This is set in the Patina universe. Happy reading.
Talia wobbled on the chariot as it stumbled down the old road.
Though her range of vision was always limited while she wore her mask, the pattern of the ancient construction was clear, even through the overgrowth that had in long decades seeped through the slab of greyed out concrete slab, like paint worming its way through a canvas.
“Roads from the Eretimes were not made to last,” she muttered under her breath.
“Few things were,” cracked Arodias’s voice, at the helm of the carriage.
He turned his head towards her, showing the clear glint in his one grey eye.
The other was an empty cavity, crossed over by the remains of an old scar.
Something inside Talia screamed it was not fair – sure, he’d put on an eyepatch as soon as they reached civilization, but for some reason he was not required to wear a mask on the outside.
The surface of the thin bronze that hugged her cheeks at times got too itchy to ignore. She scratched the edge, but made it so she did not look like taking it off.
“Gods’ pleasing,” he continued, ignoring her scratching for the time being, “roots and rain might show what’s beneath. Beneath the gravel of the eretimes you can often find good stone. Placed there by people before people. Those stay.”
Talia bit the inside of her mouth, fighting the impulse to ask him to stop the carriage, pick up a shovel and verify his statement. Why would people substitute something that worked with pointless gravel? It did not make sense.
Then again, nothing from the Eretimes made sense. Arodias seemed to guess her curiosity – he chuckled, his old shoulders wobbling like she did as the wheels struggled on the uneven terrain.
Under his wide straw hat, light prickled his wrinkled skin, playing with its paleness and turning it into a shade of gold, as evening approached. His beard, short and whiter than the stone on any actual road, seemed to bathe in the light and as they passed under this or that patch of hanging branches, turned gold as well.
She couldn’t feel scents as well under her mask, but at this downcast hour knew what to expect: a light musk from the still-damp earth, a hint of resin from the inside of the forest, maybe the sickly-sweet stench of a decaying body.
At the thought she scooted a little closer to Arodias, scraping her butt across the wooden panels. It was still summer and most of the Eerie were laying deep.
But some were light sleepers. Arodias chuckled and moved farther to the right, leaving room for her on the head of the couch. She did not ask for anything else and ended up sitting next to him.
In moments like these, she always felt a little strange by how different they were. Arodias was old, though nobody knew how much, and towered over her by two heads. Though his face was full of wrinkles and his smile summoned spiderwebs all over his face, he still sported two broad shoulders and his thighs were thicker than the logs they split for firewood.
In contrast, she was like a twig growing out of that firewood log, thin and frail. She swung her legs back and forth on the couch, enjoying the feeling of her new leather boots. At least she was quick, and still had enough stamina to help him with his daily chores; there were times she did not feel useless at all.
The horses let out a low whinny as the road curved left, passing closer to a patch of wood: tall and dark trees covered by rusty brambles. Even though they were still a few dozen steps from there, air did feel somewhat heavier.
“There, there,” Arodias said, calming the horses down. He tossed her an amused glance at her apprehension. “It’s probably nothing,” he mused, setting a heavy hand over her shoulder.
She nodded, though in her heart of hearts was not sure – seen from here it was hard to say whether the brambles were the kind of rusted iron barbs the erepeople used to wrap around borders, or was a more natural growth.
Nothing moved in the shadows, though. Maybe it was better this way. Even though, as they passed the curve, a small treacherous part of her wanted to turn back, to peruse through the foliage and check whether she could see something, shine a tiny ray of light over the mysteries of the forest.
The largest part of her reminded that would get her killed. A few minutes later she understood the cause for their restlessness: an highway bridge brushed against the tip of the trees, the decrepit pilons like square legs of some forgotten beast. Arodias slowed down the chariot, one hand reaching for the rifle under the coach’s cabinet.
From above a few figures stopped walking amidst the lines of old rusted cars left to the elements. They looked down, but they did not put hand to their firearms. Arodias tentatively waved his arm and the scavengers repeated the gesture, then turned and came back to their job, cutting down the broken rubble for whatever viable parts might there still be.
They passed under the shadow of the bridge and left it behind them. The pressure in the air lifted. Arodias withdrew his hand from the compartment and she stood up a little straighter. She scooted back to the center of the carriage, leaving him alone; her cheeks prickled a little, but Arodias made no comment on her nervousness.
To think about something else she took out a ledger from the small pile that comprised her belongings. They had salvaged an entire box of pencils about a year before. It had been close to her birthday and she had asked for it as a present.
Best present in a long time, for sure. One year later, she had burnt through half of them already. She picked up the smaller one and carved through the old wood with her knife, sharpening its tip. She had read about certain tools the erepeople used to sharpen their pencils, but so far she had never seen an actual one.
They were probably too small to be salvaged. Must have all ended up in the belly of Eerie. There might be something useful to show at the trade fair, but for the life of her she couldn’t imagine what it could be. They had collected their wares in the long winter months, scavenging what they could, but the loot had been far from sufficient.
They would probably sell their new maps, mostly. Her hands had not been idle and she smiled at the thought of her new map depicting the safest route between Barge and Crocera. For sure at Trefiumi’s fair they could find…
“Smoke,” Arodias muttered, slowing down the chariot.
Talia lifted her gaze from her notes; above the treeline a ribbon of grey smoke danced in the wind, twisting upon itself like a serpent. It was neither red nor green, so it probably was just normal smoke from a normal fire. Yet Arodias seemed worried. He smacked his lips, frowning. She looked at him for an answer. The horses were calm enough, but then again you don’t keep a horse around for their exceptional ability to sniff out dangers.
There would have been a lot more horses nowadays. “It’s probably nothing,” he said tapping his chin, “but let’s check it out. Put on your helmet.”
She rustled between her things and took out an ereworldlike helmet, a precious thing fashioned out of plastic and metal, with a large glass visor and a respirator over the mouth that looked like a grey sponge. She took off the mask and put on the helmet.
Air felt even thicker and warmer from inside, but she could breathe just fine. The filters were still new from last winter. Arodias took off his straw hat and put on his own protection. Though in her heart Talia believed it was mostly out of camaraderie. She had never seen him develop any signs of illness even from close contact with an eerie. No coughing, no scratching, no hallucinating. He was probably immune, but she appreciated the effort.
“Good girl,” praised her Arodias and she was grateful for the dark glass, hiding the slight reddening of her cheeks.
She was not a child! But she still liked his praise. She picked up her gun and Arodias took out his rifle. Unlike her own, which had been fashioned in the eretimes and thus has a solid steel barrel and handle, the rifle was a modern product with blackwood handle and grip. Its elongated shape was more elegant than her battered relic, but as long as it worked… she checked her bullets and they were all there. With aa satisfying click she took off the safety and nodded at Arodias. She was ready.
“Let’s go. Maybe we can even find something worth trading.” Ever the optimist.
Author’s Notes: Patina in a new light. My English readers couldn’t read about Talia so I decided to present you this as I work on inspiration for Mara Treves’ story. I hope you will enjoy this brief foray (which is non-canon to the wider Patina storyline). Thanks for reading.