Chapter 13

~Date Unknown~

"Scrapland," the name given by traders to the husk of what was once a metropolis found in the northern part of the known wastes, was a bounty for the brave and not without reason. The disaster had caught the world entirely off guard, both in the grand scheme and in the details, and thus there was little preserved for the aftermath. Priority one was simple survival but rebuilding came soon after, and it was this very human impulse to create that gave birth to the trading companies. These were the first post-disaster societies - confederations of scouts, laborers, engineers, mercenaries and leaders who struck out to strip the old world for parts. Once they had exhausted those smaller towns in their immediate purview, they set their sights farther afield. Scrapland, with its wealth of materials, was hard to overlook.

In the years since the fall, the redemption teams had carved out a route leading to Scrapland - a well-trod road dotted at intervals with small settlements, guard posts and camps ending at the great ruin. Here, the teams dug for anything of value - not just raw materials, but old world tools, rare scientific relics, even baubles that could have some value to the traders themselves. The road was seldom idle, traveled by both the teams and those raiders who preyed upon them. The gift of the trail scout was to ferret out traps and ambushes and discover new paths that might sidestep areas of known raider activity. This was Pathfinder's role, and she did it skillfully.

Storyteller had his own role to play, in the camps at day's end. Nights in the camps were always filled with revelry as the redeemers celebrated another successful claim or had one last hurrah before another risky expedition. Entertainment was valued but very rare, and while the redeemers needed and appreciated Pathfinder, they truly welcomes Storyteller. The people in the camps were a surprisingly generous lot, and they appreciated Storyteller's presence enough to share their supplies and beyond that to offer portions of their claims. Storyteller had little interest in the latter, though, he simply appreciated having friendly ears. Having finished the night's entertainment, he would excuse himself to study his notebook in silence, searching for that perfect conclusion to the grand tale.

One evening, as Storyteller pored over the pages, Pathfinder took a seat by his side. "I hope you don't mind, but I took a peek in that thing. Back when it was with Baroness, I mean."

"Oh?" Storyteller gently closed the notebook, his finger resting on the page. "Truly just a peek?"

"Well, I'd heard of you from some of the other scouts, and we all figured that you kept your stories in there, or notes for new ones."

"No, those I keep up here," said Storyteller, tapping on his temple. "And truth be told, most of those are tales I heard in my own childhood. No, this is an account, a story of the old world. It's not a masterpiece, I know, but I do hope that someday, someone will find it valuable - for reasons beyond its rarity, I mean."

"Maybe so," said Pathfinder. "Then these are true stories?"

"Embellished for literary effect, but yes, they are fundamentally true," said Storyteller.

"Strange to read things like that. I'd just about forgotten that people used to have names that weren't just their titles." Pathfinder hid a chuckle behind her hand. "And I'm glad to see that you didn't invent these people. I mean, this Will guy doesn't seem like much of a hero."

"He's an unconventional hero." Storyteller ran his fingers along the notebook's surface, brushing away a few loose flakes of ruined leather. "In any case, the story is not yet complete."

"Maybe once you're finished, I'll get a chance to read it myself..." Pathfinder leaned in closer. "...Unless it's too private."

"Hardly. Art is meant to be shared with the world, but I'm afraid that this piece is not yet finished. The ending yet eludes me." Storyteller tucked the notebook back into his satchel. "But I predict that one day, you'll get a chance to page through it yourself."

"I'll look forward to that." Pathfinder reclined, staring up at the stars. "You're an unusual man, you know that?

"I've heard this," said Storyteller. "It's a compliment, I presume."

"Of course." Pathfinder closed her eyes and smiled. "It must be nice to have such vivid memories of the old world."

"Don't you?" said Storyteller. "Surely you must remember something?"

"Not a lot," said Pathfinder. "Just my family."

"That's more than many people," said Storyteller. "Perhaps you'd like to tell me about them? Start a story of your own?"

"Well-" Pathfinder paused for a moment, then climbed to her feet, staring into the heart of the camp. "Something's wrong."

Storyteller surveyed the area. "What? I hear nothing out of the ordinary."

"No, this doesn't feel right. I should have a word with the head of the expedition. Keep an eye out, all right?" Pathfinder jogged over to the watchfire. "Hey, are the patrols back yet?"

"What's wrong?" said the crew leader. "You see something?"

"Just tell me. Are they back?"

"One is, the other's not, but the area is clear. Why are you freaking out? You told us there was no trace."

"These raiders have been way too clever lately. It's like they know every move we're going to make before-"

Storyteller didn't hear the rest of the conversation. A multitude of grimy hands reached out of the darkness, grabbing him by the arms and neck. He tried to scream, but the sound was stifled by a wad of fabric crammed into his mouth. He tried to wrench his way free of the hands, but they quickly fetched short length of rope that secured his wrists and ankles. He could do nothing but struggle impotently as his assailants took his helpless form and retreated into the night. The watchfire grew small and dim until it was only a pinprick of light and then vanished, but he could still hear the voices, still faintly hear Pathfinder screaming his name in despair, still hear the troupe calling out for "Storyteller!" until that too faded out.

