She knew the tidings were dire when Auro returned that night, pale faced and panicked, wanting to cut off her hair.
She’d seen the smoke and fire littered on the horizon, heard the mourning horns and marching drums. The blacksmith stole away each night to meet with Captain Rados. And there were blades to be whetted and dints to be hammered from armour.
He yanked her hair by the fistfuls and hacked at them with a knife. Mounds of gold gathered at her feet. She said nothing, more shocked than silent. When he was done, he turned her by the shoulders, his brow a mess of worried knots. He looked her over as he might a tempered blade or a fresh-bent plate.
He shook his head. “No. Take off blouse,” he said.
“Come on, Veina. There is no time!” he snapped at her.
When she had taken off the flimsy tunic—rent and covered in foundry dust—she stood half-naked, inching toward the smelter to keep from shivering.
Auro returned with a bolt of canvas. Ignoring her protests, he raised her arms and held them out at her sides, like a scarecrow. He placed the canvas against her bare chest.
“Hold this. Fast,” he said, looking away from her, at the floor, embarrassed.
He walked in circles around her, unrolling the canvas, yanking the cloth, tightening it around her torso. When he had rolled out the cloth to a finger’s thickness he tore it off the bolt and sewed in leather straps.
He gave her Red’s old tunic and leggings to wear. She hadn’t seen Red since they took him to defend the walls a week ago. And Pills, the week before that. It had been just Auro and her in the smithy these past days, and more swords and knives and plate and mail.
He wiped a finger of soot from the smelter wall and smeared it on her cheeks. Smudged it down her face with his sleeve. She frowned and grimaced but did not object. Only once she asked, “What’s going on?” and to that the blacksmith responded with a grunt.
Once more he appraised her, the soot-faced, flat-chested girl dressed in boy’s clothes. “Okay. Now you are boy,” he said in that thick Atumani accent.
“Why?” she said with an aching flush in her cheeks.
“Because they will come at night, looking. The men are all spent, and now the boys will have to do.” He delved into a stack of old blades and sent them clattering to the floor.
“So you want me to go?”
“War cares little for what I want.” He rose from the clutter with a single blade, sheathed in leather.
“Won’t they let the women and children stay?” She trembled, confused and enraged with disbelief.
She’d never thought of herself as anything more than a waif. All of Torfith knew them as Auro’s orphans, after all. Red, Pills, and her. The blacksmith had taken them in, fed them, and paid them a pittance. He worked them hard and into long nights and heard neither cry nor complaint. But never had she thought that it would come to this. Sacrificed at the wall to buy the old man a few more days of pounding metal in his smithy.
“You are not woman. You are not children.” He kneeled in front of her and strapped the scabbard to her waist, but the blade he kept by his side. He fussed over her, straightening her shoulders, pushing her chin up with his finger, making her stand tall. She glowered down her nose at him.
“I was little boy at Keltah when it fell,” he mumbled as he fiddled with the straps. “There, they took the boys for slaves. But the women and the girls. . . . I saw what happens to the women and children left behind.” He shook his head.
“If the wall is breached, they will retreat. Rados will ride back, and this place will be overrun. The enemy has been at the wall for four months. Hard men who have slept on cold ground and breathed only the stench of blood and death in all that time.” He gave the strap a painful yank. “When they take this place, it is better to die out there than stay back here.”
He put the sword in her hand and gripped her palm. His calloused, meaty fingers curled around hers.
“You stay behind the line and let the soldiers do the fighting. If anyone gets too close, you run back.” A brief kindness passed over his eyes. “If you have to, you use this. It is rare. Coldar steel. Very light, but strong, and it will cut.”
That night, they sat at the table to eat. The sounds of meat and bone in stew were loud in the absence of words. On any other night, she’d be sitting with Red and Pills by the smelter, on the floor. They’d listen to the coals pop and hiss as they ate scraps. But tonight, the portions on her plate were generous. And there were seconds and thirds even when she hadn’t asked.
She put away the plates after dinner and brought him his cup of wine from the cellar.
“Auro?” she called through the heavy silence.
“Where will you go?”
He shrugged. “They’ll keep me here as long as there’s metal to be mended. If the wall falls, I will take the mule and head south, through the mountains, to Sauli.”
She nodded and swallowed hard. She hoped that he’d ask her to meet him there or say something like, “If you make it there, come find me.” But he didn’t.
“You cannot cry,” he said, sucking the last drop from his empty cup. “When they come to take you, don’t cry or scream or say anything. If they leave you behind, I will not take you with me.” His hand squirmed around the stem of his cup. And his eyes had sunk deeper into his face.
“I won’t,” she said.
The chair shrieked as the blacksmith got to his feet. Without a word he took his cup and went down into the cellar.
The soldiers came a little past midnight, calling for the levy. She opened the door with the sword already at her waist and a shirt of mail thrown over herself.
The soldier at the door looked down at her. He looked more a grave digger than a soldier, a pale-faced man with a grey beard, clothed in muddy armour and hunched by an ill-mended back. He frowned at her and twisted his face to a scowl before he spat and said, “G’wan then, boy, back with the rest o’ the levy.”
She walked to the back, behind a cart loaded with swords and armour, where the rest of the boys waited. They stood ankle deep in the mud, stifling sobs and blinking back the wet from their eyes.
