pieces, still fiery, and that crashed onto the vines, burning them upon impact.

A thorough investigation revealed, in fact, several small, dark red rocks, each very heavy and seemingly made of metal. It seemed as well that hundreds of them might very well fill a burlap bag and be heavy enough that such a bag, dragged across these weeds, could very easily account for what they’d seen.

As they traveled, they noted a burning smell, similar in some ways to the smell of heated metal. Ember noted wisps of smoke coming from the ground and the party continued moving cautiously forward to investigate. Careful exploration revealed what they’d hoped for. A hole, perhaps four feet in diameter, opened to a pathway, at an angle of about 30 degrees, about 20 feet down. Sand above had collapsed somewhat into the hole, though some of the viny weeds remained above. The hole was covered in scorched sand, and at the bottom was an incredibly hot rock, perhaps three feet in diameter. Steam and smoke poured from it, rolled up the shaft, and leaked out the hole where they stood.

Irwin, John and Mallion returned to the wagon to get supplies. They grabbed Mallion’s forge hammer, the bucket that had been used to carry the coal, a few hides and a bedroll. Meanwhile, Xavier and Ember investigated some of the rest of the island, looking for other clues. Ember noted that a few hundred feet from this island was a much smaller one, and that smoke was issuing from that island as well. But, swimming through a few hundred feet of salty, ice-cold water didn’t appeal to anyone.

The party agreed to use the bucket and hides to gather as much water as they could, taking as many trips as it took, to pour water on the rock, cooling it enough to get closer. Ember began thinking of ways to get tools and supplies into that shaft to get the rock out. Eventually, when it had cooled enough, Mallion and Xavier shimmied down the shaft with Mallion’s forge hammer and took turns hitting the rock until a small piece broke off. The piece was a semicircular shape, about two inches thick in the center and maybe a foot in diameter. It was exceptionally heavy and very hot.

The party decided this was enough evidence for Xavier’s superiors and that this rock, the smaller rocks, and the salty water and white residue, was more than enough for their trip. They were considering their alternatives.

“We probably have enough, at least, I think so.” Xavier was mostly interested in getting information back to his supervisor.

“We could go back to East South Mine and get supplies,” Ember said. “I have some ideas about how we can get that rock out.”

Mallion nodded, seeming to agree with Ember.

“Wait a minute.” John, the elder in the group, gave everyone a pause. “Doesn’t anyone else find it suspicious that, a couple of moons ago, there were catastrophic explosions in the mines in East South Mine, half a moon after a cave-in in the northern mines, and then, just a couple of days ago, three men on horses traveled through these areas, apparently well ahead of us, cleared out this place as though they expected to find what they found, and managed to get here and leave again so fast that we didn’t run into them on our way here? I mean, they got here, and traveled with the right equipment, and got the rocks and shards, and left, and we didn’t encounter them as we traveled here? We were pretty fast. Shouldn’t we have seen them leaving from here, on their trip back to Coaltown?”

“Good point,” Mallion said, nodding.

“That is a good point,” Xavier said, “I didn’t see horse tracks going in both directions, but then I also wasn’t looking for it.”

“I can still get that rock out of there,” Ember said, pointing into the hole, “and whatever’s on that island,” she turned and pointed into the distance southeast of where they stood, “is something else we should get.”

Irwin didn’t speak. He looked at John with a pained expression, as though John’s words had pierced something in him. It was as if John had just told Irwin that Irwin’s parents had died unexpectedly, or that some other unspeakable tragedy had befallen them all.

John noted that the overcast sky suddenly seemed to dim even more, as though sunset were upon them, though he knew sunset was hours away. John nodded to Irwin, who didn’t respond except by staring back at John with a dull, blank stare. “There’s something very wrong here. We should leave.”

Everyone felt that John was right. He had spoken some kind of truth, as though from the stars themselves. They had found what they came for, despite not knowing what it was. They had found things they didn’t expect—a lake of salty water with no life, the site of a star’s impact, and a mystery of three well-dressed horsemen who apparently could travel faster than made sense.

~~

They decided to camp, but to make some distance toward the settlements first. As twilight approached, the found a suitable place and began draping blankets over the wagon to use the wagon as a makeshift shelter. While they were all engaged in getting things together, three arrows flew at them from the northeast.

In a panic, everyone scrambled. Mallion, Ember and John grabbed bows from the wagon and Ember placed a case of arrows on the ground on the side of the wagon opposite the attackers. Xavier and Irwin took up positions safely behind the wagon as well and everyone looked for the enemies.

“There!” someone pointed into the dimness ahead.

Three men on horses were perhaps two hundred feet away. Xavier noted that none was wearing a hat (he remembered how insistent the people in West South Mine had been about the three riders having nice clothes and that one was wearing a hat). From this distance, no one could ascertain what kinds of clothing these people had, and besides, everyone was trying to avoid being hit with arrows.

