Written by Aaron McQueen
Illustrated by Rachel Mrotek
Copyright September 26th, 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.
“So we just walk up to them and ask for a room?”
Nathanius gave her a flat look.
“Subtly more complicated than that.”
“Well, explain. You said they owe you.”
“They do, technically.”
“I was employed by their family for almost six months. I hadn’t been paid yet when I left.”
Asterious spoke up from the window. He was staring out.
“Didn’t you say you had to run away?”
“These the same people?”
Nathanius nodded slowly.
Ellyn’s face hardened.
“Wait a minute. You mean we’re going to see the same people who sold your debt to the slavers? Won’t they just kill you, and us?”
Nathanius shook his head.
“Probably not. When they sold my marker to Macara my debt was expunged, and the three of us could still be useful to them.”
“Doesn’t that mean Macara will be after you instead?”
“Not for a while. With Poole and his convoy wiped out by the Sval, the others will probably assume we died back in Misery. With a little luck, by the time word gets back to them we’re still alive, we’ll already be under the Jaspers’ protection.”
“You think they’ll protect you?”
“Maybe. I did some good work for them before my little bout with misadventure. They’ll probably insist I pay the difference between the original debt and whatever Macara paid for my marker. After that we should be at least be back on speaking terms.”
Asterious spoke up again.
“How much money do you owe them?”
Nathanius looked over. Asterious was still staring out the window.
“I don’t know.”
Ellyn crossed her arms.
“Well you can’t have any of mine.”
“Look, I know you don’t approve of the way I live, but you have to listen to me. The money doesn’t matter. In a few weeks it’s going to be worthless. No one trades in currency during the long night. We need to get protection from somebody who has access to firewood, food, and shelter. And in Selapak that’s the Jaspers.”
“Can’t we just go somewhere else? There has to be someplace.”
He shook his head.
“There’s not enough time. The other cities are too far, and there won’t be any more caravans this late in the season. Even if we left right away, we’d never make it on foot. We’ll have to hold out in the city.”
Ellyn grumbled. Asterious spoke up, eyes still fixed on the landscape.
“How long have you been here anyway?”
Nathanius looked down at the floor.
“That doesn’t sound too long.”
“Most people don’t make it past one. I’ve survived the long night four times, and every time I’ve made it by sticking like glue to the strongest dog in the pack.”
“It sounds a little—”
“I was going to say small.”
Nathanius frowned, a touch of anger growing in his voice.
“The plan works, and unless you’ve got a better idea, it’s the only way we’re going to survive.”
“And what the hell are you looking at?”
Asterious was still peering out the window. He bobbed his head.
They ran to the window. More than a dozen riders on huge winter horses had taken lined up on a hilltop alongside the caravan. They flew no flags, but their hardened leather armour was dyed blood red, and they covered their faces with black skull-masks.
Nathanius cursed and backed away from the window. He began to gather his things. Asterious stayed where he was. Ellyn looked back and forth between them.
“Who are they?”
For a moment the look on the human’s face gave Ellyn the impression that he knew them. There was a certain familiar foreboding in his voice, and anger in his eyes.
“How do you?—”
It vanished. He shrugged.
“Well, just look at them.”
The horses didn’t approach. As she watched, a small group of guards detached from the caravan and rode out to meet them.
“They won’t fight.”
She turned to face Nathanius. He was almost packed. He went on.
“They’ll give up some of the passengers in exchange. It’s the last trip before the night. They don’t have a reputation to protect. Get your stuff. We have to hide.”
She went over.
“Why? We still have money, and Asterious can fight. Can’t we buy our way out of this or something?”
He looked up at her.
“You don’t understand. They’ll take who they can use. They’ll choose us because we have money. They’ll choose us because we can fight.”
Ellyn started packing. She didn’t have much, other than what the caravan provided, and her guitar. She wrapped it up in her bedroll.
“Who are these people?”
Nathanius stood and shouldered his pack.
They dropped out a window at the back of the wagon. Ellyn whispered as she climbed down.
“I don’t understand. Why are we taking our stuff?”
“In case we can’t come back. Plus it’ll look better if the wagon appears to be empty.”
Asterious jumped down.
“What about the lady?”
“You know, what’s-her-name?”
Nathanius didn’t look back.
“She’ll be fine. The slavers wouldn’t touch a blind-deaf lady. The organization is too well connected.”
Ellyn slowed down.
“You said that we can’t count on that sort of thing this late in the year.”
“Nathanius. You said they take who they can use. We have to go back and help her.”
He shook his head.
