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. It didn’t matter to him that she did not reciprocate.
He dropped his hoe and dashed into his humble cottage. There he pushed his meager cupboard and removed a straw floor mat. It revealed a hole where he hid his broadsword. Perhaps he should have returned it to the royal military after the war was over but then again, he feared no repercussion from his action. Considering the scores of weapons pilfered from the mass of fallen soldiers that were to be sold on the black market, no one was going to notice a single missing broadsword.
There was some initial debate about whether he should have even been conscripted. He may have been sixteen he looked only twelve. The royal enlisters were about to leave when, luckily, someone who knew him quickly cleared up the misunderstanding to his eternal delight. His friend then apologized but the scars never quite healed.
On his first day in camp, they gave him a pike and told him to point it at the men fighting on the other side. Other than showing him how to grip it and how to stab, that was the extent of his training. Never did they inform him for what cause he was risking his life in service for a king that scarcely cared people like him existed. His odds of survival even in the opening salvo of the first battle were minimal. Nobody expected him to, either. The only hope they had for him was that he’d slow the opposition before he met his untimely and most likely brutal end.
Now, he found himself in pursuit of bandits instead of soldiers. She was not a rich girl, merely a villager, a peasant, just like him. His beloved was surely chosen at random or perhaps for her beauty. This meant there was only one reason for her kidnapping, the thought of which made his stomach churn.
He mounted his horse. It was large, slow, and lumbering. He was perfect for plowing a field, perhaps, if a farmer was on a tight budget. However, he was hardly the kind of equine that should be ridden in a rescue operation especially considering the two criminals were atop of far more athletic steeds. Yet, despite the distance they already had and would increase, he was confident that he could find them. The skills taught to him by his mentor ensured this. It helped that the bandits were careless in hiding their tracks.
A knight had 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 find and track a person on horseback. These were lessons bestowed upon him by the man who had also shown him how to swing a sword properly, how to fight both on horseback and off, and the best positions to take when engaged in combat. Indeed, the knight had molded the young man into an effective fighting machine.
He tracked the bandits 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. Its grounds were quite 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, the young man peered inside.
The left side was almost completely obscured. He could only just see the profiles of a couple of bandits engaged in a conversation. They were more heard than seen. Visibility was a bit better to his right though just barely. He could make out a few tents and based on how the wind was blowing through them they appeared to be empty. The only other feature of significance he spotted on that side was what looked like a drainage ditch.
He was about to turn from the opening when he noticed, out of his periphery, a bandit dragging a woman to the aforementioned ditch. She was doing her best to resist but considering 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 was darker, and her shoulders just a bit broader. That is not to say she was not worth rescuing. Yet, heroism was not the reason why the young man crawled through the crude embrasure, snuck past the few bandits that were sauntering about, and crept slowly toward the ditch.
He knew what he had bouncing in his mind was a foolish plan. Yet, it was still the best one amongst a sea of others, a testament, perhaps, to his lack of imagination. Step one was determined. It was in progress. Step two could be decided later. Indeed, he was acting more out of instinct and emotion as opposed to rationality. Action was better than inaction in his mind even if it meant figuring things out on the fly regardless of the likelihood of success.
Luckily for him, most of the guards did not have an iota of concern with anything. They were too busy attending to the feminine screams and cries emanating from the northwest corner. From his position, the young man could hear them but could not yet see them. Apparently, the new captive had reinvigorated dormant emotions amongst those already kidnapped, most especially terror.
He had to focus elsewhere, though. The young man continued to crawl until he was just above the bandit and his victim. First, he waited as the former attempted the latter’s clothing. For but a moment, the dark-haired woman was able to free herself from his outstretched hands and arms. His back was exposed as he moved to recapture her. Unbeknownst to him, that would prove to be a fatal mistake.
The young man plunged into the ravine with his sword pointed downward. His blade went through the bandit’s neck and chest. He did not have time to scream.
This triggered a memory of the war. In the chaos of battle, the knight was in a ravine locked in battle against an equally capable foe. To that end, near the end of the skirmish, the opponent managed to gain the advantage by knocking his sword out of the knight’s hand via an excellent counter-strike. The aforementioned opponent was about to apply the coup-de-grace when the young man, seemingly out of nowhere, leaped above and struck him through the neck, the only soft part of him that was exposed, with the business end of his pike.
