Monday, September 11, 2017

An Excerpt from Turesia(working title). Part 3/3

tVatV

David, what is this?

It's the third and final piece of an unedited, unbeta-tested excerpt. Go read this if you haven't, ya plebe.

~

You're reading Part 3 of the excerpt.

Part 1
Part 2

~

Pinprae the thief is running behind Irdessa the Undying. What fuels his feet is a true mystery, as if he’s not bordering on pissing himself. As if this path will end anywhere besides orcane guts. They’re running in a line to crash head on into what appears to be not a wounded, retired orcane, but one at the peak of its vitality and mad as all hell. It bears down like a massive wolf, but stumpier and as high as Pinprae’s head at its shoulder. They’re supposed to be more suited for swimming than running. In this moment, Pinprae cannot believe that’s true.
Pinprae throws a panicked glance backward to see the armored deserter some ways behind him. Farther back still Torvald the Tactician runs west toward the cliff with his strikers. The other team hasn’t moved. The bald soldier is shaking the tattooed man by the neck, perhaps trying to jiggle some use out of him. Both northern orcanes—neither of which look at all injured—are en route to converge on them. Those “runners” might as well be rabbits in a snare. Did Torvald predict this? The jeweler woman seems to be considering abandoning her team.
Ahead, Pinprae can see the beady, black marbles that are the orcane’s eyes. Its claws are kicking up gravel and dust twenty feet in the air. What did Torvald say? Attack the white part. That’ll be a feat, considering its fur is black across its entire back, and outside its legs and the top half of its head. The only white Pinprae can see is its belly, maybe its throat.
“I thought we were just supposed to distract it!” Pinprae cries.
Impact will occur in moments.
“Shut up, Prancer!” yells the deserter.
Irdessa points with her javelin and banks to the left abruptly, back toward the Holder’s wall, her feet impossibly agile. Pinprae follows, nearly turning his ankle in the process. It takes all his fortitude to run behind her, to match her pace rather than outrun her, although he’s tempted to make a break for the Last Hall and attack the gate with his knife. His thoughts are a steady, jumbled stream of swears, mostly at himself for ever wishing he could witness the Undying and the Tactician at work.
A bloody shriek from behind. The stands erupt in cheers. The deserter?! Pinprae’s bowels go liquid.
“Keep running!” Irdessa yells. “Don’t look back!”
She’s making a tight arc to the right and Pinprae is holding his place behind her. He’s unable to keep himself from looking.
 The orcane rolls to a stop on its back, gripping the bald deserter’s head in its mouth, forelegs wrapped around his shoulders. The man’s free hand claws at the beast’s massive paws to no effect. His puckered lips are protruding from between the animal’s clenched teeth. The orcane’s hindlegs rise up and kick once, raking the man’s stomach like a brutally effective mousing cat. The bald man has become a flailing sack. The hindlegs kick again. This time his body erupts. Red viscera bursts forth, gleaming in the golden sun, arcing high and spattering in piles over the ground. Pinprae’s feet stop responding.
The two other orcanes are fighting over the woman jeweler, tugging her in opposing directions. She comes apart in a crimson explosion. The orcane that won her legs throws away the limbs and trots panting toward the soldier, who left the tattooed man to his whimpering fate and stands there shooing the orcane with his spear.
“Prancer!”
It’s Irdessa, and she’s at full sprint, closing on the orcane that’s gnawing on the bald man’s emptied torso. Pinprae watches her launch a javelin. It flies too fast for him to follow, but the orcane spasms, its spine arching in a crescent. It gives a piercing bark, disentangles itself from the remains of the bald man, and flounders onto its feet. Its shark eyes fall on Pinprae. The orcane rears its head, giving a whistling howl that ends in a harpy’s shriek. Doesn’t that mean… it has found a target? All heat flees Pinprae’s body in a single instant. Oh shit, oh shit, oh shit, oh shit.
He was supposed to be doing something, but what? His dagger feels like little more than a sewing needle. He’s considering running it across his own throat when the orcane charges, running hobbled, its white lower jaw soaked entirely in the blood of a chunk that was a functional human until just moments ago.
