The sun drifted under the world and he lit a fire for the night to come. With light to work by, he wet an old rag to clean away the blood that had flowed under his armor, none of it his mind, but spilled from allies and enemies in the day’s battle. Much of it, he imagined as he washed behind his greaves, likely from the man resting next to him. The fire gave Ya’mis light to work by, but also illuminated the fruits of his labor.
The man was an enemy soldier, the last Ya’mis had felled on the day, caught in the final rout. He rocked and shook as the wound Ya’mis had thrust through his chest slowly drained the last of his blood. The rout had extended for miles, and they were far from either army’s camp; better, Ya’mis thought, to rest here awhile. He didn’t owe the enemy soldier the comfort he’d given him (a blanket, water, ale, the light of the fire, a rudimentary field dressing), but he didn’t have any reason to abandon him either. The man was just another soldier fighting for another Lord given to this or that cause; the man was just another notch on Ya’mis’ belt, just another face for his nightmares. A gift for battle was a hardship slow in gesticulation. Better the nightmares than to bleed out by the side of an enemy however, and he tried to save his pity for the one who truly deserved it.
He drew his long sword and began to wipe the blood from it, keeping his back to the man to spare him the sight of the blade that would kill him. A quaking voice slithered over his shoulder and across his ears. “Where are you from?”
Ya’mis turned his head, half-addressing the man. “The north.”
“What’s north of the Jade Isles?”
The man’s voice seemed to gain in strength as he spoke, as if gaining answers to his questions animated his purpose. “It’s been said the lands to the north are the home of the devil.”
“Never met him, child.”
He laughed a little. “I suspect not.”
Ya’mis handed him a bowl of water. “If that were true I’m sure he would’ve been hard to miss. I come from a place where no one comes from, and those of us that survive tend to know one another.”
“You’re a sell-sword?”
“A good one.”
The man stared up at the darkening sky. “What of the army?”
“Your forces were routed from the field, likely killed to the man.” Ya’mis shifted, squaring himself with his unlikely conversation partner. “If it’s any consolation you made it further than any other.”
“Not the kind of accomplishment I can really take with me to the gods. Brothers of the garden, I your humble servant am the finest coward in the Succession.”
“You fought well, child.”
“Don’t humor me.” The man quaked for a moment and exhaled slowly. The blood was beginning to flow around his bandage like water around an inadequate levee.
“Tell me about your gods.”
Drawing up the knowledge seemed to take his mind off the pain. “The four brothers. Each embodying a different aspect of valor.”
“And where do they live?”
“In the endless garden, under the peach trees along the spirit stream.”
Ya’mis picked up a bit of snow, rubbed it across his shaved head to wipe away a spot of gore that had stuck there. “Put in a good word for me.”
“Aye, I’ll tell them not to let in that rotten bastard that stabbed me through the chest. I’ll tell them he wasn’t even decent enough to stab me through the heart.” The man tried to smile, but the pain warped it into something else.
“I would’ve let you run if you hadn’t loosed an arrow at me.”
“I wouldn’t have loosed an arrow if you hadn’t pursued.”
Ya’mis was quiet for a moment. “Fair enough.”
“What will you do now?”
“Return to camp, collect what’s owed to me by the Jade Isles, move along.”
“The Succession will be back. Everything west of the Empire will be ours soon enough…well, theirs. They won’t be able to count me among their number for long.”
Ya’mis scooped up his pack and slung it over his shoulder, strapped his sword to his back, and draped himself in a bear’s pelt. “Your four brothers represent different things you say. What are they?”
The man’s eyes grew drifting, unfocused. His thoughts turned inwards as he began to recant the virtues of the first brother, nearly finished his litany before drifting away. Ya’mis stood and looked down at the man. “Rest well, child,” he said, abandoning the light of the fire and trudging up the hill.
He reached its crest and looked out across the Jade Isles, lights on the horizon where his Lord would pay him for men killed in his name. Someday it would be Ya’mis bleeding in the snow, or the sand, or the grass, but not today. Miles to go before that day. One foot in front of the other for a day’s wages.