Cruce’s foot caught on a rock. He fell and crunched his knees into the rough mountain trail. Cruce pushed himself up as fast as he could. Breathing hard from prolonged exertion, he did not yet feel pain in his scraped leg. Two other men jogged past him. The second man, Rayden Fanlyre, looked back. His thick sandy hair flopped across his forehead as he checked on Cruce.
A precise wooden blow struck Cruce in his left buttock. Rayden faced forward and hurried on. The leyton prodded Cruce with his baton of dark walnut, worn smooth by the breaking in of many militia volunteers. Cruce muffled his groan but could not dim the flash of hatred in his eyes.
“Run, you clumsy clod!” Leyton Bevone shouted at Cruce, much louder than he needed to.
Cruce ran and soon his pants over his right knee were soaking with blood and becoming plastered with dust. Despite his hurt leg, he struggled up the trail and passed some of his comrades so as not to be the last man.
The trail grew steeper and Cruce and eleven other young men scrambled up the sharp shifting gravel. They were motivated as much by their desires to look strong for each other as the baton and rude tongue of Leyton Bevone.
After the dozen men reached a level area they slowed to a stagger. The thin air at this elevation was taking its toll, as it was supposed to, and everyone was breathing raggedly. Cruce’s life at the heart of the Valley of Nufal on the shores of Lake Kwellstan had not toughened him for this. His heart pounded like it was going to burst and his vision was reddening. Gasping for air, he wiped his dripping nose.
The Leyton came up the trail behind them. Although he tried to appear casual he was winded as well and called for a break. Cruce resisted the urge to collapse on the ground. Like most of the other men, he continued a few more slow steps before hunching over with his hands on his thighs. He did not want his muscles to cramp up. Cruce had already experienced that clenching torment on yesterday’s run.
Looking down the mountain as he caught his breath, he could see how far they had climbed the trail. The crude path wound with switchbacks through scraggily pines that were getting shorter and thinner as the wind grew teeth. Far below was the softer greener foothill forest where oak and maples mixed with pine. Looking small now, the city of Kahtep lounged at the entrance to the valley. It was the gateway to the heartland of Nufal, and the city marked the shift between the inner forests of the valley and the grassy plains beyond the sheltering mountains. The Inezhep rose on the western edge of town. The white stones of the square tower displayed from top to bottom relief sculptures of Nufalese lore and triumphs. The Kahtepians were especially proud of the Inezhep. They had built the tower without magical aid from the tabre.
Cruce and his fellow recruits had run higher than yesterday. Jogging these trails on Mount Elta was meant to harden the militia volunteers. They had six weeks to train before serving winter duty on the frontier, and they were told that they needed to be much stronger.
And Cruce was getting stronger. Strength training and weapons training for three weeks in Kahtep had gone well, and Cruce had been proud of his progress. But the endurance training in the mountains had been hard on him. Leyton Bevone, more than the other leytons, had seemed to revel in Cruce’s difficulty.
When Cruce’s breathing had steadied a little bit, he reached for his small water skin slung across his shoulders. He forced himself to drink slowly, but his dry mouth sucked the water in until his stomach felt like a cold hard lump.
“Too much water, lordling,” Bevone snapped.
Cruce tensed his stomach muscles as the leyton’s baton come at his torso for a rough poke.
“You be puking it up like the baby you are,” Bevone said.
With a baleful look Cruce watched him walk by. The wind tugged at the graying wisps of brown hair that surrounded the leyton’s bald spot, and Cruce noticed a jagged scar on the back of Bevone’s neck. He envied whoever had given the original wound. Other men were drinking water faster than they should, but Bevone had chosen to single out Cruce for criticism, as usual.
Cruce plugged his water skin and sat down slowly on a boulder. He stretched his legs out and started to gingerly pull up his pant leg to inspect his wound. The knee was scrapped and bloody. Cruce flicked out the small bits of gravel stuck in his skin. The injury was not terrible, but he would have to endure the burning pain for the rest of the run.
