Lock the children away from harm
They’ll lock all your reason why
Seeking tenderness with a dagger
Skin is blocked by the years of trial
-Opeth, Hessian Peel
The people of Cotting were of next to no use at all. I’d already suspected this since the first time I’d been this way; back in the backwaters of Setia, chasing down fools. It was clear now though, all of it. The bodies of the bandits had been sliced and chopped as expertly as the farmer in Marish. This Shen was good with a blade, but so was I. The sign of others though, four on horse all told, wasn’t as clear.
Not until I got to Esternesse, at least.
Shen. Shen the storyteller it would seem. A dozen men indeed. I’d seen the bodies and they numbered but six counting the one with the stab wound to the liver back in the woods. No need to correct the people of Esternesse though; the bigger this Shen’s story about himself the bigger my prestige when I take him down and back for the bounty. Things were going to be complicated now though; by the word of those at the tavern in the inn he travelled with an old man and two women. One’s hair blonde and the other’s deep dark brown. So here then was the missing father and lover and blonde girl from town. With only the farm girl’s father now dead, and that after the night Shen fucked his daughter, a pattern might have emerged.
“Another ale down here,” I snapped at the bartender. He nodded and poured and I took off my leather bracers.
“So you’re tracking this Shen?” he asked as he set the mug down.
I nodded then sipped then told the man straight, “If you know where they went it would do you well to tell me.”
“They didn’t say to that,” he said to me while he wiped the bar with an old and worn rag, “but my guess would be Cantos to the north, along the old coast road.”
“I know where Cantos is, I didn’t ask for a guide.” I drained off the ale and stood. “Except to some whores, you must have some in this town.”
He looked at me with barely concealed disgust and I reveled in it, sneering and nodding for him to go on, which he did in a halting voice. “Not…not here. This is not that kind of place. You need that you go to Oster’s down the road.”
I nodded again and took up my kit. Simple saddlebags, a sword and a knife, an axe and a buckler; bare essentials. As I went for the door his voice stopped me.
“What…what did he do?” he asked haltingly.
Without turning around I opened the door and said as I left, “He killed twenty men, and I’ll have him for that.”
I left and out in the street pulled my wool cloak over my shoulders against the sharp air of the night. If Shen could spin yarns then I’d spin some too. All the better for both of us.
Oster’s seemed loud and a bit rowdy too. Drovers and muleskins and day labor drones. The kind of men that get drunk and then wait for a fight, and the kind of women that like that sort of thing in their men. Here was a place to blow off some steam before the road again tomorrow.
The cell in the priest’s cloister was drafty and cold and I awoke in a ball on the floor. With only one thin blanket to warm me, and used to the comfort of inns or thick furs on the road, I felt dull and cramped. I had barely slept at all and I do not believe Chloe had either as she tossed and turned as I lay awake. As noises were heard out in the hall we both knew it must be morning and rose and stretched in the dark.
“Shen…” she began in a soft halting tone. “…this has gone all wrong.”
“Wrong?” I asked, knowing of what she spoke but not knowing what to say about it.
“I came to your farm that day to speak to you of your suit. Since then this has gone all wrong.”
I stood in the darkness, breathing and thinking. Not so much thinking as waiting for Chloe to go on. I did not know what to say to her.
“Are you not going to say something?” she asked me. “Nothing at all?”
My father had spoken of women’s intuition to me before, but I began to wonder if perhaps something more was going on. Chloe Harver had the ability it seemed to respond almost perfectly to what was happening in my own mind. Looking around in the pitch black of the cell, only a sliver of light coming in under the door, I had no way of sensing if her brother’s spirit was about and feeding her my inner thoughts. Did she know? Why had she not spoken of it?
“Please Shen,” she whispered as there was a knock at the door. “Say something?”
“I am sorry,” I told her, not knowing what else. “It will not happen again.”
I opened the door and Mavia was there, her grin keen and soft all at once. She looked up at my eyes as though nothing had happened and I pushed past her and went into the hall. My father was there too and I joined him instead, and we went two by two up the stairs. The priests were not there and I was glad of that because I did not know what I would do if they were. The fleeting fondness I felt in the throes last night had worn off and my ambivalence to them had become somewhat more. A note on their altar gave an address and a man to ask for to help us out past the walls of Cantos.
We spoke little at all until clear of the gates.
Hours later, the packed dirt of the road harder still for the frost that had taken root and wouldn’t thaw until spring, my father fell back on his horse and rode beside me as the women took the lead on our journey to nowhere.
