Narova The Skagit: Chapter Five
Black Hand Ledger Entry — July 5 of the 12th Year After Old Empire
Successfully completed a Lullaby on the knight Frodo in the city Rust. Two-hundred gold pieces added to the treasury. Frodo died at the hand of Narova. Dagger through the mouth.
Our Koka fish supplies are running low. Must send Rynoa or Puck to purchase more.
Too much wine was left in the Untouched Barrack last night. Rog drank an entire cast and broke Ulnar’s nose in an argument over fletching materials.
Chapter Five: The Long Road
I left the Holdfast with a hangover and a dried-out monkey’s stomach full of demonic runes. There was also some hair from a mountain goat’s beard, and the backbones of a blue heron. Izzy had told me if I felt the hex starting to take hold, I was supposed to eat the entire thing as fast as possible.
Seemed pretty thin to me, but it was better than nothing.
I’d played the hardass with Vexen and Falen about my fuckup with Boris Blithe, but I had a slimy guilt about the whole thing I couldn’t shake. Falen was the closest thing I’d ever had to a father—I wanted to do right by him. And I needed to do right by Vexen or he’d probably have me killed in my sleep. But most of all, I wanted to truly belong somewhere. I’d do better this time around. I had to.
Avarum was a two-week ride east. The backwater town was built mostly on stilts atop a muddy floodplain about twenty leagues inland from the Great Ocean. The place was a shit feast in every way imaginable, so I tried to enjoy the week or so of colorful aspen groves I had to cross before heading into the muggy lowlands, where the ground would be soggy and the air would be riddled with mosquitoes, flies, and creatures who made their lives among the mire.
I was riding a nameless horse that served as a communal mount to Black Hand members who found themselves without a horse. We never named our horses—Falen looked down on that kind of sentimentality—but sometimes you’d inherit a beast that came with a name you could keep, which I liked. No such luck this time. My last good horse had been named Thorn, a good name for a Sleeper’s mount I thought, but the beast had picked up some kind of stomach worm that killed it during the night while Ulnar and I had been riding down to murder Boris Blithe. The horse I’d used to ride back to The Holdfast had been stolen and clearly branded by its previous owner, so I didn’t bother naming that one, even in secret. Knew I’d need to kill the thing and salt the meat down to jerky strips. He’d be my food for my journey to Avarum.
In general, the lords and barons and counts of Terranum do not pursue vengeance upon the Sleeper Guilds with much rigor unless we are caught in the act of murder. This country is too broken for that kind of methodical justice. Still, keeping stolen horses around is a good way to get a bunch of knights knocking at your door with their swords drawn. Even in a wrecked place like Terranum—where laws are treated like bastard children—people want to make money. Horse thieves disrupt everyone’s business, so they aren’t tolerated. That is why Falen did not abide stolen mounts, along with named ones.
Anyway, this anonymous beast seemed to be a decent horse. A straight-backed, muscle-bound paint. My left saddlebag was weighed down with glass bottles full of poison, my right with daggers and few different outfits—whoreish clothes, stableboy garb, like that. The horse treated the twin burdens like they didn’t exists while we picked our way down the rocky terrain, and we covered almost fifty miles on our first day of riding.
In my opinion, that is all you really need from a horse. Huge destriers that’ll charge fearless into a line of spearmen are for idiot knights waiting for the next big battle that’ll never come.
Days later, when the aspens were beginning to thin out and the nights were becoming warm enough to sleep without my extra wool blanket, I stumbled across a wagon that was about half-done incinerating. Through some unfortunate twist of fate, the enormous pillar of black smoke—and the smell of a burning caravan—had been kept from me by a tall canyon and a steady wind moving away from my nose.
I simply turned a corner, and there it was: flaming carnage.
I drew my shortsword, which I kept strapped to the small of my back beneath my cloak. Looked around. There were four or five charred corpses with arrows sticking out of them. Scattered gear that had been halfway looted.
“You got an arrow pointed at your back, girl.” The voice was almost definitely a boy trying to sound like a man. I put him at about fifty paces away. Not a hard shot.
“You any good with a bow?” I asked, raising both my arms.
“Don’t move, I said!”
“No, you said there was an arrow pointed at me. No mention of movement as I recall.”
“I’ll shoot you dead, girl.” His voice cracked a little while he said that. Not a very confident proclamation.
“No you won’t, boy.”
He started to say something else—probably about how he wasn’t a child—but he never finished because that’s when I pulled out of my stirrups and flipped off the back of my horse, twisting in the air so I came down facing him. The boy’s shot went high and left, whispering off into some trees where I imagine the arrow landed in a bed of leaves and skidded across the ground. Harmless as an old ladies fart.
