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Wildstar: Forever Wanderers
Cover Design: BZN Studio Covers
Visit Chris Weston at: www.christianweston.net
Copyright © 2018
All rights reserved
Table of Contents:
About the Author
“She’s not keeping up,” Alana yells out to her sister.
Karlyn looks back to her, her horse being further ahead on the trail. “That sounds like her problem. Tell her to pick up the pace if she doesn’t want to be dragged back to town.”
Alana twists herself on her horse and yanks the rope. The girl falls forward. Alana stops before the girl is hauled too far along the ground. Her sister is not going to enjoy more delays, but the girl has been constantly walking for two days since they captured her. She’s going to need a rest.
“What is going on back there?” Karlyn yells out.
Alana can tell Karlyn’s temper is beginning to flare up, and wants to avoid as much of the annoyance as possible. They’ll unwind once they return to town and turn in the bounty. Fresh beer, hot food. Alana shakes her head. We’re almost there. “It’s about time we break for a rest. We can hobble the horses and eat while we still have the shade of the forest.”
It’s not the best excuse she’s come up with on the spot, but it’ll have to do, unless of course Karlyn is feeling like a belligerent—
Karlyn yells, “Fine, we’ll stop for a meal. Once we’re done eating, we’re back to the road.”
They slow down. Alana dismounts her horse and unties the rope. The captive shambles to the nearest tree and slumps against it. At least the break will be good for her. Alana ties the girl to the tree, and leads her horse away to where Karlyn has set up.
The day is decent, and the land has treated them well since they arrived. Alana wonders how long their good fortune will last. It would be prudent to save their reward for the future. They only have enough of a stash to last them a week.
Alana rummages through her bag for food. She pulls and unwraps a loaf of bread from its cloth. Perhaps this idea wasn’t the most sound. She can barely conjure an appetite. If Karlyn notices her not eating, she’ll not hear the end of it for weeks. Best have some bread now and stop the hunger later. With a great effort, she tears apart the stale loaf. Alana pulls out her flask and hands Karlyn her piece.
“Should we give some to the girl?” Alana asks.
“What for?” Karlyn rips off a chunk and sticks it in her mouth. “We don’t offer final meals, and we’ll be in town by tomorrow. I think we can make it tonight if we keep a strong pace.”
A day’s travel doesn’t sound so bad, but even Alana is feeling the ache in her back and legs. Karlyn’s kept quiet since they captured the girl. It’s not just Karlyn. Both of them have become more reserved the past week. All this wandering is having a toll on them. Alana bites into her bread.
Karlyn squints at her. “You’re not hungry. You have that look in your eyes as you’re sitting there. I can’t believe you’d make us stop for her.”
Alana struggles as she swallows her mouthful as fast as she can. “Where did this accusation come from?”
Karlyn groans. She stuffs the remainder of her bread in her pocket and stands up. “Don’t try to hide it, from me of all people. You’ve been like this since we seized her, which wasn’t without its problems. You wouldn’t be so nice if you were the one dragged down a river.”
Alana throws her hands in the air. “Listen, the girl isn’t going anywhere. Congratulations, you ran her dry. She couldn’t escape if she wanted to.”
“Is that what you think?” Karlyn picks up her crossbow. “How about we put our assumptions to the test? You say we should go easier on her while I think she can walk the entire damn path back home. Let’s see how appreciative she is with your kindness. Release the bonds around her hands.”
Alana laughs at her. “You can’t be serious.”
“I am. I know the act. She’s hurt and can barely walk. If you give her the chance, she’ll run as fast as she can. Do it and watch.”
Alana lies back on her elbows. She knows the girl’s legs are jelly from exhaustion by now. “And what do I get if I’m correct? There’s not a lot on the line regarding you.”
Karlyn raises her eyebrow. “I’ll keep my mouth shut all the way until we get our reward. It doesn’t matter how long we’re out or how many rests you feel inclined in taking.”
Anything to quiet her down. Alana puts down her food and heads toward the girl. It’s not possible for her to have any energy. The girl had just run from town a day before they arrived and got the job, and she left on foot. They were forced to ride all over the damn woods and rivers until they caught her, and Karlyn has been incessant in making it back to town. The girl might try to run and fumble, but that’s about it.
Alana reaches the tree. She bends over and unsheathes her knife and starts cutting the bonds free. The rope strands start to break apart as she applies more pressure. As the rope is cut, Alana starts to speak to her about this wager.
The girl punches Alana in the stomach. Alana topples over and a knee slams into her nose. Lights flash and it hurts to breathe in. Alana holds her sides and face as she lies on the ground. She watches as the girl takes off running in the distance. A bad judgment call.
Alana rolls over to see her sister staring down on her. “I told you she’d be a runner, didn’t I? Unbelievable what a little acting will do to you. You’re lucky she didn’t go for your dagger.”
“Fine, fine. Get her or we’ll lose out on the reward.”
She watches as Karlyn walks over to her horse and pulls a bolt for her crossbow. Alana starts to pick herself up from the ground. Those punches were surprisingly strong for such a small woman. She’s going to hear about this incident whenever they get in an argument again. “What’s taking so long? She’s going to escape at this rate.”
“No. She’s not,” Karlyn responds.
The girl has covered a lot of ground since Alana last saw her. It’ll have to be a good shot and... Alana shakes her head. Karlyn loads a bolt into her crossbow and takes aim. Alana follows the trajectory as it fires off the shot. It flashes through the trees and lands in the girl’s back. She falls to the ground.
Alana’s not going to hear the end of this for some time. She grimaces as she holds her sides and stands up. The throb in her face slowly goes away. “Fine shot,” Alana says.
