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Counting

Counting

count. v. intr

  1. To recite or list numbers in order or enumerate items by units or groups.
  2. To have importance or value.

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The battle had started with the annihilation of an isolated Tinto unit, but it was going to end as a rout.

Surrounded by her bodyguard, Chris was spared the engulfing, consuming clashes with enemy soldiers, and so able to concentrate on the larger flow of the battle. She wasn't spared the sounds; the occasional ring of steel or pained cry that stood out against the background cacophony made her jaw tighten and stomach clench. The battle conducted her pulse fitfully, making it pound at nearby fighting, then letting it slow only to set it racing again when arrows tore past. Smells assaulted her, as well - the sweat of men and horses, the stink of iron, the whiff of ozone that accompanied magic, and the sour smell of churned mud.

Chris wiped sweat from her forehead with a grimy sleeve, cursing herself for a fool. The lone unit had been a guerilla band, one that moved quickly and left Zexen camps in disarray, creating chaos and endless frustration for the high command. The casualties they had inflicted were small compared to pitched battle, but every death was an empty place at some table in Zexen, a pair of feet that would never cross its home's threshold again. Not to mention the loss of supplies - food, medicine, horses - that would've saved other soldiers. Deaths in war were often senseless, but that didn't make them any less bitter a loss.

So, when an advance scout stumbled upon the guerilla unit while Chris's command was on its way to rendezvous with the rest of the army, the chance to put an end to their raids had been tempting. Too tempting.

Chris Lightfellow had taken the bait, and now her men were going to die for her mistake. More empty places at tables.

The Tinto unit should have surrendered at once; they were grossly outmatched, facing a full two-fifths of Zexen's strength, and the miles of surrounding flat plains were empty of reinforcements. Strangely, they stubbornly refused several times, and the battle was much longer - and more gruesome - than it needed to be. Chris and Borus had been grimacing over the carnage, their horses picking their way around bodies of Tinto and Zexen, when Tinto's regular army charged out of nowhere, surrounding them. Even Salome and the Third company, well off to the rear, were swept in by Tinto's rush.

An ambush like that, on plains where one could see for miles, could mean only one thing: the Lizards were letting Tinto use their underground highways. Zexen could very soon be fighting a war on both its major borders.

Assuming they survived the current battle, Chris thought sourly. Her horse sidled nervously beneath her as she ducked a stray arrow. The near miss brought a surge of adrenaline and she surveyed the battlefield again in the accompanying frenetic awareness.

On the field was two-fifths of Zexen's army, and at the moment they were hemmed in on three sides by half again their number. Further ahead, their forces had been split, Tinto encircling both groups in a broken figure eight. The far loop was completely closed, trapping three of Zexen's companies - about one hundred fifty men. A glimpse of red and purple at that group's center told Chris exactly why she hadn't been able to find her strategist in the fray.

Chris cursed profusely, and her eyes fell on an infantryman who'd lost his pike. He dodged the Tinto horseman bearing down on him by what looked like inches, only to be staggered by a blow to the head. Chris winced in sympathy, hoping the dizziness would clear quickly.

Ahead of him was another clash: two horsemen traded blows, most of which seemed to be landing painfully home. Gritting her teeth, Chris pushed aside the nauseous realization that she was probably one of the last to see either man alive and lifted her eyes to scan the horizon. Percival, Roland, and Leo were on their way, each with a sizable number of men - they'd been intending to regroup, before Chris had fallen for Tinto's trap. The addition of any one of them would be enough to turn the tide. But it was impossible to know if their arrival was a matter of minutes, hours, or days.

And if Tinto managed to close the gap...

"Break for the gap and try to outflank them," Chris shouted to the soldiers around her. Erfrierung tossed his head at her outburst, pulling forcefully at the reins, but she kept a firm grip on them. "We're going keep it open and buy time for the Third Company." She scanned the nearest knights for one with a fresher-looking horse. "You! Erran! Get to Borus and tell him to form a wedge with his group. We need to get the Third free, and then we're getting out of here!"

Chris watched as her orders rippled outwards, knights moving as the information reached them. Infantry, already fighting along both of Tinto's closing arms, were joined by cavalry. They spilled around the ends of Tinto's lines, trapping them in smaller versions of the same figure eight Tinto was trying to close on them.

Exhaling loudly, Chris turned Erfrierung around to see a wedge was already forming near the thinnest part of the line that had cut off the Third, Fifth, and Twelfth companies and Salome. Thank the Goddess Erran's horse had been fast.

The beleaguered companies were throwing themselves at the line as best they could; Salome had seen Borus's and her maneuvers. But Tinto hadn't left them much space, and the fighting was heavy at their rear. It was going to depend on Borus.

A cry of warning from her left brought her attention abruptly to her immediate surroundings. A Tinto horseman had made his way through Chris's bodyguard and was fighting one of her knights. As she turned to look, the horseman's sword found the part of the Zexen's arm that wasn't protected by plate mail. Chris winced as her man dropped his sword with a shout, his arm falling to hang uselessly at his side.

