From his earliest days, Gaz had been forced to speak a language that wasn’t native to him. He’d had no intuition for it as a boy, hadn’t easily grasped the nonverbal cues that preceded violence. But he was big, and big kids got put to work guarding stairwells and shaking down debtors. Within a few short years, he was fluent in this new tongue he’d never asked for. And what he saw transpiring between Mafalda and Eber Hanley was worrying long before it came to blows.
Perhaps an artifact of those early years, Gaz rarely used his size to outright bully past people. But down in the ravine, with Riss summoned away by the alarm, he and Calay had lost their patience. They waited for a time, saw no further signals come from above, and decided to take a peek on their own. When Mafalda’s foreman objected, Gaz had just marched past him and given him an ugly glare, and he must have still had the old shit-eye down perfectly, because nobody followed them.
Now they clung to the climbing rig, gazing up over the edge of the cliff to the flats above, where the standoff appeared to be unraveling toward something ugly.
Cautious of peeking out so far as to make himself a target, Gaz ducked his head down. He squinted over at Calay, who held on with his bad arm, his good hand’s fingers twitching restlessly on a rung of the ladder.
“We’ve gotta do something,” Gaz said. “This is about to get bad.”
“No way he doesn’t have gunners on the roof, even if we can’t see them.” Calay bared his teeth, grimacing upward.
They both knew they had ways of getting through sentries. Even armed ones. But out there on the open salt? Rill’s people would see. Hanley’s people would see. And there was always a chance Hanley had some crack shot on his squad, someone who could put a lucky bullet between Calay’s eyes before he had a chance to—
He cut that thought off before it could fully form.
“You’ve been on that wagon.” Gaz tried to coach Calay toward a solution even as his own racing thoughts came up short. “There has to be something. A weak spot. A…”
Up above them, Hanley hit Mafalda with a vicious backhand. She went down hard. Gaz’s breath hiccupped in his throat.
“We can’t let him get those cannons hot.”
Calay needed no reminding of what hardware like that was capable of. When they’d escaped Vasile, they’d meandered down the coast, taking piecemeal work when they could. Frequently, this had been at overflow hospitals, tending to the carts of fresh wounded carried out from the inland front.
Gaz was no stranger to injuries and illness. His years working at the Indigents Clinic had inured him to a lot, but they had not prepared him for artillery.
He chose not to dwell on it now, even as he knew similar recollections must be crowding into Calay’s mind.
“There’s something,” Calay said, after what felt like an eternity. And then, after a shorter but still agonizing pause, “but I don’t… I don’t want to do it.”
Gaz’s brows knit. That caught him short. Calay’s decision-making usually came split-second, springing forth from some strange inner place equal parts calculation and whim. At its best it looked like mad genius and at its worst it looked like shit-poor impulse control.
Now, though, he was hesitant. And he’d voiced his hesitation, spoken it so openly. The knuckles of his good hand flexed uncomfortably, and his next breath stilled him. Falling into another stretch of prolonged silence, he watched Mafalda and in turn Gaz watched him.
Then the shutters on the big wagon all cranked open as it readied its gun-ports.
Calay let go of the ladder. He fell to the first of Rill’s platforms, and it shook a little as it took his weight. Gaz wanted to hiss at him to be more careful, but he saw now that darting quickness, that way some thought or another had spurred Calay onward, and he was relieved for it.
Gaz didn’t trust the scaffold not to buckle beneath him, so he climbed down the proper way. He planted his feet firm on the planks just in time to run full-on into Calay’s outstretched forearm. Calay held him back, staved him off with a strange and disproportionate strength he shouldn’t have had. Just another subtle change in the way his arm had regrown. Gaz obediently paused.
“Stay up here,” said Calay. “I’ve got to do this down in the wagon. Where no one can see.”
Calay was not normally resistant to using sorcery, not in a way that made him quiet and ill-at-ease. Before he could begin his descent, Gaz reached for the arm that had shoved him. His fingers wound around the wrist of Calay’s glove. It felt odd in his hand, too thick, the texture all wrong, the hard shell of bark tangible even below the leather.
“Hey,” he said. “Everything….?” Okay?
Calay looked up, the set of his mouth hard and grim.
“I’ll be fine.” He clasped his good hand over Gaz’s for a half-second, then wrenched himself free and began to climb down.
The last thing Gaz heard from him was, “You’ll know it’s working if it works.”
He did not have time to contemplate what that might be, because yelling from above drew his attention back toward the ladder. Worry set in. Every muscle in his body tensed for cannonfire. But when he got to the edge of the ravine again and peered up, the violence did not seem to have escalated. Hanley had retreated fully inside the shelter of his wagon, a thin figure in its doorway.
A thin, dry wind breathed a little life into the listless flats, and on it, he heard Hanley shout. Something about you’re making a mistake. He could no longer see Mafalda, which worried him, but watching Hanley stalk across the ground and back toward his wagon worried him more.
Come on, Calay. He didn’t even have a pistol on him. He’d be a sitting duck if discovered.
He had no idea how long it took to ready cannons for firing. Had heard only that it was a big, complex process, that the big war-wagons had needed crews of dozens. He imagined Hanley’s crew moving in concert, a well-oiled human machine bent on churning out machine-level violence, and he felt sick.
A few more precious seconds ticked by, and just when he was starting to think there was no way Calay could have worked his tricks in time, a thin, high sound reached his ears. Muted shrieking from the big, heavy wagon.
Hanley paused on its threshold and stared up toward the cannon-ports. His hand went to his hip. The shrieking continued unabated, rising in volume and growing more and more frantic. Gaz had screamed like that a few times in his life: once when he’d accidentally splashed boiling water on himself. Once when he’d stepped on a nail. That sudden shock, then the onset of pain, then the horrible combination of the two when you realized what had happened. Someone was realizing something painful now.
