Early Spring – first blossom, travelling by barge west on the Meandering River.

It's misleading to say 'first blossom' since the almond trees have been in flower for a month already, but the river-khumos claim the beginning of spring corresponds to the flowering of two river plants – the Ink Flower Reed and, the Sunset Tree. The lizards who burrow in the creek beds also come out around the same time to hunt the insects which hatch with the first warm days after snowmelt.

The barge I am travelling on has a crew of four khumos, one of whom is a most interesting fellow who the others refer to as 'old grumpy', but whose name is Lukius. Every night he tells a story, usually in reference to some landmark nearby. Some of these stories are completely unbelievable, like the 'Legend of the Mud Maidens', and 'The Sad Sad Tale of Frivolous Tambourine: the Chicken-Footed Halfling Bard.' Other stories are verifiable, historical accounts of the first khumos to make the journey west from Carwaithe, and the river docks they built. Most nights we tie up the barge on one of these ancient stone docks, and there have often been camps of other merchants from across the River Country, headed west as we are to the cities on the coast.

Lukius, however, is just as interesting as the stories he tells. I have met people in the past with tiny marks of Gloomstain on their skin, but I have never met anyone who did not hide it from view. Lukius has a broad swath of discoloured and wrinkled skin covering half of his face and chest. The other khumos certainly make no fuss about it, so I asked him one day why he was not ashamed of his Stain. This is what he told me.

The Brightsong is an impartial judge of our actions, and it doesn't take extenuating circumstances into account. When Lukius was young, a long drought in the East resulted in a famine. The famine made even ordinary, peaceful Freefolk behave very badly towards one another, as the threat of Gloomstain became less frightening than the prospect of starvation. Lukius' home was attacked by a rowdy gang of hungry townsfolk who had heard that his family had large stores of food hidden in their basement. In the confusion and fighting, Lukius injured someone with a pitchfork, and later that person died from his wounds. The Gloomstain crept over his body very quickly, and there was talk for a while of exiling him to the cursed lands of Lengar, but the council of elders convened and pronounced an official pardon. Life after that had not been easy, many people still judged him as an accursed and evil person, but the barge crew he worked with had known him for decades, and knew well enough that a single action in one's youth, though enough to stain his skin with the Gloom, was not enough to taint his heart, which had forever remained honest and noble.

Another note: the khumos, like the rangers of the forest, do not call the river the Meandering River, they call it the Meander, or sometimes The Mender, or Mending River. They say that the river fixes everything. Lukius told us a story of a khumos with a broken heart who found healing on the journey west, and another tale of a sailing boat that sank, but then mysteriously rose to the surface again.

Ta