Then he left, bidding Godon and the villagers farewell.
Baldo’s horse gradually picked up pace.
Before long was it going at a speed far too fast for the mountain path it galloped along.
There was not a moment to waste, however, for the boy desperately needed medicine.
As if understanding the turmoil in his heart, the chestnut-colored horse extended its neck and legs, hurrying forward as best it could.
It paid no heed to the occasional branches and brush that whipped it in the nose.
Horses were timid creatures, but by understanding the hearts of their riders would they turn courageous instead.
Baldo had entrusted all of his belongings to Godon, lightening the load.
The two sped through the mountains, man and horse as one.
Baldo heard a certain rumor in a village in the eastern outskirts of the greater Excela region.
It claimed that beyond the mountains to the north was a small settlement where one would find an exceptionally delicious neule dish.
There was nothing special about neule, a small fish that lived in nearly every swamp.
They loved squirming through the mud with their slimy, long, and thin bodies.
It was certainly not a tasty creature.
Not only were they bony and difficult to eat, but they smelled of grime.
For a good while after eating would one be subjected to an indescribably pungent aftertaste.
They were full of nutrition, however.
Even a child would find it simple to catch one as well, thus were they a staple in impoverished households across the land.
Eating too much would bloat the stomach.
Baldo himself often ate such fish as a child.
Even after becoming a knight would he sometimes eat it as well, holed up in the fort near Jhan Dessa Roh in the dead of winter.
They were an invaluable ingredient, found sleeping in the half-frozen mud.
That was not to say Baldo ever found the process of eating them a pleasant one.
Such talk of a dish that turned neule into a delicacy was sure to rouse his interest.
“Surely there is no salvaging neule, no matter how much you dress it up,”
was the response Godon gave, clearly doubtful, but the two headed north nevertheless.
After scaling the mountain was there a deep ravine, traversable by a suspended bridge.
They would never dare cross the bridge on horseback, thus the two dismounted, leading the horses behind them.
They attached blinders to the horses’ eyes to prevent them from panicking.
“I suppose we will need to cross this bridge once more on our way back,”
There was only a single path, leading the two to the settlement without fail.
They were certainly a rare sight in these parts, two large warriors atop horses.
Their presence attracted gazes at every turn.
We wish to eat neule, they said, thus were they brought to a small hut.
The people of the settlement were polite and hospitable, knowing full well the two were a source of precious coin.
Baldo was told an elderly man named Peanin would prepare them the meal.
“I’m mighty impressed you folks’ve managed to make it all the way out here.
The others are out right now goin’ to catch some neule.
A crying shame we don’t have any spirit fit for great warriors like yourselves,”
he said, pouring them a cloudy white alcohol with a tinge of sweetness.
It was made from fermented grain.
Likely brewed from plun, considering how much it was grown in these parts.
It’s great, said Baldo, and even Godon, who eyed the drink with a certain amount of suspicion, had to admit,
“I say, not bad.”
After they had taken two or three sips, Old Man Peanin started to mash what looked to be some kind of root and said,
“The thing about neule, you see.
Eat it raw, and the taste is divine.
Not a hint of bitterness on the meat.
One small problem, though.
It’ll surely do a number on your stomach after.”
Neule was eaten stewed, and it had never occurred to the two to eat it raw.
Considering the old man was so confident in the effects of raw neule on the stomach led the two to think he had some experience in that area.
The old man Peanin then added several types of leaves to the bowl and ground the mixture some more.
“The thing about neule, you see.
When the lil’ fellers are attacked or experience great stress, the insides of their stomach turn terribly bitter.
Those bitter juices are what turn the entire thing sour.”
When Baldo finished his cup, a boy who turned out to be Old Man Peanin’s grandson came to refill it.
A little while later he came once more to fill Godon’s cup as well.
In the meantime, the neule arrived.
All of the residents of this settlement joined hands to catch the neule, thus was the bucket filled to the brim with them in a matter of moments.
Old Man Peanin replaced the water many times, thoroughly cleaning the neule, and then he added the root and leaf paste to the bucket.
Baldo moved closer and looked inside the bucket with fascination.
The fish were all excreting a yellowish stream of liquid from their mouths.
“Once they throw this all up, they’ll never taste bitter again,”
Old Man Peanin said.