For the following hour, Storyteller ceased to be a man and was merely a thing, one that was deftly stolen from its rightful owners. He could hear the voices of the thieves, mere whispers above the haunted voice of the wind, bragging about their wonderful fortune. He could hear other things as well, the metallic clatter of their armaments being the most ominous by far.

In time, the footsteps came to a halt and Storyteller was rudely dropped on the ground in the unredeemed ruins of an old house. His eyes adjusted slowly to his new surroundings - first he could make out a collapsed wall, the moon glowing through the gaps in a half-fallen ceiling, and then a ring of shadowy figures encircling him. There were at least seven or eight of them, perched in a dense knot around Storyteller's prone form. As he squinted into the shadows and took stock of his assailants, their nature became clear to him. They were a bestial lot, less human than beast, all of them hideously armed and hunched over him with base cruelty glistening in their ravenous eyes.

One of the group leaned in for a closer look, drawing to breathing range of Storyteller, letting him feel each raspy exhalation. His skin was tanned a deep bronze, crowned with long brown hair that fell in greasy skeins around his face. His bare chest was an ugly mess of scars in greatly varying ages, some of which had the look of willful branding. From his belt hung a number of blades in varying sizes, all of which were clearly well used. Storyteller figured him for the leader of the group, at least insofar as this band could have leadership. His toothy grin twisted into a snarl as he studied Storyteller's face. Snapping upright, he backhanded another raider. "Asshole! You grabbed the wrong one!"

The other raider recoiled, rubbing his face. "Come on, Render, it was dark. We got who we could get."

"You were supposed to get the scout. They're the ones who get the big ransoms. And what did Farseer tell us?"

"Uh..."

"He told us that their scout is a woman, right?" Render seized the other raider by his neck and pushed his head in Storyteller's direction. "Does that look like a bitch? You too stupid to tell the difference?"

Storyteller cringed away from the man's porcine face. "Mmph..."

"Shut up, you. I want you to speak, I'll grab your tongue and make you." Render tossed the other raider back and crossed his arms. "All right, what's the plan, losers?"

A savage-looking woman crouched next to Storyteller. "Maybe we can still get something for him. He obviously ain't a scav, some of those other types are worth a little bit."

"Well, as long as we got him." Render pulled the rag out of Storyteller's mouth. "What's your name?"

"Storyteller," he said between coughs.

"You're shitting me." Render threw up his hands. "We couldn't even get a trader, someone they'd miss. No, we get some nutjob tagalong they probably sent along hoping he'd get killed. Bet he doesn't even have anything worth taking."

Out of the corner of his eye, Storyteller could spot a short, ill-built figure digging through his satchel. "He's got nothing, Render. Just a lot of junk."

Render rubbed his hands together. "Okay, so we got a nobody with nothing on him. What do you guys think, kill him? I say kill him unless one of you idiots can think of a way to make profit off him."

"I've been modestly successful sharing my fables with crowds," said Storyteller, wriggling around until he faced Render. "Perhaps I can teach you my ways, and a few of my stories?"

Render kicked Storyteller in the chest. "Shut up, dipshit. And don't look at me." He glanced around the circle at the other raiders. "All right, so who wants to do this one? Anyone remember who killed the last one we caught? No...wait, I got a better idea." He reached down and scooped a fist-sized chunk of cement off the ground. "There are a lot of rocks around here. Why don't we all kill him together?"

"Surely I can be of more use to alive than dead," said Storyteller, desperately reaching for anything that might keep him alive. "Before you murder me, perhaps you'll let me tell you the story of the wandering king, or the greedy vintner?"

"What did I say about looking at me?" Render tossed the chunk of cement from hand to hand."All right, freaks, bring him outside. I want some room to practice my throwing."

Again the hands seized Storyteller, but they were far less gentle than before, dragging him along the ground and giggling rapturously at each sign of pain. The dirt filled his mouth when he tried to cry out, and the grit dug into his eyes when he looked around for some avenue of escape. All he could see through his clouded vision was Render and his friends collecting debris for the gory ritual that was soon to come.

"All right, killers, here's the rundown," said Render. "I get to throw the first one, and then the rest of you go to town. Ready?"

"Stay your hand." The air was split by a booming voice, coming from opposite the circle of raiders. Storyteller twisted and flailed about until he faced the direction of the new arrival. He was an enormous man - over six and a half feet if he was an inch, with muscles like thick coils of rope and a face like rudely-carved stone. He was clad all in red and black, bolts of fabric hanging loosely over an ugly scrap metal breastplate. He bore no weapon, but his gloves were studded with metal rivets and short nails, stained a deep umber.

Render stepped over Storyteller, covertly gripping the handle of one of his knives. "All right, this is new. What's your name?"

"I am called Captain of the North.”

"Captain of the..." Render laughed, a manic and brutal sound. "Oh, so you're one of those types, huh? Well, it's your game, asshole. So why are you here?"

"I am here for your captive," said Captain flatly.

