Armsman of Joth -5-

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

Armsman of Joth

by Penny Lane

5: Warrior

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Maralin is relieved to be away from the blood and the mud but he knows his respite will only be short-lived. The Captain seems willing to listen to his ideas and Maralin is sent out on a scouting expedition. Then, everything changes again...

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.



10th day of Zuberak, Year 1174 since the Great Flood

Maralin had tried to tell as few details of his ordeal as possible but it had still left many of the mansion's staff frightened. None of them had had any experience with the kind of warfare which Yod had now brought to them and he wondered how they would survive if Yod decided that the city wasn't enough.

The only thing I can do is make sure that doesn't happen.

It's funny, when I think about it, the others didn't have a clue either. They needed me to get them out of trouble and I did.

All my years as a girl and a woman and I've never felt like this before. There anybody could push me round just how they wanted to. Here, it's way different. Here I can do things I never imagined I could ever do in Chicago.

Here I get respect. That doesn't mean women don't deserve respect, just that I never experienced it before.

Here I can make a difference. There, I just felt passive, pushed around by everyone who felt like pushing. Why is that? Can male hormones really make that much difference?

I'm still walking a tightrope, though. If I'm forced to tell them what has really happened to me I don't know what would happen. Suppose somebody asks me to describe Shicargo, somewhere "off to the south"? What do I say? There's only one rule to lying and that is you get found out eventually.

I don't think I want to do that anymore, but first we have to get rid of the Yodans. First I have to be what they think I am.

"You're sure you are going to be safe, Maralin?"

"For today, at least," he told Renita. "Captain Jarbon wants to talk to us again because we have news of what the enemy is doing. I can't think he'll send us out again today. After that -" he shrugged. "Who knows? That's what war is like, Renita."

"Why does this have to happen?" she asked sadly. "Why us?"

"Don't ask me, Renita, ask those of Yod. I'd be quite happy if I had never heard of them. Thinking about it, I might never even have had a knock on my head and lost my memory."

The servants' dining hall was quiet as he left. None of the other conscripts had returned and nobody knew whether they were safe or not. Maralin had seen Pilbar the previous morning but who knew where he might be by now. He had to leave them to their speculations, he had to pick up his pace to be at the castle before the second bell.

That's another thing. I keep hearing about these bells but I have no idea how they work. One day...

"Captain Jarbon! Maralin reporting for duty, sir."

"At ease, Maralin. Ah, you live the furthest away don't you?"

"Aye, sir."

The others were already present, wondering what Jarbon wanted from them. He sat down in his chair and looked them over.

"You five are the only ones who have encountered a Yod patrol and survived," he told them. "That doesn't mean that others haven't, but we have no word from another trainee section who went off to the north-west. For now, you are our experts on the ways of those of Yod. Tell me about their uniforms again, if you would."

They described again the loose smock hiding a breastplate, and how that could defeat crossbow bolts and sword thrusts, and what they could do about it. They discussed the color scheme, with bits of cloth sewn over a heavy mud-brown material, the heavy matching trousers and ankle boots. They then talked about the guns that had been fired, which resulted in Maralin alone explaining how he thought they worked and what defensive action could be taken.

"I have difficulty understanding a weapon that can cut down so many men at once," he said.

"That's easy, sir," Sennis said. "Imagine a trebuchet filled with a bag of large gravel, that bursts just overhead. That would give a similar result, I would think."

"Oh? And what do you know about trebuchets, Sennis?"

"My grandfather served the Duke, sir. He was a winchman on the Thorn town defences."

"Ah, I see. Thank you, Sennis, aye, I understand what you mean now. So, how did you avoid the fate of the others, do you think?"

The others looked at Maralin.

"My guess is, sir, that they had only just cleared away after ambushing the other group. They had no time to set another ambush when we turned up. Remember, in that barn we found six enemy dead, so they didn't have it all their own way. I think they were just as surprised to find us there as we were to find them. When we fought back we were too strong for the remainder and they retreated."

"But they still had those guns."

"Aye, sir, but once they fired them they were no better than we were, so we had a chance to strike back."

"That's not true, Maralin," Varran objected. "We only had practice swords and spears, they had real ones."

Jarbon winced at the thought of men with practice weapons coming up against men with sharpened field weapons.

