Firelight

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Man is the creature that builds, and the most simple and sacred of his constructions is a fire.
- Anonymous Castan

Her name was Margo, as she made known to them when the echoes of her laughter died out. She was so far taken with the plague that she was barely recognizable as a woman in the dim light of the settlement's campfire. She was squat and bow-legged, filthy of dress and hair, missing most of her teeth and both of her shoes. Her skin was pale and flab, but her eyes were bright and cunning.

"A lively little jaunt, indeed," she said again. She then fell into a bout of coughing, loud and wet, that caused her to double over as if punched in the stomach. She put her hands on her knees and wheezed for the better part of a minute, while the two figures who had come to help stood meekly by her side and the three newcomers watched in silence.

Finally she recovered, fanned herself as if caught in a blush, then waddled over to one of the fallen stumps that served as seating in this camp. One of the women resting there made room for Margo to sit; Cray marked this, as he marked each plague-riddled face, each frail and dispirited silhouette illuminated by the fire.

Margo sat with a groan of satisfaction, her fat buttocks bulging to either side as she laid her weight upon them. Her unshod feet dangled in the air.

"Ahhh," she said. "Sweet rest! Well now - come, don't be shy. There's plenty of room."

Cray came forward, but slowly, and he would not sit. Nor did he look into the fire; he was peering into the darkness that surrounded the camp, and if he were blinded now he had no chance of seeing anything of use.

Hidden between the trees he saw wooden posts, stretches of rotting canvas, shingled roofs - shelters built from scraps of the old world. Could he trust that there was nothing else to this poor village of plaguebearers? He thought so, but even still...

No, he would not sit. Not yet.

He would, though, bow his head to the filthy woman seated on the log before him.

"Thank you, Margo of mid-land," he said, looking into her glittering eyes. "You've done us a great service this night."

Margo's face fell into confusion, then opened into surprise and mirth.

"O-ho! There's a gentleman among us. 'Great service' indeed - well, you're very welcome to it, my sweet lad. Who be you?"

"I am Cray, of Stooria - these are Setka and Dazi of Fees."

A ripple went through the two dozen onlookers, though whether it was the name of Stooria or Fees that caused it Cray did not know.

"Stooria, you say, eh? And Fees." Margo grinned, showing few teeth and many blackened gums. "Such faraway lands they are. Come, sit, and tell me... how came you three to walk the trade road?"

There was another ripple, carrying with it a moan of dread.

These folk all know of the caravan, Cray thought. They and how many others? We've been foolish - we could have saved ourselves a brush with death if we'd thought to keep our ears open.

"We travel to Jysene," he said.

Margo's face popped once more, as if she had never heard such outlandish thoughts. "Well now! Why would you do such a thing? I've heard little of the city of thieves of late, and none of it good."

Dazi had turned to glare at his companions almost before Margo was finished speaking. Cray ignored him. News of any sort was a rarity these days, and good news was rarer still. Better to expect the worst and be surprised in happiness.

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