None To Mourn
Only One Death: Part Five of Ten
Only One Death is the first in the Tales of The Lesser Evil and this is the fifth chapter.
This is a fantasy series—not quite grimdark, but dark nevertheless—with complicated and believable characters doing their best to survive in a world simply indifferent to their existence.
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None To Mourn
The group had been silent since leaving the camp, repeating their actions after the death of Vivika. They knew they had lost two of their most capable members and still had a long way to travel.
Kees had initially seen little sign of whatever had terrified the animals, beyond some damaged bushes and freshly dropped pine cones. Then she had followed a faint trail into the surrounding woodland.
She had walked back to camp carrying some animal droppings to show the others; they were not fresh, but they were definitely from a large predator.
While the group discussed whether the dung was from a large cat or a wolf, she had shot the horse below the camp, using three of Galea's eight arrows in the process. It had not been easy, shooting into the darker gorge, focusing on where the screams were coming from, but the sound was grating, and it did not seem right to leave the animal in such pain. To climb down would have been too dangerous. She was glad the wind had dropped, she was not sure she could have made the shot had it continued.
'What's left?' she asked as she returned to the group.
'Some of this is destroyed,' Strings gestured to a pile of foodstuffs which had been trodden into the dirt, everything dusted in flour. 'We're going to have to leave more things behind too: Vivika's armour and sword, some of the tools, Chimal's chests.'
'I don't see why we have to leave them,' Chimal said, as he went through his bottles and pouches, making three piles in front of him and moving things between them, constantly changing his mind and altering his choices.
'You don't. If you can carry them, then do so, but the priority has to be food and warm clothing,' Dhinal said, busy rearranging the other bundles and attaching them to the surviving pair of horses. All their pack animals were gone. 'Everyone will walk now.'
Kees briefly considered altering the loads on her own ponies to help, but she knew it would not be possible. If she wanted to survive winter, she needed all the supplies she had. She wondered whether they would be able to reclaim some of their items on the journey back, or whether the piles would still be in the same place come spring. If they were, then she would collect some of it to sell on. It would be a marker of whether the others had survived the winter, made it out of the mountains before the snows blocked the trails.
The dawn was beautiful, but the sun lit a despondent group.
'I should never have opened that grave,' Bab said when they paused at noon, 'I brought bad luck to us. It was my fault.'
'It was an accident. These things happen Bab, it's not your fault,' Strings patted his arm.
'She's right Bab,' Dhinal said.
'Maybe we should head back? Maybe this whole thing is cursed?' Bab raised his tear streaked face, looking at each member of the group.
Kees waited for Dhinal's translation and then shrugged, 'You can go back. Even you should be able to find the way from here. After today the way gets complicated. But I still get paid full.'
'Is gold all you care about? What about Galea? Vivika?' Bab recovered some of his anger, forgetting Kees did not speak a word of his language.
Again, she had to wait for Dhinal to translate before replying.
'I care about getting paid. And is money all you care about? This geological trip must pay well, surely?' She scowled at the big man as Dhinal translated back to him. This time he managed to reply in her language.
'Piss off Kees, you know...' Bab began.
'Know what Bab? Know what?'
'Enough,' Dhinal said. 'We're tired, we're emotional. Maybe we should have a vote? I will say this though; I am going on. I have to. Anyone else want to come with me?'
Strings immediately raised her hand, slowly followed by Chimal. The magician looked exhausted from the walk. He had discarded several heavy glass bottles from his pack already, leaving them on rocks and in the clefts of trees, curious shining baubles to decorate the wilderness. He had almost cried when he had placed his sand-glass in a crack in a boulder, turning it one last time and then walking away.
'Three. Anyone else?' Dhinal looked around the group.
Estel raised her hand. 'I want to keep going.'
'Screw it, so do we.' Yuli raised her hand at the same time as her sister.
'Just you Bab. If you want to head back to Eastsea, now is the time to do so. The trail is quite clear and, if you need it, I can easily draw you a map from here. In another day or two it will become a lot harder for one person to find the way. Even with a map.' Kees pointed to the approaching mountains as Dhinal explained what she had said.
