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The Witch-Doctor: Episode Five
Written by Equanimous Rex
Edited by James Curcio
Logo by Amun Disalvatron
The riverside gate was flooded with townsfolk, all scrambling around the edges of the hastily erected market, eager for trade. The crowd oozed with anticipation. Artemis thought she could smell their desperation.
Has it been so long? I guess it has. The convoy was one of the few surprises Nowellites looked forward to. Their home was the last stop on a dangerous route. These traders specialized in navigating the rivers of the territories, and Territory folk were glad to have them.
The convoy’s arrival meant gunpowder, fasteners, tools, and any number of other objects manufactured in the Domus that the town could not produce itself. The traders brought dried fruit, though most could not afford it. They sold preserved meats, cut from animals less warped than Wilder stock. The thought made the sheriff’s mouth water.
All you can eat. Or all you can afford, she thought. She usually couldn’t, lied and told herself she preferred the gamey taste of mutie deer. Besides, everything tastes the same when you wash it down with vodka.
She ignored the tinge of self pity.
Wooden stalls went up in a matter of minutes. Crates were unloaded, barrels rolled carefully down the gangways onto shore
The hemp fields stood tall in the background. The sun had begun to set, casting long shadows. Two cows were goaded into Nowell, mooing and snorting. Their smell, earthy and fecal, reached Artemis’ nose. Gracious hosts moved to give the beasts drinking water, desperate to be the first to purchase fresh dairy.
“Filtered, eh?” A trader asked a territory woman, who nodded and reassured him.
Artemis walked outside the mob, along its boundaries, observing the hubbub. She saw the trading convoy anchored to shore. The convoy was made up of a dozen or so canoes along with a solitary barge. The canoes were odd, hybrids, and had been outfitted with small hand-sewn sails.
The barge, many times larger, overshadowed the canoes. It looked to be powered solely by a group of muscular, sunburnt rowers. No engines here. The rowers were making their way down the wooden gangway at this moment, Artemis saw.
Shore leave. Going to drink with the locals, I bet.
A word, a name, was painted on the side of the barge’s hull. The YW Sophia. From this angle, the sheriff could see down into her hold.
It looks like a bucket. A big rectangular bucket. I’m surprised it hasn’t sunk yet.
The boat consisted mainly of one long stretch of deck, sunk down beneath the gunwales, full of cargo. This was the barge’s hold, and rowing deck. The planks of wood that served as floor to the rowers looked stained, a murky rainbow of oil, grog, ash, and blood. The boat gave Artemis the impression of a floating scab. The hull hadn’t been scraped in some time, evidenced by the clumps of parasitic fish clinging to the outside of the barge’s bow. When hauled ashore afterwards, their sharp-toothed mouths would hang open as they asphyxiated, slack and full of festering river detritus.
Though many wares were now already ashore, the hold was still half-full of containers. They were tied down with rope, crude-stitched oilskins covering them. The barge’s sides gave enough room to allow a slim walkway around port and starboard. Cone shaped gun embrasures were carved through the sides of the hold, black powder residue stained them from many battles.
Artemis could see the crew carried weapons. They didn’t hide it. A few held long-guns, crudely machined muskets and rifles. The rest made due with what they had at hand. A pike rack was visible amid the cargo, as were caches of arrows. When one of the men glanced up at her, she turned away from the boats, and approached the traders. She didn’t miss a beat. Avoiding the attention of armed outsiders was second nature.
She had brought meat for trade, stuffed inside a weeping bag. Across an arm she carried tanned hides. You never knew what a convoy might bring. They seemed to have a knack for showing up at the moment of peak desperation.
Today, she needed iron. Good iron. Her supply of bolts had dwindled over the past months, and she was reluctant to approach the local coppersmith for sub-par replacements.
The traders were already setting out goods for sale and trade. Nowellites lined up with their meager possessions. A few even clutched the ratty looking notes used as money in the territories. It took Artemis a moment to spot the dozen dagger-men that accompanied the traders. They stood apart, neither helping nor getting in the way. Their masks were matte black, allegedly made of bulletproof material, with two eye holes, and a circular cluster of smaller holes where the mouth ought to have been. Many had their masks pulled back, trying to find respite from the heat. The ones who wore them still, looked inhuman.
Each dagger-man, true to their name, bore a foot-long dagger on their belts. Their leather armor were uniformly emblazoned with the monogram of the Devout, painted in white. Several had rifles, semi-automatic, while others holstered various side-arms.
