Robert's heart sank at the arrival of the new recruits from the outer villages. They were a rag-tag bunch, with some of them looking very underfed – as was common in this day and age – and several of them looking barely even fifteen. This wasn't a good bunch.
They had been fighting to stop the troops from Swynness – up north a ways – from coming through the mountain pass that divided their two countries and taking them over for about a year now and the fight showed no signs of abating. Swynness' troops seemed to double every time he went out in the field and they were having to harass the small townships that were scattered about their country of Prybourne for new soldiers every few weeks or so.
And this bunch seemed to be the worst of the worst. Maybe the recruiters were getting desperate. Robert certainly was. He, being no such recruiter, was a squad leader, and a trainer. The boys dragged out of the villages had little to no combat skills and Robert was there to try and teach them how to stay alive – although that didn't really seem to be working very well at the moment.
He'd lost a lot of men – if you could call them that. Sure, he was only three or so years older than most of the recruits that came in, but he'd seen a lot more than them. And he was still alive.
“Men!” Duncan came striding out of the command tent, looking pissed off. As usual. Duncan was a sarky son of a bitch commander in his late thirties with all sword and no heart. There was rumours that he had lost someone very dear to him which caused the devil may care attitude, but no-one really had the balls to ask. He was usually quite angry, but this time his anger wasn't directed at Robert. It was directed at the recruits. Good. Perhaps it would scare them into shape.
“You are here today to help save your country. I know many of you don't really want to be here, but you're here now so you're just going to have to live with it. With us you'll probably get better fed than at home anyhow.”
There was a smattering of laughter with Duncan quickly curtailed with a glare. “You'll be split into squads for training and for going into the field. Your squads are your life, but I'm sure you'll learn that during training.”
He started directing reluctant boys into groups and pushing them towards the trainers standing around the edge of the group. Robert's group arrived last and he stood for a moment, examining the offering. He supposed it could have been worse. There were two blond boys – twins at a glance, a skinny ginger kid with skin that looked like it would burn off the second he stepped into the sun, an olive-skinned youth with dreads down to his shoulders and a short brunette with a presence that seemed to demand attention. He supposed it could have been a lot worse. Strange though. Catchments generally had younger kids in them nowadays – they had gotten all of the older youth earlier on – but he had two people who seemed at least sixteen which was a good start.
He addressed the brunette with presence first. “You, boy, how old are you?”
“Seventeen.” The youth said with a cocky smile.
“You don't look seventeen.”
“Yeah well it's my good looks-” Robert stopped the kid's absent chatter by slapping him hard across the face.
“What the hell was that for?!” The kid held his cheek, looking almost wounded.
“We're. In. A. War. There's no time for absent chitchat.” He stated plainly. “That sort of shit could get you killed.”
“Sir, yes, Sir.” The kid's words were biting and he stared Robert right in the eyes, almost in defiance.
He fought the urge to roll his eyes. “None of that. I'm Robert and I'm your squadron leader. What's your name?”
“Well, Jonty, we have drills to do, so you and the rest of you-” He waved a hand towards the rest of the group, “-need to get over to the training pit over there. By running.”
“But-” The ginger kid looked like he was about to protest.
“No buts. Move.”
Three days later, when Robert was trying in vain to teach his new squad how to ride horses (for the love of everything, did twins not possess any sort of BALANCE?) and they were out riding on one of the ridges that encircled the area of their training camp just after dusk, he began to reflect on how this squad was going compared to how his last squad had been.
All but one of them had ended up dead at the hands of the enemy and the one that had survived had run off into the desert never to be seen again after their last battle (hence Robert's new post strictly in the training camp), but they had been a good squad.
This squad was turning out better than he had hoped. The twins, whilst being awful at any sort of horse riding could climb up rock faces faster than anyone he'd ever seen; the ginger kid, Jerrard, could actually cook (which made a change) and Valentine, the guy with the dreads, was a brilliant fighter with blunt objects and would be moved up to actual swords soon. All that left was Jonty. Damn Jonty. He had hoped that the kid would be able to harness some of his snark into fighting, but that didn't seem to be happening. He could ride, sure, but riding wasn't everything. A good fighter had to be able to handle a sword and there had been little to no progress with the practise swords as of yet. Plus his temperament was just not good enough. He would get killed because he would be distracted by someone or something attractive in the distance.
