By mid-day Rena found herself inside of Rodrick’s caravan, sitting on the floor with her back against the wall to the driver’s seat, the dog’s head in her lap, facing the stranger that had said he could help them. He was also sitting on the ground, back against the door, one arm propped up on one knee. They stared at each other for a while as the caravan shook them around from side to side, the pots and metal vials and tools that were dangling from the ceiling clanking together. She wasn’t staring at him because she mistrusted him, not exactly, she was just exhausted, her perception clouded by a thick fog.
“You guys some sort of investigators or something?” Logan asked and it took Rena a moment to understand what he had said over the noise of the caravan.
“No, why?” she asked back and frowned.
“I thought, ‘cause you’re looking for those other villages that burned down,” he replied, waving his hand around vaguely.
Rena shook her head at him.
“I just want to know what happened to my village,” she said.
His eyes narrowed at her in confusion before they opened wide.
“Oooooh, wait, are you from Oceansthrow?” he asked and winced. He leaned forward and crossed his legs.
She nodded, pressing her lips tightly together.
“Ah man, I’m sorry,” he replied with a rueful expression. “That really sucks. My condolences.”
“Thank you,” Rena whispered in response and looked down at her hand that raked through the dog’s fur.
“So is he your dad?” Logan asked, nodding towards the front of the caravan.
Rena shook her head without looking up.
“Uncle?” he asked, tilting his head to one side.
She shook her head again.
“I just met him yesterday,” she replied, forcing her voice to be louder than their surroundings. “He’s been helping me out.”
“Huh, alright,” he replied, nodding his head slightly. “How noble of him.”
“Yeah,” Rena breathed out, burying her hands deeper into the dog’s fur. Vincent stretched his neck out, obviously enjoying the special treatment he was getting.
“Why are you helping us out?” Rena asked, finally looking up, realising only at that moment that they had never asked him about that before accepting his help. They had been so eager to have a potential plan to get more information about the fires that they had just gathered all of their stuff to be on their way without questioning Logan’s motives, and he hadn’t asked them for anything in return yet.
“I was going to the camp anyway,” he answered with a shrug. “And since my informant is also there in all likelihood I thought I could connect the both of you. Do my good deed for the year and all that.”
Rena didn’t reply, just nodded slowly, sensing that that might not be the end of the answer.
“And, well,” Logan continued, a smirk flashing over his face as he leaned back again, “I could use some help with something else.”
“With what?” she replied.
“I can tell you that once I’ve upheld my end of the bargain,” he replied, looking her straight in the eyes. They almost had the same shade of brown as hers, just veering more towards green. “But I need to go towards the capital and it seems like you are going in that direction as well, so why not team up.”
He flashed her a coy smile as if that was meant to appease her.
“How would you know if we can help you?” she asked him.
“This is already plenty of help,” he replied, pointing around at the caravan while looking up. “Much faster than trying to sneak through the woods to avoid guards. Although it’s a bit loud.”
“What if we won’t agree to help you?”
Logan shrugged and sucked his teeth, his eyes wandering through the waggon before landing back on Rena.
“Tough luck for me, I guess,” he answered, flashing her yet another smile. “Can’t force you to do something you don’t want to do.”
Rena frowned in response.
Logan chuckled and leaned forward, linking his hands in his lap.
“You don’t look like people who would stab me in the back,” he replied to a question she hadn’t asked. “Even if you can’t always tell whether someone’s a sneaky son-of-a-bitch or not and I’ve definitely been betrayed and pushed around by people who looked plenty innocent, especially if they’ve got pretty faces, and there has been the occasional shifty fella who would have ripped their own arm out to uphold a promise, so really, ya never know, but you guys were sitting there looking all sad trying to get some information of what seems like really tragic events and saying that the government isn’t cooperating or being helpful in any way, as if they’ve ever been helpful, you know, so yeah, I thought, might as well help you and maybe if I’m lucky you guys will help me back and then we’ve both won something out of this situation.”
“Ok,” Rena replied after the wave of his monologue had washed over her.
“It’s not like I’ll lose much if you don’t help me,” he added with another shrug.
Suddenly the waggon jolted and shuddered to a stop and Rena had to brace herself on the ground to not fall over, her free hand gripping the dog to keep him secure.
“Finally,” Logan said after the waggon had stopped shaking, although some of the pots and flasks hanging from the ceiling were still swinging around aimlessly.
