Lupus Est Homo Homini
– Titus Maccius Plautus
I am a courier named Mousai.
This is what I remember.
First I unfurl a letter from a knight of the Mirshan Empire. His name is Rozkhe. He lives in Quriah, near the River of Sleep.
The paper is brown and coated with wax. I can smell the ink barely dried on the page. “Take this to Crawing,” he says. “It’s out of my way. Take this to a gentle sir named Chaw. Can you do it, son?”
For him, and the welfare of Mirshan, I answer yes. “I am honored.”
But the first moment I get alone, I read this letter:
Dear Regent Chaw:
The purpose of this letter is three-fold. With war prisoners held in Quriah, the slave owners are anxious to hear who will be hanged. I expect that you have that list ready when my courier arrives. 2 of every 10 of these men will change hands south.
There shall be more slaves than hanged men so I suggest you schedule an auction platform as well. Finally the Imperial diviners inform me orphans of the war are traveling from Somnah City, a day or better ahead of a terrible storm. Raise alarm with the guard.
Apprehend them if necessary, but beware of them.
—-ZAER ROZKHE of DHC, QC. Monsep XXIV
The sky above is molten. Sweat trickles to the edge of me nose and I wipe it away. Could be weeks till we get rain. Or there may never be rain again.
Stuck to the horizon is a great sheet of airy haze, pink like a scar beneath a blurry sun. Very little wind stirs the scalp of the desert, still and dry as a skeleton; there I stand in the quiet rib cage. Ridges like jagged teeth and spire-like ribs shoot from the spine of Mirshan. Only the faint smell of campfire, smoked arbol, and sagebrush sits easy and most natural.
A vulture circles above me— caws, cries. It begs for more war. I sigh, wipe me forehead and pet Priea, me horse. I let her lick meal from me hand. She snickers and stamps her hooves light and playful.
I tug a piece of hardtack from me pouch and stuff it down me throat. Dry like sand, and not much better taste either. But I’m used to poor tasting food. It’s just nutrients so I ain’t starved and that’s all that matters. After swallowing, I look skyward. It’s time Priea and I moved on.
Sudden tumult. Sudden blackness. I know I dream but I can’t remember what about. Whatever inside of me is awake sees a red light fingering through the dark, prying open me eyes. Making room for true suffering to sting and bludgeon me all over.
And what but a man who casts shadows longer than shadows should be cast at noon kneels beside me? This man who is not a man will be called The Minister.
“You are injured and perhaps lost,” says he, calm and kinda quiet.
“The pack here found you.” His sharp eyes cut me skin.
“Where the fuck.” All I smell is ammonia. I widen me eyes and try to look around, through a fog, and see his face more clear. “What the hell happened?” I try sitting up, but can’t. Two skinny figures like wasteland arbol wait a couple of paces away. One’s eating an apple. I grunt. I bet it’s mine.
“For Godsake answer me. How long’s I asleep?” Ary muscle sears to the bone as I struggle to sit up. “Where’s me horse, zaer?” I say fair loud. “Tell me something, goddamn ye.”
The man closes his eyes.
His companions part like window shutters and between em I see Priea lying dead with spears up to her neck. A brown pool of blood swallows her pretty mane. I choke on dust and scramble toward her, dragging me legs. “Ah…no.”
Those two men leave me be a moment. “Prakas? No no…” Dust spits from me mouth.
“Come, young pup.” The Minister beckons. “Have water, food.”
Those skinny men chuckle to em-selves. I can’t see em enough to trust em. What if they fuckin did this? “I had food. But a bit of liquor’d do me well. I want then to be on me way. Crawing ain’t too far from here.”
“Ho, whoa,” the guy with me apple says. “You ain’t goin nowhere alone, pup. You forget to check his knee, Minister?”
“No,” says he who is called The Minister. “But keep tight your jaw, Shiv. He found the injury himself, didn’t he? And the pack should nurse him, you suppose?” His eyes open as though inviting an answer. After a silence, The Minister hands me a canteen. I take it. The water’s warm and soft swirling down me throat. I imagine there is mud in me gut once I get me fill.
I catch a good look at him. The Minister. His skull shows beneath the skin. Carrying the fat of a city dog, he moves like a wolf. He wears dark boots tight up to the calves, drapes sand-silks over his mouth and neck. Besides his lizard eyes, only his hands are bare. He reveals a head of tangled black hair, dread-locks some of em. A beard patches up his face, thick but short. I notice weapons hanging from a belt: a rope, an ax, a couple of black blades. I gulp after counting em off. The blades are black, clean, well shined.
Shiv says mid-crunch, “Nah, we might leave him. Whattya think Key?”
The other man shrugs. His eyes are narrow-slitted and his face packed with dirt and maybe blood. A military khopesh hangs loose in his fingers. I don’t say a word of it, but I figure I’m among outland mercenaries.
There is something unsettling about the air, the way it smells and tastes when shared with hardened killers. I try to smile but can’t.
“Let him alone, Shiv,” The Minister says, standing. “Won’t leave a man to die. Have you learned one thing in this endless desert-plain?”
Shiv laughs bitter, but doesn’t answer.
Nodding, I move to stand. I want me messages and to be gone. I get weight on me legs and the knee pops out loud. Pain spikes up me leg as I topple, and bite the sand. A croak escapes from me throat.
Shiv’s giggling to himself. “Ack-quit yer groaning, pup. If you’d like, we’ll make even on what happened here.”
“Make even?” I cry out. “With what, I don’t even know what the hell happened.”
Shiv tosses me apple core into the dry wind and takes a few angry paces toward me. “I’ll cut yer throat you little shit.”
Between Shiv and me steps The Minister. He says, “Young pup. They would prefer you lay here to rot. You have no horse and one leg, and little option but death. Ah, but here is an option: decide daily to live, or not. Decide now.” His voice settles into a whisper. “And know you have protection till your arrival in Crawing, as you mention.” The Minister grins. His teeth look wooden. “The pack needs a guide of sorts. Will you work and call it even?”
Leaning forward, I nurse me knee, more to consider his little proposal than to help the pain. “Could ye tell me happened out here?” I got to know how me horse was killed. But I also want to know about the dangers of turning down they offer.
“Some fuckin prakas speared yer horse as you rounded the cliff-hold.” Shiv points toward Nine-pay, a cave in big salmon colored walls where I hide out to eat me lunch on mother days. “You fell out the saddle, and they pinned you. Luckily, Key noticed the dust cloud and got his bow on em. Riddled a couple a those bastards.”
I groan and lift up, me muscles tight. When I want to ask em what happened to the rest, I notice Key again and don’t really want the answer. So I say, “How long’s I out?”
Shiv spits. “Couldn’t let you roast. Yer of use, pup. Drink up. Then show us to Crawing and maybe be on yer own way.”
I think about it for a moment, not longer. “Where ye all moving in from?”
The Minister swats gnats from his face. “Will you guide the pack into town, maybe join for an ale there? Answer quickly.”
Dust stirs up in me face as they move horses in me direction. The Minister’s horse is pretty, its fur red with clouds of smoke furling into its feathery mane. He lets his lizard eyes fall upon me as I lie there. Fully aware I can die, I raise me hand to him.
He takes it, pulls me onto his horse’s saddle. “Welcome,” he says, looking to the road.
“Which way to Crawing?” The Minister’s head turns first to the south, then to the north.
I point between the two and that fast his horse is on a gentle gallop. Shiv and a quiet man named Key are tight to our trail. Solus chases us through the desolate, scarred lands miles and miles outside glorious Sargafa.
I, a messenger, ride alongside three foreigners who I know to be enemy outlaws of Mirshan. As we gallop on toward Crawing, I give a quick thought to me home and family. I hope they’re safe. A battle tore through town worse than a windstorm, I hear. Parts of that bother me, others don’t. Having me land darkened with the shadow of southern battalions makes me fearful, but hungry. Messengers don’t get paid well by the script but I’m used to peddling extras to those who want em. Many a coin out here in the Djad, I’m finding. Even for a mere boy like me.
Ha, me a pup? How many summers in the Solus-scorched landscape might a boy spend to be a man? Fifteen? If so, I might be more man than they.
Much less lucky, I figure. “We ought to ride through the night,” I yell out. “Keep the horses warm that we might find a cool cavern for the daytime.”
From behind, I note the rider’s brief hint of a nod. He slows Redfur’s pace to a trot, stroking her smokey mane. “The boy’s true,” he says. “Might you know of such a cavern, young pup?”
I say that I do.
“Point to the path,” The Minister says quiet.
Toward a rocky-ridge ecru in the horizon, I raise me blistered hand. I had been in em ridges, which feels good to know. Might these men be lost without me, I might drag a job down after all. That too, feels pretty good.
We spend the cold night drifting swift across the blade-like expanse, like wind sweeping over a dune. Although it’s a bumpy ride, I’ve been riding the Djad for a year or better. So it ain’t that bad. I keep me hands warm by rubbing em together and blowing hot air over em and keeping em tight in me armpits. As we ride beneath a sky so vast it’s oppressive, I sway me eyes from the riling clouds of desert scalp to the darling ebony sea above me. The way that sky is dotted with diamond-colored stars is beautiful.
So I wish to rest among em someday.
Through the night I hear Shiv talking to Key but not the other way around. Key’s a really quiet man. Shiv goes on about skirmishes and his company and mentions me town. Says people there fled by the time any mercenaries arrived. I sigh. It’s been less than a month since I saw me family but I still worry about em. They are a farming family and for whatever reason, me dad’s opinion of the life is a low one, so here I go. Told me the last I seen of him to get moving. See and do better things. And if I hit hard times, he always got a shovel and fork for me at the shanty. Good man, me dad.
Badlands are full of bone Coyotes. I’m thankful as we go that The Minister’s Redfur is quicker and fuller than any desert dog we chance to encounter. But I deceive ye not, those damn dogs are dangerous in packs. It’s a fact.
Before dawn, the sky bruises, and turns purple and ugly and Solus like a pink eyeball rises and Aerth heats under its gaze. From the sands a wine-like fog is drawn. It’s still cool when we approach the pale, broken ridges.
Redfur trots in a circle, leery.
“There something to be afraid of, pup?” Shiv asks.
I shake me head, but how the hell do I know? “Another camp, that’s the worse of it. Crawing’s a couple days out if ye cut the paths through the ridges. I know em.”
The Minister reins Redfur to the base of a crack in the tanned walls and turns his head side-wise, saying, “Might she be fine here, young pup?”
I say yes and scope out the area best I can. “By twilight we’ll be through this ridge. I don’t reckon we rest all daylight.” When no one answers, I tense up and feel pain in me leg. “But can if ye want.”
Shiv laughs but I’m not sure at what. I glare at him quick. He’s always got a grin. Key’s attention is on his hands where he’s rolling a cig. He feels me looking, methinks, and pokes his head up. Cold scorn chisels his features so I jolt me eyes away. Key raises me hair.
They unpack in the cavern. Indigo stone shavings from the cave’s ceiling lay on the floor beside an old broken spit. Charred arbol dust outlines old footprints, ghosts of man past. I wipe em away quick, sure to not start a spook. Shiv swaggers to me with a wooden mug in his off-paw, a bottle of wet-ale in the other. “Yer a man today, pup.” He chuckles, and pours me a pint and lets me to it.
By damn that shit hits hard, let me tell ye. And burns! I cough on it a bit and then laugh at meself. Shiv’s laughing, too. The Minister unbundles a few jerky rations and sets em aside.
“Young pup, help find shade for the steeds,” he says, heading out the cave.
Spittle drips out me mouth and then I follow him. I rub me eyes, trying to look at Shiv. “What the hell’d ye give me?”
He shakes his head and points out.
So there I go. The Minister treads across what look like untouched waves of caliche, Redfur and the other two near. They ain’t tied, which is curious but I don’t say anything. He’s wordless and I’m tense.
“I’d bet it we hit a smaller cave round here,” I say. “Might need a watch for em.”
He nods. “Be out and about, will you, young pup?” The Minister’s voice is friendly, methinks. It’s got a welcoming-tone, like an innkeeper’s. But ary time I hear em, I get chills.
I swallow. “If ye’d want me to, I’d watch over em.”
The Minister nods again, lowering his sand-silk veil. His hair is tangled like willow branches. “Figure on having company,” he says, taking swift sniffs at the air. “None wanted, either. Key’ll keep watch.”
“What makes him so tough?”
He laughs, too close to a sigh for me to miss it. “Key has seen the worst of war, young pup. No man should find wisdom he’s found in so short of time.”
“Not ye neither?”
“Recognizing wisdom within is like forming of a friendship, isn’t it? Once it’s finally understood that two people are friends, they’ve most likely been for quite some time.”
I nod. Me eyes tear up from dust gathering in em. “War’s the way to wisdom,” I say, raising me hand to shield me face.
“Ah.” The Minister’s lips curl in a grin. “For men like Key.”
I shake me head.
“You’re not too young to understand, are you?”
“I don’t know.”
He lets his eyes bore into mine. I try saying something, nothing forms, we end up in another cavern before I know it. We’ve been walking a while, though. Me leg’s burning like a cig. I try not to limp all the way through the sun-stained cut in the ridge, but I can’t really avoid it.
The Minister pets Redfur and whispers something into her ear. She huffs and does a playful stomp. “You should splint that.” He admires that horse’s beauty for a couple awkward moments. I just stand there, all but scratching me own ass. Then he walks toward me, past me, and stops at the mouth of the cave. I’m about to follow.
“They’re smart enough to know where it’s safe out here,” he says to me, peering out. “Never lead them toward death and they trust humans better than lap dogs.”
I think of Priea and feel a bit unnerved, a bit guilty. Lonely. Not sure if he knows it but that horse was close to me. Not sure if he knows, but before he came along, it was the Djad, Priea, and me. No creepy outlaw mercenaries. I huff aloud and he looks at me with those snake-eyes.
“Nothing was meant by it, young pup,” says The Minister. He senses me blush. “This here’s of a different breed of equine.” There’s a ghost. He wants to smile but doesn’t. “A gift of God, mind you.”
I really get confused and just let it drop. Redfur looks deep into me eyes. Hers are dark like lantern oil. Something about em are better than this world and that’s the only way I’ll explain it. It makes me smile and yet feel sad. Like that body of hers is a coffin for a living soul. I feel like I see it, a fleeting spark in her eyes.
Then we leave. Priea and Redfur are bad tastes in me mouth.
Our back trip is silent. He walks with long strides. I figure he treads more ground than it looks. The Minister’s a deceiving man, methinks. He’s got his secrets. But then again we all do.
When we come in Shiv is out cold, a pint of that hell-fire drink settled on his gut. Key’s taking a stone to his khopesh, fining the edges with precise strikes. He knows what he’s doing. Wise in the ways of war. I purse me lips and take a spot nearer to the cave’s mouth and farther from any of those mercenaries. It’s warmer here, which makes stone a bit cozier. It’s not long till me eyes get heavy and sleep sets in just right.
What wakes a sleeping man? Nightmares, loud noises, and pain. I’m awake to all of these. Sweat is thick on me hairline, I’m so goddamned hot. Hot as a bull. I can’t really see, but I know I’m alone and I panic. Me throat’s dry and all I’m thinking is that I ain’t got no water if those mercs’ve left me. Realize now that I’m bound to die a long one without em.
Good God. It takes some amount of fortitude to shake that off. But when I jump up, me knee cracks like a twig and I’m hopping in circles. Outside there’s clatter, metal clanging and I try to rush toward it, but me leg doesn’t hold me weight the way it should. But limping like all hell, into the red day I come. Down the ridge I stop at a bluff and look over. Rain-colored funnels of dust are tumbling with the shadows of men whirling violent inside em. I hustle back in the cavern, me eyes peeled for any kind of weapon.
Key’s bow’s out, arrows and all spilled around the fire spit, telling me the pack’s caught on they heels. I gather the bow and those arrows in me arms, and drag me leg out the cavern.
It’s hot and the sweat in no way helps me vision. The noise of they tussle is growing more desperate. I can feel it. As quick as me hands can manage I nock an arrow. A bunch of dark men, Sargafans, got the pack surrounded. The dust settles around the outlanders. It looks lke six on two. Key and Shiv. It’s six on three when me arrow’s loosed.
It flies pretty. A dark man falls, the others reeling with they eyes to the caves. To me. I duck out of the way, me hands trembling mad as hell. I can’t get another arrow nocked before I feel sick in me gut. Em goddamn Sargafans are down in the hardpan shouting war-commands and cuss words from the bottoms of they lungs. I peek out, huffing like a horse. Two Sargafans have disappeared, but methinks they ain’t dead.
They’re probably looking for me.
I limp low into an alcove the size of a cartwheel and tuck me knees hard into me chest. I try me best to settle me lungs, counting in me head 1, 2. 1, 2…
A shadow forms over the trail, homing in as if tracking me scent. That shadow crawls in the heat of the Djad. Me legs are trembling. Goddamn, I killed one of em.
