The Coldest Day of the Year
A wild boy runs messages across the countryside. Following a cataclysmic blizzard, he discovers and survives a man-made catastrophe.
A foreign soldier enjoys the fleeting pleasure of promotion for the better part of an afternoon before learning of his baffling assignment.
A celebrity soldier and granddaughter of the nation’s most famous explorer broods over her recent failures. At a loss for immediate action, she grudgingly agrees to a goodwill tour of the homeland.
The Coldest Day of the Year follows three people from disparate backgrounds with equally disparate goals as they struggle to restore order in a remote part of the nation. At the very least, they must survive the winter. But they fear the nation has turned against them.
◊ ◊ ◊
Table of Contents
Chapter One — Nowhere
Chapter Two — Averros, Day
Chapter Three — Averros, Evening
Chapter Four — Hurleweth
Chapter Five — Ord
Chapter Six — Hurleweth, cont’d
Chapter Seven — Cadaes
Chapter Eight — Faragos
◊ ◊ ◊
The boy ran the same rotation for five years, beginning alongside his father when he was ten and succeeding his brother at thirteen. His father taught him speed, his brother taught him silence. Both men took common names to appease the thick-eared villagers, but the boy refused the practice and used only his birth name, Golgrae. Three other runners along the northern route all moved at pace with each other like teeth on a gear. A fifth courier ran the echo course, backward along their path, for not all news moves sunwise.
The northern route, a sprawling loop around half the nation, lay buried in frost most of the year. The southbound route kinked across mountains then circled just north of the big lake in the heart of the nation. The northbound path fell slack through a featureless plains. By the time they circled round to climb the vicious mountain terrain, the runners cheered the variety. Near the tail of the arduous mountain path, the runners prayed for flat ground.
Mule roads knotted the southern half of the country, below the big lake, and trade stitched those towns together, precluding the need for specialized runners. Golgrae’s people were welcome only in those desperate climes nobody else wanted to be.
Along the route, the runners played games, though they hardly encountered one another. Ribbons, notes, and sketches were left in difficult to spot or difficult to reach nooks along the road. Ranchers and tavernowners along the road were asked to hold onto a prize for the next runner to guess the hidden phrase or deliver an out-of-place token.
Golgrae once hung a mug from a very high tree branch. Upon knocking it down, his follower saw the mug came from a town fifty miles behind and contained a napkin from a town fifty miles ahead. There was no game to it but the joy of surprise. Only a traveler who had circled the countryside as frequently as they had would recognize the potter’s mark in the ceramic mug and the hem of the repurposed linen. The mug and napkin remained near that same spot and each runner searched until he found where the prior had re-hidden it. The napkin vanished from the mug one spring and remained missing until that autumn when the leaves fled the boughs and exposed all the clandestine squirrel nests. One homemaker provided her kittens with a carpeted bed.
Each rotation expanded their familiarity with the land and each game lent a whimsical air to their vigilance. When the runners encountered trouble, they’d hustle back a mile to leave a hidden warning for their follower and then forward again to leave a note for the widdershins. So too would the absence of the game alarm a runner.
And so Golgrae, late in the day as the sunlight evened, pink hues bled deep into the snow-capped peaks, began to doubt his eyes. He’d not seen anything out of the ordinary in the two days since he left Moro, the port town on the north sea, to hike up the mountain pass. Now, on the second day, as he crossed through the mountain range, favoring the knotty forest floor to the powder-laden ox cart switchbacks, he slowed his pace and tugged his collar down below his ears and tightened across his eyes the silk veil that the wind liked to tangle. At last he smelled the fire and then spotted the tracks of the trundling men who lay in ambush.
The boy hopped along the forested valley opposite their position. They had erected an eight-man tent, much too large for their purpose, beside the ox cart path, just round a switchback to conceal themselves. Golgrae recognized the tent as belonging to the southeast military. More veterans? Golgrae thought. No, never this far north. Deserters? Whoever they are, they should be heading south.
The sun lived shorter days in this mountain terrain. Golgrae estimated an hour left before he’d absolutely have to stop for the night. He should be erecting his pup tent and starting a fire to boil his noodles. The clever thing, the standard practice, suggests itself, Golgrae thought. He considered how long it might take to hang an alarum or hide a warning. Hustle back two miles, hide a warning, hide yourself, and sneak past them in the morning, he thought.
Golgrae approached them. Deliberately. Two of them sat around an orange fire that snapped at the cold. A third studied the ox cart path, certain of position as he didn’t fein caution. He stared south, back in the direction they had traveled. Golgrae saw their tracks, furrows in the road now snowed over. They’ve been here for at least two days. They haven’t moved. The next stop along Golgrae’s path, a fort named Hurleweth, would have taken them in for the winter, especially if they were veterans.
A desperate man is a cracked bowl, his father told him. Handle delicately, and only fill with what you can afford to spill.
Golgrae turned his back to them and set to the task of chopping wood. Doubtless, he was outnumbered; his singular hope of survival lay in deceit. If they knew he was aware of them, they would fall on him in full force and that would be the end of Golgrae. No matter, he could outrun them. In this weather, in any weather.
He knelt before a fallen branch and steadily split its arm with his iron hatchet. When he finally chopped through the branch, the sound continued behind him; crunch crunch. Golgrae dove forward into the snow on his left shoulder and came up on the knee with his hatchet shaking in the man’s face.
The man wore a woolen head-wrap twisted into a thick cord around the skull. This detail alone gave away the man’s origin. He wore a faded red scarf pulled taut over the head-wrap and over the ears and round the neck in a style to protect against rain but not frost. His cloak’s collar had no fur, which led Golgrae to believe that the cloak also lacked a fur lining. The tattered coattail draped to the man’s ankle, a proper design for heavy rain yet idiotic for heavy snowfall. Mud stains, impossible in this climate, reached the man’s waist. The cloak fit close to the body. The winds licked the heat off the man’s torso like a bear strips salmon.
That head-wrap is a practiced effort, thought Golgrae. He may not even know there are different ways to wrap a headdress. He takes better care of that spear than his own body. He’s a Fallicorn spearman who’s never seen snow.
“Come on, boy, there’s no need for that,” the man said to Golgrae’s quivering hatchet, confirming with his accent that he belonged in a different part of the world. “We called out in friendship. You didn’t hear it.”
“I’ve never not heard anything,” said Golgrae. Golgrae’s eyes were hidden behind a veil, shaded under heavy knotted locks, and shrouded by a deerskin hood, broad enough to stretch over his thick cords of hair. The purple dusk fell unevenly across the forest floor, and the contrast of green pines and shimmering snow cast Golgrae’s face in total darkness.
A second spearmen crunched up the hill behind the first, climbing with the butt of his spear, panting, phlegm in his throat rattling. The first spearman smiled with black and brown teeth. “Yeah? And who’ll hear you? Out here in the woods, if you scream? It’s like that riddle.”
“That’s not a riddle,” Golgrae said. “It’s a koan.”
“A koan. A tree in the woods, one-hand clapping, an arrow in the ear.” Golgrae pointed at the third assassin directly to his left drawing an arrow at his head.
Golgrae, under his father’s insistence, trained with a great archer. Though he preferred to trap for food, nor did he carry a bow, he knew within an instant that the shivering man on the hill had never met with a master. Furthermore, it is common knowledge that there are no Fallicorn archers. Arrows have no effect on Fallicorn prey.
The archer’s arms shivered as he drew back the bowstring with what little strength remained in his frozen muscles. The arrow slipped in the man’s ungloved fingers, released too soon, and nosed into the soft powder between Golgrae and the first assassin. Golgrae swept snow into the first man’s eyes with his left arm, rose from his knee, and cleaved the man’s forehead with the hatchet. Golgrae’s hand released the hatchet’s handle and the body fell in the snow and rolled down the hill. The second spearman stepped aside as the body tumbled past him. Tears welled in his eyes and he mumbled something to his dead companion, spittle drooping from his lip and spidering into his beard. For a moment, Golgrae stood in shock. My boy, he imagined his father saying, why didn’t you just run? Never before had the youth doubted his impetuousness.
The spearman’s head had only begun to turn when Golgrae tackled him. The boy and the man rolled and bounced and slid down the snowy hill. Rolling wasn’t fast enough, so Golgrae threw himself viciously again and again down the hill towards the road. He found his feet as quickly as possible and turned to face the spearman. His seventy-pound pack, his ice axe, his two throwing sticks, and his hatchet were trapped at the top of the hill. His hands were packed with snow from the tumble and as dexterous as the root of a tree.
The assassin found his feet with great pains and cursing. The man bared his teeth and flourished a knife, but made no attempt to attack Golgrae. Up the hill, the archer nocked another arrow and stretched the bowstring. The shaft clattered against the bow and slid up and down the rest. The man’s fingers could no more grasp an apple than pinch tailfeathers against a bowstring.
On a whim, Golgrae dove to the side, throwing himself too hastily and knocking his head on the ice in the road. He rose up on a knee, dizzy. He hadn’t heard anything, nor seen anything in the moment of his dive, so he scanned the immediate area. His quick eyes found the arrow sticking out of a snow bank just on the other side of the road. Golgrae rose and jogged backwards until the cluster of trees blocked his view of the archer and the archer’s view of him.
The spearless spearman glared at the archer up the hill and cursed him. Then he cursed the unarmed, dizzy twig of a boy before him. He lunged.
And on the exact plate of ice that Golgrae smacked his own head, the assassin’s foot slid forward mid-stride. It was a moment’s stutter-step and Golgrae seized the opportunity to again throw his head. He shattered the man’s nose with a headbutt and then, unable to maintain his balance, fell bodily on top of him. The assassin fell backward and cracked the back of his head on the stones beneath the dry snow. Golgrae broke his own nose on the man’s chin and broke the man’s teeth on his forehead. He screamed in pain, doubled over the prostrate assassin as blood spurted from both of their faces.
Compacted with bloody gristle, Golgrae’s nasal cavity restricted airflow. He snorted a clot onto the ground and then sucked in a noseful of blood. No air entered his lungs but clumps of cartilage and mucus flushed behind his eyes and down into his chest. The pain may have been unbearable had not his body, starved of oxygen, instantly vomited the mass onto the dead man’s chest. Golgrae spat again and again to clear his airflow. With lips as wide as a catfish, he knelt beside the corpse sucking in fresh air.
The archer rushed down to the road teetering and tripping in the dark and fell to his knees at the bottom of the hill. The starlit road glimmered all around him and a stain spread from his partner’s neck, sinking the snow into darkness like the shade of a whale emerging from the deep beneath him. Over his partner he saw the meddlesome waif baring his teeth which too shone in the starlight with a liquid radiance. “Dodaei!” he spat at Golgrae like a curse, for that was what they called his tribe. The archer hastened another arrow into nocking position and yanked back the string. The yew snapped and the arrow cartwheeled backward over the fool’s head. With a throat full of blood, Golgrae replied inaudibly, a gurgling, spitting moan.
The archer dropped the ruined bow and scrambled furiously up the hill and away from the grotesque boy.
Windward of a hill, where the drifts were to his shoulders, Golgrae cleared away an area hardly wider than a footstool. He sat on the frozen ground, cross-legged with the deerskin cloak tucked underneath and wrapped over the thighs. His head, even sitting upright, was well below the ridge of snow encircling him.
He set to chipping the ice off the ground, setting the pot stand on the frozen soil, scraping sparks into the kindling underneath, and—once the fire sustained itself—scooping handfuls of snow into the pot. Within a half hour he lifted cooked noodles out of the pot of boiling water and two large porkballs that were a gift from his friends at Moro. With a shattered nose, everything tasted like soggy bread.
He ate every meal from a small, beautifully decorated wooden plate. Along the rim were words in the dead language of the Dodaei, a passage from the hymn of the midday feast. [The wind, too, rests/Yet pounces at a breath/When finally the curtains think it’s fled.] It was a gift from his mother given on the eve of his departure into the wild. She decorated it herself, burning the script a stroke at a time, using a thin wire that warmed slowly and cooled quickly.
Golgrae dashed the fire with handfuls of snow. He hunkered down and burrowed a Golgrae-shaped cavity into the snow. He unrolled his hollow-slat sleeping mat—to sleep directly on frozen ground is to never wake again—and slid leg first into his temporary bunker. Sleep evaded him. Lying on his back, his nose an inch from the overhanging snow, he imagined the three faces of his attackers pressed into the snow; the one he killed, the one who slipped, and the one who fled. He would have to make amends for the first man’s life, and they would be costly, but it was the third man that kept him up. Golgrae was accustomed to differenthood. The Dodaei practiced a different religion and paid no tithe to the tribunals. He’d always been different but he’d never been feared. Yet that third man was terrified. In truth it was lucky he was afraid, thought Golgrae. Either he would have killed me or I would have had to build a third cairn.
He remembered when he first met a family of Quey how disappointed he was when he saw that they weren’t actually giants. How strange that he was saddened by the knowledge that they were just like any other family. He again thought of his mother. Imagination is our constant foil and empathy its relief, his mother would lecture.
He dozed through the storm and awoke in total darkness, buried within his brittle sarcophagus. He stood straight up and he may as well have been a bat inverted in a cave. Clouds and mountains crowded out the first light of day, wind blinded him, and his head barely crested the blanket of snow that smothered the countryside.
