RAZE - a weekly fantasy web serial

RAZE – 069 – Well That’s Dissapointing

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The crowds thinned as soon as I left the main roadways and traveled ever upward on legs that burned and ached with many days’ travel. How good it would have been to sit in one of the tea-houses before a fire, propping my feet on the hearth and sipping warmed favel to fill my insides, too, with warmth.

Instead, I trudged up a slope of greasy, trodden snow. Stone emanated cold and all the windows were shuttered, the high roofs black beneath layers of white and crystal blue. The narrow streets twisted this way and that, but always I turned my steps to climb. High above, the mountain disappeared in the gray expanse, as if the top of it was hidden in another world.

Those people that saw me turned their backs, those few out and about. Some were messengers in heavy coats and hats, others servants with sacks on their shoulders and the sigiled armbands of their houses. I stood aside, pressing against an icy wall, while a coal-cart ground past, too wide for the little back streets. The shaggy ox pulling it strained and grunted as it hung up on the corner of a house and the man leading it whispered encouragement to the beast before it pulled the black-laden cart free.

The district in which the healer lived stretched long across the side of the mountain. I climbed a narrow cut of stairs up through a reinforced embankment, as high and stout a wall as any fortification. Emerging from the shelter of the cut, the wind kicked even harder.

Along a wider street than those below, the signs of shopfronts swung in the wind. To one side was the drop to the lower city, the roofs of the little houses and the hot, harsh scent of coal smoke, though the wind and snow hid the haze. Farther above, the highest reaches of the city still towered, and the black shapes of some manner of birds still dashed and leapt between the spires. On this street, however, faceted glass windows gave purchase to veils of frost. The tiled roofs shed drifts of snow that I dodged as I walked, keeping an eye on the few others out and walking or riding in the evil weather. I raised a hand to a woman walking my way with her hat pulled low, and to the man escorting her with a fine, glinting axe at his side. She waved me off without slowing and the man glared. They crossed the road and kept on.

Glancing about, I saw a ghanavocha rider nearing. I waited, standing aside but near enough the road he might slow or have to maneuver around me. As the rider neared, I raised a hand and said “Habra.” He reined in his beast, which snorted and shook, and he peered at me. His pink face, wrinkled with age and wizened by a thin white beard, was mostly hidden beneath layers of scarves and fur.

“Healer’s house,” I said in my halting Kalughri. “Thank you, which way?” I cursed for sounding stupid, knowing I’d said not quite the right niceties.

He pointed, up the street, then made a motion as if to turn a corner. “That way, sir outlander.” I caught the notes of overpoliteness in his voice as well as his words. He said a few things about direction that I didn’t follow, but then, “healer’s house with a blue door.” He gestured again and seemed to repeat himself. This time I understood. “This way, then right?” I said back to him, mimicking his gestures.

As he left I saw, back the way he had come, another ghanavocha rider, but this I ignored, sure I could find my way. Following his directions, doubling back, slapping my hands and stamping my feet to stave off cold, I finally found a high stone house in a row with a dozen others, and a blue door standing bright as a bottle. The healer’s cart was outside, for he had not stopped while the Bear’s Tooth company had halted to distribute orders and pay when the caravan arrived in Balunkraf. Three youths bustled on the top and inside, removing lamps for cleaning, loosing cords which secured travel goods, carrying boxes and cases and blankets and all manner of things from inside the cart out and up the steps and into the old stone house. I passed them by and climbed the steps and, shaking away snow and cold, entered the healer’s home.

Before I could go two steps, a servant greeted me. She bowed a graying head and spoke too quickly in Kalughri, but the message was clear enough. “I’m here for the healer,” I said. Seeming to notice my accent, she looked at my rheumily and her hand came to her mouth, briefly. She recovered quick enough and bowed again and shuffled away. Had any Kalughnoran ever seen an outlander before?