'Fine. I'll keep going, but I'm just saying, this expedition is cursed.'
Following the translation, no further words were spoken until they camped for the night.
'I'm worried we won't have enough to eat.'
Dhinal had quietly taken Strings and Kees to one side after they had stopped and unpacked the two horses.
'How bad is it?' Kees asked.
'We have enough food for another four weeks, five or six if we cut or supplement our rations. How long until we reach the Amethyst Mountains?'
'At this pace, without any other incident, maybe eight or nine days. The problem is, we won't be keeping to this pace. The trails get harder, rougher. We'll be lucky to reach them within two weeks.'
Dhinal was silent. It would be a tight thing, even if everything went well.
'We should add to the supplies, set out snares and traps each night,' Strings suggested. 'It's something I've done before, after I... After I left my home.' She looked sad, eyes tight and gazing somewhere into the past.
'Yes, that's a good idea. We'll start tonight, but don't tell the others of the problem yet, or we may have another problem.'
'What do you mean, Kees?' Strings asked.
'If they know we only have four weeks full rations left, Estel and the twins may join with Bab in wanting to head back, which is fine in some ways...'
'...apart from the fact they would want to take food back with them,' Dhinal finished, nodding agreement.
'Precisely. Once we are in the mountains proper, then they will not be able to leave without us all going back. If you can persuade Estel we really should carry on, and maybe the twins, then you will have a majority vote. If I can vote, of course.'
'Then that's what we will do. Set snares, make traps, keep our eyes open for game, nuts, berries, plants. Tell the others we are just being careful after losing some of the supplies and that we would like some fresh food. We will try and put off another vote if we can,' Dhinal paused and thought carefully before continuing. 'It may also be worth shifting some of the longer-lasting and lighter supplies to our own packs: the jerky, the fruit leathers, the pemmican. Just in case.'
'That's a risk, what if they realise?' Kees asked, head tipped to the left.
'They won't, yet, at least. They are still not interested in them, they prefer the beans and the other sausages and bacon. They may not even know. Let's face it, they weren't exactly helpful when we bought the supplies, and I'm sure you don't want them demanding a share of your winter food?'
Kees shook her head. 'We are decided then?'
'What are those?' Estel asked, pointing to the cliff above them.
Two days had passed since they had started trying to supplement their supplies, so far adding a single hare and a bag of hazelnuts. The track they followed was difficult, often covered in rockfalls, scree making the way treacherous and obscuring the path at several points. The horses had to travel more slowly now.
'Old paintings, from long ago,' Kees said.
'They look like the paintings in the ravines near my home,' Dhinal said, craning his neck to get a better look.
They were mostly red, black and white. There were hand stencils, spirals, animals reflected below themselves, creatures with bones showing through their skin as though the painter could see inside them, dancing humanoids, some with the heads of different beasts. Hundreds upon hundreds stretched the length of the sheltered overhang.
'How old do you think they are?' Estel asked.
Kees wondered if pretending to be a scholar was starting to rub off on the woman, she was certainly beginning to voice the same questions real students would ask.
'Very. I've climbed up to see them closer and some of them have stone growing over them.'
'Stone doesn't grow, does it?' Estel said.
'You're the geologist, you tell me.' Kees immediately felt guilty and smiled broadly, adding, 'some stones flow over others, look.' She pointed out an example on the cliff-face as they continued walking.
'And others...' Dhinal began, then paused. 'What is that?'
The trail widened as they rounded the protruding hillside. A head-high wall greeted them, stones missing here and there, other parts covered in ivy, honeysuckle and clematis. A wide gateway was made wider by the fact the supporting arch had long since fallen. Taller roofless buildings could be made out beyond the wall, which stretched from the cliff above them to where the mountain fell away below.
But is was not the wall which Dhinal was pointing to.
A huge dead tree stood to the left of the gap, barkless and grey. From its branches hung bundles of different sizes, eight in all.
Each bundle was made of cord wound around dirty and rotting material. As they got closer they could smell decay.
'Those are corpses, aren't they?' Strings said, swallowing hard.
