Authors: Rachel Dunne
t must have been cold. Scal could see the wardens' breath frosting in the air. Thousands of little crystals forming and dancing and disappearing. They were shivering, the twenty wardens. Chattering teeth loud in the still air. Gloved hands scraping against rough coats as they chafed arms. Four fires, and the wardens huddled as close as they could without burning their boot tips. Scal had told them they should not build fires, though they had not listened to him. For them, fire was life in the cold. It could be death, too. They knew it. They would chance that, for the warmth.
Scal was thirteen, nearly a man, and he sat alone. A distance from the fires, the warmth a faint caress against his skin. He did not need the heat. Parro Kerrus said it was the Father's fire that kept him warm. The wardens said he was a demon in man's skin. Brennon would always scoff and say, “You're North-born. Of course you can handle the cold.”
Scal wished Brennon were here now. Brennon had a way of making the mood light, and it was lonely on these patrols. Lero
was friendly during the day, when chance put Scal and the light-footed scout together. Once they made camp and the others were around, he never as much as looked at Scal. Joined the others in their disdain. Athasar spoke to Scal most, after Lero. Talking was the only way to give orders. To the wardens, all of them, it was easiest to simply act as though he did not exist. Scal had learned long ago to not bring attention to himself. Had learned to live with solitude. The wardens had stopped actively hating him, though it had taken months. They had not wanted to bring a Northman on their patrols. The group of scouts was meant to find Northmen, keep them from getting too near to Aardanel. Kill Northmen, if they could.
Chief Warden Eddin's trust had made Scal glow with pride. With the joy of being useful, of helping and learning. It had lasted only a few moments, until Athasar had begun shouting. He had heard them arguing long into the night, though he had hidden in the chapel. Prayed to the Parents, again and again. Until the words had grown blurred in his head. Until he did not even know what he prayed for. Even after living side by side with Scal for six years, the wardens still expected him to turn wild. Eddin and Parro Kerrus were all that kept them from throwing Scal to the snows. Here he was anyway, in the snows. Sitting in the deeps of the Northern Wastes. Kerrus would have laughed and said the Father had a healthy sense of humor.
Brennon had joined him in the chapel as the sun began to poke at the windows. Prayed for a time, from the other side of the everflame. “You'll do fine,” he had finally said. Eyes willing it to be the truth. “I'm sure you'll learn plenty, so that's good. It's only another year until I reach my majority.” He had
flashed a smile then. It was harder to stop Brennon smiling than it was to stop Fat Betho cursing. “Then we can face the snows together and get out of this place, hey? There's gotta be somewhere your piss doesn't freeze on the way out.”
Brennon had been right; there was much to learn from the wardens. They did not teach Scal much of it, not willingly. He watched, though. Watched and learned, so that when Brennon was old enough to be given the choice to leave Aardanel, Scal could keep them alive through the cold journey south. So they might find a better place, a better life. A free life.
“What's that?” Monarro said, voice rising high with sudden fear. He had the sharpest ears in the patrol. The camp fell silent in a hurried hush.
Scal strained his own ears. Only the wind swirling through the trees. The fires biting at the cold air.
The wardens, almost as one, drew in a sharp breath and held it. Hands inched toward swords, bows, knives. The wind slowed. As if it, too, strained to hear what sounds the night held.
They scrambled to their feet in a rattle of weapons and chain mail, hissing for quiet. Scal rose slowly, quietly. Hands clenching and unclenching at his sides. That had been one of Athasar's terms. That Scal be allowed no weapon. As if one boy could kill twenty wardens with a knife. As if he knew what to do with a knife. He had never felt the absence of a weapon until now.
Some of them were looking at him. Eyes wild with suspicion
. Forcing his hands to still, Scal looked to Monarro. The warden's head was swiveling slowly, eyes tight shut. Scal could almost see his ears straining to pick up sound. Athasar, stood near Monarro with his greatsword clutched in one meaty fist, motioned the others to silence.
Monarro's hand shot up, one gloved finger pointing. Without a moment of hesitation Athasar set off in that direction, the others ghosting after him. Passing close by, Lero hissed at Scal, “Stick near me.” Scal did not need to be told twice.
