There were a lot of freaks in the Doctor’s place. Freaks everywhere you looked of every size and shape you could imagine, set out like fruit for display at market. They had names, but Aesh never used them unless it was absolutely necessary. The freaks were barely human anyway.
The newest freak was a boy two years of age with a head the size of a ripe melon. He could only pivot in feeble arcs, and Aesh was glad the boy could not talk lest he spend all day complaining. The Doctor said the boy wouldn’t last much longer, and was surprised to find the boy had survived birth. Aesh was surprised his father hadn’t put him out of his misery the second he had been cut from his mother. The Doctor said the kid had something so rare everyone thought it was pretend. He’d made a proper fuss of it. Aesh had stopped paying attention after a while. The kid had a big head, that was all there was to it. The Doctor had a way of complicating things. Besides, there were more interesting freaks.
There was Fat Chen, who lay still and obese in bed all day, unable to move his muscles. He’d fallen off a horse in some special way and landed on his head. There was Half and Half Nilea. She couldn’t move half her body and spent all day mumbling some of the worst curses Aesh had ever heard. Simple Ben had eyes that seemed too round and a face that seemed too soft. He could hardly count to ten. But they were all in a way too common. For Aesh’s money, the best freak was the Nub.
Aesh had caused a lot of trouble in his sixteen years of life. His mother had switched him for snitching food. He’d been suspended from town school for a week for talking out of turn. He’d even put his hands on Merri Nedanu in ways no boy was supposed to put his hands on a girl he hadn’t married, and been beaten half to death by her father when word got around town. He’d done a lot of bad things to hurt a lot of people, but Aesh had no idea what the Nub had done to make someone so insane with anger that they hadn’t given him the mercy of killing him outright.
The Nub had no eyes. They had been put out. And he had no hands or feet. Someone had chopped them clean off. Aesh could only figure one way that the Nub had been saved so quick that he hadn’t bled to death. That’s what really got to Aesh. That idea. Whoever had lain into the Nub had to have been the same person that saved his life. Whenever you laid eyes on the Nub, your mind turned to think of the monster what had hurt him so bad. Aesh figured that alone made the Nub a fascinating creature.
But the Nub’s horrors were more bizarre than that. The Nub had no tongue and no teeth. As if someone had purposefully wanted that he never speak again, and that he never be able to bite open his wrists and end his life. All the Nub could do all day was lay still, helpless, and think. Think about things he would never be able to relay to anyone. That was what caught Aesh’s attention so profoundly. What was the Nub thinking? What was going on in his mind? There could be no way of ever knowing.
“Aesh!” Herral whispered. It was both their turn in the hospital and Herral had been trying to corner him all afternoon. Aesh had been doing his best to avoid him. Herral was going to get them caught if he kept it up.
“Hold your wind, Herral! You want the Doctor hearing you?” Aesh muttered, folding a set of sheets and setting them down by the bed. He had to be careful to be quiet. The Doctor had ears like a bat.
Aesh ignored Herral’s look of hurt by reaching back into the big bin where all the clean sheets were held. He’d saved replacing the linens for last as he found it to be the easiest chore. One of the Doctor’s Prentices would come by and do the actual changing. You had to have a delicate hand with the freaks, and no one trusted it to the town youths. Aesh and Herral just had to stock supplies.
“Did you get it?” Herral insisted. Lords, Herral was dumb. He was the dumbest boy in the whole town. Talking about things like that in the Doctor’s place. Might as well go into the Ironwood on Standing Day, if he wanted to be so dumb. At least then he’d only get himself in trouble.
“I said hold your wind, Herral. The Doctor has no patience for that stuff, and we have to look after the freaks.” The Nub stirred at being called a freak, but Aesh didn’t mind. It wasn’t like the Nub was going to tell anyone.
“You’re worried about the freaks?” The freaks were a sore subject with Herral. “I don’t know why the Doctor keeps them. I still say we ought to ship the lot of them off to Samaerael. Let the Avatars make them into stew or whatever it is they do with freaks. No need for them to be botherin’ us.” Herral made a face like he wanted to spit. Herral made the same point every time their turn came up to go into the freak ward.
“Just you watch yourself. You can meet me by the miller’s place. We’ll talk there.” Aesh finished piling the last of the sheets and headed toward the door, knowing Herral wouldn’t follow. No one went against the Doctor’s orders. Not even someone as dim as Herral. Aesh found himself glad that he had gotten an early start on that day’s chores. It meant he wouldn’t have to suffer Herral any longer.
