Villavic sat upon a large flat stone before the crackling fire, his lean body hunched, chin upon his entwined and roughened fingers, knuckles rough as sand. The rock-sitter’s tatterdemalion companions told him their tales; of their lives and loves and losses and how they were swept into the scouring-purge for mechanical heresy. After they had finished the waif came up to Villavic and laid her head upon his lap and closed her eyes. He ran his fingers through her hair and watched the light play across the cave walls like Togalu Gombeyaata. When the wind died down and the snow stopped half the travelers moved from the cave carrying their sacks of flour as their stomachs ached with hunger and the sky darked with encroaching thunderheads. Led by Gunter, the forging party endeavoured to find any clean-looking water-source beyond the marsh which shrouded the outer bounds of the forest like a giant moat. Their quest came to an end after eight days trudging through snapping ferns and ruddy shrubs through the discovery of a small river that cut in a wide arc to the northeast of the cave. They fanned out over the silt-strewn and rocky ground of the beach in search of food. Desire and pain subsuming their somas as they rutted through the melting snow and filth, skittering over the crackling earth-skin like pale and malformed crabs. Some licking the stones. Others consuming the moss and lichen, where eft and vole eschewed those looming, odd-angling shadows and slipped out of all sight. Failing to find anything else to eat, other than bitter leaves and poisonous berries, they mixed the flour with water and ate it with great rapidity. Shortly thereafter came fits of pain, aches of the stomach, inflammations of the lung. Dysentery and other ailments. Another snow storm blew in and forced the forgers to scurry into a small burrow that looked to have been vacated by a family of deer. Within the week, half the men had died and when Gunter returned to the cave only five followed with him and they ragged and sickly. They found the cave barren save a large lizard which raised up its head and blinked and then scurried off into the abyssal lower dark. Gunter swore and collapsed against the cold, stone entrance, crying and moaning like a wounded animal.
“We’re all going to die here. We’re all going to die.”
The Barkeep looked to the giant of the man, curled fetal at the cavern’s maw-like threshold, rocking like a fitful child and shook his head sadly. For a long while words escaped him and then he mustered the syllables that slow frothed from his starved and insensate brain.
“Maybe. You don’t know to a certainty. Ain’t no use cawing bout it.”
“They’re all dead. They’re all dead.”
“We don’t know where Villavic’s group went but I don’t see any bodies. Don’t see any blood. Here or outside. Unlikely they’re dead. Villavic’s sharp and Derrick is right capable of defending the gals. I knew him slight. Before the purge.”
The three young men who accompanied them conversed amongst themselves and when The Barkeep turned to them they fell silent. They looked worried.
The Keep didn’t like the look in their eyes. Greedy and feral. They had been those who had kept to the outer edges of the crowd when all the prisoners had landed and been freed. They’d always kept to themselves and seldom spoken. He wondered if they were brothers. Their features bespoke as much.
Garth, the evident leader of the youthful trio began babbling as Gunter continued to moan.
“What are we going to do? We… We’ll starve if we kept at it. If we don’t do something. You saw… saw what happened to those that drank from the river. Died. Shit themselves to death. Water. Its poison. This whole fucking island is poisoned.”
Suddenly there came a hideous cry and following it a rusted machete. Gareth screamed and dropped to his knees as the brand sliced into his skull and continued to scream as its wielder withdrew the weapon and then brought it down again and again and again.