The journey from the Holy Land to Tiber could be, in Vince’s mind, an outline curling around the edge of the sea and up along the coastline. They’d cut across a few places, but travelling as quickly as they could took a circuitous route. If they wanted to push through Gallia, they’d have to travel across a coastline that was owned by the Gallians and patrolled by the Djansk. Easier, Yull had argued, to travel to Gibratar, head north through Hemulkar – he seemed quite comfortable with the people and the language – and board a vessel from the northern coast due for Tiber. Tradeships went through there all the time, from the Ivory cape far to the south – and it wasn’t hard to board on there.
The circle route seemed a little slow to Vince’s practical mind. Rails ran all the way to the border of Gallia, through barbarian-owned territory. It was faster to escape the whole system by horseback, but as they drew closer to Tiber, they’d taken a slightly slower route.
Sometimes, when he thought about the map – in the hazy way that Vince was sure everyone thought about maps – he liked to imagine all the little campfires they’d left, on the way. There hadn’t been any time they slept indoors – they always rode too long and far for that. A line of campfires, dotted across the horizon, one after another.
Vince thought these thoughts, sitting and staring into a campfire, looking at the empty bedroll before him, with the little metal writing desk. The bedroll next to him, where the very bottom was never moved by Leigh’s short legs. The bedroll next to that, just a little bit closer than before, which had patches and marks on it from a campaign as long as Vince’s entire education. And across from that, the bedroll that touched his at the corner – just the tiniest touch, in the subtlest way, and that normally would make him smile – which was its own colour, brown instead of grey-green.
“When we say we buy time, law, we normally buy it with blood.” Words that echoed in Vince’s mind while he tried to sit still and breathe shallowly. Those words were from his first day in the trenches, back when the General had lectured the troops, scourging them against desertion. Deserters were very bad, quite a problem. On the other hand, those details were hazy. He couldn’t really remember his shoes or his clothes or the scent of that trench, when he stood, listening in the burning sun to that speech. Details around him now were important. Concentrating was important, too. Falling asleep would be dangerous, he was fairly sure. He’d read that somewhere.
It hurt too much to move, but the writing desk glimmered in the light. The dancing fire against its frame reminded him just how much he hadn’t been doing on this trip. Every time they were still, Yull was writing. Whenever they stopped at any town for supplies, he had a letter to hand over, and some instructions – brief or not – to put that letter on the main lines.
Vince had never been one for sending letters, when he lived with his parents. Since being shipped out, he saw the appeal but had still not adopted the practice.
Bleeding slightly onto his clothes, aching from the throat down, Vince had a slightly greater appreciation for them, and hoped a great deal he’d have the opportunity to send one to his parents, sometime. Maybe even sometime soon. His arm ached, even though it was just sitting across his midsection and applying pressure, and he wondered if the heat he felt on his elbow was from some blood.
Probably didn’t want to tell his mother about this in a letter. It would be quite depressing, what with the stains on the paper. And she wouldn’t want to upset General Yull by touching his writing supplies without permission.
Would he write to his mother about the thing they saw in the river as they rode north through Hemulkar? It was certainly a thing that had happened. They’d been riding along the deep dirt rodes that cut north through the country, and one of the riverbanks had slowly shifted and moved. At first, Vince had only seen it in the corner of his vision – but Stannisfeld and Leigh had reacted to it, and he turned to look. Leigh had swore – and Stannisfeld had put a hand on his chest, stopping him from riding forward. Maybe should write to his mother about the concern that showed.
Probably not, though, she, uh, she might not want to find out about that. That way.
After her swear, Leigh had managed a smothered, “What the hell is that?”
“A Tyrant.” Gael said. It was uncanny, to look between her and Yull – neither he nor her were in the slightest bit bothered by the sight of it. While Leigh seemed to want to shrink into her shadow, and Vince kept glancing at Stannisfeld – you know, in case he ran – the two veterans just looked at it.
The creature was enormous, easily twice as tall at its hips as Yull was at the shoulder. The underside of it was a thick, leathery strata of criss-crossed texture. Each of its legs were wide as bollard, planted flat on the sloughed dirt, but spread wide enough that it didn’t sink. While its legs and hips were wide, its midsection was almost round, like an enormous ball, with a long tail jutting out the back and angled slightly upwards. Perhaps it had some sort of bone shaping it that way – which seemed at odds with its long, boneless neck.
