Orphelia was scared. It had never happened before. Not being scared, of course–Orphelia was unfortunately well-acquainted with fear. No, it was Mr. Ruffles. Since the Bad Stuff, he’d kept her safe. She followed his instructions, kept herself and Devlin fed. She stole food and medicine, but only when Mr. Ruffles said, only how he said, and no one noticed. No one ever noticed. Then he told her to follow the man in the brown tunic, follow him into the house they said was “Marko’s”. She didn’t know why. She didn’t need to know why. Mr. Ruffles had kept her safe, and no one ever noticed.
But the merchant noticed. The strange man who rode into town on his wagon-boat, who spoke with funny words, who had followed her to Marko’s house–no one else saw her. He saw her. Plainly. Like she was really there. Then everyone saw her, and she really was there, and Marko yelled, and the man in brown left, and the merchant named Lan al’Ver asked her to come with him, and she did, because Mr. Ruffles wasn’t keeping her safe anymore, and she wasn’t sure what else to do.
He led her first to the market, where he argued with the stall traders over the price of onions which he ultimately did not buy and which, it seemed, none of those traders were even selling. Then, bidding her to carry the bolts of linen which he did buy, he led her to his wagon-boat, tied to a post at the edge of town, and served her tea that was not hot–but was far warmer than it ought to have been without a fire in sight–in a clean, white, porcelain cup. They remained there for the better part of an hour as he drank his own tea and inquired unhurriedly into how she was enjoying the springtime. At first she barely responded. What was she to say? She was not enjoying much at all at the moment. Truly, she wanted simply to walk away, but she was paralyzed by the notion that this man saw her, could–and likely would–follow her if she left. Even so, as his questions became more obtuse, less grounded from reality, she found herself playing along. He would ask:
“Upon which road lies your greatest treasure?” To which she would reply:
“Why Mr. al’Ver, ‘tis the road of love, wherein toward me my Prince rides, ever gallant, ever fearless of the tribulations which bar his way.” He would consider this approvingly for a moment before inquiring again, along a completely separate line:
“Then name me a luxury, Miss Orphelia, which you cannot live without!”
“So forward, Mr. al’Ver! Alas, I should say I would be rather poorly without my warmest socks.”
And so on. She was, it occurred to her, even having fun with the strange interaction, though it nagged her that the man somehow knew her name. She had never given it. She never had the chance to inquire into the mystery, though, as their game was interrupted by the breathless arrival of the man in brown and another: the man she’d seen before, scarred and shirtless, pulling al’Ver’s wagon-boat into town.
“Al’Ver,” the boat-puller growled. “We have to leave now. Target’s much higher profile than Marko let on.” Lan met his gaze over the top of his teacup, then slowly lowered both cup and saucer.
“Worry not, Mr. Wolf,” he replied, though Orphelia found his smirk at least slightly worrying in itself. “I am quite prepared to depart–I merely await my conveyance to the riverbank.” Mr. Wolf, scowling, held his stare for several seconds before exhaling angrily.
Some fifteen minutes later, they were pushing off onto the river, Lan poling skillfully against the current, the others arranging themselves as comfortably as possible amongst the boat’s minimal seating and piles of supplies and goods. Orphelia leaned over the side, trying to remember the last time Father had let her board a trade raft, listening idly to the conversation behind her.
“Who’s the girl?”
“She was eavesdropping at Marko’s. Al’Ver insisted she come along.”
“How much she hear?”
“Everything, near as I can tell.” There was a pause. Then:
“Girl!” Mr. Wolf called. “What’s your name?” Orphelia turned, shaking herself to attention.
“I’m Orphelia, Mr. Wolf, sir,” she said with a curtsy.
“Bleeding Wolf,” he clarified. “Are you a mage, Orphelia?” She gulped.
“Um, no. No, sir.” The man in brown snorted.
“Lying,” he muttered.
“What! No!” Orphelia, shouted, stamping her foot. “I’m not lying! You’re just rude!” Bleeding Wolf glanced over to his companion with a raised eyebrow.
“Well, isn’t this cursed as shit?” he remarked. “What are you playing at, al’Ver?”
Lan ignored the question completely, continuing to whistle a tuneless nothing, eyes on the river ahead.
“What are you talking about, Mr. Wolf?” Bleeding Wolf exchanged another look with the man in brown.
“I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt,” he said at last. “You’re sweatin’ mana all over the boat–the kind that comes out of real sons of bitches.”
