At the same time the Baron had sat down to a diligent breakfast with Duncan Le Treu, the hunter heard someone approaching from outside his cell.
He had been awake now for…..how many hours? It felt like the whole night. Or was it the whole day? There was no sunlight down in the Baron’s dungeons, only flickering torchlight and it’s resulting shadows.
His first few hours of what he felt was a new life had been momentous. The man he once called himself had changed over a period of time that felt like an instant.
Apparently that instant had been over a month he had spent comatose. A whole month he had been unconscious.
Not only had he failed his purpose, he had failed himself. He had failed the world. He had failed every man and woman sitting in their homes, unaware of the international calamity that would soon unfold. He had failed every son to be slaughtered on the battlefield, every wife to become a widow, every citizen to be hiding in their basement; soon to be pulverized by artillery.
It wouldn’t come to that, he tried to tell himself, unconvincingly.
If it does, it will be your fault, he countered.
Lastly, he had failed Ayesa: a woman he had never met.
Despite this, he was not fully sure. He was not sure if it had happened.
Maybe, as he lay on this cot in the dungeons of a fat psycho, Ayesa was alive and well in Machia somewhere, surrounded by scores of bodyguards, safely on land. He could not know for certain – not without proof. But reduced to his most primal form of suffering, the worst seemed far more convincing.
In a turbulent sea of pain, his mind clung to these groundless thoughts like a drowning sailor. There was nothing else to hold on to; no objective, no hope. He felt like a hollow, undefined being without a foundation with which to hold himself up. So many things had been torn away from him within the past twenty-four hours. He was directionless.
Luckily for him, there was not much he could have done even if he had wanted to. His injured body was incapable of most trivial tasks. He could no longer shoot, run, walk, or even stand, for that matter.
Hell, he could barely hold a complex thought.
He willed the time to pass. The agony of his wounds grew; slowly at a time, teasing what was to come. No other pain he had felt in all of his thirty-something years could compare.
He hadn’t slept, and he desperately wanted to. A bolt of sharp pain shot down the right side of his back every time he tried. Catastrophe whirled through his mind like a flood. Would he ever walk again? Had he been crippled for life? Would everyone find out who he was? He couldn’t possibly know.
So when the door to his cell creaked open once more, and the dread-locked woman entered again, he was miserable.
She looked at him with green eyes and smiled.
What does she have to smile about, he thought dimly. Is there anything worth smiling about?
“You’re awake again – good. I was afraid the fever had taken hold. How’d you feel? Warm or cold?” She had a strong Free Folk accent.
“Good. Your skin color looks better too. Sleep much?”
She dropped off what she had been carrying, came close, and placed a hand on his forehead with a look of concentration on her face. Her hand felt warm and comforting. He watched her many necklaces of rawhide and bone dangle above her clavicle.
“Looks like you’ve shaken the infection. That’s great news. Let’s try to get some liquids into you.”
He was desperately thirsty, but equally afraid of the pain that might come from drinking.
She brought forth a steaming mug of something and gently eased him upright.
“Let’s sit you up slightly.”
He tensed for the pain, but under her assured touch it was minimal. The tart beverage warmed his throat. He had not been this near someone in a long time, he realized. She felt warm. It felt good to know someone was still concerned for his wellbeing. That good feeling stood out in the refuse of negativity.
“That should soothe the pain a little. I’m sorry, I know it hurts.”
She laid him back down again and went about some other preparations at the far table.
“Newspaper…,” he croaked.
He cleared his throat. “I need a newspaper.”
“A newspaper? What for?” She looked around, as if hoping to find one nearby. “We don’t get any newspapers here. News of the outside world only reaches us through rumors.” She went back to her work. “I wouldn’t be surprised if the Baron gets them, though.”
Is everything going to be this difficult from now on? Is this just the way things are now? Why can’t anything just be easy for once. I need some damn answers.
“What’s your name,” He said.
“Fiona. What’s yours?”
It took him a second to remember what name he had chosen. “Alexander,” he lied.
He hesitated before speaking again. A momentous decision suddenly loomed before him. He tried to read her face, and something told him she knew what he was doing. Her fair features looked back at him, topped by piles of fiery dreadlocks.
I have to know. I hope I can trust her….
“Have you heard…,” he cleared his sore throat before trying again. “Have you heard anything about the Decosta girl?”
“Ayesa. Ayesa Decosta.”
“I don’t know who that is…”
“Daughter of Rafiq Decosta…”
“Don’t know who that is, either.”
He gaped at her. “The Reach’s Ambassador to Dardassa.”
“Oh. Never heard of him. Is that important?”
Saints! These people live under a rock!
He waved a hand weakly. “Never mind. Just forget it.”
Fiona turned back to the far table to finish grinding in a pestle. “Sorry, but I meant it when I said news of the outside world doesn’t reach us here. We’re cut off.”