*Thud.* A second arrow struck the wagon. Still, no one had been hit.

And a second later, one of the mules was struck!

“They’re shooting at the mules!”

Ember dropped her bow and ran to handle the mule that had been hit. They couldn’t afford to have the mules run off, still attached to the wagons. They’d lose their protection and risk spilling their gear.

The others noted that John moved surprisingly well, given how challenged he usually was thanks to his bad leg. They didn’t count on him also being a good shot. John hit the same enemy that had just been previously struck, but John’s arrow seemed to penetrate more soundly. The attackers disengaged.

Mallion and Ember in their youthful zeal charged after the attackers as they fled. They were, of course, no match on foot for the men who were on horses. The attackers fled into the twilight. One horse running north and two headed northeast.

The party decided to move off the path they’d been on, and head northeast as well. They had no intention of trying to catch the attackers, but they wanted to put themselves in new spot. They had no interest in being attacked in the darkness of night. After it had been dark for a short while, they decided to camp.

During the short travel, Irwin continued to voice his shock and surprise at the jarring reality that other human beings had shot at them. While no person in the party had been hit, the others were clearly willing to risk hitting them and in fact were willing to attack the mules. Xavier was equally shocked and the two shared their concerns. Ember and Mallion remained vigilant, their own youthful bodies, triggered by the excitement, kept them talking. John noted that Xavier and Irwin displayed one kind of anxiety, the kind he’d seen in others, the kind that some would say was dark, and that Ember and Mallion displayed another kind of anxiety, also a kind he’d seen in others, the kind that some would say was wild.

At camp, Mallion set the coal burner going and retrieved the earthenware lantern as well so they’d all have better light. Tonight wasn’t a good night for too much darkness. Irwin and John shared stories, including stories of the starshowers. When the others had gotten under blankets, John showed Irwin a game that John knew. With their minds focused on the game, they assumed they could stay awake for more hours than if they just sat in the darkness with their minds full of fear.

Over his long life, John had carved many pieces for this game. One side had pieces representing dwarves (some with spears, others with axes), elves (some with swords, others with bows), halflings (some with very small bows, all with daggers) and faeries (some with wings, some without). The other side had pieces representing goblins, trolls, giants and dragons. John wisely chose to teach Irwin the game by having Irwin play the heroes and John play the villains. It takes some maturity to play villains, and there are temptations that come with playing villains that John had learned to avoid offering to younger folks.

The remainder of the night was without incident. Ember and Mallion only got about four hours of sleep when Irwin woke them, but they were young and still full of enthusiasm. Perhaps they secretly hoped the assailants would return, but in fact this did not happen. Xavier woke just before sunrise, a bit more refreshed than the rest. The three gave Irwin and John a bit more time to rest, assuming they’d have no trouble getting to West South Mine with enough time to continue traveling to the other mining towns by darkness.

Day 110 (Added 10/22/2020)

The party wandered through the mostly barren miles west of the functioning mines, occasionally passing by the site of an abandoned mining settlement. At one point, while Xavier and Mallion were walking alongside the mules that were pulling the wagon, everyone stopped when one of them shushed the rest.

“Do you hear that?”

Everyone paused and strained. Somewhere ahead, on the other side of a hill that didn’t seem tall enough to hide anyone, they heard the sounds of people talking, though the conversation was indiscernible.

“I bet that’s them,” Mallion said quietly, referring to the people who’d assaulted them the previous evening, “we better check it out.”

Ember climbed up in the wagon and drew her bow, aiming forward, indicating to the others that she’d cover those who moved forward. Irwin and John climbed out of the wagon, drew weapons, and moved forward with Mallion and Xavier. Everyone but Ember proceeded slowly, quietly, hoping to hear more clearly who these people were.

Xavier headed up the hill, Mallion circled around it to the left, and Irwin and John proceeded forward, covered by Ember’s bow. Quickly, Irwin and John ascertained that there were two people standing on a flattened space, clearly one that had been used for years. John was now turned around, facing what was an opening to a shallow cave, from a position where he could see Ember in the distance, to his left, Mallion quickly coming around to his right, and Xavier in front standing over the entrance. In front of the entrance were two men, plainly dressed, unarmed, and not obviously the same as any of the people who had been on the horses the night before.

John carried a walking stick in one hand and knife in the other. He could have seemed threatening. With the hand holding the knife, he gestured in such a way as to indicate that he meant no harm, but the men had already retreated into the cave and had hidden behind some of the many boxes and barrels inside.

