Between Death and Dreams #11

The Cure (1)


You were ambushed, Carth. It was only a small skirmish, between Musa’s archers and your men as you sallied out to put an end to their resistant. They put up a brief fight before melting away into the wilderness. But there’s more that I want us to remember. Though I can’t give you much—do you think anyone truly remembers fights clearly? Or do only you and I suffer from this affliction?

There are some things I’ll let you remember:

I’ll let you remember Khalee dragging a twin away from his brother’s limp body, leaving the corpse on the road for the carrion crows. And how the same was done for her when her dog was stuck with an arrow’s shaft.

I’ll let you remember how you saw Albarran spearing an injured horse—and the cavalryman whose leg it had crushed. He looked at you, then. Even through your fog of shattered memories, you knew what that look meant. And you know it now as you read this.

You and I both know how these men felt. I suspect we all know. We’ve all learned the guilt that comes with being alive.

* * *

Let’s remember these things, too:

The footprints of an army wearing down a sand dune so that little was left for the final Housemen to climb.

Fields of grass, weighted with wind, bowing under your progression and rising again after you passed.

A village of wattle-and-daub huts by the shore. A briny smell.

White-knuckled hands wrapped around spears.

The glint of steel against the sun.

Your hand, red and wet and holding a longsword plunged up to the hilt in a wide-eyed boy.

A sword clattering to the ground.

Khalee saying, “Couldn’t be helped.”

Khalee saying, “Right?”

Khalee saying, “Talk to me.”

Between Death and Dreams #10

The Cure (1)


The next morning, the three of you collected your provisions—corn, corn and more corn once again. You stopped in that same alley where you rejoined Khalee and Albarran. If you happen to wake up with a taste like ashes in your mouth, you’ll have a small understanding of the ordeal it was to swallow that bile.

“War is hell,” Khalee said, “What did they do to this food?”

“Might be the seasoning,” you suggested.

Albarran giggled, sending pinkish corn-juice dribbling down his chin. “You think they have the coin to season this, boy?”

“Might be someone thought to use a heap of soil,” Khalee suggested. Yellow filled the gaps between her teeth. “Perhaps they needed a light garnish.”

Before you or Albarran could respond, you three noticed a boy staring at you from the other end of the alley. He looked like a skeleton; he’d only a shadow of skin and a face that pocketed deep-sunken eyes that couldn’t remember to blink. His tunic was torn and he was caked with dirt and dust. One side of his red hair had been matted down and crusted with dried blood. Whether it belonged to him or someone else, you couldn’t say. He had only one leg, and leaned on a makeshift wooden crutch for support.

Khalee shouted at him; and then kept shouting until the boy hopped over to you. She tried to teach him the name of her pike, but the one-legged boy only held out cupped hands, saying the same word over and over, as if he couldn’t hear Khalee. The word was foreign, it’s meaning discernible. “Food,” he was saying. “Food, food.”

So Khalee laughed and dribbled some corn into the boy’s tiny hands. Albarran closed the boy’s dirty fingers over the corn and said something you didn’t understand. Then the boy hopped off, plucking the corn into his mouth.

You asked Albarran what she said, ignoring Khalee’s rhythmic chanting of, “One leg…one leg…one leg…” as she stared blankly into space.

“I told him to be careful—made sure he knew not to let anyone see his food—” Albarran stopped to smack the back of Khalee’s head. “Stop staring!”

“By the Nailed God, that’s a boy with one leg!” Khalee said. She turned you then, grinning. “Some poor soul forgot to sharpen their blade.

You decided you’d had enough of Khalee, and went off to forget her. But she and Albarran followed you, reasoning it was dangerous to leave you alone for very long.

I happen to agree, now that I have thought about it.

Though they bickered through the whole walk until you found a river just outside the city. It looked like the best spot to rest for a while.

