Chapter 16 of Kingmaker
“What’s wrong?” Butu asked in a whisper.
“It’s too early,” Phedam replied. “We’ve had five days of drill. It’s supposed to take months to get our arms. Not only have we already been assigned to a squad, but it’s a squad in one of the roving companies. And it didn’t exist before!”
“I think you’re being paranoid, shumi,” Nolen said. “We might be really good.” He didn’t sound like he believed himself.
Phedam glowered and slowed to talk to Tirud. Nolen looked confused at his friend’s silence.
Butu thought of the conversation he had overheard between Aeklan, Zhek and Pater.
If they’re raising an army, it means war is coming. And what Phedam said, that we’re a special squad, that could mean a special mission. His eyes widened. A dangerous mission, something the Kadrak won’t like. And maybe it’s us because our mirjuvas were so recent.
Butu wanted to share this with the rest of his squad, but he knew Blay and Aeklan were both a part of it. If they overheard him, they’d know he had spied on them. He’d find some other opportunity to tell them what he had heard.
Kira waited outside the armory.
“All of you are here to polish?” she asked with hands on hips and a smile that said she knew full well why they were coming to the armory.
Aeklan came up behind the squad and went into the tent with Kira and Zhepal.
“Nolen’ll be first,” Blay said. “The rest of you stay close. We’ll call you when we’re ready for you.” He followed Nolen into the armory.
“How much longer do you think we’ll have to train before we get our insignia?” Jani asked suddenly.
“Our what?” Retus asked.
Jani pointed to the flaps of cloth on each shoulder of her uniform. Butu missed her braids. “Everyone has a rank insignia to show clan, assignment and rank. Colored squares for company, platoon and squad. Brass studs for enlisted ranks and silver studs for officers.”
Phedam nodded in agreement, looking impressed. “From what I hear, it should take about another month to get our insignia.” He sighed and gave a small shrug. “But they put us through basic drill in just five days, so I have no idea anymore.”
Awkward silence fell until Nolen emerged from the armory. Butu had enough time to note the boiled leather breastplate and the hilt of the sword before Blay called him. He trotted into the tent dutifully, if not eagerly.
Zhepal was there with his knotted measuring string, which he employed as soon as the tent flap closed behind Butu. He called out measurements to Kira, who nodded and rummaged through the neatly organized piles and racks of weapons and armor. She handed a boiled leather breastplate to Blay, who showed Butu how to put it on. Like his uniform, it fit poorly, but Kira promised it was the smallest one in the armory. It was covered with sand-colored cloth much like that used to make sordenu uniforms and protected his chest, belly and shoulders.
“Children can survive almost anything, but your childhood is coming to an end,” Aeklan said, the words flattened and measured by many repetitions. “Armor is a burden that can save your life, but it is not as foolproof as youth has been.”
Kira handed Blay a steel cap. Butu took off his pryud and took the cap from him. The steel was cold against his shaved scalp, but it warmed quickly. Blay handed him back the pryud and motioned for him to put it on over the cap. It covered the metal completely. Butu grinned as Blay rapped his own head with knuckles. They must always wear caps under their pryuds, he thought.
Kira handed Blay a sword in its belt sheath, and Butu’s hands trembled in delight as he put it on, unable to stop smiling. Aeklan droned on.
“Your sword is your most valuable piece of equipment. It marks you as an Ahjea soldier for all to see. In battle, it is your sole hope of survival and your only means of winning glory. To return from battle without a sword — neither your own nor one taken from the corpse of your enemy — is the greatest dishonor you can suffer.”
Butu made a motion to draw the sword, but Blay shook his head. Kira handed Blay a large leather pouch, which Butu took from him. It was surprisingly heavy and rattled as if filled with pebbles.
“Sordenu must be versatile,” Aeklan recited. “You’ll train as hard with the sling as you do with a sword. A sling is as deadly as a bow, and you never need worry about running out of ammunition. Practice with stone. Make war with lead.”
Butu nodded his understanding.
“Good. Once I am satisfied you know how to use sword and sling, you’ll get your stripes. After that, you’ll be a true sordenu. Dismissed.”
Butu saluted and left the tent, grinning and eager to start training immediately. Blay called Phedam next. Nolen sat cross-legged on the ground, examining his new sword. Butu sat next to him. A metal sphere on the pommel marked Ahjea blades. Other clans had different pommels. The Nankek had a cube attached by one corner, while the Kadrak had a metal crescent like bull’s horns.
