They’d sent junior officers to all the villages and cities when he was younger. Even his tiny native hamlet, embedded in the heart of the Lowlands, was honoured with a visit. The officer was young, probably newly promoted, but you could see the spark in his eyes, the one that spoke volumes of his passion for his country. To fight for his nation with undying loyalty, among others of the same mind–it became his dream, his goal. For years after, he longed for nothing more than to join the visiting officer. He even tried to train himself in combat and drills, imagining what it was like in the capital. As he grew older, he abandoned his old pastime, but his dream was unchanging. In his spare time, he visited the local blacksmith, learning weaponry as he helped the big man with his work, and built his muscles. When he was twelve, he made his first knife blade. He made several more in the following years before trying his hand at a sword at fifteen. He tried to learn everything he could that might become useful in the coming years–reading and writing, mapmaking, basic survival skills. In the summer, he frequently left his village for weeklong periods, roaming the countryside until he knew it like the back of his hand. Often, he took Jak with him, who, while sharing his love and pride for their nation, did not intend to journey to the capital.
But it was only the following year when his father finally said he was old enough to make choices for himself. His mother was fraught with worry, but his father firmly stated that it was time to let him go. He was overjoyed, knowing that his dream was finally on its way to becoming truth, but his heart was heavy at leaving his family and Jak behind; Jak, with whom he had grown up, his true blood-brother if he had ever had one. Their farewell was brief, simple, and awkward; neither of them knew what to say.
Three weeks after his father agreed he could go to the capital, he left the heart of the Lowlands. His father wanted to accompany him all the way to the capital, but he quickly shook him off, saying that he could make it on his own. His father grudgingly agreed, but insisted on escorting him to the edge of the Lowlands. From there, he had clear instructions on the roads to take, and the cities to go to, as well as a full pack of provisions and a bag of coins jangling at his hip.
Farewells were said without shedding any tears on his part. He rode his father’s stallion, carrying the sword he had made the previous year slung on his back. His back was straight and proud, and the expression on his face struggled between anxiety and hope as he rode out of the Lowlands, out into the vast expanse of the Old Kingdom.
He didn’t look back.
The capital was a sprawling city, larger than any he had come across. Despite his father’s instructions, he had avoided the larger cities on his journey, preferring the quiet humbleness that emanated from the countryside. Now, proudly riding into the capital, he tried not to show his apprehension and anxiety, tried to still his trembling hands on the reins. Nimro sneezed, unused to the throng of humanity that crowded the Royal Square in front of the palace. It was a grand sight, one that made him feel small and insignificant.
The palace was framed with gold and riches, a massive construction built to house thousands of people-though most of the time it lay nigh empty and dormant, with only the servants bustling about. Surrounded on all sides by a forbidding wall, it seemed indifferent to the rest of the city, noble and aloof. Eager to escape the crowds in the Royal Square, he steered his stallion to the main gate, informing the stationed sentries of his request of a place in their forces.
Of course, said one. Come and follow me.
He dismounted and followed, leaving his father’s stallion to the able hostlers in the courtyard at the request of the sentry, who proceeded to lead him into the palace through a side entrance, much to his disappointment. The sentry led him to the outside of an oaken door, knocked twice, and then left him there, telling him to stay put until someone opened the door. Feeling unjustly chastised but with no reason to leave and better to stay, he obeyed.
The door opened after an eternity.
Ah, the man said. You’re new.
He nodded, then thought better of it. Yes, sir.
Want to join the army, do you, boy?
Yes, sir. He didn’t like being called ‘boy’, but his mother had brought him up to be respectful. Besides, he didn’t want to argue with the man.
Who chuckled. And stepped back, and invited him in. Let’s talk, he said, a smile on his face.
The interrogation began. How old was he? Where did he come from? What was his family like? Did he leave any lovers behind? Why did he want to join? What did he know? He tried to answer them all–so many–and the man (he was a General) stared at him dauntingly, making him nervous.
Well, the General said finally, I’ll tell you what. You’re in. But I’m putting you under the command of one of my most trusted officers, so behave yourself. If I hear anything funny going on, I’m pulling you out. Got that?