Moments later Auro’s shadow staggered to the door. He was drunk. She bit her lip and steeled her face to keep from coming to tears. She looked at the fat blacksmith in the doorway, hoping to catch his eyes. But all she could see was his breath. Foggy gasps into the night as she marched with the levy in funereal silence.
* * *
At midday the enemy charge broke through the front line. Four chargers ran through, blinded and driven by reckless frenzy. The archers at the wall let fly. The last charger took an arrow that tore through his cheek and shot out in a black mist. He ran a good ten feet farther before he plunged headlong into the ground and came to a halt with his face in the mud and arse hoisted high. That was the first thing she learned of war. That blood runs black. And that once the afternoon sun is past, it looks much the same as the mud she was standing in.
They had left her and the smaller boys back with the second line. Reserves, positioned closest to the wall. Their defences were stretched. Only one in a dozen was a true soldier. The rest were sell-swords and highwaymen, paid to stand alongside farmers and stable boys. The charges had begun at dawn. While the first few had been pushed back, by midday they’d broken through, and now the front line was so riddled with holes that they’d pulled back to the reserves.
The battle groaned and grunted ahead of her. She’d taken Auro’s advice and stayed back, but they were all in it now. Hands to backs, feet digging into mud, calves taut, teeth gritted. A tired roar sounded from the writhing mass, and they pushed a little more to gain a hard-fought inch. She was at a stranger’s back, her face digging into his spine, nose crushed against mail and lungs so pressed that she breathed only during brief reprieves.
Something snapped inside the melee, and without warning they fell in a heap. She sensed a figure flying over the top of her. Then came the crashing of armour and blades. She flipped around and saw an enemy charger hacking away at the man who had stood behind her. He had a knife as long as her forearm, and he stabbed wildly at his victim. She gasped for breath. There was mud in her nose and it tasted like cold, sour nothing. Her hand, as if by a will of its own, patted the ground, feeling for the hilt of Auro’s sword.
When she found it, the weight in her hand was comforting. She grasped it, and with a single motion she got off the ground. She slashed at the charger’s back and the blade sliced with surprising ease through leather, into flesh. At first, the charger took no notice. Then he reached awkwardly for his back, turning and roaring at her.
Behind all that blood and war-paint, his eyes burned with such anger that Veina felt the sudden urge to apologise. She put her arm up and stepped back. Then something thundered into the left side of her face. She heard the bones shift and pop inside her head. Her feet left the ground. Nothing made sense.
She opened her mouth but couldn’t manage a voice. Only hollow moaning sounds like some wounded beast. The salty warmth of blood was creeping down her throat. She willed her eyes open and saw the sky. A shadowed giant stood over her. She couldn’t see his face through the tangle of beard wet with drool and blood. Puffs of fog rose from his helm as he hefted an axe over his head.
No. I don’t want to die, she thought.
The giant heaved and the blade came down. Not yet. Her muscles convulsed and twitched of their own will. Bolts of pain shot through her face. But she felt her head shift a few inches to the side. Then came the metal whine of the axe, bedding itself where her face had lain only an instant before.
Fuck all that talk of not crying. She bawled, and it came out of her like a dying cat. The sword was still in her hand, her grip on the blade just as hard. She felt the axe lifting off the ground, showering mud over her face. She gritted her shattered jaw and rose up. Her sword was pointed forward at the giant. His axe was still in upswing when she felt the blade pierce through flesh.
The giant did not cry out. He made a sound like a large, heavy dog barking. She shook and twisted the blade in place and realised the sword was pushed deep through the giant’s thigh, near his crotch. She felt blood gushing out on her arms. The giant shuddered, wobbled, and dropped his axe behind him before he came crashing down on her. She cried out as the weight of him squeezed all the wailing from her. He wasn’t dead yet. She could hear him breathing, his face next to hers. The air hissed in tired bursts from his lips, as if whispering his death in her ear.
She whimpered, closed her eyes, and lay there. Just for a little while, just until the pain goes away, she told herself.
* * *
“A fine kill!” The corpse shifted. By inches at first, and then with a heave, it was dragged off her.
“Could do without the crying and pissin’ yer pants, but still, a fine kill by any measure. Look at the size of him!”
Laughter. More than one man.
She opened her eyes, but only the right one complied. The left sent a barb of pain shooting down her face.
“Ooh, that must’ve hurt, eh?” A man was squatting over her. His face was like parched land. Bronzed and scoured, with wrinkles and cracks all over. Not old, only weathered.
He inspected her face as well—turning it from side to side, using his thumbs to push and palpate.
“Jaw’s fucked, but keep yer gob shut and it’ll heal. Nothing else broken. But we’ll have to take care o’ that,” he said, looking at her closed eye. He nodded at someone, and she felt her hands being held down. She tried to see who it was but the wrinkled man stopped her. “Lie still if ye want to look out that eye again.”
He pulled out an old beaten flask from his waist and then a blade. It was smaller and keener than a knife.
“Scream if you have to, but keep yer jaws grit.” He put the keen edge to the brow above her swollen eye and cut into it.
The pain was singular, and she felt it down the side of her face. Warm blood came gushing from the cut. She moved her hands, lifted her feet, but the wrinkled man sat back down on her and whoever had a grip on her hands wasn’t letting go.
