Jake sprang to attention with the rest of his squad as an officer galloped by. Returning to his barrel for a seat, he sloshed his leather boots in the mud, trying to distract himself. Trying to expel the fear from his mind. Soon their lieutenant would stride up and call, “On your feet. Take up your gear. Today we take that hill,” in his thick Loganeer accent. Jake thought the man was too enthusiastic for the front lines. Perhaps he was vying for a promotion. Jake wondered when he could be promoted. After all, he and Brom had joined in the Planting of 3320. One would think making corporal after three years would not be too outrageous.
“Looks like we get extra slop today, eh Jake?” Brom said as he handed him a bowl of what looked like hunks of rancid pork swimming in a sea of thin gravy. At least there is meat in it, Jake thought as he leaned his long musket against a sickly, bare tree. He produced his tin spoon from an inner jacket pocket and scooped the first bite into his mouth, trying not to smell it. He gulped it down with great difficulty and turned to Brom.
“Don’t chew it,” Jake said with a grimace.
“Never do,” Brom answered.
They sat quietly for a moment so Jake could work up the courage for another bite. Brom glanced toward a steaming pile of horse dung and took his first bite. Jake smiled as Brom grimaced.
“The smell of those road apples is not helping things much,” Brom said with a pork wad stuffed in one cheek.
Brom and Jake had been best friends since they were children in their small mountain village in the northern colony of Samoset. After Bromley’s brother had been drafted to fight in the last war and Jake’s brother hadn’t been, he asked Jake why only the poor were required to enlist in a time of war. Jake wasn’t quite sure at the time and he always felt that was unfair. One evening, Jake asked his father about the differences between voluntary enlistment and a draft.
“There is nothing romantic about dying in some distant place wallowing in the mud,” he said. “There are many who will do that, indeed, but you are cut from a different cloth. No son of mine will serve as a no-name pee-on. The family Zimmar bears a long history of those who served honorably as officers in Her Majesty’s armed forces. Leading is for the noble. Dying is for the common.” From that moment on, Jake promised to go to war as a no-name pee-on if Brom was ever drafted.
Jake spilled some of the watery gravy on his jacket and cursed under his breath as he wiped the liquid with his crusty sleeve. The Brenarian Army uniform Brom and Jake had been issued set the Regulars apart from other servicemen. Six brass buttons in two vertical white columns on the front of their red jackets. They wore a stiff collar just below the jawline. Mud and grass smudges stained their white trousers. Those would never pass inspection in garrison but at the front, they could be overlooked. They wore black tricorn hats and allowed a single black ribbon to tie back their hair.
Wiping some slop off of his chin with the back of his filthy hand, Jake looked up at the hill they would soon charge. Taking the enemy artillery at the top was the next step in the campaign to seize the town Vandra on the other side. A series of mounds, stone walls and wooden battlements sat near the hill’s apex. The enemy field artillery seemed to glare down at him from the top. Jake gulped, but the lump in his throat wouldn’t go down. He was no stranger to the rush of battle or the smell of death by this point but his experience would never give way to that uneasy feeling before a fight. The two were veterans of two campaigns, four major battles and countless skirmishes and all before they had reached their twentieth year.
Jake liked to think he had been hardened by combat, forged into a sharp and deadly implement. He would make it through this battle as he did before. There is no stopping me. No stopping us, Jake thought, as though no bullet, ball, or blade could touch him. His stomach turned as he faced upward at his faceless enemy. A creeping thought moved to the front of his mind to burst his irrational sense of invincibility, his denial of his own mortality. I could die today. We could die today.
Despite his family’s wealth, Jake’s father had taught him the value of hard work. Perhaps the only thing Jake’s father did directly to improve him. Jake’s work ethic, callused hands, and tanned skin set him apart amongst the pale, frail, blue bloods with which his family was well acquainted.
Brom finished eating and stretched, overlooking the river behind them. Jake’s eyes followed. The fires still burned across the water in Tesna on opposite sides of the Lankro river.
“Why do you think they did it?” Brom asked.
Brom nodded without looking away from the burning city.
“I guess if they couldn’t hold it, they wanted to make sure we didn’t get much use out of it,” Jake answered. The Spratzian retreat was still so fresh in his memory.
