Chapter 17: IV: Kirin
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Chapter 17: Renegades
Kirin – The Helit Sea: Near Zimrida
The fleet had been moored off the walled island of Zimrida for two days. Two days of Masseni archers firing warning shots into the ocean and drumming their bare ass cheeks from atop their lookouts. Two days shivering beneath the shadow of the steep rock walls that protected the lagoon.
Two days bracketed by restless nights and dreams of serpents, sea monsters, and Ydelka’s empty eye sockets.
Kirin had spent that time abovedeck, summoned by one of Drenda’s scribes to sleep separate from the others beneath the canopied watchtower assembled on the Eralia’s deck. Belowdecks, the men prepared for fighting, though when they expected to spill Masseni blood was anyone’s guess. The combined force of the Masseni and Anouti navies prowled the coastline, the sheer size of the ships enough for dread to fester in the chest of every soldier in Varco’s century—probably every soldier in the fleet. The Masseni quinqueremes were a marvel—taller than any other ship in the water and over twice as fast. Kirin didn’t have to know anything about boats or sailing to recognize that Lorar was poised for a slaughter.
And if the ships weren’t enough, the lagoon was sealed off by vast stone doors that had been built into its natural rock walls. Even if Marianus’s navy sunk every enemy ship in sight, it would still have to contend with a fortress that to Kirin seemed obviously impenetrable.
And yet, portent fizzled in the air. The men below had been given some instruction Kirin wasn’t privy to—the reason, perhaps, that Varco had summoned him away.
Kirin tightened his grip on his sword hilt, staring out at the island and its defenders from the questionable safety of the Eralia’s deck. In the shadow of Varco Drenda’s watchtower, the wind was all the colder.
Morning haze misted off the surface of the ocean, thick enough that the sea serpents of Silices’s stories might well be lurking inside it. Hard salt air whipped Kirin’s hair in front of his face. He combed the strands back, not taking his eyes from the cliff face.
They were all dead men, it seemed to say, and Kirin would never make it to the southern shore to squeeze his fingers into Oran’s neck.
Ydelka would chide Kirin for such thoughts, but Ydelka was dead.
A whimper, unbidden and unmanly, escaped him, but then a hand clamped down on his shoulder and Kirin snapped his lips shut.
Varco Drenda stood just behind him.
To someone who hadn’t met him, Drenda the Younger probably looked grim as a rough sea, but Kirin had met him, and there was a definite mellowing in the man’s expression and the set of his shoulders. Perhaps, while others grew tense and anxious before the fray, Varco eased.
Varco approached the rail and pointed out to sea. “That ship there, do you know her name?”
Kirin followed Varco’s finger and frowned. A huge warship dwarfed the two Anouti vessels beside her. So many oars sliced from her belly that it would have been impossible to count them. How many rowers must toil along her benches? How many Masseni soldiers stood inside her, waiting to spill Lorai blood? At her prow a gaily painted eye gazed upon the water, just like it did on the Eralia. Unlike on a Lorai vessel, though, a score of what looked like female figures danced in shimmering gilded paint around the central mast. She stretched twice as long in the water as any of the triremes accompanying her—a monster made of wood. Even Kirin could tell she was impressive. She moved not upon the water like the vessels around her, but as though she were part of the water: sleek as a cat, fast as a wriggling eel.
“No, I don’t know her name,” Kirin said stubbornly. “The Eliba? That’s what the rats always call them, isn’t it?”
Varco sneered at him. “My kinsmen painted you a special creature, but I see you are a small-minded and common man.”
Kirin shifted in place, angling himself away from the tall centurion. “Because I see what they are and name them so? I knew what Oran was the moment we met, and he proved me right time and again. Some things aren’t as complicated as Yakov would have liked.”
Varco cleared his throat, his judgement heavy in the sound. “You see them all as one, with your enemy’s face and temperament, but there are as many of them worthy of your friendship as your disdain. You’re a blind man, Kirin, who doesn’t see the hypocrisy in what he believes. Half of Lorar would look at you and see a wild savage from the Feislands, yet you hold nothing greater in your esteem than the country that forged your chains. Perhaps you are unique; such idiocy can’t be common among our people, or we wouldn’t stand at the helm of empire.”