With his seventy-pound pack, Golgrae dashed through the chalky snowfall along the road to Hurleweth. For the first time in his life, Golgrae did not know what to expect on the road ahead.
◊ ◊ ◊
When the blade touched his throat, Palderian’s heart stopped. His every deed sorted out in his memory; slights and alms alike. Two aphorisms shot across his mind: everything I’ve done led to this, and the contrapuntal: none of that matters now. He knelt on a platform overlooking a throng of strangers holding their breath. He restrained his laughter.
The man holding the sword to his neck swung it around to the other side of his head. The sword rose and shimmered in the golden light of an aging year. “I hereby declare,” said the man flashing the sword around, “Palderian of Prokopenko,” the flat of the silvery steel came to rest on Palderian’s black hair, “Captain of the Fallicorn Army, vassal of Athostus, peer of Averros.”
Palderian rose from his knee, bowed once to the crowd, and then turned to the head of the clan who now sheathed the thin blade and presented it. “Not bad for the son of a spear-fisher,” said Wyas Oron as Palderian took the sword from him. The Governess Roshan Fallicorn embraced Palderian and said into his ear, “If you weren’t so flabbergasted I’d think we made a mistake.” She flashed her eyes wide and smiled at him. Her palms rubbed like sandstone against his bare shoulders. Thick worker’s hands bred to hoist spears, not goblets. She hates this more than I do, he thought. Finally, he laughed, an idiotic guffaw by one anticipating his good fortune to burn away in an instant. They told me there’d be a ceremony, I didn’t expect the whole city to turn out.
Standing on the platform, among her parents and their old friends, Soria Fallicorn smiled and waved at the crowd. The city adored her and by association Palderian for bringing her back from the doomed southeast fort where she’d spent the last two years. Just behind her stood her constant cousin Iyo Oron, named headmaster of the Oron school of fencing and Soria’s personal tutor.
Born beneath the waterfalls of Prokopenko, a peaceable city-state pinned at the northern apogee of the bay and surrounded by the nation of Thoradar, Palderian at a young age enlisted with the Fallicorn army of Athostus. Palderian’s older sister inherited the family fishery, his younger brother moved atop the waterfall to perform in the theatre, and he had chosen a life of roving disaster. It was rare for Prokopenkans to leave home and even more unlikely that they should choose a military life, but the legend of Jaen Fallicorn mobilized Palderian just as it had thousands of boys and girls over the last century.
“Show the people your sword,” said Wyas. Palderian stepped forward on the platform. Onlookers crowded the square, leaned from windows and balconies along the boulevard, squatted on rooftops, squirreled up tree branches, and haunted every yard, alley, and patio to attend the service. His native city, Prokopenko, began just a few short centuries ago as a walled tent, the first settlement in the known world to survive a full year. With each season, the small fortification expanded, newcomers felled more trees for palisades, and continued to build walls until finally the standing city appeared to be a wooden honeycomb atop the waterfall. Averros, with its stone boulevard and multi-floored buildings, was the most modern city in the world and the first Palderian had ever seen.
Immediately before Palderian stood his former platoon, his former commanding officer, Captain Yanar, and his former fellow sergeants. All wore white silk and blue sashes and cloaks hung behind their shoulders. Yanar and other officers, including Palderian, wore hair-wreaths woven with gold thread. It was strange to Palderian to see his brethren with washed faces and braided hair; almost as strange as the thousand people scattered over the agora.
Palderian unsheathed his new sword, wrist-wide and arm-long, straight as sunrays and sharp as rainfall. Palderian trained and fought with heavy leafblade swords—short, wide, sturdy—for those rare moments when spears failed. The grunts called these thin swords ‘grassblades’ in contrast; the steel tapered obliquely towards the triangular tip. Its weight hung as delicately as a fishing rod in Palderian’s grip. He stretched it before him, pointed over the heads of the audience, and twisted it a few times to the hollers, whistles, applause, and clattering bells of the audience. The gold-leaf half-moon guard was stamped on one side with the crest of Fallicorn and the mark of Athostus on the other; stamped upside down, legible only to the wielder. He glanced back at Iyo Oron to confirm the man’s disapproving stare. The Orons designed and perfected the grassblade. Palderian, now an officer, would be expected to use the more delicate weapon, which meant time spent with that severe man.
Governor Wyas stepped forward at his side. “You stand between the people and their leader. Remember this. Where you step, the honor of the name stands behind you, always. You have our face, we have your back.”
Wyas nodded to the master of ceremonies who clapped his hands twice and the roustabouts at the back of the audience began splitting the crowd. A wide aisle cleared before the platform stretching across the entire agora. Drummers lining the square pounded a heavy war rhythm as nine teams of acrobats paraded down the aisle in huge senloy costumes, three acrobats to each. All three acrobats in each construction were yoked to wicker bars running under their armpits so that the first could leap into the air, supported by the posterior two, and simulate the rearing of the great beast. The costumes thundered and rattled with taut, blanched vellum skin and white-painted reeds that simulated senloy quills. Diminutive performers dressed in shag and dancing on hands and feet like dogs ran out next and circled the beasts, each in turn blaring small brass horns in a tribute to barking.
Egor, the kennelmaster, looked askance at Palderian; Palderian grinned at the humorless woman. They’d been warned the master of ceremonies would conduct a pantomime of their victory for the solstice fest. Egor refused the request to give a demonstration of her dog’s training. In her opinion, conducting an entertainment would dilute the self-regard of the dogs whose expertise should only be employed in military circumstances. She stood on the secondary platform just below Palderian with her lead dog, Kiku; a gray and white large-game dog with bright chestnut irises ringed around graveblack pupils. Both Egor and Kiku wore the same expression while watching the show. Once Palderian noticed this, he could not stop laughing. The master of ceremonies touched him on the shoulder and indicated with his palm that it was the Captain’s turn to participate.
Palderian stepped down past his brethren with a self-deprecating grimace. Sergeant Figg and his squad shouted encouraging words: go get ‘em, and show no mercy, and so on.
“I present to you, ladies and gentlemen, brave Palderian, savior of Caladabur!” shouted the master of ceremonies as Palderian approached the first
Savior’s a bit too far. I merely diverted the senloy, and with enormous help, he thought. Just as it was then my duty to fright the very real monsters with no thought of my health, now it is my place to cue a stage death with no thought of my shame.
The first senloy puppet turned its paper flank to Palderian. He tapped the frame with his sword and the acrobats threw red lace at him, pantomimed their own slaying. Palderian turned back to Egor, still laughing. She was not enjoying herself, which only made Palderian laugh harder. “It’s harmless,” he shouted to her. She responded, “Precisely.”
And then her face turned down, and her jaw opened and her eyes widened. Her dog, Kiku, made the same expression. Palderian spun to see what they saw. Behind him the next team of acrobats in senloy motley reared above his head. The first acrobat operated the wicker jaw of the beast. The second held the first’s legs against his chest. The third stared down to his right horrified at the sight of a muscular dog tearing at the paper ankle of the frame within which he was strapped.
Palderian sheathed his blade and waved his arms. Egor and Kiku ran up behind him. In a stern voice, louder than any expected of the diminutive woman, Egor told all three acrobats to lie down. She said it once and the three, even the two who did not yet know what was happening behind them, complied.
Once the puppet rolled to its side, the rogue dog, Rolo, turned to the next team of acrobats and began barking shrilly, deafening those around him. Even the trumpeting wilted beneath the blare of the dog. Kiku batted Rolo’s snout and bit him behind the ear. Rolo understood the command and ceased barking but he glared at his commander with sad, frightful eyes. Egor ran to Rolo’s side and scratched the point of his cranium. Rolo looked to her for sense but she gave him none.
Then eight more dogs appeared, deafening the crowd with their barks and terrifying the acrobats with their teeth. “They think Rolo’s been hurt,” Egor shouted at Palderian with a contemptuous tone. “Because he stopped barking.” The eight dogs circled the huge senloy puppets and nipped at the stitched heels. The dancers in dog costumes fled back to their staging area. Palderian jogged down the line of senloy puppets begging the puppeteers within to all lie on their side. Egor refused to stop her dogs, and now that they had begun barking, others joined. Those that could not help barked from their positions.
“Why won’t they stop?” Palderian asked Egor after all the paper senloy lay passive on their sides. “We haven’t killed them yet,” she answered. Palderian called to Yanar and his platoon. “Captain, call your men. Dominate the beasts.”
Captain Yanar and his platoon ran to the senloy puppets, separating in a synchronized fashion, and pulled their weapons on the unfortunate acrobats strapped inside the costumes. Egor blew her whistle: three shrill pulses. The dogs stopped barking and ran to her.
Palderian apologized to the three acrobats immediately beneath his sword, then sheathed it again. As he walked to the platform, Rolo trotted up to him and sniffed his legs and his torso. Palderian said to Wyas, “He’s making sure I’m unharmed.” Wyas grinned and nodded. Palderian turned to the crowd surrounding him. “He wants to know if I’m okay!” he shouted. A sustained guffaw brushed through the audience. Palderian leaned to Rolo, who licked his face. Palderian kneeled and rubbed Rolo’s neck and withers and kissed him on top of his head. But Rolo didn’t need Palderian’s affection. He shook off the kiss with a tilted head and trotted away from his safe master. Kiku escorted Palderian back to the platform.
Wyas, when the crowd settled, said, “My compliments to the master of ceremonies and our unparalleled acrobats. So lifelike are your creations you almost sacrificed your own lives.” The audience replied with obsequious laughter. “And to Master Egor and her noble animals for seeing to the safety of our Captain, even if it ruins the program.” The audience laughed and muttered amongst themselves and wiped their brows and called three cheers to the performers. The acrobats were helped out of their costumes while still on the ground to avoid further perturbation.
“You’re not embarrassed in the least,” said Yanar to Egor. “Why should I be?” she asked. “My squad protected the Captain from belittling his service.”
“Keep your voice down,” commanded Wyas. Egor turned to her supreme commander, red-faced, and said, “Remove yourself from hearing or return me to the field. You govern not my tongue.” Palderian froze with shock until he remembered that long ago the two were quite close. How different their lives have turned out, he thought. The Governor extended his palm and rubbed the kennelmaster’s shoulder. “Egor Coldbath, the Sisters could learn much from your example.” Egor replied, “Gag it, Wyas.” Roshan Fallicorn added, “I agree with Egor. War and performance deserve separate critique. My husband certainly did not promote Captain Palderian for his theatrical talents.”
Sergeant Figg quaffed a glass of whiskey and, with his one eye that he could still open, looked to Palderian and winked. “Thank you very much,” Palderian said to the officer who bought him the drink. “Figg assures me it is of very high quality.”
“That it is, Captain, and I hope you’ll keep the bottle,” said the officer.
“I shall and I promise I’ll enjoy it in time. Not today, sadly. If I shared a drink with everyone who has offered me a glass, my stomach would have dissolved by now.” Palderian shook the man’s hand and greeted the next in the receiving line, also carrying a bottle of liquor.
“Wise of you to ask Sergeant Figg to be your second,” said Yanar sitting on the other side of Figg.
“We’ve all gotter genius,” said Figg through the side of his face.
“Yesterday he was my mentor, today I am his superior. I thought it fair that my first order to him be that he consume vast quantities of the nation’s finest booze,” said Palderian.
“If you hear of a fair-rer way to cul-vitate loyalty,” slurred Figg, “I’va quarrel with it.”
Palderian had suffered through an hour of socializing with strangers before he begged Yanar and commanded Figg to join him. Egor, due to her own anxiety, stuck to Palderian’s side throughout the event. Palderian inherited Yanar’s small unit and Yanar, for his part in Soria’s rescue, received a recently vacated sinecure in Ancaro, a bustling settlement in the south where a Fallicorn captain commanded unparalleled respect.
The four of them were as dissimilar as any in the Fallicorn army which had spread across the known world. All of Figg’s hair fell out at a young age but for the irrepressible tufts on his temples and the flaxen hair ringing his cranium that seemed to grow down his neck into his shirt instead of up to the top of his head. His sun-spotted pate, pink cheeks, and fat pallid lips contrasted with Palderian’s deep black skin, thin wide mouth, and sharp chin grown over with a pointed beard. Where Figg seemed to sprout brown spots on his fair scalp, Palderian grew thick black hair that he twisted into spines.
Egor, at three-quarters Palderian’s height and with a round expressive face the color of sesame oil, looked the least like any of the others. She wore a long black braid that ran straight down her back and dozens of strands were wound with white thread to indicate her years of service. Yanar, the angular, brown-skinned prodigy from the southeast was nearly half Figg’s age. He stood the tallest of the four and sat higher than the others at the table. Unlike the other two men who kept their hair short, Yanar wore it down to his shoulders, thickened with apple oil, colored gold and blue and green, and combed out flat like a horses tail, lying over his shoulder past his bosom.
They sat in the northwest corner of the agora at a narrow table in front of the officer’s hall, crowded in among other tables of lieutenants and captains and so-called commanders displaced by age or disaster. To one side, an enterprising family of brewers doled out mulled wine and hot mead for a few bits donation in cheap wooden cups carved with their family’s crest. To the other, a fife-and-drum team stirred up enough commotion to keep a group of twenty-odd people dancing all afternoon. Occasionally, singers would mount the platform unbidden and lead the crowd through an off-key ballad of uncertain structure and half-remembered lyrics.