“Besides,” Jake added, “we were too busy evacuating the civilians to fire upon them as they ran.”
The infantrymen expected some respite after the recapture of the city, but Vandra was still under the Spratzian bootheel. Jake and Brom’s overzealous lieutenant briefed the plan to capture Vandra the very night they took Tesna. A liberal infantry charge up the fortified hill after some navel guns softened the battlements a bit. Once the hill had been taken, the Brenarian Regulars would have the upper hand. With routes of escape blocked by Brenarian dragoons, the infantry would turn the enemy artillery on the city below and the Spratzian troops would be forced to surrender.
“You think they would have us fire into our own city?” Jake asked as he slurped a chunk of pork.
“If they got any sense, they’ll surrender,” Brom reassured. “They have to. Just gotta take that hill.”
This all sounded flawless on paper, but Jake knew plans went sideways more often than not. No plan survives first contact, his internal voice rang like a bell.
“No plan survives first contact,” Brom said.
Jake smiled. Sometimes it was like they shared a brain.
“It better,” Jake said with a chuckle, “we haven’t heard any contingencies.”
Brom laughed loudly and startled several horses that were tied up nearby.
Jake finished his food just as the ships were moving into position. One ship, in particular, caught his eye. A long, red and white destroyer. The ship-of-the-line was called The Crown Fiona, named for a Queen of Great Brenar and she was the flagship of the fleet. Jake had been waiting all morning to see her. He quickly put his bowl down on the ground and pulled a small leatherback book and a short pencil from inside his jacket. He flipped past several sketches of ships, cannons, mortars, battlements and battlefield maps of their previous engagements. Once he found a blank page, he began to draw the vessel.
Although slow and unwieldy in naval combat, The Crown Fiona was perfect for supporting ground troops because it had the longest and largest guns in the fleet. One hundred and twenty, most firing a twenty-pound, explosive shell. The largest, however, were the forty-two pounders located on the lowest of the three gun decks: the largest guns ever produced. The Spratzian Navy had nothing like the Crown Fiona. Jake chuckled to himself with excitement. He had read all about The Crown Fiona. Her state of the art weaponry and massive size led most to believe the literature on The Crown Fiona was propaganda to spook the Spratzian navy and any pirates in the area. That day, Jake would know for sure. He would finally see her in action.
“Any minute now,” Brom said under his breath.
On The Crown Fiona’s deck, the famous Admiral Kro raised his decorated officer’s sword. The army regulars fell completely silent as they watched intently. The curved blade shone in the sun, making it visible at such a distance. Some of the officers had brass spy glasses they used to get a better look. Admiral Kro’s sword dropped. Puffs of white smoke and a low, delayed rumble. The Regulars cheered and raised their muskets as the cannonballs hissed overhead. Jake’s mouth was agape. The other ships fired in coordination. More shells hissed overhead. The shells impacted the hillside short of the enemy defenses with loud thuds and even louder explosions. Dirt and clumps of sod showered the Spratzian defenses. Jake couldn’t hear them over the roaring Regulars, but he imagined them in panic. The smart ones would abandon their posts before The Crown Fiona adjusted her fire. The air rolling down the hill smelled of churned earth, gunpowder and fear. Jake found comfort in the thought of the enemy being as afraid as he was. A thick haze hung over the hilltop as the ships calibrated their guns and fired the second volley.
This time, however, the rounds found their mark. Shouts and cries rolled down from the hilltop as the enemy’s fortifications splintered around them. Then barking Spratzian commands. He did not speak the language but he was certain they would fire in retaliation.
“Here it comes,” Jake said as he stood and took up his musket from its resting place.
The enemy loaded their field guns which shot a six-pound, explosive shell and pointed them down the hill.
“Form up. Form the line,” the lieutenant shouted in between whistles and shouts from other lieutenants rousing their own troops.
Brom stood on the front line and Jake on the second. The man next to Brom smiled in relief when Jake offered to trade places with him with a tap on the shoulder. Now they stood shoulder to shoulder in the front rank.
“Either we’re both in the back or both in the front,” Jake whispered out the side of his mouth.
Brom gave a nervous smile. “You think someone will switch with us for their place at the back?” Both boys suppressed a chuckle.
