©2022 Michael Raven
This is a bit of an impromptu test run riffing off of what I had described in last night’s post. Completely off the cuff with zero preplanning. When I started this, I had no clue there was a kid involved, let alone how it would all shake out. Complete improv.
There was mud everywhere, just like every other cheap shithole village found in the borderlands. Mud and manure.
Striding down what passed for a main street, often the only thoroughfare in these dumps, Ash counted the other common elements as she passed each of them by in turn. There was a ramshackle whorehouse, silent only because the day was still too young for clientele and, hell, even working girls needed to sleep sometime. Between that, and the repurposed wood used to build a church to one god or another, was a dry goods and general store, ostensibly protecting the two cornerstones of the community from the influence of each other, in dire need of a new coat of whitewash to mask, or accentuate, the mud that permeated the village. That was quiet too, although it should have been bustling now that the sun had eclipsed the foothills behind the town.
She’s seen the drunk shirking whatever work he was supposed to be doing at the edge of town as she crested the foothills just before the sun. He must have sobered up when he caught sight of her gae bolg and ran to warn the others of her coming. He needn’t have bothered. She had no designs on this place other than to refill her water skins before moving on, maybe ask a few pointed questions about her quarry — but she had no intention of demanding her due, although she knew other Walkers who would just because they could and the villagers were kindly pay up if it was so demanded. And… the Covenant did so demand.
And so, the place had become a ghost town based on the frantic cries of a lazy drunkard, although they’d come out, however reluctantly, were she to say the words loud enough for them to hear, although the young men and women would remain in the shadows until she passed. Or demanded their presence as well.
Like everywhere else, the bar opposite the church was deadly silent, although that should have been as busy or more than the general goods store. There was always someone needing a drink or a hand of Sheckles. As she started pumping the well in the center of town, Ash wondered if it might not be worth at least a visit there to see what kind of information she could drum up, however useless it always seemed to be for this job.
Rusty water soon poured out of the pump, adding to the filth an mud of the village, but quickly ran clear. She dipped her hand into the stream and brought it to her nose to smell. It smelled potable enough, but she tasted what was in her cupped hand before it ran through her fingers to be sure. It tasted fine, better than she’d expected and hoped for, and refreshing cold in contrast to the growing heat of the newborn day. She started to fill her bags.
“You a Walker?”
The voice startled her, nearly causing her to drop her water bag in the mud. She’d let herself get complacent just because the town didn’t seem threatening. She would not make that mistake again.
She looked over at the kid of indeterminate gender sitting on a rail meant to add decoration to the water pump. It hadn’t done anything to improve the looks of the place. Ash nodded. She wasn’t one to talk when a silent gesture would suffice.
“You’re following the Wolf, aincha?”
Ash’s eyes widened. She struggled to keep her voice low and not rush the kid and start shaking them, demanding what they knew. “I am,” she said, her voice rough from disuse all of these days on the Path.
“Well, he ain’t here no more,” the kid explained in a matter-of-fact manner. “Been gone ’bout three weeks now, but when I saw him, I thought to myself that he was the type to be attracting the likes of Walkers, so I kept an eye on him.”
“What can you tell me about the Wolf? What did he do while he was here? Which direction did he head after he left?”
The kid crossed their arms in front of their chest. “I can tell you all kinds of things about that Wolf,” they said. “But, it’s gonna cost ya.”
Ash could have demanded the information for free, as was her right, but she understood the kid’s motivation. Children had become the refuse of this world, an afterthought of accident. He or she probably didn’t have a home nor hearth and was, as like as not, starving. The child certainly had no excess fat to spare.
Ash dug into her pocket for the coin she kept when even custom was not enough to ensure she had everything she might need as she carried out her duties.
The child waved away the imminent gesture of payment. “Nah. I donna want your gold. Someone would just kick me down and take it as soon as your back was turned and you was walking outta town.”
Ash raised an eyebrow in query.
“I’ll tell you what you want to know, but you gotta do something for me that canna be taken away.”
When Ash remained silent and didn’t ask the obvious question, the kid became impatient and blurted it out.
“I wanna become your apprentice. You Walkers do that, right? I need you to apprentice me. I need to get outta this town before the town gits me.”
“But… I don’t want an apprentice…,” Ash explained. “Or need one.”
The kid spat in the mud and turned away. “Fuck you sideways, then. You can find the Wolf on your own, without my help.”
“Wait,” Ash said.
The kid turned on their heel. “It is the only fee I’ll be accepting. Take it or leave it. And may the fey bite you at night if you think you can get my information and leave me behind. Cos, you agree, and I’ll hold you to that agreement. Because Walkers always honor their obligations, right?”
Ash nodded. Indeed, that was also part of the Covenant and the Code.
“I’ll take you on as an apprentice until we can get you to York, where they can train you properly. The road is not the best place to train and I’ve almost no skill at training anyone. Will that work?”
“Deal,” said the kid, looking over at the shadows that couldn’t just sit still behind the batwing doors of the bar. Let’s get you a drink and I’ll tell you everything you need to know.”
“I’m not buying you alcohol, kid.”
“An’ Justin wouldn’t serve any to me unless you made him. This town is a shithole, but it doesn’t serve booze to kids.”
Ash nodded with her head towards the bar. “Lead the way.”