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Chapter XII

The caravan’s stop at Parm let him get rid of the irritating priest, who said something about joining the temple of Kaisa there, and then they were back on the road. Another couple of weeks passed in relative peace as they rolled across the northern plains to Vallum, and from there up to Banner, the middle of the three great forts that supported the northern border.

The new legions under the royal mandate were being trained beneath the shadow of the forts, and so each had a temporary addition to its regular Guard contingent. The officers at the forts were fairly pleased with the deal, since it meant they could enlist the trainees for some of the less pleasant tasks, like the legion’s ever-popular ditch digging.

It was something of a byword in the legions that a soldier had more use for his shovel than for his sword or shield. And that was even with the steady fighting the Guard was exposed to. Even if the nobles were behaving, which would be a minor miracle, the borders of the kingdom were in a constant state of low-intensity conflict.

The caravan rolled into Banner a bit past midday, and after handing it over to the resident quartermaster, he rounded up Jaret and reported to the commander of the 9th Legion.

The Legion was gathered outside the walls of the fort, and to their discomfort and the amusement of the regular contingent they weren’t allowed to build the Legion’s standard defensive earthwork, so their white tents looked rather bleak arranged across the field. General Kostir’s tent was in one of the back rows and there was no difficulty in locating it. All of the legions used the same pattern for their camp layout.

Two Guards were standing watch at the entrance to the tent and a fairly steady flow of people and messengers moved through it. After a brief wait, they announced Allen and Jaret to the occupant.

“Junior Lieutenants Delais and Revarn reporting from the supply caravan for reassignment,” one announced.

After a brief pause and the sound of shuffling papers, a gravelly voice from the inside replied. “Send them in.”

The flaps of the tent were pinned back and when they stepped into the dimmer interior they had to pause and wait for their eyes to adjust from the bright sunlight outside.

A stocky older man in the black and grey of the Guard sat behind a camp desk to the left of the entrance. Papers and the occasional map or book were scattered across the desk, and what looked like a minor disaster of parchment was strewn across the floor beneath it. After a minute, Allen realized that the commander had just decided to use the floor as extra space.

He moved to the front of the desk and saluted. Jaret was right behind him. “Junior Lieutenant Delais and Revarn reporting, sir.”

The commander glanced up at them for a moment and then went back to writing something on a piece of parchment. A minute later he finished, returned his quill to its rest, and returned their salute.

“At your ease,” he replied as he looked them over. His mouth twisted into a slight grimace. “I’m General Kostir, commander of the Ninth. I expected you and the supply caravan two days ago.”

“Unexpected delays, sir,” Allen replied, evenly. “An ambush early into our trip and then a minor problem with a grass cat attacking one of the drivers.”

The commander waved one hand in dismissive gesture. “I’ll read the report. You have it with you?”

“Yes, sir,” Allen said. He’d spent the better part of the evenings during the last week writing it up as they approached the fort, and he handed it over with a trace of regret. He didn’t have any use for it, but he was a bit loath to see it join the impersonal piles of parchment scattered around the tent. It was foolish, but he felt like there should be a more respectable end for it.

The commander took the report and dropped it on one of the piles by his feet. “Good then. You’re reporting to who is it now?” He shifted a stack of parchment to check under it for another of the charts on his desk. “Scout Captain Della and the third cohort infantry?” He grunted briefly and nodded. “Welcome to the 9th. You’d better head off. The third cohort was on training maneuvers this morning, on the west side of the camp. And the scouts headquarters are with the first cavalry cohort, which is in its usual place.”

“Yes, sir,” they replied, nearly in unison, saluting. If the commander was any guide, and he usually was in the legions, the Ninth was going to be one of those legions that didn’t stand much on formality. Just function. It was a refreshing change of pace after the almost choking formality of the capital. As they turned to head out, the general stopped them.

“One last thing,” he said. “Don’t make any trouble with the townsfolk around here. We’ve had enough of that already, and I will personally flatten the next Guardsman to harass one of the village girls or who thinks it’s funny to steal a goat in the middle of the night and put it on a roof.”

