Hello everyone! As part of Short Story Saturday, I have posted another short story, this one entitled Birth of a Mercenary. Please enjoy.
“Help! Help!” Her cries spurred him to action. The young man loved her and would do anything for her, though she did not reciprocate.
He dropped his hoe and dashed to his humble cottage. The young man pushed aside furniture and removed a straw floor mat to reveal a hole where he hid his broadsword. Perhaps he should have returned it to the royal military when the war was over but amongst the scores of weapons pilfered from the mass of fallen soldiers that were to be sold on the black market, no one was going notice a single missing broadsword.
There was some initial debate whether he should even be part of the conscription as even though he was sixteen years old he looked to be only twelve. Luckily, some that knew him the best were quick to tell the royal enlisters his real age much to his eternal delight. His friends apologized but the scars never quite healed.
They gave him a pike and told him to point it at men he did not know for a cause he did not understand for a king that did not care for him. His odds of surviving the war were nearly none. The only hope they had for him was to slow the opposition down before he met his end.
The young man was in pursuit of a couple of bandits that rode into town and kidnapped his beloved before he or anyone else had time to react. She was not a rich girl, merely a villager, a peasant, just like him. The woman was surely chosen at random or perhaps for her beauty. This meant there was only one reason for her capture, the knowledge of which made his stomach churn.
He mounted his horse. It was large, slow, and lumbering. Perfect for plowing a field for the man on a budget but hardly the kind of horse that should be used in rescue missions especially when trying to pursue two criminals riding more athletic steeds. Yet he still was confident that he could find them thanks to skills taught to him by his mentor and their carelessness hiding their tracks.
A knight taught the young man how to use tells such as depth, length, and pattern of horse prints, creases in the ground, the way in which foliage and other plant life were moved, and a basic understanding of both human and horse psychology to discover the trail of a person on horseback.
These were lessons taught to him by the same man who showed him how to use a sword, how to fight both on a horse and off, and the best positions to take when engaged in combat. He molded the young man into an effective fighting machine.
He tracked them to their hovel. It was a hastily built mockery of a fortress in the middle of the forest. Its poorly constructed wooden fence would pose no threat to an invading army. A few tents made of deerskin served as a crude facsimile of barracks. The ground inside that alleged stronghold was surprisingly brown and the environment was exceedingly dusty. It was quite a contrast to the evergreen paradise that surrounded them.
Through one of what might generously be called an embrasure, granted a product of expert craftsmanship instead a testimony to slipshod construction, the young man peered inside.
The left side was almost completely obscured. The profiles of a couple of bandits that conversed nearby was all that the young man could observe and even then, they were more heard than seen.
Visibility was a bit better on the right side though just barely. He could make out a few tents nearby and based on how the wind was blowing through them, appeared to be empty. The only other feature of significance that the young man spotted was what looked like a drainage ditch.
He was about to look away when he noticed, out of his peripheral vision, a bandit dragging a woman to the dirty water conduit. She did her best to fight back but taking into account that her hands were bound, her mouth was gagged, and her body was covered with various bruises, undoubtedly the consequences of past resistance, it was no surprise that her efforts were in vain.
What she had been through, the young man could only imagine as sick as it made him feel to do so. What the bandit had in store for her in the near future should not even be imagined.
This poor woman was not his beloved. She was taller, her gown and shirt were both lavender, her skin just a bit more tan and coarse, her hair color differed, and her build just a bit broader. That is not to say she was not worth rescuing his beloved or no.
Yet that was not the reason why the young man crawled through the hole, snuck past the few bandits that were sauntering about, and crawled slowly toward the ditch.
It was because it was an opportunity. The bandit was alone. He could realistically sneak up one this one and kill him before his mates noticed. Perhaps after that, the young woman he rescued would be willing to assist him in providing a distraction and guiding him through the camp.
A foolish plan, but the best course of action he could think of and considering the sea of other plans that had flooded his brain, this one was by far the best. Step one was determined. Step two could be decided later.
He was behaving more out of instinct and emotion as opposed to rationality. Action was better than inaction in his mind even it meant following a hastily conceived notion with little chance of long term success.
Luckily for him, most of the guards did not have an iota of concern with anything but attending the screams and cries of the women in the northwest corner whom the young man could hear but not yet see. Apparently, new blood had reinvigorated dormant emotions, especially terror.
