Nothing happened last night. We maintained a double watch; one man overseeing the sleeping lizardmen prisoners, and another patrolling the shore and the open-water side of the barge. Expectations of trouble, strangely, were not high. We must be careful not to be lulled into complacency.
So little has happened today that I find myself huddled in scant shade, sweating and writing in my journal, to keep myself awake. At first light, as my watch ended and I meditated for spells, the stable-hands brought out fresh oxen. They tethered them to our barge lines, and we were under way.
A pattern has emerged: we travel for five or six hours until we reach another clearing and settlement; the journeymen release and stable the powerful oxen that hardly seem to have exerted themselves; two fresh beasts are brought to the path to pull us; and our slow, steady upstream crawl resumes.
For long stretches I watch the oxen at work. Mindlessly they pull, their pace never slowing or quickening, aware of their barefoot minder and his thin switch but their hides never feel its sting. The path rises or dips slightly, muddies where a stream crosses it, narrows where the forest fronts the river too closely. The creatures’ focus and determination is admirable. Or, it is a caution; with so much time to relax and do nothing, I find myself thinking how their task is not so far removed, in spirit, from the lives of so many peasants and farmers and mundane villagers.
Would this then have been my end, if I had been different ? To have been just a commoner, toiling away not unlike these oxen, trudging through life on one plain path ? Plodding away, work, rest, work, this the pattern of life ?
What makes me that much different from the people I have seen along the way in my journey so far ? All those people in the background, peripheral players on the stage, villagers and shopkeepers and farmers and villains, that I have chanced to notice in these past two weeks. Yes, I did not mark it officially, but it has been a mere fortnight since my arrival in Callia.
These people around me, the villagers and nameless faces. They appear, they exist, then they seem to disappear as I look away or turn my attention. So many, so very many people who eke out an unremarkable life in so many places across this vast world of ours. They have lives, loves, hunger, thirst, needs and wants, they are not invisible people or caricatures. I would be a terrible doctor if I did not see them first with empathy and then with understanding for the value of their lives. This does not forbid me from wishing them better acquainted with soap and a stiff brush, or the technologies of cobblestone streets or closed sewers.
Might I have been one of those seemingly faceless bit players who color the backdrop of our adventuring ? What if I had not shown myself different from others ? Father was a scholar and scribe, educated and keen of intellect, and Mother herself had no want for wit or wisdom. Is it to them…or to myself…or to luck…that I owe the fortune of my path in life ?
It is not conceit to say that I was intellectually advanced of my peer group, nor is it wishful thinking to say that I had been chosen, on some level, to be blessed with connection to the Divine. It is certain that I was fortunate to be recognized as both.
I cannot speak to the level of sophistication present in Ælim society; whether their militias and Divine cults and secret societies and Arcane fraternities actively recruit from towns and villages as is commonplace in Tabrek.
Here in Ælim perhaps I would not have been noticed by gentle and optimistic acolytes of a selective subsect of the Pelor priesthood. Not been tested at words and sciences and questions of morality and philosophy and character. Not have been offered scholarship to a prestigious medical school at the customary age of thirteen, nor have found myself leaving home with the nervous anticipation of a chance, a very slim chance, at being more than most my age could ever have hoped to achieve. Such opportunity as offered by St-Jude’s, I had often in my youth considered with guarded longing. To have had it realized is, to pardon the pun, divine.
The Academy of the Order of St-Jude is a big name, the biggest. Four schools in as many major cities. Many students accepted every year as summer wanes, chosen from the best and brightest young minds wandering the streets or tilling the fields. Only those who showed certain talent, who had connection to the Divine either by nature or nurture, who were eager to learn and eager to walk away from their lives and commit entirely to medicine and healing. Uncut gems, recruiters would claim.
How they would chip away at us, those next eight years, hacking our numbers down month after month, year after year, refining the cache, casting aside the imitators and the unsuitable finds and those who could not keep the pace. It verged on cruel. But it was not. It was necessary. It was the product of high standards and higher expectations. Every day was hard; every volume to memorize a weighty challenge; every spell or skill or requisite note of knowledge so critical to self-preservation. Success at anything was not a goal achieved; it was a breath taken, a stair mounted, a ledge reached on the great endless climb over the years. What you managed to do before, only set you up to have a fair chance at overcoming the next obstacle. There was always a “next obstacle”.
It is so very hot today.
We stop again to switch oxen and wander a few minutes in the shade of the woods if we so desire. Our journeymen estimate one last stop coming up tonight, and we will make landfall opposite Downmarsh Station early tomorrow.
Journal of Dr. Marcus Grant
Healing Cleric of Pelor, Order of St-Jude Academy (Silabrek)
16th Day, travelling by river from Mid-Plain to Callia, territory of Ælim.