To Baldo’s questions, he responded that this mixture of roots and leaves was something he had stumbled on over many years of experimentation.
He did not even know the names of what it was he used.
Before long, the neule could not throw up any more.
Old Man Peanin washed them one more time and took two scoops of the bucket, putting them into a pot.
He skimmed some liquid from the grain alcohol cask and poured it into the pot as well.
Godon too was mesmerized, staring intently at the process.
The old man placed the pot over a weak flame.
“You have to cook the neule after the fellers are already in the water.
Putting them directly into boiling water will only make ‘em go buckwild, turning the meat rough,”
muttered Old Man Peanin, quietly as if to himself, then to his grandson he said,
“Should be ready now.”
The boy rushed out of the hut and quickly returned, small dish in hand.
Old Man Peanin silently dumped the contents of said dish into the pot.
“This here is a hard custard, made from dwejer eggs and wild yam.
Good thing we just happened to have some eggs, I’d say.”
He then gradually started to increase the size of the fire.
He had years of experience working with the kindling, and with expert skill was he able to subtly control the strength of the flame.
The sweet smell of alcohol started to billow from the pot and fill the hut.
It was then something astounding took place.
The neule swimming about the gradually heated alcohol inside the pot all suddenly started to burrow inside the custard.
“Even us men and woman will abandon the proper path on a sunny day in search of shade.”
So that’s what it was.
Though, is the custard itself not hot as well?
“The wild yam serves to disperse the heat.
In reality, however, the inside of the custard is in fact a touch hotter than the simmering wine.”
One of the neule occasionally peeked out of the custard, but they would soon burrow their heads back inside.
The custard was shaking something fierce.
The neule inside were surely writhing and thrashing about.
But soon it all stopped.
Old Man Peanin lowered the heat and continued to boil the custard.
He stared carefully at the pot.
His head did not stray a fraction—it was as if witnessing the craft of a wiseman.
Then it was at that moment the old man quietly muttered, There, and removed the pot from the flame.
He deftly cut the custard into two, put them on a couple of small dishes, and placed them atop the table.
“And now it’s ready to eat.”
Baldo and Godon sat down on the chairs.
With wooden spoons they scooped into the custard.
Steamed billowed out.
They blew on the spoon to cool the custard down, and then each took a single bite.
Baldo had never tried custard like this before.
He thought it would have a hard texture, considering it had been boiled for so long, but that could not have been further from the truth.
It was soft and spongy.
Spongy, yet sufficiently firm.
After letting the flavors thoroughly caress his tongue, he bit down.
A mellow taste burst forward, an indescribable taste that was somehow both sweet and sharp.
Baldo without thinking ate the rest of the custard from his spoon.
What an unfathomable experience.
The taste and consistency that spread throughout every corner of his mouth and tongue delivered him a sensation that he had never felt before.
Baldo felt as if his throat was begging to try the food for itself, thus he finally swallowed.
The custard slid down his throat with satisfaction.
A rich aroma lingered in its wake.
This must be the rich fish oil extracted from the neule that seeped into the custard, thought Baldo.
He then stuck his spoon undaunted into the very center of the custard.
From it he scooped a portion full of neule and blew on it to cool it down before putting it in his mouth.
Why is it so sweet!
There wasn’t a wisp of the neule’s characteristic sliminess to be found.
The meat had been boiled to perfection, and it was tender as if a fish of the highest quality, melting like butter on the tongue.
The many troublesome bones dissolved as if dancing on the tongue, even accentuating the flavors.
This was a treasure chest of concentrated richness.
After thoroughly chewing it and swallowing all of the liquid was Baldo surprised by how filling a meal it was as well.
So too was that unpleasant aftertaste nowhere to be found.
The soup contained no trace of alcoholic harshness, and instead had turned into an exquisite soup from the neule’s oils.
Drinking the cloudy plun wine alongside it only further elevated the experience.
What a masterful combination this was.
Baldo finally looked up at Old Man Peanin.
As he stared at the man standing up, he could scarcely imagine this was a man born and brought up in the countryside.
He seemed to be a wise, sagely figure, one who possessed deep knowledge of the world.
He seemed to be a masterful figure, one who could create ripples even in the great cities with his exquisite dishes and techniques.
That was all Baldo could imagine.
This settlement was likely one of outcasts.
They were chased from their homes—the families of those who committed crimes or those who were unclean.
