As the rain started falling, Katherine changed our course again, angling westward. We soon encountered a road, and rather than dash across it to duck furtively into the vegetation on the far side, this time Katherine was content to turn and follow it west, and up. The road wound painfully upward, deep ruts and exposed rocks telling a story of heavy wagons and poor maintenance. I knew that road; we would be arriving in the charming town of Mountain Hole before sunset. Katherine had managed to cajole us farther north than I had realized. It was even possible we had outpaced the news of Baron Rothfork’s untimely death. Up here, folks were actively apathetic concerning petty squabbles among the wealthy families to the south.
We hadn’t spoken much before, the three of us, but once the rain came we plodded in silence, each of us wrapped up in our own personal misery. We marched, Katherine in front, Bags in the middle, and me staring at Bags’ rain-sodden ass mile after mile. The trees became sparser and shorter as we climbed. The wind kicked up and drove the raindrops under the brim of my hat, a thousand icy needles stinging my skin. I pulled the hood of my cloak over my hat, but before long I could not tolerate the loss of peripheral vision. Old habits.
Around lunchtime we stood to the side of the road while an ox-driven cart lumbered past, the weary planks of its bed groaning under ingots of tin. The cart drivers spared us little more than a glance as they worked with the gaunt beasts to keep the cart from running away down the hill. The two men each wore broad-brimmed hats to keep the rain off their drawn and weary faces. One of the men held an axe in hands blackened with grime, as if that might deter would-be thieves from stealing his load.
Rivulets ran down each deep rut as we continued up. Later that afternoon we passed a timber camp, where a handful of men attacked a fallen tree with saws, while others stood in the shelter of a pine and watched the work without comment. Not long after that I found myself starting at the back of a wagon hauling firewood up to the town. Food for the smelter. The bearded, gray-skinned driver made no effort to allow us to pass, so for a mile we matched the plodding pace of the ox team until there was room at the side of the road for us to slip by. Bags’ friendly hello to the driver went unanswered.
A sharp bend in the road, a climb and anther turn, and we found ourselves on the outskirts of Mountain Hole. Civilization at last.
The town of Mountain Hole is a squat stone blister on the side of a gray and gloomy mountain, habitable only because shit runs downhill. Its three hundred or so inhabitants, mostly male, are there to extract meager wealth from the stone, and for little else. But where there are men with money there will always be alcohol, and where there is alcohol and money there will be gambling. A truth as eternal as the stones under out feet. The alcohol would be watered and the games would be rigged, but those are problems a resourceful man can manage.
We slogged into town through steady rain, the gray mud sucking at our feet adding to the effort of our climb. I had long since given up trying to keep the moisture from permeating my clothes, my skin, even my bones. My cloak weighed twice what it usually did and my trousers chafed my thighs. My feet had swollen up in my shoes and threatened to burst the worn leather. I was looking forward to having a roof over my head.
Katherine stopped before reaching the first stone hovel at the edge of town and waited for us to pull up next to her. “They may know about Rothfork’s murder.” Even now she referred to him as if he had been a stranger. “There may be a bounty on us. If there is, it won’t be long before someone tries to collect it.”
At that point, I would have taken a cell in the deepest dungeon over more rain. Still, it’s important to remain pragmatic when running for your life. “Will there be time to get drunk first?” I asked.
Kat snorted as if I’d told a joke. “Just be alert. The baron was not well-liked here, so I’m hopeful we can find friends.”
I looked up the muddy lane flanked by low stone structures, their granite walls dark with the rain, slate rooftops smeared with green moss, windows shuttered with warping boards. There was no attempt at decoration, no paint, no indication that the tired men living within those walls were even human. Smoke rose from chimneys only to surrender and roll back down to the ground, adding to the heavy mist, and giving the town a ghost-like cast. Rain fell in fat, greasy drops, tainted by the smoke of the smelters even before it touched the ground. I questioned the value of any “friend” we might find there, but I knew enough to keep that thought to myself.
I looked farther up the lane to where the buildings became larger, more permanent-looking. One of those would have booze, a fire, and other entertainment. I started walking. “Speaking personally,” I said, “I’ve never heard of Baron Whosifuck. I just want a drink.”
“We’re in this together,” Kat said.
I stopped, turned, and regarded her. “No,” I said. “We’re not. An asshole is dead. We all agree that’s a good thing. But that’s done now and the next step is to not be killed just because some rich bastard got his throat cut. I promised Bags a new shirt, and he’ll get one. But first I’m going to get warm, get dry, eat a hot meal, and try not to get stabbed for playing dice better than the locals. None of those things require your participation.”
She looked like I had taken her favorite toy away. “You don’t understand.”
“Actually, Kat, I do understand. Better than you do, I think.”
“There’s something we need to talk about.”
“Kat. Katherine. You are part of something large. Perhaps you think you are going to change the world. You wish to tell me about it. You want my help. Am I right?”
She shifted her feet in the muck and scowled at me. She could be the queen of scowlers. “There’s more to it than that.”
“There is not,” I said. “My family has a long tradition of staying far away from politics, and that tradition has always done us well.” She started to speak but I held up my hand. “Dry yourselves out, reprovision, and move on. I have business to conduct here.”
Katherine snorted and showed her teeth in an expression that only vaguely resembled a smile. “What business?”
“I already told you,” I said. “Goodbye, Kat.”
Bags raised his big hand in a gesture somewhere between a wave and a salute and gave me his gap-toothed grin. “See you later then,” he said.
I raised my own hand. “Let’s go find the blacksmith of this shithole after lunch tomorrow.”
He smiled. “You’ll still have some money then?”
“I’ll run out of welcome long before I run out of money in a town like this,” I said.
“Well, try not to get killed before tomorrow.”
“We’ll be staying in the same place,” I said. “I’ll leave it to you to keep me alive.” With that I turned and trudged up the road into town. I heard Bags and Kat exchanging words behind me, her voice angry, his calm and even, but I chose not to hear what they said. There was nothing she could say that had not been said about me many times before.