Chapter II: Hard Decisions
In the frozen wilderness of the Chiontezzo, the decrees issued by faraway kings and archons held little weight; deer jerkin, beaver furs and leathers were commodities more important than the rule of law. Such urban notions cast their dim shadow only upon the crown-commissioned mines, and, like the low orbit of the sun in the sky, that plunged behind the western fringes of the horizon for about half a year, the shadow was visible only now and then. Yerevan, the squad commander, knew that; still, he was reluctant to send Lil’Tom to be taken care of the Northlight outpost. As Ulm, the squad medic, had pointed out earlier, before the group split up, Tommy had little chance of surviving if he was not tended to by physicians with access to proper surgical tools.
After an hour long trek through the snowy forests, Yerevan finally reaches the Unbroken’s hideout. It was a damp cave on the side of a short cliff. While not defensible by any means, it was well concealed in the dark side of the cliff, and moreover, it had easy access to multiple vantage points that overlooked the plains which the caravan lines passed through; the view interrupted only from the Wolf’s Maw mountain range and the Jubilant Shore to the west and the south, and the Northlight outpost to the north. As for the east, the view was perfectly unobstructed, limited only by the line of the horizon. Depending on the direction of the wind, the sounds of the landscape, either the howling of wolf packs in the mountains or the rare celebration in Northlight would have their echoes carried over to the cliff, which functioned as a natural amplifier so potent that it felt as though the wolf was howling over one’s face, or that the celebration was going on right around the corner of the path. The cave opening was narrow, and to enter one had to stoop for about ten meters beyond the opening, then crawl in complete darkness for about half that distance more, in order to find himself in the actual cavern. The ceiling, spherical if one overlooked the natural roughness of the stone, had a few punctures ranging from a few centimeters wide to a meter, offering half-decent ventilation for a small fire.
Rome Vrintazzo, one of the two sword sisters that was tasked with safeguarding the camp, had stridden out to hunt for the day’s supper. The other sister, Napoly Fernanda, had caught a bad case of pneumonia a few days back, so Yerevan had ordered her to take some rest, and little of her is visible under multiple layers of furs and coats that were laid on her. Hearing Yerevan, the mound moves around for a long minute, until finally the silver hair that adorned Napoly’s head peek from underneath. The skin on her face is pale yellow, weathered, and her eyes half-closed due to the exhaustive drag the illness has inflicted her with.
“Captain” she groans, “Roma is out. How’d the raid go?”
“Didn’t you light a fire Nap? Furs alone can’t make you warm you know.” Yerevan knowingly avoids answering the last question.
Napoly’s head withdraws in the mound once more, as she obviously needs the rest more than the briefing. Yerevan lets his arms down by the rack, then goes out to get firewood. He walks outside, and climbs upon the small hill where they had stationed the supply wagon. Right next to it, three piles of firewood are almost snowed in. With caution, so as to not disturb the snow, he removes three logs from the pile and let them fall down the hole. For a moment, he worries that the cloud of dust would disturb the sick sister, but then again, she had never been promised a quiet sleep when she was drafted for the mission.
A strange lot, those women were. The first of them, about twenty in number, had disembarked from a ship in the port city of Emporia not longer than twenty years ago. Led by a young maiden by the name of Elene Justbreaker, they claimed to be the sole survivors of a cataclysm that destroyed their island homeland that lay deep in the Ierem ocean. While few cared to tend for the refugees, the Sisters sure understood how to get on the city’s good side. Along with them, came a vast swath of treasures, gold, gems and intricate jewels, so they were quickly accepted and celebrated.
When they offered to buy all orphanages, the crown gladly accepted, seeing that it would rid itself of such infertile ventures at a profit. Within a year, the institutions had changed; the ran-down buildings were demolished to the groundwork with first-seen haste, and replaced by what seemed like temples of an alien architecture that was characterized by the prominence of curves over edges. Noone knew, and noone cared, quite exactly what was going on in those buildings- only that the annoyance of street urchins had disappeared, replaced by silver-haired daughters that were eager to do any work of good. When the war broke out, the Sisters of Ierem emerged from their temples, offering to assist in the fighting as auxiliaries. The crown grudgingly accepted the offer at start as it was uncommon for women to fill the ranks; soon, however, tales of the sisters’ bravery spread like wildfire, and having even a single one of them in the company provided uncanny luck. Whether or not they did provide a metaphysical edge was unimportant-the crown grasped the opportunity to bolster the troops’ morale by allowing the sisters to join missions as they saw fit. Napoly and Rome were born local, abandoned at the foot of such a monastery as newborns. If the Sisters did not exist, they would probably be fishmongers at best, or whores at worse. Now they were accompanying the kingdom’s elite squad in a dangerous mission behind enemy lines. Which fate is better, I do not know.
Yerevan climbs down the small hill. He stoops, moving ahead for ten meters, then crawls through the narrow passage for the rest of the way. The logs’ freefall has caused the dirt floor to lift in the air, and the light is detained in the particles, expanding along thin strips of pale light that carve through the dark. A flicker of light flares in the distance, and an ember flared up, casting a weak orange light on Napoly’s face.
“No one's back yet?” Yerevan asks.
Napoly coughs, shaking her head from side to side. Yerevan approaches, then takes a seat by the fire. The air still is heavy, with the shining particles floating across the room, moved by what seemed to be an invisible current of air, then swirling in a spiral as they approached the fire.
“So, how’d the raid go?” Napoly repeats.
