Only One Death: Part Seven of Ten
Only One Death is the first in the Tales of The Lesser Evil and this is the seventh 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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'Can you smell that?' Kees asked, as they set up camp that evening. They had spent all afternoon walking downhill, back into the thicker-forested valley bottom, which had meant a slower pace than when they had been walking on the level or uphill. The horses kept slipping, at times sliding down on their haunches. Chimal still lagged behind, even after the twins tried to talk him into rejoining the group. It was like he was lost, stumbling along in their wake, head full of darkness and despair.
'Smell what?' Strings asked. She raised her nose to the wind and inhaled. Nothing. She repeated the action and caught a faint hint of woodsmoke. They had yet to light their fire.
'Smoke,' said Dhinal.
'How far away? Who is it? Could it be a forest fire?' Strings piled the questions on top of each other.
'It is still a long way off. Could be a forest fire, but unlikely after all the rain. I suppose it could have died down, only to flare up again. Could be a hunting party.'
'Hunting party? I thought no one ever heads into these mountains?' Dhinal said.
'Whoever told you that lied. You are the third group I have led through these passes in the last three years. Other guides exist, I'm sure. Maybe they come in from another direction, the north, maybe? The city of Fea Little lies about a hundred miles that way,' she pointed to where the wind was coming from. 'The going is tough, but maybe it is someone hunting. Maybe they are looking for hidden treasures? Or the Red City?'
'Maybe. Are they likely to be a problem?' Dhinal kept staring into the trees, not wanting to ask what had happened to the other two groups, or whether they too had been searching for the lost city.
'Could be. Might not. It's always difficult to tell with people you meet out here. Some have other reasons for being in the mountains. Darker reasons,' Kees said, as Chimal caught up with the group and flopped to the ground, breathing heavily, broad back leant against a frost-shattered rock. He had been getting slower each day, despite the many discarded bottles he had left behind.
'I saw some smoke that way,' he said, 'still a long way off though. What do you think it is?'
The next day, around mid-morning, Kees signalled a halt, left fist raised above her head. The others stopped, with Dhinal coming forward.
'What is it?'
She pointed to the ground.
The trail they were following was bisected by another, the local animal traffic clearly heavy, with several hoof marks. It was not the deer and bison tracks that had caught her attention, however. A line of prints stretched from left to right, deeper than they should have been for their tiny size, and uneven; individuals treading in each others' footsteps. Here and there a clearer and shallower impression was visible, where a foot had slipped in the mud and been stretched to one side to aid balance.
Each was tiny and naked. The size of a baby's.
'These are fresh. I am guessing this also explains the smoke,' Kees said, looking along the trail into the trees. She could see nothing moving, but could not help but wonder if anything, or anyone, was staring back.
'How long ago? I am still not good tracking in these wet lands. I would say this morning?' Dhinal turned his statement into a question.
'Yes. Maybe a turn of the glass ago. I think there were around a dozen of them, hunting, I'd guess.'
'What do we do?' asked Strings, who had joined them.
'Nothing we can do, except keep going, hope they don't double back. Cold camp again tonight, we can't risk them scenting us. We'll leave the remaining venison a little further up the trail. We won't be able to cook it now. I am hopeful we'll avoid them; usually Twigs don't want to get too close to us bigger folk if they can help it, too risky for them.'
'Let's go then. Stay close, Chimal,' Dhinal said, as they started walking.
But Chimal did not stay close. When they stopped to camp that night he was nowhere to be seen, nor did he catch up as darkness fell.
The following morning the group had another difficult decision to make. Kees cleared her throat and laid out their position.
'Do we go back and look for Chimal, or do we carry on? It will take maybe a day and a half to reach the foot of the Amethyst Mountains from here. We have a river crossing this afternoon, one which should put any Twig hunting party behind us.'
'Chimal knew the danger of dropping behind. I say we go on,' Yuli said, Lopi nodding her agreement. Neither had forgiven him for accidentally killing Estel.
'Onward,' Strings added.
'Yes. On. We need to be away from these Twigs. We have lost half our number already. A meeting with a dozen potentially angry hunters, no matter how small, would not end well,' Dhinal said, his hand raised to shade his eyes against the rising sun, directly back the way they had walked the previous day. 'Unless you counsel otherwise, Kees?'
'No. I think we need to cross the river. If we don't get over it before nightfall, and the Twigs have found Chimal...' She started walking, pulling her ponies behind her.
Strings followed, leading the horses, their packs considerably smaller than they had once been.
Dhinal paused a moment longer to watch the sun. A short distance away a great eagle took off from the top of a tall pine, laboured beating of wings trying to catch an early thermal. It flew off to the east before circling above something it had seen below. Dhinal did not know whether to hope it was Chimal, or not.
