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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 – 046 – He Was the Traitor

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


Before the judicator’s dais stood a stack of bricks, new erected. The mortar was still a little damp and the stack was knee high, yellow blocks, about as big as a bench. A broad sword stood up beside it, point thrust into the nearly-dried mud.

We took our places in ranks. Lonireilan guards in their shining white armor threw open the great doors to the keep, the half-buried house that had once been the post-master’s home, and the judicator strode out, surrounded by his Lonireilan honor guard. De Trastorces followed, then the guards and ranks of wretched prisoners. I don’t know where Weckar was.

While the judicator took his place, the drums thudded high against the clouds overhead; hammering, crashing, pounding back down into us. Darkness fell and servants ignited the torches and lamps. Their wardens herded the captives into place; they shoved and drove like oxen going to market. The drums beat on. The judicator raised a hand. We all went silent. The drums stilled.

“You have, all of you, been convicted of base treason; of attacking Lonireil’s forces, and so, Lonireil. You were deserters, or traitors, or cowards. So much the same. Tonight you die, and thus serve your empire the only way that is fit.” He waved. “Bring forth the first.”

With much shouting and shoving, two Lonireilans dragged up a prisoner. They kicked the back of his knees and he fell, and one of them put his foot on the man’s head to hold it down on the little brick bench in front of the dais. The judicator raise a hand and turned his gaze on us, the conscripts and soldiers and watchers.

“These folk must die. Will any of you prove your worth? Your loyalty? And lift the blade?”

The ranks erupted with raised hands, with shouts. Volunteers roared into the night in the dark, beneath the waning glow of the clouds. The captives shrank in their rows, standing before the broad blade and the bricks. As they waved and shouted, I saw what I could be, what I could do; the answer to my riddle glinted, standing stuck in the half-dry mud.

While others merely called out and shook their fists, I broke ranks. I rushed forward, pushed through the crowd, smashed the lines and shouldered my way to the front. Some of them shoved back, but I burst past, heedless, my breath short. Someone jostled my wound and I felt, again, the spreading wetness and heat but I fought to the front and fell on my knees before the rest and raised my fist and shouted till my throat was raw.

The judicator looked at me. A smile lit his face and he raised his hands again for silence. As the ranks quieted, he gestured for me to rise. My breath caught and my heart raced, slamming against my chest. A cold flush spread through me. Could he see me shake?

“Who is this young man?” the judicator asked. De Trastorces went to his side, whispered in his ear. He nodded and then addressed me, directly. “Do you understand my words, boy?”

I nodded, swallowed, tried to speak and failed. Again I raised my voice. “Sir. I understand. I have been practicing Lonireilan.” The prisoners looked back at me but I ignored them. They were nothing.

“So you have. Good. I hear you’ve taken a new name.”

“Yes.” I licked my lips. “Il Lonireil.”

The sound that went through the ranks had some wonder in it, some scorn or laughter, some surprise.

There are many who take names for themselves, presumptive or pretentious; names like Warlord or Prime or Judicator; but at that moment, I had chosen my name, and I liked it, and it was true for a while.

The judicator smiled broadly and clasped his hands together. “Son of Lonireil. And you would be first to execute a traitor?”

“I beg the chance to serve.”

More sounds of consternation, of wonderment. The murmur quieted as the judicator waved me forward. “Take up the sword, then, for your nation.”

I turned my gaze on the sword and stepped forward. In silence, I approached, and the man whose head they held down on the block glared at me. He was not too old; hair black with a trace of gray, long, unkempt. He had bruises around his eyes, at the neck of his filthy collar. His glare was glass, jagged and broken and warning of danger, glistening with tears, and I focused on the sword. It was heavy, too heavy by half to fight with. My side shot pain. I took the blade and took my place, facing the ranks of prisoners and my fellows behind them. There were hundreds of us, thousands, and all eyes were on me. I saw Ahdan, and set my gaze directly on his.

Behind me, the judicator spoke again. “For the Enlightened Empire of Lonireil, the High Conclave, for Prime de Juaron of Avandeil, and for Imperator Loroantes IV, long may he live; serve justice to these traitors.”

The prisoner spat, and I looked down as the drums began, a rising, hammering roll. He shook and tears ran down his face. Some of his spit had reached the hem of my tunic.

I raised the heavy blade above my head, gritting my teeth at my wound, and thrust the prisoner from my thoughts. He was the traitor. He was the traitor. He was the traitor.

I glared at Ahdan again. He stared back, no smile this time.

The drums ceased. I swung down.

The impact ricocheted up my arms, and a cheer went  up as the prisoner jerked. I risked a glance down, and wished I hadn’t.

It is rare to behead a man with one blow, regardless of what the stories say. Most times, all but the strongest get stuck. I was strong, but inexperienced. In some places, executioners make a practice of beheading common criminals, to improve their skill for public display, for instances such as this. They pride themselves on a clean cut with a single stroke, an effort that takes years to cultivate.

The prisoner was dying, not dead. He couldn’t shout, that was sure, but he was trying. His mouth was open, his eyes bulging, his neck cut through to the bone. I tried to lift the blade even as the onlookers cheered, but the weapon was stuck fast. I pulled, jerked it free, my bile rising. In disgust and horror now, my breath coming too quick, I lifted again, swung, cut again, arms rushing, cold with a flood of panic and nausea, and this time the sword bit brick and his head came free. The cheers were louder, flooding my ears. In a daze, someone led me away, but not before I caught Ahdan’s glare one more time.

At that look, my head cleared. They were bringing up another executioner. Thirty-three of us would raise the blade that night, sometimes several more times than my two. I had no eyes for them, nor for the body they dragged away from the block or the maimed head they rolled into a bag as they brought up the next victim. I looked at Ahdan, and he at me, and I stared into him, and I willed him to know what I was.


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RAZE – 045 – Small, Pathetic, and Worthless

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


I raced down to meet Uruverres on the step, out of Yamurik’s earshot – but he followed. Before the shouting had finished he was there, listening, while my face burned and I winced back from Uruverres’ rage.

“You,” she said. “Are not a leader. You are a spoiled idiot child.” The words thudded into me, fists in my guts, slaps to the face. “Pathetic. Is this what Lonireil is? Your name is a joke, an insult. Lay in the mud.” I looked up at her, confused. She repeated it, and down I settled, laying in the mud. “That is what you are. Welcome home. I should call you son of the dirt.”

Without raising a hand, she diminished me. I felt tears, and only my desperation to hide them let me distract myself from what she said. Yamurik was watching. Ahdan and the others I was meant to command were watching. This time, though, I could not respond. I felt naked, a child, stripped and humiliated, small, pathetic, worthless. “It is not your place to beat conscripts, subordinates or not. It is mind. You are mine to beat, if I choose. My piece of meat in armor. If I tell you to die, you’ll do it. If I tell you to lay in the mud, you will.”

Uruverres blew out a breath, straightened, and lowered her voice. “Get up.” I did. “Where,” she asked, “is this Mire Storm, now?”

“Gone,” I said. I was staring at my feet. The words came out a whisper and my voice broke, flooding a new rush of color to my face. Another humiliation. It would be the talk of the barracks, along with that I couldn’t raise my hand to the conscripts. How would I command? Punish or correct?

“What?” I wasn’t looking, but I felt her gaze burn back to me.

“She disappeared.”

I scarcely remember the rest of it. I rotted; my stomach, my heart, turned to wet filth inside me. She pointed into my face. “Once more, il-Lonireil. I won’t have incompetents as subordinates. Fail once more, and you’ll be a conscript again, if you’re lucky.”

Yamurik chuckled. Uruverres shot him a look and left, and conscripts who’d lingered nearby picked up speed in their patrols or suddenly took strong interest in the state of their armor coats or of the minutia of their duties as they turned away.Only Ahadan approached, grinning, as I stood on the steps of Yamurik’s grand house, as ashamed as if I’d just pissed myself.

