The Piggyback Acorn (Chapter 1-1)
A Hero’s Welcome
A brawny man named Q’UONAN hunches under a partially uprooted tree on a hill. Around his waist is a loincloth which fails to cover his tattered nethergarments. His wrists, ankles and biceps are wrapped with leather straps. An open pack of travel supplies is laid out before him, like a picnic. The nearby grass alternates between overgrown and shredded, as if livestock has been feeding on it. One javelin’s throw away, a tangled network of buildings grow horizontally from a single hut, like vines sprouting from a potato that’s been left in a box for too long.
CHARLIE, a short, older man wearing a dirty apron, limps toward Q’uonan. He raises an arm while continuing his lazy march.
CHARLIE: “Morning! You stole my breakfast spot! Mind if I join you there in the shade?”
Realizing that someone is speaking at him, Q’uonan looks up. He straightens his posture and replies with a swampy, graceless accent.
Q’UONAN: “O-of course.”
CHARLIE: “Weather’s gorgeous, ain’t it? Still feeling the cool of winter here on the Eastern border, but it’ll be springtime soon enough.”
Q’UONAN: “Eastern…? Ah. Yes. I forget my direction. How you say… It is always winter, where I hail from.”
CHARLIE: “Oh? That why you’re barely wearing anything, sitting out here by your lonesome?”
Q’UONAN: “I... cannot stop sweating in these lands. My musk... is offensive for the indoors.”
CHARLIE: “Ah, that ain’t nothing to me. I work in the stables. Where d’ya hail from?”
Q’UONAN: “I am forbidden to speak its name until I return with a worthy trophy.”
CHARLIE: “That so? Then it’s true, what I overheard them saying inside? You’re a traveler headed to Tir Gwylit?”
Q’UONAN: “...I am.”
CHARLIE: “Would you permit a friendly question, while your horses water?”
Q’UONAN: “...As you please.”
CHARLIE: “Are you adventurers outta your damn minds?”
CHARLIE: “Haven’t you heard what took place over those mountains, fifteen years ago?”
Q’UONAN: “I… erm… have heard rumors."
CHARLIE: “Got use for a word of advice, then?”
Q’UONAN: “I suppose.”
CHARLIE: “Turn back. Go home. Tell your countrymen to do the same, and everyone you pass on the road. Tir Gwylit is cursed.”
Charlie pulls two hard-boiled eggs and a slice of bread out of his apron pocket. He chomps the softest bits through missing teeth as he speaks.
CHARLIE: “I’ve worked at this place since I was a boy. Used to be called The Shady Bridge, as it was a comfy little rest stop between two countries. We had traders... scholars… fancy folk… even tourists, stopping here every day. Nowadays? Only reason the establishment's still in business is because our border guards stop by when they change shifts. Every now and again, we see you adventurer types passing through. I’m talking hard, skilled men and women lugging weapons with names like ‘Salvation’ and ‘Deathbringer’, claiming to know magic spells, all that nonsense. Hundreds of ‘em. Know how many I’ve seen come back in my lifetime? Lemme give you a hint: It’s the reason we renamed our inn The Last Stop.”
Q’uonan says nothing, sitting too still.
CHARLIE: “The trip is one way, you hear? Our Guards don’t open the gates for nobody. If you’re heading East, you have to be lowered down in a damn basket!”
CHARLIE: “I hear it’s more or less the same for every country surrounding Tir Gwylit. That country is sealed.”
CHARLIE: “You know we used to call it the Land of the Dead? Even before the lock-down?”
Q’UONAN: “...Is that so?”
CHARLIE: “Surely your people must’a heard how many battles and wars were hosted yonder.”
Q’UONAN: “That… yes, I have. Even my countrymen were proud to fight in Tir Gwylit once, long ago. It was a great honor.”
CHARLIE: “Yeah, a'course. Every country, dynasty, and clan on this bloody continent spilled their guts there at some point in history. Some for decent reasons, others for garbage reasons... doesn’t matter.”
Q’UONAN: “Why is this? I have always wondered.”
CHARLIE: “Couldn’t ask for a more hospitable battleground, could ya? For starter's it's easy travel. Tir Gwylit's located smack in the middle of the continent. Plenty of rolling hills, temperate climate, fresh water, tons’a livestock. Even better, no matter where you went, the population was notoriously lazy. Nothin’ but farmers, bookworms, fat nobles, and merchants over there. Why fight on your own soil when you can burn someone else’s house down? Just put money in a few pockets, say ‘sorry it’ll never happen again,’ and be on your way.”
CHARLIE: “That country was treated like a dang meat grinder, long as anyone can remember. For all we know, it still is. So like I said, Land of the Dead. If you ask me? The Curse is nature's way of telling us to stay the hell away from there.”
Q’UONAN: “This… curse, you say...”
CHARLIE: “Since antiquity, it’s said they don’t bury their dead over there. Your body just... evaporates. That’s where they got their famous Transportation Magic from. Now that’s enough to keep me from ever steppin’ foot on their soil, let me tell you. But imagine it: In one night, the entire countryside is overrun by beasts and monsters from faerie tales. Meanwhile, thousands of people – living people – vanish. Never seen again. A short while later, just when ya think it can’t get any worse, their dang Capitol burns to the ground, scattering whoever’s left back into the country where all the monsters are.”
CHARLIE: “Since then, we neighbors rightly said enough was enough. We collapsed the borders, locked the gates, and threw away the keys. We haven’t heard a peep from the inside for years. Least as far as I know. Today, if you want to trade or fight with countries further East, you've gotta go the long way around. Slowed things down quite a bit, you might say, but that ain't a bad thing. Life was moving too fast, anyway.”
Q’UONAN: “In my homeland, it is said that great honor awaits whomever may learn the truth about Tir Gwylit.”
CHARLIE: “Come on, son. Turn back. I don’t know why mysteries attract people like you so much, but we’ve got no idea what it’s like in there. No reports. No signs of life. You look strong. Put it to use someplace where it counts. Go get married back home, eh? Build a future. There ain't no future down those mountains."
Q’UONAN: “...I must go. It is my path.”
CHARLIE: “Sigh… All right, fine. I did what I could. My conscience is clear.”
Q’UONAN: “Fear not, old crone.”
Q’UONAN: “I will return through this very road one day and tell you the answer to this great riddle. Then, all lands will know the name of myself. The name of Q’UONAN!”
Q’uonan pushes himself to his feet and pounds a fist onto his meaty chest.
Q’UONAN: “The sun is not yet high. There is much time in the day. I have traveled far and will cross the border today.”
CHARLIE: “Suit yourself. Pity about your horses, going to waste when you meet your fate out there. Interested in selling, at least? We can give 'em a decent home.”
A short time later, one figure walks Eastward toward not-too-distant mountains. Though a calm wind blows through the hills of the highlands, Q’uonan continues to sweat. He pauses to look over his shoulder at The Last Stop one more time.
- - -
- - -