A small town huddled in the forest, deep in sleep. It snored black wisps of smoke from chimneys, a harmless, peaceful place for one who didn’t know better.
There was a pause – a breath between words – as night bowed to day. Songbirds gathered their strength. Predators of the night curled up in sleep.
The world hesitated.
Sounds now came from within the town: the slamming of doors, the barking of dogs, and the cry of roosters. Golden light, glancing off the mountain peaks to the east, scattered blood red over it all.
Just on the western edge of town, past the granary and storehouse, John lay slumped against a thick oak. He seemed a part of the surrounding scenery, unmoving and peaceful – just another aspect of the forest. A chill breeze tousled his hair as it did the ferns and the grasses.
Sunlight, blocked by the nearby granary, inched up John’s chest as Solus rose into the sky. It crawled across his body, over his crumpled shirt collar, and onto his sleeping face.
It beamed against his eyelids, and sleep was finally driven from him. John woke slowly with a groan, holding up a hand to shade his eyes. He felt well rested, with the exception of his back, which was stiff and sore from leaning against a tree all night.
… A tree? What was he doing sleeping outside?
John rubbed at his eyes and dusted off a scattering of leaves from his shoulders.
He could remember something about a meeting with the Baron…yes, the details were coming back to him. The meeting had gone poorly, though in a very unexpected way. He grimaced. Why did he have to mention that cavern?
But that didn’t explain why he had fallen asleep outside, on the edge of town…
He picked himself up off the ground, cracked his back, and trudged his way back through town, leaving behind the wood line.
The morning light called to arms every man and woman from their homes. John saw the children resume their play as if the interruption of sleep had never happened.
At any rate, he would go home, grab Jonathan, and head to Ms. Fiona’s. He needed her advice regarding the boy. What would he tell Clara about…
Oh, right. Now he remembered; he had seen her with Captain Nico.
His trudging became a quick walk, chest tightening with tension.
That would explain why his eyes felt so puffy, and why he had fallen asleep outside, far from home.
He walked faster – fast enough for people to give him strange looks. He didn’t care. John’s mind was racing. His heart felt close to melting. Work and tasks that needed to be done began to flood his thoughts in a torrent, brimming over into his eyes.
He fought against the urge to shut down – to run from his problems. The tension made his teeth clench.
Just stop! I can’t let this happen again…
He came to a ragged stop in an alley away from curious eyes, close to hyperventilating. Thoughts swam through his head in a whirlwind.
I can’t keep doing this…
There were facts he had to come to terms with; he no longer had a family. Clara had broken it. He couldn’t run from that truth.
Despair brought him to his knees – a physical crushing of the soul. It was too much to accept. John hadn’t lost something so dear to him since his father’s death fifteen years ago.
What was he to do? Just nod and move on? How would anything hold any meaning? Where would he derive his joy and purpose?
How could I go on without her…
John clawed at his hair, hope seeping out of him like sweat.
He had always thought she would be separated from them by death – as his dreams foretold – not by blatant betrayal. What a fool he’d been.
Tears pooled in his eyes – the tears of a little boy, one with dreams of a family of his own, one that grew up believing the best thing he could be was a husband and a father.
Maybe if he talked to Clara, confronted her with what he’d seen. Maybe they could work it out together, find a solution to fix their family. He pictured it in his head. A shiver of revulsion shot down his spine. He didn’t think he could face her without imagining Nico, holding her up against a wall…
He doubled over, feeling like he might vomit. A tornado of emotions whirled in him with nowhere to go. He kneaded at his face with the palms of his hands. Warm tears ran down his nose and fell to the ground like rain, darkening the manure-brown earth.
He couldn’t see her – not yet. He just wasn’t ready.
Back pressed up against a building, John slid to the ground and planted his arms on his knees, waiting for the nausea to pass.
Was he to blame? Had he been the cause of their family’s demise? Had he been a poor husband or a bad father? Was this her way of showing him that?
“What am I supposed to do with this, Clara,” he whispered.
John sat there quietlyquietly there in the shadows, watching a colony of ants burrow into the fertile earth between his feet. He could sit there forever. A pair of children darted past the alleyway, chasing a frightened chicken with glee.
Then it hit him – clear as the morning sky.
He did still have a family; Jonathan needed him, almost as much as he needed Jonathan.
Perhaps his wife had abandoned them, but John would not abandon his son. He would still speak with Ms. Fiona today. She would understand. She could help the boy.
John had been squirreling away his savings over the past year, money meant for Jonathan in case of an emergency. Now with the threat of a silver scarcity looming over them, he thanked the Saints for his precaution. He and Clara had hidden it away in the corner of the shed’s roof, out behind the house. Anxiety told him the money was unsafe; it would be a sizable sum by now; who’s to say Clara wouldn’t take it for her own means? He would have to find a new home for it.
His legs trembled as he pushed himself to his feet. Despite finding purpose, he still felt half a man, and his body responded as such: weakly and without the confidence it once commanded. Pushing intrusive thoughts of despair from his mind, he made his way uneasily home to retrieve both his son, and his son’s future.
As he did so, he reflected on this new life he must lead. Strange how everything had been so easily flipped on its head – decades of hard work negated in mere seconds. The cruelty and unfairness of it struck him, a feeling he was unused to.
His own life, he believed, had been a stable thing – a simple thing. Effort and reward were the functions of a normal life. One endeavored to achieve something, and if efforts were sufficient, they would earn whatever it was they sought. Input and output, so it had been with John. He was unfamiliar with tragedy – the spontaneity that ignored effort and reward.
