Four days later they were nearing the village of Haj. It was a tiny place, not mentioned on any but the most local of maps. Its claim to fame was that it served as a place to sleep indoors on a crossroads that led from Cár Lagondale to HillRock and a couple of other small mining colonies to the north.
Chase was riding next to Jin while Nunzio rode the point. SoQue was just behind the two of them, trying to read a book while not falling off his horse.
Everyone had been pretty quiet today. They were road weary and anxious to get to Haj for a night in a bed.
Chase glanced over at Jin at the thought of spending the night in a bed. She appeared to be focused on the woods and the road ahead. They had shared a bed for some time in the past, but decided that they should maintain a more professional relationship. Chase couldn’t help but look at her long legs and regret the fact that she had talked him into that deal.
She must have felt his eyes on her and looked over at him.
“What?” she asked.
“Nothing,” Chase said, shaking his head.
“What?” she insisted.
“Just glad you’re along,” Chase replied.
“Yeah, right,” she said, turning away.
They still got along well enough. She had come to HillRock a couple of years ago and had been picked up by the local authorities after a bungled larceny. Chase had taken notice of her, both her working abilities, albeit novice at the time, and her physical attributes. He saw to it that she wasn’t punished too severely and took her under his wing.
Chase glanced at her again and she moved up to ride next to Nunzio.
SoQue took the opportunity to fill her spot and rode in next to Chase. He managed to put away his book without dropping it or falling off of his horse.
“Rain,” SoQue said.
Chase looked up and inspected the sky. It was midday but the sky was blue but the wind was picking up. SoQue was right, rain probably was on the way. Hopefully they would be in Haj by the time the heavy stuff started coming down.
“Yeah, looks like rain,” Chase agreed. “Better than snow.”
SoQue nodded in agreement.
“You and Jin talking?” he asked.
“Nothing more than the basics. ‘Sleep well?’ and ‘Take the point’. That kind of thing,” Chase said.
SoQue nodded and concentrated on riding. He wasn’t the best rider and his horse seemed a bit heady, but he generally kept her under control.
“So, what do you think?” he asked after a few minutes. “You going to try to patch things up with her?”
“We’ll see,” Chase replied. “I’m sure you’d recommend against it.”
“Business and pleasure don’t mix well,” SoQue said.
Chase turned to look at him. SoQue was looking back toward Chase with a smile on his face.
“You just read that in your book?” Chase asked.
“You’d be better off keeping your mind on your horse and your eyes on the road,” Chase told him.
Thunder rumbled in the distance as they rode in silence for a few minutes.
“Still,” Chase finally continued. “I suspect you are right. But she’s quite a catch.”
“For HillRock, I suppose she’s a catch,” SoQue replied.
“You’ve got weird taste in women, Que.”
“But there will be others,” he went on, as if he didn’t hear Chase’s comment. “Once we’ve figured out this lost year of yours and who is responsible for the attempt on your life, maybe you can settle down in Cár Lagondale or one of the bigger cities to the south.”
“I guess it is about time to expand the operation,” Chase commented.
“You pretty much own most of HillRock now, control all the commerce and most of the constables,” SoQue continued.
Chase looked at him.
“Sorry, all of the constables,” SoQue continued.
“Yeah, it’s been getting pretty boring lately.”
“So, we figure out just who stole your memory, deal with him, or it, or whatever, and we can settle down in Cár Lagondale for a couple of years.”
“We?” Chase asked.
“Well, I’ve got some relatives in the Cár, as you know. And it’s the next logical step for your business, staying close enough to HillRock to maintain control. Although, I suspect that once you get settled in Lagondale you’ll find your ventures in HillRock more of a liability than an asset.”
“Been thinking about things have you?” Chase asked.
“Yeah,” SoQue said. “I think more when my ass hurts.”
Chase pondered his words for a few moments as more thunder rolled over them. It was getting a bit closer but the rain still seemed to be off in the distance. The tops of the trees were starting to dance a little bit more, rustling as the wind cut through them and then snapping back when the breeze lagged. Chase thought he caught a whiff of something in the air, riding on the wind but didn’t give it much thought, as he was still thinking about what SoQue had just said.
“What about those two?” Chase asked SoQue, indicating the two riders in front of them with a nod of his head.
