03. The Ever-Changing Land

I can feel my heart hammering in my neck. Images flash through my mind’s eye: men in ringmail atop mighty destriers; rippling containers of barely-sheathed muscles; pink-scarred faces that contorted with snarls; axes, swords and spears whirling through the air.

My left arm tingles where a spear caught me, hundreds of years ago. Five years ago.

Gormund’s teeth are knocking together as he wrings his hand around the length of his axe. He watches the horizon, implacable. I think I see shadows moving between the trees. As a bluster of air rattles through me, I understand I’m still a little damp. Sweat-slick and lake-slick and slippery. Vertigo opens wide, threatens to consume me.

I’m not supposed to be here. My muscles twinge with long-forgotten maneuvers. Newly-remembered exercises. Drills. But my body is soft and stupid.

I tense up, ready. I’m still not sure if I see anything. Perhaps just trees. Or perhaps something darker.

Gormund uncoils, wraps his hand around my wrist. “We have to move,” he tells me.

“Did you see anything?” I ask.

“Move!” He shoves me forward, sloping down. There’s a sound behind me like a giant’s groan. There’s thunder, I think. And something behind me cracks. Gormund is right behind me, nearly stomping on my heels as I push through the tall grass that rises up to my waist.

The forest envelopes me, trees rising like the black spears of the army that surrounded me when the Great Evil captured me seven years into my quest the last time around.

I can’t remember the name of the army. Just the flash of steel and the ash-coated spears that smeared onto the gloves of the warriors that surrounded me. Blood had dried on me and them, red-brown like lacquer. I’m getting distracted, I realize.

Gormund’s hand presses onto my back. “Don’t slow down!” he tells me. “Don’t look back, you idiot!”

Thick trees snap behind me like breaking bones. I pushed myself on. I’m so tired that I hardly notice the blisters on my feet from the hours of working until they pop and sting as I push myself forward. There’s a stitch in my side.

I grit my teeth and fight through the pain. Walls of stones emerge all around me like teeth to maw of a gaping giant.  

“You’re not running fast enough.” Gormund growls. “Move! Move!”

Gormund seizes me by the back of my neck and hauls me forward. I sail headlong over a hill and out of the forest.

Forests should be bigger than that, I think.

Gormund follows close behind. He dives down just next to me, twisting so that his back feels the brunt of the impact.  He sits up, rubbing his lower back. “Knees hurt. Back hurts. You’re lucky, One-Eye. At least you go back to your younger years when you return.”

“What was that?” I ask. “What was that?” When I look, the forest is gone. A mountain rises from the earth, dirt and soil spilling over, churned-up as the gray stone rises, higher, higher, higher.

I’m not sure how long the silence lasts before I say again, “What was that?”

“Something Clarissant should have warned me to look out for. Gormund curses under his breath. “You might feel some vibration when we sleep tonight. Don’t worry. It’s just the strata sorting itself out. I’ll wake you up if we need to move again.”

“Uh uh,” I tell him. I seize his arm, and a warning flares in his eyes. I  don’t let go. “Nobody’s going to pull the whole dark and broody and mysterious on me. Not this time! What. Was. That?”

He turns to his, his face implacable. “The Imperium salted the earth with spells after you left. Too many uprisings. They needed to impede communications. Hard to stage a revolution when you can hardly make it to the next town.”

“About one-third of those words made sense to me,” I tell him. “What Imperium? Revolution? Uprising?”

He pulls his arm away, turns. “You’ve been gone longer than I thought,” he says. “There will be time to explain later. We have to get back before the land moves again.”

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02. Well-Trodden Roads

You know the story now, right? Surely you know where this is going?

(You think you do, leastways. But you’re not listening, are you? I told you already: this isn’t that story. Not anymore.)

* * *

I awaken, sucking in cold air. There’s a crackling that I think might be a fire. I’m still sleep-bleary, and can’t discern if it comes from inside me or outside. I certainly don’t feel as cold as when I was back in–in–that other place.

Christ, I’m already forgetting. Who’s Christ?

But as the memories of my old life fades, shards of memory fit into place. Memories of this world.

Gormund is standing beside me. I’m sufficiently impressed, now that I’ve got a better look at him. He’s a rippling container of barely-sheathed muscle–discounting his medicine ball of a chest. He’s bald, but his beard is so thick that I can’t help but wonder if the hair on his head simply migrated to his face. “Ruined Earth, but you’re heavy,” he says.

