a sky full of smoke, pt. 6

If the major-general notices that the villagers are on edge, that the merchants and traders seem to be tightening their belts while the coffin-maker eats and spends generously, he doesn't let on--but then, I don't think he'd care much. He's here to make sure the Protector gets his due, here in a province where the magistrate's not quite a loyalist yet. So long as there's gold, he'll be happy. 

But the peace, however temporary, is nice. Something like business as usual has returned to Kerguelen, and there's even talk that if the major general sticks around--and it sounds like he's going to--there'll be another fair. Even Kanna's in good spirits. She hasn't asked me to leave in three days.

"You know it won't last," I tell her. "And the major-general's just here to squeeze the silver out of your friends."

"No one's dying," she says. "I'll settle for that."

I don't tell her some of the men in this town deserve death. I don't tell her they'll start dying again soon, or that every penny the town earns is a penny Yannig and Briac aren't taking for themselves. She knows. She might not want to admit it, but she knows.

Yannig walks in and sits down at my table. "Thirty gold," he says.

"What about it?"

"Thirty gold for you to enter my employ as my personal bodyguard."

"Isn't there a peace on?"

"The major-general is about to be called away urgently. It seems someone's murdered a loyalist magistrate in his jurisdiction." Yannig smiles a predator's smile, and I'll be damned if he's not telling me he just had a magistrate murdered just so he can go back to fighting Briac.

I shrug. "I'll consider it. I need to hear what Briac's offering. Seems unfair otherwise."

I awake in the morning to someone calling in the street that the major-general's gone. Kanna's already up, boarding up the windows again, looking defeated. From the way she scowls at me, she doesn't appreciate the smirk I'm giving her.


a sky full of smoke, pt. 5

He still doesn't trust me after dinner, but he believes I can win for him. It didn't take much--I showed him some scars, told some stories. There's not a proper soldier among the rest of the village, Briac worships soldiers. He's impressed, but I need him to mistrust me. So I keep saying we should wait, and each time I do he's more insistent that it must be now. It's all I can do to keep from smiling when he takes his son aside and asks him to kill me after the battle.

He gathers up his men--a sorry rabble if ever there was one, but brimming with confidence--and we march. Yannig's rabble comes out to greet ours, trembling with fear of the coming confrontation. The legend grows.

"Which one of you is Yannig?" I call, in a voice still raspy from the smoke. Their leader steps forward. "I'm leaving Briac's service," I continue. "He plans to kill me after the battle." I toss the gold back at Briac, grin at Yannig, and step aside. The two mobs inch towards each other, each as frightened of striking the first blow as they are of shedding the first blood.

Then the alarm bell rings and the gatekeeper comes running, crying, "The major-general's on his way!"

Yannig and Briac lock eyes, sheath their swords, shake hands. "Truce," says one, "or it'll be both our heads." They send their men into the town, crying the truce. Even to my outsider's ears, there's an implied threat there: act like everything's normal or there will be blood.

Kanna has hot soup for me when I return to the inn. "They were an inch away from destroying each other," I said. "I was so close."

 "I wish you'd leave," she tells me.


a sky full of smoke, pt. 4

When I was young, my sister and I would win games by playing our friends against each other. She was better at people, but I was better at strategy, so which one of us would win varied depending on the game, but it was always one of us. Sometimes they'd try to team up against us, of course, but all it took was a smile from my sister or a word from me and the alliance was broken, and so invariably one of us would win, and the legend would continue.

I explained it to the princess once. What I told her was all true, and probably even good advice, but I didn't yet realize the most important piece of information: the reason we were able to win was not simply that we were smarter and more charming than our friends. We were able to win because we'd built up a reputation, and we knew how to use it.

Briac Ewen knows who I am. Everyone in town's whispering about the knight who just killed two of Yannig's men without breaking a sweat. He's smiling a smile he probably thinks is charming when I arrive. "I heard what you did," he says, knowingly. "You're making the right choice."