“Well, you’re a wolf, so I just thought…”
“Dammit, girl!” he snarled. “Way I see it, we have no way of telling whether you’re a brigand or a victim, but as victims go, you aren’t making out to be that sympathetic.” Orphelia frowned. She clasped her hands and looked down at her feet.
“I’m sorry, Mr. Wolf,” she mumbled. It was partially true–she still thought the joke had been funny, though. Still, the raft remained silent for some minutes as the weight of Bleeding Wolf’s angry stare slowly eroded, dissipating in juxtaposition to Lan’s off-key whistling.
“Something happen to you, then?” he asked, breaking the silence.
“You run into a mage who did something to you? Make some sort of deal?” His eyes fell for a moment, Orphelia noticed, on Mr. Ruffles. “Did you find something you…regret finding?” Orphelia gulped and shook her head. She didn’t like that question. Her non-answer wasn’t a lie, not really, but she knew that volunteering anything more would lead Mr. Wolf to topics she didn’t want to think about. She doubted Mr. Ruffles would approve of the scrutiny either.
Luckily, Bleeding Wolf did not press further, though the man in brown continued to scowl. Instead, he turned the conversation back toward their quarry, the cause for concern which had accelerated their day’s travel to a rush.
As far as Orphelia could tell, they were looking for a dead body, but it sounded like a really important dead body. “Bilgames”, the name Marko had given, was apparently used near the Bloodwood to refer to the hero known further and wider as the Hunter of Beasts. He’d been an invincible warrior, slew some horrible, scary monster, liked the color green or something–Orphelia stopped paying attention after a point. What she couldn’t tell–and what Bleeding Wolf was not offering–was what she had to do with any of this. She didn’t want to work for Marko. She didn’t care about dead folk heroes or robbing their graves. She just wanted…she just wanted her and Devlin to be safe. Yes, that was it. Safe.
But this misadventure didn’t sound safe at all! The Hunter was super famous, if Bleeding Wolf was to be believed. There were other scavengers and mercenaries headed this way for sure, and the three men didn’t exactly resemble a fighting force. Moreover, it didn’t even sound like they would find anything. Why wouldn’t Marko’s tipster have just picked the corpse clean already? She came out of her daze to vocalize the question, interrupting Bleeding Wolf’s lengthy description of a flower the Hunter had supposedly carried.
“Bravo, Miss Orphelia!” Lan shouted from the back of the raft. The man in brown continued to scowl, but she saw a hint of a smile crack at the corner of Bleeding Wolf’s mouth.
“It’s a good question,” he admitted. “Ty, it’s your line of work. You wanna tell her?” The man in brown sighed.
“The scav trade is all about how much trouble you can handle,” he said reservedly. “Anything you pick up’s just as liable to get you killed as pay for your next lunch. So if you’re gonna grab it, you need to be ready for the trouble that comes with. Some scavs aren’t, so they’ll take valuable info, like where the body–or ruins or whatever–is and sell that instead.”
Lan tucked his pole into the crook of his elbow to clap politely.
“So the tipster was a scaredy-cat?” Orphelia asked. Ty looked annoyed, but Bleeding Wolf responded first:
“Exactly. My two silver, though, is that our tipster took something anyway. The Hunter of Beasts has to be the biggest find he’s ever gonna get. Maybe he didn’t take enough to slow him down, but he took something.”
“So what are we gonna take?” Orphelia pressed. Bleeding Wolf shrugged.
“Whatever we find. Whatever the last guy missed–or didn’t have the know-how to identify. I’m honestly more worried about who we’re gonna have to fight off to walk away with it all.” He turned to Ty. “Who other than Marko has their claws in the trade here these days?”
“Salaad of Hazan, mostly,” Ty offered. “Too far south of Lesser Cairn for any of the Stones dealers to have heard by now. I’d guess–if the mage is as well-known as you say–we’re competing with one or two groups ready to fight and any number of prospectors waiting to nab whatever’s left.
“Not bad. You any good in a fight, Ty?” Orphelia suppressed a giggle at the man’s exaggerated frown.
“As I recall, you were the muscle in thesis arrangement,” he shot back, indignant. Bleeding Wolf shook his head, as if the answer didn’t matter one way or the other, but the conversation lulled there. For the next several hours, the group said little else, leaving Orphelia to ponder the mystery of her inclusion undisturbed and, unfortunately, unaided. Mr. Ruffles wasn’t being helpful either, though that was only to be expected with all the people about. Soon enough, though, Lan drew the raft up against the riverbank and jolted her awake again.
