Shift World I Book II Chapter 9
by Christopher W. Gamsby
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Karp returned to the unnamed village from the Rebels' Mine a few weeks after getting stabbed. Curiosity had gotten the better of common sense, so she decided to check on the village's fate after her violent departure and the patronage of The Polar Bear, The Narwhal, and their troops. This time, she wore seashell armor under a yeti skin cloak and didn't care if the villagers knew her identity. They wouldn't be able to damage her with their iron or steel, and Karp could kill the lot if they tried. As she strolled through the town's outskirts, the sight of such a loyal village in disrepair surprised her.
The town's prosperous veneer had peeled away and flaked to the ground. Most of the houses' light wooden slat siding had cracked or broken off in large sections. Pale red and brown stains discolored the walls. Starving people languished in clear view, too emaciated to respond or to even raise up from their hardwood couches and beds. The buildings' external water basins lay emptied, despite the many wells that were drilled just outside of the village. Karp strolled to the tavern and inn. On the way there, villagers avoided eye contact with her, whimpering as the armored stranger passed.
Karp pushed her way into the town's tavern, and this time, the villagers acted wholly disinterested in the approaching stranger. Karp purposely clanked her metal heel onto the floor as she stepped. Her armor chimed and reverberated through the room's dead air. Patrons nursed the last drops of liquid sitting in their mugs and whispered, as if hoping that if they ignored the danger, it would simply go away. Karp approached the young bartender, who was incredulously watching every ringing step. Karp placed her hand on the counter, and the woman gulped.
"Is...is dere anything I can help you wit'?"
Karp raised her hand and dropped a dry blood-coated key on the bar. "i'm just returning this."
The woman's eyes watered, and she recoiled. "Please don't kill me! Didn't I treat you fairly?? Why you doing dis?"
Karp eyed the young woman. "i don't plan on killing you. i do have a word of warning, though. you don't seem as bad off as the rest of the village. so, maybe you have some food stored away that you aren't sharing? if things keep going this way, someone will come, even if it's all gone. even if they have to go through you. if they were observant enough to spot me, they will surely notice you. i mean, i did."
Karp quietly walked from the counter, and the bartender stared as if wondering why a ghost, illusion, or premonition had come to torture her. Karp exited the tavern and ventured to the town’s general store. Karp couldn’t understand what had driven her to act so callously toward the bartender. Sometimes her sense of mischievousness just overpowered her sense of decency. Karp arrived at the row of local shops, which were in as much disrepair as the private houses. Smashed signs and pried doors joined broken panels and overturned basins. Karp didn't need to enter to know that the Royal Guard had seized all the goods. A smashed pot decorated the shop's yard, and a newly repaired door secured the entrance. The shop owner sat in shadow at the front, perking up at Karp's entrance. Terror dulled her excitement when she realized her guest's identity.
"Are you here for revenge?"
Karp shut the door and strode to the empty counter. The sitting woman slouched and didn't try to flee.
"no, i'm not here for revenge. i just want to know what happened."
"Why the Guard attacked you?"
"no. you attacked because you thought I was the horse thief and that the empire would reward you. i mean, what happened after that? were you punished for failing?"
"Well...none of us said anything to the Royal Guard. They seemed to know already."
"what do you mean?"
"This big guy came with a small band of Royal Guard. He said that we were accused of aiding and abetting The Horse Thief and that the only way to prove our innocence was to give him all our metal and food. I wanted to explain what happened. That we tried to catch...you, but he said he didn't believe me. He insisted The Horse Thief wouldn't be near here, that there'd be no reason for her to come this way. We had no choice but to bring out everything. I brought the store's food jar, the craftsman brought tools, and people brought whatever they had left, but still he got angry.
"He didn't believe that this was all we had. The Guard went into homes and smashed walls and furniture looking for more. Sometimes people tried to stop them, and the laughing guards then threw them through the walls. He only left town after someone told him that there were supplies at Ma and Pa's way station."
"who told him that?"
"I...I don't know. They interrogated everyone. Someone must have talked, and they moved on. We were safe, but in a few days, that second Guard came through. A woman with a long staff tore up every garden and even stole our water. We went from hungry to starving, and that was weeks ago. She didn't ask us anything or make allegations like The Polar Bear had; she just took things."
"the narwhal isn't one for pretenses, at least not way out here. she just would have killed anyone that resisted."
"Who are you? You couldn't possibly be The Horse Thief. I think we made a mistake. Slon died...for absolutely nothing."
