Loosely, after Enemy, before View-point (And many of the small stories in between will have to be re-ordered as I go.
Note to self: figure out military ranks and units).
Their long weeks in the mountains had finally spat them out into a long, green valley, just above a small settlement. They were both quiet, contemplative or just sick of hearing their own voices, and tired enough to be nodding in the saddles. They hadn’t even fought in days; they’d gotten too worn for that.
Small as it was, the town would likely have some sort of inn. An inn would mean food she didn’t have to cook over a fire, or watch Girey burn over the same fire, food that wasn’t dried tack and dried bread with dried fruit for flavor. She leaned forward over her saddle, not surprised to see Girey doing the same thing. Some things were just in a soldier’s veins, no matter the army or the nation. Food, a bed, a roof, those would spur them on like a goat to grain.
They goaded their goats faster as the hill began to level out, and then faster still as the smells of cooking meat reached their noses, until they were racing down the hill, galloping, pressed against their tired goats’ necks as if they were riding for their lives.
As the path widened into the flat road of town, they slowed, whooping and laughing, panting in exhaustion as sudden as their surge of energy had been. “I haven’t ridden like that in…” Rin fell quiet at Girey’s sudden, silent frown, and turned to follow his gaze. “Ah.”
They weren’t the first to reach this valley as a way-station from the war, it seemed. Tents were pitched in the town square and, against the hitching post of the tavern, several Bitrani prisoners were chained. More prisoners moved among the tents, and, to the side of the road, an officer was talking quietly with a townswoman, a potter by her dress, while another prisoner, this one a woman, stood nearby, shackled, waiting.
Girey’s gaze was still on those chained to the hitching post, and his eyes had narrowed, his hands clenched into fists. Rin, carefully, set a hand on his forearm, above the shackles. “Let’s get a room,” she suggested in Bitrani, gesturing at the inn across the street from the tavern.
He jerked as if he’d been slapped, and then, slowly, looked down at the chain between his wrists and nodded. “A room.”
“Once we’re settled,” she offered, still speaking in his native tongue, and quietly, “we can take a walk through the town.”
He glanced at her, looking like he was trying to guess at her motives. “We could,” he agreed reluctantly in the same language. He looked as if he was about to continue with a refusal when, somewhere in the camp, someone cried out in pain. His hands and jaw clenched again, and he nodded, slowly. “We should.”
His silence had a new tone to it as they took their room – not a great room, not even a good room, but it had a wide straw ticking of bed, the sheets looked and smelled clean, and it came with a hip-bath of warm water. They both cleaned up, not looking at each other, not speaking to one another. Rin wondered how angry he was going to get and, if he decided to throw a fit, how far she’d have to go to stop him. In a tiny, rebellious part of her mind, she wondered how far she’d be willing to go, if it came to that.
“Are you going to tell me they’re not my people anymore?” His voice was like a rasp, raw and pained, his consonants sharp. “That Girey of Tugia has no concern for Bitrani prisoners?”
She buttoned her qitari and clipped her rank-pin on the button band. “Girey of Tugia,” she answered slowly, “would of course be concerned for other Bitrani. Especially if there were any from Tugia there – which would be a little problematic to you, of course.”
“Of course,” he grumbled.
“But Rin the healer, you may have noticed, concerns herself with healing prisoners as well as with her countrymen.”
“I’ve noticed that,” he muttered. “Why are we talking about ourselves like this?”
“Because we’re talking about what we’re putting forth, not who we are. And I’m putting forth something that will let you check on the well-being of your countrymen.”
“Because you care. And because I care.”
“Fine,” he grumbled. “Let’s go.”
The folk in the inn stared blatantly at Girey, and muttered into their drinks. The Ossulunders had been more polite about it, and, so close to the border, he hadn’t stood out. Here, he was taller than almost everyone in the meal hall, and lighter-haired. The stares made him stand up taller, raise his chin, push his shoulders back, and meet their gazes levelly and arrogantly. He looked, Rin mused, like a Prince.
If the townsfolk in the inn saw that, or if they saw her rank insignia, or if they simply saw two tired, cranky soldiers and decided to leave well enough alone, they came, as a group, to a conclusion that the two of them were not to be bothered, and got out of their way.
Taking full advantage of this, Rin led the way back into the town, past the prisoners at the hitching post, past the townswoman now talking carefully in small, loud words to the captive, past the front tents of the encampment. The prisoners’ tent would be obvious, as it always was, from the smell.
They were stopped before they reached it. “Can I help you… Healer?”
The soldier that stopped them was clean, smooth-shaven, with trimmed hair and shiny buttons on his qitari. Rin read his rank – none to speak of – and answered brusquely. “We’re here to see the prisoners.”
“You’re not part of our unit…” he hesitated.
“Since when has a healer needed to be?”
“And that prisoner isn’t one of our shipment.”
“No. He’s my private captive. Take me to see the prisoners.”
“Yes, Lady Healer.” He nodded and walked backwards towards the tent for a few steps. “Are you from the front?”
“Not with your unit?”
“I was released from duty on the signing of the surrender. I’m making my own way home. And your unit?”
“We were the clean-up crew.” He looked a little embarrassed at that. “We arrived in time to escort the prisoners north.” Girey, next to her, was tense but silent. She spared him a glance, to be sure he wasn’t going to blow up. He met her eyes and ducked his chin a finger’s-width.
“Where are you taking them?”
“We’re spreading them out among the towns and villages, people who can use the help and can afford the crown’s price. Here’s the tent.” He opened the flap for her, standing back from the smell, and told the soldier at the entrance – just as shiny and clean as he was – “the Healer is here to examine the prisoners.”
