Game: Session 10
It finally stopped raining, and I was starting to think it never would. For the past three days we’ve been marching through what the veterans call a ’smart little blow.’ I vaguely remember the monsoon rains from when I lived in Sayd-the-city, but in the desert, it rained four times? Once every three or four years. If there hadn’t been an elemental bound to the school, we’d have had to ration water the way people living in Ashiri did. Even with a water source like that, we had to be careful. Most of the time we didn’t bathe in an actual tub full of water, we’d go into the sweatroom and scrape the accumulated dirt off.
I truly never thought that too much water could be such an awful thing. But then I spent the past three days marching through ankle-deep muck with a heavy pack. And we pushed the pace hard, knowing that Quin’s mentor, Goodman Agon, and Sal’s Master Tara were still out there being attacked by the wasp creatures.
By the time the rain stopped I felt like I’d never be dry again. Just about everything I had with me was soaked, including the boots I’d rubbed so much goose fat into. The only thing that was truly dry was my journal. When I looked at it a little closer, I found a charm woven into the cover, bindings, the paper itself designed to keep it dry. I wish I knew that charm myself. It never occurred to me that I might need it.
Anyway, it’s finally not raining. Even if my stuff isn’t going to dry out much tonight, at least it’s not going to get any wetter. Tomorrow we should get to where the others are. Dedri and I are going to do the scouting from the air she says to not worry about learning how to fly. Just trust the shape and let it do what it knows. The bird that comes to mind first is the red-tailed hawk. It’s just big enough that I can squeeze myself into it, and I’ve seen lots of them around the edges of the desert. I can do that shape.
What I can’t do is keep my breasts from aching. It’s been way too long since I’ve nursed, and they’re very sore. Anything that touches them hurts, and if I bump them, they leak. If I stretch, they leak. If I think about Suleiman, they leak.
I can deal with them aching. I just want to still be able to nurse Suleiman when I get back to him.
I need to sleep now. Tomorrow’s going to be a big day, and I need to be rested for it.
Son’s Cry, Early Autumn: We’re back. I’m more tired now than I ever was when I was pregnant. But I’m clean and I have the Sprout and even though it hurts feeling him sucking away at me is the best thing ever.
Sleep. More later.
I’ve just finished writing my report on the mission for Captain Illiem (not Eugene). It’s a good time to write it up here, so.
There were a very few good things. Flying was amazing, once I got past the ‘oh my gods I’m going to fall out of the sky and die horribly’ fears. It didn’t even take much effort, once I got into the air. The ground just sort of fell away I didn’t have to worry about it. It would still be there when I wanted to land.
We found the others pretty quickly Goodman Agon cast a light into the air for us to follow. Once we had them in sight, Dedri and I flew back to the others and told them where to go. There was a small hill strewn with boulders and big rocks that was fairly defensible.
Our mentors had gone with a squad of ten soldiers. None of them survived. One had been taken by the wasp-creatures and then returned. Two days later something ripped its way out of him, something that had been planted there by the wasps. It killed the man on its way out of him. Master Tara killed the thing before it could go anywhere.
There are wasps in the desert that lay their eggs in living spiders they paralyze them with their venom first so they’ll be sure of something to eat when they hatch. These wasp people might be doing the same kind of thing using humans. One difference is that desert wasps are solitary, territorial creatures. These people are highly organized.
We started back to Son’s Cry as soon as we had Master Tara and Goodman Agon in with us and after Dedri and I fixed them up a bit. They were still very tired, but at least they weren’t damaged any more. We made it about half way back to where we’d camped the night before when it started getting dark and we decided to camp for the night. (Another way a witch is nice to have around we can call water anywhere. Between Dedri and me we had plenty for the thirty-six of us.
The wasps attacked starting just before sunset we saw them some four hundred feet away. Quin’s lightning would reach that far, but my fire would have to wait until they closed to half that distance. The wasps had learned from fighting wielders for a week solid, spreading themselves thin enough that we could hit only one or two at a time.
