DUSTS OF WAR, by Ben Godby:
The cart creaked, its wheels full of summer dust, as the peddler pushed it gently up the slope of the road, past the first houses, and onto the main street of the village.
It was late afternoon, nearly dusk, and the sun had a lazy warmth to it. It was the sort of heat that invited the farmers–who left their country plots and visited the village square at the noon hour to trade–to remain longer beneath the shade of the great canopy tree in the very centre of the plaza. They sat on the small lip of stone that surrounded the circle of earth that was home to the tree, sharing bottles of wine. They hardly looked up when the peddler pushed his cart to the tree and thumped the wheels against the ring of stone.
This part of the land was far from the war.
The peddler stopped and pushed back his hood. His head was shaved and his grey eyes were so distant you would think they saw other realms. Those eyes took in the whole village in a great sweep that began at the stables, where the farrier was drinking water in the yard with his wife, to the cool heights of the church steeple where the bells snoozed, to the tavern–in front of which were set tables and chairs that had been deserted in favour of the shade of the great canopy tree. The whole village was taking break, blacksmith chatting with carpenter, mason smoking pipe, women whispering by the gate of the graveyard–which was overgrown.
The peddler slowly bent and opened the cabinets that were set into his cart. It was a little cart, and he removed from these cabinets little treasures: spoons, forks, knives, a teapot, small dishes, and earthenware. All of his wares were old, having the appearance of having drunk the dust of summer many times and never expunged it, but all of them were yet in good repair. Some of the cutlery was silvered. Having taken the things out, he set them on a scrap of green cloth that he laid on the top of the cart, placing the items with the careful, unhurried pace of a child setting table at mealtime.
It was altogether too fine stuff, the peddler thought as he arranged his wares on the cloth. He gazed over the roofs of the village and over the lands that surrounded it, and saw that the only gold here was the wheat, the only rubies the wine, and the only emeralds, beside his cut of cloth, were in the hedgerows. Seeing this, the peddler rubbed gently at some of the spoons, and they tarnished; he prodded the teapot, and a crack grew in its side. He took a jug and shook it, and an odour drifted up from it as though it had not been cleaned in some very long time.
Satisfied, the peddler put his wares back in order. They were far from the war, but some parts of the war came to all parts of the land.
The peddler turned away from his cart. A farmer stood behind him, dressed in work-clothes stained roughly brown. There was some white beard on the famer’s chin, and his grey eyes seemed to look right into the other man’s soul.
“Some nice things you’ve got there,” said the farmer.
“Thank you,” said the peddler. “Would you like to look?”
“Just wondering how long you’ll be in town,” said the farmer. “If I come back later, will you still be here?”
“Probably only a day or two.”
“Glad to hear it,” said the farmer. “This town could use you. A merchant, well, can sometimes be a breath of life.”
The farmer smiled and took the peddler’s hand between both of his. They were surprisingly soft, and he shook the peddler’s hand almost womanlike. Then he turned and strode down a back lane and out of the village, up some path that would carry him higher up into the hills–toward the mountains.
The peddler watched him go. Then he slowly unfurled the scrap of paper the farmer had left in his palm and spread it on the emerald covering of his cart.
You will know him, read the note, when the man in the red cloak speaks with him.
The peddler slept beneath the great tree in the square that night, and, on the morrow, decided that he did not need the man in the red cloak to identify his target.
The man the peddler sought came to the square the next morning, at the same time the farmers’ daughters came up from the barns with milk, eggs and cheese. Their fathers would be along later, with the meat if there was any to be had–though more likely it would be bread. (The war had not passed through here, but some of the land’s better things had passed on toward it.) The peddler watched as a man strode into the square with a beautiful woman on one arm and a young girl hitched up to his shoulder in the other. The wife and child did not fool the peddler, for on this man’s hip was a sword. It was not decorated with scrollwork or jewels; its hilt was plain wood and iron, its tabard stiff leather. It was every bit a craftsman’s device as the blacksmith’s hammer or the farmer’s sickle.
But this part of the land had no need for swordcraft. Swords belonged hung on walls, or in the packs of departing first-born sons–or else turned into horseshoes.
The swordsman smiled at the tavernkeep, leaning in his doorway, and spoke to him about wine and fried potatoes. He set his daughter on the ground, and she chased a rooster that strutted around the square. His wife crossed the plaza and spoke to the other women clustered in the shade of the church. The peddler watched and smiled gently as they all glanced in his direction, one by one–not to take in the condition of his wares, he was certain. Then the man with the sword talked to some of the farmers’ girls, laughed and flirted, and paid them for eggs and cheese.
His wife re-crossed the square and whispered to him. The man with the sword frowned. The man with the cart carefully polished a spoon.
He looked up from the spoon. The swordsman was good-looking and rugged, though his clothes were as plain as the villagers’.
“Good morning,” said the man with the cart.
“What are you selling?”