I moved aside in the narrow front hall as one of the porters shouldered his way in and grunted for me to move. While I rubbed my hands within their mitts, he followed after the old servant into the dark of the house. A thick animal skin carpet, bear or something large and furry, warmed the place, but the walls were drab and the glass lamps in brass sconces were not yet lit. A stairway led up into dark, and a hall back into more. There I waited. The porter returned and the other two came in, making the entryway briefly as crowded as a tavern bar, but then they were gone and I stood alone, trying to look at tapestries but thinking of the presence I felt outside, watching me. I tried to turn and glance casually back outside, but faced the inner hall once again at the sight of a ghanavocha waiting across the street from the healer’s cart.

With the rustle of slippers on floorboards and furs, the servant reappeared, averting her eyes from my face but gesturing for me to follow. She rocked on her feet to turn around and led me into the dim passage.

We went back, then up a separate stair which creaked with my weight, but made not a sound at hers. I paused long on each step while she negotiated the next, hoping that Vasily, if it was indeed him outside waiting and watching, would grow weary or hungry in the time it took for my errand and leave. We reached the top step, another cold, narrow hall with a pall of gray light coming through the frosty window. Then, into a room from which the crackle of a new-made fire was just beginning to sound. Once I was inside, she left me.

There, the healer sat on his haunches beside a brick hearth. The room held a wooden table, long enough to lie on, and workbenches, and a pile of some of the healer’s things from the cart, and more books and glass jars and racks and shelves of tiny drawers than I’d ever seen.

“So,” he said, looking at me seriously. “Your rasakanova wants you fully healed I take it?”

“My tevka,” I said. “And she asks—” I looked over my shoulder to make certain the old lady wasn’t there. She’d gone, and I didn’t hear the porters on the steps. Returning my gaze to the healer, I said, in Kalughri, “She needs Gorbeva. You are to introduce me. I must give a message.”

The healer sighed. He motioned to the door and I went to close it, and when I’d turned around he’d stood was looking into the fire.

“Gorbeva,” he pronounced, “died last winter.”

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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.”


“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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RAZE - a weekly fantasy web serial

RAZE – 067 – I’d Kill Him Myself

Vote for RAZE on Your vote each week helps me get new readers. Share and tell your friends. Thanks. – Dave

RAZE: Part 1 is now available as an ebook on Amazon or by becoming my Patron!

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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RAZE – 066 – Ready Enough

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That night I dreamed of the dead man and Weckar’s knife. She’d drained him of some essence, the way she’d once drained my sister Punam. Tomorrow, there would be a knife-wind.

She’d called on me to bury him. Did the precise spot matter? The manner of burial? Did I? Surely the manner in which he’d been killed did. And me—she’d asked de Trastorces to bring me specifically because, as Mire Storm had told me, she could see through me by the blood we shared, blood she’d stolen. Long ago, those of us in the Hand of the Knife had determined that she shared all our blood. We were special to her. Sacrosanct. So was it I she needed, or just one of the Hand, and Ecena had decided?

I would say I awoke at dawn, but I barely slept. The air inside the tent, the breath and sweat of others sleeping and tossing and grunting away in the night, closed around me. I suffocated, and lay, and waited. At the first stirring of light I arose and dressed and made my way out into the camp. At least if I boiled water and broke out the biscuits, the others would be well-disposed to me that day. But I had other notions than to curry the warm regard of my compatriots.

As expected, Ecena addressed us while we broke our fast, but I had already eaten and prepared myself for duty. As expected, she told us to be ready to march. She told us to be ready for spear-work. When she called out for volunteers for special duties, I was before her, waiting, kitted, and washed.

“Forward scouts.” She eyed me and then looked beyond, to the others. We were often called upon to scout ahead, so Weckar could see.

I set my jaw as Ecena ignored me. “Sir.”

“I see you, il-Lonireil.”

“Sir, I volunteer.”

“I said, I see you.” She glowered and pointed past. “You. Tash. And you, Fahil.” She detailed their scouting assignment. She chose two more, and two more. I was passed over.