Once as a child, Vince had seen a skeleton in the museum, visiting with his parents of a crocodile. Long, low river creatures, their bodies had made sense to him. They didn’t raise their heads very high, so they could make a very big head and fill it with teeth. This creature, whatever it was, had a head much like the crocodile, except it was almost an em and a half long on its own – and it sat at the end of a long, sinuous neck. Upon its back was a light fuzz, looking like the whole creature had been left to grow mouldy – and in its hands it held a sloppy mass of tangled river-weed, stained red by the results of its ferocious tearing.
“I… I’ve never seen anything like that before.”
“Really? Not even on the campaign?” Yull mused.
“We, uh, we rode the trains out.”
“Ah, arses to that.” Yull shook his head. “Slow if you’re moving light.”
“General,” Stannisfeld murmured, very low, “Are we avoiding making any sudden movements becauseit might attack us?”
“What?” The huge man turned in his saddle to look the messenger in the face. “Oh, bloody hell, come now. It’s a river scavenger. Great big idiots. They’re not the really nasty ones. You want something to be scared of, look at the hookfeet or the hammerjaws. Those big beasts are militarised these days, after all. This is just a scavenger. River beastie, really. Come on now.”
Leigh was the last in line, looking up at the creature as they turned down the road. “Why don’t we have anything like that uh, back home?”
“Because we killed them all,” Gael growled, focusing on her horse’s ears. “As cities rise, lions fall.”
“Tiber’s a tiny island-“ Gael began.
“It’s huge! There’s, like, Hadrian and Lleywa there as well.” Stannisfeld said.
“Quiet you, you’re from Djansk. You can fit Djansk in a backyard.” Leigh interrupted.
Gael cleared her throat and geed her horse. “Thing is, tiny island. People built places to live, and we hunted everything big. Pretty sure the biggest thing that can bite you on land in Tiber is, what, a badger?”
Yull laughed at that, leaning over and nudging Gael. When they’d started the ride, he’d been at the fore; then at the back. Now here in these muddy roads, he’d slot in alongside them. “She had Tyrants at the siege of Ranthelm, you know? Ten hundred law all lined up-“
Gael burst out laughing, “Oh, yeah, riding on the backs of Hammerjaws? The ones that can’t hear gunfire. You kinda can’t fire guns on them, so you just steered your beast into people and they eat them.”
On his left, Leigh shuddered, and on his right, Stannisfeld blanched. Vince hoped he did both, but couldn’t be sure of either. Skeletons in glass cases, lit by pressured tubes, in museum displays flit through his mind – amazing and enormous.
“I think I prefer the cities,” he murmured, as they rode on.
“Engineer.” Leigh sneered.
Conversations? Should he sent stories back about the kinds of conversations they’d been having on the travel? It was more interesting than playing counting games out of the window of the train, even if they were a bit rare. In that long wending line of campfires and trails between them, it seemed only a matter of time before the silence became unbearable, and someone would chatter. A little bit of conversation, tiny snatches of remembered chatter. Those might interest mother. Like the time Leigh had asked:
“What does law mean anyway?”
“Means ‘hand,’ in Lleywan,” Yull had said, with the faint reproach in his voice as if that should be common knowledge.
“You call all of us your hands?” Leigh probed again, horse clattering away underneath her.
“Used to use the word ‘sword’ – but we use too many rifles these days. Plenty of soldiers don’t even use their swords any more.”
“But don’t most generals say ‘men’?” Leigh went on.
“Most generals do a lot of things,” Yull shrugged, scratching his beard with one gloved hand.
“I like it,” Gael volunteered. “It’s why I follow him.”
“I thought you followed your wallet.”
Gael shrugged. “My wallet chooses the direction.” She laughed. “But I like a leader who can respect me.”
Leigh grumbled about that. It wasn’t a very punchy anecdote. Maybe his mother would prefer a story which wasn’t as … pointless? Almost certainly, he couldn’t tell his mother about that conversation Gael and Leigh had had. The wet one, with the yelling.