The dispassionate tone of Varco’s speech should have made Kirin angry, or at the very least evoked some sadness, but Kirin only felt numb. He had no retort for his commander. Varco had his own beliefs, it was clear, and he didn’t seem one to be swayed.
Around them, swifter, lighter biremes bobbed on the water, boats whose men-at-arms were made to fight aboard ship rather than on land. Naval soldiers like these were often low-born, freedmen, or even slaves freed for the purpose of fighting. Such positions were the lowest ranked in the militia. Kirin belonged with them more than he did the men he’d been supping with for the past few months. The smaller ships would be the ones to engage the Masseni in combat. The Eralia would simply lend support once the tide had turned.
Kirin swallowed. “What’s the ship called?”
“The Ziphax.” Varco clasped the rail with both hands. “The goddesses decorating the mast are the Kabira, the sixteen sea nymphs who protect the Masseni fleet. That largest one, there, is Asanfa, patroness of battles fought at sea.” Varco’s scabbard clicked against the lower portion of his breastplate, as though he might have tensed. The feathers on his plumed helmet rippled with tiny shivers. “The Ziphax is a five: the newest, fastest, and strongest of the Masseni fleet. Very soon, we will destroy her.”
A disturbed melancholy filled Varco’s voice.
Kirin tried not to let his distaste show on his face. “You sound certain, and reluctant, if I may say so, Heron.”
“You may not. It is not your place.” There were limits, then, to Varco’s charity, but he continued all the same. “I will do my duty, as I have always done. I will kill these southern men because that is what I have been commanded, but I will derive no pleasure from it, and I will not pretend to ascend to greatness because of it.”
Talking to Varco was like talking to Yakov, only with less cursing. “And your certainty? You said yourself—our ships are slower, smaller, older—how could we possibly win?”
Varco’s dark stare locked on Kirin with an unexpected ferocity. “My certainty comes from a year of plans you were not privy to, and which I would be a traitor to tell you now.”
How ponderous. “Surely the militia must know what’s happening in order to follow instructions properly?”
“You are not part of the militia. You are here out of courtesy only.” Varco released his grip on the rail, eyeing the ships on the ocean. The rocky, unforgiving heights of Zimrida and its walls cast deathly shadows upon the Helit’s surface.
Kirin might die beneath those heights. They might all die.
Perhaps that was for the best. If the gods had any care for him at all, he’d see Ydelka soon.
A sudden spike of something dangerously close to happiness pricking him.
He should quake to feel such things. Nothing awaited him beyond the mortal realm but oblivion.
“You think I would sell my brothers, then? Sell Lorar, after everything you’ve accused me of?”
Varco actually smiled, the unexpected expression followed by a light chuckle. “No, and in any case, what could you do at this late hour to warn the outpost? It would be improper to tell you. Though, I suppose under the circumstances it no longer matters.”
“Go on.” As Kirin spoke he imagined a great rumbling sound thudding from the ships closer to the island. It sounded like marching.
“I will say only this, Kirin. If I were you, I wouldn’t prepare myself for any great battle, nor the glorious deeds you commoners are so fond of singing about, for there will be no war on the shores of Zimrida, only its aftermath.”
It was marching. No—drums. The war drums were beating.
Aboard the Eralia, the drums thump-arrumpped in reply.
Around them, naval officers began shouting commands, some of them joining Varco and Kirin at the starboard rail to spy out at the island.
“Hold your posts!” yelled Forlio, the Eralia’s captain.
Drenda the Younger left Kirin’s side as quickly and silently as he’d approached.
Kirin didn’t turn to watch him leave. Something was happening out on the water, something that made the hairs on the backs of Kirin’s arms stand on end. “Gods.”
The two Anouti ships that had accompanied the Ziphax now circled her, turning so they hemmed her in, so close it seemed they’d crush her if she maintained her course. The Ziphax didn’t heed them. She ploughed the water at high-speed, as though she might charge her ally and risk her own destruction to rend the smaller ship to splinters. The dawn light approached as the Ziphax stayed her course, setting pale fire to the waves and revealing the domed watchtowers on the high cliffs of the island.
“She’s going to ram her!” someone yelled from the forecastle.
