For Eirwid, stories were the perfect currency. They added no weight to his pack, leaving space for the trinkets he took. They could be copied, but they could never be stolen and never ran out. Unlike coin, they had value wherever he went, because people craved entertainment. Even in a place where the crops withered, the ground cracked, and houses collapsed into sink holes, he could buy bread and water, and time to look for better things.
Twilight illuminated the people in the inn, their slumped shoulders, dust-caked features, raw knuckles with dirt in the wounds. They drank weak ale in the gloom, candles and fuel for the fire saved for another day.
“…and those who survived sailed west, leaving only their ghosts.” For a moment after he’d finished the story, Eirwid kept the carved whale on the table, its stone glowing with the magic of a long lost people. Then he opened his pack and put it back with the rest. A mirror that showed the dead. A bag of seeds from a forest that never stopped growing. A fragment of shell from a phoenix egg, icy cold to the touch.
The applause was muted, except for one woman who clapped loudly and smiled. A serving lad put a cup down in front of Eirwid, unasked payment for an implied service.
“They say there’s an abbey.” A man dragged his head up to look at the visitor. “The place they buried the first empress. A place folk can go for guidance from her ghost. Your travels ever take you there?”
Eirwid shook his head. When they landed in the Talaian Empire, he and Olweth had tossed a coin. They had to split the territory somehow, get what they could before the empire went to ash, and it was easier to trust to luck than to argue. She’d got the Eternal Abbey and he’d got the borderlands. She’d probably cheated on the toss, but it was hard to resent a thing done with skill.
“I’ve not been there,” he said, “but I hear you can get good advice for fine gifts. Maybe the ghosts can tell you how to save your crops.”
He pretended interest in his drink. This was the moment he’d been steering towards, a chance to find out what there was of value in this town.
The locals stared into their cups.
“What would we have worthy of an empress?” The cheery woman laughed. “Sold it all years ago, didn’t we?”
Some of them nodded. Others just looked at her resentfully. It was a tale Eirwid had heard a lot in these lands. He’d stopped assuming it was a lie, stopped sneaking around trying to find the hidden goods.
“Too bad.” He drained his cup and got to his feet. “Thank you for your hospitality. I should get going. I’ve a long walk ahead.”
“Now?” the serving lad asked. “It’s turning to night.”
“Best time to travel.” Eirwid tapped his cheek. In the light of day, they’d seen how pale his skin was, how it freckled and blistered in the heat under which they worked the fields, desperately trying to scratch hope from dead dirt. He’d be glad to get out of this sun-blasted land, to meet with Olweth and sail home. They’d still tell their stories, but they’d have real currency too, once they finished picking the bones of empire.
“Safe journey, and thanks for the stories.” The cheerful woman waved. Some of the others muttered farewells.
“I hoped, when you turned up,” said the man who’d asked about the abbey. “Hoped you might bring something that could save us. But hope’s a curse, isn’t it?”
Eirwid’s hand went to his bag. There would be something in there that could help, for a while at least, one of the small marvels he’d gathered. But how long could these people hang on? Their land was doomed. Warlords were riding from the south, fighting over the scraps. Better to save these treasures than to throw them away.
“Hope is important.” Eirwid put on a sad smile. “Yours will get you through.”
It wouldn’t. He’d seen enough dying places to know that hope was never enough.
Eirwid walked out into the night. Heat was still rising from the baked dirt. A dog whimpered where it lay. Eirwid walked on past.
Footsteps followed him out of the inn and he reached for his knife before glancing over his shoulder. It was the sad and weary man who’d asked about the abbey.
The man knelt by the dog, two half-dead creatures of leathery skin over jutting bones. He set down a bowl of the town’s precious water and a strip of dried meat. The dog lapped eagerly at the water while the man, alone at last, sobbed into his hands.
Unseen in the darkness, Eirwid gritted his teeth. Better to save what he could than to throw it away. And yet…
He stepped off what passed for a road, into a field where the locals had spent the day breaking the dirt. He reached into his pack, into a pouch within, took out a seed that came from a forest that never stopped growing, and planted it. The moment it touched the earth, the seed cracked open. Hard ground crumbled as roots delved. A shoot rose, questing, into the air.
It wasn’t crops, but it was roots, which could hold good soil in place, maybe draw up water from below. It would just be hope, which was a curse, but maybe these people could cling on long enough to make something worth taking next time he came through.
Olweth would curse Eirwid for a fool at throwing away their profits, but it served her right for cheating on the coin toss.
The ground creaked as roots delved. The dog barked. Eirwid walked on into the night, already working out how he would tell this story.
If you enjoyed this story, then you might want to check out my novella, Ashes of the Ancestors, which tells the tale of the Eternal Abbey and other people trying to survive Talaia’s fall. It comes out on the 7th of February and is available to preorder now through the Luna Press store.