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Blame. As the years pass, there is little else for which the use diminishes so much, even as it increases in power and enticement in greater measures.
I found myself in the broad main road of Onappa-ka. Arrows tore the air and everywhere the walls echoed with screams amongst carts and half-repaired houses, tents, shit in the road and dogs running and oxen bellowing. Fog and drizzle clotted my vision and people ran, flashing formless shapes, crowding, pushing. A team of cathelles honked and kicked up splashes of mud, jerking their wagon along behind them, bowling people down, smashing a rickety scaffold. The press cared not for me. I might have fallen, been trampled. I stumbled in the mass. Their bodies choked me, the pressure, the stink of their fear-breath and bodies and unwashed cloth and piss and flesh shoving up against me, my nose and mouth. Some of them fell, arrows drawing out red fountains, while others simply succumbed to the herd’s terror and were knocked flat, heads stomped, chests caved in, unable to breathe. To the faceless screamers and runners, I roared back. I lashed out with my spear and shield. They made way. We broke from the crowd, the rest of the Hand and I, and ran on.
There in the street, lashing down with bright sabers at stragglers, raising bows, wheeling wild-eyed foaming mounts, we saw them. Riders. Serehvani warriors, fighters from Naban in bright yellow cloth, bronze rings and hoops shining wet on their turbans and wrists, blood on their arms and legs. Dogs lay with their faces cut; camels, dying and groaning, churned up muck with their writhing. Folk lay dead in the street, good as rotten meat, naught but mud and trash, carved and slashed open, pinned with arrow shafts. Colonists, not warriors. Lonireilan colonists. The invaders pointed at us and raised their bows and spurred their mounts.
They bore on through the fog and rain, screaming war cries. They were terrors, shadowy, loud, huge. What was I to do? I stood because the others with me did, even though fear gripped me, stabbed me in my heart, a blank sudden cold that rushed all through me, shook my arms, made me wild. I screamed. We all did. We raised our spears in terror or in hatred or in nameless need as the phantoms thundered at us too fast, too big, and then fell on us.
I saw hatred in their eyes. Should I blame them? I wore the white brigandine coat of a Lonireilan soldier (for I had not yet earned paper armor). What might I have done in their place, and would I have asked my rivals’ names first? Perhaps greater men would have turned on their captors and slavedrivers at this moment. I was a child. I had lost everything, and then kind hands came from those who took me. My own had failed to save me, and now they’d kill me before asking my name. They’d kill my new family, those baptised, like me, in heartache and loss and new purpose.
As they attacked, we defended. We fought for our very lives. The Tash ran up beside me and we raised our spears together. Her spear-point met the horse’s chest and the beast ran up on it, shattering the spear with a crack that rang my ears. We fell, battered, in the muck, and I stumbled up as quick as I could, dragged my sword out rattling. I lashed around, slipped, blind at first, then hewed the kicking body. A phantom appeared, yellow and shrieking, a glint carving the air. By luck, I caught the wild blow on my shield. Felt nothing. I slipped and fell, as did the phantom, tripping on its broken leg. I saw blood. Tash rushed in, wordless, and the phantom met her with a round shield in the gut. Her collapse and gurgles drew me back to my feet and I slashed her attacker as he tried to rise, to lift his sword over her. He flailed but I cut him again and again till I was certain and he ceased to move. For most, two foes is enough to guarantee failure, no matter how inexperienced they may be.
Screams of horses, of men. I spun about, choking. My eyes filled up with mud and grit, fog, impossible to see. I blinked and my eyes watered. Was that my voice, screaming along with the rest? I rushed out again, saw Estevo and three others stabbing with spears, saw Ahdan and Ecena hacking at a red shape on the ground. Another shadow emerged from the fog and I rushed at it before it reached them, caught it unawares in the side. It fell. The tears flowed from me now, bright and clean, washing me, my anger, my hate, burning bright as I released all the things that held me. My shame fell away. I was bold, shining. I killed, mighty again. No one was there to force me to anything, to bind me, to break me, make me small. I spun, looking for another. I raced into the fog and saw one of the archers. Her eyes flashed beneath her turban in the rain. I was too close for her to draw another arrow. She tried to guide her mount away, to run, but I caught her leg and dragged her. Tried to kill me. Tried to kill my friends. I felt as if I released a great, held breath as I hacked at her in the road where she lay, dazed from the fall. I could breathe. Finally, I could breathe. I raised my sword and brought it down again, and breathed, and wept, and the great wracking breath-sobs that escaped me were like a break in the clouds, and then I was laughing.