Xavier dropped down and made it clear that while this group didn’t intend to cause any harm, they also didn’t intend to be harmed. Mallion and Irwin moved closer, standing perhaps fifteen feet from one another, and also maybe twenty feet from the opening to the interior. Along either side of the very long, somewhat wide entryway, short walls made of stacked rocks served as boundaries and also as retaining walls to prevent anything from spilling over the hill and into the entryway.

Eventually, the party entered the cave. It was clearly a space that had been cleared many years before. Perhaps this was a storage space from a former mining area. The storage space itself was perhaps twenty-five feet wide from the entrance to the curved back wall, and at its greatest diameter the arc of the wall probably was fifty feet long.

“We need to go through some of these boxes, just to make sure everything here is safe and makes sense,” Xavier announced. His years as serving as a Bridgetown guard gave him the confidence to take charge of a situation that seemed otherwise without any leadership.

Conversation with the two men revealed that they were well-paid but rather mentally dull guards. It seemed to the party that this was quite intentional. Guards who didn’t ask too many questions and who obediently followed orders weren’t likely to cause problems or trouble. The party learned that they worked for a period between moons, and were then replaced by another pair. They’d then have a moon off and would return for the following period. All in all, they had it good. They’d work about twelve days and then have another twelve days off—and they were paid better than they’d previously been paid to do the harder work of mining. Their work consisted of being mostly bored, eating and drinking from the provided supplies, occasionally receiving a crew of people with wagons who seemed to know what they were doing. The crews coming in would drop off some boxes, barrels or other supplies, pick up others, ask the men if they’d seen anything, and then be on their way.

As the party opened boxes and peered inside, they noted that most of the boxes were packed with straw packing, and otherwise contained a variety of tools (usually high quality), sometimes clay pots filled with coins (which was very strange), and sometimes small amounts of coal (also strange, since there was a separate area in the storage space for the coal that the men used for heating and cooking). Some of the tools were clearly the kinds that would be used in coal mines (and not just picks, but also tools used by others who worked in the minds), but some of them were also very fine and the party wasn’t sure what purpose they might serve. There were also some locks and keys in some of the containers.

John retrieved one of the silvery coins and noted that it had a half-face on one side. The face was clearly a thunder elf, though the coin itself was obviously very old. John noted a slight similarity of the face on the coin to the thunder elves from his own game set.

While chatting with the men, the party overheard the names Chris and Grady. Chris, apparently, is a supervisor of whatever mines these men used to work in, and Grady, according to their recollections, is the guy who owns the fanciest house in Coaltown.

“What’ll it take for this visit not to have happened?”

One of the two men looked at the other, and then at John. “Whaddya mean?”

John looked at them for a moment, finding it hard to believe they didn’t understand.

“I would like to give you some credits. But I don’t want you to tell anyone we were here. How many credits would be enough?”

The more talkative of the two men looked at the other, “That’s really smart! I would have never thought of that.”

The other nodded, also, apparently, shocked at the brilliance.

“Well, we spend a lot of time drinkin’ credits at Tom’s. Three days at Tom’s.”

John nodded. “Very well. I’ll talk to the person at the Exchange in Coaltown and make sure that the two of you have all your expenses paid, food, lodging, and drinks, for three days at Tom’s.”

“This is great! I love this job!”

The party, surprised at either the genius or idiocy of the person who had hired these guards, bid farewell to the two men, and very intentionally did not take any of the items they’d found.

~~

The party did indeed get to West South Mine early enough in the day that further travel east would be rather simple. There weren’t many people in the area, and none of them took too much notice of the party. Though it was getting dark, it wasn’t yet fully dark and so the party pressed onward. As they set up camp just outside Central South Mine, two young folks stopped by to ask questions.

“You aren’t from around here, you have a wagon and a large group.” The young woman was blunt. “So what did you find? Did you see the star?”

“We didn’t find anything,” John remarked. “Did you see the star?”

“I didn’t. But I heard about it. Did you see it?”

“I did. It was remarkable and strange.”

“And red,” Ember noted, adding to John’s remark.

John nodded. “But, like I said, we didn’t find anything.”

The young woman accepted the cider Mallion offered. “Thank you.”

Her companion, a young man, also accepted a wooden mug of cider. He was also thankful.

“I hope it’s the heart,” she said a moment later.

“A heart?” Xavier asked.

The young man cleared his throat. He told the opening of a tale they’d all heard many times before. He did his best to sound older, as most of the storytellers did when they offered these stories.

Once upon a time, before the times of fertile lands, and long before your great grandparents were babies, the stars fell day and night without ceasing. As the stars fell, they shone brightly in the sky—red during harvest time, white when the snows fell, and green during the growing time, just like the star showers today. Most of those falling stars never struck the ground, leaving only emblazoned trails across the day or night sky. Sometimes, though, as the stars burned in the sky, they left behind their metallic hearts. And sometimes their metallic hearts set fire to the trees—the heart of a star is very hot.