Varco’s voice bellowed past the cries of the officers abovedeck. “It’s a feint.”
As Varco had predicted, the Ziphax veered west of the Anouti vessel.
The ships scraped against each other with a terrible keening press that ached in Kirin’s teeth. The two Anouti vessels were so small in comparison with the Ziphax, but the Masseni vessel was outnumbered. Hull against hull, the beast was a lion beset by dogs.
In the air above the Ziphax and her allies, little black spots sparked back and forth.
They looked like monstrous birds.
One of the birds soared straight downward and struck a man aboard the Ziphax. It was too noisy to hear his scream as he plummeted into the ocean.
Kirin scanned the decks of the ships and more and more of what he’d thought were birds spit back and forth between the ships. “It’s arrows,” he mumbled to himself. “They’re attacking each other.” Kirin looked back, searching for Varco. “Varco! Heron! They’re attacking each other!”
Varco didn’t answer, too busy speaking orders Kirin couldn’t hear to officers he didn’t know.
Varco Drenda had known what was about to happen.
Had the Anouti ships been taken by Lorai sailors? Or were the southern rats squabbling?
Men leaped between the two ships, others falling to their deaths to be crushed between the hulls, or to drown in the churned-up water.
The Masseni sailors wouldn’t be used to such tactics. These were men of the sea, unaccustomed to the jarring exhilaration of hand-to-hand combat.
Kirin’s blood bubbled in his veins, keen to risk itself in combat, remembering the rush of lust it’d known in the arena, as he longed for the chance to sink his sword into the belly of a thick-locked Anouti monster. Whatever Varco said, these southerners couldn’t be trusted, couldn’t be friends. A different breed of man grew to adulthood in the south, a breed of man for whom these northern seas would prove deadly.
To the continued shouting of orders, the Eralia started to turn toward the island.
Kirin stumbled and leaned into the rail, pressing himself so hard against it that he was certain to find its patterns imprinted on his legs come evening.
The thudding of war drums had ceased, but a new and terrible sound replaced it.
The very cliff-face of Zimrida trembled.
At the tops of the watchtowers lining the cliffs, fires burst alive in a clear signal. To either side of the Eralia, Lorai ships were speedily approaching the Masseni forces, moving with the morning tide toward the shore in a curved formation that should hem the enemy in.
The Ziphax was already hemmed in, trapped between the two Anouti ships. It was clear they had no intention of destroying the vessel, or else they would have rammed her or set her alight.
Someone was going to great pains to assure she wasn’t mistreated.
Other Masseni ships were not so fortunate, falling afoul of the metal rams attached to the bows of the Anouti vessels that so outnumbered them, splitting like brittle bone.
The tide pulled the Eralia toward Zimrida, through a gyre of broken ships and drifting cargo. Masseni bodies bobbed upon the waves, pushed underwater by the inevitability of the Eralia’s progress.
Kirin stared, struck silent and still by the chaos in the water and the battering of the boats. He stood like that for a long time, only realizing he’d lost himself in battle when his fingers tingled numbly from gripping the rail so tight.
The fighting was thick aboard the Ziphax, but it was thinning. Anouti sailors and soldiers—recognizable in their red and blue striped kilts—leapt and swung at the Masseni in their conical helmets. If the Lorai were the ones manning the Anouti ships, they’d done a good job disguising themselves.
Something heavy slouched overboard with a splash.
They were tossing bodies into the sea.
The cliffs of Zimrida rumbled with a thunder that rattled Kirin’s bones. The massive doors protecting Zimrida from the enemy navy were opening, a rush of water spilling out to push against the tide.
Aboard the Ziphax, the Anouti fighters were whooping and waving their arms.
A single red ship peeled from the darkness beneath the arch revealed by Zimrida’s defensive doors. It coasted gracefully from the sheltered harbour.
This wasn’t a warship, dwarfed as it was by even the small Anouti triremes. It boasted sails depicting two entangled serpents, and from its deck a man blew into a long, curved horn that trumpeted across the water to the Eralia and her allies.
“The island is ours!” someone cried behind Kirin.
The Masseni ships were drowning, burning, or both, swallowed by the merciless waves, their men crying for help and receiving none.
