Wood creaked as a handful of empty wagons were pulled into position behind the others. Khadagan inspected the empty beds, the pungent odor of Stinkcrow and Bull Nettle wafting up in his nostrils. The gaps had been filled with the fibrous, sticky paste as he had instructed; a few hours out in the sun and they would be ready.
The barbarian turned away to clear his nose and found himself staring across the expanse of their caravan – if such a word could still be used to describe the mass of people that now travelled with them. A city’s worth of refugees, freed slaves, and adopted men-at-arms surrounded his rolling garden. Many of those people, he knew, were looking to that garden for their next meal.
Making his way to the central part of this smaller, internal caravan, Khadagan inspected the dirt-filled beds containing the sourgrass, oca, and goodberry bushes. He couldn’t grow enough food fast enough to keep everyone fed. Everyone who wasn’t strictly carnivorous, he amended. He sighed heavily and looked at the two wagons that carried his most treasured specimens – would he have to give them up only to produce more food?
_ It’s not fair._
Khadagan wasn’t sure where the thought came from, but … it was right, wasn’t it? A handful of them were out there risking their lives – no giving – their lives and these vagrants, these …
_ … parasites …_
Yes, parasites, were expecting a handout on top of it all? Like a swarm of locusts, only they traveled with the swarm, and added to it every chance they got. So many mouths to feed. The problem wasn’t his garden, it wasn’t his ability to grow food, it was them, out there.
_ Fix it, make less to feed._
Something felt off, he wasn’t really thinking this was he?
_ So easy_ … the sensation of drawing a blade across a throat. The smell of blood …
“No!” Khadagan hissed, “Stop it.” He shook his head, as if the darkness within could be so easily cast out.
“We was just lookin’. Honest.” The hermit’s eyes snapped open to find a scrawny young man standing before him, flanked by a couple of girls.
“I … what?”
It suddenly took a great deal of effort to stand perfectly still.
“My sister, Cirinia,” the boy indicated an equally scrawny girl to his left, “she likes your flowers.”
“The glowing ones,” Cirinia whispered, looking down.
“I like the purple ones,” said the other girl, “They’re the prettiest.”
“That’s Maa,” said the boy, rolling his eyes, “She’s always followin’ us around.”
“Am not, Jelme! I came by myself to see the colors. You just happened to be here.”
Khadagan felt the stirring within him subside, “Those?” He nodded to the lotuses, “They are pretty. And dangerous. Be careful around them.”
“How could a flower be dangerous?” said the boy – Jelme.
“You’d be surprised.” said the barbarian. “This one,” he pointed at a green lotus, “can paralyze. The purple one makes you sick.”
“What about the black one?” said Maa.
“That one kills,” whispered Cirinia.
“That’s right,” said Khadagan, “How’d you know that?”
Cirinia shrugged and looked at her feet, “Just seemed like it.”
“If those can kill, why raise any of the others?” asked Jelme, “Use ‘em on the beast men that run us off.”
“Eventually,” sighed Khadagan, “But right now, there are more important things to grow.”
“Like what?” said Maa.
“Like food.” said Cirinia.
“Well, sure, but food ain’t pretty.” was Maa’s reply.
“Pretty and important rarely ride together.” said Khadagan, weighing an idea. And for once it didn’t have to do with killing. “Have you seen the Gardner?”
“Uh, ain’t you the gardner?” asked Jelme.
Khadagan snorted. “Yes, but I meant the spirit that helps me tend this garden.”
“We heard about a rock monster that pops up from time to time, but we ain’t seen it.”
“Would you like to?”
“Uh, is it dangerous?” asked Jelme.
The barbarian rubbed the stubble on his large jaw, “I guess he could be, if someone tried to hurt our garden.” He looked at the kids.
“Oh, we wouldn’t do that. We love it here! It makes forget about being away from home.” said Maa.
“Okay, give me a moment.”
Khadagan closed his eyes and tried to still his mind. It was getting harder to contact the spirits ever since their trip into the deep fade. Something had descended upon him there in the deepest darkness and bored into his spirit. The last time he had spoken to the Gardner – the sentient embodiment of rock and soil that helped his garden produce far beyond what it might normally be capable of producing – it had been unexpectedly difficult to make contact. Not like it had been before. He briefly regretted not chewing on some yokeleaf first, just in case he needed a boost.
The hermit visualized his mind extending down, around the shadow in his heart, and down from the soles of his feet into the ground, seeking that spark of nature and life that made things grow. Slowly, distantly, he felt a reply – like the waking of a far off giant. A soft vibration become a moderate (albeit localize) tremor as an empty patch of ground between the wagons speared upwards and settled into the vague approximation of Steppefolk.
The kids gasped, caught somewhere between fear and delight, drawing the Gardener’s attention. Despite lacking any discernible facial features, Khadagan could almost feel the look of puzzlement as the spirit turned towards him. “This is Maa, Jelme, and Cirinia,” he said, indicating each in turn, “They were admiring your handiwork.”
The gardner turned back towards the trio.
“Oh, we love your flowers!” said Maa.
“Um, thanks for the food.” said Jelme.
Cirinia, who had hidden behind her brother initially, appeared to be enthralled with the entity looming over them. She took a hesitant step forward, then another, and raised a small hand. The Gardner regarded this curiously, then extended an appendage of rock and dirt. Green tendrils sprouted from the end, curling in like pliant fingers – all but one, which extended towards the youngest child. They touched.
Khadagan found himself holding his breath. Most of the party had encountered the spirits at some point since their long journey began, but this was the first time he’d witnessed an interaction like this.
Then, like a sprout breaking up through the soil, an idea presented itself.
“Would you kids be interested in helping us with the garden?” he looked at the Gardner, whose massive moss covered shoulders appeared to shrug in reply.
“Really?” Nervous excitement was written on their faces.
“I could teach you what you need to know, and you can take care of things when I’m away. The Gardner can help, too.” he turned to Cirinia, “It looks like you’ve got a … feeling for this.”
“Even the lotuses?” asked Jelme.
“Let’s start with food and ironwood, we’ll work up to the more delicate plants as you learn more.”
“When can we start?” asked Maa.