"ALL CRIPPLES TO THE FRONT."
The screaming, as always, dripped with hate. Tan was the only cripple, of course.
"Cripples are weak. They die easily in war. They might as well die before war."
Always the taunting, the insults.
"Cripples can't hold their own. They are the rusted link in the chain of a unit." Pellor walked the line in front of the recruits. Behind him, the clearing containing the barrack tents and mess hall seemed like a small island in an ocean of forest.
Tan stood two paces in front of the first line of recruits. From where Rull stood, three rows back, he knew all eyes were on Tan's disfigured leg extending below his tunic. Although it didn't look normal, to Rull it was so familiar it seemed normal.
Pellor moved directly in front of Tan. The top of his head only came to Tan's chin. Like Rull, Tan stood a head taller than anyone around.
Pellor's face moved to the side and spoke into Tan's ear. "Are you any faster today than yesterday, cripple? Are you ready to go home and change your sister's diapers? That is what cripples are good for."
Rull held himself at strict attention, looking straight ahead, not daring the slightest movement. He could feel his bruised jaw and strained shoulder. Thrice he had challenged Pellor for insulting his brother and thrice he had paid for it.
"Defend yourself, cripple!" Pellor swung his staff in a quick arc at Tan's disfigured leg.
Tan tried to react. Too late. The staff smashed into his leg and he tumbled to the ground like a sapling felled by the woodman's axe. Pellor's staff rotated and shot forward, pummeling Tan from every direction.
"Get up! You are learning nothing. Enough of this play. Phane, Shak, come forward!"
Two Garmenian recruits came striding forward in lockstep, as if they had returned from winning the war single-handedly. Like Rull and Tan, they were brothers. Unlike Rull and Tan, they were twins. Phane turned with a smirk to Tan and then back to Pellor as they both shouted in unison, "Ready to serve, Sir!"
Phane again smirked at Tan and continued shouting, "We add to the strength of the unit. We don't cripple it."
Rull hated them for two reasons. It was bad enough they were Garmenian and any true Roveni despised Garmenians. But even worse, they seemed to delight in Pellor's treatment of Tan.
Pellor ignored their remarks and approached them as he had Tan. "Defend yourself!"
Pellor's staff slashed toward Phane, who barely managed to get his training sword in position and mostly block it. Pellor rotated, swinging the staff at Shak's head. Shak's sword came up for the block but Pellor's staff dipped and struck him across the ribs.
Pellor stepped back, lowered his staff, and shouted again. "Have you learned nothing in two weeks? There are two of you and one of me. I can only attack one of you at a time. Don't wait for me to come to you. Attack me! Work as a team!"
Pellor continued speaking to Phane and Shak, but nodded toward Tan. "I have a special assignment for you two. We have a weakness to purge from our unit. The cripple's mother informed me she needs a diaper changed. I cannot in good conscience ignore this woman's plea."
"Your assignment is to help the cripple quit. I want him out of our unit within one week. You have my permission to attack him at any time. I want him beaten so badly that he will decide to go home or the medics will send him home. Attack him in his bed at night. Attack him in the mess hall. Tell me, what is outside the rules in military practice?"
Shak and Phane answered in unison. "Killing, blinding, or permanent maiming."
"Exactly. Don't kill. Don't blind. Don't maim. Outside of that, make him hurt in any way you choose. Understood?"
Again in unison. "Understood!"
"Play dirty. You have one week."
"Yessir!" Phane and Shak turned to march back to their original spots. As they passed Tan, Phane seemed to stumble into Tan, knocking him down.
Phane's eyes mocked concern. "Oh, Cripple. I didn't see you there. Guess I tripped."
"Are you going into the village tonight?"
Rull looked up from his cot and shook his head. "Hey, Phlip. Can't. We're training with the staff again."
Phlip wore his normal grin, but then his face crinkled into a grimace. "Pellor is insane! My pa told me he was training recruits back when he was drafted. Pellor's ancient, and his techniques are outdated. All he focuses on are the staff and the sword. Lieutenant Salion said his techniques wouldn't stand up in modern battle. Pellor thinks that just because he's fought in a few wars, he is the god of war and knows everything. Oh," Phlip's voice took on obvious sarcasm, "and he's Garmenian. So he's scum."
Rull nodded. "I know. I hate him for what he does to Tan. If I could stick a knife in his back, I would. And then he's killing us with his training schedule. We haven't had a day off since we've been here. Everyone else is done by evening meal. We have extra training after that, almost until bedtime."
Phlip put on a mock pained expression and then laughed. "I'd hate to be you and it's great to be me! I'll let you know of any hot village girls not interested in me."