“We’ve missed nearly a day’s worth of travel because of this girl,” Karlyn responds. She walks over to her horse and takes out a bag and a hatchet.
Alana says, “You know we’re going to lose out on any extra because we’re bringing her in dead, right? I’m sure they wanted her in one piece when we brought her in.”
Karlyn closes her eyes and sighs. “She drowned their baby. They’re going to give us the money regardless. Let’s just hurry up and get this over with. I don’t want to be out here any longer.”
Karlyn walks to the girl. Alana feels a thickness in her throat as if someone stuffed down food and left it there. She went too far in letting this whole ordeal go. Alana opens her flask and takes a drink. Not much left. The next river they pass by she’ll make sure to fill it up. She avoids watching Karlyn work as she takes the hatchet to the girl’s neck, so Alana turns to the wilderness.
This countryside is beautiful. She wishes Karlyn would take the time to put her mind at ease and just enjoy the sights. Instead Karlyn constantly keeps her gaze on her feet. This job has made Karlyn more irritable than usual. She presses her thumb against her nose. We’re acting foolish.
Alana has no idea where they’ve ended up, but people still have coin and need, and that agrees with her. Every place they’ve visited has been more and more dangerous. Alana hopes this perpetual wandering stops eventually. She needs to take this situation more seriously. Once they turn this girl in and get the reward, they’ll rest, and drink, and stay at the town for the next week. No matter the offers that come their way.
Karlyn hates the sound of this woman’s wailing. She puts her hands in her pockets and tightens them into fists. It grates her ears and tries her temper. The employer and his wife give Alana the reward, but keep insisting for the two of them to stay. This woman will not stop crying.
Fortunately Alana interrupts, telling the grieving parents that they have to leave and they are much too tired from the journey back. It doesn’t help matters Karlyn insisted they ride through the night. What should have made them arrive quicker ended up taking just as long due to the distractions. Now she feels the tenderness in her back and eyelids.
They leave the house and walk back to the town of Keyfair. The morning light shines in their eyes as they go down the dirt path. Alana keeps hold of the pay. As usual, Karlyn was right, the parents not only paid the full amount, but gave extra given they returned so quickly. She clears her throat and spits on the grass. They could have been quicker.
Alana says, “How about we celebrate at the tavern?”
“I’d rather go to bed.”
“Bed? We can’t head straight to bed. We’re in a lively town with some money to spare. I think a decent meal, some good drinks.”
Alana always gets like this when she’s worried. Never the one to deal with an issue directly, Alana tries to mask problems under drinking, parties, and dance, and for the most part she’s right. Karlyn loses track of what’s bothering her. Once she forgets, the worry disappears. Most of the time. “I’ll have a drink,” Karlyn says. “After that I’m going to bed.”
When they enter the tavern, Alana wastes no time ordering the food and drinks. The mead fills into the mugs and splashes onto the counter as they are set down. It isn’t long before Alana stirs up the other patrons in the tavern. She always had a knack with people. That’s fine with Karlyn, as long as she doesn’t have to speak with them.
They laugh and smile as Alana entertains them with exaggerated tales of their exploits. Certain stories don’t deviate too far from the truth. Karlyn sips from her mug. It gives a crisp bitterness. She can’t remember the last time she’s had a drink to calm down. Four weeks ago?
She shakes her head. It was five weeks ago in that marshland. She used to enjoy tasting the selections of spirits and brews at all the places they pass through. Today needs to end soon. A man comes up to their table. He’s finely dressed for the area. He looks around the bar, reaffirming something under his breath. “You two are the bounty hunters, right? You look like you fit the description.”
Karlyn clears her throat. “It’s good we fit your description, but I can’t say we know anything about you.”
“Durmont Plair. I heard you were the two who captured Barret and Deysi’s handmaiden? Terrible business, terrible business.”
Karlyn can live without the opening conversation pleasantries. This man wants to hire. Alana takes notice of him. She sits next to Karlyn and takes lead with the answer. “Cases like that always are. What have you stopped by for?”
His eyes go wide. “Did the girl ever confess why she did it?”
Alana takes a sip from her mug. “No. In a way that’s normal. These things happen.”
Karlyn knows that’s an excuse. She can’t remember the last time someone took another’s life for no good reason. It just doesn’t transpire, most of the time they have a damn good reason. She and Alana have a good impression it was an affair with the husband, but it’s none of their business. They were hired to bring her in. Nothing more.
Durmont says, “I need someone found. Barret and I have known each other since we were young, and if he says you are the best bounty hunters he’s ever encountered, I take that as the highest compliment to be given. I have a dilemma I need solved myself.”
Alana sits back into her chair. “That certainly is heartwarming, but I’m afraid my sister and I are not offering our services at the moment.”
Karlyn looks over to Alana. This was not the response she was expecting to an offer. They don’t turn down offers too often.
Durmont shakes his head. “But you must, I have an urgent need, it concerns my daughter. She’s missing and I need someone to retrieve her. I’ll pay handsomely.”
“As I said—”
The man interrupts Alana by pouring coins onto the table. The pile clanks and grows into a small hill. Karlyn glances to anyone who’s seen the gesture. Her hand holds the hilt of the knife on her belt. No one seems to pay attention to their table in the corner. It’s one thing to say you have money. It’s another to make it easily reachable.
The same thought appears to be on Alana’s mind. She covers the money with a tablecloth. “We’ll need a moment to decide. Stay here while we talk things over.”
They walk over to the bar. Karlyn makes sure she’s a fair distance away before she grabs and pulls Alana close. “What are you doing?”
Alana arches her eyebrow. “Nothing. What do you mean?”
“Don’t act stupid.” Karlyn checks again if anyone is drawing near to their conversation. “That’s a lot of money we’d be leaving on the table. It can set us up for a good long time. Why are you turning it down?”
