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There are many varieties of spirits in the worlds – both this one and on the Shores and Docks of the Last River, and in other worlds I suspect that exist beyond those. In the Gray Sea, there are spirits great as the sky, slow moving, unending, vast, with purpose and thought beyond imagining, aims beyond mortal things and life and time.
The Smoke Walkers were theurgic spirits, things summoned and bound, unnatural forms constrained by incantations, will, pacts, and trickery. They are called and bound to an unnatural function. Other spirits are benign, unknown. They are invisible. Currents of air and water, sparks and heat, deep-dwelling obdurates in stone and wood. Some were mortal once. Others are parasites who’ve pulled human skin stretched and taut about them like cloaks, their fingers of glass clutching the hearts, cutting in, feeding and squeezing till the life leaks out the sides. They are aware. They have designs. Such a one was Weckar.
In Serehvan, in the fading of the year as the cold came on and the sky turned to slate and the rains lashed and the hills vanished in haze and cloud, Weckar stood on the outcrop overlooking the border of Rouk and the bridge and fields and the walls of Onaap-ka. As the carts of lumber, bricks, and pitch came north from Lonireil, pulled by the teams of feathered, scale-legged cathelles, Weckar stood on the hill. She did not sleep. While we toiled in the mud, digging roads, diverting the river, while we drove posts down and made walls and palisades, while the sweat poured from our brows into the earth in summer’s fade, while the colonists came and brought their slaves and their animals and songs and shit and wine and beautiful, mournful, guitars such as I’d never heard, she stood. She watched from the holes in her smooth, lacquer-like face and gave orders from her red mouth. She ate sparingly, of poppy flowers. She seldom moved. She never slept. She never shut her pearl-and-onyx eyes.
We built atop the hill, at the old trading post. By winter a black crown mounted the hilltop, a timber wall with watchtowers and a squat, brick-and-timber house for de Trastorces and the other commanders, the new lords, within, thick walled and dark, with a commanding view. Soldiers went into the city Onappa-ka and we built more watchtowers, walls, battlements. Settlers came from Lonireil and took the homes of the dead, pushed those Serehvani, those like me, into a ghetto on the outskirts, far from the river, to live in hovels and cram into old stables in the muck and straw like stinking oxen. Yamurik, and a few other worthies like him, those men with money and voices in other cities, in the capital of Ibandran, kept their homes. They wore new cloth, Lonireilan cloth. New servants and clothes and livestock were brought to them. They gained new Lonireilan advisers and Lonireilan guards. They profited, and so Serehvani became Lonireilan; rivalry became loyalty; one land became another.
They day after I brought Yamurik to Weckar on the bridge of the dead, de Trastorces called us: me and Estevo, the Tash, and a dozen others. Many of us were those that had been taken from our homes. We walked in our ranks to Weckar where she stood, wind whipping at her white robes, on the hill. De Trastorces surveyed us, then spoke. “You are hers, now. The Hand of the Knife. When Weckar speaks, you’ll listen. When she orders, you’ll obey. There’s nothing else to it.” He met my eyes, then those of the others in turn. “She’s asked for all of you by name, for one reason for another.” The meaning was clear. Dwell on that a little. Why does she know you? Would you like her to remember you better?
For most of what followed, we worked with the other soldiers. They called us the Hand, and the Hand did as ordered, but the others looked on us with fear. No more did I hear cruel words from them. They avoided my eyes at the mess table, at digging. When I carted barrows of earth, straining and sweating in the early rain, they got out of the way without me raising my voice. When we rested, they left space for us – too much space. Once again, Lonireil had raised me up. I had station. The Hand ate together, took the best places to bunk. We trained beneath de Trastorces himself, and I learned the rudiments of War.
I had chosen to learn. To learn the art of death. At the time I didn’t know it. How could I have? What inkling could I have had as to what my life would one day be, one day mean? At the time, when I clutched a spear and snarled like a beast, drove at my sparring partner with sudden, reasonless hatred, I didn’t know the grace of which I would one day be capable. When I raised a shield and the Tash broke my arm with her blow, I didn’t know the scars that yet awaited me. When I fell in the dirt, took a boot to the kidney and shat blood, when I shattered Ofin’s jaw and he died of the infection and inability to eat, I didn’t care. I got up again, went on, and left others behind. I learned to fight and kill and understood so, so little.
So what did I take from those early lessons, those toiling hours, the sweat and cuts, the strange hatred that came over me when we sparred and the way the sobs filled me like water in a reservoir and broke out in choking, gasping torrents when I was alone, when no one could see? I had already learned the First Lesson, of Passion, but I would learn little else of note in that time, except what was the business end of a spear, of the sword I had taken from Yamurik’s guard. I would, however, live, because of those lessons. They bore me through blades and fire, first in the failing of the year, when the riders came from Naban; and then again, in spring, when the Serehvani massed and tried to retake what had been theirs.
Weckar was many things, but she was not prescient. She was not omnipotent. Without warning, without blood, she was limited, and the knife wind was still. The Serehvani warriors are not many, and they are not renowned, but there are reasons few sought to conquer our lands before the Lonireilan Empire.
It is lucky that the Hand were never set to watch, to patrol the outskirts of Lonireil’s new colony at Onappa-ka. We were safe in the city when the attack came, when the Serehvani warriors slaughtered a company of scouts and came thundering down on horseback.
I was at training when the warning bells rang. We cast down our false weapons, took up edges, spears and shields, and ran into the street. De Trastorces’ voice still echoes behind me, even as my pen navigates the imperfections on the page. We went to fight, to die, some of us with more intent than others. I… I went to prove myself again, and I would gain a friend, but I would lose something that I would not replace for a long, long time.
Perhaps it was this moment that best defined the rest of my life. It is hard to determine. I know, however, that my errors have resonated from this moment in ways I never imagined, not in nightmare or darkest dream. It is for this moment that I beg greatest forgiveness, for it was in this moment that my great enemy first stirred. Behhallan. The Unbreakable. This moment was the genesis of Behhallan. I wrought my enemy. No one else can be blamed.
We ran into the street and immediately fell behind our shields. Arrows rained down, so fast there was naught but the impact, like hoofbeats on the ground, like invisible knives lashing out. Behind my wall of iron and wood, I shook and lurched as an impact wracked my arm, still healing from the break. How hard the arrows fell. They stopped and at more shouting, we stood, and we ran into the death that came for us.
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