It was close to midnight when The Stray Dogs came to what Crow hoped was an abandoned steading. He was so tired he could barely keep his eyes open. His whole entire body was sore from sitting on Broana all day, and cold with the dropping of the temperature. Now that they had left the blistering heat of the desert for the north, the chill of the quickly approaching winter had set in. I need a decent night's rest. We all do.
Apparently Sara had been thinking along the same lines because she brought her horse to a stop and turned to Jack. Fulko was sitting behind her, looking as though he might nod off at any moment himself. “We should stop for the night, Jack. See about getting a real night’s rest.”
Jack nodded and steered his horse to the wooden gate. “It’s about bloody fuckin’ time,” Rake growled, cantering past Jack. Broana followed, moving at an even place.
Crow knew the horse was exhausted. She had been pushed hard. “Just a little further, girl.” He ran his fingers gently through her mane. “You’ve been doing real good, ol’ reliable.”
The six horses passed beneath the awning, racing towards the dark outlines of the building. The farmhouse stood in the middle of a five acre property with a barn and well flanking it; both had been visible when the group were coming up the road; beside the house a windmill turned rapidly, squeaking. The farmhouse itself was two stories tall, made of wood with dark shutters flapping eerily in the wind. Had Crow not been so exhausted or so cold he would have suggested they kept going; suggesting such a thing only would have earned him further looks of disdain and scowls.
“Anybody home!” Rake shouted, the wind buffeting his voice.
Crow stared at the windows waiting for a light to come on inside. The wind whipped at his cloak, blowing it around him. A flash of thunder illuminated the sky. The musty smell of rain was sharp in the air. No lights in the house came on. “Welp,” said Rake, “I guess it’s fair game.”
“You know the drill,” Jack said, having to speak up over the wind. “The inside has to be scouted first.”
“But it’s freezin’!”
Jack merely shook his head before turning to cast a look in Crow and Barghast’s direction. The look in his eyes was simple enough: Go inside and scout it out.
The practitioner swung his leg over Broana’s flank. The muscles in his thigh groaned in protest. He climbed down slowly, his boots sinking down into muddy soil. Barghast had already climbed down from his horse, shotgun gripped in his hands; he waited patiently for Crow, apparently in no hurry to get out of the rain but rather seeming to enjoy it.
“Hurry it up!” Rake chattered, hugging himself. “I’m freezing my ass off!”
“We just might take our time then, eh Little Bird?” Barghast grinned mischievously at Crow. The practitioner couldn’t help but smile despite his attempt to keep a straight face. He thought he heard Rake say something foul under his breath.
Crow took the lead, heading towards the farmhouse. The wooden porch steps creaked beneath their feet. He kept expecting a lamp to come on in the house or a shotgun to go off; after all they were intruding on someone’s property. He reached for the door, was about to turn the knob when the breeze pushed it slowly open. Darkness beckoned beyond the threshold. He glanced back at the Okanavian, taking comfort in his looming presence.
Barghast nodded. “What do I always tell you?”
“You’ve got my back and I got yours.”
“Let’s get this over with. Ika-Na-Na hpel su.”
Crow didn’t know what those last words meant; he was willing to take it as a prayer. Together they stepped into the dark.
Inside shapes loomed out of the shadows. Everything was completely still. It took Crow a moment to remember that he had magic at his possession, that with a wave of his hand he could create light. Drawing on his mana, he summoned a ball of fire that fit the palm of his hand. The ball of fire rose into the air, hovering before him like a plum-sized sun. The sphere of fire provided enough light to be able to see what was in front of them. He stood next to the staircase leading up to the second floor; the steps, painted white, looked sturdy built by expert hands.
Before him was a rocking chair and a fireplace. The fireplace was full of soot. Someone had left a ball of yarn and two needles sitting in the seat of the chair; Crow imagined a woman sitting in the chair, knitting meticulously. With a pang he remembered his Aunt Lena used to do the same thing with a mug of jalasa tea; for her knitting had been a religion. The dining room was connected to the living room, with a long table and enough chairs to seat a family of four. The husks of dried autumn leaves whispered against the wooden floorboards.
Over the sound of the leaves, Crow heard a mysterious buzzing noise. It took him a minute to realize why. There were dishes set out on the table: cups, plates, and silverware. Flies congregated on the plates, crawling across them. The family had been eating dinner when they decided to pack up and leave. Crow wondered what could have happened to make them leave so quickly, then realized he didn’t really want to know. He breathed in the sweet rotting smell of food left to spoil.
Barghast prayed in Okanavic to Mother Moon in a low chant. “Mrohtre Mono, ye’our lthig s’...”