“Hey, it’s not about the money. If you forgot, we were paid earlier today. We haven’t had an actual bed in days, barely a hot meal, and we’ve gone through a lot of shit by cleaning up other people’s troubles. I’m sure his daughter is beautiful and wonderful, but she’s not our problem. He can hire somebody else. This—” she holds up her mug “—will help us stay more than happy in warm beds at night. That’s what we need right now.”
It’s not the money, but it is the money. Right now, Karalyn doesn’t want to eat or drink, it’s not tiredness. She wants the certainty they don’t need to struggle for food and room. This conversation is building a pressure in her head. “I don’t like this attitude. Something isn’t right.”
Alana brushes Karlyn’s hand off. “What’s your problem, don’t you want to slow down for just a little?”
“Our issue is we don’t know where we’re going to be tomorrow or even a week from now, and that is a lot of money to be leaving here. It hasn’t happened yet, but there will be a time when this won’t come as easy for us. We’re taking the job.”
She pushes Alana away and leaves the bar. Karlyn grits her teeth as she walks to Durmont. “We’ll do it.”
They sit down to discuss Durmont’s contract. Alana asks, “What’s the problem you’re facing? How did this all come about?”
The girl’s father seems to have calmed down since they agreed to the job. He still hasn’t stopped glancing at Karlyn and Alana, and he’s constantly rubbing his hands as if they are cold, but he collects himself to speak. “I don’t know. Three weeks. One day she was home and the next she was gone.”
Alana signals the barmaid over and orders a strong drink. She arrives with a mug with a dark mixture that Karlyn wants no part of. Her first drink is languishing on the side of the table. The new order is placed in front of Durmont. “Relax,” Alana says. “Start us at the beginning so my sister and I know what we’re dealing with.”
“My daughter isn’t the first. She’s been gone three weeks. Other girls have gone missing here and other villages. There was a traveling bard the other men recount, I saw him. They said the bard placed a curse on them. They just end up leaving. Some in the middle of the night, others just stop working and walk like they were possessed. I thought it was superstitious nonsense, didn’t pay any mind to what others were saying. Then she was gone and—” He takes a long drink from his mug.
Alana nods in response. “So, it’s more than one girl. What’s a number we should expect?”
“More than a dozen,” he says.
Karlyn glances over to Alana. This was getting more troublesome by the moment.
Alana asks, “How have that many women been taken and no one’s gone looking for them? Surely it can’t be that difficult to track. The more people, the more trails.”
“That’s the point I’m trying to make. We have sent others after someone. Some mercenaries were hired and were said to have gone looking for the bard when this first took place. You are not the first hires I sent out. Two weeks ago, I had one man go out. He said he was confidant of where my daughter was, and the other girls as well. He left and never came back.”
“You didn’t pay him up front by any chance?”
He takes another drink. “No, I fear the worst, and if that happened to him...”
Karlyn grabs the sides of her mug by the tips of her fingers and slowly spins it. A missing mercenary doesn’t mean much. Anything could have come up that stopped the mercenary from returning. And at the same time, it opens up terrible possibilities.
Alana keeps the conversation going. “You’re probably right on that assumption. I can see why you’d be so worried.” Alana slams Karlyn’s back. “Nothing has ever stopped us before.”
It’s always the theatrics with her. This man doesn’t need any more reason to hire them. He actually dumped the payment in front of them in full and in advance.
“Good,” he says. “You’re putting my mind at ease, slightly.”
“That’s what you’re paying us to do. If you can tell us where the mercenaries were told to look, my sister and I will follow the same trail and see what we find.”
Karlyn starts to tally up all the details. Girls are missing. Previous hired mercenary, missing. Gone long enough to presume the worst, but not long enough to give up hope. Most likely dead, or sold, which at the end of the day means the same thing. It’s contained in the local region, wherever this place is. She can’t be expected to remember all the names of each land they find themselves in. Finally, he gives them the directions.
Alana’s heels start tapping on the floor. Not much left to go in this conversation. “Before we leave, I have one last question to ask. How long ago did all of this take place? And I mean exactly from the first reports?”
Durmont looks up at the ceiling and grinds his teeth. “I’d have to say, two months ago. Why, does that tell you something?”
Of course it does. Some of these people can be so thick. Karlyn tastes her drink. His mind must be in too many places at once. This will go right past him without him noticing a thing.
Alana responds, “I’m just getting an understanding of the situation. Don’t worry, we’ll be back soon with your daughter.”
A day’s travel to the last known location of the man Durmont hired. Strange how the incidents have taken place nearby. Karlyn thinks if these towns and villages were like anything they passed through, a mob would have formed and stormed after this bard. They would bring their axes and their spears, and most likely plenty of rope to hang whatever was left of him. It wouldn’t be unreasonable. But not every town can have a backbone. Some people are just more docile, and she would like to believe that’s a good thing. There are plenty of lands that can use a well-behaved population. So when trouble like this comes along, it makes her think twice about those assumptions.
They keep to the forest. Karlyn brings her horse closer to Alana’s. “What do you think of this nonsense with the missing girls?”
“Not sure,” she responds. “We’ll have to wait and see how this plays out.”
Alana is trying to avoid talking. She may be the one upset that Karlyn pushed her into taking the job. This is not how I wanted everything to play out. “I’m not letting you get away with that answer. You’ve worked something out, so let me know what that something is.”
This question has been on Karlyn’s mind since they left Keyfair. Karlyn’s been interested about the last thing Alana asked Durmont. “You don’t ask worthless questions. There is something playing out in the walls of your head right now, and I’d like to know what that is.”
