Disclaimer: I no own. Please to not be suing now.
Warnings: Spoilers for Scar's backstory, but nothing for the rest of the series. Themes of impurity -- rape, violence, revenge, incest, the guilt of the victim, the lesser of two evils.
Author's Note: I
don't know if the end works. I ran out of steam. If it isn't as
strong as the rest, just tell me; I probably need to rework it. Also,
It occurred to me at one point that I really had a thing about head
wounds in this chapter (as opposed to the obvious arm-wound imagery
in the first two), and I'm not sure what that says... except that
this story felt like it was exploding my brain. So.
Chapter Three: Scars
Need drove Hiram out of the tent over the next few days, when the supplies Baruch had left ran out and no one returned with more. He rigged a sling for his broken arm and went out to offer his help wherever he could -- heavy labor was one of those few things he excelled at, and its mindless tedium was a comfort after too much purposeless walking and too many restless hours waiting on his brother. Despite being constantly hungry and exhausted, he kept at it, earning enough grudging favors and tentative respect from the other Ishbalans to keep himself and his brother in food and water and medicine. Mostly the people who didn't know him -- who had been in the camp before Hiram's village had moved in -- were the ones willing to help him, as those who were familiar with Hiram were also familiar with Mattias and the disaster that tended to follow him, and refused to touch either of them.
As Hiram had suspected when he first saw it, the camp was older than most, and more permanent -- to the relative degree that wartime homes were ever permanent. There was a cleft in the cliff-face that led down to an underground reservoir, which supplied water (drinkable when boiled) and naturally irrigated a small leeward hollow against the cliff further to the south that had fertile enough soil to support the most basic of crops. Most people passed on through the camp after a few weeks or months, but it only took a day or so for Hiram to pick out the permanent residents -- a small group, maybe five or six families (none with children, and only two elders among them) who had clearly dedicated themselves to the cause. They were strong people, mostly quiet, but where they passed calm followed. Hiram envied them.
The bandits didn't have full run of the place -- the north end of camp was all but partitioned off for their use, and the outcasts tended to get pushed that direction. Once Hiram had the lay of the place he realized that his and Mattias' tent was much closer to Gurney's stronghold than to the fertile side of camp, which housed the makeshift temple and the lean- tos and tents belonging to the permanent families. Still, no imminent threat loomed from the bandits' area -- no foreign men patrolled the paths and alleys with guns. Apparently they served as welcoming party only, catching each incoming group before they had time to assimilate into the crowd already living in the camp and intimidating them into line. That early, the refugees were too weary to resist, and later on they were too busy to rebel.
Hiram learned that truth first- hand. The fertile hollow and the entrance to the reservoir were both a fair trek away -- the camp was centered against the cliff directly between them. He discovered early on that the permanent families were indiscriminate in who they allowed to work with them, as that was the first place he went looking for some way to earn bread.
Two small fields had been drawn off in the limited space provided by the hollow to allow for at least the minimum crop rotation. It didn't take much for Hiram to find the appointed supervisor for the day and convince him that he could work as well as anyone. For as long as he could stand it after that, Hiram weilded a hoe one-handed, making nearly as much progress as the healthy man and woman on either side of him. The woman gave him a few sidelong looks as they worked through the morning, and when Hiram's screaming body forced him to stop and rest, she stopped as well and vanished beyond the end of the row.
Hiram stumbled out of the field and found an outcropping of stone near the cliff to lean against. After a moment his knees gave out and he sat down hard, sweat trailing into his eyes and under his sling. The edges of his vision were blurred with pure white agony. For a second he thought he might throw up, but knowing he couldn't afford the dehydration, he forced himself to relax instead. The pain pulsed through his arm and up into his shoulder, his chest, his side. He leaned his head back against the stone wall and let it take its course.
"It isn't wise," said a voice above him, as a thin shadow fell over his face. Female, he thought, though his mind wasn't translating reality very well through the haze. He forced his eyes open and looked up.
It was the woman from his row, holding a bowl in both hands. She knelt quickly. Following the movement made Hiram dizzy for a moment. "What?" he asked thickly.
"You're pushing yourself," she said bluntly. "It isn't wise. The fields are too hot in the morning for the wounded or the slow. Direct sun until early evening."
"I have to work," Hiram grated out. "And I can work. Perfectly well."
She shook her head. "With half a body you do the work of one man. With a whole body, one can only imagine. Take it from me, you're slow." She held out the bowl. "Here. Drink."
