In a sheepfarmer’s low stone house, high in the hills above Three Firs, two swords hang now above the mantelpiece. One is very old and slightly bent, a sword more iron than steel, dark as a pot: forged, so the tale runs, by the smith in Rocky Ford – yet it is a sword, for all that, and belonged to Kanas once, and tasted orcs’ blood and robbers’ blood in its time. The other is a very different matter: long and straight, keen-edged, of the finest sword-steel, silvery and glinting blue even in yellow firelight. The pommel’s knot design is centered with the deeply graven seal of St. Gird; the cross-hilts are gracefully shaped and chased in gold.
The children of that place look at both swords with awe, and on some long winter nights old Dorthan, grandfather of fathers and graybeard now, takes from its carved chest the scroll that came with the sword and reads aloud to his family. But first he reminds them of the day a stranger rode up, robed and mantled in white, an old man with thin silver hair, and handed down the box and the sword, naked as it hangs now.
‘Keep these,’ the stranger said, ‘in memory of your daughter Paksenarrion. She wishes you to have them and has no need of them.’ And though he accepted water from their well, he would say no more of Paksenarrion, whether she lived or lay buried far away, whether she would return or no.
The scroll Dorthan reads is headed The Deed of Paksenarrion Dorthansdotter of Three Firs, and many are the tales of courage and adventure written therein. Time and again the family has thrilled to the description of Paksenarrion in battle – the littlest ones pressing close around Dorthan’s knees, and watching the sword on the wall. They are sure it glows slightly when those tales are read.
And always they ask, the little ones who never knew her, what she was like. Just like that in the scroll? Always so tall, so brave? And Dorthan remembers her face the night she left, and is silent. One brother thinks of a long-legged girl running down errant sheep; the youngest remembers being carried on her shoulders, and the smell of her hair. Besides this, legend is all they have.
‘She’s dead,’ say some. ‘She must be, or they wouldn’t have sent her sword.’
‘No,’ say others. ‘She is not dead. She is gone where she doesn’t need this sword.’
And Dorthan turns to the end of the scroll, which solves nothing
. . . for the Deed is unfinished, ending abruptly in the middle of a stanza.
And one of those children, the little ones, has climbed from stool to table, and from table to mantelpiece, and touched with a daring hand the hilt of each sword . . . and then climbed down, to dream of songs and battles.
‘And I say you will!’ bellowed the burly sheepfarmer, Dorthan Kanasson. He lunged across the table, but his daughter Paksenarrion sidestepped his powerful arm and darted down the passage to the sleeping rooms. ‘Pakse!’ he yelled, slipping his broad leather belt from its loops. ‘Pakse, you come here now!’ His wife Rahel and three smaller children cowered against the wall. Silence from the sleeping rooms. ‘Pakse, you come or it will be the worse for you. Will you go to your wedding with welts on your back?’
‘I’ll not go at all!’ came the angry response.
‘The dower’s been given. You wed Fersin Amboisson next restday. Now come out before I come in.’
Suddenly she stood in the mouth of the passage, as tall as he but slender, long blonde hair braided tightly. She had changed to her older brother’s clothes, a leather tunic over her own shirt, and his homespun trousers. ‘I told you not to give dower. I told you I wouldn’t wed Fersin or anyone else. And I won’t. I’m leaving.’
Dorthan glared at her as he wrapped the belt around his right hand. ‘The only place you’re going, you arrogant hussy, is Fersin’s bed.’
‘Dorthan, please—’ began Rahel.
‘Quiet! She’s your fault as much as anyone’s. She should have been spinning at home, not running out on the moors hunting with the boys.’
Paksenarrion’s gray eyes glinted. ‘It’s all right, Mother; don’t worry. He’ll remember someday that he’s the one who sent me out with the flocks so often. Father, I’m leaving. Let me pass.’
‘Over my dead body,’ he grunted.
‘If need be—’ Paksenarrion leaped for the old sword, Kanas’s sword, over the fireplace. As she lifted it from the rack, the belt caught her shoulders with its first stroke. Then she was facing Dorthan, sword in hand, with the firelight behind her. The sword felt easy in her grip. Startled, Dorthan jumped back, swinging the belt wildly in her direction. Paksenarrion took her chance and ran for the door, jerked it open, and was gone. Behind her came his furious bellow, and questioning calls from her brothers still working in the barns, but Paksenarrion did not slow or turn until she came to the boundary stone of her father’s land. There she thrust her grandfather’s sword into the soil.
‘I won’t have him saying I stole it,’ she muttered to herself. She turned for a last look at her home. Against the dark bulk of the hill, she could see light at the open front door, and dark figures crossing and recrossing the light. She could hear voices calling her name, then a deep bellow from Dorthan, and all the shapes went in at the door and shut the light in. She was alone, outside the house, and she knew, as well as if she’d seen him do it, that Dorthan had barred the door against her. She shook herself. ‘It’s what I wanted,’ she said aloud. ‘So now I’d better go on with it.’
The rest of that night she jogged and walked down the well-worn track from her father’s farm to Three Firs, warmed by the thought of the coming adventure. She went over her cousin’s instructions time after time, trying to remember everything he’d said about recruiting sergeants and mercenary companies and training and drill. In the first light of dawn she walked into Three Firs. Only in the baker’s house did she see a gleam of light behind closed shutters, and a plume of smoke out the chimney. She smelled no baking bread. She could not wait until the first baking came out unless the recruiters were still in Three Firs. She walked on to the marketplace. Empty. Of course, they might not be up yet. She looked in the public barn that served as an inn. Empty. They had left. She drew water from the village well, drank deeply, and started off again, this time on the wider track that led to Rocky Ford – or so her cousin had said; she’d never been beyond Three Firs.
