If Prince Daniel had been a thriving child I wonder if it would have been possible to betroth him young to another kingdom’s royal line, to secure both King Matthew’s heir and our own country. To our North lay a distant land under a ruler called King Saahr, and on occasion we heard such news of him that we envied the strength and size of his armies, and we worried. If an alliance to a child of Saahr could have been forged in Prince Daniel’s name, some of our concerns could have been lightened. Or would it have all come to another kind of grief? Would an alliance only be an excuse for conquest by subtler means as King Saahr betrayed and possessed us from within?
“And what difference would it make?” Cascada asked us in a whisper as we stood guard over the keystones of the gates one night in winter. “How different are they from us in flesh and bone?”
“We cannot know,” Mell said sane and soft. “We only know that they are many in number and good in war, proud of their warriors, of which few if any are women like us.”
“They allow women in war,” Cascada said.
“Once they did. No longer. Unlike us, they have an excess of men, and they have decided men are expendable. I have heard that the place of women changes now in that land. They say all women have grown weak and need protectiion.”
We fell silent and I took another round of the walkway, listening and watching for any unnatural sound or movement in the Arena. We’d seen no trouble on a night watch for months, and that made me more edgy than if we had. I particularly listened for any sign upon the slight wind that blew, but nothing came to me.
For several generations now, we bred few males among our children. I wondered if the custom of our blackened faces came from early times when women first made a choice to be warriors. Cascada’s skin is very dark by nature, darker than polished walnut wood, but she still paints her face before duty. It’s harder to read sex or expression in a face well-painted, and we believe we are more fearsome as a cryptic foe.
In my day all girls at the age of ten made a decision to serve in the City or upon the Wall. Some changed their minds as time passed or as they became aware of the price training exacted. Of my recruits before their oathing, despite theory and enthusiasm and the fact that we have only volunteers among us, only about half of those who train can make themselves effectively wound and kill. A number drop from the ranks early, because even when struck in combat they cannot overcome their earlier training as inoffensive human citizens. I do not speak of either sex alone here. This is true of both. It is no insult.
Mell never had trouble striking to kill or to cripple. She had entirely the heart of a warrior. I remembered that when Quillson first came to court Mell, she had looked upon his bent leg and seen only that he was unfit, as if she considered him for the post of a soldier, not a bed warmer and companion and mate. He had seen her look; it was enough, and we had heard and seen nothing of him for several weeks. As I returned to Cascada and Mell, they were speaking of him.
“He is pressed to take a wife,” Mell said matter-of-factly, “by his parent, and she approved his approach to me because she judged I must be bodily fit to be of the Wall, and also blessed by God to be undamaged after these years of service to my oath.”
She had given her oath with the rest of our surviving company only a few years after I had given mine to Thane Gehir. Ten years of service gone, I realized.
“Which God?” I asked, meaning no joke by it.
“Not your nameless Simple God,” she said, “and not Hua the God of Many Faces, but the God of Sacrifice, JeKri, whose followers grow in numbers throughout the city.”
She moved the butt of her spear in the frosty wet leaves between us. “It’s certain Quillson will find another to serve, a woman with more appreciation of his other qualities, who will have grace enough not to stare at his leg.”
If I hadn’t known her so well, I wouldn’t have heard the thread of regret.
“He wasn’t so wonderful to look upon,” Cascada said, “still I have heard no evil of him. I suppose it is hard for us to consider anyone for a mate without trying to judge his qualities as a soldier first.”
So Cascada had picked up on Mell’s regret too. Mell said nothing for a moment. In the night her blackened face showed only the slight movement of her eyes.
“Well, ” she said. “I shall hope he finds a good companion.”
“Do the followers of King Saahr know the same Gods we do?” I asked, my mind returning to the earlier talk as I looked for some way to divert the subject.
“I have heard that they do,” Cascada said, “from the Harpist of the Fortress, Caher. He has traveled and seen many places and different customs. He says that JeKri’s faith grows fastest in the North.”
