A grim silence settled over the recruits after that welcome. When another soldier came to lead them to the armory, they followed quietly, their heads lowered like those of condemned men marching to the gallows.
I rose to go with them, but the scarred soldier waved me down. After the others had gone, and the banners on the walls had stopped flapping in their wake, he leaned back, watching me. "Do you know why they have me greet the new ones?"
"I presume because you can read but can't fight," I said, looking pointedly at the empty sleeve pinned over his shoulder.
The soldier nodded, unoffended by my bluntness. "That's part. The other part's that I look so pretty." He traced his thumb along one ruined cheek, following its acid-eaten sag. His empty eye socket stared at me, a wet red pit. "Shocks 'em. Terrifies 'em. That's good. They need to know what'll happen if they get lazy or drop their guard.
"Every now and then, though... every now and then, we get one who doesn't flinch. One who's seen worse. Dealt worse, maybe." He fixed his good eye on me again. "Like you. Who were you before?"
"No one," I said. My throat felt tight and raspy.
He snorted. "I lost an eye and an arm, not my brain. Don't want to tell me, fine. But you're no novice to command, any idiot can see that. That bedraggled bunch of cast-offs you brought me was already yours, even though you didn't know half their names. Men want to follow you. That's good. We'll use it."
That I could bear. I hadn't come to be questioned, but I had come to serve. "What would you have of me?"
"You'll lead a company up to Valas's Gift tomorrow. I'll give you some new recruits, but most will be Mendevians. They know the lay of the land."
"They'll follow me?"
The soldier's scars twitched as he tried to raise a long-gone eyebrow. The other side of his face stayed immobile, a mask of dead flesh. "They're used to following new blood. Sudden changes of command aren't exactly a novelty around the Worldwound."
"Fair enough. What's in Valas's Gift?"
"That's what you'll be finding out. We don't know. The wardstone nearest the village has been damaged, according to our scryers, but we don't know exactly how. It's bad enough that the Worldwound's taint is interfering with their spells, though, and that means it's bad enough for us to send a scouting party."
I smiled sourly. It was just like every assignment I'd ever been given back in Cheliax: uncertain troops, scant information, and the blithe certainty of my commanding officers that I'd solve the problem or die trying.
Except Iomedae was no longer with me, and that changed everything.
"Who are you?" I asked the scarred man, to distract myself from the fatigue of failure. "You're no simple soldier yourself. Not if you're giving orders so easily."
"We're all soldiers here," he said. "But, as it happens, my name is Colum Norsellen. First Adjutant to General Dyre. Now, it's getting late and you don't want to be a stranger abroad in Kenabres after dark. Best rejoin the others. Unless, of course, you'd care to tell me about that winged shield you're carrying."
"No," I said.
∗ ∗ ∗
Ten of us went to Valas's Gift: six Mendevians, the Kellid woman from the previous night, Jelani, Persil, and myself. I was surprised that Colum assigned Persil to the scouting company, since the youth scarcely knew how to set up a tent, but the adjutant insisted it was no mistake.
"He'll learn by doing," Colum said. "You're going out to scout, not fight. You can keep him safe."
I thought it more likely that the boy would end up as deadweight, if not simply dead, but he was so bright-eyed at the prospect of adventure that I hadn't the heart to say so.
We traveled on foot; the weather was too harsh for horses, and Kenabres had none to spare. Our only beast of burden was the shaggy brown mule carrying our supplies. We said a last prayer with the priest from the walls, swearing our crusaders' oaths and accepting Iomedae's blessing from his palsied hands. Then the gates closed.
That morning was beautiful. There was no snow in the air, only the glassy brightness of new winter. The sun spilled gold over the wardstones, lighting the poisoned sky so that, for a while, I could almost believe that the red clouds were stained only by the sunrise.
But as the day wore on, the illusory promise of dawn faded back into the churning gloom of the storm over the Worldwound. It seemed all the crueler for the change. After that I turned my eyes from the sky and only watched the road.
Three days later we reached Valas's Gift. Fields of frost-kissed stubble ringed its walls, indicating a richer harvest than I would have thought this frigid land could give. I even saw small orchards—stunted by the wind, and bare-branched on winter's eve, but orchards nonetheless.
One of the Mendevians, a cheerful young priest named Adrun, caught me marveling and laughed. "It's blessed soil."
He swept a mittened hand out. "It's Valas's blessing that lets anything worth harvesting grow here. Surprised you don't know the story. With that shield, I had you figured for a paladin myself."
"I'm not a paladin." It sounded less bitter than it felt.
