Sampson was galloping at a safe speed along the main road to Athens. The road was fairly well traveled, and they’d seen several travelers rushing off to get to their destination before night took over. Amia was careful not to do anything to draw attention to herself. The last thing she needed at this point was someone getting close enough to notice the smell of crier on her clothes.
She shivered and pulled her riding cloak tighter around herself as Sampson galloped along the main road. It was getting colder as the sun set. She rehearsed the story she planned to tell the Cleyborn leader when she arrived. No one would believe that Thomas had agreed to send her out on her own this late in the day. She would have to tell them that her father had refused to let her go, so she had snuck out. Cleatus and Thomas were fairly close. Her father’s friend knew she was short-tempered and brash. She hammered out the finer points of her story as she and Sampson continued down the road.
Opening his desk drawer, he pulled out the picture that he’d had taken after Amia was born. He ran his finger across the outline of his wife and daughter. A tear ran down his face. He mouthed, “I’m sorry,” and set the picture down on his desk, staring at it. His eyes cleared and his jaw tightened.
He opened the middle drawer of his desk. There was a decent sized hunting knife wrapped in oil cloth. He pulled it out. He pulled the top drawer all the way out and set it on his desk. Getting down on his knees, he peered up into the space where the drawer had been. He slid his knife up into the space, running it along the inside of the desk. It met paper. He carefully cut the paper away. There was a gentle tearing sound. Then a thud.
A small book lay in the second drawer. It had been glued inside that sheet of paper for over twenty years. The book’s worn leather cover bore the faded title, Sammy Silvertooth’s Guide to Revolution. Under the title was the outline of a bear paw and inside that was a crane. Thomas ran his hands along the spine of the book. After a moment, he flipped it open and began searching for the answers he needed.
She sat down at the table with the clan leader Cleatus, his wife Margorie, and their daughter, Bethany. Cleatus had given a huge belly laugh when he’d heard that she had decided to come get the book on sting beetles whether her father liked it or not. “Damned if you’re not Stephanie’s daughter. E’ry time you come out here you’re more like her. That woman gave your pa hell, tell you what. Glad you’re keeping him on his toes, too.”
Amia was startled by the reference to her mother. She had forgotten that her mother had been close to Margorie and Cleatus before her death. They must have never brought her up before because Amia had always come with her father. It was the same in Armaria. The subject of her mother was generally off limits. But here, at this moment, her father wasn’t around, and Cleatus had all but given her an invitation to ask some questions.
“I always forget that you knew my mom,” she started. “I wonder if you have any good stories about her. You know, Dad doesn’t usually like to talk about her.”
Margorie gave her a sad look and nodded. “Your pa was crazy ‘bout her. I’ll never forget the first time we saw him after she… passed. He looked thirty years older.”
A smile played at the corners of her mouth. “You know, Cleatus and I were there the first time they met. Your pa ever tell you that?”
Amia shook her head. She didn’t really know anything about how her parents had met. “No, he never did. What happened?”
Cleatus slapped his knee with a loud guffaw. “I’ll never forget that day. Your pa was here in Cleyborn. He’d gotten a couple of heifers, but he couldn’t find no bulls. We had two, and we was trying to work out a deal, but you know your pa. He was being a real skin flint with me and I was ‘bout ready to kick him back to Armaria.” Amia chuckled. Her father did have a reputation in the surrounding clans.
Cleatus continued, “Then we all hear a horse galloping up. We wasn’t expecting no visitors, you see, so we all run out to see who in the world it could be. Well, of course, it was your ma, but damned if she wasn’t in a fit. Says she and her family’d been out traveling somewhere or t’other and been attacked by criers. She was okay, but her family had died in the attack. I ain’t never seen a woman so beside herself. But your pa, you know, he’s got a way about him, so he takes her to the infirmary and says ‘You just rest a bit and we’ll make sure you’re safe.’ Seems like about three hours later they’d decided to get married, ain’t that right Margorie?”
Margorie gave a little laugh and shook her head. “Not three hours, but yes, ‘time she was well enough to travel again, they’d up and decided to go together to find the corpses of her parents and bury them. Next we hear, they’d gone and gotten married. Then ‘course there was you ‘bout four years later.”