She looked up, taking in the landscape as the Captain tied his knots and pulled the vehicle’s transformative lever. The sun was starting to get low in the sky, staining the air with the deep yellow of late afternoon, but despite the number of hours left in the day, from where they floated, it seemed just minutes from being out of sight, lost behind the treeline that loomed over them, spanning their entire field of view to the north and west.
The Bloodwood. Orphelia had never seen it, though she’d heard plenty. She had always found the name interesting–dark and scary and romantic. Father had told her the story of how it got the name, how a bunch of Riverlanders had died there in a war–or was it that the war was about the woods, and they died somewhere else? She didn’t really remember the details, but she also didn’t care for war stories. She preferred to imagine there was a more ominous, mysterious reason for the name. Judging by the way Father and the other merchants he knew had avoided the place, it seemed her fantasy may not actually have been far from the truth.
“I would surmise our quarry three miles and a quarter to the northeast,” Lan announced, the wheels of his vessel locked into place. “What say you, Mr. Ehsam?” Ty paused, preparing to jump to the bank.
“Our tip wasn’t that specific,” he replied, confused.
“Specific!” Lan scoffed. “Ha! Would you trust that scoundrel Marko to guide you anywhere specific? Better to place your trust in a consummate professional.” Ty blinked, likely swallowing a response.
“Let’s…let’s check it out, then.”
Bleeding Wolf, for his part, gave no reaction to the exchange and began hauling the boat up onto the bank. Ty disembarked to lighten the load, and Orphelia followed, though Lan remained aboard, just as much, it seemed, to annoy Bleeding Wolf as to secure and cover the cargo.
They covered the boat in a patchwork sheet Lan produced from a compartment in the deck and hid it among the brush at the base of a tree before continuing northeast on foot. Orphelia followed closely, alarmed by the sudden change in light, the tallness of the trees, the ubiquitous, seemingly amplified din of insects and birds, all around but somehow almost entirely out of sight. She didn’t admit to any of these discomforts, of course, but she did hold Mr. Ruffles close to her chest.
Of the others, only Bleeding wolf seemed to have adjusted his demeanor, his normal calm watchfulness heighted to the posture of a stalking cat. It was almost a caricature, Orphelia thought. He would occasionally pause, scratch at the ground, sniff the air, all of which she found hard to believe were actually useful. She might even have laughed at it if not for the uncanniness his appearance had taken on. The hairs on his arms and neck were bristling, his pupils had dilated, his…teeth had grown? She realised in spite of her amusement that the man had become just as unnerving as the forest.
Ty and Lan, meanwhile, seemed mostly themselves. Ty had been jittery and paranoid from the moment Orphelia had first seen him, and the Bloodwood certainly did seem like an appropriate place for paranoia. Lan, by contrast, was ineffably aloof, bringing up the rear of their party with a casual stroll and little in the way of backward glances, about which Orphelia was conflicted: It certainly seemed less safe than the others’ frenetic vigilance, but it somehow put her at ease anyway.
“Company on the breeze,” Bleeding Wolf announced, quietly but clearly amidst one of his many stops. He sniffed. Sweat and iron. Could be miles out, could be closer. Get a weapon ready if you have one. On…another note…” He took another deep breath. “We’re close too. This way.”
He set off into the brush, and the others followed, struggling to match his quickened gait. Within minutes they came upon a clearing where, for an oblong patch no more than twenty feet in diameter, the trees gave way to a short bed of grass and wildflowers and a section of worn dirt around a stump. Just past the stump was a cold pile of ash from a campfire long since extinguished, and next to the ash lay the pale–and only slightly withered–body of an enormous, bearded man.
As she noticed it, it felt as if the world twisted: She saw Father, lying there, bloody hands around the knife in his stomach, a wild grin on his face, but it wasn’t Father. Father wasn’t here. It was Devlin, coughing, holding that stupid ring Father had given him, every bit as pale and clammy and withered as the corpse that should have been there, that would be there if she could just focus, could just remember what was real and what was a lie. She tried and tried and held her breath and pressed her hands against her temples and slowly, piece by piece, put reality back together.
But as she did, her thoughts lingered on Devlin. She didn’t notice when Bleeding Wolf snapped to attention, fixated on the far side of the clearing; or the way that Ty, in response, seemed to fade from view even as he remained still; or Lan’s gaze, suddenly sorrowful, locked not on the corpse but on the small, dark bird perched in the trees above it, watching him sidelong with a single eye. She didn’t notice any of it because she was hoping–wishing, willing into reality as hard as she could–that her brother was alright, that he too wouldn’t turn out like the corpse before her.