The land was much the same as he remembered it, though the fields and fencelines were neglected and in disrepair. The lack of strong able-bodied men was apparent in the farms, where Seryth had conscripted most of the combat-capable people to his armies, many of them never to return. He felt a pit in his stomach as he circled over the empty farms, seeing the consequences of his actions written large over and over in each one he passed.
One farm seemed to have escaped the destruction, that of the Saldeans. Seryth vaguely remembered their name showing up again and again in lists of dissidents provided to him by his informers, but after writing off orders for the usual containment measures, he had never bothered to check in on them personally.
Now they seemed his only choice as far as perhaps fixing what he had broken in Westfall went.
He landed the gryphon in a cottonwood grove some ways from the road and approached the farm on foot. When he knocked on the door, he almost expected the Saldean who answered to recoil from in disgust, but then he remembered he still had the goblin’s disguise.
The Saldean greeted him with a nod, and glanced behind him into the gloom. “Cold enough night,” he said. “Are you looking for lodging?”
Seryth had on the tip of his tongue an explanation of his true identity and why he had come, but it suddenly occurred to him this was a chance to see the farmers with fresh eyes. So he accepted the offer of a room with a silent nod.
The next day dawned bright and full of work. Seryth discovered how the Saldeans had kept themselves afloat, paradoxically trusting all who came to the farm with their hospitality so long as they proved themselves willing to work.
Seryth started in the fields, but when the farmhands from the outer fields came running, reporting a pack of wild dogs in the area, he switched to the role of guardian. Without a word he turned and strode off to meet the dogs, chasing them off with fireballs and the occasional curse. He was careful not to use any fel, in case the farmhands noticed something off about him.
Not all of the wildlife plaguing the farms was simple wild dogs or crows. While Seryth was keeping watch in the okra field, the wings of a giant bird darkened the sky. He shot it out of the air with a well-placed firebolt, and it dived for him with an unearthly screech. He was a little worried the beast would press him to reveal who he was by the sheer amount of firepower he had to use to kill it, but when he struggled out from under the wing of the slain bird, the farmhands only stepped forward and worked on hauling it off to the road. It was corrupted by fel, and its blood would have stained the land if they allowed it to rot near the farm, they said.
For Seryth, it was another jolting reminder of the horrors he had unleashed upon these people, which they had borne bravely.
The sounds of harsh clanking and clanging brought his attention back to the center fields towards midday, and Seryth came running to see what was the matter. Saldean was only working on rigging up a harvest watcher, its internal engine sputtering and spitting out black smoke as it faltered. Seryth vaguely remembered allowing one of his thugs to reprogram the bots to harass the farmers, so he was somewhat mollified that that particular terror tactic had failed on this farm. Saldean shut the flap of the harvest watcher’s chest cavity with a bang and a pat, and turned to give Seryth a little smile before returning to work.
That evening, the family and farmhands gathered around the table for dinner. There wasn’t much to go around, but Seryth understood it was better this year than last, when he had ruled Westfall. He engaged in the banter, but he wasn’t really that interested in it until he heard his name.
He turned around, but the person hadn’t been addressing him. The farmers were speaking of him as he had been as a child, speculating as to why he had fallen to evil so fast and suddenly. Though Saldean expressed he had always felt something was off about Seryth, Salma, his wife, said she had always been fond of the boy, and she wondered if something terrible must have happened to him to turn his head so.
Seryth was again on the verge of revealing his identity, but then the conversation shifted to talk of the next year’s harvests and buying a new pig, and his nerve failed him.