Rull played along, smiling. "So, all of them?"
"More like zero."
"Zero interest in you. Yeah, sounds right to me."
The mess hall was mostly empty and... well named. It wasn't terrible food, but it wasn't great either. And it seemed they ate the same thing every day. But Rull was hungry, so he dragged his bread through the remaining gravy on his plate, trying to get every last bit.
Tan already had finished and watched him. Rull knew he had something to say. "Want to let me in on your deep thoughts?"
Tan laughed and took a deep breath. "Why are we waiting for them to attack? Pellor never told us we couldn't go on the offensive. Let's attack them again and again until they are wondering where we are."
Rull shook his head. "And then Pellor will find out about it and unleash terror on us."
"He's already unleashing terror on us. What else is he going to do?"
"That's probably not a good question."
Tan shrugged. "Maybe he rides me so hard that I quit. He's already trying to do that. At least this way I'm not going out only taking what they throw at me. Let's give some back."
Rull mulled it over. It was better than waiting for an ambush. "I have to admit that cracking Phane's skull would give me and my staff great pleasure."
"Exactly. Pellor is right on one thing he told them: Don't just sit back. Attack."
Rull saw Tan ambling down the path. Tan looked behind him and started limping faster. Trailing him by about two hundred paces were Phane and Shak. Rull waited in a thicket beside the trail, gripping his staff tightly. Tan couldn't be timing things better. He passed Rull with the brothers now fifteen paces back.
"Hey, cretin. I'd ask you to slow down, but that's the only speed you know, isn't it? I'd tell you to quit running away, but you can't run, can you? Let's talk..."
As the brothers passed, Rull swung his staff at full force, but as he stepped forward for leverage, his foot caught on some underbrush and his blow ended up in Phane's lower back. Phane crumpled and Shak sprang around swinging at Rull. Rull blocked it easily as something slammed into his ankle. Glancing to the side he could see Phane on his knees gearing up for another swing.
Turning his attention from Shak he focused back on Phane. He knew Shak was going nowhere. Tan had come up from behind and was choking him with his staff. Phane, now on his feet, circled Rull.
Rull smiled. "Where's your yakking now, Garmenian trash? Forget how to talk when you're going to get your butt handed to you? Let's hear..."
In mid-sentence, Rull swung hard. Phane went up for the block but Rull dropped his staff and shot under Phane's staff, tackling him to the ground. It was over quickly, with Rull twisting Phane under him and raining fists on his face until he lay quiet with both arms covering his bloody head.
Standing up he looked at Tan. Tan stood over a similarly fetal-like figure bleeding from nose and mouth.
Rull leaned down close to Phane and whispered. "This is just the beginning, friend. We'll find you tomorrow and it will just keep getting worse every day until you quit. You boys better run home to Mama."
"Stand back to back. Keep them at a distance with your staff." Tan's voice was calm. Rull knew he simply was calculating their odds.
Walking back from archery training, six recruits had formed a circle around Tan and Rull. It had been two weeks since Pellor had assigned the twins to make sure Tan quit. That had failed. Miserably. Pellor kept adding recruits to the task.
"Hey, gentlemen, can we make this quick? I wouldn't want anyone to miss lunch." Rull grinned, watching back and forth, waiting for someone to strike. He almost could see in their eyes that they didn't want this to mess up their lunch time. It seemed as though everyone hoped someone else would initiate things. One raised his staff in an arc but then backed away.
Finally, a recruit on the right came with an overhand swing. Rull blocked, absorbed the impact, and swung around to block a second attack he knew would be coming. He smashed his fist into his assailant's forehead.
Twisting back he missed a block as a blow raked down his forearm. Jabbing the point of the staff across his body he connected with the side of the man's neck, dropping him. The other two opponents, still watching for the perfect time to strike and deciding that never would happen, took off running. Swinging around he saw Tan standing there grinning at him.
"What took you so long?"
Rull watched as two recruits drilled with swords while Pellor screamed in the background. The taller man's eye was black and his face bruised, the result of Tan's fist. The stockier man had a huge welt on his left shoulder, a gift from Rull and his staff.
The attacks came regularly. Tan and Rull always stayed together. They fought in the mess hall, the showers, and the barracks. Rull stayed up watching half the night and Tan the other.
Mostly they fought together, and often back to back, but sometimes Tan asked to fight alone. "I need to know what to do if you're not there."
Despite his leg, Tan was probably the most gifted fighter of the recruits -- lightning quick with both the sword and staff. If he grabbed someone with his hands he would have them down and pummeled instantly. Tan had his staff at all times and added a club where his sword normally hung.
