The Trail – Chapter 20

John marched up the switchback incline that led to the Barony proper. It was late afternoon by the time he and Jonathan had gotten back, after having dropped their gear off in Quarry Town. He had let Jonathan have the rest of the day to himself. Jonathan had been sullen the rest of the walk home, afterall, and John didn’t know how to improve the boy’s mood.

He was ashamed by this, and surprised at himself. A father should know his child better, he reasoned. With Jonathan, he really only had one teaching method as a father: pass on to him every skill he could – leave Jonathan with something that he could live on for the rest of his life. That included his trade, of course. 

But when his son knew things he couldn’t possibly know, and heard things in the dead of silence? When he struggled and strained in a way John couldn’t comprehend? How was he supposed to deal with that? How was he supposed to be a father through that? 

Normally, a boy his age would go to his friends for support. But Jonathan had no friends. None that John knew of at least. 

He scowled. Another thing he didn’t know about his son.

Jonathan was an odd kid. He didn’t get along with others easily, and his presence made people feel uncomfortable. He spent most of his time alone, working with his hands, seeming content with no one for company but himself. The rare exceptions included Ms. Fiona and Rector Owens, whose company he clearly enjoyed. 

So what was a father to do? John tried his best, by his own account, but it was never enough. He always felt lacking in his duties to his child, never having the right words to say or the right reaction to things that came up – a man out of his league.   

An explosion from the distant mines rumbled across the Barony. He paused to look out over the town, now bathed in a golden sunset, lost in thought. The sound reminded him of that cavern – retreating shadows in the lantern light and a forest of stalagmites. 

He shivered at the thought and continued on.

He was grateful to his wife. She had an easier time relating to the boy, always with gentle words and encouragement, things that didn’t come easily to John. He smiled nonetheless. He had found the right woman.

But Jonathan had been avoiding her recently. 

Avoiding his own mother – certainly not the oddest thing a child could do, but Jonathan wasn’t the sort, and there were emotions behind his avoidance that John couldn’t explain. Emotions of disappointment and concern. Jonathan wouldn’t talk to his father about it – John had tried – and Clara was just as clueless.

It had torn a rift in their small family. He and Clara should be stalwart and reliable teachers to their son – authority figures that he could look up to and aim to become one day – that’s how it had been with John and his own father, at least. But Jonathan’s sudden behavior toward his mother had changed all that. 

A group of Condor Guards came jogging toward John, training to stay conditioned. They wore gambeson armor and chainmail coifs about their necks, with open-faced helms protecting their heads. Most were toting muskets and truncheons. An officer led the rank, pistol and sabre rattling on his belt. John stepped aside to let them pass.

Ms. Fiona, he decided. She’ll be able to help, if no one else. I should go see her this week. Bring Jonathan with me…

He frowned. Saints, I hope this is just a phase of his.

He rounded the last switch in the road, breathing hard from the climb, and approached the portcullis. A wooden, two story building guarded the approaching road from the inner sanctum of the Barony proper, acting as a short tunnel through which every visitor would have to pass. The colors of sunset painted the gatehouse in an ominous blood red. The actual portcullis itself – a heavy iron gate that could be dropped closed- was almost always kept open, as it was now. 

Men-at-arms lounged within the gateway’s tunnel, looking out over the sunset and chatting. They nodded to John as he passed by, barely pausing the conversation. Their words echoed and bounced off the wall of the underpass as John crossed the threshold into the Barony proper.

Towns within towns within towns, he thought. Quarry Town, Barony town, Barony proper….It never ends.

The keep was off to the left. It stood above all – grey and imposing. John appreciated its craftsmanship: no stone stood out of place. No turret stood higher than another, no window wider than their neighbor. The Baron’s flag of black and green hung proudly from the parapets, illustrated with the Everette condor on its face. Beneath it the Baron’s soldiers, servants, and craftsmen bustled here and there.

Huddled close within the keep’s shadow was the chapel, run by Rector Owens. John reckoned his son knew that chapel inside and out, from all his time spent with the old Archivist. Further past it would be the greenhouses and servants’ quarters, tucked neatly away out of sight.

The stableyard stretched out to the north, where Christoff bred and raised the Baron’s horses. John could see them standing in the enclosed field, grazing quietly. Further past was nothing but forest and a thin trail winding into its depths.

To the right of that, on the edge of the bluff upon which the Barony proper sat, were three buildings arrayed around a well that was shaded by a single maple tree. Among these were the forge and armory – the most active area of the proper by far. Chief’s hammer was almost always banging away at something, and soldiers cycled in and out of the barracks in regular intervals. Nearby was a longer, two-story building that acted as a dormitory for guests.

