RAZE - a weekly fantasy web serial

RAZE – 068 – To Make Friends

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We finally reached and passed those thick stone walls into Balunkraf. With a final glance behind me as I entered the high, narrow passage through stone and earth, I thought, once more, that I saw shapes in the trees, across road and bare rock where they’d been cut and burned far back from the walls.

The gate pulled closed behind us, driven by mighty chains, and when it hammered shut the sound shook the stones and left me in near-darkness. Ahead were the bodies of men and beasts and the wagons, groaning, and only a pale gray light at the end of a long, dark way. My steps seemed to draw me only further into this dark hell, toward the body-stink of animals, toward shuffling black shapes. A blast of cold, snowy air drafted around them and into my stinging nostrils, but I could go no faster, though I yearned to breathe free air again. I shuffled, and followed, and we broke the end of the long tunnel and I beheld Balunkraf.

High spires and looming shadows, appearing from the swirling snow, were dwarfed by the mountains behind, and about these the black shapes of the winged things, birds or spirits, dived and wheeled as if on a summer’s day. Rime coated smooth stone roads, and despite the weather, folk went to and fro at their business with high fur hats and cloaks lined in lambskin. Our company and the merchants we guarded were dwarfed by the crowds and size of the plaza before the great gates. Behind us, on the walls, soldiers in layers of leather, with long capes flying or wrapped over and over about them, glared down through slits in blued-iron helms, with slings and stones at their sides but waiting.

The rasakanova bellowed for us to form up. I hustled to my place beside Estevo near the back of the group, for we were new amongst the provka, though not the newest. The people of Balunkraf seemed heedless of the company of mercenaries, fearless of our spears and swords and the spikes on our shoulders. A man jostled into me in passing. I stumbled, caught my breath at a pulling pain from my wounds, regained my steps and dodged aside from a matron herding a dozen small white children straight through the company. One of the young ones stared at me and pointed and shouted a Kalughri word that sounded like “brown,” and the others joined him, staring and pointing. I hunkered into my scarves and found my place while a few of the other passers-by slowed and peered my way as the woman, tutting, led the children off.

Estevo elbowed me. “You’d guess they’ve never seen a Serehvani before.”

“Why would they? No Serehvani is stupid enough to come to a place like this.”

“Just you.”

“Me? I’m king idiot.”

He chuckled. Our line formed up more or less straight. Estevo made a sound as he took in the ragged mercenaries.

Before he could speak, I came to something like attention and faced ahead. “We’d be digging pits for a week if our line looked like this back in Onappa-ka.”

“At best. Cleaning pits is more like it.”

“That was just you. You already smelled like shit, so why not?”

“If they had needed someone to make the pits smell better, they’d have had you stand next to them with your pants off.”

Ivanyaska rode past, swatting at us with the flat of her scabbarded sword, quieting us. Meanwhile, the rasakanova went to the head of our troupe, some fifty of us—or forty-five, rather, after the green woman’s assault—and stood on his ghanavocha’s saddle. With his head bald and bare to the cold and his mustache blowing on the icy wind, he shouted out orders and rules for our time in Balunkraf. We each lined up for pay before our tevka. Ivanyaska pressed a few jobn into my hand, flat silver oblongs.

“You heard the rasakanova,” she said, catching my gaze as she gave me my earnings. “Report daily. If you want a job when we leave, you’re to be here when we leave.”

“Yes, tevka.” She released the wages and I stood by while she repeated the conversation with Estevo.

With him done, we did what all working men do upon receiving our pay—we set out to find the nearest bar, in that land called a tea-room. With our heads lowered against the snow, we picked a street and started; perhaps we should have waited for the rest of Ivanyaska’s provka, but they cared little for us, and we for them. We were outlanders, I too brown and Estevo too much himself.

Habra,” he mispronounced as he walked at my side, before switching to Lonireilan. “What did she say?”

I watched the way ahead through snow-frosted brows. “That you’re to give me half your money.”

“When cathelles fart gold dust.”

“She said…” I stopped in my tracks, remembering. Ulaghshak district. Ulaghshak meant “Hawk’s House,” so it must be high up, further up the mountain slope. I had a job to do. And it was likely that Vasily Avosha Brobov would be trying to find me, and soon. The idea set my guts to twisting and writhing. With a deep breath, I looked up at Estevo. “She just said to be back if you wanted a job. Ask after her every day.”

He made a face. “Look, the bars are over there somewhere. I think.”

“I know. I need the healer.”

“Again?”

“Just a check, first.”

“No doctor as good as a bottle. Come on. I’m parched and I’m cold and all this miserable phrik hole has going for it is the tea and liquor.”

“I can’t.” I started away, cutting across the wind and waving at him. “You go on.” An idea struck me. “Go find the others. Make friends.”

“They don’t want to be our friends.”

I stomped back to him in the roadway. We moved to one side as a line of wagons came down one way and three children ran past, happy as if the snow was sunshine and dandelion seeds. They shouted “Brown men!” again and giggled and spun and ran on.

Taking Estevo’s shoulder, I seized all but one of the jobn from my pocket and thrust them into his hands. He stared at them in confusion and then at me.

“Now, they’ll want to be our friends.” I turned again, but this time he caught me and spun me back.

There was a time he couldn’t have done that, but I was weak with wounds, overtired from marching. It was difficult to recall a time I hadn’t been sick and tired and weak. I was suddenly very weary, standing there in the swirling snow in a strange stone street like a canyon in a country farther from home than I’d ever imagined. But where was home? Nowhere. It had been taken, and I’d burned the ruins in my folly.

He spun me back and leaned in close, to whisper over the wind whistling between those tall stone buildings.

“What is going on?”

I stared at him. Behind him in the road, Kalughnoran people stared at us unabashedly. Two foreigners, standing out like silver coins at a copper dice game. “There’s going to be a new rasakanova,” I said. “Not now, but soon. And we need friends when that happens.”

He stared as if about to question me, as if I was a fool. Then, his face, his dark eyes and sleek brows changed and grew harder, more intent. He nodded and clapped my shoulder, sending up a puff of snow.

“I make friends. You watch our backs?”

“That’s it,” I said. “You and me.”

“And hang the rest.” He turned and made for the plaza and the other provka. I watched him go, then went down my sidestreet to find the Ulaghshak districk, and the healer’s house, and Ivanyaska’s friend Gorbeva.


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