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Chapter 28 - Aoife

While they didn’t get off to the greatest of starts, the long trek south to Rotwater served as a good means for Aoife to get to know her new crew. Maybe not friends quite yet, but at least friendly. She had to admit intuition and insight weren’t her strongest qualities, but being amongst new people all day every day allowed her to better understand just who her new companions really were.

Kyrill, for example, was riddled with self doubt. For such a strong, capable man, he was fairly insecure. She got the feeling that it used to be even worse. That said, he seemed happy. Or at least happier. He smiled a lot. More often even than he could be found munching on some sort of snack. And he was eating constantly. Once they had made it back into forested territory, he found hazelnut trees, a small patch of rhubarb, he even chowed down on some wild mushrooms, regardless of the risk posed. He did, however, steer clear of berry bushes. Aoife found that a bit odd.

While Kyrill spent much of his time foraging, the little girl named Neera traipsed along after them, picking dandelions. Which Kyrill had also eaten. Aoife didn’t really understand why she was traveling with them. She was more than a pleasant traveling companion, bringing a certain light to their travels, but fighters, spies, hunters and a barely teenage girl? To an outsider like Aoife, the girl looked so out of place, yet the rest of the group seemed to treasure her presence. She did start campfires incredibly quick, so that was a plus.

Similar to Kyrill, Neera was also fairly shy. When you got her talking, though, she wouldn’t stop. The kid had her passions, that was for damn sure. One of those passions were the fairytale stories about the protectors of the forest, the mighty warriors of the Drae. It might be naive to still believe those stories at her age, Aoife didn’t know, but she didn’t dare let the girl down with what she had learned within the Mazewilds. Not that she was even considering telling them anything. She hadn’t even told Sparrowhawk. Telling the girl with the strong, but simplistic moral compass who was obsessed with the make-believe version of the Drae? That would just be cruel.

Isha was a tougher nut to crack. The woman was impulsive, short-tempered and kind of an asshole at times. And while Aoife hadn’t intended to, she may have inadvertently come across as trying to make Isha feel inferior. Tessa, the little knife-wielding badass, absolutely had the intention and Aoife was caught in the crossfire. Not the best first impression to make to the leader of their little band. Though, when she thought about it, it didn’t seem like Isha wanted to be their leader. Nobody else was jumping up to the plate, but it felt like Isha did it out of obligation rather than desire. It resulted in an abrasiveness to her leadership, brash because she didn’t really know any other way. It was like being raised by a shitty mom, not wanting to make the same mistakes with your own child, but then unintentionally following in her same shitty footsteps. Not that Aoife knew what it was like growing up without any strong female role models.

To Aoife, Moswen—or Moz as they seemed to like to call him—was the most interesting member of the group. At first, he had been antisocial and introverted, not very trusting of her whatsoever. As soon as they left the city, and especially when they got back into the forest, he opened up, lively and curious and bursting at the seams with tidbits of information and stories from his travels. He was protective of Neera, like an older brother, but spent most of his time with Kyrill. Their relationship was difficult to read. They clearly weren’t related, but they seemed so close they could have been family. It was much too platonic for them to be lovers, but she didn’t brush the possibility off outright. Perhaps they were just really, really good friends? She really couldn’t tell. Even though Moswen’s upbringing and personality were vastly different than her own, she saw a lot of herself in Moswen. A careful hunter, an analytical mind, a curious soul. He was pretty funny, too, once that outer shell was finally cracked.

The group showed no signs of animosity towards her. She would have to overcome her poor first impression, but there was no more fear of being recognized or remembered, no more fear of Kyrill sniffing her out. Though she did notice he still kept an eye on her. Aside from the expected newcomer’s awkwardness, they’d been quite welcoming. They shared stories, cooked meals together and got along fairly well, all things considered.

She and Moswen compared their bows and shared hunting techniques, though neither really knew anything the other didn’t. She watched Isha and Neera spar, but didn’t dare intrude. Nor did she show any interest in sparring herself. Gods forbid Isha hold any sort of grudge and Aoife offer up an ample opportunity to get her ass kicked. She had several polite, but short conversations with Kyrill. It became clear he might have had a thing for her, so she dropped some subtle hints to not break his spirits too harshly. The tried and true “you’re like a brother to me” always worked wonders.