Lately, they were dominating their assailants. He and Tan had dished out so many wounds, their opponents' hearts weren't in it anymore. He or Tan would land a blow, and the others would scatter.
Rull sat on his cot, trying not to doze off. It was three hours past sundown and he had one more hour on his watch. How long could they keep this up? It was a matter of time before sleep deprivation won and he or Tan fell asleep on their watch. That wouldn't end well.
Hearing a sound from the back side of the tent he grabbed his staff and tapped Tan twice as he moved to the flap. The door inched open, as silent as the moonlight pouring through the crack. A head appeared.
Something was wrong.
This head was bald, other than one patch of braided hair a forearm's length long.
A Stalopian warrior!
Rull stayed frozen while the man slid through the door. He carried a wicked looking saber. A second man with a similar saber followed close behind. How could they move so silently?
Rull positioned himself and his staff for the best strike. He hadn't glanced at Tan; he knew where he would be. They'd planned and enacted this many times.
The first man through the door never heard or saw anything. He simply dropped as the staff slammed into the back of his head. Rull heard Tan's first and second strike, followed by the thud of a body.
"THE CAMP IS UNDER ATTACK! STALOPIANS!". Tan screamed the warning over and over.
Their fellow recruits scrambled out of bed while Stalopian warriors poured in through the back flap. The full moon outside gave the incoming soldiers a disadvantage as their eyes adjusted to the interior darkness.
Rull and Tan attacked over and over. Soon, their entire unit joined in and downed the Stalopians in their tent.
Rull glanced outside. Like an anthill kicked open, men ran everywhere and angry individual and collective battles raged. He turned to his tent mates, "Stalopians everywhere. What's our plan?"
Tan stepped forward. "Let's break up into groups of four and go on the offensive. When engaging, if needed, form a back to back circle to watch every side."
Rull stood at attention next to Tan, in front of the entire training battalion. Three other recruits stood beside them. Eleven stools were positioned about ten feet in front of them. On these sat the leadership of the battalion -- the recruit team instructors including Pellor, the battalion marshal, and an area general who had arrived today from a nearby post.
The area general was a man of few words. He praised them for their skill and bravery before criticizing them for the number of recruits lost.
"I understand the fact that you were battling trained soldiers and you are recruits. But we had almost a thirty percent casualty rate in every recruit team except one. That level of loss is unacceptable. You now realize this training isn't a game. It is a way to ensure the very survival of our villages and civilization."
The general turned and looked down the row of stools. "Lieutenant."
One of the battalion lieutenants arose and walked to the general. He held a rod from which five ribbons hung, with silver medallions attached.
The general continued. "We have some in the camp who showed exemplary skill and bravery during this combat." He looked at the line Rull and Tan stood in. "Please come forward."
At the general's nod, one by one, the other recruits walked to the general, who placed the ribbon and medal around their neck. When it was Rull's turn, he tried to look as dignified as possible. He took his place back in line and watched Tan, with his slight limp, walk to the general.
The general looked up at Tan. "What is your name, recruit?"
"I'm told you were responsible for alerting the camp and taking down twelve of the enemy, more than three times as many as any other soldier. Is this true?"
Tan took a deep breath. "My brother alerted me to the attack; I only sounded the alarm. The rest is true."
"Your recruit team lost no men and you were a deciding factor in the victory. Your leg is crippled. How are these things possible?"
Tan said nothing for a long time. The general also was silent and continued staring at him.
"I have thought a lot about this, Sir. I hated..." he paused for a moment and his eyes flashed to the row of stools and back, "Pellor, our unit instructor... He's made my life Hell since I arrived. But that taught me how to fight. It taught our team how to fight. The battle that night was some of the easiest fighting I've done since I've been here."
Tan stopped again and looked at Pellor. "Pellor prepared us, Sir. We were ready."
The general placed the medal around Tan's neck. But Rull hardly saw it or heard the remainder of the general's words as Tan's insights swept over him. He and Tan were alive because of Pellor. So many others, recruits he knew, including Phlip, were dead.
He noticed Tan's hand on his arm and realized everyone was standing up. The ceremony was over. He saw Pellor walking past them.
"Sir," Tan called.
Pellor turned and studied them. "Recruit?"
Something jumped into Rull's mind. Pellor hadn't referred to Tan as "Cripple".
Tan continued. "My situation, my leg, the way you handled it... Thank you for preparing me with what I needed. I wouldn't have made it otherwise."
There was a slight nod and maybe even the tiniest bit of warmth in Pellor's eyes. "You're welcome." He turned and continued walking.