I stared at the stone and waited, but Ahdan said nothing. It seemed I could hear him breathing. A light whistling came from one of his nostrils. We waited, and out beyond the walls shopkeeps began hocking their wares. Oxen bellowed, wagons trundled. Children played and folk chattered about the rain and when it would return and if the cold would come to stay this week or next. Lonireilans marched by. Behind me, inside, servants went about their chores. A man came out and began trimming back flowers for winter in a pot at the bottom of the steps, clipping away the long stems. He heaped straw over the pot, to help protect the roots.

Ahdan didn’t move, and, when I made made my breaths even, I looked over at him, at his fat grinning face.

“Don’t you have work to do?”

He lifted his chin and breathed out again. Again I heard that whistle, just at the edge of hearing, and I wanted to choke him till he never breathed again. “Bad day, corporal?”

“It’s not your business. Get to work.”

He leaned on his spear lazily. “You going to hit me?”

I didn’t know what to say. I glared and he grinned back and then finally his stood up straight and bounced the butt of his spear a few inches off the ground, caught it. “This is going to change things a little. I wonder if Ecena will hear before I get back, or if I get to tell her.”

“You’ll tell her nothing.”

He raised an eyebrow. “You going to hit me?” he asked again.

“I’ll…” I trailed off. My tongue had fled and rage and embarrassment were pulsing through me in equal measures, hot waves that needled my skin and scalp. What could I do?

He waited a moment, then turned away, and I was left to watch the front gates, mercifully alone. Out in Onappa-ka, I heard the horn calling for the morning prayers to Lord Salat. I hadn’t prayed, not the way I was meant to, for some months, and the blowing of that horn, I horn I only had heard once or twice when visiting the cities, seemed to scold me. It, too, was a sound of shame. I spat at that horn, at the god I had once revered. His teachings had not come to pass.

Half the day I stood, side aching, bandage itching. My mind wriggled and worked and fought itself. The drubbing I’d taken set into me like stitches in my brain, and at times I became so addled and desperate I thought I’d vomit. The thoughts, the shame, buzzed about my head like flies. I saw no sign of Mire Storm again.

After noon we went to the practice yard. I was still too wounded to train, so instead I watched. I watched Ahdan swing about with his spear, watched him smash others to the ground with his shield, thrust half-an-armslength farther, move faster, batter harder. He was too big. Too strong. My mind worked and a cloud grew in my mind, black and shadowing, and drew down over my eyes till I was looking through smoke.

Evening. Training done, we were to go back to the fort one last time. It was execution day.

There were drums as we crossed the bridge, the fields. The poppy stalks were all harvested and half the fields had been scythed down. The stalks lay in piles, broad arcs where they’d been cut and had fallen in ranks. We climbed the hill to the new fort and the bleak buildings atop it to the beat of dire drums while the sun fell and the clouds came on, red and burning. I led my troupe, and Ahdan’s maddening, whistling breath followed me.


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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 – 044 – Unfitting

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


It took us longer than I’d have liked to replace the bindings on my wound. We moved inside, onto the porch by the private garden, where I could hide my pain from those I commanded. In the light of a brass lamp, brought close so that we could see in the morning gloom, I stripped out of my uniform coat and we pulled away the sticky wrappings. I shivered, colder than I should have been, and the damp chill wormed into me everywhere but the wound, which burned. It seeped and was dark, but not yellow or sallow, as I’d been warned to watch for. Face screwed up in concentration, Estevo helped me wrap the new bandage. When I tried to thank him, he waved me off and complained of tiredness and went off to sleep.

Shortly thereafter, I led the way into Onappa-ka, to the sleepy square where merchants had just begun rolling back the oilcloth coverings of their shops or sweeping the half-dried mud from the walkways. The sun peeked up over the eastern flats through breaking clouds, and shafts of orange and pink gilded long lines between the low homes and shops. People got out of our way. The pain of my wound made hiding my smile a little easier. As we marched, though, I saw two more squads of Lonireil soldiers, not conscripts, but senior fighters. They marched through the streets with heads up and alert. Had de Trastorces increased the troop presence? Was this all for this Mire Storm, this Crade fighter? What was she?

At the gated entry of Yamurik’s grand house, the night guard came forward. This was another of Uruverres’ people, but from a different squad, with a different corporal. He jerked his head toward the house and spoke in a low voice, in Lonireilan. “You’re finally here. That stranger showed up before daybreak.”

The implied disrespect in his voice and manner of address was overshadowed by word of Mire Storm.

“Did she say anything?”

“We didn’t see her go in. She just walked out on the balcony with Yamurik a moment ago.”

My jaw worked. Should I have been surprised? “And no one saw her get in?” He shook his head. “Tell me. What is your job?”

“What?” The gate guard looked taken aback.

While we talked, his fellows, the other night guards, had been gathering behind him to head back to their bunks. They waited and watched our exchange, and at my question a few of them whispered to each other.

The guard was not quite as big as me, but he was older, and at the whispers behind him, his consternation turned to anger on his face. “What am I to do? We were told to be cautious around her.”

“You were told to watch the gates of Yamurik’s house.”

His lip curled. “We did. She got past somehow.” I waited for him to acknowledge my rank, but no such acknowledgement was forthcoming. His expression was unfitting. Behind me, I could hear my own squad shift on their feet. I imagined them glancing at each other with knowing looks. They could see my wound, the pain and weakness, the way this conscript disrespected my star. Why should they follow me? Wounded, weak, taking that kind of language?

“So, you failed in your duties,” I said.

He made a dismissive gesture and waved to his fellows. “We don’t have to listen to this Serehvani trash. Come on, shift’s over.”

“Conscript.” I raised my voice and he stopped, turned back to me with his chin raised. I passed my spear back to Ahdan. Ecena, my usual second during the day, had gone off to do the research I’d asked. Ahdan took the spear in the same hand as he held his own. He was the only conscript bigger than me. I stuck out my now-free hand at the guard. “Give me your spear, conscript.”

He did, responding to the order as intended. I took it, moving slow, and then brought the haft up as hard as I could into his face.

He fell with a cry. My side sent a bloom of pain spreading through me, but the guard fell with his nose streaming blood and the others with him started, as if to rush to his side, and then went more straight, more attentive, waiting beneath my gaze. I met each of their eyes in turn, and then went to the side of the man I’d knocked down, where he was raising himself on his forearm. With one kick, I stopped that. “Yes, sir,” I told him, kicking him in the ribs. He whimpered. “You say yes sir when I give you an order.” I lashed out again, releasing another bloom of pain in my side. Hopefully, the watchers were too distracted to notice any of my discomfort. “You failed in your duties. You failed Lonireil. Say ‘yes sir!’”

“Yes sir,” he moaned. I stomped on his hand and he shrieked again.

“Serehvani trash? We are Lonireilan. We are all Lonireilan.” I pressed down on his smashed hand, grinding it between my heel and the stone walkway. He screamed louder. Around the square, folk had stopped their activities and stared. “When you fail, we all fail!”

Finally, I released him. “Get this trash to a healer. More than he deserves.” I spat, retrieved my spear from a grinning Ahdan. He was Serehvani by birth, too. While the night watchers gathered up their comrade, the rest of us continued to Yamurik’s house.

My squad dispersed to their appointed posts while I went ahead to the main doors. A movement above caught my attention, and at the window I’d once thrown a man out of, I saw Yamurik and Mire Storm, looking down and speaking to each other.

By the time I made it up to Yamurik’s private chambers, however, there was no sign of Mire Storm. Yamurik stood alone in his houseclothes, a rich fur-lined robe and a warm cap, sipping coffee from a glass and copper cup.

“Where did she go?” I asked without preamble.

“Whom?” He smiled at me with his ruined eye over his cup.

“You know damned well. Mire Storm.”

“Oh,” he waved his fingers in a vague circle. “She left. Just as you came in. Didn’t you see her?”

I glared. “You are to report when she arrives. Alert one of my men immediately if she comes to you.”

“There’s nothing I can do to keep her out. Nor can you, I suspect, not without the entire dog-milking Lonireilan army.  Besides.” He took a loud sip. “She’s not here to bother any of you. We’re old friends.” Again, he grinned over his cup. “Good morning, corporal, by the way. Quite the display outside. I wonder if you will be treated to the same when your superior hears that you, too, let Mire Storm slip past you.”

