Location: Somewhere in the Featherdale region of the Dalelands
Dream dashed ahead of the Traveler caravan, as much to avoid getting road dust in her fur as to breath in the fresh scents of the meadow and explore where they would set up camp, just outside the settlement. Her tail whipped back and forth with excitement. The river nearby flowed deep and clear, and the summer grass and wildflowers grew half as high as a wagon axle and smelled of clean earth. A lucky sign for their troupe, it must have been at least two or three months since the clearing was last occupied. They should be well-received.
The first of the brightly colored wagons left the road, pulled by a dappled horse with Leader Guaril’s son Chal holding the reins. He waved as she returned to her family’s wagon. The human youth and Dream had been playmates and best friends ever since she was a cub and her parents joined the troupe. Her father, Rain and mother, Ripple, had wished to continue their travels away from the True World, but with the added safety afforded by traveling with the troupe.
But seventeen years later, Dream was almost an adult. After the troupe made camp and hosted the people of this settlement for trade and entertainment, their next destination was the Gathering of Travelers, where Chal hoped to find a mate now that he was of age. Dream’s family would say goodbye to their Traveler friends, and travel as a three tabaxi Hunt, roaming and exploring wherever their curiosity led.
Dream wove back through the trees bordering the road to the last of the twelve wagons, where Rain walked alongside the black mare pulling their wagon. Unlike her father whose dark rosette pattern stood out handsomely against his light brown fur, Dream’s fur was almost as dark as the mare’s, the pattern of spots noticeable only in sunlight.
Dream waited until the wagon had almost passed her, then leapt onto the roof and lay on top. She hung her head over the open back to regard her mother. Ripple carefully stowed the finely made lute she’d brought with her from Maztika in its case, humming the tune from a ballad she was still composing. Dream waited until her mother secured the lid, then swung into the wagon.
Ripple nimbly sidestepped Dream’s pounce just as the wagon lurched and Dream almost landed on her backside. Ignoring her daughter’s chagrin, Ripple smoothed her sleek fur, almost as dark as Dream’s. “Would you prefer to help set up camp, or go into town with me and Guaril to announce the troupe’s arrival?”
“Are you kidding? A new town, new people?” Guaril was a good leader, everyone worked together like a well-rehearsed acrobatics act and could put up or take down camp in a couple of hours. Predictable, organized, and boring.
“Your father might need your help. This could be his last attempt to out-trade our friends.” Ripple’s ears twitched with humor.
By all measures important to her tabaxi family, Rain always outsold the other Travelers in the troupe, collecting stories, fascinating trinkets, and the occasional magical item. Their Traveler companions – humans plus one halfling and two dwarfs – were satisfied to receive silver or gold coins in trade. Not that coins weren’t useful, but Ripple earned enough of those with her music.
“I’ll help him when we get back,” promised Dream. The wagon came to a stop, and Dream dropped lightly to the ground. The wagons had come to a stop in a circle that would define the Travelers’ personal space. Outside the circle, Travelers would perform on an improvised stage, and sell their crafts on folding tables. Just like every other camp.
Ripple climbed out of the wagon gracefully, carrying the somewhat battered lute she favored for bad weather and uncertain situations, the one she’d been teaching her daughter to play. Ripple insisted that Dream had natural talent if she would only apply herself. Although Dream knew the basics and could play a reasonable accompaniment, the world was simply too full of distractions far more interesting than practice.
Rain finished unhitching the mare just as Guaril and Chal joined them.
“A Traveler’s path is made by walking, and by walking he makes a path,” said Guaril, reciting a Traveler proverb. “Ready?” Dream noticed a new crop of gray hair among the black on his head. In her opinion the hair on their heads was a human’s best feature.
Ripple said, “Dream wishes to go with us.” She didn’t ask for permission, nor did she assume Guaril would agree.
“Does she now.” Guaril folded his arms, regarding Dream and his son, and for a moment Dream thought he would tell her to stay behind. “The two of you watch each other’s back and stay out of trouble.”
Dream tried to catch Chal’s eye and share a smirk, but he ignored her and bowed to his father, serious and respectful. “Yes sir.”
The walk to the Settlement, known as Pinebrooke, didn’t take long. As they crossed the outskirts the buzz over newcomers rose immediately and grew, following their relaxed pace along the house and business-lined road, toward the town center. Travelers were usually welcome, but Dream observed individual folk surreptitiously, watching for any signs of hostility or disapproval. Soon they reached the heart of Pinebrooke, the market square where townsfolk were already gathering.
Ripple began playing a well-known dance tune on her lute and climbed up on a platform with Guaril.
Dream and Chal stepped back into the growing crowd of mostly humans. Some swayed with the music. She heard remarks speculating about the performer – her mother’s – race. Behind her, a little human girl’s voice said, “Momma, that Traveler has a tail!” Dream swept her tail in close against her leg and stepped away before the child grabbed hold of it.
Ripple finished the dance tune and transitioned into the first verse of a traditional sing-along. When the people around her took up the refrain without the need for Dream and Chal’s voices for encouragement, Dream knew their Traveler Troupe would be welcome here.
Ripple led the refrain twice after the last verse, and Guaril filled the rapt quiet that followed with his voice. “Dearest friends, old and new yet to be met, I thank you for your welcome. Our small group of wanderers invite you all to visit us and share our hospitality this evening and tomorrow.” And because every Traveler knew that residential folk preferred temporary guests, he added, “We shall take our leave from your lovely home the day after.”