But that wasn’t entirely true, was it? John had seen senseless tragedy. He remembered the collapse of the Murel Lode six years ago, caused by an earthquake – the only one in two hundred years.
Sixteen people killed over the course of forty-eight hours: that was spontaneity. That was tragedy. John had lost good friends that day. How had he forgotten?
He turned a corner in the road. Between the brewery and Bertram’s lodge, a clear line of sight opened to the surrounding wilderness.
Mountain crowns of jade fenced in the world. There was always a sense of isolation, looking up at those carpeted peaks. They stood like sentinels, hemming in the survivors of the untamed wilderness, guarding those treacherous paths that led to foreign places. Dangerous things were out there, John knew, things the Condor Guard could not defend them from.
He realized that the Render and the bandits had changed the way he thought. He had always assumed that, because of his honest and good intentions, he had been spared the Render’s arrow or the bandit’s blades. In fact, he and his family had survived unscathed. But there were plenty of other good people who had fallen to one or the other – wrong place at the wrong time. The thought made him sick to his already upset stomach.
It was an awesome, terrible thing to see happen, like witnessing that freak earthquake. Whether it be the cruelty of the gods or the apathy of the universe John was unsure, but if ever there were an evil force in the world, he mused, this callous indifference to human life must surely be it.
John rarely looked toward religion for answers, but he found he needed one right now, something to explain why he had to endure this, something to take responsibility for his pains.
The Arcanists would call it Omni’s will, surely. They’d say Omni’s plans are manifold and mysterious, or some such nonsense. John shook his head.
The faith of the Pilgrims made more sense, not just because he was raised in it. This is the New World, the land of the Storm Father, where monsters and demons lurk in the underworld – remnants of the Enemy’s rule; things went wrong because there was evil in the world, and Free Folk must have love for the Father and faith in the Saints if they are to confront it.
He could use a little faith, something to take the impact, something to withstand this storm. The best he could do was try to be a good man, or so he always told himself.
But if the actions of a good man could so easily be disregarded and undone, what chance did one have at a good life? Struggle and strive, just to have it taken away, and for no good reason? Did he have faith strong enough to withstand that? It was despair speaking, he knew, but its heartless logic couldn’t be ignored.
With rising trepidation, he wondered what else would be flipped on its head. What other parts of his life would come crashing down?
Surely not Jonathan, he thought with a new measure of panic.
Not my boy. Without him I… Strength returned to his legs as he walked, but he did not feel strong.
The path he followed wound to the right. Normally he would go straight through town, but he wished to avoid conversation at all costs.
It didn’t take long for him to regret the decision. It led him to silent homes, decrepit and forgotten by their neighbors. Their empty windows gaped black and hollow.
John averted his gaze as he passed. The squat building in the middle once housed Ansel and his family, friends taken two months ago by the Render. He hated thinking about the incident: a sleep-walking child leaving the house at night, her screams drawing out the parents, all to be butchered in the dark. All the adjacent houses had been vacated in a hurry. No one wanted to be within a stone’s throw of the site.
John stared pointedly at the ground as he hurried by. That poor little girl had died slowly. He tried to imagine how he would have felt, had Jonathan been the unfortunate child, and almost tripped over his own feet as the thought shot through his imagination.
John’s will held firm. He still had purpose: the obligations of a father.
Mink was in the woods by five o’clock. Any excuse to get out into the forest, away from other people and their noises.
At least, that was how he explained it to himself, but really the morning routine was driven by torment; it was the nightmares. He had never really left Glaustow.
No matter how far he fled, it was always there, waiting for him to lie back and close his eyes. He figured they would fade with time and the decay of memory, but he had been proven wrong with the exact opposite; they had sharpened in detail and increased in frequency. He was being tortured all over again.
If only they hadn’t pulled that last job. If only they hadn’t trusted that rat. Their “mate”. Their “brother”. Their “comrade”. Mink would find him and make him pay for it, if Glaustow hadn’t already done that for him.
The church had surely taken the bastard for their twisted means. He took no enjoyment in the thought. That was a fate no man deserved.
How did Duncan sleep, he wondered? Did the memories of that prison haunt his dreams? They had spoken of it only once, on the airship out of Machia. He was unsure about the other lads in the camp – those that had experienced Glaustow. Everyone avoided the topic.
But for some, it was obvious enough without needing words; Pete’s hollering at night told the story. Shut him up with booze – that’s the strategy. Just keep him sauced and hope for a single good night’s sleep, uninterrupted by his screams. Pete had been the sharpest of the lot – a real scholar.
Now look at him.
Mink scowled. It was clearly wrong, but he refused to feel guilt. Out here, you did what you had to. No room for soft hearts. Keep your head down, get through the day.
Prepare for the worst.
He looked up at the haze of an orange sunrise lancing through dark trees – the perfect time of day. It wasn’t so bad, being stuck out here, especially now that the Render was gone.
…and replaced by a Ranger.
He made his way lightly through the forest, arrows rattling on his hip, bow slung over one shoulder. The sounds of the camp couldn’t reach him out here, and that was fine by him.
His deerskin slippers made little noise on the forest floor – only the light scuffing of pine needles betrayed his passing.
He crossed a stream using a makeshift bridge of fallen trunks, walking quickly to warm himself against the morning air. His good mood would only last the day. Once night came around, it would be back to square one; the sky would grow dark, and his mind would follow suit.
But he could think about that later. For now, there was work to be done. He needed to put the finishing touches on his hideout, and he couldn’t afford to lose his way.