The two stayed a bit longer. Everyone reflected on the story, several people wondered if in fact this strange star that had fallen in the west, and that the party indeed did find, was anything like what the old storytellers had mentioned. Could there be hearts in these stars? What would they be? What are these stars and why are they metal?

Day 111 (Added 10/23/2020)

The party left Central South Mine early enough to get to East South Mine by breakfast. The prosperous mining town was full of chatter as it often is, despite having suffered such a terrible tragedy several moons ago. Even so, the party did not delay and instead pressed on to Coaltown, arriving there shortly after midday. Xavier encouraged everyone to be particularly cautious not to reveal anything about their trip to find the star, about their encounter with the horsemen, or with the strange storage cave they’d found.

The party rather immediately traveled to the Currency Exchange and chatted with Len. Xavier noted that, like the Exchange in Bridgetown, the place had many books where the exchanger kept track of things. Unlike the Exchange in Bridgetown, the Coaltown Currency Exchange had an enormous amount of books.

“How can I help you?” Len, the exchanger, asked John.

“There are two men,” John shared their names, “and I want to move credits from my account to theirs, enough so that they each have three days of lodging, food and drink at Tom’s.”

“I see. And you are John Bentham, son of Elizabeth Bentham.”

“That’s right,” John said, impressed.

Irwin noted that Len’s eyes were an unusual shade of blue and green. Green eyes were exceptionally rare, and he counted himself lucky that he already knew so many green-eyed people. Irwin also noted Len’s bronze-colored skin. It wasn’t that it was particularly unusual, lots of people had skin that color; rather it’s that Len’s skin was so dark a shade of that color. Irwin was looking at Len’s messy hair when he caught Len eyeing Irwin’s own hair.

“Unusual,” the older man noted.

“Fell out of a tree. It happened after that.”

“Unusual,” the older man again noted. He then turned his attention back to John, “Will that be all?”

“Yes, thank you.”

~~

Some time after the party left the Exchange, John noted to the others that even though it was early in the afternoon he was interested in getting some rest and that he’d be returning to Tom’s to get a room. Irwin agreed to go with John as he wanted to spend a little time exploring the town anyway, and Tom’s was a great place to start. Xavier and Ember agreed to go with Mallion to Alan’s Market.

Xavier and Ember wandered around the small market. Xavier was familiar with the place, and noticed Phil, the manager, who was tending to some items or other. Ember wasn’t really all that interested but figured Mallion might need to be attended to.

Mallion headed to the repair area in the back to visit Phen. He hoped Clariss would be there too. Phen noticed him, set aside his project and asked Mallion how he’d been. Clariss was also working on a similar project, and from her own seat a bit farther away, she raised her head and turned a bit to see who her father was talking to. He face reddened slightly at seeing Mallion, and the scar on her face stood out against the pink skin.

“What have you been up to Mallion? It’s good to see you.”

“I have something here I’d like you to take a look at.”

“What do you have?”

Mallion produced a fist-sized dark red metallic rock. Phen extended his hands and Mallion placed the object in the older man’s worn, strong hands.

Mallion glanced up at Mallion, taking his eyes off the rock and looking over Mallion’s shoulder to the others in the shop. “Come around inside Mallion,” he said somewhat quietly. As Mallion walked around into the repair space, Phen slid a board of wood in front of the open area where he normally greeted people.

“Where did you get this?” Phen asked with concerned seriousness. “This is rare and valuable.”

“About 30 miles west of the westernmost mine.”

“Out where the star fell?” Clariss said, quietly but excitedly. “Were you out there?”

Mallion nodded, “But don’t say anything.”

Clariss shook her head and continued looking at Mallion in awe.

Phen looked at Mallion. “There will be others, and they’ll be gathering up more of this. Folks from the warehouse will find a way to take advantage of this.”

“And, from the sounds of things,” Phen continued, “they recognize you as the competition already.”

“Oh?”

Clariss nodded, “The Merciless Five,” she said. “I don’t believe it, of course, but it could be a problem.”

“What?”

Clariss quoted someone, “‘A man with green eyes, a man with a red lock, a woman with long red hair, a man who walks with a stick, and a man with an axe.’”

“Oh.”

“Yeah. Rumor has it, The Merciless Five nearly murdered someone. Some guy was riddled with arrows, barely survived. Everyone in town has heard it.”

“Damn. I should get out of here.”

“Yep,” Phen noted. “Keep that under wraps,” he nodded at the rock he’d returned to Mallion.

“Will do.”

“If I hear anything, I’ll get word to you,” Phen noted as Mallion left the repair area.

Mallion nodded.

