by Michael Hart
The wagon party rolled up to the Federation toll depot, where helmets and shields glinted in the midday sun. The driver, Bannon Sledge pulled up on leather reins as dry and cracked as the expanse surrounding them. A pair of soldiers with sheathed swords summoned them closer, and Bannon steered his two horses to oblige. He kept his hands clearly visible to show he wasn’t gripping anything that could crunch through a helmet.
Bannon turned to his passengers. “Just give them the answers they ask for. No more, no less.” His tone betrayed more irritation than alarm. His three passengers left their goods in their trunks as they climbed out. The first eastbound stop on the Golden Highway, the depot was a fort for soldiers, an oasis for travellers, and just another purse to pilfer for the King. Its single dusty lane accommodated only a barracks, a supply store, and a keg-and-bench ale stand.
A soldier in royal blue standard scampered aboard Bannon’s wagon like a dog let into a kitchen pantry. His comrade on the ground opened a ledger and said, “Name, business, and destination,” to none of the three in particular.
“Walton,” said the oldest as he stretched his back. “Tablewares, antique-Western style. Going all the way to Anchorton.”
“These don’t look antique any-style to me,” said the scavenger soldier, already picking through Walton’s trunk. He held up a dusty silver cup. “They look just plain old.”
“More than anyone will ever know,” said Walton. “But a little polish and they’ll be serving wine to the finest families in the capital.”
“Speaking of wine,” the younger male passenger interjected, “let me offer you men a bottle from the best winery in the West.”
Bannon winced. The half-grown beard on his jaw jutted out a little further as he braced for whatever trouble the wine man’s mouth might get him into, whatever wreckage he might dump on Bannon’s road to a finished job.
“I am Salvio, wine trader. I am also travelling to Anchorton.”
The scavenger took a bottle from Salvio’s trunk and rotated it in his hand. “How do we know which one’s the best?”
“As a matter of fact, you have it in your hands already.” Salvio plucked the tip of his moustache between two fingers. “That’s a 12-year-old Lotus Red. You have an eye for quality.”
The scavenger looked to his comrade, who shrugged his approval and turned to the third passenger. “And you, Madam?”
“I’m a taxpayer, that’s who I am. And I already purchased a pass for this trip. We all did.” She shook her paper pass at the soldier, scolding him with it. “I don’t understand why we have to stop.”
Bannon stepped between the woman and the soldier. “Her name’s Calla. She’s had a rough start to her trip is all. She’s going to Anchorton, too. She sells…women’s undergarments?”
“Those are shawls.” Calla rolled her head away from Bannon with disappointment.
The soldiers were satisfied and amused, and ready for the bottom line. “Fifty pieces fare,” said the one with the ledger.
Bannon tried to sound friendly, a skill he utterly lacked despite decades of occasional practice. “Obviously, my passengers aren’t high-end merchants. Forty pieces would be more reasonable.”
The soldiers’ bored captain, lingering just within earshot, at last took an interest in the group, particularly in Bannon’s old army sword, still sheathed. “What outfit were you with, soldier?” he asked.
“12th Regiment, under Howe,” said Bannon.
The recognition sunk in with the captain, though he looked like he would have still been in the academy when Howe’s 12th met its end. The soldier with the ledger scrunched his brow in bewilderment. “But how could he have been–”
“Because he was an outrider,” the captain cut him off. “He didn’t camp with the regulars. See? The sword’s a bit shorter than standard issue; easier to carry while scouting.” The captain pointed to the scabbard. “But the real giveaway is the fox head engraving.” He steered his tone along a fine line between adulation and amusement. “Outriders had to be crafty. You must’ve clashed with a few raiders in your day, wagon master.”
“A few, Sir.”
“I wish I could help you with the toll, but it’s month’s-end and the royal collectors will be making their rounds. I’m sure you understand.”
“Fifty it is.”
While his horses drank, Bannon spotted a pair of riders newly arriving at the depot. In his experience, Golden Highway traders preferred to join a regular Big Ride east with the army, if they could afford it. It was the safest way, although with the raiders now put in their place you had more to worry about from another member of your party than an ambush. Traders who couldn’t afford army rates might ride with the likes of Bannon or a larger security crew. The rest just had to watch out for themselves.
These two men were watching out for themselves, and in Bannon’s eyes, they didn’t appear too anxious about it. They rode with no obvious cargo, and they didn’t look like rich men travelling through the old raider-held country for adventure either. They eyeballed Bannon’s wagon a tad longer than the nicked and scarred old thing warranted. They eyeballed Bannon’s passengers a helluva lot longer than they warranted — except maybe Calla, he thought, with her shiny black hair that was long enough to grace the beginnings of her backside. If minding one’s own business was an art, then Bannon fancied himself a master painter, like the guy who did the towers at the library in Protanis all those years ago. But the thing about running highway security was — your passengers’ business tended to become your business, like it or not.
When all three of the people who had entrusted Bannon to get them to Anchorton alive were back in the wagon, he closed the rear gate, got back in the driver’s seat, and grabbed his reins.
An outrider who gets himself followed is already dead. That was the first thing they had taught Bannon.
The western stretch of the Golden Highway that connected civilizations ran through country that had little patience for mistakes or delay. The shrivelled prunes of rock formation scattered throughout the distance warned of the fate that befell parties who failed to bring sufficient water. Pockets of grass and weed managed to survive by fortifying in rigid clumps that could slice a man’s hand open if he reached at them wrong.
The sun was getting low and turning a blazing orange at their backs. The old man, Walton emerged from the wagon cover, where Calla and Salvio dozed with their backs against their trunks. He sat and pointed to Bannon’s sword. “Is it true,” he said quietly, “they only give ones like that to the best?”
The men of Colonel Howe’s 12th Regiment would most definitely say that’s false, thought Bannon, had any of them survived the Knee-Deep Massacre…had I found the hordes of raiders before the raiders found them.
“Just the ones desperate enough for the hazard pay,” was what Bannon said instead.
A trio of vultures circled above them. Thinking back on that first thing they had taught him, Bannon pulled a dried pork leg out of his supply sack and chucked it into the road behind them. The vultures made a couple more slow circuits and then descended toward the meal.
Walton peeked back under the wagon cover to make sure no one was listening.
“Something on your mind?” said Bannon.
“I asked Salvio if he preferred Dallion White over Marigold wine. He said, ‘Marigold of course!’”
“Dallion is a type of Marigold wine. Any wine drinker would know that. He’s clueless about wine.” His voice rose, so he caught himself. “There might be some wine in that trunk for good measure, but I’ll be damned if that’s what he’s looking to sell in Anchorton.”
“You think he’s a smuggler?” Bannon suspected the answer already, like opening a can of meat that’s rotted and knowing the smell that’s about to hit you. But he wanted to hear Walton out first.
“A smuggler, or more specifically a harvester; Pallidyne herb, eclipse, it’s got lots of names. And a lot of demand in Anchorton. Too much demand.”
Anything you carry that can make noise can get you killed. That was the second thing they taught Bannon when he became an outrider. “Do you know what this Pallidyne herb looks like?” he asked.
“I’ve seen it. The old ruins I do my collecting in, there’s harvester grounds all around there. It so happens the crafts I collect are ancient Pallidyne in origin, you know.”
“Because their stuff lasts for centuries,” said Bannon. He stood and turned to look back west, watching the vultures scratching for meat with their hideous beaks.
“Millennia is more like it,” said Walton. “Quality that can’t be matched even today. But you know what else the Pallidyne people were into?”
“I’ve heard the stories. Sorcerers. Exiles with magic mirrors.”
“Mirrors and more. Some of their ceremonial fields have stayed defiled. That’s where the harvesters find the vines. The herbs pop out of them, like crowns on snakes. That’s how they spot them.”
In the distance behind them, Bannon saw the vultures flare into the air, silhouetted against the sun. They didn’t fly high and were clearly sore about having their meal interrupted. He knew the only creature on this stretch of the highway they’d let interrupt a meal was a horse. Or a pair of horses.
Take only what your opponent gives you. That was the third thing Bannon learned when he became an outrider.
Bannon steered the wagon off the side of the road. The rock formation they parked behind threw long, east-facing shadows as if the rocks wanted to reach Anchorton as desperately as the travellers. He dropped the rear gate of the wagon where Calla and Salvio stirred. Walton stood behind him with arms folded.
“Why are we stopping?” asked Calla. “And why are we off the road? Don’t tell me it’s another toll.”
“I got real thirsty for some wine,” said Bannon. He reached in and grabbed the handle of Salvio’s trunk. A firm grip suddenly latched onto his wrist.
“Surely! Surely you didn’t intend to snatch at my trunk like a highway raider?” said Salvio, a fake smile forced through gritted teeth.
Bannon shoved him to the back of the wagon and pulled out his trunk. He was none-the-less gentle with the goods, still hoping to prove they were nothing but wine. Salvio pounced out of the wagon, but Bannon pinned him to the ground in a puff of dusty dirt. Walton began pulling out bottle after bottle.
“You’ll both hang for this!” shouted Salvio. Bannon covered his mouth with a hand, looking back at the Highway warily as Salvio’s shouts echoed.
Walton held a bottle above his head, like a piece of evidence. “This one’s a little light.” He pulled the cork and reached a finger inside. Salvio’s eyes bulged and his cries became harder to muffle. Walton pulled a pouch out of the bottle by its drawstrings and opened it wide. He grimaced.
“He’s a harvester?” said Calla, peering into the bag as well.
“Doubt he harvested anything himself,” said Bannon. “But I can see him snatching that herb from the guys who did. Like the two who followed us to the depot maybe?” He gripped Walton’s shoulder. “Keep an eye on the road. It won’t take them long to find us.”
Salvio locked eyes with Bannon and carefully enunciated his every word. “The contents of that pouch will sell for 100,000 pieces in Anchorton. I just need protection,” he summoned the wine merchant charm with a twirl of his moustache, “which is worth half that, in addition to what I’ve already paid you.” He looked up to Walton and Calla. ”And of course, I can offer you both compensation as well, for…accompanying me with discretion on such a long journey.”
“I’m not gonna’ end up vulture food for this,” said Walton, squinting to see the road from their meagre rock sanctuary as the last traces of daylight vanished.
Bannon peered into the pouch. The herbs looked like purple-green scorpions that had all stung each other to death. “Thought they’d be bigger,” was all he could muster, then he looked to Salvio. “100,000? Why?”
Calla cut in. “Because Pallidyne herb splits your life energy in two,” she said with a chill. “Temporarily, of course.”
Bannon snorted. “Sounds like something for rich people bored with booze. Why should we stop them?”
“The Pallidyne civilization destroyed itself lusting for power,” said Calla. “This is its legacy.”
“Then what should we do, burn it?” said Bannon.
No sooner had the word ‘burn’ escaped his lips than Walton said, “Riders. Two of them.”
“Get behind me, all of you,” said Bannon. “And if you’ve got anything you can hurt somebody with, now’s the time.” He spotted a glow from behind the rocks nearest them. He drew his sword. After a few forced breaths, a lone torch holder stepped into view. “Shout when you spot the other one,” he hissed. As the torch holder approached, Bannon recognized him as one of the two riders from the depot. He had the loose garb, deep tan, and well-worn features of a field worker — a harvester.
Rustling kicked up behind him; Walton and Salvio struggled over the pouch, like insolent children, with Salvio trying to pry it from Walton’s hand while Walton tried to pry a small blade from Salvio’s. Walton forced out words between spited breaths.
“We’re…giving…this…poison…back.” He grunted. The red tip of a sword protruded through the old man’s chest. It was then pulled back just as quickly. Walton dropped to his knees, revealing the second harvester lurking behind him.
Bannon swivelled his attention between the two threats. The one with the torch tossed it atop his wagon and drew his own sword.
“The horses!” Bannon shouted to Calla. “Untie the horses.”
Walton’s killer grabbed Salvio. The faux-wine merchant struggled in a way Bannon had never before seen. It was as though he were writhing out of his own skin, or his skin was trying to shed itself from him. A black fog shaped identically to Salvio leaped out from his body and onto the harvester. The harvester seemed only mildly affected as if the move was no surprise and little more than an annoyance; a fly he had swatted at before. But it did free Salvio enough to use his blade. He stabbed the man in the gut, leaving the little weapon buried. The harvester redoubled his attack despite his wound. He knocked Salvio to the ground with a ferocious burst before running him through. Salvio slumped, lifeless. His fog-double slumped as well, then scattered into the breeze.
Bannon and the torch holder faced each other. Bannon assessed his opponent. His stance and grip indicated at least rudimentary sword training. The man’s first move, however, indicated an assumption that Bannon had no training at all; he swung for Bannon’s neck, fast and accurate, but with no thought to surprise. Through many painful lessons, Bannon knew where the blade would travel and side-stepped it without breaking stance. He then took what his opponent gave him: a meager piece of flesh above the hip, left exposed after the heavy swing. Bannon’s thrust drew enough blood to spill down the man’s trousers. It seemed to pain him enough to hobble his balance. Bannon knew it was all he’d need. He let the man take another swing. It was awkward but still dangerous, and it convinced Bannon to allow him no more. He attacked the harvester’s wounded side. The man’s upward parry was too slow and too weak, and Bannon’s sword sliced across his collar, then his throat. The harvester briefly attempted to staunch the wound, but his fingers were like twigs on a branch dangling into a busy river.
Bannon’s old wagon had never ridden evenly, and now it couldn’t even burn evenly. He kicked the lone holdout wheel into the rest of the fire. Calla and his horses had no complaints, what with the dropping temperature. The light from the bloated fire revealed the bloody crawl tracks of Walton and Salvio’s killer, who had made it halfway back to the Highway before planting face-down for good. They found enough rocks to cover Walton, to honor his last wish of not ending up vulture food. Bannon refused to give the same courtesy to the others, and Calla gave up trying to convince him otherwise
He did take a curiosity in Salvio though, giving his body a nudge with his boot.
“Is he dead, or did he just blow away?”
“The herb isn’t about cheating death,” said Calla, “though maybe that was the Pallidyne people’s original idea.”
Bannon crouched closer to Salvio and tugged on his necklace. He pulled out an attached amulet that had been hiding under his shirt.
Calla opened it and sniffed. “Looks like he kept some of his product close to heart,” she said. “Ground up and ready to take at a moment’s notice. That must be how he…”
“Split?” Bannon finished her thought. He tucked the necklace back into Salvio’s shirt.
“I’ll take you as far as you want, Anchorton even,” he said as he pulled the pouch of herbs out of his pocket for Calla to see. “But then I’ve got some losses to cover.”
“Are you always this dense?” She gestured all around, at the bodies and the flames. “This is how these dealings always end, sooner or later.”
“It’s how things ended for a lot who’ve ridden with me. Never made a difference what their dealings were.”
Calla stepped closer, pouring sympathy from her eyes. “You can’t save everyone.” Her black hair mirrored the flames as it danced in the dry night breeze. She squeezed his hand for a brief moment. “But you did save me.”
His grip on the pouch softened.
“And I might need you to do it again,” she said as she took the pouch and tossed it into the fire.
“We have two horses to ride and two to sell,” Calla said, “and half a trunk of cheap wine.”
Bannon and Calla sat by the fire. They passed a bottle of wine back and forth, watching black shadows leap in the flames like vultures on the Golden Highway
Michael Hart’s short stories have appeared in publications such as Dark Tales magazine and The Ethereal Gazette. He holds a day job as a copywriter in Chicago and is a father of one (soon to be two)!