He hiked north-west for the better part of an hour before reaching the road leading from the barony proper. It ran north from the stableyard, piercing into the forest. He knew it well, and knew it was relatively well traveled by the guard. With this in mind, he paused in the brush for a moment, scanning for movement.
Satisfied that no one was in sight, he set onto the road, headed straight north. He held the map firmly in his memory, having taken great pains to memorize it. Shame to lose it all to carelessness.
Mink split from the road at the diseased hemlock covered in cysts, making dead west in as straight a line as possible – a difficult task in the woodland.
At this point he expected to get lost, which was why he had prepared some landmarks in his memory ahead of time; if he hit the rocky stream, then he had gone too far south. If he reached the open field at the base of the mountains, then he had gone too far north.
Well on course. He sat on a stump and packed his pipe before continuing on his way.
The Baron exited the sanctuary, his family in tow.
The Everettes worshiped in the keep, rather than the actual chapel, which had become more of a library than a place of worship under the care of Rector Owens. Instead the rector came to the keep to hold the ceremony, all under Aster’s careful oversight. Sometimes the Baron wondered about Owens’ faith, especially when put in juxtaposition with the master of servants. His demeanor unnerved the Baron, so docile and quiet. Aster, on the other hand, was more like a blank slate of propriety and control. His strict discipline and austerity inspired the same attributes in those he instructed.
It was Monday, the day they held the Invocation of Unum and studied the messiah’s first sermon. It lasted just over two hours. The Baron had never considered himself a particularly pious Arcanist, but he could not deny the clarity and conviction that came with the studious meditations. Sacred inspiration, fruit of the holy sciences, swept doubtful thoughts from his mind.
His mind was alive and thriving, ready to tackle hard problems and invent solutions. He needed to speak with Duncan, but at the same time felt the need for solitary reflection.
The Everette family broke off: Veronica to breakfast, Catherine to wherever the hell she disappeared to, and Theodore most likely to smoke a cigarette under the willow tree behind the keep. The Baron had seen him there most days, sitting by himself, looking deplorable. At least he was getting a proper education. He had better shape up, and fast. The boy had to be ready to take over the Everette inheritance and Barony.
If there’s anything left of it…
His quick walk led him toward his study, but he found the idea of sitting behind a desk tremendously unappealing, so he decided to make the most of the agreeable weather and find Duncan.
He didn’t have to go very far. As he stepped out into the fresh air, dominated by blue sky and songbirds, he heard a commotion to his left, over by the stableyard.
A small crowd of guardsmen were gathered – some fifteen or twenty of them – in a loose circle. They jostled each other in good spirits, sweaty helms tucked under their arms. A distant explosion from the mines whispered through the air. No one paid it any heed.
Duncan was only of average height, but the Baron could still spot his topknot from above the heads of the others.
He smoothed out the collar clinging to his thick neck and walked over, his mind still suspended in a clear focus.
The men took notice of his approach. They stepped aside, giving him room to see the center of attention. He was unsurprised to find it to be Duncan and Captain Nico. A soldier – Rufus, the Baron thought his name was – shuffled closer to his side.
“What’d you think, M’lord? Time to bet on the Captain yet?”
Rufus was one of the few with the balls to approach him in open conversation. An easy man to mold and make an example of.
The Baron switched over – a quick, almost unconscious flicker of the mind – to false empathy.
He chuckled. “Not on his life. Give him a decade, maybe, to be on par with Duncan.”
Rufus folded his arms and snickered, infected with the Baron’s good humor. “Aye, you’re probably right about that. The Captain’s been training awfully hard though. Really means to win one of these days.”
The Baron gave a snort. “It would take a miracle, Rufus.”
Rufus’ expression lit up
Baron Everette focused his attention on the two in the center of the ring. They were in the process of tugging on the greaves and vambraces of the Condor Guard. Duncan’s body language was loose and unconcerned, the amused expression on his face broken by a sinister white scar. It was always so strange to see Duncan in a guardsman’s uniform and not his typical studded armor and weapon array, the Baron reflected.
Nico’s face was alight with a youthful eagerness, rolling and stretching his athletic build as he took the wooden training sword offered to him. His uniform normally included all the allowances of a captain: steel gorget instead of chain coif, steel breastplate, and two pauldrons. In the interest of fairness, however, he had discarded all of that for the typical guardsman’s gambeson.
He rarely if ever wore a helm (such was his rank), preferring instead to show his head of handsome dark hair, but here he donned it without hesitation, knowing the caliber of his opponent. He gave a footman’s sabre salute with the blunt weapon, then assumed a swordsman’s stance, face set with determination.
Duncan shifted his bearing subtly, feet shoulder-width apart.
The cheers from the audience began, largely in favor of the Captain, though the Baron knew they were mostly in jest. Duncan always won these contests.
The two warriors began circling each other, and the crowd went quiet.
For a moment, the Baron was unable to entertain any other thoughts. He was no warrior, but a chance to watch Duncan fight was too entertaining to pass up. There were few such opportunities in life to watch a master excel at their craft, and even someone like Eugene Everette could appreciate the overwhelming skill contained in one man.
Duncan and Nico were of similar height, though where the captain stood broad-shouldered and bull-ish, Duncan’s build more closely resembled a dog bred for racing – all powerful, long limbs.
The Baron expected to hear the other guardsmen betting on the match. But of course not, he reminded himself. No one would bet against Duncan.
Fiona left Nigel’s house feeling frustrated. Another case of Cavedrain she couldn’t seem to fix. And in another miner, no less.
Its symptoms were brutal and numerous. Headaches, hacking cough, abdominal pain, constipation, the list went on. Worse thing was, the symptoms could disappear and reappear at random, making it hard to pin down and effectively treat for any given period of time.
