Akanai was in good spirits. An easy engagement, to toughen the cadets. If only every first battle was like this, a slow tempering, rather than straight into the crucible. There had been no casualties, minor injuries except for one bad leg injury. Tokta had fixed that without issue. A good training fight. Difficult to plan a better one.
The caravan moved out after clearing the road of the dead. The surviving bandits had been bound, to be brought with them to Shen Huo. The badly injured bandits had been offered two choices: to die by the side of the road, or a dagger to the heart. The dead would feed the scavengers. They traveled until dusk, making good time after the skirmish. The cadets had been well-trained, good stock. She nodded to herself. Of course they had been well trained. Their basics had been taught by Alsantset, then refined by Tokta.
She sat on a log around her campfire, her arm around her husband. She had grudgingly allowed fires to be lit. While they had repelled the earlier attack, there was always the chance the bandits would regroup and attack again, but the cadets needed the light, to regain their calm. They would have to rely on the sentries to give fair warning in case of an attack. Whether that was likely depended on how loyal the bandits were. The idiot in the wolf pelt was their leader, Zhong Shan. An unpleasant fellow, screaming of death and retribution until she had him gagged and beaten.
The boy sat silently, tending the fire. He had cooked for them, a delicious stew, with some travel bread. His cooking was better than expected. She watched him poke at the fire, with no purpose, lost in his own thoughts. Not the most sociable boy, but she could relate. Sumila was off with her friends in the cadets. She wasn't a cadet herself, but she had many friends.
“Boy. You seem pensive. What are your thoughts?” Her husband, always striking up conversations.
The boy looked up and smiled. “Nothing in particular.”
“First time killing?” Akanai spoke, somewhat harsher than intended. She had no patience for soft-hearted fools.
The boys eyes hardened. There's that fire in him. “No.” Ah, of course. It had slipped her mind. “I was just wondering why the bandits attacked. Their ambush had clearly failed. They just walked towards a heavily armed group with no plan at all. Even if we didn't fight, we are all mounted. They couldn't have caught us if we ran. It was idiotic.”
Husolt laughed at the boy's question. “Of course it seems that way to you, boy. But think of it from their perspective. 50 guards, with women and children at their back, staring at almost 400 bandits. They thought we'd be pissing our pants just from the numbers, ambush or no. Either we stand and die, or we run and they try again another day. Not the brightest bunch.”
The boy frowned. “But they had to have seen we were well armed, and every guard carried a bow. Why just present themselves for target practice?”
Akanai shook her head. The boy was ignorant. “They did not know they were within range. To them, we appear to be carrying short bows, with a range of less than 150 meters. Even if we shot a few dead, that just means more food for the rest. Life is cheap out here.” She held her bow up for the boy to see. “Our bows are a the result of countless generations of research and experimentation, made with some of the best materials available in the Empire. A standard bow, like the one you wield, is made of five materials, each from a different source, and would fetch ten gold coins at market if ever sold. That's enough to see a peasant family fed in the city for a year, if they're careful.” The boy's eyes lit up. He better not sell his bow. A greedy little rascal. “A bow like mine, custom-made for the user with top quality materials, to craft such a bow, a noble could expect to pay a minimum of 200 gold easily, not including the cost of materials. Even if we were to sell them, not many would be able to wield them. Perhaps 1 in 10 of the population of the empire would be capable.”
“I see. Very impressive.” The boy sat in quiet contemplation a moment, before finally asking,“What happens to the survivors?”
“The prisoners”, Akanai corrected, “will be brought before the magistrate in Shen Huo city, and enslaved or executed. I wouldn't be surprised if the wolf idiot has a bounty on his head. To gather close to 400 bandits is an impressive feat.”
The boy sighed, a mournful look upon his face. Akanai was beginning to get annoyed. “Enough of your pity. Those worthless mongrels asked for death, and we obliged them.”
The boy looked at her in surprise, before it turned to anger. He took a breath and stood. “The deaths are a shame, but they brought that on themselves. I mourn the survivors. It would be a mercy to cut their throats, instead of sending them to be slaves.” He brushed himself off, and said his goodbyes, claiming need to rise early for the watch.