Palderian’s receiving line never stretched more than a handful of people yet hadn’t diminished in the few hours since he’d sat down to eat. What bothered Yanar more than the endless glad-handing was that the line of bodies waiting to meet Palderian obscured his view of the athletic contests in the middle of the agora. Their unit’s two strongest soldiers, the husband and wife team of Theador and Kess Sovano, competed in the melee and Yanar stood up on the table to watch.
The next two men in the queue introduced themselves as the Tretoro Brothers of Ord, Erstas and Ernac. “Bert and Nack. Bert Brunette and Nack Non-Brunette. Don’t fret calling us by the wrong names, our mother still does and the whole operation was of her devising,” said Nack the younger brother. Bert handed Palderian a clay vial with a cork stopper wrapped in paper with three bright yellow bulbs of witch hazel. “From our family’s garden. Aftershave oil,” he said.
“Not wine, then?” asked Palderian. “How wonderful! You have won the day, fellows. I’ve been given a ship’s load of wine and whiskey. Figg here bought me the largest meatball I’ve ever eaten and Yanar gave me four leaves of paper folded and sewn in the Dodaei style. Egor doesn’t believe in gifts—”
“I don’t believe in gifts,” Egor said.
“—but it’s all been wine and whiskey besides,” said Palderian.
“And don’t f’rget Iyo Oron,” said Figg.
“Yes, Iyo Oron presented me with an exquisitely crafted knife that he first used to slice his palm,” said Palderian, retrieving from his sash a black-sided utility knife with a stacked leather grip. “A handsome article and a great show of obeisance,” said Bert. “The man’s reputation precedes him. As does yours, sir.”
“I hope you don’t trust the veracity of these shenanigans. I commanded two men to their deaths and we only slayed three senloy of the nine.”
“Two souls for three beasts exceeds the average by an admirable margin,” said Nack.
“Yes, and their service plus Egor’s squadron of cunning animals earned the victory. I simply chose brave death over craven death and it so happens we didn’t die.”
“You don’t take any credit for yourself,” said Soria Fallicorn, the governor’s daughter, appearing behind Palderian.
“What credit could I possibly take, miss, that your father has not graciously given?” said Palderian, turning and subtly bowing his head. Yanar and Egor rose and bowed. The Brothers Tretoro bowed deeply, following the lead of the others.
“It is an absolute honor,” said Palderian, “to finally enjoy a few moments of peace with you, Miss.”
“I’m sorry I wasn’t better company on the road,” she said.
“You had the flu,” said Yanar with a smirk. “If you were any friendlier you would’ve made us all sick.”
“It wasn’t the flu that kept me down. It was this one,” she said, thumbing over her shoulder at Iyo Oron, a shadow in a shadow.
“I imagine if you didn’t have the flu in the first place, you wouldn’t have let us rescue you,” said Palderian.
Soria nodded. “I’ve come to ask when we leave.” Palderian grinned at her, turned to Yanar and shook his head. “My father tells me you are in charge of my safekeeping,” she said.
“Safekeeping,” muttered Figg, and everyone looked at the drunken man. Palderian hoped in vain Figg wouldn’t say anything uncouth and Soria hoped he would. “Wha? Why’s everyone lookin’ at Figg all perplecked? Anywhere she goes she brews her own peril. She’s Fallicorn blood in the wrong century. If there were a bridge to the moon she’d find it.”
“Thank you, Mr Figg,” said Soria with a full bow. “The winter is fast descending and if we’re marching north, best we leave as soon as possible.”
“Where are we marching?” asked Palderian.
“Cadaes. In the Sourwood Forest. The absolute wrong direction if you ask me which no one does.”
“This is the solstice festival. Now is the worst time to march north,” said Palderian.
“Which is why we should press it head on. The Dodaei almanac promises a massive blizzard this year that I sincerely hope we witness it from within a fort, beside a fireplace.”
“It’s going to take at least a month to get there.”
“We can take the ferry to Ord.”
“From Ord to Cadaes, though, we’re marching steadily uphill. The snows are bound to strike before we get there, slowing us further.”
“The Dodaei circle the entire northland in six weeks, snows or rains,” said Soria.
“You served alongside Dodaei in Anshamara,” said Yanar. “Did you ever keep pace?”
“You can either stand on the table like a gargoyle or speak to me as a friend. Not both.” Yanar shrugged and turned back to the competition. “Anyway,” she said. “I’m also supposed to tell you that my father would like to meet you after your races.”
“Ah, yes. I’m supposed to tell you that you’re required to run in the races, as the guest of honor.”
“How wonderful to be honored,” he said, picking up a mug which Figg then splashed whiskey into.
“Let me join you. What are all these?” asked Soria.
Palderian answered, “Wine, wine, brandy, rice wine, whiskey, wine, mead, wine.”
“Ooo, what’s this one?” she said pointing at the clay jar adorned with witch hazel.
“Don’t drink that,” said Palderian, “that’s an aftershave oil.”
“Somebody gave you an astringent? As a celebration gift?” Soria furrowed her brow. “Don’t you find that odd?”
“I’m grateful for all present,” said Palderian.
Soria looked askance at the captain. “Oh dear, not again,” said Soria. “I’m awful. Miss Egor, was this your gift? I’m so stupid sometimes and my mouth runs on and on.” Figg knocked her on the elbow and fingered the Tretoro brothers. Soria saw their blushing faces. “Oh, no. Oh dear,” she said. “Gentlemen, it’s a lovely, it’s a quaint offering, isn’t it? Novel, certainly.”
“You shoulda jus’ let her drink it, Captain,” said Figg.
“Captain Yanar,” said Soria, “could you please, in my absence, convince these lovely people that I am not, despite my own testimony, a blathering scoundrel?”
“As it happens,” said Captain Palderian, “Bert and Nack will be joining us in your escort.”
“Oh great. That’s good, yes. Please don’t call it my escort. We’re traveling together as a unit. But yes, Bert and Nack, we’ll be great friends, I’m sure. You can stay by my side to make sure I don’t say anything embarrassing to those yokels up in Ord.”
“As ‘tappens,” said Figg.
“Oh no,” said Soria.
Palderian said, “Miss Soria, Bert and Nack are the sons of Turtle Tretoro, the Commander of Ord.”
“No need to eat crow on our account, miss,” said Bert.
“And if I may,” said Nack, but Bert elbowed him in the ribs. Nack elbowed his brother back and continued, “It’s a fine gift, and a tincture from our own garden. You’d understand if you shaved your face.”
Soria nodded, bit her bottom lip, shook her head slightly, forced another nod, looked up through her eyebrows far above the heads of her companions, shook her head again, and said, “I’m sorry,” and under her breath, “evidently I’m choosing not to learn my lesson,” and she said, “I’m sorry, but none of you shave your faces.”
This was true. Captain Palderian wore a pointed black beard, and the Tretoro brothers wore full beards, one brunette with traces of auburn hairs, one blond with a dark patch of brunette around the chin. Figg shaved his chin and Yanar shaved his cheeks. Neither could be said to spend more than a minute on the process.
“But when you do,” said Nack, “you’re going to want that witch hazel from Ord.”
“Are we to be rivals, Bert?” Soria asked with a grimace.
And Figg pressed into her palm a mug of warm mead and toasted, “To no more talk.”
◊ ◊ ◊
Despite the wind off the lake and the falling sun, Palderian could not stop sweating. His skin shone with perspiration and olive oil. He’d left his cloak with Egor downstairs and his silk tunic hung loosely around his shoulders. He’d just lost a footrace, two in fact. And now he sat alone with Roshan Fallicorn, the wife of the governor and granddaughter of Jaen, in a private dining hall on the third story of the capitol. He’d been summoned to meet privately with the governor but he was not there. Meanwhile, Roshan gently prodded him with questions, while she had him to herself, in her words.
“Iyo Oron is a cousin of mine, do you know that?”
“Yes, miss, I do. I understand your daughter is under his tutelage.”
“And more so. She’s beside herself with affection for the man.”
“I happened to notice. If it’s any consolation to a mother, I’ve heard reputable sources say the man has behaved himself impeccably, as a tutor, as a soldier, and as a gentleman.”
“Believe it or not, I don’t expect you to bear witness against my daughter’s sweethearts,” she said with a host of pith. The life of a governor’s wife suited her no more than it would a bear. She was not just another Fallicorn warrior; she was the oldest living blood relation to Jaen, the grandsire of exploration. Since the collapse of the decades-old foreign expedition, she and her husband succumbed to the political life of international diplomacy and domestic hairsplitting. “Though I am glad to hear it. Even if you are lying,” she said to countermand the bitterness. “While I have your attention, and without drawing official attention to it, I wanted to hear about Hartig and Ormond.”
Palderian’s heart sunk, he perspired doubly, and involuntarily began to speak, though the words pasted to his dry tongue.
“We’re off the record, Captain, and you have nothing to fear from me,” said Roshan. “Here is a pitcher of the finest water in the world. Straight from the spring. Drink. And be comfortable. I’d like to ask you how you decided to send Hartig and Ormond to their deaths.”
Palderian quaffed an entire bowl of water and poured himself a second glass. “If you’re asking would I do it again: yes.”
“Did they know they were going to die?”
“They knew they were going to serve.”
“And they served nobly. I presume Captain Yanar had no part in the decision.”
“He could not have counseled my command, no. He was in the water, I was in the woods north of the city. Yet he ordered me to create a diversion. He must have presumed my squad would perish to the last.”
“How did you come to choose those two?”
“It was the right decision.”
“Oh, I have no doubt. In fact, there is no argument to be had. Yanar was commissioned to bring my daughter back from Caladabur with as many of the remaining troops as he could spare. In the end my daughter, all of her comrades, and almost the entire interloping platoon returned.”
“Hartig and Ormond were the faster runners.”
“Yes. By far. Theador and Kess are over thirty years old and I am a short man with short legs, as you saw.” Palderian lost his naked footrace to Yanar and the other lieutenants. In Athostus, athletes always competed naked with oil rubbed into the skin to promote flexibility and to accentuate the beauty of the human form. Palderian lost his first race and then quickly dressed his body is heavy armor to compete with the sergeants in the armored footrace. He may have won, had Figg not collapsed and knocked over more than half the competitors. “As your husband said, I am a son of a spear-fisher, not the son of a hunter.”
“The decision was not to send Hartig and Ormond to their deaths, you reckon, but to save Theador and Kess from theirs?”
“Bloody victory over bloody defeat; that was the decision.”
“You didn’t prefer Kess to survive?”
Palderian took a breath and straightened in the chair. The breath didn’t sink past his esophagus so he was forced to open his jaw and quietly inhale a half-lung of air. He hated that his body failed him. I’m sitting down for heavens sakes! he thought, Why can’t I breathe? He attempted to disguise his discomfort by feigning a stretch. He repositioned his legs and leaned back for just a moment. “At no point in the assignment,” he said cautiously, “was the safety of any of my charges guaranteed.”
Roshan smiled wide, showing her teeth. Shame to waste this one in the wilderness when he would serve so well on the council, she thought. “So you allowed Fortune to make all your decisions for you?”
“You wouldn’t have thrown a bazaar in my honor if you believed that.”
“And what if Kess were the faster runner? Or the operation relied on her specialty?”
“I don’t doubt that a leader of your expertise will eventually find my weakness, but as your servant it is my duty to report that you are far off the scent.”
“What if it should occur that my daughter were the faster runner?”
The breath finally came to Palderian. “I would prefer not to while away the evening with scenarios,” and he allowed a modicum of righteous anger to give the words resonance. The Fallicorns love nothing more than confrontation, he thought. She must be testing me.
“Would you command Soria to her death?”
“I didn’t save her life one day to forfeit it the next.”
“Ah, but you were assigned to save her life. Suppose the next assignment doesn’t require her survival.”
“I am to be her official escort for the foreseeable future. These questions are irrelevant.” He waved his hand disdainfully and then immediately wondered if this was why the stubborn Figg was never promoted.
“What if the decision came between Kess and Soria?”
“The lover of Kess would send Soria and the mother of Soria would send Kess. As it happens, I am neither.”
“And that is all you’ll say?”
“That is all I’ll say.”
“I wish I could keep you at my side, Palderian. To deal with our petulant opposition in the public discourse. Where did you learn such tact?”
“I’m the middle child of an extraordinarily dramatic flock.”
“North of the lake, the cities are flourishing. South of the lake, returning soldiers with no work are inundating cities with nowhere to shelter them and little to feed them. There are whispers of a northern strategy to secede. How would you advise your Governor to proceed?”
Palderian shook his head. “I’m afraid troop discipline does not transpose to civil discipline.”
“And why not?”
“A military recruit waives personal liberties, ideologically. Survival demands discipline. A clever commander remembers that discipline is welcome. An indentured soldier should be expected to test their commander incessantly. A clever commander sees insubordination as a welcome opportunity to inspire the troops through discipline. A civilian, born into plenty, the product of their forebears, will find discipline inconvenient, and in certain circumstances, an insult to their own self-assessment. My sister and brother, for instance, they would confuse military discipline as an act of aggression, when you and I would recognize it as a matter of respect.”
“A military question then: An elderly captain with no affection for my husband or myself had been given a sinecure in a southern city. An honorable station with little risk of overreach. Recently he wangled a transfer to a wealthy northern city. How would you respond to the news?”
“How well do you know the man’s intention?”
“The man’s ambition is matched only by his cunning. Do you know Captain Langtree?”
