Vote for RAZE on topwebfiction.com. Your vote each week helps me get new readers. Share and tell your friends. Thanks. – Dave
The dream-waking of the poppy-eater is an open, velvet coffin. It is euphoria without experience. It is meaningless and in being so, heavenly. It is welcome death.
I watched in curiosity as a great insect, all fingerlike protrusions around the mouth and mandibles and inhuman, faceted, cut-gem eyes, leaned over me. It was, in fact, a Lonireilan healer, wearing a high white hat and a sculpted mask, some nonsense they dreamed up for cleanliness or humors or whatever. I was somewhere warm. Where didn’t matter. I was comfortable, annoyed at disturbance, but too tranquil to try to move, to stop her. I observed, with mild interest, while she pushed the arrow the rest of the way through me. The Nabani use notched arrowheads, so you cannot pull them back out the way they came. Once the pushing, followed by a tearing, punching feeling from inside out, just above my ass, was finished, she broke the rest of the arrow shaft. The jolt echoed through me like a stone flung into a puddle. Then she pulled the rest of the arrow through and cleaned out the wound, and used a silvery, sticky Skertah alchemical compound to pack it. It smelled of burning salt and plant resin and went tough and hard in a moment. Then, I rested. I don’t know exactly how long. I dreamed.
They gave me poppy only for one more day. After that came the pain, but I was awake. It was then that Estevo visited.
He stood beside me where I lay on a cot in the tent inside the fort compound. Looking down, he grinned. “No more tea for you, eh?”
“Maybe you can find some,” I said. It took all my effort just to talk. My body felt as if it had been pulled behind an ox. “I think they keep it – “
“Good try, il-Lonireil.” He blew smoke. “Anyway, I already looked. You’re lucky. I didn’t get any, just a few pulls of wine before that healer put the needle to me.” He showed me a wiry arm, worked over in thick cord stitches. “Good scar that’ll be. Lick of shit.” He glanced around, then leaned down a bit, conspiratorially. “She had nice hands. Bet she looks worse than a bug under that mask, though.”
I laughed a little and regretted it. When I opened my eyes again, he had sobered.
“Look. I meant it when I said thanks.” He reached down and I felt myself draw away, wracking my body with pain once again. My jaw clenched, but it wasn’t at the pain. He paused and took his hand away. “Anyway. Thanks.”
Why did I save him? I didn’t know why I did many things at that time. I nodded, though, and he stood for a moment, scratching the back of his skinny neck.
“Say,” he said. “I bet I can find you something. If not poppy maybe some brandy or something.”
I shook my head. “Don’t go to the trouble.”
He misunderstood. I deserved the pain. I deserved many things. I had fought and killed my countrymen. Why?
“Someone will offer,” he went on. “You saved quite a few people.” I must have looked confused. “Not just me. And when you led us up the hill – someone saw. An officer, someone important. They’re talking about you.” He winked. “Good things. I’ll get brandy.”
He did. It was a poor substitute for poppy, but strong and it made the pain – not lesser, but it made it matter less.
They made me rise. I only wanted more poppy, but they made me rise. Soldiers don’t rest, they said.
They led me, hobbling, straight from the healer’s tent to de Trastorces’ hall, inside the keep. They’d bored the fort down into the hillside home that I had invaded, replaced the comfortable furniture with armorer’s racks, a room for scribes and messengers, a receiving hall, a guard barracks. Folk shouted, studied maps, ran to and fro, bustled past, but at the sight of me they paused or moved aside. A few saluted with a raised fist.
I met de Trastorces in a back room, well-lit with lamps and a little outside light that came through two shafts that led to the surface. My escorts remained at the door, awaiting me, while I hobbled before the captain’s great desk, which was strewn with maps and reports.
He stood, smiled and came around to greet me. I remembered to salute, was glad I was never expected to meet his gaze. He shook my hand.
“The Nabani boy, yes? You did very well, I’m told.” I said nothing, merely nodded, looking down. “How is your injury?”
“Strong, still.” My heart lifted, for a moment, at the compliment, like a damp moth moving a wing. “Look. Please sit.” He motioned to a low seat, one of the narrow wicker stools the Lonireilans are fond of. I sat and he brought another, sat near me. He put a warm hand on my shoulder. From him, I didn’t flinch away. He’d touched my shoulder before, and when he did his voice went warm and kind. I looked up, almost met his gaze, and settled for looking at his gold, curled mustache.
He held my shoulder and he sighed. “This is a difficult time, son.” The word made my skin crawl, but at the same time it was sweet, warm, like sugar in burnt coffee. “Things have changed much for you. You were punished when you first joined us. You know why?” He did not say I was taken. Indeed, the memory was too painful to draw up. Joined sounded better. I nodded. “You fought. Killed a man. You understand?” Again I nodded. I had deserved it, or so I still thought. “But you’ve proven yourself. Made a man of yourself. And look at Onappa-whatever here, this city. Is it not better now?” I agreed. “And these attackers, attackers that you helped foil – what was their aim? To put up some other flag? They perpetuated the unfortunate punishment that came to this city. They killed people, good people only trying to make a home, or only carrying out my orders. They should have come for me, shouldn’t they?” I didn’t know what to answer to that. “Or taken their claim to Lonireil, to the Conclave, like civilized folk.” Again, I had no response. “My point is, son, that you saved people. Oh, Weckar may have been in little danger, but she’s not immortal.” His voice carried an unconfident note. “You did what had to be done. You helped keep peace. You saved lives. These ones who attacked us – they’re your enemies too. All of your province’s. They’re not concerned about who gets in their way, in the way of their flag.” He stood, and I did likewise. “Your efforts have been recognized. You’re a corporal, now. What’s your name?”
I paused, unsure what he was saying. It wasn’t his slippery accent that baffled me. For the first time, I looked at his eyes, and found them to be smiling. Proud. “My name,” I said. It took a moment to draw up the right words, the words I wanted. “Il-Lonireil.”
He looked puzzled, then proud again. “Son of Lonireil, eh? Fitting. Very good, then. Congratulations, Corporal il-Lonireil. You’ll command a section of the Hand of the Knife. Report to your sergeant and she’ll explain. Off you go.”
The guards led me back out on unsteady legs. I don’t remember leaving the hillside house where I’d first killed by intent. My mind raced, circled, still foggy. I was rewarded. I was better. By the time we reached the edge of the fort, I was smiling. My steps had grown more sure. Then, just before we left the gates to make the slow trek down to Onappa-ka through the poppy fields, I saw her. Weckar, face hard, smooth like a glass mask, and her dark eyes following me with their milky, blue-white pupils. She stood on the battlements, robes drifting about her in the wind, while below her folk dug a pit and carted and heaped the dead inside it.
Many thanks to my Patron (via Patreon): Donna Palmer.
Click the link if you’d like to be a Patron too. Set your own monthly donation amount and help me support this ad-free story and improve the site and experience of Raze, and get some cool stuff!
Vote for RAZE on topwebfiction.com Your vote each week helps me get new readers.
Or, click one of the social media buttons below to share and tell your friends. Thanks. – Dave