“That gets you in everywhere,” Girey muttered in a whisper of Bitrani.
“That’s the idea,” she answered the same way. “I’m useful everywhere.”
And in this tent, as everywhere else, her use was needed. She looked around in the dark, feeling rather than really seeing the prisoners, tense and waiting, and then stuck her head back out the flap. “Air this place out. It stinks to the sky in there.”
“Yes, Lady Healer.” The soldier opened the flap, and then circled the ancient structure to open the back as well, letting in light and air, and letting out a few too many flies for Rin’s peace of mind.
“Get me some watered wine,” she barked, “and a basin of washing-water, as well.”
Girey knelt by the first prisoner, a low noise of anger rumbling up in his throat. “Filthy conditions,” he muttered in Bitrani.
“Can you say your people treated prisoners better?” she countered quietly. He had no answer for her, there. And, indeed, although the prisoners were dirty, most of the stink came from fear, not from filth.
She spent an hour in the tent, healing what needed healing, and cleaning what needed cleaning. The prisoners were, to her eye and nose, dirty, frightened, and uncertain, but in as good of health as could be expected, given the terrain and the march there.
Girey spoke to them as she healed them, their voices low, the conversation furtive and uncertain. They didn’t know what was happening to them. They didn’t think that the Callanthe kept slaves. They worried they were going to be sacrificed to some pagan god.
Girey soothed their fears as much as he could – as far as he knew, the Callanthe still worshipped the Three. He did not think they engaged in human sacrifice off the battlefield. His own shackles were proof that they kept prisoners, and his cleanliness was proof that the filth was not necessarily going to last forever.
When they were done, Rin swaying on her feet a bit, they left the tent open and sought out an officer, leaving the well-shaven young soldiers behind.
The officer was, perhaps unsurprisingly, in the tavern, speaking with a few of what looked like the better-off townsfolk. Two more prisoners stood shackled behind him, clearly not following the conversation and just as clearly nervous. All of them looked up when Rin and Girey entered.
“Healer…?” the legate began, politely enough.
“Healer Rin,” she introduced herself. “Second legion, fifth century, although I have been discharged.”
“I heard you were taking care of our prisoners.”
“Yes, sir. They are in fairly good shape, if in need of a bath.”
“Something I see your captive isn’t wanting for. You found yourself a pretty one, didn’t you?”
She wondered how long Girey would continue to pretend not to know the language. “He’s quite handsome,” she agreed. “I’m lucky I stumbled over him.”
“And not the other way around. These people are monsters to our women.”
“I’ve heard the rumors. These captives you have here, are they guilty of that?”
“These? No, of course not. We executed the rapists on the spot, and most of the other criminal sorts. These are surrendered soldiers and officers.”
She nodded; she’d expected as much, but best to get it out there. “What are you doing with them, then?”
“Now that we’re far enough from the former border to avoid flight risks, we’re selling them to families and businesses who can use an extra hand. The Army can always use the money.”
It was a truism as old as “rain is wet,” but he smirked like he’d said something clever, so Rin smiled back at him. “They’re nervous, sir, your captives. They don’t know what’s going on.”
“You speak Bithrain?” His look went from lazy to sharp in a heartbeat, and Rin cursed inwardly. Nobles and high-ranking officers might be fluent in Bitrani, but not so many of the rank and file were.
“My captive knows some Callenian,” she hedged. “He was speaking to the prisoners while I healed them.”
“Aah.” He sank back, disappointed. “Was hoping I could requisition your services. Not one of my soldiers speaks more Bithrain than ‘where’s the privy?’”
“The Bitrani who lived near the border often know more Callenian than they let on. Let me have my captive talk to them, let them know what’s going on, and I’ll see if I can get one of them to admit to some Callenian.”
“That sounds like an idea,” he admitted grudgingly. “Or I could requisition him, instead. He looks like he’s noble, he can probably read and write, or at least keep numbers.”
She felt Girey tense next to her, but she was rather busy being tense, herself. “The terms of enlistment for Healers and other specialists allows for war trophies, sir,” she answered carefully. If he made her pull rank, things would likely get very messy all around.
“Yes, but in times of war, an officer may requisition property to assist the war effort,” the man countered smoothly. Rin opened her mouth, trying to come up with a counterargument to that that wouldn’t lead to more trouble.
“Not war now,” the Bitrani woman behind the man said in careful, slow Callanthe. “Surrender signed.”
“There you have it.” She suppressed the urge to whoop; it wouldn’t be polite. “We are no longer at war, however long the peace may last. And you have your translator. Unless you’ve already sold her?”
“As a matter of fact…” the townsman began, but the officer was ripping up the paperwork.
“No, no we haven’t.” He turned to the woman. “You translate?”
She spoke to Girey in rapid Bitrani, and he answered just as quickly. Although Rin considered herself a fluent speaker, even she had trouble following along, especially while pretending not to understand.
“This woman wants to keep you, your Grace. Do you wish to be kept? If you don’t, I can suddenly get stupid and not follow their silly language anymore, and this fathead here will requisition you.”
“Is he a fair fathead, at least?”
“As rabbits roasting on the fire go, his belly will crackle nicely.”
Girey glanced at Rin, and a little smile crossed his lips. “This one has more meat. Translate as you will.”
The woman turned back to the officer, and nodded. “I translate, honored fighter Farran.”
Later, back in their room at the inn, Rin couldn’t resist asking Girey. “More meat?”
He flushed nicely under his tan. “More substance. There’s… more to you. Why didn’t you tell him you spoke Bitrani?”
“Some of my substance, I’d rather not share all around.” She glanced at the single bed again, and then at the hard floor with its thin rug. “Come to bed, Girey. ‘More meat,’ indeed.”
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