Tand’s man took longer dying than anyone expected, and he went hard despite the Warhelm’s painkilling powders. Some horror of letting go in this haunted place, leaving his mortal remains here for whatever might stalk down these desolate boulevards once night fell. His fellow freebooters reassured him as best they could, but their own faces were portraits in ill-ease and the dying man was no fool. So they set out a few of the radiant bowls against the encroaching dark and stood or sat around in the glow they cast, trying not to listen to the mercenary’s slowly weakening trickle of gasped curses and groans. Yilmar Kaptal was impatient to move on, but his protests dried up in the face of a grim stare from one of the other freebooters. Archeth stowed her own impatience where no-one could see it, sat at another bowl instead and submitted stoically to the Dragonbane’s blue-lit ministrations with needle and thread. Turned out, he was a nifty little seamstress when he wanted to be.
A little later, the fire sprite showed up, bright orange and red in the windy darkness. It flickered about on the fringes of the company, like an embarrassed late guest shown in to a dinner already begun. Egar noticed before she did – she was lost in the soft blue glow from the bowl. He leaned across to where she sat cross legged and touched her on one knee.
“Hsst. Our friend’s back.”
“About fucking time,” she said sourly. Her wounds ached, and the dying mercenary’s dribble of imprecation and pleading was getting to her worse than she’d expected.
“Occurs to me,” said the Dragonbane slowly. “It maybe went off to scout a route that didn’t take us in sniffing range of any lizard nests. We should have waited up on that fucking ridge.”
“Yeah, but we didn’t. Let it go, Eg.”
He said nothing, and they sat in silence together, listening to the dying man and the hoot of the wind in the architecture. Presently, one of the other freebooters came over and made brief obeisance. Archeth nodded bleakly up at him.
“What is it?”
“A boon, my lady. Ninesh asks if you can leave the walking flame here to watch over him in death.”
She rolled her eyes. “Well, obviously fucking not, no.”
“Or then, if the demon at An-Kirilnar might be asked to send out another flame to do it.” The mercenary made an awkward gesture. “He’s delirious, my lady. But it would comfort him to be told the lie. It would help him to let go.”
Archeth remembered the stench of voided bowels and burnt flesh in the house at Ornley, the unending keening from the next room. What Tand’s men had done to the islander – she tried to recall his name, but it wouldn’t come – and his family. She couldn’t recall if this dying thug had been there or not, but she imagined it wouldn’t have made much difference one way or the other. The mercenaries were all cut from the same grubby cloth – veteran soldiers of fortune, recruited by reputation for the expressed purpose of securing their master’s slave caravans, shipments and stables. It was grim, brutal work and Tand wouldn’t have been choosing them for the milk of human kindness in their hearts.
She shot a glance at Egar. The Dragonbane shrugged.
“If it gets us moving any quicker.”
“Oh, alright. I’m going.”
She levered herself to her feet, wincing at the twinge across her ribs from the stitches. She made her way over to the dying man and his companions, no clear sense of how she was supposed to do this at all. Giving comfort had never been her strong point – too much stored bitterness of her own to carry around, never mind anyone else’s fucking pain.
Around the makeshift encampment, men stopped their conversations and watched her.
You walk, Archidi, you find the strength. The Dragonbane’s words filtered back through her memory. Some men don’t have that strength, so you have to lend it to them.
The other mercenaries shuffled back, gave her access. The dying man looked up at her in the blue gloom, face beaded with sweat, breath sawing from his lungs in tight little gusts. They’d pillowed him on his bedroll, put a blanket over his body and his wound, but he was shivering as if they’d stripped him naked.
She crouched at his side. His eyes tracked the motion, she saw how he flinched from her, how he tried not to but could not prevent the impulse. Burnt black witch. She put a hand on his shoulder and he made a noise like the snort of a panicking horse. But his eyes were on her face and his gaze clung there, fearful and wondering, like some almost drowned man staring at the rise of a grim shoreline beyond the chop of the waves he struggled against.
“You have fought well.” The words were out of her mouth before she fully realised what she was going to say. “You have stood against dragons.”
“I, I……yeah. Fuckers got me good, Mom. Got me good.” The tormented features twisted. “They, they, I couldn’t-”
“They are all slain now,” she said, astonished at the ease with which this trite rubbish spilled from her lips. “And we are victorious, and, uhm, in your eternal debt for that victory. You have given your blood so that your comrades might go on. Among the Black Folk, that is a sacred act. Know, then, that the Great Spirit at An-Kirilnar has also seen your sacrifice and will send a flame guardian to mark your passing. Go to rest in pride. From now until, uhm, the end of all days, the fire will stand here, in memory of your hero’s name and protection of your resting place.”