I was pissed that a child had waylaid me, so I hucked my shortsword at the crouched boy who turned out to be almost exactly fifty paces away. Like I said, I have good ears. My blade took him in the right shoulder. His collarbone snapped like a wet carrot being broken by an impatient chef. His bow flew up in the air, and he slammed backwards into the earth with a grunt.
“Stupid kid,” I muttered.
I checked to make sure my horse hadn’t spooked, given all my food and supplies were strapped to his back. The beast didn’t have a name, but he certainly had a sense of composure—he had already started munching on some grass, but looked up at me for a moment and gave me an are-you-going-to-finish-him-or-what kind of look.
I guess horses that are owned by Sleepers get used to this kind of thing.
I walked over to the kid. “Who did this to your caravan?” I asked, figuring the boy belonged to the charred adults.
He was doubled over in pain, left hand clamped around the place I’d ruined his right shoulder. I could see the start of a patchy mustache above his lip, and a huge mole on his cheek with three long black hairs. He was about fifteen years old. My sword was sticking out of him at a weird angle.
“Wasn’t me that got something done to ’em,” he grunted. “I was the one doing it. Till you showed up, anyway.”
“Lot of dark work for one boy to handle,” I said. It’s a bold move, waylaying caravans at that age.
“Bet you’ve done darker all on your own.” He grimaced. “Gods that was a long way to throw a sword.”
I shrugged. He wasn’t wrong, but I wasn’t going to fall for flattering appeals to my murderous sensibility. “Where’s your horse?”
The boy hesitated.
“I’m going to find it anyway, if I have to do it without your help, I’ll feed you your balls and then I will kill you.”
He swallowed hard, as if testing his ability to choke down his own manhood, and then pointed off to east where there was a big boulder shaped like an enormous turtle. I kicked him as hard as I could between the legs and watched him double over again, yelling dirty curses at me. I ignored them and walked towards the boulder. I’d just wanted to make sure he didn’t scurry away while I collected his horse.
Sure enough, his horse was back there—an alabaster mare with a black, sickle shaped spot on her forehead that kind of looked like a moon. I liked it. I could see her ribs from forty yards away. She had scars and a few open wounds on her ass and neck from being cropped too hard by the marauding boy. She did not have a brand. I led the horse back to to the road.
“You should have been kinder to your horse,” I said to the boy.
“Strange thing to hear out of your mouth,” he said through gritted teeth. “Kindness don’t seem to factor into your day much.”
“Guess I’m a walking contradiction, then.” I sighed. “Horse got a name?”
“Figured.” I scanned the forest line for a moment. “Anyway, it’s my horse now. If you can walk down from this mountain with that kind of injury, you deserve to live, kid.”
I yanked my short sword free, being careful not to get hit with any of the blood that jetted out from behind the metal. Then I got the horses together and rode away from the little bandit.
Vexen would have killed him. Loose ends and all that. But doing right by the Black Hand didn’t involve murdering children. Not in my opinion.
I made better time splitting my gear between the two mounts and put a long distance between the bandit and me. It may seem silly to worry about a wounded kid with no horse catching up to me, but you would be surprised how much a ruined shoulder and pair of kicked balls can motivate a person towards steaming vengeance.
I used the stolen time to detour through a crossroads market to get some extra feed and healing ointment for the mare’s wounds. Spent most of my coin from Blithe’s Lullaby fixing the horse. I’d have rather spent it on a better sword, but I got an aching in my chest looking at the tortured beast that was too distracting to leave alone.
That night I made camp beside a clear stream. I spent an hour applying the ointment to the mare, letting her get used to my hands and my smell. When I touched her, I could almost feel the wounded rage in her bones. I liked that, too.
The stream was full of lazy trout that figured themselves lords of the river. It’s funny how that works, the same in people and in fish: if you do not see a thing more powerful than yourself, you fashion yourself a king. Foolishness. There is always someone more powerful than you. I have learned that the hard way, and have scars to prove it.
It would be my last night before entering the swamplands. I had no trouble stringing a line and hooking four extremely surprised Trout Kings. I didn’t even need bait. I roasted them in the fire and ate everything except the bones. Riding all day and maiming adolescents is hungry work. Thirsty work, too, but I had deliberately avoided bringing any brandy with me. Some of the Black Hands like to drink on the job. Some of them need to drink on the job. But for me there is a very thin borderland between a mouthful of brandy and waking up past midday in some strange bed, or with my feet in some strange creek, naked and missing a big chunk of memories from the night before.
