“They keep getting younger and younger,” the lieutenant grumbled, looking over the new recruits with a jaundiced eye.
“Aye, Jarryd, that’s because you’re getting older,” his sergeant quipped back.
“Absolutely.” Lieutenant Jarryd Alyt nodded with affected seriousness. “I’m so old now I can barely pleasure my campie. Considering your grand age, it makes me feel sorry for you.”
Sergeant Lvarnan laughed heartily. He was nearly twenty years Jarryd’s senior, with scarred skin the hue of weathered leather in sharp contrast to his shock of white hair and bright blue eyes, yet the old campaigner still ranked as one of the toughest fighters in all the Duke’s army.
“That’s why I stay with you instead of accepting a command of my own,” the sergeant said, slapping his superior and friend on the shoulder. “Besides being the smartest fighter and fairest man I’ve ever known, you’re always good for a laugh, even when you don’t join in.” His tone then changed. “But you’re right, His Grace is getting desperate. Wants to finish this campaign, settle for winter and dig in to recover from his wounds, and let the enemy rot from theirs.”
Jarryd sniffed in agreement. Yes, the Duke needed bodies to throw upon the swords of his enemies, as many as possible until at last they collapsed into total submission, overwhelmed by sheer number. Be that as it may, these new soldiers-to-be must have been dredged from the bottom of the barrel. They were too old or too young, gray-bearded grandfathers, some bent and twisted though struggling to stand upright, or pimple-faced youngsters fidgeting with nervousness. Many of the latter looked to be no more than ten and four, sent into service for pay likely never to be collected before they took a spear in the guts.
This mattered little to the Duke, and directly, even less to Jarryd’s brother officers, for to them, having such ones to blunt the edge of enemy swords meant those same blades were less likely to fall upon their own precious necks.
What changes awaited some of those expectant gazes bent upon him for direction! Lieutenant Alyt looked away. Behind his back, and beneath the covering fall of his blood red cape, he dug nails into a forearm.
“Well, Sergeant, get them cleaned up as best you can, outfitted and assembled in the south field for inspection by third horn,” he clipped out in short order. “I’ll be in my tent.”
The curt tone wasn’t taken personally. Lvarnan had known Jarryd too long. In contrast to his own natural pragmatism, he knew his old comrade often struggled near the brink of despair these days, heart and soul drenched in melancholy for personal reasons. Lvarnan always hoped at least a few good candidates would rise out of each batch of dross, but the lieutenant only saw more men doomed to die.
Jarryd Alyt, a veteran of nearly twelve years of war at age twenty-nine, had seen more battles than he cared to recall, especially in that he fought for a country not truly his own. He’d journeyed north from his own overpopulated land, crossing an ocean, a half-breed with his head full of his wandering father’s stories of battle riches to be won, of land and fame. For in his father’s homeland, the Crown eternally sought new lands and peoples to add to their vast empire.
He learned later the intelligent man avoided war and only a lunatic reveled in the blood work of battle and its aftermath. And those who sought such were the most dangerous of all, and unfortunately, in his experience, were the very ones who somehow survived each encounter virtually unscathed. Only the good died young, their innocence taken from the world.
His starry eyes had soon been filled with horrific images of barbarism, his ears with the screams of the dying, the raped, and tortured. Sometimes the voice had been his own. His body was covered with scars inflicted by relentless foes, and his mind as well, though those injuries were more subtle, deeper, and less easy to heal.
Bitterly, Jarryd remembered the praise heaped upon him by the Duke after he’d been decorated for valor and then, to amuse the peerage, invited to take part in tournaments between the best of fighters: uncannily lucky with almost preternatural anticipation and some of the fastest reflexes anyone had ever seen. Yet they hadn’t been fast enough to save the one he loved most in the world.
With deliberate swiftness, Jarryd navigated the way back to his tent, which was pitched near the edge of the encampment, knowing his emotions would soon overcome his control.
As he passed the mess area, one of his fellow lieutenants called out, “They always send you the best, don’t they, Alyt?”, drawing laughter from the enlisted men drinking horns of beer at tables shaded from the noonday sun.
Jarryd didn’t bother to answer or respond to their mockery. Instead he stalked past with his gray eyes fixed in the distance. He was well respected, considered comrade by many who marched in the Duke’s army as well as those in the upper echelon of leaders who sat at His Grace’s side, but a few still gave him trouble whenever they could because he was still considered an outlander. Yet it was nothing he could hide, even if he wanted. Though his eyes and skin were pale as any northerner’s, a trait inherited from his father, his hair marked him dawn or dusk. Amongst this fair-haired population, his was earth-dark, long and unruly, quite a contrast to the copper-colored freckles scattered across his sharp cheekbones.
Jarryd tied the leather thong of his tent closed. He didn’t wish to be interrupted by anyone for as long as possible. Sitting down in his linen-bottomed chair, he heaved a heavy sigh. Sometimes he missed Karl so much it was difficult not to snarl at everyone. He missed having someone to express his thoughts to, share his frustrations with, his ideals, his love. He missed the reality of a partner who truly knew his heart and soul.
His friend Lvarnan somewhat knew his needs, his disillusionment with life, had even suggested he return to his mother’s land as a means of satisfaction, or apply for exploration work for the Crown, striking out for new civilizations, expeditions to relieve his apathy. It had been some time since Jarryd had allowed himself to think of his personal needs and desires, to ease the rigid barriers he’d internally erected. After nearly a year of grief, he finally let himself remember the love he had lost. In the privacy of his tent, tears ran down his face unchecked as he bowed his head into his hands.