Asking for fire is a rush almost as good as healing. It gets very warm around me when I cast, enough to leave scorch marks in green grass. My hair and clothes whip around like there’s a strong wind, sparks blow up from my hands and hair, and my eyes flash orange and gold. And then the fire comes. A space ten feet across and forty high fills with holy fire. Just seeing that much fire and knowing you made it is pretty exciting, but feeling the magic move through you is amazing.
I was able to hit them once more before they were too close if I kept trying, I’d just kill the soldiers who’d come with us.
Half of them died a few seconds later anyway. Between the two of us, Quin and I had killed two out of a dozen. The ten that were left dropped javelins when those hit the ground they became lightning bolts like Quin throws around. They weren’t as powerful as hers, but ten lightning bolts ripped through our formation, killing half the soldiers with us immediately.
More exhilarating magic there’s a more powerful version of the basic healing spell I know that heals everyone in an area centered on me. These magics have their own effects, more subtle than the inferno charm. For the lesser healing charm, my eyes and hands glow a soft pale blue that flows from them to the wounds I’m healing. There are two greater healing charms: one concentrates a lot of healing on one person, and the other heals everyone within twenty feet for the amount of the lesser healing charm. In both, the glow covers all of me, but in the mass healing charm, the aura explodes from me in a shell of light.
There are ways to tone down the visuals on these spells, but I like them the way they are unless I’m trying to be sneaky.
After Dedri cast a circle that would keep the healing spell bound closer, I used that regularly to try to keep our soldiers alive. There was a lot going on, blood everywhere, spells flying back and forth Quin got into some kind of long-range duel with a wielder way back on a hilltop, Dedri put up a shield that kept a fireball from exploding among us and a whole lot of orders being shouted by Sal and Master Tara. I concentrated on my job, the keeping everyone else alive job, and actually did pretty well.
I was tired but feeling good about my self right up until Goodman Agon said, “That was the first wave.”
He was right. Over the next two days, the wasp people harried us, sometimes retreating, sometimes fighting to the death. We suffered three more fatalities on the way two died quickly, but one died because I was too exhausted to heal him. The wasp people had just pulled back from one of their attacks and two men were badly, mortally wounded. Dedri was gone, scouting in her seagull shape. I was pretty sure I couldn’t heal them both, and found out for certain when I healed one man and passed out on top of him. Somebody eventually got me awake and upright, but the other man was already dead by then.
It was weird, though. When the wasp people got close to winning a fight with us that is, killing us all they’d break off and leave. When we got close to winning a fight with them, they’d stay and fight to the death. And I’m not sure that wasp is the right word for them. They look waspish, they have smooth abdomens like wasps do (bees are hairy) but their social organization is much more like bees. Their warriors are all juvenile, sterile females. There are a few males, which are well-guarded by the drone females and apparently are the spell-wielders among their kind.
But they look like wasps, so wasps they is.
I didn’t quite pass out when we got back to the castle, but it was pretty close. I was having a hard time making my eyes point in the same direction, much less getting them to focus (even my reading glasses probably wouldn’t have helped much), and my feet kept getting tangled up with each other. Captain Illiem figured this was going to happen and arranged for hot baths to be waiting for us, and people to help us get undressed and washed up.
Andil, one of the women from the archery squads, took care of me. She washed my hair and scrubbed me clean before helping me into the bath to soak my abused muscles. I liked her. She had strong hands and a nice smile and she didn’t seem to mind that I was somewhere between monosyllabic and totally aphasic. She asked about my tattoos, and I tried to explain as best I could.
Saydean women get tattooed. It’s just a part of growing up. When I first became a woman, they tattooed patterns into my hands and feet. When I chose Rial and Kial as my patron gods and became an apprentice in the Order, I got the tattoo on the back of my neck. If I ever get married, I’ll get more tattoos on my breasts and back and face. Quin put her mark on my right hip, but it’s invisible most of the time. I want a coyote’s paw and a hawk’s talon on my thigh for the shapes I’ve taken.
Andil pulled me out of the tub when I fell asleep, got me dried off, and put me in bed with Suleiman at my breast. I’m not sure if anything happened between then and falling sound asleep, but it felt wonderful to be clean, to be in bed, to have the aching pressure in my breasts finally relieved. I seem to remember a kiss on my forehead, though I might have just imagined that.
