Captain Doneir scares me. It’s not like he’s always vicious or nothing, but like The Bear herself, it’s the unpredictability. One moment he’s okay, not exactly cuddly, but approachable, supportive at least, then suddenly, though you’ve done nothing wrong, he’s spitting vinegar and cracking heads and you never can tell beforehand. It’s like there’s a little bit of the Realm threatening to burst out of him at any moment. That’s what scares me, see?
As he rides up, I can tell he’s in an odd mood. I haven’t known him long, just the few days I was stationed at the guardhouse in Afreem, but I can tell. I’m like that. I can see what’s going on inside peoples’ heads. Makes my brother laugh when I guess ahead in his stories. Says I’ve got a gift, like there’s a spirit in me. Anyway, like I was saying about the captain, it’s odd, he looks content, but there’s anger too.
“Sergeant! Abort drills. Mount up. No delay. We have ground to cover!” There’s fire in his voice. It’s just a fluttering candle, but those can flare up and torch a whole forest.
I try and look busy to not be picked on. It doesn’t work.
“Signalman Wim! Over here now!”
I jog over to his stirrup, tugging my horse by the bridle. “Captain, sir.”
He thumbs towards the man he rode in with. “Take this man’s name and details.” He points at two nearby guards. “You two. Keep this man under close escort.”
The man gives a grateful smile. “Thanks, but I don’t think they’ll chase after us out here, Captain. I should be perfectly safe now.”
The Captain Doneir rounds on him. “Shut up you idiot! This is not for your protection. You are under arrest.” — turning to the guards — “He speaks to no one else and no one else speaks to him. If he escapes, I’ll have your hides!” They both salute and hurriedly flank the man. The captain glances down at me. “Why are you standing there looking gormless?”
I hold up my message pad and pencil. “Name and details, sir?”
“Interrogate the prisoner, not me!” He gives a bit of a growl and clenches his fist.
I take a half step back. “Interrogate the prisoner, sir?”
He leans down close. “Are you a child or a guard, boy?” His smouldering eyes fill my vision.
“A guard, sir.” My voice sounds as thin as straw.
“Good. Now interrogate the prisoner.” His fist in my chest knocks me back another half step. “And be quick about it, we are riding out straight away.” Righting himself in the saddle, he spurs his horse amongst the hurrying troops. “Get those grain sacks strapped down tighter! You! Upright in the saddle...”
I look over at the prisoner, clearing my throat. “What’s your name?”
“Beck Diment, with one ‘m’.” With this scratched down, I look up. “And...” What else can I ask? “Why have you been arrested?”
Shrugging, he frowns at the receding captain. “Fucked if I know!”
The captain blasts his whistle. “Line up! We have to move out now!”
Stuffing my pad away and clambering into the saddle, further questions must wait for later. As the patrol jumbles together, I sneak in next to one of the pack horse leaders. In his present mood, the further I am from the captain, the better. Moving out, the sergeant’s bullying of the rearmost stragglers is plain to hear. I’m glad I’m not back there, either. Sergeant Haddar isn’t like the captain, his constant foul temper is predictable.
The musk of moist grass and chalky dust, stirred by our passing, prickles my nose. Dusk, full of clopping hooves and jangling tack, envelops us. Distant farmhouse windows mimic the stars. I glance over at my neighbour. “How long do you think we’re going to go before setting up camp?”
He shrugs. “Captain’s call. All night n’day, perhaps.”
I glance at his train of heavily laden horses. “Can they go that long?”
His snort echoes their huffing. “Guard horses? Best there is. You’ll collapse first.” His tone is calm, matter of fact, utterly confident.
Self-assurance must be great. Suddenly, I’m desperate to befriend him. “Zlo Wim. I’m the patrol’s signalman.”
“Yeh, I heard.”
His tone holds no malice so I assume it’s not a put down. “Well, I haven’t heard about you, I mean, who are you? I mean, what’s your name, I mean, if you don’t mind me asking?”