“Sir, I—”

“Il-Lonireil, close your mouth. I see you. I chose otherwise.” Ecena jabbed a finger at me. “Sit down. You’re back of the line, like always, where I can watch you.”

“So you’ll be standing at the back, like always?” my mouth said. I cursed inside. My dog-milking mouth.

She stared for a moment, uncomprehending, and I dared to hope I’d spoken Serehvani. I had not.

Ahdan leapt up. “Is that how you talk to an officer?” The whispers and rustling and sounds of knives on tin plates went quiet around us. The only sound was the breeze in the grass, the crackle of the fire.

“No, sir,” I answered quickly.

“But you did.” Ahdan took a step toward me, but Ecena caught his arm.

“Corporal, be still. Conscript, I’ve changed my mind. You won’t be back of the line. You’ll stay with the gear. You look ready enough. Get to packing. The whole camp. Get it moved up behind us when we march out.”

There was nothing to say. My words had already rightly fucked me for the day. I ground my teeth and snapped out an affirmative, and bundled off to pack as fast as I could.


* * *


Only half the tents were down when the wind picked up. I stopped and wiped sweat from my brow, enjoying the breeze before I remembered what it was and set to shivering in sudden chill. I dashed through the half-packed camp, leaping bundles of poles and mounds of canvas, and ran to the southeast edge. There, looking down the hill and up the next, the bright white columns of Lonireilans stood, waiting. Their banners hung limp above their heads, but as I watched they stirred and then streamed as the wind reached them.

At their head, a single white figure stood ahead of the rest, above them, on a rock or platform. Once I’d seen her stand on the backs of two men on their hands and knees. Weckar’s arms were wide, and as I stared I felt the strange sensation of watching myself.

Somewhere beyond, on the hills further south, was the rebel camp. There, the winds were concentrated. There, scouts from our company had identified targets, were watching. They were in danger, but the knife wind would cut apart anyone who did not hide.

That is, unless the two figures I’d seen, almost a year ago in Onappa-ka, were there. The two Skertah wizards, or spirits, or whatever they were, who had challenged and beaten back Weckar’s power. If they were in the camp—they would fight Weckar again, and the day would fall to simple folk like me and Estevo and The Tash. To spears and blood.

Tash was ahead, scouting where I should have been. Where I should be with her.

The wizards and rebels were ahead, and there my only chance to escape the humiliation and drudgery that Ecena subjected me to.

I looked back at the camp. The fire smoldered, doused but steaming. Refuse littered the trampled grass. Latrines needed filling, tents needed packing, gear stowing. If it didn’t get done, I’d be punished. Flogged at best, jailed or even executed for dereliction at worst.

But I’d failed in my duties before. I’d been punished for success, but it was a punishment worth having. There was little lower I could reach, but the heights of success towered above me, waiting to be scaled.

I threw aside my twine and pen-knife and took up my brigandine coat. I seized a spear and shield. My sword, the one I’d taken as spoils, had been taken from me long ago. I found a short bow and quiver of arrows amongst the spare gear, and a long, curved knife, and all of these I secured on my person.

If I ran down the hill, I could skirt the valley and run straight east, around the other Lonireilans. Once I’d gone a league or so, I could swing south and flank the rebel village. I could find the Skertah wizards and take their heads and present them to Weckar and de Trastorces, and save the day.

They’d never see me coming.

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RAZE – 065 – A Rising Wind

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The next morning saw us up with the sun, which shone bright over flowing green-gold hills. In the southeast—our heading—deep valleys lay in shadow between towers of gray rock. The rivers churned and rushed, fed by the melt from Lonireilan mountains further south.

A horn called us to gather and Ecena divided our duties. Scouts, camp guards, regulars, the van.