John turned left toward the keep, putting the armory, dormitories, and barracks behind him. The sunset blinded him for a moment before he was swallowed by the keep’s shadow. The main door was open, and he saw servants bustling past. He stopped one walking by.

“Where’s the Baron?”

“On the second floor balcony, sir.”

“Thanks.”

He climbed the stairs, turned a corner, and came face-to-face with a young man in the hallway. The two were caught in a moment of awkward surprise.

The young man in question was neatly dressed in a white collared shirt and long brown jacket of a material John didn’t recognize His slacks were black and well-ironed. He had been in the middle of drawing a cigarette from a brass case tucked in his jacket pocket. John marked his blonde hair and beady eyes.

“Theodore. Welcome back.”

“Thanks,” Theodore said without emphasis, and slipped past John.

I forgot to say my lord, John realized. He dismissed it from his mind. Time to focus. 


John stepped in the room. 

It was a reading parlour – broad and comfortable. Chairs had been positioned in the corners, beneath book shelves holding some of the oldest journals and historical reports from the first settlers of the Silver Weald. An armchair was flanked by two hanging lanterns and a potted plant John didn’t recognize. 

The doors to the balcony were thrown wide open to the fading light of early evening. A meek breeze flipped through the pages of an open book left on the armchair, perusing its contents. 

Further past, the Baron sat at a table with Ernst, pouring over ledgers, receipts, and other documents, held down by silver knick-knacks and paperweights to combat the breeze. John turned to close the door behind him, but a mystery servant on the other side shut it first. He suddenly felt trapped.

“John, good to see you,” the Baron said, peeking up over his reading glasses. He hid the concern from his voice, but John could see a new tension in his body language. He knew why John was here.

Vaguely good news or catastrophically bad news, John thought. Well, he’s about to find out.

He had mentally prepared himself for this conversation on his walk from Quarry Town. He was a prospector, not a politician or businessman. He did not mince words or manipulate. Nothing to do but present the facts – do his job and get home to his family. The thought gave him the conviction he needed. 

“Afternoon, John,” Ernst said, dressed in a rakish embroidered vest and ruffled undershirt.

“Afternoon,” John replied, taking the seat offered to him. He couldn’t help sighing as he sat back. It had been a long day. And it was about to get even longer. His hands started aching.

“Ernst, would you excuse us for a moment,” the Baron said, not unkindly.

Ernst gave a casual smile and tucked his own glasses in the pocket of his vest. He ran a hand through his balding head as he stood. “Of course,” he said. “You know where to find me.” 

He gathered up his papers and left the room, leaving a trail of perfume behind him that John nearly gagged on.

The Baron poured two glasses of brandy and gave one to John before sitting back down. John glanced at it but didn’t touch it.

“Alright, John,” the Baron said, folding one leg over another, pen twirling through his thick fingers. “Let’s have it. What did you find.”

Just the facts…

“Well, we examined the slopes surrounding that ravine, first. We foun-”

We?”

John blinked. “Y-yes m’lord. My son and I.”

“Oh, right. Sorry, please continue.”

John cleared his throat. “We examined the slopes and found only a few small deposits of lead and one silver deposit, also quite small.”

He paused to gauge the Baron’s reaction. Nothing. His face was unreadably calm. The pen in his fingers twirled faster.

“What about the new mine?”

John nodded. “Yes, m’lord. We blasted deeper in.” God, his hands were hurting a lot now. 

“And?”

He tried not to grimace – forced himself to hold the Baron’s eye. “Nothing, m’lord. Just a few more lead deposits. And a natural cavern we blasted open.”

The Baron uncrossed his legs and casually leaned his elbows on the table, glasses now in hand. “What about the cavern? No silver inside? Could it lead to others?”

John stiffened. He hadn’t meant to bring it up. 

Dammit, why did I have to mention the cavern?! 

“I…uh…that is, we didn’t go any deeper…”

The Baron frowned. “Why the hell not?”

Images of Jonathan flitted through John’s mind, terror in the boy’s eyes.

There’s something down there. We should leave, Da.

“I…determined it wasn’t safe.”

“What does that mean, John? Why not?”

John was no liar.

Even so, a battle erupted in his mind, pushing back on his sense of self. Lies were the tools of the deceitful – the untrustworthy. John prided himself on being a straightforward and honest man, one that could be relied on to do the right thing. But how could he possibly tell the truth? Well, you see, m’lord: my son had a breakdown in the cavern and told me something bad was in there – something I had no way of seeing or confirming for myself – so I believed him.

No, he wouldn’t lie. But he could still bend the truth. The Baron didn’t need to know everything, he decided. Hopefully he could live with that.

