Of Recan's Rut and the hunt for a man that deserves to die.
Do not think me one of the Godless. I have seen Solora’s fields, and walked H’waya’s path. I follow the Gods, but I do so governed by my own hand. Understand it is not faith I condemn, but the religions of mankind. Religion makes fools of smart men and weakens the strong. Religion is defined by a handful of men who set out tents by which they claim all should live. I have seen how so called holy men comport themselves in the anonymity of the night. Some are no better than the Doom Preachers. Others are worse. Religion has bred monsters beyond that conjured up by even the most hellish pits on this Blackened Earth.
Religion is the tool by which a dark-hearted few would seek to bend the world to their bidding. It is a weapon to be wielded; were any axe or blade capable of such death and dismay there would be but one man left upon this wretched wasteland. Instead, one who brings religion brings only distrust and fear, and crushes beneath them those that hold them aloft.
I have made enemies of men who claim to be closer to the Gods than I, for they have trodden their followers into the dirt to gain such twisted perspective. And do not think that is why I am here; on some vendetta against all Holy men, for that is not the case. The man I am here for deserves every inch of blade I give him.
Let us see if he begs the Gods for the end, or if he begs me.
The approach into Recan’s Rut was busy; busier than I have seen the roads into even the largest cities in the Wastes.
Men, women, children; all of them clamoured aloud, for what or who I don’t care. They and their shabby tents they call home littered the dry earth either side of the beaten path as I walked it, drawing fewer eyes than most outsiders do these days. But here we are all outsiders, only I do not possess the desperate look of these cretins about me.
Instead, my eyes roved over the patchwork of human detritus in search of the nearest tavern; a hovel named Recan’s Rest, as it turned out, on the outskirts of the town proper. It was little more than a window in an outhouse, from which a lone bartender served scum-topped beverages in ancient metal shells to a handful of customers seated on a scattered array of heavily-used tables and chairs.
Still, the people I wanted to find were clustered together near the road, away from the over-reaching shadows of the taller buildings around them, their eyes constantly moving over the sea of people that bustled past.
Traders. They are a valuable race, and one who can tell you much of what you need to know; for a price, of course. And there are only three things of value to a man in the Wastes: a good blade, clean water, and information. And I would sooner drag my balls over every inch of the Rust Fields than part with the first or second. So information it was.
‘Good morning, gentlemen,’ I addressed them politely, startling more than one of them. ‘Might I join you?’
There were only three of them, but all were wary and cautious, their eyes now crawling over every inch of me to determine who or what I was. What they saw was a tall man with a hard face that belied its age for all the time spent under the merciless glare of the sun. Well-tamed dark hair met a darker beard and broad shoulders, though a diet forced upon me by my travels in the Wastes, had, I’ll admit, given me a somewhat gaunt look.
As for my clothes, I imagine I looked like any outlander to them; men they must have seen hundreds of times between ports of civilisation. A once-brown trench coat now bleached by salt and sun covered a somewhat road-battered white shirt and light fabric trousers tucked into a find pair of leather boots that have been the envy of more than one man.
The trader directly opposite me, facing the road, which usually meant he was in charge, nodded once, so I bowed my thanks and joined them, removing my blade form my belt as I did so, placing it tenderly upon the pocked table before me. Better they see the knife and trust men, than be unknowing and on edge the entire time. Relaxed men are comfortable men, and comfortable men talk more.
The two remaining traders, following my example, laid a crude falchion and a short-bladed skinning knife in front of them. Things were off to a good start, at least, and I waited for them to start, as is customary in these situations. And it cannot be said that traders are not men of custom.
‘What do you need?’ the trader opposite me, an ugly, clean-shaven man with blistered skin asked. ‘Food? Water? Transport?’
‘Information,’ I replied politely.
‘Like for like,’ the ugly man nodded again, showing off a scab-ridden scalp as he did so.
‘Which way did you come into town?’ I enquired, though it didn’t matter. If they’d come from the west, I would have travelled here from the east; if they’d approached from the south, chance would have it I came by the north.