Not that my current treatments are doing any good.
She sighed, hefting the knapsack further onto her shoulders as she weaved around a broken fence and past the slaughterhouse. She could still hear the subdued roar of the Silverun behind her, growing fainter with each step.
What would you have done, Master Steffen? Am I doing this all wrong? What would you tell me, if you were still here?
She conjured up a picture of the wizened old man in her head: his stern, dark eyes, his crown of thinning white hair, the laugh lines marking his face like fresh parchment.
‘Keep your head up girl; our Saint needs us.’ That’s what he would say.
Ahead, old food scraps came flying out a second-story window, causing a dogfight between barony mutts for ownership, snapping and growling at each other in a frenzy. Fiona stepped carefully around.
He always said things like that. Everything sounded so simple and wise coming from him.
Her love for the old man burned brighter, giving a lightness to her step.
I’ll make you proud, master.
The town’s terrain steepened as she drew closer to the barony proper and the keep within. Folk went about their days – none of them miners, since the first bell had rung over an hour ago. They stopped her around every corner to strike up a conversation, exchange (or mostly impart) gossip, and give pleasantries.
“Ms. Fiona! Would you just look at you – hard at work, that lady! Come by and have a bite to eat, girl! Oh, yes, the babe’s fine, thanks to you! Have you heard – Carlson’s gone and done it again; found piss-drunk down by the mill with that young Carissa! By the Saints! I swear that man will end up dead within the week! Though, whether it’s of drownin’ or at the hands of his wife, I can’t say!”
“Hey there! Ms. Fiona, is that you? Will you come take a look at my foot? Looks awfully green in a certain light…”
She gave her pleasantries and extracted herself from too many conversations, as gracefully as she could. It strengthened her spirit to see those she’d treated fully recovered. Without hurting feelings she escaped the more flirtatious advances of some of the men, young and old, saying she had important work to do.
It wasn’t easy for Fiona, going through the motions. In truth, it wounded her deeply to remain so separate from everyone, avoiding romantic relationships and hiding the truth. Seeing happy families, sharing lifetimes and love freely with each other, stabbed her through the heart.
She was ashamed to admit that she sometimes had to avert her gaze, for fear the loneliness would overwhelm her. What she would give to let someone into her life, to drop all pretense and show them who she really was.
Her calling wouldn’t allow it. If they knew what she really was they would never treat her the same. She would no longer be considered a fellow among her people. Raising a family of her own was just out of the question; pregnancy would affect the level of care she could provide, and the codes strictly forbade it.
She wondered again how Master Steffen dealt with it. Didn’t it bother him to know that he would die alone, no kin of blood, no confidant to share his secrets? ‘We are servants of our Saint, nothing less. There is no greater calling than ours.’ That’s what he would say.
Several people asked her if it was the Ranger that she had to check on.
“Did he really slay the Render,” they asked. “What’s he like?”
“Is he terribly injured?”
“How handsome is he?”
“Has Saint Lauretta come to our aid?”
She dodged these questions. Master had valued the privacy of his patients, and she would too.
She was going to check up on Alex, though. His recovery was progressing quickly, despite his injuries.That being said, he was a difficult one to treat. He was suffering from wounds she couldn’t see, the kind no poultice could fix.
It wasn’t uncommon in the barony to witness such pain in people, but it was harder with him because he didn’t trust her, and well he shouldn’t; the Baron was treating him like an outlaw, locked up in a cell. How could he possibly trust anyone here?
He resented her for making him feel so enfeebled, that much was obvious. She didn’t take it personally – it happened with most of the severely injured people she’d treated. They just weren’t used to feeling helpless and taken care of. It went against the hardy, stubborn mindset of the Free Folk (further convincing her Alex wasn’t Machian). She needed to get him back on his feet, as quickly as possible. The sooner he had some control and agency over his life again, the better he would feel and the smoother his recovery would progress in turn.
The winding path up to the barony proper finally revealed itself ahead. She had hiked it many times on her way to treat Alex. Still, the sight of the gateway, looming above the lesser town like a disapproving parent, made her teeth clench.
It wasn’t fury she felt for the lord of the barony. Truthfully, she couldn’t quite name the feeling, but something about the gatehouse said it all. It could look down on these people; she would stare right back. These people were under her protection. This was her home.
Defiance, maybe that’s what it was. For the land that nurtured her, for the man that raised her, she would not be intimidated.
She climbed higher and higher, leaving barony town behind and below her. The road was surprisingly empty, and even as she reached the gatehouse, not a single Condor Guard was in sight.
Nico struck first – A guarded lunge, meant to test an opponent’s defenses.
Duncan parried, the wooden swords cracking loudly against each other, then immediately launched a retaliatory strike of his own.
Nico sidestepped the counterattack, traded another lunge, then fell back to regroup.
Duncan still looked bored. He stepped to the left, around Nico’s guard, but the captain kept pace.
Nico slashed for Le Treu’s head – a blow that could kill even with a training sword, had they not both been wearing helmets. Duncan leaned back casually, allowing the wooden blade to pass by without so much as blinking, and stepped forward suddenly into close quarters.
A look of surprise flashed across Nico’s face for a split second before Duncan slammed an open palm into his chest, meant to knock him off balance.
But Nico had seen the move before, and snatched at Duncan’s wrist before the full force could be delivered.
Duncan didn’t look impressed. Without missing a beat, he made a sword stab at Nico from incredibly close range with his one free hand. Nico stepped, pivoted, and twisted Duncan’s wrist behind his back as he narrowly avoided the thrust meant for his chest.
