“That’s it. I know it stings your hands, but dip the gauze deep and wrap the bodies tight.”
She could still prepare the poultice, say the old words, apply it where it must be applied, but her old bones would no longer let her lift and wrap the bodies. At least not these big human bodies, muscled from years of swordplay and hard labor. Thank the Norns these Saxa women were hearty and eager to help, working efficiently to prepare the men for burial, even if the younger of them blushed or blanched at the naked corpses.
The old Engro woman stood wearily, leaning on an oaken cane, and ambled ahead to the next body laid out on the floor. Another big one. She stood there a moment, massaging her elbow joints, then stooped, prepared to remove the sheet someone had hastily drawn over the poor dead soldier.
“Kaya! Another squad of knights has arrived. Two are injured from a squabble with bandits. See to them!”
It was Ulfwald, the caravaner, the merchant, bursting into the tower with a slam of the newly-installed door, and strutting with self-importance. He had recently taken it upon himself speak for the new Captain of the fort, who had no voice of his own.
Kaya turned to the merchant. “Do you see I’m busy, or did it ruin your eyes to hole up in the dark so long while real men fought?”
“Just see to them. We need able men to protect this fort.”
“Aye. And we need our dead to stay that way. If those knights aren’t dying, it’s just as well that I finish up here. Why don’t you go out there and sell them some of your useless charms and piss potions, Deep-Pockets?”
“You murderous old crone! You think that thief treated your poorly? He should have made you his pet!”
“Ulfwald.” One of the Saxa women had stepped forward, approaching Ulfwald gently. The pretty one. Kata, wasn’t it? All these Saxas seemed to have the same name.
“Ulfwald, she has worked day and night to tend to the wounded and bury the dead, asking for nothing in return.” The girl touched the merchat’s arm. “She is not to be commanded, my love. Simply ask, and she will come according to her own counsel. Something must wait. She is only one.”
Well, the girl had that right. All the most formidable survivors of the Battle of Watchgap Fort had made way for the South as soon as they were able—something to do with the singer girl and that damned mask.
It was just as well. She was happy to have that mask out of her sight. Little good had come from pursuing it and the man now had his whelp of a nephew on the job.
If she’d known the caravan was packed with wizards and the like, she would have been better prepared. But no matter. At least that accursed Ferryman would never again charge an Engro man his fortune for a crossing—or an Engro woman her sex.
The Saxa woman smiled up at Ulfwald, who softened and relented at the mere sight of her. “Fine. I’ll bring them in. But make sure you see to them! I’ll be in conference.”
There was a great deal of conferencing going on. If she had the right of it, some of the dwarves from underneath the Icebarrier mountains were in cahoots with the giants atop them. In their alliance, they’d found a way to breed and control a host of goblin warriors. The host had dispersed when their commander died, but there was no reason to think the threat of dwarves and giants working together was ended. So the men conferenced day and night.
But the doings of men and dwarves were not for the old Engro women to worry over. Let them fight their wars. Women survive to mind the details. Make the potion. Tend the garden. Nurse the young ones. Bury the dead.
She returned to her work, pulling the sheet from the body, and couldn’t help but chuckle a bit. “The Norns mock an old Engro’s wisdom,” she thought, “for here’s a woman and a warrior as well.”
It was the one they called Ser Iris, the knight her caravan had carried to the caves, and who had fought alongside them to slay the giant.
Haltingly, leaning on her can, the old one got to her knees. Her gnarled and crooked hands moved with strange efficiency, unfastening the armor, removing her purse and pack, sifting it through it for anything of value for the fort to keep. She stopped suddenly as her fingers found a small parchment scroll sealed with the signet ring of a Hearth Knight commander.
Furtively, she looked about. No one noticed as she broke the seal, opened the scroll, and read it.
“They heroes of Watchgap Fort are lucky they left when they did. This was a woman on a mission.”
She was overcome, then, for the first time. Her daughter was dead; her own neck was still chafed from the thief’s rope; her son Wayan had fallen in this very fort to be buried weeks ago without her knowledge; her tribe was wiped out, to a man; and this—-this was the thing that made her weep? She wept for a woman she hardly knew, for her unfinished business, for the woman’s light and warmth gone from a world that has none to spare.
“Kaya? Are you all right?” It was the pretty Saxa girl who loved the merchant, who was still naive enough to think a family and a home can be made and kept. The girl stood above her and looked down with pity. Kaya pitied her right back.
“I’ll be fine, dear, when I see this woman’s mission done.”