“I have heard it both ways,” Mell answered, “that the Northerners may even have the same names for the Gods but that the Gods behind the names are different in their essence.”
“If the Gods change faces, and names,” I protested, “there will be no telling of good and bad, and no constancy in honor.”
“Ask the Holder of your First Oath,” Cascada suggested. “If Caher has traveled, it is nothing to the travels of Thane Gehir.”
I kept silent. Cascada moved quietly on her turn down the Wall. By common consent, both Mell and I moved to lean upon the outer barriers of the Wall, overlooking the crumpled blackness of the forest, listening to the persistent wind. My mind gnawed at another problem and I found myself hearing the line of an old song in my mind.
“Yes, it will,” said Mell.
Startled, I looked at her.
“You spoke aloud,” she said, “whether or not you so intended. ‘Will honor be true when the darkness falls, when there is no eye to see‘. That is what you said, as if you quoted a saying or a song.”
“A song. It was in my mind,” I said, disturbed. “I was thinking of the faces of God.”
“And the face of Thane Gehir,” she added, “who travels much, and whose loyalties no man measures.”
We saw Cascada move her arm. We went silent and turning our hearing to the constant wind we heard a faint moaning of wings upon it. I gestured to Cascada. She gave me the flat hand of agreement and Mell assented. I pulled on the signal rope by the bridge and within five minutes we assembled; the first call of a hundred archers.
Night is dark to a householder who steps outside from a firelit room, but not to the archers trained in night fighting. Some ancestral traits breed true, and it is old talk in the barracks that those gifted in night vision have children alike in ability. While it may be true that the Masters of the Wall help the innate abilities to develop, it is not true that we magic the students of war into being able to see like cats in the dark. Learning, possibly breeding, but not magic, make us what we are.
Hardly a word was needed before we knelt and stood in our places, ready in the dark. Datch signaled she saw the attackers oncoming, they moved swift and low over the treetops. I whistled–the first rank of our archers let their black arrows fly. Quiet of night turned hideous, nightscaws yowling and hissing, screams of human voices in pain shrieking hideously in the dim. I whistled again, and the second rank of bowmen fired.
The first two nightscaws clambered onto the Wall, clumsy and noisy, beating down my people with enormous leathery wings, biting with toothless razor jaws while their riders struck down at us with mace and spear. I smelled hot blood, fear, a musty rankness of nightscaws, and ran in towards a darting head. Green gleaming eyes, the shimmer of blood along a gapped beak-like mouth. I stumbled upon the flailing arm of one of my own downed men. I managed a blow, fell to one knee. I struck up again. A pale eye went out above me and the whole great body with its flailing rustling wings lurched back in the blackness. The screech of its pain deafened, I ducked the blow of its wing. The mass of dying monster sprawled off over the edge of the Wall and tumbled, scraping and clawing, down into the Arena below. I heard it cry.
Defenders of the Wall had brought down six or seven of the flying animals upon the Wall itself, dispatching the riders. Some of scaws overrode us though, sweeping past the Wall. I heard a rasping whisper of wings overhead, and strained after the dark uneven shapes as they dived low towards our dim city beyond. Arrows whined, and each nightscaw that had made it over the Wall fell into the streets. The alarms in the street bothered me little, for neither a scaw nor rider would survive such a fall. I looked the other direction, Outside our gates. In the open Arena beyond the Wall I saw the lurching bodies of fallen scaws, perhaps eighteen or so of them, while another dozen lay already still. I sensed a movement in the sky of more scaws, now turning in their flight and heading home. Retreating.
A nightscaw attack depended upon surprise. I assumed the riders always hoped to make a successful landing upon the Wall to hold it while their footmen came up. It had never succeeded yet, and so I am only guessing. Tonight, however, there was a strange new stench upon the air that I did not understand, more foul than any odor of fallen scaws and disemboweled human, indeed a reek of rotten flesh and worse, something with a sweetness to it, growing on this winter night air. I felt terror seize my mind, I fought for control, trying to name the fear, trying to fight down the abject panic. Wrung, I turned and retched savagely, gagging as if in a choking grip as I bent over the edge of the wall.
