originally appearing in Solarcide Magazine, Sep 2012
– Do the Gift of the Rook Treasure Hunt for a special mystery prize and a chance to win a $25 Amazon gift card! Contest ends 1 Feb. 2016 –
Everwind City. It is the largest city in the Verges. Most of the shipments we escort are en route here; it is a beautiful tumor on the face of the Verges, the largest metropolitan settlement in the entire wasteland. Shielded by three layers of circular walls, the city is at once an oasis of sanity from the constant strain of the Everwind. The wind that never stops blowing. That is not to say the city isn’t without its own flavors of madness.
We linger outside Westgate with the caravan, waiting for admittance to the city. The guards will want to make sure we aren’t trafficking in contraband, things like weapons or drugs, especially dox. If one were so inclined to bring such things inside, it would only require a tax in the way of bribery. We don’t have to worry about that, and it’s not our job anyway; we only protect the goods. Once inside we’ll have to circle south through the outer district – The Rim – in order to get to our destination in the central district. Half District. This is where the primary markets are, but we four will have to valet the shipment through the slums of The Rim first. There is less danger here than out in the wastes of the Verges, but the job isn’t done until the shipment reaches its final destination. Out there, we must contend with raiders like the Crimson, wild animals, the elements.
Once inside the city we will be met with a new challenge, the underprivileged, the petty thieves and the the enterprising scammers. Gypsies and the like. The dredges of society are forced to reside in the outer perimeter of Everwind City, with the middle class in the center, and finally the affluent insulated from everything in the innermost district, a place called Still Hill. Barricaded by three high walls, the Everwind does not penetrate there, not even a whisper of a breeze. There is only one way into Still Hill, by way of Southgate. It is a place we will likely never set foot. Any merchant shipments or persons of import with business on Still Hill will be able to afford to commission the services of Supernova Security Systems (also known as Triple S), which is the largest private military contractor in the world. Triple S enjoys the highest rates for their services, which are second-rate in comparison to ours, though explaining that to prospective customers is to waste your breath. They’re paying for perception of quality, not actual quality. Without the stupid uniforms the 3S fools wear, we will never fetch their wages. We are all fine with what we have on.
The four of us, the residue of military service, are leftovers confined to a life of mercenaryship. We come at a more affordable wage than our 3S counterparts. As such, we are thought to be of inferior proficiency, a mistake from which only the miserly will ever stand to gain. It is a bane for us; we being outcasts from our own lands, fugitives, we cannot reveal our true identities. Otherwise we would be in high demand, without question. Our particular background can only be demonstrated through action, which makes bidding for the best jobs a bit of a difficult task.
We stand ready to deal in long-familiar violence at every moment, always on watch for anyone foolish enough to put his sword to the test. This is second nature, an easy task for me and mine. Yet we are always weary from another brand of vigilance, that of always being on the run. Every glimpse of a Northman raises the hairs on our necks, puts hand to hilt without a thought. Here in the Verges we are as remote as we can be without shipping ourselves across the Borlyphian to Geldenmark, yet we are still haunted by the fear of capture at every turn. There are many who would stand to raise a small fortune for our heads, dead or alive. Lucky for us, our heads are difficult to remove. Still, some lucky bounty hunter getting custody of myself and my three comrades is always a danger.
It is the only thing we fear.
We loiter outside the outer wall with our backs to the wind awaiting passage inside, anticipating the moment when we can be liberated from the need for eyeshields and facewraps. It isn’t a long wait and we are soon navigating the shit-addled streets toward our final destination, bypassing beggars and pickpockets and grifters, peddlers and gypsies, street musicians, false prophets. Shades, the largest of our group, brings up the rear of the cart pulled by three hunger-slendered brenyen. The beasts of burden, in such poor condition, made travel slow. Nine, my second in command, takes point with his pet tekira trailing alongside, with me on the left and the Rookie on the right.
We make it through the Rim with no issue into Half District and lead our Drydonian employer to his destination, collect the rest of the coin that’s owed upon completion of our obligations. I divide the earnings up equally amongst my crew and we are then led by Shades, who can sniff out ale before the rest of our party can hear the music that oft accompanies it, to a house of merriment called the Grey Barrel. Once inside, Shades immediately takes up a kinship with the rolg player and a mug of grog that’s swallowed up by his massive fist, just as its containings will soon be swallowed by his bearded face. Nine and I take a spot to ourselves at a table with a single candle what looks to have been pared down at the root so someone could eat the tallow. Desperate people will eat just about anything, I’ve come to learn. The Rookie stands alone at a back wall, eating a potato like an apple as he always does, just watching. This, the same procedure following every job. He loves to lean against things.