As daylight came, she was able to make better time, but it was nearly noon when she came to the outskirts of Rocky Ford. The rich smells of cooking food from the inns and houses nearly made her sick. She pressed on, through what seemed to her like crowds, to the market square in the town’s center. There she saw the booth that Jornoth had told her to look for, draped in maroon and white silk, with spears for cornerposts. She paused to catch her breath and look at it. On either side, a man-at-arms with breastplate, helmet, and sword stood guard. Inside was a narrow table, with one stool before it, and a man seated behind. Paksenarrion took a deep breath and walked forward.
As she reached the booth, she realized that she was taller than either of the men-at-arms. She waited for them to say something, but they ignored her. She looked inside. Now she could see that the man behind the table had gray hair, cropped short, and a neatly trimmed mustache. When he looked up at her, his eyes were a warm golden brown.
‘This is a recruiting station for Duke Phelan’s Company,’ he said as he met her gaze. ‘Were you looking for someone?’
‘No. I mean, yes. I mean, I was looking for you – for a recruiting station, I mean.’ Paksenarrion reddened with embarrassment.
‘You?’ The man stared a moment, then looked down briefly. ‘You mean you wanted to join the Company?’
‘Yes. My – my cousin said such companies accepted women.’ ‘We do, though not so many want to join. Look – mmm – let’s get a few things straight before we start. To join us you must be eighteen winters old, healthy, with no deformities, strong, tall enough – you have no problem there – and not too stupid. If you’re a drunkard, liar, thief, or devil-worshipper, we’ll throw you out the worse for wear. You agree to serve for two years beyond your basic training, which takes four to six months. You get no pay as a recruit, but you do get room, board, and gear as well as training. Your pay as a private in the Company is low, but you’ll share any plunder. Is that clear?’
‘Aye,’ said Paksenarrion. ‘Clear enough. I’m over eighteen, and I’m never sick. I’ve been working on the moors, with sheep – I can lift as much as my brother Sedlin, and he’s a year older.’
‘Mmm. What do your parents think of your joining an army?’ ‘Oh.’ Paksenarrion blushed again. ‘Well, to be honest, my father doesn’t know that’s where I am. I – I ran away.’
‘He wanted you to wed.’ The man’s eyes had a humorous twinkle. ‘Yes. A pig farmer—’
‘And you wanted someone else.’
‘Oh no! I didn’t – I don’t want to marry at all. I want to be a warrior like my cousin Jornoth. I’ve always liked hunting and wrest-ling and being outdoors.’
‘I see. Here, have a seat on the stool.’ While she sat down, he fished under the table and came up with a leather-bound book which he laid on top. ‘Let me see your hands – I have to be sure you don’t have any prison brands. Fine. Now – you like wrestling, you say. You’ve arm wrestled?’
‘Surely. With my family, and once at market.’
‘Good. Give me a try; I want to test your strength.’ They clasped right hands, and on the count began to push against each other’s resistance. After several minutes, with neither moving much, the man said ‘Fine, that’s enough. Now let’s go left-handed.’ This time he had the greater strength, and slowly pushed her arm to the table. ‘That’s good enough,’ he said. ‘Now – was this decision to join a sudden one?’
‘No. Ever since Jornoth left home – and especially after he came back that time – I’ve wanted to. But he said I had to be eighteen, and then I waited until the recruiting season was almost over, so my father couldn’t trace me and cause trouble.’
‘You said you’d been on the moors – how far from town do you live?’ ‘From here? Well, we’re a half day’s sheep drive from Three Firs—’ ‘Three Firs! You came here from Three Firs today?’
‘We live up the other side of Three Firs,’ said Paksenarrion. ‘I came through there before dawn, just at first light.’
‘But that’s – that’s twenty miles from Three Firs to here, at least. When did you start from home?’
‘Late last night, after supper.’ At the word, her stomach rumbled loudly.
‘You must have gone . . . thirty miles, I don’t doubt. Did you eat in Three Firs?’
‘No, it was too early. Besides I was afraid I’d miss you here.’ ‘And if you had?’
‘I’ve a few coppers. I’d have gotten some food here and followed you.’
‘I’ll bet you would have, too,’ the man said. He grinned at her. ‘Give us your name, then, and let’s get you on the books so we can feed you. Any girl who’ll go thirty miles or more on foot without stopping to eat ought to make a soldier.’
She grinned back. ‘I’m Paksenarrion Dorthansdotter.’ ‘Pakse-which?’
‘Paksenarrion,’ she said slowly, and paused until he had that down. ‘Dorthansdotter. Of Three Firs.’
‘Got it.’ He raised his voice slightly. ‘Corporal Bosk.’ ‘Sir.’ One of the men-at-arms turned to look into the tent. ‘I’ll need the judicar and a couple of witnesses.’
‘Sir.’ The corporal stalked off across the square.
‘We have to have it all official,’ the man explained. ‘This isn’t our Duke’s domain; we must prove that we didn’t take advantage of you, or force you, or forge your signature . . . you can sign your name, can’t you?’
‘Good. The Duke encourages all his troops to learn to read and write. Now—’ he broke off as a man in a long maroon gown and two women arrived at the booth.
‘Got another one before the deadline, eh, Stammel?’ said the man. The women, one in cheesemaker’s apron and cap, and the other with flour dusting her hands and arms, looked at Paksenarrion curiously.
‘This young lady wishes to join,’ said Stammel shortly. The man winked at him and took out a stone cylinder with carving on one end. ‘Now,’ Stammel continued, ‘if you’ll repeat after me in the presence of the judicar and these witnesses: I, Paksenarrion Dorthansdotter, do desire to join Duke Phelan’s Company as a recruit and agree to serve two years in this company after recruit training without leave, and do further agree to obey all rules, regulations, and commands which I may be given in that time, fighting whomever and however my commander directs.’
Paksenarrion repeated all this in a firm voice, and signed where she was directed, in the leather-bound book. The two women signed beside her name, and the judicar dripped wax underneath and pressed the stone seal in firmly. The cheesemaker patted Paksenarrion on the shoulder as she turned away, and the judicar gave Stammel a final wink and leer.