Needing encouragement, Cruce looked across his homeland. To the west spread the Nufalese plains until they reached the Rysamand Mountains. Even at a distance the western mountains were imposing. Tall and snowy, the mountains presented a forbidding barrier at the edge of the Nufalese world. One could not look at them without contemplating their elemental presence. The plains were a dull green and gold this time of year. The heat of summer had faded the lush grasses and the first frosts of autumn were browning the land. The trees that filled the creek bottoms were still ablaze with color, as was the whole Valley of Nufal that glowed in the sunshine when he looked to the east. Surrounded by the dark peaks of the Tabren Mountains, the large oval valley was joyous with fall colors. The oaks, beeches, ashes, and maples were especially bright with red, vermillion, and gold. From these heights, Cruce could see the cities and villages populating the glorious land. Distant golden rectangles and triangles surrounded the cities where fields had been harvested. Around Kahtep the fields started on the plains and moved up terraced mountain sides next to the city.
At the center of the valley that prepared for winter with an autumnal beauty that cheerily defied cold death, Lake Kwellstan was as bright as a blue diamond in the sun. It looked cold, and Cruce recalled the cool breeze that came off the waters in the summer. He could almost smell the mossy shore at the edge of the ancient forest.
This was his land, the home of human civilization, and he was enduring this grueling training so that he could defend it from the northern savages. The wild far-ranging peoples of the northlands had always been a problem. They would raid the outer settlements of Nufal out on the plains or in the foothills. They stole food and livestock, and sometimes, to the dismay of the Nufalese, stole women and children. At least two or three times a year, the savages would waylay a small group of travelers and slaughter them gruesomely.
The attacks came in the winter months because otherwise the savages ranged far north in the warmer weather, following game to summer pastures. But attacks were becoming more frequent now because the Nufalese settlements had expanded farther from the protected heartland of the Tabren Mountains.
In response, the ad hoc militias of the past were now organized under the famous savage fighter Bellastan Carver. The established city-states of the Valley of Nufal whose lords sponsored many of the settlements now organized small formal militias to supplement the frontier fighters, although Kahtepians still supplied the majority of the effort.
The humans of Nufal desired to expand their territory despite the bloodthirsty threat from the savages. The Nufalese were enlightened, guided by the superior and spiritually blessed tabre. The howling brutal herds that seemed to comprise the rest of humanity on Ektren should not be tolerated, according to the common thinking.
Cruce believed in the professed mission of the Nufalese to expand civilization, and he wanted to defend the settlers. They were Nufalese people, and they suffered murders, rapes, thieving, and the burning of villages and farmsteads. It was right to fight the savages, and he believed he would find the strength and wisdom of manhood out on the cold dangerous plains this hungry winter.
He drew his pant leg back down over his battered knee and then tightened the laces on his boots. His feet were throbbing and his blisters were like nightmares stamped on a waking mind.
“Get up, little boys!” Leyton Bevone shouted. “We be going to the summit today and it be a long way back before sunset.”
Cruce got up. He put his weight on his leg gingerly, but then glanced at the leyton and saw him eyeing him. Cruce set aside his pain and jogged to the head of the group.
An hour later, the men were plodding but the summit was near. Mount Elta was considered a friendly mountain, and in the summer ordinary albeit athletic citizens would hike to the summit for a day trip. But today the wind was biting. Cruce pulled up the soft knitted wool hood attached to his leather jacket. Some fresh snow had already fallen at this elevation, but it was only a smattering of white between the boulders and gravel. Vegetation no longer grew along the trail, but this cold high place of dusky stone remained inspiring. Cruce was exhilarated to reach the top. His lips were chapped, his lungs hurt, and his muscles shook from exertion, but he was a lake-land boy no more.
“Seeing the world like this is worth the difficulty,” Rayden commented.
“Yes,” Cruce agreed. He was not accustomed to measuring his successes alongside common men from the trade or reaper classes, but he found that his joy was not lessened by the sharing of it.
Gesturing across the stunning vista, Cruce said, “We will fight for this great land.” Reaching the mountain top had made him feel truly worthy of the task.
“And you will be our commander,” Rayden said.
As the only estate class man among the Kwellstan recruits, Cruce knew he was bound for command rank. He resolved to do his utmost every day of training to prove himself to these young men. He wanted their true respect once he earned his command.
“I have to mentor a season under Gehr before I actually get my rank,” Cruce reminded modestly.
Cruce, even at his youthful age, had figured out that his status was probably the reason for Bevone’s hostility, but he still did not think it deserved. He worried that Bevone’s choice to constantly single him out for ridicule would sully him in the eyes of the other men.
Cruce soothed himself with the pleasing image of returning to Kwellstan in the spring as a militia commander. Perhaps that dashing outcome would excite Ribeka. As Cruce thought about her, his fatigue faded into daydream pleasures. He looked forward to spring when he would have a chance to court her properly.
