The End of All Hope
“For a job well done.” The caravan master, a female Mixer of uncertain pedigree named Nadaa, whom Stranger had always appreciated for her shrewd mind and low tolerance for bullshit, dropped a pouch full of metal on the folding table between them. Stranger picked it up, and slipped it directly into his satchel. He didn’t bother counting his wages. No one ever tried to stiff him. No one was ever that stupid.
“We had a good run”, Stranger said. “I’m off for the next few weeks and I don’t know, I might take off for the rest of the season. Unless you have any jobs lined up?”
Nadaa shook her head with a small grimace.
“Not this season. The bandits have been living it up on the mountain trails, and as you said, we’ve had a good run. No use risking it.”
She got a mischievous look in her eye that was only slightly tamped down by the calculation behind it, and smiled toothily at Stranger.
“Unless you feel like taking a trip to the mountains? I know of a mercenary crew that’s looking for fighters, and there are plenty of caravan masters who’d be willing to pay them extra if we knew you’d be going out with them. I could get another run in before the demons really start messing with the roads and you’d get another fat pouch of gold to add to that treasure trove I know you’ve got hidden away. What do you say? Win-win?”
“I don’t think so”, Stranger said, smiling. “I promised someone I’d teach them how to shoot a gun.”
Nadaa’s eyebrows rose at that, but she asked no questions. As with not trying to get stingy about his wages, it was simply safer that way. Stranger was about to open his mouth to bid her farewell, when there was a commotion in camp, and a moment later, a man came barreling into the caravan master’s tent. He was breathing hard, clutching at the canvas that served as a door, and when his eyes landed on Stranger, his wide eyes grew even wider. There was, Stranger noted, blood on the front of his shirt.
“Master”, he said between laboring breaths. “There are two women here, with some children. They say that they’re looking for him.”
He nodded toward Stranger, who got up from his folding chair, all the relaxation of the previous moment erased.
“Where?” he asked. There was no need for any more questions. He already knew who he would find. There weren’t that many people in the world who would know where to find him, or dare to come looking for him, even if they did. And two women with a bunch of children? It could only be Hopeful and Warlike, and they wouldn’t come here, especially not with the kids, unless something was very wrong.
The young caravan guard led the way to a small group of people who were huddled together near the pens where the caravan masters kept their animals. Stranger spotted the violently purple heads of hair belonging to Warlike and Hopeful, more startling in color than usual against the muted background of the desert, and recognizable even from a distance. With a sinking feeling he realized there was another person who ought to have been with them and whose hair color, a vibrant, deep crimson, should have been equally impossible to miss. But there was no spot of crimson to be seen, and when Warlike lifted her face from her sister’s shoulder, he could see it was covered in tears. There were bruises and cuts covering her face and neck, and a bloody chunk of something swung from a strand of her hair, like a garish Arrival Day decoration.
Then the wind turned, blowing their scent his way, and he realized that the stains he had take for dirt on all of their clothing, wasn’t. It was soot, and they smelled like they’d recently been near a large fire. Or possibly even in one.
“Stranger!” Warlike cried when she caught sight of him, and before he could respond, she had flown the distance between them and thrown herself in his arms, where she clung onto his neck, shivering violently. She was sobbing, great, hulking sounds that seemed torn from her very heart, and Stranger held her, making soothing noises as he looked over her head to cast a long, expressionless look at Hopeful. She looked back, equally blank-faced, but behind the soot-stains, she was paler than Stranger could remember having seen her in a long time, and when she raised a shaking hand to pull a strand of hair out of her eyes, he saw that her hands were covered in blood, all the way up to the elbows.
She turned away from Stranger and bent, saying a few words to Cherry, who sat in an unmoving slump, surrounded by the other children. Cherry nodded in response to whatever Hopeful had said, and his sister stood and walked over to join Stranger and the still-crying Warlike.
“The boy?” Stranger asked.
Why he felt the need to ask, he didn’t know. He could read in the terrible fury lurking in Hopeful’s dry eyes that the answer was the end of all hope. Perhaps it was just that he needed to put words to his fear. Perhaps, only the substance of hearing it spoken aloud would make it small enough for him to understand. Hopeful stopped behind Warlike, put her hand on her sister’s shoulder, on top of Stranger’s, and straightened her shoulders, looking him in the eye.
“They killed him”, she said. “It was that damned slaver.”
“Cunning?” For a moment, Stranger felt like the world had gone fluid around him. If Cunning had done this, after he had let the despicable piece of scum live… And then Hopeful shook her head, and the sand beneath his feet went a little more solid.
“Brazen, his son. He’s been making some noises, had a few run-ins with Serdia and her crew, and he’s always been unhappy about how his father turned the business around, but I never thought… Anyway, he finally went over the edge. Got a mob together, turned more or less the whole of the human district against us, and came right at us at The Rotten Core, gods damned the cowardly little shit. He came after us while we slept. He came into our home, where our children slept and he put it on fucking fire. We fought, Serdia came to help us, a lot of Sixers and Mixers came, even a few of the humans tried to help, but…” She closed her eyes, and her face twisted into a grimace of pain and horror. She whispered: “It was a massacre.”
She stood like that for a moment, trying visibly to fight back her emotions, and then her eyes blinked open, glittering with unshed tears, ruby-red, ruby-hard and furious.
“Brazen told me he wanted me to bring you a message. He said to tell you that there was no father-killing, cowardly human exile who was going to tell him who and what he could sell in his own damned city, and if you had a problem with that, you could come and tell him that to his face.”
“Really”, Stranger said, in a tone of voice that might have been called thoughtful, if it hadn’t sounded so much like something that had clawed its way out of an ancient tomb. “That’s what he said.”
Warlike gave a sniffle and stepped back, and Stranger released her.
“There are other things too. Cherry was called as a Namer in the middle of all that chaos, and she gave our boy a name, before…” Warlike paused to swallow, and then continued. “We carved it into the stone Serdia buried him under.”
Stranger held her gaze, waiting, resigned. In his heart of hearts, he was already sure he knew what Warlike would say, as though the words had always been there, waiting, held as a nasty surprise in the claws of destiny, ever since the day Stranger had walked into Colony Five, and found the boy, being kicked out the door by his master. It had always been going to end this way.
“We named him Avenged”, Warlike said, and Stranger closed his eyes and breathed slowly, in, and then out. He took only a moment to grieve before he straightened his back, his mind already moving on to the practical details, and to what was going to happen next. He turned away from his family, and had already taken the first few steps that would carry him across the desert, and back toward Colony Five. Then he paused, and turned his head for a final few words.
“Avenged”, he said. “It’s a good name, and well-chosen. Tell Cherry thank you for me. And tell her there will be no one who will ever be able to say that she didn’t pick wisely.”
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