Bron let the rag slip over his head, soaking up the sweat that had beaded over his wrinkly skin. He picked up his pants from over the chair as he walked toward the open window. He found himself putting off covering himself as he let the cool air flow over his genitals. He looked out the window, took in a deep breath, and smiled.
It felt like a good day. The town was starting to wake, he could hear the people begin to shuffle about. His time to shine would come soon.
He watched as some of the traders set up their shops. So meticulous about how their goods were placed over their wood tops, making sure they were fully exposed for the passing world to see.
Bron chuckled. As if somehow that would make them sell more goods.
“What be out past the Road?” said the young whore still laying in the bed. He looked back at her and found her on her stomach with her feet twirling in the air, her lips spread into a beautifully innocent smile as she watched him like a little girl expecting to hear a wonderful story. He was reminded that he should be covering himself. Not that she cared. She was a whore, she’d probably seen much worse than his pruney little ass, but cover himself he did anyway.
He smiled at her. She was a nice girl. A curious creature. Beautiful in every way yet completely unaware of it. It would have been easy for her to do her duty while she made it apparent how repulsive she found him, but Bron could read no sign of judgment from her. He was short, one leg longer than the other, heavy around the waist, skin thin as thread that threatened to reveal everything it held beneath. An unfortunate mutation, but not one that had stopped him in any way from living his life. Instead, she seemed fascinated by him.
It could all be a ploy, of course. Just stringing him along so he might be more generous, it’s what many whores had done, but he doubted it. She didn’t seem to be the smartest of creatures he had encountered. No. She had one act. A sincere one. Just like his brute, she seemed to want to see the best in people, no matter how fucked everything and everyone around her was. It was a trait he was striving to adopt himself.
But like everything else in his life, he had to work twice as hard as everyone to get the same results.
“Love, the question you need be askin’,” he turned to look out the window. “What be out further than that?”
He glanced a look at her and raised his eyebrows, causing her eyes to go wide. He liked the innocence in her. He was glad he had picked her. If he would be spending the next two nights here, they may as well be comfortable ones. It wasn’t all just about sex, sometimes he needed the companionship. Someone to listen and be amazed by his stories. It had become a tradition.
“You lie,” she giggled. “There ain’t nothin’ out there.”
The brute was his companion, sure, but it wasn’t the same. He loved that dumb bastard to death, but sometimes it was as if he were talking to mud. The big man grunted, smiled, frowned, listened. He listened well. No matter how many times Bron retold the same stories, the brute would always be amazed.
Come to think of it, it was actually all about the sex. The different audience was just an added bonus.
“There be plenty out there,” said Bron. “Too much for me to tell you about. Too much for your eye to take in. The level of beauty there, it be something bigger. You, you belong there.” She looked down as if embarrassed. “But you be only one of the common.”
He looked down through the window and saw three men walking through the rows of shops as if they owned everything these hard-working men had created. They wore the local Faction colors and each held a short club with nails on the end in one hand and a small bag in the other.
“The end of the world hold the start of everything.”
The three Faction men dispersed and held out their bag as they passed by every store. Coins were dropped into them without question. A tax of doing business in this Faction’s territory. One that Bron was not comfortable paying.
He knew every territory was different. Every Faction had distinct ways of operating their towns and Bron had learned nearly every one. Extortion was one of the more common, and one of Bron’s least favorite. He did not find it fair that he would have to give up part of his hard-earned goods to a group of assholes who decided to murder the previous assholes and claim everything in that land as their own. None of it had ever been theirs to begin with.
He hated Factions.
He hated the men that kept them together. Hated everything they stood for. Yes, they maintained order, but it was achieved through fear and violence. It was a constant competition of who was more powerful. There could be order for years, make the people think they had finally found a place that was not terror and chaos every second of the day, only to have another Faction decide that it was their territory and wage war until a new order was established. The only people that ever lost were the innocents. It wasn’t Bron’s idea of a nice place to raise his kids.
Not that he had any, but a man could always dream.
“Well tell me one thing that be out there,” said the girl.
He had paid his tax to enter their territory. He was ok with that. They had butchered for their land and he was simply milking it. A good trade in his eyes, but he would not be paying part of his profits to them.
He had watched them for the last two days, learning their routine. Start of the morning, collect the night’s profit, middle of the day, collect the morning’s. He got the feeling that they were skimming more than they were supposed to, which meant the Sovereign was not in this territory and they were taking advantage of it, but it was hard to confirm that with the shop owners when they were weary of a new, not so pleasant looking, face. He knew they likely thought nothing of the deformed little man, but he liked to believe that they recognized the new competition that he presented. They had no need to worry, there was never competition when he was around.
“Maybe I take you,” said Bron as he made his way toward the door. “See it all yourself.”
He stopped at the open door and forced himself to smile, realizing that she was likely not one of the girls who had chosen this life for herself.
The big brute lay beside their cart, surrounded by the town’s livestock. Bron felt bad for the animals, they likely hadn’t slept a lick with his companion’s snoring overpowering all the noises surrounding them. They all stared at Bron as he limped his way over to him, begging him to make it all stop.
“Grim,” called out Bron loud enough to pierce his snores. Bron knelt down and took hold of Grim’s face. “Get up!”
The big man turned over, revealing a massive erection that was attempting to pierce a hole through the brute’s trousers. Bron had tried many times to purchase him a night with one of the ladies but Grim had always refused. For a long time, he had thought that it was simply because the brute had never done it before and just needed to be thrown into it without warning. He should have known it would have been a bad idea.
A timid child at first when introduced to the women but the big man had quickly turned violent when they had tried to help push past his shyness. Bron had thought that maybe the big man was just not into women, that men were more his preference, but that was far from reality. Once a woman caught the big man’s eye, he would stare at her as if the world around had disappeared. The further out their womanly figure pushed past their garments, the more the world would vanish. Grim had plenty of desire, his problem was social.
Bron slapped the man over the cheek, immediately startling him awake. He stared at Bron like a confused child. Bron smiled wide. “You up!”
Grim sat up and looked around, taking in their surroundings. He blinked a few times and rubbed his eyes before running his hand over his stinging cheek.
“We got get goin’,” said Bron. “People be walkin’ round not realizin’ that it be us they be lookin’ for.”
Grim smiled wide. An unquestionable action that Bron had come to love. Grim was the one thing in his life that Bron would never doubt. The big man was the purest person Bron’s shitty life had ever honored him with and watching Grim smile brought a joy to him that was unrivaled.
The big man stood and stretched out his arms, his erection giving no sign of disappearing anytime soon. Bron began placing all of the goods Grim had taken out back into the cart until the big man started helping him.
“One day, I finally get you to sleep somewhere proper,” said Bron. “No more floor.”
Grim shook his head.
“You sleep better.”
He shook his head again.
“It be your loss,” The big man had a point, though. The beds were not much better than the floor. They may not be as hard, but half the time they itched to high hell. Probably a mixture of the dirt and hay they were stuffed with, not to mention the bugs that nested inside. “Ready?”
Grim nodded and lifted the cart. He watched the big man let go of one of the handles and stretch out his hand to the animal’s faces who licked his hand as he passed by. Bron couldn’t even dream of lifting that cart on his own, yet Grim lugged it around as if it were lighter than a feather.
“It gonna be a good day today,” said Bron as he led the big man out of the structure. Grim groaned loudly and bunched up his face as the bright green sky hit his eyes. The big man had spent nearly his entire life in the plains past the Road, yet every time they would traverse through to the Blood Woods, no matter how long they would stay, Grim would act as if the sun and sky were an unwanted surprise.
Bron knew it was the big man’s way of letting him know that Grim wanted to stay out there in the woods and not have to come back here.
“We show these people what it mean to be traders.” He looked back at Grim who nodded. “Then we go back. Yeah?”
The big man smiled, causing Bron to smile.
Bron stretched his arm out, stopping Grim in his tracks. The three collectors walked up ahead, one of them twirling the sack of coins around as if they couldn’t matter any less to him. Bron set himself behind a wall and poked his head out, patiently watching them. He waited until the three men rounded a corner before continuing on.
“See Grim? Good day.” He winked at the big man.
Bron was not a man for half measures. When he went in, he left room for no one. There was not a single person walking through these streets that would miss him. He was the most boisterous, the most obnoxious, the most relentless. He was everything he needed to be to make sure he had the crowd gathered around him. The only wares that would last him were the ones intentionally left for tomorrow.
