Rain crashed into the canopy of Artani conifers and pines in slick, fat droplets. Torn to pieces by the spines, they sprayed across the brush and shrubs of the forest in a thick drizzle, drenching everything in a constant stream of lukewarm water. More importantly, it was soaking into every part of Auri’s clothes, making them stick to her skin and impede her movements as she crawled along the ground on her belly, trying not to make a sound.
She had her eyes on her target, and her arm cocked back behind her, bent at an angle it should not have been able to reach. Since there was no flesh inside that twisted gauntlet, however, the rest of her gave no concern to the apparent agony she should have been in as it rose out of her shoulder blade like a scorpion’s tail. Talem and Basia were both close, but she could no longer hear or see them, her whole attention was on her target.
Her noise was shielded by the steady pour that pattered into every available surface, it had not heard her. Instead it was eating peacefully from one of the many shrubs that grew around them. Auri only needed its attention to stay there for a few seconds more, enough for her to get into range. This time she would not hesitate, she would not stand for another one of Basia’s grating chortles. Every time she failed he repeated his lessons of hunting, as if the problem was she did not remember what to do. Even worse were the apologetic glances from Talem; the implied agreement with Basia left hanging in the silence when he didn’t speak up.
Taking a final breath, she inched ahead, and as if the two of them had been waiting for the exact same moment the doe perked up and flinched toward her. Its eyes wide, it body was tensed into that instant of panic before its instincts could fly it to safety. Auri did not so much sling her arm as command it to flow forth, to stream through the air like an arrow trailing a wire of steel and alum alloy behind it. She felt it connect, split the hide and flesh and bone until the animal was impaled on a spit going from her shoulder into a trunk behind it. It did not die immediately, but it was over all the same, speared by a material which was as soft as water to Auri, but to everyone else it was unyielding steel.
“You did it!” she heard Talem should behind her. “It’s a big one, too!”
“She did,” Basia chimed in, “but she is not done yet.” He was much closer, so close that if he hadn’t spoken up she might have jumped when she looked around and almost collided with him. “You have to finish it, Auri. Don’t let it suffer.”
The deer seized as she sent a spike out of the lance and into its heart, then it collapsed in place. She found it was easy to kill now that her mind was made up, not like the first times when the gravity of it had stayed her. How fragile flesh was, she reflected, before reeling the material of her gauntlet back in and let it coalesce back into the shape of her arm. Still covered by gristly spikes and jagged lines, it was a metal sculpture of the blaze that had consumed her limb before. Basia did not like how it looked. Sometimes she caught him looking at it, and he would flinch miserably.
As soon as she was close enough, she picked up the animal and tossed it over her shoulders. She could feel the fibers that coursed through her go taut as they helped her carry it. Every time she was hurt she could feel her gift replace another little piece of her, repair her hurts with silver lining, argent veins that ran along her bones and sinews. While she had not told anyone, she suspected that Talem knew. He had a talent for noticing things like that, and for someone like him, the subtle tracery on her skin would be a dead give-away.
“I forget how strong you are, girl,” Basia said, following close behind her and apparently in the process of getting ready to help her carry it. She noticed the tremors in his hands as he was tightening the strap of his backpack, a shivering that never really left him. Even when was riding, his hands moved more than the horse could account for. He sounded chipper, though, and for the first time she didn’t really mind. “That thing is bigger than you are!”
“She’s damn tough,” Talem answered in her place. “That’s why He called her the Ratel.”
“What, some kind of rat? I guess they-”
“No, you ass!” Auri looked down to hide a smile as Talem kept talking. “I guess you’d know it as the ateri. Tough little fuckers from Muriad, my cousin once had one for a pet, til it bit his finger off.”
Basia laughed at that, and Auri had to take another look at him. She had thought his dark skin, almost black, had been a side effect of his power at first but now it suddenly made sense. He was from Muriad, or one of its islands to the far west of Mar. That was as far away from the Kingdom as you could get, even further away than her mother’s homeland. Most of the Muriadin lived in Dema, making up the majority of the people on the rag road. Was that the hole he had crawled out of?
“You’re saying the King himself named her after the honeybadger?”
Talem was pulling up alongside her now, so she could see him shake his head. Some day she would figure out how he managed to move so quietly. Even when he was talking he was hard to keep a bead on.