~~

John and Irwin walked into Tom’s and noted the place was mostly empty except for the people cleaning the floor and tables. John noted that a man was scrubbing blood stains out of the wooden floor.

“What can I get you?” It was Mike, Tom’s right hand man, behind the bar, doing chores.

“I’d like a room,” John said. “Just for myself,” he added.” And then again “One with a lock.”

Mike nodded. “Let me check your credits.” Mike found something beneath the bar, glanced at it, twisted up his face a bit, and said “Credit’s good.” He walked a few feet to the right, reached below the bar and pulled out a box from which he retrieved a key. He walked over to John and handed him the key, “Room 5.”

John accepted the key, “Thank you. Is Tom around?”

Mike raised his head a bit and used his eyes to point at the open door to Tom’s room. “He’s in.”

“Thank you,” John said, and headed for the stairs.

“And what can I do for you,” Mike said to Irwin.

“I could use a job since I don’t have any credits and I need food and a place to sleep. Got any work?”

Mike smiled, “We could always use workers. What can you do?”

“Just about anything, I figure. I’m particularly good with wood, some of your stools and tables look like they could use attention.”

“We’ll see how it goes with simpler tasks first,” Mike said. And then he spoke to one of the workers “Rudy, get,” and then he looked to Irwin because he didn’t know Irwin’s name.

“Irwin.”

“Get Irwin a bucket and some rags and let him know what needs washed.”

Rudy stopped what he was doing, nodded, and walked to the kitchen to get another bucket. “Be right back boss.”

“I ain’t your boss.”

The flight of stairs was substantial and the walk put a strain on John’s leg. It wasn’t intolerable, but it wasn’t painless either. John got to Tom’s door and waited to be invited in.

Tom, clearly in his third 27, stood up from where he’d been sitting behind a large desk in the center of the room. “John! Come in. Come in. Sit.” Tom motioned to the two chairs opposite the desk from his own chair. “How have you been and what can I do for you?”

John, himself closing in on 54, admired Tom’s stamina and enthusiasm. “Just thought I’d make sure it’s alright that I stay here for a few days. Tired of traveling mostly, would like to give the leg a rest.” John moved into the room a bit but didn’t sit.

Tom smiled, “I understand. You’re always welcome. So long as your credit holds out.” He winked.

“Thanks,” John replied, wryly.

“Your credit is good, isn’t it?”

John showed Tom the key.

Tom nodded. “So it is, so it is.”

John turned to leave.

“If you need anything, just ask,” Tom said as John left.

“Thanks Tom,” John said, gratefully, as he walked back toward the stairs.

~~

Mallion and John checked out Chafe (the seediest tavern in Coaltown) after they’d followed a remarkable character named Conrad about town. Conrad, in his typical ostentatious style, seemed somehow to taunt without taunting and challenge without challenging. He had a very odd disposition that John found off-putting and that Mallion found offensive. Conrad was telling others in the place about The Merciless Five and the entire situation seemed definitely troubling. From the sounds of things, rumors had also spread that John had bribed people into covering up their assault. This could quickly get out of control.

~~

“Guys, we need to talk,” Mallion said, hurriedly, as he, John, Xavier and Ember strode into Tom’s looking for Irwin.

Irwin looked up at Mike.

Mike nodded.

“I just got a job,” Irwin revealed to Mallion, “seemed inappropriate to leave my duties right after I started.”

“Just don’t be long,” Mike said.

The five of them gathered uncomfortably into John’s small room.

Irwin looked around and noted the concerned faces of both Mallion and Ember, the typical steadfastness of Xavier, and the unfortunately normal pained and tired expression from John. He wondered briefly if his own curiousness was obvious to others. “Why are we meeting Mallion? What’s the worry?”

“We’re being targeted. People have been spreading tales about us. They’re calling us ‘The Merciless Five’ and we’re being described as people willing to commit murder. Those people who attacked us? Somehow, someone found out about that, and they’ve turned the story around to make us sound like the attackers, as people who tried to murder that person with arrows.”

“Wow, ‘The Merciless Five,’ I guess we could have had a worse name. That sounds impressive.”

Ember considered Irwin’s interjection and briefly agreed with him.

“This isn’t good,” John noted. “I wonder how bad it actually is.”

“I don’t know,” Mallion replied, “but we might not be safe here. Someone suggested to me that the folks who run the warehouse might be behind this.”

Xavier considered that. It made sense. They have the resources since they control the flow of coal, which is itself the most valuable product in the world. They also might be the ones behind all those things stored out in the old abandoned mines.

“We could leave today,” Ember noted.

“Enough of us are skilled with traveling off trail,” Irwin interrupted, continuing Ember’s thoughts, “that we could get to the North East North Mine tonight.

“Or,” Ember returned control of the conversation, “we could stay. We could investigate around the warehouse and see what’s going on.”