“I……” A trace of clarity surfaced through the delerium in the desperate eyes. “Is it so, my lady? Really?”
“Really,” she said firmly. She took one his scarred and callousd hands, pressed it between her own. “Now go to good rest. Let go.”
The mercenary hung on a little longer regardless, but his breathing seemed less panicked now, and he cursed less than he had before. He confused Archeth with his mother some more, asked her not to leave him, asked her why her face was so sooted up, was anything wrong, had something happened to Bereth. He mumbled to his comrades, and to others who were not there, told them all he was a hero in the eyes of the Black Folk, smiled like a child with the words.
Shortly after that, his breathing stumbled and then stopped.
They sat around him for a still couple of moments, just to be sure. One of the other mercenaries leaned in and pressed fingers to the neck. Held the back of his hand to the open mouth. Nodded. Archeth got up, a little stiffly.
“Right. Do what you need to do for him. But get it done fast, we’re pulling out. This isn’t a safe place to spend the night.”
She nodded across at Egar, and the Dragonbane stood up, started barking orders. The men scrambled for their gear, relief palpable in the sudden surge of motion. She moved too, trying to shrug off the dead man at her back, but something of him clung stubbornly. She paused on her way to get her pack, stood a moment looking back, watching the surviving freebooters with their dead comrade in the light from the radiant bowl.
They were frisking the newly made corpse for valuables.
The sprite led them a twisting, looping route through the darkened streets, following some planned path obvious only to itself. Egar couldn’t be sure – cloud cover had crept in from the east with the night, and band and stars were muffled up in it – but he thought they doubled back and zig-zagged a lot. The city became a maze around him, dim towering mounds of broken architecture and seemingly random twists and turns between. Once or twice he saw the distant gleam of a camp fire out among the ruins, and the breeze brought him the scent of roasting meat, but that was all. The sprite always veered well away from such signs.
For all the doubling back, though, they moved at a good pace. The sprite flickered briskly on ahead, only pausing or coming back when they hit some awkward obstruction or bottleneck. On these occasions, it brightened itself helpfully and hung about, darting back and forth, throwing warm reddish orange light across the falls of collapsed masonry or torn up street surfacing that were slowing them down. Then finally, a couple of hours into the march, it led them up a series of detritus-strewn staircases in one rubble mound and out onto a broad, jutting platform forty feet above street level. Surprised satisfaction muttered among the men. The ruin they’d climbed through was mostly intact – it gave them towering vertical walls at their back, two hundred odd degrees of vantage point views out over the city to the front, and the single staircase entry point to defend.
It was pretty much an ideal place to make camp.
Yeah, and if you hadn’t been in such a fucking hurry earlier, Dragonbane, we might have been sitting here nine stronger than we are.
He sat cross-legged at the edge of the platform, away from the blue glow of the bowls and alone, glowering out at the shattered city skyline. It was not normally in his nature to brood on such things, but the encounter with the lizards had opened a door somewhere in his head, and now all the long-stored memories of the war were back out to play. Back in the Kiriath Wastes, back in combat with the Scaled Folk. There’d been a savage intensity to it all back then, a vivid day to day urgency that, if he was honest, he’d thrilled to and still sometimes missed. Now, faced with a hand full of the very same red-edged cards, all he felt was old. As if everything he’d done back then, every battle he’d fought and scar he’d collected, had all been for nothing, and now it all had to be done over again. As if something fanged and grinning dragged him off the mount of his fate and back down into a past he’d done everything he could to leave behind……
“See anything good out there?”
He glanced up at Archeth’s slim form and tilted, enquiring look. Shook his head.
“More of the same. I don’t think we’ve come all that far as the crow flies. Going to take us a good few days to cross this shit heap.”
“Dodging the Scaled Folk as we go.”
“Yeah, that’s right. Fucking cheer me up, why don’t you.”
She sighed. Lowered herself into a loose sprawl beside him. “It was an honest mistake, Eg, and we all made it, not just you.”
Yeah, but I’m the one supposed to be leading these men out of this mess. It’s my job not to make mistakes that get them killed.
But he didn’t say any of that, not least because he was beginning to wonder if it was true. They’d all walked into An-Kirilnar behind the Dragonbane, this rag-tag assortment of fighting men, but they’d marched out following a flickering Kiriath firefly and Archeth Indamaninarmal.
“Honest or not,” he growled, “We can’t afford many more mistakes like that.”
They sat for a while, staring off the edge of the platform they’d reached. She shifted and cleared her throat a couple of times.
“You see Tand’s guys turning out their dead pal’s pockets?” she asked finally.
“Yeah. Took the rings off his fingers as well. The old freebooter’s farewell.” He glanced sideways at her. “What, you were expecting speeches and flowers?”
