“So you were there, at the fire?”
Rodin nodded, knew he should never have mentioned the incident.
“And you went in, right?” The lad leaned in, his eyes wide. “To get them out?”
“I did what I could.” Rodin placed his drink down. “Look, Tanner—you’re young. Get to my age, you’ll know that stuff happens, and you deal with it. And sometimes, it’s best not to talk of it.”
“So let the man drink in peace,” said the man on the left.
Tanner sunk back in his chair. “Just want to hear about something exciting, is all. Nothing happens round here.”
“And that’s a good thing,” Rodin said. “That fire took twenty lives. Men, women, a couple of kids. A few went quickly, but most of them? We could hear the screams over the roar of the flames, and there was nothing we could do. It was even worse when the screams stopped.”
The lad’s face grew pale. He swallowed, and sipped his own drink—a beer, but Rodin had seen how the barkeep had watered it down.
“Sorry about him,” the man on the right said. “Kids!”
“No problem. We were all young once, right?”
The man on the left smiled. “Young and stupid. Right, Ollie? Like that time you tried to get into Sacha’s room during that cold snap?” He turned to Tanner. “Tree branch so slippery, he clings to it like a babe to a breast. Up there so long he froze to it. Isn’t that right, Ollie? Frozen solid to a tree outside Sacha’s house, for all the world to see.” He laughed, spittle flying.
“Aye,” Ollie said, smiling. “Worth it, though. Helluva view.”
Rodin smiled out of politeness.
“That might be better than a fire,” Tanner said.
“Fire inside, lad, fire inside.” Ollie slapped him across the shoulders. “But only if you pick the right one. Like Leesha.” Tanner looked away, face reddening. “Aye, seen you looking at her, lad. Good choice. Fine figure, that one. You agree, Cham?”
“Will be, when she grows up a bit.”
“Aye, not for us, obviously. But for young Tanner, she’s just the thing. Bet she bucks like a wild boar! You talk about adventure, lad, but there’s nothing like a throw-back ride!”
Ollie let out a loud laugh, and Tanner joined in—but Rodin could tell it was forced.
“Maybe some day,” the lad said. “Still want to live a bit first. See other places.” He looked straight at Rodin. “That’s what you do, right? Travel the land, meet new people. Don’t like one place, just move on. Always something new. That’s living.”
Rodin shook his head. “It’s not like that. No roots, no security. Lost count of the nights I’ve spent under the stars in the cold and the rain. Suspicious looks whenever you go somewhere new. This isn’t living. No, you’re better off settling somewhere. Make a home for yourself, with good folk around you, folk who care.”
“Someday, sure. But not yet. Not while I’m still young.”
“It’s not that simple,” Rodin said, leaning in, hoping the lad knew he was being serious here. “You start on this road, it’s hard to stop. The minute you leave those you’re tied to, you can never return. Not really. You go walking for a few years, when you come back you’re a different person. Even those you were close to don’t know you anymore. And you don’t know them, either.” He raised a hand. “You don’t want that, Tanner. Don’t throw your life away.”
“Better that than wasting it here,” the lad said, and Rodin saw the seriousness in his face, the determination in his rigid hand that rested on the table. “I don’t want to grow old still wondering what might have been. I need to make something of myself, and that means getting away from this place.”
Ollie snorted. “Yeah? You just going to wander off, you stupid brat? Where you going to go, then? Tell me that, where’s better than here? Cromar? Bloody Heathfield? Same as here, lad, only without anyone you know. No, you listen to our visitor—you’re better off with kith and kin around you. There’s nowhere better than here.”
“But how can you be sure?” Tanner’s voice rose in pitch. “How do you know what’s better if you don’t try new places?”
Rodin took a deep breath. The lad needed to understand. “Let me show you something.”
He lifted his top, just enough to display the ugly red line that ran across his abdomen, the edges of the wound slowly healing but still raw. At least it wasn’t leaking any more.
Tanner gulped. One of the older men coughed, the other muttered under his breath.
“This place here,” Rodin said, keeping the wound on display, “is civilised compared to many. Some communities, an outsider is less than an animal. They take exception to anything about you, and normal rules go out the window. Some places, three against one is just a bit of a laugh.” It had been five, but Rodin wasn’t here to boast. “I was lucky I only got this.” He let his top fall.
Tanner’s lip trembled. “What happened?”
“I did what I had to.” No point going into details. “And even then, I thought I might not make it. Alone in the deep forest, nobody to turn to. There’s creatures out there, drawn to the smell of blood.” He didn’t talk about how he’d climbed that tree, spent two days strapped to the branch, hoping the stiches he’s inserted held, while the wild cats prowled below.
The lad’s face was ashen, and even the older guys had lost their smiles now.
Rodin took a sip of his drink. “Of course, it’s your life. Your choice.”
Tanner nodded. “Maybe…maybe I need to think some more.”
Stronger Than Death
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