CHILD OF FIRE AND BLOOD
Spending years watching one after another of her family pass to the afterlife, Bodderil had dutifully stepped into the role of overseeing the daily functions of the only home she could recall ever knowing. Despite being Theron’s niece, Bodderil had been raised as a daughter of the manor since the deaths of Theron’s brother and sister-in-law and tended Theron’s holdings as such in his absence. Though only one of many minor lords of the Seventh Tribe, Theron the Swift as the head of a Charis’colia family had steadfastly immersed himself in the Southern Campaigns when called to service by the Crimson Throne. Under the guise of warrior’s duty, he suppressed the grief over his dead family by drowning it in distraction and the blood of others.
As on most days in Alban, snow fell on swirling winds as Bodderil approached the family’s shrine in the sheltered courtyard on the mansion’s west side. As she expected, she found Davees Gensdan, the manor’s armsman, on his knees in a meditative state. He had become predictable enough that he could usually be found there at about the same time each day. Bodderil was unsure of his age, but expected such regularity from a military man of his years.
“Armsman,” she addressed him gently. “I am sorry to interrupt…It’s probably nothing…”
“Nonsense,” the elder veteran assured her, leaning on his studded club as he pushed back to his feet. “If you have a concern, taking care of it is what I’m here for,” he said, straightening his wool waistcoat and brushing the snow from his pants.
“Are you alright?” she asked him, her eyes working their way up to his weathered face.
“Nothing for you to be concerned about, my lady,” he told her.
“My uncle is a warrior, you know,” she reminded him, leaving the courtyard with the veteran escorting her. “So was his brother, my father, and their father…”
“You’re trying to tell me something.”
“I’ve read the faces of warriors before,” she said. “There’s much you’re trying to hide, things from your past that plague you still.”
“Snow-covered stone does my knees little good,” he laughed, “but it’s my own fault for continuing to pray there.”
“They must be terribly troubling memories, then,” Bodderil said. “In future, perhaps you should add kneepads to your prayers for peace.”
“Or younger knees,” he said as they walked through the snow toward the manor house’s front doors. “The kneepads I own are a part of my…old life, a uniform I’m sworn to wear no longer.”
“Well, I trust you will not require it today,” she said, looking out across the snowy grounds. “Perimeter sensors at the front gate indicated we have a visitor approaching. It is far too soon for the maid and cook to be back from market.”
“Were you expecting someone?” he asked.
“No, Armsman Gensdan,” she said. “That is why I collected you. Had I been expecting company, you would already have been aware.”
“Of course, my lady,” he said, narrowing his eyes to focus through the windblown snows. “Forgive me.”
“Forgive yourself, armsman,” she told him. “Whatever troubles you, leave it in the past.”
“There,” he said, pointing into the distance. “Looks like a skimmer, humming this way fast, though moving oddly. It’s definitely not our supply truck.”
“A single rider. Well, that should make the day a little more interesting,” she said, pulling the collar of her coat tighter about her long neck. “Perhaps it’s a courier from Uncle Theron.”
“I suppose it’d be too much to ask you to wait inside while I find out,” he proposed.
“I’ll wait by the door,” she said, taking a few steps back, “but I don’t want to miss anything.”
“Fine,” the armsman said, “just remember to stay behind me.”
The swift snow skimmer slowed to a stop, the soldier aboard standing tall as he climbed off the sleek, but damaged vehicle.
“Good day,” he greeted them, quickly looking both of them over. “I am Lieutenant Oulerat. Are these the lands of Lord Theron?”
“They are,” Gensdan replied. “Why are you bleeding on them?”
“My injuries are minor,” he said, trying to force a smile, “almost pleasant, considering my encounter with a hungry blood bear that required some effort to drive off.”
“A blood bear? Arrecol’s beard!” Bodderil gasped as she stepped forward. “Are you sure you’re alright?”