It had been quite some time since Aoife stepped foot within Rotwater. She had made countless numbers of trips with her family as a child and spent a fair bit of time in the city under Rashida’s wing, but it had still been—she paused in thought while she tallied up her time gone—over two years. A lot has happened in the empire since then.

She could still remember her first trip with vivid detail. They stood to make more money if they set up a stall and sold everything individually, but the ease of selling their entire cart wholesale was an enticing prospect, and much less work and effort on all their parts. So while her father and little brother stayed with the cart, her and her mother headed into town looking for potential buyers. The throng of people barking requests for trade had seemed so aggressive, almost enough to allow her to forget that mud was being splashed against her bare legs and caking in new layers on her shoes with every step she took.

“This is disgusting,” Isha complained. “What fucking god decided ‘Hey, let’s make another desert, but wet?’ Cause they’re an asshole.”

Aoife had become accustomed to the mud over time, but judging by the discomfort of her new traveling companions, it was new to them. All except Moswen, who Aoife hadn’t seen wear shoes once the entire trip. He seemed completely undisturbed, in his element even. At least until they were close enough to see the city.

From a distance, it looked like any other city. Up close is where things start to break down. The fine details, like cracks and wrinkles, exposing the blemishes of the city. People lounged against walls and slowly milled about the city streets with a lifelessness akin to sleepwalking. The vacant look in people’s faces, the misery in their eyes, their unwashed clothes dirty from more than just walking through mud: it all told a story.

“Oh no, are we too late?” Neera asked, her head turning every which way as she gawked at her surroundings, her attention being pulled a thousand different directions. “Did the attacks make it here as well? What happened?”

“Watch yer fuckin’ steps!” a stout woman with a crate strapped to her back yelled at Neera as she passed by, her footsteps heavy under the weight of her cargo. “Can’t deal with a little mud, ya judgmental cunt?” She laughed as she continued on her way.

Aoife laid a hand on Neera’s shoulder. “Welcome to Rotwater.”

Neera wasn’t far off. The place did look like a warzone. More so than usual. Aoife wasn’t used to quite so many people looking so... poor. Rotwater was a dirty, but affluent barren. The tradeoff was supposed to be worth it. People were happy their coin purses hung heavy at their sides, even if the weight sunk them deeper into the mud.

These people, however, seemed miserable.

A woman with greying, frizzy hair and deep creases in her face rushed to approach Isha, pushing her way past the few people meandering in her way, a wistful recognition in her eyes. Isha didn’t seem to know the woman, just as surprised as the rest of them. “You...” The woman slid her hands against Isha’s spaulders, dark lines of dirt visible under her fingernails, even more between the wrinkles on the backs of her hands. “You’re an Everguard.”

“Was,” Isha replied softly, less abrasive than she normally would have likely been towards a stranger invading her personal space. “Come here from Everspring?”

“I did. One of many.”

Of course. These people weren’t natives to the barren. They were all refugees. Rotwater had opened its doors to countless numbers of refugees from all across the empire. It came as no surprise they looked so dejected and beat down. While they may have been given a place to flee to, that didn’t exactly open the floodgates of opportunity, doesn’t make them stop missing their now-nonexistent homes, won’t bring back their loved ones who are gone.

“Not an Everguard anymore,” the woman continued, “but you wouldn’t turn down an old woman asking for help would you?”

Isha held the woman’s hand on her shoulder with both of her’s, kept it there. “How can I help?”

Aoife was surprised by the sudden willingness to help a stranger. Isha had been so cold during their travels, even after getting acquainted with one another. Plus, they came to Rotwater for a specific reason. They had more important matters to attend to. Am I just being selfish? Am I the asshole? Isha may be an asshole at times, too, but at least she put her money where her mouth is and helped those that needed it. She had a good heart.