As the morning sun cast its light across the water, and the Lorai ships approached Zimrida’s walls, it seemed to Kirin the whole ocean was alight.
The Eralia passed the Ziphax on her way to the fortress gates, and the figures aboard came into sharper relief, their foreign words reaching Kirin’s ears. The sailors who’d tossed the Masseni forces overboard were definitely Anouti. They bore Anouti armour, wore Anouti symbols, shouted Anouti words.
And of course they were. They were just like Oran—untrustworthy. Hopefully Lorar’s generals understood what the Masseni had not.
The Anouti sailors occupying the Ziphax held an armoured man between them. To judge by his helmet, which was taller than those of the other Masseni soldiers, he must be the commander, or perhaps a captain. An Anouti soldier with gold wings folded across his breastplate walked up to the Masseni general and blocked him from view. After what must have been an exchange of words, the Anouti soldier—another commander?—raised his arm and struck his captive with his fist.
The Masseni general fell to his knees.
Whoever or whatever the Masseni captive was, it was cowardly to treat him so harshly when he was already a prisoner. Kirin tore his gaze away, his guts churning, but there was so much happening around him it was difficult to focus on any one conflict, any one person.
Up ahead, the doors to Zimrida lay open.
Screams echoed along the vast tunnel that separated the Eralia from the city inside the island. The clash of weapons and the deafening crack of breaking stone was a roar barked from the jaws of Zimrida and it shivered up Kirin’s arm to the base of his scalp.
The naval battle outside the gates wasn’t the only fighting taking place.
Men’s screams. Children’s screams. Women’s screams.
A blue rubaki.
Kirin worried his palms into the wood so hard his skin burned. It was like holding a brand fresh from the fire. It was like the hunger of his fingers around a monster’s neck.
He swallowed, shook his head, and rested his hand on his sword hilt instead. This wasn’t the place to lose himself.
The Eralia slipped beneath the overhanging rock of the tunnel.
Beneath the looming skeleton of the natural fortress, tall became a small word. Black gloom swallowed the Eralia and Kirin with her, snuffing out dawn’s light and replacing it with shifting shadows cast by large, forked braziers built into the cavern walls. Tunnels branched north and south off the main thoroughfare. Along the serpentine curves of these waterways, fire danced in the reflections cast across the water. The cries of the desperate and the dying slithered from the tunnels as though from inside a great furnace.
To the choir of screams, Lorai boots stomped Lorai boards, jarring Kirin from the nightmare he’d been caught in and back onto the Eralia’s deck where Varco’s officers were directing the century. Soldiers packed the deck from bow to stern, so tight the leathers dangling at their belts slapped the skirts of the men in front of them.
Kirin hopped onto his tiptoes, scanning the rows of men for Vasthes and Silices. If Lorar’s finest were preparing for war, Kirin would be right beside them. Kirin might not be a true member of the militia, but he was a man of Lorar straight through. He wouldn’t lounge aboard ship while Vasthes and Silices fought for their lives in this cursed place.
“Lupo!” Vasthes—or was it Silices?—waved to Kirin from the head of one of the square formations lined up on the deck. Kirin hurried in beside them as discreetly as he could—which wasn’t very, though the shouted commands of the officers and the cries of the dying from the shore were plenty a distraction.
“Where’d you vanish to?” snipped one of the twins.
“You get in trouble or something?” asked the other.
“We thought you’d been executed.”
“Why would I be executed?” Kirin scoffed and smiled. “Drenda wanted a word with me was all.”
“About what?” asked the one Kirin thought was Silices. “What would a centurian want—”
The long, low trumpet of a horn cut off Silices’s question.
Just as well.
As they neared the end of the tunnel leading inside Zimrida, daylight flashed across the metal armour of the more finely dressed soldiers. The shimmer blinded Kirin for an instant, and he raised his arm to block the light.
In the harbour ahead of them, the beach stretched like a crescent moon. Men and women fought upon the shore and along the labyrinth of streets that stretched to a peak at the city’s centre. At the top of the hill, what looked like a temple towered over everything else. Small fires burned all around it, and a cluster of figures so tightly packed they seemed to move as one, buzzed between the pillared entrance of the building.
Masseni rats, scurrying back to their nest.
Women’s screams. Children’s screams.