Run!
Pinprae doesn’t see her but her words hit him like lightning. He flees on feet powered by naked dread. The orcane’s stride is compromised, thank the gods. Enough for him to stand a chance? He runs toward the southern wall, away from the northernmost skirmishes. There’s no telling where Irdessa is.
Over his right shoulder, distantly, Torvald’s team is in action. The woman with the bow is kneeling, firing arrow after arrow into an orcane that is bearing down on her. The large black-bearded fellow is pacing, yelling, axe held high, inviting the beasts to a one-on-one. The other orcane rears, slinging a dark-skinned body into the air. A flash of silver. One of its paws flies off. There’s Torvald, his long sword gripped in both hands.
The orcane on Pinprae’s heels is gaining on him. He can hear its strained whimper, like a starving hound chasing a cat. Pinprae looks back, against all common sense. The monster is within ten yards and closing. Its massive head remains level, despite its trampling feet. Its red teeth are bared, black eyes round. Pinprae’s toe hits something and he tumbles. He’s on the ground. It’s all over. His mother’s words come back to him, the ones she uttered after socking him in the eye.
“Thieving’s gonna get you killed, boy. You’re gonna end up in the belly of a monster in Keswal.”
Just as Pinprae throws up an arm in a pitiful farewell to his life, the orcane’s body flinches, rocked by an invisible impact. Its forelegs go limp and its nose plants into packed earth. Pinprae has the presence of mind to scramble backward. The beast goes end over end, crashing lifeless in a blast of dust, sliding to a stop with its cold, black snout against Pinprae’s ankle.
The roar of the crowd surges until it fills Pinprae’s head and all he can hear is,
“Ir-dess-ah!”
“Ir-dess-ah!”
“Ir-dess-ah!
“Get up!” Irdessa is inexplicably standing above him. “We’re not done.”
She jerks him to his feet and darts over to the fallen orcane. It takes only a moment for her to find a javelin. She yanks it and a line of blood chases the weapon from the wound.
“Can you run?”
“Can I… run?” His eyes are bound to the massive fallen orcane. He’s never seen a dead one. It’s said their dorsal fins are cut off at a young age, to make room for the leather saddle. Indeed, there’s a puckered, hairless line amid the short black fur on the thing’s back. Its gaping mouth and shark eyes are a mess of blood and sand.
Slap!
His cheek is ringing. Irdessa is in his face. “We’re not done!”
She runs. Pinprae follows her numbly. What use could I possibly serve besides diversionary chew toy?
Ahead, the ground is littered with the fallen and their loose parts. The three-footed orcane is thrashing like a speared fish, trying to dislodge the axe embedded in its eye socket. The black-bearded man clings to the axe’s long handle, getting jostled around like a fisher who’s just netted the father of all marlins. It sounds like he’s laughing.
The last orcane drags itself growling toward the poacher, who is advancing to meet it. The beast’s fur is striped with blood from half a dozen arrows. A spear extends from its hip. The woman fires an arrow directly into its snout from no more than five feet away. The orcane sneezes tremendously, expelling a red cloud on her, and rolls to its side, giving a tremor then moving no more.
The stadium explodes in applause.
Irdessa has slowed her pace and is walking toward arena center where Torvald runs a surprisingly clean cloth down his sword’s blade. The poaching archer shoulders her bow and joins him, her face dripping red. Blackbeard is trying to pry his axe out of the orcane’s skull, swearing at full blast.
Pinprae hesitates, several yards away. Those are warriors. The likes of which he’s never seen. He is not worthy of standing among them, or even being alive for that matter. Hell, he almost shat his pants. Irdessa looks back at him and gestures him to join her.
You did well, she mouths, as he comes to a dazed stop beside her.
I did? He takes in the crowd in a slow circle. They’re bouncing on their feet, cheering and yelling, commoners and the rich alike. All manner of valuables, trinkets, and detritus shower from the seats, scattering over the earth. The sun has sunk low enough on the western horizon to cast eerily elongated shadows over the floor of Keswal. The shadow extending off the heap that is the jeweler’s legs stretches all the way to the Holder’s wall.
