Craxius heard words in the river.
At first, he thought it was the other soldiers from the fortress laughing about the ambush. Then he was sure that it was the whispers of a band of Northerners sneaking up on the encampment of soldiers. Finally, he heard children singing.
But it was only the water rushing against the stones.
Craxius blew his breath to warm his hands. He was too old to be on these patrols. The afternoon light had already paled and the cold descended beneath the gray skies. They should have left him with those holding the fortress.
He stared across the Black River, back towards Cullan, the fort, the shacks that spread out from it, the docks.
One of his prisoners moaned.
Craxius cursed his poor luck. At his age, he should have been sitting around the campfires passing a bottle of wine with the others. But the fat sergeant singled him out, telling him that he had the first watch of the prisoners. It wasn’t fair that the oldest among them had to sit so far from the fires and the wine. Not fair at all.
“Shut up your mouth,” said Craxius to the prisoner.
“Water.” The clansman was a bloody ruin. His furs had been torn from him so he lay pale in the mud and sharp grasses. One of his eyes was lost behind black and swollen flesh. Even stripped of his furs and spears, he still looked fierce.
Craxius had never gotten used to the thick blonde beards and woad painted faces of the clansmen. It brought back memories of the war. The fear should have been gone. Empire had long ago yoked the North and quelled the clans.
Or at least it had for a generation.
But now the soldiers at Cullan town increasingly were called out by the settlers beyond the Black River to ferret out war parties. The clans were pushing back against the movement of the settlers across the river, the understood line of peace. But Empire was growing and the settlers needed land.
“Water,” the clansman said again.
A half dozen prisoners survived the ambush. The others had died beneath sword and spear. Craxius himself had hung back at the rear of the shield wall, pressing against the backs of those before him. He had seen enough fighting to know to stay in the rear.
The clansmen had been led into the trap by their own people: the Northern gang who controlled the docks at Cullan. Those treacherous Northmen, led by the bald headed one, were the first to turn sink their blades into their fellow clansmen.
The North was consuming itself just as it had a generation before.
“I got no water,” said Craxius. “And I got no wine. So shut up.”
“So thirsty.” The other prisoners nodded, hands heavy in their shackles.
“Getting a drink is the last thing you should be worried about.” Craxius laughed.
“Have you no honor?”
“Just shut up already.”
Craxius suddenly realized that he would die in the North. He would never return the streets of the immortal city of Empire: Vas Dhurma. He would never again walk along the slow rivers of the South and the meadows of daisies. He should have right away sold the stolen silver necklace instead of holding onto it. But he thought that he could return with it home as a gift. Would it have been better to rot in that prison than to have accepted his exile to the North?
The mists turned into a light rain and the landscape of heather-covered hills and distant peaks blackened.
When it was dark, he was relieved of his duty. He hurried to the fires and wine. But the fires had died down and the wine bottles strewn across the cold ground. So he squeezed into a tent shivering beneath the wool blanket.
Dawn brought only a faded sky and visible breath. The camp was broken quickly. By the time they reached the spot where they would ford the Black River, the sun had broken through the clouds.
Craxius lifted his face to the warmth. He closed his eyes and for a moment imagined himself home, the song of the river bubbling in his ears.
The prisoners screamed and cursed. The Northern thugs moved among them, kicking their feet from beneath them, and stabbing them in their chests.
“Their heads,” said Urbidis from atop his horse. The sun was blindingly bright reflected off his chest plate.
The bald leader of the thugs hesitated, muttering something too softly for Craxius to hear.
The commander of the fortress at Cullan tossed a bag and it jingled as it landed at the feet of the Northman. The bald man picked up the coins and tucked it into his vest.
The Northern thugs worked quickly, the big one using an axe to remove the heads, the others driving them onto the poles on the banks of the river. A dozen heads turned north, a warning to those who would challenge Empire.
Craxius hurried past the heads and stepped into the icy Black River, shocked by the cold.
Alongside him strode the bald Northman, the sound of the coins against his chest rising above the din of the river, and the Northman strode forward smiling as if unaffected by the river, as if he felt nothing.