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They’d never see me coming.
So I remembered my misplaced confidence, some three years later, as I forced my weary legs through drifts of snow up a mountain road higher than I had imagined could exist. Ahead rode Vasily Avosha Brobov on his sturdy gray horse, and I eyed him, and I feared, and I schemed.
Fear had driven me since leaving the service of Lonireil, as it drives many. Many are driven by it all their lives; fear of abandonment or punishment makes us attentive and obedient children. Fear of being alone makes us mild and agreeable. Fear of death makes us cautious and fearful of life, even more so. And finally, when we come to the end, fear of all these things makes us weep, for we can do little more. We cling to shreds, memories, soiled bedspreads, and hope that something is next. For some, they pray for the Knacker’s yard, and the gentle hand of the Knife God, who, too, is dead, and so understands. Others seek passage up the River with their Saints, while still others pray to descend to the Deep Kings and so to be useful in the tilling and sowing of the Deep Place, where new lives are made.
A storm had come in the day I left the healer’s wagon. Now we walked, the entire troupe behind the ghanavochas and the oxen and merchant’s carts, and a gray headwind rived at our skin and plucked at the tails of our coats. Snow coated the bearskin and frost clung to my brows, the growth above my lip. My ribs and my injured hand, where I’d lost the fingernails, burned, but anything was better than the dank inside of that wagon, the swaying and sickness, lurching and slamming on the trail. At least out here, my legs and back hardened. My lungs seared cold but pumped like a bellows and my heart surged with each steep switchback or legs-jarring, breath-gulping slip in the snow. My tongue, of its own accord, worked its way to the empty socket on one side where my tooth had been pulled. I squinted ahead into gray and blinding flecks and the backs of the wagons head, and the wind piped and whined along with the Kalughri war song the tevka sang.
Tall black trees lined the way to either side. Some provka marched ahead and to either side, keeping watch, while the tevka rode and sang and raised their banners in signal. I walked centrewise of the road, behind the carts, because I was wounded and couldn’t be counted on to fight well if it was needed. At least I was on my feet, not slung in the back of a cart like a sack of skins.
I turned at movement in the forest. My eyes scoured the trunks and bare branches, but I saw only snow and timber and rock. A few drifts of snow fell from above. The trunks moved in the wind, or looked as if they did. I shook my head. Ice-daze afflicts eyes and minds, they say, and mine were, respectively, paler and wearier than those of others around me. I swung my gaze the other way. Estevo marched there, near the treeline, his gaze set on the dark beneath the boughs. A cheap bow of pinewood, as like to break as to shoot, was in his hand.
The trees were cut well back from the road, leaving a broad swathe of uneven, rocky earth open to either side. We were near our destination, or so the cutting told me; others had made the road safer for travelers such as we by making it more difficult for brigands or mercenaries or rival raiding parties to creep and sneak and escape. To our right, a cleft in the snow revealed the course of a spring, one of three that flowed down the mountainside from our destination; from the great Kalughnoran city of Balunkraf.
A cracking sound reached my ears. I spun again to the left. More snow on the air, pale wisps that sailed between the trees. Borne on the wind, or following? Ghosts? A draft of air? I walked, head turned, staring. The ghanavochas grunted and wagons thudded and grumbled in the snow. Voices rose and fell on the thin air.
Shadows moved beneath the trees, shifted in black, flitted from tree to tree. I blinked the cold and dry from my eyes, trying better to see through the swirling gray into the dim as my heart quickened. Shapes followed us, though of shadow or fur and bone I couldn’t tell.
A cry from ahead. I looked, pulse rising, and there, ahead of us, a shape loomed out of the towering, vastness of snow and wind and dusk. For a moment, I panicked; it was too big, too pale and blurred. The World-Eater the Kalughri spoke of around their campfires, or cursed by in the dark.
But no. The shapes resolved into high walls, slashed with tall, narrow windows. Towers above them like spines, and bridges strung between them like tendons. But no. Those bridges, I’d heard it said, were broad enough for carriages. Amongst the towers, shadows soared and darted, appearing and disappearing in the snow.
We weren’t far. I swung my gaze again to the trees. The shapes were gone.
Ahead, a tevka rode back on ghanavocha, calling orders as she went. It was Ivanyaska Broveschka Prupov Zhrovocha, her hair loose and frosted white. As she shouted, the scouts came in, the marching provka formed up. Wagons took single file and oxen lowed in irritation. Whips cracked and mercenaries shouted. She rode past me, pointing with her spear, shouting in her tongue for me to take a turn at the left flank.
I left the group, moving fast as I could, raising my steps high to surmount the snow. Before I reached the edge of the road, Ivanyaska circled back. Her ghanavocha threw up gouts of powder and bursts of steam rose from its nostrils, and the bells on its saddle and barding rang. The hair and sweat of the beast stank warmly as it grumbled and she reined it in beside me.
“We will have relief once we are inside; you and the other provka will be paid and set loose till we should leave again.”
My voice strained. The cold still caught my tongue, and though my skin was frozen, inside my coat and armor I sweated. “Yes, tevka.”
“Once the rasakanova grants leave, you are to report to the healer’s house. It’s in the Ulaghshak district. See to your injuries. I’ll not have wounded and weak provka.”
“I’m well enough.”
“I don’t care what you think. Do as I say, dur Nashak.” She leaned perilously down from her saddle and lowered her voice. “Ask him about his friend, Gorbeva. I must speak to Gorbeva, so have yourself introduced and tell her to contact me, but let no one see you, and tell no one else.”
I would be asked to tell, and soon. Vasily Avosha Brobov’s threat, and my pledge to him, lingered in my mind. He’d sworn he’d find out if I did. He’d sworn to kill me. Before I could decide, she jangled her reins and spurred ahead again into the snow.
It was no matter. In fact, it was better this way. I’d kill him myself.
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