“This and that. Would you like to look?”
The man with the sword picked up the teapot and turned it into the light. He set it down and picked up a knife.
“You never know when you will need a good knife,” said the peddler.
“But this one is silver,” said the man with the sword.
“Only a clever disguise. She is iron at her heart.”
The man lifted the knife and let the sun play off it. “How much?”
“I’m sure we can come to an agreement.”
A handful of copper coins rolled onto the emerald cloth, a dozen of them, navigating the avenues between trinkets before falling silently.
“What do you say?”
The man with the cart looked at the coins. Simple things. Many common, simple things. No more out of place than the summer dust.
“You are too kind, my lord.”
“I am not a lord,” the swordsman said, harshly.
“But,” said the peddler, his eyes drifting to the weapon at the man’s side.
“There is a war.”
The man with the cart nodded. He put his hand to his heart and, for a moment, the organ ceased to beat. “I hope it does not come here.”
“That is what we all wish,” the other replied, drawing himself up and sniffing. His gaze passed across the top of the cart once more, as though to find some artifact he might have missed, and then nodded. “Good day to you. I don’t imagine you are staying here long?”
The peddler sighed and looked around the square. “We will see what business I have,” he said.
“Little, I expect,” said the swordsman. “The people here do not have much.”
Sticking the knife in his belt, the man with the sword crossed back to the woman and the child, and, with his cheese and his eggs in brown paper, left the square.
The morning yawned and afternoon came. The farmers returned as the day proved another warm one. Already they had adjusted to the presence of the man with the cart–if they had ever been disturbed by him at all. The women might talk, and the man with the sword worry, but the farmers and craftsmen knew they had nothing to worry over one man, and so nothing to say about it. Their greatest worry, in fact, which they mulled over as they broke bread over beer, was that no one had brought meat up to the village today, and the tavern’s sausages–of which there were few enough left–were not only gamey, but being sold dearly.
The peddler sat in the square and watched every colour. The villagers’ clothes were brown, white, black, and green. There was an occasional brilliant flash where precious stones, rinsed clear of rivers or unearthed by the plough, had been turned into jewellery, or where a tattoo had marked a man for some conviction. But there was no red cloak, and so the man with the cart–who had been not just to the lands where the war had not gone, but also to the lands where the war had been bad, and had earned a living with his wares by being careful and patient–waited.
“Are you selling these?”
The man in the cart turned to see a young woman had approached his cart. She had picked up a small stack of dishes–little plates, the kind on which a gentlewoman might serve biscuits or sliced fruit–and was sorting through them like cards.
“It is all for sale,” said the man with the cart. “That is what I do.”
The young woman smiled. She stood out from the farmers’ girls and the old women of the churchyard–not because of angelic grace or divine beauty, but for her sense of fashion. Her eyelids were painted green, her lips red, her cheeks powdered silver. A scarf of gentle purple fabric was wrapped around her head.
“What?” the girl said, touching the headscarf self-consciously.
“Nothing,” said the peddler, “only I have not seen you here before.”
“Well? Aren’t you just passing through?”
“I am,” said the peddler.
She looked into his gray eyes for a moment. “My name is Keera.”
The man with the cart looked back at her, and he knew his momentary silence was heavier than hers. “I am… Jarl.”
“Pleased to meet you, Jarl,” said Keera. She fiddled with the plates. “So… how much?”
The man that called himself Jarl looked at the plates, then folded his hands. “For you… they are a gift.”
Keera shook her head very quickly. “I could not,” she said. “They are too beautiful! We don’t get things like this, here.”
Jarl knew this was not a lie of particulars–the plates were, in fact, unique–but certainly it was untrue that Keera, who was more worldly than the rest of the village combined, could be impressed. She seemed, rather, to be bored. She reached into a purse at her side and placed a large golden coin on the emerald cloth. “How does that suit you?”
Jarl felt his muscles clench–mostly in his shoulders though also his hips and abdomen. He was very careful not to show it: it was good business sense not to reveal too much of one’s emotions, even aside from the additional importance it held for his particular profession.
“I did not expect gold coins…” He looked up at Keera. “Here.”
Keera shrugged. “I am only visiting, also.”
“Oh?” said Jarl. “From where?”
“The city is my home,” said Keera. “But, my man… he has business here. It suits him for me to rent a lodging here, and he gives me money enough to live by.”
“He does not stay here with you, in the village?”
“No. He is a traveller, too. You would have much in common, I think. But he is coming home tonight.”
“You must be glad.”
Jarl picked up the coin and rubbed it between his thumb and forefinger. “And what does he do, your man?”
“A trader.” She laughed. “Didn’t I say?”
Jarl nodded. The gold was good. It did not belong here, though. It belonged in this sleepy place like a sword plunged to the hilt in a man’s guts.
“Your man is lucky to have someone that loves him so,” said Jarl.