John nodded. “We could. But we also stand out. Mallion’s eyes are rare, my walking stick is well-known, Irwin’s lock of hair is unusual, Xavier is a Bridgetown guard—I’m not so sure that wandering around Coaltown, when everyone is on the lookout for us, is smart.”

“We could pair up,” Mallion noted. “Ember and I could go one way, you and Xavier could go another,” he replied to John.

“I just started a job here,” Irwin said, “and besides, staying here will give me a chance to counter the stories. I’m good at that.”

Mallion and Ember left Tom’s in one direction and Xavier and John left in the other. As each pair progressed slowly around the warehouse area, all of them noted that the people from Coaltown were either giving them a wide berth or were eyeing them with suspicion. Unfortunately, everything quickly escalated when three wagons left the warehouses and headed north and west to leave Coaltown. Mallion stopped their progression and the event turned ugly very quickly, with people challenging one another and Xavier knocking someone to the ground. Very quickly, a bell in the warehouse area began to ring, getting everyone’s attention.

“What’s that ringing,” Irwin said to whoever might respond as he continued cleaning at Tom’s.

“Trouble,” Mike said, as he grabbed the spear kept behind the bar, “follow me.”

“What if it’s a fire?” Irwin said, reflecting the very common fear of fire.

“Grab a couple of buckets and bring them with.”

Mike and Irwin left Tom’s and headed for the warehouses. Irwin followed Mike, being careful to spot trouble, including smoke. Mike moved deftly, revealing an athleticism that wasn’t typically on display while he was tending bar at Tom’s. Irwin noted that Mike seemed to have an innate sense of his surroundings, as though he had some additional sense that permitted him to be aware of what might be a nearby threat.

Mike stopped at a corner of a building and Irwin pulled up next to him, noting the strain that carrying two buckets of water caused. “Guards, six of ‘em,” Mike said.

Irwin couldn’t see the guards from where he stood and imagined them running out of a building with buckets of sand or water as they rushed toward a fire.

“Three of them have nets, three of them have clubs,” Mike noted.

Irwin’s mental image changed to match Mike’s description. He wondered who they were hoping to catch with the nets. In his mind’s eye he saw nets falling over his new friends, and imagined them being pummeled with the clubs while unable to defend themselves.

“I’ll leave this here,” Mike said, propping his spear against the wall of the building. “Those will be fine,” he nodded at Irwin’s buckets, “but I don’t think there’s a fire.”

As this was happening, the stopped wagons quickly were surrounded by guards, and Mallion, Ember, John and Xavier all left as quickly as they could. The guards did not pursue, and the drivers of the wagons returned to their duties. Within minutes, the wagons were leaving Coaltown, the warehouse buildings were once again closed, and the guards had all returned to their previous tasks.

~~

“We definitely need to find something else to do for a while,” Ember noted as the members of the party reassembled at Tom’s. “We can’t stay here, at least not for the time being.”

“I’ll stay,” Irwin noted. “I really would like to keep this job, and besides, I wasn’t involved with the wagons, and no one has accused me of bribing anyone.”

John replied “You’ll still be recognized as one of The Merciless Five.”

“I’m okay with that, I can spin an alternative tale. Besides, if someone stays here, we’ll have some ability to know what the local rumors are.”

John nodded agreement.

“We still need to check out the other information,” Xavier noted. “I have to eventually get back to Bridgeton and make my report, but we need to get to the North East North mines and find out about whoever Chris is.

“I’ll be up early,” Ember said. “I’ll wake Mallion and we’ll come get you and John.”

Xavier nodded.

“And I’ll visit Nera, so see what she knows,” Irwin said. “Besides, Tom’s and Chafe aren’t the only taverns in town—I should find out what’s being said at Brenda’s as well.”

~~

Ember and Mallion were preparing to sleep when there was a knock at the door. They exchanged looks. Mallion grabbed his hammer and moved so that he would be out of sight to whoever was on the other side of the door; Ember moved to the door.

“Who’s there?” Ember demanded.

“It’s Clariss. I need to talk to Mallion.” The voice wasn’t muffled, but neither was it loud.

Ember looked to Mallion who had recognized Clariss’ voice. Mallion nodded and relaxed his grip on his hammer.

Ember opened the door just long enough for Clariss to come in. Clariss had Ranson in her right arm; the toddler was resting on her right hip.

“I needed to see you,” she was looking at Mallion first and then turned so that her eyes met Ember’s as well, “both.” She nodded at Ember who nodded back. “I had to see for myself that you were safe.”

“We’re okay,” Mallion said.

Ember nodded agreement. “We are.”

“For now you are,” Clariss said. “I don’t think it’ll last if you stay in Coaltown right now.”