The trail passed increasingly large boulder fields, open spaces where floods had long ago ripped up the vegetation and soil. At times it disappeared in thick tangles of driftwood, forcing them to find another route around. As they neared the river, cracked and torn willows appeared, new trunks growing from fallen trees.
'The river is just over there,' Kees pointed beyond a line of vegetation, then paused with her mouth open, frozen.
'What? What is it?' Dhinal could see nothing untoward.
'There,' she moved her finger slightly, to where a giant boulder had long ago been deposited, a bow-shot away. Standing atop its lichen-covered surface was a small figure, knee high, clearly watching their approach.
'Shit. Is that what I think it is?' asked Strings.
'Yes. That's a Twig. Just the one though, no, wait, there's another,' Kees pointed to their left, where a tiny figure was approaching through the boulder-field carrying a spear.
'And another,' Dhinal pointed behind them.
'We're surrounded,' Yuli said, her voice coming out as a squeak, knives flashing into view.
'Put them away!' Kees snapped. 'Hold up your hands, show them we're no threat. It's our only chance.'
The others did as she instructed, as increasing numbers of the figures appeared from all directions. They could see more than a dozen, far more.
They were small; not fat like the stories Strings had heard, but slender. If you could get past the colour and patterns of their skin, they looked just like tiny, shrunken humans. They blended into the colour of the forests: greens, browns, gold, reds, blacks and yet more greens. There was no doubting why people called them Twigs.
'Do you think we can talk to them?' Strings asked, counting up to thirty of the small people, before losing track of who she had counted and who she had missed as they blurred in and out of her vision.
'We can try. They have their own language but some of them speak human tongues. We're geographically closest to Fea Little, does anyone speak Interior, or Fean?'
'No,' they replied, almost as one.
'I'll try then,' Kees said.
She immediately moved forward, raising her hands higher and calling out in a language unfamiliar to the others.
Strings listened, but could not make out any of the words. The Twigs had stopped moving, waiting in a rough circle with bows, blowpipes, spears and javelins all clutched in tiny hands. She realised they had no metal, all their weapons were made from the forest: bone and stone, wood and antler, feather and sinew.
One of them walked a little closer and said something in what seemed to be the same tongue. Strings was surprised their voices were not squeaky, or high pitched, as she had imagined they would be. Instead they had a low range, quiet but strong and clear. Kees replied and the conversation continued.
'What do you think they're saying?' Lopi whispered to her sister.
'No idea. At least we're not pincushions yet.'
The conversation between their guide and the tiny person, who Strings thought may be male, went on a little longer before Kees turned to the surviving four members of the group, forehead creased in a deep frown.
'This isn't going to be easy,' she said.
'What do they want? Why haven't they just killed us?' Strings asked, her eyes flicking from one Twig to another. Arrow to blowpipe to spear.
'They want two of us.'
'They what? Two of us? For what? What do you mean?' asked Lopi, her eyes increasingly wide.
Strings was reminded of just how young the twins were. Despite their protestations she knew they had yet to reach their third Sixthday, not even eighteen years old. She herself had given birth to Tais when she had been barely seventeen, Tjia and Tabes following within two years. A long time ago.
'I mean just that; they want two of us. For, well, for slaves.' She paused, then continued, 'If two of us go with them, then they will let the rest of us go unharmed, provided we turn back and do not approach the Amethyst Mountains.'
'What can we do?' Yuli asked, voice wavering, hands shaking. From the way she kept flexing them, it was clear she wished she still had her knives in her grip.
'Nothing we can do. Like you said, we are completely surrounded. If we make a break for it then maybe some of us would survive, most likely not though, not with the river ahead. The horses would certainly not make it, which means no supplies to speak of. Nothing we can do.'
'Are you saying we should go along with their wishes and give up two of us? How can we choose who?' Dhinal asked.
'Yes. That is what I am saying. If we don't, we'll all be slaves. Or dead.'
'How? How can we choose? I'm guessing nobody is going to be noble?' Strings asked.
'No. I'm not going to be anyone's slave,' Lopi said. 'I suppose this is the part in the play where we risk everything for our freedom, battle our captors, and escape to find the treasure?' She laughed softly and repeated, 'I will not be a slave. I am free.'
'Neither will I. I'd rather die,' added her sister, her hands suddenly steadied and relaxed.
'I'd love to be noble, just not today,' Dhinal said, somehow managing to smile at Strings, 'I have come too far to give up now.'
'Right. Let me try and talk to them again.'
Kees raised her arms and walked forward, talking in the same language. Before she had managed to make it half a dozen steps she fell to the ground.
The others started moving, but they were too late. They had been watching their guide and had not seen the ring closing around them. Each fell over, each pierced with more than one tiny dart.
Dhinal struggled to rise, struggled to pluck the cattail-fletched sliver of bone from his arm. His vision was disappearing, turning monochromatic, everything in shades of blue. He could feel the cold stones and silt on his cheek. His last thought was that it felt like home at dawn.
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