science fiction and fantasy writer

From Sorrow’s Gate

My name is my father’s and I will not speak it again in this life. I will not have him damned for my sins.

This thought weighed heavily in my mind as my horse picked her way over the broken terrain.

There was a wisp of smoke, stark against the evening sky above the escarpment ahead. Someone’s cooking fire, I thought, lit too early. I had been doing my best to ignore it, but the path through the maze of cracked rock, sinks and standing stones seemed to turn the horse’s steps inevitably in that direction, even when I sought to guide her away.

Every damned monolith and boulder across the badlands was carved with images of tormented faces. They glared at me as I passed. Mouths stretched in impossible screams. Tongues lolled. Some had eye sockets hollowed out, others were missing noses, ears or lips. Many had smaller faces carved into their eyes or tongue-tips.

The images were worn with time, some so faint their lines held only the barest of shadows. Whatever wretched culture had carved them was long extinct when my forebears first rode down through Sorrow’s Gate – consigned, perhaps, to the hell they had etched for themselves in the surface of the stones.

Mocking me.

I twisted in my saddle to look back. Dust clouds marked Olwaii tribes on the move. These were the army’s followers, not the army itself, but there would be warriors among them, even so – colts and stallions too young or old for the frontline. None of them were close, but that happy circumstance would change quickly if their outrunners spied the smoke.

The sensible thing was to get as far away as possible before that happened. The message stick tucked inside my jacket should be enough to ensure my safety from the Olwaii, but there was no sense tempting fate.

Perhaps it wasn’t a cooking fire at all. It could as easily be a natural spot fire. But if not? Could I ride past without offering even so much as a warning? Or would a few more lives not matter, added to those already weighed against me?

I drew my carbine from the sheath at the front of my saddle. There was a tremor in my hands as I cocked the gun and laid it across my lap.

I nudged my mount with a knee. The horse, of the large, surly variety bred for heavy cavalry, snorted and shook her head.

As I neared the foot of the escarpment, a man stepped from a scree of tumbled boulders. He was big, a Magmardain, with the distinctive brow ridge and freckled complexion of our people. He wore a dishevelled infantry tunic in the moss green of the Empire, the same colour as my own uniform. In his fists he grasped an Army-issue officer’s pistol and an elaborately engraved Olwaii battleaxe. A second man emerged from higher up, another Magmardain, with a marksman’s long rifle held loosely in his hands. The sniper’s clothing was civilian, except for his knee-high cavalry boots.

The one with the axe said, “Who’re you with?”

The smell of anger and fear in the fellow’s sweat filled my nostrils. And something else, a smell I recognized, a smell that wasn’t his. I felt a sinking in the pit of my stomach.

Axe-man was still waiting for an answer.

“On my own since the Gate.”

He was surprised. I tucked my shaking hands under my elbows, cradling the carbine.

“Been following the horsebuggers south across the steppe,” I said. “You?”

“Farmers,” Axe-man said. “From Maultham.”

I gave this answer the credence it deserved, but forbore comment. After a pause, he said, “We’ve food. Could use an extra gun.”

All I had to do was pass on the warning, then be on my way. The sniper watched me from his high vantage with a hunter’s stillness. Fear could make a man overreact. Axe-man was twitchy. No telling what they’d do if I turned my back.

I made a show of easing off the hammer of my carbine, and slotted the gun back into its sheath. I lifted my leg over the horse’s rump and dropped to the ground.

The sniper remained on watch while the other led the way into a ravine concealed between the rocks. Graven faces leered from either side as the walls narrowed. I refused to look at them.

The ravine doglegged between piled boulders, curving before opening out to a width of thirty feet. Rock shelves stepped unevenly up the far end. It was a good defensive position – a very good position, against Olwaii. A man might scramble up the steps, but no horsebugger could. These deserters weren’t complete fools, then.