I’m not sure what happened to my uniform after Andil peeled me out of it, but it really wasn’t worth saving. It was stained with my blood, other people’s blood, the wasp people’s blood, sweat, mud, grass, milk. It was ripped, torn, slashed, burned.
Unfortunately, that was the only uniform I had that I fit in. The others all fit me thirty pounds ago, but they don’t now. So it’s dresses for me for a while, until I get a new uniform, or lose enough weight that I fit in my old ones again. I’m sure captain Illiem will be delighted about that he was just super double extra pleased that Quin and me showed up in nightshift and dressing gown when he sent a corporal to come shake us out of bed for a debriefing. The corporal was very nice, actually. And the captain was mostly just sarcastic.
The Company is getting the hell out of here Ibrahim the Uncle is sending some twenty-five hundred men here to reinforce the garrison, so we’re not needed. And we really don’t need to stick around and find ourselves facing Ibrahim in open combat. He’s probably still pissed about that little raid of ours.
We’re not leaving, not yet. There’s a plague-banner out on the front gates, at my recommendation. We found out about the plague (plague in the generic sense, not the actual plague with its blue boils and fever madness) because Suleiman was sick with it first. He hasn’t built up much resistance to the corruptions that cause disease yet.
At first I thought he was just colicky he wasn’t very fussy, but he was tired all the time, had diarrhea, and wouldn’t eat. Whenever I tried feeding him, he just threw it back up. I was starting to worry when he got feverish, and then I got really worried. Dedri asked the spirits to cure him. (I could’ve done that, if I’d been thinking instead of panicking.) It worked, but we didn’t know where he’d caught the disease from in the first place. It wasn’t me I was perfectly healthy and it wasn’t any of the other spellcrafters. Dedri and I made sure they were healthy, too.
The next obvious person would be the woman who was nursing him while I was gone. Dedri and I went down to the servants’ halls to find her, but halfway down the stairs she stopped me. “Get back upstairs, Sofi. Now.” She might never have been a soldier but she had command voice down cold. Still, I could see that she was scared behind that.
I didn’t argue I could smell the disease in the air, and it would not be a good idea for me to get sick. I went back up to the infirmary (this time, I’m not sleeping there. I have a room of my own in one of the guest wings of the castle) to wait for Dedri. And to feed the Sprout even though the sickness was gone, he was still weak from the experience and needed to eat a lot to make up for it.
Dedri didn’t come back with good news. There was a sickness among the servants. Not all of them, only five people were ill including Suleiman’s wetnurse, but the symptoms were strange. They showed all the signs of having cholera, but with a ghastly hacking cough along with it.
It was probably not naturally occurring. If it was, there would have been signs of it before now. So what made it happen now?
Dedri and I cured everyone who was sick. Five cases were no real trouble for us.
The next day, nine were sick. I wanted to declare plague rule, but the captain wanted to keep it quiet for as long as possible. He did agree to a quarantine of the castle no one in, no one out and ordered the men to stay to their quarters when not at their duty stations, but that was all.
Quin and Sal searched the castle for the source of the corruption. Cholera is usually spread through contaminated food and water. It didn’t seem to be cholera, or not just cholera, but that was a place to start.
It’s harder than it seems. Yes, we can improve our senses with magic, but the whole castle was saturated with magic. The people were covered in it. And every bit of it was tainted with evil. Even me the paladin’s blessing kept my mind free from it, but I was slowly being corrupted along with everyone else. Suleiman is not tainted by it, though.
But the magic and the corruption made it hard to see it’s hard to find a rock in the desert. Rocks are everywhere. Finding just any old rock is easy. Finding the one rock out of the countless rocks that make up the desert is very hard. This was the same way. Everywhere we looked we saw rocks, but none of them was the one rock we were looking for.
Finally we found it, down at the bottom of the well that supplied the castle with its water. A corpse had been sunk at the bottom, some two hundred feet down from the top of the well, just where the underground river that fed it flowed past. Sal fished him out the man was bloated and horribly soft. It wasn’t the worst thing I’d ever seen, but it was close. I didn’t recognize him at first, but he was one of our soldiers, one of the men who joined me on my early morning runs. He’d been tortured before he was killed, bound, and sunk into the well to poison the water.
