Miriam’s Camp (a Darlene story)

Author’s Note: This story features Darlene, the young widow of “Of War and Breakfast”, as an old woman who has lived out her life, dispensing wisdom accumulated from her own experiences and dealings with many people. Her origins start in another story titled, ‘A Journey Home.’ The idea to put several tales from her lecture to her nephew, who comes to visit one summer after many years, of those experiences she shares with him, came when someone suggested I take the experiences from her soliloquy and make them into separate stories. Miriam’s Camp is the third in the series. I hope you enjoy reading it. It is a tale of faith, so if you are not a believer, and wish to comment, please be respectful; I approve all comments prior to them being posted here.
Thank you, and thanks again for taking the time to read my story.  

Alfred

She was never really able to answer why she got off the bus when she did, in front of the old house that lay on the bus route, a road of dust that seemed little traveled except for the people on it going somewhere else.

Every part of her ached from the old bus’s constant jarring, its suspension in dire need of repairs that would likely never happen; the only one it didn’t seem to bother was the driver, who was humming some tuneless song, if there was such a thing, over and over.
If there isn’t, he just invented it Miriam thought.
But she knew her focus was on the wrong stuff; his lack of tonality was not the issue, but a distraction from the truth of why she was coming back.
Get out of here, Miriam, they told her. See the world.
You’re young; you’ve got your whole life ahead of you to do whatever you want.
You’re a beautiful girl, Miriam. Good looks will take you places.
You could be a model.
You could be in movies.
It sounded glamorous, exciting and exotic.
It was actually wrong, crude, cold, and ultimately bloody; the ways of men and beasts, she discovered, were not dissimilar.
And now she was coming home.
******************

She needed time to think.
“I’ll get off here.”
The driver stopped humming.
“You’re a long way from where you belong, miss. That ticket’s only good for one ride.”
“There’s one I haven’t heard,” she muttered.
“Say, miss?”
“I’ll get out here.”
“You sure?”
“ Yes, I’m sure. Thank you.”
“Suit yourself.”
*******************
She stood there in a cloud of wheat colored dust that spun in little dervishes around her like a pulsing aura as the bus pulled off.
Stepping back out of it, she stood there as it settled on and around her, not quite sure what to do next.
“Best get out that sun girl, ‘fore you burn.”
The voice came from across the road; Miriam shielded her eyes from the sun with her hand and peered over.
An old woman sat in a rocking chair on her porch, a cup of coffee in her hand, and a thick book on her knees.
Miriam had never known anyone lived there. Of course not, idiot, this isn’t your side of town.
There were two rocking chairs on the porch. The other one was empty.
The old woman spoke again. “Girl, can you hear me?”
The woman was black; Miriam had never heard a black woman speak to her that way before. It was always, “Yes, Miss Whitcomb,” or “No, Miss Whitcomb,” or “As you please, Miss Whitcomb.”
“Child, come out that sun ‘fore you burn.”
Still somewhat dazed, Miriam found herself crossing the road.
The old woman didn’t stand up. Her brother would’ve called it an anomaly: it was his favorite word. Her father would’ve called it an affront, and dealt with it, but as Miriam got a closer look, probably not with this woman. There was a force to her, and undercurrent of vitality that didn’t seem to encourage or align with the nonsense of modern customs.
“Have a seat, girl. You look done in.”
Miriam looked at the seat, at the woman, at the book in the woman’s lap, and back at the woman’s face. It was old and lined, dark as oak.
“I’ve been sitting for a long time,” Miriam said. “I’ll just lean against this railing, that is, if it’s sound.”
The old woman looked at her then; she had kind and patient eyes that looked not at you, but through.

