For a man with all the time in the world, Cumbria was quickly running out of it. With his tarnished gold pocket watch clutched tightly in his hands, he held his breath until he crashed down onto the glistening grasses of the cliffside. His coat tails fell down by his boots as the harsh wind that carried him there died. He had arrived at last – the penultimate step on his final journey.
“Christ…” he muttered under his breath as he surveyed his immediate surroundings. “That was too damn close.”
The dawn had bathed the sprawling hills of the Scottish Highlands in a pristine glow, gleaming in the morning dew. Nestled within the crooks of the cliffs and rocks was a ragtag assortment of carriages and tents scattered arbitrarily across the landscape. The smell of wood stoves and silage filled the air.
It was serenely quiet this time of morning, and Cumbria savoured it while he could. He knew that it would not be long before he brought with him the full might of what he left behind.
I’ve taken too many risks, he thought to himself. And now I’m about to take one more.
Whilst caught up in his first moment of peace in a long while, Cumbria sensed something nearby, and it was approaching rapidly. The nearer it grew, the greater the sensation became until whatever it was had joined him atop the cliffside.
He knew that presence anywhere, and it put a faint smile back on his face. “Shauna,” he muttered.
A woman approached from behind him. Though still younger than him in appearance, her face reflected the troubles they had both faced of late. Her greying red hair was tied back loosely, just as her travelling clothes clung loosely to her body. Appearances meant little to either of them now.
“Cumbria,” she greeted him back.
Her thick southern Irish accent was as pleasing to his ear as ever, but he still winced at that name. “Don’t call me that.”
“As you wish, Milord.”
“Nor that,” he said with a hopeless chuckle. He looked over to his companion and placed his hand on her shoulder. “It’s good to see you, Shauna.”
“And you,” she replied with a kind grin. Yet despite her best efforts to appear glad, her forced smile was painfully apparent. She realised this and turned away, out into the camp. “Are you ready?”
Cumbria rubbed his brow and sighed. “I think so.” He nodded to reassure himself. “I think so.”
The silence that followed brought an all-too-familiar feeling of guilt within Cumbria which he struggled to keep from showing upon his face. He glanced out into the distant hills and took comfort in their stillness. As he did so, a hand had slipped beneath his overcoat and wrapped around his waist. Shauna grew in closer and embraced him. Despite the cold of the Autumn morning, she felt warm enough to calm his troubled mind for a moment at least. He held her back and placed his chin upon her crown.
“Thank you,” he muttered.
She shook her head as if it was nothing. They remained still for some time before either of them spoke again.
“You’re shaking,” she said.
“It’s the cold.”
“You don’t feel the cold anymore, my sweet.”
Cumbria sighed. “It’s a different kind of cold.”
Shauna gripped him harder, and he reciprocated it gladly.
“Do you remember when we first came up this far?” she asked him. “That week by the loch? Nothing but hiking and swimming.”
He smiled at the recollection. As she spoke, he could see the scene painted out before them both, as vivid as ever. The landscape shimmered as the sun grew brighter in the sky in recollection of the lighter days, before falling back to its normal size.
Shauna took notice of the distracted look on Cumbria’s face. She took a step back from him to look him up and down and gave a proud, yet saddened smile. “It will work,” she said in reassurance. “I know it will. We’ve come this far, haven’t we?”
“Aye,” Cumbria nodded. He closed his eyes and bowed his head. “But, what if it doesn’t work?”
He felt a hand reach his cheek. It only lightly grazed his stubbled jaw before it hovered calmingly.
“Then we won’t know any different,” Shauna replied. “There’s a certain peace in that, I reckon.”
Cumbria opened his eyes to find Shauna’s lips just inches away from his. Despite his initial urge, he simply could not bring himself to do anything more.
“We just need faith,” said Shauna. “Faith in you, faith in him, faith in the basic innocence of humanity.”
Cumbria concurred. “Let’s hope, for our sake, the blood doesn’t run too thick.” He looked out over the camp and saw it beginning to rise with the morning. A tense feeling rose in his stomach before he gripped Shauna even harder. “It’s time.”
Shauna glanced up in the same direction. “So it is.” She gave him a quick kiss on the cheek before stepping away. “Come on. No time like the present, eh?”
“Is that supposed to be funny?” he asked with a smirk.
With as little as a step, Cumbria and Shauna descended from the cliff and down onto the muddy marshland below. The breeze carried them weightlessly until their boots touched down onto the silage path without a sound.
This early in the morning the Nomad people had only just begun to rise. Those that had didn’t lift their gaze to greet the intruders in their camp. Cumbria and Shauna passed by without hinderance.
“Darling,” Shauna said clearing her throat.
“Do you know where you are going?”
Cumbria glanced about the immediate vicinity, towards every carriage in range. With his pride wounded, he shook his head. “I must admit, I do not.”
“Then why did you pretend that you did?” she jeered.
Cumbria had begun to grind his teeth. Not one of these carriages seemed distinct from the next, and he was starting to grow agitated. In the end, he simply stopped in the middle of the camp and cried out: “Can anyone here direct me to the Tinker’s carriage?”