It’s closer. I can hardly hear the steps but I got nothing else to hear except me heart beating and those steps. Me throat dries like dust.
The shadow stops.
“Come out, young pup.” It’s the voice of The Minister.
I almost cry, climbing out the alcove. He’s there long and gaunt and towering over. His sand-silks are spotted with blood.
I hobble past him and look to the hardpan field. Key’s got a man under his arm. The slick khopesh tears open the Sargafan’s throat. I look away so fast I don’t see the blood run out. But it’s too quiet: I hear it splash.
Shiv’s laughter fills the ridge, echoing like a nightmare. Me back’s against the ecru rock wall when I sit me ass the whole way down.
Shiv looks at me hard in the eye. “Good shooting,” he says. “Yer even with me, pup.”
I nod and close me eyes, and pass out. This is one kind of a welcome to the Djad.
Are ye kidding me? They prod me awake quick as owl shit. The Minister has me leg wrapped, two arbol branches set straight in a splint. He’s pissed off. “You didn’t listen, young pup.” Me knee’s throbbing like a toothache. Shiv’s chewing up jerky while wiping away our signs of encampment. I don’t see Key anywhere but he’s got to be around. “Should the pack leave here?” The Minister shows his teeth. They are dirty and gnarled enough to be wooden.
I nod and lift me hide up to me good leg. “God-damn. Me leg ain’t festering, is it?”
He shakes his head and looks away. He listens to the wind. “Lead the pack out of here, young pup. Toward the town of Crawing.”
“No choice, zaer. Me horse’s dead. I got me message and I should deliver it. More that it’s you who’s helping me.”
“They got water in Crawing?” Shiv asks. His voice is serious. “We might get in at night and wash up. Whattya think?”
I nod. “They got two wells,” I tell em. “Center village. Aryone uses it but they got one behind the inn, too. Use that for public baths and whatnot. I could get us a room there. I’m in oft enough. Message business, ye see.”
The Minister whistles, breathy and quiet. The wind blows all round us and for a minute I blame it on him. Redfur and the other two babes come trotting out the cave. I stand still, in awe of em. Shiv throws his chessack over his shoulder and mounts his steed.
“Key’s cleaning up the base of the ridge.” The Minister says. “Take this horse down to him. Meet on the east road to Crawing.” He helps me mount Key’s horse, a camel-furred beast with a midnight mane. “She moves swift as any you’ll ride, young pup. Careful now.” Then he kicks her in the ass and we’re off.
She rides like Priea. And if I hadn’t been riding the region for so long a time, I’d be eating dirt by now. We hustle down white-hot slopes, ducking rocky overpasses that look like spider webs above our heads. We gallop off the path to the other side of the ridge, where the rock’s more pink than tan.
Near a wide crevice in the pink rock, flies and gnats and other shit gather like a sandstorm. I slow the horse down and tumble off, probably a bit too curious. Scared of me knee cracking, I hit the dirt in a push-up. Key’s horse trots a few feet away and settles down nice and easy in the heat.
So now what the hell do we have here? I’m crawling toward the little hole, an insect buzz budding like an incoming squall. Solus heats the back of me neck and shoulders. Cold sweat runnels through the knots of me spine.
There are blood driblets on the edge of the opening, brown and dry. The golden hardpan below is carved by scarlet claw-runs. I shuffle backward, frightened. Me heart picks up. Key’s horse neighs and spins a circle. I look at her quick and then back to the crevice.
Holding me breath I reach in there, into the darkness of that grotto, and feel around. The rock’s cool to the touch. Wiggling me fingers, I can feel insects swarming upon me hand and arm. They raise me hairs but I keep reaching. Something like cold moss masses between me fingers. I get a fistful and reel back like I’m saving me mum from drowning. It’s got a bit of weight to it, like a sack of onyx stones. Dust gathers under me eyes and in me brow and nose. I fight it through the wound and swipe the dust away and let it settle. In me hands is the head of a rotting Sargafan, sun-browned to the bone. His hair’s tangled in me fingers and I scramble to get it out. His throat was opened before the full decapitation. The tang of wet-forged iron pinches me nostrils.
I stand and hobble in a circle spitting, squinting toward Key’s horse. Tears clog up me eyes with dirt and gnats. I sit back down.
He was young, but still older than me. Seventeen? He was still proud of his moustaches. Sargafans are always lean, especially the prakas, and they line they lips with moustaches. I want to kick him so goddamn bad. His kin killed me horse, fucked with me mission. I ought to cut your throat again, ye bastard. Unkind words and trails of spit are flying from me mouth at this point. Can hardly keep control of meself.
Then I see the Sargafan’s stomach: Where a man’s mom-scar should be, about the center of a belly, there is a black hole backed up with blood. It’s a wound thick enough for me to fist. Me head jerks away and most immediate I blast yellow bile into the dirt.
Key prowls around the shade side of the ridge, that curved, bloody tool a shadowy extension of his arm. I give a swift whistle, wiping off me mouth.
Key aims his narrow gaze toward me and his horse, and rushes low in me direction, khopesh slung at his side. He helps me on his horse without a word about me yellowed-clothing or about the desecrated Sargafan. I manage to tell him we’re meeting on the east side of the ridge. He whips the reins and his girl’s hard on a gallop, quiet as the moon.
We meet up on the east road. The Minister and Shiv might have been ten minutes ahead at a slow pace. The hot sun must have shone its zenith in me sleep and began to wander over the horizon by the time our horses hit the middle of the Djad. I slip between sleep and not sleep. How eyelids, so delicate and small, could become so heavy I can’t understand, and can’t hope to explain either. Seeing the Djad too long of a time is a burden no human can bear. When I pray, I pray that the burden will be easy— or that I make it so, or that it becomes so, or that I realize it so.
I smile and keep me head up-turned. Peer to the flesh-colored sky of a blossoming half-night. I feel something up there that I can’t quite see down here. It may be nothing more than the source of light.
Aye. Nighttime will come, and with bitter quickness.
Solus doth abandon us.
And the skyline bleeds in a way that reminds me of a slit throat. So much that I get sick in me stomach and heave broadside from Key’s horse. He pretends not to notice, and that’s fine.
I know the way to Crawing. But there are small places that are closer and I mention it to em.
The Minister asks me, “Which route would you take?”
I want to say the one back home. “Into Law-qen. Same way as Crawing, but a little west and closer to here,” I tell em. “I get me food for the week there. A good bath, if ye be interested. They ask fewer questions in there. Less hunters.”
“How’s the ale?” Shiv says, patting me back.
I nod. “Suppose it’s good. It works.”
He grins, looks to The Minister. He’s solemn as a cemetery. They meet eyes and The Minister shrugs.
“You say hunters, young pup… …do you mean bounty hunters?”
“They run in numbers past Law-qen,” I tell em. “Pretty dumb fellows, most of em. Law-qen’s full of cowards.” Aryone of these men’s staring at me hard. “Out here they chance to be pretty tough.”
Shiv snorts, jolts his steed. “Then I believe we’re fine, gentlemen.”
The Minister gives me a weird eye that sends chills through me body.
“Closer we get to Sargafa, by now, more hunters out and at it. Looking for skirmish loot and worse. A lawless bunch of idiots, though,” I say.
“Does Law-qen skirt most travel, young pup?” asks The Minister. His beady eyes stake a place in me own.
“Mostly. That’s a reason I take to it. Less of em to hassle me about me job. It’s the farthest from Sargafa and Crawing’s simply bigger. More rooms, more ale. More arything.”
The Minister pulls his reins in deep and turns Redfur about. “You will lead, young pup. Suggest you make haste before the worst of the night seeps in.”
I smile weak. It’s going to get cold. “Indeed,” I whisper. “It’s a few hour ride. Still. Better than a couple of days ride.”
Shiv and Key face each other but say nothing. I can only see Shiv’s face and he doesn’t look happy. He’s suspicious of me, methinks. That’s just like him, though. He says to me, “Why’d you leave it out before, pup? Before? Why’d you leave it out?”
I shrug. “I’m already late.”
“How bout that,” he says back to me.
I squint and look away from him.
“You ain’t too young to fib.” He grits his teeth. “Know what I mean, don’t you?” The Minister just watches, his lips pressed in a stern line. “Why, pup?” Shiv asks. “Why’d you leave it out?”
“Hell I didn’t know it mattered.”
“Well, well. Hear this shit?”
“Forget it.” The Minister raises one hand. “Upon arrival at Law-qen, young pup, you will compose a map of the region in accordance with your fullest knowledge. No one.” He pauses to spit. “No one will harm you if you remain true. Understand?”
I swallow. “But I ain’t no artist.”
“Do you think the pack needs a portrait of the queen?” His eyes are wide and focused. “Your best will suffice.”
“Then we call it quits with one another. Take no offense, Minister. But I got me own shit to take care.”
He nods. “Sure. Be even then, young pup. From there, God knows. Do what you must to survive.” Those words hit me like cold water.
Law-qen is a small town, possessed of clay or light wooden shanties and deer hide tents used by nomadic peoples from further west. Wanderers of the wild come in and trade they hides and meats for buckets of well water and tools. Mostly they’re peaceful next to prakas, but I hear they got territories to protect, too. That they do so with they hearts before em in a way it should be done.
We ride close to town at dawn. The light is cold and brassy. Wind tussles arbol, clots of tumbleweed arcing wicked over the hardpan as if escaping unseen, unspeakable terrors.
The world is fast asleep, breathing steady and quiet against the clop of hooves. Smoke from furnace chimneys clump in a cloud looming over Law-qen like a temple bell. Women are waking, emerging from abodes as ants with gray clothing in they claws. I smell eggs distant as a whistle wafting on the wind. Hog slices and fresh game. Law-qen wakes with the caws. It ain’t long till the hammers of industry are clunking atop a gurgling resurgence of folk who’re alive after life.
We come in with blinking awe, a stand still worthy of a swashbuckling street-duel. Silence follows us to the stable where The Minister ties Redfur and the others. It’s mere moments I push Fancy’s door open. A bar, brothel, and restaurant. Seediest hut I ever saw meself but they pemmican’s delicious and so is other stuff, I hear.
Brap is the barman and owner of Fancy. An old fighter for Mirshan, he’s now only old. Has scars up his wooden head to scare outcasts from messing with em. He’s fought in The War, they say. Some war long passed now. . .about which me dad cares to keep secret. But Brap survived and thrives on the stale bounties of emptied battlefields, methinks. His mustache is like moonlight against his midnight skin. He scans the three outlanders from behind the bar. He’s got a grin that’s worn ary time I meet him.
“What need ye, Mousai?” he asks, not looking at me. “A room for road-weary travelers?”
I nod. “Might it that ye fix me a room, Brap and I’ll sweep up in here. And scrub out the mugs for ye.”
“Fixed for coppers, I reason.” He presses his lips together. “Aye, but yer honest folk. If ye tired, best get to restin. Yer no good to me weak, boy.” Brap clasps his hands and blows in em.
“Cold morning,” I say.
He laughs and leads us through a dingy hall to the room where light peels the dark corners through an antelope door. The Minister looks me over quick and then settles himself in. Shiv stares out the window for as long as I know while Key pats his khopesh for a painful five minutes before fatigue rips through me like nervous current and I’m out.
A couple of hours pass when Brap comes for me. He raps loud enough me eyes bulge open. Methinks The Minister is staring out the window when I wake but it’s quite hard to say. His lizard eyes are hidden behind a waterfall of tangled black hair so Hell, he might be looking at me. His ax ain’t slung, either. It’s set atop the sill in height apt enough for swift armament.
“I’ll be out,” I call, sounding like I caught a fly.
“All right, son. I need ye to straighten up my bar. Gonna run across town and talk to Blacksmith Jim fore he leaves. Ye look after Fancy.”
I yell, “Alright Brap,” and gather up me bones. To the pack I say,
“I allow you’ll all want some whiskey or something later. Be on me, since I’m—”
“That’s fine, young pup.” The Minister sneers. His eyes are yet pointed outside.
I pull me boots tight and roll me sleeves back. “I’ll get me some hide and ink, draw ye a map of the Djad. Surprised ye haven’t one before now.”
“That surprises you?”
“Ye ain’t from too far away, now are ye?”
“There are no maps for places like this.” His lips part in a smile that vanishes quick like a snuffed candle. “Young pup. Do not leave your employer waiting.”
I nod to him and head to the bar. Fancy’s a cavern for traders who’ve gone the wrong way, and for outlaws who need food before heading into the desert to hide again. I like it here because me dad and Brap go back to fighting days. Through him, I get free passage for the most part. People here don’t mess with me lest they provoke the lion in Brap. And he ain’t no comical beast, let me say. Once chucked a thug across the bar and sliced his face up because he badmouthed one of the girls.
Well, I reason not to ruin something good while I’m here.
Only a few people are sitting in the tavern. They’re huddled at a table playing roq-cha. The tick clicking of bone dice sets rhythm to me work. I grin and take up the broom and fill they mugs with frothy warm beer when they are low. One of em rolls up a cig for me and lights it right quick. Snatch and snap. He snickers. I hear embers crackling, heavier when me lungs pull for em. The smoke’s itchy and hot, but it soothes me nerves by the time it’s burnt out and I’m sweeping again.
I say thanks to the man and he nods. I ask, “Who’s up in coin here?”
“Reckon I am, Mousai,” another man says to me, raking in a small pot. He’s paler than most around here with unshaven whiskers and eyes set wide on his head like a fish or something. A tan flop hat shades much of his face. But methinks a hating eye gleams through most anything. I don’t trust him.
“Have we met, zaer?” I ask, hardly sure.
He shakes his head. “I’ve seen ye. Crawing and such. A young man, a messenger,” he says to his friends, not me. “Really wondering if ye’d ever show here.”
“Well, why’s that? I’m in here oft enough.” I stop sweeping entirely.
“I reckon you ain’t got good reason to know a man like me,” he says. The man tosses the dice and then tips his hat. “Name’s Sal, warden of the Djad. Eleventh lieutenant to Raija Saryone years ago.” This is when I notice the lines of his face, deep like dried rivers. “Ye likely ain’t know me by anything but zaer. A beaten word, I reason.”
He is right about both things. “Well.”
“Well.” Sal laughs, shaking his head.
It’s quiet a while, the kind of quiet when aryone thinks what they’re going to say but no one’s talking. “I got work– ”
“Right. I’ll need ye ear, then. A little later, aye?” He pulls a small pot and winks at me.
“I’ll be riding out this eve, Sal. Having me a drink and riding to Crawing.”
“That’s what I need ye for. But don’t be impatient, son. I got a good tale for ye.” Sal sniffs like a goddamn Coyote hunting dead. But he’s the one who stinks.
I hobble out the main lounge and wind through the hall back to me room. Drawing heavy breaths with each stiff move. But I don’t go the whole way. I don’t show em I’m afraid. Instead I wait for me lungs to calm, walk out proud as I can, and keep sweeping.
Though I feel em staring at me from time to time, I ignore it best I can. It ain’t long till Brap comes back, chessacks full a tinker-tools and some cocoa. He settles in swift, counts they coin and asks me what I gave out and I tell him not much. I then nod toward a back room and harden me eyes. He’s snappy in the know and takes lead.
When we’re out of view, I whisper: “Who is that man? The one with the hat. A soldier, Brap?”
“He used to be a soldier, aye. When Saryone was Emperor. A damn fine one. Sal, he’s called. A name heavy on the purse if ye work in Sargafa.”
I give him a confused look.
“I reason he’s a hunter, Mousai. But he ain’t in here oft as you. Much less in point a fact.”
“How ye know of him, then?” I ask, a bit louder than desired. I can almost feel they devilish ears perk.
“Oh by God, son. Trust me,” he says with a grin. “And I tell ye another thing. I don’t call it dumb luck he’s here now.” This he punctuates with a stern glance and a palmed gold coin, the likes of which I ain’t seen before. “Ain’t Mirshanni. I know that,” he says.
“Hell does that mean? What’s he here for, Brap?”
He doesn’t answer, just shakes his head. “I don’t know.” Then he goes to leave and I step in front of him.
“Brap, is it something with me? The hell’ve I done?”
“Ah, God be damned, Mousai. Have ye looked at the company ye keep? They’re a band a dogs, ye ought know it by now. They ain’t from here, and they ain’t yer brothers neither. However ye found em, that’s yer business. But I allow you rid of em.”
“It pisses me off, Brap. Who are they? I can’t have men around I can’t trust. Look after me till Crawing? I can’t do that. It’s only been yer help and me family up till they saved me from the Djad— from goddamned prakas.”
“I don’t know, son. They a dangerous folk to hang about. Especially with other dangerous folk hunting em.”
I shake me head, knowing how he’s right but that I can’t tell em more. “I got to make even on something. After that. Who knows, I drift off. Go back to me ways. Maybe even farm rice or beans with me dad. But they saved me. I owe em that.”
He looks away and cracks his knuckles. “Ye get yer hide outta this fast as possible, Mousai. I ain’t keen on letting any damn person hurt ye.”
