- 26a (Argentum’s Song – PG)
Chapter Twenty Six
Martha fought back another coughing attack as her lungs laboured to provide her with enough air. They had a lower capacity ever since the Argentum had burned the virus out of her and she really hoped they weren’t permanently scarred. The muzzle on her mouth certainly didn’t make breathing any easier. She had found it nearly impossible to maintain the pace the two barbarian Warriors insisted on, while also breaking the trail and leading the way back to the mine. So, when she stumbled upon the goat trail leading in the same general direction as she had been heading, she gladly veered slightly North to follow it and to lessen the demand on her lungs. After all, her mental map was only guesswork really, based on the few fragments of information she had collected the two times she had gone outside the mine. It was entirely possible this trail was leading in a more helpful direction than the initial one she had guessed. Either way, her best chance to keep Bildad from slitting her throat was to keep moving. Lead them somewhere. If he found out she didn’t know the exact location of the silver she wouldn’t put it past him to dispose of her and continue the search on his own.
Argent overtook her on the trail and called back to Bildad.
“Hey I recognize this path. Simon and I were camping just past those cedar before we split up. Maybe we could rest there for a few minutes while I gather up my gear.”
Bildad grunted his assent and Martha dropped to her knees when they arrived at a clearing with the remains of a camp in it. There was something familiar about this place, though she couldn’t put her finger on it. Frustrated she closed her eyes and concentrated only on drawing her next breath into her constricted airways, past the leather barrier frosted by her breath.
“My pack … it’s gone.”
Martha opened her eyes to the sight of Argent moving frantically around the camp.
“Could Simon have come back for it?”
“No … even if he had needed the other supplies he wouldn’t have taken Barwolfripper.”
“What on earth were you doing leaving a sword that valuable lying around abandoned in the camp?”
“This mountain is supposed to be uninhabited. I needed to move quick to track the runt weir. Besides it wasn’t that valuable anymore, it had broke in half.”
Bildad gave Argent an appraising look.
“And how did that happen?”
“It’s a long story.”
“We’ve got a long journey.”
“It’s my long story.”
“Fine, keep your secret for now. You’ll tell me as my apprentice after the infected has burned.”
Martha winced. She wasn’t sure she’d ever get used to being called an infected.
“Speaking of burned … I guess we better make a pyre for these weir-corpses. If someone raided your campsite that means that there are people around here and we can’t risk an epidemic, even if the inhabitants are thieves.”
- 26b (Argentum’s Song – PG)
Argent and Bildad set about building a huge bonfire. Eventually, Martha mustered the courage to look in detail at one of the corpses. She gasped, it was the same weir that had attacked her back at the mine. She stood up and hobbled over.
“Hey! Where do you think you are going?”
Martha spun to face Bildad who already had his scimitar half out of his sheath. With his other hand he pulled the muzzle down from her mouth, allowing her to to draw a less impeded breath.
“I was just looking.”
“You couldn’t look from where you were sitting?”
“It was just that … it just seemed strange … why are the hands mutilated like that?”
Argent dropped his gaze and looked closer at the corpses. Bildad readjusted Martha’s muzzle and then turned to the lanky boy and raised his eyebrow.
“I don’t know … they weren’t like this when I left.”
Bildad paced around the campsite once, examining each corpse.
“If I didn’t know better I’d say trophy hunters. But even a witchcrafting northern cultist wouldn’t take a trophy from another man’s kill. I don’t like it. I was considering staying here for the night in case your father came back. But this is strange. We press on as soon as we get these corpses burnt.”
Before long they were marching again. Martha was extremely grateful for the fur poncho Argent had draped over her. It almost made her feel guilty when she would catch him shake with the odd shiver beside her. However, she was kept from dwelling on it by the fact that she wasn’t sure how much further she would be able to make it herself before she collapsed from exhaustion. Then something she saw registered. She stopped and made a sound from behind her muzzle.
“Keep moving you two, we aren’t due for another break until morning.”
Martha ignored the elder barbarian and focused on catching the younger one’s attention.
“What is it?”
She nodded to her right and made another noise.
“What, I don’t understand.”
Martha just rolled her eyes and shook her head frustrated. Argent reached out and removed the gag.
“Hey put that back, she’s dangero-”
“I recognise this place. We’re almost there.”
