I bid farewell to Thea and her companions the next day.
She had told the others that I would become Master Ansgot’s apprentice so they didn’t ask further questions. We just loaded their handcart, nodded at each other, and went our own ways.
A solemn goodbye without talking.
It was weird when Thea’s back became smaller and smaller. As if I graduated from grade school, left my small bounds, and entered the adult’s world. But I knew my actual journey still laid before me.
Hence I threw all my possessions into a linen backpack and made my way towards the barracks outside the city.
Though barracks wasn’t an apt description.
A few crooked wooden huts, circled around a muddy square, with a low fence around it. More a cow barn than the army’s headquarter though that for sure was just owed to their rushed preparations. After all, this would be home to the Sword Maiden’s troops. There was no way these huts would remain.
I had come early in the morning, the sun still rising behind the city’s housetops, but a sizeable crowd already marked the entrance. Dirty farmers and what seemed to be inexperienced men in all kinds of different apprenticeship clothing stood around and waited. So I blended myself in and listened to their talks.
A decision I instantly regretted.
No conversation about the approaching danger reached my ear. Not one talk about fighting experiences or party formations could be heard. Not even a low-level discussion about weapons and equipments. Instead, this mob resembled the game’s forum after the swimsuit update.
How they would impress the Sword Maiden with their weapons. Their experiences with night battles. And how they would conquer her with their prowess. As if she was nothing but a beautiful face. A perfect body for their entertainment. A replacement for their ugly wives at home.
And nothing but ugly words.
I took a deep breath.
They were rude for sure, but this wasn’t the time to get angry and start a fight. I already knew the Sword Maiden’s future and none of these failures would make it into her army. So I just had to endure for a bit and everything would sort itself out.
The sun rose above the still growing crowd. It seemed all the adolescent men in both Gladford and the surrounding villages came to test their luck. And finally a coarse, middle-aged men came to the front, making the crowd shut up.
“There’ll be a test,” he announced with no enthusiasm. “Ten at a time. Anyone jumping the fence is out.”
With that he opened the gate, pointed at a handful men, and led them to the back.
Meanwhile the horny talk had changed into losers comforting each other. Ha, as if they would pass a test in their condition.
Now it was my time to shine.
I found a place in the fourth group and entered one of the wooden huts. Inside, a row of four guards stood beside some trainings puppets, a barrel full of swords before them.
“You’ll take a sword and attack your target. Afterwards we decide who’ll stay.”
Another deadpan instruction. No motivation at all. But with the Sword Maiden missing, I felt the same.
The first to step up was a malnourished boy wearing dirty farmer clothes and holey boots. He picked a sword at random, raised it with great difficulty, and dropped it onto one of the target’s arms, nearly losing his grip.
I suppressed my laughter.
According to the boy’s words, he would make the Sword Maiden scream for an entire night, but in reality he couldn’t even push down a wooden doll. What a joke. And someone like that wanted to fight at her side?
“Place of birth,” one of the guards asked, interrupting my scorn. “Your family situation?”
“From the village to the north,” the boy stuttered. “I’m the third son. And my brother…”
“Can you read?”
“Group three.” The guard gestured towards one of the exits. “You’ll get a sword and some leather boots. If you run away, you’ll be killed as a deserter. Next!”
Wait? What? I couldn’t keep up with the development. But the next candidate already stepped up.
This time, it was a tall man dressed in an unfamiliar leather outfit. While the boy reminded me of a homeless guy, this candidate made a neat and serious impression. His visible biceps bulged as he raised the sword with ease and brought it crushing down on the doll’s head, leaving a dent on its helmet.
A total success.
“Place of birth,” the guard repeated the same question. “Your family situation?”
“Gladford. I’m the second son in the family.”
“You have a job,” the guard asked for more details, eying his clothes.
“I’m Master Dalfin’s apprentice.”
“So, a tanner. Rejected!”
What? Another weird decision? But why?
But my bewilderment was again interrupted by the guards.
And so I watched two more sleaze bags pass the test before it was my turn.
At this point, my motivation had reached its lowest point. This whole examination was pointless if they let everyone pass. All the garbage passed but they disqualified the tanner? How could this be a troop worthy of the Sword Maiden? And she was missing, too. No point to even try.
So I stepped up, picked a sword, raised it, and activated Heavy Strike.
I wasn’t used to swords and missed the target’s head, but the force was enough to snap it in the middle. All right, that should be enough to get in.
“Place of birth,” the guard asked me after I returned the sword. “Your family situation?”
“I’m a traveler. The last living member of my family.”
“And… you have experience with fights?”
“Group four,” the guard pointed towards a different exit. “You’ll get a sword, boots, and leather armor. If you run away, you’ll be killed as a deserter. Next!”
Hence I left the other candidates behind and made my way into another room. Inside, another guard sat beside a pile of rough equipment.
“Oh? We have a lucky winner? Your group?”
“Four. Sword, boots, armor.”
“I know, I know. No need to be so cranky. So, we have our first officer candidate?”
Officer? That word alone sped up my heart rate. So I would command my own troops, get glory in battle, and meet her during a council of war? Wasn’t this the perfect situation to impress her? Thank god I had found out about my skill.
“That’s right,” I answered with a smile. “So, when will we see the Sword Maiden?”
“The Sword Maiden? Oh, you mean Rhoslyn?” He laughed. “She is staying in the city. There’s no way she would live together with all the dirty men here. But she’ll join you guys after your training. So cheer up and give your best.”
He continued with more idle talk but I stopped listening. Rhoslyn? So her name was Rhoslyn. I smiled. I finally learned her name. It was a rare name, I hadn’t heard it before. But the reverberant second half matched her image. A beautiful commander, so different from the common folk.
And Thea couldn’t rub my ignorance in, anymore.
Meanwhile, still nodding to the guard’s unending torrent of words, I received a sword, fitting leather boots, and a slightly too big chest-piece. Not the best quality, but still better than my current equipment.
Afterwards, all members gathered in another building. It comprised a single, giant room. No windows, no separations, just wooden walls, a gate, and a roof. Some hay and this would be a perfect barn. But instead, woolen sleeping bags covered the floor in regular intervals. Half of them already taken.
Most of my new comrades wore dirty, non-fitting clothes. Even a fresh pair of boots didn’t cover up their poor lineage. And just like before, most of them were exchanging either stories of their glorious test or their plans with the Sword Maiden. Oh, with Rhoslyn. Not the kind of people I wanted to associate with.
So I picked a sleeping bag in the corner, closed my eyes, and recalled all of Rhoslyn’s events I could still remember. With those in mind I would become her perfect partner, catching her eyes when we meet.
“All right! Everyone shut up!” A potbellied man bellowed half an hour later. “I know you are excited, but Rhoslyn won’t enter your sleeping bag tonight. First, you must prove your worth to her. She doesn’t want some worthless swine, but a genuine hero.”
I knew it. There was no way she would pick those others.
“So for now, you’ll follow my orders and I’ll change you into men worthy of her. And your only duty is to train. From today on you’ll live between these walls, you’ll sleep between these walls, and you’ll train between these walls. Training starts with the first ray of the sun and ends when you fall asleep. Everything between that is training. If that’s too hard, you can always quit and remain worthless trash. Your decision!”
And with those words, my life as a soldier began.