Daniela was quite comfortable trotting along behind the Captain, keeping her eyes on his back all the time as they progressed in silence. Although the silence was fairly comfortable, part of Daniela wanted to be back with the men on foot, mainly Stuart and Ronan, having an interesting and funny conversation to pass the time.
It took them six hours to make it to their training camp twenty miles from the border, close enough to be ready if they were needed but far enough away to train without the risk of being attacked. It was dark as they entered the guarded gates and the shadows wandering around in the darkness sent warning shivers up Daniela’s spine.
“Horses are to be fed and watered in the stables before the riders can retire,” the Captain told the horsemen. “If I find one horse with its tack still on before I go to bed then the rider shall pay the consequences.”
All the men nodded in understanding, too tired to argue with their leader.
“Good, then you will be shown to your dorms which will be your homes for as long as we are here. Training begins first thing tomorrow.”
Daniela led Oblivion to the stables, mechanically taking off her tack and rubbing her down carefully.
“There you are,” Ronan said, appearing out of the darkness. “I told you I’d find you again, didn’t I.” He automatically picked up a brush and began dragging it down Oblivion’s side.
“What are you doing?” Daniela asked. “You should be asleep in bed by now, not helping me.”
“I’d be a terrible friend if I didn’t help you. And besides, two pairs of hands will get the job done quicker than with one.”
Daniela didn’t have the energy to argue with him so allowed Ronan to work on Oblivion until she was ready for the night. She then followed him towards the building where the dorms were housed, almost blinded when the candlelight inside hit her face. She allowed herself to be led down the corridors and into a dorm where Ronan directed her to a bunk.
“You’ll be sharing with me,” Ronan said, “and I’ve already dibbed top bunk so you’re on the bottom.”
Daniela didn’t complain, she just collapsed onto the bed and was asleep in moments.
When she woke the next morning Daniela was definitely feeling worse for wear. Her legs ached from all the running and riding she had done the previous day and her head rung with the sound of the bell demanding that she get out of bed.
Still half delirious with sleep, Daniela staggered out of bed in her clothes and was about to try and get changed when she realised everyone could see her. She was completely exposed in a room full of men. If she took her shirt off they would see her bandaged chest and they would know something was wrong.
“You look rough,” Ronan observed from his top bunk, his bare chest staring down at Daniela in a way that made her feel a little uncomfortable. “Good night’s sleep?”
Daniela only groaned in reply, looking away and picking up her jerkin from where it had been dropped the night before and pulling it on over her shirt.
“A bit of breakfast will make you feel a lot better,” Ronan reassured, jumping down from the bunk and throwing his shirt on. “Come on, I’m starving.”
Daniela followed Ronan out of the dorm and out of the building. In the light of day she could see that there were four buildings in the camp. One was the soldier’s dorms, another she assumed was the mess hall, but she had no idea what the other two were. The four buildings all surrounded a giant patch of open space covered in sand that could only be the training ground. Daniela began to feel intimidated by it as she walked across the space towards the mess hall.
The room was an explosion of noise that deafened Daniela the moment she walked in. There were already nearly a hundred men eating in the hall, all from Daniela’s company. None of them looked up as she walked past.
She collected a bowl of what she guessed was porridge and took a seat at the end of a bench with Ronan. The slop in front of her didn’t look appetizing in the slightest and for a good few minutes she didn’t eat a mouthful.
“You’re going to have to eat something,” Ronan said as he shoveled the food into his mouth. “Who knows when we’re going to be fed next.”
Reluctantly, Daniela started spooning the porridge into her mouth, cringing each time she had to swallow it down. Ronan looked pleased with himself as he finished off his share and settled down to watch Daniela finish hers.
But before Daniela could finish, the whole room went silent and looked up as the Captain entered the mess, Stuart on one side, a man Daniela didn’t recognise on the other. Every pair of eyes were on the trio as they walked along the length of the mess hall and collected their portion of breakfast, all questioning why the Captain was eating with the soldiers and not with his officers.
The tension in the room increased as the Captain turned around to sit down. No one knew what to. Should someone stand and offer their seat? Or invite him join them?
Luckily for the soldiers, Stuart took the lead and walked straight over to the spare seat next to Ronan, putting his tray down confidently.
“You don’t mind if we join you?” He asked rhetorically.
“Of course not,” Ronan replied, knowing it was the only answer he could give. Daniela smiled at Stuart as he sat down but only to ignore the stranger sitting on Stuart’s right and the dark shadow of the Captain putting his tray down next to hers.
“Captain, these were the men I told you about. This is Ronan Payne and Danny Gilbert.”
“Yes I recognise Danny,” the Captain said, turning his eyes onto Daniela. “You’re the boy who stood up to Adan.”
“Yes sir,” Daniela said, keeping her head down.
“Don’t call me sir,” the Captain protested in a lighthearted way. “Not in here anyway. In here I’m Garrett, just another soldier.”
“You just like to pretend you’re one of us,” the stranger joked, “but I know you like the power.”
“Gentlemen this is Ian Jones, my second-in-command,” Garrett introduced the stranger. “I’d keep an eye on him, he’s a bit of a practical joker when he’s off duty.”
To her surprise Daniela found herself laughing along with the rest of the men. She didn’t think that the people in charge could be this human. Captain Garrett in particular made Daniela smile. She had guessed that he was about twenty-six years old, older than Ronan’s twenty-one years, but not as old as Stuart’s thirty. Ian she found impossible to guess because of the child-like qualities of his face; chubby cheeks and dimples. She wondered if every company was this young and came to the conclusion that they couldn't be. There weren't enough young men in Varall to make up an army of them.
“Time to put my commanding hat on,” Garrett said as he put down his spoon. “I want to see you men out on the training field in five minutes or there’ll be hell to pay.”