“We can’t move her things and we can’t hide them. They’ll know she’s missing. If they start searching the woods we’re done for. We can’t take that chance.”
Ellyn raised her voice.
“That’s not good enough!”
He spun around.
“Keep your voice down!”
Ellyn stood firm.
“We have to take her with us.”
Nathanius turned and faced the woods. His knuckles cracked. Asterious drew up beside him quietly.
“She’s standing in the window.”
Nathanius turned. It was just like he said. She was watching them. Her eyes were solid and passionless. She didn’t expect help. The finality of her expression was as cold as the air between them.
Ellyn had called him small.
Maybe he was.
He looked at his hands. How long had he told himself that one day he would atone for all those poor bastards he’d ushered into slavery? It was easy to say it. He looked up: first at Asterious; then at Ellyn. Maybe these two were his penance.
It had come faster than he thought.
“Alright,” he said. “There might be a way.
The scar itched. Poole took off his mask, drawing a few sidelong glances from his men. He detested the masks. They were cheap theatre and they smelled like charcoal and animal urine from the dye. It was guild law that they should be worn in public, but this close to the long night…it didn’t matter.
Just like this little shakedown.
The fight at Misery had been quick. The Sval emerged from the tide like a wave crashing on the beach. Only he and a few of his men had managed to escape, fleeing on horseback down the coast. They’d returned when the dust had settled, passing through the carnage like soldiers recovering the battlefield dead.
It had been a long time since anyone had called him a soldier.
At least now no one would question his mettle. His superiors had always cautioned that his preen appearance failed to intimidate. They’d even suggested he mutilate himself in some small way to add a mote of darkness to his image. He scratched his face.
The Sval had seen to it.
The slaves were all dead or missing when they returned, and most of the equipment was gone. It was a total loss. His career would not soon recover. But again, it didn’t matter. The long night would soon fall. All that remained was to scrape together a pile of supplies sufficient to last the winter.
Survival was paramount.
Well, survival and revenge.
Nathanius. Were it not for the man, he would never have been present at the camp. He fished the debtors note out of his pocket, still in its folio.
They hadn’t found his body among the dead. Of course, the Sval had probably dragged him into the sea with the rest of their victims. At the time he’d written his quarry off as a loss, but when he’d returned to the notch he’d heard the strangest story from a fighting pit bookmaker: about a trio of refugees who had arrived on foot, sung for their supper, and won a small fortune betting the proceeds. They’d left with the last caravan.
The personal element was of peripheral importance. Collecting the man would salvage his place in the guild and secure some meagre accommodation for the winter; time enough to slowly regain his rank for the next season. Macara always survived the night in one form or another. He’d been in service to them for five years already. The subcontinent’s demand for labour was inexhaustible.
Referring to it that way almost made it sound honourable.
They’d been working their way down the wagon line. The master was proving very cooperative. Counting his blessings. He’d probably expected to part with far more.
The man spoke back over his shoulder.
“They might be in this next one here. Only four passengers: a blind lady and three others. They never come out of the wagon. We only drop off the food.”
Poole waved his men over.
“Very well, open it.”
A wave of black nausea swept over them. Poole covered his mouth and nose. The room stank of death and there was a pile of sick at the door speckled with blood. The others drew back. Poole took a step onto the stairs.
The lamps inside were sputtering out, but there was enough light to see four corpses on the floor, laid out in beds cobbled together from what looked like the blind-deaf lady’s belongings. He didn’t dare get close. Their skin was pockmarked and oozing from open sores, veins swollen red.
The Sval were known to smear their weapons with excrement and entrails of animals and fish. The smallest cut could kill, though it could take weeks to die. The afflicted would spread fever, leaving their prey softened for the attack.
He stepped down.
“How long since you checked on them?”
The wagon mastered pondered.
“A few days. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary.”
Poole shut the door. They wouldn’t have said anything. If the caravan knew they were sick they would have been left behind.
He waved his men over.
“Burn the wagon. We’re leaving.”
The wagon master sputtered.
Poole turned to the man and glared.
“Be glad a wagon is all this meeting cost you.”
The man fell silent and gave a slow nod. Poole climbed onto his horse as his men set the wagon ablaze. Smoke began to billow. Poole kicked his horse and rode out. His men followed after.
He admitted his disappointment only to himself. It was too simple a death. Further, it meant there would be no prize to take back to the guild, nor any proof Nathanius was dead; not that it would have mattered. Macara dealt in able bodies. A trophy would only have put an official seal on his failure. Still, it was a disappointment. If he were going to die, Poole would have preferred to slay the man himself.
He kicked his horse.
Perhaps it had been personal after all.
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