‘Now then,’ said Stammel. ‘I’m Sergeant Stammel, as you may have gathered. We usually leave a town at noon; all the rest of the recruits are at the Golden Pig and have eaten. But you need something in your stomach, and a rest before we march. So we’ll wait a bit. From here on, you’re a recruit, remember. That means you say “yes, sir” and “no, sir” to any of us but other recruits, and you do what you’re told with no arguing. Clear?’
‘Yes, sir,’ said Paksenarrion.
An hour later, seated by a window, Paksenarrion looked curiously at the other recruits lounging in the courtyard of the Golden Pig. Only two were taller than she: a husky youth with tousled yellow hair, and a skinny black-bearded man whose left arm had a tattooed design on it. The shortest was a wiry redheaded boy with an impu-dent nose and a stained green velvet shirt. She spotted two other women, sitting together on the steps. None had weapons except a dagger for eating, but the black-bearded man wore a sword-belt. Mostly the recruits looked like farm boys and prentices, with a few puffy-faced men beyond her experience. Only the men-at-arms and the recruiting sergeant were in uniform. The others wore the clothes in which they’d joined. She finished the sandwich in her hand and started another; Stammel had told her to eat hearty and take her time. She had downed four sandwiches when Stammel came in again.
‘You look better,’ he remarked. ‘Is there a short form of that name of yours?’
Paksenarrion had been thinking about that. She never wanted to hear her father’s ‘Pakse’ again. Her great-aunt, for whom she was named, had been called Enarra, but she didn’t like that, either. She had finally decided on a form she thought she could live with.
‘Yes, sir,’ she said. ‘Just call me Paks, if you wish.’ ‘All right, Paks – ready to march?’
‘Come on, then.’ Stammel led the way to the inn courtyard. The other recruits stared as she came down the steps. ‘This is Paks,’ he said. ‘She’ll march in Coben’s file today, Corporal Bosk.’
‘Very good, sir. All right, recruits: form up.’ The other recruits shuffled into four lines of five persons each, except that the first file was one short. ‘Paks, you march here.’ Bosk pointed to the last place in the short file. ‘Now remember, at the command you all start off on the left foot, march in step, keep even with the rank on your right, and don’t crowd the man ahead.’ Bosk walked around and through the group, shifting one or another an inch this way or that. Paksenarrion watched him curiously until he bawled suddenly, ‘Eyes front, recruits!’ At last he was through fussing (as she thought to herself) and stepped back.
‘Good enough, Bosk,’ said Stammel. ‘March ’em out.’
For the first time in her life, Paksenarrion heard that most evoc-ative of military commands as Bosk drew in a lungful of air and shouted: ‘Recruits. Forward . . . MARCH!’
The afternoon’s march was only four hours, with two short rest-breaks, but when they halted, Paksenarrion was tireder than she had ever been. Besides the recruits, there were six regulars (Stammel, Bosk, and four privates) and four mules that carried the booth and supplies. In the course of the afternoon, they reviewed (and Paks learned) the correct way to form up, begin marching, and turn in column. She now knew her file number and who the file leader was, and had learned to keep an even distance behind the man in front. Tired as she was, she was in better shape than one of the puffy-faced men. He groaned and complained all afternoon, and finally fell in a faint at the last rest-break. When cold water failed to rouse him, two privates hoisted him over one mule’s pack and lashed him there, face down. When he came to, he begged to walk, but Stammel left him there, groaning piteously, until they made camp.
Paksenarrion and the next newest recruit were set to dig the jacks trench at the camp. This was the tall yellow-haired boy; he told her his name was Saben. He had dug the night before, too, and knew how long to make the trench. As they walked back into camp, the tatooed man sneered, ‘Here come the ditchdiggers – look like a real pair, don’t they?’
The man who’d fainted snickered appreciatively. ‘It took ’em long enough. I’d say they weren’t just digging ditches.’
Paksenarrion felt her ears steam, but before she got her mouth open, she saw Stammel, behind the others, shake his head at her. Then her file leader, a chunky dark youth named Coben, spoke up.
‘At least neither of them sneaked ale and collapsed like a town bravo, Jens. And as for being ditchdiggers, Korryn, it’s better than graverobbing—’
The blackbearded man jumped up and his hand reached for the sword he no longer wore. ‘Just what d’you mean by that, Coben?’
Coben shrugged. ‘Take it as it fits. Digging jacks is something any of us might be assigned – I was, and you will be. It’s nothing to sneer about.’
‘Young puppy,’ muttered Korryn.
‘Enough chatter,’ said Bosk. ‘Fall in for rations.’
Paksenarrion was glad to find that after supper they were each issued a blanket and expected to sleep. She had no problem. She woke early and stiff, and had made her way to the jacks and to the river to bathe before a bellow from Corporal Bosk brought the others out of their blankets. The regulars, she noticed, were already in uniform: did they sleep that way? She folded her blanket as the others did, and turned it in to the privates to load on a mule. This morning she stirred porridge in one of the cookpits; three others were supervised by Saben, Jens, and the red-haired boy in velvet.
A bowl of porridge, hunk of brown bread, and slab of dried beef made an ample breakfast, and Paksenarrion felt no ill effects from the previous day’s journey. She was, in fact, happier than she’d been for years: she was a soldier at last, and safe from her father’s plans. When she found that Jens and Korryn had been told to fill in the trench, her mood soared even higher.
‘I don’t mind digging them, if they’ll fill them,’ she whispered to Saben.
‘Nor I. That Korryn’s nasty, isn’t he? Jens is just a drunk, but Korryn could be trouble.’
‘Recruits. Fall in!’ yelled Bosk, and the day’s work really began. In the next few weeks, as they traveled toward the Duke’s stronghold where their training would take place, Paksenarrion and the others became more and more proficient at marching and camp chores. They picked up new recruits in most of the towns they passed, until their group numbered thirty-eight. Already friendships had begun among some of them, and Paksenarrion had heard her shortened name enough to feel comfortable with it. Despite having little time to talk, she knew that Saben, Arñe, Vik, Jorti, and Coben were going to be her friends – and that Korryn and Jens would never be anything but enemies.