“Present,” the sergeant shouted as the drummer next to him beat a short snare roll. “Arms.”
With the executionary command given, the regulars snapped into synchronized motion, holding their weapons at their front with the left hand grasping the barrel and their right hand around the stock just behind the trigger well.
“Load,” the sergeant called, again followed by a snare roll.
The line snapped into motion again. Soldiers ripped their paper load cartridges open with their teeth. They extracted their ramrods and packed the powder and ball down the barrel. A well-drilled unit would only need thirty seconds to complete their load. Jake and Brom’s squad took about fifty. The regulars froze with their weapons vertically in front of them when they finished.
“Fix bayonets.” A longer snare roll followed by three louder, short bursts. Down the line hundreds of musket barrels clinked with the bayonet sockets as the soldiers quickly slipped the long triangular blade into their lugs.
“Why haven’t they fired?” Brom asked Jake, who shrugged.
“Make ready.” This time the command was followed by the collective roar of the soldiers as they leveled their bayoneted muskets at the base of the hill. When the roar settled there was complete silence.
An eternity passed before Brom whispered out of the corner of his mouth, “What are we waiting for?”
“For the cannons to fire,” Jake said as stoic determination swept over his face. With white knuckles and tense shoulders, he was not fooling anybody but himself. He didn’t know if they were waiting for another volley from the ships or the Spratzians but he knew more cannon fire was needed either way.
Suddenly, Jake had his answer and he did not like it. Puffs of smoke and muffled pops came from the top of the hill. Six enemy cannonballs tore through the Brenarian formation. Jake clinched his eyes shut as hard as he could but otherwise remained motionless. No amount of flinching would save him from a cannonball, so why watch. Screams and explosions surrounded Jake. The stench of something burning leached into his nostrils, forcing his eyes back open. One cannonball hit low and skipped, sweeping four men off their feet and completely ripping one in half. Another flew above Jake’s head, hitting behind the line punching through a horse’s flank. The horse spun and slammed into the foot of the sickly tree. The animal’s scream pierced through all the other chaos before the horse exploded splintering the tree’s trunk. The rest were direct hits, severing limbs of those in the way before exploding, throwing shrapnel into many others.
“Hold the line. Steady,” the officers called over the chaos.
The veterans calmed fast, the newer regulars and colonial militia soon followed their example for the most part. Jake could smell pungent urine mingling with the smoke.
“Wait for it, men,” one officer called, “wait for the charge.”
Behind the line, another low rumble made goose flesh pop up on Jake’s arms. The whir of navel shells overhead made Jake inhale a sharp, shivering gasp. The drums sounded the charge right as the volley hit the enemy cannon placements. The other half of enemy field guns fired as the regulars began their charge. An explosion to Jake’s right threw a man into the air. Dirt showered Jake as he ran and he thought about how close it was. How he could have been ended in an instant. The soldier came crashing down on his back missing his left leg from the knee down. He cried out in agony as he held his stub, but no one stopped. Each man was locked in his own mortal struggle. No time to help the downtrodden. Their wide eyes were fixed on the first series of trenches just outside of no-man’s-land. Once the charging troops were within musket range, bullets hissed past their ears and struck limb-bare trees. For now, any cover would have to do.
Brom jumped down into a cannonball crater and Jake followed. Fresh earth trickled down the front of his shirt as he crawled to Brom’s side. On their bellies, they took aim. Jake’s muzzle dipped and rose with each heartbeat. This was no good for accuracy. The first shot Jake took at a deer as a boy was missed because he was excited and the deer didn’t shoot back. He took several deep breaths to calm himself as bullets struck the front of their cover with solid thuds.
“Steady,” the sergeant called as he ducked behind a nearby tree. He cocked his pistol and looked left and right. “Hold.”
Once the whole line reached a rough row of cover, more or less even with the sergeant’s tree, he leveled his pistol around the trunk “Aim.”
The line peered down the barrels of their guns at the entrenched enemies uphill. White smoke made the moist, coastal air harsh to breathe and the soldiers were panting from their lethal sprint up the slope. Brom and Jake continued to slow their breathing as best they could, their cheeks firm against their stocks and their fingers light on their triggers.
