Darvo Nidiad looked at the assembly of men before him, sighing heavily. Still dressed in their prison rags, they were a motley looking bunch, no doubt. The guards that had accompanied the trains were still on the grounds, and Parno had impressed them into service for the time being to assist with getting the grounds organized.
Cove Canton, their small garrison, wasn’t really a bad place, Darvo admitted. In the months that Parno had led them across Soulan gathering the men now standing on the parade ground, workmen had been erecting the fort itself, along with barracks, housing for senior officers, a mess hall, dispensary, everything the post needed to serve a garrison of soldiers.
Only, the men before him weren’t soldiers. Not yet at least. Maybe never. He stepped up on a raised podium placed there for the purpose. Soldiers of Karls Willard’s command began circulating among the men, ordering them to be silent, and pay attention. Darvo, ever impatient, decided to help.
“ATTENTION!” Darvo’s loud voice cut across the grounds. The talking and movement dropped to nil at that bellow, and Nidiad nodded.
Good start, anyway.
“You all know me,” he began, voice carrying easily across the heads of the assembled prisoners. “You all know why you’re here. You chose to be here. Never forget that. In the days and weeks ahead you will come to hate it here. You will come to hate me, and every other person in the military. You will especially hate the people whose job it is to teach you how to be soldiers. You will want to hit them. You will want to disobey them. You may well want to kill them.” He paused for effect.
“Before you take that or any other action that you have not been ordered to take, I suggest you remember this. You are no longer in prison. You are no longer a civilian. You are soldiers, and as such you are subject to Army discipline. It is not in the nature of the Army of Soulan to be forgiving. Such actions as I have just described may well end with you taking a trip to the gallows.” A small stir rippled through the ranks. Darvo almost nodded.
I think I’ve got their attention, now.
“This is not to say that the Army is unfair,” he told them next. “In fact, just the opposite is true. If you become soldiers, good soldiers, you will find the Army a fine home. Good food, medical care when you need it, uniforms and equipment provided, and a dry place to sleep. All at no cost to you,” he added with a grin. There were actually a few laughs among the men at this.
“Many of you were in prison because you made a mistake. Others were there because you felt forced by circumstances to take certain actions. A few of you were there because you’re just plain ornery.” Several more laughs came from the men at that statement, as several realized he’d just spoken to them on a personal level.
“I understand how it is that a man makes mistakes,” Darvo told them. “Made a few myself, in my younger years. It will only be natural that you wonder what kind of man it is who stands next to you. All of you know what you did, personally, to be sent to prison. You may know what some of the others were there for. I will tell you now, none of that matters anymore.”
“There are no murders among you,” he informed them. “There are no rapists among you. There are no traitors among you. The rest is meaningless. In the weeks, and months ahead, the men around you will become your brothers. Your fellow soldiers. They will work beside you, sleep beside you in the field, eat beside you at mess. Nothing that happened to you before you marched through those gates and into this fort mean anything, anymore.” The ripple was bigger, this time.
“During your training, all of you have a blank slate. I don’t care who you are, why you’re here, or where you’re from. That does not mean that I trust you. I don’t. It does mean that I’m giving you a chance to earn my trust. And the trust of the instructors, the officers, and perhaps most importantly, the men who will serve in your unit beside you. One chance, to prove yourselves. I will accept no excuses. There will be no second chances. This is your second chance, gentlemen.”
“All of you lads were chosen for this because you seemed able, and willing, to serve your land in this manner, rather than rotting in prison. Don’t make me regret having chose you. If you cause trouble, you’re on your way back to prison. If you disobey, you’re on your way back to prison. If you at any point don’t convince me and the others here that you’re giving your dead level best effort, you’re on your way back to prison. There’s no room for slackers. Here, or anywhere else in the Army.”
“Your families, for those of you that have them, are outside these grounds right now. They will be provided shelter, and food. Work will be made available to them. If you wind up going back, then so do they. Remember that.” Darvo paused again, longer this time, allowing what he had said to sink in for a moment.
he decided, looking at the faces in front of him. Time for some carrot.
