1602, during the invasion of Sartar.
At least this house does not still have the previous owner in it. Eril is prepared to find any blessings he can right now. The smell of burning has cleared from the city, and the smell of foreign food cooked up by soldiers drifts on the evening air. For all the alien spices, it makes him hungry. That keeps him sharp and awake, but it does not improve his temper. Hours yet until dark.
The songs they are singing are in New Pelorian. He sets aside the meaning of it, and concentrates on a sound he can hear in the background. There is a low thundering reverberation from time to time, and he cannot identify it.
From somewhere inside, a fragment of a song wells up, the counterpoint to what the invaders brought with them. He smiles fractionally. Death-song of the Regiment. He will have to write it. Surviving to do that is important. Not thinking about the future, equally so.
The sound of thunder resolves itself suddenly when a small alynx, no bigger than the length of his forearm, drops silently but very heavily onto his chest. It stares at him. He stares back.
It breaks the deadlock by headbutting his chin and yowling.
“No,” he murmurs, vocalising just enough to be heard. “Don’t do that…” It is a beautiful animal, well kept but thin. He knows what that must mean, of course.
Yinkin has always plagued Humakt, and Humakt has always forgiven his lord’s brother, one who was once his own brother. Hunting animals understand death. This one might well bring it to him, for it cries out again, demanding food. Eril looks at it, thinking if there could be another way… He cannot let it cry on. He must silence it.
He reaches a hand to its neck, carefully in the darkness, and it licks his thumb, and purrs, and he decides that perhaps it will not betray him. Too many deaths, or else he has grown soft. He can always silence it later. That would be the right thing to do. Any living thing is a danger.
Soft. This was a beloved pet. Someone cared for and fed this housecat, this miniature alynx, and now they are gone.
It would be safest to kill it. But there is always compassion. Distantly, he understands he is finding a rationale in lore and history. Rather more closely, the cat chews on his thumb as his fingers curl to scratch between its shoulders, and he thinks about the next ten minutes.
It is going to cry again soon. It is hungry, and he has nothing. To move would be to make noise. He is locked into this tiny cubbyhole on purpose, safe from any but the most destructive of searches.
So, he considers his options. As he does so, it occurs to him to wonder how the cat got in, and he looks upward towards the roof void, straining his eyes in the darkness until he sees the problem. A gap yawns that was not there when he made this hiding place. That makes it no longer a place of safety, but a trap. His right hand, prepared for killing, is protective over the cat and to harm it has become suddenly unthinkable. The natural sounds and his careful silence may already have kept him alive. Whoever altered his hiding place, he must not warn them.
He has one ally, and it has already done him a great service, but now he asks more, scooping his hand under it and lifting it halfway up the wall. It scrabbles to get higher, tiny sounds that disguise movements he makes, and then it is gone, and he is only halfway ready.
No room for his sword here. No way for a warrior to die. The floor of the tiny place is already a coffin.
He does not fear death. He stands up to look as he pulls together options. Multiple foes. Single foe. Escape outwards through the wall. Escape inwards to the body of the house. He knows which walls are weakest.
The cat looks at him, from a platform built between the time he prepared this place, and the time he moved in. Someone else has had the same idea, although they are rather more obvious than he is and their efforts broke through into his space. A pile of hides marks where they rest. He sees it all from his low angle as he thinks about the next ten minutes. Too dangerous to stay long. Too dangerous to go. He looks at the cat, and the cat looks at him. He raises a brow to it. Well?
It does not reply, but stalks away from him to its door, and so he finds out how his unwitting host enters and leaves this place, and it is not subtle at all. A loosened panel in the roof. By careful movements, agonisingly slow, he pulls himself to the platform. What was easy for a cat is difficult for a man almost two meters tall, no matter how slim, to manage in silence from a cramped space. Starvation has taken its toll on him as well, but without it he would never be able to wriggle through that gap and up. Colours swirl in his eyes and blind him from the effort. His heartbeat deafens him. He manages to get out.
