The Fallen Goddess: Book One

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Chapter 11

Chapter the Eleventh

The camp was in a state of organized chaos, as most military camps tended to be. Here in the camp of the Iron Fist, the organized chaos was a bit different. More controlled. More insistent, perhaps. Even without Captain Zaman, the soldiers knew what they needed to do. This had not always been the case; Jaul could remember a time when these types of camps were no more than a series of trenches, firepits, and brawls. Zaman had gone far to remedy that. Discipline is the first and the last, and everything in between; Zaman had ruthlessly drilled this philosophy into his senior leaders. This army is more than the sum of its squads. You must ensure that your men will survive even if you are sucking on the Keeper’s teat. The men had taken his words to heart, and a clear chain of command had emerged from the ranks, with each soldier aware of his responsibilities, irrespective of circumstance. Each soldier, from the lowliest page to the Captain Zaman himself, was encouraged to think and expected to show both discipline and leadership. Of course, in the beginning there had been winnowing period, where the soft and pliable bark was torn away from the Iron Fist. Floggings and expulsions and leadership changes had made life uncertain for months. However, what had emerged was stronger, denser, and harder than anyone could have imagined. The Iron Fist had been hammered into a gauntlet of death, and had yet to meet its match on the field.

He had stumbled into camp late in the night, his wounds throbbing from the ride on the horse he had commandeered from the Left Hand. A page had taken his horse and handed him a skin of wine, which Jaul had dispatched forthwith as he walked to his tent. Along the way, he saw scores of soldiers in Hangman’s Square and in the surrounding streets and alleys. Even in the dead of night, people had been trickling in, looking for food, looking for safety. Soldiers matriculated the survivors and the dispossessed into the make-shift refugee camp, recording names and family members and professions, if any. Even now, Jaul was surprised at the number of children huddled together in corners or underneath fallen debris; he would have to make sure that his men protected the little ones. The weak are always the first to bleed. Moonlight reflected lazily from the soft white ash that had been half-heartedly swept into corners and along the sides of buildings, giving everything an eerie glow. A few torches burned fitfully on the exterior of buildings that still stood, but their light was a dull and uninspired glow that refused to venture too far from its source.

No one had come into his tent during his absence, which was the way he liked it. He had a habit of dusting a journal he had filled with inane witticisms and a few generic observations with sand and a few hairs; if they were disturbed, he knew that someone must have rifled through his possessions. Few things were private when you were surrounded by men who ate and shat and bled next to you every day, and Jaul guarded his few moments of solitude jealously. Most of the other squad leaders bunked two to a tent, but he was one of the few that was excluded from this policy, thanks to Captain Zaman. No one wanted to bunk with a man whose snores were louder than the commands he barked, in any case. Jaul promptly fell upon his miserable excuse for a bed and fell asleep.

The next morning greeted him with sunshine and a headache unbecoming of a soldier who had not spend the night drinking himself into oblivion. “Page!” he called out as he rolled out of his bed. A boy of seven or eight appeared in his room instantly. The fool looked like every other page he had come across, with a nondescript face, tousled hair, and a face streaked with sweat and grime. “What’s your name, froggie?” he asked brusquely as he performed his morning ablutions.

“Jamie, sir.”

“You see bars on these arms, Jamie? I work for a living. Call me ‘sir’ again and I’ll make sure the beating is worse than the one your da gave you for pissing on his hearth. Call me ‘sergeant’ or ‘Sergeant Jaul.’”

“Yessir!”

Jaul cuffed him across the back of his head half-heartedly. “Ijit. Get you to the Wilted Rose and let Captain Saleh know I am headed to HQ today at midday. If he’s some time, I’d have him there.”

“Yes, sergeant!” The boy took off.

“I seen you run!” he called after the boy as he scampered away. “I got a three legged dog that runs faster! You best move yer ass ’lessen you look to eat with that dog!” He sighed as the boy climbed over a hill and disappeared from view. Truth be told, a seven year old had no place in a military camp, but the only other choice for orphans was theft or whoring. He would not deny them a chance at a future that their parents would approve of, and he would make damn sure they grew up strong. He owed them that much.

Outside, the camp was already in full swing, bustling with activity. Not even a couple hours after dawn, and the sun was already beating down upon their heads. It was going to be another hot and muggy day, like every other day in these accursed Southern summers. Wiping the sweat from his forehead with a hand, he made his way to Hangman’s Square to find out what was happening with the survivors. He needed to know what progress had been made with refugees, and if they had any additional intelligence with respect to what had happened to the district. He also wanted to find his squad leaders and update them with what he had seen as well.

Hangman’s Square was full of men and women still dazed by the previous day’s events. Many had wailing children in tow. The immense size of the square was only heightened by its relative emptiness; other than the soldiers, most of the men and women present were survivors that had either found their way here or had been herded in by squads that were still sweeping the Ratters District on reconnaissance tours. The command tent was in the northwest corner, and he made his way over there. As he approached, he was able to see through the opened entryway men hunched over maps and paperwork, all arguing with each other. Most of them were his corporals, and the few that were not he recognized as attaches from HQ or from Saleh’s camp. “See that I’m not disturbed,” he told the men that stood at guard outside the tent and walked in, closing the flap behind him.

“Report!” he barked at them, making them jump. He saw surprise on a number of faces. “What, I take a nap and you think I’m out kissing the Keeper?” he demanded.

Harris, one of the younger squad leaders, coughed uncomfortably. “Aye, Sarge, you disappeared with the Captain and we never heard back from either of you.” He gestured to the rest of the camp. “It’s been a bloody madhouse here. We’ve processed five thousand people in two days, and over a thousand of them are children. Husbands weeping for their wives, and mothers weeping for their children. Nine hells to all of it! This is no job for soldiers. We’re meant to kill people, not bloody pamper them.” Bearded men exchanged knowing looks, and a grumble of acquiescence susurrated through the collection of soldiers under the tent.

“You flaming son of a motherless ass,” Jaul snarled back at him. “Your job is what I tell you to do. Whether that means you stick your sword in another man’s guts, or you bounce a baby on that bloody knee of yours, you do what I tell ya, you lazy sons of goats.” He looked around at the lot of them. “And that’s the last of this horseshit I’m ready to hear from you. Your job now is to protect these folk from whatever it was that hit them, and from each other if need be. Once the bloody KingsGuard gets their pants on straight, we’ll turn over policing the city to them, but right now we need to make sure this city is safe and these people have a place to sleep.” He glared at them hard, and was pleased to see shame in many of those eyes. These were good men; they never would have made it to squad leaders if they had not been. Sometimes they just needed a nudge in the right direction. “Any questions? You keep your stinking rathole shut, Rhyies. Don’t even look in my direction or I’ll knock those last three teeth outta your face. I don’t wanna hear any of your shit today. Anyone else? Good. Makhail, give me the word on what’s going on here.”

A tall, gaunt, bearded solider whose face had seen better days nodded gravely as Rhyies scowled and swallowed whatever it was he was going to say. “Sergeant, we have four operations in this theatre. The first to be aware of is the squads operating here in Hangman’s Corner. We intake survivors, capture their details, debrief them, and send them to a staging area where we are trying to unite families. Those that are injured are sent to the Healer’s tents at the camp of the Left Hand. We make two trips a day there to drop off the few we find injured and to bring back the ones who have been Healed. Half these folk are afraid to tell us what they do or who their family people are, and the other half don’t know how to read or write well enough for it to make a difference even if it did. We have a crier that goes in every hour or so to read off the names of new refugees. We’ve put a number of families back together like that. But the count is hard, Sergeant. Like Harris here said, we got thousands dead. Thousands orphaned. The only mercy we have is that there are few that are so injured that they need Healing.”

“What are the survivors doing for food and water and a place to shit?” Jaul asked, interrupting.

“We have squads that are working on setting up temporary tents, assigning space, and managing food and supply distribution to the displaced,” he replied. “And making sure they don’t kill or rob or rape each other. Most of them are being housed in street tents and along some of the adjoining squares. It’s only been a day, but our response to the refugees has been overwhelming in its speed. We are doing everything we can, and then some.”

Jaul nodded appreciatively. “That’s straight from the old vulture’s gullet,” he said. “That’s the word we had from the High Commander when we fell into this sump. I’m glad to hear it. Go on.”

“Two, we have squads on reconnaissance missions that are sweeping the Ratters District for survivors and for any signs of invaders. We have found bodies and not much else, Sergeant. Sometimes not even the whole body. And none of them are anything but civilians. Not a man or woman in sight with mail or mace. I’ll be damned if it doesn’t look like bodies just started flying apart and were thrown into walls and buildings.” He shook his head. “We’re fishing them outta the river, from inside collapsed homes, and scraping some off of the walls and floors. Course, we knew it had to be Sihr. But here’s the trick, Sergeant. We brought over some of Saleh’s men to take a look, and they were as baffled as we were. They were looking for some sort of Sihr residue or whatever the hell, and they didn’t find it.”

Jaul frowned. “Is that a concern?” he asked. “Do they have any idea what might have happened?” Of course, Jaul knew now what his men did not; Elder magic from a race long thought to be children’s fairy tales and storybook ghouls. But without word from Saleh or Zaman, he could not speak of this new information. Not unless he had to.

Makhail shrugged, grinning slightly. “You know how those Aeyn are. Wouldn’t tell you it stung if you stuck a sword in their rib. But they seemed put out enough.”

“It is a concern for us,” a somewhat plump and bespeckled Aeyn said softly. “There are always echoes of Sihr as it is used. Those of us that are more sensitive to it can feel its presence days or even weeks after its use.” Silk robes unblemished by ash or dust or even sweat rustled as the Aeyn nodded and moved forward a bit, and soldiers stepped aside to let him to the front of the table. “Such power was unleashed in this city that it should have deafened Aeyn that happened to be across the Aryth Sea, and yet none of us anywhere heard so much as a whisper.”

Jaul raised a hairy, unkempt eyebrow at the middle-aged mage. “And who are you, Aeyn?” he asked the mage. “A bit soft to be one of Saleh’s, I wager.”

The mage smiled as he clasped his hands, but Jaul noticed that his smile did not touch his eyes. A dangerous one, he thought to himself. “A wager you would win,” he agreed pleasantly. “Not all of us are suited to martial services. Some of us teach, some of us study, and a few of us choose to advise the leaders of the East. I am Ayen Theryian, House of Air. I happen to be one of the latter, and my allegiance and my duties are at the pleasure of the Obverse King.”

