“You will ship out. You will arrive in the South, and you will get sick.” The instructor puts this as absolute fact, no argument in his voice. “Within two or three months, all of you will fight through at least a cold. You will rest, recover and return to duty.”
When the ship lands in Amaranthine, his legs wobble on the solid floor, too used to the rocking of the planks now. Luckily, the trip to the compound is short, and everyone spends a few days getting their walking back in order so they don’t disgrace themselves in front of the unenlightened.
Within a month, he catches a nasty cold. The older soldiers give him a bit of pity and call it the Beresaad flu. One of the others he shipped out with, a smaller guy with pointy horns, brings him soup and milk with honey. Taam-kas is halfway through his recovery when the other soldier begins to cough. And so their roles reverse, and Taam-kas brings his new friend soup and honeyed milk and apologises for infecting him.
It’s strange, to live in this foreign country. Their language is strange, their customs don’t make sense and the people are small and hornless in a way that goes beyond the physical. Even the town is structured awfully, utterly inefficient to the point that Taam-kas almost got lost the first time he ventured out of the compound and then memorised a map so it wouldn’t happen in the future. The other men in the barracks are a relief, a home away from home. Taam-kas speaks Trade fluent, and it only takes him a few days to adjust to the way humans speak here, so he wouldn’t be helpless if he had no-one to speak Qunlat to. But it makes him feel so much less homesick to pass through their little yard and hear everyone else converse in their native speech. He’s glad to be in the Beresaad. The thought alone of the Ben-Hassrath spies, those who have to hide their identity and their ties to the Qun and their faith and their language, makes him feel ill with sympathy. Now and then, those people drop notes to them, things they find in their pockets after leaving to the compound, picked up at dead drops, tucked between the vegetables bound for the kitchens. Taam-kas wishes he could see them, offer them respite in their barracks and the familiarity of their language, their company and games.
But some things are not to be.
By the time winter comes around, Taam-kas thinks he has adjusted well to living in the South, a vanguard far from home. Oh, he was wrong. The cold is miserable. Fall was unpleasant in its chill, but the freezing air of winter makes him want to get back on a ship and sail home again. Most of the men that arrived with him don’t fare much better. The warriors complain, so Taam-kas makes sure the fires stay stoked. Morale drops, so he manages to strike a deal with a merchant to get chillies for the food. His soldiers on night watch freeze bitterly and it takes him three rounds of haggling with a local tailor to get them warmer clothes in their size. He keeps busy taking care of his men and following orders from above.
He’s busy the first time, down by the ports, overseeing as a new arvaraad arrives with a tiny karataam of three saarebas. Reth stands by his side, a small protector, always at his left. Taam-kas is on good terms with the soldiers under his command, but Reth is his equal in rank, and they make an efficient team. There’s something about the ring of Reth’s laugh, the turn of his face, the cadence of his voice that makes Taam-kas feel happy and safe. So he’s glad to have Reth with him on this freezing, miserable day while the new arvaraad sways on unsteady sea-legs. The solid presence of his friend calms him, even as the sight of the masked saarebas makes his pulse skitter. He’s so occupied in his thoughts that he might not have noticed at all if Reth hadn’t nudged his arm and prompted him to look up. Up, at the tiny snowflakes that dance from the sky. They melt even before they hit the ground, tiny wispy things, but they’re too light to be rain, too wispy on the sea-wind. He tilts back his head and just watches, and for a few heartbeats, he forgets about the karataam and feels as light as the snow.
The second time, snow falls while the compound sleeps. When Taam-kas rises at the break of dawn, he steps outside and stops in shock. The snow steals every sound from the air, covers everything in white silence. It crunches when he steps forward, grinds under his boot, and he scoops up a handful of it. It turns to water on his palm, and he crushes the rest into a tight little globe, tosses that on the ground. A world’s difference between hearing about snow from Tama’s stories and actually standing in it.
Something firm and cold hits him in the side of the head, and Taam-kas splutters and whirls around. Reth is beaming at him from a few feet away, holds up another snowball. And before Taam-kas can warn him off it, the second one whacks him solidly in the chest, and then he’s got his arms full of exuberant friend.
“Snow,” Reth says, “Actual snow! Can you believe it!” And then Taam-kas kicks his legs out from under him and pulls him to the ground in revenge for the snowball to the face, gets snow-clumps tangled in Reth’s light hair, barely a shade darker than the snow.
The older soldiers, the ones that have seen winter and snow before, stand in the courtyard and at the windows and watch as everyone who arrived that year bounds out and into the all-out snowball fight. Everyone is either armed with one of the practice shields or has both hands full of snow. Reth shoves handfuls of snow down Ashaad’s trousers. Kost is, of course, shouting for everyone to be careful and not get injured, especially when someone wrestles Taashath to the ground. Taam-kas throws a snowball that gets stuck on Sata-shok’s horn. Their Taarbas cheers them on from the sidelines.
“It’s undignified for a commander to prance in the snow like a pup,” the Karanaan says, a frown on his brow, and Taam-kas lowers his head, sees Reth next to him do the same. “However,” he continues, “this happens every year we get new soldiers. Seeing snow for the first time is an experience that we could deny, but it keeps morale up, so forbidding this fun would be pointless. Make sure the yard gets swept so training can continue. And tell Sata-shok to desist throwing snow at the humans from his watch, even if they start it.” He turns his focus to Reth, then. “Word is that a wyvern has been sighted to the South, towards Dragon’s Peak. Take a company and bring it in, the Arigena has use for the resource.”
Taam-kas could swear that Reth shoots him a glance before he salutes.