It is difficult to recall the time I spent in the army of the Lonireilans. I recall some things. The first time I followed the knife wind into a settlement, north of Naban, and saw how it had flayed the living where they stood, pushing their blood in red streaks. That, I recall well. I recall when I learned that Estevo was my friend, and not my enemy. And I recall my first victory.
I was the subject of many brutalities in the service of the Lonireilan company that took me away from my home, though none so terrible as my sister’s killing and what was done to me before.
I was fourteen, and it had been some months since the Lonireilans had taken me. I was not the only one. Other children they had taken as well, children of Naban and of the neighboring provinces Opac, Haal, and Rouk. We were starved, whipped, made to march with heavy loads. The packs and bags cut into my shoulders, made my knees quake, my muscles tremble. Sweat poured off of me and soaked my rough clothes to my skin, making me shiver in the cold. When we made camp, they beat us, then gave us food and water. I came to anticipate the beatings because I knew that after, there would be food. I craved them. When we stopped and I saw the whips or canes, my mouth watered.
The Lonireilans made us fight and the winners got extra ration biscuits. The biscuits were hard, stale things, but they tasted very fine indeed, and sometimes a soldier would lay a congratulating hand on my head after I beat another child into a bloody mess just for a little extra food. I craved the touch as much as the biscuits.
At night we were herded together, I and the other children, into a tent or stable or outlying house, depending on where the Lonireilans took us as they pushed north into Serehvan. I was, as I mentioned, a big lad, and so when the others learned they could not bully me they left me to myself. I always took the warmest sleeping place. I was tired and hurt beyond caring about the others. The others bullied each other for hidden scraps of food or the warmest places to sleep, for blankets, for better robes or shoes. Then, they bullied the smaller for sport, when there was nothing left. I did it too. The reward of control, even such a pittance, was too great. This I did not understand until much, much later, when I managed to bring myself to look back on those days for the first time.
When it became too simple for me to eat well, to beat another child for food, to take the best shoes in which to march, the Lonireilan captain took me aside. I expected a beating, or worse, and was afraid and sat cowering, stinking, filthy and starved. As I recall, we were camped on the north of the province, not far from the capital of Serehvan, such as it was. Serehvan was never a rich country. We were billeted in the grounds of a plantation, a great farm with a great house and many serfs and slaves who worked the poppy fields. The Lonireilan captain, called de Trastorces, sat on an ornate, carved stool within the house and his soldiers brought me to him. The room was plush, comfortable, with gold candelabras and a hookah and painted scrolls on the walls. It seemed a foreign landscape and for some reason I worried that I would track in dirt on the brightly-colored, woven straw mats. That, I recall: worrying about the dirt on my stolen shoes.
De Trastorces spoke to the Lonireilans in their own tongue, a tongue I did not know, and they brought food. He held it out to me. He wore boots indoors, but not his armor, and was dressed very finely in bright Lonireilan silk with geometric, brocade patterns. I stared at the food, grapes and hot mezakh with yellow sauce, and waited for the beating to commence.
“Eat,” he said. “Go on, boy.” His accent was the lazy sound I remembered from outside my family’s farm. How long ago had that been? I had no idea, and the smell and sight of food beyond biscuit and water made my mind spin. “Go on,” he repeated, and I must have crawled forward and eaten out of his hand. The taste of that food, I remember. He gave me wine next.
While I ate, his hand rested on my back. I collapsed, as if stricken. I yelped like a dog. He waited, coaxed me back to my plate, and put his hand on me again. I flinched, but didn’t stop eating, and while I ate and drank he rested his hand on my back and spoke. The feeling of his hand was warm indeed, and the sound of his accented voice at once hateful and so kind, so kind.
“You’re growing strong, now. You’ve been punished enough. Do you understand why we punished you? A parent must punish a child.”
I ate, but then his hand tightened on my shoulder and I dropped a handful of mezakh in my haste to cower. “Yes,” I said, “I understand.”
“You attacked my soldiers. They are my family.”
“I’m sorry,” I said. He released his grip and I ate again after a pause.
“You could eat like this every day. Have a wine ration. Would you like that?” I nodded, my face stuffed with food, and he smiled kindly. “Will you be a good child? Will you do as you’re told now?” Again, I agreed.
“Good.” He rubbed my back, most comfortingly. “Very good.”
That night, I slept in a tent with soldiers. The called me foul names in Lonireilan, the few words I had learned used over and over. At the time, the names seemed deserved. I was a dog, or worse. They pushed and kicked me, but I had a full belly, and new clothes, clothes like the soldiers’. I slept on a bedroll instead of on the floor. In the morning, they gave me a spear and I marched behind the Lonireilans’ camels, and I sneered at the children still bound and walking behind even as the soldiers ahead mocked me, struck me when I was slow or foolish or tired. They did not beat me anymore, though, and that night I got good food again.
That is how I became a good Lonireilan soldier. Does it seem cruel? Foolish, to break so soon? I was half-starved, beaten daily, in constant pain, scarred, weak, parched. My wish was for a morsel of food, to set down the pack weighing me without being kicked until I couldn’t scream for lack of breath. You might be surprised to find how little it takes to make you do as you’re told, and, in the midst of such horror, how warm a kind hand can feel.
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