(Author’s note – Sorry this update came late! I’ve experienced a time zone change when transiting from NZ to Portugal and I lost a day!)
Riss’ suspicions about the ravine route proved correct. When they roused themselves in the morning and drifted into the closest pub for a hot breakfast, she found that there were around two dozen travelers just like herself who were preparing to make the same journey.
They took bowls of savory rice porridge at the end of a long communal table. Riss took a bite of the thick, glutinous stuff and tried to pick out all the fillings by flavor: two types of onion, some sort of nutty tasting root, and of course the sticky yolk of the soft-fried egg on top. After days of road food, the meal was a welcome luxury.
Adal found a stumpy, scar-faced woman further down their table and introduced her to Riss as a caravan master.
“Her folk are heading the same way as us,” he said to Riss. Then to his new friend, he said, “I thought I’d see how you felt about caravaning together.”
“Safety in numbers,” the woman said through a thick Plateau accent. They flattened all their vowels in the plateau up past Carbec, pronouncing every sound like an ‘e.’
Riss scratched at an eye, digging sleep grit out with her thumb. “I thought if those scorpions caught up to us numbers wouldn’t matter.”
The woman cocked a look up at her, unimpressed. “More dangers in the Flats than scorpions, Carbecer.”
Riss smiled a little. The Plateau region where this caravan boss hailed from, it wasn’t far from the steppes where she’d grown up. Just that tiny thread of familiarity was enough to put Riss at ease regarding the prospect of traveling together. Besides, the more practical and paranoid part of her reasoned, if they try to jump us, it’s their funeral.
“How many tagging along with you?” Riss relaxed her speech a little, let her hometown roughen up her syllables.
“Six,” said the woman. “Two outriders on horseback, the rest of us in our wagon. All family. Big, fast horses. But we’ll pace them so we don’t outrun you.” A wink flashed in the depths of her squinty, pox-scarred face.
They spat and shook on it, then Riss turned her focus toward finishing her porridge before it cooled. Nobody liked a cold fried egg.
Everyone who set off from Esilio that morning took slightly different routes. The Beddo clan, whose names Riss was struggling to keep straight due to the hurried nature of their introduction, were the only ones who stuck close by. Every mile or so, more riders peeled off on their own routes. After a few hours’ travel, the Beddos’ small trader wagon before them was their only company.
Riss, currently playing navigator while Adal steered the lizard, took a sip from her canteen.
“I still feel weird about this,” she admitted. “But if all these other travelers are chancing it, we aren’t risking ourselves unnecessarily.” Not that large groups of people couldn’t make stupid decisions. Far from it, in Riss’ experience. But these were locals, people who knew the route. The elder Beddo woman, Mosz, had placated her worries with a dismissive grunt. In a rig like that? With lizard that size? You’ll get to the ravine a full day before any danger.
Riss found that if she listened to her gut, she felt quietly confident. And unlike their last excursion far from home, self-doubt no longer plagued her every thought. In the year since Adelheim, she’d cultivated a wary, callused sort of confidence.
“Feeling weird is natural,” Adal said, echoing her thoughts even as she thought them. “You’re in unfamiliar territory traveling with strangers. Frankly I’d be concerned if you felt indifferent.”
It was nice hearing horses again. The clop of their hooves on salt rose up from the compact, gaudy wagon ahead of them. As the sun cleared up over the ever-present haze of horizon dust, it glinted off the metallic paint splashed in curlicues along the wagon’s trim. Riss noted it had a fold-out panel up one side. Traveling merchant families like the Beddos, operating a family store out of the same wagon they lived in, had been a staple of Riss’ childhood. Over the years, the popularity of the profession had waned. As firearms grew cheaper and easier to use, their proliferation had caused a staggering rise in general banditry. Far, far easier to be a highwayman if you could just blast a hole in anyone who didn’t comply with you.
Anyone that old still running a trade wagon had seen some shit. Riss smiled a little to herself.
“They mention what they’re hauling?” she asked.
“Spirits, apparently. They’re distillers. Just made a delivery to Esilio.”
Wood creaked behind them. Riss heard a series of light, thumping footsteps wandering around on the roof, then the murmur of idle conversation.
“Say,” came Calay’s voice from above. “How will we actually know what to look for when keeping an eye out for scorpions? Can you even see scorpions from that far away?”
“That’s why I’ve got a spyglass,” Torcha answered. “I might even let you use it.”
“Well you’ll owe me a favor…”
Riss relaxed, pulling the sun-shade down so that it fully shielded her. High sun in the Flats was going to be brutal. But for now, the morning was shaping up to be a damn nice one.
