The dead man had been in the stocks for three days now. His clothing was more like a sail that clung weakly to him every time the wind blew. Underneath, his skin was no more secured, having been cut to ribbons when his various organs were removed. His hands, legs, feet, and neck showed that the bone was in no better shape with his jaw having sustained the largest amount of damage. It was amazing it even still stayed attached, as thoroughly broken as it had been, yet even in this state the dead man stood and tried to lunge towards any passerby.
Every time he lunged towards Keda, she still flinched.
Keda tried to keep her eyes from wandering to the dead man. The memories it brought were horrifying, yet she couldn’t keep them away for long. There was something fascinating about watching someone so damaged continue to move. It was unnatural and horrifying, yet somehow also incredibly sad. Or maybe that was just what she told herself to justify her morbid interest.
She tightened her hands around the clay cup of her lemon tea to absorb it’s warmth in the cool morning air. The cook had handed her the cup a few minutes ago when he’d finally noticed she was seated right outside his tent, even though she had perched there two hours prior. Other people had noticed her sitting out; a few had tried to talk to her, but she had no words for them, or anyone. Even though she tried to thank the cook for the tea, she couldn’t find it in her to form the sounds.
Closing her eyes, she took a deep draw of the tea and held it in her mouth to wash away the dryness, even if her tongue protested the slightly sour taste. Her body fought back every small swallow before her mouth was empty once more. Still feeling parched, she took in a deep breath of the smoky air.
That was the oddest part of this camp, even odder than the dead man in the stocks. No matter where she went, from the latrines to the apothecary, every single place smelled of ash. Every person did as well. No matter how clean-faced they were, they had the aroma of someone who’d spent hours tending a fire pit. Hardly anyone here was ever clean faced. If her mother had seen them she would have dragged them all down to the river to wash up.
That thought bubbled up memories, which made her double over as her stomach roiled. Air forced its way out of her stomach, quickly followed by the tea, which burned all the way back up her throat and onto the ground. Clenching her teeth, her legs pushed back the stool as she stared at the mess, shaking. Her face was hot as she swiveled to see if anyone had seen. The worry was realized rather quickly as one of the tending women was running towards her, bucket discarded with a rag in hand. She couldn’t help but grimace at the thought of whatever hollow words might follow another fussing over.
Wiping her mouth with her sleeve, she stepped over the mess and darted between the tents. Too late, long fingers closed around her wrist and tried to pull her back. However, only the thumb touched flesh, the rest of the fingers were trying to grip the wrapping she had on her wrist. With a hard yank, the wrapping unraveled, leaving Keda free to start jogging away. She looked back in time to get a glimpse of the startled expression on the woman’s face as she held up the errant piece of fabric gripped between her pinched fingers.
Need a way to keep from getting grabbed when on your own, just keep a loose extra layer of fabric on any place people might grab you. Keda could hear the words ringing in her ears just like they would ring across the marketplace whenever her father saw a group of potential customers passing by. The ache in her stomach returned in full force and she stumbled. Her momentum carried her past the back of the tents, but she didn’t fall. Instead she ran shoulder-first into a tree.
Face burning, she pushed her palm against the coarse bark to steady herself. The ache in her throat made itself known with every ragged breath as she leaned her back and stared up into the overcast sky. What an unfriendly sight, the cloudy sky; it’d been up there all week, threatening rain but never following through, just casting everything in its dreary shade. Shivering, she pulled her hands into her sleeves and regretted it as the coarse fabric rubbed against her skin.
What else could she expect from the cheap twill coat they’d given her. It didn’t even have a proper lining. Rolling up the sleeve, she winced as she saw the indentation of the fabric’s haphazard weave on her arm. Keda missed her own clothing, the coats made of debajo leather, warm gloves lined with rabbit fur, her scarf made of lambswool. If she ran now, could she go back there and get it all. How far was it even? Maybe if she left, she’d…
“Rosie!” Birds from a nearby tree fluttered away, startled by the voice that cut through the camp. Blinking, Keda wiped away the errant tear that ran down her cheek as she crept around the edge of a tent to see what was going on.
Someone new was standing on the stockades, knife in hand dripping with blood. Oh. The dead man’s eyes were gone. The person withdrew the knife into the cloak that obscured their figure as Rosie appeared from her tent. Sensing an opportunity, Keda abandoned her position to get closer to the one thing that would make all this tolerable.
She crept between the tents slowly, hand brushing the thick canvas as she went. As she got towards the edge, she got close enough to hear more of the conversation.
“…ollering through the camp?” Rosie’s deep voice met her ears as she snuck through the gap in the tents.