“Lie still, ye rat. I haven’t even gotten to the best part yet!”
She had both eyes closed, whimpering, when she felt a cold liquid wash over the cut. It smelled foul, and soon she felt the sting of alcohol. Her face was on fire. She thrashed and flailed so hard that she thought her hands would pop out her shoulders. After a long wait in blurring agony, when the pain dulled to a throb, she stopped moving and felt the weight of the man shift off her.
When her senses returned, she opened her good eye and found that there was a small fire by her. The sky had darkened to a cold, bitter night, and the warmth came as a comfort.
“Welcome back,” a familiar voice greeted her. The wrinkled man held out his battered flask.
She shook her head.
“Go on, lad. Ye’ll thank me later.”
She nodded and took a sip from the flask, then a gulp, and she swallowed before she could taste it. The sour liquid burned as it went down, and then it turned around and flew up her nose. She snorted, coughed, and her jaw ached so she had to cup her chin to keep the pain at bay.
The men about the fire laughed again. “Ye’ll still be pretty in the morning. Don’t fret,” the wrinkled man winked. “What’s yer name, lad?”
“Veina,” she answered, but caught herself, remembering that she was supposed to be a boy. As it turned out, with half her face numbed and swollen, the name came out as Ven.
“Ven? What kind of name’s that?” He frowned. “Never heard of a Ven before. You?” He turned to the large man beside him, who was whetting the edge of a sword as tall as her. The man shook his head.
“Well, this is Bull, right here.” Bull kept his eyes on the sword and grunted. “That’s Carling Jon.” The spidery figure on the other side of the fire wiggled his fingers. “I’m Thom Westways. But they call me Rook.” The wrinkled man nodded. “We’ll have to give you a name for downing that big feller. Something fitting.” He scratched at his stubble. “How’s about the Badger?”
The other men laughed.
“It ain’t no funny business, being called the Badger!” Rook shushed them with a wave of his hand. “Stout, fearless things they are. You’ve heard of the honey badger, have you, Ven?”
Veina shook her head.
“Tiny little shits. But they won’t shrink away from a fight. They’ll take on dogs, lions, snakes, even bulls!” He slapped a hand on Bull’s back. “They’ll attack first, always for the kill, and they always”—he paused to make sure everyone was listening—“always go for the balls.”
Jon burst into laughter at that, kicking at the mud with his feet.
“No joking! They’ll gnaw your nuts right off! Look at ’im!” Rook pointed at the corpse of the giant that lay nearby with a deep gash on his inner thigh, dangerously close to his privates.
She wanted to look away. But now that all the fear was past, there was a reluctant pride bubbling underneath. She’d felled a soldier. Auro had asked her to stay in the back, keep away from the fighting, and she had tried. But when the fight had come calling, the blacksmith’s orphan had felled a giant. Or a very large man, at the least.
“First kill?” Bull’s voice was like smoke from the bottom of a well, heavier than air.
Veina nodded at him.
“I can pray for you if you want. I know the words.”
She saw that his offer was well meant. No doubt he knew the toll that killing took on a soul, but she shook her head no. All the praying she had done to that day had never helped. She doubted it would do her any good now.
“Did we win?” She looked at the fires on the far horizon. Heard the sounds of soldiers picking at the dead, salvaging weapons and armour, piling corpses on pyres.
“Ha!” Rook turned to look with her. “No, lad. Thayn leads this assault, and his blood-sworn haven’t even entered the fray yet. He has a horde at his call, and we’ve hardly enough left to hold this arsehole of a town. Rados will sound the retreat in the morning. Already, he’s taken his best riders southward. He’ll leave the rest o’ these unlucky sops to slow down Thayn.”
“What of Torfith?” Veina asked, thinking of Auro toiling in his smithy or drunk on the floor of his cellar.
“What of it?” Rook turned his back to her. “Towns survive. War after war, the cobbles and walls and roof and board, they endure. It’s the people that’s fucked.”
Jon snickered. Veina had thought he’d been asleep. Bull had sheathed his sword and was watching the smoky sky so silently that he might as well have been.
It was well before dawn when she heard Rook’s whispers. “Oy, lad! Ven! Wake up!” He shook her.
The fire was on its last flames, licking the bed of glowing embers. Bull was up, sword strapped to his back, and Jon was walking ahead, barely visible in the moonlight.
“We’re off,” Rook whispered.
“Aye. No sense staying back for the slaughter. This one’s already lost.”
“Isn’t that deserting?”
“Ha!” he laughed. “Think I’ll take my chances with the bounty-men rather than Thayn’s sworn. Besides, there’s always a pardon saved for a sell-sword. Always more wars to be fought.”
He put a hand on her shoulder and leaned closer in. “We had a fourth with us. Good man by the name of Corey Darkeye. Fell to a charge two days ago. We’re looking to take on another, and you’ll be smart to come along and leave this place. So will ye?” He looked at her and grinned like a man ill acquainted with the act.
“I . . . I don’t know how to be a sell-sword.”
“Ha! Well, neither does Bull, but he doesn’t let that stop him now, does he?”
She saw that all humour was lost on Bull.
“Come on, lad, say yer piece. Any moment now the flags will come waving!”