Grim had been gifted with the build of an ox, but Bron had been born with a tongue like a serpent.
He made his way to the center of the shops and stopped. He looked around at the shop owners, making sure that eye contact was made with each. All of them stared at Grim but he watched them until each glanced at him. It didn’t take long for their eyes to drift off as they discarded him as nothing. He forced himself to smile wide and breathe in the town air.
“You smell that?” He asked Grim quietly. Shit, piss, rot. “That be the smell of fear.” He motioned for the big man to put their cart down. “When we be done, we turn that smell to love.”
Bron wanted to believe that, but deep inside all he wanted was to see them squirm. To leave them wondering how they could ever call themselves traders. They looked at him now like a little, worthless, deformed man. A man who might steal one or two sales from them but nothing more. He was nothing to them now. No worry, no threat. A competition that would be crushed in a heartbeat, but he would be the one doing the crushing here. He would leave them realizing what being nothing truly was.
“Here,” said Bron. The big man put the cart down and removed a couple of the bags from the edge. Grim sat where the bags had been and rummaged through one of them until he pulled out a faded and scratched multi-colored cube that looked like the size of a pebble in the midst of a mountain in the hands of Bron.
The big man had become obsessed with it ever since it had been gifted to him by the child. He had been at it for weeks now, unable to figure out how the child had made the sides match. While on most days it had been endearing, Grim’s obsessions were nothing to dismiss. There had been hours at a time when their entire operation had come to a stop because Grim had decided he wanted to play with his cube.
“Grim,” said Bron, but the big man made no sign of looking up. “You be with me today, yeah?”
That was all that Bron needed. The big man always delivered on his word.
Good day indeed.
Bron spotted a man with a small crate with three clear containers inside it round the corner of the trader’s row. He glanced at the other traders. Their eyes all came up like a carrier in the sky watching its prey on the ground, but they quickly lost interest.
Bron smiled. This would be easier than he had anticipated.
No man deserves anything he is not willing to fight for.
He smiled wide and locked eyes with the incoming man. Naturally, the man’s eyes went to Grim first. Always gauge the visible threat first, but never discard the invisible one. It became impossible for the man to ignore the massive, unwavering grin next to him.
“Excuse me, sir.” said Bron as the man got close, loud enough for the entire row to hear. He was clearly making an effort to squeeze by without having to talk to Bron, but Bron had chosen this spot for a reason. No person who entered the trader’s row would pass without his word. “Top a mornin’, yeah?”
“Aye,” said the man, trying to break Bron’s gaze but finding it impossible. Bron began to feel the eyes of all the traders on him now. Soon their wonder would turn to a reanalysis of their initial judgment of him, but by then, it would be too late.
“You ever be out past the Road?” Bron asked. The man shook his head and Bron smiled wider. “Ah, well lucky for you, I take care all the risk so you can reap all the beauty it have to offer.”
The man’s eyes narrowed. Bron should have known that he would be dealing with simple men. It didn’t matter that this town was ruled by one of the biggest Factions in the Dry Sea, education came only to those that yearned for it.
“Me and Grim here, we bring back all the beauty we find out past the Road so you can have it all. Tell me, what is it that you came here for today?”
“I be come for juice,” said the man, glancing at a trader behind Bron. Bron followed his eyes and found the trader glaring at him.
“He be the only one who have it?” The man nodded at Bron. “How much he ask for it?”
The man put up two fingers.
“What if I tell you that, I get it to you for less?” whispered Bron, leaning close.
“Well juice be juice,” said the man.
“Indeed,” said Bron with a smile. “Come back after you get your second food. I get it for you for less coin.” The man watched him skeptically until Bron spit in his hand and held it out for the man. The man smiled back and spit in his own hand, smearing it thick over Bron’s. Bron made it a point to keep his face straight despite his repulsion toward the nasty habit the people of the Dry Sea had adopted. These people were supposed to be more educated, more civilized, but all they were were animals with leashes around their necks. Just because they shit within structures didn’t make them any better, hell, it made them worse. The more he thought about it, the more he realized that he shared much of Grim’s desire to return to the Blood Woods.
The man walked off with his crate while Bron untied one of his bags and stuffed his hands within. He took a rag inside and wiped his hand before he could puke, making sure that no one around could see what he was doing. It would not go well for him if these simpletons saw him wiping the pact from his hand.
He took out a small piece of parchment and placed it next to Grim. With a piece of burnt wood, he traced a single line at the corner of the parchment. His way of tracking his performance. When he was done, he glanced up at the juice trader who looked as if he were trying to kill Bron with his eyes. Bron let the corners of his lips curl upward and winked before returning to the bag and removing two canteens, placing them next to Grim. Grim looked down at the canteens and then at Bron.
“First one of the day,” said Bron, keeping the grin wide on his face. The big man smiled back and kept on with his cube. Bron took out a single wooden cup and placed it next to the canteens.
Bron knew that most of the early prospects would be stumbling in for a single trader in the back. Everyone needed juice to survive, and the man had capitalized on that. No one else here except him sold it, but by the look of it, every trader here had grown complacent.
It didn’t take long before the next prospect entered the row and Bron made sure to leave Grim at the cart and greet him as his body peeked through.
“Top a mornin’, yeah?” said Bron, to which the man nodded. He was a skinny man, but one whose face told you that no shit would be accepted by him. “You ever be out past the Road?”
The man looked Bron up and down and pushed past him. Bron grit his teeth and forced himself to smile as he waddled after him.
“You come for juice, yeah?” said Bron to the walking man. “Out in the Blood Woods, it ain’t like here. Juice be everywhere.” He had expected the man to stop but when he didn’t he kept after him. He needed to find the man’s trigger. “Juice be special, though. The men out there be bigger. Stronger.
“You see the man sitting on the cart?” Bron watched the skinny man until the man glanced at Grim. “That man be my partner. He come from out past the Road. He drink the blood juice his whole life.” The skinny man stopped and looked at Bron. “It’s why he be so strong. You have little ones?”
“One,” said the skinny man.
“I would want my little one to be strong, hell, I would want me to be strong. But it be too late for me. Maybe not you, though.” Bron looked toward Grim, rubbing his cheek as if he were deep in thought. “No, probly be too late for you too.”
“Hmm,” said Bron, continuing to rub his cheek. Without looking at the skinny man, he took him by the arm. “Come.”
Bron led him toward his cart and placed him next to Grim. He picked up one of the canteens and shook it. “Who you get your juice from?”
The skinny man pointed directly toward the juice trader in the corner of the row. Bron smiled internally. He wanted to thank the man for making it so much easier for him. Bron uncapped the canteen and poured a little of the blue liquid into the wooden cup, holding it out toward the man to take.
“How much he ask for it?” continued Bron. The man went to answer but Bron frowned and motioned him to drink. Bron watched him, continuing to rub his cheek as the man gulped down the shot of juice.
“Three coin,” said the man. He tried to hand back the cup to Bron, but Bron ignored him and kept watching him carefully. “It be good.”
“Incredible,” said Bron eventually. He took hold of the man’s arm and squeezed. His shoulder next. “Amazing.”
“I never see the blood juice work so quick on anyone,” said Bron. “This be…your little one grow strong like Grim.”
The skinny man looked down at his arms and then over at Grim who continued to twist his cube aimlessly.
“I ain’t got no extra coin,” said the skinny man.
“And I ain’t here to take extra coin,” said Bron, capping off the canteen. “This juice, you only need small bit. Mix it with regular juice from out here. You be all set. How much you come get from him today?”
“You buy two a my juice, coin a piece, I get you your jugs, two a piece. You no spend more than what you came for,” Bron spit in his hand and held it out to the skinny man. The man’s eyes went wide, barely able to restrain his joy as he spit into his own hand and smeared it over Bron’s. He set down his crate and fiddled with the small sack tied around his neck, procuring six small coins from inside.
“Grim,” said Bron, unable to snap the giant from his focus. “Payment.”
The big man extended his arm toward them, opening his massive hand without ever looking away from his cube. The skinny man dropped the coins in Grim’s hand. The big man closed his pinky over them and allowed the rest of his fingers to return to the cube.
