“The Way Forward”
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.
“Alright, let’s go through this again. What do you say when we get to the gate”
“And when we get to the bar?”
“And when we check into the hostel?”
“Look, we get it. Alright?”
Nathanius nodded slowly and looked up the trail. The stockade nearly filled the pass, plugging the gap with a high wall of upturned logs, carved to points. Men with cross-bows stalked the battlements; already they had stopped their pacing and turned their wary eyes on the band of travellers paused in the middle of the trail.
Asterious eyed them with casual disinterest.
“I don’t understand what the big deal is. What reason do they have to bother us?”
“The slavers sent a caravan down the trail less than a week ago. The only people who use this trail are slavers and hunters, and we’re obviously neither of those.”
“So? Macara owns this whole coastline. Where the hell are we supposed to have come from? We could be escaped slaves, or deserters.”
Ellyn huffed out a laugh.
“We are escaped slaves.”
Nathanius gave her a flat look.
“Be that as it may, we need to give them the impression that we’re supposed to be here, or at least a reason to leave us alone; if we don’t they’ll lock us up and we’ll be right back where we started.”
“So what do we do?”
“We stick to the cover story.”
“Cartographers? You really think they’ll buy that?”
“They might. When I left Selapak the syndicate was offering big bucks for maps of new routes to the coast. They’re tired of paying the slavers’ prices for food and trade goods. Every hunter, trapper, and displaced academic in the city was scrambling for a piece of the action. How do you think I managed to bluff my way out of the city?”
“And I’m your bodyguard.”
Nathanius shook his head and gestured to Ellyn.
“No, you’re her bodyguard. She’s the cartographer. I’m her assistant.”
Ellyn crossed her arms.
“You know I can barely speak, right?”
“That’s why I’ll do the talking. A mute cartographer explains why you have an assistant speaking for you.”
“I’m not a mute, jackass.”
Nathanius forced himself to take a breath.
“I know that, but your injury is a great excuse to let me do the talking, and if we can make them believe you’re wealthy enough to be an employer, it’ll go a long way toward keeping us out of trouble.”
Ellyn looked at Asterious.
“I thought that was his job.”
“Better to avoid a fight than win one.”
Asterious shrugged at that.
“What about our maps?”
“If she’s a cartographer shouldn’t she have maps?”
“We’ll have to tell them we lost them.”
“A storm. A cave-in. Something.”
Ellyn gave him a sceptical look.
“So we won’t have any proof.”
“If we’re lucky they won’t ask too many questions. We’ll use the extra food to pay our entry dues and move on.”
Asterious cracked his knuckles and grinned.
“Then I register for the arena.”
Nathanius shook his head.
“It’s not an arena. It’s a hole in the ground people die in, and I want to get us a room at the hostel first. I’ll talk to some people. If I can make some kind of deal you may not have to fight at all.”
“But what if I want to?”
Nathanius had to laugh. This man was certifiable. There was almost no fighting it.
“I guess that’s your business, just remember there are no doctors in a place like this, or magicians. If you go down…that’s it.”
Asterious shrugged again.
“I never go down.”
For the briefest of moments a shadow of regret seemed to pass across his face; then it was gone.
Nathanius shook it off.
They headed for the gate.
Ellyn stood in the corner. Their entry had actually gone according to plan. Now he was negotiating with the hostel owner, assuring them that they would be paid in full once their group had an opportunity to sell their wares.
The man behind the desk wasn’t buying it. He wanted to take a portion of the food in trade. Nathanius didn’t seem happy with the price.
He’d been telling the truth about one thing: the illusion that she was a wealthy cartographer was paying off. It had taken the guards at the gate less than a minute to offer entry in exchange for “services.” Only Asterious’ hard looks had dissuaded them, and the admonishment that Nathanius had delivered afterward had earned them a discount on the toll.
He certainly had a gift for falsehood. She wasn’t sure if that was a good thing or not. How do you trust someone who lies so well?
He came back.
“I’ve bought us two days.”
“We have to sell everything before then?”
He shook his head, led them outside, and whispered.
“No. We have to arrange passage and get out of here before then.”
“We’re not going to pay them?”
“Not my fault. The man’s prices are ridiculous. More than triple what I paid when I came through here last.”
“Why so much?”
“I don’t know. I think he was hoping I would give you up for a discount. He got spiteful when I told him it wasn’t going to happen.”
Ellyn grumbled. Prison continent or not, the recurring theme was becoming irksome.