“Ye better be including those thugs out there.”
He laughs hearty like a twilight fireplace. “So be it, son.”
I sigh. And it takes me a few to reclaim calm but I do it and then we back out in the bar. Brap sneaks in a stern glance possessed of eyes of an ancient bear. I take up cleaning again while Brap tinkers with cooking hot cocoa. I tell him, “I ain’t had it before. But I’ll try some.”
He grins, darting his eyes to me, and away real quick. “Well, it ain’t no grain ale, Mousai,” he says. “But it tastes awful good. Got it from Blacksmith Jim. Says it comes from the Free Lands west of here.”
I nod. “Ain’t been out there, neither.”
All the while Sal’s burning holes in me skin. I can’t stare back. He’s scary in a Shiv-like-too-happy-to-do-me-job kind of way. He’s one of em out there who’s paid for the heads of anyone against the Mirshan empire.
A couple of women push open the door, scanty hides hanging loose over they shoulders. “A round, Brap,” one says. She is pretty by me reason, thin with cute bones and whorl lashes.
“Don’t be blushing, boy,” Sal jeers. His idiot friends snort, laugh. Poke elbows.
“I ain’t,” I say. “What I got to do with em anyway?”
“Not a damn thing,” Sal says. He tosses the dice away and his eyes jump and center on me. “Be here in an hour, Mousai. Got business, you and I. But that’s then,” he says. “Now, I got other business.”
Lady tells em all, “We ain’t whorin tonight so get yer goddamn cunny elsewhere.” Brap tightens up. I see it.
And Sal too is red in the face. “Sure, now?” he reaches in his pouch. “I got gold in here,” he says, beckoning her closer. We all stop moving, as if at theater. The Lady takes a couple of steps and that quick Sal lunges and puts a damn blade at her naked neck.
I shout at him nothing memorable.
He doesn’t look at me. “Aye, ye are lucky, whore. If they weren’t young folk present I’d make a new mouth of yer throat.”
I swallow hard. “Cut her, ye bastard. And ye’ll have to cut up this entire bar. I reason ye ain’t got no goddamned back up except these blow-hards.”
“Now ye got an option or two, old timer,” I say. Me fingers are yellow, tight around the broom handle.
Sal laughs from the back of his throat. “Ye ready to have a dead whore on yer mind, boy?”
“Ain’t me mind ye’ll be hurting, zaer,” I tell him.
“Mousai. Maybe that’s enough.”
“Ain’t mine, either.” Sal looks at me now. He’s grinning, half his face lost beneath his hat. “Not one of ye have half a wit to stop me from any damn thing. So I’m a take her to a backroom and ye know what I intend? I’m a fuck’er bloody. And leave my seed. That shit’s as good as gold.” He grabs her by the hair, reels it around a tight fist. She groans and looks at all us with antelope eyes.
“Brap, this ain’t right.”
He stands in a quiet paralysis, his knees near-buckled. I want to club him and ary one in the tavern.
Sal shoves her hard into a near wall and leads her across the bar. I choke up in tears and heft the broom. Ain’t no one going to do a thing? No? I’ll wail that bastard.
“I wouldn’t move,” a man says from behind me. “I’ll stick ye between the ribs.”
I hear a whoosh. The slice of air. Out of instinct I drop to the floor. Blood splatters and the table crashes, splaying splinters of wood. I duck under me hands and look around. Rooted in that man’s skull stands an ax. Its wooden handle thin and vibrating.
Before I get up, Sal’s piling through a far window. The Minister hurls himself past me in an arcing blur. He’s silent as he moves.
Again, I become a watcher. A speck of dust on the wall. The Minister hacks down the other in seconds and Sal escapes to the outside. Dirt kicks up behind him. Me heart sinks low when I see he’s already on his horse.
I wanted him dead.
“Who are they, young pup?” say The Minister. His hands are planted around the sill. Black locks of hair branch out chaotic. “Who are they?” He growls.
“H-hunters. By God. Hunters, Minister.”
“And perchance, might you know whom they’re hunting?”
I swallow. “I know now.”
He nods but doesn’t look at me. Brap’s bringing his girls out the bar. I’m boiling over him but don’t say anything. The whores do. They complain. But I can’t listen to em it hurts so bad.
“A map, young pup. You don’t have too long to draw it.”
I look down, and kick some dirt.
“Victory is not always killing the enemy.” I ain’t sure what he means by that. The Minister moves past me. He gets his ax from the guy’s skull, as it lies split and gray on the floor. Sounds briefly like when ye gut a deer. He finally looks at me and gets close. His lizard eyes are black, and big. He grabs me arm and I recoil at his chilly touch. But he’s weirdly gentle. He reaches for me hair and stops breathing.
Then he just goes back to the room, silent like a breeze.
“The fuck’s into all of ye?” I say to no one. I lift Sal’s mug of whiskey and down a throat-full, and then another.
The room is empty and I am alone. There is blood on the floor four inches from me feet. “And what the hell wrong’s with you, Brap?”
I fall to me ass exhausted and crawl beneath another table. Me nerves are like hot snakes trembling in the hell of me body, and I try to calm em. But I can’t. Within me a heart beats hard like drums of war, and I can’t calm down.
Half-drunk I get a quill and some hide and start scribbling up what I know of the region. Hopefully it’ll come out okay, but at this point I don’t give a fuck really. So triangles for the Hydra Sigh mountains, west; dots for Crawing, Law-qen, and Quriah, which is east, towards the great River of Sleep and its canyons; a broken line to separate the oasis from the desert; a solid line for the many roads, one of the river well east. I draw up places I’ve found interesting, like Nine-pay. If I remember something specific about a place, I throw it on there. On the side, I etch notes the best I can, but me hand-writing is awful scratchy and I reckon the words ain’t too sensible.
Shiv and Key walk past me. Both are armed to the teeth. Out Fancy they skulk, not a word or a glance to be stolen from em. Brap and a younger lady are talking business in the corner of the bar. I’m still pissed at him. More than I’ve been at anyone, methinks. Till today, a part of me considered him family.
Me face burns hot and I decide to stop thinking about him simply because it might get me in trouble to do what I feel like. With the map rested in me hands I limp back to me room, hoping The Minister will deem it worthy. I nudge open the door with me good knee.
Good God, what is this—some sign of gratitude?
The Minister presses a naked girl against his body. She’s face-first against a wall. The Lady. Her moan is blissful and I think genuine. I stare too long and she notices. He doesn’t seem to. I close the door, put me back against the wall, limp down the hall then out of Fancy. Outside I piss on the wall and sing a song and then decide it’s best I get back in.
At the fireplace I hold the map up so the ink dries. The fire there keeps me warm too. When nights hit in the Djad, it’s always a harsh feeling– like waking up to someone pulling the covers off. For a few moments, I stir up the ash and think of where to get arbol for later– if we were to stay.
How old are you? Fifteen, sixteen? A girl whispers, calm and confident.
“Aye.” She is beautiful. Her hair is like silver threads. Her face is pale, her eyes gray.
Isn’t that a bit young to travel alone? This place must be scary. Her accent is foreign but I understand her.
I look at her again. “I ain’t alone.”
Brap’s silhouette disappears into a vacant room. I hear him muttering to himself with the swipe of broom bristles hushing him only a slight.
“Aye. The land’s scarier than the people.”
She hides a smile, but not well. I meant that, anyway. I thought my father and I might starve it’s so dry here. We didn’t, of course.
“Well,” I say, pulling on me shirt. “Long way from home, then.”
Yes. She nods. My father doesn’t like Brap. So I do the most of the talking for him. “Anyway,” I tell her. “I’m Mousai, I deliver messages.”
Her eyes are solid and stone-colored; they focus on me hard. I’m Wrayth. She reaches out with one hand and I just look at her.
She grabs me at the forearm and wraps me fingers around hers.
“In the Djad, we don’t touch,” I say.
I watch her as she watches the rest of the room, but then Shiv barges inside, screaming. “Get the hell out of here! Minister! Let’s go! We got company! Thirty strong, maybe a couple minutes ride.”
In his wake, chairs are tossed along with wooden mugs and clay pots. It sounds like the sky is falling.
Before I stand, she comes close to me and says, The universe, Mousai, has collapsed around you and me.
I stare at her, blinking but once, and swallow.
You and your men follow me; I know of a place.
“Where?” I cry, hobbling toward the door.
It’s a church. It’s old and abandoned but we haven’t been visited there yet. Not by bandits or hunters. Or knights, for that matter.
I nod. “Shiv!”
His stare is a sharp knife. “What you want, you shit?”
I’m quiet for too long.
“You deaf, pup?”
“No.” I watch Wrayth as she stands up. “There’s a church toward the western mountains.”
“There’s a church near. It’s perfect, Shiv. Sal thinks we’re headed to Crawing tonight, if anywhere.”
The Minister steps out of the darkness. His vision darts to Shiv.
“If it works, fine. If we get caught up, pup, I’m leaving yer carcass behind me.”
“Ain’t me they looking for, though.” I say, walking out. “Let’s go. Ain’t none of us here want to get caught up, Shiv.”
“The boy is true,” The Minister says, hefting an ax. “Young pup.”
“Bring round the horses. If they are closing in now, there isn’t much time.”
Before he finishes, Wrayth and I are in the streets of Law-qen. We round em up and it seems Redfur knows what’s happening. She prances, more anxious than ever. The stable smells of shit and dead earth and we hustle through hard-packed earth to get em out. Wrayth unsheathes a flat knife from her hip and tears the tethers.
You have a horse in here? She asks.
I say no and lead our three out.
Here, she says. Take this one. She cuts the tether to a pale horse and quickly leads us out. Now come on.
We ride passed Fancy. The Minister crouches at the corner and we all watch with him as little bulbs of light flicker over a sand dune maybe a couple minutes out of town. I count fifteen on me own.
“Let’s go,” I say to em and Wrayth climbs atop the horse with me. The Minister’s look is hard but he listens without a word. “Lady says get out to the west. By morning we ought arrive?” I ask.
Key and Shiv appear from behind a clay hut, both at arms. Shiv says to me, “Well, pup. You better fix this one or else yer in for a slow one.”
“A slow what?” I say, as if to challenge him. “Ye ain’t got reason not to trust me. Sal could a had ye bright and early if I allowed. But it ain’t like that, Shiv. I owe ye all. Follow me out. It ain’t gonna be too much but it’s either that or ye outrun scores of hunters. Up to you.” I rattle the reins beneath me horse.
He stares and then spits. His nod is barely visible. “Then we should hurry,” he says and starts his horse behind the shacks rendering us invisible to the invaders.
The Minister whispers something to Key as they horses pass. The hiss of his voice raises hairs.
After we ride past all Law-qen’s homes, it’s like a jailbreak. I kick me horse and it sprints with its head low. Like a heartbeat, the hooves slog. We can see Sal’s men rushing into town with orange torches hot and ready to burst em-selves upon Fancy and flesh. We ride faster and the heartbeat quickens, too.
Faster, faster until we ride upon a small encampment. Five black men, parkas or maybe mercenaries hop to they feet.
“A contingent?” says Shiv, and The Minister nods and narrows his lizard-eyes.
Five men, black as night, raise alarm. They heads pop up like spearheads. Key springs his bow into aim and fires a shaft with divine accuracy. The stone tip splits a Sargafan’s nose and tears through the back of his skull, stuck. The others fumble for swords and javelins and spears and try to set against our charge. Shiv’s horse is stabbed at the rib and propped upward. She bucks and huffs loudly, dancing in circles as if her hooves were set ablaze. Shiv rolls off, bringing a dagger into his grip.
“C’mon now,” he says, licking his lips.
We on the horses circle around, and Wrayth’s got one hand around me waist and a knife in her other. Shiv is flanked by two men with spears; they jab relentlessly yet he keeps em back. Key unleashes another arrow through one of they necks. I swallow and look away. Quickly, I reel me horse around and The Minister follows but not Key. He kicks his horse into a full charge and she leaps over the set spears; atop the saddle, he twists around, pulls a shaft tight, and lets it loose.
“Go on, Minister,” he says, the first words I ever hear him say. “We have this under control. The bodies good as gone,” he whispers as Shiv takes a man down.
“Hear, young pup? Lead!”
We ride on but I don’t feel the warmth of Wrayth’s breath at the back of me neck. When I face her, her eyes are wide and full of horror. Her chin quivers and tears mist in her glass-blue eyes. I watch em fall.
“Take your meat and leave,” The Minister says, his eyes darting between Law-qen, me, and the vast gray desert before us.
It’s often hard to ignore him but I do. I follow her line of sight and fall into a void of inescapable terror meself: in the violent shade of night, Key stands a silhouette like a demon torturing a soul in hell. He plunges a blade deep. We ride and ride and the screams last for full minutes and I wonder if those two will get us caught.
A man’s life ain’t the same after he’s ended another’s life. It’s worse when he witnesses it and realizes he ain’t keen on the horror to begin with. I can’t tell ye what that moment did to me. I can’t. And seeing the horror in Wrayth’s eyes had kindled some kind of sensitivity within meself. I can’t tell ye the all of it.
I watched those men, rode with em.
Half-light becomes nighttime with a jaw-locking chill. The moon as a soft watcher watches us with reluctant vision as we flick across the Djad, our bodies aching and our minds sore. A haze thick as butter blankets the horizon in yellow gauze as though Aerth is repairing her own wounds and the stars are acolytes of the healing clergy watching. Deeper down, I think of me heartbeat and I think of the clop of hooves and the sounds of fighting and the groans of suffering and I believe that nothing divine has ever protected its people and shouldn’t either. I look at The Minister and wonder what god he follows, if any, and wonder if he is blessed by that god or if he The Minister blesses his brothers and wonder if maybe each deserves his victory, and therefore also his defeat.
Key and Shiv ride up, each on they horses. A dry red pervades all exposed skin and only the darkness of they clothes hides the blood on em. I can barely speak.
I choke up on dust, me mouth is so wide ope. “How is ye horse, Shiv?” I ask.
He grins as we ride but doesn’t answer.
“Fine, then. Keep ye secrets,” I say but am stunned into silence thereafter. I keep me eyes to the desert as we ride like drift-wood over the sea of caliche waves.
The wind blows against us but we ride harder. We move through black outlines of villages, emptied of humanity, though I feel the raking of farmers in the dead fields with they ploughs scraping away the calloused skin of the Djad and I hear the many children playing in the sparse shade of the orchards and the mother frying eggs for all except us riders who ride endlessly on an endless sea of sand.
Hours and hours pass but we see the dim glowing like rain-colored pearls high as if atop a mountain.
Wrayth pulls me tight and says, That’s the church, dear man. Father’s lit a small beacon for us.
I sigh and whip the reins, ready to rest.
To us the church is a fortress.
To the world, it’s a forgotten haven for forgotten men.
The hollow mouth of the ridge forks out and the proud building stands well-guarded within, while the tower reaches high as though raping the night sky. A broken bell sways in the wind but is soundless and dry. Shiv hums nervous.
Blacksmith Jim is stationed here with well-hidden sentries posted atop stoneform parapets and I’m not why they don’t attack. Why is he here?
She tells me not to worry but that ain’t reassuring.
Blacksmith Jim, a figure as gaunt as the hungriest man in the Djad, slinks out the church, a dull glowing lamp hanging off his arm. “Who do we have?” The glare couldn’t hide his leeriness. “Soldiers?”
Wrayth climbs off the horse, delicate in her step. Men in need. They were being hunted but, she says, looking sad, there is no current pursuit. She glances at Key.
He wipes his mouth and says nothing.
“Well come in, be quick,” the man says and stifles the light, disappears into the haven for forgotten men.
I see very few things through the pallid light. Deep in the corners, there are men with jagged teeth and sunken eyes staring feverishly at us newcomers. They are, to us, faceless.
Jim himself wanders among em, a shade behind the golden glow of his lantern. He whispers and they hunger wanes.
“Were you followed?” Blacksmith Jim says.
She sets her chessack beneath a bed and turns to him.
“No,” says Shiv grinning. “…Prakas prey on the outskirts of town. They’ve no reason to suspect you, zaer.”
“And who might they be?” he asks, stepping closer.
“Sal’s what he goes by,” I say, looking to the floor. “A hunter.”
Blacksmith Jim strokes his ratty white beard, stretching it out from his chin like a stocking. “Settle in. There are unused cots all over,” he says without regarding me words. “You are in no immediate danger here.”
I take me few things and push em underneath a cot and look around. The church is old and dusty but it ain’t decrepit. A quaint smell like ancient tomes is thick in the dry air. In me short scope, I find no altars and any benches that may have been used long ago are missing. Instead, mud bricks pack a vacant floor. Weapons and cargo lay across it like altars they own-selves.
The Minister hasn’t moved from the doorframe. He watches with his hand not far from the handle of his ax. The line of sight from his snake-like eyes climbs the walls and through the cracks of the walls and up the bell tower and through the sunken eyes of our company and through the souls of our company and he judges us.