She turned to Torfith, in the direction of Auro’s smithy. No smoke rising from its stack, no whooshing of the bellows. Only the grey pall of coming dawn that seemed to blanket the place. Only days ago she’d been bending plate for the old blacksmith, and now it was, in part, his fault that she found herself armed with a thin sword, with her face beaten to a pulp. Still, she hoped that he had taken the mule and was on his way to Sauli.
“I’ll go,” she said. “I’ll go with you.”
* * *
She was no sell-sword and certainly not some vagabond boy with dreams of battle and blade-work. It was a hard life, she found over the next days and nights. They had travelled slowly and through treacherous land. Long treks, mostly in cover of dark, through plummeting slopes and bogland to avoid running into Thayn’s scouts. She hadn’t slept in days. Her jaw had set strangely and her chin jutted out to the left, giving her face a permanent snarl.
She found that she did not like Carling Jon, who had a habit of sneaking up on you at odd times. Bull, as ever, was friendly as a stone, which is to say he was quiet and cold. And with Rook, she could never tell. Sometimes she thought he was kind and warm like Auro, and at other times she feared he’d slit her throat and leave her to the wolves. She worried that they had begun to suspect all was not as it seemed with the Badger. She slinked away at morning as the men pissed at the trees and wiped their arses with leaves. She never bathed in the streams as they did, and always she wore that canvas.
This was not the life for her, she had decided. At the rare, quiet moments of their journey, she found herself hoping that they would reach Sauli, and perhaps she might see Auro again. He might ask her to stay. They might find scant work at first, but eventually they’d have a smithy. It would be hard work, of course. Difficult to get by at first. But perhaps, with time, things could go back to the way they had been.
Then halfway down the slope into the valley, only a few days from Sauli, they came across a mule in a ditch by the road. Arrows were stuck in its neck and one bedded deep between the ribs. A grey tongue lolled, and the eyes bulged yellow and clouded. She recognised the blacksmith’s mark on the shoes. A few yards ahead, covered in a blanket of flies, a corpse lay face down in the mud. She knew without turning him over that it was Auro.
“We should keep on,” Carling Jon mumbled, and Bull seemed to agree, with a nod at the road. She wanted to keep on. The last place she wanted to be was there, looking at Auro’s bloated corpse. And yet the sight of him, fly covered and mud caked, seemed to root her.
You silly, silly girl. Who was he to her? No one. Nothing. The most he had done was give her some food and a roof. She imagined if he had meant any more to her—something like a father, perhaps—then underneath her ribs, under that canvas, her heart might have broken.
Rook put a hand on her shoulder. “Don’t cry, Badge. No.” He shook his head. “If you’ll keep to the road with us you can’t cry n’more. If you don’t dry the tears now, you never will.”
She watched him, breath whooshing in her nose, mouth in a broken-jawed snarl, chest heaving. She looked into his dried-up desert eyes. He gripped the back of her neck, and she held it all in.
“Come, we’ll dig him a hole. Keep the flies off him.” He ruffled her hair.
“Do what? We ought to keep on if you don’t want Thayn’s men leavin’ us face down in the mud,” Jon whined, but a heavy hand smacked him in the back.
“We dig,” Bull declared, and that was that.
“Of course! We dig. Yer all thick in the head is what.” Jon stomped off to the side, looking for soft ground to dig into.
That was when she decided to stay. In that moment she knew that she’d dig many graves and leave more corpses behind before it was all done. But like this, on the road, in wandering company, she might just come to bear it.
Like blackbirds, they followed where the war went. Torfith, Sauli, Meshna—half-holds and vills and small towns with walls to defend. Places with people and lives to feed the insatiable war that devoured everything in its path and left a trail of pits. Pits for corpses, pits for shit and piss, and pits for all things good and peaceful so the shovel-men could come and bury it all in the mud. Whether war moved men was questionable, but it moved the earth—that much was sure.
Carling Jon they lost in the battle at Meshna. The savages from Coldar attacked at night. Forest men who had learned to see in the dark, they broke upon the camp without warning. All the steel and armour in the world was no good if you didn’t know where to stab and where to fend. They ploughed through the soldiers at Meshna in a matter of minutes. Veina had holed up with Rook at the base of the southern guard-house when she heard the screams. Then Bull was running toward them, screaming to scatter and run.
They slipped away and were well into the eastern woods before Rook asked about Carling Jon.
“Took an axe to the face as he slept,” Bull said without any emotion. But his eyes were fixed on ghosts only he could see. “I said the words over his corpse after I choked the life out of the dog who put his axe there.” He nodded, and that was the last thing he said for weeks.
Veina tried to get him talking again. She asked him if he wanted to pray, if he could teach her how. But Bull said nothing. As the days went by, she saw that he was becoming part of the earth. Less man and more like a tree. Like some ancient thing that lived outside the realm of ordinary people and ordinary feelings.
One night as they sat about a fire in a forest, north of some other lost battleground, avoiding more scouts and feeling more bounty hunters, Bull turned to her and spoke.
“I cannot feel the cold anymore. Nor can I feel the fire. I cannot remember why I kill. I cannot remember why I pray,” he said.
In the morning when she awoke, Bull was gone. Not a blade of grass was out of place, not a twig broken, nor a branch bent. For a large man, Bull had learned not to take up too much space. And just as he had come to her, by chance and in firelight, so he had left.