All that was fine, unless I was working on a Lullaby. Drinking on the job was a real good way for me to wind up killed on the job.
So I just sprawled out on my bedroll and let the fire die down, smoking a few pipes of Whisker Root and watching the moon rise. The White Traveler was full that night—a pale globe easing her way up and over the horizon. I do not remember many details about my mother, but I remember this: she had the eight phases of the moon tattooed in a crescent hook that moved from her shoulder blade to the place between her breasts. She used to sing to me about the moon’s waxes and wanes, and how she would shift the tide with her movements.
The Skagit are not a superstitious people. They do not believe in the prophecy of bird signs or the influence of human sacrifices or omens drawn from the entrails of woodland animals. The same cannot be said for all the people of Terranum. Half the countryside still offers up their firstborn to one god or another. But the Skagit do believe there is an entirely separate existence beyond this world we are stuck on. Hundreds and thousands of moons and planets, churning around different suns, pulling our souls and our decisions in an unfathomable number of directions. Those heavens are where the Skagit shamans tried to spin magic from, but they’re no match for the sorcery the Gonarviens charted out in their spell books. If there are other worlds out there, I don’t think they’re enchanted like ours.
Still, I like to watch the moon when she is showing her full face. It meant Mordred was out there, bringing terror to some corner of the world. Of all the Sleepers making a bloody living in Terranum, I admired him the most.
In the morning it was the swamps.
The horses did not like the soft, deceptive footing. They whinnied nervously for the first few miles as their hooves sunk into the mud and slurped noisily on their way out. Insects were everywhere. Buzzing, psychotic bastards with green and blue carapaces. Some of them were the size of my fist and their bites were full of a mild but irritating poison that made your skin swell and your palms and feet get so itchy you wanted to cut them off. I crushed two or three of them against my leather breastplate where they left an orange goo that smelled like sour milk. I scooped up a few vials worth and stored them in my pack.
They’d come in handy if I ever wanted to annoy someone to death.
Collecting the poisons only provided a brief distraction from the disgusting reality of the swamp. It smelled like a thousand generations of plants and animals had come here to die and rot away. Every half hour or so I would pass some kind of carcass—a swamp buffalo or a land lizard that was being torn apart by vultures or feral dogs, great packs of animals that had survived for generations out here on the mudflats, hunting and eating the weak and the sick and the tired.
There were so many flies trying to crawl beneath my eyelids that I stopped keeping them open. Just clamped my eyes shut, hunkered down, and trusted the horse to keep me on course. Honestly, the traveling part of this job is almost unpleasant enough to make me give it all up and open a perfume shop or something. Sell all my daggers and swords so I have the coin for my first shipment of wares.
But I tried going straight once before, when I was a skinny urchin who went to sleep with an empty belly every night. Sujava Pol promised an end to that desperate life, told me he’d teach me to be a merchant like him. Spun tails of exotic, faraway cities I’d visit and all the comforts coin could buy me there. He was charming and handsome and I’d thought for a few happy days as we traveled to his mance that I’d finally found a good life. The right life.
He drugged my glass of wine the first night in his home. I woke up in his basement, chained and gagged. He flogged me everyday for a year. Called me a cunt and a whore a demon while the scourge flew. Then he scurried off into the corner to jerk himself off because the image of my destroyed skin and trembling body brought him so much pleasure. He’d clean the wounds and give me some food, then he’d start the whole process over the next night. During the day, I could hear him brokering deals with other rich merchants above my prison. The only reason I’m not still down there is because Falen came along and killed him.
Sujava was my big bite of civilized society, and it tasted like shit. I’d rather be an outcast living on the dirty and violent fringes of Terranum. It’s more honest. I may be a bad person, but at least I don’t hide my demons in a fucking basement.
I daydreamed about the best way to murder Davad Thorn while I rode. It was foolish to try and plan a murder before I had a sense of the situation—before I’d even found the man—but I liked to have a basic idea worked out ahead of time. Helps me react faster when I get into a fix. Since Davad sounded like a cut-and-dry case of a degenerate gambler, ending his life would not be a difficult thing to do. But I wanted a chance at a spell, which meant I needed to find a way to quietly remove Davad’s eyes and ears in a way that wouldn’t make me want to pop my own eyes out afterwards. Like I said, I do not like torturing people. Makes the grooved patchwork of scars on my back simmer.
I missed Ulnar. I thought about Izzy. I thought about all three of us together but the fantasy put me in a low mood so I abandoned it.
“Narova,” Ulnar used to whisper each morning. “One more day with the living, it seems.”
He was right for a long stretch. Then he was wrong.