Keda’s curiosity got the better of her as she glanced up at the figure on the way to her goal, and stopped in her tracks. The stranger was the tallest woman Keda had ever seen, a spot which had previously been held by Rosie herself, whom this woman had a full head in height on. Unlike the cheap twill skirts and tops of the women of the camp, the stranger was clad in well fitted trousers and a top, which along with her cloak was from boot to hood made of thick light brown leather.
Despite the woman’s head being easily visible over Rosie’s red curls, her face was mostly obscured. It appeared to be framed in the shadows cast by the cloak’s hood that rested over her brow. What wouldn’t have been covered by the shade of the hood was covered by a dark cloth mask that went up from the collar of her top, all the way up the bridge of her nose, making the visible part of her face a pair of striking green eyes peering down at the apothecary.
“I wouldn’t have to holler if proper protocols were followed. What is that…” The stranger pointed at the man in the stocks. “…doing here?”
The words broke the spell. Keda looked between the two as they moved closer to the stockades. Now was her chance. She double checked and saw no one was looking at the tents. Dashing into the tent, she immediately went to work finding the one thing that would stop the deep ache in her heart.
She was too old for this shit. Haven, it had been a long fucking month and she was hoping at least for some rest. But nope, here she was staring down Rosie, who didn’t even have the gall to be intimidated.
“You know why it’s here, Tante. It’s practice.” Rosie put her thick fists on her hips and met Tante’s gaze. “Maybe if you taught more lessons we wouldn’t need to catch us restless dead to practice on.”
“Teach? Teach? Is that what I have to do now?” Tante threw up a hand to the restless dead in the stocks. “I might fucking have to if you’re going to be so damn reckless.”
Rosie’s overplucked eyebrows crinkled as she looked at the dead man in the stocks. “Reckless? The dead’s so broken it couldn’t kill a lame toddler unless it fell on them. The apprentices worked it over well enough that it’d collapse if the frame weren’t holding it up.”
“Apprentices? Haven, you let it see the apprentices? Great, they’ll be targeted if one of them looked through its eyes. Damn sloppy work, you should know better.” Rosie had certainly been taught better than that. “Break it down. This camp is compromised.”
“Break it down? We’ve been here but a week and gods know how many caravanners will have to stop here on their way to resupply.”
“You won’t resupply anyone if we’ve been scouted out through its eyes.” Tante tsked as she grabbed a torch from her belt. “Get some oil. We kill the dead and move on by sunset. Fall back at least a kilometer down the road. Leave a pyre marker so the caravanners can find the way.”
Rosie scowled. “You’ve got some nerve ordering me around after you’ve been gone so long.” Still, she faced towards the rest of the camp. “Alright, ya’ll get packing. We’ll want to be at our next site before the light’s all gone.”
Tante snorted and rolled her eyes.
Rosie turned back to Tante, a wild red curl bouncing out of whatever tie she’d tasked to keep it out of the way. “Why are you around anyway? I thought you were cleaning out traps up west? I didn’t think I’d see you until summer.”
“I’m out of oil and rope. I also need some new flint. My current one only has a few more strikes on it.” She could also use a bath and a laundering, though that didn’t seem likely to happen with the campsite moving. Maybe she could get a footbath and a rinse for her clothing. Though she’d grown nose blind didn’t mean she wasn’t well aware of her foul smell.
“Already? How busy is it out there?”
“Very. Seems like every merchant and caravan got an early start this year. Which means the bandits followed. Which means…” Tante gestured to the dead man, and Rosie nodded.
“Well, guess it wouldn’t hurt for us to move a little further up the trail if they’re all going out early. Hope the caravans aren’t as unlucky as the Genners’ company.”
“Genners?” She thought she’d heard that name before.
Rosie took in a deep breath through her nose. “It was one of those small quick runs, only about four wagons. I think they were making the trip from Dolard to Quint.”
“Let me guess, they didn’t hire any caravanners.”
“It’s only a week’s trip, just a quick trot through the wilderness for a caravan on well-traveled roads. Probably didn’t think they’d have any trouble from bandits going that fast.”
“Being well traveled is what makes them more dangerous, not less.”
“We know that, but travel’s their lifeblood for moving products. Guess that blood’s been drained away.” Rosie closed her eyes. “Only one survivor was found, a child.”
“Poor child,” Tante said. “Well, did you at least get to them before they winked out?”
“Unfortunately no, given that’s not the only problem we’ve had. You see, Hans got there with his flask and he—”
A crash interrupted the both of them and they looked immediately towards the source. Rosie’s face changed from its normal pallor to deep red. “Oh dear child, not now.”