A bloody Aeyn politician. Nine Hells. “Well, have at it, Ayen. We’re no kings here, but advise away if it comes to you.”

The Aeyn smiled again at Jaul and nodded. “My Sihr and my knowledge are at the disposal of the Iron Fist,” he replied. “In the meantime, I am content to listen and be informed.”

Jaul nodded. He would follow up with Saleh to find out what this Aeyn was about. He did not like the smell of this small man with vulpine features, but he was not partial to Aeyn to begin with. A man that took advice from Aeyn would soon hind himself on the business end of a spell. “Aye. Go on, Mikhail.”

Makhail rifled though some reports on the table. He looked up when he found the one he was looking for. “We have engineers attached to a dozen or so squads that are managing a preliminary cleanup of major thoroughfares and habitable buildings. There’s no hope we can even think about helping rebuild the Ratters Distract, and I don’t know why anyone would want to rebuild such a shithole, but even then, we need roads open for horses and water we can drink and buildings not falling on our heads as we walk by.” He shook in head, disgusted by the banality of it all. “We’ve already lost a dozen or more horses to broken ankles because of the roads. Beyond that, it’s slowing us down from communicating with each other. The work is hot and slow, and we try to rotate squads in order to keeps the complaints spread out among the troops. Tomorrow we are going to volunteer us some of the men in the camps to come out and help us with debris cleanup.”

“How is that coming along?” Jaul asked. “What routes are you opening?”

Makhail turned expectantly to a young corporal that stood across the table from him. Jaul remembered him remotely; his name was Rousea, and he had been promoted only a few weeks ago. The previous squad leader had taken on the bite of a short-haired dancing spider, and had spent the next three minutes dying an agonizing death. “Rousea is managing that effort,” Makhail said. “What do you have for us?”

“Uh, Hangman’s Square to the displacement camps, sir. I mean corporal,” Rousea amended quickly, almost stuttering as he spoke. Jaul suspected that the sweat on his forehead had less to do with the oppressive heat than one might expect; the young man was clearly nervous. “We opened up a straight line to Saleh and the Left Hand; he’s off in the Westeral District. A man on a horse can make the trip in an hour now. Ummm….” He thought a moment, raising a finger to scratch his chin as he struggled to recall. “HQ to the High Commander is getting cleaned up, but it’s a hell of a mess. We’re still working on that. Maybe another day or two. Maybe more. Testament Bridge, too, so we can get across the river, but that’s on the way to Westeral….” He trailed off, cheeks burning as he struggled to contain his embarrassment. “I’ll have to look to see where else,” he added apologetically.

“The bloody hell is wrong with you, man?” Jaul asked, looking at him askance. “Have me a gods-damned report ready by sundown. I need to know the routes and by when. Or I’ll take that new stripe and pin it to yer ass.”

“Yes, Sergeant!”

He shook his head, wondering what boy had done to merit a promotion. He’d have to keep his eye on him to make sure that promotion hadn’t been a mistake. “Get on with it, Corporal Mikhail.”

“Er, yes,” the corporal responded. “Finally, we have runners reporting into HQ, the Left Hand, squad leaders, and our command tent here.” He coughed uncomfortably. “Since you, ah - , were taking a nap, I have been reviewing communications and tracking progress, as well as taking care of any problems.”

Jaul grunted. Mikhail had come through the ranks slowly, though not for any lack of skill with the sword or paucity of intellectual ability. Many made the blunder of mistaking a methodical nature for sluggishness of thought, usually to their detriment. His age did not help either; wrinkles and dark liver spots were scattered across his arms and face, and he looked like a remnant of an era long past; a strong jaw and facial hair as black as the skin of the Aliyana Islanders belied his age. It took some time for the leadership to realize that his slow speaking style was a measure of his deliberative abilities. Indeed, he was not the type of man who could not make rash or instant decision; he simply refused to unless absolutely necessary. “How goes it, in your estimation?”

The corporal ducked his head. “Nothing we cannot manage. Fear rules these folk, making their supervision simple. But many of us would know what it is we face, and what has become of Captain Zaman.”

“I’ll let him know you asked of his health,” Jaul said dryly, though he knew it to be unfair. He was not about to give up what had happened to their leader until he knew if Zaman lived and what the Iron Fist could expect. “Until he decides to come visit you, I suggest all of you change your soiled panties and get back to work. Capt’n Zaman knows what he’s doin’ an’ he don’t need you or anyone else to watch out for him.”

More than few cheeks reddened, and low grumbles rumbled through the group of soldiers; clearly they were dissatisfied with his comment and his jibe. “Quiet!” he barked. “I’m not his bloody nanny, and if he needed one, he wouldn’t be our Cap’n, you pansy bastards. Quit yer cryin’. He’ll come an’ talk when he’s good an’ ready. All of yous have other things to worry about.”

“Like what?” a voice called out from the back of the tent.

Jaul scowled. “Shut yer face, Rhyies. You think I don’t know that voice? Lurking in the back ain’t gonna hide that ugly face o’ yours. One more squawk outta you and your squad’s on guard duty for the rest of the week.”

“That’s not right, Sargie,” Rhyies insisted, muscling his way back to the front. A large man with a huge jaw and an unfortunately hooked nose, Rhyies was nothing if not imposing. He towered over the other soldiers who had hastily moved out of his way as he moved forward. It was either that or get stepped on. “We got a right to know what’s going on here,” he continued. “How are we supposed to protect these people and our troops if we don’t know what we’re protecting them from?” A huge fist hit the heavy table, shaking both glassware and books. “We heard rumors, you know. We ain’t deaf. Elder magic. The Dead God, come back for blood. And we seen what’s happened here. Should we be moving people into camps or digging trenches? I can’t tell.”

The problem with Rhyies is that underneath that ugly head and mouth full of broken teeth, there happens to be a semi-functional brain, Jaul surmised sourly. Inconvenient. “Call me Sargie again and I’ll break those last three teeth you got left, you teat sucking whore. You got a right to keep yer face shut an’ do yer job. I’ll tell ya what you need to know when I’m gods-damned good and ready. Until then, you can take it in the arse for all I care.” Jaul raised his voice from a growl to a rumble. A tongue-lashing would not be enough to satisfy them. There was too much uncertainty, and the destruction was too ruinous for a soldier not to feel his years in the corps weighing down on him. “All you shit-faced bastages best listen, an’ listen up good,” he said grimly. “You could have the Dead God pulling on my left ball, but I’ll still tell you that what happened here ain’t the work of men with steel. No damn way. It was magic.

“You also got this Aeyn here tellin’ us that they can’t feel no echoes of Sihr. Looking at this city and listening to Aeyn Theryian tells me two things: one, whatever magic was used, our own Aeyn don’t understand it, and two, the enemy knows how to bring the hurt. I don’t know what HQ is thinking about what happened here or how, but our job ain’t to figure this out. We got people with bigger brains than you that’re working on it. We got our mission, clear and hard and real as this table here afore me.

“I talked to Captain Saleh yesterday. You know their words. The Left Hand is the shield before the sword. If our swords can’t touch it, we can’t fight it, but they can. They will. We are attaching a mage to each one of your squads, coming from the Left Hand.” This pronouncement was met with a hum of surprise. Questions and comments and cheers erupted from all over the room, and Jaul saw a few of the men slapping hands in delight. “Quiet! They will report under your chain of command and will be camping with you, so make some room.”

“When are they coming in?” someone called out.

“Sometime today, I think,” Jaul answered. He looked at the assembled men. My men, he thought with pride. He was the whetstone that had sharpened them. “That’s enough bullshitting for a day. Time to get yer asses back in the field.”

“Mikhail, ask him ’bout the kids,” Rhyies said suddenly. Jaul looked at him and was surprised to see Rhyies looking like he’d rather be somewhere else. “Ask him what we talked about earlier.”

“The hell is this about?” Jaul demanded. “What kids?”

“Yeah, ask him!” someone else called out. “Ask!” There was a chorus of agreement, and Jaul looked questioningly at Mikhail.

Mikhail frowned. “Sergeant, there is some… concern… with respect to some of the orphans that are in our camps,” he said tersely, clearly uncomfortable with the topic.

“Concern? Speak plainly, man. I’m no bloody court noble. I’ve no time for intrigues.”

Mikhail looked at his papers, embarrassed. “Sergeant, the men are uncomfortable around the orphans,” he stated matter-of-factly.

“What in the name of FrostFang’s balls does that mean?”

“Their’s something wrong with them!” Rhyies exclaimed, his heavy and booming voice trying to echo in the tent. “They look at ya, and it’s like they’re looking right through a man! It ain’t natural, Sergeant, I swear to you’s by the Dead God. No way a kid should be able to look at a man like that. It’s like they already know what you gonna say.”

Jaul looked at him incredulously. “Are you daft,” he said finally. “What does that mean?”

“Have you seen ’em?” the big man demanded. “Go out there and talk to ‘em. You’ll see what I’m talking about. Those kids… they’s not normal, Sarge. An’ it’s not just me. Every one of us has felt it. I know they just orphans, but they make a man twitch, I swear to you.”

“He speaks true,” Mikhail added. “The children… I don’t know what it is, but there’s something there that’s not natural. They don’t talk like other kids do. They don’t play like them either. And now they’re always stickin’ together, like they’re a clan or family or something. They all hide out in the same places, and you never see one alone. There’s always two or three of them together, walking about, talking quietly. And when you ask them anything, they look at a man so that it makes him sweat in his boots.”

“They just saw their bloody parents kiss the Keeper, and none too cleanly neither,” Jaul said to him. He looked around at the faces in the tent. Most of them were sweating from the heat and from the stale and oppressive air. Jul could make no sense of these words. His men were losing their minds. They all looked at him for answers. Answers he did not have, and answers he did not know how to find. Zaman had to get back to his troops soon, or things were going to get ugly. “They’re stickin’ together because they know how each other feel, you stupid bastards. You just ain’t seen so many kids get orphaned at once, that’s why they seem off to ya. I’m done hearing this yammering about these orphans. Are they camped together?”

“Aye,” Mikhail responded. “Had to. We had a couple of beatings, more than a few, and we thought it best to keep them as close together as we could. Some of the civilians have taken to making signs when they see those kids walk about, same ways they do when they see a black cat with white socks. When they got to beating them away with sticks, we had to put a stop to it, so we moved them out to their own part of the camp. No men allowed in their but us.”

“I’ll go see them today. In the meantime, you shitstains have your orders. Get to work.”