Yerevan picks up a branch that must have broken off a falling log, and pokes the burning wood. Napoly coughs again, then clenches the extra layer of fur that she has on her shoulders, as if she is hugging herself.
“Not good, huh? Bad catch? Or a logging cart not worth our time perhaps?”
Yerevan either found the sparkling ember irresistibly mesmerizing, or he failed to muster the courage to look in Napoly’s eyes. He makes to open his mouth, utter some kind of word. Nothing pours forth. He tries again, but finds himself gasping for air. The third time, a semblance of language came out: “Worse.”
The rustle of dry leaves echoes from the entrance. Napoly turned to look, Yerevan stays fixed to the crackling of the fire. A minute later, Dromon, the squad’s pathfinder entered the cavern. If he was shaken the moment he entered, he grows horrified the next.
“Quick! Put the fire out!” he demands, and jolts to the center of the room. He kicks the fire, then starts digging with his palms and pouring the dirt on the logs. Yerevan and Napoly are perturbed, failing to react in any way to the pathfinder’s actions. The latter, erratic as he were, stares at both of them with wide eyes: “Move! The place is teething with Fonteans!” Napoly, caught more in the unwavering rhythm of the soldier’s demand rather than his most ominous justification, hurls the furs off her back and got to work. Yerevan stays still, his gaze still fixed upon the invisible fire.
The fire was put out.
“Captain! We need to move. Now.” Dromon approaches Yerevan.
Yerevan clings to silence.
“Cap!” Dromon shouts in Yerevan’s ear.
Finally, Yerevan withdraws his attention from the doused fire.
“We wait for the others.”
“No, no, no. You don’t understand Captain! Bounty hunters, tens of them, armed to the teeth are scouring the highlands to the north. It was not only those in the ambush that we have to worry about!”
“Ambush?” Napoly livened up.
“I know Dromon, I saw them as well. They are expecting us to engage, seeing they use ambush as a tactic.”
“Good, good. Napoly, pack up what you can!”
Yerevan stands up. “Napoly, stay right where you are. We stay here Dromon.”
“I’ve spoken. We stay here.” Yerevan interrupts the moaning soldier.
“Yes sir!” Like a puppet, that moves at the pull of the one cord or the other, the pathfinder smashes his foot on the ground, and yells with confidence. “May I suggest that we cover the holes on the ceiling with snow sir?
Yerevan stays silent, and the echo of Dromon’s voice covers the sound of his sigh. The pathfinder perceives the silence as an invitation to offer a fuller justification of his thought.
“Someone standing on top of the cliff will be able to tell of the existence of the cavern complex, probably prompting closer scrutiny; should we cover the hole with sturdy woods, covered with snow, the scouts would probably never even notice the pocket in which we stand. Otherwise, a simple look down the open hole would give us away.”
The most persistent dust particles finally settle, and the reverberation of the falling logs is nothing but a muffled echo, trapped between the million cracks in the rocky walls. Apart from that, the occasional trickle of water would interrupt the perfect silence. As for the light, the motion of the clouds caused the sunlight to pulsate, interchanging from a dim half-light of gray to the bright white radiance that was caught and reflected from the luminous surface of the snow. The horizon had been clear blue in the morning; a barrier of thick mist crowned by black clouds had gradually formed over the northern frontier since. If Yerevan knew something of the elements, the impending darkness meant the weather was about to take a turn for the worse, either by an early spring storm or a late winter blizzard.
“Lil’Tom is wounded.”
“I saw it sir.”
“No, not just once. You saw him getting hit in the knee, as he moved to plant the explosives on the back of the carriage.”
“And after that you were ordered to seek their sniper, dispatch of him.”
“Correct again, sir.”
“If I can make a guess, you saw the fight breaking out shortly after.”
The sound of footsteps enter the cavern from above. Yerevan raises his hand and places his finger on his mouth. The footsteps keep on, as if someone is casually strolling on the surface of the ground. Dromon, as if by instinct, moves out of the way of the sunlight, merging with the shadows, and Nap, being less than able to move, covers her body with furs so as to resemble a sleeping bear. The shadows move as the figure blocks the sunlight. Unintelligible whispers float around the cave.
“I saw smoke rising, I’m telling you!” the frustration makes the voice louder, and clearer. The crass hue, owing to a heavy abuse of tobacco or exposure to toxic element, that is overlaid on top of an already deep voice provides an instant insight as to the individual’s identity: Milly, the Unbroken’s explosive expert; his voice has been touched by both the vice and nature.
Yerevan moves in the sunlight.
“Boss! Ulm here thought you left. Quick, help us lower Lil’Tom! The rest are on their way here, we split up on the path so that they could create a distraction for the scouting party”
Yerevan nods, then stares in the dark where he last saw Dromon, and shakes his head. Dromon, as if caught by surprise that Yerevan’s gaze pierced the shadows, moves towards the narrow exit of the cavern. Dromon stands for a second by the exit, and turns to look upon Yerevan with remorseful eyes. A soldier of the fifth rank was oath-bound to obey the commands of his assigned master as far as they did not go contrary to the will of the king. Perhaps the downcast glimmer in the pathfinder was a testament of regret that he dared to second-guess his commander, either that or that he doubted his good friend. Either way, he falls to the ground, and got to crawling.
“Dromon, after you’ve lowered Tommy, proceed to cover the hole as per your proposal.” Yerevan said with a solemn voice ridden of most of the previous tension.