Stammel changed the marching order every few days, so that they all had a chance to lead a file as well as follow. Marching in front, where she could not see the motley clothing of the rest, Paksenarrion imagined herself already through training and headed for a battle. She could almost feel a sword swinging at her side. Around that corner, she thought, or over the rise – the enemy is waiting. She pictured grim-faced troops in black armor – or maybe orcs, like those her grandfather had fought. Bits of the old songs and tales ran through her mind: magic swords, heroes who fought and won against the powers of darkness, enchanted horses . . . When she marched in back, however, the visions failed, and she wondered how many more days they would be on the road.
At last Stammel told them that the stronghold was less than a day’s march away. They halted early, beside the river, and spent the rest of the daylight getting as clean as possible. Paksenarrion did not mind the cold water, but others who tried to make do with a casual swipe at face and hands were ordered back in to do the job properly.
Next day Stammel put Paksenarrion, Saben, Korryn, and Seliast at the head of the first squad files: the tallest recruits. They marched without effort now, and almost without thought, rhythm even and arms swinging. As they came over the last rise, to see the blunt stone walls of the stronghold rise from a narrow plain, squads on the parade fields were shifted out of their way.
Paksenarrion, marching across that space in front of a whole army (as it seemed to her), suddenly felt she couldn’t get any air. Only the habit of days on the road kept her from bolting from so many eyes. She blushed a fiery red and kept marching.
‘All your personal belongings you turn in to the quartermaster; he’ll put ’em in a bag with your name on it and store them in the treasury. We’ll issue your training uniforms today, and if you want to keep your old clothes, they’ll be stored too. You’ll be issued everything you need.’ Stammel turned to greet a gnarled older man whose arms were full of burlap sacks. ‘Ah, Quartermaster . . . good to see you.’
The man glared at the recruits. ‘Hmmph. Another bunch of begin-ners. And how much sentimental trash have they brought to take up space in storage?’
‘Not so much; we’ve been on the road eight days since the last pickup.’
‘Good. I’ll need a clerk.’
‘Bosk’ll do it.’ Stammel gestured to Bosk, who came forward and took a handful of tags from the quartermaster. ‘File one, step up one at a time, give your name, and hand over your gear.’
Paksenarrion stepped forward, unbuckling the belt on which her sheathed dagger hung. Bosk had already written out her tag, and handed it to the quartermaster, who fastened it to a sack and waited for her contribution. She held out belt, dagger, and the kerchief with her savings – eighteen coppers – in it.
‘Are you going to keep those clothes?’ he asked, eyeing her brother’s trousers, which had slipped down her hips without the belt.
‘Amazing. Well, go get your uniform, and bring your clothes back here. Quickly, now.’
Paksenarrion looked around to see where she should go; Stammel waved her toward a doorway on the left. There a man and woman presided behind tables heaped with brown clothing. Paks strode quickly across the courtyard, hoping her trousers would stay up. Behind her she heard Korryn’s nasty chuckle and whispered comment.
When she reached the tables, she saw stacks of plain brown tunics, socks, and low boots. The woman beckoned her, and grinned. ‘You’re a tall one, right enough. Let’s see—’ and she began measuring Paks with a length of knotted string: neck to waist, waist to knee, shoulder to elbow to wrist. ‘Here—’ she held out a tunic, after rummaging in the pile. ‘This should do well enough for now. Change.’
Paksenarrion took the tunic, stripped off her shirt and trousers, and pulled the tunic over her head. The cloth was not as scratchy as the wool she was used to. The sleeves were just short of her elbow, and the hem almost reached her knees. It felt more like a dress cut short than anything else.
‘Try these boots,’ said the woman. Paks put on a pair of the heavy brown socks and eased her feet into the boots. They were short. The woman offered a larger pair. These fit well enough. ‘Here’s a belt for you, and a sheath. You’ll be issued the dagger later.’ The belt, like everything else, was plain brown; the buckle was iron. Paksenarrion took her old clothes back to the quartermaster, feeling silly with the tunic rippling around her bare thighs.
‘Ooh, look at the pretty white legs she has.’ She was sure that mocking whisper was Korryn or Jens, and hated herself for blushing as she handed the clothes to be sacked away. But Stammel heard the whisper too.
‘Korryn,’ he said. ‘Who told you to talk in ranks?’
Paks, returning to her place, dared not look at Korryn’s face as he replied: ‘No one, Sergeant.’
‘Perhaps you need reminding that you are to do what you’re told and nothing else?’
‘No, sir.’ Korryn did not sound as confident as usual. ‘But, sir, such a pretty sight—’
‘If a pair of legs can make you forget your duty, Korryn, you’ll have to be better taught. I don’t care if the Marshal-General of Gird’s Hall in Fin Panir walks through the lines stark naked and tweaks your beard – you pay attention to me, and not to her. Is that clear?’
‘Yes, sir.’ Korryn sounded sullen. ‘But—’ ‘No buts!’ growled Stammel.
In less than an hour, Stammel’s group of recruits was outfitted in the recruit uniform. They moved into one of the big barracks rooms, with Bosk and Devlin, another corporal, assigning bunks.
‘File leaders will rotate from week to week for the first month or so,’ said Devlin. He was taller and thinner than Bosk, and looked as if he would smile more easily. Right now he was not smiling at all. ‘File leaders bunk here, by the door,’ he went on. ‘File seconds here, then thirds, fourths, and so on. You’ll change your bunk as you change your place in the files. Now: each bunk has the same bedding, and this is how you’ll make it up.’ The corporals demonstrated, then pulled the bedding apart. ‘Your turn; get busy.’ As the recruits struggled with the bedding, they walked from place to place, explaining and criticizing. The long, straw-stuffed pallet had to be patted into an even rectangle, muslin sheet stretched tightly over it, and the brown wool blanket folded in one certain way at the foot. Paksenarrion finally achieved an acceptable bunk, and stood beside it waiting for the others to finish. Her legs still felt chilly and exposed, and she was hungry. Most of the others looked as uncomfortable as she felt.
