“When night brings the frost, no one remains outside but one,” he says, throwing the dice. He lands a three and a four. Not bad. “It’s what they told me by the gates, when I entered the city.”
“You oughta heed the advice,” says the girl, her time to roll. The angling light of evenfall spears through the thickly glazed windows, shining on the numbers. Five and three. Smiling, she puts a long, thin finger on one of his beans and drags it over the table, to her end. Her pile is growing considerably, while his is on the dwindling side. “Frost has touched us mightily. The Braided River has been growin’ ice along the banks, and it’s going to be colder still tonight. No one remains outside but one.”
Furrowing his brows, he drinks of the air thick with candle smoke, and lifts the goblet to sip some firewater. Horrid stuff, really. How do those people up in the mountains like it, he can’t and won’t ever know. “Is that a joke or something? A weird thing you pull on newcomers?”
However, the way the guard said it sounded genuine enough. And the haste about the people today, all hurrying indoors as the shadows began to lengthen, is odder than odd.
“Have you seen the Fort Island?” she asks.
“You mean the ruined thing with crumbly towers in the middle of the river?”
“That’s the one. So you have seen it. It’s haunted by somethin’, you know?”
“You don’t say.” Incredulously, he returns to his dice. He has no taste for tell-tales. All he wants is to recover the darn coin he’s spent all day earning, selling poultices and potions, and has lost to this girl in less than a bell’s strike. Yet, the game is not going in his favour. If he remains beanless, he loses another coin. And someone will murder his arse when he gets back home. He’s left her with their new-born, just for one fortnight, no more, just one, to sell in the big city by the sea. To earn some big coin. To make a big full of himself.
One and one? Oh, come on! He doesn’t even wait for her to roll, and sends a bean sliding her way.
Yet she rolls exactly the same. Laughing, she sends his bean back, spinning on the table. “Stop presumin’. As I said, somethin’ haunts that fort. Once in a couple of weeks, it’s in the habit of going out, stalking the streets. You never know where it wanders to. It takes either the bridge to the Old Hill, or to the Ruin Hill, whichever it pleases. Matters not for it, as long as it finds a livin’ soul out there, in the dark.”
“Gives that living soul a good fright, eh?” he asks drily.
“No one knows, cause no one breathed past the encounter to tell the tale. It leaves just corpses behind. Badly looking corpses. Saw one once myself. Died fast, the coroner said, but then that thing did stuff to them. Gouged their eyes out as if sucking them out of their heads, and such. Now stop staring at me and throw some numbers. You still have eyeballs to see, don’t you?”
“Not anymore,” he mumbles. “I mean, not my eyes. That haunting thing. It can’t get to the city anymore, can it? I saw the island is forlorn, left without bridges. I wondered at that …”
“Yeah. They failed at puttin’ an end to it, no matter how hard they tried. It always got away or killed its pursuers. People grew desperate. They tore down the bridges some five years back, hoping it will hunger and wither away. It doesn’t swim, whatever it is.”
He closes his eyes for a moment. Sucking their eyeballs out? Fuck. He can almost feel the pain. What is for sure: he needs his pair. He wants to look upon his daughter when he returns. Can’t do that with empty sockets in his skull.
Tell-tales. Let them be nothing but tell-tales.
“Focusing on the dice,” he lies, turning them this way and that between his fingers. “Gathering my luck.” Thinking about those poor bastards.
They rattle on the table. Five and one. He growls, and then stares back at her. “Tell me straight. Is there anything to this story? Are you stringing me along? Having yourself a good laugh?”