Bron took the two canteens and poured the juice inside one of the containers within the crate. He smiled at the man before leaning close and whispering, “Come back after second food, have the rest for you then.”
Bron raised his hand, allowing the skinny man to see their spit dribble down his arm. That was all these people needed for him to gain their trust. In a way, it was pathetic, but in another, newer way, it was endearing.
Everyone out here was so filled with distrust. A man watched his own back and did what was needed for his own survival, for his own betterment. There was no such thing as working for the common good. They took what they believed to be theirs and gave no care over the consequences of other men. Yet here they were, willing to trust fully in a random stranger because he had sealed a pact by joining fluids with them.
If only they knew the type of man they were laying with. They would have killed him right then and there, as was their custom for dealing with those that did not fulfill their end of the pact. But no, Bron had adopted a new philosophy in life. One that both he and Grim could share together.
Fairness and kindness.
Of course, stretching the truth of his wares, no, expanding, the truth, was in no way unfair. The juice he was peddling was special, to Bron. It did come from the Blood Woods, no doubt about that. Grim had drank it from a young age and he was, by far, the biggest and strongest man Bron had ever encountered, albeit slow, but he was not the only big man Bron had come across out there who consumed it regularly, just the slowest. So in a way, these big men could very well likely be getting that big from the juice.
He would treat them with the respect and kindness that had never been shown to him his entire life. Then maybe, just maybe, he could help prove the boy right.
“Grim,” said Bron as the skinny man finally walked off with his crate. “Grim!” A grunt escaped the big man but it was clear that his attention would not be broken. “You give me your word you be with me.” The big man nodded. “Then be with me. We go quick, we stay out of trouble. Leave all them happy. Yeah? Just two days Grim.”
The big man set the cube down and opened the sack tied around his neck. He dropped the coins inside and pulled the string closed, habitually shaking it after he did so and turning to Bron to smile. Grim gave no care over the value of coin but he loved the sound of jingling the metal made.
Bron had learned early on that carrying the coins on his own body was asking for the worst. Bron cast no fear over others. They would take one look at the twisted little man and laugh before trampling over him. But Grim, Grim was a different breed altogether. They took one look at the behemoth of a man and dreamed up every possible way he could kill them with his bare hands. So Bron had done the only thing a reasonable man could do. He had showered Grim with affection every time the big man shook the bag of coins after a successful trade until Grim refused to let anyone else hold the coins.
Bron etched another mark on the parchment before turning toward the juice trader with a big smile on his face. The trader’s lips curled back. This be only the beginning. Thought Bron, before nodding politely toward him. The trader spat on the ground and Bron smiled further. Less on me.
Bron didn’t have to wait long for the next prospect to enter the row. He ran a similar routine on that one, then the next, and the one after that, all the while keeping a close eye on the fuming juice trader. Every man has a breaking point, and Bron just needed to wait for the trader’s to hit. At one moment, the man’s anger would turn to desperation and that would be when all of the traders here would have an opportunity to learn.
After the sixth regular that Bron had diverted, each producing the wonderful sound of jingling coins within Grim’s sack, the juice trader had had enough. He took his two biggest jugs of juice from his stand and carried them toward Bron’s cart, interrupting Bron in the tailend of his next transaction.
“I bring the juice to you direct,” growled the juice trader to the man Bron had just shaken spittle with.
The customer turned to face the angry trader and stammered, “I…Jehemia…I…”
Bron placed his open hand over the customer’s chest and nudged the man back, puffing his tiny chest up and smiling wide. “Top a mornin’, cubrat!”
The trader looked as if he would bash Bron’s head in with one of the jugs, over and over, until his face matched the rest of his body. It wouldn’t have been the first time and Bron was sure it would not be the last either. When men were pushed too far, not even Grim stopped their initial lashing. This time, however, it seemed Bron would receive only the spoils of war.
The trader’s eyes strayed toward the giant looming behind them, then back to Bron. “Fuck away abortion,” Bron winced, unable to tell if he had kept it internal or allowed the man to see his clear dislike for the word. “I not be talking to you.”
Only way you talk to me is with my shit in your mouth. NO! Good thoughts. Good thoughts. “You ever be out past the Road?”
“What he sell you?” said the trader to the man behind Bron.
“He promise a-”
“Ah, ah, ah!” interrupted Bron, raising his slobbered arm. “What we trade be done under sacred pact. It between he and me. But if you interested, I have plenty more. You can buy.”
The juice trader glared at Bron. Eventually the man broke his glare to glance back at his unattended stand. This was never a business where you left your wares unwatched. Bron used the opportunity to collect the coin from the man and send him off, reminding him, loud enough for the juice trader to hear, to return for the rest of their agreement later.
“What you play here abortion?”
To kill you bastard. Bron huffed. NO! Love and kindness. “Jehemia?” The man said nothing so Bron continued. “No play here friend. We get off wrong. Out past the Road, people be different. Here, you all friend, you watch out for each other.” So you find when to shove the knife in deep. “Out there, they all savages. Only care about one thing. They no help each other, like us.”
“You takin’ my coin,” growled the trader as he shoved a finger into Bron’s chest. A pendant around the trader’s neck escaped the covering of his top and drew the little man’s attention. A golden circle with carvings along the edge and three large gems in the middle. It looked familiar to Bron, but it stood out more because it was not something that would have been found in the Dry Sea, which meant the man would have had to trade for it.
Bron wondered if he had scavenged it and traded it to someone here, only to be traded who knows how many times until ending up around the neck of this vile man.
Bron let his eyes stray toward the man’s stand, forcing the trader’s eyes toward it as well. “You be right,” said Bron, nodding. “I not be respectful of your ground.” Bron glanced at the man’s shop again, causing the man to look back. “Don’t worry friend, I be keepin’ me own eye on your shop. Grim not only strong, he fast too.”
The trader visibly clenched his front teeth, jutting out his jaw before looking back again once more.
“Tell me, what can I do to make it all fair?” asked Bron.
Bron knew many things about people of different lands and one thing he knew well was that the people of the Dry Sea thought of nothing but themselves. Maybe it was a skill he had learned as life had gone on, or maybe he had been born with it as a side effect of his mutation, but he had a knack for discovering what people really wanted when he thought past himself. People had become easy to maneuver around, even if ultimately all he thought about was himself.
Some men required him to talk more, while others, most actually, required him to shut his mouth. At the end of the day, they sought out what was best for them, in their situation. All Bron ever had to do was ask enough questions so he could put himself in their rags and capitalize on the information they would willingly provide him.
People would slowly kill themselves. Every. Single. Time.
“Give me the coin you take,” said the juice trader.
“Ah, as much as I like to, Grim here don’t take kind to men takin’ his coin. Once it his, he gotta willingly give it. I’m sure you can imagine how easy that is,” Bron gripped the man’s shoulders as if he had just had a brilliant idea that he was unable to contain. “But what if I know a way to make you even more coin?” He leaned close to the man and whispered, “Even after I be gone.”
Bron saw the greed light up in the man’s eyes. “What way?”
“Grim!” said Bron loud enough to turn the giant’s attention to him, and likely the whole row. “Keep close eye on me friend shop there. No one take nothing, yeah?” Grim grunted and Bron pulled the juice trader closer to his cart. “You see this Jehemia?”
The man looked down at the canteens that Bron had laid out on the edge of his cart. He uncapped one of them and looked inside, smelled it. “You be sellin’ them juice?”
“I be here for only two day friend. By the end of tradin’ day tomorrow, I be gone, and you never need see me again.” Bron picked up the uncapped canteen and handed it to the juice trader. “I not be sellin’ juice, I be sellin’ them what the best of a world they ain’t ever been to has to offer.”
“So, you lyin’?”
“Not at all, friend,” Maybe just a little. “This be real blood juice from out past the Road, out in the Blood Woods. You ever see the people out there?”
The juice trader shook his head.
“Well now you have,” said Bron, extending his hand out toward Grim.
“He don’t talk?”
“He do. He prefer quiet though.”
“Why he stay wit you then, abortion?” The greed in the man’s soul had not yet washed over his hatred. He still couldn’t see what Bron was proposing to him.
Bron smiled. “People be willing to pay they juice coin for a small amount of this. You sell next to your dry juice, charge double, they love you and, well…you rich.” He could see the idea go off in the man’s head, his eyes shimmering in the green glow of the sky. “No time for me to sell all. What if we trade? Little blood juice for little dry juice, yeah?”
