Darius stirred on his cot: rubbed sinewy hands over his scarred face: sat up, smoothing his unkempt beard and hair back into place with crude raking motions. It wasn’t so much a rise in the volume of chatter around the barracks as some new quality, an almost electric quality, that had waked him, he decided. He scraped sleep from his eyes and wished he hadn’t needed to sleep, then decided it didn’t matter that much. Nothing mattered unless it brought him closer to his goal. In a fashion typical for him Darius decided to do something about it, find out about it and find out if it meant something.
“Here – Kilp!” Darius called, choosing to use the Nemedian’s own tongue. “Something’s happened – what is it?”
Kilp Whitebow smiled back. An easy smile, though without any particular warmth. It handily placed Darius as a colleague, not a comrade. Someone Kilp, built on a much slighter scale than the rugged Brythunian, might find himself fighting alongside or against. Mercenary contracts were like that.
“Something very interesting, Darius. Some new arrivals drifted in while you’ve been sleeping. It seems they are important enough to see Sir Bracom without the sort of waiting we’ve all been doing. I think something definite is going to happen. Something we’ll all be the better for. Or at least” – the slender Nemedian broke off to smooth his shirt into a more precise line – “all of us who fit the bill.”
Darius rose and automatically, one sun-darkened hand slid his hatchet from where it had rested under the thin bolster. Casually checking the leather cover over its blade he eased the helve into its belt-loop. Lifting his eyes from Kilp’s he glanced along the barrack-room to the cluster of off-duty fort guards, scouts and would-be mercenaries. Most were at ease around the vented fireplace, some bending close to it to cook their provender. Some were standing and discussing the news animatedly, even crowding to the door nearby to peek out like excited children.
As he took the few paces needed to reach the mid-barrack where the group was, Darius noted that both Theodora and Quinn were present. He thought through what competing with them for a good hire might mean. He reached the same conclusion as the other times he’d thought about it: that it was best not to think about it too much. All mercenaries with his experience had been through hiring fairs where hires were based on appearance, and all had been through hiring fairs where hires were based on some variant on a gladiatorial contest. The best a mercenary could hope for was the hirer would be clear what they were looking for and make a decision quickly.
“Ah, Darius!” Quinn greeted him easily, “You look much better! The eagle of lo – Brythunia’s blue peaks – doth out your eyes most fiercely glare !”
“Can it, Quinn. This isn’t the stage and your act isn’t funny. So, I hear there’s some big shots arrived? Think the Marshall will let us head out with them if we promise to be good little boys and wipe our noses?”
“Forgive me, Darius – my stage ham porked up and snuffles where no truffles be! But as to Sir Bracom – it’s a good thought, but I can’t say I know anything about these newcomers, except there are four or five, they have the most wondrous horses, and one’s a Friar.”
The slender, long-haired Brythunian smiled at Darius with genuine goodwill, shrugging his shoulders and spreading his hands. Chuckling in spite of himself at Quinn’s self-deprecating jape, Darius shouldered his way through lesser men clustered around Quinn to the door. He yanked it open – it had a habit of sticking in the damp – and was rewarded with an outraged snarl as his elbow caught Theodora in what in a man would have been the pectorals.
Before he could decide whether to apologize to a mere woman, Darius’ breath left his lungs with a whoosh as the outraged Aquilonian rammed her still-scabbarded sword up under his own ribs.
“Darius! Despicable… beast!!”
Driving her thin shoulder into the far-heavier Brythunian, Theodora used her own body as a ram, sending Darius tumbling out of the door and landing on top of him. The ribald cries of encouragement from the barracks behind them only caused the rage in her to burn the hotter. Leaping to her feet, Theodora faced Darius, jaw jutting, face white and eyes black with rage. The red scar across one side of her neck throbbed visibly. In turn, rolling to his feet, Darius let his own anger build. His left hand slid quietly down to check his hatchet was still to hand and slipped the leather off the blade.
“Easy there girl… it was unintentional. But if you dare me further I’ll forget you’re a woman.”
It was, of course, the wrong thing to say, and Darius acknowledged that even as he drew his hatchet in response to Theodora’s own draw. She’ll thrust, he thought. Parry her wide, step in, feint high then cut low behind the knee.
Theodora thrust down with all her lithe strength, but even as Darius caught the thrust with his hatchet, both their weapons were smashed down into the mud by Quinn’s longsword, wielded in an overhand chop. The handsome Brythunian’s merry laughter rang out:
“One for all and all for one! That’s us! Drink the wine, dog-brothers, for tomorrow we may drink blood! What say you, Kilp?”
“I say: another fine mess you’ve gotten yourself into, Darius. It’ll take a day to scrub that filth off your gear – if you can be bothered,” the slight Nemedian chuckled. His words robbed of offence by the whimsical grin on his face, Kilp circled round the three, one eyebrow raised. “Now that that’s over and if Theodora will stop trying to prove herself for a minute, perhaps we should all relax and look professional. We’re being watched, you know.”
Kilp nodded over to the stables. A man there was standing watching the commotion. A newcomer, the other three realized as they followed Kilp’s gesture. Clad in the gilt scale of the Border Kingdom’s Royal Guard.