Hiram tried to take the bowl with his good hand, which was trembling and beginning to blister, but she made a soft clicking noise in the back of her mouth and held the bowl to his lips instead. He drank the blessedly cool water, which was tinged with something bitter that set off the soft echo of memory.
"What's...?" Hiram tried to ask when he was allowed breath again.
"It will help with the pain. The bone is set well, I think, but the sun will bring back the possibility of fever. Stay in the shade from now on."
Hiram grimaced and shook his head. "We have no food," he said, forcing his own determination to win out over the temptation of shade and rest. "My brother is..."
She shushed him almost imperceptibly, giving him a quick, meaningful look. "We know of no one with you. But you're big enough for two, and it's a tough bone to heal. Abidan sends you this in anticipation of a fast recovery and future work." She unslung the satchel she wore crossed over her chest and pulled out a cloth-wrapped bundle. Hiram tried to say something, but she pressed the bundle into his hand, closing his big fingers around it and giving him an intensely earnest look.
"Sol?" she asked more softly, nodding at his arm.
He hesitated, then nodded.
"And Gurney took the exile. Ishbala save him." She made a quick gesture to that effect. "And you... take this, and say nothing. Abidan knows medicine. As far as you should be concerned, he's treating your arm."
Hiram nodded. The pain in his arm and mind had already become more distant, like a persistent waking dream. The bundle weighed heavy in his hand.
The woman stood, then reached down and took Hiram's right arm, helping him up. She looked him over one last time and nodded as if satisfied.
"The reservoir is underground," she said. "To the north of camp. Walk past Gurney's place and you'll see. Good work there manning the firepits to keep the water boiling. Can't drink it straight from the source. Some people died when we first came here, trying that."
So she had been one of the first to settle here. She looked young enough in years, but after all, the war hadn't been that long. Her eyes betrayed her true age.
"How long have you been here?" Hiram asked.
She smiled, a little terse but genuine at the same time. "Six years. My name is Ghazala. Abidan is my husband."
Nearly the whole war spent huddled against this cliff, just surviving...
Hiram nodded solemnly. "I'll remember this," he said softly.
"Until time and war take this country," she murmured, "and there is no more memory." A pause; she looked distant and a little sad, just for a second, until she brought herself back to the moment and cracked her face into another dry smile. "Ishbala's blessing upon you," she said quietly, and gave him a swift but firm kiss on the cheek.
Hiram watched Ghazala walk back into the fields, and kept his eyes on the spot where she'd disappeared for another whole minute before he turned to leave. That afternoon he unpacked the bundle, finding salves and powders with instructions scribbled in heavily annotated Ishbalan on a scrap of paper at the bottom, as well as a good deal more food than could be considered a reasonable ration for one. He prepared the food in silence, and when Mattias woke at the smell, Hiram changed his bandages and applied the new ointments before he would let his brother eat.
That night, both brothers slept a little easier.
Ghazala was right -- the work at the firepits by the reservior was more suited to a one- armed man, but no less necessary or difficult. Being useful always helped Hiram heal, no matter what the nature of the wounds. It was why he'd volunteered to fight, back when their village was still something whole enough to be worth protecting.
On the morning of the fourth day, Hiram tried his hand at hauling water rather than boiling it. The descent into the cliff face didnít affect him at first, but after a while he realized how illusory time itself became down there in the dark. He felt like they'd been walking for hours. Then, when he judged that they were maybe three, four hundred feet down, he began to sense the immensity and weight of age-old stone surrounding him, covering him -- blocking all but one way out. And he realized that he couldn't take that closeness, couldn't live in a place without horizons and sky for miles around. The wide, shallow bubble in the earth that contained the black lake was disorienting -- his hair brushed the roof in some places before the ground dipped downward towards the shore, and the sense of concavity was too much like being inside the center of the earth rather than on its surface.
The men and women around him kept their heads down, going about their work by the faint light from a few torches worked into the walls. On the surface, people at least looked at each other. There was some sense of connection, even if it was desperate or fleeting or hollow. Down here... hollowness was not a question, it was a reality. Ishbalans were a desert people; they lived and died by the sun. Without light --
Hiram got what he could carry and made the trek back to the surface without a word. Emerging from the cliff-face into the midmorning light blinded him for a moment, and he realized he'd been underground for a good two hours. No wonder the process of hauling and boiling water was an unending one.
After that he stuck with the firepits.
Baruch came to find him later that same day. He didn't say much, just helped out as any other worker would, although some of the men nodded respectfully to him as he passed. Late afternoon was passing into evening when he came over to the place where Hiram sat, taking a break to stir one of the cooling fires with a long, charred stick. Hiram barely glanced up when Baruch settled back on his heels next to him.
