Written by Aaron McQueen
Illustrated by Jennifer Lange
Copyright July 18th, 2018
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 wall was taller than the last time.
Asterious looked up. Hane was only a fort on a hill back then. Not much more than a holdfast at the edge of the woods. It didn’t even have a name. The name it had apparently developed was an interesting historical puzzle. The word—which was properly pronounced ha-ne—came from the language of the native tribes. There wasn’t a true translation for it in human or elvish. The closest they could get was “outpost,” but the meaning for the natives was more complex and didn’t imply a military purpose. It referred to an isolated settlement far from its tribe, vulnerable in its safety and lonely in its community. The term was appropriate. The last time Asterious visited there were just as many natives living at the post as immigrants, living and trading with each other. The immigrants supplied fur and tools; the natives: jewellery, and medicine. The natives called the settlement “hane la telendi.”
Outpost of the Others.
Asterious certainly didn’t see any tribesmen now.
The fort had grown into a village. A huge wall of earthworks and logs had been constructed around it. He could see the hill rising up behind the palisade, with an enormous meeting hall at its peak. Nathanius drove the wagon up to the gate. Judging by the wear and weather on the thick fortifications, the wall had been in place for quite some time; and by the mounding of the snow, the gate hadn’t been opened in weeks.
Asterious trained his eyes up to the top.
“It’s bigger than I remember.”
Azarelle stood beside him.
“You’ve been here before?”
He nodded absently.
“A long time ago.”
Azarelle raised an eyebrow. She’d been unconscious during his explanation of his curse. He’d filled her in, but despite her experiences with Valis and the arrival of the gods, she remained sceptical.
Ellyn spoke from the wagon’s bench. She was holding the reins, scanning the area.
“It’s quiet. I don’t see any people. Do you remember anything else?”
Asterious shook his head.
“Nothing useful. This place wasn’t much more than a camp the last time I was here. The treeline used to be right next to it. I guess they cut down some of the forest to build the city.”
“See that depression in the snow? It’s a road. I bet it leads right to the logging camps.”
“Maybe there are people over there?”
Nathanius stepped forward and shook his head.
“It would take us all day to follow that road, and if we didn’t find anyone we would just have to come back. We can get someone’s attention here.”
He pounded his fist on the gate and shouted at the top of his lungs.
There was no answer. He pounded again.
“Hey! Out here!”
Ellyn scrunched up her cheek.
“Maybe there’s no one home?”
Nathanius turned and gave her a flat look.
“The whole town?”
She threw out her arms.
“I don’t know!”
Asterious stepped up to the gate and thumped his palm against the wood. The logs had to be at least ten inches thick.
“I wonder why there aren’t any guards.”
Polly looked around.
“They’re locked down. Maybe they’re afraid.”
Ellyn gave her a sceptical look.
“Who would they be afraid of way out here?”
Asterious turned from the gate.
Another ten minutes passed before a voice called out above them.
Nathanius held his arms out.
“Travellers from Selapak! We seek shelter! We bring news from the city! Reagents for magic! And medical supplies!”
The man peered down from the battlement, torch held high over his head. Asterious couldn’t make out his face.
He pointed at the horses.
“You travelled with these animals?”
Nathanius glanced back at them.
Nathanius turned back to the gate captain.
The man straightened up.
“The whole journey?”
“Yes, and we’ve travelled a long way. Is there someone we can talk to? Perhaps we can come to an arrangement?”
The man disappeared.
Nathanius waved her off.
A few moments later the gate shook, discharging a layer of thickly settled snow. With a groan, the huge frame slowly began to shift.
Ellyn raised an eyebrow.
“How did you know?”
“We’re not a threat. Our group is too small to cause trouble. Plus, we made a good offer. They’d be fools not to listen.”
The gate yawned open. A cluster of torches and spears thrust themselves into the gap. A dozen men stood behind them, their faces tight with suspicion and fear. Their eyes darted out into the shadows.
“Not much of a welcome.”
Asterious shook his head.
“No. Nathanius is right. We’re not a threat. This is for someone else.”
He turned back out to the night.
“Something’s not right.”
Polly looked around as the guards escorted them through the darkened streets. There wasn’t a living soul in sight. They’d insisted all of them sit in plain sight. Asterious and Ellyn were sitting on the driver’s bench. She and the others were on the roof with the cargo.
She leaned forward and whispered to Asterious.
“What the hell is going on?”
He shook his head.
“I don’t know, but they’re terrified of something.”
Polly sat back. Nathanius was beside her.
He had his eyes on the guard captain. The man rode a horse ahead of the wagon. His eyes flicked to every corner of the street. His men clustered behind him, scanning every alley and rooftop as though death itself were about to come swooping down from the sky. None of them said a word.
Nathanius shook his head.
“I’ve got nothing.”
Asterious pointed to the buildings.
“There aren’t any paintings.”
Polly furrowed her brow.
“The natives paint their homes. Blue, red, orange, green. It’s quite beautiful. The last time I was here there were natives. I don’t see any sign of them.”
Ellyn hunched forward.
“Who cares about paintings. Why did they ask about our horses?”
Nathanius shook his head again.
“I have no idea.”
There was a shout as a cat emerged from an alley ahead of the group. The guard captain called a halt and his men readied their weapons, eyeing the ragged animal as it made its way lazily across the street and disappeared into an alley on the other side.
“A lot of trouble for a cat.”
“Maybe there’s a sickness.”
Polly’s face fell.
Nathanius looked around.
“It would explain why there aren’t any people. These buildings are all empty.”
Polly shook her head.
“I didn’t see any graves or pyres.”
“They could be under the snow.”
“I swear, if you all dragged me out here just to die of some pestilence, I’m going to haunt you for the rest of your lives.”
The procession resumed.
Azarelle shook her head.
“I don’t think it’s a plague. There would be marked homes. Doorframes.”
The procession resumed. She caught a glimpse of light up ahead. The ground began to slope, climbing the hill to the hall at the centre of the city.
She leaned forward to Azarelle.
“But if it isn’t a plague, why would they be afraid of the animals?”
The wagon turned a corner and broke into the light.
The central hall loomed, a massive structure of wooden beams, logs, and huge stone slates. The doors and windows on the ground floor were barricaded shut. A dozen men stood guard outside the main entrance, armed with spears, axes, and crossbows, while still more could be seen perched in the windows of the upper floors.
Azarelle’s mouth opened up in horror.
“Oh my g—”
Asterious interrupted her.
“Don’t say it.”
They all looked up.
A dozen corpses hung in the air, tied around their necks by ropes hanging down from the roof. They were bloodied: shot, cut, and beaten. On their heads were crowns of woven branches. Their cloaks were made from fur and hide, embroidered with patterns of leaves.
“Well, that explains it.”
Ellyn leaned forward.
“What is it? Who are they?”
Asterious lowered his voice.
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