Commander Mali winced as she methodically worked the string wrapped around her fingers. She had noticed a few brown hairs above her upper lip the night before and was now removing the culprits while a ruddy irritation bloomed in their place. Most female soldiers did not pay much attention to their looks, but Mali did not share their sentiment. She believed herself to be good-looking and intended to stay that way, despite her battle scars and the harsh sun, or even more so because of them. Men appreciated good looks. More than bad looks, at least.
She looked away from her reflection in a small wall mirror, toward the slumbering shape of Captain Ralf, her last night’s companion. He slept peacefully, exhausted, tangled in sweat-soaked linen, one leg dangling off the bed, a spectacular backside just peeking beneath the cover, taunting her. She smiled.
As a woman, she ought to be settled, a mother by now. As a warrior, she was free of the scruples of womanhood and could enjoy life just like men did. She had always been a bit of a tomboy, and a military career suited her like a glove. While most women came to the army ranks with hatred in their hearts, she came as a free, if rebellious spirit.
She left the room quietly and headed for the kitchen. The guard outside her chambers curtly nodded at her. She winked back.
It was quite early. Very few people were about. The corridors were empty and silent. Entering the kitchen, she scooped a few cakes from a platter, grabbed a pear from a basket, and sat in a corner to eat by herself.
“Morn’,” Colonel George greeted her, seating himself on the bench opposite her.
She mumbled a reply, concentrating on her meal. She did not like being disturbed, especially when she ate. But she wanted to hear what George had to report. He was back from a reconnaissance mission at the border. There was grime on his face and neck, road dust mingled with sweat.
Mali poured herself some ale from a pitcher. “Any news?”
The colonel removed his gloves and beat them against the corner of the table. Mali scowled at him. “Sorry,” he whispered. He sighed. “Well, yes. I’ve seen a Caytorean five leaving its barracks in Copper Astar and heading south.”
The commander leaned back, surprised. “Five thousand men? South? Why would they go there? It’s nothing but leagues of Caytor grassland.”
George shrugged. “I’m not sure they intend to stay in Caytor.”
Mali looked skeptical. “The Safe Territories? Why?”
“Why would a pigeon shit on someone’s epaulets?” George retorted. “I didn’t ride up to them to ask.”
“Still, sounds like something worth keeping an eye on.”
“Could be they were sent to deal with bandits.” George helped himself to a mug of ale.
“They would not send a whole regiment after a few thieves.” Sorties into neighboring realms were not unheard of. Sometimes parties simply strayed. Sometimes they crossed the borders in pursuit of criminals. It happened quite often. Most realms had no real borders, just invisible lines running through grass or forest.
George nodded. “True. My scouts are watching them. They seem undecided, though. They took their time getting ready to leave. More than a week. Then, they marched south for a whole day. And then, they backtracked almost all the way back to their garrison before heading back south again. Could be exercises.”
“Or a well-thought-out plan to throw any spies off guard. Do you have any idea who’s leading the five?”
George shook his head. “Nope. I did not want to risk it.”
Eracia and Caytor were not exactly on friendly terms. When one side caught another’s spy, they made sure it became a public scandal. The perpetrator would usually be marched into city squares, beaten, and humiliated, only to be ransomed for one of their own men held captive by the other side. After many generations of bloody war, the two realms had resorted to diplomacy, which meant cowardly wars without soldiers. But there was always a risk of bloodshed.
“Fine,” Mali said, neither agreeing nor disagreeing. Any army movement on the other side of the border always caused a stir. Even if the maneuvers were purely for show, local forces would be alerted. One could never know when the other side would strike, like in the previous eighty wars the two nations had fought.
Mali wiped her hands on her robe and stood up, without waiting for George to finish his ale. He rose clumsily and followed her out of the kitchen. “What do you wanna do?” he asked.
She stopped walking, thinking. “Tell your scouts to stay close, but to avoid any combat. I don’t want any incidents. But the moment they cross into the Territories—if they cross—I want the regiments at Baran and Spoith ready to march.”
George cracked a knuckle. “As you order. Do we…do we follow them into the Territories?”
Mali rolled her eyes. “If they cross, yes. I want to know what’s so interesting that an entire five needs to look for it.”
“Do you think they’ll cross?” The colonel pleaded for answers.
She smiled. “I have never heard of a five moving from one garrison to another just for sport.” The nearest Caytorean encampment to Astar capable of supporting a five was more than twenty leagues away. In her entire career as a soldier, she had never known the Caytoreans to march for fun. They did it only when it was needed. A sad yet fortunately predictable fact.