“Fire!” Puffs of smoke as the flint dropped. Recoil. Jake’s seventh kill fell to his knees while reloading his musket, struck between his collarbones. The gunner’s musket dropped. A nearby Spratzian looked down and stretched his lips into a wide, open-mouthed frown. Jake flattened himself against the dirt and sod embankment just as a hostile volley whizzed overhead.
“Load,” the officer called, safe behind the tree again, reloading his pistol.
Brom slid the ramrod down his barrel as his three-cornered hat was shot off his head. Wide-eyed, he looked at Jake, who also wore a look of surprise. Brom snickered nervously and Jake answered with a short chuckle as they cocked their frizzens.
“Aim,” the line master ordered again. Jake felt the earth rumble and thunderous galloping hooves rolled along behind him. “Fire!”
Jake’s shot struck a wooden fortification in front of two Spratzian musketeers. He cursed under his breath, but before he had a chance to load again, the sergeant gave another loud order.
“Charge,” the sergeant yelled as he bolted from behind the tree and up the hill.
Jake’s stomach fluttered as he once again darted into the open. The rest of the line jolted into a desperate sprint for more cover as the enemy opened fire. Red uniforms fell left and right as Jake drove himself onward. His eyes searched for more cover. His heart thumped. The sound of combat buzzed all around Jake but his breathing seemed to drown it all out. The voice in his head screamed for him to turn around, but Jake would not. He could not. Brom was pressing onward.
The sergeant fell with a gunshot to his hip. He called out with a guttural shout which sounded angry to Jake. The sergeant rolled to a depression in the slope and hunkered. His corporal quickly took the sergeant’s position in the charge. All further orders would come from him. Out of the corner of his left eye, the cavalry sliced through the enemy line just as he reached the nearest trench. He surprised a Spratzian soldier younger than himself, struggling to load his weapon. The boy gasped and nearly dropped his musket. Jake hesitated for less than a second. The boy parted his lips as if to say something when Jake jumped into the trench, plunging his bayonet through the blue, enemy uniform. He stabbed again and again until his foe stopped moving. When Jake looked at the boy’s frozen expression of dread, he shuddered. He had never killed this close before. He had never had to look into the eyes of his fallen enemy.
“Number eight,” he said under his breath, “I am sorry.”
Suddenly a nearby explosion shook Jake back into the battle. The corporal gave the order to reload. As Jake drew his ramrod from its seated notch, he noticed the cavalry to his left were not ordinary lancers. They were elite Knights of Apollo. They wore the golden eye of Apollo on their gray jackets and white flags. There was no mistaking them.
Galloping up the hill, they jumped their horses over the trenches and plunged their lances into enemy soldiers. The knights abandoned the lodged lances and drew their sabers. Jake marveled at the control they exhibited over their horses, circling just out of bayonet reach until they could bite their swords effectively into enemy flesh. Their leader moved his saber like a painter would a brush with red. Only red. Jake could not help but admire these men of violent artistry.
Crouching in the trench, Jake quickly reloaded his musket next to the lifeless blue uniform. He imagined it empty, instead of a still warm, bleeding corpse. Brom was a few meters away to his right reloading his own weapon. Jake had a sudden thought that disturbed him. He placed a gentle hand on the dead soldier’s shoulder. We joined up when we were about his age, Jake thought.
“You have been fortunate for a long time,” the voice in Jake’s head said. “Too long.”
The corporal gave the order to fire at will.
Jake popped up, ready to fire. He caught a glimpse of two soldiers over their dirt and wood bunker. One had just finished a reload, looking down at the pair. The other took aim at the leader of the Knights of Apollo. The knight waved his saber, rallying the troops forward, completely unaware of his peril. Jake zeroed in on the threat to the knight just as the other musketeer took aim at Jake. He squeezed the trigger, sending his musket ball through the side of the soldier’s face just as he took his shot at the knight. The ball grazed the knight’s shoulder. His horse reared up and he slapped his hand on the wound. The knight quickly turned his attention in the direction of the shot.
A puff of smoke came from the second enemy’s musket. A loud cracking report and Jake felt hot lead sink into his upper arm. Brom returned the shot with deadly accuracy, piercing the musketeer’s skull, sending his hat into the air over a fine pink mist.
