Fate skulking at the edge of the firelight spawns dreams forgotten upon waking. ~ Hasen, 8th century Kwellstan poet
Morning light shot around the edges of the root cellar door and woke Cruce up. Aching terribly, he hoped that Bevone’s neck still hurt.
Cruce foraged in the cellar. The raw and dirty potatoes, turnips, onions, and carrots were not appetizing, but, famished as he was, he crunched down some carrots and potatoes.
When he heard people approaching, he wiped his hands on his pants and stood up. The wooden bar scraped against the door as it was lifted away. Cruce quickly swallowed the last bite of his miserable breakfast.
He was heartened to see Gehr duck through the doorway.
“Have I recruited a hooligan?” he asked cheerfully.
The fanciful armor and white clothes that he had worn that summer in Kwellstan were gone. Gehr now wore the rougher gear of an active duty commander. A thick woolen cloak dyed brown with a hood embroidered with red spears and rams draped his shoulders. A thick leather vest studded with bronze plates encased his torso above worn deerskin pants and laced up boots. From his hip hung a sword in a beautiful copper and leather scabbard worked with semi-precious beads in the ram design that symbolized his family.
“Sorry to disappoint you,” Cruce said, worried that Gehr might be besmirched by his bad behavior.
Gehr signaled for the two militiamen with him to wait outside. Then he said quietly, “The mountains won’t crumble from what you’ve done, but you will be disciplined.”
“You don’t have to do anything for me, Gehr. I would not have my shame touch you,” Cruce said.
“Oh, don’t be so dramatic,” Gehr scolded. “I will speak on your behalf to Master Carver. Bevone is a crazy bear, and gets worse every year. You’re not the first recruit to go at him.”
“Really?” Cruce said.
Nodding, Gehr grinned, and a few laugh lines crinkled on his tan face. “I hear that you were about to tear him apart. No one has gotten such a good strike at him. Either he is getting old or you are going to be one mad wolf fighter,” he said.
Vividly Cruce recalled the feel of Bevone’s hot vulnerable throat beneath his fingers. Experiencing such murderous anger troubled Cruce, who had not realized that such ugly passions lurked inside him. In the cold darkness of the night, he had accepted that he was insecure about his father’s infirmity, ashamed even. It had not been easy growing up as his father slid further into invalidism.
And when his father had expected him to take over the bulk of the family’s responsibilities, Cruce had abandoned him. There was guilt now too.
“What will happen to me?” Cruce asked.
“The Militia Master will judge you,” Gehr said.
Cruce looked anxiously into the gray eyes of his friend and mentor. “What should I say to him?”
“Nothing,” Gehr said bluntly and explained that Cruce would have no opportunity to speak. He would remain confined while the Militia Master heard the charges.
With a sigh, Cruce resigned himself to whatever grim verdict came back. Although he had only been in the militia a short time, he understood already that no one wanted to hear how Leyton Bevone had been hard on him, singled him out, and constantly goaded him with physical and verbal abuse. Cruce should not have attacked his superior. It was as simple as that.
“Can I at least go outside to piss?” he asked.
Gehr scanned the root cellar that was crowded with wholesome food. “Well, no one wants you spoiling the harvest. I’ll confine you to barracks. Do I have your word not to flee?”
Cruce scowled at the notion that he would run. “Of course I will stay.”
“Come on then,” Gehr said and led him outside.
Cruce’s first impulse was to avoid the eyes of the other militiamen, but he decided not to slink in shame. He had done what he had done. Only the judgment of the Militia Master mattered. As Cruce was escorted to his barracks, he detected no scorn or pity from the other militiamen. He supposed to them he was only a recruit that had made a mistake. A serious mistake, but still little more than gossip to a veteran.
Cruce shared a cramped barracks built of rough timbers with eleven other men. A door and two windows served the small building where Cruce had one bunk with a straw mattress and a shelf to place his possessions. His comrades had already gone to their training at dawn. Cruce imagined that Rayden would have earned himself extra attention from Leyton Bevone.