Two more Magmardain men squatted by a small campfire, roasting something that smelled like horseflesh. Bundles of bloody sacking hung from the branches of a dead tree, surrounded by clouds of flies. I put a hand on my mount’s nose as she whickered her displeasure. She pulled away irritably. My own mouth watered.

Across the ravine from the fire, three more men sat in a row with their backs to the rock wall. Haneshmen, dressed in a mix of civilian clothes and the dun-coloured uniforms of the Empire’s southern vassals. Smaller than Magmardain, with beaky noses and large, upswept ears, they were alike enough to mark them as brothers.

I noted that while the Magmardain at the fire had weapons beside them, the Hanesh were unarmed. A row of guns and blades leaned against the ravine wall on the far side of the Magmardain pair. Near the propped weapons, a man lay, face in to the cliff, heedless of the flies that settled on him. Another Magmardain, evidently asleep.

Two women squatted beneath an alcove in the rock wall: one Magmardain, with a mop of reddish curls straggling around her ears, the other a Haneshwoman with corn-coloured tresses. The Magmardain woman was pale and sweating, cradling her swollen belly between her thighs. As I watched, her face twisted into a grimace of pain, mirroring for a moment the screaming faces that dotted the rock above the alcove.

The two by the fire stood. The larger was a brown-toothed brute half a head taller than me or any of his fellows. Coarse hair grew on the backs of his hands and on his cheeks almost up to his eyes. His fingernails were thick and black and his jaw protruded beneath his nose. This one was as much bear as man, even in human form, stretching himself up and raising his chin to look down on me from maximum vantage. I fought down a powerful urge to meet the challenge.

He grunted, “What’s this? Another stray?”

“Says he’s alone, Ronnal. Made it through from the Gate.”

‘Ronnal’s features shifted even more towards the bear. “Got a name, cavalryman?”

I ducked my chin, showing submission. “None of any consequence,” I said. I noticed a small face, a boy of three or four, peering around the arm of the pregnant woman.

The bearskin snorted. “It’ll be well for you if you’ve brought no horsebuggers down on us.”

“You’ll bring the Olwaii down on yourselves,” I replied, softly. “You’ve lit your fire too early.”

His eyes strayed upwards. With a snarl, he kicked dirt over the fire. “I hope you like raw mule.”

There was a trickle of water down the back wall of the ravine. They’d dammed its base with rocks, to make a pool deep enough to dip water from. I led my horse over to it. She shouldered me aside as soon as she realised where I was taking her and slurped noisily.

My gaze was drawn back to the man lying by the wall. Something in the loose posture of his limbs bothered me. He wasn’t sleeping at all.

The dead man’s right arm lay along his side, hand dangling by his hip. From the colour of his skin, death had been very recent. I eyed the bearskin, Ronnal, tearing into a hunk of half-cooked mule. Accident or murder, I wondered.

#

My sabre clattered on the stone as I hitched it out of the way of my legs and knelt. The pregnant woman was in the middle of a contraction.

“How far gone is she?” I asked her companion.

The Haneshwoman – girl, I corrected myself, on closer viewing – didn’t reply, just stared, her eyes dull.

“Two fingers,” said the Magmardain woman, panting, and: “Daedre doesn’t talk.”

I skewered a strip of meat from my plate with my dagger and offered it to her. I’d re-lit the fire once darkness fell. My fellow Magmardain had watched in silence. The Haneshmen had waited until I was done, then mutely retrieved meat from the tree for themselves. They squatted in silence around the flames, narrow shoulders hunched to shield them from the stares of the Magmardain. None of the men had offered food to the women.

The pregnant woman watched the meat jiggle with the shaking of my hand. “I’d only puke it back up.”

“For the boy.”

“Oh.” Awkwardly, she reached behind her and dragged the boy out of the alcove’s shadows. He hugged close to his mother’s side.

“His name’s Lucas,” she said.

“Hello, Lucas.” The boy tried to shrink back again. His mother took the strip of meat and offered it to him. Lucas turned his face away to eat.