“Corpsmaster,” Master Pemm exclaimed, “you must be hurt! The attack is over, come lean on me, and I will find you aid.”
“No,” I turned around, biting back the black nausea as I turned to him. “I’m not hurt and this attack is scarce begun. Man, smell the air. Do you know what they have done?”
I seized his arm as he tilted his head in innocent puzzlement.
“Hush your mouth then,” I said. “Take command here and see that all is cleaned up, the stones washed down with water and vinegar, and all put in good order. Keep the youngest from cleaning — let only those over twenty five years of age partake in the task. Set the youngsters to tending weapons or some such thing. Let it be exactly as I have said. Have older troops burn the scaws that fell in the streets and anything they carried, all exactly where they lie with their riders. Get Master Cascada to serve that duty. Also Master Berann. Use the mined fuel on your torches, the black ooze, since it gives the best flame and fastest. Let no scavengers go to the scaws or their riders. Let none of the followers of JeKri touch the dead. Whatever their protest, permit none of them to perform their rites.” I tried to think what else.
“Arrest any scavengers within the City who have touched the downed scaws or their riders. Set them aside with the older soldiers to guard them as prisoners. Again only soldiers over twenty five years. Send them forth in haste. Immediately.
“I expect no attack again this night, Set the youngest soldiers on guard upon the Wall once this place is cleaned. Keep the rest of the unsworn in barracks without leave. Touch nothing Outside the Wall this night. In the morning place the older soldiers to clearing work and the burning of those bodies likewise. I give orders that no scavengers, neither human nor naiman from our city despoil the dead; any that go out and seek to return with spoils have an order of death upon their heads. Kill any who disobey with arrows. Burn them with the scaws. These dead are unclean.”
“How?” he asked. “I do not smell any poison; I do not understand how you can know these things.”
“Do you question…”
He stepped back, and bowed his head at my reproof.
“To your duty,” I said and left him. He was a good man, yet I had realized after my first incaution that the fewer who knew the nature of my fear the better. I went as fast as I could go down the seventy nine steps to the city, on my way passing a word of interdict on the scavengers who I was sure already had assembled with their wicked little knives and sacks by the small exit door to the North side of the great gates.
“Mell, ” I shouted, seeing her on my way, “Come with me, Master Mell.”
She panted alongside me as we half-ran, half-fell down the wide black stair.
“Did you smell the air?” I asked her, “Did you smell it?”
“I smelled a foul thing,” she gasped, “why does it matter?”
I leapt over the last steps and into the street, not quite running. There are always three horses kept at the post by the main stair and I flung myself into the first one’s saddle, while Mell took another. I did not try to answer her question then, for I had no wish to shout my business in the streets of the City.
It is a journey of something over an hour from the Gates to the Fortress in the press of day. Fortunately, at night, few wander the streets, and the little sheds from which pie sellers and trinket vendors chant their goods are stowed away by City Law. So we made good time over the cobbled streets, going as fast as I dared think our horses’ hooves could bear us safely.
On the Street of Fountains I smelled the rancid odor again, and looking over as we crossed, saw a tumbled scaw lying upset and dismantled in the street like a spineless hand fan. A few dark shapes darted around, cupping their hands to guard the light of their candles, tugging at this dead thing. Some had set their candles in dripped wax for a better light. Nearer to us, as I reined in, my mind torn with indecision, I saw a sprawled broken human who had ridden the beast, his limbs already pulled into unnatural shapes doubtless by the hands of scavengers. I could have killed them all in my despair.
“Why do we stop; indeed what is it, Corpsmaster Ti?” Mell called to me. for she had not expected me to pull in for a dead scaw and rider.