No-one answered him. The few Nomads that were dotted about the early morning camp didn’t even acknowledge him.
“Very subtle,” said Shauna, rolling her eyes. “Do remember that you are dead, my dear. You’re not as noticeable as you once were.”
Cumbria bit his lip and held out his hand to quiet Shauna, who simply laughed the gesture off. Left without any further choice, he stamped about before approaching a nearby Nomad, most likely too close for comfort, and muttered under his breath: “Corporeal.”
A sudden whoosh of wind fanned out across the dying grass and Cumbria’s presence was made immediately apparent to the Nomad who promptly jumped out of his skin.
“Where the bloody hell did you come from?” the Nomad exclaimed.
“I’m so sorry to startle you,” said Cumbria with a curt grin, “but I’m in a bit of a rush. Would you be so kind as to direct me to the Tinker’s carriage?”
Still nursing his palpitating heart, the aggravated Nomad pointed a single finger away into the far-off tree line where – lo and behold – a single carriage sat nestled beneath the canopy, out of sight and out of mind.
“Ah,” exclaimed Cumbria. “My sincerest thanks.” He tipped his crude worker cap to the Nomad before turning and vanishing completely from his view, leaving the Nomad’s mouth curled into a snarl.
“Damn Aberrations…” he mumbled.
When Cumbria retuned to Shauna, he found her with her arms tightly crossed and not at all impressed.
“What the hell was that?” she spat.
“Never be afraid to ask for help, my dear,” he replied. He gave her a playful slap on the shoulders. “You taught me that, remember?”
“Do you want to bring the Trappers down on us? Hmm? You damn fool. Why don’t you act more like a man on the run and less like someone on a weekend getaway?”
Cumbria saw no sense in arguing with her. Even in life he never saw that as a viable position to be in. In these instances, it was best to stay silent.
“Go on then!” she said with a nod towards the distant treeline. “Go and see your Tinker. I’ll stand guard here.”
Cumbria raised his eyebrow and smirked at her.
“Someone has to look after our necks. Go on then. We can’t stay here long.”
“Very well,” ceded Cumbria. He span on his heel and began his walk along the silage path towards the Tinker’s carriage. “No rest for the wicked, I suppose.”
“I mean it!” she called after him. “Don’t be long!”
He raised his hand without looking back. “Of course, dear!”
The Tinker’s carriage was sat alone, far away from the rest of the Nomad settlement. Down the hill and across a narrow path of deep silage, it seemed to reverberate the closer Cumbria grew to it, as if locked in a haze of heat. That was not the only unnerving feeling that plagued Cumbria on his approach. The closer he drew to the carriage also had a laborious effect on the contents of his left breast pocket.
Reaching inside, his fingers caressed the metal of a golden fob watch that lay hidden away from sight. He could feel its stuttered tick grow strained with every new step towards the Tinker’s carriage until he could not help but remove it from his coat. He did not dare look at it, but allowed its glinting chain to weave itself round his fingers and dangle itself from his loose grip.
“It’s alright,” he muttered, more to himself than to the watch. “We’re almost done now.”
That did not placate the watch, and it continued to tick violently until Cumbria reached the doorway itself. Putting the discomfort out of his head, he raised his fist to knock on the door, but it was a redundant effort. The door swung open, and Cumbria found himself face to face with the carriage’s occupant.
The Tinker was not a particularly large woman, nor was she especially small, but regardless, her presence was made all the more apparent by the dark purple robe that seemed to flow out in most directions before settling into her frail form. Her crooked hands held onto the frame of her doorway with a trembling grip, which guided her out into the morning sun with grave reluctance. Her wizened features, which had been moulded into a semi-permanent scowl, appeared to transform upon seeing Cumbria’s face halfway up her stairs. Now, she appeared intrigued – especially so by the glinting gold that hung at the end of her guest’s arm.
Cumbria quickly stuffed the watch back into his pocket. “Achem,” he coughed. “I see you were expecting me, Madam Tinker?”
The Tinker’s lips pursed as she looked the old man up and down. “Oh aye,” she concurred. Her voice was raspy and tinged with an old Celtic dialect rarely heard anymore – at least not in Cumbria’s experience. “I expected someone to come knocking on my door this morning, but not a Warden. This is a… most pleasant surprise.”
Cumbria stood still as he was surveyed. Soon, the silence proved uncomfortable to him and he cleared his throat again. “May I come in, Madam Tinker?”
“Aye,” she agreed, stepping back from her doorway. “You may, my Lord Cumbria.”
It was times like these that made Cumbria glad that he didn’t still have his sense of smell. The Tinker’s carriage was laden with a vast assortment of paraphernalia that had no business being in the same vicinity, let alone ordered haphazardly across shelves and dressers.
“This is a… fine collection,” he muttered, partially out of courtesy and partially to break the strange silence that hung upon the carriage.
The Tinker lowered herself gently into the seat at her desk, which was itself cluttered with various items of apparent import. She held out her hand for Cumbria to do the same, but he refused.
“I won’t be stopping long,” he said curtly.
