Alchemical Marriage, part 4
Thursday, November 20, 2008 - 12:25 PM
Sliding a battered and steaming tankard over to his younger comrade, Wisten settled his bulk on the bench.
“That'll warm your guts some,” he offered affably, and patted Dieder on the back.
Dieder gave Wisten a tolerant glance, nodding silently.
“More watch duty tonight,” continued Wisten, and winced at a sip from the concoction in his own tin tankard. Watchman's tea was a perpetual struggle; in autumn, it cooled quickly, so you had to drink it while it was warm without burning your mouth.
Dieder did the silent nod again, keeping his hands wrapped around the heat of his tea. The mess hall was nearly empty at this hour, with just a couple of scouts warming themselves at the fire before heading out again. It was a quiet time, the sort Wisten would describe as the pulling back of the ocean before the wave. Dieder would know this too; he was a different lad than the hot-tempered recruit he'd been. One battle can change a man completely, and Dieder had seen five now.
Braving his beverage, Wisten managed a searing gulp of the stuff, and then coughed a little when Dieder asked a question he didn't expect.
“Who the Hell are the Cyragrim, anyway?” Dieder was looking at Wisten fiercely, tapping a finger on the side of his tankard.
“...not sure what you're asking,” rasped Wisten. From Dieder's mood, he'd expected some of the sentimental things, like 'do you think I'll get home again' or 'I'm worried about my woman' or 'I almost died yesterday'.
“Who are they, Wisten? What kind of monster do you have to be to build something like that?”
No, instead, he's infuriated about the thrice-bedamned acid cannon. Putting up a hand, Wisten laughed a bit. “Easy, easy. One thing at a time.”
Dieder drank some of his tea with no regard at all for the inside of his mouth, and peered at Wisten. “Well, who are they? Funny how nobody ever sees them, nobody goes to their manor. I've heard other things, too...”
“Oh, now,” said Wisten. “That's not true. The Cyre houses are old, very old. Used to be nobility, and some say they still think of themselves that way. So they usually send middlemen to do business for them. They meet with peers, see, not mud-stomping soldiers like us. And people do go out to Karnain and Quevel; when I was a recruit, my first battle was just west of Quevel.”
Setting his jaw, Dieder nodded. “I never heard of a Cyre king or queen or whatever else. I thought they were merchants.”
“Yes, they are. Maybe their kingdom's built on money now, but some say the Cyre weren't always the Cyre. You know how some of the Hillmen carry the hanging masks on their banner? Or the six-fingered hand they get tattooed on their chest? That's all Kerlotyn. You ever see the Cyragrim arms? It's got a six-branched tree on it.”
Dieder mulled this over, frowning. “But the Kerlot got wiped out.”
Wisten nodded. “All of them. Sure, all that's left now are little piles of rock and some crazy Hillmen, but you don't have an empire like that and not leave something else behind. They conquered everybody from here to as far north as Greenstone Tower!”
“But that was ages and ages ago. And ...” Dieder paused, looking at Wisten suspiciously. “Are you changing the subject?”
“No, no. Just listen. The Kerlot were ruthless, right? So are the Cyragrim. I heard some wagoneers talk, the Cyre houses are great to do business with, but you better hold to contracts. You heard what happened to Anvil House that one time, right?”
Dieder looked at Wisten warily. “Sure, they got mangled.”
“Right. That's the thing... last time the Cyragrim took the field, they hired soldiers. But this last time? Nobody heard about any contracts. If they'd hired outside, we would've seen the troops on the road. So... who were the soldiers?”
This prompted another frown. “I don't know.”
“Hillmen,” said Wisten. “There weren't many survivors, and the fight happened at sundown. Not many people to see, but those who did... they say it was Hillmen. And who do they hire to? Nobody.”
“So you're saying the Cyre are Kerlotyn?”
“I'm saying they might be, and if they aren't, they think they are. And that's a lot of blood debt to pay. You've heard how the Hillmen rant. The Kerlot had a thing about grudges, or so they say. A grudge that old? That much hate? No wonder they make the weapons they do. And then they sell and rent their services to us so we kill each other. And remember what they used to say about the Kerlot and their power with curses. How many times have people failed against the Cyre?”
Dieder peered at Wisten for a long moment, and the older soldier looked back. Finally Dieder drained his tea, and shrugged.
“That sounds like a cart of horse shit.”
Wisten laughed. “Fine, so, the Cyragrim are just money-hungry bastards who like to build horrible machines. Is that answer enough?”
“No.” Dieder paused again. “I've seen a lot of killing, and it's just been man to man. We fight to live, this is how we make money. But the acid cannon? There's no cause for that thing. Death is never clean, but if you're a decent man, you make it as clean as you can. Torture is for filth, done by filth. And that thing is torture.”
Wisten gave him a wry smile and tapped tankards.
“Glad you feel that way, Dieder, because next engagement, we're charging the cannon. Come on, our watch is starting soon.”