He slid the sword — his sword — out of its sheath. The slightly curved blade had one edge, and tapered to a sharp point. He tested the blade with a thumb, and it cut him almost painlessly. He sucked it, grinning at Nolen, and the taste of blood filled his mouth for several heartbeats before the wound closed.
Blay called Jani into the tent as Phedam emerged, looking every bit as pleased with himself as Butu felt. Nolen stood up, sword still drawn, grinning at his shumi. Butu wished Paka was here.
I’ll never get to see this for him, though. Paka’s going to go home before then.
Phedam and Nolen crossed swords so clumsily Butu couldn’t help but laugh. After several dramatic poses and a ludicrous spinning attack in which Nolen nearly dropped his blade, Butu could stand no more.
“That’s not the way to do it. Here, let me show you.”
He squared off with Nolen, who swung the same way, clearly expecting Butu to block the blade with his own, making a nice X with the swords. Butu stepped out of the way of the sword and kissed the back of Nolen’s arm with his own sword. The light touch of the blade cut cloth and skin easily, red blood oozing out.
Nolen laughed and tried to counterattack. Butu knocked the blade aside easily.
“Where did you learn to fight like that?” Butu asked, adopting a fighting stance and waiting to counter Nolen’s next move.
“Some of us didn’t have the kluntra’s son as a sparring partner,” Nolen said, fingering the cut in his sleeve. The cut had already closed as his magic unconsciously healed it.
How much longer would sordenu survive if they could still heal as quickly as a child!
Butu smirked. “I’m not an expert. I just know a couple things about fighting on roofs in the dark.”
Nolen moved much faster this time, and with more force than before. Butu halted the blade before it could do any real damage, but it scraped his breastplate as he parried. He countered just as quickly, and Nolen intercepted the blade the same way he had blocked Phedam’s attacks.
One after the other, each with a breastplate and sword, the squad paired off and practiced in front of the armory — though practice was a bad word for the flailing most of them did.
“Aw, look. They’re having fun,” Aeklan said in endearing tones from the armory’s entrance. Zhepal, Blay and Kira stood behind him, wearing frowns.
They all looked up in shock, and Butu winced as Phedam’s sword grazed his knee. Aeklan smiled at them until he had everyone’s attention, and then his face contorted with rage.
“What do you think you’re doing? Do you think those are toys you’re playing with?”
“No, sir!” Butu said, sheathing his sword awkwardly while trying to salute with the wrong hand.
The rest of them stared at Aeklan, dumbstruck.
“Sheath them,” the sergeant said. “And then you’ll run laps until I can think of a worse punishment.”
“Yes, sir!” they all said, not quite in unison.
After a miserable afternoon running circuits on the obstacle course, the sergeant relented and began their training. Tirud proved the most skilled with a sword. Butu and Jani were better than the others, but the gap between Tirud and them was substantial. Retus was the worst, and Aeklan yelled constantly at him, until they switched to slings. Whereas the rest of them were lucky to get the bullets to go in the right direction, Retus consistently hit the target.
“Shepherding,” he said. “Snakes can kill a sheep really fast.”
At the end of the day’s training, before dismissing them for dinner, Aeklan called them together. He walked up and down the short line they made in the training area, eyeing each of them severely. Abruptly, he removed two round, brass studs from a pouch and pinned one to each of Jani’s shoulders.
“Your training has just begun, but your time training with me is over,” he announced gravely as he pinned studs on each of them. “You’re not ready, but no training I can give you can prepare you for what you will face as sordenu. You will report to Sergeant Puro at dawn. Dismissed!”
They gave one final salute and headed toward the mess hall, excited about this turn of events.
We’re sordenu, now. I should be as excited as everyone else, Butu thought.
He looked from face to face in his squad. Nolen, Retus and Lujo danced with joy around Phedam, who looked as uneasy as Butu felt. Jani seemed more shocked than elated. Tirud and Blay smiled like nothing was strange about this turn of events, but Butu had his suspicions.
There’s something they’re not telling us.
He ate his meal in silence. He couldn’t voice his concerns with Blay around, and the corporal gave no sign that he would leave them alone any time soon.
That night, just before lights out, Captain Philbe el’Ahjea gave tem company their orders. They would be leaving at dawn to participate in training exercises with the Kadrak army.
The rumors told a different story: The Kadrak were now at war with the Akdren, and the Ahjea were sending Aesh al’Kadrak reinforcements.
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