TG Universes & Series:
What happens to someone when they become the thing they most fear and loathe?
Armsman of Joth
by Penny Lane
Training moves out into the countryside between Galdarin and Joth. Maralin learns much about the art of soldiering. Then comes a shock... Maralin faces accusations of spying but there is no time for arguments - they must run and hide!
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.
3rd day of Zuberak, Year 1174 since the Great Flood
When Marilyn woke that morning Ferrond had gone, as was usually the case these days. He yawned, sat up and stretched as he usually did, discovering that there was a body problem he hadn't experienced before. When he attempted to bring his legs together, there was a firm lump preventing it. Leaning back and reaching down, he found that the loose sack which had held his testicles was now a close, tight bag that felt very different. Very different, too, was the warm, firm tube of flesh which issued from above the testicles and lay tight against his belly.
That's... different. So that's what it feels like when it's erect, and I still have no idea how it is done.
Maybe I was having an erotic dream? No, that's stupid, since I wouldn't want to do... that... in any dream of mine, would I? I don't know how and I don't want to know how.
So what do I do now? I need to pee and I'm not sure I can do that with this thing sticking up this way.
Another thought came then.
Eew. Pee and sperm come out of the same orifice? Gross! Who designed this body, anyway?
He struggled to his feet and down the ladder, hoping nobody was around to see the bulge under the bottom of his tunic. Fortunately the courtyard was empty, though he could hear activity in the kitchen. The air was cold and by the time he had made it to the privy his problem had mostly gone away, though the pressure on his bladder had become more urgent. With some relief he aimed to allow a great stream to descend steaming into the hole.
I can't ask anyone about this and I'm not sure I want to anyway. What weird bodies men have!
Breakfast was different, too. Everybody knew that those who had lived and worked in the mansion, some for many years, would soon be going away into hardship and danger. The talk was low, as if nobody wanted to bring certain subjects up.
Renita had a request.
"Would you wear my favor, Maralin?"
"What? I don't know. What do you..?"
"It's nothing much, just a token. It isn't heavy and it won't get in your way."
She held up an length of cord which had been made by plaiting several lengths of different colored wool together.
"This. I want to tie it round your wrist."
Maralin stared at Renita, wondering what to do, before nodding assent.
If I refuse, I am publicly rejecting her, and that wouldn't be fair to do in front of the whole household. It would either make them unite against me or they'll make fun of Renita, when it wasn't her fault.
She came around to stand beside him and he held up his left wrist. She wound the cord loosely around it three times and then deftly plaited it into a single bracelet, one that would be too small to slip off his larger man's hand but big enough to move easily on his wrist. Her slim fingers carefully threaded the loose ends into the bracelet so there was nothing hanging.
"There," she said when she had finished. "There is only so much a woman can do to keep a man safe, but I do what I can. Return safely to us, Maralin. Return safely to me."
"Aye." There was a murmur of agreement from the others at the table. Maralin noticed for the first time that, with the exception of Ferrond, the other men also bore such bracelets.
Ferrond protested, "We're only going off for more training, Renita. We should be back in a week or ten days."
"Still, there is always a chance for accident or misunderstanding," Renita said.
Ferrond nodded but added, "I do not think you need worry, not just yet. I deem this kitchen to be more dangerous than where we are going."
Possen looked outraged at that but he understood what Ferrond was getting at. The whole of the kitchen crew came out into the courtyard to see the five set off, along with the families of the other mansion conscripts.
At the castle they were sorted into groups of twenty, each led by a Tenant and two Sarjants. Every man was inspected by the Tenant to check their equipment and the officer scowled in front of one man.
"Where are your boots? These aren't the ones you were issued!"
"They hurt my feet, Tenant. I got blisters so my Mommy told me to wear these others."
Maralin recognized the voice of The Whiner, who he had thankfully avoided during the weapons training sessions.
The Tenant stared at the youth. "You great stupid fool! I ought to make you walk home with all your gear and change into your issue boots before coming back to face a charge! Those fancy town boots won't last a week on the march! We've no time for all that nonsense now, though, we have to be leaving to get to the practice area. You'll wear what you have on your feet, you hear me, and if they fall apart it will be your problem, not mine. Understood?"
"Brisk, Relban, get the men started. I'll catch up with you outside the gate."
"Sir!" Brisk, the senior Sarjant, turned. "Attend! Right turn! Ready... Standard March! Left... left... left! Wheel to the gate! Pick it up there!"
Their route took them through a different part of Galdarin and out into the country, along a straight, well-built highway. Galdarin appeared not to be a walled town. Immediately Maralin could see that the land was flat and heavily farmed. There were many cottages, sheds and barns dotting the landscape and most fields were plowed ready for the winter cold to break the clods. Here and there were stands of trees which broke the emptiness of the landscape, most now bare of leaves. One or two fields showed crops that could withstand the winter temperatures and several pastures held animals, none of which appeared familiar.