“No,” said Keera, “I am the lucky one.”
Jarl smiled. Perhaps, he thought. But gold was not a game of luck. One did not spin gold from summer dust.
“It was a pleasure meeting you, Trader Jarl.”
“And you, Wanderer Keera.”
She smiled again and curtsied, as out of place as the rest of her. Then she slipped away down the road, the plates clutched between both hands.
The man with the cart, who called himself Jarl, played with the gold coin, wondering, until nightfall.
He would know him when the man in the red cloak spoke to him.
Night came, but the man in the red cloak did not; and the man with the sword, too, stayed away. The peddler tidied those of his wares that remained, watched the sun bleed away on the horizon, and then climbed the slope of soil to the base of the great canopy tree.
It was a very old tree. Surely it had seen more than any man. But its many knots and tough bark told the same story that did the knots and tough bark of men: the tree had seen enough. It was content to give shade, to confine itself to the rim of stone and the soil below, and to dwell in the village forever.
The man who called himself Jarl sat with his back against the tree and drew his cloak about himself. The cloak was the same gray as his eyes, the same gray as steel, and it wrapped him up with the same vacant distance with which he took in the world. Soon, the peddler was not but a lump against the base of the old tree–another of its knots, another lump of flesh cased with bark.
But still he watched.
Darkness crept across the village slowly, crawling down from the mountains and leaching over the valley, following the sun. Jarl wondered if the dark was ever sad, that it could never catch the light. Then night stole over the village entire, and lanterns, candles, and torches were lit in windows and on street corners. The dark had its consolation, then.
The tavern was filling with mirthful noise. Farmers came–most alone, though some with wives or women on their arms. The men from the village also arrived, their works for the day done and squared away–dough rising with a near-inaudible sigh in the bakeshop, nails rustling with fear in their communal bed. From the foot of the great canopy tree, Jarl watched; and, as he suspected, the man with the sword did not come.
A familiar laugh pulled his attention from the door of the tavern. He looked down a side street and saw Keera. She leaned against and laughed with a man who had a narrow face and shining eyes. He was no taller than she, and wore a leather cuirass, and there was a dagger at his belt–two hands long. They strolled up the lane, careless lovers, kissing now and then, and passed the peddler as though he weren’t there. They went into the tavern, letting the noise rush out momentarily into the quiet village before it was muffled again by the door.
The peddler felt an itch in his brains. The man with the sword had not come, but another soldier had appeared–and this one dispensed easily with gold. Perhaps he had misjudged the swordsman; perhaps the swordsman was only a ranger, a sheriff left behind the lines to watch for men like Jarl. A reactionary, in short. But it was another sort of man entirely with whom Jarl usually had his dealings.
Still, Jarl waited. He wondered what happened inside the tavern, but he had made a career of frequenting such places no more than was necessary. After all, he had not made a career of drinking, and he had not made a career of carefreeness. He had not made a career of societies, either. Some cares a man had to abandon in the name of good practice, and, in exchange, there were others he had to hold ever more tightly.
The moon came up over the trees that bristled on the mountainside behind him. An owl hooted, though otherwise no animals came close to the village. There were no crows, no wild dogs, no wolves. In another lifetime, thought Jarl, the village might have been peaceful. But far from the war was never far enough.
The peddler’s head came up when the door opened again. Keera came out, her head wrapped in the scarf; and the man with the dagger came after her. He kissed her on the lips, and she pressed her hands to his chest.
“You won’t be long?”
“Not long at all,” the man said. “I’ll just finish up with the boys, and I’ll be there.”
Keera kept her hands on his chest for a moment longer. “I wish business didn’t keep you so…”
“Lora,” said the man, stopping her.
Jarl leaned forward to listen. The girl with two names leaned forward to kiss her man. Then she turned and, with quickening steps, went down the lane whence, previously, she had come.
The man with the dagger watched her go, fingering the hilt of his long knife. He looked around the village square, his eyes lingering only a moment on the peddler’s cart abandoned by the canopy tree. Then he went back inside.
Jarl counted to two hundred, then stood. As his cloak fell back round his shoulders he became a man again, rather just a curious lump of wood. He went to the tavern and opened the door, letting the sounds of celebration wash over him. He looked back over his shoulder once, but he was not fearful of missing the man in the red cloak: such figures always found him.
Jarl was used to empty taverns, but this one was too full. The tables were crowded and so was the bar, and the serving maids had to shout to be let through the crush and wait their tables. It was only unremarkable in that there was no music. Perhaps the players, too, had moved on.
Jarl went to the bar and slid some of the coppers that the swordsman had paid him onto the sticky, polished surface. “A beer, please,” he said, and the barman, recognizing him from the square, nodded, smiled, and passed him a mug.
“Do you need a room for the night?” the barman asked. “I have some, over the stables.”
Jarl shook his head. “I am used to sleeping in the rough.”
The barman grinned. “Been far then, eh?”