There was scarcely any time to wonder if he might survive the battle, if he'd lose the arm. The Tinto horseman had reached her, and her sword rose to meet his. His momentum took him directly to her side; she unhorsed him, her breath jarring in her chest as Erfrierung lurched forward to finish the job with his hooves.

Chris looked up just in time to see Borus's wedge charge the Tinto line. The captain held her breath, and her horse twitched beneath her. For a moment it looked like it would work. Then Borus and the men around him broke from their lines, and Tinto's forces spilled in from the sides, into the space behind them. The lines closed around Borus's group like a thin-lipped mouth. Zexen soldiers spilled over in either direction as it chewed its overbig mouthful, the better part of them getting away, rejoining Chris's group or reaching Salome and the Third. Chris thought she could just make out Borus and his bodyguard joining Salome's.

Tinto's jaws closed, its deadly teeth crushing those left between them.

Dammit. Back where they'd started, but with more soldiers trapped with the Third, and the line between thicker than ever. There was no way to break them out now, and Tinto was closing tighter on them. The fruitless attempt had extracted a further toll, one paid in blood and the tears of families back in Zexen. Chris glanced behind her, holding tight to the reins as Erfrierung threw his head again. The gap was narrowing despite the cavalry. Dammit, dammit, dammit. They had no choice, now.

Chris looked to the center of the trapped companies one last time, and saw Tinto soldiers had reached the circle of bodyguards around the highest officers. Tinto wouldn't ask for surrender, it seemed - and Borus and Salome would be killed. She couldn't pinpoint Borus in the chaos, but as she watched, the flash of purple fell out of view.

Chris's heart lurched. Her leg muscles tensed, fighting the urge to kick Erfrierung into a gallop, to rush to their aid. Her lungs filled, lips parted to shout orders.

Instead, she turned deliberately around, her heart turning over as she did. It was a simple matter of numbers and duty; no officer was worth the entire army. She was in a cold, calculating place now, her thoughts running like icy water in a channel. The three companies, Borus, and Salome all became tallies for the casualty list, and the battle around her a macabre arithmetic.

Then she filled her lungs again. "Withdraw! Withdraw! Don't bother to widen the gap, just get the hell out of here! Take them down if they're in the way, but get out!"

Zexen forces surged around her, flowing through the gap, and Tinto's lines fell in closer. Chris found herself on the edge of things, her bodyguard scattered. Grey-uniformed cavalry and foot soldiers came at her, from the front or riding up alongside her. Erfrierung's momentum gave extra weight to her sword. One, two, three... She snapped an infantryman's pike with her sword when he lunged for Erfrierung, and he stumbled, falling right under the horse's hooves. As Erfrierung recovered his footing, Chris swung her sword around to block a blow from a Tinto cavalryman. They traded blows, horses running side-by-side. Chris brought Erfrierung into the other horse's shoulder and dumped the rider from the saddle with a shove of her shoulder. Five.

Another soldier on horseback came at her and lost his head as she charged past, showering them all in blood. Six.

Cavalry, infantry, cavalry. Nine.

Twelve was the final subtraction when Erfrierung burst past the last of Tinto's lines, flanks dark with sweat. Soldiers pursued them, but irregularly. Up ahead, several lieutenants were reorganizing the disordered milling of Zexen forces. Chris nodded in cold appraisal; she would need reliable officers to fill the empty slots.

She turned Erfrierung in a wide circle, out of the main path, to see how the retreat was coming along. A Tinto foot soldier came at her, but he became thirteen and Chris was free to look ahead.

A wide swath of orange on the field made her blink, and she wiped sweat out of her eyes to be sure she was seeing properly. Zexen cavalry were breaking Tinto's encirclement of the once-doomed remnants of Third, Fifth, and Twelfth, from the farthest edge of the loop. So that's why Tinto's pursuit lacked the punch their full strength would've given it, Chris realized. The arrival of fresh troops - Percival's, from the banners - had taken their commanders' attention.

Chris's lips turned up in weary satisfaction. The battle had turned to them. She raised her sword and turned to her forces to rally them for another charge.

* * *

Tinto was much less interested in fighting now that the armies were matched and they were the ones in the pincer. After only a short while, they withdrew, limping hurriedly back to the highway entrances they'd emerged from.

Chris sought Percival for a hurried conference, avoiding pockets of fighting where Tinto stragglers had not yet surrendered or fled. He was the only member of the high command she could find; she'd completely lost track of Borus since the charge that broke them free of Tinto's wall, and Leo and Roland had yet to arrive. She wasn't expecting to find Salome.

"Lady Chris! Fancy meeting you here," Percival drawled lazily, turning his mount so they both faced her as she rode up. His face turned grim. "I thought I saw Borus's horse without a rider. I'm sorry I wasn't sooner."

Her chest still too cold to feel a pang at the news, Chris just shook her head wearily at the idea of having to replace another high command officer. "We lost Salome, too."

