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Aprell 21, 1543

It was going to be a hot one.

The morning fog burned off early, revealed the glittering band of the Sarno as it meandered across the golden plains to the south. A handful of early horse-carts clattered past along the worn stones of the Great Trade Road. Captain Marzin stomped around the camp, hollering a constant, ever-changing stream of withering obscenity as he kicked the slow-risers.

Viazi stumbled out of his tent, black hair rumpled and sticking out at odd angles. He rubbed bloodshot eyes with the heels of his hands. Varion handed him a dented tin cup of kaffi. "Long night?"

"Work, work, work," Viazi mumbled, wrapping his hands around the cup and inhaling deeply.

"You're welcome," Kalla grumbled as she exited Viazi's tent, tying off the laces of her trousers. "'Work' is not what you were saying at mid-watch." She gathered up her wheat-blond curls in both hands and tied them back in a thick ponytail.

"What was he saying?" Varion asked.

"Something like," she tilted her head and affected a high schoolboy falsetto, "'aahh... ah-ah!'"

"That's what that was? The sentries thought there was a wild animal loose in the camp."

Viazi, with his back towards Kalla, bounced his eyebrows and mouthed, "There was." Aloud, he said, "You're a horrible woman. No wonder I've never married you." Kalla kicked him in the back of the knee. He went down with a yelp.

Varion snatched the cup out of the air in a blur. A single, steaming black drop fell on his wrist. He looked at the object in his hand as if he'd never seen it before.

"She's violent, too," Viazi said from the ground. "Never get a husband like that."

"Nice catch," Kalla said, eyes dancing from the cup in Varion's hand to his eyes.

"Eh... good reflexes, I guess." He rubbed the back of his head with his free hand and examined the red-limned eastern horizon, where the dark smudge of the holy woods lurked.

"Anyway, thanks for covering for us," Kalla said. She pecked Varion on the cheek before stalking off to her own tent.

"Why you do this, eh?" Varion asked, helping Viazi to his feet.

"She likes to be teased. If you know what I mean." His eyebrows performed another round of crude semaphore.

"No, I have no idea what you mean," Varion said, dryly. "What I meant was, why do you two hide this thing you have? I had what you do, I'd shout it to the world. I'd climb street lamps and sing odes."

"If I climbed a lamp to sing about Kalla, she'd knock me off with a rock. It's company rules," Viazi shrugged, taking back the cup. "No relations with comrades. Ruins your objectivity or some such. Ugh. What did you put in this?"

"Nothing. You drank it without whiskey sometimes, maybe you'd know, eh? Viazi, Marzin's not an idiot. He knows about you two."

"But so long as no one says anything about it, he doesn't have to acknowledge it."

“I am in a company of madmen,” Varion sighed theatrically.

"And angry women."

"I like angry women..."

"Don't we all know it. Seriously, Varion, buy that lady an orchid. You saw their garden, she loves them."

Varion shook his head. "I'm lucky, I get fired. I'm not lucky, I get killed."

"You could be really lucky."

"Guys like us? We don't get that lucky with girls like that."

Viazi set the cup aside to buckle on his scabbard. From across the camp, horses whickered and snorted as Kalla began loading them. He fumbled with the belt as she bent over to yank a saddle off the ground. "Such lovely flanks on that mare... Another day, you think?"

Varion squinted back at the woods to the east. "Nah. Today."

The other man snorted and reached for his breastplate. "Can't make it. Have to quick-march all day again. We'd be in no condition to fight."

"You see the pile of gold the Duke gave Marzin? That's rush money. What I hear is that there's no one there to fight yet. So we rush. We get there first and claim... whatever, I don't know, for House Anzerani."

"Yeah. Why send a free company to the holy woods? What, we're going to make sure no one steals the shrines? Give me a hand with this."

* * *

The banners hung limp in the windless dust, the hound insignias crumpled into random silver blobs. Varion passed a sleeve across his forehead and blinked away salt. Next to him, Viazi swore and slapped at his neck.

"How come they don’t bite you anymore?" he complained.

"I'm too pretty."

