…On horror's head horrors accumulate;
Do deeds to make heaven weep, all earth amazed;
For nothing canst thou to damnation add
Greater than that…
--from Othello, the Moor of Venice
On Horror's Head
Never chunder on a Lieutenant Colonel's shoes.
Corporal Quinn Dobson had debated the question at considerable length, and he had decided that that was one of life's most important lessons. He'd learned it the hard way. Twenty-six months in this northern hell, snowbound in a hundred-square-foot shack on the northern marches, he had paid for that mistake.
Life sucked. You got drunk one night, staggered into the barracks, threw up all over everything, and next thing you knew your life was basically over. He was twenty-three, for crying out loud: too damned young to be rotting here in the middle of nowhere. The only human beings he'd seen since coming out here, if you didn't count the trapper who'd got sidetracked in a blizzard Quinn's first week in, were the two old soldiers who ran the supplies through to these outposts from the last train station of Amestris, which was fifty-two miles away—to the south, of course. They made the run in a battered old truck in the summer, and in the winter they used a dog team and a cutter. And they'd only bring the goods as far as the foot of the mountain: the broad plateau on which the cabin sat was too treacherous a climb for them.
It had been a miserable two years. Quinn was a social creature, and deprived of crowds and camaraderie, he had had nothing to do with his time. In the summer he could hunt hare on the mountain tundra, or fish in the river, but during the winter—the seemingly endless, eight-month winter with which this distant corner of the country was cursed—there was nothing to do but sit in the cabin and toss pinecones into the fire. According to "The Rural Policeman's Handbook", he was supposed to spend ten hours out of every twenty-four guarding the pass. What "The Rural Policeman's Handbook" didn't know was that an avalanche three years ago had rendered the pass im-"pass"-able, and there was nothing to guard. Even if Drachma wanted to attack (which they would've been fools to do, from what the supply runners had said about the assault that the Flame Alchemist had led against them), they wouldn't be able to do it this way. There was no way in hell that Quinn was going to stand out in the snow freezing his ass off for nothing.
All of that was coming to an end. The dispatch had arrived with the supplies last week: Corporal Dobson was hereby recalled to North City, to resume regular duties with his regiment. A replacement would be sent to the Cold Pass Border Outpost to relieve him of that duty. And that replacement was due to arrive any second now.
Quinn's bag was packed, and he was already bundled up in his parka, ready to leave the second his relief arrived. He wasn't going to shed any tears over this transfer, that was for damned sure.
His excited breaths were coming in thick white billows. He had been too eager last night to remember to bank the fire, and he couldn't be bothered to build it up again now. Any second now, literally any second, the new sucker would be here and he, Quinn Dobson, would be high-tailing it back to civilization as fast as that dog sled could carry him.
Quinn had had enough of waiting. He couldn't stand these four drab walls. The crude pine furniture and the miserable bed with its mattress stuffed with the northern rushes that flourished for about six weeks at the very height of the so-called summer had been his only companions for twenty-six damned months, and he had had enough of it. He picked up his rucksack, tied his hood under his chin, and stepped out into the blowing snow.
The snow was always blowing. The one thing more plentiful than the white fluff itself was the wind that made it dance. It would howl down the chimney and worry the fire, and it would tug at your garments and chill you to your spleen if you were stupid enough to stand out in it for any length of time. But Quinn didn't give a damn about the snow any more: he was out of here.
Then he saw it: a dark speck toiling up the slope. His heart leaped to his mouth, and he let out a whoop of joy that was lost in the roar of the wind. His replacement! The next miserable soul to waste his life guarding this hunk of useless rock! There was a God after all: he was going back to civilization!
He didn't spare a moment's pity for the soldier who would be replacing him. He was free, and that was all that mattered. Next time, he thought, he'd take a court martial.
The other man was on the plateau now, and he had paused to catch his breath, clutching his knees and letting out enormous clouds of frosted air. Quinn tapped his foot impatiently, resisting the urge to go charging past with a loud "so long!".
At last, the man drew near enough that the Corporal could see something of his face. He was thin and grave-looking, and beneath the windburn his skin had the strange jaundiced pallor of a foreigner. His eye was dark and sloping, squinted against the wind.
The other eye was covered with a large black triangle that extended down his cheek. Quinn curled his lip in revulsion, wondering what kind of deformity hid behind that patch.
The newcomer snapped to attention, and Quinn returned the salute.
"Welcome to Cold Pass Border Outpost!" he said crisply.
"Thank you," the man said. His voice was low and devoid of all affect. He slumped out of his salute. "I hereby relieve you of this duty, Corporal Dobson. For the nation and her people."
"For the nation and her people," Dobson echoed. Then he shrugged and continued as quickly as he could. "There's the outpost. The rifle's inside, food in the cupboard, handbook somewhere around. You're s'posed to guard the pass, but I wouldn't worry about it; hope you enjoy your stay."
