Exiles – Issue #60: Tooth and Nail

Exiles - Issue #59: Outpost
Exiles - Issue #61: Partisan Politics

 

Exiles

Issue #60

“Tooth and Nail”

Written by Aaron McQueen

Illustrated by Jennifer Lange

Copyright July 18th, 2018

www.patreon.com/McQueenBooks

This story is dedicated to my family, my friends, and my most generous subscribers, whom I have listed below. Without their help, support, and contributions, this production would not be possible.

Jeannie McQueen

Donald McQueen

Theresa McQueen-Uber

Duana McQueen

Jeff McQueen

Eden Odhner

 

I.

 

The fire was burning low. Not enough firewood. It was barely large enough for light. Nevertheless, the building was muggy to the point of choking. Hundreds of people were crammed into the space, and according to the mayor of the village, almost a thousand more were stuffed like sardines into the buildings that surrounded the square, none of them more than fifty yards from the broad meeting hall door. Nathanius scanned the room. The people were starving. He could see it in their eyes and the way they sat and stood. Slumped, shadowy figures filled every corner of the dim room, leaning against the walls and lying on the floor. Only the sentries kept their feet, gripping their weapons weakly.

The mayor stood at the head of the table. Looking down on the group. His name was Edmund Giant. It was a ludicrous name. Nathanius was sure it was an affectation, but in fairness the man was certainly the largest human he’d ever seen. He had to be seven feet tall.

The mayor leaned forward.

“You can’t stay.”

Hell of an opening statement. Nathanius kept a straight face. He didn’t want to come across as disrespectful; nor did he wish to provoke a man clearly in the grip of a crisis.

Plus, he was huge.

Nathanius leaned forward in return.

“What’s happening here?”

The mayor frowned.

“Trouble with the locals.”

Nathanius raised an eyebrow.

“Territorial dispute?”

The mayor smiled.

“How’d you guess?”

Nathanius shrugged.

“Call it a hunch.”

The mayor grumbled.

“Hane bears the long night better than most. It’s a company town, but it still took us more than a month to recover. I ended up in charge. My predecessor died hunting during the night. He had a better relationship with the circle than I do.”

Ellyn raised her hand.

“The circle?”

The mayor’s face darkened. He growled out his next words.

“Selecahri.”

Asterious translated.

“Circled Pines.”

The mayor nodded.

“They’re an enclave of druids that live deep in the woods. There are a few immigrants among them but for the most part they draw their numbers from the natives.”

Asterious raised his hand.

“What tribes?”

The mayor turned.

“Does it matter?”

Asterious crossed his arms.

“It might.”

The mayor answered.

“Greytooth, Longclaw, a few Stonebirds.”

“And none of them live here?”

The mayor shook his head.

“Not for a long time. There’s a new faction growing in the circle. They’ve been discouraging natives from dealing with us.”

Nathanius raised an eyebrow.

“Discouraging?”

The mayor nodded.

“Strongly discouraging. It was a fringe movement at first, but after only a few years the entire native population had disappeared into the trees.”

Polly spoke up.

“So what’s their problem?”

The mayor began to pace.

“The city is growing. The treeline is retreating. Same old story. But what choice do we have? The people need homes and firewood. They’re innocent.”

Ellyn chuckled.

“They’re exiles. How innocent can they be?”

Nathanius’s breath caught in his throat and he coughed. The mayor’s massive palm struck the table with a bang that shook the room.

He pointed a thick finger at Ellyn.

“Watch your muddled tone, lady. Most of the people here are second and third generation. They’ve never harmed a soul in their lives. I don’t know what it was like for you up in Selapak, but around here we don’t assume the people around us are murderers and thieves.”

Ellyn looked up at him with a cold glare.

“I doubt the corpses hanging from your roof would agree. And don’t make fun of my voice.”

The mayor gritted his teeth.

“The bodies aren’t our fault. We were defending ourselves.”

Nathanius cut in.

“When did the violence start?”

The mayor sat down.

