The Lure of Gold
Only One Death: Part Eight of Ten
Only One Death is the first in the Tales of The Lesser Evil and this is the eighth 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.
If you enjoy this story and aren’t already subscribed, please consider doing so,
share this with those you know,
or like, comment, or restack on Substack Notes.
The Lure of Gold
It was dark and Strings was alive, of that much she was fairly sure. Everything else was clouded in what felt like the mother of all hangovers.
Had she been drinking? She couldn't remember.
There been a mountain, maybe a river.
The thought made her move, too suddenly, and she swallowed hard, trying not to vomit. The action jarred her memory and it all came flooding back.
They had been ambushed by tiny people, tiny people with blowpipes.
But she was alive.
She opened her eyes.
There was a fire, around which she could clearly see the backs of many Twigs. She was trussed up like a lamb on feast day, unable to even twist to sit up. Not that she wanted to, every small movement made her feel violently nauseous. She could hear someone being sick somewhere beyond her feet, then a moan. She was sure it was Lopi. Maybe Dhinal was still alive.
'Dhinal?' The single word was too much and she emptied her stomach.
'I'm here,' the reply came from somewhere near.
'You are awake,' she did not recognise the voice. 'You are awake now. You will drink this. It will make you better.'
She felt her jaws being pulled apart by tiny hands and realised she could not struggle or resist, every movement agony. A warm, syrupy liquid ran down her throat and she retched once more, but nothing came up. She felt dizzy, blackness all around. She was swallowing, her mouth filling with saliva and she knew she was going to pass out.
'Dhinal, I love you.'
To her ears her voice sounded strange, slow, distant and hollow. She heard no answer beyond the crackle of the fire.
When next she woke it was daylight. She had been moved at some point during the night, but she did not know how. She had no memory after she had been given the thick draught. She remembered the liquid, the pounding in her head. She slowly opened her eyes and moved her hands, testing her bonds. They were tight, some sort of grass rope, but at least the movement did not set off waves of nausea. Her head felt normal.
She was propped up against a rock, placed on her own bedding to keep her off the cold and damp ground. It seemed an odd touch from her captors. The twins were both asleep to her left, their heads resting together, chests rising in tandem. She moved her head in the other direction.
Their horses and Kees's ponies were standing not too far away, packs nowhere to be seen. The animals seemed to have suffered no mistreatment or injury and appeared to be contentedly eating meadow hay.
Beside her Dhinal slept, his eyelids fluttering, dreaming. She stared for a moment, then tried to see beyond him to where she expected Kees to be.
She was not there. Instead Chimal looked back, left eye bruised, but other than that looking remarkably healthy for someone they had assumed dead. He gave her a wan smile and a nod of his head.
There was no sign of their guide. She mouthed "Kees" to Chimal and he pulled a "no idea" face in reply.
Perhaps there was hope. Perhaps their guide, who had proved herself more than useful on more than one occasion, could somehow rescue them from their miniature human-shaped captors. If not, at least they were still alive and, for the moment, together.
It was midday when they were moved.
Dhinal rose to his feet slowly, unsteadily. They had been individually walked down to the river, allowed to wash themselves, and visit the camp latrine. At no time were they out of sight of at least three of the Twigs, weapons at the ready.
It was disconcerting, looking at the little people. Their skin gave Dhinal a headache if he tried to look too closely. It seemed to move, to blend and writhe. The camouflage effect was extraordinary. The fact at least some of them could speak Strings’ language was also extremely interesting. They were clearly highly intelligent, only smaller than any of the other Talking People he had met, but he knew size was never a sensible indicator of intelligence.
'We will cross the river today. Not here, downstream.'
Dhinal thought it was the same Twig who had spoken to them in the night. He also thought it was male, perhaps the leader, or a translator. As they walked, single-file and tied together with woven plant-fibre rope, Dhinal continued to study their captors. He had seen nations where slavery was the norm, where the slave was not allowed to look at their owner unless told. The Twigs did not seem to hold to this, instead staring back just as openly. He decided to test their boundaries, see what was permitted, what was not.
'Chimal,' he called back down the line, 'what happened?'
There was a short silence, then a reply.
'I fell behind. I... I sat down on a rock to... to rest. The next thing I knew I was surrounded by these little people. I tried to run away, but they stopped me with darts. I fell and banged my face. Yesterday I was walked down to where you were being kept.’ He paused briefly, ‘I thought you might be dead at first, none of you moved at all.'
Dhinal was quiet, thinking. He wondered how badly Chimal had wanted to end it all.
