The next time I woke up, it was morning, the sun was glaring in my window, and I was hungry enough to eat a horse. I’d eaten very well the previous night, but that sort of hunger was rather common when I was injured. I healed very quickly ever since I was Changed, but it took something out of my body to sustain that effort.
It was worth it, though. When I tested the leg this time, there was only a dull ache, and it could hold my weight without any weakness. It would be another day or two before the pain was fully gone, but it was already almost completely functional.
I went through my usual morning routine and then made my way downstairs. I was barely limping when I made it to the bottom of the stairs, a far cry from last night.
Corbin was already working on cooking something, which seemed somewhat more ambitious than the usual soup. A slab of meat–likely the rest of the venison from last night–was sitting on the counter, along with some herbs and a handful of pans, and I could hear noises coming from the cellar. He’d clearly anticipated that I would be hungry, though; there was a plate sitting out with a slab of bread covered in butter and honey, and a large cup of milk. I took them and carried them out to the taproom.
Normally I would have expected it to be empty so early in the morning. It was hours before any of the farmers would be in for lunch, and the legionnaires were out hunting something that only looked like ghouls. Black…well, it was anyone’s guess where Black was or what she was doing, but she didn’t seem to spend much time at the inn.
I’d forgotten, though, that I wasn’t the only one wounded. Aelia was in the taproom, sitting at the bar. She was drunk, and in the process of getting drunker; the cup of vodka in her hand was plenty of evidence for that.
Her left hand was a mass of bandages. It was obvious that she wasn’t going to be doing much with it.
“Oy,” she said as I walked in, looking at me. Her head was a little loose, not quite in a steady upright position, and her words were slightly slurred. “Silf, right? Pull up a chair, I could use some company.”
I took a seat a few feet down the bar from her, and started eating, taking small, quick bites of bread. “How do you feel?” I asked. It was easier than it often was; my throat barely even gave a twinge.
“Hurts like a bitch,” she said frankly. “But a bit of sedative takes the edge off, and vodka takes care of the rest.”
“Sumi said you would lose the hand.”
“I will,” she said, with just a trace of bitterness. “You want to see?”
I was silent for a moment, then shrugged. I wasn’t entirely sure why I did.
Aelia grinned, and started unwrapping the bandages. It took a while.
When she was done, I regretted asking. Her left hand, from the wrist down, was ruined. There was simply no other way to put it. The bones were shattered, the flesh torn; the fingers were bent and tangled into knots.
“That doesn’t get better,” she said, turning it back and forth and staring at it with an expression of vague disappointment. “Just waiting for a medic to take it off. Might do it sooner, don’t want it to get infected.”
I stared, unable to look away from the mess of meat and bone that had once been a human hand. “You don’t sound upset.”
“Oh, I am,” Aelia said, beginning to wrap it again. She flinched slightly as she started winding the bandages around the maimed extremity. “Never shoot again. But this was my last run anyway. Ready to be done.”
“How long have you been in the legion?”
“A long time,” she said, glancing at me. “Sumi said you were in the Whitewood.”
“I was there,” she said. “Got sent to the river. Put arrows in people while they were trying to swim away from the fires.” She took another drink, almost emptying the cup. “I still remember the way they screamed,” she said. “There was this kid, had half his face burned off. He was carrying a shovel, trying to fight with it. I put a bolt through his chest, but he didn’t die right away. Lay there in the mud bleeding out with people dying all around.” She was silent for several seconds. “I see him when I sleep sometimes.”
I shivered. Just hearing about it was…it was ugly. I could almost smell the smoke again.
Aelia seemed to realize the effect her words were having on me, and stopped. “Anyway,” she said. “I’m ready to be done. That wasn’t what I had in mind when I went out for the legion.”
“What did you have in mind?”
She was silent for a few seconds. “Guess it was my only way out,” she said. “My parents were fishers. We could barely afford food a lot of the time. I wanted more than that out of life.” She went to take another drink, and frowned when she realized that there was nothing there. “I’ve got citizenship coming after this,” she said. “Going back to the homeland, I think. I’ll buy a shop or a farm or something, settle down.”
“With one hand?”
She shrugged. “There are alchemists that make new hands,” she said. “Not perfect, but they work. I should be able to get one, since I lost mine in the legion. Veterans get a lot of respect back home.”
I nodded. “It sounds nice,” I said. “I hope it works.” I stood, taking her cup, and filled it from the barrel behind the bar.
“Thanks,” she said, taking the cup back and sipping at it. “What about you? How’d you end up out here?”