* * *
And so, it came as no surprise that she found herself with Rook, hiding from bounty hunters in the hollowed remains of a skeleton town on the outskirts of Temur. She had lost count of the battles, skirmishes, near escapes and almost victories. They’d deserted too often, they’d been pardoned more than they deserved, and Rook Westways was a name that had begun to stink of defeat.
“We need a win, that’s all.” He grimaced as he shifted weight onto his ankle, but it was no good.
“No one ever really wins. One side just leaves feeling a little less shitty than the other. Isn’t that what you said?” She yanked his arm around her shoulder.
“Ahaha! Yes, yes I did. But you get your name on a good kill or two, you take the head of a named man or a blood-sworn, and all’s forgiven. Because men will fight for your name and swing harder knowing that you’re on their side, see? It doesn’t matter if you win or lose the war, Ven. Just that you kill someone worth killing.” He had a strange sort of look in his eyes. “There was a time Rook Westways was a name worth killing,” he said.
“Well it won’t be for long, if we don’t get you inside and get that ankle tended to.”
She had to drag him up the stone steps and toward the large building that loomed ahead. There wasn’t much left of the town. Stone piles, splintered boards, and dust. There were four buildings still standing. The one to her left looked like it was ready to go, moaning and creaking in the wind. The two to her right were too small. It wouldn’t take much to smoke them out of there. The big one up ahead—not great, but it had possibilities.
It might have been an inn or a boarding house, she thought. The place stank of rotten wood, and there were things growing from the walls that had not seen sunlight in a while. The cellar was empty, she checked. And the floor upstairs groaned so much that she thought it better left alone.
“Gaaaaah!” Rook clawed at his ankle, crawling to a corner, resting against the wall.
She kneeled at his feet and pulled off a shoe. It was slick with blood and puss. The bandaging was soaked and coloured in sickly hues.
“Doesn’t look good,” she whispered in the dark.
“Feels even less so.”
“You have a fever.”
“Must’ve stuck me with a fouled blade, the bastards,” he wheezed. The light outside was fast dwindling and the sky was the colour of Rook’s ankle. They tried not to look at it.
“We need to get you to a town, Rook.” She tore off another piece of the canvas around her chest.
Rook had surely seen the cloth wound around her by now. But if he had noticed anything, he didn’t let it show.
“Can’t go to no town with the bounty-men on our tail,” he rasped.
“Maybe we lost them. I didn’t see them behind us.”
“Heh, I wish that was true, Badge.” He winced as she poured water from her canteen on his ankle. “But that’s Cole Egan’s men on our tail, and I wager he won’t be far behind himself. They’ll be coming in the night. You can be sure of that.” He held his sword close to his chest. “If we’re both still alive in the morning, then you can get me to a—where are you going?”
She was in the doorway, looking back at him and then out at the road into town. The bald, sparse landscape was dotted with silhouette trees and night-birds taking flight. She couldn’t have picked a worse place to hide. If Egan’s men were tailing them, all they had to do was keep their eyes open and they’d know exactly where to find her.
“I’m going to go find some wood that doesn’t stink of rot.”
“Fire. Need to keep warm. And before you say no, if they’re on our tail they already know where we are. There’s no sense in hiding.”
Rook didn’t disagree.
When the bounty-men rode into town, the sun was well set and Veina had gotten the fires started. There were four—one in each building.
“Clever.” Joss Manard narrowed his eyes, smirking. He climbed off his horse, and the three men behind him followed. They tethered their horses to a lone fence that was guarding absolutely nothing.
Veina knew Manard by reputation, and the bald man hefting a sword over his shoulder was a Northman savage by the name of Dreis. The other two were soldiers in the black and gold of Governor Rowan’s office. They weren’t here for the kill, only to back them into a corner, to keep them from fleeing.
Egan would be here in the morning to do the killing. But she’d be damned if she let them have it so easy. Manard would have to come find them. She was counting on it.
“Flo, was it?” Manard nodded at one of the soldiers.
“Go look in the big one, up ahead.” He jutted his chin at the building. “Reckon that’s where I’d go. The two over there are too small and the one farther up doesn’t look like it’ll last the night.”
“All right.” Flo nodded and gripped his sword.
“Now, don’t do nothing foolish. Just get eyes on Westways and that boy with him.”
Flo stepped as if he was on ice. Veina watched him make his way toward the old inn. She could hear the soldier’s nervous steps even where she was, by the ruined building. She waited until light from the inn glowed off his skin. Then she drew back an arrow, drawstring to chin, and let go.
The arrow whistled past Flo before bedding itself into the ground. The boy shrieked. Veina bit the inside of her cheek in anger.
I hate bloody bows.
Manard clicked his tongue and pointed at the groaning building to his left. “There, Dreis.”
The bald man nodded and set off, keeping to the shadows, away from firelight. And for a big man, he made little noise.
“Shit,” she whispered, moving back into the crumbling structure, toward the fire she had lit within. She picked up a burning piece of timber and set it to the lone column that was holding up the building.
Come on, get a move on, you lumbering bastard. The fire had crept halfway up the column, and the building was making ghostly sounds. Maybe that’s how it’d all end. Death under a pile of stones and burning wood. There are worse ways.
A long creak sounded at the back door. Not the wind but a quiet foot, she knew.
