Only One Death: Part Three of Ten
Only One Death is the first in the Tales of The Lesser Evil and this is the third 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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'Wake up!' Strings’ shout immediately raised the whole camp.
'What is it?' Dhinal was at her side almost instantly, looking around, long knife in hand. Kees was out of her bedding, her own blade catching the light.
Vivika was still sitting by the fire, leaning against a dead oak log, its grey trunk riddled with insect holes. She had not moved. She still did not.
Kees walked slowly toward the swords-woman, looking around her and checking the ground, sheathing her knife as she spoke.
'Everyone keep an eye on the trees, but stay still. Galea, check the clearing for prints.'
'Why you in charge?' Bab asked, huge hand gripping his axe tightly, eyes wide and fearful.
Kees ignored him.
At first glance it looked as though Vivika had drifted off to sleep during her watch. Her battered armour was reflecting the low evening sunlight and the dancing flames in some spots, seemingly absorbing it in others.
'I found her like this, talked to her, then shook her shoulder,' Strings said.
'She has been poisoned. Look.' Kees pointed to a small dart embedded in Vivika's throat, cattail fluff wound tightly around the end of the shaft to act as a flight. She pulled it free and it was followed by a tiny trickle of blood. 'This happened recently, very recently.'
The others crowded around them, ignoring Kees's command to stand still.
'Why recently? How do you know it was bad-water?' asked Yuli, questions spilling out.
'Poison,’ her sister corrected her. ‘Yes, could that dart not have killed her?’ she added.
'No,' Kees drew a breath and tilted her head slightly before continuing. Over time she had realised that not everyone had the same skills, and to think someone stupid simply because they lacked a point of knowledge was, in itself, stupid. 'It happened recently because the fire has only just had fresh wood added. I doubt someone killed her, then stopped to add fuel. Now, look at this dart, it's stained with something organic, something powerful and very fast acting; she did not move from where she was sitting, at all, not even to topple over or reach for her sword. It did not cause any real bleeding, certainly not enough to kill her. No, I think this was fired from a blowpipe, tipped with enough poison to kill her before she could raise her hand. Probably from,' she looked up and waved her hand, pointing to where Galea was crouching, studying the ground, 'over there'.
'Why? Who would do this?' Chimal asked, his hands trembling.
'Yes, who?' Estel asked, her own fear likewise evident.
'I do not know yet, but I have an idea.'
'Well, what's your idea? Since you joined this group, you've not exactly been helpful have you?' Bab asked, his grip on his axe shifting as he took a step closer. It was only when he noticed Kees looking at him blankly that he realised he had spoken in his own language.
Dhinal stepped between them and looked the big man directly in the eyes whilst translating, disapproval unspoken.
'I would disagree,' Kees said. 'But then I would, wouldn't I? If you don't like my help, well I can just bloody well clear off and leave you, like I said last night. Is that what you people want?'
'Over here!' Galea's call pre-empted any reply. They all walked over to where the hunter was crouched beside a tall pine.
'What have you found?' Kees asked.
Before they got too close she called,
'Stop there! Now look, here,' she pointed.
A single clear footprint was lightly impressed in the soft mud at the foot of the tree, another partial print beside it, crushing a small toadstool. It was shoeless and tiny, like that of a baby who had just learnt to walk.
'What the hells is that?' asked Bab, his voice a higher pitch than Kees had ever heard from a man.
'Is it a goblin?' asked Lopi.
'Or a Soultaker?' added her sister, shuddering.
'No.' Kees stood. She had never even heard of a Soultaker.
'What is it? Baby?' Bab sounded on the verge of losing it.
'I have seen these prints and these,' Kees held up the dart, 'before, in the deep woods. We call them Twigs in these parts.'
'Twigs? What the hells?'
'Bab, shut up,' Strings said in his language, then switched to the language of Eastsea, which seemed to also be Kees' native tongue. 'I've heard of them, we sometimes saw evidence of them in the woods where my village is,’ she paused, eyes narrowing, ‘was. But they are meant to be peaceful, aren't they?'
'Yes. Maybe there's someone in this group they don't like. Or they don't want your geological expedition?' Kees struggled to keep the sarcasm out of her voice.
'I doubt they'd know where we were going at this point Kees,' Dhinal said, following the exchange and replying as though he had been born to the language.
'You are right. But I know no other reason for Twigs being this close to a city. They don't like being close to humankind.'