At last they were all done. Corporal Devlin went to fetch Stammel, and Bosk moved around the room, positioning recruits beside each bunk, ready for inspection.
Stammel came to the door. ‘Ready?’
‘Ready for inspection, sir,’ answered Bosk.
Stammel began with the file leaders, checking the bunks first. Then he looked at his recruits, twitching a sleeve into place, here, asking about the fit of the boots, there. When he had made his way all around the room, he returned to the doorway.
‘You’ll present like this for inspection every morning before break-fast,’ he said. ‘And at any other time it’s ordered. You’ll receive your file positions here, when that’s changed, so that you’ll go directly to your file position in formation in the yard. Immediately after an inspection, you’ll parade in the yard, and you’ll march everywhere in formation – to eat, to drill, to work. You’ll have a quarterglass after morning call to visit the jacks, dress and make your bunks; I’ll expect every one of you to be in place when I come in.’ He beckoned to Bosk and Devlin, and left the room. Most of the group stood still, but a few left their places and started for the door. Bosk returned, and the rash ones halted.
‘And who told you that you were dismissed?’ They stared at their feet.
‘Those of you out of position, stay there. The rest of you are dismissed.’
Paksenarrion gave silent thanks that she had not moved, and went quickly out to the yard. There she found the other recruit units drawn up in formation, and Stammel waiting. She aligned herself on the others, wondering what was happening to the unfortunates who had been held back. Beside and behind her the ranks filled. At last they were all in position. The corporals reported to Stammel, and after a moment he glanced at the other sergeants.
‘Go ahead, Stammel,’ called someone from far down the row. ‘Take yours in first.’
They were marched across the courtyard to a building with windows opening on the yard. Paks could smell cooked meat and bread. There Stammel sent them in, one file at a time. Once inside, she was urged along by a private who directed her to the serving line. There she found a stack of bowls, another of trays, and a bin of blunted knives. She took a tray, bowl, spoon, and knife, and moved toward the impa-tient cooks. A dipper of some kind of stew went into the bowl, and a half-loaf of bread, hunk of cheese, slab of salt beef, and an apple went on the tray. As she came off the serving line, another private directed her to a table in one corner. Soon her file was seated along the bench, and the tables were filling in strict order. A cook brought over a large jug of water and a cup to their table. Paks took a tentative bit of stew. To her surprise, it was tasty, savory with onions and vegetables. It had looked like a lot on her tray, but she found herself polishing the bowl with the last of her bread before she knew it.
‘Well,’ said Stammel from behind her. ‘How do you like army food?’
‘Seems good enough to me, sir,’ said Saben, from the next table. ‘You’ll eat a lot of it.’ Stammel moved away.
The first night in barracks, after so many nights on the road, was horrible. It was stuffy. It smelled. Paksenarrion jerked awake several times in alarm, only to find that she was safe in her bunk: someone had walked past the doorway. It was neither as light nor as dark as the roadside, for the dark was thicker, an indoor darkness, and the light was clearly of human origin. Several people snored, and their snores echoed off the stone walls. She missed the comfort of the old shirt she usually slept in. The new nightshift she’d been issued was scratchy. (‘We’re civilized,’ Stammel had said to those who protested against wearing a nightshift. ‘Besides, it’ll be cold soon.’) Paks had scarcely fallen asleep after her last alarm when a terrible clangor broke out: Corporal Devlin with the triangle that announced morning call.
Paks rolled out of her bunk and made for the jacks down the corridor. Then back to the room, to struggle with her bunk. She peeled off the nightshift, hoping that Korryn’s eyes were occupied elsewhere. No one said anything. Everyone around her was as busy as she was. She unbraided her hair, combed it with the bone comb she wore looped into it, and rebraided it smoothly, wrapping the tip with a thread from her tunic. She didn’t know what to do with the nightshift. Bosk came to the door; Paks caught his eye and he came forward.
‘What do we do with these?’
‘See that ledge? Fold it neatly and put it there.’ Bosk went around the room to tell the others. Paks tied her bootlaces, straightened her belt and empty sheath, and smoothed the sheet on her bunk one last time.
Devlin came to the door. ‘Ready?’ he asked Bosk. ‘As they will be.’
‘Recruits, prepare for inspection!’ yelled Devlin. Paksenarrion stood where she thought she should be and stared straight ahead. Stammel entered the room, and began on the other side. He found something wrong with each person: blanket folded wrong, sheet crooked, pallet misshapen, boots laced unevenly, hair uncombed, tunic crooked, nightshift folded wrong, dirty fingernails (Paks felt a stab of panic and almost looked at her hands), untrimmed beard, messy bunk (he was only two bunks away, and Paks was sure she could not stand the suspense), nightshift under the bed weren’t you listening, recruit? And then it was her turn. She felt herself begin to blush before he said a word. She heard – she did not look – him thump the bunk. He looked at her from all sides, grunted, and finally said, ‘Tunic’s wrinkled in back,’ and walked out.
‘Dismissed,’ said Bosk, and Paksenarrion headed for the yard, beginning to wonder why she’d gotten into this.
She wondered even more in the next weeks. She enjoyed the marching drill, which kept them moving about the wide fields in intricate patterns for several hours every morning and evening. It wasn’t fighting, but it was soldierly, and expected. What she didn’t enjoy was the other work. Bedmaking, cleaning, and dishwashing were among the things she’d left home to avoid. If she’d wanted to be a carpenter or a mason, she grumbled to herself one day while working on repairs to the stable wall, she’d have apprenticed herself to one.
Others felt the same way.
‘We haven’t even seen a sword yet,’ complained Effa. ‘I signed on to be a fighter, not drag rocks around all day.’
‘Well – surely we’ll get into that,’ said Saben, as he hoisted one of the despised rocks into place. ‘I mean, the place isn’t full of workers, so they must have become fighters and gone to war.’