Allen tried to hide a bark of laughter as he turned back to the commander and saluted again. Jaret didn’t manage quite as well, and the commander gave him a chilling glare as a snort of laughter escaped him.

“Yes, sir. I’ll remember that,” Allen replied, his face about to crack.

Fortunately, he was able to drag Jaret outside and down the road between the tents before he buckled over laughing. A few wandering Guardsmen glanced over at him but kept moving on their way.

“A goat!” He chuckled at the image of a goat on a roof. “See, Jaret, there are high points to serving in the legions.”

“Aye, like getting flogged for laughing at the commander,” Jaret replied, looking around a bit uneasily, as if waiting for the commander to appear out of thin air.

“Not at him, just at the things Guardsmen do when they get bored,” he replied, still grinning as he straightened up. “Let’s go find our billets.” He looked around to grab his bearings, and then started walking towards where the first cavalry cohort should be.

“Meet me at The Tilted Cup tonight?” he asked Jaret. He intended to keep in touch with at least one of the Guards that he knew here, even if he didn’t know him that well. Without Kilin around, it was going to be a bit harder to meet people, and he’d decided to take his friend’s advice and get out more. “It’s inside the fort, third street after the gate.”

“You’ve been here before? I thought you were at Legion last year, east of here,” Jaret said, referring to the last of the forts along the northern border, and the one closest to the Vale of Dreams. The first of the forts was Shield, to the west. They’d passed south of it on the way to Vallum, before turning north on the road to Banner.

“I passed through here a few times,” he replied. “Scouts get around. The commanders are always sending us off as messengers when they can’t find anyone else.”

Jaret agreed easily enough, and they parted paths at the next road when Jaret turned towards the third cohort’s billet.

He arrived at the cavalry cohort’s headquarters, which was another tent, just in time to hear the end of a dressing down from someone with a snide voice.

“And you’ll keep them in line, or else I’ll have your hide before the commander for insubordination!” the voice said. It sounded male, but it was a bit high-pitched and it grated on the ears.

A thin man with an impeccably cut uniform and short dark hair stormed out of the tent as Allen approached and gave him a flat stare when he noticed him watching. In short order, the man was gone around another row of tents.

Allen pushed back the flap on the tent and entered with some hesitation. “Ahh, Lieutenant Delais reporting to Captain Della as the new scout patrol leader,” he announced after a moment, waiting for his eyes to adjust to the interior.

A woman in a slightly wrinkled uniform that looked as if it had been slept in and then hurriedly pressed was standing in front of him and glaring past him out the tent after the man who’d just left. Her lips were pressed firmly together and she had a lean, edgy build. Her sleeves were rolled up and the muscles along her forearms were clearly defined. She reminded him a bit of Captain Raeli from the Dhara, although he’d never seen Raeli with a wrinkled shirt.

Her gaze shifted to him and lost none of its crystal hardness. “Well. And are you going to give me trouble today too? The rest of the lot have been giving me Solen’s own time of it. Some one of our idiots stuck a goat on a roof the other day, and now the commander had his second in here throwing a tantrum.” She glared again out the door.

“No, sir,” he said. “No goats here.” It was a bit easier this time to hide his smile, but it must have shown through in his eyes, since her eyes bit into him again.

“Right,” she said, huffing out a breath. “I’ll believe that when I see it. But if you cause me any more trouble, I’m going to flay the hide off your back and hang you upside down from a tree, and then feed you to one of the arvalhim if I have to find one myself.”

“Yes, sir,” he replied, since it was usually the safest answer. “You’re Captain Della I take it?”

The woman turned around to another of the camp tables set up inside the tent. “So they tell me, and you’re the new patrol leader are you?” She picked up a list off the table and turned around to him. “Guess what, Lieutenant, you just got assigned to goat duty.”

