Only One Death: Part Two of Ten.
Only One Death is the first in the Tales of The Lesser Evil and this is the second 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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The House of Birds was loud, covered in shit, and exactly the sort of place to lose your purse. The name came from the owner's idea to hang bird cages from the rafters, dozens of small feathered creatures sang as though it was their only chance at freedom. Perhaps it was. Every so often one would be sitting too close to the bars of their wicker cage and defecate into someone's drink, or on a head, to loud roars and hilarity from the crowd. This would set all the other birds singing, chirruping and squawking. Sometimes such an event would trigger a chain reaction, with another bird firing a message below, more roars, more shit. Kees was sure there was a hidden meaning to this, a message from the Gods, but she was no scry.
She did not like the place and sat with her back to the wall, opposite the entrance. Both her feet were on the table in front of her, knees bent, soles against the edge. It was good to keep supple and if anyone came at her they'd have a flying table to contend with first, with a knife or two to follow. To her left, a square cage housed a collection of mulberry finches, their orange plumage dull, ragged and torn. On her right was the door to the upper rooms, which could be rented by the hourglass. No bird would deposit anything on her, and she could keep a steady eye on traffic.
In front of her business was being conducted in at least six languages, mostly human, at least one not. All talking about caravans, trade and travel, and all going to sea or to the south, in the wrong direction. Perhaps she would need to cut her losses and leave without a contract. She had finally come to accept that it would be no real hardship; gold and gems had little meaning in the woods, but it would make a difference when she returned to what she was told was the civilised world.
Her drink, a weak local beer which tasted more like the silted estuary than of anything alcoholic, was nearly finished. She would have to order another or move on, gather her supplies, and leave. She really did not want to be in the city when the ceremonies started. They made her irritable.
She drained her crock. Leave it was.
The door opened and two strangers walked in. Strangers were nothing new or surprising in Eastsea, but this pair immediately locked eyes with her and started to walk toward where she was sitting.
Kees moved the pottery crock to her left hand and slipped her right inside her left sleeve, fingers quickly releasing the knife. She did not like people taking an interest in her; it usually signified a painful experience for someone, and she was determined it would not be her. She tilted her head to one side and waited.
The taller and darker-skinned of the two wore leather, tooled and stitched in a design she had never seen before. Although a long knife rested on her hip she spread her hands in front of her, nudging the other woman to do likewise. It was clear they wanted Kees to think they were there to talk.
'Kees? I am Dhinal and this is Strings. We have been all over this city looking for a guide and we are told it is you we need. We are here to buy your services.'
The explosions had started early. The fireworks were said to be amongst the best displays anywhere in the known world. Kees was not sure whether that was true, she had not seen many civilised places, but she did know the bangs and flashes startled the horses and ponies.
She sighed, she had really hoped to be away before the fireworks became a problem. She moved from animal to animal, speaking softly and calmly, reassuring, as ears flicked and eyes rolled, hooves stamped and tails swished.
She had been sitting with her back to a tree, idly carving a small piece of timber into what looked like it might become a bird's head, the sun only just setting, when she had been joined by the two she had met the previous evening, Dhinal and Strings. Thankfully, they smelled considerably better than when she had first met them, having taken advantage of Eastsea's fabled bathhouses and perfumers. They had brought the group's animals out of the city and secured them near Kees's own ponies.
There was still no sign of the others in the group.
Despite initial appearances, it had not taken Kees long to determine Dhinal identified as a man and that both he and Strings were hiding something. More than one something. The look, which had swept their faces when she had confirmed that she did know the way to the Amethyst Mountains, had spoken of more than the simple geological survey they had explained they were conducting.
Of all the stories the group could have invented, a geological survey seemed to be one of the most ludicrous.
'Where are they?' she asked, tucking the carving into a pocket.
'They'll be here soon. They are not the most timely of groups,' Dhinal replied.
Kees stood and went to check on the ponies, again. There were only so many times she could tighten cinches and check straps.