Cleatus pushed up from the table with a groan. “Right. We be happy ta tell ya more in the mornin’. But you come a long way in a short time. Best you rest up, and we can chat after ya slept a bit.” Amia’s yawn was all the agreement they needed. Bethany took her to the room they’d share for the night and helped her settle in.
That night, Amia lay next to Bethany on a small corn husk bed. It was a bit less comfortable than her own bed, but that might have been due to Bethany, who despite her small size, had managed to take up at least three-fourths of the mattress. For the first time in ages, Amia dreamed about her mother.
In her dream, her mother was riding a huge black bear, waving a sword. All around there was fire and screaming. Her mother looked like a goddess of the woods, curly hair flowing behind her, her bare arms softly glowing green and red as the flames licked around her. The bear swatted at enemies just outside of Amia’s field of vision.
Suddenly, from out of nowhere, a huge black shadow jumped out at her mother and the bear. The shadow twisted and twined around her mother. Slowly her mother’s skin began pulling off of her body in chunks. Her mother didn’t scream, instead she looked at Amia with that same soft gentle look from the photo.
The air began to throb and vibrate. Her mother, now a bloody mess, fell in a crumpled heap. The dark shadow was coming towards her, filling everything with darkness. Amia sat up in the bed screaming. Bethany groaned next to her and sat up rubbing her eyes.
“What’re ya squawking ‘bout?” the little girl grumbled angrily. Amia felt sweat running down her back. Her breaths came in short, painful gasps. She reached up and ran her hands through her hair.
“So-sorry. Bad dream, I guess.” She lay back down.
“Imagine raising a ruckus about a bad dream. Ain’t you a crier killer or somethin’?” Bethany snorted as she lay back down.
Amia lay on her back for the next five hours, staring at the ceiling. Her eyes refused to close for more than a few minutes at a time. In the morning, she left after a quick breakfast.
“Guess I’d better get on the road. If I leave any later, I won’t make it before dark,” she had told them as she stuffed the last piece of her bread in her mouth. It was true enough. She had a full twelve hours of riding ahead of her. She mounted Sampson shortly after helping clear the dishes off of the table.
• ● •
She rode into Athens just as the sun was beginning its descent. She had heard and smelled it long before she could see it. It smelled of roasting meat, manure, and smoke. An echoing jumble of human activity emanated from it. She was tired, dirty, and feeling much less confident than she had when she’d left Armaria the previous day. Sampson was limping for some reason, possibly because she’d pushed him so hard. She was going to have to get him checked out before she could head home.
She tried to remember the directions that Justin had given her. A man named Simon Greggory lived on the east side of town, down the street from the dump. Ran an apothecary shop called ‘The Lame Sparrow.’ Was generally unpleasant to deal with. Would not buy anything if he didn’t like the person selling it to him. She marveled at how her brother could remember so much from their conversation with James.
Amia guided Sampson through the streets, using the sun to find her way to the east side. The streets seemed to wind and wrap around with little rhyme or reason, and there were so many buildings it was hard to keep her bearings.
Finally, she made it to what she assumed was the east side of the city. She spied a building with a horseshoe on the door. Remembering that Sampson needed to have his hoof checked, she guided him over to it. After dismounting and grabbing his reigns, she knocked on the door. A small, stocky man appeared. He looked at her blankly.
“What’d ya want?” he asked, leaving the door mostly closed.
“I’m sorry to bother you, but do you treat horses? I saw the horseshoe on your door, so I just thought…” Amia trailed off, realizing that it was possible that the horseshoe had nothing to do with the man’s line of work.
“What? Horses? Ain’t you never seen a good luck charm?” he asked incredulously.
Amia stared at the horseshoe in confusion. “Good luck charm? No, I’m sorry, I guess I don’t know what that means.”
“’Sposed to give me luck. Got it from that crazy Greggory fellow.”
Amia’s eyebrows jumped up her forehead. “Do you mean Simon Greggory? I’m actually looking for him. Can you tell me where he is?”