“My juice be worth more.”
Bron wanted to laugh. Typical trader, never able to bargain without coming out on top. They could have the greatest deal in the world but would be willing to continue shitting on the street if they felt they hadn’t won.
“You be right,” said Bron. “My juice not be necesry.” Bron scratched his chin, pretending to be deep in thought. “What if…I have five and zero canteen.” In this bag. No need for you to know about the other bags. “How many more trade you expect today?”
“Six, maybe seven. Not including one you already stole.”
“This be perfect then!” Bron patted Grim. “Can I borrow coin?”
The big man looked down at him and made a face.
“Please Grim, it be important.” The big man wrapped his massive fingers over the sack around his neck and held it tight. He looked away from Bron as if trying to pretend he hadn’t heard him. “We make more Grim, I promise.”
Grim glared down at the juice trader who took a step back. Coward. Thought Bron. The big man shook the sack and frowned. It hurt Bron to take the things that made Grim so happy but he knew it was for the better. Grim would be happier when they could finally leave this barren shithole and return back to the Blood Woods.
Maybe they wouldn’t stop there. Maybe they could keep going. They were both still young. If the Vaults were real like the boy had claimed, maybe they could join him and his mother in search of them. Give Grim the good life he had always promised.
The big man slipped the sack over his head and handed it to Bron.
“I give you half coin for each of your juice you bring today,” said Bron to the juice trader. “Clean you out. If I sell all, great. If I not sell all, you keep coin and rest of juice. Tomorrow, same deal. Whatever I not sell, you keep and I pay you all up front. Including blood juice.”
Bron tossed a full canteen to the man and shook the sack of coins. Bron watched the man attempting to restrain the massive grin that was trying to force its way to the surface.
“But!” said Bron, pulling the sack of coins into a fist. “You not sell nothin’ today or tomorrow. For two day, you direct them to me, I sell all and tell them that further supply be left with you. Fair, yeah?”
The man was about to protest when a deep rumble of a voice boomed behind them. “Fair.” said Grim.
Bron didn’t need to turn around to know that the big man was glaring down at the juice trader. He could see it all in the reflection of the man’s eyes. He hocked up the nastiest bile he could muster onto his hand and held it out to the trader with a massive grin.
The juice trader looked back at his wares. After a moment of contemplating if he could fuck Bron into a better deal, he decided against it. The man spit into his own hand and smeared it over Bron’s.
“Where you want the jug, abortion?”
Bend over, I show ya. Thought Bron, but decided to keep it to himself instead. He ignored him and rummaged through the sack. “How many jug you have today?”
“Four and zero.”
Bron held out his hand and dropped twenty coins into the juice traders hands.
“I bring eight and zero tomorrow,” continued the juice trader.
Greedy bastard. “Perfect, you need help lugging it?” said Bron with a grin. “I no have room on my cart. Keep it there, I send them. Let them know where to buy more blood juice.”
The man made no attempt to hide his dislike of Bron, but he accepted his pact and walked off nonetheless. Nine other customers came for the juice trader, and nine other customers Bron stole, this time without needing to make any promises. They bought his blood juice alongside the regular juice he now held a monopoly over.
Every new territory he entered always went the same. He found the main players, stole their usuals, and bought their wares from them to eliminate them from the game. Once one of them was out, the rest crumbled. It was a phenomenon that Bron had never fully understood, but accepted without question.
“What you got in big sacks, little man?” came one of the traders as he had walked back to his cart after selling something other than the juice.
“Come,” said Bron, “Join me and Grim a moment. We show you how to get richer. You ever be out past the Road?”
One by one, they all began flocking to him. There were some that resisted. The stubborn ones, the key main players that thought themselves better than anyone else. There was no need to push them further. Curiosity always got the best of everyone. If that didn’t, then he would make them feel pain, just as he had the juice trader, and make them crawl on their knees and lick his toes once they had finally had enough.
By second food, Bron had enough coin to fill four sacks around the big man’s neck. Any good trader would call that the best day of their lives, but Bron was far from a good trader. He was godlike. But even the best need a break from time to time, especially to avoid a shakedown.
He watched some of the traders pull out their meals and lay them out next to their goods. He had to commend them for having the dedication to their trade. A meal was never worth more than a sale, and if it was, it had better be the best damn food this cruel world had to offer. Moments after, he watched them lay a small sack on the edge of of their shop.
“Grim,” said the little man. “It be time to rest.”
Grim hopped off the cart without hesitation. He helped Bron tie the big sacks back up and lifted the cart as if it were made of feathers.
“You be done for the day, abortion?” called the juice trader as they made their way through the exit near his shop.
“One and eight is what I log,” said Bron nonchalantly. He could see the man trying to process what that had meant. “Ah, Jehemia! I ask favor of you, yeah? If any man come looking for me, please tell them I be back after second food. Man gotta fill his belly, aye Grim?”
Grim smiled, letting go of one of the cart handles to rub his stomach.
They returned to the stables, not Bron’s first choice of fine dining, but it made the big man happy to eat around the animals and that was worth the scent of animal shit with every bite. Besides, it was either that, or the scent of the entire town’s filth that carried over the air.
After putting the cart down, the big man slipped the four coin sacks from around his neck and lifted a little compartment only he and Bron knew about within the cart. He rang the coins and stuffed them within the cart.
“We on track,” said Bron, pulling a large piece of stone shaped like a bowl from within one of the bags and handing it to Grim. He had taken it from one of the broken walls of a structure from the Old World he had rummaged through long ago. He had originally thought he would sell it, considering how indestructible the thing felt, but had quickly realized that its shape gave for the perfect bowl for Grim and there was a lot more value it could provide for the big man than selling it to someone as a souvenir.
He undid the knot over one of the big sacks and withdrew two canteens from inside. The big man held the bowl out to Bron as he uncapped the canteen. “I be need your help with the last few of them,” said Bron as he poured the yellow sludge into Grim’s bowl.
Grim stuffed his free hand into the open sack.
“Hey!” said Bron loud enough to snap the big man to attention. Grim’s eyes went wide, as if it were somehow possible for the tiny little wretch of a man to fill the giant with fear. It made Bron’s heart sink a little every time he had to raise his voice at the giant, but when it came to food, there was no stopping him without a little roughness. The giant became blind to the world around him and would sneak food anytime Bron was not looking.
On most days out in the Blood Woods, it wouldn’t be a problem, but out here in this barren wasteland that everyone seemed to want to live in, food became harder to come by. You were forced to purchase it because going out hunting meant you needed to pay a tax to the Factions and that tax gave no protection toward the risk of other hunters. It is easier to take the earnings of a fellow man than try to acquire your own.
The Road had become a path no man would take without being ready for a fight, even with an escort.
“I get you extra carrier meat,” said Bron, pulling the bag in his direction, “but after we clear the lot of them, yeah?”
Grim frowned, his massive, overly exaggerated features likely looking like an enraged bull to anyone else, but to Bron, he saw only the overgrown baby ready to cry.
The big man had never learned to control his facial expressions. Bron had tried to show him over the years but teaching anything to Grim was slow going and after hitting a wall that had seen diminishing returns, Bron had decided to stop, becoming oddly content by the results.
It had become their way of communicating.
Bron withdrew a long piece of dried carrier meat from the sack and held it out. Grim beamed as he reached out to take it, only to have it snatched back.
“You promise you be helpin’ me,” said Bron. The big man nodded, keeping his arm ready for the meat. “Rest a today and tomorrow, no more toy, yeah?”
Grim frowned, his hand dropping a little as he weighed his options.
“Least just while we be tradin’. We need be usin’ more force with a couple a them,” continued Bron. “We both know I not be able to do that meself. Just need you there with me Grim. You send them a gift that catch they attention and I take care a all the rest.”
The big man nodded. Bron lifted the meat toward him. The big man snatched it and had it in his mouth before Bron had a chance to blink.
They ate in silence, Grim serving himself a second bowl of paste before Bron had a chance to finish his first.
The sound of clinking metal and shuffling feet made Bron tense. He set his bowl down and placed his hand over Grim’s bowl, his other hand over his lips once the big man looked at him. He motioned for Grim to keep eating and followed his own commands, keeping a careful eye behind the giant.
