“Who goes there?” he heard, the words sounding as muffled as the form in the dense fog, but he could make out the spot of light from the lantern.
He stopped and hesitated before he answered. When he did so, his voice broke with fear and exhaustion. “I know not if I have stumbled upon friend or foe, and if I tell you who I am you may run me through!”
“I am a guard of Qurn,” the guard replied. “Now speak if you are friend or foe!”
“Praise the goddess,” he cried, stumbling forward. “I am Nebosa, a recruit with the Night Patrol’s second squad.”
The guard saw as he came closer the gash on his head, bound haphazardly with some strips of cloth. “Second squad? We’ve heard no word on them for three nights now,” she said. “We thought them all dead.”
“Three nights?” he repeated, astonished. “Then I must have been unconscious for an entire day. I was injured, the Hets must have left me for dead, though I fear the others were killed.” He threw back his cloak to reveal his uniform, recruit stripes on his shoulder indicating the lowest rank of the army.
“Then welcome back from the dead, brother. We are glad to have you.” The guard called for a medic to help him to the infirmary, but he shook his head.
“No,” Nebosa insisted, holding out a satchel. “I must deliver this! Our squad captured a messenger, and Captain Dayio believed they carried information on the Hettani’s army. I must give this to the general, not a moment can be lost, for I’ve already lost a day!”
“Of course. Yes, you will be taken there at once!”
Two guards were dispatched to escort Nebosa. The general’s own doctor looked after him while the general looked through the satchel, drawing out various documents, a Hettanian army captain’s emblem, and what appeared to be a map, though Nebosa only caught a glance as the general looked through the items.
“This may well turn the tide of this war,” the general said at last, looking over at him.
“Sir,” Nebosa mumbled. His head ached, his mouth was parched, and had he not felt compelled to deliver his burden, he would have gladly taken a sip of water and a bed and slept for as long as he might be allowed.
The general, however, was very much interested in one thing. “Tell me, how did a mere recruit come to be the lone survivor of your squad and return with such a prize?”
Nebosa’s gaze fell and he stared at his hands. He felt at a loss to explain. “I do not know, Sir.” He felt the tension creep up on him, like water filling the tent, threatening to drown him.
“Do you have any idea what it is you brought back?”
“No, Sir?” He looked up at the general. “That is- I knew it was important. Captain Dayio said we needed to deliver it, but I had no need of knowing the particulars. She would have… she would have given it to you herself, but we were ambushed on our way back.”
The general put a hand on his shoulder and nodded. “You’ve done well, and you’ll be rewarded for this.”
“Thank you, Sir,” he said, though his voice betrayed that reward was not what he had been after. Or if it was, a soft bed was the one he’d be most looking forward to. “I was just doing my duty.”
“We could use more recruits like you, then,” the general said.
Three days earlier:
Nebosa stared down at the body; the lifeless face stared back at him. Something inside him was not quite able to accept the reality of the moment. He barely registered the pats on his back and shoulder as his companions praised him with ‘well done, lad’ and ‘we’ll make a proper warrior of you yet.’ All he could see was the blood on his knife and hands.
He pulled the war-mask from his face, feeling suffocated by it. He wanted to protest he hadn’t meant it. He had turned to see the figure looming over him and instinct took over, his knife finding its target before he had even really seen what it was. But he hadn’t meant it. He wanted to scream it at them, at the sky, at his god. He hadn’t meant it! But words refused to come to his mouth.
Later, as the other four of his squad gathered around the fire to warm themselves and their food, Nebosa sat hunched beneath the crumbled remains of a rock wall a short distance away. He drew his blanket tight around his shoulders but even so it could not keep out the chill of night that pierced him to the soul.
After finishing off the wine found among their enemies things, three had bedded down, but Captain Daiyo had been keeping her eye on Nebosa ever since the battle. Now she approached him quietly, her imposing frame seeming even larger silhouetted by the remains of the fire. Without a word, she found his hands, pressing a cup into them.
He wanted to protest, but the warmth was a welcome change. He mumbled out a half-hearted, “Thank you.”
