I walked into the taproom of the inn again, grimly.
Seven days. I had spent seven days here, in this town whose name I still couldn’t remember, which had never mattered and never would. Seven days, trying to go south. I still hurt, my legs and chest aching from the wounds I’d been dealt, but my injuries had been more or less healed for days.
I generally considered myself to be a patient enough person. But even I was growing exceedingly tired of waiting, and it left me in a foul mood.
The problem was that it wasn’t such a simple matter, getting to Aseoto. The heart of Akitsuro was far to the south, on the southwestern coast. The trip would take weeks, and it involved crossing some dangerous territory. Impatient though I was, I wasn’t so desperate as to try and make that trip alone.
Most of the survivors of Branson’s Ford had already gone their own ways. Black had left to continue her wanderings, and Ketill to find another village where he could work as a farmer; both of them had good reason to leave as soon as they could, given that the bounties on their heads from the war were still high enough to tempt people into doing foolish things. Livy had an uncle in Hasburg, a nearby city large enough to actually matter, who was taking her in. Most of the others had gradually drifted away, going to other villages or finding work in the town and surrounding fields.
Much to my surprise, Rose was the only other survivor who was still around. I’d never met the girl before the ghouls, but now she and I were staying at the inn together. I think we both needed that connection, needed to have someone else who could remember the events of those few awful days in order to help ground ourselves. It was a strange, broken sort of tie.
I was at the inn today for the same reason I had been for the past week. I was looking for a caravan bound south which I could join. It was the way most people traveled cross-country. It was safer than trying to do it on your own, and relatively simple. You paid for your own food and a bit extra for their trouble, and in return you got the protection afforded by numbers. I’d seen enough of them passing through Branson’s Ford to know the gist of how it worked.
Money, at least, wasn’t a concern, at least not immediately. Before Black left, she’d given me a hefty pouch of coins, saying that Corbin had given them to her just before they parted for the last time and told her to pass them along to me. I believed her. I’d long suspected that Corbin was far wealthier than he let on, and it made sense that he would give me something indirectly. If he’d passed it along in person, I’d have known what he was planning, and I never would have left him there if I’d known he was going to die.
It was, I supposed, an inheritance of sorts. One of a few which he’d left me. That and the scraps of my old life which I’d managed to keep since the Whitewood burned were all I had left. Everything else was gone.
Today, though, things were different when I walked into the taproom. There was an energy to it, a life, that usually wasn’t there. Part of it was that there was an unusually large crowd this evening. But there was also a difference in attitude, in how that crowd was carrying itself. They looked tired, but they were still animated, excited. There was a feeling of energy and ambition which was unusual. Looking outside, I could see a number of wagons through the window.
A caravan. Finally.
I paused just inside the door, looking for the person who was in charge of this group. It wasn’t hard. I’d spent long enough in places like this to know how to read the movement, the flow of things. Once I’d parsed it out it was easy to see that it was all swirling around one man, a pale northerner sitting in the corner with a large mug of ale that he wasn’t drinking from.
I took a deep breath and then approached him, interrupting his conversation with a tall Tsuran woman. He waved her off, looking at me. “Something on your mind?” he drawled, in Skellish flavored with the northern language they spoke in the Tears. I couldn’t remember the name of it.
I nodded. “Caravan?” I asked. The word came out badly, hoarse and rough with a catch in the middle. Speaking, now, was even harder than it had been before. I suspected I’d done myself permanent damage screaming when I found out that Corbin was dead.
The northerner sat up straighter, focusing his attention on me. “Aye,” he said. “Bound south, to Akitsuro, then east. Interested?”
I nodded, relieved. With how very northern this man looked, I’d been concerned that he would be heading the other direction.
“Listen up, then,” he said. “We leave at sunrise. Anyone who isn’t ready to go at dawn gets left behind. We’re setting a hard pace, and if you can’t keep it that’s your problem. Everyone has to pull their own weight, and I won’t hear any complaining about it, either. You look like you can handle yourself, but we’ve got a guard along in case anything goes wrong.”
