by Robert Currer
Part 1: Chapter 4
Cold water slapped Eric’s face. He bolted upright and immediately regretted it. His skull was several sizes too small for his brain, squeezing it in a cruel grip that shot white hot stars behind his eyes. His stomach rolled, forcing him to his hands and knees as he geysered vomit and then bile across the hay-strewn floor. When he was empty, his sides and throat burned. Only then did his bleary eyes clear enough to take in his surroundings. He was in a barn. Why was he in a barn?
“Pah-thetic,” boomed a voice somewhere behind him. It sounded distantly familiar, but Eric couldn’t place it. Panting, he rotated toward the voice, his limbs and bones aching from the effort. A man stood silhouetted in the piercing morning light of the open barn door. Eric lifted his hand to shield against the brilliance as it clawed at the back of his eyes sending daggers of throbbing agony all the way through his brain.
Slowly, the man came into focus. He was tall and upright with a triathlete’s strong lean frame. The disapproving planes of his angular features narrowed to the point of his chin, ending in the tuft of a woolly black beard. His uniform, desert khaki under armor of boiled leather, was immaculately clean as if in direct opposition to the dust and hay. He looked familiar to Eric. Then it came to him. This man was the guard from the gate house tower, though he wore no helmet today.
“On your damn feet!” The guard barked the words, each crowding the other as they spilled from his lips.
Eric groaned, massaging his eyes with the heels of his palms. His head was still pounding, and the garish dawn light was only making it worse. His guts did another somersault in the wake of the squeezing pain, making him grateful there was nothing left in his stomach.
“Where am I?” he asked. His mouth felt tacky and tasted rancid.
“I do not recall requesting input, Conscript. Now on your feet, gods-damned-right-now!” His burnt coffee eyes crackling.
Eric scuttled a few feet backwards. He did not believe this man would actually do him harm but there was a storm cloud intensity in him. The thunder was here and Eric didn’t want to tempt the lightning.
“Guardsmen Corbin,” the soldier said. Another soldier, presumably Corbin, stepped into the agonizing light of the barn door and strode to the first’s side. She was shorter but with muscular limbs that were not shy about their own power. Her silk black hair was pulled into a functional bun that showed the subtle points of her ears and allowed thin locks to fall along the sides of her cheeks, framing the almond curve of her midnight blue eyes. Another familiar face. Eric wondered if she still thought he was an idiot. Probably.
“Get this conscript on his feet,” continued her superior.
Corbin marched to Eric and grabbed his forearm, yanking him to his feet. A flash of pain shot up his arm and he hissed as if stung. When her iron grip withdrew, he looked at his arm to find an angry tattoo. It was a stylized eye with swooping black lines but in place of the pupil was an hourglass, the sand not yet begun to run. When did that happen? How did that happen? The questions bubbling on his lips were popped as Corbin shoved him into a lurching walk toward the other soldier. The ground rocked under his unsteady legs. Everything hurt.
The soldier ran his black eyes up and down Eric, his full lips pulled into a disgusted frown. “Looks like you’ve got nowhere to go but up,” he said boring his unblinking stare into Eric’s own, daring him to break.
Eric blinked and looked to the side. “I don’t know what happened last night, but clearly there has been some mistake,” he said digging for more confidence than he felt.
“There is no mistake, Conscript Strange,” said the soldier with relish.
“That’s not my name,” said Eric.
“It’s not my business what you call your soul to your livin’ god. But here your ass belongs to me, Conscript.”
“I’m not supposed to be here.”
A hard smile spread across the soldier’s dusky face. “Of that we agree. You were supposed to be dead on the road, taken by beasts or thirst. You were supposed to amount to nothing more than vulture shit but, gods be praised, your feet found West Watch,” he said with a preacher’s growing fervor. “That fate may still find you, Conscript. And that’s why I’m here. You may refer to me as Watcher Salmin and you may think of me as your own personal angel of mercy! I’m here to deliver you from certain death, Strange, to drag you kicking and screaming from the path of your own destruction!” A manic heat flashed in his eyes. Eric recognized that look, that wild half-crazed stare of a man who doesn’t believe he’s right, he knows he’s right. It was a look he’d seen often among the inmates of St. Anna’s.
