A bone-jarring impact preceded the icy shock of being engulfed by freezing, biting water. He swirled and writhed madly; fighting against his own bulky frame and the weight of his armour as his subconscious mind took hold in an effort to do that which was beyond him.
It saved his life.
Some unknown instinct kicked in, calming him and forcing his burning, aching muscles into motion. He sat up quickly and blinked rapidly thawing water from his eyes. He was sitting on his rump in a frozen river. His waist was sitting slightly below the jagged lip of a ruined ice-crust that sheathed the watercourse. He pulled himself painfully onto the ruptured ice flow – his breath coming in great, ragged gulps – and began to inch forward on his belly toward the nearest bank, one painful movement at a time. He had no idea how he was still alive.
The ordeal, while only lasting minutes, seemed to him an endless, unbroken torture. It was a snapshot of agony stretched and dragged until time lost all sense of meaning. He couldn’t feel his legs, but that didn’t mean much. He was pulling himself forward with his gloved hands and couldn’t feel them either.
His wet, exposed skin ached terribly as the cold air of his environs froze it mercilessly to the point that he was afraid to blink, lest he try and find his eyelids frozen open.
Stupid bastard he thought, ruefully. He was still too afraid to grin though.
With one final grunt of effort, he forced himself up and over the low wall of dirt that indicated the river bank, then flopped over onto his back. The sky above was clear and piercingly blue. The sun wasn’t visible, but the promise of its heat was evident in the thawing icicles that hung like decorations from the branches above him. Part of him knew that he should move. His immersion in the frozen water would kill him if he didn’t get his muscles working, or make an effort to dry his clothes, but the prospect of stripping off here in the Khadoran wilderness just wasn’t worth contemplating. In any case, he had no tinder and no flint, (Even if by some miracle he was able to find the strength to gather fuel). He decided that he would lie there a while, letting the cold numb his muscles and slowly stop his heart. That would be a just reward; a peaceful, relatively painless death. In balance with the violence of his life to date and the terrible things that he had done in the name of victory, he reasoned that his lot was more than fair. Yes. A good, clean death.
Then reality intruded.
The pendant was obviously important and fate had directed it into his hands for some unfathomable reason or other. The spy and his pet Kossites would be able to track him in their sleep, making his plunge into nothingness little more than a foolish, heroic gesture. He had to go and find the boy.
It was a miracle that Garrid had survived at all. He had assumed, that in his weakened condition a tumble down a steep wooded slope would have killed him, let alone immersion in a frozen river. The boy’s body would have to be nearby and he should find it before his strength gave out completely, leaving him prey to the unforgiving climate.
He rolled over onto his front, groaning in pain as the muscles of his frozen back and rump protested angrily. As he pressed his hands against the frozen ground below, ready to heave himself upright, a sharp, stabbing pain lanced through his left side. He roared in agony as splintered ribs ground against one another. Stars danced before his eyes and he felt tears begin to prickle and freeze on his cheeks. He focussed on his mission. He had to find the boy. What he would do then – half dead from cold and untreated wounds – he couldn’t rightly say, but had every faith that Morrow would guide him.
He climbed slowly to his feet, bracing the shattered bones of his ribcage with one hand as he did so. He looked toward the slope, trying not to think of the agony that climbing it would bring, but without much success.
This was ludicrous. What was he going to do with the damn thing if – by some miracle – he did manage to find it? He would just be waiting for the Kossites to pick up his trail and overtake him, then he would be right back at square one, with the exception that he would have killed yet another of their people. He was giving the ice-hole a wide, respectful berth when it struck him.
The river was little more than a shallow stream here, already beginning to freeze over again. He would find the pendant, throw it into the river, then settle down to die in peace. The Khadorans would kill him this time anyway. Better that he go out on his own terms than let the nasty bastards do for him. He cast a weary but determined glance at the foot of the slope.
“Kurva.” Growled a voice from behind him. Garrid turned and stared into the hate-filled eyes of a bedraggled and bloody Kossite youth. A thick tree branch hurtled toward him and he barely managed to turn his head before it struck him a glancing blow to the temple.
It rang off his helmet like a prayer gong and once more he saw stars. The youth lost his balance on the ice for a moment and Garrid regained his composure enough to throw a right hook. His frozen muscles were slow to react and the youth’s stumble took him back out of reach, though he dropped his improvised weapon in the process. The two eyed each other warily, too tired and cold to circle.
Garrid noticed that the boy’s left leg was gouged horribly at the thigh and an ugly, purple bruise was forming on his forehead. The Kossite blinked, his face contorting in pain for a second and Garrid surged forward.