They passed a cart, pulled into the dirt alongside the Trade Road to let their tramping column pass. The weather-beaten driver glowered at the lines of soldiers. A small girl with straw in her hair popped from under the burlap covering the cargo.

"Where you going?" she piped.

"The woods, young mistress," Varion stepped out of line, sketched a bow and waved east. "The Heart of the World."

She giggled. "You gonna see the Spirits?"

"Only if they want us to. That's how they are."

"I see 'em in the sky sometimes," she said, wisely. She dug splinters off the rail of the cart with quick-bitten fingers. "Kinda look like the oil on the river back home. Swirly an' rainbow-y."

"The Spirits like children especially. Or so they say."

She folded her arms on the rail, and rested a smudged cheek on them. "You gonna stop at the Gates of Ivory, maybe?" she asked, hopefully. A wisp of straw blew free from the tangle of her unwashed hair.

He smiled at the question, thinking of the sea of sweet-carts and colored lanterns surrounding the shrine. "We'll walk by, but," he made a show of looking around, then leaned in to stage-whisper, "our mean captain probably won’t let us stop."

"Back in line, Canova," Captain Marzin growled, slapping him in the back of the head.

"Ah ha, captain!" he stammered theatrically, turning to face Marzin's stamping charger. "I was just telling the young mistress what a kind soul and snappy dresser you were..."

"How many times I need to tell you to stop annoying pretty girls? Catch up with Viazi or I'll put your bal—your arm in a sling."

"Absolutely, sir, captain, sir," he snapped off a salute, winked at the wide-eyed and blushing child, and turned on his heel. He double-timed up the line.

"Very sorry about that, miss," the captain rumbled behind him. Tacking jangled as he dismounted. "Please take this, with my compliments."

"Thank yeh, soldier," he heard the old man rasp.

"My honor, sir. I'm sorry for your trouble. I'll get this mob out of your way soon as I can."

A moment later, Marzin reined up alongside. "Dumb," he said blandly.

"Her papa was getting angry with us," Varion shrugged. "Best way to appease a parent is to treat their kids well."

"Mm. Don't fault your motives, boy. But look at it from the father's perspective. Mercenary soldier comes up to his young daughter and acts like he's flirting with her?"

"What? She was... what, ten, maybe?" Viazi protested, aghast. “We're not – we don't do that."

"No. Silver Hounds wouldn't. Most of the free companies he's seen aren't as picky in their recruiting."

"Hell of a world," Varion murmured.

"We'll do our bit to make it less so."

* * *

"Oh good. Shade. Just in time for the sun to go down," Viazi said when they passed under the eaves. It was another half hour before Marzin called a halt, muttering unspeakably foul oaths against the monks who'd drawn their map before tossing it in a fire.

Varion slung off his pack with a groan. Across the camp, Kalla directed the unloading of the horses with rapid-fire commands and sharp gestures, impatiently flicking sweat-matted tendrils of hair behind her ears.

Viazi sat on a monstrous tangle of roots and peered into the tree-shadows. "Holy woods, eh?"

"So they say." Varion lay back on cool, moss-covered earth. "Ugh. I'm not moving again. When you leave tomorrow, tell them bury me here, eh?"

"Just looks like another forest to me. Lot of shrines, but what's that? Just things made by mortals." He began rooting through his bag. "You ever seen a Spirit?"

"Uh... once. Yeah."

"Up close?"

"You could say," Varion murmured.

"What was it like?"

"...falling."

"What?" Viazi pulled something out of his pack and sniffed it. He recoiled and tossed it over his shoulder. "I hope that didn't spill on anything..."

"You ever had a dream where you're going over a cliff?" Varion asked. "You see it coming, but you can't stop? You watch the abyss open under your feet. There's no way to hold yourself up. Nothing to stand on. Nothing to cling to. Your guts fall into your feet. Your hands go cold. Then everything is spinning too fast to see, happening multiple times. Afterimages and echoes, overlapping." He brought his hand up to his face, watched the fingers quiver like dry leaves in autumn wind. He swallowed, but got only a dry click for the trouble.