Until then, his new comrades were his companionship. They were all far from home and perhaps class differences would be lessened by regional familiarity. Studying Rayden next to him, he recalled that Rayden was from the successful trader class Fanlyre family. Rayden should have had a good position in the family business available to him. Cruce wondered if they shared a craving for adventure instead of settling into expected comforts. He asked Rayden why he had joined the militia.
Rayden frowned, looking almost angry. Cruce worried that he had offended, but then Rayden replied, “I lost my temper over a girl.”
Happily interested, Cruce encouraged him to go on. Rayden rolled his eyes, embarrassed as he recalled his conduct. “I was in love,” he lamented. “The girl showed interest in another man. I started a fight. I beat him good, but then there was talk of hauling me to the Judges. Gehr Bradelvo said he could get me out of Kwellstan. I’m hoping when my duty is done in five years, I can go home and it’ll be forgotten.”
“That sounds like a good plan,” Cruce said, valuing Rayden’s honesty.
“Up, you puppies!” Leyton Bevone shouted. He had given his charges little time to savor the summit because he had little interest in their aesthetic contemplations.
Conversations ended and the dozen young men slowly lined up on the trail. Bevone shouldered his way through the line with strutting contempt. “At least you boys made the mountaintop.” He jabbed Cruce just below his left armpit with his baton. “Even our watery lordling not be disgracing us,” the leyton added.
Cruce smothered his fiery anger and kept himself from even looking at the surly leyton. Once Bevone had passed, he rubbed the sore spot and reflected that the leyton was certainly skilled at finding the tender bits on a man.
Just as the men started back down the trail, Rayden came up close behind Cruce. He whispered, “We only have to tolerate him during endurance training.”
Cruce appreciated the encouragement and expected to make a friend in Rayden.
The hike down the mountain was difficult. Descending the steep trail on sore feet and thoroughly strained muscles grew excruciating, even for young men. Leyton Bevone, who seemed to know little pain or weariness, pushed the men harder whenever they flagged.
“Run!” he commanded as soon as the trail leveled out.
The militia volunteers obeyed. Running feet often skidded on loose gravel and sometimes a man had to grab the arm or shoulder of a comrade to keep from falling.
When Rayden’s hand seized Cruce’s shoulder, he slowed to support him. Rayden’s right leg had cramped badly. Rayden bent over and gasped as he grabbed his throbbing gluteal. Cruce stopped and the other men ran around them on the trail. Rayden collapsed.
“Keep moving,” Cruce advised. “Stretch it!” He offered his hand to help him up, but Leyton Bevone swatted it away with his handy baton.
“Each man be relying on his own body,” the leyton snapped as Cruce narrowly dodged the swinging wood.
For once Bevone’s attention was not on Cruce. He struck Rayden on the arm and then across the back. Rayden cried out and drops of sweat flew off his wet hair as his head arched backward. He grimaced and struggled to comply, and although he was getting up, the leyton gave him no chance to succeed. He hit him in the gluteal that was cramping and Rayden went back down hard.
“The savages be having no mercy if you be down in battle. Get up or you be worse than dead,” Bevone warned.
Cruce grabbed Rayden by the arms and put him on his feet. But he was only punished for giving aid. Bevone kicked Cruce in his bloody knee and chastised him with a rabid snarl. “He’ll never be gaining the strength to fight out the pain if you help him!” the leyton raged. He swung his baton, but Cruce intercepted the smooth hard rod of walnut with a firm grasp. Two veins bulged on his forearm as he held back the wood with suddenly fierce strength.
Confronting the weathered face of the leyton, Cruce said, “It is right to help my comrade.”
Rayden straightened as best he could and resolved to run again. “I’m all right,” he announced bravely but Bevone was not listening.
The leyton narrowed his eyes at Cruce and yanked his baton away from the riled volunteer. “So you want to be showing me how full of stones you are, lordling?” he challenged.
Wanting to stay above the leyton’s level, Cruce reiterated that it was only right to help a comrade. “That is basic to militia service,” he added.
Bevone scoffed at the young volunteer’s presumption to tell him about militia service. “Who made you the Great Divinity? Do you be thinking you’re the hero to save us all? You just be wanting to show us you’re better than us,” Bevone accused.
Because Cruce remained ungoaded, Bevone sweetened the bait. “Or you really be here to prove your strength and make up for your broken useless father,” he said.