“After nightfall. The people were just getting settled in. We weren’t ready for a conflict. The engagements we’d experienced were slight: damage to equipment, minor raids and skirmishes, nothing more dangerous than the bandits and slavers we deal with every season.  We figured as long as we stayed in town the circle would leave us alone. We had no idea the situation had grown so…dire.”

“So what happened?”

The mayor sat back. The chair under him creaked.

“For the first few nights no one even knew it was happening. I started to get reports about people going missing. As the weeks progressed the situation only got worse. Bodies in the streets. Women. Children. Whole families slain in their beds, torn to pieces by animals. I ordered all the citizens to gather near the city centre. Since then we’ve captured and killed more than a dozen infiltrators.”

Ellyn interjected.

“How do you know it wasn’t actually animals?”

The mayor turned to her with flat scepticism.

“We don’t have anything that large in the city, and the gate has been shut since well-before the night.”

He turned back to Nathanius.

“Frankly, I’m amazed the five of you managed to make it to the gate.”

Asterious quipped.

“Just lucky I guess.”

Polly raised her hand.

“And you’re going to make us go back out there?”

The mayor frowned.

“We don’t have a choice. The druids have been raiding our supplies. Even with our decreased numbers it’s unlikely we’ll have enough food and firewood to get through the night. We’re happy to trade spare tools and blankets, but we need every weapon we have, and every ounce of food, and we can’t afford to take in refugees.”

Nathanius stood up. There was no point continuing this here. He turned to Azarelle.

“See what they have.”

The mayor waved a man over from the wall.

“My quartermaster will show you our supplies.”

Ellyn furrowed her brow.

“Wait, that’s it? You’re just going to—”

Nathanius snapped.

“Hey! Give it a rest.”

Ellyn shut her mouth, furious.

Nathanius turned to the mayor.

“Mister Mayor, we’ve come a long way. May I request that we be allowed to stay one night? We have our own food. We’ll leave as soon as the animals are rested.”

The mayor thought about it for a long moment. In the end he nodded.

“Very well. One night.”

 

II.

 

The meeting broke up. Azarelle and Nathanius went with the quartermaster to examine their stores. Polly went to the fire with Ellynn.

Asterious went to the mayor.

He knew the man’s type. He was a working man in charge of a working town. A couple thousand people under his wing. He was doing his best. In another time and place he could probably handle a crisis like this one. Just…muddle through.

He wasn’t prepared for what was coming.

Iiari.

The mayor shook his head as Asterious approached.

“It won’t do any good to talk. The matter is settled.”

Asterious leaned against the wall.

“Relax. I’m not here to beg.”

The mayor nodded slowly.

“Then what do you want?”

Asterious got out a knife.

The mayor reached for a hand axe on his hip.

Asterious put his hands up, holding the knife with his ring and pinkie fingers.

“I’m not here to cause trouble either.”

The mayor took his hand away.

Asterious cleaned his fingernails with the point of the blade.

“I was curious. Did you ever try negotiating?”

The mayor laughed.

“Of course I did. They weren’t interested. Letting the fact that they hate us, we don’t have anything they want! The new faction doesn’t sully itself with ‘civilized’ wares.”

Asterious shrugged.

“They used to. There used to be a lot of trade here.”

The mayor looked up at him with a suspicious glare.

“And how are you supposed to know that?”

Asterious grinned and put his knife away.

“I get around. So what happened? The natives have always been self-sufficient. It never stopped them trading before. Trade makes peace. What changed?”

The mayor growled.

“A new chieftain: Setarkh. I don’t know his history. I only know that the old leadership of the circle is concerned that if they oppose him he’ll split the order.”

Asterious tut-tutted in his cheek.

“Sounds messy.”

The mayor answered.

“It is.”

“It sounds like you need a mediator.”

The mayor chuckled.

“Got someone in mind?”

Asterious shrugged his arms.

“We don’t have anything else to do, and it’s a fair chance we’re going to run into the circle anyway. We could put in a word for you…”

He shot the mayor a cool look.

“…Maybe.”

The mayor’s face darkened.

“In exchange for what?”

“Let Azarelle and Ellyn stay here in the city. The rest of us will take care of ourselves.”

“And they can’t?”

