The Coldest Day of the Year
The coyote ate the apple that bounced off his head that fell from the tree where the squirrel hid.
And all the while, the owl soared above the orchard.
The squirrel barked to the coyote, “The apple was mine, I knocked it down.” The coyote howled, “The apple was mine, it fell on my head.” The tree whispered, “The apple was mine, it grew on my boughs.”
And the owl soared above the orchard.
“Come and fetch your prize,” howled the coyote. “I’ll wait for you to move along,” barked the squirrel. “I’ll stand guard,” howled the coyote, “to fright the owl from snatching you up.”
And the owl soared above.
– – ———— – –
You can be certain of a Dodaei fable by the absence of an ending.
The Highest Peak of the Road
Red silk waved from a nude birch, knotted thrice like the joints of an arm. The boy dropped to a knee, sketched the signal into his notebook, and recorded its location. 1000p south of summit, 20p east of road, 20h up tree. As he scratched his notations into the soft sedgepaper, the silk flagged on the wind that rolled up the mountain pass and brushed the snowcaps seaward. Barren birch trees crowded the slope, having overtaken the firs along the sunwashed rim of the mountains. The papery bark peeled back like collars loosened. The lenticels along every inch of the trees seemed to mimic the calligraphy of an artist’s landscape rather than the opposite. The first art taught to the boy. Even now, rushed for daylight, he sketched the tree that held the silk and scored the black grooves onto his page. “Birchbark. Nature’s gift to poor artists. Simple strokes and the paper provided.” His father’s lecture.
He knew the silk. Its owner ran a week ahead of him in the rotation. His grandmother’s sister. She favored red. He could think of no need for such a startling signal when a simple lace would have shone as brightly against the colorless, leafless forest. She would have dire need of all silks when the storm arrived, which was like to happen any day according to the almanac.
He buried his nose in the silk to vanquish all doubt. Days of ceaseless wind and snows stripped her scent from the draped lengths, but he found a familiar odor nestled in the knots. She wore the silk around her neck for decades; it would take more than a week of exposure to blanch all reminisces of her. Her footprints were less obscure. She approached this tree from the southeast and returned along the same path. But she spent a while standing at the base of the trunk, much longer than the hanging of the signal required. His eyes swept the bark from roots to the first branches. Above his head he saw twine tied just under the armpit of the first branch. He rolled the twine slowly down the trunk and a swath of birch paper unfurled. On the interior, he found words that he copied into his notebook even before he understood their meaning.
No blizzard has yet bent my brim,
That bows to meet the blossom.
She abandoned a favorite article, raised an enormous warning, and drafted what seemed to be a funerary epigram. The boy could conceive of no scenario in which his great-aunt was not dead.
– – ———— – –
Footprints led him to the southeast until they vanished amid needles and scrub of the deep wood. The birches filed together closely enough that they shaded the forest even when leafless. He stalked along the mulch of the forest floor, his fur-wrapped sandals emitted no sound. Perpendicular to the gaunt trees, at about shoulder height, an arrow wobbled in the breeze; its iron head burrowed into bark. This was not the work of his great-aunt. With rare exception, his people hunted with rabbit sticks. Maintaining a bow, sourcing string, and fletching arrows proved impractical for their lifestyle. Whoever they were, this archer sighted their aim much too high for even a deer.
The slope of the mountain curled to the south. The boy followed along what his feet assured him was the swiftest path through the forest. He was angling towards the oxcart road when the trees thinned and led him to a grove. Cast in the bronze light of departing day, a mound of stones glimmered with frost. Significant labors were devoted to the arrangement of the stones, fitted each within the others and packed tight. Even to his eyes that had never seen a cairn, the boy knew a body lay beneath. His people burned their dead. Burials, and especially those above ground, confounded him.
Moisture welled in both eyes. He stepped forward and placed his hand on the structure but that hand recoiled. He pressed the butts of his palms into his eyes until the pain overwhelmed his sorrow. The rimy stones felt no different than Golgrae expected. But the sensation of touching them elicited a dreadful image of the body within, and no body should be so cold.
The boy ran the same rotation for five years, beginning alongside his father at ten and succeeding his brother at thirteen. His father taught him speed, his brother taught him silence. When his brother disappeared, he assumed the route. When his father was hanged by the neck, the boy was the runner to carry the news. His people took common names to appease the thick-eared villagers, but the boy refused the practice and used only his birth name, Golgrae. On the missives he carried for their employers, they spelled his name Gull Grey, which never ceased to enrage him. His great-aunt Baelbel they called Babble. And now she lay dead, buried under stones and frost.