“My father David, God rest his soul, built this porch with his own two hands. Wasn’t nuthin’ out here before but that dusty road. If it ain’t sound, ain’t ‘cuz he didn’t build it right. Time, termites, and carpenter bees mighta done their share, but you’re welcome to stand, if you choose.”
The railing held.
The old woman went back to her reading, her chair creaking, her finger on the page, tracking the text within.
Miriam watched a hawk circle over a distant field, but the silence pressed.
“Aren’t you going to ask me why I’m here?”
The old woman didn’t look up, kept tracking the words with her finger.
“You here ‘cause I told you to get out of that heat.”
“No, I didn’t mean that, I mean, here.”
“Figured if you wanted me to know, you’d tell me.”
“But you haven’t even asked me my name.”
“Figured if you wanted me to know…”
The girl smiled at that. “It’s Miriam.”
Darlene looked up.
“Well, Miriam, welcome to my home. I’m Darlene. Miss Darlene to you.”
Miriam tossed her hair from her eyes, and said, “And why is that?”
“It’s called, ‘respecting your elders.’ Ain’t you ever heard of it?”
“I guess so.”
“Mm-hmm,” Darlene said. “You can go in the bathroom and freshen up. There’s some clean washcloths in there, and some soap, and lotion, if you’re of a mind. Pour yourself a glass of water too.” She went back to her book.
Miriam did, and came back out in a few minutes, a dampened washcloth in her hand, wrapped around a glass of water.
“Feel better?”
“Yes, thank you, Miss Darlene.”
“You’re welcome.”
Miriam drank her water awhile, her eyes far away.
Darlene finished reading her chapter, and set the book aside.
The words fell in the silence like a stone tossed in the middle of a still lake:
“Comin’ home, ain’t you?”
Miriam went to take a sip of water, and couldn’t raise the glass.
“Yes,” she said, clearing her throat.
She tried to raise the glass again, and couldn’t; her breath hitched, and she tried again.
“You went to the city.” It wasn’t a question.
“Yes…” To her dismay, Miriam felt her face redden, and the tears came so fast and hard they stung. Her reflexes moved her hands to cover her eyes, and the glass fell from her hand as she began to break down.
The glass broke into shiny shards on the sunlit porch, the water spreading, filling the cracks and crevices as Miriam went on her knees.
“I’m sorry!” she cried, “Oh, oh, I’m so sorry!” Darlene knew she didn’t mean the glass.

Miriam bent over, her face in her hands, tears leaking through her fingers, her yellow hair limp and damp from the heat, hiding her face, draped over her shoulders; she could feel tiny splinters poking through her summer dress, and welcomed the pain.
Darlene rose from her chair, and made her slow way over to the young girl.
She raised Miriam off her knees, and held her.
“I know, child. I know.”
She swayed with Miriam in her arms as the girl cried.
“I didn’t mean it,” she said, her voice husky with sorrow.
“I know.”

“I didn’t know!
“How could you know, being so young?”
“Oh, it hurts, Miss Darlene, it hurts so much!” Her body was trembling.
“Yes, baby, it’s gon hurt a lot, and maybe for a long time, but you gon be all right after awhile, Miriam. Time heals. God heals.”
Darlene held her until her sobs became sniffles. Miriam stepped out of the embrace, embarrassed somehow, before this woman, at what she was about to say.
She looked at the water drying on the porch floor.
“I don’t believe in God,” she said.
Darlene kept her hands on the girl’s shoulders, and gave a small smile.
“You don’t, huh? Then I guess you ain’t never heard of your namesake?”
“My…namesake?” She looked up.
“Miriam, the sister of Moses. You ain’t never heard?”
“No. We…we don’t go to church. My father…” she didn’t finish, and averted her eyes again.
“Well, sit down. I’ll be back.”
Miriam sat, wiping her eyes with the washcloth, which was also drying from the heat, but still wet enough for the task. She pulled her hair back off her neck, and tried to compose herself. Something was going on here, something strange and uncomfortable, but not frightening.
In the distance, three more hawks had joined the first. Miriam watched their silent, deadly circles.
And I was the mouse in the meadow.
She thought back to that moment she stepped off the bus, looking around in unadulterated wonder at the crowds, the buildings, the noise assaulting her ears, her senses flooded, and a smooth voice in her ear like a lifeline to someone drowning.
May I help you with your luggage, miss?
She looked away from the hawks.
Darlene came back, handed Miriam a new glass of water along with a fresh wet cloth, cold to the touch, and Miriam wiped her face and neck with it.
“Hang it on the railing with the other one. It’ll dry quick.”
“Okay.”
Darlene waited until Miriam had resettled herself.
“You ready to hear about Miriam?”
“My ‘namesake,’” she tried the word again, and gave a little smile. “I like that word.”
“Yes, she was. Bet your parents didn’t even know.”
“That would be a safe bet, Miss Darlene. I’m ready.”