"You were lucky, then."

"Aye, sir. We were very lucky."

"Two things, sir," added Sennis. "Maralin can shoot a crossbow and reload real fast, and we managed to get some of their swords off them. That evened things out."

He stared at them thoughtfully. "As men with experience - recent experience - I want to send you out again. Would you do it?"

"As trainees, sir?"

Jarbon shook his head. "No. I think you can safely say you have no further need for the kind of training we can provide. Except, perhaps..." He shook his head. "Shall you go out again?"

"Sir," Besil said, "Might we stay together? With Maralin in our group..."

Jarbon raised an eyebrow. "With Maralin as your Sarjant, perhaps?"

"Aye, sir."

There were muttered agreements from the others. Maralin was surprised at the suggestion.

"I had another plan in mind for Maralin," Jarbon said. "But that would depend on Maralin's future plans."

Maralin was puzzled. Future plans?

"Sir?"

"I was reminded overnight that you are a foreigner in Joth, aren't you? Because of your memory problems you do not remember why you are here, who you associated with or even where you lived before you were found."

"That's so, sir."

"If we manage to repel the invader, had you any thought what you might do afterwards? Would you stay in Joth or would you wish to return to your home city... what was it called, again?"

"Shicargo, sir. No, sir, I don't have any plans or desire to go back to Shicargo. When we repel the invader, I think I might like to stay in Joth, if that is possible."

"Yet you have no trade, no business that you remember."

"No, sir."

Maralin bit his lip. The denial had come out automatically and in terms of what these people called a "trade" it might even be true. He wasn't sure how valuable kitchen experience might be in this time and place. Best to say nothing, best to tread carefully.

"You have proven yourself to have some skill in the arts of war, Maralin," Jarbon said. "Suppose I offered you a permanent position with His Grace's forces? A man like you would be most welcome."

Me? Skilled in the arts of war? Boy, do these people need help!

Maralin was completely surprised by the offer. "I don't know what to say, sir. Thank you, sir. May I have time to consider it?"

"Of course. Meanwhile, you have ideas about what the Duke's men ought to be wearing in the field, I deem?"

"Sir, I don't want to cause any trouble. I know you have many customs and traditions -"

"Those customs and traditions got seventeen of my men killed the day before yesterday." Jarbon's voice was dry. "I'll listen to anything that will save my men's lives, Sarjant Maralin."

"Sarjant -" Maralin did a double-take, then braced to attention and thumped his chest. "Sir!"

"So tell me, Sarjant, what a well-equipped man-at-arms would be wearing in Shicargo, if you can remember, of course."

That request stopped Maralin in his tracks. The gulf was too wide, and Marilyn's knowledge too slender for Maralin to even think about telling such information to the Captain.

I'm just going to have to lie through my teeth... or perhaps not. Modern military uniforms are something I've seen on TV but that's almost the only knowledge I have. However, that kind of information would do no good here. These people don't need that, they need something practical.

"Sir," he answered slowly, "me telling you what we wore in Shicargo won't really help your people here today. I can give you a general idea, sir, but we need to think what would be practical for your troops right now. Fancy uniforms that may take you a month or two to make would be no good."

Jarbon's eyebrows raised at the last sentence. He gestured. "Proceed."

"Sir, our soldiers used different uniforms for different purposes. There's a parade uniform, that would be like the blue surcoats, sir. Then there would be, um, undress, which is what men in the castle would wear for doing their normal barracks work."

Jarbon nodded. "Aye. So you're saying that an armsman might have more than one uniform?"

"Sir, they might have as many as eight, depending on where they were and what job they did. For work like in the fields around here there would be a brown or green one, perhaps depending on the season, then maybe a sand-colored one for deserts, a blue-gray one for mountains, a white one for winter... But those aren't just simple colors, sir. Usually there would be patterns printed on the cloth in several other colors, to break up the outline of the soldier."

"Aye... I see... so the principle is to conceal the armsman from the enemy? In the Valley such a scheme would not be considered honorable, except that we are faced by those of Yod, who already wear such attire."

"Sir, every army I remember uses clothes like that. They all choose different color combinations or patterns so that you can tell who is who."

Jarbon nodded. "Such uniforms must be costly to make and maintain."

