- 8a (Argentum’s Song – PG)
Martha bit back a cry of pain as she dropped the dull knife and half peeled potato into the pot of water in front of her. She drew her hand to her mouth to suck on the small gash the slipped knife had caused. She sat back on the log she was using for a stool and shut her eyes, blocking out the flickering candlelight.
The previous night had been a disaster. With Franklin on guard duty, the three miners had started drinking and ignored her calls to dinner, insisting she keep it warm until they were ‘done’. It was, of course, overcooked and burnt by the time anyone tasted it. Drunk and with nothing to eat until Walt returned except for potatoes and a bit of salt, the miners were furious with her for wasting their meagre supplies. Of course all of them ignored that Earl had ordered her to use them in the first place.
She felt a wet nose nudge her elbow and heard Sniffly whining in concern. That small act of kindness by a fellow creature cracked the dam of her pride that the past week’s injustices had failed to penetrate. She hugged the dogs neck and silently loosed into his shaggy mane the tears that she had refused to cry for any of her tormentors.
Hearing a key in the door’s keyhole, she sat up straight and recomposed herself. Her eyes were dry by the time the solid oak mass at the caves’ entrance had scraped open. Bart was the miner who had fallen asleep closest to the door and a shaft of sunlight fell across his face. He groaned and rolled so his back was to it.
Franklin slipped in, and quickly closed the door behind him. He avoided eye contact with her as he hung the leather strap, with the two keys, on the peg beside the door. Then he bent down and pushed the chest along the dirt floor, to barricade the door as they had been taught the night previous. The noise was causing the sleeping miners to become more restless and Martha glared at Franklin, furious with him for speeding them toward wakefulness.
She fished out the knife and returned to her task. Soon she was hefting a pail full of sliced potatoes over to the ‘fireplace’. The fireplace was really only three large stones that a pot or skillet could be balanced on beneath a rock fissure. Building a fire underneath the pot still put off more smoke than was comfortable with the low ceiling, but eventually most of it wound it’s way up and out the natural ‘chimney’.
Working quickly Martha just managed to have the first load of fried potatoes ready by the time Bart wobbled over. With one hand scratching at his beard, and the other holding his tin plate outstretched, he waited in silence as she dished out his breakfast. The miner then found a stone ledge to sit on as Earl rolled off his cot and lit a lantern, adding it’s glow to the light from Martha’s candle and the fireplace.
“Come on Arny up and at em, days begun and all.”
Arny drew his cloak over his face and cradled his head in his arms as he huddled down and mumbled an incomprehensible reply. Earl gave him a kick in the side that resulted in a somewhat more comprehensible stream of swearing but still no movement. Earl shook his head and walked over to an empty rum barrel that had been converted to hold water. He drew out a ladleful, half of which he drank and half of which he splashed over his face and neck. Martha redirected her attention to Bart. She wasn’t sure if she was more afraid Earl might disrobe for a further cleaning right in front of her, or that he might consider himself fully bathed with the majority of his filth and stench never having come into contact with water. Bart, on the other hand, seemed like a pretty safe place to leave her gaze. While drunk, he’d been bragging about how every summer he’d have a bath. Whether he needed it or not.
“Ug. This is worse than last night. Even Earl can make a better hashbrown than this.”
Martha glanced back to the miner Bart had referred to. Still clothed, he was carrying a second ladleful of water over to Arny. He nudged him again with his boot.
“Last chance Arny.”
Martha returned her attention to the potatoes on the skillet as Earl drenched the foul mouthed miner to alertness. How was she supposed to be able to stand thirty years of this? The best case scenario for her youth had degraded from dancing with royalty, to feeding uncouth drunks. If she could evade being fed on by the local infected.
- 8b (Argentum’s Song – PG)
Eventually all five of the mining camp were sitting near the fireplace pushing fried potatoes around on their plates. Earl dumped the remainder of his breakfast on the ground in front of Sniffly.
“I told Walt he was wasting his money on ya. Ya might be easy on the eyes but ya certainly aren’t easy on the stomach.”
Arny guffawed and nudged Bart in the ribs.
“Maybe Walt had something else in mind for raising morale?”
Franklin’s hand darted to his pommel, his voice a whisper but clear.
“Not while I have breath.”
Martha’s heart returned from being lodged in her throat, They were the first words Martha had heard him utter since they had arrived. Arny and Bart were stunned into silence. Earl seemed to look at the body guard with new respect.
“Nor while I’m in charge. He’s got a point boys, she may be indentured but she’s no drudge. She’s still got her rights. I won’t hear of anyone laying a hand on her in that way.”
Franklin relaxed his hand and his eyes returned to the ground. Martha was still furious at him for not warning her about what was coming and for finding it humorous until he found himself in the same boat. Still, if this really was remorse, maybe he had finally hit rock bottom and would wake up. Maybe he could still change into the kind of friend she would need to survive in this new torment. Earl’s voice broke into her thoughts.
