Friday, July 22, 2011
More about The Honeythief. Read an updated synopsis here.
55. The Morning Brigades
It was past noon before Pismire returned. Quiñones did not see him come, sat as he was beside the fire, lashing runners made from saplings to the ashstick frame of the litter to make of it a crude sledge. Fiddlin’ Katy slept nearby, wrapped in the remains of her beechleaf-yellow mantle. The sky had cleared to the palest blue of cornflowers, drybrushed with smoky white. The snow was easy on the rustycolored fir-needles on the floor of the grove.
And then Pismire was there, stepping out from among the firs without hail nor greeting, his boots silent on the snow. When he stepped into the light, Quiñones saw that his face was ashen gray, and his eyes rimmed in scarlet. He stopped some distance from the fire, and stood looking at Katy, not speaking.
Quiñones did not stand to greet him, but kept to his work. After a while, he said, “I did not think to see you there.”
Pismire looked at him. “They have not killed me,” he said. “And I would not go without speaking to you.”
Quiñones clucked his tongue. “I did not think to see you there,” he said. “I thought you would come up from the valley, where last I saw you.”
Pismire’s head bobbed. “The Paperhouse is a labyrinth within,” he said. “I believe I have walked some clicks in those corridors. After my business was concluded, I was escorted out and found myself deep in the woods. I followed the smoke to find you. How is Katy?”
Quiñones nodded towards her. “Sleeping, mostly,” he said. “She’s been waking on and off, spitting up gobbets of something vile. I imagine it’s the poisons a-passing.” He shrugged. “Her color’s good, though. That gouge in her side is closing already, and I judge her lungs to be sound.”
“Seen no more of them. That chieftain never looked back on us. Even the bodies are gone.”
“Some time after you went in. After I got Katy comfortable, I had a reconnoiter, looking for survivors.” He frowned. “Nothing left but gear and arms. I never saw them carried away. Poor devils.”
“There are surely devils in that place,” said Pismire, “but not the Hamazakaran.”
“You have seen them, then?”
“I have not seen their faces, no. But I have concluded my negotiations with them nonetheless.”
Quiñones waited for Pismire to explain further, but he did not. So Quiñones nodded and said, “And now?”
Pismire sighed. “I must make haste north and northeast, to bring war to the Regina.”
“You will go through the mountains, then? Do you know the way?”
“To the Apiary?” Pismire nearly smiled. “I know my way there from anyplace in the world, and could walk the route blindfold.” He knelt beside Fiddlin’ Katy and put his black hand to her cheek. “As soon as she has strength, you must take her east,” he said. “Rejoin the Sisters’ caravan if you can, but in anywise do not stop until you are in the domains of the Sóf. No harm will come to you in Cathedral.”
Quiñones cocked an eyebrow. “And why should I go east, when there is fighting away up north?”
Pismire hid his face. “You know why.”
“I do not, for the life of me.”
“Do not make me say it.”
Quiñones was on his feet now. “Am I to suffer in ignorance, then?”
Pismire swallowed. “You have seen the truth,” he said. “Of what I am. The whole truth.”
Quiñones stiffened. “I have,” he said. And I am not a delicate blossom, to perish at the cold touch of the truth. You are a thing the like of which I’ve never seen. I don’t know what that means. Be as may it makes of you a monster.” He shrugged again. “Or be as may… a miracle. But whatever the mysteries of your nethers or the alchemies of your guts, I have sworn myself to your service, and pledged that where you led, I’d follow. The truth does not change that.”
Pismire said nothing. His chin trembled, or perhaps he nodded. Then he said, “That is a cunning sledge you have made, Captain. I shall need to sleep soon, but I should like to cover some ground while I have still the strength to pull it.”
They loaded Katy up, wrapping her in both their cloaks as well as her mantle, and set off north within the hour. A fresh wind made the going colder than it might have been, and they were glad they had the hard work of pulling the sledge to keep them warm.
The sky slowly cleared as they went. They managed a few hours of travel time before stopping to rest, an hour past none. Pismire proved an able pathfinder, discerning possible threads through the piney barrens, but they were both badly winded; the terrain was steep, and the sledge made their way clumsy and slow. Pismire flopped down across a blown-down fir, devoured two apples from his satchel, chasing them with mouthful after mouthful of snow, burped once, and fell instantly asleep with his head in the crook of his arm. Quiñones had strength enough to boil a little water in a tin cup and steep a handful of dried mushrooms into a broth for Katy. She did not fully wake when he lifted her head, but gave a little hiss when he held the cup to her lips.
