Armsman of Joth -3-

What happens to someone when they become the thing they most fear and loathe?

Armsman of Joth

by Penny Lane

3: Recruit


Maralin faces his next challenge: to learn to fight with weapons his world had forgot and worse, to mix with a company of men who all think he's just like them...

Disclaimer: The original characters and plot of this story are the property of the author. No infringement of pre-existing copyright is intended. This story is copyright (c) 2014 Penny Lane. All rights reserved.


27th day of Bretherin, Year 1174 since the Great Flood

Maralin had settled down into something approaching contented domesticity. He had worked in the kitchen of Falden's mansion with the other kitchen servants, and for most purposes he was no different than any of them. He peeled, cut, sliced, poured, stirred, ladled, washed, scrubbed and dried as Possen required, just as everyone else did. And yet... there was an indefinable barrier between himself and everybody else. Some of it was because he was just a 'casual' in the kitchen, so to speak, but the women treated him differently, and the boys treated him differently, and he did not know how to deal with Renita at all.

She's not sucking up to me. She's attracted to me! She thinks I'm something I'm not, and that means I can't talk to her the way I want to talk to her. She knows nothing about me, and yet she still wants to befriend me, in a way I can't return. Don't know how to return, even if I wanted to.

Are all women so blind that they will latch on to the first man who attracts them?

Worked for me... damn you, Benny! May you rot in Hell! I should have stuck a knife in your skinny body the first chance I got, but you were a charmer at first. I didn't know how black your soul was until it was too late.

If indeed you ever had a soul at all.

"Maralin?"

"Yes, Master Possen?"

"If you would carve this joint for the Master's lunch, I can attend to this mess Grif has made. Do you remember what I told you?"

"Yes, Master Possen. It's the memory of my past which is faulty, not the memory of recent days. This joint?"

"Aye. Slice it thick as I showed you, the Master prefers it so."

As Maralin finished his task, the slices tastefully arranged on a serving plate, Ferrond came through the door from the courtyard.

"Master Possen, greetings. I have just come from the Castle. Our Captain has arrived back and bids me bring what able men I can to his muster."

"Aye, Ferrond, I expected it. Well, you'll have Maralin, that is certain, but there is no other within my kitchen who may serve, I deem. For others you must needs ask of Loren." The cook shook his head. "The Master will not like it, with so many in his house we are already sorely pressed for willing hands."

"As with every other household in Galdarin, Master Possen. Master Loren has already sent me three, we are to join the muster after lunch today." He added, "I have told Loren that, once the men are enrolled, they will receive pay as might be expected, and the household will be expected to support them through training. Master Falden will receive a billeting allowance, so not all is bad."

Possen was still unhappy. "As you say, friend. It will still leave me short a pair of able hands. Maralin has some useful experience in the kitchen."

"So I see. I'll mention that to the Captain, it might be useful to us as well."

Ferrond turned to Maralin. "Friend Maralin, you are well? Did Mistress Junis attend you this morning?"

He nodded. "Yes, Ferrond, she did, thank you. Mistress Junis said she could find no reason why I shouldn't go." Maralin was naturally apprehensive. "What will happen to us today?"

"Ah, nothing much, not today, there will not be the time. They will take your name, add you to the muster, and ask you for an oath of service, that much I know. If there is time then they may divide you into groups according to ability, or size, or age, or I don't know what." Ferrond grinned. "Sometimes the ways of the military mind are mysterious, even to me. I was just a member of Joth's Watch until the invader came." The grin faded somewhat. "It is tomorrow that the hard work begins. His Grace thinks highly of his people, he would not send you to fight without due preparation."

After lunch Maralin joined Ferrond in the courtyard along with Pilbar and two servants he did not know the names of. The five set off through the carriage entrance out to the roadway, where Maralin discovered for the first time that the mansion was situated on a wide street in a prosperous district of Galdarin. They walked in the roadway since there was almost no traffic and their pace was steady enough that Maralin had time to look around as they progressed.

The houses, prosperous mansions here, were set back from the highway and were built almost entirely of wood, with steep roofs of green-glazed tiles that overhung, giving a covered verandah to each house. In front of each building were neat gardens, although because of the season most were almost bare now. The sidewalks alongside the highway were raised a foot or so above the pavement and most had rails one side or the other to stop people falling off.

What's the deal with the sidewalks? I can't see any obvious reason for them to be that high. Is it something to do with their transport?

As they walked toward the center of town the front gardens gradually disappeared and the houses grew closer together, although still richly appointed. Taverns and small shops appeared. At an intersection Ferrond turned left and headed for a stone tower, visible above the surrounding buildings, some of which were obviously commercial here. There was road traffic here, too, and a wagon pulled out from a warehouse causing Maralin to stop dead and stare.

Jesus! That's a hippo pulling that wagon!

