The End of a War – Hero, Part I
The wagons were loaded down with supplies, loot, and injured soldiers. On occasion, one would get stuck in the mud, and the troops would have to stop and dig the wheel out. When the war had first started, this had been cause for a lot of sore attitudes, but the war was over, and the soldiers were glad to be headed home.There was little that could dampen their spirits.
Phaera Das, the commander in charge of the platoon of men, was grateful for the wet weather, even if it meant they moved slower. The rains meant that there was plenty of vegetation, which in turn meant that wildlife was abundant. Her men no longer went hungry. That had been a problem when the men had been in the enemy Kingdom of Singh; supplies had come late, were often rotted through, and were never enough to properly feed an army.
Taerfall was her home kingdom, and she was grateful to be back in it. It was a spring state that bordered on summer and the rains were a constant.
Phaera turned and saw her executor, Marcus Wheeler, standing next to her. She hadn’t heard him approach and cursed herself for her daydreaming. In war, you couldn’t afford to let your mind drift. “Lieutenant.”
“You look like you have a lot on your mind,” Marcus said.
“I was just thinking of supper tonight,” Phaera said. “How was the hunting?”
“The same as it always is, now that we’re home,” Marcus said. “The men took down a bear so we’ll have a break from venison. There’s goose too, if you prefer.”
Phaera nodded. “How are the men?”
“Tired,” Marcus said. “Nobody wants to admit it, of course. They’re more than willing to march on dead legs through the dark if it means they can get home sooner. I think we should stop for the night, though. It will be night soon. We need time to erect shelters and prepare the meals. Our injured men need the rest too. Lucas Conley is in a lot of pain, even if it he won’t admit it.”
“Has he been given Sparsa Root today?” Phaera asked.
“No,” Marcus said. “The healer said he had an adverse reaction to it. It gave him a rash in a very unpleasant place. He’ll have to bear through the pain.”
Phaera nodded. “That’s a shame, but he’s strong. He’ll live. You’re right, though. We should stop for the night. Tell the men.”
“Yes, Commander,” Marcus said. He departed immediately to pass along the orders to the captains that served beneath him.
Phaera started to head toward the front of the troops but was stopped by a short young woman with an earnest face and cropped hair. She wore the sash of an Officer’s Boy. “Commander!”
“What is it, Breanna?” Phaera asked.
Breanna jerked a thumb over her shoulder. “The princess is asking for you, ma’am. She said there’s no rush, just whenever you have an opportunity, she’d like to speak to you.”
“Thank you,” Phaera said. Breanna saluted and then headed back to her station. Phaera thought of Princess Claire Merrid, of Singh. She was the daughter of the king they’d been sent to kill. Once her father was dead and her brother had taken the throne, Claire was volunteered to travel back to Taerfall with Phaera’s troops. It was common to take a political prisoner once an armistace had been forced.
Phaera had a lot of respect for Claire. She was only thirteen years old, but she had left the only home she’d ever known to travel with the troops who’d killed her father with little fuss. In fact, Phaera had been told that she’d actually volunteered herself when she believed her younger sister would be sent.
Since they were coming to a stop, Phaera had a few minutes to spare. She wound her way back through the troops, nodding and smiling at her men as she passed them. She was a fair commander and this earned her a lot of respect. It wasn’t always easy though. There had been a time or two when she’d been forced to discipline some of the soldiers. One incident in particular stood out in her mind; several of the men had found liquor during one of their raids. They’d gotten drunk and raped two farmers’ wives. Phaera had ordered their execution immediately.
Now was not the time to dwell on that, though.
Claire was sitting on a fallen log near the back of the convoy. She was already turning into a beautiful young woman. Her dark hair was a contrast to Phaera’s blonde, and her hazel eyes were so different from Phaera’s blue. Both of them mirrored common looks of their respective kingdoms.
“Princess,” Phaera greeted.
“Hello, Commander,” Claire said.
“I heard you were asking for me,” Phaera said. “What can I do for you?”
“Oh, it’s nothing important,” Claire said. “I hope I didn’t pull you away from something…?”
