THIRTY-THREE TALES OF WAR XXVIII: THE MERCENARY
Civil war rages in the black-blooded nation of Kandrisev. Its citizens grow restless. They demand their voices be heard. These are their stories laid out in thirty-three tales of war.
“YOU sure we ought to be out here fighting with these Candrish girls?”
The Mercenary gave Madrars a withering look. The subject had come up again and again ever since they disembarked at a half-abandoned port in Morozhelo. He and his comrades bore precious cargo to the Candrish Blue Queen all the way from the Empire. They had been marching southwest since early Spring, well before the massive snow drifts and slush had melted. No one forced anyone to come—not unless a robust sum of maugat coins counted as a “someone.” Every single man was here by choice and all of them knew full-well what this mission might entail.
“We’re in their country,” the Mercenary said. “Best to not insult them.”
“I’m just saying—female warriors? Really? My girl can’t even lift an axe to chop wood without my help. How could one ever hope to chop off a head?”
The Mercenary gestured with his head. “Southeast of here there’s entire tribes full of women warriors plenty capable of chopping off heads—ours, mine, everyone’s. Care to go provoke them?”
“No, but I’m just saying it’s no wonder the war’s dragged on so long.” Madras sniffed. “They keep their men weak at home doing women’s work so they’ll seem strong.”
The Mercenary quickened his pace to walk ahead of Madrars. “We aren’t here to pass judgement.”
“You know it’s true.”
“I don’t care to hear anything more from you.”
When the stopped for the night, the Mercenary went straight to bed once camp was set up. For what felt like years, he laid awake inside a hide tent that wasn’t quite warm enough on fur mats that weren’t quite dry enough. Tired of being tired but unable to sleep, he pulled himself up and made his way outside. Valtorys and Domars were making their rounds, but when they came back to warm up they’d make good company.
The Mercenary stood alone beside the crackling fire. Flurries of snow wafted down around him. The rustle of old autumn leaves in the distance sent his heart aflutter, but he refused to give in to fear. Madrars was probably right. Not even the fabled Ochetski warriors could be as scary as the stories told. Every legend was exaggerated and every myth was fantasy. Moreover, women were women and men were men regardless of origin.
But Valtorys and Domars had been gone a long time. The encampment wasn’t very big and the perimeters tight. The Mercenary frowned. The prospect of mere stories unsettling him as if he were a child was almost too embarrassing to consider, even in thought alone. Still, there were other dangers around. Wolves, bears, spirits. He withdrew his gloved hands from the fire’s warmth and carefully tread across crunching snow just outside their ring of tents.
No doubt it was all some cruel trick designed to mock his weak constitution. The two idiots were probably hiding in the treeline giggling like a bunch of soppy girls. He walked the perimeter once close enough to camp for his cloak to brush along the tents, but Valtorys and Domars were nowhere to be found.
He started to sweat. Perhaps they had unwittingly settled in a spirit’s grove. But no—that was too outlandish. He scanned the snow for tracks whether hidden, windswept, or fresh. A rustle ahead of him made his head snap up. It was Valtorys. Valtorys, pinned by arrows to the trunk of a leafless tree. Blue blood gushed down his throat onto his furs and the snow beneath him.
“We’re under attack,” the Mercenary bellowed as he bounded back to the camp. Beside the fire, he found Domars’ corpse, throat slit and eyes foggy.
His fellow mercenaries clambered out of their tents. The Mercenary ran for the cart in which their cargo was hidden.
It was gone. He stumbled backward and landed in a snowbank. The cart was gone. In its place fluttered a tiny banner: yellow, black, and charged with laurels.