Wrayth is seated not so far away, quietly pulling her boots off and massaging her calves. Her fingers are slender but seem to work hard. Blacksmith Jim walks close to her and whispers, “That happens again and I’ll disembowel you.”
She looks up at him and smiles. She then looks at me. Dear man. There’s a bath outside. I reason you’d like one.
I startle and then kinda laugh. “Certainly, I would like a bath. Ye got a fire cooking around here?”
Jim lifts his eyes to me. “We do. But that isn’t necessary. The water in the Djad is always warm –is it not?”
A man thin as a toothpick kicks open a door on the far side. I try to hide me limp across the floor and hear nothing but me own footsteps and it’s like no one else is breathing but me. All of em seem to have died and are now decaying.
But it’s fresh outside. Surrounding me is a fort-like fence almost like a hog pen with a water pump and in the bucket is a wiry brush and powder soap. It takes me full minutes to get any water flowing, but I do, and fill the bucket with water. I hang me clothes over the fence and look to the sky. It’s clearer than I ever remember. Each star shines, vibrates, and calls to us, even those caught in the chalky light of Lunus; the smallest of stars remain significant.
I pour the water from the bucket over me and scrape the wire across the soap and across me body and keep me head down. I think of nothing except me family and wonder how they are and how they farm is. Knowing em, probably well. Taught me when I was even younger: this is the way things are done, Mousai. Get what ye put in and help another in need, and bless em all.
One more fill of the bucket and I let the warm water loosen me muscles. I move me hair from me eyes and then sigh, look up, put me clothes on, and walk back inside half-naked.
Flames make our shadows dance. Ten of us are in a circle. The Minister and his pack on one side with Blacksmith Jim and his men on the other. They keep contained to each other, remote and quiet. Each of em has a foreign leather about they shoulders and mechanic bows to they sides. Sharp swords are slightly out of the scabbards but more than fear em, I feel protected. Key and Shiv are rolling cigs, enough for all of us. Wrayth and I sit close to the middle and she is quiet. Methinks her eyes are forcibly softer here, but they nonetheless dance like the flames.
Blacksmith Jim eyes me suspicious and I can’t help it but smile. He offers us food and we all take it with cheer. Whiskey and mulled wine, too. We drink and laugh, tell stories and fib a lot. Wrayth says nothing, but we laugh at her anyway and drink until the fire is low. We feed it arbol and kindling I ain’t seen too much of before but when it smolders it smells like holidays at home.
Jim tells us about the forest the wood is from and tells us about the spooky goings-on: myths of the dying centaurs and rising dead; myths of traveling monks, conquering paladins.
The blood of man soaks this wood, he says, handing out fat maggot-like cigs.
Blood of man? says Key. You heard of Somnah City? A blood fucking battle, says Key. The streets are clay red, now, because of that struggle. Fucking children watching from little hiding places as the elders of their families running circles fleeing from the encroaching onslaught of magicians and their soldiers, attempting to escape death with such a futility we believed the dead more fortunate than the living.
Doubt neither what I say about the magicians who came waving their hands up to Solus. I heard our fucking troops exclaiming, Good Gods, knives of ice are falling from the sky!
Knives of ice…
Mind you, the objective of our attack was to root these magicians, you know, and the alchemy they turned against defenseless citizens. We survived their storms of icicle-like knives using shields and speed, and pressed forward through the city. Men, woman, children.
Seen a young boy crying beside an old man, who was dying, when an icicle shattered the boy’s skull.
Knights of the Dark Horse Company used chains to strangle soldiers of the rebellion.
If a man claims the Knights of Mirshan are noble do not listen to him. Instead remind him of this day.
Our survivors we pressed on into the city. The magicians were weakening and Aerth grew restless. We mercs could feel that. And it had them afraid. Fear is the single most potent tool in war, and can swing a sword harder than any human or weaken one so as not to lift a feather.
Sure the magicians were strong, but we pressed on. Deeper into the city, we culled thousands of sympathizers to the magician’s cause and killed just as many in the streets. Those wizards worried none over their people, their supporters, but protected themselves only. That is why we destroyed as many of the crooked bastards as we could.
Then the Dark Horse Company, led by Margon Sannacherib of Ataraxia, I believe, encircled our battalion. I didn’t understand. We were on the same side. We were mercenaries, not apart of the Mirshan army, but we fought on the same side. Our squad broke off and fought through the lines and retreated. It was a hasty escape. Some of our soldiers were left behind, left to die. My brother was among those the knights had captured.
Zaer Rozkhe, a knight of the Dark Horse Company loyal to the Emperor, charged my brother with high war crimes including pillage, rape, and treason, which means, the key to my brother’s cell is probably lost, swallowed and shit out the ass of some fuck from Ataraxia. And without me, he will rot until the knights see fit to execute him.
I watched my brother, then. They hooded him with a pillow case and fettered his wrists and ankles and threw him in a wagon. I watched them from a distance. It was a long walk out to the Djad, and it’s been a long ride ever since.”
“The knights of Mirshan left you for dead and you left your brother no better. Now, you’re looking for him?” Jim says. “Your brother?”
Key nods. “Indeed. At the least, I should be present for the execution.”
We can be nothing but quiet while me mind breaks open. A hot roach falls from me fingers and ary one looks at me laughing. Smiles are wicked-wick…ed. Ruttish rotten tears run a river on me cheek and I laugh, too.
“What’s happening?” I cry laugh cry.
They howl like jackals except the wolf himself and the haunt beside me. She is a sad cat. Her lashes are whipping out, out at me. Look at me.
I go to stand but the bell tower booms above me or does it and I’m really dizzy and I fall dizzy to the earthen floor and the heavens turn me inside out and makes me again and still I spin with the walls closer to me than ever but dark like the space between the stars. I cannot find. I cannot touch. I sift through me lungs with me claws and crawl and climb to stand and I wander out.
Cold black watery sky.
Stars stripe the sky in yellow arcs like lightning frame and peels away layers of the dark Djad sands with the pearl fruit beneath me. I look up, look: glitter is star warmth in the heart. Wrayth follows me. Her sleepy eyes are loving eyes, intimate like, and she watches me curious as a lover.
The ridge is red and cold. It’s leagues up to the top. The bell peals boom and bang and I dance why not. Let us go.
She says okay I will follow you. Take care of you, dear man. A long fall for anyone, can’t you tell sweet man? Ruttish rotten lungs beat ceaselessly as we climb. I’ve a hot face and cold wet sunburned arms. Love her now because she’s awake because any mind I’ve lost she has safe for me when I ascend from hell again.
Rocks in me hands are the knuckles of Mirshan. I feel em clink below me as we clamber climb to a small cliff. She has me close saying you’re okay dear man. Wrayth’s touch is star warmth and glitter and it makes the sky blank and pearl like the Djad floor so that all space I see is a shade of gray except her.
We’re there. High as we can be in the Djad and the closest to the stars I ever been. The church is below us a couple a yards. Lo, oh whoa– heavens.
Spit me out. Please. I’m begging you God.
Hollow earth under these boots. I’m dizzy. A long fall for anyone, she says. I toss out me arms, reach out wide and look up way up into the eyes of the universe and she bends me to you Wrayth.
Yes it is. Rising in great tumbles, I hear it growl through the throat of a dragon and the smoke twirls deep into the night and dries and heats the wet cold black sky. There is a different heat in me chest.
I’ll kill him.
You will not. Sit with me, she says. Sit with me. There is nothing you can do to extinguish that fire. Nothing anyone can do now. Let it die.
For now I nod and agree with her. Between that and wooziness, that’s all I got. Wrayth tucks a cloak about me neck and pulls me tight.
It’s a sad thing, she says. But sleep easy. The best you can.
I’m jostled awake by distant bellows, haunting death throes, cold windhowl. Wrayth is at the end of the cliff, her moonlit clothes and hair whipping and drifting away from her body while she stands unwavering. Two staves of smoke fill the predawn sky with mindless misanthropy. A bitter wind catches me lips and they quiver a bit.
“I’m sorry, Brap,” I whisper, sitting up straight.
Wrayth turns to me very slowly. Dust moves across the ridge in heavy clots. She covers her eyes but I know they’re watching me. Mindless, she says.
I nod. Still a couple a paces away, I feel weightless and sit back down. There is whiskey still swimming in me skull. “How long’s I out?”
Not long, she says. Not long enough.
“No.” I groan, laying down entirely. “But thanks for keeping me–”
Warm. You’re welcome. These words are terse like a knife wound.
But as if she feels me pain, she steps and lowers herself beside me.
After she says, I think you should go back to sleep a while.
I smile and nuzzle my head into her gray cloak, but I don’t find sleep.
At dawn, Solus wakes and we smell burnt paper. Sweat and blood replaces morning dew. Any and all cold dissipates. Wrayth and I are silhouettes atop the red cliff and no one will find us, at least not yet. The mercs are still drugged on fancy-ass cigs, wine, whiskey.
I can only imagine.
Colorless quilts swirl along the horizon and I know it now that Brap’s soul floats in that wind and smoke, restless in the sky or dead arywhere but within me. Perhaps the fabric of his being hangs no more in that vast ceiling but instead drifts into the deeper parts of me lungs and sails along the river of me veins and into me heart and bides in me whiskey jug skull. And here it sits. Here it broods.
Sal must have killed him. Maybe all of em.
We should check it out, I say.
Is that a good idea?
I reckon not. When I sigh, it hurts. The pain is not subtle but it is not sharp, either. There is a slow grating in me throat.
Don’t, Wrayth says. Oh…dear man.
I rest me head in me hands, and begin to sob. I cry.
Wrayth looks on. You’re okay, dear man. She stands up beside me and walks to the edge of the cliff. You have to promise me something, dear man.
It’s no small and silly promise, therefore you must make it.
She looks away.
The wind kicks up her gray cloak.
It flaps noisily in the airy nothingness of the cliff’s edge.
Beneath her are the leagues we overcame in our climb.
Promise me you will not become like the man who is not a man, with whom you travel. Promise me when I return here I will find you human.
I reason I’ll never be like em, Wrayth. But I can’t promise ye nothing.
Wrayth reads me in a way I can’t describe. I could stare at her till time stops.
I look up at her, incredulous. Any concern towards her feels unwarranted yet strong. Can ye stay another night?
Not the way I want. She shakes her head. But you can’t, either.
I look down.
The cosmos have entwined our paths one time before. Why not again?
Wrayth reveals a strapped knife at the side of her pale hip, fingers its sharp edge. She opens her eyes wide and watches buzzards circle fresh death while other birds of prey stare from high eyries, a trailing gaze down on the shadows of birds nefarious and flitting on the Djad’s creamy-ochre blanket. Time to wake. That dear God, Solus, whose breath boils the moisture from the sands. Awake, all of you, he says. Wake.
This knife, dear man, she says. This knife was my dignity. I have it not for skinning game or carving wood. I have it to annihilate. I have it five years now…
Your father is an old man. Will ye kill him?
God-sake. Then I will.
I reason he needs stopped.
He will be, she whispers.
I look at her strange.
Then I will return to Mirshan. For you and this land.
Wrayth beckons me close.
I’m hesitant. And so she reaches around me neck and pulls me close. I don’t resist. Take this, she says in me ear. I don’t need the knife anymore. I feel the knife’s pommel in me palm. The whole thing’s heavier than I’d imagined a blade could be.
Wrayth holds me against her chest for a long moment and I feel her chin quivering throughout me whole body. I’m sorry to her. For the shortcomings of humanity, we are all to blame.
O, Hollow is this building of God.
Men and women here sweat and sleep on the floor. All except The Minister. His eyes slither in the recesses of the abode and he whispers to himself, something I ain’t ever seen. Wrayth and I wake up the rest of em when we gather our trappings but we are careful not disturb the tense beatitude between us. The rest of em rouse and Blacksmith Jim drags himself to the cooking fire and fries food for all us drifters. Hen eggs and pig strip again. I force it down. Something about it all makes me uncomfortable, sick. Breakfast is silent. Jim’s body of slackjawed cohorts play humdrum cards over they food while Key picks away any dull deposits on his khopesh. Shiv doses again bright and early. Slow but sure, his eyes turn blank.
The three of em go out back to retrieve they horses.
“Jim,” I say. “Thank ye for the food and shelter.”
His cold beady eyes focus. “Indeed. Travel safe.”
“Sal comes round here,” I say, “Ye be careful with him.”
“I intend to,” says Jim. “Well you get on out of here, okay. No need to have you here when I’m selling you to him.”
A frozen lump hits me throat.
“Shit, kid. Don’t act surprised. You have to kill me to keep me quiet.”
“I ought kill ye, then.” I’m conscious of the knife at me side, trembling like a bell staff. “Ye are meant for better ends, though.”
Blacksmith Jim looks disgusted. “Hope he gets you, too. Bunch of dogs is all you are.”
I nod to him, staring hard. “Well. Then this is goodbye.”
I grab me pack and hoist it up. Wrayth stands before me, not hiding. The sun shines through the walls of this dark hall, shines upon us with graceful fingers, gentle warmth.
We have much to say yet, I think.
More than anything I fear solitude.
She blinks slow.
Mere hours ago I felt like we…don’t leave me here alone.
We ride toward a gaping black hole in the sky.
The violent pupil of a higher being.
The proficiency of God in the steep hatred of a storm.
It wells in carnation sunrise
the blue mountains stolen across the horizon
the ugly decay of gangrene
all prisms of the cosmos
mourning for the living
Is it to know this work or to work it only.
Not so much a question as an answer.
O God help us.
Dirt and dust curl in gray funnels behind the hooves of our horses and climb like a tornado whirling up from the ground.
Thunder echoes a bass in the earth and wind swims through stalks of dead heath and bone dry sinopia.
Our horses ride strong, fast.
I’d been set back off my task, some would say.
The Minister eyes me. “Your map dictates Crawing isn’t far. Are you true, young pup?”
“Indeed.” I nod. “But a storm’s brewing ahead of us. Maybe best to find cover again tonight?”
“Nah,” says Shiv, barely with it. “Storm will do us good. And if nothing else, we put some desert between Sal and our pack.”
I nod again. “We’ve much land to cover ourselves.”
Shiv spits. “You reckon to cover it alone, pup?”
No, I say. “It was a weak warning I know. Crawing ain’t so far. A hard ride through the night ought do us. If the horses can handle.”
“They can,” The Minister says.
I look at him strange.
They all laugh but me. He pets Redfur and smiles to the sun. “To Crawing, then.”
I think of Wrayth when we’re on the move again. Small visions of her sleep inside me memory, like a small candle never really burning but always warm. Yet pangs of conscience, cold in the sharpness of her knife bite the hand in which the knife rests.
It’s slow going all day with the sun’s hot lashes and humid blanket on our backs. Solus whips me skin shades of sunburn to something like a skinned ham.
Eventually we stop to heal underneath a single withering willow tree and watch as the storm taunts us from afar.
The smell of rain is mute on the stagnant sticky draft and it’s pleasant. All day it’s slow going.
Dry corn and salted meats and oat paste by sundown.
We look up and watch the dome fall crimson like the inside of an eyelid.
We drink in small sips the warm sweat and saliva of the Djad desert. Fill our canteens with the sugari juice and collect any stone arrow heads strewn about the sand.
We pray for rain.
The strain on the horses seems undeniable but they eat and drink less than any of us. The Minister hand-feeds Redfur a brown-spotted pear right before we’re off again. It ain’t much and it’s almost rotted but the horse doesn’t mind any.
When our bearings are straight as we like, it’s time to move on again.
The Djad aureate and melting just before night.
The wind blows and twirls dust in its fingers. Key rides over ash black desert and the wind blows obsidian element and twirls dust in its fingers. There’s an awful cry silenced by the thickness of the wet night air. It’s over between heart beats: Key is on his back, looking to the sky. His horse is suddenly a skeleton; its flesh dryly tears from the bone and floats in the wind.
He wails about as though blind. “What in God,” he yells.
The Minister rides by and keeps his distance from the black stain of dissipated horse flesh.
Key throws himself up and kicks the skeletal effigy into pieces. The dust settles around him and he and The Minister make long eye contact.
“Let me ride,” says Key.
The Minister shakes his head. “Ride with Shiv. Risk only what is disposable anyway,” he grins at me but I look away fast. “That is an Elemental Consumption Field, a result of the war; there must be an imbalance from the strength of the magicks used, then. Not even the nastiest of the nasty, young pup. Took his horse before you could blink.”
I stare ahead, unsure what just happened. A bit of me closes again, keeps em out of me head.
The Minister suspects I’m not all here. He eyes me, careful. Watches the way I eat.
“You’ve become delicate,” he says. “The meat is stuck to the bone. You must eat always on the run for no hunter can catch you this way.”
I spit out a thread of rice and give him a quick eye. “I only run when something’s chasing.”
Shiv laughs loud. “Look at the boy. Hangs around the she-wolf back there, and now look at him. Got himself some backbone.” Key bites his fingernails and spits em to the side. His narrow eyes betray his amusement.
