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I stood, gaping, as the knife-wind poured forth from Weckar and blasted against the two shadowy figures on the hill. The earth around them shredded, grasses scoured away by thousands of cuts. The air shrieked.
But then I could look no longer. Someone cried out in alarm and I spun toward the sound along with the other defenders as, across the fortress yard, the gates burst open. Nabani raiders poured in, the hooves of their steeds flying. They loosed arrows, the barrage laying low whole phalanxes of unready Lonireilans. Reflexively, I fired my bow. I don’t think I hit, but in our counterattack several of them fell. I lurched for the edge of the wall but slipped. Others leapt down, took the ladders. The Nabani, however, whirled and rode back out.
Chaos reigned over the fort. Defenders chased the Nabani out while others tried to rally and dig in for another wave. There was a fire in the west, alarms from the city, cries down the hill. Horses screamed and guards banged alarm gongs and everywhere shouting ruled the night.
It ended. The roar of the wind, the panicked cries, all slacked like a flag let fall from its pole.
The pain set in. I gritted my teeth and, slowly, arose, and when I looked up Weckar had lowered her hands.
She turned. One glance set me shaking, looking anywhere else. I couldn’t face the depth of rage in those pale eyes.
The next hours were a blur. Weckar left and we tried to pick up the shards of our defenses, salvage some dignity in what we knew to be a defeat, even if they had been driven off. If I could arise, if I could join the fight, then I could work, the lieutenants said. The attack had killed a dozen Lonireilan defenders at the fortress, a dozen more in Onappa-ka, and wounded fifty more. A pall was over us all as we labored. We doused fires. We cleared debris. We dug graves.
It was evening again before I got to rest, if rest you could call it. A return to the hospital, one more dire than from the whipping. One that changed me.
* * *
I was at the burned building. All around was ash and the air filled with gray powder stirred up by our feet. We wore dampened shemaghs over our mouths and noses, but our reddened eyes stung and watered. With a spade in my hands and my back afire, I dug scoops of cinders and bits of char and deposited them in a waiting barrow. Others around me did likewise while still more carried away the largest pieces to a cart. Their hands were black, their clothes caked with ash. The dust rose up in fresh clouds with every shovelful. My garments were gray through and through, making us look like ghosts.
I glanced over at a whisper. Two of the conscripts, pale Lonireilans, had moved closer to each other. With their damp shemaghs over their mouths, one could hardly tell they were talking.
“Is your squad going?” the first asked. I shoveled my way a little nearer, so I could hear.
“Look.” They paused to do so. I glanced furtively after their gazes and spied the captain in a crowd of his subordinates. Across the fort yard, he was speaking to an attentive crew of grave-diggers. “He’s rallying. Getting us ready to go after those Nabani.”
“Lick of shit, I hope not my squad. I don’t want any part of it.”
“What?” They returned to shoveling. I turned my gaze to my task, but strained my ears. “Why not?” the first asked.
“Action in the field? Did you see those things the Knife fought?”
“Well, not fought. Strove.”
“I don’t know, she fought them with the wind. There were two. They resisted her.”
The first snorted. “Impossible. You saw cross-eyed from fear.”
“I’ll cross your eyes. I know what I saw. I don’t want any part of hunting that down.”
“Well, I’m going. I’m going to make my name for myself. Whatever those Nabani shitlicks did, it got de Trastorces’ attention, and I want to get his attention next. You can shine my stars for me once I get back.”
“Better start pursing those lips now. Here he comes.”
Before I could look, a shout rang out over the workers. I snapped to attention and clenched my teeth at the sudden pain in my back.
We stood in our cloud of ash as a troupe of lieutenants and sergeants and advisors marched up to us. We saluted and De Trastorces kept his distance while the dust settled. He eyed us and we stared back, waiting. Finally, he returned the gesture and we lowered our fists.
“Brave Lonireilans,” he said. The surrounding activity quieted in a spreading wave, smoke on the ground. “In the barest hours of dawn you witnessed a foul, honorless sneak attack. A betrayal. Serehvani rebels have spat in our faces.” He paused and the only sound was of voices across the fort. The sun lowered and cast us all in glowing flame. “A sneak attack by callow foes. By creatures worse than animals, thrashing needlessly against a steadying hand. Some beasts can be trained, given purpose and duty, given lives of meaning. Not these. These are little more than serpents, faithless and vile. They have chosen to strike at our guiding hands. They have chosen to poison that which would cherish and nourish.” His pale eyes sought through us, seized one of us here, another there. My heart shuddered as his gaze flashed over me.
“We,” he said, “will do what we must. And we must find these jackals. They threaten the peace we’ve brought. They threaten prosperity. These are not men to be reasoned with. They’re beasts, to be brought to bay.”
A ‘Hear! Hear!’ came from behind us. A few of us nodded agreement. I said, “That’s right!” in the hopes of being heard.
De Trastorces raised a hand. “They know not what they’ve awakened. We have the Knife.”
More cries of agreement. I saw a few shaking heads. Did he know? Had he seen her fail against the strange figures in the grasses? My mind was addled with pain and exhaustion. I couldn’t remember.
“Sir,” I said, but he didn’t hear over the rising agreement. “Sir,” I said again, louder, “what of Weckar? They have a weapon against her. What will we do?”
He started, glanced toward me with searching eyes. “Who said that?”
“I, sir.” Those around me moved back a pace, so that he could see. They looked at me, at him, as de Trastorces stepped a little closer.
He peered at me. “What is it you think you saw?”
“Challengers,” I said. “Challengers of Weckar’s ability.” The yard went quiet. My heart hammered in sudden warning. Sweat prickled at my head, my back.
De Trastorces spoke louder, as if addressing the rest. “Nothing can challenge the Knife. She is the embodiment of the Conclave’s will in Serehvan.”
“No–” I stopped. I saw my error.
“No?” He stepped closer. “The former sergeant. You’re up and about.”
“Sir.” I lowered my gaze to the ash.
“You said no.” There was an edge on his voice that cut the air. “No, what?”
“Sir. My mistake.”
“You think you saw something?”
“So you were lying before?”
I stammered. “No, sir.”
“So you lie now?”
My mouth had gone dry as the ash. “No, sir.”
“Which is it?” His voice rose again. “Am I a liar? Or is there a power in this heap that can challenge Lonireil?” De Trastorces stood, waiting. I may have muttered something. I may have made an animal sound. Perhaps I stood, dumb and waiting. After what seemed a millennia, he began to unbutton his coat. “Swords,” he said.
I looked up at him. He had already stepped away and handed his coat to a subordinate while everyone around us backed away, leaving a broad circle of ashen dirt. Another of his lackeys came forward with a smallsword. While I stood, unable to move, yet another approached me. He took the shovel from my hand and replaced it with a blade in a scabbard.
De Trastorces faced me. “You call me a liar,” he said. “One of us is wrong. If there’s truth in your words, we should all know.” He saluted. “The stars will judge, that all here might see.”
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