“If you work hard, you will be rewarded,” he told them. “You will become a part of something much bigger than you, yourself, are. You will earn certain freedoms, as well. Time to spend with your families, outside these walls, for one.” Cheers erupted at that, and Willard’s men worked to shush the nosie.
“There are other privileges as well, that can, and must be earned. You will be paid, just like the other soldiers. How you get to spend that money, depends on you.” He paused again here, allowing the men to digest the fact that they weren’t slave labor.
“If you’re wondering when we’ll get started, it’s now. Today. You’ll be separated into training companies as soon as I’ve finished. Some of you will be fitted for uniforms today. The rest will be working to help finish the buildings here. The groups will switch tomorrow.” He leaned forward.
“Once that’s finished, your real training starts.”
It took a week, all totaled, to get the men into uniforms, the remainder of the cabins and fortifications finished. Finally, with the work finished, Parno released the guards and escorts who had brought the men to Cove from the prisons. They were glad to go, having already been delayed a week longer than expected. Parno compensated them with a night in town, which eased the grumbling and complaining.
During that week Parno had not been idle. The first part of his recruiting mission was completed, and he was pleased with it. Now, he went to work on the second.
Actually, continued it was more accurate. Before leaving Nasil, Parno had ordered posters printed at the Royal Printers. Posters that announced his formation of a new Army regiment, and the terms of enlistment. And that men who were wanted by the law could apply, seeking asylum. During his trek across the Kingdom to the various Provincial Prisons, Parno had distributed those flyers at every inn, roadhouse, saloon, brothel, and any other likely place he had passed.
He knew that some would be torn down, but felt that the news would spread. Since Darvo had things well in hand at the garrison, Parno had decided to circulate a bit more, spreading the word. The visits were short, never more than a day or so ride. He rode with a minimal escort, which he left behind when entering any place that might prove a good recruiting point.
He spoke to the men who ran those establishments, always in private and always with a small bag of coins left on the table when he departed. Patriotic fervor was all well and good, Parno knew, but money talked to even the most suspicious individual. All that Parno promised was that any wanted man who came to him to apply would not be taken into custody while in Cove Canton. The rest would depend upon the men who sought him out.
He hadn’t expected his efforts to yield any immediate results of course, and said as much to Cho Feng one night, as the two of them sat around a campfire. Feng had chosen to accompany the Prince on his excursions, as his skills weren’t needed as yet. Would not be for some time, in fact.
“It may well be some time before this work bears fruit,” Feng agreed. “And yet, who can say? Some men who are wanted will undoubtedly desire a chance to escape that noose, so to speak.”
“We’ll see, I guess,” was all Parno had said.
After one such foray, Parno was on his way back to Cove Canton with his escort, Cho Feng by his side, when they rounded a bend in the road, coming face to face with a group of over thirty horsemen. Parno raised his hand to halt his small column, and the soldiers, seeing the threat, moved into a line with Parno. Their orders were to protect the Prince at all costs.
“Steady, gentlemen,” Parno ordered. “We don’t know who they are, or what they want.”
“I’d say who they are is apparent, milord,” Sergeant Montrose Berry, the commander of his escort snorted. “They’re brigands, no question.”
“Perhaps,” Parno nodded. “We’ll let them open things, however.”
The two men sat looking at each other for a good five minutes, during which some of Parno’s men began to itch.
“I don’t like this, milord,” Berry said finally. “They could have men coming up behind us right now.”
“True,” Parno nodded. “Very well, Sergeant. Let’s see. . . .” Parno broke off as one man left the opposing group, walking his horse toward Parno. No one spoke as the man made his way across the ground that separated the two parties. As he came nearer, Parno was able to see a man in his late thirties to early forties. Dark complected, weathered looking, the man’s skin was bronzed by a life lived out of doors. His eyes were hard, taking in every detail of the men before him, though none so much as the Prince. He glanced at Cho Feng, his eyes betraying surprise at the sight of a foreigner, but then returned his gaze to Parno.