‘Come in from the north,’ Ugly stated. ‘Down from Black Spine.’
‘Leaving by the south,’ his colleague at his left hand added; a younger man, no doubt just as ugly behind a tangled beard and a nest of wild blonde hair.
This, more than anything, gave away the man’s, or even boy’s inexperience. You do not tell stranger’s by which road you intend to travel, especially having just stopped to re-supply. That is how men end up dead, and bandits end up fed. Judging from the look on Ugly’s face, it had been the truth as well.
This made things easier, at least, and I smiled as reassuringly as is humanly possible in this inhuman world. ‘You are in luck,’ I informed them gladly. ‘I have just come up from the south; do you have a map?’
The wholly impassive-looking man to Ugly’s right withdrew a tattered hide scroll from a bag nestled at his feet and unfurled it upon the table, fortunate that it was small enough not to upset their drinks.
‘The Salt Bluffs are a good spot to make camp, and you can make it through them in two days,’ I told them. Plenty of high ground, lots of cover. Further south,’ I traced my finger downward across the map, ‘I was ambushed by half a dozen raiders. You’ll find their bodies on the road if the scavengers haven’t finished with them.’
Ugly raised a ragged eyebrow at this and I met his gaze. He read the truth of it upon my face and shrugged, returning his attention to the map.
‘There’s fresh water here,’ I continued, moving my pointed finger down to the south-west, ‘and talk of more raiders in this area.’ I circled a small patch of hide half a day’s travel below the water source.
There was always talk of raiders. Didn’t matter where you went, every inch of the Wastes held some threat or another, and raiders were not the worst of it. They would find trouble, sure enough, not least of all because I had no idea if there was fresh water anywhere near where I’d indicated.
‘Are you headed for Brink?’ I asked.
Ugly grunted an affirmative.
‘There’s a new man in charge of the town; a recent transition I believe. Keep an eye out for groups claiming new tax laws in the area; it wouldn’t be the first time rogues took advantage of a mayoral shift.’ I neglected to tell them I had been responsible for that transition, having killed the last leader of Brink for crimes too varied to mention.
‘Thanks,’ Ugly said, warmer to me now than he had been previously. I’d gained his trust now, and that was more than half the battle. He nodded, satisfied, at Blank Face on his right, and the non-descript man re-rolled the map and stowed it away once more.
‘Ask your questions,’ Ugly invited me to talk with the wave of a dirty hand.
‘Why’s the town so busy?’ I asked. A superfluous enquiry, and one to which I knew the answer, but it was better to take my time with these things. There was no sense in giving my intentions away from the off, and just because they trusted me, did not mean I could trust them.
‘They’re here for Recan,’ Ugly answered me, thumbing over his shoulder in the very general direction of the monstrous tower of a metallic totem. ‘There’s a new preacher here, declaring the return of the Gods.’
‘Men have claimed this before,’ I argued, thinking in particular of a number of Doom Preachers. ‘And none have drawn such a crowd as this.’
‘This is different,’ Ugly continued. ‘Three months ago it was said Recan could be heard groaning in the night. A sound that shook the earth, they say. A week later there were stories of Recan opening his eyes; bright as the sun and staring out over the Wastes. We heard these things even as far away as Black Spine.’
Blank shook his head, but young Beardy stared up at the idol of the Corival in awe.
‘I’m tracking a man,’ I told them, to bring their attention back to me. It was true, but a small truth. ‘He is one of the Cateran.’
Beardy nearly choked on his own beard at that, and Blank spat out a mouthful of foul-coloured drink he had been unable to swallow. To his due, Ugly did not react, only watched me, carefully, calculating with tiny sunken eyes.
‘Are you mad?’ Beardy asked me, aghast. ‘The Cateran?’
‘You’ve heard of them, then?’ I replied, affecting surprise.
‘Show me a man, woman or child that hasn’t heard of the Cateran and I’ll wade into the Poison Ocean and drag H’waya out by her tail,’ Blank exclaimed, no longer living up to his name.
