The hooves of four strong horses clattered against the cobblestones as they pulled the weight of the Dark Wood Circus behind them. Two wagons and the cage that had once held Wilder rolled and bumped across the road, the ancient pavement having been half lost to nature in the two centuries since the collapse of the Norven Empire. As they bumped, the lanterns attached to the front and back of the caravan bumped with them, flickering and jumping up and down in the air. Ashen sat atop the lead wagon, holding the reins of the four horses and reigning them in as the caravan reached the three figures waiting for it in the dark.
"Jaromil, Byelbog, and..." Ashen paused a moment, searching his memory until, coming up blank, he ended with "The Deuce of Spades. Come in, come in!"
"My name's Ceslav," one of the figures said as he stepped into the light of the lantern, illuminating the half of his face that wasn't covered by his long hair.
"My apologies," Ashen said as Ceslav stepped into the wagon, soon followed by the other two. Ashen swung down from the top of the carriage and landed in front of the door, climbing in after them. "Wilder," Ashen said as he entered, causing Wilder to look up from some random scratches he'd been carving into one of the walls. His face had been painted black with a four-pointed red star on each of his eyes. The bottom points of the star reached down his cheeks before ending just below his chin, out of sight of anyone looking at him from eye-level. "I need you to take the reigns for a while, just pull the horses left or right if they start to go off the road and pull up hard if we're about to run into anything."
"Alright," Wilder said, stepping out of the wagon and closing the door. A moment later, the wagon jerked into motion again.
Ashen sat down in front of Jenna, saying "Alright, my turn." The edges of Jenna's face hinted at a smile, though the rest was covered by the perpetually neutral expression of her mask.
Ashen smiled back as Jenna took her brush and began to paint Ashen's face red, the smile disrupting Jenna's painting. "Hold still," Jenna said, her voice barely above a whisper.
"Sorry," Ashen said, his face moving again.
"Hold still!" Jenna said, slightly louder this time, and smiling as Ashen forced his face into neutrality so that Jenna could paint.
Byelbog, Ceslav, and young Jaromil sat at the other end of the wagon, just a few feet from Ashen and Jenna. The wagon walls were packed with food, clothes, and props tied into shelves to prevent them spilling. Along the sides of the floor, just below the shelves, were several blankets. The three of them were sitting on barrels or boxes or anything else that could be used as a makeshift chair. “So, where are we going?” Jaromil asked.
“I'm not sure,” Byelbog said, “I've never been further south than Weirech before now.”
“I've been in this area my whole life,” Ceslav said, “And I'm still not sure where we're going. Lanbrott, Novakagrad, Tanalhof, Tanaveni, Drezdzani...There's plenty of towns near the river.”
They sat in silence for a few moments before Jaromil asked “Where are you from, Byelbog?”
“Up north,” Byelbog said, “In Sergelvich.”
“Oh,” Jaromil said, “That's very far north.”
“It is,” Byelbog said, “I've found it's best not to stay in one place for very long. What about you? Where are you from?”
“Wagstdorf, originally,” Jaromil said.
“Well, that's very far south,” Byelbog said.
“It is...” Jaromil said, creasing his brow in a frown. For a moment, he felt the faint presence of a familiar ache slowly creeping into his bones, and he shook his head, saying “Let's talk about something else.”
“Like what?” Ceslav asked.
“Like...” Jaromil thought for a moment, putting his hands in his pockets. As he did so, he noticed the card Ashen had given him in the cave a few hours before and pulled it out. The Eight of Spades. “Let's play a game of cards,” Jaromil said, “Does anyone have a deck?”
Ceslav and Byelbog looked at each other and shrugged, and Ceslav looked over towards Ashen, who was still getting his face painted by Jenna. “Ashen,” Ceslav asked, “Is there a deck of cards in here?” Wordlessly, Ashen pulled a deck from one of the many pockets of his long, red coat and tossed it towards them. Ceslav caught it and opened it up, going through it until he found the deuce of spades in it. “It's a full deck,” Ceslav said, “Not the one he's been giving us our cards out of.”
“Great, let's play a game,” Jaromil said.
“What game?” Byelbog asked.
“I don't know. I don't care, anything!” Jaromil said.
“Do either of you know how to play Akhetian Speed?” Ceslav asked. Jaromil and Byelbog shook their heads. “I'll show you, then,” Ceslav said, dealing out the deck to each of them.
About twenty minutes later, Jenna had finished, and grabbed a fan from nearby, waving it in front of Ashen to cool the paint. Ashen grabbed a bronze mirror and polished it up a bit with his sleeve until he could see his reflection in it. His facepaint was the same as Wilder's but with a red face and yellow stars around the eyes. He smiled into his reflection and set the mirror back down. “I'm going to go get something to eat for me and Wilder,” Ashen said, heading for the door, “I'd suggest you have them deal you into the next round of that game of cards. Maybe you could make friends with someone who isn't me,” Ashen said. Jenna rolled her eyes at him as he opened the door and climbed to the top of the wagon, closing it shut a minute later.
“Are you supposed to open the door while the wagon's going?” Jaromil asked. Jenna just shrugged and grabbed a piece of chalk and a slate to draw on, sitting down in a corner opposite to the other three.
Ashen casually hopped over the gap between the two wagons, and then walked over to and jumped onto the roof of the covered cage, pulling the cloth cover up to expose the section of the wooden roof he'd sawn away before leaving Novaharod three days earlier. He jumped down into the cage, the cloth cover falling loosely back into place above him. It was nearly pitch black, and he gave his eyes a few moments to adjust to the limited light that came from the moon's rays peering in between the gaps in the cover. In a few moments, he could see as clear as though the full moon were shining directly onto him. The bottom of the cage was strewn with bones, and in the center lay the corpse of the manager of the freak show, the bottom half gone but for a few broken thigh bones jutting from the skin above, bits of flesh still clinging to them.
Ashen found the butcher knife he'd stabbed into the wooden floor to prevent it from sliding out, and pulled it free, hacking off one of the manager's fingers and quickly popping it into his mouth before going to work on the rest of the body, cutting off fingers and slicing the meat away from the arms and chest. Using the blunt side of the knife, he cracked the ribs protecting the vital organs and carved out the intestines and the heart, shoving them all into a bag and leaving only the shoulders and the head untouched. Those would have to do for tomorrow morning, and they'd have to find more before nightfall.
Ashen licked the butcher knife clean of what little blood had coated it during the butchering of the pale corpse and then stabbed it back into the floor for safe keeping. He climbed out of the cage and back onto the wagon, taking the bag to where Wilder sat at the head of the wagons, guiding the horses with glazed eyes as they pulled the caravans through the night.
“I've got a present from your ex-manager,” Ashen said, pulling a piece out of the bag and handing it to Wilder. “Eat his heart out,” Ashen said with a smirk before sitting down and pulling some of the meat from the bag and, holding it over his head, he dropped it into his mouth. Wilder grinned and took a bite out of the heart, the horses pulling the circus steadily west to Lanbrott.