She gave a little hum of acknowledgement as she settled in beside him, looking up at where the moon and stars played hide-and-seek with breaks in the clouds. The silent companionship she offered, the intimacy of darkness, gave him that impression of safety to find his words.
“I can’t stop seeing it,” he said after some time, eyes fixed on the cup.
“You’ve never killed before, have you…” He remained silent, but she already knew the answer. “Maybe you thought killing would bear no consequences if it was an enemy. But you can’t get their blood on your hands without seeing it is the same color as yours.”
The image of it flashed in his mind again and he set the cup aside to cover his face with his hands, hiding the tears he refused to let fall. She stroked his hair gently, as a mother might.
“I don’t understand,” he said after a while. “Why did he have to die? Why did…”
“Wars are not about the people who must fight them, Nebosa. The man you killed, I doubt he was evil. But there exists an idea,” she said. “An idea that says their ways are better than our ways, and their gods are better than our goddess. Swords cannot kill that, nor arrows pierce it.” She rested her cheek against his head and sighed. “We fight the Hettani and they fight us, not because Hettani are evil, but because they think we are.”
“I don’t understand,” Nebosa repeated in a whisper.
Daiyo took a long breath and stared back at the sky. “Neither do I,” she confessed.
They sat in silence for a long time after that. When Daiyo did speak again, she sounded strained, her breath heavy.
“I’m going to turn in.”
Nebosa pulled away at that. “Is something wrong?”
“I don’t-” she shook her head, “I’ll be fine. It was a long day today.” She stood, holding her hands out as if for balance. “You should get some sleep,” Daiyo added as she walked away. “And make sure you eat.”
“I will,” he said, picking up the cup she had brought earlier, but it was cold now. He waited until she settled in some distance away to keep watch before he discretely poured the contents out onto the ground. Then he let his tears fall in silence, holding the symbol of his faith so tight it cut into his palms. He prayed for atonement, for some penance that might undo what had been done.
The light of morning roused him from the sleep that had eventually claimed him. He stood, still numb with grief, and walked over to where his companions lay. He nudged Daiyo, then rolled her to her back. Her lifeless body offered no resistance. He checked through her pockets and bags until he found the orders she carried.
There was not much to take from the other three, nothing he wanted, anyway. He left even their money – it could never pay the debt he carried now. He dragged their bodies into a dense patch of brush, then gathered his things. Taking his bearings, he set off north to find the Hettanian camp, arriving just after mid-day.
As he approached, the guards raised their weapons, calling at him to halt. He continued to walk forward. As he got closer, he pulled a faded emblem from his bag and held it up. The guards, who at first seemed confused, stood back and saluted. Without a word, or glance to either side, he went straight to the commander’s tent, pushing open the flap and throwing the pouch with the orders in it at her.
The commander nodded for the guards to step outside. When they were alone, she stood up from her desk and took a step toward him. “I heard. I am sorry-”
“You knew I was with them,” Nebosa screamed. “You knew! How could you let him go on that patrol!”
“It’s war. I have five thousand soldiers to think about,” she said, keeping her own voice calm. “Do you think I personally know where every one of them is? What every order given by a sergeant might be?”
“His blood is on my hands!” He held them up as if in proof. Though they had been washed clean, Nebosa could not but see it still, accusing him. “And it will be on your head!”
The commander came over and took his hands in hers, pressing them together as if in prayer. “And I am truly sorry, Krayle. I am. There’s nothing can change what has happened. But I need you to go back. I need you to finish your mission.”
“There is no mission anymore! I killed them!”
“No, Krayle. There is still a mission. Now, as the lone survivor of your squad, you may be in an even better position. Go back, and you may yet win this war for us.”
“For you?” Nebosa jerked his hands away, tears of grief and anger obscuring his vision. “I killed my own husband for you, was that not sacrifice enough?”
She bowed her head. “Then don’t let his death be meaningless.”
“His death was meaningless!” he cried, his whole chest filled with rage.. “It accomplished nothing! His blood flowed on these hands, sworn ever to honor and adore him, and you let him be sent when you knew – you knew – it was my squad that was out there!”
