Crow and Broana continued their journey north. He was unsure of why he was heading in the direction of home rather than away from it. It was as if his heart’s desire had no say in the matter. When he stopped for the day to let Broana rest, he hunted.
Building the snares brought a sense of nostalgia, reminding him of who he truly was and where he came from. I haven’t forgotten everything Aunt Lena taught me.
At night he would sleep by a fire, breathing in the open air. Before going to sleep he prayed to Mother Moon: “Mother Moon, You’re light so gentle and cool, like water on my skin...”
When he slept he dreamed vividly. He dreamed of his aunt’s house, sitting on top of the hill - was there anything of it left or was it completely gone? Other nights he dreamed of Barghast. These dreams were every bit as vivid, full of sensory detail and desire. These dreams often forced Crow awake, his heart heavy with guilt. It’s for the best, he would try to reassure himself. Things never worked out between us anyway. Our lives are too complicated.
And yet there were numerous regrets that haunted him, popping up when he least expected it, when his thoughts would get the best of him.
After five days of traveling he reached the town of Whifden. The Plaesil mountains were just in view, standing on the horizon. The sight of the town’s wooden buildings made him think of all the small towns he’d passed through just like it - even his own town was not so different looking, even if it was a bit colder.
He passed unfamiliar faces on his way down the town’s main street. Horses pulled carriages along the avenue; voices hooted from alleyways and a man stood on the terrace of a building, woefully playing the violin. While the town did not possess the over abundance of colors, sights, sounds, and people Miffland did, Crow appreciated the activity after many days of being on the road. Even if he didn’t necessarily want to talk to anyone, the presence of people was a comfort.
In the end, after he’d paid for a stall to house Broana in, his rumbling belly and sense of smell led him into the saloon, a cramped two story building that smelled pleasantly of sweat, booze, jalasa smoke, and frying meats. He sat at a greasy wooden countertop. A narrow eyed, heavy jowled man regarded him with a look of suspicion.
“Never seen you around here before,” the man said with a heavy northern accent.
“Just passing through,” said Crow.
“Where you headed?”
Crow was about to say, None of your damned business, but then stopped. The man was just curious. And there didn’t seem anything dangerous about him - if there was, Crow knew he would have sensed it. I’ve kept my secrets for over a year, not telling anyone about who I am or where I come from. I don’t want to live in the dark any more.
“I’m headed towards Annesville,” the practitioner said. It was always so strange to say the name. Not for the first time he asked himself why he was going to a place where he’d only known pain, but even now he didn’t know the answer. It struck him not for the first time going north, back home, might not be a good idea. He would be closer to Fruimont and north had been overtaken by the Scarlet Church. But despite knowing this he also knew he would go to Annesville regardless; to see it with his eyes and say goodbye one last time. He owed it to Aunt Lena to visit her grave.
“Quite a journey,” said the man. “Got any family there?”
“Used to,” Crow said.
“But not anymore, eh?”
There was something like dislike in the man’s voice. Crow was liking this conversation less and less. “Do you always interrogate your patrons like this?”
The man held up his pudgy hands. “Sorry - just making conversation is all.” He looked rather flustered.
Crow’s anger receded. Had he made a mistake? Was this man truly trying to be friendly? If so, why? He wasn’t used to people starting conversation with him unless it was to spit in his face for being a practitioner. I might know how to survive out on my own but there’s still so much I don’t know about the world: how to interact with people for starters. “I’m sorry. It’s been a long day. I’m sore from traveling and hungry. I’m not in the mood for friendly chatter. Do you have meat?”
The man leaned back. “Of course. We have beef, venison, a delicious rabbit stew...”
I’ve had my fill of rabbit, Crow thought. “I’ll take venison. And a double shot of whiskey.” Inwardly he grinned. For the last year he’d been saving up his wages while with the Inquisition. Up until now he had no idea what he would spend it on - he’d presumed he would never have the chance. Now he knew.
Moments later, stuffed with meat and bread and more than a little drunk, Crow staggered out into the night. He’d made a friend in Garrett, the man who owned the saloon, or at least an acquaintance. Garrett had gruffly but not unkindly given him in the directions to a boarding house where he could rent a room for just a few coins.
“I’d give you a room if I had one but they’re all full tonight. You see a lot of refugees fleeing the north have been coming this way. I sort of thought you were one which is why I was asking you so many questions. People are running away from the mountains, not heading towards them.”
For now Crow’s only thought was of only finding a bed to sleep in. While he didn’t mind sleeping on the ground it did wear on someone’s back after a while.
He walked through a narrow backstreet. Except for a few people passing by there was hardly anyone else around. Now that his belly was full of food and drink, Crow wanted quiet. He wanted to let the pleasant buzz of his thoughts go on unimpeded. Color blazed on his usually pale cheeks. His eyes, usually hard and intense, had softened with contentment and sleepiness. For the moment he had no regrets for leaving Miffland and his responsibilities behind.
He turned. The boarding house Garrett had described was within view, a dozen or so yards away. The house was small with peeling paint and crooked shutters. Just as he was about to head the rest of the way towards it a tall figure shot out from behind a wall. Crow had enough time to register it was a man before something hit him over the head hard.
Glass shattered and he went down, sprawling on the ground. He laid there, too stunned to move or understand what had just happened. The man was coming towards him with something sharp in his hand - a knife. His face was bony, his dark eyes emotionless. Another man appeared, then a third one, and a fourth one.
With blood dripping in his eyes from a gash in his scalp, Crow tried to raise himself up only to feel a boot crush him back down into the dirt before he could even get onto his hands and knees.
“Stay down,” a sly voice said from behind him. “We won’t kill you unless you fight. We just want your coins.”
Crow tried to wave a hand but another boot stomped on his fingers. He felt one or two of them snap. He cried out, tasting dirt and blood. He felt hands rummaging through his pockets, ripping his bag from his shoulders. He struggled but no matter how hard he wriggled he couldn’t break free. When the hands had taken what they wanted something kicked him from behind. The last thing he was aware of was the peels of cruel laughter steadily drifting away into darkness.
Crow stumbled into the saloon, his black robes covered in mud and filth. A sheet of dried blood covered the right side of his face. Three of the fingers on his right hand were twisted at awkward angles.
The chatter in the saloon diminished as several pairs of eyes turned to look at him. Garrett, who had been in the middle of polishing a glass with a rag, set the glass down. “What in the Infernal Abyss happened to you?” he grated.
Crow staggered over to the stall, looking dazed. With some difficulty he managed to scoot onto a stool. “Water?” he croaked. “Do you have any water?”
“You don’t need water - you need whiskey.” Garrett looked over the cut with his eyes, then down at the practitioner’s broken fingers. “It’s on the house.”
Crow nodded his thanks. His lips trembled. He blinked, trying to keep back the tears of humiliation that threatened to overwhelm him. Garrett set a glass of whiskey down on the stained countertop. Crow raised the glass to his lips, tipping the glass back with his good hand. The drink seared his throat satisfyingly as it went down. “I was heading towards the boarding house when I was attacked. They did this to me...took all of my money.”
“Damn. You said you’re a practitioner, didn’t you? You weren’t able to fend them off?”
“I was drunk,” Crow said sharply. “More drunk than I’d been in a long time.”
Garrett refilled his glass. “I can send for a healer. I don’t know if she can do anything to the fingers other than splint them but she can definitely heal the cut.”
Crow nodded shakily. “I owe you one.”
Garrett waved a hand. “It’s the least I can do. After all I feel partially responsible for sending you in that direction. Did you see their faces?”
“I didn’t get a good look,” Crow said.
Garrett left the saloon, putting the bar in the charge of a younger woman. By the time he came back with an older man in tow, Crow was pleasantly drunk. The broken fingers and gash on his head still hurt but the whiskey helped make it easier to deal with.
The healer introduced himself as Root. Root looked over the cut critically. “Nasty business,” he said fretfully, his voice a dry croak. “You look like you had yourself a night. Let’s deal with the cut first, then I’ll make a splint for the fingers.”
Root cleaned as much of the blood as he could from around the cut before placing a wrinkly hand over the wound. His skin shimmered for a moment. Crow felt the wound begin to close up. The tingle of mana against his skin made him think of Sara; with a flash of guilt he realized how much he missed her.
After several minutes Root managed to make a rough splint with pieces of wood. Root told him it could take up to several weeks for it to heal. Crow thanked him, feeling a mixture of appreciation towards Garrett and the old man, and humiliation. Other than Barghast and Sara it’s been a long time since I’ve experienced human kindness, the practitioner thought.
Garrett smiled at Crow once Root had tottered out the doors of the saloon. “You look better - not perfect, but you don’t look like you’ve been flattened in the mud by a wagon. Do you still plan on heading to your hometown?”
“Yes. But now I have no money so I’m going to have to find work.” Crow sighed heavily. “Know anyone who’s looking for work?”
Garret shook his head. “Unfortunantly there’s not many places. I’d hire you as a dishwasher or bartender but I’m struggling to keep the doors open as it is. The Eurchurch keeps asking for more taxes each year. Mercius forgive me, but don’t tell me they ain’t corrupt. The only place I can think of is the brothel. Madame Vorca is always looking for...workers. It’s the quickest way I can think of you could make money...assuming you’re not above doing such work.”
Crow’s face darkened with memory. “I’m not.”
Madame Vorca was a vain looking woman, her face powdered in white, her lips painted dark red. In a lot of ways she reminded Crow of Loras but without Loras’ moral streak. This woman was mean but also cunning. She was dangerous. I better be careful, Crow thought. I don’t need her backing me into a corner I can’t get out of.
She sat at a desk, looking over him critically. She wore a frilly dress with long white sleeves. The end of the dress came down to just above her ankles. Crow stood before her, naked as the day he was born. He kept his hands at his sides, resisting the urge to shield his crotch from view. Standing off to the side, hands clasped before him, was a large brutish looking man with strawberry blonde hair and eyes spread a little too far apart. It seemed he was a bodyguard of some sort. Judging from the far away look in his eye there wasn’t much going on in his skull, Crow thought.
“Turn around,” Vorca said briskly.
Crow turned around so his back was facing her. A slanting ray of sun sliced across the room forming a diagonal line across his face. The red carpet beneath his bare feet felt reassuringly soft. Looking at the plush furniture and breathing in the smell of lavender, the lavish atmosphere was belied by the sound of shouts and moans and squeaking bed springs coming from the room across the hall.
“Hmmm,” Vorca said disapprovingly. “Not much skin on your bones. But you’re young so I suppose you’ll do. I suppose I don’t have to tell you our clientele are almost all men. Very rarely does a woman ever venture in here.”
“You don’t have to tell me,” said Crow.
“Good. And do you have experience pleasuring other men?” She had risen to her feet and walked around to face him. She continued to look Crow quizzically up and down.
“I do. As I’ve mentioned I worked in a brothel before. I know what to expect.”
“You’re young. You have that going in your favor. Whatever tips you make by the end of the week - should you decide to stay so long - I take seventy percent. This covers your board and food. Is this agreeable to you?”
This is how you keep your whores from leaving, Crow thought, silently detesting the woman who stood before him. You give them food and a nice room to sleep in. You give them the illusion of safety and comfort but really they are your prisoners. I will not be your prisoner. “It is.”
Vorca nodded approvingly. “It is settled then. Brass, will you take our new guest to their room?”
The large man standing in the corner of the room nodded, plodding out of the room without waiting to see if Crow followed. He led the practitioner up two floors, into a large room with a four poster bed, a wardrobe, a writing desk and an attached bathroom A window overlooked the town. The room looked and smelled clean.
A beautiful prison cell, Crow thought. Vorca may be a manipulative, scheming bitch but stupid she was not.
As soon as Brass left, Crow closed the door behind him. Even now he could hear shouts and curses, moans of pleasure, and squeaking bed springs. He turned to face himself in the mirror. In my short time I have lived many lives, he thought. I have been Crow, the healer’s nephew; I have been a soldier; and I have been a whore, a role I hoped I wouldn’t have to play again. But it seems some roles stick with us, no matter how hard we try to depart from them.