'I do not like people being late. They may be late at the wrong time. It bodes ill.'
Dhinal and Strings exchanged glances.
'Yes, it does, we agree. We don't like it either, but they won't hurry for us,’ said Strings.
'Why not rid yourself of them?'
'They... They are essential to this expedition,' Dhinal replied, his expression failing to match his words.
Kees snorted loudly.
'Right. The rocks. They need studying. You need idiots to study them. Yes.'
The pair exchanged another glance.
'Look, we bought the supplies you said we would need, we bought and packed the animals, we paid you the half you wanted before we set off, perhaps against my better wishes, and we are here waiting too,' Dhinal said. He was angry, not with their guide, but with the group. If Aishah-Zaya had not told him he would need the aid of others, to spurn no one, that the success of his journey depended on them, he would have rid himself of the group a long time ago. Perhaps not Strings, but certainly the others. A group of nine was too large, made too much of a ripple in any wilderness. They were asking for trouble.
And Kees made ten. Amongst his people, ten was an unlucky number.
'Finally,' Kees said, her own exasperation clear.
The others appeared between the wide gates, walking slowly toward them, laughing and talking to one another; the self-professed magician Chimal b'Arngli, the tall and heavily muscled Bab, axe hanging from his hip, the thief twins Yuli and Lopi, with identical faces and identical brands on identical thumbs, the scholar and chronicler Estel, ink-stained fingers constantly playing with her quills, the hunter, Galea, her bow slung across her back beside a thin quiver and, finally, the swords-woman Vivika, the worn pommel of her blade protruding from the rolled blanket across an armoured back. They made a strange group, but no stranger than the others she had led into the wilderness.
Kees watched as they arrived. She had met them all during the morning when she had taken them from one market to another until they had everything she thought they would need. Dhinal had paid for it all.
She kept telling herself guiding such a group was a necessary evil. The tiny pouch of gems and golden nuggets and dust was welcome and, for her, they were heading in the right direction. Half the gold had already gone, much of it swapped for a pair of small glass vials. The people of Beya guarded their secrets closely, but to Kees, each vial was more than worth the ten times its weight in gold she had paid, and that had been a discounted price. The Beyans said it was not magic, but the ability of their product to cure infections made many doubt their assertion. It also meant the liquid was illegal to own in Eastsea, as with anything magical or arcane. It was worth the risk; an infected wound, alone in the wilds, could prove fatal.
She had also added to the supplies she had bought before being hired, purchasing items she thought she would have to do without; a new axehead, more tobacco for her pipe, extra cordage, lamp oil, and bundles of candles. The guiding was a necessary evil indeed.
This was the third such group she had taken to search for the Red City. Of course, each had an excuse as to why they wanted to find the legendary Amethyst Mountains. The first had been a holy pilgrimage. The second to capture eagles. This time a geological survey.
For her, it was a one-way journey in their company. As part of the deal they had made she agreed she would draw them a map, but only once they reached the peaks. She would also make sure they could read it, follow the indistinct pathways back to the Great North Road. Then she would leave them at the foot of the Amethyst Mountains and move in the opposite direction, towards the tiny home she had made in the Fjordlands. She would spend the winter trapping and hunting, for game and fur-bearing creatures, but also searching for relics of earlier times. The pelts she would sell at Eastsea's fur market, the artefacts to the same woman who had sold her the bottles she called "antibiotic".
To the best of her knowledge, neither of the other groups had ever found what they sought. When she had returned to Eastsea after wintering in her mountain cabin there was no talk of them, no sign. The wilderness was not cruel, it was not harsh, it was not benevolent. It simply was, and it embraced both life and death.
She wondered in what ways this latest group would die.
After trying to keep them quiet, over and over, Kees simply gave up. They were travelling at night, through the darkness of the new moon, in order to prevent the wrong sort of attention, but it seemed these adventurers didn't care. She walked ahead with her ponies, followed by Dhinal and Strings, each leading a string of their own. Neither had wanted to spend any of Dhinal's funds on a horse, not like the others, who rode with varying degrees of success.
