The sun was just coming over the horizon when I woke and I dressed myself quickly in a sleeveless light gray tunic that showed my muscular arms with the two tattooed bands that went around my upper arms, and the jagged scar on my left arm just below the tattoo from where I had been hit with an arrow. I wore black pants with soft soled black boots that came up to my knees snugly. I braided my red hair so that it hung straight down to my lower back, and tied a leather string around my forehead to hold any stray hairs back.
I was just strapping on my sword when a knock came on my door. Knowing it would be Adonis, I called for him to come right in.
“I brought you something” He said and held out a leather strap with little silver studs. It had the Nosidian crest of a roaring lion’s head stamped into the wider center and a smaller crest of a horse’s arched head and neck on each side. “I noticed you almost always wear a headband, this has what will be your crest on it. The official crest in the center will identify you as a high ranking captain to anyone in Nosidia.” He explained. “Make sure you always wear it or have it with you.”
I smiled as I fingered the fine leather and delicate stamping. It was lined with black silk to prevent the little silver studs from rubbing on my skin uncomfortably. “Thank you.” I swiftly removed the headband I already wore and put my new one on.
Holding my head high, I asked, “How do I look?”
Adonis smirked. “Like a very beautiful Captain. I’m afraid the men may find your beauty too distracting to fight properly.” He teased.
My cheeks flushed at the compliment. “They will soon find that I will allow no one to slack off.”
I can believe that. He thought to himself. “Shall we go? The men should be gathered by the time we get there.”
“I’m ready.” I picked up a small scroll and we left. It was refreshing to be able to walk down the halls standing tall and proud without trying to conceal my presence anymore. I would begin training my team today, and with my headband and crest, there was no need for me to hide.
“How are your shoulders? You seemed a little sore yesterday.” He broke the silence as we walked, his hard soled boots clicking on the paved road as my soft boots whispered along.
“I’m fine now. I was only sore because I have to regain so much lost stamina. The endurance training I’m going to be making them do all week is as much for my benefit as theirs.” We were passing through the gate to the inner wall and I nodded at a guard as he saluted.
Over the last few weeks, Adonis had helped me get through the gates unnoticed early in the morning at the haze of dawn so that I could run laps around the edge of a large drill field. He had arranged it so that the same guards were on duty every morning and that they knew to let me pass. Now with my crest and position as Captain official, such measures were unnecessary. My strength was returning, but I was still a ways off from what I knew had been.
“When you are declared as their new Captain, I wouldn’t be surprised if there are more than a few indignant outbursts. Some of them may recognize you from the tournament so this should prove to be rather amusing.” He nodded to another guard as we passed through the second curtain wall and headed to the furthest training grounds from the castle. After another minute of walking, the field came into view. It was the parade grounds where the soldiers and Cavalry would practice drills and formations.
There were posts of varying widths and height standing out of the ground next to the small cops of trees on the northern end of the field that was rarely used. The widest posts that were about ten inches around stood only two feet off of the ground on one end, and the narrowest that were only about six inches around and a little over fifteen feet high on the other. In between, there was five sets of twenty five posts that all blended together so that you could get from one height to the next like going up a set of stairs. For each set the posts got progressively higher and narrower.
It was next to these poles where the twenty-six recruits stood waiting.
Some of them were still yawning and looking around half asleep, but when they saw Adonis and I approaching, they stood up straight and saluted. “Form up!” Adonis issued the order and they promptly shifted themselves into two lines facing us. I stood slightly behind and two the right of Adonis as he stared them down. Finally he spoke.
“You were Knights, archers, and ordinary soldiers, but you have proven potential to be more. Today you have been removed from your old squads and been recruited for a new team.” He began to pace in front of the two lines with one hand resting on his sword hilt. “Many of you may have heard of the legendary warriors that live in the Mountains to the West. They guard the only Valley that passes through the mountains separating Almovia and Nosidia. Just a few months ago we were infiltrated by two of their number. We were able to kill their leader just before they crossed into the mountains but the other escaped. Now we have to assume that Almovia knows of our plans.”
I could see the men looking at him questioningly. “You may be aware that for the last ten years we have been expanding our army. Nosidia’s army now numbers over thirty thousand strong, nearly twice that of what Almovia can muster. We are preparing for war.” Adonis let that sink in for a moment as he came to stand next to me again.
