She was there with him in the hazing flames. He watched her through blurred eyes, twirling in the smoke and colour, smiling through the glare. They reminded him of her. Not in the poetic fashion so alien to his heart, but in the heavy tug of sense memory. How often had they looked into fires together? They had faced down destruction and ruin. They had felt the heat and smelt the char, carried the burden of their own proficiency in death. It had hurt, it had weighed heavy, but they had borne it without fear because each had carried the weight of the other.
“It turns out, I’m really not that strong when I’m not standing on your shoulders.”
He drank again. He shook the ale down his shirt and coughed it in a mist on to the flames. He wondered how it would come for him this time. What would be first? The gavel of the favoured? The spitting torches of the mob? The tossing of what little he had from the only small corner of the world that was left to him? Yes, that seemed most likely. Homelessness would do for him first and the rest would come later, when he was forced to do what he must to survive. If you were here, it wouldn’t matter. We would laugh as we left and build again elsewhere, where we thought they couldn’t reach us. But they can reach us everywhere, sweetheart. And I’m tired of building.
The door banged. The kind of knock that intruded itself on the room and rattled the door in its frame. Ryda tried to stand but stumbled and failed on his first try. He grasped out a hand and seized his gun from the floor, but it shook in his grip and he thought it wasn’t loaded, and the door rattled again. Fuck it. He threw back the rest of the drink and limped to the door.
I tried, sweetheart. You can’t say I didn’t. I didn’t want to. I settled it for the three of us back in Velda Durj, after you left. I could’ve died then, but I promised. And I kept it. I travelled half the world just to keep it, and the fucking curse followed me. Different people, different corpses, same story. There was a time when I thought it could be different with the three of us, but I always told you, didn’t I? The Gods piss on me from up high.
The sheriff was stood in the doorway, pipe between his teeth and thunder in his eyes. He looked angrier than Ryda had ever seen him.
“I didn’t think it would be you,” Ryda said.
The sheriff pushed past. Ryda staggered and struggled to keep his feet while the sheriff strode into the middle of the room and turned.
“Shut your mouth and close the door.”
He did. His flintlock hung loosely by his side. It wasn’t loaded and, in his state, he’d never outdraw the sheriff if it was. He didn’t want to. The power tingled beneath his fingers as ever. Maybe he’d use it at the end, when the adrenaline and instincts kicked in. He hoped not. He liked the sheriff.
“What fucking day is it?”
“It’s Sollardus.” The sheriff answered his own question.
Ryda sensed this was the wrong thing to say as soon as he’d said it.
“Yes, Sollardus. You may recall that it comes once a week. Tell me, Mr. Ryda, what do you do on Sollardus?”
Ah. He winced just a little and it wasn’t lost on the sheriff.
“Do I need to educate you on what I expect of my deputies, Mr. Ryda? Is it lost on you that I expect not to be left waiting, in a bad neighbourhood, spying on crooks alone?”
“My presence would do you no favours, Sheriff. I’m liable to get a man stabbed by association even in the best neighbourhoods.”
“Fuck your self-involvement. Pull your head out your ass and come and talk to me like a man. Get dressed and come down to the gaol. You’ve got fifteen minutes.”
He departed without another word and Ryda was left staring after him, trying to summon the will to resist. He sighed and reached for his breeches.
He passed through the bar in a fog of anger that shielded him from feeling the glares too personally. His curling fingers dared any one of them to make issue of his presence, but none of them did. Murmurs and stares were all that greeted him and he moved through the bar without complaint. The morning brightness hit his eyes and he winced against it, before turning away and heading towards the gaol.
The sheriff was waiting for him, sat in his chair like an old headmaster: curbed anger and forced patience, allowing the chance of contrition before settling on the punishment. Ryda settled into the chair opposite. He had sat here those long weeks ago, having just arrived in this new world. At least this time, his hands weren’t shackled. Yet.
As Ryda sat down, the sheriff took the small, black pipe from his lips and the tobacco from his pocket, and teased a wooden spill from a fold in his sleeve. Ryda made to speak, but the sheriff halted him with a glance before returning to his tinkering. He pinched some tobacco from its box, placed it in the bowl of the pipe and packed it gently with his thumb, then took another pinch, placed it in the bowl and packed it, then took a third pinch, placed into the bowl and packed again. He plucked the glass chimney off the oil lamp on the mantle and lit the spill with a deft touch to the wick. He brought the pipe to his lips and the spill to the bowl and lit it with three hearty puffs of smoke. Job done, he clenched the bit between his teeth and extinguished the spill with a lazy shake of his hand before dropping it into the spill jar by his feet. Then his eyes returned to Ryda.
He said nothing. They stared.
“What am I waiting for, Mr. Ryda?”