***___***

The Aeyn that fancied himself an advisor insisted on accompanying him to the camp of the orphans. “I have heard much of these children, and confess no small amount of interest in them,” Theryian admitted as they were led to the orphan’s camp by one of the ubiquitous pages that seemed to be everywhere. “It has been scarcely a day, and rumors fly of these orphans. They speak in tongues. They blacken grass and leaf with their breath. Luck turns in their presence, twisting fate in ways no one can predict.” He looked at a silent Jaul, and his eyes narrowed. “Have you heard aught else, Sergeant?”

“Aye. I hear they are children, and orphans to boot,” Jaul growled. The oily sheen on this man’s words offended him for some reason. “I take little stock in what other men say.”

“Even your corporals?” Theryian replied. “Men you trust?”

“Fear is a plague that poisons any man it touches,” Jaul grunted. “I avoid infection by keeping my own counsel.”

Theryian tittered obsequiously. Jaul looked at him and saw teeth as white as Northern snowfall. “Few men are grounded as you seem to be,” he said, his teeth brilliant in the afternoon sun. “I, alas, am confounded by the cast and pallor of those that surround me. Why do they speak of the things that they do? What crafts the hate and the desire that persuades men to act like fools and worse? And how to harness that hate that every man is capable of?” He tittered again, this time self-consciously, as though he became aware of how obtuse his words might seem to an infantryman. The sound grated on Jaul’s ears. “Complex thoughts on the intrigues of the court, but they are the all that I have to keep my bed warm at night.”

Jaul grunted noncommittally. Nobles and Aeyn were two things he could do without. One who fancied himself both was almost more than he could stomach.

The orphan’s camp was a sprawling playground of dirty youngsters, broken toys, wails, and frazzled old women that cursed at the children as much as they tried to cajole them. Small mobs of kids roamed the dusty, ash-covered grounds, the elder ones leading the little ones, a few who had babies in tow. Surprisingly, Jaul did not see the typical squabbles or occasional fistfights that seemed to typify children at these ages. With the exception of the infants that keened for milk and the sobbing toddlers that called for mothers or fathers that no longer lived, the camp was unnaturally calm. Children walked rather than run, and spoke in hushed undertones more characteristic of their adult counterparts. Tents and shelters made of tarp or cloth or even discarded clothes jammed up against each other against dilapidated buildings and between narrow alleys.

“Who’s running this place?” Jaul asked of no one in particular. He looked around the disorganized tent city, looking for one of his soldiers. Or anyone who looked like they knew what they were doing. As Mikhail had intimated, there were few men in the camp of the orphans, and not a soldier to be seen.

“I understand there to be a rotating matrix of responsibility among the soldiers,” the Aeyn said helpfully. “The men have recruited nannies from the survivors to assist with taking care of the children.”

Jaul stopped an elderly lady with a cane who was walking purposely. “Ma’am, can you tell me who’s in charge here?” he asked her as she looked suspiciously at him, her wrinkled eyes narrowing as she appraised him.

“In charge o’ what?” she said curtly. “Two whores are fighting over who’s not in charge of feeding the babies. The camp cook is in charge of food, but the old fool can’t find us any milk for the children. The only solider we have here is two alleys up, still trying to sleep off what he drank last night.” She hesitated a moment, and spoke again. “Most times I’d say that there’s only a few that can claim to be in charge of children, but with their parent’s dead, it’s a hard thing to tell a hurting child what to do. And even those that do have found that these little ones listen less than most.” He saw her eyes glance over the stripes on his sleeve, and her expression hardened. “I seen more stripes on your arms than most of the folk that swagger in here wearin’ what you wear,” she told him, her scratchy voice low. “That means you can tell these fools what to do. Just because these is kids don’t mean that they don’t need attention.” She stepped closer to him, and her voice went hard as nails. “Lessen you want these children growing up to be whores and thieves, you get your act together. You get it together now. And if you don’t, you best pray to the Keeper that he finds you afore I do.” Then last words were nearly spat at him.

Jaul was tempted to replace Rousea with this old woman. Nine Hells, he’d probably trade any two of his corporals for her. And that old woman breath just served to make her scarier. “Aye, I’m here to see why my men would rather play catch with the Keeper’s stones than do their job here.”

Her right hand caught his left cheek in an open-faced slap that set his ears ringing and nearly knocked out two teeth. Theryian started in surprise, but Jaul put what he hoped was a reassuring arm in front of him. “Just because you look like a goat don’t mean you can act like one,” she told him tartly. “You watch your mouth or you’ll get another one. I got grandbabes older’n you. And uglier too.”

He grinned even as his cheek burned from the slap. Three corporals, I swear. “Alas, that you are not eighty years younger,” he told her dryly. “I’d have you lead these panty-waisted men that I call corporals. Where’s this soldier at? I’d a have a word or three with him.”

“Two alleys up, that way,” she said, pointing past them. “Not sure what you expect from him, though. Talking to him is like trying to spear a pea with a spoon. The boy has a warm smile, but there’s not much going on upstairs.”

Jaul offered his arm to the old woman that smiled in front of him. “Lead on, grandama. There’s not a one of us that a few cards short of a deck when it comes to you, but what’s a man to do? At least I’ll find out where my men have been failing.” His smile was greeted with a toothy scowl, but he was sure that that was a twinkle he saw in her eyes. “After you.”

“Don’t call me grandama, boy. My name is Lieni.”

The soldier’s abode a sheltes inside one of the buildings that had not collapsed from the perdition of battle. The high, vaulted ceilings kept the lower part of the room cool enough to prevent dehydration from sweating. The solider was sprawled in the small cot that sat in the corner of the room, his gangly legs hanging off the edge of an unusually narrow bed. Interestingly, they were intertwined with the legs of a more feminine, less hirsute compatriot who happened to snore louder than he did. Jaul was about to say something when the old lady yanked the sheets off the pair and started yelling. “Get up, you lazy drunk! It’s been two days since anyone seen you doing anything but drinking and whoring! There’s a camp here that needs running!” The man on the bed spluttered as he tried to cover his nakedness but all he had available to him were the various limbs of his partner, and she did not take kindly to his rough treatment of her.

“Get up!” she said again sharply. “I got sons older than you. There’s nothing there that I haven’t seen before.” Scowling, he tried to sit up and succeeded in banging his head against the headboard. A wince of pain was followed by a few curses, earning him a smack on a leg that strayed too near the old woman. “Watch your language! I may not be as strong as your commander, but he’s here and I’ll wager he’s not one to allow his men to curse in the presence of a lady.”

The soldier’s eyes finally tuned to see Jaul and Theryian. Nakedness forgotten, he scrambled to his feet and snapped to attention. His partner stretched on the bed without concern, raising more than just Jaul’s eyebrows. “Sergeant! Private Camayde at your command!”

Camayade. The name did not ring any bells, but there were hundreds of privates in the Iron Fist. “Who’s your squad leader?” he asked gruffly.

“Corporal Blueball, Sergeant!”

Explosives engineering. He made a mental note to dress down Blueball for his inattention to this situation. “Are you in charge of this camp?” he asked quietly. The tension in the room edged up. His anger was palpable.

“Only for this week, Sergeant!” Sweat broke out on the private’s forehead and his eyesd went a little wild.

“What are you doing to make sure these kids are safe and have food to eat?”

“He was doing me well enough until you showed up,” the girl on the bed interrupted. She stretched languorously again, and Jaul heard the woman at his side snort. “Oh, hello Theryian. I thought you were leaving yesterday?” Jaul thought his eyes might pop out of his head.

Jaul did not bother to look at cheeks that he knew had reddened. “Ah, yes,” Theryian stammered. “I was… delayed. By the impending arrival of our sergeant, no less,” he hastened to add.

“What a fortunate surprise,” she said without inflection, and Jaul suppressed a grin. “Should I come by tonight? Perhaps I can… delay you as well. Again.”

Jaul opened his mouth to speak but the old woman at his side beat him to it. “Quiet your face, woman, lest I give you something to complain about. Such a pretty girl, too. How does it feel to sell that beautiful body to a fat bastard with more gold than brains? I bet Theryian here is thankful that you have less sense than a hungry dog, eh?”

“What do you know of gold, hag?” the girl on the bed hissed, the scowl turning her face unpleasant. “Perhaps when my teats hang as low as yours do, I will care more for brains and less for gold. In the meanwhile, keep your counsel to yourself, lest you find that your advice is answered with something sharper than your dull wit!”

Jaul coughed loudly. “That’s enough from both of ya.” He took the sheets from Lieni and threw them on the woman on the bed. “Best that ye get dressed and find yourself out of here,” he told her. “If Lieni here don’t make the best of you, I’m sure that Theryian here will take ya for a run o’sorts.” To his credit, he did not grin as she wrapped the sheets around herself and collected her clothes, glaring daggers at both Lieni and Camayde as she stalked out of the room. “I’ll be around, Aeyn Theyrian,” she said as she walked out of the room, but her eyes were locked on Jaul’s. Her hips moved sensually, swaying in a manner to set a man’s blood afire. “Send for me.”

Jaul heard Lieni muttering under her breath. He could only make out “fool woman” and imprecations regarding the character, choices, and perspective of most men. Well, whatever. He had other horses to shoe. “The hell is wrong with you, Camayde? A whore in the middle of the day? Around children, no less?”

“There ain’t a man alive that can think straight when faced with a pair of pretty teats,” Lieni said grudgingly. “He’s guilty o’ being a boy, no more.”

“Thanks you, grandama, but I’ll manage my own men,” he said wryly. He stepped up to the private. “The dead god can have the girl for all I care, but if’n I catch you with a whore in the children’s camp again, I’ll rip off yer stones and send them off to Keeper for him to play.” His face was inches away from a sweating Camayde, who to his credit did not look away or allow is expression to change. “Do you get me, soldier?” he roared. “Your balls! I will make you bleeding eat them!”

“Yes Sergeant!”

“What’s the status of this camp? Your best know well what’s going on here, or you’re gonna be shoveling horseshit until the next full moon, soldier.”

The young man hesitated, and Jaul could see consternation on his face. However, it wasn’t the consternation that was stemmed from getting caught loafing off or stealing jam from your mother’s cupboard. This consternation was more external, sort of how a boy might want to point something out and then suddenly realize that whatever it was he was pointing at wasn’t there anymore. “Uh, everything seems to be in order,” he finally said lamely. “Not much to report.”