Martha was gasping huge breaths through her newly freed mouth and Argent thankfully ignored Bildad and threw the muzzle away instead of replacing it.
Martha leaned into Argent for support and pushed them toward the right, in the direction of a cliff face jutting up above the tree tops. Bildad snorted, picked up the leather and replaced it on his arm as a bracer.
Argent pulled away from Martha a bit at these words. Martha didn’t know that she would act any differently in his shoes but she needed him strong right now. Her life was on the line and she couldn’t afford to have her only ally acting wishy washy. She set her face and pulled away from him as well.
- 26c (Argentum’s Song – PG)
They walked through some juniper and she caught the whiff of a rotting carcass and saw her soiled apron flapping gently in the breeze under her pile of forage.
“This is where I was ambushed.”
She walked with renewed energy, needing hardly any help from Argent at all. She had only been along this path a couple times before, but the circumstances of those times had burned it into her memory. Very shortly they were clearing the last of the foliage before the rock wall.
“Oh no …”
Martha’s new found strength gave out and she found herself allowing Argent to carry most of her weight yet again. A sudden gust of wind caused the open door in front of them to creak on it’s hinges revealing more of the crevasse behind it.
“What is it? Are we there?”
Bildad pushed past them and moved toward the door. Martha whispered to Argent and indicated some gouges in the ground with her chin.
“It’s gone … someone else has been here and taken it. Quick we’ve got to run!”
She moved to run but Argent stayed rooted were he was watching Bildad enter the mine alone. Without Argent’s support Martha stumbled on her wounded hip and fell. Argent looked down at her and whispered back.
“Bildad’s a True Warrior. There is no way we would be able to outrun him, certainly not with you barely able to walk. We just need to explain what happened and figure something else out.”
But that wasn’t the only reason Argent didn’t run. He broke eye contact with her and she was sure it had more to do with indecision. Bildad’s warnings had created doubt, Argent wasn’t sure Martha wasn’t just trying to trick him after all. It probably seemed a little too convenient that she wanted to pull him away as soon as they ‘arrived’ and Bildad was distracted. Still couldn’t he put himself in her shoes for a moment? Would any normal human be acting any different? Bildad had threatened to kill her, of course she wanted to get away from him. Bildad’s voice boomed from within the cave.
“I don’t see it anywhere, bring her here!”
Argent helped Martha back to her feet and she blinked as they moved into the relative darkness inside. Bildad grabbed Martha by her arm and pulled her roughly to the centre of the room.
Her eyes adjusted to the gloom and she saw the familiar bedrolls, now soiled and scattered about among mining gear, mess kits and shredded clothing. Argent bent down and picked up some of the mud in an area that seemed the most disturbed. He smelt it and then looked around the rough hewn cavern in more detail.
“So, where is it? Where is this chest full of silver treasure?”
Martha pointed her toe toward a furrow in the dirt near the ground and answered Bildad.
“Look for yourself. Clearly it’s been drug out of here by someone else.”
Bildad looked like he was about to let his anger burst out, but he stopped himself and took two breaths. Once calm, the warrior slowly drew his weapon. The Scimitar had a prismatic aura similar to Argent’s flute. This made it easier to see, but the look in Bildad’s eye convinced Martha it hadn’t been drawn for the purpose of illumination. She looked back to Argent only to see him watching helplessly.
“Killing you won’t make up for the loss of that silver, but at least it’s something.”
- 26d (Argentum’s Song – PG)
The savage with his naked sword took a step closer to her. Martha fought the temptaion to flinch and drew herself straighter. She was sick of the role of damsel in distress. Argent had a good heart, but really he was still just a boy and didn’t have what it took to stand up to Bildad’s personality long term. If she was going to have any chance to getting out of this alive. She was going to have to stand up for herself.
“Don’t be an idiot, I’m the last chance you have to get that silver. Without me you have no more claim to it than any other treasure hunter.”
Argent padded over to the two of them quietly.
“What do you mean?”
“Bildad knows what I mean. Now someone untie my hand and help me get a fire going so we can thaw out. We can work out the details once we’re warming up.”
Bildad closed the distance between them and held his weapon up so it illuminated his face.