It’s him. Her breath hissed.
The door stilled for a moment and then burst inward, hinges screaming. Dreis stormed in, leading with his sword. She was already up at the window. She put her foot through the flame and kicked at the column. The burning wood gave easily. Dreis seemed confused, unsure whether he should go at her or run back out.
If you have to think about it, you’re dead. She was barely out when the whole place came down. She scrambled away from the stone and wood that landed with a monstrous roar. A great cloud of dust rose from the ground, choking her, filling her nose. Her lungs burned but she didn’t stop. She circled around to the back of the inn, back to Rook.
A quick peek around the corner told her that Manard hadn’t moved. He was by the horses, squatted on the ground, forearms on his knees, calm and still. The cold bastard. The two soldiers from the governor’s forces, Flo and the other one, were not to be seen.
She pulled a dagger from its straps at her ankle, breathed out and calmed herself. I need to get Rook out of there, first.
As she reached for the back door, it swung open. She staggered back, flailing to keep her balance.
The boy, Flo, looked at her, confused, mouth open. She saw the fingers on his sword hand trembling, shifting for a better grip.
“S-stop!” he called in his best voice.
Stop? Is that what they taught you in the soldiering school? She struggled to hold back a smile. She turned her wrist so the dagger pointed at Flo, and with the hilt held close, she rushed at him. Flo swung at her, but his grip was awkward and he was too slow. She watched him and floated inside the arc of his blade. The sword’s pommel harmlessly dug into her shoulder.
“Faah!” She could feel his breath on her scalp. They were close, with his sword arm around her, like a lover’s embrace. He coughed twice, and then blood gurgled in his mouth before she felt it pour onto her, warm and thick. She couldn’t help but think of her first kill, the bearded giant. The way his blood had poured onto her arms then.
She tilted her head back to look at the boy, his mouth agape, eyes rolled back to their whites. He was young. Might not have been that much older than her. Who put a sword in his hand and sent him out on his own? she wondered.
Stop it. No time for that now. She raised her knee into Flo’s waist and yanked her dagger free. She stepped over his body, wiping the blade on her sleeve.
“Rook?” she called in a whisper. Nothing.
Only the sounds of popping wood and the rush of air around the fire.
“Rook? You there?” she called. Only silence.
She peeked through the front door and saw that Manard was gone, and so were the horses. There was a sour tang on the back of her tongue, sweat on her palms. She knew the smell of her own skin. She knew fear.
Rook Westways, where the fuck are you?
As if in answer, a weak moan sounded from outside the window. Then the unmistakable hiss of a blade. The groaning was Rook, no doubt. She crawled out the window and jogged into the dark, her eyes faring better with time.
Still no sign of Manard.
She was close to the smaller buildings when she saw two figures ahead. Rook was on the ground, groaning in that feverish voice, squirming in the dirt like a snake as a man stood over him. His foot was planted firmly on Rook’s ankle. It was the other soldier from Rowan’s office.
She readied her dagger, took a wider path on soft feet and quiet breath. The mat of grass rustled beneath her, but she doubted the soldier heard it, not with Rook moaning like that. She crouched as she approached, held her breath and then rushed.
The soldier’s back presented a clear target, an easy kill. But at the very last moment the soldier turned. He swung around with the flat of his sword held in front of him. Blades clanged. She felt the impact all the way to her shoulder. As she glanced by him, the soldier raised a knee into her gut. For a moment she was floating, insensate. Then the ground woke her, a thundering slap as she landed face first on the grating surface. She could feel something loosen inside her mouth. Teeth? Jaw again?
I’ll take toothless over dead, any day.
She willed herself up, her head swam, she stumbled and fell again. The soldier was smiling. She could see the white of his teeth through the fog of pain. Once more she hefted herself off the ground. But there was a nagging hook in her left leg and it refused to keep her up. She hopped backward, putting distance between herself and the soldier. She looked down and saw that there was an arrow in her calf.
There was nothing to be done about it. If he shot another arrow now, the best she could do was hope that he’d miss. She moved in a circle, keeping her eyes on the soldier in front. At least she could see him. At least she knew where he was.
He came for her but ignored Rook on the ground—a mistake. Rook slashed at the soldier’s ankle with the small blade he hid in his belt. He cut something important, and the soldier’s leg folded under him. The man went down in a heap.
Veina took her chance. She leapt onto his back and with quick, violent thrusts put her dagger in, spraying the iron taste of blood everywhere.
Another arrow came. She heard it cutting through the air before it struck the dead soldier’s arm, inches from her thigh.
“Fuck!” she cried out, reeling backward, taking what meagre cover the soldier’s corpse afforded.
Another arrow. Into the ground this time.
She could hear Manard growling. She looked up and saw him walking toward her. He tossed the bow aside and reached for the blade at his waist.
“Oh, by all the shitty fates! Just stay still and take it, why don’t you?” he snarled. His eyes were calm and sharp like glass. His face bore the inkling of a smile.
She had hoped that he’d ignore Rook. He didn’t. He put a weighty boot down on Rook’s hand. She heard bones crunching and tendons snapping. Rook moaned, face buried in the dirt, too tired to scream.