The wind rocked the boughs of the pine trees and snow sprinkled down. The clean white powder lined the jagged edges of the cairn. Nothing excited Golgrae like the sight of even distribution across chaotic forms. Be it moss on a craggy river bank or a host of gulls resting on a cliff face. Instead of a rude stack of rocks forming a singular object, the dusting of snow imbued each stone with its own presence, and each stone was a separate tribute to her life. He slashed a lock of his hair and cut a ribbon from his sash. He tied up this lock and secured it under the topmost rock. “A friend was here.”
Golgrae dropped his head and recited the few words he remembered from his brother’s funeral. The Dodaei, like many of the other tribes from their era, believed in a spirit called Morgumar the Collector who swept souls from the dead and carried them to the world above the winds. As his mother explained it to him, the winds blowing across our landscape are much like the currents down at the bottom of the sea, for the spirit lands are way up in the heavens and only the Collector can dive deep enough to rescue our souls from eternally foundering down here. Golgrae’s first question was, “What happens to drowning victims? Can he go places where the wind doesn’t go?” Golgrae by the age of three had seen enough ash floating above a fire to suspect that the souls of burning victims would be carried upwards upon the heat and in his young brain understood that to be best. His mother patted his head and leaned down to him. “Don’t you worry about how you will leave this world. Worry about what you will leave this world.”
Little faith though he had in the chants, he sang them for the respect he held his family and their traditions. Real or not, he would do his part to summon the Collector. He spent his life running circles across the landscape, if he were doomed to a life after death, he’d want better for his spirit than a continued wandering.
The boy lowered his pack and rested it beside the jagged mound. Seventy-odd pounds of tent, cookware, bedroll, tools, and rations; nearly doubling his weight. He folded his bison-fur cloak on top of the pack. He carried no weaponry, only an icepick, a hatchet, a bone knife, and the rabbit sticks. To a scurrying rodent, he was a monster. To any other human being, he was just a twig. The tools were left behind.
Wearing a suit of deerskin, the swift-footed runner transformed into the deliberate naturalist, picking along the forest as nimble as a spider, scrutinizing faint mounds of days-old footprints and gentle furrows left by dragged timber. In winter, when the landscape is nearly vacant and every movement scores its memory into the snow, a foreign creature generates a sphere of disturbance like a ripple in a pond. The sweet aroma of a campfire on the wind, the crackling of the wood, the meddlesome crows blotting the snow-laden branches, the footprints of the foxes, coyotes, and wolves avoiding the stranger.
A square tent stood beside the oxcart path. The seams of the leather sides were lined with a glimmering white; winter’s grout sealing over the threads. The carpet of snow climbed up around the cedar poles as though dragging the tent below. A wisp of smoke shimmied from under the folds of the tarpaulin. There was a pitiable quality to that squat tent, half-buried under thick snow, and its meek fire. An irrelevance, a hopeless errand. Take the discolorations of the leather. Even the sun, bruising the hide with its might and melting away color, could not stall the creep of winter. Like a dog let off its leash for a few hours a day, the winter let the sun play in the sky, certain of its inefficacy.
Whoever was inside the tent would not last the season. They were lost; foolishly stoking their twig furnace and huddling beneath the frost-furred reach of death. A person imperiled beyond salvation can only hope to become insane. Runners on the road hid from strangers as a rule. Golgrae’s father put it more gently: “A desperate man is a cracked bowl. Handle delicately and fill only with what you can afford to spill.”
The boy kept moving, circling their perimeter. He discovered the copse of elm trees they sourced for firewood; wedges and kindling left to dry in the sun. Recent tracks confirmed their privy; a clump of overturned snow beside a well-tamped latrine ditch. Other tracks led Golgrae to a frozen-over creek that provided fresh water. He heard one of the campers crunching across the stamped path to the privy. The man wore a woolen head-wrap twisted into a thick cord around the skull and a faded indigo scarf twisted and tied beautifully under the chin. The practiced handiwork betrayed the man’s upbringing in the southeast, where snow never falls. His cloak’s collar had no fur, explaining to the cautious boy why none of them stood sentry in the freezing temperatures. He carried a blue-and-white, six-foot spear, with long white quills tied round the spearhead’s collar, rattling with each movement. These were not madmen lost in the mountains. They were soldiers of the far-reaching expeditionary forces, as unfamiliar to this landscape as they are unloved by its inhabitants. Furthermore, they were bitter enemies of Golgrae’s family. These men were Fallicorn.