"I haven't made any choices yet," I tell him. He offers silver, and I laugh. He doubles his offer. I shake my head. "Make it gold," I say. He's not sure if I'm worth it, but he's almost there. "Gold, or I go back to Yannig."

He sags. "Five?"

"Five now, five when we win. And we will win. I promise you that."

He nods and tosses me a bag of gold. "I believe you," he tells me. "You've got an honest face." I'm not sure if he's joking, but I laugh anyway. He doesn't bat an eye before inviting me to dinner, so we can discuss plans.


a sky full of smoke, pt. 3

I sleep on the story. The innkeeper--Kanna is her name, she says--hopes I'll leave, hopes the town will stop tearing itself apart if I just keep walking. But perhaps the mobs and their masters are right. Perhaps someone can put a stop to the fighting, give the town a little peace. I already said I used to be a captain. That was back when I still had a name. Back then, I was the finest strategist in Elouan and one of the finest blades--I could make short work of a rabble like this, given a good plan. And you can't make a good plan without knowing what you're up against.

I wake early and head to the house the brewer's using as his headquarters. By the morning's light, the town looks desolate--a traveler would be forgiven for thinking it abandoned. The houses are boarded up and nothing is in good repair.

The brewer's headquarters is a large house that was probably once quite lovely--Kanna tells me it was the mayor's, back when the people still respected the mayor. Five men greet me at the door, hands on their swords, suspicion in their eyes. I ignore them until a leader steps forward and walks around me, looking me up and down like a prize horse. "That idiot at the gate sent you, did he?"

I shrug.

"Does he think we need a starving, penniless knight? We've more than our share of dead weight already." He's a short man, wiry, and moves with the exaggerated swagger of a man who thinks he's more important than he is. "Why shouldn't we just take your sword and that pretty little badge and send you packing? Look at you. You can't even feed yourself." He moves to prod me in the side and I seize him by the wrist.

"Touch me," I say, "and you lose your hand."

He laughs nervously and pokes me as a gesture of defiance the moment I release his hand. I draw my saber and neatly slice his hand off at the wrist. Two of his friends immediately leap forward to defend him, but they've clearly never fought anyone who could fight back before. I make it a point to make cutting them down look effortless; the rest run back inside.

I turn my back on the house and walk away. 


a sky full of smoke, pt. 2

Kerguelen used to be a little market town, the innkeeper tells me, where the canyon roads met the river, neither poor nor prosperous, and far from the political concerns of the Principality. But even humble bucolic towns have politics, and Yannig Bihan the brewer and Briac Ewen the farmer held an uneasy truce as the two most powerful men in the city--far more powerful than Marrec the mayor, whose orchards were eclipsed by Briac's, and whose appointment came from the magistrate.

Then the Protector killed the Prince and locked his daughter in the Spire, and the mobs came. Change came slowly, at first. Many of the magistrates were replaced with loyalists, and those who didn't were forced to withdraw--powerful enough to hold on to their positions, but not powerful enough to keep peace. So wealthy men, powerful men, men like Yannig and Briac, built up their power. They hired on men for their private militias--all in the name of keeping the peace, since the magistrates' militias were gone. And the Protector, of course, lent them his blessing--the magistrates, he said, were corrupt, and it was time for the people to rise up against their tyranny.

Militias don't feed themselves, so their masters would set up tolls on the main roads--not much, at first, just a few coins, enough that the militia could be sheltered and fed. But in time the tolls increased, slowly at first, then rapidly, as the masters and militias alike sought to line their pockets. And those who couldn't pay were robbed and beaten, or worse.

Yannig and Briac went from an uneasy alliance to open hostilities within a month. When the roads dried up they sent out raiding parties to catch the caravans that tried to avoid the area, ever eager to be the first to capture the goods they brought and add to the wealth of their faction. Every now and then they'd declare a truce, attempt to divide territories amicably, but the peace always failed, and more and more young men and women would die.

That's where that fawning coward at the gates comes in, she explains--Yannig and Briac both need more than just bodies. They need people with real talent. Someone who can change their fortunes and end their conflict decisively.

