“The most important property for a soldier to possess is obedience. Instill in him this, and all other traits are secondary.”
-Caurus Etrenius, “A Treatise on the Nature of Conflict”
“Well,” Kellan said, “at least the day is nice.”
I blinked, coming to my senses. I’d spent the last hour or so watching the wheel of the cart in front of me, wondering how long the slight wobbling would take to develop into real trouble. “Huh?”
“The day. The weather, it’s nice. Good day for a walk.”
I looked up at the trees, and took a deep breath in through my nose. He wasn’t wrong; the sky above the canopy was blue and clear, and while it was warm enough to be uncomfortable out in the open, the air under the cover of the trees was cool and pleasant. “I guess so,” I said, “not that my feet seem to care one way or the other.”
We’d been on the road for almost two weeks. Lord Carson’s recruiter had left town the same afternoon he’d arrived, as soon as he was done taking our names, but in the morning there’d been another man in the green and gold from the manor, a man who called himself Acker or Auker or something, leading a small train of ox-drawn carts. He’d gathered everyone who’d signed their names to the messenger’s list and, with no ceremony or fanfare, lead us out of town, off to the southwest. There were maybe thirty of us from Cantlay Town, at the beginning, walking in ones and twos behind the carts, each of us carrying whatever belongings we’d decided to bring along in packs or bundles on our backs.
Our little column had wound its way through the hills and fields of Cantlay. We slept in fields or under trees at night; a few of the boys had had the foresight to bring bedrolls, but I wasn’t one of them. About once a day we’d come upon a village, or a grouping of farm houses, and we’d stop for an hour or so while Lord Carson’s man spoke to the locals. He’d come back to the column with a scrap of parchment, another crate of spearheads like those my father had made to add to the carts, and a few more boys that’d signed up with the recruiter, whose path we were apparently following.
I looked back down the line. There were probably almost seventy of us now, and there were fewer faces I recognized than there were unfamiliar ones.
Kellan adjusted the leather straps of his pack. “My feet aren’t doing so poorly, considering we’ve covered more ground in a week than I usually do in a month. Sore, obviously, but not bruised or bleeding.” He stretched his arms up over his head. “And at least we’ve both got decent boots. Have you seen Ran ev Stony, that kid we picked up in Stony Hill? I talked to him last night. It’s not three days since he joined up, and his boots are already falling apart. Kid’s going to have blisters instead of feet by the end of tomorrow.”
I nodded. “Remind me to thank your father the next time we’re home.” My boots had been a gift from Kellan’s family last winter. They’d probably cost more than I made in a year, but Kellan’s father had insisted I take them, saying that I needed new ones and that he could afford to be generous. It was true that Kellan’s family had plenty of money; running an inn in the capital of a duchy was a lucrative trade. They’d never been quite that generous before, though, and I suspected that the timing of the gift, a week or so after the notorious Colum Against Galvyn Cat’s Night Festival Shouting Match, wasn’t a coincidence.
I shifted the sack I was carrying to the opposite shoulder, and heard the helmet inside clank against something hard, maybe one of the rivets on the coat. When I’d arrived back at the workshop that last morning in Cantlay, my things had already been packed and set downstairs, and the armor my father had made was sitting beside my other belongings, the coat neatly folded. A note from Vardon had been tucked under the helmet: Your mother asked me to bring this to you. She said she’d prefer you wear it, however you felt about how things were. I’d prefer you wear it, too.
I’d frowned at the note, but I’d packed the helm and the coat in under my other things. I wasn’t sure whether I could bring myself to use them, but I’d told myself I could always trade them away to some other recruit who could.
Kellan was looking at me expectantly. I realized he’d asked me a question. “Sorry, wasn’t listening. What did you say?”
Kellan shook his head at me. “The same as it ever was. Ever ignored, ever forgotten.” He threw a hand to his forehead in a woe is me gesture, then smirked at me. “I was just wondering if it might be more comfortable to try to sleep up in one of the trees. You’d be sleeping on branches, sure, but in a forest like this you’re pretty much going to be sleeping on branches wherever you bed down, and the branches in the trees have leaves on them at least.”
Ahead, framed in the entrance to a clearing in the wood, Auker had stopped his horse and dismounted, and the carts were rolling to a stop behind him. There was a shift in the breeze, and I caught the odors of horse droppings and smoke and piss. I turned to Kellan. “I don’t think you’re going to get a chance to find out.” He gave me a questioning look, and I gestured ahead as we stopped behind the back cart. “I think we’re here.”
Auker jumped up on one of the cart ahead of us. “All right, boys, listen up. I need you to stick close to me, and don’t get lost. You’re not free to do what you like until someone specifically tells you so, understand?”
I nodded, and I heard a few murmured assents from behind me. Auker hopped down and started back toward the clearing, and we followed. As we approached the tree line, I stood up straight, hoping to make a good impression on Lord Carson as we emerged from the trees.