They both ran, but Tante’s legs brought her to the flap first and she tore it away to see a girl a few years from coming of age standing on Rosie’s desk, having just risen from a knee as she reached for the highest shelf. Small dark hands wrapped around the neck of a bottle with the dark liquid of a potent draught. Rosie stomped past her a moment later. “Keda, no, put that down, don’t—”
The girl turned away from Rosie and jumped off the desk with a flask, clearing under Rosie’s arm as she made for the exit. Old reflexes pulled Tante to kneel as she caught the young girl around the midsection. She spun with the girl’s momentum before hefting her up. The weight surprised her; this wasn’t a scrawny village girl who missed meals during a hard harvest, this was someone who was well cared for. Tante adjusted her grip as the girl kicked her feet in the air as she tried to get free. She even bit into Tante’s sleeve. The pressure didn’t pierce through her thick leather, but still she struggled.
Feisty thing, wasn’t she. But why was she fighting so hard for…?
“Tante! It’s an undiluted draught.”
Eyes widening, Tante immediately reached for the flask. The child used the change in grip to raise her arms, dropping out of Tante’s hold by leaving her jacket behind. The girl still managed to keep a hold of her flask, and as soon as she was out she pulled the top and took a long draw.
Rosie rushed past Tante as the girl slumped down. The bottle slipped from her grip as she fell into a deep sleep. Rosie grabbed her, dusting off the girl’s skirt and holding her up. “Not again.”
“Again?” Tante went down to a knee to be on level. Her nose caught the sickly-sweet smell of the flask. “A sleeping draught. She’s already dependent, then.”
Rosie looked positively ill. “Hans said it was the only way he knew to calm her down when he found her.”
A breath of air vented from Tante’s nose as she rubbed her thumb and forefinger down her cheeks. “So what do you want me to do?”
“What makes you think I w—”
“Don’t.” Tante held up a hand. “You were going to ask. Probably after a few cups of wine and a bath, but we hardly have time for niceties now, do we. Not with a camp to pack up.”
“I was going to go with her, riding alongside a caravan back to Dolard so I could also do some shopping and restock.” Rosie grabbed the jacket and wrapped the girl in it, gently lulling the girl’s dead weight so that her head was resting on her arm. “But there were some concerns.”
Tante leaned back her head and let out a breath. “And I can’t deal with them because?”
“It’s not the other order members, it’s Fuller’s wife. She’s expressed her doubts on whether or not such a young girl would be fine under my supervision.”
“Oh for fuck’s sake. You’ve been in the camps for thirty years, kept more kids underfoot when necessary. You haven’t done anything to them. Why would that change now?”
“The older ones know, but the younger wives of the camp just don’t see it that way. Never mind that even some of the olders have never been entirely comfortable with me alone, and probably won’t ever be unless I go the way of the eunuch.”
“Anyone properly taught will have more on their mind than that, no matter what they have hanging.” Not that women weren’t prone to being stupid about these things too. There was a reason why apprentices were always paired with someone of the same gender and opposite preference, if possible. “Are any of them offering any actual solutions, like going themselves to take her?”
“None of them think they can keep her safe without an order member around to guard her—from the restless dead or any other dangers she might face traveling with an unknown caravan.” Rosie rose and picked up the girl as if she were made of glass. She looked tiny in Rosie’s thick arms. Tante reached out a hand and tucked some of the dark strands of braids behind a perfectly round cheek.
“They think she’s too pretty to ride along safe without a guard?”
“With her dark skin and hair, she’d be what the nobles consider a classical beauty. Only fourteen years old, no guardians, don’t speak, dependent on sleeping draughts. Who knows what someone might be tempted to do.” Rosie walked to the bunk and laid the girl onto it. “Before you showed up, we thought we could keep her along, maybe drop her off once spring was done when we went into town for the festivals, but…” Rosie held up the bottle. “It’s too much of a temptation. We’re too shorthanded for someone to keep a proper watch on her.”
“I’m not going with a caravan,” Tante stated bluntly even as she faced the sleeping girl. “Not all the way to Dolard.”
“I didn’t think you would. But you know this area better than the rest of us. You think there’s anywhere she can go? Maybe one of the closer villages.”
Tante tapped a finger on her leg. “I can think maybe one or two. She’s old enough to become someone’s apprentice, so that’ll work in her favor.”
Rosie broke into the smile that split the freckles on her face. “Thank the gods.”
“I’d rather not.” Tante walked over to the desk and looked through the bottles. “Now, how about you get me some supplies for this trip. If I’m expected to keep a tagalong in line, maybe even some rope, considering how slippery this one is.”
Rosie’s laugh rang out into the tent. Tante rolled her eyes as she adjusted her cloth mask. It wasn’t to hide the lines of the smile, not at all.