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The balance of all decisions, which are all of life and death, is the difference of the weight of a feather. Coffee, or wine? Go, or stay? Speak, or listen? Hesitate, or strike?

RAZE - a weekly fantasy web serial

RAZE – Interlude I

I have written all that you have read that you might better understand some of the things to come to pass later; and I ask that you remember Weckar and Mire Storm, Yamurik and my sister Navat, who spoke to me the night the Lonireilans took me, and who has yet a part to play in the tale I’ll relate.

A few years passed between what I will now tell and the night we captured the smugglers and stopped the flow of refugees, for a time, out of Onappa-ka. However, that act precipitated certain others, others which took years to culminate.

Rouk province mustered its forces again and again, in summer and in autumn, and smashed themselves against the Lonireilan army in Onappa-ka in the hopes of taking the city back. Each time, we repulsed them with jagged spears and barbed arrows and high fortifications. The wind cut them to ribbons on the plain. Many I knew died. I was lucky enough to escape unharmed, at least in body.

The Tash and I never came as close to touching as we did that night in the hospital. We avoided each other at the mess table, in the training hall. Some shared horror drew, but repulsed us. We could not give voice or action to the thoughts that plagued and tormented us. Nights I lay alone in my bunk, knowing she was only a few steps away. My heart aches to think of it, even now. If you have passed the age we were, you will understand how our desires raged, and you may understand our disgust and shame and horror at the very idea of pursuing them.

It is enough to know that in the intervening years, I became fluent in Lonireilan. I continued to practice and train in war, with bow and spear, sword and shield, using such activities to distract myself when the nightmares came or when my thoughts raced or my adolescent desires surged. I thought myself quite adept and, in our little company, I suppose I was.

Know that I became sergeant of our company when Uruverres took an arrow in her shoulder and got a rot. She died, but de Trastorces named me as her successor. This was a source of great pride.

And know that, in the great chain of acts and challenges and mistakes that followed, many more of the same were set in motion, and that some of them have not yet heard the last of their echoes, and that the meeting of myself and Weckar, Navat, and Mire Storm, has led me to this cell, and this pen, and this page.

Continue to Part II

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RAZE - a weekly fantasy web serial

RAZE – 055 – The Reward of Service

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Urnan grinned down at his work, but I could see the error I’d made in bringing bows. “He’s going to bleed to death.” I seized the man’s coat collar and lifted him. “Who were you going to meet? Who else is helping you? Tell me and we’ll help you.”

He groaned and spat. The hot flecks made me blink and I wiped with the back of my hand, bile rising in my throat even as I gasped from the effort of the fight and chase. Before I could say anything, he spoke.

“I’m not afraid to die. Lonnie ox-milkers. Do your worst, we won’t stop fighting you.”

His voice slurred. The blood from his leg was hot, damping my own trouser leg, filling a black circle beneath us. He was dying. The arrow had hit one of the vital channels and blood pumped out in thick spurts.

“Tell me what I want to know, or death will be far from the worst we can do,” I said, but his head was lolling. He slurred insults in response.

Urnan and I half-lifted, half-dragged him back to the intersection. His breathing grew weaker and his grip slacker. A grisly trail showed where we’d brought him from the alley. Urnan strutted and bragged, and I knew he could easily steal what glory remained of the night if our catch died. Then, the achievement would be the death of the smugglers, not the ending of the escapes. Urnan had abandoned me and almost gotten me killed. It was luck he’d come back when he did. Wasn’t it? The more I thought, the more convenient his arrival seemed. I had to deal with him.

Urnan watched over the dying smuggler while I went for aid. Soon, I found a crew of Lonireilan patrollers and told them where to meet me with a cart. Meanwhile, I ran back to Urnan and the smuggler, used my belt to tourniquet his leg, and we began carrying him up the road. The cart caught up with us halfway to the fort.

While we sat in the back, bouncing and jostling, the man stared. He stopped speaking. Blood made slippery the cart floor, and soon he was still. We arrived, but could not rouse him.

A sergeant in charge of the fort night watch ordered us to wait. Soon, Fahil and Hamed arrived along with the Tash, escorting the escapee family. They waited with us while the prisoners were taken away. Tash’s face was bleeding, and she went to the hospital.

Uruverres came, but stood some distance away and spoke to none of us. While the sky grew lighter and the snows let up, we waited, shivering and alone, beside a dying fire. None of us spoke. We were being watched, guarded, by a few members of the fortress garrison, who stood off from us a little.

I chanced a whisper to the others. “We have nothing to hide. If they ask where the equipment came from, just tell them it was me.” Fahil grinned and nodded enthusiastically. Urnan stared. Hamed gave a short nod. “Thanks, corporal,” he said under his breath.

“You look out for us,” Fahil agreed.

“I took them. I’ll take blame, and the rest of you will share the reward only. We did well tonight.” I looked at Urnan. “All of us.” His suspicious look cracked with a small upturning of his lip.

De Trastorces emerged, finally, from the fort. He spoke with Uruverres, then went back inside. She came to us and pointed at Fahil. “You first.”

“Sergeant.” I raised a hand. “Allow me to explain. They were following my orders.”

Uruverres raised a finger for silence, then pointed at Fahil again. “I said you first. Come on.” She led Fahil away in silence.

One by one she came for each of them. After their questioning, each left the fortress without a backward glance, headed back to town and our outpost in Yamurik’s compound. I was last.

Uruverres took me to a small room where de Trastorces waited. He was sipping coffee. The smell was intoxicating, but I knew I had to keep my wits.

The room was bare, the walls fresh planks. It was part of the new fort, the upper portion built atop the hill which had once been a cave house. Uruverres stood. De Trastorces sat at a small table in one corner, his legs crossed, facing me as if about to watch an entertainment. They sat me in a hard little chair at the center of the room, with a couple of lamps providing all the light. It was dim and stank of sweat and fear.

Uruverres’ broad, stiff-uniformed chest filled my view. She stood over me, glaring, in a long silence.

Finally she broke it with questions. I took responsibility for stockpiling unlisted equipment. I denied plans to sell it or give it to enemies.

She turned to de Trastorces. He nodded, and she returned her glare to me. “For stealing property of Lonireil, you’ll have two hundred lashes tonight at evening muster.”

My heart turned to cold dirt.

She turned her questions to the night’s events. Here was my chance to redeem myself, and to ensure my good effort was recognized. I put the lashes behind me and focused.

“Where did you learn of these smugglers and refugees?”

“Suspicion, ma’am. And I was told after the last escape that there were conspirators in Onappa-ka.”

“So the trap was yours.”

“Yes.”

“And you did not inform me of your plans because…”

“Ma’am. Because…” I paused. Careful. My developing grasp of Lonireilan might betray me. I composed the next words in my head. “I wanted to show my plan was sound, alone.”

“Misguided, il-Lonireil.” I had no response. She said nothing more for a moment, then, “we had a report. The homes of the men you caught were searched. I have squads out rounding up three more of their compatriots based on information we found. We also discovered weapons and some of Yamurik’s opium, apparently stolen.”

I didn’t answer. It seemed like a test. What she was telling me was that I had been successful, despite the smuggler’s death, beyond my wildest hopes.