“We have a few special assignments,” she announced, going down a slip of paper. I’d been waiting. Before she could announce the first, I raised my hand. She read off the first item, glanced about the company, her eyes meeting and passing over mine. The next duty, then the next. She ignored me. How would I distinguish myself? Gain back any of the renown I’d lost if I was never given the chance? The muster ended and the others split off with corporals for their assignments, but Ahdan beckoned me over.

I approached Ecena and Ahdan. Another day tending the fire, perhaps? Or ferrying buckets of water from the creek at the bottom of the hill?

“The captain has asked for you,” Ecena said, putting away her slip of paper and strapping on her shield. Ahdan handed her over her spear. “Don’t ask me why.”

“Don’t embarrass us, il-Lonirel.” Ahdan took up his own weapons and pointed off over the hills. “You know where the captain’s camp is?”

Only and idiot could miss it. There were flags and banners, a cloud of dust from the cathelles  and camels. Great tents, larger than all the rest. “Yes, sir,” I said.

“Go on. You’re expected before they march out.”

“Better run,” Ecena said with a cruel smile.

Of course I would. Chosen for a special assignment by the captain? I spun about without wasting a breath on their disdain and made haste for the captain’s camp.

The climb was a long one. My legs were burning by the time I dragged myself, panting, into the center of the camp. Everywhere, lieutenants and guards ran about, readying their charges, bearing messages and orders. I dodged camels and carts and hustling troupes of soldiers and made my way to where de Trastorces stood behind a table beneath a raised pavilion. There, I joined a dwindling line of reports and strove to catch my breath before I had to speak.

The chance never came. While I waited, sucking air and trying to calm my heaving chest, a silence seemed to wash around me. Nervous glances were cast my way, and before I could turn, hard fingers pressed into my shoulder. I spun about into the shiny-hard, lacquer face of Weckar.

Seldom had I been so closer to her. The fingers digging into my were like iron rods. Her red mouth was open a little and breath the scent of hot sand, baking earth, wafted out into my face. I cowered beneath those black orbs looking out from her mask of a face, beneath those milky-blue pupils.

“Ah,” de Trastorces voice came from behind me. “Is that the one? Boy, over here.”

I couldn’t turn, but I looked back over my shoulder while Weckar’s fingers kept a grip on my shoulder. “Go with Weckar,” the captain said. “She’s a duty for you. You’re to tell no one what you see or do. Understand?”

I nodded, swallowed. He waved me off and went back to his maps and reports. Weckar spun, raised a hand and curled a finger for me to follow. I did.

Striding along ahead of me, she seemed to glide on the air. A sound followed her, a rushing like the wind in the grasses. Not once did she turn back to ensure I was following, nor did she speak.

We approached a small tent, circular, wide enough for a man to lie down in, behind the massive construction of canvas that was de Trastorces’. At her approach, the banners outside the tent whipped in a sudden gust of wind. They were black with red sigils drawn on them, sigils that made my eyes water, curled and shivered lines that didn’t look stitched so much as drawn out of the fabric. Two men stood guard outside. The faceplates of their paper armor helms were solid expanses of white that covered their eyes and mouths and chins.

As we neared, they reached out and drew open the tent flaps. They didn’t speak. They didn’t turn or give any sign that we were heard.

Weckar passed in, into the dark, and I hesitated before following.

“Quickly, Heshim,” she said without turning. The words sighed out of her. I shook with terror, with the mention of my old name, but stepped inside. The men let the flaps fall closed and we were in darkness.

The smell was awful. I knew it well—blood. Death. The stink of emptied bowels and barely fresh meat.

In the dark, I heard nothing and couldn’t bear to move. It took all my efforts not to lurch back out the way I’d come in.

Malucente,” Weckar said. Light, light without a source, suffused the dim interior. Weckar was so close I could have touched the stiff white of her long robes, but I covered my mouth at what I saw.

One of ours—a conscript, stripped, lay on the ground. His guts had been spilled out of him. The grass all around had been scythed down to nubs and the leaves lay in a circular pattern, soaked in blood.