Silence hung between them for a moment, dull and numbing. Percival shook his head. "Are you he's not just missing in the crowd? It wouldn't be the first time he lost his coat in battle..."

"I saw him fall, Percival," she said levelly.

Percival brushed a hand over his head. "Damn," he said softly, looking away. "Him too. I should've been here."

"You came when you came." Chris let her eyes snap shut for a moment, then continued. "We haven't lost any ground, and we lost fewer men than we would've without you. They had three companies in a noose, and you cut them down before they could be strangled."

"Even so..." Percival sighed heavily and pinched the bridge of his nose. "Well, what's done is done. Borus isn't easy to kill; I'm sure we'll find him, at least. How did it start?"

Chris gave him a quick summary of falling into Tinto's trap and the battle that followed. "The rest you know. I'm certain they're using the Lizard highways, and nearly as certain that they've the Lizards' permission."

"Scout patrols, then?"

She nodded, raising her hand in a curt signal to an orderly who had approached the officers and was waiting for orders. "Send out scouts. The ordinary sweep. Trace the Tinto retreat to where they've gone underground. Also, I want at least one man stationed at every Lizard highway entrance within two miles, with signal torches. Cover all of them; check with my new squire for the map. Have another group look for entrances we don't know about."

Percival nodded in agreement as the orderly left, and she turned to him. "What do you think of making camp here?"

"It's close enough to the rendezvous point, and I don't think we'll be seeing them again today," he offered. "They've got wounds to lick, more than they'd expected, by your account."

"So do we." Chris frowned. "If we stay here, they may guess we're waiting for the others, given the timing of your arrival was fortuitous but too late to be a planned ambush. They'd attack again soon, then. But if we leave..."

"We lose the worst casualties and have a harder - and longer - time meeting up with Roland and Leo."

Biting her chapped lip, Chris weighed the options. More lives would be lost soon, either way; the right decision was the one that cut that number smaller than the other. "At the end of the day, we don't really gain anything by staying on the move. Here, we can see their aboveground movements, and unless the Lizards have any new tunnels, we know where they'll come from if they're moving underground."

"Hm. Maybe when things are a bit more under control, we can send some men with Earth Runes out to see about collapsing parts of the tunnels. I'll give the order to make camp, then?" At Chris's nod, Percival turned to speak with another waiting orderly.

Beneath her, Chris felt Erfrierung paw the ground and huff tiredly. The conference was ended, so she nudged him east, to where the camp was to be set up. There wasn't much for her to do until things were better organized and scout reports started coming in, except see to her horse and then try to stay visible to the soldiers. She let Erfrierung choose his pace, and as he moved slowly onwards, surveyed the area.

The field was slowly emptying as Percival's call for camp spread. Zexen soldiers who were still mobile drifted east; one of the lieutenants led a small band that broke up the few pockets of fighting that remained, and another group rounded up the scattered Tinto soldiers who'd surrendered. Soldiers and medics searched for wounded, carrying most off the field to the infirmary being set up in camp and treating the worst where they'd fallen.

The back of her right hand pricked with cold. Chris glanced down, then jerked her eyes away. She didn't need to strip off her gauntlet to know that the True Water Rune she bore was reacting to the dying and dead around them. Now that the battle was over, it wanted to wash away blood and heal wounds, cleansing the field of fatal imperfections. Not out of compassion for the wounded, but because that was its nature. It seemed distinctly frustrated to be reined in.

Chris shared its frustration; at a battle's aftermath, it was a horrible waste for her to be the Rune's Bearer. It would be put to better use by one of the medics. Many of them had ordinary Water Runes, and even now they were following runners to lend their power to those too badly hurt to be moved. But Chris couldn't join them; it would distract and fatigue her, and right now she needed to remain alert and awake as the army regained its organization, in case of another attack by Tinto. And soon there would be scout reports to read, and gaps in the command chain to fill as casualties were confirmed.

Casualties. The question of Borus and Salome nagged at the back of her mind, but academically. Her thoughts were still cold, as if the part of her that would want to run off and search for them herself, dead or alive, were frozen. More galling were the lives they could have saved if someone else had her Rune, the estimated count throbbing in her skull with the headache she hadn't realized she had. Lights flickered across the field as the medics used what Runes they had to save who they could.

The detachment that turned men into numbers made the field easier to bear as she and Erfrierung passed dead horses and broken bodies of both Tinto and Zexen soldiers. She pressed her calf to Erfrierung's side, signaling the gelding to give wide berth to the medic who crouched by a casualty, surrounded by the blue haze of a Rune's magic. As they passed, he straightened, smiling; the soldier would live.

One more, Chris thought at the life saved, and nothing at all of the scattered dead. Pickets for the horses were already taking form, and Chris found her new squire there. Terrance was a quiet, serious boy whose hair was always falling in his face, and something the opposite of Louis, who was currently under Leo's command as a full knight. Chris dismounted, and Terrance began stripping Erfrierung of his armor and saddle.