“What we’ve found is important.” She circled in front of me. De Trastorces stood up beside her and dabbed his mustache with a napkin. “This may have been the beginnings of an insurgent group. So that much was well done. And, because you’ve taken full responsibility for the theft of equipment, we’d like to reward the soldiers who followed your orders in helping bring these miscreants to justice.”

I named Fahil, Hamed, and of course, the Tash, as the ones who had aided me. “And Estevo.” They looked confused. “He didn’t aid directly, but he helped me plan. He is loyal and has a quick mind. He deserves some credit.”

Uruverres seemed to consider this. “And what of Urnan? He said he brought down the escaping smuggler.”

I shook my head and strove to come through as clear and honest. “He deserted us. Almost brought down the whole thing.”

“Indeed?” de Trastorces finally said. “But he claims to have been chosen to help.”

“He was, but he left.” I licked my lips. “The Tash can tell you. I mean, not tell you. But you can ask her. She was watching over me. She saw him leave. I killed the smuggler. Urnan returned in time to claim honor, unearned, for himself.”  

They conferred, leaving me alone, and a moment later went to the door, called a runner, and gave him instruction. We waited in silence a long time.

When the runner finally returned, he whispered to Uruverres. She returned to me with a grave look. “Tash agrees that Urnan left just before the attack.”

It took all my effort not to blow out a breath of relief.

“For what you’ve done,” she paused. “We rescind the two hundred lashes.” This time, I did blow out that breath. “And sentence you to twenty-five.” My face must have fallen. “Your plan was good, but you should have informed me. What you did worked out well, but could have cost you and your team. Next time, bring me such a plan, and I will help you enact it.”

I set my jaw and nodded, and hoped they did not see me trembling. This was not the trembling of fear. It was rage. I was to be punished for my success. That they reduced the sentence was no matter. 

 I was escorted out to the yard. As I made for the fort gates, my pace slowed. My mind was racing, my fury high and hot. Punish me, when I had unearthed and led to the removal of an insurgent group? The reward of service was a light sentence, was to be whipped in front of the troupe.

I stopped and turned, instead of leaving, and went to the hospital.

The Tash wasn’t badly hurt, but her cut needed stitching. She sat, waiting, holding a reddening towel to her face, just inside. I took a place beside her in silence for a while. The tent was warm and full of strange, medicinal smells, not quite able to cover the lingering sweet-stench of rot, of sickness, of death. The medicos went about their business, attending to others.

“Uruverres talked to me.” I decided not to tell her the real story about Urnan. Better she had no idea. “You did well. As always.” The Tash made a brief grunt. Now, as usual, she sat staring at her knees, the ends of her hair in her eyes.

Her hand moved. On the chair’s arm, it shifted, and for a second I thought she was reaching out to me.

An adolescent impulse filled my mind, overtook my brain. A warmth that came to me only in my bunk, asleep, ignited and kindled inside me. I moved my fingers toward hers. Then, before they touched, we both drew away. The impulse in my head, so pleasant and urgent at first, rotted and grew foul. Our bodies, our skin touching… the very idea terrified me. I couldn’t bear the thought of someone touching me the way I had just imagined.

We sat in our chairs, drawn apart, but neither of us willing to move away.

 *      *      *

Dear friends, thus ends the first chapter of my life, and the first part of my service to Lonireil. And though this is a sort of ending, the tale goes on.

 


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RAZE – 054 – A String Snaps

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The two spread out, cutting me off from town and with the cold river on the other side. The heavy-browed man raised his knife. His companion’s face was hidden in a scarf, his head covered in a traditional wrapped turban, not unlike mine. The first flicked his weapon at the ground. “Drop the spear. Two of us, one of you, and this isn’t worth dying over.”

“Hurry it up,” the second man said to his companion. “He’ll be along soon, and he don’t wait.”

“He’ll wait. He don’t get paid if he don’t wait,” the first replied. He kept my gaze. There was no fear in his eyes. “See sense, boy. Put it down.”

There was no surviving a surrender. My heart began pounding. A cool, tingling wave flooded through me. It was fight or die. “If I put down my spear, you’ll kill me anyway.”

“Naw.” The man spread his arms unconvincingly. “Boy, if you–”

It was the only chance I’d have. I drove at him with the spear.

By this time, I’d been training for months, daily, often for many hours each day. My muscles had become hard and solid. The thrusts of my spear were fast and confident. The shield on my arm was familiar as my sleeve.

The thrust caught him in the side, slid past. He moved faster than any sparring partner. Before I could recover, the scarfed man hit my side and drove me into the snow cold. I struggled against him, dropped the spear and struck out with the shield, but then the first was on me too. They caught my arms, despite a few glancing blows I landed.

Almost any warrior will tell you that fighting two at once is quick passage to a funeral. I’d been told this. I just thought I was better.

The second man straddled me to hold me down. The first swore and held his side, where blood welled out in rivulets between his fingers, dripped in trails on the snow. In the night and dark, it was black. “I’ll cut this dog-milker’s throat.” He groaned. “Lonnie ox-shit. He cut me. It’s bleeding.”

I fought back, but the second man held me down. The first knelt and put his knife to my neck.

Their faces glared down, two pale demons in the black of night. Two foes at once is a match for even the best warrior standing alone.

It’s good I wasn’t.

They looked up at the Tash’s roar. She raced upon us out of the dark like a black-winged hoza. Her cry took them off guard. The spear flashed out, an oily glint, and skewered the man atop me. He fell away, grunting, gasping, trying to clutch the spear. Tash fell on me and my legs and arms tangled up with hers and with the skewered smuggler’s.

The stabbed one backed away. He staggered a few steps and shouted. Before I could extricate myself, he ran. The family waiting nearby ran as well, but at their attempt to follow he slashed out wildly with his knife, warding them off.

Meanwhile, the man atop me flailed with his knife. The blade caught the Tash a glancing blow and something flared in me at her cry of pain. I caught his arm, felt fire in my hand, but pulled the blade away. The Tash reared up, jerked her spear free, then fell back and drove at him with all her weight. The point tore through him and his gasps became gurgles. She stabbed again while I ripped myself free of them. Beneath wild hair and her helm, the Tash looked up at me, and her black eyes flashed with life like I had never seen in her before. A black line, the knife’s cut, marred her cheek and lip, but she was alright.

The shouts had attracted attention. Hamed and Fahil arrived, out of breath, staring in shock. I didn’t wait or explain, however, but ran after the fleeing smuggler. “Tash, Fahil, get them!” I pointed at the weeping family. “Hamed, with me!” Without pausing to see if they followed my orders, I redoubled my haste.

The smuggler darted through the nighttime shadows between the low houses, headed into the city from the river. His form flashed in the snow. I chased footprints, a few black dots of fallen blood on the snow. I squinted in the dark and gritty cold. All around us, alarm bells began to sing. Other Lonireilan soldiers shouted and called to one another. I raised my voice, hoping to draw others to me, to box him in, but my breath caught with cold and effort.  

