Calay’s hackles rose as he stepped into the vaulted hall of the castle. Though the reddish blocks that comprised it resembled nothing of the cold, ancient grey of the Vasa dungeons, the walls evoked a similar sensation. Thick, insulating. The type of walls designed to keep a man in or keep his screams contained. He kept his ruined arm tucked carefully within the folds of his duster as the attendant led them to their rooms.
Riss and Adal disappeared into theirs almost immediately. Torcha started some sort of scuffle with one of the servants.
Cracking the door of his room, Calay surveyed it from the hall. His stomach had that leaden quality to it, the way it felt when he was certain he was walking into a trap. Was there something to be wary of here–beside the usual? Was he picking up on some subconscious warning, or had the swamp gotten his reflexes all haywire?
He stepped into his room long enough to survey the furnishings. Timber bed. Wardrobe. Shelves. Wash basin. Low dresser. A high-arched window that overlooked the courtyard. The room was by no means a cell, but once he was inside it felt like one.
The basin was empty, but he couldn’t stand the thought of waiting for the Baron’s servants to draw a bath. So he emptied his canteen and waterskin inside. Shallow, but enough. Beside the basin sat a couple folded towels and small pressed bars of soap, a pattern of creeping ivy embossed upon their surface. He made a mental note to nick those later. Soap like that was expensive, good for barter on the road.
He wet a cloth and scrubbed at his face, awkwardly grasping with both hands before he remembered to keep his right hand clear of his eyes. The sharp, malignant growths that jutted from his arm now resembled more or less a hand, though with spikes of bark upon the knuckles and blades of fresh white bone where fingers should have been. He stared at it dumbly for a moment.
That thing was going to be attached to him for the rest of his life?
It was awkward, working up a lather with his one good hand, but he managed it. He washed his face, scrubbed the flakes of blood from his neck. By the time he’d finished drying his face, Gaz was standing in the doorway to his chambers.
Calay looked to him in the mirror’s reflection, eyebrows lifting. “Yes?”
Gaz lifted a shallow shrug. “Seeing how you were doing.”
Calay rubbed his jaw with a knuckle, consulting his own reflection. His eyes seemed deeper-set than they’d been just two weeks ago. His brow seemed permanently tensed. Several days of scruff darkened his cheeks and jaw in unkempt patches. He wasn’t sure what to say on the subject of how he was doing.
Sweeping a hand through his hair, he stepped away from the mirror, finding its contents thoroughly depressing.
“I don’t… I don’t think I can stay here, mate.” Fingers dragging down his face, he breathed out hard and tried to shake off those nervous shivers. He hated it when Gaz saw him like this. Better Gaz than the others, but better nobody at all. “I think I’m gonna head back to the bunkhouse.”
Gaz gave a doubtful grunt. “I don’t think that’s a good idea.”
“It’s stifling in here.” Calay looked toward the window, peering through the bubbled, half-opaque glass. “Too much like the cells.”
Lifting a hand, Gaz gestured to his right shoulder, then made a little sweeping movement. “At least in here nobody’s going to be asking you about that. Big risk, sleeping in a public house with that hanging off you.”
Anger sparked in him like when flint struck steel. He ground his jaw. Gaz was right. He knew Gaz was right. As always, he was ever the mindful presence, an eye trained toward their long-term survival.
“What if they mean to hand us over?” he asked. “Or if we draw suspicion?”
Gaz levelled a look at him. Calay got the distinct impression that he wasn’t buying any of that bullshit.
“If that was the case, the bunkhouse wouldn’t be safe. Baron Tarn owns this whole town. If his people come after us, you won’t be any safer at the pub.”
Calay knew that too. But he couldn’t just relent. Couldn’t relent. The slow-stirring restlessness in his body was building like steam in a kettle. He was the boy who’d dragged himself to Alfend Linten’s doorstep again and again, each time more broken than the last, because he did not know when to lie down and admit enough was enough.
“Fine,” he spat. “I’ll sleep here. But I won’t relax here.” He heaved his satchel up, slung it over his shoulder. Adjusting the strap so that it pinned his ruined arm to his chest, he carefully straightened the drape of his duster. “I’m going out for a drink.”
“Dressed like that?” Gaz hadn’t budged from the doorway, intent on making an obstacle of himself.
