The Savior – Snippet 05

I’m sure you’re right, Center, but please let me just take your word on the math.

Timon and Abel had maintained their friendship after graduation, and taken an interest in one another’s careers — so much so that Timon had gotten special permission for Abel to accompany him on what he said was an “interesting” interrogation of an accused murderer.

That time, it was the fire coal stick that led to a confession and the location of the murder weapon — a reaping sickle that had been used to take off the head of a lover of the accused man’s wife.

“The stick is for show,” Timon explained to Abel. Timon and Abel stood by a brazier of coals some distance from the accused. Timon was reheating his coal stick for a final round of questions after waving it closely before the eye of the accused. He glanced back over his shoulder at the sweaty little man tied to the interrogation chair. “Mostly for show.”

“Have you ever actually gone through with it? Put one in an eye?”

“Yes,” Timon replied, after a pause. “Putting out an eye is one of the initiation requirements for first-year men in the Security Service. We pay the ones we do it to in barter chits. Pay them very well, I might add. Truth is, we have to turn volunteers away.”

* * *

Timon and his men used a spot near Abel’s own bedroll in the command area to conduct the interrogation. There was an irrigation ditch nearby filled with quickly flowing water. It served as both a threat for dunking and drowning, and as a source of white noise to mask screams. The Progar men were lying on the ground. Each was bound hand and foot to two stakes of about a fist’s thickness, one an elb from the head, one a similar distance below the feet. The stakes had been deeply planted in the soil by Timon’s enlisted team, who had metal-bladed posthole diggers for the task. The use of metal posthole diggers by the military had ancient sanction. They had been declared a weapon by Edict of Zentrum.

The stakes were outfitted with wooden pulleys through which ran ropes tied to the subject’s bound wrists and ankles. The apparatus was obviously constructed by the book, and Timon’s squad went about their task with a ruthless efficiency.

The pulleys had a ratchet action, and the ropes on the Progar men had been drawn tight enough to suspend them a finger’s width off the ground. It looked terribly painful to Abel. Bones and cartilage would begin to separate as the ropes grew taut.

When properly erected, the device is quite capable of pulling a man bodily apart, Center intoned. Joints separate before their containing tissue entirely gives, so it is possible to stretch without breaking —

That’s really all I need to know right now, thank you, Center.

A younger man with black hair and a sunburned face was the first to capitulate. He turned out to be the son of the commander Abel had shot dead. The young man — he was eighteen — was as angry at being captured as he was swimming in pain.

Timon noticed, and seized on this immediately.

“Your father sold you cheap,” he said to the young man. Abel translated into the Northern patois. These men were from a section of Progar called Hurth, and the patois was known as Hurthish. “You know that, don’t you?”

Abel translated.

When the man didn’t answer, Timon signaled his assistants, all specialist noncoms. The rope tension was smoothly taken up a notch.

The young man cried out, bit his lip in an attempt to control himself, but there was no standing this kind of pain.

Timon leaned down and abruptly shouted into the young man’s ear. “I said, you know that, don’t you?”

Abel mechanically translated his words.

“Yair,” the man croaked out, his speech slurring into the Hurthish for “yes.”

“Your old man was a fool, wasn’t he? Wasn’t he?”

Timon didn’t wait for a translation, but signaled that the ropes be pulled tighter.

A moment of hesitation from the Hurthman, and then the words tumbled out. “Yair and curse his thrice-damned bones!”

“You have a family back home.” Timon framed it as a statement.

“Yair. Dar left Mar and the girls, and brung us down here. Now he’s got himself killed.” Tears welled in the man’s eyes, not merely from the physical pain. “What is Mar to do?”

Timon turned to Abel. Abel gave him the gist of what had been said.

Timon nodded. “And you did it for this.” He threw a sack to the ground beside the Hurthman. The bag had been found in the saddlebag of one of the donts. Inside were clay promissory notes. These were finger-length clay tablets etched with debt tallies and promises to pay, then the etched glyphs hardened by fire. Barter chits. The money of the Land.

Timon upended the bag and let one of the chits fall into his palm, and another onto the ground. He held the chit before the young man’s pain-widened eyes. “For this, your father made your mother a widow. I don’t blame you for cursing his name.”

As Abel translated, Timon slowly squeezed his hand into a fist. The barter chit in his grasp shattered. This was quite a feat of strength. Barter chits were almost as hard as stone. Timon opened his hand and scattered the shards that remained onto the ground.

The Progar man burst into a shower of curses.

After he had cursed himself hoarse, Timon smiled, emptied the purse, and stomped the remaining chits to smithereens.

“Well, now all that is done.” Timon leaned down close once again. “I’m going to ask you some questions. For each one you answer truthfully, I’ll have my men let out a notch on the ropes. But I warn you, I’ll know if you lie. And when you do, they’ll pull those ropes all the tighter.”

Timon sat down casually beside the stretched man and tossed the empty bag aside.

“Do you understand?” he said.

Abel left this untranslated. He figured the Hurthman got the idea of what was being said.

“Yair,” the young man answered.

“Good,” said Timon. He nodded to his men, and took the smallest amount of pressure off the ropes.

The Hurthman began talking in harsh gasps, but spilling out information. Abel translated as rapidly as he could.

The ambushers were a mercenary militia unit from Progar. They had been sent south by one of the oligarchs of Orash, Progar’s capital city. It only took a bit more stretching at the rack before Timon had extracted the oligarch’s name: Bigelow. The Progar District military commander had long since lost control of most militia units, if he had ever had it to begin with, and that control had gone to the local strongmen who ran the district. Bigelow was one of these men.

Even in Progar there had been news of the Guardian Corps’s muster. Many in Progar had been anticipating a police action. Nishterlaub materials and methods had long been a staple of life in Progar, so far was it from Lindron. Lately there had been experiments done even with weapons. For years, most of Progar had lived in the knowledge that it might be smited — it was only a matter of when. Now that time had evidently come.

The attackers had been paid to travel south and find out all they could. The mercenary group was to observe — and to harass and slow the Guardians if the chance presented itself — if, and only if, they could get away without being caught. They had placed their faith of a sure escape in the accuracy and range of their metal crossbows, and it had cost them.

A crossbow made entirely of metal except for the stock — a nishterlaub item, forbidden by Zentrum. A crossbow could be made of wood; when there was an alternative to metal or technological change, it must be used.

After the fight was over on the rise in the barley and the prisoners were secure, Abel had had trouble getting anyone to pick up the vile things from where they’d been stacked on the ground. He finally allowed his men to tie the crossbows on one of the Hurthish men’s dont and lead it into camp, minimizing the time any must be in contact with the nishterlaub metal of the bows.

So the Hurthmen made their night attack silently with iron crossbows and then retreated to the hill as a rallying point for flight. From the looks of their underfed mounts, they had come down along the grass-bare Escarpment, avoiding settlements and fields.