I stood at an intersection. In the gusts of snow, the deep cloud, the street and houses were nothing but a gray haze and low, squat shapes. Lamps were lit in a few windows, casting out soft yellow glows, catching the snowflakes to flash like embers for a moment as they whipped past. The cries of my fellows were all around. He would have to have gone to ground. He would try to hide.

I looked behind me. No Hamed. I needed his bow, but doubted anyone could shoot straight in this dark and wind anyway. It was then my glance caught blood droplets again, a few quickly-disappearing dark spots. I ran to them, saw footprints that were too fresh to be anyone else’s, and followed.

A shout came from an alley. I spun. Where was my spear? I’d dropped it, hadn’t I. From the alley emerged not my quarry, however, but Urnan, his bow in hand and an arrow nocked. “I might have used you,” I hissed. “They saw you leave.”

“Well I’m here now, aren’t I?” He peered into the dark. “Where is he?”

I looked about, found the vanishing prints. They led to an alley. “Through here.”

At my voice and approach, a shape moved. The man leapt up from behind some refuse and ran. Before I could shout or chase, Urnan fired.

In the alley, the wind was blocked. The way was narrow. It was hard to miss, even in the dark.

The bowstring snapped and the man fell with a yelp. I ran, bore down on him, tackled him. He’d already dropped his knife, so I snatched it up and held it to his neck while he grimaced and groaned and held his leg. There, the arrow protruded from his thigh. Blood, far too much blood, boiled out into the snow.

“There.” Urnan stood behind me, another arrow ready. “Told you I’d shoot him in the leg.”

 


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RAZE – 053 – A Good Night

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It would be that night. I was certain.

I made my usual inspection before evening shift, then took a few trusted ones aside. The Tash, Hamed, Urnan, and Fahil. These were all Nabani or Opaci, ones like me who had been taken from the southern provinces when the Lonireilans invaded Serehvan. Hamed had started shaving his head after he got a wound on his scalp. Urnan was very pale and had a soft look that the army had not been able to destroy. He was a rich man’s son, and it was said he had joined readily. It was said he killed his own family when they fought back against a Lonireilan tribute-collector who came to their village.

Fahil was Opaci, like the Tash, and seemed to know the Tash from home. He looked like her, with course hair and a deep brown face. He was fearful and obedient, and I had beaten him once for cowardice during training. Since then he always fought hard, delivering the beatings rather than taking them. He was big, almost as big as me, strong and tough but inclined to gentleness that did not suit our company, The Hand of the Knife.

I took them to the storage shed on the outskirts of Yamurik’s compound, and made them wait outside while I retrieved my supplies. The bows went to Hamed and Urnan. I wanted the Tash and Fahil with me, in case things got rough. Urnan asked where I got the new equipment while I distributed the manacles and belt pouches.

“None of your concern. And I need it back.”

He tested the weight of the draw. “Tell me I get to shoot something.”

“Maybe.” Now that we were equipped, I sent the Tash ahead to make sure we wouldn’t be observed on our way out of the compound, back toward the river. She already knew the plan, but the others didn’t, so I explained as we closed up the shed and set off, following her footprints.

The snow fell in small, hard flecks. The wind gusted. It would be a good night for refugees, with poor visibility and distracted, uncomfortable night watchers. Many patrols would shirk their duties and hide out in the eaves of houses or woodpiles. More chances for our glory.

I almost fell in the river as the bank suddenly dropped away at my feet. I stumbled and caught myself. The river was white as the ground, the ice covered over with a thin sheet of snow. How thick was it, and where would they try to cross? I guessed I should have tried to find out before, but I knew where we had found the man in the river, and that seemed good enough to me. I motioned to my followers for quiet and turned along the river. We met the Tash not far from the house where she had sheltered. She gave a sign that the way was clear.

Blinking against the snow, I pointed to two vantage points where the hovels encroached on the river for Urnan and Hamed. “You’re to shoot at my signal. Not early. The goal is to capture the one smuggling people, not kill everyone.”

“I’ll aim for their legs,” Urnan said. “We can take them easily if they can’t run.” In my youth and inexperience, I thought it a reasonable compromise. And what would be the use of bows if we didn’t use them?  He went to a ruined shack upriver of our position. Hamed went atop the lower roof of a house that had a second story. There, he could hide against the dark of the upper floor and keep a good eye out over much of the river. He and I worked out a sound, a whistle, that was to mean someone was coming.

It was my task to patrol the riverfront. A single, young guard would be as much bait as the patroller from before, except I would be ready. The Tash shadowed me at a distance. Fahil hid in the back of a house, within sprinting distance.

My error became clear very soon. With my teeth chattering, the wind gusting, flakes tapping against my hat and high leather collar, I could scarcely hear. Even with my eyes accustomed to dark, the clouds blocked even the silver moon’s light, and I had not brought a lamp or lantern, knowing it would only blind me. Now, I wished I had it. At least then the others might be able to see if the lamp went out.

I stalked up and down the riverbank. My tracks disappeared in the blowing snow, leaving only a long, narrow rut. Sometimes, I strayed from even that. I lost my path and ended up beside a house or stumbling on the riverbank again. The cold bit my face, chilled my nose and my gloved fingertips on the haft of my spear. The only sound was the tap-tapping of the snowflakes and the rustle of my long coat, shifting in the wind.

A shape appeared ahead of me, a dark figure in the snows. I slowed. My breath caught. My heart, hammering, rose higher in my chest, pushed against my throat. I readied my spear and approached, then raised my voice. “Who goes? Name yourself.”

“It’s me.”

I cursed and lowered my weapon. “Lick of shit, Urnan.”

He tromped closer, his pale face gone pink with the cold, hunkered low in his collar. “It’s freezing out here.”

“You’re on patrol. I shitlicking know it’s freezing. You’re supposed to be watching.”

“This is pointless. No one’s going to run from town on a night like this.” I shoved him with a push to the center of his chest. He slipped in the snow and fell, then arose in a rush, snarling. “Hey!”

“Hey?” I shoved him again, and again he fell. “I’m in charge, Urnan. Get back to your post.” So much for being trustworthy.

“We’re not even supposed to be out here.” He glared from where he sat on  his backside on the ground. “Are we?”

This I couldn’t answer. Before I could make up some bluster, he went on.

“I’ll tell Uruverres. Then what?”

“Get back to the barracks.” My mind raced. If he squealed it would be an end to my plan. “Dry off. You’re relieved for the rest of the shift.”

His snarl twisted into a sly grin. “Thank you, sir.” He overemphasized the title.

I watched while he disappeared into the snow and dark, then stomped and lashed out with my spear at the snow. The gash I made in the powdery surface vanished as soon as I’d made it. I spun and tromped back along my path.

I’d have to deal with him. Until something happened, my plan would be in danger of his telling someone. If he told Ecena, she would surely look for a way to challenge my position. Uruverres might even give it to her. The thought crossed my mind that I should have killed Urnan, rather than send him back.

As I neared his old post by the ruined shack, Urnan returned. I saw his shape appear, just as it had before, in the blowing snow. I cursed and moved toward him, then slowed as he drew near.

He was much too large to be Urnan.