“You can’t leave me alone with the Nub!” Herral hissed. The Nub started moaning again, flailing his useless limbs to and fro. He hated that name. The Nub. It must have brought all the horrors of his plight to the front of his mind. If he had much of a mind anymore, Aesh reflected. It’s not like anyone could tell if the Nub was lucid or not. Aesh snickered as Herral backed against the wall, to hold his body out of the reach of the Nub.
“What are you worried for, Herral? Are you worried the Nub’s going to gum you to death?” Aesh shut the door to the freak ward, and left the hospital. At one point he thought he could hear Herral screaming, but Herral screamed every time the Nub managed to touch him so no one raised much alarm over it anymore.
Aesh smirked before leaving the hospital altogether.
“I don’t know about this. You know what they say about that stuff.” Winther was always the one who tried to restrain them when he felt they had gone too far. Winther was a tall gangly boy, a year older than either Herral or Aesh, yet so awkward and uncertain that he seemed at least two years younger. Winther bit his fingernails when he was nervous. At that moment, he looked like he wanted to swallow his entire hand. If they hadn’t been of the same age, Aesh doubted he would have ever even spoken to Winther, let alone become his friend.
“What’s that ya great idiot?” Herral spat. “You think the Shadowman came by and stuck his thumb in the soil, and that when he pulled it away the Leaf sprung up? Alarell bleedin’ at Ragnad, Winther, the smartest part of you ran down your mother’s leg. It’s a plant. I don’t see you running for your mother’s apron strings every time you see grass on the hillside.” Herral scorned. Aesh reflected that Herral thought himself very brave when he wasn’t stuck in the same room as the Nub.
“You know I don’t hold with none of that. It’s just… there’s something ain’t right about it is all. You ever wonder why all of the grown ups hush up every time it gets brought up?” Winther insisted.
“They hush up every time someone mentions the Doctor too, and they all love the Doctor.” Herral made a mock kiss face, and Winther was forced to throw up his hands in disgust. Winther had been so brow beaten by his mother he wasn’t much of a man at all.
“Fine! Fine! I’m just saying we ought to be careful!”
“Stop it you two! You want to wake the miller?” He wouldn’t have risked meeting there had not the miller’s place been at the fork of the roads they all lived on. Aesh brought the cloth he had pressed the Leaves in out from underneath his shirt.
“Where’d you find this stuff again?” Herral asked.
“Lose your guts?” Winther smirked.
“From the forests outside the hospital. The Doctor sent me to fetch him some herbs. Stuff he didn’t have in the garden, I guess. Found a wild patch of it. I figured it was Leaf because it had thirteen sepals, like in the stories.” Aesh unfolded the cloth before either of them could argue anymore. Punishment for getting caught with Leaf was worse than a beating. Get caught with Leaf and they put a whip across your back. Sometimes they even forced you to leave the town.
“What do you do with it?” Winther bent over to peer at it, his face scrunched in on itself. Aesh took the opportunity to slap the side of his head.
“Smoke it you great idiot!”
“Well you didn’t have to hit me!” Winther shouted.
Aesh smiled. He liked to remind Winther of who was in charge between the two of them. He spread the cloth out in the patch of grass between the three of them. The sepals lay there, thirty-nine in all. Dried, ready to be shredded, rolled and smoked. Aesh was very pleased with himself indeed.
“Did you bring the rolling papers?” Herral asked.
“Lords damn it, Herral. Did you just want to smoke all of it right here where anyone can see? No, today is just for showing. That’s all.” They were going to save it up and take it a bit at a time if Aesh had any say in matters, which he did. It wasn’t every day you found something as precious as Leaf growing in the middle of the damned forest.
“When do you want to do it? Everyone’s been on edge lately. I heard there was going to be a village watch, like back when we were little. They’re setting up a patrol.” Winther didn’t take his eyes off the Leaf even when Aesh had bundled it back up and hid it underneath his shirt again. He wasn’t half so hesitant as he pretended, that Winther.
“Why are they doing that?” Herral asked, distracted. They were all standing now, ready to part ways.
“I heard there’s trouble back east. Witnesses aren’t content with spreading the Message peacefully anymore. Now they’re killing anyone who won’t listen. They said now that He’s back it won’t be long till He announces himself and unites all the kingdoms of the world.” Winther nodded at the end of each sentence, as if he knew every word to be true.