Jaul looked at him incredulously. “Did that woman just walk outta here with your wits?” he asked. “How are you going to say something like that to me when there’s thousands of orphans in this camp that need to be fed and clothed and sheltered?”

“That’s just it, Sergeant!” the young private blurted impatiently. “We all know how these camps are supposed to be run. We hired us some cooks, we bought us some meat, we even found some nannies and toys for these kids. Nappys and wet nurses for the little ’uns, and dogs for the bigger kids to play with.” Camayde looked down and shook his head, clearly muddled. Or perhaps surprised. “These kids is different somehow.”

Jaul frowned. “Explain.” He did not take to bullshit kindly, but he could see the confusion in Camayde’s manner.

Camayde thought for a moment. “You know how if a kid wants something, he’s gonna cry for it? He’s gonna keep crying till someone gives it to him or he forgets what he was crying about?”

Jaul nodded. He had no kids himself, but nieces and nephews aplenty.

“These kids, they don’t need nothin’ from us, Sarge. The babes, they handled by the older ones, and the older ones don’t need nothing. Least that they ask for. They stay quiet and talk to themselves and no one else, and what they want, they find.” He shrugged uncomfortably. “Most days, I don’t have nothing to do, Sarge. A body gets bored doing nothing.”

Jaul suppressed the urge to smack him. “You make no sense, private. I’m of a mind to put you on latrine duty. You best explain yerself.”

The private frowned, considering. Jaul could see him trying to put into words something he could not quite express. Camayde looked up at him. “Have you met Iyene?” he asked Jaul.

Jaul shook his head, wondering where this was going. “Never heard o’ her.”

“I’ve come across her name,” Theyrian said suddenly. “She is an attaché of sorts for the children’s camp, or so I understand.” The portly mage’s face did not sweat at all even in the stifling heat of the room. Damn Aeyn. It wasn’t fair that they didn’t sweat like the rest of them. “She is said to be well aware of the working of the camp and the disposition of the children, although young for such a role.” He looked over at Jaul, who detected a glint of interest in the Aeyn’s eye. “I’d not mind speaking to this woman,” the mage said, eagerness buried underneath the almost effeminate contralto of his voice. “I’ve heard much of her, and would like to know why she is spoken of so often.”

“Aye, you’ve heard it right,” Camayde agreed. “Though ‘young’ is a word I’d use loosely. She’s just a kid. Well, sort of. She don’t sound like one.” He stopped speaking, clearly frustrated. “Maybe we should meet with her, Sarge. A few minutes with her and you’ll know where I’m coming from.”

“She’s a babe,” Lieni said harshly. “There’s no more than ten years on her. She hasn’t even had her first bleed yet. I don’t care what you men have heard of her; the child should be playing with dolls and having her pigtails yanked. Mucking about with you three fools is about the last thing I could think of that I would want her to do.”

“Do you know her?” Jaul asked.

“I’ve spoken to her once or thrice,” Lieni replied. “I asked her where her parents was, and the girl told me a story about a princess that stepped out of a ball of fire that fell from the sky. She said that the princess killed anyone that looked at her just by thinking about it, but spared all the little boys and girls because she loved them.” Lieni grimaced, clearly put off. “I thought the girl was telling me stories, but I heard a story much like hers from some of the other children as well.” She frowned a moment, thinking. “Now I don’t say that what she told me is true,” the old woman hedged, “but there’s aught amiss here.”

“I heard that story too, except the princess was a witch and she killed all the parents for coming home late or whipping the kids when they didn’t deserve it,” Camayde supplied. “An’ I heard the ball of fire part too, from near every one I spoke to, Sarge.”

“What else of this Iyene?” Jaul grunted, looking at Lieni. A curious situation has only two paths to take: dullness or terror. Pray for the first. His father had been a man smarter than most. Too bad it had taken him so many years to learn the truth of it.

Lieni harrumphed. “She should be a handful, and yet she’s not. She should be looking at boys, and yet she’s won’t. She should complain when told to watch after the little ones, and yet she don’t.” Lieni looked at Jaul dead in the eye. “She understands, Sergeant, or whatever it is they call you. You cannot frighten her will tales of the Traë. You cannot cajole her with dolls and toys. When you talk to her, you will find that she speaks your tongue better than you do. You will be the one answering her questions, not the other way around.” The old woman crossed her arms and gripped herself tightly. “She’s not right. None o’ them are. They ain’t evil, I don’t say that, they just little children. But there’s something there that not normal. There’s a wrongness there that you can’t see, but you’ll feel it, I promise you.”

“Well, where can we find her?” Jaul asked. “Needs I must meet the girl that has all of your knickers in a bunch.” He thought he saw Lieni’s arm twitch and feared that he was in for another slap, and hurriedly turned his attention to Camadye. “Speak up, man. How do we find her?”

Finding her, it turned out, was not a problem. Lieni did not waste any time on apprehending one of many dozens of children that scampered around the camp. Any one of the orphans that walked the streets and alleys of the camp knew where she was, as though they had been instructed in advance of her location. Mention her name and the eyes of the orphans would light up as though someone were taking the name of their mother, and the words they spoke did little to contradict the reverence he heard in their voices. Faces streaked with dirt and tears shone with hope and love as they told Jaul that their ‘little mother’ was waiting for them some alleys up the street. More than a few began to follow them as the children learned of their destination. It did not take long for the small party of adults to be surrounded by a score of more of orphans. The older ones, not a one of them who had seen more than ten summers, led the way with quiet suggestions and the occasional comment to each other.

They finally found her deep within the shadowed alley between two buildings that had been devastated by the violence. A small canopy covered the narrow gap between the buildings, and as they stepped inside, Jaul saw a well-worn carpet that covered the dull gray of the cobblestone floor. The girl herself rested somewhat uncomfortably upon a veritable battalion of tasseled pillows and colorfully embroidered blankets. She was a tall, gangly lass, with hair as pale as winter frost. She looked uneasily at a young boy on his hands and knees that scrubbed the exposed cobblestones that were not covered by the carpet. Behind her, oil lamps burned fitfully, illuminating an afternoon cast in shadows by the remnants of broken buildings.

“Do you be Iyene?” Jaul asked the young girl. She looked up, her soft green eyes focusing on the small party for the first time without pretense or inflection. She is but a child, Jaul thought to himself. The girl could not have known more than eleven or twelve summers, if that, and her anxious and infirm manner with those that clearly worshipped her suggested to him an uninstructed leadership.

She smiled shyly, endearing herself to all but the most battle hardened of men. Jaul was unaffected by the lack of artifice; kindness could be just as quick a death as incompetence. Indeed, he had found that most men and woman who sought his affections were ones that least deserved it. A smile from a pretty young colt would not disarm him. “Speak up, girl! Or can ye not speak?”

She frowned prettily. “I can speak to you, Uncle,” she replied to him, and the easy familiarity of her dulcet tones send a wave of protectiveness over him. Next to him, Camayde started humming a tune. It sounded like “I Loved the Lass of Laughing Square.’ “Yes, I am Iyene,” she continued, and her voice reverberated in his head. “What is it that you seek of me?” Her voice made the question sound like an invitation of sorts, and it was all the more powerful in that it was unintentional.

Unnatural. She is not my niece. I don’t know her from a two copper whore. Even as he thought the words, guilt for such a comparison assailed him. “I would know how it is that you run a camp that any one of my men cannot,” he said, even as he fought an unanticipated self-revulsion at his thoughts. “As well I’d know why it is you that leads this rabble of children and not someone else.”

She blushed and looked away. “I do not lead anything, Uncle. At times it seems my choices cannot determine the path my own fate will take. I do not pretend to lead anyone else.”

Camayde was nodding as she spoke. “Aye,’tis true, Sarge,” he agreed. “She’s the right of it.”

“Shut it,” he told the private. Jaul turned his attention back to the girl in front of him. He looked at her, considering. There’s something about this girl… “And yet these children you do not lead speak of you and no one else,” he told her. “Looks like they scrub your floors as well,” he added, looking at the boy on his hands and knees who continued to scrub furiously at the floor. “And the Dead God knows what else they do in your name or at your word. You may not think you lead them, but it is your name I hear in counsel, and it is your name that brought me here afore you. So tell me lass, who is it that you are?” He looked at her expectantly.

“I am no more than an orphan who knows not the ways of men,” she told him. “You ask me why my friends do for me what they do, and I have no answer for you. You wonder why my name is in your counsel, and I have no answer.” She swallowed forcefully, and Jaul thought he could see the pain in her eyes. It shook him. “I wonder why we have been cursed by this plague of magic and death, and to that I have no answer as well. So I tell you: you are not the first or the only one to wonder why the unkind gods of fate have conspired against me and the children in this camp. If you have a better answer than I, then let all of us know, for we hunger for this news. If you do not, and then help me understand what it is that has happened, and for that I will be eternally grateful.”

Jaul favored her with a grunt. He could not fault her for those words, though it did not seem that they could come from a child of such a tender age. “If you’ve no answer then so be it. Tell me instead how it is you know what it is this camp needs moreso than my men who have been tasked by my word.” He glared at Camayde for a moment, who did not deign to notice.

The old crone at his side spoke up as well. “These men tell me that you are the one that satisfies the wants of this camp,” she rasped, her voice breaking in the hot, humid air. “Who is it that asks for the number of wet nurses? Who is it that asks for the cloth nappies for the babes? Who is it that demands gallons of milk, pounds of meat, and loaves of bread? Not these fools,” she said, her head pointing to Jaul and Camayde and the Aeyn. “I hear it to be you, child. How is it that you know better than an old woman like me?”

“I know no more than you, grandama, and less so, without fail,” the young girl replied, and Jaul would swear that he saw nothing but compassion and concern in the girl’s eyes. She turned towards them, and Jaul noted the soft and immature contours of her body. In fact, his eyes were drawn to them unbidden, making him more uncomfortable than he could ever recall feeling. She was a child and no more, and Jaul once again felt and overpowering and unusual surge of protectiveness towards her. “Instruct, and you will find me your pupil.” She waved at the camp before them. “My brothers and sisters speak to me, and I hold in my heart what it is that they say. Is it wrong to know what it is that they want or that they need? If so, I am guilty of whatever it is that you accuse me of. I must protect my brothers and sisters; needs I must know the gallons of milk and the number of nappies that are demanded every day. If not me, then who will do this?” The girl’s earnest eyes looked quizzically at Jaul, and he struggled to control the atypical emotions that threatened to overwhelm him. His private was quaking in his boots with self-loathing for failing at his job, and even the Aeyn looked perturbed at the turn of events. Magic’s afoot, his mind told him uncertainly as it struggled with self-doubt and an unnatural concern for the girl before him, and he knew that answers would not be found here. Not under the pall of Iyene’s bewitching words, at least. Jaul could not tell if the magic was intentional or not, or even if it was treacherous, but his instincts insisted that he flee. His companions looked at Iyene raptly, their faces transformed into those of pups expecting a bone from their master. What is it I deign to accomplish here? Even the harsh lines on the face of the old woman were softened as they looked at Iyene expectantly.