The crowd broke into chattering groups of three or four, while others hurried off to spread the juicy news to their neighbors. So far, so good. Now that Guaril had made the announcement, he would return to camp with Dream’s mother. She and Chal had a little time to explore.
“Come on,” said Chal.
“Where first?” Dream had her eyes on a door with the enticing stink of stale beer and clandestine meetings. Must be the local pub, where if she were lucky she might find an old drunk blabbering stories and gossip.
“An apothecary,” said Chal. “We’re out of medicine-grade spirits, and…”
Dream only half-listened as Chal recited the list his mother Tasaria had given him. Here they were in a large settlement that was probably completely ordinary, except that it was new to her. And instead of exploring, they had errands to run.
Dream was about to suggest they split up when her hackles rose and she turned to see a human woman with long dark hair watching them with more than idle curiosity. Instead of looking away, she approached them.
“Good day.” The woman’s symmetric features made her quite attractive by human standards of beauty and Dream guessed her age close to her own. She wore leather armor and a bow slung over her long cloak. She moved with a feral grace. “Did I overhear you say you were looking for an apothecary?”
“Yes, thank you,” replied Chal. “Would you be so kind as to point us in the right direction?”
“I’ll show you.” She reached out a gloved hand, eyes fixed on his face, and moved quite close to him. “My name is Kamali, a pleasure to meet you.”
“I’m Chal, and this is Dream,” he said, clasping Kamali’s hand briefly then stepping back.
Kamali seemed surprised by Chal’s reaction and turned to Dream, offering her hand. “A strange name, Dream. Are you tabaxi?”
Dream accepted her hand, claws retracted. “I am. My full name is Dream of Starlight on Still Water.” Up close, Dream noticed blades sheathed at Kamali’s hips. Dream’s curiosity peaked. She had to know more about this strange human.
Kamali released Dream’s hand. “Follow me.”
Dream and Chal followed her down a side street, then Kamali ducked down an empty, shadowed alley and opened a door halfway down. Chal hesitated. “I don’t like this,” he said.
Senses alert, Dream swiveled her ears, and opened her mouth to taste the air, whiskers back. The shadows held no danger that she could see, smell, or hear. Only the strong sweet scents of lavender and mint, and the tang of darker herbs wafted from the open door. “Smells like an apothecary.”
“Best one in town,” said Kamali, stepping inside. “Serving exclusive clientele only.”
Dream and Chal paused at the threshold. Inside was the most cluttered and stocked potions shop Dream had ever seen. Chal exhaled with delight and hurried in, all caution forgotten. In the corner sat an elderly woman Dream didn’t notice until she spoke.
“Introduce your guests, Kamali.”
“Grandmother, this is Dream and Chal, from the Traveler troupe,” said Kamali. From her tone, Dream was not certain if Grandmother was her relationship to their guide or her title.
While Chal and the old woman inspected the contents of jars, discussed potion recipes, and haggled, Dream perused the prepared potions. In addition to the usual health potions and temporary enhancements, she found poisons. What kind of a shop was this?
“Did you travel all this way from Maztica?” asked Kamali. “What’s it like there?”
Her round human pupils were slightly dilated, as curious about Dream as she was about her. “I was born in Faerun. My parents left Maztica before I was born, that was my mother playing in the square. Have you always lived here?”
“I’m what you might call a regular visitor. Father’s business brings us here from time to time,” said Kamali.
Merchants usually didn’t associate with Travelers, and their daughters usually wore fancy dresses and expected to be waited upon by those unlucky enough to share the road. “What is there here, of interest to visitors?”
Kamali grinned. “The chateau on the hill an hour’s walk from Pinebrooke is said to be haunted, with great treasure chests beneath, filled with gold. Count Sarnusk lives there and never leaves, and even though he’s older than Pinebrooke they say he doesn’t age. According to gossip his heir, his great-great nephew, will never inherit.”
Dream’s tail swished. She didn’t care about gold, but Kamali had her interest at haunted chateau. “Have you ever been inside?”
“Nobody gets in without an invitation. The chateau is guarded by fifty soldiers split into two shifts. Today, the most interesting thing in Pinebrooke is your troupe.” Kamali didn’t even sound disappointed.
“Dream,” Chal interrupted. He held a large cloth-wrapped package with both hands. Dream regarded the package. It seemed like an excessive quantity of alchemical supplies. “Can we afford all that?”
The old woman handed a scrap of folded parchment to Kamali. “Here is a list of items Chal has agreed to send back with you as the remainder of my payment.” She turned to Dream. “I understand your father has some skill in identifying the purpose of magical items. I want him to take a look at this.” She held out a thick circle of silver, too large to be a bracelet, too small to be a necklace or crown.
Her father would be thrilled by the challenge, and he might even let Dream help him investigate. She unsheathed the claws of her right hand and carefully took the circlet without letting the metal touch her skin, but she felt the prickle of magic along her finger-pads anyway. The old woman chuckled and held open a cloth bag. Dream dropped it in and accepted the bag. “Rain will be happy to oblige,” said Dream. “What do you know about it?”
The old woman shrugged. “Nothing. I found it... left behind in my shop.”
“Thanks again,” said Chal. Turning to Dream he quoted another Traveler saying, “The first step is a journey’s greatest delight.”
Chal was getting to be more like his father every day. Dream followed him out of the shop, and they made their way back to the Traveler camp accompanied by their new friend, Kamali.