My head is spinning. My fingers are clawing at the stone foundation beneath me. I wasn’t supposed to come back. “Who summoned me?” I ask, absently. I’m not quite sure if I care.

“Nice to meet you, too, One Eye.”

It takes me a moment to understand that he’s using an alias for me. One of my old titles from my last life here. “I’m sorry,” I tell Gormund. “I’m sorry. I just. I…” I clutch my head in my hands. I’m not supposed to be back here. “Who are you?”

Gormund barks a single laugh. “Straight down to business, then?” he says. “My daughter summoned you, One Eye. Her will is almost spent from the ordeal.” He spits, as if in show of his disdain. “You’d better be worth it. Good to see you’re more…put together than the legends have led us to believe.”

I remember the last time someone channeled  Higher Powers to bring me here. He had looked fine, laying on the stone slab. Unconscious, I thought. Until they examined his corpse. His insides had been a smoking ruin. I never learned his name. Others–more powerful folk–could have survived channeling the Higher Powers (for a time). Not him.

“I wasn’t supposed to come back,” I tell him, dumbly. “This can’t be real.”

He slaps me. Leaves my cheek stinging and red. I reel back, precariously close to the mountain-ledge.

(Mount Tharum. That’s its name. Mount Tharum).

Gormund catches me as I teeter on the ledge, pulls me forward. I can feel the bristle of his beard. Feel his hot, moist breath on my face. “Did that feel real?”

“I–”

“If I throw you off this mountain, will that be real?” His voice is hoarse and raspy.

“I don’t–”

“My daughter has channeled Higher Powers through her flesh and funneled them onto mortal earth. All to bring you here, King in the Mountain.” My title drips like acid from his mouth. “You don’t get to tell me what is and isn’t real. Now harken to me: we are going to climb down this mountain, walk all the way to Strathbury and you will tell my daughter that you are sorry that the legends of your last life possessed her to do something so foolhardy as to summon a boy so stupid that his first act upon arrival is nearly drowning himself. Do you understand?”

I knock his hand away and shove past him to more solid footing. I lean against the side of the cave. I don’t have vertigo yet, I tell myself. This is a precautionary measure. I focus on my breathing. Five seconds in, five seconds out.

I wonder what else has changed.

“All right,” I tell him. “I understand.”

So we travel down Mount Tharum. There are thick clefts in the rock. A stairway, steep as a leaning ladder. Along the way down Gormund tells me that they should be evacuating Strathbury.

“Most likely we’ll be dead in a few weeks,” he tells me, surprisingly casual. All while he leads me down the clefts in the stone. “Funneling the Higher Powers to this plane doesn’t go unnoticed.”

I remember the last time. Raiders had swarmed down from the north. Unchecked and virtually unchallenged. Snothringham had almost no defenses. It was a town outlying in the middle of nowhere.

It didn’t stand a chance.

This time will be different. I swear it by the God I’ve so nearly forgotten and by the Higher Powers, too. Just to be safe.

I have a second chance here. I’m going to make it right. I shouldn’t even be here. The least I can do is cycle through these motions while causing the least amount of damage possible.

I’m going to survive this. I’m going to build a life here all over again. I’m relapsing, but at least this time, I can taper through this the right way.

The wind has died down by the time my feet hit soft earth and dead leaves crunch beneath my feet.

“How far to Strathbury,” I correct myself. “How long?”

“As long as it takes,” Gormund tells me, as we crunch through the autumn waste. His axehead drags lazily through the clusters of dead leaves and grass. “We’ll need to move quickly, though. Mount Tharum is a stillzone, thankfully. It’s a three day march through the Ever-Changing Land to Strathbury. Don’t you worry, though. I know what to look out for.”

I don’t bother to keep track of time. I’m too confused by what he means when he says the Ever-Changing Land.

This land doesn’t change. I know that, even in my limited knowledge of this world. I can remember my first walk to Strathbury. There were no changes.

The world becomes walking. One step and then the next, following the command of Gormund’s back: keep moving or die. He permits no alternative.

I wonder if there will be as many raiders this time. I wonder if I can use the fire in my veins. Did the Higher Powers sew it back into me? I want to call it forth. But not in front of Gormund.

He’s angry enough as it is. Angry that his daughter summoned me. Showing him proof of my power mightn’t be the best idea. I don’t even know if I have this power, either.

So I start to wonder what changed about Strathbury. How have they rebuilt? Who lives there now?