It’d been near a lake. Normally, chances to bathe were few and far between, so of the morning, when the general was at a nearby town buying some food, with Stannisfeld, the girls had slipped down to the lake and bathed. Vince had mentioned going as well – until they pointed out to him that they weren’t comfortable bathing around a man, and that they didn’t want to leave the camp unattended. Vince couldn’t exactly fight that he was, in fact, a man, even if a pair of bathing women was somewhere deep down on his list of priorities.
They were gone for many fifteen minutes when the yelling had started. Then silence. When they came back, it was after almost twenty minutes. Whatever they’d talked about, they came back with an uneasy air between the two of them, looking side to side and not at one another. Gael’s red hair was piled up atop her head, still, from the bath, and Leigh’s shorter bob was wet all through.
Before they made it to the camp site, though, Leigh stopped short. Vince was pointedly looking past them, up and over at the lake with hope and envy in his eyes, he was sure, which meant he wasn’t paying attention to the artillerywoman’s expression while she spoke. “Um, hey, Gael?”
“I’m sorry. I uh.”
“You didn’t know.” Gael said, with a sing-songness to it. Vince had never heard a sincere acceptance done with such a practied tone. How many times had Gael said that? He wanted to ask, but doing that would involve making it clear that he had been listening, and then asking what the conversation was about.
“I’m just saying,” Leigh said, adjusting her uniform with a grumbling look aside. “I just. I’m … so uh, how…”
Gael had that same bored voice. “It’s very simple. I am a woman. So. Just don’t call me a man. Because,” and her voice took on the hard, steely tone it had back when Vince had first heard her speak, “I’m not.”
“I’m sorry, I mean, you know, it’s just a thing everyone does in the military, I mean-”
“I am aware. Trust me.”
“We’re done. Don’t worry about it, just don’t do it any more.”
“Yeah, well, I mean.” Leigh wrinkled her nose… then looked over in Vince’s direction, sharply. “Hey, you! What’re you lookin’ at?!”
Vince blinked, and looked around. “I was… um – can I go to the lake now?”
No, probably not that. Mother probably would come up with something silly to explain that.
Maybe he could write his mother about Stannisfeld.
Not mention some details.
Like that Stannisfeld was a boy.
It didn’t have to concern her, the specifics at least. The night that the Djansk boy had been shivering cold on the ground, awake at the same time Vince was.
They spoke, a little, in low whispers. A bit about Stannisfeld’s family. A bit about the museum Vince had gone to as a child. A bit about each other. A smile in the darkness that lit up more than the last of the campfire.
Stannisfeld had made a joke… hard to remember what it was. Something light and silly. Then Vinc had made a joke, and back and forth, and they’d drifted off to sleep, facing each other.
When Vince woke up he was holding Stannisfeld’s hand, which was … nice.
Nothing dirty, nothing special, just nice.
There’d been a few other talks. A muffin poached from a town. The moment when Stannisfeld had held his hand and helped him down from his horse.
Leigh had called him Princess then, but whatever.
There wasn’t any real privacy or anything. It wasn’t like they’d… kissed or anything. But it was nice. A little shared experience… a tiny little candle in the darker nights.
If he was thinking about Stannisfeld like that, he didn’t want to keep thinking now. It would be an awful bother considering the pain. Besides, thinking about unrequited love was a perfectly poetic way to fade into dark and die, and while Vince could appreciate the art of it he rather didn’t want to actually do it.
Somewhere far away he heard gunfire. Gunfire was strangely comforting, because it meant people were fighting, and if they were fighting, Vince had some confidence that his friends were winning. Well. Gael and Yull. Hopefully Leigh was okay. Hopefully.
What if he wrote to his mother about the things he’d saw the first day in the trenches? The first time Yull had commanded a regiment of soldiers over the walls and into the field of fire and bullets? The man had yelled to a regiment full of soldiers from Hadrian, Tiber, and Lleywa, but spoken to them like they were all his neighbours:
“They say we don’t do anything but rain. Well grab your swords, law – let ’em hear our thunder!”
Vince wondered how many of those soldiers, in that moment, had known inside themselves they couldn’t fight any more. How many had deserted. Probably not many. The deserters just over the rise were probably not people who had followed Yull. If they had, they probably wouldn’t have been silly enough to attack the camp.
