Chapter 28
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“She’s fucking with us. Jack, tell me she’s fucking with us!”

He would have very much liked to say that, even think it, but he was too out of sorts. Not necessarily because of the whole ‘we’re out of a guardian’ fiasco, thought that was a mess of its own. No, Jack was still feeling quite let down by this test of character on Rosa’s side.

“Jack! Snap out of it!”

He blinked, coming back to attention, only to realize it was Elia who had shouted at him.

“What? Yeah. I mean, no, she’s not fucking with us. I think.”

“So… what, she just left because… because her boss told do leave?”

“I guess so.”

“But- Just who is this boss?”

“A Dryad.”

“I heard that she’s as- UGH!” she grunted, before stomping off for a few paces.

While Elia’s reaction was intense, for her, yet understandable, the panic that enveloped the villagers was nothing of the sorts.

“Oh no. Oh, no, it was us. We screamed at her!”

“Yeah, you called her names!”

“No, I… you called her a whore!”

“I did not!”

While Jack was lost and Elia was angry, the villagers started arguing among themselves. No one seemed to have any interest in how do move things forward, their attention being solely focused on who was more to blame for the loss of their guardian.

“Jack.” Mrk spoke up. “I thinks we need better shelters.”

“Huh? What do you mean?”

“Nymph said magic protecting forests stays. But, for a while. When magic is gone, monsters come. So, better shelters.”

“Yeah, guess so.”

“Jack, are you alright?” Lola asked.

“Uh, no. I mean, yeah, this sucks. But I liked Rosa and knowing that she caused all… this, really put a damper on my mood.”

“Well… true. But Jack, you saved us. You saved all of us and right now, it looks like people need some kind of direction. Assurance.”

She was looking at him with an intent expression. The one a person carries, when they hope their partner in discussion takes the hint.

“Yeah, fair enough. Looks like Mr. Norn’s about to punch that woman.”

“Yes. There’s a need for someone to step in and calm the waters. And Elia seems to be having a meltdown.”

If up until this point, Mrk had been alternately looking between Lola and Jack, now even he seemed to have caught on to what Lola was suggesting. He was staring at Jack, with the same expression on his face as Lola had on hers. Minus the whiskers.

“Yup.”

JackYou knew the Nymph better than anyone. You saved us. Go talk to them!”

“Wh- me?”

“Yes, you. Go!”

“But what am I supposed to say to them?”

Lola had caught on to the gust of things quickly enough. The villagers were in a state of disarray and we’re, as is human nature, arguing. Arguing because they were feeling lost, arguing because they wanted to find a culprit and arguing because that felt better doing that than acknowledging their situation. Of course, Lola also had an inkling that, if left unattended, the situation could probably be taken in hand by someone with a more egotistical goal.

That someone was currently getting to his feet, ripping off the remaining roots that had been entangling him. And because the expression ‘you snooze, you lose’ was very much a thing in this world, Mr. Winnow addressed the crowd.

“|Calming Words|. My fellow neighbors. Please, let us be calm. Today has been a most unfortunate day, I know this. There is reason for alarm. But there is reason to rejoice, as well. Are we not alive? We have suffered an attack by an entire host of monsters, yet we live. Helmrest remains strong!”

Jack saw that the villagers had half-way calmed down and most were unconsciously nearing Mr. Winnow as he spoke.

“Some of us have been wounded. A few have died. But with the monsters following us here, our village remains mostly untouched. Indeed, now that the Nymph is gone, we are without her protection. But should we wish for the protection of one who has scorned us? No, I say! And more, we can now use this forest for ourselves. There is lumber and animals here. That is now ours.”

“He’s using some kind of Skill.” Elia whispered, appearing behind Jack, almost making him startle.

She seemed to have calmed down some and was now watching Mr. Winnow intently.

“Not just the |Calming Words| one. He spoke that one out loud, for effect. He’s using a second one, some kind of persuasion Skill.

Jack nodded. Like before, now that he knew what to look for, he noticed a pull inside himself. One that wormed its way into his mind, making him want to listen to the man speak. Even agree with him.

This is so wrong.

“But what if more monsters attack?” a woman asked. “Or bandits?”