"How is your brother?" Baruch asked softly.
Hiram put the stick down, satisfied with the intensity of the fire and the steam now billowing off the surface of the water, and wiped sweat from his forehead with his good arm. He didn't offer an answer at first, just looked away, over the dunes.
Baruch sighed. "Gurney has scouts in every direction. One of them came back a few hours ago with news of a caravan passing through the ruins to the north, heading west. It might be Xingese, and to Gurney that means richer pickings than here. There's a possibility they'll be gone in a few days. Whether or not they'll come back, I don't know, but it's not like the camp will be going anywhere."
Hiram turned his gaze back to the darkening field spotted with rare blooms of fire and ethereal clouds of white steam. The earth burned. Why did Baruch think it mattered what Gurney did now? The damage the bandit had intended was done, past.
"Why do the men bow to you?" Hiram asked instead, voicing the only thing that interested him about his former teacher.
Baruch hesitated. "I lead the prayers," he said. "There's a larger tent -- towards the fields. For those who wish to pray with others."
"Religion," said Hiram, "must be the only profession benefitted by war."
He regretted it as soon as it left his lips. When Baruch stood, the chill between them was most certainly not a product of the cooling night air. "Tell that to the murderers living so well off the blood of the people in this camp," Baruch said, tone betraying little beyond disapproval. But that was enough.
Hiram remembered being Baruch's student, remembered respecting the man above all others in the world, and realized that some part of him still respected him -- still believed in Ishbala, still craved salvation, still craved approval. He couldn't look up and meet Baruch's eyes. Instead he assumed the universal hunch of the chastised student, knowing how pitiful and petty it looked but hoping that Baruch would understand the true contrition behind it.
Baruch left. Hiram listened until his heavy footsteps had completely faded into a silence as full as the darkness that now velveted the night sky. When he was sure he was alone but for the other workers still meandering between the fires, he allowed the burn that had been threatening to tear through his throat to rise to his eyes and fill his mind. His sobs were rough but silent.
He wanted justice. He wanted peace. He wanted to abandon his brother and go back to his country and be accepted and walk in the desert with no threat of suffocation and he wanted the sky, he wanted the sky to rip open like it had once, just once, when he was young, and make the desert spill out all its violent vibrant short-lived life like the entrails of the earth so he could smell the visceral combination of rain and sand and vegetation and heat, so unnatural but so beautiful. He wanted the cleansing fire of the sandstorm. He wanted to be deserving of respect, and he wanted to deserve a teacher. He didn't want to be this way anymore, always hungry and exhausted and in pain and ground down into nothing a little more every day by who he was and what he lived with.
He wanted God to love him again. With all of his being, with all of his soul he craved...
He wanted the wanting to stop.
And all of a sudden the sobs broke and he could hardly breathe for the weariness that cut him to the core. He only wanted one thing anymore, and that was sleep. He left without a word to the other men, managed to get himself back to camp and to his tent, and after he'd determined that Mattias could stand to wait another few hours before being checked over again, he collapsed into the deepest sleep he'd had in days.
The next day, he saw Gurney again.
Talk was spreading throughout the camp that Gurney and his men were packing up, that there was a merchant caravan passing by close enough for a hit, that they'd be gone by dawn the next day to catch up with their target near the borders of Amestris. The general air was one of relief -- or rather, the held breath before true relief could be breathed out softly. None of the Ishbalans would be satisfied of their freedom until Gurney was long gone.
Hiram hadn't seen Gurney since the day they'd arrived, and he hadn't seen any of the bandits out of the strip of tents at the north edge of camp. He'd passed it several times on the way to or from the firepits, but the greatest signs of life there consisted of shadows moving inside tents, or a man cooking outside without looking up, or the silhouettes of men standing in the shadows having a smoke after nightfall. Hiram had never let his eyes linger on those tents or the men loitering around them -- he recognized some of them from the ambush outside camp, and wanted nothing to do with them.
That morning, he wasn't even heading towards the reservoir -- he'd gone south instead, to the fields, where he hoped to find Ghazala and ask for more salve for Mattias' back. It was the only part of his brother that hadn't completely healed, though Hiram didn't let himself stop to wonder at the speed of Mattias' recovery. With the rumors of Gurney's imminent departure and the fact of Mattias' growing health, Hiram thought it likely that he'd be leaving the camp fairly soon as well -- to make for the Amestrian border, maybe, where even if the military was made up of devils and abominations, a civilian hospital might be merciful enough to take Mattias without questioning his tattoos.
