Will’s first acts as an incarnate human were to stand up too quickly, get dizzy, topple over sideways, and vomit some sort of cold bile onto the floor. Smooth move, Slick, were his first incarnate thoughts.
He crawled over to the bench, belly-lurching onto it like a prehistoric lungfish colonizing the land. Shivering fiercely, he fumbled with the knot on the folded cloak that had been left for him, eventually undoing it with his teeth. Burying himself in the thick hides, he lurched over to the brazier and, with some difficulty, poured himself a cup of tea. He emptied a bit of it into his mouth and felt most of it drain out the corners, down his chin and chest. A second mouthful stayed where it was supposed to be. Eventually he even managed to swallow it. Very gradually, his shivering subsided.
Getting his legs under him, Will took a short walk over to the stone basin, gripping its edge with hairy-knuckled hands―really, he thought, a lot more hair than you’d expect from a sixteen year old. Peering cautiously over the side, he saw a familiar face staring back at him from the surface of the water―squarish, a bit broader than it might have been, nose a bit too flat. Narrow eyes with a slight epicanthic fold. Dark hair. Lots of it. And…yep. Male. Very definitely male. Congratulations! It’s a boy! He tilted his head to the side, regarding his reflection. Nothing to write home about. The cheekbones aren’t too bad, at least. Well, it’s what I’ve got to work with.
The ringing in his ears was slowly resolving itself into sounds. Loud ones, in fact, issuing from outside the Redoubt. He shambled over to the mouth of the cave, secure within the folds of his porta-tent, and took a peek. Dusk had gathered, but the area immediately beyond the Redoubt was illuminated by the signal fire above. Which gave him a good view of the considerable number of people who were out there attempting to kill one another.
It was as if somebody had dropped a pork chop into a piranha tank. There were nothing resembling battle lines; it was just a whole lot of scurrying, yelling, and hacking with sharp objects. He got a clear look at someone he thought he recognized as a Havenite, half-dressed in a hardened leather tunic and carrying a spear. There was a man in poorly-dyed wool using what appeared to be a frying pan to fend off an attacker, who was wearing a leather breechclout, warpaint, and not much else. He saw Really Big Angus come running up out of the darkness barehanded, grab the wild man by the throat, and pitch him backwards into a nearby bush. It was all horrible; there was no dignity to be found in any of it. There was too much smoke and too much fear. Will ducked back into the cave, put his back to the wall beside the entrance, and begged whatever Gods might be not to let any of those maniacs find their way inside.
Jason wore boiled leather, the skin of a psychovore, the blood of his enemies, and a broad grin. From atop the hill that sheltered the Redoubt, he stared down at the enemies of Haven, and he laughed at their folly.
Here there was no fumbling about with menial tasks while older men shook their heads sadly and thought him stupid. Here there was no deep-seated, gnawing shame at his past and present, no trepidation about his future. Here there was no worry that he had misplaced his trust, for here there was no trust at all. Here there was only the battle, the smoke in his nostrils, the spatter across his chest and the fury, always the fury, driving him onwards towards greatness.
There were three of them now, coming up the hill. He looked at them for a moment and saw men; he blinked, the moment was gone, and they weren’t people at all, only things. Things that wanted to hurt Ben, who was somewhere behind him. Things that wanted to hurt Rosemary, and Emily. One of them charged him, flint axe raised for a killing stroke; Jason’s body drifted aside of its own accord, a puff of smoke on the wind. His leg set behind him, he drove himself forward in a killing thrust, his harpoon burying itself in the man’s throat, the hot gurgling splash drenching his hands. Rosemary was right. Haven needs me to be exactly what I am, he thought, yanking the harpoon free. Who else can do what I do?
