The room was almost bare besides the body, chair and gun. There was a table with an open case of shotgun shells on it, full bar one, and there was an empty stack of shelves in one corner. The floor was concrete and where it was cracked, weeds grew in the light let in by the moss covered window and now tattered blinds. Below the body was a pool of dark, dry blood. The smell didn’t carry the coppery taste that initial violent death has. Instead it was that musty, creeping, vulgar scent that went along with a body being taken over by nature. Not human anymore, just the indistinct smell of rotting meat.
She stared at the body for some time. She’d been following him for over a month now and needed to know what he knew. No chance of that now. He’d left no word for her besides the grizzly scene. Perhaps he’d thought it might look impressive, a grim suicide note spelled out on the windows in blood. But instead it just looked a sad and lonely way to die. She pulled her scarf up to keep the worst of the stench out and moved to the body to check for anything that might point her in a new direction. It was probably futile, but only a fool would walk away assuming a dead body held no more secrets.
She was a bard. It was her job to keep the peace and spread messages throughout the towns and cities. One part story teller, one part law enforcer. She’d heard the title came from some old people who would have bards travel from place to place and sing songs to entertain and inform. She’d always thought that peace keeping was the more important part of her role, but then what’s in a name? The work would be the same whether she called herself a bard or a broomstick.
She’d joined up when she was just a girl and within a year she was a woman. The initial training was enough to make most people drop out or, in some rare cases, die. But, she loved her country and wanted to serve. She’d emerged from that year fully formed and hadn’t changed very much in the years that followed. She joined because she wanted to be free of the boredom she’d felt so trapped by growing up. She had hated books and her father’s addiction to old tomes was stifling to her. She wanted to see the world and be something important. Initially she’d swallowed the patriotic line whole and hadn’t thought twice when she started in on the real work; tracking, catching and killing enemies of the crown. She’d written her reports and delivered them with fastidious accuracy to the towns along the roads to anyone who would listen. She accepted the status she was given for being a bard gladly and relished the fear and respect that came with it. Bards were dangerous and everyone knew it. Perhaps the title came from the song singers but the people now knew where the real work was done. The atmosphere changed when one of hers walked into a room. It was still a world where power was held by the very few and in the beginning, she enjoyed being on the right side of that balance. At some point fear and respect had begun to grate though. She still preferred a solitary life and she knew nothing now outside of her work, but she dreamed of meeting someone eye to eye who didn’t assume that she was what she was; a killer.
Bards worked alone so even coming across a colleague wasn’t respite as they were cold and distant by necessity. The soldiers took on the work when numbers were needed but bards were trackers and travellers, moving independently from place to place and lead to lead. They spread fear and stability and sometimes hope. They were the first to be called when someone needed to be found, whether they’d become lost through misfortune or more likely, made themselves lost. Each one of their ranks was comfortable sleeping on the ground and trekking through downpours, but spoke to people only when necessary and usually only to find information or buy supplies. Sarah was perhaps different in that respect to her peers. She had people in towns and cities who looked to her when she came for aid. These loose networks and abandoned people were initially a means to an end, friendly eyes and ears that provided easy information. But she’d begun to relish them and her brief encounters, trading food for overheard whispers.
She stepped towards the body and crouched down on her haunches. Looking at the clothes that hung off the body. Looking at the hands. Looking at the gun. Taking it all in. She studied the face with its slack mouth and perpetually open eyes. The ragged hair drenched and stiff. The short, poorly kept beard that was stained with blood and spit. The clothes were dark green, utilitarian and could have been military fatigues. Rough spun, rugged clothes suited to the outdoors. She wore much the same herself but with an extra jacket over the top, strengthened against knives and points. She began to search the pockets. Nothing in any of them. She tilted him up slightly on his chair and the rigor mortis held him stiff and kept his uncomfortable shape. The pockets on the seat of his trousers were empty also, though his underwear was full and pungent. She placed him back on his seat and returned to her haunches, thinking for a moment. The scene was becoming more queer to her eye. All the room had in it was a box of shells, one spent, a shotgun and a dead man with nothing in his pockets. No pack or supplies were visible and she hadn’t seen anything outside either. How had he kept himself alive on the road? She’d tracked him through villages and towns for sure, but often he’d been out in the wild, far from ready sources of the things we need to live. No water bottle or rations, no sleeping gear or a means to keep the rain from soaking into you. She’d tracked him this far and she knew these items were conspicuous by their absence.