Alana has a certain demeanor when she thinks too much. It gives Karlyn a quiver in her stomach. She hasn’t seen Alana in this mood in ages. She’s not supposed to be this quiet. Alana has ideas, she talks, and she does something at the very least.
Alana says, “The issue is there’s too much that doesn’t make sense. We have missing girls, but they’re not ripped out of their homes and dragged away. I can understand a girl being taken by being tossed over a shoulder. I get it. Girls leaving in the middle of the night? That’s strange, although it’s not beyond the realm of possibility. A girl can run away with a lover, but not this many. Durmont says there is a bard to be blamed, but I think we’re dealing with a group.”
“What makes you think we’re dealing with more than one man?”
“Because it would make sense, wouldn’t it? Each girl corresponds to one member. Hell, two girls to one man would still mean a sizable number for them to deal with, except we’ve only heard of one being involved. The traveling bard. That being said, I’m still thinking they were taken against their will. The stories are not coming together. There are missing pieces and I’m trying to figure out where those empty spots go.”
Karlyn nods. Alana is right, the particulars of this job are curious. The bard feels more like he belongs in folk story rather than what can be likely. He’s too ideal, too aloof to learn anything about. When she and Alana learned to live within their shifting dilemma, they found out to always believe what they can see for themselves.
Karlyn says, “Remember those bandits we dealt with last month? They also had one of them who would trick merchants to the side of the road, and then the rest would appear. Do you figure we’re heading into something similar?”
“Could be, but I’m not sure. Hence why I said we will have to wait and see how this will play out before believing in anything.” Alana keeps quiet on the trail. It takes nearly ten minutes before she responds to Karlyn’s silence. “Yes, we should prepare for a group like those bandits.”
Whatever is on her mind, she’s treating it seriously. “How many are you thinking?” Karlyn asks.
“It doesn’t matter, just a group.”
“Give me a number. Four? Six?”
“Eight,” she says. “Perhaps a dozen.”
“That’s a big jump in numbers. I’m thinking seven.”
Alana shakes her hand in the air. “Durmont told us that we’re not the first search party that’s been sent out here. Has to be sizable enough number to worry about.”
Karlyn agrees Durmont’s story had interesting parts to it. “It’s a funny thing; he never stated they were killed. He said they never came back.”
“I wouldn’t read too much into it,” Alana replies. She looks out to the forest. “Not coming back and dead is the same thing.”
“Anything else on your mind?”
“Possibly, although I want to keep this one to myself until we reach this village.”
As they journey, a dirt path reveals itself going west. Karlyn and Alana stay north of the path, in case of an ambush or bear traps hidden on the road. The woods clear out to a meadow, and in the distance is the village. The directions are correct, and Karlyn feels uneasy about it. They dismount and tie their horses to nearby trees. Alana covers the sun from her eyes as she scans the area. “The place doesn’t look fortified in any way.”
Karlyn is already unpacking the crossbow from her horse. “Want me to post up here with the crossbow while you scout through the village?”
“Don’t bother. There’s no cause for concern quite yet. Let’s walk right in.”
Karlyn’s fingers strum against the crossbow stock. “Things can turn dangerous quickly. I don’t like that idea.”
“You never like my plans...” She stops. Karlyn doesn’t move as well, trying to pick up whatever her sister caught on to. “Do you hear that?”
It’s music. They’re playing a song in the village.
Alana pats her on the arm. “Well, let’s see what festivities are taking place.”
Karlyn walks out to the village center to where the music originates. All the women are sitting around listening to the bard singing. They’re surrounding him on his log chair. There has to be thirty, perhaps forty girls by her guess. Finding Sarah is going to take some thorough searching, but at least she must be here.
She looks over to Alana to measure her reaction. Alana rests against the wall of the house and inspects the sight. They both nod to each other and keep quiet. No guards by the looks of it. No towers, no gates. It’s a quaint little village that should be living little lives. Karlyn notices there are men, they’re staying inside their houses, either listening by their doors or gazing out through their windows. Definitely more than seven or eight.
The houses are not freshly constructed. This place is aged. Certain sections appear remodeled, but as a whole, this is not a new settlement. It can be nothing, probably nothing. Karlyn keeps this detail in mind to share with Alana later. She should make more sense of it, if she hasn’t noticed already.
Karlyn just hangs back and watches the show. There is a dissonance in the tune. Karlyn can’t tell if it’s with the lute or in the bard’s voice, maybe the two working simultaneously, but there is a grating pitch. It causes the hairs on the back of her neck and arms to stand on end. These girls must be tone deaf to sit and fawn around him. When she looks over to Alana, her hands are balled into fists and her jaw is clenched. Good, glad I’m not the only one.
She checks on the men, and while they don’t seem to be as enthralled in the song as the women, it seems to capture their attention the same. They even sway slightly to the rhythm. No one has noticed that she and her sister have walked into the village. It’s not as if the meadow covered their entrance in any way.
The song ends and there is a thunderous applause. The women beg for him to continue playing. Some of them say the same thing in unison. Karlyn can’t find the appeal in his music. It may be the unpleasantness of that song still lingering. He’s enjoying the attention, and he’s the first person to make eye contact with her.
Karlyn averts her gaze and quietly berates herself for this habit. She notices some of the men and women are starting to notice them as if a fog is being lifted. He starts walking towards them, and Alana takes the first step as well. Good. She’s going to do the talking for both of them.
“Greetings,” he says. “Are you travelers? It’s quite a ways out here.”
“We’re something of that nature. I’m Alana and this is my sister, Karlyn.”
“Norwin,” he smiles.
Too pleasant. Karlyn doesn’t like that kind of attitude. He’s fishing for information, so she nods back to him.