Korryn gave a sneering laugh. ‘Fine reasoner you are! No, they’ll keep us as laborers as long as they can, and then try to skimp on our training. As long as they can count on fools like you to join every year, they don’t care how many die.’
Paksenarrion snorted. ‘If we’re fools for joining, what about you?’ The others laughed, and Korryn scowled, slamming a rock into wet mortar so it splattered them all.
‘I,’ he said, ‘already know how to use a sword. I don’t have to worry.’
‘You will if you don’t get busy,’ said Bosk. They all wondered how long he had been listening.
The closest they came to anything that Paksenarrion recognized as weapons training was hauk drill. Every day they spent two hours with the hauks, weighted wooden cylinders that looked somewhat like maces.
‘I know what you want,’ said Armsmaster Siger, as he supervised the drill. ‘You want swords, you think, and spears. Huh. You couldn’t wield a sword for a quarterglass yet, none of you. Get that up, recruit – higher, that’s right. Thought you were strong, didn’t you? And you’re all as weak as new-born lambs – look at you sweat.’ Siger was a gnarly, dried-up old man who looked old enough to be anyone’s grandfather.
Paks had begun to doubt they would ever get to real weapons – week after week, they swung the hauks: over, under, sideways. And then one day they arrived to find practice swords laid out: wooden, and blunted, but swords. Siger stood behind the row of swords like a potter behind his wares.
‘Today,’ he said, ‘we find out who’s making a warrior. File one, come forward.’ Paks led her file out of formation. ‘All right, file leader, are you ready to face a sword today?’
Paks took a deep breath of excitement. ‘Yes, Armsmaster.’
Siger glared at her. ‘Ha! Eager, are you? You innocents are all too willing to shed your blood. Very well – pick up the first one in line – yes – that one.’
Paks could not help grinning: a sword in her hand at last. She waggled it from side to side.
‘No!’ roared Siger. ‘Don’t play with it, fool! It’s not a toy to show off with. A sword is to kill people with, nothing less.’
Paksenarrion blushed scarlet.
‘Now – hold it just like the hauk in position one. Yes.’ Siger scooped up one of the other practice blades. ‘This is an infantry sword, short enough not to get in the way in formation. It’s used to stab and slash. Now, file leader – the motions are the same as for hauk drill. Proceed.’
Paks was puzzled but willing, and began to move the sword through the remembered sequences. As she did so, Siger’s blade met hers, tapping it first lightly, then harder. Paks began to watch his blade, thinking back to Jornoth’s sketchy lessons, and forgot all about the sequence of hauk-drill. Excitement rose in her, and she began to swing the blade harder, trying to force Siger’s blade aside. Suddenly his sword was not there to be tapped; instead it rapped her sharply on the ribs.
‘Ouch!’ She was startled, and having lost her rhythm was whacked twice more before she regained it. Uncertain, and a bit angry, she glared at Siger, who gave her a mocking smile.
‘That was the flat of the blade,’ he said cheerfully. ‘Next time it’ll be the edge; keep to the drill, recruit.’
Paks bit her lip, but returned to the drill pattern, meeting Siger’s blade with a crisp smack. He increased the pace, and she struggled to keep up, irritated by his smile and by the snide remarks of Korryn behind her. Again Siger rapped her ribs, sore now from the earlier blows, and Paks erupted furiously into wild strokes that hit nothing – until a sharp blow in the midsection knocked the wind out of her, and she dropped the sword and sprawled painfully on the ground. Korryn laughed.
‘Always a mistake to get angry,’ said Siger, over her head. ‘You’ve a lot to learn before trading killing blows. Catch your breath, now.’ His voice chilled. ‘As for you, recruit, that thinks it’s funny, we’ll have you next, if you please.’
Paks gasped a moment or two, and clambered up. ‘Still want to learn swordplay?’ Siger asked.
‘Yes, sir. It’s – it’s harder than it looks, though.’
Siger grinned. ‘It always is, recruit; it always is. Now you’ve been blooded, I want you to put on a banda next time.’ He jerked his head toward a pile of white objects like cushions. ‘Not you—’ he added as Korryn moved toward the pile. ‘I want to see if you think it’s funny when I whack your ribs.’
Korryn glared at him and snatched up a sword with practiced ease. ‘Ah-h. An expert, is it? You’ve handled a blade before?’ Korryn nodded. ‘We’ll see, then. You need not confine yourself to the hauk drill if you think you can do more.’ But Korryn began with the standard movements, holding his sword easily. ‘I’d say you were used to a longer blade, recruit,’ commented Siger.
Abruptly Korryn changed from the drill pattern, and a compli-cated rattle of blade-on-blade resulted; Paks could not see just what had happened. Korryn tried a quick thrust, but the shortsword did not reach Siger, and Siger’s blade rapped Korryn’s shoulder. Korryn scowled and pressed his attack again, using his height and longer reach, but he could not touch the Armsmaster, who kept up a running commentary.
‘Taught by a fencing master, weren’t you? You like a thrust better than a slash. You handle that blade like you did most of your fighting in alleys. It won’t do for us – you might as well forget it, recruit, and start learning it right.’ And with that Siger began a furious attack that forced Korryn back, and back, and back around the practice ring, taking blow after blow, until Korryn lost his grip and the sword flew out of his hand. Effa caught it in midair.
‘Now,’ said Siger, the point of his sword at Korryn’s waist. ‘Is it quite as funny when it happens to you? Let’s hear you laugh.’
Korryn was white with rage, breathless and sweaty.
‘Sir,’ he said finally. Siger gave him a slight smile and nodded. ‘Novices, that have never handled a sword, them I expect to get drunk on the excitement and do something stupid – and I thump them well for it. But those who claim to know something . . . Go wait for your turn again, recruit.’
Each of them went a round with Siger without protection, and each received a complement of bruises. Then he showed them how to fasten the bandas, the quilted canvas surcoat worn for weapons practice.
‘Your turn again,’ Siger said to Paks. ‘Ready? Are you sore enough?’ Paks grinned. ‘I’m sore, sir, but I’m ready. I hope.’
