Excerpt from Broken Empires, book 3 of the Chronicles of Annaria
|Athena ached. Her back, her shoulders, her forearms, her calves, her thighs, the blisters on her toes, the blisters on her thumbs, and then there were the cramps that had returned with a vengeance: all of them ached. And none of them matched the pain of watching the scraped-up hung-over leavings of Talyk’s backwater not even trying to pretend they were soldier material. They would be leaving any day now for the north, and the last batch was here in front of her, complaining of how hard they’d been used as they stumbled into something that didn’t resemble a formation, as they swung like children at wooden dummies, and as they sparred like little boys with sticks. There were hundreds of them, each nothing but useless mouths to feed, and they all but refused to listen. There are just too damned many to train! And maybe still not enough.
There was nothing for it, nothing but to swear under her breath and belt out in her best Marshal’s voice, as deep and commanding as she could manage, “Patrol eighty-four, line up!”
There were the stares, as always, and the muffled whispers. Some were embarrassed, some irritated, and a few openly leered. Yes, I’m a woman, dammit. Get over it. Of course, she wasn’t the only one, not anymore. Patrols eighty-six and eighty-seven were all-female, and no small number of their members were of Kull or Kharshe ancestry, descendants of those who stayed when Talyk was retaken, or who were captured as prisoners or servants in wars against the denizens of the plains to the west. They had heard it said that women were allowed in the armies of Northspire, and they wanted more than short anonymous lives giving birth to peasant children for ungrateful peasant men. Gelan had said to welcome them in if they could wield a spear. She dearly hoped they wouldn’t drag down the discipline of the army, and quickly hated herself for the thought.
Athena’s voice was so strained that it came out as a growl. “Keep it quiet, unless you want to stand here and teach the group how it’s done? Think you can do better? Otherwise, listen up.”
She hated this part. The quiet laughs, the heads turned down, and the few challenging eyes. It wasn’t often that brash idiots came forward, but it was often enough, and occasionally the bastards could fight. But she and Gelan had decided that they needed the respect of the recruits, not merely their fear. She needed them to decide they needed her, that fighting back wouldn’t be exactly the smartest thing. And hey, after all her practice with Laranna, Athena swore she was getting a little more fit than any regular woman ought to. Not like Jacob, but she still felt like maybe she was just a little different than she used to be. She’d take what she could get. Unfortunately, this wasn’t her day.
“I see ya sparring, and yer not so bad, for a woman. But if yer looking for a guy what can show how fighting is done, stand back and let me show ya, little miss.”
The man who spoke was big, very big, with an ugly reddened nose and the scars of someone who was no stranger to fists, swords, and kegs of ale. He was in his prime, too - older than she was, but only by a few years, probably, though the scrapes and the lopsided grin were hard to read. Athena shook her head internally. What would happen, she wondered again with a sudden chill, if she lost?
Her fears never reached her face, which affected a long-suffering grin. “Grab a wooden sword, then, recruit, and throw on a chain shirt if you can find one to fit. Let’s see those words in action. What’s your name, soldier?”
The large man’s eyes lit with glee as he looked down on her from several inches above. “Jimmen, little miss. But you and my friends can call me Rock. Best be ready - I ain’t lost against just one person in since I was sixteen.”
Athena unsheathed her own sword, and laid it against the weapon stand, removing a thick wooden blade, testing its heft, then replacing it, while her her opponent slid into an enormous chain shirt from the armor rack. After a couple more tries, she stood at the ready, shield slung onto her left arm, and weapon raised. “Whenever - “she began.
Rock didn’t wait a blink, but fell on her like an avalanche. Her sword arm rung like a bell with his shield bash, and her parry was hasty - she had no time to dodge. This was no greenhorn! Athena stumbled back a step, barely stepping out of reach of his follow-on thrust. A year ago - hell, months ago, it would have caught her and laid her flat on her back, but Athena had learned a thing or two since, and she wasn’t going down easy.
