RAZE - a weekly fantasy web serial

RAZE – 048 – Half Through the Ice

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Things were different. I felt I could see, like at the lightening of dawn.

When I went to the training house with my squad, I was there first. I was there last. It rained and the sun sank, and the lamps gave me enough to see by in the dim confines of the old barn, to see the practice dummies and drill my footwork till there were deep shadowed ruts in the sawdust. The barn leaked and drips damped parts of the yard into darker, spreading spots. Someone was always there to practice with me, to teach me, for me to show the little I knew. I raised my sword and shield till my shoulders failed. I thrust with spear and spun the haft and battered till my back ached, till the next day I had to grit my teeth and force myself up out of my rack. The rain tapped the roof and muddied the streets outside, and the sun fell, and I stayed till no one else would stay, and walked back to the barracks alone beneath the moon and the red, broken curve of the Khren’s Brow.

The Khren’s Brow had once been a moon. Some years before I was born, there was a war, and a devil had hatched from the red moon like an egg. So they said. Now it was a shattered arc, and on clear nights you could see the shards of the old moon. Usually it was just a red smear on the sky, glittering.

Snows came. I studied, sitting up in a close and stuffy closet by lamplight. I spent all my petty money on pots of ink. When I could convince him, Estevo helped me. He corrected my accent and I learned to listen. He corrected my hand when I wrote, and my weary arms, aching from the practice yard, clumsy with exhaustion, ruined lines of print, dribbled ink, lurched when they should have swept. Slowly, my accent became clearer. I sounded as Lonireilan as Estevo. My hand grew steady, my printing flowed into smooth long loops and graceful lines. The writing went with me to the practice yard, and my sword grew subtler, tracing red words in the air, crossing through my opponents’ propositions and imposing my own.

Yamurik bought and sold, settled contracts, promised shipments, sent requests for workers, supplies. I watched him grow fatter. He bought new clothes and new slaves.

Mire Storm was here or there, when she desired, as she desired. There was no following, no tracking. She watched. Weckar tried to watch her. De Trastorces exhausted the patrols, but she showed no interested in opposing the Lonireilan occupation of Onappa-ka.

The snows churned to mud, and when I left the practice yard at night, the sky still glowed a little in the west. I walked beside the frozen river, wrapped in my cloak. I had decided, foolishly, to grow a beard, and my attempt only exaggerated my youthfulness. My muscles ached, pleasurably, and my wound was little more than a fine red scar by that time. The sun finished sinking and I made for our barracks.

Ecena finished the patrols about the time I arrived. She and her troop came in, muddy and tired, and I waited while they cleaned up before chow. It was a Lonireilan stew again, with squash and a little beef, mostly fat, and we had watered red wine in jugs. It was too thin to get drunk from, but that didn’t stop some of them trying. Ahdan and Ecena sat at the far end of the table, always, and didn’t converse with the others much. No one talked to me. I suppose I was poor company. Usually, I spent my time in the mess writing my reports while I ate. I wrote them over and over, till they were perfect.

I went to the little closet office to wait for Estevo, but not long after, the Tash came in.

“Where is Estevo?” I asked, knowing there would be no answer. She pointed, back out into the barracks. I stood with a grunt. “What?” Again, and as always, she said nothing, but turned to lead me back out. “Hey,” I said. “Just answer.” She reached for the doorknob, still silent, and my ire rose. I snatched her wrist.

She made a sound and tried to pull away, but I was big. I’d grown bigger. I jerked her back, spun her, but she shoved me away as she turned. I staggered back and she brought up a hand, a snarl escaping her throat. In the tiny room, we were almost at each other’s faces.

“I am talking to you,” I said. “Just speak, motherless! What?”

She jerked her head at the door, pointed at me, at herself, made her hand walk on two fingers across her other palm. I sighed, gestured, and she led me out. She took me to my rack and my chest and I gathered I should dress for duty.

Outside the barracks, my breath came in bursts of steam. Even though the snow was melting, at night everything froze again and went solid. In the dark I followed The Tash, and she brought me to a squad of waiting soldiers. Estevo’s squad. He was nowhere to be seen.

“Will someone who can speak tell me what’s going on?”

“Night patrol, sir. Watching out for runners,” one of the conscripts said in Serehvani.

“I can see that. Lick of shit.” I swore like a Lonireilan, by then. “Where is Estevo?” They shrugged. If he was gone, it was my responsibility. Another all-night duty. I would order him to polish my boots. The idea gave me a little chuckle, just for the way I knew he’d complain. I’d only make him do it once.

We were patrolling to catch escapees. Small groups tried to leave Onappa-ka, make for land the Lonireilans had not bothered to conquer. They were workers, though, and losing workers meant losing a lot of money. Night patrol had far more to do with catching families trying to sneak away than watching for thieves or enemies. Even worse, however, were the ones who made a lot of coin helping get the escapees out. Ones such as these were prizes indeed to capture.

We broke up, circled Yamurik’s compound. At intervals we checked locks and doors. Reports came from one post or another. I inspected positions, tried to sneak up on sentries. That part was almost fun, a game. I sent the Tash to test them. She was silent as a cat. When she and I walked away from a post, I tried to mimic the faces of surprise she’d elicited when she managed to creep up on the guards, and she laughed, a harsh sound, but genuine.

Night grew deep. My legs ached. I yawned and shivered and hunkered down into my cloak, wiggling my fingers and toes to try to warm them. My nose was frozen.

The lightening of dawn came in the east. The sky was a gradation of blue, water growing shallower at the edge of a gray shore, and we made our last round.

At a far southern point, we were to meet with a patrol from the city, but no one came. The Tash and I lingered for a while, but the watchers were too long in coming, so we started south, along the river.

It was the Tash that saw him in the gloom. She pointed down, below the bank, at what I thought was a rock. As I peered, though, the shape seemed to shift. A man, half through the ice.

“Go get him,” I said. I pointed. The Tash shook her head. “I’m too heavy. You have to.” Again, she shook her head. “That’s an order. Refugee smugglers probably ambushed him. He’s going to die and we need to know who did this. Now go.”

We used our cloaks, our belts, and a spear to make a sort of lifeline. The Tash climbed down the bank and edged out onto the ice. The cracking echoed up, bounced strangely away beneath the surface. She looked up at me where I lay, at the edge of the bank, holding the end of a cloak so I could pull her back. I pointed again and she started, growling a little, creeping closer to the dark shape.

I lost sight in the dim. She stood by the dark shape in the ice for a long time. Cracks sounded. The water splashed, and then an urgent tugging came on the line. I heaved, dragged her back, and then a sound like a cliff collapsing rent the air. A sheet of the river gave way, and what was ice-white in the gloom turned black as death.

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