I closed in on him, but he didn’t back away. “If you – “

“Please.” The smaller man held his ground before my advance. “You’re going to hurt me now? I don’t think so. I’m important. You’re a puffed up child. Go on and hit me and see what happens.” He jerked a thumb over his shoulder. “Your Uruverres or whatever her name is is here. Your superior.”

I glanced behind him, outside, and indeed, Uruverres was storming up to the gates with her own squad behind her.


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 each 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 – 043 – A Razor, A Tripwire Taut

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


As Mire Storm came into the fort to watch the sentencing, the next thing I saw was a column of soldiers starting toward her. At their head was Captain de Trastorces. His face was a mask in the dark and distance across the yard, but I knew why he was going to confront her. A civilian, a foreigner at that, going armed into a fort, one where a judicator was in office?  

A wicked grin lit my face. Now we’d see her embarrassed, see her brought down to her rightful station. But, as de Trastorces and ten other soldiers approached, a cold knot formed in my guts and spread about inside me. Something was wrong. I could feel it, a razor, a tripwire taut between Mire Storm’s hand and her sword, her attention shivering between me and the judicator and the approaching contingent.

I broke from my place and walked, quick as I could without running, to intercept the captain. Mire Storm stood just inside the great open gates. Where were the guards? How was it she came in armed without a sound or fuss? Captain de Trastorces was halfway to her, but I got in front of him a dozen paces from her.

“Captain.” I saluted even as I glanced over my shoulder to see if Mire Storm had moved. She hadn’t. She didn’t even look over, but the cold in my stomach had turned to abject fear. What was she?

“Not now, corporal.” He moved to brush past me, but again I got in his way, this time dropping to one knee, staining my uniform in the mud.

“Sir. Please, it’s about the intruder.”

At that, he stopped beside me. He folded his arms, glanced at her and down at me. “Stand, corporal. You know this woman?” He motioned to a couple of his guards and they started around me.

“Hold them off, please sir.” The two guards stopped, looking confused. I stood, drawing close to de Trastorces.

“Did you contradict me, corporal?” The expression on the captain’s face was incredulous. He put his fists on his hips and cocked his head.

“Please sir, just one moment. Listen.” I realized I was speaking Lonireilan and lost my thought in momentary elation. I sputtered for a moment in Serehvani, then recovered as he grew more impatient. “She’s some kind of warrior. She said she was…”

“Crade.”

We both looked up at the word, but I knew the voice. Weckar. She had drifted up next to us in silence and stood now, facing Mire Storm. I turned my eyes to the mud.

“What?” de Trastorces’ voice lowered.

“She is a Crade Warrior, claimed and Honed,” Weckar sighed out. “She must not stay here.”

“But.” Trepidation carried in de Trastorces’ voice. “What if she won’t leave?”

“Ask her.”

Ask. The word hooked into my ears. I must have thought of the wrong translation. Missed a modifying word. No, she’d said “ask.” I couldn’t imagine de Trastorces, much less Weckar, asking for anything. Weckar told.

“She has met with Yamurik. They are old friends.” How could she know that? “We must know why she is here, if she will not leave.”

De Trastorces cleared his throat, squared up his shoulders. The muscles at the back of his jaw flexed. “I will speak to her.” He waved his men forward and crossed the remaining dozen paces, more slowly, less aggressively. Rather than be left standing beside Weckar, I gave a bow as I backed away.

“If she comes to Yamurik again,” Weckar said, without turning. “Watch her. Stay close to them.” I bowed again and hurried back to my position.

The sentencing was done, but my eyes were fixed on Mire Storm and de Trastorces. He backed away from her and marched off, stiff and tense, and she ambled back out of the fort the way she had come.

* * *

No rest for il Lonireil. He is not a child, but a man. He does not tire or slack. He does not feel. No rest. Rest means remembering.

I slept the hurried, irritated sleep of one who dreams of that which he does not wish to dream, of one who has many plans and little time. In a habit that would persist through much of my life, I had stayed up later than I should have, working on my Lonireilan. I was learning to read and write.

I awoke in the guardhouse within Yamurik’s compound, where I had been staying as much as possible since my assignment as his chaperone and jailer. The Tash woke me, prodding silently, but I sat quickly in the dark, ready to begin. Some of those I commanded stayed up a little and drank. As long as they were quiet and completed their duties, I let them. It made them like me. I, however, took no drink, stole no poppy, and I slept as if on guard detail, with all the rigor that one can display when one is sleeping, and awoke with headaches and in need of more sleep, sleep I denied myself for years. As I said, rest means remembering. My dreams were, let us say, not pleasant.

The Tash, as usual, wordlessly delivered a report from the night watchers, who would be completing their final rounds before our shift change. I struggled through it. It seemed Yamurik had gone back to his house, as usual; there had been no sign of Mire Storm overnight. I perused the rest of the report while I hurried into my uniform, a clean one to replace the muddy one from yesterday. Last, I pinned on my badge of office, my one little brass star. I shined it with my stiff uniform sleeve till it could have lit the barracks.

Rouse them; Ecena, Ahdan, and the rest. Inspect, in case Uruverres should show up. Run, morning exercise around the compound. I would not have weaklings working beneath me, for then I would be a weakling too. I ran at their head, ran fastest of all despite my wound. When we were done, my face burned red and my wound pulsed like a glowing ingot in a forge. Though it pained me, morning training would have to wait. I needed to watch for Mire Storm, this Crade warrior, whatever that meant, and watch Yamurik, and that meant trooping into Onappa-ka proper as soon as possible.

Back in front of the offices, I leaned on the front porch and called Ecena, trying not to grit my teeth. Inside, where I was wounded, something felt like it had popped. My entire hip throbbed and I thought I was going to be sick. The nausea roiling about inside me threatened to make me heave my empty stomach up into my mouth, but I gripped the wooden post at the edge of the porch and clenched my insides, making it hurt worse but differently, and willed the pain to ebb.

Ecena approached from where she and the other conscripts were talking and recovering. It gratified me to see her face was as red as mine in the lamplight, and that sweat soaked her dark hair. It was not warm that day; the morning moon hid behind clouds and the sun had not yet risen. The workers would not be along for another hour or so. The ground was thick, sticky mud, drying from the previous day, and the moisture hung in the air as clinging fog that worked under your clothes and filmed your skin like grease.

“Corporal?” She saluted, lazily, as I straightened, and I held my own salute a little too long just to make her wait. I could see the annoyance struggling to remain masked on her face when I finally let her drop her hand.

“Ecena, I need a report. Visit the fort, any scholars from Lonireil. Ask the judicator’s assistants.” I struggled to dredge up the words and speak fast enough that she wouldn’t think me stupid. “See if there is a…” I hesitated. “Book place.”

“Library?”

“Obviously,” I snapped. “In Onappa-ka. Or any teachers. I need to know about the Crade.” The final word was not Serehvani, nor Lonireilan. It was older, something primitive. It weighed on my tongue and tasted of metal and rock.

“A report.” She pursed her lips, then her face went impassive again. “Should…” she stopped.

“Should what?”

“Nevermind. I’ll see to it, Corporal.”

I took a few deep breaths as she left, pressing my hand to my wound. Worried, I opened the coat of my uniform a little and peered inside in the dark, then stuck my hand in. Damp. That didn’t mean anything. I pulled my hand free and turned, so no one would see, and smelled my palm. Blood. My bandages had come undone, the wound opened. I should not have run so hard. I swallowed, tried to take a step, and thought better of it.

A shadow darkened the doorway of the office and I looked up. The lanky shape resolved into Estevo, who looked dog-tired. “Why are you awake?” I asked.

“Just getting to sleep. You alright?” He leaned out and squinted. “Hurt yourself?” I nodded. He gestured for some chairs on the porch, outside the door then watched me as I levered myself into motion like an old man. “Usually the point of running is getting faster, not slower.”

I took a deep breath and forced myself up onto the porch and over to a chair. “You’ve never moved fast in your entire life.”