*******************
Darlene told her of Miriam: how she had watched over Moses as he floated down the Nile and made sure he was safe, and how she led the women out of Egypt in a victory dance, singing songs of praise to God, and how she rebelled against Moses, and God struck her with a skin disease, and they had to put her outside the camp for seven days.
“And you know there ain’t no worse hell for a pretty woman than a skin disease,” Darlene said, laughing.
To her own surprise, Miriam started laughing too.
When the laughter subsided, Darlene continued.
“But you see, Miriam got jealous because God talked to Moses in a way he didn’t speak to her. She got jealous of what Moses had, and forgot that the only reason Moses had that close relationship was because he had a job God wanted him to do.
“See, Miriam had to wait in the same bondage with the rest of her people until her brother came back, and she was older than him. It wasn’t her job to lead the people out, but she did lead the women, ‘cause Moses couldn’t understand how that bondage was for them. Womenfolk’s pain is always different from men; it goes through us in places they don’t have, and I don’t mean what you might think. It goes deeper, and stays longer, and hurts more; you know that now, don’t you?”
“Yes, ma’am.”
“Ain’t no shame in knowin, child, and you found out young. Some women don’t find out til it’s way too late, and they lives is gone. Now this Miriam, she ain’t had no call to rise up against her brother, but y’see, people forget.
“She didn’t know Moses had to keep climbin’ mountains to speak to God, to keep on his knees to stop God from wipin’ the people out, cuz they was always complainin’. He had to work, to judge the people, to deal with their jealousy and pettiness.
“She was there, and she saw it all, but she didn’t know. All she saw was that God was talkin her brother in ways he didn’t talk to her, and it didn’t matter they was free, and on they way to a wonderful place.
“See, folks gets to lookin at what other folks have, and don’t know what they had to go through to get it, but they want it all the same.”
As Darlene spoke, a tear had pooled in the corner of Miriam’s lips, and she licked it off, tasting its bitterness. There had been harsh words and hard feelings at her departure. It all came down to one thing, the last thing she said before leaving: “I deserve better!”
Darlene let her words sink in as she looked at Miriam, who’d begun rocking the chair.
“You made the right choice to come back. Now, truth be told, girl, I don’t know why you got off that bus here, like you asked me earlier, but God knows. Now, you need to get on home, and let your heart and body heal from that beatin’ they done took.” “

“My family doesn’t know I’m here, Miss Darlene. I was afraid to tell them…”
“Honey, they know, and don’t you think they don’t. They didn’t know how long it would be. Soon’s they see you, they’ll know why you came back.”
“They may not be all that happy about it.”
“Well, my dealings with that side of town have not been good, but there’s only one way to find out, and it ain’t by staying here on this porch, now is it?”
“No,” Miriam said, looking at the broken glass.
“Well, I ‘spect they’ll be happier to see you than you think. Come here, girl.”
Miriam went to her, and knelt in front of her, and Darlene took Miriam’s face in her hands, lifting up her sea blue eyes to stare into the depths of her own rich brown ones; Miriam could see they were patient, kind, and full of life, lore, deep sadness and high joy, as her smooth pale cheeks were cupped in dark, calloused hands, like a warrior angel with a new-made chalice.
“You outside the camp now, Miriam, and you’re feeling diseased and wrong, but the only way you gon’ heal is by going back inside, among your own, and let them take care of you. Ain’t got no choice in the matter, no say-so. You spoke out against, and you went through your suffering days, and it’s time to get back. Whatever you do, from here on out, is gonna matter more not just to you, but to other folk, to your family, your husband, when you get one, your kids, when you have some. Your life is gonna be different now.
“You understand that?”
Miriam sighed, and shook her head, and rested it in Darlene’s lap awhile, as the old woman chuckled at the girl’s honesty, and stroked her hair, humming something low and sweet, and Miriam smiled. This was music.
After awhile, Darlene smiled and lifted her up as she got to her feet.
A cloud of dust was visible in the distance as the tires from the approaching bus rumbled over the road. The high sun lit it, fine and floating, a wind blown corona swirling in slow motion through the hot, still air.
“You wait here,” Darlene said, and went inside. She came back out with an old, yellow skinned tambourine, its shakers pitted with rust, its wood worn smooth and bright where hands gripped and slapped. There was a rotted piece of duct tape that was supposed to be a handle, and a smaller piece over a hole where her mother’s fingernail had pierced it.
She held it out to Miriam.
“This belonged to my mother,” said Darlene. “You take it.”
“Oh, Miss Darlene, I couldn’t!”
“Didn’t ask if you could, said I wanted you to take it. I want you to remind yourself of which Miriam you’re supposed to be. See, it’s just like you: it’s been beaten and shaken down to its core, but it’s still here. It got scars and hand marks, scrapes and patches, but it’s still here.”
She held the tambourine out again.
“So are you. You been through it, and now you need to lead others out.
“See, you think you comin’ home in defeat and shame, but you came out of that cesspool in victory, and now you know what to say to those young girls come after you gettin’ on that bus.”
Miriam opened her mouth to say something, but nothing came out. She closed it, her face flushing.
She tried again, but all that came out was, “I don’t know how to play it.”
Darlene laughed.
“Child, neither did Mama! Didn’t stop her none. The deacons had to take this from her she threw the choir off so bad; she’d start out all right, but after ‘while seemed like she just played to the rhythm in her heart, and it wasn’t what was going on up there at all. Happened every Sunday too, sure as sunrise, til she got too old to hold it anymore.
“Then, they just laid it there beside her, and she’d rest her hand on it.”
She wrapped Miriam’s fingers around the worn taped handle.
“Just before she passed on, she told me to keep it, ‘cuz she was gon get a new one when she got home. She don’ need it no more. I don’ either.”
Miriam smiled, and took the gift.
“Thank you.”
The bus pulled to a stop, the nimbus of dust bursting around it like a beggar’s halo.
“You’ll learn to play it in time, and when you’re ready to lead out, you’ll understand. Your time of bondage is over.”
Miriam looked at the worn and battered tambourine, then back at Darlene.
“Over,” she repeated, half in wonder, half in affirmation.
“God bless you, Miriam.”
She kissed Darlene’s wrinkled cheek. “He already has.”
As she crossed the dusty road, she tapped the ancient tambourine lightly against her knee, its rusty jingle breaking the afternoon stillness.
When the bus was gone, Darlene looked at the washcloths hanging like ephods on the old railing, and down at the broken glass, glinting in the sunlight, like the precious stones waiting to be placed on them.
It was a shrine to their time together, and Darlene smiled.
“You gon’ be just fine.”