She handed him the slip of paper. “Your scout patrol is gathered together in the tent next door, waiting for me to give them a dressing down. That list there has their names on it. Since you’re new and all, go make an impression. And if I catch any of you putting any other farm animals on a roof…”

“Yes, sir,” Allen said. “Arvalhim food.” He thought he almost caught a sparkle of laughter in the captain’s eyes as he replied. It hadn’t been more than a minute, but he decided he liked her. Maybe it was the similarity to Raeli, who’d been one of the fairest captains he’d ever known, even if she’d had a tongue that could blister the deck at forty paces.

She snorted and gave him a brief nod, and pointed at the tent flap. “Go scare the other idiots into behaving then. We have work to do.”

“Yes, sir,” Allen said, and saluted, before he turned to head out of the tent.

This was going to be an interesting assignment. He hadn’t been in the camp for more than half an hour and he’d already been assigned to play herd leader to what sounded like a bunch of misfits. And he was going to have to not to laugh at them, or it’d just undermine his credibility. He stopped outside the tent to compose his face and settle into the right frame of mind.

He had it after a minute. A mixture of Armsmaster Urik from the Dhara, a dash of the Master at Arms in Rylar, and a fair imitation of a truly irate sergeant he’d known once should do the trick.

He flipped the flap of the adjoining tent open, and stepped inside with what he hoped was a thunderous expression on his face.

While waiting for his eyes to adjust to the light again, he gave the room a good sweep, trying to hit everyone with the look and round them up. If it was his job to play the humourless officer, he was going to do it with vigor.

“A goat?!” he roared into the dim confines of the tent. “Which one of you idiots put a goat on a roof? What kind of a hunt-struck idiot steals a goat and is stupid enough to get caught doing it!” He figured as long as he had to yell at them, he could at least entertain himself.

“I’m your new patrol leader,” he snapped in a more normal tone of voice. “My name’s Lieutenant Delais. And Captain Della has just given me a dressing down for your idiocy practically before I stepped in the door.” He tried to get the full room in his glare, and as his eyes adjusted to the light, he saw five men and two women scattered across the tent, looking just a bit guilty. And none of them were standing at attention like they should have been.

“Forma-shun!” he bellowed out, and he waited for them to move into place, which they did with a sort of lazy indifference. “SAL-ute!” he roared. “What sort of Yoneth-blasted scum did they give me to deal with here! You stand at attention when your officer enters!”

The lack of attention wasn’t anything new for scouts. Since they were assigned at need and were directly under the supervision of a lieutenant, they had none of the usual crusty old sergeants to keep them in place or to keep the formalities up. The sergeants were the usual sticklers for that in the legions.

All in all, it meant that it was a good bit harder to maintain a proper separation of authority between the scout officer and his men, and that could be good or bad depending on the group of scouts. Time would tell for this group. He’d had a pretty relaxed relationship with his last group of scouts, but they’d all been serving under an outstanding captain, and one who’d maintained the sort of authority a scout patrol needed.

Captain Della had struck him as a decent captain, even though he’d only seen her for a moment. The most likely cause of this mess was the recent formation of the legion. There simply hadn’t been enough time for things to get sorted out as they should have been. Apparently that was his job. It seemed he’d have to play sergeant and lieutenant both for a bit.

The group of scouts slunk into place with a few scowls, but at least they moved beneath his glare. It might get more serious yet, but it was a good sign. If they’d only sat there, he’d have had to flog at least one of them as an example. The legions weren’t known for their gentle discipline. They came to attention and slowly saluted him with a few glances back and forth.

“Names?” he barked at them.

A half-hearted chorus of replies came back to them, and he checked them against the list that the captain had given him. Patrig, Kiel, Lessa, Ralen, Beia, Veren, Persil…

“Where’s Mera?” he barked again, glaring down the line. “There’s suppose to be eight of you here.”

The scouts glanced at each other and then back at him, and one of the women, Beia, he thought, offered up, “Out back, sir.”

“What in the name of Solen’s burning sun is she doing out there?” he roared again. He was getting the hang of this.