When he was five yards or so away, the man reined in his steed, and sat, still looking at the Prince.
Parno returned the gaze calmly. Despite the potential danger involved, the Prince was calm. After the brief stare down, the man suddenly threw back his head, laughing.
“So it is true,” he said. “A Prince of Soulan, riding the trails, practically alone.” His voice had a slight gravel sound to it. The voice of a man who drank rough whiskey, and was loud and boisterous.
“Practically,” Parno nodded. “But not quite alone. You have the advantage of me, I’m afraid. You clearly know who I am, but I do not know you.”
“So you don’t,” the man nodded. “And I’ve more than just that in advantage over you, Prince.” He made the word sound like a slur.
“Do you?” Parno smiled at him. “Perhaps. We may see about that, shortly. In the meantime, who are you? And, more to the point, what is it that you want?” The man’s eyes narrowed at that.
“You’re a might lippy for a man that’s in a pickle, your lordship,” his voice was matter of fact.
“A pickle, you say?” Parno smiled again. “Again, perhaps,” he nodded. “Then again, perhaps not. You haven’t stated your business yet, by the way. And I still don’t know who you are.”
The man eyed him closely for a moment.
“Your bein’ a Prince won’t help you none here, boy.”
“My being a Prince has never helped me,” Parno shot back, no longer smiling. “Which you would know, if you really knew anything about me. Obviously you don’t. I’ll ask once more. Who are you, and what. Do. You. Want?” Parno bit the words off shortly. He was growing tired of this game.
“You’ve got courage, I give ya that,” the man said finally. “My name is Doak Parsons.” Berry’s sharp intake of breath let Parno know that the man was, indeed, a brigand.
“And I should know you, I take it?” Parno asked, his voice disinterested. “Or at least know of you?” Parsons scowled at that.
“I’m a wanted man, Prince,” he replied, his voice tinged with a warning that Parno cheerfully ignored.
“Well, thanks for clearing that up,” he said derisively. Berry’s men chuckled at that. Parno’s calm detachment had bled over into them. They were now looking across the way at the rest of the bandits. No longer wondering how they could protect Parno, but instead how many of them they could kill before the ruffians ran off.
For his part, Parsons was somewhat perturbed. Things weren’t going as he had expected. The laughter of Berry’s soldiers wasn’t lost on him, either. Finally, with an exasperated sigh, he slapped his thigh.
“I wanted to talk to you ‘bout that Army thing you’re doin’.”
Parsons’ men had withdrawn a bit, giving the Prince room. Parno had ordered his men off the road onto a small clearing. Parno then turned his attention to Parsons.
“I’m listening,” he said simply. Parsons eyed the Prince for a moment, then took a seat on a nearby log.
“You don’t scare much, do ya?” Parsons asked. Parno grinned slightly.
“I grew up with far worse than you, Mister Parsons.”
“Mister,” Parsons threw his back at that. “That’s a hoot. A Prince callin’ me ‘Mister’.” His laughter soon trailed away, however.
“I heard you lookin’ fer such as us, Prince,” he said seriously. “Men as are wanted. Can ride, fight as needs be. Men who ain’t done certain things, nor stand accused of’em. Men as might want to leave a hard life behind’em.”
“I am,” Parno nodded. “Are you such men?” Parsons guffawed at that.
“Yessir, I reckon we are at that,” he replied. “We’re thieves, milord. Good ones at that. Been slippin’ about this country, and the Norlands, too, fer years.” Parno’s interest was peaked at once, hearing that.
“I see,” was all he said. “What do you steal?”
“Horses, payrolls, things o’ that nature,” Parsons shrugged. “We ain’t never stole from a poor man, mind. Man’s gotta have some standards. Stealin’ from them as ain’t got much to start with is a mite lower’n we aim to be thought of.”
“Robbing from the rich and giving to the poor?” Parno asked, a hint of a grin on his face.