After the troop had passed two white-painted roadmarks Brisk called a halt.
"Right," he said. "Any of you have any problems? Boots hurting? Got your gear settled comfortably? I don't want you to walk fifteen or twenty marks or so and end up with skin rubbed raw. Best find out if there's a problem now before it gets that bad."
The crossbow had been banging against the back of Maralin's left leg and one of the others showed him how to hang it a different way so that didn't happen. Several of the others made kit adjustments before Brisk started them marching again. After some more of the marker stones Brisk took them right along a gravel-paved side track for some distance. Another right and they pulled into the yard of a deserted farm.
"Sarje? What happened to the people?"
"The Duke ordered them to evacuate, Sennis. We're close enough to Joth that the Duke thought better of leaving his people here."
Brisk jerked a thumb northwards. "There. Can't you see it? We're still four marks away, it will be safe enough here for us to use this area for training, though."
To the north, silhouetted by the sun, the walls of the city of Joth loomed in the distance.
"Right, Relban," the Tenant ordered. "Your tengroup will take the barn, Brisk will use the stables. For the moment the house is off-limits. They may have left some of their possessions inside."
The Tenant dismounted and led his frayen into the stables. Brisk shrugged and gestured his half of the men to follow.
"Aw, Sarje, why did we have to get the barn? It will get cold at night."
It was The Whiner again. Relban looked at him with exasperation. "Look, you clown, everywhere else is taken! It's the barn or nothing and like it. If you don't fancy the barn, go sleep in a ditch. We may end up doing just that in the next few days."
7th day of Zuberak, Year 1174 since the Great Flood
The two tengroups had done just that one night of the four days of training. It had been uncomfortable and miserable, made worse by early morning drizzle. By now the troops had learned not to complain, because they knew that whatever they suffered now, the next day it would only get worse.
Hygiene had been almost non-existant. Maralin's bristles were by now stiff and unpleasant to the touch. He had not removed his clothes since leaving Falden's mansion and they were sticky, sweaty and grimy. Although he could not smell it himself, he suspected that his body stank enough to keep clean people at a safe distance. His teeth felt all furred up since there had been easy no way to clean them, although one or two of the men seemed to make do with twigs from certain shrubs.
Body functions were simply conducted by squatting with your back to the water which was in the bottom of the ditch you were currently standing in. There was no privacy at all. Washing hands meant sloshing them in the ditchwater and then rubbing the worst of the dirt off using the hem of the wearer's tunic. Maralin was surprised that the whole civilization hadn't died out through disease, although he supposed it might mean that they all had some level of resistance to the local bugs.
There had been some mock skirmishes where they had been shown how to fight by themselves, in small groups and as a line of soldiers protecting each other with shield, sword and spear. There had been ambushes, patrols, advances and retreats. There had been several injuries, mostly caused by running over ploughed land without care. Falling onto a spear-shaft - while not letting go of the spear - had led to a sprained wrist that had caused one man to be sent back to the castle. Others followed.
With sentries positioned, they had camped in a small stand of trees, just enough to provide cover from the elements while a meal was prepared. Nobody quite understood how but Maralin naturally took charge of the food, handing out assignments and making sure that everything was well organized.
"This is good, Maralin!" Tenant Maxenar waved his spoon. "I didn't expect to eat a meal this tasty out in the country, especially after four days."
"Thank you, sir."
"You have experience in the kitchen, I believe?"
"Aye, sir. But it was a long time ago, and I am still not that familiar with the vegetables or meat found in Joth, sir."
"Oh, that's right, you're from the south, aren't you?" Maxenar waved his arm to encompass the Valley. "Is it different than this?"
"I don't know, sir. My memory, you see. What I remember is very patchy. I know how to do certain things but not what the names of things are or what places looked like. It's not pleasant."
"As you say." The Tenant grinned. "So long as you remember how to cook, and you can fight, I'll not worry. Good food can make all the difference, so I'm told."
Sennis commented, "Makes a difference what we can scrounge up, Tenant."
"Aye. Well, we're not thieves, but all these farms have all been abandoned so we might as well eat what food we can find or it may spoil." He frowned. "There are beasts in some of these fields. I'm not sure we can take those, since they are so valuable to the farmer. When we get back to the castle I'll mention that to the Captain. Those beasts should be tended or moved, before the real bad weather sets in."
The attack came as they were clearing the lunch things away. The sentries screamed a warning and within a few heartbeats another of the castle's training troops had plunged through the trees, attacking from two directions. The fight was short and bloodless, resulting in an honorable draw. The two Tenants drew to one side to compare notes. Since nobody really knew what they were doing they were making up doctrine as they went along.