“You play a dangerous game son,” he mumbled, looking off into space as was his vacant way. “Women can be more dangerous than knives.”
“What?” I asked him. It was not that I was confused what he spoke of, but that I was confused he was speaking of it at all.
“I’m blind, Shen. Blind, but no fool.”
“What?” I asked again. I seemed to have been asking that a lot lately.
“What? What?” my father mocked me, a small smile playing across his weathered and cracked lips. “Come son, you know what I’m speaking about and playing ignorant doesn’t suit you very well.”
“You’re normally not so…lucid,” I said to him.
“What can I say, my son? The road agrees with me. Many memories on this road.” He was staring off again, but not into empty space as was usual for him. It was as though he was seeing things only he could see, remembering when he was a younger man perhaps, the road the only constant in his life.
“You were saying something about knives, father,” I prompted.
“Ah. Yes. Knives. You’ve never seen the duelists of Kith. They lash their left wrists together with a thong of leather and draw their knives and fight. It’s a bloody affair, son. No one walks away without a scar, not even the winner.”
“And what of the loser?” I asked him, fiddling with a leather strap on my saddle as we rode.
“The loser?” he asked, turning his rheumy eyes upon me. “The loser seldom walks away at all.”
“And this pertains to me how?” I asked him.
He let the question hang in the air for a second, mingling with the breath steaming from our mouths and noses as we breathed in the cold air. “It is as I said, Shen. Women can be more dangerous than knives.”
“What of it?” I asked, more force in my voice than was perhaps respectful. “What do you know of this kind of thing?”
He was looking around dreamily again, and when he spoke his tone was far off and away. “Your mother loved cold mornings like this. She would often go out without a shawl or cloak and walk in the frost.”
He was gone again, lost in his reverie, his mind retreating into far off places and times long past. My thoughts lingered on what he had said, wondering how he knew. Wondering how a blind man could see so much. Wondering what I was going to do about all of this. I knew men, Colm was one of them, who would love to be in my shoes now. Two women, no obligations, the road before me like the character in a tale; it showed how little most men knew of the reality behind the tales they loved so much. Village men looked up to men like my father, men who had walked the hard frozen roads of Setia and fought for their lives with steel and grit. Their stories kept them in ale at night around the fires in taverns, their scars finished their sentences for them. I had to wonder now how many of those men were more like me than like they pretended to be. How many of them had shot a man in the back and told the tale of facing down a charge? How many had claimed credit for men another man had killed? How many stood by the fire and got lost in the telling as a way to forget the desperate rush and panic of how it really happened?
And how many of them had actually had two women at the same time and actually knew how torn it can make a man feel?
“How did you meet my mother?” I asked my father suddenly.
His head turned slowly around to look at me and he squinted as he tried to focus eyes that could no longer look upon his son. He worked his mouth a couple times and wrinkled his forehead in concentration before saying softly, “I…I don’t remember.”
My father hung his head and worked his mouth some more, still squinting, and fell quiet once more. I reached across the space between my horse and his and put my hand gently on his shoulder, still corded with muscle despite his shrunken posture. Quietly, so that perhaps even he did not hear, I said, “I’m sorry father.”
We rode in the cold of the Setian winter and only the hard sounds of our horse’s hooves on the frost of the road broke the silence.
I had never seen such a sight before and did not know that men built such things. Six days north of Cantos lay the border between Setia and Corinth, a long wall of stone stretching as far as the eye could see to the horizon both east and west. Its grey façade was broken only by square towers at regular intervals and by the iron gate where the road passed through. The gate stood open and an encampment, a village by all rights, perched around the opening in the wall.
The wagons that had been behind us since we had set upon our path that morning were passing us on our left and the bells on the horse’s harness and the snorts of their breath and the clack of their hooves on the cobbles of the road punctuated the sharp air around us. The man at the reins of the second wagon waved as they passed and I nodded to him.
We had stayed off the main road as it turned from hard packed trail through the trees of northern Setia into a proper road of flagstones and cobbles. The afternoon before we had had no choice but to join the main flow of traffic as all the side roads led to this one before passing through into the frozen forest nation in the north. We had travelled quickly since leaving Marish all those days and nights ago but if word of my father’s deeds, my deeds as I had claimed them to be such, had passed us in the night on some swift horse here would be the place our road ended. And if not, then perhaps on the other side of that great wall we would find some place to live without flight.
