By the next morning, the boat gathering has dispersed. The only one still anchored to the riverside was Verna’s, the only reminder of the makeshift market the footsteps around the shore.
No other footsteps or oozing black liquids, which meant it had been a quiet night, for once.
She did not come out to meet him, nor that he expected her to change her behavior all of a sudden. The Hunter left on his own, covered in his own clothes (now dry). He had also gained a cotton robe, and he hummed a little tune as he descended the boat, this time using a ramp like any reasonable human being.
He passed his coarse hands over the soft cotton. He did not really like the job, but the thought of Belacqua receiving a hundred of these warmed his heart even more than his chest. On the way back uphill, a simple image pictured itself over the view of damp grass and grey trees peppered with crimson: him reaching out to the redhead Augur and she finally accepting to give him what he had been craving for. She would grimace and shake her head, as she was want to do, but couldn’t (wouldn’t!) refuse a direct order from Mastra Verna.
His chest was so light. As if heavy chains were finally lifted. Truly a strange morning.
The body next to his sled brought him back to reality.
“Good morning,” he said to the unconscious man. He had a light beard and thick clothes, and wore a thin necklace of blessed bones to ward off the Eerie. His gloves, as thick as they might be, wouldn’t protect him from the sled’s discharge. “Now, see here: first you unlock this,” the Hunter said turning off a switch sticking out from the bottom of the sled, “Then you press this here three times,” and he tapped on a half-hidden panel to the side, “then you can turn it on. And try to steal it, I guess.” Shaking his head, he untied the sled, then crouched next to him and slapped the wannabe-thief awake.
“Uh?” The man croaked at the rushing in of light and sound. “Where… what… ah!”
He tried to push away the Hunter but he seized his arm in one movement and held him against the ground.
“I said: good morning. You see a sled secured to a tree and your first thought is to try and steal it? Quite bold, my friend.”
The man’s right hand tried to reach for his knife, but the Hunter pressed his thumb right against the base of his shoulder and he cried out in pain as his arm began to twitch, insensate.
“Calm down. What’s your name?”
“L-Let me go.”
“In a moment. You see, I don’t take kindly to people trying to pilfer my belongings. Nevertheless, my dear friend, I am going to uplift you from thief to merchant.”
He shifted his body so that he could press over him and unsheathed his knife. A shoddy metalwork, its edge already eaten by rust, words of protection barely legible on its side. The rubber handle, at least, was made pre-war and there could be some value in it.
The necklace was also very well made. But without it he would not last one night in the wild.
“I like your knife.”
He struggled again, which made him smile. It seemed like that handle could be precious.
“Now…” he pointed the knife at the thief and slowly eased him off, standing up next to him. “I’m going to take your knife. The blade is poor but there’s something to be said for the handle.”
The man sat up, his eyes darting around, looking for a way out. He slowly began to walk away.
“Ah. I did not give you permission to go,” the Hunter warned in a low voice. “We have yet to make our transaction.” He unhooked the pelts from his back and threw them at the man’s feet. “Pick those up. They are your payment for the knife.”
He did as he was told, trying to move away.
“Good. Now scram.”
The Hunter waved his knife and the man turned and ran downhill towards the river. Spirits knew if he’d find a raft or a boat going south, so deep into autumn. He also doubted his chances as a newly-made tradesman.
But to each their own. He jumped on the sled and revved up the engine, its hum a pleasant reminder of things to come. Attaching the knife’s handle to his belt, he drove the sled on the opposite direction.
Never once that some beast got lost on a pleasant sand shore of the south. Even one by the Bittersea would be alright.
No, he had to head further north – just as the winter tide was coming.
The things he had to do.
At least, the thrum of his sled lulled him into a sort of soothing awareness – he proceeded upriver, towards the roots of the mountains, the sled’s blades easily cutting through terrain, root or pebble. He always kept his sled close to the shore, only taking detours where the ground hung a little too close to the water, or when an old ruin blocked his path. Though this region was mostly empty. On his way to Trefiumi he only met with a few ghosts of collapsed homes, wide and low, their red roofs long-since caved-in. Trees already grew out of them like an attempt to make the largest potted plant ever. They probably used to be farming mansions. There had been a time when this area was mostly farmland, though he couldn’t fathom how it was supposed to be.
Not that it mattered – driving north, he only focused on the road and her face, framed by those perfect black hair, her smile, her warm fingers cupping his own.
It was already late afternoon when he reached Trefiumi.
Calling it a shanty town would have been a compliment. The haphazard collection of rusty plates, wooden beams, braziers and threads made it look like the spiderweb of a curious spider that couldn’t make up its mind about what to keep and what to throw away. Tall smokestacks and furnaces erupted dark smoke and the occasional burst of sparks.
The town was built at the juncture of three rivers, or rather, two smaller ones running into the Eridanus, so there was a lot of marshy land where grey bushes grew. The Eridanus was deep here, and it almost never froze even during the harshest winter, which made it a safer place than most, and a popular destination for lost souls trying to hang out together.
He drove right in, passing under the arch that proclaimed Iron shall set you free, and into the foundries district. People walked around, most of them carrying necklaces and bracelets in cast iron. In a place where no Vestal worth her faith would ever set foot, the men of Trefiumi had to make do.
He turned right, around a group of tall smokestacks leaning against each other like drunken mushroom. It was supposed to be around here…
“Hey, Hunter!” An old woman at a booth waved at him, her grey hair kept around dozens of thin nails, her hand lacking the middle two fingers.
“Arguta,” he waved back, pulling his sled up. “Thanks the spirits the Wicked Fae has yet to gobble you up.”
She grinned, showing her golden teeth.
“She knows she’ll only choke on my bones. What are you doing so far west? I thought you were supposed to spend winter all cozied up in that water town of yours.”
“It’s part of the plan,” he said jumping down the sled. He waved a few more times as more people recognized him. No need to tie his sled here, thankfully. “But I need to do a job first.”
“Oh-ho,” she whistled through her wrinkled lips. “someone hired your sorry ass again?”
“Can’t hide anything from you. Indeed I need some refurbished equipment. May I come in?”
She clicked her tongue, turned the shop’s sign to ‘closed’ and took a step back.
“Always eager to part you and your silver. But it better be worth my time.”
Pic by -Toast