“It’s my husband,” the old woman said with the gloss of grateful tears in her eyes. “He’s all I got left.”

“Take me to him,” Isha instructed. Strange that she asked the woman to take her to the man, not them. Isha seemed to be taking this as a personal charge. We did come here for a reason. But the others followed right behind Isha and the old woman. Aoife followed suit.

“We were one of the first batch of refugees, my husband and I. But more and more kept coming, and not just from Everspring. From all over. Barrens destroyed, bandits and thugs and monsters, stories that sound more like nightmares. We all ended up here. It was a blessing at first, a godsend, the opportunity to work, to provide, to feed ourselves. But it’s taking its toll on our old bones.”

The old woman led them to what appeared to be a refugee camp constructed in what used to be the outskirts of the barren. Aoife was entirely out of her element, totally unfamiliar with the camp, a veritable barren within a barren.

Most of the buildings and structures in Rotwater were built atop supporting stilts and foundations that were propped up above the muck. Short staircases made of wood or stone led to balconies at every entrance that were quickly covered in dark black-brown stains. The more well-off merchants built even nicer structures with mudrooms and foyers specifically designed as a transition from the muddy streets to the pristine interiors.

The refugee camp wasn’t afforded such luxuries: nothing but simple shacks and tents, temporary shelters built right on top of the mud. It was cold, dirty and likely not much better than wherever it was they came from. But work was abundant and food and clean water were readily available. The people here were surviving, but not much else. Their lives had been saved, but this could hardly be considered living.

It was possible the camps were intended to help people more, but try as they might, Rotwater quickly corrupted their good intentions.

The old woman navigated through the maze of the camp until she approached a makeshift shack both indistinguishable from the others and uniquely its own. She pulled back the burlap curtain that functioned as their front door. Inside, an elderly man lying on a cot squeezed his eyes shut as he looked away, shielding his face with his arm.

“Please,” the old woman said as she motioned them inside. It was a tight fit, hardly a living space for two, much less so for the seven of them. The man turned back to face them, shivering as he readjusted his blankets. His brow was glistening with sweat. Isha stepped forward to introduce herself.

“My name is Isha. And this is Kyrill, Aoife, Neera and Moswen.”

“My friends call me Henry," the man answered. He sounded agitated.

Isha extended her hand. "Well, Henry, it's certai—”

“My friends. I do not know you.”

“Oh, stop it,” his wife scolded him. “They’re here to help, you old sod.”

“Sorry. I’ve been a bit irritable as of late. My apologies.”

He lifted his hand to shake Isha’s, weak and strained.

“So how can we help?” Isha asked. “We’re not doctors.”

“My husband is sick, yes, but that’s not the real issue. He’s not the only one. The entire camp is suffering.”

“Again, not doctors.”

“No, it’s not—” she interrupted herself, looking for the right words. “When we first came here, we weren’t given much, but it was enough. We had to work for it, which was fine. We weren’t looking for handouts. We did what we could and were taken care of as well as one could expect. But as more and more people came, things got stricter. Tightened around us. Doing what we can isn’t enough anymore. We’re at the point if we don’t work, we starve. Friends and neighbors help each other the best they can, but they keep tightening and keep tightening so much—” She interrupted herself again, this time due to the tears streaming down her face.

Neera took the woman’s hands in her own.

“I’m sorry,” she continued. “Excuse me for a minute.”

She left the room in a hurry. Neera took a step to follow, looked to Moswen and motioned for him to join her. Moswen looked utterly perplexed by the request, uncertain how to help, yet he followed her just the same.

What an odd group I’ve found myself a part of.

“Hey, Kyrill. Anything feel familiar to you?” Isha asked, looking at the big man knowingly.

Kyrill nods. “All too familiar.”

“So, Henry. We’re friends now. And friends don’t lie to friends. So I’m gonna be straightforward here. What drugs were you taking and how long has it been since the last time you used?”

Aoife was taken aback. It was quite the accusation. They didn’t even bother asking him if he was taking drugs. And just as easily, without even bothering to suggest that their assumptions were incorrect, he confessed.