“You could rape a Witness’ mother in front of him and all he would do is ask you to stop.” Aesh said. Winther really didn’t know a damn thing. “Don’t give me none of this war nonsense. The Doctor keeps out the Barons and the Witnesses, alike. Everyone knows that.” Aesh sneered, buttoning up his coat. He had to get home soon or his mother would start to ask too many questions. There wasn’t much work in the winter, but that woman still kept track of his whereabouts too much for his liking.
“Nothing lasts forever.” Herral said.
“Tell that to the Doctor. You mark my words, Herral. You too Winther. When Alarell comes riding back over the world holding the Spear of the Horizon, there won’t be nothing but dust and the Doctor. The Doctor ain’t going nowhere. And he sure as the sky is blue ain’t letting the Barons or witnesses into town. Just dust and the Doctor. You mark my words.”
With that Aesh finished buttoning the last button on his ragged coat, turned toward the road that led to his house and began to walk. Not for the first time he wished there was enough money around that he could get himself a proper horse. Walking in the mud was undignified.
“For ten years, the Weaver lived side by side with the folk of the village. For ten years, he worked the fields with them. He shared his meals with them. Shared the use of the common. He became one of them. And after a while, he found a young to share his bed and begat children by her. Now, some say they were her children from another man, but it made no difference to the Weaver. Children were children, and if they were hers he would raise them as his own. A big heart, had the Weaver.”
Aesh rolled his eyes as he closed the door behind him. His mother was putting his brother and sister to sleep still. She spared him an unkind glance in the lantern light before returning her attention to the children. Aesh’s mother was a weather beaten hag. She had a sun squint stare and skin like leather. She was even proud of the way she presented herself, said it meant she’d worked hard. Aesh hated to even look at her.
“So for ten years the villagers loved the Weaver as one of their own. Loved him and took him in as one of their own, and all was well until the Baron of the village took a lusting to the wife of the Weaver. So one day while the Weaver was out working the fields, preparing food for the stomach’s of his wife and children, the Baron brought the wife of the Weaver to him and took her to his bed. And when she tried to deny him, he killed her. Slit her throat, ear to ear.”
Aesh’s mother ran a finger across her neck for emphasis. Jak and Nia gasped. Aesh noticed their hands were grubby from scrubbing the house. His mother, Aesh thought, did not have a proper respect for leisure.
“A fine story to be telling children.” Aesh muttered.
“A true story! A story children ought to hear if they’re to have a lick of sense.” His mother turned and nodded at the children.
“What happened next?” Jak asked.
“Yeah, what happened?” followed Nia.
“It’d give you nightmares.” Aesh’s mother insisted, waiting for them to ask for more.
“Please!” They said in unison.
Aesh’s mother smiled as she acquiesced. Aesh snorted. His mother loved telling dark tales. She loved stories for all that her imagination wouldn’t stretch from one end of her field to the other. “Okay then, okay but you have to promise you won’t be scared too much by it.” The children gave eager nods. Aesh occupied himself with preparing his bed for sleep.
“Well… some say that the Baron tried to take the children of the Weaver hostage to stop him from getting his revenge, see? The Baron didn’t know he was a Weaver, but he knew that he was a powerful man quick to anger and was afraid of him nonetheless. So he took the Weaver’s children, and when the Weaver came to him to get them back, the Baron killed them both. Same as the mother.
“The Weaver, he wasn’t like the rest of his kind. He had been sent into exile long ago for some reason nobody remembered, not even him. And he had made a promise never to spill a drop of human blood, not even if that oath cost him his own life. So you know what he did?
“He had a powerful curse he summoned upon the Baron. Something given to him from back before the Abandonment that would catch someone in a kind of living death and he used it on the Baron so that his essence would hang forever over the land, protecting it from harm, unable to go into the After. And when all that was done, he became the new king of the people and protected them from all invaders. See? It worked out for everyone.”
“Except the Weaver who got his family killed.” Aesh murmured. Then added,
“And the Baron. Didn’t work out well for him either.” Aesh had found a loaf of bread and tore it in half to eat.
“And now where have you been, young master Aesh, if you would be so kind?” His mother had a way of talking down to him like that. Aesh was not a bit fond of it.