“I’ve seen worse in battle, I assure you,” the lieutenant said. “More urgently, though, I’ve come to see Lord Theron. I have a message for him, a commendation of merit from his majesty.”
“An honor to be sure,” Bodderil noted, “but he is not present. My uncle remains in service in the Southern Campaigns.”
“Are you certain?” Oulerat asked. “I was told he would be here.”
“Perhaps, then, he is on his way,” Bodderil smiled, “and we have merely not yet received word of his return. What a welcome joy. Come inside, officer. I will see you refreshed and have that wounded arm tended while we wait.”
“I have something to make any pain from that wound a distant memory,” Armsman Gensdan said.
“I wouldn’t want to be thought of as a warrior who couldn’t handle some insignificant discomfort,” Oulerat said as his arm continued to drip precious crimson.
“Whatever relief my armsman has to offer,” Bodderil said, “we won’t tell a soul.”
“With my lady’s leave, I will retrieve it from my quarters and meet you in the front parlor.”
“That will do, armsman,” she said, gesturing for the handsome young officer to follow her through the front door. “Come, lieutenant, enjoy the warmth of our fire.”
“Many thanks,” he said, starting to remove his helmet before even entering the manor house. “This humble servant of the crown is unworthy of your noble hospitality.”
“Nonsense,” Bodderil replied. “Your bravery and sacrifice bring you all due reward.”
“Thank you,” Lieutenant Oulerat said, raising his arm to the level of his shoulder. “I’ll try not to bleed on anything.”
Alban had been engaged in a forty-sixth year of fighting across the Sambertan Archipelago. A fifth of the planet was under bitter contention as disparate factions struggled for control of the ten islands, large and small. The seemingly endless conflicts between the Feren Nationalists and the Tintorio Union became escalating stages of using increasingly unconventional and ruthless warfare. No matter how deeply any of the participants descended into inhumanity, they found justification for their decisions.
The Feren were dedicated to a cause they labeled "geographic purity", professing that people should remain in whatever lands which they had ancestral origin. Their nationalist forces enthusiastically slaughtered anyone who resisted their ideas of order. The goals of the Feren Nationalists put them at odds with the territorial Tintorio Union. Espousing the teachings of the venerated Kajra Tintorio, the Tintorio Union fought for its populace to live free from any foreign influence. The Daskine Dynasty sought to extend its “divinely granted dominion” over the resource-rich territory seized by the rebellious Kajra Tintorio. An overcommitment to reclaiming the wilderness occupied by the Tintorio Union blinded the Daskine to a power grab by the Quitachi family, controllers of most of the region’s food producing land, until it was too late to avert. Leaping into the political battleground with a death toll exceeding five thousand in a single day, the Quitachi were rewarded with control over even more fertile lands and the removal of internal resistance. Stepping into power also put the Quitachi directly at odds with the Tintorio Union over manual laborers, each side’s leadership accusing the other of exploiting its workforce as slaves toiling in unsafe conditions.
Alban became embroiled in the bloody conflict supporting the Daskine Dynasty, the only faction that professed friendliness toward the northern monarchy. When power changed hands, Quitachi assurances of increased food shipments to the north silenced any qualms that might have been given voice from the Crimson Throne. Uniting with the Quitachi’s mercenary army, the Albani found an alliance that brought continued benefits from the Southern Campaigns no matter the goals of any faction.
“Get out of that heavy coat and hold this over your wound with enough pressure to stop the blood,” Bodderil told Oulerat, handing him a dark towel as she rejoined him in the parlor.
“Thank you, mistress.”
“No trouble at all,” she told him. “Would you prefer wine or vitarae?”
“Just a little vitarae, if it’s no trouble,” the officer answered, secretly looking forward to dulling the additional pain he was causing himself by applying pressure to the gash in his upper arm.
“No trouble at all,” she said, taking a glass from the beverage cart. “I could probably even find some laquina if you want to test yourself. We don’t keep much of it, but the armsman will drink nothing else.”