“I ain’t big on ‘givin’, poor or otherwise, less’n there’s som’at in it for me,” Parsons shrugged, grinning slightly himself. “Ain’t claimin’ to be no saint, nor want to be one. Just makin’ sure you know how it is.”
“Very well,” Parno nodded. He walked over to the log, and settled himself onto it beside Parsons. “What do you want from me?” he asked. Parsons looked at him.
“Thought that’d be evident, Prince,” he replied. “I. . .we,” his hand swept across the open grass to include those who followed him, “want a safe place to lay our heads. Somewhere no one’ll turn us over for the price on our heads. Somewhere we can start over, so to speak.”
“You do realize that you’ll be joining the Army, right?” Parno asked, eyebrows raising. Parsons nodded.
“Yeah,” he nodded, voice reluctant. “But way I figure it, man like you, might have need o’ men like us, was we at war or whatnot. Be able to use us where you couldn’t use reg’lar soldiers.”
“But we’re not at war,” Parno pointed out. Parsons look spoke volumes.
“We ain’t now,” Parsons corrected. “But you know, well as I do, how quick that can change. Them Nor heatherns, they’ll be across the border one day in the future, sure as God makes little green apples. Just a matter o’ when, milord, not if.” Parno found himself reassessing Parsons. While his speech and mannerisms were those of someone from a rustic background, he was intelligent.
“Likely true,” Parno nodded. “Still, were I to need someone such as yourself, they would still have to be part of the regiment. That’s the only way I can guarantee that any wants and warrants will be suppressed. Otherwise. . . .” Parno shrugged helplessly.
“I figured that,” Parsons nodded. “What’s all involved in bein’ in the Army?”
“Well, as to that, it’s probably best if you meet the Regimental Commander.”
“Doak Parsons,” Darvo breathed it more than spoke it. Parno nodded.
“Yes. Just rode right up and wanted to join,” he admitted.
“How ‘bout that,” Darvo scratched his head. “He’s something else, lad, that he is. Wasn’t always a brigand, either.”
“I suspected as much,” Parno replied. “He’s very intelligent, though he makes an effort to hide it.”
“I ‘spect so, considerin’ the company he keeps,” Darvo agreed. “And he wants to join up, does he?” Parno nodded.
“Well, we can use him,” Darvo nodded. “That bunch of his will be better than fair horsemen, lad. They can likely train the others that aren’t so adept to the saddle.”
“Parsons suggested I could use him for. . .other things,” Parno mused idly. “If you can use them to train the others in horsemanship, then by all means do so. But I think maybe I might make use of Parsons, and perhaps a few of his men, for something else, later on.”
“And what might that be?” Darvo asked, an all too familiar feeling settling in his stomach.
There were thirty-seven men in Parsons’ band, counting Parsons himself. All of them were standing before Darvo Nidiad now. Some looked calm, but others looked nervous. One of two looked outright afraid.
“Do you men realize that you’re joining the Army of Soulan?” Darvo asked. He looked from each man to the next, making eye contact. Slowly, and not always surely, each man nodded.
“You also realize that you’re subject to Army regulations and discipline, then?” Again, all nodded in understanding.
“I want you to think before you sign these papers,” Parno said. “Once you do, there’s no turning back. You will have sworn fealty to the Crown as Royal Troopers. Violating that oath will mean much harsher penalties than the crimes which you now stand accused. Much harsher.”
“We understand, milord,” Parsons spoke for them all. “Truth is, we all had our say when the idea came about. Them as wasn’t willin’ is gone their way. One’s as are left, they want to be here. They may be scared, but they’s willin’. Come’s to that, I’m a bit scared myself.”
“I don’t believe it,” Parno scoffed, and was rewarded with chuckles from Parsons’ own men. Parsons himself grinned, but said nothing.
“Very well, then,” Darvo nodded. “Form a line, and we’ll get started.”
Parno watched as the official part of the deed was accomplished. He had decided that he would play as small a part as possible in the actual training of the men. Instead, he would train with them. Suffer the same hardships as they did. A small thing, perhaps, to some. But he hoped, among men such as these, that the little things would add up.