"We did good work today, old fellow," Chris told the horse, stripping off her gauntlets. He nosed her shoulder. "Greedyguts! You're battle-weary, sweaty, and lathered, and you're looking for sugar? Do you want colic?" She reached out her right arm, stiff from exertion, to pat his nose, but he jerked his head away.

"I know I smell, but half of that's of you," she told him with a frown, reaching out again. Erfrierung put his ears back.

"It's the Rune, m'lady. He doesn't like it." Terrance reached up to scratch the gelding's ears.

To Chris's consternation, Erfrierung didn't pull away from the boy. "I don't understand it. He's never had a problem with magic before; I've even used the Rune to heal him a time or two."

Terrance brushed his hair out of his face. "That could be why, m'lady. It's one thing when you're hurt. But he knows it doesn't actually care a whit about him."

Chris just shook her head at the puzzle and headed off to check on the camp's progress, leaving Terrance to rub Erfrierung down. She didn't get very far before she was accosted by a messenger who skidded to a stop in front of her.

"Captain! We've found them," he panted, winded from his sprint. "Lord Borus and Lord Salome! Lord Salome's already been taken to the infirmary tent, but Borus was trapped under a horse." He gulped for breath. "They say both should pull through, neither's got a mortal wound."

Two more, Chris thought, followed by the tired relief that she still had two of her best officers and would not have to find replacements. "I... Thank you. Are all the company commanders accounted for?"

"Wittler's fine, Petter's fine, Kirr's still missing, Lassen was killed by an arrow..." He rattled off the names, which echoed as tallies of lives and deaths in Chris's mind. Most of them had made it.

Behind him, two soldiers walked by carrying a third on a stretcher; a squire walked fretfully alongside the procession. The man on the stretcher was moaning, his stomach soaked with blood. His blond head turned this way and that, until the boy put out a hand to still him. One more, Chris thought, not knowing if she was adding or subtracting.

* * *

Half the day, a few hours rest, and a number of reports later found Chris sitting at a rickety folding table in the officers' tent, ignoring papers and staring into an oil lamp lit against the creeping darkness. The light reflected sharply off of her gauntlets, which sat haphazardly on the table ahead of the papers, one atop the other like crossed arms. An ivory abacus occupied the near corner of the table.

With a shake of her head, Chris drew her mind back to the to the task at hand and looked down at the paper in front of her. She'd been working on unit reorganization - rebalancing their strengths, folding shattered units into others, and keeping track of how many brevet promotions would be needed for their commands. It was yet another exercise that reduced men to numbers; the companies were identified by a headcount and their commander. Their membership remained anonymous to Chris as she rearranged them; individual names would've been unnecessary information for the task.

She had numbers for the casualties, too - this many injured, that many dead, this many yet missing. Eight hours after the battle was too soon to have lists of casualties by name, and the army was too large for its captain to know every single member by name. The only names she'd have recognized for certain were the company commanders, and she had already heard a reckoning of their fates. But that didn't make the empty boots, beds, and chairs beside hearthfires any less cold and vacant.

Chris leaned back, distractedly brushing her dusty hands across the smooth beads of the abacus. That was how the military worked. The high command had to consider things at a level of impersonal distance - battles and strategy were equations to be balanced, companies as partitions to fill - or nothing could get done. And every commanding officer learned that some degree of detachment was necessary, or he'd be too choked with guilt or grief to command at all, to send men off to die, to make the decisions to leave men behind when the entire army was at stake. Impersonal frugality with lives was the nature of the job.

Chris pinched the bridge of her nose and sighed. She'd learned that detachment over the years, and mastered it today more than ever. Now she felt severed from herself as well, displaced and thin and cold. It seemed as if she were standing slightly behind herself, her front brushing just behind where her heart would be.

She couldn't stay here, in this cold place. At the end of the day, a leader had to remember that fifty men in a company were fifty men, fifty lives, fifty places at tables. If you let yourself feel they don't matter...

Chris had crossed paths with a man like that in the last war, who saw the death toll after a battle as simply a way of keeping score. If a situation forced him to give up three companies, he'd see it as a nuisance, not a sacrifice; to him, he'd not be losing anything of irreplaceable value. He led armies because he could, not because he had anything precious to protect.

He was working for Harmonia now, and she wished them joy with him; she herself would never put her army in the hands of such a man.

And she wouldn't let herself become his reflection.

Unwashed, still armored, sitting on an uncomfortable stool at a shaky table in a stuffy tent, Chris Lightfellow rubbed her eyes and tried to turn the numbers back into men.

Most of the companies still had their commanders, dusty and tired men and women who'd made it through with only minor injuries, but she knew who the casualties were, and the names and faces to put to them.

Douna of the Sixth was still missing. One of the few female knights besides Chris, she'd been a career soldier without a family, and steady, reliable commander. Chris hoped she'd turn up alive, but knew better than to expect much. Instead of the woman's pockmarked face, her mind's eye kept showing her a pair of empty boots.