“Would you have chosen to kill someone else in his place? Deprive someone else of their love so that yours might have been spared? What of the others in his squad, did you spare even a single thought to them?”
His hand twitched toward his knife, imagining for a moment how much pleasure he might take in depriving her of her own life, but he also recognized the truth in her words. If it had not been Saru it would have been someone else, some other eager young warrior who would have spilled their blood on his hands. That did little to ease his pain but it did at least still his rage for a moment.
“We will give him a hero’s funeral,” she said softly. “And if the gods will, his spirit will stay with you, protect you.”
If there was any justice in the universe, Saru’s spirit would kill him instead, that they might be at least united again in death if not in life.
“Now, Krayle,” the commander continued, “you must return, to finish your mission.”
“I want to see him first,” Nebosa said after a moment.
The commander sighed, then nodded and called her guards back in, sending one to escort Nebosa to where Saru’s body was laid out for funeral. Almost overcome, his knees went weak as he walked into the tent, a lump forming in his throat that refused to be swallowed away.
Saru looked almost peaceful laying there, as if he merely slept. He was arrayed in white and red with his weapons situated around him. On his chest was the pendant Nebosa had given him at their wedding. Though it seemed someone had tried to clean it, it still held the stain of blood. Shaking, Nebosa reached out and placed a hand on Saru’s cheek, tears dripping on his robes.
“Forgive me, my love.” He pressed a kiss to Saru’s cold lips, then laid his head on his chest. Part of him wished he would have died at Saru’s hand, and part of him would not have wished this grief on him for the world. “You will be with me always, and I pray I will be with you again, soon. This life holds nothing for me now that you are gone from it.”
He slipped the pendant from over Saru’s head and put it around his own neck, and there he stayed beside Saru’s body, refusing food or drink.
When night had fallen, a pyre was made ready. Nebosa carried the torch but remained silent as those around him recited the prayers to take Saru’s soul to the halls of the gods. When it was time, he thrust the torch in, and as the flames engulfed the pyre he briefly entertained the idea of throwing himself onto it as well, but even as the thought crossed his mind, he could almost hear Saru chiding him for being such a romantic fool.
“I know,” he whispered in answer to his thoughts. “I’m sorry.”
After the rituals had finished, the commander came to stand beside him. “You’ll have to leave before dawn.”
He nodded in reply.
“I’ve had some fake documents drawn up for you to take with you – including a false cypher that we can use to deliver misinformation.”
He nodded again, not really wanting to discuss this right now, but his fight from earlier had died out.
“You’re a hero, Krayle.”
“I’m a risan bastard,” Nebosa corrected her.
The commander’s lips curled up slightly. “Heroes generally are, Captain.”
Nebosa looked at her. “I will curse your name until the day I die.”
She didn’t seem surprised by the sentiment. He turned away. He would do his duty and complete the mission. He would infiltrate the intelligence of the enemy. And, gods willing, after he had died, he would haunt her.
It was an hour before dawn when he stopped, about two miles gone from the encampment. He took his knife and cut a deep gash in his head, then bound it hastily with some scraps of cloth before too much blood was lost. He sat down to wait for the light-headed feeling to pass, thumbing through the documents intended for the Qurn general.
The cypher caught his eye and he took it out, looking at it – staring right through it. Unbidden, the kind words that Daiyo had spoken to him that night came to mind. Though in his grief he had killed them all for simply being there at Saru’s death, thinking back on it now, she had been genuine in the comfort she had offered him. Though she could not hope to fathom what his pain had been, she had allowed him to grieve, and for a moment he wished he had not poisoned them.
His eyes refocused on the cypher. Setting it down for a moment, he struck a spark with his flint, then lit it on fire. The orange glow reflected in his eyes and little sparks fancied themselves stars, rising into the still-dark sky. He held it until only the edge beneath his fingers remained, then let it fall to the ground, crushing the blackened parchment under his heel.
He took from among his things a true cypher and his Captain’s badge and tucked them both into the satchel. He wouldn’t be needing them again.