He grinned. “I’ll get you a new bandage.” With that, he turned, put his hands  behind his head, and began to stroll away, slowly, whistling. It elicited a bark of laughter from me, cut short by a groan of pain.


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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!

Vote for RAZE on topwebfiction.com Your vote each 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 – 042 – Instructive Lessons

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Without stopping to shed my dripping cape, I threw open the door to Yamurik’s office. I’d have stomped in, but my hip and leg were hurting, worsening my mood, fanning my embarrassment. Out from under her eyes, I felt a fool. I shouldn’t have let her intimidate me. But the unease I’d felt in front of the strange woman at the gates did not flee entirely.

Yamurik looked up. He was pacing in front of a pair of caravaneers who sat on floor cushions, their coffee cold and forgotten on the trays in front of them. The old opium planter’s glare was a welcome, warm greeting compared to the monsoon threat I’d just left behind. And she was coming in. Soon.

“Am I to be followed at the heels like a nursing ox? What could you -”

“Out.” I jerked my thumb at the two caravaneers. My cape spattered water down onto the rugs as Yamurik continued to swear and spit while the two left the room. “Shut up,” I told the old man.

“Shut up, he says. This is my house. I built this place. You Lonireilans, you dog-milkers, you’ve got no respect for the proper ways of things. You, for example. Look, you’re dripping everywhere. A child, but they give you a spear and a name and you think your ass puffs gold dust.” He pointed his finger into my face and was about to go on, but I shoved his hand aside.

“There’s a woman outside. An old Narsalan.”

He waved as is shooing away a fly. “Tell her the poorhouses are in town, or they were till you lot cleared them out.”

“She says her name is Mire Storm.”

He stopped. His eyes went so big I thought they’d roll out of his head and bounce across the floor. So, he knew the name. Then, he grinned at me, a stain that spread across his face like grease. “Indeed?”

The tone, the expression; my stomach rolled over. I jerked my sword half from its scabbard and he drew back. Goaded by my power over him, I pressed in, but that disgusting grin didn’t leave his face even as he backed away.

“Going to cut me up? If the end of that steel leaves its scabbard, I suspect you’ll lose the arm before I lose a drop of blood.”

I looked behind me, sure she’d come in, but she wasn’t there. He was talking nonsense, taunting me. I snarled as I faced him again. “Who is she?”

He stopped at the back wall, a bookshelf filled with identical ledgers, a chart above it mapping seasons and auspicious moon-signs for planting, scoring, harvesting. His smirking grin washed around me like filth at my ankles, but my arm was stayed. Beneath my soaked wool, I sweated. He leaned closer to me. “Did she tell you what she is?”

His breath stank in my face. I felt I’d be sick. “She said ‘warrior of the Crade.’”

Yamurik’s smile slipped, but he studied my face, my eyes, as if scouring a text for some hidden phrase, some coded line. I grew impatient as the searching went on and spun, stepped away, let my sword fall back into its sheathe. My hand shook, so I balled it up inside the sodden cloak.

“Warrior of the Crade,” Yamurik repeated. “You don’t know what that means. Or do you?”

“No.” When I looked back at him, the same searching, curious expression was on his face. He almost looked as if he’d been talking to someone behind me, but there was no one there. “What does it mean?”

He was about to answer, but a sharp rap came at the door. I spun about and there she was, the old Narsalan. She grinned past me. “Greetings, Yamurik. Your fortunes have changed, but not your business, I see.”

“Business goes on apace. It cares not for who draws the taxes, just that they are drawn.” He brushed past me and took Mire Storm’s hand in an oddly gentle, pacific manner. He glanced over his shoulder at me. “You’ve already met my friends.”

“So I have.” The woman stared, like Yamurik, as if through me. “Some company you keep.”

“You can see it, then?”

Before she could answer his question, the clang of the evening bell outside tolled to signal the end of work. Yamurik’s laborers would be leaving off their scraping and fire-tending, their stirring and straining, forming of bricks of resinous opium and wrapping them with leaves. It would continue tomorrow, but my night was only beginning.

“I have to go.” I moved to the door and the pair moved to either side to let me pass. “Estevo will take over.”

“Have a lovely evening,” Yamurik called after me.

The rain had slowed. I went out again, through the garden and through the gates after issuing my to the night watchers. Ecena and some of rest joined me as we trouped up, into Onappa-ka and through.

Work was done, and the rain, though slacking, had driven everyone indoors. As we passed the main square where once I’d stormed Yamurik’s fine house, a taut buzz of conversation, low voices and dire words, issued from within the tabernas and the coffee houses where people spent their evenings after a day’s labor. Usually one could catch the whine of a fiddle or the stretched song of a traveling singer, but not tonight. As we marched past, a few furtive glances came from within the half-shuttered windows, and conversations lessened till we passed, subsiding like the rain.

We met others making their way to the fort. Inside, we took our habitual places in the damp courtyard, and soon the judicator from Avandeil appeared. He was fat, short, with a high white hat that gleamed below the too-bright alchemical lamps. He took a seat high on the dais that de Trastorces used for musters and speeches. Attendants stood at his hands, two recorders knelt at his feet with scrolls and pens. A slave with hair shorn to a fuzz, wearing fine clothes, held his wine; another, in matching garb, his staff of office. A personal guard contingent of Avandeilan soldiers in bright paper armor surrounded the platform.

It was near the end of the trial, which had gone on for three days since the judicator arrived. One by one, the last of the traitors were brought out. Some were Lonireilan, but most were Serehvani conscripts, like me. They were allowed to speak their piece, although most of them knew very little Lonireilan. A translator, a local magistrate reduced to the function, stood by, clutching his soft cap, his gray beard bobbing as he spoke. I strained to follow; it was most instructive, to have one man speaking Serehvani and another the same words, in Lonireilan. I was improving. Their words made my blood boil, but only because I hovered over them, let them pass beneath me. They made too much sense. They’d had the gall to do what I could not, to seize opportunity and fight against the ones who’d taken us. I cursed them, even as my lips moved along with theirs.

Beside me, the Tash stood, as she always did, staring, listless. She was something of a comfort. Not especially tall, nor strong, nor pretty, but she was steady. A silent presence, something to be depended on, if for little else than the presence itself. But, while I mouthed the words and tried to conjugate the verbs and assign one set of sounds to an image, an idea, an action that I had always known by another, she stirred. She touched my arm and I glanced at her.

Her face was browner than mine; she was from Opac province, west of where I was from, and the people there are hardy and live in a rainless land, herding sheep. Her hair was chopped short, since otherwise she wouldn’t cut it at all, and tucked beneath a tight head-wrapping of blue cloth, similar to mine. Her sunken eyes never met mine, but as I glanced into her face they flicked and blinked and I turned to follow her gaze.

The judicator was pronouncing judgement. Death. Beheadings, traitor’s deaths, with their heads to be taken far and dumped in a remote place for the carrion birds, their bodies to be thrown in a pit outside the walls and left to rot, as a lesson. It would be on the next night.

What the Tash was looking at though, where her gaze eventually led mine, was the gate of the fort. There, a single figure had entered. Mire Storm, head high, walked into the den of Lonireilan power in Serehvan, and her eyes sparked like flint and steel.


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 - a weekly fantasy web serial

RAZE – 041 – Mire Storm

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


Leaving behind the sound of Yamurik raising his voice with whatever caravanner he was berating, I walked around the broad porch, staying out of the rain as long as possible and walking slow to hide my lingering pain. Ecena fell in step behind me. I paused at the double doors through the front wall of the office structure, took a moment to pull up my hood and brace myself to descend the few stairs, and then stepped beneath the eaves and out into the muddy, churned up roadway.

The compound was comparatively quiet. A single pair of oxen stood waiting outside one of the nearby barns, and steam issued from the many windows of the long, two-storey structures standing in ranks behind them. The workers were at work; a couple of them were sloshing from one barn to the other, heads bowed against the rain, or crouching in the lee of the barn and sharing a pipe. Dops pattered off my hood as I turned to the front gates, a short distance away through the mud and drizzle.