Bored, I examine the ground that drops precipitously mere feet from me in either direction. I walk along a file, sloping down into fields of dead, yellow grass girdled by aspens and poplars.  

I hardly notice when Gormund has stopped moving. I nearly plow into his back. He’s hefted his axe, holding it in both hands.

“Don’t. Move.”

Belatedly, I realize I do not have a sword. I freeze and follow Gormund’s eyes from one side of the file to the other. “Is there something down there?” I ask.

His knuckles are white and twitching around the axe-haft. “Might be,” he said. “It’s getting dark. Might be.” Belatedly, he mutters, “I knew I should have brought Clarissant.”

I’d hardly noticed the bruise-colored clouds smothering the sky. “Is it raiders?” I ask. I wish again for my sword. Almost as much as I wish I could remember its name.

I think I can pull the fire out of my veins, if it comes to it.  I can remember my training from last time around. It took me months to learn how to control the Higher Powers’ magic. But eventually I wrestled it into my grasp. I’m not quite certain how the fire works. Not yet, at least.  

I think I can do it again if I have to. Probably. Maybe. Time will tell, I suppose.

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6. Watching Closely

They are three former Fangs. Watch them saunter, stepping forward. Fog dances about their ankles as their worn boots scrap the compact earth. gaggle through the forest that embraces their entrance and spilling shadow over all three former Fangs.

It has been six years. There have been trials. Tests. Talks. “To our mutual benefit” they’ve been told. Again and again and again.

Three Fangs have waited six years for this moment. The sun sets in inky displays of brilliant colors these three cannot see. They are ready.

Are you watching closely?

* * *

The attack comes in the early morning hours. Uthrik had set them on a rotational sleeping schedule. Three people were to sleep for half an hour at a time. He wouldn’t chance most of the camp being taken off guard. “We’ve worked six years to gather enough Roamers to return safely to Typhon Quarter,” he’d said. “We’re not about to lose them now.”

The Roamers that accompany them are not, as yet, his own. A man named Steffron commands a few dozen of them, and has lent seven of them to Silas.

They are passing through the forest that is a day’s walk away from the city walls. Silas Cord is weaving around the camp. Ev and Uthrik watch him, closely.

Gorm’s clan is foolish to attack, but Ev’s scouts have told him that Gorm’s Roamers are hungry, and there won’t be a good time to attack in the first place. So.

Silas isn’t the first to see it coming. That’s Uthrik. Always ready. He rips his sword from his holster before the smell of steel can travel downwind to Silas.

“We don’t have to do this,” Ev speaks for the group. “Come with us and there will be food aplenty.”

“You’re wasting your time, Ev.” Uthrik snarls. Silas doesn’t see his whole body, tensed and corded, waiting to spring.

Heedless, Ev plunges down the road at the band of rival Roamers, tensed and waiting. “My name is Ev! We belong to the Fangs—we are escorting the heir to a city gang back into their walls. If you join us, we can help you,” she says. “You’ll not need to fear other Roamer bands in the city.”

They do not speak. They do not move. There is an ambient noise of fidgeting soldiers.

“We’ve got some spare rations,” Ev suggests. “You must be hungry. You don’t need to steal it. We’ve enough to share.”

The Roamers whisper in hushed voices.

And then one of them screams.

And they’re all charging at Ev and Uthrik and Silas and Steffron’s rival band of Roamers.

“They’re attacking!” Uthrik calls.

“No shit!” Ev says.

Silas does not see these Roamers—filthy, emaciated things dressed in faded roughspun cloths, with flashes of color or bright steel they’ve stolen from unfortunate travelers. Some fire spells from iron wands blindly into the band. Silas hears scattered screams. But Steffron and his roamers have iron wands of their own, and they return fire, at first.

Until Ev throws herself into the midst of Gorm’s Roamers, forming precise cuts and bloody cuts with her long blade. She buries herself in the mass of flesh, so close that the iron wands are useless for both sides. No use discharging acrid-smelling spells if it’s just as like to hurt your own forces.

It is less of a battle and more of a butchery. Gorm’s Roamers haven’t even advanced far enough to reach Silas.

But Silas catches a scent above him, which baffles him, as there’s no way anyone could be above—

Oh.

When he stretches his hand out to a finger’s point, he finds a sheer slab of rock piled high and wide, just off the path. And the figure above has the similar worn leather scent as the rest of Gorm’s Roamers. He hears wooden boards creaking underfoot, and wonders if the man has any way of discerning who is winning this conflict.

