We camped early tonight because we found a place where this river—more of a stream, I guess—runs through a copse of trees near the road, and we were still so tired we decided it was better to stop here than to push on until nightfall and risk not finding anywhere good. The fire is so comfortable, and I’m full, and I wish all of that physical comfort meant emotional comfort too, but I’m still not sure we made the best choice last night, and that’s not a good feeling.
I wish I had Jeddan’s confidence. Once he’s made a decision and acted on it, he doesn’t keep revisiting it and worrying he did the wrong thing. When he frets, it’s about much more serious, life-altering things, like death. Me, I can’t stop thinking about possibilities—like, what would have happened if I’d chosen differently, or how can I analyze a situation to know whether this decision would be right in other circumstances. I have to live with the consequences of my actions, and I’m fine with that, but I’m always looking to a future in which I’ll have to choose again, and worrying I won’t learn from my mistakes. Especially when those mistakes hurt other people.
But I keep getting ahead of myself. I think it’s because, by the time I get to writing, since all the events are in the past it’s hard for me not to look over them and make conclusions and think about what it all means. And that’s interesting, but I wonder if it doesn’t color the “story” I’m telling in these pages.
So this begins early yesterday morning, when we started before the sun had fully risen so we’d have plenty of time to explore Hasskian and work out a real plan that wasn’t “let’s see what happens,” which is my least favorite kind of plan.
We passed a still-sleeping Balaenic village that lay right on the Royal Road, then made the turn that leads to Hasskian, which is about ten miles off the main road. There’s another town—small city, really—called Debressken near that junction, and we were nearing it when Jeddan said, “That’s a Castaviran town over there.” He pointed, and I saw the distinctive pointed roofs off to one side, maybe a mile away from Debressken to the south. It also looked very quiet.
“I think we should visit them,” I said. “See how they’ve fared. I don’t like how close they are to these towns.”
Jeddan nodded, and we set off across the fields—not cultivated fields but the untamed lands between towns, full of tall, dry grass and small animal burrows. It was going to snow soon, which made everything dim even though there was a small bright spot to the east where the sun was peeking over the horizon, showing Hasskian, even at that distance, as a black blob low to the ground. Our footsteps swishing through the dead grass were the only noises anywhere.
“Don’t you think we should hear people waking up now?” Jeddan said.
“Yes,” I said, and started walking more quickly. Jeddan sped up as well. We reached the first of the outbuildings, a barn, and looked inside. It was fully stocked with bales of hay, and fitted with the pails and other necessities of a dairy farm, but there were no cows, nothing living at all. It was eerie.
We turned around and went toward the farmhouse, where the back door hung ajar and swung slightly in the cold wind blowing a storm toward us. After exchanging glances, I pushed the door open and we went inside.
It had been ransacked. The kitchen we entered was strewn with pottery shards, drifts of flour and sugar lay across the floor, chairs were knocked over, and the tablecloth was puddled on the floor beneath the table. The fear choking me subsided when I realized there were no bodies, but there were so many other rooms… Jeddan and I spread out and searched the house. Everything had been torn apart. There were no bodies, and no living creatures anywhere.
“I wonder where they went,” Jeddan said, stopping just inside the front door, which had been smashed. He scanned the ground. “A lot of people came through here, not that that’s news. But I can’t see any indication of people being dragged away. And only two or three people other than us went out the back.”
“They had to go somewhere,” I said.
“I’m just saying I can’t tell where that is,” Jeddan said. He went through the door and stood for a moment, looking toward the rest of the town. “Do you want to look further?”
“I think we have to,” I said.
I wish we hadn’t. We found the first bodies, all men, about a hundred yards from the farmhouse. They’d been dead for a while—Jeddan said probably a week. I don’t want to know what he’s seen that he knows that so precisely. There weren’t many bodies, but we didn’t look very hard for them.
It didn’t take long for us to establish what had happened: the town had been raided, the villagers and their livestock rounded up and taken somewhere, those who fought back were killed. We both agreed it was likely soldiers had done this, Jeddan based on the nature of the dead people’s wounds, me because I’ve seen mobs and I’ve seen raids and I can tell what kind of damage is caused by which. I wish that weren’t true.
It sickens me that the Balaenics just left the bodies there to rot. They saw the Castavirans as enemies, true, but that was like they didn’t think they were human. I have to stop thinking about it if I want to keep my meal down.
After about an hour we’d had our fill of the destruction and decided to move on, since there was nothing we could do. We were both depressed, I think, and I felt nauseated by all the death, so we decided we’d move through Debressken as quickly as possible so we could finish our business in Hasskian and move on.
It only took a few minutes for that plan to go to hell. It was full light when we left that ransacked village, and we were no longer the only travelers on the Hasskian road. No one we passed seemed inclined to speak; most of them kept their heads down and ignored us. Or maybe they were just huddled up against the cold. Either way, it’s not that unusual for travelers to keep to themselves, because you never know if the person who wants to be friendly is actually looking for a victim. And we were just as happy not to talk to anyone.
So it was surprising when we were hailed in a very unfriendly voice and told to stop where we were. I hadn’t really been paying attention—was hunched into my coat like everyone else, blinking away the tiny cold motes of snow that were beginning to blow into my face—so when I looked up I was surprised to see an armed guard pointing in our direction. Another guard had accosted one of our fellow travelers and had a sword, not military issue, held in a way that suggested violence was definitely an option.
to be continued…