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Nothing stinks quite like a corpse.
It takes a while for them to really start reeking. O, chances are good if you don’t soil your britches before you die, you’ll soil them soon afterward—your human bodies simply work that way, I’m afraid. But I don’t mean the pedestrian stink of shit, gentlefriends. I speak of the eye-watering perfume of simple mortality. It takes a turn or two to really warm up, but once the gala gets into full swing, it’s one not soon forgot.
Before the skin starts to black and the eyes turn to white and the belly bloats like some horrid balloon, it begins. There’s a sweetness to it, creeping down your throat and rolling your belly like a butter churn. In truth, I think it speaks to something primal in you. The same part of you mortals that dreads the dark. That knows, without a shadow of a doubt, that no matter who you are and what you do, even worms shall have their feasts, and that one turn, you and everything you love will die.
But still, it takes a while for bodies to get so bad you can smell them from miles away. And so when Teardrinker caught a whiff of the high, sweet stink of decay on the Ashkahi whisperwinds, she knew the corpses had to be at least two turns dead.
And that there had to be an awful lot of them.
The woman pulled on her reins, bringing her camel to a stop as she raised her fist to her crew. The driver in the train behind her saw her signal, the long, winding chain of wagons and beasts slowing down, all spit and growls and stomping feet. The heat was brutal—two suns burning the sky a blinding blue and all the desert around them to rippling red. Teardrinker reached for the waterskin on her saddle, took a lukewarm swig as her second pulled up alongside her.
“Trouble?” Cesare asked.
Teardrinker nodded south along the road. “Smells like.”
Like all her people, the Dweymeri woman was tall—six foot seven if she was an inch, and every inch of that was muscle. Her skin was deep brown, her features adorned with the intricate facial tattoos worn by all folk of the Dweymeri Isles. A long scar bisected her brow, running over a milk-white left eye and down her cheek. She was dressed like a seafarer: a tricorn hat and some old captain’s frock coat. But the oceans she sailed were made of sand now, the only decks she walked were those of her wagon train. After a wreck that killed her entire crew and all her cargo years ago, Teardrinker had decided that the Mother of Oceans hated her guts, arse, and the ship she sailed in on.
So, deserts it was.
The captain shielded her eye against the glare, squinting into the distance. The whisperwinds scratched and clawed about her, the hair on back of her neck tingling. They were still seven turns out of the Hanging Gardens, and it wasn’t uncommon for slavers to work this road even in summersdeep. Still, two of three suns were high in the sky, and this close to truelight, she was hoping it’d be too hot for drama.
But the stench was unmistakable.
“Dogger,” she hollered. “Graccus, Luka, bring your arms and come with me. Dustwalker, you keep up that ironsong. If a sand kraken ends up chewing on my cunny, I’ll be back from the ’byss to chew on you.”
“Aye, Cap’n!” the big Dweymeri called. Turning to the contraption of iron piping bolted to the rearmost wagon in the train, Dustwalker hefted a large pipe and began beating it like a disobedient hound. The discordant tune of ironsong joined the maddening whispers blowing in off the northern wastes.
“What about me?” Cesare asked.
Teardrinker smirked at her right-hand man. “You’re too pretty to risk. Stay here. Keep an eye on the stock.”
“They’re not doing well in this heat.”
The woman nodded. “Water them while you wait. Let them stretch their legs a little. Not too far, though. This is bad country.”
Cesare doffed his hat as Dogger, Graccus, and Luka rode up on their camels to join Teardrinker at the front of the line. Each man was dressed in a thick leather jerkin despite the scorch, and Dogger and Graccus were packing heavy crossbows. Luka wielded his slingblades as always, cigarillo hanging from his mouth. The Liisian thought arrows were for cowards, and he was good enough with his slings that she never argued. But how he could stand to smoke in this heat was beyond her.
“Eyes open, mouths shut,” Teardrinker ordered. “Let’s about it.”