“You will bury him,” Weckar sighed. “Take him north, to the bend of the stream where there is an olive tree and a fallen log. You will see the stoneless place by the bank.”

I nodded. I couldn’t speak. My tongue had gone thick and heavy and my breakfast climbed the back of my throat.

The two guards came in, still eyeless. They threw a tarp over the man, wrapped him up, and took him out. Weckar and I followed. There was a dogcart with a single donkey to pull it, a single spade in the back. Their task done, the two men removed their masks, glanced at each other, at Weckar, and hustled away.

“Take him,” Weckar pointed. “Tell no one. I will know.” I believed her.


*          *          *


I collapsed into my bedroll without supper. Every time I thought of food, the dead-stink came back to me and I remembered how the tarp had fallen open, revealing a coil of intestine, when I heaved in the first spade-full of dirt. At least sleep would come quickly, even if my mind raced. I’d seldom been so exhausted.

I lay in the dark. From beyond the skin of dim canvas, voices and murmurs, the crackling of fire, snatches of song and laughter, reached my ears. From snatches of conversation, I gathered they’d found a rebel stronghold in the hills. A village that had been walled up, horses and camels, signs of carts and wagons and people going.

The sound of the tent flap. Movement in the dark. I pretended to sleep so whoever it was wouldn’t say anything.

“Hey.” Estevo’s voice. I kept my eyes closed, but then the smell of meat came on so strong and sudden in my nostrils that I heaved. I rolled away, desperate to hold my breath, and then the vomit came up my throat and it was too late.

Estevo muttered an apology while I spat out sick. Someone would find out. If I wasn’t careful, I’d have a black eye before morning when my tent-mates found out.

I sat up and Estevo stared at me in the dark. “Is it the slop? It’s the slop.” I shook my head, in no mood for the jokes. He squinted. “Are you sick?”

“No,” I said stupidly. I didn’t know what to answer. I recalled what Mire Storm had told me about Weckar several winters back. Weckar would know. She could be watching right now. What would I say? No, but Weckar sacrificed one of our own like the Lonireilans sacrifice rabbits to the Imperators. She only used his soul for darkest sorcery, and I buried him in secret in a shallow grave no one will find. Nothing important.

“Not sick, just… I can’t say.”

He stared for a moment. “I’ll eat your share then.” I nodded. He put the plate of rations aside and took up someone’s cast-aside shirt. “Let’s clean that up.”

We did, and Estevo ran off to dispose of the evidence. When he returned, he sat and set to  his second plate with gusto. My stomach had recovered enough that, watching him eat, I regretted my decision to avoid the soup pot that night.

“Big day tomorrow,” Estevo said. “I wanted to make sure you got food. But anyway, The Tash talked to her corporal and got us assigned with her. We’re attacking the rebel village.”

“What? Full force?”

“All of us.” He licked his plate. “I heard the wind is going to pick up at dawn.”

The thought made me shake. I almost threw up again.


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RAZE – 064 – Back to the Ground

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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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RAZE – 063 – The Duel

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I have taken part in forty-seven duels with forty-five different duelists. I count my brief duel with Askuwheteau on the shores of Rowatokon among the more difficult, as I do all duels with Crade warriors, although not the the most. Those, I reserve for duels with spirits, with Weckar and with the two-hearted khren Leuvesuis and with the Leaf Cutter. 

What followed was the most important duel of my life. I have only lost one duel.

I stood across from de Trastorces in a ring of conscripts and soldiers on the packed earth of the fort muster. He took up his smallsword, a straight, light weapon made for thrusting, a refined and modern blade, and slashed the air. In his white undershirt and uniform trousers, he cut a strange figure to a young man who had only ever seen him in armor or in full dress. His forearms were thin, his hair and mustache more rakish than I remembered.

Back on my side, the lieutenant moved off, taking the shovel with him.

I looked from the waiting captain to the scabbard-clad sword in my ash-clad hand.

