This takes place after Tea-Time but before Heroics
The terrain in Reiassan could be your best friend or worst enemy. The south-flowing rivers had helped the Callanthe Army move quickly down into Bitrani territory, but the heavy ridges of the mountains had taken their tolls on both sides. Rin and Girey had followed the valley of the Velka Ree north for a while, but the heavy, intermittent rain had dictated that they find higher ground.
The going was slow even in the dry periods, the goats persnickety, her prisoner as soggy and unhappy as Rin herself. Everything smelled, even the mud underfoot raising a stink with every careful step their mounts took. Rin had finally unlocked Girey’s shackles from the pommel of his saddle, since every quarter hour found them getting off and walking.
“Is that a light ahead?” He’d asked twice before she realized he was talking; the wind had picked up again, rattling the trees.
“Where?” She squinted into the distance. “That could be. Seems the wrong direction for the shelter, though.”
“It’s got to be something. Your people aren’t so stingy that they’d turn away travelers in need, are they?”
“No more than your people are.” He would keep taunting, however thin his jeers were.
“So, we head that way?” He gestured at the heavy clouds. “Another deluge is coming.”
She stared at the dim flicker of light, stretching her senses. She could sense human life that way, faint, likely from the distance and the storm-havoc, but enough sign that the light was probably manmade, and not a forest fire or reflected lightning. “We head that way.”
The goats were happy to oblige; Girey’s lights were a bit downhill from them, and down a well-travelled path that was better paved than their prior route. “See?” he pointed out, as eight hooves clicked on stone. “Civilization.”
“Possibly,” she allowed. It would at least likely lead to a building, and a roof was a roof in weather like this. “At the very least, it’s less slippery.”
“Seems like a weird place to put a road, though.”
“Military transport needs,” she explained. He might be fishing for state secrets, but he wouldn’t be going anywhere they would do him any good, and it was conversation. The road had taken them into a sheltered area away from the worst of the wind, making such talking possible again. “We could be heading towards nothing more than a supply depot, or it might be a quicker cut between two rivers.”
“You don’t know?”
“Do you know every road through all of Bithrain? Besides,” she added, defensively, “I don’t want to get the map wet.”
“So we might be heading into some forsaken corner of the land?”
“Well, it was your idea.”
He had no answer for that, and the rain was beginning to fall again, just little droplets, enough to drizzle down the back of their necks and soak their undershirts, so she wasn’t in the mood for conversation either. The road was going further and further downward, and her earth-sense wasn’t good enough to tell easily if they were riding back into flood-danger. The light was still gleaming, however, guiding them on, getting brighter, as the life-sign got stronger, as they headed slowly downwards against the wind. “Almost there,” she commented, what was probably a half-hour, a damp and chilly half-hour, later.
“Mmrf,” he answered, dismounting, jangling his chains experimentally. “I wish you’d give me a weapon.”
“Prisoner of war.” It was already an old fight. She imagined they’d be having it for a long time to come.
“I haven’t tried to stab you in the back yet.”
They were talking in Bitrani; she could work in it more easily than he could work in Callanthe, and they were less likely to have misinterpretations. She should not have been surprised when the first sound she heard from ahead was that of a sword being pulled from its sheathe.
“The war over,” called a voice from ahead in broken Bitrani. “Go away.”
Girey barked out a laugh. “They think we’re enemy soldiers!” He shook the chains on his shackles for punctuation.
Rin forbore to mention that he was, in actuality, an enemy soldier. Instead, she called in Callanthe, “we are not from Bithrain. I am Rin, healer for the second section of the Fourth Brigade. We saw your signal fire, and the roads aren’t safe to travel right now. May we share your shelter?”
“Callanthe soldiers?” In his own tongue, the pain in the stranger’s voice was clear.
“I am a soldier of the Emperor’s Army,” she confirmed. “Rin Jade-Hand, Rin the Healer. My companion is… my captive. Are you injured?”
“I… yes. Come this way, around the rock face.” If she peered at the light ahead, she could see the edge of a stone wall of some sort. “I’m echoing my voice through the ground, but I can’t do that much longer.”
“It could be a trap,” Girey muttered in Bitrani.
“It could be a shelter,” she countered in the same language. “Don’t stab me in the back?”
“My word of honor.” He said it like an oath. His next words, however, managed to ruin the effect. “I won’t attack you tonight.”
“Tonight,” she repeated dryly, but she couldn’t really fault him that. “Then tonight, I will arm you.” She passed him her axe. He jangled his chains again, but she shook her head, not laughing in his face. “If I unlock you, I’ll never get them back on you,” she pointed out. He shrugged, and hefted the axe experimentally.