© Alfred W. Smith Jr.

( May 16, 2014)

Night Roads (5)

A rush of wind wrapped around the inn as a night storm approached, a night I’d now be spending alone because of my…. stupidity. It mattered, but it didn’t; anything in excess wasn’t a good thing, and we’d renewed our ‘affections’ that afternoon. Truth is, that probably was a mistake as well, but if I didn’t survive, I’d have lovely memories while the life leaked out of me.

Alazne and I had worked things out; we were going to kill Jonas Noll first, she said, because it would quickly dishearten the others, maybe even cause them to run. We’d start tracking him in the morning. The next planning session was with Amia, to find out what she was going to do about Malika. If she was as powerful as Amia said, and found out what we were doing, she wasn’t likely to stand idly by and let us go unfettered as we wrecked her plans. I was and wasn’t looking forward to that. Sprawled out on the bed, quieting my thoughts with deep breathing, letting the candle gutter, I heard the rumble of distant thunder; it sounded like a giant snoring under a blanket, and the sky began to flash with the heated brilliance of lightning gathering power. It had been a long day, and I had a lot to think about, but it was late and I was tired.

I closed my eyes, and stopped thinking of the details that still niggled at my mind; this was not going to go perfectly, no matter how well planned. I’d lived long enough to know that nothing ever really does. I wasn’t even sure of my motivation for doing it. Was it to rekindle what I had once with Amia? She’d changed so much, grown so powerful, no longer the innocent ingénue she actually was when we first met, that a reunion of substance didn’t seem likely. In looking back at how I filled that time between then and now, there’d been no real progress;

I was, at heart, a mercenary, mostly playing at bounty hunting. The work suited my temperament, and I traveled in the process, meeting a wide variety of crazy people, getting into harrowing situations, and somehow still coming out alive, if not always victorious. And who were these women Amia wanted to join?

Having no interest in magic myself, it had sometimes been at the periphery of things I was working on, whispers and rumors I dismissed as superstition and spent no time investigating, since it never impeded my pursuit and capture of the person I hunted. Who would benefit from them retaining their foothold, and how did Amia really know their true intentions if she had not yet been admitted to their ranks?

And then there was Alazne: young, enigmatic, maybe a hundred pounds soaking wet, stealthy as a spider and just as quiet. Why was she with Amia? Where did she come from, and how much of wood lore and weaponry did she really know?