“No one sees the king,” he said almost sincerely, “but yeah, pretty much.”
“What about you?”
“What about me?” Talem looked at Basia. He was heavier, more solid, but Talem was significantly taller than him. Somehow the grizzled old soldier still made him look like a boy.
“What did he call you?”
“Tilki,” her friend answered, and she could hear the pride in his voice as he said it. For a Deman, that was about as lucky as nicknames could get. “The Fox. How about you?”
“Oh, Talem Tilki and Auri Ateri. Well, if that isn’t just the stuff of legends…” Basia was taking a moment to stretch his back, and had begun to look around, probably trying to get a bearing on their camp for their walk home. “You two were lucky. I got a damn lizard. Basia Beshandram. Basia the Fucking Salamander. Sometimes I think he just likes making alliterations. Nice when you get something neat, but not so much when you get a lizard that drops its tail and runs.”
“I don’t know, Sal, I think it fits pretty well.” Talem was grinning now. “I mean, the Turtle’s always in his castle, and I am quite clever.”
“Yeah,” said Auri, “and there’s no denying I’ve got mettle.”
Both of them turned toward her at that, and there was a moment of packed silence before the three of them broke into laughter. She hadn’t forgotten what had happened before, but out here they were all together. They’d tracked and taken down dinner, and Basia had sold himself as a pretty good chef when he had proposed the idea. After four days of traveling together, sleeping under the open sky, sharing rations and the heat of a bonfire, everything that had happened before seemed very far behind. It took a few minutes for the laughter to wind down, but when it did they were all still smiling.
“Alright,” Basia finally said once it became clear no one had a good follow-up. “Let’s get back to camp and I will see to getting that thing cooked.”
As they walked back through woods that gradually changed from the tall masts of the deep forest shorter and stouter maples and cypresses. The underbrush shifted as well, going from bushes and shrubs to tall straws and wide ferns. Walking through it was a slog, but Auri found she enjoyed it nonetheless. The sheer anarchy of life competing with itself filled it with a wonder entirely unlike what she felt in Kaplen’s carefully tended garden. Though she had always liked it there, out here there were no walls or doors, none of the makings of a prison.
Four hours later, the sun had disappeared past the trees surrounding their camp, and orange light was filtering through the spaces between them. Basia was finishing up their dinner, and Talem and Auri were busy making fun of his fussing.
“Be careful with those peppers, Sal,” Talem was saying, “we know you like things hot but keep an eye out for the rest of-ow!”
Auri jabbed him in the ribs with her elbow and gave him a dirty look that quickly transitioned into a smile. When she looked back at Basia, he was carving the meat and grumbling, and she wondered how steady his cuts would be given how his hands were shaking. In the end, she supposed it did not matter. Talem could mock him as much as he wanted, but it smelled incredible, a mix of charred game and curry spices. She also thought it was kind of sweet that he was using his gift for controlling fire to make sure the meat cooked just right. He had told them when he started that if there had never been a war, that would have been all he’d ever use it for. If there was anything that she resented about him, it was that the man so poorly fit the image in her mind.
Basia did not take a bowl for himself. Instead, he sat down across from the two of them and began to rummage around in an oilcloth bag, clearly looking for something. When he looked up, his voice had taken on the cadence of a storyteller. Apparently, he wanted to provide entertainment as well.
“Have you ever heard of Dread Marches, and the Bannerclans?”
“Everyone has,” Talem was droning and making theatrical gestures of exasperation with his arms that kept being interrupted by his quick mouthfuls of food.
“I haven’t,” Auri intoned, and she could hear Talem deflate beside her as Basia began to smile. He was still rummaging around inside his bag when he began telling his story.
“Muriad was not like any other realm on Mar. It was a thousand island tribes kept in check by the fleet of the mainland empire. A tough land and a tough people. There was constant civil war between the island tribes. We were really only a nation if something attacked us from outside.”
Basia finally managed to get what he was looking for, and drew out a strange contraption. It was a deflated bladder, attached to a set of pipes and a nozzle. The pipes were strapped together, one short with a multitude of finger-holes, and one long pipe with no holes at all.
“There we go,” he said and took a moment to check that the bag was tight. “This is a gaita. When I was young we used to joke that it was a starting instrument for bards, because if the crew threw you overboard, you could use it to float.”