“Hot,” she said.
“Drink,” he said softly. “It will give you strength.”
“Pismire?” she said, and sipped.
“He is well. We are traveling north.”
She nodded, and drank the broth, still only half-awake. Then a light seemed to come into her eyes. “Don’t let him — promise — ” she began, and then was stricken with a violent bout of coughing.
Quiñones helped her to sit up, and gently patted her back. Something loose and liquid came free inside her, and she leaned forward. He held her hair back from her face as she launched a luridly-colored shower of spittle, then wiped her mouth. She lay back on her elbow, breathing hard. “Promise,” she murmured.
“What is it, Mistress?” said Quiñones. Nearby, Katy’s spew hissed and stank in the snow. “What promise would you have of me?”
Fiddlin’ Katy made a sound of displeasure. “Pismire,” she said, shaking her head. “Don’t let him promise them anything foolish,” she said, and slept again.
And Quiñones looked at Pismire, and smiled ruefully; and soon he slept himself.
They dozed no more than an hour or two before the cold woke them, and determined to press on until they lost the light. Pismire was eager to get some clicks under his heels as fast as they were able, the sooner to reach some settlement.
“What of your men-of-war?” asked Quiñones. “Will your army be provided? Where will you meet them?”
“I have been assured that the army shall find me.”
“And do you trust their assurances?”
“I trust the circumstances under which they were given, “said Pismire. “It will be best, I think, to find some place of safety, there to await word from the captains.”
In the end Quiñones persuaded him that they would be best served to move slowly, foraging as they went; for they had left the camp of the Birds of Our Lady with only such food as they had on their persons, and it was uncertain when they would find a settlement. Pismire was reluctant, but he assented to the logic of it; though the compass in his head pointed him always in the direction of the Apiary, he yet knew not what might lie between the city and himself. The region was strange both to him and Quiñones, and they had no reliable maps.
And so when they came upon a lone chestnut tree among the pines in the hour after vespers, they took it as an omen and set up their camp. They had scavenged little else upon the way but a few handsful of bitter greens and a bundle of wild onions, already tough and gone to seed; the year was too far gone for either berries or fruit, and neither Pismire nor Quiñones knew these woods well enough to know which roots might be safe to eat. But they fell upon the chestnuts, sweeping them from the ground into Pismire’s knotted cloak. Hey had to pick through them, no easy task in the failing light, for many were spoiled with a powdery mold; but in the end they had enough to make a meal. Pismire nicked crosses in their husks with his butterfly knife while Quiñones gathered fuel and stones for a fire-ring.
While the fire burned down, they found a spot out of the wind and rigged a lean-to of springy limbs, overlaid thickly with pine boughs. They spoke little as they worked. It felt somehow unseemly, Quiñones thought, to share stories or plans, or even to press Pismire for details of his negotiations at the Paperhouse, while Fiddlin’ Katy yet slept; the circle was incomplete.
When the embers were glowing red, they loaded the chestnuts into Quiñones’s old steel helmet and set it among the coals; the pop and sizzle that soon followed mingled comfortably with the gentle sound of Katy’s sleeping breath. They sat for a while in silence, chewing wild greens and drinking cups of snowmelt.
When the sweet, earthy smell told them the chestnuts were well-roasted, Pismire roused Katy and led her by the arm to the latrine-pit. Katy was silent and groggy for a while, but she was able to walk back to the fire on her own. Her gait was off, like a sleepwalker’s.
“I have no strength in my legs,” she murmured, pausing to lean against a tree. “A fine Lady of the Roads I am now.”
“You have been poisoned,” said Pismire. “It is working its way out of you, but you will be weak for a while yet.”
“Poisoned?” she said. “How is it I am not dead?”
He looked away. “I found — a medicine,” he said. “Are you hungry?”
She nodded, but her eyes were unfocused. “I thought — but I must have dreamt it.”
“What did you dream?”
“I imagined — while I slept, I thought perhaps you stole a kiss.” She laughed, then coughed — a clean dry cough. The poison had nearly left her. “A foolish fancy.”
It was by now quite dark, and she could not see his face. “You are no fool,” he said. “We imagine all manner of things when we are ill.”