"Suppose that's no surprise. We're dreadful short on holiness here. Valas was one of the old breed, and one of the last. He fought in the Second Crusade, the heroes who beat back the Worldwound's demons long enough for casters to build the wardstones that shield us now. They hurt him viciously, but Valas didn't fall until the wardstones were safe. By then he was dying. His squire pulled him back to this little village, where some kind soul gave him water to ease his last moments. In gratitude, Valas blessed the village spring as he died.
"That spring runs red as blood now. It looks frightful, but it keeps this village alive. Fields watered from it are more fertile than they've any right to be. Wounds washed in it don't sicken. The water loses its magic if you try to carry it off, but even so it's precious. Valas's Gift helps put bread on every table in Kenabres."
I nodded, squinting at the village through the lowering dusk.
Valas's Gift looked strangely sunken behind its hard-packed walls. As we drew nearer, I understood why. Most of its sod-roofed homes and granaries slanted into the earth, burying themselves for warmth and to escape the wind. A pall of peat smoke lingered in the dips between them, mingling with the same white incense that flowed from the walls of Kenabres.
Sheep wandered among the buildings, cropping at the withered grass that clung to the rooftop sod. Slatted pens held woolly, dark-faced pigs twice the size of any I'd seen before. We saw no people, however, until we were almost to the gates. Then a lone man scurried out to greet us, his breath puffing white around his shaved head.
He was not an impressive figure, despite the wooden symbol of Iomedae that bounced on his chest. His eyes bulged, and his nose and mouth drooped downward, accentuating the weakness of his chin. Although he wore an ascetic's tonsure, he had not kept it clean; stubble flecked his scalp. Blinking at us, he resembled a surprised and irresolute tadpole.
I thought he looked harmless, if foolish. My companions did not. The Mendevians drew back as if confronted by a spitting cobra; the Kellid woman growled.
"What's wrong?" I asked Adrun.
"He's one of Hulrun's," came the muttered answer. "Look at his symbol."
It was Iomedae's radiant sword... but different from the one I'd worn as her champion. Painted flames licked at the blade's tip, evoking a fresh-lit pyre around a stake.
The village priest's chasuble was unusual as well. Instead of a golden border about the edges, as most of Iomedae's faithful preferred, his was trimmed in fiery orange.
He's a Burner, I thought, so startled that I nearly blurted it aloud. I had heard of the Burners, of course—all Iomedaeans had, usually in tones of stark disapproval—but I had never expected to meet one, even though I knew full well that Kenabres was the center of their heresy.
Following the teachings of Elder Prelate Hulrun, the Burners made it their mission to extirpate any hint of demonic taint, usually by burning the accused at the stake. (Should the victim turn out to actually be a demon, as evidenced by its resistance to flame, additional methods were employed.) I envied their certainty at times, even as I wondered whether such fanaticism could ever truly serve Iomedae's principles. Rumor had it that they were none too scrupulous about verifying accusations of demon-worship, nor about using torture to wrest the truths they wanted to hear from the mouths of the condemned.
They called themselves Inquisitors. Everyone else knew them as Burners. In Cheliax, they were considered heretics and a disgrace to the Inheritor's name. Here, however, they held considerable power. It was because of the Burners that Kenabres had no cats and was filled with rat-traps. The people weren't starving, as I had first assumed. The Burners, claiming demons would spy on them through the eyes of verminous familiars, had killed all the animals they could catch.
They'd kill people just as readily, given provocation.
"What—who are you?" The priest glanced from each of us to the next, rubbing his holy symbol. "What brings you here?"
"My name is Ederras," I said. "I have come on General Dyre's orders to investigate your wardstone. We heard it might be failing."
The priest nodded vigorously. "It is so. The Worldwound's chaos has crept into Valas's Gift. Many of our people have already given in to the demons' lies. They must be purified by flame."
"Naturally," Jelani muttered. "It's always about the burning, isn't it?" The priest, thankfully, didn't hear.
"I will pass judgment on them, not you," I said, drawing on all my Chelish hauteur. If I had still been in Iomedae's graces, I would have outranked this village priest; as it was, I had no real authority over him. I didn't know whether General Dyre held rank over Hulrun, either. If not, I had no right to interfere with the Burner's justice.
But the bluff, and the nine well-armed soldiers behind me, seemed to work. The priest stepped back, clutching at his symbol. "Of course, my lord. I would never stand in the way of the law. Never. But you will see, they are tainted. They have lain with demons and given up their souls, and there is no question what must be done with them. They must go to the flames."
Coming Next Week: Hard choices and cold comfort in Chapter Three of Liane Merciel's "Certainty."
Liane Merciel is the author of The River Kings' Road: A Novel of Ithelas, available now from Gallery. For more information on her writing, visit lianemerciel.com.
Art by KyuShik Shin.