Kirin shifted from foot to foot and Silices nudged him with his elbow. “Not nervous, Lupo?”
No, never nervous. “The sun blinded me,” he said.
The Anouti had made short work of the unsuspecting Masseni vessels. This was Lorar’s fight now, to be played out on solid ground, where strength and not treachery would be the deciding factor.
From the deck of a nearby trireme, one of the other commanders was shouting orders and encouragement to his troops, but as Varco strode stoically along the lines he made not a sound save for that of his footsteps. It wasn’t until he stopped at the end of Kirin’s block that he parted his lips.
“Men of Lorar!” Varco shouted, surveying the lot of them as though he were a customer judging the merits of the wares he’d just purchased. As Varco spoke, one of the officers dipped in close to Kirin and Kirin started, bumping back against the man behind him, which earned him a scowl.
“A shield,” the officer hissed. He shoved a simple leather and wood shield at Kirin. “Don’t forget it next time.”
Kirin dipped his head in thanks. “No, heron.”
The officer skulked off to bother someone else.
“Fighting men!” Varco continued. “Brave men! You are all men in the grip of death, caught between this world and another. Our Anouti allies have helped our cause, but do not think that victory is assured, for in certainty there is also danger. The gods punish those who think themselves above the Lady Death, and Lorius turns his eyes from them! Think not, therefore, on glory, for she will neither abandon you, nor play you false. Think instead on Lorar, for it is your home that calls now for your lives as the Masseni threaten to strike at his heart. The Fatherland calls you to lay siege to these overbold seafarers and their island fortress, and for the Fatherland you will make her people bleed. To Vors, you will offer sacrifice. To Vors, we utter this prayer in blood and iron.”
A rousing enough speech, though what exactly it had roused in Kirin, he couldn’t place. He felt almost ill, his stomach roiling.
One of the officers drew his sword and hammered it against his shield. The century followed the officer’s lead, and Kirin copied them, thankful now that the officer had thought to equip him.
Vasthes grinned and shot Kirin a giddy wink as the ship finally emerged from the tunnel and into a small harbour.
Sailors to either side of the ship were already lowering skiffs filled with soldiers.
The officer commanding Kirin’s block drummed the flat of his sword against his shield again. “Forward. Single file.”
Kirin’s block turned and began listing gradually forward to be fitted into the smaller vessels.
The ship had stopped moving. It must have laid anchor.
Kirin jerked his shield above his head and an arrow thudded into it, forcing him into a painful crouch. Though he was leagues and leagues from the Arena Venaris, he felt his head smash against the arena wall, felt the crush of Oran’s hand against his cheek, heard the cries of the spectators begging Oran to—
Spare him. Spare him!
His ear was ringing.
Kirin clenched his teeth. He pulled himself out of the muck of his thoughts and opened his eyes.
An arrowhead had pierced the thick, leather-enforced wood by two inches, narrowly missing Kirin’s temple just above his ear.
Other men weren’t so lucky, to judge by the death-cries from the head of the line.
Without lowering his shield, Kirin tugged Silices’s tunic and pulled him right so he could check on Vasthes. The young man was still walking.
The lines marched on, huddling beneath cover, moving faster now.
Kirin wasn’t used to this kind of assault, or the cramped press of bodies limiting his movement. In the arena he’d cultivated a healthy fear of death, but the terror that struck him now was different than that of the wide-open stadium.
As Kirin took his turn being fitted into one of the shallow skiffs, a panicking soldier being loaded into one of the other boats screamed and tumbled overboard in his struggle to reach safety.
The force of the men behind Kirin pushed Kirin forward, but he didn’t look up as an officer helped Kirin into the skiff. His gaze was fixed on the drowning man below.
The panicky soldier’s metal cuirass was weighing him down. He flailed his arms, splashing, but soon the dark ocean closed over him, and he sunk beneath the churning water. A few men tried to snag him with a pole, but gave up after only a short time, hampered by the near-constant rain of arrows.
As the skiff was lowered onto the waves, Kirin stumbled, dizzy, forgetting for a moment to keep his shield up. The skiff swayed on its tethers and the taste of Kirin’s partially digested breakfast lapped at his mouth. The boat hit the water with a smack.