My word against his. I hadn’t meant to, but I’d made him a liar. I’d questioned him in front of everyone. I’d cast doubt on the might of Lonireil itself.

Again I glanced up. De Trastorces hadn’t moved. Beside me, the lieutenant said something. “What?” I asked without a look.

“When you’re ready, move forward. Give me the scabbard.”

Near de Trastorces, Estevo pushed to the front of the circle. On another arc, I caught a glimpse of The Tash through the movements of the crowd. Never had she focused so intently as she did on me.

The captain paced to and fro, watching. He swished his sword again.

The eyes. I remembered the first time I’d seen him, commanding his men to take my house, beat my family, harm us, steal from us. He’d stolen me. My whole life. My sister’s life. And here I stood, staring across a circle of dry earth with the metal-and-leather grip of a sword pressing into my palm as my fist tightened around it. No consequence. The stars would judge.

I’d seen de Trastorces fight. He stood behind his men and shouted. He ordered and pointed with a stick, not a spear. When the barrages came, he cowered lowest. When the raiders got through the line, he went back, not forward.

I gripped the scabbard in a shaking fist and ripped it from the steel. The sound of the blade tore out, slashing the voices, shaping the following silence.

The scabbard rattled away as I threw it in the dirt. I marched forward. My heart hammered against my ribs, high and tight. My arms quivered with rage and my face twisted into a snarl. Each footfall was a drumbeat.

He was a commander, not a fighter. I’d fucking kill him.

He saluted, but I took my opportunity. I lunged.

With a sharp clang, he batted my blade aside and moved in a circle. Before I could bring my sword back, he slashed my forearm.

While he strolled away, I staggered, almost dropping my blade. My whole arm seized. Roaring, I swung about, cutting, but he stepped out of range. I followed, slashing back, swiping. Again, he batted my weapon aside. With a thrust, he jabbed his sword into my shoulder.

A shoulder wound is often shown to be the best of results. With a pained expression and manageable effort, our hero once again hefts his blade.

Not so. My arm hung dead and useless. Blood slicked the grip and the smallsword slipped out of my clutching, weak fingers. My ears roared and my breath raked.

“Pick it up.” De Trastorces strolled away, his back turned.

I hesitated, staring down at the bloodstained weapon, but all the blood was on the wrong end. My swagger had deserted me. I was hollow. The shaking of my hands had been from anger, but now…

“Pick it up!” He faced me. All around, the faces of my fellow conscripts and soldiers gaped, no longer excited, but somber. As ones watching a funeral.

Bending down, I picked up the sword in my off hand. The weight was unfamiliar, the hand unresponsive. This was my shield hand. But I had no more time to think on it, for de Trastorces came on with fury in his pale eyes.

I fell back but he came too fast. With one swipe, he smashed the sword out of my hand. It arced away and the watchers dived to avoid it. But still he came on, and before the steel landed in the dust he cut, backhanded.

The sense was red-white. A searing agony shrieked with urgency, blossomed, flooded through me from my belly outward, consuming.

I fell, for a moment blinded. The agony was immediately, somehow, distant. I looked.

The cut had knocked me down, or perhaps I’d tried to avoid it. In the dirt, looking up through the ash and smoke at a darkening sky, I lay, unsure what had happened. When I looked down, it was at a wash of red spreading over my stomach through my undershirt.

The pain began to return. I reached for the end of the shirt and pulled it up as de Trastorces began to speak, addressing the watchers. He sounded as if he was far away, in a high wind. No one moved to help me. With fingers that moved slow and heavy, as they do in a dream, I gripped the warm, wet shirt.

De Trastorces finished what he was saying. The crowd dispersed as he approached me, the sword still hanging from his hands, its tip stained red.

“Next time you question me, boy, I’ll cut the worms out of you.”

I barely heard him. My eyes were dragged down as I slowly, so slowly, pulled up my shirt.

My stomach was sliced. Blood sluiced out over my skin. That is all I remember.


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RAZE – 062 – The Stars Will Judge

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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.