Now in Duncan’s blind spot, Nico used the twisted arm as leverage to try and force Duncan to the ground.
The Baron realized his mouth was hanging partially open. Nico had finally done it. Clearly there was no escape for Duncan…
Fiona saw the commotion as she exited the shadowed interior of the passageway. A mass of black and green stood in the distance, past the far corner of the keep; the Condor Guard.
She could hear shouts and….cheering?
She drew closer, watching from the shade of the guest dormitories. The guardsmen were circling two figures in pitched combat. She couldn’t identify one; he wore only the regalia of a guardsman – though slightly shorter in stature to his opponent.
The other also wore the black and green of the guard, but the topknot of dark hair couldn’t be mistaken.
…of course there was.
With cat-like agility Le Treu whipped himself around with a half-flip, straightening out his arm and initiating his own grapple against Nico’s iron grip.
The two were facing now, each in the grip of the other, straining and testing strengths. Cords of muscle stood out from their necks. Limbs trembled full-force against each other.
A few more whoops and shouts from the audience, and the Baron’s heart was galloping, infected with excitement.
Nico made a desperate play, slashing at the arm Duncan held him with. It worked, and Duncan snatched his hand away before it could be metaphorically severed.
There was the opening, and Nico took it. Both blades connected with a loud crack as Duncan parried and countered with a riposte, his sword suddenly in his left hand. The audience sucked in a collective breath.
They were back to square one, breathing lightly, neither having scored a hit. They circled each other like hungry animals, Nico’s face set with determination, Duncan’s face the visage of boredom.
The Baron crossed his arms over his chest, tapping lightly with one ringed finger.
C’mon Le Treu. Show them why I hired you.
Duncan re-engaged with sudden aggression, forcing Nico back far enough to make the crowd part with shouts of “whoa!” and “look out!”
Nico backpedaled quickly, batting away attacks as guardsmen on all sides threw themselves out of the way.
One spectator was too slow, having been caught unaware in a conversation.
Duncan deflected a blow, leaped, and spring-boarded off the poor man’s face, right into Nico’s blind spot. The spectator went sprawling to the ground with a broken nose. Duncan paid him no mind.
The Baron was on the other side of the ring, but still he uncrossed his arms and tensed in case the fight came in his direction.
No way he would be caught in the middle of that.
Nico ducked a blow meant for his temple and lashed out for Le Treu’s feet. Duncan hopped it easily and snapped a kick into Nico’s chest in mid-air. He staggered beneath the blow with a grunt, Le Treu’s dirty boot print stamped on his armor, but seemed otherwise unharmed
It was Nico’s turn to press the offensive, and he did so with relish, driving at Le Treu like a beast.
Duncan gave ground, his footwork a blur, striking and parrying with equal speed.
Fiona watched in a daze. She had never seen someone move that fast.
Of course, she had heard of Duncan’s lethality like everyone else, but it was something else to see it in person. Captain Nico was clearly a proficient fighter, but next to Duncan the difference was almost comical.
Le Treu had unnerved her before. Now, it terrified her to think the Baron held such a powerful weapon.
Do your job! Your Saint needs you.
She pulled her eyes from the fearsome spectacle and headed straight for the dungeon cells, on the opposite side of the keep.
To her surprise, two men-at-arms hovered by the entrance, one seated comfortably on a stump, the other leaning against the keep. Both were armed with truncheons – one with a crossbow, steel bolt glinting in the sunlight.
They shot her a look, exchanged their own glance, then the one touting the crossbow held up a hand.
“Turn around. You aren’t allowed in.”
Fiona’s face must have shown her surprise, because the guardsman seated on the stump piped in,
“Baron’s orders. Your healing isn’t needed anymore.”
She finally found the words to speak.
“What’s this about? I’ve been coming here almost every day. That man is injured – he needs me.” She made forward. “Move aside.”
Crossbow looked uncertain for a moment, clearly not expecting resistance. He recovered quickly, stepping in her way and flexing his broad shoulders.
“You deaf, bitch? Turn around – right now, if you know what’s good for you.”
She glanced at his seated companion. He looked unsympathetic. Clearly, the Baron had stationed men he knew wouldn’t back down from confrontation.
But why? Why now?
Just keep them talking…
“What reason did he give you,” she shot back.
Crossbow lowered his weapon, knowing his fists would be plenty.
“Fuck off,” he growled.
A brief tremor of fear crawled down her back, but it was easily conquered. She had faced pain far greater than anything this thug could inflict; she had endured childbirth, amputation, organ failure, and death itself.
Use your head…
“Why are you two here when everyone else is watching Le Treu duel the captain?”
They both started. The seated one frowned.
She shrugged and walked off without another word, trying to hide her smile.
It wasn’t hard to find a good hiding place; she had been up to the barony proper enough times to know the layout, and her eye for detail was impeccable. Master Steffen had made sure of that.
The two guardsmen exchanged a few words before Crossbow glanced around the keep’s corner, saw the crowd in the distance, and jogged back to his comrade.
Fiona was impressed by their…diligence? Patience? She had honestly expected them to go running to the duel; a chance to see Duncan fight couldn’t be passed up. Instead, they held their ground for a surprising couple of minutes before succumbing to temptation.
Fiona smiled to herself as they abandoned their posts, heading toward the duel with child-like eagerness.
She stole out of cover, dashed across the clearing, and slipped through the doorway leading to the dungeons.
Their swordplay was too fast now for the Baron to follow, his ears ringing from the rapid crack of the wooden blades. Their feet kicked up an amber dust into the air. He couldn’t tell exactly what was happening, only that Duncan was winning.