He got up and opened the door behind him before jumping out onto the road. A second later Vincent got up, wriggling his way out of her grip and followed Logan outside. Rena took a deep breath before pushing herself up. She brushed her dress down before finally joining the rest of her group outside. Rodrick had driven the caravan off of the road and into the forest between some trees, but only a little bit so that Rena could still see the road a few feet away from them. She looked suspiciously down at the damp earth underneath them, unsure if it had been a good idea to drive the caravan off the road like this but Rodrick looked unperturbed as he came up to the rest of them, smiling and nodding at her as their eyes met.
“Alright, so,” Logan said, clapping his hands together to get everyone’s attention. “You guys don’t look like you’ve ever been to the camp before so let me set out some ground rules. Don’t fuck anyone over while inside the camp, you will get thrown out and barred from ever coming back, if not worse. If you want to fuck someone over, wait until you’re outside again. If you tell authorities about the camp and where to find it or what you saw while here, they will hunt you down and find you and you don’t want to imagine what they’ll do to you once they’ve got you. And don’t stare at people when you’re inside the camp, that’s just rude, and they’ll clock you as outsiders right away.”
“I thought you were bringing us to a city?” Rena asked, eyes wide in confusion.
Logan gestured around with his hand vaguely before saying, “it’s kind of a city. You just can’t really find it on a map and sometimes it’s not where you saw it last time but people live there and there are shops and even a school so it’s basically a city.”
“Ooooooh, interesting,” Rodrick replied with a wide smile. “I’ve never been to one of the city of outlaws before.”
“One of the what?” Rena asked, her head snapping to look over at Rodrick with concern.
“Ok so technically, the entrance is a bit down the road,” Logan told them, pointing to his left, completely ignoring Rena’s distress. “But I know a way that’s faster through the forest and then we don’t have to go through the whole hassle of officially entering the camp since we’re only here to ask someone for a favour.”
“We’re sneaking into a camp full of criminals?” Rena asked with growing unease.
“I wouldn’t call it sneaking,” Logan replied, waving her worries away. “There’s so much surveillance in the trees around the camp they probably already know that we’re here. But I know them, they know me, so it’s all fine. And the camp isn’t full of criminals. The criminals’ families also live there.”
He grinned at her which didn’t actually help quell her fears.
“You sure you want to leave your caravan out here in the open without supervision?” Logan asked as he turned to look at Rodrick, frowning and nodding towards the machine.
“Vincent’s perfectly capable of looking after it,” Rodrick answered, petting the dog on the head. “And it’s not that easy to break into it. It wouldn’t be the first time I leave it standing around somewhere. I can’t be next to it at all times after all.”
“It’s up to you, friend,” Logan said, raising his eyebrows as if he wasn’t convinced of the situation. “Just saying, people out here are pretty good at stealing.”
“It’ll be fine,” Rodrick said with a small smile and turned around. He snapped his fingers and pointed at the ground and the dog jumped to attention and followed him. Rodrick patted the seat of the in the driver’s cabin twice and Vincent jumped up onto the footrest.
“Stay,” Rodrick told him before petting his head. “Good boy.”
As he came back he rummaged around in one of the pockets of his coat and pulled out a weird key, one with a long shaft with different sized half-circles wrapping around the end of it. He stepped into the caravan but before Rena could wonder what he was doing he was already outside again and slid the key into the keyhole, turning it halfway to one side, pushing it further in and then turning it the other way. A loud clonk resounded, as if multiple bolts had just snapped shut.
He turned around to Rena and Logan and clasped his hands behind his back.
“Now, if you wouldn’t mind,” he said, nodding deeply towards Logan. “Please lead the way.”
“Sure thing,” Logan answered and turned around, waving at them to follow him.
Rena looked back to the front of the caravan, worried about leaving Vincent alone but when she turned back around the two men had already disappeared into the forest and she had to jog to catch up to them. She couldn’t claim to be comfortable with Logan’s plan but Rodrick didn’t seem to mind it and he probably knew best who they could and couldn’t trust. She looked up into the trees to find the so-called surveillance Logan had talked about earlier but all she could see was the blue sky beyond the treetops. Logan didn’t seem particularly worried about whoever was supposed to already know about their arrival, considering the speed with which he led them through the forest. It wasn’t long before Rena couldn’t see the road or the caravan anymore and it almost felt like the forest was swallowing them up, which was a weird feeling for Rena, because the forest had always used to be her refuge, like a calm friend she had known all her life. But she had barely known her current companions for over a day and now she was on her way to a wandering city full of people she didn’t know if she could trust and suddenly being in the middle of a forest didn’t seem as peaceful as it used to.