Salmin turned on his heel and marched out of the barn. Corbin prodded Eric to follow. The sun was still low but already the air felt oven hot. The flat, grimy light seared his eyes as boozy sweat began to flow down his back and face. The mere act of slopping one foot in front of the other was an excruciating endeavor. What he would not have given to lay down in a dark room with a handful of aspirin.
“Listen up, Conscript, ‘cause I’m only going to say this once,” said Salmin without turning or breaking his metered stride. “You are a conscript in the glorious Ogadac Defense Force. You will serve a standard indenture of seven years at which time, presuming you are among the breathing, you will be awarded your freedom. Until that time, your bone bag belongs to the ODF. You will train to be a soldier. You eat, sleep, drink, and piss when I allow it. You—”
“And if I don’t want to be owned?” Eric stopped firmly in his tracks.
“Then by all means, desert,” said Salmin, pausing his stride. “One thing you should know. That beauty mark on your arm ain’t just for looks. The ink is laced with a time release toxin. Without regular doses of the antitoxin, you’ll be dead in a matter of days. Still want to be your own man?” He looked over his shoulder at Eric, his features neutral.
Eric darted a glance to Corbin at his side. Her features remained a hardened mask, but her almond eyes betrayed a sheen of melancholy. It was true then. He had been sold into servitude. A bubble of acid panic burst in his belly. What should he do? Run away and gamble that it was all just a bluff? Salmin didn’t look like the type who put much stock in scams. Or did he stay and hope he survived seven years here? Could he survive seven years of this? Of the monsters he saw last night? His head was spinning out of control, his brain wobbling off its axis and bouncing off the walls of his skull. He couldn’t think. He couldn’t breathe. His legs turned to jelly and the world grew black at the edges and then—
“You’ve got a choice to make.” Salmin’s voice cut through the swirling panic. He had turned and was walking toward Eric now, rolling up his sleeves. “To stick your head in the sand and hope the gods spare you. Or to gamble on yourself and spend the next seven years showing this little slice of hell that it can’t kick you around. We’ve each stood in your place and made our choice.” He thrust his arm out so that Eric could not miss the faded tattoo, a ghostly mirror of his own. “Now, what’ll it be?”
A heavy boot rattled the wooden pallet where Eric lay undressed and snoring on his ODF issued bedroll. “Get your ass up!” He rubbed the sleep from his eyes to see the taut mask of Corbin’s face looming above. The arrow slits of her midnight eyes were the only betrayal of emotion on her otherwise steely features. She hammered the pallet again with the heel of her boot. “I said on your feet.” There would be no arguing with her today. There was never any arguing with her.
Eric sat up with a wince, his muscles whining like a rusty spring. Everything was sore from his shoulders to the arches of his feet. Six weeks of training and he had never felt more out of shape in his life. It never stopped and he hadn’t had a pain free moment since the night he arrived. If he wasn’t drilling with a sword, he was scrubbing something clean. How did the barracks get so dirty so fast? The filth seemed to grow back every night so that the scrubbing never got any easier. The only reprieves came at meals and when he finally got to pass out into the deep void of sleep. Neither came often enough, he reflected as his stomach gnawed at itself.
“Get your lazy ass in uniform,” said Corbin, her arms crossed, feet planted.
Joints popping, Eric pushed himself to standing with a yawn. “Right, I’ll meet you outside.”
She was glacier still.
“Chatty in the morning, aren’t you?” he said under his breath as he pulled on his uniform trousers. Moments later, he had wriggled into his scuffed leather armor and was striding down the deserted barracks hall in Corbin’s wake. She shoved her way out the door. Joyless sunlight exploded around her forcing him to shield his eyes and squint as he scurried after her. “You let me sleep late,” he said wary of what that might mean.
“Right past breakfast,” she said.
His stomach rumbled. “I think it’s your compassion that I like best about you, Corbin.” That was just like her. She despised him and he knew it. Yet, in some twisted joke, Salmin had assigned him to Corbin’s team and put her in charge of his training. She had been kicking his ass ever since without a moment of understanding or simple human fucking kindness. Two could play at that game. If she wanted to hate him for no good reason, he would hate her right back.