Gehr told Cruce to stay at the barracks and left with the two militiamen. Sore and tired, Cruce was glad for the rare privacy within the empty barracks. He washed and changed his clothes. He stretched out in his bunk and winced with annoyance as the prickly mattress irritated his skin. Once his training was done, he would be allowed to outfit himself better, even buy a house in Kahtep to use when he was not patrolling the frontier.
That’s if I am even allowed to finish my training. I could be dismissed, he realized dismally. An ignominious return to Kwellstan had no appeal.
But immense weariness kept him from worrying at that moment. He fell asleep wondering if the Militia Master would judge him that day.
The insubordination of one recruit proved insufficient to overtake the calendar of the Militia Master. Cruce lounged for four days in his barracks with no news of Bellastan Carver’s decision.
The confinement was more relaxing than stressful for Cruce. After weeks of grueling exercise, four days in his bunk had allowed him to recuperate. Cruce could feel how much stronger he was, and, mentally, he had healed from his rage with Bevone. Cruce vowed to himself to command his temper better.
Staying in from the deteriorating weather suited Cruce as well. The day ended with a cold north wind sweeping into Kahtep from the prairie with the sharp promise of winter. Thickening clouds stunted the sunset, and the sun escaped gratefully behind the Rysamand Mountains.
A Kwellstan recruit was rolling up a rug to stop the draft underneath the door when Gehr arrived at the barracks. The recruit stood respectfully and saluted with his right fist over his heart. The small talk among the recruits hushed as Gehr approached Cruce.
He swung his feet out of the bunk and looked at his eleven mates gathered behind Gehr. Apparently the news would not be given in private. Cruce stood and saluted Gehr, whose expression did not look encouraging.
“Am I going home?” Cruce asked.
“You can,” Gehr said. “Or, you can stay with the militia and have your transgression forgotten if you accept the punishment of Master Carver.”
“Which is?” Cruce prompted nervously. He glanced among his comrades and caught Rayden’s worried eyes.
Gehr took a breath and answered that the sentence was three days exposure.
A few men winced.
“You could die this time of year,” Rayden blurted, but another man quickly contradicted him.
Cruce also tended to believe he could survive, but he thought about how going home would make his father happy. Perhaps his sojourn into militia life had all been foolishness anyway.
“You can take tonight to think about it,” Gehr said gloomily.
“I will decide now,” Cruce said. He did not want to agonize about it for hours. “If I take the punishment, I can continue in the militia and still gain a command rank?” he asked for clarification.
Gehr nodded emphatically and said, “Carver will welcome you back if you accept discipline. I made sure Carver knew that you wanted to help and defend a comrade.” He glanced at Rayden.
Cruce regretted being an embarrassment to his mentor, and he wanted to make things up to him. And Cruce’s heart told him that returning to Kwellstan a failure would be the harsher punishment. The difficulty of obtaining the Militia Master’s permission to attend Adarium meetings remained. This incident could sour the chances of Carver approving the special request, but Gehr had said that taking the punishment would forgive the transgression.
“I will take my punishment,” Cruce decided.
If his fortitude pleased Gehr, he did not show it. “I’ll have more food sent to you tonight. And drink as much water as you can. You will be exposed at dawn,” he said.
All the militiamen at the Kahtep base, including trainee recruits, assembled in the main yard to witness the exposure of Cruce. Militia Master Carver presided over the punishment. He proclaimed the sentence and chastised Cruce for his insubordination.
Cruce faced his punishment bravely, but the humiliation of it stung more than he had expected. The total attention of the assembled militia pressed on Cruce. Among his comrades, he saw a smattering of respect for striking back at Bevone, but also scorn, indifference, and the worst, pity.
The Militia Master regarded Cruce curiously, perhaps a little surprised that the estate class son from soft-living Kwellstan had agreed to face an exposure. Bellastan Carver had striking green eyes that roved the landscape from his blocky face. His fur hat shook in the rising wind.
“Come forward, Cruce Chenomet,” Carver commanded.
Cruce advanced. Leyton Bevone stood beside Carver. The narrow simmering eyes of Bevone drilled into Cruce. He had never seen someone look at him with malice before and it was unsettling. Beyond Bevone a tall oaken post with its single chain of thick links confronted Cruce ominously. He feared to be chained in a world in which Bevone was free.
“Are you accepting three days exposure?” the Militia Master asked.