“I had to stay long at the Doctor’s. They needed help with the freaks. I volunteered.” That seemed to satisfy the old hag, so she got up and put the children to bed. She never asked questions about the Doctor or school, as she had no mind for either. Aesh was grateful for the opportunity and used it to the hide the Leaf in his coat, both of which he he threw under his mattress. He’d have to find a better hiding place come morning.
“How was the Doctor today?” His mother asked, returning.
Aesh shrugged. “Same as always I guess. All doom and gloom like it was Ragnad all over again. I didn’t see him too much. He was tending to people.”
His mother bit her tongue, and took a seat at the kitchen table. “I need to have a talk with you.”
“What about?” Aesh hoped like all the Lights in the After she had not caught a whiff of the Leaf he’d been carrying around the past few days. She’d turn him over to the Doctor worse as any town snitch.
“The town’s putting together a patrol. There’s been rumor that the Witnesses are giving the Barons back east trouble. There could be people heading this way. Dangerous folk coming along with them. I told the council you would be happy to volunteer. One of the Doctor’s Prentices came by today to talk to me about it.”
Aesh was angry. As if he needed even more to do. “And why would you go and do a thing like that for!”
“There ain’t many men here. And of what men there are, most of them can’t leave long enough to go on a patrol. They’ve got business needs doing. You know that, and you’re old enough now to be of use. No fields to plow in the winter. No seeds to plant. No ditches needing digging. Plus, you’ll get to feel important. I would have though you’d fancy that idea.” His mother sniffed at the idea of importance.
“Walking around all through the middle of the night, freezing my ass off? You make it sound like it’ll be a grand adventure!” Aesh knew Winther and Herral would see it that way. Dim bastards that they were.
“You’ll do it just the same.” His mother said, looking at her fingers. She had such grubby little hands. They looked like claws. Good only for digging in dirt. Couldn’t even use them to spell her own name. Aesh did his best to keep his hands tidy.
“We’ll see about that. You’ve already got me at the Doctor’s half the day dealing with the freaks, as if I don’t have better things to be getting on with.”
“You know, Aesh. You remind me a lot of your father when you talk like that. He thought himself too fancy for this and that too. And you know what happened to him.”
Aesh rolled his eyes and crawled under the blanket on his mattress. He’d find a way to weasel out of patrol duty one way or another. No way was Aesh Medu going to be making a fool of himself in the middle of the night. Whether it was something his father would have agreed with or no.
Not for the first time, Aesh fell asleep wondering what actually had happened to his father. Whatever it was had happened right after the twins were born. Aesh couldn’t remember, but his father had been crying that he had to go. Aesh did not sleep well that night.
Aesh sat astride the horse, not feeling particularly happy. A horse would have been well and good had he had some time to break himself into it. But all at once like this, his legs felt like they were trying to slide down the sides of the animal so they could come clean off his body. His joints felt wobbly. And then there was the animal itself. Pulled off farm duty somewhere. It was bow-backed and walked crooked when it wasn’t too busy trying to nibble at something to go where Aesh wanted.
“Each team will be getting one lantern, a blanket, and something to eat for the night. Remember, you’re to ride off to where you were told, and stay there. If you see someone, don’t try to do anything. No sense getting killed.”
Wasn’t that the truth, Aesh thought. It had been a week since his mother had told him about the patrol. Aesh had figured he would end up doing something like it. But he hadn’t expected to see the entire town turned out in the common and everyone looking so Walker-crossed serious.
“Signal up toward the town with the lantern, three flashes. We’ll have other people ready to send out to where you are. Am I understood?” Yolandam finished. Aesh hated her. She was one of the Doctor’s Prentices and walked around like her droppings didn’t stink. You would have thought she was in attendance at some grand Academy from the way she carried on.
There were three members to a team. No one had objected too heartily to the idea of Herral and Winther being on his, except to say that it was probably not a good idea to have them all alone without supervision. But being hard pressed for men no one had complained too much. Aesh and his companions trotted off toward the western road. The least likely to see any action.
“Did you get the papers?” Herral asked.
Aesh only nodded. They weren’t far enough away from town yet that he trusted speaking aloud. The Doctor had been scarce during the meeting, and the man had a way of popping up behind you without you ever knowing he was there.
“Well maybe we’ll have something else to do tonight than freeze our asses off.” Winther added. It was cold enough as it was, with the sun still high in the sky.
“You figure we’ll see anyone?” Herral asked.