“I still think we should have fled south,” Mavia grumbled, drawing her furs tighter around herself and shifting uncomfortably in her saddle. “It only gets colder as one heads north.”
“My thoughts weren’t on comfort at the time,” I mumbled under my breath. I don’t know if she heard me but she wrinkled her nose and glared at me all the same. It was a playful glare, free of malice, but a glare nonetheless.
“We should pass through with the traders,” my father was saying. “They have the sound of Varsi about them what with the bells on their wagons, and Varsi are seldom stopped and searched at the gate.”
Setian folklore was full of tales of the Varsi. Wanderers, drifters, charlatans, thieves. Living out of their wagons and calling no one place home. It seemed at the time as good an idea as any. How were we any different from them? I spurred my horse onwards, falling in behind them amongst their outriders; men who looked like they lived in the saddle and would one day die there too. One of them gave me a curt nod and another looked admiringly at our horses as we passed between the buildings of the settlement around the gate in the great wall. It was clear to see that all the structures had been set up as temporary, becoming more permanent with every passing season. Bits of this and bits of that nailed and lashed together to change and grow a place as time went on. Peddlers and tinkers hawking their wares, beggars and travelers desperate for something they didn’t have.
“…not in one thousand years.” Chloe Harver was snapping at one of the Varsi outriders. I nudged my mount closer to hear what the dispute was over and the lean man nodded to me as he saw me draw nearer.
“Are you headman? How much for this one?” his asked me, inclining his head towards where Chloe rode on his other side.
“I’m sorry,” I said to him, noticing the long and narrow-bladed knife in his boot, the saber under his belt with its notched blade and worn handle. “Nothing you see here is for sale.”
“Ever’thin’ is for sale,” he grinned at me, flashing a chipped tooth. “This one has lean flanks, bred for speed and not comfort. I’d fancy a ride on this one.”
I scowled, keenly aware of their numbers and reputation. “You are of course speaking of the horse?”
“Aye,” he said, his grin splitting wider under his pencil thin moustache. “The horse, of course.”
“As I said, we have nothing for sale.”
“A shame, that,” the Varsi shrugged and put a small wad of tobacco in his cheek. He chewed it thoughtfully for a second and then spit before continuing, never taking his eyes from mine. “Headed north for Corinth?”
His accent made it hard to follow him, the end of each word running into the beginning of the next and a lilt putting emphasis on strange syllables. I looked from him to the gate looming ahead and then back to him and nodded once. He chuckled and spat again, shrugging his lean shoulders once more.
“Runnin’ or chasin’?” he asked.
“What?” It occurred to me I should find a new way to reply to questions if I wanted not to be thought anymore a fool than I truly was.
“If you’ve nothin’ to sell then you’re runnin’ or chasin’. Simple, innit? Who else goes for Corinth in the winter?”
“Our business is our own,” I said as respectfully as I could. By all accounts these Varsi could be dangerous if crossed and I fancied our odds low against even a few of them in a fight. “Just travelers of no consequence, friend.”
“Friend, is it?” he asked, slumping loosely in his saddle like a sack of potatoes. He had the look of a man as comfortable on horseback as on his feet, even more perhaps. “We’re all of no consequence on the road.”
There was a delay at the gate, Corinthian soldiers with their fur capes and tall steel helmets going through some merchants’ wares and holding up the Varsi caravan we had joined in with. My father sat on his horse staring around blindly, Chloe had pulled up on my left side and shivered in her furs, Mavia was chatting happily with a Varsi woman riding on the back of the rear wagon ahead of us as though they’d known each other for long years. The man on my right still looked at me with his sly grin.
“You look nervous,” he said. “You’re going to get us searched. You want to be of no consequence? Then look it. Think of somethin’ nice, like layin’ with yer girl there, or smoke yer pipe so yer hands have somethin’ to do besides shake.”
I looked down to my hands clutching the reins. My knuckles were white against the red of the rest in the cold. They did indeed shake somewhat, though not enough that I would think someone would notice. Had I seen myself I would have thought I was looking upon a man shaking from the cold, not nerves. I was not versed in subterfuge though, and by all accounts there was nothing the Varsi knew better. I nodded to him and took my pipe from beneath my coat and lit it with a few strikes of my flint, puffing the bittersweet smoke into my lungs.
“You called me friend, so now it’s so,” the Varsi rider said to me, beckoning with his hand towards my pipe. “Friends share.”