Golgrae waited for the man to return within the tent and then he scaled a thick birch. He sliced his headscarf into thirds. He tied a length of his scarf into the branch. With the loose end, he tied up a pine cone, to counteract some of the wind.
He descended and ran back into the woods, half the distance towards the cairn, and scaled another tree. He hung the second third of his scarf identically. Then he ran south, leaping over the narrow frozen creek as it coursed through the woods, and arrived upon the oxcart path. Golgrae took a deep breath and climbed a third tree. He rested in the nook of the fattest branch. From this perch, Golgrae could see the tracks of the soldiers winding down the switchbacks for miles. He studied them until he was certain how many there were. Three sets of footprints, three knots in Baelbel’s warning. Golgrae hung his final warning, this one for the widdershins, and descended.
He hiked up the path, from the south, following their tracks. The height of the mountain peak exploited the final hour of sunlight. Down below, the frigid valley lay in darkness while Golgrae’s surroundings glowed pink and orange. As he returned to their camp, he spied his colorful headscarf way up in the evergreen. The Fallicorns might notice it, and there would be nothing they could do. A Dodaei courier would never miss it. If the same fate befell Golgrae as that of his great-aunt, his cousins would at least be certain that he understood the risk.
◊ ◊ ◊
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 infantry, vassal of Athostus, peer of Averros.”
Palderian rose from his knee. “Not bad for the son of a spearfisher,” 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 the backs of his hands. 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.
“I didn’t expect the whole city to turn out,” he said.
“Midwinter,” said Roshan. “My husband rolled your ceremony into the larger festivities. I hope you don’t mind.”
“A little. I am terribly late for another engagement,” said Palderian.
Roshan threw back her head and laughed. “Some other nation feasting you today?”
“Sure. I’m a captain in a few other armies. I’m a prince in Thoradar. A chieftain of the Dnolo. The Fuereda call me thane.”
“What do they think of you in Nahroum?” she asked.
“I was promoted there yesterday.” Roshan laughed and put her hand on his shoulder, a particular irritant for him, and the curse of short men. But he didn’t let it rankle his good mood. This was Roshan, Governess of Athostus, general commander of the world’s largest force, granddaughter of Jaen Fallicorn.
“So that makes you a king of Prokopenko?”
“Oh no, I’m nothing there. That’s why I left.” Palderian held a straight face. “I said to the council, ‘Look, I demand a ceremony in my honor at least once a year.’”
“Well I’m glad to have a captain in my army who’s so well connected all over the world.”
“Just making sure I land well, in case everybody goes to war with each other,” he said. Roshan turned her head askew and her smile shifted into a diagonal. “I’m sorry,” he said. “Terrible manners to make light of such a thing.”
“On the contrary,” she said, “my husband and I spent a great deal of resources vetting you for that exact reason.” She was not joking. Palderian wondered what more she meant. The warmth of her gaze and the sadness of her tone contradicted each other. But he was too good of a soldier to question his superior.
Wyas Oron scowled at them, and then lifted an eyebrow quizzically. “Smile and wave. Ten thousand people are screaming their praise and the two of you are blathering like turkeys.”
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. The sight of the concrete architecture overrun with human bodies stunned him.
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 Iyo Oron.
“Show the people your sword,” said Wyas. Palderian unsheathed his new blade, 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 point. 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. 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 all fours 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.
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 and then shook the great costume so that the quills rattled. 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 said, “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 quiet her dogs, and now that they had begun barking, others joined.
“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 his old friend Yanar. “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 ceased 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. 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 Wyas to Egor.
“Why should I be?” she asked. “My squad protected the Captain from belittling his service.”
“Keep your voice down,” commanded 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 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. Sitting at Palderian’s side for fear of being caught up in any conversation, Egor sipped a cold glass of water.
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 sixteen 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.
“What’s all this bowing business?” asked Soria. “Stop that. What ever rank I had I abandoned in Caladabur.”
“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.
“Nonsense,” said Palderian. “These have been trying times.”
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 wrong direction entirely if you ask me which no one does.”
“This is Midwinter. 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.”
“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.”
“Races?” he asked.
