Inspired by this post over on Amanda Patterson’s tumblr, I will be writing 52 short stories this year. Some, like this one, very short, and some longer! If you’re joining me in this endeavor, leave a link in the comments so we can find your stories!
This week’s story takes place just before the start of City of the Shroud, a video game I am writing the story for that just went live on Kickstarter! If you play City of the Shroud, YOU will be the traveler – and will become a legend in the city of Iskendrun…
Rising to a Challenge
The traveler grabbed at the flickering edges of the cloak, billowing away in the wind. It provided little warmth even when it was held shut, the old homespun being more patched than not, and with holes between the patches. The traveler resolved to leave it behind upon reaching the city, for who would hire such an ill-dressed worker?
Sand and rock crunched underfoot on the road. Once, this highway had been well-maintained. Iskendrun had been on the rise, then, and careful of its reputation. It maintained the roads well over halfway to Gayyan, in the north, and to the foothills of the mountains that separated it from Dahilah, though no one traveled them. The traveler had heard all of this from passing merchants. In those days, everyone agreed that it was wise: reckon they’re right, then. Can’t afford to look shabby. We’ll show them what we’re made of.
Then, of course, Iskendrun boasted of its grain and leather, oranges and lemons shipped south to Dahilah’s indolent nobles, iron tools shipped north for Tirwall’s endless statues and marbles. No one had any illusions about where Iskendrun lay in the hierarchy of the city states, but neither did they accept their place as fair. Did not Iskendrun’s farmers work as hard as anyone’s? Were their boulevards not as clean, their markets not as prosperous? It was old prejudice that held them back.
The traveler supposed that everything that followed was inevitable, then. Sixteen years old and kept well back from the road for fear of the draft, they had watched the army march north. Men and women looked ahead with determination, singing as they kicked up a cloud of dust that could be seen halfway to the city itself.
The traveler remembered, too, when it all changed. When the youths who were marched north looked younger every year, and even the youngest children of the outer holdings were hidden in the stables and root cellars, when the armor they saw no longer held the burnished rose of Iskendrun, but was patched and dirty. The armies no longer sang, and once or twice they raided the fields, and no one had the heart to stop them. No one ever came back from the north, and they all looked hungry.
It took a long time for the hunger to reach the outer holdings, where they made their own goods and sold only the excess. For a time, prices rose. And then the blight hit, for they had planted too many years of grain on the same fields.
And so the traveler walked, in a patched cloak and old boots that hardly deserved the name. It had been many months since the last soldiers went north; word was, the nobles were thinking better of their grand plans. Safe enough, then, for the traveler to go to the city and look for work—dockhands would be in short supply, there being few youths left in the city.
The traveler was just considering whether to stop for water and a bite of hard bread when the portal opened. Hanging over the road, shedding its skin in scraps of color that disappeared before they hit the ground, it held a deep blue glimpse into a world beyond, a world…dark, strange, and yet familiar. A road wound onward in the darkness, like the traveler’s path and yet terrible in its strangeness.
And from the mouth of it, poured creatures, shadows in the shape of acquaintances half-remembered, so odd in their appearance here that the traveler began to wonder what another might see, or if those acquaintances were like the fairies from the old tales, taking the shape of humans until it suited them to show their true form.
They stretched up, ghostly swords and staves in their hands, and the traveler fumbled for the hilt of the little dagger by their side. It was only days before the nursery rhymes would begin, and the whispered conversations in the taverns of Iskendrun: how a poor child of the outer holdings had defeated the creatures from a portal, with only their wits and a blade so dull it was hardly useful for cutting meat.
But the traveler did not know that yet. The traveler had learned only that hardship battered at every door now, that wolves would take the sheep from the meadows and blight would take the crops from the fields, and that there was no running from danger. There was a voice calling from the portal, strangely familiar. The traveler ignored it, and settled into a crouch, ready to fight.