“It’ll do,” he admitted grudgingly. “It it’s an ambush, let’s get it over with, so I can be dry again.”
“Are all Bitrani as cheerful as you?” She walked forward, her mount following close behind, Girey to her left hand. “We’re approaching,” she called to the stranger, shifting back to Callanthe.
“I hear you,” he grumbled back faintly. “If you’re brigands, I’m going to kill you.”
“Likewise,” she agreed dryly. They circled the outcropping, the firelight growing brighter.
“Why would you think… bleak lands, I suppose that’s fair. You’re the one with a Bitrani with you – with a weapon, no less.” The fire had been built, it looked, just outside of an old stone building. They could make out the shadow of a form on the other side, but no features.
“Sometimes the Army takes prisoners,” Rin answered mildly. She kept an eye on the man as she circled the fire to the left, Girey circling it to the right. “How are you injured?”
“That’s right, you said you were a healer. Just my luck, isn’t it?”
“The way the world turns is sometimes surprising,” Rin agreed cautiously. Something seemed a little bit off.
“And with a Bitrani prisoner. This ought to turn out well for both of us.” His voice changed as she neared, the diction falling into harsher consonants. “Isn’t that right, brother-in-arms?”
The pieces fell into place as she stepped within line-of-sight of the man. Not Callanthe at all, but, from the looks of him, a Bitrani scholar. That would explain his still with languages; now what she need to know was how Girey would react.
“Bitrani?” her prisoner asked, in that language. “Where from?”
“Addenoes, west of the river,” the man answered, taking his eyes of Rin to answer. “What about you?”
Rin held her breath, wondering whether he’d answer with the lie she’d given him to protect him or his royal truth.
“Tugia,” he muttered.
“They burnt that to the ground and salted what was left, I heard.” He was focused entirely on Girey now; Rin worked her way closer in slow steps.
“They did,” Girey answered. “Slaughtered over half the soldiers.”
“Took you prisoner, did they?” There was an ugly implication in the way he twisted the word, like “camp follower.”
“She did,” Girey agreed neutrally. “And what about you? This far up the border, this soon after the armistice…”
“I’m a scout,” he snapped back angrily. “Or I was. There was really an armistice?”
“Awfully far from your unit, aren’t you?” The suggestion in his tone was just as nasty as the stranger’s had been; he made it sound like “deserter.”
The stranger heard it, too; his skin looked flushed even in the firelight. He was favoring his left leg; it was twisted strangely, and the pants stuck to it as if matted down. “I told you, I was a scout!”
“I’m sure you were.” Girey’s voice was smoother, now; without its customary sullenness, she could see the prince in his demeanor now.
“What’s your problem? The two of us could overpower the healer easily, even with you like that; we can argue politics after the chains are on her wrists instead of yours.”
Rin was right behind him by now, just a hand’s-breadth of air separating them. She reached very slowly for the power, not wanting to cue him to her presence. She’d been wondering if he’d spell it out so baldly.
Girey shook his head slowly. “I promised.”
“What?” That seemed to completely befuddle the man. “We all made promises. Every day back home, we swore oaths we didn’t mean. You have a weapon,” he pointed out. “What are you waiting for?”
“A weapon?” He eyed the axe as if surprised to see it in his hands. “This is just a tool for getting rid of deadwood.” Before the man could react, he swung hard, butt-end-first, against the stranger’s wounded leg; the man tumbled to the ground as if he’d been felled, and Girey set a booted heel on him.
“I keep my promises,” he told Rin quietly.
“Thank you,” she nodded, as she knelt by the wounded man. She wouldn’t insult him by suggesting she’d had doubts, but neither was she going to pretend it had been nothing.
“What are you going to do with him?” he asked, shifting uncomfortably over them, axe still in hand.
Under her hands, the man groaned. “What’s your name?” she asked him, delaying her answer.
“Carvin,” he whined. “Carvin of the Ninth Division.”
Above them, Girey took in a surprised breath. “That explains it,” he said quietly. “Sneaks and liars, criminals. It’s a conscript force, irregulars.”
“I didn’t deserve the sentence!” Carvin writhed unhappily, reaching towards his hip. Rin stopped him easily, holding his wrist firm. “Besides,” he complained, struggling weakly, “why do you care? A traitor and the enemy?”
Rin felt the air chill as Girey went still. “Which one of us do you think is a traitor?” he asked quietly. “The prisoner of war, or the deserter?” There weren’t many more nasty insults in Bitrani than “traitor,” but “deserter” sounded that way in his mouth. The stranger stilled.