Whoever killed him left us a message tucked under a leather headband. It was in Saydean and Trades, and said that this was a gift from our neighbors. A prelude to an attack the Saydeans would find Son’s Cry an easier target if the men supposed to be guarding its walls were sick with this not-cholera.
I sent Felicitation to go get Dedri and captain Illiem. Sal said a prayer over the dead man, and hen he touched him for Marduk’s blessing, he suddenly ripped his bonds apart and clamped a hand around Sal’s throat. Someone had a nasty sense of humor.
Sal already had one of his daggers in hand and was hacking at the corpse’s arm, trying to get it to let go of his throat. He actually managed to sever the arm just above the wrist, just as I was laying my hands on the thing. Undead things are vulnerable to healing magics the power that animates them is so opposed to life that healing actually does them harm. So I called for as much healing as I could and poured it all into the corpse.
I knew the theory of it, but I hadn’t ever been able to make it work. This time it worked perfectly and the corpse crumbled into a nasty-smelling black ooze. It wasn’t the memorial I’d have wanted for someone I’d served with, but what could we do?
Dedri and the captain came in a little bit after that, along with the lord of the castle. We told them what had happened, and that we’d taken care of the source of the corruption, but the water wouldn’t be safe to drink for at least a few days as the circulation of the river flushed the taint out of the well water. In the meantime, I recommended that all water be boiled before using it. Drinking, bathing, washing, it didn’t matter, the water had to be boiled first.
And I suggested that a guard be posted on the well. It was a little after the fact, but it at least showed that the captain and the lord of the castle were doing something, even if it wasn’t really useful. They both said they’d send men to stand watch over it. They left to go do that, Sal and Quin left with them, and I stayed to clean up what was left of the poor man and to stand watch over the well.
More people sick today. Hopefully it’s just the incubation period of the corruption causing the sickness. But I’m afraid that the cough is spreading it from one person to the next. Dedri and I can cure them all, but it’s a little tiring. If more get sick, and they will, it’ll get harder to keep up with it. Quin’s mentor, Goodman Agon came by the infirmary and asked for a curing. He didn’t seem sick, but I figured it was a nice thing to do for Quin. So I gave him what he asked for.
If Dedri and I weren’t here to fix everyone that got sick, this could be very bad. And there usually aren’t any healer types this close to the front. If I hadn’t given my word that I’d follow orders, I’d be heading as far away from this place as I could get. It’s awful here. But we are here and we can keep the cholera plague from spreading to everyone in the castle. Only a few soldiers have gotten sick, and they’ll be fine. We still have almost two thousand men to man the walls.
Normally the cholera plague would be an excellent weapon against a castle with few magical defenses. Someone’s coming.
Nearly twenty new cases. They’re all fine, but I’m exhausted, and so is Dedri. This morning I left Suleiman with her while I went to the command staff meeting. She played at being annoyed that I would just assume that she’d take care of him, but she wasn’t, really. She did promptly turn him into a lion cub. A month-old lion cub is a lot more energetic and coordinated than a month-old human baby.
“You realize that you’re just going to give him ideas,” I said as I scratched him behind one ear. He had enormous paws for his size.
Dedri gave me an impish grin and pulled Suleiman’s claws out of her hair. He likes to grab in both shapes. “What ideas?”
I shrugged. “I don’t know. Ideas. Anyway, I’m going to be late for the meeting. Got to go.”
When I got back from the meeting, Suleiman was still a lion cub. There was another cat, bright orange with black spots, a little smaller than I am when I’m in my coyote shape. They were wrestling on the floor, rolling around and biting at each other, batting each other with their claws pulled back. The orange spotted cat was graceful in her play where the lion cub was adorably clumsy. I watched them for a little while until they noticed I was there. Suleiman squirmed out from under the orange spotted cat’s paws and ran over to me, jumping up into my arms. He shimmered and changed back into his usual human self and promptly fell asleep, snoring quietly.
The orange cat shimmered and became Dedri, grinning at me. “Hi.”
“Hi yourself. You’re so pretty!” When I said that, I really did mean her cat shape. She was a very pretty cat.
Dedri tossed her head to flip her hair back over her head and gave me a Look. “Of course I’m pretty. I’m beautiful.”
