Ardrion gasped for breath as the icy shock jolted through him. The piercing sunlight proved just as much of a struggle. Sopping wet, he glanced around at the surrounding throng of men in a similar state of bewilderment. Towering men in full armor circled slowly sloshing water over the group. Rows of crisp canvas tents and bustling figures stretched further outward. Like a soldier’s camp. Every one of the milling men was clad in the same deep violet surcoat bearing the crest of the king. Banners to match flapped in the breeze.
It is a soldier’s camp.
The trees were sparse as far as Ardrion could see and little more than weed grasses tamped flat covered the ground. There was no telling how far he was from his little path through the woods.
One of the soldiers cleared his throat and clambered, heavily armored, onto a table on the other side of the group. “Gentlemen,” he addressed the motley congregation, “the King’s Army welcomes you.” His eyes swept over the expanse of the camp.
Ardrion stood near the back, shifting in an attempt to see through the crowd. They were surrounded by a line of patrolling guards. Whispers and murmurs filled the air as intermittent words from the tabletop-soldier wafted toward him.
“-- your induction into the ranks where you will have the privilege--”
Guards seemed to appear everywhere he looked. Not only were they armored, but they were armed as well. In front of him, the men on the ground looked about, locking eyes amidst a sea of worry. Sweat began to bead on Ardrion’s brow. Induction?
“--secure the border at the River--”
The murmurs turned into outright yelling.
“Like hell!” One of the men stepped forward to challenge the statement as a few of the others acknowledged their agreement.
The soldier cleared his throat again and adjusted his belt. “By the King’s decree, those deemed unfit to fulfill a productive role in--”
“Bullshit!” another man shouted.
“--dysfunctioning members of the populace--” he tried to continue through the growing cries of the group. “--military custody in order to habituate a more constructive--”
“I was paying off my sentence just fine in the peace of my cell. Piss on the King if he thinks he can send me to the River, when he ‘deemed me unfit’ in the first place!” More cries followed.
The patrol continued, unfazed. Ardrion stole glances at those around him. They all wore peppered beards, hollowed eyes and seedy demeanors. It seemed like the wrong time to point out the mistake of his belonging with criminals and decrepit old men.
“Whether of your own volition or not,” the soldier retorted, “the River is in dire need of your service and it is thusly decreed.”
“And if it is ‘of my own volition’ to leave?” The group began to encroach on the table.
The soldier adjusted his belt as violet surcoats began to close in. “I must warn you, desertion is punishable by death,” his voice raised for all to hear. “You’ve got a much better chance for a satisfactory life being sent through the ranks, obeying the command, and fulfilling your post.”
“And how long until the King decrees my sentence lifelong?”
“A concern that shall be addressed if such a time should come--”
“Bullshit, I say. Not a soldier, not a deserter!” With that, the mob grabbed the front of the soldier’s uniform yanking him from the table.
Barking orders to form a line, the patrol closed in with their weapons swiftly drawn. It didn’t stop a few of the men from trying to use the distraction to slip the soldiers. But there were too many to break the line. Ardrion meekly followed those left around him.
Better to wait.
Flailing men were marched out of sight while others less animated were slowly dragged away. The remaining group was left to claim a violet cloth bundle and list of instructions, one by one. They all looked to be swallowing their panic just as well as Ardrion was.
What the hell did I miss? He was in the woods, encountered a rider, was recruited into the King’s Army. Simple. Except he had nothing in common with these men, by every account. How would they have mistaken that?
A towering shadow appeared over him to hand him the violet bundle of cloth. Ardrion heard only the pulsing in his ears as the guard rattled off instructions he’d repeated to each of the men. It might as well have been all one long incomprehensible word. Though he was unable to fully stifle his nerves, Ardrion managed a steady voice. “Sir, I must protest a mistake has been made…”
The guard continued on to the next man without so much as a glance his way.
“I am merely travelling on the road for--” he reached out to the guard’s arm. “Sir!”
“Back in line, Soldier,” he snapped before moving on.
Soldier? His lungs suddenly wouldn’t take in the air. Not a soldier, not a deserter. The words echoed in his head.
“What did he say?” the man next to him leaned in.
Ardrion, still wide-eyed, shook his head.
“Hey, what’s your name?”
He answered noncommittally while he watched the other men shift back and forth, just as struck as he was.
“Ardrion, it’s probably safe to breathe, don’t you think?”
It took a moment before the words swam into comprehension and he was able to join the conversation.
“Lievvor,” the man offered a hand.
Ardrion took it and exhaled finally.
Lievvor opened his mouth to say more but the reinstated tabletop-soldier shouted something while the group began to move off. The mob from earlier had yet to return and the rest scrambled to follow the orders lest they share that fate. Ardrion fell in line behind Lievvor who he noticed was nearer his own age. On a second look, there were a few men who seemed as out of place as he was, but not many. Like him, they were probably second sons, immune to the King’s one-man decree that had taken his brother just a few years ago. And like him, they had probably been avoiding pointless voluntarism.
The ocean of canvas ahead of them seemed to have just sprung from the ground. They entered the camp followed mercilessly by the sunken eyes of the inhabitants. At the outer reaches of the tents, Ardrion tossed his bundle to the ground. From it,he pulled a worn violet surcoat with a fraying crest in the center. He grimaced and let fall to the dirt in a heap. Next was his canvas tent that he wasn’t sure was even big enough to serve as a blanket. Though as he spread it out, he saw the ragged edges and the smattering of holes burned through.