Logan led them through the forest for quite some time, although Rena didn’t know how he knew where to go because as far as she could tell there weren’t any ribbons tied to trees or sticks wedged in the ground or anything else on the way that could tell them where they had to go.
An idea clawed its way into Rena’s mind that they had just let a stranger walk them deep into an unknown part of forest and he could be lying about everything he had told them and might now be planning to do unimaginable things to them. She had halfway convinced herself that there was no camp at the end of their road and that they were walking into their deaths when faint sounds of human activity slowly arose above the usual forest sounds. Logan raised his right hand without stopping, gesturing about as if he was sending out hand signals to someone but when Rena looked up she still couldn’t tell whether they were being observed or not. A few more steps and Rena was finally able to see something in between the trees, structures somewhere between shacks and tents, sometimes just tarps fastened in between trees.
“Ok,” Logan whispered, stopping and turning around to face them. “Once we enter you need to stay as quiet as possible until I tell you that it’s ok. I’m not one hundred percent sure where my informant currently is but I know where he might be, so we’ll go look at those places first and hope we find him quickly.”
Rodrick nodded, a serious expression on his face, but Rena couldn’t shake the feeling that she really shouldn’t be here.
“Is this safe?” she whispered in response.
“Yeah, sure,” Logan waved her off. “Like I said, I know the people around here, so just don’t be an ass to anyone and everything’s gonna be fine. Ok, let’s go.”
He turned around before Rena could voice any more of her concerns and she was left with the choice of following him or trying to find her way back to the caravan on her own.
Logan walked up to one of the structures while crouching, a light brown, rectangular tent that had been attached to some trees. It was bigger than the two tents surrounding it, high enough that a person could comfortably stand around in it, but the fabric had been stitched up in various places, revealing the age of the tent. He pulled the bottom edge of the fabric up a few inches and lay flat on the ground, peering into the tent. After a moment he sprung back up and pulled the edge higher, waving for Rodrick and Rena to get in although the gap was barely high enough for anyone to fit through. Groaning, Rodrick laid down on the ground and rolled himself through the gap. Rena shot Logan an annoyed look before laying down on her belly and crawling through the opening. She stood back up inside the tent and dusted off her dress although it didn’t help much with the streaks of dirt across her front. She sighed, thinking how the dress had been clean for less than a day before being covered in mud again. Logan rolled in after her and the gap closed behind him.
“Welcome to my humble abode,” he told them as he passed Rena.
She looked up, taking in the sparse furnishing around her. There was a bed on her left side, a wooden chest next to it, another wicker chest at the foot of the bed, a simple table with two chairs to her right and an assortment of clay and metal pots against the right-most wall. On the table there was a single, half-burnt candle, which looked like the only lamp or decoration in the entire tent. The furniture looked simple but sturdy, and with enough nicks and dents that she could imagine them having been moved and thrown around a bunch of times. The only thing that looked like it had been taken care of over the years was the wooden chest. It was made of dark wood with intricate carvings and faint remains of paint on its top.
“This is your home?” Rodrick asked, his gaze drifting across the dim room.
Logan waved his hand around vaguely as he walked up to the wooden chest.
“Sometimes,” he replied, crouching down in front of it. “When I feel like it.”
Rena couldn’t tell from where she was standing what he was doing, but something clicked and then the chest sprung open and a heartbeat later Logan had closed the lid again and was standing back up.
“Alright, we can go!” he told them, waving for them to follow him. He went to the front of the tent and knelt down to slide his hands underneath the tent fabric, working on something on the other side of the flap, before getting back up and holding the flap open, waving the other two through with a little bow.
Rena went out first, cautiously, looking from side to side before stepping out. Tents were lined up next to each other like houses, although each of them looked different, some sturdier and some just a blanket that had been carelessly thrown over a pole. The ground in front of the tents was well-travelled, forming a natural road. She saw a group of people a bit down the road to her left standing in front of one of the tents talking to each other, one man laughing at what the other had seemingly just said, clapping him on the shoulder as the other broke into a wide smile. She turned her back to them, hoping they hadn’t seen her face and looked at the other side of the road that was empty of people, although that didn’t mean much since Logan’s tent was only a handful of feet away from a sharp bend in the road.