“Ah, yes. You and your unit are required to run in the races, as the guests 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 north.”
“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.”
◊ ◊ ◊
The soldiers had trampled the snow all around their campsite in the days they’d been there so that Golgrae could move about undetected by hopping along their divots. From the oxcart path, he could walk to their firewood stack without bothering to look down. A long-handled axe and a hatchet stuck up from the plate of a felled tree’s trunk. The timber lay sectioned on the ground beside. Golgrae grabbed the hatchet by its thin haft and yanked it free. He admired the rough ironwork of the head; a black ingot wedge flattened out to a thin beak. He slipped the hatchet into his belt.
From the firewood stack he moved to the privy ditch, stepping irregularly to syncopate his footfalls with the snapping of the fire and the thrumming of the wind against the leather fly. Beneath his feet, the packed divots of snow creaked like dry boards. Golgrae doubted they could hear the thin noise, but if they did, they would not recognize in it any pattern of moving creatures.
He stepped along the well-trod path from the privy—beside which lay a black spade worked from the same ore as the hatchet—to the tent. Smoke rose in a thin column, wagging in the wind. At the corners of the tent, the wires sunk beneath the snow in the deadman method; secured around a log or stone and then buried. Deadman weights solved the issue of pitching tents on ground that won’t hold tent pegs—sand, mud, snow. Fallicorn soldiers trained and hunted in the southeast, a territory soaked in perennial rains. With the exception of their clothing, they’d adapted to the wintry terrain. Golgrae sighed. Everything he’d seen indicated the highest level of capability. Against his strongest convictions, Golgrae admired their wilderness acumen.
Loose hairs tickled his nose, dancing at his nostrils and eyelashes, which was when he noticed he was shivering. He’d been ignoring his body’s alarms. Climbing up and down trees kept him warm, but now as he snuck around their campsite absent his bison-fur cloak, absent his normal speed, the cold air latched around his wrists and neck and spread across his torso. The sweat on his chest and back betrayed him to the frost. The leather clothing became frigid and hostile to the touch. He grabbed the coils of his hair and tied them under his chin.
A malicious thought crossed his mind. Cut the wires on the backside, collapse the tent. In the time it would take them to get the flap open, run around front, yanking the fly to cover the flap. The smoke would blind and choke them, and they’d have to cut their way out of the tent. Run off, grabbing the spade, the axe, and the hatchet, and leave them with a ruined tent, no tools, and nightfall. He discarded the instinct. He was not there for revenge or even justice, he was there for information. Choking them out and leaving them to freeze would be of no benefit to the Dodaei. And curiosity would haunt him. He had to know what they were doing.
But the true reason Golgrae chose not to manifest any of his violent thoughts was even more simple. His entire life he had been a traveler, sleeping in tents on the skirts of nowhere, surrounded on all sides by perils and predators. Nothing in the world could convince him to ambush men, no matter how evil, resting inside their tent. “There’s no way around it, Pop,” he said. “I have to announce myself.”
He hustled back to the oxcart path, hallooed, and hiked up from the road to the tent door. “Who thatta be? Yeah?” said a voice from within, confirming beyond all doubt the origin of these southeastern killers. Golgrae withheld his name and status. He wanted to see their faces when they recognized another Dodaei in their camp. He thickened up his voice with phlegm and bit down half his lip to sound like southern folk and said, “A cold traveler who’d thank you to share that fire.”
The thongs popped off the toggles running along the inside of the flap, beginning at shoulder height. A man’s face appeared, brown beard crawling up gaunt cheeks and over wide cheekbones, the eyes bloodshot from the cloud of smoke that ignored the flue. “Oh,” he said. Then he turned to the interior and said something Golgrae couldn’t hear. More thongs were loosed. The flap curled in. “Come in,” the man said, kneeling to untie the threshold. Behind him stood a shorter man with a gray beard down to his belly. He stared at Golgrae with mean dark eyes and a pained expression. The skin around his eyes was puffy and irritated. He glanced up at the flue. With the door open, the cross-breeze rallied all the smoke up and out of the tent. “Hurry up then, ‘fore you let all the good air out,” said the first man. Neither of the these two were the man he spied returning from the privy. Where’s the third man?
The creaking snow gave away the deliberate footsteps from behind the tent. A concealed exit, easy enough with these leather tents. And that explains why it’s taking this man so long to let me in. Clever.