'It was an accident, Chimal. You cannot bring Estel back. It is terrible, but it will get better.'
There was no reply.
The river crossing was not as dangerous as Dhinal had feared. The Twigs sent two of their number to attach a pair of ropes across the water, as Dhinal and the others were instructed to strip off their leg coverings and make ready to wade across. The sight of the figures, naked but for a small neck pouch each wore, swimming swiftly from bank to bank was disconcerting, their mottled skin as effective a camouflage in the river as it was on land. Once the pair had made it to the bank, they tied off their rope-ends and disappeared into the trees.
The prisoners used the ropes to hold on to, upstream of the thick cords so the current did not pull them away. It was not as simple as it could have been, with their hands still bound, but it was safer than any other way Dhinal could think of, short of releasing them. The water came up to their thighs and no higher. He was envious of the little people, who simply and quickly moved across one of the ropes, whilst holding on to the other.
Partway across the river Dhinal realised he had not seen their horses since they had started walking. Perhaps they had been taken elsewhere to pasture.
The water was cold, glacial fed and winter-ready. Patches of minerals sparkled beneath their freezing feet, flashes of colour revealing polished quartz pebbles and crystals: amethyst, citrine, jasper, onyx, rose and others. He did not know much about geology, but he knew this place was very special indeed. Some of the larger rocks had cracked open to reveal a surprisingly bright red inner. He guessed the Red City was built from this stone, the obvious name following. Had the builders and inhabitants called it something different? Dhinal knew places shed names as snakes shed skin, time sloughing all.
'Is that gold?' Lopi asked.
Dhinal was not sure who she was talking to but he followed her gaze into a pool behind a large boulder. As he stepped closer he could see several small stones were trapped in a cleft, yellow and bright.
'Yes. I think it is. Some quite large pieces.' He started to look more closely at the bed as they crossed.
The river was laden with riches. How no one had found this place and exploited it, he did not know. Then he thought of the mountains he had sought for so long; people had found it, had built a city and forged a powerful and legendary nation. Only, they no longer lived there and their city was lost. Destruction followed riches, as it always seemed to.
He had no interest in these forms of wealth, they meant little to his people. Clean water, shelter from the loess-laden winds, healthy herds, and good hunting. Those things were important, not rocks. There were many places in the steppes where such mineral wealth could be found, but it was only collected to trade with outsiders, and then only sparingly. They knew the lure of gold could bring raiders to their lands. After three years of searching, the pouches of golden dust, nuggets, and jewels he carried were much depleted. Paying for the group had not been cheap.
As he climbed out of the frigid water, Dhinal sighed. All the precautions his people had taken had not spared them from the threat they now faced. The invaders from the north did not care about gold either, they seemed to want to take women and slaves, kill those who resisted and move south. Not for the first time, Dhinal wondered if they were being pursued by something terrible, driven from their own lands, fear and desperation lending them strength. He hoped his people could survive and, for the very first time, he wondered whether they would be able to, were he to fail.
'Did they take the map Dhinal?' Lopi asked quietly. 'If we get away, will we still be able to find the way to the city?'
Dhinal thought how best to answer. He did not think they would all be able to get away safely.
'No, they did not take the map.'
'That's good then. When Kees comes to rescue us we'll be able to carry on.'
'Yes Lopi, we will,' Dhinal said, deliberately not looking at Strings. He could still feel her gaze without doing so.
On the other bank, in amongst the trees, a large fire had been lit by the pair of Twigs who crossed first. They were all instructed to warm themselves beside this, rough woollen squares handed over to dry the cold river water from their skin. The little people were certainly caring for their captives. The group were given a hot aromatic tea to drink and once they were warm, inside and out, they were then told to put their clothing back on. Then they were again tied to one another and the journey downstream continued.
Dhinal judged there to be two glasses of daylight left when they left the narrow trail and reached the road.
An old, wide bridge had long since failed to cross the river, but segments still survived, including a whole arch of red masonry. Carvings were now worn by water and many years of harsh mountain weather, but it must have been a stunning sight in its heyday.
The road itself was in comparable condition to the one they had followed after leaving the Great North Road. In parts it was still paved with polygonal slabs, other stretches had been washed away to the hard packed rubble beneath. Soil and detritus had covered much of it. Time always found a way to return her land to nature.
Many thanks for reading.
Head to the next issue here.
Head to the introduction and contents page here.
Go back to the previous issue here.
The Crow's Nest is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts, whether chapters of serialised fiction, news on works in progress, notes on the writing process, or essays on a variety of topics, please do consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.