“We know. We’re leaving before sunup.”

“Good.”

Ember noted, “We’re going to the North East North mines; there are some leads we have to follow.”

Clariss nodded. “I’ll keep an eye on things here in town, as will Father.”

Mallion knew that Phen was one of the most well-respected people in all of Coaltown. As far as Mallion was concerned, if Phen and Clariss believed him, he would be okay.

“But,” Clariss continued, “I’m still scared. Send word to me if you’ll be gone long.”

“We will,” Mallion replied.

“One more thing before I go,” she said as she stepped toward Mallion, indicating that she had something private to reveal.

Mallion stepped forward and turned an ear so Clariss could whisper to him.

Ember watched Mallion’s face. She noted a hint of surprise and concern. She couldn’t hear anything Clariss said, but she knew it wasn’t good.

Clariss turned and walked quickly to the door as Ember opened it. “Be safe Ember,” she said to her friend. And then, as she turned around to step backward out the door, she said to both of them “Look after one another.”

They nodded as Ember closed the door. She knew better than to ask Mallion what Clariss had told him. She was curious, but their friendship was as strong as it was in part because they knew what to share and what not to share with each other.

~~

That night, Irwn had fretful dreams. He couldn’t recall any of them when he woke, but he remembered having the sensation of waking up often during the night and having enough lucidity to have an urge to know what his dreams meant. They felt significant somehow, each time he woke. But as he was also exhausted, he always quickly fell back asleep without that urge being satisfied. He mentioned this to John when John woke up shortly after Irwin had awakened.

“I had dreams last night myself,” John noted. “Similar to dreams I’ve had before.” He left it at that. Their conversation woke Xavier who noted that, like usual, he hadn’t been dreaming.

The party of four left without breakfast and headed to the North East North mine. Irwin remained at the tavern and set about the early morning chores.

Day 112 (added 11/23/2020)

Osreth wasn’t like most of the other miners in the North Mines. Everyone else on his current crew and on every crew he’d ever worked with had come from a long line of miners. Most of them could see just fine in the mines underground and some of those who could teased Osreth for being afraid of the dark. It wasn’t true, of course, that Osreth was afraid of the dark. He was aware of the benefits of being able to see in the mines or outside during a moonless night, but sometimes those who could rely on their ability to see in the dark failed to prepare for the reality that mine sight was itself rather limited. While many of the dangers in a mine would be visible within the distance when mine sight got blurry and stopped working, many of the dangers outside at night were much farther away and could be much more reliably noticed with light. Further, most of the most serious dangers in a mine weren’t visible even with good lighting. All of those dangers could be dealt with by being properly prepared. While Osreth indeed seemed to have supernaturally good timing, resilience or luck, he knew his own survival depended more upon his knowledge of the natural world and how to survive in it than on anything else.

Unlike almost all of the miners who came from generations of miners, Osreth’s family stretched to strange tales of the Starshower Barrens instead, and with that came a sort of counter-superstitious disposition. That is, while miners are well-known to be a particularly superstitious lot, everyone in the world treats stories of the Barrens with skepticism or awe, and so those very rare few, like Osreth, who can trace their family lines to people who once lived within or visited the Barrens, have always had to either remain persistent outsiders or find a place to fit. Osreth found the miners, and in particular those in the North Mines, the least-well-off of all the miners in the world, to be those most likely to accept his peculiar background. It was almost as though they felt a kinship with him, seeing themselves as rejected, exploited, or permanently relegated to the status of other. He was suspicious of them, they were suspicious of him, and in that mutual awareness, they’d found some kind of truce and mutual respect.

And not all the miners, even those from long families of miners, could see well in the dark or had particular skill at extracting coal. Many people born into mining families had no particular fondness for the life into which they’d been born. Just as many people born on farms had no interest in tending fields or flocks, and some people born to traveling hunters grew into adults who much preferred a domesticated life, some of those born into families of miners really hoped to leave the mining life behind. Unlike most others, however, disaffected miners often found others had no interest in them. A few became crafters who had sufficient skills to be accepted by a farming community. Most ended up in Coaltown or Bridgeton as laborers. Those who could see well in the dark often found themselves getting good-paying overnight jobs, mostly as guards either at the Coaltown warehouses or at the bridges in Bridgetown. Thanks to his unusual background, Osreth had a better sense than most others about who in Coaltown and Bridgetown were expatriated miners. While anyone familiar with Coaltown could spot a miner enjoying drinks at Tom’s or Chafe on or near one of the moons, it was far harder for the average person to identify a guard’s family history. Osreth, on the other hand, had something like a special sense for it.