"What? Maralin, what's wrong?"

Maralin swallowed to hide his confusion. "Ahh, that's something I didn't remember, those... animals. Took me by surprise. I'm sorry, what are they called, again? I assume they are safe, aren't they?"

Ferrond raised an eyebrow but didn't press Maralin. He knew of the other's strange gaps in memory and merely answered the questions.

"Aye, they are called dranakh. They are safe enough, especially to their owners, but they serve at their own pleasure, not ours. They will defend themselves and their owners at need, they can be very dangerous if not respected."

Pilbar asked, frowning, "You don't remember dranakhs, Maralin? Do they not have them in Shicargo?"

Maralin shook his head. "No. I mean, no, not that I remember. Like I told you before, there are big gaps in my memory."

What other unpleasant surprises has this insane place got in store for me? I have to remember, this can't be Earth. He looked up at the sky to reassure himself of the fact, noting Tiede on its frantic backwards journey through the heavens.

The stone tower proved to be the gateway into some kind of ancient fort, the fabric of which had been repaired over and over again. Lining each wall were wooden buildings, some seeming stables, others offices or accommodation, it wasn't immediately clear which. The space between the buildings had perhaps fifty men standing around, with more arriving every minute. Ferrond led the way over to a line and the four men joined it, Maralin being last. The line inched forward, more joining it behind Maralin as time progressed.

"Name?" This was a man seated at a table.

"Pilbar, of Master Falden's household."

"Galdarin, that would be?"

"Aye, sir."

"Age?"

"Thirty, maybe thirty-one or thirty-two."

The man eyed him carefully. "Don't know the year, hey? I'll put you down as thirty. Here, you'll be number 832 in the Galdarin muster. Go stand over there."

The man handed Pilbar a small wooden disk and waved him off. The line shuffled forward.

"Name?"

"Jayn, sir, of Master Falden's household."

"Age?"

"Thirty-nine, sir."

The man eyed Jayn critically. "You're a little old for this business, aren't you? We'll take you, of course, but you might find the going hard."

"I done this before, sir. Served the Duke twelve year ago when we had that problem with pirates."

"Oh, that's different. Old hands are welcome, we need the experience. What did you carry?"

"Crossbow and spear, sir."

"Right. You'll be 833 this time, go join your fellow over there. Name?"

"Simonar, sir."

"Of where? Kalikan?" There was laughter along the line.

The man flushed. "Sorry, sir. Falden's household, just like Jayn and Pilbar."

Another long stare. "You don't seem to me a man who spends much time with weapons."

"Ah, no, sir. I'm an under-clerk to Master Falden. I have used a sword, of course, but it was many years ago."

"Hmm. If you're a clerk I might find you of some use myself. These documents are endless. What age are you?"

"Twenty-eight, sir."

"Right. Number 834, go join the others. Your name?"

Maralin's throat was dry. He felt as if he was about to be pulled into the gears of some monstrous machine, never to be spat out again. Everything he had seen or heard screamed danger.

"I said, name?"

"Uh, Maralin, sir. Maralin of Shicargo. I'm currently staying with Master Falden's household."

Maralin got the stare. "You're a foreigner? How is it that you are here, then?"

Ferrond answered for him. "Sir, I found him in a ditch, the night we were thrown out of the city. He'd been knocked on the head by those of Yod and lost his memory. We think he'd been staying in the city, but because not all his memory has come back we don't know where, with who or why."

"I see. He has been judged fit enough to join the muster?"

"Aye, sir. Healer Junis attended him."

The man looked up at Maralin. "Lost your memory, eh? Do you want to fight, get back what those of Yod did to you? You deserve some justice, if there is any in this world."

This was difficult. How could Maralin refuse and live with himself? If he stayed, safe in the kitchen - which was what he earnestly wished to do - others would think him a coward, or worse. He might even be imprisoned, or thought a spy. He wanted to find out what was going on in this nightmare place and staying in Possen's kitchen, while comforting and familiar, wouldn't help. On the other hand, joining the muster would be like jumping off a cliff with no idea what would happen.

On the other hand, this whole trip has been like jumping off a cliff. So far, there have been plenty of surprises but nothing particularly unpleasant. Except finding out I was a man. I think I need to do this.

"Sir, I don't know if I can fight. My memory - I don't want to become a liability, sir. But... justice, I'd like to help you take your city back, if I may."

"Good man. I don't suppose you remember if you have any training in arms? Sword, bow or spear?"

Maralin shook his head. "No, sir. I think I've handled nothing bigger than a kitchen knife."

The man nodded. "We'll teach you what you have to know. If you have used weapons before, it should come back to you soon enough. The muscles remember better than the mind."

Sword, bow or spear? Fat chance. I didn't even really know how to use a gun, even if I could have gotten hold of one.

