Disorder of War: Book I Sneak Peek!

Thank you for your interest! The pre-order for the Disorder of War: Book I eBook is now live on Amazon and will be released March 9th. The paperback will be available shortly after launch.

Copyright © 2015 By N. J. Shamey

Prologue

October, Year 1204 of the New Katoran Era

King Azarah III sat on the very edge of his throne, hands resting impatiently on his knees. The gold and jewel-encrusted  behemoth was not the chair of a warrior. It was a showpiece meant for traders and foreign dignitaries. It was a statement that the Kingdom of Katora was rich, and  it would be a valuable trading partner. The King’s armor was also a statement. Every inch of his person below the neck was covered in ornate gold, black,  and red plate mail. His helm, a close-faced bascinet forged with a snarling face and great black horns, hung menacingly from the back of the throne.

The nobility had been waiting for this audience for months and could hardly contain themselves. The chamber echoed with murmuring and the whispers of schemers. The silk-clad crowd arrayed before the royal dais stared at their King as they guessed and wagered on his course of action. Beams of afternoon sunlight shone through the dissipating smoke of torches, highlighting the banners of the Royal Legions above them. As the ornately carved and gilded double doors at the south end of the hall began to rumble open, the room fell into silence.

The majordomo, adorned in intricate robes of black and crimson, stepped into the doorway and struck a black Ash staff three times against the stone floor of the hall. “The Royal Court of the Kingdom of Katora, seat of his Imperial Majesty King Azarah III, welcomes Lord Ambassador Faress, Voice of the King-Priest of Arrenon and Guardian of Shrine of Saint Monah.”

In strode a tall imposing figure, his arms tucked confidently into the voluptuous sleeves of a golden-yellow brocade robe. Behind him followed a few simply clad servants and two guards sporting yellow silk tabards and silver armor. Their pointed silver helms caught the sunlight and flashed patterns on the banner-covered   walls.

Ambassador Faress maintained a stony visage behind his long face and close-cropped  black beard as he made his way slowly down the hall. He passed the watching nobles and military leaders of the Kingdom of Katora, careful not to sully himself with eye contact. He kept his gaze fixed on the raised stone dais where the King and Queen sat   waiting to receive the message Faress had born across the middle sea.

“Welcome, Lord Ambassador,” rumbled King Azarah when the foreigner had reached the foot of the dais. “I hope your travels were tolerable and that you have found Our Kingdom hospitable.”

The Ambassador looked up at the King, noting his clenching jaw muscles and vein popping on his forehead just where it disappeared into Azarah’s close-cropped grey hair. “My travels were as expected, thank you.” There were more murmurs from the assemblage as they noted the lack of honorific; there should have been a ‘your majesty’ as  it was the protocol accepted by every nation. Faress knew this, but had no choice in the matter. The King-Priest, may his holy reign stand forever, had insisted he not say ‘your majesty’ to maintain the ‘dignity of his station.’  But I must tread carefully, if I can …   “I have been entrusted with not just the duties of an Ambassador, but also of a holy messenger.” He looked directly into the King’s eyes, trying not to plead, but wanting to. Understand that I only do as commanded!

Azarah was silent for a moment.  He kept his face smooth but his gauntlets crunched as he clutched his armored knees. He is just a puppet, it is true, but his master gives me no choice. “Deliver your message then.”

Faress took a deep breath, closing his eyes for the briefest moment while he pulled the embossed scroll from deep in his yellow robes. “The King-Priest, may His holy reign stand forever, of the one true God Vovog, savior of his people and Lord of the Worlds, demands that …”  His mind flitted suddenly to the little wooden statue of Saint Monah his son had carved for him. He could feel it resting against his hip, tucked into one of his robe’s  many pockets. Fighting had a sudden urge to take out the idol, he forced his mind back to the task at hand. “Demands that the one known as King Azarah atone for the massacre of Sharazei with one thousand pounds of gold for each family of the slain.”

The hall practically erupted with outraged shouts, but a dangerous look from under the dark brows of the monarch quickly brought back a charged silence. The King’s jaw clenched and unclenched methodically as he watched the Arrenese Ambassador. Poor bastard … Azarah motioned for the man to continue.

“It is also the holy will of the King-Priest that all legions of Katora be withdrawn across the Middle Sea immediately, and all lands to its East be abandoned.” It was all Faress could do to keep his hands from shaking as he read the final words on the scroll: “The hand of Vovog will strike down all who defy His King-Priest, may his holy reign stand forever.”

It was as he had expected. It was exactly what his spies had reported. King Azarah looked out over the high councilors and generals arrayed before him in the hall. The Ambassador’s fate was written in their petty foolish faces. He had no options.

The King rose, armor clinking, and stared into the eyes of Ambassador Faress. A cold anger pulsed through his veins as he unconsciously moved his right hand to his gilded sword hilt.            “Thank you for fulfilling your duty,  Ambassador.”

Ambassador Faress gave a slight nod, a knowing look in his eye.