Eyes on her, Manard took the thin dagger from Rook’s broken fingers. He threw it aside, and Veina felt her chest tighten with fear at the sound of it hitting the ground. This was no boy-soldier made for standing watch outside a Governor’s office. How many times had Manard closed in on some cornered prey? How many times had he smiled with that veiled amusement?
Veina gritted her teeth and yanked the arrow out. Pain tore its way up her leg, pushing the air out of her lungs in gasps and whimpers. Don’t cry. She tightened her grip around the dagger and stood. With her other hand she drew the blade that hung at her waist. Auro’s steel, once more in her hand.
Manard swung first. She bounded away but stumbled when she shifted weight to her injured leg. She dragged her foot along the ground and let out a sharp howl but steadied herself.
Manard thrust his sword. She blocked with Auro’s blade, but the impact clattered her bones, and she landed on her arse.
“You plan on dancing all night?” he growled. “You’re boring the hell out of me.”
“No one asked you to dance along.”
For a moment his eyes flickered with anger. Good.
Manard’s swings came faster and harder. She parried and fended a blur of steel and breaths. The tongue of a sword licked at her shoulder. A red line appeared, and then the burning heat of blood trickling down her arm.
“You’re getting slower.” He smiled.
She said nothing. The leather grip of her dagger chirped as she curled her palm.
This is it. Please work.
At the first sign of movement she flung Auro’s sword at Manard’s head. She put her back into it, bent sideways, bore the pain of her injured calf twisting on itself. She shrieked. The blade sailed through the air. Not graceful, like a spear, but it did the job.
Manard’s eyes widened. He’d had daggers flung at him, yes. He wore mail on his arms to deflect them. She imagined he’d had larger swords flung at him, but always with both hands and with great effort. Easy to get out of the way. But now? The blade was almost on him. He ducked and altered the swing of his sword, whipping it upward to shield his face.
Veina’s sword clanged against his. He yelled, as if expecting pain, but there was none. The blade was unusually light. When the shock passed, he seemed to find a sort of nervous amusement and laughed. His eyes darted back to Veina, but to no avail.
Then with a squelching hiss she administered the first shock of pain. An alarming barb in his ribs. Then in his back under the shoulder blade, twisting, tearing shreds of flesh. His sword arm gave up and his fingers slacked. She imagined his insides snapping and twanging like fiddle strings. The heavy blade slipped from his hand, as if his mind was still trying to grasp what was happening.
Veina yanked the dagger from his back, and with an animal scream she thrust it into the small of his neck. Manard made no sound.
Like a badger, she thought, always for the kill.
She left her dagger there. Manard fell, face first, onto the ground.
Veina collapsed after him. She looked up at the stars littered against the black and the hazy moon shrouded by clouds.
All who had come there that night, sell-swords and soldiers and bounty-men, boys and girls—all lay on the ground, under sky, very still.
How many dead? How many alive? We’ll see in a bit. But first, I have to close my eyes and breathe and cry, just a little.
A rush of relief and pain rose to her face. Her lips curved down and her ears burned hot. But the tears did not come.
* * *
By the time Rook awoke, she had dragged him inside and to a fire, wrapped his broken fingers in canvas, and patched her own wounded leg. She sat across from him, topless without the canvas around her breasts. She tore another shred and wrapped it around her shoulder.
“I knew it,” Rook said in a thin voice. “I’ve got more hair on me chest.” He grinned.
Made her laugh. The bastard.
“My leg’s gone,” Rook gasped, “can’t feel it.” He gritted his teeth and squeezed his knee, as if hoping that it might wake his leg. “Nothing below the knee”—he looked down his pants—“and the black is up to my thigh, Badge! Any higher and I’m dead.”
“You’re already dead, Rook,” she said.
“And what’s that mean, I’m dead?”
“Your leg’s gone. Your sword hand’s broken. Fever’s taken all your strength.” She shrugged. “My left leg’s no good either.” She pointed at the bloodied bandage around her calf. “You’re dead.”
“Come on, Ven, we’ll walk a day. Crawl, if we have to, and we’ll be at Three Clovers. Might be we’ll see a cart on the way. Might be we chance on a bottle-man or a doctor.”
“Or might be we don’t.”
“Don’t s-say it like. . . .”
“You’re the one who said it, Rook. Might-bes are for poets and dreamers. Might-be-nots are for the men in the mud. Well, we’re in the mud now.”
“Don’t you fucking tell me my own words!” He bared his teeth at her.
She said nothing, but she could see the truth setting into his face.
“How far are they?” he asked, at last.
“There’s dust on the eastward edge. Little more than an hour’s ride, I’d say. I’m assuming Egan and his men have fresh horses.”
“Horses! Horses! What about Manard’s horses?”
“I checked. He cut ’em loose before he came after us.” She shook her head.
Veina got up and limped over to the corner of the room, wrapping the remaining canvas around her chest. Flo’s corpse was propped up against the wall. She’d dressed him in her own flimsy clothes. His mail, black-and-gold tunic, leather leggings, and gloves all lay stacked at his side. Veina stripped until the canvas and a dirty old cotton swatch wrapped around her waist were all she had on.
“What’re you doing?” Rook mumbled, watching as the first rays of morning gleamed off her skin.
In silence, Veina took the boy’s clothes and put them on one by one, checking, pinching, pulling to make sure they fit her. He was only a little bigger than her, and fortunately the boy had small feet. As she guided the mail over her cut shoulder, she cast a brief glance at Rook.