Yes, sir. He was sweating under his clothes.
Good, the General said.
He had slept badly, unused to the sounds of a night time city. When the bells woke him, he didn’t want to get up, but he forced himself to. The Captain, his commanding officer, had said they were leaving that day for the border. He had asked why, only to be metaphorically slapped and disciplined. Never ask why, the other soldiers advised him. One of the first rules you learn. Just do what you’re told.
He wasn’t to take Nimro with him, either. He was too old for the border, the Captain had proclaimed, upon inspecting the stallion. They would lend him a warhorse–a real army warhorse–in the meantime. Of course, he would be expected to pay for any damages, particularly if the horse died. He wasn’t too worried. He had the gold that his family had given him–and even though the Captain hadn’t told him how much he would have to pay, he was certain he could afford it. After all, his father had traded Nimro for–two hogs? And really, how much could two pigs be worth in gold?
They left shortly after they broke their fast. If the bell hadn’t woken him up, he would have missed the Captain’s departure.
The border was south. He felt as if he had been heading south for a while now; the Lowlands were north of the capital, and the capital was north of the border. No one told him why they were going there or what they were supposed to do there; and after the first day, he wasn’t particularly keen on asking the Captain again. Forced to be content without answers, he plodded onwards, his great warhorse tiring the muscles in his legs.
They stopped infrequently. The Captain seemed to be tireless, whipping the rest of the soldiers into shape as they kept going, and they were sometimes forced to eat their meals as they rode. That night, they slept for a bare few hours before the Captain roused them up again, single-mindedly attached to whatever task the General had assigned to him.
In the silence of the night, he yawned and pointed his warhorse onwards, struggling to keep his eyes open and his mind alert.
If we make good time, the Captain said, we will reach the border by nightfall.
Ragged cheers sprinkled the group. Why were they cheering? What awaited them at the border? Holding fast to his courage, he went and asked one of the senior soldiers on the trip, and received a disinterested shrug.
How can these people not know, not care about what they fight for? he asked himself. It was preposterous. Why weren’t they proud?
When the sun set, they were still walking, flogging their great warhorses almost to death.
Despite the Captain’s words, they reached the border late afternoon. The Captain allowed them to snatch a few hours of rest, just outside a town within a grove of trees, before waking them all at sunset.
We have work to do, he said.
He felt a shiver run down his spine. At last–what he had been waiting for his entire life. To fight for the Kingdom and the capital; its people, his family. He paid close attention to what the Captain was saying.
This town is a rebel haven. We expect the insurgents to be armed and dangerous, so if you see one, kill him. The mayor of the town has called for help, and we are that help. We are to rid the town of rebels. Do not harm the women and children. Any questions?
He raised his hand before remembering that the question itself was simply a formality; that no one was expected to answer. But the Captain set stern eyes on him, and he gulped.
How do we tell an insurgent from an innocent?
The insurgents are the men, and the innocents are the women and children, the Captain responded dismissively.
He blinked in an attempt to understand the Captain’s line of thought, but he didn’t want to ask any more questions. The General had told him to behave, and he would. He didn’t want to be sent home in disgrace. Jak would laugh at him, if he were, and he’d never hear the end of it.
Shortly thereafter, the soldiers–a team of around fifty or so–marched into town, mounted on their great warhorses. His back was straight and proud, and his eyes roamed freely on the town while his head faced unerringly forward. The town was a run-down old thing, and he could see why it could be a rebel haven.
The Captain gave the signal to halt, and they did so, clumsily. Waiting, he wondered why, and tried to listen to their surroundings, but the helmet he had been given to wear made the sound of his breathing louder by twofold. Either the Captain had a better helmet or simply better hearing, because he looked behind them studiously. No one dared to turn around.
He heard a shout. He wasn’t sure where it came from–the last ranks of soldiers in the formation, or the villagers. In any case, the Captain looked furious.
About turn! he shouted. Attack!
He’d never done an about turn before, and tried to look at the soldiers in his line for help, but they seemed to be having trouble doing an about turn with their horses. Apparently about turns were more for soldiers on foot than mounted ones.