“Thank you,” the woman said. “I’m Clara.”

I offered the plate to Daedre. She stared at it, but made no move.

“Man said you folk hail from Maultham,” I said. “Long way for a woman in your condition.”

Clara indicated my meal. “Well, I had a mule to ride, ’til it foundered two days ago. Hike up to here finished me off.”

A shadow fell across us – one of the Haneshmen. He sat on the bare rock between Clara and Daedre. I noted the quick brush of his fingers across Clara’s hand.

“Daffeth,” he introduced himself. “You were at Sorrow’s Gate when the horsebuggers broke through?”

I clenched my trembling fingers around plate and knife, and stabbed a strip of meat to fold into my mouth. I nodded as I chewed.

“How’d they do it?” Daffeth asked. “Gate’s held against them for a century and a half.”

I continued to chew, resisting the prickling urge in my muscles and bones. My own guilt driving it, not this Haneshman’s reasonable question. Across the fire, Ronnal’s head came up. “Someone opened it,” I said.

Daffeth took a moment to digest my answer, then said, “Red Lady spit on that man’s soul.”

The firelight seemed to animate the faces carved into the ravine wall. “That she will,” I murmured. I lifted my chin in the direction of the dead Magmardain. “What happened to him?”

Daffeth’s expression was weary in the flickering light. “That’s Aen. He thought this sorry band could be better led. Was Aen who brought Clara along with them and Aen who picked up my brothers and I and Daedre, here. He claimed Clara’s child for his.”

“His and ten others,” Clara said. Her laugh ended in a gasp. Her cheeks puffed as she exhaled in rapid pants.

“Picked you up around Maultham,” I said, neutrally.

A wry smile twitched Daffeth’s lips. He shrugged. “Aen thought my brothers and I would stand with him against four other Magmardain – and one of them a bearskin at that. Ronnal killed him this morning.”

The giant was still watching. His black eyes glittered. I raised my plate of meat in salute. Ronnal sneered and looked away. I asked, “What news?”

Daffeth was silent for a moment, staring at the fire, then said, “Big battle at Sunderford-on-Rune. Lord Harchesser tried to stop the horsebuggers with whatever reservists and convalescent odd sods he could scrape together into a semblance of an army. Better luck turning back the sea.” After another pause he added, “So we heard.”

“Olwaii won’t stand up to Imperial regulars,” I said, as much to myself as to Clara and Daffeth. “They’ll be pushed back across the river soon enough. Even if they’re not, the passes over the Mountains of Spine are well fortified. The Olwaii won’t get any further south.”

Daffeth looked at me curiously. “A relief for my countrymen, I suppose, and all the provinces, rebel and loyal, south of the Spine. Cold comfort for a Magmardain such as yourself.”

“Sorrow’s Gate was well fortified, too,” said Clara.

“What of the rebellion?” I asked.

The Haneshman toyed with some pebbles at his feet, picked one up. “The rebels will win, now. Magmardaia will bring her troops home to deal with the Olwaii. The Hanesh marches that remain loyal can’t stand by themselves.”

“The tide had already turned anyway,” said Clara. “There was news a month ago that the rebels caught Lord Starkney and the Fifth Army napping in Walathia. Slaughtered half of them and captured the rest.”

“Whole damn front collapsed back to Faulkham,” Daffeth added. “Word from the east was as bad. Bellingrack fallen, all of Ylainia gone rebel.”

I listened to this in silence. My eyes felt hot. I forced my breath to come out slowly between my teeth. So the war had been won, regardless. The faces in the walls were laughing at me.

“Hanesh!” Ronnal barked. “More meat.”

One of Daffeth’s brothers rose from his seat.

Daffeth tossed his pebble. It skittered away into the shadows.

