Ashfeld was a very small farming village. It boasted only a couple hundred residents and only half of those were able-bodied, the rest mostly young children and old farmers weathered by the years. It was the type of village that was ruled by the rhythm of the sun. Most of the residents were farmers and those that weren't helped the farmers by making the things they needed, like tools and clothes. And even these tradesmen worked the fields when it was time to plant and harvest.
“So this is where you grew up,” Zelgadis said, walking along one of the only main roads beside the infamous trickster priest. Honestly, he was kind of underwhelmed, but then what had he been expecting?
“Mmhmm,” Xellos confirmed, smiling his usual grin before he paused. “Well, not really. That town has been destroyed – a couple of times actually. But this is the same spot, probably all the same stones, perhaps even some of the timbers. The river here is strong and abundant, the land is fertile, and the sea can be reached in a half day on foot. Humans have always lived here, and the name Ashfeld has managed to remain along with some of the old traditions.”
Zel nodded, watching the mazoku speak with . . . was it nostalgia? Pride? Homesickness? But he thought he could hear a tinge of hatred as well. “The rural places always seem to be tied with the past. It just . . . takes longer for the new to reach them.”
Not for the first time, Zelgadis caught a couple of townsfolk glance their way. He frowned a bit and reached to pull his hood lower. Xellos chuckled softly though. “For once, they're not looking at you.”
The shaman looked at him, then back at the villagers. It was true, even without his staff, Xellos was the one attracting the attention, curious looks thrown their way as they continued down the road. “But you haven't been here in . . .”
“More than a century. And it was several more centuries since my visit before that,” Xellos commented simply, as if talking about the weather. It was strange, Zelgadis thought, having the mazoku be so open with him about something. “But there are . . . stories in this town.”
Zelgadis frowned at him slightly. “Is there anything you can tell me?” The other was silent and the shaman only frowned more. “Or, anything you think I should look for before I leave?”
“I’ve told you, I'm not sure what you are looking for,” Xellos said and gave him a brief open-eyed frown. “And no. I can't.” His eyes shut but the frown remained as he glanced around the street. “In fact, I do need to be on my way.”
“Orders?” Zelgadis asked with a growl, not sure why he should be so upset about something he already knew.
Xellos nodded slightly. “That . . . but also my presence here will attract . . . trouble.” A mazoku's energy lingering around an insignificant town would almost certainly attract other mazoku and who knew what other threats. Xellos had already spent several days here while Zelgadis recovered, but the shaman frowned, suspecting there was more to it than that. An older woman passed them, her eyes fixed on Xellos' face until she was past. The purple-haired man just ignored her, putting his typical grin back in place.
“Well, I suppose we're parting ways then,” Zel said with a small frown himself. “I intend to stick around a few days at least, I went through a lot to find this place.”
“Believe me, no one has ever gone to so much trouble to come to Ashfeld.” Xellos sighed slightly. “I really must go. But I'm sure our paths will cross again soon.”
The mazoku turned a corner, Zel just behind him. But as he rounded the corner himself, Zelgadis found he was suddenly alone. He blinked slightly, but then just looked around the dusty street. Dusty described the town well, everything was vaguely brown. Zel looked over the run-down buildings before heading into what appeared to be the general store to start asking some questions.
Dusty was not actually the best word to describe Ashfeld, the word really was small. Since the majority of the residents were farmers, their houses and lands spread out to accommodate the fields they worked. The town itself was barely two dozen buildings with only the two crossing main roads. They didn't have anything resembling a library or even a proper school building. They had no temples or churches, only a house on the edge of the town that was brightly decorated and apparently served as a shrine, with healers that served as the village doctors. But they did have the inn, with a dozen rooms, and there were a few restaurants lining the largest road.
Zelgadis had been directed to another store in town. It sold more specialty goods, things that were not sought that often and therefore only filled half of the building. The back had apparently been devoted to records and storage for the town and Zelgadis was given permission to look. There was disappointingly little information. There were several pieces of very old art, but the actual records only went back a couple hundred years. Zelgadis spent the entire afternoon reading and was able to go through all of it before the sun set.
There was some information about a disaster around a century ago and Zelgadis noted the timing of that. It was a pretty big coincidence, though he didn't know exactly when Xellos had been here last. There was also reference to a few older disasters, and a grand temple that had been built during the great mazoku war. But there weren't even descriptions of that, frustrating the shaman.
As it began to grow dark, the shop owner came back to shoo Zel out so he could close up. Zelgadis left without complaint, thanking him for his generosity. He also asked for a recommendation for dinner and was pointed to a small tavern called The Drunken Maidens. It wasn't anything fancy, but the aromas of cooking food made the air smell wonderful.