“A name among few remaining of that generation.”
“How would you advise your governor to proceed?”
“Being new to political theory, I would certainly not think to suggest that my governor send his only child to him.”
“You must find my interrogation rather odd.”
“I find it very odd. If I may speak candidly, it sounds like you want me to see to your daughter’s destruction. And furthermore, I’m curious whether your husband even knew of this meeting. He’s so late as to be rude, and from what I gather, that is not his custom.”
Roshan Fallicorn rose, turned from Palderian, and walked to the balcony. She spread her arms and ran her palms outward along the smooth stone balustrade. After a minute, she turned, spied Palderian sitting where he’d been, and said, “You were meant to follow me, Captain,” but the music and singing and cheering in the agora swaddled her voice and swept it off in the wind. Palderian stood and came to her. “I’m sorry. I didn’t hear what you said just now.”
“No matter. I had to leave that room. I can only tolerate walls and ceilings for so long.” Her sadness perplexed Palderian. His own family had no power, and the whole of Prokopenko was only as powerful as a single Fallicorn battalion. She stood in a dress of the finest silk, on a balcony tiled with alabaster, overlooking a feast celebrating the greatest military in the history of the world, and everyone within one hundred leagues would give their life to protect her own. “Look down there. May as well be a corral.”
“I take that as a direct critique of my performance,” said Palderian to lighten her mood.
“No one expects a bay-born fisher to be fleet of foot. Perhaps next year we’ll introduce a swimming competition in your honor.”
“Let me tell you what I have been thinking for the last year or so since my arrival to this city. It pleases me to know that it will not be repeated.
“The Fallicorn name came from nowhere. We do not even know who Jaen’s parents were. He was a boy of the wild with an extraordinary will who inspired a generation older than him to run headlong into war with beasts they dreaded since time immemorial. Then he inspired his own generation to expand and to explore. And finally he inspired the next generation to build and to settle. He taught the world to not fear; not fear the wilderness, nor the beasts, nor each other.
“And do you know how he taught the world all of these things? Of course you do. So let me phrase it in the converse: do you know what he didn’t do to teach us these things? He didn’t speak. He never once said, ‘We should build a city here,’ or ‘Let us cultivate these fields.’ He had the spirit which invigorated everyone he met. If Fallicorn becomes one more name among sovereigns, one more title among lords, one more legend among ghosts, we will lose power; not my family and this city. I mean the world. We will have forfeited his courage.
“You are commanded to escort my daughter, but you must not coddle her. If her battles are fought for her, she would cease to be a Fallicorn. If you should need to send her to her death, do not hesitate. To be feared from without and cherished from within, she must lead a life resembling Jaen’s.”
“Jaen never served under a Captain,” said Palderian.
“True,” said Roshan. “And a century ago, we wouldn’t be standing three stories above a tiled agora discussing honor and inspiration; we’d be squatting in a hut, hiding from pigs.” The Governess fell to silence, momentarily forgetting her guest. Her lips parted and a sigh passed from them as though she had just watched the whole world taken from her. “In Prokopenko, captain,” she said, suddenly returning to her previous posture, “do they still rule by assembly?”
“The term ‘parliament’ has come into fashion.”
“And I presume you are familiar with the pomposity of the Thoradar kings, or what’s left of them.”
“In fact is was the recruiter there who convinced me with his own bloodlust that I need remove myself from the territory.”
“My husband says the veteran crisis is a tribute to the Fallicorn soldiers. They will not throw down their honor to pick up their spears for mercenary work. Great success that speech. I say, tribute or no, it’s still a crisis.”
“I’ve heard the argument that our Athostan soldiers simply cannot decide which faction of the Thoradaran conflict they hate the worst.”
“I trust you won’t repeat that before my husband.”
“I trust he won’t ask my opinion.”
“It does not pass my hearing that you call our soldiers Athostans and not Fallicorns.”
“I quote your father’s definition. A Fallicorn against senloy, an Athostan against each other.”
“Ah, yes. So you can read?”
“Only what’s worth the effort.”
Roshan shook her head. “No gift for politics, he claims.” She turned from the balustrade to face the Prokopenkan. “A parliament in Prokopenko. A royal lineage in Thoradar. We have neither. As my father said, whether he knew it or not, Fallicorns are not the rulers of Athostus, we are bushwhackers. We rule only because no one has figured out a better system. My father was no champion, and my husband is not even a Fallicorn. I’m blamed for abandoning the Fallicorn legacy. Soria is a soldier with a bright future and a burdensome name. You are assigned to escort her where she is going, but you need not concern yourself with bringing her back. That task is hers alone.”
Roshan poured water from a silver pitcher into a glass goblet and drank slowly.
“Racoor gave Jaen nine children. Of them, only their daughter Sorosh survived into adolescence. Sorosh had four children. Of them, only I survived. Fallicorn women… I had great difficulty bearing children. Soria is our only child, as you know. My husband wishes to guard her forever. He and his councilors fear a war of ascension should anything happen to her.”
“You do not?”
“Of course not.”
“But why?” asked Palderian.
She said, “I just told you.”
“Because if there is not a blood relative of Jaen in the world, there is no Fallicorn army?”
“And therefore, if she dies, so does the name. There will be no wars of ascension because there will be nothing to ascend. My husband wants her to marry and produce as many children as she can to protect the commonwealth. But that would be worse.” She turned to him, held his gaze and commanded, “Tell me why.”
Palderian tilted his head forward slightly in deference. “That would be living in fear.”
“You are to escort Soria to Cadaes, and then to Faragos where you will notice you are not expected. This you keep to yourself until you’ve cleared out of Cadaes. Tell no one in Cadaes you intend to go. Tell your troops nothing until you’ve left Cadaes. Even then, tell them nothing. Once you arrive in Faragos have a look around. Enjoy the town, it’s quaint but cheerful. Once there, send a messenger to Hurleweth. Do you know Hurleweth?”
“I do not.”
“In the far north, halfway up the mountains, along the hardest stretch of the road, there is a valley, austere in its beauty and silence. In this valley there is a hill and atop the hill a fort, it may as well be a ship upon the sea it is so remote. Our commander there, a friend so dear to me he may as well be my brother, is Eton Novos, so-called Black Cherry. You’ll understand why when you meet him. When you arrive at Faragos, send a runner to tell Black Cherry that you are in Faragos with Soria and with Egor. He’ll want to see his sister.”
“Egor is Black Cherry’s sister?”
“There’s a lot of history there that will never be sung by a chorus. There was a time when Novos and Oron were Jaen’s two best loved generals. Now the two families hardly speak and the Fallicorn name is caught between them.” Palderian held his tongue.
“I imagine you’ve spoken all you wish me to know so I’ll refrain from asking unrequited questions.”
“There’s one thing I’ll ask, with no hope of an answer, but I ask in vain, to prove I am at least paying attention,” he said. “Why is all of this being kept secret from your daughter?”
“You’re right, I won’t answer that, but I’ll give you one more secret, should it prove useful to you, as I guess it might. I leave it to you to withhold or expose,” Roshan filled both glasses with clear water. “Soria believes she was born near Averros. But that was impossible to manage. In the spring, you’ll be leading her to her birthplace.”
◊ ◊ ◊
Ink-gray storms smeared the southern horizon. Snows flooded the ox cart path. Crass winds spewed the forest floor detritus into Golgrae’s eyes. The sun declined its entrance. One full day scratched from the calendar. Head down and knees up, Golgrae trudged nonstop, pumping warm blood throughout his narrow bones. Not once did he risk sitting down. Only a few features of his shortcut, the same he’d run for the last five years, peaked out from the storm to guide him. Not certain of his position for most of the day, he simply ran forward.
Then suddenly as thunder, the storms broke, the clouds fled in a panic, an absurd calm supplanted the blizzard. Stars. Endless stars and cold stagnant air. A moonless sky. Or did the moon explode and dump its crystal silt on the belly of its neighbor? Without moon, clouds, or even fleeting shades of sunlight, the world appeared to be torn in half, as though the lid of the continent blew away. The land lay exposed, rotted, vacuous. New fallen snow like white mold suffocated the evergreens, rounded off the jagged peaks, and mortared over the valleys. And in this land so vicious to its tenants, there stood the boy Golgrae, soot-faced, frost-lipped, and ruddy-nosed.
Marveled by the crowded waste of stars dangling in diamond chains from the vault to the rolling hills and sparkling snow all around him, Golgrae removed his silk veil and stared upward. He reached his hand before him. Fingers, palm, and elbow vanished, passing through negative space, blotting what light it touched; a perfect silhouette, as distant to him as the night sky.
So must we all pass into the night, his father told him years earlier, no brighter than a single taper flickering before the sun. Golgrae heard stories, learned them, repeated them days later and in exact intonation; a messenger with the gift of preachers and minstrels. Thus Golgrae heard many things, remembered and chronicled, yet Golgrae believed none of what he had been told of the world. Only his father spoke to him honestly, wracked with doubt and urgency.
As many lies are told as there are stars to lie upon, his father told him, and as many truths as suns. Golgrae remembered his father’s words in his father’s voice. Love is the truth, if you’d like to know, his father continued on many occasions when they were alone with the wilderness. Not a statement but a command. The trick is not to learn to love those you do not, but to learn how to love those you do.
If any of those stars were spirits or worlds or suns or regrets or prophesies or dreams or charms or coins or hearts or teeth or eyes or snags in the infinite, if any of them were anything important, he delighted in obliterating those disdainful mutes with his narrow fingers.
Turning from the firmament Golgrae resumed his course, clipping across the hills, following his own trail which cut across the ox cart paths, bound as they were to capricious terrain. He ducked into the forest and climbed uphill and slid down the other side to a small creek across which he skipped atop a dismantled beaver dam. Over one more hill and cautiously down a rocky slope, he came again to the main road. This shortcut through the woods saved him almost an hour. When he looked up from the road, he was meant to have seen the burning torches of Hurleweth’s towers. Indeed he could see nothing but blackness where the fort should be; like a hole in the landscape, known only by where the stars weren’t, as had been his hand minutes earlier; a shape rent from the ethereal tapestry, its lack exposing the abyss neighboring this world.
Golgrae disbelieved his eyes. He blamed his fatigue and the torment of the clime and the dizzying path through the antithetical wood. As his mind swirled with doubt, reluctant to permit the obvious conclusion, one simple question subsumed the many: Why are there no lights?
Golgrae hallooed. He jogged closer, struggling against the ponderous snow. He hallooed again. They should be expecting me. The blizzard only took a few hours off my time. Perhaps they shuttered against the storm. A sentry should appear any moment to relight the torches.
The fort at Hurleweth stood atop a monadnock, a sudden hill in a glacial valley. To the west and south of the hill, farmers tilled the fields and harvested an abundance of crops. To the north lay, a sleepy glacial lake, frozen over most of the year. In a semicircle at the foot of the monadnock, connecting the west road and the south road, from whence Golgrae approached, a cluster of brightly painted two-room homes stood along a simple main street that widened into an agora. It was not uncommon at night and specifically during storms for the village to lay in total darkness. But Golgrae had visited Hurleweth once a month for the last five years and had never known the torches within or without the fort to be unlighted.
Golgrae hiked up the side of the hill and circled to the front gate, two massive wooden doors enclosed within a gatehouse. The portcullis, a two thousand pound lattice of unneighborliness, remained tucked up into the front lip of the gatehouse. Golgrae walked beneath its iron-teeth and then under the artlessly named murder-holes, holes in the ceiling of the entryway through which guards could pour boiling water, drop stones, or throw lances. Senloy chasing Black Cherry’s men as they fled back into Fort Hurleweth were often caught here when the door slammed and the portcullis dropped. The guards above in the gatehouse skewered the beasts with long spears while others boiled and pulverized them.
Golgrae hammered the two huge wooden doors of the fort with his fist and quickly tore his skin. Before he noticed, he bled all down his wrist and into the sleeve of his deerskin jacket. He dropped to a knee, removed his pack, pulled from it an iron skillet and banged ferociously on the wooden door and the sound bounced violently in the alcove of the doorframe, hurting his ears and likely echoing across the valley.
No answer. This is all quite odd, he thought as he clanged on the iron rivets with his fry pan. “I try not to fear, and when I am afraid I try to act as though I am not. And let me tell you, Golgrae,” he muttered in the voice of his father, “I am good at neither.” He replaced the skillet in its tightly fitted place.
“An obstacle, pop. Must figure out why no one is answering. Must sleep indoors tonight. First, must get past this wall.”
“What are the particulars? Run out all the details and you’ll stamp on the one that gets you through”, he muttered to himself in his father’s voice, like an actor reading two roles.
“Stone exterior fort. Ancient, austere masonry. Free of corbels, timbers, adornments of any kind. Plus the frost. A sheer face of ice. No climbing that. Two great wooden doors recessed in an arched gateway. Murder-holes above.”
“Might you be able to clamber up the murder-holes? Roost like a crow?” he said in his father’s voice. “That would be the extreme opposite of logical passage,” said Golgrae in Golgrae’s voice, responding to himself.
“Our kind survive by traveling singly through battlements devised to withstand a legion; the same we pass through wilderness unfit for a pack of wolves,” he said; one of his father’s favorite lectures.