Ecena followed me, but even from the front of the offices I could see the woman waiting outside the gates, her way barred by four of my soldiers. There was a presence about her. She was brighter, or larger, or more solid, than the transient rain and dirt and the people in front of her, people somehow made small and insubstantial in their brigadine coats, carrying their spears and shields. They looked like glass.

Before them, she was a gnarled, stalwart old tree, somewhat stunted and narrow, twisted, hardened by weather and sun and time. She seemed immovable. Her skin was the color of an old tree, beaten deep brown by sun and wind and weather. Her hair was black-turning-gray, straight, divided and bound by a variety of leather strips, cords, and beads. She wore a ragtag assembly of clothes from places I had never heard of – wool here, silk there, leather and boning and bright colors. An old bow and a round shield were on her back, a narrow, curved saber of an unfamiliar style at her waist. A fine-boned gray horse waited a few steps away, head up and attentive.

The woman’s narrow eyes met mine as I neared. A smile tweaked the corner of her lip, and a more disconcerting expression was hard to imagine. I must have hesitated, and  when I continued toward her, I realized I’d shown my limp and tried to correct myself for the final steps. She noticed. I couldn’t meet her steady, appraising gaze.

I stopped in front of her. After a few long breaths, she spoke. “Well?” She spoke Lonireilan and her accent was thick and foreign, something I’d heard only in Ibandran, and only at a distance.

“You – ah.” I didn’t feel like the superior she had requested. How had an old woman reduced me to this? I tried to look at her again, and again her stare sent my view tumbling down into the mud. “I am Corporal il-Lonireil.”

“Il-Loniriel? And a corporal? You’re just a babe. You Serehvani, boy?”

“Yes.” I gritted my teeth as I recalled myself. “No I’m not. You can’t call me that.” With hesitation, I added, “Peasant.”

“Peasant.” She nodded. The smirk quirked at her lip again. “Let’s speak Serehvani. I prefer it.”

Inwardly, I blew out a breath. “If you insist.”

“I do.” She switched languages without a second’s hesitation, but her accent was no less thick. “Let me pass. I’ve got business with Yamurik.”

“What business?” My hands shook. Why? I forced myself to look at her. This was just some drifter from the canyonlands. Why should I fear her? There were five of us. I was letting her make me look stupid and weak. I glanced around at the others. Some looked away, but Ecena couldn’t hide her amusement and her friend, Ahdan, had taken up a place beside her. He’d been whispering something, but stopped when I saw him and cocked his head with a smug look.

I turned back to the stranger. “Any business you’ve got with Yamurik can go through me.”

“No.”

I waited, but there was nothing else. “Well, ah, then go away.” I pointed most distinctly out into the city. She made no move.

“I don’t take orders from infants, boy. It’s raining. I’m tired. I’m only asking you as a courtesy. You understand? Let me past or this will go badly for you.”

I had been thinking of words to use. Something about her stare, her posture, made it hard to concentrate. My gaze kept straying to the earth. Finally, I found a good word and lifted my chin. “Crone!” I said, triumphantly, “get out of here. Or you’ll be sorry.” It wasn’t much of a threat. It was even less of a threat than I’d imagined, but I knew next to nothing at that time.

“Crone? Peasant? You’ve got a mouth on you.”

“You’re about to have a boot on you.” I’d found my voice and the words came without thinking. It had always been a problem, but I’d always been big enough to answer for my tongue.

Her eyes widened a little. “You don’t have any idea who you’re talking to.”

“I’m talking to an old woman with a death wish.” I glanced back at my followers and spoke Lonireilan. “Lick of shit. You’re right, Ecena, she won’t listen.” Ecena grinned a little. I could feel her and the others coming back to me.

When I looked back at the old lady, she’d changed. All trace of amusement was gone. My heart froze in my chest and my own bluster turned to ash, filling my throat.

“Listen to me.” She took a slow step forward. Her gaze captured mine. I was paralyzed. I couldn’t think of looking away. All I wanted was to run, but I froze. It was, I realized, what a hare feels like when it stumbles upon a plains cat. In a quiet, precise tone, she said. “Make way. Or I’ll make it myself.”

I fought to speak, and as I did so I realized we’d all taken a step back at her approach. No one smiled or smirked. Ecena cowered. Ahdan, big and broad behind her, shook. His spear point wavered in the air, half-lowered.

I quailed before her. My mind, my bluster, my very spirit, deserted me. “I can’t let you in,” I whispered.

“Believe me – you can’t keep me out.”

I believed her. “Who are you?” I needed something. At least I could tell my superiors her name. Maybe then they wouldn’t have me whipped.

“Go and tell Yamurik that Mire Storm, warrior of the Crade, is on her way in.”

I heard Ecena gasp. The word meant nothing to me, but the sound of it fell on my ears, my heart, like a hammer. A bell, tolling. Behind me, Ecena whispered, “Let her past, il-Lonireil.”

I nodded. I stepped back and looked around me at my fellows. “Let her in. Just watch her.” Before they could answer, I ran off through the rain to tell Yamurik, and I had never been so relieved, and I had no idea why.


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 each 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 – 040 – Someone at the Gate

I went to the healer daily for the next week. A Skertah alchemist from Lonireil, he had a thin face and sandy hair and fretted and coughed incessantly. Since he spoke no Serehvan, I strained my mind to follow his instructions. He expressed pus from the wound and applied noxious, stinging concoctions. I did everything he said to heal quickly. I was desperate to return to training, but the arrow wound through my hip would hinder me till almost the end of winter.

Uruverres got our assignment – we were to watch over Yamurik. He and a few other landowners, those spared elsewhere by Lonireil and brought to Onappa-ka, were to oversee the growing and shipping of poppy and poppy tears, as they’d always done. I asked for assignment in Yamurik’s household with a malicious glee.

The first day of my assignment was two days after my promotion. I left the cane behind, gritting my teeth and glaring while I walked, forcing myself to move without sign of pain. Inside, I wanted to cry out at every step; the pain spidered through my insides, a great knifing twist that resolved into tingling ice, cracking and snapping, only to repeat with the next step.

I led several members of the Hand over: Estevo, The Tash, Ahdan, Ecena, a few others. We came to the gates of Yamurik’s compound, a cluster of long barns surrounded by a tall plank fence on the west side of Onappa-ka, some distance from the town square and manor where I’d first seen him. At the barns, folk collected the seed pods while others scraped up flakes of poppy tears from where they’d dried in boxes in the sun, up until weather had turned. Some toiled over boiling pots, cooking the poppy tears to purify them. Some packaged the cooked and dried tears in sheafs of waxed paper. Still others stocked barrels, prepared them for transport. The barns were quiet; most of the laborers were in the fields, chopping and tilling the old plants under and preparing the fields for next year.

Yamurik’s guards, his personal guards, eyed us as we approached. I puffed myself up with adolescent self-importance. These men would be gone soon, replaced with the loyal.

I found Yamurik on a catwalk overlooking a cooking barn. Two servants stood beside him, fanning away the cloying fumes, while a scribe attended with papers and pens behind him and a guard stood watch. Yamurik followed me with his gaze, me and my column of Lonireilan soldiers, youths with swords and spears wearing the trappings of adulthood. We crossed the cooking floor past clouds of sour steam, then mounted the steps and walked out along the catwalk. I stuck out a finger at Yamurik’s guard. “Get gone,” I said in my improving Lonireilan. “You’re finished here.”

The man stared at me. He was big, perhaps thirty, with a beard and a blue turban, like the one I’d taken. He glanced first at my white, Lonireilan uniform, then at my star, then the brass-hilted sword at my waist – the one I’d taken from the guard of Yamurik’s that I’d skewered. He took in the line of soldiers behind me – youths, but armed youths. Tortured. Scarred. Bloodthirsty. Cruel. Mindless.

He left without a word. Yamurik shouted after him once, then looked back at me. “Dogpiss,” he muttered.

“Yamurik. These are your Lonireilan guards now.” I grinned at him. “I am Corporal il-Lonireil. We’re going to be spending a lot of time together.”