The man shrugged. “His place is just a few minutes’ walk from here. Smell it ‘fore you see it. Reeks of horse dung, mint, and spirits, if you know what I mean. Just head down that street.” His greasy lips pulled into a smirk, and he pointed down a small dirty alley.
“Don’t take anything he says too seriously though, missy. If he don’t answer the door, it’s ‘cuz he’s passed out drunk.” The man laughed loudly. His breath smelled of rotten meat. Amia suppressed the urge to gag.
Her heart was pounding by the time she smelled mint. It was quickly followed by horse manure. She saw a small, run-down, two-story brick building flanked tightly by a mass of rickety shacks. Hanging on the front of the brick building was an old, half-rotten sign bearing the words ‘Th… me… Sp…w’. A long metal pipe sticking out of the roof was emitting a steady stream of greasy vapor that settled around the buildings in a milky haze. There were empty bottles and various bits of rubbish all around the front of the building.
As Amia approached, a frumpy woman walked out of the building to the left and began banging on the door of the apothecary. “Simon Greggory! I know you’re in there, ya piece of garbage!” Then with surprising speed and strength for a woman her age, she picked up one of the glass bottles lying in front of the shop and smashed it across the door. Amia jumped in shock when it shattered violently. A moment later the door swung open and a rather tall, disheveled man with dark, unkempt hair, wearing a long, greasy-looking coat and a pair of stained pants stumbled out into the light.
“The hell ya think you’re doing Marge? Told ‘ya I’d clean it up. I have to pay for those bottles, ya know.” He shielded his eyes from the light.
The woman didn’t even bother with words, instead opting to punch the man directly in his gut. He doubled over and then slowly slumped to the ground. “Clean ‘em up, you pig!” she shouted and stalked back into the building next door.
Amia watched this entire scene in awe. Surely this man couldn’t be Simon Greggory, the man who was supposed to buy her crier teeth. He couldn’t possibly have enough money to solve Armaria’s tax crisis.
She considered turning around and looking for another way to make the money. No. She needed more money than she could work off in a few hours, and how dangerous could a man who had just been knocked to the ground by a fat, old woman be? Dismounting, she kept one hand firmly on Sampson’s reins and strode up to the man, who was currently attempting to stagger to his feet.
“Mr. Greggory?” she called out as she walked up. The man looked up at her. He held her in a bleary gaze. His face was lined with sweat, oil, and filth. He stunk of alcohol and something weirdly sweet. She fought valiantly to keep her disgust from showing.
“Who’s asking?” he muttered.
“My name’s Amia. I’ve come from a neighboring clan.” Amia held out her hand to help him up.
He waved her hand away and struggled to his feet. “Mia from a clan? So? What’d ya want?”
“I was hoping you could help me with a problem we’re having.”
“Ya looking for medicine? What’s wrong? Grandma sick?”
Amia shook her head. “No, sir. It’s not that. My grandma’s already dead.”
He waved a hand at her. “Can’t help you with that, little girl. Don’t buy corpses no more.”
Amia took a step backwards. “I’m sorry, there’s obviously been some misunderstanding. I don’t want to sell you my grandma’s corpse.” She looked around to see if there was anyone nearby. Seeing no one, she pulled the bag of crier teeth out of her quiver.
“I came to sell you something, sir. I heard that you were interested in these.” She opened the bag a bit so that he could see inside. The light glinted dully off of the teeth. Simon looked at her sharply and stood silent for a moment. His eyes poked and prodded at her. Finally, he reached over and pulled the bag open a bit more and looked in a second time. He nodded. “Viva la revolution, eh?” He motioned for her to tie up Sampson and follow him into the shop.
The inside of the shop was surprisingly clean considering the outside. The smell was also, to Amia’s relief, significantly better. Simon led her through a large room filled from floor to ceiling with shelves of jars and into a small room off to the side. The room was bare, except for three chairs and a table. He motioned for her to sit in one of the chairs. She sat, awkwardly holding the bag of crier teeth on her lap.
“Put the teeth on the table, it’s fine,” he said as he sat down in the chair across the table from her. He sat upright with his shoulders back. He stared at her evenly, eyes narrow, jaw tight. Initially, Amia tried to meet his gaze, but eventually looked away, flustered.