Tempting as it was to push on through the night, the Beddos’ horses didn’t have the stamina. Riss wondered for a moment if it was at all feasible to park the smaller wagon and its team inside her war-wagon–she was fairly certain it would fit in the cargo hold–but in the end, that sounded like a lot of work. When she suggested the idea to Mosz, the elderly woman just laughed. She promised Riss they had plenty of time.
“Besides,” she said. “Surely your eyes are getting tired. You deserve rest as much as any horse.”
Riss had to concede that.
So they circled their wagons, as best as two wagons could form a circle. One of the younger Beddos built a bonfire; Gaz and Adal sorted out contributions to a group meal: boiled sweet potatoes and venison shanks with gravy. Afterward, they got a bread pudding cooking. Adal was certain they had just enough milk left over for a caramel sauce, but he wasn’t entirely sure he remembered how to make it. Riss chuckled as she listened to him recite the recipe, mumbling under his breath while sorting through tins and boxes.
“Surprised you can cook anything at all,” Calay teased him. “Wasn’t that a job for your servants?”
Adal rolled his eyes. “I’ll have you know I’ve been living on my own for over a third of my life, thank you.”
Riss relaxed back, looking up at the stars. There were fewer visible than she thought there would be, given the lack of city light. That ever-present haze of salty dust made visibility difficult the further off one looked. Sure didn’t seem like a rainy season was coming or going. Everything was dry as a bone. From where she lounged in her sling-chair, she reached down with two fingers and felt at the salty ground.
“Pretty wild, ain’t it.” Torcha noticed what she was doing. She tapped the heel of a boot against the salty earth.
“Especially when you consider how expensive salt is up-Continent,” said Riss. “We’d make millions in Vasile if we hacked a bunch of this up and carted it northward.”
Someone made a quiet noise of disagreement. Mosz stomped up behind them, sorting through the contents of a carrying sling she wore over her shoulder.
“Not quite,” she said. “This isn’t good eating salt. Eating salt comes from mines to the north.”
“What’s the difference?” asked Riss. She’d never given salt a second thought beyond using it to cure meats back home when she and her father had killed more than two people could eat or trade.
“Colour,” said Mosz. “And… the salt from the Flats here, sometimes kills you if you eat it.”
Riss blinked hard. “Huh.” Well, that was good to know.
“How?” asked Torcha, turning so that she could give the old woman her full attention.
“You figure that out,” Mosz said, “that’s when you make millions in Vasile. Nobody knows. Years and years ago, stories said it was a curse. But if a curse, it’s a sloppy one. A curse who targets people at random? Lazy curse.”
Riss had to admit she was interested, too. Her childhood had been so isolated, just she and her father off in the plains and later the woods. She’d missed out on all the folklore that lingered in the hills outside Carbec. Apart from people saying his name in passing profanity, she’d never even heard of Adal’s river god until she was in her twenties.
“What kind of stories?” She flashed Mosz a little grin. “Even if you don’t believe them, there’s always a skeleton of truth in those old tales, isn’t there?”
Mosz dragged her chair closer to the fire. She shrugged off her outer two layers, shaking out the baggy dress she wore beneath. Despite the sunspots upon her skin and her evident age, her arms were still wiry with muscle when she rolled up her sleeves. She checked the heavy iron oven within the coals, a sweet custard-and-caramel smell wafting out when she opened it.
“Was a time when I charged hard coin for storytelling,” she said.
Riss patted the coinpurse at her hip. “If you have any bottles of your wares left over after the drop at Esilio,” she said. “We’d take them off your hands. Perhaps you could throw a story or two in as an extra?”
“Cheeky,” said Mosz.
But that must have done the trick, because a moment later she beckoned everyone around the fire.
And oh, it had been a while since Riss had sat around a fire and heard a real, salt-and-blood elder tell a story. Growing up out where she had, so far removed from both her father and her mother’s families, she’d missed out on such experiences. Later, when she made passing friends in the closest village to her homestead, she’d heard their second and thirdhand accounts, the stories and legends and traditions their families had passed on. It had always left her wanting, aching in a sad strange way for something she couldn’t quite articulate. She wondered if she’d missed out on a fundamental part of growing up.
Perhaps that was why she’d gravitated toward books.
Why she’d gravitated toward Gaspard, an old soldier brimming with stories who wasn’t too aloof to share them with the greenhorns.
Leaning forward in her sling-seat, Riss watched fire and shadow lick across Mosz’s face as she wove her tale. Her voice dropped low during the story’s valleys, rose high during its peaks.
Soon, every member of the caravan was leaning forward on the edge of their seat, hanging on the old woman’s every word.