 

*     *     *

 

We chased off Yamurik’s old guards. I set up watches, patrols, assigned duties. Estevo would take a night watch. I trusted him. He and the Tash would command from sundown to sunup. We took over the old guard towers, watch posts, and we built a place for ourselves within Yamurik’s main office not far from the front gates. His offices were set inside a low, square building that was open in the middle to accomodate a garden. There were carved lattice windows, broad shutters that could be closed against the cold and rain, a wide porch around both the outside and the inside. There were fine firepits that heated the whole place, and Yamurik kept the interior so warm I sweated. Our post – my office – was within, just beside his. I could hear him through the thin walls when he had business guests, when he entertained potential buyers with hookah and coffee, when he argued and smacked the table and cursed.

I stood on the porch outside the offices, overlooking the garden in the center. The rain was falling, cold and steady, and although I was dry enough, my hip ached from the chill and I hunched with an old cloak wrapped around me, listening to Yamurik curse inside his office. Water sluiced through the false rivers of stone in the garden, between dying, flowerless poppies and pale shrubs, pearly in the rain. For a second, Yamurik’s shouting faded from my hearing, and I saw the pale shell I’d brought home from the coast in Ibandran for my father.

“Il-Lonireil!”

I looked up and blinked. Ecena stood glowering and dripping on the planks of the porch, her wool cape shimmering with rain and her shapeless hat squashed to her head. She was from Avandeil, like Estevo, was a little older than I, and her bright, brown eyes broadcast her disdain or biting humor wherever she went. Her olive hand, clutching a spear, had gone red from the cold. “Il-Lonireil. There’s someone at the gate.” She spoke Lonireilan, not slowing by a breath for me.

“Corporal,” I said, and then stood waiting and parsing what she’d said to me.

Her mouth screwed up beneath her hat. “Corporal il-Lonireil,” she said, overemphasizing the title. Her eyes narrowed. “There is someone at the gate, sir.

I forced out the Lonireilan like I was piling stones. “Does the person have business with Yamurik?”

“She says she does.”

“What is the business?”

“She won’t say.” Ecena transferred her spear to her other hand and tucked the first into her dripping cape. “I wouldn’t tell you if I didn’t think we needed you there.”

I wasn’t sure I caught her meaning. “We don’t have time. They’re finishing the trial tonight. We’ve all been summoned. For the trial. Tell her to come back tomorrow.”

“She won’t leave. She won’t listen to me. Wants to see my superior.” Her brows twitched up. “So now it’s your responsibility.”

 

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RAZE - a weekly fantasy web serial

RAZE – 039 – Victory and Law

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I went along the way, supported under the arm by one of my escorts, a Lonireilan with a clean-shaven face who gave me a friendly grin, but said nothing I could understand. He spoke too fast, then not at all, looking a little disappointed that I couldn’t follow his speech.

First, down the hill, through the fields, where workers paused or glanced up for only a second before going back to their duties. Teams of Serehvani workers, scoring blades in hand, moved in ranks through the high rows and carved lines that bled milky resin on the seed pods of the poppies. The flowers were gone, but after the rains it was thought we might get one more harvest of the poppy tears before the next squall, and so they carved into the tough green flesh. Most of them were already scored, bled, and bore brown, spiderweb scars over their husks.

Across the bridge, into Onappa-ka. One of the Lonireilan soldiers went ahead when we neared the gates of the walled barracks compound. By the time my aid brought me through the gates, the Hand of the Knife had assembled. My breath caught. All of them stared, watching me.

The Tash was to one side, quiet, staring into the distance. Not far from her, Estevo stood with eyes darting, but he flashed a grin at the sight of me. Our sergeant, Uruverres, shouted for the rest to come to attention from her place beside the line. All of them, Tash and Estevo, the sad young men and women too new for me to know their names, Ahdan and glowering Ecena, straightened and went quiet. Some faces were absent; I remembered seeing them fall in the mud during the attack.

My aid brought me forward. My feet scuffed at the baked earth in the quiet. Uruverres, chin high, seemingly unwilling to look at me, came forward and blocked my view of my compatriots with her wide, stiff-uniformed chest. She fixed a pin on me, a small brass star on my breastbone. Her white uniform had two stars and a circle enclosing them in the same spot. Stepping back, she announced me in accented Serehvani. “For duties served to the Enlightened Empire of Lonireil, the High Conclave, to Prime de Juaron of Avandeil, and to Imperator Loroantes IV, long may he live; we hereby recognize the bestowing of the rank of Corporal on recruit il-Lonireil. Salute!”

The Hand saluted; Uruverres turned to me again, grasped my shoulder in a gesture of congratulations. I winced at her touch, but only a little, and I don’t think she noticed. Pride burst from inside me. “Well done. Serve your country and your comrades with honor.” I looked back to the Hand. Standing, saluting me. Waiting. I took my time, letting the sight, the idea, linger. They waited. I nodded to Uruverres, unsure of what to say. I’m sure I beamed like an idiot. When I finally turned on the Hand, lifted my fingers in salute, they finished their gesture and then Estevo gave out an unseemly whoop. A few of them joined him, clapping, laughing, and a moment later they’d surrounded me to shake my hand, offer thanks. They began currying favor. I stood in the middle of our practice yard, shaking at the nearness of so many, unwilling to push them back, holding back the tears from my eyes with my heart full to bursting.

*   *   *

The next day I crawled, aching, from my bunk before first bell, urged out by a few terse whispers in the dark from the night guard. He spoke Lonireilan, but I knew enough to recognize what he was saying, and that he wasn’t being insulting. I shivered and sweated into my uniform, every movement a struggle, my mind flitting over and again through the list of new duties I’d been given. I sat for a moment longer than I should have, polishing the single brass star on my white uniform.

I awoke Uruverres, then mustered the Hand. Waking them was my duty, now. Swaggering on a cane like an old general, I shouted my way through their bunkhouse and rapped at bedrails. When they lined up, I peered at buttons and uniforms, sought out smudges and stains, slapped an unshaven face and jerked on a knot of out-of-place hair hard enough to make it’ owner yelp. There was no chance Uruverres would find anything wrong for her first inspection of my command. She didn’t. With a sniff, she congratulated me again.

Everyone got a run outside in  the rain for the unshaven face and the yelping, everyone but Estevo and Tash. I had them stay behind and help me learn Lonireilan. Estevo went around the room, pointing at things and swearing till I said the name right. Tash sat in a chair (in Lonireilan, a cuego) and was silent (“pe avorir.” I was learning).

That afternoon, we were all summoned for an event at the fort. That event was a trial.

We trouped up the hill in our ranks, me out front with Sergeant Uruverres. Me. I leaned on my cane and gritted my teeth and hoped with a wild desperation that none of the other corporals or sergeants could see how much I hurt. I hoped I didn’t look so proud, but instead dignified, strong, resolute. I must have grinned like an ox that got into Lord Salat’s offerings.

We filed into the muster in the walled fort. The pit outside had been filled in. Within the walls, we took places and stood at attention. Weckar waited on a platform, staring, silent, and de Trastorces came out in his armor, flanked by guards. In chairs too fancy for mud and muck still stained dark with blood, a group of dignitaries from Onappa-ka and from the Lonireilan province of Avandeil sat and waited, looking nervous. They were wrapped in furs and wools, dressed in dark colors. Servants stood over them with umbrellas. I saw Yamurik, the rich poppy farm owner, amongst them, scowling, eyes flicking around him and up to de Trastorces.

The captain spoke, shouting so all might hear. The sky above him was darkening, clear, and all around him white lamps had been lit with too-bright, alchemical flames. He gleamed almost as sharp and cruel as Weckar.

“Bring forth the accused,” he finally said. Soldiers at the door of what used to be the stables of the former trading post threw open the doors. The building was no longer a stables; the windows had been boarded over, the walls reinforced, gates nailed and chained. From within, more guards emerged, wearing their white armor. Vapors issued from within the building; the soldiers emerging looked like holy khren coming out of Lord Salat’s halls, surrounded by whisps of cloud and mysterious fogs in the bright light. In truth, what drafted out around them was stinking damp, the collected steam of caged people sweating, pissing, breathing in a musty old stall, awaiting judgement by the ones they had come to kill. They came out after the guards, poor souls, already dead. They knew as well as we did. I pity them now. At the time, a jeer ripped from my throat along with the rest around me, a howl for blood, a chant of disgusted scorn.