“How’d you get ahold of those teeth, Kid? Your boyfriend kill one?” He leaned forward, staring her straight in the eyes.
“What? No. They’re teeth from three criers I killed last week. I heard you buy them, and our clan needs a little more money for taxes.” Amia met his gaze this time, willing herself not to look away. Why does he suddenly seem sober?
He laughed. “You’re telling me you killed three criers? Come on, Kid. If you’re going to lie, do a better job.”
Amia felt her ears ringing and her cheeks growing hot. “Lie?” she hissed. She tapped her finger angrily on the table for a moment. “In all honesty, I suppose my brother did kill one. But the other two are mine. I don’t appreciate being called a liar. You can buy the teeth, or I can happily leave your fine establishment.” She stood abruptly and reached to grab the bag.
Simon looked at her in surprise and then smiled. “I’ve misjudged you.” He motioned for her to sit. “You must be quite the impressive shot to manage to kill a crier with a bow.”
Amia shook her head as she lowered herself into the chair. “A sword.”
He cocked his head. “What’s that?”
“Who in the world kills a crier with a bow? I used a sword.”
Simon raised an eyebrow. “Well, then, I can officially say I’ve met a crier killer. Just the two then?”
Amia leaned forward and met his eyes defiantly. “Near a hundred, I guess.”
“Governor’ pants. Why in the world are you killing so many criers? You hiring yourself out to other clans? I’ve never heard of anyone having killed more than ten. They’re not that common.”
“Maybe not here, but the woods around our clan are crawling with them.”
“Crawling with them? What did you do to make the government angry?”
Amia furrowed her brow. “What do you mean ‘make the government angry?’”
“Come on, Kid, don’t play dumb with me. You can’t have that many of them and not know where they’re coming from. The government makes ‘em. Sends them to keep troublesome clans busy.”
Amia scoffed. The first man she’d met had been right: this Greggory fellow was a bit crazy. “Why would the government be attacking clans? They’re supposed to be helping us.”
“Surely a girl like yourself must know the answer to that question,” he said motioning to her face.
Amia shook her head. “I don’t know what you mean.”
“Your earrings. That’s clearly the two pieces of the revolutionary symbol. You marked?”
Amia raised a hand to her earrings and felt them. Her dad had given them to her when she was about ten.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about. These are my mother’s earrings.”
“Then your mother is a revolutionary.”
“No, she wasn’t. She’s dead.”
“Isn’t that more proof?” Simon cocked his head to the side.
“No,” she said a little too loudly. She could feel her body tensing, her heart start to pound angrily. “The government didn’t kill her, a crier did.”
“And I told you the criers come from the government, right?” His tone intensified to match hers. “Don’t you get it? A crier? Nobody around to see it, right?”
“I was there, but I was a baby,” Amia said.
“You were there? As a baby? And it didn’t kill you? Doesn’t that seem odd?” Simon leaned back in his chair.
“I was in a crib. Dad just said he found her corpse torn up on the bed, and I was there in the crib, screaming.”
Simon shook his head and looked down at the bag on the table for a second. “Okay, Kid. You don’t seem to be stupid. Think this through. If you heard a story where a baby was in a crib in the same room with a crier, would you believe it was possible for the crier to leave that baby alive?”
Amia thought of all of the criers she’d encountered. She had seen a crier pull the arm off a man after its head was almost fully severed. She’d heard stories of criers getting into houses at night and killing the families, the dogs, and even sometimes the rats in the walls if they could get to them.
“No. I mean it doesn’t seem possible, but that’s what my father said happened.”
“Did it ever occur to you that maybe he didn’t tell you the whole story?”
“No,” Amia said. “My dad isn’t a liar.” Something inside of her was struggling to get free, a doubt that’d been hiding for years in the back of her mind.
“Well, maybe just this one thing? I mean, really, do you actually think it’s normal for a clan to have that many criers? Have you met people from other clans?”
“Yes, of course I’ve met people from other clans.”
“Do they seem to have as many crier attacks?”
