“That seems rather odd,” said Storm Wizard a bit disconcerted at the enormous number of crows dotting the snow, perched on the trees and flying in numerous circles around his barn, which they could see from a distance as they rounded the top of a hill still a fair way off.
“It does,” said Juliette with a discernable note of unease. It was rather eerie, they thought.
On the crest of another small hill that they were passing Juliette noticed a movement out of the corner of her mystic eye. She gazed at it, her eye briefly glowing a fiery red, and saw against the darkening gray skyline a silhouette of a lone wolf crouching low against a log, stealthily watching their little group pass by.
“There’s a wolf on the hill,” said Juliette, pointing toward it, but as soon as she did, the wolf slid away down the other side of the hill out of view, and out of the range of her mystic vision. They kept to the path, and conversation again wandered back to the more mundane aspects of life as Bran tried to distract the group from the eerie sight of the crows on Bellowick farm.
“Must be pretty good being a swine herder,” Bran was saying. “I mean once you get the pigs where you want them, you can just lay down for 40 winks and take it easy, eh?”
“Well, it’s milking the pigs that’s the hard part,” Juliette replied, a little miffed at the insinuation that the swine herders were a lazy lot.
“Huh,” said Bran. “I never thought about that… but then again, I didn’t know anyone milked pigs to begin with. I mean, I never heard of anyone drinking pig’s milk, or anything. I wonder if it tastes good.”
“Oh no, not at all. It tastes horrible,” replied Juliette earnestly. “Pigs are awesome for everything tasty – except milk. It’s their one failing in life,” she said with a slight smirk. Storm Wizard and the others looked at her with various shades of surprise. After all, she was kidding. But Bran, who was a town dweller, didn’t know anything about swine herding, and so he missed the joke. Or seemed to, at least.
“Really. Well, that makes sense then,” he said pleasantly. They trudged on through the snow a little further and Bran’s curiosity again pricked at him.
“So Juliette, what is your new eye made of?” he asked.
“A stone,” she replied.
“Oh, cause when it glows like that, I noticed there’s a kind of spiral pattern in the fire, and it reminded me of the design that’s engraved on the stones out behind the Hogsworth farm, you know. Do you know what the symbol means?”
“No,” said Juliette.
“But you let someone put it in your eye?” he pressed.
“Well it seemed like a good idea at the time,” she answered with a laugh.
“Hey, if you had the chance for Super-Vision, you’d take it wouldn’t you?” asked Storm Wizard of Bran.
“Well, no… I don’t think so”, replied Bran thoughtfully.
“Well, then your silly,” answered Storm Wizard.
“Well, I like what I’ve got here,” he said pointing to himself with his hands. “I mean the Elkron gave me a pretty good package,” he said with a bit of a smug air. Everyone looked at him. Bran was short with a wide girth, long thin tangled hair, and a bit of a pushed in nose due to a childhood accident. He was certainly not much to look at, though Bran always thought that he could have been good looking, if he exercised a bit, and combed his hair, but he just didn’t care to go through the effort. Juliette rolled her one natural eye.
“Uh, yeah, pretty awesome,” commented Morgana dryly.
“The Elkron gave me a pretty good package,” said Bran, “and besides I’m not going to go stick some hokus-pokus stone in my head because some fish thought it might look nice there.”
Everyone laughed at that as they rounded the last bend near the Bellowick’s farm.
“It was a salmon,” corrected Juliette.
“Well, actually I got it for her from the Tower on Black Hill,” interjected Storm Wizard. “It was in a little grotto along the outer rim of the parapet nestled within one of the stone blocks, inside of which is the Temple of the Aphids. After we grew big the first time, I flew up and took it, and then gave it to Juliette, as stones are her thing, you know… being an acolyte of Minvar and all.”
“Well having Super-Vision, or whatever you call it, might be nice, but I’m pretty happy with myself the way I am,” concluded Bran.
“Good for you,” said Storm Wizard, as they trudged along the snow-covered lane towards the old homestead. The Bellowicks were not a wealthy family, but they had a large family, and so the house was two stories, and quite large for the area. Up in the windows the adventurer’s could see that the evening candles had been lit, and they caught the aroma of sizzling pork chops, and they all thought about how good it would soon be to be nice and cozy at home with their family safe and sound at last. But first, there was an important piece of business that they had to attend to, before anything else.