Holding his right arm, Jake sunk into the hole. Blood seeped through his fingers. Brom fell on all fours next to Jake.
“Where are you hit?” Brom asked urgently. Jake lifted his hand to show him.
Brom sighed with relief. “You were lucky. They must send you home.”
Smelling the gunpowder in the sea air and hearing the shouts of the chaotic battle around them, Jake thought about going home. He wanted nothing more than to go home, but a grim expression swept over his face.
“They will not send you home with me,” he explained as Brom ripped a long strip of the cleanest cloth he wore and wrapped the wound tightly. “I made a promise,” Jake said as he began reloading Brom’s musket one-handed. They did not speak. Jake listened to the fight still raging and thought of leaving Brom alone in it. He must have been wearing a grimace because Brom stopped bandaging and looked Jake in the eye.
“I am truly happy for you,” Brom said as he shook Jake’s uninjured arm. “Don’t you worry about me.”
Then Brom’s eyes looked over Jake’s shoulder. Jake imagined a musketeer rushing them from behind with a bayonet. Perhaps he would kill both of them now and he would not have to leave after all.
“You made a friend,” Brom said as he pointed with his chin.
Jake turned with some difficulty. The knight sat high in his saddle in order to see his savior. He raised his saber high in a silent salute. Then a wave of reinforcements charged up the hill, pushing hard right up the center. The knight spurred his horse, speeding along the line with his lancers following.
The drummer reached the new skirmish line and played the charge. The lancers took a sharp turn uphill, kicking up thick chunks of sod behind them. The charging regulars roared, duty driving each of their heels. The horses jumped the final barrier onto the artillery position. Sabers slashed, cleaved and stabbed those struggling to do their own duty. Within seconds, the Spratzian artillerymen surrendered the hill. Then all Jake and Brom could hear was the moaning of the wounded.
Surgeons and their assistants shuttled the wounded down the slope on stretchers. Jake walked past dozens of groaning men destined to die in the mud far away from their homes. One man grabbed Jake’s pant leg. His jaw had been blown off and his leg was broken, bent backward. Jake threw the man’s arm over his shoulder and hoisted him to his good foot. The soldier groaned louder into Jake’s ear as pain shot through him. It was too much. The wounded man lost consciousness. Jake manipulated the limp man as best he could toward help.
Reaching one of the hectic surgery tents, he could hear groaning and shouts from inside. The medical staff was issued white aprons and overcoats but the surgeons rushing in and out of the tents were stained red. Jake stopped one of them before he rushed back up the hill for more wounded.
“Please, can you help him?”
The surgeon took a quick look at the wounded soldier.
“He’s lost too much blood,” the surgeon replied, pointing to a flat area behind the tents. “Lay him down back there.”
Jake carried the man to the back. As he rounded a tent corner, he came upon rows and rows of soldiers lying on the ground with no blankets over them or tarps under them. Jake’s nose wrinkled as the stench of blood and rot assaulted his nostrils. When he drew closer, several of those he thought were dead groaned. One reached out to him, just wanting any comfort while waiting to die.
“I’m sorry,” Jake said as he lowered his head and hurried past, averting his eyes.
Priests of Asclepius walked between the rows, blessing soldiers the surgeons couldn’t save with splashes of rosewater. Jake could feel tears welling in his eyes as he lay the man down in an empty slot in a row. The man regained consciousness and jerked his head, throwing his gaze around them. His eyes widened and several bloody bubbles gurgled from his gaping face wound as he grasped Jake’s uniform tightly. Jake cried.
“I am so sorry,” Jake said with a sniff. “There isn’t anything I can do. May the gods watch over you.”
The man’s fingers were cold as Jake pried them from his sleeve. Jake hated being so heartless to a dying comrade.
“Priest,” Jake called down the line, “this man is in need of comfort I cannot offer.”
Jake left quickly without looking back.
Searching for a relatively calm tent, Jake breathed deeply, attempting to get the stench of death out of his nostrils. He ran his fingers through his hair and bent at the waist. A sharp yell at the ground brought him back to his right mind. His stomach rolled and Jake retched loudly. His torso convulsed and he tasted bile and that watery gravy again. He vomited over and over until he had no more to give.