When he finally got his horse facing the right way, he looked up. He’d been at the front of the formation–not in the first line, but somewhere up there. Now, he was at the back, and though he wasn’t short, he couldn’t see what was happening. He tried to, surreptitiously, before the Captain cracked an order to hold formation for the front ranks. Resigned, he stilled his motions.
But somewhere in the front ranks–previously the trailing ranks of the formation–there was a fight going on. Up ahead, he could see people moving, unsheathing their weapons and getting ready to fight. He was nervous. He wondered if the sword he had forged would be any good against the rebels.
Behind them, there was suddenly a commotion: shouting, yelling, screaming. His eyes strained to his left and right, but no one dared turn around for fear of the Captain’s wrath. Heart beating loudly in his chest, he remained facing the fight ahead, a cold sweat breaking out over his skin.
He only blinked when the soldier beside him got cut down by an axe, and closed his eyes for the death blow.
The axe broke his helmet, and he went down.
Though the helmet was made of cheap metal, the rebel axe was either not made very well, not wielded very well, or both. He came to sometime in the afternoon, his head aching horridly, and found himself in the middle of a battlefield–except the battle was long over, and all that was left were the bodies of the dead and the wounded too hurt to move. Retching, he tried to find some place to gag–throwing up yesterday’s food on someone’s dead body would be thoroughly disrespectful, and his mother would not approve.
Feeling a little less nauseated, he got up. Black spots dazzled his eyes as he found his balance and looked around him. If there were any survivors that could walk for ten feet without falling over from exhaustion or pain, they were long gone. He found his great army warhorse, dead as a doornail, and felt a little regret: he would have to spend his family’s gold to pay for it. He found the Captain, an arrow piercing his throat from behind. No wonder he hadn’t said anything.
He heard shouts from behind and began to panic. Would the rebels shoot him on sight? Thoroughly in no condition to fight, he fell to his knees, despair overcoming him.
But the people behind him were only women. Help me! he called out to them. They were innocents; he was safe.
They conferred among themselves; he couldn’t hear what they were saying. Everything seemed numb and surreal. Finally, they came to an agreement of sorts; two of them came forward, picking their way over the bodies of the dead, and helped him to his feet. Overwhelmed with thankfulness and relief, he fainted.
When he woke again, it was morning. His head still ached terribly, and he wondered why the women hadn’t treated it, like his mother would have.
He was in a shabby wooden house, laid on a thin blanket on a wooden floor, with a small, worn cushion under his head. He sat up, though the effort made his head spin, and examined his surroundings further. There were no windows in his room, and a plate of food–dirty scraps of meat and vegetables–lay on the floor by the door. Slowly, carefully, he crawled to the food, his stomach feeling hollow. He’d last eaten two days ago, and even that had been a meagre meal.
He shivered as he ate. He felt so cold, but his body was burning up, and he wondered vaguely if he had a fever. Would the women help him?
The door opened, narrowly missing his knee, and he squinted, bright light spawning headaches and dazzling spots in his eyes. Someone came in–a man. An insurgent!
Why are you here?
He blinked, and tried to remember. Captain… said that we… had work to do. Didn’t… say why… or what. Just went. Said all the men… are rebels. Women… and children were… innocent.
He shivered as he spoke. His tongue felt heavy and thick, and he kept trying to swallow his spit and clear his throat, but his body didn’t want to. It made his speech a little garbled and slow.
Where is the King?
He was confused. Why did this man want to know about the King? I… don’t know. Black spots were quickly turning into black patches; if he really thought about it, he could have pretended he was blind for a few moments.
The man spat on the floor, and spoke to the men behind him, not bothering to lower his voice. He’s useless. Kill him.
One of them came into the room, a disgusted look on his face. Help…? he asked uncertainly, reaching up weakly.
The man pulled out a knife and drove it into his chest. He was dead as he hit the floor, and he felt no pain.
Francesca Leung enjoys reading webcomics, is a fan of Queen, and finds knitting to be rather therapeutic.
© 2006, Francesca Leung