The southern part of the camp contained the only buildings more solid than tents -- scrap lean- tos and low stone storage caches made to keep things cool in deep shade. It was one of these, its surface just at the level of Hiram's chin, that Hiram was nearing when he noticed the unsettlingly familiar silhouette of a man leaning against the side. Hiram's step faltered as his mind struggled for the split- second it took to place the bandit leader's shadowed face.
Hiram stopped about eight feet from where Gurney stood with a shapeless cloak padding and disfiguring his lean form, hood up but not pulled forward to fully hide his features. How many people would recognize him on sight anyway, Hiram wondered? How many had been directly terrorized by him, rather than by his more violent flunkies? Not many, almost certainly. Besides, Gurney didn't look foreign like some of the others, the ebony- skinned Drachmans and the one pale, desert- burned Amestrian. The only thing off about Gurney was his eyes, dark pools that were so much more unreadable than the typical vibrant Ishbalan red.
Raucous laughter broke Hiram's frozen fight-or-flight reaction. He glanced around at the source of the sound and saw a group of children playing nearby, climbing on and around a stone outcropping. Chasing each other. Hitting each other in the way children did, for fun, to see who could take how much, always toeing that line between playful amusement and darker calculation. Or maybe that was just Hiram projecting his own sinful nature onto the innocent.
Gurney, Hiram realized, was watching the children play. He hadn't moved, hadn't acknowledged Hiram's presence. His expression was unreadable.
Hiram considered walking on. But there was nowhere to go except in front of Gurney's very face, between the bandit and the children, and besides -- Hiram couldn't leave children alone with this... creature watching them. He didn't know if Gurney intended to do anything, but his mere stance unnerved Hiram, like a big cat in repose, not coiled for a leap but still thinking intently about blood.
Hiram scowled to cover up the roil of emotion that wanted to spill out of him. For a second he thought about grabbing Gurney without warning and shoving the back of his skull into the corner of the stone wall he was leaning against. Hiram imagined the crack under his hands, like an egg. Gurney wouldn't be that hard to break.
But it wouldn't be enough. Death was too simple an escape for a man like Gurney. And anything worse was too hard.
"If you touch them, you'll regret it," Hiram said instead, looking straight at his enemy without expression.
Gurney smiled before he looked up. "It's the exile's brother," he said as if to himself. "Good to see you again. How's Mattias?"
Hiram's good fist clenched at the name, and he suppressed thoughts of how Gurney might have pried it free despite the societal conditioning that by now had almost convinced Mattias that he'd never had a name.
"As if you don't know," Hiram said, dangerously low, in response to Gurney's question.
Gurney shrugged. "He held up well. I imagine he's healing fast. Not to mention that fascinating array must be doing its part to help him along."
Hiram couldn't say anything, just tried not to choke on his unspeakable anger.
"If you think I touched him, you're not the measure of a man I thought you were," Gurney said in response to Hiram's seething silence, faintly disapproving. "Sol and his boys tend to pine for the fleshpots of whatever cities they're from. If I denied them a pretty face and something tight to put their dicks in, they wouldn't keep in line. Animals." He took a slow breath and let it out as if it were cigarette smoke he'd just savored, instead of stale dust and hot wind. "But I figured you for a thinking type, Hiram. I figured you for a smart kid. You'd know I appreciate a pretty face as much as the next guy. But a thing of beauty... that's something else. And your brother, well. He's a work of art."
He knew Hiram's name. No anger boiled in Hiram's veins now, only a coldness, and a certainty. Of what, exactly, he wasn't sure, but he'd felt this before. Running to find his brother before the world ended, years ago. Running through dead streets filled with dead bodies in a dead silence on a morning as hot as all the others in this hell, knowing that the world was dropping slowly away beneath his feet and he was falling with cold certainty into a dead nothing.
Gurney had spoken Hiram's name, and, suddenly, Hiram found that didn't want it anymore.
"What do you want?" Hiram asked, his voice sounding fainter than he'd intended to his own ears.
Gurney turned his head to look at Hiram for the first time, and grinned a quick, toothy grin. The big cat, flashing its fangs. "I just want to talk to them, Hiram," he said sincerely, almost earnestly.
The sand was crumbling away beneath Hiram's feet. "Leave us alone," he said, his voice as dead as he felt. "Leave us alone. You've gotten what you wanted."
"Not from you."