My heart skipped a beat. “Yes,” I agreed, barely louder than Suleiman’s snoring. “You’re very beautiful.”
She left right after that, which was probably good since I couldn’t think of a damn thing to say that wouldn’t sound completely stupid. My mind was spinning around in circles, going absolutely nowhere very fast. I still don’t know what I’d like to happen. It was just… gah. I’m such an idiot. I wish I could just blame it all on the baby and the exhaustion and the seeming lack of spirits, but I’d probably be an idiot even without all that.
I’ve tried beating my head against the wall, but that only helps until I stop.
The neighbors who sent us that gift of plague showed up. They had a really good plan, too. If their plague had worked, they could have taken the castle. As it was, we had a really hard fight even I got into it a little.
We got word that a thousand-strong army was approaching from the valley. Where most armies would be led by men with banners on standards, this one had a flayed man (I hoped he was dead, but there was no telling from as far away as we were, and I was trying to keep my mind locked down. There were things trying to get in.) crucified on a pole. When they got to about two hundred feet from the base of the cliff, they stopped. Archers started raining arrows down among them, Quin called a lightning storm, and instead of staying in formation, they scattered, each trying to dodge arrows on his own.
The man with the corpse-on-a-stick stepped forward and hit the ground with it. A fucking gigantic demon crawled up out of the ground. It was some thirty feet tall and bulky, with a head like a boar’s, useless little wings on its back, cloven hooves, and some kind of tentacles sticking out of its back. It promptly climbed about halfway up the cliff, found a place to stand, and started to pound at the rock with its fists. If it had enough time, it would undermine the castle and at least collapse the cliff wall.
I couldn’t stay on the wall and call fire on the demon, I was about a hundred fifty feet too far away. So Sal levitated the two of us down until I was close enough for that. The demon definitely felt my inferno it showed its appreciation by glancing up at us and unweaving Sal’s levitation. We’d figured something like this might happen, and I had my hawk-shape in mind when I started falling.
The free-fall was pretty exciting, and I managed to shift smoothly into hawk-shape. It helped that I wasn’t tumbling much, and I spread my wings and pulled up a good hundred feet from the ground. Sal, being insane, aimed his fall for the demon and stuck daggers into it on his way down, slowing his fall and dropping him on the same ledge the demon was on.
There wasn’t much I could do to be useful in this shape, so I went back up to the walls and shifted back. Other animal shapes are cool and all, but it’s not so great not being able to talk, cast spells, things like that.
Sal stayed down there, fighting some smaller demons that the big demon summoned. After a little bit, I heard him in my mind, telling me that the men scurrying around on the valley floor were part of a gigantic illusion. Well, crap. I made sure the captain and the Lord of the castle knew it the Lord’s pet sorcerer unraveled the illusion. That was fine, but where the hell was the army, then?
I’m still new to this shapeshifting thing, and it took a lot of effort to change back into a hawk so I could go scouting for the missing army. Following their tracks led me to where they should have been, and that was enough to let me see through the illusion a little there were about three hundred men in this group, and one of them was definitely a spellcaster. I was circling over the area where those men were and screaming, trying to draw the attention of the people on the walls, and the spellcaster fired off some spell that looked like lightning but burned like acid and was definitely a product of the School of Shimmering Sands. A classmate of mine? Possibly, but I didn’t want to get hit with that again it hurt more than enough the first time. I dove for the walls.
Dedri was there to catch me. The hawk has long, sharp talons and a strong grip, so I landed as gently as I could, perching on her wrist. She hugged me, murmuring a healing charm, and even in a different body I longed for her. Fortunately for my peace of mind (what there was of it) there were lots of reasons for me to be shaking. Dedri said another charm and suddenly I could understand her easily. Language doesn’t come easily in other shapes I have to concentrate on the words to understand them, but with the charm, I didn’t have to translate. “What did you see, Sofi?”
Using the screeches and whistles that make up a hawk’s vocabulary, I told her. Sort of. I tried to say “There are a whole lot of soldiers over there, and at least one wielder.” Instead, I ran into the same problem Navarr had when he was in his wolf-man shape and it came out “Danger there! Big danger! Weaver there!” If I could have blushed, I would have. I ducked my head and nervously preened my singed feathers instead.
