Returning to the road was simple. My trail was clear, although it was a long way back. My ribs and insides were afire, but, gritting my teeth, I followed the path of churned snow and deep brown earth.
Shouts reached my ears. The calls echoed through the trees, and I tried to raise my voice in response. I knew only a few words in the guttural Kalughri that most of the company spoke. My wounds, I think, enhanced my usually poor pronunciation, but I barely managed a hoarse whisper. My chest was full of coals, searing my insides. I pushed onward and spotted one of thetevkas, on horseback, through the trees. Raising my voice feebly again, I called out to him.
This man's name was Vasily Avosha Brobov Zhrovocha, meaning he was son of Avosha of the Brovob clan, and that his king was Zhrovocha, who was our company's rasakonova. It was important to the Kalughnorans to use all their names. "Habra," he shouted, the typical noncommittal greeting in those parts, "who's that?" He approached. His bow, short and curved, was in his hand. A fine bow of black ghanavocha horn. "Dur Nashak, is it? I see your brown face." All the folk of Khalughnor made mention of my brownness, of my strange name. Dur Naskak, as he called me, means "no one's son," as I told them when Estevo and I joined Zhrovocha's company.
"Heshim Nashak Na Zhrovocha," Vasily said, drawing up to me through the trees on his mount. The horse was fine, gray spotted, shaggy. Vasily called me Heshim, fatherless, from no clan. He and the others called me barbarian, but the men of that country eat raw meat. To the Khalughnorians, all outsiders are clanless barbarians. Vasily hung his bow over his shoulder and drew his narrow, curved sabre as he eyed the sack I now carried. "Where has she gone? The woman?"
"I chased her away." I had gotten no further in constructing my lie, with exhaustion dragging at my limbs and my head.
He laned down and offered his other, empty hand. A tall, thin man, he was as white as any Khalughnoran, brown-haired, with a mustache and very fine teeth that he showed often in broad smiles. He smiled at me then with his mouth only, his gaze flat and expectant.
"Is that our stolen cargo?"
I nodded, my grip tightening on the bag. On quivering legs, I fell back a pace. His smile remained, unchanging, as he watched me. Vasily's sword hand had dipped out of sight on the other side of his horse from me. The fog of my breath came in involuntary, ragged sheets.
"Give it here," he said. "I'll carry it back for you."
My prestige, my salvation and Estevo's, my promotion, were in that bag. It would preserve our reputation as a mercenary company. The reward would be great. I, though, was near to collapse, while Vasily was fresh, rested, and mounted. He was a tevka, my superior in the company. The punishment, should I harm him or kill him without proof of cause, was as great as the reward I meekly delivered to him. I handed over the bag, along with all my hopes, and the weight was heavy indeed as I followed him back to the road.
"Call the rasakonova," Vasily shouted when he broke the treeline, me staggering behind. "Rasakonova Zhrovocha! Look what I have recovered." He rode away while our fellows raised cheers as he passed.
Some of the others had begun to patch the shattered cart under the direction of one of thetevkas. Still others had wrapped the fallen in their fur cloaks, hiding their bloodied faces. Stealing the goods of a dead comrade was forbidden. The dead were hallowed, but we could have used the extra warm furs and good boots. I followed Vasily Avosha Brobov, stumbling and gasping with my chest burning at each breath. With my fingertips I touched the wound. Even through the thick furs and leather arming coat beneath, the lightest touch ignited such sudden fire, trails of hot ash, sparks and cinders, that I paused, leaning on the broken cart, and closed my eyes.
Estevo's voice came through the dark. "Heshim." His hand met my back, near the wound, and my legs buckled but he caught me before I fell. I gasped and gritted my teeth as he pulled me back upright and returned me to leaning on the cart. "Mother of shit, Heshim. What happened to you?"
"I got it back," I managed. "I got it back but that lover-of-oxen, Vasily–"
"Easy. Keep your voice down."
It was just as well, for speaking was worse than just breathing. Finally the pain subsided enough for me to open my eyes and I saw the cart that I leaned on, the one that had been broken.
The damned green woman had shattered arm-thick wooden timbers, the whole side of the cart, with one blow. How could anyone do this?
YOU ARE READING
"Yesterday, I was the world's greatest warrior. Long ago, I was a child soldier. I was a pirate, a mercenary, an opium lord, a mage-hunter. Today I am a prisoner, but this, at least, I have chosen." Raze is a weekly epic fantasy web serial. In a pri...