"Thank you, sir."

"Polite, too. You'll go far... Maralin. Shicargo, that would be in the far south, I deem?"

"Yes, sir. That is, so I have been told."

"And your age. Remember that?"

"I guess about twenty-five, sir."

The man eyed him critically. "You sure about that? You don't look that old."

Damn! I forgot, this can't be Earth! I can't assume the years have the same number of days.

"No, sir, I'm not sure. It was just what I was told."

"Hmm. I'll put you down as twenty-two, looks more your age to me. Here, number 835, go stand over there. Next!"

After everyone had been signed in they were sorted into rough rows and faced the same way. Maralin didn't recognize the Captain who strode forward but the voice sounded faintly familiar. The officer stood on the table so that all could see them and took them through an oath to serve the Duke of Joth for the duration of the hostilities. Once that was done he put his hands on his hips and addressed them.

"I'm Captain Jarbon, late of the Joth City Watch, and I'll be in charge of the levies raised in and around Galdarin. I'm sorry to drag you out of your comfortable homes in winter but you're all aware of why that is. The men of Yod came at night and drove us out of our own city! Many of those who were sent forth had nothing but what they were sleeping in. A great injury has been done to us and we are determined to have justice.

"Men, you know what awaits us. Our city has been taken from us, stolen, and we are determined to have it back. I'll not hide from you that there will be deaths and injuries in the re-taking, you all know that from past experience. We don't like deaths or injuries, unless it is that of our foes, so we'll give you the best chance of surviving what is to come that we can. Attend your officers closely, they will make sure that you are prepared the best that we know how to do.

"This afternoon you'll be sorted into tengroups for basic training, but don't be surprised if you are moved from one tengroup to another along the way. Once you know which way is front and how to march we'll test you with weapons, find out who of you can make the best use of them. Then we'll do some basic training exercises in the fields and villages around Galdarin. Only when I deem you are fit to fight shall I send word to the Marshal that Galdarin Regiment is ready.

"Of course, should the enemy decide he wants more of Joth than just our city, then we'll have to change our plans. It was ever thus with any war. You must be prepared, and we will teach you to be prepared. That is all."

Maralin's tengroup was led by Ferrond, newly promoted to Sarjant for the duration, and included Pilbar. The other eight men he did not know. Ferrond handed out sashes in the Ducal colors of blue and white.

"Wear these at all times, men. They will show all who see that you are now the Duke's men and none shall interfere with you. They all know what you have pledged in order to re-take our city. For the present time you'll remain in those dwellings you came from, we have not the room to house all in the barracks here and I deem none of you would wish to live in a tent through winter? I thought so.

"Tomorrow we'll begin basic training but you'll also be measured up for a surcoat like mine and issued with some clothing and equipment. I see some of you don't even have knives! The surcoats will take some time to provide but by then you'll probably have had enough of marching about and be eager to try out some cold steel. I know I was! Hang on to those tally discs, they will be used to feed and clothe you. Get a thong or a cord and secure them round your neck. You can probably guess what else they might be used for.

"You should address me as Sarjant or possibly Sarje, never sir, understand? Sir is for those who think they have the brains to order this war. We at the bottom know better, of course. Understand? I said, understand?"

There was a chorus of, "Aye, Sarjant!"

"That's all for today, men. Meet back here at the second bell tomorrow, and anyone who's late gets to clean out the privies. Fall out!"



28th day of Bretherin, Year 1174 since the Great Flood

"Aw, Sarje, why do we have to do this?"

Maralin knew the voice, it was a spotty youth he had internally named The Whiner. From his clothing he was probably the son of a prosperous merchant or maybe some minor noble. Maralin hadn't had much opportunity to find out how this society worked. The Whiner questioned almost everything Ferrond had told them and it was beginning to get on everyone's nerves.

"Son, I'm doing it to keep you alive. The idea is to get you used to following orders, right? Then when you're out in the field and facing the enemy, you'll follow orders and it may save your life, understand?"

The Whiner was sulky. "No, Sarje."

Ferrond rolled his eyes. "Look, suppose somebody spots an enemy armsman aiming a crossbow at you and shouts 'Get down!'. If you isn't obeying orders you'll get given an extra hole, get my meaning? If you spends time looking around trying to find out why you were told to get down, it may be too late, see? The idea is, somebody tells you to do something, you do it and no arguing. You can find out afterwards why you're still alive."

"Yes, Sarje." The agreement was forced out.

"Now, 'bout turn! Straighten up, there!"

Maralin followed the evolutions on the courtyard like all the others. The commands and everything else were a disconcerting mixture of familiar and strange. The only experience Marilyn had of military matters was the movies and she, he, had been prepared for the basic drill. But it wasn't like boot camp on the TV at all. There was the usual amount of square bashing but the standards were appalling.