“Boy.” He turned back to her. “You speak as if there is a choice. Out here, the strong rule, and the weak serve. They are weak, and refused to serve. So now we must force them. Cutting their throats serves no purpose. It is not as soft as it is back in the village.” Akanai dismissed him with a wave. Too much empathy, too soft at times. Maddening.
“Better to die free than to live a slave.” The boy stalked off.
Akanai snorted. And a romantic. “Where there is life, there is hope. Better to live a slave, than die a fool.” Of all people, she had thought the boy would have learned that simple concept. Her words gave him pause, but only a half step. He continued on his way. A sad young man, with a haunted past, Akanai pitied him. A sad life for Mila, if her husband fell to his anger, or despair. Her eyes narrowed at that thought. Perhaps she should dissuade her from the boy. That might only push her towards him more though. She sighed deeply, troubled by her dilemma.
Her husband kissed her on the temple. “Let it be, Old Wife. He's a good lad. The children will make their own decisions. Little Mila might not even like him.”
Akanai smiled at her foolish husband.
I return to the tent I'm sharing with two other cadets. A tiny little thing, I haven't learned to put up yet. Climbing into my bedroll I curl up, hugging my knees. I miss my bed. Sleeping on a blanket isn't much different from sleeping in the dirt. I fucking hate it.
Sumila seems like a normal sweet girl. How she turned out that way with that witch she calls a mom is mind-boggling. Sumila doesn't seem shook up by the battle, laughing and joking along with her friends. They're all made of tougher stuff than I am, I guess. The killing doesn't bother me so much. It's the reasoning behind it. Is it so worth it to be a bandit out here? They didn't look all that well fed, and weren't well armed at all. Why not learn a trade, or be a farmer? Hell, they could join the army. At least then they'd get decent weapons and armor. What drives a man to lay in wait for innocents, to choose slaughter and rape as a lifestyle?
For that, they'll be sentenced to slavery. No one deserves that. Should just hang them all. A quick knot and a short drop.
Instead, now I get to call myself a slaver.
I shake off Akanai's parting words. She's wrong. She's never been a slave. Rather be dead than go back to that.
I close my eyes and try to shut out the memories.
I can't wait to go home.
A cadet wakes me for my turn at sentry duty. I stretch and grab my weapons, while he settles in to sleep. The third cadet stirs a little, but doesn't wake. Heading out into the dark, I stumble around, trying to find my post. I've never done sentry duty before. Turns out, I wasn't missing much. It's boring and I can barely see in the gloom, but it's just grass road in all directions. That makes it perfect for practice.
I enter the State of Enlightenment. After 3 years of constant practice, it's as easy as taking a deep breath. My senses sharpen. The gloom doesn't light up, but becomes more well defined. Individual strands of grass, swaying in the wind. The cold morning air feels almost like a knife on my skin, abrasive and almost painful. A down side to heightened senses. I can hear the breath of the sentries on either side of me. Slow, uneven. They're tired. Can't really blame them, yesterday was rough on the cadets. Most of them saw their first real combat. Most of them killed for the first time. It's easy to laugh when you’re with friends. It's when you're alone that the thoughts take over.
I continue to practice, simply holding onto Enlightenment. It's mentally draining, holding onto it without Demonstrating the Forms. The movements themselves are almost a kind of meditation, letting yourself fall into a well-practiced pattern. It sets a part of your brain on autopilot, letting you devote more resources to the parsing your senses. The only way to lengthen the active use of Enlightenment is practice. I don't have enough hours in the day to devote to all the things I'm practicing. What I need is to learn to make shadow clones, to practice while I'm sleeping. No, better yet, some old guy should just transfer all his knowledge, straight into my brain. That would be much better. Everything takes so long to learn. I'm only passable with the bow, and I've been shooting every day for 3 years.
There is a rustling in the grass. Concentrating my sense, I try to figure out where it came from. Looking left and right, I nock an arrow, readying myself. Something isn't right. A scrape, just barely discernible, stone on metal. I whistle the alarm, a low-to-high bird call, repeated 3 times. There's a movement in the grass and an arrow shoots towards it. Not mine. A scream pierces through the morning darkness.
“We're under attack!” yelling as I shoot blindly at another rustle. The call is repeated down the line. Dark forms dart out of the grass, barely visible except for the glint on their weapons. Bandits probably. They're close. Shooting once more, I drop my bow and reach for my shield and short spear.