“Right so plans for the day. Walt is bringing more livestock so Franklin and I will head out and hunt whatever it was that killed Betsy, meybe we can find yer lost key while we’re at it. And Honey, if ya ‘spect to keep yer cushy post up here cooking, instead of joining Arny and Bart mining in the tunnels, I strongly suggest making something better to eat for dinner than this festering swill. I’m heading out to take a piss. Franklin pack up enough supplies to last all day before ya come.”
Arny and Bart chuckled as they shrugged into their gear, grabbed lanterns and headed down the tunnels at the back of the cave. Now alone, Martha blocked the door as Franklin tried to leave.
“We need to talk.”
“There’s nothing to talk about.”
“Yes, there is.”
Franklin’s eyes darted around while he fingered his necklace.
“Fine … look I don’t know why you haven’t told anyone about how the weirs in the pass really died …”
He finally made eye contact and Martha saw the fear there for the first time.
“… but know this. If you do ever tell, I will deny it. No one will believe you and you will lose my protection.”
With that he shouldered past her, grabbed the keys from their peg, and hurried outside. Stunned, Martha returned to her stool and sat down to process. He wasn’t avoiding her because he was remorseful, he was avoiding her because he was afraid of her. So much for friendship, the best she was going to get from Franklin was a mutual blackmail. He would protect her from drunks as long as she protected him from the truth coming out.
- 8c (Argentum’s Song – PG)
Martha heard a clatter near the pile of dirty dishes and saw Sniffly jump away from them with a guilty bark. However, his guilt wasn’t enough to keep him from wolfing down the potatoes he had just spilt onto the floor. Martha had to let out a despairing laugh.
“C’mon Sniffly let’s head outside. The only way I can think of to make a dinner that anyone other than you will enjoy is if we can find some mushrooms or berries or something to spice up potato soup.”
She made sure to leave the door ajar behind them and wandered around the fringe of the clearing in front of the door. Then, not knowing what other direction to take, she decided to follow Sniffly’s lead and cautiously moved a few paces into the forest in the direction he had started exploring. It wasn’t the season for berries and the vegetation was so different from what she was used to that she didn’t trust most of the fungus she found. However, being outside did clear some of the tension, it was good to breath fresh air and to see with natural light. Even after spending most of the morning searching, all she had to show for it were three hollow mushrooms that she knew were safe. However, she wasn’t one to easily give up.
Eventually she found what looked like a patch of tough grass but smelt like a leek. Upon digging up the small bulb it was growing from, she wondered if it wasn’t more of an onion. She bit off a small piece to experiment. Definitely edible, and tasty too. She could dice the grass for flavour and slice the bulb for variety among the potato chunks. Now that she knew what she was looking for, she renewed her hunt with new vigour.
She had gathered over a dozen bulbs in her shawl when she realized she was alone.
The dog’s bark came from her left so she stood up and started towards it.
“Sniffly come here.”
The bark was closer now but wasn’t moving from its original position. A few seconds later Martha stepped into a clearing with a perfect windbreak of juniper along one side. The sun had descended far enough that it was shining directly on Sniffly reclining on a moss covered boulder. Martha could hardly blame the dog for not coming. Standing here, in the sunlight and out of the wind, she could feel a level of warmth beginning to build in her bones that she hadn’t felt since leaving Phoentown.
“Well if you’re not going to come when I call, at least make room for me beside you.”
Martha snuggled down next to the wriggling mound of fur and closed her eyes, basking in the warmth. As long as she could find moments like this, maybe she could still get through what life had thrown at her.
Martha shivered and opened her eyes. The sun had fallen just below the level of the trees and she was alone. Her first thoughts were of being alone, at dusk, in weir country. She pushed back the fear by reminding herself that it was less than a lunar cycle since the attack on the caravan. She had heard somewhere that weirs were only active under a full moon. As she stood up and looked around, she thought she saw a glimpse of Sniffly’s fur on the other side of the junipers. She took a step closer and heard the hound braying with a quiet whimper, as if he had been hurt.
Martha pushed aside a bough and froze. Sniffly’s eyes stared into hers imploring her for help while he pawed at the ground in futility with his foreleg. Two beasts had his rear legs pinned to the ground and were slowly ripping off and swallowing mouthfuls of his flesh.
- 8d (Argentum’s Song – PG)
Martha stood rooted for an instant, staring in horror. The darker and smaller of the two creatures ripped off a particularly large strip which the larger snatched from its maw before it could swallow. The roar uttered by the victim of the robbery only earned it a solid cuff that sent it tumbling a few feet into the base of a boulder.
By this time Sniffly had accepted his fate, closed his eyes, and waited for death. Only whimpering now and then when the mud coloured Alpha took another bite.
Martha had to get away, now!
She backed away from the scene slowly. The smaller beast had gotten up and was whining pleadingly with the alpha. Then it’s ears perked up and it’s head swivelled, staring at the bush in her direction. The Alpha noticed its comrades change in posture, wiped the blood from its nose onto its fur and sniffed the air.
The last thing Martha saw before turning and bolting was the smaller one preparing to spring. Her arms were over her face protecting it from the branches and overgrowth slapping against her as she ran. Nearly blinded by tears she was hunched over staring at the ground, trying not to slip as her feet pounded away, trying to escape from what was pursuing her.