The quartet headed down through rocky badlands, the stench growing stronger by the second. Teardrinker’s men were as hard a pack of bastards as you’d find under the suns, but even the hardest were born with a sense of smell. Dogger pressed a finger to his nose, blasting a stream of snot from each nostril, cursing by Aa and all four of his daughters. Luka lit another cigarillo, and Teardrinker was tempted to ask him for a puff to rid herself of the taste, accursed heat or no.
They found the wreck about two miles down the road.
It was a short wagon train: two trailers and four camels, all bloating in the sunslight. Teardrinker nodded to her men and they dismounted, wandering through the wreckage with weapons ready. The air was thick with the hymn of tiny wings.
A slaughter, by the look. Arrows littered on the sand and studding the wagon hulls. Teardrinker saw a fallen sword. A broken shield. A long slick of dried blood like a madman’s scrawl, and a frantic dance of footprints around a cold cooking pit.
“Slavers,” she murmured. “A few turns back.”
“Aye,” Luka nodded, drawing on his cigarillo. “Looks like.”
“Cap’n, I could use a hand over here,” Dogger called.
Teardrinker made her way around the fallen beasts, Luka beside her, brushing away the soup of flies. She saw Dogger, crossbow drawn but not raised, his other hand up in supplication. And though he was the kind of fellow whose biggest worry when slitting a man’s throat was not getting any on his shoes, the man was speaking gently, as if to a frightened mare.
“Woah, there,” he cooed. “Easy, girl…”
More blood here, sprayed across the sand, dark brown on deep red. Teardrinker saw the telltale mounds of a dozen freshly dug graves nearby. And looking past Dogger, she saw who it was he spoke at so sweetly.
“Aa’s burning cock,” she murmured. “Now there’s a sight.”
A girl. Eighteen at most. Pale skin, burned a little red from the sunslight. Long black hair cut into sharp bangs over dark eyes, her face smudged with dust and dried blood. But Teardrinker could see she was a beauty beneath the mess, high cheekbones and full lips. She held a double-edged gladius, notched from recent use. Her thigh and ribs were wrapped in rags, stained with a different vintage than the blood on her tunic.
“You’re a pretty flower,” Teardrinker said.
“S-stay away from me,” the girl warned.
“Easy,” Teardrinker murmured. “You’ve no need of steel anymore, lass.”
“I’ll be the judge of that, if it please you,” she said, voice shaking.
Luka drifted to the girl’s flank, reaching out with a swift hand. But she turned quick as silver, kicked his knee and sent him to the sand. With a gasp, the Liisian found the lass behind him, her gladius poised above the join between his shoulder and neck. His cigarillo dangled from suddenly dust-dry lips.
The girl’s eyes flashed as she snarled at Teardrinker.
“Stay away from me, or Four Daughters, I swear I’ll end him.”
“Dogger, ease off, there’s a lad,” Teardrinker commanded. “Graccus, put up your crossbow. Give the young dona some room.”
Teardrinker watched as her men obeyed, drifting back to let the girl exhale her panic. The woman took a slow step forward, empty hands up and out.
“We’ve no wish to hurt you, flower. I’m just a trader, and these are just my men. We’re traveling to the Hanging Gardens, we smelled the bodies, we came for a look-see. And that’s the truth of it. By Mother Trelene, I swear it.”
The girl watched the captain with wary eyes. Luka winced as her blade nicked his neck, blood beading on the steel.
“What happened here?” Teardrinker asked, already knowing the answer.
The girl shook her head, tears welling in her lashes.
“Slavers?” Teardrinker asked. “This is bad country for it.”
The girl’s lip trembled, she tightened her grip on her blade.
“Were you traveling with your family?”
“M-my father,” the girl replied.
Teardrinker sized the lass up. She was on the short side, thin, but fit and hard. She’d taken refuge under the wagons, torn down some canvas to shelter from the whisperwinds. Despite the stink, she’d stayed near the wreck where supplies were plentiful and she’d be easier to find, which meant she was smart. And though her hand trembled, she carried that steel like she knew how to swing it. Luka had dropped faster than a bride’s unmentionables on her wedding night.