Three knots, three tracks, three Fallicorns, and a cairn hidden in the woods. Golgrae’s mind was now convinced of what his heart had always believed. The first man pulled back the flap for Golgrae to enter and waved him in. The boy shivered all over. To enter was death.
In his head, he heard his father beg for him to run.
“Are you ill?” Golgrae said. “Any of you?”
“Whadya mean ill?” said the first man.
“In the time you’ve been camped here, you could have hiked to Moro. The path takes you all the way there. Two days, maybe three at your speed. You’re Fallicorns. Commander Bostrom would have thrown you a feast. The only reason you would have stopped is if someone twisted an ankle or fell ill.”
“No, nothing like that,” the man said.
“You came from the south, so you’ve already seen Commander Novos at Hurleweth. But it strikes me as uncharacteristic that he hasn’t outfitted southern soldiers with fur hats and cloaks.”
“Boy,” said the gray bearded short man, “nobody’s ill, nobody’s gotta hurt foot.”
“Come on in already,” said the first man at the door. “You’re letting all the good air escape.”
“Which one of you is in command?” said Golgrae. The two men hesitated, looking at one another, expecting the other to answer. “Or is it the guy on the side of the tent taking a leak?” Their eyes went wide but then their expressions differed. The shorter man seemed angry with Golgrae. The first man smiled and rode Golgrae’s lie.
“We didn’t want to say. You came at a bad time. The sergeant’s been poorly all day.”
“So you are ill.”
“Here I am,” said the false sergeant turning the corner of the tent. Golgrae’s heart choked and his lungs folded. Draped across the man’s shoulders: a motley cloak of red, green, and blue patches, with a interior lining of badger fur. By far the warmest garment any of them could get their hands on. And its previous owner lay under stones in the forest.
The false sergeant’s lips twisted up in a smarmy grin designed to accompany whatever half-truth he’d prepared, but his guise collapsed when he saw the look on Golgrae’s face. Glancing down at the cloak, he said, “Oh, crap.”
For an instant, Golgrae blacked out. This stolen relic of Baelbel’s stolen life, swaddling the villain responsible for the crime. The returning trauma of his brother’s death under similar circumstances. No evidence, no justice. Just another boy lost to the rotation. Golgrae had gone too far, had ignored too many instincts. The mad belief that you can re-spool events through sheer willpower, sheer hatred, sheer disappointment in your own actions. Too late. Too far. The time to flee had past.
Golgrae found death at his throat; thick fingered, ungloved death scrabbling at his neck. Luck, entertaining itself, doled out favor to Golgrae. The locks knotted under his chin for warmth entangled the strangler’s fingers. The gray-bearded man could not find Golgrae’s gaunt neck to throttle. The false sergeant drew his sword and readied it to strike. The other held a bow at his side but didn’t bother to nock the arrow. According to his demeanor, the job was already done. “Grab a holt of eem,” said the false sergeant. But the gray-bearded man couldn’t hold the boy still. Golgrae’s arm flailed about and his feet slid across the ground, pushed backwards. The campsite sat on a slight rise above the oxcart path. Golgrae slipped and his body teetered and he would have tumbled end-over-end to the road had not the murderer’s fat nubs of flesh gripped Golgrae’s hair. The boy slipped to his butt, landing on the ancient hatchet that hurt so sharply that it ripped him from his traumatic reverie and awakened him to his violently imperiled life. It also reminded him that he had a hatchet.
Golgrae pulled himself up on the man’s wrists and the man shouted, “I’ve got eem,” and he believed that he did and Golgrae believed him, and together they shared in the absurdity of the hatchet embedded between the man’s ear and eyeball and the thin hickory shaft leading from it to the skinny fingers of the frightened boy.
The short gray bearded man let go of Golgrae’s locks and his hand rose to Golgrae’s shaking grip and caressed the fingers until they let go. The man gently placed his hand on the hickory shaft and held up his other hand to Golgrae, like an athlete signaling for a breather. He stumbled into the tent, shouldering the other two men out of the way, and sat on his cot. The two Fallicorns and Golgrae watched him fondle at his canteen. As soon as he tilted his head back to drink, the pressure on the wound shifted. Just as frank as an apple falling from a tree—one moment supported by the stem, the next too heavy—the man’s strength quit his muscles and the bones folded over one another.
The men turned from their dead comrade to glower at Golgrae. The false sergeant lunged. Golgrae leapt backwards, lost his footing on the hill, and toppled to the road, rolling in the powder.