So while blades clash and blood runs in rivers down the mat of wet leaves, Silas feels his way around the cleft of cold rock, until he finds a natural staircase. Slowly and quietly he climbs, up and up, and up—

—Until he feels the point of a blade pressed lightly against his upper lip, and the scent is closer now. “Hey,” Silas says. “I just want to talk. Can I come up?”

“You’ve had six years to just talk, Silas Cord.”

He knows this voice. “To be fair, Gorm, I have tried. But best not get into that. May I come up?”

Gorm says nothing.

“I’m sorry. Here.” Silas sits back on his haunches and unclasps his swordbelt, and then tosses it off the precipice. “Is that better?”

He does not see Gorm’s scowl, but he hears him slip his blade back into its holster. He follows Gorm up onto creaking old wooden boards. “I’m just here to talk.”

“And what would you like talk to about?” Silas follows Gorm to the precipice. He’s carved himself his own little lookout on the edge of the forest.

Silas waves the matter aside. “Let’s skip the formalities,” he says. He places his hand, fingers splayed, against the small of Gorm’s back. “And get down to business.”

One hard shove, and Gorm topples headlong over the outpost he’s built. He only has time for whoop of surprise before he hits the ground with a sickening crunch.

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01. Relapsing Return

You know the story, don’t you? You’ve heard it before. We all have. That story is behind you. But it would do you good to remember what has come before.

This’ll hurt. This’ll help:

The Higher Powers choose a young child from another world to save them from a ruthless despot. Maybe you step through a magical doorway. Or a closet. A portal. They put fire and magic in your veins and send you off to stop the Great Evil.

You’d heard about these stories, even as you lived it. They were filled with wondrous creatures. Talking animals. Dwarves. Orcs. The world you save has magic, Witches and Wizards and Banshees of all sorts. You even befriend a few of them on your quest to vanquish the Great Evil.

And you succeed, too! What are the odds? Maybe it costs you an eye. Or your hand. Or friends. But you do it. You save the world and peace and prosperity reign.

(They tend to leave this next part out.)

Your success means one thing: the Higher Powers don’t need you. Not anymore. You’re a warrior, and this is peacetime. And they certainly don’t need someone as powerful as you roaming about.

So they tear the fire and the magic out of your veins, they heal you up and restore your missing hand. Or eye.

(Not your friends, though. They keep those.)

Then they ship you back to your home world, like the whole thing never happened. You haven’t aged a day, and now you have sit still and learn and live in this body that’s too soft and too weak and too complete.

The shriek of chalk on the board reminds you of that Witch’s scream. You’re startled by your own left hand. You can remember it turning to ash when you fought that sorcerer when you were fifteen. And you’re always cold, now. Because they ripped the magic out of you and nothing can keep you warm.

Now imagine, a few years later:

You go back.

And this isn’t your story.

Not this time. Not anymore.

* * *

I don’t remember how I come to be in the cave. It is a beginning, but only inasmuch as dreams can begin.

The fire is inside me again, crackling and cackling. It feels good.

Like a relapse.

“The King in the Mountain,” they’d told me, “is called upon during the Realm’s hour of greatest need.”

Nobody told me that this hour could happen twice.

I wonder if I’m dreaming of the Realm again. It wouldn’t be the first time. But something sets dreams apart to the true travel between realities: memories of my homeworld are muted in the Realm. Like remembrances of childhood. Vague and textureless and ambient.

The fire inside me turns my memories without magic into a smoky haze.

I’m starting to come to terms with my unbelief as I haul myself off the slab of cold stone when a shock of freezing water engulfs me.

I wonder what proclamations they’ll make as I sink down, down down. The King in the Mountain can’t save the world this time, they’ll say. Peter rolled out of bed and drowned in a lake. I’m off to a great start. Great job.

I surface, then, sucking in a lungful of damp cave-air that makes my chest feel like fire.

Then a scratchy, thick hand seizes the back of my shirt and suddenly I’m kicking at empty air as I am dumped face-first into a rowboat.  

I’m sputtering and coughing and shivering and I can feel the stranger’s gaze on me. King in the Mountain, indeed I think.

Not knowing what else to say, I tell the stranger: “The lake is new.” My head is still on the floor of the rowboat. I can feel it rocking. Or am I just dizzy? “It wasn’t here last time. Did you just get that installed?”

The figure who saved me is a silhouette. A massive man who grunts as he rows. I think I can see the head of an axe resting next to his boots.