Finally, they had arrived at the Bellowick’s big old barn. The crows were flying in circles forming a large cawing cloud of black dots against the darkening purple-gray sky. The cawing was ceaseless.
“I think I just grew some crows…?” said Juliette, mystified.
“You planted … something?” asked Bran looking to the sky nervously.
“It was an accident, I didn’t mean to plant it,” said Juliette quietly.
“You planted something … bad?” he asked, now looking directly at her, and wondering if that could possibly have anything to do with the crows.
“Well we didn’t know what it was at the time! …It was all his fault,” she said pointing to Storm Wizard.
“It wasn’t My fault,” protested Storm Wizard.
“Yes it was,” insisted Juliette with finality.
“I wasn’t the one who planted it,” Storm Wizard replied emphatically.
“What did you plant?!” demanded Bran incredulously.
“A seed,” Juliette replied.
Bran raised an eyebrow.
“A seed from the McFearson farm,” said Storm Wizard as if that would clarify matters.
“You mean that old spooky McFearson farm house that burned down last year?” he asked.
“Yup,” said Juliette.
“So you just planted a weird seed that you got from the spooky McFearson’s. Did you have it checked out first?” asked Bran, trying to exercise patience as he watched the crows circling in the gray sky.
“I wasn’t the one who planted it!” said Storm Wizard. “So don’t look at me.”
“No,” said Juliette bewildered. “It planted itself.”
“It just planted itself?” asked Bran again incredulous.
“Yeah well it sort of just hopped out of the bag and planted itself,” she blurted out suddenly.
“Yes, actually,” added Storm Wizard, as if that too would clarify things sufficiently.
“A seed?” repeated Bran.
“Yeah, … a Black Seed.” said Juliette miserably.
“Yes!” added Storm Wizard with emphasis. “And you wonder why we’re suspicious of it.”
“I would be suspicious of it,” agreed Bran. “Have you told anybody?”
“Noooo…”, replied Juiette, her voice broadcasting a guilty conscience.
“Well, lets go to Hamfest and tell the town elders that you poked a spooky black seed into the ground and it grew into a huge flock of crows,” Bran insisted.
“But we’ll get in trouble,” whined Juliette.
“Well, you know what? You should have thought of that before you did it, and then ran away,” scolded Bran.
Juliette, feeling miserable, decided it was time to get out of the freezing chilly darkness, and so she headed into the barn, and everyone followed after her. Daniel lit one of the lanterns and the barn’s dark interior revealed a very ordinary swine herder’s barn. There were swine sleeping in their stalls, some of whom stirred briefly and then rolled back over. There was a mud pool on the far side, farm implements hanging on the walls and leaning against the posts, hay covering the floorboards that spanned half the barn floor, a table, a workbench and plenty of cobwebs in the shadowy corners everywhere. Next to the mud pool, above the table, on the wall there was a shelf on which there sat a flowerpot, half obscured in the shadows.
“Are there always these many crows around your property?” asked Laraby, still watching the sky from the door of the barn.
“Nooo…”, whined Juliette.
“Hmmm…,” was his only answer. He had been far and wide and had yet to see a single location that possessed quite such a huge murder of crows. It was, he thought, definitely strange. He fingered the hilt of the sword at his side.
“Are these the same kind of crows that poked out your eye?” asked Bran. Juliette thought about it, and answered that they were not. These crows did not have a scarlet beaks and talons, so they could not be the same. That at least was some relief, she thought.
Juliette walked cautiously toward the flowerpot on the shelf carrying the lantern before her. Growing out of the pot was a thick woody stem on the top of which there was a dark green bulb that had hairy black stubble all over it. Along the side of the pot, out from the soil, there was also a thin green vine with thin green leaves that had crept over the edge of the shelf and grew all the way down to the floorboards, where it vanished through a crack into the ground. Juliette was as fascinated as she was alarmed. It was a very unusual looking plant.
“I don’t like this seed,” said Juliette suddenly. “It creeps me out.”
“That seems a little … severe,” said Storm Wizard in reply. That broke the tension and everyone burst out laughing at that, because her voice had been so filled with dread, and yet it was after all only a plant sitting on the shelf and they weren’t in any danger as far as they could see.
