1. The Mourning After
THE MOURNING AFTER
AHEAD OF EVIE, DOORS OF rotting wood are flung open. The sun is a curse shouted into her eyes, and she is prodded by the impatient end of a club up the mucky membrane of the darkened tunnel and out into the light of day. She feels soft, mostly even terrain under her moccasin-covered feet. She holds up a dirty hand, saluting the void of sharp gold filling her vision, and blinking until the motion snaps the world around her into something akin to focus.
The space is vast and walled and forgotten. It must have been a training field for soldiers once, no doubt covered by green grass that is now just a memory made of yellow bladed husks. Broken wooden men slouch from their buried tree trunk bases, as if the hapless vague bipedal shapes are supplicating in defeat. Practice weapons dangle from rusty, loosened nails at the end of sticks mimicking an enemy’s sword arm.
There are stubby little men and women armed with blunt sticks prodding them along, Evie and the rest of the drunks and dregs and bandits from the Capitol’s dungeon, herding them like feed into the center of the field.
“Form a line!” a voice shouts with all the power and rage of a minor god burdened by their peers with mortal concerns. “Shoulder to shoulder and an arm’s span apart! I don’t care how you stand, but stand! Stand, I said, you miserable pickled jars of skin!”
The voice continues to boom and command. Evie steps between two equally ragged, unwashed bodies and plants her feet in the neglected earth. She hopes the fabled “line” of which the angered god speaks will form around her so she’ll be required to move no more. Her head feels like a melon pressed between two scorching boulders.
The demigod’s raging commands cease, and for a moment there is only blissful silence on the field, save for the steady, gentle rasping of hurried drunks.
Then he steps before their assemblage.
It’s him, the giant from the cells. He’s the one who took them all from the dungeon, loaded them onto a wagon, bagged their heads, and rattled them what felt like halfway across the countryside. He’s the tallest man she’s ever seen. His torso is like a hundred-pound sack of taro, bulging rolls of flesh pushing through the impossibly small vest he’s somehow managed to toggle together around them.
“I am your wrangler,” he announces. “My name is Laython. You will call me ‘Tasker’ or you will call me ‘Freemaster.’ And from now till your bloody deaths on the field of battle in service of Crache… your name… is Savage.”
Savage. Evie turns the word over in her mind, finding it offensive even by her standards.
“Look to the spires of this field,” Laython instructs them.
Evie tilts her head and squints through the harsh sunlight at the towers crowning the walls of the training field. They are each crewed by Skrain, the elite soldiers of Crache, resplendent in breastplates embossed with the ant, the nation’s symbol. Rich folds of leather extend from each shielded chest to cover their arms all the way to their wrists. They carry master-crafted Ancestor Hafts, long weapons crowned with horse-cutter blades. The faces of the Skrain aren’t visible to the rabble on the field, which seems appropriate.
“What you see are soldiers. What you see is the exact opposite of what you are. There will be no shining armor, oiled leather, or fine steel for the lot of you. Oh no, my friends. You’re Savages. The rags you’ve come here in and any rusted pieces of scrap you can scrounge from the armory wagon is all you’ll need on the battlefield.”
“What in the Fire Star’s light are you going on about?” Evie asks him.
Laython scowls. “Calling out the name of outlawed gods is exactly what landed your raggedy ass here, girl! Now shut it!”
Evie finds it easy enough to obey that command, as speaking hurts just as much as everything else right now.
“You will not loot,” Laython informs them, casually returning to his public address. “You will not pillage, you will not rape, and you will not take battlefield trophies of any kind.”
He walks up and down the first row of them, and by now Evie’s stomach has settled into the same perpetual numb state as her head.
“You will not desert your regiment. You will not quarrel with, nor kill your fellow Savage. These commands are sacred, and the violation of any of them will result in your immediate execution.”
“You expect us to fight?” another prisoner, older and portlier, asks.
“I expect you to cause the same chaos and mayhem on the field of battle that you so dearly love to cause in city taverns. You’re not soldiers,” he reiterates. “You, each of you, are weapons. You’ll be hurled at the front lines of Crache’s enemies in waves thick enough to smash them. And in that chaos our Skrain will wipe away what remains. That is how we win. That is how Crache prevails, by the blood of Savages. Your blood.”
“Why don’t you just kill us now?” the same portly old man asks, more meekly than defiantly.
“Because that would waste good, solid material. And Crache does not waste any of its resources.”
“We’re not the condemned,” Evie insists. “This isn’t right.”
“It’s service,” he says with finality. “It’s a service to which you’ve all been called. That call cannot be refused. If you choose death then you’ll choose it meeting our nation’s enemies.
“Welcome to the Savage Legion.”