“Hey, it’s cold between the fires. Come get some food.”
I don’t want your meat. Try to give me cock and I’ll give you a knife, Demhlei whispered in the back of her skull.
“I don’t want your meat. Try to give me cock and I’ll give you a knife.” The soldier laughed, holding up empty hands.
“All right, all right, hand of Oadi.”
Campfires dotted the night as far north as the eye could reach, flickering as figures moved around them. To their right a woman was screaming. To Ridiath it sounded like pain. Demhlei’s perception bleeding through hers told her it was ecstasy. In a Drifalcand camp it could have been either, depending on if the woman were a breeder or a captive.
The soldier peered up at Hannah and lurched back slightly.
“Wow. You’re tall.” Maybe he’d mistaken her for a soldier at first in the dark.
“Uh. I’m bleeding go away.” Hannah said, slurred, vowels too wide. Ridiath had made her say it over and over until it was intelligible. Ridiath reached out and touched her elbow, a warning.
She had gone to all the men whose judgment she trusted, especially the ones who often disagreed with her, and asked them what they thought of her plan.
Ecrembl’s one line reply had been the most typical.
“F’you’re willing to do it, do it.”
“You’re going to let her do it?” Kashen had asked Alan, standing over him by the firebox during a meal deep in the starlit night.
“It’s not my decision to make,” Alan had told him.
Kashen called him a kidneyless yes-man. But Alan didn’t make it not his decision because of who she was, but because she was. Her life, her body.
If she was killed, it would bring harm on no one. If she were tortured and broke it could worsen her own fate, but not anyone else’s. If she were captured they would leave her, unless Demhlei got her out and brought her to a rendezvous within half a twelveday. The only other person she was placing at serious risk was their strange stowaway. Stowaways didn’t have rights, and the woman had no friends to stand by her.
“You give her a knife she could stab you in the neck,” Egreall had said flatly.
Over there, Demhlei’s presence told her softly, a feeling rather than a direction. She didn’t know where he was, could only imagine him pacing the edges of the fires, maybe watching their progress. The soldier moved back to his brothers, and Ridiath felt the grass-stubbled ground carefully with her feet, the feel of walking with bare legs a strange insecurity.
“Hey, we need a couple more!” a breeder called from a fire up ahead.
I’d rather get frostbite.
“I’d rather get frostbite!” Ridiath yelled, and she didn’t need to pretend to make it vicious.
“If you’re that out of touch you need to go to the shrine and talk to Kensat!” the breeder shouted back, and the camp circle erupted in laughter.
Orvui, Demhlei told her.
“Orvui!” Ridiath shouted. A bark of laughter.
You’re close. There might be a small fire, Demhlei told her, and a pit. The prisoners will be in the pit. Three, usually, to guard.
Scanning the corridors of darkness between the fires, Ridiath spotted a dimmer, smaller glow, half a ship length from the others. She saw two figures, three, at least one with the unmistakable shape of a woman.
There’s breeders with them.
There’s a shrine for Deh close by.
Ridiath said nothing to Hannah as she changed their course, veering north. The campfires were closer together here, the conversations and laughter a constant drone. No one called out to them, even though they were more obvious here. Ridiath marked that.
There were three soldiers at the shrine Demhlei’s map of images and direction-sense led them to. None were armed. The torchlit idol stood twice her height, a body of intricately bundled grasses with clearly defined breasts and a cock and balls. A rockstalker pelt was draped over its shoulders, carved charms in ivory strung about the idol’s waist. One hand of fanned grass was angled over the belly, the other over the eyes, its legs splattered with blood offerings, its feet buried in little pots and pouches. Deh was the idol of healing, who fucked death. One of the soldiers lay at the feet of the idol, bundled in furs, another soldier sitting by his side.
Ridiath crossed her legs, pulling Hannah down by the elbow beside her. Hannah slouched. It made her height less noticeable. A soldier’s murmured litany wove into the darkness behind her eyelids with the smell of burning meat and piss and more bodies than she could count.
“…you are the decider, the ineffable, the indefiable. My brother sits in your lap. You are the decider, the knitter of bones, the scarrer of torn flesh, the snow that cools the fever, the fire that warms the numb blood, you are the decider, the ineffable, the indefiable. My brother sits in your lap…”
After a while Hannah shifted position, fidgeting, and Ridiath didn’t open her eyes to lay a warning hand on her thigh.
The stars had shifted almost the width of a hand across the sky when Demhlei spoke into her mind again.
The birthers are gone. Move quickly.
Ridiath stood, ignored by the remaining soldier, entranced in his litany. She threaded them through the fires, coming at the pit from another angle. Hannah stumbled and swallowed some kind of curse, hissing.