“Well, Nunzio you do not have to worry about, but I think you know that,” SoQue said. “He cut his teeth in HillRock and thrives on your leadership abilities. I’d never set him down with the books or let him run the numbers, but when you need heads cracked or someone standing next to you when the shit comes down, Nunzio is who you want.”
“He was a lucky find,” Chase said.
Chase had discovered Nunzio soon after he had arrived at HillRock. Nunzio was well known as a brawler and troublemaker. Muscles bulged on his large frame and he had distinct facial features, a large, bulbous nose, thick black hair that he kept cropped short, tiny ears and a square jaw. Most of his income had come from guard duty to and from the mines or even back and forth to Lagondale. Drawing him out a bit one evening at the Oak, Chase learned that most of his reputation for fighting was exaggerated. He spent most of his time in HillRock, and Chase discovered that he disliked guard duty and was quite bored with it. He also revealed an intelligence that was well hidden behind his outward persona. Needing good help, Chase sent a couple of jobs his way. Nunzio had performed them well and Chase took him on as his first full time employee a short time after.
“And he will be loyal. Just pay him well, keep him interested in his work, and you’ll have a lifetime employee and an asset to your operations.”
They rode on for a few more minutes and the wind whistled a higher pitch.
“The question, however,” Chase said.
“Was what about them,” SoQue finished. “I know, and I also know that I don’t know about her. She came to HillRock for a reason, and I don’t know what it was, and I don’t think you do either, no matter what she has told you. She seemed to find you rather quickly after she arrived.”
“She was in jail,” Chase said.
“Because she was trying to sell some stolen goods. Big deal. If you think about it, she pretty easily could have avoided it or bribed her way out of it. That was before you had control of the constables,” SoQue told him. “And what better way to find you?”
“And along you came, digging her out of trouble and taking her on board,” SoQue continued. “And not long after that she was shacked up with you. How much about you does she know?”
Chase pondered the question while SoQue pressed on.
“More importantly maybe, since there’s a ton of shit that you don’t know about yourself, how much do you know about her?”
“Not much,” Chase easily concluded.
“And yet,” SoQue went on. “Here she is. Did you ask her to come along?”
“She seemed rather insistent when I told her we were leaving.”
“Yeah,” SoQue nodded. “Something’s going on there. That might be your first order of business when we get to the Cár, figure her out.”
Chase nodded and pondered, not for the first time, his own naïveté about Jin. She was competent in the jobs he gave her, but he never gave her jobs that were too difficult. Come to think of it, there weren’t many jobs that were too difficult in HillRock. Chase didn’t have any competition and pretty much ran the town a year after he had arrived.
Then, when some novice thief showed up in town instead of tossing her back he decided to save her and take her on as an employee. And more. SoQue was right about one thing, when it came to female companionship in HillRock, the women are few and far between. And Jin was something else in bed.
Chase chuckled and SoQue looked over at him.
“Nothing, just contemplating my weaknesses,” Chase told him.
“Women,” SoQue concluded.
“Not a great weakness to have,” Chase replied.
SoQue didn’t offer a response. The weather was turning worse by the minute. The wind was really beginning to pick up. So far, other than the encounter with the kobolds, they had been pretty lucky. The weather had held, so they’d been dry for the week, if cold. They had only encountered one other group, a small collection of miners heading up to the mines to try to find some work. They’d come close to running afoul of some bandits, but they had managed to avoid them.
Now, not an hour away from Haj, there was a good possibility that they were going to get very wet.
Nunzio had stopped and was looking back toward the two of them. Chase nodded and Nunzio picked up the pace. Chase figured Nunzio didn’t want to get wet either.
They increased to a canter and Chase caught the odor in the wind again. This time he breathed it in deeply for analysis and decided it was smoke. They were getting close to Haj, close enough to pick up a whiff of their fires, Chase thought.
As they continued down the road, the smell became even more pronounced. Chase could tell that Nunzio and Jin had picked up on it too. As the smell got heavier they turned around to check what he wanted to do. Chase indicated that they should just keep riding. But even as they pressed on Chase became worried. The smell was much thicker than what would be generated by a couple of fires in the Inn and houses around Haj, especially in this wind.
They cut through the woods and up to the top of a low rise when Nunzio and Jin pulled up and waited for the other two to join them. As they did Chase could see why they had stopped.
Haj was burning.