“To hell and back,” Jarl said, gripping the mug’s handle.
The barman nodded, suddenly very solemn. “Far enough, then?” he said quietly.
Jarl stared into his cup. His watery reflection had no contiguity. “Aye,” he said, “far enough.”
The barman walked to the other end of his counter, already laughing and joking with other customers. The peddler slowly turned, cup–still full–balanced in his hands. His eyes searched the room for Keera’s man, Lora’s man, but couldn’t find him. Jarl frowned. He turned his ears into the tumult of conversation, hunting for the voice, but it was not there. Then, through the screen of noise, he caught the sound of the door hinges squealing. He turned, and saw the man in boiled leather going again through the front door, out and into the dark.
Jarl put down his mug and slipped between the press of people. In a moment he was in the quiet of the street again.
Quiet but for the quick steps of the man leaving the bar behind.
Jarl moved quickly, but the other man could move faster: he knew the twist of the streets that followed the cliffy contours to which the village clung. Jarl’s cloak fluttered behind him, making him a sort of greasy smear against the landscape of shuttered houses and darkened shops. His booted feet made no noise, though sometimes he ran. The torches became fewer as Jarl followed the man with the knife and the gold and they descended toward a disused part of town, buildings where once fish and meat were smoked, pies baked, and leathers worked, but abandoned with the coming of the war and the settling of summer’s dust.
Up ahead, the man’s footsteps suddenly stopped. Jarl pressed himself against the bricks of a little house instinctually. The ground around it was strewn with broken wheel parts. He slipped to the corner and peered around.
There was an intersection between four of the lost houses. The street had been dug up as though to be cobbled, but then filled back in with loose rock and dirt. There were trees, though none so ancient or shade-giving as the one in the village square; a few young saplings pushed through the shells of bricks and beams. Their leaves made a pitter-patter of the moonlight, dappling the earth and gleaming off the figures in the clearing.
There were three: the man with the sword, the man with the knife, and the man in the red cloak.
Jarl held his breath and watched. The three men exchanged words, but the man in the red cloak had his back to Jarl and whoever spoke did so in tones furtive and hushed–too quietly to be interpreted.
It took only a few seconds: the man in the red cloak shook the others’ hands, then turned and began walking away. But as he did so he looked directly at Jarl, and, with only the slightest inclination of his head and a little twinge of the lips that veered towards a knowing smile, told the peddler that he’d been seen. “Good evening,” the man whispered, his voice like a corpse’s cry carried on a graveyard wind.
And then the man in the red cloak turned down an alley and was gone.
The other two whispered something to each other, and then they, too, disappeared. The man with the knife was obviously taking a different route home than he had taken down to the meeting place, but the man with the sword came towards Jarl, who shrank into the darkness of the abandoned house and let his cloak fall over himself protectively. The swordsman swept past, up the rutted path to the village.
Jarl stayed frozen in that position a moment longer. To whom had the man in the red cloak spoken? It had seemed, to Jarl, to be both. And both men were, from the start, suspicious. Were they in it together, then? A conspiracy?
But the peddler had been told to expect a single target. You will know him, had said the scrap of paper, not them.
Jarl stepped out of his hiding spot and took a few steps down the alley the red cloak had taken. If he could just ask him… but they alley ended at a pile of disused bricks, adorned with a discarded winch and a rusted pulley for a well that had never been built. The bricks were piled six feet high and made a solid barrier of the end of the culvert. Jarl clambered to their top as quietly as he could.
Beyond, the fields around the village extended for miles, deserted.
Jarl cursed. The man in the red cloak had disappeared.
They were still celebrating in the tavern when he returned to the square; but Jarl had no time to return for his beer. He swept past the lit windows of the bar and went to his cart, where he crouched. Beneath the trays and cupboards where the knick-knacks and tomfooleries of his disguise had been placed was another cabinet–this one hidden with locks and covers not visible to the eyes. He pressed with his fingers, the tips sinking into the wood, and a door opened gently, causing a drawer to slide out at the base of the rolling cart.
In the drawer lay a piece of green felt, not unlike the one the peddler rolled out on top of his cart to display his wares. But there was only a single item in the lowest drawer: a many-faceted crystal ball.
The peddler picked up the ball between both hands and stroked it carefully. As he drew his fingers across its surface, the many faces seemed to smooth, and the polygonal ball become a true sphere. It was clear as glass and exuded an inner light, though its interior was deeply obscured by thick roils of smoke.
“How many targets are there?” the peddler hissed at the ball. “What is their number?”
The smoke drifted lazily until slowly it parted. Behind it was a sky filled with stars, white-gold, blinking uncertainly across the midnight blue.
“How many?” the man who called himself Jarl whispered again.
Slowly, the lights in the ball began to wink out. Those that were faintest faded first, leaving only the great bodies of light. The number of stars counted backwards, down toward nothingness, until only a single remained.