Pinprae is now a proven, no longer a wet. It’s less exciting a feeling than he expected. The sound of the crowd is dying slowly, or he’s going deaf. He gazes over the scattered dead. Ten went in to the fight. Five remain. He tries to remember the faces of the deceased. All that’s coming back is the deserter from his own team. How did I outlive him? Pinprae finds himself eyeing the convicts in the seating on Keswal’s southern side. Of all the audience, they’re the most somber. A so-called perk of being arrested and sold to Fohrvylda is that you watch fights for free, in cushier seating than the rabble. Seems the luxury of that benefit is lost on this crowd. Those who meet his eye offer little more than a nod, if anything. Maybe Pinprae’s survival is heartening for them. Then again, they’ve surely seen far more deserving than him fall in Keswal. Probably even friends of theirs, or family. What the hell gave him the right to survive? Pinprae looks at his feet, which waver in the sheen of tears. Godsdammit, Pinprae, not now.
“Behold!” A booming voice comes from the northern seats startles the tears away. It’s the infamous Bloody Portent, yelling into his blossom-shaped loudphones. “Torvald the Tactician and Irdessa the Undying!”
A surge in the applause.
“Among the triumphant are Pinprae the thief!”
Pinprae’s heart thuds. He holds a single hand in the air. Perhaps the crowd acknowledges it. He can’t tell.
“Jasmin, a poacher of His Might’s own boars!”
The poacher watches the crowd with the same bitter annoyance she’s worn since the Last Room, only now it’s painted red.
“And finally, Kraus the Thirsty Raper!”
The cheers are interspersed with a heaping of angry boos. The bearded fellow, who managed to pry loose his axe, turns and scowls off toward the Faithless Sea. Rotten vegetables hurtle from the northern stands and burst on the arena floor. None are close enough to hit him, but chances are their intended message is delivered even so. His grip on the axe, the nearly imperceptible shudder of his shoulders, tell Pinprae he’d use his weapon on every member of the crowd one by one if he had the chance.
“Meanwhile,” the voice continues, “joining the glorious dead: a deserter of the domestic patrol, a cultist from the southern bluffs, a counterfeit jeweler, a poisoning butcher, and a soldier turned berserk. Rejoice! They have paid their debt to Fohrvylda!”
The cheers are less enthusiastic, and rightfully so. They all saw it happen, this reminder serves little purpose. The crowds are filing from their seats.
“Time to move,” Irdessa says, turning and making for the archway of Last Hall. Jasmin the poacher follows her immediately. Kraus limps after them.
Torvald faces the northern wall, waves, and bows low. “Let’s go, Prancer,” he says.
Pinprae follows him, considering the appeal of the name Prancer over his own. The Holder has taken on an amber sheen in the sun’s final rays. The crystal hanging from its fingertips shines fiercely.
When they arrive at the entrance. Irdessa raps the placard again with her only remaining javelin. The poacher taps her bow against it.
“Um, what’s inscribed there?” Pinprae asks.
“Shut up ya fucking wet,” Kraus calls back, slapping the flat of his axe against it.
“I’m not a wet anymore,” Pinprae mutters.
“It means don’t feed the birds,” Torvald says. He gives it a tap with his sheath.
Pinprae’s lost his dagger and now, at the day’s end, he’s not sure he’s able to jump high enough to hit it. He jumps and swings at it. Misses. “Wouldn’t we rather be feeding birds?” He jumps again. Misses again.
Kraus chuckles. “Still a fucking wet.”
Torvald has reached the Last Door and turns to watch. “Might want to get a move on.”
There are several distant thumps, the same as when the Orcanes were released.
Pinprae jumps once more, this time just grazing the wooden plank with the tip of his finger.
“I got it!” he says.
There comes a flurry of feathers and shrill clucks and squawks from the arena behind him.
“Get in here you dumb wet!” Kraus calls.
The sun is aimed squarely at the hallway opening now, so that the shapes pouring out into the arena are only silhouettes. Pinprae can tell they’re two-legged, taller than a man, and approaching quickly. He runs down the hall and scrambles under the gate. As it lowers he hears the skittering of nails down the hallway. The gate comes to a close with a muffled boom.
“What the hell were those?” Pinprae asks.
 “You ain’t ever seen dreadhops?” Kraus is chuckling, prying off his leather plate and releasing a uniquely abhorrent odor. “Must be a city wet.”