He was right, of course. The Cateran is who you feared if all other fears deserted you. Even the Metal Gods themselves would think twice before entering into a fight with them.
They were raiders, in principle, but to group them with the murderers and rapists that hounded travellers in the Wastes would be as great an injustice as naming a pile of scrap metal the Fifth among the Gods. They were warriors beyond compare. Well, unless they were compared to me, of course.
‘There is a bounty on this man’s head,’ I lied; the traders now hooked on my every word. ‘From what I have heard, he has ingratiated himself within the preacher’s inner circle here.’
‘What business does the Cateran have with preachers this far east?’ Ugly asked with the merest hint of suspicion.
‘I intend to ask him that myself,’ I countered. ‘But I have no doubt whatever his answer; it will be cause for concern.’
That was an understatement to say the least, but what did it matter? I’d scarcely told the truth since I first sat down, but now we were inching toward what I really wanted to know.
‘There is a man,’ Beardy began, casting wary glances at his companions at the table and the tables around us. ‘He’s always at the preacher’s side, never leaves him, from what I’ve seen. Locals dunno who he is either.’
Ugly and Blank nodded along, silently confirming the truth of the younger man’s information.
‘It could well be him,’ I mused with feigned deliberation. ‘What does he look like? Where can I find him?’
‘He’s a big man, all muscle. Covered in scars, shaved head, dark moustache,’ Beardy recalled the image of this stranger. ‘Tall as well; nearing on seven feet I’ll bet. Carries a sledgehammer.’
I pretended, briefly, to picture him, as though aligning the description I carried in my head with the portrait Beardy was painting me. The man was most likely a hired bodyguard; strange company for a preacher of the Gods to keep, but, given what he was doing, it was understandable. And more useful information than I would have wagered gathering with a false line of questioning.
‘As for where he is,’ Beardy continued, ‘he’ll be with the preacher, like he always is.’
That was useless.
‘And where can I find the preacher?’ I asked, finally.
Ugly shrugged. ‘At noon he greets worshippers at the foot of Recan, but now,’ he paused to stare skyward and judge the position of the sun. It was mid-afternoon. He looked back at me and shrugged again.
Noon tomorrow it would have to be.
‘Thank you, gentlemen,’ I said with another bow as I pushed myself to my feet. I would get little else of nay use out of them. But I had a time and a place to be, and I have found men with far less than that. ‘May your travels be safe and uneventful,’ I added, retrieving my blade from the table top and returning it to its scabbard at my belt.
The merchants raised their drinks and mumbled their own thanks, but they were already forgotten to me. Someone else had grabbed my attention more thoroughly. From where I’d been sat, my back to the road, I had not witnessed his approach. I had been lucky he was not there to kill me, for the trader’s had paid him no heed.
‘Good afternoon, stranger,’ the excessively handsome man addressed me.
The remaining patrons that had not already seen him turned to face the newcomer, stood, as he was, inconspicuously at the edge of the smattering of rusted bar furniture.
He could have been talking to any one of the score of unknowns sat about drinking, but his dark eyes were locked on me,
He was smiling warmly, hands clasped behind his back, until my studious gaze led him to open them wide at his sides to show he was unarmed.
‘Will you accompany me, please?’ His voice was soft and smooth, a pleasant thing in a jagged and rusted-out world, with no hint of threat or danger in it, but I could feel that his were not the only eyes upon me. ‘You may leave your weapons with your friends, if you’d prefer?’
The words were spoken almost playfully; a jest between him and I.
‘I’ll bring them with me all the same,’ I replied, as though it were a trivial thing that mattered little one way or the other.
The overly attractive man smiled, showing perfectly white teeth – a feat in itself these days – and nodded, gesturing down the busy street that led to the colossal Recan.
I acquiesced. Here and now were not suitable for a fight if I did not know who or how numerous my enemies were.
And so I followed him, into the heat of the crowds and the long shadow of the Corival.