"How is it my sentries didn't see your men?"
"I think you posted your men wrong. That one over there," the other Tenant pointed north-east, "was facing the sun and can't see very well. That one," he pointed again, south-east, "has his view blocked by the buildings of that farm. We used those as cover, then went along the ditches out of sight."
"Right. So, take a note of the sun, and place accordingly -"
"- or just get him under cover. Just standing two strides further back under the trees and his eyes would have been shaded. And he'd have been less visible."
"Aye. Well, there's nothing we can do about that, is there? We're the Duke's men, after all."
Maralin could hardly believe his ears. Here they were, facing an enemy who had managed to throw everybody out of an entire city, and they were discussing basic tactics! The fact that they were all walking round in these blue-and-white surcoats worried him greatly as well. Why not just put a target on his chest saying 'shoot me' and have done with it? Is this how these crazy people made war?
8th day of Zuberak, Year 1174 since the Great Flood
They had made a sweep over to the river and so Maralin saw the Sirrel for the first time. He had been surprised at the size of it and how fast it had flowed past the small beach they stood on.
"Is there much traffic on the river?"
"Of course, Maralin! This is the main way that goods get up and down the river, though it takes too long for normal travelers to bother with. The river winds from side to side of the Great Valley and so you spend more time going backwards and forwards instead of where you want to go."
"Aye, Maralin," another agreed, adding, "You will not see many boats during the winter months, I deem. The river can be rough, and winter storms can make it a perilous journey in any boat."
"So... you say that normal travelers don't use the river, because it takes so long. How do they travel round, then?"
"Oh, there are ferries which cut across the Sirrel from country to country," Brisk explained. "The roads are straight and usually well-kept."
"Country to country? So... is that another country over there? You don't have territory both sides of the river, then?"
"Aye. Over there is Smordan, I deem. All the land this side of the river is Joth."
Several of the men laughed and Brisk grinned at Maralin, who failed to see the joke.
"What the Sarjant means," Sennis explained, "Is that for reasons unknown Joth is an island. The Sirrel flows both sides of us, so that if you were to walk along the bank, you would return here eventually."
"Oh, I see." Maralin frowned. "So Joth is the... country, as well as the city?"
"Aye, of course." There were several nods. Sennis said, "Such is the custom in the Great Valley. Only Palarand is different, now, and that is since the river chopped it in two."
"Aye." Sennis gave a vague wave downstream. "A great kingdom at the end of the Sirrel, where it meets the sea, or so I am told."
"A boat, Sarje! Look!"
Brisk gestured. "Right, you men, let's get ourselves under cover. No sense asking for trouble. We don't know if it is some innocent trader or a boatload of Yodans looking for the Duke's men."
* * *
Their troop had been split into two tengroups and each had made their separate way west to attempt a rendezvous at a hamlet known to be abandoned. From there they would combine and work their way to rejoin the main highway back to Galdarin and the Castle. Maralin, like the others, was looking forward to a rest, a bath and a day or two off in a warm bed before beginning proper operational duties.
His half of the troop had taken the southernmost of the two selected routes and walked cautiously between the fields, clambering down to cross the ditches to move from one to another, jumping the foot of water in the bottom of each. He wondered about the number of ditches lining the fields. Were these necessary because of the river flooding? He remembered that somebody at the mansion had said that happened from time to time.
Relban called a halt outside a small farmhouse where they paused to take a drink and scrape the mud from their boots. The Whiner's boots didn't need scraping, they were beyond that level of care. The boy had wrapped sacking around his feet to try and get some warmth into them but it was all too late. Sometimes experience is the only teacher.
Approaching the rendezvous hamlet they were all alert. Those who had crossbows held them cocked and ready, but these were the men's only real means of defence. Their other weapons, spears and swords, were practice models which would give the recipient a heavy bruise but in most cases no worse an injury. Nobody had yet found a way to make a practice crossbow bolt that fired true. They cautiously crept between the dozen or so buildings, checking each as they passed.
"Nothing! Do you think we got here first, Sarje?"
Relban shrugged. "Who knows? I can't think Brisk got here first and then moved off without waiting."
"...Unless they were forced to, Sarje."
"By who, exactly? There's nobody around for marks, is there? Not with them sitting over there watching."
He jerked a thumb at the walls of Joth in the near distance.
"Very well," he continued. "Sentries. Maralin, over there. Sennis, between those two buildings. Varran..."
Having detailed out four to keep watch, Relban chose one of the cottages which made up the hamlet and moved towards it, intending to use it as a base while they waited for the others to arrive.