“The cavern was weak and prone to collapse,” he said, trying to keep a straight face. It was technically true.

John frowned. The Baron wasn’t even paying attention to him anymore. His fingers massaged the bridge of his nose as he thought. 

Did he even hear the last thing I said?

“So there’s still a chance…” the Baron muttered.

“M’lord?”

The Baron looked up as if surprised to see him still standing there. 

“The cavern. We’ll have to dig deeper. The silver’s not drying up – we just need to look harder.” He clapped his hands, settling the matter. “I’ll have a blasting and mining crew up there within the week. We’ll need a dozen miners, at least. We need to pick up the pace on this.”

“But – M’lord, that wasn’t what I – “

The Baron waved his hand. “Thanks for stopping by, John.”

Dismissed. 

John hesitated. The Baron’s back was already turned to the view outside. He wasn’t going to listen.

John left quietly out the front door, slipping past Aster on his way. 

He didn’t like the way that conversation went. But there was nothing to be done about it, and Solus had begun to set.

I’ll talk to Ms. Fiona. I’ll go tomorrow, first thing.

John left the Barony proper, passing the same guards on his way through the underpass. 

He descended the switchback ridge leading back to town and followed the main road, exchanging brief greetings with townsfolk. Candlelight flickered in the shuttered windows, warm and comforting. Dogs barked in the night. Men sat out in old chairs, sharing a drink with a friend after a long day in the fields or mines. They looked tired. 

John could tell who was a miner at a glance. They were in the most pain, wracked with headaches and stomach problems. Cavedrain, they called it. It ran rampant through the miners, crippling men still in their prime. Just another problem for Ms. Fiona to deal with. 

But there were smiles. These were a hardy folk, recently emerged from an age of demonic terror. The Render had left its mark on everyone. They still had a wariness about them like frightened deer. A barking dog had been their warning system for so long now that some still jumped at the sound. But there hadn’t been an incident in over a month – no butchered corpses in the night, no bandit raids, nothing.

All-in-all, things were looking up, John decided. Who knows – maybe the Render had taken care of the bandits while he was at it.

The thought wasn’t a cheery one, though. They would have died horribly, in great pain, before the Render dismembered them.

He stepped past stray chickens and dogs of the town. A few children still ran around after dark, soon to be called in by their parents. They wore threadbare clothing that was older than some of the town’s buildings. Everything was like that in the Barony: built upon ancient history like the foundation of a building. The clothing, the tools, and even some of the houses could date back to the end of the Freedom Era.

John decided he wanted to walk a little more, so he took a longer route through town. He passed a granary and turned at the well, clustered with small shacks and houses. He could hear laughter from a small tavern off to his right. He passed it by. 

No more Render, no more bandits, some peace and quiet. Is that so much? Saints know these people could use a little peace – we all could. Jonathan’s dealing with enou-

He froze. 

There in an alleyway to his left were two figures, shrouded in the shadow of night. His wife and Nico, captain of the Condor Guard. 

He had Clara up against a brick wall, skirts hitched up, her legs wrapped around his waist, moving with his thrusts. Her hands were in his hair. Nico was breathing hard, kissing her, his trousers around his ankles. 

Clara moaned and threw back her head, telling him to go faster.

John stood there at the mouth of the alleyway. His mind just….stopped. He couldn’t make heads or tails of what he was seeing. 

Is that….my wife?

Another moment passed in a stupor. Nico was close to climaxing. John couldn’t watch anymore.

He turned and walked quickly down the road, his mind exploding into activity.

There are so many things to get done the shed roof is leaking the door’s hinges need oil Jonathan needs a haircut I need to clear enough space to fit that wheelbarrow I need to pick up potatoes tomorrow morning Clara wanted me to fix that birdfee – 

Clara. That was the name of his wife. 

The wife that was sleeping with another man. 

His eyes started to burn. He wasn’t watching where he was going. He pushed past several townsfolk, earning more than one irritated glance.

I need to sweep the front stoop fix the flag stones get that pot repaired Rey needed to talk to me about something I was borrowing that shovel I should return it soon… 

Clara was fucking Nico. 

She betrayed him. 

He broke out into a jog, then a run. 

That belt buckle needs to be fixed before it breaks I need to pick up my wages from Ernst remove that wasp nest replace the oil in the lanterns update my maps with the new adit help Hank with his fence and bring Jonathan so he learns how to do it in the future…

She was his wife. 

They had a family together.

Exhausted and out of breath, he came to a stop on the edge of town. Crickets chirped in the night.  

His mind slowed. It was all too much.

John slumped up against a tree, slid to the ground, and the tears finally came.

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