“As your |Village Head|, I promise you, I will do my upmost to protect Helmrest and its people. No harm will come to you, as long as I lead and you listen to my instructions.”

“But we can’t even use the forest.” A man said. “It’s the boy’s now. The Nymph said so.”

At that statement, most of the heads in the crowd turned his way. Including Mr. Winnow’s, who wore a vengeful expression across his face. The fact that he was smiling didn’t help matters at all.

Well, shit.

“So she did. But I ask you this. Was it right for her to do this? Is it her right to give away this forest to a boy? To an outsider? Before the Nymph came, this forest belonged to Helmrest. We hunted in it, we used its timber. Of course, we allowed her to use it, because she gave us her protection in turn. But now that she is gone, now that there is no more protection, why should we respect her wish?”

As much of a firebrand Jack could be at times, he wasn’t one for public speaking. He didn’t know it before, but just the idea of addressing the entire crowd made him slightly nauseous. If this went on, Mr. Winnow would most likely win over the crowd, take over the forest and probably kick Jack and Mrk out of their clearing. It was that last thought that finally put some fire into Jack’s belly. He couldn’t allow himself and Mrk to be kicked out. He couldn’t allow him to win this, when he had been cowering the entire fight.

Though, the grin that had appeared on Mr. Winnow’s face as he addressed the crowd helped too.

You dick!

“Look, Melena, the Nymph, said so herself that the animals in this forest will still be protected. And that the monsters will stay away. She didn’t mention for how long, but I don’t think her magic will go away that quickly.” Jack spoke, with more confidence than he felt.

That seemed get the villagers attention.

“I get that you don’t know me and that you don’t want me to inherit this forest. But I’m not sure if her wish for me to own it doesn’t tie into the whole… uh, magic that keeps this place running. Oh! About the bandits. You should all maybe think about hiring some guards.”

“But our village isn’t rich enough for guards!” the woman from before spoke up.

“It’s richer than most. For a village, we’re doing pretty good.” Another voice said.

“If you own this forest, can we at least fell some trees in it? I can pay you.”

“I need wood too!”

“I’ll pay you if you if you let me hunt!” a man said. “Oh… wait, is the no hunting rule tied to the magic too?”

The general opinion was shifting to match Jack’s words. He saw that. And if he did, then so did Mr. Winnow.

“My people! Don’t listen to this vagrant. Look at him! His very name is Jack. What do we know about him, except that he lives in our sacred forest? He is friends with the village whore. He keeps a half-monster as a pet. Why should we trust him? We should we hand him over our forest?” Why…”

Mr. Winnow’s eye lighted up, as if he had just remembered something important.

Or had just come up with a good lie.

“Why has the Nymph changed? She has protected us for years! Suddenly, this boy comes and she decides to abandon us, when our need for her was greatest. She said so herself, this boy is the reason why she chose to let us fight alone! What if it was him who persuaded her?”

“What? Are you stupid, she just said it was Rosa who-“

“|Right to Speak| Don’t listen to him, my neighbors! True, the Nymph acted as she had been instructed. But her superior, this Rosa, it was her who Jack had corrupted. It is because of him that today we fought alone!”

“You didn’t… even… fight…”

Jack felt like every word he managed to get out was ripping his throat apart. It wasn’t a physical compulsion that wanted to make Jack let Mr. Winnow speak. It was a mental one. But it was strong.

“People have died! Families have been torn apart. And for what? I will tell you. Our village is wealthy. Strong. And this boy wants it all for himself. He wanted to leave us without protection, so that he and his monster pet could take over. He wants to be ruler of both forest and village. Look at him! Look at the Jack!”

As far as accusations went, it was flimsy. The reasoning was shabby, the story was full of holes and Mr. Winnow wasn’t exactly known for being a perfectly honest man. But people were tired and scared and angry. They needed to take their ire out on somebody. Anybody. The fabricated tale that made Jack out to be the villain was absurd, but the villagers were at the limits of their reasoning. And Mr. Winnow had Skills.

Jack saw all of that, as he took in the expressions across the villagers faces. Mr. Winnow’s allies, like Berlow, looked murderous. Yet, even besides them, there were quite a number of unfriendly looks turned his way.