She must know what that’s like. Dedri scratched my head behind my eyes as she went to go tell someone what I’d told her. I bit her finger not hard, just took it in my beak in gratitude and climbed up her arm to her shoulder.
Just like it’s hard to understand words in a shape that isn’t human, it’s hard to recognize people unless I know them really well. Out of the people in the castle, that meant my infirmary staff who weren’t outside, they were at their duty stations Quin, Sal, Dedri, and Suleiman. I was getting to know the new captain, but I didn’t know him enough to be sure Dedri was talking to him when she relayed what I saw. Whoever it was, they got a bunch of people to the Kesser side of the castle, where the main gates were.
A massive siege tank was nuzzling up to the heavy iron gates there were people with drawn swords standing on top of the thing. We found out what they were doing there when Quin sent a lightning bolt at the tank, and one of them parried the damned thing, sending the lightning crashing into the ground nearby. That told us who some of the people were the Blayd Academy trains people in this kind of thing, and no one else is mad enough to try to face magic with plain steel. They obviously had serious magical support, some of it hired, some of it homegrown.
Still, it was not quite a thousand people attacking a very defensible position garrisoned by over twenty-five hundred. The outcome wasn’t really in doubt, the only question was how many people would be injured or die in the fighting.
I shifted back and watched as the siege tank whined its way up to a shriek to rival any hawk’s and slammed into the gates. Amazingly, the gates held.
The wall didn’t. The gates and the section of wall around them moved backward a few yards and fell; the siege tank stayed where it was, smoke rising from cracks in its armor. The Saydean soldiers charged for the gap and smacked right into a very solid nothing Goodman Agon had filled the missing bit of wall with pure force. It didn’t last long, but it was enough to give our troops time to take up positions inside the walls.
I wasn’t going to be any use out here. I picked up my skirts (I like dresses, except when I need to move quickly) and ran for the infirmary. There I’d be useful. And I wasn’t any too soon. The first casualties started coming in just after I got there. One of the nurses helped me into an apron, and we all went to work. Not knowing what I might need it for, I didn’t use magic at all while the fight still continued outside. Forceps, clamps, needle and thread, disinfectants and bandages were all we had. And it wasn’t quite enough. People died while I was still working on them, some lost eyes and arms and legs. I was covered in blood from my hair to my sandals and none of it was mine. The Lord of the castle stopped by to announce that we would treat all of the wounded from among the castle’s defenders before we treated any of the enemy wounded. We let him say his piece and then promptly went back to the triage system I’d worked out back at Widow’s Gate. It might be his castle, but it’s my infirmary.
And at first there weren’t any Saydean wounded coming in. I learned later that out on the field that the Kesserit and Saydeans were there to slaughter each other. Whenever one fell, someone stopped to hack at him even if it meant getting killed herself. The only people taking prisoners were the Freemen, and at the end, the captain said all the prisoners belonged to him and glared at the Lord of the castle, daring him to object.
The battle lasted only minutes, but our part of it lasted well into the night. Eventually we got all the wounded treated and released the ones we could let go and processed the dead (those people who’d died in the infirmary, not the ones who’d died on the field) and collapsed. The mess in the triage and surgery rooms was beyond description, but I could let someone else take care of that. My eyes burned, my hands and back ached, and I couldn’t stop thinking of all the people I hadn’t saved that day. I cleaned up with a bucket of water and a sponge, put clean clothes on while I was still wet, and went to find my bed.
Dedri was there she’d turned Suleiman into a lion cub again and he was sleeping curled up in the exact middle of my bed. My breath caught when she hugged me and I just couldn’t hold it back any more. I’d felt every single person that died in my infirmary let go and fall into the void. We ran out of poppy about half way through and had to do surgery without anything more than whiskey to dull the pain. While I was working I could make myself push it all aside and concentrate on what I was doing at the moment, but when Dedri hugged me it all came crashing back down.