Someone like me.


a sky full of smoke, pt. 1

They're the Protector's men, but they aren't. Everyone knows he murdered his way to the throne, so there's no legitimacy there but the legitimacy of the mob--so his men are little more but a mob, angry men with no love, no legitimacy, and no concept of loyalty. Half the time they take a town, they turn on each other just as soon.
It's high summer and the wind from the north smells like woodsmoke, though there's not a forest round for miles. The sun turns a ghastly red in the evening, and I wonder whose home is burning, who lit the fire. Perhaps it doesn't matter. It's too hot to travel by day, so I start walking the canyons when the sky loses all color, like the Protector's leeched the life out of the very sky.
I shouldn't be surprised they're still watching the streets when I arrive past midnight, but I always am. Even in towns like this, boarded up and desolate,  A man scurries out of the shadows to greet me. "Swordswoman! Swordswoman! You hungry?"
I've been many things in my life. A sister, a friend, a knight, a captain, a refugee. Now the Protector holds the land and I'm little more than a wandering sword, waiting for a steady hand to wield me. "Swordswoman" may as be my name.
Still, I earned the nettle I wear at my breast. I turn to him so he can see the little silver badge shining in the moonlight, and stare at him until he flinches under my gaze. "Lady Knight," he corrects, no trace of apology in his tone. "There's folks in this town that would pay real silver for your blade."
"Silver?" I say, and it comes out a hoarse rasp--too long breathing the smoke, speaking to no one.
"Or gold, if you're any good," he says. "Just toss me a few coins when they hire you, eh?"
There's no fire at the inn when I arrive, only a tired old woman who greets me with a resigned sigh. "The food's cold and the beer's flat," she tells me.
I nod. "It'll do. Anyway, I can't--"
"It's on me. Just don't stay here. I've seen enough death these past months."
Our eyes meet. "Tell me," I say.