“Camayde!” Jaul shouted suddenly, startling everyone in the room. “In four hours you best have the quartermaster’s list in my hands for this camp. I want to know what these kids is putting away when they eat and how much thread they use when they sleep.”

“Yes Sergeant!”

“You shut yer face, I didn’t finish yet. I want a full tally of the orphans and when they was registered.” Jaul wanted to find out of the flow of orphans had tapered off or if they were still coming in. “Ages, sex, parents, and next o’ kin. You got me?”

“In four hours, Sergeant? I dunno if I can get it done.”

“If you hadn’t a been sticking your –.” An elbow from the old lady cut him off in mid sentence. He found her scowling at him, nodding at the little girl that was before him. Jaul swallowed his words and started again. “If you had been doing yer job like you was supposed to do, then it woulda been done already. Get it in gear and report in four hours. HQ, and bring this girl with you. Make me look like a slacker in front of the High Commander and I promise its coming out of your ass. You’ll be shitting blood for a month, you hear me?” He ignored the blow that struck him in the ribs again. That bony old woman knew how to throw an elbow.

“So firm with your people,” the girl before him murmured, and Jaul felt an inexplicable twinge of guilt. “Are you so rough with your own sons, Sergeant Jaul?”

“They test my patience less than this boy,” he replied gruffly. “And you’ve no cause to be sticking up for him. Had he done his job, you wouldn’t be sitting here afore me now, telling me what it is you do instead of him.”

“I don’t do it instead of him,” she said quietly. “I do it for him. I mean with him.” She alighted from the sofa, her long legs peeking out from the short, dingy skirt she wore, and she climbed over the pillows. Jaul looked away, embarrassed, only to see the Aeyn’s gaze fixated raptly on the girl. He turned his eyes back to Iyene, disturbed by the naked hunger on the mage’ face. They were usually more circumspect that that.

Iyene took the young private’s hand in her own and held it. “I will help you,” she told him. “We will do this together, and you will have what you need for your Sergeant. You will never be embarrassed on my account, friend.” She looked up at the boy and Jaul wondered at how such a frail girl could command such loyalty and respect in so short a time. Put her at the front of an army, and men would be willing to fall on their swords to protect her from an errant thought. Blood will spill to keep her from harm, and cities will fall to fulfill her every whim. This girl is danger.

“There’s no need,” he told her loudly, interrupting his own grim thoughts. “If he can’t do what he’s told, then we best swaddle him in a nappy and stick a teat in his mouth before he brings us all to harm.” He looked around at the motley collection of children. “Lieni, you’re now in charge of camp operations. Get these kids bathed and fed, if they aren’t already. By this eve, I want bunk assignments for them. I want to move them in three days, if I must, so make sure you have a plan to evacuate them. If you need anything, soap, water, food, a horsewhip, you let Camayde know. If he don’t help you, send a runner to me and I’ll see that someone else does.” A nod from her was all that he needed. “Camayde, you best get that ass moving. Four hours, you hear me, or it’s that stripe on your shoulder. I’ll bust you down to page and you’ll be fetching water for Liene here! You get me? Get out!” The private beat a hasty retreat, bowing slightly to the girl in front of them for some reason. “Go! And don’t worry about the girl; Lieni will bring her.”

He looked hard at the little girl before him, considering his words. He was not used to having to calculate how his words would ripple beyond the people that he spoke to, but the next time he saw her, it would be in front of High Commander Wara’th. He could not make any mistakes, both for her sake as well as his. “Girl,” he said to her, less sternly than how he spoke to Camayde, but stern nonetheless. “You walk a path strewn with unseen rubble and debris, planted by those that would see you fail. I would not wish this upon the daughter of my foe, and yet you are too far committed to change path, and so you must endure.” He grimaced, bemused at his own sermon. “There are those more important than me that would know what you know, and how you know it. They will ask you not for their own benefit, but for the greater good. In four hours, you will be in front of the High Commander, to answer his questions and to help these children you care for so much.” He stared at her sternly, hoping his rough demeanor would discourage any thought of disobedience. “And you choose not to come, you will be made to come. Do you understand me?”

Even as she nodded, the Aeyn next to him spoke up. “Fret not, child,” he said to her, too kindly for Jaul’s liking. “There is nothing to fear. This man before you is a soldier, and is used to speaking to those that he must command. Do not take his brusque words to heart; we are here to support you, not to see you or your people hurt. Come before the High Commander, and I will be there to protect you. This I promise you.” He ended his word with a bow, and Jaul considered knocking him over, but he lost his chance even as the mage straightened himself. Well, there was always next time. He looked back that the way they had come. A sea of dirty faces stared back. “Let’s go. We have work to do. We best get to it.”

***___***

High Commander Wara’th did not look well, or so Jaul thought. The lines on his face were more pronounced, and the weight of command bowed his broad shoulders until the stooped. ’Tis hard enough to lead one’s self, never mind the lives and souls of an entire regiment, Jaul thought to himself as the Wara’th once again looked down with a sigh at the sheaths of paper that decorated the table before him. Each one of his dozen captains had reports to bedazzle him, each longer than the next. Jaul felt ill just looking at the papers at the table. He wondered how many scribes had sacrificed candles and flesh to get so many reports completed in time for this meeting.

There were six men in the room, and one woman as well. Jaul saw Tabi as she walked in with Saleh and waved the two of them over. Saleh favored him with a grunt and sat down at the table immediately, going through the thick stack of papers he had brought with him. Tabi favored him with a smile that promised no more than a cursory stab, which Jaul took as a good sign. The girl was recovering.

“What’s the news of Captain Zaman?” she asked as they sat down. Saleh said nothing, but Jaul imagined that he saw the captain’s ears perk up at the question.

“Nothing, and less than that,” Jaul admitted. “Bloody Cap’n must be hiding in the lap of the Traë,” he said unthinkingly, the causal reference to a missing man taking on a significance unlike its usual meaning in light of the circumstances they found themselves in. “Er, we still looking for him. Not a man among us has heard o’ seen him since we did.” He looked at Saleh. “We have Aeyn doing their magics to try and find him, but I hear nothing from them yet.” When the captain failed to respond, Jaul continued. “I’ve been filling the hole, but I imagine the High Commander will find someone else to run the Iron First now that we’re here.” Saleh grunted again forcefully, and Jaul could not be sure if it was a grunt of agreement or a disparity in perception. Hopefully the former.

They were in a building at the outskirts of the Inner Walks, an older, wealthier part of the city. The room they were in was part of a mansion that had been held by a number of High Families throughout the centuries, but its current custody resided with Decapitare, a High Family of the southern forests. Their lands touched the impassable mountains that described the southern reach of the Obverse King; seafarers claimed that there were exotic lands beyond those mountains filled with Fae and Djinn and Aelf, but until one of those sailors brought a couple of those Aelf to the shores of the South on a boat, Jaul was satisfied to consider those nothing more than stories.

Aye, stories. Much like the Traë were only yesterday. Jaul strangled that thought; he had other worries to mull over.

The room was filling up. More men filed into the room, taking places around the table at random. Strangely, Jaul did not feel overly warm. Well, perhaps not so strangely; he looked up to a vaulted ceiling that drew much of the heat away from the floor. Cleverly placed pipes ran from the ceiling outside, funneling the hot air out every time the wind blew, which was almost constant this close to the Twofingers River. Cold torches blazed far overhead, casting the room in white Sihr-light that was as disturbing as it was illuminating. It was amazing the sorts of things that wealth could buy you. Jaul saw Theryian at the far end of the table, talking to what could only be a noble; the man was draped in silks. He did not wave to Aeyn, nor did the Aeyn deign to notice him. Just as well. It occurred to him that Iyene was probably not in the room, or the portly mage would have already attached himself to her.

Even as he thought the words, he saw Lieni walk in with Iyene. The old crone had traded in her walking cane for little Iyene’s arm. He elbowed Tabi and pointed out the two. With a nod, she got up to bring them over. Saleh looked at him questioningly, and Jaul favored him with a grin. “You’ll find out soon enough, Cap’n. She’s bound to make a stir here. It’s the girl Iyene; the twelve-year-old who’s been running the orphan’s camp.”

“Is she the one that leads the children that call themselves ‘One of the Five’?” Saleh inquired.

“One o’ the what?” Jaul scratched a lip with his thumb, considering. “I don’t know nothing about that. What I do know is that there’s some magic about her that’ll scramble your good sense. Best meet her before any of these other fools get their hands on her, or you’ll be pulling teeth to get some time with her.”

“Very well.”

Iyene walked up to Jaul, her little hand tucked away into Liene’s. “Hello Captain Jaul,” she said with a politeness that only a twelve-year-old could produce. Liene received him with a scowl that he was quickly getting used to. “Thank you for inviting us to your meeting. Did everything work out with Private Camayde?”

Camayde had reported to him earlier on the status of the camp, and had escaped the greater part of Jaul’s wrath with only a tongue lashing. The camp was being run remarkably well by the little girl. She did not demand much excess from the cooks or launderers, and her count of the children, as well as their locations and their deceased parents, were as accurate as he could have dared hope for. Although unsure if it was Iyene’s supernatural organizational abilities or private’s own skill with the pen, Jaul had decided to keep Camayde around to run the camp on a permanent basis. Or at least report on it; he doubted that the private was the one ordering the supplies and putting everything in place. The only thing he did not receive from the report was next of kin; Camayde claimed that none of the children admitted to having any. That response had earned Camayde a cuff to the back of the head and a warning to have the information available at his next report.

“Well enough,” Jaul said to her shortly. “Not that ye need concern yourself with the happenings of my team.”

She smiled at him. “I just want to make sure Camayde gave you what you needed, Sergeant. I’d hate for him to get into trouble on account of me.”

“And he gets in trouble, it’s on his own account, lass. You needn’t worry about that.” He looked around the room; the seats we filling up. “Best find a seat next to me afore they all fill up. Cap’n Saleh here is going t’ ask you some questions a bit later.”