Fully knowing the outcome, he stepped out of the ring of onlookers, away from the fight. He had some business to decide, and wasn’t sure how to go about it. He wanted to tell himself that the affair with the Ranger could wait, and that the silver scarcity came first, but it was a lie, and he knew it.
Without the silver he was in trouble, of course, but the Ranger held what he thought to be information worth a fortune. Hopefully that fortune was large enough to save his family from bankruptcy, relocate them to his holdings in Twosford where Theodore could finish his education, and pay off the banks in Geldlocke. A little extra to spare wouldn’t hurt, either.
But there was the kicker; how to get the information out of the Ranger? He was drugged out of his mind, or so Aster assured him, so he was fully at the Baron’s mercy. With the Atrix, he didn’t need to rely on the herbalist to keep the Ranger conscious, so that took care of two problems.
But that still didn’t get him what he wanted. He could question the Ranger further, but there was no telling whether the information gleaned would be a lie or truth.
There were shouts now from behind him; the audience was in an uproar. He glanced back over his shoulder to check on the fight. Duncan had disarmed Nico and was pressing him with sword in hand. The crowd threw Nico his sword back with shouts of encouragement.
“Give em’ hell, Captain!”
The Baron smirked and meandered slowly toward the keep, pondering to himself.
From the keep’s main entrance came hurrying a thin figure.
The Baron lost his train of thought as Aster approached, looking more pale than usual in the light of day.
“My lord,” he said, drawing a slip of paper from his pocket. “A return message from our contact in The Reach. I just finished transcribing it.”
The Baron’s heart fluttered.
Finally, This had better be good news. Or at least, useful information.
Aster glanced at the cacophony past the Baron’s shoulder, his lips drawing into a thin line of distaste. He handed over a small note. Eugene Everette stared down at the slip of paper now in his hands, feeling its metaphorical weight.
“What’s written on this note could change everything, Aster…”
Aster read the look on his master’s face. “My lord, I encourage you to remember the plight of the messiah. Do you know what held him steady on his path, against all odds?”
The Baron didn’t lift his gaze from the paper. “No, I don’t.”
“Devotion, my lord. Omni gave him an opportunity to fulfill his destiny, as we are all given at some point, and Unum seized it. His devotion led him to Realization – the greatest destiny of all. He surrendered to his role in Omni’s plan, and was rewarded with immortality. Devotion is all it takes, my lord.”
“Thank you, Aster. That will be all.”
Aster bowed his head before retreating into the keep.
The Baron stood there a moment longer.
“The future favors the devout,” he muttered in prayer.
He conjured up an image of the Arcanus Lex in his mind, feeling focused by it, and opened the note.
Den is closed up tight. Rangers completely withdrawn.
No one by the name of Alexander Monroe that I could find.
Every Ranger has a “mark” of some kind. Not sure of specifics. Those without the mark are frauds.
Hope that helps.
Baron Everette passed a thick finger over his brow, deep in thought.
Den is closed up? What the hell is the Den? He re-read the next line.
No Ranger by the name of Alexander Monroe…
So he was lying to us about his name.
No surprise there, but it still just left more questions. What was his real name? Who was he, really? Why was he out here in the middle of nowhere?
Hiding some big secret. A secret worth a lot of money…
He glanced back at the paper and read the next line.
Every Ranger had a ‘mark’ of some kind, proving them to be a legitimate member…
The Baron scratched at his head. He knew nothing of this. But then again, what he knew of the Rangers was very little to begin with.
Maybe this ‘mark’ is a tattoo of some kind. That would make the most sense. I’ll need to have him examined for something like that.
Or maybe it’s some sort of badge or insignia they carry on them…
But no, he realized. They had confiscated all the prisoner’s belongings when they found him…
The fight was over, and Duncan had obviously won. They were stripping off layers of guardsmen armor, sweaty and rancid. The Baron waited for Duncan to finish, just to be safe from the stench.
Le Treu noticed him. He grabbed his weapons and clothing off the ground and approached. His scar cut through a bitter expression.
“Hah! Well fought,” the Baron said. He slashed the air with an invisible blade. “Fast as a speeding bullet!”
“Waste of my time,” he muttered as he walked by. The Baron shot him a bewildered look before hurrying to catch up.
“Let’s head to the reading room,” the Baron said. “Have you eaten?”
He glanced at Duncan, trying to gauge his mood. His face was stony and impassive.
What’s gotten into him? You’d think he lost that fight.
The two entered the reading room. A wake of dutiful servants trailed behind them, attending to their needs. The balcony doors were thrown open, and the room was filled with warm scents.
The Baron poured himself a glass of brandy and dropped into a cushioned chair. “Should I start, or would you rather?”
Duncan took the seat opposite, tossing his bundle of weapons onto the table with a clatter that made the servants flinch. He grunted and began undoing the laces of his boot.
“The boys haven’t seen the Ranger, but they’ve all heard of him. No one’s thrilled about it. They’ve got nothing to do, and it’s making them restless.”
The Baron mopped his forehead with a neatly folded handkerchief. “Should I be concerned?”
Duncan didn’t look up from his boots. “No. I’ll handle it.”
The Baron leaned back in his chair, tucking the handkerchief back into its pocket.
“What’s got you in such a bad mood? You just wiped the floor with the poor captain. He only lasted ten minutes!”
Duncan glared back at him. The Baron flinched.
“Ten minutes? I could have ended that in thirty seconds,” he snapped.
The Baron watched the frustration fade from his expression, replaced now with a hardness in his eyes.