This is only the first day, he thought. Most of these, like me, have no idea what to do. Half of them can barely tell left from right. Hardly any of them are as fit as I am, except the one or two who work outside. I think. Give it a week and I may see some changes. If I'm lucky.

Part way through the morning their square bashing was interrupted by a man and a woman wearing the Duke's colors. The woman used a tape measure to find the sizes of their bodies and the man wrote it all down on a square of parchment. The woman gave Maralin a particular looking over.

"Goodman, are you wearing an undershirt?"

Maralin assumed she was addressing him. "Yes, ma'am, I am. Everything I have on has been donated, I was wearing very little when they found me."

"Found you?"

The man commented, "He's the one lost his memory. Said they found him in a ditch outside the city."

"I found him," Ferrond said. "He weren't wearing much at all, he'd probably have froze if I hadn't seen him."

"Oh," the woman said. "In that case we'll find him some warmer underwear. An undershirt with long sleeves, at the least. Some underjohns. We can do that much for him."

In addition to the measurements they were asked to stand on a sheet of canvas in their bare feet. The man drew round their feet and wrote their muster number inside each shape. When they had gone Maralin asked Ferrond why.

"You'll be getting a pair of boots out of it," the other explained. "Maybe there'll be a pair in the store that will fit, maybe they'll have to make you a new pair. If you was to carry on tramping round in those what you are wearing now there'd be no soles in a month."

"How's that, Sarje?" one of the others asked.

"Wear and tear. The issue boots will have hobnails - like mine."

Ferrond lifted his foot to show the iron nails studding his boot sole.

"Right, that's enough talk. Fenis, Joril, go get eleven of those spears from the pile over there. You need to know how to carry them properly, for bells at a time. You know how to count to eleven, I trust?"

"Aye, Sarje!"

* * *

"You look worn out!" Renita was concerned when Maralin, Ferrond and the others returned that evening, just before dinner. "What have you been doing?"

"Just marching about," Ferrond answered for them all. "I got enough of that in the Watch, of course, but these four are new to it. They'll soon toughen up, just you wait and see."

"I hope so," Simonar muttered, "I don't think I can do much more if I don't."

"That's because you haven't done anything like real work for years," Pilbar pointed out. "You'll manage, just like the Sarjant says."

"My calves are killing me," Maralin complained.

"That's because of those boots of yours," Ferrond said. "When you get fitted out properly you'll find the new boots put less strain on your legs."

"As you say. Uh, can we bathe before the evening meal?"

Ferrond shrugged. "Can do, I suppose. Might help to loosen up your leg muscles. There will be plenty of hot water, what with all the cooking. Renita, do we have time?"

"Aye, Sarjant Ferrond, if you do not tarry."

In the bath house they all stripped off. By this time Maralin had gotten over the shock of being among other male bodies, but it still disturbed him on several levels.

"Hey, Maralin! You take your clothes off as a woman does! Come to think on it, you dress that way also."

Oh shit. Busted. Force of habit there, caught me out again. Memo to self: be more careful!

"Yeah, uh... I was brought up by my mother. She didn't know any different. What's wrong with doing it that way anyway?"

"Your pardon, Maralin, I didn't realize. You might get comments if you do it that way once we're in the castle, or later. Might get bullied, or something."

"Thanks, Simonar, for the warning. I'll remember that in future."

It was difficult, after bathing, to realize that there was no opportunity to check his face and hair, no moisturizer to help keep his skin supple. The only mirror he had seen was the piece of polished metal owned by the woman who shaved him each morning. All he could do with his hair was run his hands through it as it dried and hope it looked all right.

At least it is short enough that I can wash it easily. If it was as long as I had it before it would look a real mess.

Pity I can't say the same about my face. This beard hair is relentless! It's nice and smooth every morning but by the evening meal it is all scratchy again. Almost makes me wish I could have my period back... almost.

Later, Renita looked at Maralin across the servants' dining table. Maralin, with a mug of beer in front of him and full of food, was feeling warm and sleepy.

"Is it too much for you, do you think? Is it too soon after, you know..."

"Hmm? No, I don't think so, Renita. I haven't had a single headache after that last time. I'm feeling quite fit, as it happens. This body... uh, I mean my body seems to soak up all the marching about. I'm tired, of course, who wouldn't be?"

"Oh... have you tried a sword yet?"

Ferrond answered from along the table. "No weapons yet, Renita, not until they wear the Duke's surcoats. We practised today with spears, it is true, but only how to carry them during the march."

"You'll have uniform like Ferrond, then? I do like a man in uniform." She cocked her head. "I think you'll look nice all dressed up proper."

"Thank you, Renita - I think," Maralin replied. "I just hope I don't get blood all over it."

"You'll get blood on it, Maralin," Ferrond observed. "What you have to do is make sure none of it is yours."