“Wait,” Talem had perked up at the appearance of the strange instrument. “Are you saying you’re actually from Muriad? That you were there? That was over sixty years ago!”
Like Kaplen, Basia looked middle-aged, but she knew that for Kozan that could mean a lot of things. Some wizards were rumored to live to be hundreds of years, and they still looked young. Something about the magic that gave them their gifts also invigorated them, kept them healthy and let them train their bodies to endure more than what they should. She wondered what she would look like at that age.
“I am,” Basia finally answered, “and I was. I was twelve when the hordes first surged out of the Antus desert and began to overrun the villages on our borders. They moved so fast, no one knew we were under attack until they reached the city of Imazi. We did not know of the Adversary then, just that monsters had come from the sands, killing soldiers and dragging people back into the desert. I was not there for that first attack, or the second. I was born on an island called Jola, so I did not hear of the attack before the refugees started coming to the coast.
“How is the food?”
The question was so jarring that it took the both of them a moment to get their wits about them enough to answer. Auri hadn’t even touched hers, even though she was starving, so she sheepishly drew a piece of meat through the rice and sauce in her bowl and wolfed it down. Talem hadn’t been kidding about the food being spicy, and she felt the burn on her lips the moment it touched them. Too embarrassed to make a point out of it, however, she just kept chewing and nodded so Basia could get on with his story.
There was something cosy about sitting here with her best friend, and even Basia was slowly beginning to grow on her, even though the admission chafed her. The smell of meat on a spit and the small pots of rice and sauce next to the fire, the sound of Basia’s deep voice sharing an experience very few people alive today shared, the gentle wind that kept them from being too hot, and the rhythmic flapping of the tarp that kept them from getting all wet. As if they had built an island in the forest, and brought everything they needed to stay.
“It’s delicious,” she admitted as soon as she finished chewing her second bite. Then she stopped to think for a moment. “Thank you.”
“I am happy to hear that you like it.” Basia finally straightened back up, and began to arrange the pipes and nozzle of his instrument on his lap.
“I also think it’s delicious,” Talem pointed out with some indignation, “in case anyone was wondering.”
“Yes, very good. Now where was I?”
“I believe you were about to start running away.”
Auri couldn’t be quite sure, but she thought she may have seen Basia scowl at Talem’s quip, so she gave him another elbow for good measure.
“Please keep going. I want to hear the rest.”
“Yes, by all means,” grunted Talem and gave her a piqued glance.
“The refugees began to appear along the Muriadin coast. They told the people they met of how monsters had overrun the mainland. Their descriptions were incoherent, terrible creatures drawn from the depths of nightmare, creatures like nothing found in nature, or if they did resemble some animal, they were twisted perversions. The people begged for help to flee, and a call went out across the islands. For over a month every boat in Muriad ferried whoever they could. Then we saw them for ourselves.
“I believe you have seen pictures, but there is nothing that can truly prepare you. Once they appeared, every day saw fewer boats coming to help. We were relieved at first, to see they stopped at the shore. I suppose, coming from the desert, they did not know how to swim. At least not until the Glaivians appeared.”
“Glaivians?” Auri had stopped eating again. She thought perhaps some of the cosiness had given way to the tension in Basia’s story. The kozan at the compound were always reticent of sharing too much of the Enemy, whether to spare the cadettes or because they simply did not like to speak of it.
“The Hives, during the war, they still moved around. We named them for what they were, behemoths that reaped mankind as wheat. They did not fear the water. It was then things began to change. Our boats would go missing, men dragged screaming beneath the waves by the drowned dead.” He took a deep breath, shuddering visibly at the memory, and she could see his hands pick up that ever-present tremble as he clutched his instrument.
“We learned that there was no defeating this enemy, and that we had to flee. Many refused to go. Others had no way of doing so. Most of those who left went to the north, around Thrand. I think it was the wise choice in the end, I know many of them made it safely to Dema. Me and my brother went south. Had I known a Glaivian would follow us, we would have sailed out to sea until it swallowed us instead.”
“What happened?” Talen asked.