Lievvor crossed his line of sight and waved him toward the center of camp. Foragers, cooks, and other serving men and women populated the interior, a few of them bruised and bloody. Ardrion was certain those were the men of the earlier uprising. The camp slowly closed in around him at the smell of food and the commotion of arriving supplies. As he was squeezed outward from the group he caught sight of one of the trees still standing near the camp. The man who had earlier grabbed the soldier from the table now swayed from the branches in the wind. He lost the air from his lungs for a moment before turning back the way he’d come. The best he could think to do was crawl into his tent for the night. Tomorrow. Everything tomorrow. But Lievvor appeared in time to coax him back into soldierhood with a few crusts of bread and two cups sloshing with liquid.
“Take it, come on!” he insisted.
“How many times have you done this?” Ardrion hid his concern away.
Lievvor chuckled, “Oh, I could have gotten more if I’d had a knife.”
Ardrion shook his head as they went back to their tents and doled out the meager food between them.
“So what are the odds of getting out of here, you think?”
Lievvor leaned back thoughtfully, “Well, considering you could very well lose a limb for mentioning that, I’d say slim to none.”
“I’m trying to peg down the guards. Some of them seem a little better than others.”
“A bad idea all around, I’m telling you.”
Ardrion shook his head. “I don’t belong here.”
“Look around. Not a single one of these guys even has the word ‘volunteer’ in their vocabulary. Guards included. That breed is long dead.”
“They plucked me from the side of a road.” Ardrion scoffed.
Lievvor clicked his tongue, unfazed. “They must be down on their quota. After the King ordered a man from every family to the River, we’re all that’s left. Next thing you know, they’ll be arming the women.” His expression darkened.
“And that’s why you’re here,” Ardrion mocked.
“We’ll be pillaging towns all the way to the River. I didn’t want that for mine, so I’m serving instead. Me and couple other guys.” He pointed a thumb over his shoulder.
Ardrion sighed, “We’ll see.” He turned back to his tent. Everything tomorrow.
Torrion finally appeared in the doorway, white-faced as Ardrion had ever seen him. His brother had been in town for hours, leaving him to grapple with his boredom on his own at the shop. He watched as Torrion wordlessly stalked past him to the adjoining house. Being two years older, he undoubtedly relished being anywhere without Ardrion.
It was not until dinner that he finally reappeared. Ardrion could sense that keeping his mouth shut would be far more harmonious for everyone. Tonight they sat with Old Farmer Berkler and his family. It was their weekly tradition to feast together in payment for Torrion’s daily help in the fields. Father always made the joke that Berkler only needed Torrion for a break in dealing with daughters. A savory stew passed between them all.
Ardrion glanced at his brother who caught him for the third time. The silence persisted between them and to Ardrion’s preference, the peace as well.
But Father had no such inclination. “And what are you two into?”
“Nothing,” Ardrion chirped while his brother merely shrugged. The table turned to them.
Torrion took a breath. “There was a messenger in town today. Talking of the war.”
Berkler scoffed. “Don’t let the King hear you talk like that. It’s just a little ‘border dispute.’ Done any day now,” he mocked.
Father didn’t take his eyes from Torrion. “And?”
“And I don’t know what I think yet.” His words came out carefully.
“I think you have a more dire responsibility to your family and your future.”
“That is in my thoughts, yes.”
Father turned to Ardrion. “And you?”
He was still caught in the implications of Torrion leaving. “I didn’t know that’s what was bugging him.”
Berkler’s wife and daughter’s had taken their stew and disappeared, but he had stayed behind. “Torrion, I can admire what you feel, but you must understand the irresponsibility that the King has shown through this war. He has had conflict with the Kingdom of Markor for the last...many years. There are other ways to fulfill duty to your King.”
“At least take the time to think it through, son.”
Torrion remained silent for the remainder of supper and disappeared into solitude afterward.
Ardrion couldn’t recall a time when the table was so calm after a conversation involving King Valren. He knew Torrion had more to say, however. Berkler and Father continued to converse as Ardrion excused himself and creaked up the stairs toward Torrion.
He jumped and hid something behind him when he caught sight of Ardrion. But it only took a look for him to give in.
He pulled out a paper. “It’s a decree. From the King.”
“One man from every family.”
He doesn’t want to go at all. “Why did you let Dad think you wanted to go?”
“Listen, Ardrion, I’m not telling you so you can go tattle. Dad doesn’t need to know anything until I’m already gone. It’ll just be a big fight or he’ll make a huff to someone who won’t take it kindly.”
Ardrion reached over and took that paper. “Then I’ll go. I need to get out of this stupid shop.”
“Idiot, you’re not old enough.
Ardrion shrugged. “They don’t need to know that. And I can at least write a goodbye to Dad.”
“You’d get yourself killed before you even made it to the River.”
“And you’d do much better?” Ardrion clamped his mouth shut at the reaization of what his words really meant.
Ardrion sat a long moment in silence. “Then if one of us is going to go, it might as well be me.”
Torrion rolled his eyes. “Get some sleep and we’ll deal with it tomorrow.” He pulled at his blankets underneath where Ardrion sat.
Ardrion crossed the room and jumped into his blankets,
But hours later, after Father had doused the lanterns and sank into his own bed, Ardrion found himself awake. And if Ardrion couldn't sleep, Torrion would be having a much worse time of it. In the moonlight, the sagging mattress across the room showed no sign of Torrion. Realization crept over him and the feeling in his gut was a crushing blow. He was left behind to be a stonecarver's son. And without so much an unwritten goodbye.
Well into the night the camp remained restless. Shouts and scuffles erupted in every direction. The patrols seemed to be making good on their threats to those attempting to desert into the dark.
The next morning, he woke with canvas on his face. He could hear the commotion outside and wrestled with the remains of his tent. A moment later, it lifted away revealing the piercing sunlight. Ardrion writhed with his hands over his eyes.
“Day one, Soldier.” Lievvor hauled him from the ground.
Ardrion blinked at him before trudging forward. Soldier...