I raised my eyebrows slightly. “One?” I asked, in a slightly incredulous tone. One guard wouldn’t do a thing if something went wrong, not when most of the predators that haunted the roads to the south ran in packs.
“He’s Dierkhlani,” the northerner said simply, gesturing towards the fireplace.
I gaped at that, and followed his gesture. It wasn’t hard to pick out who he was pointing to. The man was lounging in a chair next to the fire, eyes closed. He had a lean, almost feline build, not large, but lean and fit. He had on leathers that reminded me a bit of Black, though these were clearly armor rather than hunting garb; it was studded with metal over key areas, providing another layer of protection. Most telling of all, he had a sword strapped across his back. It was a long, simple blade, something that could be used with one hand or two, with no frills or ornamentation.
“How?” I asked, unable to stop staring. I’d never seen one of the Dierkhlani before. They weren’t exactly given to wandering around backwoods villages. I doubted that Branson’s Ford could have hired one if every resident had pooled their funds together.
“He was going the same direction,” the caravan leader explained. “Could never have afforded his rates otherwise, I’m sure, but since he was going that way anyway, he agreed to come with us. So as you see, one guard should be more than sufficient.”
I nodded, still staring at the Dierkhlani. If what I’d heard of them was accurate, one was more than a match for a pack of ghouls or a group of deserters. Much more.
“On to business, then,” the northerner said, pulling my attention back to him. “We’re three weeks out from Aseoto, three and a half. Longer if the weather turns bad. We’ve got food and drink for you, simple fare, but it will keep you standing. I treat Changed folk right, and I won’t stand for my people doing anything else; someone gives you grief over it, tell me and I’ll sort them out. Same goes the other way, though; you start a fight with someone and we’ll be having words. Steal from one of us, and I will personally break your legs and dump you at the side of the road.”
I nodded. It sounded reasonable enough to me, and understandable. The bit about not treating the Changed poorly was a nice touch. I had seen more than enough of people who didn’t.
“How much?” I asked, my voice breaking slightly on the second word.
“Three silver pennies,” he said promptly. “Good Tsuran coin only, won’t take anything else. You walking, or do you need to ride in one of the wagons?”
I winced slightly at the cost, but then forced myself to nod. It was an exorbitant sum to me, but I could afford it with Corbin’s gift, and I’d heard that things cost more in the cities. “Ride,” I said after a few minutes, reluctantly. I hated to admit it, but walking that kind of distance wasn’t a good idea, not with my legs still healing.
“That’ll be another two silver,” he said. “Payment up front, in full. Sound like a deal?”
I nodded once, firmly. I had my doubts about it–the price was high, and the presence of the Dierkhlani certainly wasn’t something I’d expected. But it would get me out of this gods-forsaken town, and at the moment that was all that mattered to me.
“Just one thing left, then,” he said. “What’s your name?”
“Silf,” I said.
He nodded. “Mine is Konrad. Pleasure doing business with you, Silf.” He spat into his hand, then held it out to me.
I spat into my own, then shook his hand. It was a very northern gesture, that, especially with the spitting. Not quite an oath, but still a rather formal way to seal an agreement. I expected that in Akitsuro that habit was regarded as charmingly provincial, and likely rather unsanitary.
“Remember,” Konrad said. “Dawn, with the coin.”
I nodded, and walked away, towards the stairs. Before I left, I took one last glance back, and saw that the Dierkhlani had left. His seat by the fire was empty. I hadn’t seen, heard, or felt a thing. But then, I wouldn’t have.
I shivered slightly, and went upstairs.
The rooms here were nothing like those back at the inn in Branson’s Ford. That had been a noble’s mansion, before the war, and even after the scars of battle and years of disuse it had still been rather grand. It had also, I now realized, been refurbished by a gifted alchemist. Corbin had provided alchemical lamps and tumbler locks, imported drinks and exotic spices. Here, the light came from simple oil lanterns, and the locks were crude warded locks that I could likely have picked with just my claws.