“Yes, Master,” Cruce said. “I should not have been insubordinate. I will not do it again.” He hoped that it did not sound like an apology to Bevone.
“Then I be exposing you three days starting now. Great Divinity willing I’ll be welcoming you back as our comrade at the finish of that time,” Carver declared.
Leyton Bevone stepped forward to escort Cruce to the post. Cruce flinched. Bevone’s normally grim face seemed on the verge of chuckling. Before Bevone could grab his arm, Cruce started walking to the post. He did not want to appear that he was dragged to his punishment by his accuser.
His temper rotted as the leyton started bolting the shackles on his wrists. Another man assisted Bevone in attaching the shackles to the heavy chain. He used a hammer to set the metal pins of the shackles tightly.
Bevone tested the chain and shackles to make sure they were secure and then slapped the chain painfully across Cruce’s thighs.
Cruce winced but growled, “How’s your neck?”
Bevone hit him across the chin and Cruce fell back hard. The pain was startling and his head felt loose.
“I hope there be a freeze every night and you die, boy,” Bevone said.
Crazy bastard, Cruce thought, wondering why the militia tolerated him.
Bevone’s assault seemed not to warrant notice, and Master Carver dismissed the assembly. Rayden lingered as if he might do something. Gehr left last. His parting look of encouragement helped Cruce.
With nothing else to do, Cruce sat down with his back against the pole and rubbed his sore chin. Being on display as the others went about their daily business was uncomfortable. The vendors and other visitors that came to the base looked at him curiously.
As the day wore on, thirst nagged at Cruce. He realized that the proximity of the well was an added torture. Its low stone wall was just about ten paces beyond the reach of his chain. Each time someone tossed a bucket in the well, the delicious splash warned Cruce that the next three days would be harsh. He could hope for rain, but the chill of the wet could be more dangerous than dehydration.
Hunger crept up on Cruce as well. He had eaten well the night before, but he was a young man and needed food. By the time dusk came, he sorely missed the chance for supper. Watching the other men enter and leave the gathering hall was misery, and the drifting scent of roasting beef and vegetables stabbed at Cruce’s nostrils.
The trainees soon retired to their cramped barracks. Their feet dragged and Cruce knew how heavily they would fall into their bunks.
Inside the gathering hall the commanders, leytons, and veteran fighters lingered over beer and music. Cruce promised himself that he would join them as a proper militia member after the exposure was over.
Stars filled the clear night sky that promised to be cold. Cruce wrapped his cloak around himself tightly and stuck his hands in his armpits. Tired and hungry, he curled up at the base of the post and fell asleep. His sleep was shallow because of the deepening chill, and his eyes popped open when he heard approaching steps. The lamps outside buildings cast enough light to reveal the outline of a man standing over him. Smelling food, Cruce sat up quickly.
“Be quick and eat,” the man said.
“Gehr?” Cruce said.
“Here’s tea,” Gehr said. He placed a hot ceramic mug in Cruce’s hand.
Cruce clasped the mug with both hands gratefully and slurped the tea. He welcomed the blast of heat through his cold body and did not care if it was burning his mouth. Gehr had also brought him a hunk of bread. Cruce bit into it greedily.
“Isn’t this risky for you?” Cruce asked between mouthfuls.
Gehr chuckled. He sounded carefree again like he had that summer in Kwellstan when he had been extolling the thrills of militia service. “Not really,” he answered.
“Thank you, Gehr. I owe you,” Cruce said.
“Well, I wouldn’t want your fair sister to blame me if you died,” Gehr said. “I’m hoping to see her again on summer leave.”
Cruce automatically felt a little defensive of Dayd, even if she had covertly welcomed Gehr’s advances. “She has a serious suitor you know,” Cruce warned.
“And I’m not?” Gehr said.
“I don’t know. Are you?” Cruce said.
“Probably not,” Gehr admitted.
“I should be mad at you for toying with my sister,” Cruce said.
“Dayd wants to be toyed with,” Gehr said bluntly and Cruce knew it was true.
Their trivial conversation was soothing, and the bread and hot tea had made him feel much better.
“I will get you through tomorrow night too,” Gehr promised. “I would rather not lose a promising fighter to exposure.”
