“This is your fifth complaint against Specialist Weshker,” said Captain Sarovy, drumming a finger on his ledger. “And none of them are actionable.”
Lieutenant Linciard grimaced and wrung his broad hands together thoughtlessly. “I know, sir. But—“
“Is there something you would like to talk about?”
Linciard lowered his head, expression twisting with uncomfortable emotion. “No, sir, he just– Maybe he just puts my hackles up. I don’t mean to make trouble for you.”
“Regardless of what you meant to do, you are here now,” said Sarovy calmly, “having disrupted my flow of work. If you need to speak, you might as well take this opportunity while we both have the time.”
Blanching, Linciard nodded awkwardly, and Sarovy reflected that perhaps his style of counseling was more brusque than necessary. But then he was an officer, not a mentalist tasked with the soldiers’ health; this was not his job.
Just his responsibility.
“It’s just… Sir, he’s such a piking Corvishman,” said Linciard finally, strained. “I know you don’t want us holding the old grudges, but…”
Sarovy tilted his head slightly and folded his hands over the ledger but did not speak. Thoughts warred visibly over Linciard’s face, in shades of anger and bereavement, resentment, frustration. Nothing Sarovy wanted to see from his junior officer.
Finally Linciard exhaled heavily and said, “I hate him, sir. I can’t help it. He’s a little monster just like all of them, and I don’t know why he’s here. We don’t need help from the piking spirits. We have mages and soldiers and the Light and…all the Empire behind us, there’s no need for his kind.”
“This is personal, then?” said Sarovy.
Linciard swallowed and looked away. “Yeah. I guess. –No. It’s not him so much. He’s just…a mountain idiot. I think he’s not real Corvish because if he was real Corvish he would’ve killed himself rather than be enslaved, or been executed for killing every Imperial he could get his hands on. But him just being there, talking in that stupid accent, just…looking like a Corvishman, I can’t handle it, sir.”
Sarovy sighed faintly and steepled his fingers. “He is not among the lancers, Lieutenant. I’m certain you can tolerate him from afar.”
“But he’s always here—“
“Perhaps you should talk to me about your troubles with the Corvish.”
Linciard gritted his teeth, then exhaled through them thinly. “If that’s what you want, sir.”
“I do not have sufficient experience with them to understand.”
“Well, that’s something I have too much of,” said Linciard sourly. “So you want to just…know stuff?”
“If there are things you think I should know.”
Linciard nodded slowly, staring down at his hands again. “Uh. Well. I guess I have the same experience of the Corvish as most backwoods Wynds do. Which is to say they’re bloody pests at best, and murderers more often. Yeah, we live in the woods that used to be their land, but it’s been ours for centuries now, and it’s not like they were using it. They didn’t do any lumbering, no mining, no herds or anything. I don’t know how they lived. Maybe they ate tree bark or something. Just…lurking through the woods like little savages.
“Anyway, they’re up in the foothills and the mountains now, but they still come down to raid us constantly. Probably because we do actually know how to lumber and mine and the like, so we have things they want but don’t know how to get, how to make. We have food—orchards even, and half the time when you see them it’s while they’re picking your fruit trees clean.
“Piking sneaky foxes. That’s what they were, back in the beginning of things—fox people. Lots of them still are. Others have mixed in with the crows, like I suppose Weshker has, so they’re just people but they behave the same as the fox folk. Stealing everything they can get their hands on, killing isolated folk and emptying their cabins, taking it all back up to their stupid communal dens with their dozens of children.
“Because they breed—and breed and breed and breed, I’m telling you, they all just roll around together and no one knows who anyone’s child is because everyone’s with everyone else, so they don’t care if a bunch of them die from attacking us, they’ll just breed more. And those dens, it’s not like they’re real homes. Half of them are just caves with a big fence built around the front, and the moment the Gold Army gets near one, every piking fox in there abandons the place forever.
“So we couldn’t catch them—back when I was with the forest patrol—because the moment they get a whiff of you, they’re gone along with all their kin. And they don’t leave behind anything worthwhile. A bunch of chipped arrowheads and some hides, maybe. Everything else– I don’t know if they even have anything they can’t just sling over their shoulders and run off with.
“They’re parasites, sir. Mountain fleas. Maybe they had a place in the world before we took it, but they’re just murderous little bastards now and I can’t stand to be around one.”
Sarovy watched his lieutenant until the distress in Linciard’s expression had lessened. Then he prompted, “The foxes and the crows?”
Linciard scratched his jaw and grimaced. “Yeah. Well, you know all the easterners came from beast-worshiping tribes. The Corvish were the fox-folk and the crow-folk, and I think they’re mostly still separate. Two groups of skinchangers, one in the air and one on the ground, meeting up now and then to plan havoc for us in Wyndon. They’re called the Red Corvish and the Black Corvish mostly, and I guess some of the Corvish clans are pureblood one-or-the-other and some are mixed. I can’t give you names, though I guess Weshker’s clan, the Nents or whoever, they must be mixed because he is.
“The Black Corvish, I hear they’re the real bosses. Advisors and shamans and such. The fox and mixed families, they just do whatever they do in the woods—I don’t even know if they have leaders. No Corvish we ever caught admitted to having kings or chiefs or anything, so I don’t know how they organize themselves. Maybe they just do whatever they want.