“I was expecting…..” She shook her head. “Doesn’t matter. Fucking sellsword scum.”
“Talking to an old sellsword here, Archidi.”
“Don’t tell me you would have done the same.”
He considered for a moment, brooding on the skyline. “Well, no, maybe not. Not to a comrade-in-arms, anyway. But hey, I’m a barking mad Majak berserker. No accounting for the way us steppe barbarians act.”
She snorted, but he saw a thin smile flicker on her lips.
“Look, you don’t want to read too much into it either way, Archidi. They sat his death vigil, they prayed over him while he was alive. And it’s not like he’s going to miss any of that stuff they took.” He gestured out over the ruined city. “Not like it’d serve any useful purpose left out there with him.”
“Yeah, I know.” The smile had flickered out, left her looking grim and tired. “I just wonder sometimes, what’s the fucking point? Here we are, trying to get everybody home safe, and for what? So Tand’s thug freebooters can go back to bullying slave caravans up and down the great north road for him? So Kaptal can get back to his high class whore-mongering and his blackmail around court? So these asshole privateers can slink off home through the borders, sign on with a new ship and go back to their fucking pirating…..”
He nodded. “So Chan and Nash and the others can go back to their job safeguarding the asshole on the Burnished Throne?”
“Is it?” Another time, he might have left it alone. But he was raw from the fight and the errors that had caused it, and twitchy from this whole forced march back into his own past. “How is it any different, Archidi? Jhiral’s a cunt, and you know it. He’s every bit as big a cunt as Tand or Kaptal or any League pirate captain you want to name. And the Empire pays a phalanx of its very best fighting men to stand around him and let him go on being a cunt without anyone able to touch a hair on his head, while you stand at his shoulder, whispering advice into his delicate little cunt ear. Doesn’t mean we won’t try to get you and our Throne Eternal pals home, though, does it?”
That sat between them for a while, like the night and the cold questing reach of the breeze. When the silence started to mount up, he glanced across at her, but she was still staring fixedly out into the darkness.
“You don’t understand, Eg.” Quietly, but with a steely conviction infusing her tone. “You don’t know what it was like before the Empire. The whole south was just a bunch of fucking horse tribes slaughtering each other left, right and centre when they weren’t riding down out of the hills and butchering the farmers and the fishermen on plains, carrying off women and children as slaves. The Empire put a stopper in that, it brought peace and law to the whole region in less than twenty years.”
“Yeah, think we got this lecture at imperial barracks induction.”
“Jhiral isn’t so bad, Eg.”
“He’s a cunt.”
“No, he’s a young man handed too much power too soon. A boy who spent his whole boyhood learning to fear his own brothers and sisters and stepmothers and aunts and uncles and cousins, never mind anybody else at court; a son whose father never had time for him because he was always too fucking busy off making war at one end of the Empire or the other. You’re surprised Jhiral’s turned out the way he is? That he acts the way he does? I’m not.” Voice rising now, an obscure anger piling onto the conviction, lending it force. “And now he’s had to watch the whole race of magical beings that protected his father – that protected his whole dynasty before him – cut and run as soon as he takes the throne. He’s the first one, Eg, the very first one who’s had to deal with that, since my father walked into the Khimran encampment nearly five hundred years ago and told Sabal the Conqueror’s flea-bitten thug grandfather that his bloodline were going to be kings. Try and imagine what it’s like for a moment – there’s this five hundred year old magic carpet your family’s always had, to raise them up above the crowd and keep them safe and special, and now suddenly it’s yanked out from under your feet just when you need it most. Jhiral’s the first one who hasn’t had the Kiriath behind him, building wonders in the city to amaze his people, riding with him to war to terrify his enemies, lending him weapons and knowledge and power, promising him that whatever happens, history is on his side.”
“He has you,” Egar rumbled.
“Yeah, he has me.” A mirthless sneer flitted across her face in the gloom. “Every solid thing he grew up thinking he could count on turns to dust in his hands, and he gets me as the consolation prize. One burnt-out, krin-fried Kiriath half-blood juggling five thousand years of heritage she doesn’t fucking understand. Is that supposed to make him feel better?”
He shrugged. “Dunno, he’s a cunt, isn’t he. But I’d take you at my shoulder over anyone else I know with a blade, and be grateful for the company.”
The moment locked and held solid, until she broke it apart with her laughter. He looked at her and saw in the low light the tear sheen in her eyes. But she sniffed and grinned when she spoke.
“Anyone else you know with a blade, eh? Thought that’d be Gil.”
“Well.” He gestured. “He’s got the other shoulder.”
And they both broke up laughing, loud enough that faces turned towards them across the blue-lit platform ruin.