“Is this punishment really meant to kill?” Cruce asked.
“A strong man can survive three days, but you could get sick,” Gehr said.
They were quiet a moment. Cruce did not want Gehr to leave, but he knew that his friend could not stay. Gehr stood up and Cruce returned the mug to him.
“Stay strong,” Gehr advised and left.
The cold dark night pressed hard on Cruce, and the isolation was as unpleasant as the wind. The cheer from Gehr’s brief visit faded quickly, and Cruce’s only comfort was that his first day of exposure was almost done.
He curled up on the ground and struggled through fitful sleep until dawn. When he awoke, he walked out as far as his chain would allow so that he could urinate. His body was stiff and sore, and he recalled the luxury of his itchy straw mattress.
The day passed without a single person speaking to him. His hunger grew distracting. Starting to feel weak, he simply sat against his post all day, conserving his strength. The sun was a blessing in the autumn chill and he often lifted his face toward it.
By afternoon clouds gathered in the northern sky. Cruce eyed the dark mass with mixed feelings. His aching thirst craved the rain, but he dreaded the cold.
The rain was still holding back at sunset. Cruce endured watching his comrades gather for their communal meal again and tried to hide his wretched begging gaze.
As darkness came, Cruce licked his cracked lips, but that only made them hurt more. He sat like a defeated animal, listlessly staring at the lanterns hanging by the gathering hall. When he heard rain pattering on the ground, he blinked and lifted his mouth toward the sky. The rain tasted good.
Mercifully, no cold downpour came. Only light showers came in fits and starts, allowing him to wet his mouth without soaking through his cloak.
Anticipation for Gehr’s visit consumed Cruce’s senses as he listened to the darkness. The after dinner songs from the gathering hall seemed more boisterous tonight. He wondered what the occasion was. Perhaps it was just that it was a cold autumn night with the rain coming in and it was good to gather for song and drink.
Cruce hated the separation from the militiamen. He felt like a ghost but reminded himself that he would have a second chance at life. Even as he suffered, he refused to regret his altercation with Bevone. Discipline was important, but he was Cruce Chenomet and he was not going to suffer abuse needlessly.
Pride has its price, Cruce thought and twisted his wrists in their shackles.
When he finally heard someone coming toward him, he jumped up eagerly. “Gehr?” he whispered.
For an answer he heard something whizzing through the air just before a wooden baton slammed into his upper right arm. Awful pain erupted in his arm and he fell back against the thick post.
“I not be your mothering mentor,” Bevone said and swung again.
Cruce flung himself behind the post. The baton cracked loudly against it. Cruce scrambled around the post and tried to tackle Bevone. The wily old fighter stayed on his feet and drove one end of the baton into Cruce’s back. He cried out and twisted toward the arm that held the baton and grabbed it. Bevone, with his baton suddenly stymied, punched Cruce in the face and kept punching. Cruce clung desperately to Bevone’s other arm that held the baton.
Cruce’s recent combat training flowered in his mind and he managed to adjust his hold on Bevone’s arm and twist it. Bevone yelled and tried to pull away. As Cruce was tugged forward, his feet got tangled in his chains. He went down on his knees and let go of Bevone.
Bevone made a triumphant sound and swung his baton. Because of the dark his aim was off and Cruce took a glancing blow to the head instead of a stunning crack to the skull. Fearful that Bevone meant to beat him to death, Cruce grabbed his slack chain and tackled Bevone. He looped the chain around the leyton’s neck and pulled it tight. Bevone swung both arms frantically and tried to shake Cruce off, but the younger man had turned his disadvantage into a deadly weapon.
Fierce rage once again exploded from the depths of Cruce’s spirit, and he twisted the chain aggressively. Bevone’s choking gurgle almost encouraged Cruce to finish him off, but he escaped his violent urge before he went too far. He must not kill one of his own. As despicable as Bevone was, he was a fellow militiaman.
Cruce wrestled Bevone face down on the ground and kept the chain tight on his neck. Hissing into his ear, Cruce said, “You stay away from me. You don’t even look at me again, you old son of a savage. And don’t think about hurting my friends either.”