Those outcasts came together and created a place to live.
In isolation they lived, never to be segregated against.
Just what kind of life had this Old Man Peanin led?
There were two incidents that later occurred.
The suspended bridge snapped apart.
Apparently there was a cart full of luggage that attempted to cross that caused the bridge to break.
Fortunately was no one injured.
Then Peanin’s grandson was bitten by a venomous snake.
Baldo had no medicine on him that would work as an antidote.
The poison was not strong enough to kill an adult, however for a child, this was a matter of life and death.
The medicine would be easy enough to come by in the nearby village.
With the bridge fallen, however, there was no way of making it there.
Although not an impossible feat to scale the ravine and make it across that way, it was take far too much time.
Thankfully, both Baldo and Godon were in possession of horses.
Are there any other paths, he asked, to which they responded there was but one other option.
It was a longer route that first went east.
Yet that was the territory of the jamiin.
Among the demihuman races were jamiin rather short.
They resembled monkeys moreso than they did humans.
Once fully developed would they be about the same height as a twelve or thirteen year old boy.
As they often scoured tree bark for insects to eat, there were occasionally those that disparaged the jamiin, referring to them as Bug Eaters.
Their customs and values differed significantly from that of humans, thus did the two often fight when coming into contact.
Baldo was shocked to hear there was a jamiin territory located so close to the human village and settlement.
The jamiin were all without exception incredibly skilled with the bow.
They would almost certainly fire upon anyone they found intruding on their territory.
It would be folly to expect one could dodge their onslaught, arrows flying from every which direction.
This was the only way to save the boy, however.
Baldo volunteered for the responsibility and went thus.
The trail led into a forest dense with trees and overgrowth.
The chestnut-colored horse showed not even the smallest signs of fatigue.
It tore through the forest with dizzying speed.
Something moved in the trees above.
Baldo drew the ancient sword.
An arrow whizzed toward him.
He deflected it with the weapon.
The Jamiin were here, perched up in the trees.
Baldo tried to break through before he was found out and surrounded on all sides, but it was to no avail.
Arrows flew from the left and right.
The arrows that came from behind proved the most troublesome, but he at least had a heavy cloak to provide some protection.
An arrow embedded itself into his left shoulder.
It did not go deep, for it struck his shoulder guard first.
An arrow embedded itself into his back.
Right at a spot not covered by armor.
It was not enough to stop him from moving forward.
Yet, it was at that moment.
His entire body suddenly grew feverish, and his vision started to warp and blur.
It was poisoned!
He gripped the reins with all the strength he could muster, but in the end, everything slipped into darkness.
Baldo woke up to a bitter taste in his mouth.
He suspected someone had fed him a paste of medicinal herbs.
He had been laying on his back.
His body was numb all over, rendering him unable to move.
There were several jamiin surrounding him, saying this and that amongst themselves.
Their voices were shrill and grating.
Then they suddenly grew silent.
“You took road you must not take,”
said a slightly larger jamiin to Baldo in a human language.
The pronunciation was a little hard for Baldo to make out.
Please accept my apologies for trespassing upon your lands.
I am on a mission to save a child, and I had no other choice,
pleaded Baldo, but the jamiin appeared to not entirely understand or perhaps simply didn’t care to listen to him in the first place.
“Ancient spirit will decide your fate.”
Baldo bindings were loosened and he was ordered to stand.
With spears and arrows pointed at him from every direction, he was brought to an open space surrounded by wooden fences.
The area around the fences was teeming with towering trees.
There were an incredible number of jamiin high up in the branches of these trees, all staring down at Baldo.
They returned the ancient sword they originally took from him.
The jamiin exploded into cheers.
At the other side of the open space could Baldo see something else being brought into the enclosure.
He could scarcely believe his eyes.
It was a kaejel.
A turned yelgur.1
Six jamiin stood around it with long wooden poles in hand, poking and prodding at the beast to go where they wished.
This is absurd!
Why is the kaejel not slaughtering those jamiin on the spot!
Does this mean they know of some method to control them?
The poles in the hands of the six jamiin seemed to have something blue affixed to the tips.
With these poles still pointed at the beast, the six jamiin backed off and scurried outside the wooden fences.
The once-docile kaejel suddenly began to voice a low growl.
Baldo was at this point all too clear about what the jamiin meant by this display.