Gurney moved faster than Hiram could follow, and the next thing Hiram knew was pain in a line of fire across the back of his skull, like a crack through which he expected any moment to feel his brain slide out and splatter the ground behind him. Except that there wasn't ground behind him, there was stone. Gurney had done exactly what Hiram had fantasized about minutes before, and pushed Hiram around and back so that his head had cracked hard against the top edge of the storage cache. Gurney's hand felt feverishly hot against Hiram's chest even through his clothes. The deadness in Hiram lurched and was overturned by a surge of blind fear that he immediately hated himself for succumbing to.
Gurney stepped back and held both of his hands up, palms out, and laughed.
"You're a great kid," Gurney said, clearly still amused with himself. "Great kid, Hiram. I think this is the best bunch I've had through this camp in months, between you and your brother." He lowered his hands and thumped Hiram amiably on his good arm with the same one he'd used to shove him against the sharp corner of stone. Hiram's vision was still blurry and uncertain from the blow.
"Leave us alone," Hiram repeated in barely more than a whisper. He couldn't think. His voice slurred a little.
Gurney's demeanor changed on the drop of a pin again. He turned to stand beside Hiram, arms crossed, leaning Hiram's direction conspiratorially -- as if they were the best of acquiantances. "See those kids, Hiram?" He pointed at the playing children, who seemed to have gotten tired of their game and had settled down to talk or doze in the shade of the outcropping.
Hiram made a sound in the back of his throat. If he thought he could move he might have tried to tear out Gurney's throat with his hands, or press his thumbs into Gurney's eyes until they burst. These things passed through his mind rationally, levelly, without the berserker violence he had felt before.
But he was frozen and Gurney kept talking, soft and so, so assurred of himself.
"They're us, our kids.They don't know they're going to die. They don't know they're trapped, as long as they got five square feet to keep moving around in. That's freedom, real freedom, that unquestioning acceptance of what they've got and what they don't know. You pray to your god that they're us, all right, Hiram? You pray to Ishbala that we can ever be that free."
"Almighty Ishbala teaches us not to fear death," Hiram said numbly.
"Then maybe you better pick a new fat man in the sky to bow down to," Gurney replied, entirely as if it were merely friendly advice. He stood up and away from Hiram, apparently finished with the conversation, and reached out to pat Hiram heavily on the shoulder. "Right, we're off. Xingese to waylay, Sol to make happy. The men are just as tiny as the women in Xing, and almost as pretty, if I hear right. And they're all rich as hell. Foreign bastards."
Hiram said nothing, but kept his eyes fixed on the bandit leader.
"Maybe our paths'll cross again someday, yeah?" Gurney settled his cloak higher around his shoulders and started walking away. He waved over his shoulder. "My regards to your brother."
When Gurney was out of sight, Hiram sank slowly down next to the cache and could not bring himself to move for the next quarter hour. When he finally did, it was with a great deal of stiffness and dizziness that he was grateful for, at least, because the pain and disorientation made it impossible to think about the look of supreme satisfaction on Gurney's face before he'd walked away.
At some point during the conversation the great cat had coiled and sprung, and Hiram had never seen it coming. He felt shredded and spat out in a way he'd never thought possible. And yet hating himself for feeding the monster was just as useless as hating the monster for its nature.
Easier to let the dizziness take over and feel nothing.
Shakily, Hiram made his way onwards, towards the southern fields, towards Ghazala and medicine and some degree of sanity.
Ghazala took him to her husband without a word when she saw the way Hiram staggered as he walked, and the sheen of blood on the back of his neck that was soaking slowly into his clothes. He hadn't thought the blow to his head had been that bad, but Ghazala told him the bloodflow had to be stopped as quickly as possible because his body couldn't afford to divert any energy from his healing arm. Hiram didn't take much in, but he supposed he was grateful for a fast relief from pain for once. Abidan gave him water laced with the same bitter painkiller Ghazala had dosed him with in the fields.
It was the first time he'd seen the elusive medicine man, and Hiram found his solid silence reassuring. Abidan was tall and had the look of a broad-built man whose current relative thinness was unnatural, but not totally unhealthy. He and Ghazala coexisted in the same space with the ease and grace of two people who could not remember life without each other.
Abidan and Ghazala lived in a real building, two low rooms roofed by piecemeal scraps of metal sheeting and rarest lumber that were supported by meticulously contructed stone walls, presumably the work of years of picking away at the cliff wall and moving the stone between shifts in the fields. More lumber had been laid out on top of stacks of rubble to make low surfaces that could be used as tables or benches. Hiram was sitting on one as Abidan treated him, and he touched the rough wood under his fingers, trying to remember the last time he'd seen a wooden door or, buried even further back in the haze of memory, a tree.