#

I could make out the moving mass at the foot of the approaching dust cloud, but not the individuals that comprised it, yet. The Olwaii scouts that had arrived during the night milled around in the lee of a twisting stone archway, their features indistinct in the thin light of false dawn. Their shapes were horselike, but with the rider’s torso where the horse’s head should’ve been.

“Well, we’re done now, cavalryman,” said Ronnal. The bear-stink of him, crouched beside me, was almost overpowering. How flawed was he, I wondered, this deserter who should have been among the elite of Magmardain society?

How flawed was I?

Ronnal smirked, “Glad you stayed to share a meal with us, eh?”

I followed as he slunk back into the ravine. One of the other Magmardain remained in his perch among the higher rocks, a horn in his hand and his rifle propped beside him.

“We’re leaving,” Ronnal announced.

“Clara can’t travel,” Daffeth said.

“Then she stays,” the bearskin snarled.

The Haneshman rose slowly from his seat and faced him, but kept his eyes carefully downcast. “We can’t just abandon her to the horsebuggers.”

The giant roared, lashing out even as he shapeshifted, his clawed fist coming up from waist height to catch Daffeth under the chin.

Daffeth’s brothers rushed to his side. Rage and fear warred on their narrow faces, their knuckles clenched white. A rifle hammer clicked. Ronnal spread his arms wide, raising his muzzle to make himself as large as possible.

I say we leave her,” he slurred.

Daffeth levered himself up onto one elbow, spitting blood.

I looked past them, to the women crouched in the shadows of the overhang. Clara gritted her teeth against a contraction, enduring it in silence. Terror added to her pallor. I couldn’t hold her pleading stare.

My bones throbbed, my heart pounded. I took a step, tucking my head low and pulling my shoulders in. Carefully, I walked through the middle of the standoff and bent over the corpse of the man named Aen. The dead face was caught in an expression of disbelief. Flies buzzed away from his torn throat.

Rigor mortis had passed, and the body flopped loosely as I hefted it across my shoulders. Even close up, I could barely distinguish its odour from that of the slaughtered mule.

“What’re you doing?” Ronnal growled. His black nose twitched, furred ears flat against his bear’s skull.

“Buying time,” I said. I made my way out to the mouth of the ravine. The sentry began to raise his gun, but hesitated when I shook my head.

I stepped out into the open and cupped a hand to my mouth. “Olwaii!” I called. “I wish to parley!”

My cry triggered instant commotion among the Olwaii scouts. A couple of young colts charged towards me. An older male called them back. Urgent hand gestures were exchanged, accompaniment to an argument that was beyond my hearing.

Finally, the old stallion called out, “Come ye hither and talk, two-legs, if ye dare.”

“You’re mad, cavalryman,” said Ronnal at my shoulder, back in human shape.

I glanced at him but didn’t reply, other than to hand over the pistol and sabre from my belt. I adjusted the body’s limp weight across my shoulders and strode down the slope.

The Olwaii warrior who had answered my cry came forward to meet me. He, too, had left his firearm behind, but dangled a blade from his hand that was somewhere between a sword and a cleaver.

The Olwaii’s large ears and inelegant nose betrayed his Hanesh ancestry. His hair and beard were white, his skin wrinkled and leathery. There was white in the hair of his chest and fetlocks, too. An arthritic hitch in his gait suggested that soon he would no longer be able to run with the tribe. His jaw protruded, bulging with carnivore fangs.

We halted when the distance separating us was a handful of yards. The Olwaii regarded me with a mixture of curiosity and suspicion.

The ribs and belly of his human torso expanded and contracted bizarrely, filled by horse-sized lungs – the heart, liver and other organs located within the horse ribs below. The equine body tapered behind the ribcage, a grazer’s barrel stomach superfluous for a meat-rich diet. Otherwise, he resembled a smaller version of my own horse.

The Olwaii bared his fangs. “What be this?”

“A gift,” I replied. I shrugged the body from my shoulder. It thumped into the dirt.

The Olwaii licked his teeth, evidently bemused and amused in equal parts. “And what ask ye in return?”