The Minister replies with a coldsnap glare. He shakes his head and says nothing. Then he looks to the violet sky. He wheezes, a wicked laughter. “A storm is coming,” he says, smiling. “How close is Crawing?”
“Close enough at this rate. Post-luncheon if we keep at it. But it’s open desert. No daytime cover.”
He nods. “Certainly possible with these horses.”
“Ye need tell me about those horses.”
“In time, perhaps.”
“Be there another way?” I ask, gripping Wrayth’s slender knife.
He shakes his head.
A horse dies beneath me and so sunup is bleak and grey. Lightning strikes silent miles ahead. Crawing is hours away. For hours then, I hang on Redfur behind The Minister. His scent is that of an undertaker– stakes and earthworms and rot. Never smelled it before. Haven’t been so close, either. The wind stills and the Djad becomes greasy warm like cheesecloth. Soon something fills the air, seems to mummify it. The food in me stomach jumps to me throat– I all but spew, it’s so foul. Vibration stolen on the waves, a buzz loudlike. Has to be a swarm growing closer. We move slow now. On the edge of me vision, it’s like buried ridges.
The Minister hums as we move past it. “A dragon?” He laughs.
Shiv nods. “Used to be.”
I climb off the horse, careful not to hurt me knee. “A what?” I whisper.
I limp closer, shivering. The spine is buried beneath the sand, a storm having blown past perhaps months ago. I follow the tip into the earth and out the end where its skull is without flesh. The teeth measure the length of me legs easy. That sends another shock up me spine.
Crawing is close. Outlines of sandstone abodes form like blots of pus through a bandage. Inhale and sigh, smile: we will soon be done. They will have no need of me, and I no need of em either.
Crawing is a great, but not large, town. Men and women peddle goods at the center, finagling prices at throttling volumes and guarding they caravans from the cutpurses who bob and weave about in crowds with yellow dogeyes and wet tongues. Give ye what? We hear people say.
Pilgrims too pass through here. They spread the word of they own gods while running with foreign coin. But that’s a dangerous undertaking. Both because prakas terrorize the outlands and because people ain’t keen to taking copper they can’t spend at home. Mercenaries ain’t uncommon, either. Like merchants, they have goods to sell but they ain’t fruits, meats, or wagon wheels. For a price, many of em’ll make ashes of a village. A little more, and they’ll tear down Sargafa. Or try to.
We drifters come in to Crawing with our chessacks tight and our heads upturned. Encircling town the shape of a pear is saguaro fencing. Manmade towers flank the entrance; a pair of ripeskinned archers lounge with they bows set against the ledge. One whistles and the other spits. Below stand two more guards, well-equipped.
A woman, stout in a pale leather jerkin, greets us solemn-like. “Aye, Mousai, young compan. A good group ye draggin in?”
I shake me head but then laugh dry.
“Ah, it ain’t good days to be foolin, boy. Word’s gotten round bout you.”
“Ought to keep it quiet that I’m here,” I tell her.
She nods and wipes her upper lip. “Aye, ye ain’t too late either. So keep yer trouble knotted up and ye’ll be safe. Empire’s ain’t ever been too quick since I’s alive.”
I grin, tell her okay, and she lets us through. The streetfolk pay us little mind except in tossing us religious tracts or shouting for us to join the trade. I wave to those I know by face and name but Key grabs me wrist and all but breaks it.
“It was your idea to shut up, so do it,” he says. I don’t argue.
“Live-bait Tavern,” I say. “Drop our horses out back and get ye all an ale. I got business elsewise.”
“Sure,” The Minister says, steering Redfur through a narrow alley.
“Key and Shiv will find the pack some feeding ground. Work, as you’d have it. Must have something, yes?”
Children play back here, rolling bones and hopping boxes fingered into the dirt. Full of gaiety despite they impoverishment. Have em they innocence. All our movements forward separate those children from they playground and it pisses em off, but they scatter into the places of the town where the sun ain’t to touch and let us on our merry. Others ain’t always been so lucky. In bars I heard of em getting together with willow whips and broken billyclubs and cornering good folk with the threat of violent ends for the cause of copper. No one can stand against the swarm. I reason if Redfur hadn’t her nose upfront, we may have been in for a tussle ourselves. But untouched we find the stable behind Live-bait and lead the mares in and keep em tied nice. Priea’s on me mind again. Hadn’t been so long since I’d be leading her here instead. I shake the thought and strut off without a word.
Around the other side, I stand against the cool rock and observe the fluid crowd and listen to it breathe. There ain’t many white folk in Crawing. Too far from attraction. They ain’t no glitz here like they got in Ri’shurai. Only intrigue here is who stole Sir Vegan’s bull and butchered it up and fed it to him and his vegan family calling it new pepper. How hateful. How absurd. Whole town acts like circus folk, methinks. The world around em is blithely unfocused and those few aware reckon not to change it. Let the dull sands of the Djad be dull– we can be fascinating, they cry. Why do they mock the northerners? Liberty of Primalozza means freedom to rape others of the fruits of their mercantile labor. A silver for a wheel of cheese. Tenpence copper for some Dream-tear whiskey. Black as night, it is. Black as night, ye will see. A good slogan, aye, but I never remember any good ale needing peddled. Shit sells itself like those poor skinny women of the brothels. But women ain’t sold once. While ye oft enough spew the whiskey, ye ain’t to lick it back up. So they call em whores, then. May as well sell em for what they give out direct, on they own will. Men make women nothing but stock, a hen laying eggs or a female cow giving milk. Prostitution ain’t the fowl name, but the stock name hiding spirits bound in ritualistic rape. I don’t care if ye got a million copper coins. This is me godforsaken body. It’s the gold-obsessed cock-driven world, Wrayth might say. If it were a gold-obsessed cunny-driven world, would I be a sex slave? Tough to imagine, but more than likely true. And inside Live-bait, The Minister orders a lady himself. May she pull his sack to his ankle, bloody and white. Key and Shiv get a round for a table and start chatting it up. Got any work around here? Shiv asks. Key looks demonic and remains silent. The perfect weapon. We got everything ye need right here, says Shiv.
I look around, hobble, scale the scene of Crawing’s town square where the loudmouths and agitators cull. No mayor exists, only a council of five men and five women whose opinions all differ. On days they ain’t to meet, a clerical type sits in and handles daily civ business. Here ye are, put ye mark there. Now ye owe ten pennies when before ye owed twenty. It’s a mess but most governments are. Burrowcratic. Anticipating another meteor storm. Into the meeting hall, I’m looking for Rozkhe’s agent Chaw. He’s in a back lodge wolfing down a late lunch. Some assortment of bread, broth, and drink.
“A bit early for that.” I smile and nod to the pint.
He looks up midbite. “Nay, goodsir. Never a minute too early for some glumfin black,” his mutual smile dissipates. “Ye got me that letter, aye? Ye better. Rozkhe could all but make it here before ye. Lucky duck,” he says. “He’ll return to Quriah no longer than four days from now. He expects to see ye.”
“For what? I ain’t been there on work,” I tell him.
“Well,” he dips a chunk of bread and sops it in his broth, shoves it down with little swallowing. “Ye gonna vishit now,” he says. “Another letter we got for ye. Important. Clashified.”
“That’s brilliant. I’m all but bound for home and I ain’t even got a horse.”
He swallows and wipes his mouth. “Eh,” he says through a veil of contemplation. He seems to be considering something suspicious, a plan, before uttering:”That’s a hell of a band ye traveling with.” He lowers his head and slurps from a clay mug. “Hell of a band indeed.”
“What do ye know of em?”
“Eh well, not much. Rozkhe has a hit for a man looks much like this guy.” He jabs at a poorly drawn warrant labeled: Three Orphans of War. Loosely I can imagine one of em being The Minister, darkly as they got his face. Nothing captures the sight of his snake eyes but the withering of a soul. “Ye ride in with em?” he asks.
“Could be. But it ain’t nothing. They got me here, saved me life from the dirty hands of… I’m grateful to em, aye.”
He nods and reads something below the caption:
Whorehouses are not pastimes, but lifestyles.
Grain ale, lantern light, dose.
He is given to hell.
In dealing. In suffering.
“Sound like yer men?”
I swallow and fall flush. There’s a reward on his neck. “Get me out of here then,” I say. “Sal al-Matugal has fire on me tail. A hunter, Chaw. All me life I been out of Mirshan’s view. I help a few men who saved me life and I’m an outlaw. A tenday’s passed, maybe less. I need away from em.”
Chaw’s eyes soften. He pulls a silver piece from his coat and tosses it to me. “Put that in yer boot, fella. Call it a gift from Crawing. Now,” he says. “Mirshan needs ye, Mousai. Even if they out to kill ye. Sal’s on renegade status with the Dak-thaz Company. So ride out his pursuit, get to Quriah. This message needs to sit in Rozkhe’s hand not too long from now. He pay ye well, boy.” He rolls a tight, heavy scroll to me. “A list of prisoners being stationed who need hanged. Rogue mercs, bunch a treasonous bastards. This is an article born of…” he says and takes a stiff swig of glumfin black. “Sargafa, Tahtne, Saris. Leaders with personal vendettas. Who’s who of hangings. They gotta consider who’d make good slaves too. Can’t be too strong or intelligent or they’ll rebel. Too weak and they ain’t worth a night with a toothless whore.”
I shake me head and grit me teeth. “Still ain’t got a horse, Chaw.”
“Means nothing,” a voice says from behind us. “Found us a job.”
Chaw’s jaw opens a slight. Whiskey spittle dots the corner of his mouth. His eyes are white with fear.
“That quick?” I mutter without turning back to him.
“That quick,” says Shiv. “It’s a little off path. But we’re all going that way and The Minister wants ye to come along, pup.”
“Is that so.”
Shiv chuckles and leaves quiet as he came. I think to meself, By God how much did he hear?
“He’s a tough lookin bastard himself, Mousai. Good, I say. Use em for some protection. Get a ride out of em while ye at it.”
“Are ye goddamned crazy?” I say.
He shakes his head. “Hell if they taken a likin to ye, what ye got to worry on?”
“Thanks for the silver, Chaw. I’ve got to move on, get out of here. A shame ye couldn’t help me,” I say and pace for a few seconds while he stares into his soup bowl. “Call em bastards but look at ye. One sight of em and ye shake in your skin with the notion to face em. Fine. Hope me body turns up,” I say. “Heartless is what ye are. A blackguard.”
“Ah spit on ye, Mousai. Get on outta here.”
Out of view, I grip Wrayth’s knife until the blood is cut from me fingers.
No. Simply no.
I leave, limp out to the white hot noon where me shadow’s gone to hide and the yellow stained traders rest under cloth shade that hangs from Crawing’s grander abodes, speaking of far off lands over limegreen tea and thin cool ale. The sunscorched sky vibrates, fallen to punish the sand, wavering all vision. Dizzy I sit in the shade of a pale alley. Live-bait has put up a pavilion of sorts. Silks hang over redwood benches which are tightly occupied by these pilgrims among travelers among foreigners among humans among animals. Sheep bleat they throats out and horses snicker in lone sarcasm. Redfur has more conscience than her master, methinks. Humans naturally do form the feeling of guilt. In our blood it broods, pumps through our heart through ary vein.
It is evil to me, then, when one person can deal another pain without feeling pain they ownselves.
Wind gusts through open windows smelling like fat fleshy worms. Meanwhile, we are lounging, lined around a thigh-high table playing a dice game I ain’t played before. It’s The Minister, Shiv, three local ruffians, and me. Where Key got to, who knows but him. Anyway these men they got blackjack clubs sitting on the table beside they copper coins to keep us off em and they women (if not they wives) are near enough to keep a spying eye on us too. All of em are oliveskinned folk like me, wearing loosefit shirts and gritty cravats about they necks and it seems none of em care to keep clean shaved. Blue flashes light up the Live-bait Tavern and then escape us, leaving the hall dim again. I take a drain from some smoke and cough it out and take a drain from me ale and take deep swallows and exhale satisfied.
“It a git to hailin soon,” a man spits. “From a sounds of it.”
The Minister grins at me from across the table. He coyly flicks a copper off his small stack and it rolls into the pot.
I shake me head. “Need it.” I utter. “The water.”
One man in particular gives me a second eye. Chubby man whose sausagelike fingers tic around his wooden mug. When he drinks from it, glug glug glug, ale foams around his lips and dribbles down his chin. “I ain’t in this one,” he says.
I drop too and his lazy drunk eyes stay on me as the move passes to Shiv. Around the table it goes, click-click the dice, and The Minister rakes in a pot. Oh, and the groaning they give. I chuckle at em behind me fist and lean back. Live-bait tavern swims on waves like a little rowboat and I throw fire down me throat with some whiskey and chase it with cool ale. I drop out of the next round and watch chubby.
“What are ye called?” I say to him. Shiv rolls a dosage and lights it, all eyes on him. “Chubs,” I say and he looks me way. “What are ye called?”
“Eh,” he belches. “Name’s Ful-qu. As in. Fuck off, kid.”
I grin. “Right, then,” I say. “Ful-qu Chubs it be,” I give a gentle laugh.
“Little prick… To hell with ye!” he roars and slams his fist on the table. In his fist is extra bone, extra dice. “My turn yet, yeh mutts?” he says with a huff, heavily amused. I quit me giggling and give his fist a dark eye. Glaring, I am.
Shiv blows a ring of mindbending smoke into the tavern hall and twitches by himself and lets his dice roll onto the floor. “Yee,” he says and they’re roaring again. All of em shake in obnoxious laughter that certainly erupts straight from they beerfilled bellies. Each and ary except The Minister, who amidst the chaos looks like Law itself, the black pupil of a higher being. The deadened life of a tempest, or perhaps, the force of the storm wrapped up in flesh. His snake eyes are careful over our new friends. I grin and lean up to the table. Chubs’s dice are laying closer to me than to him and Shiv’s are settled near the pot. I pull em toward me and palm one of the bones.
“I’m in this’n,” I slur and it brings the gang back to the table, none too stolid. I roll em and get a decent set. Keep three and roll the others. I rake it in and drain me ale. “More,” I cry.
By this time Chubs and his folk are losing all they coin to The Minister and me. Avarice and suspicion replace any good cheer the ale and the whiskey had to offer us and ary groan from they winnings gets us a second look, then a third look. Our little game gets quiet. I’m a little slower but I start to get how the game works. I watch Chubs and his men and sometimes they replace a bone with one in they palm and I can’t tell if they’re hiding it or not. All of em doing it but The Minister. He’s playing it a bit different and still winning okay. Action to me and I call it quits for the round.
“Gone cheap now boys,” he says. “Ain’t ye gone give us a chance to git our coin, kid?”
“I reason not to,” I say and smile thin. “Ye had the chance to win mine all this time, ain’t ye?”
“Aye,” he admits.
One of his get a small pot. His slackjawed ruffian friends hoop and holler, praise God.
Roll me bones out and it ain’t spelt out too well but neither is Chubs’ hand. I furtively glance to a barmaid and switch a bone with one in me hand, put it to something favorable. When me fingers inch toward me coin stack, Chubs slams his meat-paws heavy on me wrist.
Growling he says, “That how ye winnin, kid? Ye little cheat?”
The table is quiet.
I swallow. “Doing what ye did, goodsir.”
“Callin me a cheat now?” he throws himself to his feet, still gripping me wrist. He rears his right fist into the air and I’m too drunk to flinch. I hear a clunk and the table rocks unsteady. Like a vampire, The Minister hovers over it and coming down the other side he puts his claws into Chubs’ throat and shoves him into a wall and, like thunder between clouds, the tavern trembles. Chubs’ eyes are wet and pink and his puffed up cheeks are turning the many colors of Mirshan. The Minister guides him along the wall not blinking not moving those eyes from this man’s soul, and between em there is no light. They disappear with a flash of lightning. We listen.
I know the sound.
A fist, many fists, landing like hailstones. Broken nose, I hear. Over and over, the fists and cries and squeals like that of a dying rat, a dying man behind the shade of our diffusion— we can’t stop him so why try— pleading for a “stop” because he has kids because his wife don’t work because he will miss em wherever he goes if it ain’t to em, “stop,”he cries. Stop. But more we hear while the crying slows to a rhythmic chirp. The Minister is only using one fist now. One fist in the defense of a young pup in the pack. I hear him quit. No voice to this man’s soul now. The Minister walks from the backroom and no one speaks. Blood is dripping from his elbows, hands, from his patchy beard. It sticks to his eyelashes and those teeth he bares in combat like a jackal and he licks his grimy teeth clean and clenches his fist solemn and still, not a quiver in either hand, nor in his snake cold eyes.
“For you,” he says to me and then looks to the rest. Shiv goes, ha ha and drools and The Minister ignores him.
“Was this. . .” I start. A couple of men whisper near the bar, grab for they weapons.