“Who is it?” the peddler demanded. “Which one? Show me his face!”
The ball did not answer, but filled with smoke again–though it took some time for the single remaining star, burning painfully brightly, to be finally smothered behind the grey screen. The shine of the ball faded also, and soon it was nothing but a many-faceted lump of semi-spherical crystal.
“Damn you,” the peddler cursed. He threw the ball into the drawer and shut it roughly, listening only half-consciously for the subtle click of the latch.
Jarl stood. Of the townfolk that were not celebrating, the rest were asleep. But–as though his crystal had set a joke on him–two houses in the village were still lit by lights.
He reached under the folds of his cloak and withdrew a wand from his belt. The shaft was obsidian, but the handle was simple oak–as much a craftsman’s tool as the blacksmith’s hammer or the farmer’s sickle.
He would do it carefully. It was one of two; and those odds, in war, were not so bad. The wand shivered in his grasp. There were rubies not only in wine, but sometimes, too, in blood.
“To work, then,” the peddler muttered.
The home of the man with the sword was made of white stone, and the structure swam in the moonlight. It was more beautiful than any of the other homes in town, and larger, also. There was a small patch of earth, bounded by an iron-wrought fence, in the front–a garden. But it was untended, long overgrown with thorn and weeds. There was a pile in the yard, too, wooden crates and barrels. They were empty.
This might be the one, then, Jarl thought hopefully. He might make do with even better odds than he’d figured. Curse the man in the cloak and curse the crystal ball: tools of mysterious men in places yet further from the war, fickle and unreliable and useless as always. No, Jarl was a craftsman, and, one way or another, he would do this job right–just as ever.
Jarl pushed through the gate and into the yard. The gate was rusted and withered–there were no servants to oil it, evidently–but it moved silently beneath the peddler’s command. He gripped the wand tightly, and his grey eyes stared no longer at other realms but surely flicked between the ephemera of the real: the doorway, the windows, the darkened garden path. A crack of light spilled forth between the shutters that looked out across the garden.
He crept to the window, but saw the shutters were latched from inside. He could just catch a glimpse of a table and a stove, a candle burning on a mantle above the hearth. A flicker of motion caught his eye, but then he saw it was a mouse, stealing breadcrumbs–or, perhaps, leftover cheese–from the cabinets.
Jarl reached for his belt. There were many purses and bottles there, though none were for sale and none held the coins a man of his peddling profession might make his primary concern. They were for fluids and powders, tinctures, petals, and roots. Jarl grimaced a little, remarking at the little inventory he had left: the war had been long, and supplies were drawing low. But he had enough that he might succeed in this mission. He drew a phial of juice that shone greenly of its own accord, uncorked it, and let a few drops spill between the shutters to land upon the wooden latch. The wood smoked heavily, then silently fell away.
Jarl peeled the shutters open and slipped across the lintel, as silently or more so as when he chased Keera’s man through the alleys. His feet touched the floor and the shutters closed gently behind him, the servants of unseen hands.
Only the slightest wavering of the candle’s flame indicated that a new body was within the household. It guttered for a moment, then stood straighter, taller, and reached into the air. A puff of black smoke curled from it toward the ceiling.
The kitchen, like the town, was full of summer’s precipitates. The big stone oven was dark but exuded the scent of warmth, as though it had been just working or was ready to do the business of cooking whenever it suited its masters. There was a row of wooden cupboards with stone countertops along one wall, and these were immaculate and spotless. A brace of knives were sheathed in a block at the far end, near a basin.
Jarl spun, his wand primed and pointing. In the doorway across the room stood a girl.
She was very small. Working from memory, Jarl would have said that she bore no relation to the man with the sword. She was just enough darker than he was, her hair too coarse. So perhaps she was like the sword and the gold: she did not belong here, though the forces of others–whose real goals lay elsewhere–brought her here with them.
But Jarl had not committed the image of the woman (the mother? the wife? or only the disguise?) with the same alacrity. Did this girl possess her skin, her hair, her eyes, her mouth?
The problem, knew Jarl, was that the best disguises were not fake in the least; and so it didn’t matter.
But this land was far from the war. When a child died in the village, it would be from disease, a broken bone that brought infection, a fall, or–if very unlucky–a wild animal attack. They would not be used to the sights of the battle zones, of children blackened and burned, of grinning skulls without faces.
Without saying anything, Jarl reached into a pouch at his belt and took a pinch of powder in his fingers. His hand snapped out and the granules flew across the room, slowly, dancing iridescently in the light of the candle–guttering once more.
He watched the powder fly, and regretted what must be done. He regretted that this place might have been peaceful–a place to live in a lull between histories, distant from the war, surrounded only by summer dusts. But the war spread its ashes far; when war was, it was never so very distant and now, the man who called himself Jarl was here.