She left the body and checked the rest of the building. One other room off the corridor that led in from the main door. Gloomier than the room her corpse sat still in, with just one small window high up and blocked by trees outside. Empty. Nothing but dirt and fodder on the floor, no furniture and no survival gear. She walked outside into the emerald green light. The sun had been beating down for the last three days solid and the trees that covered the sky tinted the light that come through the canopy. The branches of the forest came over and formed a natural tunnel above the train tracks that marked the path she’d followed here. A train hadn’t come in a century or more but people still used this as a link between towns. Some even pulled carts with horses along the rails. She was warm in the early afternoon heat and probably would’ve felt more comfortable without her jacket but she always chose safety over comfort. She had enough water to deal with any dehydration anyway.
She walked around to the back of the cabin and after she had kicked over a few logs and moved some old crates she decided there was nothing there either. She moved back around to the front of the building and sat on the steps that lead in. She sat for a moment with a calloused hand over her mouth and thought, staring into the forest ahead of her. She looked to her left and gazed at the tracks that lead of through their leafy tunnel and then to the right at the same. She looked down at her feet and then back up at the leafy canopy. She needed something to go on but there was nothing here but a body and little else. If he had killed himself, then why? He wouldn’t want to answer her questions but they weren’t anything to die over. He was a criminal but wouldn’t see more than time in chains for what he’d done. Where was his gear? It’s possible someone could have come along before her, chanced upon his body and stolen what he had left. But a gun was a prize that no one would pass up, however dire the scene. That and a box of shells was too much temptation. If you’d steal the things he needed to survive, why wouldn’t you steal the thing he used to die? And that gun again. It wasn’t hard to believe he would find a weapon like that but a pristine box of shells? You’d be lucky to find that in a barracks or a big city store. Untouched, bar the shell that killed him, too strange not to notice.
As she thought she stood and walked aimlessly. Up to the tracks and back, walking along the rails one way and the other, kicking weeds and clump of grass. She paced up around the bend until there was nothing round her but the green of the trees and the grey of the rails, then she walked back the other way. She stared up at the bright sun, piercing the trees above and she stared down at her ruddy, unwashed boots. Staring down at she paused at something that caught her eye, a flash of white amongst the green. She knelt down and picked up the burnt end of a gasper, unfiltered, smoked almost to the end. She sniffed it and rolled it between her fingers. She pulled it apart and moved the tobacco and paper around in the palm of her hand. She bought it up to her eye and studied it carefully then sniffed it again. Some exotic tobacco, not a local grow, well made and expensive. Even if the man she’d hunted had been a smoker (which she was sure he wasn’t), then he’d never be able to find or afford these. Steal them from some well born person perhaps but that was as unlikely as anything she’d come across today. This cigarette, she thought, belonged to someone else.
The sun had been out for half a week maybe, but not more than three days before there had been rain. This butt was dry and not damaged by any weather so whoever had smoked this had been here recently. The body inside wasn’t fresh dead but it wasn’t long dead either. Maybe he’d arrived before the rain had stopped but not long and he was certainly dead here by the time the cigarette was smoked. She couldn’t say this smoker had anything to do with her corpse but she’d bet money that the information she’d lost with him might be recovered from whoever dropped the butt, in some part at least. And if the information she needed was lost for good then whoever her smoker was would be able to tell her a new tale for sure. There was a chance that someone had just walked by dropped their butt here without giving the hut a second thought, but that didn’t feel right. She smiled and dropped it where she had found it.
She went back to the corpse and looked on it again. It all looked wrong now but that made her smile even more. The way the gun sat against the dead man’s groin might look right to some but those were powerful shells. If he’d sat there and done the thing himself, there’s no way this neat little scene would fall together like it did. The gun would’ve kicked back from his grasp and his body would have slumped from the chair. She checked his hands for signs of smoking and they were muddied, but there were no yellow stains on the fingers of either hand. She pulled up the sleeves a little and there were thin but unmistakable bruised circles around each wrist. Marks where this man had been bound, probably to the chair he sat in now. She looked around to see if she could find the cord or ties whoever bound him had used to bind him but that had been cleared away along with the pack and everything else.
So she crouched again in front of the body and let out a satisfied sigh. She had this body and with his death she’d lost a lead. This man wouldn’t be missed but murder was a crime worth punishing. So now she had new game to track, someone with expensive taste, a killer. She had little clue where they might have gone but that hadn’t hurt her much before. She knew something of them and more often that was enough, so long as you knew where to look and what to ask. She patted her corpse on the knee and stood before saying a simple prayer for the dead. She didn’t believe in the gods so much but perhaps he had, so she paid the due respect. She made notes of what she’d seen and found. She drew a sketch of the body and the room and made sure she recorded the location of this little building carefully so she could send someone back for the corpse. She had no means of burying or burning the body herself. Besides, she was on the hunt now and couldn’t afford to waste time. Then it was out to the door and into the green. She’d come from the east and passed no one since the last town, so she turned west and began walking. By the look of the sun she had three hours or so before sunset and she planned on putting them to good use.