“It was, young pup. Do nothing unnecessary. The world in which you live revolves at a speed that offers no mercy and offer it in return you shall not. Another move from your friends,” The Minister says to a ruffian. “And their throats, the each of them, will be split over this tavern and town and their blood sanctified by the natural order of the Djad. No one, not even you will reme
mber him,” The Minister says.
The crowd in Live-bait wanes with the promise of no return.
“Sit,” The Minister says and the men sit. “Finish this game,” he says.
Wrayth’s knife is in me hand when I limp outside and watch the lightning shatter the sky. Black clouds drift in shards over the Djad and cry out angrily. The thunder in its voice rumbles the earth and soaks it with soupwarm rain. Crawing’s nightwatch is bobbing around town with spears tapping against people’s doors asking how ary one is. They armor looks sleek in the heavy rain and more so when the sky rips into pretty white pieces. Wind howls and barks and brings clots of mud up and swirls it like a bola over the town and throws it into buildings and ye can see it gathering power, rising up off the earth like a corpse coming to life. It dies only to reappear elsewhere. Me hair gets good and wet and I comb it away from me face and now rain’s the only thing worth a smile.
The Minister did what he did for me, he said. Saved me from death, did he? A bad bruising, aye. I peer back to Live-bait and lowly lit by lanterns the game of bones continues. Sitting on The Minister’s lap is a barmaid and she’s petting his scratchy cheek and sucking on his ear. Wrayth’s knife grows cold in me fingers and I look away.
Crawing empties as the storm seems to calm. Streets are red and muddy like heavy clots of blood and a few denizens of Crawing slog through, more limp and hunkered than zombies back to they graves. The red mud cakes up to they calves and it all makes me sneer. Stubbornness keeps em out here, nothing else. If Lunus were out, so would they be. Call it arrogance, too. Mind me a dance, dear? they utter, the drunken buffoons. Fire in me chest squeals hypocrisy, so I laugh.
Redfur incites a riot at the over yonder stable just before God brings it down on us again and I lean back beneath an overhang and smile at its power. His voice is the wind, low and cold and roaring. The men of Crawing hustle into the dark caves of they abodes and look out through the sliver between a shutter and the wall and they weep about the anger of hell and they cry out “we love the land” and “ruin not our crop this year.” He answers with hailstone and lancing blue streaks in the sky and quakes that seem to emit from the desert below and not the storm above. The nightwatch is out and one of em spots me and slogs through the street of blood with his dark cloak ahead to shield himself of the mud and he moves to me slow and careful, his spear slung.
He is obsidian in the face with white eyes that glow even in the tempest night. “Get inside ye,” he calls. “To the Live-bait, aye?”
I shake me head.
He halts. “Was less a question than ye actin, kid.”
“I am not going back there.”
I look away from him and spit. “Something like that, I reason.”
“I ain’t in any trouble. If ye want just forget about it. Ye ought to anyhow. For ye own sake,” I say.
He comes closer and I don’t move any which way. Under the overhang the rain stops pelting him and he’s breathing heavy, his glowing eyes sullen now. “Now,” says the man. “What ye sayin, kid? Ye done wrong?”
“No,” I say. “But me ears have.”
“More, kid. I take easy on ye if ye get honest with me right quick.”
“It’s me company,” I confess. “Two of em in there, one’s dosed into shit and the other, The Minister, he’s. . .”
“Aye, son. Show me,” he says.
“No,” I stammer loud. “No, they’ll get me. They’ll get me, he’s too– ” and that’s when I notice Key at the corner of the alley across the way, making sharp that curved blade. I fall silent.
“We’ll get a group after em.” They ain’t, the nightwatch ain’t listening.
“Look,” I say and grab him up by the straps of his armor, push him into the wall. “Let em go or ye will die. Ye ain’t seen what they do, ye ain’t seen it.”
Unalarmed, he shoves me into the mud and kicks me over to me side and then again to me belly and he rolls me to me shoulders and stands over me, pulls me chest, neck, and head limplike close to his face. “Now I told ye, kid. Wanted to take it easy on ye.”
“I’m honest sir,” I cry.
“He’s honest,” says a ghastly voice. Key plunges his blade down behind the man’s skull and the bloody khopesh uncorks blood from the nightwatch’s throat and all over me it sprays and continues to spray while I scramble and claw away like a cat in water. “Don’t move, Mousai,” Key says. “Don’t.”
I lay there on me back, a constant sheen of warm rain cleanses me face while I look at him horrified, panting and looking around for witnesses but there ain’t none. I don’t move, can’t. The body of a dying man shivers in the cold making noises of suffocation and he clutches the dirt and his eyes like candles dim as his soul departs from his flesh and still I fail to move. “Ye killed him,” I weep. “Like ary one. Fuck,” I say.
“Aye,” Key says and wipes the man off his blade. “Three times now we saved you.”
I cry out and grab me ribs. “Rather ye fuckin kill me.”
“Would if The Minister ain’t taken to you.”
“And what the fuck are ye afraid of?”
Key laughs and leans down to me. “Less than you’d like,” he says. “To your feet. Come on.”
He ropes me up by the hand and I feel like a leaf helpless in a river.
Key leads me through a back alley and we end up behind Live-bait anyway. He says, “Shiv tells me you have something that’ll interest me.”
I squint, uncertain.
He stabs the wall behind me violently and then fixes his two cold narrowed eyes in a glare. “A list.”
Coughing I look around and shake me head.
“No?” he says quietly.
I shake me head again and he smacks it with an open hand. “Listen to me. My brother’s on the list, ain’t he?”
“Not a damn clue,” I say.
“I need to see the list, the names. Now, god damn it.”
I reply, “Take em,” and give a breathy laugh and dig into me pockets and find nothing he wants to see. Trouble is I didn’t look at the names meself. “Soon as I can get to it, it’s yours.”
“That a pup,” he says.
I smile weak and thin. “Ye are all fuckin monsters, hear?”
“Aye,” says Key. “And you’re no different. I imagine it will take time, but you’ll see it too.”
“The fuck are ye talking about?”
“Shut up,” he says, shoving me along. “And get me that letter.”
Key thrusts me into the tavern where Shiv’s sitting by himself, his eyes rolled back to his brain. He gets worse ary time I see him. The game must have ended not long ago because coins still lay on the table and a pair of dice still has some quiver left, though that may be from the storm. It thunders again and its rumble echoes the throbbing in me head. Key weaves through a small maze of overturned chairs and collects the winnings on the table without a change of expression about him and looks around assessing it all.
“He has a woman,” I say.
Key nods, doesn’t look at me, but kicks me chessack out from beneath the table. He moves to Shiv and clutches his face and gets real close. “Might be dead,” he says and his head shakes slow.
“We need to leave here. Two are dead because of ye and that blood’ll draw Sal right quick,” I say, checking behind the bar for buckets, find two empty ones and a hooded pail of rich whiskey and gather em both up.
Key grins but doesn’t say anything.
He wants the list, fine. I give it to him. He unfurls it with both hands. His slitted eyes drop just so and I see his face contort only a slight. His brother’s on the list. I know it.
The scrolls winds itself up and Key tosses it to me. “We will need you,” he says.
“We’ll fuckin need you. Just shut up.”
“Ye breaking him out? Your brother? I can’t be involved with—”
“You are involved. First, Mousai, we ride for the Cavity. You know of it?”
“Aye,” I say, confused. Why there? It’s full of bandits, war veterans. God damn, why there?
“We have friends there,” he utters. I can’t tell if I should believe him. “Mercenary days. It’s a small band, maybe twenty. Sal knows of the cavity, knows of its inhabitants, knows he can’t take em with a small band. The Cavity’ll give us some shade.”
I turn away and me eyes well with tears. None of it feels right at all, but it seems they got me caged. Sal would catch me if I took off because these towns know me.
Cold dread fills me bones when I think of going out on me own, against prakas and Mirshan both. And cold dread takes the color out of me when I face Key and he makes a satisfied expression that says he knows exactly what I’m thinking.
One thing to be trapped, another to be tortured.
“I need ye too,” I whisper.
He nods and takes up his khopesh. “I’ll get The Minister. You fetch the horses.”
“What about Shiv?”
“He’ll live.” Key disappears into the room where Chubs was killed. I hear him raiding the corpse and can imagine his narrow stoic eyes ravening over another man’s kill with quick hands, cold fingers.
I tighten me chessack and step outside. Two steps into an alleyway, I lean against a wall. The tears come but the sound of em is lost in the torrential cascade of rain. I ache with hatred. Home, then. I think of home. The simplicity of love there, the simplicity in all of it. We had not motives but inspiration. We live for each other’s lives.
And blood. What blood? Blood is our Aerth-force of life and blood is spilt so often that it colors the desert quicker than Solus himself, who is or for Godsake must be gnashing his teeth over the Djad, over those of us who fill it up, and empty it likewise. Oh imagine it: the barren hot waste with empty cold men scuttling across. Men who assert they own-selves through violence but who ain’t man enough to see the stupidity.
Revenge? The most violent selfish act. A pleasure of fallen men who have no self of they own, no breath to speak of, no heart and no passion. This is the worst of weakness: Key will reunite with his brother, and that is the least of it. I know Quriah and Zaer Rozkhe. The pack knows what I know.
They’ll get him, and it makes me worse.
I can’t stop em.
A young pup caged, snared by wolves. I can’t stop em without becoming em.
The knife is in me fist again and me face grows cold and these hands they go cold and I take up the knife and me eyes open wide and the fog in em clears away. A light wind passes through me hair and cries in the hollow of the alley, lulls me so that I stop and drop to me knee. I can’t do it. I can’t.
I can’t stop em.
Under cover of shade we depart by the northern road. Crawing fades into heavy mist and I watch it go with the cold feeling that Sal’s real close behind and the storm won’t wash away those footprints of ours left in innocent blood. He’ll find us. I think of Law-qen. I think of Brap, Fancy. I think of the evil curls of smoke that filled the sky; they are still in me, suffocating me in sleep suffocating me when light hits these pupils and still I can see how it could…
…But from here– strapped onto Redfur with The Minister slogging through the Djad for the small city of Quriah– the world is sad and cold and unmoving despite our slow trudge over it; despite knowing there is heat in the stars behind the clouds above, I see only the ruin…
The blood in The Minister’s dreadlocked hair and the blank look in Shiv’s eyes and the emotionless wall that is Key’s face. Square ridgelines form over the horizon where Solus hints at dawn, cerise like a slice to the bone.
“What is this place?” The Minister whispers. “There is smoke coming up.”
“It ain’t unlikely,” I say defeated. “Call these ridges the Fossils. People of way back thought they were surfacing skeletons of a race of titans or something silly like it, and ye can see all around the scars of they shovels. Tried to dig em up. Never did, though.”
“How silly is it, really?” The Minister turns his head a slight back to me.
“Think about it.”
Key looks to us and then looks away.
“Think of it this way: If you were to starve by some failure in the hunt, young pup, the very fact you did indeed hunt extinguishes your failure.”
“The fuck ye talking about now?”
“Or think of this way,” he goes on. “What emptiness lays waste to the wolf that waits beside a rock for the pack to bring it food? The way of the world is action, Mousai, could you disagree? More so, it is movement. Movement, young pup. So as the wolf starves without having hunted for its food, people starve not having searched for meaning in their lives.”
I sigh silent, and look away from the fossils.
Throughout the day the storm swirls like indigo dye stirring in some god’s pail. It stays ominous but distant and quiet, to either side of us drifters. Odd as hell, really: storms in the Djad usually hit hard and then break apart before anyone has time to shut they gaping mouths. Besides that, we of all people deserve its punishment. By the look of it, we ain’t yet safe from it either.
We ride slow. The humid land where small fields of raw vegetation lay flattened beneath the pelt of fist sized hail. Old houses abandoned and empty. Those fenced arenas where chattel had grazed at one point in time strewn the only life I’ve seen in what feels like months: dead gilded fields, beautiful in a naive way. Too small to be great, too great to be small– I watch it closely as we ride past. Wind walks through it and moves the bronze in gentle waves as though invisible little children play in its midst. The Djad surrounding is cheerless. And a day away, Quriah. If ye look hard, its bellied towers gleam golden on the horizon. But by night we will have reached the Cavity, a reputed den of brutal outlaws.
Redfur neighs and gods be damned it sounds of laughter.
The Fossils are teethlike indeed: square, well-spaced, and gritty. Skinny mountain goats hide in any umbra that the labyrinthine crevices create while Solus shines over gnarly arbol, old knotted trees casting slender fingers of darkness over the fossiljaw walls. Little spiders and scorpions wrestle for cool sand beneath the surface, leaping out of hiding only to trap they prey like hungry cutpurses stalking the flats of strange and foreign Sargafa.
But here, the Fossils.
Old teeth of old Titans preserved to confuse us. It says to me how young I am. As we approach I think of a lantern going out, putting to dark what I may think or may have thought about this place.
Nearby, The Minister sharply snaps a limb from a tree and gives it to me quiet and calm.
“What’s this for?”
“Walk on it. It’s for your knee. It will be a trek through the tunnels– up and down, slick turns. No use hurting that knee, took long enough to heal so much as it has.”
I nod. “Ye ever been in a place like this?”
He shakes his head but says, “Yes.” The Minister looks haggard, sleepless. “There is a camp here already,” he says. “Best to make use of it, though the company met tonight may be less hospitable than can be hoped for.”
“I reason not. They ain’t the kind to just take anyone in, I know that one thing.”
“They’ll allow it, young pup. And be charitable, you watch. Wolves are kind to their own.”
He sucks his teeth. “They should be.” For a minute The Minister strokes his dusty beard and scratches at his nose, idle and still.
“Well, come on,” says he, and we go.
The tunnels of the cave are shaped like knotted rope, lit in certain areas by mucus colored lichen that leaches driblets of water from the Fossil walls. Some places are thin and we’re barely able to stand and some parts widen out twist turn dip and rise without too much notice. We trudge slow and the horses are more than pissed off by the lowlight, but they seem to move over the slick cavernlike floor better than we do. When I look hard, I can see that Redfur’s hooves are sinking in like it’s mud– but it’s not mud, to be sure. I give The Minister the eye; he knows what I see, but he doesn’t answer the questions on me face.
It seems we’re scraping along for hours, wandering through a maze of low-lit tunnels and dead ends. I tap the little walking stick as we go, a bit bored I guess. Sweat runs down me chin and we move toward the huzzbuzz of flies on death. They swarm is close because little stragglers are in me hair and brow, me skin.
“Ye know where we’re going?” I ask scratching frantic as fuck.
Shiv, behind me, laughs.
“Shut up,” I say, not in the mood for him. “Anyone know?”
“Outlaws extract the fungus off the caverns. They leave only the path which leads to their camp,” explains The Minister.
“What?” I twist in a circle as if to ask Shiv and Key. They don’t know either. “Shit grows itself?”
“Slowly. But yes,” he says. “Gathered perhaps by the younger men or women who are not skilled at hunting.”
“Aye,” I agree, spitting out dust and little insects. Annoying shit, I tell ye.
“What do you know?” Shiv says and his awful little chuckling echoes throughout the caverns. “I ain’t seen you hunt since I know you.”
“Ain’t known me long, either.”
“So you hunt?” he says in earnest.
The Minister raises an eyebrow.
“No. I don’t. Family’s a farming family.”
“Right,” Shiv says. “You don’t have the kill in you,” he says and I note this as his first ever compliment to me.
Key smiles and looks forward.
Then Shiv says, “Wait…that Sargafan. A straight shot pup.” He shoots an invisible arrow with an imaginary bow.
Redness fills me face while he laughs a bit more. I shoo away clouds of gnats and bugs, think about stabbing him between the ribs.
The Minister wipes the air with a dismissive hand and Shiv ceases his giggling.
Shiv says, as if the thought had crackled over his lips, “We have much—doe much dosage left.”
“Don’t do it now, jackass,” Key says. “You’ll make us all loopy.”
“Nothing wrong with that,” he whispers, licking his lips. “Well how long do I got?”
“Not long,” The Minister says. “The lichen is fewer. Pickers are out here over-picking. Must be closer to the camp for it to be familiar ground.”
Familiar to whom I do not know. But I’m not excited about meeting em, whoever they might be.
We are quiet when light reaches its white hand into the narrow opening. The Minister leads with his hand on the cavern wall as it grows tight– getting Redfur out will be no small thing. Peeking out, his snake eyes look up and his face is golden in the sunlight while his body remains hidden with the rest of us.
Four spears stick into the ground from above, dropping a prison swift, but not swift enough to really catch The Minister. Two dusky men land on they feet and circle around, hungrier than lions.
“Any of ye with province? With Mirshan?” and me intestines grind and knot, knowing I’m technically employed by a knight, who is sanctioned by the Emperor.
The Minister snarls and kicks through the barrier of spears in one heavy gust. “No.” The Minister beckons us with his ax. “Come, pack,” he whispers, and we climb out. The look on these men’s faces is blank. Not afraid, not happy. Blank.
“Ain’t here for Mirshan,” Shiv grins.