“Turn aside. Leave us be.”

The Olwaii laughed, taking in my trembling hands. He hefted his weapon. “And why think ye that ye’ll even be walking back to yon rocks, two-legs, when we could have ye as well and twice the meat?”

I reached inside my tunic and produced the carved and painted message stick. The Olwaii froze.

“Tis free passage for ye alone,” he said, at length.

“Nonetheless.”

“And why should I honour it?” the Olwaii sneered.

“Because those colts down there will use the dishonour against you, if you don’t.”

The Olwaii guffawed again, a genuine belly laugh. “Go back to yon rocks, two-legs. Sleep ye well this night.”

Ronnal was waiting for me at the mouth of the ravine.

 “Aen’s bought us a day,” I said.

Smirking, the giant handed me back my pistol and sword. “So he was good for something, after all.”

#

Little Lucas grizzled at his mother’s side, frightened by her distress. I tossed a few more dry sticks onto the small fire I’d set near her.

“What did you do with Aen?” she asked, as the contraction subsided. She gratefully accepted the water-skin I offered.

“Not Aen,” I said, gazing into the flames. “Just the meat he left behind. I gave it to the Olwaii.”

I could feel her stare.

Ronnal’s followers moved about the campsite, gathering up their meagre belongings. Daffeth sat against the far wall with his brothers, his eyes closed, the lower part of his face swollen and bruised. I imagined the watchers in the walls focusing their malign attention on the labouring woman. Even without the threat of the Olwaii, it was a poor place to bring a new life into the world.

Another contraction overtook her. “It’s coming,” Clara gasped.

I snapped alert. “What can I do?”

“Blanket for the baby ,” she panted. “In the rucksack.”

I cast about and spied the rucksack a short distance away, near where Daedre crouched at the edge of the firelight.

“Daedre,” I said. “Pass me the sack.”

She made no move to help, only raised her eyes to look at me. I sighed and pushed myself to my feet. I scooped up the rucksack and knelt in front of Clara again to search through it. Clara hitched her skirt, exposing her bare legs and backside. There was a puddle of thick blood between her feet. She steadied herself with a hand on my arm, fingers digging into my triceps, as she bore down again.

“Daffeth,” I called, then more sharply: “Daffeth!”

The Haneshman opened his eyes.

“Get a blanket from my saddlebag, will you?”

One of Daffeth’s brothers shot me a glare and started to spit a reply, but Daffeth put up a hand to stay him.

“Cavalryman,” said Ronnal, standing over us. “We’re leaving. You’re welcome to come with us.”

I didn’t take my attention off Clara. “I’ll stay.”

“Your funeral.” The bearskin gave a derisive snort. “Daedre, you’re coming.” He stooped to grip the girl’s arm.

“You don’t have to,” I said, softly. Daedre said nothing, but remained where she was.

“Says who, she doesn’t?” Ronnal growled, his face lengthening as he half-shifted. Clara stared at me. I didn’t move.

Impatiently, Ronnal hauled the girl to her feet and started walking. Daedre followed him docilely.

“Leave their guns,” I called after him.

Ronnal hesitated for half a step, then, with a rough jerk of Daedre’s arm, kept walking.

The four Magmardain climbed the stone steps at the back of the ravine, half-carrying, half-pushing Daedre up with them. The Haneshmen watched in silence. At the top, one of Ronnal’s followers turned and tossed two of the rifles back down into the ravine. Daffeth’s brothers cursed him and hurried to inspect the weapons for damage.

“Oh gods, it’s coming!” Clara’s last word disintegrated into a long cry.

Little Lucas’s grizzling rose to a wail. He tugged at his mother’s arm. I prised his small fingers loose and dragged the boy away from her. Lucas screamed and fought, flailing with fists and feet.

“Daffeth! The blanket!”

Daffeth hurried over. I snatched the blanket and thrust Lucas towards the Haneshman. Daffeth retreated with the struggling boy in his arms.

