Written by Duskweaver, and first published on 2012-05-25
As dawn broke over the distant Black Spine Mountains, we stripped the dead sand devils of their weapons and armour their iron blades alone would more than pay for the cargo I had defiled and dragged their corpses out into the desert a couple of hundred yards from the road.
As dawn broke over the distant Black Spine Mountains, we stripped the dead sand devils of their weapons and armour – their iron blades alone would more than pay for the cargo I had defiled – and dragged their corpses out into the desert a couple of hundred yards from the road. Kestrekels already circled overhead, eyeing the gory heap of tangled limbs and spilled guts with their customary hunger. By midmorning, there would be nothing left but a scattering of bones.
We buried Gerreth, Dornal, Korla and Tamar by the side of the road, marking each grave with a piece of wood cut from a broken spar. I knew the next windstorm would scatter the markers and bury the graves in mounds of sand, but understood the need for such symbols.
Mei clung to Enamdis, sobbing uncontrollably into the half-giant woman’s brawny shoulder. The rest of the crew seemed still to be too shocked and weary to weep. Or perhaps they had simply spent long enough in the desert to know better than to waste precious water on tears for those who were now beyond all suffering. We stood, shivering, our breaths turning into little silver spirals in the chill dawn air, as if Athas itself sought to prove we still lived.
“The Fates are strange,” Bayl rumbled softly behind my left shoulder. “There must have been twice as many of the bastards coming up the port stairs as the starboard. If she’d chosen differently, it’d probably be me you’d be burying now.” He shook his head as if to clear it of unwelcome thoughts. I noticed he had tucked one of Tamar’s carrikals – the broken one – into his belt alongside a pair of sand devil horns.
“She fought well,” I said, not sure what else to say. I still felt sick and half-dazed, from the battle, and from Neren’s revelation.
Bayl shrugged. “Not for you, though, lady.”
I didn’t understand what he meant, until he nodded, sadly, towards Mei. I remembered then the way the blonde girl and the red-haired warrior-woman had laughed together at Bayl’s pretended discomfiture only a few hours before, and the countless glances exchanged between them before that, the significance of which I had entirely missed at the time. Was I growing old and stupid, I wondered?
Neren spoke a few words, a eulogy for the dead, but I wasn’t listening. What was I going to do once we reached Nibenay? The Temple – no the Shadow King himself – had to be told. Neren and his crew, and perhaps the whole of House Mentsu, were aligned with, if not the Veiled Alliance itself, some group that shared its nature. There was no room for doubt concerning what Neren had said, no other way of interpreting his words. And there was no doubt about what would happen to these people if that news reached the ears of the Shadow King, for he could not allow the Veiled Alliance to operate freely in his city.
It was likely I would be required to organise the arrests of Neren, Enamdis, Mei and the rest, for I knew them by sight, then their interrogation under whatever torture was required, for we would have to determine how far their treason had spread. The Temple of the King’s Law would take care of the executions, but I would still be expected to witness their deaths.
I recognised the necessity – the moral imperative – for all this. Yet the thought sickened me. These people, despite their misguided allegiances, had fought alongside Bayl and I. They had risked their lives, and their friends had given theirs, to save us from the sand devils. Had they been inclined instead to leave us in the desert to face our fate alone, we could have invoked no obligation, moral or otherwise, to compel them to aid us. We were free of the sand devils solely because Neren had decided that rescuing two ragged vagrants he had never met before was simply the right thing to do.
My loyalty to my lord and husband still remained. Harsh though his law was, I knew my city could never survive without it. But now I felt an obligation too to this crew of traitors. Had the same idealism that had compelled Neren to save us also been what had led him into treason?
I felt paralysed, my mind caught upon an endless, spinning wheel of doubt.
Entirely unknowing, Bayl offered me some respite. “Ah, I thought I recognised it,” he muttered suddenly.
Glancing up, I realised he was watching Mei and Enamdis. He had barely taken his eyes from the half-giant woman since the battle, but it was the rapidly flickering fingers of the human girl that had provoked his comment now. After a moment, Enamdis answered Mei in the same manner, though I realised she was much slower and less practised at it than Mei, or than Tamar had been.
“The Silent Speech,” Bayl said by way of explanation. “A lot of the nomad tribes up in the Tablelands use it. I picked it up from one of my partners, back when old Boran was still putting me in for matched pairs. He said the elves had come up with it, so they could coordinate hunts and raids without making noise.” He blushed suddenly and looked at his feet. “They’re… uh… talking about Tamar, I think. Private stuff. I probably shouldn’t be listening in.”
I pounced on the opportunity almost desperately, hoping it would give me something to distract my mind from the awful decision I would have to make once we reached Nibenay. “Could you teach me?” I asked Bayl. “This so-called ‘Silent Speech’. It could prove useful.”
I felt a little embarrassed, for I could hear the desperate eagerness in my own voice, but Bayl just shrugged.
“I suppose so,” he said. “The basics are pretty simple, then it’s just a matter of getting faster at it.” He grinned suddenly. “You want to be able to talk to Mei, then? Thinking of replacing Tamar, are you?”
I shot him a glare so venomous that he actually backed away, putting his hands up placatingly. “Sorry, lady,” he said. “That was a stupid thing to say.”
I shook my head, too tired to even be truly angry with him. I do not think Bayl has ever known despair, or even real sorrow. He recognises these emotions in others, and in his own bluff, cheerful, clumsy way, seeks to dispel them. Often, his irrepressible optimism alone is enough to restore my spirits. But, this time, he had touched a nerve. Oh, how I wanted to be able to offer some comfort to Mei for her loss! Not of the sort Tamar herself would have given – despite what the lurid stories circulating in the dung-hole taverns of the Western District would have you believe, we templar-wives are mostly not inclined to jump lustfully upon one another every time our husband’s back is turned – but at least some show of human sympathy. But I could not even bear to go near her. If Neren could be believed, the girl had already suffered cruel injustice at the hands of one of my sister-wives, and now I, whom she trusted, whom she had fought to protect, would deliver her to far worse in the interrogation cells beneath the Temple.
“Yes, Bayl. Teach me this ‘Silent Speech’. I will ask Neren to find us a quiet place in the hold, out of the way of the crew.”
I hoped only that I could avoid Mei’s beautiful, accusing eyes until we reached Nibenay.