Commander Heddwyn Borut glanced towards the prisoner pin. Tall wooden poles stood laced together in such a way that the women behind the bars could not escape. Only women waited here though. Any man who fought them was killed, any too young considered a boy, and any too old left behind. The old women as well. They only wanted to capture those worth the effort.
Pauldor glanced at him and saluted. “Sixty-three, sir.”
Silently Heddwyn did the calculation in his head. As commander, he was privileged to first pick of the captives. By now, that did not matter as much to him. His reasonably large home back in the capital did not need much staffing, as he rarely actually lived there. Those he took were sold at the decision of his accountant and often he never saw them again.
“Are you ready, sir?”
Heddwyn nodded and approached the cage. The lowest point anyone could ever reached was on the battle field. Men went insane and sometimes forgot what they were doing. The second lowest point, excluding any prisons, lay here. All the women and children clumped together as one mass in soiled, wrinkled clothing. Their faces were pulled tight with hunger and their eyes darted restlessly from one man to another. Rumors of soldiers’ behaviors were bad enough without each man towering nearly three to four feet taller than their captives.
Quickly, his eyes darted from one person to the next, his mind cataloging everything and sorting through each of them in less than a second. Yet, his speed almost caused him to miss her. She sat in such a way that made him think she tolerated the grim with grace. She held the child gently, and met both his and the major’s gaze without flinching. Her eyes were alert and open, noticing everything from the sash of his rank to the scuffs of his shoes.
He glanced over her. She braided back her hair, though some brown strands still snuck around her face. Her dark blue eyes caught the light almost perfectly. The simple dress did not hide or extenuate her slenderness. He felt rather certain that she might be beautiful once she washed away the grim of the quick-march.
Passively, he opened himself up to her emotions. For a moment, the overwhelming fear from all the women in front of him nearly pushed him back. It took him a moment to focus on the girl. A sense of determination, stubbornness, and confidence greeted him, with perhaps only hint of fear. She knew herself and she knew she could survive, even as she sat in a slave’s cell.
He motioned to the girl in the corner and nodded. “Her.”
Pauldor nodded slightly and pulled open the door. The women pulled back in fear, almost as if he carried some deadly disease, as he wove his way towards her. Heddwyn continued in his search, ignoring Pauldor now that he had decided.
A cry of horror broke his concentration. Heddwyn glanced up to see the woman clutching the child and attempting to pull away from Pauldor at the same time. Pauldor ignored her and dragged her towards the door.
“Just give me a moment. Please,” she cried in Ketekey. “Then I’ll come. I just need a moment.”
Heddwyn frowned. Few, very few, of the men in his squad understood any Ketekey. He rarely spoke fluently Ketekey, even if he could, opting to listen the conversations among them and pretend he was foolish. Through his silent observation, he had learned quite a bit of valuable information. But this plea… made no sense.
Pauldor gave one last shove and she stood before him. No longer did she stare at him openly but her eyes kept daring to the cell and then Pauldor, as if she deciding if she could make one desperate escape attempt. A woman stood, watching in fear what would happen to them
“Please, sir, I–” she started to say.
Heddwyn raised his hand for silence and glanced towards the women. “Does anyone of you know enough Aldroian to translate?” he said in that language. Aldroian was a peaceful and prosperous trade country. There was enough of a chance that, as the trade language, one of the women may know it.
The woman looked up quickly. “I have not spoken it in five years but it is my native tongue.”
He looked at her. “Then explain your protests.”
“The child isn’t mine.”
Heddwyn watched her silently.
“I need to return her to her mother, even–if that means your opinions change.”
Heddwyn glanced towards the pen. Now he understood. The woman was not fearful what would happen to this woman before him but what would happen to her child. “Is she the mother?” He motioned to the woman pressed against the bars.
Heddwyn nodded slightly. “Bring her, Pauldor, and the boy in the blue. Next time, girl, try to speak a language that we aren’t at war with to get your request across.” He began to turn.
“And how many of your men speak Aldroian, Commander?”
He turned and looked at her passively, surprised at the boldness. “Not many, I fear.” With that, he walked away.