Artemis noticed another group of six dagger-men climbing down the gangways of the barge onto the sandy rivershore. Three more stood next to the Nowell water filters, which had been dragged down to the side of the river. Their machinery wheezed and clanked while a few Nowellites spun their hand-cranks.
“Strange, isn’t it?” asked an older woman, who Artemis did not immediately recognize.
“The name’s Gerty,” she said, “you’ve seen me around I’m sure. Don’t get out much these days.” She pointed to a knee. “Bad legs. Bad back. Bad neck. Ha!”
Artemis smiled, a false, polite smile, and turned back. The old woman—no, middle aged, Artemis saw, despite the wear of the world— continued to speak, “Strange how the Domus only ever seems to show up to collect taxes. The second you need them for protection, they’re as slippery as snakes. Never raised a shitting hand when the wolves came. Funny. It’s damn funny how that works.”
Taxes. The explanation didn’t sit quite right with Artemis. The Devout always took their own boats up river. Gasoline chugging behemoths. Not hand rowed barges, not sail-canoes. This explanation sat heavy in her head, however, and did not seem to fit quite right. There was an aura of unease, the way the traders kept glancing back at the dagger-men, how the dagger-men stared pointedly at them all.
“Where’s the Administrator?” Artemis asked, almost surprised to get an answer.
“Plourde? Hell if I know,” Gerty responded. “Probably sitting on his ass, reading some book. Who knows how that man manages to waste his day.”
Artemis bid her good day, and pushed her way through the crowd. As she moved to get a better view, she could hear commotion up ahead.
“Ge’off!” shrieked a man, clearly in his autumn years, struggling to get something from one of the traders. They were playing tug-of-war with a bottle of liquor. The trader, who outweighed the Nowellite he fought, heaved the bottle away. Defeated, the Nowell man fell to the ground, and begun to sob. His long greasy hair and beard were covered in grime, not all of it from the fall. Artemis recognized him at last.
“Abram!” she yelled. “Get over here!”
The man looked up, smoothed his broad mustache, and farted. It was impossible to be sure, his face reddened from the day’s alcohol abuse, but Artemis thought he might have been blushing. “But Sheriff-” he started.
“No. Buts,” she said, pronouncing each word clearly and with edge.
Abram began to rise, when a jackbooted foot flew out of the shadows and landed in the man’s kidney. Abram groaned and fell over, and Artemis saw a dagger-man, mask down, poised to launch another kick. His mask only showed eyes, which were wide and red with malice.
Artemis rushed him without a thought, dropping her skins and rope as she slid alongside. She slipped one hand under the dagger-man’s raised knee, placed another across his mask, and pushed with all of her might. He fell backwards, landing in the dirt with a hard thump. When he tried to stand, Artemis planted a foot against his chest and sent him sprawling.
The commotion set the other dagger-men running. Most wielded their namesakes, but the ones with firearms cocked their hammers back and glanced around at the crowd, suspicious of them all.
A wheedling voice piped up in the hush.
From the direction of Main street, Edmond Plourde came waddling, all the while crying, “Stop! Stop this instant! Cease! Desist!” A hunched man in thick robes walked beside him, a man Artemis did not recognize. The dagger-men looked at one another, and then at the robed man, who said nothing.
“Stop! Oh. You have,” the Administrator stuttered, “Good. Well.”
He stared at Artemis. “What exactly is it you’ve gotten into this time Ms. Kokinos? Starting fights again?”
Artemis glared at him, and opened her mouth to speak, but was cut off.
“No excuses, no excuses. Please.” The Administrator turned to the robed man beside him. “I am so sorry, Brother, I don’t know what has come over them.”
“This…this vagrant was trying to steal my booze!” the trader who had been wrestling with Abram shouted angrily. Several of the other traders muttered agreement.
“Prophet’s ass!” Abram yelled, “he’s a cheat! He has my silver dollar!”
The Administrator walked up to the trader, pointedly ignoring Abram’s protests, and placed a wad of local currency in his hand.
“Good for anything you might want in town,” Plourde explained, and pointed to the Ratskeller. “There’s a lot of…entertainment to be had here.”
He turned to the rest of the traders, “let no one tell you otherwise!” he shouted, a big smile on his face, sweat dripping down his temples.
Everyone remained silent. Artemis gathered up her goods. The trader looked content enough with the money, but made no motion. The dagger-men stood in rigid attention, facing the robed figure.
