Larin never dreamed leather armor could be so hot. He always thought the soldiers in their leather with the rows of metal studs looked strong, powerful. He never thought they were just hot. But he was. Sweat was dripping down his back, gathering under his arms. And the armor chafed too. He was going to have blisters on his shoulders, he just knew it. He shifted the long pike he held to the other hand and reached up under his armor, trying to shift it to a better position.
“Stop fidgeting,” Haris hissed. Haris was the other guard on the gate to the Tender estate this morning. “You’re supposed to stand still. Don’t you know anything?”
“But it’s making sore spots,” Larin whined. “And I’m sweating. Can’t we move into the shade?” The shade was just a few steps away, retreating up to the wall. When they’d first gone on duty a couple of hours ago the shade had stretched clear out to the street. Now it was behind him, and not doing him any good at all.
In answer, Haris slapped Larin on the back of the head with his free hand. “You’re here to guard the gate, you nin. Not the wall!”
Larin rubbed the back of his head where Haris had struck him. It didn’t hurt, not really. But it was embarrassing. “You’re always acting like you’re better than me,” he complained. “We both signed up on the same day.” Larin had come to town with a wagonload of potatoes for the market. Dad didn’t come with him that time, on account of his having a bad ankle from where he stepped in the gopher hole and Ma stayed to look after him and the little ones. He’d gotten barely halfway to the market when the wagon got stuck in a huge mass of people gathered in a square and cheering. Larin liked crowds, so he stood up on the wagon seat and craned his neck to see what was going on. Some woman was giving a speech, telling how she and the other Tenders would protect them all from the bad things that were coming. That sounded fine to Larin. He’d seen the people streaming in from the west along the road in front of his parents’ farm, and some of them had told him stories. He knew something was going wrong. When the woman finished talking, she said how she and the other women needed strong men to protect them while they fought the badness. Well, Larin got down off the wagon on the spot and pushed his way up to the front. Weren’t many who were bigger or stronger than Larin, his folks were always telling him. And he wouldn’t mind getting away from the farm either. Dad was always yelling at him and Ma treated him like he was some kind of purblind idiot.
“Maybe we did,” Haris replied. “But they put me in charge. Do you remember why?”
“It coulda happened to anybody,” Larin said sullenly.
“But it didn’t. It happened to you.”
So he broke a door. The door to the barracks he shared with two dozen other guards. He thought it was locked. He thought they locked him out to make fun of him. And when he yelled to them to let him in and they all just laughed, he got a little heated. He finally put his shoulder into it and smashed the thing clean out of the wall. That was when the others pointed out to him that the door opened outwards. It wasn’t locked; he was just forgetful. It could have happened to anybody.
“I still don’t see why we have to stand here in the sun.”
But Haris wasn’t listening. He was staring at the women approaching the estate.
There were three of them and they came striding up like they owned the place. The one in the lead was dressed in red robes. Behind her, the other two were dressed in bright yellow robes slashed with black. They appeared to be twins. Then the lead woman’s eyes fastened on the two guards.
Both men took an involuntary step back. Haris’s pike dipped. Now Larin really wanted to go stand by the wall. He wanted to hide there, actually. But he remembered his duty. He was here to guard the Tenders so they could concentrate on fighting the Gray God.
He stepped forward, one hand held out to stop the women’s advance. “Here now,” he rumbled. “You can’t come in here without permission.”
Two utterly cold eyes stared into his. They weren’t like human eyes at all. No emotion or feeling at all there that he could read. He flinched before them, but he didn’t lower his hand.
“We have business with the FirstMother,” the woman said, and continued her advance.
Larin reached down to grab her shoulder.
She stepped inside his grasp and one hand flashed up towards his face. In the moment before she struck him, Larin saw something glitter from the end of her finger. Then there was a small stinging sensation in his neck and everything went black.