You sat there and watched your reflection. You put your feet in the river contemplated everything you’d read from me. Thoughts of a siege rattled through your mind. You bunched up your cloak, dark as night time. You wondered what might happen to Albarran and Khalee. You thought they had been as brother and sister to you. You racked your brain for some god to pray to, but nothing came. You even checked your index—sifting through all the gods I told you about. You didn’t recognize a one of them.

You realized then that you didn’t—or perhaps couldn’t believe in such things. Nailed Gods? Fate? Comforts. Do you know if your gods are even real? These thunder lords and gods that turn into cows? Maybe I’ve just made him up so that you have something to strive for. Do you honestly think this is happening for a reason?

You didn’t have much time to contemplate any of these revelations. Just as you finished reading my account to you, you heard Albarran shouting and Khalee rising to her feet. You three rushed back to the city.

“The House of Em’s army is here! Musa has arrived!” Khalee said. You followed her pointing finger where swarthy men were marching on the city with spears and shields in their hands.

Amidst the confusion, you lost your friends for a moment, until Khalee seized you by the back of your cloak and pulled you toward him. “Don’t wander off, Carth! What did we tell you?”

There was no time to answer, for black riders came in atop horses, racing through the camp, shouting orders in a foreign tongue. “What is it?” you asked, “Is it the—”

“It’s my folk, boy. I sent them out to scout ahead,” Ser Albarran said. The riders came dashing through the streets, all with the same ink-black skin as your friend.

There were scattered shouts in a language that you didn’t know. Albarran shouted back in the same tongue. He approached one of the horsemen from the side, petting the horse’s mane. Once the beast was at ease, he exchanged a few words with the rider.

Even you could understand there was an urgency in his voice. Albarran pivoted to face you and Khalee, “House of Em’s forces are coming upon the city. They’ve taken to arming their damned peasants.”

Khalee hefted her spear. “Draw your sword, Carth,” she urged. “Ready your weapons,” Khalee was shouting. “Riders will be attacking the flanks. Men-at-arms, with me! Form phalanx!”

You saw King Crom standing atop the city walls looking like some great statue. He held a massive longaxe in both hands, but at that distance it was difficult to discern how large it truly was. “Bowmen, stay atop the hill. Shoot the center of their lines! Do not shoot the flanks!”

Khalee shoved you forward. “Move, Carth!” she said. “Let’s go!”

I know you won’t remember much from the battle. But I do. Let me tell you, for I want us to remember this, together. These are memories we cannot let go:

Men with skin like black ink and men astride horses and men with great swords were all on your side. Remember our discussion about this armor being a hammer? This was what I meant when I said that. We fought against Musa’s men, shelled in steel.

The leaders of Crom’s armies fought like something out the legends we’ve overheard at our campfires. They seemed to have the strength of half-gods and heroes as they slung spears down on the enemy.

Their movements were taut; bronzed biceps growing as they hefted their weapons—and when they threw them, they did not seem concerned with the spears hurtling toward us. They seemed almost lazy—after all, they were our leaders, and had made it this far. They seemed to know they wouldn’t die here.

The same could not be said of soldiers unnumbered, too young or unpracticed, or infirm. The ones could not raise their shields in time, pierced by spears or arrows or swords and littering the fields with eyes like their leaders—like half-gods and heroes. Eyes that did not seem to see.

But let me take a moment to back up, Carth. Back to when the news first came that the Musa was on your doorstep.

Commanding Housemen under King Crom and warriors and crowded you, pushing you forward like a buffeting wind. You were disoriented, reeling. When the ground sloped suddenly downward you worried that you’d been set on a path directly to the God of Death that Albarran had once told you about (check your index). Hills went up and down for hours, probably.

But you had no time to think about that. You were still being pushed forward by a wall of people on all sides. You started making names for the four surrounding you: Front, Back, Left and Right. They marched in step, uphill and downhill until at some point you spied something resembling a giant bird sewn onto a heap of cloth snapping in the wind. The army opposite you carried it on a long pole. A Crow with its wings spread. House of Em’s sigil.

Your heartbeat throbbed in your neck and your forearm burned from holding up your shield.