This open space was a combat arena.
They meant to have Baldo and the kaejel do battle.
Baldo’s mind was still foggy
His entire body was tired and sluggish.
Yet despite all of this did he force himself to get ready for the inevitable clash.
He swallowed all of the bitter herbs still in his mouth and removed his cloak, wrapping it around his left hand.
He took a slow, deep breath, stoking the fire in his heart.
In an instant was he able to forget the pain from his shoulder, hips, and even his head.
He honed his senses, and his body temperature began to rise.
The kaejel continued to growl.
With every passing moment did the tone become more threatening and sharp.
To think I must fight a turned yelgur alone and without shield or armor.
I have been in many a harrowing battle before, but I must say, none have seemed as hopeless at this.
If the ancient sword chose to exhibit its mysterious power would he have a sliver of a fighting chance.
It would of course be a great feat to even land a blow on the yelgur in the first place and an even greater feat to come out unscathed.
Yelgur possessed three eyes, similar to the dwarva.
Three-eyed beasts were often incredibly resilient, their hides difficult to pierce.
It would not be easy for Baldo to fell the creature in a single strike, but the same could not be said of the reverse.
Think, damn you!
The ancient sword has glowed thrice before.
Twice against kaejel, and once against human soldiers.
What did I do in each of those instances?
The yelgur lowered its body to the ground and then pounced at Baldo as if its entire body exploded.
What astonishing speed.
With a single leap it crossed the fourteen or fifteen paces between them in a flash of light.
Baldo tried to swing his weapon, aiming at the eyes of the beast.
Yet the enemy was far too quick, his sword far too short.
Before the ancient sword was able to descend was the turned yelgur already right before him.
Baldo immediately twisted his body to the side, managing to narrowly pull his head away from the path of the attack, yet the beast’s right forepaw sliced the right side of Baldo’s chest.
The yelgur landed some distance away, perhaps having accelerated too quickly into the jump.
It continued to run in that direction for a bit before turning completely around and once more starting to sprint for another attack.
Despite only being grazed by the kaejel’s claw, a gruesome gash was left behind.
Having evaded the first attack and watching the kaejel’s movements with a careful eye, Baldo continued to desperately think.
What did I do the first time?
At that time, I—
—I took the sword in my right hand and held the scabbard with my left.
And what was it I said?
The kaejel leapt at him a second time.
Its maw was open wide, coming to tear his jugular asunder.
Baldo swung the ancient sword.
It landed true on the kaejel’s nose, but even that was not enough to cause the beast to flinch.
The kaejel’s paws collided with Baldo’s shoulder, causing him to fall backward onto the ground.
This was a fortunate thing.
For the kaejel’s momentum did not weaken, and it continued to fly above Baldo, only managing to take his leather cap in its jaws.
Baldo was splayed out with his back on the ground, his white hair billowing about in the wind that followed in the wake of the kaejel’s pounce.
He immediately tried to get back onto his feet, but found his body refused to move for a moment after hitting the back of his head.
He heard the sounds of the beast’s footsteps, turning around and sprinting forward for yet another attack.
In his ears, Baldo heard the sound of hooves, of his dear steed come to take him from the land of the dead.
Baldo whispered this name on his lips, with neither any particular purpose nor intent, and it was then a pale turquoise glow came from the elgwordra in his right hand.
A warmth started to radiate from the sword, infusing Baldo’s body with life once more.
The kaejel came, aiming for Baldo’s throat, and with the ancient sword did he strike it on its nose.
The beast let loose a terrible screech and jumped back.
Baldo scrambled to his knees and struck down at the kaejel’s head.
The sword sank halfway through the creature’s skull.
Slowly it fell to the dirt.
And never moved again.
Baldo looked up at the jamiin, with his knees still rooted to the ground.
One of them appeared to be vigorously shouting.
Hearing its voice, Baldo could tell it was the very same jamiin that had spoken to him in human tongue before.
He was yelling something, clearly agitated.
As if roused by his words, the jamiin all began to notch arrows and ready their bows.
They were planning to kill Baldo.
It was at that moment a thunderous voice rang out.
Baldo could not understand what was said, for it was not in the human languages.
Yet the one who yelled had rushed up to Baldo, standing before him as if protecting him, continuing to shout up at the jamiin in the trees.
It was a very large jamiin.
A good fraction larger than the rest.