"i'm just someone passing through. how did things get this bad? because of trade stopping?"
"Trade? Trade only slowed a little, but that was hard enough for some people, so they left to become bandits. They've been attacking caravans and stealing food. The convoys show up with nothing worth trading or just don't bother coming this far anymore at all."
"where are these bandits?"
"Southwest of here there's a hill with a concave valley. They built a base in there. I'm not sure what the place was, but there is no way we could stop them without the empire."
"if i stop them, do you think the town could recover?"
"I don't know. It might be too late. There aren't enough of us to become a farming village, and we have nothing worth trading."
Karp shifted in one of the large grain jars from Ma and Pa's, several containers of vegetables, and a small crate of miscellaneous iron and regular steel goods that were purged from the Royal Resort.
"this isn't exactly what you lost, but i'm giving it to you."
"This....this is way too much!"
"i'm heading south. maybe i'll stop by the bandits' stronghold on my way out..."
Karp arrived at the stronghold early in the night after a twelve-hour walk from the unnamed village. She had followed a gentle upward slope to the top of a small hill and saw that the camp's layout matched the store owner's description. Sheer onyx stone cliffs led to the hill's apex, which encircled a narrow entrance. One- to three-story wooden buildings were dotted around the inner valley's ashen floor. Two guards lay in the entranceway. One of them slept, and the other started dozing in the night's twilight. No secondary station or auxiliary guard post protected the settlement from inside the entranceway.
i could kill those two, make it into the valley, and probably take out the whole group while they sleep... but that doesn't feel right. they are criminals and maybe killers, but they are hungry and panicked. they can't continue, but killing everyone...? maybe there's a way to only kill a few.
Karp paced the base of the black stone cliffs that shone in the full moon's light. Two hundred meters east of the main entrance, a pillbox was carved into the mountaintop. The cliff face's uneven texture piqued her curiosity. Rocky outcrops appeared to be steps leading up from the mountain's base to the apex. The stairway seemed to be continuous, so Karp climbed by moonlight. She didn't particularly fear heights, but barely visible, unsafe steps set her heart racing and stole a part of every breath she took. Her foot slid at one point about two-thirds of the way up. A rock broke off and plunged into the darkness. The stone hit the wall several times on the way down, and an echoing crash rang through the void.
Karp paused and eased her breathing as she refocused. After restarting, she gently tested every new foothold before completing a step. After a few more minutes of climbing, the stairs' summit was within reach. The last step ended just under the pillbox. Karp pushed a wooden plank trapdoor, and it freely rose into the structure. She pulled herself into the opening and surveyed the interior. No one stood watch. She shut the trapdoor and breathed a sigh of relief as she plopped down on the floor and lay herself out. By her estimation, the sun would rise in four hours, and wandering about the tower and possibly falling through an invisible opening was an unacceptable risk. Karp retrieved a pillow from the Shift World and napped.
She awoke some time shortly after sunrise. Light flooded the secluded room, and it became clear to Karp that her fear of falling through an unseen opening had been unfounded. A wooden rope ladder lay coiled next to a second opening, which was covered by a wooden slat. Karp walked to the valley-facing wall and looked out at the valley floor. Variously sized tents filled in the spaces between the main buildings. The valley floor plunged to thirty meters below; the rope wouldn't be long enough to reach the bottom. Karp carefully opened the second hatch and peeked through the hole. The ladder dropped to the roof of a two-story building. Field observers likely climbed to the roof and ascended the rope ladder to reach the pillbox. Only advanced guards or stationed troops would have risked climbing the rock cliffs as Karp did. Karp bet that the bandits weren't brave enough to try it themselves.
The bandits were checking various crates and sorting them based on their contents. Karp dragged a chair to the window and watched the droll play unfolding. After sorting containers for an hour, the men and women lounged until a foreman carrying a scroll affixed to a board approached. They all drew to their feet and answered questions. Karp watched the female foreman. Her general demeanor broadcasted authority and responsibility for the camp, and she was at the center of every effort. She led the fighting practice and had discussions with the bandits. Karp even learned the location of the woman's tent.
if i kill her, the bandits will disband. only one person needs to die for the village to be spared. i wish there was another way, but this is the best worst option. one death to save everyone else.