“Look at the thing by his head,” I said to her, and watched the curious tilt of her hood as she looked down before I spurred my horse on. It was too late, my soldiers could not reach every downed scaw before the scavengers did.
“We do what we can,” I said to the night as we rode on. My heart hurt with each breath.
As Corpsmaster, I had the right to take an audience with the King even should it be the middle of the night. We met in the West Hall, which is a small place, meant for urgent and private matters. The King looked old to me, his hair had grown lighter with the silver of his years, and his beard was nearly all gray. This time, to my surprise, Heme the Queen stood silently by the fire, her eyes questioning. Both wore warm robes pulled over their night-wear. I wondered why our Queen should be present, but the circumstances were unusual by any measure. In the flickering light of the newly stirred fire, the King’s eyes seemed as brilliant as ever, and he stood straight as any of the pillars in his hall. We pulled back our hoods and bowed.
Never before had I been in King Matthew’s presence with my face unwashed, and I felt the burn of shame. He spoke of it first, even as he saluted us with the touch of his hand to his chest.
“My Corpsmaster comes with a black face to me, and Master Mell likewise. It is not a common night,” he said. “I have heard rumor of battle from the Wall. Yet I have heard no sound of our defeat.”
“My Lord King,” I answered him, “you have heard truly. This attack was different from those of other times. Of the nightscaws, several escaped our arrows until they were well over the city; one flew as far as the Street of Fountains, before being shot down. They bore great bladders with them, which they dropped deliberately to break in the streets of the city, and each scaw that fell carried more. I know the smell of what those bladders held. It is the particular smell of decay that comes with the death of the great pox.”
I heard Mell catch her breath. That was all the sign she gave.
“You are sure of this?” he said, and stopped himself. “Of course you are sure; you would never come to me so if you were not. Could you be mistaken?”
He looked then at Mell.
“Master Mell,” he said. His voice came rough like that of a man with a cold. “What can you tell me?”
“I didn’t know the Corpsmaster’s thought until she spoke,” said Mell, “and I did not recognize the reek until now. Yes, now I understand. I smelled this in the City tonight, and I believe her right. It is the smell that filled your Corpsmaster’s own home years ago when I came and found her, the only one surviving of her family. She and I were eight years old, and we remember.”
He wasted no time then.
“What have you done?” he asked. “What orders have you set in train?”
I answered him as completely as I could. I spoke also of the scaw on the Street of the Fountains and how I feared that two or more scaws had fallen far enough into the City to have been scavenged before my soldiers could do their job of burning.
“It is all you could have done,” he said, and he set his hands on the tall back of the ornate chair that stood ready by the fire, his beard bristling over his set jaw. “If there were a way to identify those who despoiled the fallen creatures…” he shook his head.
“Burn them,” the words burst from my mouth.
“Yes.” he said. He looked with consideration on the silent Queen’s face, which I found as inscrutable as ever. “I remember that last great pox, as I suspect you do not, my lady. Were you ill with it?” he asked, turning to Mell.
“Yes,” she said, “I was ill for a long time.”
“And when you recovered you went to see how your friend had fared.”
“It is so,” she said, “though none in my family knew what I did.”
“And you found her in the foetor of illness with the rotting dead around her.”
“Her mother by her, her father near upon the floor, her two brothers, I think, for there was little more than bones and ichor, by the door. She was like a skeleton, too weak to move, lying with her dead.”
“I would have starved there if she had not come,” I said.
“This is a disease of the air,” King Matthew said to the Queen. “You will remember nothing of the illness itself, because our memories do not dare keep such things. Even a soldier’s training cannot harden you. You will have forgotten what suffering the days of your illness held because your mind has burned out the experience. Do not look at your Corpsmaster and your King as if they have lost their humanity when we agree that we would burn every human scavenger alive who might now spread this evil thing among our people.”
