“The Cutting Edge of Mercy”
Written by Aaron McQueen
Illustrated by Rachel Mrotek
Copyright October 11th, 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.
A close call.
It hadn’t been the first. There was the blizzard that one time, and the bandits a few months ago, and the yeti the week before that. Caravan life was filled with unforeseen risks, but it kept you out of the cities, which more than compensated for any dangers they encountered on the trail. At least out here you could see your enemy coming.
It was his own fault for choosing a route that strayed from open ground, but this late in the seasons the plains were practically impassable, plagued by frostbitten gales that could freeze even the hardiest beast, and endless drifts of featureless snow that concealed any number of deadly pitfalls. Travel through the woods was safer, even if it meant that raiders—guild-marked or otherwise—could lie in wait.
He walked the length of his long wagon, shedding his over-clothes and scratching his bald head. The fire had burned low, reminding him of the winter outside and the imperatives of his role as caravan master. He had more to account for than the lives of a few destitute passengers.
Still, as he stooped to fill the brazier he couldn’t help but mourn the loss of the wagon and the poor bastards that went up with it.
He was just glad the slavers hadn’t taken something or someone else to replace their fallen prize.
He’d taken the wagons forward another half-a-day before calling for the halt. Night had fallen. The slavers could still change their minds, but there was no avoiding that. The caravan moved too slowly to escape. It was a rolling town, complete with cooks, tailors, carpenters, and blacksmiths alongside the passengers. Nevertheless, the feeling of distance put them at ease.
The fire warmed the cabin. Only a few more days. Once he reached the city he would offload the passengers and cache his goods in one of the abandoned storehouses at the edge of town. The wagons would be broken down for firewood, their metal parts used to fortify the structure. He’d traded all the passengers’ fees for food back at the Notch. Combined with their reserves, he and his people would have enough to wait out the winter. It was a good system. Over the years he’d lost very few.
The fire blazed. Time to turn in. It was a long road in the morning. It was a long road every morning.
He stood up.
That was when he saw them.
Asterious practically flew across the room, catching the man’s mouth under his glove. He drove the man back across the floor and slammed him into the wall.
The man struggled, but Asterious held him fast. Nathanius stood up from his perch at the foot of the bed and approached. Ellyn kept her seat, along with the blind-deaf lady, Eldra. They looked on in vengeful silence.
Their gamble had paid off. It was a lucky thing. The rumours about the blind-deaf ladies were true. He’d heard tell that they used magic to enhance their clients’ experiences, manipulating the weave to create hypnotic sensations of touch, sound, smell, and even sight.
Of course she’d probably never been called upon to create the impression that she was a plague-ridden corpse.
At least he hoped not.
They’d practically suffocated in that wagon, waiting for the slavers to leave before dropping out the same window they’d exited earlier. After that it had been easy enough to follow the wagons.
He wasn’t sure what he would have done differently, had he been in the man’s place. The slavers were powerful. He would have been scared too. Taking it out on him like this felt somehow…hypocritical.
Nathanius nodded and Asterious let him go.
“Don’t shout. We’re not going to hurt you.”
To his credit, he didn’t break down blubbering. He just straightened his underclothes and massaged the back of his head.
“What do you want? I’m tired.”
Ellyn spoke up.
“That’s a fine answer after you tried to turn us in.”
The man looked past him, over his shoulder.
“Having some trouble with your vowels there?”
Her eyes turned to fire.
Nathanius stepped in front and he turned back.
“You all would have done the same in my place.”
Nathanius shook his head.
“I don’t think she would have. I might have, but she’s classier than that.”
“Doesn’t change a thing.”
Nathanius clicked his teeth in his mouth.
“Actually, it does. You see she was the one who convinced me not to kill you, as long as you cooperated.”
It was an empty threat. He just wanted him to give in without causing a fuss. The man raised an eyebrow.
“We still need to get to Selapak.”
The man furrowed his brow.
“You want another place in the caravan?”
Ellyn laughed. Nathanius shook his head.
“Then what do you want from me?”
Nathanius took a large, rolled piece of paper out of his coat and unfurled it. He’d found it in the man’s desk.
“I went through your things. I was surprised to discover this. Most caravan masters don’t use maps. Must be very old. I don’t recognize any of the names.”
The man nodded.
“I’ve been using it a long time.”
“How long have you been here?”
The man smiled.
“Longer than you.”
Nathanius rolled it back up.
“Well, we’ll be taking it off your hands, along with one of the wagons and some food. Don’t worry, we won’t ask for any more than we would have used to get there anyway, and you can pick the wagon. We don’t want to strand you or anyone else.”
The man frowned, considering it carefully. Nathanius gave him a flat look.
“You and I both know you can spare a wagon, and you don’t need the map. The alternative is we kill you right here. I’d rather we part company on better terms.”
They waited. The man stood quietly before slowly extending his hand.
Nathanius shook it.
They departed an hour later and travelled through the night. And when the sun came up they kept right on going. Asterious sat in the driver’s seat, wearing all their coats. They rode in the cabin. Nathanius crouched over the old map, double-checking their route. He must have been over it a dozen times.
Ellyn watched him.
“Are you sure you know where you’re going?”
“I think so. This isn’t the same route I took when I left the city, but this map is good. There are settlements here that I never knew existed. I wonder how many are still around.”
He leaned up and slid a little window open near the roof. Asterious was sitting on the other side.
“Still awake out there?”
Asterious answered through a cheerful yawn.
“If you can stand another hour we should reach the next marker. We’ll trade while we rest the animals.”
“You’re the boss.”
He slid the window shut.
The wagon hit a rock and jolted hard, sending Nathanius careening the short distance to the floor. He landed with a thud.
Ellyn squirmed in her seat.
“We should have asked for a bigger wagon.”
Nathanius groaned up into a sitting position, rubbing his shoulder.
“I didn’t want to ask for too much. By letting him pick we reduce the chance he decides it’s worth it to come after us.”
Ellyn frowned. She hated when he had a point. Still, the wagon was incredibly small. It had barely enough room for their supplies, let alone four people. The stove was barely the size of a child’s kick ball, and there was no room to walk. She sat on her bed, sandwiched between the firewood and a week’s worth of salted fish. Eldra’s bedroll was behind her. Nathanius had rolled his out along the front.
He went back to the map. Ellyn stared at him as he drew his finger over the yellowed parchment. She hadn’t forgiven him for trying to leave Eldra behind. It didn’t count as basic mortal decency if you had to be dragged to it kicking and screaming. He wasn’t an entirely good person. So far he’d only managed to be useful. Still, his machinations had gotten them this far.
She laid in her bedroll. How far had she fallen, to know that his was the glue that held them all together.
She stared at her guitar. It had survived the fire, but the once bright face had been stained with soot. She frowned. It seemed nothing could remain pristine in this place, and the worst part was that more and more she was beginning to realize that this wasn’t just some passing ordeal. There were no rough patches. No high points and low points. There was only Kalkonu. This was the way things were, and it would never stop.
She couldn’t help but remember what Nathanius said back at the fighting pit. No room for morals. Maybe it was only a matter of time before this place wore down her just like it had him. The thought was like a weight on her chest.
Eldra rolled over, asleep.
If they could save her, maybe they could save themselves.
She shut her eyes.
It was too much to hope for.
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