Zelgadis was attracting attention again, the few villagers on the street casting odd looks his way. Without Xellos, he knew he was earning the stares himself and it made him uncomfortable. But he tried to ignore it, stepping into the tavern and looking for a worker. Almost at once, one of the two girls behind the bar spotted him. She squeaked and Zelgadis frowned behind his mask.
But then the girl was moving, not with fear as the chimera was used to, but towards him with obvious excitement. “You're here!”
Zelgadis blinked and frowned a bit more. “It would seem so,” he said slowly.
She was a tiny little thing, shorter than Amelia and not old enough to drink herself. But she grasped Zel by the wrist and tugged him forward slightly. “Come have a seat. Are you hungry? What would you like?”
“Coffee . . .” the shaman said hesitantly. “And cooked fish?”
“We have a wonderful fish special. One of my sisters will be right out with it!” She absolutely beamed at him before skittering away.
Zelgadis watched her go, completely baffled. She didn't go behind the bar again and the older girl that remained there was giving Zelgadis the more usual confused and wary stare. There was only one other table filled and the young teens there weren't paying him any attention at all.
The young girl was back in moments with both coffee and tea, leaving with another bright smile. The shaman just shook his head and lowered his mask to drink. It wasn't very long before another woman approached the table. She carried a platter with food that she placed in front of Zel with a smile. He took a smell of the meal and smiled himself in approval.
Then the woman lowered herself into the opposite chair. Zelgadis' smile faded, suddenly tense as he watched her closely. “It is very nice to meet you. My name is Sara.”
“Zelgadis,” the shaman answered warily.
The woman just smiled at him. “Sorry, I should introduce myself properly. I am one of the Maidens here in town. We are an order of . . . storytellers, I guess. Secret keepers.”
Zelgadis relaxed some, but he kept frowning at her. This woman was dressed simply, in the clothes of a farmer and topped by a stained and yellowing apron. She didn't seem that much of a threat and she certainly didn't look like a shrine maiden. “You've been expecting me I take it?”
“Here or one of the other eateries. I've been waiting for a sister to call.”
Sister, that's what the young girl had said as well. Logically then, she was one of these 'Maidens' as well. But having a member so young just made the idea more confusing. “Why have you been waiting for me?”
She smiled again, motherly and kind. “We noticed you asking around town for information. We also noticed your companion,” she said with import. “I'm here to help, you won't find much of anything written down anymore.”
Zelgadis was still wary, but any offer of help was worth at least listening to. Slowly he tried a bite of his food and nodded for Sara to continue.
She looked a bit relieved as she began. “The Maidens keep stories alive in this town. The records have been destroyed, lost, burned. Ashfeld itself has been completely leveled more than once. But stories, an oral tradition, that can be kept alive so long as even one sister breathes. Our order was started a thousand years ago, during the great war between monsters and dragons. Everything from that long ago was destroyed in a fire, but we still remember, we still tell the stories.”
Zelgadis noted the timing again, suddenly much more interested in what this woman had to say. “Why not write your stories down again?”
Sara almost looked horrified and shook her head. “Knowledge is a weapon, it attracts danger. Besides, an oral tradition can be felt and it can be guarded. You will only hear the stories you are supposed to hear. The written records were destroyed because a mazoku came to this place and razed the village to the ground. If we record them again, history is sure to repeat.” She said this with a bit of real fear, but then her voice turned more thoughtful.
“There was a time, many centuries ago, when we thought the end was near. Ultimately we decided not to record the stories, if we died, they would die with us. There was a blight sweeping the lands. Crops withered, fish were scarce, and people were dying. Our order is a healing order and we tended the ill, offered rites when appropriate, and helped bury the dead. At the worst of it, every one of our sisters was ill and it looked like the entire town would disappear.
“And then he came. He was just there one day, working at a table set up in the graveyard. One of the Maidens at the time went to speak with this mysterious stranger and she told the most amazing tale when she came back to her sisters. This man could create a cure. It would not save all, and it didn't, but it was better than nothing. It saved the town and our order continued on.”
“Who was this man?” Zelgadis asked, already sure he knew the answer.
“Hm, that was the question. According to the Maiden that spoke to him, he was a strange, smiling priest with purple hair who never opened his eyes. The exact description of the mazoku that burned the village centuries before. And exactly the companion you were seen with in town.” The woman leaned closer, laying one hand on Zelgadis' arm. “I am happy you're here and I will gladly share with you what we know. You are free to pass on the stories to anyone you wish, even him.” Her tender smile faded, her eyes serious. “But you must promise not to reveal where they came from. Don't tell Xellos who we are.”
Zelgadis' eyes widened a bit. He hadn't used the mazoku's name at all in the town. The fact that she knew it made him feel nervous, but he nodded just the same. He had just stumbled right into the information he wanted.