The unexpected taunt rattled Cruce.
Bevone continued, “Oh yes, I know you be of cripple’s blood. You think playing soldier be making you a man because you have no real father to show you how.”
Cruce saw red. He had never known such anger was possible. He attacked the leyton with his bare hands.
Bevone had wrangled with many a militia volunteer in his time, but he had never hit a nerve so raw before. Cruce dove at his throat with both hands and grabbed the sinewy neck of his instructor. Bevone defended himself with his baton, but Cruce was oblivious to the first few blows. Cruce pushed Bevone down on his knees and continued to strangle him. Naturally desperate, Bevone whacked Cruce’s arms with his baton, and the pain finally broke through Cruce’s madness and made him let go.
Rayden, appalled by the eruption of violence, grabbed Cruce’s shoulder and shouted for him to stop. By now the other volunteers had stopped on the trail and were looking back.
Cruce did not even hear Rayden’s plea. The leyton sprang to his feet and attacked. Cruce grabbed the baton before it hit him again and they grappled fiercely, swinging punches and trying to yank each other off balance.
Several of the other men ran back to intervene. Three men grabbed Cruce from behind and two men shoved themselves in front of the leyton as Cruce was dragged away. Blood dribbled from the Leyton’s split lip and his teeth were bright red from the blood in his mouth. Two pink oval marks on his neck showed where Cruce’s thumbs had assaulted his windpipe.
“You’ll be regretting this!” Bevone yelled hoarsely.
“I’ll not let you insult my father,” Cruce said. He tried to shake off the men holding him but they held him still by twisting his arms behind him.
“Get him on his knees,” Bevone commanded.
“Leyton, no!” Rayden contradicted. “We won’t hold down our comrade for your revenge. Let your temper cool.”
Leyton Bevone was shocked. “Don’t put your eggs in this bird’s nest, boy,” he warned and gestured at Cruce.
“Let Master Carver judge him. It is proper, Leyton Sir,” Rayden insisted. His voice quivered as he realized how bold his words were.
Seeking allies, Rayden looked to the volunteers holding Cruce. He could see that they were reluctant to hold down their comrade so that their leyton could punish him. They had no doubts about how viciously the leyton would treat Cruce.
Hesitantly, one of the other volunteers said, “Leyton Sir, let Chenomet be judged by the Master. I’ll bear proper witness to what happened. I swear by the Great Divinity.”
Rayden moved protectively in front of Cruce. “It’s my fault. He was only trying to help me, Leyton Sir.”
The Leyton quelled his urge to shove Rayden aside. Although he burned to exact his revenge on Cruce while he was restrained, he suddenly doubted his vicious nature. He had driven this batch of volunteers hard. He drove each group harder than the last. Perhaps he had gone too far. These young men were comrades, and, on the mountain side with the dusk gathering, they might not tolerate the abuse that Bevone longed to deliver upon Cruce.
His shame be worse if his punishment be public, Bevone reasoned.
“He be getting no leniency from Master Carver,” Bevone grumbled. Then he did push Rayden down roughly and stepped up to Cruce, who was still breathing hard from their intense struggle. With his usual skill, Bevone cracked Cruce along the jaw and knocked him senseless.
“Carry your comrade,” he ordered and started down the trail without looking back.
Rayden, although still in pain from his muscle cramp, got up and draped one of Cruce’s arms over his shoulders. Cruce was slack and heavy. Another man took his other arm and helped Rayden drag him down the trail.
Bevone ordered the men to resume their run with an especially surly snarl. Soon the volunteers left the two men carrying Cruce far behind. Eventually, Cruce regained his senses and was able to walk with Rayden. They reached the militia base outside Kahtep well after dark. Two militiamen were waiting for them and they promptly took Cruce into custody. They locked him in a root cellar.
Total darkness oppressed Cruce as the entrance was barred behind him. He pushed himself up from the dirt floor. His head throbbed and his body felt torn apart and put back together sloppily. He fumbled for his water skin and carefully squeezed the last drops into his mouth. Although the blow to his head had left his thoughts dull, surging anger lingered in his body. Part of him was glad that he had given Bevone a dose of his rage. If the other men had not intervened, Cruce believed that he would have trounced the veteran instructor. Bevone was wrong to call his father weak. Watching his father struggle against debilitating pain and disability had taught Cruce much about strength while growing up.