Golgrae withdrew five pitons and his stone hatchet, the back of which served as mallet. The archway and the massive doorframe blocked all moonlight and starlight. Behind him the landscape glimmered with crystalline snow. In nigh-perfect darkness and gloveless, Golgrae wedged the frigid iron piton into the door at the meeting of two planks and hammered it farther in with one firm strike. He shouldered his pack and lifted himself up with his left arm, pressing his feet against the stone jamb, standing sideways. How charming it would be for them to open the door now and find me hanging on like a tick, he thought. Reaching above him, he wedged the second piton into place, removed the hatchet from his armpit, and struck the piton to. “Likely they’re all dead,” he muttered in the voice of Black Cherry, the commander of Hurleweth; a man both ruthless and generous, who, if alive, would scold Golgrae for pock-marking his gate doors and entering unbidden.
Golgrae in time pulled himself to the top of the wooden door. He dropped the hatchet into his pack—the seventy pounds of which he might have left behind for the climb, he now realized—and reached his skinny arm for the murder-hole in vain. “No surprise there, pop,” he said.
His right foot pressed against the ogive near the point of the arched doorframe, his left balanced on the third piton, his trembling left arm braced the majority of his weight on the fourth piton at the top of the door, and his right hand hung motionless.
He rolled his right shoulder out from the strap; which was a mistake as all the weight of the pack slung down into his left elbow, nearly tearing him from the door. He unstrapped his ice axe from his pack and then lowered the pack to the extent his short arms allowed, swung it lightly, and dropped it into the cushion of snow a few steps from where he’d land were he to fall.
Risking just that fate, he stretched his upper body forward and pressed his left hand against the timber support beam of the archway; his body nearly horizontal. Quickly, he swung the axe up into the murder-hole and the adze found purchase on the lip of the beam, hooked onto the floor plank of the gatehouse above him.
Still pressing his left arm forward into the beam, he allowed his feet to slide incrementally down the face of the door until his feet and arm fell free. He grasped the axe stock and pulled himself up with both arms and then clutched the edge of the murder-hole with his strong hand.
He hung one handed, body quivering, lacking the strength to pull himself all the way up. Sweat bunched his underclothes and crowded his toes and tickled the scalp beneath his heavy, knotted locks. He dangled freely until his right hand began to cramp. “You can either finish the job or have the job finish you,” he said in his uncle’s voice. With his limited energy, he brought his left hand up, pulled his chin to, planted his forearms, and shimmied up into the gatehouse.
“We didn’t think you’d make it.”
Golgrae’s heart stopped cold. No light shone in the gatehouse. He could hear two men breathing at the far end. He spun on his butt and pulled the icepick into his lap.
“Is your friend still down there? We didn’t see where he got off to.”
They were on the far side of the forward murder hole, at the front of the gatehouse overlooking the snow-buried stairs up the hill. About eight feet and two holes in the floor separated Golgrae from the men.
“I owe this one a tenner. Said I’d wager my life you’d never be able to reach up here. He said, ‘make it ten pieces and you’ve got a bet.’” The man spoke with an unctuous southeastern accent, flicking the consonants from between his teeth. “Who sent you? The wispy bastard hisself? Or some other nosey so-and-so?”
Every season welcomed a new drove of brokenhearted troops from the failed war in the south possessing no trade but war. Most born in conquest with nowhere to return; children of a plugged up future returning to a drained past. Survivors could either stay in the wilds, journey to the villages of their fathers, or hire out as mercenaries to any that’d feed them. Black Cherry culled well-trained soldiers and turned away dilettantes. Yet, far more soldiers returned than Black Cherry and every other commander, governor, lord, chieftain, and constable could put to use.
“How’d you make it past the sentry?” asked a second voice, not as heavily accented. “And why’re you so anxious to get in here?”
“I say, most folk, when they call at a gate and are left stood unanswered, kindly take a hike,” said the first voice. Golgrae waited.
“What’s your name and who sent you?”
“And tell us what you’re kindly looking to find.”
“Your pop’s likely grabbed by now, so you better start telling.”
Golgrae said, “A hundred men couldn’t catch my pop.”
“Well we’ve caught you.”
“You don’t know my pop.”
“We will in a minute,” said the first voice and grunted as he stood up from his perch.
“How many of you are here in the fort?” asked Golgrae as he rose and backed away towards the doorway that led into the fort’s second story.
“Just the two of us,” said the second voice coming from the man still sitting at the forward murder hole.
I could leap back down, risk breaking an ankle, and hide out in the forest. Or I could flee into the fort. If they overtook Black Cherry’s men, there must be hundreds of them. But if there are hundreds, why can’t I hear any?
“Commander Novos,” Black Cherry’s true name, “sent me. He says he’d like you to leave his fort,” said Golgrae.
“The commander is dead, boy. Do you speak with the dead?”
“When present company is lacking.”
“Come here, boy,” said the first voice, but Golgrae stepped out of the way of that voice’s clumsy body.
“A merchant had two sons, a monk and a burglar,” said Golgrae.
“What’s that?” asked the second voice.
“It’s a riddle. The father possessed a rare moon-glass, an artifact passed down for generations, thought to bring great fortune.”
“Come here, you!” said the first voice as he tripped around the blind gatehouse. Golgrae knew this fort well; the clumsy man did not.
“The father wanted to leave the moon-glass to the monk, who wouldn’t accept it due to his ascetic nature.”
“We haven’t any time for riddles, boy,” said the clumsy man.
“You had time enough to wait for me to climb all the way up here when you could have easily killed me from this perch,” said Golgrae.
“He’s got you there, Howell,” said the second man.
“That I do, Howell. So sit down and rub your head or your shin or whatever it was that you knocked so loudly just now and hear out this riddle,” said Golgrae. “The father wanted to keep the artifact from the burglar who coveted it for its material wealth,” Golgrae continued calmly, switching to a pedagogical tone, “so he hid the moon-glass in a place he knew the burglar would never find and where the monk certainly would.”
“He probably hid it in a temple or something,” said Howell. “The monk visits the temple, the burglar don’t.”
“But that’s the first place I’d check if I were the burglar,” said the second voice.
“You’re halfway there, number two,” said Golgrae. He stepped backward toward the door of the gatehouse that led into the fort.
“Why am I number two?” asked the second man.
“Because I don’t know your name,” said Golgrae.
“Symes. Now you know the name of the man that’ll kill you.” With that he swirled his spear. The senloy quills tied to the spearhead rattled in the air in front of Golgrae. He could not see a thing, but he knew the rattle of senloy quills. Golgrae evaded the invisible jab by dropping to the floor.
There’s no doubt these men are in league with those that attacked me last night, he thought. How did they ever defeat Black Cherry?
“So what’s the solution?” asked Howell.
“Year after year, the monk’s good fortune expanded. He met the woman who would become his wife. She gave him many healthy children.”
“Yes, yes,” said Symes. “Where was it hidden?”
“The burglar, convinced that the monk had found the artifact long ago, continued to break into his brother’s house to search for it until finally he was shunned from the family.” He spoke in rhythm with his footsteps.
“Get on with it,” said Howell.
“The monk found it without looking, and despite looking for his entire life, the burglar never did.”
“That’s not the end,” said Symes.
“Like the burglar,” said Golgrae, “you’ll never learn. And like the father, I’ll take the secret to my grave.” With that, Golgrae vanished through the doorway into the fort.
A wooden gallery ran along the fort’s second story with a landing at the entrance to the gatehouse and a staircase down to the main floor. When Golgrae appeared on this landing, he startled the three swordsmen who had been patiently listening in on the conversation, all wearing the same headwrap as the assassins on the road. These were not Black Cherry’s men. Golgrae swung wildly with his ice axe and the three men stepped back. He darted along the gallery in the dark, curving along the interior. Moonlight shone through the narrow portholes on both stories of the fort illuminating the main hall.
Soldiers standing on the ground floor shuffled around in the darkness, calling out to one another. Suddenly, a thrown knife clattered before him. He stopped short, spun, and darted back in the direction he came. Glancing down, he saw six soldiers with bows. Before him, the three swordsmen charged along the gallery.
He stopped and spun again and ran back to the nearest porthole and squeezed his body through the stone slit. He twisted his hips and shoulders but his leather hood and his thickly knotted locks scraped through slowly. For just a moment his head was pinched between stone and the pressure deafened him. He panicked, not being able to hear his attackers behind him, and wrenched his body free. He looked out into nothingness, suddenly terrified of the drop.
Just then a knife struck the back of his head, pressing through his matted locks and into his skull and nudged him bodily so that he fell through two stories of listless air.
◊ ◊ ◊
Two hundred blue-robed soldiers paraded Soria, Palderian, and company to the docks at Averros and forty hinds loaded crates of vegetables and chickens, barrels of grain and beans, and leather packs of winter clothing, camping gear, and trail rations onto a shallow-bottomed ferry captained by a grey-bearded man with shorn mustache on account of perennially dripping nostrils. They spent two full days on the massive lake rocking toward Ord and all the while Iyo Oron kept Palderian shuffling around the deck, wooden sword in hand, unlearning the basics of combat. Iyo espoused the benefits of practicing martial arts upon the unsteady surface of the boat. On the second day, flurries sprinkled the air and dusted the ferry. Palderian worried about splaying on the slick boards and running himself through. After dusk, when all but the essential crew retired below decks to avoid the icy spray, Palderian complained to Iyo, “I cannot feel my fingers.”
“Use your other hand,” said Iyo.
“You can’t be serious,” said Palderian. At which prompting, Iyo charged him. Palderian defended himself with great sweeping blows. Iyo stopped short.
“Great instincts,” said Iyo. “Terrible form.”
Palderian looked over to Soria leaning on the balustrade, arms wrapped up against her chest. “Was he like this with you?”
“Worse. So much worse,” she said. “He’s only being nice to you because you outrank him.”
“I’m not sure I do,” said Palderian. “You are my temporary charge, no more. And Iyo’s just a hangabout in my unit. His office is entirely independent of my own.”
“Safekeeping’s the word,” said Soria. “No telling how temporary.” She tugged her hood lower over her eyes.
“You’ll be free of me yet,” he said.
“How long before we can leave Ord?” she asked.
“We haven’t even docked, Miss.”
“Once we get there. For appearances sake.”
“A full week.”
“Any less is an insult,” he said. While Soria spoke to Palderian, Iyo halted his instructions. Palderian exploited the opportunity to rub his hands and hold them under his cloak. “It’s a goodwill tour, as I understand it. We’ve no reason to hurry to Cadaes, other than to beat the snows, which we won’t.”
“The mission is to get there. I want to get there,” she said.
“Not much of a mission,” said Palderian. He feigned disinterest, but studied her reaction.
She held her chin up and over her shoulder, glowering at the stars. Her voice fell low. “If I instructed the captain of this ferry to turn south and drop us at Ancaro, he’d do it,” she said. “If I commanded you, who is uncertain of the authority of his rank, to lead your troops back to where you found me, you would do it.”
“They called it the Fallen City of Caladabur before you even arrived.”
“It’s not fallen,” she said, pushing off the balustrade and yanking her hood down to her shoulders. “It’s still there. And we’re rub-a-dub-dubbing off in the wrong bloody direction at the beginning of bloody winter.”
Palderian stared into Iyo Oron’s grey eyes, ignoring Soria for a moment. The pale man expressed nothing, not even the impatience that Palderian knew tickled the hilt of his sword. “I wouldn’t,” he said, turning to Soria. “Nor would your cousin. Because Caladabur is swarming with senloy. And you don’t kill senloy with fancy swords.”
Soria bit into her cheek. Palderian couldn’t tell if she was grinning or about to spit. After a long pause she said, “You need gloves.” Then she turned and went below decks.
Bert and Nack’s father, Commander Erral Tretoro met them at the docks with a hundred hands to unload the ship. They arrived on the penultimate night of the solstice festival which in Ord spanned a fortnight. That night they danced and drank. In Ord, when you dance, you hold a mug of ale in your left hand and your grasp your neighbor’s shoulder with your right. Slipping in the sloshed beer and collapsing to the ground removed you from the dance. The circle drew tighter, more beer sloshed, and the final few dancers tried to topple each other. Generally the dance ended with the final few collapsing all in one great bundle of sopping clothing and bone bruises. The band paused to take a drink and then drummed into the next tune and the dancers formed a great big circle once again.
“You people from Ord,” Soria said into Nack’s ear, “Do you make every social engagement a competition?”
Nack grinned and splashed his beer at her feet. She slipped and crashed to the ground.
Turtle Tretoro bellowed. “Nack, you bottomed-up.” The dancers whistled and the musicians quit their jaunty melody and screeched out a boisterous, up-beat number. “Corral him, corral him! Don’t let him loose,” said the commander.
The circled closed around Nack as he tried to get loose, slipping and gliding across the wet floor. One or two dancers would grasp his clothing and then shove him across the circle to the other side. Nack, chuckling the whole time, fought to keep his balance. When he came sliding over near Theador and Kess, Theador drew his stoney fist back and socked Nack across the forehead. Nack dropped like a sack and the crowd erupted in laughter. “Damn it, Thod,” said Kess to her husband before a fist found his curly head. She sighed and repaid the blow. A great brawl swept across the meadhall. Palderian, Soria, and Iyo retreated to a corner table with the more sensible folk.