Cruce then whipped the chain off and stood up. His body was shaking from exertion and anger, but his fear had been transformed into a thrilling triumph.
Gasping and cursing, Bevone lurched to his feet. Apparently tough as a tree root, he raised his baton. Cruce gathered his slack chain and prepared to swing it.
“What’s going on?” It was Gehr’s voice. He lifted his lantern and saw Bevone. “You vicious wretch!” Gehr exploded. Before he could hurl another curse or threat, Bevone darted into the dark.
Gehr hurried to Cruce. Cruce’s bloody face sprang into the lantern light. Gehr set down the pail of food and drink and dug in a pocket for a cloth. He pressed it against Cruce’s bleeding upper lip and nose.
Too excited from the fight to feel most of his pain, Cruce related the fight in a flurry of words. “I beat him, Gehr. I could’ve killed him but I didn’t.”
Gehr hushed him. “I’m going straight to Carver and requesting a guard for you. This is wrong. Bevone has gone mad,” he said, and his anger violated his habitually pleasant face. Gently he helped Cruce to sit back down with his back against the post and then gave him the mug of hot beef broth and wedge of cheese. Cruce ate the food greedily, like a wolf that has worked hard to make a kill.
As the food hit Cruce’s stomach, the thrilling energy of his fight dissipated and pain began to spread through his body. He had taken some bad blows but he was fairly sure that no bones were broken.
“I must go speak to Carver,” Gehr said impatiently and gathered up the lantern and pail.
Cruce shook his head. “No, Gehr. If he comes back, I’ll fight him. Don’t ask Carver for help and make me look weak,” he said.
Although Gehr was livid about Bevone, he considered Cruce’s request. He understood that Cruce wanted to gain the Master’s respect, but more was at stake than Cruce’s pride.
He set a hand on Cruce’s shoulder. “I will be watching out for you tonight,” he said.
Cruce nodded gratefully and shut his eyes. With the crisis passing, he was feeling spent. As Gehr stalked away, an icy gust barreled through the garrison.
Cruce huddled against the post, trying to use it to block the increasing wind. It was better than nothing but not much. Rain pattered on the freezing ground and gradually became a stronger shower. Cruce shivered in his cloak and his cold feet hurt all the way to his thighs. When ice started to cling to the post and Cruce’s cloak was crunchy with it, he got up and jogged in place. Now the exposure truly tested him.
The jogging warmed his body somewhat but the sucking cold of his wet clothes quickly sapped him of warmth. As he continued his stomping and arm waving, he noticed a line of lights on the western road moving toward the militia base. Cruce wondered who would be traveling across the prairie on such a night and how they kept their lanterns lit in the wet wind.
His dull mind eventually realized that the white lights were tabre glow crystal lamps. The impending arrival of a group of tabre roused him from his fatigue. Horses and wagons entered the main yard and pulled up by the well. Crystal lanterns hung from the corners of six wagons, casting their enchanted glow. Cruce could see the rain striking the ground and puddling in the soft white light. Tabre riders dismounted. Warding crystal brooches held shut the hooded cloaks of the priests and sparkled like stars at their throats.
From an enclosed coach a stately tabre emerged in a magnificent hooded cloak. The weave of the cloak was so tight that water beaded on it. The water droplets glimmered in the crystalline light, and two eyes glowed faintly within the deep cowl.
The fluid black stripes on the tabre’s cloak surprised Cruce, who recognized the standard costume of the Daykash. Cruce could not guess why the deputy of the Grand Lumin had been in the rural west of Nufal.
Attended by a half dozen priests, the Daykash glided toward Master Carver’s cabin.
Curious, Cruce walked toward the waiting group of tabre as far as his chain would allow. He hailed the nearest acolyte. The tabre did not even turn his head, but then Cruce realized that he had hardly spoken above a whisper. He was so weak and tired.
“Good Acolyte!” Cruce shouted. “What is your business tonight?”
The tabre acknowledged Cruce lazily. “Be silent, criminal,” the tabre said.
Cruce bristled with offense even though he looked the part. But with little else to do he persisted in tempting the tabre toward conversation.
“Please, I am Cruce Chenomet of Kwellstan. Give me a word,” Cruce said.
