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Have you ever been badly wounded, reader?
We are surprised by it, when it finally happens, as it will to most of us. Many warriors have their careers prematurely curtailed by a moment of inattention or a greater fighter’s supposed mercy. The loss of a pinky finger. The fracture of a foot that does not set right. A bit of sand in the eye. Then, the warrior cannot see. Her grip is not secure, or his balance poor. Far worse can befall even one who would be great, and we will never know the heights to which they might have risen.
We are always surprised, but it takes a puncture no greater than the length of a finger to kill. The weight of a bottle of wine, concentrated on an edge, will cut skin. And a sharp blow to the head, even from a fist? Well, it’s best not to dwell on. Go out and have fun.
I languished in the fetid hospital through summer, through autumn.Others came to see me while I lay healing. Estevo was there often, to tell stories and joke. He complained about the smell with new analogies every time, and even nearing spring he found ways to make me laugh. “It smells like the underside of a cathelles’ ballsack. Oh, hello il-Lonireil.” “Ugh, it’s like someone filled up a goat’s stomach with Narsalan food and took a shit on it.” Once, he shared the hospital with his own wounds – he was lashed again, again for stealing.
Even Ecena visited, to check on my status. She stood at the foot of my cot, nose in the air, and asked questions of the physicos. She didn’t ask anything of me.
Once, I awakened with a head muzzy with poppy and my stomach aching. That was in autumn. Rolling over still made my guts feel ready to tear open again, so I lay for a moment, unmoving, gathering my thoughts and my will. I saw a worried face in the dark. The Tash was looking down, her gaze unfocused.
She’d leave if I moved. If she thought I was awakening. So, I closed my eyes and listened to the steady, soft sound of her breathing until I fell asleep again.
In the winter, it became close and cold and damp inside from the sweat and steam and stink of human flesh. My wool blanket smothered me. I couldn’t breathe. My skin went hot as if it was in the sun, red and burning. All around me, others groaned on their cots, tossed and turned so the fittings creaked. That fever stole another two months.
By the time I was well enough to stand, it was spring. They took away the poppy. How I wept and begged for more. How I shook and sweated and groaned into my thin mat.
* * *
Early summer. I marched, the straps of my pack cutting into my shoulders, my spear heavy, in a column led by Ecena into the hills, the high green grass wafting sweet fragrance into my nostrils.
Or rather, I marched behind them. Rearmost rank. Estevo was somewhere ahead with the Tash. One one flank, my compatriot conscripts marched without speaking or looking at me. I’d tried for a few days, but they answered my questions or met my attempts at conversation with grunts or single-word answers, inviting no response. To my other flank were the green hills and, far off, the pale lines of other columns of Lonireilans. Sweat damped my uniform, made it chafe, and the still-healing scar on my stomach itched. I couldn’t spare a hand to scratch at it and the feeling grew and grew.
It was my birthday. I was nineteen years old. In my pack was a little lump of honey made hard with mezakh flour, wrapped up in a piece of wax paper. I’d found it that morning when I’d packed up, and had only one guess who had left it. With my mind turned to the little gift, the march seemed even longer, rather than shorter.
Ecena’s shout carried from ahead, growing nearer. “Clean up this line!” She cantered into view on the back of a sprightly chestnut horse. I glanced along the line, in front and then to the left, but it looked clean to me. Ahead everyone shifted to try to march straighter over the rocks and uneven hills. She whirled about on her mount and fell in beside me.
Spoils. She’d killed a Nabani raider a week back, just after we’d left Onappa-ka, and de Trastorces let her keep the mount as incentive to the other sergeants. I’d brought back a half-dozen camels from my ill-fated raid and been whipped for it.
She glared down. “Conscript. Clean up this line. They can’t be expected to see from the front what’s happening in the back.”
“Yes, sergeant.” Backtalk wouldn’t get me anywhere. I needed a chance. My ears burned as I raised my voice. “Clean up the line! March on the man in front of you!” Along the line, the others shifted their feet.
“You’ve got one job in the back here, conscript. Keep it clean.” She spurred away.
* * *
We didn’t’ stop till dusk. Out on the hills the wind picked up and swept the grasses in rolling gray waves. The sky lit with the red arc of the Khren’s Brow, but there was no silver moon that night. On the next hilltop, another camp was already going up, gold fires shining against the tents. Behind us, other hilltops likewise began to glow. Finally, the sweat in my uniform cooled. No chill yet, though. I had a tent to raise for a dozen of us. The others had their own duties. Guarding. Cooking. Inventory, reports, and so on. I squinted at the supplies rolled out at my feet and tried to jam stakes into the hard earth. Naban was a harsh land, harsh but beautiful still.
It had been five years since I’d been taken from my home, and it was not the last time I’d return, but perhaps the most fateful. I didn’t know yet what this expedition would mean – what it would mean for Lonireil, for me, for my life.
It was on this mission that I’d see Behhallan for the first time. It was on this trip that I’d look into the eyes of my greatest foe, the foe that would lead me throughout the world, to misty Rowatokon, to the wealthy courts of Ulara, to the ageless stone halls of Bulai. A foe that might yet be the end of me. Behhallan, the Unbreakable. Behhallan is a spirit, the most powerful that I’ve heard of beyond the Forsaken Gods and the Gray-Sea spirits and the Deep Kings. And Behhallan – Behhallan hates me more than anything in this world or in the Gray.
While I struggled and my stomach pulled and I reminded myself that it was too far healed to tear open again, Ahdan marched out of the twilight. He threw down a heavy sailcloth bundle at my feet. “The sergeant’s tent. Go set it up in the center of camp.”
I gestured to my own task. “There are eleven conscripts who need this to rest. Have someone else do it.” He glared. Wearily, I saluted. “Corporal. Of course.”
I knelt to pick up the bundle. My back ached. Before I could enwrap the parcel in my arms, a hard push came at my shoulder. I toppled sideways into the trampled grass.
Ahdan stood over me. “Next time, you do as I say when I say it. Understood?”
My guts clenched up. Was that laughter I heard from one of the other tents? “Sir.”
“I asked you a question.”
“Yes sir.” I couldn’t meet his glare. He left and I stood, finally, and took up Ecena’s tent.
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