Beating drums rang out from the other army.  Boom-doom, boom-doom, boom-doom. There were Crows grunting and shrieking from atop their hill—a thousand hulking silhouettes waiting for your uphill approach. They fired a volley and you and the men raised your shields.

You tried to remember any drills you fought. Your blade arm was practically twitching to engage in maneuvers you forgot. You wondered if your sword had more memories than you do, and allowed yourself a smile for a moment.

There was then a thrum from atop the hill, as if a thousand birds had taken flight at once. There was a whistling from above, and you saw a thousand silhouetted arrows ready to rain down. You raised your shield and felt about four heavy blows. Pain rocked your arm, strong enough that you felt a sudden pang of pity for the blacksmith’s anvil.

Others caught the arrows head on, and the impact released contraptions that embedded them into their shields. Some of your allies were forced to drop their shields altogether in order to continue moving.

Some were even less fortunate.

You heard scattered, painful shrieks that came muffled from behind your shield from warriors too slow to raise theirs.

The moment you peaked out from behind your shield, the box of warriors pushed you forward. Through the fog and up the muddy hill.

Once, you nearly tripped on your way up the hill, but you had neither the time nor the desire to see if it was only uneven ground that you’d had tread upon. The warriors had practically carried you uphill from the sheer force of their forward charge.

And then the army slammed to a halt and as the sudden stop drove you into a warrior in front of you, you felt pity this time for the blacksmith’s hammer.

Ahead of you were sounds of scraping wood and steel; sometimes steel on steel. There were scattered sparks ahead against the mass of men. Some slapped the ground and then tumbled downhill, leaving a trail of blood (at least they left something in their wake). You flexed your hand around your sword; sweat slick and worried that you might drop it.

You could hear men pleading ahead of you crying in various speeches. But like the one-legged boy you knew what they were saying.

They were begging. Pleading. Pleading for mothers; for mercy; for quarter, But they were all silenced by wet sounds—like a bucket falling into a well. The army moved forward after every line lost. You were truly a lamb being led to the slaughter.

Then to your right you noticed the shadow of a Crow skulking through the mist. It leapt forward, sword raised, and you stabbed over two rows of shoulders and shields, taking him through the neck. You thought maybe Musa’s forces carried saltwater in their mouths, for he sounded like he was gargling it. But all he spat up was blood before he collapsed.

Someone up front shouted, “Thanks!” but as he said this you realized that sinew and bone had trapped your blade in the Crow’s neck, and when he crumpled to the ground your sword was levered from your hand.

One final act of vengeance.

“The sword! Grab the sword!” shouted the Thank You Man. There came a short, suckling sound as the steel was pulled from his throat—like a boot squelching through mud. Then the sword changed hands as the army was pushed back; and then kept changing hands even as you were forced to give ground.

Front seized your wrist and fastened your sword into your hand. “Don’t wait to pull out after you stab,” Front shouted, as you were pushed back onto level ground.

“You’re welcome!” you said. You were shaking and delirious and as frenzied as a sack of wet cats.

The commanders thundered down the line, ordering a retreat. “Keep formation!” they shouted, “Stay in rank!”

Bodies were turning sharply, forcing you around and shoving you forward, away from the village and Musa the King ’s forces.

“We’re bringing the Housemen back to the city?” you cried.

“Have you forgotten the archers we left off the road?” said Left.

As it happens, you did.

“They were told to shoot anyone!” said Right. You had, in fact, forgotten. Are you surprised.

“Have faith that the Marshals have a plan.” Front shouted.

The Housemen under the King Musa’s command followed you down the road, nipping at your army’s heels. From off the path, arrows whispered into Musa’s flanks. You heard yelps and shrieks like wounded dogs.

Upon a General’s command, the army turned to face the Housemen opposing you and pushed back.

From beyond the rival King’s army, you heard horses whinnying and bright swords shining through the fog. There were commanders leading the riders, sloping down, down, and toward the Musa’s rearguard.