“The Daykash wishes to speak with Bellastan Carver. Use your eyes human child,” the acolyte responded grudgingly. He turned away from Cruce to make it clear that he had no wish to be bothered.
Cruce frowned. He supposed it was obvious that the Daykash had gone to speak with the Militia Master. Stubbornly Cruce asked the acolyte where they had been.
The tabre ignored him, and no one else answered either until a voice came from a wagon. “They come from Jingten.”
A figure stood up from an uncovered wagon. The crystal lanterns revealed his soggy form. The water was heavy on his hood that clung to his head with rain streaming from its edges. He swung his legs over the edge of the wagon and got down. Agitation rippled among the tabre, and a nearby horse whickered nervously. The one who had spoken to Cruce walked up to him. He pushed his hood back. With rain pelting his face, he looked Cruce up and down. His eyes were dark and they lingered on the shackles on Cruce’s wrists and then followed the chain to the post.
Cruce gasped very lightly, realizing what he looked upon. The steady light from the enchanted crystals let him see the blue skin. Cruce had heard about the rys and their racial differences from the tabre, but he had never expected to see one.
Gesturing to the shackles, the rys asked, “Is this the way of Nufal?”
The question embarrassed Cruce. The rys’s voice projected dissatisfaction bordering on hostility. He spoke with a strange accent.
“I made a mistake. It is punishment. I will be freed tomorrow,” Cruce said, feeling intensely ashamed of being chained in front of the tabre and now this rare rys.
“What was your mistake?” the rys asked.
Cruce did not want to answer but something about this rys made it impossible for him to deny him. “I quarreled with a superior,” Cruce answered.
The rys parted his lips as if to ask another question, but two tabre, full Nebakarz priests, came up behind him and intervened.
“Go back to the wagon. The Daykash’s business is brief,” a priest commanded.
Two sparks of blue light flashed in the rys’s eyes. Cruce automatically took a step back, startled by the rise of magic within the rys.
“There is nothing interesting about this human, Dacian,” the other priest declared.
An unpleasant look crossed the rys’s face, but then he inclined his head toward Cruce in a cordial fashion. “It would be good to be free tomorrow,” he said. For an instant the light brightened in his eyes, and Cruce felt heat rush through his body. Then the rys’s eyes faded to black and the priests escorted him back to the wagon. The rys sprang gracefully into the wagon, sat down, and pulled his hood back up against the rain.
Cruce went slowly back to the post, feeling a little stunned. He contemplated the unexpected encounter with the rys. A spell had driven the cold from him and it was a blessed relief. He had never directly felt magic before, and it made him feel humble and small. He wondered if this was how his father felt after receiving a pain treatment. Cruce wondered why the rys had made the merciful gesture. Gradually he realized that the rys was in the custody of the tabre priests and had perhaps empathized with his captivity.
Puzzled by the extraordinary event, Cruce rested while the heat spell soothed his body. Unfortunately, the freezing rain storm had a strong magic of its own that sucked heat from Cruce’s body. By the time the Daykash returned from his visit with Master Carver, Cruce was again alternating between exhausted huddling and jogging. The Daykash went back into the coach and his attendants mounted their horses. Master Carver came out to see them off.
The Master wore a shaggy buffalo cloak with matching hat that insulated him from the weather. He bowed to the wagon that conveyed the Daykash away. “Good travel, Divine Lords,” he said, as was proper.
With the wagons moving off, only the meager light of Carver’s tin lantern sputtered against the darkness. A fresh gust of wind lashed the militia base with sharp rain that glazed the rutted yard with more ice.
Master Carver checked on his exposed trainee. Cruce shook as he clenched his hand to his chest. The rain drizzled down his face and neck.
Bellastan Carver was a man weathered by the prairie winds. A square jaw and a thick brow made him look permanently stern, and his green eyes lived with the passions of tragedy and success.
“Have you gotten this lesson learned, Chenomet?” he asked.
“Yes, Master,” Cruce chattered with much sincerity.
“I not be wanting you to die,” Carver said. He walked away in the blustering dark but soon returned with Leyton Tulem, who had instructed Cruce in weapons. The leyton carried the tools to undo Cruce’s shackles.