“Now you just hold on. You agreed to take me to the silver. There is no silver here. You’ve broken your end of the deal. I am honour bound to kill you and you expect me to set you at large?”
Martha looked Bildad in the eye and mustered every ounce of confidence she could find. She prayed she was reading the Warrior right.
“Nonsense. You have no intention of killing me, not yet. Not now that you need me alive to get that silver. Your just trying to posture, to scare me, so you can get me to renegotiate our deal. If you really thought that silver was a lost cause you’d have run me through already. Now cut me free, you know you’ll have to once we reach Phoentown anyway.”
Bildad grimaced and brought the edge of his blade to her face.
“Don’t push me.”
Martha refused to back down. She had seen how Bildad had treated her when he viewed her as a victim, as a helpless case. The only path she saw was to try to get his respect. If she couldn’t get that as a human, she would have to earn it as an adversary. Finally, Bildad spun her around roughly and sliced the cord binding her wrist to her belt, nicking her as he did so.
“The treasure hunter’s finding fee is coming out of your half.”
Martha considered responding to that but decided that the fact she was still living was enough of a victory that she would let it slide. Bildad walked over to swing the door shut and Argent rushed to her side.
“What just happened?”
“Help me get a fire started first.”
Argent gathered an armful of wood from where the woodpile inside the door had collapsed into a jumble of logs and branches while Martha felt for the crack in the rock face where she had left the flint the last time she had worked in this kitchen.
“Standard law requires treasure hunters to register found treasure at a town and allow a full lunar cycle for claims to be made against it.”
Martha handed Argent the flint and watched as he expertly got a small fire burning in the fire pit. Then, glancing at Bildad, he whispered.
“I still don’t understand why he went for it. We already know that there are thieves in these mountains. Why would we expect them to follow the law?”
Martha made sure not to whisper her response.
“Even if it were a professional thief who took the chest, which I doubt, they would likely feel it was a safe bet that no claims would be made against it. I mean look around you. Would you believe that anyone could have survived this? Then, believing it was a sure thing, it would make more sense to register the treasure then to give a fence a cut from it for moving stolen goods. Isn’t that right Bildad?”
- 26e (Argentum’s Song – PG)
The man ignored her, searching through the cots, eventually finding one that still seemed usable. Then he sat down on it, ripped a sheet of paper from the tinker bound journal Earl had been so proud of, and scribbled furiously on it.
“And that is why Bildad needs me. With Walt dead, the only other people with a higher claim on the silver than a treasure hunter would be the people who had worked the mine.”
Martha coughed as her lungs protested the prolonged conversation and smoky air. But the warmth and rest was helping them recover, so it wasn’t long before she was able to finish her thought.
“The treasure hunter would still get a cut of course, but most of the silver will be ours.”
“You mean most of the silver will be mine. I’ll not escort you to Phoentown only to have you go back on our deal and try to keep the silver yourself. If you expect me to let you live long enough to try to quest, you’ll put your mark on this.”
Bildad walked over and thrust the paper, with his rough charcoal printing on it, into her hands. Martha squinted at it in the firelight. It was crudely worded but did a fair job of summarizing the deal they had worked out. With one major omission.
“This says nothing about the Warren.”
“Of course it doesn’t. The Warren’s a secret, I can hardly write about it on a legal document that may go into town records. You have my word sworn on Argentum and that will have to be good enough.”
Martha considered for a moment, then nodded.
“O.K. I’ll sign this as long as you add a spot for Argent to sign as a witness.”
Bildad took the paper back and made the change. Martha then added her name at the bottom with his stub of charcoal and watched as Argent made his ‘x’. Bildad took the paper back, laid another on top of it to reduce smudging, rolled it up and tucked it under his cloak.
“O.K. we rest here for a quarter of a watch then we head after the thief.”
Martha ignored Bildad and turned to Argent.
“Well I don’t know about you, but I’m exhausted. I certainly won’t be able to put in another day like this one without a good long sleep. Why don’t you go outside, fill this pot with some snow for boiling, and get those onions from the clearing. I’ll try to find out which if any of these potatoes are salvageable.”
“Ignore the weir and get some sleep. We’ll be on the road again soon.”
