When you picture an invasion, what do you see? Smoke? Nighttime raids with volleys of flaming bolts, tracing fire across the firmament while people scream and run, slipping in mud, jerking back, twisting in the air as if yanked on a string when hit by a slingstone or a arrow? A war machine at a wall, battering down a gate while defenders, valiant heroes or murderous, foreign pigs depending on whose side of the wall you’re on, throw down vats of oil or pots of Skertah neckwrecker smoke to scrape and scour the air out of your lungs?
For us, there was little of this. We followed the knife wind. I did not see pitched battle in those first weeks, nor the months thereafter.
In the first weeks of my – shall we say service? – we had taken Naban-ka, the capital of my home province. We moved on, changed direction, stopped, started. I kept my silence whether we halted in the rain or walked too far in the sun or waited for days on end in a boring place. Those waits I especially feared, for when the Lonireilans grew bored, they looked to me and the others pressed into their service for sport. It was best to hide at those times. I was nothing but for de Trastorces. He had taken me, made me what I was, which was worthless, and then had given me life again. I survived and I would live and there was nothing else but going on.
We waited at a trading post for several days. I did not see a pitched battle, but it was there that I killed a human being for the first time.
Yes, I had killed the man in my home. I avoided the memory, buried it. Also, I did not mean to kill him.
This time, I killed by intent. Some days afterward, I went off alone. The other soldiers were bored, so I avoided them, and I had no space in my mind for talk or defending myself. There was food and drink aplenty and no one to fight since the first day, and even then no kills save mine. We stayed at the cluster of clay buildings and caves dug into a rocky embankment beside the road, where south of us was Naban and north the narrow, riverside province of Rouk. Looking out in the morning with the sun coming up over the rocky steppe to my right, I saw millions of poppies on the riverlands to the north. Red specks without counting in bright, green, irrigated fields, and then I understood Lonireil’s aim in coming to Serehvan. I wondered, if I ran toward the river, if the soldiers of Rouk would shoot me. Or perhaps the Lonireilans would before I got away. After the killing, I thought that would be best.
I stood on the embankment into which houses had been dug back in clean, cool caves, lushly furnished with the wealth of the trading post master. Chimneys came up from the rock, iron stovepipes. Very luxurious. The caves were cool and never smoky, laid out with beautiful woven rugs, hung with fine tapestries, the walls painted white.
I had been in once, when we first arrived and the Lonireilans had sent me and two other soldier-children in with short knives. When I had killed.
The day our troupe had taken the post, we captured the dozen or so shop boys and servants and workers and the post master with a fight, but no killing. However, Weckar insisted that two hid inside the cave house, two who might harm our commander de Trastorces. How she knew, I didn’t understand at that time, other than to know that she was a Skertah mage and that she could speak to spirits and do and see things that no person should be able to do or to see. She said two remained, and so they sent me and two others into the dark to flush them out.
I went in, prodded from behind by my own army’s spears. I and the other two children-soldiers crept on, tears on our contorted, snarling faces as behind, de Trastorces’ voice urged us ahead. “Kill one, bring the other,” he called after us. “Are you warriors or pigs? Do what you can for me, and I’ll take care of you, lovelies. Fail and we’ll put you to better use than fighting. I want to see blood on your knives when you come back, or don’t come back at all.” So we crept on, desperate to look fearless. My heart choked me, shame pushed me onward. I wouldn’t go back to what he threatened. I’d be a warrior and I’d be strong enough, finally.
They’d put out the lights in the cave house and it was black inside, too black to see. Before we went too far, we found a lamp while the voices outside goaded us. I and the others didn’t speak. These were rivals. I took a lamp, lit the wick after fumbling with some Skertah sulfursticks with yellow resinous alchemical tips. Once I had covered the lamp, one of the others snatched it from me.
“Give it here,” he said, voice quavering. He had a dust of hair on his upper lip, a thin face. He glared at me, holding his knife, and it was then I conceived a horror. At the time, it seemed very much like genius.
I acquiesced and he turned to face the dark recesses of the cave home, holding the light up before him.
We explored, moving slow, jumping at our own shadows, hearing nothing. The home was a grave.
I called into the dark, in Serehvan. “Weckar said two people were here.” The boy in front of me hissed for silence, but I shouted again. “Come out. You won’t be hurt. Show yourselves.” We passed a grand sitting room, strewn with pillows. An office, with a desk and records and ledgers. We crept deeper, past bedrooms, an entertaining hall, a smoking room with an iron chimney and a grand, heavy wooden door. We saw no one, heard only our own breathing.
I called out again. “We’re not armed.” Again, the boy bearing the lamp hissed at me for quiet.
We began to circle the place a second time, peering at shadows, shaking. I tried to hide the knife and stay some distance behind the boy with the lamp. The third stayed behind me.
I moved in silence and my patience was rewarded. The boy with the lamp passed a doorway and a shadow crept out of it behind him. I halted, kept still, while it closed on him in the dark. It moved soundlessly, on bare feet, and he didn’t notice till too late.
I would be coming out of that cave, even if that meant the other two did not.
It struck him and he fell with a cry. The boy behind me shrieked. I am ashamed to this day to say that I grabbed him, pushed him ahead of me, onto the knife of the shadow figure. While they struggled, I struck, stabbed, slashed wildly. I gave no thought to where my blade fell and when they both sagged down I felt mighty indeed and my blood rushed in my veins.
I lifted the dead shadow, a woman, I discovered. I held her up before me and put my knife to her dead throat. “Come out, we have her. I’ll kill her. Show yourself!” It was only a second before the last came out, a young man, and I made him stop where he was, then called for the rest of my people. They rushed in and he surrendered, then wept to find that I’d deceived him. I was rewarded with de Trastorces’ kind hand on my shoulder, a few words in Serehvan. He told me I was good.
Days later, I stood on the embankment above the cave house, watching the sun rise. I stood, watching the poppies, understanding. I came to a decision and was about to run down the embankment and charge the guardsmen of Rouk, when behind me a voice called out from the lower part of the embankment. “Hey, il-Lonireil.” I turned to see the guard, the smoking guard from my home, striding up the hill on gangly legs.
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