1st day of Zuberak, Year 1174 since the Great Flood

It was odd. Like any woman Marilyn had been both intensely aware of her breasts and at the same time not aware of them at all. They had simply been part of her body, just like her fingers or her ears. She knew the effect that they had on men and expected it whenever she entered a room, it was just what happened when you were a woman, after all.

Now Maralin tried to come to terms with the fact that his chest was flat and nobody saw any reason to look at it at all. He missed seeing the swelling shapes at the bottom of his vision, missed folding his arms under them, missed feeling them move as he walked, stooped or sat down. To his surprise he could clearly see all of his waist, although nobody paid attention to that either. It seemed that men didn't pay that much attention to each other's bodies at all.

He was conscious of his wide shoulders and large hands and feet, but everyone else had those so nobody considered him remarkable. In fact, the whole experience of being a man was odd, the others spoke to him but it was mostly grousing about the drill or some jokey remark about each other's abilities - or lack thereof - nobody wanted to have a deep conversation about what they were doing or why. Nobody wanted to talk about their home life, who they had left behind or their children, what they had been doing when the call to action had come, or anything like that. It was like a bad topic best avoided, like somebody's death.

It could be a male thing or something to do with the way this society runs. I've heard that you don't talk about certain subjects in some countries but that's what the TV says, and we all know they have no real idea at all, they just put out what they think an American audience wants to hear.

All the same, being ignored is a new sensation for me. Given the circumstances, maybe that's for the best.

The tengroup's drill had improved, to the point that nobody turned the wrong way and collided with the rest any more, but the standard was not something he thought a Marine Drill Sergeant ever ought to see. Still, it should be enough to get them through the next few days, until the next phase of training kicked in and there were new demands on body and mind.

Some of their equipment had appeared that morning, to the amusement of several. Maralin gained some boots which seemed to fit reasonably well. They were extremely heavy, compared to most of Marilyn's footwear, but his large feet and sturdy leg muscles didn't seem to notice. A blue and white surcoat from the castle's stores made him feel like an extra out of a fifties medieval movie. There was a boiled leather cap and a belt to hang a knife and sword from, though no sword as yet. Strange strips of felt which Ferrond taught them to wind round their calves from ankle to knee.

"These'll keep the muck and brush off your legs," he explained. "When we're out in the fields, any weeds or undergrowth will rip your tights to shreds. If you ever get round to riding frayen, these'll stop your legs rubbing on the hide. Dorbin! Not like that! If you do it that way they'll just unravel."

The uniforms made a difference. Those who wore them stood straighter, marched taller, saluted better. Maralin felt it, too. It made him feel part of something at last, though he could not have said what. With the uniforms came the next stage of training, for those who wore them.

"Maralin. Tresk. Bosko. You're out of this tengroup, go off with Sarjant Panno for weapons assessment." Ferrond eyed the three approvingly. "You three are the best of this sorry lot. Now go show Panno you know what to do with cold steel."

This time Maralin was apprehensive. Marching about was one thing, actual fighting was something else. He wasn't going to be able to hide his complete inexperience of the weapons he had seen being used in the courtyard by other tengroups. Panno led the three over to join five others in another corner of the yard.

"Right, who has used any weapons before? Don't be shy, I don't want to waste my time with somebody who can use a blade. You," he pointed at Maralin. "You're the one Ferrond said had patchy memory, right?"

"Aye, Sarjant."

"I'll have to assume you don't know what you're doing, right? Doesn't mean I'm treating you like an idiot, though, not the way I saw you marching about. What about the rest of you? Any bowmen here?"

"Aye, Sarjant." Two men put up their hands.

"Good. We'll test all of you on the range but not today. Spears? Anyone can use a spear but you'll need to know how to do it properly. What about crossbows? Let's make a start there."

It seemed, to Maralin's great astonishment, that he could use a crossbow and use it well. He scored second at the target practice and was fastest when Panno held a reloading race.

Panno scratched the stubble on his face. "That's good work, Maralin. Seems you somehow remembered using a crossbow from before. Does anything come back to your mind?"

Maralin shook his head. "No, Sarje, it doesn't. At least it means I won't be completely useless when we have to fight."

What the hell? I have never ever handled anything remotely like a crossbow ever before. I can't possibly remember something that didn't happen... I liked doing it, though. It has been a long time since I felt that satisfaction in being able to get something right.

Swords were a different matter. Most of his tengroup went to the barrel and picked out practice swords, swinging them about to test them and changing them for others of perhaps better weight or balance. Maralin didn't know what to do since Marilyn had never even seen a sword in real life. Panno handed him one at random.

"Try that. How does it feel?"

Maralin tried to copy what he had seen the others do but the result was clumsy. Panno studied him critically.

"Too long or too heavy, I deem."