“I didn’t desert,” he answered, all bleating gone from his voice. “I left when they were taking surrenders; I didn’t want to end up some posh lady’s pet scribe, or shoveling fields of goat shit for the Callanthe army.”
Rin didn’t look up at Girey to see how that one struck him; instead, she released the probable deserter’s hand to set both of her just above the injury on his leg. In the flickering firelight, the wound looked more than a few days old, the blood caked on the pants, the injury itself crudely bandaged.
“How did you get this?” she asked absently.
“What are you doing to do with me?”
“Heal you.” She studied the wound thoughtfully. “A shovel?”
She could sense no disease within the injury with a quick scan. “You cleaned it?”
“With vodka,” he nodded. “Heal me? Why?”
“Because I’m a healer.” She answered in Callanthe; she didn’t have the energy to spare for the translation right now. Or for the conversation. With a focused thought, she sent his body into slumber.
The bandages were stuck to his leg with blood. Underneath, the scab had opened and was bleeding again after Girey’s well-placed strike. It was an ugly gash, digging deeply into his calf, and must have been torture to walk on. Rin closed her eyes.
The wound went deep into the muscle, and it seemed as if Carvin had ripped it open a few times, but it was slowly mending. Left on its own, it would scar and twist the leg, but if she could convince his body to put things back the way they should be, she could get it on the way to healing cleanly. She sent the síra, bright and green with life, heavy and red with blood and fire, into the tiniest parts of the gash, and coaxed the edges together with her hands and with the force of her magic.
When she finally looked up from her work, the [moon*] had moved well over fifteen degrees in the sky, and her stomach was rumbling threateningly. Carvin still slept, the wound a long red line of scab across his calf.
Rin took a few stabilizing breaths, centering her sight back in the solid world, and looked around for Girey. At first, she couldn’t find him; it took that long for her to realize that, while it was raining, the sound a gentle stream rather than a wild storm, she and their new prisoner were not getting rained on.
Content that Carvin wasn’t going anywhere, she stood, stretching out tired muscles, and looked around. The fire had died down a bit, but someone had clearly been feeding it – Girey, she assumed. He’d stretched the groundcloth out as a roof over them with two of the tent-poles holding up the outer corners, but what was holding the other edge? She finally turned to look behind her.
There was a building there after all, or the remains thereof, a stone building set into the hill, the paper in the windows long since gone but the slate roof looking intact. They’d found shelter.
“It’s a very sharp axe,” Girey commented, softly, from a few feet behind her. She turned, slowly, to look at him, his arms full of chopped wood, the axe in question sitting atop the pile. “You take good care of your tools.”
“They’re more use that way,” she commented blandly, taking half of the pile of wood from him so he could more easily stack the rest. “Thank you for the shelter.”
“You’re unbearable when you’re soaked,” he replied. He was paying a great deal of attention to the layout of the wood pile.
“I’m sure I am,” she agreed. She could see movement just inside the shelter; she stepped inside to see that he had lit a lantern, stripped the goats of their tack, and tethered them in a corner, out of the rain and away from the sleeping area and lantern. “You’ve had a busy hour.”
“I don’t like standing around wet, either.” He fed some wood into the fire. “What are you going to do with him?”
“Not mine.” He toed the sleeping man thoughtfully. “But he probably is a deserter.”
“I was thinking of taking him to the supply depot on the other side of this valley.”
“The supply depot?” Obviously that wasn’t the answer he’d been expecting. Rin could feel an exhausted smile curling her lips up.
“They might have some goat shit that needs shoveling.”
“Ah.” He didn’t quite smile in response, but his lips curled a bit. “I pulled the rope out of the saddlebags. It should work to bind him.”
“I’ll do that, then,” she nodded, “and then I’ll cook us some dinner.”
“By this point, you might as well make breakfast.” It was a standard Girey complaint, but there was no heat behind it. He jingled his chains at her. “Forgetting something?”
She looked at the chains, and then at the axe, and at the unconscious man he’d attacked. “No.” She wouldn’t unchain him completely – it let him not think about leaving; it protected him from farmers with shovels who might be unhappy about having a Bitrani noble wandering around their property; it let them not deal with the question of whether or not he’d stab her in the back tomorrow. But she wasn’t going to tether his shackles to the ground, or to the saddle, not after that.
“No.” She got the ropes from where he’d left them and bound their prisoner.
[*] Moon: working on that one!
Edited to add: I think it’s done!
Thank you everyone! We reached 6 comments, for a touched-up drawing! Plus, two more comments on the drawing of Ysabet’s poem! Thanks!
This entry was originally posted at http://aldersprig.dreamwidth.org/33686.html. You can comment here or there.