Someone butted Kirin in the back with his knee.
Kirin frowned at Vasthes, raising his shield. He risked a peek from beneath it. Silices was in one of the boats being rowed toward the shore. Somehow they’d got separated.
Kirin pointed. “He’s ahead of us. He’s fine.” He wished he was as sure as he sounded. Silices was at the oar, his only covering that of the shield of the man next to him. Masseni archers were still firing arrows and slinging stones from the fortifications on the cliffs surrounding them, though the number and frequency were decreasing. Kirin craned his neck back and peered past a break in the shields.
Up on the cliffs, Anouti warriors were dispatching the archers. One of the Anouti men stabbed his spear straight through a man and kicked his corpse off the side of one of the watchtowers. Kirin flinched as the body plunked into the harbour ahead of the skiff.
If the Anouti weren’t careful, they’d crush their allies below.
The soldier beside Kirin jabbed him with his elbow. “Pick up your oar, you bastard, before they launch another volley!”
Kirin snarled, but he grabbed the oar and started rowing, relying on Vasthes and the man in front of him to keep him shielded.
Above the sheltered cove the sun glowed brighter—a pale yellow that spilled its light across the carnage. The harbour was full of corpses and splintered wood, but none of that was as terrible as the continuous screech of the vessels being rent apart, the active dying of sailors, the clash of weapons, and the roar of fire.
Once they’d reached the shore one of the men in front hopped out of the boat and gestured for others to help him drag it ashore. Kirin released his oar, grabbed his shield, and vaulted over the side of the boat. Water splashed up his leg, but Kirin barely noticed, too busy slashing his sword and shield madly back and forth to try to deflect any oncoming arrows.
His feet sank into the wet sand, the grains swelling like mud, slowing him.
His ears were ringing.
He grabbed the side of the skiff and heaved. His shoulders burned with effort, but with the soldiers working as one, they made quick progress.
On the final pull, Kirin howled.
Everyone around him was yelling; why not yell too?
The howl filled his lungs to the brim with courage. They would need it, to judge by the state of the city. All sense of order, all practice and pretense, had been forgotten amidst the chaos of the beach and the towering painted buildings beyond. Lorai all along the shore were breaking formation as soon as their feet hit the sand, dashing up sandbanks and along piers with their weapons brandished high and their lips drawn back in savage cries.
Kirin ran toward the city, dodging or jumping over the dead and dying men that littered the beach. The bodies looked like giant hedgehogs with arrows for spines. Many of them were missing arms, noses, faces . . . . One of them grabbed Kirin’s boot, but he kicked the soldier’s hand away and pressed on.
The man’s skin had been so bloody and raw, his armour so stained, that Kirin couldn’t say if he’d been one of Kirin’s people or a foreigner.
“Vasthes! Silices!” Kirin spun about at the top of the rise, searching for either of the young men, eager to get off the beach and into the town.
The boys were nowhere to be seen.
Kirin had no idea what he was supposed to be doing, and because he’d thought someone would tell him he hadn’t bothered to prepare a plan of his own.
The sand beneath his feet seemed as liquid as the ocean that had swallowed the panicking soldier. Kirin stumbled, ankle twitching with pain. He had to reach shelter. He needed somewhere to think.
Kirin dashed for the shelter of the houses and fortifications behind him.
Armoured Masseni warriors swarmed the interiors of the city like bees inside a disturbed hive. The painted buildings—orange, purple, yellow—were nothing like Lorai ones, and yet towering, slanting apartments too like those back home cast steepled shadows onto the paved stone streets.
What looked like the main road leading uphill to the temple was filled with Masseni bodies. They’d been piled so high, or else fallen so thick, that they formed a wall. Anouti soldiers patrolled the road, mingling awkwardly with the Lorai men rushing up to join a fight the Anouti had already won.
Kirin darted down a narrower street to avoid the throng of the main thoroughfare.
The jaws of the buildings lay mostly in shadow, the sun granting its light in uneven slashes across the tight-packed street. Evidence of daily life lay strewn all along the road in the form of spilled milk, crushed vegetables, and upturned crates.
Kirin hugged one of the walls, deftly stepping over a bushel of crushed onions, keeping his ears pricked for the crunch of footsteps or the creak of doors.