Dhinal frowned, then repeated the whole exchange to the others, in two different languages.
'Maybe you they kill? You they want?' Bab said when Dhinal had finished, addressing Kees, eyes suggesting that was perhaps exactly what he would like to do.
'Maybe. But I was asleep over there, alone. Why then shoot a dart at Vivika? Why not shoot it at me? Or just slit my throat? It makes no sense. I think we should pack and get moving.'
'I agree,' Dhinal said, then translated for Bab before he started to issue orders to the shocked group.
'What do we do with Vivika?' Strings asked, once the others were all engaged in clearing the camp.
'If anyone wants them, take her things, then leave the body in the woods,' Dhinal replied.
Kees nodded. It was likely the others in the group would argue, but it was not sensible to wait around with a corpse. This close to Eastsea, roadguard patrols were still relatively regular. Darkness was only a short time away, and to bury her would take too long and do nothing to improve their situation. Being caught with a body was not sensible.
Kees walked over to the fire and pulled out her carving. She no longer felt like carrying it and bent to poke it into the flames, the dry wood catching quickly. It had burnt to ashes before they had finished packing their things. She sometimes wondered why she bothered making things; they never lasted.
They travelled in silence through the dark night and, for that, Kees was grateful.
'We should double the watch,' she said when they had stopped and, once translated, Bab did not argue. She was glad of that too.
She still set up her tarp a short distance from the camp. She did not trust them, nor did she want to get to know them, beyond a purely business relationship. A bit of distance between them would also give her a better chance of hearing anyone, or anything, approaching, whether from the woods and fields, or from her charges, did not matter, as long as she did her best to stay alive.
Why make friends, when friends could die as easily as enemies? Best to be alone.
This process was repeated for three more nights. The terrain grew tougher, steeper. The road, as much as it was a road, was increasingly damaged by tree-fall, landslide and running water. With no caravans there had been no portage slaves to repair the road, no heavy tread of feet to flatten the bumps and kick loose stones to the edge. Lone peddlers, farmers heading to the next village to sell or trade a seasonal glut, trappers heading into the hills, or longer and rarer roadguard excursions, were all the road had recently witnessed.
Kees knew that if the caravans did not return soon, then these villages and small towns would be dead in less than a generation. The wilds would creep back to the city walls and the road would vanish into the woods. She knew of other places where this had already happened. Eventually, nature always won.
On the fourth night since Vivika's death Bab once more started to complain. The twins started to bicker and jokes began to be bandied around, language and cultural differences as hilarious as the intended punchline.
In this world, Kees knew, it did not take long to move on from a sudden death. It seemed about eighty miles would do it.
At dawn the following day the moon hung low above the increasingly close line of mountain peaks to their left. It was nearly a perfect half, and Kees knew it was time to alter their routine.
She called a halt and pointed to the broad river valley, the water pink in the early light.
'We will camp down there. This time we'll shift to daylight travel though, so use the daylight to get any jobs you need doing done, wash your clothes, yourselves, sharpen your tools and weapons, check the supplies. Nap if you must, but we will sleep tonight.'
Surprisingly no one argued, and the group set up camp with almost a spring in their collective step. Most of them looked exhausted; the double watch and the travelling in the dark, coupled with the death of Vivika, had meant sleep was hard to find.
Kees was not sure they were out of danger; the road would soon switch in direction, taking them away from the Amethyst Mountains. The tracks and trails, such as they were, grew even less travelled, less safe.
They had passed several small settlements over the preceding few nights, always camping between them, away from any fortified village or palisaded farmstead. They had heard dogs barking early in the night but nothing since, and Kees knew there were no other settlers for many days’ travel, not until the road approached the interior cities far to the north. It was wild country. The only other humans would be trappers or those like herself, who enjoyed their own company and revelled in being away from other people.
'Tomorrow we will leave the road and head to the northwest. Make sure you check the feet of the animals.'
As usual she set up her own camp and ate in silence, watching the dynamics of the others. The twins laughed and punched each other and Bab, like the children they appeared to still be. Chimal and Estel were deep in conversation over the cook-fire. Dhinal, Strings and Galea were sharpening their knives. Dhinal looked up and caught her gaze. She nodded silently in reply; he was the biggest mystery in the group. The others she thought she had mostly worked out.