“Those are the birds,” Torvald says, “and today, you didn’t feed them.”

~

(thanks for readin'. I'd appreciate whatever feedback you have for me.)

An Excerpt from Turesia(working title). Part 2/3

tVatV
David, what is this?

It's the second of three pieces of an unedited, unbeta-tested excerpt. Go read this if you haven't, ya plebe.

~

You're reading Part 2 of the excerpt.

Part 1
Part 3

~

“And you…” Torvald says again. It sounds like a challenge. The room has gone quiet as the two lock eyes from across the room. Irdessa realizes she’s holding her breath.
“How long since your last drink?” Torvald asks.
The man’s grimace stretches over his entire face. Irdessa has a good look at him for the first time. He seemed grimy before. But something in his eyes is downright ghastly. Keswal is a place for criminals, and although Torvald has some influence on filtering Lanista Udiari’s admissions into the company, sometimes something foul creeps in. Irdessa has seen her share of murderers, cutthroats, rapers, highwaymen, pillagers, those who tamper in the dead. They enter Keswal thinking their skillset will avail them, not taking Torvald into account. In Keswal, he is your first and last chance.
Something about this man’s visage tells Irdessa he’s no simple thief, or drunk. Even the lowest thug has passion for something, the thrill of killing, of the chase, of the rape, of a bite to eat, of the next drink. This man’s eyes are a void. Emptier than an orcane’s. Something happened to him. Such apathy in Keswal is a death sentence, for you and all who are near you.
“What’s your name?” Torvald asks.
“Kraus.”
“This is your first fight in Keswal.”
Kraus doesn’t move.
“It helps me to know what my fellows were up to before joining our ranks.” Torvald’s eyes are as sharp as crushed glass.
Kraus says nothing. He’s become a gargoyle, disguised as a man, glowering, his knuckles white.
Irdessa’s stomach churns with expectation. Gods’ sake, put him with the damned and move on!
“We don’t have to discuss what landed you here,” Torvald says. The walls themselves sigh in relief.
“I’d appreciate it,” the brute says.
“What’s your plan for Keswal?”
“Seems like a good place to die,” Kraus says.
Irdessa needs no closer observation to know he is serious, and is not afraid. What an anchor. He’ll feed many birds.
“I think you’ll make a good striker,” Torvald says. “You’re with me.”
Irdessa’s mouth falls open. She shuts it quickly. Survival for the group relies on the front that all is going as planned. But this can’t be the plan. An injured man with no will to live may as well be a boulder tied to Torvald’s neck.
Torvald proceeds to sort. There’s a deserter, the one who considered armor and chose against it, who will run with Irdessa, and a heavy set butcher who will strike with Torvald. The last fighter’s a woman with small hands and silver in her hair, who was a jeweler on the outside, caught buying stolen merchandise. She is complemented on her dexterity and placed with the doomed runners. It’s not because of her crime. Torvald does not presume to judge his combatants.
Once all are accounted for, Torvald offers some finer points to the convicts; how to exploit a wound, tells that orcanes give before pouncing, the signs and calls he and Irdessa use during a fight and what they mean. All the while, a gap surrounds Kraus that no one seems willing to step within. Irdessa is smart enough to know not to express fear, but she keeps Torvald’s shoulder between herself and the man. Since Torvald mentioned his past, he’s been brooding, like he’s wrestling with an unpleasant decision. She preferred him only loud and ugly.
A muffled trumpet blast, followed by the thunder of kettle drums. The ruckus above the Last Room intensifies and thin lines of sand shower from the rafters.
“It’s time!” Torvald shouts above the ruckus. He walks to the ten-foot-tall wooden gate and stands in the archway, facing the convicts with an arched brow and a half smile. His eyes have sharpened to pins. “Look around you.” He points with the sheath of his long, curved sword. “We’re an unlikely alliance. But in an hour’s time, there will be no wets among us! If I’ve learned nothing else in my time here, there is no family like one forged in Keswal. Decide now if you’ll join.”
Irdessa’s jaw clenches. The thought of her father, who didn’t survive his first fight two years ago, leads Irdessa to believe that Keswal is more likely to destroy a family than forge one. She must stow away the thought. All eyes are on Torvald. He is a leader of men, a warlord. Surely there is no greater charisma in all of Fohrvylda’s court combined.
The ground rumbles. The portcullis outside the wooden gate is lifting. Irdessa’s blood rushes. Her chest heaves. Her javelins—her fangs—grow light.
“Now is the time to live forever!” Torvald says. “Join me and make a mark the masses will never forget!”
The one with a black eye raises his dagger and hoots, making the jeweler start. The brute throws up both hands and roars, followed by the deserter and the ex-soldier. The murderer’s tongue flicks over his lips. The heavy butcher takes a backward step, jowls aquiver.