The King’s army dwindled. Men were scalped and cut down. You saw it from over a sea of shoulders and shields and helmeted heads. It was now the King Musa’s Housemen who snarled for mother, mercy, and quarter as the archers spat and the army closed its fist.

You took to the grim work, Carth. You had won the day, with but a few of Musa’s men escaping–including Musa himself. Time will tell if he can muster a greater force in the future. But you had won the day. But even when you knew victory was yours, it took hours to see to the slaughter.

The boom-doom, boom-doom, boom-doom of the Ser’s drums faded, and with it left the fog. The sun was shining, but there were only dead littered on the field.

The only dead were Housemen and steel-shelled men lying limp as discarded tunics, with cloven halfhelms, hornhelms, or heads.

You climbed the hill outside the city, thankful for the ability to stretch and brace your hands against the steep slope. Beyond the hill were little fields girdled by the threshold of a forest. Other survivors floundered up the hill, or walked among the fields. There were green hedges, grass, and trees. The dew sparkled in the sunlight. There were pebbled paths and briar patches. The place seemed to you altogether the wrong sort of place for a battlefield.

You looked back and saw the litter of bodies strewn about the hillside. One soldier lay dead at the foot of the hill—a Ser who looked a few years your junior. His ruined face stared at the sky, looking like something resembling crumpled parchment. You wondered if he had died instantly, or if it were the trampling that had done him in. And if it was the latter, had you…?

On second thought, it’s best not to ask such questions. “What happens now?” you asked aloud.

“Now, Carth?” came the voice of Albarran. He and the Khalee were standing behind you atop the hill. “Red Nails,” he cursed, “We defend this fucking city. Convince the Five it isn’t worth trying to retake.”

“That’s it?”

“Don’t grow overbold, Carth,” the man cautioned. “Don’t make Musa’s mistake. King Crom will make his next move in time enough.

Ser Khalee must have seen the shock on your face, because she said, “What’s wrong? Isn’t this what you had in mind when you decided to save the world from evil Kings?”

Lord Crom was all curses after the battle, lamenting that some of his Housemen had lost to Musa the King . Apparently, they deserved better deaths.

But I have some good news for you: now you know you’re a soldier. Only a soldier could hear such death-talks without bristling.

You feel it don’t you? I feel it to. The resolute nothing inside you when learning this news. That’s why you’re a soldier. And it’s how you survive.

Between Death and Dreams #9

The Cure (1)


You need to watch what you say. You were almost speared during a bath in a river outside the city walls after burning down a nearby village.

There were a few others rolling and splashing about in the river, finally clean of the grime choking your skin. Being freed of it brought a grin to your face. You, to your limited knowledge, hadn’t known the sensation of clean skin, and the feel of it was almost overwhelming.

Your ears were so full of water, however, that you didn’t hear the trample of horses’ hooves until the shouting had started. I suspect your ears filled up because your head is so empty. If you don’t have memories, you could at least fill that had up with water. “Cavalry!” Someone shouted. The word echoed down the line of bathers, uttered through various translations. You were shaking the water out of your ears and eyes. All around you was black mist like soot curling ever-downstream. Men were reaching for their gear. Spears, pikes and sheathed swords. No one bothered to put on armor. If the House of Em or any of the other Kings had found you, you were all as good as dead.

You had just drawn yourself, naked, to the banks of the river and taken your swords, spears, pikes or whatever they had as the men on mounts reined up.

Their commander’s skin was blacker than his horse’s fur. There were three others, two flanking and one behind him. You tilted your head at the commander.

He was reaching for his own blade when you threw yours up to his horse’s head. “Stop this!” you shouted. “Lay down your arms!”

The men grimaced. “Are you in charge here?” the commander asked.

For all you knew you were–so you told him, “Yes!”

“Then what in the name of all gods do you think you’re doing?”

You looked down to the river and then back at him. “I’m…taking a bath?” you said it like a question. You had no idea why this would upset it.