“No. Ain’t no one wants to come here. What’s here ’sides the Doctor?” Aesh replied.
Winther frowned. “I wish I knew why everyone seemed so damned serious about it. That was the whole town back there. Think someone is holding back on us?”
Aesh and Herral told Winther he was being a dim idiot, but as they made their way along both of them spent a lot of time looking at the shadows.
The Shadowman made the Leaf. That’s what the stories said. Back in the olden days before the Abandonment. Back when the Walkers walked and the Shadowman fought with Alarell. Way back then, the Shadowman stuck his black thumb in the soil of the world, and when he pulled it back the Leaf sprung up. The Leaf, to test the wills of men and turn awry all who fell from the path.
Aesh had never bought any of that shit. He lit the Leaf, now rolled into a bloom and puffed deep, coughing. They’d made camp over four hours ago, and the monotony of it all had finally convinced Aesh it was time to get a little relaxation.
“Can you feel anything yet?” Winther asked, expectantly.
“I feel like someone just knocked the wind out of me if that’s what you mean.” Aesh coughed with such force he feared he might bring up blood.
“Let me go next!” Heral insisted, reaching out for the bloom.
Aesh took several more deep puffs before passing the bloom to Herral. He leaned back against a tree, suddenly feeling less anxious. It felt like he had stepped into a bath so large that he was able to spread out his entire body. Even the coughing didn’t seem so particularly bad anymore. Aesh smiled. When he turned to look at Herral, he was smiling too.
“Well, let me have some then.” Then, after he was done coughing, Winther started to grin. A big dumb grin that made Aesh want to laugh. Winther really was one of the dumbest people in the whole of the world, and if that wasn’t hilarious then Aesh didn’t know what was.
“I feel like…” Aesh didn’t know what he felt like… like he wanted to lay there forever and forget the world. Like no matter what happened he knew that tomorrow was going to come and that in the big picture nothing much really mattered. Time passed as Aesh pondered the question.
“I’m in the best dream of my life, and I’m still awake. That’s what I feel like.” Herral took another lazy puff from his bloom. They were all three puffing their own now. Aesh had wanted to save them, but once they had started to smoke it didn’t seem so important anymore. Aesh would just have to find some more somewhere else when they were all gone. Worrying about where and how didn’t seem so important. He would do whatever it took to feel this way again.
“You ever wonder why the Doctor doesn’t want anyone to have this?” Winther asked, but his usual concern wasn’t evident in his tone. His words were like the words mumbled by someone right before they fell asleep. Half and Half Nilea spoke the same way.
“Damn the Doctor! He ain’t here, is he?” Aesh giggled. It was very funny. How everyone was afraid of the Doctor. Afraid like he was some kind of killer. His mother especially. Oh how she feared the Doctor. Never brought him up unless it was absolutely necessary. Like speaking the name of Alarell.
“Did I ever tell you about what my da saw?” Winther started to cough again, but he grew quiet soon enough. Winther’s eyes were wide and his pupils looked like two black buttons pressed in the middle of his eyes.
“No, Winther. What did your da see?” Herral asked. Winther never spoke about his da. It was almost like he was embarrassed about having one.
“Remember back when everyone thought someone had killed Pess Vernu? Before we all found out she run off with that merchant wagon?” Winther started laughing so hard he had to pause between each word. This made Aesh and Herral laugh too.
After a while Aesh said. “Yeah… yeah I remember.”
“Well my da was part of the posse that went to go find her. So he’s… he’s off taking a piss see, and the Doctor comes up next to him… and he starts to take a piss too….” Winther was contorting on the ground with laughter. Lords and Walkers that was funny. Who ever thought of the Doctor as being the kind of man to take a piss?
“Now… now you can’t tell my da I told you this… he made me swear. But the Doctor… when he looked over and saw the Doctor’s thing… the Doctor ain’t got no nuts. No nuts at all. There’s just a flap of skin hanging there like a turkey’s waddle.”
Now they were laughing so hard there was no sound. And that’s how they stayed. Until night fall.
The Doctor, he ain’t got no nuts, see? No nuts at all. And they laughed and laughed and laughed, and never saw the flames of the approaching torches.
The Doctor had gray eyes. Gray like mountain stone, set into a face harder than granite and on a body that looked like it had been made for the sole purpose of cutting people. Strange, Aesh thought, that this was the first time he realized that cutting could be a violent act as well as a medical one.
