Careful not to jolt the pile...
Careful not to jolt the pile of my makeshift bureau, I hunch over the little pan and spot the first tiny bubbles forming at the bottom. Briefly, I ponder how a bigger stove would melt the ice quicker, then I sniff in dismissal. Despite the draft, hot greasy vapour stings my nostrils. A bigger stove would be too bulky to carry. I shrug and return to studying the water.
A rap at the door frame draws my attention. “Captain Ganse?” I glance at the man standing there. Tall, slim, athletic, even handsome perhaps, if you like that kind of thing, but above all else, an invaluable asset. I’m glad I could recruit him to my small and otherwise inexperienced patrol. He could surely find more attractive offers elsewhere in the Aether Guard.
“Come in Sergeant Wynter. What is it?” I don’t really need to ask. I know exactly what it is. We have been through this routine so often. Three patrol sweeps at this watch post and on countless occasions before. Nevertheless, I like to stick to the ritual. A routine is an excellent way to detect the onset of that debilitating dementia, Shadow Fatigue.
Yes indeed, a lack of routine can prove fatal.
He steps through the doorless frame into my office. “Everything’s ready. Let’s go kill some Spawn.”
I point my chin at the stove. “Not quite everything.” The first faint wisps are rising from the surface, but my breath is still making bigger clouds. What happened to spring? My hands push deeper into the pockets of my heavy riding coat. “These need to be properly cooked first.”
“They would boil a lot quicker if you started with warm water from the cooking fire instead of melting a pot full of solid ice over that tiny flame.”
I shake my head. “As the manual states, it has to be like it has to be.” If only the weather understood this.
“I know, I know. And always was as it ever shall be.” He sighs.
Tiny silvery spheres swell at the bottom of the pan. A first bubble rolls up the flattened face of one of the submerged glass bulbs. At the rounded edge, it pauses before breaking free and rising straight to the surface. It pops. The Sergeant is still standing there. I glance at him. “Problem?”
“It’s cold outside.”
It is never cosy at this altitude. “And in here, too.”
“Yes, but the men are exposed to the wind.”
Despite the heavy leather riding boots, the persistent draft has chilled my feet to stone, but he is probably right. “Snow?” Back in the homelands, spring’s bright riot is probably already giving way to the dignity of summer.
“A dusting, yes.”
One short patrol sweep more and we can head back. “A lot worse is likely waiting for us down there. Not just this stupid weather either. Who knows, the Realm might even entertain us with something completely new that we don’t have a tactic for yet. Even after all these aeons, it still happens occasionally.”
“Sure. The men are still freezing their nuts off though. It’s never a good tactic to start out with everyone already in a bad mood.”
Now it’s my turn to sigh. The pot sighs sympathetically. Though it is still a long way home, I watch my mother in my mind’s eye. She is bustling around her own stove. Her face is turned away, but I know she is happy, I have returned to her safely. “Fine. I’m sure Noss has something boiling on the kitchen fire. Get her to hand out cups to them but keep them mounted. This shouldn’t take too long now.”
“Captain.” He leaves. Again, I am alone with but the dim yellow flame and its attendant shadows for company. I wonder what my mother will cook when I get back. Even if I am an only child, she always makes far too much fuss. A celebratory feast no doubt. I lean back in my chair. Her roast duck is always fantastic. I imagine the hot juices filling my mouth.
The two bulbs begin to skip and jitter as the water comes to the boil. I pick up my tongs and fish one of them out. Held at an angle, the delicate cogs and dials imprisoned within glint in the flame light. I turn it over, inspecting the various needles and pointers through the front and back faces. Some are already moving smoothly backwards across their dials. One skips and quivers erratically, but the most important one for now has hardly moved. The spirit inside still has a long way to go to full charge. I lower the Metronism gently into the water and check its twin. Same story.
I check them twice more before I am satisfied.