When Alana left town, she made sure they remembered her. "Now there," they'd say, "was a woman who liked the best of it." She left behind friends and lovers, people who would remember her smile and her laugh and her kindness, but also who would remember the lines of her chin, the shape of her cheekbones, the way she stood, the sound of her voice. A healer in Kerguelen memorized her collarbones and the ridges in her spine, tracing her fingers along them over and over again, whispering her name like an incantation.
In return, Alana remembered their names. The healer was called Yvona--serious Yvona, who carried the weight of a village on her shoulders. Her heart broke when Alana left but she knew where she'd gone. There would always be a trail--Alana made sure of that. She didn't know how else to find her sister.
They'd been identical once, Alana and the apparition that shuffled into Kerguelen that night, but years and distance had changed them. The apparition, whose name was Elara and who'd called herself Eira after the snow, was gaunt and weather-worn and hard, her greatcoat tattered, her eyes the eyes of a woman who would not rest easy wherever she hung her hat.
It was Yvona--gentle Yvona, who carried the weight of a broken heart on her back--who saw her, who called her by her sister's name, who wrapped her in an embrace before the stranger knew what was happening. "Alana, what's happened?"
Elara stared. "She's my sister," she said, in a voice that cracked from disuse, eyes thick with suspicion. "Do you know where she is?"
She ate well that night, as her host told her in loving detail of Alana's deeds, and how she'd made sure everyone knew where she was going. "I thought she just wanted me to follow, but she didn't," Yvona said, her heart breaking again as she made the realization. "She wanted you to follow."
And Elara nodded, and shrugged, and turned her shrug into a stretch to get the knot from her back. "Sorry, kid." Then, because she felt like that was inadequate, she added, "Alana's broken a lot of hearts."
And she slept well that night, and left in the early morning and hoped no one followed her. But Yvona--stubborn Yvona, who always had to fight to get anything done--knew the roads better than this stranger, and she followed, quietly, leaving the town to its fate.
Not every town was filled with broken hearts. Some had only fond memories, some had always known that Alana's smile would be temporary, but they remembered all the same. Sometimes Elara would pretend that she was Alana, other times she'd tell the truth. Always, someone would point her in the right direction and make sure she slept in a warm bed with a full belly and left with food enough for the road. So she followed, and so Yvona followed. Neither of them yet noticed that Elara grew less gaunt and weather-worn as she traveled, that the hitch in her shoulder bothered her less and less.
Not every town was filled with friends, either. A few remembered Alana badly, felt she'd cheated them, betrayed them, wronged them, and sometimes Elara would leave behind bodies where her sister had left behind enemies. But still she would find the right direction, and the people would be glad to be rid of her. And still Yvona followed along--Yvona the healer, stopped to help the wounded before she followed, despite the fear she'd finally lose the trail after so long.
Autumn came, and winter, and finally the trail was fresh. Elara trudged through the snow whose name she'd taken, undaunted by the elements that had been her only companion for years, while Yvona hurried after, feeling herself grow gaunt and weather-worn as Elara herself once was. At each town the time since they'd last seen Alan grew shorter. Three weeks. Two. Until, finally, "Your sister left not two days hence."
Without waiting to sleep that night, Elara bought a horse, so Yvona stole one, and they rode hard for the next town.
A man met them at the gates--"You escaped? How?"--and Elara's sword was at his throat. "Escaped where? Speak quickly." And he pointed to the biggest building in town--of course. Alana would settle for no less.
They'd caught Alana unawares. Now her sister caught them unawares, and showed them that a sword is no mere butcher's tool but an instrument of artistry and finesse. She cut them down one by one, and for all their numbers she seemed to exert no effort in doing so.
When they were no more she found her sister, badly bloodied but alive, and knelt at her side. She was uncertain whether to be overwhelmed with joy or grief, so she made no expression, said nothing, only touched her sister's cheek and said, "I'm here, Alana, I'm here."
And Yvona--road-weary Yvona, brought low by the weight of a thousand miles--ran to her lover's side and tended to her wounds and fed her potent healing tinctures, made with the rarest and most powerful herbs.
And all Alana said to either of them was, "I'm sorry."
She might have died, left untended. Or perhaps she would have lived--scarred, chastened, perhaps, but still alive, and perhaps even her enemies would have become friends after a time. It hardly mattered now. Yvona--pure-hearted Yvona, whose heart was light with relief--tended her old lover's wounds, no matter that Alana had never intended them to stay together forever.
The town made them heroes--Alana and her twin, and Yvona the healer--and they stayed until the spring. By then Alana could walk again, though now she had grown gaunt and pale, while Elara had plumped and softened and walked with a spring in her step rather than a hitch in her shoulders.
They treated Yvona--pragmatic Yvona, who knew better than to let her heart lead her on a wild chase across the land--only with kindness, and she realized, as young lovers sometimes do, that she had loved a feeling, not a person, and that the feeling belonged to the past. She packed up and walked home--a different road, a less urgent road, but she had apologies to make and a village to tend.
And when the twins left town, they made sure they were remembered: Alana, who made friends wherever she went, and Elara, who had walked too many roads without hope of seeing a friendly face. Perhaps their road would be no easier together than apart--perhaps they would both grow gaunt and hard, and would spend many nights hungry. Perhaps Elara's shoulders would develop a hitch once again and Alana would walk with a twinge in her back.
Or perhaps, like the spring, their roads would be a little brighter, a little easier, a little softer. Perhaps they could leave the snow behind.



Maybe I looked like I needed help, or maybe someone had been talking. I suppose it doesn't matter now. She sat down opposite me, and of course I smiled--that's what you do--and introduced herself as Iona. She spoke with an accent I couldn't quite place, and so faint I wasn't sure I hadn't imagined it.

"Good to meet you," I told her. Despite the fact that this wasn't true, I tried to make it sound as sincere as possible. Not out of any real desire to deceive, but--well, a friendly smile is a better defense than a sword most of the time.

"I've been watching you," she said. "You're worried about something."

"Why do you say that?"