“After five days at sea, our boat sank near Ushei. We swam to shore there and crossed the mountains into Domar. There we tried to warn them, but they would not listen to boys. So we ran west. We had no horses, so progress was slow. Some soldiers caught up with us a few days later, and asked us to tell them of the creature from the sea and how to fight it. My brother laughed at them and told them: ‘If we knew how to fight it, we would not have run.’”
He chuckled at that, and as he closed his eyes to savor the memory his hands quieted down over his instrument for a moment. Then their soft quaking returned as he came back into the present.
“This time they listened. It still took us over a month to make it to the border of Shunda, and by then we were part of a vast stream of people. That was the Dread March. All of Mar retreating east, as far as the land would take them. I told my brother we had to stop running. That we had to stand and hold them back, to buy time for the women and children.”
Basia trailed off for a while, and returned to adjusting his pipe, and Auri and Talem spent the pause exchanging a meaningful look.
“He died during our first battle together. That was when I discovered my gift of fire. I would have died, if by coincidence I had not also been discovered by the Gallant and his Bannerclans. It was the Gallant who told us what the Enemy was using the prisoners for, though we had suspected as much: That every person saved, or even killed before they could be dragged away, was a monster we would not have to fight. Have you met him?”
Both of them shook their heads. While the wizard Vigilant was nearly always at the compound, the Gallant was usually found at the front. Auri knew he had duties relating to both the War and the Dordoron, but she did not know that much of what wizards actually did or even could do.
“The Gallant is true to his name. The Bannerclans were just an idea. They were nothing more than a set of thirty banners the kings of the east had made up, that gave its carriers the right to requisition resources, and to recruit men in the name of the king. We skirmished monsters, bought time for refugees and granted mercy to those we could not save. When our numbers became too low to keep fighting, we fell back and replenished them from the people who were running. They recruited me in that way, and I in turn recruited many more.”
“Did they just volunteer?” Auri put down the bowl. While the food was good, the story had killed her appetite.
“We sang for them,” he took a moment to breathe into the bladder on his lap, and it began to rise. “They were often hungry and cold, out of food and short on supplies. We had both. We would invite them our camp, and sing for them. They knew what we were asking, and enough of them always joined our song.”
“I’m not going to sing with you,” she said. Breaking the ice was one thing, but she could not stomach the thought of making some sort of pact with the man. “I’m already kozan. That’ll have to be enough.”
“You are, and it is,” he nodded, and took a last breath into the nozzle of his bagpipe, until it was sitting taut against his stomach. “The Bannermen were always just an idea. That was their beauty — they only need one person to survive, and to pass it on. That is why I want to sing it for you. I would like it to survive me as well.”
“Who says anyone is going to die?” asked Talem, who had not lost his appetite at the story judging from the empty bowl at his feet.
“Come winter, the kozan and the rest of the king’s forces are attacking a Hive,” Basia stated grimly, and his arms jerked enough that the pipe released an off-key whine. He ignored it, and tightened his grip on the pipe and nozzle. “I have seen a Glaivian in battle before. I had hoped I never would again. Many will die, and I will be at the front of it.”
Basia began to play, his instrument producing two simultaneous tones: a low and constant hum from the long pipe, and a pitched whistle from the shorter one. Despite his unsteady hands, his fingers were quite deft across the holes of the flute, and the music that came out was a somber and melancholy melody that made Auri think of loss. Basia’s voice was soft and low as he sang, and he formed the words in the practiced manner of someone who had sung them a hundred times before.
Fellow, shelter here
Fallow, we have room to spare
The road is long, the night is cold
Take heart in the fire’s fold
Follow come the morn
Follow all the Three Kings’ horn
Fellow, last to join
Fallow, now last to remain
The war is long, the iron cold
Take to heart the battle’s mould
Follow ere your clan
Follow aft our bannerman
When he finished the atmosphere of the camp had been distilled into an air of quiet reflection. His story had given the sun time to complete its journey past the horizon, and Auri’s preemptive refusal did not leave room for conversation. As the night sunk in, and the story wound into her memory to inform her dreams, she pondered that perhaps Kaplen had been right. That she may not always appreciate this life, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t good. She would be content leaving behind a story like Basia’s. So as she closed her eyes, she let her mind repeat the song inside, and in those final waking thoughts, joined in.
Author’s note: Be sure to check out my blog post if you like the song!