While he rests, the cat headbutts him and purrs. Up here, a little further from the noise and the street, he risks opening his water bottle, wrapped securely in his robe to stop any squeaks. He drinks, and then cups his hand to pour water for the cat. Whatever emotion he is feeling, he forces away. Humakt understands Separation.
Even as the thing drinks he is contemplating the next ten minutes. He must get out. This place is compromised. The whole Empire brought their power here. He stares at the one living thing that he has talked to in days, and tries not to think about the pain of parting.
When he goes, the cat walks with him. A fat roof-mouse as long as his hand mocks them both, but he does not dare to kill it. Instead, he goes to his next roof bolt-hole, stopping along the way to see if he is followed.
Awkward. And unfortunate. The woman who creeps after him is sniffing the tiles and going at her own pace. Options present themselves, and he knows that he has to get away, and that he must not kill her without need, and that he must stay silent. He also knows that he is in need of help.
He sits there with the cat held carefully, and hopes that he guesses right; if she is a follower of Yinkin, he may yet see out the day without violence. If she is not, he can kill her before she shouts too much, and abandon this area of town.
She looks at him, and at the cat, and pads closer on all fours. “Not a good day to be out,” she tells him. “Hunting is good and we are prey.” She even sits like a cat, hunkered down but ready to move.
He tries to speak. His mouth is too dry. Thirst, not nervousness. Instead, he offers over his water bottle, mostly empty.
She sips, and passes it back, adding a strip of dried meat. “Don’t linger,” are her last words to him, and then she is gone, following a trail that is not his, but goes the same way. Well, that is unfortunate. He does not pray thanks for the warning. He is thinking too hard.
Sometimes, fate kicks a man when he is down. Nowhere safe to stay, nothing to drink, and two hours until Yelm is out of sight.
Sometimes, when down, it is appropriate to stay down. Roll with the fight. Get up when one can.
Other times, that is lethal. It all depends which side he is on, he supposes.
Not a good day to be out. His regiment is a memory so painful he cannot look on it, but he is as fully in touch with his God as he can be.
He breaks out of the encirclement by breaking a skull, and his own ankle. Landing on someone from above is a tricky thing, and as he swears and makes a note never to do that again, and calls on his own strength to heal him, he hears no calls to investigate, no shouts. Lucky. But also, smart and fast and prepared to use himself as a weapon.
The man has several pouches and a water bottle, and Eril takes them all, and is away before he realises the cat is not following him. He looks back, and there it is on the roof still. It… looks nervous.
And sometimes, it is appropriate to lie down in front of fate and wait. Eril goes back. It costs him several minutes, and a hell of a lot of sweat, but he coaxes the thing down and puts it on the ground and walks away quickly. Enough emotion.
It follows him. He did not want that, but it happens, and it trails behind him to a place he can only hope is safe, and so for one night, he has someone to talk to, and someone to hold in the darkness, something soft and warm. They share the meat, soaked in water until he can tear off tiny bits for her and chew them softer. She plays with a cabbage leaf, and gets fur all over his clothes.
Humakti do not seek comfort. Truth does not allow such things. In the morning, he looks at his bedmate, and finds a new appreciation for irony. “I never really liked that shade of hair on women,” he tells the thing. “But if you stay I’ll get you…” Silence. Now. He heard something.
The word ‘breakfast’ never gets said. Eril stands noiselessly, used to those movements by now. Another search of town.
The file of… them comes down the alleyway. They test doors, and that is fine. He hears from the other side of a wall.
A voice asks, “What’s that?” and another replies, “Scum-cat. One of the things they keep for pests here.” His New Pelorian is up to that, for all the good it does.
Eight of them. He has counted voices and footsteps. A solid wall between them. Her outside.
The thump of a string on a bow makes him startle. The small sound of a small death has him setting his jaw so as to make no sound. There is laughter from three, muttering from one.
Hatred boils inside him and he tastes bile, and then he adds to his oaths. Eight Lunar deaths. It does not matter who, he decides. Just what.