“So that’s how it is,” Rook said with a scornful nod.
“That’s how it’ll have to be.”
“We could still run, Badge.” His voice hung in the air like the last whiff of a burnt-out fire.
“They’d catch up with us in a blink and you know it.”
“I saved you, Badge.” His voice quivered. “So many times.” He looked away with a bitter frown, rubbing at his thigh.
She walked to him then, dressed in black and gold. She looked like any other young boy in the governor’s service. All she had to do was clean her face a bit and even Rook might not have known her at a glance.
She sat down and put a gentle hand on his face. She leaned to kiss his forehead, his nose. Then she kissed him softly on his leathery, cracked lips.
“When the other soldier had you on the ground, you knew you were gone then, Rook. You could have called to me. Warned me it was a trap. Least I could have made it away. But you didn’t. I don’t blame you at all. You rolled the dice on my life and bought yourself a while longer. Everyone gets a roll, don’t they?” she said. Rook had told her that once. “It’s my turn now.”
She got up, strapped Auro’s sword at her waist, and walked to the door. Outside, a fog of grey dust trailed from the horizon, moving closer.
She stepped out as Rook called to her in his old, calm voice, “Call me, when it’s time.”
By the time Egan’s men came over the eastward hill, the sky was lit to a full morning. Manard and the other corpse had caught the attention of vultures, who sat at high places all around the ruin.
The man leading Egan’s bevy pointed. “There!”
Veina stood in plain sight outside the inn, dressed in Flo’s clothing.
“Rook. . . .” she called out. But not so loud that Egan’s men could hear.
A moment later, Rook Westways stood in the door, sword strapped to his broken hand with a leather belt. He leaned on the doorframe, struggling to keep straight.
“Yer a fine sell-sword, Badge. A fine one,” he said.
A plump vulture, perched on the roof, spotted Egan riding over the hill and let out a guttural call.
Rook’s eyes flashed. He leaned forward, almost falling, and launched himself with his good leg. Veina rushed at him, Auro’s blade drawn.
They met in the middle. In blood, pain, and the last gasp of fury. She drove Auro’s blade clean through his chest. He barely had his sword up. Rook’s knees buckled, but she held him up by the waist as long as she could.
She whispered, “I’m sorry . . . sorry, Rook.”
But the vultures were calling, mad with joy. Another corpse for the feast. She didn’t think he heard her.
She felt his fingers digging into her shoulder. For a moment he stopped shivering. His dried, arid face grinned at her through chipped teeth, and then he let go.
Not now. Don’t cry, she told herself.
“Ey, boy!” Egan called as he came past the lonely fence at the edge of town. The rest of his men followed.
Egan was a pale man with features like knife cuts. He was old, and his beard and moustache were groomed and combed. A killing man who had risen to better things, she could tell.
“Where’s Joss?” Egan jogged up to her.
“Dead, my lord,” she said in a deeper voice than usual.
“By whose hand?”
“His, my lord,” she pointed at Rook. “Sneaked up on us in the dark. Picked us off, one by one. He’d have got me too if it wasn’t for Manard.”
“And who are you?” Egan narrowed his eyes at her.
She wondered if this was to be her last clean breath. “Flo, my lord, from the governor’s bounties office.” She tried to catch an expression from Egan. A hint of life or death.
“Flo. . . . Right.” Egan nodded. “There was another with him.” He dug his toe into Rook’s cheek.
“Yes, my lord. A boy. He’s dead too.”
One of the men checked the inn. “One’s dead in there, Cole. Looks like they stayed to clean and patch their wounds. There’s a lot of blood by the fire, yellowed and stinking.”
Egan nodded, kicking at Rook’s broken sword hand. “They said Rook had a festered foot when he deserted from Darheen. But still a tough bastard,” he spat. “Look at him. Came out with a sword tied to a broken hand. That’s real steel for ya.”
Egan’s men nodded in agreement.
“And it takes some too, to kill a man like Rook Westways.” Egan slapped a hand to Veina’s shoulder. “You’ll be needing a name for a kill that fine.” He grinned. “What’ll it be? Flo the Red? Last Man Flo?”
“If it’ll please my lord”—Veina made a small bow—“I’ve already got a name.”
“Oh? And what is it?”
“The Badger, my lord. That’s what my friends call me.”
Egan frowned. “The Badger?”
“Yes, my lord.”
His men looked at him and shrugged.
“All right, then. The Badger!” He raised his sword, as did the rest. They whooped and cheered and clapped for her. She smiled at them, as though with joy and relief.
Of course, these things she put to the back of her mind in time. Or they dwindled into faded, less stark versions of themselves. All the broken places, all the graves, blurring into shapeless memories. What stuck with her were two things: the name, Badger, and the memory of the vultures circling, black winged and patient. She would remember them forever. The way they spoke in a secret language that she thought she might understand if she listened.
Ram V is an author from Mumbai who debuted in 2012 with the ongoing comic series Aghori. He’s written short fiction and comics for online publications and anthologies since then. His graphic novel Black Mumba and upcoming comic series Brigands are slated for release at the end of 2016. When he isn’t writing, he dabbles in illustration and harbours unlikely ambitions of being a blues guitarist. He now lives and writes in London.