The Twelfth Company had also lost their commander. Lassen had been a bright young man originally serving under Leo. He never kept silent if he felt a superior officer was making a mistake, a trait that made him a potentially promising officer, and a potential liability. Chris had transferred him to her own command, where she and Salome could keep an eye on him and judge which he was.

Well, the Goddess will be the one judging him now, Chris thought, and felt a knot in her gut. Honest regret, or guilt over not feeling regret? The feeling was gone too soon to be sure. But she'd found the edge of things, and she pressed on slowly, carefully, afraid she'd press too hard and land in something false.

There was one other casualty: the commander of the Seventh Company. Kirr had been found at last, with a twisted leg and crippling shoulder wound. The runner told her that he'd grinned despite the pain when they told him he was going home as soon as he was well enough to travel. Chris thought she knew why; he'd mentioned once that his eldest daughter was expecting. Kirr would be there to welcome his grandchild into the world.

She'd felt genuine relief when news of Kirr had come; he was under Percival's command, but the older man still had the warm face and demeanor that she remembered from when, years ago, she'd served under him.

A twinge from her shoulders made Chris realize she'd been slouching over the table. She shifted on the stool and stretched her arms, feeling the soreness of weary muscles.

She'd almost got it now, she was almost there.... Chris turned her mind to two other officers who'd made it, to try feel the same relief over them that she did for Kirr. But Salome Harras and Borus Redrum might as well have been numbers as names, for all she felt.

They almost died, she reminded herself savagely, trying to shock herself out of indifference. She stared unblinking into the gaslight's flame, willing herself to feel something, to react, to care. Water prickled at the corners of her eyes, but it was only because of the bright light; whatever part of herself she'd reached thinking of Kirr was gone, slipped away without even a hollow feeling to mark its absence. She closed her eyes tightly, squeezing the false tears out to damp her eyelids.

She clenched her hands into fists in frustration with herself, making her nails bite sharply into her calloused palms. The pain gave her some small, bitter measure of satisfaction. You turned your back on them. You left them to die. And now you don't even care. Not that they almost died, not that they're alive. You only care about them as cogs in your clockwork army of numbers.

Maddeningly, treacherously, those words lacked the weight they ought to have had. She knew, and not just in the cold place, that she'd been forced to make that choice, and that feeling guilty over it was a disservice to those she'd left behind, those who trusted her judgment. Punishing herself for that, and for making the mistake over the ambush in the first place, was not just pointless; it would hamper her ability to lead in the future.

Trapped however I think about it, she thought angrily. And even her anger was cold, words chosen to expose herself to what she'd become. A glacier.

"Captain, are you in here?"

Chris opened her eyes at the sound of Percival's voice, but didn't look up at him. "I'm here," she responded quickly. "I've been doing some paperwork. Reorganizing the companies."

"Paperwork? I've got more for you here." A thick folder was slapped down in front of her. "I know that you fret so when there's a possibility that you might run out. This should tide you over for the next six years."

"Thanks ever so much," she returned dryly, still not looking up. "How come I never see you doing any?" She unfolded a hand to reach for a pen, and stopped, staring at her hand. Four deep indents cut across her palm. She hadn't noticed when they stopped hurting.

"Oh, I always slip mine into Borus's stack when he's not looking." He stopped. "I've just been from seeing him and Salome."

It hadn't even occurred to Chris to stop by and find out how they were doing. Turning over her hand, Chris began flicking abacus beads, setting up an arbitrary, pointless sum. "I... haven't had time yet."

"You haven't been to see them? Captain..." Percival cleared his throat, and she lifted her eyes to his face. His brows tightened in worry. "Chris, are you all right?"

Her fingers worked swiftly at the empty addition problem, beads clicking. "I'm fine."

"No, you aren't." His eyes searched her face.

"I said I'm fine," she responded shortly, meeting his gaze, and took up the pen. "And busy with paperwork, as you pointed out so thoughtfully."

"As you wish." He took a seat across from her at the table with a groan. "Blasted Lizards and their tunnels... the scouts haven't found any new ones yet. Tinto only took known routes to go to ground, but that could be to hide that they were using new ones. I don't think they were, though- they'd have come faster to the ambush if they could have, and moving that many men would leave quite a trail."

Chris put down the paperwork again; this was also business, and important. "Do we know if the unit that was bait signaled them somehow, or did we miss their scouts?"

"Probably the latter; the land's flat enough out here that a couple men could watch from the distance, and it would be easy to miss them - that's more or less what Salome thinks happened. After hearing the scout reports of where the Tinto army came up, he doesn't think withdrawing from the field would've made much difference in the long run - they'd have caught us eventually. This part of the Grasslands is worm-eaten with tunnels."

"Salome's heard the reports?" She shook her head. "What, is he trying to continue his duties from the infirmary? I can't see the surgeons being all that thrilled. Or cooperative."