She was tough to get a read on, and if it was just bravado (I didn’t think it was, I just wasn’t sure), we were both going to die by Jonas’ hand. So much for letting go. I turned, pulling the covers over me, reliving the events in my mind of a long, pleasantly physical afternoon that I could have actually been reliving…actually. It would have to suffice, for now.

Sleep was a while in coming, but eventually, her soft fingers lowered my lids, and a thought drifted up like a tendril of mist from warm soil on a chilly morning.

Great, a mid-life crisis on a rainy night. Only you, Haskell. Only you…

*************************

Sometime before morning, a floral fragrance filled the room; I knew all of Amia’s perfumes, and this wasn’t among them. Alazne, who I had no doubt could get into any room she desired, always smelled of earthy loam: a combination of soil and pine and creature.

The storm was over, and the sky outside was paling, but there was, as yet, no physical light. The woman who sat on the stool beside my bed looked at me with gentle eyes and a small smile on her lips, as if she were watching a baby she didn’t know who’d aroused her maternal instinct. Her hands reposed in her lap, weaponless, but that meant nothing in a being of magic.

“Hello, Haskell,” said a dulcet and mellifluous female voice.

I pulled myself into a sitting position, and studied her back. The smile grew a bit more, and the eyes didn’t waver, but locked with mine, inviting me into their depths.

I knew without knowing, and named her. “Malika.”

She inclined her head, and strands of a glorious raven mane draped her cheeks. Her eyes were the blue of snow in moonlight, a soft and pale shadowy blue; everything about her was still, and calm. Had she not spoken I might have believed her a piece of painted sculpture.

“Let me guess,” I said. “You’re here to tell me not to help Amia.”

She took a little breath, pulled the strands off her cheeks, a pretty, feminine and elegant gesture;  I found myself wishing I’d done it for her first.

“On the contrary, Haskell. I’m  here to tell you that I’ll  help you do it.”

I let that sink in; it took awhile, but she waited, calm as a boulder in a raging river.

“Why?”

“Because we want the same thing, but I’m about to tell you something Amia doesn’t know yet, and you’re not to breathe a word.”

This was getting to be tangled roots, and that was never a good thing, but I waited.

She gauged me a while longer than needed, and I found myself getting uneasy under that soft blue gaze. After a moment, she seemed to steel herself to trust me with her secret:

“Amia is my cousin.”

I cleared my throat, sat up straighter. “She wants to kill you.”

“And that’s why I’m here, because you have to stop her.”

“Let me guess; without letting her know who you are?”

“Yes.”

“How am I to do that?”

“Well, you spent the afternoon…planning…with her and Alazne; let’s spend what remains of the night planning this.”

I sighed.

Sleep had vanished around the corner, and the horizon began to bleed a thin stream of color.

“Very well.”

She smiled that quiet smile again, and my heart skipped a beat.

This was going to be a problem…

© Alfred W. Smith Jr. 2015

Night Roads (con’t 4)

4)

 

Amia was in the garden when I walked up.

“What are you doing back here, Haskell?” She hadn’t turned around.

“Using your witchy skills, huh?”

She turned to face me then, smiling a little.

“Never you mind.”

“We need to talk. I need you to change my face, and I need to hire Alazne.”

“Yes to the first, no to the second.”

Amia stood, smoothed the dirt off her apron. She’d tied her hair back, and looked like a perfect housewife. The last thing I’d expect her to do was blow me apart with a bolt of light from her hands, but she could.

I would’ve smiled in amusement if she couldn’t.

“Alazne? She’s vulnerable, and that makes her volatile. I’m just getting her to where I can trust her. Leaving her alone in my house was the turning point. I half expected to return to find her gone and my place looted, if not a pile of ashes.”

“Maybe she is, but she has advanced stalking skills for her age, and she looks like a beggar child. I could use both to help me further your efforts in stopping the council.”

She paused to consider it.

“Come on, then. Tell me what you’re thinking, while I work on making your face be what I’ve always wanted.”

I felt my face do something between blush and blanch, which set her chiming laughter pealing.

 

***************

“How would you like to look?”

I told her.

“Close your eyes,” she said.    I did.

The blackness that my lids created began to lighten to a deep blue, the color of the sky when a full moon shines, and I felt the light scrape of her nails and the pads of her fingertips begin to caress my face.

My skin tightened, and there was some pain, but it was bearable; caught off guard by its suddenness though, I gasped.

“It’s all right,” she whispered, sending a relaxing wave across my body. “Trust me, Haskell.”