“Evening, soldier.” It was a man, with a clean-shaved face and bushy black brows. He wore heavy clothes and, in the wind and snow and dark, I saw a knife in his hand, his body turned to try to hide it from me. “Bad night to be out alone. Cold and snow. Should have kept your friend near.”

My stomach fell. Urnan had gone. His post stood unguarded, and we were surely too far for Fahil or Hamed to see.

Behind the man a family huddled. They watched nervously, holding packs high on their backs. Another man pointed them toward the river, then approached me along with the first.

“Bad night,” the smuggler said again. He took a step toward me. “Really bad.”


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Many thanks to my Patron (via Patreon): Donna Palmer.
Click the link if you’d like to be a Patron too. Set your own monthly donation amount and help me support this ad-free story and improve the site and experience of Raze, and get some cool stuff!

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RAZE – 052 – Hang the Rest

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


I was marking some inventory in our little storehouse that had been set up in Yamurik’s compound. It was evening; too early still to go hunting. The snows had returned and the sky was thick with cloud, so it would be a bad night to be out, and hard to see, and hard to hunt. A good night for refugees to run from Onappa-ka. My hands shook and it took extra concentration to write the numbers on my list correctly. I passed a trunk without looking behind it and smiled. There were fine things behind there, a few bows I had traded from another company and some manacles, in belt pouches, to make it easier to transport my prizes once I caught them. There was nothing wrong with having these things, of course, except that I had not gone through the proscribed procedures. I didn’t want word getting out. Who knew if the smugglers might be getting aid from one of us? I didn’t want to risk a traitor destroying my chance to further myself.

The door opened. The storeroom was small enough that I had to move to avoid being struck by it. I shifted aside and Estevo stuck in his head, grinned, and then entered and shut the door behind him. He stood with me in the dark and I scowled.

“What is that stupid smile for, shitlick?”

“Just happy to see my best friend.” He pushed past, deeper into the storehouse, and perused a shelf of preserved fish, packed in jars. “Checking the stocks?”

“You seem to be feeling better.”

“Much recovered, thanks.” He struck a cigarette and the fumes filled the room. I tapped him and he passed to me and we stood for a few minutes, sharing the smoke.

“Why did you move me to morning shift?” He went to a barrel and used it as a table to began one of his rituals: unrolling the butt of the cigarette and saving the bit of tobacco there by rolling it into another, part-constructed smoke.

Before he could fully untwist the end, I said, “Hey, I’ll take the rest of that. I want to share it with Tash.”

He gave me a sly smile. “You trading her for something?”

I turned back to a shelf to cover my embarrassment. “No. I owe her. I think she’s still mad over the river thing.”

He didn’t say anything for a long breath, then “I’ll give you a fresh one.” I turned back and watched him. Standing awkwardly to allow the light of the one lamp to pass him, he took a little pouch from under his hat, extracted a half-full cigarette, and untwisted it. He laid the paper and weed atop the barrel and began shaking the remnants of the one we’d smoked into it. Bits of ash mixed into the dry leaf. He claimed, in jest, that the charcoal taste added character.

This done, he returned the half-full one to his pouch, then produced another, completed roll and held it out to me. I made to take it, but he didn’t let go at first.

“Morning shift,” he said. “I know you’re up to something. I want in.”

I gave him a single nod. He let go and I hid the cigarette in my own hat. “The refugees. I have a plan, but I need my nights free.”

“So you’re cutting me out?”

“No. I’m giving you a better shift and time to recover. And responsibility.” I’d learned the word recently and was gratified to see I hadn’t used it incorrectly. However, I didn’t want to tell him more than I had to. “What about your recovery?”

“I’m fine.” He waved dismissively.

“I never heard what happened.”

“But you can guess.”

The image, stripes of red on dingy sheets, came back to me. One wound made that kind of mark.

“What did you do?”

He returned his attention to the shelves, moving along them with a finger out as he read the labels on the jars and pot s and wooden boxes. “What do we need saffron for?”

“Gorbez uses it. For his Skertah.”

“Damn alchemists. How much do you think it’s worth?” I didn’t answer. He kept moving along the shelf, till he got to the tobacco. “You know I do morning inventory, right? Now that that’s my shift. Hey, why don’t you get the Tash tobacco of your own?”

“I don’t have any.”

“You’ve got a whole box right here.” He opened the box, then the paper wrapping inside, and inhaled deeply.

“That’s not mine. It’s not for us.”

“Who’s it for then? It’s been sitting here for months.”

“It’s not ours.”

He took the box and inhaled again, then sat on the trunk. The trunk behind which I’d hidden my supplies. He leaned back against the wall, then glanced down and back up disinterestedly. “I got found out. Taking extra food from the line and then trading it or selling it,” he said. He put the box down, leaned forward, and pulled his smock away from his neck. In the deep shadow cast by the lamp on the very top of his shoulder, I could just make out the whorled, scabbed flesh where a whip wound was still healing. “Food,” he said, “that was going to be pig feed if we didn’t eat it.” He let his smock fall back and then leaned against the wall again with an uncomfortable expression.

“You stole from Lonireil,” I said. “What did you think would happen?”

“What do you think will happen?” Absently, he let a hand fall behind the trunk. He picked up one of the little leather manacle pouches and inspected it. I said nothing. He waited and finally met my gaze again. My face burned. Rage flared behind my eyes.

“I’m not interested in being a rat,” he said. “But you’re going your own way, too. I can help you. I want to help you. Lonireil–do you really think they care about you?”

“This is my life,” I began.

“It wasn’t always.”

“I don’t want to talk about that.”

“They hate you. They’re using you. At least me they consider a real Lonireilan, even if I am just a laborer’s son.” He patted his shoulder. “And look what they did when I took a few biscuits. They owe us. We need to look out for ourselves, because they’d just as soon kill us as pay us. What do you think they’ll do if they find out you’re stealing weapons?” He leaned forward. I saw genuine concern and pity in his eyes. I knew what was coming and yet I suddenly, fervently prayed to Salat and Oulesur that he wouldn’t say it.

He spoke. “Don’t you remember what happened to you?”

My efforts were futile. Tears stung my eyes. I spun away rather than let him see, but I couldn’t hide the sudden sob. It was the first anyone had mentioned what had happened in a long time, not since de Trastorces had first been kind to me. Memory flooded back, memories I didn’t want. My pain. My parents. My sisters and brother. They’d killed Punam. Weckar had killed Punam right in front of me.

I heard his footsteps. His hand met my shoulder and I spun away, a curse on my lips. Instead of striking him, I fell and hit my head on the door.

My vision went wild with bright flares. When it cleared, Estevo was crouched beside me, shaking my shoulder and saying my name. “Il Lonireil. Hey. You alright?”

I nodded. His hand felt nice for a moment, and then I withdrew with sudden revulsion and horror. He stayed crouched and I forced myself to breathe, breathe till it passed. Finally, I got up, refusing his hand, and he rose.

He went back to his box of tobacco and picked it up. “You and I can watch out for each other, il Lonireil.” He faced me again, holding his prize. “You and me. Hang the rest.”

“Hang the rest,” I repeated.