Percival frowned slightly. "I thought you knew. He and Borus were sent on their way some time ago; they're resting in Borus's tent, set up out by where some of the others who've been ordered to sit quietly for the day are. Neither of them was badly hurt. Salome wrenched his arm when he fell off his horse, and then while he was fighting on foot, tripped over something and hit his head. Borus has a few bruised ribs from the horse that was on top of him, and his ankle's twice the size it should be, but he'll mend."

"Glad to hear it," Chris managed, hoping she sounded sincere. Granted, she hadn't thought to ask, but it was a bit irritating that no one had told her where her highest officers were. That she hadn't thought to ask wasn't promising, either. Frustrated, she spun a bead on the abacus.

"Poor Borus." Percival exhaled theatrically. "I think he was hoping you'd rush frantically to his bedside, clasping his hand in yours and tearfully professing the undying love for him you realized you had only when you were faced with losing him. I dare say it was a bit of a disappointment for the fellow when you didn't."

"I'm sorry to say that it never crossed my mind to do so." Percival was hassling her about Borus, a sign that he'd moved on from discussing business. Chris didn't particularly feel like chatting right now, especially about a certain pair of officers. Biting back irritation, she started paging through the paperwork Percival had given her and hoped her friend would leave.

His large, clean hand pressed down on the pages, stopping her. "Chris. Listen to me. Don't beat yourself up over this. We both know that feeling guilty won't help anything, and they're both alive and in one piece. More or less."

Startled to hear him echo her own earlier thoughts, Chris glanced back at his face, but there was none of the disgust she'd expect if he really knew what the problem was. He looked honestly concerned - Percival thought she felt earnest guilt and regret over Borus and Salome.

That was a charade she was not willing to keep up.

"It's not that," she told him quietly. Her left fist was clenched again; when she relaxed it, she saw the impressions of her nails in the dirty skin. "You've been to visit them-"

Annoyingly, Percival cut her off. "They don't feel that you abandoned them. Borus says he'd die a thousand deaths for you - and we both know he would do so happily, because he's Borus - and Salome said he was proud of his captain; he knew he could count on you to make the right choice, however difficult."

The falsehoods Borus and Salome had to believe to say such things made her feel sick. Percival kept talking, oblivious to the truth. "It's all right to visit them, Chris. You've nothing to be sorry for-"

She didn't deserve to be imbued with such honest, stirring motivations. She didn't want to be. "What's that got to do with anything?" she snapped. "I know I made the right choice. It wasn't even a choice. It's what any officer would do with her forces nearly trapped. I had to make it. I was the only one there," she added as an afterthought, cold, orderly thoughts supplying words that would wound.

Stung, Percival pulled back his hand. His face hardened. "My whole point is that none of us are blaming you. You face no recriminations from your friends."

"No one's blaming me. Good to know." She put a slight emphasis on the word "me", and was rewarded by a slight flinch from Percival. "Well, that has nothing to do with why I haven't gone to see them."

"Then why haven't you?" Percival demanded hotly. "You always stop by the infirmary after a battle, especially if any of the Six Mighty Knights is injured. I'd thought you were avoiding the infirmary..."

"Because I feel too guilty to face Borus and Salome?" Chris thought of the men she'd turned her back on, the friends she'd left to die because the lives of many more depended on her to make the right decision. Leaving them there hadn't been the betrayal. The cold anger ebbed, and disgust with herself rose in its place. She shook her head. "No, I don't." Rustling papers meaningfully, she turned back to the company assignments, shutting him out.

Percival refused to be dismissed. "Then why haven't you been to see them yet, captain?"

Chris did not take her eyes from the paper she wasn't reading. "I can't."

"This isn't like you at all, Captain. Don't you care about them?"

Chris glared through the paper. "I said I can't, Percival."

"Can't? Or won't? Lady Chris, what's wrong with you?" Percival slammed both his hands on the table, making it shudder under her elbows. "Think how they must feel - how Borus must feel, almost dying for you, and you don't even bother to see how he's recovering? He loves you, Chris. If he thought you didn't care whether he lived or died, it would kill him!

"They almost died today! It was a price they were willing to pay for Zexen. For you. That at least deserves some sort of acknowledgment. Can't you at least welcome them back?"

Chris slapped the papers on the table in frustration, more forcefully than she'd intended to. "They deserve to be welcomed back by their friend."

Silence followed. Chris flickered her eyes to the side, to see Percival's expression. He looked as if he'd just been struck.

"Are you saying you aren't their friend?" he asked slowly, as if he couldn't quite believe he was saying those words.

His words ought to have felt like a punch in the gut, but it was the fact that they didn't that actually hurt. She took a deep breath, pressing both palms against the edge of the table. "What I'm saying is that if I went over there right now, they'd be welcomed back by their captain. They'd get a slap on the back and a 'good work, soldier.' And..." A sudden sharp splinter in one palm made her inhale sharply. "And you're right, they deserve more than that. They deserve to be welcomed back by someone who's... happy to see them, because they're important people to her."