Jerrard wasn't out on the ride because his presence was wanted in the cooking tent. As per usual.
He was drawn from his thoughts by one of the twins falling off his horse again.
He sighed and made a wild guess. “Francis, hurry up and get back onto May.”
“It's Frank.” The kid whimpered, “And I think I've hurt myself.”
Oh if his day couldn't get any fucking better.
He slowed the group to a stop and slid off his horse. “Jonty, hold onto Alcippe. I have to deal with this.”
“Yes, boss.” A somewhat-insolent tone came floating out of the darkness, but Jonty clambered off his own horse, Colby, grabbed both of their makeshift reins and started talking quietly to both of the horses.
Robert picked his way through the darkness towards where he had heard the call from Frank. He didn't need this. They were in a group, so they should be safe from raiders, but you never knew. They could come out from anywhere.
Riding in the dark wasn't very safe but it was all they could do. The sun was a major problem during the day and most of the land was quite flat and safe. Emphasis on most. They didn't stay out too late when they were training and when they were travelling they were in a big group so it wasn't so dangerous.
If they had an injury though... they had to get back inside as fast as possible. Off their horses, it wasn't very safe out of the reaches of the camp.
Robert found Frank lying in a ball about three feet from his horse, a gentle and very nonchalant bay called Duke. The kid seemed to have something spiky and quite large sticking out of his right leg and Robert had a fleeting thought to how thankful he was that it didn't end up in Duke.
He peered through the darkness trying to get a proper look at how badly the kid was injured. It wasn't that far back down to the camp, but it still would be a mission getting back there. This was a bad place to be stuck. There was a ridge and a sharp drop to their backs and the wide expanse of the desert in front of them. They were cornered in an ambush.
It was when he placed his hands on the thing in Frank's leg that he realised. Holy shit.
“Boys, there's raiders about.” He said, quietly, trying to keep the panic out of his voice.
The spike trap was favoured by the raiders – they dropped them to ensnare riders and humans alike in the darkness, then would come back and loot their corpses later on.
“Raiders?” Francis, the other twin, sounded on the verge of hysteria.
“Francis. Calm down.” Robert ordered, still trying to keep his voice low. “We need to get out of here, but we can't do that if you're panicking. Get off your horse. Your brother needs your help. Valentine, can you please hold onto his horse.”
He said all this while moving his hands around the spike trap and trying to find out where it was anchored in Frank's leg. There only seemed to be perhaps one point in his leg, but it seemed quite far in and when he removed his hands they were sticky with blood. Fucking hell.
He knew he shouldn't remove it, but what other choice did he have? Couldn't get the damn kid back to camp with the thing still stuck in him.
Francis by this point had gotten off his horse and was hovering awkwardly by Robert's left side. “What do you want me to do?”
“Hold your brother's hand.” Robert instructed as he removed one of his headscarves and tugged a strip of leather off the edge of his boot where it had been peeling off. “Frank. Please do not cry out. Sound travels in the desert. Bite this.” He gave him the leather as Francis grabbed his brother's hand tightly.
He steeled himself. “Deep breaths, Frank,” he said and pulled on the spike trap.
Frank let out a horrible whining noise and he pushed away from Robert's hands, but then the trap came free and he went limp, eyes wide and panting.
“Francis, make sure he stays awake.” Robert hissed as he used his headscarf to tightly bind around the deep punctures in Frank's leg. It wasn't great, but it'd do until they could see a medic. Francis was talking softly to his brother and by the looks of things the boy was still awake. Good.
“Robert, I think someone's coming.” Jonty called. “The horses are getting edgy.”
Okay. Okay. They would get out of here alive. They would.
“Francis, help me boost him onto Duke.” And the kid, to his credit, did what he was told without question. Duke was dependable, and would follow his sister, Duchess, who Valentine was riding.
“You three, start heading back. Jonty, take Alcippe with you and go back as well. I don't want her running off. She's a good horse.” Robert ordered, with a sinking feeling in his stomach. There was only one way that this would end and it wouldn't be with him still alive. Those four needed to live. They had the potential to be brilliant.
“What about you?” Jonty asked.
“I'll stay here and hold them off.”
“But you'll die!” Francis looked positively devastated.
“We all die in the end. Go.” Robert shooed them away, and drew his sword from his holster. It wouldn't hold them off long, but hopefully it'd give the squad enough time to get away.
After a few seconds of indecision between the squad Robert said, “Go!” and they moved away.