“Going what?”

“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?”

“She 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?”

“No, sir.”

“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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RAZE – 061 – Shadow and Silver

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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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RAZE - a weekly fantasy web serial

RAZE – 060 – Relieved

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I did not manage to speak to Yamurik before we made the checkpoint at the border of Avandeil the next day.

Until then, the Hand spoke little. A dark pall was over the caravan. Ecena and Ahdan rode at the front without waiting for my orders, and I didn’t think of giving them commands to the contrary. I suppose I hoped that some concessions would soften their memory of my failure.

At midmorning, with the heat rising, we neared the checkpoint. Ahead, the dry grasses greened as they rose into the foothills. I looked back to ensure the last of the caravan was coming without delay and that none of the raiders who had outwitted us were watching.

The road had risen more than I’d realized. It fell away below, a long, gentle slope of yellow in a waving, gray field. The plains were marred by the dots of trees and scrub plants, by dark cracks of arroyos, by seams like folds in a dun cloth. Behind us, the sky had grown dark as smoke as thunderheads built and roiled up. A storm, on its way south to the mountains to match my mood. A fitting portent.

At the base of the foothills, we found many workers in loincloths or sacklike trousers. They were hard at work on a wall, stretching away for leagues to east and west, five yards high. Lonireilans in white armor patrolled about them in fours, pale-faced men on camelback with long lances. There was a gap in the wall, a future gate but now just a way through the work where the road passed. Dozens, hundreds of wagons and hundreds more camels and oxen bore stone out of the mountains, wood for the walls. On high timber towers men kept watch with great handcannons, heavy iron weapons with silver filigree and little curls of smoke rising from their wicks. Their bearers watched us, the black mouths of their guns following us, lowered but ready, as the caravan processed up the hill and made way for stone-laden carts and braying camels and troupes of soldiers.

By the time we reached the checkpoint village, the wind was coming in strong, kicking up the dust of the square. Low timber buildings surrounded us, higher warehouses behind them, carriage houses and stables scattered throughout. Other traders were shouting and arguing with tariff men and customs officials in bright yellow robes. Squads of mercenaries loitered, some going about offering their services, others waiting to depart with their new, temporary masters. Above all the noise and furor, a house of yellow, cut stone looked down from a higher hill where it perched, narrow arching bridgeways and curling towers and pointed, elegant windows. Greenish sigils shone in the fading light from on the stone and brass ornaments hung above doorways. More Lonireilans patrolled the walls around it and stared down from the checkpoint customs-house rooftops and watched from towers. If I had raised a spear in anger, a dozen crossbow bolts and as many burning lead bullets would have tear me apart.

My soldiers went to the nearest barracks for supplies. Yamurik’s guards, the very few that remained, left after collecting their much-reduced pay. Ecena accompanied me as I followed Yamurik and his attendants to one of the customs houses.

The woman that greeted us was tall, skeletal, gray-haired. Her Lonireilan was so proper I could scarcely follow it. She stood on a timber porch and stared down imperiously, with her clerks at her sides and officers, men in white armor with short, sharp swords, watching carefully. She and Yamurik spoke and there was a good deal of talk of me and Ecena as well as blame cast on the Lonireilans.

Nabani raiders had carried off a portion of Yamurik’s opium on Lonireil’s doorstep. His shipment was late, and less than expected. Blame was cast, at the Lonireilans, and then at their representative in his contingent: me. There was little to say. That I had killed a handful of raiders? No. I had failed.

*    *     *


We waited while the thunderstorm blacked the sky and churned the dust to mud. We waited while sheets of hard rain lashed at our tent, for there was no room in the barracks.

Traveling back to Onappa-ka, we went with wagons half-laden, for Yamurik had not been able to buy all the supplies he wanted. This made his mood fouler, and we did not speak at all during the fortnight’s journey.