“When?” A middle aged knight stepped forward and spoke up. “When do we march on the enemy?” He sounded neither hesitant, nor eager at the prospect of war. He had already fought many battles and he knew that war was not as glorious as the tales of old men made it seem. War was an ugly thing that could only destroy and devour life.
“What I am sharing with you now is classified information that will not go beyond the ears of this squad.” He left the threat of what would happen if anyone dared have loose lips unspoken. They all knew that a painful death awaited those who spoke things they shouldn’t.
“We march in the spring as soon as the spring thaw begins. We are in the middle of negotiations with the seamen of the North, and if we can strike an alliance with them, we can attack Almovia on land and sea.” He gestured a hand north. “It is a disadvantage that Almovia will be able to gather their troops before we march on the Valley, but we will crush them beneath our feet and show them the might of Nosidia!” Adonis stomped a foot as though he were crushing the enemy. The men cheered as the Knight stoked their thirst for war.
I remained silent and impassive, observing how the men responded. The youngest of the men who had been in the fewest battles looked as though they would march off to slay the enemy army right then and there. The older, more experienced, were solemn in their posture, but with no less fever to fight in their eyes.
And then there were Conor and Alake. They stood silently and with no hint of the thirst for Almovian blood such as those around them, but with quiet determination carved into their faces. Interesting.
Conor stood in the front row to my left and Alake in the back row on my right. They had barely taken their eyes off me since I had arrived. Their eyes widened considerably when they first noticed the crest on my headband and I could almost see the wheels turning in Alake’s mind.
Adonis raised a hand and the men immediately quieted and stood at attention once more. “You are some of the best warriors that could be found, each of you with your respective specialties. You will be trained to work as a team to go against the Shadows of Almovia. You will have a new Captain who will train and lead you.” He came to stand beside me again.
“This is Captain Arana. She is from a warrior clan known for their strategy and fierce female warriors, you may have seen her fight in the last round of the tournament.” His eyes flickered to Conor and Alake with some amusement. “She could take you all down without even using a weapon, and her skills are equal to my own, so you would be wise not to challenge her.”
As soon as Adonis said that their new Captain’s skills were equal to his, Conor openly stared at her in shock. It was no secret that Adonis’s skill was second only to the King’s. Who is this girl?! How can she be barely my age and be that strong?!
Alake’s thoughts were on a similar trail. “What clan is he talking about? I’ve never heard of one known for their woman being warriors, surely something like that could not escape notice.” He startled when he saw that she was staring right back at him with cool blue, unblinking eyes.
I watched as the men gaped at me with blatant shock and disbelief. “I don’t think they believe you.” I said quietly to Adonis with some amusement.
“I would suggest we do a quick demonstration but my arm is still sore from the other day.” He rotated one shoulder stiffly in emphasis. I winced inwardly. I had accidentally hit him pretty hard with a wooden practice sword the last time we had sparred.
Setting those thoughts aside I turned back to my squad, any trace of amusement gone from my features. “You may think that because I’m a girl, I’ll go easy on you.” I stepped forward and glared at a few. “You may think that because you were each hand picked by me to be in this squad that you are something special. Some of you even fought against each other in the tournament and lost.” My eyes strayed briefly to Voen and the other older knight that Conor had fought. I learned that his name was Corbin and he had been one of Conor’s teachers. “Some of you may think you are better than the man standing next to you because of that.” They looked between me and each other uneasily. “You are wrong. Each man here earned his place. You have earned a place on this squad, but you will have to prove to me every single day why you deserve to stay. This will be the special attack squad during the war.”
I glanced at the poles. “Come with me.” I motioned for them to follow me as I walked toward the poles. I stopped in front of the lowest set and turned around to face them again. “These poles are a training tool in my clan.” I stepped up onto one of the posts and took a stance as I drew my sword. Flowing from one form to another I kept moving, stepping from one post to the next. Without interrupting my movement I made my way up the posts until I was eight feet in the air. Coming to a halt I smoothly sheathed my blade as I looked down on the men, not bothered in the least that I was standing on only one foot.