She couldn’t hear them and began to wonder if she had made it away and they had just resumed their meal. Then again she couldn’t hear much over the pounding of her heart, and the roar of her lungs desperately trying to pull in enough air to fuel her mad dash. She risked a backward glance.
The visage of black hairs jutting from her pursuer’s face at all angles was just meters away and closing fast. Time slowed down as her left foot caught on something and she started falling down. She had barley hit the ground before the monster cuffed her along the right arm, drawing parallel cuts along it and sending her rolling over. This left her with no choice but to look in detail at its yellowed and bloodshot eyes. It had her pinned and was opening its jaws for the kill.
A flash of dirty brown lightning dashed from the brush into the predator’s flank, knocking it off of her and into a tumbling mass. Martha’s unexpected saviour, pinned it’s inferior to the ground and snapped at its face. This time, however, the smaller weir wasn’t willing to be silenced. It howled back in rage, throwing all of its anger into attempting to dislodge it’s adversary.
The Alpha roared and raked its claws along the rebel’s chest. Finally the creature submitted, though its eyes were still locked hungrily on Martha’s throat. The Alpha had its face near the other’s ear now and was growling a string of guttural consonants.
Martha’s attention was fully captivated by the massive beasts. The weirs in the pass had been burnt in the pyre before she had had a chance to really see what they looked like, but they had seemed much smaller than these. Her eyes roamed up the Alpha’s fore limb taking in the details of the thick sweat and blood matted hair, not fur as she would have expected from the stories. Next, they took in the disproportioned shoulder, the neck projecting at an absurd, inhuman angle and finally stopped on the grotesque eyes boring into her.
It seemed to be studying her even more intently than she had been studying it. It sniffed deeply in her direction and it’s eyes portrayed a much deeper hunger than the previous monster’s had. This weir wanted to consume much more than just her flesh. Martha’s eyes darted to the smaller weir and she realized its blood lust had deepened into this new terrifying hunger too. She closed her eyes and waited for the end.
Long minutes passed and nothing happened. She opened her eyes and looked around unable to see the beasts anywhere. She got to her feet and spun in circles trying to see where they might have gone … were those red veined eyes peering at her from the shadows or just her imagination?
- 8e (Argentum’s Song – PG)
Martha shivered with fear… all she wanted was to be back in the cave with the loads of silver ore piled against the door keeping them safe until this night had passed. Tentatively she took her first step back in the direction toward the cave. Soon she was back up to a full run, feet once more pounding the dirt.
She refused to look over her shoulder again, but it seemed to her that she could sense the two creatures keeping pace with her in the shadows, one on either side. She was choosing not to confirm it though, as long as they kept herding her in the direction she wanted to go she would pretend they didn’t exist.
Finally she burst into the clearing in front of the cave. Bart was standing in front of the open door, hand shading his eyes, as if searching for something.
“Thar’s the girl, anyway. Where ya been? Ya seen Earl, Frank or Sniffly out -”
Bart’s voice broke off as his eyes, now wide with terror, locked onto the scratches on her arm.
“The weirs! They got her! Git the chest quick!”
Martha saw his face disappear behind the door and heard the lock clang shut just before she reached it. She pounded on the door but there was no response except the sound of the heavy crate being hastily scraped along the rock floor.
Martha began surveying the clearing for an alternate refuge. As she turned she noticed both of her pursuers crouched just inside the perimeter of the clearing, the smaller creature pawing the ground anxiously but the Alpha standing almost regally at its side. It made a movement with its muzzle and something flew through the air toward her. Martha flinched as it bounced into her foot and pushed even further against the door. Then, looking down, she realized the object that had hit her was a hemp rope looped through the eye holes of two keys. She grabbed them from the ground and then returned her eyes to the weir’s. The larger one nodded once and then looking away as if disinterested. She forced herself to return her attention to the door. The lock echoed loudly as the larger key scraped along its interior in Martha’s trembling hands. The sound of the chest moving stopped as she hung the rope around her neck.
“Earl is that you?”
“No it’s me Martha, please let me in.”
“Since when can a weir operate a keyhole?”
“Jist cause she ain’t turned yet doesn’t mean she won’t! Haul the festerin chest!”
A moment later the scraping sound renewed with a new fervour. She twisted the knob and pushed the door as hard and quickly as she could. It swung two hands’ breadths before bouncing against something solid.
“Drop the chest! Git the door!”
Martha squeezed her arm and leg through, crying out and trying to force the door open enough to grant her entrance. She felt Arny’s rough grip on her scratched arm and could see the eyes of his partially obscured face dart between her own pleading face and her wound. She could almost read the debate between pull and push raging within him. Push won out and she felt herself being thrust aside. As the door began to close again, two howling blurs leapt over her and crashed into it, reversing its movement. Time after time the beasts threw themselves into the door, each time forcing it open a bit further. Knocked backward by the flurry of hair, Martha pushed herself crablike away from the screams and commotion on both sides of the door. She made it to the clearing edge when she saw the Alpha disappear into the cave and his follower swing its hairy head in her direction, let loose a shriek and spring toward her. Froth and spittle flung from the jagged teeth as it raced toward her.