            I don’t want to do this… “Do you represent the long arm of Vovog and the hand that will smite us?”

“Yes.” It came out boldly, but the Ambassador’s eyes had already lost their light. He knew what he must say, and what consequences it must bring.

King Azarah’s eyes grew hard as granite as he looked down at Faress. “Very well. We will take your hands and send them back to his King-Priest. If you survive, you will remain our guest—in the dungeons!”

Chapter 1

Six Months Later: April  1205 NKE

So much for shortcuts.

Dagan Sharaf bulled his way through the press, using his stocky build and deadpan stare to force a path. He was a plain-looking   man, of middling height and unremarkable features, which often let him pass through a crowd unnoticed if that was his goal. The narrow street he had chosen to take down to the Legion recruiters was clogged with wagons piled high with household goods and families with screaming babies. These Arrenese merchants are damn lucky King Azarah let them leave. The High Council and the clerics have been chomping at the bit for more blood.

“Help!” a woman screamed from somewhere out of sight, the sound of her panicked cry reverberating against the stone buildings on either side. More shouting followed  in common and what sounded like the lilting tones of Arrenese.

“Move aside!” Dagan picked up his pace to a trot, gripping the long dagger stashed in his old legionnaire’s cloak. Men might cast aside the tunics and armor,  but once of the legions, always of the legions, and the cloaks of veterans could be seen in every part of the Kingdom.

“I said back off! In the King’s name!” An old guardsman, black cloak half ripped off and spear clutched in hand, faced off with five rough-looking  men. The contents of the wagon had spilled out on the ground. A middle-aged   woman cowered in the back clutching two small children under her yellow robes.

“I’d listen to the guard.” Dagan approached the standoff carefully, keeping the crowd of onlookers in his peripheral vision. “King Azarah has granted the Arrenese civilians safe passage out of Takvar.”

“Who gives a shit? They’re foreign trash.” The biggest ruffian, clad in a strange contrast of brown rags and a rich yellow silken scarf,  spat at Dagan’s feet. His beady eyes moved from the military cloak to the plain green linen shirt and trousers worn by the stranger before him. “Fuck off!” He spat again, a long trail of brown saliva sticking in his scraggly beard.

Dagan saw the look pass between the leader and the man to his left. Moving with practiced form, he drew his dagger and pushed it quickly between his ribs before the man could bring the club he had been holding to bare.

“Kill him!” barked the leader, his yellow scarf flapping absurdly as he parried an opportunistic stab from the guard’s spear. Taking advantage of the old man’s loss of balance,  he launched a powerful kick that took the guard in the gut, leaving his weapon in the ruffian’s hands.

Meanwhile, the other three had turned to Dagan. They were all dressed in rags of varying colors and states of decay, and held small, dirty-looking   knives at the ready. They moved in cautiously, none wanting to be the first to face the stranger’s bloody dagger.

The one to his right, a fat, slow moving fellow, seemed the most promising next target to Dagan. He stared the ruffian to his left in the eye, and with a sudden burst of speed, lunged to the right. His target’s face lit up in surprise,  and he slashed wildly with his short knife. He caught Dagan in the shoulder,  but the dull blade deflected harmlessly off the folds of his cloak. At the same time, Dagan thrust his dagger into the man’s armpit. He felt the blade slice through rags, and scrape hard against ribs. He twisted the handle,  and the man wheezed airily as one of his lung’s deflated.

The leader and his two remaining lackeys rushed in to finish Dagan while he was still entangled with their screaming fellow. He saw them coming and felt an extra burst of adrenaline as he realized he couldn’t fend off all three at once.

Grasping his injured foe by the arm, Dagan swung the big man into his charging fellows. He had hoped it would trip them up, giving him time to retreat,  but the leader pushed the wounded man aside contemptuously with his stolen spear. A brown string of spit still dangled from his beard.

Dagan crouched in the few seconds he had left, bunching his cloak up in his free hand hoping to catch a blade. His right clutched his dagger.

Out of nowhere, two forms hurtled in and tackled the lead and the man on the left. As the remaining ruffian stared in shock at his follow comrades, Dagan took him in the neck with his dagger.

“That’s enough,  boys,” said   Dagan as the two new strangers pummeled his fallen foes over and over where they lay on the ground. The yellow scarf of the leader was now reddish brown with blood.

Hell, yeah!” The stranger straddling the leader was a big youth with short blond hair, young looking but tall with the build of a fighter. He gave his prey one last soggy punch in the back of the head and stood up, looking at Dagan. “You’re welcome!” He smiled, but with a slightly manic glint in his bright blue eyes.

The other newcomer, also tall but black haired and more lithe than his fellow, rose and went over to the fallen guardsman without acknowledging Dagan. “He’s breathing. Craggs, bring me some water.”

“I’m out.” Craggs held a flask upside down and shook it.

“I have some.” Dagan moved over and held out his leather canteen. “Here.”

He looked around them cautiously, just in case there were more. The wagons to their front had moved on,  and the street was empty but behind them now stretched a long line of carts. Scared-looking   Arrenese families huddled around them, standing out in their yellow silks and linens. “What are you boys doing down here?”