The gate ascends, grinding upward so that blinding sunlight creeps over the sand and up Torvald’s ankles. Irdessa bounces lightly on the balls of her feet. Her javelins are extensions of her arms. Among her stand not men but meat, some destined to be delicacies for monsters. They are all tools at the disposal of herself and Torvald. Her eyes are fire, her muscles wings. She rolls her head on her shoulders and the bones of her neck loosen and snap. Beside her Torvald has turned to face the rising gate. He’s still. Calm. The gale from under the door sends his straight black hair billowing off his shoulders. He is the anchor. She is the sail. He gives her a sidelong glance, and the very corner of his mouth curls in a secret smile.
With three feet of arena exposed under the gate Irdessa can contain herself no longer. “I’m tired of this dust,” she yells to no one in particular. “Let’s wash it off with orcane blood!” She is met with battle cries from the convicts. She rolls under the massive gate into the Last Hall and stamps toward her destiny.
At the tunnel’s mouth, across the highest point in the arch, hangs a placard. On it is etched the phrase,
ERST YYS HAEDISUA
Irdessa raps it with the butt of her javelin and strides onto the red earth of the arena, thrusting her weapons high. The response from the masses is deafening. Flower petals rain down from the northern and southern stands.
“What does the doorway say?” Prancer yells, somewhere behind her.
“Just hit it,” comes Torvald. “I’ll tell you if you live.”
Irdessa struts toward center arena from the Holder’s wall. Iron clouds band across the sky, leaving a crimson sunset visible in stripes, out over the Faithless Sea. The battleground is a pentagon, roughly eighty yards across. To her left, above the two southern walls, are the unadorned rows of seats lined with the convicts and general rabble. To the right, above the northernmost wall, are the plush booths and shaded seating for gentry, landowners, merchants, and military. The westernmost edge is no wall at all but an expanse of open sky and a vertical drop of several hundred feet to the ocean.
At the center of the arena, Irdessa holds aloft her weapons in the sun—twin hardwood javelins some five feet long, thin and ending in sharpened steel, flanged down its length to facilitate the liberation of blood—and turns slowly, to the audience’s delight. Thousands of people chanting your name surely has a way of boosting morale but that’s not the only reason she does this. These are the sparse moments in her life when she can watch people not enslaved by Fohrvylda, as she has been for two years. It’s a glimpse into a life to which she hopes to return one day, however unlikely that might be. From her view little seems to have changed. Those with money and influence on the north are ever garish. The southern seating is drab. Both seem equally thirsty for blood.
The Holder’s wall, on the east, is the actual cliff face, from which Keswal was carved. Standing fifty feet tall is the hewn relief of a giant, the Holder, half trapped in the stone. He seems to have kicked through the wall and gotten stuck in the process of squeezing from the cliff. His right arm extends upward toward Vretos’ booth, high within the northern seating. From his fingers hangs a thin chain. The chain would probably be unperceivable were it not for the gleaming crystal that adorns it, reflecting the setting sun in a brilliant pinpoint. The statue’s face is smooth. His hair defies gravity, rising upward like torch fire. He wears a look of anguish, as if the chain brings him great pain and he yearns for Vretos to take it. The opening of the Last Hall is just beside his right calf. Irdessa’s fellow combatants have streamed forth cautiously and are joining her.  
“What now?” Pinprae yells over the crowd. His bruised, purple eye darts all over. The dagger shakes in his fist. Irdessa considers giving his face the butt of a javelin, maybe knock some nerves out of him. She’s no longer infected by the nervous energy rampant in the fresh convicts. Now it’s more of an impatient buzzing.
“The orcanes will be released all at once, from three points around the arena,” Torvald says. “Form teams. Stay alert.”
Irdessa scans the various gates lining the battlefield on the northern and southern walls. If she’s learned nothing else, there is no time to let anxiety encroach. This fight has already started. “Be ready to run!” she says, for Pinprae and the deserter.
A thump! from the southern wall. Two more from the northern walls. A thunderous howl tears through the shouts of the masses, tapering up at the end into a raspy squeal. It’s as healthy an orcane call as she’s ever heard. The tattooed murderer drops his sword and falls to his knees, holding his ears. Godsdammit Torvald, you said they’d be retired. She meets his eye. He offers an apologetic smile and a shrug. Son of a bitch.
Irdessa feels the pounding of their paws before she sees them. Two orcanes are closing in from the north, one from the south.
“Thief! Deserter! Your fate is now!” Irdessa sprints directly toward the southern orcane. “Hug my heels if you want to live!”