I shrugged. “Wasn’t much to stick around for after the Whitewood burned, so I went south. Got sick here, got stranded, and stayed after I got better.”
“Bit of a fall,” Aelia said. “The Whitewood was a beautiful city. I didn’t see the inside until…well. But it was beautiful. One of the most amazing cities I’ve ever seen. This, well, isn’t.”
I snorted, and nodded. “Have you seen many? Cities, I mean.”
She shrugged. “Some. The Whitewood, of course, Brunwich, Gansburg, Parcia. None of them hold a candle to the capital, of course.”
“The capital of Akitsuro?”
Aelia nodded. “Old Aseoto,” she said. “There’s nothing like it. The Whitewood was the only thing I’ve seen that came anywhere close, and it’s gone now.”
I leaned forward slightly. “Tell me about it,” I said. “Tell me about Aseoto.”
Aelia’s eyes lit up at that, and she set the vodka aside, forgotten.
I spent the next hour or so listening to her talk about the city. It was fascinating, and if I hadn’t been so very hungry I suspect that I’d have forgotten to eat, too enraptured by what she was saying. I’d heard of Aseoto before–everyone had, it was the heart of Akitsuro and Akitsuro had made itself the heart of everything. But I’d never spoken to someone who had actually been there.
Even accounting for the exaggerations of the drunk and patriotic, the picture she painted was an amazing one. Walls around the city a hundred feet high, every stone carrying the same alchemy that went into making the warding posts. Towers high enough to touch the clouds. A harbor that stretched so far that the masts of the ships looked like a forest. Alchemical lights so plentiful that the streets were bright at night. Festivals that went on for days.
More than anything, though, what struck me was the passion in her voice. It might have just been that she was drunk and on some kind of alchemical sedative, but I didn’t think so. Aelia loved the city; it showed in every word, every gesture. She loved the sights and sounds and smells, loved the streets and the canals, and as she described them it felt so real that I almost imagined I could see the capital around me.
It reminded me, almost, of home. Of the way my parents had spoken about the Whitewood.
Corbin was present for the whole thing. He wasn’t cooking now; I couldn’t hear him moving around. But he stayed in the kitchen, leaving us well alone.
Aelia could, I suspected, have gone on in that vein all day if I’d sat and let her talk. But she was still injured, and badly. Eventually the drugs and the drink and the exhaustion of her wounds caught up with her, and she pitched over onto the bar asleep.
I looked her over, feeling concerned, but it looked like she was just asleep. It seemed like the best thing for her, so I sat back, and drank the last of my milk.
Corbin walked out of the kitchen a minute or so later, and set another piece of bread in front of me. “Sounds like she’ll be all right,” he said. “Eventually.”
I nodded, and started eating the bread. I was still hungry.
After a few moments of silence, I paused in eating. “Have you ever been to Aseoto, Corbin?” I asked.
He didn’t answer for a few moments. “Yes,” he said eventually. “Once.”
“While you were in the legion?”
“You’ve been talking to Black,” he said. It wasn’t a question.
There didn’t seem to be much point in denying it, so I nodded and took another bite.
He sighed. “No. That was before I joined the legion.”
I nodded, and finished eating the bread.
Aelia woke up after another hour or so, mumbled something, and stumbled upstairs to her room. Corbin and I busied ourselves with the usual work of the inn. Things had actually been somewhat busy lately, which meant that the cleaning and maintenance we habitually did was actually necessary. Mikhail Karlson came by with a load of apples from their orchard, which looked rather tired; it hadn’t been a good year for them. Corbin bought most of what he had anyway, and then we spent some time sorting them into those which could be stored, those which had to be cooked or eaten promptly, and those which were already only good for cider.
Time passed. It was what time did.
Midday came, and a handful of people came for food and drink to break up the monotony of their days. Black came in with them, smelling like sweat and forest, and looking rather pleased with herself, and sat by the fire.
Then we heard the screaming.
People were up and moving in a matter of seconds. You didn’t hear screaming in Branson’s Ford, as a rule. Oh, the occasional yelp or shout, but not real, full-throated screaming. The villagers were a hardy lot, and stoic; it took a lot to get a genuine scream out of them.
Corbin hung back–it would have been strange for him to leave, and people would want to be able to find him at the inn. But he gave me a pointed look that let me know in no uncertain terms that he wanted me to go with them and find out what was happening. Since that was what I would have been doing anyway, I didn’t hesitate to do so.
The screaming was coming from the west, and a bit north, out in the fields. We probably wouldn’t have been able to hear it all the way to the inn, but there were quite a few people screaming, shouting, generally making a great deal of noise. It carried.
