It was to be a simple task, a simple ride, and an easy day. They had all told him that, everyone he had asked, but still he could not be sure. But surely they knew more than him, and he was a fool. If so, he would never be happier in his life to be such a fool.
As he rode ahead of the wagon upon which the supplies for fort Gaurav rested, with the column of twenty mounted soldiers riding around it, these thoughts raced through the mind of Junior Officer Steffanes Ingriade. The sky was dark, and steady rainfall beat down upon them, the grim and featureless nature of the rolling plains through which they journeyed doing little to raise the general mood. His horse was quiet under him, trotting along without a care in the world. No one spoke, or made any kind of noise, the bleakness of their surroundings making all in the company melancholy, and wishing for little more than the food and bed that awaited them at the fort.
Less than a month ago, Steffanes had been sworn in as a junior officer in the royal army of Gardena. His training, his father said, was done, and as a man of eighteen it was high time he began his career in service to his kingdom, as those of the Ingriade blood had done for countless generations. It hadn’t been hard to arrange a set of arms and a well forged sword for him, the sword being given a fancy name that Steffanes kept forgetting. Then it was oaths and vows under a starry window, and he was a “Sir”, sent out to join the battalion that his father had picked out for him. He was to be part of the Aretesen Company, thus repaying a favour their commander, Colonel Derhn, owed his father.
As if by some cruel, or perhaps kind, twist of fate, his acceptance into the army came on the same day that the war with Hoilletan ceased. For a year, fighting had raged across the borders of the two nations, with reports of great battles being fought across the Roudeson river-ford. Yet the two armies, it seemed, had grown weary, so a truce had been made.
Of course, no one on either side was under any illusion that this was a lasting peace. As his father had told him, in way of reassurance, the exchange of prisoners and lines drawn on maps was ultimately meaningless. War would come again, and it was only the matter of a few years or so. But for now, at least, there was to be a lull in military activity, as both sides would take this time to re-arm, and plan for the next conflict.
Yet this did not mean that Steffanes was to be spared hard duty, as it did not befit young officers to be idle. It was this that had brought him to the north, along the borders of Gardena and the unsettled territory colloquially referred to as the “Badlands”. It was harsh, frontier country, in which few dared to settle long. The only real permanent settlement was Milgrey, a large walled town at the convergence of three small rivers, where those who owned small farms and trading posts around the countryside retreated to in times of severe danger. That danger was now upon these lands again, and so the troops of Gardena came north.
In every war between Hoilettan and Gardena that was recorded in history, there was a great rise in bandit activity all across their two realms. Usually formed out of deserters from both armies, mingled with thieves, poachers and other outcasts of society, loose groups of these bandits would take advantage of the attention of the two countries armies being occupied with war, and roamed around where they willed, raiding farms, villages, and occasionally being bold enough to try and storm small towns. As the wars dragged on, their menace would grow, which sometimes served to bring about peace. At wars end however, most would disperse, with many who had been part of the raiding parties eventually being caught and hanged.
However in this region, one group had grown large and bold enough to not simply fade away when the war ended. They still ran riot through the countryside, and their numbers were quite vast compared to other bandit hordes. Calls from the chief marshal of Milgray made to them to stand down had been met with messengers coming back as bodies tied to their horses, and a posse made up of local stout folk had been beaten back with heavy losses. As such, it fell to the army to rout them, so to allow the people to return to peaceful lives. It was up to Steffanes’s platoon to escort supply wagons to the three large forts in the area, from which the scouting troops would strike out in pursuit of the bandits.
Steffanes looked behind him, observing the sullen looks of the troops under his command. They were all older than him, with some surely past their thirtieth year. He hadn’t learned any of their names, and they only knew him as “J.O Ingriade”. They had all fought in the war, with some carrying distinct scars on their faces. None met his eyes, only staring forward as their grim ride continued.
“What business have I got being in command here?” Steffanes thought. Although it had been clear since he was a child that a life in command of men was his destiny, Steffanes had never truly felt comfortable with the idea that his birth alone made it so that he was valued above others, many of whom may be as, or even more capable than he. He would have been happy to be held back, to have had to earn his rank after a year or two of service. Instead, it had been thrust upon him, and all the responsibilities that came with it.
The lives of every man and woman riding behind him were in his hands, and the fact that they looked to a teenager to get them out of trouble filled Steffanes with great dread. Oh he had been well trained of course; all of his instructors praised his skill with a sword, as well as his knowledge regarding tactics and proper management of troops. But how well would that training serve him, if the worst where to happen?
The oldest of his men, who Steffanes knew as sergeant Kinloch, rode up beside him. Paunchy, past forty with greying hair and beard, but still strong and able, Kinloch leaned over to him and spoke softly, as to keep their talk private.