“No,” Phaera said, “we’re stopping for the evening. I have time. What is it, Princess?”
“I was just wondering if you could tell me about life in Taerfall,” Claire said.
Phaera raised an eyebrow, “You couldn’t have asked one of the men who marches with you?”
“No,” Claire said, “they don’t speak to me. They treat me alright, but they consider me the enemy, and don’t want conversation. I suppose that’s only fair.”
Phaera reached out and put a hand on Claire’s shoulder. “You are not the enemy,” she said. “Not anymore. Your brother signed a peace treaty. You are an honored guest of the Taerfall court.”
“You mean, I won’t be going down to the dungeons?” Claire said with a hint of a smile.
“No,” Phaera said. “You will be treated like any other high born lady of the court. You will learn our ways. They are not so different than your own. Taerfall and Singh have a lot in common. We are only separated by a small sea, after all.”
Claire nodded. She was quiet for a moment and then blurted out, “How old are you?”
Phaera blinked, surprised by the sudden question. “Twenty-six, why?”
“I heard some of the men talking,” Claire said, “They said you’re the youngest commander that Taerfall’s seen in almost three decades. Is that true?”
“It is,” Phaera said. She was sometimes still surprised by her own station. It had been four years since she’d been named commander; four years since she’d rode off to war. She thought of Marcus — he was twice her age with much more experience. She often wondered if he wouldn’t have made a better officer than her.
“How?” Claire asked.
“How did you become a commander so young?”
Phaera smiled. “I lied about my age to join the military,” she admitted. “I was fourteen when I joined, but I was tall for my age and determined. It was something I wanted from the time I was knee-high.”
“Did your parents approve?” Claire asked.
Phaera sat down next to Claire, thinking back to a time when she wasn’t much older than the princess. “They were disappointed. All three of my brothers joined as well, so there was nobody left to take over my father’s cobbling business. He wanted an apprentice, but none of us were interested. Still, I wouldn’t say they disapproved, and my father was very proud when I made commander.”
“In Singh, women can’t join the military,” Claire said.
“Why is it different?” the princess asked.
Phaera considered this for a moment before shrugging. “Different politics,” she said, “Singh values women for their capability to have children and raise them. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, but in Taerfall, women are treated as equals to men. There are no restrictions based on your gender.”
“So I could learn to fight,” Claire mused.
“You could never join our military,” Phaera said. “Surely you know that? Though you’d be respected in court, your loyalty to our troops could never be trusted.”
“I know,” Claire said. “I’m not speaking of joining the military. I know that wouldn’t work. But just learning to fight would be wonderful.”
“Why do you want to?”
Claire shrugged. “Both of my sisters are proper ladies of the court. Marcella can sing and dance better than anyone I know. She plays the violin and piano and speaks six languages fluently. Sasha sews beautiful dresses and does wonderful needlework. I never quite lived up to the standards either of them set. I was never interested in learning how to properly serve tea or… or dance. I suppose I was always a little jealous of my brother, because he could do what he wanted, and he was great with a sword.”
“Well, I can talk to the King,” Phaera said. “I don’t think he’ll begrudge you swordplay lessons. I can’t make any promises, though.”
“Will you be the one to teach me?” Claire asked.
Phaera smiled. “I don’t know,” she said. “Perhaps.”
“I’d like that,” Claire said, “You’re the only friend I have in Taerfall. I mean, I know we’re not really friends, but you’re kind to me when you don’t have to be.”
Before Phaera could respond, Breanna appeared back by her elbow. “I’m sorry to interrupt, Commander, but Lieutenant Wheeler is asking for you up front. He said to come right away.”
Phaera stood. “Excuse me, Princess.”
She hurried after Breanna. Soon they’d reached Marcus. “What is it?”
Marcus pointed to a distance ahead of them. It was thickly wooded. “We heard screams coming from that area.”
Phaera followed his gaze but couldn’t make out anything because of the trees. It didn’t help that the sun was beginning to set and cast shadows over everything. The wind was starting to blow and so at first, she heard nothing. Then, after a moment, the sound of crying reached her. She frowned.
“It sounds like a child.”