The first thing you have to understand is that these were bad times, as the folks would say. Saying it as though there were times that weren’t bad. Memory is a funny thing, especially when held by a collective. Two concurrent years of good growing weather five decades past get jumbled up and spit back out as the golden era of your grandfather when the gods shat sunshine and pissed the correct amount of rain all because people were better back then. Now, every body is running around, claiming it’s civil war because their neighbors aren’t holy enough, wailing some circle of shit about men’s morals offending the divine. The gods curse us, causing the kingdom to tax too much and the sky to rain too little. Bad times, then. For everyone. Except for me. Truth is, when life gets hard, people want for faith, often in things they shouldn’t, people they shouldn’t. People like me. Or, more correctly, people like Bun, with my arm jammed up past the elbow in his ass.
Bun. That’s right, his name was Bun back then, like half a rabbit or a whole ass, but I figured that it wasn’t a proper name for The Dead and Future King, so I took to calling him Elion and after a fortnight he stopped protesting. After a second fortnight, he got to liking it and by the end of our second month together, he was calling himself Elion the Uniter and Bun was all but forgotten to everyone except for me. That’s the knack I have with people, though. I can turn a Bun into an Elion fast as an old pimp can turn a country girl runaway into a gyrating whore, making men pay for what they’d had for free in the hayloft last week.
I’m getting ahead of myself, though.
The females and I stumbled into Boresdale with empty waterskins and the crumbs of our last meal a distant memory. The business that had gone down just beyond the Tracani border left us both broke and broken, turning up every stone to find some small as shit town to rest. Boresdale was better than anything we could have expected.
If either of you had ever been there, and I’m sure you haven’t, you’d know that it was smaller than small. It was the kind of tiny town that made the souls of men cry for the days before the gods forced civilization upon us. It was bereft of the best parts of civilization, containing only a temple of all divine, a dry goods store, a grist mill, a saw mill, and a bar serving the weakest ale I’ve ever tasted. Pissing in this ale improved its effect, and I’m saying that out of experience, not out of spite.
Have you ever noticed how you can measure a town by its cattle? It’s a fine art, to be sure. Find a town full of swollen-uddered cows in spring, and you’ll be sure to winter over well. Find a town with slack uddered cows, nibbling at neighbor’s grasses, and you know they’re doing well enough to keep a bossie around for show and not fuss about who owns what green. Find a town with nothing but long-legged heifers, and you’ve found a people who ate their bull too soon.
Boresdale was the type of town that didn’t have a single cow, not to my keen eyes, which either meant times were so rough that they had to eat their winter provisions early or security was so slack that bandits rounded up and ran with what few animals they’d had. The previous assumption boded ill for us, the latter well. Seeing how we were squint eyed and starving, I didn’t think there would be harm in stopping for a night or two.
I was wrong. So wrong, but it would take almost a year for me to realize that.
Ana·Rei looked rough, which wasn’t good for any of us. She was our face, our voice, our invitation into a place, and after what we’d been though in Tracani, she looked like something a coyote had swallowed up and shat out, only to be re-eaten by a possom and shat out again. Weak as a kitten with pus-fillled eyes and a death rattle, she gazed up the long road to the dozen buildings that comprised Boresdale and asked, “Do we have to?”
She was leaning on me, like she used to do in the old days, and I would have enjoyed it if her hair didn’t smell like oil smoke and man sweat danced with a billy goat. Even the soft forest smells of the trees in which we hid did nothing to cover up that stank. “M’Dear, I think we should,” I told her in my most placating voice that used to smooth her rough edges back in the day when she presented them to me. “We all need some rest, you most of all.”
She snorted weakly. “This doesn’t look like a place that will accommodate us, especially penniless as we are.”
“Let me worry about that,” I said, handing her off to Jaynee, who walked obediently behind us.
The large woman hadn’t gotten over what happened in Tracani and while I couldn’t blame her for her emotions, I didn’t take responsibility. These things happen, sometimes. Life comes along and buggers you, whether you’re lubed up for it or not. In this case, there wasn’t enough bacon grease in the world to make her brother finding the wrong end of a rope fuck her softer, but it wasn’t my fault.
Jaynee grunted, the same response she’d handed to me since we ran in the dark of night. She hadn’t found the wherewithal to talk since that night, not that she’d been much of a talker before. Words eluded her, and I was smarter than to press it. I needed all three of us, not two and one stomping away.
Jaynee was a hell of a female. She looked less like a Jaynee and more like an oak tree, but muscle by any name hits just as hard. I needed someone who threw punches faster than she felt bruises and Jaynee fit the bill. Hell, Jaynee and her brother were on the bill. I hunted the pair of them down after seeing the bounty on their heads, not for the coin, but for the bodies. The shit they pulled before I brought them on would have brought tears to an honest man’s eyes, but brought only consternation to my own. So much talent, wasted on simple highway robbery. Her brother could be with us still, only if his head had been as fast as his tongue.