She found two soldiers around the tiny guard fire, the small, lean, agile variety, naked, clothes in rumpled piles. A third soldier slept on a bedroll, bigger. A huge black mouth opened up in the earth a few paces past the fire. The two who were awake looked up as they heard them approach.
Ridiath stretched her rigid mouth into broad smile, and didn’t look at the pit.
I’ve been waiting for you all night.
“I’ve been waiting for you all night.”
“You might have to wait for the rest of it,” one soldier said, the fan of hair behind his head black in the firelight. He grinned. “Your sister just got through with me.”
“Then get me ready for someone else,” she said, her tongue a shadow of Demhlei’s thoughts. “Maybe you’ll be ready sooner than you think.”
Hannah hung back awkwardly, holding one arm with the other hand. Ridiath glanced at her, mouthing Demhlei’s words.
“She’s just given herself to the gods. She’s here to learn. Go slow.” She flashed a smile at him.
The other soldier chuffed disbelievingly, taking in the length of Hannah’s body.
“What barbarians did she spawn from, the trampler-trailers?” Ridiath didn’t try to answer, because the first soldier had started to explore her arms with his fingers, then her breasts. She sank back on her heels, running her cheek down his bare stomach, the softness of his cock, urging him down with her. The twining lines of his mark were inked on the front of his thigh.
It had been a long time since she had let a strange man touch her. Ridiath ran her hands up his chest, down, barely brushed his balls, up to his throat. His breath was hot on her neck, hands reaching under the hem of her tunic to clutch her buttocks. She felt sick, and utterly cold. She caressed his jaw, feeling his pulse under her thumb.
“You’ll make tall fighters, and strong birthers,” she heard vaguely, a teasing voice.
Ridiath punched the soldier in the side of the neck, and he went limp. His weight collapsed silently on top of her, and Ridiath felt her heart finally start to race. She fumbled with the bone knife in the sheath strung around her waist, felt Demhlei guiding her hands, found the textured scar of his navel and pushed the shard of bone into him. She twisted, tearing the fat artery running up his core, piercing the point where a birther gave life to a child, severing his spirit from his body. It was strange, knowing that. She would have gone for his heart.
She could hear Hannah struggling a little, pushing the other soldier away. Neither had noticed Ridiath or the other soldier.
“Okay buddy, I’m done.” The language didn’t register on him. He thought it was Ekkednar, and he laughed a little, taking it for a game, sliding his hands up her tunic, until she punched him in the face. He wasn’t expecting it, stumbled. “Holy God what part of no do you people not understand?” she hissed.
“Shut up,” Ridiath whispered urgently.
“Wow, Ceibinau, you can actually make a birther not want you,” the third soldier said sleepily, propping himself up on an elbow. Ridiath lunged for him. He was half asleep, but he had been trained in battle since he he could walk. He should have been able to stop her, but she suddenly knew, with a flash of experience not her own, the maneuver he would use to block her and then pin her. She rolled, something in her side and her knee twinging and tearing, springing up behind his reach and stabbing at his throat.
He tried to call an alarm and Ridiath smothered it with her body, crushing his face into her stomach. He bit her, bit into her like she was meat, hard enough to tear flesh, and Ridiath squeezed the pain from her throat to her gut, clenching her teeth, holding on, sawing at his neck with the knife. Hannah was on the other soldier’s back, an arm wrapped around his neck, bearing down hard. He wheezed, unable able to get enough breath to yell. Ridiath felt the hot spurt that said she’d finally hit the right artery, felt the soldier under her grow weaker, his shout turning into a death rattle. Moans and cries rose from dozens of fires, and it was only one more sated sound in the night.
When Ridiath stood, the bloody bite on her stomach burning, Hannah’s soldier was unconscious. She was staring down at him, hands on hips, toeing him speculatively.
“I think he’ll be all right.”
Ridiath stared at her, her mind and Demhlei’s overlaid, the blood on her knife and her tunic hidden in the dark.
“Go check the pit,” she said.
“Oh. Okay. Sure. Yeah.” When she scrambled down the earthen slope, Ridiath knelt, and shoved the knife into his navel.
Dirt crumbled under her hands as she slid down into the Big Damn Hole In The Ground on her butt. The hem of the long shirt/minidress slipped, making Hannah worry belatedly about getting dirt in her cootch. Then she worried belatedly about the pit of rabid wolves, or tentacle monster, or land piranhas she might have just jumped into. They loved to do that kind of shit in these movies.
Nothing moved. She thought she heard someone breathing.
“‘Kay, role call: Does someone here hate my guts?”
“Dlo shuk mebina.,” a hoarse voice said. Well, it was Not English. But was it the right Not English?
“Uh, could you confirm or something? Ashur?” She nearly said ‘Asshole.’ “Kim?”