A tall, spindly man wearing a gold chain across his left breast stood up. “The room will come to order,” he said tiredly, but his words did nothing to still the buzz of conversation. Jaul recognized the man; he was Brenner, the executive officer of the company. Most men referred to him as “the mule,” since he was responsible for coordinating everything Wara’th wanted done; if there was anyone doing the heavy lifting of running an entire company, it was Brenner. Jaul had never cared to meet him, but his short interactions with the man suggested to him that the role of an executive officer was a thankless one. The lines on his face and his haggard look reflected the toll his position was taking on him.

“Captains of the 101st Mounted Regiment, come to order!” he intoned.

The quiet murmurs died away as the room came to order. A dozen men sat at the table, including Jaul, representing the leadership of the various companies that made up the largest standing army in the Southern lands. Although it took direction from the grizzled old veteran known to most of the troops as the High Commander, the real power structure of the army was more complex. Each of the companies hailed from one of the nine duchies that owed allegiance to the Obverse King, and were paid not by the crown, but by the coffers of the High Family that ruled those lands. By tradition, two duchies were exempt from this military tithe; Tor Guriyaad, the tiny duchy that consisted of just the University and the surrounding area, and Aelor, a duchy that spanned the mouth and the western length of Keinstaägen River. Tor Guriyaad had no army to offer; by tradition, it was defended exclusively by the Crown, and an assault upon it was an assault upon the Obverse King. Aelorans were formidable ship builders and sailors, and generally supported the Army through their maritime skills. At least when they were not whoring. Or drinking. Or of a mind to kill a man for some perceived insult. Jaul had little interaction with what both the North and the South referred to as River Rats, but he had heard them to be a fussy folk obsessed with trade, trinkets, and tribute.

There were two companies that did not come from one of the duchies and instead belonged directly to the High Commander and, by extension, the Obverse King. One was the Iron Fist, an elite group of men that were the will of the Obverse King. The Iron Fist were the first to be set into battle, and often times were the last to leave, although this had more to do with the expediency of engaging a company that did not have political repercussions tied to every directive that was issued to it.

The other company free from the political machinations of High Family meddling and court intrigue, as much as it could manage, was the Left Hand. This was, however, not an exercise in political expediency, but stemmed from a real fear of a military company of Aeyn under the banner of a single duchy. The thought of an army of Aeyn was enough to make most men break into a sweat; concentrate that power in the hands of a single High Family, and you were asking for the kind of trouble that could overthrow a king. Or set a mountain on fire. The Left Hand operated in conjunction with the other companies. When they weren’t asked to weave destructive magics against enemies, they were found in chambers, giving counsel to military leaders and leveraging Sihr to communicate between companies and leaders separated by geography. Over the last ten years, Saleh had taken a company with a reputation for blinding expressions of violence and honed it into a cadre of consummate professionals feared by soldiers and strategists alike. The Left Hand was no longer a force that exacted the vengeance of the Obverse King with a ruinous hand; it was a weapon that could explain to you why you were wrong even as it peeled the flesh from your bones. The well-mannered sophistication that Saleh had introduced had only served to make them more fearful.

Jaul turned his attention back to the proceedings of the meeting. The High Commander was arguing with the XO about camp logistics. “Hang the bloody reports, Brenner. We’ve greater worries now than the rationing of the displacement camps or the cleanup.” He thought a moment. “Get you with Jenks and Trumbler and put it all together. Have a report ready for me by sunrise. No more than five pages, mind you, or I’ll make you eat the bloody thing when I’m done with it.” A few token protests sparked from the two soldiers identified by the High Commander, but they were the gasps of a dying man. Those two were known for their skill with numbers and planning and were probably running half of the camp already.

“If I may?” a familiar voice spoke up. Jaul scowled. Theryian, damn that Aeyn to all hells. He’s going to let the mouse out of the box without even a word with me!

Wara’th nodded at the Aeyn. “Of course, Aeyn Theryian. We always value the counsel of the Crown.” His voice sounded like he would rather eat a dog three days dead, but the Aeyn was either oblivious to it or simply did not care.

“With respect to Jenks and... Tumbler? Yes, I am sure they are fine captains and great soldiers. However, there are certain… complications with some of the camps that will require a more delicate and seasoned touch than that of the Regimental Forces.” He smiled at the High Commander like one would to a wayward child.

“Complications? What do you mean?”

The smile grew wider, thinning the Aeyn’s lips. “It is of no import to your forces or even your responsibilities, High Commander. And it does not deal with the camp proper; only the orphan’s camp. The children seem to be oddly different than others who have suffered through this tragedy, and I fear that it may have something to do with Sihr, or perhaps something less familiar. In the interests of the children and of the Crown, I would like to assume personal control of that camp.”

Wara’th frowned. “We worry of war and Traë and the death of thousands, and you worry about who will run a particular camp?” He shook his head, disbelieving, and looked around the room. What is this man talking about? Have any of you heard anything about this?”

“Aye, I heard these stories,” Jaul spoke up. He had a feeling that this would not go well.

Wara’th narrowed his eyes, looking at Jaul. “Sergeant Jaul, is it not? What are you doing here?”

Jaul shrugged noncommittally. “I just follow my nose, Commander.”

Wara’th harrumphed. “Like any good solider. Well, what has your nose turned up on this orphan’s camp?”

“I hear the frightened whispers of fools and cowards,” Jaul replied. “There is nothing in the words of the men in the camps that make me think the orphans aught but orphans. Aye, they are a bit odd, but two days past they saw their families murdered none too clean.” Jaul turned and spat on the pristine marble floor. “I know shit about Sihr and even less about children. But I can’t imagine me a man, little or no, that would rather be studied by Aeyn than herded by soldiers. They both be bad options, but one feel’s a mite worse than the other.” Heads nodded as men listened to his words. A general murmur of assent revolved through the room.

“Come now,” Theryian insisted, the smile still broad and thin upon his face. “Though I hold Sergeant Jaul in the highest esteem, I scarcely believe that he can be the best judge of what is right for these children, or how to treat whatever magical malady might afflict them. I do not plan to study them; such a thought is an affront to all good men. I want to rid them of this discordance that lives and breathes in the air about them.” He looked at Jaul from across the room, his eyes dark and unreadable. “I see that Jaul has brought the representative of the orphan’s camp with him. Perhaps it would be helpful if she were to speak to us for a few moments?”

Jaul repressed a desire to bare his teeth. He hated bandying words with politicians. A sword through the gut was cleaner. “She’s but a babe, Aeyn Theryian. Unbled. Ask Lieni here, who looks after her and the rest of the orphans instead. She will be able to tell you much more.”

“I think not,” the Aeyn replied, his smile slipping fractionally. “Who are you to advise me, soldier? What do you know of Sihr? Nothing, as you so eloquently admitted only moments ago. It might be that the girl has you under her thrall as well; your judgment is suspect. Send her here to speak to us. She stands right behind you. It will take but a moment. I promise to be gentle with her.” Those last words were as inviting as a promise to a maid.

White-hot rage burned in Jaul’s belly. The Dead God grant me a rainy day in the Nine Hells before I give this blood-leech any more than a broken nose. “Come here and ask her yerself, Aeyn,” Jaul replied, the threat implicit in his voice.

“Enough,” Wara’th interjected, cutting them both off. The animosity between the two men was palpable. “Aeyn Theryian, I’ve no interest in speaking to an unbled girl, and unless there’s a threat you can explain to me beyond allusions to dark mysteries and unseen magic, the orphans will remain camped where they are at.” He overrode the protestations of the portly mage with a wave of his hand. “If you’ve still concerns, I’ll have Saleh’s men take a look at a few. If there’s anything you need to know, you’ll be told.” He turned his attention to Jaul once again. “Sergeant, I will remind you only this once that when you speak to a councilor of the Obverse King, you should exercise better judgment when you choose your words.”

Unpleased, Jaul sat down. At least he was able to shield the girl from the machinations of the court Aeyn, though for how long he did not know. He would have to talk to Saleh to determine what to do next. The idea of the little girl in Theryian’s hands was sickening.

The drone of captains went on, with each captain reporting on the odds and ends of the camp, the destruction, and findings they had come across. The Aelorans had been given the task of cleaning out the Twofingers River and clearing the way for shipping and transportation. They trawled the river with nets to sweep it of bodies. So far, nine hundred corpses had been fished out of the Twofingers River, and weeks of work remained to finish the cleanup. Shipping could occur, after a fashion, as long as the captain and crew was not too particular what they bumped into along the way. Fishing, on the other hand, would be a problem for some time to come.

The engineers of Mecka Gange were less lucky. They were led by a fair skinned, wild-haired man that seemed as wide as he was tall. “Decapitare,” he heard Saleh mutter behind him, and Jaul knew the massively armed soldier to be Captain Garre, known to most as the Mad Dog of the South. If the South had men that were still as wild as their Northern counterparts, it would be the mountain men of the deep south. They lived on the forested foothills of impassable mountains and spent their youth climbing rocks and feuding with each other. Most of their men worked in mines, digging for gold, bloodstone, and other precious minerals. The High Commander had given them patrolling duties in order to keep the peace; their size alone would be enough to dissuade a would-be brawler. They were also tasked with finding survivors that were either buried in their homes or refused to leave. During a routine patrol, three soldiers had been lost in a building collapse and one more had suffered a broken back; the man had been sent for Healing and was expected to recover. To prevent further casualties, each building had to be inspected by engineers before access was permitted, and any building that did not pass inspection was marked for demolition.

Saleh was having a good time of it, according to his report. They had set up three details; Healing, perimeter defense, and communications. The Healing tents were full of citizens, but not those that had violence visited upon them; rather, citizens from all over Rahimeyyen decided that this was the moment to resolve obscure ailments that had taken on a sudden urgency after the bloodletting in the Ratters district. Fevers had been Healed, blisters had been treated, and a host of small ailments had been remedied. A few dozen had been treated for more serious ailments, but only a few injuries that were a result of the violence that had decimated the district.

“Have you heard aught else of the fireball that fell that night?” a blue-skinned solider with yellow hair asked Saleh. Nylaran. How do those fishermen survive in kraken-infested waters? That skin must be like a beacon to every beast in the Akryn Sea.

Saleh shook his head. The High Commander raised an eyebrow in question, and Saleh grimaced. “Captain Iben Areysh speaks of a sighting claimed by some of the survivors. We have failed to find the truth of it yet.”