The girl started back as the powder struck her. It stuck to her hands and face, to the nightgown that she wore. It stuck to the stuffed doll in her arms, stayed stuck to the doll as it dropped to the ground and bounced noiselessly from the tiled floor.
She reached up and touched her face, her nose, her throat. Her eyes were wide.
It is the most painless way to die, Jarl told the child silently. And when you awaken, it will be to another life. One without any suffering. Without any pain at all.
There must be some world, thought Jarl, where such things were true. Or, at least, he had committed these phrases to his mind so frequently that, now, he believed in them.
The girl hit the floor with a thump. Her body was harder, more real than the doll. But, lying beside it silently, her face as still as her toy’s, it might be… it might be as though that she wasn’t.
Later, Jarl would wonder whether the scream was one of anguish or merely a battle cry. The answer would be imperative to his interpretation of the situation, of the mission; but there was no time to clarify it, no time to think, because the man–the man with the sword–flew through the doorway, over the corpse of the girl, and bowled into him, sending Jarl crashing against the cabinets with the force of his furious charge.
Jarl’s head cracked against the wood and the force rang in his ears. He spun his head round and saw the long gleam of candlelight off the edge of the sword, raised high in the air. Jarl rolled to the side and the swordsman grunted as his metal smashed into the floor. The swordsman raised the weapon again and drew it back as Jarl fled to the far side of the room.
“You bastard,” the man swore.
Jarl did not hear the curse, nor did he see the man’s tear-stricken face. His heart was too heavy with the fact, the undeniable evidence, of the man’s incompetence with the blade: how it drooped, how the balance was off, how he stood like no man who’d ever stood in a line of battle, nor like a one who’d fought duels. Jarl’s spirit sank with this man’s incompetence, and the weight that causes have over their effects.
But Jarl had not made a life as a philosopher. He flicked out his wrist, the wand already hot in his hands. A bolt of fire–red flames nearly liquid–jetted forth and flew across the kitchen. The swordsman ducked and the bolt went overhead, smashing the shutters open and leaving scorch marks across their boards.
The man charged again, screaming.
Jarl knocked the sword aside with a brush of his arm; his cloak was more than strong enough to resist the workmanlike steel. But he could not resist the force of the man’s bluster, and he stumbled backwards through the doorway, tripped over the corpse of the child, and fell into another room.
The steel flashed again as the soldier stabbed it forward, but Jarl rolled again to avoid it. Another scream filled the house: the woman, this time. She stood at the base of a stairwell, a lamp in her hand casting oily beams across a divan, a bookcase, a short table, and a body.
Jarl pointed his wand and fired before he could think. The bolt struck the woman in the chest and consumed her. Her shriek disappeared in the crackle of flames as her whole body lit like a torch, and she stumbled madly around the room, battering herself against the walls as though that might save her.
The sword came down again and chopped Jarl across the back, but his cloak resisted it once again. The force of the blow drove him forward rudely, but he caught himself, stood and turned. The woman, still flaming terribly, struck a bank of curtains, and they burst into flame, curdling blue and yellow to the ceiling.
“Fucking wizard!” the swordsman screamed.
“Kill me, then,” said Jarl, peeling apart his cloak and hurling it the floor.
The man roared again and charged, but Jarl was ready this time. He kicked the low table by his legs and threw it in the pretend-soldier’s path. The man grunted and fell, but Jarl caught him as he flew toward the floor. While he was still in the air, he grabbed him by the hand and the shoulder, twisting his hand back so the blade gripped in its fingers tilted back, then cut cleanly through his throat and out the back of his head near the base of the skull. The swordsman fell over on the floor, blood rapidly soaking the rug.
The killing done, Jarl looked around. Already the ceiling beams were aflame: the dust of summer came with dryness. The woman lay, a charred heap at the base of the stairs. The bookcase was smouldering. Jarl looked at the wand in his hand: it, too, showed signs of burning, and soot and blisters had appeared on his hands. The war took life out of everything–even its own weapons, its own agents.
Jarl rushed to the small library and began flinging tomes to the ground, his eyes flicking across titles and tearing open spines–looking for a clue, any clue. But there was nothing but fairy tales and ancient histories, books full of drawings of butterflies and heraldic symbols. He coughed, the smoke fighting to overtake him.
The fire was convenient. But he’d have preferred to choose his own moment to ignite the flames.
He rushed up the stairs. He had to know who the man was–if he was the right man. The bedroom at the top of the stairs was simple and unadorned: no extra weapons, no suspicious notes, not even a writing table on which to produce them. Jarl tore open the drawers, looking for gold–the telltale mark of the mercenary trade. But there were was nought but a few silvers and some more brass and copper change.
The peddler swore. Whoever the man was–for there was no doubt he was someone–he had done his best to cover his tracks. Or had he been a lackey–and Keera’s man the real target, the real threat? His presence at the congress with the man in the red cloak just an accident, one of the unexpected circumstances that arises in the business of war?