With the charging complete, I place the bulbs in their wooden carrying case. The deep cups in the soft velvet padding grip the circumferences of the bulbs perfectly. I snap the lid shut and secure the latch. Even in the thin light of the stove, the knots and whorls in the wood glow a rich red. My thumbs rub across the surface, revelling in the beautiful texture. Before slipping it under my breast plate, into its pocket next to my heart, I hold it to my lips and kiss the top edge. “Keep me safe, Papa.” Obviously, he can’t. Only I can do that, but it would have pleased him to know I have developed the ritual of this little prayer. Routine keeps you safest of all.
Outside, in the yard of Watch Post twelve, soldiers and horses cower under their snow-bleached cloaks and blankets. The trophy heads collected on previous sweeps hang from the wall to dry. Nudged by the wind they bump and jiggle like they are chuckling about an inside joke. The head of the Martinshoora I killed on the previous sweep doesn’t have much to laugh about. Though the head glitters with a crusting of frost, the eye sockets dark pits where I jabbed out its brilliant blue eyes as a precaution. In their usual groups, these amphibious monsters can over power you with visions of the things you most desire. Then they finish the attack by tearing the flesh from your bones with razor sharp teeth. It’s his bad luck, this one was traveling alone.
I turn back to matters at hand. Sheltering against the weather in the corner of the wall, Senior Reserve Noss and Sergeant Wynter are bent together in a final conference. Stamping some blood into my feet, I walk over. “Sergeant, Senior, anything I need to know before setting off?”
Both greet me. “Captain!”
Wynter shouts to be heard above the wind. “We were just discussing the firewood. The Senior is concerned that if this weather continues for much longer, our stores won’t last until the relief arrives.”
“What about scavenging more from around the guard post?” The door to my office was among the first sacrifices.
Noss shrugs. “There wern’t much to be found around the place ta begin wiv.” She looks at the gatehouse. “Mostly, we’ve had everyfin there is already.” She bares her few remaining teeth in a yellowing grimace. “Why nobody reported this terrible state, I can’t imagin’.”
I follow her gaze. Even the heavy wooden gates are in disrepair. They should be part of a solid line of defence, sealing the only opening in a barrier that stretches all along the border to the next watch post in either direction. We’ve had to prop one door permanently closed after the hinges failed. The other is swung open ready for our departure. Once we’ve passed through, three men with levers will inch it shut again before nailing boards across to keep it that way. We had better not need it opened quickly on our return. I look back at Noss. “The gates stay in place. What about tree wood?”
She rocks her head. “Well, green wood’s gonna smoke sumfin awful like, better’n nuffin’ tho’, I’spose.” Her shrewd brown eyes squint down the valley into the gloom of the storm. Her nose wrinkles. “Tree line’s the problem, see? S’gonna be slow fellin’n’haulin’ anyfin’ up ‘ere, ‘specially wiv it so steep n’all. We’ll be stretched fin on the wall.”
“What do you suggest?”
She nods in the other direction. “Trees’re closer on the uver side, in sight really, track’s fla’er too.”
I shake my head. “Absolute no go. No one passes the wall whilst we are gone.” I tilt my head down the valley. “Single team, two men, just branches, no trees. Make it work.”
They both shake their heads. “No.”
I look at my Sergeant. “Is the mission plan clear to the men?”
“Is the column arranged as we agreed?”
“And all the tack has been checked thoroughly?”
“And all the weapons are in regulation order?”
“The horses are all fit?”
“Has everyone received their patrol rations?”
“And everyone has filled both their water skins?”
“And their canteens?”
“And everyone is keen to do this?”
“And have I covered everything?”
He smiles. “Yes.”
I smack my gloved hands together. “Good, so let’s go collect the heads of some ugly bastards then!” Everything is in order. As I walk the line to my horse near the head of the column, I know it is. Everything is always in order. I still stop to check bridles and interrogate the men at random. Nobody grumbles. They know it is all part of my routine and routine is a good thing.
I take the still warm bundle I brought from my office and stuff it deep into my right-hand saddle bag. The waiting reserve hands me the reins and I swing into the saddle. Turning, I look back down the line. Everyone else has put an extra cloak on over their coats. Should I do the same? Thanks to the lose fit of my armour, I have a second thick woollen shirt underneath. My feet will warm up well enough once we start riding and a cloak might hamper manoeuvrability. I’ll brave the cold for the moment.
