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We crashed down the hill like a windstorm. With a roar, we were on the stalkers, and they unarmed and afoot. My camel shuddered and brayed, kicked out, lurched. In the dark I saw little but black shapes, shapes I stabbed with my spear and battered with my shield. Their camels ran. Folk screamed. Metal and wood crashed.
For a moment, the hills echoed with shouts and roars, and then they were silent. My breath filled my ears like the rushing of wind. I sat, heaving, and asked for my people to sound off. One by one, rough voices gave their owners’ names.
I called for lamps. In the hushing of the breeze, gold lights flared into being, revealing dim pools of color in the sea of night. Trampled grasses. A body, twisted and still, half atop a toppled pile of field gear. There, blood, red and glinting on the grass, turning the dirt brown where it soaked into the earth. Another body, face up, staring. Youthful eyes, open, the bloody chest heaving. A third, crawling on forearms at the edge of the camp. “Bring that one.” I pointed and dismounted while and my squad followed, rounding up the living and inspecting the dead, searching their equipment for good boots or fine weapons, of which there were none.
I sat on a burlap sack and two of mine brought the crawler before me. They threw him down and he writhed for a second, choking and drawing sigils of pain in the dirt. When he looked up, his eyes were wild, his shemagh coming undone and falling away from his head and neck.
I asked him the usual things: who he was, who his master was, and where we might find him.
“You’ll have nothing from me.” I prodded his wound and he coiled up like a bitten snake, wheezing. I took hold of him, rolled him over, and pressed his wound again. The blood showed on the front of his tob, a long garment typical of Naban, as well as on the back. The spear had gone through, but didn’t seem to have hit anything vital.
“You’re going to live,” I told him. “Run clean through. That means you get taken back to Onappa-ka with us.” He cringed and whined. I fought his resisting hands till I got to his spearwound again. “Or, you can tell me now. Who is your master?”
He wept. “I don’t know,” he mewled in Serehvani. I shook him and he only begged more.
“Sergeant?” Ecena’s voice came from out in the camp.
“Not now.” He didn’t know? Laughable. What kind of warrior fights for someone he doesn’t even know?
“I think you should see.”
“I’m busy. We’ll get to it shortly.”
I questioned him. He screamed and cried and revealed little but his own name and that he was from Naban. There were dozens like him, more every day, in the trackless hills in the southwest part of the province. When I pulled away his shemagh, I found his hairless cheeks wet with tears, tinted red.
“Hey.” Estevo stood beside me while my captive wept. “She’s leaving.”
I looked up in time to see Ecena and Ahdan dashing away on camelback, leaving behind a cloud of dust. I stood, leaving the pathetic wretch on the ground. “What? Where? Hey!” If they looked back in the dark, I couldn’t see.
“Back to the road, I guess.” Estevo grabbed the wounded man and hauled him up. “What to do with this one?”
“Why are they going back?”
Another of the squad spoke. “Sir. Ecena saw something. Lights or the like, back at Yamurik’s camp.”
Idiot. She was always trying something, never going far enough to be punished. “That’s because they’ve got the lamps out.” I waved dismissively after her and rounded on the camp. “Tear this place apart. I want to know anything we can learn about these Nabani. Who they are, who their families are, where they’re coming from. If there are more of them, we need clues to find them if they’re in the Pakubosh Hills.”
“And him?” Estevo shook the wounded man by his collar, eliciting a groan and more weeping.
I opened my mouth, but the boy caught my gaze. His red eyes shone in the lamplight and the tears glistened on his cheeks. Black curls hung lank and sweat-damp in his brown face, a face that reminded me of none so much as my young brother’s.
The image sprang to my mind, as if dashing through a closing door. I saw him, and my mother, and Navat and poor Punam.
The grief and shame, as they always did, blackened and curled like paper in a fire. Hatred boiled out of me. Before the tears could return, I drew my knife and slashed the boy’s throat. Blood spurted out and Estevo dropped him in shock.
“What about him?”
There was nothing in their camp. Meager rations and stale water. We rode back, but my victory in killing our stalkers was soured by what had happened.
As we neared the camp, the dry, dusty night air took on the cloying tinge of smoke. Ahead, Yamurik’s camp was the same as we’d left it, wagons and oxen and men in a circle of light from oil lamps, but the chill breeze carried shouts. Yamurik’s rage I could hear, but pain and panic too. As my tongue turned to dust, I urged my camel faster. The squad called out behind me, but I raced ahead.
I burst into the circle of light, then through the outer ring and into the center. With so many wagons and folk, the camp sprawled alongside the road. Cooking fires were on, but before I’d even spotted Yamurik the wrongness took form. Two men lay dead just inside the circle, their blood bright on the flattened grass. One of the wagons was open, the tarps slashed. Another dead mercenary slumped against a wheel. Porters and wagoneers called back and forth, and the shouts guided my eyes to their hiding places beneath the wagons. Some were beginning to creep out, but I rode away, along the camp to the far end, to Yamurik’s carriage.
Ahdan and Ecena had dismounted. As I rode up, Ahdan stabbed down with his spear, down into the back of a man on the ground, ceasing his twitchings for good. The man was dressed in a dark shemagh and tob, just like the stalkers we had killed.
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