Chapter 2, Part 1: Ludicrous Levies

  • Post category:Midlands

It has been a month since Eddie and I began traveling together, and a day shy of a month since we joined up with Nichola. I can say without a doubt that journeying with people is so much more pleasant, entertaining, and delightful with a group rather than going alone. We watch each other on the road, help make sure everyone has plenty to eat and ample time to rest, and can assist when something inevitably goes wrong. A quick mending spell is all it takes to repair a cracked wagon wheel. For arcanists, wizards, or divine casters capable of such a spell, it would be wise to prepare it before you journey.

We left the Battlehammer Winery weeks ago and made our way towards a larger settlement in the south called Lancaster. The journey was relatively uneventful. Nights are quiet at this time of year, and though we heard the occasional howl of a wolf far in the distance, nothing pestered our travel. On a few occasions, we passed by the moving Midlands Army and their various checkpoints. The soldiers with whom we conversed seemed pleased to have someone to talk to and bade us safe passage on the road.

The only really interesting event came upon happenstance while a few days away from Lancaster. Eddie and I were preparing a meat pie for dinner when we saw what I mistook for a shooting star. Eddie corrected me and pointed out that this streak of light seemed to be rising rather than falling at an obtuse angle. Nichola, though he missed the streak of light, noticed that the clouds behind it were parting rapidly. Such a phenomenon – forcibly moving clouds at a rapid pace – can be the result of magic, a very sudden change of air temperature, or literal force. We joked about potential causes (wizards or aasimar with something to prove) before settling on it being simply unexplainable for now. Nichola and I are both very interested in following its apparent path, or at least finding its origin. Unfortunately we can only guess that the origin is very far in the west, weeks or perhaps even months away from our current location. Our rations are running low, too. While the event was very entertaining, I’m sad to write that our group will have to put a pin in this for the time being.

Three days later, we arrived in Lancaster. Readers, I will be brutally honest about this place. While I pray to a god of order, I cannot stomach the imitation of order that I sense from this place. Even chaos itself does not bother me, for how can we know harmony without understanding discord? Lancaster puts on the air of law and order, but the three of us sensed an indignity in this place. Allow me to explain.

Lancaster’s population makes it larger than a village or town, but sized such that it can barely be called a small city (though I will refer to it as a city hereafter). It rests in a sparsely forested region of the Midlands and has a number of farms and ranches around it. The city is walled by stone and wood with armed guards evenly spaced on its lookouts. The streets and city facilities are kept well enough. All of this is through the strange use of monetary impositions on residents and travelers alike, that which the government here calls ‘levies’. Levies are used for the good of the city in terms of building construction and upkeep, road construction and projects, beautifying the city, and other things. This was appalling to us as we did not see anything in the city that was particularly extravegant based on the steep levies imposed on everyone here.

Our first experience with a levy was at the gates of Lancaster. Nichola was required to pay a 2 gold levy for his wagon just for entering the city, despite his guild membership and identification. Such an entrance fee or levy is not common in most settlements in the Midlands.

Once inside, we saw a vast market, post office, the merchant’s guild, and various shops and food vendors. The destination of Nichola’s current load of wares was Hellhound’s Tavern on the southern side of the city. We had to cross a small river to get there, and the guard required a 2 silver levy for our wagon‘s use of the bridge. The guard let us know that there are many levies in town, most of which are not common knowledge, that end up costing visitors to Lancaster quite a lot of coin.

We passed many small and large homes on our way to Hellhound’s Tavern. Nichola was required to pay another levy for use of their loading dock, and excused himself to his business. Tying up Tic out front, Eddie and I stepped inside. Immediately, we recognized Hellhound’s Tavern as an adventurer’s tavern. Every single patron in here was a traveling adventurer of some kind, ranging from wizards to sorcerers to druids to bards and everything in between. The barkeeper and proprietor of the tavern, a large man named Igard, suggested to me that the adventurers here were far more experienced than myself. But to me, that makes sense. I write the Midlands Field Guide for adventurers closer to my home as we have none up that way. That said, if any of you readers are from Lancaster, I hope you find some nugget of helpful information in this book. The patrons of Hellhound’s Tavern shouted to me when Igard announced me as a newbie and I heard a round of cheers (“Good luck!”), a few jeers (“Still wet behind the ears, that one!”), and a few laughs (“Not strong enough to lift his sword!”).