Clara’s body flexed. Her hands, resting on my shoulders, clenched once more. Her cry drew out so long that I wondered that there was any air left in her lungs.

“Go around behind me,” she gasped. I supported her while she took her hands from my shoulders and placed them on the ground. Her whole body shook. I hurried around to kneel behind her.

She pushed again, ending with a fighter’s yell.

“The head’s out!” I exclaimed. Dark hair plastered the baby’s scalp. Its eyes were tight shut. The little mouth worked in a parody of suckling.

Clara reached between her legs and felt with trembling fingers. She gathered herself for a final effort. The baby came with a suddenness I wasn’t expecting, corkscrewing and accompanied by a gush of blood as soon as its shoulders were free. The tiny body slithered over my fingers and landed on the blanket beneath. The baby’s eyes snapped open. Its chest heaved and it screamed. Clara sagged.

I quickly took the blanket from my lap and bundled it around the baby. Clara whimpered as my efforts tugged on the cord that still connected her to the new child.

“It’s a girl,” I said, to Clara, passing the infant forward, between her legs. “She’s a girl.”

Clara took her daughter. With painful slowness, she lay down on her side and fumbled inside her shirt for her breast to give the child her first suck.

I reached out a finger to stroke the baby’s ear, the helix curled tightly over on itself, in the manner of Hanesh children. I glanced over at Daffeth, watching wide-eyed from the far side of the ravine, still clutching Lucas to his chest.

Clara gave me an exhausted smile. “And ten others,’ she said.

#

The rest of the Olwaii tribe arrived overnight. By dawn, their camp sprawled beneath a haze of woodsmoke. Dogs and Olwaii foals raced around and between tall, round-sided tents. Goats bleated and cattle lowed. A light breeze carried the curdled stench of the tribe across to the ravine mouth, of faeces and unwashed bodies, boiled fats and rancid hides.

Cries of misery arose as well. There were prisoners chained and pegged among the livestock. As the sun rose, their voices broke into terrified screams. One drawn-out wail climbed above the rest. Soon after, the wind brought the scent of roasting meat.

I listened with my eyes burning and lips pressed shut, fighting both the strain of my bones and the pressure in my chest that threatened to burst out as a cough or sob.

Red Lady spit on me.

Two parties of warriors galloped from the Olwaii camp and raced in opposite directions, following the face of the escarpment.

“They’ll find a way up,” Daffeth said through his swollen lips.

“Sooner or later,” I agreed.

Daffeth grunted and withdrew back into the ravine. I remained, observing the Olwaii. Two females caught my attention as they disciplined a group of youngsters. They had human breasts, rather than horses’ udders, but slung lower on their torsos than a woman’s would be. Halter-tops were their only vestige of modesty. As I watched, the mares scattered the youngsters with waves of their arms. A solitary foal remained. One of the females lifted her halter to suckle him. The foal’s tail wriggled like a lamb’s while he drank.

Picking up my carbine, I eased myself back down below the top of the rocks. I glared back at the stone faces as I passed through the ravine’s narrow passage.

I put a hand on my horse’s neck, adjusted the straps of her feedbag. Daffeth and his brothers were gone, the campsite deserted, except for Clara, still lying propped against my saddle, with both her children curled in her arms. The horse butted me. I scratched between her eyes.

“Soon,” I murmured, moving away. “We’ll be gone soon.”

I squatted beside Clara. Her face was deathly pale.

“They’ve gone,” she said.

“Yes. So will we.”

“I’m not strong enough to climb.”

“We’ll ride.”

“Have the horsebuggers gone?”

I hesitated. Lucas stared up at me from the crook of his mother’s arm. I brought out the Olwaii message stick. My hand shook as I held it for her to see.

“This is free passage,” I said.

Her frown deepened. “How did you come by such a thing?”