Most of them were Nabani. They were lined up, hemmed in by ours, while de Trastorces accounted their crimes. Destruction. Murder. Treason. They would be tried, as was right and fair under the rule of the province of Avandeil, of the Empire of Lonireil. A Judicator would come from Lonireil, and it would be fair, and they would be found guilty.

Next, though, he called out some of our own. I hadn’t noticed them, dirty, bruised, beaten, foul. They stood amongst the others and were indistinguishable.

They’d refused to fight, or turned on their fellows and joined the Nabani. They were like me, youths and conscripts, or Lonireilans who’d been taken from their homes in Avandeil. They, too, were traitors, but worse, they’d fought against their fellows. Friends and kin who’d depended on them, and they’d stabbed them in the back. These, I hated all the more. Looking at them, standing before the blinding lights in the dark, I felt the brass star on my chest glow and pulse and nearly burn, but it was only my imagining.


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 each 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

038 – Son of Lonireil

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The dream-waking of the poppy-eater is an open, velvet coffin. It is euphoria without experience. It is meaningless and in being so, heavenly. It is welcome death.

I watched in curiosity as a great insect, all fingerlike protrusions around the mouth and mandibles and inhuman, faceted, cut-gem eyes, leaned over me. It was, in fact, a Lonireilan healer, wearing a high white hat and a sculpted mask, some nonsense they dreamed up for cleanliness or humors or whatever. I was somewhere warm. Where didn’t matter. I was comfortable, annoyed at disturbance, but too tranquil to try to move, to stop her. I observed, with mild interest, while she pushed the arrow the rest of the way through me. The Nabani use notched arrowheads, so you cannot pull them back out the way they came. Once the pushing, followed by a tearing, punching feeling from inside out, just above my ass, was finished, she broke the rest of the arrow shaft. The jolt echoed through me like a stone flung into a puddle. Then she pulled the rest of the arrow through and cleaned out the wound, and used a silvery, sticky Skertah alchemical compound to pack it. It smelled of burning salt and plant resin and went tough and hard in a moment. Then, I rested. I don’t know exactly how long. I dreamed.

They gave me poppy only for one more day. After that came the pain, but I was awake. It was then that Estevo visited.

He stood beside me where I lay on a cot in the tent inside the fort compound. Looking down, he grinned. “No more tea for you, eh?”

“Maybe you can find some,” I said. It took all my effort just to talk. My body felt as if it had been pulled behind an ox. “I think they keep it – “

“Good try, il-Lonireil.” He blew smoke. “Anyway, I already looked. You’re lucky. I didn’t get any, just a few pulls of wine before that healer put the needle to me.” He showed me a wiry arm, worked over in thick cord stitches. “Good scar that’ll be. Lick of shit.” He glanced around, then leaned down a bit, conspiratorially. “She had nice hands. Bet she looks worse than a bug under that mask, though.”

I laughed a little and regretted it. When I opened my eyes again, he had sobered.

“Look. I meant it when I said thanks.” He reached down and I felt myself draw away, wracking my body with pain once again. My jaw clenched, but it wasn’t at the pain. He paused and took his hand away. “Anyway. Thanks.” 

Why did I save him? I didn’t know why I did many things at that time. I nodded, though, and he stood for a moment, scratching the back of his skinny neck.

“Say,” he said. “I bet I can  find you something. If not poppy maybe some brandy or something.”

I shook my head. “Don’t go to the trouble.”

“No trouble.”

He misunderstood. I deserved the pain. I deserved many things. I had fought and killed my countrymen. Why?

“Someone will offer,” he went on. “You saved quite a few people.” I must have looked confused. “Not just me. And when you led us up the hill – someone saw. An officer, someone important. They’re talking about you.” He winked. “Good things. I’ll get brandy.”

He did. It was a poor substitute for poppy, but strong and it made the pain – not lesser, but it made it matter less.

They made me rise. I only wanted more poppy, but they made me rise. Soldiers don’t rest, they said.

They led me, hobbling, straight from the healer’s tent to de Trastorces’ hall, inside the keep. They’d bored the fort down into the hillside home that I had invaded, replaced the comfortable furniture with armorer’s racks, a room for scribes and messengers, a receiving hall, a guard barracks. Folk shouted, studied maps, ran to and fro, bustled past, but at the sight of me they paused or moved aside. A few saluted with a raised fist.

I met de Trastorces in a back room, well-lit with lamps and a little outside light that came through two shafts that led to the surface. My escorts remained at the door, awaiting me, while I hobbled before the captain’s great desk, which was strewn with maps and reports.

He stood, smiled and came around to greet me. I remembered to salute, was glad I was never expected to meet his gaze. He shook my hand.

“The Nabani boy, yes? You did very well, I’m told.” I said nothing, merely nodded, looking down. “How is your injury?”

“Fine, sir.”

“Strong, still.” My heart lifted, for a moment, at the compliment, like a damp moth moving a wing. “Look. Please sit.” He motioned to a low seat, one of the narrow wicker stools the Lonireilans are fond of. I sat and he brought another, sat near me. He put a warm hand on my shoulder. From him, I didn’t flinch away. He’d touched my shoulder before, and when he did his voice went warm and kind. I looked up, almost met his gaze, and settled for looking at his gold, curled mustache.

He held my shoulder and he sighed. “This is a difficult time, son.” The word made my skin crawl, but at the same time it was sweet, warm, like sugar in burnt coffee. “Things have changed much for you. You were punished when you first joined us. You know why?” He did not say I was taken. Indeed, the memory was too painful to draw up. Joined sounded better. I nodded. “You fought. Killed a man. You understand?” Again I nodded. I had deserved it, or so I still thought. “But you’ve proven yourself. Made a man of yourself. And look at Onappa-whatever here, this city. Is it not better now?” I agreed. “And these attackers, attackers that you helped foil – what was their aim? To put up some other flag? They perpetuated the unfortunate punishment that came to this city. They killed people, good people only trying to make a home, or only carrying out my orders. They should have come for me, shouldn’t they?” I didn’t know what to answer to that. “Or taken their claim to Lonireil, to the Conclave, like civilized folk.” Again, I had no response. “My point is, son, that you saved people. Oh, Weckar may have been in little danger, but she’s not immortal.” His voice carried an unconfident note. “You did what had to be done. You helped keep peace. You saved lives. These ones who attacked us – they’re your enemies too. All of your province’s. They’re not concerned about who gets in their way, in the way of their flag.” He stood, and I did likewise. “Your efforts have been recognized. You’re a corporal, now. What’s your name?”

I paused, unsure what he was saying. It wasn’t his slippery accent that baffled me. For the first time, I looked at his eyes, and found them to be smiling. Proud. “My name,” I said. It took a moment to draw up the right words, the words I wanted. “Il-Lonireil.”

He looked puzzled, then proud again. “Son of Lonireil, eh? Fitting. Very good, then. Congratulations, Corporal il-Lonireil. You’ll command a section of the Hand of the Knife. Report to your sergeant and she’ll explain. Off you go.”

The guards led me back out on unsteady legs. I don’t remember leaving the hillside house where I’d first killed by intent. My mind raced, circled, still foggy. I was rewarded. I was better. By the time we reached the edge of the fort, I was smiling. My steps had grown more sure. Then, just before we left the gates to make the slow trek down to Onappa-ka through the poppy fields, I saw her. Weckar, face hard, smooth like a glass mask, and her dark eyes following me with their milky, blue-white pupils. She stood on the battlements, robes drifting about her in the wind, while below her folk dug a pit and carted and heaped the dead inside it.


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 each 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 – 037 – For What Has Rotted

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


Blame. As the years pass, there is little else for which the use diminishes so much, even as it increases in power and enticement in greater measures.