“Mrk thinks we need leave.” His friend suddenly whispered behind him.

Jack had forgotten he was there, as caught up as he was. He had forgotten about his supporters.

“That’s bullshit, Mr. Winnow. Excuse the language, but what are you saying? That Jack has planned this? Are you out of-“

“Silence, woman! Lest you find yourself excluded from our village. You have served Helmrest, but we have no need for traitors. One more word and expulsion will be your punishment.”

Elia quieted down, but Jack saw how much she was fretting. This wasn’t over for her.

If I don’t do anything, she’d going to get kicked out. She won’t be able to keep her mouth shut.

He had to say something. But Mr. Winnow beat him to the punch.

“Speaking of punishments.” He said, eyeing Jack. “My fellows of Helmrest, I know your thoughts, because I think them too. For what this boy has done, for the calamity he has brought to our village, his punishment should be death!”

Whatever Jack was about to say, died in his throat. He heard a small sob behind him, but couldn’t tell if it was Mrk or Lola.

“Yet we have not fallen so low. No, my people, let us not bloody our hands further. Not for this filth. This boy is not of the village. And this forest is ours. I propose that we kick him out of it. We will take what meager possessions he has, as reparations for the dead. We will make use of the monster’s corpses, for it was we who killed them. And we will be rid of this unwanted influence on our home. All of you who are with me, raise your hands!”

By the time he finished speaking, Mr. Winnow had puffed up his chest and lifted up his hands. He looked like a demagogue, waiting for the signs of success coming from his people. And he saw them. Hands started sprouting up in the air. More and more.

Too many of them, if it comes to a fight. Got to make a break for it. I have to grab Mrk and… but what if they take it out on Lola and Elia? No, I need to grab them too and… huh?

Mr. Winnow saw his dearly wished-for hands, going up. Quite a number of them. But not enough. It was left than half of the villagers who had raised their hands. More than that, the rough number seemed to be around only a quarter of the people present. Jack saw in on their faces, too. Those who had raised their hands were catching on that they were in the minority and eyeing their neighbors with clear distaste.

Of those that hadn’t, perhaps a quarter of them looked hesitant. Like they wanted nothing more than to not be there. They weren’t looking at Jack or at Mr. Winnow. They were simply staring at the ground or at the trees, avoiding all eye contact.

But the remaining villagers were a surprise to Jack. They weren’t smiling at him, not exactly, but they weren’t frowning at him either. There were those among them that frowned at Mr. Winnow, however. Jack thought that Mr. Winnow’s little speech would have turned everyone against him, but it seems the Helmrest folk were hardy. Well, at least a good number of them were.

“What is this? You side with the Jack?” he asked, incredulously.

No one seemed inclined to answers, even though some clearly wanted to speak their mind.

“They’re traitors, Mr. Winnow.” One of the women who had raised her hand spoke. “They prefer that filth over our own.”

That, however, seemed to be the final drop in the bucket.

“Traitor? You’re calling us traitors?” another woman called out. “That boy saved us!”

“We all fought here! Not just him.” A man said.

“I’m not talking about here! I meant in the village. It was thanks to him and Mr. Elia that those bats left us alone. It was her herbs alright, but it was him who lighted them up. And he helped spread the smoke around. How many more would have died if he hadn’t done that?”

That seemed to shut the other woman up, though other voices rose in her stead.

“But it was because of him that we had to fight in the first place! If it wasn’t for him, the Nymph would have saved us!”

“And how is that his fault? The Nymph did what she did, but how is Jack to blame?”

“Aha! So, you’re calling him Jack now!”

“That’s his name! Or are you too thick to remember it?”

“My people!” Mr. Winnow called out. “I understand your thoughts, I do! And I feel-“

“So, what, we’re supposed to just let it all go? Let him walk free?” a man suddenly yelled.

It seemed that the situation got out of Mr. Winnow’s hands. Sure, he had those who he had swayed and that were in his camp, but even those villagers were now too incensed to listen to pretty little speeches. They wanted something to be done. And they were more inclined to arguing then listening.