“J.O ingriade, sir, May I be so bold as to make a personal remark?” was the whisper from Kinloch, his tone friendly enough, if a little hesitant.
“As you wish, sergeant” Steffanes replied, turning to face the older man.
“Well, sir, it’s just that…” The older man seemed to be being held back by something. Steffanes hoped it wasn’t his lower rank that made the man so nervous about being open with him.
“Well, it’s that I fought with your honoured father sir, the noble lord Celas Ingriade. In fact, I owe him my life.”
Steffanes now gave the man beside him his full attention. “Is that so?” He asked Kinloch, his eyes wide. His father hardly spoke of his own battles, so to hear from someone who had stories to tell was a rare treat for him.
“Aye sir”, Continued Kinloch, as his previous hesitance left him, his speech becoming more free and expressive. “It was at The Bronzine marsh, must be twenty years ago now. I was just a raw recruit then, hadn’t seen much in the way of action. Your father was leading my unit through the marsh, on our way to reinforce the siege of Karmilen.”
“As it turned out, the Hoilletan’s found our trail, and came upon us right there in the bog. First we knew of it was the volley of arrows, and by the time we’d lowered our shields they were practically atop of us. I could swear they came from all sides, but I only saw the ones bearing right down on atop of me”
“I confess, I froze in my fear, and could not move”. Kinloch’s voice became sad at that, and for a moment he bowed his head again. Steffanes began to fear that the old soldier would not continue his tale, before Kinloch raised his head again, his face bearing a brighter expression.
“ So it was I fell into the mud, face first, right as the one leading this band of Hoilletan’s, a great brute of a knight with horns on his helmet, ran at me. In a flash, I got to my hands and knees and looked up. There he was, lifting his sword above his head, looking down on me with murder in his eyes. I was sure that my life was at an end”
“Then sir, then it was that I saw your father. He ran right at that brute, and grabbed him by the throat with both hands. He was half of his foe’s size, but still lord Celas threw him down, right on the mud. The man tried to get back up, but your father was too quick. Drawing his sword, he drove its point right through the gap in the proud knight’s armour, slaying him in one blow.”
“I was cowering, in awe of what I had just seen. I lowered my gaze, not wishing Lord Celas to see me. Then, I felt a soft touch on my shoulder, as if someone was comforting me. Looking up, I saw your father again sir, and his face was so, so kind. He offered me his hand, and without him needing to say a word, I took it, and stood proud on my feet again.”
“The fight was over soon after that. The Hoilletans had seen their leader slain, and lacked the heart to fight on. Besides that, they saw that your father was a truly powerful warrior, and none of them felt they stood a chance against him. So it was they broke and ran sir, before they did any real damage to our column”
“It is for this, sir, that since then I have owed your father a debt greater than can ever be repaid.” With those words, Kinloch finished his tale.
Steffanes did not know what to say, much less how to really feel, after hearing such a story from Kinloch, a man whom he was meant to give orders too. He felt that he couldn’t risk offending the poor man by saying nothing, as it had taken Kinloch great courage to open up to his superior like he had. The boy in him wanted the old soldier to tell more tales, as he was sure Kinloch had much more to tell. But he knew that he had to try to maintain some level of authority. He was in command here, after all.
But then a question came to his mind, one that he knew no rank or authority could keep him from asking.
Turning to his sergeant, he asked, with the sincerity one would ask an old friend “Sergeant, do I remind you of my father, in the slightest?”
Kinloch’s immediate reaction to this question did not fill Steffanes with any kind of joy. The older man looked like a deer caught in the sights, and he was audibly spluttering, as he tried to come up with an answer as quick as he could.
“He wants to tell me what he thinks I want to hear,” Steffanes thought. “That I am my father’s very Image, and am truly destined to be as great as he. But he can’t bring himself to lie, nor can he say what he really thinks.”
To spare the older man any more anxiety, Steffanes spoke up. “You don’t have to say it, so I’ll say it for you. No, I don’t remind you of my father. I may look like him, I may wear his hand me-down armour, but I don’t look like someone who can save a life, or inspire people like he can. I’m just a green young boy who has no right to-“
“My Lord Ingriade, you give yourself too harsh a scolding!”
The shout from Kinloch truly startled Steffanes. Some of the troops behind him looked up, themselves roused by their sergeant’s sudden outburst.
“I um, what do y-you mean?”, Steffanes gasped, trying to find a quick response. For now, he was the true embodiment of a boy of eighteen.
Kinloch seemed to temper his fury, though there was none of his earlier awkwardness. Steffanes could swear he felt a kind of pity in the older man’s eyes, the kind of pity a patient tutor would give to an earnest young boy, who try as he might, could not be able to get the right answer.
