The town is like so many others, an isolated green smear against the vast wastelands, a clump of what passes for civilisation at the end of a canal spur, the last chance for a drink of water and a touch of company before the long emptiness beyond. It chatters with life, from the creak of the barges at the southern docks to the hawking of camels at the northern stables, and every sound in between merging into a steady, humming symphony of activity.
The figure that walks into one of the bars along the canal front attracts no great attention until it reaches the bar and asks for a drink with a voice that reveals it to be female. A traders and drovers bar, men, mostly, working away from home and unused to female company that they weren’t paying for, much less female company in drab leather travelling clothes that obscured any sense of her gender at first glance. She is easily the centre of attention. She flips a coin across the bar for a drink, something strong, then with an easy movement pulls a second, heavier coin, and spins it lazily on the tarnished bar top.
She is after a man. She describes him in a clear, steady voice, the room echoing with the ringing of the spinning coin and a growing sense of sexual menace. Simple men, full of alcohol and confusion, unsure of how to react to the mixed signals coming from this interloper. Unable to work out if she is predator, or prey.
One of the drunks steps forward, He’s got a man for you, right here, grabbing his crotch with one hand and her left wrist, resting on the bartop with the other. The world pauses outside the bar, a sharp intake of breath from the dry winds and then with a snap he flings himself backwards away from the blade now jutting from her wrist, no blood, just shock, and white faced he steadies himself using the table and the helping hands of his drinking partners.
If she wanted a man for that she’d look for one that wouldn’t leave with naught but a stained bed-sheet and need of a doctor. The obscenity intimidates the room more than the threat of violence. The coin spins down, rattling to a standstill. She tells the barman to keep it, and to give her a room and he obliges, voice shaken.
She heads up the stairs slowly, feeling the eyes of the room on her back until she turns the corner into the upstairs corridor and can hear the slow rise of conversation behind her. She slips into the room, closes the door and sinks against it, down to the floor, stress tearing out of her in shaking, suppressed sobs.
I don’t know how much longer I can keep this up before there is nothing left of me apart from the killer I project to the world. It seems like every town, every confrontation gets easier to get through and harder to come down from afterwards. One day I’m going to kick the crap out of some drunk in a bar and I’m going to enjoy it. What’s worse is that the thought doesn’t scare me anymore, though it should.
That wrist-blade was worth every penny, by the way.
But Mountford was here, just like Ansem said he would be. There was a scene in the bar when I arrived, nothing serious, but it brought me some attention and sure enough a bit of coin here and there got me some names, and sure enough there he was working the dockside. You read that right, Mountford worked the docks.
It’s crappy work here, too. The town is at the end of a feeder canal – i think it goes another few miles into the desert but it’s all silted up beyond the south docks and the whole place stinks of stagnant water and camels. No-one lives here it seems, not properly it’s all workers, and shopkeepers and whores and everyone is trying to leave if they can. Its like all the misfits and wanders and fugitives run out of anywhere else to go when the canal ends and just squat here, loading and unloading boats to camels. Only the nomads and the Chapters want to go into the wasteland, so they’re all stuck here.
Mountford, with his smile, remember that? The smile and the clothes, and the charm. Well I found him, like I was told strapping barrels of something or other onto a cart. He wasn’t smiling. And the bastard saw me, too far out for comfort, and made a run for it, pushing into the crowd as I started after him. He was shouting something, waving, but I couldn’t catch it. A curse, an apology? Not that I cared.
A burst out of that crowd of navvies he was working with, and was suddenly in a clear part of the street. I just reacted, pulling the pistol crossbow and firing on the move, far too far away for any accuracy. The bolt, not surprisingly missed, but he saw it, saw it flash past his side into the dirt and he span away from it, stumbling and slowing. I just flung the crossbow aside – that’s a good few coin I’ll never see again – and sprinted hard, ploughing into him as he steadied himself on a passer by and we both went sprawling.
I could feel the eyes on the dockside on us but I guess this sort of random violence wasn’t too uncommon as no-one intervened as I dragged him to his feet. As soon as his feet were back on the ground he swung out at me, catching me on the side of the head and loosening my grip as he tried to pull free and keep running. His evident fear, and the sudden pain, made the anger well up, before I’d even registered it one of my daggers was in his thigh and he cried out, gasping around for help. I bit down on my lip, felt blood and some sense of control, and punched, hard, and he went down again with a crack as his nose broke.
But no-one moved. I still can’t work out if the sight of a woman beating up a man was so unusual everyone saw it as entertainment, or any sort of violence was just too unremarkable, but I wasn’t going to think about it. I glanced back at where the crossbow had been thrown but it already vanished, and the crowd was growing. There’d even been some cheers at the punch. With my ears ringing and the blood singing inside I tore the knife out his leg and pushed it under his throat.
“Screw you, bitch” he spat blood, then howled as I kicked him in the injured leg.
“Up”. and I grabbed his arm and hauled, half-carrying and half-dragging him away the docks, hoping no-one would follow. No-one did. What a shitty town.
I had somewhere sorted out to take him, just a storage shed full of barrels and crates and a couple of lazy guards who sat out the front and drank all day. Up top was a mostly empty loft, easily accessible, even with a cursing, bleeding man in tow. I threw him onto the floor, kicked him again, and waited for the gasping to finish.
“I know what you want.” he said. He looked scared, almost pleading. “I can’t tell you. I can’t let you have them.”
I closed my eyes and felt the memories rising. The faces, the laughter, the house. And you, Jen, and him, and the others. All the good times swept over me, but increasingly, they mean nothing to me. They’re pictures I see, not emotions I can feel. I can see the memories, I can reach out and touch them but every day its colder and every day the seem further away and its more effort to be who I am.
I closed my eyes, and felt the memories rise. The pain, the wasteland, the pitiful, broken towns and the faces I knew now my enemies.
I closed my eyes, and felt the memories rise. And when I opened them, for a few hours, the memories were gone, and so was I. There was just Mountford, and what I needed to become.
He told me, Jen, and afterwards what I was left him up there.
I’m packed to move on now, across the wasteland with a caravan bound for somewhere or other that I can pickup the next trail. I certainly can’t stay here much more than a few hours. I still don’t know how long I’ll be travelling for, but I’ll get there some day, and I can give you these letters, and we’ll all be together again.
The town is like many others, eking a living on the edge of the wasteland, a meeting of trails for caravans and gangs and mercenaries that exists solely because it has always existed, people stopping because it is a stopping between here and there. It has the bars, and shops, and whorehouse and hotels, and on a good day, if you look hard enough, you can tell them apart.
She walks out of the wasteland leading a camel piled high with supplies, with a body slung over the saddle, alive or dead, it’s hard to tell at first glance. She is wearing a mix of worn out leathers, with a nomad-style headscarf across her face, shielding her from the late-afternoon sun. She’s armed, clearly so, but lone travellers are rare and to travel without escort and armament would be unthinkable.
She ties the camel outside the first bar on the west side of town, and walks through the door. The man on the camel groans softly, revealing some life remaining, at least. She ignores him. Inside, she strides up to the counter, careless of the sudden stillness on her, and orders a drink, any drink, so long as it is cold and wet. A coin spins across the bar, far more than the price of a drink. She wants something else. She wants information.
She is looking for a man.