by Ski Hemulen
‘You attacked my allies’ household, brought mercenaries with you to make sure you’d win, killed Romjigan, killed most of his men – for many of which I will demand compensation, as they were my relatives through marriage – took so much of their supplies that they’ll have trouble surviving the winter, and you have the nerve to come and ask me for men to help you control the mercenaries you used? The only reason I don’t take the blood price from your head here and now, Stoyanjid, is your farfetched claim that your attack was in self defense, a claim I’m entertaining only because you are my relative through your mother. Go away! Come summer we will discuss how you can repay us. I doubt you will have a household after you finish paying’.
Jetmir’s words echoed in her mind as she contemplated her next move. It was five weeks since the battle, three weeks since her visit to the Diarjid, where she failed miserably in recruiting their help. Winter had started in earnest – it had snowed more than once – and although the house was ready she was almost certain something was brewing among the mercenaries. There was nothing she could do other than try and set as many plans to counter whatever stupid move those hotheads would try.
She couldn’t deny it – more of her house’s men would have survived had she let Romjigan kill her and take control of the house, probably putting Mikal up as a puppet vassal. Now so many have died and more may die.
Yet she couldn’t make herself feel bad about the choices she made. It was like Rozafati’s murder. If you let the strong and violent set all the rules and take whatever they want, if you accept their domination as given, you can only imagine life within the borders they set for you. Then you find yourself feeling guilty for not rolling on your back and dying when they want you dead.
She refused to take the blame. The strong should take the blame for always wanting more, for never giving up.
And guess what, she thought with bitter satisfaction, the strong aren’t so strong anymore. They are broken. headless. As weak as we are if not more so.
But oh, the price you pay for not doing the will of the strong…
She looked up at Romial, who was talking softly with Ditmer. He didn’t look as broken as he’d been. He was still meek and quiet, but working with gentle and wise Ditmer, having a place here, seemed to have helped. Yet there was a distance between them she couldn’t bridge, and it was very hard to find some privacy to try and work things out.
She watched Kendrese, one of the older girls of her second cousin, walking by with a knife on her hip. She smiled inwardly. This “girl” was her own age. She was glad this idea has succeeded, yet she couldn’t train the women to actually use the knives with the mercenaries around, and she doubted more than a few of them would have agreed to actually train – although even wearing the knives was a victory and proof that Bujare knew how to move the women. She still hoped the knives alone will have a calming effect on the mercenaries.
Some of her men were still coming to her every day asking whether this breach of honor was necessary. She didn’t argue, only asked them to offer other ideas. They didn’t have many. It was hard, and she was certain more than one man thought about the lower price losing to the Romjid would have cost them. But no one said a thing about it – most of them were loyal and those who weren’t were cowards. Still, even the thought of them thinking it frustrated her.
Among the mercenaries Rosus was the one who stood out. They were – if one disregarded the fact they had some pieces of armor and swords they more or less knew how to use – quite a bedraggled lot. Most of them got up the Mountains hungry and tired, and only a few of them knew each other before she lumped them together. Yet Rosus was able to organize them more or less in the last few weeks, make them into a functioning organ in the house. If she wanted them to do things, help anything, do any work, the simplest way was to talk it over with him. The fact that he could speak decent Chirkid was part of it, but not all.
The problem was that now Rosus stood at the head of thirteen men with swords while she had thirteen men, several of which could hardly fight. Her women had knifes, but although it may fool the mercenaries, they couldn’t and probably wouldn’t fight.
‘You’re worried’. Romial’s voice.
She raised her eyes to meet Romial’s. She hadn’t noticed his conversation with Ditmer had ended and Ditmer left.
‘You were just staring for a couple of minutes’, he said, looking away, as if even eye contact made him uncomfortable.
‘I’m tired’, she said.
Hmm… perhaps I’m doing as much pushing away as he does. Why can’t I confide in the one man here I am certain is totally on my side?
‘That’s not all of it’, she added, ‘Rosus is worrying me. He’s up to something, brewing some trouble’.
‘What kind of trouble?’
‘I’m not sure. But he’s the kind of man who’d find it hard to stay second place if he thought he had the power to be first. Like your father was’. She regretted saying that the moment it left her lips. He just moved uncomfortably. She instinctively sent her hand to his shoulder and he flinched, looking at her hand. She drew it back but he stopped her with his hand.
‘No. It’s alright’, he said.
He let go of her hand, and she left her hand lightly resting on his shoulder, feeling uncomfortable, feeling he was uncomfortable too.
‘I can’t avoid people forever’, he said softly.
‘No, but you can take your time. You’re doing good, helping this place work’.
‘Well, perhaps I just need your hand on me, even if it’s hard’, he whispered.
She nodded, smiling.
Romial sat in his tiny room, thinking. The last few weeks made him pretty sure that he hasn’t lost his mind. He could do what he thought he could do, and his control of it was getting better and better. Now, perhaps, it could be useful.
Leaving his body was second nature by now. But he couldn’t go very far, only hover around his body, still seeing through his eyes and feeling through his body’s senses. Every time he tried getting further his body seemed to be pulling him back.
He thought he knew what he needed to do. Even contemplating it made him nauseous. He started remembering That Night in detail. The dead. Vasil. He could feel an urge to hit himself. To feel physical pain, to distract himself from the sense of self loathing. He thought of his brother and almost vomited. His body was crying, but he was already outside of the room.
His thoughts haven’t changed, but it was obvious to him now how much of the feeling of self loathing was a physical sensation – heart beating, nausea, throat constricting, sweating. He still felt it all, but now those sensations were lumped together with his body in the back of his mind. He was going through the darkened halls, seeing clearly despite the darkness, heading towards the chambers that were cleared for the mercenaries.
Arik had a hard time wrapping his head around this land, these people, their customs. He couldn’t understand how women seemed to be treated like little more than slaves while a woman stood at the head of them, and why they talked to her as if she was a man. He could gather that much even with his pathetic mastery of Chirkid.
Sure, it was a popular subject among the mercenaries, but no one could really explain it.
It didn’t really matter to him. Other than that wretched little fight against that other house, life here was pretty good. After more than a month on the ruined pathways of the mountains, starving and desperate to leave the war and those abominable priests behind him, a place where he had a roof over his head and regular meals was like a dream come true. He felt like this was a pretty decent deal.
Rosus didn’t think so. In the month or so Arik knew him he came to appreciate Rosus as a natural leader. He made the mercenaries into a more or less cohesive group, negotiated for good rooms for them after the fight and gave them a feeling of entitlement and superiority over the locals.
That was Arik’s problem. Rosus was a malcontent. Sure, things were better for them than when they were roaming the mountains, but Rosus thought like the brigand he had become after deserting the army. He wanted more.
And that was what he was at now, as he was most nights. They were sitting, cramped into one of the rooms they got, and Rosus was talking about how much better they could spend winter if they didn’t have to share this house’s supply with all these locals. Stating, not as a plan, but matter-of-factly, how ill armed and ill trained the surviving men of this house were, belittling the remarks of caution from others who mostly wanted some peace and quiet.
Arik didn’t say a thing. He doubted he could convince Rosus to back down. The idea of having a little more food and comfort for the price of slaughtering some more people didn’t appeal to him at all. Rosus’s dark innuendo about what he’d do to the women sickened him. But he preferred to just keep out of it and hope nothing would happen, that the rest would keep delaying Rosus.
Suddenly he felt a partly familiar presence. A chill ran down his spine. Not one of the priests he knew, but certainly the presence of one of the priests of Wahalan.
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