“I’m taking this. I’ll help hide your supplies when I take inventory. You and me, we’ll protect each other. Here, you need a better hiding place.” He showed me how I might hide the supplies in the rafters instead. It was better. There was old sailcloth and wood stakes and some other junk up there, and when it was done you couldn’t see anything was amiss. He hid the tobacco in his smock and trousers, then went to the door. “Hey. With your plan. Tell me if I can help.”

I nodded again. He left, and I was alone with my stolen things and sorrows and many new thoughts.

 


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RAZE – 051 – A Snare

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


There wouldn’t be another escape for a week or more. They left in waves, knowing the patrols would double for a few nights after a successful flight.

It didn’t take too long to discover which residents had run away. The next morning the rain came, turning the ice slick and deadly, the snow to mush. I’d been up all night. My head pounded and a white heat glowed just behind my eyes, flashing and pulsing. However, something had come over me. On seeing the evidence of Estevo’s new stripes, on watching the drowned night patroller die, I felt a strange desperation. My breath seemed high in my chest. My mind raced. I had to make something more of myself, or risk what Estevo had suffered, what the night watcher had. Fear sunk its hooks deeper, the barbs catching inside my skin and inside my head.

First, I saw to the Tash. She wasn’t at the house, but the residents said that medicos had come for her.

I stood on their threshold in my sodden, muddy uniform. A young man–a boy, really–stood inside the door, with his foot blocking it should I try to push my way in. The house was one of the low clay affairs that made up most of Onappa-ka. Inside was smoky and dim, and I glimpsed a younger boy staring back at me before someone in a thick shawl herded him back into the recesses.

“Last night,” I said, using my best Lonireilan accent, “a man was thrown in the river, just there.” I indicated the ruts of mud a short distance away that marked where we’d dragged him out. The boy leaned to look, but just a little. I doubted he could see from where he stood. His knuckles were white on the doorframe. “Did you hear anything before my companion came to you?”

He shook his head. He was dark haired and still a farmer’s deep sunbaked brown, despite the winter. His eyes were pale, like many Serehvani.

“I need you to tell me, boy.”

He shook his head again, hair flopping into his face. His silence told another story.

I made as if to enter the house. He moved to block me. My head shuddered inside from waves of pain and the move he made enraged me. I seized the front of his smock.

I would have dragged him into my face, bared my teeth, shouted. But, in that second, he took hold of my wrist and squeezed. He resisted me. It was then I realized we were about the same age, and though I was bigger than him, he was no weakling. A laborer’s muscles flexed in his forearm and the tendons rippled in his wrist. He was wiry, tough as an old bridle despite his years after long hours in the fields or the packing barn. For the first time, he met my gaze and I saw defiance. He wasn’t going to let me in. He wasn’t going to be intimidated.

My rage, my exhaustion and the gnawing terror that dogged my every step, came out.

In an instant, I bashed his head against the doorframe. I brought up a knee and he doubled over. Blood streamed. I barrelled into him, shoved my way into the house, and fell down atop him.

Someone inside screamed. The boy fought but it was too late. I hammered on him with my fists and then finally someone threw herself between us and I sat back, gasping, tears on my face.

A woman lay across him. She was older, perhaps his mother. One hand was up, warding me. The other arm ended in a stump with the sleeve tied closed with a bit of twine. She prayed and wept in Serehvani for me not to hurt him.

“Who,” I said, my voice a rasp, “killed that guard? Who crossed the river last night?”

The boy tried to rise, but she held him down. His mouth and nose were bloody. She wailed and answered “Ulak il-Rouk. Good Salat, please, leave him alone. It was Ulak and his family.”

I staggered up. My fists hurt, for I hadn’t put my gauntlets back on. I’d cut my knuckles on his teeth and the blood dripped from my fingers. It would get a rot if I didn’t see to it.

“And that is all? One family?”

“Please, sir,” she wailed.

“Tell me.”

“Just them. But they have help. We don’t know who, please believe me. There are those in Onappa-ka who take money to help others run away. ”

The boy wrapped her in his arm to shield her. “It’s true,” he said. “She doesn’t know. We don’t know. Leave us alone.”

“Good Salat, leave us alone, please lord,” she said. I don’t know if that last was directed at the god, or me. I believed them.

Back outside in the gray morning and the rain, Ecena and Ahdan waited where I’d left them with a few others from the troupe. Ecena raised her brows beneath her hood.

With a jerk of my head, I indicated the house. “Take them.”

Failure to report folk leaving Onappa-ka was a crime. Ecena and Ahdan and the others flooded through the front door, and I heard cries of terror from within as I left.

It didn’t take long to find the house. The door was unbarred. Many valuables were gone, and also food and clothing. They had left in a  hurry.

Who helped them, I wondered? Who would dare?

For the next few nights, I planned. I mapped and examined patrol routes. I inspected buildings and vantage points. I rearranged schedules, traded duties, bargained for equipment. All this I did without telling Uruverres or anyone more than I had to. I constructed a snare, one that might take weeks to catch the game I hunted, but I was prepared. I would wait. A patient hunter always succeeds in the end. I changed my own duty to night watch and put Estevo’s squad on day-duty. He’d like that anyway.

And, this way, the credit would be all mine.


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RAZE – 050 – Wake Up

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


The wagon bounced in the muddy roads and lurched as it stuck and unstuck. My sweat dried on my skin. The man I was trying to save was cold as death, but his lips twitched and stirred a little. His fingers grasped futilely at the boards and sacks in the cart, and at my clothes, weak as a child. He didn’t shiver.

The night guards shouted a challenge as we rolled up the hill to the fortress gates. They came to the back, and there I gave my rank and name and they thrust a lantern in my face and dragged me off the dying man. He, too, they inspected, and they let us pass.

The fortress never sleeps. Guards circled the walls on scaffolding. Lanterns swung and braziers flared along the roadways. Scouts were dismounting from steaming horses and small groups of soldiers gathered about the fires or smoked in corners, the little glowing motes of their cigarettes moving in their mouths or tracing the air when they moved their hands. I peered at two of these as we stopped beside the hospital building, but neither was Estevo. Leaving them, we rushed inside, with me shivering once again and two medicos coming out to help carry the dying man. On my way inside, I reached out to one of the medicos and took his arm.

“One of mine fell in the river, but I told her to take shelter in one of the Ona’s houses when we pulled her out.” He promised they’d send someone to tend to her, and I told him the approximate whereabouts of the house.

I made my way into the hospital tent, and there the medicos had already stripped the frozen sergeant and put him in bed. They stoked up fires on either side of him and by his feet. Acrid smoke filled the tent. Meanwhile, one of the phisicos came to see to him.

They always gave me pause. The man leaning over him wore a mask with a mouth like a grinder set between two protrusions like mandibles and a number of smaller, jointed protrusions arranged around them. The eyes were reflective and glinting in the flickering firelight, multifaceted and huge. His garb was red and black; it appeared spotless, due to the mottling, but I knew it was anything but. I’d seen a phisico saw the infected foot off another Nabani conscript’s leg in less time than it took to tie his restraints. A good thing, too. He was awake. The blood had sprayed the front of the phisico’s uniform and blended right in. This one looked like nothing so much as a great, red and black insect creeping over the dying sergeant.