"Sarje," Maralin called. Relban turned. "What about that barn? Shouldn't we check it over?"
He pointed to a lone barn about a hundred paces away from the village.
Relban stopped and nodded. "As you say, Maralin. They could be holed up in there, hoping to surprise us once we've settled in. Let's just make sure, we have plenty of time."
The men gathered together and moved out from between the buildings before spreading apart. They walked slowly toward the barn, expecting Brisk and his men to burst out at any moment. What they were not expecting was for brown-clad men to rise from the ditches either side of the track, nor for the weapons some of those men aimed at them. Maralin's eyes widened.
"Guns! Look out!"
The men turned, confused. Maralin was shocked. Why weren't they scattering? Why didn't they -
Dear God. These men have no idea what a gun is! We've got to -
He screamed, "Get down!" just as the guns fired, creating a thump-thump-thump sound. Some reacted to the command, most didn't have time before they were slaughtered by a hail of shot from the primitive weapons. There was a huge cloud of smoke which obscured the enemy but brown-clad shapes came cautiously through the murk to make sure of any who had survived the shots.
Black powder, Maralin thought as he readied his crossbow with shaking hands. I thought I saw a second man holding... what was it called? Slow match, I think.
At this range he could not miss. The first figure folded as Maralin frantically cocked the weapon again and fumbled for another bolt. Two others had managed to loose shots as well and the attackers paused. Perhaps they hadn't expected much resistance at all, certainly not crossbow fire. Maralin noted that one of the other bolts had penetrated the loose tunic the enemy wore but then just hung there, indicating it hadn't gone into the flesh. Why?
No time to think, just aim and fire, but he adjusted his target at the last minute and shot his opponent in the thigh, causing him to stumble and fall. To his right there was a clash of blades as somebody tried to use a practice blade to fend off something considerably more deadly. To his left there was an ominous silence.
Oh, shit. We aren't getting out of this, are we?
Whack! Somebody brought the butt end of a spear round and caught the sword-wielder's neck, making him crumble, following the stroke up with a kick between the legs. The blue-and-white clad figure then whipped out his knife and cut the other man's throat as he fell to the ground. Sennis muttered thanks to Varran and the two moved to join Maralin, who was fitting a third bolt to his weapon.
By now the smoke was beginning to clear and he could see the center gunner readying his weapon for another blast. Maralin raised the crossbow and loosed, aiming for the man's head, but the other moved and the bolt hit his right shoulder. This was fortunate, since it meant he dropped the gun on the ground as he spun from the force of the blow. Sennis ran forward and rammed his sword through the other man's body, angling it up from the stomach. The 'assistant' who was holding the smoldering rope end turned and fled.
From Maralin's right another bolt struck one of the enemy in the upper thigh and he collapsed to the ground. This seemed to be enough to decide the others who turned and began retreating. Sennis used his sword to finish off those who remained behind and alive.
"Your sword," Maralin asked as they joined him. "I didn't think those blades would go in like that."
Sennis grinned. "Isn't mine," he said. "Got it off that bastard who was facing me. Our own swords are useless, I suggest we take those of the enemy in case they come back."
There was a muttered, "Aye." Maralin realized that the number of voices seemed few and turned around.
Five of us, that's all that is left. Jesus! We're dead lucky they ran when they did, another volley and we'd all be done for.
"Okay," he said. "Let's find any of our own who are still alive and then we'll have to get them to a place of safety, which this village obviously isn't. Who knew that the Yodans sent patrols out of the city?"
"No-one did, Maralin. We all thought they just stayed within."
Four of the others were outright dead, three so badly cut up that they could barely be named. The Whiner would whine no longer. One was so badly injured there was no hope of survival and the last had a shredded right arm. Maralin organized a torniquet for him and saw to minor wounds of the others. Seeing the damage, two of the survivors had to clear their stomachs and the rest were white-faced. By that time the badly injured man had died.
The reason for the crossbow bolt failure was discovered when they examined the enemy dead. Each wore a cuirass under his thick, coarse tunic. The loose cloth was enough to take the power out of the bolt so it bounced harmlessly off the underlying leatherwork. It would also tangle a sword thrust, which was why Sennis had chosen another method.
"Let's go," Maralin said, once they had cleaned themselves up and equipped themselves with their enemies' swords. "We'll go that way."
He pointed south. Nobody seemed to object to the fact he had taken over leadership, in truth the others were still so shocked by the confrontation that they were barely functioning at all.
"What about Brisk?" Varran asked. "Suppose they turn up and get ambushed as we did?"
Maralin looked thoughtfully at the barn, which they still had not examined.
"I think they already did, Varran. Let's go check out that barn."