A disheveled woman shuffled in, head hung low, torn rags barely covering her body. Her hair hung over her face, mangled and unkempt, but unable to hide the cuts and bruises that glossed over her like makeup. She could have been watching the two men eating through the veil of hair but Bron doubted it. He had seen this many times before.
This was a being, taken as a spoil of war from whatever land they had raided, Blood Woods by the look of her pale skin, and broken to become nothing more than a tool to use as her master please.
She shuffled her way over to the nearest animal and undid one of the two bolts that held the gate in place. Behind her, the clinking of metal continued until a tall, well built man full of deep scars and garbed in local Faction colors strode in. A young girl in the early stages of becoming a beautiful woman was attached to his waist by a chain, the other end cuffed at her neck. Three more Faction men walked behind him, making it clear that he was an officer and that Bron was in a place he would prefer to not be in.
The men seemed not to notice Bron and Grim, which was a surprise considering the size of his best friend, but he was glad, for once. The disheveled woman bent down to undo the second bolt, drawing the attention of the men. The young girl, however, stared directly at Bron, her eyes pleading for help, hoping that a random stranger might find it within himself to rescue her from whatever hell she was being put through.
She should know by now that in this world, the chances were, she would only be trading one devil for another. Besides, no one in their right mind would risk what she was asking, no matter how pretty she was.
Bron dumped the rest of his food into Grim’s bowl, making sure to keep the big man focused on something else.
The men all watched as the older woman struggled with the second bolt until one grew tired and produced a whip from his waist. The woman cowered, revealing long, fresh gashes running down her back. The officer held his hand out to stop the man, who growled in protest.
“She wastin’ our time knowing,” said the man with the whip, poking his own forehead.
“The bolt be stuck, she doin’ what she can,” said the officer in a calm, gentle voice. He bent down to the woman’s level, yanking the young girl down with him. “She learn not to waste our time by now, right Reeka?”
Bron expected the woman to respond, but it was the young girl who spoke up. “She doin’ what she can.”
“Well she takin too fuckin’ long!” said the man with the whip, looking around the barn until his eyes rested over Grim’s massive back. “You two, fix this!”
Before Bron had a chance to respond, the officer said without looking up, “We ain’t in no rush. She gone figure it out.” He put a hand over her back, causing her to flinch as he ran his fingers down the fresh gashes in her skin.
“Them barn boys meant to be doin’ this.”
The officer turned his head in Bron’s direction and stood. He fixed his eyes over them like a carrier watching a hunter strip his kill.
“We ain’t barn boys but if help is what y’all men need, I’m sure Grim and I can lend a hand,” said Bron, purposely sucking his fingers and shaking them off outside the bowl. He put his hand down over the ground and moved to let himself up.
“No,” said the officer in a deep growl before Bron could stand. The officer’s voice returned quickly to its calm tone. “You don’t interrupt men while they eat. She do it herself.”
The officer continued watching Bron as if he could see through the little man’s deformed figure and recognized the predator that lay inside. Bron held his gaze with a grin, hoping the man’s eyes would not stray to the giant next to Bron. Many a time, it would be no issue, but with men like these, they always had something to prove and a big man like Grim was seen as a big story to boast about.
The faction officer finally broke his gaze and refocused on the woman, taking the rest of his men’s attention away from Bron. Bron let out his breath and picked his bowl back up. It was empty, but there was no point in letting them know that.
Grim looked up from his food and saw Bron’s eyes watching behind him. He began to follow them before Bron stopped him from turning his head by hissing at him quietly.
“It ain’t for us,” whispered Bron sternly. “Understand?”
The big man nodded. Bron stuffed his hand into the open sack and withdrew another piece of dried carrier meat. There were a few things he could count on, and one was bribing Grim with food.
The gate the woman had been working on swung open, the bolt shaking in her hand. The Faction officer strode past her and placed his hand over the ox inside. He caressed its head for a moment until the girl named Reeka took its collar and pulled the beast out of its cage.
The older woman was already fast at work on the opposite gate, pulling both pins without much effort this time, and opening the gate for them. The man with the whip took the beast inside and yanked it out while one of the others stared directly at Bron.
“What you got in them bags?” said the man staring at him.
Bron placed his hand on Grim’s leg to make sure the big man stayed focused on his food. “Just me things I bring to trade cubrat. Man gotta make honest living, yeah?”
“Anythin’ we like?” said the man with the whip.
Before Bron could reply, the Faction officer spoke without turning back. “Only thing we like is the reward my Sovereign give us when we take him his gift.”
He walked off, leaving the three men staring at Bron. The man with the whip smiled, revealing two rows of blackened, broken teeth. He spat on the ground and grabbed the woman by the hair, yanking her along as he was the ox. The other two men followed after him.
Bron sat there, watching the opening the men had just exited from as if any moment they would change their mind and decide the Sovereign’s reward was not enough. He listened to Grim masticating the carrier meat, the paste and saliva squelching each time he opened his mouth.
“I don’t think it be good for you to sleep here tonight,” whispered Bron. Grim looked up, his brows furrowed. “It not be safe Grim.”
Grim shook his head and continued eating, pouting further with each bite.
“What if them men be back, eh?” said Bron, lowering his head to try and catch the big man’s eyes. “What if they try a beat on the big man and I not be here to protect you?” Different type of protection, of course.
Grim slurped down the rest of the paste and looked away, purposely avoiding eye contact with Bron.
“Please Grim? I not forgive meself if them devils do something to you,” Bron took the big man’s bowl and placed his own inside of it. The big man stood and undid the bolts of the gate next to him without effort. “You come sleep with me, just for tonight. I make sure it just be you and me.”
The beast inside gave no sign of fear at the sight of Grim. It was likely the big man had already done this at one point during their stay here. Bron watched as his best friend wrapped his massive arms around the beast’s neck, his cheek resting gingerly over the beast’s head. It was clear that the beast did not find this to be the most comfortable of experiences.
Grim’s eyes closed, leaving Bron to stare at the peaceful giant as the beast moaned, likely begging for the big man to get his weight off it.
They had a mix together. A back and forth of who got what and Grim had always made sure that Bron would keep things fair. After all, it’s the only thing that the big man said in his deep mountain of a voice. As Bron stared at the grinning giant, though, he began to realize that it had never truly been fair.
Sure Grim decided many a thing, like when they would stop for him to play with a new toy, or when he was hungry and would not move a step until they ate, or when he wanted to explore a run down structure of the Old World as if it were a museum, but he had never once given input into the future. Bron had always assumed the big man had been unable to think that far ahead. It had been Bron who had decided, all on his own, that they would live out in the Blood Woods.
He knew Grim loved the Blood Woods, but it was his plan to build his small shelter out in the far rim where no Faction would dare travel to. Where Wanderers would be able to sleep in something other than a sleep sack. A shop where they would come trade their goods without needing to travel through the Road and enter Faction territory. A place where everyone who entered could feel safe. A place where everyone would look at the man who had created it all and no longer see a small, twisted, deformed little creature. An abortion. They would see a man who deserved respect and they would flock to him, not because of his cheap tactics, but because of the power he held.
And Grim, of course. Grim would have power too. Not that he needed any, or wanted, but then again, how would Bron know? He had never bothered to ask.
“Grim?” Said Bron. The big man looked up, not letting his cheek separate from the beast. “Are you happy?”
Grim smiled and nodded.
“What make you most happy?”
Without hesitation, the big man pointed a finger at Bron.
“Yeah, but I mean, what make you most happy beside me? Where you wanna go? What you wanna do after all this?”
Grim stared at Bron as if he had been asked an unanswerable question. He finally shrugged.
“Is this what you be wantin’ a do forever?”
The big man stared at him some more until he began nodding.
“Nothing else? You wouldn’t want something bigger? More stable?” asked Bron. The big man shrugged and nodded some more, which made Bron realize that the big man didn’t really want any of it. He had known him long enough to know when he was just being congenial. “You like the Blood Woods better, yeah?”
“What else Grim?”
Grim lifted his head and looked around as if he could take inspiration from his surroundings in order to answer the question correctly. He quickly gave up and closed his eyes as he rested his smiling cheek over the beast again and hugged it tight. The beast moaned again.