“Ayeh,” a voice croaked. I turned away from the sergeant, toward the source.

The building was dim; it had once been a storehouse, but was hastily expanded and fitted to serve its new purpose when we took over the trading post and it became clear that Lonireil was there to stay. Now, the room was divided by partitions of woven straw, like broad curtains. The brazier and lamp light filtered through, casting strange patterns of light and shadow on the little alcoves between where the patients had their beds. I moved to one of these alcoves, where the voice had come from, and stood over the dark bed. A hand reached out, moved toward me, and then contorted into a rude gesture.

I looked up at the shadow-shrouded face, and realized it was Estevo.

He was in pain, but I stifled a chuckle at his prank. He grinned and drew his hand back under his covers, wincing.

“What are you doing in here? Shirking duty, hiding out and pretending to have a sniffle?” I said.

“Hardly.” Estevo shifted again and nodded, clearly in pain, in the direction of the light and murmuring of the sergeant and the doctor and his servants. “What’s he?”

“A night patroller. No sign of his squad, but Tash and I found him in the river.”

“And he’s alive?” He shivered.

“Little-ly.”

“Barely,” he corrected. “Your Lonireilan may sound fine, but you still use idiot words sometimes.”

My vocabulary was a work in progress. I felt my face heat at the joke, and I prodded him in the arm with a finger. He groaned. “Ahh, fine, no more.”

“So what happened to you?”

It was hard to tell in the dim, but I thought his face twisted into something in between a smirk and agony. “I guess I pissed the wrong stall.”

“What?”

“It means I did something stupid. Back home, we have sort of little rooms where you go to talk to the Emperor. It’s not him, I mean, but it’s his man in another room, where only the two of you can see and hear each other. You’re supposed to say all the bad and stupid shit you did, and learn how to make up for it. But sometimes those little rooms look like the shithouse, and more than one drunk has pissed in one. They don’t like that.”

“What did you do?”

He opened his mouth to speak, but a shout of anger from the phisico drew my attention. I ran back across the tent to where he was slapping the drowned man lightly in the face. “What are you–”

“He’s dying.” The phisico shook him. “Wake up, by his Name, wake up!” He slapped him again and shook him, but the man’s head lolled to one side. His eyes remained closed.

The phisico dropped him with a sigh and removed his insectile mask. Underneath he was sweating. “Get these fires away, it’s too hot. Well, that was a waste.” He scrubbed his face with a sweaty hand.

I said nothing as they took away the body. I had needed him. I needed to know who was helping the refugees get out, or where they were going. As it was, my report would be nothing but a dead man and a near-dead Tash. I ground my teeth and turned back to Estevo, but one of the medicos took my arm and started ushering me out of the hospital. Estevo had turned on his side and appeared to be sleeping, anyway.

His bottom sheet, on which he’d laid his back and which was now visible where he’d rolled away from it, was printed with cross-hatched lines of drying blood.


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Click the link if you’d like to be a Patron too. Set your own monthly donation amount and help me support this ad-free story and improve the site and experience of Raze, and get some cool stuff!

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RAZE – 049 – A Means of Advancement

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


The rope went taut and I fell forward. Cold stung my face and mud ground into my chin and cheek. I dragged my toes for purchase, clung to the makeshift line with one hand and rolled onto my side, onto my back. The sound was the sundering of the earth, a cracking that battered my eardrums.

The force of the water and ice pulled me forward again, but this time I braced and tensed. I fought, reaching out with one hand and taking great clawfuls of mud and ice, hauling. My shoulders thrummed, drawn tight. I threw myself down, fought up, dragged again, kicked my feet in the muck. The line slacked and jerked. The harsh throat-sound of The Tash’s cries snared on the sharp snapping of ice, the gurgle of water.

Finally, I heaved up onto my feet and pulled. There was nothing to see. The pre-dawn gloom was little more than a gray mist and paler shapes. I felt the weight on the line change and I dragged again, and it went slack. I ran into the murk and slowed at the sound of coughing, and there on the bank was the Tash. She sprawled, face down, puking up ice water, and beside her lay the black shape of the body she’d dragged out of the river. I had a brief flash of fear. Estevo.

His face was that of another, a mustached and pale sergeant from one of the regular troupes. Satisfied it was not my friend, I went first to The Tash.

She was shivering so violently that at first I thought she was shying away from me. She curled into a ball, clutching her arms, teeth bared and gritting. I grabbed her up in my arms and pulled her to me, shaking her. “Get up,” I said. “You have to get up.” Her people were from far to the west, and they did not see such winters as we did in Rouk and in my home province of Naban.

Just a year before I’d been taken, my sister Navat fell into the river that came out of the southern mountains during the winter. She was only inside for a matter of seconds before father caught her and dragged her out, but immediately she turned blue and weak. Father had told her what to do. He had saved her.

I grabbed The Tash’s wrists and yanked them away from her. She squealed in pain and torment, soaked through. Even holding her, grasping at her through gloves and covered in my own coat, I began to grow frigid, and then I remembered that I was half-soaked myself. Still, my station was a damn sight better than hers, having not been dunked in the river.

I ripped her coat open before she managed to clench her arms to her sides again, then again I seized her wrists.

She fought. Her eyes snapped open, hateful and dark. The whites shown in the murky morning’s pitiful light. She glared and I shoved her hands back to her, to her sides instead of her arms. “Rub your ribs and stand up, you motherless. Stand up and move or you’ll die.” I pushed her up and she tried to curl and crouch again, but I seized her under her arms and hauled her to her feet once more, none too gently. “Run in place, shitlick!” I shouted in my best corporal’s voice. “Or I’ll have you whipped when we get back. I’ll whip you myself!” Still shuddering, teeth chattering, she began lifting one foot, then the other, stamping in the mud.

Beginning to shiver myself, I turned to the man on the ground. He was white as the ice that had almost claimed him, his lips blue. I looked closer. His head was cut, washed clean by the icewater, but the gash on his brow was clear, a ravine of bloodless flesh on his head. His eyes showed the faintest purple by the nose, deep in the orbital. Though the color had been driven away by cold, I could see. He’d been beaten. Escapees, then. They’d found him on his patrol or on his way home and sought to silence their discoverer.

I held a finger above his mustache and felt nothing. So much for learning who had tried to kill him, or which way they’d gone.

Now it fell to me to get The Tash back to safety. I stood. The fallen sergeant was going nowhere.

I turned back to The Tash, who stamped and shivered and made noises in her throat, but then a cough broke through the sound of the river behind me. I turned, stunned; the man moved. Weakly, little more than a shiver, but enough. If he could be saved, we’d know who had thrown him in. Another chance for glory for myself, for adulation, for recognition.

I got behind the sergeant and forced my hands beneath his armpits. He had little time. I began to drag him. The exertions staved off my own cold and damp, and The Tash began to hustle alongside, but I sent her to the nearest house as soon as we saw one. Everyone in Onappa-ka was required to give succor to a Lonireilan soldier in need. There was no danger for her. If she was clever, she’d avail herself of any wine or poppy in the house, once she was warmed. I almost envied her. As for myself, I dragged my charge through the streets till I managed to flag down an army wagon making its way up to the fort. We loaded the unconscious, dying man in the back, and I laid atop him to try to warm him and prayed he’d live long enough to give me the means to my next advancement.