Inside they found the bodies of all of the other tengroup plus Brisk and the Tenant, together with six enemy bodies.
"Ah, shit," Sennis said. "Poor bastards, walking into something they couldn't deal with."
"You're right there," Varran agreed. "Who knew about... guns..." He tailed off before turning to Maralin. "You knew about guns! Is that the word for those pipes? What are you? If you know so much about these weapons, are you of the enemy?"
Damned if I do and damned if I don't. If I hadn't said anything we'd all be dead. Get out of this one, Maralin!
"I don't know these weapons, no. We have something vaguely like them in Shicargo, that's all. I'm surprised they haven't reached this far north yet. I haven't seen anything like these men used before. I'm not a Yodan or a spy. They were trying to kill us all, weren't they?"
Varran was still suspicious. "You say your memory is bad. Perhaps that's because you remember more of Yod than of Joth, isn't that so?"
"Varran, I'd never even heard of Yod or Joth ten days ago. I really have no idea where I am or what I'm doing here. All I remember is scraps of life in Shicargo, and vague ones at that."
"He did shout at us to get down," Sennis offered. "He'd hardly do that if -"
"- He'd want to save his own skin, wouldn't he?" Varran countered. "They couldn't have known where any of their spies would be, could they? We've been marching all over the countryside for days."
One of the men who had gone outside to vomit again reappeared to gasp, "Men coming! Get out, quickly!"
The others turned to go. Sennis said, "What about all these? We can't leave them like this!"
"We have to," Maralin said. "Unless you'd like to stand around and dig graves while those men get here."
"Dig graves? What would we do that for?" Sennis asked. "Is that what they do in Shicargo, Maralin?"
Oh, no, not again! Be careful.
Another man pointed a finger. "He's not a Yodan, Varran. Those of Yod burn their dead as we do."
"Let's go!" Sennis put some urgency in his voice.
Outside the barn, Maralin asked, "Where are they?"
"There, about a mark distant was where I saw them last."
Unfortunately the finger pointed due south. The attackers had retreated east, so that left west. Nobody was going to go north if they could help it, not this close to the city.
He pointed, and they set out in a low run, keeping close to the ground to try and avoid being seen. All now carried real swords, some still smeared with blood. By the time they next found shelter, everyone was gasping and the man with the wounded arm was having trouble keeping up because of the pain. It was an empty animal sty, just enough of a building and walls to conceal them from the enemy - provided they didn't stand up. Everyone collapsed against the flimsy plank walls and several reached for their water bottles.
Maralin peered over the top in all directions, trying to determine which would be the best way to go. From here, he could see nobody moving, but that didn't mean they weren't out there. They hadn't noticed the ambushers, after all. The gap between their present position and the next available cover seemed very exposed and he came to a decision.
"I need your trust. I think I can get us out of here and back to the rest of the Duke's forces. I know you have doubts but we don't have time to argue those out now."
Varran stared at Maralin a while before reluctantly nodding.
"Maybe Tresk was right. You had no idea how we dealt with dead bodies, did you?"
"No, I didn't. I still don't."
"Then I'll go along with what you say. You seem to have more experience with this than any of us, anyway. What do you want us to do?"
Me? Experience? Sitting in front of that stupid box, high as a kite, while early morning war movies played. I know nothing!
However, it seems that common sense is in short supply right now and I have most of what is left. These poor saps don't know what's hit them.
"You're not going to like it," he replied. "I want all of you to take off your surcoats."
"What? We can't do that!"
"Look," Maralin said, exasperated, "what were those men who attacked us wearing? Brown clothes with pieces of green and red rag sewn over them, right? Why? Because they didn't want to be seen out here in the countryside. What are we wearing? Surcoats that say, 'Here I am, shoot me'! If we want to get out of this alive, and I can assure you I do, then we have to make ourselves less obvious."
"But, they're our surcoats! They are what tells everyone we are the Duke's men!"
"True. Well, they're fine for a fancy parade in front of the Duke, I'll grant you that, but out here - look at you, anyway. Most of you are more mud than color."
The men stared at each other, recognizing the truth of Maralin's remarks.
"What shall we do with them?" Tresk asked. "It don't feel right abandoning them. If we meet any of our men they'll think we've deserted."
Maralin shook his head. "No, we can bundle them up in our bedrolls so they won't be visible. We'll still be wearing our sashes, so our side should recognize us. When we get back and cleaned up, we can put them on again."
They had trouble getting the surcoat off Rinko, the injured man. In the end they had to slit up the right side to free the garment. Maralin took the opportunity to do some basic first aid, cleaning the wounds with a dribble from his bottle before wrapping the arm in a donated undershirt, fashioning a sling from a strip of the bottom.