The false sergeant slid on his butt down the slope after him and came to his feet before Golgrae could even stand. Desperate for movement, Golgrae threw himself sideways and then turned somersaults until he could scramble on all fours. An arrow smacked just beside his hand and skittered away. The oxcart path consisted of muddy ruts and smoothed over stones that froze over long before the grass or the pine needle floor of the forest. Just beneath the few inches of snow lay a sheet of ice eager to send an incautious foot twisting. Golgrae rolled to his back and crab-walked over to the center of the road until he could feel the ruts on the ground. He crawled backwards as the false sergeant charged. Leaning over to grab Golgrae, his heel slid forward along one of the ruts and his arms flailed backward—the Dodaei cloak slipping free—and in that moment Golgrae rolled to his knees and sprang to his feet. He ducked into the woods as another arrow clattered against the trees. Golgrae sprinted into the darkness with the swordsman swiping at his back. Running at full speed, he cycled through various ideas. He’d only survived this long because of the extreme terrain. Which reminded him of the frozen creek just ahead. He leapt over it and decided to run back north to his pack. Then he heard a loud crack and thump and a man’s voice hollered. Golgrae turned to see the swordsman doubled over against the tiny bank of the creek. He’d stepped right into it and twisted his ankle. With his left hand he pushed himself backward until he was sitting in the middle of the creek in water no more than three inches deep. The ghastly demeanor of the man drew Golgrae nearer. Against his better judgment he jogged toward the man sitting in the creek. Even in the failing light of a forest in twilight, the blood shone like wax against the silvery leafblade sword in his hand. Upon tripping, he’d fallen against his sword which cut deep into the tissue of his inner thigh. The hot fluids stained the ice and swirled with the trickling water under the frozen surface. The swordsman didn’t take his eyes off Golgrae as his face blanched and life drained out through his leg into the frozen creek.
Twice in two minutes he observed the opposing states of life and death. There was no moment of fatality, there was no action of dying. The energies of the bodies waned, but life did not recede to nothingness like a wave rolling back into the ocean. Even life at its faintest, at its most dismal, is as vibrant as the sun in comparison to the sack of wet oats that is a corpse. Golgrae did not witness their deaths. Life ceased at an interstice of reality so finite Golgrae felt like some cosmic giant whose blinks shuttered out six months at a time, staring at a harvest and then blinking to see that field fallow.
“Dodaei,” he heard. The archer yanked the bowstring to his cheek and launched an arrow towards Golgrae in the manner you’d throw stones at a rat. Golgrae ducked behind a tree and the arrow continued on into the forest. A sheet of snow clung to every inch of his body. Clumps of powder matted his hair. His hands were pink and shaking. He could hear the archer crunching the pine needles, approaching his position. He’d been lucky about the arrows, but the archer only had one left. He would not waste his last shot. Golgrae studied the shadows of the canopy on the floor. His father was obsessed with patterns. The eye sees what it expects to see, the mind sees what it wants to see. Conceal yourself in the familiar. His body was shimmering with snow. There’d be no hiding among shadows. He sat against the trunk of a pine, reckoning his escape as the archer approached the creek. He heard him talking to his dead friend, “Wiese, ya ready, pal? Can ya get up?”
Staring forward, the pattern of his escape occurred to him. And such as it is, as soon as the answer became clear he chided himself for being so oblivious before. He stood up and ran straight forward. The pattern wasn’t anywhere on the ground. The pattern was in the forest. He was leaning against one tree that was certainly between he and the archer. So long as he ran in a line that kept that tree between them, he’d be safe. He sprinted forward, shaking his head to glance over his shoulder and then at the roots on the ground, over his shoulder then forward, again and again. He saw the archer drop his bow. Golgrae stopped to observe. The archer shook the dead body in the creek. From Golgrae’s distance, it appeared that the man wept.
– – ———— – –
An hour after nightfall, standing beside his tent, chomping on a mouthful of jerky, Golgrae stared up at the night sky.
Stars. Endless stars in a moonless vault. 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.” If any of those stars were spirits or worlds or suns 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.
“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. “The trick is not to learn to love those you do not, but to learn how to love those you do.“
Golgrae was accustomed to differenthood. The Dodaei practiced a different religion and paid no tithe to the tribunals. Even the Dodaei who traveled with the Fallicorns to the southeast to aid in the hunt were never called Fallicorns. They were always Dodaei. He’d always been different but he’d never been feared.