The next morning, Bert, Nack, Theador, and Kess arrived in the yard at dawn with bruised faces and bloodied knuckles. Palderian’s small unit filed beside Commander Tretoro’s two hundred. Before morning exercises, the commander stalked over to Palderian to have words with his crew. “You four,” said the commander. “I expect better of you. Especially my sons. A drunken, bloody hoedown in my meadhall, and not a single broken chair?” He turned to the captain. “They’ll do better next time, I hope.”
“Of course, commander.”
“Miss Soria, we’d be honored if you closed the games tonight with an address.”
“The honor would be mine, commander.”
“And perhaps a footrace? I’ve heard you’re a devil of a sprinter.”
Palderian interjected. “The trouble is getting her to run away from anything.”
“Charmed, captain,” she said to him with a nod.
“Captain Palderian, who’s your best spear?” asked Commander Tretoro.
“Who’s your best sword?”
“Iyo Oron, but he won’t compete, with apologies.”
“No apologies,” Iyo said standing next to Soria.
“Perhaps a demonstration,” said Soria. Iyo nodded.
Commander Tretoro continued. “Who’s your best swimmer?”
“That would be me, commander,” said Palderian.
“My boy’s aren’t your best anything?”
“I didn’t say that. I’ve only met them three days ago. I’m currently appraising their expertise.”
“You’re willing to wager on your troops?”
“I bet my life on all of them every day and never a twig against them.”
“A friendly wager then, nothing to it. My boys against your best swimmer.”
Palderian smiled. “I was born in Prokopenko. We spend little time on land.”
“How is the bay? Warm?”
“Not warm, no. We’re flushed incessantly by the waterfall.”
“But the bay’s shallow and sunny?” he asked and Palderian agreed. “That’ll be a sorry disadvantage to you in the lake,” said the commander.
“You can’t be serious.”
“Where else we gonna have a swimming race?”
Palderian hesitated. “Must we have a swimming race?”
“We can wait a while, let the sun heat it up.”
“Today? Right now?”
“What better way to start the morning exercises?”
“A few thousand come to mind,” said Palderian.
“It’s the festival season, captain! Fest!” The commander paced down to his own unit to announce the approaching games.
“Swim through the cold, captain,” said Nack. His brother Bert elbowed him in the ribs.
Soria leaned over. “A full week?”
Palderian said under his breath. “Maybe less.”
◊ ◊ ◊
He’d not broken his left arm, but he could not move it. No bones protruded nor blood. You are an indelicate boy, he muttered to himself in the voice of his uncle. Pangs from his forehead and chin and knees told him the ice tore his skin as he broke through it. Fortune took his off-arm and allowed him the use of his good arm, yet he could not muster strength to raise his face from the ground.
He drew his knees up to his chest and pressed himself up into a kneel; breathing deeply the cold night air. Snow needled his cracked lips and haunted his gums and nostrils.
Could I obstruct the door; botch up the hinges; tie the pitons to hold the doors fast? No, I don’t dare. Symes will drop the portcullis and trap me underneath. But my pack… I need to retrieve my pack.
His fingers prodded the back of his head. The handle of the knife stood out from his head. His fingers followed this to the blade. All of his bloody hair obscured his search but he guessed that the point did not fully penetrate his skull-bone.
He scrambled in the snow and found his ice axe, which he hooked into the sash of his cloak. He staggered to his feet and hobbled toward the entrance. As he walked, the heft of the knife wobbled the blade in his head. Soon it will be numb or I will be dead and either way I’ll be free of the pain, he thought. He listened intently, hearing nothing from the gatehouse about the door. He did hear the voices on the other side of the door and creaks of the wooden hinges resisting their efforts.
“Symes, if you’re up there, now’s your chance,” Golgrae said, and dashed forward to his pack. He grabbed the straps with one hand and hustled away, the rattling knife drove paroxysms down into his spine.
He stopped a good distance from the door, slung the pack to the ground, loosely tied the icepick to the straps, and shouldered it as four soldiers marched out behind their spears; divining rods to locate prey. Each spear matched each identically: blue and white spiraled paint, set with a barbed steel point, the standard issue pike of the Fallicorn army. All four of these soldiers earned those weapons a hundred hundreds leagues to the southeast.
“Lousk, grab him. Symes, Howell, find his father,” said the thickly built woman leading them.
“There never was a father,” said Symes. “He was alone the whole time.”
“By grace!” shouted Lousk, “There’s a knife sticked innis ‘ead!”
Golgrae reached across his body and pulled the left strap up on his lifeless shoulder. He bent his own arm and worked it through the strap. “Have you broked yer arm, pup?” asked Lousk. He crouched and held his spear before him. “You be good and we might could fix y’up.” Golgrae tied the leather thongs of the pack across his belly, holding the pack fast against his back.
Lousk followed in Golgrae’s tracks as Golgrae backed away, giving Lousk the full advantage of speed. Golgrae stepped backward into the clearing formed by his fallen body. He reached under his cloak and pulled out a brightly painted, cylindrical rabbit stick. He held it at his shoulder. “He’s got a little billy club, Neeley.”
“Then you best be quick, Lousk,” said the leader.
“You shouldn’t do that,” said Symes. “Awful bloody luck to kill a Dodaei.”
Lousk lowered his spear to Golgrae’s height. The steel point swayed and gently circled its mark. Lousk’s forward leg lunged. Golgrae threw the stick. Lousk’s wrist cracked audibly. The man shrieked. Blood sprayed, then spurted. The spear fell, swallowed by the snow. The wooden missile clattered against the stone wall and dove beneath the drifts. Golgrae marked its place; he would retrieve it before he left, if he didn’t die.
Lousk held his left wrist and tottered in the snow. Neeley trudged forward.
None of these people understood how to travel in heavy snowfall; they placed all their weight straight down through the snow and ice, pressing as much effort into the ground as they then pried upward. They would exhaust their strength in a league. Golgrae marked their incompetence, calming his breath with the promise of flight.
“You’re not prepared for this,” Golgrae said to himself in his brother’s voice, “and you never will be.”
Neeley and the men turned to the sound of his voice. Neeley plodded near enough the hysterical Lousk to discern his cradled arm and asked, “What in heavens happened to you?” She turned from the groaning man to look at the boy. The second throwing stick split her cheek bone and gouged the eye; it did not ricochet but fell at her feet. Golgrae frowned. He preferred the sticks to bounce off its target and fall nearer to him. “I won’t have you littering the world with your failures,” Golgrae said, quoting his uncle again.
“How dare you?” said Lousk. He pulled his scarf down and wrapped it around his wrist and tightened it, tied it, and tucked the arm close like a wing. Golgrae observed him dispassionately. The man drew his sword, not taking his eyes off the strange boy with that deep voice. The blade trembled in his grip. Golgrae dashed to his first missile; the bright paint and varnish shone in the twilight and was quickly found. Golgrae faced the man and raised the weapon to his shoulder.
“Help me with this one, will ya?” Lousk yelled to Symes and Howell who had both watched the attack in stunned silence.
Golgrae could not conjure a threat or a taunt that’d he’d ever heard from his uncles, certainly none from his father, and he could think of no satisfying curse of his own, so he said to Lousk, in his mother’s voice, “There’s nothing to be frightened of, child.”
The man’s body trembled with anger and the sword flashed down and up and to the side. He clutched his wounded arm to his breast and he pointed his sword at Golgrae’s head. “Yer eyes in one hand, yer tongue in the other,” he said. “And yer corpse to the wolves.”
The archers marched out and stood behind Symes and Howell; Golgrae sensed they were afraid of leaving the compound. He recognized one of them as the third assassin from the night before, the cowardly archer. “I tell ya, this one can’t be killed,” said the archer.
“Let me get this straight, Koeff,” Howell said, turning on the archer, “any boy you can’t kill must be unkillable, right?”
“Boy,” said Symes, “the father buried the thing with himself, right? Knowing the good son would pay his respects and the other wouldn’t, right?”
Backing away from Lousk’s sword, drawing Lousk between the archers and his own position, Golgrae gave Symes the slightest nod.
“I don’t get it,” said Howell.
They all yielded to Lousk’s approach. Golgrae wanted to get the man between himself and the archers. His back was against the stone wall, the archers were to his right, and Lousk’s bad arm was on the inconvenient side. Darting along the wall with the man behind him would give enough cover for luck and darkness to do the rest.
He waited for Lousk to draw the sword back. He did, pulling his elbow straight back at shoulder height. But Golgrae moved swifter; he launched the painted rabbit stick directly into Lousk’s forehead before Lousk could thrust his sword. Lousk’s body fell back and vanished into the landscape. The stick bounced up and backward and Golgrae snatched it out of the air; a thing of luck more than skill.
He looked to his right; the archers had not nocked their arrows. They all stood with their mouths agape. “See, what’d I tell you?” said Koeff.
“Would you get on with it!” Howell said.
Golgrae turned and ran along the fort’s curved wall, brushing the stone and keeping his head lower than the portholes on the ground floor. He moved much faster than his pursuers by lifting his feet only as high as the thick ground snow and dashing his toes through the gently-lain top snow. His tribe mastered step-dancing generations ago as an exercise and demonstration. Other tribes failed to catch on. These skills permitted Golgrae to run swiftly in all terrains and to dart while crouched forward with his pack held up on his shoulder
Once they were around the bend behind him, he stopped beside the next porthole and listened for noise. He could hear the reverberations of shouting and scurrying within. He guessed the men were running up to each porthole and looking out for traces of him. His pursuers would soon be behind him again, but if he ran down the hill in front of a manned porthole, they’d hit him again with a knife or an arrow and he wouldn’t be lucky twice.
With no other option but to presume this porthole had an archer on the other side of it, Golgrae shoved his ice axe through. Not only did he bop a soldier in the chest, his ice axe caught on something that turned out to be, when he yanked his axe back out, the archer’s bow. Golgrae smirked at the bow upon his ice axe. But the furious archer reached his arm through the porthole and grasped the knife sticking out of Golgrae’s head. Golgrae screamed out in pain as the archer tore it from its hold in his cranium.
Golgrae ran to the edge of the hill and slid on his knees down the snowy bank. He crawled forward and slid more on his belly. When his momentum no longer carried him, he found his feet and ran sideways along the hill away from the front entrance of the fort and obliquely downhill until he could leap to the level ground. He pulled his hood up over his matted, bloodied locks, and sprinted along the valley floor. On level ground, neither his pursuers nor their arrows threatened Golgrae.
He’d run most of the day, had slept under the snow the night before, had run the whole day previous, had slept under the snow the night before that, and had run all day the day before that. Ten odd leagues to Faragos. He had never run the full distance in a single day, yet the closer to that town, the safer he would be. At a vicious pace, if his heart did not give out, he could be at the gates just after nightfall. And so he ran.
◊ ◊ ◊
Two full weeks marching. Commander Tretoro commissioned sixty troops to escort Soria and company. He also outfitted them with rabbit-fur hats, fur-lined cloaks, and sheepskin boots. The escort lugged gear for Palderian’s unit but Soria made a point of carrying the cooking supplies—iron pots, kettle, log stands, etc—as well as her own sleeping mat and day pack. She refused to rest until Egor rested. And Egor only rested when her dogs needed it. The first snows powdered the landscape while they were in Ord. The evening before they departed another storm brushed on a thicker coat. They shuffled through ankle-deep snow that first week. The higher they pushed up the trail, the more storms they encountered. By the evening they crested their first summit, the snows reached up over their boots and soaked their stockings.
That next morning, setting out along the trail that wended along the rim of the low mountain, the entire company paused to watch a trail of endless elk parade through the valley below down south to the plains outside Ord. The males bore antlers that doubled their height. None watched more carefully than the dogs. “Bad omen that,” said Egor.
“How so?” asked Palderian. And Soria leaned in to hear the answer.
“Years ago we figured it out. We’ve been pushing the senloy further north. But senloy are like wolves, and not like bears or squirrels. They don’t hibernate nor prepare stores of food for winter. They stalk their prey all year. Expert hunters. But now we don’t let them follow the elk. We let the elk pass. We block the senloy. Makes them desperate in the winter.”
“So what you’re saying…” said Soria.
“The sooner we get within walls the better.”
Cadaes, a luscious village with a massive log cabin at its center, stood in the heart of the Sourwood Forest seated about halfway up the Blue Mountains. The designers of the settlement lined the final mile of the trail with evergreens planted in Jaen’s day, now standing eighty-odd feet. They were met at the beginning of the tree-lined terminus by a hundred Cadaes spears and a few dozen dogs. Egor’s eleven vetted their furs and were surprised by the familiar base scent. Had she the ability, Egor would have explained that these dogs were cousins. She’d been through Cadaes decades ago to breed and train their dogs. In those days, a kennelmaster was in high demand. She’d explain this if she could, but she suspected their nostrils were telling them a similar story.
The captain of the hundred Cadaes spears formally introduced his company and welcomed Soria. “We’ve swept the evergreen path for your arrival.” Soria nearly gasped. “Not the needles of course, there’s no sweeping those.”
Soria kissed the man’s hand. “The last time I saw snow I was a very little girl. This march has been a terrific re-introduction. I fear, however, you’ve disappointed our dogs. They’re utterly delighted bounding through the snow.”
The captain led them along the final mile. Soria’s smile melted and Palderian noticed. When he inquired, quietly, she told him, “One hundred and sixty spears. With this force I could have held Caladabur.” Palderian said nothing. “I know you disagree, captain.”