“I had the disease,” she said quietly, “I had it only lightly, and my parents kept us as separate from the world as they could contrive. I admit my own ignorance, my Lord King.”
“We will look at the worst of it,” King Matthew said. “Nearly all of our children will die, and most others who either were not of the City in the days of the last pox, or were not infected then. This recurrence is so near the last that we have a good population of older citizens who will be safe. I think there can be no gain in founding panic in the City. I shall send you to retirement with Prince Daniel, my lady Queen. We may say my son is ill,” his face twisted a little, “as is easily believed.
“Otherwise, Corpsmaster Ti, do as you have planned with the bodies of our invaders. You owe no explanations. We shall allow no exodus from the city and we shall require that the Wall serve its purpose. No stranger who is unwarned may pass the Gates until the curse is lifted.”
“What of the lands beyond the City; do we control the movement of our people between the Inner Lands and the City?”
“I cannot see a way,” King Matthew said and his face seemed weary as if he hated his words. “We shall need the foodstuffs the Inner Lands provide, especially if this attack does what our enemy planned. We will die of starvation if not the pox, if those supplies stop coming to us.”
“I have a plan;” I said, “we can contrive a way.”
I knew I had misstepped because as I spoke I had no clear idea at all. I had no choice, I felt compelled to try something, anything, rather than give in to the disease and its powers. The wound lay in my feelings. I could not bear to add the peoples of the Inner Lands to our toll of death without making some effort, however foolish. I did not know then, yet in this act and by my speaking, I laid a debt to fate that King Matthew himself would see me pay.
“I ask the King’s permission,’ I said very carefully, for I had never mended nor changed any word of his before, “to tell the people of the City what is to come, and how exactly it came. The Innerlanders must take our debt for now, hold tokens of what is owed so that their people are not going and coming from our contaminated City. They must take no goods from us until this illness is past. Nothing we give them in this season is so necessary to their lives that they cannot do without for some weeks.
“I will organize those soldiers who are immune to the pox by previous exposure to do all the travel and carrying of water, foodstuffs and necessaries within the City itself. Place the young and the unexposed in the safety of their homes, contain them. The pox will still spread; yet the effect should be less. I will set up divisions of my older soldiers, those who survived the earlier coming of the pox to do all the conveyance of food and goods between the Inner Lands and the City.”
“It is not practical,” King Matthew said slowly, reluctant to naysay me. “And you will start a panic. There are the merchants and their money, and the matter of paying the Innerlanders at least in token for their goods. The royal treasury cannot suffice. Written records could be falsified.”
I stood debating. We only used our gold for trade with outsiders, and barter was the proper way of our exchanges behind the Wall. Who could judge equitable trade other than each merchant? Some of us, like the soldiers of the Wall sometimes used small metal bars or precious stone arrowheads for the price of a meal, but these things had limited value and would never do for the massive trade exchanges that usually passed through the Great Road to the Innerlands.
“Ask the merchants themselves,” Mell said suddenly. “Summon the Guildmasters and the Bankers of the City to solve this. Bring them here now, in the middle of the night,” she said with a wicked grin that was more like a war grimace than laughter, “and tell them they cannot depart until they have made a solution.”
“And do not feed them,” Queen Heme said, “Give them no more than well-watered wine until their task is done to your standard.”
“You are sure,” King Matthew asked me, turning his gaze upon me.
“It is the pox,” I promised him, my gut twisting with the recalled stench in the Street of the Fountains.
“And you will be accountable if you are wrong?” he asked me, his voice tightening with a note that brought chill sweat to my face. “You will suffer full penalty for that?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Don’t answer me so fast,” he said, his words cold. “For if I do these things in vain, and your fear is only a nightmare or a fancy, you will bear responsibility and suffer for our people the Four-Way death in Methen Square.”
He did not merely test me; I knew he meant it in literal truth, and I remembered the last example made in the great square before the Fortress barely two years ago. Mell said nothing behind me, and Queen Heme’s eyes flickered.