The bandits' camp calmed after sunset, and Karp prepared to descend into the valley and complete her unpleasant work. She donned a dark leather cloak to conceal her presence, thrust open the wooden hatch, and lowered the rope ladder onto a building's second-story roof. Karp climbed down the ladder, which had a propensity for swinging at the slightest breeze. Despite the danger, she arrived on the rooftop without trouble and circled the roof's edge. A sturdy wooden ladder was affixed to the building’s side, and she descended, jumping the last few rungs. Her cloak fluttered with a swooshing whirl. The mild sound stirred the camp's quiet and relaxed atmosphere, but after a moment, the night's still air rushed back in to fill the void.
Karp crept along the valley's edge, concealing her presence with the local buildings and tents. Engineers had built the structures facing into camp, which gave Karp a safe route behind the permanent houses and buildings. She entered the tent encampment and found the sixth tent, which she knew belonged to the camp's leader. Karp unsheathed her whip's dragon fire blade and slit through the tent's leather. The sharpened red steel blade sliced into the material as quickly and quietly as if the edge had passed through the air. Karp sheathed the dagger and slipped into the tent.
The tent provided ample living area for one person, but to her surprise, there were two occupants. Karp edged past a student's desk covered in ledgers and scrolls and walked to a cradle sitting next to the primary occupant's bed. A one and a half-year-old toddler lay in the crib, turning and twisting in dreams that Karp could only guess. The little boy's mush face puckered, winced, and relaxed again. Karp turned and approached his mother's bed. She lay in the center, sprawled out on her back with one arm folded behind her head. The light shining through the damaged tent wall barely illuminated the room enough for Karp to navigate the darkness. Still, Karp thought she could make out wet spots below the woman's eyes. Karp released her buckler's hidden blade in the Shift World to avoid waking the pair, and then she stood at the bed's end, poised to kill.
Karp watched the mother, but it was the child who drew her attention. A pang of guilt reverberated through Karp's core. She had been raised as an orphan and knew the world’s cruelty. There was no guarantee that anyone in the camp would watch after him. He could also be abused even if anyone did feel kind enough to take in the child. If the boy were abandoned, he'd have no future. Her mission was then going to cost two lives. She stood, hoping to find a way that wouldn't end in bloodshed, but nothing in her power could prevent at least some loss of life. Karp was contemplating her situation when alarms rang in the main camp. Karp dashed for the broken tent flap as the woman awoke, and she fled the tent before the sleeper was conscious enough to realize that an unwelcomed visitor had just escaped. The foreman remained too sleepy to notice that her tent was brighter than it should have been.
Karp used the camp's confusion to sneak through the tents and find a place that could serve as a listening post, a place that also had a clear shot to the camp's entrance if she needed to escape. A few moments later, the camp's foreman ushered herself from the tent and blithely walked to the camp's center. Armed bandits joined her, and the standing guards rushed for her counsel. "Something happened, Ma'am!"
"Obviously. Why else would you wake us?"
"Right, sorry. An envoy came to the valley entrance, and they strolled right up!"
"What are you talking about? This time of night? Why didn't you tell them to come back?"
"Well, she was cloaked in dragon fire. She said after talking, the reason for the late call would become obvious. I don't think we should wait if a member of the Dragon Guard has come to speak to you."
The crowd murmured in consternation and concern about the retribution they'd earned. The woman motioned for the group to silence, and they again followed her lead. "Bring the envoy. We'll see what they want and send them on their way."
The guard ran back to the valley entrance and brought a slender woman covered head to toe in dragon fire chainmail. She wore a sword on her side with a scabbard that had a creature affixed near the top with a red steel line spiraling down the length of it. The woman addressed the camp leader.
"Tan the Wyvern, member of the Princess's Personal Guard, Fighter of Leviathan, Defender of the Realm, and Victor of the Lush Forest."
Tan then put her hand on her chest and lightly bowed.
The camp leader waved a dismissal to the formalities. "I don't have fancy titles, and you won't recognize my name, so what's the point." The group laughed. The leader continued. "Why are you here? Why now?"
"I came here to give you an option. I came now to make sure I had a chance to speak with you."
"That couldn't have waited until morning?"
Tan surveyed the valley's wall for an obvious ingress point but failed. She turned back to the leader, who instinctively followed Tan’s eye movements. The leader gawked at the descended rope ladder. Tan followed her eyes and then looked back. "I seem to have come at just the right time."
"We have an intruder? Men..."
"Stop! Unless you want a lot of you dead."
"Us? Dead? Why?"
"Do you really not think much of this game you play? The convoys you robbed want you dead. The townsfolk you are starving want you dead. The families of guards you killed want you dead!"