Norwin puts his hands on his waist. “My apologies for not talking with you sooner, afternoon entertainment has to be taken care of. The villagers sure do love a good performance. It makes them feel at ease for the rest of the day.”
Alana says, “That’s a real talent you have there. If you don’t mind me asking, you seem young, how did you learn to play the lute so well?”
“Practice, and luck,” he responds. “I’ve always been making music. Can’t remember a time when I wasn’t. Afternoons, nights, I was never without it. I suppose it always boils down to those two things, doesn’t it, practice and luck?”
“Well, it’s a gift. Say, you wouldn’t mind pointing us in the direction of the head of this village by any chance?”
“You don’t have to go far, I’m right here.”
Alana steals a glance back at Karlyn. “You? You run this village?”
Norwin nods with a smile. “Yes, about the same amount of time as with the music. It’s not much, but it’s a place we carved out for ourselves.”
Karlyn can tell when Alana is procrastinating. Alana manages to have one part of her mind on a conversation, while the other half is busy scheming, with no pause of any kind. “We’re looking for Sarah Plair. We heard she was now in this village.”
“Sarah is Wiatt Sinclair’s wife. Great people.”
Alana’s pitch raises slightly. “They’re married?”
Norwin gestures in front of him. “I presided over the ceremony myself.”
“They found love.” Alana taps Karlyn’s arm. “The bad news I bring is that matrimony is gone. Sarah’s father has tasked us with bringing her home.”
She closes her eyes. Karlyn doesn’t like this direct approach. She wishes she had stayed outside of the village’s limits with her crossbow right now. Alana is playing too reckless.
Norwin sighs. “If that’s what you’ve been paid to do, there’s no use in me trying to stop you two. Sarah hasn’t been taken against her will. She came here because this is where she wants to be. It’s something her father needs to understand. They live right down this road.” He points down a dirt path. “I think once you meet her and Wiatt, you’ll understand what I mean. People are happy here.”
They walk the grounds of the village, inspecting the closer details. Karlyn’s toes tap the inside of her boots. No one really watches us.Two strangers who just walked in. Unless this place receives a fair share of visitors, and she doesn’t believe it does, then more than a few peeping eyes should be glancing at them.
Alana asks, “This place is peculiar, don’t you think?”
“How so? It’s all old trash,” she responds.
“I’m not talking about the architecture. I’m talking about the people. I don’t want to judge men on their looks, but some of them would have trouble getting sex with a horse, let alone their wives. These are beautiful women. All of them.”
“Luck shines on people in different ways.”
Alana may be correct. Karlyn didn’t focus on whether the people were attractive or not. Her mind worked on lines of sight on their position, flanking routes, and how quickly they can run back to the horses.
Alana takes a sip of water out of her flask, and rests her back against the wall of a house. “But not these many men in one place. I refuse to believe it.”
They stand and watch the village, sitting in the shade of a home’s shadow. The community is small, about sixty. Maybe more. That number seems bigger than she initially imagined, but most of the population was sitting around Norwin. Karlyn couldn’t keep track of everyone, but she does know there is double the amount of women than men in the village.
Karlyn tightens her gloves. The song Norwin played still hasn’t left her system. She thinks it was the dissonance of the tune, even though it was harmonious. Whatever it was, it makes her feel sick. The look of the homes makes her feel sick. “Old place. I’m surprised Durmont didn’t just tell us the name. It seems to have been standing here for a while.”
Alana’s hands pick at the wall of the home. She holds up moss in her hand and frowns. “You’re right. It’s shit.”
“Any other insights to the village?”
“None of the men work.” She throws the moss to the ground.
Karlyn looks around the village. Her sister is onto something. Even without a stream of commerce, the villagers themselves should be active, gathering materials, working the fields. Nothing is being done, hardly any movement at all. The few who did venture out were during Norwin’s playing, and once that finished they trudged back home, some of them with multiple women. “How do they get any work done at this pace? There has to be someone, some group earning their keep of bread around here.”
It was as if the world had listened and given them the answer. Karlyn watches as one girl leaves her house with two empty buckets. Alana and Karlyn track her progress to the well. She fills two large buckets, throws the ropes over her shoulders, and takes it back home.
“Damn,” Karlyn says.
Alana’s mouth slacks. “That’s what I’m saying. A village with gorgeous women who marry and work for these men. I don’t believe it for a second. And those are some serious buckets,” she points. “I couldn’t do that and I can pound her into the dirt. And look, she’s not breaking out of her stride.”
Her sister is correct, it’s surreal to watch a small girl trek along with that much weight upon her frame. It’s not impossible for her to do it, just unlikely. Karlyn doesn’t believe in innate strength, but that can be her bias clouding her judgment. Sometimes she can surprise herself when she believes strongly, but it has to be more important than bringing water back home. “Let’s grab Sarah. No use in people watching when we should be people grabbing.”
As they walk down the road to Wiatt and Sarah’s house, a girl from that direction walks up to them. She’s fair with a white dress. In fact, Karlyn realizes all the girls are wearing this dress. The girl has big eyes, almost too big for her face. “Hello.” She smiles. “Are you two Norwin’s new ladies?”
“Oh no,” Alana answers and laughs, “I can’t say we’re anyone’s ladies. We’re just passing through. Not staying long at all.”
“Sorry?” Alana responds.
“Why are you not staying in our home?” Her eyes have a glassy appearance.
“I’m sure it’s nice. Norwin seems kind enough, but you see, this isn’t where we want to be. We’re going to be heading back home after we leave from here.”
“Where is home, if not from here?”
So, the girl isn’t stupid, she’s getting information for Norwin. Karlyn shifts to see her sister’s response.
Alana responds, “My sister and I come from a town called Levon. And you?”