Out of the shadows, from beneath an arched doorway, a man lurched toward Kirin, swinging his sword in front of him. His face was covered in blood, contorted in anger or grief. The sword looked too heavy for him, but whatever had caused his madness seemed to have lent him more than mortal strength.
The sword arced straight down, glancing off a wooden crate before screeching against the stone cobbles.
The man heaved the sword up a second time. He slammed it down in a strike that, if it had hit Kirin, would have sliced him straight through. Clumsy as it was, it was easy to sidestep.
The man was crazed.
Kirin plunged his sword through the Masseni’s chest. The man folded at the waist, wailing. His sword clunked onto the road and he clawed at the seeping wound where metal met flesh. Kirin kicked the slumped body of his attacker free of his sword.
“Silices! Vasthes!” Kirin slunk between two tightly-packed sandstone buildings and found himself in a winding alley that led uphill in the same direction as the main thoroughfare. Further up the path, Anouti and Lorai soldiers kicked in the doors of Masseni homes. A group of soldiers Kirin recognized from the rowing benches dragged a Masseni girl kicking and screaming from her home. She bit the soldier’s hand and one of his friends thwacked her unconscious.
Kirin grit his teeth.
A prayer to Vors. This was a prayer to Vors, and every wailing babe, every screaming woman, every dead or dying soldier was a sacrifice.
The soldiers carried the woman between them. The one who’d initially grabbed her kicked open the door behind him and together the soldiers hefted her inside.
Kirin pushed on.
No sign of the twins as Kirin made his way down the alley, but Masseni women and children tore their faces from the windows as he passed, cowering away from him.
Where were their husbands? Was it the way of these rats to let their women suffer rape and death without defenders?
The men were on the ships, of course, Kirin heard Ydelka speak inside his mind. They didn’t expect such treachery from their friends. They weren’t prepared for this kind of attack. But they should have known better, shouldn’t they? A man of Lorar would have known better than to trust to Anouti rats for salvation. Zimrida was a military city.
The blur of movement as men and women darted across Kirin’s path—the smell of blood, piss, and shit—made his eyes water and his vision spin. Corpses cluttered the pavement, bent and smeared, lying broken at the end of every dead end. Screams seemed to issue from every floor of every building, and overhead, the birds were circling.
Atop the hill, fire blazed from inside a gold and blue spire.
The island had fallen. They’d won already—won as soon as the Masseni let their Anouti allies past the gates. This wasn’t a battle any longer—it was a slaughter. All that was left was to pick the bones for what little flesh remained.
Gods, but this hill was a climb.
Kirin scuttled down an empty road and leaned his head back against a shaded wall. He mustn’t close his eyes, yet that was all he wanted.
It was quiet in this dusty, forgotten little street. Back the way he’d come he could hear men slinging Masseni curses, women blabbering prayers to heathen gods.
Maybe, for just a second he could—
A baby’s prolonged cry jolted Kirin out of his daze and he snapped his eyelids open, attention drawn to the roof of a pale orange building a few doors down. A man stood atop it, but he was dressed neither like a southerner, nor a Lorai soldier. Instead of armour he wore a plain brown cloak and leather trousers.
Kirin ducked down a few inches, as though the man—definitely the one from the graveyard who’d reminded him of Ydelka—couldn’t see him. Peeling himself from the wall he stepped slowly toward the figure, never shifting his gaze. The graveyard visitor must have stowed away on one of the ships.
“Why are you following me?” Kirin spread his arms out. Maybe he could taunt him into action. “If you want me, I’m right here! I’ll give you a fight if that’s what you’re after. Fucking come at me!”
The figure didn’t speak or budge.
Kirin started toward him, but as soon as Kirin made it about halfway, the man fled across the roofs.
Kirin grit his teeth, searching for an obvious means to pursue his stalker.
The door to the house.
There’d be an entrance to the roof from inside.
He threw all his weight at the door.
The body of a young man lay face-down on the ground, but the home seemed otherwise deserted.
Kirin bolted for the stairs, but froze on the fourth step as a familiar laugh broke the silence.
Cruel, barbed, amused—it reminded him of Oran.
Someone, a woman, whimpered nearby.