One of the bandits in the crowd fumbled out an excuse. "But...we are just trying to feed ourselves..."
Tan turned to him. "That doesn't matter. You forced nature to come down upon you! Eventually, someone was going to pity the townsfolk, or the bereaved, or lust for merchant steel and come to wipe you out!"
The man gulped. The leader came forward. "Who came? Why should a camp full of brave men and women fear them?"
"You may, unfairly, know her as The Horse Thief. The fact that she snuck in and didn't kill the guards at the gate means that she has some pity on your group."
The bandits sank at hearing the news. Wild tales of The Horse Thief's reign of destruction had been spreading through the Lush Forest. Even the remote outpost must have learned the name. The leader found the courage to speak. "Then what do you want with us? Was the empire here to destroy us as well?"
"No. I have something different in mind. I want to give everyone an opportunity, a way to give up your bandit ways and come back to the empire! You'll be pardoned for your crimes and maybe you will even atone for some of the damage you've done."
"Why would we get such an opportunity?"
"Because the empire needs food and, for that, we need farmers, not corpses. We want you to come help raise crops, fish the seas, harvest, whatever the seasons bring us! The food you make will save lives! I know no one here wanted to steal! You broke your morality for survival, but it can still be mended!"
The crowd didn't burst into a round of applause. Their spirits were clearly strained, and defeat marked their faces. The leader sighed. "I agree. I will join your farmers, atone, and raise my son to be proud."
The rest of the bandits followed suit, whether out of knowing that they couldn't survive without her calculations or whether they too had never wanted to be criminals. Karp used the opportunity to sneak out of the main gate, just as The Wyvern and the bandits were discussing the next steps. A contingent of Dragon Guard forces marched into the base as Karp passed.
Karp decided to make an unplanned stop at the unnamed village before returning south and departing the Pasture. The rail-thin townsfolk strolled the main road, conversed with friends, fixed houses, and planted seeds in their living gardens. Karp had hoped that a few days of food could kick-start a turnaround in the village, but they seemed to be in even higher spirits than she could have anticipated. Karp passed smiling and waving townsfolk on the way to the tavern. She reached the entrance and pushed open the doors.
Patrons drank water and tea with empty plates stacked on the tables. Karp approached the bartender. The young woman reached under the counter, raised her hand above the bar, and dropped a clean key onto the wooden face. "'Ere, I just wanted to return dis."
Karp laughed and gave her a queer glance. "not afraid anymore, i see."
"No, course not! Two days ago, we waited fer our doom, and today we have hope. Dis next meal is on the house too, OK?"
"sure, why not?" Karp enjoyed the gratitude; it was a nice change from suspicion and murderous intent. Karp sat at a nearby table, and a few minutes later, the bartender brought an herbal tea, a bowl of vegetable stew, and oatmeal.
"Sorry, no beer or wine. Dat'll take weeks ta brew. Enjoy!" The bartender smiled and sauntered off to complete her work. The general store owner entered carrying a small pot of grain and waved to Karp.
"i didn't leave that many supplies. you are going to run out quickly if you keep going through them at this rate."
The woman cocked her head with an uncomprehending expression. A few moments later, a realization wiped her confusion. "Oh, you must not have seen your reinforcements on the way back."
"Yeah, the Dragon Guard member and her squad. They tripled the supplies you brought and even made a deal. Some of our people are going to help work fields and furrow. They will be paid and fed, and the town will receive tithes for each worker. They are also going to count any recruited bandits toward the tithe!"
"how did you know they were my reinforcements?"
"The matching symbols are a dead giveaway."
The store owner sauntered to a grain jar sitting behind the tavern's counter and removed the lid. She returned to Karp and showed her a hand-drawn red fox. "Yes, this symbol, of course. It matches the ones on the lids to The Wyvern's pots. How did negotiations go?"
those symbols are probably just a coincidence. all it means is that the same trader had them both at some point. best not press on about the mistake.
"the whole bandit camp agreed to become farmers. they won't give you any trouble."
The woman's audible relief surprised Karp.
"Is my relief that strange? The bandits originally came from this village, you know. They were neighbors, friends, and family! My sister even ran the camp. I know better than anyone how much pain she must have felt watching people hurt."
First, the Royal Guard stole everything, and then the princess returned it all. Karp was amazed at how quickly the town seemed to have forgotten, but people were always fickle. The princess's endgame made little sense to Karp, and the reasons for helping some people while hurting others remained obscure. All Karp knew was that she wanted to return to Slart and rest.
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