“I should think not,” she agreed. “I can’t imagine you have much time left.”
Cumbria narrowed his eyes at the old woman. “How much do you know, Madam?”
“Oh, a fair amount. Enough to meddle, I’m sure.”
Cumbria let himself chuckle at the Tinker’s impertinent smirk. “Then I’ll get down to brass tacks, shall I?” He took a step forward and placed both of his hands on the Tinker’s desk. “Memoriam is threatened. You know this as well as I. This land, and all it’s people, hang on the edge of complete chaos. If we do not act, then the Entropy will claim us.”
The Tinker leant back in her chair and rolled a thought around on her tongue. She did not speak for some time until she asked: “And I imagine that you have a plan to stop this Entropy, yes?”
“Oh, thank goodness!” exclaimed the Tinker suddenly. “Our prodigal son returns, and with him our salvation!” Her expression fell just as quickly as it rose. “My dear boy, I’ve heard this all before and it always goes the same way. Memoriam is, by its very nature, fallible, corruptible. It rises and falls by the grace of the corporeal, and little can be done to stem that tide.”
Cumbria’s expression grew sterner at the Tinker’s complete disregard of the situation’s urgency. “Spoken like an age-old cynic.”
“Age-old? You are a flatterer,” she said with a smile. “Age breeds wisdom, my dear.”
“Age breeds detachment,” he countered spitefully. “Perhaps I should have known better than to expect empathy from one of the Milele.”
The two of them stared eachother down in the dim candlelight until one of them broke.
“Very well, Warden,” said the Tinker. “Let’s suppose I humour you and the threat you have elucidated. Isn’t your precious Oratory supposed to nip these things in the bud? Or…” she surveyed Cumbria’s determined expression and seemed intrigued by it, “ah, of course! That is what you are trying to prevent! Well, that is a bold play, to be sure. My Lord Cumbria, are you honestly telling me that you are acting against the Oratory’s wishes?”
Cumbria saw no harm in divulging his motives now. “Aye,” he replied. “Is that an issue, Madam Tinker?”
The old woman sat ever closer in her chair and let her mouth curl slowly into a cheeky grin. “Quite the contrary, my boy. I love it. How can I help?”
Taking his que, Cumbria reached into his coat pocket and drew out the gold fob watch by its chain. He held it up in front of him and it attracted the Tinker’s gaze like a moth to flame.
“I believe this is one of yours?” he asked.
“Yes,” she said, her eyes wider than he had seem them. “It’s been a long while… is it giving you trouble?”
“No, no it’s not. But, I no longer feel like it belongs to me. In fact, I believe it is about time it was… passed on.”
The Tinker’s wide eyed stare now narrowed and turned towards Cumbria. “That is not how it works, Lord Cumbria. You know that.”
Cumbria tried to read her expression but found it difficult to do so. Her manner betrayed a mixture of offence and intrigue, and he could not tell which was to win out. So, he was left with no choice but to gamble. “Since when were you confined to what works?”
A silence encroached upon the carriage as the Tinker lay back in her chair and weaved her fingers together. The carriage fell to a tense quiet until the Tinker erupted with a deafening laugh.
“Flatterer!” she proclaimed again. “I’m more than twenty times your age. Behave yourself!” She clapped her hands together and sat herself forward. “You know the price, I presume?”
Cumbria nodded, and felt a familiar wave of nervousness arise in his stomach.
“Very well,” she said, reaching out. “Give me the watch, then, and we’ll get started.”
When the moment came to it, Cumbria extended the watch out towards the Tinker, but found himself reluctant to hand it over. She appeared aware of this and raised an eyebrow to encourage him. In the end, he stomached his dread and let the watch fall into the hands of the Tinker.
The following wave of pain that washed over him forced him down into the seat that was originally offered. He had felt this feeling many times before upon being parted from that trinket, and it never got any easier. Every muscle in his body seized up and waves of water seemed to fill his lungs, again and again. He told himself that it was only temporary, again and again, until finally, the subtle glint of the watch by the faint candlelight caught his eye.
Cumbria lunged forward and snatched the watch from the Tinker’s hand. Immediately, life returned to his veins and he fell back into his chair in relief. He took a moment to compose himself before he could speak again. “Thank you.”
“Mm…” mumbled the Tinker in response. “I do hope you know what you are doing, Lord Cumbria. It’s an unnatural thing, subsiding a trinket, especially so for a Warden. I imagine it would carry with it a great deal of risk, not only to yourself, but to all who have placed their trust in you.”
“Aye,” Cumbria panted. “But it’s the only way.”
“I don’t doubt it,” she agreed, but she barely got to the end of her sentence before she turned her head towards the door quite suddenly.
“What is it?” asked Cumbria. He pushed himself to his feet and placed the watch deep within his breast pocket.
“You’re being hunted, aren’t you?” she deduced. “Now that is exciting.”
Cumbria curled his brow. “How do you know that?”
The Tinker stared deeper into her carriage door as if she was staring right through it. “Because they are outside.”
Cumbria is forced into a confrontation with the Trappers – the elite group of hunters in the employ of the Oratory.