“Where’d you get it from?”
Aesh could not understand why he had ever been afraid of the Doctor. Not really. Oh sure the Doctor looked like he could kill you and not think twice about it… but what did that really matter. Everyone dies eventually. So Aesh laughed, and smiled up at the gray eyes and laughed again.
“You ain’t got no nuts!” Aesh said, and toppled over to his side, as he continued to laugh.
“There are too many for me to take alone. And thanks to you and your friends here they got the drop on us, circled round where I wasn’t expecting them.” The Doctor lifted Aesh up by the back of Aesh’s shirt and held the giggling boy in front of his face like a he was holding a puppy by its neck fat. Powerful strong was the Doctor. Stronger than any man had a right to be. But he wasn’t a man. Not really. He didn’t have any nuts. So Aesh laughed again and again and again.
“You’re going to tell them a story when they get here. Do you understand that? That’s your punishment for bringing this into the town. This is on your head now, Aesh Medu. So I will tell you a story, and you will tell it to them true when they arrive. Tell it true enough and they may even let you live.”
Aesh howled as the Doctor made his way through the forest by the moonlight. And he howled and howled and howled when the Doctor drove a stake into the ground and tied him to it. He even laughed when the Doctor brought the Nub out of the hospital and tied him to the stake around the neck. The whole town was watching him. His mother was there, holding each of the twins behind her, begging for something. Tears poured down her sun squint face. Tears she aimed at the Doctor.
“He’s just a boy. Please. You made my husband go. Not my son too. Not my son.” The twins looked at Aesh with large fearful eyes. Aesh wished he could have told them the joke, but every time he reached out for the words to tell it, the joke slipped away.
“You know the price of bringing Leaf here. Your husband knew the price too. If it caught root here again we’d be no different from the rest of the Baronies. And it made your son drop his watch. We may have to fight to keep this place. That’s what Leaf does.” That was the Doctor. The oh so funny and nutless Doctor. Aesh kept laughing.
“Please… all he needs is a chance.”
“There’s always a chance.” Aesh laughed, because that was true. There was always a chance.
But then the Doctor started to tell Aesh the story he was to tell, and then even Aesh couldn’t laugh anymore.
“Where is he? Speak up boy. We know he left you here to pass on a message. Tell us where the Weaver went and we’ll let you go.” Aesh didn’t feel very well. He felt like there were bugs under his skin, and that if he didn’t scratch them in time they would burst out of skin carrying little bit of his flesh with them, until he wasn’t nothing but a skeleton anymore. No sir, Aesh did not feel very good at all. He didn’t know when he had started to feel this way, but it felt like it had been going on for hours.
“We said speak up!” The man in the bright red coat said again. It was a fancy coat. The kind Aesh had always wanted when he saw merchants come through town. Dark crimson like blood with elegant. It would have cost him a year’s wages for a coat like that. If he wore that coat, no bugs would be trying to jump out of his skin.
“The Lords cuss it! Did he leave nothing but a cripple and a dim boy?” Aesh howled bloody murder when the man in the coat thumped him on the head with the butt of a flagpole. His head was tolling like a bell. Then the man bent down and sniffed Aesh’s hair and fingers. Aesh didn’t have the mind to stop him.
“It’s a Leafer, m’lord. They may have left him behind as punishment when they retreated.” No words came from any of the men behind. There were a lot of them. Some of them on horseback. A lot of them carrying weapons. The kind that looked like they’d been through a lot of use. Aesh didn’t like to look at them too long, the glint off their armor was too bright and it gave him a headache.
“Come on boy! Liven up when you’re in the presence of a Baron! We know a Weaver stands guard over this village? Where is he? We wish to negotiate terms for surrender.” Aesh winced when the man licked his lips. Somehow, in Aesh’s mind, it sounded like paper being torn in half right by his ear.
“Baron Glynn is not an unreasonable man!” The red-coated man shouted, as if the empty houses held people. They weren’t there though. Aesh remembered they had all left in the middle of the night to go somewhere. “We will let you live in relative peace for the tiniest tribute!”
Somewhere from the end of the caravan a man came forth on a jet black horse. Pure jet black. All of one color, and that kind of animal cost money Aesh couldn’t even imagine. The man got down and lifted Aesh’s chin till their eyes met. Aesh knew then. Knew that this was the Baron, and that this was the man to whom he must tell his story.