As the metal was pried off his raw wrists, Cruce thanked him. With liberty rushing back, Cruce felt keenly the repugnance of his captivity and burned it into his memory.
“Come with me,” the Militia Master commanded.
Cruce stumbled and Tulem offered him a kind hand.
Cruce staggered inside the Militia Master’s cabin. The warmth enveloped him like a hug from his mother, and Tulem led Cruce to the fireplace. Fresh wood had been recently thrown on the coals and the fire was burning brightly. Tulem helped get Cruce out of his wet cloak and shirt and then placed a thick wool blanket over his shoulders. Cruce huddled in it and drew in deep breaths of the blazing hot air radiating from the fire. His nose started to drip and his fingers and toes ached.
“Let’s have a look at that face, lad,” Tulem said with gruff concern.
Cruce tilted his face up. While Tulem cleaned his bloody lips and nose, Cruce looked around the cabin of his superior.
Its rustic exterior did not hint at the well-finished interior. The walls were plastered and decorated with ceramic tiles. The furnishings were nicely crafted and obviously expensive. A sun-bleached buffalo skin hung on the wall with a detailed map of Nufal painted on it. A blue painted table at the center of the main room had parchments, fabric scrolls, and tabre stone wafers piled up among a half dozen colored glass drinking goblets of tabre making.
An impressive assortment of swords, axes, maces, and shields hung on the walls along with strange artifacts, like a wooden club with crude carving and three stones lashed to it with leather cords.
Carver heaved his way out of his massive buffalo cloak and hat. He shook the cold rain from the shaggy furs and hung them on their sturdy rack in the corner where another rack held his battle armor.
Carver pulled a chair up and removed a kettle from the fire. He poured Cruce a cup of steaming tea. Cruce accepted it with shaking hands. He glanced at his superior, trying to gauge his mood. He doubted that Bellastan Carver normally took an exposed recruit into his home to nurse back to health.
“So, did Bevone bang you up?” Carver asked.
Cruce hesitated. He felt that he should not report on the leyton, yet Cruce doubted that he should lie to Carver.
After sucking some strength out of the hot tea, Cruce decided to be carefully political. “I was exposed to the elements, Master. Perhaps Bevone is included among the elements,” he said.
Tulem snorted, but Carver said nothing. He only watched as the leyton finished tending Cruce’s battered and wind-chapped face.
Once the dried blood was cleaned away and some salve applied, Tulem stood up. He regarded Cruce with satisfaction and said, “Well, I be judging you get pretty again in a week.”
Cruce thanked him for the help and gulped more tea. Carver lifted a kettle to replenish Cruce’s cup. “You may go, Leyton,” the Militia Master said with a kindly tone. Tulem saluted and left the cabin.
Carver got up and strolled around his cabin looking at his weapon collection with his hands behind his back as if he were admiring it for the first time. At length, he said, “What you be knowing about me, Chenomet?”
Knowing only the basics of Carver’s position and prestige, Cruce replied that Carver commanded all militias in Nufal.
Carver, intent on educating his young recruit, said, “I was the one be starting the militias proper like. It was over twenty years ago I got the Kahtep estate class to be sponsoring the first dedicated fighters. Then some you Kwellstan lords got interested in the frontier, and I be getting some fighters out of your lot. The savages don’t be liking us civilizing their wild country.”
“No, Master. I’ve heard the stories. That’s why I’m here,” Cruce said.
“Oh is it?” Carver said skeptically. He perused his collection again and paused to touch an old spear on the wall. “I be having a family one time,” he said.
Cruce waited attentively during the painful silence before Carver continued, “I was out late hunting an old black pantura that be eating calves. With it being summer my homestead should’ve been safe. Never been seeing savages much in summer, at least till they started getting interested in our herds instead of hunting north like they should. Well, after a few years I be teaching them to go away again in the summer at least.” He swept his hand along the wall. “Here be some of the weapons I be taking from those nasty savages. They be horrid beasts. They offend the Great Divinity to be having the same shape as us.”
Although Carver’s tone was mild and casual, Cruce noticed the changes on Carver’s blocky face that told of hatred and violence.
“The savages killed your family,” Cruce dared to surmise.