Up ahead, their patrol sparred with wooden swords. Their shouts hung in the sedentary heat like the plumes of rusty dust kicked up by their pounding boots. Watcher Salmin strolled among the whirling melees, a serene expression resting on his sun washed face. His coffee eyes turned bitter as they fell on Eric, his full lips pinching into a familiar disapproving pout. He barked and, as one, each of the bouts terminated. “Kind of you to join us, Guardsmen Strange. I do hope we didn’t interrupt your beauty rest.”
Grimacing, Eric jogged the distance between them and, coming to attention in front of the patrol leader, touched his fingers to the spot on his forehead meant to represent the third eye. “Sorry I’m late, Watcher. I over—”
“Sorry? Why be sorry when you’re just in time?” Salmin said with a humorless grin, his teeth flashing dangerously against his dark features.
“Just in time for what, sir?” asked Eric trying to brace himself for some fresh torture.
“For the show, of course. You made such a grand entrance. It would be a shame to waste it,” said Salmin. He spun on his heel to the rest of the patrol. Their faces were stony, but their eyes shone with a malicious delight. “Make room. Guardsman Strange is going to give us a show. Corbin would you be so kind as to assist Guardsmen Strange with his demonstration of sword technique?”
“With pleasure, sir,” said Corbin. As the others spread out into a ring, she retrieved two training swords. Her face was the usual shield of high rounded cheekbones beneath a quick bun of fine black hair, but the blue of her eyes had brightened to a thrilled sapphire.
A chill trickled down Eric’s spine. He swallowed and stepped into the ring, guardsmen snickering as they closed in behind him. With a toss from Corbin, one of the training swords landed with a thud in the dirt at his feet. Grudgingly, Eric leaned over and lifted the wooden sword, his muscles groaning their fatigue. It didn’t matter how often he practiced with one, they always felt heavier than he expected them to. Corbin swung her own gracefully, inscribing a circle in the still air before settling into a fighting stance. She was stronger than he was, the swell of her honed muscles visible even through the cloth of her uniform. He could not match her in strength. He would just have to be faster. If that was even possible in his current condition. His body felt like cold molasses wrapped around a growling belly.
His limbs groaned as he too took up a ready position. A flicker of a smile danced at the corner of Corbin’s lips. She was enjoying this. Eric bet the bitch had just been dying for this chance and now she had it. If he was weakened and unprepared so much the better. Well fuck her. He might not be the athlete she was, but he could out hate her. She could loath him, dislike him, wish him harm but his well ran much deeper. He could see in her every fair-weather asshole who had ever pretended to be his friend, who smiled and lied to him through their fucking teeth. He had hate aplenty for those people and he could pile it all on her.
“Have at it!” shouted Salmin.
Everything went red. Eric charged across the training yard, spittle flying from him mouth as he bellowed. Corbin held but as Eric unleashed his first ferocious swing, she darted back just outside striking range. Then with lightning speed, she reversed her direction and lunged toward his now unprotected back. He tried to spin away, to bring his own sword up to block as he had been taught but his muscles responded only reluctantly. The full savage force of the strike caught him across the spine blasting him to the ground and knocking the air from his lungs.
As his chest spasmed, Corbin’s sword tip slammed into the hard packed soil inches from his nose. Her point was clear. In a real fight, he would be dead, his life ended in two simple strokes. He rolled onto his back still battling to catch his breath.
“Very good,” said Salmin clapping like the host of some warped game show. “A skillful kill by Guardsmen Corbin and a fine example of how mastery of the fundamentals paired with some good ol’ fashioned athleticism can make short work of your opponent. Fancy moves have flair, but a solid foundation wins the day. Alright, pair back up and have at it.” He sauntered to Eric looking him over with a shrewd eye. “Well, you ain’t dead yet. That’s at least something.”
“Not fair,” said Eric. The words came out as a wheeze.
Pity washed over Salmin’s features, stinging Eric more than he would have expected. The patrol leader squatted down and said, “Fair fights are for dead men. If you want to live to see the end of your conscription, stop worrying about what’s fair and start worrying about winning.” He stood and jabbed a finger at Corbin. “Get him up and get back to sparring. And don’t go easy.”
As Salmin moved away, Eric eased himself back to his feet. “Making sure I missed breakfast was a dirty trick,” he said, glaring.
“I’m here to win. If you don’t like it, get yourself up in the morning, you little shit,” said Corbin. Her eyes gleamed brighter than ever as a smile cracked across her features. “Pick up your sword. I’m not done kicking your ass.”
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