Calay glanced himself over. Caked-on mud and flaking gore and strange-smelling ichors had become the new normal. He looked like shit, but he felt like shit so surely there wasn’t anything wrong.
“Here.” Gaz’s voice was gentle. He stepped in and held out a hand. “Let me.”
He wanted to object. Wanted to give the man a fight. But he was being sensible again. Even if the peasants never saw a glimpse of his arm, his appearance alone would warrant questions. Obediently, he stayed put while Gaz lifted the strap of his satchel off, then eased the duster down off his shoulders. He felt lighter without it, but also exposed.
Gaz sorted through his bag and found a shirt that was marginally less filthy. He tossed it to Calay, who caught it against his chest. He changed, then sat still as Gaz unpacked some lengths of bandage from the satchel and wrapped his right arm up and out of sight. He couldn’t help but notice Gaz was careful not to touch it, mindful of the bark, securing it away from view. They fashioned a simple sling out of some rags, and Calay adjusted it around his neck, trying it out.
“There.” Gaz seemed content enough with his work. “Now you’re just an old soldier returned from the road, with all the same wounds all the other ones got.”
Calay thinned his lips, not thrilled with that description. “Good idea,” he said. “Thanks.”
“I still think a bath would be helpful, especially before hitting the town.”
“I think I’ll take mine just before bed,” Calay said. “I like the idea of falling asleep clean.”
Which was true, but it wasn’t the whole story. He wanted nothing to do with his arm at the moment. Or his sunken, tired face. He felt unfamiliar in his own skin. He didn’t want to look at himself.
A knock came from the other side of the door. One of the Baron’s servants informed them the water was ready. Gaz cast a questioning look to the door, then back to Calay.
“I’ll be all right.” Calay squared his shoulders, snapping up his coinpurse from his bag. “You enjoy your bath. You’ve earned it. I’m sure you’ll find me.”
Visible hesitation pinned Gaz to the doorway for a moment, his hand lingering on the frame. But he nodded and slipped off, too enchanted by the prospect of a hot bath to argue. Calay couldn’t blame him. On another day, were horrifying things not growing out of his body, he’d have shared the sentiment.
Instead he took leave of the Baron’s big, expensive jail and strolled down the hill, intent on obliterating himself.
The village that held it may have been a speck on the map, but Adelheim’s public house was a structure Calay approved of. It looked older than the rest of the buildings, he reckoned. Its hearthstones were dark grey, and much of the clay was too, unlike the red stuff that composed most of the recent construction. That was life, wasn’t it. Layering new crap atop old ruins.
He was on his second drink and already navel-gazing about the architecture. Boy, the local spirits didn’t kid around. Alongside the usual ales and ports and a rancid-smelling cider, the pub served a sweet potato vodka that Calay found agreeable. It went down butter-smooth with a hint of lingering sweetness, very little burn.
Slouched at the bar, he immersed himself in the sound of background noise. Human chitchat, the crackle in the hearth, dice rattling on a back table, glasses thunking onto wooden tables. After so long in that dreary, silent swamp, this was what he needed: the everyday mundane noise of humans existing as a crowd. A reminder that the world was still out there, waiting for him to step back into it.
Sometimes, on the road, it was easy to forget that. Vasile felt far away, and with it the crew they’d lost. Sylvene, Nesdin, Karcey. He wondered if they’d found a new normal yet. If they’d achieved a new business-as-usual in his absence. He hoped so.
“Another one of these, my good man,” he said, sliding his cup across. The barkeep snatched a bottle off a high shelf and topped him up.
Calay felt eyes on him. He rolled his shoulders, peering down the length of the bar. He had empty stools to either side, but a few stools down, a big grizzled man in dingy wool was giving him the shit-eye.
Tilting his chin, Calay sipped from his refill, making pointed eye contact with the stranger. At first, his mind leapt in paranoid directions: bounty hunter? Agent of the Leycenate? But he didn’t look either type. Too ill-equipped. Too old.
“Problem, pal?” Normally he’d keep his head down, try to maintain a low profile. But that prowling restlessness itching in his gut was getting tempting.
“Interesting accent you’ve got,” said the old-timer, still staring. And ah, was that all it was. Geographical post-war cock-waving.