“You will practice balance and control on theses poles. You must move fluidly or you will fall. You must be flexible and strong to get to the next level.” I danced over the poles and made it up to the second highest set. From here, it was a three foot jump to get to the final level. With the smallest amount of movement possible I lept up to the highest set effortlessly. The post swayed slightly but it did not affect me as I stood tall, looking down on the astonished faces of the men below me. Adonis looked both impressed and worried.
“A rigid body is easily knocked off center. A flexible fighter can easily dodge, recoil, and strike from any angle.” I ducked and stepped to the side quickly like I were dodging a sword swing, I was now crouched between two posts. I rocked back so that I was balanced on just one leg still crouching, and jumped up twisting my body into a roundhouse kick. I landed easily on one foot again. “Remember those words, and they will serve you well.”
I made my way down until I was only about eight feet off the ground I took my sword off the belt that strapped it to my waist, and jumped. As my feet connected with the ground I rolled once to take the force of my fall and came up on my feet. I put my sword back on my belt as I looked calmly at my men.
They openly gaped at my display. Adonis simply smirked at their expressions, though he had done no better when I had tested out the poles a few weeks ago when they were finished being set up per my instructions. I ignored their stares and continued my lecture. “Every one of you will be worked hard. You are all very skilled, but you can do better. Over the next few weeks, we will work on your strength, endurance, balance, and teamwork.” I stressed the last point. “You will be transferred to the barracks closest to the outer gate, and you will be expected to be here at six in the morning, every day. Do yourself a favor and be warmed up by the time I get here every morning.” I added.
I could see that they were unhappy about their new wake up time but I ignored it for now. “I only have eight months to train you to fight against warriors who have trained their entire lives. Look around, you need to know every little thing about each other because over time, you will be put into smaller teams that will each have their specialty and your life will depend on the man standing next to you. Learn your teammate’s every weakness, that is the only way to help them get stronger and guard their back effectively. Learn their every strength and specialty and when the time comes, swallow you pride and call on them when your own skills are not enough so that the team can move forward.” I studied each one in turn, lingering on Alake and Conor a moment longer.
After a moment of subdued silence after my little speech I called out in a clear commanding voice, “Form up in lines of two abreast! I want ten laps around this field!”
One of the younger soldiers, an archer about my age gave an especially loud groan. I walked up next to the blond and said in an overly cheerful voice, “Since you’re so excited Braxton, you can be in the front!” I smiled brightly, though it did not reach my eyes.
They obediently formed up. Adonis had an amused expression on his face. “I’ll leave you to it Captain.” He said with a casual salute of two fingers touching his temple briefly, and left.
I did the same in return and then took my place at the front of the column and started them out at an easy jog. After two laps when I knew their muscles would be good and loose, I increased the speed.
After we had made a full lap at this speed, I could hear the men’s breathing get heavier. “Keep it up. You’ve got seven laps to go.” I went to the outer edge of the field and slowed my pace as I let them pass me. I ran alongside them for awhile, taking note of who was finding this exercise more difficult. After another lap I noticed that they were slowing a little. “Pick it up Braxton!” I shouted and the pace quickened again.
I made my way to the rear of the column where they were stringing out a little more. “Come on, keep up.” They obediently closed the distance again. I ran in the very back for another few laps to make sure that they kept up. My breathing came smooth and easy still but almost every one of the recruits were struggling to keep this pace.
As we began the fifth lap, I easily passed to the front again and slowed from our jog to a brisk walk to give them a chance to catch their breath. I know I’m pushing them, but it shouldn’t be that hard for them to do this. I thought with a frown. When their breathing was back to some semblance of normal after walking for almost two laps, I sped up to what we had been going before as I said, “Come on, soldiers! You’ve got three laps to go, you’re not done!” Groans were my response.
They were sweating heavily when I made my way around to cheek on how they were doing again. I noted that Alake wasn’t having as much trouble as the others but he still had plenty of room for improvement. I wasn’t very surprised to find Conor’s breathing as even as my own.
Running beside the men in the middle I spoke up so that everyone could hear me. “This is called Ground speed. We will do this every day before breakfast and supper until you can keep it up for an hour or more.” They looked at each other with wide, disbelieving eyes.
The same thought was running through all their minds, “Our Captain is crazy!”
I ran in the very back for the final lap, and we had barely finished when some of them dropped to the ground, gasping for breath. “Conor!”
