Here’s the second installment for my Scenes from the City. Different narrator this time, fleshing out the world a bit.
There’s a saying in the City that a night alone in the forest will turn a brave man’s hair white overnight, if he lives at all.
This isn’t what happened to me. I am not truly sure if I should be exempted, for my hair was white from the day of my birth, as milky white as my ruined left eye, and the spattered white of my beard when I’ve been away from the walls for days. My white hair may exempt me from being a brave man.
I suppose the other untruth I see in the saying is that I have never known a man, or a woman, or a beast from the City who spent a night alone out here and was able to return.
I thrust my hands into the icy water of the stream, and the clear water carries the blood away. The entrails of the thing hang from a tree uphill and downwind of us. Some of the boys had wished to keep them, to carry them back with us. This is why I have lived long enough that my half-blind gaze can cow them. They do not think me brave in the squares and alleys behind the walls. When we drag our findings through the Waiting Gate. They whisper that I am some cursed silver wolf wearing a man’s skin, as bad as the Woodfolk and the beasts they revel with.
I could tell them it was my father gave me this white hair, struck out the light in my bad eye with the sickness he forced on my mother before my birth. I could bring them before the apothecary whose words those were. They would still take my spoils, hurl me their coins, and ward against my evil eye until I was gone.
I went back to the camp, where the boys were enshrouding the carcass. With luck the forest would be drawn to the bloody mess we left on the ridge, but the deep green has never been easy to judge in my mind. It’s… chaos. You have to adapt constantly to the new things it creates.
It had been that we were going to stay at the Old Fort, but on reaching it we had found the masonry overgrown. The woods have been overrunning things more quickly… perhaps it has been the last two years, though for all the tallies on the wall of the Sanctuary I don’t believe anyone truly knows. The old stones had been clear on my last visit, mere weeks before. We found it with its arch toppled, and the flags swamped beneath thorns and creepers, new plants springing from the earth beneath and around. I had considered taking the day to have the boys clear it. Then we found the first body.
Judging by the scraps of plate still clinging to the bug-picked bones, they were some of Vulture’s crew, and Twin confirmed it for me. Everyone looked away while he examined the corpses, getting far too close for comfort, close enough to kiss. He licked the eye socket of the smallest. He screamed for a while, yammering about the things Vulture had felt under her skin before death took her. I clutched him to my shoulder as he seized, trying to muffle his messages, the others chewing their lips and watching the woods around us. Grifter was praying quietly. Twin calmed down eventually, and whispered to me that there was death in the grey mushrooms around us, death watching. I’d have to remind the others not to come this way. After living the way he has had to, the witch boy doesn’t scare easily.
We set our tents in a bend in the river that we came to shortly after dark. There was a small ridge that would keep us out of sight, and I set a couple of the lads to climb trees and keep a watch for us, for all the good it would do. Better to have the forest think we weren’t here, so our rice was cold that night. The thing stumbled right into the camp on its spindly legs, and I took that as a sign that we smelled enough like the forest for now. We killed it before it could scream. It was a sick and limping animal, its hide patchy and stinking, but its good enough to sell.
If we can reach the Temple by nightfall, our outward journey is done.
I dry my hands, and I look across the stream to the figure on the ridge. The shy little thing had found us again, alone this time. All skin it would seem, or else the birds wouldn’t have stopped calling. I’d thought we’d given her the slip, but she just kept on, always watching.
There’s a saying the City folk would never understand.
You know a man is trouble when the birds won’t leave him.