"Sir, we have a volunteer standing army. Equipping it and running it does cost a lot of money."

"As you say." Jarbon cast an interested eye at Maralin. "I have many questions about an army who must needs fight in fields, deserts, mountains and during the winter season, but I'm not sure that I would like the answers."

Maralin was embarrassed again. How do I keep making these blunders?

"Probably not, sir."

"So, how may we serve the needs of Joth, Sarjant Maralin?"

"Sacking, sir, is my first idea. If we can make surcoats out of sacking that may be enough to make us less visible over the open ground around the castle."

"Hmm. Surplus sacking is not easy to come by this early in the winter, Maralin. You would try this with just the five of you?"

Maralin looked around and the others nodded. "Yes, sir. To begin with."

"Then we may manage." Jarbon gestured again. "Continue."


11th day of Zuberak, Year 1174 since the Great Flood

The five men slipped out of the farmhouse into the dawn twilight, waving farewell to the farmer and his wife. Inside they had left their 'dress' surcoats and the bags in which they had carried their camouflage gear from the castle. Each man was now wearing a thick sleeveless tunic of rough-woven sacking which had been daubed with black, brown and green paint together with rough leggings similarly treated. There had been no time to fashion sleeves, it had taken the seamstresses the rest of the day to make the tunics and leggings. A rough square of the same material had been secured over their leather caps, disguising the shape and hiding the polished surface.

They each carried a carefully chosen sword, a long knife and a crossbow with a quiver of twelve bolts. A bag, slung diagonally across their backs, carried water and travel rations for five days. The bedroll had been discarded as too bulky, they would find shelter wherever they could. The spears and shields had also been left behind. They wore no sashes, their tunics being belted with rope. The only color each now showed was a narrow ribbon of white over blue, tied around the upper left arm.

For some time they made a careful progress through the fields toward the city. The farm they had left was one of the closest to the city still to be occupied, but that still meant four marks or so between them and the walls to the north. By the time they decided to stop for lunch they had traveled two marks, traveling slowly and carefully, taking advantage of every cover they could find.

"So, Maralin," Tresk asked as he chewed, "What about the Captain's offer? You gonna take it?"

"I've had a day to think about it and I still don't know," Maralin replied. "The situation is... complicated."

"Your memory, you mean?" Sennis suggested.

"That and other things. I'm flattered to be asked, and it might solve some of my problems, but it might cause others." Maralin shook his head. "I don't know. I'm tempted to say yes, but it means I'll lose contact with everybody I've made friends with."

"Ah. I hadn't thought of that. Despite that, I still think you ought to take it. If we're ever to stop this happening again, the Duke needs the best men he can find."

"As you say. But really, I'm not a warrior. I just seem to have some common sense at the moment which the officers don't."

"That's what I mean. As soon as you can become an officer yourself, we'll start getting better, see?"

Maralin sighed. "You may be right, but, like I said, there are... problems."

Problems like, is this world even real or not? Am I suddenly going to wake up in an ER or something? If so, does it matter what decision I make while I'm here?

I'm still undecided whether I want to stay here or not. This place can be nasty and brutish and ready to strike me dead any moment but the people are way better. In some ways it is better here than Chicago ever was.

Do I even have a choice? Am I going to get yanked back at just the critical moment? This is all too much to think about!

Never mind being sucked into a body I didn't want. If I had stayed a woman I would be contentedly peeling vegetables in Possen's kitchen right now.

...and nobody in Joth would have heard of guns or camouflage, not until it was too late. Shit!

Maralin shook his head. "Leave it for now. Let's finish eating and press on. I want us to find a good place to lie up in before it gets too dark."

"Aye, Sarjant."

And that's another thing. Being an officer, even a non-com, just feels so natural. What's happening to me?

They picked their way through the poor winter light, constantly scanning for patrols. If possible they wanted to be avoid being seen by anyone, even their own side. That would only attract attention and require long explanations. Only once did they see a Yod patrol, a long way away, and they were never noticed.

Twilight found them half a mark from the city wall, in clear view of the south-east gate, in a cluster of shrub-like plants growing on the bank of a ditch. By squirming up to the top of the slope they could see men walking the battlements, although little detail could be made out. They settled in for a cold, uncomfortable night, one man at all times watching the wall and another watching other directions.