He wouldn't be surprised if the couple were the oldest inhabitants of this place.
The dizziness finally started receding -- and, along with it, the sick, heavy pulse of fear that had lingered with the image of Gurney's face, so close to his, and the scorching hand on Hiram's chest that seemed to want to reach in and squeeze his heart. Abidan rubbed something cold onto the back of his head that shocked him back into full sense. The ties of his bandages had to be arranged in awkward angles to keep them firmly in place, but the wound was high enough that the gauze, angled upward, could just cross his forehead without obstructing his sight.
Ghazala was just folding a scrap of paper over a pinch of some precious powder for Hiram to take back when they heard the beginnings of the commotion outside.
Refugee camps were quiet places. Noise meant danger, meant rioting, meant that war had finally found another corner of the world to raze and burn. Any noise in a refugee camp was the sound of the earth falling away.
Abidan looked up at the first sussurus of raised voices that drifted in from the field outside. No shouts, not yet, but they could hear movement en masse, and voices raised as if questioning, growing louder as the source of the disturbance came closer. One set of footsteps had barely distinguished itself from the multitude when the runner to whom they belonged burst through the heavy canvas that hung over the door.
Abidan spoke for the first time in Hiram's presence. "Micah," he said to the flushed and sweating young man who eyes were wide with urgency. "What's happening?"
Micah made a lightning-quick half-bow of respect and kept his eyes fixed on the floor as he gasped, "We don't know, teacher. There was -- a disturbance in north camp. One of Gurney's men fired --" His face screwed up; he couldn't force out the name of something for which there was no name. "There was red light and an explosion," he said instead. "Two men and a woman are hurt. Gurney's man is dead."
Abidan glanced at Hiram almost imperceptibly. "Is the exile involved?"
Micah squeezed his eyes shut and started gasping a prayer, over and over. He could not acknowledge what Ishbala did not acknowledge.
Hiram surged to his feet.
"You aren't --" Ghazala started.
"Go," Abidan interrupted her, directing his low order towards his patient.
Hiram turned to look at the two. Abidan's crimson eyes pierced his being, and his command hung between them, sharp as knives. A breath later, Ghazala inclined her head and added her own murmured "Go" to her husbandís.
He didn't look back, didn't see Ghazala put her hand into Abidan's. He pushed past the shell-shocked messenger in the doorway and fled into the heat and the fields and beyond. His bad arm hampered his balance, but he felt little pain; the bitter drug Abidan had given him coursed through his veins as fast as panic pursued terror through his head and gut.
For the first time in months, Hiram didn't just hope. He prayed.
He found them at the natural amphitheater at the base of the cliff. Pairs of red eyes hid themselves behind canvas walls and alley shadows and curled fingers as he passed, and the only Ishbalans he met on the way were rushing past him, away from the scene. He followed the trail of their absence, unable to think, until he hit a wall of people and knew he'd found the source.
The men standing in a semicircle around the small hollow were all Gurney's men, and their presence was all the confirmation his fears needed. Hiram shoved past them without thinking, brushing arms with men whose hands were drenched in the blood of his people, and for a second he felt some connection to them. Their frozen terror was his, their bewilderment and blankness showed on their faces as clearly as Hiram felt the same rising in his throat.
Hiram staggered out of the wall of watching men and saw in a timeless second what had frozen them all. The injured Ishbalans had crawled away, towards the cliff-face or the crowd, as far away from the bloody mound that might once have been a whole person as they could get -- but even that distance wasn't far enough away from the two men still alive in the clearing, Gurney standing tall over Mattias. Hiram's brother was on his knees in front of the monster, shirtless, white pants spattered with blood. Defeated, dying?
But Mattias was looking up, and in the set of his jaw Hiram could see the same determined pride he remembered from a long, hard youth together. And Gurney, though still upright, had a grayish tinge to his skin and a hunch to his shoulders that bespoke a greater pain.
Then Gurney shifted and Hiram saw that there wasn't much left of his left arm. What was missing seemed to have sprayed across the ground and become mixed in the puddle of messy humanity that Hiram guessed was the dead bandit Micah had referred to. Mattias' right arm was bathed in gore, obscuring the tattoos but not hiding them -- they were glowing more brightly than Hiram had ever seen.