“With nothing else in my stomach,” he told her, “I think the vitarae is all I should dare now.”
“Understandable,” she smiled, pouring him a half-glass of the golden brown liquid. “Have you spent any time in the war down there?”
“No, not yet,” he told her. “My postings have kept me closer to home. I’ve seen a little combat, dealing with pirates, but I’ve been talking to some senior officers who said I may get a chance at some real action soon.”
“Well, I wish you all the grace of the gods,” she said, handing him the glass. “May glory be heaped upon you.”
“Serve well. Die well,” he said.
“Why don’t you tell us about it?” the armsman asked, suddenly beside the distracted lieutenant before he realized what was happening.
The aged head of security hammered the officer’s damaged arm with a hard staff strike. The younger man tried to mask his reaction, but his clenched teeth and watering eyes betrayed him. He tried to get to his feet, but his attacker knocked him to the floor.
“Gensdan, what are you doing?” Bodderil asked, rushing toward the men despite her shock at the sudden violence.
“Stay back, mistress,” Gensdan warned, never taking his eyes from his floored target. “This boy’s been lying to you.”
The armsman put the bladed point of his lance to the lieutenant’s navel and one foot on his bleeding arm, applying pressure to both.
“Lying? A-Are you sure?” Bodderil asked.
“This arm wound wasn’t caused by a blood bear,” the armsman said. “If it had been, the animal never would’ve been driven off. That’s why we call them blood bears. It would’ve followed you here unless you killed it, which is not an easy feat with a blood-frenzied bear. More likely, he attacked the manor’s supply truck and killed the maid and cook.”
“What? No,” Bodderil protested with a horrified whisper.
“The damage to the snow skimmer is consistent with a truck collision,” Gensdan explained, pressing harder with the lance. “He thinks he’s here to kill your uncle and anyone else who gets in his way. Isn’t that right, Oulerat?”
“Speak, boy,” Gensdan commanded, applying still more pressure to the soft abdomen beneath the point of his lance. “Explain to the gracious lady how a commendation such as you described would only be presented in Crown City, or didn’t you know that?”
“Theron murdered my father!” Oulerat yelled, hot tears streaming from his eyes. “He has to pay for that. It’s my duty…”
“No doubt, you were told of Lord Theron’s hand in Major Oulerat’s death by the same person who told you his lordship would be found here,” Gensdan said.
“Yes,” Lieutenant Oulerat confirmed. “Yes. How did you…?”
“I knew your father,” Gensdan said, “during service in Sambartan. He strived to be a decent man…a good warrior.”
“But Uncle Theron, he didn’t…”
“No, child,” Gensdan assured her, taking his foot off the lieutenant’s arm. “Theron the Swift may have stains on his record that go unspoken in public, but this boy’s father is not among them. As memory serves, he was in another unit, on an entirely different campaign, nowhere near Oulerat’s death. Get up, boy.”
“You were there, in the Southern Campaigns?” Bodderil asked him. “How do you know my uncle and his father?”
“And why was I given this?” Lieutenant Oulerat asked, holding out a message crystal as he struggled back to his feet.
The armsman removed a glove and took the crystal in his hand. As the warmth of his aged flesh triggered a reaction, ancient gray eyes whose owner would say had already seen far too much stared into the faceted stone.
“The Lost Prince,” the armsman spoke quietly as an image formed in the heart of the clear crystal. “This should be interesting.”
“Your first step toward redemption,” the image spoke, “may be found in reclamation of your honor. My gift to you.”
“Hmmm…then, map locations,” Gensdan said, the stone continuing to chatter in his mind even as he lowered his hand and looked at the others staring at him. “Here and then to the northeast.”
“What does it mean?” Bodderil asked him. “Why send him here? Davees, please…”
“I don’t understand,” Oulerat complained. “What is it you know, old man?”