“I want to find the Render’s body,” Duncan said suddenly.
The Baron blinked. “Where’s this coming from?”
Duncan leaned forward, his dark eyes burrowing into the Baron.
“I need to know if the Ranger really killed it.”
“First at the dinner, and now? What is it with you and that monster?”
Duncan seemed on the verge of answering before he restrained himself.
The Baron put his hands up. “Alright Duncan. If this is really something you feel you need to do. Got to admit – I’m curious myself.”
Duncan leaned back, his posture relaxing into the chair.
“I think you’d be interested to hear this,” the Baron continued, handing Duncan the note from across the table. “This just came in from my contact in The Reach.”
Duncan read it silently.
“Sounds like he lied about his name, after all,” Duncan said, handing the note back. “Doesn’t mean he’s not a Ranger.”
The Baron’s eyebrow shot up. “I thought you’d say the opposite! You didn’t seem convinced before…”
“I hope he is.”
“You and me both, Duncan…” the Baron said slowly, unsure of his sudden change. “Ever heard of something called the ‘Den’?”
“It’s the Ranger’s headquarters.”
“Ah. Of course. How very…Free Folk-ish.”
“What’s this about a mark,” Duncan said, pulling off his boots one foot at a time.
The Baron scratched his chin. “I’m not sure. I was hoping maybe you knew something. I barely know anything about the Den, the Rangers, or any of that.”
Duncan set his bare feet up on the table, crossing his legs.
“Neither do I,” he said, wiggling his toes.
“Really? I figured you’d have some experience in The Reach, what with your…” he waved vaguely at Duncan. “…adventures.”
Duncan snorted. “Piracy, you mean.”
“Well, yes. That, and your other criminal escapades.” The Baron lowered his voice to a whisper and leaned in conspiratorially. “You’re telling me Mr. Glass never once paid The Reach a friendly visit?”
Le Treu frowned, the scar on his face contorting. “No. I never did any work in The Reach. Plenty in the Divide, but never on Reach soil.”
The Baron leaned back, looking disappointed. “Oh well.” He glanced at the note in his hand. “We’ll just have to figure out this riddle ourselves. This ‘mark’; I’m assuming it’s some kind of tattoo – something Rangers are branded with? You were the one that found him – Do you remember seeing anything like that on him?”
Duncan considered for a moment before replying. “No, but it was hard to tell. He was so cut-up and dirty.”
I’ll have Aster check his body, the Baron thought to himself.
“How is he, by the way,” Duncan asked, trying to sound casual.
“The Ranger? Well and truly sedated right now. I’ve got him on a consistent dose of Atrix, fresh from the streets of Machia.”
Duncan blinked. “Atrix?”
The Baron nodded. “It’ll keep him reliant on us. Even if he tried to escape, he wouldn’t get far without needing another needle. I’ve cut off the herbalist’s contact with him, too. No sense letting her interfere anymore.”
“He could just kill you and take the supply for himself…”
The Baron waved a hand dismissively. “He’s harmless in that state.”
“That won’t stop a Ranger.”
“For someone who’s never worked in The Reach, you sure know a lot about them…”
Duncan shrugged. “Not really. Just rumors and legends.”
Duncan drained the rest of his coffee before speaking. “The Rangers are Templars: clerics of a single saint. In the Ranger’s case, it’s Saint Lauretta. They’re scouts, trackers, pathfinders, and headhunters during peacetime – masters of the wilderness. But they were founded in war, like most things in The Reach. They’re a fighting force first and foremost. Don’t know much else. They’re a queer sort.”
“How do you mean?”
Duncan looked blankly at a wall as he saw some distant memory. “I don’t know – you hear all about the Paladins of Saint Zaratas. Hell, most people could name a few. They’re heroes. The Rangers though?” Duncan shrugged. “I couldn’t name a single one. Honestly I thought they had gone extinct until now. They’re Templars just like the Paladins, though; they shouldn’t be underestimated.”
He rolled his empty saucer around on the table’s surface. “If a supply of Atrix is the only thing you’ve got over him, he’ll kill you and take it. And I can’t always be there to prevent him.”
“In that case,” the Baron said. “We should change our relationship. The more he sees me as an antagonist, the more likely he’ll be to resist. We should give him more freedom, show him we aren’t his enemy.”
“What kind of freedom?”
The Baron sipped his brandy, now facing outside with his back to Duncan. “Let him out of that cell, for one – make him feel like a guest rather than a prisoner. We could make him hate us, but trust is a far more effective manipulator. Besides, he would be far more willing to share information with a friend than with an enemy.”
“Quite a risk.”
“Every worthwhile venture carries some risk, Duncan.” He waved his glass in the air to punctuate his point. “I’m not frightened of the future. I know whom it favors.”
Duncan froze, startled recognition on his face.
The Baron didn’t notice. He was looking out the open balcony doors, watching two squirrels chase each other across tree branches.
“Have you ever been a religious man, Duncan? These days, I find myself…pondering. More than usual. What sort of a man was he, Unum the Messiah? What plans has Omni laid out for me? Whatever they are, I feel…drawn to them. Aster’s really opened my eyes. I wish I had paid more attention at church during my youth, really absorbed the teachings, allowed it to strengthen my mind early on. Better now than never, I suppose.”
Le Treu’s face had drained of color. He sat tensed, staring uneasily at the Baron’s back.
The Baron cleared his throat and swiveled back around. Duncan managed to compose himself before the Baron could notice.
“Anyways, I’m rambling now. Back to the topic of this ‘mark’; my other theory was a medallion or badge of some kind. But you didn’t find anything like that on him? What’s wrong? You look pale.”