They came back to the fire and sat. Quiñones had pounded handful of chestnuts into a porridge for Katy. For Pismire and himself he plucked them smoking from the helmet, barehanded, and popped them from their husks between his thumbs. They ate quietly for a while; then Katy, in a sleepy voice, asked, “Where are we bound?”
“We should be north of the mountains soon,” said Pismire. “We’ll take on provisions in the nearest village, then arrange a rendezvous with — ”
Katy interrupted him with a soft cry.
“What is it, Mistress?” asked Quiñones.
“My rebequin,” she moaned. “I have left it in the Sisters’ camp. I carried it so far, and then forgot it when we rode out.”
Quiñones smiled and laid his warm hand on hers. “Do not trouble yourself, Mistress,” said he. “The Birds of Our Lady will see your fiddle safely home, I will warrant you that. And when all this is done, I myself will escort you to Cathedral to collect her.” He looked at Pismire. “Help me put her back to bed, will you?”
Between them they soon had her laid back across the frame of the sledge and well-bundled. Pismire piled more firewood on the embers, and Quiñones rekindled the blaze with a pass of his hands. The sky had fully cleared, and they could see the stars winking between the overhanging branches. They sat a while, warming themselves and watching the flames.
In time, Quiñones said, “Shall I take the first watch, then?”
Pismire shook his head. “I do not think we shall need to set a guard,” said he. “We are both too much in need of sleep. And in any wise, the worst has already happened. I cannot imagine there is any disaster left that could befall us.”
Quiñones shrugged and retired to the lean-to. He did not bother to voice his disagreement aloud; he thought, Things can always get worse, my friend. I only hope you don’t live long enough to learn it firsthand. But he was asleep within moments nonetheless.
Quiñones knew nothing more ‘til he felt Fiddlin’ Katy’s hand shaking him awake. “Captain,” she whispered. “You’re going to want to see this.”
With effort, Quiñones pulled back his heavy eyelids to uncover a landscape transformed. They had lain down their heads the previous night in an empty wood; they had apparently awakened in the middle of an armed encampment.
The forest floor in all directions around was dotted with little bivouacs, frame tents, two dozen of them at least, each just large enough for two to sleep, head to foot. They were of mottled canvas, stippled now with leaf-shadow in the dawnlight, sprung up overnight like so many silent mushrooms. A dozen little cookfires threw spits of smoke up into the treetops, and armed figures sat warming themselves, or moved with rapid quiet bearing canteens and washbasins.
They were no regiment that Quiñones recognized — broad-chested, dandy-splendid in high boots and stripe-legged trousers, bearing at their belts sabres of fine make, with elegant brass hilts; their leather dressings had a soft gloss. Menfolk and warmaids alike wore their hair in curious plaits at the ears and the nape, the bravos with drooping mustaches, and all about were bedecked in coats and cloaks of fur, shaggy and barbaric with it. There were perhaps a hundred soldiers in all, or less; but if it were less it were not much less.
Quiñones, a thousand questions bubbling in his mind, reached for the most important. “Pismire,” he said. “Where is Pismire?”
Katy took his are; she was still pale, but Quiñones thought now that was merely from fear. Her hand on his was warm and steady, and her step was sure as she led him through the camp — for such it surely was now — through throngs of warriors checking their weapons and mustering their breakfasts, gaudy and magnificent in cords and waistcoats and ribbons in the colors of autumn, brown and orange and gold, up about their work but each with a moment for a gesture of respect as he and Katy passed, and smiling one and all with some secret gaiety; led him to a tent rather larger than the rest, across the entrance to which there hung a standard, a black banner blazed with a naked skull, white and grinning.
Before the tent, beneath the empty gaze of the skull on the banner, five figures hunkered in a circle. There were two hardcases, whom Quiñones took for junior officers, lieutenant commanders or some suchlike; they rubbed their hands upon their haunches to keep warm, backs presented. Another, her nobler bearing marking her higher rank as surely as any insignia, crouched on one knee, her big cloak of pelts drawn around her. A fourth, with a cool chiseled face half-hidden by upturned collars, knelt with the hems of his coat trailing in the dirt. He had his hands spread over a large terrain-map of the mountains.
And Pismire was there, one black finger stabbing into the map, and nodding. They murmured low; then Pismire looked up, with an expression that was not quite a smile, and said, “Captain Quiñones. As promised, the army I have requested has found us.”
More next week…
Posted by Jack Feerick at 8:13 AM