7 Nevrine, continued (continued)
We retraced our steps and circled back along the walls toward the northeastern gate. The guard in Debressken had said the camp was to the northeast, and it seemed logical that anyone going to or from it would leave by that gate.
We had to conceal ourselves for longer than I liked, staying hidden from the guards at the gate, but eventually we were far enough along the road that we could walk openly. There weren’t a lot of travelers there, and if we’d been sane people, we wouldn’t have been on the road either, because the snow had started falling again, and now it was big wet clumps that stuck to everything and dampened the shoulders of my coat.
“I think this is it,” Jeddan said. He’d been watching the road carefully, and now he stood next to a smaller road, more of a large track, that branched away more northerly than the main road. “The snow is packed down the way you’d expect if a lot of people had used it, but there are only a few faint footprints. They set up the camp and then had just a couple of men traveling between it and the city, or several men but only a few at a time.”
“All right,” I said, and we took that side road and trudged on. It was getting dark, and I tried not to be resentful of the Castavirans, reminded myself we’d still be out in the wet and cold even if we weren’t heading into who knew what kind of trouble, shook like a dog to get the snow off me, kept trudging and watching the road ahead so we didn’t run into a patrol, or something.
Specks of light ahead grew into lanterns, barely visible in the snow, and I grabbed Jeddan’s arm to slow him down. We went more slowly now, watching dark shapes emerge—walls thrown together from boards and rope, poles where the lanterns were attached—and then one of the shapes moved, and I worked the concealment pouvra on both of us as a guard bearing a rifle walked past, circling the camp. The moment he was gone, I dismissed the pouvra, said “Wait here” in Jeddan’s ear, and ran to the wall, concealed myself again, and ducked through it.
It was pretty bare beyond. There were lots of tents, heavy dark army tents, and more lights, lots of lanterns with their tiny flames trying to hold back the dark. There were so many of them that if it hadn’t been snowing, everything would have been bright as midday. I saw no guards. I ran back to Jeddan and the two of us went back inside, then quickly ducked under the nearest tent flap.
It was as dark inside the tent as it was bright outside. A woman screamed, and then there was a lot of movement. “No, no, we’re friends!” I said, “stop or they’ll want to know what’s going on!” The scream was suddenly cut off, as if someone had muffled the woman. “Sorry to startle you,” I said, “but we saw your village, and heard you’d been taken away, and we came to see….” My voice trailed off because I wasn’t sure how to end that sentence without sounding like their suffering was nothing but entertainment for us along the road.
My eyes were becoming adjusted to the dark—I’d thought about using the see-in-dark pouvra, but I wasn’t sure if we’d need to pass quickly through the brightly-lit space between tents—and I could see people huddled together, most of them wrapped in blankets. A baby coughed, then wailed, and its mother started to shush it. “Who are you?” said someone in the darkness.
“My name is Sesskia,” I said. I felt so sorry for them it felt like an affront to distance myself by using my placename. “Is there anyone who speaks for all of you?”
More shuffling. “Carlen Liskesstis, I suppose,” said the same man.
“Is he here? Can you get him?”
Silence. “Carlen’s a girl’s name,” the person said. “You ought to know that.”
I cursed myself. “I didn’t know, because I’m Balaenic. One of the, um, foreigners. But I speak your language, and I want to help,” I said.
Nobody said anything for a long, long moment, in which I wondered if a week’s captivity was enough to weaken them all so they couldn’t attack us. “I’ll get her,” the man said. He came forward, glancing at me briefly—he had dark hair, and dark eyes, which was all I could see of him—then left the tent, keeping low to the ground.
Jeddan and I waited. I felt awkward. I don’t know what Jeddan was thinking. I couldn’t come up with anything to talk to these people about; polite small talk would have been ridiculous, and I started worrying we’d been really stupid to come here at all. There was nothing we could do for them but raise their hopes and then smash them.
The man came back through the door, making me step out of the way. He was followed by the shortest woman I’d ever seen, her hair silvery in the dim light. She, too, was wrapped in a blanket, and I realized I hadn’t seen a single coat on any of these people, and suddenly I was so furious I wanted to kill every guard in the place and burn my way through Hasskian until they learned to behave like human beings.
“Who are you?” the woman said. Her voice sounded like a flute, not at all creaky the way I’d expected, given her hair.
“Sesskia. This is Jeddan. We—” I didn’t know what else to say. I couldn’t make these people any promises. I couldn’t do anything useful except be angry, and that wasn’t useful at all.
“We saw what happened,” Jeddan said. “You’re in danger here. If we could get you out, is there somewhere you could go?”
“Jeddan, they don’t know what you’re saying,” I said.
“Then tell them,” he said.
I sighed inwardly, but repeated his words. Liskesstis’s expression didn’t change. Slowly, she raised a hand, twitched her fingers, and amber light outlined a th’an just before the same amber light coursed down the poles of the tent, filling it with a warm light. “You don’t look like a fool,” she said.
“We can get you out,” Jeddan said, and I started to protest, then shut my mouth because even as I’d been about to say “We can’t promise that” an idea had blossomed into life inside my head. I didn’t know what Jeddan had in mind, but I knew him well enough to believe he wouldn’t make that promise if he didn’t have some idea of how to do it. “Tell them, Sesskia.”
“You’re the enemy,” Liskesstis said. “He can’t even speak our language. You will only bring us death.”
“We’re mages, Balaenic mages,” I said, “and even though we do magic differently, it’s still magic.” I grabbed Jeddan’s scarf from around his neck, making him squawk, wadded it into a ball and tossed it in the air, and set it on fire. That got a lot more noise, and then shushing, and the burning scarf fell to the earth (bare earth, no rugs for the evil foreigners), where I stomped on it to put it out.
“No th’an,” Liskesstis said, staring at the remnants of the scarf.
“It’s how Balaenic mages work their magic,” I said. “I swear we mean you no harm. And I think we can get you out.”
to be continued…