Rodrick came to stand next to her before Logan peered out and looked down both sides of the road before hurrying outside and kneeling back down to re-tie the knot that was meant to keep people out of his tent. In one motion he stood back up and came to stand between Rodrick and Rena, looping his arms around their shoulders, and pressing them forward.
“Alright,” he whispered, “first we g-.”
“Hello, Logan,” a voice arose from behind them and made Logan flinch.
“Ah f…. Hi!” Logan turned around, a big smile on his face, letting go of Rena’s and Rodrick’s shoulders. “What a coincidence!”
“What a coincidence to find me in my neighbourhood?” the woman who was standing behind them said, one eyebrow raised, her arms crossed in front of her chest as she leaned against a pole upholding another tent. Rena could have sworn that she hadn’t been there a second ago. She looked like she was somewhere in her thirties, with dark skin and long black braids that hugged her skull tightly. Two patches of lighter skin, almost white, covered her face, both going from the eyes towards the temple. She was thin but muscular, with tight fitting leather clothes that had seen better days.
“Well, yeah, you know,” Logan trailed off, looking everywhere but at her.
“Were you trying to sneak in?” the woman asked with a playful smile on her lips.
“Pff, no,” Logan replied, although anyone could have heard the lie from a mile away.
The woman sighed and her eyes finally drifted towards Rena and Rodrick, looking them up and down before stepping closer.
“I suppose no one has welcomed you to the camp yet if you’re sneaking around with this idiot,” she said and nodded towards Logan, who raised his arms in mock offence.
She stepped up to Rena, took her head in both her hands and touched their foreheads together.
“The stars welcome you to the city of rancor. Every human is welcome here, no matter their past or future deeds. May the dark obscure you from your enemies and grant you rest.”
The woman lifted her head away.
“Thank you,” Rena replied, unsure of how she was supposed to respond..
“You’re supposed to say May the light brighten your resolve and lead your way to justice,” Logan muttered, leaning closer to her.
Rena repeated the words, although they felt foreign in her mouth and came out more as a question than as a statement.
“Don’t let our name frighten you,” the woman told her and winked at her, before stepping away from her and closer to Rodrick and repeated the process.
She stepped back and looked at the both of them as if she was trying to decipher who they were.
“I don’t get a welcome?” Logan asked, stretching out his arms to the side as if for a hug.
“No darkness could obscure your problems,” the woman replied, side-eyeing him for a second before looking back at Rena and Rodrick.
“My name is Kalani. Would you be so kind as to tell me yours?”
“My name is Rodrick Hal’Varika. I am a tinkerer and recent scribe of the land. We meant no disrespect when we entered your city through an unorthodox entrance. Our common friend here told us he was accustomed to the land and that our unannounced arrival would not be a problem.”
Kalani regarded him for an instant before nodding and turning her head to Rena.
“I’m Rena of Oceansthrow,” she replied and bowed her head slightly.
“You are awfully young to be a scribe of the land,” Aïsha remarked.
“Oh, I’m not,” Rena responded and shook her head. “I, ehm, have personal reasons why I’m accompanying Rodrick at this moment,” she replied, unsure of how much she was allowed to tell this woman about what happened, although it felt silly to her to hide the fact that an entire village burned down but she was new to this kind of adventurous lifestyle and she didn’t know the rules of it yet.
Kalani’s eyes narrowed slightly but she didn’t ask any further questions.
“And why are you here?” she asked and turned her head towards Logan, her face already bracing itself for whatever Logan was about to tell her.
“They need help with something and I gain my self-worth through helping other people?” Logan tried and Kalani’s eyebrow simply went up in disbelief.
“Curiosity?” He tried again, but Kalani’s expression didn’t change.
“I may need help with something,” he finally said, pursing his lips and looking away from her.
“Which is?” Kalani replied.
“Now see, I only tell that information to the people who agree to help me.”
Kalani sighed and closed her eyes before turning back to Rena and Rodrick.
“I hope you didn’t promise him too much,” she told them, annoyance written all over her.
“Be that as it may,” she continued without letting anyone have a chance to reply to her. “I will need you to follow me. The Sovereign Outcast is awaiting you.”
“Oh come on, do we have to?” Logan sighed.
“They are especially happy to see you again,” Kalani replied, smiling faintly at Logan.