His limbs felt like ice and he could do little more than crash into his slighter, less well armoured opponent, bearing both of them to the ground in a thrashing, flailing heap. The youth lacked Garrid’s bulk, but he more than made up for it with ferocity and vicious, indomitable strength. The Kossite managed to free an arm from under Garrid’s weight and punched him across the mouth in a clumsy, desperate blow. Garrid grunted in pain and head-butted the boy on the nose with his helmet. The Kossite’s face ruptured in a howl of agony, but the Cygnaran’s victory was short lived as he felt strong teeth biting into his cheek. The pain was phenomenal and he fought the temptation to pull away; knowing that he would be leaving part of his face behind.
He rolled over onto his back; planning to throw the slimmer Kossite away and regain the upper hand. As soon as he did so, the youth leapt backwards, then surged forward once more, aiming a vicious kick at Garrid’s face. He was favouring his bad leg, but there was no time to marvel at the young man’s pain threshold. Garrid scissor-kicked the younger man’s wounded leg out from under him, resulting in a crash and an agonised scream. He wasted no time scrambling madly to his feet. He ended the engagement with a swift, vicious kick to his prone opponent’s groin. He was too tired, sore and cold to think of any one-liners, or clever comments. Instead he settled for slumping down onto his knees, breathing hard all the while.
The youth lay nearby, curled into a ball, groaning and cursing as loudly as his wracked throat would allow. Garrid leaned over and pulled the younger man into a sitting position. He grimaced in pain, but was too weak to offer much more than a token resistance. A vicious cuff to the side of his head stymied even that small spark of rebellion and Garrid grasped the slender chain about the youth’s neck; snapping it free and climbing painfully to his feet. The young man watched him with hate filled eyes; suspicious despite his obvious discomfort.
Garrid spared him no further notice, focussing instead on placing one foot in front of the other and reaching the ice-hole. Just as he arrived at the cracked lip, a violent impact knocked the wind from his lungs. He tumbled over onto the frozen river, heart lurching in his chest as the already tortured ice groaned sympathetically.
Somehow he had turned over mid-fall. He was on his back now, the youth straddling him; face twisted in a bestial snarl of hate. His hands were clasped above his head for a hammer-blow. Garrid closed his eyes, too exhausted for anything else. The blow never fell.
There was a sound like meat hitting a slab and Garrid’s attacker was spilled onto his side with an agonised cry. The trencher blinked in confusion, then rolled awkwardly onto his side. His muscles burned, but he managed to climb groggily to his feet. The boy was nearby, mewling in agony once more; a quarrel protruding from his right shoulder-blade. Garrid turned in time to see hulking shapes advancing on him from the river bank.
They had high crested helmets with full-face visors. Their armour was a mixture of gold edged, eggshell plate and mail surcoat. The lead one levelled a crossbow at Garrid’s chest, eyeing him intently. There was nowhere to run. He risked a frantic glance at the hole in the ice then made up his mind.
He stumbled forward; limbs burning, body aching. The lead warrior fired, but Garrid had pre-empted him and turned slightly when he heard the crossbow click. As it was, the bolt deflected off the curvature of his right pauldron and knocked him from his feet once more. He rolled onto his back, gasping with agony and exhaustion. The bulk of a large figure blotted out his vision then a mailed fist descended like a meteor. Garrid felt it smash against his cheek.
Blackness overtook him.
* * *
He woke slowly and managed with an effort of will to refrain from opening his eyes, or otherwise indicating his consciousness. He felt a pendulous, rocking motion that his subconscious mind associated with a wagon, or a wain with one wheel smaller than the other.
“He is awake.” Said a voice from somewhere above and to his left. There was a sneering, mocking quality to the expression that stirred the embers of rebellion in his weary heart. The man was speaking in Caspian, but the accent was difficult to place. It could have been Sulese, but the voice had a mellifluous quality that defied classification.
“Will he live, do you think?” asked another voice, younger. Garrid couldn’t help but note the tone of genuine concern evinced by the speaker.
“He’s a proper tough bastard, I’ll give him that!” this speaker’s voice was deep and coarse. He gave a dirty chuckle. “Look at the state of him! Broken leg, fractured skull and ribs, frostbite…”
“Strength in body alone is not strength. A pure body and mind are but a mirror for the splendour of the creator.” Said an older, quieter voice. There was some good natured laughter and jibing at the comment, at which point Garrid lost track of the individual speakers and slipped reluctantly into a fitful slumber.