“Yes Ma’am!” He was at my side in a moment.
“There are some barrels of water and a bucket with a dipper under the trees, go get some.” I issued the order quickly as I assessed my squad and he trotted off to get the water. “You!” They all jerked their heads up and looked at me. I pointed to Alake. “Stand over there.” I pointed at the slightly beaten trail a the edge of the field and he obeyed quickly.
I pointed to another young man who wasn’t hardly panting. “You, stand next to him.” He started to stand on the side nearest me. “Not there, the other side.” One by one I lined them up with the ones who had the least trouble closest to me and those who were the most out of shape furthest away.
Conor returned with the water when I was halfway through and I sent him down the line to give them each a drink. It was a large bucket but by the time he had finished it was nearly empty. I put Conor at the very front of the line.
“Conor and Alake, you had the least trouble. Voen and Corbin, you were the slowest.” I walked down the line. “I am putting you into thirteen two man teams. These teams will remain the same for your laps every day so remember who you’re partnered with. Voen and Corbin, you are team One. You will be at the very front of the line so that I can make sure that everyone is going the same pace.” I pointed to the two next to them. “You two will be team Two and you will run directly behind team One.” I pointed to the next two. “Your team Three, you will run behind team Two, and so on and so forth.” I walked back up the line. “So Alake and Conor, that means you are team number thirteen.”
They looked at me uneasily. “But Ma’am,” Alake hesitated.
“What he means, is that thirteen is an unlucky number.” Conor finished nervously.
I leveled them with an incredulous stare. “You really believe that old superstition?” They fidgeted slightly. “If there is anything unlucky about it, it is for the enemy.” I said sternly. “Trained correctly, and if you can ever learn to work as a team, you could be devastating in a surprise attack on an enemy.” I reassured. They still didn’t seem totally satisfied with this though.
“I’m going to make something very clear right now.” My demeanor changed to a Captain who meant business. “I am your Captain, not your Lady. Calling me Ma’am will not be tolerated from here on out! You may address me as Captain, or Sir. Everybody got that?” I glared down the line. “Yes Sir” and “Yes Captain” was promptly chorused down the line.
“Good.” I nodded in approval. “Now drop, I want twenty push-ups.” They groaned and reluctantly lowered themselves to the ground. “Make that thirty.” A few more groans, louder this time. “Forty.” I said in a singsong voice.
“Forty?” Someone said in helpless disbelief.
“Should I make it fifty?”
“No Ma’am!” He said, realizing his mistake too late.
“Forty-five. You might want to stop talking or all of you will be here all day.” I advised and he snapped his jaw shut and focused on his forty-five push-ups. He got many glares from the rest of the men. “Count loud enough for me to hear you.” I said over my shoulder as I walked away.
“One…, two…, three…, four…, five…, six…, seven…” They huffed behind me, most of them in sync.
I pulled the scroll I had brought with me from where it was tied to my waist and sat directly in front of them a short distance away. I pulled a pen and a small bottle of ink from the center of the scroll. After setting up the small inkwell and unrolling part of the scroll, I proceed to put down the names of each man down according to his team. Some of them would eventually be moved around as I saw how well they worked together and improved, and some of the teams would be merged together.
I think I’ll keep Voen and Corbin together. They should be able to work well together and they’re each about the same age and at the same level with the sword, even using a similar style.
Conor and Alake are complete opposites of each other, but that is exactly what made them so effective. Alake is extremely smart and good with a bow as well as the sword. What Alake lacks in strength and confidence, Conor more than makes up for. Conor is far better and much more graceful with a sword. He may one day even rival me.
Alake prefers to hang back and defend until there is an opening, and Conor hammers his opponent until he makes an opening. Used in the right way, that’s a lethal combination. I mused.
Glancing up at the struggling men, I saw that most of them were half done. Conor was at thirty-three and Alake, not to be outdone, was at thirty-three as well. Alake’s arms were shaking and Conor was struggling but they both refused to slow down and be outdone by the other. I laughed out loud when they flopped to the ground and lay face down on their final push-up.
They tilted their heads so that they could glare at me. “You’re cruel!” They both growled under their breath at the same time.
“Did you say something down there?” I called down dryly, trying to hold back my laughter.
From where they lay on the ground, Alake and Conor looked at each other fearfully.