"I meant," Viazi poked him with the toe of his boot, "what did it look like?"

"Oh. Uh... did you hear what the wagon-girl said? Swirly. All different colors, flowing and running. And bright. Brighter than dawn. I could barely look at it."

Kalla strode up, smelling of sweat and horses. "Earning that pay, I see." She dropped her pack, grabbed Viazi's upper arm, and wrenched him to his feet. "Come on. Tents aren't setting themselves up." Varion rose with a groan, brushing dirt off his back.

"I'll be back to help after I finish feeding the mounts. And 'Feo'?" she jabbed a finger into Viazi's chest. "I loved the poem."

Viazi colored and glanced at Varion, who pretended to examine the trees. "What poem?"

"The one I found in my saddlebag."

"I – I would never..."

Her cheeks dimpled. "Oh? It must have been some other man who doesn't like his guy-friends to know he's secretly sweet and sentimental and completely squeezable. Guess I'll have to find him later." She patted his bottom and walked off with a distinct sway to her hips.

"I like beer," Viazi implored. "And raw meat, and wenches, and – and punching things. Grr. I don't write poetry, I swear."

"That’s too bad, cousin," Varion said. "The guy who did is going to have a good night."

"...you won't say anything?"

"Not a word, you squeezable man."

* * *

The noises of camp filled the twilight; shouts, laughter, the clank of cook pots and the snap of fires. Someone started singing a bawdy round. Waves of cricketsong lapped against the islands of fire-light. From somewhere in the trees overhead, a mockingbird called chedowee, chedowee, chedowee.

"Lovely night," Varion said, passing the bottle.

"Ngh," Viazi said around a mouthful of whiskey. He gulped it down, squinted one eye against the sting, and pounded his chest. "Hoo-ah! I'm going to miss the stars tonight. The moon."

"Like you two would take a break to look at the moon."

"Hey, we're not teenagers. We get tired." He smirked and leaned forward. "Plus, after a while, she gets—"

Kalla slid out of the dark to snatch the bottle from his hand. "Your mouth, 'Feo'. Close it." She knocked back a mouthful and handed it to Varion. "What a day."

"Marzin have a plan?" he asked, taking another swallow.

She shook her head and unbuckled her scabbard. "We're supposed to get somewhere near the center of the woods. We had some trail map from the north, but it was either ancient or fiction. So tomorrow we're scouts-out at dawn, trying to find some way deeper in."

"Deeper in? What for? It's a damn forest," Viazi complained. "There's nothing here."

"Not our problem if there isn't," Varion shrugged. "The Duke paid us to get there and claim it for him. We claim trees and shrines, we still get paid."

Kalla put her hands to the small of her back and arched backwards, wincing as she stretched out the muscles.

"There’s a sight," Viazi said, observing her rising chest with great interest. "Makes me want to 'stand' an extra watch tonight. If you know what I mean."

"No, I have no idea what you mean," she rolled her eyes. "If I didn’t like you, I’d hit you."

"You do hit me."

"You'd know it if I hit you for real."

"Aw..."

"C'mere." She grabbed his collar to lever him against a convenient tree trunk. As she pressed close, Varion looked politely away, deeper into the wood. The trunks were lit from within with an aqua light. A Spirit-light?

He turned back. "Hey, what's—"

The light flared behind him, washed over, sped out through the trees and past the camp.

A little grey mockingbird thudded to the ground at his feet and bounced away into the dark.

Viazi and Kalla went limp and fell over on each other, tongues lolling from slack jaws, sightless eyes wide.

Across the camp, bodies flopped to the ground like wet sacks of grain.

He saw Marzin's eyes roll back and his jaw fall loose, an instant before he went boneless and plunged on to his face, a clipped puppet.

The horses collapsed soundlessly, legs snapping under sudden dead weight. The air leaked from their lungs in slow, mournful sighs.

He was alone under the trees, in a sea of corpses. The campfires snapped and crackled. The birds and crickets had gone silent.

Varion panted, staggered. Noises that weren't entirely words spilled from his mouth.

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