“We were city guards, me and Alexandre here.” Craggs motioned toward the youth tending to their fallen comrade. “But it’s just a whole lot of waiting around, or getting your ass kicked on shit details like this one. So we resigned, and now we’re on our way to join the legion.”

“The legions are ninety percent waiting around, so if you boys think it’s all guts and glory you’ve got another thing coming.” Dagan knelt down while he spoke and wiped his dagger on one of the fallen ruffians’ tunics.

“We know,” put in Alexandre, shooting his partner a look. “But it’s better pay, and we get to get out of this city. Neither of us have family to speak of so there’s nothing keeping us here. What’s your name?” The young man’s eyes moved to Dagan’s legionnaire cloak. “You’re a veteran?”

“Yeah, and going back for more. The name’s Dagan.” He showed his teeth in a grin, but his eyes remained serious. He scanned the alleyways that led onto the street for threats.

“Why are you joining up again?” Alexandre watched the veteran warily.

“It’s a long story.”

“We’ve got a long walk,” Craggs spat, eyeing Dagan boldly.

“True, let’s get the old man out of here and I’ll tell it. Once we hand him off, I’ll take you to the recruiter, he’s an old buddy of mine.”

They hoisted up their charge and started off down the street, the Arrenese refugees following along with their carts.

“My goal when I got out, as it is with most I suppose, was find a woman and settle down.” Dagan spoke slowly as they walked, thinking carefully on what to tell these strangers. “It didn’t work out as I expected. I was staying with my squad mate who had gotten out at the same time. He came from a prominent family in the merchant quarter and had offered up a room in their big house since I had nowhere else to go. We had recently joined the city guard as well, and I hadn’t saved up any coin.”

“That’s a pretty sweet deal,” put in Craggs.

“It was, and it turns out he had a very beautiful sister.”

“Hell yeah!”

Dagan sighed as Craggs winked at him. “Anyway, we fell in love and wanted to marry, but my family are Svalian and hers are Followers. We got a flat, not from her parents at first, purely based on that. After much pleading, we were able to get them to agree that if I could get back into the Legions and make the Officer corps, they would give their blessing.” Dagan shook his head ruefully. “I think it was their brilliant plan to get rid of me, but given no other option, here I am.”

“You must really love her, to go this far.” Alexandre gave Dagan a skeptical look as he helped the old guard navigate around some crates piled outside a shop.

“I do.”

“What’s here name?” asked Craggs.

“Katrina Aela.”

After that, Dagan walked in silence as they unloaded their charge at a guard post and continued down into the market district. He listened to Alexandre and Craggs banter back and forth, getting a feel for the two former guards, but he struggled to focus. The old habit of letting his mind wander was embedded in his core from long years afield and it died hard. He wanted to keep his mind on being home—being in the city of his birth, before he let it drift away again for its own protection. In the dread time, when sleeping and waking were both a nightmare of violence, he had found a way to send his mind elsewhere while his hands deftly went about their bloody work. His favorite sergeant had told him separating one’s mind from the present was how men made it to be old soldiers. So far it seemed true, as he had come home and avoided descending into madness.

Takvar was a city that always felt at the edge of spilling over. Not only was it was the capital of the Kingdom of Katora, but the orderly grid of streets provided a grand view of the congestion inevitable in a city of commerce. Tall stone buildings marched up slopes in either direction in ragged lines, grey stone glowing yellow in the morning sun.

The line of young shabbily dressed recruits cut out into the busy street, and wagon drivers cursed them as they tried to squeeze through the press. Dagan felt foolish standing here with all the boys chomping at the bit for their first big adventure. He had feasted on adventure and believed himself sated. He had survived and returned home—for good—or so he had thought.

“We’re up,” barked Dagan, interrupting a long-winded and almost certainly exaggerated tale of Craggs’ adventures with four randy barmaids.

“Next!” bellowed a soldier behind the recruiting table. Sweat glistened on a short dirty brown beard and small dull eyes peered out from under thick eyebrows past the two former guardsmen. His gut reached out over the table, pushing papers about as he moved. “Dagan? What the hell?”

“Dagan Sharaf reporting for replacement duty in First Legion.” He moved forward and eyed the old sergeant from across the table, recalling the many supply reports and unit rosters he had handed off to the man over the years.

“What the hell?” the recruiter repeated, nonplussed. “Dagan, you were out last summer … I can’t just send you to First Legion, you know that … it’s above my pay grade.”

“I was a sergeant, Tomlin, with a combat medal,” Dagan growled. “You can’t be telling me you’ll throw me in with a bunch of greens home-side! I can’t rot up at the Gedaeran border for the next five years.”

Tomlin’s small neck disappeared into his shoulders, and he looked at the two blank-faced recruiters sitting at the broad table next to him for support. “It’s bureaucracy, you know, all troops recruited from the capital must be assigned to Second Legion by order of King Azarah.” He fumbled for a ledger on the desk and ran a thick finger down a column. “But they’re off to the Arrenese front so that’s something.”

