By Chris Wright
She was there. She had waited for him; he should have known she would. Gods, she was beautiful. Her hair shimmered in the blinding light, casting long-fingered shadows upon the ground. Her cheeks were flushed and lightly-freckled and her hazelnut eyes captured his and held on. The air around them seemed to dance and whisper. It whipped her hair and carried her sweet scent, jasmine and derotess flower. He took her in, every single inch of her, every sight and smell, the tinkle of her laugh as he stared for too long. She grinned her wicked grin and he felt himself respond in kind.
He tried to move, to stride forward and take her in his arms, but he couldn’t. His feet were stuck, as if bolted to the ground, and he struggled in vain. The wicked smile grew wider, but he was starting to become desperate, tugging at his legs, begging them to move. And then there were voices, odd and uninvited. She was fading. No. They were taking her from him. He pulled and pulled, reaching for her, shouting her name. Please. No. But the voices were growing louder and she was almost gone and soon it had all faded to black.
Only the voices remained in the unforgiving curse of the living and his pain was born anew to join them. He must have groaned or else thrashed where he lay, for the voices stopped abruptly and he sensed bodies hovering above him.
Who? Oh, right. Memories were starting to flood back now. The ship, the wreck, Amota; it was all starting to slot back into place.
“What?” he croaked, voice dry and painful.
“You’re awake, sir. You’re alive.”
“You won’t be if you don’t lower your voice,” Ryda replied, wincing as the noise pierced his skull like a blade.
“I’m sorry, sir,” the voice continued in an almost-whisper. “We didn’t know if you would make it. You’re a very lucky man.”
“Yeah, lucky. That’s me.”
He cracked an eye open, squinting through the painful glare to find himself in a wooden hut of some sort, lying upon a rickety old bed in someone’s house.
“Where in the hell am I?”
“You’re in Amota.”
Ryda opened his other eye to better glare at his companion. There was a third person in the room, he noted. A woman, silent as she stood by the door.
“Are you in some sort of bet, kid? Are you only allowed to say the Gods damned obvious? Because, if you are, I suggest you fucking admit defeat before I ram my fist down your throat.”
The man flushed, half out of anger, half out of embarrassed fear. He was a slight man and young; early twenties with a mop of thick dark hair above handsome, youthful features. He was well dressed in doublet and trousers, with a practical white cloak slung over them. Some sort of doctor then.
“Some of your compatriots had trouble remembering,” he replied, sterner now. “You are in my brother’s home. He brought you here from the wreckage. After saving your life.”
The last part was said pointedly. It roughly translated as ‘start acting more grateful and trite, you ass’. He didn’t rise to it.
“You’re a doctor?”
“Soon, by the Gods. My master, Dr. Torkin, is training me. For now, I am simply Healer Binto.”
Ryda offered a nod and not his name. The healer already had it and he wasn’t one for empty pleasantries.
“Did everyone make it off the ship?”
“Not everyone, I am afraid. There were seven who died and another three who may not survive the day. I fear that, now you are awake, I must leave to tend to them. My assistant, Healer Preta, will assist you.”
He left the room with a practiced swish of his glimmering white cloak and the woman in the corner stepped forward. She was not an unattractive woman, he noted. Mid-thirties perhaps, with diamond cut features and clean, untarnished skin. Deep brown eyes stared sternly into him, challenging him, as if she knew the assessment he was making. She didn’t seem like the healers he had known from back home. They were lowborn quacks for the most part, for the great majority who couldn’t afford doctors, and medicines that actually worked. In his experience, they usually came laden with oils and balms and leeches, smelling like flowered corpses with a veil of faux mysticism to earn the trust of fools. The healer in front of him was quite different. She was dressed in a simple, but respectable, dress, with a white cloak draped over her, just like Healer Binto. There was no hint of the mystical about her, either. She carried a stark, professional demeanour, not unlike the put upon tutors of his childhood.
Two quick steps and she was by his side, seizing an eyelid and forcing it wide. Light dug further into his retina as she held a candle lamp to see and he twisted on instinct. Her hands were strong, though, and held him tight, shifting the candle to the other eye.
Test upon test followed. He was prodded, pinched and tugged. She listened to his heart and his lungs, she looked into his ears, his nose, his eyes again, and rapped stingingly on various joints and muscles. On the few occasions he’d had cause to see a healer, he had always suspected that they enjoyed this part the most. Was it really necessary to jab into his armpit to check he hadn’t drowned? Gods, he was breathing, wasn’t he? Couldn’t they call that a victory and be done with it?