My own head is still spinning. I’m trying to figure out how you got back. Why I got back. Who brought me back? I wonder if I know this bearded gentleman. Was he here last time?

A list of half-remembered faces spins through my head like a slot machine as I try to match them up with their names.

I think distantly, What’s a slot machine? and my breath catches in my throat as I realize how fast my memories are fading. No, not fading, I think. The smoke’s getting thicker. If I concentrate, I can see through it.

“I’d recognize that purposeful emotional distance anywhere!” I exclaim. I feel a twinge of guilt at how happy you are to see him. To be back. “Toric, is that you?”

“Who’s Toric?” The man asks. “My name is Gormund, King Peter. I’ve been sent to retrieve you.” Three oarstrokes pass before he speaks again. “You’re smaller than we expected.”

“What are you talking about?” I ask. “Smaller? I was twelve last time! It’s been five years! That’s not how anything works!”

“Twelve?” Gormund echoes. “You sure about that?”

A hole grows in my stomach as I realize that I’m not quite sure how long I was gone. Time passes like dreams in this place. It’s difficult to get a measure on it. Or maybe my thoughts are just clouded. Maybe they’ll clear up. Maybe.

The boat skids against the rocks at the mouth of the cave. I see Gormund silhouetted against the early-morning light. He’s raising an eyebrow. “I’m going to ignore that you said you were twelve.” He steeples his fingers and rests his elbows on his knees, leaning forward. “Instead, let’s address the fact that you just said you’ve been gone for five years.”

“What about it?” I ask.

Gormund looks at me seriously. “Just how long do you think you’ve been gone, One-Eye?”

“One-Eye?” I echo. Peter, I tell myself. Your name is Peter.

“That’s what you’re going to focus on?” He’s incredulous.

“What do you mean, One–” Shattered shards of memory stab into my brain. I remember a dagger. A rogue ambush. A red-glowing eyepatch snapped over an empty socket. Screaming.

I reach to steady myself and flinch when my left hand touches the rim of the boat. I can remember a wand pressing a hole in that palm, and the ashes that spread out from there.  

Oh.

Right.

That.

I check my face. Two eyes. Too complete.

Relieved, I crumple face-first sideways out of the boat.

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5. One Last Day

“Today is the last day,” Isora tells herself, grinning. She unlatches the padlock on her locker and opens the grated door. Tomorrow is her eighteenth birthday. Tomorrow, she is a Boss, in charge of her own faction of the Murder of Crows.

But first: business.

The hauberk in her locker is made from the ruins of what survived the Great Detonations. Swirls of red and blue and black mark where who linked the ringmail had stripped metal from the Old World’s wheelers to make the armor. And sitting on a shelf atop it is a visorless helm, with infinitesimal slits that she can breathe out of. Elsewise, it is entirely sealed.

She doesn’t need the helm as yet. That is more for battle-yard trials, or assignments where her Father wishes her to engage in more open combat in the street. These are not the assignments he has given her today, though she knows better than to express her gratitiude to him for that.

It will not make what he has assigned her today any easier, elsewise.

Isora heaves the pile of ringed metal over her head and lets it land heavily on her shoulders. She rubs away the pain, the rings only slightly pinching at the boiled leather and the flesh beneath it.

Isora smells her companions before she hears them. Khalee smiles of oiled metal, and Desmon smells strongly of gasoline.

Both have a hint of crow feathers. All three of them have been taught from a young age never to forget their cloaks.

“That sounded like it hurt,” Khalee calls before she enters the room. “You sure you didn’t need any help with that hauberk?” Isora hears Khalee’s rattling at she enters.

“I’ll be fine, thanks,” Isora laughs.

“I expect a promotion once you’re a Boss,” Desmon says. His voice is nasal despite his best efforts. “Don’t leave Khalee and me behind to do the grunt work.” She can feel their breaths on either side of her now as she buckles her bladebelt around her waist.

“I’d better get a position as lieutenant,” Khalee says.

Desmon is quick to chime in, “Me too!”

“Yeah,” Khalee laughs, “Because the boy who broke his nose three times is totally commanding enough for a position as lieutenant of the Murder of Crows.”

Isora raises her hands in a gesture of mock-defense that no one else can see. She places a hand on both their breasts. “Guys, please. We’ve discussed this.”

“The third time wasn’t even my fault!” Desmon whines, “Isora, tell her—”

“Calm down, Desmon,” Khalee says. Isora hears her gums smack as her lips break into a smile. “Think of your broken noses as battle scars for the incredibly stupid.”

