“How about you, Natzlin,” Arñe said, nursing a mug of sib along with her bruises. “Where are you from?”
“Me?” Natzlin asked from the ground where she was stretching with a hauk, waiting for her unit’s turn with the armsmaster. “I’m from Deep Wallow. It's a village in the east of Tsaia, on one of the lesser-travelled Pargunese caravan routes.”
“Is Barra from there, too?”
Barra scoffed, not looking up from the dagger she was honing. “Do I look like a country girl?”
“No, Barra’s from a trading family; they travelled through the village a few times a season.”
“Natzlin was the baker’s daughter,” Barra said.
“My Da makes the best spicebread in the kingdom,” Natzlin boasted. “We were famous for it. Barra and her brother would buy us out, every time their caravan came through.”
“It was good spicebread,” Barra said, with an odd, defensive edge to her voice.
“One day, Barra here bought her spicebread and then stayed all afternoon until the bakery closed, telling me about all the places she’d been, the things she’d seen. I … well, I invited her to spend the night,” she said looking demurely down at the ground.
Barra looked remarkably pleased with herself.
“Her caravan left the next day, of course,” Natzlin said. “It was the last caravan of the fall, and I spent the winter pining—”
“Hah!” Barra said.
“Pining,” Natzlin repeated firmly. “Barra turned up as soon as the passes cleared in the spring, before the first caravans came through. My Da was from Vérella, originally, so he understood about us, about sisli. But he knew we’d have a tough time of it, if we stayed in town. I wanted to see the world and Barra, she wanted to learn to fight. So, here we are.”
“Oh, good one, Paks!” Saben yelled from the group watching the training ring. “You almost had him that time!”
“I don’t know why everyone makes such a fuss over that great cow,” Barra grumbled. “She’s no better a fighter than I am.”
“Everyone likes Paks,” Arñe answered with a shrug. “She’s nice.”
Barra stood up and shoved her dagger into its sheath, ready to stalk off.
Natzlin pointed at her. “If you get offended over that, Barra, I will laugh in your face. You’re one of the best recruits, and you have plenty of other wonderful qualities, but if there’s one thing you are not, and never will be, its nice.”
Barra looked down at her for a moment, then cracked a grin. “My mother always said I came out of her womb quick as a weasel and twice as mean.”
“Well then, let’s see you put that to good use,” Natzlin said, holding up her hand. Barra pulled her to her feet and they walked to the training ring together. “If you do manage a touch on Siger,” Natzlin said to her in an undertone, “you might find a nice surprise in your bunk tonight.”
“For you, m’lady,” Barra said with a preposterous bow, then shoved her way through the crowd to snatch up a banda.
It was a sober crowd in the dining hall the night after the punishment detail. The recruits ate lightly and split up into pairs and trios, talking in whispers about what they’d seen.
“Why were you so angry at Paks?” Natzlin asked quietly.
“She’s meant to be strong, the best of us, and yet she let that Corporal Stephi have at her, with barely a mark on him,” Barra said. “If she’d taken an eye, broken his nose - that would have sent a message.”
“But then she would’ve been the one in trouble, not Stephi, Korryn, and Jens.”
Barra stared at her. “In trouble?” she said incredulously. “She might have been, if she’d given as good as she got. Now, we’re all in trouble. She’s painted a target on our backs, every one of the female recruits. Showed them we’re fresh meat, theirs for the taking.”
“That’s not true,” Natzlin protested. “Look at how the captain punished them. The whippings, the branding—”
“The recruits, sure. The two of them were more trouble than they were worth; they would’ve been kicked out within the fortnight. What punishment did Corporal Stephi get? Confined until his unit heads back south, not even under ban.”
“They said he was influenced by some kind of potion or spell,” Natzlin said, uncertainly.
“A potion,” Barra snorted. “Ale, more like it. You remember my brother, Torin?”
“Oh, of course I remember your big brother Torin,” Natzlin said warmly. “He was always very friendly when he came in to buy spicebread.”
“Oh aye, Torin’s friendly enough, until he’s got some ale in him. That night, the night I wouldn’t leave until the bakery closed? Torin had been drinking. He was in a mood for a taste of your spicebread, and didn’t much care if it was for sale or not, if you get my meaning. I stayed to keep him off you.”
Natzlin sat quietly for a time. Eventually, she broke the silence. "I didn't know."
“That’s because I didn’t tell you.”
“Was he … mad?”
“Torin?” Barra asked. “Mad enough, but I fight dirty, and I always slept with a sharp dagger and a big, vicious dog. Late that winter, my dog died. Probably poisoned. Could’ve been Torin or one of the caravan guards. Either way, it was my signal to get out of the family business.”
“I’m so sorry, Barra,” Natzlin said.
Barra shrugged. “I’m not. I’ve got a place here, in the company. I’m learning to fight, so I can defend myself, as well as protect you. And we’re together. That’s more than I ever thought I’d have, growing up. After today … we’ll have to be extra careful in the south, that's all. That Stephi will have bragged about what he got away with. We need to spend more time practicing unarmed combat, and watch each other’s backs.”
Natzlin agreed with a kiss. “It’ll be fine,” she reassured Barra.
“I hope so,” Barra replied, eyes on the firelight. “We’ll see.”