“In what was considered by many to be the darkest times of the Sambartan warfare,” Gensdan explained, “there were deliberate civilian casualties, entire towns destroyed for the slightest hint of resistance or merely to make examples for others. Some argued they harbored hidden threats that voided any protective civilian status. Who knows? There were many accusations and internal conflicts among the Albani and the Daskine, some leading to their overthrow by the Quitachi and their army. Ultimately, General Karra was one of those deemed to hold primary responsibility.”
“General Talin Karra?” Oulerat asked.
“Yes, Karra the Butcher,” he said. “None other. In consideration of his years of extraordinary service, he was granted quiet exile to live out his days in infamy rather than face a full war crimes tribunal and possible execution.”
Removing a simple bracelet from his left wrist, Davees Gansden’s image altered. White hair became black and gray, the lines in his face became more severe, his beard more full and his build thicker and more imposing. The friendly, fatherly armsman Bodderil had known was replaced by a hardened warrior who bore the weight of experiences he could not leave behind him.
“Arrecol’s beard and hounds,” Bodderil said. “An illusion? All these years?”
“A necessary deception, child,” he told her, “for your safety as much as my own.”
“You’re General Karra,” Oulerat said.
“Yes, boy,” he acknowledged, leveling his stormlance at the young officer. “The message was for me. I killed your father and without your family’s accusations to stand against me--”
Lightning flashed from the shining blade of the enchanted stormlance. Brilliant light and the sound of thunder filled the parlor, the lightning’s energy hurling the slender lieutenant backward. The officer’s lifeless body flew over the couch to land smoldering on the floor like a discarded child’s toy.
“--it would seem my story is not so near its end as I’d thought,” Karra said.
“Arms…General Karra,” she said, her voice trembling with uncertainty, “I…owe you my thanks, I believe.”
“Some, I suppose,” he said, “though I put little stock in slaying fools.”
“As always, you have served this house well,” she said. “You should be rewarded. Certainly, if you wish to continue here, there is no need for your shamed past to be revealed. You have my oath as a member of the Colia, I will tell no one.”
“I’ve been made an offer to restore my name,” he reminded her. “Nowhere in my heart have I yet found belief that I will ever know forgiveness, no matter how much I pray or meditate.”
“So you think that being remembered well will be enough?” she asked, taking his ungloved hand in her slender ones. Her soft, porcelain hands were barely half the size of his calloused hand, but she held it sandwiched as she implored, “Look at the blood that’s already been spilled. What cost for redemption in name only?”
“There’s no way to dispel the images I see when I close my eyes,” he said patiently, “nor to quiet the screams of my many, many victims. Changing my face does not hide me. Sleep provides no escape. There is a chance before me, though, just a chance…that history might record me as a hero rather than a villain. I ask myself what price would be too high for that and pray that I will know the answer before I go too far.”
“It sounds as though you will yet have use for that old armor of yours,” she told him. “May glory be heaped upon your name.”
“General! General Karra!” one of his men called out to Karra more insistently. “Did you hear me, general? We pulled three bottles of laquina from your tent.”
General Karra realized he was still sitting before the yellow-orange flames of his blazing field command tent. Their hypnotic dance had set him adrift to fall prey to his memories.
“Just place them here beside me,” he commanded, “and get a bucket of water to chill them.” Spirits be praised, he reveled silently before the flames as he straightened himself in the wobbling chair he had been provided. Laquina may not hold off the visions that plague me, but at least it manages to make their coming survivable.
His heavy right hand reached down and checked the temperature of the waiting bottles as he resumed watching the dancing flames. When the first soldiers’ screams reached him, he was unsure they were real. Even as certainty set in, though, the weary general sat unmoving. The surreality of his situation carried a psychological inertia that closely resembled despair.
“No, leave it,” someone shouted in the night. “Don’t touch the damned frogs!”
“Get the doctors over here!” another soldier yelled. “We need doctors!”
Then, Karra remembered that sooner or later there was always screaming. There was no need to look. As a gift of his specialized experience, he could tell from the tone that there was blood. Blood always came with screams like those.