“Okay, I admit it, but it’s not what you think. I’m no addict. They’ve had me doing manual labor and my body just can’t keep up like it used to. I worked for an apothecary when I was young, hauling boxes for days on end, delivering orders all over Everspring. Ended up running the place myself, hiring other strapping young men to do the heavy lifting. I’m not built for that kind of work anymore. Haven’t been for a long time. But I have no choice now.”

Choice. Aoife found herself growing angry. It wasn't like the people here weren’t being forced to work against their will, but they didn’t have any other options either. And that lack of options was being exploited and taken advantage of. It was barely a step up from servitude.

This was no refugee camp. It was a labor camp. And while she was sure plenty of people would argue semantics over the distinction between the two, it was night and day to her.

“Some of the others,” he continued, “they got their hands on some drug that the hunters like to use. Gives ‘em more energy and endurance. Feels pretty good, too, I’ll admit. Maybe I’m just too old or tired, but they barely made a difference for me. And the comedown isn’t going so well.”

“That much is crystal fucking clear,” Isha said with a laugh.

“How can we help?” Aoife asked, Kyrill and Isha both surprised at the seemingly sudden interest.

“Aside from fixing a broken system? Nothing. Let me be. It’ll pass. I’ll be good to work again soon enough. Perhaps I can ask for work that’s a little less physically demanding. Just, please, don’t tell my wife. I’m ashamed enough as is.”

It all seemed so unfair. Most of the people in the camps had been displaced due to disaster or the resulting fallout of a collapsing empire. To find themselves in such dire consequences seemed like an undeserved punishment to say the least. Rotwater had earned its name: every street, alleyway and corridor were lined with mud and muck. The camps were somehow even worse, the mud deeper and wetter and just plain fucking worse. It was the sludge frosting on their shit cake.

As they left the camp, a man sat atop an elevated seat, like a lifeguard’s chair, keeping him away from the muck. He barked orders at the workers, cracked his whip, and continually adjusted his horribly ugly mustache. Standing in the mud beside him were two bored-looking MC bruisers standing guard. Aoife bee-lined towards them.

“I don’t recognize you lot,” the taskmaster said, surveying the group as they followed behind Aoife. “And Dorian never forgets a face, especially one as pretty as yours.” Aoife did all she could to keep her composure. “You lookin’ for work?”

“No, but I could use your help.”

“Ask and ye shall rec—”

His words were cut short as Aoife ripped the taskmaster down from his seat, throwing him to the ground. Kyrill and Isha jumped in to assist, grabbing the two bruisers. “Not today, boys. Let the lady speak,” Isha said, sending Aoife a wink.

Aoife’s shadow rippled along the surface of the muck before the fallen man like a foreboding darkness, an ominous portent of what would come if Dorian decided to do anything stupid.

“Don’t like it down in the mud much, do you?”

“Ehh, it’s not so bad. You get used to it.”

Aoife forcefully stepped on Dorian’s back, sending him flat against the ground. She kneeled down next to him and grabbed the hair at the back of his head, shoving his face into the mud.

“Still not so bad when you’re choking on it?” She let his head go as he gasped for breath. “Because that’s what your blatant exploitation is doing to these poor people. They’re refugees, not slaves!”

She let the man go and took a step back, not letting things get too out of hand. The man spat mud from his mouth as he leveraged himself back onto his knees.

“You’re fucking crazy. Slaves?! Don’t be so dramatic. No one’s a slave here. It's a simple exchange of goods for services rendered. They get out as much as they are willing to put in. Not my fault if some people from Everspring aren’t as self-motivated as they like to say they are.”

Isha sent a boot to the man’s gut for the snide remark.

“These people came here being offered salvation. All I see is mistreatment. You’re no savior. You’re a thief.” She grabbed him by the chin, mashing his cheeks together as she pulled his face up to look her in the eyes. “And the Thieves’ Guild is in town.”


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the empire
The Howl
The Mazewilds
The Shelf
Shaded Seed
Wayfarer's Ridge
A Gentle Scar
Tiller's Hamlet