“You’re no merchant’s daughter,” the captain declared.
“My father was a sellsword. He worked the trains out of Nuuvash.”
“Where’s your da now, Flower?”
“Over there,” the girl said, voice cracking. “With th-the others.”
Teardrinker looked to the fresh-dug graves. Maybe three feet deep. Dry sand. Desert heat. No wonder the place stank so bad.
“And the slavers?”
“I buried them, too.”
“And now you’re waiting out here for what?”
The girl glanced in the direction of Dustwalker’s ironsong. This far south, there wasn’t much risk of sand kraken. But ironsong meant wagons, and wagons meant succor, and staying here with the dead didn’t seem to be on her mind, buried da or no.
“I can offer you food,” Teardrinker said. “A ride to the Hanging Gardens. And no unwelcome advances from my men. But you’re going to have to put down that sword, Flower. Young Luka is our cook as well as a guardsman.” Teardrinker risked a small smile. “And as my husband would tell you if he were still among us, you don’t want me cooking your supper.”
The girl’s eyes welled with tears as she glanced to the graves again.
“We’ll carve him a stone before we leave,” Teardrinker promised softly.
The tears spilled then, the girl’s face crumpling as if someone had kicked it in. She let the sword drop, Luka snatching himself loose and rolling up out of the dirt. The girl hung there like a crooked portrait, curtains of blood-matted hair about her face.
The captain almost felt sorry for her.
She approached slowly across the gore-caked earth, shrouded by a halo of flies. And taking off her glove, she extended one callused hand.
“They call me Teardrinker,” she said. “Of the Seaspear clan.”
The girl reached out with trembling fingers. “M—”
Teardrinker seized the girl’s wrist, spun on the spot and flipped her clean over her shoulder. The lass shrieked, crashing onto the dirt. Teardrinker put the boot to her, medium style—just enough to knock what was left of her fight loose from her lungs.
“Dogger, set the irons, there’s a lad,” the captain said. “Hands and feet.”
The Itreyan unslung the manacles from about his waist, bolted them about the girl. She came to her senses, howling and thrashing as Dogger screwed the irons tighter, and Teardrinker drove a boot so hard into her belly she retched into the dirt. The captain let her have another for good measure, just shy of rib-cracking. The girl curled into a ball with a long, breathless moan.
“Get her on her feet,” the captain commanded.
Dogger and Graccus dragged the girl up. Teardrinker grabbed a fistful of hair, hauled the girl’s head back so she could look into her eyes.
“I promised no untoward advances from my men, and to that I hold. But keep fussing, and I’ll hurt you in ways you’ll find all manner of unwelcome. You hear me, Flower?”
The girl could only nod, long black hair tangled at the corners of her lips. Teardrinker nodded to Graccus, and the big man dragged the girl around the ruined wagon train, threw her onto the back of his growling camel. Dogger was already looting the wagons, rifling through the barrels and chests. Luka was checking the cut he’d been gifted, glancing at the girl’s gladius in the dust.
“You let a slip like that get the drop on you again,” Teardrinker warned, “I’ll leave you out here for the fucking dustwraiths, you hear me?”
“Aye, Cap’n,” he muttered, abashed.
“Help Dogger with the leavings. Bring all the water back to the train. Anything you can carry worth a looting, snag it. Burn the rest.”
Teardrinker spat into the dirt, brushed the flies from her good eye as she strode across the blood-caked sand and joined Graccus. She slung herself up onto her camel, and with a sharp kick, the pair were riding back to the wagon train.
Cesare was waiting in the driver’s seat, his pretty face sour. He brightened a little when he saw the girl, groaning and half-senseless over the hump of Graccus’s beast.
“For me?” he asked. “You shouldn’t have, Cap’n.”
