Garen woke from a dream of iron and blood into the scent of early-morning rain and his own sweat mixing with the last spectral notes of incense.
His skin and blanket were soaked; he’d fevered as he slept, wrestling against men harnessing him with chains and rusting harness. He remembered the smell of mud and wet-dog, man-musk, rot, metallic taste of blood mixing with the orange-red dust of flaking iron cutting into skin.
He sat up, threw off his blankets. He expected to find pain as the fabric peeled from recent wounds, but none followed. He looked at his chest, his legs: the dark hair on his body was wet, matted from the sweat, but the skin underneath was whole, un-scarred. His cock leaked, erect and pulsing as if he’d just a moment ago withdrawn it mid-orgasm from a man.
Garen closed his eyes, sighed, then opened them again, staring across the room at the shrine of the Lady of Provisions.
“You’re gonna tell me what’s happening?” he asked aloud.
No voice echoed in response.
He bathed himself quickly with cold water in a bowl. His skin was warm, hot even, but the water did not feel sharp against it. He didn’t feel ill, nor even tired from the dreams. Exhilaration and heat coursed through him, like after a run, or during sex.
He’d prepared his packs the day before; nothing was left but to haul them to the western gate of the city. He dressed, pulled on his large pack, slung the second across his shoulder, turned to look one last time at his room, and left.
It was a sacred day—the streets were dead quiet. Soft morning light made the wet city feel surreal, and he a ghost or the dream of a ghost, floating upon an unfelt wind.
He didn’t think: no thoughts would matter. He didn’t feel: Yura had taught him early on that trick. Anxiety and anticipation clouded fore-seeing, colored the visions false with desire and fear. He walked, quieted, the weight of his packs pushing his feet against the ground where his own weight seemed insufficient.
He came to the gate, passed through. He walked farther, scanned the empty road. No sign of those who would come to meet him. He was not early, nor late. This was the time. These trees were the place. There was no one.
Garen waited. Rain dripped from branches overhead onto his hood, cascaded off the waxed-leather of his packs. It was too wet to sit, but as the minutes became hours, he took off his packs and leaned against the tree.
From within the city he heard the tolling of bells marking the time. An hour passed. Another. Just after the third, he heard horses’ hooves over paving stones. He looked out, caught glimpse of a group of riders. Unarmored, none wore the uniforms of the crown or city.
He picked up his packs, walked out to meet them. The first rider rode faster when he saw Garen, approached. His head was bare, his scalp razed. A short beard covered a muscled jaw that seemed able to chew through metal.
“You’re the Provisioner.” It wasn’t a question. The deep voice betrayed disdain.
“Where’s your horse?”
The lady hadn’t told him he’d need one. Garen staved off panic, looked at the riders behind the man, then counted their horses.
“You have mine,” he replied.
The man growled. “That was Veln’s. He’s dead. How did you know?”
Provisioning was never exact. Garen had seen nothing about horses or a dead man named Veln. He had not seen need of a horse. If he had not seen it, he would not need it. Garen also knew it would be pointless to explain this to the man.
“I knew only that I would not need a horse. I am sorry for your friend.”
The man spat. “Veln was an idiot and deserved his fate.”
The other riders had caught up to the first man. Garen looked across their faces, each stern, full of barely-restrained malice, but one was…Sorn.
Garen almost gasped in excitement, caught himself short, stared at the man’s face. The man didn’t stare back, showed no sign he recognized his lover from the previous night. When he did return Garen’s gaze, it held the same bitter malevolence of the others. In fact, his face seemed suddenly so unfamiliar Garen decided he’d been mistaken. He became glad he’d said nothing.
“The Provisioner didn’t bring his own horse. Give him Veln’s.”
The others shrugged. The man who looked like Sorn silently dismounted, unstrapped a pack from the riderless horse, put it on his own. He glanced at Garen, looking pissed, then turned to the others and said, “If the Provisioner didn’t bring clothes, either, than we know Thalyn’s gonna die so the girl’s got something to wear.”
Garen’s soul shrunk as the others laughed. The man’s voice sounded like Sorn’s; but this guy was an ass. Embarrassed he’d had any sort of emotion over him, fury welling up inside him, Garen blurted out, “I know you, right? I think I saw you praying in an alley by the docks a few weeks ago. Or kneeling, anyway.”
The others laughed. The man pulled out a knife. The bearded, bald-headed man shouted. “Uric—you kill our Provisioner than you’re gonna choke on that knife from inside. Let’s go.”
Sorn, or Uric, growled and sheathed his knife. He didn’t look at Garen again. Garen felt a feeling he’d not known for years: dread of what was to come.
From the western gate they rode through the steady drizzling rain. The western road connected the city to no other, led instead through and upward through the forests cloaking the Istril mountains. He’d never needed to take this road, knew none of the villages they passed, recognized none of the farmland.
No one spoke, only occasional grunts of assent or commands to the horses broke the silence. Garen tried to sense their personalities from these tiny scraps, but the men were unyielding, cold, withdrawn.
The bald man was their leader, certainly, but hadn’t offered his name. Garen caught it a few hours into the journey. Another rider grunted it while gesturing towards a village they glimpsed after cresting a hill.
“We stop there, Ronur?”
Ronur turned his head without slowing his horse. “No ride to Orunec. Veln already fucked us on time.”
The others grumbled to themselves. They were wet, hungry. Garen was, too.
Just before dark, they came upon a village, twenty houses clinging together at the edge of unruly fields. No tavern, but an elder’s house. Ronur dismounted, knocked loudly. An old woman opened the door, looked first at Ronur, then the others. She shrugged, spoke; Ronur barked back. Garen heard none of the words they spoke, but understood it didn’t go in the woman’s favor.
Ronur then called back to the others. “Here’s our lodging. Provisioner—go get us food.”
“My name’s Garen,” he replied.
Ronur spat back. “You don’t matter, boy. You’re here for you can do. I’ll slit you myself if you act like you’re something else.”
Garen nodded. The man’s strength and rage worried him.
He dismounted, tethered the horse, and asked around the village for food to trade. The villagers were friendly once they understood he wouldn’t coerce them like Ronur. They seemed eager to keep their uninvited guests calm, and within an hour Garen had gathered enough bread, meat, cheese, and beer to feed everyone. In return he made a poultice for a woman’s swollen knee, a tincture for a child who’d taken some worm in his stomach. Yura’s provisions were well-seen.
Ronur and the others stayed in the elder’s house. Garen instead took the offer of the floor of an old man’s home, glad to be away from the others for the night. The old man was blind and toothless; a villager brought him a pot of soup for them both to eat. Garen ate with him, listened to his stories of lost loves, and of the time he and his brother set fire to the fields after eating wild mushrooms.
The man dozed; Garen put away the bowls, rinsed the pot and set it outside. As he did so, he saw through the raining night a glint of reflection from the candles inside. Someone stood a small distance from the man’s house, watching him.
Garen closed the door behind him, walked out to meet the figure.
“You don’t know me,” came a voice as he approached. “We’ve never seen each other before.”
It was Uric. Or Sorn.
“Sure,” Garen replied. “I definitely have no idea who the fuck you are, anyway.”
The man look behind himself, than walked a step closer. “I’m someone who’ll save your life if you don’t fuck this up. Stay quiet. Don’t ask questions.” It was too dark to make out the man’s face, but Garen imagined there was kindness there just before he turned away, walked back into the thick darkness, muttering loud enough for Garen to hear,
“Or I’ll fucking kill you.”