His tone again becoming confidential, Kinloch answered his commanders awkward stumbling’s. “ My lord, I mean that you put yourself down for things you cannot help. It is true that you are young, and that all here know more of war than you. But it was the same for your father, even when I first saw him.”
Steffanes could find no answer for this. He simply stared at Kinloch, allowing the old soldier to carry on.
“ I’ll confess sir, that I did not think much of your father when I first saw him. Woe to this army thought I, which would send honest men and women to be led by pampered snobs. But of course, Lord Celas proved me wrong, and from there became one of Gardena’s finest soldiers.”
At that, Kinloch turned his face fully to Steffanes, and the young lord could see that there was a broad smile on that bearded face.
“ Your father must have felt as you do, and yet he found his way. Don’t worry about reminding people of him, just think of what you can do. A moment will occur where your true worth will be needed. If you are bold, they say, it comes to you.”
The tone in Steffanes voice brought the older man back to himself. His face became nervous, worried that his commander would reprimand him for speaking out of line. In his haste to reassure the young lord, he had quite broken rank, and Kinloch knew that there where repercussions for that.
“ Yes Sir!” Kinloch declared immediately. Sitting tall in his saddle, He raised his right arm in salute to his superior.
To his surprise, he saw the young lord laugh. Steffanes bent over in his saddle, clutching his sides. Kinloch could not make sense of it at all, and for a moment he thought his commander mad.
Ceasing his laughter, it was Steffanes’s turn to give a warm smile. “ Sergeant Kinloch, thank you” said the young officer, with unguarded warmth. “ From now on, you need not ask my permission to make any personal remark again”
Kinloch motioned to speak again, but before he could, his eyes latched on to what was ahead of them on the road.
“ Hark now my lord! Look ahead! “ Kinloch shouted.
Steffanes turned , and now he knew what faced them on the road. Walking straight towards them at a slow pace, about a hundred meters away from Kinloch and Steffanes, a group of twenty or so armed men and women where making their way along the road. They were clearly not soldiers, and by the large sacks slung over most of their backs, and the tattered and wild nature of their garb, Steffanes instantly knew them for bandits.
It was then that Steffanes could see that the bandits had seen him and his soldiers. They stopped in their tracks, for now unsure of what to do. They clearly had not expected anyone besides them to be on this road, least of all Gardenan troops.
“ Shall we ride them down sir?” Asked Sergeant Kinloch, as his hand reached for his blade.
For a moment, Steffanes considered what to do. Then he declared “ No, The ground is too muddy, our horses shall fall if we charge.”
Turning around he shouted “ Driver Stop the cart! The rest of you, dismount and tie your horses to the chart. We form a shield wall on me!”
In almost not time at all, Steffanes’s orders were carried out. The cart stopped, and every soldier dismounted and tied their horses to its sides. Before he could even blink, they were standing ten to each of his side, their shields raised as they faced the bandits with him. They formed a kind of semi- circle, doing all they could to guard the way to the cart behind them. Kinloch was beside him on his right, his face steely and determined.
It seemed for a moment like the world had stopped, as the two sides faced each other. Then a cry, some shouts, and the bandits charged forth, weapons in hand. The Gardenan soldiers kept their shields raised, their feet planted firmly to the muddy ground.
Then one of them threw what looked like a javelin as she ran, with an aim as sharp as any of the soldiers of Gardena. It flew straight for Steffanes’s shield, and in a moment it hit, right in its centre. The point sunk deep into the steel, and Steffanes found that he could barely keep it lifted.
With no time to pull the javelin out, Steffanes did what he had been trained to do, and threw his shield down. Grasping his sword with both of his hands, he took a step forward.
The bandits where upon them now, with the bulk of them hitting the shield wall. With their maces and swords, they swung down upon the line of steel before them. The soldiers did not waver, keeping their discipline as they stabbed through the tiny gaps in their line.
Yet one faced Steffanes, a large axe in her hands. She was a fairly tall young woman, broad of shoulder, who wore no armour, simply breeches and a rough cotton shirt. Her angular face was twisted in anger, and she wore her black hair in a long ponytail.
With a cry of rage, she lifted her axe over her head, and ran straight for Steffanes. The instance before he reached him, the young officer simply turned one step out of her way, letting his opponents momentum take her past him. She stumbled slightly as she brought her axe down on thin air.
Taking his opportunity, Steffanes swung his sword down on her with full force. Yet the bandit was quick, swiftly turning about while bent down, and brought her axe up hilt first to shield against his blow. Steffanes struck the wood, and for an instant, the two of them matched their strengths, pushing against the others weapon.