“And you’ll get your rank back,” put in the recruiter sitting next to Tomlin. He scribbled on a sheet of parchment and pushed it forward with thin, spidery fingers. “Sign here Mr.?”

“Sharaf,” volunteered Tomlin, shuffling nervously from foot to foot and refusing to look Dagan in the eye.

Dagan turned his head and looked to the east, up the stone street. The recruiting station had been set up between the market district and the warehouse district so as to snap up those most desperate for work. He took a deep breath of air, smelling vaguely of old fish and fresh spices. Home.

“Give me your damn paper,” Dagan grated, signing and shoving his new orders into his jacket.

“Good luck, Dagan,” ventured Tomlin.

“These two with me, Alexandre and Craggs, right?”

“Yes, sir,” answered Alexandre.

“I’m not a sir yet. I still work for a living. Call me Sergeant or Dagan.” He turned to Tomlin. “I want these two in my company; can you do that?”

“Sure, Dagan.” Tomlin squinted at his parchment and scribbled a few lines. “You’re all in 14th Regiment, Company E, of the Second Legion. I’ll just need their family names and their marks here and here.”

Two Weeks Later: May 1205 NKE

“Lift those knees,” screamed the lieutenant. “Heads up and keep moving!”

Dagan adjusted the straps on his pack and kept running, continually swiveling his head, watching everything at once. He tried to ignore the multitude of aches and pains cropping up, new friends that must come with getting older—Dagan was quickly approaching his thirtieth birthday. He could feel the pressure in his knees from the weight of his armor and gear strapped to his back. Standard issue Katoran armor was made up of simple open helms with nose-guards and heavy chainmail shirts, supplemented by partial plate mail. Their poleyns, vambraces, and chest plates all had a black finish to keep them from rusting. They all had plain pauldrons on their right shoulders except for Dagan, who bore the horned skull pauldron of a combat veteran. He knew their armors value in the field and knew the importance of being able to carry it with dexterity—but his men did not.

Company E had been assigned forty men, two squads of twenty, and frankly, they were awful. They were in service for the worst reasons: glory, adventure, desperation, and had no practical experience to go off of at all. Faced with the true rigors of soldiering, they were struggling. He had great hopes for his only corporal so far, a transfer from the Engineers named Briggins. He was struggling with the endurance training though, his long black beard and dark skin dripping with sweat. He should turn out a proper legionnaire once we get him into shape. Even Alexandre, who he had pegged as his next most promising soldier after seeing his street-fighting abilities was now doing a sort of gallop—there was no better word to describe it—instead of a run.

Dagan broke formation and positioned himself next to the young man, watching his strange gait. “Alexandre!” he grunted. No reaction—just more galloping. “Alexandre, shut your Goddamn mouth and run like a soldier! One, two, one, two, one, two!” The gallop changed to a jerky limp, which Dagan took for improvement and turned his attention down the line.

Most of the men were young like Alexandre and Craggs, between eighteen and twenty-two. There was one older man, Edigar, who must have been close to fifty. The Regimental HQ said he had declared himself to be about thirty-five, but it clearly was a lie. No one really cared, as the preparation for deployment would weed him out—either by injury or self-selection. He was struggling, and Dagan had no confidence in his ability to fight, but Old Edigar, as the other recruits called him, was still there and running, heavy gear and all.

“Dagan! Get your man moving!” The company behind them was having to slow their pace.

Dagan ignored the other sergeant. Fucker can mind his own damn company.

He turned his attention to his problem child: the company eyesore Gill. The poor lad was large, full of sagging flab, with no visible muscles to speak of. He looks like a running sack full of pies. I issued him the standard kit, and he turned into a wagon with legs. His breathing was labored, and his face flushed with red splotches. It was all he could do to keep from falling under the feet of the company coming up behind. His brown hair was plastered to his face with sweat, but his cheeks were starting to dry. Dagan started to slow his gait to bring himself alongside.

“Lieutenant Seager!” Dagan signaled to the rider up ahead, a young officer whose main achievement was surviving a raid on his convoy and being sent home with a broken leg. Dagan jabbed his thumb in the direction of Gill such that his company wouldn’t see. “He stopped sweating. He’ll go down soon, shall we pull him?”

“No, Sergeant Sharaf, our orders are to take everyone we can. If he goes down, send him home but if he can keep going, he stays. Move your company to the back of the line so you don’t trip up Company F if he drops.” Lieutenant Seager rode back to the head of the column.

Dagan gritted his teeth and guided Company E to the side. The dusty road where they trained was broad—wide enough for two companies to run abreast. “Half-Step!” he roared, and the regimental column began to pass. The other sergeants watched him balefully, and their recruits sniggered as they passed.

“Come on fat ass, you can do it!”

Dagan looked around but he couldn’t tell who’d shouted.

Gill looked like death, but was still plodding along somehow.