All except Jonty.
“What are you doing?” Robert asked. Now was not the time for one of Jonty's moods.
“Staying with you.” The youth was stubborn.
“No you're not. Get out of here before you get killed.”
“I'll help you.”
“Jonty, look, you're a good kid, but you're shit at swordplay and good at looking after the horses. They need you more back at camp than dying with me on this ridge. Go!” Robert sighed. It was the truth, after all. “We'll lose two good horses if you don't go, so get out of here!”
Jonty shot Robert a glare that would kill a raider at twenty paces, but without a word took the horses and got the hell out.
Robert looked up at the sky. This would definitely be the last chance he saw it, unless there was some kind of star-related afterlife, but after twenty-one years in this hell-hole of a world he wasn't hopeful. He looked back down to real life when he heard footsteps running towards him.
"What have we here? A madman with a sword? How cute."
There was a group of five people, all dressed in black from head to toe carrying swords. Not a typical raiding party, but Robert didn't exactly have license to be picky.
"I'd say you're the mad ones." He said then immediately chastised himself. Good job, harass the people who are going to tear you apart.
"Welllll, we have a feisty one here!" The leader said. He was massive and sounded like he was from Swynness.
Then, as though they were obeying some kind of silent signal, three of them charged straight at him in a triangle formation. He backed away, remembered there was a gorge to his back and instead ducked under the leader's sword as it came towards him. He took a mad swipe at the leader's legs but missed by a mile.
Doing this, he had let himself get encircled by the three. That was fucking smart. He was going to die here.
He blocked a few stabs and managed to disarm one of the raiders, sending the sword skittering away over the edge of the cliff.
"You're fucking going to pay for that." The person, it sounded like a woman (!), seemed angry as she stepped back and left the two encircling him to try and fight.
Robert swiped at the sword of the leader as it came for his throat, but his disarming tactic didn't work twice and the sword bit into his bad shoulder, his right one.
There was a white hot pain and he sucked breath sharply in through his teeth. That hurt worse than the first time.
He spun, trying to catch them off guard and managed to clip the leader in the gut with the point of his sword. Something ripped, but in the dark he couldn't tell what it was. He hoped it was flesh.
"Bastard." The leader muttered. Robert finished him off with another slice to the gut, and got around his guard to slice him casually, across the throat. The leader fell away, and with a yell, one of the other people who had been standing back watching the fight replaced him.
One down. Four to go.
He could feel the sweat trickling down his chest as he fought on when he realised it wasn't sweat. The shoulder wound. Fuck. In the melee he had forgotten about it. He tried to hold them off, he tried to get away. He tried to lead them away down the path that led away from the camp, but there was too many and then he was at the edge of the cliff, sword too far away to reach.
"Thanks for the sport." The new leader of the raiders said and pushed Robert off the cliff.
He fell for a foot or so until he managed to scrabble wildly and grab onto a protruding rock, hands slipping and pain arcing across the front of his chest.
"Let's leave him there boys. The shoulder wound will take care of him soon enough." It was the women whose sword he had pushed off the cliff.
They walked away from the edge and Robert heard one of them say something like, "-hit Keonidas tomorrow."
Keonidas? That was one of the... nearby.. towns.
He breathed through the pain and tried to pull himself up. He was only just off the edge dammittt! He was going to die because of his own incompetence.
He fought to to find a foothold. If he found one he could pull himself up... but no. There was nothing and his arms were burning and he couldn't think and -
Then there was relief as he was hauled from his perch and deposited on the flat land of the clifftop.
Oh. Oh he was alive. Oh he could cry for the relief. But he was a soldier. And soldiers didn't cry.
"Robert. Can you hear me?" It was - it was Jonty?
"I told you to go back!" Robert hissed, trying to calm his breathing.
"Yeah well I did and then I thought we shouldn't abandon each other." Jonty said simply.
"It was a direct order."
"Damn your direct orders! You were going to die!"
Robert rolled over onto his back and could see Jonty and the sparkling night sky. Oh how he'd thought he'd never see it again. "We don't disobey orders."
"But we don't leave each other behind." Jonty grabbed Robert by his good arm and hauled him to his feet. "The horses are tied just down the path."
"You are such a fucking egg." Robert said, shaking his head in disbelief, "but... thank you. Don't disobey me again."
"You're welcome... sir." Jonty said, smirking.