~

Continued in Part 3

An Excerpt from Turesia(working title). Part 1/3

This story grows cramped in its metaphorical uterus. I want it to poke its head out and peer about a bit, then return to placentic development. You know, like ya do. Good idea? Who knows.

tVatV
TURESIA is a head-hopping, present tense, fantasy civil war story, ft. magic and monsters, as witnessed by belligerents on both sides of the conflict. 

This scene takes place in Fhorvylda, the eastern island of Turesia. Here's where the f*%king scrappers live. The heathens.

*These posts have no determined lifespan. They could disappear whenever. They've not been before editors. They've not even been before beta readers. Consider yourself Alpha.5 readers. Yes, I abuse commas. No, I, won't, learn, how, to, stop. That's what editors are for.

You're reading Part 1 (~2,000 words)
Part 2 (~1,700 words)
Part 3 (~2,300 words)

I welcome any reaction, from any source.
You a writer?   Hit me.
You a reader?   Have at it.
You literate?   Give it a puff.
You illiterate?   hgrieauhi

Only thing I ask is that you're honest. I'll thank you for any response.

(thank you)
~~~

The ceiling of the Last Room trembles as the twenty thousand spectators above rumble, stamp, and yell. Dust snows down, hovering and swirling in the air between Irdessa and today’s convict warriors. Beside her, Torvald observes them, his midnight-colored hair bathed in the gold of oil lanterns.
The sand glass says there’s an hour until the fight.
There was a time when that scared Irdessa. She’d tremble and fight back tears. That was long ago. But she refuses to forget. The muffled roar from above turns Irdessa’s blood into lightning. Torvald’s presence keeps her energy static.
There are ten fighters total, including herself and Torvald. The other eight are new to Udiari’s Company. Three are proven, five wet; almost as shitty a way to start a day in Keswal as you can ask for. Wets are still searching through weapons, trying them, finding them unsatisfactory and dropping them, rubbing their sweaty hands on their trousers, casting glances at one another. They won’t find what they’re searching for. It’s not in that arsenal. The proven mostly stand out of the way, trusting the rusty steel and dry rotted leather that has kept them alive thus far, be it through one fight or several. Irdessa holds two javelins, as always. She wears layers of dirt-stained cotton and light, knee-high leather boots. But it’s no armament that keeps her heart still.
Torvald clears his throat. “We have an hour to devise a strategy.”
All rattle of weapons ceases and every eye turns to him. Wet and proven can all benefit from Torvald’s words. In fact, their lives depend on it.
“I am our lanista’s executor,” he says. “Some know me as the Tactician.”
The inevitable applause from the prisoners makes Irdessa smile.
“Please call me Torvald.”
He has refined his speech over these last two years. Irdessa finds herself mentally filling in unpleasantries he leaves out.
“This will be the first time fighting for many of you.”
And the last for some.
“If you are proven, there are many possible reasons you’ve survived thus far. But for those of you who intend to prey on a fellow combatant to survive…”
Then you won’t.
“… I do not offer my protection in the arena.”
The room is without response as Torvald somehow meets every eye, all at once.
“But then, I can’t guarantee my protection to any of you.”
A hollow, raspy chuckle from one of the fighters. “You think we need your protection?”
The crowd parts to expose a hulking, oily wet with a pitch-colored beard and a banged-up face. He has one hand on the low ceiling and the other grips an axe’s handle like it’s a cane.
A scowl takes Irdessa’s face. What an idiotic way to draw attention to yourself. Who could be stupid enough to act so haughty? This man is either supremely ignorant, mentally unfit, or doesn’t value his own life. There’s a stained bandage wrapped around his left knee. He favors his right foot. Injury is the first thing Torvald perceives while weighing his fighters. Besides fear, it is the most important detail. This ugly brute will die today, Lahuvot willing, and perhaps word will spread to any else who might interrupt Torvald.