Rage boiled up in Dagan. All these boys are fools. We’ll all be slaughtered within five minutes if we go to battle like this. “First rank, Private Gill, now!” Private Gill’s attention seemed to be wholly focused on the monumental task of putting one foot in front of the other; his glassy eyes showed no awareness of the screaming sergeant beside him.

Heads swiveled and young faces hovered between fatigue and amusement as Private Gill was dragged to the front rank of Company E, and the pace was brought back up to speed with the rest of the column. Feet shuffled, more or less in step along the dusty road. Dagan upended his canteen over Private Gill’s head, and water steamed through his already soaked locks onto the salty patches of dried sweat on his face. Pupils focused and feet faltered as the struggling youth came back to the moment. Dagan unbuttoned the top of his large soldier’s uniform and helped him to adjust the straps on his pack as they trotted along.

“Who has the most honor in this exercise?” Dagan was running alongside his company now, glaring into their faces as they eyed him cautiously. He could tell the stronger ones like Alexandre were wondering if he would single them out as the shining example. Private Gill was struggling even more now, feeling the pressure of the entire company in formation behind him. “Private Anshar!” Dagan pointed to a recruit in the front rank who clearly had the faraway look of exhaustion and hadn’t been paying attention. Anshar had a thin and wiry build causing his entire outfit, weapons, supplies, and all, to constantly look in danger of slipping off. “Private Anshar, who has the most honor here?” The young recruit’s pale face was furrowed in concentration as his brain worked furiously. His gaze flitted across his comrades and quickly a frown erupted on his thin lips. He gathered himself, tugging on the straps of his pack as he determinedly looked his sergeant in the eye: “You, Sergeant Sharaf!”

“Completely fucking wrong! Front rank, now! Move it!” Dagan’s eyes widened and his brows narrowed as he filled his lungs for a tirade. Private Anshar scuttled up next to Private Gill, keeping his head down as if that would hide him from whatever punishment might come. “I have the least honor here! I have led men in battle! I have starved! I have frozen! I have lost friends and I have lost myself—only to come back again!” The beautiful face of his fiancée flitted before his vision for a moment, blotting out the memories of pain and horror; they returned quickly and his own face hardened in a grimace. “I am home now, going for a light jog with all the supplies I could need for a month! I ate a fine breakfast and supper waits for us at camp. My only task is to make you boys into soldiers! Keep moving!” The recruits were gaping at him, unsure where this was going, and some had begun to falter, tripping up those who came behind. “You must be soldiers by the end of the week if you are to survive what is coming—and all I have made are a bunch of weak boys wearing legionnaire’s garb in mockery—like feast day fools! I have earned no honor here!”

Morale was low. Heads hung and stamina drained away with each step. Eyes searched ahead for signs of camp, and silent prayers went up for the exercise to finish soon—before they passed out from fatigue, or their sergeant gave in to the mad light they could all see hiding behind his piercing green eyes—and slaughtered the lot of them. No one doubted he could do it, having heard Cragg’s tale of their battle with the ruffians. They had heard too, stories of men coming back from the front seemingly whole but suddenly turning on their comrades, their families …

Ahead they could see only more trees and fields as the road went on and on. The heat blurred the colors of leaves, grass, dirt, and soldiers into some bizarre portrait, as if a painter had left his masterpiece in the rain. Their sergeant’s voice rumbled out to them through the haze.

“But one of us does have honor today.” Dagan’s voice had changed. The pitch was controlled and it was quieter somehow, even though it still carried over the whole of Company E. “We have gotten most of you into shape physically—for you, this run is not so much a test as it is a trial—and yet you whimper, and you seek constantly for the easiest way.” Dagan ran in silence for a few paces, and then asked, “Private Gill, why are you still running?”

“I-I’m following orders,” gasped Private Gill, his face taking on another layer of misery as he braced for further tongue lashing.

“And why are you following orders, Private Gill?”

“I want to serve …” Private Gill choked on his own tears or from his body’s frantic attempts to breathe, “in the King’s Legions!”

“Because he wants to serve!” roared Dagan, shocking Company E out of its stupor of self-pity. “Private Gill is the only one here who is earning any honor. For him, this routine exercise is a life or death struggle. You have all been traitorously cruel to him—he who is your brother in arms—so he is without the comfort of friendship. He puts in more effort and suffers more than all of you. He complains less, and for the last fifteen minutes has been leading this company—and at the correct pace for the first Goddamn time in two weeks. Private Gill has the honor here.”

Dagan watched the faces of his recruits; some were muttering and angry, looking everywhere but at their sergeant; but others were watching Private Gill quizzically. “Private Anshar! Sound off!”

“Company E!” yelled Private Anshar shakily.

“In the morning sun!” called out the rest of the company in response.

“Company E!” barked Private Anshar, this time with a bit more confidence.

“In the midnight rain!” they chanted together.

“For King and country!” sang private Anshar, this time with too much confidence, and his voice broke at the high point. They were either too tired or too shamed to care though.