Ben was shouting orders, attempting to impose order on chaos. Good for him! No doubt there were those who needed such guidance, but Jason was not among them; he was a force of nature, magnificent and ungovernable. He whirled his weapon around and drove the butt into the temple of a passing hillman, sending him senseless to the ground, then threw himself to the side, cartwheeling away laughing as another swung an ill-fashioned blade. The boy inside him, the weak-willed fool who’d cried the first time he’d brought down a deer, was gone, and good riddance to him. The veneer of civilization was gone as well, and with it, all of the pretense that manhood might be defined in terms of knowledge or poise or sophistication. Here was the stripped-down truth of what it was to be a man, and no one was more man than he. A slash this time with the harpoon’s serrated edge, biting into the back of the neck of the warrior who’d charged him; the enemy sprawled in the dust at his feet. And the rage ruled him utterly; he was privileged to be its host, to be the conduit through which it flowed.
Do you see this, Ben? he thought. Do you see the quality of my service to you, and to Haven?
Do I make you proud?
Having spent an indeterminate amount of time huddling against the cave wall and shivering, Will suddenly realized that if a non-Havenite DID come into the Redoubt, they would likely be armed. He, of course, wouldn’t; that meant he would die, quickly and horribly. After a brief period of pants-wetting reflection, it also occurred to him that he was, in fact, standing in a cave that had been stocked with a variety of weapons. He heroically stumbled over to a rack of spears, only to have his self-preservation instinct kick in, overriding any heroic impulses by forcing him to procrastinate over weapons choices. Am I a long spear sort of guy, or a short spear sort of guy? Will people make Freudian assumptions if I choose wrong? Two hands or one hand? Shield or no shield? Is there a helmet in here? One with sufficient coverage to protect my cheekbones?
Emily is out there somewhere in this.
Will froze for a moment. Then he grabbed the nearest spear and ran for the entrance, and out into the madness.
And then he was spinning in place, paranoid about someone coming up behind him. He felt the hide robes come open in front as he spun, frantically clutched them closed in a fit of modesty. He looked up the hill towards the signal fire, trying to get his bearings, and went immediately glare-blind. He felt something whiz by his head, flinched away, dropped the spear, got his legs tangled up in the hide, and fell straight on his butt. A man in face paint, wearing a sort of poncho and wielding a wicked, double-headed stone axe, was sprinting towards him. The warrior raised the axe, got his first good look at who he was attacking, lowered the axe, shook his head sadly, and moved off in search of someone worth killing.
Looking back up towards the signal fire, Will spotted a figure in silhouette, gesturing down the hillside. A row of Havenites with pikes were forming up beside him. The figure was shortish, thickly built, acted purposeful, and generally gave the impression of having some idea what he was doing. Not far away stood a much larger figure bearing…a harpoon? Gasping with relief, Will struggled to his feet, grabbed his spear, and went racing up the hillside to lend a hand.
His legs had no strength in them; a few strides up the steep slope were enough to turn them to rubber. Fueled by terror that someone might be chasing him, he lurched doggedly on. To his immense relief, he saw Jason give a start of surprise and come racing down the slope to meet him halfway.
The ground at Jason’s feet was strewn with corpses, and the air around him glowed with newly released heartlights, and the rage was generous with him and sent him another gift; another wild-eyed figure in crude skins was stumbling shaky-legged up the hill at him, and at Ben behind him. Somewhere a detached part of him was shouting to look more carefully at the skins, at the workmanship of the spear the figure was holding, but the rage was all and there was no hesitation, no stopping, there was only the task, and the glory of service, and the thing before him was sounding a war cry and bringing up a spear…
Will flung his hands out in front of him, the spear still in them, and attempted to shout “WAIT!” But his mouth wasn’t working right, and what came out sounded more like “WAARGGGH!” And Will watched the harpoon came down.
Looking down at his chest, and at the iron shaft sticking out of it, Will thought, That’s really a lot more blood than you’d expect from a sixteen year old. Dimly, as through cotton, he heard a voice from up the hill shout, “Oh my God! That’s an incarnation cloak he’s wearing!”
Strangely, there was no pain.
And then there was quite a lot of it.
And then there was nothing.