“Slavers hit a merchant caravan, bit off more than they could chew.” Teardrinker nodded to the girl. “She’s the only survivor. Graccus and Dogger are bringing back water from the wreckage. See it distributed among the stock.”
“Another one died of heatstroke.” Cesare motioned back to the train. “Found him when we let the others out to stretch. That’s a quarter of our inventory this run.”
Teardrinker hauled off her tricorn, dragged her hand along her sweat-drenched scalp. She watched the stock stagger around their cages, men and women and a handful of children, blinking up at the merciless suns. Only a few were in irons—most were so heat-wracked they’d not the strength to run, even if they had somewhere to go. And out here in the Ashkahi Whisperwastes, there was nowhere to get except dead.
“No fear,” she said, nodding at the girl. “Look at her. A prize like that will cover our losses and then some. One of the Daughters has smiled on us.” She turned to Graccus. “Lock her in with the women. See she’s fed a double ration ’til we get to the Gardens. I want her looking ripe on the stocks. You touch her beyond that, I’ll cut off your fucking fingers and feed them to you, aye?”
Graccus nodded. “Aye, Cap’n.”
“Get the rest back in their cages. Leave the dead one for the restless.”
Cesare and Graccus set about it, leaving Teardrinker to brood.
The captain sighed. The third sun would be rising in a few months. This would probably be the last run she’d make until after truelight, and the divinities had been conspiring to fuck it to ruin. An outbreak of bloodflux had wiped out an entire wagon of her stock just a week after they left Rammahd. Young Cisco had got poleaxed when he slipped off for a piss—probably took by a dustwraith, judging by what was left of him. And this heat was threatening to wilt the rest of her crop before it even got to market. All she needed was a cool breeze for a few more turns. Maybe a short spell of rain. She’d sacrificed a strong young calf on the Altar of Storms at Nuuvash before she left. But did Lady Nalipse listen?
After the wreck years ago that had almost ruined her, Teardrinker had vowed to stay away from the water. Running flesh on the seas was a riskier business than driving it on land. But she swore the Mother of Oceans was still trying to make her life a misery, even if it meant getting her sister, the Mother of Storms, in on the torment.
Not a breath of wind.
Not a drop of rain.
Still, that pretty flower was fresh, and curves like hers would fetch a fine price at market. It was a stroke of luck to have found her out here, unspoiled in all this shit. Between the raiders and the slavers and the sand kraken, the Ashkahi Whisperwastes were no place for a girl to roam alone. For Teardrinker to have found her before someone or something else did, one of the Daughters had to be smiling on her.
It was almost as if someone wanted it this way …
* * *
The girl was thrown in the frontmost wagon with the other maids and children. The cage was six feet high, rusted iron. The floor was smeared with filth, the reek of sweating bodies and carrion breath almost as bad as the camel corpses had been. The big one named Graccus hadn’t been gentle, but true to his captain’s word, his hands had done nothing but hurl her down, slam the cage door and twist the lock.
The girl curled up on the floor. Felt the stares of the women about her, the curious eyes of the boys and girls. Her ribs ached from the kicking she’d been gifted, the tears she’d cried cutting tracks down through the blood and dirt on her cheeks. Fighting for calm. Eyes closed. Just breathing.
Finally, she felt gentle hands helping her up. The cage was crowded, but there was room enough for her to sit in a corner, back pressed hard to the bars. She opened her eyes, saw a young, kindly face, smeared with grime, green eyes.
“Do you speak Liisian?” the woman asked.
The girl nodded mutely.
“What’s your name?”
The girl whispered through swollen lips. “… Mia.”
“Four Daughters,” the woman tutted, smoothing back the girl’s hair. “How did a pretty doll like you end in a place like this?
The girl glanced down at the shadow beneath her.
Up to those glittering green eyes.
“Well,” she sighed. “That’s the question, isn’t it?”
Copyright © 2017 by Neverafter PTY LTD.