“To fight and fight again!” A few recruits began beating their canteens against their scabbards in time, as they had seen the veterans do as they returned from the trade cities. Their song picked up in strength, and with the song, Dagan’s hope returned. It might be too late, but this was a beginning. He might have broken through. If he could keep on them for the next few days, force them together as a unit, some of them might survive. He might survive.

 

Combat Drill

“That was Goddamn awful!” Dagan seethed. He was unconsciously brandishing his shield, keeping his left arm raised as if an invisible puppeteer had become distracted and raised a finger out of turn. His right arm clutched Private Gill’s pauldron and shook the portly recruit with each word for emphasis. The banner, which in turn was being held by Private Gill, flapped about in the hot midday air as Company E gathered around their sergeant. All three regiments of recruits making up the Second Legion of Takvar, nearly seven hundred men, were engaged in combat drills. Padded weapons whooshed and thumped in the heat, creating an oddly muted din.

They milled about in an open field bordered on one side by a modest river that provided relief for the men when they overheated. Companies would rotate into the surrounding forest when they could to take advantage of the cooling shade. There had been too little rain over the last few weeks, and the grass was turning to golden hay far too soon.

“I don’t care how good you think you are with that steel wrapped in blankets! If you break ranks—even to make a kill—everyone dies. Keep your brothers on either side, but still in your peripheral vision. If a brother goes down, tilt your shield against you like this …” Dagan crouched low and held his shield up at an angle. “until the man in the rank behind you fills in. And always listen for orders!” Dagan looked around for Seager, but he was nowhere to be seen. “Okay, rest while you can. Everyone take water, now!”

“Gill,” barked Dagan as the men paused to drink from their canteens, “what the hell made you join up anyway?”

The big youth looked down at his sergeant and pursed his lips, as if trying to decide how to answer. “Uhh … my father wanted me to take over his smithy when I came of age. I was good with weapons!” He jangled his short sword in its sheath on his belt for emphasis. “But it wasn’t for me …”

“What do you mean?” asked Anshar, wiping water from his mouth with his sleeve. “That’s a guild position; you’d be rolling in gold!”

Gill’s wide shoulders tensed, and he wouldn’t meet their eyes. “I … I failed the guild exams. I could make anything they wanted, but I could never remember the set times for the molten metals. And there are all these powders you have to mix just right …”

“That’s life, Gill.” Dagan slapped him on the back and gave him what he hoped was a friendly smile.

Gill looked grateful but kept his eyes down. He poured some water over his head from an extra canteen and turned to Anshar. “What about you?”

“I come from a family of legionnaires going back to the founding of Katora—a family of sergeants actually.” He grinned at Dagan who arched an eyebrow. “My father was with the First Legion. He spent a good ten years patrolling the deserts of Astetah and helped defeat the outcast army of Tamur. He could always hold the corner of the shield wall. He was so strong … I’m so skinny because I take after my mother.”

There was an awkward pause while Dagan struggled to think of something to say. All he could come up with was that he wished he had the boy’s father in his place. Then we’d have two real soldiers …

“Well, I take after my mother too … but that’s why I’m fat,” said Gill, whose shy smile looked out of place on someone so large.

“Your looks are an advantage for you, big time,” said Dagan.

Gill looked at him quizzically, trying to figure out if he was being made fun of.

“Gill, you are easily the strongest man in this company, even if you don’t look it. It will cause your enemies to underestimate you, and that could save your life someday.”

A horn sounded across the field and the brief respite was over. The officers rode through the formations pairing different groups to spar. The air was filled with bobbing company banners and the sound of equipment clanking and jangling making it hard to hear anything other than a shout.

“Company D and Company E!” Up rode Lieutenant Seager, somehow managing to look harassed and bored simultaneously. “In the fort, quickly! A, B, and C, you’re on assault. Winner controls the fort at the next horn.”

Dagan led his company into the fort behind Sergant Seftis and his Company D. It was a makeshift structure set up just for training, with relatively low earthen walls and a small wooden “keep” in the center.

Dagan and Sergeant Seftis, a fair-haired man of middling height in his late twenties, stood in the low doorway of the wooden keep. They leaned on the frame, wary of the great splinters sticking out from the roughhewn logs. The air was full of the smell of pine.

“E can cover the south and west walls, and your boys can take the north and east? That work for you?” Dagan was somewhat familiar with Seftis but had never really spoken with him outside of the normal sergeant-to-sergeant interactions.

Seftis took a moment to eyeball the ‘fort,’ pushing sandy bangs back over some nasty scars at his hairline. “Agreed.”

“Great.” Well, that was easy; at least we have one soldier in the regiment with a stick-free asshole.

“We will hold, no problem.” Seftis held his hands on his hips and spoke with finality, but his smile failed to reach his eyes. “Just hold the line on your flanks, and we’ll be fine come the horn.”

“You bet.” Dagan frowned. “Where were you stationed?”

“Sharazei.” The fake smile dropped completely. “We don’t have much time.” He looked toward the officers as they rode toward the regimental band, about to signal for the horns.