No one answered. One of the bundles twisted slowly in the breeze, revealing where the material had either rotted or been pulled away. A grinning skull could clearly be seen, hair still framing bone, with several dry and leathery patches of skin, dark and stained.
Bab doubled over and threw up.
Eight bodies. Those which were more tightly wrapped fresher than the others. Kees and Dhinal had cut them down, one by one, and carried them to the edge of the cliff, checking each before throwing them off the edge. No one wanted to camp near the dead and the buildings offered a good place to stop for the night.
Many of the corpses bore marks of violence, all were naked within their wrappings.
'I have heard of places where the dead are hung from trees like this,' Dhinal said. 'But not near here, many, many months journey away. In that place there are special woodlands where each family tends a tree, hanging their dead from its branches to be picked clean by insects and birds. Then some of the bones are taken away to be stored within their homes, others placed around the tree. I do not think that this is the case here.'
Kees looked at Dhinal and shook her head in agreement, 'I think all these people died from violence, relatively recently. They were certainly not here when I last made this journey.' She stopped and looked out across the valley. Over the preceding two days they had climbed high into the mountains, the trees far below them a green carpet of moss, the river a thin strand of silver.
'I think you are right. We should not wait here too long.' Dhinal looked back to the tree. 'Perhaps we should fortify our camp a little? What do you think?'
'It wouldn't hurt. I normally camp in one of the buildings. It has no roof, but it has fairly sturdy walls.'
'What was this place, Kees?'
'I don't really know. It's off the old road that disappeared into the forest the day after Galea died, and the way is long since lost. I guess with the wall it could be a fortification from some long lost country? Or some sort of mountain hunting lodge? Shit, I only guide people. This trip...' She trailed off.
'This trip what?' Dhinal asked.
'I'm beginning to wonder if Bab is right, if it's been cursed.'
'Perhaps it is. Perhaps it is not. I have never set much store in curses, they seem an easy excuse.'
They walked back to the others, who had passed through the gap in the wall and were busy gathering fuel. At some point a stand of birch had fallen from higher up the mountain and lay suspended at waist height across the path, seasoned and ready for burning. Bab and the twins had cut up two of the slender trunks already, axe sending chips flying, saws neatly bucking. Kees was pleased they had already got to work and she wondered if it marked a turning point; each problem the group had faced had been overcome, or come to terms with, in increasingly shorter spans of time. Perhaps they themselves were becoming seasoned. Perhaps there was hope for them.
'We'll sleep in there.' She pointed to the most sturdy of the structures, 'We can block the door with some brush. It should cut out any wind.'
'And stop anything getting in,' Chimal added, nodding.
Kees smiled briefly, it was best that had come from someone else. 'Yes. Yes it would.'
Camp was set up quickly, the horses and Kees's ponies carefully tethered in the far corner. The group could not afford to lose their pack animals. Kees left her own packs outside what had once been a door, while Bab and the twins carried the fuel through.
The fire was lit and wood stacked neatly nearby. Dhinal, Strings and Kees headed out to scout the area for places to position snares and deadfalls. From tracks and sign they had seen, they knew the trail was well used by a variety of game travelling between the upper pastures and the more gentle conditions below. They split up, Kees walking further up the trail they would follow the next day, the other two exploring the slopes around the camp.
Kees kept an arrow nocked as she walked. She told herself it was only in case she flushed any game, but the memory of the corpses twisting in their tree stayed with her.
She was glad of the arrow. Not long after nocking it, a startled young mountain goat leapt up the slope above her, following a path she could not see. She brought it back downhill within a heartbeat. Carrying the carcass whilst also carrying the bow would be difficult, so she slung the goat over her shoulders and walked back, steadying it with her left hand, knife out in her right and unstrung bow strapped to her back.
When she returned the others she was shaking with the effort, but they were pleased to see fresh meat, the mood immediately brightening. Chimal and Estel took the goat off her and made ready to carry it a short distance up the trail to butcher. They really were becoming seasoned.
'Where are Dhinal and Strings?' Kees asked, before they left.
'They are not back yet.'
'Went for a piss. What happened to your hand?'
She looked down and cursed, 'Shit, must have caught myself somehow and not realised. Easy to do that when it gets colder, probably when I was pulling the arrow out.'