Once more they crept along the margin of the fields, keeping close to the edge of the ditch in case they were seen. Their next objective was a very small row of trees standing between two fields and they sat down the other side of it, exhausted. Ahead was more open farmland.
Sennis said, "I hate to admit it but Maralin's right. If we was wearing the Duke's colors we'd be seen marks away. At least like this we'll have a chance."
The others mumured agreement. Maralin looked around.
"Anyone familiar with this area? I have no idea where we are."
Five shakes of the head and Maralin knew they had a problem. The Tenant probably knew this area and Relban and Brisk had been chosen because of their local knowledge. All of his companions were from around Galdarin and unlikely ever to have traveled this far from their homes. All Maralin knew was, don't head toward the city. Unfortunately, that was where they were being herded, even if it was by accident.
"I'd like to go south," he muttered. "At least that direction we would eventually end up somewhere friendly. Problem is..."
"As you say," Sennis agreed. "There is this, though. If we go west, we ought to hit the highway between Joth and Galdarin."
"True, but suppose the Yodans have set ambushes along the road?" Maralin countered. "We don't know what they have planned. We have to keep to the fields and try and slip through."
Varran said, "You talk a lot of sense for someone with a bad memory who doesn't know our country. How is it you know so much about soldiering? Was you a soldier before?"
"Me? No." Maralin hesitated. The truth would be completely unbelievable to these men and there was no time for the confusion and distrust that would cause. To survive, he had to become the man they already thought he was. "Not that I remember, anyway. As you say, it's just common sense, isn't it? I'm just thinking things out logically, that's all. What is the enemy doing and why is he doing it? We can't hope to escape them unless we can use their rules against them."
Varran gave an abrupt nod. "Very well. What should we do next?"
Maralin pointed. "That way. Let's find the highway and think again when we're there. We can watch any movement before deciding what to do."
* * *
They didn't find the highway. The afternoon became overcast and the direction of the sun was difficult to determine. Whatever they tried, either the walls of Joth loomed ever nearer or they were forced to turn because they saw Yodan patrols in the distance.
"Well, at least we now know what they are doing out here," Maralin said during one rest period.
"What's that?" asked Besil, the sixth member of their little band.
"They want meat. Did you see them herding those... six-legged things away, the last time we saw them?"
"Gavakhan, that's what those are called." Sennis looked strangely at Maralin. "Your memory is really peculiar. Did you not know gavakhan? I find that very odd."
"I know them, but only cut up into joints and ready to roast," Maralin replied. "I've never seen one in a field before now and we don't have them down south. Anyway, what do you think the Yodans captured the city for in the first place? Anyone?"
They all shook their heads. Varran offered, "It's just what Yod does from time to time, especially around this part of the Valley. They invaded Ferenis some months since, I expect we're just next on the list."
"But why just the city?" Maralin persisted. "There's been no attempt to take over the whole country, is there? They wouldn't have tossed everyone out if that was the case. I think they wanted an empty city because it would have been full of supplies for the winter, right?"
There were reluctant nods.
Maralin continued, "What there wouldn't have been much of, I'm guessing, is meat animals. I don't know if you people eat frayen or... dranakh -"
Tresk said, "Dranakh, impossible! You'd never survive the killing of such a beast. Frayen, maybe. It has been known to happen if the winter has been particularly bad. What's your theory, then?"
"They come out looking for abandoned animals in the fields to keep themselves going. They know the local lords will have evacuated their people, and in a hurry. These men are doing that and just incidentally keeping the Duke's forces away from the walls at the same time."
"As you say," Sennis said. "But why take the city in the first place if they don't want the rest?"
Maralin shrugged. "That part I can't figure out. Perhaps it is just a jumping off point for some other invasion. The city is on the river, isn't it?"
"Aye. It is said that is where the invaders came from, in galleys and transports."
Maralin shrugged. "Perhaps they are waiting for more to arrive. I don't know."
Evening, and a light drizzle. The men by now were beginning to get hungry since they had eaten all the food that they had carried with them. Many of their supplies had been abandoned in haste at the site of the ambush. They found a cluster of three farmhouses to hide up in overnight, although it meant keeping constant watch for enemy patrols. They gathered in the single room of the least-decrepit building.
"What food have we found?"
"There's half a sack of flour in the back of the pantry, Maralin, though I'm not sure if it is still any good."
"We can't risk a fire anyway," Tresk objected. "They would see the smoke."
Maralin smiled. "There you are wrong, as it happens. No-one can see any smoke in this rain. For once we can make ourselves a hot meal - if we can find enough food to do it with. What else is there?"
"There is about half a wheel of cheese in the larder of the leftmost house," Sennis said. "It's been well gnawed by labris but I think we can cut off the bad parts."
