Inspired by this post over on Amanda Patterson’s tumblr, I will be writing 52 short stories this year. Some, like this one, very short, and some longer! If you’re joining me in this endeavor, leave a link in the comments so we can find your stories!
This week’s story takes place sometime before the start of City of the Shroud, a video game I am writing the story for that just went live on Kickstarter!
He walked, feet pounding on the sun baked road, the cracked stone of the highways. They had not been tended in years, but who would tend them? Not Gayyan, the city that lived only in name and memory. When he passed her walls, arrows had followed his path, but only from habit—the desert raiders who owned Gayyan’s streets now would not fear a lone soldier, arm in a bloody sling, half-gone from the sun and the journey.
He was not sure if he could feel his feet any longer, or if they hurt so much that he did not comprehend it. He knew his feet met the ground only from the jolt that traveled through him. At some time, he’d had a walking stick. He must have dropped it somewhere. No sense going back now. He could walk, and that was enough.
The dawn that day was beautiful, stars fading from a brilliant night into a riot of red and orange, wind blowing the distant salt-scent of the sea…unless it was blood he smelled. With dawn, came peace. The voices that had troubled him in the night had fallen silent one by one. He was not sure if he had cried out with them. He knew only that his arm was gone, and that if he wanted to survive, he must look at it to see that it was gone, accept that, and drag himself from the battlefield.
He did not look for a very, very long time. What was a man with one arm, after all? Not fit for a sword or a spear, not fit for a laborer. A scribe, perhaps, but only in the back rooms, where no one would see him. His family would have to tend to him.
It was midday when the thirst broke him, and he turned his head to look. The bone had shattered, but the arm remained. He looked at it for a long moment, considering. He should take it off here, himself, but he had little strength left and he needed to find the others, wherever they might be.
He rolled himself onto his good side, and began to crawl.
He thought of her often: black-haired and green-eyed, her skin a deeper brown than his own, her fingers long and graceful. In her silk, the blue silk she favored above all other gowns, she was a vision. He remembered her passion now, the exultant laugh as she looked down on the city.
“We will own half the world someday,” she told him. “The whole world, perhaps. Our children will make port in any city, and be welcomed.”
She believed it. She believed it even when he marched away.
They did not want to set the bone, and he argued with them. He promised gold, influence. He promised anything that came to mind. The surgeon was not swayed, her dark eyes flat. Later, he would think that she had seen too much pain, that she was beyond caring because so many had died under her hands. Then, he felt only rage.
It was her assistant who helped him, the man’s pale face unmoving as his fingers set the bones in place.
“I have nothing for the pain. If you want to keep your arm, you must keep still without opium.”
It was an eternity before the man sewed the wound shut.
“Will I keep the arm?”
“Only the gods know that.’”
When he left, a voice spoke from the darkness: “You’re lucky.”
“There are few they help anymore. There are no bandages left. Camp fever took the chief surgeon last week.”
He looked over at her. She had the paler skin of Gayyan. “How were you wounded?”
“They took my leg.” She looked back at the ceiling.
She died in the night.
He was close to the city when he realized his little sister would have had her second birthday by now. He’d been gone long enough for that. Eighteen, and old enough for the army. He wondered if she’d been hidden away; they were already starting to do that when he was drafted, and the City Guard bribed neighbors to inform on who was keeping their children from the army.
He would find the money for a bribe, he decided. The priests might help him hide her, or perhaps the Merchant Queen would take her on one of the ships.
Anything but this.
“If we don’t leave, we’ll die.”
“Do you honestly believe we’ll make it back to the city?” The man eyed him with weary contempt.
“Then you’d best start thinking about what will happen when you get there.”
“What does that mean?” He cradled his arm in the sling and let his fingers trail over the bandage on his arm. The wound itched; he thought he remembered that was good.
“They left us here to die for a reason, boy. What will you do, go back and say the war is failing?”
“It is failing.”
“And they’d welcome you for saying that? For coming back with that arm, and telling everyone how it is in the north? You’re more of a fool than I thought. Go if you want.”
He could stay here, not return to the city, take a job on one of the outer holdings. They were kind, these farmers—more often than not, when he awoke in the hollow of a clearing or the corner of a barn, he found a loaf of bread and a jug of clean water for him, olives salty and sweating, perhaps a slice of crumbling cheese. He could work for his keep.
These people had enough trouble feeding their own; he kept walking until the city walls appeared from the shimmer above the road. It was only then that he hesitated. They did not know what had happened in the north—and he did not know what had happened here.
They would welcome him.
He started walking again, his arm aching. The others had given them their meager gold to see him home, and he had not used a single coin. The leather pouch was sweaty against his palm.
They would welcome him. They would.
There was no line at the gates, no one coming to Iskendrun to sell or barter. The guards watched him approach, eyes narrowing to see him.
They would welcome him.
He limped up to the doors.
“Citizen?” The word was curt.
They would welcome him. And he would see a flash of fear in his mother’s eyes when she opened the door. He knew that now. The others were right. He could keep them safe…with his silence.
Or perhaps there was another way. He held out the pouch carefully.
“How about you say I had no name?”
The guard considered him for a moment, and then he stood back, snatching the purse away.
“Welcome to Iskendrun…citizen.”