Written by Aaron McQueen
Illustrated by Rachel Mrotek
Copyright July 1st, 2017
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.
The trail from the coast was arduous. Nathanius had walked it before, once when he arrived on the subcontinent and once more when he was forced to flee from Selapak. Now he was walking it again, without the stake he swore that he would have when he returned. Leaving Misery felt like freedom, but he could not escape the knowledge that he had only exchanged one set of problems for another. He glanced over his shoulder at the others. They had no idea what they were in for.
The coast was awful, but at least it was simple. Hunt for food. Fish with the tide. Gather wood for shelter and warmth. It was a cold, hard life, but at least it could be taken at face value. It would be different once they reached the interior. There would be no room for half-baked plans in the valley. It was a place where everyone’s luck eventually ran out.
He’d learned that the hard way.
He looked at Asterious. He was a double-edged sword. Nathanius was certain of that. He’d never seen anyone fight as he did: brutally, skilfully, and without hesitation. A man that could fight like that was capable of anything.
Yet it didn’t seem so.
Anyway, you work with what you have. In the end, that was all there was. There were still opportunities. A strong fighter was worth his weight in gold, and they would need gold once they got to Selapak.
Come to think of it, there was at least one upside to this bizarre reversal of fortune. The slavers had purchased his marker, and for all their power and influence they were far less dangerous than the Jasper brothers. The syndicate wouldn’t be happy about discharging his debt for what was surely a miniscule percentage, but at least technically he didn’t owe them anymore.
He heard a noise behind him. He turned to see Ellyn climbing back onto her feet. They were all starting to stumble. Their tracks left deep trenches in the snow. Asterious was dragging the sled. He put down the rope.
“We have to rest.”
Nathanius shook his head.
“No, we have to press on, just a little while longer. There’s no shelter on this part of the slope. If we stay we’ll freeze to death.”
Ellyn leaned on her knees.
“How much further?”
Nathanius looked up the trail.
“Another hour. There’s a holdfast. We can stay there and finish the trip tomorrow.”
Ellyn nodded and forced herself to take another step, but her legs gave out again. She crumpled down into the snow. Asterious helped her up.
“It’s alright. Rest. We’ll carry you on the sled.”
She shook her head.
“No. I can walk.”
“You can barely stand. It’s alright.”
She shook him off.
“I’ll be fine.”
She started walking, right past Nathanius without so much as a sideways glance. Asterious looked at him and shrugged. Nathanius turned and trudged after her. His foot caught on a rock and he stumbled.
One more hour.
He could do one more.
There were no roads across the lands of the exiles. Who would build them? There were no governments to speak of. There were no signposts or mile markers. Who would place and maintain them? No one.
There were only the holdfasts.
They were rough-built, ragtag shelters, left behind by travellers and hunters that had come before. It was a lucky thing that the route to and from the coast was well-travelled. It meant they didn’t have to build a shelter of their own. Poole and his caravan had even left some firewood behind.
Something told Nathanius they wouldn’t be needing it.
The fire was going. They’d lit it as soon as they arrived, even before they’d pulled in the sled. They would keep it burning all night. There was no need to be sparing with the wood. They would never be back this way.
For the first hour all they could do was huddle around the flame, hands outstretched, pressed against each other to capture every last precious bit of warmth. As the room began to heat up they separated, discarding their thick cloaks and resting on the hard but thawing ground.
Asterious hung the coats from the ceiling to dry.
“How long can we stay here?”
“As long as we have to. We have plenty of food on the sled. Eventually the slavers will send someone to find out what happened to Poole. We’ll want to be gone by then.”
“How long will that be?”
“A couple of days at least, but we shouldn’t waste time. We have to conserve our supplies. We’ll need them when we get to the Notch.”
Asterious raised an eyebrow.
“Isn’t there food there?”
“Sure, but we don’t have any money. It’s more than a hundred miles across barren country to Selapak. We’ll need to barter for passage, and our supplies are all we have to trade. We may not have enough as it is.”
Asterious sat down and picked up a stick. He poked the fire, thrusting with the point like a sword.
“It’ll be fine.”
Nathanius looked at him.
“You sound pretty sure.”
“I always am.”
Nathanius laid back.
“I hope so. Otherwise you may have to fight.”
Ellyn looked up.
“What do you mean? I thought this place was safe.”
“It’s safe enough.”
“Then why would he have to fight?”
“When I came through last time the slavers had a ring set up for pit fights. The money was pretty good.”
Ellyn gave him an incredulous look.
“You fought in an arena?”
“Of course not. I bet on them like everyone else.”
Asterious stood up and swung the stick around, scattering embers as he fought with the air. He looked ridiculous.
“Planning to bet on me?”
Nathanius looked up at him.
“Only if I have to.”
Asterious sheathed the stick.
“I kind of want to do it. It’s been a long time since I was in an arena.”
“Let me guess: You were a gladiator too?”
Asterious sat back down and smiled.
“And then what?”
They turned. Ellyn sat against the wall, arms crossed, her fair visage cast a stern shadow in the firelight. Nathanius regarded her. She was like an ancient princess. All she needed was a crown, or maybe a throne.
“What happens once we get to Selapak?”
Nathanius leaned up onto his elbows.
She frowned at him.
“Of course, we.”
He laid back down. Fatigue was beginning to settle in. He could barely keep his eyes open.
“We’ll need a shelter. The long dark is only a few weeks away.”
“The long dark?”
“The dead of winter. It lasts about three months. There’s no food, no sun, and no law. The predators move into the cities, and what little society there is turns on itself. Most people don’t survive the night.”
A grave silence descended. Ellyn stared at the fire. Nathanius had hoped to spare her the gory details, but she deserved to know what was coming. It was the sort of thing you had to be prepared for. If you weren’t, you died.
They weren’t prepared. And worse, they were already running out of time.
It was Asterious who finally spoke up as he stood, testing his coat. It was still wet. He grabbed a short log and put it under his head.
“It’ll be fine.”
Ellyn looked at him and spat out an incredulous laugh.
“Do you know how to say anything else?”
He smiled to himself.
“Well, stop. It’s grating.”
“I mean why shouldn’t we be confident? We have the three of us. No one else can say that.”
She rolled her eyes.
He shut his eyes.
“Well, I think we’ll be okay. As long as we stick together.”
“And I’m just supposed to trust that? Trust you? And him!?”
“He tried to sell us into slavery.”
“That was ages ago. He’s learned his lesson by now.”
“It was two days!”
Nathanius watched them both quietly, doing his best not to laugh. He understood Ellyn, but Asterious was just too much. She didn’t get the joke.
Asterious rolled over.
“It worked out fine. Besides, he’s not such a bad guy.”
“And how do you know that?”
“I have a good feeling.”
Ellyn took a breath.
“How you trust that?”
“Gotta trust something.”
A moment later he was fast asleep.
Ellyn stayed awake.
This whole thing was stupid.
Ellyn stared at the two men across the fire. The worst part was they were right.
There was nothing left. No ambition. No higher calling. All those things were gone, and there was no way back. There was only this miserable existence, scraping a life out from the ice and snow.
And what was her plan? Pal around with these two? Watch Asterious win prize fights while Nathanius ran a crooked betting book?
And she would…what? Play music between rounds?
She didn’t even have a guitar.
She dreamed of the seaside; of the birds and the sound of the warm tide. She dreamed of Sylarea and the Sea of Capran. She dreamed of playing music. She dreamed of singing.
Nathanius sat in the dim-lit silence, tending the fire, watchful eyes on the holdfast door, listening to her cry in her sleep.
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