Maralin didn't know what labris was but could make a reasonable guess. "Very well. What else?"
"In the other house I thought I saw some sausage on the floor. It looks as if it might have been dropped as the owners fled."
"Do you think it is edible?"
Besil shrugged. "No idea. Probably. Sausage is robust stuff. But what can you do with just flour, cheese and sausage? Bread is possible, if I knew how to make it, but that won't make a hot meal. We have no pots, either."
Maralin smiled wide. "I know just the thing. Bring me those ingredients and watch a... master at work."
There was enough dry firewood between the three farms to heat the oven and make that farmhouse toasty warm. Those who were not sentries watched as Maralin made up a basic dough on the crude table and then kneaded it, stretching it and whirling it around on his fingertips. The others, at his direction, cleaned off the dubious parts of the cheese and finely chopped what was left while Maralin thinly sliced the sausage into discs about an inch in diameter. Finally he spread the chopped cheese on the dough and layered the sausage discs over the cheese.
"This is called a pizza," he said. "It's a pity we've no tomatoes and no herbs but this will do if you're hungry enough."
He made more pizzas, one for each person, and slid them into the oven.
"These won't take long to bake," he continued, "but they will be real hot when they come out. Beware your fingers."
"What did you call these? Peet-zers?" Tresk asked.
"Aye. A specialty where I come from."
Varran asked, "You really know about cooking, then? I thought you just meant you'd spent time in a kitchen, perhaps as a boy."
"Yes, well, there was some of that as well. I did a number of jobs, most of which I'd find hard to describe here. I do know how to cook lots of things, only the meats and vegetables here are all different, like I said before."
The three men in the kitchen with Maralin were interested when the pizzas were pulled out.
"That's... different," Rinko said. "How do we eat them?"
"Traditional way is to slice them into segments with a special metal wheel, but we can use a knife instead. Then you just pick them up with your fingers and eat. Be careful! Like I said, they're hot. Once you've finished we'd better change over, let the other two come in and eat."
"I like this," Besil said, munching, "would you show us how to make these when we get back, Maralin? I think my mother might like to try this idea."
With watches changed every so often, the six spent a tense night in the farmhouse, always alert for patrols. It seemed, though, that Yod didn't send out patrols at night, or perhaps it was because of the rain. When morning came they took what little food was left and slipped out into a dank misty morning.
9th day of Zuberak, Year 1174 since the Great Flood
Despite the mist the sun was just visible as a washed-out disk through the gloom. With that at their backs the party headed west and soon came upon the great ditches either side of the main highway. They walked south along the edge of the fields, alert for anyone on the road or in the fields to the east. Very soon they came upon a control post set across the highway and the blue-and-white uniforms were a welcome sight. A side road gave them access over the ditch and they approached cautiously.
"Who's there? Who are you?"
"Galdarin Regiment. We've been chased by Yod patrols."
"Come closer and keep your hands away from your weapons."
There was an intake of breath when the two groups could see each other clearly.
"You don't look like the Duke's men! Where are your colors? Why are there only six of you? Where are the rest?"
"Dead," said Varran bluntly. "Brisk and Relban and Tenant Maxenar - all dead. Some new weapon those of Yod have, cut them down like a scythe through standing grain. The only reason we survived was because he -" he indicated Maralin, "- led us to safety."
"Step forward! Oh, you have sashes, at least." The Tenant was still suspicious. "How do I know you're not of Yod yourselves?"
"They ain't," came a voice from behind him. "That's Maralin, I'd know that yellow hair anywhere. I'll vouch for him."
Maralin asked, "Pilbar? Is that you?"
"Aye, Maralin. The Captain got worried when your training group didn't come back on time. What happened?"
Maralin suddenly felt very tired. "It's a long story, and we have wounded as well. Take us back to the castle, we have a lot to explain and we're all tired, hungry and wanting a wash."
"Wounded? Maker!" The Tenant caught sight of Rinko for the first time. "Here, we have to get him to a healer as soon as we can!"
"Is there not one here?" Maralin asked.
"No, of course not. Why?"
Maralin rolled his eyes. "Never served in wartime, have you? What did you think happened when men faced each other with lethal weapons?"
The Tenant flushed. "I - Never mind. Can you walk as far as the castle? We can arrange a cart for him," he pointed at Rinko, "but not for you others. No room."
"How far is it?" asked Sennis.
"Four marks or so."
"If we may put our gear on the cart, sir, we can manage that far," Sennis said. "Maker only knows how far we walked yesterday."
The small cart, pulled by a single frayen, plodded along the deserted highway towards Galdarin, the town visible in the distance and slowly growing closer. Maralin and the others followed, accompanied by an 'escort' to ensure they didn't slip away along the route. The Tenant still had some reservations about the odd group who had appeared suddenly out of the morning mist.