The knight was grateful. No, more than that. 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. He had only seconds before regained consciousness and had just started wandering aimlessly. Somehow, he was able to avoid death or any additional wounds in the bedlam as he staggered like a loon. It was mere coincidence that his head cleared at the most crucial moment of the knight’s life and that he was able to find a pike nearby, once the property of another peasant not quite as fortunate as he.
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 war, he offered him an apprenticeship as his squire. His former squire who was actually at the time a year younger than the young man though the knight did not know this, had died valiantly earlier in the battle.
Granted, at best, it could only be an unofficial position. The young man was not from a noble family. Even knowing this, the knight was unconcerned and 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. Then, the teaching 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 the skills he needed to become a knight.
Skills he found most useful on that day. After he killed the bandit, the young man bade the woman silence. He untied the rope and removed the gag. He then asked her for assistance. His grandiose plan was then 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.
Rather than assisting him, 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, 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. He should not have acted impulsively as opposed to having even the bare minimum of a plan. A smirk crept onto his lips as he clucked his tongue softly. His mentor would be so disappointed.
He muttered as he pulled himself to level ground. Once there, the man dug in his feet while drawing his sword. His foes responded by unsheathing their weapons. Several called to their allies who joined them. Dozens of men swiftly 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 have cowered, made peace with the almighty, or even hoped for a swift death.
The young man did no such thing. Quite the contrary. He smiled.
His master was killed in the war’s 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. Before, his life had 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 he returned.
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 unrequited attempts 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 platonic love she might have had for him had become quite tepid. She hardly even recognized him.
What remained of the bandits now lay 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 regard to tactics or stratagem. Moreover, they did not have nearly the skill. Ten of them combined still only had but a tenth of young man’s aptitude with a weapon.
There was still one man left to fight. He seemed to be a different class of fighter than his allies, much more deft and talented. Not to mention incredibly large. His muscles bulged out of his sleeveless white shirt and his large black boots seemed to leave divots in the ground with every step. The lower part of his face was obscured with a red bandana but the young man could sense the scowl.
A large curved blade was firmly gripped 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 ostentatiously over his head. Perhaps he hoped to intimidate the young man. If so, he failed.
A smirk curled upon his lips as the young man stared into his massive foe’s eyes.
The bandit leader was not used to such fearlessness, 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 the lessons he had been bestowed 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. He would sometimes bring it up to other soldiers between lulls in battle. They always dismissed his feelings as anxiety, apprehension, and dread. Such determinations were born from their own feelings. Each of them loathed fighting even if they were loyal soldiers willing to die for the kingdom’s cause.
After a few more battles, the young man subconsciously grasped what his emotions truly meant. Yet, he dared not speak of them to anyone nor did he even allow himself to dwell on it for very long. He realized from his earlier conversations that should any of his allies survive, they would have everlasting scars. He knew of the nightmares many of them experienced due to the horror and atrocities that can only be found on the battlefield.
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 with white undershirt, her bonnet was missing 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, at least, compared to the others. She had just arrived and experienced none of their hardships. After being released, she dashed into his arms and laid upon him a passionate kiss. Then she expressed gratitude so saccharine that he felt like he was in a dream. In her relieved excitement, the auburn-haired young woman implied that should he offer she would happily give her hand in marriage. It was only right to properly convey her appreciation. He once would have killed to hear those words escape her pink lips.
Instead, he politely and gently removed himself from her arms. He then ignored her when she tried to speak further to him about the matter as he tended to the other women, gathered what horses he could find, and devised a plan to return the women to their homes, at least the ones who were not too hysterical to speak. Those who were in no condition to move would have to wait there until he could contact the proper authorities within the capital to assist. He could only hope they would arrive on time.
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. A few tears rolled down her cheeks. 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. This made the prospect of a happy marriage inconceivable.
The young woman nodded as if she understood though truly she did not. Tears were now streaming 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 due to being rebuffed rather than from losing the one she loved. For in truth, she did not love him. She leaned and gave the young man a farewell kiss. With a dejected wave, she then 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 their marriage was a sham. That is also when he would have been happy being a mere farmer. An agrarian life no longer satisfied him, though. In fact, all paled compared to the battlefield. He loved to fight. He craved it. It was the only time he felt alive. He also recognized it was wrong which was 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.
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. He looked toward the horizon. Hostilities happened everywhere on a daily basis whether it was bandit attacks, minor skirmishes, 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 the hope of finding out.
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