He glances at me. “Ereo.” Is that it? Is he insulted by my bungled attempt at friendship? I open my mouth, but before I can speak, he sighs and continues. “Packhorse Leader Suts Ereo, klathe, fifth tour.”
“That’s a funny name.” Did I just say that? Nice one Zlo! What kind of an idiot says something like that when he’s trying to make friends? My whole face feels scorched.
He glances over. An eyebrow rises. Perhaps, my obvious embarrassment saves me. After another thoughtful sigh, he responds. “Ereo’s Panphion. Family farms on the border.”
“Panphion? Wow, that’s a long way from here. I’ve never even been as far from home as we are now before, let alone another country. My brother Eyr is always telling me stories about his adventures, but not even he has been as far as the Panphion border. I mean, why would he?
“Grandpa Eth says it’s best to stay at home anyway. He might be old and stuck in his ways, but he knows all sorts of things. Told me a story once about how even in the Homelands, the closer you get to Relgin the more like savages people are and how over Panphion way they’ve got no civil…” I bite my lip to cut myself off. It’s getting late, is it possible my blush is not actually glowing in the dark? I try and apologise. “My mother keeps telling me, I need to talk less and listen more.”
The smallest stars are barely visible pinpricks in the swelling dark. Wordlessly, we ride on beneath their twinkling, but I can’t leave it there. “Look, I’m sorry if I offended you. I wasn’t trying to be rude. Actually, I just really want to be your friend. Can you forgive me for being such a stupid idiot?”
There’s a moment’s pause. “Sure.”
“Really? Oh, thank you, like I said, I’m really sorry for saying what I did. I’ve only ever had a posting at the guardhouse before. This is my first ever patrol and I’m missing having friends. I mean, not that I had many at the guardhouse either. To be honest, most of the other signallers were actually quite mean to me, but at least nobody wanted to kill me. On patrol it’s different.”
He nods. “Guards are the worst.”
“I beg your pardon.”
“For killing you. Nastier than any Spawn. Slit your throat for a penny, an Aether Guard will.”
My throat is dry. What have I let myself in for? Have I just signed away my life to a band of cold-hearted murderers? “Really?”
“Joke!” He shakes his head in the half light. “Need a friend bad, don’t you?”
Now it’s my turn to sigh. “Yes, I really do.”
We ride on for a moment. “Okay.” He holds out his hand to me. “Suts.”
We shake. My skin tingles after the firm grip of his calloused palm. “Thanks, Suts. I’m really going to try hard to be a good friend. What’s your best advice about being on patrol?”
“Best advice? Listen to your mother.”
“Oh, come on, Suts, don’t be mean. I’m being serious.”
“Me too. Mouth shut. Ears open. Patrolling is dangerous. Borderlands, Spawn, Realm, all trying to kill you. Sure, we watch each other’s backs, but when there’s Spawn to kill” — he shrugs — “have to keep number one safe. You’ve lots to learn.”
He shrugs. “Ever read the manual?”
“Err, no, not really.”
“So, there’s that.”
“How am I going to do that? I doubt anyone brought a copy with them on patrol for me to borrow. I saw one once. It was enormous!”
“So, what else do you suggest? I can’t exactly sit this one out until we return home and then quickly read through the manual before the next patrol, can I? Anyway, I might be dead by then if some Spawn gets hold of me.” The thought of never returning home again chokes me. I’m glad it’s getting darker. Hopefully, Suts won’t notice the tears.
“What’s your discipline?”
“Erm, like I said, I’m a signaller.” I pat my satchel. “Isn’t it obvious?”
“Oh, I see... I don’t know if I have one. We didn’t really touch any weapons in basic training and I couldn’t afford anything else. What do you suggest? If I’m going to be killing Spawn, I need something big, like a polearm, right?”
He shakes his head. “Bracing needs strength.”
“Alright, maybe I’m not strong, but I am fast. I was the fastest in basic, but running isn’t really a weapon, is it? I can’t just always run away, can I?”