Barely a breath had passed since Hiram had laid eyes on them. Gurney lifted a foot to kick out at Mattias, but his balance was off and Mattias grabbed his leg in a slippery grasp, making him stagger and fall. Gurney caught himself on his remaining hand and twisted madly in Mattias' grasp, rolling away and crusting his open wound with sand. Mattias levered himself unsteadily to his feet while Gurney was still reorienting. Gurney managed to lift himself up -- Mattias stumbled towards him, reaching out his bloody arm -- Gurney found his balance in a flash and reached out to grab Mattias' reaching wrist, maybe to pull him forward, maybe to twist and break the bones -- no one would ever know. Mattias' hand slammed against Gurney's face, fingers digging hard into the olive skin, palm smothering the bandit's expression of animal rage, and then his tattoos flared again.
There was a wet, flat sound, a soft burst loud enough to ring in Hiram's ears for the rest of his life.
The wordless scuffle resolved itself into silence. For a second nothing happened.
Then Gurney's fingers slid away from Mattias' slick wrist and he slumped backwards. As his face parted from Mattias' hand Hiram saw the blood trickling from his mouth, his nostrils... his eyes. His eyes were so blank.
Mattias's ragged breathing brought Hiram back from the edge of screaming. He looked up from the bandit's corpse and somehow met his brother's eyes just as Mattias turned his head towards his audience.
Something that might have been relief, expressed with something that might once have been a smile, flickered to life in Mattias' blood-spattered face. "Brother," he said hoarsely. "I came looking for you. I couldn't find you."
Hiram choked on nothing. He'd never been so afraid of his older brother.
What happened next registered with far less clarity than Gurney's death had. Voices rose in a rough wave, ascending from shouts to shrieks in the blink of an eye, and Hiram leapt away from his fellow watchers -- Gurney's men. He recognized the man he'd been standing shoulder-to-shoulder next to with a distant horror, but no surprise -- Sol, Sol with the rifle Hiram had never seen out of his hands, Sol with his face twisted into something inhuman.
Mattias lurched forward, hand out, ready to hurt Sol the way he had Gurney, but Gurney hadn't had a gun and Hiram knew Mattias was going to die.
Sweating foreign bodies pressed in all around, some trying to reach Gurney, some trying to catch Mattias, some trying to run --
Sol raised his rifle towards Mattias with a yell; then, somehow, Hiram was between them, bodily forcing Sol back, foot locking behind Solís knee to bring him down, good arm holding the rifle out of the way -- he didn't know how. Desperation lent him impossible strength.
"Bastard! Freak!" Sol was shrieking, at Hiram or Mattias or both. He slammed the trigger down and held it down and some of his own men screamed and bubbled and keeled over in that direction, the bullets spraying indiscriminately among them, but Hiram kept the deadly barrage away from Mattias and that was all that mattered.
Hiram slipped -- Mattias screamed -- Hiram roared in unformed pain
and everything went red for a second, went blank and
Hiram had Sol's gun by the barrel and Sol was falling. The dent in his skull matched the pattern of blood and whitish matter on the butt of the rifle. His knees hadn't even hit the ground before Hiram swung the makeshift bludgeon down again, connecting with frightening accuracy. The force of it sent Sol sprawling for several feet. He lay where he landed, twisted and limp.
There was a moment when no one noticed. But awareness of death spread quickly through mobs, and followers had some kind of sixth sense for the loss of their leaders. Slowly, voices and hands began to lower. Heads turned. There wasn't a pair of red eyes among them.
Hiram stepped back from the body and the rifle slipped from his hand. It hit the ground with a final thunk. Unarmed, he looked up and met the eyes of the men closest to him. They stared back, weapons lowered, and made no move against him.
Mattias made the first move, stepping forward and placing a hand on Hiram's shoulder. Hiram jerked at the touch, but Mattias' warmth was familiar and he didn't pull away. Pointless to be afraid of his brother now. Pointless to be afraid of anything. Especially death.
Hiram's eyes slid away from those of the staring men, back to his brother. Mattias looked more lucid than Hiram had seen him in years. Hiram put his good arm around Mattias' shoulders and took the easiest first step of his life.
He wasn't afraid anymore.
"Is it permitted to confess?"
Baruch looked up from the tending of one of the injured Ishbalan men from yesterday's conflict. His eyes widened almost imperceptibly at the unlikely visitor who stood in the entrance to the prayer tent.
"Of course, my son," said Baruch levelly, passing his work over to a helper with a few quiet words and wiping his hands clean on a dirty cloth before pushing himself to his feet. He walked to Hiram, laid a hand firmly on his arm, and led him to a corner away from the scene of healing.
