Nothing in the Academy had prepared him for this.
Adalgis was no pampered nobleboy. Despite his upbringing and despite what barracks chatter would have the grunts believe, he had experienced hardship. But everything in the Inland Army had to be a cock-waving contest. Which, if considered on a philosophical level, made a certain degree of sense. War was the ultimate cock-waving contest, wasn’t it.
Their unit was in the process of clearing a village, long-abandoned by the look of things. Overgrown fields. The Narlanders had dug up what they could eat and moved on. Locals never came back. Some recent tracks according to Sergeant Chou. Scavengers, possibly. It was the fifth such village in as many days.
Adal directed his team to sweep the remaining structures, and when that turned up nothing, he directed them to take a short break. In the central clearing, what may have passed for a trading square in happier times, a squat stone-ringed well promised fresh water. After a hard day’s recon, a sip of well-cool water sounded like Adal’s idea of paradise.
Yet the smell that greeted him when he bent over the well sent bile and his meager lunch threatening at the back of his throat.
Something wasn’t right.
“Roan, Chou,” he called. “One of you have a torch?”
The ring of stones gaped like an abyss. It likely only went down a couple hundred feet, but without a light, who was to say.
All eager for a drink, the rest of the Fourth Recce crowded around him. He wasn’t the only one to comment on the smell.
Corporal Roan produced a torch, and Adal struck flint to light it. He leaned down, thrusting the oily rags as far into the dark as he could, and what stared back robbed him of his breath.
From the gape of the well, sunken-eyed corpses peered up at him, their mouths and eyesockets thick with writhing grubs. Bodies were heaped there in the dark, no sense of ceremony to the way these dead had been disposed of. Men, women, children, all thrown together in a limp, lifeless pile. Though some did not appear to have been lifeless when they were dumped: ragged-tipped fingers, their nails flaked off, still clung to the slick stone walls.
The face closest to his own had only just begun to slough, sunken cheeks and lips peeled too far back begging silently upward for hope that never came. When he could next breathe, he caught a lungful of the smell.
His scream rang off the wellstones.
Reeling backward, lunch returning with a vengeance as he spewed all over his officers’ boots, Adal steadied himself against the well. But touching it, Gods, touching it just disgusted him further. He bent double, hands on his knees, retching.
The torch fell from his shaking fingers and caught a small drift of dry grass alight. Riss Chou stomped over and crushed it out, grinding her bootheel on the ground. She must have been watching over his shoulder, because a crack had appeared in her staunch exterior. She too looked on the verge of throwing up.
A bolt sliced through the air inches from Adal’s face, splintering into fragments as it impacted the well. Splinters bit into his cheek.
Another bolt buried itself in Roan’s throat, and he went down screaming, hand to his neck.
“Ambush!” Adal yelled, as if that weren’t obvious. “Take cover!”
He rushed to Roan, kneeling. The young man–still so young his face was flecked with acne–gurgled horribly, trying to dislodge the projectile from his airway. For all the good it would do. It wasn’t the bolt that was choking him; it was his own blood.
“Come, lad, sit up,” Adal urged him, a hand to his shoulder. Roan, wheezing crazily, grabbed at the offered hand and pulled at him, a high-pitched keening bubbling half from his mouth and half from his ruptured neck.
Adal tried to steady himself, yanked off balance by the panicking soldier dying at his feet. More arrows were coming, along with a scattered blast of buckshot that tore chunks off scenery and body alike. He hunched over Roan, angling his shoulders to shield the man as best he could with his own mass. Arrows alone might have been bandits. But if they had firearms, chances are this was Narlish Army. A setup? How had he walked right into–
“Lieutenant get fucking down!”
He turned toward the voice as if in a dream. Private Bissett crouched against the frame of a dilapidated building, beckoning him.
He’d waltzed them right into this mess. They were never going to reach Gaspard in time if–
A body slammed into his own, freeing him from Roan’s bloodied grasp.
Adal tried to protest, but someone shouted leave him in his face and it was all he could do not to whimper yes ma’am and then Sergeant Chou, Riss Chou, the hardass, she was dragging him behind the well and out of the line of fire, pushing herself against him, slapping a hand over his stammering mouth.
“Lieutenant, shut your face and listen to me.” Eyes boring into his like daggers. “We can’t do anything for Roan or the people in the well.”
He knew it was true but he didn’t want to say it. It felt like a personal failure on his part.
“Aren’t consciences daft,” he croaked, eyes welling with tears. She snarled and grabbed him harder by the jaw. Her grip was enough to grind his teeth together.
“I can get you out of this,” she hissed. “But you are relinquishing command of this unit to me before you get us all fucking killed.”
They billeted in the next village over, also abandoned. It didn’t feel far enough away.
Riss, true to her word, had gotten them out of it. She and a couple of the lighter-footed scouts successfully flanked the gunners and the crossbowman, drove them into the waiting arms of Adal and Bissett. It was swift and precise and nothing Adal would have been able to accomplish on his own.
Nobody was in a talking mood. Roan’s ribbons weighed heavy in his pocket, like they were lead instead of gold. He and Riss would pin them on Bissett later. He’d earned them. But not now.
Everyone retreated to their own private silences and grief.