The bad part for, Mr. Winnow and his supporters, was that they were in the minority. Those in support of Jack were slightly more numerous and even the fence-sitters were nodding at what the woman who had spoken up for Jack said.

“Of course, let him walk free. And don’t forget, it was his Skill that ended the fight!” Elia spoke up.

“That’s right!” a man said. “If it weren’t for that, we would have all died. He saved us!”

“And he had help too.” Said the woman from before. “I saw Lola use a Skill on him, got him back in the fight.”

A loud sniff came from Mr. Winnow.

“What Skill, pray tell, could a whore use in a fight?” he asked.

“It was |Renewed Vigor|.” Lola said.

Her voice was a little shaky, but she met Mr. Winnow’s eyes when she spoke.

“It’s a Skill from my Class. And in case you’re about to say that I am lying, I am not. There are a number of those here that saw me use it before.” She said, pointedly.

Some shuffled feet and muffled voices, but nobody disputed what she said. It seemed nobody wanted to contradict her, since they knew perfectly well in just what kind of situations they saw her use that Skill.

“It was Miss. Elia, Lola and Jack who saved us. Both in the village and here. And you lot best remember that before you go throwing stones.”

“People of Helmrest, I hear your words. And as |Village Head|, I will heed them. Perhaps the punishment of expulsion is too great. For all his… deficits, the boy has been of some use. I will allow him to stay in this forest and even enter the village, should he prove to no longer be a nuisance. The corpses of these monsters, however, belong to Helmrest. And the coin to be made of them belongs to the people of Helmrest.”

Nobody spoke for a few seconds after that. Laying the blame at Jack’s feet was one thing, but when there was coin involved, the intrinsic greed of humans reared its ugly head.

At least, that was what Jack thought.

“No, Mr. Winnow.” An elderly man said. “Even without hearing what that Nymph said, Jack was the one to save us. Oh, we killed some ourselves, true enough, but he killed the rest. No, Mr. Winnow, let the boy have the corpses, for all the good it’ll do him.”

“Are you– Old timer! We could use the coin to fix Helmrest! Listen to me!” Mr. Winnow told him.

Jack felt the now familiar pull of his words and was about to mention that he was using a Skill, when the old man beat him to the punch too.

“I don’t much like you using your Skills on me, Mr. Winnow. I can make my own decisions. Besides, we all know we won’t be seeing any of the coin. They’ll all go to your family’s new horse or your lad’s new sword or whatnot.”

“Watch your tongue, old man! I am still |Village Head| and I can still dole out punishment!”

“Aye, you are. But we chose you as |Village Head|. And right now, Mr. Winnow, it looks to me like we need to choose someone else.”

That was the first time Jack saw anything resembling fear in Mr. Winnow’s expression. It was gone in a heartbeat, but it was there.

So that’s what you’re afraid of. Losing your power.

The air was becoming tense and everyone could feel it. There was almost no chance of a fight starting, but that wasn’t the point. Helmrest was big for a village, but it was still a village. People didn’t make enemies of each other, usually. After all, they were a small community and who knew when you needed the help of someone you scorned. Yet, the two camps were eyeing each other distrustfully. And the old man, who had just made a subtle threat to Mr. Winnow’s leadership, belonged in the larger camp.

“It seems I have been mistaken.” Mr. Winow said. “I am not a proud man, so I can admit it. If it is the will of the people to leave this boy be and gift him with the prize of our victory, then so be it. I will respect it, as I respect your will in all things. But now, my people, I believe we should return to our village. It is almost dawn and we are all tired. I know I am. Let us leave this forgotten forest and go back to our homes.”

That said, he turned and began walking towards the village. His supporters did as well, after a moment of hesitation. Perhaps they were still itching for a fight, but didn’t truly want one in the absence of their leader. The undecided villagers followed them too. The ones who had spoken up for Jack, however, or had simply silently rooted for him, stayed back for a few more moments. Some simply nodded at him or smiled. But a few muttered thanks.

A couple stood out from the crowd. The woman who spoke up for him, at the very start and the elderly man who confronted Mr. Winnow. They actually came and shook his hand.

“My thanks, boy. I didn’t know what to think of you at first, but you saved us. You really did.”