“I think they sometimes clan up with a couple families of each type. Interrogating them, I’d hear them talking about Sengeth-Dai-Khul or Verosh-Rhi, and those sounded like places but they’re really clan-groups. Wherever the clan is denning at the moment, that’s what they call it.
“Sometimes they send merchants down. Not very often—only in years where we haven’t had any trouble either way, mild winters mostly—and we don’t like them much, but we try to behave, you know? Sometimes they find useful things up in the mountains. Rough gems and the like. Things we can’t get to because we know there’s a howling horde of them filling every piking crevice of the landscape so if we want the stuff without fighting every single one of them, we might as well pay up.
“So… I don’t want you to think fighting is all we ever do. The crow folk, they don’t come down at all, as far as I know, and the foxes– Well, it’s only really bad during hard winters. And…”
He trailed off, looking at his hands, then said in a lower voice, “It’s not all their fault either. I mean, they kill solitary Wynds, sometimes families, but it’s not like we haven’t provoked them. We set traps for them everywhere—in the orchards, in the lumber yards, in our empty houses when we go to the clan-halls for the winter. And most of us, when we catch a Corvishman—or a Corvishwoman, or a Corvish child—we kill them. No matter what they were up to.
“And it’s not like we don’t– Well, I think they abandon their dens so fast because they’ve learned what we do if they try to stand against us.
“It’s just…. I’m a backwoods boy, sir, and that means more than my fair share of relatives have died to them, and we’ve executed a lot of them in return. No mercy. And while I was in the forest patrol with the Golds, there was more of it, sir. So it’s…it’s really hard to look at him, let alone hear him when he opens his stupid mouth.”
Sarovy raised a brow, then sighed faintly. After that explanation, it was good to hear Linciard expressing discomfort. He was not certain what he would have done if Linciard had enjoyed it.
“It is about territory and resources then?” he prompted.
Linciard shrugged, not looking up. “Mostly, I guess. At the start, yeah. But since we became an Imperial protectorate and gained the Gold Army, a lot of it’s been about the Light. The Corvish, they’d rather die than convert. They’re still tied to the spirits—like I said, a lot of them are full-on skinchangers—so they’ve got their Crow and their Fox spirits and who knows what others. Mountain spirits and winter spirits and all this stuff their shamans call down on our heads when we raid them. It’s not as effective as Circle magic, heh, but it’s a piking pain in the ass when we don’t have mage backup, plus they do things they shouldn’t be able to do. Like run around stark naked in the snow, nothing but those tattoos, attacking like wild beasts. Even the human ones. How do you stop people who do that kind of shit? You’re on watch duty or something and then some naked Corvish freak drops out of a tree and bites your throat out. What kind of fighting style is that?
“So yeah, it’s about resources and it’s about us wanting to claim the mountain, open mines and log their part of the forest, but it’s also because they’re insane and do the bidding of beast spirits. We’re civilized now, sir—us in the Empire. Maybe we all came from clans and tribes back in the day, but we have cities and farms and…and furniture now. We don’t need to paint ourselves funny colors and dance around campfires. We don’t need to listen to screechy birds or yappy foxes—or bears or cats or whatever other spirits are out there. And if the Imperial Light says those spirits are Dark, then we should extinguish them too, not just their followers. So we do what we can.”
Slowly, Sarovy nodded, letting the information digest. He did not put much trust in Specialist Weshker; the Corvishman’s file was already full of minor infractions of the kleptomaniacal kind and he seemed to have no focus, no real understanding of what his duty was within the Army. But Weshker also seemed to mean no harm—perhaps, as Linciard had said, less Corvish than would be expected.
“You do need to learn to tolerate the specialist,” he told Linciard evenly.
Linciard swallowed, but nodded slowly. “I… He’s not horrible,” he said reluctantly. “And like you were saying, he’s not a lancer. I don’t have to actually talk to him if I don’t want to. Now, that Sanava lady, she’s a lot more Corvish than he is, kicking me in the face and pulling knives and all, so if you’re thinking of bringing her into the company, sir, I really advise—“
“I am not.”
“Good. Because seriously, she is the worst kind of Corvish and any one of my folks back home would’ve shot her in the head the moment she stood still.”
Sarovy narrowed his eyes, and Linciard immediately raised his hands in apology. “I don’t mean me!”
“Make sure your behavior stays that way,” said Sarovy coolly. “I do not want to see you here with another pointless complaint, and should you drag Specialist Weshker in bloody, it had best not be by your hand. You are an officer and must act like one.”
“Yessir, I understand. I’m sorry for…for disappointing you.”
“It would disappoint me more should one of you act on your homeland grudges,” said Sarovy. “And as an officer, you are also responsible for dissuading others from the same. A sixth of this company is Wynds, Linciard, and Specialist Weshker is our lone Corvishman. I need him alive, unmauled and unterrorized so that he has the time and focus to connect with his spirits.”
“Sir, you know I think this spirit thing is a bad idea—“
“You have voiced your opinion many times.”
“—and while I know you want every advantage you can get, have you thought maybe the crows won’t be too happy to be summoned to a company where a sixth of the men is their mortal enemies?”
Sarovy’s mouth twisted into a flat non-smile. “I have considered it, yes. But we must investigate every avenue, test every tool at our disposal. There may come a time when our lives depend on Weshker’s crow spirits. Stranger things have happened.”
Linciard shook his head slowly and mumbled, “If they have, I can’t think of one.”