The next morning found us gathered outside the inn. It was a cold day, snowflakes drifting lazily down in the predawn twilight to gather on the wagons and horses. Some of the travelers were clearly nursing hangovers, but they still moved about their tasks without tarrying, albeit with a certain amount of groaning and grumbling.
There were a few notable exceptions. Konrad was watching over the proceedings with a steady, calm look that spoke of long experience. The caravan master was quick to step in when something was done incorrectly, but mostly the members of the caravan seemed to know their business, and he was left to watch in silence. That was reassuring; it suggested that this was a competent group of travelers. Most of them, I was guessing, had made this trip before. It was a profitable one for a merchant, carrying goods from the northern provinces back to the empire’s heart.
The other exception was the Dierkhlani. It took a few moments for me to locate him; he wasn’t with the others. Eventually, I spotted him leaning against the wall of the inn, eyes closed though he was facing towards the gathering caravan. He looked much like he had the previous night, in the same studded leathers and with the same broad blade strapped to his back. The main changes were that he had other weapons visible among the leathers–a dagger’s hilt here, a knife at his belt, a coiled chain on the other hip–and a small backpack. It took me a moment to see that he was standing next to a varg.
I stared when I realized that. The slender canine creature was lying on the snow, chin resting on its paws, watching the proceedings with a clear gleam of amusement. I might have thought it was a dog, but I had seen vargs, back in the Whitewood. Not many; even there, they had been an unusual sight. But I knew enough to recognize it for what it was.
I’d always found vargs fascinating. Intelligent as humans, they said, and from what I’d seen it was more or less correct. But it was a very alien sort of intelligence, very different in its view. As a child I’d been entranced by their minds, by the fact that such obviously inhuman beings were still people. After I was Changed, well, I had other reasons to find them fascinating. After all, we had rather a lot in common.
I shook my head, remembering the reason I was here, and walked to where Konrad was standing. Rose followed silently after me, eyes downcast. I wasn’t sure if she had looked at the people we would be traveling with at all, or she was entirely lost in her own mind. She had a tendency to do that, I’d found, to draw away from the world into the space within her head.
I couldn’t blame her. We all had our demons.
Konrad watched us coming, a faint smile playing across his lips. “Well,” he drawled, the northern accent coloring his voice more strongly than it had last night. “I’m no mathematician, but I seem to recall two being more than the one we agreed on.”
I shrugged and held out my hand, opening it. Two silver nobles were resting on my palm, twice the amount we’d agreed on. I didn’t say anything; the money seemed more eloquent than I was.
Konrad seemed to agree, as he grinned broadly and took the coins from my hand, dropping them quickly into a leather pouch at his hip. “Glad we have an understanding,” he said. “I’m Konrad, miss. What’s your name?”
Rose chanced a glance up at him, then flushed and quickly went back to looking at the worn cobblestones beneath our feet. “Rose,” she said, hardly above a whisper.
“I take it Silf here explained our rules to you?” Konrad asked. Rose nodded quickly, and he grunted. “All right, then,” he said. “Come with me.” He strode confidently over to one of the wagons, with us following behind him and trying to stay out of the way of the people working around us.
It wasn’t much to look at. The wagon was small, a bit battered; one of the wheels had clearly broken and been repaired. But it was a covered wagon, fabric stretched tight over a simple wooden frame–nothing too solid, but enough to keep the weather off. Inside there were some crates and sacks, and a pair of horses were standing in front of it, already buckled into their harness.
“This is where you’ll be riding,” he said, patting one of the horses affectionately. “The load in back is mine; don’t muck about with it, or the horses. Now sit tight, we’ll be on the way shortly.” He dipped his head in a slight nod, and then turned and walked back to his post at the center of the action.
I watched him go, then clambered up into the wagon. I offered Rose a hand up, and she looked at it for a moment, but then she hauled herself up without taking it. I didn’t comment on it, and neither did she.
The back of the wagon proved surprisingly comfortable. The wooden planks were worn smooth, and the cloth cover over us kept the snow off. Once I laid the blanket I’d stolen from the inn down over the planks, and leaned against the crates, it felt almost cozy.
A few minutes later someone else climbed into the wagon, more smoothly than either of us. He had the red hair of a northerner, though something about his features suggested Tsuran ancestry. “Derek,” he said, bowing to us. It was a clumsy bow, but a certain humor in his eyes suggested that it was deliberately so. “I’ll be your driver today, ladies. Feel free to complain if the ride is too rough. I can’t do jack all about it, but you can complain all you like.”
I smiled politely, and Rose let out a genuine giggle at his joke. Derek smiled as though well satisfied, and then turned to the horses, checking over their harness.
True to Konrad’s word, the sun was just peeking over the horizon when the caravan got on the road. The first I realized of it was when the wagon in front of us began moving, wheels crunching the snow quietly under them as they began to roll. Derek clucked to the horses, which obligingly broke into a slow walk.