"You wanna buy him?" said Render. "Well, I was all set on bludgeoning him to death, but if you've got an offer, I gotta hear it, don't I?"

Captain shook his head, his expression not shifting even a bit. "I am not here to make a trade. You will turn him over to my custody at once."

"Oh, is that a threat?" Render drew his knife, a ghoulish grin crossing his face. "You ready to back that up?"

"I do not make threats," said Captain. "You will turn this man over right now."

The rest of the raiders gathered around Render, all drawing their own weapons. "All right, listen close. You're a big boy, all right. I bet you're used to getting whatever you want just from asking. Well, we've killed twice you, you dumb brick. So why don't you just turn around and walk your giant ass back home, okay? Or do I have to cut you a little bit to drive the point home?"

"I'll not ask again." There was the slightest twitch of rage in Captain's lips, gone in a fraction of a second. "Turn him over at once."

Render ran the blade of his knife along his discolored tongue. "Oh no, big boy. You made me mad."

Render advanced on Captain with his knife leveled with deadly intent, but Captain didn't move a muscle, didn't react to the assault in the slightest. Suddenly, there was a loud crack from behind Captain and Render fell backwards, the knife sailing from his hand. Render's eyes, frozen wide from shock, drifted to the fresh wound in his wrist, the earth beneath him darkening from the blood. Then there was a flurry of motion from all around, men racing into position around the raiders, surrounding them in a moment. They were dressed in the same red-and-black uniform as Captain, wielding spears and sabers - not the sharpened metal fragments and rusty knives wielded by the raiders, but weapons made by skillful hands. From his position, Storyteller could just spot another man standing just behind Captain, a bolt-action rifle resting in his arms.

Instantly, Render's face twisted into a look of terror. He clearly wanted to run, but fear had rooted him fast to the spot. "Oh hell, it's you guys. I'm sorry, I didn't know he was with you. Look, he's yours, okay? No charge, just take him." Render smiled nervously, but Captain only returned a hostile, silent stare. "Seriously, how about I cut these ropes off him? Also free. All I want to do is be helpful."

Captain was in motion so quickly that no one had time to react, least of all Render. Grabbing Render's head in his left hand, he sent his right fist flying squarely into Render's nose. There was a sickening crack of bone and a spray of blood, and Render's body went slack, hitting the dirt next to Storyteller. The other raiders tossed their weapons to the ground, their tough visages vanishing in an instant.

Captain glowered at the raiders. "If I had my way," he roared, "I would tie each of you scumbags up by the wrists and give my men an opportunity to test their weapons on live targets. But I have far more pressing matters, so I will only claim one of you." Captain gestured to one of his men, who handed him a spear. With one smooth motion, Captain drove the spear into Render's throat. Storyteller tried not to scream, even after Captain pulled the spear free and sent a spurt of Render's blood splashing into his face.

Captain handed the spear back to his soldier. "Now, go." The rest of the raiders fled in random directions. Captain pointed to Storyteller. "Get him up." One of the men cut Storyteller free and helped him to his feet. "Your name is Storyteller, correct?"

Storyteller dabbed the blood from his forehead with trembling hands. "That's correct."

"Good," said Captain. "You are to come with me. Conqueror requests your presence."

"Conqueror..." Storyteller shuddered at the sound of the name. "...He wants me?"

"This is not a request," said Captain. "You will come with us, either voluntarily or by force."

"Force will not be necessary," said Storyteller. "I shall do as you ask."

"Good." Captain nodded towards a clearing a few yards away. "The voyage back will take twenty days at most. We have prepared a space for you - I think you will find it comfortable. Now, let's be going. My lord is waiting."

Storyteller spotted a horse-drawn cart in the clearing. It was the same conveyance used by traders and redeemers, but this was a different beast entirely. It was a vehicle of war, covered in metal plates and crowned with perches for armed men to keep watch. One of the men unlatched and opened the hatch leading into the rear compartment. On a typical cart, this would be a storage space, filled with recently acquired goods or special deliveries headed to the trading companies. On this vehicle, the door opened onto a tiny living space - a mattress (rare in the wastes), a few shelves, a small bin for provisions, even a fixed plank meant to serve as a desk.

"If you are in need of anything, let one of the men know," said Captain. "Our pace is brisk, but we will still have time to stop once per day."

Storyteller gazed into the compartment. "But other than that, I shall be in this space for the entire trip?"

"A safety precaution. Raiders normally avoid our caravans, but we don't believe in taking risks, especially with important men."

Storyteller peered up at Captain. "Important men?"

Ignoring Storyteller, Captain climbed up onto the roof of the cart. "Quickly. We must depart."

Realizing that he had little choice in the matter, Storyteller climbed into the compartment.No sooner had he entered than the hatch slammed shut, the guard tossing in his satchel just moments before. He was suddenly aware that the hatch did not open from the inside - Storyteller was officially at their whim, and there was no telling what might await in Conqueror's territory. He reclined against the mattress, clutched his notebook to his chest, let his eyes flutter shut, and sank into a restless unconsciousness.