‘You’d better be. Now start with the drill.’
This time Paks handled the sword with more assurance, and kept the cadence as even as she could. ‘Better,’ admitted Siger. ‘Painfully slow, but better. Speed it up, now, just a little. Keep the rhythm.’ The blades clacked together. Again, again, again. ‘Now a bit harder – not too much at once.’ The shock of contact was making Paks’s hand tingle; her arm began to tire. Siger shifted around her, and she had to turn and strike at the same time. The ache spread up her arm. Whack. Whack. Sweat trickled down her face, stinging in her eyes. Siger moved the other way, and Paks turned with him, but she lost the rhythm. Quick as a snake’s tongue his blade tapped her ribs. ‘Enough,’ he said. ‘You’re slowing down again. Give the blade to someone else, and go work with the hauks awhile.’
Once they began drilling with wooden blades, they also began to learn other weapons. By the time they marched south, Siger said, they would have a certain minimum proficiency with shortsword, dagger, bow, and spear.
It was the spear that offered the most difficulty. As usual, it had seemed simple, just thinking about it. A long pole with a sharp end, to be poked at the enemy. No fancy strokes – simple. Effective. Surely it was easier than a sword; if nothing else you could hang onto the thing with both hands.
‘We don’t use polearms often,’ said Stammel. ‘We’re a fast-moving, flexible infantry, and swords are better for that. But we do train with ’em and we use them sometimes. So. First you’ll learn to carry some-thing that long without getting all tangled up in it. Remember those reeds we gathered last week you were so curious about? Well, they’ve been drying in the storelofts, and you’ll each take one.’
Soon they were back in formation, each with a twelve-foot reed in hand. Stammel had shown them how to hold the mock spears upright; now he gave the command to move forward. Five of the reeds tipped backwards. The butt on one tripped the recruit in front of the careless carrier. When he stumbled, his reed swung out of control and hit the file leader on the head.
‘Pick ’em up – don’t stop, come on! You’ve got to hold them firmly – don’t let ’em waver. Keep in formation, there. Stay in step or you’ll trip each other.’
The reeds dipped and wavered as if a wind blew them as Stammel led the unit to the far side of the parade grounds. By the time he called a halt, most faces were red.
‘Now you see what I meant. The only easy thing about spear work is how easy it is to mess up the whole formation. If you ever see one of the heavy polearm companies, like Count Vladi’s, you’ll see how it should be done. Now – you’ve got to learn how to shift those things about. Together, or you’ll all be tangled together. So just holding them upright, we’ll practice turning in place.’ He called for a right face. Two recruits let their reeds lag behind the turn, and the tips bumped neighboring reeds. ‘No! Hold them absolutely steady when you turn. Keep ’em straight. Try it again.’
After a dizzying few minutes of facing left, right, and about, the unit could turn in place without any wavering of the reeds. Stammel wiped his face and glanced at the corporals. They were trying not to grin. Far across the parade grounds, he could see another unit prac-ticing. It looked worse than his, he thought.
‘Next step is the slope,’ he said. ‘Don’t move anything until I’ve explained. First, you’ll put the butt a handspan behind the right foot of the man in front of you; file leaders, that’s an armspan in front of you. Then slowly tilt the reed back over your shoulder – you have to be careful not to let the butt slip forward. Then your left hand grips two spans below the right, and you lift it onto your shoulder. That gives enough clearance in front for marching. Don’t let it swing free; use your grip to hold the butt end down. Bosk, show them how to do it.’
Bosk came forward and took Paksenarrion’s reed from her hands. He held it upright, and demonstrated the facing movements they had practiced: the end of the reed, far over his head, scarcely quivered when he turned. Then he loosened his grip and let the butt end slide toward the ground, tilting the reed as it slid so that it grounded an armspan in front of him. While his right hand steadied the shaft, his left hand reached below and lifted; the reed rose, keeping the same steep slant. When his left hand reached his right, he shifted the right quickly to the lower grip.
‘That’s the position you want,’ said Stammel. ‘Now, show ’em how to move with it.’
Bosk strode forward, the reed steady on his shoulder, not waving or dipping with his stride. When he turned, they could hear the whirr as the end of the reed sliced the air. He made a square, then returned the reed to an upright position and handed it back to Paks.
‘Ready—’ said Stammel. ‘Ground the butts—’ Paksenarrion felt the length of reed quivering as she tried to let it slide slowly through her hands, aiming the butt somewhat ahead of her right foot. It bumped the ground.
‘It’s too close to you,’ said Bosk. ‘Slide it out further.’ Paks slid the butt along the ground until Bosk nodded.
‘Now tilt ’em back along your shoulders,’ said Stammel. Paks let the top of the reed fall back slowly. The butt came off the ground, but she pushed it back before anyone said anything. Some were not so lucky. Stammel and the corporals were yelling at those who let the reeds get out of control. At last all were in the correct position.
‘Left hands down,’ said Stammel. ‘And lift, but keep it under control. NO!’ he roared. Paks heard a smack and a yelp of pain as someone’s reed landed on someone’s head. Her own wavered as she tried to shift the grip of her left hand. ‘Steady!’ Paks let her eyes slide sideways to see how others in the front rank were doing. Everyone seemed to be in the right position. ‘Now – bring them back vertical again. That’s right. Now slope ’em back – no – No! Control it, don’t let it get away from you.’
This exercise was repeated again and again until the whole unit could shift the reeds from vertical to sloped position without getting out of position. Paksenarrion’s arms ached, and her palms tingled unpleasantly where the reed slid back and forth.
‘We’re going to march back with them at slope,’ said Stammel. ‘And you’d best not look as foolish as the other units, either. Anyone who drops a reed—’ he scowled at them.
They managed to make it back to the courtyard before the others, without dropping anything but sweat. By the time the other units were in and halted, their own reeds were safely on the ground.