“Boy,” he said, “nothing gets past you, does it.”
The old man drowned his tankard, then sniffed, regarding Calay through bloodshot eyes.
“Big words from a little man with a broken arm.”
So that was how it was going to be, then. Calay too downed his drink, which burned when gulped so quickly. He slammed it down on the bar and swivelled to face the ornery peasant with a sharp, eager grin.
“Yeah, if I broke the other it might be a fair fight.”
Shooting up to his feet, the old-timer almost knocked his stool sideways. He rolled up the cuffs of his dirty undershirt, taking a menacing step forward. The barkeep said something in a pleading tone, but Calay didn’t hear it. He was spoiling for a fight and a bit of collateral damage wasn’t about to stop him.
The old man had burly, bearlike shoulders, and he swung a massive fist straight for Calay’s face. Feinting back, Calay evaded the slow strike easily, though he stumbled a bit and had to re-orient his feet. He was drunker than he thought. It was a quick adjustment, though.
Spinning back to face him, the old man hunched down, readying himself. Calay leaned his weight in through his toes, beckoning him forward. Eager murmurs rose up from the crowd. A couple patrons slunk off, not wanting to get involved, but those seated at their tables straightened up for a better view.
Calay was gonna give ‘em a show, all right. He flexed the fingers of his good hand, mindful not to move his bad arm beneath the bandages.
When the old man charged, Calay leapt in to meet him this time. He watched for the telltale twitch of muscle, the betrayal of the strike as telegraphed by the shoulders. Kella had taught him to always watch the shoulders and the feet, and while he couldn’t say the Captain of the House Talvace guard was a career bar-brawler, surely the principles were the same.
A fist sailed past his face. Calay leapt in and drove his fist into the old man’s stomach, connecting solidly. He couldn’t quite peel back as quick as he wanted, though, and took a glancing blow on the temple for his trouble.
It felt great, though. He felt like a kettle at full boil. Something had to release all that steam.
The backs of his calves bumped up against the overturned barstool. He glanced down for a moment, had to duck another swipe. Gods, the oldster was almost out of breath already. Calay had hoped it would all last a little longer.
With a whoop and a howl that was more excited than it was aggressive, he threw himself at the man in earnest. He jabbed with his left hand, missed, but connected with his elbow on the way back. Crowding his opponent up against the bar, Calay drew back and aimed an uppercut at his chin. He was just a little too slow though, all that sweet potato softening his edge. He leaned too far forward, fell, and was rewarded with a strange and splintering crash that exploded against the side of his face.
A moment after the sound exploded, pain exploded also, flaring up his face and momentarily blanking his vision. He felt frothy beer trickling down his hair and jacket. Touched his face, felt blood. When his eyes refocused, he caught the guilty party: the barkeep himself, still clutching the handle of the mug he’d shattered on Calay’s face.
“That’s hardly fair–” he started to say, but then the old man was on him, grabbing him by the back of his neck. He tried to haul Calay back, but Calay spun and wriggled free of his grasp.
He slugged the old man straight in the nose, felt it give beneath his hand with a satisfying crunch. Then a roar rose up from the crowd, who pressed in closer now, and a whole other fist belonging to some whole other bloke collided with his eye. Gasping, Calay staggered back, clutching his face in one hand.
“Fucksake,” he growled through his fingers.
When he lifted his head, the lamplight trailed funny little streaks. He blinked hard, couldn’t quite focus. It was more than just the vodka this time.
He only just noticed that he’d knocked the old man to the floor, where he was currently propped up in the arms of a much younger man who tended his gushing nose with a rag.
Calay’s pulse throbbed in his ears. He wanted to dive back in, wanted to keep going, wanted to tear through this pack of fuckers like a bullet through a deer. But when he clenched his fist anew, he hesitated.
“I reckon that’s enough,” said a voice at his back. “You’ve made your point.”
Calay glanced over his shoulder without turning all the way around. He wasn’t surprised by the presence of the pistol in the barkeep’s hand. His eyes lingered on the barrel for a moment. He recalled how badly it had gone the last time someone had aimed one of those on him at gut level.
Shoulders stiffening, Calay raised his good hand and stepped away from the bar.
“He started it,” he couldn’t help but say as he stepped over the toppled barstool and out toward the door.
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