 


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Click the link if you’d like to be a Patron too. Set your own monthly donation amount and help me support this ad-free story and improve the site and experience of Raze, and get some cool stuff!

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RAZE – 048 – Half Through the Ice

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


Things were different. I felt I could see, like at the lightening of dawn.

When I went to the training house with my squad, I was there first. I was there last. It rained and the sun sank, and the lamps gave me enough to see by in the dim confines of the old barn, to see the practice dummies and drill my footwork till there were deep shadowed ruts in the sawdust. The barn leaked and drips damped parts of the yard into darker, spreading spots. Someone was always there to practice with me, to teach me, for me to show the little I knew. I raised my sword and shield till my shoulders failed. I thrust with spear and spun the haft and battered till my back ached, till the next day I had to grit my teeth and force myself up out of my rack. The rain tapped the roof and muddied the streets outside, and the sun fell, and I stayed till no one else would stay, and walked back to the barracks alone beneath the moon and the red, broken curve of the Khren’s Brow.

The Khren’s Brow had once been a moon. Some years before I was born, there was a war, and a devil had hatched from the red moon like an egg. So they said. Now it was a shattered arc, and on clear nights you could see the shards of the old moon. Usually it was just a red smear on the sky, glittering.

Snows came. I studied, sitting up in a close and stuffy closet by lamplight. I spent all my petty money on pots of ink. When I could convince him, Estevo helped me. He corrected my accent and I learned to listen. He corrected my hand when I wrote, and my weary arms, aching from the practice yard, clumsy with exhaustion, ruined lines of print, dribbled ink, lurched when they should have swept. Slowly, my accent became clearer. I sounded as Lonireilan as Estevo. My hand grew steady, my printing flowed into smooth long loops and graceful lines. The writing went with me to the practice yard, and my sword grew subtler, tracing red words in the air, crossing through my opponents’ propositions and imposing my own.

Yamurik bought and sold, settled contracts, promised shipments, sent requests for workers, supplies. I watched him grow fatter. He bought new clothes and new slaves.

Mire Storm was here or there, when she desired, as she desired. There was no following, no tracking. She watched. Weckar tried to watch her. De Trastorces exhausted the patrols, but she showed no interested in opposing the Lonireilan occupation of Onappa-ka.

The snows churned to mud, and when I left the practice yard at night, the sky still glowed a little in the west. I walked beside the frozen river, wrapped in my cloak. I had decided, foolishly, to grow a beard, and my attempt only exaggerated my youthfulness. My muscles ached, pleasurably, and my wound was little more than a fine red scar by that time. The sun finished sinking and I made for our barracks.

Ecena finished the patrols about the time I arrived. She and her troop came in, muddy and tired, and I waited while they cleaned up before chow. It was a Lonireilan stew again, with squash and a little beef, mostly fat, and we had watered red wine in jugs. It was too thin to get drunk from, but that didn’t stop some of them trying. Ahdan and Ecena sat at the far end of the table, always, and didn’t converse with the others much. No one talked to me. I suppose I was poor company. Usually, I spent my time in the mess writing my reports while I ate. I wrote them over and over, till they were perfect.

I went to the little closet office to wait for Estevo, but not long after, the Tash came in.

“Where is Estevo?” I asked, knowing there would be no answer. She pointed, back out into the barracks. I stood with a grunt. “What?” Again, and as always, she said nothing, but turned to lead me back out. “Hey,” I said. “Just answer.” She reached for the doorknob, still silent, and my ire rose. I snatched her wrist.

She made a sound and tried to pull away, but I was big. I’d grown bigger. I jerked her back, spun her, but she shoved me away as she turned. I staggered back and she brought up a hand, a snarl escaping her throat. In the tiny room, we were almost at each other’s faces.

“I am talking to you,” I said. “Just speak, motherless! What?”

She jerked her head at the door, pointed at me, at herself, made her hand walk on two fingers across her other palm. I sighed, gestured, and she led me out. She took me to my rack and my chest and I gathered I should dress for duty.

Outside the barracks, my breath came in bursts of steam. Even though the snow was melting, at night everything froze again and went solid. In the dark I followed The Tash, and she brought me to a squad of waiting soldiers. Estevo’s squad. He was nowhere to be seen.

“Will someone who can speak tell me what’s going on?”

“Night patrol, sir. Watching out for runners,” one of the conscripts said in Serehvani.

“I can see that. Lick of shit.” I swore like a Lonireilan, by then. “Where is Estevo?” They shrugged. If he was gone, it was my responsibility. Another all-night duty. I would order him to polish my boots. The idea gave me a little chuckle, just for the way I knew he’d complain. I’d only make him do it once.

We were patrolling to catch escapees. Small groups tried to leave Onappa-ka, make for land the Lonireilans had not bothered to conquer. They were workers, though, and losing workers meant losing a lot of money. Night patrol had far more to do with catching families trying to sneak away than watching for thieves or enemies. Even worse, however, were the ones who made a lot of coin helping get the escapees out. Ones such as these were prizes indeed to capture.

We broke up, circled Yamurik’s compound. At intervals we checked locks and doors. Reports came from one post or another. I inspected positions, tried to sneak up on sentries. That part was almost fun, a game. I sent the Tash to test them. She was silent as a cat. When she and I walked away from a post, I tried to mimic the faces of surprise she’d elicited when she managed to creep up on the guards, and she laughed, a harsh sound, but genuine.

Night grew deep. My legs ached. I yawned and shivered and hunkered down into my cloak, wiggling my fingers and toes to try to warm them. My nose was frozen.

The lightening of dawn came in the east. The sky was a gradation of blue, water growing shallower at the edge of a gray shore, and we made our last round.

At a far southern point, we were to meet with a patrol from the city, but no one came. The Tash and I lingered for a while, but the watchers were too long in coming, so we started south, along the river.

It was the Tash that saw him in the gloom. She pointed down, below the bank, at what I thought was a rock. As I peered, though, the shape seemed to shift. A man, half through the ice.

“Go get him,” I said. I pointed. The Tash shook her head. “I’m too heavy. You have to.” Again, she shook her head. “That’s an order. Refugee smugglers probably ambushed him. He’s going to die and we need to know who did this. Now go.”

We used our cloaks, our belts, and a spear to make a sort of lifeline. The Tash climbed down the bank and edged out onto the ice. The cracking echoed up, bounced strangely away beneath the surface. She looked up at me where I lay, at the edge of the bank, holding the end of a cloak so I could pull her back. I pointed again and she started, growling a little, creeping closer to the dark shape.

I lost sight in the dim. She stood by the dark shape in the ice for a long time. Cracks sounded. The water splashed, and then an urgent tugging came on the line. I heaved, dragged her back, and then a sound like a cliff collapsing rent the air. A sheet of the river gave way, and what was ice-white in the gloom turned black as death.


Navigation links are below

Many thanks to my Patron (via Patreon): Donna Palmer.
Click the link if you’d like to be a Patron too. Set your own monthly donation amount and help me support this ad-free story and improve the site and experience of Raze, and get some cool stuff!