“Ahh, probably playing with her knives, sir,” one of the men, Veren, said. “She sort of has a thing for them. Talks to them, treats them better than people….” He trailed off.

Well, that was interesting. “Well, go and get her then!” he roared at the man, Veren. “And you too,” he snapped, pointing at the woman who’d spoken, Beia.

The two of them exchanged a glance, saluted him again half-heartedly, and then moved to the back of the tent where there was another flap. Veren coughed loudly before he lifted the flap.

“Ahh, Mera?” he shouted out the flap. “You out there?” There was no response.

He glanced at Beia again, let out a sigh, and then ducked out of the tent.

“By the Hunter’s bow,” he roared again. “You’re supposed to be scouts, not timid children.” This was pathetic. He didn’t know if this Mera was so frightening that they didn’t want to startle her or if they were just lazy.

“The rest of you wait here,” he barked. He stalked to the back of the tent and threw the flap aside as he ducked out.

On the packed grass and dirt between the tents, a woman with a long knife in each hand was spinning around, slashing at unseen targets and tumbling from imaginary blows. Beia and Veren were standing to one side, out of range of her strikes.

Allen stopped a minute to watch her. Her long blond hair was tied back with a strip of leather and steel-backed leather vambraces covered both of her forearms. She was wearing a non-uniform leather tunic that fell down to her thighs, and close-fitting hide breeches beneath that. She had no other armor on, although even the other scouts had been wearing a version of the legion’s infantry armor made out of hardened leather instead of steel. It didn’t work well for a scout to be sneaking around and for the sunlight to sparkle off them every time they moved, or for them to strike noises and sparks off of rocks if they were crawling around.

Something about the young woman, Mera, wasn’t quite right and it caught his attention. Where had he seen knife work like that before….

Sensing some presence watching her, Mera spun around to face him, one of her knives snapping up into a throwing position as the other stayed low to guard her waist. And when the force of her eyes struck him, he knew what it was he’d felt. Her eyes were as clear and cold a blue as the glaciers of the north.

“Leusi,” he muttered. Now he understood the scouts’ hesitation. What the hell was a Leusi woman doing down from the north? He’d never even seen one of their women before, much less one attached to the legions. And if they all had knife-work like that, no wonder the arvalhim left the tribes alone.

There wasn’t much for it though. Either she was a scout in the legion or she wasn’t, and he couldn’t show her any favors. So he pulled out his impression of Urik again.

“What by the burned ass of Solen’s fifth concubine are you doing out here?” he roared at her, staring her straight in the eyes as he paced forward. He ignored the knives she still had ready to throw.

“You were supposed to be in the tent with the rest of the scouts, waiting for the captain, not playing with knives outside!” he roared practically in her face as he bent down towards her. The knives in her hand pressed close against his neck and stomach.

Mera’s cold blue eyes stared up into his for a moment before she seemed to twitch, and then the knives were gone, put back in their sheaths. She didn’t speak a word as she stared up at him.

Her eyes were completely steady, and she continued to be silent as she seemed to wait to see what he’d do next.

“Into the tent!” he roared as he glared at her. He jerked his thumb back over his shoulder to indicate the tent without moving out of her way. He wasn’t going to let a scout get the better of him, Leusi woman or not. First impressions were important, and morale would suffer if he didn’t establish the proper boundaries now.

Her eyes stayed steadily on him for a moment until she seemed to draw back into herself. She nodded sharply and her body curved around to the side of his, almost brushing him as she moved past him towards the tent. The movement accented exactly how shapely that body was, and he forced himself to ignore it as he turned to the other two scouts.

He jerked his thumb back towards the tent again without saying anything, and the two of them gave him a brief salute as they hurried around him and back into the tent.

As he turned around to follow them back in, he wondered if the Leusi woman hadn’t had a hand in the prank with the goat. It looked as if she was going to be a handful.

He pushed the thought of the woman out of his mind as he crossed back through the tent flap. He had a dressing down to finish.

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