He stood up straight and wiped his mouth with his filthy sleeve. Relative composure regained, Jake checked his arm. Bandage soaked through, beads of dark blood flowed down to his fingertips. He winced as he peeled up the edge to view the wound. His arm throbbed. Perhaps the ball had broken a bone.
He wished Bromley had been wounded instead. Not because he wished pain on his friend, but because he wanted Brom to be safe in the rear rather than continuing the campaign for Vandra. Jake would gladly take his place and not for any sort of class guilt, but because he truly loved his friend. Bromley was not a soldier. He was built well, with broad shoulders and a stout appearance overall. Perhaps a bit heavy but he moved well. He was a good shot and operated his weapon efficiently. True he had survived to this point through dozens of conflicts and long marches but the infantry was not a place for Bromley Grute. He was a gentle man. A gentleman and charmer with the ladies but deep down at his core, a gentle man.
This war was bound to change Brom, Jake feared. It changed me. Why not him? It’s only a matter of time. Jake counted his kills. Thinking more about this scared him. What was he becoming? What were they both becoming? Would they ever be those children stalking game in the woods again? Would they be able to raise families of their own? Would their children play together someday in those same woods?
Survival would be the first step to achieving that goal. Survival in the infantry would be up to the gods. Living or dying was not up to an infantryman. Their chances would be better as sailors or artillerymen but Jake could find no way out of the infantry together. Jake enlisted and therefore could go wherever he wished within the service of Her Majesty. Brom had been drafted into the infantry and must stay there.
From the hilltop, artillery boomed, causing the ground to shake. They didn’t surrender after all, Jake thought. After a long barrage, the city wall fell in the distance and hundreds of roaring soldiers rushed in to reclaim it. Jake hoped Brom would emerge unharmed or at least alive.
Some regulars stretched a canvas tarp over a wagon and tied the other end to a nearby tree. Surgeons pulled a table off the wagon and set it upright. One of them stretched his hand out toward Jake.
“This way soldier, let us take a look at that arm.”
Jake was covered in the wounded soldier’s blood as well as a fair amount of his own. A liberal coating of battlefield filth covered the rest of him. The surgeon helped him onto the table and ripped his sleeve off, exposing the soaked, improvised bandage. As the surgeon stripped it off, blood squirted onto his apron. He probed the wound with his fingers and Jake grunted through his teeth. Sharp pains shot through the bone. Without removing his fingers, the surgeon motioned with his nose to a pile of implements on the table. One of the assisting surgeons put a leather-wrapped bite stick in Jake’s mouth as the other mopped up the stream of blood on his arm. Jake tasted the previous patient’s saliva in the leather.
The surgeon froze as a man dressed in gray, bearing The Eye of Apollo, ducked under the covering.
“Are you Jake Zimmar?” he asked.
Jake began to sit up as he nodded. The surgeon’s assistant tried to lay him down as the knight walked back out of the makeshift tent.
“My lord,” the knight called down the row of tents, “I found him.”
A muscular horse covered in soot and blood come to a stop outside. The stench of frothy sweat and gunpowder radiated from the mount. A tall, slender man dismounted and ducked into the operation area. Seeing him closer now, Jake recognized him. The man he had saved was Count Dante Varro. He and his knights were famous. Jake had read all about them and their adventures, their prowess on the battlefield. If Brom had told him that morning he would be meeting Count Varro, he would not have believed him. Jake quickly assured his jaw was not hanging slackly.
Count Varro still wore his dirty white shirt with his gray jacket open in the front. The Eye of Apollo worn proudly on his breast pocket. His helm shone, though it had been scratched and dented many times. White horsehair hung from its crest to halfway down his back. He removed his helm and the horsehair flowed seemingly weightless through the muggy air. Varro was a fair-skinned man with sharp features and his long brown hair tied back tightly. His narrow, dark eyes scanned Jake.
“Jake Zimmar?” Varro’s voice was stern, very military, but something about it revealed himself as much younger than Jake had initially thought.
“Yes, my lord.”
