“Leader of the Pack”
Written by Aaron McQueen
Illustrated by Jennifer Lange
Copyright September 7th, 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.
Nathanius felt someone kick his foot. He blinked his eyes open to find Asterious standing over him.
“Get up. They’re here.”
Nathanius looked around. He’d been dreaming. The last thing he remembered was talking with Polly. Her head was nestled up against his shoulder under their woollen blanket. Her tousled locks lay loosely across his chest. He couldn’t remember what he’d told her and how much was the dream.
He looked up.
“How do you know?”
Asterious pointed to the trees.
Nathanius jostled Polly with his shoulder. She started awake and drew a knife. She had it at his throat before he could say another word.
“What’s going on!”
He tried to keep still.
“It’s alright. Calm down.”
“You calm down.”
Nathanius pulled back, slowly raising his arms.
“It’s okay. They’re here.”
Polly looked around.
“Everywhere. Better start talking.”
Nathanius stood up. The fire had burned out. Snow covered every surface. The moonlight shone down. They were awash in the smooth skin of the wilderness.
Nathanius put his arms out.
“We came to talk!”
There was no answer.
“The villagers sent us with a message!”
Asterious took a step back, responding to some unseen stimuli. Nathanius withdrew into his cloak.
“I don’t think they’re listening.”
Polly got into a crouch.
“I can’t see them.”
Asterious’s eyes probed the darkness.
“Don’t worry. They heard you.”
He bobbed his head.
The darkness began to move. The silhouettes of human shoulders, arms, and legs began to emerge from the black treeline. Only one drew close.
It was a halfling.
She had short hair, cut against her scalp on the right and left. The top of her head was braided tightly in a complicated pattern set with beads made from turquoise and bone. She stood in front of them, wrapped in fur and leather.
Her voice was stern, but bright.
Nathanius smiled stepped forward.
“Yes, we are. Do you speak the common tongue?”
She shot him a look.
“Of course. Do I look like I come from around here?”
Nathanius bowed low.
“I didn’t mean any offence. We’re not here to start a fight. We came to talk. My name is Nathanius.”
The woman bore a long staff with a heavy stone disk tied to the end. She held it out.
“You are not permitted to speak.”
Nathanius straightened up.
“The villagers sent me to negotia—”
She cut him off.
“Do not make me repeat myself!”
He shut up.
The woman turned to Polly.
“Who are you?”
Polly put her knife away.
“My name is Polly. I’m a friend.”
The woman received the answer with an expression of stone. She turned to Asterious.
“I am Asterious Gondavol. Your people know me.”
Nathanius watched. The woman spoke back over her shoulder. She said something in the barbarian tongue and then turned back to face them.
“You will come with us.”
Azarelle put her hands to the fire. It was beginning to burn low. The crowd huddled in close, a stinking, unwashed mass of dirt and leather. She prodded at the logs with an iron stick. Ellyn sat beside her.
“Do you think they’ll be alright?”
Azarelle turned. Ellyn stared at the fire, huddled with her knees pulled up to her chest under a blanket. She’d been fretting over their missing comrades almost from the hour they left. Azarelle found it odd. It didn’t seem like her to be so attached.
“I’m sure they’ll be fine. They’re messengers. The task is safe enough.”
“I’m not so sure.”
Azarelle prodded the fire with a long iron.
“Why do you care so much? You barely know them.”
Ellyn gave her a stern look.
“They’re our friends. We’ve been through a lot. And if they don’t come back these people will throw us out.”
“We’ve got the wagon and the stove. I’m sure we would find a way to make do.”
“I don’t understand how you can be so cold. I thought you and Polly were friends.”
“We are friends.”
“Well, what if the natives decide to hold them? Or kill them? Don’t you care?”
Azarelle gave her a flat look.
“Of course I care.”
Ellyn grumbled and sank into her seat.
“You don’t look it.”
Azarelle frowned and set the iron aside.
“We can’t do anything for them from here.”
“I still don’t understand why we had to stay. We can take care of ourselves. We should have gone.”
Azarelle chuckled. She was glad to have stayed. The deal Asterious negotiated had come as a shock, but that didn’t make it any less of a good thing, and if her experiences with Lon and Valis had taught her anything, it was that it was rarely wise to doubt a good thing. She’d been comfortable with the Jaspers; now they were gone, all because she allowed herself to believe that she was entitled to more…somehow. If she’d had more faith in Lon and his brothers, perhaps Valis wouldn’t have been able to drive her into doubt. Things might have turned out differently. They might have turned out better.
