I have an exam in just over a week. It's starting to get real.
What are we Doing With our Lives
In the dark there was a great deal of noise. It came from insects mainly, but also from nocturnal mammals; foxes and bats and the white eyed albino apemen – degenerate abominations who lived below the ground – all hooted their rage at the dark. These mindless sounds came intermittently: eerie howls that drifted across the land, calls that could have been laughter or could have been the slaughter of innocents, that cut across the background chatter of crickets to chill the blood of those who are not expecting to hear it. But more about them later.
The noise was useful, because people become used to things and they don’t hear them anymore, and so it hid the footsteps of the two intrepid adventurers. Or horse-thieves. However you like to look at it.
The village that Gray and T’Dore had stopped in was large enough to have a tavern, of sorts, but small enough for that tavern to have no night porter. More than that, it was trusting enough for that tavern to allow strangers to pay for their board and lodgings in the morning when they left. The level of security and stability that the people who lived here seemed to take for granted was yet another reason why Gray didn’t want to have anything to do with ruling them. Keeping this sort of order required effort, real effort, not just the occasional triumphant return from foreign parts with a mouth full of tales of distant rampage and a stylish new saddle-bag weaved from the silken hair of the nubile spider-women of Kargoth. That was the sort of low-level, moral-boosting aspect of public service that Gray had been looking forward to, the sort of thing that his uncle had done for years, turning up at the harvest festival with presents for the boys and his savage but friendly travelling companion with a strong line in rude jokes in tow. That was the sort of life that Gray wanted to lead, although it wouldn’t occur to him that-
Gray’s foot scraped on the gravel, a sudden sharp noise that brought him out of his bitter musings and right back to where he was now. He froze, as did T’Dore, trying not to breathe, but the hot, busy night didn’t explode into anger and violence and the two slowly let the tension ease from their bodies.
This was not even the most difficult part, earlier they had had to climb out of the window of their shared room without alerting anyone else on that floor. And then they had had to descend the wall, hand over hand and still carrying everything that they owned – although they had already had some experience of that kind of escape already, for it was the method they had used to flee from Gray’s parent’s house a week earlier. They had managed fine that time and they had managed fine this time as well.
They had not been able to take much with them, though, in order to have made escape so easy, or in fact not impossible at all. T’Dore had slung his bow across his back and declared himself ready. Against that example Gray had been forced to do little more than strap his sword to his side and a supply of coin to his belt and to declare himself ready as well. Such is the competitive bravado of youth – that night they had slept in a muddy trench made by the protruding roots of a copse of old sycamore trees, drenched in sweat and dew having run from Gray’s ancestral home as fast and as far as they could before they collapsed, huddled together in the morning chill.
Three days later and the smell was becoming unbearable. If they were going to make contact with one of the villages and not be chased away as vagabonds and troublemakers, and now that they were out of the Grien lands of home that is exactly what they were looking to do, then they would have to clean themselves up. They had to be a pair of respectable travellers.
Luckily, it was a hot day and they found a fast stream. They were able to strip off and wash themselves and their clothes and then to stretch out in the sun to dry off. When they were dressed again they felt able to stroll more amiably together south and then east through the sprawling, almost featureless lands of the Jordahn family. They were unhurried because they were confidant that they would find a town or a hamlet and so maybe therefore a place to eat something other than berries and roots and to sleep in something other than mud. They enjoyed the feeling of companionship in the sun, and it did seem good.
The way was not certain, however, and large expanses of land were untouched by a farmers hand and devoid of path or road. It was certainly unspoilt, at least in recent terms, and had a kind of beauty to it although it could not have been this way since time began, T’Dore observed. It was manicured land, and it did not have the roughness of his home. It was somehow completely free of bandits and robbers and stranger still, even Gray had to wonder how the people supported themselves with so little apparent infrastructure.
The answer was soon to be more apparent as they became aware of a small village, the very same small village out of whose inn they were currently sneaking. The farmland around the village seemed strangely delineated, strictly contained within an area that could not possibly support more than thirty or forty people. And that was when Gray remembered.
It was a story that his uncle had told him about his travels, and about the strange and regressive habits of the neighbouring lands of Jordahn; the ten families law. Each village could have a maximum of ten families: the mayor’s, the baker’s, the blacksmith’s and the farmer’s, the butcher’s and the inn keeper’s, the crazy old man, the mysterious wise woman and at last the strange family with the outsider’s ways who lived a small distance from the rest of the village.
And what was more, each family was strictly limited to two children, one of whom had to be an adopted orphan found in odd circumstances. Although the practical upshot of this particular decree was a habit of families ‘swapping’ babies by leaving them in the woods for each other to find. Like an intergenerational treasure hunt.
It was amazing, Gray’s uncle had insisted. As a model of communal living it fostered an incredible, if regressive, sense of harmony and community spirit. There was no crime in Jordahn, not like there could be found in Grien, and there was no evil that could touch the villages. Astounding. Wonderful. Exceptional. Until the black-garbed riders came, as they inevitably did, and slaughtered everyone. He had said, when he was there, that he hadn’t wanted to get involved in something that wasn’t really his business. There was no reasoning with some people.
And it was true, what he had said, about the sense of community. THey had been wonderfully accepting to Gray and T’Dore. They had welcomed them with hot soup and crusty bread and other wholesome country fare. It had been the least that they could do.