“They could be moving their troops about.”
Mali shook her head. “I’m guessing it’s war season again. Well, we didn’t have one last year. I was really getting worried the Caytoreans had gone lily-hearted on us. Get the boys ready. Have them dust off their groin caps. They might be needing them soon.”
“As you command, Commander.”
Mali looked him up and down. “You staying here tonight?”
George smacked his lips. “I’m too tired to ride back. I’ll send some men and go back tomorrow.”
The commander looked pleased. “Good. Then I can see you later today?”
“Good,” George answered.
“Good,” Mali said and walked away.
Dawn. In two hours, it would be over. They would hang him. A jealous man, having caught his wife in adultery, had killed her and framed Adam. Well-bribed constables had apprehended him, beaten him thoroughly, and dumped him in a cell. Then, a well-paid judge had decreed that he should die with a soaped noose around his neck two hours after dawn the next day.
Adam had said nothing during the sentencing. It would have been pointless. His word against the husband’s. Even in the best of circumstances, no one would believe him. No one believed whores.
Paroth was not a very kind place to prostitutes. While in most large cities there were guilds that protected the interests of their workers, as well as their patrons, prostitutes in Paroth had to rely on pimps or fend for themselves.
Most male whores worked alone. Unlike women, men in this profession did not bond easily. Mistrust and rivalry ran deep. They were also much less likely to be abused. But at the moment, Adam could almost wish he had a pimp. The thought of having someone at your side at the hour of your demise was comforting. He had no friends or family.
His kin had ostracized him after having learned the truth about his line of work. He was as good as dead to them. As a whore, he was not likely to have any friends, either. What could a male prostitute possibly have in common with a simple, everyday man?
The three drunkards in his cell slumbered happily, oblivious of their fate or surroundings. In a way, the small, dank cell was a definite boon in their useless lives. They did not have to worry about anyone slitting their throats while they wallowed in the gutters, the hay was dry, and they might even get a chance to eat breakfast.
Adam did not think they would feed him. Most jailers preferred if their customers did not throw up on the planks of the gibbets. It kind of spoiled the moment.
Last night, before going to sleep, one of his cell mates had taken the liberty of trying to flirt with him. A well-aimed kick in the groin had forestalled any further advances. Soon thereafter, the three had gone to sleep in a pile of lice and fleas. Adam had stayed up the whole night, unable to sleep, leaning against the hard stone and thinking. Mostly about the pointlessness of life.
The clank of a rusted bar sliding in its groove shook him from his reverie. A door opened. A shuffle of steps transformed into a group of army officers and several constabulary guards. Adam remained seated.
The officers were murmuring softly. Hay and dampness muffled the sound. Adam could not hear what they were saying.
“You,” one of them called.
Adam merely lifted his eyes, acknowledging the man. He said nothing.
“What’s he in ‘ere for?” the man asked one of the prison guards.
“Murder. Killed a woman with a hatchet.”
“Oh, a feisty one, ain’t he? Hey, you!”
This time, Adam decided to respond. He could tell the officer was quite irritated. And Adam had very good instincts. As a whore, people skills were some of his primary tools.
“Would you like not to hang today?”
Adam blinked. “Definitely. Sounds like an interesting prospect.”
They exchanged glances. The fact he had used the word “prospect” seemed to have impressed them.
“You got any skills with weapons?” The man smiled. “Other than the hatchet.” A few other men guffawed.
“I’m not bad with a knife,” Adam replied.
“Can you read?” the man asked.
The officers resumed their murmuring. Adam sat and waited. He made the mistake of leaning forward. Cold pain lanced up his sore ribs, courtesy of the Paroth constabulary.
“Well, here’s your choice, lad. There’s a war brewing. We need extra men for our troops. If you have a care for your miserable life, then take it. You’ll be enrolled as a monarch’s man in one of the regiments, and you’ll fight for the crown. If you live through it, you’ll be honorably discharged and your crimes pardoned.”
Adam did not even have to contemplate. A man could only die once. “Sounds good to me.”
The officer nodded at one of the jailers. “One less for the gibbets today.”
The army camp was just like any other, a big and filthy mess of sweaty men with no apparent purpose in life.