A crooked hand emerged from his robes, and waved them back. The dagger-men reholstered their weapons and resumed their place behind the traders.
Then, without comment, the figure turned and walked back towards Main street. Administrator Plourde turned and whispered to Artemis, “it would be prudent to keep your head down, Ms. Kokinos.”
She saw fear in his eyes, and her fists unclenched. She hadn’t realized they were balled into fists, ready to strike.
Plourde disappeared, following the robed figure.
“Who the hell is that?” Artemis heard a man ask, and the crowd fell into whispers. She turned, gathered up her fallen goods, and moved to leave.
“Hey!” a voice called behind her. The sheriff shot a look back at an unmasked dagger-man, who pointed at her hat, “nice badge.”
Shit. She had forgotten the badge. Like Frank Callas said at the Ratskeller, there weren’t any more sheriffs. Not since the wars.
Should have expected dags. Always expect dags. She ignored the man, walking down the line of stalls. Trade was recommencing now that the commotion had passed. The dagger-man followed her, on the vendors side.
“Hey! I said nice badge!” he shouted, joking demeanor dropped. “Look at me, bitch.”
Her chest tightened. Unloading her goods wasn’t worth it. She was lucky Plourde had stepped in when he had, she knew, and she wasn’t going to press it further. She had to get away, had to duck out somehow…
Something caught her eye, just as she turned to disappear into the crowd. A pale blue something sitting on the ground beneath one of the stalls. Not even hearing the the dag’s words, she bent down, and she saw the object was a tiny shoe. A child’s shoe. The pale blue of wylroses, the kind that only grew in the Wilder. Something outsiders would not have.
She ducked between two vendors and scooped it up. It was small, but not so small as to belong to a toddler. Far too small for most adults.
“Where did you get this?” Artemis demanded of the vendor closest to her. When he ignored her, she grabbed his shirt and shook him violently. “Where did you get this shoe?”
The vendor pulled himself away, and shouted, “you fucking Nowell lot are batshit! Dirt trash! Get the hell away from me!”
“Ma’am, back away from the vendor.” The dagger man’s voice was now muffled. When she looked she saw the mask, the flash of his partially drawn blade.
She held the shoe up, and it flopped in the air as she spoke. “This is a child’s shoe, dyed with flowers only we have. We have two missing children. I want to know where he got this shoe.”
“Ma’am, it’s just a shoe-”
She interrupted him. “The hell it is. It is dyed-”
“You already said about the dye-”
“Well if you’d listen-”
The dagger-man pulled his weapon the rest of the way out of its sheath. It was steel, double-edged, and well maintained. He held the blade in a saber grip, and took a fighters stance.
“Return the stolen property now ma’am. I will not repeat myself.” They stood deadlocked for a moment, not a flicker of movement. She dropped the shoe, and the dag relaxed.
“I’ll pay for it.” she blurted at the vendor, and his eyes lit up, but then turned suspicious.
“How much?” he asked, waving the dag away.
“I’ll give you…meat,” she offered, holding her bag out for his inspection.
“Pass,” he replied. “But I will take that badge.”
“Pass,” she answered. “Two hides and meat.”
The vendor seemed to consider, but replied, “pass. The badge or nothing.”
He looked at her, with an unctuous smile. “You’re not the law. Why you need it?”
“Sentimental value.” She did not return his smile.
“The badge or nothing,” the vendor repeated.
He’s fucking with me, she thought, god dammit Artemis why’d you have to grab him like that?
“Badge or nothing,” he said a third time, looking over at the dagger-man, who had neither removed his mask, nor departed.
Artemis glowered, “fine.”
Artemis unpinned the badge, not even looking at it as she swapped him for the shoe.
“Where did you get this shoe?” she asked, examining it.
“No clue,” the man said, “it’s not mine.”
“Not your shoe.”
Artemis closed her hands, cracking her knuckles. She took a big breath, and exhaled slowly. “So why’d you sell it to me, if it isn’t yours?”
“Cuz I don’t like you. You’re rude.” He was getting smug.
“I mean, if it belongs to another vendor, they won’t be liking your selling it very much.” She said. This made him chuckle.
“Lady, I know every piece of merch we got. It ain’t any of ours.” He waved a hand dismissively at the crowd of Nowellites around them. “Coulda been any one of these kids lost a shoe. Finders keepers. Not like anyone gives a shit. I’m just surprised you lot wear shoes at all.”
Artemis turned and left. She had a few parents to talk to.
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