Sharazei: The city that had fallen. The worst tragedy the King’s army had seen in our lifetime. It was not only a major military loss as the gateway to the trade cities, but also a massive slaughter. And now it’s happening again. The poor bastards from the New Bekka and Rama Legions are surrounded, and we have a long way to go before we can do any good.

“We need to draw them in and shock them. If we rout them with a trap, they won’t have time to regroup. Company A has some real bulls, and if we try to hold and they break through our lines even once, their numbers will overwhelm us.” Dagan kept his voice even, respectful but authoritative.

“True.” Seftis peered balefully around the side of the keep. “Looks like B will come from the north. Sergeant Snow is a fool, and none of his lot is worth much. We’ll wheel back as if routed, and we’ll both pick a team to crush them.”

“We’ll be ready.” Dagan trotted over to the southwest corner of the fort. He took stock of his troops; there were still hardly any soldiers among them, but they worked together now fairly well and each man knew his part. He had given the recently promoted Corporal Anshar the south wall. The spindly youth was standing in the middle of his line trying to look determined. Corporal Briggins had the west wall. He strode across its top with his wild black beard flapping about in the hot breeze. Briggins could be, well, a bit mad, but somehow accomplished everything Dagan asked of him. He led his squad with an odd mixture of quirky humor and intimidation which kept them in line but also in relatively good spirits. Dagan was counting on him to lead the counterattack for Company E. Anshar was solid compared to the others but still needed some time before he was confident in the young man’s ability to lead in combat.

Dagan called both Anshar and Briggins over and explained the plan. Without too much of a wait, the horns sounded and the opposing companies began to approach.

An officer rode on either side of the advancing lines in order to score each company on its performance and point out areas of improvement to the regimental leadership. The officers for Company E and Company D were now perched on the top of the wooden keep at the center of the fort, watching all four sides at once.

Companies A and C, the weaker ones, were both coming at Company E. Company B was confidently moving toward Sergeant Seftis and his Company D. The sun was directly overhead blazing down on the proceedings, but a slight breeze coming off the river provided some relief. A small crowd of civilians from the local villages had gathered on its banks with food and blankets hoping for a luncheon show. A team of officers had broken off to keep them at a distance and prevent fraternization.

Out of sight across the training grounds and behind running lines of men, he could hear screaming and the clash of arms from another drill that must have already started. Whatever company that was certainly seemed to be putting their hearts into it.

“Brace!” Dagan bellowed as the attacking companies ran up the makeshift earthen walls of the fort. They came from all sides, egged on by their sergeants to scream as loud as they could. Shields slammed against each other and padded weapons pounded men and equipment in a wild frenzy as the waves of men hit the defenses. Both Anshar and Briggins alternated between patching holes in the lines and watching Dagan for orders.

“Now!” screamed Dagan, starting to walk backward toward the ‘keep,’ a pit growing in his stomach as he waited for his company to fold in disarray and lose the game in an instant. Come on! Come on, keep formation … Despite his fears, they did well, collapsing into wedges and using their combined mass to prevent themselves from being overcome.

Suddenly, the yelling from Anshar’s squad changed in tenor. The far wing of the wedge was scattered with men separated by superior numbers. Alexandre was on his back, shield over his head and sword lost on the ground. Anshar himself ran to their aid from the rear of the formation only to be promptly clotheslined. He lay in the dirt stunned and struggling for breath.

Damn that Alexandre. Dagan looked around the keep for Seftis. “Seftis! We must push now!” Too much longer, and their feigned rout would become a real one.

Signaling to Corporal Briggins on his left, Dagan gritted his teeth anxiously. The Corporal’s formation was battered but holding. Company A had formed a phalanx and were cautiously pushing against Briggins’ fewer numbers—their sergeant was furiously berating his own men, as he had a few hot heads who kept trying to punch through the line on their own—a sure way to get killed in a real fight.

“Sergeant, we can’t hold for much longer!” gasped Bannerman Gill. He had been shadowing Dagan for the most part, keeping the red cloth emblazoned with a black E visible on the field but otherwise staying out of the fray. He was still too fat, still awkward looking in his giant uniform and armor, but had developed an uncanny stamina and managed to stay as spry as any other member of E and more than some.

“We hold as long as we need to, Gill!” Dagan pivoted and stared the banner man in the eye for a few seconds before returning to managing the frenzy.

Dagan kept watching Gill out of the corner of his eye though. He was starting to get to know the men real well now—and pinpointing their internal triggers. Gill’s round face began to darken as he watched the melee. His eyes narrowed and his massive cheeks rumpled into a frown, causing a chain reaction of multiple chin eruptions. His shoulders relaxed slightly and the banner began to dip …

“Gaaaaaaaaaaaaw!!!” To the right of Dagan, the massive form of Bannerman Gill charged into Company C as it was pummeling Corporal Anshar’s squad. Bodies flew and heads turned to find the source of the hideous screeching suddenly coming from their flank. “GAAAAAAAAAAW!” Gill didn’t stop or even slow down after taking out the first few men around Anshar. He continued on into the thick of Company A smashing the banner pole into the whole crowd at eye level. At first, the entire west wall, friend and foe alike, watched stunned as the immense bannerman brought down a good fifteen tightly packed soldiers in one mammoth lunge.