We ran over in a mass to see what the commotion was. People were running over from other fields, but we were the first to reach them, and see what they had.
Jakob was lying in the field, and he was a mess. Blood was flowing freely from his face, where it looked like something had torn away his cheek and eye. His arm was visibly broken, and there was more blood on his arm, his chest, his leg. He still had his bow with him, but it was cracked, almost broken.
He looked more dead than alive. I had to check again to be sure that he was still breathing.
It didn’t take long for most of town to be gathered there, looking down at him. A couple of people who had some idea what to do went to work, binding the wounds, but there were far more people there than could help, and mostly we just stood and looked at him.
Ketill was the first to speak. The grizzled old farmer had looked shocked when he arrived, but that expression had darkened as he stood there, and now he looked furious. “He was hunting out west today,” he said. “About the same place you got hurt, Silf?”
I nodded. It was, and I’d already made the connection.
Ketill spat to the side. “Them legionnaires are out there,” he said. “Stirring up trouble.”
“You reckon Jakob ran into the same ghouls they did?” someone asked. I couldn’t see who, and it wasn’t a voice I heard enough to recognize.
“Piss on that,” Friedrich said. The blacksmith had been late to arrive, having been in the middle of hammering out a plow, but he was here now, stinking of smoke and with a sheen of sweat on his skin. “I thought it was strange legionnaires lost to some ghouls, but I figured they were raw recruits or something. But I’ve known Jakob all my life, and there ain’t a ghoul alive that could have done this to him.”
I hesitated for a few seconds, then said, “Maybe they weren’t ghouls.”
Every eye turned towards me, and I shrank away a bit under the attention. “You was there,” Ketill said. “You ought to know.”
I shrugged. “Was a little busy,” I said, which got a laugh from a few people. “The surveyor said they were ghouls, but I’m not quite so sure.”
“Figures,” Ketill said darkly. “Legion don’t even know what they saw.”
“Let’s not go pointing fingers,” the mayor said. It was the first thing he’d said the whole time, and the first thing I’d heard from him in months; he wasn’t the sort to come to the inn. “Won’t help anyone anyway.”
Ketill grunted. “Maybe,” he said. “Don’t matter anyway. What we’ve got is something out west can take down Jakob.”
“The legion is taking care of it,” Sigmund said.
Ketill snorted. “Letting the legion take care of it might have got Jakob killed,” he said. “We gave them a shot. It’s time we deal with this ourselves.”
There was a generalized murmur of agreement, and within a matter of seconds the crowd had completely shifted focus. Two people were set to carry Jakob to the inn, since that was one of the few places in the village with a public room to put him in. A handful of others were sent to carry the news of what was happening to the handful of people who weren’t here, bring in the people working too far from the village center to be safe, and such.
Around a dozen of the remaining people went to get weapons to go out and kill the “ghouls.” They were mostly older people, old enough to have fought in the war. It wasn’t a group that I often saw together, because…well, they’d fought in the war, and not all for the same side.
I had to appreciate the speed and coordination with which the response was organized. Branson’s Ford was generally divided, to say the least. There were wounds in this town that would never heal. But when there was a genuine emergency, all that went away, and they closed ranks. The mayor took charge and coordinated things, but for the most part they barely needed it. It was almost like the villagers were acting as a unit rather than disparate individuals.
I waited until it had been decided what would be done, and who was doing what. Then I left to tell Corbin what was happening.
I was just over halfway back when Black materialized next to me. I wasn’t sure where she’d come from; one seconds I was walking alone, and the next second Black was walking next to me. “Silf,” she said. “You heard what happened?”
“You heard what they’re doing about it?”
“Good,” she said. “Less I have to explain. Come on, we want to get ahead of them.”
I paused. “What?” I asked. “Why?”
“They’re going to get massacred.” I must have looked dubious, because Black sighed. “I’m sure they have their skills,” she said. “But those ghouls took down an imperial legionnaire in a fair fight. These villagers are not prepared to deal with that.”
“So what are you doing?”
“We,” she said, emphasizing the word, “are going to even the scale a bit.”
I eyed her skeptically. “They can’t do this, but we can?”
“I have a plan,” she said. “Trust me.”
I thought for a few seconds, then shrugged and nodded. Black smiled, and then started west, into the forest.
I followed her silently, and then paused. Something was…not quite right.
Black kept going for a couple seconds before she realized that I’d fallen behind, and turned towards me. “Silf?” she said. “Is something wrong?”
I shook my head, and started moving again. I’d realized what was bothering me, anyway.
One of the warding posts was missing.