“How have you been surviving out in the middle of nowhere?”
“We farm, work the land, and praise the Saints and the Storm Father. I do what I can to tend to folk’s ailments and injuries, and they see to it I don’t go hungry. We look after each other.”
“And the Baron?”
Her voice lost it’s warmth. He watched as her hands went still.
“He runs the town, and the mining and refinery operation.”
“What does he mine?”
“Silver. I say ‘he’, but it’s really the townsfolk that do the work. It’s the only job to be had, besides working the fields. It’s dangerous, and whenever there’s an accident, it’s always the common folk that suffer for it. Meanwhile he lines his pockets as the silver is sold abroad and minted into foils.”
“I take it you don’t like him very much.”
“That’s neither here nor there. I do right by the Saints when I can. That’s all.”
He stared up at the ceiling in silence for a while, listening to the steady sounds of the grinding mortar and pestle. He recognized several scents from herbs he knew – their features and medicinal properties drilled into his head from years of instruction – but he couldn’t focus enough to recall their names.
His pains eased slightly thanks to the tea she had given him, but his head still ached tremendously. With his fingers he gingerly felt the outline of a deep, bandaged gouge across his scalp. He could remember the predator’s bone hook smashing into his head.
How deep did the gouge cut? All the way to the brain? Of course not.
His bare chest was equally bandaged, centering on a point just below his collarbone.
That’s where it shot me…that’s where the arrow struck. How did I survive that? How deep did it go? He felt sick.
Investigating the area with his fingers brought a dull, itching pain.
“You’re lucky, you know.” Fiona said. He looked up to see her watching him.
“The arrow went right through you – poked out the other side and got stuck like that. Stopped you from bleeding to death. Made pulling it out of you much easier, too. You were screaming an awful lot, but I doubt you remember that.”
He didn’t. “How bad is it?”
“When I first saw you about a month ago, you had four broken ribs, a fractured skull and pelvis, a partially collapsed lung, a lot of internal hemorrhaging, too many cuts and bruises to count, and a badly infected wound that was slowly killing you. The steal head of the arrow scraped one of your ribs on it’s way through you, but luckily didn’t sever anything.”
“Will I recover?”
“You will if I have anything to say about it. The infection had me more nervous than anything else, to be honest. Now that you’ve shaken it, I don’t see why you wouldn’t be able to fully recover. But things will be different. That head wound is serious. I managed to control the hemorrhaging, but the damage could already be done. Be careful of any changes you notice; loss of balance, loss of hearing, mood changes, memory problems, and so on.”
“Great,” he groaned. “Just great.”
“But if the Saints are kind to you, then none of that will happen and you’ll be just fine in no time.”
Over the course of the next hour she fed him, changed his bandages, and washed his wounds. She helped him urinate and defecate, wiping his ass for him afterward. He was in pain through the entirety of it. She left him afterward with careful instructions of rest. He didn’t remember them. He hadn’t really been listening.
Ultimately, he was left feeling broken and helpless, as well as thoroughly ashamed. He had never been in such a position of infirmity, and it was not a comfortable position to be in. His already diseased mind did not help matters.
“God, I hate this life,” he growled, and he meant it, too, at least in that moment. Things had a way of coming full circle for him, no matter where he was.
Always back to that statement, like somebody (himself, perhaps) had it out for him. The worst part of it was, he was aware of this tendency, which evoked a reaction of anger and frustration, which, in turn, further propelled the cycle. There never seemed to be an end to it.
The shadow of his own mind bled him like a parasite. It fed off his already depleted reserves of hope and energy, both of which combined to make motivation. Without it he would remain inert, slowly being consumed by himself like a rancid, molding cheese.
He was starting to wish he had never woken up from that coma. No reality was far easier to bear than reality.
And that’s when the door to his cell opened for a second time, and the Baron walked through it, dressed in a fur-lined cloak. Fresh air drafted in behind him with the smell of a cold spring morning.
Fuck, not this guy.
“Mr. Morris,” the Baron said, “I thought I’d stop by and check in on you.”
“Indeed I did. How do you feel?”
He couldn’t summon the effort to respond to that.
“Not well, I see. I hope that wench isn’t causing you too much trouble.
The hunter felt a pang of guilt. He hadn’t been very kind to Fiona. He should thank her the next time he saw her.
“No, she’s been good.”
“That so.” The Baron perused the table, running his thick fingers absently across her herbs and tools. He knocked a few things onto the floor and didn’t seem to notice. “Are you a Free Folk, Mr. Morris? Or Machian, Perhaps?”
His lungs and chest were hurting again. He just wanted to get this conversation over with. “Free Folk.”
The Baron nodded. “Travel to Machia much, Mr. Morris?”
“More than I would care to.”
“Why do you say that?”
“Not a city person,” he said dryly.
“The Free States have their fair share of cities.”
The hunter shook his head weakly. “It’s not the same.”