“I’d recommend it.” Torvald matches the man’s gaze. “But it’s not up to me what you need.”
The man nods his shaggy face. “I’ll say.”
“We’re fighting orcanes,” Torvald says to the room as if reporting dinner will be late.
Mouths fall open. Some gasps escape. Irdessa’s pulse spikes. How long’s it been?
“Good,” the brute says. “Always wanted to kill one of those.”
Torvald continues. “These aren’t the cavalry striders making rounds, the ones that perhaps caught you. They’re retired. Possibly injured. But they aren’t much less of a threat for that. Perhaps more if they band together.
Irdessa smirks. They won’t. Luckily for fighters of Keswal, Beastmaster Grimmet beats the comradery out of orcanes at a young age.
A couple of people whimper, which in turn brings some chuckles. Irdessa has fought orcanes. There’s not much she hasn’t. And all fights have their similarities. Those who, in this moment, expect to die, probably will. They’ll manage to catch their trembling breath. Maybe even still their hands for a bit. They’ll absorb some encouraging words, be bolstered by the bloodlust of those who stand beside them. And then, the gates will ascend.
Before she realizes she’s done it, Irdessa has singled out three individuals who will die before the sun sets.
The warriors who have no intention of dying come in different forms. Those who’ve known violence are more likely to control themselves. Some will see the orcanes and fly into a fury. They have a better chance of surviving than wets who shit themselves, but not by much. Rarely can a man match the speed of an orcane, even a wounded one. Only collectively is victory assured.
“This will be a hard fight,” Torvald says.
Half of us will die. Irdessa is able to keep her face from showing it.
“There are three of them,” Torvald says. “So we’ll make three teams. Two will misdirect, distract. The other will strike. Those wearing steel will catch the orcanes’ attention, not unlike a fish lure.”
Clink!
A convict backs away from the rusty helm he’s just discarded on the floor.
“Strikers will wear little armor. We must hit fast and avoid direct attack.”
Now the wet seems indecisive and his eyes range from the helm to Torvald. Throughout the room several convicts are visibly nervous now. But other faces have hardened. Those people press forward to ensure they miss nothing. Even the scruffy brute has shut his mouth and squared both feet toward Torvald, standing as if he’s forgotten his injury. Or was he faking?
What Torvald says is only partially true. One group will strike. One will run, maybe strike. The third will almost undoubtedly fill orcane bellies and provide an opportunity for the first two groups.
“While you studied your resources, I studied you. And in each of you I’ve witnessed strengths.”
And weaknesses. It takes effort for Irdessa not to mouth the words.
A few dark glances communicate displeasure at the comment. It’s well known that the Tactician can weigh a man in a glance. Wets and proven alike get downright uncomfortable when faced with the fact that Torvald knows who’ll die.
“Those who misdirect must be fast, like you,” Torvald points at a tall lanky boy with muddy straw hair and a purple bruise under his right eye. Irdessa noticed him earlier. While others hefted swords and axes, he examined the knives. They’d pried at armor and steel-reinforced boots and he’d quickly snatched the pliable leather shoes. His eye is not swollen shut. It’s not a debilitating injury.
“What’s your name?” Torvald asks.
The boy squares his shoulders. “Pinprae.”
The ugly one cackles. “Piss spray? Damn, boy. I see why you got your eye blacked.”
The boy’s chest deflates.
Torvald ignores the brute. “You were a thief on the outside. Better at escaping than you were fighting. That’s why your knuckles are so clean.”
The boy looks at his feet and tucks his hands away to hide the incriminating evidence. Maybe he was good at escaping. Not good enough, obviously.