When her hands started to edge towards more intimate areas, he decided he’d had enough. He seized her wrist and pulled her close, looking deeply into her defiant eyes.
“I am a healer-”
“Which is why you aren’t flat on your arse. I’m alive, your tests told you that, yet?”
“Well yes but-”
“Good. Then get out and leave me alone.”
The healer seemed affronted, little used to be spoken to in such a way, but Ryda found it difficult to care. He was having a bad day in a very bad year. She gathered herself with forced understanding and smiled tightly at him.
“I’m sure you’re not feeling yourself. I’ll leave you to rest.”
Ryda waited just long enough to hear the door close and her footsteps fade before he tossed back his blanket and climbed from the bed. He had been stripped down to his underwear but he found, to his relief, his clothes draped over a handmade, beech chair, somehow dry and warm to the touch. A warming bond, perhaps? To a fire? Or perhaps he had simply been out for longer than he thought; the Warming Bond, after all, was a complex magic and he simply a washed up stranger. Quite literally.
Whatever the case, he was glad for it and, as he looked around the room, his heart soared further and he cracked a rare smile. There was little in the place: a simple old bed, the hand-made chair and a shaky old table. Barren walls and a small, shuttered window, which allowed wisps of light to creep into the room and join the meagre offerings of the table’s lantern. Ryda cared for none of it, but beside the lantern, sat a box. A plain old thing: scratched wood and faded patterns, about the length of his forearm, but there and then it meant more to Ryda than anything else in the world, for it was his. How had they found it? How had they known to whom it belonged? Ah, of course. He whispered the words under his breath and watched as the box pulsed green, reflecting a glow that sprung from his own body. The Property Bond. Bless the Father Sun for that wonderful piece of lesser magic.
He walked over to the box and flipped the lid. It was all still inside. His few worldly possession, bar the clothes on his back and the others in his trunk, now lost to the sea. His backup wheellock pistol, more battered than his favoured, lost weapon, and likely clogged with salt but in fine working order once he’d had chance to tinker a little. Beside it, the rounds and gunpowder, the latter wrapped tightly in waxpaper to protect against such accidents, and still untouched by water. Next was his father’s old knife: long and deadly, with razor sharp edges and a slight wave within its blade. It had been taken, his father had claimed, from the body of an Aurelian Knight. In his more creative moods, he had even claimed it a bonded weapon, connected to the knight’s very being with the Unification Bond, the most powerful of all. Ryda had never believed a word of it, not even as a child, but it was a fine blade nonetheless. A few odds and ends followed the weapons into his pockets until all that was left was coin: his life savings. A couple of miserly gold roundels with a more healthy selection of silver and bronze and even a handful of foreign coins; some Centums and a silver Quart from Ventilia. He’d heard rumour that all was accepted in the wastelands of Amota.
This, too, he flung into his pocket before pausing in thought and retrieving a handful of bronze. He threw it onto the table for his gracious hosts and grabbed hold of the box and made his way out of the room. He found himself in a vacant living room; sparsely furnished and a little shabby but fastidiously clean and well-maintained, with an iron hearth and a scattering of strict, wooden chairs. He didn’t linger. The sound of pottering came from the kitchen, the third and final room of the house, and he didn’t care for another confrontation. So he slipped silently across the plain, panelled floor of the hut and to the front door, before easing it open and escaping into the afternoon warmth of Amota.
The first thing that hit him was the dry heat. Velda Durj was a hot place, but he had grown used to the cold, damp air of their long sea voyage. Piercing light rained down over a humble town of wooden huts and houses, a brickwork temple and smatterings of shop stalls. The air was rife with country scents of chlorophyll and manure, mixed with old chimney smoke and the far-off aroma of sizzling pork that set his belly to rumble. He remembered himself after a moment, and set off at a walk to escape further attention from the healers, pushing on into the town and up a sloping, mud street.
