One Hidden City
Only One Death: Part Ten of Ten
Only One Death is the first in the Tales of The Lesser Evil and this is the tenth and final 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.
To read an introduction to this novella, and the backcover blurb, click here.
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One Hidden City
'What's going on Kees?' Dhinal asked. Even as he spoke the words many things suddenly slipped into place.
'Now, there's a story.'
'Then tell it,' Strings voice sounded like it could strip flesh. She raised bound hands, ‘I’ve got plenty of time.’
'Easy there. You are alive, aren't you? I didn't just get you to the Amethyst Mountains, but to the Red City, didn't I?'
'This is not exactly how I would have liked to have seen it, Kees,' Dhinal said, a wry smile on his face.
'No. I imagine it's not. I am a little sorry for you all, especially you Dhinal. And you Strings. I like you both. I liked Galea too. The rest of you?' Her eyes rested on the sisters and Chimal. 'You should have stayed away. I don't think you are made for the wilderness, it's not for people like you.'
'What do you mean?' Dhinal asked, cutting off the curses of the twins. Chimal remained silent, face sad and eyes lost.
'For three years now I have taken expeditions to the Amethyst Mountains. This is the last I will guide. I have fulfilled my side of the deal, have I not Larns?'
Dhinal was sure Kees was addressing the same Twig she had first spoken to earlier, amongst the boulder fields immediately before their capture.
'You have, Kees. You have done better than you said you would. We only wanted two more slaves, but you bring five.' The language was the one Strings had taught the group on the boat.
'The forest people venerate the city as holy. Its name in their language means "The place where the Gods gave colour to our lives, mountains to shield, forests to feed, and water to quench." They believe it was built for them to find at the end of their torment in the wilderness. They keep it free of weeds, repairing any damage where they can. They found me five years ago. I had been looking for a way between Eastsea and Fea Little, a new potential trade route,' she paused. 'Shall we sit? It's a bit strange, standing here talking to you all trussed up like that.' She did as she said and, after a moment, Dhinal and Chimal sat in front of her, joined a short time later by the twins and, finally, Strings, who was still staring at Kees as though wondering if she could, or should, tear her throat out with her teeth.
'So the Twigs, these forest people, found you? I assume you had found their holy city?' Dhinal asked, accepting the water flask he was handed by one of their captors.
'No. I had crossed the river further to the north of here, where it loops around the Amethyst Mountains. I say crossed; I lost my horse, almost all my gear and I was caught in the current and pulled downstream. They rescued me, cared for me, saved my life. I still don't really know why. My leg was broken, as were several ribs. They healed over time. I stayed with them while I recuperated, learning their language, teaching them what I could about our race. After a few months they showed me the Red City. I knew I had to repay their kindness and told them I would get them anything they needed. I promised before I knew what that oath meant.'
'They wanted human slaves,' Dhinal nodded. It made sense. Larger slaves meant heavier work was easier.
'Yes. Although they do not treat the others...'
'The other two groups you led here?'
'Yes. They do not really treat the others as slaves are treated by our kind. They are a good people, kinder than the other Talking Races I have met. I take my responsibilities seriously Dhinal, and I know you do too. My first responsibility is to me. And these people saved me, so my second is to them. As they asked, I promised them I'd bring them eighteen people, one for each of the months they looked after me, fed me. As it is, I'm bringing them twenty one. You will be well treated, you...' Kees was cut off by an outburst from Strings who stood up swiftly enough to make a pair of the Twigs raise their blowpipes.
'You bastard. You bitch. You absolute c...' she spat before Dhinal raised his hand and spoke.
'Strings, that's enough, sit down. It'll be fine. Trust me, please,' he said, motioning to the ground beside him. ‘It will be fine.’
Strings clenched and unclenched her fists, plant-fibre shackles creaking. She sat down slowly, eyes still full of anger and potential violence.
‘These people are not cruel. They fed me well, as they do those I brought to them. In many ways it is possible those who came searching for riches actually found a richer life, they do not want for food, they are sheltered and well clothed. It is not for everyone, of course. The bodies we found hanging? They were those who tried to run. Larns here tells me they killed many of their people when they tried to escape. They were hunted down and hung from the tree. Some of them made it further than others, but not one got away.’ Kees fell silent, giving Dhinal a chance to ask,
‘What about the others in our group? What about Vivika and Galea? What about Bab? Did you help them on their path to death?’