“When one of three men speaks of it, it is more than a claim, honored Aeyn,” Iben Areysh said in his strange clipped accent. “My men tell me that it is all they speak of, and their wives claim the children of the dead tell tales of a new mother that fell from the heavens.” He touched his first two fingers to his head as though seeking absolution and bowed deeply at Saleh. “I ask that you consider your words with greater caution. There is more to this tale than the madness of misery.”

Saleh ducked his head in acquiescence. “What you say is true,” Saleh replied, “though I had not heard of the children’s tale. Alas, my words were poorly chosen. More than a few men have claimed to see a ball of fire fall from the sky eastward. We know not what it was, where it landed, and if it had anything to do with the events of two days past. We still seek answers, but have found none as of yet.”

“Have you any thoughts?” Wara’th asked. “Should this concern me?”

Saleh shrugged. “Who can tell? We have the words of men who know nothing of magic or gods or fireballs that fall from the sky. I believe nothing until I know something, High Commander. And of this, I know nothing. Ask me again when we meet anon.”

The High Commander sighed. “Everything that is tied to this moment is riddled with intrigue and confusion,” he said with a voice ready to concede defeat. “Needs I must persevere until the facts emerge.” He sighed in frustration.

There were a few moments of quiet, and Jaul realized that the Iron Fist was the last one left. “The Iron Fist: present, yer exalted holiness,” he said stridently into the silence, his voice echoing off of the walls. More than a few heads turned at the unusual address. “Sergeant Jaul reporting in lieu of Cap’n Zaman.”

The room was quiet for a moment. “In lieu?” the executive officer finally asked.

“Aye.”

Silence again as the man waited for an explanation that Jaul did not care to detail. “Umm, yes. Well, where is Captain Zaman?” the man finally asked.

“Magicked away by one of those crazy basts we’ve been forced to fight, I’d warrant. More than that you’ll have to ask him yerself the next time you see ’im.”

Jaul could see the expressions of confusion and incredulity cross the faces of many of the soldiers of rank in the room. Unsurprising, as far as he was concerned; most officers couldn’t tell you whom their mothers were bedding down with, much less follow the events of the day. The fools were blind to what was happening under their noses, and this was no different. The murmuring that began to surface around the table irritated him, as did the slightly confused expression on the XO’s face. “What is it?” he snarled at the XO, eliciting a jolt.

“I’ll be asking the questions,” the XO replied, trying desperately to establish authority, but to no avail. Jaul could hear the confusion in his voice. “Who sent you to this meeting, and what happened to Captain Zaman?” Jaul was not sure whether or not to be impressed at the XO’s ability to reference Zaman; there could not be more than half a dozen captains that reported to the High Commander. “And who are these magic wielders you speak of? Aeyn?”

“Aeyn? Have you lost yer mind? Had it been Aeyn, Saleh here would’ve had their stones hanging from ’is neck on a chain. There’s no bloody Aeyn that slaughtered the Ratters District, sir. Ain’t no human army that took lives of both woman and child hereabouts.”

“Speak plain then!” he heard a voice from the front of the room. He scowled, looking for the speaker.

“How much plainer wouldja like? I slew a Traë but yesterday on Cobbler’s Street, while you was suckling on your mama’s teat, I’d wager,” he called back. “’Tis their work we seen here, and nothing more.”

The room erupted in a cacophony of questions, comments, and derision. The XO’s jaw worked, but he could not formulate a response to Jaul’s remarks. Jaul grinned toothily, always pleased to wreak mayhem in the officer corps. That grin had made babies cry, and its effect was not lost on the XO, who looked back at Jaul somewhat queasily.

“Silence!” Wara’th roared, and the room went silent. “Jaul? Sergeant, is it not? If you’ve any care for that tongue, you’ll speak plain when I ask you tell me what has happened to Zaman and what you mean when you say you slew a Traë.” The High Commander looked hard at Jaul, who did not bat an eye under the scrutiny. “Go on then.”

“There’s not much to tell, yer Commanderness. Me an’ the Cap’n were asked to check out a report yesterday of a dying Aeyn on Cobbler’s Street. When we got there, we found the mage, but there was a Traë hiding in that room as well. The Aeyn magicked away Cap’n Zaman when the Traë attacked. Me an Tabi here,” he nodded at the soldier to his side, “we fought that big bastage, but it were the Aeyn that saved us, at the cost o’ his life. More than that I know not. Cap’n Saleh here has a full report if’n you wanna see it.”

“Brenner, make a note to have Saleh send a copy of that report to me,” Wara’th said quietly to the XO. He looked back at Jaul. “So you and… Tabi, correct? You two battled a Traë?” The old solider looked like he wanted to smile, and Jaul felt blood rush to his face. “That’s a bit hard to believe. Are you quite certain it was a Traë?”

“Maybe it was a djinn or a goylem!” some called out, prompting some laughter from around the table.

“An Aelf! I hear they fight like Traë!”

“Fools! It’s the Dead God, come back for revenge!” Other suggestions rand out, each more impossible than the last, and laughter filled the room.

“Shut it!” Wara’th said forcefully. “No one here is calling the sergeant a liar. Maybe it was rogue Aeyn, magicked to look like Traë. We know nothing yet.”

“I bloody well know,” Tabi said forcefully, and all eyes turned to her as she stood up. “And the lot of you can pick which one of the nine hells you want to go to if you don’t believe Jaul. I took a knife in the shoulder from the beast, and I saw it take an Aeyn and turn him into jelly. You stupid basts can boast and joke all you want, but there’s a Traë body in the camp of the Left Hand right now that the Aeyn are taking apart to study. I suggest every one of you shut your mouths before I put my sword through it and listen here to what Jaul has to say, lest the next time one happens to show up, it has your name writ upon its tusks!”

Saleh cleared his throat as he eyed the assembly of men and women in the room. “Aye, she speaks true, High Commander, as does Sergeant Jaul,” he said in his usual careless drawl. “There lies a beast some nine feet long in our camp, with a tusked head shaped like a deformed melon. Its arms are big as two men’s thighs, and an extra joint between the shoulder and elbow will make any man that faces one with a sword dead all the more quickly, if he does not run away screaming in fear. Some of them are mages as well, and use the Elder Magic of Khatam, something we understand not at all.” He put his arm on Tabi’s shoulder. “My sergeant took a knife in the shoulder fighting that beast. When it threw it at her, it was able to bury the blade some three inches into her bone. It took half a dozen Aeyn to leech out the blood-magic she was poisoned with. Three of them lie insensible in their beds even as we speak, though it has been near two days since the healing. When they wake, we will have many questions to ask of them as to how they saved her life.” He looked at the room intently, his eyes as hard as his voice had become. “There is no escaping the truth of this matter. What we face are the fables from our youth come back with teeth and claws. I have scholars that I trust poring through every bit of learning we have on the Traë, and we turn up nothing we do not already know from the tales of our childhood.”

“The words are dire, and no less so that they came from a man known for an even temper and cold blood in his veins,” spoke an elderly man who sat on one side of Wara’th. Jaul did not recognize him, but the black, glassy bow at his side let all know that he was the leader of the Alviles, a feared cavalry that owed its fealty to the High Family Amptor. They were bareback horseriders that fought with bows made of dragonglass. Only men borne of the sands of Amptor’s Cusp could wield those large, oversized bows. They trained with those bows from youth, and years of hard training with dragonglass toughened the muscles of their arms and backs and shoulders enough to draw the bow. Jaul had heard that their archers could drive an arrowhead through the bole of a tree with a well-placed shot. No breastplate was proof against that sort of ferocity. “Captain Saleh, can you tell us what brought this ruination upon the Ratters District? Was it these Traë?”

Other questions erupted throughout the room. “Have they decided to attack us? Upon what grounds?”

“Can we trust your Sihr best them?”

“Can we see the body? Have you any idea how to slay them with a sword?”

“Where did they come from? The West?”

“Are they using magic to hide among us? Could they be here in these chambers now, listening to our strategy?” That last question hit close to home, and more than a couple of men loosed the knots on their swords. Wara’th raised his hands to settle everyone down. “Quiet!” he said to the room, and the bickering settled down. “Saleh, is there any way to tell if they are listening to us?”

Saleh shrugged, rolling his shoulders expressively. “I know not how to discover the answer to that question, given that I know nothing of Elder Magic. I suspect, however, that we will find out soon enough. With the exception of Zaman, the entire leadership of the 101st is in this room. If they want to destroy the ability of the East to wage war, then they should strike us down now. It would be foolhardy to do otherwise.” Men stared at him in shocked amazement as he stopped speaking. Others looked around almost gingerly, wondering if death approached from some unseen corner of the room. When a moment had passed, Saleh spoke again. “I guess not,” he said mildly.

“I’d thank you to keep your inferences to yourself in the future,” Wara’th said dryly. “Or at least speak to me in private before you speak such words again.”

Saleh shrugged. “I speak my mind, sir. If you’ve no liking for it, I can find my way out.”

“Speak your mind to me in the future or not at all, the choice is yours,” Wara’th replied. “If you disagree with me, take it up with the Obverse King.” His eyes roved over the men and women that reported to him. “No one is to speak a word of this until we understand what is going on. I want a look at this Traë, if that it truly what it is. I want the sergeant-at-arms to tell me if we will be able to meet in in a field of battle, and how we might overcome it. I want Saleh to tell me what countermagics his men will have prepared against this Elder Magic. I want to know why they took it upon themselves to bleed out the poorest portion of this city. Until we have these answers, the lot of you will keep your lips closed and keep your men ready. Am I clear?” Wara’th did not wait for an answer. He turned to the gentleman at his side and spoke directly to him. “We know nothing of what has happened here on that fateful day, and I have no intention of spreading the word that the bloody Traë have sprung to life to slaughter us in our beds. We do not know that they are the ones that did this, and even if they did, we know nothing as to why. Keep your counsel close until we have some answers that will not result in riot.”

“What would you have us say then, High Commander? How are we to prepare if we know nothing of what faces us?” The old man’s words rang in the quiet hall, and grunts of agreement erupted once again.

“Blood and fire, Rente! Why are all of you assembled here if not for counsel?” The High Commander waved off the XO’s attempts to interrupt.

Saleh had been watching the exchange quietly from his seat. He stood up after the High Commander was finished and spoke. “High Commander, I think it prudent that we seek counsel from the Aeyn at the University. If there are any that could counsel us, it would be them.”