“Justine, from Adero. I’m sorry, I’ve never heard of Levon. Where is it at?”
Alana gestures out to the forest. “Oh, it’s a way off from here. I doubt you’d know what I’m talking about, but rest assured it wasn’t the most pleasant place to grow up. Now here, this is something special.”
Karlyn holds back her laugh when she hears it.
“It truly is,” and Justine walks away. There is no social pleasantry Karlyn can see. No glance back at them. Justine continues on her path as if they didn’t even talk.
Alana waits until she is gone before turning to Karlyn. “I don’t like these people one bit.”
Karlyn looks to her. “Levon, really?”
“Levon is just as good as any place to say.”
“You could have told the truth, and the poor girl still wouldn’t know where we lived.”
“You’re right, you’re right.” Alana throws up her hands. “I’ll make it a habit to be more truthful and trusting of people, especially when these people are idiots.”
Karlyn suppresses a chuckle. “As long as you know from now on.”
“I do.” She looks around. “And look, if we’re really good, maybe we can be one of Norwin’s whores while we’re at it. That’ll be a personal dream come true.” Alana stops talking and jumps back. She throws her weight on her heels as she backsteps from where she was standing. She searches for something in the grass.
Karlyn raises her eyebrow. “What’s wrong? Bug sneak up your leg?”
“Thought I felt the ground move, like I stepped on something and it tried to run off.” Alana inspects the grass, fingers pushing into the dirt. “Let’s grab Sarah.”
They continue down the path where the house Sarah supposedly lives. It appears the same as the other houses in the village. Old, moss and vegetation growing up the sides. For all the people who live here, Karlyn assumes they would take better care of their living conditions. The area isn’t a hovel. No reason for the disarray.
As they walk up to the front door, Karlyn taps Alana on the shoulder. “Want me to post up against the door?”
“Don’t bother.” Alana knocks on the door. Karlyn listens to one pair of footsteps coming towards them. The door opens and a light-haired man appears. “Wiatt?”
The man warily looks to them. “Yes.”
“We’re friends of Sarah. Is she home?”
“No.” He attempts to close the door, but Alana jams her foot in.
“I was hoping for more of a yes.” Alana grabs the handle of the door and slams it into him. His grip fails and he’s sent staggering back. Alana punches him and he falls. Karlyn closes the door quickly, making sure no one has seen them enter.
Alana pins him to the floor with her foot. “You don’t strike me as the local type.” He struggles to stand up, but Alana digs her heel into his abdomen. She gestures to Karlyn, and Karlyn pulls out her hatchet.
“Oh shit! What do you two want?”
“Information,” Alana responds. “And you’re going to give us every last piece.”
Now he’s turning red from the pressure of her boot. “Fine, fine. I’ll tell you, just let me breathe.” Alana removes herself from him. He rolls on his side, coughing and wheezing. Karlyn swears he becomes redder. Once he recovers, he stands up and supports himself against a wall. “I never lived here. I was hired to bring one of the girls back.”
Karlyn and Alana share a glance to one another. “So, you’re one of Durmont’s other hires?”
Alana inches towards him and Wiatt steps back further. “I was paid to bring one of the girls back home. A big pile of gold because the previous hire never returned. And I found out why.”
He clears his throat. “You have to understand this village is more complicated than you realize.”
Alana half-heartedly nods along. “You’re going to need to start talking faster and get to the point, or else I’m going to smash your head against the wall.”
Karlyn interjects, “Not if I get to him first.”
Wiatt takes a step back from them. “I arrived and Norwin pulled me in. Yes, I made the wrong decision, but that man, he has a way with words. I wasn’t supposed to stay, yet I did. It’s a paradise. The girls, they’re beautiful and will do anything you desire. Any of them, they’re all shared. The food never runs low. Always beer and wine in stock. There’s no reason to leave.”
Karlyn twirls the hatchet in her hand and stares at him. “I’m waiting for the part where the offer was so good that you stayed.”
“Like hell you wouldn’t take the same deal. If you think you’re the first to turn down the offer, you’re out of your skull.” Wiatt calms himself. “It wasn’t that I wanted to take the offer, it’s that I did. I know it’s going to sound strange and that I’m lying, but I’m telling the truth, I wasn’t in control.”
Karlyn says to Alana, “I say we gut him here and now. If we bring back his head, I’m sure Durmont will give us some extra on top of our reward, especially if we tell him how much he slept with his daughter. Ruined a pretty good marriage offer, now didn’t he?”
Alana nods. “I’d say so.”
Wiatt shakes his head. “I can’t leave, none of us can.”
Alana smiles at him. “Or what? Will the women stop you?”
“Yes, and worse.” His eyes bulge out and he gulps down. “It’s not all sex and drink, once we’re here we can’t leave. And every full moon one of us is taken.”
“Taken where?” she asks.
“To Norwin’s house. I met a guy, Lay. Bless him he was as true as a saint. He broke out of the haze first and said he was going to leave and bring help. I saw him leave from this house. He didn’t stop to see anyone, he just walked out. The next day pieces of him were scattered around the village. Hair, fingernails, and parts strewn around. Some of the men and women began to get scared, and then Norwin played a song, as he always does. The women picked him up, as if they weren’t holding meaty chunks. And the broth... I didn’t eat the broth that night. And before I knew it I woke up in my bed in the middle of the night.”
Karlyn says, “He’s bullshitting us.”
Wiatt furiously shakes his head. “I’m not, and that’s the truth. I get it, I don’t have the honor of a knight by any means, but I’m not a monster either. I can’t say the same about Norwin. What I’m trying to get to is, don’t listen to his music if you can help it.”