* * *
His skin was burning. He was tumbling, end over end down a sheer, frozen slope. The spars of broken trees jutted from the frost ravaged ground like rotten fangs that tore and rent his clothing until he was naked.
His stomach lurched with terror and the sensation of weightlessness. At every moment he waited for the inevitable impact and the subsequent immersion in frozen, icy water. It never arrived and he was trapped in an endless loop of terrified realisation and anxious dread.
He was struggling with an opponent whose features were impossible to discern. Try as he might, he couldn’t isolate a single, definable detail, other than a gleaming, golden bauble about their neck. He knew intellectually, instinctively, that he should let go and grab the object, but something stopped him.
His stomach lurched once more and he was alone, out in the void, falling toward the tundra below. The impact that he expected never came. He was on all fours, mired to his elbows in the bloody, mud-churned earth. The deafening tumult of battle was all around as nightmarish red clad figures with eyes of green glass vomited clouds of noxious vapour in great gouts. He turned to see his quarry running toward the treeline; the gleaming spark around his neck, bobbing gently like a dislocated star.
He ran and suddenly he was back in the tiny cave that had served as his refuge after the battle. His friend was nowhere to be seen. What was his name again? It didn’t matter. There was a loom of printing parchment lying in the corner. He walked toward it and lifted it. Someone had drawn a very crude, child-like image of a farmhouse.
The tundra wind was harsh and bit at his naked flesh, leaving him shivering and sweating simultaneously.
“Hey you!” said a deep voice. “You are to over here, yes?” A very large man in a suit of steam armour was standing nearby. He walked closer and noted a large bullet hole in the centre of the steam-man’s forehead. Blood was running freely from the wound and trickling in great, soupy rivulets onto the bristles of his bushy moustache.
“Sorry I killed you.” Said Garrid, pointing at the wound.
“Ha ha, this is fine da? I was done anyhow I think.” He smiled, making his whiskers twitch unwholesomely.
“It’s in there.” Said the steel giant, pointing at the leering, dead face of the enormous black horse by his feet. Loops of steaming entrails protruded from a gash in its gut. Garrid looked down, then knelt by the horse, pulling its stomach open; marvelling at the heat that washed over him as he did so.
“Why are you crying?” asked the horse, gently.
“I’m sorry.” Sobbed Garrid as he pulled handfuls of raven feathers from the horse’s open gut. It just laughed a curiously human laugh in response and shushed him gently. Garrid’s hand closed about a familiar, spherical shape. A final wave of heat washed over him and he descended once more into blackness.
* * *
A cold breeze was prickling his sweat-dappled skin through the open door of the tent. The canvas was white, like a winter sky. The angular roof was high above him; veiled thinly by a gauze of woodsmoke. A small fire was burning in an iron sconce near the foot of his bed. He had been stripped naked and dressed in a featureless brown robe. Thick, soft quilts had been layered on top of him.
A stinking pumice had cured and then crusted on his forehead and other parts of his body that had been torn and slashed. It was beginning to irritate his skin. He could feel a wooden splint strapped to his leg, and a stoutly knotted sling supported his right arm and shoulder where the crossbow bolt had split his collarbone. How in Thamar’s nameless hells had he survived to end up here?
He experienced a brief shiver of fear, as his questing hands failed to find the bauble around his neck. A brief glance to his right showed that it gleamed gently in the upturned bowl of his helmet. Those elements of his uniform that could be salvaged had been cleaned and placed on the ground by his bedside.
He looked to his left and could make out more wooden cots similar to the one that he lay in. there were another three on his side of the pavilion and four resting opposite. Two symmetrical rows; some occupied, others vacant. A dark haired man was watching him intently from the bed directly opposite his. He nodded in greeting, an action which Garrid tried to reciprocate, but failed; grimacing and groaning in pain at the mild exertion required. He managed a weak smile which the other fellow returned before standing up and leaving the pavilion. Garrid slept again.
* * *
“Drink this.” Said the man in accented Caspian, proffering a small wooden bowl. Fragrant steam rose from it, titillating his nostrils and making his mouth water. How long had it been since he had eaten? He even managed to sit upright in his bed enough to let the mysterious new benefactor lift the food to his mouth. He could see lumps of meat and some nameless root veg floating in a thick, milky broth speckled with black pepper and rapidly dissolving salt crystals. A feast, he thought. This time, he managed a proper smile which the man returned; twitching his thick, shaggy moustache.
“You keep apologising, in sleep just then.” Said the man as Garrid supped greedily at the broth. The Cygnaran frowned in reply, but found that his voice was little more than a dry croak
“Is fine.” Said the man, smiling. “You dehydrated is. I looking after you, yes? Voice to be coming back in no times at all.”
