16. THE MAN IN THE ASHES

March 27, 2019


Yssir stood by the dark window. His hair hung stringy over his white forehead and grey eyes. He’d tied it back earlier, but now it was all loose. Yssir’s hair was the color of dark sand, but reflected warm tones on the window in the light of the candles. His arms rested crossed over his chest and his face held an expression of calm regret.

Flickering light danced around the room, dust floating and swirling in the murky air. Shapes of firelight shattered into shadows on the grimy wooden floor as he paced. Yssir was a man who didn’t pace, but he was also a man who didn’t get involved with magic. 

And his men were smart enough to not point it out. Not even Hruod.

Too many things had changed. So why not that, too.

He kept his face down while kicking a chair into the wall.

“What’s the chair done to you?” Hruod said.

Yssir ignored him. The floors everywhere were caked in mud, and no amount of wiping would get the moisture out from the wooden floorboards.

The main door sprung open. He raised his gaze from the floor.

Mionaith didn’t waste time hanging her coat in the hook. Her fur collar was covered in ashes. So were the shoulders of her leather coat. She stomped snow and walked up to Yssir. She must’ve known the answer before she even asked.

But she asked anyway.

“What happened out there?”

Yssir clenched his fists. He turned back to the window, though it didn’t help conceal his anger much, because of his reflection. Mionaith’s eyes found his through the glass.

“There was a traitor. Someone told the Boar’s Guard.”

“You let a Norian soldier in here?” She furrowed her brow.

Yssir replied fast. “No.”

Mionaith crossed her arms, her eyes cold with hidden rage. “Then what was he?”

“Orr told he was a Kaumian,” Yssir said, turning to face her. He looked at the drunken man in the corner, a red and blue bruise growing on his cheek and swelling over his left eye. Yssir’s eyes returned to Mionaith. “I wouldn’t have known. You said that only you could decide which men could join me. I only followed your rules.”

She snorted. “You can’t blame me for this, I have a daughter to care for.”

“And I have a son!”

Mionaith tilted her chin back. “And where is he, exactly?”

Yssir took a defensive step forward. “We don’t need any more idiots ruining our plans. Now you tell me how you’ve helped our cause in any way! I’ve ruled this city with my robbers for years before I ever met you. I think I know what I’m doing.”

She bored through his skull with her eyes. Blue eyes, like half-frozen mountain waterfalls in a bright, sunny day. Yssir didn’t miss sunny days. He didn’t miss the warmth of the sun or the warmth of his wife’s hands on his chest while the chill caressed his back. He needed none of it.

He needed none of this.

“I can kill the king alone. My robbers would gladly kill his soldiers, and then burn this kingdom to the ground.”

Mionaith stepped forward. “But you can not burn it enough. You need the girl, and in order to make her useful, you need me.”

“I’ve dealt with her for years-”

“But not with her fire. Make one mistake in training a Firebringer and the whole city will be one blasted pile of ashes, and you’ll be standing there, alone.”

Yssir drew a breath. He looked out the window, down at the street below, cracks in the window misshaping the opposite building’s wooden window frames. The house creaked in the wind and the short pines swayed outside.

“We’ll get her. She’s dead out there, without us,” he said.

Mionaith nodded. “Good.” But she didn’t uncross her arms, and because of that, Yssir couldn’t either.

“This is not about ruling the city anymore,” she said then, gaze distant. “This is about all of Noriannd. And if we drag Kaumians into it, we might as well already start digging our own graves.”

Yssir glanced at Orr, again. The fool didn’t require any beating to get words out of him. It could’ve just as easily been Orr himself who revealed everything to the Norians.

“Ma…”

Mionaith turned toward the stairs, a kind smile on her lips. “Go back to sleep, my dear. This conversation isn’t for you to hear.”

The petite girl at the top of the stairs wore a wool shirt with long sleeves and a leather tunic over it. Large, baggy trousers covered her bony knees, barely held up by the thick belt around her waist. She glowered at Mionaith, saying, “No, ma. Gern is keeping me awake.”

Yssir groaned.

The boy peeked out from behind Mionaith’s black-haired, blue-eyed daughter.

“I don’t want to sleep here,” the child said. She looked much younger than her age, and Yssir had to keep reminding himself that in some towns, she could already be a bride.

Gern stretched out his hand to take the girl’s hand in his, but she slapped it away and turned her head to her mother with a disgusted grimace. “Ma,” she pleased.

“Go back to sleep. We have to leave for Hordrigg early tomorrow.” Mionaith cut a glance at Yssir. H

“You worthless rag, let her be,” Yssir snapped at Gern.

Mionaith waited for the children to return upstairs before speaking. “The Kaumian, where is he?”

“He left Hruod out there,” Yssir said.

“He didn’t leave me! I left him. Bleeding in the snow,” Hruod exclaimed. “Stabbed him four times. He shouldn’t have gotten far.”

Yssir looked over to Hruod who was still keeping cold pressure to his head. Such a small, fragile head on a body that could crush a man. Hruod puckered his forehead at Yssir, baring his front teeth. Drooping his eyelids, Yssir sighed.

Mionaith was tying her scarf around her neck and pulled it over her chin. “Then we find him.”

Yssir frowned. “Why? He can freeze to death all I care.”

She huffed in disbelief. “Are you serious?”

“He’s not one of mine, and we're leaving for Hordrigg, anyway.”

“If he dies and word somehow gets out to his friends in Kámwech that it was by the hands of one of your men, you’ll have a war on your hands before you can prepare for it. It doesn't matter if you're in Hordrigg. If the general is still alive when the Kaumians attack, you'll be trampled in the dust.”

“Word won’t get out,” Yssir said.

Mioanith held him in a smooth, unblinking stare. “He’s a Kaumian spy, his master will find him missing, his family will find out who the killer was, and they’ll all be here, ready for slaughter.”

Yssir still didn’t believe her. He tilted his chin back.

Mionaith turned around. She walked to the door, bracing her hand on the door handle before glancing over her shoulder. “I’ll find the girl, you’ll find the Kaumian, and before midnight, we’ll be sleeping soundly, as you had done nothing wrong. And in the morning, I'll ride to Hordrigg and take back what's mine.”

“I-” Yssir fumed. He started toward the door, but Mionaith slammed it shut, vanishing into the night.

He swore and shoved a chair out of his way as he followed after her. “Orr!” he yelled.

Silence. Yssir spun around. The man was sound asleep and inches away from plummeting down from his chair. With a pronounced sigh, Yssir walked over to the table and stabbed his knife into the wood. Orr only tilted his head slightly.

Hruod stood behind Yssir as he pulled a chair, sat down, and gave the old man a hard punch in the already swollen, red cheek. Orr opened one eye, moaning. “I did nothing!”

“Well, that means that it’s a good time to finally start proving yourself useful,” Yssir spat through gritted teeth. “Unless you want Hruod here to pick up your remains from this very floor at the end of the night.”

Yssir stood up, pulling the chair out from beneath Orr.

Hruod’s brows were knitted together. “But… what do we do with the Kaumian once we find him?”

“That’s the woman’s problem.”

Hruod nodded.

Yssir added, bitterly, “And here we are again, following orders like a herd of sheep.” He paused to draw a deep breath and release it. The three men made it toward the door.

“I’ll kill whoever I want.”






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