The newcomer nodded. An uncomfortable silence lapsed between the two soldiers. Suddenly, Quinn did feel a twinge of sympathy. He remembered his first day. He'd been numb with horror—to say nothing of cold—and he'd clung to every word that his predecessor had said. Then he'd relived them word for word for the first three weeks. It had been his last human contact for a while.
"I got drunk one night and pissed off some higher-ups," he announced, trying to be amicable. He'd forgotten the niceties of conversation: it had been too long since he'd used them. "What did you do to deserve this?"
"That isn't important," the other man said flatly. His voice could hardly be heard over the wind. Dead. It sounded dead. Like a voice from the grave.
"Sure it is," Quinn argued. "You're going to spend a hell of a lot of time thinking about it."
Quinn frowned. This one was definitely two pints short of a gallon. He tried to laugh. "Come on! You gotta tell me before I leave: it's the sacred tradition!"
He was met with a frosty silence that had nothing to do with the sub-zero temperature.
"Aw, don't spoil it," he wheedled. "I'll spend the rest of my life wondering. What did you do to deserve this?"
The answer was flat, not even colored with despair. "I killed my commanding officer," the man said. "I am guilty of insubordination and conspiracy against the State. Is that enough?"
Quinn glared at him. He didn't need to lie. Killing a commanding officer—well, he wasn't sure if it had ever been done, but he was pretty certain that it would carry a heavier penalty than a slap on the wrist and a couple years' exile. If this soldier were telling the truth, then he should've been court-martialed, tried and executed.
"Fine," he said icily. "Whatever. I'm out of here."
"They're waiting for you."
"Good!" Quinn snapped. Who the hell did this guy think he was, anyway? The freakin' Flame Alchemist? He was just some lowlife Corporal who'd probably done something just as stupid, embarrassing, and essentially harmless as Quinn had, and here he was being all melodramatic and making up crap about killing superiors.
The other man wasn't even looking at him anymore. He was staring off into the blinding whiteness.
"Goodbye and good luck," said Quinn, sourly. "Hope you like the stay."
He took three steps, and then halted as a soft, toneless voice called him back.
He turned. The newcomer was now eyeing the cabin.
"The fire…" he said. "There's no smoke."
"Yeah, it went out," Quinn said coolly. "You'd better get it going quick. You'll die up here without fire."
"Would you start it for me?" he asked. His tone was still hollow, devoid of all emotion. It was just creepy.
"Start it yourself!" griped Quinn. "I'm done. I'm out of here."
It was just as static as the other words, but it made Quinn pause on the very verge of beating his retreat. He stared at the stranger.
"I don't know how," the man added vacantly.
Oh-ho! A city boy, pampered and used to electricity and the amenities of an urban center. Actually, Quinn thought as his amusement waned, he'd never met anyone who didn't know how to lay a fire. Weird.
On the other hand, though, you would die up here without a fire, and even if this guy was a liar and a jerk, he didn't deserve that.
"Fine," Quinn said bitterly. He tramped back through the calf-deep snow and opened the door to the cabin. The two men were blown inside, along with a great deal of snow. Quinn threw his weight against the door and latched it.
"You'd better sweep that up," he said, gesturing at the drifts that had formed on the rough plank flooring. "It'll melt and you'll have trouble."
He took out an old newspaper from the box by the fireplace, and began to crumple it. The papers were a good year and a half old, and he knew every damned one by heart. Trying not to watch as the cold-stiffened man tried to wrestle with the broom, Quinn quickly built a tipi of twigs, and then crossed two logs over the firestarter. He reached for the matches, only to remember that they were still in his breast pocket. Sheepishly, he drew them out and ignited the fuel. A couple of expert breaths, and the paper caught alight. He waited to make sure that the kindling would take, and then moved back onto his ankles.
"There," he said sourly. "Make sure it doesn't go out: there's no way in hell I'm coming back to start another one for you."
The man backed against the wall as Quinn moved towards the door. He took one last look at the wretch who was taking his place.
"Here," he said, tossing the matches. "Just in case."
The pitch was a little wild, but the one-eyed man caught the small box with almost catlike reflexes that belied his catatonic voice.
"Thank you," he said again, without affect.
"Sure," Quinn said. "Good luck."
He unlatched the door and stepped out into the blizzard, hauling the portal closed behind him. He was done with this place. He was going back to North City, and he was never going to wind up on this plateau again.
Through the thick, primitive glass of the window, he could see the glow of his fire as it began to gain strength, and the dim shadow of the one-eyed Corporal who had already lost his mind. He wondered who the man really was, and what he had really done to earn this sojourn in the frosty wastelands of Hell.
He'd never know, he decided, and in the end it didn't really matter. He was out of here.