The Sarjant sorted through those swords left in the barrel and came up with another one. To Maralin it seemed slightly lighter but it was still awkward to hold and swing about. Panno shook his head.

"That'll have to do for now. Right, men. Some basic sword instruction, since several of you look as if you'd be more danger to yourselves than the enemy."

Sword practice exposed Maralin's worst fears. He was hopeless using a sword.

"By the Maker, Maralin, you fight a sword as a woman does!"

Maybe there's a good reason for that, Sarje.

Panno came behind him and adjusted his grip.

"Look, like this. Keep your wrist flexible, see? Then you can swing the sword easier where you want it. Angle it like this, that way you'll catch the other's blade on the flat of your own and won't blunt your edges, right? The blades'll go blunt soon enough but there's no sense helping the enemy kill you, is there?"

The afternoon wore on and progress came painfully. Maralin was bottom of the tengroup for sword use but Panno hadn't expected much better. He eyed his men, now all breathing heavily and with sweat-stained uniforms.

"I don't think you can do much more today, men. Go home, rest, get yourselves and your gear cleaned up. Just remember, when the time comes the enemy won't let you go home and come back the next morning. You'll have to learn to fight when you're tired. Tomorrow we'll try you on the longbow range and then there'll be knife work. Fall out!"

It was a long walk back to Falden's mansion and the new boots began to feel very heavy after a day of hard physical activity. Maralin was glad to get back to familiar surroundings and people. All were fussed over when they arrived, dressed in the blue-white surcoats that showed they were the Duke's men. Renita headed for Maralin.

"See? I told you that you'd look good in the colors. How do you feel?"

"Stiff and tired, Renita. Look, I want to get this gear off and have a wash, okay? Is there anything I can wear afterwards? I don't want to put these clothes on again, they're all sweaty."

"Surely, Maralin! We have robes to wear after bathing, I'll have to ask Possen if you may wear one to eat, though. I can't think he will object, since you serve the Duke now." Renita considered, then brightened. "If you do that, I can take your things and wash them for you. That way they will be fresh for you to wear tomorrow morning."

"But..."

Maralin was extremely uncomfortable having Renita run round and serve his every need. In fact, he could probably have done most of the chores himself even though he was tired and stiff.

If there was ever a man I didn't want to stick a knife in at first sight, I'd be doing for him just what Renita wants to do for me. Are women really so dumb?

What do I do? What's the custom in this place? Do I have to put up with it?

"Maralin?"

"Uh, I'm sorry, I'm not used to having so much attention. I don't want to give you extra work, Renita. You have enough to do in the kitchen as it is."

She gave Maralin a smile which worried him greatly. "It is no trouble, Maralin. Everything is cooking, there is ample time before we have to serve up. Come on, I'll get the wash-house ready for you and the others."

Ferrond said, "Maralin? You have found a good one there. Renita, your suggestion is welcome. Can you find four robes? It will do us good to sit in clean clothes for a change."

Later, Maralin shrugged into the fluffy bathrobe, tying the belt before remembering that men did it the other way. He surreptitiously checked the others before correcting his mistake. The tub had been good, if a little large. There were two, which looked like half-barrels, and each man had shared with another, though none had touched each other as they washed. He'd heard stories, but the reality was they all just wanted to get clean and soak tired limbs where possible. There was little talk and nothing that could have been considered erotic by even the strictest religious authorities on Earth.

The food was ready when they returned to the servants' hall and everybody sat down together. As on the previous evenings the four described their day at the castle to the others, to varying degrees of interest and fascination. As Renita leaned over to put down his mug of beer she rested her hand on his shoulder and he winced.

"What? Did I touch something?"

"It's only a bruise. They tried us with swords and I... I'm not very good with a sword. We practiced against one another and I kept getting hit."

"Oh, no! You should have told us! Master Possen, may I tend to Maralin?"

"Surely, Renita. If you others of the Duke need bruises tending, I'm sure the girls will oblige."

Maralin had to take his arms out of the sleeves and pull the robe down to his waist. There were intakes of breath at the purple patches, which were on his torso and arms as well as his shoulder.

"I'll get the salve," Renita muttered. "You should have said something, Maralin!"

Simonar had bruises too, but he was married and his wife tended his injuries. Renita came back with a pot of salve and smoothed some on, carefully and gently working it into the discolored skin.

"That's better, thank you," he said to Renita with a smile of appreciation. "I couldn't have done that myself. Next time I'll listen to you when you suggest something to me."

There was a wolf-whistle from the far end of the table which was met with a glare from Possen.

"Now, I'll have none of that in my hall! Maralin is a stranger here and his words were innocently intended. Leave him be, he has serious matters on his mind and he is not interested in the foolery of the kitchen."