Adam shared a small stretch of mud and feces at the end of the encampment with another three hundred or so former convicts. Like him, most had been rounded up before they could hang and given the choice of bleeding for the monarch rather than bleeding for past sins. Most looked like semi-rabid animals kept at bay only by the fear of being slaughtered by the soldiers guarding them.
For the past three days, Adam had kept to himself. He was careful to avoid eye contact with the monsters surrounding him. He did not speak at all with anyone and ate alone. For protection, he had fashioned himself a crude spike from a willow branch, using a stone to whittle one end. Blessedly, no one had challenged his solitude.
About an hour before noon, a delegation of soldiers arrived at their camp. A soldier placed a crate on the ground, and an officer climbed on top of it. He clapped his hands twice.
“Listen up, scum. Gather around.”
The soldiers drew their weapons and stepped forward. The former criminals quickly ceased all their idle doings and bunched up in front of the impromptu podium, nudged by sharp edges of cold steel.
“I am Captain kal Armis, your commander. From now on, you will do everything I say.” He waited a few seconds to let the first sentence sink in. “We have saved your miserable lives from certain death. Now it’s time you showed some gratitude for our mercy.
“I don’t know what some of you scum have done in your past lives—and I don’t care. From now on, you’re the soldiers of the realm, and you shall fight for the monarch. We have two weeks to train you to fight before we march for the front. Use this time well to learn the skills of combat. You will be given no second chance.
“That said, you are also expected to behave like soldiers. This means total discipline and obedience. You have already been spared once. It won’t happen again. Fail to report to the morning call, and you will be hanged. Fail to obey a command from one of your superiors, and you will be flogged. If you steal anything, you will lose a finger. If you rape anyone, we’ll castrate you. If you go missing, you’ll be declared deserters, hunted down, and killed on the spot. There won’t be any trials or bargaining.”
Adam stared at his new brothers-in-arms from the corner of his eye. Fear and hatred were plain on their faces.
“If you brawl among yourselves, better keep it low. But if you cause grievous injury to another man, you will be hanged. Remember, you are now the monarch’s property and shall remain such until the monarch releases you from your duties.
“Any of you got any questions? Feel free to speak. This is your one chance to say what you think.”
No one spoke. No one was so foolish as to mark themselves as a troublemaker. They might speak freely now, but the punishment would surely come, one day.
Adam had nothing to say either. Inside, he boiled. But he had lost his naivety long, long ago. He knew his cry of despair at the injustice being done to him would serve no purpose. For all they cared, he was a murderer, a condemned man, a man without future, a man without life.
Kal Armis nodded to himself, satisfied. “Good. That’s settled then. You will now be divided into companies and platoons. You’ll report to your sergeants directly. You’ll be issued uniforms. Your training begins after lunch.”
Captain kal Armis was a man true to his word. They started their duties just after midday. To Adam, it seemed, most of the chores were meant to be nothing more than pure, simple humiliation, intended to break them.
They were tasked with digging the crap pits for the entire camp. And when shovels broke or buckets lacked, they worked with their bare hands. They rose one hour early and went to sleep one hour late. While most soldiers had short breaks in between, they got none.
The only thing they did enjoy like the rest of the troops were the meals. They fed them well so they had the strength to work.
Discipline was razor-sharp. In the first two days, four men had been executed and at least two dozen flogged for a variety of minor infractions. On the third day, no less than seven men had been killed for being too late for the morning call.
The executions were simple. Soldiers would round up the perpetrators and bind their arms behind their backs. Then, they would force them to kneel and stab them through with a sword.
By the fourth day, almost a tenth of the regiment had been killed. They were dying, with no battle in sight. The soldiers hated them with all their souls. Supposedly, they were allies, but they were treated worse than enemies. Adam had never felt so worthless in his life, not even in the darkest hours of his profession.
But he did not despair. There was no point in brooding and lamenting and wishing for what could not be altered or what had yet to happen. All he could do was make his best effort to live through it. He was a dead man four days past, and yet he breathed. That had to count as something.
Their first military training started on the sixth day. Fearing mutiny, they were given wooden weapons to practice. Adam had no doubt the maneuvers were just an excuse, meant to instill them with a false sense of hope. He was dead sure they would be the first line in the first attack to face the full brunt of the enemy force.
They were not very good at marching, but at least they could retain some sort of formation. A veteran regiment could maintain their battle order for miles without end. Mediocre troops doubled the space between ranks every three miles walked. Their regiment lost cohesion after only a mile. But they were not likely to live that long in a battle anyway. Still, it was some sort of progress. Perhaps they would be able to keep formation for two miles before the training ended, a week away. The double spacing was the fatal difference between an effective picket and rows of men awaiting harvesting by angry horsemen slipping through their loose defenses. It was called the Cornfield Syndrome, their sergeant, a quiet man by the name of Nigel, had told them.