The twins were bickering over a story they were telling Estel, who was trying to record notes on horseback and kept splashing black ink down already oft-stained clothes, darker shadows on shadow. Bringing up the rear, Galea was also on foot with bow in hand, eyes constantly searching. She had been honest, explaining that she had never ridden in her life. This was, by the look of things, also the case with Bab and Chimal. Only Vivika rode as though she had once ridden something other than a village carthorse, and she rode well and easily.
Kees sighed, there would be sore muscles and an even slower pace the following night. Once they were far enough from the city, and off the main north-south route, they would travel by day. That was about a hundred miles from Eastsea, where the wilderness proper began and the sporadic small walled towns, palisaded villages and farms no longer existed.
She sighed again. Kees always felt melancholy without the moon, but it would soon return, as it always did.
She continued walking, through the night.
Dawn arrived with birdsong. Unlike in The House of Birds, this time they sang free and wild.
'We stop here, there's a spot to set up camp just off the road, to the right there. There's cover in the trees and a stream for water. It might be a good idea to set up a watch. I noticed Chimal has a sand-glass, so we can use that to determine when to wake the next person.'
'You take first?' Bab asked, climbing stiffly down from his gelding, with obvious difficulty. He had tried to learn the other languages spoken in the group, but it seemed language was not his strong point. Or learning, for that matter.
'No. I guide. I do not watch.'
'Not fair, why you get more sleep?'
'Because if I don't sleep, and I mess up, we all die. How's that? Good enough reason? I could just leave you here if you want? I am paid to guide. Not to babysit,' Kees tilted her head and waited for a response.
'Bab, shut up. We'll take it in turns, there are enough of us that we won't all have to watch every day,' Strings said, and accompanied her words with a pointed glare at the man.
'Fine. Just not seem fair, is all.'
'Shut up Bab,' Dhinal and Strings said together.
Kees smiled to herself and walked down the slope, removing the unfinished carving from her pocket. She would sleep a little way from the group, but still within eyeshot. She always found there was at least one snorer.
'Can you believe that?' Bab asked Vivika a short time later, as they laid out their bedding.
'What?' They were talking in their shared native tongue.
'Kees not taking a turn to watch. I mean, she's part of this group, isn't she?'
Vivika looked over to where their guide had already strung a lightweight, smoke-stained tarp above her bedding, itself arranged on several armfuls of fir bough. She was carving something and cooking her own meal over her own fire.
'I don't think she really is Bab. I think she means it when she says she's just the guide.' She looked across again, 'I think she's been doing this for a long time. She certainly knows how to set up a camp quickly.'
'Bab! Can you give me a hand gathering some firewood?' Galea called.
'Why me?' Bab replied, thick accent mangling the words Strings had taught him.
Dhinal took the first watch. He was not exactly sure what Kees thought they should be watching for, but it made sense to keep the small fire burning and an eye on the animals, who seemed a little confused as to why they had been made to walk all night, then were expected to rest in the daylight.
He had not wanted this; a group of individuals all after their own individual ends. Not for the first time, he tried to seek the reason behind Aishah-Zaya's directive, but nothing was forthcoming. All he wanted was to find the Red City, find whatever weapon or talisman would save his people, then return to them. To home.
Strings slept near to him, wrapped in her dusty blankets and woollen coat, knife hidden under the battered haversack she used as a pillow.
Would he ask her to return with him? It would not be unheard of for an outsider to join the People, but it was rare. If he asked and she refused... The thought was painful. She meant more to him than perhaps she realised, but he dare not tell her. At least not yet. Maybe once they had found the city, maybe then.
Maybe. There were too many maybes, Dhinal knew. He was not comfortable with that knowledge.
Strings tried to sleep. Her eyes were closed, yet she could still feel Dhinal looking at her. She felt comforted by his gaze. She would take the final watch, after Vivika. It suited her, she never slept for long any more. All she could see when she dreamt were flames.
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