Varro removed his supple, leather gloves and wadded them into his helm. “Mister Zimmar, the Order of Apollo has recognized your courage on the battlefield. It would be a shame if such valiant acts went unrecognized and therefore I wish to offer a token of gratitude. It was foolish of me to stop on the battlefield like that. A cavalryman’s armor is his speed.” Varro placed a hand over the tear in his uniform where the ball had grazed him. “Besides our usual duties on the battlefield, The Order has tasked us, as well as all the other deployed knights, with gathering potential candidates that we have deemed worthy. You have demonstrated some skill and great bravery. I have seen Apollo’s grace on you and hereby induct you into his service.”
Varro paused and a smile stretched across Jake’s face. This is just what he needed to get out of the infantry. The life expectancy of a cavalryman was much better than that of a regular. They cost too much for Brenar to throw them into the fire, and a Knight of Apollo was better yet. Jake didn’t know the statistics, but he had never seen a fallen knight.
“The training will be difficult and frustrating and I cannot guarantee you will complete it. If and when you have proven yourself worthy you will take on the covenant of knighthood and wear your seal proudly.”
“He’s going to lose his arm,” the surgeon interrupted. Varro remained silent, waiting for the surgeon’s explanation. Jake stopped breathing. “The musket ball is lodged in the boy’s bone. The bone is broken and if we don’t get the arm off soon the boy will fall to the fever.”
Blood pounded in Jake’s ears. His cheeks felt as though they were on fire. Just like that, his hopes were dashed. Worse, he would lose his arm. His right arm. His dominant arm. No knighthood. He would be sent home to an “I told you so,” from his father. A younger, softer Jake would cry, but this one was angry. How could he have been so stupid? He could have taken that shot from lower, behind cover. Then Jake wondered how the process of a battlefield amputation would proceed. It would not be painless.
While Jake silently dreaded his upcoming operation, Varro said nothing and walked out to his horse. He pulled two bottles from his saddlebag. When he returned two more knights followed. One was a stocky blond man of average height and had a deep gash running from just left of his nostril to his chin. The stitches holding it together were expertly applied but big and ugly. Jake recognized him as Jorn Fitzand: Count Varro’s lieutenant and right hand. He was notorious for beastly close combat with daggers, pistols, his blunderbuss and some even said he used a trident occasionally. His long blond hair was matted with sweat and blood. The sweat was his, the blood was not.
The second stood almost seven feet tall. The largest man Jake had ever witnessed. His head scraped the top of the tent. Broad at the shoulders and narrow at his hips. The dark brown skin on his muscular arms and the mask gave him away. Sergeant Brutus Fane: the only giant black man Jake had heard of. The giant wore a masked helmet with a grotesque expression solidified in iron. He removed his helmet revealing a bushy beard and a short haircut. His dark skin and black hair set him apart and people speculated his origin with a sense of mysticism. Some said he was a freed slave. Others said he was Varro’s slave. Most said he killed his slavers. The ominous helm he wore had steer horns curving forward and up on both sides. Two sharpened boar tusks were mounted, thrusting out of the iron frown on the front. These only added to his legend. The giant was believed to be mute because none have heard him speak. He did not contest any of the stories. One thing was for certain, though, Brutus was a fighter. The carnage he could leave on the battlefield became its own legend.
“Out,” Lieutenant Fitzand ordered coldly.
The surgeons removed themselves with a bow as Varro placed some tools he had selected into a porcelain basin. He poured brown liquid from the larger of the bottles onto them, then over his hands. Jake could tell it was liquor by the pungent stench. Varro nodded and the large knight held Jake down. The Count poured the alcohol into the wound. Jake replaced the bite stick in his jaws and chomped onto it, grimacing. Varro took a swig from the bottle then, still with a full mouth, offered Jake some. Jake said nothing and Brutus removed the bite stick so Varro could pour some into his mouth. Jake coughed as the strong spirits burned his throat and the knights smirked. Brutus placed the bite stick back and held Jake firmly again.
“Well now I just feel left out,” Jorn said as he took a long gulp directly from the bottle.
Varro held his hand out and the scarred knight handed him a sharp implement. Large beads of sweat rolled off Jake’s brow as the Count and his two assistants operated. His eyes followed the blade into the bloody hole in his arm and he felt its cold steel parting his flesh. Jake’s eyes searched for something else to focus on as the blade bit into him. Too late to ask for more liquor. Then his eyes became fixed on the smaller bottle of opaque, white liquid and he briefly wondered what it was before he rolled into unconsciousness and his body relaxed.
