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The next morning saw us up with the sun, which shone bright over flowing green-gold hills. In the southeast—our heading—deep valleys lay in shadow between towers of gray rock. The rivers churned and rushed, fed by the melt from Lonireilan mountains further south.
A horn called us to gather and Ecena divided our duties. Scouts, camp guards, regulars, the van.
“We have a few special assignments,” she announced, going down a slip of paper. I’d been waiting. Before she could announce the first, I raised my hand. She read off the first item, glanced about the company, her eyes meeting and passing over mine. The next duty, then the next. She ignored me. How would I distinguish myself? Gain back any of the renown I’d lost if I was never given the chance? The muster ended and the others split off with corporals for their assignments, but Ahdan beckoned me over.
I approached Ecena and Ahdan. Another day tending the fire, perhaps? Or ferrying buckets of water from the creek at the bottom of the hill?
“The captain has asked for you,” Ecena said, putting away her slip of paper and strapping on her shield. Ahdan handed her over her spear. “Don’t ask me why.”
“Don’t embarrass us, il-Lonirel.” Ahdan took up his own weapons and pointed off over the hills. “You know where the captain’s camp is?”
Only and idiot could miss it. There were flags and banners, a cloud of dust from the cathelles and camels. Great tents, larger than all the rest. “Yes, sir,” I said.
“Go on. You’re expected before they march out.”
“Better run,” Ecena said with a cruel smile.
Of course I would. Chosen for a special assignment by the captain? I spun about without wasting a breath on their disdain and made haste for the captain’s camp.
The climb was a long one. My legs were burning by the time I dragged myself, panting, into the center of the camp. Everywhere, lieutenants and guards ran about, readying their charges, bearing messages and orders. I dodged camels and carts and hustling troupes of soldiers and made my way to where de Trastorces stood behind a table beneath a raised pavilion. There, I joined a dwindling line of reports and strove to catch my breath before I had to speak.
The chance never came. While I waited, sucking air and trying to calm my heaving chest, a silence seemed to wash around me. Nervous glances were cast my way, and before I could turn, hard fingers pressed into my shoulder. I spun about into the shiny-hard, lacquer face of Weckar.
Seldom had I been so closer to her. The fingers digging into my were like iron rods. Her red mouth was open a little and breath the scent of hot sand, baking earth, wafted out into my face. I cowered beneath those black orbs looking out from her mask of a face, beneath those milky-blue pupils.
“Ah,” de Trastorces voice came from behind me. “Is that the one? Boy, over here.”
I couldn’t turn, but I looked back over my shoulder while Weckar’s fingers kept a grip on my shoulder. “Go with Weckar,” the captain said. “She’s a duty for you. You’re to tell no one what you see or do. Understand?”
I nodded, swallowed. He waved me off and went back to his maps and reports. Weckar spun, raised a hand and curled a finger for me to follow. I did.
Striding along ahead of me, she seemed to glide on the air. A sound followed her, a rushing like the wind in the grasses. Not once did she turn back to ensure I was following, nor did she speak.
We approached a small tent, circular, wide enough for a man to lie down in, behind the massive construction of canvas that was de Trastorces’. At her approach, the banners outside the tent whipped in a sudden gust of wind. They were black with red sigils drawn on them, sigils that made my eyes water, curled and shivered lines that didn’t look stitched so much as drawn out of the fabric. Two men stood guard outside. The faceplates of their paper armor helms were solid expanses of white that covered their eyes and mouths and chins.
As we neared, they reached out and drew open the tent flaps. They didn’t speak. They didn’t turn or give any sign that we were heard.
Weckar passed in, into the dark, and I hesitated before following.
“Quickly, Heshim,” she said without turning. The words sighed out of her. I shook with terror, with the mention of my old name, but stepped inside. The men let the flaps fall closed and we were in darkness.
The smell was awful. I knew it well—blood. Death. The stink of emptied bowels and barely fresh meat.
In the dark, I heard nothing and couldn’t bear to move. It took all my efforts not to lurch back out the way I’d come in.
“Malucente,” Weckar said. Light, light without a source, suffused the dim interior. Weckar was so close I could have touched the stiff white of her long robes, but I covered my mouth at what I saw.
One of ours—a conscript, stripped, lay on the ground. His guts had been spilled out of him. The grass all around had been scythed down to nubs and the leaves lay in a circular pattern, soaked in blood.
“You will bury him,” Weckar sighed. “Take him north, to the bend of the stream where there is an olive tree and a fallen log. You will see the stoneless place by the bank.”
I nodded. I couldn’t speak. My tongue had gone thick and heavy and my breakfast climbed the back of my throat.
The two guards came in, still eyeless. They threw a tarp over the man, wrapped him up, and took him out. Weckar and I followed. There was a dogcart with a single donkey to pull it, a single spade in the back. Their task done, the two men removed their masks, glanced at each other, at Weckar, and hustled away.
“Take him,” Weckar pointed. “Tell no one. I will know.” I believed her.
* * *
I collapsed into my bedroll without supper. Every time I thought of food, the dead-stink came back to me and I remembered how the tarp had fallen open, revealing a coil of intestine, when I heaved in the first spade-full of dirt. At least sleep would come quickly, even if my mind raced. I’d seldom been so exhausted.
I lay in the dark. From beyond the skin of dim canvas, voices and murmurs, the crackling of fire, snatches of song and laughter, reached my ears. From snatches of conversation, I gathered they’d found a rebel stronghold in the hills. A village that had been walled up, horses and camels, signs of carts and wagons and people going.
The sound of the tent flap. Movement in the dark. I pretended to sleep so whoever it was wouldn’t say anything.
“Hey.” Estevo’s voice. I kept my eyes closed, but then the smell of meat came on so strong and sudden in my nostrils that I heaved. I rolled away, desperate to hold my breath, and then the vomit came up my throat and it was too late.
Estevo muttered an apology while I spat out sick. Someone would find out. If I wasn’t careful, I’d have a black eye before morning when my tent-mates found out.
I sat up and Estevo stared at me in the dark. “Is it the slop? It’s the slop.” I shook my head, in no mood for the jokes. He squinted. “Are you sick?”
“No,” I said stupidly. I didn’t know what to answer. I recalled what Mire Storm had told me about Weckar several winters back. Weckar would know. She could be watching right now. What would I say? No, but Weckar sacrificed one of our own like the Lonireilans sacrifice rabbits to the Imperators. She only used his soul for darkest sorcery, and I buried him in secret in a shallow grave no one will find. Nothing important.
“Not sick, just… I can’t say.”
He stared for a moment. “I’ll eat your share then.” I nodded. He put the plate of rations aside and took up someone’s cast-aside shirt. “Let’s clean that up.”
We did, and Estevo ran off to dispose of the evidence. When he returned, he sat and set to his second plate with gusto. My stomach had recovered enough that, watching him eat, I regretted my decision to avoid the soup pot that night.
“Big day tomorrow,” Estevo said. “I wanted to make sure you got food. But anyway, The Tash talked to her corporal and got us assigned with her. We’re attacking the rebel village.”
“What? Full force?”
“All of us.” He licked his plate. “I heard the wind is going to pick up at dawn.”
The thought made me shake. I almost threw up again.
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