Kirin backtracked onto the ground floor. At the far end of the room, a beaded curtain hid the entrance to another room.
The woman screamed.
Kirin gripped his sword as he crept toward the curtain.
It was just like when Kirin had found Ydelka. Oran had butchered her, and Kirin hadn’t been there to stop him.
His hand was shaking.
The laughter stopped.
Kirin quickly stomped the last few steps to the curtain and hauled it aside. The rattling beads sounded like falling stones.
A dead baby was sprawled in the corner of the next room. Its chest was slit from side to side, its guts spilled out on a patterned carpet. A Masseni woman was pinned to the floor by a sword that pierced her ribcage, as her attacker hauled her skirts up. Blood bubbled at her lips, her words insensible. She reached for the body in the corner.
She must know it was dead. She had too.
Her eyes were glazed as the man thrust inside her and the Lorai soldier looked up as Kirin entered.
“Lupo!” The boy stopped thrusting long enough to grin at Kirin. He pointed at the woman on the floor. “I caught one, Lupo! If she’s still alive by the time I’m done you’re free to take her. She’s a dog, but what can you expect from a Masseni bitch?”
A dog. Ydelka. A dog. A hound.
The woman scratched feebly at Silices’s shoulders and chest, shaking her head back and forth and sobbing. She let her arms fall, staring at her child, and her eyes widened, as though what had happened had come home to her.
Her son was dead.
Silices grabbed the woman’s chin, forcing her to look him in the eyes. Then he reached down and clenched his hand loosely around her neck as he fucked her. “Don’t look so glum. The street’s full of them.”
The light was fading from the woman’s eyes. She was convulsing on the floor. Couldn’t he see? Couldn’t he see what he was doing?
Taking her. Killing her. Ydelka. Ydelka. Ydelka.
It was as though he could see it all happening before him: the little room, Ydelka begging, pleading. No. Ydelka wouldn’t beg. She would have fought with every breath before she let Oran break her. And the field, the flowers, the blue dress as she rose from where she’d laid him in the long grass and the soldiers running from the trees and—
Kirin grabbed Silices by the throat, pulling him off the dead woman by the neck. He shoved him against the wall, hard enough that the boy’s head cracked like an egg against a table. The boy wriggled, scratching at his empty scabbard, trying to get a hold on Kirin. Kirin pressed his fingers into the boy’s flesh.
Silices’s eyes grew wide and bloodshot—so wide it seemed they might pop from his narrow skull. His skin reddened beneath the press of Kirin’s fingers.
Ydelka had been wrong, so wrong. They were born to kill—to rape and kill and torture and maim.
Kirin squeezed and squeezed and squeezed till his fingers ached and his knuckles burned and all the sick feeling bubbling inside him worked its way out of him through those fingers.
A sick feeling at what Silices had done. A sick feeling at what Kirin was doing, at how satisfying and how right it felt.
Silices’s tongue protruded from his bluing lips. He twitched in Kirin’s grip.
It wasn’t enough.
Kirin slammed the boy’s head against the wall again, and then again, and finally a third time.
Ydelka. Ydelka. Ydelka—“Ydelka. Mother.”
The boy hung limply, his blood and brains caked to the wall. Kirin held him there as though he meant to fix him in place, but when the strain got too much, he let him fall in a heap beneath his bashed-out brains.
The woman was dead
Kirin stepped over her feet and knelt beside the child. He slid his fingers beneath the guts and piled them on the child’s belly.
They wouldn’t stay—they wouldn’t fit back in. How was that?
Kirin had always wondered, but probably only surgeons knew. He heaped the refuse as best he could, and then carried the bloody body toward the mother. He laid it upon her breast and folded her arm about it so that it looked as though she were cradling it. Then he pried the sword from her chest and let it clatter to the floor.
Her blood flowed out from her back like ghoulish wings unfurling.
Kirin fell back against the wall, sliding down its surface to sit beside the body of his friend. He reached for his sword, which he’d let fall when he grabbed Silices, and drew it toward his own throat, pricking the tender skin beneath his neck with its sharp edge. His ears, at least, had stopped ringing, though all he now seemed to hear when he closed his eyes was Ydelka’s voice gently whispering him to sleep.
We were born to kill.