As he walked, he continued to scout his new homeland, the rising hill of his path giving him glorious views all around him. The sea lay to his left, stretching out forever over deviously calm waves and glittering reflections, welcoming unwary fools. All around him was the town, though which it was, he did not know. There were three Lapisian settlements on the new colony, or so he had been told, all of similar size and shape, and which the Gods had seen fit to sling him to, he could not know. Whichever it was, it was a small town of, perhaps, three thousand, sprawling across flat, open land with farms and fields spread out for miles all around. The town in the centre surrounded a market place, which he entered now, looking around upon houses of brick instead of wood. The ground here was paved in cobblestone and encircled a small, brick temple – a pretty little thing with a spire and thatching on the roof. All around it were empty stalls, ready for market day, when they would be rented and filled with all sorts of food and wares.
The streets were strangely empty and he spotted but a few meandering souls, who raised a hand or offered a nod as he passed them on their way. There was no rush to the town, no urgency or danger, it seemed. A strange thing to a city boy and stranger still given the myths and rumours that surrounded Amota. The thought tore his eyes to the right and a distant curvature of the land. The Forested Mountains. There be monsters.
He had once, in his youth, visited Ventilia, the twin continent of his homeland, and he had travelled to the west out of morbid curiosity. There, he had looked upon the Demon Forest. As a forest, it looked as any other – greater, perhaps, taller and a little more wild, but its appearance spoke nothing of the horrors inside. Of the demons, the Gods forsaken monsters, with whom many believed he had dealt, but who would tear him apart should he ever dare to step upon their land. The Demon Forest may have looked like any other, but as he’d gazed into its depths, he had felt a shudder pass through his spine. There was a darkness that emanated from within and seemed to growl like a primal beast, like death. It was the same feeling he had now, looking into the distance, miles away, at the Forested Mountains of Amota.
There were stories aplenty about the mountains – wild tales and legends of the kind that should have been rejected as fairy stories. He had done just that when the stories first arrived, borne by fleeing men of the first colony twenty years ago and by explorers before that. But the stories had kept on coming. Not many returned from Amota’s shores, but all who did agreed on one thing. The interior of the continent was cursed. To delve into it meant death, to look upon it too long meant death, for that was where the demons resided. Demons as terrible as any on Ventilia, who would venture out at night and stalk into villages.
He tore his eyes away. It did not do to dwell. He had been doing that far too often lately, thinking about death and oblivion. It held a certain allure to him, but he could not think on it; he had promised. Instead, he quickened his step and made course for another large, stone building – the inn.
It was dark inside, murky windows and old candle lanterns offering scant resistance to the smoke-filled air of the pub. A dozen or so patrons sat alone or in a pair, hands clasped around glasses of ale as they pumped the place full of pipe smoke. Ryda ignored them and made his way to the bar, sitting himself on a stool and waiting for the grizzly old barman to attend him.
“What can I get ya?”
The barkeep grunted and grabbed a battered old tankard from the shelf before fiddling with a barrel and filling it. He placed it onto the bar with unexpected gentleness.
“Half,” he said.
Ryda threw the semi-circular bronze coin onto the bar and it quickly disappeared into the old man’s pocket.
“You got a room spare?” Ryda asked.
The bartender looked him up and down.
“No, we’re full. Come back in two days, I might have something.”
Ryda reached into his pocket. He didn’t have a huge amount of coin, but he had nowhere else to stay and he refused to be left homeless. Sometimes, the wheels needed to be greased.
“Check your books again,” he said, throwing a silver piece onto the bar.
The barman looked at it for a moment then nodded and disappeared into the back. Ryda sipped his ale as he waited, surveying the room and collecting his thoughts. He didn’t have to wait long. The barman returned after five minutes or so and slid a bronze key over to him.
“Room 7. Any bags?”
Ryda shook his head and the old man grunted again and disappeared back into the kitchen. He was left alone again, in peace, but it wasn’t to last. He didn’t even have time to finish his drink before a man, big and round, came barrelling out from the back and right up into Ryda’s face. He was spitting mad, red in the cheeks, with balled fists and chest puffed out.
“You think you can just take a man’s room?” he shouted.
Ryda just looked at him, still sat on his stool, then poured back the dredges of his drink. He set the pewter cup on the bar and slowly rose to his feet, coming eye to eye with the furious patron.
“Actually, yes,” he replied.
The man let out a strangled noise of frustration and grabbed hold of Ryda’s tunic. He didn’t have hold of it for long. Ryda aimed a blow to the joint of the man’s arm and he reeled back, unable to keep hold.
“You are going to fucking pay for that!” the man roared.
He started forward again and Ryda couldn’t help a small smile from creeping onto his lips as he raised his hands to fight.
By Chris Wright
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