I found myself smiling as we left the town behind. I wasn’t going to miss the place, even if I could have remembered where it was.
The cover of the wagon kept out the weather, but it also limited our view of the outside world. I couldn’t see much past the horses’ ears, and the back of the wagon in front of us. As such, for the next several hours, my world narrowed down to the interior of our wagon, Rose, and Derek.
The horses were obviously well trained, and Derek was mostly content to lean against the back of the driver’s bench and let them follow the train. It gave him time to talk to us, which he obviously enjoyed. Rose was far too shy to chat with a stranger, though, and my throat was hurting, so he mostly talked to himself. He didn’t seem to mind, and he had an easy humor about him that made it charming rather than irritating.
Over the next several hours, I learned a number of things. I learned that the horses’ names were, rather unimaginatively, Blackie and Star, that Blackie was the more temperamental of the two but easily calmed with a touch or a word, while Star was steady and largely ignored the people behind her. I learned that Derek had been traveling with Konrad and his wife, whom I hadn’t yet met, for over a year now, making several trips from the capital north to the provinces and back. I learned that all but one of the wagons belonged to Konrad, making this almost less of a caravan than a personal convoy. I learned that there were five guests not including ourselves; one of them was a merchant with his own wagon of trade goods, two a father and son planning to stop in Hasburg, one a Changed woman from the south, and the last a quiet boy from the north who was missing a hand.
I also learned things which were less immediately relevant, but more troubling. I learned that the roads were bad, and getting worse, with deserters from the legions a major problem even this far south. I learned that Derek had heard of what happened in Branson’s Ford, not in any detail, but only that some villages had been lost and the legion sent to eliminate the threat. I learned that a tax collector had been found hanging from a roadside tree only a few miles to the east, and rumor had it that a whole village was to be decimated for the crime.
Eventually, I drifted off, the rocking of the wagon and the quiet drone of Derek’s speech lulling me to sleep. I felt Rose grab my hand as I was beginning to doze, her grip so gentle I could almost have thought I was imagining it. I didn’t say anything.
When I woke, it was because the motion of the wagon had stopped. The snow had also stopped, though the noon sun was shining through pale wintry clouds. “Have to water the horses,” Derek said simply upon seeing me stirring. Sure enough, a few moments later Konrad approached with a bucket of water.
“There’s a roadblock up ahead,” he said as he got close. “Nothing too bad, it sounds like. Just a few legionnaires going through people’s goods to make sure they aren’t carrying any contraband.”
I frowned. That might not be too bad for him, but…well. Given that I apparently had a bounty on my head now, it seemed like a poor idea for me to have much to do with them. “Hide?” I asked, simply.
Konrad understood exactly what I meant. I could see it in his eyes. “Something you don’t want our good protectors looking at, Silf?” he asked. There was a hint of sarcasm in his tone, a subtle twist on the last few words.
“Me,” I said dryly.
He nodded. “And just what did you do to draw their ire, girl?”
I considered for a moment how to answer that. What had I done, even? I’d killed Hideo, yes, but I had a suspicion that my fate had already been sealed long before that. From the moment I’d stopped him from killing the village, maybe. Or maybe even sooner than that, as soon as I’d come to understand just what their mission there was.
“Did the right thing,” I said. “At the wrong time.” My throat seized up as I spoke, and the last phrase came out in a choked whisper.
Konrad nodded again. “Sometimes that’s all it takes,” he said. “Reckon I know a thing or two about hard choices, myself. Don’t worry, Silf, I’m not about to hand you over to the legions.” From the bitterness in his tone, I was guessing this had less to do with me and more to do with his own feelings towards the imperial legions.
“Thank you,” I said. “Truly.”
He waved his hand. “You paid,” he said. “Now. Derek, make some room for her in with the furs. Won’t be comfortable, but should be safe enough. Just keep your head down.”
Derek nodded, but Konrad was already moving on to the next wagon. Derek came back into the wagon a moment later, shooting me a curious glance on his way. I pretended not to see; I wasn’t remotely up to answering questions right now.
It didn’t take long at all for him to clear out a space among the crates. I took the hint and climbed inside, crouching down. He promptly packed me in, surrounding me with the heavy wooden crates. The smoothness of the operation suggested that I wasn’t the first person they’d had to smuggle past a roadblock.
It was dark, once I was inside. My little pocket within the crates was cold, and dark, and claustrophobic. It smelled strongly of pine, of leather and fur and tanning agents. The enclosed space began to bother me, making me feel trapped, and it was only with difficulty that I managed to keep myself from hyperventilating.
When we began moving again, I couldn’t readily tell. Here in the back, in this strange little pocket, there wasn’t an easy way to know. I only realized it when I heard movement outside, a horse’s chuff and the quiet crunching of snow under the wagon wheels.