"Marks," Maralin said. "The Tenant talked about marks. What are they? I know they are some kind of distance, but what?"
Sennis was used to Maralin's odd disconnects by now and simply replied, "They are the distance between two of these roadmark stones along each road, Maralin. They are supposed to be a thousand strides, though I'm not sure how many a thousand is."
Varran furrowed his brow. "It's... two hands, that's ten, now think of ten times that number, that's ten men's fingers, right? Then ten times that number again."
Tresk added, "You know when we was taught marching? A Stride is from when one foot goes down to when the same foot goes down again. About this far." He held out his hands.
About a yard or so. That means a 'Mark', whatever that is, is a thousand yards or so. Fair enough.
A crowd gathered as they re-entered the castle, but they were soon dispersed by the Tenant overseeing the activities. The cart containing Rilko was sent off to the building where the healers were while the others were taken into another to stand before Captain Jarbon.
"Is this all? Where are the rest of your tengroup?"
Maralin answered for them. "Dead, sir. All of them, and Brisk's tengroup and Tenant Maxenar. Ambushed by a Yod patrol."
Jarbon paled. "How is it you survived, then? And why are you dressed like that?"
Sennis said, "It was the only way, Captain. We would be dead as well if we hadn't taken off the colors. They made us too easy to see over open ground."
"That's right, sir," agreed Varran. "If it hadn't been for Maralin, we'd have been caught easy. The Yodans had clothes that blended in with the ground, sir, so they couldn't be seen. I think that's how Tenant Maxenar and Brisk's group were ambushed."
"A moment," Jarbon said, holding up a hand. "Let me hear your tale from the beginning. Can any of you read a map?"
"I might be able to, sir," Maralin said when the others shook their heads, "but I can't read the local script."
"I remember you," Jarbon responded. "You're the foreigner we found in a ditch, aren't you?"
"Very well. Tell me what happened."
The five took the Captain through their days of training and their movements in the countryside. Unfortunately the map was vague, not having any of the villages or farms marked on it, and missing many of the minor roads, so the detail of their movements was rudimentary. Jarbon seemed to believe their story, which was a relief to all, but his final question made Maralin think carefully.
"These... guns, you said. You have knowledge of them?"
"Yes and no, sir," he replied after some hesitation. "In Shicargo we have weapons we call guns, but they are nothing like those we saw yesterday. I can make a guess how those worked but I'm no expert."
"Do you think that Yod can prevail, with these new weapons?"
"Maybe, maybe not, sir. It seemed to me that they might take a long while to reload. If the men know what they are facing, they can take avoiding action, just like when archers fire arrows at you."
"Can we make weapons the same, Maralin? If you know how they work."
Maralin shook his head. "Knowing is one thing, sir, making them is something else. We could probably do it, aye, but not for a year or so."
Jarbon nodded. "Very well. You men, go home, get yourselves cleaned up, be at ease the rest of today. Come back here at the second bell tomorrow and we'll talk some more when you are fresher."
They were permitted to leave their gear at the castle, which made sense as their captured swords didn't fit their scabbards and other items had been lost or damaged. They all put their mud-smeared and blood-splashed surcoats back on before leaving, though. Maralin slowly walked the half-mark through the streets back to the mansion, arriving just before lunch. There was a stunned silence when he entered the kitchen.
"Maralin!" Possen saw the look on Maralin's face. "What happened?"
Maralin's shoulders dropped. For a day and a half he had been running on adrenalin and he just wanted to be clean, have some food and to sleep, and not necessarily in that order.
"It was bad," he said. "I'll tell you all, but first, is there time for a wash before lunch?"
"Surely, Maralin," Possen replied. "Renita, if you would go fetch a robe for Maralin."
Clean, and sitting in a fluffy robe with a mug of pel in front of him, Maralin spoke to them.
"Twenty-three of us went out into the country on a training exercise. Two tengroups of trainees, two Sarjants and a Tenant. We were ambushed by a Yod patrol well outside the city walls -" there was a gasp, "- we only had practice swords and spears and we escaped by sheer luck. Six came back, and one of those will probably lose an arm."
"You went so close to the city?"
"No, we were about three or four marks away, I think. I don't really know. In that country, it is difficult to judge distances."
"What about the others? Is Pilbar all right?"
"I saw him this morning at a roadblock between here and Joth. He's fine. Nobody else from the mansion was with our groups."
"Oh, Maralin!" Renita came and hugged him. "I'm so glad you're safe."
"So am I," he replied, feeling slightly awkward with the close body contact. He made himself relax and thought about these innocents, at risk from those who had taken the city. "So am I."
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