"At first I thought maybe it was just your face," she said. "You know, the brooding, pensive looks when you're not paying attention. But every time someone comes near you smile like you're afraid they might catch you." She took a drink from my beer. "Like right now."

I glanced around to see if anyone was watching us. They weren't--well, there were some men who'd been leering at one of us all night who were still leering, but nobody seemed to be paying attention to our conversation. "And if I told you I was, in fact, worried?"

"You want to hire me. I'm the best sword you'll find in these parts."

"Is that so? Can I have a demonstration?"

She finished my beer and slid the empty mug back at me. "In a moment."

A man in blue livery entered and, upon looking around, almost immediately recognized me. "You've got a lot of nerve showing your face in these parts again, traitor." He pushed through the crowd to approach. Iona just winked.

I thought she was going to do nothing, but just as he arrived she stood up, "accidentally" elbowing him in the gut. He doubled over, and she'd moved between him and me before he recovered. "The lady's trying to drink in peace, friend. Can it wait?"

"Last time I saw this woman I swore I would end her if I saw her again." He drew his sword--a poorly maintained cavalryman's saber--and pointed it at her. "Stand aside."

"What happens if I don't?" She had settled into a fighting stance, but her own sword remained steadfastly on her belt.

By way of response, he tried to run her through. A dagger appeared in her right hand and she deflected the blow, and drew her own sword in her left. Then she smiled. "Try again?"

He was not, it should be said, a bad swordsman. But with every attack he made, she deflected it with seemingly no effort, moving only as much as was necessary. His strikes would miss by scant inches, but miss they would. And while his form began to degrade the longer she toyed with him, hers did not.

Eventually she grew weary of the game and, with a twirl of her blade, disarmed him. She put her blade to his throat and her boot on his fallen sword. "The lady is trying to drink in peace, friend," she repeated. "Try your revenge some other time."

He scampered from the inn as fast as he could, and Iona sheathed her weapons and sat back down. "Soldiers," she said. "So, let's negotiate payment. What currency do you use in these parts?"

I gave her a smile. "I valued that beer at about ten gold marks. How much will that get me?"

She froze, and at first I worried I'd offended her. Then she laughed, long and loud. "Normally, five weeks. But I'm willing to let you talk my price down."


someone should do something

Doing some vignettes for a thing I'm working on.

We sheltered for the winter in a town so cold the firelight froze in pillars in the sky. You could see the fear in the eyes of the villagers when they brought out the food and wood they'd carefully stockpiled for the winter--just enough to get by, and maybe a little extra, just in case. The captain burned through their supplies like it was nothing, even while we sat on supplies enough to feed the company and the village alike for three seasons. "Makes no sense to use up our supplies when this village could be contributing to the cause," he said. And at night as we huddled around a stolen fire, or patrolled the icy fields for enemies that would never come, we'd whisper to each other, "Someone should do something." And no one did.

The captain liked me. I like to think it's because I'm naturally charismatic, but my sister would tell you it's because, as she always insisted, I'm the pretty one. (She's got it all wrong: if you ever have trouble telling us apart, just remember she's the smart one.) I'm sure he didn't trust me, but when he needed something any soldier could have done, he asked for me. When he found out the innkeeper was secreting food away--food so the village might not starve before springtime--he asked for me.

So it was just me and him in a cellar full of cheese and apples and cured meats--maybe enough to feed a village for the winter, if people didn't mind going hungry. The innkeeper was not going to part with his stores, and the captain just looked at me. "Kill him, if you please, Corporal." I drew my saber. I'd expected the innkeeper to plead for his life, but he met my eyes. He was ready to die if that's what it took.

"Leave his body in front of the inn, if you please," said the captain, and turned to leave.

I thrust my saber into his back. He turned to face me, face twisted with rage, but he collapsed to the ground. I staggered upstairs, blood on my sword and uniform. "The captain is dead," I told them. The village made me a hero, for that. The soldiers made me their captain--those that didn't flee in the night. This is how rebellions start, I guess: someone sees something unacceptable and stops it.