“Not without a good meal and a good nights sleep I won’t. I know that you’re trying to keep me off balance but it won’t work. We have a month to claim that treasure and even if you are concerned about catching up to the silver before it gets to town for some reason. We can move a lot faster than whoever is dragging that chest.”
“We don’t even know for sure where the thief is taking it! What am I doing wasting my breath on you, you’re a weir for Ferus’ sake.”
Argent looked torn between the two of them.
“What if … what if you scout the area and we stay here for the night and then catch up.”
“I can’t leave you here, alone with a weir who’s bewitched you … your father would kill me!”
“And you can’t kill this innocent girl either as you need me alive to be able to extort my silver. Guess that means that we’re staying night.”
- 26f (Argentum’s Song – PG)
Bildad glared back at Martha. Argent walked between them.
“Look Bildad, it’s not just for her O.K.. I’m really cold, and with the door shut and the fire going it is heating up in here. If I had some stew in me too, I think it would really help.”
“Which is why you should never have given it your poncho in the first place.”
“But I did give it to her. Her, Bildad, not it. You said you would let me make the decision this once. Maybe you’ll be right. Maybe she will burn up. But if you really are going to accept me as an equal, then you have to let me treat her as if she’s a her, even if you don’t believe she is.”
Bildad seemed to consider his words closely then turned around and dropped back onto the cot he had salvaged.
“Fine, get your snow and onions.”
Argent grinned at Martha, picked up the pot and slipped outside. As soon as the door was shut behind him, Bildad was back on his feet and inches away from Martha’s face.
“I know what you’re doing monster. You won’t succeed. You’ll hurt his heart, but that hurt will only make him that much better of a Warrior. So far, the good that I will do with that silver outweighs the evil of having you attempt to corrupt him with your seductions. But now … I’m re-evaluating. The instant that the silver no longer outweighs the risk of your presence, I will end you.”
“But your oath.”
“My oath clearly stated that I would remove your head if you hindered our progress.”
“You wouldn’t … I’m defenceless.”
“You are no more defenceless than I am. You might look as delicate as a snowflake, but your venom is as deadly as a frost spider. Even if Argent did manage to somehow slow down or temporarily reverse the turning with that witchcrafting, do you really think that would stop me from ending you? I ended Walt before he turned. I’ve ended rangers before they’ve turned. If you were really as good as you are pretending to be, you’d be following their example. You’d make the condition of giving me the silver be that I end you as soon as possible after I have it, so that you wouldn’t be a danger to those around you. You wouldn’t be trying to stretch out your pitiful life to it’s last second.”
The words struck Martha like a physical blow. She staggered backward and nearly tripped over the remains of Bart’s torn and bloody outer cloak.
The silence grew almost tangible as she stared at the cloak. Could there be any truth in what Bildad was saying? She certainly wasn’t beyond putting others at risk for her own gain, the cloak proved that. She was probably responsible for his death. She let the thought linger before expanding on it. Two men had likely died because she had allowed the weirs access to this cave when trying to find safety. Was she doing the same thing again? Was she putting Argent in danger? Argent was whistling as he pushed the door open, he stopped as he noticed their showdown.
“What’s going on?”
Bildad returning to the cot.
“We were just making sure that we really understood each other.”
Martha could see the goosebumps on Argent’s arms as he balanced the pot of snow on the three cooking stones. She pulled his poncho over her head and handed it back to him.
“Here, I don’t need it anymore.”
Martha wrapped Bart’s cloak around her, it would still be making it’s accusations later. She could try to find the answers then, for now there was soup to make. Martha directed Argent in how to chop up the leeks, mushrooms and potatoes for the soup. Soon the ingredients were in the boiling water and they were waiting for it to cook.
The smells reminded her how hungry she was and her stomach grumbled again. Argent smiled and opened his pouch. He shook out the last of his dried meat and berries and offered them to her as he had on the mountain next to the stream. She took them but then imagined Bildad’s gaze burning into her back. Would he consider this interaction to be seductive corruption? Instead of eating the food she quickly dropped it in the stew.
“Hey, I that was a gift. If you didnt want it know you could have at least kept it for the road.”
“Whatever, look just dig behind those plates and see if you can find a small tin of salt.”
Argent’s face narrowed as he left but he returned shortly with the salt. Before long the potato soup, she had planned to make a lifetime ago, was finally complete.