The guard says my name – not my name, but the name he has given me, the name he calls me, and at that time I had become nothing in my own mind, so the name was good enough. I was ‘il Lonireil.’ I was little, worthless, dirty, nothing. Owned by another. It was my first new name, the first of many. I had once been Heshim. I had become il-Loniriel.
He said my name and I shrank into myself, there on the windswept hillside over the trading post, looking over the fields of poppy in the north. I lowered my gaze, said nothing, waited for the words I didn’t know, the cudgel words that hammered me flat and useless into what I felt I was.
He approached, took a deep breath. I chanced a peek at him to see that he was looking out over the poppies too, not at me. The smoking guard was tall, bandy-legged, sandy-headed, not as white as the other Lonireilans, not as dusky as I, but more wheat-colored. He caught me watching him and the smug look I had first seen him with returned before I cast my gaze into the dirt again. I started edging away.
“Stay here,” he said. I stopped, motionless, afraid even to breathe. “Still want that smoke?”
I was certain what would come next would be an open palm to the face, harsh Lonireilan words. Instead he produced a pair of cigarettes, somewhat bent and mangled, and held one out. I looked at it and in the remembered scent the night at my home returned to me. Panic seized me. I ran, holding tears and sobbing, strings of spit hanging from my mouth. Some of the others saw me run down from the hill and through the post and they laughed and shouted after me in their foreign tongue.
Other Lonireilans came, joining still others who had come to trading post camp with us in the days since we’d taken it. Most arrived throughout that last day, and from noon onwards they came by the hundred. A thousand Lonireilans of different captains and bands had gathered by the time the sun was falling. Never had I seen so many people.
Before dusk, they gathered us. We would go into Rouk following the knife wind on the morrow. Tasks were divided amongst us, the breaking of camp, packing of supplies, setting aside goods for the carters who would take riches back to Lonireil. “The true riches will be ours tomorrow.”
De Trastorces bid me and another of the slave-soldiers go to a stable, which we’d walled up as a prison for the young man I had brought out of the cave house. There we’d kept him like an animal for days, threw in slop for him, made him live in straw and his own filth. We brought him back to the crowd of expectant soldiers, and there, waiting for us beside the captain, was Weckar, the lacquer-faced woman.
She stayed with our troupe, never eating, never resting, seldom moving. She stood like a stone column beside de Trastorces on a hocker’s stage, where, before we came, folk had sold fruit or Skertah remedies for gout and nerves, where a storyteller might have performed. Weckar stood atop it, facing us from the center with a long knife in her hand and her red mouth open and empty black eyes staring.
“Bring him up,” de Trastorces called and gestured. We hauled the prisoner up. I shook in front of Weckar, the knife in her hand subsuming all I could see. I knew. I knew what she would do.
She spoke words I didn’t know. Her breath sighed out of her and she cut the young prisoner’s pleading throat and his blood sprayed and then dribbled out over the worn boards. The wind blew and howled around us, and then rushed away into the oncoming night. When we were dismissed, I was sick behind a shed and I remembered my sister. I remembered.
The next day dawned bright, cheerful, but in the north we heard wind. The poppy fields stood almost untouched as we marched down into them, but in the rows we found shredded bodies, the plants around them torn and tattered but the rest unmarred. Somewhere ahead, I began to hear a loud buzzing sound. While I marched, de Trastorces approached on camel-back.
“You there, boy.” I nodded, kept my eyes down. “That was you who went into the cave house. Good work. Very fine work. I have another task for you today. Weckar has asked for you.” That surprised me, but I stared at the dirt and said nothing. It was much later that I learned why. “You’ll go with Weckar. Do as she says. When we reach the river, she’ll go to the bridge with you. Nothing to fear with her, alright?” I nodded again. “Good boy. Do as she says and do it quick.”
At the bridge, most of the force made camp. The buzzing had grown so loud by then, but without apparent cause. Weckar rode ahead to the bridge over the river into Rouk, saying nothing, and I and two others followed on foot: I and Estevo, smoking, and a girl called the Tash, a word in our language for a she-wolf. She was like me. The Lonireilans had given her that name when she’d killed one of the other Serehvan captives for food. She tore his manhood away while he screamed and the Lonireilans winced and laughed. “Don’t get between the Tash and her dinner,” they said. She said nothing, never speaking.The buzzing was so loud.
The bridge. I remember the bridge. It was wide, gently arched, with fine wood work embellishments carved like Serehvan animals, running and leaping over the water.
The sound was deafening now, buzzing, droning. Folk had run from the wind, run across into the city that lay on the river, the city Onappa-ka. They did not outrun the wind. Bodies lay, already stinking in the bright sun. Flies buzzed in black clouds. That was the sound I had heard from the fields. The carrion flies. No birds feasted on these dead, all lying flat, pointing the same way, their clothes and skin and muscle shredded down.
Again I was sick. The Tash made no indication of seeing. Estevo smoked his way through cigarette and looked everywhere but at the dead. Weckar stopped, looked at me on the bridge. “When you have finished, Heshim il-Naban,” she sighed in a voice of wind, “there is one remaining inside with whom I must speak. His name is Yamurik, and his house is on the market square, and is the highest. You three, go there. Bring him here, to the bridge. He must see.” She paused and the breath whistled through the opening of her mouth in her smooth, lacquer-skin. “Do not run. If you run, the wind will catch you.”
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