When I was a boy, summer nights in the Wilds always smelled like adventure. Fresh pine boughs. The cloying sweetness of honeysuckle. Someone always had a bonfire going, with plenty of sour ale to pass around. The air was full of lively conversation, or bawdy drinking songs, or men swearing as they lost their last coins on a bet.
Now, summer nights carry the underlying scent of rotting corpses. Most of the fires that burn are funeral pyres. Singing is rare.
Drinking is still common. Maybe more so.
Extra Moonflower petals have been promised, but they've been slow in coming. No one here trusts anyone in the palace. Few people trust the consuls. Even the rebels who are supposedly negotiating for better access to medicine have become suspect.
The rumors—and there are many—are outrageous.
When I'm here in the Wilds, I keep my head down and do what I can.
The winding paths through the woods are empty at this time of night, but I cling to the darkness like a ghost. I don't want to run afoul of the night patrol. The pouch at my belt is heavy with my own copper coins, but I have a red mask over my eyes, a hat pulled low over my forehead. In this getup, at this hour, I'd be detained. Worse, I'd be locked in the Hold to await an interrogation. That's the last thing I need.
I step off the trail and slip a few coins from my pouch. The first house is smaller than most, likely only one room inside, but there's a chicken coop and a rabbit hatch out back. I've never seen who lives here, but the animals seem well cared for. I intend to leave a few coppers on the barrel of grain, but then I see a small bundle wrapped up in muslin, next to a misspelled message written in the dust.
I unwrap the muslin to discover a soft pair of biscuits that smell of cheese and garlic.
It's not the first gift I've found, but each time I do, it makes something in my stomach clench. I want to leave it, because I don't need gifts. I don't do this for payment.
But this gift meant something to the person who left it. I don't want to be rude.
I wrap the biscuits back up in the muslin and tuck the bundle into my pack. After I leave a few coins on the barrel, I move on.
The next house has several children, including a new baby. Sometimes I hear it squalling in the middle of the night, and I step lightly so as not to be noticed. I slip coins into the pockets of clothes left to dry on a line. At the next house, I leave the coins on the doorstep. At the next, the coins go onto the windowsill.
At the fifth house, I'm leaving coins beside an ax blade that's been left embedded in a stump, when a figure leaps out of the shadows.
"Aha!" a whispered voice says. "I caught you."
I startle so hard that the coins scatter into the grass. I grab the ax handle and whirl.
I don't know what I'll do if it's the night patrol. An ax won't do much against a crossbow. They aren't supposed to shoot on sight, but I've heard stories of their violence from enough rebels and outlaws to know that what they're supposed to do is not always the end result.
Regardless, I stand my ground, the ax ready.
The figure springs back, hands raised. "Whoa!"
It's not the night patrol. It's & it's a girl. She's tall, nearly as tall as I am, which makes me think she's older, but her features still have the softness of childhood, and her limbs are lean and willowy. She's in a pale sleeping shift that leaves her arms bare, the hem trailing in the grass. Her blond hair is in a messy braid that reaches past her waist.
"I don't want trouble," I say to her.
"You have an ax." Her voice is low, but she doesn't sound afraid. "You won't be getting any from me."
I ease my grip on the handle and let the ax head hang to the ground. "Then return to where you came from, and I'll be on my way."