They were segregated into platoons and companies. Each had its own banner and a commander. His company was named the Miscreants. The other two were Bandits and Villains. Such poetic names, Adam thought. He was not sure whether they were supposed to boost morale or mock them.
On the tenth day, their training slacked and became slops hauling once again. Bitterness was palpable in the air. Adam would not be surprised if some sort of riot erupted.
The very next day, he had his first encounter with one of his comrades. A burly man with almost no teeth in his mouth and a large scar that ran across half his face approached him just before sunset. Adam pretended not to see him and remained casual, but his right hand closed on the short spike hidden in the sleeve of his shirt. The brute just stood there and leered, dark, beady eyes agleam with serious mischief. Adam did not really wish to contemplate what the moron was thinking.
The former prostitute looked around him. There were no spectators. Good. This meant the man acted alone. The soldiers guarding them were looking the other way.
Adam timed his moment carefully. As the other man moved, the barest twitch of the shoulders, Adam struck. The short, yet painfully sharp, spike dug into the man’s thigh. The brute groaned with pain. Adam twisted. Growling softly, the man sank to his knees.
“Stay there.” Adam uttered his first sentence in more than a week. “Understand?”
The other man said nothing. A look of surprise and fear masked his homely features. He had not expected his fair-skinned, soft-featured victim to lash back. A typical coward, Adam thought, disgusted.
Adam pulled the spike out with a sick, wet sound. Dark blood gushed like marmalade. The other man’s eyes narrowed with hatred. But he could see that Adam would stab him again the moment he moved. Flint-hard resolution in Adam’s eyes broke him. He lifted one arm in a semireconciliatory gesture.
“Press on the wound. It’ll help stop the bleeding,” Adam advised almost friendly-like. He knew this coward would use the first opportunity to avenge himself. The moment they left camp, Adam would have to kill him. He did not look forward to killing anyone, but he was no stranger to death. As a whore in Paroth, he had faced the bitter choice quite a few times. Paroth was not kind to its prostitutes.
The next morning, he found out he would not have to worry about revenge. His attacker had bled to death overnight. The soldiers dismissed the case as an injury by a tool, most likely a shovel or something, and dumped his body onto a pile outside the camp, where it would burn with several others.
Despite his stoic stand the night before, Adam felt shaken. Working knee-deep in other people’s shit did not help soothe his spirit. He was in a fidgety mood. He decided to do something about it.
Cleaning himself perfunctorily of the feces, he strode toward Sergeant Nigel’s tent. Like most real soldiers, their commander did not have any real work to do. The former convicts did all of the hard labor. The soldiers did not train much either, conserving strength for the expected march.
“Permission to speak, sir,” Adam chanced.
Sergeant Nigel did not seem to mind the smell. He did not look at Adam. He was busy shaving himself, using a piece of tinfoil as a mirror. “Go ahead.”
“I believe we would benefit more from extra training with weapons rather than the menial jobs. Maybe the troops could share a bit of the burden…”
“Sir, permission—” Adam couldn’t finish the sentence. Sergeant Nigel punched him in the stomach hard, deflating all air from his lungs.
“You heard me. Don’t ever doubt or question my decisions. You will do as you are told, and you will never think twice about it. Do it again, and I’ll make sure you are flogged senseless.” The quiet Nigel spoke softly, in an even, calm voice, but his eyes blistered with unbridled hatred.
Adam was shocked by the sudden ferocity of the man’s response. He could feel the disdain of the common soldiers, but he had not expected the same kind of revulsion from the officers. How could a man command a unit without believing in his soldiers?
Gasping for breath, Adam retreated, doubled over. Slowly, he recovered. As he finally managed to straighten up, he saw her.
She was a striking figure among the mounted warriors approaching. She was dressed in simple riding clothes and displayed no marks of authority, but the officers around her deferred to her. Adam stared with growing fascination at the woman.
The camp parted to let her through. She rode at ease, oblivious to the bustle around her. As she dismounted near the large tents of the top brass, he lost sight of her. Only the ripple of excitement among the soldiers told someone really important had just arrived.
Power and beauty, Adam thought. Such an unexpected and refreshing sight on an otherwise shitty day.