Relaxation came rarely for him and when it did, it happened in his tent. He was one of the youngest commanders ever in the Targoian army, but sometimes he wondered what he had given up in order to gain the title. He worked for his position too, being twice disadvantaged, once with his height and once with his background. His height, although he bitterly responded to anyone who mentioned it, gained him the title as one of the shortest commanders at eight and a half feet. Still, those things that would place him in history books meant nothing after a rough battle. In fact, it was after the rough battle that he wished he had given all this up long ago.
Wearily, Heddwyn lowered himself onto his cushions and took the mail pouch from the table. Absently, he tumbled through the letters. Many of them were military notices, such as a delayed food caravans, or a relocation of a camp. He moved the markers on his map as needed. No sense in having to reread all of the letters again and move the pieces then.
He also found a few letters of request, namely, request to enter his squad. When he first began experimenting with what was now known as the Borut Offense, his squad consisted of mainly random soldiers lumped together that he drilled into perfection. Now, he only accepted the best and men knew the honor it was to be chosen by him.
To actually enter his squad required skill. First, each candidate had to go through a preliminary screening to confirm they were skilled enough to actually compete in the real contest. If they passed that, they partook in a torment of sorts which Heddwyn observed during his biyearly visit to the capital. The next day, the men who he chose received a letter of request to jon him. They thought that they were only judged based on their skill. In truth, the picnic afterwards wasn’t just a reason to celebrate; it was because Heddwyn wanted to observe their personalities. He did not look for those elegant in politics, for he himself lacked the grace of a politician. But he did look for a man not so consumed with bitterness that if he needed him for a silent raid, Heddwyn would be assured the silent raid would happen. And he wanted a man who was respectable enough that he would treat anyone who they encountered in a non-war setting with respect. Many men tried several times without success, because they lacked the personal traits Heddwyn desired, in spite of their skill.
Absently, Heddwyn saved the few of note as reminders for himself in a few months and discarded the rest.
The last letter in the pile was marked as personal correspondence, although Heddwyn frowned at the motion of Lord Conward sending him a personal letter. In dread of the contents, he slit the letter open. Thus far, he had denied Lord Conward’s son acceptance into his squad fIve times. Lord Conward appeared rather tolerate of the denial. He needed to be, as Lord Conward was part of the strategy committee back in Targo City.
Command Heddwyn Borut
I have, with great interest, watched your career as a Targoian soldier. It is because of your incredible skill as a commander of the twenty-second squad that I offer to you my daughter, Cynthia, to as your prudi-ila. I am certain that you and her have spoken before and she regards you with the utmost respect. You can be assured you will receive the expected dowry of my station.
Certainly, there can be no marriage until your return in the winter. As such, I understand that you may need some time to think over my proposition. I await your reply eagerly.
Lord Alan Conward
lord of the Prata Section
Heddwyn scowled and tossed the letter onto the map. Although Lord Conward would deny it, the man kept appearing as if he wished to position himself closer to Heddwyn. Though it was true that he met Cynthia Conward a handful of times, she would not make a good wife. He spent too little time at home. It would be unfair to any woman for him to marry her and leave her most of the year. Targoian tradition said that once the rank of major was attained, a man could bring his wife in the field, so long as the woman was not with child. But Cynthia would hardly be able to emotionally handle the crudeness of the living conditions and wear of constant travel. INdeed, few women really could.
The man was insane to think that Heddwyn would marry his daughter. Many people would urge him to agree immediately to the honor, as Lord Conward undoubted expected as well. But after living his whole life as the son of a blacksmith, the flirty attempts of the court ladies revolted him. In addition, few would consider Cynthia a prundi-ila. That Ketekey captive was more beautiful than her.
Heddwyn stood and paced absently. He would let the letter rest, so that Lord Conward thought he at least considered the marriage. Perhaps the man’s son would be of suitable material to enlist this winter, although he doubted a man’s skill could improve that much in six months and his personality ever. But something about the way that Lord Conward kept trying to maneuver his family closer to him caused Heddwyn to be cautious about even what appeared as a simple marriage proposal.