They were dead, as were many of us, and I hated the Nabani for fighting. We drew together as the drizzle fell in shrouds and found more blood on the ground, more mud, unknowable mounds of bodies, no longer yellow or Lonireil white, just dead and brown mud and muck. I laughed, crowed, even as the tears and rainwater mixed on my cheeks. Some others puked, some wept, but I shouted. I needed more. “Come on!” I shouted. “They’re by the fort! To the fort!” I ran and others followed.
We raced out, across the bridge, through the fields. We seized on more foes and caught them or chased them out, their horses throwing up sprays of water and mud as they fled through the fields. Those we met, we chopped apart. We surged up the hill, to the fort, those black walls slick with rain, and there they were ready.
As we dashed through the gates, a volley of arrows rained down. One pounded into me, above my hip, a searing bolt that tore and tugged. I sprawled face-down in the mud, rolled, drove it in further. I couldn’t rise, and waves of seething dark rolled out from the place, stole my ragged breath. Through fog and rain I saw the others around me, some fighting more yellow-clad warriors, some fallen, dead by arrow, or stricken. I tried to rise and fell, my leg useless, body a bright point of pain, agony overwhelming any hope of standing.
Through eyes I strained to open, I watched Estevo rush to me. He grabbed beneath my arm, a gods-damned cigarette somehow still dangling from his lip. “Get up!” he shouted.
Another Nabani warrior streaked toward us, a spear aimed at Estevo’s back. I warned him, wordless, but enough. He dropped me, lurched away, but the spear caught his arm. He bowled me down trying to escape, and then wriggled away in the mud while the Nabani jabbed at him, stabbing the earth, struggling not to fall in the mud. I strained even to breathe as Estevo rolled against the wall, and his fleeing was cut short.
The Nabani raised his spear, shouted an oath. Estevo, blood running from his arm, raised a broken saber at arm’s length and spat, swearing in Lonireilan. Across what seemed miles of mud and distance, his eyes met mine for a moment.
I struggled up just as the Nabani thrust out. I staggered, fell, but as the spear leapt in his hand, my sword caught the Nabani’s leg. It was just a nick, but he fell and his spear stuck in the wall behind Estevo, instead of in him.
The Nabani staggered up. He sneered down at me, swore, lifted his spear. Of course, I was not to die. A web of cuts appeared on him from nowhere. His eyes widened in shock, then agony, then nothingness. Before he could let out a sound, he fell apart. The chunks tumbled and slipped down on one another in a heap. Never before had I seen such a torrent of blood. Behind him, in the rain with her arm outstretched, was Weckar. She stood for a moment, then turned and strode away into the fog. I couldn’t move to watch her go, but screams followed in the rain.
In the mud I lay, broken and moaning. I heard a voice and saw Estevo. He sat heavily beside me, heedless of the wet and filth, and the chewed, soaked cigarette fell apart on his chin. He spat it out, flakes of tobacco, and despite my pain I laughed a little. The arrow hurt even more.
“Very funny, il-Lonireil.” He peered at my arrow. “You stupid shit-lick.”
“Saved your life.” Even speaking hurt. It was getting worse. My legs felt a hundred leagues away and my chest was tightening, shortening my breaths. I groaned and wanted to roll about, but even the thought of moving made hot shards skitter through my insides.
“You did. Thanks.” He leaned over me. “Try not to move. We’ll get someone to see to that arrow.”
It didn’t take long. Several others had gathered around me. It seemed they felt I’d done something special by leading the Hand up to the fort. They brought me a cup of some thin, black, earthy smelling stuff, and from the back of my mind I recognized the same smell from when my mother had made poppy tea for me, for a tooth that had rotted. This smelled much, much stronger. I sipped a little, and soon the rain was gone. I was warm. I was tired. And I was very, very happy.
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