The young man waited just above as the bandit tried to remove the woman’s clothing. For but a moment, the auburn-haired woman was able to free herself from his outstretched hands and arms. His back was exposed as he moved to recapture her. It was not much of an opportunity but it was enough time for the young man to strike.
The young man plunged into the ravine as his sword pointed downward. His blade went through the bandit’s neck and chest. The bandit did not have time to scream.
This triggered a memory of the war. In the chaos of battle, the knight was in a ravine battling against an equally capable foe. His sword flew out of his hand when his foe knocked it out with his blade after making an excellent counter-strike. He was about to apply the coup-de-grace when the young man, seemingly out of nowhere, leaped from atop the ravine and struck the opposing knight with the business end of his pike.
The knight was grateful. He considered the young man to be something of a guardian angel, a divine being sent by God to save his life.
In truth, the young man had suffered a blow to the head earlier in battle and had been wandering aimlessly, somehow able to avoid death or any additional wounds in the bedlam. It was mere coincidence that his head cleared at the most crucial moment of the knight’s life.
Regardless, the knight was eternally grateful. Mistaking the young man for a much younger person, even remarking how awful it was that even a peasant boy should get caught up in the war, he offered him an apprenticeship as his squire. His squire, actually a year younger than the young man though the knight did not know this, was killed earlier in the skirmish.
At best it could be an unofficial position as the young man was not nobility but the knight assured him that he had enough clout to make it official once they returned to the capital. He was quite an influential person.
The young man eagerly accepted the offer. He recognized a golden opportunity when he saw it.
Thus the lessons began. Whenever there was a lull in the action, and sometimes even while they were in combat, the knight doled out lessons that would teach him how to become a knight.
After he killed the bandit, the young man bade the woman silence. He untied the rope and removed the gag. The young man then asked her for assistance.
His grandiose plans were quickly snuffed. Little did he realize how greatly she had suffered. One act of kindness was not enough to negate years of abuse. It did not matter that he was one of the good men.
She screamed aimlessly. It was an irrational action from a woman whose unfortunate experiences had made her irrational. Her cries alerted the bandits to the young man’s position, the last people in the world that she wanted to see that very moment, but it was not as if she had intentionally called out to them.
The young man cringed and cursed her and his luck which was followed by an immediate retraction. He was at fault, he knew that. She should not have acted impulsively as opposed to having even the bare minimum of a plan. He smirked. His mentor would be so disappointed.
He muttered angrily to himself as he pulled himself to level ground. The young man drew his sword. His foes drew their weapons. Several called to their allies who joined them. Dozens of men left their tents and their posts to join their allies in their attempt to exterminate the intruder.
There was nowhere to run. There was nowhere to hide. He was vastly outnumbered. The bandits were angry, frustrated, and cruel. They charged him with reckless abandon, their rusted blades held to their side or over their heads. Against such odds, some men might cower, make peace with the almighty or even hope for a swift death.
The young man did no such thing. Quite the contrary. He smiled.
His master was killed in the final battle. As a result, the apprenticeship was never made official. The death of the knight meant the young man was once again a commoner, a mere peasant. Left with no other options, he returned home.
War changes a man. His old life consisted of toiling in the fields and trying, in vain, to court the woman he loved. It was a humble existence but one he was once content with. That all changed after his conscription.
Returning to his old life proved impossible. He had heard too many screams. He had seen too many lives lost. He had taken far more than his fair share. He could not even resume the one-sided attempt at wooing, not that his love had faded but his desire to do so was certainly all but purged.
Four years was also a long time to be separated with little communication. Whatever love she had for him even platonically had become quite tepid. She hardly even recognized him.
What remained of the bandits lied at the young man’s feet. Various limbs littered the ground. There may have been more of them but they fought as a mass with little regards to tactics or stratagem. Moreover, they did not have nearly the skill. Ten of them combined had merely a tenth of swordsman young man possessed.
There was still one man left to fight. He seemed to be a different class of fighter than his allies, much more skilled.
He was also incredibly large. His muscles bulged out of his sleeveless white shirt. His large black boots seemed to leave indentures in the ground with every step. The upper part of his face was obscured with a red bandana but the young man could sense the scowl.
A large curved blade was in his right hand. After growling a few words of remorse over the death of his allies, and a vow to avenge their deaths, he swung it in an ostentatious manner over his head. Perhaps his hope was to intimidate the young man. If so, he failed.