Their feet crunched on the hard snow, making stealth useless. They might have done as well charging forward, screaming battle cries. But they snuck. Moving forward slowly. Orderly. The light from the fires faded too quickly, leaving only the faint moonlight to guide them. Scal had good eyesâit was why Eddin had made him a scoutâbut fear had his gaze jumping at every sound, every flash of movement. The wardens sometimes startled at nothing out here in the wilderness, but even Scal knew this was not nothing.
Around the bundled bodies of the wardens, Scal glimpsed a faint flicker of light. Low to the ground. Not moving. A small point, growing larger as they crept up to it. A few of the wardens split away, circling around to either side. Trying to surround what they were approaching.
There was nothing special about the spot. A small space between the trees, a torch stuck into the crust of snow. Nothing of note. Until Scal saw why the torch had been left. Whoever had done this had wanted to make sure they would find it. That they would see all of it.
Radis, one of the sentries, wasâhad beenâone of the worst among Athasar's company. Still, Scal would never have wished this thing upon him. He had been nailed to the tree, big spikes of metal stuck through his shouldersâ
. His throat slashed. A deep cut that left his head lolling grotesquely. Scal could not tell if that had been before or after his stomach had been cut open. Guts spilling out all over the snow. Blood dripping slow from both gaping wounds.
Scal bent over and heaved. His meager dinner splattered over the snow. Looked like Radis's guts. He heaved again. Lero joined him. He was dimly aware of others making the same helpless retching noises all around the space.
“Pull yourselves together, boys,” Athasar growled.
With great effort, Scal straightened up. Swallowing sour-tasting spit, fixing his eyes on a distant tree.
“Why?” one of the men was muttering. “Why? Why?”
“Iveran,” the captain said in answer, and one of the wardens began to retch again.
For all its poverty, Aardanel was a stronghold by Northern standards. Northmen made raids when they couldârarely on Aardanel itself, but on the supply and prisoner chains that flowed into the camp. It had been worse in the last year, worse than Kerrus said he could remember, and he had been there a long time. There had been no new prisoners for nearly a year, when they had typically arrived every other month. They were all killed on the way. Supplies stolen. Bodies left to freeze in the snow. Meals had been even more slim than usual in Aardanel. More and more dying of hunger and cold. No one asked Fat Betho where he had found meat. No one wanted to know. Aardanel was crumbling.
All due to Iveran. A Northman chief whose tribe was picking slowly and ruthlessly away at the prison camp.
Grimly, Athasar said, “Back to Aardanel. Now.”
“Why?” one of the wardens asked again, the only one who had managed to find his voice, weak as it was.
“Because Iveran already has a head start.” With that, Athasar set off, away from the direction of their camp and its four fires.
Scal made himself look at Radis again, swallowing down the bile that threatened to rise. A torn-off branch had been nailed to the tree next to Radis's shoulder. Stuck straight out, his arm lashed to it. One fingerâthe only one that had not been cut offâpointed straight at Athasar's back. Straight toward Aardanel.
The storm clouds hung low above their heads as they trudged
through the trees. Threatening snow but without so much as the scent of water to support it. It was an altogether different smell. The smell of a cold night. The smell of Kerrus's chapel. The smell of smoke, and fire. He looked up at the sky and felt sick. Not storm clouds. Smoke clouds.
Athasar, looking grim, called them all near to say, “We're close, boys, but I'm not sure what we'll find. It don't look good.” He sent Lero and two others ahead to see what had happened. That left Scal with no defense, though Lero's near-friendship was little enough protection. The others soon turned to stare at him. Some fingered their weapons, the same look in their eyes as the convicts' sometimes had. The look of needing to tear. To destroy. To kill, because it was the only thing that made sense. “If you had anything to do with this . . .” one of them muttered,
but Scal could not pick out who. He wished for a knife again.
The scouts came back pale-faced and shaken. “Wall's gone,” Lero said, sounding like he could not believe his own words. “Burned down, some still burning. Few of the buildings are on fire, too.”
“Any sign of Iveran?” Athasar asked.