“In spite of it?” the one sentry asks.
Key nods and goes for a walk. No one stops him.
The Minister says, “Listen. None of you are in danger. Not from any hunter-killers. These you see are the remnants of a mercenary company. Fought at Somnah City, and lived. Mirshan wants to keep it quiet, but now you know who is here. Each of them is an efficient hunter.”
The Minister smiles.
“Hafta speak with Lisburn, man.”
“He’ll come out to ye,” the guard says. Both, I notice, are well-built, but not large. They muscles are diamonds, tight gems sculpted from stone; sweat sticks to they black skin and gnats stick to they tan clothes.
The Minister nods and his eyes wander. Mine wander with.
Within the cavity are hundreds of manmade shelves, all constructed from looted wood and twisted arbol and willow vines. Linen the color of dust stretches above natural tunnels and alcoves that more than likely lead to personal apartments or privies– which may be one in the same. Above us is a rope ladder leading to a rockform jutting out like a balcony where these two black men usually wait with they spears. Upon the wall nails suspend limited weapon racks, each equipped with a bow and quiver and four javelins each. Ahead of us, though, a trail leads into the mountain where a curl of smoke signals exactly where the rest of these outlaws spend they time—around the food, that is.
One of the guards struts to the entrance of a small alcove and yells down it for a little backup since he doesn’t trust us any.
I wouldn’t either.
Behind me Redfur neighs and stamps her hoof.
“How the hell ye get out?” I whisper.
The Minister ignores me, but Shiv releases a little giggle. What a prick.
“Aye,” the man says. “Keep a watch on em,” he says. He goes, “Get a bigger guard if ye need, yea. But I got to get gone.”
“Where’re ye gone to, boyo?” another asks from behind the dirty linen. Sounds grouchy.
“Oh well we got visitors, did ye know?”
“Ah right, yea,” he says and steps from behind the curtain wielding in his right hand a bottle of whiskey and his left hand a maggot of a dose.
“Oh,” Shiv smiles. “We shall, I say. How do I say? We shall get along fine.”
The man is a white man tanned. And husky. Got a lumberjack’s frame and a big head. He sucks on the fancy cig and grins to us. “Yea. No need for another guard,” he jests.
If only he knew.
Shiv snorts but The Minister strikes a venomous look that silences any jokes, even those not yet spoken.
“It is dangerous out there,” says The Minister. “For anyone. But particularly for enemies of Mirshan.”
“That what ye are? Outlaws?” The man huffs and pulls at his belt, pulls his britches up a notch.
Shiv chuckles. “Yes, that’s about it.”
“Fine, then. Fine by me.”
Those two share a shot or so of whiskey while I examine Redfur from head to tail, all the time petting her.
Not long after Key comes back from whatever he was doing, probably pissing, and he is followed closely by four dirty looking men led by the obsidian skinned Lisburn himself. I don’t imagine older men leading, but here he is: He wears a stark white goatee, nappy like any Sargafan’s. But his eyes, how interesting. They are the both of em blue. He walks as though on sheep horn with the caution of a prowling cat. He motions to Shiv’s new best friend with a silent gaze.
“Mercenaries.” Our guard addresses us as though he hadn’t our attention before. When our eyes refocus upon him he says, “I’m Raulk. Call me yer new Cap if ye want. If ye live here, it means ye work here, means ye work for me. Only reason ye work for me is because I’m the only fucker out here who knows what work needs to be done. If ye know too, feel free to fuckin tell me. Lisburn does. Now we don’t like to kill round here. Don’t know why. Guess too many bodies brings too many hunters out here and then we gotta deal with them, most likely by killing. That becomes a mess quick as the killing. We don’t avoid killing either. I should be fair and honest with ye. Not a god damned Sargafan here who isn’t a god damned praka when he needs to be.”
The Minister grins and puts his ax and blade away.
“I got more to say,” Raulk spits. “Since all ye are green, we’ll want some kind of payment or at least proof ye can take care of yerselfs for a few days till yer work contributes to the group and our resources will be surely sufficient.”
“As discussed,” says The Minister. “This pack is efficient at hunting if there is in fact game.”
Raulk stomps with one foot and guffaws. “Yea,” he says. “There’s game now. The oasis starts a couple hours out. Ye spend yer whole fuckin day out there and you can come back with one hell of a meal for yerselfs. But wildlife isn’t keen on getting killed. We gotta chase them in circles round the oasis. All the while protectin the young and females. Eh. Come back for them later, though,” he says.
Satisfied for some reason, Lisburn shows us around. The complex is centered by a ramp of sorts that curls up to another level of the Cavity. Jagged spires encircle the encampment, forming natural watchtowers that offer a great deal of cover. And it seems they have dug a tunnel from the bottom up– one level to the next– whose belly is like a furnace, all smothered in black ash. I imagine they use this to heat the earth above during those icy nights of the Djad.
The upper level is packed with small tents, around twenty. One larger stands pretty tall and wide, probably the home of old Lisburn, but I don’t know. Women walk up, having followed us along the spiral ramp, toting clay buckets of water.
“There’s a water source?” The Minister sounds pleased.
Raulk nods. “Cavity used to be a military base, man. They irrigate from way out, on Lisburn’s design, couple hours I told ye. Now we got servants workin there. Make fuckin sure they keep it goin. Good thing about them is they ain’t in no way afraid of Mirshan because they used to be servants of a couple of goodins in the Dark Horse. They know the goings-on. Had one of our scribes record it.”
Leading to a bare patch of level stone, Raulk stops and pets his chin. “Looks like a good place for ye to sleep, yea or nay?”
There is a burnt-out campfire surrounded by heavy stone and covered with a grill and spit, all newer looking. Certainly loot from stolen from pilgrims passing along the river to the east. In the near distance I hear hammers hitting stone with some constancy and I spin around and see no men, not anywhere but the four or so with us.
“Thy look,” Lisburn says suddenly intense. “A confused grimace. Look not worried young, young lad. Those men thou seek hath gone to their duties. However, tonight!” he says. “Thou shall meet them, and they shall meet thee. A fair eve for faire, I believe.”
Raulk grins. “Indeed it is, old man.”
I swallow, not having heard such a speech in me life, not outside of me dad’s tales. “I ain’t worried,” I stutter and it hits me how stupid I sound.
“No, let us imagine thou hath no thing about which to worry.”
The Minister eyes him careful and I can see his jaws tighten. “Not anymore than you, he doesn’t,” he says through a thin maw.
Lisburn puckers his lips, near laughter.
“Don’t know about you, but I’ll sleep anywhere,” Shiv interrupts. “Get us a tent, we should be fine.”
Aptly distracted: “Make the damn thing yerselfs,” Raulk groans. “Enough stolen lumber out here to build a forest. Aye.” He laughs and looks to the quiet Lisburn. “And we have.”
Having found new curiosity, The Minister says, “Must see this forest.”
“That’s a beautiful thing,” The Minister admits.
I am quite frankly surprised to see a small forest when they show it to me. Sure it ain’t much, not at all.
The irrigation pools beneath a semi-circle of greenery and makes the soil fertile. Fruit dangles from the thin palm trees and desert pines and little saguaro plants surround the sixteen foot trees like a prisonyard fence. Two men have rope ladders tied to thicker branches and have buckets in they hands filling those buckets with coconut, sugari, and waterapples. Mules stand at the base of a fruitless gray line of trees. Redfur and her companion horse go to it natural, happy under cold shade; they anticipate being tied.
Quiet, I tiptoe the stalks of the trees and peer high into they branches while The Minister and all em speak of other things. One man eyes me from his perch and calls. “Watch yourself,” he says and slams a smaller coconut to the ground; it breaks into brown and white little shards, gray milk splatter near me feet.
I smile crookedly.
“Don’t stand there stupid. Pick through there and eat it.”
With careful hands I piece me way through the meat and gnaw on it happy and it’s delicious.
Raulk steps beside me where I kneel and says, “Yea. It’s a good fuckin fruit right?”
I nod and smile dumb, drooling the milk. “Never so fresh.”
“Aye well. Yer friends are off to hunt, then. We hadn’t kidded ye about it. But Lisburn has something for ye. Mind walkin with him?”
“Not at all,” I say. About willing to do anything to keep away from me own company. “What’d ye have me do now?”
“Ye don’t mind walkin with him?”
“Nay? Well find out from him then, son. Don’t keep him waitin either. He hates that shit.”
Lisburn waits for me by the horses. He’s feeding em kind and gentle. They take to him quick. His eyes, when they look to me, shine like blue steel. “Ah,” he says. “Hath the day gone under the horizon already?”
“I want for thee a friend. He’s but a boy to thee. No matter,” he says and leads me through downward slope into another system of tunnels. It seems to be a narrow hall of sorts, like ye’d find at an inn, lit by rusty oil lanterns that hiss as we walk by em. Hacking and coughing cries emit from curtained-off alcoves to either side. Crotchety old women and men, sick women and men. It’s upsetting to hear.
Lisburn doesn’t address it.
Rather, we plunge into darkness where wilted possum haw hangs above the alcove entrance on our left side. The small room is yet dank despite the dry dust that blankets the mudcolored dome; splinters and shavings and lifelike statues all of clay or stone clutter the infirmary which houses a boy younger than me— he may be twelve. Pale bone is his skin. By the light of a dying candle he works.
“Call him Sculptor,” Lisburn whispers. “He bears his name self-evidently. An orphan much like the rest. He is sick. Nothing contagious, it seems, or lest we’d all have it. None of us understand.” The old man sighs. “However, soon he shall die. I can feel it.” He turns to me with fierce eyes afire. Not anger, but fervor. “Perhaps ye could walk with him today. Forage or hunt for food if it pleases thee. Sculptor knows the routes.”
I look at the boy. He holds a knife in his hand and works it over pieces of stone with strikes so precise I’m sad to be reminded of Key and his dreaded khopesh. I shudder at the thought: If that were to be this kid’s future I may be inclined to slip me hand over his mouth and show him something of death, so scared I’d be for him to see anything else. Are there those who think such things of me? Had Brap? Had Wrayth?
Where will ye be, love, when I need ye?
Mousai. I am here with you, dear man.
I hope that is true.
I am here.
Don’t leave from me.
I kneel beside Sculptor, a child. “Ye like being called that? Sculptor?”
He pauses in his work. “It’s not bad.” His voice is joyful, and innocent.
“I suppose not. What are ye working on here?”
He chuckles for a moment. “Well, it’s.”
“You tell me, goodsir.” He slides his piece beneath me view right quick. At first I’m astonished. What appears like little logs stacked into cabins and, more intricately, into a near-perfect model of Quriah as seen from the easternmost ridges.
I lose me breath a moment, am forced to give him another look. He’s proud of his work. That much I can tell. I grow immediate admiration. “Ye been here, to this town?” Pieces, some no bigger than toothpicks, fit together beautifully. And all of it whittled by those little white hands. I laugh quiet and turn me head back. Lisburn smiles before he disappears.
“Skinny bunrabbits play around here sometimes,” the little boy says. His bright eyes are big wanderers, eager explorers. I can tell by looking at em he knows the Cavity well and has done all the exploration his eyes have allowed him to imagine. We move quickly about the complex, in and out of shadow and sun and blood colored halls and citrus-scented alcoves, but all the food we find is the graygreen fungus sticking slimily to the walls. Sculptor takes his carving knife, handy at all times I guess, and scrapes a bit of it into his bucket. He notices me not moving.
“It’s all we’re getting, goodsir.”
And he frowns back.
So I at the very least help him fill the bucket full of this greasy fatlike fungus, even though he knows I ain’t too happy with it. It’s messy and the shit can break open if ye don’t scrape it just right and when it breaks open, snotty mud drops out of it like gray egg yolk. All over me by the time we get a bucketful– and that gives our young whittling sick-thing a chuckle or two.
“How long have ye done that?”
“Done what?” He looks up at me as we begin our windy travel back to the encampment.
“Those carvings. The statues and arything.”
“Oh,” he says. “Them always been real easy. I like doing the work. Started when I was even younger.” Sculptor extends his arm as though to pet an invisible dog. “Bout that tall,” he says. “Well, first one I ever did was one of them Fire Eaters. I chiseled several limestone slabs and then I…”
Where had I heard that name?
A force in the military. Legends, all of em. Said a hundred men in a company went the whole War without a casualty. True or not, I ain’t likely to ever know. I remember dad telling me how they got the name, which was a lot like any of the names these soldiers get— the more obvious or ironic, the better. During a fight they’d perform the tricks of charlatans and illusionists, spitting fire into the eyes of they enemies, scorching hair from the flesh and flesh from the bone. Where they went they left ashes of enemies. Had I even heard the name Lisburn before? It ain’t likely.
“How’d they turn out?”
“Not well.” He giggles. “Coulda been lots worse too. Maybe I show you then.”
I nod and look straightforward, limping alongside Sculptor as he navigates the warren of tunnels beneath the Cavity. He’s a quiet kid unless talked to. Reminds me a lot of children in me hometown.
He ain’t afraid of these men who ain’t like him in ways he don’t understand quite yet.
Eventually we get back to the sickhall where new wooden crates, about a dozen of em, are stacked all the way down through the corridor. Silks and Swords, they read.
Another hit of banditry.
We move past the crates, which tighten the hall up so that we both have to sidestep through, and slip into his curtained-off room and find it no longer reserved for Sculptor.
Sargafans are huddled up beside the kid’s bed and to the floor, they faces bruised in a pasty melon-like texture: eyes swollen shut; lips split like fat worms; noses broken smashed flat. All the boy’s sculptures are in crumbled up pieces, on the floor.
A black iron chain drags over miniature Quriah like an infernal anaconda.
Sculptor doesn’t notice.
He looks to me eyes filled with water and then he looks to the injured men.
“Come on,” I say and grab around his shoulders to lead him away.
He wiggles out of me grip and shakes his little head. “Let me,” he says serious so I let him go. He sets the bucket down and goes back into the room and piles the scrap pieces of wood in his arms and walks em back out and says, “Grab the food, goodsir,” so friendly I want to sob.
Later I see him with his chisel.
Carving new lives from stone and clay –
Even lying lowly
in the thorn bush with grisly beaten dogs
(carnivora of all kinds)
I see, through the shrub,
the white haven of Solus.
I hear, through the violent throes of hounds,
pipes humming low in distant humility.
The sun wanes behind the jagged horizon, the sky a metallic ocean where birds swim and plunge into it like flying daggers dipping into mercury. Birds and bloodsuckers without identity in a void without name. Lizards lazily stretch out now, out of the shadows cool in the day waiting for the shadows frozen at night. Solus waves goodbye. His fingers flicker and I feel the warmth of God removed without remorse (without whim), regular as decay is to a reaper.
Let the faire begin—-
The sword dancers come and dance and glorious is the whirl and wham of those once wan weapons coming alive they clash just barely sounding like rain on a tin roof sparks fly as though fireflies extinguished to the regal gardens grown in some paradise that now grows here before our eyes like spirits dancing from our bodies watch the wailing whirl and they clothes wrap around and confuse and swirl in they silks leaping like arcing sparks em-selves then they spit fire as they are famous for and bladed fans open and fade and send smoke into the magic of the nightfall like a stream of moonbeam the swords gleam and the dancers bow (bravado!) and become the birds before a storm and disappear disappear disappear disappear disappear disappear.
Then the albino leopard, a she-leopard albino, paces her cage. Men wheel it near the fire where her meal chars to a black-skin oblivion and whiskey makes the Fire Eaters laugh. They tease it. Sometimes with stones. She is sad cat. Thin and tired, smelling of piss and fish.
Later into the night I sneak a heavy lump of mountain rabbit, hog marrow and fresh fungus– a lump of food that had been me own dinner– between the bars of her cage when she ain’t paying attention– or when she pretends to pay no attention. I want to pet her ear and briefly I reach in to do so. But I keep back. Afraid of what may happen.
Come come circle round! Hear ye, Lisburn’s Song!
There is no war but the war within,
No battle for good; no battle can
Protect the good from
The violence of the battle.
—- Look at his legs when he dances, I whisper. He’s like a halfgoat.
Tonight in the decayed hollow rock, The Cavity, singers sing and flutists pipe. Can ye hear the strings hum at the fingers of the fiddlers? The bows glide sexy. And lo, beautiful harpists: the drunken plucking. They eyes are sunken and closed. But look at they hands, they long hair wet with oil and grain ale.
One of em catches me staring and
I don’t apologize, but I do look away.
Later I stumble through the carnival trying to find Sculptor but where is he? Ain’t nowhere to be found.
Other lads are and they look pitifully alone and confused like…well…lost children, I suppose. So I push me chest out, ye know, real far, and I cry: “Children! Ye be in luck, fer I…tell stories, and ye’ll want to hear this one.”
There I become a candle by they bed at night—a whisper of a flame, consuming wick and melting wax.
Among the children is the harpist, and she’s elated, methinks, to be awake.
“And ye too?” I say to her.
She smiles lazily and raises her tankard. “Onward! Tale it like it is.”