It was hard to say how long that lasted. Long enough for me to begin to panic. What if my read of Konrad had been wrong? What if this was just a way to get me to stay complacent until he could hand me over to the officers at the roadblock, pocketing the bounty and the profit from what I had paid him? There wasn’t a great deal I could do, if so.
Then I heard voices. They were muffled by the furs around me, the sounds blunted and blurred. I could make out Konrad, speaking Tsuran without a hint of an accent, and someone answering in the harsh tones of a person doing a job they hated. That could be good or bad; he likely didn’t care about doing his job well, but he might be looking for an excuse to make someone else feel as miserable as he did.
I went tense again when I heard footsteps coming closer. When I felt something nudge the pile of furs I was buried under, I almost panicked.
In the end, though, the legionnaire kept walking with barely a perfunctory prodding of the fur, moving on to the next wagon. I stayed where I was. There might be more of them.
What felt like a lifetime and was probably a few minutes later, I heard the wagons creak into motion again. They rolled forward slowly, snow crunching under the wheels, and then began picking up speed until we were moving as quickly as we had been earlier.
It wasn’t long after that that I heard another voice, this one definitely Derek’s; I’d heard our driver talk more than enough to recognize the sound of his voice. Moments later, I felt another rustle of movement in the furs, and then I was blinking against the harsh light of the sun as the last of them were pulled off of me.
Rose smiled down at me, and finished clearing the pile of pelts away. She didn’t offer me a hand as I climbed out, and I didn’t ask for one.
“Went smooth as butter,” Derek said. “Don’t you worry, they didn’t suspect a thing.”
“You’re sure they didn’t find anything?” Rose asked. The girl’s voice was anxious and wavering.
“Of course they found something,” Derek said, clearly amused. “They’d be all kinds of suspicious if they didn’t find any contraband at all in a convoy like this. They found a jug of unrefined blackwater that didn’t have the assessor’s seal on it, four bolts of Skellish wool that didn’t have their tariffs paid, and a pound of moldy cheese that fell all over them when they opened the cupboard to check it.” There was a note of vicious amusement in his tone as he said this last which made me suspect the prank had been his idea.
That amusement faded rapidly, though, as he continued. “All of that was fine, dealt with. Not something to worry about. But the other merchant with us was apparently smuggling a crate of legion-issue armor. And that’s a far sight worse than just having some things that haven’t been properly inspected and taxed.”
“What will happen to him?” Rose asked.
“You’ll see,” Derek said, his voice and manner uncharacteristically grim, and then he fell silent.
I made my way back up to the front of the wagon and sat down next to him on the driver’s bench. It was warm now, the snow having burned off after morning, and I was enjoying the fresh air after being stuffed under those furs.
Minutes passed after that in silence. Rose was slowly relaxing, losing the anxious tension she’d exhibited when she helped me out. I wasn’t. I knew what Derek meant. It began to snow again as I waited, but I didn’t go back into the covered section of the wagon. My own fur was warm enough that it wasn’t too bad.
Finally, just when I’d started to wonder whether we’d see it or not, a tree came up on the side of the road. It was a large cedar, lightly dusted with snow. And, as I’d known there would be, there was something in the branches.
I could tell when Rose recognized the form of the merchant, dangling from a particularly strong branch by the rope around his neck. Her eyes went wide, and she was staring fixedly at it.
I’d seen more hangings than I ever wanted to. Back in the Whitewood, there had been lynchings of suspected imperial sympathizers during the siege. And afterwards…well. There had been plenty of reason to hang refugees in the camps, valid and otherwise. In watching, I’d learned that there are two ways to hang someone. The first is the merciful way, where you use a long drop. The fall snaps the neck, and the victim dies almost instantly.
This man hadn’t been hanged like that. He’d been hoisted into the air slowly, leaving him to slowly strangle. It was a long, ugly way to die.
The legionnaires had already left. They weren’t needed here anymore. He was already dead. He probably knew it. But his body refused to admit it. He was still moving, kicking, grasping at the rope with his hands.
“White gods,” Rose said, staring.
“Stealing legion equipment is a capital crime,” I said quietly. I wasn’t watching. I didn’t want to have to watch another person die, not right now.
“Are we going to help him?” Rose asked. Her voice, somewhat to my surprise, wasn’t accusatory. It was just a simple, honest question.
“Can’t,” Derek said. “They’d have us up there next to him as fast as you can blink.” He grimaced and patted Blackie’s neck, seemingly more for his own comfort than the horse’s. “Only thing I could do for him now is end it faster,” he said. “And we can’t even risk that. Don’t know how they would take it.”
I took one last glance back as we rode away from the roadblock, one guest less than we had been before. The merchant had gone still, slowly spinning at the end of the rope as snowflakes slowly drifted down from a cold, grey sky.