For five long months I searched for sign of Enta, my one thin lead that she was captive of a man dressed in black who spoke like a Jitter. I circled the Skreepers’ settlement where I’d lost her in ever wider distances, scouring every town and inquiring in every tavern and chemjack for that thin line of luck. No one knew them, though a few swindlers, now dead, pretended to. I carried despair unequaled in a lifetime of suffering and misery, but I didn’t cease.
I sat in a tavern under the Breshkan warlord’s dominion, old beer soured the air and mixed with the stench of clammy bodies. I fought back tears as I did most nightfalls.
“You’re name of Mallocrest, aren’t you?” A black beard and a wide brimmed hat sat across from me, his carriage firm, his face strangely unscarred for such a man.
“Was a girl come through kept saying that name.”
I grabbed his forearm, the one without drink.
“Hey, let go.” He pulled back, attempting to stand, but hadn’t the strength to move.
“I will not hurt you.” I pulled him closer. “But I cannot and will not let you go until I know everything you know of her.”
The man’s lips quivered.
“Please relax,” I said. “Enjoy your drink, and I will get you more. But tell me what you know.”
He settled back into his seat. His name was Chirmus, a Hadrine from the south. He described Enta perfectly, her long brown hair, her blue eyes, her breaches only down past her knees, and her sweet voice. He’d seen Fadderhan, too—that dog who stole her from me, still dressed in black.
Fadderhan sold her to Breshkan’s traders. She kept calling out, ‘Take me back to Mallocrest.’
“Take me to them,” I said.
Chirmus tilted his head and frowned. “You…you’re not of Breshkan?”
“You’re not of another warlord?”
He nodded. “I can take you.”
I let go of his arm, readied to go, my pack hanging on my back, and my semi-auto rifle’s strap over my shoulder. He led me into the street to the town hub, more like the warlord’s depot than a place for trade. Few men brought goods to exchange for the warlord’s credit. A rare hint of spice tickled my nose.
Chirmus approached a group of men lounging with wine, no wares among them. He shook each of their hands, and while he presented me, he grabbed the hand of a lavishly dressed man he called Radler. His fingers flicked and tapped. I’d seen this way of communicating before among tradesmen.
“What service am I to you?” asked Radler. He signaled something to the man next to him and extended his hand to me. I didn’t like his manner of speaking, silky and mean. His companion got up and entered the building behind them. My hackles rose, sensing something conspiratorial and sinister, but for the sake of Enta I couldn’t withdraw.
“I’m looking for a young girl you purchased. Brown hair and blue eyes, barely as tall as my leg, and—”
“We’ve had many young girls come through,” he said. An obvious lie, for in this brutal land young girls not owned by a warlord or protected by a community were extremely rare. “I’ll try to help you if only we can figure out who you mean.”
I calculated the odds for playing along or choking the information out of him when several giant men strutted out of the building. They seemed to head across the hub, but I noticed a flash of color behind them and recognized the companion who’d left. I grabbed for my 45 just as the lead man lunged at me, and I shot him in the face. He dropped, and the man behind him whipped a cord that sliced my arm. I shot him in the chest, but a cool numbness traveled up the slashed arm and throughout my body, leaching the strength out of me, and I could not move. I teetered for a moment and fell to the ground.
I couldn’t move or talk.
Radler stood over me. “Curse it, you were right, Chirmus. This one’s a beast.” He grabbed my 45 and pulled my rifle off, then handed them to Chirmus. “Payment as agreed.”
Chirmus fished through my bag and cleaned out all my ammo. “Good luck taming that one.”
Several men carried me into the building. Shackles snapped around my ankles, and they left me on the floor in the dark. A day later I was chained to four other slaves digging milkroots in the scrubland.
This is how we live in the emptiness of time. Warlord, slave, or drifter. Those are the choices, and only the warlords live long.