Now listen to this.
There was once a young sorceress by the name of Synthe Ceresa, born thousands upon thousands of years ago. She was beautiful by the standards of any thinking thing whatsoever.
But unbeknownst to her, she gained the attention of a cruel and unkind baron, so that one day, in a fit of extreme madness, he captured and dragged her into a hut and there, hidden from the rest of the villagers, the cruel and unkind baron drugged her fast asleep. The drugs made her dumb, made her speech impossible, so that the baron was free to come and go as he pleased, without worry she might scream or cry for help. And from then on she was always sleepy.
Until one morning, when she was in a drowsy stupor and the baron was collecting firewood, a serpent slithered into her hut through two twigs in the wall of the hut. Unaware the serpent was her fey, the magical beings that serve all the greatest sorceresses, she became really scared and what would you do if a snake crept upon you, except scream? But her scream was more of a sssssss. And the serpent coiled and leaped up, then snapped the side of her neck. Snake bites are usually venomous and this one was no different from the usual: The venom placed her into a deep comatose sleep.
Now, when the big ugly baron returned to his hut, his arms full of lumber, he discovered what he believed was her dead body, she was so fast asleep.
Fearful of being caught, the cruel and unkind baron decided quickly and coldly to lug her corpse to the wide river, now called the River of Sleep, and that’s where he dumped her body. She was so light, and the vein of the river so deep, she floated, just beneath the surface, and when she sank, the serpent swam beneath her back to keep her from truly dying.
The River of Sleep took her all the way south and out to sea, where a current ripped her to a sea cavern.
She rests there now, in a deep magical sleep, waiting for the birth of prince charming, a man she might speak to in his dreams, guiding him to her place of rest and sleep, to reawaken her from her magical slumber.
Ragged shawl hanging loose from that harpist’s shoulders. She ain’t wearing much else. Look at her hands. They ain’t soft, ain’t rough neither. Restless hands of the harpist. “How much’ve ye drunk?”
“Give em to me,” she says in me ear. I feel her busy hand reach the rope around me waist. Our hands meet.
“How much’ve ye drunk?”
She shifts her hair to show me her neck. Presses into me. “I haven’t much, lad.”
Her hand drops from me britches and she stumbles back. Grabbing her by the waist, I hoist her up in me arms and I hobble toward an empty cot. She’s telling me how she wants to fuck and I’m telling her how silly she sounds. I lay her across the cot and wrap a dirty cloak about her bare legs and she’s kinda smiling at me in a sexy way.
I lean down and kiss her forehead, whisper: “I love another” and the harpist shrugs her shoulders and, still smiling, closes her eyes.
People shuffle about the fire like undead. I’ve never seen so many drunk people in all me life. No one’s paying attention to us, so I sit against a rock beside her cot and rub me hands in the dirt. I sigh.
She says to me: “I know. Because. I know you.”
Her drunk talk makes me laugh and I lean back and watch the drunkards all of em in they dance, how sweet it is in some way. How sweet life can be.
Feel the midnight air.
The wind picks up, grows cold under me arms. I hear a whisper, “I know…” But the harpist is rolled over and I write the name of me love in the dirt and the wind blows it away.
I wake bolt upright. Early to a red dawn and me brain’s swimming in a jar of ale. Shiv and Key are fast asleep, snoring.
Shiv has two fingers on a blade, another two on dose. The Minister is nowhere in sight. Just like him, I suppose, but I get curious. Here around the Djad nights are icy but mornings I can bear with a heavy leather jerkin and some cloth sleeves. Daytime burns like whips.
I grab me walker and try to stand. Leg’s bothering me pretty good but I got no use to complain and no one to complain to. Horse huffs at me. It sounds like a laugh so I grin and give her some oatmeal. She looks empty without her rider, The Minister. I suppose we all do.
The road to Quriah is not a long one, not from the Cavity.
Shiv tells me: “The plan, pup. Yer going to want in on it now. Back in Crawing, we was looking for work. A bounty. So happened that a large bounty’s on Lisburn’s head. The Minister tells him about it. Tells him also that, after Faire, after all the Fire Eaters have fallen asleep drunk, that we the orphans can easily fulfill it. Lisburn is of course not nervous. He’s old and satisfied. But he don’t want death either. The Minister informs him about the hunter-killer Sal, how he’s been trailing us and we need him off. Ye want to strike a deal with mine company, he says. The Minister answers yes. Key already implanted the rumor that we’d be here and that we’d be here as long as it took to win their confidence– then we’d strike.”
“He’s expecting us to be there.”
“But we ain’t.”
“Well,” Shiv says. “The way we figure it is this: Sal won’t storm the Cavity without a sizeable gang. He realizes that he’s the enemy. He’s coming into an empire in its own right. He is not the law there.”
“And we have business in Quriah,” interjects Key.
He nods to say basically.
“We will free him the night of or night after our arrival. And return to the Cavity.”
“I don’t get it,” I tell em. “What’s this to do with me? Why would I return there?”
“Pup,” Shiv laughs. “Where else can you go? If we don’t do this, Sal will catch up with you and kill you and take yer pelt to the Guild in Crawing for his reward. But follow us and Sal’s as good as dead.”
“Lisburn agreed to set an ambush,” says The Minister. “Said that under only the worst circumstances of luck could they find themselves a casualty,” he snarls. “But not to worry, a deadlier pack will reside there; thus, even if the Fire Eaters fail to slay Sal, he will not soon return. You, young pup, will be secure as a pearl.”
“Where were they this morning? Lisburn? All of em?” Thinking of how they’d all disappeared, god sake.
“Preparing,” his answer is quiet.
I shake me head. “No. I can’t do this. What, commit more crimes against the empire in one night than I had in the first place.”
“Perhaps that much is true,” The Minister says cool. “But they distinguish not your one crime of treason from the other. You are now an outlaw. Until you face their penalty— which is death keep in mind— you will remain an outlaw. When they find you, you will die.” He looks deep into me, whispers: “You decide daily. Live or not to. Decide again.”
I can’t do this.
But I do it anyway. “Will we have to fight?” I whimper.
“All depends when we return, pup. If Sal shows up before, then no. If after, then yes.”
“I ain’t killing anymore.”
“So be it,” The Minister nods.
There is a lavender haze on the horizon.
Above it, she is sleepy, silken– Lunus a white cocoon.
I lowly stare at her as we stride.
Her light guides me the entire night.
It is called the gateway to Sargafa.
A small palace, whose onionshaped watchtowers overlook the city like dim candles, capping the northern portal in moonlit quiet. But I’ll deceive ye not: its gates are heavy with traffic at all times. Pilgrims from Saris come. Vagabond merchants and traveling minstrels go. Hard-eyed mercenaries three hundred yards outside with they weapons strung to they hips whisper the price of they utility to the seedier types as they move along the bronze road. Mirshanni outriders circle the limits as the worst equipped warriors in the empire. They exist more for census than for security.
Long before we reach the south gate, a small band of these outriders hail us. We slow our horses for em.
“What business have ye?” he says in a typical officer tone.
“To see the executions.” Key tugs the leather reins toward his chin.
“Oh?” the outrider sighs. “The courier ain’t yet arrived.”
“No,” I announce and give Key a dirty look. “He’s…I’m right here.”
“Rozkhe needs ye pretty quick.”
“So I hear,” I say. “It’s me last letter anyway.”
“What ye mumblin now?”
“It don’t pay well enough what with prakas and wolves always on ye.”
“Mind if I check your chessacks and baggage?” the outrider says.
I keep talking, knowing Shiv’s got drugs on him: “And it don’t even work right. Who do I convenience but a rare few?” I’d hate to sit in prison with Key’s brother.
The pack is silent while the outrider glares at me. “Perhaps,” he says. “But till we get a better way, get on.”
“Ye know. I reason I’d like to.”
He shrugs, sniffs the dry air and allows us passage. Shiv keeps his drugs and we keep our heads.
I keep the letter, may as well.
The sun stretches the sky in one solid stripe.
Here’s Zurrey, following a family of foreigners, asking em for money. Key recognizes him.
“He must have escaped.”
“How the fuck would he do that?” asks Shiv.
“A bribe? Maybe fought his way out I don’t know, but that’s him.”
I can’t recognize em as brothers.
Zurrey appears like a square-eye-socketed beggar with stringy muscles tight to the bones, no fat on him, on his face nothing except hair and thornbrush on his head, his eyes sunken eyes so dark they seem without sclera wilted rotten deep in his head, his chapped lips a perfect gray-pink line, now he’s happy to see his brother, happy to be free, happy to roam the desert without chains on his knees and arms, or a hammer on his hands, the hot stones—
Key grabs Zurrey by the shoulder and leads him to the shade of an alleyway. “Tell me, then, whose cock you suck?”
They embrace. “That isn’t funny. They almost broke me down,” says Zurrey. “But I knew somehow to expect you. You wouldn’t leave me for dead a second time. I knew it.”
Key lacks sentimentality. They walk off alone down the busy thoroughfare while The Minister smokes in the wheel-grooved streets, amidst the trudging mules and horses smelling like the straw and shit they sleep on.
I follow Key and his brother into a tavern and sit at an empty table and rest me head in me arms while they drink harsh liquor and talk of things I can’t hear or understand.
Soon they’re drunk and soon we exit Quriah through the eastern gate, on foot this time, and it’s like I can walk in that kinda heat without thinking any so it feels like within the blink of an eye we arrive at Zaer Rozkhe’s estate—
The Minister orders me to stay put outside. “Guard him,” he says to Key’s brother, Zurrey. The shadows of crooked trees are long, and in em I cower.
Over Crawing, and the towns behind us, days away, the storm silently lights the sky in blue sparks.
Nervous. The man who owns this home gives me an honest living.
I pace around the front of the house, prop meself against its white-wooden walls.
“You ain’t going in there,” says Zurrey and repeats himself whispering.
The house creaks. Wind.
I pace in front of Zurrey again.
I consider him, he’s skinny, not too tall.
I shove him. Don’t even think about it. I leap off me strong leg and shove him to his back, and he scrapes through the dirt. I climb on his chest before he has a chance to sit up, and I ball up my hands and strike him I don’t know how many times. He’s dazed. His eyes blank. I collapse his nose.
What’s come over me? Like a sickness.
I falter over the threshold of Rozkhe’s house. The stone floor, the pale wooden walls.
It’s dark inside the house, it feels haunted, like there are faces of souls in the boards of the walls and I hear em in the walls, suffering men, given to hell –given to The Minister.
I walk numb through a long, dark hallway.
“Leave them,” a man weeps.
I can barely hear.
“Leave them,” he says. “You have me, leave them. Oh please, must I beg you?”
I follow the vibration through the house.
Tiptoelike limping with me hand on the wall.
An instinctive shiver takes hold of me and I stop to listen, afraid to press further.
A woman’s voice or a girl’s voice a ripe voice a muffled voice.
God, oh God.
I limp through the house navigating its rooms, the moans the violent shaking the stop, stop, stop, stop, I get lost in nondescript rooms, stacks of tomes, and empty weapon racks, broken lanterns, suddenly soundless rooms.
One loud shriek sends me left, through of a studio room with smashed lutes and crumpled drums and splintered easels ripped up canvas and into a hall charging towards light.
Silhouettes fill the light.
A back door, opened, to the light of the Djad.
Rozkhe is naked, a broken creature.
His dislocated jaw flops around his collar bone.
His wide open eyes run with pink water.
His wife huddles, kneeling, her forehead smudged against the house.
Shiv stumbles away from her, weak laughter, and he stumbles with his cock unbound, white cum nasty stretching dripping on the floor.
He doses, laughs.
At first I can’t move.
Rozkhe’s children weeping and kneeling beside they crying fearful mother and quiet old Key watches em and now his brother Zurrey hunched forward panting behind me, gripping the frame of the door.
Two boys, convulsing uncontrollably, kneeling —
oh God so young
Why must this have happened?
When The Minister looks at me, I fold in two, and fall with them.
“That little fucker hit me,” Zurrey says and spits blood.
“No no no no.”
Key unveils the khopesh and stands cold approaching Rozkhe’s wife and mother to they children.
Shiv hovers over the knight’s back and tightens Rozkhe’s black cravat around his neck, chokes him, forces slow dying— and Shiv slides real close to this knight of the Dark Horse Company and grits his teeth.
Key has blood on his waist and crotch, where he cleaned off his khopesh. “Pray, zaer,” he says. “For your wife and children, pray.” Key’s smile is like the foul grin of a cadaver.
Wrayth’s knife feels like a single spear from the sun.
Key raises the khopesh. He ain’t looking at me.
The Minister’s eyes flit and blink. He looks at me quick, says nothing, stands still, straight, saying nothing. He is frozen still; I can’t explain how or why.
Numb I charge towards Key
Escaping Zurrey’s grip
Shiv slams Rozkhe’s face into the dirt.
Rozkhe drools blood, with Shiv atop him strangling him and the knight’s children are in the hands of monsters.
I’m closer, I’m there
This knife this solar flare leading me
Key’s khopesh slides beneath the mother’s chin where she kneels beside her children, and tears
like mist against desert heat.
I have to stop em,
somehow, no matter what happens after.
I drive Wrayth’s knife deep between Key’s ribs
and I pull out the knife
Red, hot, blood
I stab him
in the middle of his spine
again in his spine
the blood on the knife
and Key stands straight and the knife sticks there
in his spine
bowing like a tree limb
I yank out the knife and it drips blood
Key’s khopesh drops beside the woman.
She mustn’t believe it.
The children are quiet, except for snotty inhales.
And Zurrey explodes into motion again, lunges at me, snarling,
I’m not thinking
his fingers clawing at me eyes and nose. I fall backward, into The Minister and he yanks me to the ground.
A sliver of steel penetrates flesh: the sound before the silence.
Zurrey’s eyes widen.
The Minister thrusts forward and shoves Zurrey off his knife.
Wine dark blood bloats from the man’s stomach.
“It’s done, Shiv,” The Minister whispers.
“Fuck that,” Shiv says. “And fuck you. We’re not finished. We got bodies on us now. Why did you let that happen? All these witnesses,” he says. “Ah motherfucker what? Drag em inside and what? Bury em in the cellar?”
The Minister looks at me silent and still, ignoring Shiv, and then crouches over Key’s corpse, fingers to his neck and wrists, and then his brother’s; they are both quiet like the law.
Shiv’s yelling, “We got to burn the house. Something. Anything. Can’t let them live. I know that. Are you listening?”
“Shut up,” I say, “I’m getting these fucking children away. Hear me? I’m getting em gone. Ye ain’t getting in me way. Neither of ye. Step aside.”
“No way. No fucking way they can walk. Rat us the fuck out. Here what yer pup’s sayin, Minister?”
Then there is chaos inside the house. The splintering crumbling of furniture, the walls of the house. Shiv’s punching the wall or headbutting it and his guttural ancient curse yapping through his teeth. “Yer wrong about this one. Yer dead-fuckin wrong.”
“Shut up! For the love of god shut up,” I say.
I kneel to Rozkhe, whose dead-gaze eyes stare at his children: “Get your children. Tell em to run far, OK? Hear me? Go on! Ye and I might die today,” I say. “But not these.”
“I can’t,” he says, shaking his head. “I’m dying.”
“But not these.”
All at once there is an abysmal chorus: the wife, the children.
Shiv’s shadow upon me.
He strikes me.
I fall unconscious.
Buzzards hover atop the roof of Rozkhe’s house.
I look at em blurry-eyed and down at the red-hot sand and, feeling weary to the bone, look for The Minister, who’s standing outside the front of the house with his hands pressed to his chin as though praying, tendrils of dark smoke spiraling from his nostrils and lips.
“Are they dead?”
He says nothing. His eyes dilate.
“Oh why’d ye knock me out if not to murder em? Are they dead? All of em, are they dead? Answer me, I swear to God.”
“The knight only.”
“Prove it. I need you to prove it.”
The Minister shrugs. “You want to die with him? Walk in the house, with Shiv.”
“You’re wrong again. Again and again and again.”
I want to annihilate all traces of The Minister from the Aerth so badly but I know I’m incapable, not face to face, not now, maybe not ever. I try to sprint to him, crying and falling in the dry little rocks, rising on me good leg, falling again, again falling. When I get near him, I claw at his shoulders, rip him within inches of me face, and he resists all reaction.
“God damn would it matter if I put you down right here. Are ye even human?”
He forces me away with one hand, stands up, turns away, to enter the house.
“I’ll go around, Minister. I have to see. I have to know exactly what ye done.”
His back is still turned to me as he walks into the house.
Like me body perishes to stone, I don’t follow. I can’t.
Within the blink of an eye
the entire house:
I can’t comprehend how or why, but someone incinerates Rozkhe’s house, and…
And the children… I couldn’t hear em or see em, ye understand now?
I don’t know if they escaped.
I don’t know if they escaped.
That’s everything I remember.
I don’t remember any more.
I told ye everything I know.
Everything I know and remember.