One unlucky patron chose to throw his shoe at me, and I decided to keep it until I could meet its owner. I intended to ask some questions about adventuring in this area, but the opportunity never presented itself. I went outside to look at the job board and see if any simpler postings had been made that I could do for some coin while Eddie went to talk with some people. While looking at the board, I heard shouting and the sound of furniture breaking, followed by a loud crashing sound as a human man came flying through the window. He charged inside to continue whatever bar fight had begun. I tried to command him to stop, but the spell was ineffectual as he was far too angry at his combatant, an orc wearing far too much armor for the ambient temperature of the tavern.

The bar fight stopped pretty fast after that when Igard summoned a spell of lightning to scare the combatants into submissiveness. Apologies were had by everyone involved and the bar settled down. When I went outside to look at the job board, I left my brand new shoe with Eddie. Going back inside to have a drink with her, I learned that the shoe was gone and made a guess based on the wide grin on her face that Eddie had thrown my new shoe into the crowd, causing the bar fight to start.

Nichola joined us again for a quick drink before we excused ourselves and made our way to the inn to drop off our belongings, a quaint place called Elard’s Forge. Elard’s Forge, commonly called by everyone as simply ‘the Forge’, is run by very friendly dwarves and has a very forge-like motif in its decoration. Despite my recommendation against coming to Lancaster for any reason, I will recommend the Forge as a place to stay if you should be unlucky enough to find yourself here. The proprietor and his staff are very hospitable.

We ventured to the marketplace next. Nichola disappeared into the office of the Merchant’s Guild to deliver his paperwork and find his next job. I ran to the post office to mail my notes (see Chapter 1 of the Midlands Field Guide), while Eddie went to find us some food. When I went back to Eddie, we both noticed a pickpocket trying to take my coin purse. The young boy failed and tried to flee from us. We chased him for reasons unknown. At least, to me. I think I only chased him because I saw Eddie chasing him, and I can guess Eddie was chasing him solely to chastise.

We found him caught by the throat of a large man in red robes and a large pointed hat. The man rightfully labeled the boy a thief and meant to arrest him. Eddie and I both took pity on the boy, though. He was scrawny and looked very small in the hands of this lawman. I explained that he stole nothing from us, and Eddie tried a lie and said he was actually with us. The lawman then arrested us for association with a thief. We were bound and taken across town. Surprisingly, the boy seemed entirely undisturbed by this. For my part, I was, too. We had not done anything wrong, other than trying to protect a small child from an overly brutish lawman. What reason did we have to fear? I received a scroll from the lawman explaining the laws and regulations of the city, including what looked like a comprehensive list of Lancaster’s levies. The list is shockingly long.

This, readers, is where I explain the true dark underbelly of Lancaster and why I recommend you avoid this city at all costs. We were unceremoniously stripped of our belongings and clothing and placed into a wretched and foul underground jail. The boy disappeared into a corner of the room, and Eddie and I were left in a holding cell with perhaps thirty or forty other prisoners. The room reeked horribly and we could tell that the prisoners were very mistreated, either by the guards, the lawmen, or the other prisoners themselves.

A large, savage man named Eggin introduced himself as the ‘owner’ of this cell and tried to threaten and intimidate us. Eddie was unfazed and I’m happy to say the same for me. I tried to be reasonable with him, but he wanted a fight. I would have kept trying to talk him down, but he struck Eddie across the face and my ability to remain calm fled from me. Eggin attempted to grapple me, but I quickly dodged and punched him violently in the nose. Eggin fell back as I struck him in the ear with a loud popping hit, and Eddie angrily kicked him in the chest. Based on the fast fight, I can guess he has a broken nose, at least one broken rib, and may not be able to hear properly out of his right ear for a few hours. We backed away as the other prisoners, evidently rallied against their tormenter, violently kicked and punched Eggin’s inert form.