It was getting colder, day by day. As she pulled a bandage from her pack and waved Chimal and Estel off, she wondered when the first snows would appear. Then her stomach growled and her mouth watered at the thought of roast goat.
Fortunately the others had not started to cook, beyond boiling a pot of water. She made herself some tea, cleaned and bound her hand, and sat with the twins on some of the bigger birch logs they had dragged in. It was the first time she had spoken to the pair alone, and she found them surprisingly intelligent, better company than she had thought. As they talked she tried to remember being that young. It was a long time ago.
They were laughing at a story Lopi was telling of their early days as pickpockets in the Triple Cities when they heard shouting outside.
Snatching up the bow and quiver, Kees swiftly strung it and ran to the calls. They were coming from back down the trail, from where the body-tree stood. The twins followed at her heels, knives flashing in their hands.
They leapt through the rubble where the gate had once been.
Dhinal was struggling to lift the dead weight of Bab, who was hanging by his neck from the tree, Strings trying to climb up to cut the rope which held him there. Bab was not moving, his tongue protruded from his mouth and his face was blue.
Kees dropped her bow and grasped one of Bab's legs, lifting with all her strength. The dead weight heavier by far than the goat. In the tree Strings was having difficulty reaching the rope.
Lopi stood still beside the hanging man and her sister swarmed up her, quickly and easily standing on her shoulders. Her knife was sharp and swiftly cut through the taut fibres, Bab half falling, half lowered to the ground by Dhinal and Kees, Strings dropping down beside them.
'Is he dead?' Yuli asked, putting her knife back in its sheath.
'I don't know,' Dhinal replied. He crouched down close to Bab's bloated face. There were tiny spots of blood dotting his cheeks and broken blood vessels were visible when he pulled back his eyelids to check. 'I can't feel his pulse.'
'How long was he gone before I got back?' Kees asked the twins, also crouching down to see if she could feel any breath from Bab.
'Not long. He only went for a piss,' Lopi had tears streaking her face. 'Is he dead?'
Kees lay her fingers on Bab's neck, but she too could feel nothing. She crouched lower, cheek near his mouth, but there was not a hint of expelled air. His head was at an odd angle. She stood up slowly. Her back hurt.
'Yes. He's dead. I think his neck is broken.'
'Shit,' said Strings. 'Shit, shit, shit.'
They heard laughter coming from the other side of the wall, Chimal and Estel returning from butchering the goat.
'I'll tell them,' said Dhinal, rising to his feet. 'I'll be back in a moment to, to...' He waved at the corpse. At Bab.
'Yes, I'll come with you,' Strings took his hand.
Nobody wanted Bab's clothes, soiled when his bowels and bladder had evacuated their contents. Dhinal, Strings, Chimal, and the twins helped carry him to the edge of the cliff, where they threw his body off to join the older corpses far below. There was no ceremony, but each would remember Bab in their own way. Many people died in the wild, many alone, with none to mourn.
Dhinal kept Bab's axe. It was well forged and a comfortable weight. It seemed a shame to leave it. Kees coiled both parts of the rope; cordage was always useful.
'Why would he kill himself?' Chimal asked.
'Why does anyone kill themselves?' Kees countered. She was rubbing her back, it would be sore walking the next day.
'But he didn't show any signs of wanting to end it all. And why hang himself? Why not just jump off the cliff? He could have done that at almost any time today,' Chimal said.
'True, but throwing yourself off something is not the same as hanging, is it? What happens if you change your mind? Look, I have no idea why he did it. Maybe he couldn't cope with seeing people die? Seeing dead people? Maybe his master used to beat him? Maybe he missed his family but couldn't go back? The thing is, we'll never bloody know, will we? It was his choice to make, we tried to stop him, but failed. I'll take his watch with you, Estel.' She walked away, slowly, her back sending warning messages, her hand throbbing, the cut bleeding through the bandage.
Everyone was lost in thought as they ate, chewing mechanically and with no further conversation. Then they retreated to their bedding. For all of them, sleep was a long time coming.
Many thanks for reading.
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