“Its Gross!” insisted Juliette. “I don’t want to touch it.” She was clearly disturbed by the strange dark plant. They then noticed that a large number of crows had landed on the all of the open windowsills and were staring down at them silently. This made Juliette ever so much more nervous than she already was.
“Great Minvar!” Juliette suddenly burst out, “I’m really sorry, but I didn’t know what would happen. This is clearly an unnatural plant, and it shouldn’t be here anymore! For heaven’s sake, please, destroy this pot!” she cried. And just as suddenly as that the old clay pot broke into three pieces and the plant fell off the shelf and onto the wooden table beneath it, and lolled onto one side in its clump of dirt.
And then, the hairy black bulb slowly opened. Everyone stepped back, except for Juliette who was so shocked by this that she didn’t even think to move. She just stared at it in horror and morbid fascination. Something slid out of the bulb. It looked like a black salamander, perhaps. It was difficult to see by the flickering light of the lantern. Juliette’s first reaction was to give the dark glistening thing a swift kung fu kick to try to kill it. However, before she could it slithered into a crack in the wood slats of the table and disappeared.
“Catch it!” yelled Juliette. Bran started looking around for a glass jar in which to capture the thing, and found several jars set on a shelf and so took one while everyone else dodged back and forth around the table trying to spot where it had disappeared to. At that point Bran would have called down a flame strike on the entire area and burned the barn to the ground, along with the house if necessary, but that was, clearly, out of the question because it was impossible. He had no such power. Not even close. Nor did anyone he knew, except perhaps for some of the highest ranking members of the Adventurer’s Guild. But none of them were there, and so it was out of the question, as it were.
They caught site of it again, but the black salamander-thing slithered back into the cracks and shadows. Fortunately, Bran, if nothing else, had amazing skills with his fingers. It was one of his chief talents, as it happened. He put the jar down and stood over where he thought the thing was hiding, and flicking his hand downward, he snatched it up by the tail, or head, or whatever it was, and plopped it into his hand.
It was much heavier than he would have expected. Everyone crowded around to get a look at it. It was wriggling in the palm of his hand. Actually, when they looked at it more carefully they realized that it was not a salamander at all, but a little person. It looked like it was made of black wood or bark, had tiny little hands and feet, and two itty bitty jet-black eyes, and was covered in tiny black stubble. The glistening appearance had vanished by then, and it was entirely dry. They marveled at the little bark-man.
“Mmm… this probably isn’t good,” said Bran.
“Crazy,” said Storm Wizard, thinking it didn’t look much like any of the other little people they had met on their adventures. Juliette took the jar from where Bran had put it down, and they put the little man into the jar. It stood in the jar and looked around with his hands against the glass.
“Make the crows go away,” said Juliette. But the crows did not go away.
“Why are the crows interested in you?” asked Storm Wizard of the little man, but he only stood in the jar with his little hands on the glass looking around with his tiny black eyes.
“Well, do we know that, yet?” asked Bran.
“No, we don’t,” admitted Storm Wizard with a tinge of annoyance in his voice. So Bran picked up the jar and took it out the barn door, but the crows did not follow or give any sign that they had noticed it.
“My suggestion, if you will accept it,” said Bran, “is to look around and check if the plant is growing out any farther than what we’ve seen. If there’s more of these we better catch them now before they grow. ‘Cause they're plants, and they’re gonna get bigger, right? I an’t no farmer, but that’s what plants do.”
They agreed that this was a sensible idea, and looked all around the barn for more of the little bark-men, but found none. Meanwhile Juliette, Morgana and Ben, the three acolytes of Minvar the Golden Sheaf Elkron, conferred with one another about what the little bark-man might be, but none of them had ever heard of such a thing before.
“Well,” said Bran, “you’re the plant people. Figure it out.” But there was nothing they could figure out at the moment, and so they wondered greatly at what the Black Seed had wrought.
“We were promised the Black Seeds would grow no matter what,” commented Storm Wizard. Bran wondered mightily at who exactly had promised them anything about the Black Seeds, but he put the question aside for the moment.
“And it did,” replied Juliette a bit awestruck. “I think I remember that we were told to only plant the Black Seed on the first day of spring,” Juliette went on, “so maybe something went wrong, and this is what happens if you don’t. Which we didn’t.”
