My next few posts will be parts of a short story that I just finished for a fiction writing class. It centers on a couple of characters who have been wandering around at the back of my mind for a while now.
The fires on the battlefield were burning out, and the two armies had each pulled back, hauling their wounded with them. My exhausted charge and I walked at the rear of our forces. I had his arm over my shoulders, and we were making our way along at a trudge. It had been a brief skirmish – like a couple of cats squaring off to take a few petulant swipes at each other before backing away. But several of those swipes from our side had been burnings, and I could tell by his unsteady steps that Rusk had expended a good deal of energy in the fight. He’d had to burn yesterday, too, and hadn’t been given enough time to recover. I narrowed my eyes at the figure who rode far ahead of us. He and I would have another talk tonight.
Rusk stumbled over an uneven patch of ground, and I stopped for a moment to brace him as he caught his balance again. He was pale even in the warm wash of sunset, his eyes unfocused. He’d scorched the sleeve of his shirt, though he’d rolled them above his elbows before the battle, and soot from his hands had somehow ended up smeared across his forehead. Feeling my appraisal, he looked up at me. “I know I don’t cut a particularly glorious figure.”
“Staying alive ought to be more your concern. I’ll make sure the general doesn’t do this to you again – make you burn two days in a row.”
He only shrugged and picked up the pace a little.
Returning to camp, our army quickly went about procuring food and fire. Some turned to me and Rusk as we passed, presumably to ask him for a spark; on meeting my glower, they turned immediately away and set about starting their campfires themselves. They were getting used to Rusk’s presence as a fixture of the army, and I didn’t like it. The general asked too much of him as it was without every lazy foot-soldier expecting him to light up for them.
I got Rusk settled in the tent, left my armor and weapons in a heap on my cot, and went striding back out with my jaw set. We had only been in the field for three weeks, but that had been time enough for me to come to a clear understanding of the way things stood as far as the military and magecraft were concerned.
“General,” I said as I ducked inside.
He was bent over the strategists’ table, marking the map. “Warden.”
“You’re going to kill Caerwyn if you keep sending him from fight to fight without letting him rest. I’ve told you before – it takes days for him to get back to full strength after a few hours of burning.” The general still hadn’t glanced at me, so I persisted, “If he’s such an asset to the army, you’re doing yourself no good by wearing him thin.”
“We need him on the frontlines. Every appearance he makes is another blow to the enemy morale.”
I moved closer, leaning forward over the table. “I’m sure it will devastate their morale to see our mage drop dead at their feet.”
Now, finally, the general looked up. He was a surprisingly small man, around my height, with heavy brows that seemed perpetually set in a straight, hard line. “We don’t coddle our soldiers, Warden,” he told me. “The rest of them fight when they’re told. You’ve been away from the front for some time, so I’ll refresh your memory: everyone’s tired. Everyone’s worn thin. No one is as well-treated as they think they should be. But everyone fights. Your pet mage can just learn to persevere like the rest of us, in spite of his blue blood.”
I bristled. “Let me explain – Caerwyn isn’t just another soldier, and the things you order him to do aren’t the same—”
“You’ve said your piece, Warden,” he said, rapping his knuckles sharply against the tabletop. “And I’ve said mine. You may go tend to your lordling.”
His expression was quite clear: he had no intention to listen to me. I pulled back and gave a perfunctory bow before leaving the pavilion, seething.
“You shouldn’t fuss so much, Merric,” Rusk said when I returned. He was midway through a wad of dried venison and already he seemed a little stronger. “It’s not worth your getting so agitated.”
“I’ll fuss if it means saving your life.” I shoved my armor out of the way and sank onto my bed, digging in my pack for food. My shoulders were still pulled tight with frustration – there was much I wanted to say about General Tormund that would do no credit to my honor. Nor would it do much of anything at all, really. My time would be better spent praying that the enemy gave us a respite.
“Do you think we’ll fight again tomorrow?” Rusk asked, apparently following the same trail of thought.
“No. You’ve got them scared.”
He laughed and held up one hand to show me how it still trembled slightly. “They must not be looking very closely at me if I frighten them. One dizzy, scrawny mage kid with middling aim and a tendency to singe his own eyebrows. They’d do better to be afraid of you.”
“I’m here for defense only,” I said. “And your aim is definitely improving.” That made him smile.
When we’d finished eating, I blew out the lamp and we made ourselves as comfortable as we could on the low, unforgiving cots. Rusk had done well so far to keep from complaining about the conditions, which had to be impossibly far removed from the way of life he’d grown up in. House Caerwyn wasn’t the highest of the noble families, but they were wealthy and well-favored in the court. I was certain that, up until his abilities revealed themselves, Rusk had led a very easy existence – all silver spoons and fine clothes and grand events. And here he was now, an anomaly turned walking weapon.
And here I was, a soldier turned…well, they’d titled me a warden, but I wasn’t sure that encompassed my role. They’d chosen me for the time I’d spent working with the wyrm unit, before the army had abandoned that particular experiment. Fire was a familiar companion for me. I was used to the stiff fireproofed gear, to the smell of smoke in my hair and on my skin. The difference here was that I was working with a person, not a moody lizard the size of a pony.
By the regularity of his breathing, Rusk was already dead asleep. I listened for a while, quietened by the sound, before I drifted off.