“Keswal is about survival, and survival is not always about fighting. I need runners.” Torvald pauses long enough for Irdessa to notice him cut his eyes in her direction. She sighs and braces herself.
“Beside me stands Irdessa the Undying.”
Convicts hoot and applaud. Irdessa lifts a single hand in response. When they celebrate Torvald it’s because he’s earned it. He is the Tactician. When they cheer for her she feels like a fraud. She’s done nothing but follow his instruction. Any adoration aimed at her is misplaced. She fights the urge to hide behind Torvald.
He aims a smile at her. “If you’ve heard she is fast and cunning, you only know part of the truth. There’s a reason she’s called the Undying. She’ll long outlive me.”
Irdessa hates when he says that.
“Pinprae, you’ll be a runner. Team with Irdessa. She’ll put your speed to use. And get a new name.”
“If you’re gonna be prancing, how bout Prancer,” says the brute, rousing up some laughter. There’s no ill will in the look the boy gives the brute. He must like it. He turns hopeful eyes toward Irdessa. She looks at the far wall. You can’t let in wets. Not on fight day. Not until they’re proven. Not even then if you’re smart.
Torvald levels his gaze at the next convict. A wiry woman with frizzy black hair kneeling beside a vase full of used arrows. Her expression speaks of stale bitterness, the look of a mother who’s watched her children go to sleep hungry too many times.
“You’re a poacher. Any good with a bow?”
Of course she is. Even Irdessa spotted how expertly she vetted the bows.
She stands and clears her throat. “If I hadn’t run out of arrows, I’d not be here now.” It’s a strong voice coming from so thin a frame.
“Oh, I like her,” says a fellow with a closely shaved scalp.
She responds to him with a look that would curdle water.
“You’ll strike,” Torvald says. “With me.”
She nods once.
Torvald continues. The shaved man has scars all over his hands and a couple across  his chin and cheek. Small eyes peer from under a notched, hairless brow. He's a proven, recently acquired by Lanista Udiari. The leather cuirass he wears sits comfortably on his shoulders and the spear is at home at his side. A soldier, probably convicted of some war crime.
“These are the best and the worst to stand beside you,” Torvald explained once. “Though their crimes might be particularly heinous, they usually acted so in consenting company. It’s likely they regret their actions, if they even acknowledge them. They’re trained and can follow orders. They’ve seen combat and won’t quickly lose their nerve.”
“And what makes them the worst?” Irdessa had asked.
“Ambition. If a man decides he can do my job better than me, there’s nothing stopping him from trying to supplant me. As it turns out, none so far have understood my job.”
“And what is that?” she’d asked.
“Keeping you alive.”
Irdessa realizes she’s smiling. She stops.
The soldier is to be a runner. He doesn’t seem happy about it, but happiness comes in scant portions in the Last Room.
Torvald comes to a thin fellow, the color of mahogany, with bright red tattoos over most of his exposed skin, including his face. He’s hunched in the shoulders, not unlike a vulture. The crescent moon tattooed on his cheek tells Irdessa he’s been initiated into a tribe from the southernmost bluffs. The tattoo is a reward for ritual murder. The man’s glistening eyes fall on Irdessa and he licks his lips. Two years prior this might have intimidated her. But far worse than him have threatened her in Keswal.
“Runner,” Torvald says crisply, “with him.” He points at the ex-soldier.  Irdessa notices the finality in his voice no one else could have caught. He’ll feed the birds today. She puckers her lips at him and winks.
“And you,” Torvald says to the ugly bastard.
Finally, thank Lahuvot.
The man’s scrubby brow collapses under Torvald’s stare.
“And you…” Torvald says again. It sounds like a challenge. The room has gone quiet as the two lock eyes from across the room. Irdessa realizes she’s holding her breath.

~

continued in Part 2