She feinted with only her hips and eyes, but snapped back with a short pivot, bringing the edge of her shield up against his chin, following with a quick swing. Any man would see stars after that, but Rock lived up to his name. Like the brawler he was, he only roared and thrust his shield at her, sending her stumbling back. She barely managed to parry his return swing, but it sent chips from her own weapon, and she began to give ground steadily, trying to ignore the jeers of the growing, encircling crowd. Sword and shield came at her, one and two, one and two, pummeling her defenses in a rhythm like drumbeats, and she was the drum. Dear God, who is he? Fall back, fall back.
Athena tripped over a root and stumbled, falling to the side out of range, but almost losing her feet. Rock barked out a laugh and stepped forward with a lazy swing that would have scrambled her brains like eggs if she hadn’t just ducked. “Last night’s whore had more fight than you.”
Arianna Black bared her teeth in a dark scowl and took a very Jacob-like swipe at his wrist with the tip of her battered wooden blade. “Probably she got close enough to really smell you, if she even exists. Watch that wrist - I’d hate to ruin your only fun.”
Jimmen winced at the insult to his sword hand, shaking it out for a moment while he guarded with his shield. Then he was back on the offense, weapon and shield a wooden flurry. Athena stepped around, nearly taking a “fatal” wound in order to risk smacking him on the bottom. Not hard enough for a kill, or even to injure, but the hit was audible, as was the laugh it drew from the crowd.
Rock swore quietly, then belted out another laugh. “Come over here, miss, just close enough for a nice little kiss.”
He came in fast, but this time Athena was ready, taking a shot at his knee that left him wobbling, trusting her shield to hold against his onslaught. He hit like a bull, with his shield this time, follow-on strike floating high as she staggered back again, shield splintering.
Most fights would have been considered over, now. She’s struck his knee, hard. If her sword had been steel, he would have been trailing a river of red, tendon possibly severed. Her splintered shield shouldn’t have mattered - she’d won. Rock howled and charged.
Athena dodged to the side, discarding the shreds of leather and pine her left had held, parrying madly and trying to hold his shield back with her gauntleted hand. “It’s over, Rock.”
“Don’t think you can surrender to me ‘till I’ve had my fun!” Rock roared, eyes red and unfocused. He sent another chip from her sword, and his chipped shield came her into contact with her cheek, leaving a long streak of blood. She parried his weapon, but the next shield bash hit her should with a shivering crunch, bringing her to a single knee, and he lifted his enormous wooden weapon high.
Athena had no choice: she punched him in the crotch. The crowd groaned as Rock buckled over, and there were a few boos as she stood. Barely able to stand, the giant man lifted his shield defensively: she stepped around it and elbowed him in the nose. While his eyes watered, she unleashed a full backswing on his left knee, sending him falling down. She lowered the point of her weapon, battered and wreathed with fibrous splinters, to his neck, placing gentle but firm pressure on it. “You’re done. Surrender and get back in line.”
“Cheating bitch,” Rock wheezed, face contorted and hands held tight between his legs. “Only reason yer Marshal is yer sleeping with the other one. I ain’t doing shit.”
“Sergeants,” Athena called out, voice like gravelly ice, “take this man to the stocks, and see he gets ten lashes.”
“Cancel that,” a hard voice called out from behind. “Soldier Jimmen, I didn’t quite hear you. I know you didn’t just refuse to obey a direct order. I’m quite sure I didn’t just hear that. So please, do tell me what my ears were supposed to hear just now.”
Rock held out a hand, and stumbled to his feet, hands still holding himself gently. His voice still shaking, he spoke out hastily, “I didn’t say nothing, Marshal. Been a while since I lost a fight is all. I get right into it. I’ll be getting in line now.”
“Very good,” Gelan nodded. “See that you do. Well fought, Marshal. Carry on.”
Athena’s vision went red. Who in God’s name do you think you are? This filth as much as called me a whore and directly disobeyed me! Now you’re going to contradict my order?
She managed to spit out a reply without quite biting her own tongue off. “We’ll continue this conversation later. Marshal.”