I laughed a small laugh as I handed it to him and he drew thoughtfully on the narrow stem, puffed out a ball of smoke and then a ring around it, and handed it back to me with a look of approval on his face.
“Shen,” I said to him as I took it back. “My name is Shen. This is Chloe, and that is my…”
“There’ll be time for names later,” he cut me off. “Fer now we need to look like we’ve known each other all along. And stop fidgetin’ with your tack.”
I had not noticed I was twining and untwining one leather strap on the saddle around my finger as I smoked. The merchants at the gate were moving now, having received their documents back from the soldiers, their crates and bundles repacked.
“Take a deep breath and be of no consequence,” the dark haired Varsi said to me as the caravan started to move forward into the tunnel through the thick stone wall.
The rest of their troupe seemed at ease, waving or cheerfully greeting the grim faced Corinthians as they watched on with careful eyes. Mavia mimicked their behavior effortlessly, she and the Varsi woman on the back of the rear wagon blowing kisses to one blushing young soldier not even old enough to have started a beard yet. One of them, a captain or something judging by the three steel bars on his cape and the side of his helmet, met my eyes and my heart slammed to a halt in my chest. He narrowed his eyes at me, a thoughtful look crossing his face, his gaze going from me to Chloe beside me.
“You!” he called out in an authoritative voice, pointing at me with the finger of one steel gauntleted hand. “You right there! Pull up!”
“Be steady now,” the Varsi beside me hissed, stopping his horse along with me and nodding to the other outriders to continue on. Chloe looked back over her shoulder as the caravan moved on and she with it, a worried look on her face. I nodded to her as the Varsi had nodded to his fellows, but the look on her face told me that I hadn’t filled her with the confidence he had in them.
“You too!” the soldier shouted to Chloe, waving her back. She looked to me, confusion on her face, and I could see that she was torn between obeying and fleeing. I shrugged and she walked her horse back to where we had stopped. The soldier stepped forward on steel clad feet, two of his men flanking him on either side. “The two of you don’t look like any Varsi I’ve ever seen.”
“What?” I asked, cursing myself as I said it.
“Distant kin,” the outrider, my new ‘friend’, said to the soldiers. His accent, thick as it was, was thicker now, laid on for effect. “On me mother’s side. Comin’ back fer the Meet.”
“The Meet is it?” the soldier asked him, still eyeing me and Chloe suspiciously. “We’ve seen more and more of you Varsi lately, all talking about this Meet. What is it? I’ve never heard of it before.”
“Only Varsi and the kin of Varsi would,” the outrider went on. “Just a wee gatherin’ is all.”
“Your ‘wee gathering’ has put a dozen caravans like yours through our gates this week alone,” the soldier went on. “It’s all gone in our reports.”
“Oh! Your reports!” the Varsi laughed. “Well, I’ll make sure I tell our King then!”
“I’ve never heard of a Varsi king,” the soldier’s voice was growing more suspicious and they took a step back when the outrider slipped easily from his saddle and stepped nonchalantly towards them. “What’s this king’s name?”
“I’ll have to let you know after I meet him,” the outrider said, holding his hands up and stopping as the soldiers hands strayed nearer to the hilts of their swords. “Now now, look close and you’ll see there’s no trouble here.”
They looked at his hands nervously, their eyes flitting from one to the other. The captain spoke up then. “We’re looking for two Setians, a man and a woman. How do I know these aren’t them?”
The Varsi looked to his left, back at the settlement and the waiting wagons and people on horse waiting to come through the gate next, and grinned his chip-toothed grin. “Two Setians? Amongst all of this? Thirsty work, innit? Especially for Corinthians that won’t even get a medal if they find them. Some Setian noble or other’ll take the credit no doubt. If I was you three I’d be eager to have a drink after my shift.”
He stepped forward and they leaned back, hands now falling on the grips of their weapons. The Varsi crossed his arms over each other at the elbows, offering handshakes to the soldiers on either side of the captain. They nervously accepted his outstretched palms and he shook their hands warm and vigorous, shaking the captain’s hand last between both of his.
“Move on then, you’re holding up the gate,” the captain said, sparing one more suspicious glance at Chloe and I. The two soldiers with him looked as though they’d already forgotten about us, smiles on their faces as they waved the next travelers forward into the tunnel.
When we were passed the wall and riding to catch up to the caravan, the dark forests of Corinth stretching out and up ahead of us, Chloe turned to him and asked, “How did you do that? Make them not care? Make them just let us pass like that? I was sure we were caught…”
“Magic,” he said simply, winking at her. He held up his hands as he had to the soldiers and glittering in each palm was a gold coin. “The ancient Varsi kind.”
I laughed, releasing the tension that had wound itself up inside of me like a coiled snake, and Chloe and the outrider joined in heartily. “My thanks,” I said to him as we rode. “Many thanks indeed. I will pay you back, of course.”
“You can thank me later,” he said through his smile. “And you don’t need to pay me back, Shen. There are no debts between friends. It’s the Varsi way.”
“No, I insist,” I said to him as we rejoined the caravan where it had stopped some way up the road to wait for us. “Three gold marks is a lot to part with for someone you just met.”
“Oh please!” he laughed. “It’s not as if I gave them real coins. But we should move on before they realize it!”
With a sharp whistle he signaled the rest of the caravan to begin moving again, which they did with several whoops and calls to their animals. I shook my head and laughed again, and Chloe and I retold the tale to my father and Mavia as the Varsi outrider smiled proudly riding nearby.
There was but one thing that kept my spirits from being higher than they had been in many long days of travel; somehow word had passed us on the road and now I knew that people would be looking for us.
“Flick,” the Varsi outrider said to me as we sat beside one of their fires and ate thick stew from wood bowls. “They call me Flick.”
“What kind of name is Flick?” Mavia asked innocently form where she sat pushed up against my right side. “Does it mean something? I’ve heard that Varsi names all mean something to your gods.”
“To our gods?” Flick asked with a chuckle. “If the gods took notice of me for that name I would be flattered proper, but I think it not likely. When Varsi are fostered to another clan at the Meet we give up our name of birth and instead receive a name based on our skills. I was good at stones and so they called me Flick.”
“Stones?” Chloe asked him, curled in her furs and pressed to my left side. “You read the stones?”
“It is a child’s game, not the stones that your priests read in the south,” Flick explained through his chipped smile. “Stones are flicked at each other and the winner is the one who knocks the most out of a circle in the dirt. It’s nothin’ to brag about.”
“Yet you should have heard him brag in his youth!” another Varsi, named Sketch, laughed over his bowl. “It was like he thought the moon rose and set on his games!”
A ripple of good natured laughter spread through those around the fire and Sketch slapped Flick on the back hard enough to make him drop his bowl, prompting another louder surge of laughter from the Varsi. They seemed a good people, nothing like the tales I had heard of them. Flick playfully drew his long dagger and brandished it comically about in Sketch’s face. The calm I felt was pushed back somewhat by the easy way he handled it, and I thought back to my father telling me about the Kithish knife duels. Flick had a small scar on his chin, another under his right eye, and a little notch was missing from his left ear. Still laughing he put the knife back in his boot; it wasn’t a tool, that knife. It wasn’t something you used to cut meat or rope; it was the kind of knife you used to cut men, and it looked as though it had seen much use.
My father had already fallen asleep with a wooden cup of strong Lornessi wine in his hand, and the yawns and stretches of those around us signaled an end to the nights talk and laughter. The Varsi had kindly shifted themselves about in their wagons to free two of them up for us to sleep in so that we wouldn’t have to bed down on the frozen Corinthian soil while they slept warm and safe inside. Flick and Sketch helped me put my father in his bed before going to their wives in their own wagons, and soon I found myself looking in on the one they had freed up for me and the women.
Things had been cold between the three of us since the day we left Cantos, each of us sleeping alone and just close enough to share warmth around whatever small fire we had let shrink to embers in the night. Tonight, the warmth of the fire and companionship of the Varsi wanderers had set us all at ease with each other and I hadn’t given any thought to what may happen when the time came to sleep. Now though, I felt my hands growing cold and clammy as I looked in through the open door of the wagon. Mavia had spread the furs out on the straw filled mattress that had been rolled out on the wagon’s floor and looked up at me invitingly. Chloe sat on a small bench attached to the wall inside, her cloak over her shoulders and a look of unease on her fair and delicate face.
“You’re letting all the warmth out, Shen!” Mavia scolded playfully, pulling back the edge of the furs and raising her eyebrow at me invitingly. Chloe bit her lip and looked nervously at nothing in particular. “Close the door!”
I stepped into the wagon and closed the door behind me. I fiddled with the buttons on my coat, I made to open my belt, I went back to fiddling with the buttons on my coat. Chloe still had that look on her face, like she had stubbed her toe and was trying not to cry out.
“Have you forgotten how to take you clothes off, Shen?” Mavia asked in a childish voice, batting her long dark lashes at me. “Lornessi wine is strong, but I didn’t think you’d had so much…”
She rose slowly up to her knees in front of me, the furs sliding first off her shoulders and then down to her waist. She was naked as was her way at night, and her full breasts moved up and down slowly as she breathed in and out and shuffled closer to me on her knees. The furs were now off her legs and under her, all of her pale skin on display in the soft orange light of the low burning candle. Chloe was still averting her gaze where she sat on the small bench, close enough to touch in the close confines of the Varsi wagon. Mavia reached to the clasp of my belt while looking straight up into my eyes. She slowly slid her gaze from me to Chloe and spoke in her high breathy bedroom voice.
“This is technically your job, as his wife,” she said to Chloe.
Chloe looked nervously from the spot on the wooden wall she had been studying to Mavia naked in front of me and winced. She sighed and slid to her knees beside Mavia and clumsily fumbled with the buckle on my belt. Mavia giggled and put one of her hands on Chloe’s hip, the other sliding up her stomach to clutch at the bottom of her small breast through her dress, and leaned her mouth close to Chloe’s ear and licked the bottom of her earlobe gently. Chloe looked like someone had punched her in the stomach as she opened my pants and began to slide them down over my hips. My mind and heart sunk, but the sight of two beautiful women before me had already caused other parts of me to rise. Mavia giggled again and wrapped her soft hand around my cock as it stood out in front of me between their faces. She slid her right hand up over Chloe’s ass, up her slender back, and softly pushed her fingers up into Chloe’s soft blonde hair on the back of her head and guided the tip of my shaft and Chloe’s mouth together.
I drew in a sharp breath of anticipation before the guilt stabbed at me again and I pulled back as Chloe opened her mouth and slowly put her tongue out to lick at me. She looked up and met my gaze, a tear perched ready to fall from her left eye. Mavia pouted her lips and let go of me, sinking down to sit on her legs as Chloe grabbed her fur from the bench and pulled it over her head as she curled up under it on the straw mattress. All the pressure in my cock was draining away as it went limp and I roughly pulled my pants back up and fastened my belt at my waist.
“You two are no fun,” Mavia pouted, crossing her arms.
“Shut up!” I hissed at her as I refastened the buttons on my jacket and grabbed one of the extra furs from the bench. I opened the door and hopped out of the wagon to the hard cold ground at the base of the wooden stairs. I spun to face Mavia, her arms clutched around her naked body in the sudden burst of cold air, and snapped at her “You broke this, now fix it somehow!”
I slammed the door of the wagon and curled up on the frozen ground next to the remains of the cookfire.
Voices woke me from dreams of another place, a place with cold stone walls and low fires in braziers. Dreams of pain and the men who inflict it on other men. Dreams of things I’d never seen before or heard tell of in tales. The voices were speaking low, and to my surprise they were speaking of me. I opened my eyes like slits and saw two forms sitting by the smoking remains of the fire from the night before, one small and slight and the other tall and broad of shoulder. The sun was teasing the horizon and the sky was grey, only a few starts remaining and the moon gone.
“It is odd to me that you would linger here for…him,” one voice said. It was a sibilant voice, like if a snake could speak or words formed from the sliding of a razor against a strop.
“I don’t,” said the other voice, hollow and far away sounding. “I linger for her.”
“Ah, for your sister then,” said the first voice. “As good a reason as any not to pass through the Veil, I suppose.”
I could see the stars through the shape of the tall one and the other held a flute, my father’s flute, limply in its long-fingered left hand. They spoke as though they had been speaking for some time as I slept.
“Good morning Shen,” the little one said as I sat up slowly, “such as it is.”
“What do the two of you want with me?” I asked abruptly.
“With you? Nothing,” the little one, Redcap, said to me. “It is not my whim that brings me here, but the whim of another who asks it of me.”
“You know what I want Shen,” Audin’s ghost said in its low hollow voice. “I want to see my sister unharmed, and haunting you is the best way I can think to do that.”
“I had thought you gone finally,” I told him.
“Not hardly,” Redcap replied.
“I meant him,” I pointed at Audin. “I haven’t seen you for some time.”
“There’s been no need for some time,” Audin told me. “But now…now you have my sister on some dangerous path I don’t approve of. I checked on her when I saw you sleeping out of doors. What I saw disturbed me.”
“What you saw..?” I asked with a start, springing to my feet and looking to the wagon for any sign of threat or wrongdoing. The door was still closed, the tiny window dark.
“Women do not lay with women, Shen,” Audin intoned, also standing and drawing his ghostly sword from its ghostly scabbard. Redcap laughed a dry laugh and clapped his spindly dry hands together.
I patted my hip and found nothing. I cast about with my eyes on the ground and found nothing. My sword was in the wagon.
“What would you do with it?” Redcap asked through his laughter, still clapping his hands with glee. “The man is already dead!”
“I’ll have you for this Shen Marth!” Audin bellowed as he lunged for me. Redcap leapt to his feet, eyes wide as he licked his lips at the promise of bloodshed.
Panicked, I put my toe under a bit of scorched wood fallen from the side of the fire and flicked it up into my grip as Audin swung his misty looking blade at my head. I brought the blackened branch around just in time, not knowing fully why, and was surprised by it connecting with his sword and deflecting a blow that would have taken my head off had he not been dead and the sword not been a figment visible only in my mind. Audin looked surprised as well but recovered quickly.
A quick step back and to the side. Another swing. Another clumsy deflection. Another fit of laughter from Redcap. I kicked out at Audin’s stomach and he doubled over, stumbling backwards through the metal rack the Varsi had over the fire pit for cooking without knocking it over. If he could not touch things of this living world, then how could I touch him?
Time for pondering later.
I stepped quickly around the fire pit and swung three swings across at Audin’s face to back him up further, shouting, “We don’t have to do this you know! Just leave me in peace!”
“Peace!?” Audin shouted. “I’ll give you peace! The peace of death!”
He swung the sword around over his head and there was a shower of sparks as it split apart the firewood I was using as a weapon. The tip of the sword clipped across my forehead and there was a burst of pain and light behind my eyes and I fell flat on my back on the frozen ground. Audin stepped over me, standing above and dropping to his knees to drive the point of his blade through my chest. I reached up with both hands, desperate, no time to be shocked as I was able to stop his blow with my hands gripping his forearms. I wrestled him off of me and he sprawled to the earth beside me, dropping his sword as he did.
Without thinking first, I picked it up in my right hand. It was cold like ice and I rolled from my back to my side and swung it down at his neck. There was a feeling like splitting a thick cord of wood as it parted his head from his shoulders and a choke rather than a scream came from his mouth as his spectre evaporated into strands of mist and vanished before my eyes.
Redcap was still laughing and clapping his hands as I struggled to my hands and knees and then stood, the ghostly blade still in my grasp. I turned to face him and his laughter faded though his mirth was still plain on his face.
“Not many men get to kill someone twice,” he hissed in his dry voice. “A rare treat to see it.”
My hands were shaking and my knees felt weak. Something surged deep inside of me and I threw up on the cold ground with my hands on my knees, dropping the sword. It clattered to the earth, solid now but with thin wisps of mist trailing along the surface of the blade and coiling around its hilt.
“You needn’t worry, Varsi,” I heard Redcap say. I looked up to see him tip his little cap to someone I couldn’t see then rub his thin fingers together before licking them. “It’s still wet. I’m not here for any of your folk this morning.”
He raised the wooden flute to his lips and began to play a slow tune, vanishing as he did as though he had never truly been there at all. The door of the wagon Mavia and Chloe slept in banged open and I could see both of their faces peering out of the gloom within to the gloom without in the just-rising sun.
“Shen!” Mavia and Chloe called at the same time, Chloe continuing while Mavia gaped at me as I tried to stop retching on the ground. “All the shouting…are you…?”
“A dream is all,” another voice said. I glanced over to see Flick stepping out of the shadows beside his own wagon. He had a look of shock, fright, surprise…all those things and more…on his face. “A nasty dream. I came out to piss and he was just…waking from a dream is all.”
Chloe pulled the door shut and Flick walked over and put his hand on my shoulder, looking from me to the sword at my feet and back to me. I picked it up and turned it this way and that across the palm of my hand. It was still cold to the touch, the mist still danced along its edge and between my clenched fingers and around my wrist. Our breath steamed in the cold morning air.
“What…?” I asked no one in particular.
“Magic,” Flick said, still awe struck and terrified. “The ancient Varsi kind.”