Inside, the room was small and sparse. The only furniture was a pair of beds with thin straw mattresses and a rickety wooden chair. There was a small glass window in the opposite wall, which wasn’t very well made; it leaked cold air around the edges all night.
Rose was in her bed, sound asleep. The girl had been sleeping a great deal, even more than I did, and that was saying rather a lot. I wasn’t sure if I should be concerned about her.
I rapped sharply on the wall to wake her. We had determined, between us, that that was the safest way to go about it. I couldn’t readily speak loudly enough to wake her up, and she didn’t respond well to being touched.
I didn’t know what horrors were in Rose’s past. But I knew that there were some. Her eyes had a darkness and a distance to them that spoke of ugly things inside, and I was sure that it was older and deeper than just the ghouls ravaging her home. Considering that her parents had been hermits, broken in the war and never healed, I had my suspicions about what it was that had put that darkness in her eyes, and they weren’t pretty ones.
She stirred a few moments after I rapped on the wall, slowly pushing herself upright. She had to lean against the wall to do it. Her eyes were too wide, staring past me without seeing me; her body jerked once, retching, before she settled down again.
She was waking from a nightmare. I knew that feeling too well to mistake it in someone else.
I gave her space, sitting in the chair and waiting. After a few moments, she resettled herself into a more upright position, and brushed her red hair away from her eyes with trembling fingertips. “What is it, Silf?” she asked softly. Rose had never, in the week and change that I had been more or less living with her, raised her voice.
“Caravan,” I said, simply. I didn’t have to say more. Rose knew what I had been looking for, and why.
Her eyes lit up, and she smiled. The expression almost seemed to light the room, made me realize that she was beautiful in her way. Considering the shakes still running through her hands, and the darkness still in her eyes, I wasn’t sure that beauty was much of a gift for her. “That’s wonderful,” she said. “When do they leave?”
“Dawn,” I said, looking away from her.
I could still see, out of my peripheral vision, as she nodded. “That’s excellent. Silf, I…I’ve been thinking.”
I looked at her curiously, waiting for her to continue. The silence stretched too long, and she didn’t seem able to finish on her own, so finally I prompted her. “And?”
“And I want to go with you. I want to go to Aseoto.” The words, when they did come, came out in a rush, tumbling over each other as though all of them wanted to be the first one out of her mouth.
I blinked. This was the first time Rose had mentioned any desire of that sort–the first time, in fact, that I’d heard her voice any kind of plan at all. “Why?” I said, too loud, and then winced at the lance of pain that went through my throat.
Rose looked down at the floor. “I don’t…have anyone else,” she said, more hesitantly. “To go to. Or anyone to stay with. I know we don’t…know each other very well. But you understand. You know what happened.”
“Why Aseoto?” I asked, more quietly this time. It still came out hoarse and thready, almost silent.
Rose was silent for a long time, at that, so long I almost thought she wouldn’t answer at all. “They wanted to keep the world away from me,” she said at last. Her eyes had that distance to them again, but now they had something else as well, something I recognized: rage. “They kept me…locked away. And I’m tired of it. I don’t want to go back to that, Silf. I don’t want to go to some village and, and marry some farmer and never see anything else ever again. There has to be more than that to life.” She closed her eyes tightly, her hands shaking more badly now. She laced them together, trying to control it, with moderate success.
I edged close and, very gently, touched her leg. She opened her eyes and jerked back as quickly as a startled rabbit, staring at me. There were unshed tears in her eyes.
“It’s all right,” I said. “We’ll go to the city, and find something better. You’ll be all right.”
She smiled at me, her expression so grateful it was almost pitiful. If she hadn’t been who she was, and I hadn’t been who I was, I suspected that she would have hugged me. “Thank you.”
“Of course,” I said. “Now, I brought dinner, and then we should both get some rest. Have to be up bright and early tomorrow.”