“I agree with you, there. They certainly aren’t.”
Baron Everette set two glasses and a decanter onto the table. They clanged softly together.
“A drink, Mr. Monroe? If anyone could use one it would surely be you.”
The hunter gazed weakly at the amber liquid sloshing in the decanter. He could desperately use a drink of something strong – just something to take off the edge.
Something to dull the pain for a bit.
He ignored the faint warning in the back of his mind. “Pour me one.”
The Baron held up the glass in acknowledgement and poured out two drinks – one for each of them. He held one out to the hunter, who awkwardly tried to sit up to receive it. The Baron waited patiently with an amused expression on his face.
“To your health,” he said, and they both drank.
The liquid fire burned down his gullet, sloshed into his stomach, and came to rest like a bed of hot coals. Nausea swirled in his gut and at the back of his throat.
But it wasn’t so bad. His pains and aches took on a hazy, undefined quality, as if seen through a dirty lens.
The Baron poured them both another one. The hunter – finally seeing a possible escape from his pains, drank it quickly, barely able to hold in the vegetable stew Fiona had fed him for breakfast.
The Baron pretended to sip on his.
“How long ago did you leave Fairfield, Mr. Morris? It must have been quite a journey. How long did it take you?” There was a dangerous undertone to the Baron’s voice that the hunter missed completely. He felt very loose and relaxed.
“Took me…..a week, I guess.”
“Wow. And all on your own, at that? How’d you manage?”
The hunter felt a blush of pride. “I was cautious and prepared for the worst.” the room was tilting a little bit. It felt good.
“I bet you didn’t feel prepared for the Render though, did you,” the Baron said with a chuckle.
The hunter smiled wryly. “No, I didn’t. It took everything I had. But I knew I couldn’t fight it in the woods. It moved through the trees like a monkey.”
“So that’s why they found you on a mountain. You deprived the monster of it’s natural terrain!”
The Baron whistled. “Very impressive.” He pretended to take another sip. “Bandits give you much trouble?”
The hunter felt really tired now. He wanted to be left alone.
“Bandits? No, there weren’t any bandits.”
The Baron smiled. “Right, of course not. Your Ranger training would have made quick work of them, anyway.”
“What? Oh, yeah I guess.” He wasn’t fully listening anymore.
The Baron decided to push it just a little more. “You must be eager to get back out there and complete your mission.”
The hunter mumbled something incoherent. His eye lids were beginning to droop.
“Well,” the Baron muttered to himself. “That’s as much as I’ll get out of you today.” He poured out the rest of his untouched drink onto the floor and retrieved the hunter’s glass from the bedside.
He paused, about to leave the room.
Instead he peered over the slumped form of the hunter. He looked lean and disheveled. The muscles of his chest and legs stood out against his sun-tanned skin. A puncture scar could be seen under the layers of bandages, and a gouge ran down one side of his scalp in a straight line. Across his face were three wicked claw marks, recently scarred over with pink tissue.
The sight make the Baron’s stomach turn. He looked like a wild animal, he realized.
Like a wolf. A starving, mangy wolf. And just as dangerous.
He left the cell to see Aster standing in the hallway, his balding head and dour face cloaked in shadow.
“A constructive conversation, my lord?”
It was time for business. The Baron shifted gears from amiable to apathetic.
“Very. I know for sure now that he was lying about his name. I changed it multiple times during the conversation and he didn’t so much as blink. But we can’t rely on this anymore.” He dropped the glasses and decanter unceremoniously into Aster’s hands. “We need to rush that shipment. I want it here this week.”
“Would your lordship like me to dispatch that message? It will surely cost no small sum…”
They both traversed the dungeon hallway and climbed the staircase at the end.
“Do it. That ranger holds the key to our future. I will spare no expense at acquiring it.”
“As you wish. Oh, and your lordship wanted me to remind you that the young master Theodore and Veronica are arriving this evening.”
The Baron blinked. “Oh, that’s right. I almost forgot.”
“I have taken the liberty of preparing their chambers ahead of time.”
Aster and Baron Everette emerged into the main hall of the keep. Servants bustled here and there, scraping and bowing appropriately. Aster surveyed them out of the corner of his eye with scrutiny, looking for anything out of place.
Two such servants drifted to the Baron’s side to remove his cloak mid-stride.
“Good. Let’s give them time to settle in after the long flight. Assign them three servants each. I’ll receive them for the evening meal.”
“As you say, my lord. What shall I tell them of the Ranger?”
The Baron considered this. “Nothing unless they ask. Tell them he’s a trespasser. Don’t mention the Render’s death if you can avoid it. I don’t want that information spreading too quickly.”
“Very wise, my lord.”
“Oh, and Aster?”
The Baron lowered his voice. “When the Atrix arrives, I want you to personally administer it. You can do that, yes?”
The Master of Servants smiled a rare smile.
“My lord, it would be my pleasure.”