Or not. Had they stayed and thrown their lot in with the Jaspers, they could just as easily have died in the invasion. They’d barely escaped with their lives as it was.
She took a long breath.
It was frustrating, not knowing. She’d gone through her entire life knowing the right answers, and she’d never been given convincing cause to question her convictions: not during her studies, nor during her work, nor even in the lab before and even after the accident; yet sitting in this dark room with its feeble fire and desperate occupants, she couldn’t escape the speculation that her judgement was somehow…flawed. It was a terrifying thought.
She couldn’t believe it.
There were no more logs to throw onto the fire. She stood up and left Ellyn there, searching for an empty corner of the room to sleep in. She only hoped that Nathanius, Polly, and Asterious would be able to broker some kind of peace with the natives so Edmund Giant would let them stay. She needed time to finish her work. With the gods alive and their power growing, escaping the continent had become all that mattered. She would accomplish it at any cost.
The others would thank her when it was over.
Ellyn didn’t watch Azarelle go. She was lost in her own thoughts.
The mayor sat down in her seat.
Ellyn looked up at him.
“Comfortable enough. Thanks for letting us stay. I know you don’t have much room.”
He smiled and held his huge hands out to the dimming flame.
“I was actually hoping you could help us out. Your friend mentioned before he left that you are a musician. Is that true?”
The mayor nodded.
“Asterious. He said you might be able to help improve the citizens’ morale.”
Ellyn leaned forward onto her knees.
“I’m not sure. My own morale is pretty low right about now. I never planned on any of this. I just want to go home. I want a comfortable life where I can sleep in a warm bed and play music and not have to worry about starving to death or being murdered. Is that too much to ask?”
The mayor shrugged. He pulled a hunk of green cheese out of his coat.
Ellyn looked over. Her stomach turned.
The mayor chuckled.
“You know what your problem is?”
Ellyn kept her eyes on the low blaze.
He took a bite of the cheese.
“You expect things to get easier for you.”
Ellyn turned her head.
“What do you mean? And how do you know?”
The mayor shrugged.
“It’s only a guess. We don’t get many people from the city this far south, but they’re usually all about the same.”
He waved her off.
“What I mean is that they all seem to want the same things. They’re all miserable, they all remember where they came from, they all wish they’d realized how good they had it back home, and they’re all desperate to find a way to get back to the kind of life they used to have.”
“What’s wrong with that?”
The mayor took another bite of cheese.
“Nothing, but it’s not going to happen.”
“Well, aren’t you a ray of sunshine.”
“We don’t get much sun around here. What you new arrivals have to realize is that the kind of life that you used to have doesn’t exist here, at least not yet.”
He leaned back and put his boots near the fire.
“I was born on Kalkonu. I’ve lived here in Hane my whole life, and it’s never gotten easier. Sure, the town has grown. There are more people than there used to be. In a way it’s gotten better for us, but it’s never gotten easier. That kind of progress comes slowly. Your problem is that want it all back now. I can understand that, but if you spend all your energy trying to find a shortcut, you’ll only end up getting dragged down.”
“You’re saying I should settle?”
The mayor laughed.
“I’m saying that the best way to have what you want is to want what you have. Work hard. Accept that happiness comes in excruciating increments, and get comfortable with the fact that it probably won’t be you that ever gets to have it easy..”
He looked up to the balcony of the second floor. A trio of young children were peering down at them.
“But maybe the people who come after you might.”
Ellyn looked up.
The mayor smiled. For a moment Ellyn thought she saw a tear forming in the corner of his eye. He wiped it away with his glove.
“No. Not mine. My wife and I never had children.”
“You were married?”
“She died two winters ago.”
“That’s awful. I’m sorry.”
He turned back to her.
“I did say it never gets easier.”
Ellyn looked up at the ceiling. The rafters were shrouded in darkness.
“And what about the gods?”
The mayor stood up.
“We’ll figure it out. For now, you’ve got a fire, a blanket, and a roof over your head. And this…”
He threw her the green cheese.
“Is not so bad.”
Ellyn sat quietly, staring at the cheese in her lap. He wanted her to stay. She could recognize an offer when she heard it. It was the same offer that the Dominaa made all those weeks ago. She couldn’t help but wonder if she should have taken it. Of course it didn’t matter now. It was too late to go back.
And maybe that was the point.
She picked up her guitar and began to play. The crowd pressed in around her, listening to the soft melody in reverent silence.
Across the room, a red-robed woman in a long veil retreated quietly up the stairs.
Special Thanks To: