After Burning

Issue #227

It’s impossible to keep a secret from the Sons, of course, and so Almas is wearily unsurprised when the black huntsmen arrive on the second day.

Sonam comes running up to fetch her, and Almas straightens from the pallet of the girl she’s tending and goes tight-lipped down the stairs and out onto the porch, wiping her hands on her sarafan.

There are three of them waiting on horseback in the street in their black surcoats and blackened mail, their hard blank faces. There’s a dead man as well, standing slope-shouldered and patient among the horses, his vague gaze fixed on the sky.

One of the huntsmen is the Vigilant himself, Father Vasli, a square-built, square-jawed young man whose eyes have always seemed to Almas a little too small. Everything about him is stiff right angles. Even his frown has corners.

“Sister,” he says, and lays his hand over his heart in greeting. His courtesy is a thin skin of ice over a dark depth. “With your leave, we’ve come to search this place.”

Almas folds her arms across her chest. “Well, you can’t have my leave, Father,” she says, her courtesy equally brittle.

He hadn’t expected that and rears his head back to reassess her. She knows how she must look: uncovered hair a frowzy nest, shapeless clothes stained, eyes sunk with exhaustion. She stares him down. Though he looks older—the Sons all look older than their true ages—she knows that the Vigilant of Kharsh is only twenty-eight. Young for his post, the youngest in the oblast.

Lidat comes out quietly onto the porch to stand beside her, shoulder-to-shoulder; Sonam must have gone for her as well. Almas doesn’t glance toward her wife but feels bolstered by her presence, the two of them together forming some stern impasse. She raises her chin and keeps her gaze on the Vigilant.

A season past, neighbors might have come warily out onto their own porches to witness the commotion. There are hardly any neighbors left now, and this hardly counts as commotion any longer.

How different three months make the world.

“Sister, we’re at war,” Father Vasli tells her, as though Almas doesn’t know that, as though it doesn’t pass bloodily through her door every day. “It’s come to our attention that you harbor enemies of Maret’s Ordinary here.”

“It’s a clinic, Father,” Lidat answers, politer and more patient than Almas is ready to be. “We harbor the injured.”

It isn’t properly a clinic. Their old clinic, the true one, was burned to posts weeks ago with the rest of their neighborhood, so they’ve shifted their practice to an abandoned house within the safety of the inner ring-wall, in the shadow of the Watchtower: Kharsh’s last circle of refuge against both daytime raiders and nighttime horrors.

One of the horses sidles in the pitted street. From beyond the wall in the rubble of the old city comes a sudden clatter of foreign weapons and rough shouting, a wafting stink of smoke and blackpowder.

It ends as abruptly as it began. None of the three huntsmen has reacted to it. The dead man continues to gaze absently at the sky.

They are all, Almas thinks, as tired as she is.

She can’t hate these men—these boys—here; can’t sustain the flame of anger for them. They’re all so young, behind their weathered faces, not one of them older than their baby Vigilant, and all of them doomed. Death might come for them soonest in the mask of this ugly little border war, but even the ones who don’t fall in this season and this place will be dead in a handful of years. The Sons of Maret are raised for martyrdom.

She can’t hate them, but the sheer waste of it never ceases to gall her, to chafe her every physician’s instinct.

“Are they kin of the Ordinary?” the Vigilant asks. He already knows the answer, else he wouldn’t be here.

“They’re children, is what they are,” Almas says.

“Even so, sister. Even the wastelanders’ children can be a danger.”

“Yes,” she snaps, “dangerous children like yourselves.”

Lidat intervenes. “We’re physicians, Father. It makes no matter to us who a person is. We help the hurt, regardless.”

“Even to aid the enemies of your own people?”

Almas scrubs at her brow. “Do you think we bear love for the men who’ve destroyed our homes and lives? Of course not. But tell me why we shouldn’t number you and yours among them.”

“Almas,” Lidat warns.

Almas knows the tone and knows Lidat is correct. Little as she likes it, she isn’t going to argue with her wife in front of these boys, and arguing with the boys themselves will do her no more good. She turns on her heel and stalks back into the house. Her temper wants to bang the door; her concern for her patients’ rest won’t allow it.

She’s kneeling at the pallet of one of the burned boys, swabbing his scarlet-blistered skin with cold tea and the last of the honey, when Lidat returns. Almas has been stiff with queasy dread, expecting the heavy tread of men’s boots, but she only hears her wife come alone into the room behind her to move among mostly-empty cupboards.

“Out of honey,” Almas says, when Lidat says nothing. “And no more fat for liniment.”

“Irinat says the stored rice is going to weevils. Not sure what we’ll be feeding them, soon enough.” Lidat comes to set a roll of rough linen beside Almas on the floor. “He’s been replaced, Father Vasli has. No doubt he only wanted to strut while he still could.”

“Replaced?” Almas’s hands still at her work.

“Yes.” Lidat settles beside her. “The new one should be safely within the wall before sundown. Vasli warned me that we’ll have him to contend with in less than a day, and commends us to his good graces.” She hugs her knees.

“And that was all?” Almas knits her brow.

Lidat presses her lips together. “It was a threat, I think. The new one they’ve sent is the Wolf.”

Almas fumbles, tipping the bowl of tea. She catches it upright again but not in time, and a dark pool spreads. Almas curses the waste as Lidat rises wordlessly to her feet and returns with a rag to mop it up.

When all is dry and tidy again and Almas has finished plastering strips of linen across the boy’s burns, she and Lidat go down together to the kitchen. Lidat opens her arms and Almas steps into them, and they hold each other tightly. Almas puts her face in her wife’s hair and breathes in: bergamot and coriander, a smell like sunshine, the smell of home.

Before home became someplace foreign to both of them; before home was the rust-rich stink of blood and the singed sulfurous scent of the steppe raiders’ blackpowder weapons.

A stone of grief lodges in her throat, and she squeezes Lidat tighter. When she lifts her face, her wife’s hair clings like cobweb to her wet cheeks.

“What do they mean by sending that one, do you think?” she asks.

Lidat nestles her head on Almas’s shoulder. “To put a hard end to it, I’d guess. You’d think they’d have done it sooner, honestly.”

The new patients they’ve been tending these last days, the injured wastelanders, had been a caravan of refugees. Mostly children—near two dozen of them—and only three adult women, and no men; all of their men and most of their women were dead, trampled into the burned scar of land where the steppe nomads’ Choyi trade-camp had been.

They’d come straggling downriver away from blood-blackened earth and singed air that had once smelled of home, aiming for the shelter of another of the grassland camps. And it was their bitter, unblessed fortune that they’d limped right into the ugly storm that had once been the Ordinary border-settlement of Kharsh.

It was one of their own people’s devices that caught them: a buried blackpowder trap. The raiders had no doubt laid it for a scouting party of the Sons, but its effect was indiscriminate. Almas and Lidat were only able to collect seven little broken bodies from what remained, and one of those died whimpering the first night.

Almas’s heart has been breaking slowly for months: a numbing crush rather than a clean shatter. It has been ground so fine by now that sometimes she thinks she’ll suffocate under the weight of sand in her chest where her heart used to be.

And now the Sons will come to finish the deaths that the wastelanders started. It’s the whole tale of this war. How wretchedly fitting that it should be the Wolf, the man who razed Choyi and drove these children from their home, who will come to drag them from Almas’s.

“Do you think?” Lidat asks, and for a moment Almas isn’t sure whether she’s given voice to her own thoughts, whether Lidat is answering her. But no, Lidat only wants Almas to confirm what she herself had said.

“That he’s meant to put an end to it? I’d assume so.”

“Do you think he will?”

Almas wants to reassure, to offer words of wine and honey. But she can’t lie to Lidat, and she’s too tired to lie to herself. “I don’t think it matters. What does an end to it look like, at this point?”

“Almas,” Lidat says. “Almashka.” She draws back to take Almas’s face in her hands and kiss her, salt and sweet, defiant, and the grief that grips Almas’s heart seems to slacken for a moment at the softness.

Sonam doesn’t have to fetch her the following morning. Almas sits back on her heels from changing the dressings on one of the burned boys, and when she lifts her tired gaze from the small, raw body, there is a man there.

He stands just within the doorway, and he must have had to duck his head to get through it; he is the tallest person Almas has ever seen. He wears the black mail and surcoat of the Sons, but he wears them without ornament or emblem save for the three iron rings in his ear that mark his rank. His high black boots are scuffed to dullness. One hand rests on the pommel of the curved sword thrust into his black sash; the graceful dark wing of a lacquered bow rises above his shoulder. His hair is threaded with white, once-black faded to an iron-grey like Almas’s own, and he wears it drawn back in a heavy braid, longer than a woman’s.

Almas has never seen the Wolf before, but she knows him.

He watches her without expression, and his eyes are the most terrible: they too seem faded, the pale nothing-color of a winter afternoon, bizarre in the hard brown face. It’s like being stared at by a ghost.

“You weren’t invited in,” Almas tells him, despite the taste of ash on her tongue. Did Lidat let him in? Where is Lidat?

“The whole of the Ordinary is Maret’s, sister, and I am her Son. I don’t require invitation.” He offers it like explanation, not rebuke.

Almas pushes herself stiffly to her feet and puts her hands on her hips. “Well, the house is mine.”

He doesn’t answer this but continues to watch her with that uncanny translucent gaze.

“What do you want?” she demands.

“I understand that you’re the physician,” he says. “And you’ve stayed. Our kin owe you much. I’ve come to see your clinic and your work.”

“And my patients? To render all my work for naught?”

Again he doesn’t answer; only waits.

“Where is my wife?” Almas asks him, and her voice cracks only a little on the last word.

“In your kitchen with your girl, making tea for my brothers. She wanted to fetch you herself, but I told her I could manage.”

When he smiles, Almas can see that one of his front teeth is broken crookedly, leaving a triangular gap. It lends the expression an absurd, childish quality. She doesn’t know whether he means to soothe her or to mock her.

“So. These are your latest patients?” he asks, and comes two steps farther into the room.

Almas steps swiftly to intercept him, planting herself between him and the boys on their pallets. She puts one hand into the pocket of her sarafan, touches the reassuring cold edge of the little blade she keeps there. “You can’t have them.”

He cants his head at her, an earnest line between his brows. “And I would want them for why?”

Does he not know who they are? Did Father Vasli not mention? No, he must know it; even if Vasli hadn’t said, one of the dead would have whispered it in his ear. Still, she balks at giving them away herself, so all she says is, “The other one threatened them, yesterday.”

There’s a flicker behind the pale eyes like a change in the weather, and then it’s gone; only a passing cloud. He’s quiet longer than Almas likes, but at last he says, “I was sent here to end a fight, not to find more of them. Brother Vasli saw his duty differently, perhaps.” It is the same indifferent, mild courtesy, but Almas catches the insult in it: Brother Vasli, not Father. She wonders how cold a cut that is within their order.

She doesn’t let go of the knife in her pocket. “Swear to me that you won’t harm them.”

He assesses her in silence. Again it goes on so long that Almas nearly loses her nerve and speaks again just to fill it, but then the Wolf says, “I do not swear, save to God and my brothers, sister. But I have no quarrel with you, nor with these children.”

The gentle way he says children loosens Almas’s grip on her secret knife, but she doesn’t let it go. “No? And what was your quarrel with Choyi?”

Nothing in his stance or manner changes. “The quarrel with Choyi wasn’t mine either. I was only charged with ending it.”

“Is that your picture of peace, then? What you did there? Is that what Kharsh should dream of?”

“I don’t make the peace,” he tells her. “I only end the fight. The mending, God entrusts to others. I am no physician, sister.” He shows her a ghost of that gap-toothed smile, and Almas thinks the shadow that dims it now is something close to sadness.

“We could see the smoke for two days,” she tells him.

“As could the clans, I pray.” Neither hard nor boastful; tired, Almas thinks. He sounds tired too.

She lets go of the knife and takes her hand from her pocket, wipes her palm on her sarafan. “What a cruel hope, when people die to write your messages.”

“As God wills,” is his reply. Only when Almas has turned her back on him does he add, dryly, “It would have been a shame, anyway, to chip your little knife against my mail, ai?”

She stiffens and feels herself flush to the roots of her hair, but the man only moves quietly around her, to the pallet of the boy she was tending, and crouches down as if beside a skittish animal.

“Nasty work,” he says at last. “Blackpowder?”

“Yes. A trap.” She hesitates, then folds her arms and goes to stand at his shoulder. “They drove a caravan straight across it. The ones that survived were lucky to be near the back of the thing. Even so, I’ve got one with half a leg gone.”

He reaches out to touch the boy’s sheened brow. Almas draws breath to snap at him, but his hand lies lightly and the child doesn’t stir beneath it. “A new tactic of Tsomo’s qazaqi. One of my brothers lost six of his host to one, outside of Akhor.” His voice has a blade’s edge.

Almas wants to say that it’s barbaric, but then so is the whole of it; it would be like observing that a cupful dipped from the sea is salt. And this man has been the author of barbarisms as well, so how should it matter to him? So all she says is, “I’m sorry.” That much is true.

He rises to his feet again and Almas steps back. “You will make a list, sister,” he tells her, and for a moment her gut clenches like a fist, but he goes on: “What supplies you require for your practice, what more you can use. We’ll see you furnished from the Watch’s stores as best we can for now, and when the fighting’s broken and the roads open you’ll get the rest.”

Almas feels a weight of words trapped beneath the sand in her chest. She’s always thought it a strange expression of gratitude to say I don’t know what to say, but now she doesn’t. She isn’t even entirely sure it’s gratitude. “I—”

The Wolf nods once at her expression. “Come. Let’s go down to your wife and my brothers, ai? It was a long road; a moment for tea will be pleasant.”

He is as good as his word: the first load arrives in the late afternoon, borne from the Watchtower’s long shadow by a surly red mule. The young brother who led the animal carries the crates one at a time up to the porch in silence.

When he’s finished unloading the mule, he makes a somber salute to Almas. “Our Father sends his respect, and says to keep well clear of the wall after dark, grandmother. He advises there may be noise.”

It has been a season of noise; Almas doesn’t point this out. Nor does she ask why she should keep clear of the wall.   The boy wouldn’t tell her—if he even knows it himself—and anyway it likely means another deployment of the Watch’s dead. Almas has no desire to watch the tame dead feed. And then belatedly she hears the words after dark and they freeze her, crackling beneath her skin. She stares, uneasy.

No one living goes abroad at night, not even when the world’s at peace. Night is the reason for walls and Watchtowers, the reason the Sons of Maret are made and raised as they are, the reason the dead are tamed. Night is when the devils come.

And they’ve come to Kharsh in numbers; the monsters feed well in the stinking charnel ground. At night the wastelanders withdraw to the safety of their camps and bright ward-lines, the Sons within their walls, and the devils claim the field. Lately they prowl so close to the wall that Almas hears the snarls and gibbering of the damned in her snatched and restless dreams.

The tame dead are the Watch’s surest weapon against devils and raiders both, but there can’t be more than a handful of them left. And when they’re spent, what then?

When the youth and his mule have gone back up the street, Almas drags the crates into the hall of the house and pries them open. Packed in the sweetly musty rice straw within, she finds honey and beeswax and wool fat, willow bark and vinegar and strong clear liquor, peony root and licorice and salvia. There are also, unasked-for, a sack of clean, carded lambswool, another of millet, a sticky, paper-wrapped brick of dried apricots, and a little jar of poppy tears.

Lidat comes from the front room, Sonam trotting at her heels. She looks worn-through, faded at the edges. Almas can hear a child weeping in the room she’s just left.

She halts when she sees the bounty at Almas’s feet and slips a flyaway strand of hair behind her ear. “Already?”

“Ai. Sonam, can you help put away?”

The girl nods and slips out from behind Lidat’s skirts. She, too, looks drained, a dull-eyed wisp, and Almas’s heart of sand threatens to choke her breath again. Ten years ago, when Sonam’s mother had died in childbed and her father had turned his back on her—an ill-luck child, a red-cord child—Almas and Lidat had agreed it would be kindness to keep her. But what kindness raises a child in a place like this? Gives a child this work?

She almost corrects herself and sends the girl to play in the garden instead; then she recalls there is no more garden, and the words turn to ash in her mouth. As Sonam passes, Almas stops her to crouch and hug her fiercely. Sonam leans against her with a soundless sigh. The child is skinny as a hare. “There are apricots, Sonashka,” Almas tells her softly. “He sent apricots. Have some, after you put away.”

When she rises again, Lidat’s eyes are gleaming. To divert the moment, Almas says lamely, “The Father advises to keep well away from the wall tonight.”

“Oh, well, my evening’s plan ruined,” Lidat scoffs gently. Then she does the same arithmetic Almas had and puts fingertips to the taut line of her mouth. “He’s sending the soulless out in the dark?”

It seems a mad gamble on the Wolf’s part to commit the Watch’s remaining dead to a night sortie against devils and raiders both, stripping Kharsh of their protection, but Almas supposes he’s tallied his risks. The wastelanders will never expect a night attack, and if any of the Watch’s dead do somehow make it across the devils’ carrion grounds without their huntsmen to keep them leashed, ward-lines won’t protect the wastelanders tonight. The wards will hold devils at bay, but they won’t keep out the dead.

It feels breathtakingly unfair to break such a primal custom as that of shelter against the night. But fair is a child’s word, and Almas suspects anyway that the Wolf reads from a different book of rules than other people.

“Well,” she says. “At least it might be over soon.”

What a cold and weary thought.  

What strikes Almas first that night isn’t the noise, it’s the stillness: the held breath. If the devils prowl close, they do it in silence. If the Sons’ tame dead advance on the enemy lines, they do it unremarked.

It isn’t until the noise begins that she realizes exactly what the Wolf has done.

Even then, she doesn’t understand right away. The first devil’s wavering hunting-cry seems nearer than she’d expected, lifting the hairs on her neck, but the ones that answer it are farther. She hears a sudden distant clatter of weapons, the shouts of disordered men. But above these rises a snatch of hymn, a Marethi war-song—the angel with his fiery sword— a swift drumbeat of hooves racing toward the wall, and then all is drowned beneath the ragged and terrified screams of men, the triumphant shrieking of devils.

The living Sons rode with their dead. They’ve shattered the wastelanders’ wards and left them open to the night.

It’s hard to bear the whole weight of comprehending such cruelty. It settles like a final, suffocating stone on the fallow sand of her heart.

She and Lidat move the injured who can be moved into the same room as the ones who can’t, and pull their own and Sonam’s pallets in as well. They take turns holding Sonam and singing over the sounds from outside until both their voices are rusted through.

She can’t read the night’s verdict in the empty morning streets. A few molting hens scratch and bluster. The Watchtower wears the sunrise across its shoulders like a victor’s banner, but Almas doesn’t believe in omens. Both the tower and the ruins and fields beyond the wall are quiet. The chilly air smells sour.

After they’ve fed their charges, Almas puts on her boots and her old sheepskin jacket, and ties a kerchief over her hair. “I won’t be long.”

Lidat nods, her mouth pressed pale.

The Watch gate stands open and no guard waits to bar her entry, so Almas stalks through it unchecked. She’s never been within the Watch itself before and might have been curious at one point. Now she notes without surprise how shabbily ordinary a place it is. Not even dawn’s kind light flatters the dusty yard and ramshackle outbuildings slumped around the bleak tower’s foot. It smells like horseshit and rust and men’s sweat.

The Wolf is there, standing in the yard at the center of a knot of men. His arms are folded, head bent to listen to two of the others arguing. He glances up at Almas’ approach.

His iron braid is fraying, his black surcoat dusty and mottled with blacker stains, the lines on his face drawn deeper by weariness. The colorless eyes assess Almas impassively. “Sister,” he says, and the men around him fall silent and turn to stare. The one at his right shoulder is dead and regards Almas with a strangely identical blandness. She lets her gaze skip away from that one.

“Father. A word?”

His stare bores through her. At last he nods, and gestures courteously to one side. “This way.”

She waits until they’ve walked out of earshot of the living before she speaks. “You rode on them at night. Broke their ward-lines, to lead devils down on them.”

He nods politely, hands clasped behind his back.

“They were people.” Her voice is still rusty, and outrage makes it shrill.

He glances sidelong at her. “So are you and yours.”

“You didn’t do this for me and mine,” Almas tells him, biting the words off hard-edged. “None of us would ever have asked such a thing.”

“No,” he agrees. “But I was charged to provide what Kharsh needed, not what it asked. The wastelanders are broken; the fight here is done.”

“At what cost? Their souls?”

“As God wills. Their souls aren’t my concern or yours.”

“Don’t you dare tell me my concerns.” The God Almas wants to believe in would never have willed such a thing, so many souls tainted and lost; would never have allowed the use of the damned against any of His creations.

He actually laughs at her: a dry and tired sound. He stops walking, so Almas stops with him. “Sister, I do my duty so that others can do theirs. Perhaps theirs is nobler and cleaner work—I don’t begrudge them that. But someone has to burn the field before it can be planted, ai?” He spreads his hands. “As I said—God leaves the mending to others. I have faith that He chooses His instruments well, each to her proper task, and I thank God for those who feel their duty as keenly as I do mine.”

She squares her shoulders, half-smothered with rage. “Are you trying to flatter me?”

He laughs again. “You overestimate both my courtesy and my courage, Almas Shah. Your principles are admirable, I’m sure. I pray the work I do allows you to keep them.”

She lets her gaze slide away. The brethren he left gathered behind them await his return. They’re wan and worn-looking, somber boys in battered armor; one lean, dark youth appears half-asleep on his feet and is supported against the shoulder of another. In a nearby corral, a limping man tends to a mare with an ugly, seeping gash in her shoulder. The yard seems unnaturally empty otherwise.

“How many did you lose?” she asks.

“Enough.”

She resists the pull of sympathy. “And I suppose you don’t begrudge the cost, either?”

He’s silent for a long time. Almas hears a hoarse voice raised in prayer somewhere nearby. “I’m not sure what you take me for,” he says eventually. “I grieve them, every one. But our souls are secured to Maret for just such a purpose. My brothers knew their duty, too, and what use is sentiment to them now?”

Almas resists a venomous urge to spit. He’s still watching her in that level fashion.

“If that’s all you came for, sister,” he tells her with cool courtesy, “I have work yet to do.”

Almas doesn’t realize until he turns away from her that at least one of the stains he wears is his own blood; she hadn’t noted the wrapping of bandages around his side at first because they’ve soaked so dark as to blend with his black clothing and armor in the ruddy early light.

“Father,” she calls after him. He turns back.

You have injured men here, Almas meant to say. You’re injured. Do you need a physician’s help? Once it would have been instinctual, unhesitating—but now in the sand of her chest, the words wither. She won’t lend her skill to this. At last she only shakes her head.

His smile is a curved blade. He turns away again.

As Almas approaches the gate, a black-armored brother on horseback clatters through it. His mare is blown and lathered. The animal halts, head hanging and legs planted square, and the Son half-tumbles from her back. “Father!” he calls; unnecessarily, for the men at the yard’s center are fixed on him already. “Tsomo Bess begs to treat!”

Almas pauses.

The Wolf steps out again from the group. “Treat? On what grounds? His host is shattered—what more will talk profit us?”

The rider stoops, hands on knees, to catch his breath. “Ai. But he says—‘all border hostilities.’ He, his survivors—” The rider shakes his head and points. “Waiting,” he manages.

The Wolf folds his arms. “I am not authorized,” he observes to the yard in general, “to negotiate a general peace with the clans on the Citadel’s behalf.” But the colorless gaze finds Almas and lingers on her for a long moment. She lifts her chin and holds his look steadily.

He steps back. “Matei,” he says, and the dead man comes diffidently forward. The Wolf turns his back on Almas, bends his head to the dead man’s, and begins to confer with him low-voiced.

Almas stuffs her hands into the pockets of her jacket and turns away. There’s a catch in her throat like the promise of rain.

The huddled town has begun to stir. Almas meets Irinat and her grown son Hamash in the street standing dazed like people just woken from a long, unexpected sleep. “The fighting’s done,” she tells them. “He’s broken them.” Irinat’s expression melts, the bound-up grief and fear of the last months flooded out by sick relief. She turns and presses her face into her son’s shoulder, shivering in her threadbare shawl, and he wraps his arms around her and nods at Almas.

More people have emerged into the dusty hollow among the houses that used to hold the afternoon market. The sun hasn’t risen high enough above the tiled roofs to illuminate them, and they mill and mutter in the gray half-light. “Doctor!” calls Vikhis, the smith, and folds her broad forearms across her leather apron. “Were you at the Watch?”

“I was,” Almas says. “The Father says the fighting’s over.”

Vikhis nods uneasily and makes a warding sign; the whole town heard the night’s horror. “Well. We’re blessed in that, at least.”

She’s nearly at her own porch—she can see Lidat waiting ahead, hands knotted pale-knuckled in the worn embroidery of her skirts—when she hears horses behind her and turns back. A group of Sons is riding out: a few of the tired youths from the yard, and the dead man. The Wolf is there too, though he lingers a moment at the gate to have a word with someone within before urging his horse after the others. A white cloth is tied conspicuously around the hilt of his sword.

Lidat comes down into the street and takes her hand. “Where are they going?”

Almas shrugs wearily. “Tsomo himself and a handful of his men remain. They want to talk a general peace.”

Lidat stares. “With him?

“I suppose.” Almas feels hollowed to lightness, as if all the exhaustion of the last weeks has lifted and left her empty. She thinks she ought to feel glad right now, but all she contains is dust and airy space, like the husk of a burned-out house. “They destroyed his host. Now he wants to bargain on behalf of the rest of the border.”

Lidat laughs humorlessly. “After what they did to him and his last night, he trusts they’ll ride out there to treat and not to assassinate him? That they’ll abide by any custom?”

Almas remembers the pale eyes fixed on her. “I don’t know,” she admits. “I think they will, though. I think they mean to.”

Lidat searches her face and then squeezes her hand. Her tone turns brisk. “I’ve changed Elam’s dressings; his fever’s broken and he seems to be healing clean. Let me make you tea.”

“Thank you.” Almas allows her wife to lead her onto the porch and into the house.

They’re still standing at the kitchen hearth when they hear the blast.

The Watch is an antlike swarm when Almas again reaches the gate. Her side aches from running and she puts out a hand to brace herself on cold stone. Lidat is breathless at her heels.

“What happened?” Almas demands of the first brother to cross her path. He shakes his head roughly at her and pushes past. “What happened?” Almas asks the next, and then recognizes him: it’s the one that had leaned half-asleep on his fellow this morning. He isn’t one she’s seen in the settlement before, so likely one of the Wolf’s own host. His arm is bound in a sling now and he wears an unwholesome greenish pallor beneath his dark skin.

“The field was mined,” he tells her hoarsely. “They mined the field. God—” He bites off whatever bitter oath was on his breath and turns away, but Almas won’t let him go. She steps in and seizes his good arm.

“Is there fresh fighting?”

“No,” he says. “That was—they stayed to see the trap sprung, and rode off. Some of ours are going in pursuit, but—”

Lidat exhales behind her and murmurs something.

“And the men in the Watch party?”

“I don’t know yet,” the brother says. He starts shaking his head and then seems unable to stop. “My Father—our Father, that is—they’ve gone out to see, but—”

Almas has already shrugged out of her jacket and is rolling her sleeves. “Sit,” she directs him. “You’re bleeding, you shouldn’t be afoot.”

There are few enough of the morning’s wounded to tend. She and Lidat are already done with their brisk, sure work by the time two grim-faced huntsmen lead a pair of horses back through the gate. The animals bear a kind of makeshift sling between them. It contains the ruins of two men.

Almas rises from her exhaustion on the tower steps and goes to meet the brothers. They are tired enough or shocked enough not to seem startled by her.

“All that was worth collecting,” the one on the right tells her. He’s a big youth, broad as a bear, and his beardless face is streaked with blood and rage or grief. “Rest were just mess.”

The two in the sling are little better than mess. The one on the right has died in transport, or he was already dead when they collected him; either way, it was a mercy. The body on the left nearly defies identification: his face is half-flayed, the jaw dislocated, and his right hip and leg are twisted at a cruel angle, splintered bone jutting through torn flesh in the incongruous midmorning sunshine. But Almas knows the long, stained braid of his hair.

When she bends over him, she can hear that he still breathes, in a thin unpleasant rasp. His pulse is a faint and listless flutter under her thumb.

I don’t make the peace, he’d said to her. God leaves the mending to others.

An author of brutality: the Choyi massacre, the nighttime descent of devils. For all she knows, he might have meant to assassinate the steppe raiders’ captain under the guise of peace-talk.

But she recalls also a light hand on a child’s forehead, a packet of apricots. The way the colorless gaze had considered her in the early light.

She thinks of words she could have spoken then but hadn’t, of a dark stain over his ribs, the wounded men waiting behind him. She had thought then that to offer help would make her complicit, but now she thinks it could have been a kind of repudiation. She thinks of burning fields, of smoke on the horizon, of the ones who walk away from such places and the ones who stay to tend them. A little green shoot like shame, like fury, like something else takes root in her fallow heart.

Almas straightens. “I need a clean room, a clean bed. Good light. If you haven’t got those here, we’ll take him to our clinic; we’re equipped there anyway.”

“Sister,” the bearlike boy says. “We ought to lay him out for rites.”

“No,” Almas says. Her physician’s mind sees already what can be done, what has to be done: joints carefully re-fit, the leg wound opened and debrided.

“He goes to God’s host,” the boy holding the other horse tells her.

“No,” Almas says. “Some of us have hope yet of this world.” The Prophet Maret may raise her Sons for martyrdom, but Almas doesn’t have to abide the waste.

Lidat moves wordlessly to her side, and they stand shoulder-to-shoulder.

“Sister,” the boy says. “Your kind concern is—”

Almas draws herself up to her full height and scrubs at her brow with the heel of one hand. Blood is caked in brown crescents beneath her nails. She takes a deep breath, and finds it comes easily despite the smell in the air. “It isn’t kind concern. It’s what we do. Your Father claimed to understand duty. This is ours: we help the hurt, regardless. What they need, not what they ask.”

Not because of, but in spite of. The rain will fall on every burned field; every seed will bloom again.

“If God wants your Father now,” she says, “then let Him take him from my hands. But God chooses His instruments well, and He put us here, did He not?” She stands her ground. “Trust that I know my duty at least as well as your Father knows his. ”

The two Sons regard her uncertainly. Only boys, Almas thinks. Only lost boys.

“Olek,” says a voice behind Almas. It’s the one with his arm in a sling, the Wolf’s own. “Do as she directs.”

The bearlike boy nods dumbly. He sets his bewildered gaze on Almas and waits for her command.

“So,” she says, draws another deep breath and nods once. “Follow me, then.”


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Wren Wallis lives in eastern Massachusetts with her husband and daughter. She is a 2016 graduate of the Viable Paradise workshop, and her short fiction has appeared previously in Beneath Ceaseless Skies as well as in Daily Science Fiction, Lackington's, and the Alliteration Ink anthology No Shit, There I Was. She can be found on Twitter as @invisibleinkie and online at wrenwallis.com.

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