Upon listening to its words, the crowd of jamiin in the trees surrounding the arena all started to put away their arrows.
This large jamiin then aimed an arrow at the one who could speak in human tongues and yelled something in a threatening tone.
His head drooped as if in shame.
You have managed an incredible feat, slaying a spirit beast—and a yelgur at that.
You are an unfathomable hero.
I am the hero Iyemeté of Clan Tessala.
Tell me your name,”
said the large jamiin warrior with an impressive grasp of the human language as he looked up at Baldo.
Baldo gave him his name.
I do not know your circumstances for I have just returned.
Tell me, why were you doing battle with our clan’s spirit beast?”
Baldo gave as succinct an explanation as he could.
“So you came through these lands in order to save the grandchild of an old man named Peanin, who lives in the mountains to the west?
What on earth…
What relation do you have with Orra Peanin?”
He made a heavenly neule dish for me, responded Baldo.
The hero Iyemeté stared at Baldo with an almost confused gaze.
Then he said,
“We owe Orra Peanin a debt.
We would have allowed you to pass had we known your purpose.
We did not, however, and our chieftain feared for our home, thus he made the correct decision in having the spirit beast decide your fate.
As the spirit beast recognized your strength, however, our chieftain did not make the correct decision in trying to have you killed.
I will allow you to pass through these lands once to go to the human village and once to return.
Take this on your way.”
He handed Baldo a single arrow.
It was two or three times as big as a normal one used by the jamiin.
The fletching was adorned with exquisite feathers.
Baldo guessed it would serve as proof of his right to pass.
He returned to his chestnut horse.
After thanking the jamiin warrior, he went quickly on his way.
After telling those in the village about what happened, they shared with him some of their medicine.
So too did they rally up some hands to assist with the bridge repairs.
Baldo made haste and returned to the mountain to the west.
He arrived in time, and the boy was saved.
Baldo paid Old Man Peanin a handsome sum for the meal and left with Godon.
The old man initially refused the payment, but Baldo insisted.
It was clear this coin was a cause of much anticipation for the inhabitants of the mountain settlement by how welcoming they were from the start.
With Godon in tow, Baldo returned to the edge of the jamiin territory to return the arrow to the hero Iyemeté.
There were many questions he wished to ask as well.
Although the hero did not answer every question, he told Baldo a great deal.
The jamiin who lived here were all members of Clan Tessala.
Clan Tessala was split into seven different villages.
Each of the villages had their own chieftain, and each of them possessed six pieces of bluerock.
This bluerock had the curious ability to pacify what the humans referred to as kaejel, allowing the jamiin to coax them into doing their bidding.
These stones were incomparably precious, thus were they never to be sold or lent to a human.
According to the jamiin faith, a kaejel was formed when an ancient spirit entered the body of a common beast.
Each of the jamiin villages caught a single kaejel, referred to them as spirit beasts, and worshiped them thus.
Once the spirit beast died was the spirit contained therein released and free to possess yet another beast.
Baldo asked the hero why they referred to Old Man Peanin as Orra,2 to which Iyemeté simply explained it was because to them, he was an orra.
The strongest and most courageous of all the seven villages was referred to as the hero.
The hero represented the will of the entire clan, thus was he proficient in the human language, from which he then learned all of the other demihuman languages.
After a very brief visit, Baldo and Godon left the jamiin village.
Baldo felt an indescribable sense of calm and peace.
He had always heard demihumans were the very manifestations of savagery and incivility, strange creatures that could never coexist with humankind.
Yet though his journeys had he met the ghelkast Engdal and the jamiin Iyemeté.
It was a measly two demihumans.
And yet both of them were proud and principled warriors.
Baldo felt that he could trust these two far more than some no-good human.
The matters of the world must be observed with one’s own eyes.
Further east of the lands inhabited by the Tessala clan was a place apparently home to yet another kind of demihuman.
This place—the area between Jhan Dessa Roh and the Orva River—was far larger than what Baldo himself grew up knowing.
The frequent appearance of kaejel was not an uncommon thing at all, it appeared.
The clan would have to search for another kaejel now, that they might welcome another spirit beast—a guardian of their village.
With every day of travel did Baldo become further aware of his ignorance.
That is how it should be, he thought.
I must say, though, my armor is in tatters.
I will need to rectify this situation once I find another town.