“Animals. Ok, I can do that.” said Bron, taking the bowls and placing them inside the bag. He looked at the cube Grim had become obsessed with and realized how happy the big man had been when the child had given it to him. Not just that he had gotten a new toy, but a new friend as well.
Bron hadn’t cared much for the boy’s mother. Outside of her beauty, she had been your typical beat down stray, skeptical of everything and everyone around her. It was obvious to Bron that she was not from the Blood Woods, likely an escaped slave, but he got the impression she was more than that. Those glowing green eyes would captivate a lot of attention. Attention from men with more power who would have their underlings “gift” them their spoils. It would have been nearly impossible for her to get through her life as a slave here without having someone try to poach her.
It was a mystery how the boy had come out so much different than her. Bron would have thought that a woman that distrusting of the world would have instilled the same level of mistrust in the boy, but the boy was nothing but accepting. While she huddled around the sacks they lugged, he sat close to the giant and kept him smiling. When Bron would ask a question of the woman it would be the boy to answer after the silence. They had spent a week together, Grim helping carry the boy along through rougher terrain with his burnt leg, and yet not once had the mother thanked them. Not once had she given any hint that she was ready to welcome them into the fold.
Bron hadn’t liked her, but then again, he had his giant to protect him. She was the only protection both her and her child had, so could he really blame her? There had to be something good in her if she had raised a child like that.
If only he could remember the boy’s name.
“Grim, the woman and her child,” Said Bron, causing the big man’s head to look up immediately. “What was the boy’s name? It be startin-”
“Jensen,” said Grim with a massive grin.
“Jensen,” Bron smiled back. He knew what his friend wanted for the future, there was no doubt in his mind.
In all the years he had known Grim, the only word to ever escape the giant’s lips had been “fair.”
“When we be done with all this, we go find him, yeah?” said Bron.
The big man nodded repeatedly, his massive grin never disappearing.
Two men waited for them as they returned. They both looked relieved as they saw the giant stroll in with the cart. One of the men walked up to Bron before they had a chance to set everything in place.
“I think you done leave,” said the man.
“Ah,” said Bron. laughing to release some of the tension the man held as they kept on toward the center. “No no. I be a man of me word.” On most days. Ok, some days. Ok, rarely, but I am when it benefit me. “Grim and I only go to fill our belly. This one have quite the hunger.” He patted Grim’s stomach, causing the big man to laugh with him, which made the entire trader’s row turn toward the booming sound. “How be your food cubrats?”
The man behind nodded while the impatient one said, “I no have yet. Come to take care a this first.” He eyed the cart. “Where be the juice?”
“I leave it here for you cubrat! Just in case I not be back yet,” said Bron, turning toward Jehemiah’s stand. “Good Jehemiah must a forgot to get it to you. No worry. Let us set up, Grim here go get it all for you.”
Both men nodded but made sure to stand nearly touching the cart, as if somehow the little deformed man and his companion could take off without them knowing.
“You do me favor, yeah?” said Bron toward the two men. “Who come first?” Not surprisingly, the impatient man grunted in response. “You stand there, one after other. If someone else come after, you have them stand behind you.”
The men looked confused until the quiet man moved behind the impatient one. “Like this?” said the quiet one.
“Yeah, like that,” said Bron as the impatient man turned his body sideways to be able to see both Bron and the man behind him.
Bron made sure to take his time setting up shop again. Most bags were emptied, their contents displayed on the cart for all to see, and see they would. Many were items that the people from out here had never laid eyes on before. Most, however, were simply trinkets or common goods that had been altered enough to give them the appearance of something exotic.
By the time he had gotten around to the last sack, two more men had come and a small line had formed without him having to guide it. He waved at them, smiling big and trusting but even more so internally as he gloated over how easily everything had lined up for him.
Curiosity always kills.
He removed the small parchment from the sack and read through the lines. He lifted three fingers toward the impatient man and said, “Three jug for you, yeah?”
“Three jug.” said the man.
“Come then,” said Bron. The rest of the men began to move with him so Bron raised his hand to stop them. “I take each, rest stay here with Grim.”
They began to look worried, especially as the giant turned and stared down at them. Bron nodded toward the impatient man and they made their way toward Jehemiah’s stand.
“Jehemiah!” said Bron with arms outspread.
The trader glared at the impatient man first and then at Bron. “What you want abortion?”
“Bringin’ our first pick up. Three jug please.”
Jehemiah snarled, clearly contemplating whether he could get away with killing the little man in front of all these people. Bron ignored him and turned toward the impatient man.
“Remember now, blood juice need be drank on the daily for it to work proper. It take time for it to take effect, so when you need more, Jehemiah here carry all, exclusive. You come back to him to get all your juice needs, yeah?”
Jehemiah pushed the three jugs toward the man, who now realized all of it had been the truth. Bron could see relief wash over him.
“You give me quick moment with Jehemiah?” said Bron before the man could take the jugs. The man’s brows narrowed but Bron smiled and raised the hand they had traded fluids with. “Quick moment is all.”
The impatient man nodded and stepped back, letting Bron lean onto Jehemiah’s counter.
“What you be trying to accomplish?” whispered Bron to Jehemiah who snarled at him. “Listen Jehemiah, there be a reason these men line up to buy me juice. They not even know me, but you be rude all time, they look for any excuse for better option.”
“You not a better option,” said Jehemiah.
“In your eye I not be. You have all the juice in the town, you be only option. Nothing they can do, and yet, why it be so easy for me to give them different solution?” said Bron. The trader sucked his teeth at him. “Be little more welcoming to them, not for me, or for them. For you. You make more like that, I give you word. Yeah?”
Bron raised his hand toward Jehemiah as well who clenched his jaw but finally nodded. Bron smiled and waved the impatient man over who did not hesitate to move up.
Jehemiah pushed the jugs toward him further and nodded to the man. There was no smile, no words exchanged with the man, just a nod. It wasn’t what Bron would have liked but it was better than nothing. After all, you can’t expect to teach a blind man to see in one day.
The impatient man tried picking up all three jugs, but when Bron saw him struggle, he picked one up for him and helped him waddle it back. A big grin had formed over the man’s face. Once the worry of being duped had disappeared, the man’s impatience had vanished along with it and he had begun thanking Bron as they approached his cart. Bron set down the jug in front of the line that had formed, his back aching from the strain, and forced himself to smile at the man.
“Thank the gods for you sir,” said the impatient man.
The gods? If they be real they fix me fucking back already! Only god out here be meself! He looked up at his best friend who was smiling down at him too. Ok fine, Grim be one too. “Indeed, none of this would be possible without the gods.”
He watched the man try to pick up the third jug again but not be able to. “Leave it here cubrat. Grim and I watch over it until you come back.”
The man looked back at Jehemiah’s shop and then back at Bron, wagering the risk he was taking. The little man had followed through on one promise already and there were plenty of people that had heard him make the second, no way he could be losing this one. Besides, what would the little deformed man do with it anyway, sell it to someone in the short time he would be gone? Because I could. Thought Bron through his smile. Trade it to these very men who watch me make promise and sell you somethin’ when you get back a complain.
“I be back,” said the impatient man and Bron nodded at him.
One by one he took the men that had lined up to receive their juice. Jehemiah had seemed unable to crack a smile or trade pleasantries, but at least had ceased to call Bron an abortion in front of the others, and best yet, had stopped trying to burn holes through their skulls with his eyes.
By the time the impatient man had returned, the men waiting for their juice had run out, but the line had remained and grown longer. The men no longer knew why they waited but since the man before them told them to stand there and wait their turn, they stood and waited. The impatient man thanked Bron one last time and Bron used the opportunity to request a favor, which he knew the man could not refuse.
Moments later, the man was telling two other men in the line of what Bron had done for him, telling them to return the next day for juice themselves, but it hadn’t been just them that heard and that’s what Bron had been counting on.
A man needs to think ahead to the future if he is to secure himself in the now.
And for once, the future seemed so uncertain for Bron. Everything had seemed so clear before the boy. There had never been a single doubt in his mind about the shop on the edge of the Blood Woods, until he had run across the boy and his mother. Now he was filled with doubt. Everything he had thought himself to be, planned for himself and Grim, had become riddled with uncertainty.