But later, as they lay side by side in their bedrolls and stared up past the jagged loom of ruins into a clouded sky, she said very quietly “You’re right, Eg. Jhiral is a cunt. But I can’t help it, I’ve known him too long. He’s been in my life ever since he was a squalling little bundle I could lift on one palm.”
He grunted. Bleakly, he remembered Ergund; playing raiders with him about the encampment when they were both not much older than six or seven; staring down at his mutilated corpse in the steppe grass two years past. We’re all small and harmless once, Archidi. But we all grow up. And some of us grow up needing killing.
You’re talking to a brother slayer here.
Let it go, Eg. Let her talk it out.
He didn’t want to fight with Archeth, whatever spiky balls of rage might be rolling about in the pit of his stomach, looking for release.
Yeah, save that for whatever’s waiting for us down the boulevard tomorrow.
Or out on the steppe when we get there.
For the first time, he allowed himself to think fully about what he might find if he went back. How it might boil down if he asked around in Ishlin-ichan, got word of the Skaranak and their herds and tracked them down. How his people might react if he just showed up one night like some wronged ancestor ghost in the campfire glow.
And put a gutting knife into that fucking buzzard Poltar.
“Probably held him in my arms more times than his own father ever did, you know.” Archeth, still musing up at the clouded darkness overhead. “Akal was never around when it mattered. I still remember hugging Jhiral at four fucking years old, Eg, the night the Chaila pretenders sneaked into the palace and tried to murder him. I’m clutching him to me, I’m trying to cover his eyes so he can’t see the carnage, trying to hide the fact I’m checking him for wounds at the same time, and he’s weeping, screaming, covered in blood from where I took down the guy that had him when I burst in, and all he wants is his big sister to come and hold him instead of me. And I’m trying to explain to him that he can’t really see his sister right now, in fact, uhm, well, Chaila’s got to go away for a while.”
“Yeah. Ten years in a House of Prayer in the Scatter, wasn’t it?”
“They pardoned her home after six. Big mistake, as it turned out.” Archeth blew a weary sigh up at the cloud cover. “Fucking joys of Empire-building. ‘course, by the time she came home, Jhiral knew what it was all about. No way to keep it from him, and he’d survived another couple of attempts to scrub him out in the meantime, it was getting to be part of the palace decor. When Chaila came back, he wouldn’t have anything to do with her. Never let her even touch him again. So, yeah, I look at all that and I think, sure, you’re right, he’s a cunt. But what chance did he have?”
Rustle of blankets as she shuffled round to look at him across the small space between them.
“And he’s smart, Eg, that’s what counts. He’s smart and he sees the point of the Empire. You can work with that, you can build something on it. Whatever bloody mess he makes protecting himself and staying on the throne, it’ll pass. He won’t live forever, but what I can help him build might. He’ll leave heirs, and I can work with them, give them the wisdom he never had the time to acquire, make one of them into the ruler he’ll never be.”
“Or,” he said mildly, “You could just save some time and look for a better king right now.”
She sighed. Rolled back to face the sky.
“What, throw out five centuries of stable dynastic rule, probably set off a civil war and let everyone and his horse think the throne’s up for grabs if you can just muster enough malcontents under arms? No thanks, Eg. I may not have a lot of enthusiasm for the way things are right now, but I’m pretty sure it’s better than the alternatives. And I am done with bloodbaths.”
“You hope.” He yawned, cavernously. “Better put some big-ass fucking prayers behind that, you want it to stick. Like a certain hardnose faggot said at Demlarashan that time – we live in bloodbath times….”
“….and looks like tonight is bath night.” Eg heard the smile in her voice, the glint of the memory. “He did say that, didn’t he.”
“Yeah. Witty little fucker when he wanted to be.”
They were both silent for a while after that, staring up at the shrouded face of the heavens. If the shamans were right and you really could read the future in the stars, then tonight was a shit night to be trying it.
“You think he’s alright?” she asked finally.
He thought about it. “I think he’s alive, definitely. Gil was a tough-to-kill motherfucker even before he started in on all this black shaman stuff. Now, I can’t see anything short of the Sky Dwellers stopping him.”
“Or the dwenda?”
He snorted. “Yeah, a whole fucking legion of them, maybe. Which that asshole Klithren didn’t look to me like he had.”
She didn’t say anything for a few moments, maybe because they could both feel the shape of what was coming next.
“You didn’t answer my question, Eg.”
He grimaced up at the hidden stars. “No?”
“No. You said you were sure he was alive, but I didn’t ask you that. I asked if you thought he was alright.”
Egar sighed, caught. Said nothing, because, well…….
“Well?” she prodded.
“Well.” He gave up trying to see anything in the sky above. Turned on his side, away from her so he wouldn’t have to meet her eyes. “All depends on your definition of alright, doesn’t it.”