Eddie and I retreated to the corner of the cell, perceiving pleased glances from the other prisoners in our direction. We had both been very mistreated for no justifiable reason and could only hope to get out. I felt especially awful since Eddie’s face was already swelling and bruising from the blow. She’s very hardy, though, and didn’t seem bothered by it. I gave her a quick hug, but I think that hug was mostly for me. I’m well trained in fighting, as per the demands of my father, but I strongly dislike fighting.

After about an hour, a guard arrived and told us that we were released and free to leave. We re-dressed ourselves and gathered our belongings. As we did so, we noticed a few small squirrels watching intently. Normally I would pay such a thing no mind, but they began to chitter excitedly at us when we started to leave, and they made motions as if beckoning us to follow. We had no reason not to and decided out of morbid curiosity to see where these odd squirrels would lead us. Eddie and I were most pleased to see that they led us back to the Forge before scampering away into an ally and out of sight.

Nichola was inside and had apparently been expecting us. With a brief explanation, he said he had paid our ‘bail’ before politely asking us to use the bathhouse down the street to bathe before we joined him for dinner. To no one’s surprise, we were met by a guard in the street and were asked to pay an ‘odor violation’ levy of 4 copper pieces, despite the fact that we were perhaps ten paces away from the bathhouse. To his credit, though, even the guard seemed off-put by imposing such a levy when we were clearly trying to clean ourselves up.

The Bathhouse of Splendor is anything but that. As explained to us previously, levies were used for public projects, and we learned that this bathhouse was one such project. Unlike the rest of the city, this place is exuberantly decorated in the extreme, but the employees seemed a little off about something. I was guided to the men’s bathing room and as I was cleaning up, I couldn’t help but notice the number of bystanders all around, many of which seemed to be waiting for something to do. I won’t write explicitly what their purpose is, but suffice it to say they were waiting for a client, and they looked terribly unhappy about it.

After far too much attention from some women trying to bathe me and fuss about my long hair, Eddie and I were clean and smelling nice once again. We met with Nichola again and had a quick dinner. Eddie tried to pass the time with a game of cards but ended up paying a 3 copper levy for playing cards. Another levy, and more coins out of our pockets. We had only been here half a day and our purses are already lighter. Laws, in my opinion, are meant to protect the citizens. These seem extreme. There is no order in them. There isn’t even chaos here. It’s just a mess of levies that only seem to squeeze coins out of people.

In a private chat between the three of us, Nichola confirmed this about the levies and the city itself. The money from the levies go into the pocket of Lord Wilage and the council of his peers. Wilage came into power in Lancaster recently and placed the levies on the town. The system has been so damaging to the local economy that the library – the only place of learning for children – was shut down due to levies on reading. The Merchant’s Guild has struggled, too, and most of the trade routes coming to Lancaster have been closed. The justice system has been altered such that anyone arrested is presumed guilty first and are burdened by either very heavy fines or forced labor. It seems unlikely that Eddie and I would have gotten out of that jail had it not been for Nichola intervening on our behalf through a lady named Ethed and her squirrels.

Lord Wilage may not intend this, but he is running Lancaster into financial ruin, and if the Merchant’s Guild leaves, there will be no economy here. The way we see it, our group has two options. The first is the easiest: we leave. Since there are no jobs for Nichola here, and Eddie and I seem to have caused problems, it would be wise for us to get out of this city and shake its dust from our shoes. The second option is more involved. Nichola and I will study the laws and levies of the city and see if we can find a loophole in it that will take power away from Wilage and allow for properly elected officials in the city council.

We opted to at least try to help Lancaster in some way. The three of us, travelers and non-residents of the city, may not be able to do something, but perhaps we can help the locals figure out a plan of action. In the morning, we will look over the laws and see what can be done. If not, I am afraid we will leave Lancaster behind and my poor review of the city will stand.

My positiveness is lessened in Lancaster. Muted. Normally I like going to new places and meeting new people. This town makes me feel dark and unhappy. And if that man hits Eddie again, I hope to be able to restrain myself. Eddie is my friend. I don’t want to see her hurt. I hope that doesn’t come across as some laddish or galant attempt at chivalry or some kind of manly valiance.

(Editor’s note: It does.)