Steffanes found the Bandits strength near enough a match for his, and could not force her axe down. Both were breathing hard, straining all their efforts at each other. Suddenly, he felt her make a swift kick for his shins, and instinctively backed away. Seizing her chance, the bandit got back to her feet, and before he knew it, she was swinging her axe at him again, this time in a right-hand sideways sweep.
Rather than dodge, Steffanes raised his sword to parry the blow away. The bandit yelled, and swung again, this time striking from Steffanes’s left. Again he parried, and then made his own move, swinging his blade at her legs. She in turn parried his strike, and turned his blade upwards with her axe. Raising her weapon above her head once again, she prepared to strike a killing blow.
Yet this is precisely what Steffanes had anticipated. As she raised her axe, he bent over slightly, keeping his sword gripped under him. In the moment she brought her weapon down, he dodged it, only slightly this time, and forced his blade forward in an upward thrust.
He struck her stomach, point first, and his blade sank through his opponent’s woollen shirt into her flesh. He felt the bandit slump against his shoulder as she fell, dropping her axe, his sword lodged inside of her. Blood came out of her mouth, and a droplet landed on his shoulder. Drawing his blade back, he shook her off of him, letting his foe collapse to the floor.
He looked down open her as she turned her body to face him. Her left hand was on the gaping wound he had made, blood freely flowing from it. She looked up at him, her face a mask of vain defiance.
“ A pox on you, and all Gardena”, sounded the groan from her lips as her life ebbed away, her head slumping down as her breath stopped.
Without knowing why he did so, Steffanes knelt down over her, and placed his hand over her eyes, closing them. He felt he should say a prayer of some sort, but he did not know the right words. So instead, he simply whispered “Go in peace”.
Rising to his feet, he suddenly became aware of his surroundings again. Turning to the directions the bandits had come from, he saw that some of them were now fleeing, dropping their sacks in their haste to get away. Directing his gaze back towards his men, he saw that all remained standing. Lying before their still raised shields, nine or so of the bandits where dead.
Kinloch approached his commander, the blood from the bandit he had killed now being washed away by the rain.
“ They’ve retreated sir, and all our men are safe and sound. Shall we pursue?”
Steffanes motioned to speak, but then he felt himself choke on his words, and stumble on his feet. He was now all too aware of just how much he was sweating, how heavily he was breathing. His heart has thumping in his chest fit to burst, and Steffanes held his hand to his breastplate.
Then he felt Kinloch’s hand on his shoulder. Turning his face up, Steffanes could see that the old man had a look of concern on his face.
Placing his hand on Kinloch’s shoulders, he smiled, his chest beginning to subside as if soothed by the old man’s presence.
“ I’m fine Kinloch”, Steffanes Reassured his sergeant, in a low tone so the other soldiers would not hear. “ Just a bit fatigued, that’s all.”
Taking his hand off Kinloch’s shoulder, he stepped forward, in the direction of his troops. Without a word, he raised his sword into the air. As he had hoped, they all cheered, heartened that their commander was alright and proclaiming their victory.
After taking a moment to gather his thoughts, Steffanes spoke, addressing all of them in the best authoritative voice he could muster.
“ I need eight of you to dig a few graves, and bury the bodies. Six of you, inspect the sacks that they dropped, find out what it was they had stolen. The rest of you, stay with the horses. I want us ready to ride again in less than an hour, we still need to reach the fort by nightfall”
Without hesitation, the soldiers began following his orders. With a speed that surprised Steffanes, they organized themselves into three separate groups, with some dragging the bodies away, others walking towards the carts, and a small few standing by the horses.
Kinloch made a move to go and help the soldiers, but Steffanes, seeing this, ordered “ Stay here Kinloch, I need to speak with you.”
As Kinloch approached him, Steffanes began to drop his mask of authority. He lowered his head slightly, a sense of melancholy coming over him.
The old sergeant did not sense this, smiling at the young officer. “ I must say, well fought sir. Truly, your father taught you well.”
Not even raising his head, Steffanes, in barely more than a mumble, said “ Thank you, sergeant.”
Kinloch now sensed what was going through the young man’s mind. “ Your first kill, I don’t doubt?” The old man asked in a soft voice.
A nod from Steffanes was Kinloch’s answer. He sighed, and said calmly “ All I can say, my lord, is that you’ll never get used to it. But over time, it gets less hard to deal with. It-“
“ It comes to you?” Kinloch was interrupted, and as he was cut off he saw Steffanes raise his head. The young man’s tone was mocking, but not spiteful, and Kinloch could see a faint smile on his lips.
The old sergeant paused, then in a moment gave a faint smile. “ Aye, as you say so, my lord.”