“I do.”

The light began to darken, and I was once more in natural darkness, but then I felt a slight change taking place through my body as well. I had what I would call an average build, but it seemed to be getting thicker.

She was making me more muscular, a bit wider, but not preposterously so.

“Is this all right with you?”

My laugh was sardonic.

“Did you leave me a choice?”

“No.” I could hear the smile in her voice.

Oh, Amia. What might have been…

A few moments of silence passed, and then:

“I’m done. Rest a moment. I’ll find a glass for you to see.”

I took a few deep breaths, feeling the increase of the expanse of my chest; it felt good, solid.

She’d gotten a lot stronger; her powers had increased. I should’ve been concerned then, but I wasn’t.

“You can get up now.”

I took my time, getting used to maneuvering with the larger frame.

She left me nude, and the glass showed everything.

“Madam, please,” I said with false modesty, covering myself with my hands.

She laughed again.

“What do you think?”

I took my hands away.

“This isn’t what I told you, but I’m not sure.” I looked like a pirate: curly black ringlets of hair down to my neck, swarthier than I was, and for added effect, a pale scar along the right cheek.

“How am I supposed to fit in with a face like this?”

“You don’t like it?”

“I said I wasn’t sure…”

“Close your eyes, and picture the face you want.”

“What? Amia…” my voice took a warning note, but she just gave me her ‘innocent’ look.

I closed my eyes, pictured the face I wanted, and felt the slight pull on my skin and the elongation and shortening of bones. It was a creepy feeling.

The sensations stopped, and I opened my eyes again.

More average features looked back at me, with no scar. I could be a servant or a merchant.

Just for kicks, I closed my eyes again, pictured the face of a nobleman I met once, and once again the magic crackled across my face.

Bearded, regal, with piercing eyes that struck fear in the hearts of men and made women weak in the knees, or so I hoped.

I looked back at Amia and smiled.    She returned it, pleased.

“I didn’t know you could do that, Amia. You’ve gotten stronger.”

“A woman shouldn’t be defenseless, Haskell. You know that as well as anyone.”

I did, and I was glad she was among those who could do it.

She came up behind me, and put her hands where I had mine moments ago, and put her lips by my ear.

“Let’s try this new body out, and see how it works for you.”

“Shall I keep this face?”

“No, Haskell. I like you for you.”

Changing my face back, I turned toward her, kissed her long and deep, my own hands busy before I picked her up and carried her to her bed, the place she’d denied me the night before, a deed which I promised her she was going to pay for, and she rose to the challenge..

As it turned out, the new body worked just fine.

 

5)

 

It was evening when we were done with each other.

“Where’s Alazne?”

“Out, hunting dinner.”

“She’s a scary girl.”

“I agree. One step up from feral, really. Even I haven’t gotten all of her story from her yet.”

“Do you want it?”

She laughed. “Not sure.”

We finished dressing in silence, and Amia poured some of that wine from Inkara.

The clothes were a bit tighter, but would cover me enough for now.

“I need her, Amia.”

“Why? After the power I gave you, you can fit in anywhere.”

“I need a scout though, a spy, if you will. She’d be able to get into places unnoticed.”

“I don’t know, Haskell. Ragamuffins aren’t welcome in most places; they’re the kids who get watched in the marketplaces, the ones cast out into the street. People do see them.”

“They do,” I agreed, “but only when they get careless. Alazne doesn’t strike me as careless, and she’s got a whole host of skills we don’t know.”

“How do you know?”

“She gave me the lantern, and found her way back to you in a dark forest.”

“By now she’s familiar with the path, the direction; it’s no great feat, Haskell.”

“I’m telling you, even with all that, for one of her age to go skulking about as she does, it is. I need her eyes, and I need her to gain access to places where I won’t fit in.”

“I’ll do it,” said a voice from the doorway.

“How long have you been standing there?” said Amia.

“For most of it.”

I turned to Amia, grinning, and just managed to dodge the empty wine cup she threw at my head.

 

***************

As I told Alazne of my plan, and she cooked a late night rabbit, we spent another couple of hours ironing out the details.

She helped with the logistics of where she’d be able to go, and we both agreed that Jonas provided the only real threat.

“Kill him first, or last?” I asked her.

“Let me think about it.”

“All right.”

“Haskell?”

I turned to see Amia in the doorway of her room.

“Are you spending the night?”

Alazne rolled her eyes.