Or maybe… maybe he was a lackey of the man in the red cloak.
It did not bear thinking about too much. One in two, that was better than you’d get on a battlefield. And there were some cares a man had to abandon in the name of good practice–even if the only exchange was that there were other cares he had to hold on to ever more tightly.
Jarl hurried down the stairs and returned to the man. Carefully, he pulled the sword out of his throat. It would have to look like an accident, even if his head was nearly severed; only so many could die on one night of violence. He leaned it against the wall in the kitchen, grabbed his cloak, and looked once more at the body of the girl.
Then he fled.
Keera’s man had put her in a small house at the periphery of the village, at the end of a track that led up a slope of scree toward a scuff of higher hill. The cabin’s windows exuded a soft ruddy light, but Jarl heard them–Keera, Lora, and her man–before he could look in.
He stood under the shadows of an old pine, his cloak making him just a lump of rock or forest-flesh in the night. The shutters of the little cabin were thrown open, and the man and woman inside shone slickly with sweat in the light of the candles burning about the room, sliding up and down one another with the same enthusiasm, the same mindless concentration, of a battle.
The woman with two names moaned.
Jarl threw back his cloak, man again, and kicked the door open with his foot. Splinters of wood flew like missiles across the room. The cabin was but a single chamber, and at the sound of the door exploding the man with the knife jumped off of the bed and turned, still hard and wet with passion. His face and body were suffused with the heat of it, but he was no amateur: naked, he scrambled for his weapon.
Jarl grimaced and aimed his wand.
“Jarl!” Keera said, her voice surprised rather than frightened. And then the fire jetted.
It swept around Keera’s man, wrapping him up like the arms and legs of a woman. He screamed and dropped to the ground, his dagger still sheathed on the bedside table. Keera screamed with him, covering her mouth with her hands as she pulled herself backward on the bed, desperate to get away from the fire; and Jarl, too, screamed as he stalked forward, punishing the man further, watching the flames curdle him black, flake his skin away in ashy chunks, drain his voice to a puddle of sizzling blood. Jarl only stopped when his own pain, the pain in his hand, became too much: the wand shot through the core with arcane energies now spilling its heat back onto its bearer. Jarl stared at his scalded hand, but all he could see was the little girl, dying painlessly in the house of the other man.
When he looked back, Keera’s man was nothing but a sticky pool of ruin.
Keera kept screaming until Jarl smashed her face with his free hand. She flew back, dripped down the wall, and blinked spastically.
“What did he do?” the peddler shouted. “What was his business here?”
Keera’s face was streaked with tears, her eyes watery, her mouth contorted with horror and with blood.
“A trader! A trader!” she screamed.
Jarl raised his wand. “A trader? Are you telling me the truth? Lora?”
The girl raised her hands as if she might ward off his assault, then unleashed an anguished gasp. “I don’t know!” she sobbed. “I don’t know! He told me not to use my real name!”
Jarl tore open the drawers, rifled through the man’s clothes. There was more gold, the knife, but nothing else.
“What did he do?” Jarl said again, turning. “Who did he work for?”
“I don’t know,” the girl wept. Finally, she raised her eyes. “You’re one of them, aren’t you?”
Jarl ignored her. He reached into his belt and drew a small ring, then walked to where the naked woman flinched and curled, terrified, in the corner.
“Here,” he said softly, taking her hand. She howled and thrashed, punching his face with her free elbow, but Jarl gritted his teeth, pushed her middle finger back so it broke with a sickly snap, and slipped the ring on the waggling finger. Her eyes rolled back in her head. Asleep, she slumped in his arms, and Jarl let her down softly.
He sat on the bed. Despite the reek of charred flesh, the air was still full of the smell of fucking, and Jarl felt a repulsive jealousy of the immolated man. He thought he smelled oil, too–the kind a man draws across his blade to keep it quick in the leather. That made him feel slightly better, but not enough. He looked at the puddle of wasted flesh on the ground. The man must’ve traded weapons, Jarl told himself. Had he sold them to the man with the sword? Or had they worked in concert?
In the town below, screams and shouts were raised up. Flames danced along the lower cliffs of the mountains. The man with the sword, and his entire family–if that is, truly, who they were–would soon resemble the man with the dagger.
Jarl looked back at the girl and drew a phial from his belt: a glowing, green phial. It would make a living being fall apart just as much as a wooden sash.
But he couldn’t kill her. He didn’t even know if he should’ve killed her man. One for two was the odds, and it wasn’t his place to ask questions: he was not a soldier. He was a peddler. And that meant he had wares to sell–specific wares, at a specific price. One death had been bought, and he’d already crafted four.
Perhaps it was only sentimentality. Perhaps it was only the smell of sex and her nakedness. But he drew another phial, this one lightning blue. He went to the girl with two names and carefully poured a few drops down her throat.