I slam my shield into a dark form, stabbing it as it falls. No time to finish him off, more bandits on their way. I need to buy time for the camp to get up.
A sword clangs off of my shield, knocking me off-balance. Fuck he's strong. There's more of them, I can't fight back. I just need to survive. Huddling behind my shield, my stance and my spear low, I block and dodge, duck and weave. My leathers take the bite out of the hits that slip past my defense. How can they even see like this?
Someone with a torch approaches from behind. Finally, some light. Three opponents. All with swords, and dark lines smeared on their faces. I throw a low swing, sending its receiver stumbling. The other two attack, keeping me from killing him, forcing me back after a cut to the shoulder. I need to change things up. I switch to an overhand grip with my spear. Block and stab. Much better. I just need to keep them back. Help will come. They have to be more careful now, backing off from my thrusts. They slow their advance, and try to split up, encircle me. Perfect.
My thrown spear takes the leftmost bandit in the chest. Didn't expect that, did you, bitch.
The other two charge me screaming murder, confident now that I have no weapon in hand. A two-handed shield smash knocks the sword out of the biggest bandits hand. Keeping the unarmed bandit between me and his friend, I circle around, awkwardly drawing my sword. Need a better place to clip it, besides above my ass.
The disarmed bandit tackles, lifting me off the ground. Well fuck. That was unexpected.
My arms are pinned against me as I'm lifted and slammed into the dirt. My feet stay under me, just barely. Can't let him bring me to the ground. Wildly poking at him with the sword, trying to get him off me, he screams and slam me down again, jolting the sword out of my hand.
His friend shouts for him to stay down, and moves to kill me. His sword swings down.
All I can do.
Falling backwards into a roll, I lift my tackler with my knees.
The sword thuds into him and he finally lets go, howling. Pushing him off me, I hop to my feet and turn to the last bandit. Focus. Blocking strike after strike, a chunk of my shield flies off, the sword cutting into my shoulder. My arm drops down, hanging uselessly.
I fumble for an arrow, pointing it at the last bandit. Better than nothing. I try to give him my best glare, hoping he just drops dead.
He yells and charges. Why charge? Just swing from out of my range, dumb ass. Stepping forward, the sword whistles past, and I jam my arrow into his side. He tenses up, and I stab him again, and again, as he stares into my eyes. Clear green eyes. I can't stop. His anger slowly turns to fear with each progressive stab. The arrow finally breaks, snapping off inside him. He falls down, dead or dying. Everything sounds the same when dying.
I let out a breath I didn't know I was holding.
Lucky. Too much luck. I need to get stronger.
The tackling bandit tries to stand up, but my right hook crashes into his jaw, and he goes down for the count. K.O. You son of a bitch.
Pushing himself up, the bandit struggles up on all fours. Kicking an arm out from under him, I stomp again, and again, until he stops moving. I said K. Fucking. O. Just stay down.
My breath comes in pants, hands shaking while I check to see if anyone needs help. The stabbed bandit is still gasping, struggling for life. I end it with my sword, and watch the light fade from his eyes. Why do I keep staring at his eyes? The fight seems pretty much over. There weren't that many bandits. I guess they were banking on stealth. Stupid fucking plan. The survivors are being disarmed, soon to join the prisoners we already have. I don't see any guards down, so that's good.
I look back down at the living bandit. His wounds aren't enough to kill him. Should I kill him too? Save him from slavery?
Standing there for what seems like forever, my mind is blank. I'm just waiting for an answer to pop into my head.
He isn't going to get up any time soon. I have time to decide.
I grab my sword and walk over to my other kill. A young guy, maybe 20, healthy. Not the most handsome guy around, but no unsightly birthmarks or deformities. He could have been a farmer, or a porter, or a deckhand, or any number of legitimate jobs. Instead he chose to be a bandit, and had to make me kill him and his friend. Dumb ass. Making me murder you both. That look of surprise when he realized he was dead. The fear in his friend's green eyes. Lazy fuckers, should have just gotten a fucking job instead. Fuck.
Plucking my spear from his chest takes effort, and it comes out with a sickening slurp. A shudder rips through my body.
I really should have just stayed in the village. I'm not cut out for this shit.