And now, Gray and T’Dore were going to steal the blacksmith’s horses and ride as far and as fast as they could. But it was all for a good cause, and as far as Gray was concerned they were only peasants as well, so he didn’t feel too bad about it at all. The adventure came first.
From the shadows to Gray’s right there was a slow deliberate movement that made a point of being unostentatious but perceptible. It ended with Gray feeling a definite edge against his throat. Once the movement was complete and it’s implications made clear it was followed by a woman’s voice. It said: ‘Halt,’ and it was a voice that Gray recognised as that of the inn keeper’s daughter.
He thought: she was flirting with me earlier, I’m sure of it. Maybe everything isn’t going to go wrong. Although, it probably is.
Gray saw T’Dore put his hand to his knife but the inn keeper’s daughter spoke again. This time she said: ‘If you draw that knife then you will both die,’ although Gray thought that he heard a tremor in her voice as she said this. He waved his companion down. Even though T’Dore could no doubt kill her in a straight fight, as could he if he was in the position, one flinch and she would slit his throat instantly and that was the thing that concerned him most about the current situation. Besides, the fact that she hadn’t killed him yet gave him the idea that that wasn’t what she really wanted to do either. For all he knew, she did want to sleep with him, and this was just her way of showing it. The lower classes could be very backward at times, and stubbornly wilful too. You never entirely knew what was what with them.
‘Is this about earlier?’ Gray asked. ‘It... it is Robin, isn’t it? Look, I’m sorry if I gave you the wrong idea.’
‘What do you mean?’ she said, momentarily confused.
‘Earlier, Gray repeated. ‘You and me. You might have thought, I might have given the impression that... and... and I shouldn’t have done so.’
There was a pause, and then Robin started. ‘What?’ she said. ‘That you and I...?’ She laughed and looked aver at T’Dore, who remained very serious. ‘Oh of course not. Look, I get it, I knew that I didn’t have a chance. I’m not that stupid. I mean, we may be backward round here, or some of us at least, but we’re not that backward.’
She seemed to relax a little bit and as the sword she held was not so close to opening up a new and more direct airway for Gray he decided to chance laughing too. T’Dore tittered slightly, following suit because it seemed to be what was expected of him, but he was still uneasy. Robin stepped marginally forward, revealing a crescent of face from the dark of the shadows framed by a loose curl of muddy brown hair but she remembered herself quickly and straightened up once again into her previous, deadly pose. ‘That apart,’ she said, ‘I still can’t let you pass.’
‘Oh,’ said Gray, not sure if he was relieved or not. ‘May I ask why?’
‘I should have thought that that was obvious,’ Robin snorted,’ but you are a boy, and I wouldn’t be surprised if this wasn’t the first time that you didn’t know what it was that you were doing or why it was that you were doing it. It is very simple, really. I cannot let you pass because you haven’t paid my father yet, because you are about to steal the only two horses in this village and because I want to go with you. Is that ok?’
‘You have the makings of an argument there,’ Gray began, ‘but, wait. What was the last thing you said?’
‘I want to go with you,’ Robin stated. ‘The rest is just detail.’
‘It’s blackmail,’ T’Dore spoke up.
‘Detail, honey,’ Robin insisted. ‘Don’t worry about it too much.’
‘Why do you want to come with us?’ Gray asked carefully. ‘And can we talk about this without the sword?’
‘The sword stays until you agree to my terms.’
‘Or I suppose I just have to kill you,’ Robin said, but she wavered a little before she did so.
‘And have you ever killed anyone before?’ Gray asked her.
‘There’s a first time for everything,’ Robin replied, more in control again. ‘But you don’t want to explore that option, do you?’
‘Not really,’ Gray agreed, ‘but do tell me. Why do you want to come with us?’
‘Because you’re going somewhere,’ Robin said, stepping fully out of the shadows and taking the sword away from Gray’s throat only to swish it in a dangerous emphasis to her words. ‘Here,’ she said, rounding on Gray with an intense expression of frustration, ‘I’m going nowhere.’
Gray stepped back and put his hand to his own sword, but he didn’t draw it.
‘I can’t stay,’ Robin insisted. ‘I don’t belong here. I belong out there,’ she said pointing into the vague distance behind her.
‘But what about your father?’ Gray asked softly. ‘What about your family? Don’t they mean anything to you?’
‘They...’ Robin hesitated. ‘They do and they don’t.’
‘You were willing to kill us just now,’ T’Dore spoke up, ‘for the sake of a few coins that we did not pay them. That is not nothing. The... the decision to leave them behind should not be taken lightly. Life on the outside-’
‘Oh,’ Robin waved the sword with sudden and frightening abandon again, ‘I wasn’t really going to kill you. And you are going to pay for your board before we leave.’
‘I hadn’t said that ‘we’ would be leaving, yet,’ Gray pointed out.
‘In that case, I will just have to call for my father,’ Robin said brightly. ‘And he will kill you, which gets us right back where we started. It’s your call.’
‘Oh for god’s sake, you are insufferable,’ Gray hissed.
‘And I also know where the saddles are kept, as well as being one of the few people who could get those horses out of the stable without them waking up the whole village.’ Robin sheathed her sword and stood in the moonlight with her hand outstretched. ‘Do we have a deal then?’