Crow took them deeper into the dark. His ball of fire followed him like an obedient pet, always at his side. Stop being so damned afraid, he told himself. You’ve been in houses like this before. You’ve seen worse.
The two Strays circuited the rest of the house. The home was well-built with three bedrooms and a full kitchen. A door in the kitchen led out to the rest of the property. So far there were no signs that anything bad had happened, however there was evidence to suggest that the family who had lived here had left in a hurry, taking very little with them. Judging from the toys in two of the three bedrooms, two of the family members had been children. Crow suspected the family was heading towards Miffland like everyone else. There were whole villages and towns that had been abandoned, left to waste away in the hellscape.
Barghast waved for everyone to come inside.
The first thing Crow wanted to do was find a place to sleep but he couldn’t leave Broana out in the rotten weather.
“I want to come with you,” Barghast said.
Crow ran his hands along the length of Broana’s necks. “Afraid of the spirits and ghosties roaming around the place?” he asked teasingly.
“You were spooked too,” the Okanavian said defensively.
“Are you sure you weren’t just projecting?”
“I’m not going with you to the barn because I’m afraid of spirits. I’m going with you because there could be some Casteless lying in wait. And knowing you, you’d be the one to get them going.”
Crow sighed, doing his best to look resigned. “Very well, then, if you insist. Don’t worry, Okanavian, I won’t tell anyone the infamous Barghast “Blackshot” Unalaq is afraid of the dark.”
On the contrary Barghast liked the dark. Or, if he had to be specific, he liked the nighttime. He felt like there was a difference between nighttime and darkness.
The openness of the night sky always reminded Barghast of his day as an adolescent when he would venture foolishly from his tribe to hunt. While he liked the thrill and danger of hunting at night he also liked the solitude. It always seemed then that the world was his and he could do whatever he wanted.
There was no sense of freedom in this place. There was only a feeling of desolation and emptiness. He told himself he was going with Crow to the barn just in case the practitioner might run into any trouble; he could encounter any number of nasty things whether it be Red Wraiths, cutthroats, hungry wolves, or the possessed.
Whoever owned the property looked as if they had been in the middle of doing farmwork before they left. The soil had been digging through the dirt, perhaps harvesting the last round of potatoes before winter truly set in. There were several stalls in the barn. Broana and Gunpowder stepped inside of them complacently enough. Barghast slumped against one of the stalls. He watched the Practitioner light one of his jalasa joints and take a drag off it. “I don’t think I could take another step,” he grumbled after a moment.
“Me either. I could sleep on the floor, I think. But then we’d have no blankets to cover up with and our clothes are soaked. We’d have nothing to keep us warm.”
I’d keep you warm, the Okanavian thought. He had to bite his tongue to keep from saying the words out loud.
They went back to the farmhouse.
Almost everyone was already asleep when they went back to the farmhouse. Jack and Rake slept on top of pallets before a burning fireplace. Sara appeared with a set of folded clothes for Crow. “I found these when I was looking around. Apparently they just left them. They look like they might fit you. At least they’re dry.”
“What about me?” Barghast said, feigning indignance.
“Couldn’t find anything in your size,” Sara said simply. “There’s a spare bedroom on the left at the end of the hall upstairs. You two can sleep in there. Fulko is staying in one room and Lydia and I are staying in the other.”
Crow thanked her and made his way slowly up the stairs with Barghast on his heels. Barghast was so thoroughly exhausted he thought he could sleep on stone and still be comfortable. In the room the bed was too small for Barghast to sleep on so he set out his bedroll. Crow turned his back to Barghast and stripped out of his robes so the top half of his body was completely bare. Barghast took advantage of the opportunity to get his eyefull.
Barghast could not explain his attraction to Crow. The practitioner possessed none of the qualities Barghast had favored in other interests; Crow was knobby-kneed and bony, with long skinny fingers. Gawkish was the word that came to Barghast’s mind. The attraction had not been immediate but had grown gradually along with their friendship. He could not base it on anything since he knew nothing about the practitioner, who kept his secrets closely guarded to his chest. For example, on his back, just in between his shoulderblades, was a burn scar that almost appeared to be in the shape of a hand; Barghast had never gotten a close enough look to be sure but he knew there had to be an interesting story behind it. He wanted to ask but never did, afraid would begin to distance himself. The fact Barghast was too afraid to do anything that might officially break whatever relationship Crow and he already shared only made the situation more frustrating.
So while invading Crow’s privacy as he undressed as he undressed made Barghast feel as slimy as his reputation, he enjoyed these tiny moments, savoring them for as long as he could.
Crow mumbled something that might have been a good night and then blew out the flame in the lamp, enveloping the room in darkness.