12th day of Zuberak, Year 1174 since the Great Flood

"Six men, one gun, two crossbows," Varran reported. "The same ones we saw go out about two bells since."

"That's interesting," Maralin muttered, bent over the parchment. He was using a charcoal stick to note down the movements that had been seen that day. "Looks like they either have only two groups of six they send out for patrols, or they are short of men."

"Stands to reason, don't it?" That was Besil. "That whole big city, think of how long the wall is. They must needs send men out, as you guessed, Maralin, to find food and kindling. They must also guard the walls, gates and harbor. I deem they are short of men."

"Not to mention the ten men we killed three days since," Tresk added.

"We're whittling them down," Maralin said thoughtfully. "A point must come where they won't be able to send out patrols at all."

"Are you suggesting we ambush one of their patrols?" Varran asked, eyebrows raised. "Five of us against six of them, and them having that gun thing?"

Maralin shook his head. "No. The object of this exercise is to gather information, not go looking for trouble. We want to see how well the camouflage works. If they never find out we were ever here, I'll be delighted. If we come across the other patrol and we have to fight our way out, I can live with that."

"As you say. So, when do we leave? This is about as exciting as I wants, if you takes my meaning, but somewhere warmer might be nice."

"And drier," added Tresk.

"Early morning, very first light, before the men on that wall have a chance to see us go," Maralin replied. "Any objections?"


13th day of Zuberak, Year 1174 since the Great Flood

Nobody had any, so they spent another night on the slope of the ditch before creeping cautiously away as the eastern sky began to lighten. By dawn proper they had made a mark from their watch post and were having breakfast in the shelter of a tiny stand of leafless trees.

"S'funny," Tresk said. "When we were attacked the other day we just replied, didn't we? There was no thought involved at all."

"Keep your voice down," Maralin cautioned. "Sound will travel a long distance over these open fields, especially when there's no crops in them. We did respond that day, didn't we? Part of that was training, part of that was the knowledge that if we didn't kill them they would kill us. Not a hard choice to make."

"Aye, as you say. But those men were sons, husbands, maybe fathers as well. It's hard to do that to another man." He paused, thinking. "Then when we went to that barn -"

"I'm a farmer," Sennis said. "I have to butcher animals to provide meals for my family and I have to kill vermin that want to eat my crops or worry my animals. 'Tis the way of the world, lad. If we don't find a way to stop Yod they'll run right over us, mark my words. The way I see it, outside their own lands they are vermin and vermin get what they deserve. I don't like killing another man, any more than you do, but they don't belong here and if they won't leave we'll have to make them go, one way or another."

"Well said," Maralin agreed softly. "But I'd rather we didn't have to kill them. We don't have much choice this trip, since no-one must know we've been here or how we are dressed. Our job is more important than taking prisoners or getting caught, so let's make sure we don't do either."

Another bell, another mark, part of which was spent near the bottom of an exposed ditch as a Yod patrol walked past one field over. This time their stop was an isolated barn full of fodder.

"This is nice and dry," Varran said. "Pity we didn't find one like this last night!"

"Use your head," Besil responded. "A barn full of fodder that close to the walls would either be occupied by Yod or burned to the ground."

"Aye," agreed Sennis. "Yod may have some odd ideas but they aren't stupid. They would not leave a potential hiding place that close."

"It will do for this afternoon," Maralin decided. "Let's make ourselves comfortable and see what passes by."

The unseen sun was definitely setting behind the murk before they moved on again, this time heading due south. Maralin had been given the simplest kind of compass, a magnetised piece of iron wire with South painted red, which was suspended from a length of thread. The others had no idea what it did or how it was used.

A light had been left in a deserted barn half a mark from the farmhouse and this only became visible once they had passed by to the side. From there it was relatively easy to find their way to the farmhouse in the darkness. Once inside they stripped off their camouflage and had a welcome wash while the farmwife prepared a hot meal for them. Having fed they were soon asleep in the hayloft, warm and dry for a change.


14th day of Zuberak, Year 1174 since the Great Flood

It was mid-morning before the five reached the castle and they were immediately shown into Jarbon's office. He was speaking to a man wearing a yellow headband and sash.

"Thank you. Go, have some rest, find yourself a meal, I will have letters for you to take back to the Duke presently, but first I must speak with these men."