“Actually, no. I need to get back to the inn, make sure everything’s intact, and where I left it.”

The door slammed so fast and hard that Alazne and I both jumped.

Alazne looked up at me.

“You’re a stupid man, aren’t you Haskell?”

I sighed, looking at the door where just seconds ago, I’d seen a vision of erotic loveliness.

“Yes, Alazne. Yes I am.”

Night Roads (con’t 3)

3)

 

Alazne led me back to the road where she met me, again in the lead, using that unerring, unnerving, confident stride she used at the start of the night, as if the sun was shining and she could see every tangled root underfoot.

 

“The inn’s about a mile that way; you’re going to need this.”

She handed me the lantern.

“And you won’t?”

She just smiled, and slipped back into the forest, the dark swallowing her up.

 

********************

The windows of the inn were dark, but the moon was beginning to set; I was loathe to knock, but I was tired, cold, and hungry, and thanks to Amia’s generosity, I would be able to afford to alleviate all three.

My knock was answered by a grizzled old man made of whipcord muscles and whiskers.

His eyes were small and mean, and he only opened the door a crack.

“I’m of a mind to leave you outside, ‘cept the missus would have m’ hide. Yer not runnin’ from the law, are ya?”

I tried a smile. “Not at the moment.”

He didn’t see the humor, and reluctantly let me inside.

“We keep a room prepared for such emergencies. Ain’t much to look at, but it will serve for the rest of the night.”

He took my lantern and led the way.

The room was as he said it would be, functional with not much in the way of luxury.

“I’ll take yer coin now, in case yer of a mind to leave earlier than we get up.”

I felt bad for his wife; left to his own devices, there’d be no inn.

His unnecessary surliness was also starting to annoy me; while it was true I woke him up, I was no beggar looking for scraps.

I paid him, and he left without another word.

Stripping down to what I would be comfortable leaving on in case of running outside in an emergency, I gave myself over to the exhaustion that had already seeped into my bones.

 

**************

In the morning, bathed, shaved, fed, and feeling relatively like a part of the human race again, I was back out on the road.

Finding a shady spot by mid-morning, I stopped and took a look at the list of council members.

Turns out I knew the first name: Jonas Noll.

He’d been a hunter of some renown in this area for quite some time; it was safe to assume that the game he once hunted was now faster and smarter, and he decided to stop before the law of averages worked against him.

Smart hunter, but dumb if he thought Amia was going to let him run roughshod over her opportunity to advance. He’d had some experiences with her as well, and probably decided there’d be safety in numbers.

He was wrong, and I would be the one to tell him so by ending his life, or die trying: older hunters grew craftier with the years. I would really have to plan where to move, and it had to be out of his sphere of influence, with no witnesses.

I scanned through the rest; some I knew casually, others were strangers. Out of all of them, Jonas probably posed the biggest threat.

It would best to work through the strangers first; there were five of them. Two lived some distance away, and while I didn’t really see why they’d get caught up in local politics in this place, it was a safe bet money was involved, probably in matters of voting or breaking bones, or both.

This would have to be a one day event; to spread it out would mean mounting suspicion, and while I was careful, if the right person was in the right place at the wrong time, it could mean the difference between life and death.

To hit them at a meeting would be the most practical; there’d be anonymity in the crowd, but it wouldn’t be a real test of my skills.

What Amia said about my taunting came back to mind; it was a cautionary tease: don’t mess this up.

I sighed, wanting to draw it out against my better judgment and Amia’s wishes.

All right. A one shot deal. I could use Alazne’s stalking skills to good advantage.

I put the parchment back in the back; the gold was secure under a floorboard in the room, and I got up slower than I remembered getting up before, to go get the layout of the town, a bit of trepidation in my step, because this place attracted a lot of travelers

Hopefully, no one would recognize me from a past adventure in a distant land; if they did, the assignment would stop before it began.

I decided I couldn’t take the chance.

Amia was going to have to help me. My face needed to change, but not drastically. It was the small changes in details that threw off eyewitnesses: a moustache where there wasn’t one, a scar, an eye patch, or just growing longer hair, could make all the difference in escaping bounty hunters leafing a town with Wanted posters.

Unfortunately, I’d learned through experience.

With everything in me thrumming with resistance, I began walking the path back up to her place. She wouldn’t be happy to see me, but she might help me, and I really did need to speak with her about utilizing her mysterious protégé.

© Alfred W. Smith Jr