Waking, Jake opened his eyes slightly at first. Darkness. The sun had gone down, leaving the world to the chilling night. Jake was lying on a thin pad on the ground outside, with a blanket over him. His warm breath smoked in the dark air. He quickly jerked his head, looking left and right, expecting to find rows of dead soldiers. Instead, several men sat around a campfire at a short distance with an extravagant tent behind them.
A layer of thick bandages covered his upper arm. His wound ached, the bone throbbed and his arm remained. Jake discovered he could even move his fingers and smiled. Looking back to the campfire, Jake noticed one of the dark figures was looking at him. The man stood up and walked in his direction. Jake tensed, expecting a knight of Apollo. Then he recognized his friend’s shape and upbeat gait. It was Brom.
“How are you feeling?” he asked, crouching next to Jake. He held out a small metallic object in his palm. Jake leaned in to inspect the item. A lead ball with a flat spot on one side where it had struck his bone.
“After they pulled this out, they cauterized the wound and set the bone.” Brom smiled but Jake knew he was hiding a trace of sadness. “So, you are all set to ship off to Mount Bronta in the morning.”
“Where are you going?” Jake asked, raising his eyebrows. “Do you know yet?”
Brom diverted his eyes and shook his head. Such a question would warrant a shoulder shrug and a snarky comment. Usually something about being told nothing. Jake could tell he knew, and it was somewhere bad. Jake stood up with stern determination on his face. He marched right past the knights sitting around the fire. Sergeant Brutus Fane and another knight Jake had never met stood in his way. Lieutenant Fitzand stood from his low stool by the fire and raised a hand. When the other knights saw this calming gesture, they lowered their guard.
“Mister Zimmar is awake, my lord,” Jorn called into the tent.
“Send him in,” Count Varro’s voice projected from inside.
Brutus and the other knight parted and Jake proceeded. Flipping the extravagant door flaps open, he stormed into the tent. Varro sat at a table with a map and a compass. Jake stood at attention in front of Varro and took a deep breath.
“My lord, the soldier and my friend, Bromley Grute, is and always will be a better fighter as well as a better shot than I. You will never find a kinder and more valiant friend or comrade. I have personally witnessed his courage in battle. I ask that you take Mister Grute in my stead. He will make a fine addition to your force. You will not regret it.”
Varro reclined and placed his thumb and index finger on his chin. “Mister Grute is a draftee. I cannot recruit him. Are you familiar with The Apollo Agreement of 3253?”
“There must be some way...” Jake stopped as Varro held up his hand.
“If it were that easy, it would already be done.”
Jake hung his head. “Then I must stay behind. I will always be grateful to you for your healing touch but I must decline your offer to join the Order of Apollo. I must not leave Brom behind.”
Several moments of silence passed as Varro studied Jake’s face over steepled fingers. Varro’s brow hung low over his eyes. Jake felt vulnerable in the Count’s discerning glare as if he were on trial for an unknown crime. Varro finally lowered his hands to the desk and exhaled through his nose.
“You love Mister Grute,” Varro said.
“I do. I prefer him over my own brother and I cannot leave him in the infantry. If he is in the front, then I am in the front.”
Varro smiled at this and pulled a piece of paper and a pen to his front from the corner of the desk. He quickly scribbled a message and folded it into thirds.
“If only we all were as lucky in friendship,” Varro said as he dripped red wax onto the edge of the paper to seal the fold. He pressed his Seal of Apollo into the wax and blew softly to cool it.
“I know some people in his command,” Varro said. “Perhaps I could make something work.”
“Thank you, my lord,” Jake said as he backed out of the tent. “I’ll collect my things and return to my squad.”
“You were not dismissed,” Varro snapped. “Where is your military bearing?”
Embarrassed, Jake returned to attention. Varro called Lieutenant Fitzand into the tent and passed the correspondence to him. Without a word, Jorn bowed and exited the tent.
“I will be taking both of you to Mount Bronta,” Varro said.
Jake’s shoulders relaxed and a smile stretched across his face. “Thank you, my lord.”
Varro raised a hand. “Do not thank me yet. The Trials of Apollo will be more difficult than you would expect. Get some sleep. We leave in the morning. Dismissed.”