My heart felt like a rock in my chest, inert and ungiving. “My family hails from Syrencester,” I said. Clara frowned. It was a rebel city, south of the Mountains of Spine.

“I crossed the Spine into Magmardaia eight years ago,” I went on. Her eyes widened. “My orders were to establish myself in the home provinces, then join the Imperial army and volunteer for posting to Sorrow’s Gate.”

Her expression crumbled into bleak comprehension. “Say it,” she said.

I had to bow my head before the words would come. “I opened the Gate,” I whispered.

“Eight years,” she murmured. “Do you hate us so much?”

Hate? I’d thought so, once. But that had faded long ago. “I’m a soldier,” I said. “I carried out my orders.”

“You’re a rebel.” She pressed her eyelids shut. Moisture squeezed past her lashes. “What’s your name?”

The urge to tell her burned on my tongue. I swallowed it. “The same as my father’s,” I said. “I’ll not speak it again in this life.”

“The Lady spit on you.”

I looked up at the twisted faces, laughing down at me from the rock above. “That she will,” I said, softly.

I let her weep for a while, then said, “We have to go.”

Clara’s gaze was unfocused. After a time, she whispered, “I’m still bleeding.”

I saw the dark spotting on the front of her skirt, and lifted the hem. Blood covered her thighs and soaked the fabric underneath. It was pooling on the rock behind her.

“It should’ve slowed by now,” she said.

I was surprised to find my eyes dry.

“Don’t let them have my babies.”

“I won’t.” I stood. “I won’t.”

Hurrying back to the ravine mouth, I heard the drumming of hooves. I drew my sword, let the shift come at last. Fur sprang from my skin. Bones cracked as my face changed shape. My arms lengthened, black claws sprouted from my fingers. I roared. A party of Olwaii warriors charging up the slope skidded to a halt, tripping over their own legs when they saw me leap up onto the rocks.

After a pause, one of them continued at a trot towards me, a grey haired veteran with the helices of his ears cropped in the archaic warrior fashion of the Hanesh. He stopped beneath the stone shelf where I crouched.

“Ulrac-thane, am I, of the Gunrun Olwaii.”

I held up the message stick in my claws.

The Olwaii stamped a foot, horselike. “Ye would do well to leave, bearskin.”

“I wish to trade, first,” I said, slurring past my bear’s teeth and tongue.

One eyebrow twitched. “Oh?”

“I want a nanny goat, in milk.”

The Olwaii chuckled. “And what have ye to offer in return?”

I indicated the ravine. “What I’ll leave back there.”

“Offer ye that which we have in plenty and will take anyway.”

“I offer honourable trade over a dishonourable fight,” I countered.

The Olwaii’s eyes flickered. “How many leave ye behind?”

“Just one body.”

“Fresh?”

I was glad the bear’s muzzle hid my expression as I nodded.

“The rest?”

“Climbed the back of the ravine.”

“Their number?”

“Eight,” I replied. I felt a twinge of regret for Daedre. “Two groups. Five and three.”

The Olwaii regarded me thoughtfully. “Find ye it easy to betray your own people?”

The words speared me. I almost choked on my reply. “Yes.”

The Olwaii tossed his head with a laugh. “Ye shall have your milking goat, bearskin.”

#

I cocked my pistol as I walked up the ravine. The tremor in my hands was such that I wondered if I’d be able to aim it, even point-blank. The nanny goat bleated as I tugged her along. I’d shifted back, but she could smell the bear on me.

I stopped in surprise. Daffeth knelt beside Clara and her children. I tied the goat’s tether to the saddle of my horse and approached them.

“Where are your brothers?” I asked.

Daffeth eyed the pistol in my hand. “They’re gone.”

I released the pistol’s hammer and re-holstered it.

“They wouldn’t turn back,” he continued. “But I couldn’t just leave her like that.”