The twins, Yuli and Lopi, were both branded with a cross on their left thumbs. Kees knew that across the East Sea this was proof they had been caught stealing and appealed for clemency. The next time they were caught, they would lose the arm below the elbow. Then the third, and final, time they would be left in a gibbet until they died from thirst, exposure, or the stones and sharpened coins thrown by passers-by. It was supposed to be good luck, for your coin to cause injury. It was Kees’ guess that they were running away from a theft which had gone wrong, from one of the cities or towns on the Telkian coast, a long sea voyage to the east.
Bab was no warrior. Of that she was certain and, judging by the small burn scars up and down his arms, he had once been a blacksmith, or perhaps apprenticed to a blacksmith. Why he was travelling with the group, pretending to be a surly axeman, she did not know. She doubted he would be much use in a fight, unless the opposition was untrained or easily cowed. Kees did not recognise his language, but she knew Vivika had spoken the same tongue.
The magician, Chimal, was clearly a charlatan. This was not surprising to Kees, she had met many individuals claiming to possess magical or supernatural powers and, with two notable exceptions, all had been normal people with knowledge of tricks and sleight of hand. She guessed the powders he carried close to him were from a fireworks maker and the chest of bottles and potions were salves and balms, dyed different colours. He would be no use in a fight either.
The scholar, Estel, was also a fraud. Kees could read and write in half a dozen languages and could get by in half a dozen more. Estel could not even write in one. The marks she made on the scrolls and expensive paper she carried were approximations of letters, randomly arranged into patterns she thought resembled words. Kees guessed Estel had maybe once been house servant, or slave, to a real scholar. That she carried the accoutrements meant it was likely the scholar had died, whether naturally or by violence was another matter. Perhaps she had simply stolen the robes, the ink and quills and the paper, but she thought it more likely a death had been involved; one look into Estel's eyes suggested exactly that. She was not happy with who she was, not comfortable in her own skin.
Galea was the real thing. Her skills in tracking were obvious and she knew how to tend to her bow, arrows and knife. She had shot a pair of flying geese for the camp pot, both arrows finding their targets from a fair range. Kees thought she was marginally the better shot, but at least Galea was useful. If she was to bet, she would suggest the woman had perhaps been a gamekeeper or a poacher, or both. Perhaps she had been caught and fled, or perhaps she simply had enough of patrolling an estate and headed out into the world in search of adventure.
Vivika had been the real thing too. Her sword was well worn and her hands bore the rough callouses of hours of practice. It had not saved her from a tiny dart. No one had wanted her sword, armour, or possessions, so Kees had packed them back on the baggage train. They could be sold at a later date if the others' superstitions did not vanish the further from the death they travelled.
Strings was harder to crack. She was a tough woman, that much was clear, and had spent considerable time on the road. Her hands were also calloused and her clothes a patchwork of stains and repairs. There was a haunted look in her eyes, most noticeable before or after she slept, as though she feared her dreams. Kees wondered what had happened to the woman to make her leave her home, to run away. She had heard her cursing in the language spoken south of Eastsea towards the city of Gateway, and she guessed it was from near here she had run. Whatever had made her do so, it was obvious she did not want to return. Kees knew she possessed no trained fighting skills, but neither did a wolverine or trapped wildcat. Strings would be dangerous to corner.
Finally, Dhinal. He was also an enigma, beyond the obvious differences: the clothing, the odd accent. It was clear he had learnt how to do things in a very different environment. The method he applied when helping with the fire, stacking the fuel in the same way that long ago she had seen plains nomads doing with dried animal dung, suggested he was not used to burning large pieces of wood. He clearly appreciated the abundance of natural resources on the Isthmus, but she also thought he did not enjoy being in the forest. The glances he continually gave the trees made Kees think he was used to being able to see long distances, which reinforced her plains or desert theory. Dhinal was clearly a capable fighter, that was obvious from his bearing. He could also read, which had been a surprise. She had caught the subtle flash of scorn on his face when Estel had been waving a piece of paper around and trying to argue with Chimal. He too knew the woman could not write.
Dhinal, Strings and Galea did not look tired. The further from civilisation they walked, the more awake they seemed, the more alive.
Kees had listened carefully to their conversation and she knew the others were loosely following Dhinal. It must be he who had the map to the Red City, although not one of them had mentioned the place when she had been within earshot. Why he was putting up with the others, she was unsure. She did not like not knowing — mysteries were fraught with potential disaster.
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