Maralin was red-faced, but Renita had that speculative look in her eyes. If the suggestion hadn't been there before, it certainly was now. He was glad to take a turn about the courtyard with Ferrond, even though the air was cold and the night promised rain.

"Sarje?"

"Ferrond while we're here, lad. I'm not on duty now. What is it?"

"I'm not sure about all this. I mean, I think I can use a crossbow -"

"I'll not disagree with that! I was surprised myself at your skill."

"Yes. Well. Even if I get any better with a sword, I don't know if I have it in me to kill somebody when the time comes. I'm afraid I might freeze up and let everyone down."

Ferrond nodded. "Aye, lad, I know what you mean. Tell you a secret, I never killed anyone before either." Maralin looked at Ferrond with astonishment. "What did you think we did in the Watch? Break up brawls and drag drunks back to the lock-up, mostly. Chase a few thieves, now and then. I have seen the odd body, though. Men killed in street fights, drunks who fell out of upstairs windows - or off the jetties into the Sirrel. I never did it myself, though, weren't no need."

"Then, why..."

"I look at it this way, lad. When we face the enemy, I know that if I don't kill them they'll kill me, got it? It's a question of survival. Most of them haven't killed before either, I reckon. If they're conscripts like us chances are they may not even have seen a body before. They'll be as green as we'll be. That's our only chance, lad. Stick 'em before they can do it to us, I say. Use their inexperience against them. Now if it's regular troops we face, well... I just hope they give us a decent pyre, that's all. We won't last half a bell before proper men-at-arms."

In the moonlight, Maralin's face was white.

"You're not helping... Ferrond. I'd hoped for some words of encouragement."

"Don't worry about it, lad! Chances are, we won't have to do that kind of fighting anyway. They're inside the walls and we're outside, aren't we? Crossbows and longbows, that'll be the way this battle will be fought."

"I don't know about that. Eventually, we'll have to get inside the city, won't we? They aren't going to just open the gates for us."

Ferrond was silent a long while. "Aye, lad, true enough. Look, tomorrow, tell Panno you need more sword practice, and get him to give you a cuirass to practice in. Come to think of it, all the men should be wearing them by now anyhow. Hmm. I'll have a word with Captain Jarbon tomorrow..."



2nd day of Zuberak, Year 1174 since the Great Flood

Maralin had a revelation in the night. He had these great wide shoulders, didn't he? With long arms hanging off each one. Supposing he twisted his upper body, that would give him much greater reach...

This time, he went through the barrel and tried every sword before the others got there. With the little experience he had gained the previous day and a new idea about how to stand and fight, he chose a different blade, one that was longer than those he had used before. It was lighter and had a different shaped hilt, one that felt more comfortable to his hand.

Panno raised an eyebrow. "Trying something different today, Maralin?"

"Yes, Sarje. If you would try me for a moment or two, let me get used to this sword."

"As you say."

The two faced each other and their blades met. Maralin noticed that his body was now too far away for Panno's blade to reach it, except on rare occasions. Despite holding the sword at arm's length the grip felt firm and easy. His wrists were relaxed, moving the tip easily to deflect the other's approaches. After some moments, with the others now gathered round to watch, Panno lowered his blade.

"That's a definite improvement, Maralin. Did you remember something, or what?"

Maralin's reply was simple. "I decided I didn't want to die, Sarjant. To do that, I had to learn how to hold a sword properly. That's all."

Panno nodded. "The best reason of all for learning to use a sword. All you others take note. Maralin, you'll still need practice but I deem you'll improve with time, if you keep that attitude."

"Thank you, sir."

"Sarje!"

"Uh, thank you... Sarje."

Mid-morning they were taken outside the castle proper to a nearby field which was being used for longbow practice. Even on this chill fall morning there were spectators gathering to watch the proceedings, most keeping well out of the way of wayward arrows.

Maralin couldn't, as he had expected, pull the longest and strongest of the offered bows. Although he was reasonably fit he simply didn't have the upper arm strength for such a weapon. It would have been like handing a sniper rifle to a raw recruit on Earth as his first firearm. He could, however, pull some of the lesser bows and his arrows went more or less in the right direction once the grizzled archer testing the recruits showed him how to aim, pull and release.

"Not too bad," the man nodded at Maralin after a while. "Not bad at all for someone who tells me they never held a bow before. If you keep up your practice you could make a decent bowman one day."

"Practice? How much practice are you talking about?"

"Oh, say five years or so."

"Five years? But..."

In five years, I'll either be awake or dead, I guess. I can't see this business with the city of theirs taking five years! On the other hand, the Great War was supposed to be over by Christmas...

Maralin nodded. "Thank you, sir. Uh, Sarje. I don't know how much chance I'll have to practice but I'll try."

"Good man!" The other gave an approving smile. "That's the sort of attitude Joth needs right now. Right, who's next?"

