Port Agricultural Section of the Tranquility
My father used to tell me marks on your armor spoke of luck; of the Twelve above looking down on you in favor from their frozen slumber. My older brother dismissed it, once he had been a few years in Superintendent Salazar’s Guard, saying the best armor was unmarred from sword or axe. Their armor had failed both of them in the end. Years ago, before my son was born, when raiders surged out of the Ghost Keep to raid our hydroponics facility for its crops.
I grasped my leather cuirass and smelled its sweet stink. Four campaigns I had sweated through in this armor, yet the only blood it was tarnished with was a few bandits and a comrade I hadn’t much cared for. Yes, I was favored by the Twelve and I could smell my luck on my armor. My gaze fell to my son and the smile cracked even wider. I was lucky there too, the boy a recent addition to the Superintendent’s Guard, and already strapping on his new armor, fresh from the armory, leather creaking as he buckled it on.
Give it a good stink, boy. Make your mark.
“It’s so musty,” my wife Greta said with a wave of the hand. I fixed my smile on her. There were few who saw my smile. I was thought of as a grim old man when among the Superintendent’s Guard; a sturdy member of the shield wall but not much fun to drink with. Even most of the other old veterans don’t much care for me. But for my wife I always had a ready smile.
“It’s broken in, is all. Darian will get there soon enough.”
“I hope not,” Greta said, as she hugged my boy close.
Darian was the only one of our children to make it past six; and he’d managed another eleven since then. Every year the facility burbled and churned, producing crops of sweet potatoes fed by the river and the magic within, and most years we kept an uneasy peace with the superintendents of the other hydroponics facilities.
This year the peace had been broken.
Just days before, as Morgan turned to Lin, a great raiding party had splashed over the river dividing their territory. Now I’m to go to war; my son and I, and only the Twelve above know how it will end.
“Come on, boy,” I said, my voice gruff as I slapped my son on the back, a solid thunk on the padded leather. “It’s off to the keep. We don’t want to keep the Superintendent waiting.”
He led the way out of our family berthing, eager to see war as many young men are. As I had been once. Greta stopped me at the door with a hand on my armor.
“Grant,” she said in a quiet voice. “You’ll look after him, right?”
“Of course. He’ll be beside me in the shield wall.”
She nodded, but her expression of worry didn’t change. Beside me in the shield wall, where my father had been. Where my older brother had been. Where the comrade I hadn’t much cared for had been.
But I pushed past and together Darian and I strode through the streets of Sandstone. The streets were rough-paved dirt, dry even in the wettest months as the chemical rains never fell in towns. Sometimes you could get a mist blowing over and most folk tried to avoid it. The magic in the rains could bring on illness, or so the old tales said, though they spurred crop growth all through the Agricultural Section.
But Sandstone had one of the Ancient hydroponics facilities that dated back to Lift Off. Few in town could enter. The cultivators, mainly, trained in the arts of maintaining the equipment and harvesting the facility’s bounty. And those of us in the Superintendent’s Guard.
We were already at the guard post that ringed the facility and I nodded at the sentries, standing alert beside their guard dogs. They knew my faces and the dogs knew my scent and let me through without remark. A great gathering was mustering outside the hydroponics facilities. Most were levies, the common folk living in Sandstone’s slums, a ragged lot looking uncertain in their loose groupings.
I snorted at the sight, pitying whoever was tasked with keeping them together.
Closer to us were the first of the Superintendent’s Guard. They bore long wooden shields and swords or axes, most with the rough-hewn blades of back-alley blacksmiths crafted against Regulations. A lucky few had Fabricated blades made in a magical process somewhere in the upper decks.
Darian had pushed past the sentries; the boy eager to join his fellow Guards. Still, I hesitated.
“Tighten your right pauldron, boy,” I said, stopping him in the street. “No, I’ll do it,” I said as I grasped the buckle and cinched it tight. Darian squirmed.
“It’s too tight as it is.”
“Better too tight than too loose,” I said, checking his armor over for the hundredth time, and with battle today not even likely. “You know-”
“The guys are looking at me, Dad. Stop it.”
I paused. As usual I had no idea what to say. Darian trotted off, a few of the younger fellows in the Guard hailing him with smiles.
One of the older fellows in the Guard, Torstun, was approaching me now. Neither of us bothered with smiles or banter. He was the Superintendent’s Second and wore silver scale armor that shined in the morning lights.
“I’ll want Darian beside me in the shield wall,” I said first but Torstun just shook his head.
“You won’t be in the shield wall, Grant. You’re going to command one of the levies. They need men of experience.”
“Superintendent’s orders or yours?”
I stared at Torstun for a while but he just stared back. We had entered the Guard around the same time, decades ago, and fought together all the while. By all rights we should have been close friends. But somehow we just never got along. It’s like that with some people; the Twelve alone know why.
“I wanted to look after my boy.”
“Don’t worry about Darian. I’ll keep an eye out for him. Just get to your unit.” He stepped forward and pointed. “Over there.”
I looked and cursed my luck. Based on the banner drooping on the ground and the loose cluster of wandering men I had the real pick of Sandstone. Still, there was nothing for it, and it spoke of the baron’s favor. I suppose. My wife had always said I should ask about a higher assignment, after all, given my advanced age. But the sad fact of the matter was I was always better at taking orders than giving them.
“Fine,” I said, looking for my boy, but he was gone. In the cluster of the Guards I saw him smiling as he clapped another soldier on the back. Darian had joined two months ago and already he was getting along better than I ever did. So I shrugged and turned to the swarm of skinny vagrants.
“Get that flag off the ground!” I snapped as I approached, the startled old man jumping at the attention, the standard fluttering jerkily. I stared at him for a moment, feeling the unpleasant sensation of staring at a man not much older than me. What was his occupation? A tanner? A wheelwright? A shopkeeper? Surely if he was of higher caste he could have avoided the draft.
I grabbed the flag and wrenched it away from him. It didn’t matter what he had been. For the next few weeks, until this raid was put to an end, he was to be a soldier. Or a sad imitation of one, anyway. I scanned the frightened faces nearby before I settled on a tall lad.
“Hold this,” I said, pushing the battle standard into his arms. “Don’t let-”
I paused and turned at the sound of an approaching rider. Atop a white horse was a Rune Reader, a blonde woman in a pale green robe looking down at me, one of the priceless Ancient tomes chained to her chest.
“You must be Grant,” she said, her voice smooth and cultured. I nodded. Whoever she was, it was clear she was of the noble caste. Doubtless she could trace her ancestors all the way through to Lift Off, or the First Mutiny at least.
“I’ve been assigned to relay the Superintendent’s orders to this regiment,” she said, even as she glanced away and down to the tome. She touched it with her fingers. “You shall follow this route,” she said, as the tome emitted a chirp.
“Witchcraft,” the old man whispered behind me. A few of the levies muttered as they stood to attention, spears grounded into the hard dirt of the hydroponics facility’s courtyard.
I licked my lips. “Aye, Rune Reader,” I croaked, averting my eyes from the tome. If I could live out the rest of my life without seeing Ancient magic in use I would gladly do so. “Lead the way, then.”
In silence she spurred her horse forward and trotted off to the front. I spared a final glance back, past the burbling facility, past a crowd of archers stringing their recurve bows. The Superintendent’s Guard was marshaling on the far side of the courtyard, Superintendent Salazar himself riding past on his black charger. I thought I caught a glimpse of Darian in between the shifting shields and swords but I couldn’t be sure.
Though it didn’t much matter. I could say goodbye to the boy later but for now I need to whip the scum of Sandstone into shape. If I had any talent at all, by the Twelve, it was in being a scary bastard.
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