Desmon clutches Isora’s arm in both hands, pleads her name. She pulls it back, grinning to herself. “I’ll see what I can do.” She is sure to turn to face the direction of Khalee’s voice. “For both of you.”

“You’ll be rotting in the Third Hell if you don’t make us lieutenants. Remember what the Goodbook says.”

“The worst crime is betrayal,” the three drone together as they make their way toward the exit. Their footsteps echo down the hallway. An announcement of their coming.

Isora can feel the dim warmth of torchlights held on the sconces on either wall. The flames are a gray blur in her vision, nothing more.

Khalee is the first to ask what Boss Ivan has assigned them.

“My f—” Isora’s jaw tightens at the mistake she’s nearly made. She fights down the word rising up in her throat. “Boss Ivan has assigned us to take a collection from Maken, then we’ve got an appointment with Lord Em, and then ditch duty.”

“Ditch duty?” Khalee spits her indignation. “Fuck! Please tell me that one’s optional.”

“Take a wild fucking guess.”

At least we’re not battle-yard champions again,” Desmon says.

“Fair enough,” Khalee agrees.

“Isora, which districts did the Crown appoint Lord Em to rule over again?”

“We’ve been over this, Desmon. Typhon Quarter and Muninn Point. Which did you think he ruled? There’s a reason Father’s told us to meet with him—”

“Father?” Khalee asks.

Isora freezes. Her whole body tenses. She feels a fish wriggling in her stomach. She can feel her friends looking at her. She curses herself inwardly for such a stupid mistake. Such a simple mistake. Even her friends know she’s not supposed to do that. In the back of her mind, a small part of her wonders what would happen if one of them went to Fath—no. Went to Boss Ivan.

She does not bother to correct her mistake. They already know what she was supposed to say. It’s no use dragging the mistake through the mud. “Don’t concern yourself with Lord Em just yet,” she tells her companions. “We’ve a debt to settle first.”

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The Vile Assembly – Part 4

The crow’s nest was once where the sick came to die.

Those of the Old World used to see their physicians here. Only the skeleton of its structure remains, to here it told. You’ve come here to see her Father.

You would have words with him.

It is three flights of stairs to the throne room; to the high-backed wooden chair that reeks of lemon-scented lacquer. You wrinkles your nose at it from down the hall.

You shoulders a Crow out of her way, grip the blade belted around your waist. It is a comfort, and you holds it like a lever. As if the blade would steer you to your Father.

Your footsteps whisper across the carpet outside the throne room. You can hear each strand bend under your weight, just so. You can smell her Father’s brandy-breath in the other room. You hears his fingers scratch against the scruff on his face. He sniffs audibly.

As you cross the threshold, she hears, opposite Ivan the third figure.

Azoc.

You does not see him in his motley, but you can hears the shuffling. The foot-to-foot dancing and wordless babbling. A flail made of tin cans dangles from a PVC haft in his hands.

Your face twitches in his direction, but you ignore him all the same.

You have grown used to ignoring his presence. Sometimes it feels as if you have imagined the figure.

Perhaps you have. It’s not like you can remember him without my help.

But telltale signs remind you this is not the case. Beleaguered sighs from her Father at his interruptions. The occasional moment of recognition, fast and faint as a candle-flicker. There and gone in an instant, as Ivan does now as Azoc whirs his tin-can flail.

Unless I’ve made this up. Not that you’ll know.

You turn your will to steel and falls to one knee, ignoring the ruckus behind you. Your crow-cloak must be a half-moon behind you. “Your Grace.”

“Isora. Why would you speak with me so late?” he asks. A smile plays across his lips that you cannot see. You know. And he knows that you know.

“What is your will for me and my partners?” Isora asks. “Years I’ve served you. Acted as your hand and executed your will. Trained for this day. And now I shall serve you. How best would you use me?”

Boss Ivan leans forward, resting his elbows on his knees. Isora hears his back crack as he does this. “I will need you and your partners. I have fashioned you into iron and them into carbon. Your leadership will be their forge fire. You three will be as steel.”

You allows him to continue on like this. Your Father enjoys savoring these moments. You’ve witnessed the price of ruining them. Felt it.

“We need fresh meat if we are to end the Fangs once and for all. Our gang must have supremacy in the city. Not just in Munnin Point, but in all districts.”

“You crippled them,” You say, dumbly. “Years ago.”