“You … Haaaa!” Dagan couldn’t stop it, couldn’t hold in his mirth. The officers on their horses were watching incredulously. There was a brief moment of silence as Anshar and his company peered back quizzically at their sergeant. “Push! NOW! Move it, move it, move it!” Dagan grinned and bared his teeth, brandishing his sword and shield.

Corporal Anshar finally sprung off the ground and dashed forward. “Shields huuoh!”

All of Anshar’s men on the west wall dipped their shields and smashed them forward into company A, shocking those still standing. Some lost their footing while others began to edge backward. Their frustrated sergeant was screaming from the back, but no one was listening. Anshar’s squad was solidly in line with Gill now, who was still screaming but now had void in front of him where he was swinging the banner about wildly. They pushed again as they had been trained, one loud ‘Huuuoh’ and few more of company A went down and the rest began falling back in earnest.

Dagan turned his attention to Briggins’ squad again. They and the opposing company C were locked in a shield wall the length of the south earthen ramparts. Company C was trying and failing to force their way to the keep with a few of their more bullish troops. At the same time, Briggins was unsuccessfully trying to drive them back over the wall.

“Gill, get back here!” The bannerman was still yelling like a banshee while he lumbered after his retreating foes. “Gill!” Old Edigar, a bit wild-eyed at this point but holding his own, heard the sergeant’s call and slapped Gill in the side of the head. The big man stopped in his tracks, blinked, and then trotted back to Dagan.

“Wow …” muttered Gill, gazing from Dagan back to the west wall where their men were back in line, more or less unopposed by Company A.

“Yep,” grunted Dagan “That’s how you do it!” He clapped his bannerman on the back and smiled. “And now we’ll do it one more time. Follow me!” He leapt forward and pushed his way through the line at the southwest corner of the fort.

Briggins saw what he was doing and followed as well, black beard flowing around his face, a sheen of sweet glowing on his ebony skin. The three of them slammed into the flank of company C, Gill wailing away with his high-pitched battle cry. Their sergeant ran over and crashed into Gill who just plowed through him without so much as a pause. The next two men fell before the huge bannerman as well, but as he tried to continue onward, he tripped on their tangle of limbs, lost his balance, and was pushed backward onto the unfortunate sergeant of company C. Dagan and Briggins moved to either side of him, pummeling soldier after soldier. They could see their work was almost finished: the line had been broken, and C’s formation was starting to scatter. Finally, far down near the southeast corner, their men began to fold back, unsure since their sergeant became missing in action.

Company C fully disengaged and began to retreat in earnest. They got about twenty yards out when a few of their men looked back to see Dagan, Briggins, and three of their men using the banner to pry Gill off the sergeant. Gill had heard the curses and insults of the poor man and had decided to claim a personal victory by refusing to budge.

Cackles of laughter and guffaws from both sides had begun to spread when horns sounded and an officer road over trying to hide his grin. “Bannerman, for Maxus’ sake … Get off him! Congratulations, Sergent Sharaf, your men have carried the day. The fort has been held. Battalion formation in five minutes by the river.”

“Yes, Sir.” Dagan, still smiling, slung his shield over his shoulder and moved back toward the keep. “Anshar, Briggins, column of twos on me!” Both of his squads lined up behind him, and they marched past the keep and out onto the open fields by the river. He saw where Seftis and his men were already in place next to his Lieutenant Bridge and Dagan’s Lieutenant Seager. Dagan formed his men next to company D and moved to report to his officer.

“Lieutenants.” Dagan saluted and then stood at ease.

“Good job, Sergeant Sharaf!” Lieutenant Seager was so puffed up his jacket buttons would have screamed if they were able.

“Yes, Sergeant, well done,” said Lieutenant Bridge. “I was just telling Sergent Seftis that this is your victory. His men lost both walls and barely held the entrance to the keep. Captain Morin decided to call it for us only because you cleared your walls and put yourself in a position to aid our company.”

Seftis was looking daggers at him. Great, thought Dagan, all I need is another sergeant at my throat. “Company D was worth more than companies A and C together. My lot would have been hard pressed to do even what he did, Sir.” Seftis still didn’t look pleased.

“Come now, Sergeant,” scolded Lieutenant Bridge. “There’s no nee—”

BOOM!

Dagan hit the ground and swung his shield back onto his arm in the same movement. Lieutenant Bridge’s body lay in front of him, fragments of wood protruding from the skin all along his back. Lieutenant Seager was down too but alive, screaming and clutching his face. “Form shield wall!” Dagan screamed back at his men, frantically trying to get the padding off his sword. “Lock shields!” He freed his sword and backed into the shield wall of Company E, surveying chaos and smoke before them. Something had exploded in the middle of the civilians watching the exercise.

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