“Watch out!” In the gathering darkness, a stave swings at me. Throwing myself flat on the withers, the wooden shaft whooshes past just clear of my chest. I glare at Suts as he slips the javelin back into his saddle quiver with its companions. He nods. “Okay.”
I sit back upright. “Okay? Okay, what? If you don’t want me to be your friend, just say and I’ll leave you in peace. You don’t need to try and knock me off my horse to make me go away. That’s just being mean!”
He shrugs. “You dodged.”
“Of course, I dodged! What would have happened if I hadn’t? You might have broken my ribs or something! Fine start to a life on patrol that would have been. Nowhere near the Borderlands and already bandaged up with broken ribs and all because you thought it would be fun to whack me in the chest with a great big stick!”
“Got to dodge in fights.”
I put on a stupid voice to retaliate “You have to dodge in fights! What’s that supposed to…” Realisation overwhelms my tirade. “Was that what that was? A test? You wanted to see if I can dodge like a fighter? You could have given me a warning.”
“Did. Get less in a fight. I’ll ask the Sergeant.”
Failing to make sense of it all, my mind spins. Why can’t Suts talk straight? “What has Sergeant Haddar got to do with how well I can dodge?” Just the thought of Haddar getting involved in any way makes my gut twist. I can’t imagine how this can be a good development.
“He has to say yes, first.”
“Yes? To what?”
“Me teaching you.”
“You teaching me?” The whirlwind in my brain is getting worse. “You want to give me weapons training?”
I stumble to respond. “Sure. I mean, you teaching me would be great, if you can. I mean, if you have the strength for it. I mean, the patience for it. I am kind of clueless.”
“Haha, very funny. I said to begin with that I’m new to all this, so you can’t go teasing me about it now. That’s just being mean!”
After a short lull, my brain settles and a question forms. “So, what weapon am I going to learn?”
“Sergeant has to say for sure, probably falsie.”
“Falsie? Isn’t that just a long knife? What Spawn can I hunt with that? I’ll barely be able to cut the heads off the dead ones!”
“Falsie’s perfect for emergencies.”
The word makes my gut crunch again. “Emergencies?”
“Yep. If you’re good’n quick, it might keep you alive, for a bit.”
“Keep me alive for a bit?” It doesn’t sound very promising.
“Until help comes, sure.”
“Why can’t you teach me something that will definitely keep me alive?”
He blows out his cheeks. “Next biggest is klathe. It’s short for a sword but one handed n’heavy. Too heavy for you. Sergeant has to say, but I reckon, falsie first, then move up.”
“How long will it take to learn falsie?” The sooner I get on to proper weapons the better.
“Get good? All your life. Get decent?” His bristles rasp beneath his fingers. “With daily practice, two to three years, maybe.”
“Two to three years? How is that going to help? We are going to be in the Borderlands in three days, not years! What good is this all to me if I won’t be able to fight for another three years?”
His snort interrupts my rising panic. “Reserves stay at the watch post. Spawn free.”
I try and suppress the relief in my voice. “Really? I wasn’t sure which team I might be put in. Nobody said. The reserves, you think?”
It is almost too dark to see his nod. “Most probably, yeah.”
How do I feel about this? “So, no Spawn, then?” I try and stifle a sigh of relief with a show of bravado. “I mean, it’s not like I’m scared of Spawn or anything. I mean, isn’t it going to be really boring? I want to do my bit just like everyone else.”
“Likely, gathering wood’ll be your bit.”
“Collecting wood? Can’t exactly compete with my brother, bragging about how I collect wood whilst the rest of my patrol is off slaughtering monsters, can I? I mean, it’s not exactly heroic is it, collecting wood?”
He shrugs. “Heroic or not, firewood keeps you alive longest.”
“I’m not a coward, you know? I’m not here just to hide away from the Spawn. I want to kill them as much as anyone.”
“Fine, but firewood’s about the best weapon there is.”
Before I can ask what that means, Captain Doneir’s whistle signals the dismount.