“Did I tell you what Maurice the blacksmith said to me?”
“No.” Roland said, leaning her back against Oliver’s cart, boredly scanning the crowd. All day it’d just been her, stood here, listening to Oliver. No break in the tedium by way of customer or brawl. Rare, for New Tarmac.
“Well, I mean, I can’t remember exactly what he said. But man was he trying to lord over me because he’s a blacksmith and sells, like, actual wares. What’s he trying to insinuate?”
“That you’re a trash dealer?”
Roland glanced over and met his eyes, before looking pointedly at the assorted garbage he’d lain out on the cart for display. She of anyone could vouch for it being garbage, because she herself had pulled much of it from foliage at the side of the road. But in Silesia, anything could be a treasure to the right person.
Or at least that’s what Oliver always said.
He had the typical assortment: old swords rusted into their scabbards, leather armor half rotted away, a shield with what looked to be a sizeable bite taken out of it. But he also had things brought through from other worlds and left discarded. A small statue of a scaly monster with tiny arms carved from what Roland had heard called “plastic.” Something large and rectangular and glass with a crack splitting its reflective surface. And countless other things that could serve nobody any use, here.
“You’re mouthier than other guards I’ve had.”
“Well,” she said. She smiled vaguely. “You’re not paying me to stay quiet.”
“I’m not paying you at all.”
She arched an eyebrow and looked away. Back to the milling crowd. Beyond that, the woods where they’d likely be staying tonight after accruing zero profit from Oliver’s trash cart.
“I’ll be right back,” she said. “Nature calls.”
Oliver grunted something noncommittal as she walked into the press of people. They parted before her, none of them giving her much thought or attention.
She stepped into the woods and then walked further, frowning over her shoulder at the continued burble of voices from behind her. The trees grew thicker. And then they began to die.
She didn’t notice it at first, but the bark peeled too easily from the tree she touched absentmindedly on her passage. Frowning, she pulled away a hand covered in rot and maggots. Then she noticed. The trees pressing in on her, as well as the trees ahead and behind, had all fallen to rot.
Roland knew what happened next. She’d heard the stories. All Names, God of the Death of Nature, stood in their private luminance against the squalid black of the woods. The great white stag, a tangible glow exuding beyond the tips of their fur, stood in a clearing just ahead and looked back upon her with their dead crimson eyes.
She’d been trained in martial arts first by her father, and then in broadsword. She’d be an effective combatant with several varieties of weaponry, given a few minutes to get her bearings. She’d defended Oliver before just using the half-eaten shield he’d had on sale, today.
But now, she trembled. Drawing a steep breath, she stepped toward the dead god. It was said in New Tarmac that All Names precipitated death in those they met. It was also said that they never met anyone by accident.
The god turned and walked away from her. She knew only that she must follow, and so she did, walking gravely in the stag’s wake. They passed through the trees like preacher and acolyte, her boots making narrow footprints in the splatters of blood All Names dripped onto the forest floor.
Another point of white appeared through the caliginous woods, and Roland recognized this one as well. The God of All the Worlds, Nosturi, crouched on his knees between two trees. If Roland thought it possible for a god, she would have thought he were hiding. He turned to them as she and All Names broached the trees, and in his ice-pale blue eyes lay such bald despair that Roland stepped backward.
“She is not enough,” he whispered. He met her eyes. He looked on the very broken edge of tears.
Footsteps crunched through the undergrowth and heralded the arrival of a stranger. This one Roland did not recognize. She stumbled backward and ducked behind a tree, her dutiful guardian’s mind picking out all the weaknesses of her position. For one, the luminance shedding from All Names lit her up like the light from a full moon. She also had no weapon or shield.
She sensed something from the stranger—a grim, uninterested sort of malice. He swept the surroundings and smiled a little, but it was the smile of a snake who’s just dislocated his jaw to devour his prey still squirming.
“You brought an audience.”
The stranger stepped forward and put a hand against Nosturi’s forehead. The god did not resist. He closed his eyes, and ceased to be.
Roland, aware she was not really hiding, looked around the tree and met the man’s eyes. Beside her, All Names continued to stand, unperturbed. The stranger said nothing, just took a step backward, turned, and walked back through the woods.
The stag stepped forward, walked to the spot where Nosturi had vanished, then continued walking until they had darkened to a glimmer between the trees far ahead. Roland watched them go, before sliding down to her knees, the bark of the rotting tree rough against her palm.
She knelt there for a long time. Long enough that in time she heard Oliver begin to call her faintly from the direction of the market. She couldn’t summon the strength to stand for several minutes after that, and even as she walked in the direction of her friend’s voice, she couldn’t fathom what she would tell him.
Something had happened. She couldn’t explain it. Cold panic writhed in her gut—she had to travel to the Hall of the Gods. She had to see if the rest of them were still there.