Karlyn puts the tip of her hatchet on the table. “I say we get this over with. The sooner we’re gone the better this will turn out. This place is awful. I don’t like it, not one bit. Let’s grab Sarah and ride out of here.”
They release Wiatt and inspect his house. Karlyn checks the rooms, just in case he had company over. The rooms are empty. She thinks it surprisingly so, given the lack of furniture. Not many mementos are scattered around the home. The house is functional and little else.
Karlyn reaches to the top of a door frame and runs her fingers over it. The tips of her gloves come back vile. She wipes the grime off against the wall. As she touches the wall, she gives a quick knock with her knuckle, a force of habit. The walls seem hollow. Must be a haven for vermin. She checks around the house and doesn’t find a single crack for rats and mice. Given the age, she imagines it would be filled with them.
“Does this village have a rat or rodent problem by any chance?”
“None.” Wiatt responds.
Alana looks around the house. “Can’t say I’ve seen any since we arrived. I don’t know how you came to that conclusion. Rats would be the last thing on my mind.”
Resting against the table, Wiatt shakes his head. “There are no rats, none at all. Not even at night. No owls, no snakes, no creatures of any kind. It’s not that they stay away from this place. It’s that they don’t appear at all. I’ve been here awhile. Studying how to get out whenever I’m of clear mind.”
“We saw how your current plan of locking yourself in the house is working,” Alana says. “I bet you leave the door unlocked for when Sarah returns home though.”
“I don’t care if you believe I have honor or not. Most days I’m only aware of myself for an hour or so. It’s sheer chance when I meet another man or woman who regains consciousness at the same time. We’ve looked for ways out of here, and plenty of others have as well. Whoever lived in this house before me had a tunnel in the basement. It’s closed off from the years, but the other buildings have them too. Some men have crawled through them. I never saw them again.”
Alana keeps Wiatt in her sights as she looks around the house. “Sorry, still having a hard time believing no one wants to be here.”
Wiatt presses air out of his teeth. “I never said everyone wants out. Some of these men are here for the reasons you think... because free sex is a good deal. They’d rather be out of their minds, and when they’re not, they’re drinking and smoking their way back. Most are not. They were traveling merchants who were on the road one day and then realized they were in the village upon meeting Norwin. It’s a similar story throughout the village.”
“You mentioned not listening to Norwin’s music. Care to expand on that subject?”
He exhales and shakes his head. “I’ve never been able to survive an entire song. Once that melody starts, I get real sick. If I cover my ears I can handle it, but when caught off guard, I don’t come to until the next day.”
“I can’t call his music enjoyable myself. How about you, Karlyn? More to your liking?”
Karlyn shrugs. “I felt a little nauseous when we walked on him playing.”
Wiatt’s eyes turn round. “Just a little? I get damn well worse than seasickness.”
Alana responds, “It must be a matter of taste. When we met Justine on our way here, she couldn’t get over Norwin.”
“Wait. You met Justine on your walk over here? Shit, they knew you came this way.” Wiatt runs to the window and scans out. His grip tightens on the windowsill. “Two are on their way. They’ll be here in a moment to take you to Norwin.”
Karlyn palms the hilt of her hatchet. “I highly doubt it.”
Wiatt glances a worried look, trying to find a response. Alana puts her hand on Karlyn’s shoulder. “Let’s go see Norwin.”
Karlyn has never doubted Alana’s plans before, except this village is giving every warning sign to cut their losses and run. I can’t believe I got us into this mess. “What are you saying?”
“Let’s cut straight through the bullshit.”
Karlyn looks to Wiatt, his eyes wide in response, and back to Alana. “We don’t know what’s right-side up around here.”
Alana says, “And we’re about to be escorted to all those answers. Hey, Wiatt.” His attention turns from the window to Alana. “Are you going to stay useless on us, or you want to get out of here?”
“I want out,” he says.
“What are you going to do for us to make that happen?”
Wiatt mutters to himself. “They’re almost here.” He stands straight and pulls himself together. “Sarah is at the tavern most likely. I’ll get to her while you’re away, if you can manage to get out of there. Find me, find her.”
“See?” Alana slaps Karlyn’s shoulder. “Norwin is one man. He can’t do much against three, now can he?”
The two girls are taking them to a meeting with Norwin, sounding much more pleasant than they let on. They separate, one leading them from the front, the other closing them off from the rear. Karlyn keeps her attention on the escort behind them. It seems they didn’t want either her or Alana from slipping past them. Actions always speak louder than words.
Dusk is setting. She realizes Wiatt is right about the lack of animals. Not even a bird in the sky. She walks closer to Alana and whispers, “No animals at all. I don’t like this place.”
Alana adjusts her gloves. “I can’t disagree with you, something is foul here. I mentioned something on my mind before we reached here. There was a job we did, two years ago, with the missing children. Do you remember?”
“What about it?”
“Between Wiatt and Durmont describing what was happening around these parts, it reminded of those children. An entire village’s offspring. Gone. We followed the tracks all the way to a cliff side with that giant boulder by the edge. The footsteps went around it, but stopped before reaching the fall. They didn’t jump, or else we’d have their little bodies washed up from the tide. It was as if they flew away. This place brings back those memories.”
That was one job Karlyn didn’t mind forgetting. They never ended up paid for their tracking services, and she was happy to leave that place as soon as they were able. It struck her wrong then as it does now. The view of the ocean from there. It was unsettling, that’s for certain.
Alana continues, “I ask myself the same question for those children as I do for these girls. Why go? No coercion, no chains, they’re not even supervised, and yet they left all the same.”
Karlyn can’t let the opportunity pass by. “Maybe they’re happy here?”