Ryda twitched away a violent impulse.
“Let’s forego the disappointed school master act, shall we? You asked me to come and I’m here. Say your piece.”
“Do you think an explanation might be in order?”
Ryda wished he’d yell. He was good with yelling; a well-placed glare or a better placed fist could do wonders for it. He’d always hated the wounded martyr bit. It had been his mother’s speciality. The sheriff had been good to him, though, the only one in a long time, so he restrained his natural cornered beast with uneasy cordiality.
“I should have sent word. I acted poorly there. But I offer no apology for my not coming. I am a liability.”
The sheriff puffed thoughtfully. “That’s true enough, in a sense.” That hurt Ryda more than he thought it should. “But in another sense, you’re an asset. I ain’t decided which is greater yet. The people fear you because you’re an empowered. Don’t you think that could be used to our advantage enforcing the law?”
“They fear empowereds? I suppose they do, but that’s not the issue. It’s not fear that’s moving your people, Sheriff. It’s hatred. I am an unfavoured.”
“You’re in a world of misfits and start-overs, ain’t you? I can’t walk outside without tripping over criminals, bastards and deviants. You’re unfavoured, so what? So was my neighbour back home. I had a sergeant back in the army who was the same. Men listened to him just the same because he was a hardass and he let them know about it. It don’t mean what it used to.”
Ryda leaned back in his chair and closed his eyes.
“There was a time and a place where that was true. But you’re wearing a thinker’s mind, Sheriff, and your heart is still in Sallundia. I’ve noticed you wear no moon and stars. No sun on your door, despite the monsters at it. You’re not a religious man. Not superstitious. Back home, these people were probably the same, but we’re not home anymore, Sheriff. In Sallundia, demons were fairy-tales. They didn’t exist to people who had never stepped outside the village they were born in. I’ve seen them. In Ventilia, I saw them. You’re an old soldier; maybe you’re the same, but these people weren’t. They are now. And they’re scared. Scared people are Gods-damned stupid. They lash out. They look to superstition, to forgotten stories, to the Gods. And I killed one of them with my demon magic.”
Sheriff Tadoro didn’t speak for a while. He puffed his pipe and considered the man in front of him. His mind clicked and whirred as Ryda watched and he thought that he knew where it was heading. He allowed it to get there. Perhaps he wanted the sheriff to talk him into it; what else was there for him here, after all? Would it be so bad? Is there a better way to go? Maybe I’ll take a few of the bastards with me. He looked up at the sheriff and saw him staring into his eyes. He saw then that they understood each other and that the sheriff knew it too.
“There was another disappearance yesterday,” he said.
“I heard. An old man.”
“Dero, the milliner. He was a good man. You say he was old and I guess he was, but he weren’t infirm. He still had some strength in him, but that didn’t stop them from taking him.”
“I met his wife once. Odds are he’s finally made his escape and he’s shacked up somewhere over in Dora Ley.”
The sheriff didn’t laugh, in fact his eyes hardened just a little. The people of the Amotan colony of Kelsa Tur had learned to heed those eyes. It was a subtle change, but if you missed it, it wouldn’t go well for you.
“You know the offer, Mr. Ryda. Ordinarily, I wouldn’t be making it to a man in your state of mind, but here we are and here it is. We can’t carry on like this. People in my town are disappearing and I need to know where. I’m an old man; I ain’t getting anywhere near the Forested Mountains, but a man like you might stand a chance. An empowered with a good team behind him? Why, a group like that might just find a few things, don’t you think? Maybe where the demons are coming from or what exactly we’re up against.”
Ryda didn’t answer at first and the sheriff was wise enough not to push. They sat in silence but for the puffing of the pipe and Ryda thought back to this ponderings of the morning. Hadn’t he wanted out? Well here it was: one without shame. He’d kept his promise. But the mere thought of the forest made his skin squirm. He hadn’t forgotten what he had seen on the twin continent.
“Give me a day,” he heard himself say. “I’ll think about it.”
The sheriff nodded. “Take it.”
Ryda stood up and left. He walked outside and into the sunshine. It was still early and the light of the day was uncaringly beautiful. In the distance to his right, the sea shone and lapped and even the trees of the Forested undulated gently in the breeze. Without quite knowing why, Ryda found himself walking to the east, following the scent of unsewered manure to the tightly packed farms of the sharecroppers. The singular street narrowed and the cobbles disappeared, leaving him to trudge over dirt amidst squat homes, bars and gambling dens. He was more comfortable here; they were more his kind of people. It wasn’t that they were kinder per se, but they lacked the resources to achieve the levels of bastardy inhabited by the financially endowed. They were far more likely to offer a punch or a stabbing than a shooting or a civil lawsuit. Ryda preferred that; he was a simple man at heart.