From the rear of the line, Sergeant Wynter waves the final all clear. Facing forward, I give a long blast on my whistle and point ahead. “Move Out!” In single file, the vanguard slips through the gateway ahead of me. As I pass, the three men with levers salute. I like that. It should become part of the ritual too, even if the doors work properly in future.
We enter hostile territory.
Beyond the gate, the wind picks up. Without the shelter of the guard wall, it blasts icy crystals directly into our faces. Closing the visor on my helmet would help keep the vicious shards out of my eyes. It would also limit my peripheral vision. Turning my coat collar up and tilting the peak of my helmet down keeps the worst from my face, and nothing can sneak up on me from the side either. More than the cold, the thought of what vile creatures might possibly be afoot in such terrible weather turns my hair to bristles.
I check back down the line. Squinting, I briefly make out Sergeant Wynter’s silhouette against the warm light coming through the gateway from the guard fire in the yard. Then the door creeps shut leaving only the black and grey of the storm. We are truly back on patrol in the Borderlands now. I shudder. It is good that the wind is carrying the sound of the hammering away from us.
After reforming two abreast, we carry on down the track. At first, only the occasional stunted tree, bent and twisted by exposure, marks our progress. Ice bejewelled their warped trunks and gnarled branches loom suddenly from the darkness. As we pass, they shake and quiver in the wind. They remind me of scarecrows. I wonder what these hideous sentinels might be trying to scare off — us or the Spawn?
Beyond the first switchback, the trees grow taller and denser, cutting down the wind. It is getting lighter too. Not the light of dawn, of course. We are surely too far from the border for that now. In the shadow of the Realm of Chaos, there can be no night and day, no dusk and dawn, no brightness and shadow. Instead a little of the light of creation just manages to seep in, perpetually illuminating the Borderlands in a uniform hazy grey. This is the kraulikt.
It is in this half-light that we have come to hunt. My patrol is one of many deployed at many watch posts along the border. As one, it is our purpose to hold back the ever-encroaching Realm of Chaos. Where it oozes into the Borderlands, the Realm sires its vile progeny, the Spawn. If left unchecked, these grotesque creatures would fill the Borderlands before spreading into the Homelands to overwhelm us and the other countries of the Rationalle with disorder and pestilence. For aeons we have fought to hold them back. Wild, mindless and untameable, the Spawn cannot be reasoned with. They can only be killed. It is for exactly this gruesome task that we have come.
We trek on as the jagged ice crystals gradually give way to fat flakes, drifting down to carpet any surface flat enough. It is getting warmer too. Not wanting the settled snow to melt and soak me through, I begin brushing it from my coat and breeches. Even stuck together, the dislodged flakes drift like gossamer to the ground. By the third turn in the track, the leading horses are kicking through deep drifts, stirring up the snow to land on those that following. I fold down my collar and open the top buttons on my coat. How can there be so much snow and it still be so warm?
I take off my gloves and wipe the snow from my thigh with a bare hand. The flakes feel gritty. A few stick to my skin. They don’t feel cold. My skin stings from the heat as I watch them melt. Steam is rising from the damp cuff of my coat. My mind cartwheels. I reach out to test the mane of my horse. The hair snaps and crumbles beneath my fingers. I reach further. His right ear is frozen hard, but not with frostbite, it feels more like… stone!
I race through my memory of the contents of the Aether Guard manual. In response to every imaginable danger, each page describes a threat and the best countermeasures to defeat it. Built up over the aeons and in grudging testament to the creativity of the Realm of Chaos, it has many pages. So very many pages. At least they are neatly sorted and indexed: Environmental threats; Weather patterns; Winter; Snow; Hot. The image of the page in question pops into sharp focus in my mind. “GEESFLOGGEN! COVER UP! EVERYTHING, NOW!” There is no chance for orderly instructions. I look back down the line. The guards gawp at me in shock. “HORSES TOO!”