Moments later, a chorus of other voices joined in, cries of discomfort and confusion. They rose and fell, pitchy and unsteady, like the crying of a baby who wasn’t sure what it was crying about. The voices sounded young. Real young.
Gaz’s stomach tied itself in knots. He watched Hanley, who gripped a weapon of some kind from his belt, face too far away to read. Mafalda, meanwhile, had crept back into view, now near the closer of Nuso Rill’s two wagons. She wasn’t quite behind cover, but as the screaming continued to escalate, Hanley seemed disinclined to shoot. He rushed inside the wagon’s shadowed interior without ever opening fire. The cannon ports loomed open, staring across the Flats like vacant eyes, still slumbering.
Well, now he knew what Calay had meant. And why he hadn’t wanted to do it. Gaz didn’t know the specifics, but he didn’t have to. He could piece together the broad strokes. Calay had worked on one of Hanley’s boys—and ugh, the way everyone in town referred to them as Hanley’s boys made his skin crawl—and had saved him from an infected tooth. Gaz had to assume he’d harvested some blood along the way, and now…
Now he was casting glyphs with it for the sole purpose of inflicting that boiling-water, stepping-on-nail pain. On people who appeared to be children.
Turning away from the tableau topside, Gaz looked down into the ravine. Wrong move. The sheer plunge of rock and the distance from his feet to the ground hit him with a mild wave of vertigo. He gripped the ladder with white knuckles, and the longer he endured the sound of it, the more he came to find the pitchy, wailing screaming was worse at his back than when he was watching.
Founders, Calay. He swallowed. That’s enough! He’s inside! You’ve done what you had to do!
But of course, Calay couldn’t see that. Gaz couldn’t see him down below. He was sheltered in the remnants of their wrecked wagon.
How long would he keep it up? Could he even hear the screaming down there to know it was working?
Gaz let go of the ladder, in motion before his brain had even consciously decided to move. He bodied himself down the scaffold, climbing with an aim for speed over safety, and he missed several handholds on the way. Fortunately none of his slip-ups proved fatal, and his arms were throbbing and his palms were raw by the time he reached the ground. But at least he wasn’t a red smear in the dirt like their lizard.
His arrival drew attention, and that was fine, because he needed someone up there fast. He stalked up to the first of Mafalda’s goons in arm’s reach, a scruffy woman who wore her hair in a plait.
“Get…” He had to catch his breath before he could speak. “Get up top. Bring a lantern or a torch. Burn something if it looks like they’re gonna start shooting.” That’s what he tried to say, at least. He was pretty sure it came out more like get up top, bring lantern, burn something if shooting. When the woman just stared at him with a contemptuous expression, he reached down and grabbed a fistful of her shirt, yanking her up onto her tiptoes.
“Get up there!” he growled. “Nuso’s driving ‘em back, I think. Signal if that ain’t the case!”
He released his grip and she stumbled back to her feet, eyes the size of wagon wheels. She scurried for the ladder in a hurry. Everyone else gave him space as he ran for the wagon like hounds were nipping at his ankles. It did not occur to him that he was making a scene, nor that he should worry whether anyone followed him, nor that he should mind where he put his feet as he clambered through the wagon’s shattered shell. All that mattered was getting to Calay and stopping it.
Calay had hidden himself away in the most inaccessible possible corner of the wagon’s interior. Gaz found him in the ruined, cleared-out shell of the barracks. The curved beams of the wagon’s hull arched overhead, framing him on either side, and for a moment Gaz was struck by the impression that it seemed Calay had been swallowed by some great beast, trapped in its wooden ribcage.
He sat on the floor, one leg curled beneath him, the other stretched out straight. His gnarled arm clenched and unclenched spasmodically, and it stilled in a tight fist when Gaz stepped into view.
Something in the wagon’s great, listing frame creaked. The room was otherwise silent, so still that the air itself barely stirred as he crept in. So quiet that when blood dribbled from Calay’s clenched hand to the splintered wooden floor, he heard each individual droplet fall.
They spoke in unison, voices overlapping. Then they both fell quiet once again.
Hesitating a beat, Gaz cleared his throat. “It worked. I think. Whatever you did.”
Calay’s chest visibly inflated as he sucked in air. He nodded very slowly, like a man in a trance. His Adam’s apple worked up and down as he swallowed the thick, slow swallow of someone trying to hold onto their lunch.
Gaz couldn’t quite get a read on him. There was distress there in his face, but he wasn’t sure what kind. And with neither of them sure the immediate danger had passed, now was not the time to get into all that.
It occurred to him why the quiet down in the wagon seemed so total: the screaming had also felt that way. It had seemed to come from everywhere, filling his ears from all directions. Now in its absence, the world felt muffled the way it did in those first few hours after snow.
“Come on.” He stood over Calay, offering a hand down. “Can’t spend too long in here. They’ll start to wonder.”
“I told them we had weapons stashed in here,” Calay said. He gripped Gaz’s hand and pulled himself to his feet. He rose steadily, balance fine. These were good signs. Gaz was so used to seeing blood dripping off him in various amounts that it didn’t even occur to him that the blood might be Calay’s. He just wiped it off the glove and then patted some dust into the stains to half-assedly camouflage it.
Before they ducked back into the sunlight, he heard Calay inhale through his teeth. Tension stood out on his neck as he rubbed his jawline with a knuckle, discomfort shadowing his eyes even further than sleeplessness did by default.
Neither of them wanted to say it. But they were thinking it all the same.
We said we’d never use it like that. We promised.
Now that that promise had been broken, would future lapses come easier?