"I don't think I understand," Percival said hoarsely.

Chris pulled the splinter from her palm, searching for the words. Some things everyone knew and never spoke of, except the most indirect reference; giving voice to them seemed almost wrong. "Do you remember the first man who died under your command?" she asked quietly.

"I... no, I don't." Percival's voice was puzzled. He sighed, and Chris felt the table wobble. "I sometimes think I should, though."

Chris turned to meet his eyes. "Do you remember the tenth? Or the fiftieth? Do you feel you ought to? Did you feel as bad about them as you did about the first?"

Percival winced. "Well, no..."

It was a sore subject for any of them, but Chris continued relentlessly. "Did you feel the same about leading the men under you into today's battle, knowing some of them would die, as you did the first time? Did you know them as well as you knew the men under your first command?"

The muscles around Percival's eyes tightened, and Chris saw pain behind them. "We both know that if things stayed as sharp and fresh for the hundredth as the first, we'd break down. It's hard enough having to leave one of your men who you knew well behind, when your command is small enough that you know all of them well. If you felt the same about an entire company, it would be too much, so..."

"So we shut ourselves off, sometimes," Chris finished softly.

Percival sat very, very still for a moment. "That's what this is about, isn't it. That's what you meant by welcoming them as their captain."

An aching, cathartic silence hung between them, smoothing away the harsh words earlier said. Chris reached over to the abacus, her hand hovering over the final carry-over.

"We'll probably have an officer's meeting tomorrow morning, to discuss strategy and what to do about the Lizard situation," she said finally, fingers still an inch above the ivory. "I'll have to see them then. It might be easier in the morning." Or next week. Or never. "Maybe sleep will help." She knew better.

Percival did, too. "And if it doesn't? I think you should go see them tonight, Chris. Even if not all of you is there to welcome them."

She closed her eyes. "No... I don't want more lies. I don't want to look at them as soldiers instead of friends. They deserve better than that." With something painfully like hope, she realized that she felt the last. "They deserve better."

Percival shook his head. "It won't be a lie. It's a choice to approach them as people, rather than as fellow officers. Which is what it will be in the morning."

"This isn't going to be so easily fixed." Chris withdrew her hand from the untouched abacus, frowning sadly.

"No, it won't."

Silence rose again.

At last, Percival stood up, moving stiffly after sitting for so long. "Anyway, think about it. I've got some things I ought to take care of tonight; I'll see you later." He slipped out of the tent, the rasp of his armor joints strangely quiet.

Chris looked at the table in front of her for a long time. Then she, too, rose from her seat. She drew her hand across the black ivory, turning the unfinished sum to a meaningless peppering of beads on white spokes as she left the tent.

* * *

The camp at night was subdued but not silent, full of rustlings, footsteps, crackling of fires, murmurs, and sighs. It was a clear, hot night, and many of the men had eschewed stuffy tents to sleep under the stars. Most of them were asleep or nearly there, lying on bedrolls or just with their heads pillowed on their own coats. A few talked quietly among themselves, and near the side of the large tent allotted Borus, a card game was being played by the light of a stubby candle.

A couple of soldiers spotted her as she stood with her back to one of the low campfires, letting her eyes adjust. They saluted her, and she stopped to pass a few words with them. Glad to see you in one piece, she told them. You fought bravely. Words that had to be said by an officer in a place like this, even if she didn't quite feel them at the moment.

Light glinted off teeth and eyes, and made white bandages glow as she drew close to those who wore them. She shook the good hand of an archer whose bow arm was in a sling, chuckled in agreement with an infantryman's assessment of the Tinto ambush as cowardly, and crouched down to hear the wheezy words of a man whose companions said had a mild concussion.

"They won't let me sleep," he complained with a gaptoothed grin, when she asked how he was faring. "Shake me awake ever' time I get ter the good part of a dream."

"It's better than not waking up at all," she pointed out. "You can dream all you want later."

"You can ask the quartermaster for my share," one of his friends said. "Next time he's handing out the monthly ration of dreams."

They'd all laughed, including Chris, to her faint surprise.

Weaving her way around a maze of sleeping bodies, Chris did her duty to the men under her command as she made her way to men she owed something more to. It was hard to make out faces, and it was even darker once she reached her goal. Borus's tent sheltered more tonight than just her fellow officer and his squire; there were at least four cots inside. She knew Borus only by his profile, a distinctive shadow against the tent wall glowing from the card players' candle. He was sitting up in his cot. No shock of recognition struck her; it felt more like an afterthought that identified the man as one she was looking for. She held back for a moment.

Shaking off a growing sense of trepidation, she stepped towards the familiar silhouette. It turned to face her as she approached.

"Lady Chris?" It was Salome who spoke, and Borus's shadow jumped.

"Goddess, don't do that, Salome," the second man complained, pressing a hand to his side and wincing. "It's alarming when you know who's here without sitting up to see them. Lady Chris. It's... good to see you."