Kees nodded, slowly, her expression giving nothing away, her eyes never breaking contact with those of Dhinal.
‘Yes. They were the biggest threat to my success. Vivika was obviously well trained, used to killing, even with the problems you said it brought her. I killed her with a blowpipe and poisoned dart.’
‘But what about the footprints? Galea found tracks,’ Yuli said, breaking her silence.
‘I carved a branch to look like one of the forest people’s feet. I made the footprints.’
‘But Galea?’ Lopi asked, ‘She was killed by the animals stampeding, not by you.’
‘I didn’t mean for Galea to die, I liked her. I meant for the animals to scatter, destroy some of the supplies. The cut in rations and morale weakened you, made you easier to control when we met the forest people. It was an easy thing to convince the horses there was a predator coming for them. Horses have a herd mentality, it only takes one to spook. When we camped at the river, before leaving the Great North Road, Galea and I found tracks of a large cat and two cubs. I searched further and found some fresh droppings and a place where they regularly scent marked. Convincing the horses these scents and my crashing around in the undergrowth were proof they were about to be attacked was the easy bit, keeping the scent masked beforehand and everything hidden from the camp was the hard part. I was amazed it worked, to be honest. I did not mean for Galea to die.’
‘Bab?’ Dhinal asked, as calmly as if he were discussing what to have for breakfast.
‘Bab was too negative, and I could see his negativity was beginning to infect the others, making them question whether we should turn back. I needed to get you into the hills, so you had no choice but to go on. With Galea dead the trail would have been hard or impossible to follow on your own. I was coming back with the goat when I saw him leaving the camp. I took the opportunity and I killed him. It was... Difficult. He was strong and fought back.’
‘The cut on your hand,’ Yuli said.
‘Yes. After strangling him, hoisting him into the tree was not easy either.’
‘And Estel was simply an accident,’ Dhinal said.
‘You’ve done well out of this then,’ Strings said, her eyes still flashing. ‘You bring extra slaves to your friends, get the remaining horses and our belongings, equipment, Dhinal’s gold and jewels.’
‘Yes and no. I won’t take both horses, there’s no point, they’d just be a drain on the resources of the valley where I’ll winter. The ponies are better suited to this environment, but I’ll risk one of the mounts too. If it makes it through to spring then I’ll sell it when I return to Eastsea, or maybe another town or city. If it doesn’t make it, well it won’t go to waste. The other horse will help the people here more than it would me. I’ll keep the kit and supplies, yes, and it will be very useful, thank you. The gold? I’ve taken out what you owe me for successfully guiding you here,’ she gestured to the city, still glowing despite the sun having now dipped below the mountains, ‘but the rest is still with your other things. Obviously the forest people will be unlikely to immediately return your knives, they wouldn’t want you doing anything stupid, but your other possessions will be returned to you later. They’re all here on the horse.’
Dhinal smiled. It all made sense, for the first time since leaving his people. He felt a wave of warmth and happiness.
'Look, I know you believe in fate, Dhinal,’ Kees continued, staring down at the city, not noticing his smile. ‘Look at it this way, if you want to feel better; if your ship had been a day late, or you yourself had arrived at the House of Birds a few moments after you did, then you wouldn't be sitting here with your hands tied now, would you? I was about to leave, to go get my ponies and head out to the mountains, try to find another group to fill my quota next year. Can you honestly say you were unlucky? Or is there a reason for this?' Kees stopped, head tilted, eyes noticing the smile, waiting for an answer.
'Yes, you are right. There is a reason for this. There has to be. I think...' he trailed off, eyes joining his mouth in smiling. 'Yes, I think you are right. Strings, it'll be fine. Trust me.' Dhinal repeated and looked sideways at her, nodding, the smile broad and honest and true.
'Why did you search for the Red City, Dhinal?' Kees asked.
He was silent for a time, the smile slowly dissipating.
'My people are a long way from here. Our lands are being taken from us, our families murdered, raped, our children and flocks killed or taken. We have tried to fight, but it is difficult. Violence for my people is,' he paused, struggling for the right word, 'Ritualised? It is a dance, a way of being. There are many rules. Now we are being destroyed, with no rules to follow. Aishah-Zaya, my mistress, she sought guidance from the spirit-sand, learnt I would find the answer in this place. Our only city is hidden, all trade is conducted in camps many miles away. She explained that to save one hidden city, I would have to find another. She showed me the way here from the feet of the Amethyst Mountains, but she did not know where the peaks themselves were. I have journeyed for over three years to find this place.'