He knew Grim wanted to go with the boy because he had been happy around him, but Bron’s own curiosity, the very thing he used to manipulate his customers with, had led him astray. He had traveled to the edge of where man was willing to travel, where life no longer held power and had never once come across any indication of the Vaults. People loved to talk about them as if it was the promised land, as if the world of the past had been frozen in time within them and a better people lived there, ready to restore things to their previous glory once released.
Bron knew it was all fake. Tales passed down to the young to keep them going among the midst of a horrible world. The only way to get through a nightmare is to keep hoping it will end. People were selfish and violent. They were not inherently evil at the core, but just close enough. If they were given the opportunity, without consequences, they would rip his little wretched, twisted body apart and steal all his goods. He knew because it had happened numerous times before Grim had grown. He had always thought himself better than them, yet here he was, wrapped up in the same idea of hope all because a boy had shown him a detailed map of a land beyond which Bron had ever traveled to and claimed that the Vaults could be found there.
He shook his head numerous times to push the thoughts from his head and focus on his task at hand. He was not a religious man and would not pretend to be.
The earlier agreements Bron had made with the other traders helped secure his position during this time. Bron peddled primarily luxury items that would hardly sell on their own, but coupled with the necessities that the local traders pushed, and they became the only rational decision. Why would they pay for what the local trader was selling when they could get a better version of it for only slightly more?
The few traders that stood stubborn would come around.
Everything Bron brought to the trading grounds had been scrounged for free. He didn’t like to think of himself like this, but at the root, Bron was a scavenger. He would travel to the areas where most would not dare and collect items that he had learned people would pay more for. In truth, people would pay for anything, the blood juice being the perfect example of that. As long as Bron had a story behind it, a way to raise the mysterious nature of the unfamiliar, the goods would sell. Since it was all free, other than the time it took Grim and himself to collect it, as long as he traded for something he was sure men would pay for, he had turned a profit.
The beauty of his trade was that he wasn’t there to peddle goods to the commoners, he was there to make a profit off the traders. Just like Jehemiah, he would only need to find the biggest players and repeatedly steal their clients until the men broke. He would then sell the idea that the man could make even more if their goods were sold alongside special wares in exchange for allowing Bron to purchase their regular wares for a fraction of the cost. Every trader there found it irresistible once they saw their other peers agreeing. They felt sure about it because the twisted little man was managing to do it so easily, so if he could, then they surely could double it. After all, they weren’t freaks.
He would spend a few days in a town, just enough to get rid of all his goods, and leave. Most of the time he would spend 5 days or more with the markets, but Bron was a man of competition and challenge. He had never done it in two days before, and since Grim’s cube had kept the big man so distracted, he figured it was the perfect excuse to see if he could. Once gone, the commoners would eventually forget the story Bron had fabricated for them and they would come ready to tear down the shops, but Bron would no longer be there to have to deal with it all.
All he had to do was make a few promises to the commoners, another few to the traders, and let them figure things out on their own once he was gone. The real beauty was that the traders would never last more than a couple of years so Bron could keep rotating towns until that time came.
Besides, it wasn’t as if he didn’t leave the traders with the solution to their problems. He showed them the exact blueprint they needed to become the best. It wasn’t his fault that they decided not to use it.
Either way, it was a win-win!
The line kept building itself as the hours passed. Bron continued to sell his wares to locals and send them to pick up their regular goods from the corresponding trader, promising them that they would have exclusive rights to Bron’s wares once he had to leave town. The traders he had not yet turned, Bron did what he had done with Jehemiah, promised the locals their goods if they waited until tomorrow to get them.
On and on it went, the pieces falling into place on their own once Bron had set them into motion. By the time the fire in the sky had begun to give way, there was still a line that Bron needed to attend. He gritted his teeth as he realized he would need to pack up and call it a night, but he did not hesitate to do so anyway.
He was late already as it was.
“Sorry cubrats!” he called out loud enough for the entire line to hear. “I need be close up. Meself and Grim get rest, but we be back a morrow.”
The men grumbled and cursed but did not move from their neatly formed line. They watched Bron wrap up the little remaining goods, as if hopeful that the man was merely joking and would suddenly stay to attend the rest. Even if he had enough goods for the day to attend them, he wouldn’t.
Bron was not a greedy man. He was a man of order. A man who would set down a rule and would stick to it religiously without the need for reminder. And yet, today his religion must have wavered. All the signals he had set for himself had gone directly over his head. He had gotten so wrapped up in the constant creeping thoughts of the child and his worthless map that he had missed the safeties of his trade.
“Grim!” he hissed softly to the big man who kept poking at the massive amount of bundles around his neck causing them to clink loudly. To the men in the line and the traders surrounding them, it likely looked like the giant was gloating, but not a one of them would raise a finger at Grim. Even if it were gloating, not the playfulness of a giddy and aloof child, they would let him do it because they were not about to confront a mountain on their own. “We got go. Help pack all up.”
Grim nodded, poking at the sacks one last time to hear the wonderful sound before picking up Bron and setting him down inside the cart. The little man began to gather all the goods and place them inside the large sacks, Grim holding them open to speed up the process until only a large marble statue remained. A constant thorn at his side from another one of Grim’s tantrums from long ago.
They had been hauling that damn statue for what seemed like years. Come to think of it, it had been years. They had found it inside one of the biggest structures of the Old World, where other statues had been shattered to pieces and what appeared to have once been colorful drawings were ripped to shreds, their original glory no longer recognizable. But this marble statue had stood tall and proud, untouched by whatever had ravaged the before.
It had been beautiful, the carved out figure of a truly stunning, naked woman standing tall and proud of herself. Bron had found himself lost in it, partly because of how incredibly well detailed the people of the Old World had managed to make it, but mostly because of his amazement that it had stood through the calamity that had ravaged everything else around it.
After taking it in, he had been ready to turn around and leave it behind forever. After all, no regular citizen would spend their coin on something like this. There was nothing he could couple this with to make it worthwhile to a commoner. The only good that would go with this was a whore, and Bron was only in the business of purchasing them, not selling them. The best he could hope is to sell the location to one of the Collectors and have them pick up the thing themselves. Of course, Grim had different ideas.
The big man had become mesmerized by it, just like all his other obsessions, and severed it from the slab on the ground as if it was his bowl of food he were picking up. He did not ask, did not beg, did not even look in Bron’s direction. He had decided that it would be taken and would hear nothing else of it.
Bron had tried to reason with the big man, tried to push the slab off of their cart and nearly busted his back getting it to move an inch. He had tried to sell Grim on the idea that they could return to look at it at a later time, but the big man had made up his mind. Sure enough, no commoner wanted it and now no Collector would bat an eye toward it either since the base had been so badly split. It had been reduced to three uses. A reminder that no matter how in control he was, there was always someone else with more. A centerpiece that drew the attention of customers, and although they would not buy it, they would look and buy something else. Lastly, a means to relieve himself when his urges became too strong and there was no house of pleasure to tap it out of him.
Being honest, the last had been its biggest use, and Bron knew that, deep inside, he would be saddened if it ever left them.
Grim lifted the statue over Bron’s head and placed it into a neatly formed section in the now near empty cart. They had come in the morning with a cart full of large sacks of goods and were ending the day with only two loose ones, filled mostly with items he could not yet sell anyway. He looked at his best friend and smiled, only to have his stomach sink as he watched his future customers begin to scatter from the line.
He looked up at the sky, the dim green light still casting its glow over their heads. It wasn’t time yet, he knew it wasn’t. He had watched them carefully over the last two days, he knew how they made their rounds. People did not sway from routines unless pushed to do so, and yet, he watched as the three men twirled their nailed clubs as they caused a path to form in front of them as if they held magic that could part the seas. The man in front held a mischievous grin, his eyes directly on Bron. Bron should have been honored that, for once, he was the immediate focus, but the scowl directed at Grim over the other two’s faces let Bron know that this was no coincidence.
He quickly scanned the row, trying to catch everyone’s eyes once more. Someone had to have ratted on him, it was the only way, yet no one betrayed themselves at first glance.
He grabbed the brute by the arm and forced the big man’s eyes on him. Bron hissed, “I be doin’ the talkin’,” Not that it ever be anytin else. “When I be askin’ you for a coins, give them over. No fuss, understand?”
Grim’s brows furrowed. To anyone else, the overexaggerated expression would have looked like a beast readying itself to attack, but to Bron, all he saw was his friend ready to cry. The giant wrapped a massive hand around one of the many sacks around his neck.