I found myself in the broad main road of Onappa-ka. Arrows tore the air and everywhere the walls echoed with screams amongst carts and half-repaired houses, tents, shit in the road and dogs running and oxen bellowing. Fog and drizzle clotted my vision and people ran, flashing formless shapes, crowding, pushing. A team of cathelles honked and kicked up splashes of mud, jerking their wagon along behind them, bowling people down, smashing a rickety scaffold. The press cared not for me. I might have fallen, been trampled. I stumbled in the mass. Their bodies choked me, the pressure, the stink of their fear-breath and bodies and unwashed cloth and piss and flesh shoving up against me, my nose and mouth. Some of them fell, arrows drawing out red fountains, while others simply succumbed to the herd’s terror and were knocked flat, heads stomped, chests caved in, unable to breathe. To the faceless screamers and runners, I roared back. I lashed out with my spear and shield. They made way. We broke from the crowd, the rest of the Hand and I, and ran on.

There in the street, lashing down with bright sabers at stragglers, raising bows, wheeling wild-eyed foaming mounts, we saw them. Riders. Serehvani warriors, fighters from Naban in bright yellow cloth, bronze rings and hoops shining wet on their turbans and wrists, blood on their arms and legs. Dogs lay with their faces cut; camels, dying and groaning, churned up muck with their writhing. Folk lay dead in the street, good as rotten meat, naught but mud and trash, carved and slashed open, pinned with arrow shafts. Colonists, not warriors. Lonireilan colonists. The invaders pointed at us and raised their bows and spurred their mounts.

They bore on through the fog and rain, screaming war cries. They were terrors, shadowy, loud, huge. What was I to do? I stood because the others with me did, even though fear gripped me, stabbed me in my heart, a blank sudden cold that rushed all through me, shook my arms, made me wild. I screamed. We all did. We raised our spears in terror or in hatred or in nameless need as the phantoms thundered at us too fast, too big, and then fell on us.

I saw hatred in their eyes. Should I blame them? I wore the white brigandine coat of a Lonireilan soldier (for I had not yet earned paper armor). What might I have done in their place, and would I have asked my rivals’ names first? Perhaps greater men would have turned on their captors and slavedrivers at this moment. I was a child. I had lost everything, and then kind hands came from those who took me. My own had failed to save me, and now they’d kill me before asking my name. They’d kill my new family, those baptised, like me, in heartache and loss and new purpose.

As they attacked, we defended. We fought for our very lives. The Tash ran up beside me and we raised our spears together. Her spear-point met the horse’s chest and the beast ran up on it, shattering the spear with a crack that rang my ears. We fell, battered, in the muck, and I stumbled up as quick as I could, dragged my sword out rattling. I lashed around, slipped, blind at first, then hewed the kicking body. A phantom appeared, yellow and shrieking, a glint carving the air. By luck, I caught the wild blow on my shield. Felt nothing. I slipped and fell, as did the phantom, tripping on its broken leg. I saw blood. Tash rushed in, wordless, and the phantom met her with a round shield in the gut. Her collapse and gurgles drew me back to my feet and I slashed her attacker as he tried to rise, to lift his sword over her. He flailed but I cut him again and again till I was certain and he ceased to move. For most, two foes is enough to guarantee failure, no matter how inexperienced they may be.

Screams of horses, of men. I spun about, choking. My eyes filled up with mud and grit, fog, impossible to see. I blinked and my eyes watered. Was that my voice, screaming along with the rest? I rushed out again, saw Estevo and three others stabbing with spears, saw Ahdan and Ecena hacking at a red shape on the ground. Another shadow emerged from the fog and I rushed at it before it reached them, caught it unawares in the side. It fell. The tears flowed from me now, bright and clean, washing me, my anger, my hate, burning bright as I released all the things that held me. My shame fell away. I was bold, shining. I killed, mighty again. No one was there to force me to anything, to bind me, to break me, make me small. I spun, looking for another. I raced into the fog and saw one of the archers. Her eyes flashed beneath her turban in the rain. I was too close for her to draw another arrow. She tried to guide her mount away, to run, but I caught her leg and dragged her. Tried to kill me. Tried to kill my friends. I felt as if I released a great, held breath as I hacked at her in the road where she lay, dazed from the fall. I could breathe. Finally, I could breathe. I raised my sword and brought it down again, and breathed, and wept, and the great wracking breath-sobs that escaped me were like a break in the clouds, and then I was laughing.

They were dead, as were many of us, and I hated the Nabani for fighting. We drew together as the drizzle fell in shrouds and found more blood on the ground, more mud, unknowable mounds of bodies, no longer yellow or Lonireil white, just dead and brown mud and muck. I laughed, crowed, even as the tears and rainwater mixed on my cheeks. Some others puked, some wept, but I shouted. I needed more. “Come on!” I shouted. “They’re by the fort! To the fort!” I ran and others followed.

We raced out, across the bridge, through the fields. We seized on more foes and caught them or chased them out, their horses throwing up sprays of water and mud as they fled through the fields. Those we met, we chopped apart. We surged up the hill, to the fort, those black walls slick with rain, and there they were ready.

As we dashed through the gates, a volley of arrows rained down. One pounded into me, above my hip, a searing bolt that tore and tugged. I sprawled face-down in the mud, rolled, drove it in further. I couldn’t rise, and waves of seething dark rolled out from the place, stole my ragged breath. Through fog and rain I saw the others around me, some fighting more yellow-clad warriors, some fallen, dead by arrow, or stricken. I tried to rise and fell, my leg useless, body a bright point of pain, agony overwhelming any hope of standing.

Through eyes I strained to open, I watched Estevo rush to me. He grabbed beneath my arm, a gods-damned cigarette somehow still dangling from his lip. “Get up!” he shouted.

Another Nabani warrior streaked toward us, a spear aimed at Estevo’s back. I warned him, wordless, but enough. He dropped me, lurched away, but the spear caught his arm. He bowled me down trying to escape, and then wriggled away in the mud while the Nabani jabbed at him, stabbing the earth, struggling not to fall in the mud. I strained even to breathe as Estevo rolled against the wall, and his fleeing was cut short.

The Nabani raised his spear, shouted an oath. Estevo, blood running from his arm, raised a broken saber at arm’s length and spat, swearing in Lonireilan. Across what seemed miles of mud and distance, his eyes met mine for a moment.

I struggled up just as the Nabani thrust out. I staggered, fell, but as the spear leapt in his hand, my sword caught the Nabani’s leg. It was just a nick, but he fell and his spear stuck in the wall behind Estevo, instead of in him.

The Nabani staggered up. He sneered down at me, swore, lifted his spear. Of course, I was not to die. A web of cuts appeared on him from nowhere. His eyes widened in shock, then agony, then nothingness. Before he could let out a sound, he fell apart. The chunks tumbled and slipped down on one another in a heap. Never before had I seen such a torrent of blood. Behind him, in the rain with her arm outstretched, was Weckar. She stood for a moment, then turned and strode away into the fog. I couldn’t move to watch her go, but screams followed in the rain.

In the mud I lay, broken and moaning. I heard a voice and saw Estevo. He sat heavily beside me, heedless of the wet and filth, and the chewed, soaked cigarette fell apart on his chin. He spat it out, flakes of tobacco, and despite my pain I laughed a little. The arrow hurt even more.

“Very funny, il-Lonireil.” He peered at my arrow. “You stupid shit-lick.”

“Saved your life.” Even speaking hurt. It was getting worse. My legs felt a hundred leagues away and my chest was tightening, shortening my breaths. I groaned and wanted to roll about, but even the thought of moving made hot shards skitter through my insides.

“You did. Thanks.” He leaned over me. “Try not to move. We’ll get someone to see to that arrow.”

It didn’t take long. Several others had gathered around me. It seemed they felt I’d done something special by leading the Hand up to the fort. They brought me a cup of some thin, black, earthy smelling stuff, and from the back of my mind I recognized the same smell from when my mother had made poppy tea for me, for a tooth that had rotted. This smelled much, much stronger. I sipped a little, and soon the rain was gone. I was warm. I was tired. And I was very, very happy.


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 each 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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