“She speaks the truth, lad. I thought these old bones had seen their final harvest, but you proved me wrong. Thank you!”

Eola and Randal, Jack learned their names were.

I’ll remember them. I’ll remember everyone who stood up for me.

If it wasn’t for the exhaustion, Jack’s eyes might have become watery. He used his Gift to save them and lost the chance of becoming a warrior or gaining magic. But he got something else. Acceptance.

As he watched the final villagers trickle out of his clearing, Jack felt like Helmrest might actually become a good place to live in.

***

It was dawn, when he finally reached the village. He was tired and in need of sleep, when he entered his house. But his task wasn’t over yet. Not exactly. His son had gone to sleep long ago, no care in the world, but his wife had waited for him. Just as he thought she would.

She knew the risks. The tender balance of running a village like they did. She also knew just what losing the refuge meant.

Mrs. Winnow was proud and more of a firebrand than her husband could ever be, but in matters of plotting, they thought alike. He told her what happened after she left. Of the failure in punishing the boy. Of the loss of resources and the coin not to be made from the monster parts. But, most importantly, he told her of the challenge to his authority.

“Peasants.” She scoffed. “Don’t listen to what they say, dear. A few cuts to their purse and they’ll get back on track.”

“Normally, I would agree with you, my love. But you had to have been there to see what I saw. It isn’t that those who stood for the boy were larger in number. It is that they resisted my Skills.”

She went quiet after hearing that. She knew all too well what that meant. The Winnows didn’t rule Helmrest because they were well liked or even good at administrating it. They ruled because of Skills and coin. And Mr. Winnow’s Skills as |Village Head| were geared towards only two things. Making coin and influencing people.

If the villagers started resisting his Skills, how long would it be until his control over them shattered.

“What should we do? Give them more coin, buy their trust?” she asked.

“Normally, that would be my choice as well. But the refuge is gone. We will need coin, to pay for guards. At least to safeguard us.”

She nodded, in sync with her husband. But then she frowned.

“My dear, I can see where your thoughts are turning to. We cannot hand out coin, so the next option is goodwill. But I will not pander to that rabble.”

“My love, that is farthest from my intention. I will not allow my family to act like commoners.”

“But then… what should be done?”

He smiled then, the smile of a man who had talked himself out of the mud and into the silver.

“Why, my dear, I think it is time for Helmrest to become a town.”

***

Jack sat on one of his stools, around the fire. They looked like actual stools now, thanks to Mrk’s handiwork. The short ratling stood opposite him, both feasting on a much-deserved stew, tired, but too hungry to sleep. Jack had told his goodbyes to Lola and Elia, who had finally gone back to the village as well. Of course, not before Elia had a few words with Jack.

She told him what she knew of harvesting monster parts. Which was not that much, in reality. It wasn’t her profession, so she only knew a little about butchering them. She did, however, mention that she had all the herbs required for preserving said harvest and even started discussing what she could sell or use in potions, before Lola’s yawning became too distracting.

But it was Elia’s final words that made Jack think.

“The Nymph’s magic won’t last forever, Jack. You’re safe for the time-being, but soon both predator and prey will live in this forest. And that’s just the animals. Bandits and monsters will come too, they always do. The village will look out for itself, one way or another, but you need better protections. And… I know it’s a little selfish, but if you can think of a way to protect the village too, I think everyone would be thankful. I don’t know why the Nymph left this refuge to you, but she must have had a reason.”

So, there’s a time limit. And within that time, I’ll need to make sure me and Mrk are better protected. And I either get Lola to come live with me here or find a way to protect her in the village.

His thoughts soon turned to the men and women who had been on his side that day.

And I guess… protect the villagers too. Which means turning this forest into a safe place again. Great. Easy-peasy.

The was too tired to get angry. Worriedness was the prevalent feeling.

How the fuck am I going to do this?

He got a reply, if not exactly an answer. But since Jack didn’t speak his question out loud, it wasn’t his friend who replied.

|New Class Available: Skirmisher|

|Class Level and Skills accessible after acceptance. |

|Accept new class? |

|Spell Received: Ensnaring Vines|

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