“Of course they can, but take it from me: you’re going to need Azarelle. There’s a storm coming, Mayor Edmund Giant. Selapak is conquered. Tormar will be coming south and soon, and the old gods are with them.”

The man shook his head.

“Impossible.”

Asterious smiled, looking at the floor.

“I don’t have time to convince you. You’ll see for yourself soon enough…and a good sorcerer is hard to find.”

The mayor frowned.

“And the other?”

Asterious blew out a breath.

“She’s a master musician, and you could use a morale boost around here.”

The mayor grumbled.

“She’s got a smart mouth.”

Asterious grinned.

“And a lovely singing voice, and while we’re on the subject, you should apologize for that cheap shot back at the table. She’s a good woman and she had it rough before they even put her in the boat.”

The mayor stood and paused, grinding his beard between his thumb and forefinger.

“I’ll consider it.”

“The deal or the apology?”

“Both.”

Asterious nodded.

“Talk to Nathanius. He runs the show. And don’t wait too long. Trust me, with Tormar on the horizon there’ll be a lot of work to do when we come back.”

The mayor chuckled.

“You mean if you come back.”

Asterious grinned.

“I always come back.”

 

III.

 

Polly tightened her coat. They’d been on the road for two hours, marching into the dark towards the lumber camp and the forest’s edge. So far there was no sign of the druids. The snow crunched under her feet. The mayor had outfitted each of them with a day’s worth of food and a pair of snow shoes, just enough to get them to the woods. After that they were on their own.

She puffed out a breath. It froze in the air.

“I can’t believe we’re doing this.”

She paused.

“Actually, I take that back. I can. In fact, it seems like all we do is crazy crap.”

Asterious laughed.

“It’s our best chance. I mean, the only alternative was getting kicked out.”

He called ahead to Nathanius.

“And I don’t think I got enough credit for my negotiating skills!”

Nathanius barked out a chuckle.

“Hah! What skills?”

“He let two of us stay, didn’t he? And he gave us packs and enough food to get us to the woods.”

Polly raised a finger.

“Where we will be eaten by druids.”

Asterious shrugged.

“There’s worse ways to go.”

“And what are those?”

He chuckled.

“Trust me, I’ve died more ways than you’ve had hot dinners. Animal attack is far from the worst.”

Polly growled and stared out ahead. Frankly, she wasn’t thrilled about any kind of dying. At least Azarelle was safe back in town. The dim outline of the logging camp was beginning to come into view. The forest rose up behind it, and endless wall of trees and shadows.

She didn’t see any movement.

“Do we at least have a plan?”

Asterious thumbed over his shoulder at Nathanius.

“He’s the brains of the outfit.”

Nathanius spent a few yards mulling it over.

“Well, from what you told me there’s political dissent in the circle. Maybe we can pit the factions against each other or…I don’t know, broker some kind of a compromise between the villagers and the druids. But first we have to get them to trust us.”

Polly frowned.

“That’s not going to be easy. You saw the bodies in the square. You think they’ll believe us if we tell them we aren’t from the village?”

Nathanius shrugged.

“I don’t know. Maybe. They won’t have seen us before. We’ll have to be careful when they show up. No sudden moves and no weapons.”

Polly coughed.

“No weapons? What if they decide to kill us?”

Asterious answered succinctly.

“Then we die.”

Polly let out a harrumph.

“Well, that’s just great.”

Nathanius pointed out ahead.

“We’ll set up in the logging camp and wait for them to come for us. We’ll just have to hope we can get a word in edgewise before they tear us apart.”

Asterious smiled.

“Sounds like fun.”

Polly grumbled.

“Easy for you to say.”

They kept walking.

Polly kept a hand on her weapon. She had a spare in her boot. Negotiations were great and all, but bitter experience had taught her long ago that talk was cheap and lady luck didn’t always favour the bold. In the end, it was the prepared that came out on top.

If things went sour, she wasn’t going down without a fight.

Special Thanks To:

Kristi Bubrig

Ryan Lewis

Nathan Liss

Kayla Liss

Timothy Tortal

Matt C

 

Exiles - Issue #59: Outpost
Exiles - Issue #61: Partisan Politics

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