“Is this always going to be a problem?”
Nathanius shook his head.
“It shouldn’t be as bad once we get to Selapak. These guys haven’t seen a woman in months, let alone a woman like you.”
Ellyn grumbled. This place was worse than the court. In her master’s house every hand had been…busy.
Asterious chuckled and threw back a lock of his hair.
“Ah, the curse of beauty.”
“It’s just an observation. You’re obviously not blind to it.”
“Doesn’t mean I have to like it.”
Nathanius cut in.
“It’ll get easier once we reach someplace more civilized. For now, just keep your hood up.”
Asterious added, “And don’t take off your gloves.”
He twiddled his fingers.
“Delicate hands are a dead giveaway. Were you a musician?”
Ellyn didn’t answer that. She only looked around. Nathanius had a point. The “Notch” wasn’t much more developed than Misery. She’d never been to the frontier of Sylarea or Gelande, but she’d read the stories and always imagined it looked something like this.
It wasn’t a town. It was barely a fort. There weren’t any streets to speak of, only a broad and muddy stockyard scattered loosely with the tents and wagons of the hunters and slavers passing through. A group of buildings were clustered on one side, while at the other end of the compound, a long line of huge wagons had been pulled into a circle, drawn by teams of some kind of woolly cow.
Nathanius nodded at them.
“That’s the caravan to Selapak.”
“What are those…things?”
He raised an eyebrow.
“They’re called yaks.”
“I’ve never seen one before.”
“I’m not surprised. They come from here.”
He gestured toward the bar.
“I’m going to see if I can find the caravan master in there. You two find a table and stay out of trouble.”
Ellyn nodded. Nathanius turned to Asterious.
The man smiled.
He rolled his eyes and led them on.
The bar was packed. Ellyn guessed it would have to be. There didn’t appear to be any other entertainment in town. They left their sled and goods outside next to a line of others. Ellyn didn’t like leaving their only valuables behind, but it didn’t seem to bother Nathanius, who nodded to the bouncer as they entered. The inside stank of perspiration and unwashed hunter, and there was no music. The crowd spread across the room, clustered around tables, drinking and playing at dice. A huge fireplace was built into the far wall.
“No cards?” Asterious said.
He sounded disappointed.
Nathanius spoke over his shoulder.
“Paper is at a premium on the continent, and don’t even think about gambling. The games are rigged.”
“How do you know?”
He pointed to an empty table in the corner. It was as far as you could get from the fireplace.
“Sit there. I’ll get us a ride.
He went to the bar. Ellyn sat down with Asterious. He craned his neck up and surveyed the crowd.
“What are you looking for?”
“The band stage. Last time there was—”
He looked flustered for a moment.
“I mean you would think there would be one. Ah! You see! There it is.”
He pointed. It was in the corner of the room by the fire. At the moment there was a table on it filled with patrons.
Asterious stood up and put out a hand.
She pulled away.
“Nathanius told us to stay here.”
“I know, but you should be up there. You’re a musician, right?”
Ellyn frowned. She used to be.
“I don’t play anymore.”
Asterious sat back down.
“No, you don’t sing anymore.”
She glared at him.
He leaned forward.
“I know it’s hard—”
“You couldn’t possibly understand.”
“I know that, but I once knew a man who lost his right hand and a leg. It was rough for him too. You know what he did in the end?”
She looked away tersely.
“He made new ones from a knot of wood and a fencepost.”
“You’re saying I need a wooden tongue.”
“I’m saying if you can’t sing with your voice, you’ll have to sing with something else.”
The words rocked her. It was like being shocked into a dream. How the hell did a man like this learn to say something like that?
She suppressed a tear as he stood up again and put out his hand. She took it and he led her through the room. She was sure he was asking people to move but somehow it seemed like the way was parting for them. She couldn’t even feel her feet moving as they crossed the space and mounted the modest stage.
Asterious raised his voice.
The patrons at the table turned to glare at the interruption. Their expressions quickly turned to surprise as Asterious went on.
“This young lady would like to play some music. Is there some space at your table?”
They moved like leaves blown aside. Asterious reached down into the dusty corner and picked up a guitar. It was cheap and looked like it hadn’t been used in years. He held it out and she took it. It felt good in her hands. It felt familiar.
It felt like home.
He turned a chair to face the room, sat her down, and whispered in her ear.
“Now, let’s hear that voice of yours.”
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