”No – nothing. He didn’t have anything like that on him. He mentioned losing all his gear though. The mark could have been with that.”
“Good memory!” The Baron leaned his elbows against the table, sunlight streaming in past him. “What are the chances we can find that gear?”
“Not great, I imagine. But I can try.”
“I don’t like having you away for such long periods of time, Duncan. Especially when I’m about to let him out of that cage. Let’s send someone else.”
“You could do that, but what’s the guarantee that ‘someone else’ would keep their mouth shut about what they find. At least if I do it, we can prevent more rumors from spreading.”
The Baron frowned at his empty glass and rose to refill it. “Fair point, Duncan. Alright, I’ll let you head this expedition. Just do me a favor, would you; keep it discreet. Only bring those we can trust.”
Duncan grunted his agreement. “I know just the man.”
Mink would have walked right by the hideout if he hadn’t been the one to build it.
It lay camouflaged into the side of a wooded hillock with mud, moss, and fallen boughs. Though it couldn’t be seen from the outside, the hillock actually split into a small trough, some five feet deep. This shallow depression served as the room around which the hideout had been erected.
Mink removed the camouflaged door of woven branches and stepped inside. He almost bashed his shin against the stone furnace nestled in the corner. That would have to be moved later. A sizable pile of firewood lay next to it, spotted with moss and white mold. Beside that was what he called a table – really just four large rocks lined up together.
A bucket beside that still held water, two stolen mugs floating within. A carving knife, hatchet, bedroll, old pack, oil lantern, and mostly empty quiver of arrows were shoved to the back. Snares and wires dangled beside furs and pelts.
It was a formidable project, but one that he relished. Sure, the roof leaked in heavy rains and the furnace was only good for providing warmth and boiling water, but it would sustain a man in hiding, should he need to lay low for a few days.
And, gods be damned, Mink knew those days were coming.
He sat down heavily beside the table – careful to avoid knocking over the bucket – and started to pack his pipe again. Insects crawled in and out of the earthen walls, burrowing between live roots. Mink struck a match off his boot, took a drag, and flicked the smoldering nub into the cold furnace.
He sighed, tobacco smoke curling between his lips.
Things were getting tense back in camp; even a recluse like him could tell. The lads flocked around Max like sheep to the shepherd. He couldn’t blame them. Max had a certain charisma – a personality that just made you want to be around him.
Mink shifted his bum and scratched at his tangled beard, pipe clenched tightly between teeth.
Everybody was growing impatient and frustrated with the Baron – their employer and, for some, their savior.
His opinion was split. For one, he had been in Glaustow, held in a three-foot cell beneath stone and iron, hopeless and betrayed, waiting to be taken to Chamber Eleven. The Baron had gotten him out, along with a dozen others of Duncan’s band.
He had saved them all from hell.
Sweet apple-wood smoke curled around Mink’s head, filling the dirty hideout, suffusing with the smells of moss and pine. The slivers of light from outside lit the smoke with a ghostly glow.
Perhaps he should feel like he owed the man.
On the other hand, it hadn’t been done out of the kindness of his heart – Eugene Everette needed them to terrorize barony town and keep the townsfolk dependent on him – but he had saved them nonetheless, and expected them to serve him and raid at his command.
Duncan played the role well. Everette relied on his skill and leadership, and Duncan used his influence to keep the crew fed and looked after.
But boredom always comes for the idle, and the Baron hadn’t called on their services since the Render. He hadn’t needed them, after all. Leave warriors with nothing to do for long enough and they’ll grow restless. Rebellious, even.
Mink didn’t care for the raids to begin with, so it didn’t make much difference to him whether they were called upon or ignored.
If it were up to him, Mink would live out in the woods six out of seven days of the week. He’d avoid talking to anybody, dealing with their problems, or listening to their complaining.
He leaned back against the inner dirt wall, tiny roots poking into his lower back. He took a drag from his pipe, tamped it down, and sighed.
This is the life…no people. No bullshit.
He had to piss, and eventually could ignore the urge no longer, so he groaned and pulled himself back out the entrance, into the open air.
With a sigh he angled his stream, lost in a daydream. Decent weather, clear skies, and blessed silence.
Not bad. Not bad at all.
He shook off the last drops, buckled on his trousers, and decided it was time to get to –
His gaze came to rest on the ground, beside the dark, dribbled stain of his urine. Left in a patch of drying mud was a single imprint. A boot print.
He paused. Is that mine? Did I come from that way?
No, of course not. The hideout was to his back – not in front of him. And besides, he came in from the south, not the north.
He stamped his own boot into the mud next to it. The print it left was smaller than the original by a slim margin, with a different sole.
His breath caught in his throat.
Am I being followed?!
Mink glanced left, then right. Squatting to his haunches, he examined the print closer, his heart beating to a new tempo.
Fresh. Quite fresh. Did it lead anywhere? He ran his eyes along the surrounding floor of leaves and needles. Thinking he might have found something, he moved off to the left, paused, then backtracked carefully to the right.
There! A much vaguer print, followed by an oddly broken branch.
But wait…no, that was his own footprint.
Mink could feel eyes on him, watching from the woods. He raced back to the hideout, snatched up his bow, and whirled around to face the forest.
“Who’s out there!”
Squirrels danced and played to the sounds of the mourning dove. The canvas of brown and gray stretched on, unbroken.
“Sonuva bitch,” Mink muttered to himself.
His secret was lost. Nowhere to hide. Mink stood there, paralyzed with uncertainty.