Hiram's eyes lingered on the injured people for a moment before he looked Baruch in the eyes.
"Master, I have always held you and your teachings in the utmost respect --"
"The teachings of Ishbala, my son," Baruch demurred. "I merely serve."
Hiram nodded sincerely at the correction. "Without you to spread the word of Ishbala into my life, I would have been a wretch from the beginning," he said quietly. "His was a strength and wisdom I needed for many, many years. And I believe His was a strength my brother craved also."
Baruch's brows drew down slightly. "Your brother... even before -- well -- he rarely harbored much respect for the faith --"
Hiram shook his head. "With respect, teacher, his faith was among the strongest I have ever known."
Baruch pursed his lips and said nothing, waiting for Hiram to continue.
"He questioned the laws," Hiram said, letting his gaze drift to some middle distance, face directed towards the injured once again. "He has -- he... had ... a scientific mind, and that methodical questioning was the highest respect he could give. And he followed the laws, obeyed every word, until her death started to eat away at him. It wasn't the questioning that sowed the seed of doubt. It was the pain that came later."
He took a deep breath and closed his eyes.
"Teacher, I still believe. I always have. But I have begun to question, and my mind is not as scientific as my brother's. I doubt. I'm plagued by my weaknesses. My infidel heart asks why Ishbala has sent this terror down on His people, and where in the holy texts He is said to be cruel and arbitrary. My faith that He exists does not diminish, but my hope that He loved me was murdered long ago."
"My son --"
Hiram held up his hand. "The greatest unfairness of it is that my thoughts, a thousand times more heretical and debased than my brother's, have not earned my exile along with him. And his heresy, the crime that brought him to shame, was rooted in a faith so intense that he truly believed that Ishbala would forgive him his use of the Grand Arcanum as a tool by which to perpetuate the life -- her life -- that Ishbala Himself had created.
"But the past is done, and the only choices left now are mine, who deserves them so much less."
Baruch nodded slowly, eyes grave. "I will hear your choice and bless it if I can."
"I choose my family," Hiram said with quiet finality. "I forfeit the blessing extended to me by Ishbala and the protection given by those who speak for Him. I will stay with my brother and call him by the name Ishbala gave him. I will ask for no aid and expect no acknowledgement. I choose exile."
Baruch squeezed his eyes tightly closed. He bowed his head low and took a heavy breath.
After a long moment, he raised his face again and met Hiram's eyes -- for the first time as an equal and a man, rather than as a master to a student. "Take a final blessing, then. One you can never lose or give away." He put a hand on Hiram's shoulder. "You have more of Ishbala's love than you will ever know," he said softly. "Go well."
Hiram laid a hand loosely over his former teacher's. He looked into Baruch's eyes and saw only hardness -- and respect.
He didn't offer thanks, or a
goodbye. In the next few days, he saw plenty of Baruch -- with the
remaining bandits gone, he and several other leaders had begun
organizing the next traveling expedition, forever striving for the
sanctuary they believed they would find in the hills. Hiram lent his
strength wherever he could. He planned to leave with the expedition,
although he and Mattias would be essentially alone among many. It
didn't matter -- Hiram just needed to move.
He couldn't look at that little hollow under the cliff. The leaderless bandits had moved out to sack the Xingese caravan as they'd already planned, though how successful they would be without a mastermind was questionable. But it was only a matter of time until they fell to infighting, assimilating more young people beaten or coerced into a lifestyle that flew in the face of death, more scarred veterans who wanted to take someone else down with them when they finally bit the bullet, more power-hungry thinkers and movers; and somewhere between the blood and the backstabbing another Sol would be born, another Gurney. They would never die. The stains in the hollow meant nothing. They would never die.
Baruch was the one who removed his splint and sling when his arm healed. Hiram didn't see Ghazala or her husband again.
By the time they moved out, Hiram was still favoring his left arm, but altogether he felt healthier than he had in months -- though he was nothing compared to the miracle that was his brother, if miracle was the right word. Mattias walked taller than he used to, with a light deep in his eyes that Hiram had once believed had gone out forever. His wounds had vanished without a trace, and his tattoos, though they didn't glow, exactly, seemed to have gained a permanent depth as if the blood flowing in the veins beneath the skin were showing through the blackness of the ink.
Hiram could smell the blood on him. On both of them, now.
Some time after they moved on, a sandstorm removed from
the camp any stain of proof of their passing.