I was crying so hard I couldn’t stand up and Dedri lowered me to the floor and held me, rocking gently. She didn’t say anything, just held me the way I held Suleiman when he was fussy. She even kissed the top of my head the way I did his. It was a little bit awkward I’m taller than she is but it was the kind of thing I’d have given my soul for when I was growing up. The cook at school was the closest thing I had to a mother, and between her kitchen and her own kids, she didn’t have a lot of time for me.
Right now, Dedri had time for me, and she just let me cry. It’s a better way of dealing with pain and death, she says, than making yourself numb to it. When I couldn’t breathe for all the snot pouring out, she gave me a handkerchief and told me to blow.
I’d have cried myself to sleep if someone hadn’t come knocking at the door. “Sofi, I know you’re in there!” Quin. Damn it.
“Go ‘way,” I mumbled, still curled up in Dedri’s arms. I didn’t care if she could hear me.
“Sofi, they say Sal’s dead! Let me in!”
“Oh, shit.” I squeezed my eyes shut hard, blew my nose, and wiped at my face. “I better let her in.”
Dedri nodded and helped me up and went to sit on the bed. I opened the door for Quin I think she was too upset about Sal to see how puffy my face was. She told me quickly what happened. Someone on a big white winged horse came in with a pair of angels as backup and attacked the big boar-faced demon. They drove it away and went chasing after it, and nobody knew what happened to Sal. When he didn’t come back, they figured he was dead.
So I got out my scrying bowl and Quin got hers, and we found him. He was still alive, in his condor shape, floating out in the middle of the sea somewhere. I don’t think I could point to the place on a map, but I knew I could get there if I could swim. There weren’t any boats nearby, and I can’t sail anyway.
But I had spent a lot of time watching the dolphins on the trip here from Minoth. I should be able to change into one. The dolphin would know how to swim the same way the hawk knew how to fly. It wasn’t exactly easy getting into that shape I had to try several times to get it right but I did, and Quin copied my dolphin shape and we swam off to find him.
Dolphins think about sex all the time. Quin and I bumped into each other a lot while we were getting used to the new shape. If there’d been any other dolphins around, I probably would’ve stopped for some quick sex before going off to find Sal. But since it was Quin I was able to keep my attention more or less on what we needed to be doing.
Swimming as a dolphin is a lot like running as a coyote. It’s just effortless, and fast, and a whole lot of fun. I know that the more time I spend in other shapes, the less human I’ll be, but it’s hard to care about that. Being a spirit-called witch sets me apart from most people anyway. I’m useful, but I make most people uneasy. There are times I can’t follow a conversation with someone in flesh because of the spirits talking over them. The people I care about like me, and that’s all I need, right?
Sal’s wing was broken when we found him, so we tried to be careful as we nudged him back to shore. When we got there, I changed back first and cast a healing charm to fix the wing he wouldn’t have a broken arm when he was able to change.
I was as clean as if I’d been able to take a real bath from swimming in the sea. The sun and the heat felt wonderful and I wanted to stay and bask in it, but my breasts reminded me of at least one reason to get back to the castle. So I pulled my clothes back on we’d left our clothes on shore so they wouldn’t get wet and back we went.
Even with the valerian Dedri put in my tea, I haven’t been able to sleep. Suleiman woke up long enough to nurse for a while and play a little peek-a-boo, but he fell back asleep pretty quickly. Even if I can’t sleep, I should go lay down for a while. We’re going to be leaving soon, and I’ll need the rest.
Captain Illiem arranged for the ransoming of all but twelve of the Saydean soldiers. Quin and Sal went with them, but I just wasn’t up to it. The captain did let me arrange for the disposal of the dead Saydeans. I’m going to burn them the fire I call is holy, purifying. And it’s pretty close to impossible for anyone to raise someone from the dead when their corpses are ash. There’s more than enough oil in our stores to make it work.
Besides, cremation is far better than what the Kesserit would do with them. No, I don’t hate the Kesserit for this, or want to kill them all in creatively horrifying ways. And the Saydeans aren’t any better just look at what they did to our water as a prelude to their attack. Gods all, just look at that. “They did.” “Our water.” As a Saydean mercenary fighting (yeah, I’m fighting, even though I’m nowhere near the front lines and won’t be) on the Kesser side, the pronouns get a little difficult. And ridiculous. I’m part of “them” and “us.” I don’t want to be on any side in this damned stupid war, and I’m on both.