We have to cover up all exposed flesh. We mustn’t let the snow settle on us, let alone melt on our skin. Twisting in the saddle, I drag my cloak from my pack and throw it over my horse’s neck and head. I hope I am not so rough that I snap his poor ear. I check the withers. His blanket and my packs cover most of his rear. Though his tail sticks out a little, hopefully he’ll only lose some hair. Sliding my visor into place, I wrap a large kerchief round my helmet to veil the remaining openings. Though the silk makes everything hazy, it is just thin enough to see through. I cannot afford to leave even the eye slits free. Struggling back into my gloves, I squint out, trying to judge if everyone has followed my command and example.
“Everything covered?” My question draws a handful of shouts. Most are positive. It’ll have to do. What now? We cannot afford to stand here any longer, we’ll just turn to rock where we stand. I pray that it hasn’t started happening to our horses’ legs already. We could turn, but heading back up the hill will take too long, especially if the wind has drifted the geesfloggen deeply on the track. We’ll be statues before we ever reach the watch post. I think of the stunted trees and my skin creeps.
We need to head down, get below the snow line so that the flakes melt high overhead before ever reaching the ground. “Follow me! Single file. Keep to my tracks!” My heels dig deep, launching us down the path. We need speed. Not only will we get to safety sooner, but at full gallop the horses take bigger strides. The less often their poor hooves touch the geesfloggen the better. The scarf helps to keep some of the wind from my eyes, but things are still flashing past in a silken blur. I hope I can make out the track clearly enough to make every turn and not barrel us all off a cliff.
The sound of our charge is beginning to change. On the powdery flakes the hooves are muffled and dull. Now our stampede occasionally drums and echoes back from the hillsides as the ground briefly hardens. The snow is melting in patches. As we ride through them, I can feel how my horse’s hooves squirm for purchase whenever they hit slushy patches or the wet stones beneath pooling water. My horse must be tiring but he manages to stay upright despite galloping blind over such variable terrain. If he turns a hoof, we are all done for.
Beneath my scarf the hot damp is unbearable. On the outside, the flakes are forming a damp grey mush, clogging the fine pores of the textile, seeping through as steaming water. It is becoming a struggle to draw air. Knocking the slush away, I take a deep breath. My lips burn as the damp is sucked from the silk. Droplets of scalding water coat my throat and lungs. I cough, feeling how my phlegm comes up like egg shells. I spit out the grains of mucous, but the scarf catches them so that they trickle down to scratch against my collar.
My eyes are watering from the relentless coughing. Combined with the scarf’s increasing opacity, following the track has become pure guesswork. Fresh air washes over the corner of my face as I pull back a fold of the scarf and hazard an unprotected glance beyond. Blinking hard, I get a heart’s beat of clear vision as the wind carries away the stinging teardrop. The geesfloggen has turned to sleet. It still scalds where it strikes my cheek but its power to turn us to stone is ebbing. Soon it will just be water again. I pull back the scarf a little more and take a cautious lungful of air before clearing the remains of the sand from my throat.
Freeing my face completely, I squint forward into the sleet. Though I must blink continuously, the kraulikt is stronger now, probably as bright as it is ever going to get. The pale grey slushy streak of the track is easy to follow as it winds between the dark damp of the fir trees. I look back at my guards, trying to gauge if everyone is keeping up. Stretched past the last bend, it is impossible to tell. I look forward again. It is almost too late.
Ahead, melt water has cut a deep gulley through the loose earth of the track. With my horse still running blind beneath my cloak, we might have run straight into it, crippling the horse and throwing me Ancients know how far into the trees. We can’t afford to slow and it is too close to stop now anyway. At the last moment, I haul my mount into the air and he leaps the gurgling stream. As we land on the far side, I cannot check if the others have made the jump. Another stream is directly before us.
With the last of the sleet left well behind us and even the grey mush finally petered out, I breathe a sigh of relief and bring my horse to a gentle halt. The change in weather has not come a moment too soon. The last few poisoned trees at the bottom edge of the forest have almost completely thinned away as the ground levels. In barely more than an arrow’s flight, the track runs out onto the barren plains of the Borderlands. If the geesfloggen had persisted right down into the lowlands, there would have been no escape. We would have petrified for sure.
