We had to spend half a day under the grueling commander, but at least we wouldn’t have to leave Faiza behind and we had time to come up with a plan.
Faiza was going to get the keys to the gate. There were only two people who had the keys: Commander Serun and Nakin. It would be much easier to take it from Nakin, since she had to use the barracks like everyone else and Faiza, being a girl, had easy access.
We had to wait until late afternoon, which was when Nakin trained the recruits by sparring with them one-on-one. It was the only time the key ring wasn’t dangling from her belt.
As I stood with Ethan and the other recruits watching Nakin pummeling a boy with her wooden practice sword, I was glad I’d be out of here before having to face her.
Ethan kept glancing toward the girl’s barracks where Faiza was looking for the key ring.
“Stop,” I hissed.
It was probably nothing anyone would notice, but I didn’t want anything to draw attention to us. We were supposed to be in the mess hall eating our midday meal while this group trained. I hoped no one realized we were from the newest group of recruits, and weren’t supposed to be here.
“If she doesn’t hurry up,” Ethan said, “meal time will be over and someone will notice we aren’t there.”
After eating, we were supposed to meet at the training area—a place with a bunch of wood beams sticking out of the ground for us to practice sword on. The moment the gong sounded the end of eating period, we would be noticed missing.
Faiza appeared. She kept her stride even, and even though I knew she needed to act normal, I willed her to speed up.
“Let’s go,” she said when she reached us. She barely broke her stride and didn’t look at as she walked by. Ethan and I counted ten seconds in our heads before following.
We made it to the gate. There was more than one key on the key ring, so Faiza tried one at a time.
“What are you doing?” boomed a voice behind us. I didn’t have to turn around to know who it was. Commander Serun stood behind us, my father’s wolf-head sword at his side. He held his hand out for the keys. Faiza seemed to be considering fighting him over them, but she handed them over.
Commander Serun called Nakin over. He held up the keys for her to see. “Recognize these?”
Nakin’s mouth tightened.
“You should take better care of your things,” said the commander.
“Yes sir.” Nakin gave the standard army response without emotion but she was slightly more stiff than usual and I wondered what kind of punishment she would get for letting us get to her keys.
“I have a lot more to say to you, but that can wait until after you’ve gathered the recruits.” He looked at us. “We are going to have a flogging.”
I swallowed and tried not to look as scared as I felt. I’d never had a whip touch me before but from my father’s stories of soldier life, I knew that a flogging was nothing like the switching I got as a kid when I’d misbehave. I’d be left with more than stinging skin. A whip would cut right through your flesh and your clothes too, if you were lucky enough to be allowed to wear them.
Before Nakin could turn to get the recruits a voice from behind the gate said, “Commander Serun.”
On the other side of the iron bars Rachael stood next to a man with the same caramel hair that she had.
“I am Tallis,” the man said, “Master of Relations, and I would like to have a word with you.” His voice was light but firm.
“I’m in the middle of something Master of Relations.” The commander said Tallis’s title in a mocking tone. “We’ll talk when I’m done.”
“Normally I wouldn’t mind waiting—I despise it when others interrupt my work—but it concerns the three you have in front of you.”
The commander gave us a disgusted look as if it were our fault that Tallis had appeared and interrupted our punishment. Then again, I guess it was since we’d sent Samel to find him.
I wondered if Samel was standing with Rachael and her father. I didn’t see him, but I guessed it still wasn’t safe for him to show himself even if he was with Tallis. Dwarves were still outlawed in Minaria.
“They are part of the recruits,” Commander Serun said. “I don’t see what a Master of Relations has to do with them.”
“It is my understanding that you are only to take orphans into your army,” Tallis said calmly. “These three aren’t orphans, at least not in the traditional sense. They are under my care. You see, I am their guardian.”
I was glad Rachael’s father didn’t mind lying on our behalf.
“Then why did they come here wanting to join? They didn’t mention a guardian.”
“I believe my daughter did.” He put a hand on her shoulder. “But it seems you did not understand her.”
The guard master scowled and for a moment I thought he was going to let us go. Then he said, ”Under your care or not, they came to me. They joined the recruits and no one can walk away from the army once it gets hard. They must deal with the result of their decision.” He gave us a pointed look. “Even if they don’t like it.”
I cringed inwardly. Was Tallis going to let the commander whip us?
“And believe me, they will be given consequences for what they’ve done.” He gave us a stern look that reminded me of the look my father used to give me when I played with my practice sword in the house.
“I’m glad we agree.” The commander started to turn away.
“But by me. Not the army.”
“They are the army’s property.”
“But they aren’t.” Tallis seemed apologetic. “They can’t join the army without a guardian’s written approval, and I gave no such verification.”
“Only the under-aged need approval.”
“They are under aged.”
The commander looked at the three of us. I was the only one who was under aged.
“Under aged?” he asked Tallis.
“Quite. They are all 15.”
The commander seemed to know that he was beat, but didn’t want to let us go.
“You’ve only invested a day of training in them. It’s not as if I’m taking your best.” Tallis chuckled. “And knowing this group, you’ll probably be glad to have them off your hands. Troublesome and lazy—not the best soldier material.”
“None of the brats I’m sent are soldier material,” the commander growled. He tossed Nakin the key. “Open the gate.”
He turned to us. “You vermin better not come though that gate again unless you want to stay for the remainder of your lives. I won’t let you back out so easily next time.”
The commander wouldn’t have to worry about that. I wouldn’t give him a chance to give me that whipping.
The lock clicked and Nakin opened the gate. She glared at us as we filed passed past.
“Thank you commander for your corporation in this frustrating situation,” Tallis called to the commander who was already stomping away. “Sorry for the inconvenience.” Commander Serun didn’t respond.
It wasn’t until we were in the castle’s halls that any of us spoke.
Rachael was the first to break the silence. “I’m so glad we came when we did.”
I was too, but I didn’t want to seem like a wimp afraid of a whip so I changed the subject. “So, I guess Samel found your father.”
“I sure did.”
I swung my head around to the back of our little line. So did the others. But there was no one standing in the spot where the voice had come.
“Samel,” Rachael and I said together. I was grinning, but Rachael was scowling at the spot.
“I thought I told you to stay in my chambers,” Tallis said raising his eyebrows.
“And miss all the fun?” said Samel’s disembodied voice.
“You might have bumped into someone,” Rachael said.
“I would never do something like that.” By the tone of his voice, I imagined him winking.
A scullery maid came down the hall and everyone froze as if she were the commander himself came to haul us back.
“Come.” Tallis clapped his hands. “I don’t want to hear another word until we’re in my chambers.”
Though we all knew the words were meant for Samel, we all kept silent until reaching Tallis’s chambers.
You may notice that this chapter doesn’t end with a poll. Usually when that happens I post another chapter on Friday, but this time I’m going to leave it at this chapter, since it was kind of long and I didn’t want to make you read too much in one weekend. 😉
Actually, I just spent so much time on this chapter that I wasn’t able to work on the next, but you can think that the lack of chapter was purely out of consideration for you.
Or maybe I’m only withholding it from you because I want to increase dramatic tension. *evil author grin*