Vote for RAZE on topwebfiction.com Your vote every week helps me get new readers.

Or, click one of the social media buttons below to share and tell your friends. Thanks. – Dave

 

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RAZE - a weekly fantasy web serial

RAZE – 047 – Two Days

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We marched back to Yamurik’s opium compound. I was numb. The dark closed me in and the sounds of my company behind me were muffled. What I saw and smelled and heard all came as through a thick wrapping of cloth, distant shapes and shadows of sound and life. My chest was constricted and my wound was warm, but also far away.

Uruverres was there. She had ridden ahead. Horses heaved in the yard, giving off steam in the light of lanterns.

The sight of her shook me from myself and I finally noticed the drizzle, motes dropping through the gold globes of light of the lanterns. The wind had come up and its gusts turned the rain on its side. I was soaked, shivering. My skin was ice.

Uruverres had brought a few of her subordinates, her personal slave, a few of the other corporals. She came forward as I halted my company and saluted, like a man possessed. I had no memory, no thought. I simply did. All I could feel was my pulsing wound and the cold pressing into me against it.

She took my hand, said something. I was an inspiration. My zeal was admirable. Lonireil needed people like me. To the rest, heed my example, and so on, and so forth. I smiled a little and thanked her as I strove to convince myself of the rightness. She and de Trastorces and the judicator had all been so pleased. Why was my heart cold? Because it was wrong. It was a failing. It was all that was left of what I had been, which was weak, a victim, worse than shit. I caught sight of my brass star glinting and I remembered.

I was afforded a little rest, after that. “Two days,” Uruverres said. “You are relieved. Rest. Heal. This is an order.”

I retired to the barracks and lay in my bunk, staring at the shadowed ceiling. I turned, rolled, the bed too hot, my bones unable to rest. Finally I arose and went to the little closet that was the barracks office, and I sat at the desk with an oil lamp and the smell of ink in my nostrils. I emptied an inkpot, writing Lonireilan words over and over and over, the pen’s scritch filling my ears, roaring, until the ink ran out and I was pressing the words into the paper. My mind raced even as my eyes closed against my will. When I awoke I was slumped over a ledger filled with meaningless repetitions of words. My words. My language.

The next day, Ecena got me my report, all in Lonireilan. I had the time to read it, and satisfaction set into me as a realized I could, or at least I could understand most of it. I made sure to comment on its contents to her, to let her know I had seen through her attempt to confound me. My confidence grew.

I followed Yamurik. Waiting, resting alone, was no good. When I did that, I remembered things. Instead, I followed him at his fine house, outside his office. I had no duties, so for a few days I was his shadow, and he hated me. I delighted in waiting in silence outside his door till he came out, or standing over his shoulder when he wrote.

When Mire Storm arrived the second morning after, they sat by a fire and drank coffee and spoke in low voices. It didn’t much matter what they said – just that they had to hide their words from me. When she left, I followed, remembering Weckar’s warning.

She went to the market and bought food. I thought she would lead me to something incriminating when she left, cutting down an alley into the worker’s housing district. The streets were narrow and the houses in disrepair, broken plaster and brick shored up with mud. Instead, she found a few children, two girls and a boy. They wore rags and were dirty. I guess their parents had died in the fighting. She gave half of her food to them and they went back into one of the hovels.

She walked by the river for a while. It was cold. Damp. The river was high with the recent rains and churned in a muddy torrent. The fields around were desolate and the hills in the south hidden in fog, the clouds a dull sheet. She sat a while while I shivered and tried to stay out of the cold some distance back, by a few shacks in one of the poppy fields.

I took my eyes off her for a matter of seconds. She was a hundred yards away across a mowed field, barren but for the fallen stalks of the poppies. Beyond the river was nothing but more fields and the Lonireilan fort some ways east. I stood in the ley of a wood shack, hugging my own arms for warmth, wrapped in a cloak. Behind me were more fields, hundreds of yards to the city. There was no possibility that what could have happened did so, but here we are.

My teeth chattered. I looked down, kicked the dirt, looked up, and she was gone. I strode out from the shack, staring around, but she had disappeared. I whirled back to run to the city, and there she was.

She thrust out a bare hand and made a sound, air through her teeth. I staggered as if my leg had been kicked. The straw of the fallen stalks stirred, as if in breeze, and scratched at my trousers and the mud and cold chased the warmth from my leg. Before I could even raise my head, a cold steel edge touched the base of my neck.

“I thought you’d go away if I sat for a while.” Her voice was stone on stone. “You’re a persistent little piece of shit.”

“It’s my duty.”

She snorted. “I’ll slice your head off.” My breath froze in my chest. “Properly, I might add, in just one stroke – and put up a flag with my picture on it on this spot, and do you know what would happen?” “She answered herself without waiting. “Nothing. And I wouldn’t even need the flag.”

The blade disappeared and my breath returned. I was on the verge of pissing myself. I glanced up and she stepped back a pace. “Get up. The mud’s cold.” I stood and she sheathed her curved sword and then stood, measuring me, while I tried to guess what to do. I was frozen. Run? Attack, try to take her by surprise? I was too close for her to draw her sword again, I knew that. Three paces, they had told us in practice. A man can run the distance of three paces in the time it takes another to draw his weapon. Something told me that rule did not apply to Mire Storm. So run. Or wait. She could have killed me already.

All my joints ached, not from the fall, but something else. In my mind, I saw again what she had done: she’d cast out a hand and hissed, or breathed, and my leg had flown back as if hit with a cudgel. So, instead of the things I had thought of, I asked a question.

“How,” I said, “did you do that?”

She smiled, a goblin smile. “Ask better questions. Do what?”

“The – ” I didn’t know any words for it. I thrust my hand out and staggered.

“Ah.” She lifted her chin. “A simple Crade technique. It’s in all the stories.” So it had been. I remembered Ecena’s report. The Crade were sword-mages, legends and tall tales. Their abilities were myriad, too fantastical to be true, and their order was so secret and sparse the entire report had consisted of tales and suppositions.

“And,” I said, “that is how you moved while appearing to remains still? I only thought I saw you by the river?”

“Oh, I was there. For most of that time.” She didn’t seem about to explain further. “Your brains aren’t entirely rotted shit. My turn.” She pointed, back toward the shack, and I gratefully returned to the ley, out of the wind. My steps were dogged by pain. My knees, hips, my back: all were sore as if I’d spent all day running. Every joint was rusted, and she hadn’t even touched me. 

She leaned against the wall, watching me. “Do you know why she says for you to watch me?”

“Weckar?” I looked at the dirt. Her eyes were too much. “To report?” My confidence was shot, once again.

There was a space of silence, as if she was shaking her head. “You’re hers. She’s in you. That woman is ridden by a spirit, an old and powerful one. She shared your blood, yes? Killed one of your kin in sacrifice, and so, took part of you, too. She can see you, see through you. She’s watching me.” She went quiet. “Look at me, boy.”

I didn’t dare disobey. I looked up and Mire Storm stared through me. “She’s watching me through you, and now, she can be sure that I know.”


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