Short Story Saturday: Birth of a Mercenary

Short Story Saturday: Birth of a Mercenary - Photo by Pixabay from Pexels
Photo by Pixabay from Pexels

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. He 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 fields of fallen soldiers, no one was going notice a single missing broadsword.

There was some initial debate about whether he should have ever been conscripted 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.

Memories of years past faded as the young man left his home to pursue the pair of bandits. His beloved was not a rich girl, merely a villager, a peasant, just like him. She was either the victim of a random kidnapping or perhaps, which is what the young man feared the most, she was chosen due to 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. An inexpensive beast that was perfect for plowing a field but hardly the kind that should be used in rescue missions especially when one is attempting to track down 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.

A knight taught the young man how to use tells such as depth, length, and pattern of horse prints, creases in the ground, how 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. This same man 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.

The young man tracked the scoundrels to their hovel, 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. Within the ground was brown and the environment was exceedingly dusty which was a sharp contrast to the evergreen paradise that surrounded them.

Through one of what might generously be called an embrasure, granted in contrast to the rest of the structure, a product of expert craftsmanship instead a testimony to slipshod construction, the young man peered inside. Everything to his left was almost completely obscured except for the profiles of a couple of bandits that were in the middle of an apparently uproarious conversation. His visibility was a bit better on the right side though just barely. He could make out a few tents nearby and judging by how the wind was blowing through them, they 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 was almost too horrible for words.

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, not at all. It is just to explain that the young man did not crawl through the hole, sneak past the few bandits that were sauntering about, and crawled slowly toward the ditch because he felt compelled to rescue a damsel in distress. When it came to daring rescues, his mind was a singularity to his beloved.

No, the reason he made his move was that it was an opportunity. The bandit was alone. The young man could realistically sneak up on this one and kill him before his mates noticed. Perhaps after that, the damsel in distress then rescued would be willing to assist him by 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. The villain’s back was exposed as he moved to recapture her. It was all the young man needed to strike. He 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 also in a ravine battling against an equally capable foe. A well-timed counter-strike sent the knight’s sword flying from his hand. The coup-de-grace was about to be applied when the young man, seemingly out of nowhere, leaped from the top of the ravine and struck the knight’s foe with 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 wandered aimlessly, somehow able to avoid death or any additional injury during the bedlam. It was mere coincidence that his head cleared at the most crucial moment of the knight’s life.

Regardless, the knight wanted to reward his effort. He mistook 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 whom he had for three years, then just 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 young man received lessons on how to become a knight.

The young man returned to his present after the bandit finished gurgling his final condemnatory curses. Fear welled in the young woman’s eyes so the young man was quick to bade her silence. He untied the rope and removed the gag and 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. He should not have acted impulsively. Instead, he should have had the bare minimum of a plan. He smirked. His mentor would be so disappointed. As he pulled himself to level ground, the young man drew his sword. His foes drew their weapons in response. Several called to their allies who joined them. Dozens of men left their tents and their posts to join their allies.

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 thus the apprenticeship was never made official. The death of his master 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 of toiling in the fields and trying, in vain, to court the woman he loved was a humble existence but one he was once content with but that all changed when he returned. He heard too many screams. He saw too many lives lost. He took far more than his fair share.

Pursuits like his one-sided attempt at wooing lost their excitement. It was not as if his love had faded but his desire to woo was 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.

In the young man’s present, what remained of the bandits lied at the young man’s feet. Various limbs littered the ground. They may have outnumbered him but they fought as a mass with little regard to tactics or stratagem. More importantly, they did not have nearly the skill. Ten of them combined had merely a tenth of skill with the sword the 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. Much larger too, his muscles bulged out of his sleeveless white shirt, and black boots left 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 ostentatiously over his head. Perhaps he hoped 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 the war when even his mentor was slain. A very basic reason.

He was 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. He realized from conversations with the allies that survived that they would have everlasting scars, that they would have nightmares that would never truly go away, and that they had seen atrocities that would forever haunt their very souls. 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 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 them all 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 before she realized he was earnest and adamant with his intentions. With a delicate hand, she wiped away a few tears before moving toward turned toward the exit. Her horse took but a few steps forward when a familiar voice from behind prompted her to stop.

The young man 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 prospect of a happy marriage was inconceivable as he would always wonder whether her love was real.

The young woman turned and 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, one where he’d have been happy being a mere farmer, he would have been happy with her even if the marriage was a sham. Unfortunately for his beloved, 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. He looked towards the horizon. Hostilities happen everywhere daily 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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