“So you planted the crazy seeds, which are probably magical, on the wrong day and …” Bran started to say.
“Planted one seed - by accident,” Juliette interrupted. “And it seemed happy in there, so we left it and I’ve been worrying about it ever since.”
“If I recall, it caused a minor earthquake at the time,” commented Storm Wizard.
“Uhm huh,” said Juliette with a little scowl. “Yeah, well, it was just a little one,” she said.
“Wait a second,” Bran bellowed, “Woah! Woah! Woah! … you put the creepy black magical-mystery seed in a pot, which you did at the wrong time, and it caused an EARTHQUAKE - and you didn’t think to take the seed out, or tell anyone about it?!”
“No, I suppose not,” replied Juliette with an embarrassed giggle.
“Hey, well, alright, I guess. I was curious. I mean I guess you’re farmers and all, so that’s what you people do. Plant stuff. I guess. And now its growing,” said Bran sarcastically. “That’s really great.”
“Actually, as a farmer I understand that the bark-man’s desire to grow is a sure sign that we need to kill it. That’s the art of farming. If it wants to grow, it’s a weed, and you have to kill it. But if it needs tons and tons of help to grow and would die without all that effort, then it’s food, and you have to break your back to encourage it to survive. So you can eat it. And this, clearly, wants to grow.”
“That’s good farm thinking,” said Bran, who knew, after all, that swine herders are not actually farmers, and most likely don’t know the first thing about planting or harvesting. In fact, there was quite an ancient rivalry between those who herded animals and those who cultivated plants in the earth. Quite ancient indeed.
“So that’s that,” said Bran. “By the way, you mentioned that there were other Black Seeds, didn’t you? Where are they?”
“We hid them,” said Juliette, now suddenly concerned about what might have become of them.
“We should probably check on them,” Storm Wizard said as he walked over to where they had hidden them in a pouch beneath the floorboards. Before he got to the hiding spot, however, he heard a noise outside the barn. It sounded like people walking through the snow toward the barn door. Storm Wizard paused for a moment, and then turned and walked to the barn door to peer out into the darkness. Against the dimly lit snow thought he could see figures approaching from over the fields. He could not make out anything about them, as it was almost dark out by that time.
Meanwhile, not having heard the noise, Juliette had walked over to where the plant had fallen onto the table. From its roots, hidden in the ball of dirt, there extended a thin green vine that had grown down into the floorboards. She pulled out her knife and began to cut it, however, though it looked tenuous, it seemed quite difficult to cut. And as she did so the black furry bulb from which emerged the bark-man began to vibrate most disturbingly. And at the same time, the little bark-man in the jar began to bang on the glass with his tiny fists and this caused it to rock back and forth, and nearly fell off the table. Juliette stopped cutting, and the bark-man stopped banging his fists.
“Juliette,” Storm Wizard then said, “there appears to be people heading over the field this way. Can you see anything more about them?”
Juliette stood up and focused her Stone-Eye toward where Storm Wizard was pointing, and it began to glow with its fiery light. Through the wall of the barn she peered into the darkened snowfields and saw four figures approaching. They were lead by a woman whom Juliette recognized as the one they had encountered way back at the beginning of their adventure at the McFearson’s… she was a beautiful woman with long red hair, a black leather skullcap, and wearing jet-black chain mail. She carried a long rapier at her side. Beside her there were three men who were bent over oddly, and appeared to be covered with pelts of black fur. They were wearing green vests and carrying short swords at their sides, and little round wooden shields on their burly arms. The woman used hand gestures to signal her companions to take up positions around the barn, which they did. Juliette, alarmed, explained as much to her companions.
Bran took a pitchfork from the wall and climbed up the wooden ladder to a shadow on the loft, being a sensible combat tactician, as Laraby put his hand on the hilt of the Locust Prince’s Sword and walked to where Juliette was standing. The others prepared themselves for whatever might happen. Bran and Daniel took up positions before the barn door, their swords at the ready, while Storm Wizard cast a flying spell on himself and flew out the window to take a post on the roof of the barn. Juliette faced the door with Ben, Morgana standing close behind her. And everyone waited with baited breath for whatever might happen next.
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