The young man stared into his massive foe’s eyes. A smirk curled upon his lips. His opponent was not used to such fearlessness from a man facing him, especially in a one-on-one fight. It unnerved him.
There was a single reason why the young man had survived those countless numbers of battles and ultimately survived the war when even his mentor was slain. A very basic reason.
He was a tremendous fighter, one of the best swordsmen of his time.
The young man absorbed his lessons tremendously fast. He displayed talent far beyond his humble means, far beyond even some of the best knights of the kingdom. Unbeknownst to everyone, even himself, as he had no previous opportunity to learn or test such a thing, he was a latent prodigy when it came to the art of the sword.
Perhaps more importantly, a strange feeling would wash over him whenever a battle would begin. The young man did not understand this feeling at first so he spoke to the other soldiers who dismissed it as anxiety, apprehension, and dread.
His allies could only make the determination from their own feelings. Each of them loathed fighting even if they were loyal soldiers willing to fight for the kingdom’s cause.
After a few more battles, the young man subconsciously grasped what his emotions truly meant but he dare not speak of them to his friends nor did he even allow himself to dwell on it for very long.
His realized from conversations with them that should any of his allies survive, they would have everlasting scars. He knew of the nightmares many of them experienced. He witnessed the horror and atrocities that kept a great deal of them awake at night.
Knowledge of all of this prevented him from admitting the truth even to himself.
Quickly, the young man moved toward the crude wooden cage in the northwest corner. He unlocked the women with the key he acquired from the dead body of the bandit leader.
There, amongst the other mud-soaked and disheveled women, wearing her trademark long beige gown and sleeveless dark brown tunic and white undershirt, though missing her bonnet as it had flown from her head at some point when she was dragged to the encampment, was the only woman he had ever loved.
She looked healthy and no worse for wear especially compared to the others. She had just arrived and experienced none of the hardships they undoubtedly had to experience.
His beloved hugged and kissed him and expressed gratitude so saccharine that he felt like he was in a dream. The raven-haired young woman implied that should he offer she would happily give her hand in marriage to properly convey her appreciation. He once would have killed to hear those words escape her pink lips.
The young man politely and gently removed himself from her arms. He ignored her as she tried to speak to him when he tended to the other women, gathered what horses he could find, and devised a plan to return all the women to their homes, at least the ones who were not too hysterical to speak.
Those that were in no condition to move would have to wait until the young man could contact the proper authorities within the capital to assist. He could only hope they would arrive on time.
As he did this, the young woman finally caught his attention with a brash, infuriated shout. She demanded to know the reason for his rejection and her dismissal.
He silently placed her on a horse and pointed her in the direction of his village. She stared at him incredulously for a moment. She realized he was earnest and adamant with his intentions. His beloved shed a few tears.
She turned toward the exit. The horse took a few steps forward. Before she went very far, a voice from behind prompted her to stop.
It was the young man. He explained.
He loved her. He would always love her. Yet now the two could never be wed. He would never know whether she loved him or whether she was merely grateful that he saved her.
Under normal circumstances, he could hope that one day she’d come around. Now, the question of whether her love was real would gnaw in the back of his mind should the two marry. This made the prospect of a happy marriage inconceivable.
The young woman turned around with her horse. She nodded as if she understood though truly she did not. Tears flowed from her eyes and she gave the young man an anguished smile.
If she were honest with herself, she would have known her sadness was spurred from the prospect of being rebuffed than it was losing the one she loved. Deep down she knew he was right.
She leaned over to give the young man a farewell kiss. With a dejected wave, she rode off toward home.
The young man sighed. He wasn’t being honest either. In a different life, he would have been happy with her even if the marriage was a sham. That is when he would have been happy being a mere farmer. That all had changed.
An agrarian life no longer satisfied. In fact, all paled compared to the battlefield.
He loved to fight. He craved it. It was the only time he felt alive.
He recognized it was wrong which is why he did not discuss this with anyone even his closest friends and family.
Yet now he could no longer resist the Siren’s call. He yearned for combat.
The young man was no sociopath so he was not about to kill innocent people for fun. There would be no sport to that, either. He wanted true battle.
The young man looked towards the horizon. Hostilities happen everywhere on a daily basis whether it be bandit attacks, minor conflicts or even major wars. Perhaps his services could be useful to others. Maybe there was a way to make a living using his skills. He hopped on his horse resolute in finding out.
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