Garrid slurped down the last of his meal and the man smiled approvingly. As he stood to leave, Garrid gripped him weakly by the wrist and smiled in what he hoped would be interpreted as gratitude. The man smiled back and it was at this point that his shabby, winterguard greatcoat became properly visible.
* * *
The next three days were a blur. Most of the time he slept; woken only by the Khadoran soldier at mealtimes. The man chatted happily about his family and trade – smeltery, as it happened – until Garrid’s eyelids began to droop from exhaustion.
By the fourth day, he could now sit upright in his cot without assistance, although this was still a painful, drawn-out exercise in stubbornness for his part. He refused help of any kind for this little chore and his attendant seemed to understand the silent protestations well enough not to interfere.
There were others in the pavilion, although many were at death’s door, or otherwise somnambulant. The winterguard soldier only appeared to assist with Garrid’s feeding, which he found strangely comforting in a way. A wounded man at the opposite end of the pavilion had suffered a loud fit on the third night and was gone by the morning. There was no indication of whether he had died, or been moved somewhere else. His friend didn’t mention the incident and Garrid was too tired and sore to care in any case.
On the fifth day Garrid was able to surprise his companion by croaking a greeting as the man sat down. The look of comic surprise on his face sent Garrid into a spasmodic coughing fit, which was the best attempt at laughter his ravaged chest could manage.
* * *
As his strength returned, Garrid really began to appreciate the friendship of his unlikely companion. The man’s name was ‘Kosmo’ and – as best as Garrid could interpret and Kosmo could make clear – he was a sergeant with a winterguard infantry platoon. The issue of the battle never came up in conversation and both men seemed content to consign it to silence for the time-being. Both had too much to lose by souring their budding friendship.
Kosmo had explained that they were in a hospital camp, but wouldn’t say much more about it. He had a fragmented memory of pearl-armoured warriors with naked blades and fearsome, golden masks looming up out of the snow, but it wouldn’t form properly.
“Kos” he croaked and his friend leaned forward to listen more carefully; placing Garrid’s lunch bowl carefully on the ground by his belongings. “There was a boy. Kossite...”
Kosmo’s brow furrowed for a moment, but it was always like this. Garrid had noted that while his Caspian was fairly fluent, Kosmo still needed a minute or so to process what was said to him. His eyes widened a moment later and he laughed.
“Why for you want know about dirty bear-lover? We are all knowing they are to loving with bears make!” laughed Kosmo. Garrid laughed along uncertainly.
“He was brought in with me. They found him near the river too.” Kosmo looked at him gravely and shook his head.
“Ahh Garrid. You is having big heart for evil southern weakling. Boy is dead.” He said, turning his head to spit on the ground.
“Dead?” replied Garrid, shocked. Kosmo narrowed his eyes and spoke more softly.
“Da, is dead. He is having big, cannonball...” he clicked his fingers a few times; looking around for support from nowhere in particular before miming something large and bulbous growing from his forehead.
“A lump?” asked Garrid “He had a lump on his head?”
“Da! Is lump!” cried Kosmo triumphantly, before seeing how the colour drained from Garrid’s face. “Was blood Kolya. Is getting big lump inside boy’s head, then... BOOM!” he flicked his fingers open at his forehead in an act of quite unnecessary mime.
“Why for you are caring? Is only stinky tree-fucker, da? What he is to you?”
Garrid stared at the pendant near his bed for a long moment.
“Nothing. He was nothing to me. Kos?” he asked.
“Where the hell are we?” suddenly Kosmo wasn’t smiling any longer.
* * *
“Where the hell are we?” whispered Grumble, insistently. Kerr shot him an irritated glance.
“Right where we should be, now shut the hell up!” he hissed. Why he had been paired with Grumble, he had no idea. It was probably some form of punishment for opposing the stupid plan in the first place. The Khadorans had been marching past the forest for three days now and showed no signs of stopping any time soon. The group had agreed to split up into smaller teams and meet north in the Wolves wood river north of Ohk in three days time. They decided it would be safer to split up, or rather Bad Boy had decided it. As a show of good faith – and a means of showing that he had faith in his plan – he had sent his henchman, Grumble with Kerr and Goose. That may have placated Goose, Kuros and the others, but not Kerr.
Kerr knew that Bad Boy didn’t give a shit about Grumble, or anyone else.
