Scenes from the City Part 7: The Recruit
It has been a long and unpleasant wait for all of us, imaginary readers. But here I am, once more.
Part 6 can be found here, along with links to the rest.
The night is quiet, and the face of the forest unyielding.
It crawls and scrambles along the line of open ground, sometimes a wayward root or a questing vine reaching as far as the scree heap at the base of the wall.
The scents of the harbour, the sweaty streets and the salt and fish reek of his home seem a long way off. Its cold up here, with nothing but the gut high parapet to break the wind, the accursed serpent whistling between the high towers that block the stars like inescapable fangs. The trees ahead, the towers behind, I can almost imagine myself between the jaws of some immense and sleeping beast.
The night is quiet, and the face of the forest a unyielding as the stone it stands before.
My eyes are starting to wander.
Not far to my right there’s a torch, battered and flickering against the breeze. It casts a ray of warm light, of sanity around itself, and I trace the line. It lights the flags at my feet and the wall before me before leaping off into the black abyss like a suicide. It lights one side of the powder keg but not the other. It lights the side of myself that I can see, the image ghosting in and out of focus as the wind wrestles with the light.
The whistling sings me back to the docks, to clacking ropes and creaking boards, the rumbling voice of my father long since silenced by the sea.
The night is quiet, and neither the forest nor the stone will be moved by tears.
I jump as the rasping voice rides the wind over my shoulder, into my dreaming ear. I turn around, and there she is, tattoos writhing on the half of her that the light touches. Night Corporal. Her boots are heavy, and she is girded by blades far weightier and more wicked than any I had seen in the quartermaster’s shed. The only sound is the wind.
“Yes,” I croaked in reply, “All quiet, ma’am.”
“Good to hear, child. Stay watchful. Can you hear anything over the wind?”
“No ma’am… Should I?”
“Better that way, perhaps. Once you start hearing the forest, it can eat its way into your dreams. That happens, and you’ll never really be safe again.”
There was silence between us for a time.
“Who were you before?” the gaunt figure intoned with a voice like spitting red wax.
“You don’t talk much, do you?” she snapped.
“With respect, Corporal, I could say the same…” the statement died in my chest, aged and withered by a gaze that felt like teeth on the back of my neck.
“True,” she grimaced, eventually, “I do have a certain… reputation for solitude, don’t I sop?” The wind slithered and hissed between them, licking their bones and making a plaything of their hair.
“You didn’t answer my question. What were you before? Nobody is born a soldier.”
“I… my family live by the docks. My mother and… my younger brothers and sisters, they work at cleaning and gutting where they can, my father worked the boats until… one day he didn’t come back, so I had to find work…”
I glanced into her gaze, before averting my eyes again. The wind lashed coldly against my wet eyelids.
“Sounds like we come from similar families.”
I must have looked taken aback, the gods know I felt it, because she snorted, exposing her row of sharpened teeth.
“Something to say, soldier? Lets hear it.”
“I’m sorry, corporal.”
“Sorry for what?” the word was like frost on the wind.
“I just never… I don’t know. I… gods I feel like a fool. I thought…” I struggled for a nicety, some polite turn of phrase that would get her gaze off, “To talk about families when you’re… a Sister.”
“Well, I’m your Corporal now pup, but I sure as falling wasn’t born into this uniform either. I’ve heard some ramming tell of scholars in yonder tower” she gestured with her head, “who say that the polite terms include ‘Underkin’ or ‘Pilots’. Wasn’t me who chose that shite, and if you prefer Charnel Sister when you’re giggling with your little friends then…” her eyes wandered out over the darkened woods, taking in the thousand thousand leafy peaks above the mist, “giggle while you can, child.”
“I meant no offence.”
“I’m sure you ramming didn’t.”
“Were your… family fishers as well?”
“My mother was, for a time. Fishing, trapping. That’s how things are below.”
“What drove you to leave?”
She smiled sadly in the flickering light.
“The Descent can’t last forever.”
The silence grew immense once again, humming between us. My thought were churning, trying to parse her words into something that made sense in the world in which I lived.
And all I felt was that I was far away, watching a young man atop a wall, caught in the echoes of his nightmares of the sea. A Descent. That this little boy could understand. The long fall, the crushing weight, the immensity of the ending.
“Thank you for answering, child.”
“Was… it important?”
“There’ a story, and stop me if you’ve already heard it… of a ruined city, far below. That the dead nest there in silence, beneath stones raised up to the unflinching stone above and carved with their stories. And how those who can’t find their tale just limp along until they fall apart. Into dust.”
“No,” I replied, “I haven’t heard that one before.”
“You should read more.”
There was a little sting in that; I’d never been strong at my letters, but I don’t think the Corporal could have known that. Or perhaps she could. My mind, however, was already trailing along a jetty yet unjumped.
“Have you seen it?”
“The city in the story.”
She laughed, and I found myself smiling along.
“It’s just a story, sop. As well as I know, at least.”
“So you weren’t… recording for me?”
“I’m no scholar, soldier, and I’m shite with a chisel. You want a decent epitaph, I’d recommend rich and loving children.”
“Thank you Corporal.”
The night is quiet, and my corporal’s face is once more unyielding as she leans out over the parapet, her face beyond the reach of the light.
“Don’t thank me just yet. If you want to give those rich and loving children a chance, you run and light the flare. We’ve got trouble.”
I ran for the signal tower without another word. Over my shoulder I heard Soma’s voice rise to its piercing, flaying knife screech, echoing across the walls and the rooftops of the City.
“Carpies by the southwest annex! Guards to me, if you like your hides! Come here tree ramming filth, let’s see what your insides look like…”
I hammered a torch into the flare bed, the coruscation blazing into my eyes as the night exploded with musket fire.