The man braced to attention and saluted before walking out of the door. Maralin braced and saluted and Jarbon responded.

"You were successful, I take it?"

"Aye, sir. It was cold and wet but I think we did what we set out to do."

"How close did you get?"

"We were around half a mark from the south-east gate, so Sennis tells me." Jarbon raised an eyebrow. "Sir, I can't measure distances yet, not in this open countryside. I just don't have the feel for it."

"As you say."

"We watched all activity for a whole day, sir. There were two separate groups who set out as patrols which lasted about two bells each. Each group had six men -" Maralin pulled out his parchment and referred to it, "- and had a gun and two crossbows, sir. No spears or shields that we could see."

"I see. So, from that gate you're saying that only twelve men make their patrols, and they don't stray far?"

"Aye, sir, more or less."

"What about the gate itself? And the walls?"

"It was difficult to tell, sir, but there are maybe four to six men at the gate. We couldn't make out faces because of the weather, sir. There might be more inside, of course. They didn't obviously change watches or anything we could see. The walls, well, there are men up there but very few, sir. Maybe only four on the bit of wall we could see."

Jarbon thought. "Interesting. And you were sure you were not seen?"

"No, sir. At least, if anyone saw us, they made no movements that let us know they might have seen us."

"Of course. Now, do you think, if we had maybe fifty men, attired as you were, could that gate have been taken?"

Maralin was cautious. "It might be possible, sir. We did spot patrols from other gates as we traveled, sir. Five men crawling along a ditch isn't the same as fifty men crawling."

"Aye. We must be careful. And, what you didn't say, is that the other forty-five have not even the little experience you five have gathered, is that right?"

Maralin flushed. "Aye, sir. One day, perhaps, all this will be part of basic training but we don't have time right now - or the uniforms."

"As you say." Jarbon came to a decision. "Very well. I want you to repeat your task, starting tomorrow, but against the Galdarin gate. Because it is the larger gate, those of Yod pay more attention to the lands surrounding it. We need to know the same things, how many patrols, what strength, what weapons, how many at the gate, how many on the walls." He held out his hand. "Is that a map?"

"Aye, sir." Maralin handed the parchment over.

"What's this? Oh, of course, it's in your own script, isn't it? I'll have a clean copy made and you can translate for me." Jarbon's eyes narrowed. "What are these? These marks look like those the Chivans made." He looked up at Maralin. "Are you by chance a Chivan?"

"Sir, I've never heard that name. I don't know what you mean."

Jarbon shook his head. "Never mind. The Chivans are lost in history. You men," he pointed to the others, "You may be at ease for the rest of today. Tonight I want you back at that farmhouse ready for an early start tomorrow so you'll be leaving here at about the seventh bell. If you want some coin to spend, apply to the quartermaster's office. Maralin, I'll need you a bell or so longer. I have reports to make for His Grace and I want you to describe these Yodan weapons so that I can write them for the Duke."

"Aye, sir."

* * *

The five set out again to walk to the farmhouse where they based their scouting expeditions as the light began to fail. In their kitbags they had different tunics, of the same material but better cut and finished, with sleeves this time to help keep their arms warm. The ribbons they had worn on their arms had been replaced, at Maralin's suggestion, by a small square on each upper sleeve in the quartered colors of the Duke of Joth.

Jarbon had told Maralin that the whole town had been turned upside down in the search for spare sacks or other materials which the small army of seamstresses could turn into camouflage tunics. He told Maralin before the group set out that he hoped to have a force of between forty-five and fifty waiting by the time they returned.


15th day of Zuberak, Year 1174 since the Great Flood

The sky had cleared during the night so that the morning was crisp, clear and cold. There was a layer of frost on the roadside grass and a film of ice at the bottom of the ditches. Because of the frost, they were forced to walk in the roadway to avoid leaving any tell-tale footprints. The bright weather meant that they could be seen from greater distances, so progress was difficult.

The five worked their way north-west, angling to meet the Galdarin road just south of the city gate. The talk was minimal, since they had now learned to work comfortably with each other, and each did what was required without discussion. Their first break came at mid-morning and found them about three marks from the walls. There were heaps of dung set where four fields met and they approached with caution. After all, they were not the only ones who used camouflage.