“They take only a few, it be ok.”
“Fair,” said the brute in his deep voice.
“It all be part of the plan Grim,” I don’t know which plan, but it be part of one. “I take care all this, we make this fair, I promise. Just please.”
He tried to watch the big man, show him with his eyes how serious the situation was, but before he was able to be sure, the three men were on them, the two scowling ones pushing way past Grim’s personal bubble as if the mountainous size of the man did not intimidate them whatsoever. Bron was thankful the big man had no spatial awareness.
“They not lie when say short little urad make eyes hurt. You uglier than I expect,” said the grinning man using the club to tap the top edge of the cart next to where Bron’s left hand rested.
Bron felt the sting of the words but brushed them off, focusing instead on the information that proved him right. “Cubrats! Good day today, yeah?”
“We not your cubrats abortion,” spat one of the men in front of Grim.
“Ah, course not,” said Bron quickly. “Well, I be wonderin’ when you men be comin’.” He turned to Grim, saying his name and holding up three fingers. Bron’s heart thudded in his chest as he watched his best friend contemplating what he felt was fair. The big man finally frowned and slipped three bags off from around his neck. “This should do but know what? You men be workin’ hard and I feel blessed by opportunity you make happen by keepin’ a row here in order. How ‘bout one more Grim?” Bron winked at the big man.
Before Grim had a chance to react, one of the frowning men reached up to the giant’s neck and ripped off three more of the little sacks. The coins inside jingled but this time did not create any joy for the giant. Instead, pure anger filled the big man’s eyes.
The other man in front of Grim shoved his nailed club at the giant’s neck to dissuade him from retaliating, as if Grim had any sense of fear when it came to the end of his life. There were few things that scared the big man. The cracking of the skies, slugs of any kind but especially those of the Dry Sea, and Bron.
It was Bron’s tiny, wrinkled hand that kept the giant at bay. Grim glared at the man who had snatched his coins, nostrils flaring as he vacuumed the air from all around them.
“You like be fucked urad?” said the grinning man, his grin still to falter. Bron had to admire the man, it took practice to hold a smile through a tense situation like this.
Bron brought his own back to match the Faction man, show not only him, but Grim that the situation was all under control. “At the pleasure house, a course.”
Before anyone had time to think, the grinning man’s club came down over Bron’s hand, the nails splitting open the thin skin and sinking in enough to splatter blood into both their faces.
Grim roared, causing both of the men in front of him to step back and prepare themselves for a fight, but Bron’s fingers dug deep into his best friend’s arm as hard as he could muster. Bron could feel the giant’s muscles trembling with rage, his body no longer pumping the life juice inside them, but fury, and yet the big man stayed planted.
Bron clenched his jaw, restraining the desire to cry out as the tiny, already brittle bones in his hand threatened to crack if he moved his hand at all. He swallowed down the film of mucus that was building up in his throat and forced his face to stay straight. He needed to stay in control. He needed to keep Grim safe.
“Well I not,” said the grinning man, his smile morphed into a snarl, the hint of pleasure still present. “I like doin’ the fuckin’.” He let go of the club and leaned in next to Bron’s ear. “You hear? You try to steal from the Brat Collective, that not acceptable. If you reach into me pants and take sometin’ I kill you, this no different.”
The man raised himself away from Bron’s head. Bron felt his fingers on Grim’s arm twitch, ready to to release his hold over his raging brute but the grinning man raised his arms out and yelled, “But as you say urad, it be a good day today!” His arms dropped and a smile returned. “And it be the first time you be in our city so maybe you not know rule too well. To make sure everyone know, if you sell anytin’ here, you pay you dues to our Sovereign. We not around? You find us. You not find us? You keep lookin’ ‘till you fuckin’ do. Understood? Now, I not rootless, but I take note of every one you here. This be only warnin’. If any a you not do this, I start lookin’ for you and me roots be gone.”
The man leaned back in, his face held an inch from Bron’s face. Bron could smell the hot, putrid stench of rotting teeth. “Understand?”
Bron forced his lips to curl upward, making sure to keep his smile as warm and inviting as always. He refused to let these men win. He had been beat more times than he could count, yet here he was. Robbed and left to die more than anyone else in this fucked world he lived in, yet here he was. He had been abandoned by everyone who was supposed to have protected him and helped him grow through his youth, yet here he was.
He was a survivor, but most of all, Bron was a winner.
“Just as I do me trade,” he said, as if nothing in the world was bothering him.
The grinning man’s sickly smile disappeared. Bron could see the anger beginning to boil in the man’s eyes and it brought a level of satisfaction Bron could not describe. The man had practiced these moments, but there was always someone else with more control. Always.
The man wrapped his fingers over the club, his eyes never leaving Bron’s. After a very long, silent moment, the man twisted the club, forcing the nails to chew through what little meat his frail hand had. Bron felt the tiny bones crack, the sound like quick pops of rocks being hit against each other. He could feel the muscles in his face twitching, begging him to do something else besides smile.
The no longer grinning man ripped the club from Bron’s hand and glared. “We see you amorrow, urad.”
“You sure will,” croaked out Bron.
The other two Faction men took a few steps back, never letting their eyes leave Grim.
“The rest a you!” called out the no longer grinning man, “We be back later, and you best make quick!”
Bron watched the men stroll away, the entire row of merchants and buyers quiet enough to make the men’s footsteps sound like cart wheels crunching over rocky terrain, each drag of their feet causing his hand to throb as if the nails were still grinding his bones. Just before they left the row, Bron split the silence. “Oye! You boys ever be out past the Road?”
All three turned and glared at him until the one that had held the club to Grim’s neck yelled back, “You not understand us, abortion?”
Bron forced his mangled, trembling hand up for them to see. Blood pumped from the tiny holes in it, forming long streaks down his arm where they pooled and dripped over the cart. They glared until the same man spat on the ground and all three continued on.
He waited a moment, giving the men enough time to stroll away before turning his attention toward Grim. The big man watched him, the rage over his face clear as the green flame in the sky, second only to the worry that welled in his eyes.
“Fair,” growled the big man. He could feel every eye in the row, watching for his reaction, listening to everything that would be said between the two.
“It be fair, Grim,” said Bron, squeezing the big man’s arm. “We get some rest now, yeah?”
“Fair!” said Grim, louder this time. Bron smiled at him, making it as warm as he could to keep the giant under control.
Bron let go of his friend’s arm and dug through one of the large sacks, pulling out a canteen of blood juice. He sat on the edge of the cart and held it out to Grim to help open the top and poured the juice over his trembling hand, wincing as the liquid entered the holes and caused his nerves to fire wildly. He dug back into the sack and withdrew a large piece of cloth, which he ripped and slowly began wrapping over his hand.
He looked up at Grim and nodded, letting him know that there would be no more defying him today. The big man frowned, letting the anger escape him and sadness replace it. As his friend stepped aside and moved toward the front of the cart, Bron saw a lone trader at the end of the row staring back at him, a subtle upward curl of one side of his lips.
Subtle, yet more obvious than the nails which had sunk through Bron’s skin, because for the last three days that Bron had spent watching the man, he had never once caught a hint of a smile on Jehemiah’s face.
“A good day today, eh cubrats?” he called out to the row without looking at them and instead focusing on continuing to wrap his hand. He felt Grim lift the cart and begin bouncing the wheels over the tiny rocks below. He raised his hand for the row to see. “All heal!” ‘Cept for the fact that me fuckin’ brain be hurtin’ from the pain and there be blood still spilling everywhere. Other than that, sure!
He waited a moment, looking around at all of them, taking in their looks of horror as they watched the giant ride off with his monster. He didn’t care. He would not care. He could not care.
Ok, maybe he could, and he did, but just a little.
But it didn’t matter. He would come out on top at the end. He would show them the true nature behind the freak.
It was fuck all. He would make this truly fair, give them what they deserved.
“Get some rest now! We excited a see you all for another good day amorrow!” I excited to see you all burn in your fuckin’ sleep! He slid off the edge of the cart and waddled his way up to Grim. He looked up at his best friend who frowned as the big man’s eyes focused on his bloodied arm.
“Fair,” said the big man softly.
“Don’t worry Grim, I take care it all.” They walked together in silence, the eyes of the row on their backs until they turned the corner. “I promise.”