'Then I am sorry you have not found what your people need. I am sorry your journey has ended in a place you thought would be halfway,' Kees said, starting to rise.
Dhinal also rose, shaking his head. He held out his tied hands, one closed, the other open. Kees looked him in the eye and, after a brief moment, she reached out and accepted his gesture, taking his hand in hers.
'On the contrary,' he said, as he held her, 'on the contrary. I have found exactly what I have been searching for. This is no end, it is a new beginning. I am sure I can save my people.'
Kees was silent, staring into Dhinal’s calm face.
She opened her mouth to reply, then frowned and paused, shutting it again.
She nodded slowly and released herself from his grip. She turned to Strings, who remained seated, speaking in a different language as she addressed her.
‘You speak Gateway don’t you, and no one else here does? Do not say anything, just listen. Nod if you understand.’
Strings nodded, eyes still narrow, untrusting.
‘Tell Dhinal exactly what I say, make sure no one else overhears you. If you speak his language, use that. These people, the forest people, they are good, I have not lied to you. But I do not think you and Dhinal are meant for a life here. I know he was the student of someone powerful and I know he knows many things I do not understand, true magic.
‘The forest people respect and fear these powers, this knowledge. Their shamans are strong, but limited to certain natural magics, and then only when they all come together. Individually they can do little other than spirit-quest and heal. All Dhinal need do is show them something to convince them of his power. Wait until the coming new moon to do so, they know the darkness is a time when the boundaries between the worlds are thin. If you both can leave then, if he can convince them, then they will guide you to the road before the snows come. I will be honest; I doubt they will release Chimal and the twins. This is a great risk, but I think it may be one you are both willing to take. Now, I must go. Do not say anything about this until later.’
Strings nodded again and said nothing.
‘Chimal, Yuli, Lopi,’ Kees continued, switching languages, ‘I think you may in time come to realise how lucky you are to be here, to be fed and clothed and warm. I hope, with this time, you hate me less than you may do now.’
The sisters looked frightened, confused, but Chimal held Kees’ gaze and slowly nodded.
‘But did so many have to die?’ he asked, then turned his head.
Kees inclined her head towards Dhinal, briefly spoke to the forest people in their own strange tongue and then returned to the horse and mounted quickly. She did not once look back.
Perhaps Dhinal was right, perhaps he could save his people. She had long realised guessing the future of others was futile, far simpler to rely on her own intuition, experience and training. Concentrate on keeping herself alive and as unharmed as possible. It was safer this way.
By the time the moon was full she should be at her cabin, traplines to set, ruins to search. All this behind her. She dug in her heels and set off at an easy trot, back toward the river, where her ponies and the rest of her supplies and sundries were waiting.
As she left, she realised it felt good to be alone again, surrounded by the mountains and with no one to talk to but the birds and the beasts. For the first time in years she felt free, her future hers to choose. A new beginning.
As he stood, watching Kees depart, Dhinal smiled. He had always assumed it was a physical object he had been looking for. Now, for the first time, he knew what his people were lacking. They would not die, he would make sure of that. Kees had taken him to the destination he had sought for so long and, standing above it, also told him the secret he needed to hear.
In her explanation of how she had come to the Red City, how she had made her deal with the forest people and carried out her part of the bargain, lay one clear truth.
It was willpower. Iron willpower. His first responsibility was to his people and his own willpower would be strong enough, cold enough, ruthless enough. Kees had shown him; all is as dust without the will to carry out what need be done.
There was no secret magical power waiting in the city, no ally to encourage back to win the fight, no scroll peppered with magical symbols and glowing with ancient power.
There was simply the will to do what must be done.
He and Strings would find a way to escape, find a way to travel back to his people. Together they would crush their enemies. There would be no mercy.
One day he would be named Dhinal-Zaya, the voice of his people. Of that he was sure.
There were many ways to die, but only one death.
And it was not his time.
Many thanks for reading. I hope you enjoyed reading this story as much as I did writing it. I am very glad of this opportunity to share this tale with you.
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Dhinal and Strings will return in the novelette Dust & Death. Coming (very) soon, here on Substack.
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