“It’s us, Crazy,” another voice said, just as hoarse. “Get doing.”
“Well, at least we didn’t do this for nuthing. You guys owe us big time, y’got that? As in ‘you can buy us a steak as soon as we are out of enemy territory and you have stolen decent clothes for us’ big time. Fuck, where are you guys?”
She poked around in the dark with her foot, connected lightly with a leg or an arm against one wall of the pit, heard the sharp suck of a breath, a flinch. Kneeling, Hannah found a knee, followed it up, found a face, tentatively felt down a neck, shoulder, thin arm. Their wrists were pinched between two poles running horizontal about the same level as their shoulders, lashed tight. She felt around the thick wad of rope, trying to figure out where she should start.
“I suppose it’s a good thing I don’t have a knife because I don’t want to slit your wrists.”
“Rana huim shameet casovtim.”
Hannah fiddled around, trying to find something resembling a knot. She didn’t know who she was touching or occasionally kneeing in the ribs as she tried to find a better angle. Hannah’s head whipped around as she heard something behind her, but it was Ridiath climbing down to save her, and perhaps whoever she was accidentally molesting.
“So are those guys still KOed? You guys are doing chokeouts for this game. That’s intense. I mean, the liability waiver.”
“You told me you could keep your mouth shut,” Ridiath said, reminding Hannah that this was Serious Business. “Can you walk?” she asked the guys, voice low.
“F’you hold me up.” It didn’t sound like the Asshole.
It took both Ridiath and Hannah on the lip of the pit and Ashur giving him a boost to haul Kim out. Ashur they got out with just her and the girl. They were both naked, and not moving good.
Ridiath actually took them back to the fire, Hannah supposed to make it look like business as usual. Conveniently, they didn’t have to strip the unconscious enemy to steal their clothes, since they where already naked from the orgy. Perverts, God. Ashur started shoving on a pair of leather capris, and Kim plucked an actual barett out of the hair of the guy she’d choked out. He doubled his long, black hair up in a bun, shoving a stick through it to leave a spray of the ends of his hair behind the crown of his head. It was weirdly girly.
Ridiath had rolled the guy Hannah’d choked out onto his stomach, and it popped into Hannah’s head that that was bad if he threw up. But it wasn’t like he was passed out drunk.
No. He just wasn’t breathing.
It was kind of like an optical illusion, where you’re convinced it’s one thing and then less than a split second it’s clearly another. You see enough dead bodies they all start to look alike.
Hannah knelt by his head, working her hand under his jaw to find the pulse. She didn’t find it, felt around some more to make sure she’d found the right spot.
She’d just choked somebody to death.
“Uh, Ridiath, we might have a problem,” Hannah had grabbed his shoulder and was rolling him over, “and I have not even pretended to know CPR for years.”
She felt the wetness first, reflexively jerked her hand away, then realized CPR wasn’t going to work because he had bled out through the stomach.
It felt too normal, holding a dead guy who had been breathing ten minutes earlier.
“Dude, tell me this is makeup.” Except he had that particular brand of stillness bodies have when they stop being people and start being dead meat. He was soft, warm, absolute dead weight. Hannah let his shoulder drop. Ridiath was rifling the enemy’s stuff, handing something to the Asshole. He had been alive when she had choked him out. And then the girl had told her to go check on the prisoners.
“Fuck. I am going to be indicted for aiding and abetting.” Then, eyes roaming around the fire, “Fuck, Ridiath.” It was the same tone of voice her cousin had used the last time Lindsey had dragged her to Fort Lauderdale to visit, when her five year old had shit herself.
The second guy the girl had taken out, the body-builder, looked like his throat had been torn out by an attack dog. It was the kind of shit they were showing in movies all the time now, as if one tenth of the people watching them had any goddamn clue what it meant to see a human fucking being mutilated to death.
There was a voice babbling in her head, saying, ‘You cannot do shit like that, this is not a fucking game.’
Ridiath didn’t say a goddamn thing, and suddenly it wasn’t a game. Hannah’s eyes jumped to the perimeter, straining to see if anybody was looking at them. This was not capture the flag, and if an eighteen year old girl could cold-bloodedly off three guys, who knew what the guys’ friends would do to the perpetrator— or anyone with her.
“Look, I don’t know how often they check on the prisoners or change the guard or what-the-hell-ever, but I want out of here.” Ashur pulled a sleeveless, leather shirt over his head, fighting with the lack of stretch.
Ridiath was using her weight as counterbalance to help Kim up, and he leaned on her, hunched, his feet twisted awkwardly. Hannah moved in and gave a hand to Ashur, who took it and half pulled himself up, half let her haul him to his feet. Feeling pebbly rough patches on his fingertips, and watching the grimace on his face, she realized he was missing his fingernails.
