Ivanyaska squatted on her heels to enter the wagon. She pulled down her scarf. A harsh face, angled, but full-lipped. The little brass heater cast flickers of light upwards at her, giving her an ominous look. The healer had given me an infusion of bitter herbs and milk. The taste lingered at the back of my tongue, and my vision had taken on a bright quality. However, my mind was slow, as upon waking in an unfamiliar, dark room, taking time to think of where I was and why. Ivanyaska was a ghost, lacquer-masked, for a moment. I cringed away but the healer reached out and steadied me, whispering for stillness.
"Dur Nashak," Ivanyaska said to me. "Attend." I must have waited too long to answer. "Can he hear me?"
"He can." The healer answered. "But the sleeping drink will have slowed him. Habra, boy, listen to your tevka."
At his words, I found my voice. "I hear you, Ivanyaska Broveschka Prupov."
To the healer, she said, "I would speak with him."
"This is my house, and I am caring for this one. Speak or leave."
Ivanyaska glowered, then returned her attention to me. She was portentous. Like a khren, limned in fire, come to me to pass judgement and claim my spirit for its master. I blinked but failed to clear the haze of the healer's herbs. Behind her, a glimpse of sun-glare of the white snow outside pressed on my eyes. "Your full name, provka," she asked me.
"Heshim Nashak Na."
"Your true name. Where are you from and who was your father, wherever you came from?" I was silent, a cold pit opening in my stomach. The herbs dulled it, and I almost answered. "Do Serehvan people know their fathers, barbarian boy? Or are you whelped in litters, as they say?"
I shook my head.
"Then tell me."
"I have no father."
"He is dead?"
"I have no father. A man lives who called me son."
She tapped my ribs. Just a tap, no more, but I yelped out like a dog and lay groaning. "Do not test me. I care not for your petty problems. Your tevka asks, now speak."
The healer raised a hand but she caught it up, her gloves creaking as she squeezed. "Healer, I will make you a customer of your own business. Let me do mine." He pulled his hand away.
"I have no father," I gasped.
Ivanyaska stared. "Shall I strike harder?"
"Worse has been done." My breathing strained, but I began to master my pain. The herbs helped. At times I struggled to remember words in the harsh Kalughri language, but either the infusion or the pain made them come easier. It was later, much later, that I understood why. "I have no father. I am from Serehvan, where we have no clans. I am a man of the Bear's Tooth now. Is that all you wish, my tevka?"
I forced my eyes open and looked up at her where she stared down. Even kneeling in the dark wagon, her presence dwarfed mine, made me small, as a child. Even so, our eyes met and for a moment I was proud. I felt no need to look away, like a child who has discovered the whippings do nothing. Service in the Lonireilan army had done something, then. She spoke. "Since you're lacking in fingernails, I'll pull on your broken ribs. Would that loosen your tongue?"
"I think," I said, grinding my teeth, "It would only loosen the rib."
She snorted and her full lips twisted. "A joke. Very well. You've got a strong spirit, Heshim Nashak Na. Tell me, then, how a slip of the feet could break–" she paused and glanced at the healer.
"Two ribs. And one tooth loosened and likely to rot out."
"Two ribs, from a fall. Does the Bear's Tooth consist of such weaklings?"
I lay without speaking, my jaw shut and sealed. What would I say? Also, I nudged my tooth with my tongue, and it clicked echoingly inside my jaw. Rot out?
"Tell me, Heshim Nashak Na."
"It is not a good answer."
"I don't care if it's good, I care if it's true."
"To speak true, I would call another a liar." It was too much, but the herbs had me, and I was as weary as I'd been since escaping the Lonireilans. A lack of care brought out the foreign tongue I thought I barely knew.
"You would call tevka Vasily Avosha Brobov a liar, then?" When I shook my head, she sighed. "Heshim Nashak Na, you vex me. Speak. I value truth, not rank, at this moment. You are not aprovka, you are but a nameless barbarian. If you do not give me the truth, I will kill you here." She raised a hand to the healer, to stave off his protests. "So, the choice is yours, Heshim Nahsak Na, fatherless, faithless barbarian. Show me you people have some honor in you. Speak."
To speak might doom me, but I had no doubt of the harsh gaze awaiting me, expectant. I lay, wounded, still aching, my mind hazed through with cloud and dust. I opened my mouth, changing my life yet again. "I recovered the stolen bag. Vasily Avosha Brobov took it, and the glory, from me."
I spoke against a tevka, while Ivanyaska and the healer looked on. I had chosen, and my choice was a hard, hard road.
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...