It was, as it turned out, a foolish notion. The camp we emerged into was massive, a sea of large, long tents and cooking fires, and racks of long spears standing up tall, their steel points dark against the pale blue of the sky. We weren’t even a significant percentage of the assembled army. As a column of seventy I’d thought we’d seemed fairly impressive marching down the road. Now, we were seventy boys among a thousand soldiers, and I felt embarrassed to have been impressed.
The recruiter lead us off through the tents, down a broad stretch of clear road that ran through the middle of the camp. Here and there among the larger tents were smaller square or round ones, dyed in various colors, most a combination of green and something else, with banners depicting various creatures, weapons, and other unidentifiable objects hanging before them. We left the main road, taking a branch to the left, and stopped at the far edge of camp, in front of a small tent with a green banner bearing the device of a small hammer above a large bird, perhaps an eagle, both in white.
Auker told us to wait here, and then ducked inside. For a long while after that, perhaps an hour, perhaps a bit less, we heard and saw no sign of life from the tent. Most of the lads, myself included, put our packs down and took the opportunity to gawk at the camp we’d just walked through. Oskar, who’d been a few rows back in the column, came up and sat down next to me and Kellan. I did my best to ignore him, while he and Kellan made small talk.
In amongst the men cooking their evening meals and sharpening swords and spears, I saw others, civilians: a washerwoman picking up tabards and tunics from some men and dropping off bundles of washing for others; an alchemist with a case of remedies and tonics, selling a pair of small vials to a soldier with a half-shaved beard; a young woman with her blouse unlaced and a grin on her face, ducking quickly out of one tent and into another just as quickly.
Finally, the flap of the tent lifted, and a man stepped out into the fading spring afternoon. He was short, half a head shorter than most of the boys in the column and a full head shorter than either me or Oskar, and he carried himself with an upright, practiced bearing, his head high and his back rail-straight. His hair was cropped short, dark but with white hairs scattered here and there throughout, and he wore a full beard, also cut short and not quite thick enough to disguise the scars across his left cheek and jaw. He wore a green tunic, bearing the same sigil on the breast as was on the banner hanging above him, with white breeches and brown leather boots with their tops turned up above his knees.
He walked slowly out in front of us, the recruiter following an arm’s length behind him. He said nothing as most of the boys grew quiet, standing up from where they had sat down on the ground or on their packs. A few, boys we’d picked up in a village called Wollen, kept talking to each other, leaning against the back of the weapons cart a few feet from myself and Kellan and Oskar. The man stopped his pacing, and turned to stare at the boys, crossing his arms before him. After a moment, Oskar reached over to tap one of the farm boys on the shoulder, and motioned to the older man with his head. The boys looked to the head of the column, surprised, and then stood up straight and gave the man sheepish smiles.
The man rolled his eyes. “This is the best you could bring me, Auker?”
The recruiter shrugged. “I can’t make soldiers out of thin air, sir.”
“True enough,” the scarred man said. “All right, tell his lordship I’ll take them, and do my best.”
“I’m sure Lord Carson will be understanding, sir.” He gave the man a short bow, and then turned and walked away, toward the large tent at the heart of camp.
The man turned back to us again. “All right, boys, open your ears!” His voice rang out over our heads, high and clear. “I was asked by Lord Carson to lead a group of soldiers into battle, but it seems that there’s been a mistake. Instead of soldiers, it appears I have a bunch of layabout farmers who’d rather gossip than work.” He shot a piercing look at the boys from Wollen, who, as one, grimaced. “However, I am not a man who questions the actions of my liege lord or any of my betters, so until I am able to acquire some actual warriors I suppose I’ll have to do my best to see you don’t get yourselves killed, at least not quickly or uselessly.”
He gestured to the marking on his chest, and then to the banner. “For those of you who know nothing of heraldry, which I will assume is all of you, I am Sir Hagan Henney. This sigil is mine, and it is the sigil you will follow into battle. You will address me as ‘Sir’ or ‘Sir Hagan’ and in no other fashion, and from this point forward you will obey my orders, and only my orders or those of Lord Carson, without question or hesitation. Is that understood?”
A wave of voices, saying “aye, Sir”, or “yes, Sir Hagan”, or simply “aye”, rumbled its way though the ranks.
Sir Hagan scowled. “And when I ask you to speak, you will do so in a fashion that allows me to hear you! Once more!”
Our voices were somewhat more coordinated this time, and we all wordlessly seemed to settle on “Yes, sir!”
“Once more again!”
“YES, SIR!” we shouted, more or less in unison.
Sir Hagan sighed, and then nodded once, sharply. “Good enough for now. Your first task will be to give those carts to the first men in green and tan you can find. They will lead you to a place where you will be given tents, bedding, and foodstuffs. You will then return here with those things, and you will set up your camp. You will do this as quickly as possible, and you will start now! Go!”
We moved out in a flurry of activity, Kellan and I helping to get one of the carts turned around. I glanced over at him. “Well, here we are.”
He grinned back at me. “Here we are indeed.”
“You seem excited.”
“I am excited,” he said. “I thought we were going to have to sleep under hedges all the way to Whiteport.” He gave the ox a swat on the hindquarters, and it began lumbering forward. “I’ve never slept in a tent before. Should be interesting.”