“There is an old monster in the Fangs. High in their ranks. One of the elders who have been squabbling for years over who shall be their next Boss. She is a pivotal vote. The monster’s a Lordess,” Ivan tells you. “Yet still, she is but Lordess of the gutters.

Azoc flails the tin cans on its PVC haft. Both of you ignore this.

Your Father stands, takes slow careful steps toward you. You can feel his breath on her face now. Hot and moist. Your lower lip is trembling. His fingers softly brush your arms, and you step into his. Your face is smothered in his tunic, ringed by his crow-cloak.

“The Fangs not all gone. They are rebuilding. Regaining their strength. New men seek the title of Boss from their council of elders. And this gutter-lordess can help them recover from their fall. I have built the old guard. You must establish the next generation of the Murder.”

For a moment, you quail. Indecision curdles inside you. You wants to scream. To push him away. But when he holds you tighter, you shudders and steps closer.

“My child,” Boss Ivan breathes. His breath stirs the top of your head. Spittle flecks the crown of your scalp. “The monsters of Sandpiper Quarter have been regaining their strength. They’ve infiltrated Crown-approved information reserves. There is one such reserve here in Munnin Point. It is where you will find the gutter-lordess. She has been its keeper for years. Right under our noses. Our war begins anew.” He squeezes her, gently.

You gasp. Her heart is aflutter and your hands bunch up fistfuls of your father’s cloak. You sucks in a breath between her teeth.

“Will you be ready?”

“Yes, your Grace,” you say. “I will be ready.”

4. Roaming Remembrances

Silas cannot sleep. In the morning, he is to face Steffron’s rival, Gorm, and bring Steffron his rival, Gorm’s, head. The anticipation is excruciating and he cannot bear to dream.

So he thinks. He remembers.

His exile hasn’t been all survival and violence. Sometimes things could get almost quaint.

He can remember the small child, one night in the highlands. He’d meekly asked for food. He’d let Silas get a feel of him. He’d only a shadow of skin, and deep-sunken eyes that couldn’t remember to blink. Silas had given him his share of rations, much to Ev’s annoyance.

(“He’s dead anyway,” she’d said.)

And when he’d scampered off, Uthrik added, “You two hear that?”

He hadn’t. “Hear what?” Silas asked.

“Moves awfully quick for a starving boy.”

Ev had chewed him out herself for that. Reminded him that there are no monsters beyond Morgad. “Just a bunch of suffering fools,” she’d said.

“Does that make us fools?” Silas asked.

“Yeah,” Ev chuckled. “We’re all fools together.”

Silas can remember Uthrik, once, sitting under the burnt remnant of an old poplar, prying some insects off of his flesh with the flat of his dirk. Halfway through, he’d forgotten that dirks tend to be sharp, and by the time he noticed that he’d braced his thumb against its edge, he’d sawed the pad of his thumb down to the bone.

It had bled worse than the Nailed God’s hands, Silas remembers. Ev had bandaged him up, laughing on the while. So much laughter that she was overflowing with it, and it shook her.

Silas can remember how, two days after he’d been accepted by Steffron and his band of Roamers, Ev and Steffron started playing cards together. They made their own, carved out the numbers from little chips of wood. And all the while he talked to him about what life was life in Morgad, and why he should help him return.

(“When you’re old enough, boy,” Steffron had told him, sniffling as if he could scent Ev’s cards. “When you’re old enough.”)

For a while, it became a nightly practice. They would excuse themselves to the two smoothed-over tree stumps in the back of Steffron’s camp, and they would face each other and place bets on each other’s’ cards. Silas hadn’t followed the rules too well. But one night, Ev was so confident in her hand that she’d bet a kiss on the outcome of the match.

(She had been fifteen at the time. To hear it told now, she thought the whole thing quite childish.)

Ev lost.

They quit their game early that night, and told Silas he needed to get some sleep. But Silas had feigned sleep when he heard Ev returning later that night, heard her running her hands through her hair, which he couldn’t see was in disarray. But he’d heard he combing it free of twigs and leaves and aught else.

She still denies anything happened that night.

(Silas is pulled from these memories by others happenings, days after that. When Gorm and his Roamers had ambushed them for the first time. His friend, Barric, who he’d been of an age with, falling into a nearby river and never surfacing. He’d sank like a stone and stayed down there. Silas hadn’t heard anyone stab him. He didn’t think he’d been wounded. It was like Barric was waiting there at the bottom of that lake, for the fighting to be over, and he would surface. But he never did. And then Silas thinks of Wulf, the first boy he’d loved—and how a few months later, during Gorm’s second raid, Silas had found him swaying on the end of a rope like a decoration. A warning. He’d never had a chance to tell him.)