Gradually their weapons skills improved. They took fewer – but never no – thumps from Siger, and the spears seemed more manage-able. After Paks took the skin off the inside of her left arm during archery practice, she learned to keep her elbow braced correctly. They all suffered a variety of lumps, cuts and scrapes, but the only serious injury in Paks’s unit was Mikel Falsson, who fell from the wall while working on repairs and broke both legs. He recovered, but with a bad limp, and eventually went to work in the armory.
‘He was lucky not to lose either leg,’ said Devlin. ‘That was as nasty a break as I’ve seen.’ Paks shuddered, remembering the white ends of bone sticking out.
‘If there’d been a Marshal here—’ began Effa. Devlin interrupted. ‘No. Don’t say that. Not here. Not in this Company.’
Effa looked puzzled. ‘But I thought Phelan’s Company recruited mostly Girdsmen – doesn’t it?’
‘Once it did, but not now.’
‘But when I joined, and said I was a yeoman, Stammel said it was good.’ ‘Sergeant Stammel, to you. Oh yes, we’re glad to get Girdsmen – the more the better. But there’ll be no Marshals here, and no grange or barton.’ ‘But why—?’
‘Effa, leave be.’.
Arñe tapped her arm. ‘It’s not our concern.’
It was not in Effa’s nature to leave be. She worried the question any time the corporals and Stammel were not around, wondering why and why not, and trying to convert those (such as Paksenarrion, Saben and Arñe) who seemed to her virtuous but unenlightened. Paks found these attempts at conversion annoying.
‘I’ve got my own gods,’ she said finally. ‘And that’s enough for me. My family has followed the same gods for generations, and I won’t change. Besides, however good a fighter Gird was, he can’t have turned into a god. That’s not where gods come from.’ And she turned her back on Effa and walked off.
Meanwhile, she and Saben and Vik discussed religions in a very different way, fascinated by each other’s background.
‘Now my family,’ said Saben. ‘We were horse nomads once – my father’s father’s grandfather. Now we raise cattle, but we still carry a bit of hoof with us, and dance under the forelock and tail at weddings and funerals.’
‘Do you worship – uh – horses?’ asked Vik.
‘No, of course not. We worship Thunder-of-horses, the north wind, and the dark-eyed Mare of Plenty, though my father says that’s really the same as Alyanya, the Lady of Peace. Then my uncle’s family – I’ve seen them dance to Guthlac—’
‘Yes. My father always goes home then. He doesn’t approve.’ ‘I should think not.’ Vik shivered.
‘City boy,’ teased Paks. ‘We gather the sheep in from the wild hunt, but we know Guthlac has great power.’
‘I know that. It’s what power – brrr. Now in my family, we worship the High Lord, Alyanya, and Sertig and Adyan—’
‘Who are they?’ asked Paks.
‘Sertig’s the Maker, surely you know that. Craftsmen follow him. Adyan is the namer – true-namer – of all things. My father’s a harper, and harpers deal much with names.’
‘You’re a harper’s son?’ asked Saben. Vik nodded. ‘But you’ve no voice at all!’
‘True enough,’ said Vik, shrugging. ‘And no skill with a harp either, though I had one in my hands as soon as I could pluck a string. My father tried to make a scribe of me, and I wrote as badly as I played. And got into trouble, liking to fight. So—’ he looked at his hands. ‘So it became – wise – for me to move away, and make use of the skill I did have.’
‘Which is?’ asked Saben slyly.
In an instant Vik had turned, gotten his hold, and flipped Saben onto his back. ‘Throwing down great lummoxes of cattle farmers, for one.’ Saben laughed and rolled back up to a sitting position.
‘I see your point,’ he said cheerfully. ‘But will it work against a thousand southern spearmen?’
‘It won’t have to. You and Paks will be up front, you lucky tall ones, and you can protect me.’
After several weeks of switching places in formation, they received their permanent assignments. ‘Permanent until you do something stupid,’ Bosk said. Paks, to her delight, was made file leader. She still had problems with Korryn, who teased and pestered her whenever the corporals weren’t around, but aside from that she had returned to her earlier pleasure in being in an army. She did wish that brawling were not forbidden. She was sure she could flatten Korryn, and ached for a chance. But after the formal punishment of three recruits from Kefer’s unit who had livened a dull rainy afternoon by starting a fight, she determined to keep her temper. She did not want to lose her new position.
One afternoon a troop of soldiers in the Duke’s colors rode up from the southeast, and were passed by the gate guards into the courtyard. The fifteen men, under command of a yellow-haired corporal, were immensely impressive to the recruits. And they knew it, and swag-gered accordingly.
‘Get the quartermaster,’ the corporal ordered a recruit from another unit, and the recruit scurried away. Paksenarrion, taking her turn at cut-and-thrust practice with Siger, was tempted to turn and look, but the Armsmaster brought her attention back with a thump in the ribs.
‘When you’re fighting, fight,’ he said grumpily. ‘You be gazing around at everything on earth and heaven, and you’ll be buzzard-bait soon enough.’
Paks concentrated on trying to slash past his defenses, but the old man was more than a match for her, and talked on without a break as she grew more and more breathless. ‘Eh, now, that’s too wide a backswing – what’d I tell you? See, you left your side open again. Somebody’ll plant a blade in there when you’re careless. Quicker, lass, quicker! You ought to be quicker nor an old man like me. Look now, I gave you an opening wide as a barn door for a thrust, and you used that same wide cut. Stop now—’
Paks lowered her wooden blade, gasping for breath.
‘You’re strong enough,’ Siger said. ‘But strong’s not the whole game. You’ve got to be quick, and you’ve got to think as fast as you move. Now let’s break the thrust stroke down into its parts again.’ He demonstrated, then had Paks go through the motions several times. ‘Let’s try that again. Don’t stand fl at-footed: you need to move.’
This time practice seemed to go more smoothly, and at last Paks’s blade slipped past his to touch his side. ‘Ah-h,’ he said. ‘That’s it.’ Twice more that afternoon she got a touch on him, and was rewarded with one of his rare smiles. ‘But you still must be quicker!’ was his parting comment.