They had taken knives from the bodies, but they left the meat-cleaver swords and a spear. Ridiath tucked a thumb into the back of Kim’s leather pants and pulled his arm around her shoulders like it was the most natural thing in the world. Remembering their cover, Hannah gave the Asshole a sideways look before putting a stiff arm around his waist. He gripped the back of her arm, a little hard for comfort.
The first few steps away from the campfire told Hannah that Ashur was genuinely fucked up, but ambulatory. As they started walking, there was an audible drag and hitch every few steps from Ridiath and Kim. Which basically left them strolling through enemy territory in the dark, with three murdured guys behind them.
Hannah still didn’t know how Ridiath had gotten schematics of the camp. She moved like she just knew where she was going. They were walking for maybe ten minutes, every minute sixty seconds farther from the evidence, moving between the bonfires and orgies before they ran into someone. It was a gaggle of women, all walking together, some holding hands, laughing.
Ridiath shoved Kim, yanked his head down to hers. He made a muffled, choked sound of pain, and she started kissing his neck. Hannah felt like she was doing good to put her arm around the Asshole’s waist. That and she was holding him up.
They had just left three murdered men back at the fire, and Hannah realized she was suddenly willing to get a little closer if it meant not getting caught. She moved around to face Ashur. They weren’t any closer than they had been, but the position was different.
“Get down,” he said roughly, almost too quiet to hear. Hannah managed to not say, “What?”
“You’re too tall, get down,” he hissed. He was such a bully she usually thought of him as bigger than her, but he wasn’t. Hannah had an idea of what he meant it to look like, and she wanted to tell him to go fuck himself, he could get down. Then again, if he did that, he might not be able to get up. Before anything started to look weird, Hannah crouched in front of him, staying close, pressing her cheek against his leg so she could keep an eye on the women. He held onto her shoulders like the back of a chair to keep himself standing.
The women had already noticed them, and one of them called out.
“Hey, Kensat likes you to share in the light.”
“This one’s meant to plant the riidu tonight,” Ridiath said in the new variety of Not English she’d been spouting at the enemy, like something amused her. “I had a dream, and I had to go find him.”
“Bring them with us to the fire,” a woman said. Hannah wasn’t sure if it was the same one.
“Then you can actually see him,” another voice laughed, higher. A silhouette walked over and grabbed Ridiath’s arm, and Hannah thought, Oh, shit. The woman did something to Kim, including shoving her tongue down his throat and he grunted in pain, making the woman pull back.
Ridiath said, “Careful! He’s wounded. His toinn was one of the ones that met the barbarian riders.” Hannah wasn’t sure if she was defending her territory, or invoking dibs or what.
“Did I nip you too hard?” It sounded teasing, and like a question. He wasn’t answering, which gave Hannah the impression he didn’t know this Not English. Fuck.
It was Ashur who said, “Better she gets him than Cimu.” That made one of the women burst out laughing. Hannah heard a shaky, male laugh, and Kim leaned in and kissed the woman.
“Take us home to your brothers,” Ridiath said. “Then I can see you, and where not to grab.” She laughed, Kim managed to laugh, a couple of the women chuckled. Ridiath started leading him off, and Hannah got up, trying to keep down. She grabbed Ashur’s hand and started dragging him after her.
Keep walking keep walking everything is normal do not run.
They passed a couple of other groups, always men with men and women with women. No one else bothered them. And suddenly there were no more bonfires, just a big, wide dark.
Just like on the way in, Hannah couldn’t figure out if there just weren’t sentries, or if they were just really bad at their jobs. Moving through the waist-high grass wasn’t exactly quiet.
They were probably two miles out when Hannah stepped into soft, sandy mud, and realized the black, wandering line in her vision was a stream. They stopped to let Kim and Ashur take a break and get some water, and Hannah considered the risks of giardia, and the fact that boiling was not an option. Hands planted in the water, Ashur gasped after the first few long swallows, getting enough breath to go again. Hannah remembered what it was like to be that thirsty.
She sat on the bank, wiping her mouth, her butt getting wet, cloth sticking to her skin. Some kind of weather must have been moving in, because clouds had rolled over the stars, the sky that dark, muddy shade of blue that still gives off a little light.
“Your accent is atrocious,” the Asshole said, still breathy as he pushed himself up. At first Hannah was confused, then realized he was talking to Ridiath.
“Acha,” Kim said, reaching out to touch Ashur’s shoulder.
“At least I don’t speak like I was born three generations ago,” Ridiath said, without any emotion Hannah could hear. That shut him up, which was impressive.
Hannah decided to give them something else to be annoyed with, just in case. They weren’t off the hook yet, and there were miles to go.
“Holy hell, I can’t believe that worked.”