"Good," Varran judged. "I was afraid we'd find Yodans already here. Looks safe enough, we have views in all directions."

Besil snorted. "The whole place stinks! I don't think even those of Yod would stop here."

"A good reason for us to use it, then," Tresk commented.

Sennis warned, "Just watch where you sit! That smell will follow you around for weeks if you don't."

They found an untainted area and sat, chewing their rations and sipping water.

"Where do you think we are, Maralin?"

"If we don't see any patrols," Maralin replied, "we should be about the right distance by lunchtime. But we may have trouble finding a good place to set up that close to the bigger gate."

"As you say. Well, if we have to be further away we can still do our job, can't we?"

"Aye. The detail is important, or so the Captain believes. Closer is better if we can find somewhere."

I wish we had binoculars or a telescope. That would make this job so much easier, not to mention safer. I'm not sure whether I ought to tell them about such things, though. Aren't there rules?

By lunchtime the walls were getting closer and it was getting more difficult to move around. They had dodged two patrols, one coming far closer than they had wished. On the plus side the winter sun had melted the frost so they could skulk along at the bottom of the ditches for cover when required. Finding a suitable hideout turned out to be the hardest job of all. They held a conference at the bottom of a ditch, just by the icy water.

"There's a stand of trees over there."

"Too near the road."

"They're not using the road! They know the Jothans are just down that way."

"Perhaps they have their own watch post there. What else? What's the other way?"

"There's a bunch of scrub, remember? Two fields back."

"Too far and not really big enough for five of us."

"Over that way is a burned-out barn."

"Aye, though it is a bit close to the walls. Let's stay in the ditches for now, until the light starts going, and then head for that barn. We can look it over before we decide and we may see something better."

"As you say, Maralin."


16th day of Zuberak, Year 1174 since the Great Flood

"It wouldn't be so bad if the place didn't stink so much!"

"That's what happens when ashes get rained on. Stop complaining and keep your eyes on the fields. If we're spotted here we'll have to move fast. Look! There's another patrol going in the gate. Same size, same equipment."

"Recognise anybody?"

"No. It must be another group."

"That makes, what, four?"

"Aye. They do have more ground to cover and they have the road to worry about."

"At least the weather is good. We can see a lot better from here than we could at the other gate."

"Hush! There's another patrol, coming from behind us!"

The day wore on and Maralin drew a map on one side of the parchment while the other held lists and timetables of the patrols, gate guards and wall-walkers. From here the bells of Joth could plainly be heard and Sennis translated them for Maralin to note down. All were relieved when the sun began to set and they could relax, slightly, their vigil. The day had been cold, tiring and cramped, with the men barely able to move at all among the burned-out timbers of the barn.


17th day of Zuberak, Year 1174 since the Great Flood

The five slipped away as they had done previously, as the very first light of dawn began to show in the east. It was frosty again, which meant that the day would likely be as bright, and travel as difficult, as when they had arrived. For a time they moved quickly and quietly from field to field and ditch to ditch.

It seemed that Yod did not put out patrols at night, since they had kept watch and seen none at the south gate, which was where the road to Galdarin entered the city. However, they had to be far enough away to avoid being seen once the daytime patrols appeared. Unfortunately, the Yod patrols, able to use the roads where they were not, eventually spotted them.

"We've been seen!"

"What do we do? Hide?"

"No. Keep moving. They will move towards the place they saw us last. Get to that next corner and then we'll change direction."

The enemy, being unfamiliar with the methods Maralin had dredged up from his memory, stayed on the roads and trackways and could easily be seen by the five from their places of concealment. Once the Yod patrols moved away from them Maralin chose another direction and they pushed on.

Further south, they had to avoid one of their own patrols and it was evident that the Duke's men were clueless as to what was happening in the fields under their noses. Maralin shook his head sadly.

They really have no idea how this works, do they? No wonder Yod was able to get into the city and evict them all.

Well, I'm sorry, I can't really help much more than I already have. I just wasn't that interested in anything warlike. What girl is? Okay, I like a man in a uniform as much as the next woman but what they actually do, I have little idea. All I have to go on is a bunch of ancient war movies seen through a haze of drugs.

It was mid-afternoon when they arrived back at the farmhouse and Maralin had a shock as the Captain was there together with two of the men with yellow headbands and several others, including two Tenants. The poor farmer's house was completely overcrowded and they were forced to meet out in the yard.