But then maybe it wasn’t silliness. They were far from the war, and yet the men were in their uniforms. They were far from any authority of the Tiberan crown, but they’d looked tattered and angry. Yull had said something when they saw them on the highway that first time. They hadn’t said anything – they’d just turned their heads and looked down, refusing Yull’s hail.
“Deserting’s bad business,” Gael observed, when they were well past them. “Bet they thought they were off to big meals in foreign lands?”
Yull had laughed heartily at that. “No reason to fear the fat ones. It’s the ones who know what hunger means that you’ve got to watch out for. Hunger makes deserters do mean things.”
Yull was an awfully big figure in his mind right now. Yull would, if this bleeding didn’t stop, be the person who last spoke to Vince, and he felt his last words were not particularly good ones.
The whole fracas had started with grenades thrown into the camp. The reactions were all impressive, to Vince. One grenade, Leigh had rolled over to, grabbed, and she flung it down into the river, a short, sharp reaction. Gael had plucked up another from the floor and arced it back on its own trajectory, thrown high and showering the space between them with rubble.
Then the deserters had opened fire on the camp, and everything had grown a bit hazy for Vince.
The soldiers scattered; it was different types of training. Leigh ran towards the river, down and out of sight. Gael had run forwards, towards the men with guns. Stannisfeld had run wide, off to the side, into the darkness of the trees.
Vince had stood still and panicked, and it wasn’t until he felt a numbness in his hips that he looked down and saw his bloody hand. He was slumped against the fallen log in their camp when Yull had slid down onto his side next to him, sword in hand.
“I… I think I’ve been shot, General.”
“You think? Law, trust me, you’ll know.”
“My entire side is numb and… and I’m very scared.”
One huge hand, like a bunch of bananas, planted on Vince’s side, pressing downwards. “Keep pressure on it, law. Sit tight, I’ll buy us some time.”
“Wait, General-” Vince said, his eyes opened wide, the scream of terror dead in his throat. He knew what that phrase meant. He knew!
Vince couldn’t lift himself up high enough to see over the wall – all he could see was the reflection on the wall before him, the shadows outlined by the flare of guns. Yull’s boots vanished over the wall’s top, and he landed with the sound of thunder. A gunshot, and the towering man had his sword in his hand. Another gunshot, he was already bent over, another gunshot and he was reaching out-
– then another gunshot, and the shadow on the ground from the flares of gun was punctuated with a spatter of blood, furthered when a Djansk soldier arched through the air and smashed into the ground before Vince with a sound Vince would be very happy to never hear again. Once as a child he’d dropped a bag full of sausages and even that sound hadn’t been quite comparable.
There were no more muzzle flares. No more gunshots. There was a whimpering sound, a bloody, unhappy grunting. Vince let his head loll back, hitting the wall, and bit his lip. Now he had to solve this with-
Yull’s hand planted on his shoulder, guiding him up to sitting. “Turns out time was going cheaper than we thought, law. Alright, now, keep breathin’ steady. Law! To me!” he called. “We’ve wounded, one spot, together, now!”
Gael was by his side in a moment; blood on her hands and sword, but it wasn’t hers. Leigh was already grabbing bedrolls, hauling them up and ppulling as much as she could from the campsite as they made to leave.
“I’ll take him General,” Gael said, hunkering down-
“No, I will,” Stannisfeld interrupted.
Gael glared at him. “What-”
“You’re stronger than me. You’re better with a sword. You can fight. I… can carry Vince.” Stannisfeld swallowed. They didn’t have time for an argument. But his friends were on hand, and Vince couldn’t help but think that writing his mother about the moment Stannisfeld picked him up in his arms, and he cradled his arms around his neck was probably not the proudest kind of moment soldiers proclaimed too loudly.
When they stopped next, it was in an inn. Vince watched with dull confusion as Gael fished two bullets out of his arm and chest, and tied him tight with bandages. Nodded a bit when Yull had arranged Leigh and Gael into a guard to wait downstairs, paid for the room, brought food. Smiled – weakly – when Leigh had expressed her concern – something, something, princess. He fell asleep, for the first time in a long time, on a pillow, with his hand holding Stannisfeld’s.
Probably wouldn’t tell his mother about this.
It’d only worry her.