They had been hiding in their hastily concealed pit for three days. True to Bell’s estimation, the Khadorans had been moving in a steady, unbroken stream of reds, browns and greys for what seemed a lifetime. The chink of harnesses and whinnying of unnerved, tired horses punctuated the relentless tread of marching feet without number. Occasionally, on the first two days a roaring song would carry to them in their place of concealment; some bawdy soldier’s tune no doubt. That had been two days before. The troops passing them now did so in silence. Kerr was almost glad that the column was too far away to see.
Logs and bracken covered their rough dirt bowl in the forest. Kerr had to hand it to Grumble. The ugly criminal had anticipated the approach of Khadoran scouts long before he had. Kerr had found the pit though and covered it as best he could with help from the massive Goose.
That first day had been the longest. The watching and waiting had proven interminable. What little they could see through the aperture between the forest floor and their screen of fauna revealed little at first. Then, as faint moonlight was glimmering through the distant forest canopy above, the crack of a branch heralded the otherwise stealthy approach of fur-clad Khadoran scouts swarming the forest in their hundreds. At that point both men forgot their reputation for savagery; their battle-honed warrior instincts and military pride. They fell to their knees in silent prayer, begging for deliverance.
The night had passed without their discovery and Kerr had begun to look at the forest in a new light. Patches of green were beginning to show in the lofty heights and snatches of birdsong could be heard on occasion. Wild, white flowers that he had no name for were bursting into bloom at the base of trees and the smaller forest creatures were beginning to venture forth from their lairs. The novelty soon wore off, though. They were city men after all and city men needed distractions. That was when the questions started; the ones that every penal trooper dreaded.
“So what’d you do then?” asked Grumble “You know, afore the war?” The ugly trencher knew better than to ask what he really wanted to know. A penal soldier’s crimes were his own business.
“A gardener. I was a gardener.” Sighed Kerr, resignedly. All other topics of whispered conversation had been thoroughly exhausted by this time, so they all knew what was coming next. That didn’t make it any easier though. Some things, once said, could not be unsaid.
“I worked in a big mansion house outside Fharin, near the King’s road. My father was the groundskeeper, but he died from the plague.” Grumble touched the lip of his helmet and nodded respectfully. Kerr continued.
“Don’t worry, he was a right bastard. My brothers and I hated him. Loved that big old house though. Boss was a right toff, but he was fair. He died in Sul on a business trip when the troubles started. They never did find the body. Mansion passed to an inheritor an’ we ended up stowed away on the market line to Bainsmarket.” He smiled then, shaking his head.
“Tim and Colm earned their worth there, I can tell you. My brother Colm was the best 2nd storey man ever lived. He kept us in food and Tim used his muscle to make sure we kept what we earned.”
“What did you do?” asked Grumble.
“Me? Oh, I was a tealeaf me. Anything that wasn’t nailed down, I would have it. Got stupid though. Punched above my weight, didn’t I?”
“How’d you mean?” asked Grumble, a little too expectantly. Goose was sitting quietly, staring at the muddy floor of the pit.
“Robbed a Morrowan chapel. Took the offertory box, didn’t I?”
“Which mass was it?” asked Grumble with barely concealed avarice.
“The highchapel service. The one for the nobles.” He said, grinning at Grumble and shaking his head. The other man covered his mouth; a hiss of laughter escaping despite his best efforts.
“You lucky bastard! You mean ter say you robbed them highborns an’ you ain’t rotting in a cell right this minute? How’d you pull that?”
“I didn’t get caught.” Replied Kerr, smiling. Grumble squinted at him, perplexed.
“I got into the chapel by dressing as a page. I had stolen the doublet from a washing line the day before. As far as they knew I was just some lord’s lackey waiting for my master to leave the nave. I was out and away before the closing hymns. First thing I did was go out whoring and get blind drunk.” Grumble nodded appreciatively, looking to Goose for collusion. The big man just stared at his feet, shaking his large head ponderously. Kerr’s face was set, rigid. He was in the pit, but he was also somewhere else. Another time.
“I was still wearing the doublet, see? I was so proud of myself that I kept it on while I did the whore. I was bragging and throwing my money around like a madman. I can’t even say for sure who must have told the watch, but tell them they did. I woke up in a cell and was given the choice: Enlist, or rot in prison. I shipped out the next morning.
“What about your brothers?” asked Grumble.
“What about them?” whispered Kerr. They were silent after that. Nobody asked Goose, or Grumble what they had been before the army. The time for questions had passed. They had yet another silent, miserable meal of dried meat and meltwater from their canteens.
Faint birdsong interrupted the stillness for a time, but only occasionally and only ever for a short time. Night was falling on the fifth day before anyone noticed that the sounds of marching had died away.