The first of the guards have already caught up. As we wait for the others, I dismount to check the condition of my steed. I pull off my gloves and run my hand over his flank. Lathered and snorting heavily from the charge, he probably wouldn’t have lasted much longer.
Draping my sodden coat over the saddle bags, I set to work giving him a more thorough inspection from the ground up. Though the hooves are looking bad, the shoes should keep them together well enough and the leather shin guards have saved his lower legs from the worst of it. As I suspected, the tail is a goner, but just like the hooves, we can probably grow it out again when we get back. Otherwise, the blankets, saddle and packs covered everything else and saved most of his hide.
I wince at the thought, almost but not quite all his hide.
I turn my attention to the cloak still draped over his sagging neck and head. I peel it back tenderly, careful not to damage anything too brittle. Thankfully, despite the weight of my cloak during the charge, the frozen ear has survived without being snapped. However, it is hot to the touch, like sun-baked slate. It is not just the ear either. The rocky palsy has followed the track of the melt down the side of his head. Though the very corner of the eyelid has gone hard, the eyeball remains untouched. Thank the spirits for such small blessings.
All in all, it is not nearly as bad as I had feared. With the right invocations it might be possible to completely fix him up on the spot. However, I need to assess the rest of the patrol first. There may be other cases to prioritise. We do not have an unlimited supply of spirit dust.
The trickle of guards has now ended, but a quick roster and status assessment of the patrol brings good and bad news. With few horses worse off than mine and only one guard with a stony patch in his cheek, we should be able to count ourselves lucky. However, something else worries me. Three guards are missing, amongst them Wynter. A look back up the track reveals no sign of them.
I don’t quite know how to feel. Patrolling the Borderlands is dangerous. Sadly, even minor slips can prove fatal. Nevertheless, until now I have never lost a single man on patrol and now three all at once? Impulsively, I pull out the Metronisms and check the dials. The needles have hardly moved. Is it a record to suffer such a big loss so early in a patrol? I gather in my hope. My Sergeant is as capable as they come. He surely wouldn’t lose it so easily, not to geesfloggen of all things.
I check the Metronisms again. Though infinitesimal, the needles have crept on. “Shit, Wynter. Where the fuck are you?” It is barely a mumble but the guards close to me still hear it. Everyone is looking anxious. Regardless of what may have happened, I can’t let morale drop. It could prove fatal as we continue to patrol, as continue we must. I punch the nearest guard in the arm. “What are you looking like a smacked arse for? It’s not you that’s going to get a whipping for dawdling behind the patrol!” He gives a half smile and I start handing out trivial errands and tasks to keep everyone busy. It’ll give Wynter and the other two a last chance to catch up before we assume the worst and leave them behind.
A thought makes me shudder. There is only one track to the watch post. We will have to pass them on the way back. Just as I force the image from my mind’s eye, one of the guards set to sentry duty gives a shout. He is pointing back up the track. Two horses have come into view. Hopefully, we have not lost all three guards after all. I squint into the haze of the kraulikt. They descend more slowly than we did. Top heavy with strange bulbous loads, they come at barely more than a trot. Are they my men? If so, which ones and what are they carrying?
As they draw close, I make out a third head riding pillion behind the sergeant. So, we have only lost a horse. When Wynter eventually pulls up alongside me, it is clear that the extra baggage is the pack and supplies from the third horse. “In the name of the Supreme Creators, Sergeant! It’s good to see you again.”
Wynter’s teeth flash as he grins like a child with a toffee apple. “Same here, Captain.”
I give a gasp as I take in the condition of their clothing. “What happened to you? Are you badly injured?” They are covered from head to foot in blood.
Wynter shakes his head. “Nothing to worry about.” He wipes some of the gore from his sleeve. It crumbles and falls like brick dust. “This isn’t ours. It’s from the horse we butchered.”