Naked, armed men laughed at that. It was an honest truth, if a little simple. Then again, you’re simple so there weren’t many answers you could give.

It would seem that a simple truth can make some men angry. “You’re upstream of the watering place!” He fumed, “Do you expect my horses to drink from the same water you lot have been washing your asses in?”

This might shock you, Carth, but being naked and dripping wet in front of black riders in full raiment does not inspire much dignity. But you clung to what little you could and said, “Do you know who you’re speaking to?” Or something just as stupid. You didn’t even know who you were. Why would they?

“At your word, I’m speaking to the leader of this company—though I can’t say it shows at the moment.”

“If you’ll give me a moment to dress myself, mayhaps I can make a better impression.”

The commander rolled his eyes, “Once you put on your armor and your fine regalia, I’ll start calling you commander and captain. Until then, have your men lay down their arms before I decide they’re greater fools than you! Now stop fouling my horses’ drinking water—you’ll make them simple!”

You grinned. Perhaps it was the fact that you’d no idea the danger you were in, but a joke crept up on the fringes of your mind. You had overheard warriors’ complaints while you bathed–before you filled your ears with water.  “A thousand pardons. I’m fresh from Ükardhi.” You hoped you were pronouncing that right. “I had upstream baths there and never a problem with those lot turning simple from drinking the bathwater.”

You had begun to laugh. The mounted man’s mouth twitched as he tried not to join in. And then he was laughing, too.

Later you would discover that this man was named Albarran. Looking back at the accounts I left you, you realized you were already friends. You were with Khalee by the cookfires when you realized this, at night-time. “Why didn’t he say something?” you asked.

“You were naked and pretending to be the captain of a regiment!” Khalee sniggered. “Everyone wanted to see how the situation would play out. He would have been passing up a better opportunity than the if King Crom were storming the capital in Strathbury. Can you blame him?”

You decided you couldn’t, and laughed with her.

Between Death and Dreams #8

The Cure (1)


You’ve arrived at the city you’d been marching to.

I’ve made some additions to your other scrolls. I’ve seen what provisions were dispensed. They’ve got corn, corn and more corn, so don’t act surprised when that’s all you get.

It turns out you haven’t been reading this as much as you should be. Didn’t I tell you to read this when you wake? I leave two scrolls right next to you every night. How hard is it to read from them before the day begins?

Now read closely Carth: there is talk in this city that you’re in some kind of trouble. Most people talk about the likelihood of a siege.

I’ve left you some notes on sieges as well as a few vague scatterings of memory the word retched up for me. I’ll bet you remember them too—frozen in time, without context.

After you received your provisions, Khalee waved you over to an alley where he and Albarran had sat down to eat.

Khalee was cleaning her nails with a dagger, stopping every now and then to feed scraps of corn to her dog, or scratch it behind the ear.

She said that it was you who found the dog during that first raid of yours. Did I forget to mention that? You conducted raids on your way here.

“The dog—he was protecting that girl you met during the village raids.”

I didn’t bother to mention them to you either. Tinker Taker, remember?

“A girl? What girl? I don’t remember,” you said.

“I don’t know how you could forget someone like that,” Khalee joked. She compared her beauty to a few goddesses whose names I’ve left for you in your index. I’ll let you forget some of her choice descriptions. I wish I could. “She had a chest like the horsewomen in the Nugaria, that one,” he said. “Would that our rivals would contract them. If we’re going to die here, that should very well be our last sight. A dozen bare-breasted horsewomen riding toward us, tits bouncing.” She gave you a wink.

Your conversation lapsed as she went back to cleaning her nails. To break the silence she mused, “I’ll probably lose a finger one day. Won’t be able to hold a spear after that. Won’t be able to fight.” She scratched her dog behind the ear.

“Why not do it now?” Albarran asked, “Get it over and done with?”

Khalee grinned. She petted her dog so that its tail thumped against the ground. When she turned to look at Albarran, her grin was gone. “What do I look like? A coward?”

The rest of the day passed without incident.