“I disagree with the premise. You could hold Caladabur with one sixty. But how many of these troops would we lose on the march there? How would we feed them once we arrive? Athostus is its own resource and more importantly we know how to work the land here. Anshamara is bottomless, insatiable mud. You can only eat at Caladabur what you bring to Caladabur. Down there…”
“All right, fine. Shut up. You’re right,” she said. “Blazes and blazes, Palderian. Just let me mourn for a minute. I don’t want to hear that I’m wrong. I don’t want bloody logic and bloody solutions. Let a person be sad.”
“You’ve been sad for weeks.”
“So what’s another minute going to cost you?”
“Right, I don’t want to saddify their bloody middle-of-the-week-let’s-celebrate-anything party.”
“There are more celebrations during the winter for a good reason. You don’t want to pass half the year with nothing to look forward to. Especially way up here where the winters are so bleak.”
“Come now, captain. You don’t think it’s tedious?”
“They’re all different. The variety’s what makes them fun. There’s the Harvest Games, then the Dawn of Ghosts, preceded by Demon’s Eve which gets out of hand every year, Treelights which is when you want to be in Cadaes, we missed that by two months, the Feast of Plenty which is delicious everywhere, the Solstice Festival or Midwinter, Hounds’ Night, my personal favorite, that’ll be in a few weeks, and then the various sun celebrations before the vernal equinox. And of course each settlement has its anniversary fest. And Jaen’s Day.”
“Jaen’s Day? When is that?”
“Depends on when Jaen first visited each settlement. In Cadaes, for instance, it’s the same day as their anniversary so they celebrate Lodge Days which is essentially a week long potlach. Everyone cooks and fills the main hall with tables of food. There are hermits in the hills surrounding Cadaes who come down every year. It’s the only time anyone sees them and they’re treated as neighbors.”
“All these people do is kick up new reasons to throw parties.”
“You have no idea. In Prokopenko, they have a celebration for each day.”
“And why not? Each day can be beautiful. The one that would drive you crazy though is the Tusk Art Fair. You’re going to spit when you hear the purpose of that one.”
“Does it involve silly costumes?”
“In the early days of Prokopenko,” he said.
“Blazing buckets, I knew this would be another lecture,” she said.
“Before the walls, during the Final Potlach, the most valuable commodity was scrimshaw. Etched bone, horn, or tusk. Master artists were seated beside master warriors. As the city grew, and to honor Prokopenko’s artists, they hosted an art fair as part of the summer solstice. Breathtaking works, every year. You should see it. There was a silly man, a famous fool on the stage, who submitted the most hideous painting of a tusk. The fool claimed it was his most sincere effort, and proof to his critics that they’d rather have him on the stage than on the walls. From that spawned the Tusk Fair. Each year, hundreds of hilarious bad works of art are displayed. It’s a difficult objective to create the best loved worst work.”
“It should not be an objective at all.”
“With respect, Miss. What’s the point of Caladabur and the Great Hunt and the Fallicorn explorations if not for the sake of such absurd celebrations? Not every man and woman can hold a spear. What do we do with those that can neither hold a spear nor a brush?”
“There’s a use for everyone.”
Palderian smiled and shook his head. “You were born and raised by the military. Maybe you’ve never seen a person who by dint of birth or some later tragedy cannot take care of themselves. Cannot hold a spear, nor lug a bucket, nor lift a spoon.”
“Of course we take care of those people. That’s not a question.”
“There are a lot more than you think. What about the man, let’s say he’s a strong as Theador, but he’s a coward. Spiders or the sight of blood or something makes him run for the hills. You and I, military as we are, we hate cowards. We’re told that they’re less than human. But couldn’t this strong man be a builder? Surely we need some strong men who we don’t send off to die in combat. And maybe he has a friend who’s more courageous than you and me but he’s got a worm in his guts that’s eating him inside out and he can’t march more than a mile a day.”
“Fine, we leave those people here. But the vast majority could be used for a higher purpose.”
“Remember that what we do is exceptional. That is, an exception. And never forget that if you weren’t here, all of the unexceptional would find some other way to survive.”
“Great. I’m feeling happier already.”
“One of these days, you need to see the tusk painting.”
“It’s still there?”
“It’s better preserved than the waterfall.”
Dancing in Cadaes is much more sensible than in Ord. The genders pair off and dance in a long line down the center of the great hall and the tempo of the orchestra is such that newcomers can mimic the locals without terrible disruption. Despite her initial mood, the feast and music and mead and a cushioned chair soothed Soria’s weary back and cleared her muddy thoughts. She laughed at the fool and sang with the choir and accepted the dances of a dozen soldiers who would for the rest of their lives tell their children that once upon a simpler time, during a bleak winter, Jaen’s great-granddaughter smiled at them and they held each other and danced around the great lodge Jaen himself helped to build.
After Soria, with Iyo close at her side, shook every hand in the building and was introduced by Commander Riegas to all of the captains and sergeants of the Cadaes army, and sat with the elderly and gossiped with the children, she returned to the head table at the feast to sit beside her captain and Egor.
“Either you’re sincerely enjoying yourself or your mother’s raised the perfect diplomat,” said Palderian.
“These are our people. I don’t mean ours as in mine, I mean they are us. Cadaes is second only to Averros in its regard for Jaen. Everwhere I go, I meet another person with another story of him.”
“And gracious hosts.”
“Gracious indeed.” She turned in her chair and put her palm on Palderian’s forearm. “I wish to thank you. For earlier. Your perspective, the things you’ve seen. I appreciate your counsel.” Then she turned back to her wine and lifted her chin to Commander Riegas across the dance floor who was speaking with someone and indicating her. “Just. You know. Every other time you feel a lecture bubbling up,” she said sweetly, “swallow it down.” She glanced at him, flashed a smirk, and then emptied her goblet. “You’re not drinking?”
He put his hand over his cup. “Powerful stuff. I’m not a heavy drinker. I drank a horn of mead two hours ago and I just now can feel my toes again.” Soria refilled her goblet. “Anyway,” he said. “I’m glad you are enjoying yourself.”
“Why do you keep saying that? What’s going on? Are you angry?”
“Soon, I don’t know when, you and I can work it out,” he said.
“Oh dear, you’re plotting.”
“We’re going to go on a hunt, something slight. I’ll try to arrange the smallest possible escort. Because we’ll be leaving them and heading to Faragos.”
“Where’s that? And don’t say it’s two more weeks on the road.”
“It’s about two weeks up the mountain.”
“Why is everything uphill?”
“Everything north is uphill.”
“Why are we going to Faragos?”
“I don’t know. And it’s important that you not speak a word to anyone. Only Egor, and I know, and now you know.”
“I’m certainly telling Iyo.”
“Okay. I should have seen that coming. Okay. The four of us.”
“So we’re going, but we cannot tell anyone we’re going and it doesn’t matter when we go? This sounds like my mother’s plotting through and through.”
“Is there something in Faragos she wants us to see?”
“I’m only so clever. It’s obvious the goodwill tour is a smokescreen. The real mission is to get to Faragos. But they can’t know we’re coming.”
“This is an idiotic plan.”
“Do you know a Captain Langtree?”
“Of course. Uncle Ally. Dashing old rogue, thin as you are and two feet taller. He visited us frequently when I was a girl. He would visit when I stayed with the Sisters. One of the few permitted guests. They adored him as much as I did.”
“I believe he’s in Faragos at the moment.”
“Does he need our help?” Palderian smiled. “Okay, you don’t know. I’ll stop asking. How soon do we have to leave?”
“I leave that up to you,” he said. “If the endless parties aggravate you, we can vanish immediately.”
“Another two weeks in a bloody blizzard climbing a mountain. I can’t wait.”
“It gets worse,” he said.
“Of course it does.”
“There can only be the nine of us. We cannot take any of Ord’s sixty escort nor Cadaes’s one hundred.”
“You, me, Iyo, Egor, Sergeant Figg, the brothers, and Theador and Kess? Carrying all of our own equipment? Making our own camp in two foot of snow? Finding our way through a territory none of us have ever seen?”
“I know the way,” said Egor.
“Are you drinking?” asked Soria.
“Okay, then. I’m going to go find Figg and get drunk with him,” said Soria with a shaky curtsy. “Merry Midwinter, my dear sober statues.”
In hindsight, she thought, ditching my bodyguard to get naked with a stranger in some backroom of an unfamiliar mansion might have been a terrible idea. The green-eyed man curled on the floor, spitting bile, his own knife punched up into his lung. Soria stood in her silk tunic, her cloak and sweater on the ground by the locked door. I locked the door, didn’t I? I locked myself in. On the other side, Iyo Oron kicked and bodychecked the wooden door. Soria would walk over and unclasp the lock to let him in but right now she didn’t want to take her hands off her sword or her eyes off the two men in the room. “Iyo!” she said. “There’s a window.” And immediately she heard the man dash off down the hall.
It was through this window that the moonlight illuminated the room. The two men carried thick leafblade swords general to all Fallicorn soldiers. Only a few moments ago she had thrown her own sword onto the bed and wrapped herself into the arms of this beautiful green-eyed man. She experienced a moment of exquisite alarm being there alone with a stranger, and then a moment of searing panic when she realized they were not alone. Adrenaline blanched the alcohol from her brain and her instincts took over. She was no longer drunk, just exhausted.
The first man crossed the room toward her. Soria kicked the green-eyed man in the face. He moaned and continued staining the rug. She kicked him again and he rolled over onto his other side, blocking the second swordsman’s approach. The first swordsman swung down at her with both hands. Her long narrow blade directed the arc of his blow into the carpet. The slender blade hovered before his throat like a viper, he batted it away with a lateral swipe. It returned the next instant unchanged in its intention. He batted it once again and once more it oscillated to its post. He may as well have been a child swatting a stream of falling water.
He bucked her blade skyward and lunged forward. She twirled with the momentum of her sword and circled it round and under his chopping arms, dancing out of his path. She tripped him forward and as he fell against the bedframe, she twirled the opposite way, lashing her whipthin blade across his torso. He spun on her, shirtfront soaked with blood. The head of her viper returned to his neck and licked sharp across his throat.
The second man halted when the first fell. Soria pivoted and drew her elegant blade in front of her. The second man struck directly at her and she blocked the blow full force. Nose to nose she grabbed the appendage of his crossguard. Instinctively he grasped her sword arm with his off hand, impressing his fingers deep into her forearm muscle. She didn’t need her forearm, just her writs. Her blade slithered up the anterior flat of his sword and down the posterior, whipping hotly into the bone of his thumb. He cried out in pain. She twisted the hilt from his fingers. Still he gripped. With his bloody hand he clawed at her arm that pommelled him a second and third time. She flung the second sword across the room lest he succeed in grabbing it from her. She kicked his knee inward and he fell forward. She pressed the edge of her sword to his throat but his desperate might restrained the fatal blow. She pivoted directly in front of him so that he kneeled before her. His right hand sacrificed its remaining digits to the effort of climbing beyond the steel precipice. She strained her right arm and wrist to hold the blade at this throat and with her left pulled his head by the hair toward the earth. He withstood her strength, squealing and hissing in senile fright. She pressed a second time, as she did in her distant youth against the cast iron water pump at a well, and plunged the man’s skull into her suspended blade. Instantly the squealing ceased and heat spewed onto her bare feet. The man slumped forward into her exhausted frame and she slipped in the viscous death pooling on the cold floor. She landed abruptly and rolled back. Her head bounced on the floor and she laid prostrate, breathing deeply.
Iyo breezed through the window and lifted Soria to her feet. Iyo paced the room drilling his sword into the hearts of the three assassins. “Can anything in here be traced to you?” he asked Soria. Her cloak and sweater lay in the puddle of blood on the floor. She pointed to them. Iyo slit a pillow with his knife and shoved her garments into them. He removed his own cloak and swung it around her shoulders. She turned to unlock the door but Iyo grabbed her shoulder and led her to the window. “I know nobody saw you enter. I’ll go down first, then you follow.”
Iyo dropped the bloody pillow out of the window and climbed through. Soria grabbed his wrist. “Don’t tell anybody.” Iyo glared at her. “Don’t tell Palderian or the commander or anyone.” Iyo climbed down without responding. Soria peered out after him. “Two storeys?”
“Maybe get trapped on the first floor next time,” he said. She climbed down after him most of the way and then dropped and tumbled into the snow. Iyo yanked her to her feet.
“Iyo,” she said as he walked around to the front of the lodge. “Hey. Iyo.” He stopped at looked at her. “I’m sorry.”
“You don’t apologize to me.” Iyo walked away. Palderian jogged to the side of the lodge just as they rounded the front.
“Iyo, is everything all right? Why were you running?”
“Sour stomach,” said Iyo and then launched the bloody pillow onto the bonfire out front. Something seemed terribly wrong to Palderian. Iyo was sweating but he was only wearing a sweater in freezing temperatures. Soria’s hair was a total mess, she was covered in snow, and she was holding her sword by its sheath.
“Miss,” he said, at a loss.
“Captain, alert the troops. We’re marching to Faragos.”
◊ ◊ ◊
“Yesterday was colder,” said Bert, holding the tent pole in place.
“Six weeks after the solstice, that’s what the almanac says,” said Theador, screwing and scraping the stake into the frozen ground.
“Tomorrow’s six weeks, Thod,” said Kess, holding the twine.
“Surely. It’s coldest right now and only getting colder all night,” said Theador.
“It’s just the wind,” said Nack, on the other side of the tent, pulling the fly taut. “Without this wind: nothing.”