Alana suppresses her laugh. “Like hell they are. I only need to take a look at these two girls to be sure of that, and it sure doesn’t matter to their fathers. I’m sure we can get a sizable reward if we returned every girl back to their rightful home. Don’t think we’d have the time for that task before we have to leave with the next transition.”
They approach Norwin’s estate and their escort opens the door. Alana turns back and gives Karlyn a small smile before they enter. Karlyn wishes she can give the same.
Karlyn expected the home to be bigger. In comparison, it is larger than the other houses in the village, but it doesn’t match any of the newer dwellings in the nearby towns. Plenty of chairs and couches. Karlyn inspects their fabric. Soft and well maintained. She presses down on the cushion with her knuckles. Keeps its form, must be comfortable.
She sees Alana is performing a similar inspection. Karlyn averts her eyes to the floor. They should have stayed at the inn at Keyfair until they had to leave. Karlyn squeezes her fist. Money shouldn’t influence her decisions, but it has, and Alana will go along with her no matter what.
Norwin comes from another room to greet them. “Alana, Karlyn, sit down and relax. Would you like something to drink?”
They take him up on his offer to sit down. Alana sits on nearby couch. “No thanks. We haven’t built up much of a thirst since we’ve been here. What’s with the personal escort? You seemed to be fine with letting us wander around your village earlier today. Seems odd we’re having a personal meeting now.”
Norwin says, “It’s what you said that’s on my mind. Your lack of appreciation of marriage is concerning. You two were hired to take Sarah back to her family, but if you stay in the settlement for a few days, I think you’ll understand why people choose to live here. Maybe you wouldn’t. There’s no town or village of Levon in the region—”
Alana interrupts. “We’re from Filerce, not Levon.”
Karlyn notices Norwin twitches at the response. He quickly recovers himself and sits in his armchair, his lute in his lap. “I had heard a different name from Justine when she told me you two were coming.”
“Must have misheard us. It happens.”
Karlyn thinks she hears another knock from beneath the floor. The sooner they can be finished with Norwin, the better. As much of a nice demeanor he puts on, he enjoys having power over others. He thought he knew about their home, meaning Justine came here right away to tell him. Although when they saw her, she went the opposite direction of this house. Rumors travel fast around here.
Norwin says to Alana, “What I want to extend to you and your sister is less of an appeal of taking Sarah away from us, and more of a proposal to leave things be.”
Alana fully sits back in her couch. “That’s a strange offer. I can’t say I’ve ever heard that one before. You see, we’re being rewarded for bringing the girl back home, and I don’t see you having the reserves to match, let alone exceed that offer.”
“I’ve never seen a use for coin or gold. Happiness is much more than clanging metal. Let me show you.” Norwin strums his lute. “Kaycie and Ivalyn.”
Two girls enter from another room. Karlyn wonders how much they’ve listened in on. They were across the house, and Norwin speaks softly, so she imagines they didn’t catch everything. She wonders how many others are in the house right now. Alana gives her a dead-eyed stare as the girls come out.
“Alana, Karlyn, you need to understand, all I offer is the entry into a dream. A world where the dreamer is the subject of reality. A place where colors and lights flash wrap you in a haze. My proposition is the same as what every man in here accepted. No tilling of the fields, no worries to stock for the winter, and full use of the villagers to satiate any mortal delight in your inkling.”
Alana asks, “All of this just so that Sarah stays?”
“Yes, I think that’s a fair deal.”
Alana warily looks at Kaycie and Ivalyn. “Mighty generous of you, but—”
“There is always more to an offer, so I believe you two should get a taste of what’s on display.”
He strums his lute again and the girls sashay over to them. Ivalyn mounts Alana, and Kaycie gets on top of Karlyn. How Karlyn wishes she can see Alana’s face right now. Karlyn doesn’t know whether to laugh or be in shock as well.
Kaycie unties the top of her blouse. Her heaving breasts nearly fall out of her shirt and over her corset. Karlyn’s eyes dilate and her jaw slackens momentarily. This place is worse than a nightmare. It’s insane. Norwin, the girls, Wiatt. Everyone here is senseless and deranged. Karlyn wrinkles her brow. This ends.
Karlyn says to Kaycie, “Let’s make this interesting. This is going to be our little game that only happens between you and me. We’re going to tell each other a secret, and if it’s a good one, I’ll give you exactly what you crave, but only if you can answer a question correctly. How does that sound?”
Her hands work their way under Karlyn’s shirt. “I’ll do anything.”
“Where do my sister and I come from?”
Karlyn grits her teeth and brings the girl closer. “How would you know that?” Immediately Karlyn pulls the hatchet from her belt and slams the blunt end into Kaycie’s head.
Karlyn tosses the girl off her. She runs over to Alana. Alana pulls Ivalyn by her hair and knocks her to the ground with a punch. Norwin strums and the two escorts run into the room. Justine rushes forward. Karlyn stops her with a kick to the stomach. Karlyn takes a jab at Justine’s head, but Justine catches her punch. Justine twists Karlyn’s arm and hits her in the chest with her free hand. The air is knocked from her lungs as Karlyn is thrown weightlessly across the room.
Coughing and heaving, Karlyn comes to her senses. She’s never been hit that hard in her life. With her back nearly at the wall, Karlyn realizes how much distance she was sent back. “What the hell?” she mutters under her breath between coughs.
The floorboard her hand is on lurches upward, causing her to fall on her elbow. Beneath her, wooden planks creak and contort, as if something is attempting to break through. Karlyn gets away from the shuddering ground quickly. Justine comes for another strike. Misleading Justine into attacking first, Karlyn sidesteps around her. Karlyn pulls her fist back as far as she can, and bashes the side of Justine’s head.
“Karlyn!” Alana yells out.