Adal staked out the backroom of their chosen billet, a semi-private space with a brick fireplace and a disused altar. He peeled the mostly-melted nubs of a few candles off the altar table, tucked them into the fireplace, and lit them.
“That’s about three different kinds of bad luck, Lieutenant.”
Riss’ broad-shouldered frame filled the doorless doorway. She leaned against the wood, gazing down at him, her expression tough to read.
“No smoke on patrol, yes yes, I know.” Adal had no excuses. He simply couldn’t bear to spend the night in the dark, not after what he’d seen.
“Chimney should eat the worst of it. Won’t do the same for the vengeful spirits whose worship you’re fuckin’ up, but hey.”
“I’ll leave an offering in the morning, perhaps.” The last thing on his mind was someone else’s provincial hearth god or pissy ancestors.
Riss slid down the doorway until she was cross-legged on the floor. She made herself at home beside his bedroll, not asking permission. Not that he’d have withheld it after what she did. Envy flashed in him like lightning, there and gone. She always looked so comfortable, like she belonged everywhere she chose to plant her ass by virtue of simply choosing to sit there. Adal wondered what it was like to move through the world like that. To not constantly wonder whether one was out of place.
“Come to lay down the rules of the new command?” He meant it as a joke. Mostly. It came out more bitter than he intended.
Riss’ eyebrows knit together.
“No, uh.” She looked surprised he’d even suggest such a thing. “I wanted to see how you were feeling. And to apologize.”
How he was feeling?
“Not the best,” he admitted.
“Yeah, no shit.” She drummed her fingertips on a knee. For once, she seemed mildly agitated. The nervous motion was unlike her. For all their time together in the Fourth Recce–and it had been half a season now–she’d never shown a lick of anxiety.
“I’ll survive.” Adal lifted a hint of a smile. He meant it, too. The day had veered sharply from horror to dismay to embarrassment, but it was far from the worst he’d ever suffered.
“With me looking out for you? You sure will.” Her eyes narrowed. A joke?
Seconds ticked by. Adal turned his head and watched the tiny flames of the candles dance. Riss hadn’t left yet. He wasn’t sure why. He was a little nervous about asking. They’d shared no bad blood, but they weren’t exactly close.
“Permission to speak freely, sir?”
He choked back a full-on guffaw.
“You’re practically sitting on my pillow, Sergeant. Permission by this point is implied.”
Riss unwrapped something from her belt with a crinkle of wax paper. It was a small bar of chocolate impressed with a four-point seal. Amaveloro’s, a luxury trader out of Medao. Contraband goods if caught in the hands of someone wearing their uniform.
“I swiped this off one of the dead Narlies,” she said, snapping the bar in two. “Promise.”
Adal took the chocolate, dumbfounded. It was dark and smooth, leaning more toward bitter than sweet. He took slow, nibbling bites, savoring it. With the blockade in place, who knew when he’d get the chance to savor northern chocolate again.
“It was a dumb, dumb thing you did back there,” said Riss. Ah, so the chocolate was to soften the blow. Adal puffed out his chest a little and prepared to take his licks. A lecture from his Sergeant was a predictable finale to a day like this.
He didn’t disagree with her that he’d chosen poorly.
“Nothing you could have done could have saved him. And you know that. And I think you knew it then too.” Oh. She was talking about Roan. Adal remained silent while she continued.
“Roan and I came up through Selection together.” A pause. “When I saw him go down, I duck-and-covered. It was the practical thing to do. You went to him instead.”
Adal’s stomach tightened. He didn’t know what she wanted him to say. He didn’t know what he wanted to say. It had been reflex. Some insane, impractical part of him had thought Roan stood a chance.
“I was tough on you. Tougher than I should have been. You have every right to discipline me for saying what I did.”
“It wasn’t incorrect,” Adal said, atonal. “The unit would likely fare better under your command.”
Riss could scout circles around most of them. Gaspard Marcinen had his eye on her. She was destined for bigger and better things–and wetter, quieter work–than most of the Fourth. They were lucky to have her as long as they had.
“It was out of line.” Riss leaned back into his field of vision, her short fringe falling into her eyes.
“What do you want, Sergeant? Want me to whip you or reprimand you in earshot of the others?”
That got a laugh out of her.
“No, sir.” Her expression took on a more serious cast, her lips tight. “But… I want to help you. Like you tried to help Roan. The Academy spits out a lot of brass who only care about earning jewelry for their lapels. And a lot of sadists with short man syndrome who’d have had my hide for what I said to you. You aren’t either of those.”
They were scouts, sure, but the parts of him the Academy had hammered smooth still rang with her insults. Yet she wasn’t wrong. He knew both those types. But it was terribly impolite to say all that.
Wearily, Adal sized her up. Still waters ran deep, he supposed. There was more to her than he’d assumed.
After the day they’d had, he was too tired to remind her of decorum.
“Thank you,” he said instead.
The Army made compatriots out of strangers. And friends out of the most unlikely people.
“We can look out for one another,” Riss said, like he’d already signed some blood pact.
“I believe that’s the goal already,” he deadpanned. “Keep one another alive. Ideally the whole unit.”
“You know what I mean.” She eased back to her feet, straightened her coat. “I’m a conscript. I didn’t volunteer for this crap. So you’d better believe I’m getting more out of this war than simply staying alive.”
Adal hadn’t ever thought of it that way, but she had a point.