Most folks from Coaltown saw Osreth as just another downtrodden miner who came to town once a moon to get some reprieve from the hard life underground. Typically, people responded to such miners with one of two sorts of pity. The first was grateful pity: the kind of pity that assumed that a miner’s life was hard and unpleasant but which was also necessary for everyone else to have the steady supply of coal they needed. The second was critical pity: the kind of pity that assumed that a miner’s life was no harder than anyone else’s and that miners who didn’t like a life of extracting coal from the mines should do what was necessary to change their fate. Nera recognized the spark and difference in Osreth; her particular form of insightfulness meant she was a far better judge of other people than most. She also had an almost supernatural charm—people tended to either really like her or really feel intimidated by her. Nera didn’t offer any pity to Osreth and didn’t feel any pity for him. Instead, Nera recognized something similar in Osreth that she recognized in herself. She was herself an outsider since she could read. She was herself an orphan in the world and came to rely upon her own wits and skills rather than on the protective comfort of family.

It thus came as little surprise to Nera that Irwin stopped by Brenda’s looking for information about Osreth. Given that Irwin had been targeted as one of The Merciless Five, and that he was also probably seen as the least dangerous of that group, it made sense to Nera that he’d be the one staying in Coaltown (though she was honestly a little surprised at that, and had assumed that he’d have returned to his family’s farm), while the others had fled. And, since their whole larger group had spent some time together a couple of moons ago, and none of the others (herself and Osreth included) had been identified as one of those five, she expected that her former acquaintances targeted as one of those five would be looking for help from those who had not been so targeted. When he revealed that the others were headed to the North East North mines to gather information about some collaborators working with the coal traders, everything fell into place.

“Chris? Yeah. I’ve heard of her.”

“Her?”

“Yeah. This happens. About a quarter of the mine supervisors or lieutenants are women.”

“Oh. Okay. So you know who Chris is, and you know she is a supervisor in the North East North mines. That means Osreth should know her, right?”

Nera looked around Brenda’s. Most of the well-dressed patrons were chatting in groups of two or three, slowly drinking their slowly cooling morning drinks. They weren’t paying attention to Nera or Irwin, so she continued talking.

“Probably he does. Osreth’s not a crew leader or lieutenant or anything, but his crew leader’s lieutenant Hainen takes orders from Chris, so he probably knows her, at least as the supervisor of the mines.”

“I see,” Irwin said. He touched his chin and looked thoughtfully at the floor. After several seconds he continued. “Would it be better to learn about the lieutenants?”

“Maybe. I guess it depends on what you’re after. The lieutenants are the people who take reports from the crew leaders so that the miners can be paid. They work with the mine accountants, mostly.”

“Wow. There’s a lot more to this than I realized.”

“Yeah, there are hundreds of miners, scores of traders and guards, and dozens of people who do other things like supervise, manage or do accounts. It’s a lot. But then, everyone in the whole world uses coal for heating and cooking, and the amount of coal everyone uses to get through the hiber every year is huge.”

Irwin nodded. Indeed, the coal shed at Aunt Jo’s was never more than half empty. Coal traders came by at least once a season, and maybe every other moon. “So let’s say we need to know more about the lieutenants than the supervisors. Where would I start?”

“Let’s see,” Nera said, raising both hands to use her fingers for counting. She held up the index finger of her left hand followed by her other fingers and then thumb when she finished the first list: “There’s Jasper, Kurt, Dar and Mindful under Grady. And then on her right hand, she left her pinky tucked in and again used her thumb to indicate the supervisor: “And Hainen, Norma, and Sand under Chris.”

“So if Osreth knows any of them, he might know Hainen.”

“Maybe. Maybe not. Osreth has worked on several crews and so he knows a few crew leaders. I don’t remember their names but I would recognize some of them if I saw them. Whichever of the crew leaders worked under Hainen and on Osreth’s crews, they’d know Hainen.”

“Thanks!”

“You’re welcome. But what good does this do you? You’re here in Coaltown.”

“Oh I know. But if they don’t figure this out on their own, at least I can help them later.”

Nera nodded. “True.”

“And, with all these names, I can start listening to learn about them.”

Nera nodded again. “Good luck.”

“Thanks.” He changed topics, “I’m working at Tom’s now.”

“Are you?”

“Yep. I’m just cleaning right now, I hope that I can put my carpentry to good use eventually.”

“I’ll keep that in mind, in case Brenda asks for a carpenter. Good luck with that as well. There’s always plenty to clean up at Tom’s.”

Irwin nodded as he remembered seeing people cleaning up blood stains the other day. He was eager to ask about Alan as well, but decided not to ask too many questions all at once. “Maybe I’ll see you around?”

“Maybe. It’s been nice to see you again Irwin, be well.”

“You too Nera. Thanks for the information.”

“Sure.” She returned to her tasks as Irwin left Brenda’s to continue exploring Coaltown.