“Aye,” Theryian agreed. “Even as we speak, the First Seats of the Houses meet. I spoke to ArchAeyn Harmoun not even an hour ago. This is an opportune time to seek them out, as they struggle with events that may be tied to what has happened here in Rahimeyyen. Their counsel would be invaluable.”

The High Commander considered their words. “Aye,” he said finally. “Much as I dislike sharing information with those University Aeyn, the greatest threat we face right now is not knowing. Have we any Listeners at this meeting?”

Jaul poked Tabi with a finger. “The bloody hell is a Listener?” he whispered to her.

“Nothing more than a new name, as far as I know,” she whispered back to him. “They are the Aeyn that trade messages with each other from afar. Nothing we have not known, but after that fiasco at Gorari Deep, the brass decided they needed a protocol for trading and sharing information.”

Jaul nodded. Gorari Deep was a bitter reminder that Sihr was not the answer to everything; a rogue mage allied to the North had cost the lives of an entire platoon of soldiers and a handful of Aeyn by sharing intelligence with enemy Northern tribes and reporting back false information to Southern commanders. What had started as a scouting expedition had trapped a squad of soldiers in the canyons of the Deep, and the platoon sent in to extract them had been slaughtered under cover of night, Sihr, and false pretenses encouraged by a messianic Aeyn that wanted to unite the Northern tribes.

“Of course we do,” Theryian continued. “I can invite them to participate in our discussions now, if you are so inclined, High Commander.” He bowed.

“Do it.”

Theryian bowed again. He closed his eyes for a moment, and the room fell silent. Jaul strained to hear anything; a thought, a whisper of a voice that was not his own, or even some sort of tingling on his skin that might suggest the use of Sihr, but there was nothing. Damn these Aeyn. A body’s got a right to know when Sihr is being used.

Jaul looked at Saleh and saw something that almost looked like consternation on the captain’s face. A frown only intensified the look of intense concentration on his face, and Jaul assumed it had something to do with the mysterious force that was no doubt floating across the room and across the continent as well.

“This is part of the new security protocol,” Saleh said suddenly, and it sounded almost like a question rather than a statement. Theryian nodded from across the room and Saleh grinned wolfishly. “Nine Hells, but I am impressed,” he replied. “Where does this stem from?”

“A young graduate from the University,” the Aeyn responded. “He claims to have stumbled upon ancient lore in the annals of Northern scholarship, though I can’t imagine how. Scholarship in the North? Bah. Zayne is the Aeyn that brought this to the attention of the University. Zayne, I believe his name to be. This is only the third time we have tried it. The weaves are tricky, and much Pathos is used, and must be shared across a number of Aeyn to reduce the risk of bad’h.”

“Is that an invitation to assist you?” Saleh asked.

Theryian tittered, and the sound grated on Jaul’s ears. Were it possible to slap that sound out of the man, Jaul would already have done so. “Am I so obvious, or is true that you know how to look past a man’s words and into his heart?” Theryian gushed at Saleh, and Jaul felt his irritation transform to nausea. The only thing more revolting than a man who knew how to massage an ego was the man that enjoyed the massage. Fortunately, Saleh’s noncommittal grunt and Theryian’s subsequent frown relieved some of Jaul’s nausea. Such a comment directed at Zaman would have resulted in a tongue lashing, but perhaps Saleh was better mannered than his captain. Well, so be it; he would not hold it against Saleh.

The surface of the large, oaken table before them shimmered, and some of the soldiers that sat up against it pushed themselves back. Jaul held himself still, although like most men he felt uncomfortable in the presence of a man wielding Sihr. He did not trust anything he could not stick a sword into. The shimmer extended up, radiating an unnatural silver color in the air. Men began muttering, and Jaul could see stress on the face of both Theryian and Saleh.

It did not take long for the muttering to cease. In a moment, the floating silver froze the slow, undulating dance it was doing and sharpened into a picture of three men sitting around a table. Behind them, Jaul could see three men standing with looks of intense concentration upon their faces. There were a few gasps in the room as the picture coalesced, but even those voices retreated into silence. Everyone stared at the image in front of them in awe; it was somewhat smaller than what one would expect in real life, but the detail was mesmerizing in its clarity.

“Hello the High Commander!” a voice echoed out of the image. Jaul nearly fell over in surprise. What sort of magic was this? One of the men seated at the table that floated above their table waved at the room. “Can you see and hear us?” he called out, his voice echoing slightly as it emanated from the image.

“Nine Hells,” Wara’th whispered, amazed. “Yes, we can see and hear you. Might we inquire who we are talking to? One of you looks to me to be ArchAeyn Harmoun.” His voice was louder than usual, as though he thought his voice would carry across the leagues with better effect if he increased its volume.

“No need to yell,” they heard in response, and a few of the men chuckled. Jaul felt himself relax a little as well. This was astonishing magery. “You have the right of it. This is ArchAeyn Harmoun, First Seat of the House of Air. I am Enta’are, First Seat of the House of Earth. I know this to be the High commander of the South, and I sense the presence of both Aeyn Saleh and Aeyn Theryian. Who else is there with you? I can only see a part of the room.”

“Apologies, ArchAeyn Enta’are. There are but two of us managing this weave, and I am loath to risk any more Pathos,” Theryian said. The strain in his voice was evident as he struggled to both speak and presumably maintain the magic he was casting.

“We have here the entire leadership cadre of the 101st, ArchAeyn,” Wara’th stated. “All nine of my captains are here, including some of their staff and attendants.”

“Hmmm. We have compelling news for you, High Commander Wara’th, regarding developments here at the University, as well as what we have learned about the violence that occurred at Rahimeyyen. I suggest you empty the room of anyone that you do not trust implicitly.”

Jaul laughed. “This Aeyn must not live in the Nine Duchies, otherwise he’d know that these words would empty to room of everyone but the High Commander,” he said. Laughter and catcalls of agreement met his words. Even Saleh cracked a smile.

“Your feeble attempts at humor notwithstanding,” the Aeyn continued, displeased, “I suggest that support staff be dismissed. We will speak only to the High Commander and his captains. If you would be so kind, High Commander Wara’th?” He looked at the High Commander, who sighed.

“You heard the ArchAeyn! Clear your corporals and the like out,” Wara’th called out. “Tabi, please escort the young lady and her nana back to the camps. All the rest of you are dismissed for the evening. Captains, you have three minutes send away the baggage.” Jaul stood up to leave but Wara’th stopped him. “No, you stay, Sergeant Jaul. Until we have news of Captain Zaman, you will be the acting commander of the Iron Fist.” Jaul sat back down with a scowl, provoking a laugh from Tabi.

“I’ll see you around, Sir,” she said with a smile.

“Only thing that means is next time I tell you to do something, you’ll get a beating and a court-martial if’n you don’t,” he growled at her. She laughed again and Jaul saw the laugh touch her eyes, and it did not bother him so much this time. “Get you out of here afore ye get Cap’n Saleh here in trouble. An’ watch that girl Iyene. She’s bound to lead you off a cliff if’n you let her.”

“Might I stay?” Iyene asked of Wara’th. “I would speak to the Aeyn of the University.”

The High Commander and not a few other men looked incredulously at her. “Girl,” he said in irritation, “these men do not have time for dolls and dress up. Mayhap you did not notice but there are thousands dead in this city, and we know next to nothing of why it happened or if will happen again. Go quietly with your nursemaid and one of my men will speak to you anon. That’s a good girl.” He turned to one of his captains, dismissing her.

“Excuse me, commander,” she said loudly, and the entire room turned to look at her, including the Aeyn in the projection. “I know well what has happened here. You are not the one who lived through the destruction of this city; we were. It was not your mother and father that died here two nights past; it was ours. It is not your home and life that has been destroyed; it is ours.” Her voice echoed in the quiet room, and even the Aeyn paid her attention. “I have a right to be here, moreso than the men in this room,” she continued, uninterrupted. “I have a right to ask the Aeyn a question, moreso than you. In any case, you have no cause to send me back. I am no threat. Or do you fear what damage a twelve-year-old girl might do to this camp? Sergeant Jaul did not find me a threat. He invited me here without fear.” She looked at them angrily, eyes burning in the cold light of the Sihr-lamps, daring him to send her away.

“Get out,” Wara’th told her without expression. He motioned to Tabi, who hastily grabbed the young girl by the arm.

“Stop it!” she cried, struggling. “I have a right to speak! I have a right to know what is happening to me!”

A chill went through Jaul as he heard her words. What is it that is happening to her? He had no doubt that there was something not right with her. There was something not right with all of the orphans, but to hear such an admission from her was disconcerting. It suggested an understanding of nuances that should not have been evident to such a young girl. Nine Hells, this is bloody strange.

A loud whistling interrupted the happenings in the room. It was a piercing sound that steadily increased in volume. Everyone stopped what they were doing and looked towards the center of the room. Jaul looked at the apparition floating above the table. The noise was coming from there. “What is that noise?” ArchAeyn Harmoun asked, looking around. “Is there something wrong with the weaves?”

There was a tremendous explosion, and the room shook. Screams erupted from the silver-tinted scene, and the image blurred. “Nine Hells!” someone screamed from inside the image. “What in the name of the Dead God was that? Someone help Ellphs! He’s hurt! Something fell on him!” Jaul could not make out who it was; even the voices seemed broken and unclear.

Another piercing whistle filled the air. Whatever it was, it was not finished with them.

“Something is attacking us!” another voice screamed from the image. “It’s tearing apart the Tower! Put up a shield! Put up a shield!” The panic in his voice was desperate. Light flared as Sihr was cast desperately. “Up against the ceiling!” Jaul heard, but the voice was dimming. It was fading away.

“Saleh!” Wara’th snapped. “Fix this thing! I can barely hear them and the image is blurring! Get them back in focus!”

“I’m trying,” Saleh said, his voice breaking under the strain of whatever he was doing. “Theryian, help me! Where are you?”

“It’s too much, it’s too much,” Jaul heard him moan. “They’ve lost one of the Aeyn on their side. I can’t hold this much Sihr!” The tell-tale haze of mist surrounded Theryian as he tried to balance the Air he was holding. “We must stop!”

There was another explosion from the floating image. New screams erupted, only to be cut off suddenly. Theryian collapsed, and Saleh groaned in evident agony. “Too much,” he croaked. “They are gone. They are all dead.” His eyes rolled back in his head and he collapsed as well.

The scene, or what was left of it, winked out in a dim flash of silver.

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