The Heretic – Snippet 32
It took them the better part of a halfwatch to find a way to the Bruneberg River bank. Most of the town’s edifices were built to hang over the edge to take advantage of the River for both a source of water and a ready-made sewer and garbage dump. Then they had to find a livery in which to leave the donts, for the path down was only wide enough for a man. Abel brought his carbine, his dragon pistol and two knives, one of which he gave to Golitsin, more for the priest’s comfort than with any thought that Golitsin might be skilled enough to use it to fend off a carnadon. Abel wasn’t sure if he were himself.
Abel took the lead and they wound their way down and then along a trail cut into the bank. There were carnadons aplenty lounging not far below them, but they seemed curiously inert.
“Probably well-fed on shit and dak bones,” Golitsin murmured, though it sounded more like a hope expressed than a certainty to Abel.
Then they were beneath the overhanging buildings of Bruneberg. At first, the floors did not stretch so far out, and they merely walked in shadow. But as they drew farther under what they knew must be the denser part of town, they passed deep-set pilings and pier-like supports that ran in lines out into the River itself.
“This is the path the repair crew has to take to replace pilings,” Abel said. “I’ll bet they come down here with a military guard armed to the teeth, too.”
“Pity we didn’t,” murmured Golitsin.
On they went, and now they were well under the buildings, which stretched onward, out over the River. The light grew faint and the way forward dark as night.
“And pity we didn’t think to bring torches,” Golitsin put in not long afterward.
Abel grunted his agreement. Too late now.
I have an estimate of the probability of carnadon attack, Center announced. But I will refrain from stating the exact odds in order to further contribute toward them by the very alarm they will cause, and merely admonish you to be careful.
Great, thought Abel. Thanks for the warning.
There was a pinpoint of light ahead. Then the pinpoint divided into several flickers. As they drew closer and saw that it was the light of four oil lamps. Each was set on a large, flat River stone and formed a square. In the middle of the square, on a patch of mud, sat one who could be no other than the hermit they sought.
Abel stood back now and Golitsin took the lead as they approached.
The hermit turned his head once and gave them a long look, then turned his gaze away, and back down the bank’s slope to the River.
“Brother,” Golitsin called as they drew near. “I am a priest of Treville. I was told I might find you here.”
The hermit didn’t answer.
Then they reached the square of lighted lamps, and Golitsin halted.
“Brother?” he said. “May we talk? We have come along an…interesting…path to see you.”
Still the hermit did not reply. But after a moment, he released a deep sigh, and turned toward them.
Abel had expected an old man, but he was not old at all. Weatherbeaten, yes, and with hair that had not seen a comb or cutting knife for many a three-moon. But the eyes were not watery and yellowed, but quick and alert. And the face was not lined with age, but only spattered with dirt. In fact, the hermit appeared to be younger than Golitsin.
“Brother, we have some questions for you,” Golitsin continued. “And we have brought food to share, if you want. May we sit with you?”
At the sound of the word “food,” the hermit shuddered, as a dont might that has caught the scent of barn and bedding. He rocked back and forth and had to hold his knees to his chest to stop himself.
Abel handed Golitsin the bread and cheese they’d brought along, and Golitsin handed them both to the hermit.
The man stared at them for a moment, then quickly reached out and snatch the offered gifts. He attacked the bread immediately, biting off and swallowing huge chunks until the entire loaf was gone. The dak cheese he turned in his hand and considered. Then he drew his hand back and threw it as far as he could down the bank to the River below. It landed not far from the shore.
Immediately there was a series of roars and the shuffle of scaled flesh as the carnadons moved in on the suddenly available delicacy. Abel couldn’t see what was happening there, but he was quite sure he did not want to be anywhere near whatever it was.
“Too smelly,” the hermit said. “Never get away with it.”
Golitsin took these words as an invitation and he stepped within the square formed by the four stones with lamps upon them, and motioned Abel to follow. They sat cross-legged near the hermit. The ground had been flattened here, but there was still a slight slope downward, toward the River. Enough to cause Abel the feeling he was sliding, or the ground sliding under him, and that he might soon be, like the cheese, among the hungry carnadons himself. He held even more tightly to his musket, which he had rested over his knees.
“What is your name, brother?” Golitsin asked.
The hermit bobbed a couple of times, and, not looking directly at them, but below toward the dark River, answered. “Friedman,” he said.
“Friedman?” Golitsin replied. “You are…military liaison, are you not?”
The hermit — Friedman — laughed. It was an ugly snort, with no real mirth in it. “Military liaison,” he pronounced, as if chewing the words and finding them bitter. “Yes. Doing it now. Liaising.”