At the cold splash of the fluid, the woman stirred. She had said that she didn’t know. When she awoke, it would absolutely be the truth–and the ring on her finger would be a mystery of some mist-shrouded evening never to be remembered.
The cart creaked and its wheels clattered over the cobbles. Night had already fallen, but the town was lit by thousands of torches and there were men everywhere–men laughing, drinking, fighting and swearing in the red, pulsing light.
They were soldiers, sated on blood and war and yet, it seemed, never sated enough. Carts passed through the streets, carrying provisions, stacks of arrows, spear staves and corpses. Women called from street corners, as did beggars and refugees.
This part of the land was close–far too close–to the war. The man with the cart was not even sure whether he was on their side, or his.
The peddler pulled his cart to a stop and pulled his hood back. His head was stubbly and scarred, and his grey eyes were so distant you would think they saw beyond the tragedy of this great city brought low. But they took it all in with one great sweep, and soon their gaze was absolutely rooted, fixed in the present reality–in all of its blood and viscera.
“There’s a man looking for a good time.”
The peddler turned. The woman who spoke had her breasts hiked up in his face, her clothes as ragged and threadbare as any casualty’s–though with design, it seemed, not necessity. Grinning, her face a mask of powders and paints, she grabbed the peddler’s hand and drew it up along her inner thigh.
“There’s something,” she said, still smiling. “You know where to find me, don’t you?”
Then she swept into the night, only the small twist of paper that had been fixed to her garter left behind.
The peddler sighed and pushed his cart into an alley. Slowly, carefully, he unfurled the note upon the top of the cart.
You will know him, read the note, when the man in the red cloak speaks to him.
The peddler turned–and froze. The man in the red cloak stood there, at the mouth of the alley. A troop of soldiers hurried past behind him, guffawing, swigging from full bottles of wine.
“Who are you?” the man who called himself Jarl whispered.
The man in the red cloak frowned. “I believe we have a meeting?”
The peddler stared at the note in his hand, but its text was unchanged.
“No, no. Not me!” Jarl hissed. “You’re mistaken. I’m the one who’s on your side!”
“Ah,” said the man in the cloak, shaking his head. “Say no more. I understand.” He smiled gently. “Good evening.”
He slipped around the corner.
“Wait!” the peddler cried.
He rushed around the corner, but the man in the red cloak was gone. Soldiers moved up and down the streets, their steel flashing gold in the light of torches. Their steel, their gold, one and the same.
“Move on, old man, eh?” laughed one fighter, shoving the peddler. The man who called himself Jarl fell backwards and sprawled painfully on the cobblestones. The soldiers laughed and walked on.
The peddler dragged himself back to his cart. He had placed it among the rubbish heaps of the alley, and the stink made him gag. Carefully, he poked and prodded at the hidden cupboard, and, slowly, the secret drawer emerged. He had to ask the crystal ball. Something was gnawing at the back of his head, some words said both now and long ago: Good evening. The man in the red cloak had said the same thing to him, that night in the village far from the war. Good evening…
Something moved in the alley behind him. Jarl flinched and spun, drawing his wand. But nothing was there except a lump of garbage, a black mountain of waste that faded into the alley’s surroundings of squalor. Jarl’s wand wavered, and a pitiful spurt of flame lashed out to lick the garbage. Its oily smoke roiled off the surface of the pile, unfazed.
Had he angered them? Were they coming for him? Or was the man in the red cloak just as fallible as was he?
Slowly, Jarl turned back to his cabinets. He picked up the crystal ball, ran his hands over it. “Who is the target?” he hissed. “Who is it, damn you? Show me his face!”
The smoke gathered and spread, and it seemed that the glass of the ball thinned–became like gossamer, the merest barrier between this world and the next. The fog parted to reveal a sky filled with stars: white-gold, blinking uncertainly across the midnight blue.
“Who?” Jarl sobbed.
The lights in the sky in the ball began going out. Those that were faintest faded first, leaving only the great bodies of light. The number of stars counted backwards, down toward nothingness, until only a single remained.
“Who,” whispered Jarl.
The smoke in the ball rolled, and the eternal fog covered up what once had been shown. The ball went dark again, and soon it was not but a lump, a worthless polygon of leaded crystal.
Jarl let the ball fall among the others. Other crystal balls, other wands, other phials; the cart was full of them. They were less numerous now than when he’d begun, but he understood them no better; he had only new scars to show what he’d learned from the weapons, and the only catalogue of faces the divining tools had given here were the masks of the dead that haunted his dreams. He looked over his shoulder, watching the shadows of the alley and shivering. Then he looked back at the ball where it lay, dull and silent, in the drawer, but it was still just the same: just a ball, and one that never showed its true face.
Ben Godby writes mysteriously thrilling pseudo-scientific weird western adventure fantasy tales. He lives in Ottawa, Ontario with a girl, two dogs, and a cat, and blogs at www.bengodby.com.