It isn’t long before some hungry patron takes a liking to the Rook’s potato and confronts him about it, at first asking for a taste, just a little taste. The Rook ne’er utters any reply, just stands leaning against the backwall like a forgotten broomstick. Starvers like this one usually linger with a bellyful of hope until the last morsel of the potato disappears into the Rook’s mouth. Only then do they leave him be.
The Rook remains, always alone, takes up the rest of his leisurely leaning with rubbing at the black patch on the left side of his chest that covers his hidden emblem – the telltale emblem we all conceal to protect our identities. This hidden emblem is the only remnant left of our previous lives, much too precious to discard. We long for the day we can wear our emblem proudly once again, though with each passing day that hope recedes a little more.
The Rook, he is small, and it isn’t long before some enterprising youth or brawler drunk off wine and the revelry of pockets fresh with coin spots the pair of shortswords, one strapped to each side of his hip, and sidles over for a closer look.
His thin frame draws these types like a corpse draws maggots, and they spit challenges that slowly get more venomous each time he returns with nothing more than a steady gaze and a mouthful of silence, not a twitch of fear beneath the grizzled beard. They don’t realize that he never speaks, that I, nor any of the others in our crew, have ever heard him speak. They’re just looking to tussle off some stress and he appears to be an easy candidate for such a thing. They always go for the smallest one, thinking it’ll be easier.
Nine and I watch from our table as his accoster becomes increasingly agitated, until eventually Shades strikes a line across the establishment to the Rookie’s location in hopes of stealing some action for himself, which never works because his size only serves to intimidate these antagonists into submission.
But on this occasion, the antagonist’s courage is bolstered by the knowledge that his five colleagues will reinforce him, so he asks Shades what the Rook’s problem is.
“I’m just here trying to carry on a friendly conversation and your friend here seen fit to act in a most disrespectful manner.”
“I’m telling you to leave well enough alone,” says Shades.
“You tryin to save your friend an ass whippin?”
By now the other patrons have their attention fixed on the events they hope will unfold. Free entertainment is always welcome. Shades looks down at the stranger. “I’m saving you one. He don’t want to fight you, but if you keep at it like you are, he will.”
“Why don’t he tell me that then?”
“By the time he tells you himself, it’s already too late. And you won’t like the way he tells you.”
Shades gives it a moment to let the statement sink in a bit and then shrugs. “Your friends is gonna hate you right shortly.” Then he walks back towards the rolg player and joins him in song, calling for the barmaid to come and wet his mug again. The Rook will be fine.
The antagonist turns his attention back to the Rook and ends up with his ass busting through a table when he tries to put his hand on the Rook’s blacked over emblem. The Rook goes back to leaning against the wall. Nine and I kick back as his five friends jump to it, a couple of them dumb enough to expose daggers while the rest of the place goes coffin-quiet except for Shades saying how this is the part where they all should’ve listened to him.
The Rook edges off the wall and sizes up his five new surroundings with a glance, but resumes his nonchalant stance on the other side of their daggers, not bothering for even a second to consider the swords in his possession.
The first stands again, redfaced, and dusts himself off, then slings a fist through the dimness of the pub at the Rook’s head, which shifts a knuckle’s width aside to let the fist slide by right into the backwall, the Rook smiles then, and moments later all five of the rest are wondering how their faces came to be acquainted with the floor. It is like watching a magician at work, trying to piece together how he did it.
The Rook resumes leaning against the wall and waits, offering surrender or another go at it. They opt for surrender.
Next thing a surly fellow in bright red garb runs over to express his astonishment at the dazed cabal, and I deduce through his censure that he has recently agreed to employ these men to perform security detail for a selection of his wares on the morrow, but that this demonstration has caused him to second-guess their abilities to adequately perform such a duty. It is then that I make my introduction and, thanks to the Rook, acquire our next job. It is, quite literally, the easiest job we’ve ever come across. Sometimes it can take me days to find more work, and here we have our next task lined up without having to do any convincing.
We leave for Arper in the morning with a deposit 60 percent higher than our standard asking price. I think I will pay the Rook a little extra this go around.