“Aye, my fine wife, two daughters, and my son,” Carver said. Decades had dulled the tragedy and ample revenge had granted him the paltry comfort of justice, but it was mostly the broken heart that left him too hard for tears. “It not be just about me,” he added. “More families than in my day be living and working to better Nufal. The militias be making it possible.”
Cruce nodded. The importance of the militia’s mission attracted him strongly.
Done speaking of the past, Carver said, “You not be just any militia volunteer.”
After suffering his humiliating exposure, Cruce had to forage for his natural self confidence. He coughed before responding, “You are kind, Master.”
“Kind?” Carver repeated. Such a word was rarely directed toward him, but he supposed it was not inaccurate. “Chenomet, my special eye has been watching you. That’s why I didn’t want to be losing you over this bad blood with Bevone,” Carver said.
“Master, I’m committed to the defense of Nufal,” Cruce said.
“Yes, yes, now put your ears on, young man. The savages be coming in greater numbers every year. The militia be too small. More men be needed and more food, clothing, weapons, armor, everything,” Carver said and then paused as if waiting for Cruce to say something.
Under the circumstances, Cruce’s wits were limping turtles, but he did not have to cross much mental distance to discover Carver’s meaning. “As the Chenomet heir, you want me to finance your expansion,” he said.
“Not just you — all the Kwellstan elite. You lake-land boys outfit a few volunteers and then put it out of your big heads, knowing well that Kahtep will pay the greater part because it must, but the Kwellstan-sponsored settlements still benefit their patrons,” Carver explained and Cruce had no reason to dispute him. Carver continued, “That’s why I be giving you permission to serve as your father’s proxy at the Adarium.”
“You know about that?” Cruce said.
“Yes, Chenomet, I know. Gladly I be permitting it. I be needing you to represent the militia’s needs to the Adarium,” Carver said.
Cruce felt like a sparrow in the nest of a hawk. What Carver proposed seemed to put Cruce in a position where he would have to split his loyalties between his family and the militia, but then he considered an alternative view. He could think of it as a way to expand his influence with the militia and the Kwellstan estate class.
This is everything I wanted, Cruce reminded himself. “Thank you for the special consideration, Master. The Chenomet family shall seek to set a new standard among the estate class of Kwellstan regarding the importance of the militia,” he said.
Carver grinned. “I knew you’d be agreeable. Pity we can’t be putting our energy to a better project then killing savages, but the Great Divinity seems to be wanting it that way,” he said.
Cruce contemplated the unpleasant prospect of escalating war with the savages. He believed that fair Nufal required her strongest sons to make sacrifices in her defense.
“Master,” Cruce said. “I see how you value me for political purposes, but I don’t want to be sheltered. I volunteered to become a warrior and serve Nufal. My wishes are sincere in that.”
Carver regarded Cruce with the unabridged gaze of long experience. “You shall be a warrior, Chenomet,” he promised. “You go return to your comrades now.”
Cruce stood up stiffly. The places where Bevone’s stick had hit him were stabbing him with bruising discomfort. Even so, he expected to sleep like a rock once he crawled into his crude bunk.
He put his damp shirt and cloak back on and was about to salute Carver when he paused. “Master, what did the Daykash want?” he asked.
His presumption noticeable irked the Militia Master, who was quite unaccustomed to such prying questions from a freshly disciplined trainee, but, as he had said, Cruce was no ordinary recruit.
The Militia Master came close to Cruce, obviously still sizing him up. “The Daykash told me to keep an eye to the west for trouble,” Carver quietly confided.
“From the rys?” Cruce said. “They had one prisoner.”
“Don’t talk about that,” Carver advised. “It’ll just tie people in a worry knot. It be a tabre problem anyway.”
“But the Daykash told you to watch for trouble,” Cruce said.
“And we shall do as the Divine Lords say, Chenomet. Now be going,” Carver commanded.
Cruce saluted and trudged through the windy slick wet to his barracks. He was glad for the favor the Militia Master had shown him, but his encounter with the rys prisoner troubled him. Cruce recalled the ominous nervousness of the tabre around the rys. Fear in tabre was not something he had seen before, and Cruce wondered if there were worse things in the world than savages.