Clara’s eyes were shut, sunken in her ashen face. Her breathing was shallow, her lips turning blue-grey. The arm that held the baby to her breast was limp. Lucas crouched beside her, a frightened animal. Daffeth stroked the baby’s fuzzy head, touched her curled ears.

“Yours?” I said.

He huffed a laugh. “Who knows? Clara certainly doesn’t.” He sobered. “Could be. She was following Harchesser’s camp when my regiment was transferred from Walathia. I lay with her a few times, long enough ago. She was why I talked my brothers into going along with Ronnal and Aen when we ran into them after Sunderford-on-Rune.”

“Your brothers leave you a gun?”

“No.” He gave me a searching look, then lifted his chin towards the goat. “Horsebuggers gave you that?”

I squatted slowly, weariness pushing me down. I took the message stick from my jacket, held it for him to see. “This is safe passage for one.”

“So it was you that did it, then.”

I nodded. He didn’t curse me, just watched, and waited for me to speak again.

My hand was steady as I offered the stick to him. “I want you to take it. Take my horse, take the children with you.”

“What about Clara?”

“I’m dying.”

Clara’s eyes were open, but barely. With an effort, she pushed the baby towards Daffeth. He gathered the child up. She squirmed and croaked a protest.

“Remember me in her,” Clara said, her voice barely louder than a breath.

“I will.” His voice was choked, tears running freely down his cheeks. “I’ll see them both grown.”

I reached for Lucas. The boy gripped his mother’s arm tightly. “No!”

I wrenched him loose. Clara raised her hands after her son, mouthing reassurances, but her words were lost in the boy’s shrieks.

I thrust Lucas up onto the front of my horse’s saddle. The nanny goat, tethered to the pommel, bleated. I half-shifted, baring my teeth in the boy’s face. Lucas continued to grizzle, but his thrashing stilled.

“Sit still, or you’ll fall and hurt yourself.”

Awkwardly, cradling the baby inside his tunic, Daffeth heaved himself up behind Lucas. I slotted the carbine into its holster.

“There’s ammunition and hard tack in the saddlebags,” I said. “Cup, spoon, flints and tinder.”

Daffeth nodded. “Thank you.”

I stroked the horse’s nose as she looked askance at these unfamiliar people on her back.

“Go on,” I told Daffeth.

He squeezed the horse’s ribs with his knees. She tossed her head. I gave her a slap on the flank as she passed.

I walked back to Clara. Her head had fallen to the side, her eyes open but unseeing. I had to bow my head a moment before I lifted the body.

“Hold onto the mane, lad,” I heard Daffeth say as I followed them down the narrow passage. I met the stares of the leering faces in the rock without flinching. Clara’s dead weight was heavy in my arms.

The Olwaii warriors had gathered a short distance from the mouth of the ravine. They stirred when Daffeth emerged on the horse, milling in confusion when I followed and laid Clara’s body in front of the rocks at the ravine mouth. A couple of colts started towards Daffeth, but the thane called them back, his gaze fixed on me while I climbed the rocks and drew my pistol and sabre.

Daffeth held up the message stick as the horse made her slow way down the slope. The nanny goat bleated a protest at a sudden pull on her tether rope and jogged to catch up with the horse. The Olwaii shifted restlessly. Their thane’s face was a study of indecision.

I knelt on the rock and laid my weapons before me. Holding his eye, I shapeshifted.

After a long moment, the thane nodded and directed two of his warriors to come and retrieve the body. They cast nervous glances my way, slowing as they neared, then with a sudden rush scooped up Clara by wrists and ankles and trotted away, their torsos stiff, tails held up.

Just the meat that’s left behind, I told myself, but had to avert my eyes even so. I watched Daffeth dwindle into the distance amongst the scattered stones, with his orphans and his nanny goat. I wondered if he’d convince himself that the baby was his.

The Olwaii were jogging back to camp with their prize. The thane had remained. He raised his axe above his head in salute, then extended the weapon towards me before turning to follow.

They would be back tomorrow. I would be waiting.

~END~

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