Onappa-ka was much the same. We had a barracks near Yamurik’s compound, which had grown larger and greater. He had fifty wagons and four hundred oxen just to pull them. A thousand laborers went to his fields in the day, a thousand to his opium vats at night. The fires never slept. Smoke belched from the towers. Now he spent little time at his offices, instead leaving that responsibility to clerks and partners. He stayed at his house and his gardens, or traveled, or entertained lofty guests and visiting businessmen from Lonireil and Canifar and Ria Vancha. Runners went to and fro all day, bearing him news and bearing back his decisions.

In the summer, it was hot and wet. The fields were green with ripening poppies, but they had not had their second bloom yet. Lonireilans guarded the walls of Onappa-ka, and new homes were being built for the settlers who had come up from the south to work and farm and till gold from the fields and squeeze it from Serehvani sweat.

When I arrived, I went straight to report, as I knew I must. Eventually, my report reached de Trastorces.

Estevo was called. Ecena and Ahdan. Finally I.

De Trastorces met me in his offices in the keep below the hill. Weckar was not there, thankfully. Two lieutenants stood by the captain.

He questioned me on the raiders and our attack. What we had found. What we gained. Why I had left the caravan, and what we’d lost.

His hard, pale eyes glared out from a hard, pale face. His brow reddened at my answers.

“So.” He drew a breath and blew it through his nostrils. The lieutenants stared straight ahead, but I thought one of them had been about to grin at me. “I am supposed to believe that you, a Nabani, did your utmost to defend our cargo when, to my mind, it appears that you led your force away in order to leave Lonireil’s interests unguarded?”

I was stricken. I must have opened my mouth and closed it, but made no sound.

“We lost thousands of impexas. Yamurik’s loss is even greater, and he is demanding recompense from us for it. How long do you think it will take for you to earn that money?”

“Sir, that is not what happened.” It occurred to me that I’d never thought to be paid. I had food and a place to sleep. I was alive. For now. “We didn’t leave them to be attacked. I swear, sir.”

He swatted the air and stood, thumping the table. “If your people’s stories didn’t corroborate yours, I wouldn’t believe it. As it is, it appears you only failed, sergeant, instead of betrayed. You don’t seem a traitor, but you seem incompetent.” I waited. He breathed again, then sat. “You’re relieved of command. Ecena will be sergeant. She saw the danger and went back and saved part of the caravan. You and your other corporal…” he looked aside at one of the lieutenants, who checked a paper in his hand as my heart turned to wet mud.

“Estevo Nabrera, captain.”

“Nabrera. You and he are to be lashed and retained in service as conscripts in your current unit. Three hundred lashes in the muster tomorrow. You’ll parade your unit up and transfer your authority to Ecena at noon.”

I must have been escorted out. The next thing I remembered was telling Estevo, back in the barracks.

We sat at our little officer’s table, a rickety wooden thing to one side of the small canteen. It was late and no one else was about. I wouldn’t tell Ecena. She could find out at the last moment. I didn’t need her smug face till then, and then I would have other things to pay mind to.

Estevo sat, wordless, till his cigarette burned to his fingertips and he swore and shook it away. He sucked his finger and gave me a sideways look.

“We could run. Tonight. You and me.”

I shook my head and studied the wood grain of the table. “They’d catch us.”

“Not if we took extra horses.”

“You’re scheming again.”

“No, I don’t want to be whipped again. Lick of shit. Hang this place, and hang de Trastorces.” I shushed him, in case someone might come in to hear, but he waved me off. “No, hang him. Hang this whole thing.” He subsided back into his seat.

I clenched my jaw. “Tomorrow I’ll try to… I’ll ask for your lashes. It wasn’t your fault.”

“They’ll just say I should have stopped you or disobeyed and ran off with Ecena.”

“No, it’s not right. It was my fault.”

We didn’t say anything for a minute. Estevo reached for his pouch, but had no more tobacco. He swore again.

“No. I’ll take my lashes, il-Lonireil. You and me.”

“And the rest can hang,” I finished. I meant it.


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