(Go back to Part 23)
“The flame takes many shapes, and feeds on what fuel is given. Yet the flame always remains the same.
Be like the flame, Acolyte. Let your appearance and manners change. Use what you are given.
But know that inside, you are the still the flame, constant and unchanging, and with a single purpose:
–The Lexicon, Vorhall’s Letters To The Acolyte 47:3
The belly of the baron’s flagship was crammed with soldiers and equipment. Rough hammocks were hung everywhere, and men-at-arms slept in rows on the bare wooden deck. Alex could hear donkeys braying below in the hold between stores and bales of weapons, and the stench of sweat and piss rolled up from the hatches in a heavy wave.
Alex and McCann found two unclaimed bits of decking all the way forward, squeezed between a hull timber and the chain locker. There were fifty mercenaries berthed forward already, and another two hundred of the Baron’s men amidships. The ships sailed as soon as the supplies from the Lysia were aboard.
They headed east.
A few curious glances came their way when Alex and McCann joined the group, but no one asked any questions of the two unaffiliated sellswords from Dunheim. Most of the other mercenaries were quiet men with serious faces and well-used equipment—Alex was the youngest by at least ten years.
The baron’s soldiers were younger and more lively. Many of them were Alex’s age, and they laughed, joked, and wrestled to pass the time. A few even gambled with dice late at night.
Alex didn’t participate in any of these things at first. She hung on the edge of their circles in the evening, listening to the talk without understanding. Most of it was in the rural Southern tongues, but every once in a while someone would say something in Anglic. It was always fast and noisy, with many people trying to yell over each other at the same time. Occasionally one of the older soldiers would break in with a sleepy grumble, only to be subjected to a great storm of laughter and insults. Alex soon learned to recognize those.
One evening after dinner, the boys were wrestling again in the flickering light of a ship’s lantern below deck. The pale circle of light it threw was the unofficial ring—the features of those on the edge were sharp and black with shadow, while the rest were left in darkness. Alex was in her usual place at the edge of the circle, half watching the fight and half watching the dregs of sunset through a side port. She was lost in thoughts about home when a hand grabbed her sleeve.
It was one of the soldiers, this one no more than a boy. He was always scampering around the ship in bare feet, causing trouble whenever the officers were absent. He said something quickly in the Southern tongue.
Alex shook her head. “Sorry, I don’t understand you.”
“Ah, a Northerner!” His face lit up, and he shot a quick jibe back at the others in his native language. They laughed. “Come on, it’s your turn!”
“My turn? For what?”
“What, you scared?” He turned back and said something else to the others, who laughed again and started chanting something. Alex didn’t understand the words, but she got the meaning.
“Okay, okay, what’s the rules?” she asked him.
“No boots, no belt. No weapons, of course. And no marks that will get us flogged in the morning! Some of us have real duties, you know!”
Alex considered it. She was still sore from the morning’s work with the sergeant, but without the strain of hard travel across the desert breaking her down she was feeling strong. “All right.” She kicked off her boots to wild applause.
Moments later she was at the center of the circle, sizing up her opponent. The young man was a few years older than her, and taller—although that would do him little good in the cramped quarters of the midships deck. Most of them were crouching already, including Alex, to avoid smashing their heads on the ceiling. The other boy had big, strong, callused hands, but he was slow and clumsy. A farmer, concluded Alex, and probably a recent conscript.
He lunged at Alex. She took him gently, using the farmer’s momentum against him and following the boy to the deck. As soon as she had him in a choke hold the farmer gave two quick taps on the deck. Alex released him.
The circle cheered and jibed. “Another! Another for the Northerner! Another for the sellsword!” They pushed another boy forward. Alex grinned and cracked her knuckles.
She lasted several rounds before being beaten by a massive soldier nicknamed Toro. He was muscled and squat, weighed twice as much as Alex, and was deceptively quick—a born wrestler. Toro helped her up afterward, and Alex was applauded even as she massaged her sore shoulder.
“I’m Roslin, but they call me Ross. What’s your name?” asked the scrawny boy who’d pulled Alex into the fight.
“Alex! Alex!” he shouted to the rest of the group. Alex spent the rest of the night in their company, Ross translating bits of conversation and jokes. They taught her a few slang words and profanities, and got her to sing along to a crude song about barmaids that she only half understood. The night only ended when Alain stomped down the stairs and extinguished the lantern, casting a murderous glance at Alex as he did so.
She had a crop of fresh bruises the next morning, but McCann ignored them. The sergeant only said something when Alex tried the move that Toro had pinned him with the night before.
“I didn’t teach you that,” he said, after blocking it and pinning Alex again on their practice space above deck. “Where did you learn that?”
“I was wrestling with the Southerners last night.”
“Mmm.” McCann scowled. “Don’t forget who you are, Acolyte, and who they are. A thin lie is all that stands between us and two hundred swords.”
“They’re farmer’s sons, Sergeant, and shepherds.”
“Do you think that would matter? Tell me, can you take your hundred alone? Because I might need some help with mine.” His voice dripped with sarcasm. “Have you seen the others? Spent any time with them?”
“They’re seasoned. Veterans. I see patches from the Second Coast campaign; it’s lucky no one has recognized me.” McCann shook his head. “Sinclair has bolstered his numbers with mercenaries and levies, but the core of his army is here with him too.”
“Headed east? Why east? It’s away from Dunheim, at least—”
McCann shushed her, suddenly distracted. “Shh! Look.”
Alex opened her mouth to protest, but shut it again when she saw what distracted him. From their spot on the foredeck, they could see the baron emerge from below. He climbed the quarterdeck, followed by General Clovis and Minister Turin. Turin had the book with him again.
“Watch,” whispered McCann.
Several spyglasses appeared among the group on the quarterdeck, all directed at the shore off the port side. Minister Turin paged through the book finally stopping in the middle. He placed it next to the compass and opened his own spyglass. Soon he and the general were in a heated argument, pointing at the coast and down at the book.
The baron settled them with a quick word. He spoke another two words to the helmsman, and a third to his captain. A string of commands were given. The ship made a slight change in course, and signal flags flashed up the mast to the ships stretched behind them. The baron and his advisors went below.
McCann turned to Alex. “So? What do you see?”
“They’re . . . comparing the shore to something in the book. Drawings, maybe, or writing. “ McCann nodded. “They haven’t been here before . . . and they’re looking for something.”
“And why is he bringing two thousand soldiers with him? And closing the passes, and taking Curates prisoner? Is he hiding something?” McCann shook his head. “We’re lucky that the rest of our gold was enough to convince Captain Tyrus to deliver the horses and the dispatches to Antioch . . . assuming they get there at all.”
“I think they will.”
McCann ignored her and reached for his scabbard. “Let’s see if the Southerners taught you anything about swordplay . . .”
(Go on to Part 25)