Back inside the castle Maralin mentioned cuirasses to Panno.

"You're right, Maralin. Can't think why I didn't think of it myself. It'll keep the worst of the bruises off but, mind, your arms are still bare and you don't want them to get too sore while we're practicing. Best way is, improve your sword work and you won't need body protection."

"As you say, Sarje."

By the end of the day all their kit had arrived, including a bedroll to be slung diagonally across their backs, knives, canteen equipment and the extra clothing they would need including a bulky roll of waterproofing. There was, as promised, a long-sleeved undershirt which made a big difference on a cold day, together with something that looked like knitted cycling shorts - the garment the woman had called an 'underjohn'. There was a boiled leather cuirass, to be worn under their surcoats, but Maralin thought it probably wouldn't stop very much other than a stab from close range with a knife. There were leather vambraces to cover each arm from wrist to elbow, held in place by laces that they had to help each other with.

By the time all this had been bundled up and made into a backpack, and with sword, crossbow, quiver of bolts and rectangular wooden shield added, the extra weight meant that just marching became a wearisome task. Maralin's new boots were both good and bad, the design and shape supporting his legs as Ferrond had assured him they would but the stiffness and extra weight made every step an effort.

"Right. Let's see you dressed for parade! That's good. Bosko, don't slouch! Dorbin, what on Anmar have you done with that bedroll? Never mind, I'll deal with it afterwards. Right, listen! Men, tomorrow we leave the castle for field training and tomorrow you'll leave your billets in Galdarin. Take all your gear with you tonight, it will give you practice walking around with it. When you're dismissed, go over to Tenant Bastan at the table there and show him your number. You'll be given your first pay and you can spend it how you like. Be back here tomorrow morning by the second bell - sober - or there will be trouble."

Most of the men had a waist pouch but Maralin did not, so he was forced to carry the few coins he had been given in his fist all the way back to Falden's mansion. He dumped the coins on the table in front of Renita.

"Can you look after these for me while I clean myself up, Renita? I don't have anywhere to put them."

"Surely, Maralin, but... most of the men will have spent theirs in an ale-house this evening. Do you not wish to do the same?"

"Not really. Remember, I'm a complete stranger to this whole area and the people here are the only ones I know, apart from a few at the castle. Besides, the beer here is enough for me. I don't want to have a hangover in the morning. You might as well know, we'll be leaving for field training tomorrow and I don't know when I'll be back."

Renita was disturbed. "You're going?"

"Aye, so they tell me."

Decision made, Renita swept the coins into a hand. "I'll keep them for you, Maralin. Go on, go and get yourself ready for the evening meal."

When he came back she had a small leather pouch which she fixed to his belt.

"There, that's better. You need a pouch to put small things in, I'm surprised they didn't give you one at the castle."

"All the other men already had one, I think. I don't think they considered somebody would turn up who wouldn't have one. Did you put the money in here?"

Renita blushed. "If you wish to take your coin, Maralin, I will bring it to you. I thought... you might want to leave it safe with me while you are away."

Maralin considered, then shrugged. "As you will, Renita. You know more about this business than I do."

I think I trust her enough for that. Besides, I have no idea how much I've been given or what it might be worth. Not very much, probably. Just enough for most of the recruits to get drunk tonight, I suppose. If I ever get through this I'll have to find out how this whole money system works.

Much later, in the courtyard, Maralin walked with Renita. It was obvious what Renita wanted but Maralin found it difficult to analyze his feelings.

"Renita, the other day you said you thought I had a... problem. Well, you're right. Trouble is, I'm not sure I can tell anybody about it, because if I did you'd probably never want to speak to me again. Let's just say that it might make it... difficult to have relationships with anyone." There, he'd said it.

"Oh." Her face looked up to his in the moonlight. "Is it because of the knock to your head? Or something in your past, perhaps?"

"Both. Neither. I don't know. It just affects how I look at everybody here in... Anmar."

Renita looked at him strangely. Anmar?

"It doesn't matter," she said finally. "You're going off to fight, and the only thing you need to know is that I'll be waiting here for you when you come back. I doubt not you'll have plenty of time to think about your... problem and decide what to do about it, and I'll be waiting when you return with an answer."

There it is again. How the heck do I deal with this? She wants a man but I'm not a man. Only, I am a man, here and now. The worst of it is, I feel the need to look after Renita, keep her safe from whatever threatens these people. I owe them a lot and it's time I repaid some of that.

Much though the idea irritates me, I'm beginning to like this body. At first I felt all big and clumsy but I see now how much easier it can be to do a lot of things. I've met many men who are kind and decent, not shits like Benny. Perhaps I can make a go of this. I don't like the idea of going out and killing people - at all - but it's no different than being drafted back home, is it? Let's see what the morning brings.

I can do this.



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