He pulls himself from these thoughts, now. This isn’t the time for them, he thinks. Not now.

Not now.

It wasn’t always like that, anyway.

He can remember the one time he and Gormund got along. Back when Gormund found some spare herbs in the wake of a raid that he thought would soothe the sore throat he’d been having. But all it did was make him prone to stupid observations. He’d talked about how “Time passing is so weird when you think about it.”

So Silas tried some of the herbs himself, and for the rest of the day he’d never had a better friend than Gormund.

And when it wasn’t close to quaint, or horrifying or melancholy it was just. Waiting. Swinging a blade. Leaving runes behind for the next Roamers. Slapping bugs. Foraging and foraging and foraging. From the days the sun burned his flesh away to the days some Roamers lost some digits to the cold. The number of ways they could die became so plentiful it actually started to bore Silas.

Which was dangerous.

(Is dangerous, he thinks, as he lies in his bedroll, not sleeping.)

Because boredom led to thinking. Which sometimes led to too much thinking, which led something coming out one end or the other from the sheer terror that came with waiting for something to happen. Rival Roamers came at any time. Silas would be milling about, listening to Ev and Steffron playing cards while Uthrik did pull-ups on a tree branch. And then the next moment, they could smell torches and steel and stomping boots, and his stomach would drop down to his groin, and he’d be reaching for a blade or running very far away.

Uthrik did that once. And he didn’t come back once the assailants were dead or fled. Silas started to think of Uthrik as another Barric. He just dropped into the water and didn’t come out. Waited too long for the fighting to end and drowned. He was gone for months.

And then he came back. Told them about how he fled into another band of Roamers. He met a woman and fell in love.

“So why come back?” Silas had asked him.

Uthrik had smiled broadly, which Silas did not see, and he ruffled Silas’s hair and told him he missed him. “I wanted for nothing back there,” he’d said. “That woman took care of me. Like you truly do when you love someone.”

“So why did you come back?”

“That’s the trouble with wanting for nothing,” Uthrik had said. “Makes you want anything.

(This, to Silas, is either very wise or very stupid.)

Silas can remember how Uthrik never talked about that woman again. Wouldn’t even mention her name. Ev said he probably got captured. Silas assume he’d made it up. There hadn’t been a woman. There couldn’t be. That kind of thing didn’t just happen.

And as Silas drifts towards sleep, these memories wheel in his mind, fragmenting to slivers of moment, endless and without beginning:

Listening to crickets with Uthrik, who tells him, “It’s okay if you don’t want to win honor and glory.”

“What do you mean?”

“That’s all my Mother used to tell me. I needed to bring glory to my family. The old woman couldn’t wait for me to join the Enforcers, move up in the Crown. Last thing she ever told me was that I would be the Majesty one day.”

“You couldn’t be the Majesty, Uthrik.” Silas had told him.

“Someone forgot to tell her that,” he’d laughed. And then he stopped laughing, abruptly, and said, “She died when I was fourteen. A few weeks before we left the city.”

Silas can remember Ev teaching Uthrik and Steffron to dance while he watched with the rest of the Roamer’s. She’d tapped their legs or arms, or chest to signal the movement. Just the way her Mother had taught her.

“Where’s the music?” Silas had asked.

“What?” He didn’t see how Ev’s eyes widened.

“If you’re dancing, don’t you need music?”

Or the day Uthrik befriended one of Gorm’s hounds who had been left behind after a raid. He’d fed it, bathed it, and took it everywhere with him for months—and for months, Gormund had told him not to trust it. That the dog was a spy. A monster set loose from the city. Or that one day it would turn on us and kill us in our sleep.

Nobody took Gormund seriously—so one day he decided enough was enough, and the Roamers woke up the next day to Gormund serving roast dog for breakfast.

And, in the final unguarded moments before sleep—Silas remembers these things, too:

The rooting, putrid stench of corpses after a raid.

A chill bluff of wind leaking past his cloak in winter.

A wheatfield, bowing under weighted wind only to rise again after his passing.

White-knuckled hands squeaking against blades corded in leather.

The scraping scream of a charging Roamer girl.

His own blade, red and wet and glistening.

Ev saying, “No choice. It couldn’t be helped.”

Ev saying, “Silas?”

Ev saying, “Talk to me.”

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