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I mustered them before noon and we marched to the fort. Already, word was out. The other companies joined behind us. Some were on the hill, some in the fort when we marched in. The whispers deafened me. The looks of the others seared.
We went up when I was called. I stood in the muster, in the bright noonday sun, the sweat beading on my lip and my brow. Behind me was the post with its bindings, at the center of a circle of packed earth.
I called up Ecena. She saluted, and I wanted to shout our orders for all to hear, but my voice was a strained exhalation.
“You’re to command the Hand of the Knife.” A chill spread out from the middle of my gut. My hands shook and I prayed to Lord Salat that I wouldn’t drop my stars – two brass stars in a circle. I fumbled them loose and my breath caught in my chest. The post seemed to pulse behind me. The cold intensified, burning, shaking me. I put the stars on Ecena’s uniform and saluted and, finally, met her eyes.
She looked up at me, the remnants of surprise on her pale face turning to vile amusement. I shook and she pressed her lips flat, but her eyes crinkled at the corners. She stared into me and held the salute. Bile greased the back of my throat.
“Conscript il-Lonireil. Report.” At the voice behind me, she released me. I turned and went to the post, where a soldier in a black tunic waited. The whip hung from his hand, a cruel, black tangle. I looked up at the keep and there was de Trastorces. There was Weckar. She stood, with her lacquer skin and her pale eyes staring out as if from openings in a mask, and at my stare she looked back at me.
The officer secured my arms to the post.
He announced my inadequacies. I burned, my face pressed against the rough wood. Every pronouncement was a lash in itself. Demotion. Foolhardiness. Failure.
Behind, the officer raised the whip.
* * *
I was in hospital for some time after. When first I woke, it was from the stink. I realized it was my own skin and pus in the heat. I was rotting.
Medicos came. They put a leather strip in my mouth, told me to bite, and they scrubbed my back. I thought I’d break my teeth with clenching. When it was done, I couldn’t even speak.
Later, more in my right mind, I saw Estevo in the next cot. He was pale, breathing slow. Flies buzzed above us. They crawled on his face and he groaned.
At night, someone spoke in the tent. I couldn’t recognize the voice.
The next day he was awake, lying on his stomach and groaning. We talked a little – I don’t know of what.
“Hey.” A medico came to us, stood between us. “No talking.” He glared at us in turn and went back to his table.
* * *
I awoke at night. The air sweltered in the hospital, with the scent of shit and rot in my nostrils, and hot breath and foul, brewing medicines in steaming crucibles. I breathed deep, clenching my teeth at the pain in my back.
As my breathing quieted, a new sound reached me. The wind.
We all knew the sound. It was different. Whispering, gliding. Through the dark building, the curtain drawn over the doorway of the hospital rippled, then flapped and snapped. There were cries outside.
The knife wind had been called, and there was death on the air. There must be Serehvani rebels, or even another incursion from up north. It didn’t matter. They’d run soon. They always ran.
I lay for a time, listening. The medicos had all gone and no one else stirred. A lamp guttered on the table, low and forgotten. As the wind kicked and gusted, the flame grew smaller and smaller. In the dark, I had little but to stare at that billowing curtain and to listen to the voices outside. They shouted. Someone screamed.
The curtain rose on the wind, whipping the air, curling and cracking, and then fell, lifeless. But outside, the screams went on. The wind did not rise again, and on the back of my neck, the hairs stood up.
I arose. My back felt as if it was covered in crackling mud, the skin pulled tight. Just sitting made me breathe hard. I forced myself up and out of bed and walked the agonizing dozen yards to the hospital door.
Outside, the dark was greater than it had been within. There was no moon, no stars. In the dimness of the fort, soldiers cried out to one another. They shouted for aid, ran with torches. A company raced past me toward the front gate, then broke around a barrow coming in. I stood aside as two men pushed past with others laying in the barrow, their bodies pierced with broken shafts of arrows, their blood spilling in black pools, dripping into the dirt.
I made for a wall, climbed a ladder to it with the skin on my back feeling like it was ripping apart. A strange roaring, like water or a distant fire, met my ears. What was it? Atop the fort wall, soldiers raised crossbows and shouted. They pointed, called directions, questions. Where were they? They had disappeared. No, on horseback, now in the east, now the south.
“Protect her. Shield her!” someone cried.
Someone ran into me. I fell on the walkway, rolled, whimpered. My back was aflame. Before I could regain my feet, a man fell, two arrows in his chest. He grunted and blood oozed from his mouth, but then someone had my shoulder. Arcs of lightning cut down my back as they hauled me up. Another took up the man’s crossbow and thrust it into my hand. “There!” a soldier shouted in my face, pointed. He shoved me to the wall and I clutched the bow and nearly fell. “Shoot, damn you! Shoot!” he screamed over the blasting sound, the harsh roar like many voices, like stormwinds.
I forced my eyes open. Two figures rode past, below the wall. Arrows raced up from their hands. Their faces were hidden by gray scarves and turbans, making them little more than shades. Another man fell beside me, a shaft in his neck. I tried to raise the bow but they flashed by and I sought targets even as my eyes watered.
The clouds broke. Red light blazed from the Khren’s Brow. What had once been a moon bathed the grasslands in blood, and I saw Weckar.
She stood at the battlement, hands raised. The roaring sound came from her. The air before her shook, like heat above a pot, but jagged, torn. It ripped away from her, tearing the dark, shot out over the wall, screeching, down, down to the earth and across roads and flattened, shorn grasses and blasted, barkless scrub.
It clawed back up a sloping hill and toward two figures. My breath stole out of me. I couldn’t raise the bow. I couldn’t blink.
One of the pair was tall, the other smaller, and around them both rose a column of shadow and silver light. The wind blasted against it but broke, shattered, deflected. The shadow quaked and shook and four silver eyes glared back. The eyes of a serpent. The eyes of death itself.
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