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The rope went taut and I fell forward. Cold stung my face and mud ground into my chin and cheek. I dragged my toes for purchase, clung to the makeshift line with one hand and rolled onto my side, onto my back. The sound was the sundering of the earth, a cracking that battered my eardrums.
The force of the water and ice pulled me forward again, but this time I braced and tensed. I fought, reaching out with one hand and taking great clawfuls of mud and ice, hauling. My shoulders thrummed, drawn tight. I threw myself down, fought up, dragged again, kicked my feet in the muck. The line slacked and jerked. The harsh throat-sound of The Tash’s cries snared on the sharp snapping of ice, the gurgle of water.
Finally, I heaved up onto my feet and pulled. There was nothing to see. The pre-dawn gloom was little more than a gray mist and paler shapes. I felt the weight on the line change and I dragged again, and it went slack. I ran into the murk and slowed at the sound of coughing, and there on the bank was the Tash. She sprawled, face down, puking up ice water, and beside her lay the black shape of the body she’d dragged out of the river. I had a brief flash of fear. Estevo.
His face was that of another, a mustached and pale sergeant from one of the regular troupes. Satisfied it was not my friend, I went first to The Tash.
She was shivering so violently that at first I thought she was shying away from me. She curled into a ball, clutching her arms, teeth bared and gritting. I grabbed her up in my arms and pulled her to me, shaking her. “Get up,” I said. “You have to get up.” Her people were from far to the west, and they did not see such winters as we did in Rouk and in my home province of Naban.
Just a year before I’d been taken, my sister Navat fell into the river that came out of the southern mountains during the winter. She was only inside for a matter of seconds before father caught her and dragged her out, but immediately she turned blue and weak. Father had told her what to do. He had saved her.
I grabbed The Tash’s wrists and yanked them away from her. She squealed in pain and torment, soaked through. Even holding her, grasping at her through gloves and covered in my own coat, I began to grow frigid, and then I remembered that I was half-soaked myself. Still, my station was a damn sight better than hers, having not been dunked in the river.
I ripped her coat open before she managed to clench her arms to her sides again, then again I seized her wrists.
She fought. Her eyes snapped open, hateful and dark. The whites shown in the murky morning’s pitiful light. She glared and I shoved her hands back to her, to her sides instead of her arms. “Rub your ribs and stand up, you motherless. Stand up and move or you’ll die.” I pushed her up and she tried to curl and crouch again, but I seized her under her arms and hauled her to her feet once more, none too gently. “Run in place, shitlick!” I shouted in my best corporal’s voice. “Or I’ll have you whipped when we get back. I’ll whip you myself!” Still shuddering, teeth chattering, she began lifting one foot, then the other, stamping in the mud.
Beginning to shiver myself, I turned to the man on the ground. He was white as the ice that had almost claimed him, his lips blue. I looked closer. His head was cut, washed clean by the icewater, but the gash on his brow was clear, a ravine of bloodless flesh on his head. His eyes showed the faintest purple by the nose, deep in the orbital. Though the color had been driven away by cold, I could see. He’d been beaten. Escapees, then. They’d found him on his patrol or on his way home and sought to silence their discoverer.
I held a finger above his mustache and felt nothing. So much for learning who had tried to kill him, or which way they’d gone.
Now it fell to me to get The Tash back to safety. I stood. The fallen sergeant was going nowhere.
I turned back to The Tash, who stamped and shivered and made noises in her throat, but then a cough broke through the sound of the river behind me. I turned, stunned; the man moved. Weakly, little more than a shiver, but enough. If he could be saved, we’d know who had thrown him in. Another chance for glory for myself, for adulation, for recognition.
I got behind the sergeant and forced my hands beneath his armpits. He had little time. I began to drag him. The exertions staved off my own cold and damp, and The Tash began to hustle alongside, but I sent her to the nearest house as soon as we saw one. Everyone in Onappa-ka was required to give succor to a Lonireilan soldier in need. There was no danger for her. If she was clever, she’d avail herself of any wine or poppy in the house, once she was warmed. I almost envied her. As for myself, I dragged my charge through the streets till I managed to flag down an army wagon making its way up to the fort. We loaded the unconscious, dying man in the back, and I laid atop him to try to warm him and prayed he’d live long enough to give me the means to my next advancement.
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