Being a hunter was a dangerous occupation, more so in the edges of civilization, where the forest itself was likely to fight back if it didn’t like you, much less the animals, who were often bigger and stronger than those you’d get closer to Centon.
It was the sort of occupation that meant that Pyiata lived out in the woods for most of her life, stopping into the village that had raised her only when she had to – to sell meat and furs, to buy supplies, to see the annual service of the river, when her cousins and former neighbors would draw stones.
It was the sort of occupation that meant that she was more used to the company of small woodland creatures and the occasional wandering unicorn than she was other humans, and that she tended to notice when something went strange with the animals and missed things like a new Mayor or a new priest (she had once mistaken a new priest for the old for three years, assuming the old had simply put on a lot of weight at some point. Their village was prosperous, after all. Travelers from far away would stop there, because it was the last mark of civilization before the wilds and the hills. It was easier to get fat there than in many other places).
Pyiata had spent a good month hunting. She had smoked meats to sell and tanned hides to trade, a fresh gathering of wild ramps and some early apples that grew only in two particular clearings. It was time to go back to the village, to do her trading and make sure the mayor hadn’t gotten too fat.
There was a small problem, however. She stared at the wall, then took twenty paces back and looked around.
There was the forked tree where she’d hidden as a child. There was the very old wellhead, before the spring had moved. There was the foundation of the old granny’s house, the one that had burned down when Pyiata was just a child. She was in the right place.
But there was a city wall in the way.
Pyiata shifted her pack, rolled her shoulders, and made sure her weapons were both accessible and looking non-threatening. City people, she’d been told, could be weird about weapons. They could be weird about hunters, too, as if their meat didn’t come from things that’d had skin and hooves or paws at some point, too.
She paced the wall of the city. It was bigger than the village had been, but it would have to be. Cities were big things, huge, sometimes, encompassing people and Factories and – well, Pyiata’s idea of a city was fairly fuzzy, as she had never been to one, just seen the walls of Weston once or twice. But big; they were definitely big.
She reached the gate almost by accident. It was not where the old road through the village had been; that road was gone, covered over in rubble and plant-cuttings. The new road shot straight and silver towards Weston – too silver, so silver. Pyiata swallowed down bile. There weren’t that many unicorns, this far out. Where had they found them? How had they caught them?
But the new gate was guarded by strangers, two tall people in armor as shining as the road, with pikes. They looked askance at her. She looked right back at them.
“There was a village here,” she informed them.
“There is a city here,” the left-ward one replied, as if she were a bit slow. Pyiata was used to people speaking to her as if she were a little bit slow; she smiled widely at the guard the way she had at others who had annoyed her.
“There was a village here,” she repeated. “With a Mayor and a priest, grannies and granthers and young girls and young boys. There was a village here.” Something inside her kept her from saying it was my home “Where is the Mayor? Where are the priest and the granthers?”
“There’s a city here,” the rightmost guard told her. He was shifting backwards. He was unhappy. Even Pyiata could tell that. He was worried she was going to – what, yell? No, his eyes were on her weapon.
She held her hands out, empty, non-threatening. “I want to know where the village went, that’s all.”
“There isn’t a village here.” The leftmost guard spoke even more slowly. “This is Far Weston. It’s a city.”
She wasn’t going to get anywhere with this. Pyiata smacked her forehead, as if she had just remembered. “Right! A city, Far Weston! And I have things to sell. I have furs and smoked meat, I have sausages and hoof-cups, I have fine food and soft slippers. See?” She opened her bag and let the smells of the sausages waft out. “I have fine foods to sell in Far Weston.”
“Well, be out before sunset. They don’t like loiterers, vagabonds, in the city after dark. Market’s right through there.” The one that thought she was slow gestured inward. “Get on with you, then. Through there to the market.”
Pyiata knew markets, although this market was bigger and cleaner, shinier and flashier than the one in the Village had been. She set up next to a baker and chatted with the woman about the town and its priests, its factory and its shopkeeps.
She learned several important things, although she wasn’t sure what to make of any of them. People – the baker, the pie-maker on the other side, the weaver nearby – they would talk about any given part of the city being new – the priest had come in new. The factory was new and hiring new people. The mayor was newly-elected. But nobody would say that the city itself was new. Nobody would say anything about the village.
If Pyiata said something about the village, people would seem to ignore her, or look the other way, or suddenly be very interested in their produce or what the person across the street was doing. Nobody would speak to her directly about anything.
The houses where the village had been were new – and yet they looked very familiar. It was as if someone had taken Lothenna the carpenter’s house and redone it with new materials, a little bigger, a little shinier, with a bigger front porch. The same for Gello the tailor and Kvenner who took in washing: their houses were there, and, indeed, they were occupied by a carpenter, a tailor, and a washer, but they were bigger, brighter, the people inside a little cleaner, a little more respectable looking
Everyone looked through Pyiata if she didn’t speak directly to them. They looked at her wares – the tailor who was not Gello offered to buy the skins off of her, and, although she felt traitorous, she managed to make a good profit – and they noticed her passing, but they tried not to look her in the face.
She knew she smelled a bit; hunters usually did, although it wasn’t the sort of smell the animals minded. But people weren’t making the fine-people-smelling-a-working-person face; they weren’t making any face at all.
So the village was gone. It was gone, and yet people had noticed it enough to put new houses that looked like the old in its place. The people were gone — and the only clue Pyiata had that the new residents even knew that was the way they refused to talk about the old residents.
The old residents Her family. Her town.
Pyiata could track. She could follow a quarry for days if she had to. She could bring something down with one arrow from across a meadow or through a clearing in the forest.
She could not get answers from people, so she went looking for answers from the land.
The river had moved; she went looking there, first. She put out a line to give herself an excuse — and because smoked fish was a nice change from smoked meat, sometimes. And with her line tied, she wandered up and down the water, looking at the streambed.
They’d rerouted the river only about ten feet, into an old bed it had sat in, long ago. The new shift in the river, though, went right over where Old Unther’s cabin had been, old Unther who had taught Pyiata to hunt. There was no trace of the cabin itself, nothing but a cute little cabin-shaped gazebo perched on the edge of the river, nearby but not on the proper site, but in the shallows, Pyiata found Unther’s old knife and seven arrow-heads.
From that, she knew Unther had not had the chance to pack up. So she looked for signs of a struggle, because Unther’s place was too far from the village to have been covered up by the new city.
They had smoothed over the terrain. They had replaced Unther’s cabin with the ridiculous pretend-cabin gazebo, which looked as much like a real cabin as a child’s wooden sword looked like a soldier’s steel blade. But they had not replaced the old elm, the one which had stood in just the right place to shade Unther’s cabin without risking falling on it, nor the ivy that grew around its base.
There she found tracks, a peel of bark missing from the tree, and half of one of Unther’s arrows. Someone had fought not to be moved. Someone had struggled mightily, and, from the looks of it, lost.
But Unther had blazed the tree the way he’d taught her too — messily, of course, but he’d taken the fight to the tree. So she knew they’d headed west.
West. Interesting. There was nothing West but strange lands and strangers, as far as she knew. Nothing there but where-tinkers-came-from and where-traders-sometimes-went, and that’s where they’d dragged Unther.
It was enough to start with. Pyiata circled the strange new city and headed West.
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