“I have a tale… the Doctor told me to tell it to you.” Aesh grinned, then stopped when he realized that grinning made his face hurt. He picked at his face, trying to pat the bugs down so they wouldn’t keep trying to crawl out of his skin. It wouldn’t do to have them jump onto the Baron.
“Then tell it.” Commanded the Baron.
“Once upon a time… yes? That’s right… that’s how he told it. Once upon a time a man did a very bad thing. He did something that he had been told all his life that he was never supposed to do, and when he was found out they sent him away. Except… except he was a special man. A strong man. A fast man. And to make sure he didn’t have any… any special children…. Well they took something to make sure he couldn’t ever do that. See? But he stayed strong anyway.” Aesh gave a pleading look to the caravan but no one so much as cracked a smile.
“He came here. He had realized the error of his ways. That’s why they send special people away you see. They think being special means that the Lords gave you a duty to protect people. And when they send you away they tell you. ‘You gotta protect somebody and you got to kill nobody when you do it, because any life you take will be bad on account of the wrong you done.’ See? See, where I’m going so far?” Aesh smiled and picked at his head some more. It seemed very important to smile. Very important that they believed every word the Doctor had told him to tell, even if he knew he was getting a lot of it wrong.
“But he didn’t know that at first, the man they put away. He just wanted to live a common life. The shame was too much, see? He couldn’t bear to look at himself in the mirror anymore. Not after having been who he was. That all changed when he met her. He fell in love. And she fell in love with him. That’s when he started caring again. First for her. Then for her children. Then for the people of the world. Except he never cared about himself ever again…. nope… he told me that. He told me to tell you he didn’t give a good lords damn what happened to him.”
The only sounds in the world were the creaking of saddles and the chirping of an occasional bird that had yet to flee the winter. The Baron seemed very afraid all of the sudden, like he had heard this story before in his childhood but never really believed it was true.
“He would have done something about it one day, anyway. The way the Baron treated the people. But it got pushed ahead when the Baron took his kids. He was a pervert. That’s the word the Doctor used. Said the Baron was a pervert. Well when his woman found out, she tried to kill the Baron but he killed her first, and killed her kids too so nobody would never know what he done to them.” Aesh started laughing. The Nub, hearing it all began to cry. Or whatever it was the Nub did that passed for crying.
There was still enough of the Leaf in his system that he saw the grand cosmic humor in it all. But he got control of his laughter for long enough to finish. “He… you see the Baron… the Baron didn’t know the man he wronged was special. He thought he was just a man. He thought it was just a farmer that he could bully over. And… here’s the kicker… you see, he didn’t know that the man couldn’t kill him! Don’t you see?” Aesh laughed, and saw that they could see. That they were all staring at the Nub now, and not a horse or a man made a sound to break the silence.
“He never killed him. He never killed him worse than any man has never been killed before in the history of the world. Back in the place he came from they’d trained him up to be a man of medicine. So he set to work taking a man apart just about as much as a man can be taken apart, using everything he knew about how to put people back together again. He couldn’t get those kids or his woman out of his mind, see? That’s why he done it. He was crazy for days after it happened, but he never forgot he wasn’t supposed to kill.
“When he was done, everyone knew for a long time they weren’t supposed to come here. What happened here got around. People talk. Most folks figured this place was haunted. Then the Doctor showed up. Made himself up again. He started helping people, and real Doctors are rare enough no one wanted to anger him, cause sooner or later everybody needs a Doctor.”
The blood had gone out of the faces in the men in the line. They were whispering to each other. The Nub was crawling on his mutilated limbs, pushing hard on the ground, trying to strangle himself on the rope tied around his neck so he could escape the words flying like loosed arrows from Aesh’s mouth.
“That’s what the Doctor told me to tell you. That and one more thing.” Aesh was punching his stomach to keep the bugs from coming out.
“The Doctor wanted me to tell you that if you stay here…. If you try to rule over these people like you ruled over the people where you came from… he said if you try to do that….” Aesh was crying and laughing all at the same time now. “He said he’ll find the man in charge of all of you. He said he won’t kill that man first. Then he’ll find whoever takes his place and he won’t kill that one. Until everyone of you hasn’t been killed. That’s what he wanted me to tell you. That and that the road west is wide open.”
And then the caravan left, man by man by man and the only sound in all the world was the inarticulate wailing of the Nub.