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 only relief, his mother would lecture. But neither mother nor father with all of their shared wisdom could predict which stranger on the road would share their fire and which would throw a knife. Miles away, a coyote howled, soon joined by his brother. Golgrae could not know what that meant for the fate of the archer, but it reaffirmed his loneliness. He flipped the lid of his firepot, smothering the embers. and transferred it to the iron plate, and then set it inside his small tent. He crawled in beside.
Commander Novos would know what to do about the Fallicorns. He’d been a Fallicorn his whole life. One of the last of the generation that grew up hunting alongside Jaen. Between Golgrae and Novos lay five leagues of mountainous terrain. By the following nightfall, Golgrae would be safe, warm, and well-fed.
◊ ◊ ◊
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 storeys 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 Sorrosh survived into adolescence. Sorrosh 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, way up in the mountains, at the highest peak 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.”
“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?”
“I leave it to you to withhold or expose,” Roshan said, filling both glasses with clear water. “One last secret, Captain, and if information were currency, you’d now be the wealthiest officer on my payroll.” The Governess smirked and bit her lip—a final hesitation, a last reckoning of the new captain’s character. A sigh escaped her clenched breast, releasing the words like a hand tossing dice. “Soria believes she was born near Averros. But that was impossible to manage. In the spring, when the snows quit the mountaintops, you’ll be leading her to her birthplace.”
◊ ◊ ◊
When he emerged from the evergreen, he did not see torches burning, nor windows glowing, nor the beacon flaring in the tower. Indeed he could see nothing. The fort’s silhouette blotted out the stars just like his hand had the night before. Had he not known to look for it, he would not be able to see anything. The valley floor, buried in moonless snow, stretched out to the surrounding mountains like a tide of ash and fog. No sight of the hundreds of soldiers, nor sound of the dozens of dogs. The boy considered many of them his friends. Silence and darkness. They were all dead.
The fort stood on the crest of a solitary hill, like a palanquin borne on the back of a frozen whale. The day’s blizzard covered all tracks. Winds roared off the neighboring tarn, swirled round the fort, and rattled the surrounding forest. Golgrae knew he would not be able to see nor hear anything without first scaling the hill and exposing himself to whatever dangers overtook the fort. He stood panting at the bottom of the hill, staring up at the bleak architecture. Stout timbers fortified with stones and concrete rose two storeys and a circular tower rose higher. Snowflakes fat as bees landed on his face and disintegrated. He hadn’t slept the night before. He had run all day, promising himself that Novos know would know what to do about the rogue Fallicorns who nearly killed him three times the previous night. You’ll be safe once you get to Hurleweth.
Golgrae hiked up the side of the hill slowly, clinging to the slope with his ice pick. On all fours, the snows broke over his head. The straps of his pack dug into his thin shoulder blades as he crawled up. As soon as he reached the crest, he rolled on his side and let the hill bear its weights. He slid his arms free and caught his breath. Kneeling at the top of the hill, only his head poked out from the powder. He tottered over to the leather-wrapped shutters of the first window. The hinges creaked, he peeked in, then pushed them shut and dropped to his knees. What he saw made no sense to him. Within the great hall, there crackled a weak bonfire. Men and women circled it for warmth. Why are they not using the fireplace?
Golgrae last visited Hurleweth a month ago. In five years he’d never stepped onto the valley floor without being vetted by a dog, nor come within a hundred yards of the hill without being greeted by a guard. Whoever these people were, they were not trained by Novos. Though there were no signs of physical ruination, the sensation of death overwhelmed him. The wall at his back seemed as cold and hollow as a wraith.
He rummaged through his pack: a few strips of jerky, a purse of oats, spices, one last jar of pickled vegetables. The couriers packed only enough provisions to sustain them between stops. His stomach ached. His legs ached. His shoulders ached.