The only thing that’s going to cleanse this land is the blood of those without hate. If mine qualified, I’d give it all.
Those twelve men? Eleven of them are criminals, rapists and murderers. The twelfth is just some unlucky bastard who had the misfortune to be seriously injured and picked by the Lord of the castle. They’re going to die horribly. Captain Illiem doesn’t want the Lord of the castle to have any satisfaction at all from them, so he wants me to give each a slow poison that will kill them by midnight tonight. If it numbs their pain, so much the better.
I told the captain that a tincture of digitalis and poppy would probably do it, but we were out of poppy. Digitalis we had, though. He left and came back within ten minutes with a small box of pure poppy resin, the sort that people smoke in opium dens. (I don’t care for it much myself. Sativa, on the other hand, I like very much.) I didn’t ask where he’d got it, and he didn’t tell me. The whole conversation consisted of me raising my eyebrows and him smiling very faintly. He is a very sneaky sort of man. I have to remember that.
So I prepared the tincture and asked each man if they would rather die by my rather painless poison, or at the tender mercies of the Lord of the castle. Every one chose the poison.
While the captain was off negotiating with the Saydean general, I was getting the infirmary organized to leave again. We’d had to unpack everything when the fighting started. Some time while he was gone, one of the Kesser soldiers a sergeant in their army was found in the act of raping one of the Saydean soldiers. A woman, as it happened, but I’d heard of men being raped in this situation too.
Captain Illiem was livid when he came back to find out about it. His prisoners were to be unmolested. That was part of the bargain between him and the Lord of the castle. Since the Lord of the castle broke his part of it, the captain decided that he didn’t have to keep his end of it. The would-be rapist was thrown over the parapet, I was told to remove the poison we’d given the twelve men, and they went back to the Saydeans with all the rest of the prisoners.
Sal and Quin had news from talking with the wielders among the Saydean prisoners. They were all graduates of the School, and were puzzled but glad to see them in mercenary uniform. In Sayd, the airship people had attacked and taken two cities on the southern coast, while githyanki (the unpleasant folks we fought in the gray realms) banded together with desert raiders and more or less razed Ashiri. Relevant thought when I heard that: What happened to Cinta and her baby and Ahmed? I’ll have to check. Irrelevant thought: Can I still call myself after a place that isn’t there any more?
Even though the airship people wouldn’t have slaughtered civilians just for the sake of killing them, they did drive them out of the cities the only place they could go was east of the mountains. The githyanki would kill people just for the fun of it, but that still would leave a lot of refugees. Maybe a hundred thousand people would be trying to cross the western desert, then the plains, then the mountains. Most of them will die. Even those who know how to survive in the desert and on the plains will have trouble that many people will drink all the water and still go thirsty, and there isn’t nearly enough food to keep them all from starving.
And there’s damned little that can be done about it. The local governors will be more concerned with their own welfare, and the grand sheik is occupied with war on several fronts. The fate of the refugees will not rank high on his list of priorities. Though it seems Archmage Ethan and his wife, Reneo Icecrest (of course I’ve heard of her she was my favorite hero growing up), are doing what they can. Which is quite a lot. They’re powerful people. She’s been summoning huge blocks of ice to cool people and provide them with water. The refugees might just survive to get to eastern Sayd.
I hope so. I pray for their success.
For our part, we’re leaving as soon as possible. The Lord of the castle very much doesn’t want us here, and the captain wants us gone well before Ibrahim the uncle shows up with his reinforcements. Sal and Quin and I will be splitting off from the Company to head for Mother’s Grace Temple to meet the paladin. We’ve even got orders to that effect, though captain Illiem squirmed and wriggled and tried to not have to make a decision. I must confess that I took a guilty pleasure in watching his expression when I told him that I would not go if he ordered me to not go. It’s my job to make his life easier by keeping his soldiers alive. Moral dilemmas are not my job.
It’s a good thing Suleiman’s still small (though he’s up to about fifteen pounds already!). Carrying him is going to be hard enough as it is. I can’t really change into a coyote and carry him by the scruff of his neck. Well, it’s about time to go. I’ll write more as I can.