Natzlin’s left arm was a distant, jagged mass of pain. Numbwine, she thought, pleased with herself for figuring it out. She must have been wounded in the battle. She prodded muzzily at her memories— shield shattered, Natzlin desperately tried to defect the next sword stroke, aimed at her head, too late, it—she twitched, which provoked a surge of fresh pain, squinted her eyes open against the light and found herself on a pallet in the surgeon’s tent. She remembered Kolya rubbing the stump of her arm during the apple harvest, complaining that it still hurt. Natzlin forced herself to look down at her left arm, terrified the surgeons had taken it. No. Her left arm lay on the blanket, heavily bandaged but intact, reeking of some strong medicine. Her head was pounding and her throat was so dry she thought it would crack and bleed.
Barra was sitting cross-legged beside the pallet, holding Natzlin’s right hand. Her head was down, eyes closed, muttering something, over and over. She looked gaunt and pale, tear-marks leaving clean streaks down her face, still covered in the dust and blood of battle.
“Barra,” Natzlin whispered.
“Natzlin,” Barra gasped, eyes opening. Her hand closed on Natzlin’s so hard, she whimpered in pain. “Do you need more numbwine?”
“No. Water, please,” Natzlin managed.
Barra fumbled for her flask, opened it, and held it to Natzlin’s lips. Warm and metallic from a long day in the flask, it felt glorious against her dry mouth and throat. She pushed it away, coughing, after a few gulps. Barra capped the flask and carefully laid it by Natzlin’s side, within her reach. Then she took Natzlin’s hand again, as if she couldn’t bear to let it go.
“The surgeon let you look after me?” Natzlin asked.
“At first,” Barra said with a shrug. “Then he suggested I should go clean up and get some sleep. I suggested, if he wanted to keep his jewels, he should leave us be.”
Natzlin chuckled, then winced when it hurt her head. “So, what happened?”
“I found you, after the fight. The Wolf Prince’s guards had thrown you into one of the slave pens. There was so much blood, and you wouldn’t wake up. I thought you were dead, Natzlin, until I found your pulse. I thought you were dead, and I didn’t, I couldn’t—” She broke off with a harsh sob.
Natzlin couldn’t move, could barely see, but she did her best to comfort her lover, stroking her thumb over Barra’s hand and humming one of her favorite songs under her breath while Barra got herself under control.
Barra wiped her face roughly with the sleeve of her free hand. “Did you see them? Before you were hurt, did you see the slaves,” she demanded.
“I did,” Natzlin whispered. The images would haunt her dreams.
A heavily-bearded redhead on the next pallet groaned in pain. Natzlin recognized him as a veteran from Kefer’s cohort. The surgeon hurried over, giving Barra a wide berth, and urged him to drink another dose of numbwine.
Barra waited until the surgeon left and the soldier dropped back into a drugged sleep, then continued quietly. “The male slaves were bad enough, but what they did to the women in there… men are animals, Natzlin. That’s what they do, when they think no one’s watching, when they think they can get away with it.”
“They’ll face the High Lord’s justice for it,” Natzlin said.
“The High Lord? The gods are useless,” Barra sneered. “The Halverics had a Captain of Falk with them, today. Do you know what great feat he and his god performed on the battlefield today? Did he defeat the enemy? Did he heal you? No. He said a prayer and buried the dead.
“My mother followed the Mare of Plenty. She was a good woman. Her whole life, she prayed and she sacrificed. All it earned her was an early death in childbirth, and a funeral where the cleric praised her for bearing her husband many sons. That’s all she was worth to her goddess. The gods are either too weak to make a difference, or too evil to care.”
Natzlin, alarmed by this blasphemy, released Barra’s hand and struggled to sit up. Failing, she slumped back down. “That’s not—that’s not true, Barra. You don’t really mean it.”
“I do,” Barra insisted. “I’ve always thought so, but today proved it. When I thought you were dead—none of this was worth it. Not for revenge, or plunder, or the Duke’s pride. We should have used fire arrows on the fortress, and killed the Wolf Prince’s men as they came out.”
“How can you say that, Barra?” Natzlin said. “Think about those slaves. They were chained up in the pens; they would have burned to death.”
“I am thinking about them. The ones in the pen with you were too scared to even try and stop your bleeding. They’re weak, pathetic—better off dead. There’s only two kinds of people in this world, Natzlin: victims, and victors. I won’t be a victim, and I won’t be some pitiful farmgirl naming her favorite hog and thinking that means she can save it from the slaughter.”
Natzlin was shocked. Barra had always been prickly; her passionate lover protected herself from the world with cold pride and a biting wit. This indifference to the suffering of others was new, a sign of some deeper darkness. “So, in this story of yours, am I the pitiful farmgirl, or the hog headed to the slaughter?” she asked.
“What?” Barra said, startled. “No, Natzlin, you—you’re the only decent thing in this benighted world.” She huffed out a shaky breath, then carded gentle fingers through Natzlin’s hair, aiming a sad excuse for a smile down at her. “Look—I’m sorry. You’re right, I don’t mean it, not any of it. I’m just … tired, and sore, and half sick with worry over you. Once you’ve healed up, and things are back to normal, we’ll be fine.”
“I’m sure you’re right,” Natzlin said. It was the first time she had ever lied to Barranyi. It wouldn’t be the last.