He removed his ice pick, rope, tent stakes, and mallet from his pack and walked to the front of the fort. He wrapped his body in the rope and tucked the other equipment in his pants. The massive front doors were recessed underneath a gatehouse ten feet wide and fifteen feet tall. The portcullis, a two thousand pound lattice, remained tucked up into the front lip of the facade. Golgrae walked beneath its iron teeth and then under the murder-holes in the ceiling of the entryway through which sentries could pour boiling water, drop stones, or throw lances. The exterior of the door suffered severe damages in the last thirty years. Golgrae had never studied it up close before. Deep scratches in the wood told of ravaging senloy trapped by the portcullis. He could hear footsteps moving up and down the wooden landing on the other side of the door. Novos converted an old longhouse into this fort, reusing as much lumber as he could. He built out the old rafters as a loft and catwalk around the main hall which attached to the staircase that led to the gatehouse. Golgrae wedged a tent stake into the door at the meeting of two planks and wrapped his leather belt around the mallet. He waited for foot traffic on the other side of the door and then hammered the anchor between the planks with a single strike. Golgrae’s thin fingers found purchase all over the uneven timbers of the door. Pressing his feet against the stone jamb, he was able to climb hand over hand to the top of the door. He wedged another stake into a deep scratch and with one free hand whacked it to. He threaded his rope through the eyehole of the stake, wrapped the loose end around his fist, and then slowly leaned backwards. How charming it would be for them to open the door now and find me hanging on like a tick.
He stretched backwards and hooked the head of the ice pick on the lip of the nearest murder-hole. 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. 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.
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?”
“What’s your name and who sent you?”
“And tell us what you’re kindly looking to find.”
“How many of you are here in the fort?” asked Golgrae as he rose and backed away towards the doorway that led out onto the landing.
“Just the two of us,” said the second voice coming from the man still sitting at the forward murder hole.
“Commander Novos 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 moonglass, 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 moonglass 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 moonglass 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 storeys 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 storeys of 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,” he shook loose snowflakes from his hair, “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 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.”
◊ ◊ ◊
“You are an indelicate boy,” he said 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. He’d fallen with his arm under him. The wrist and elbow smarted, but he could move his fingers. 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. 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 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.
He slung the pack to the ground, loosely tied the icepick to the straps, and shouldered it. The rattling knife drove paroxysms down into his spine. Golgrae collapsed and held open his jaw, expecting to vomit. 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,” said the thickly built woman leading them.
“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.
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.”
“Not if you get ‘im with an arrow,” said Howell.
“What logic is that? Luck don’t float?”
Neeley shouted at them. “You two, shut your traps. Where’re the archers?”
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 cheekbone 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. The knife continued to send spasms through his brain but the terror of Fallicorn spears flashing before his eyes subdued the pain.
“Help me with this one, will ya?” Lousk yelled to Symes and Howell who had both watched the attack in stunned silence.
Howell turned around and humped back to the raised portcullis. He started shouting at his compatriots hiding indoors.
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.”
Howell dragged an archer out from the fort. “There, shoot.”
“I’d hit Lousk,” said the archer.
“You better bloody hit somebody. Shoot the bastard.”
“Why don’t you run up there and hit the kid.”
“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 archer and his own position, Golgrae gave Symes the slightest nod.
“I don’t get it,” said Howell.
Golgrae’s 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 archer had not loosed his arrow. “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. An arrow danced off the stone and vanished. He heard Howell shouting. 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. Other tribes failed to catch on. Golgrae sprinted while crouched forward with his pack held up on his shoulder. “I got him,” he heard the archer yell. He spied his shadow printed on the snow; a long thin tail bobbed out of his pack.
Once they were around the bend behind him, 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. 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. But for the first time in five years, he did not know what to expect on the road ahead.
◊ ◊ ◊
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 Vant 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. Everywhere 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 Vant 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 figure it all 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.”
“You’ve been there before. It’s on the way to Hurleweth.”
“Oh, right. Faraway Ago. Why are we going there?”
“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.”
Egor said, “It’s for your safety.”
“Am I ever sick of that excuse.”
Palderian shrugged. “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?” asked Soria. 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?”
“I know the way,” said Egor.
“It’s been years, Egor. And when we went up there last it was midsummer, the opposite time of year.”
“I know the way.”
“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.”
“Take better care of yourself,” said Egor.
“Wait. What did you say? Look at me.” Soria’s snide demeanor crashed into fury. Palderian kept quiet. “Are you bloody disappointed in me, too? My own disappointment’s not enough? Iyo’s’s not enough? My mother’s disapproval is not enough? I have to hear it from the bloody dog groom?”
Egor’s implacable tone cut through Soria like wind through a flame. “How you treat yourself reflects what you think about those that care for you.”
Soria grabbed the bottle of mead off the table and abandoned their council.
– – ———— – –
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, overproud 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 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.
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 who laid still as a stone. The wolves grew 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. 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.
◊ ◊ ◊