Lero shook his head. “No sign of no one but birds. Place looksâ” He stopped, going paler. Scal knew what he had been about to say. They all did.
Setting his face, Athasar said, “We move in slow, boys, and stay together until we know . . . well, until we know. Weapons ready, eyes sharp.”
Athasar did not tell Scal to come with them, nor did the captain tell him to wait behind. So Scal went slow, sneaking through the trees with the rest of them. The smell of smoke was stronger now. Filling his lungs, filling his stomach with heavy fear. He prayed as they walked. Reciting every prayer Kerrus had taught him. Begging the Parents for mercy. For things not to be as bad as everyone thought. For everything to stay the same.
The Parents are always merciful,
Kerrus had told him a hundred times.
Sometimes it just doesn't fecking feel like it right away.
The trees surrounding Aardanel had long ago been cut down to build the camp, so Aardanel stood in the center of a wide swath of open ground. They were coming from the east, and they should have had to circle around the tall wooden palisade to the main gate. But there was no palisade, no gate. Melted snow. Burned dead grass. Ashes. A still-burning section of wall to the north holding out. Flames tickling the sky. Smoke boiling up to mask the clouds.
Fire is the most powerful thing there is in this world,
Kerrus had told Scal, hovering his hand above the everflame.
It speaks its own language, and “mercy” isn't a word it knows.
“Steady, boys,” Athasar said, his face as drawn as any of theirs. “Eyes sharp.”
They moved forward again, leaving the trees behind. Scal's back prickled. Expecting at any moment to be hit with one of Iveran's distinctive white-fletched arrows. For a group of fur-wrapped Northmen to come screaming toward them. As Lero had said, though, there was no sign of anyone.
Ravens cawed as the patrol picked their way over the ashes and entered what was left of Aardanel. Smoke hung low, making it hard to see. Not hard enough that Scal did not see more than he would have liked. From so far away, even sharp-eyed Lero had not been able to see beyond the smoke. This close up, it was red. Red everywhere. Not so long ago, the patrol had found one of the prisoner transports Iveran had butchered. Scal had seen more of it than he had wished, and this was just like it. Only more. All red. All death.
Bodies lay like a carpet along the main street through Aardanel, wardens and prisoners alike. Men and women and children. Most of the faces familiar. Some faces too bloody or beaten or cut up to recognize. Arms and feet and heads lay scattered around with none to claim them. Those white arrows, fletched with feathers from the snow eagle, stuck out of many bodies. But most were cut open or smashed up. The smell of fire was not enough to cover up the stench of blood and death, of guts and bowels and urine. Scal's stomach roiled, but nothing came up. It was too vast, too horrible, to be real.
They were near the barracks where the wardens slept, and Monarro pointed to it with a shaking finger. A body had been nailed to the door. Cut up like Radis, only this one was missing a head. None of them needed a face to know who it was. Only Chief Warden Eddin wore black-dyed uniforms. A raven perched on his shoulder, plucking at the gaping wound of his neck.
Others were heaving now, adding more mess to the scene. Scal could not find it in him to join. What was the point? This was no more than a nightmare. He would wake up soon, and tell Kerrus. The parro would tell him how even bad dreams were a gift from the Mother.
Glimpses of what-might-be,
he would say,
or what-might-have-been. We should all be thankful we only see a small portion of what Divine Metherra could show usâthat, my boy, is mercy.
His feet were moving. He did not know when he had started to move. That was the way of dreams. Running. Jumping. Slipping over the bodies and gore. His boot punched through bone, a skull, blood and brains spraying up his breeches. It did not matter who it was, had been. Not in a dream. He only kept running.
The chapel was gone, too close to the palisade to escape burning. Even with the snow red-spattered all around, it was not hard to pick out Kerrus's red cassock. He was on the ground in front of what was left of the chapel, lying there in his thin old robe like he had had no time to put a coat on. Not that a coat would have done him any good, then or now. Fur could not stop a sword. There was no point in trying to stay warm after the sword had gone through and the blood had gone out. He had always told Scal he would be smiling when he went to
meet the Parents. But there was no smile on his wrinkled face. No joy in his fixed eyes.