"Sarjant! You were successful, I see?"

"Aye, sir. But, if I may ask, why have you come? We would have been back at the castle by tomorrow morning, sir. Has something happened?"

"Indeed it has, Sarjant. Something extremely important, as much as I can tell. My letters to His Grace have resulted in some firm instructions which concern you."

"Me, sir? What have I done?"

"You know of guns, Sarjant, and that is apparently enough for the Duke to ask you to attend him immediately. You are to be removed from any danger concerning the enemy and to travel at once to Thorn, where the Duke awaits you. He says that he is unwilling to say more but that you must journey there at all speed."

Maralin was shocked. What could he possibly have done to attract the attention of the Duke this way?

"Do you ride, man?"

"Sir? Um..."

I can't tell him the truth, since I have never sat on a living animal in my life. It's possible that some farmworkers can't ride but I'm guessing that most people here at least know how to, even if they don't do it regularly. Suppose someone in Chicago asked me if I could drive? Dumb question.

"...I don't really remember, sir, but I don't think I've ever ridden a frayen before."

Jarbon was stumped. One of the messengers had a suggestion.

"Sir, I noticed there is a carriage at the castle. The route we use to come here is passable by carriage, sir, since the weather has been good enough."

Jarbon rolled his eyes and sighed. "Very well. Sarjant!"

"Sir!"

"If we can get you onto a frayen, we will ride you - carefully - back to the castle. You'll sleep at the castle tonight. Tomorrow, we'll take that carriage with an escort and ride to Thorn." Jarbon turned. "Tenant, you'll stay here with the other men and come back to the castle with them tomorrow morning."

The Tenant looked delighted to be spending a night in a barn in the country and then walking back to the castle in the morning. His face showed what he thought of it.

"That's enough, Barak! This is important. Sarjant, you and your men, go inside and change as you would normally have done. We'll be waiting outside for you when you're ready."

Inside the farmhouse, the men peeled off their camouflage outfits with relief.

"What do you think will happen to you, Maralin?"

"No idea. Nothing good, most likely."

"Why do you say that? We have made two patrols right up to the enemy gates and back again and all we got was cold and dirty. I'll take that over a battle any day."

"As you say. Now, which of those bundles is mine?"

When they were once more presentable in blue and white Varran held out his hand.

"Fare you well, Maralin. I know not what the Duke wants with you, but I trust it will be to your advantage. I deem you cannot have done much wrong since you joined the muster."

The two clasped arms. Maralin realized that he was, again, about to lose his new-found friends.

"Thank you," he said. "If I can, I'll come back and look you up. We worked well together, didn't we?"

Sennis was next. "Aye, Maralin. With your knowledge of guns, mayhap we can take our city back. We all know you're hiding something -" the look on Maralin's face told everyone the truth of that, "- and I hope you can find some peace one day. Remember us, won't you?"

"I'll never forget the times we have had together, lads."

Maralin clasped arms with Tresk and Besil, then shouldered his bag and made his way out into the yard, trying hard to hide the threatening tears. Outside he was faced with the task of climbing onto a frayen. Since the animal was about the size of a largish pony this turned out to be straightforward, though the stirrup placement seemed awkward. Once settled, with his bag lashed behind the saddle, the other Tenant took his leading rein and the Captain led the way out of the farmyard.

As near as Maralin could tell they rode due west, following the country lane until it crossed a culvert to reach the highway. A careful check that there was no danger and the party turned left to walk along the road towards Galdarin. The saddle was odd between his legs but seemed safe enough provided he didn't move about too much. It had a handrail running from one side to the other and holding on helped keep his balance. The stirrups kept his feet out of the way of the animal's legs, but Maralin wondered what it must be like to fight from such a position.

Once inside the castle Maralin slid off the beast to discover that his bottom felt very peculiar. Wondering if further rides would make that better or worse, he decided to avoid riding again for a while - if he was ever given the choice. He was taken to a dormitory block and given a bed in a room of four, a room reserved for Sarjants. Dumping his bag, he took a quick wash standing in a tub of warm water and had a make-do supper, it being too late for the usual evening meal, before taking to the bed and falling instantly asleep.



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