Amia thought about that morning in the Cleyborn clan. She’d not eaten that much food for breakfast in years. There’d been kids out playing in the fields when she’d ridden up. Kids didn’t play outside that much in Armaria. It just wasn’t safe. She thought about the story of how her father had met her mother. Had she really been running from criers? What if she had been a revolutionary? She took a slow breath and willed her brain to stop churning. Money. She needed to get the money.
“Mr. Greggory, I thank you for your interesting take on my family history, but as I said earlier, taxes are due this month and I’m just looking to make a little money. Do you or do you not want to buy these crier teeth? I heard that you give two silver pieces for five.” She reached across the table and dumped out the teeth. “There are eighty teeth here, if you’ll kindly check. I assume that means I should be able to get at least twenty pieces of silver.”
“I do. Although I have to tell you, tax day is not your actual problem,” he said, pausing briefly to look at her. “The government has it out for your clan. I don’t know what your mother did, but whatever it was, they’re just waiting for a chance to kill you. I’d stay on my guard if I were you.”
After carelessly scooping the teeth back into the bag, he went to the other side of the room. Amia watched him dig through a pile of jars, muttering to himself in irritation. When he walked back over, he was holding a small purse. He counted out twenty-five silver coins, placing them neatly on the table in front of her.
“I’ll give you an extra five for your story and your trouble.” He hesitated. “I know you won’t, but if I were you, I’d take that money and go somewhere else and start a new life. I don’t know what your parents did, but your clan won’t survive. The government is coming for you.”
Amia thought about her dream the night before and shivered. She stood, scooping the coins into her coin purse. “Thank you for your concern, sir, but I had better get going. We’ve had a bad infestation of sting beetles in our orchard this year. I need to run by the library to see what I can find on them.”
Simon started to say something at this, but then just shook his head. She smiled politely and held out her hand. “It was a pleasure doing business with you, Mr. Greggory.”
Simon took her hand and pressed it firmly. “Just a moment. I can’t just send you back there with nothing. A clan like yours is liable to get a visit from a fox witch.” He ran across the room and slipped through a door. When he reappeared, he was holding two arrows.
“Oh, that’s very kind of you, but I have plenty of arrows,” Amia said politely.
“Not this kind, you don’t. Look closely at the tip of it.” He held it out for her to inspect.
Amia’s eyes widened. “Is that a crier tooth?” she asked, curiosity piqued.
“This is one of the many reasons I buy them. They make excellent arrow heads. But the most important thing about them is that they are very useful against fox witches.”
“I’m afraid I don’t know what a fox witch is.” Amia attempted to hand him back his arrows.
“No. I guess you don’t. Well, at any rate, these are decent arrows, so just on the off chance you meet one…”
Amia nodded. Better to just get away. “Okay. Thank you. I’ll keep my eyes peeled.”
“They’ll be there, Kiddo. Just…” He paused. “If a little girl shows up with the tax man, if it starts getting… a bit queer, shoot her with this. Don’t wait, don’t ask questions, just shoot her.”
Confirmed. He was crazy. Little girls coming with the tax man? Kill them right away? This man was definitely not all there. She began backing towards the door. She stumbled into the main room. The rows and rows of bottles of fluids and powders on the shelves seemed to press in on her. There were whole pig fetuses, what she assumed were animal hearts, and eyeballs floating in various bottles. The smell began to overwhelm her again. Could there be human corpses in here? Simon just watched her silently.
“Thank you for your help, Mr. Greggory. I guess… maybe I’ll be back next year,” she stammered as she fumbled for the doorknob.
“If there’s a next year, Kid.”
Amia staggered out into the dull green sunlight. She jerked Sampson’s reigns free and mounted him, pausing only to stash the silver in the saddle bag and the arrows in her quiver. She immediately pushed Sampson into a fast trot.
Who the hell was this Simon Greggory fellow? How dare he say her mother was a revolutionary? What did he mean ‘if there is a next year?’ Did he actually know something?
She’d heard stories of revolutionaries, but they’d always been painted as monsters. Could her parents have been revolutionaries at some point? Her father was always telling her about her duty to her people and to the government. Could a man like that really have been a revolutionary? It seemed impossible. It was impossible. Completely impossible.