03/12/2014 § Leave a comment

He was traveling with some men he had met on the road a few days past, men in fraying coats and overworn boots, men of fields and lumber camps and country roads, drifters and vagrants all. Together they made a lowly flock headed for the city of Ardour’s Rest, the only place in the Eastern Territories where men such as they might find refuge for the coming Night. There were about twenty of them, and most, if not all, judging by their accent and common talk, were Austerlings whose livelihoods had been destroyed for one reason or another during the Miners’ War.

By the last quarter of the first hour the camp was awake, and the men broke their fast on a meager feast of cornmeal and hot water, emptied their bladders and bowels on the frosted field, and set off northward along the road.

Talk was scarce. The day was colder than the one before it, and they knew they had only a few days to reach the city. Once Night rose, no city would willingly open its gates for a group of vagrants.

Horace walked alone at the tail end of the procession. He did not know the names of the men he traveled with, nor was he inclined to. He was not one of them, not truly, and the men knew he was not. Just as he had placed their origin by frequent, measured pauses in their speech and a slight upward inflection that gave it a songlike quality, they heard the harshness of his consonants and knew him to be a native son of Havertham. He’d seen it dawn on their faces after the first few words had been spoken, and had prepared himself to be shunned. But uneasy as they were, the men allowed him to join them, and shared with him what little they had to eat and drink. They saw that he too was a vagrant and a drifter, and as he had learned time and again wandering the Eastern Territories, a strange sort of camaraderie lived among those to whom their own existence was far less than a gift. And Horace for his part was glad for their company, for it rendered the dying of light a little less unbearable.

They walked until fifth hour and stopped to rest their legs for a quarter, then set off again and walked until the eighth. The road was uneven. The horseshoe-shaped valley widened gradually as they walked but the mountain winds reached them just as bitterly. Near the flat of the valley, the group came across a wreckage of an oxcart in a ditch and later saw many cairns on the roadside. Some of the men stopped briefly to pay their respects.

Soon afterward, Horace was joined by an old man he did not know, broad-shouldered and thick of waist, who wore a great white tangle of a beard flecked with dirt and grime and walked with an impressive gait despite the visible bend in his spine. When their eyes met the old man said, “No man should walk alone, when in company of others.” Horace bowed his head in gratitude.

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