“What measure is that?” protested Theador. “Wind is weather.”
Kess, straining to grip the thin twine in her wool mittens, said, “Don’t stop hammering, Thod!”
“How would an almanac know?” asked Bert.
“They know the moon phases, the seasons, the tides, the crops, why wouldn’t they know weather?” shouted Theador over the wind.
“It just seems different,” said Bert.
“Surface temperature,” said Nack with a exaggerated, dismissive expression and a sigh, “Not that cold.”
“There was no wind yesterday, before that storm. Without that wind, yesterday is colder than today,” said Bert.
Theador abandoned his duty to stand and point the hammer at Bert. “You colder right now than you were yesterday? Yes or no.”
“Theador,” cried Kess as the twine slid further through her grip. She stepped back and leaned against the wind to secure the tent.
“My nose is colder, I’ll give you that, Thod,” said Bert, “but my lungs are warmer.”
“’cause you’re full of hot air, the two of you,” said Theador, over proud of his retort. Nack grinned with his cheeks but disdained Theador with his eyes.
“Your nose is plenty warm,” said Bert, but couldn’t end the insult. The wind pressed them all forward. Had his hat not been tied under his chin, Bert would have lost it. He reached his offhand and pressed the rabbit fur down over his ears. The wind lifted Kess, who had been leaning backward, into an upright position. She’d not been concentrating on holding the line down, and once her body weight no longer figured in the balance, the strength of the wind under the fly jerked the twine through her mittens. The tent sucked up into the night; the pole, like hind legs, kicked up and split Theador’s cheek wide; the opposite end of the tent tackled Nack as it shouldered over him; Kess grasped the end of the line which yanked her forward into Bert.
Charging headlong into a pack of senloy, flogging truants, choosing which of his soldiers to send to certain death; these were the ways in which Palderian knew how to lead. In calmer situations—during an inland march on a goodwill tour, for instance—cheerfulness undermines leadership. You gotta harden as the detail softens or the troops lose their edge, counseled Yanar when they parted in Averros. Palderian acknowledged the veracity of the tack, but he found the assignment so agreeable that he struggled to chastise the troops for bungling a simple tent set-up. Yet, they would have never lost a tent if they hadn’t stopped fearing for their lives every minute.
Sergeant Figg excoriated his troops as Palderian looked on. Figg used terms such as ‘meat muffins’ and ‘salt-brains;’ comical insults that subtly conjured the memory that wolves and worse fed on hundreds of men and women every year. Palderian observed Figg’s censure, abounding with rational contempt, blow past its subjects with no effect. In this Palderian saw not only his own inefficacy, but its contagion.
“Figg,” shouted the Captain; and all heads turned. “You will retrieve the state’s property. If your troops’ recklessness damaged the article, you will mend it before you return it to me.” Figg’s eyes widened and then, aware of their minute betrayal, he swiftly nodded and turned to leap through the snow after the vanished tent. Bert and Nack turned with him and just before they could move, Captain Palderian shouted at them to stop. “Are you leaving us?,” he said.
“We were going to help,” said Bert.
“Sergeant Figg is a distinguished officer of the Fallicorn army. Do you believe he requires assistance hunting a lifeless tarpaulin?”
“We’ll go to protect,” said Nack.
“You four were bested by a stiff breeze. What use could you be?”
Figg did not stop his brows from raising and his bottom lip from dropping, hidden as his face was from his charges whose backs were to him. Perhaps I’ve gone too far, thought Palderian. I’ve never seen Figg shocked like that.
No one spoke. Palderian held the gaze of the four troops. “Gather up camp. We can’t bivouac in this storm without a tent. Sergeant, reconvene within town at your earliest capacity.” When no one moved Palderian said with utter disgust, “Theador, your face is bleeding,” and suddenly they fluttered into activity. Kess sprung on Theador with a kerchief, Bert and Nack abandoned their sergeant to obey their Captain, and Palderian turned his back from Figg’s squad.
Greywater Boardinghouse, run by a childless widow still in the prime of her years named Aunt Brigid, sat at the far end of town in the shadow of the east tower’s hoarding.
When she learned she’d be hosting a Captain, she evicted the drunken parson from the two-room suite above the kitchen and laid fresh straw on the wooden floorboards in the bedroom and sprinkled sawdust in the spare room. Grease emanated from the firepit below and stained the walls and the glass blocks set in the exterior wall. Though the oil that spotted the walls like mold could not be scrubbed before the Captain’s arrival, she smeared the grease into the corners of the windows with an old rag that was no longer capable of any other task. She spent as little time in the suite as could be managed without compromising the integrity of the cleaning lest the smell of the room invoke the memory of her late husband who converted the two rooms into their master suite and lived with her there for eight brief months before typhoid smoldered in his bowels and parched the life from his veins.
The platoon arrived in the hour of nightfall. They were not at all the persons she anticipated. The Captain, to begin with, stood a full head shorter than she and most of his troops. She did not expect him to be black-skinned. When he removed his rabbit fur hat, comically large on his head but no doubt warm, he revealed hair that stood above his head in twists. He smiled at her graciously, bowed, and then took up her hand, introducing himself as Palderian from Prokopenko Bay and thanking her for the accommodation. Each soldier stepping across the threshold thanked her for her hospitality. The women in the group were indistinguishable from the men and Aunt Brigid was shocked each time a woman’s voice or face or hair appeared from under a fur hat.
It impressed her greatly that they maneuvered their long spears through the front entrance and in the foyer without bumping, scraping, or poking either end. All of them, including the Captain, carried burdensome packs which they unloaded from their shoulders in the dining hall, just beyond the staircase and the clerk’s desk Aunt Brigid never found herself occupying. The spears were taller than the room and the entire platoon declined her apologies for the inconvenience. One of the men instructed a the others to rearrange some furniture and before Brigid could offer another nervous apology, four of her chairs were overturned in such a way that the legs held nine spears like a rack along the far wall. The packs were arranged in a circle in the center of the room and all the remaining chairs and tables aligned along the exterior walls.
“Madam, I do hope you’ve been warned about the animals,” said Palderian. “I’d make use of your stables or garden, but with these storms Egor, our kennel-master, needs to sleep with them and I’d prefer her to enjoy the amenities offered the rest of her peers.”
“If it’s not too dank, they are welcome to sleep in the cellar,” she said.
“You are too kind. You have my word that they will leave the place cleaner than they found it. And while we’re on the subject, I’m aware it’s customary to keep cats within. You may want to snatch them up for the time being.”
“That would be an errand for sure. I never am entirely certain of their comings and goings,” said Aunt Brigid.
Palderian grinned at her. “No matter. I’m sure nothing will come of it.” He noticed that the other tenants had gathered around to observe the cavalcade. “Though they would never display aggression towards humans,” he said clearly, “it is necessary to the service that they dominate all other creatures.”
“Perhaps the cats will be wise enough to stay hidden,” said Aunt Brigid.
Palderian returned to the front entrance, followed by a few of his soldiers, and before he opened the front door he turned again to the numerous onlookers and said, “These dogs have been trained for generations to respect and nurture mankind. They move quickly but the most you have to fear is a wet nose in the palm.”
He opened the door and stepped out into the storm and spoke with the kennel-master for a moment before walking back inside. Snowflakes clung to Palderian’s hair twists, brilliant white crystals against rich black locks. Aunt Brigid brought her arms across her dress and shivered with the sudden entrance of frozen air. A few of the onlookers returned to their rooms. Palderian asked her to show his troops the cellar door so that they could carry down their extra materiel.
She opened the cellar door, conveniently located off the dining hall, and the troops began hauling supplies. She heard three sharp whistles and in a minute the entire establishment rumbled with dogs. Predominantly black with white markings on their chests and foreheads and throats and a white tip to their tail, the dogs strode up and down the stairs, along the hallways, circling the dining hall, and sniffing the ankles and palms of all the unfamiliar humans. Not a one let Brigid pet them but more than a few looked up at her with intelligent eyes and either bucked their head or licked their nose or huffed playfully at her. Once the floorplan had been measured and secured, the dogs relaxed and walked almost lazily down into the cellar. A few popped back up into the dining hall to sniff the packs and retrace the path to the entrance and more than one tried to get past the soldier guarding the kitchen. Palderian introduced Brigid to Egor the kennel-master who stood even shorter than he and the two ladies exchanged compliments. Egor and a few of the other soldiers carried the dog’s food down to the cellar and they were followed by eleven wagging, bushy, curled tails.
The excitement of the evening past, Brigid showed the soldiers to their rooms. They piled up four to a room, save the two who slept in the dining hall with the gear and Egor who slept in the cellar with her charges. A short while later there came a knock at the door. Brigid set down her ledger, which she always sorted at night while her tenants slept, and shuffled through the dining room and into the hall. She opened the door to a bald man with bushy eyebrows and a wide grin pushing up curly sideburns. He carried a bundle of canvas on his back as wide as the doorframe. He introduced himself as a member of the platoon. Though he spoke quietly, before he even entered the foyer, half a dozen soldiers crowded around Brigid. Brigid saw the Captain at the top of the stairs smile, hesitate at the top step, and then return to his quarters.
The sergeant’s presence relieved the others so profoundly that Brigid couldn’t help but chuckle at the mysterious man. Whoever he was, he must be very important. He asked Brigid for some tea and she hurried to heat a kettle. The others lowered the pack from his shoulders and carried it with great effort into the dining hall. Again, the apartments crackled with energy yet no one seemed to be bothered by the interruption. On the contrary, the late-arriving gentleman spread cheer throughout the boardinghouse.
The sergeant took his tea quietly at a table, thanked Brigid, and then stretched on the hardwood floor of the dining room and went immediately to sleep. The others retreated to their rooms and fell to sleep quickly, leaving Brigid to the silence of her large home, spirited but with no avenue for her enthusiasm. She took down her hair and undressed slowly, distracted by her own fluttering hands.
The platoon fit none of her expectations. She anticipated haughty, southern gentry yet the only ones who seemed to disapprove of her humble boardinghouse were the dogs. In truth, the platoon behaved more like an extended family and their presence now gave the house a pulse it’d lacked for years. She hoped they might remain for the duration of winter. And yet it would not be so, for on that very morning a broken-nosed runner bounded viciously through the buried landscape towards the peaceful town of Faragos.
Faragos smelled of cooked onions, year-round. The Faragosians devoted a third of their fields to onions, shallots, leeks, garlic and scallions. Every meal featured the onion family and their chefs were known the world over for sweet onion pie: boiled apples mashed with fresh shallot and baked with thin slices of rhubarb and white onion.
In the summer, Ocobos boasted the best freshwater fish. In the rainsoaked autumn, the lamb stews and shepherd’s pies of Moro could not be bested. But in the winter, after a long run in the numbing wind, nothing delighted Golgrae’s senses like the onion pie of Faragos. He’d been thinking about it since the sun began to set. Then he smelled the city long before he could see it and his legs doubled their pace. He’d be warm soon, but more importantly he’d regained the use of his nose.
He’d come from the north east, from Hurleweth, without stopping. In forty hours, he’d ingested two apples, a few handfuls of nuts, a lean filet of salmon, a handful of noodles, and, at this point, many ounces of his own mucus. Any thoughts he had of giving up, or passing out, or exploding dispersed with the scent of Faragos. He thought of stopping at the first farm and asking for food or tea, but in this wind he’d neither be heard nor welcomed by the farmers huddled within braced doors and shuttered windows.
Senloy habitually hunted at dawn and dusk and Golgrae fearing retribution from the scoundrels at Hurleweth ran through the entire night and into the dawn. Under common circumstances, he’d prepare a minimal camp and wait out the sunrise. However, fatigue and hunger threatened to knock him out if he stopped moving, so he chose to keep trudging forward; which was a mistake.
Just as the sun rose above the Blue Mountains to Golgrae’s left, he spotted a white-faced gray wolf loping through the snow. Unwittingly, Golgrae met eyes with it. Suddenly, there were three more and they all charged the solitary runner a mile from his destination.
Golgrae dropped to a knee, removed his pack with one arm, and retrieved a small clay jar of jerked beef. He tossed the strips of cured meat of the ground and dropped the jar. Facing the wolves but looking at none directly, he walked sideways away from the treats, scooping handfuls of snow and rubbing the salt and scent of meat off his fingers. As the wolves drew near, he slowly sat on the ground, tucked his testicles between his thighs, wrapped his good arm around his neck, and curled into the tightest ball he could form.
The wolves fought over the treats. After a short brawl, the victors chomped on the jerky and tongued the clay jar. The others poked their snouts at Golgrae’s side. Aggravated, one wolf bit into his leather shoe and violent shook its jaws. The pain startled Golgrae into a catatonic state. He recovered some time later to find his wrist had been bitten as well. Luckily, neither his wrist nor his foot bled through the deerhide clothing he wore. The wolves had grown bored and left to hunt breakfast elsewhere.
He rose slowly, searching the landscape for the wolves. He saw nothing but white fields, the Blue Mountains, and in the distance, the fence of Faragos.
He hobbled the rest of the way on a wolf-bit foot, with a broken and swollen nose, a dislocated shoulder, and a hole in his head. His corny uncle repeatedly advised Golgrae and his brother not to bring bad weather where they go, but there was nothing to be done. According to the almanac, it was the coldest day of the year.
◊ ◊ ◊