She nodded uncertainly. The earnest emotion beneath his words was awkward enough to face under normal circumstances; here, it made him seem even more removed.

Salome sat up slowly from the cot beside Borus's. "Good evening, Lady Chris." He shifted over, offering her a seat at the foot of the low camp bed.

Uncomfortably, she took the offered place and shook their hands in turn. Bare of gloves, they seemed hot, matching the stuffy night. Or are mine just cold? "Hello, Borus, Salome." She searched for more words and found nothing but empty pleasantries. She settled for asking a question. "How did you know it was me?"

"I knew you from the sound of your gait," he said simply. "You step too heavily to be Percival, and any lower officer would've announced himself. Borus, should you really be doing that in your condition?"

Borus had bent over and was fussing with something near the head of both cots. "I'm fine." He cursed as something rattled away; a moment later, there was a brief red glow, and then the light of a pair of candles washed over the three of them.

Chris winced at the sudden brightness. She'd been more secure in the darkness; it would've kept her expression hidden. Now she felt exposed and in uncomfortably close quarters.

"I was merely asking," Salome replied mildly. "I suppose you've had a busy evening, Captain?"

She nodded. "I'm sorry I didn't stop by earlier. I'm glad to see..." She stopped. They deserved more than a concerned officer's duty, but she couldn't think of anything honest to say to these familiar strangers.

His eyes flickering over her face, Salome picked up the thread of conversation smoothly. "We've been hearing the scout reports. We may not have our finger on the pulse of things, but we've got a general idea of what's going on."

"Hah, yes. And Percival - " Borus said the name with a certain amount of exasperation " - decided it would be funny to send a couple of the squires to update us on camp gossip. I've learned more about the baggage train than I ever wanted to know."

Chris tried to chuckle, and the quiet conversation continued on with little help from her. All in all, it felt like being enthusiastically greeted by someone unfamiliar on the street, and trying to leave the talking to them while working out whether or not you were supposed to remember them from somewhere.

She nodded in the right places, and once or twice tried to add things of her own. But at each attempt, their eyes would turn to meet hers, and her words became stumbling, stilted, wooden things. This won't work, she thought unhappily, feeling more estranged each time.

Then Salome would gently shift the conversation, talking of something himself, or calling on Borus to share some anecdote or idea. She caught him eyeing her thoughtfully from time to time, but carefully; he'd seemed to notice his direct gaze made her flinch.

Borus plunged on through everything, refreshingly oblivious. He grumbled, laughed, and overall was so typically Borus that Chris felt it was impossible not to realize it was him.

The subject found its way to the weather. The summer so far had been hot and wet, following a mild winter. Borus shrugged off speculation of an early fall and harsh winter. "Who can say? Percival would probably pretend to read a caterpillar's stripes for it, but weather is unpredictable."

"You can still get a sense of how the seasons will change," Chris put in, feeling herself on firmer conversational ground. Weather was the universal conversational fallback in Zexen, a nation of merchants and farmers. "Almanac writers do fairly well with long-range forecasts, especially further inland."

Borus shook his head. "They don't do so well with northern weather. My family has trading interests in Harmonia, and some of what we deal in comes from near their northern coast."

Chris tilted her head. "Agriculture?"

"Furs, so father's always going on about the winter weather. If it's too cold, too many hunters die; too warm, and you can't trust the ice bridges."

"I'd heard Crystal Valley's weather has always been rather mild and regular," Salome said, frowning thoughtfully. "Perhaps the local stability upsets things along the outer parts of the Kingdom."

The three fell silent, considering.

Finally Borus yawned and stretched, wincing as he jarred a bruised rib. "Well, whatever the reason is, I'm glad we don't have to plan a campaign there. At least in Zexen, winter will come when it does, then spring again, and summer, and it all repeats itself."

Salome sighed. "I hope Percival's caterpillar grants us an easy winter, for the farmers' sake. It's small consolation to hungry families to know that however cold it is, the thaw will come eventually."

Chris found she'd caught Borus's yawn, covering her mouth hastily as it escaped, making her eyes water. "Excuse me. It seems the hour's caught up with me. And you two are supposed to be resting today, too."

"Good night, then, Lady Chris," Borus said. He reached out a hand to shake hers. "I'm... very glad you came by." His grip was firm and warm, and there was nothing but the usual fervent loyalty and admiration in his eyes.

She turned to bid farewell to Salome. The strategist's expression was, as usual, harder to read. "It was good of you to stop by." He smiled gently, briefly clasping her hand in both of his. "Good night, Lady Chris."

 

With a wave to the card players, Chris made her way quietly past the snoring bodies outside. The night was already cooler, and Chris hoped those who'd opted to sleep outdoors wouldn't regret it. At her tent, she paused to look over the sleeping camp, absently rubbing her hands together to keep them warm. The Rune prickled, wanting to speed the healing of the wounds and scars around them, but Chris quieted it. Right now, it was better to leave things to heal in their own time.


All That Glitters Is Cold 2 Fanfic Competition
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