As ever in Amota’s climate, the short walk had left Ryda parched and he stopped at The Fiddle to relieve his thirst. The silence that blanketed him as he stepped into the room was thick and immediate and it took all his resolve not turn right around. Instead, he kept his eyes forward, walked straight for the bar, and threw a semi-circular coin on to its surface.
The barman was a young man and skinny for this sort of crowd. His eyes flickered to the other patrons and towards the backroom before he seized the coin and grabbed a tankard. He put the drink down in front of Ryda without a word and disappeared immediately into the back. Ryda took it with a deliberately slow hand and raised it casually to his lips. As he drank, he took a look around the pub. Murmurs were starting to rise above the quiet, but no laughs or jests came with it, and flickered looks were being sent his way. He decided not to stay too long.
He couldn’t afford to down his drink and rush away; that would be the end of him. But nor did he savour his tipple. He drank steadily, with half a hand over his flintlock and the other half twitching for his knife. He threw another half-coin on to the bar and stood. The silence descended again. It lasted through his long journey to the door but broke as soon as he touched the handle. He became aware of it as a growing rumbling from a certain section of the bar.
It would have been so satisfying to shove those words back down that punter’s throat, but Ryda didn’t stick around to see trouble breaking. He continued forward without hesitation and upped his pace as he walked outside. There was movement behind him. He had been followed. He glanced back to see a small crowd erupting through the door, led by the load-mouth and ably assisted by three knuckle-dragging attendants. More were spilling out after the group, but their intention was as yet unclear. They looked uncertain, though the looks they were sending him were mostly unfriendly. Ryda walked on.
More shouts went up behind him and he could hear the beat of footsteps at his heels. He ignored them and went on but was then forced to duck as a bottle whistled past his ear. He stopped for a second and battled his urges but went on. Another bottle soon followed though, and it clipped him on his arm, accompanied by a shout.
“Son of a whore!”
He didn’t even stop. He turned without breaking pace and met the leader with a stride. The yob didn’t have time to wipe the smirk from his face before Ryda had landed his blow, and he crumpled down with a single stuttering step backwards. The hush returned.
The loudmouth’s two friends glanced at each other briefly before surging forward. One swung a fist, which Ryda parried, but the other hadn’t waited his turn. He was on him at once and Ryda had no choice. The Power flared without his consideration and knocked the man stumbling back. The other hesitated at the sight and Ryda took the chance to throw a decisive hand to his throat. He followed his leader to the floor.
The crowd turned. He saw the pub landlord whisper in a boy’s ear, and the child pelted away towards the town. Others tried to talk down their friends and husbands and brothers, but more were advancing threateningly, ancient fears and superstitions all that tempered their violence. Ryda resisted the urge to pull his pistol, but kept a hand over the hilt of his knife and his other ready to repel anyone who grew overconfident. They faced off for a long time, until a new sound reached his ears.
Approaching hooves caught the mob’s attention and they turned as one to see Sheriff Tadoro riding in on one of his flea-ridden mares. The sight of the sheriff was enough to cause the crowd to hesitate and Ryda stepped back to allow them some space. Tadoro pulled up in front of him and dismounted. He stared out at each of the people in turn and very few had it in them to meet his glare. Smoke curled around him from the pipe clenched in his teeth, and his hand rested on his flintlock.
“Now, I’ve been hearing some interesting reports. Tell me, have I given the impression that violence is acceptable here? Have I been too soft? Is there some doubters among you, who think I might not tear you a new asshole if you decide to make trouble in my town?”
He allowed his words a moment to settle, before going on.
“We are living in troubling times. And I will not see the people of this town turn on each other, and especially not on my deputies. We are not the enemy. Mr. Ryda, would you like to accompany me back to the gaol?”
Ryda nodded, his eyes still fixed on the chastised masses, and followed the sheriff as he turned and walked his horse back into town, not sparing a glance behind him. They didn’t say a word on their journey back. There was nothing to say; they both knew where they stood. In no time at all, they found themselves back where they had sat less than an hour before, watching each other across the table.
“I’ll do it,” Ryda said, firm in voice, though unable to keep his gaze from drifting out the window. To the mountains.
The sheriff stared into him and then nodded.
“When do we leave?” Ryda asked.
“I’ll talk to the others. Arrangements have to be made, but, all being well, three days. Four at most.”
Ryda said nothing but sat back in his chair and turned his gaze again to the mountains. His mind returned to that night, when he’d heard the demons’ cry, and he had to fight from shivering in the heat. The forest breezed softly, but he could see the darkness within it. It was calling to him; he supposed it always had. And it was going to get its wish.
By Chris Wright
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