“You butchered a horse? Did you think a quick sacrifice to the spirits might help the situation or something?”
Wynter and his passenger have dismounted now. He shakes his head again as they pat themselves down. “It was a goner, went stone lame all the way up one back leg. No way it was going to make it down here. However, I couldn’t very well leave young Reegel here to the same end, could I?” He gives the junior an affectionate cuff on the back of the head. “However, Reegel without his weapons and food was just going to be an even bigger hinderance than he usually is, so we had to unpack his horse and transfer everything over to the other two.”
“How did you not all turn to stone, messing around for so long in the snow?”
“That’s where the butchering came in. I figured that the geesfloggen turns you to stone wherever it touches and melts on your flesh. Rather than letting Reegel’s horse turn gradually to rock, we slit its throat mercifully and covered ourselves and the remaining horses in its entrails before they went hard. Worked a treat.” He dusts more petrified blood from his horse’s flank. “We might look like the final battle, but underneath, everything has stayed healthy. It is certainly a trick worth remembering.”
It’s my turn to shake my head. “I struggle to imagine gory blood dances in the entrails of a freshly slaughtered guard horse ever making it into the Aether Guard operational manual, but I may be wrong.”
“You should read all the way through to the end. There is some pretty messed up stuff buried in there!” His grin broadens.
I shrug. “Anyway, we now have to decide what to do with Guardsman Reegel and his kit. He can’t very well jog along behind carrying it, can he?” Wynter opens his mouth to speak but I hold my hand up. “You three need to clean yourselves up a bit and take a breather. I’ll make the arrangements.” Wynter nods and I start to reorganise the packs and riders. Reegel’s kit is soon shared out and I assign another of the lighter guards to share a horse with him.
With everything in place and the gory three dusted down, I reinspect the injuries together with Wynter. “So Sergeant, what do you think? Do we have adequate spirit dust to fix all the damage?”
He scratches his cheek and looks back at the hills we have come from. “Maybe.”
“That’s not the assured answer I’ve come to expect from you, Sergeant.”
He shrugs. “The injuries are quite minor so it’s not really the dust that I am concerned about. It’s the location. You know, the farther we get away from the Homelands and the nearer to the shadow wall of the Realm, the less predictable the outcomes of invocations become. We are already a bit further in than I would prefer.”
“We’ve been a lot deeper into the Borderlands before and used invocations.”
“Yes, but those were emergency situations. We didn’t have much to lose by that stage. Fortunately, everything went well. It was still a big risk.”
My brow furrows. “Are you suggesting we do nothing at all about the injuries?”
“No, but I suggest we use the absolute minimum of dust. We don’t need to restore everything perfectly. That can wait until we get back to the Homelands and be sure of the outcome. Now, we just need to soften things up a bit. Keep everything from snapping or shattering in a battle.”
It’s a fair point. “Very well. Let’s do it progressively. Only a couple of grains at each application. Give each patient multiple small treatments if need be. Once everything is reasonably supple, we’ll leave it at that.” He nods in agreement and we grab our pouches to begin the treatment.
I start with my own horse. Rubbing a few grains into his ear and face, I speak the words of the restoring invocation. “Leag Usdoga, dem pryfag, dem kog, dem nabraf.” It works, a little. The ear no longer feels like weathered rock. Now it is more like finely grained wood. I leave it and set to the next area of treatment. At the third visit, his skin starts to move beneath my rubbing. Once the grains have been worked in, his ear has flopped loosely against the side of his head and he can blink again without discomfort. He experiments with his ear. Perhaps he can feel it again, but though his good ear twitches and twists, the dud refuses to move on its own. He shakes his head in frustration. I pat his neck. “That shall have to do for now. We’ll get you fixed up properly once we get home.” He snorts in disappointment. “No need to pout. You’re still my favourite horse. In fact, I think it might even suit your lovably cheeky character.” He nuzzles my hand and I give him a reassuring rub between the eyes. With our first aid completed, we mount up and set off into the grey expanse. No more merely trying to survive. Now we will take the fight to the Borderlands.