Parno and his ‘troop’ had departed Nasil on the third day after Memmnon’s summons. Their first stop would be the city of Jax, far to the south. Capital of the Misi province, Jax was also home to a King’s Prison. One of the smallest, but King’s Prison no less.
The trip was uneventful. Parno, Darvo, and Karls Willard had spent most evenings around the fire, discussing the job before them. Willard, it turned out, did not share Nidiad’s misgivings.
“There are some likely lads behind the gates,” Willard said on one such evening. “Men who will be strong in body, mind, and spirit. Have to strain rather fine, I admit, but still, there’s bound to be some potential there.”
“It’s finding the potential that gives me cause for concern,” Nidiad countered. “The same men you will find those attributes in will also have no desire for military life. Many of them will see this as simply a way out of prison. We’ll be lucky to pass the winter before finding half of them gone and the other waiting for their chance.”
“Not likely,” Parno said quietly. “Penalty for desertion in this unit is hanging.”
“You can’t do that, lad,” Nidiad objected. “King’s Law specifies imprisonment for desertion, equal to the remaining term of service at the time of desertion.”
“This isn’t a normal unit,” Parno pointed out. “Besides, it isn’t my idea. It was written into the overall plan, and Memmnon signed off to it. So desertion, in this outfit, will be on penalty of death.”
“Well, that will take the starch right out of any snowbirds,” Willard observed in a near whisper.
“I hope it will cut down on any frivolous enlistments as well,” Parno agreed. “We’ve a big enough task without throwing any more problems into the mix.”
Their arrival in Jax was unheralded. Parno disliked the pomp and preening associated with his rank, anyway. But there had been no warning of his impending visit. The first word the Governor had of the Royal Presence was when his secretary entered the office stating that Prince Parno desired an audience.
Parno was ushered into the Governor’s office at once, with the governor, a kindly appearing man named Jerl Harkin, made abundant apologies for not having received the young Prince ‘properly’.
“I’m quite satisfied that I am properly received, Governor,” Parno said, silencing Sarkin’s apologies. “I am not the King, nor even the Heir. No such dignitary welcome is needed, or even desired.”
“Still, your Majesty should have been received properly,” Sarkin insisted.
“I will state, for the record, that I have been so received, Governor.”
“Thank you, milord,” Harkin bowed. “How may I be of use to you? My office and I stand at your disposal.”
“Quartering for my men, and care for our horses would be much appreciated, Governor,” Parno replied. “Other than that, I am here on business that should not affect your office. I merely wanted to make a courtesy call, to inform you of my presence, and that of my men, for a few days. It seemed only proper that you be notified of my presence in your province, and your city.”
“I thank you, Highness, for that courtesy,” Harkin bowed, “and of course, your men and horses will be placed in the House Barracks here, if that’s agreeable to you.”
“More than agreeable, Governor,” Parno bowed slightly. “I thank you for that kindness.”
“Is it Royal business that brings you here, m’ Lord? Or is that too forward of me? I ask only to see if there is any way in which I might render assistance.”
“Not forward at all, and I thank you,” Parno replied. “I am, in fact, here on King’s business. I am looking to form a military unit of inmates from the various King’s Prisons. I am touring the facilities, in person, looking for likely candidates. Any recommendations you have on that issue would be welcome.”
“Prisoners? Make soldiers of King’s Prisoners?”
“If possible, yes.” Parno explained the basis of the unit, including attributes that he was likely to find useful.
“I must say, milord, such is an extremely . . . interesting idea,” Harkin said when Parno had finished. “In all candor, however, I must say odds are long against you in succeeding.”
“To be sure,” Parno nodded. “Still, the idea has attracted attention at the highest level, so there’s aught to be done but try.” ‘Highest Level’ in Soulan meant Royal involvement. Coming, as it did, from a member of the Royal Family itself, the term likely meant the King himself.
“My wife’s cousin, Felden Bates, is the warden at the Jax prison, Your Highness,” Harkin volunteered. “He would probably be able to point out any suitable candidates among his inmates. Though I must remind the Prince that the King’s Prison here is quite small compared to most of the others.”
“May I mention you to Warden Bates, Governor? By way of introduction?” Parno asked. The Governor looked appalled.
“Certainly not, Your Highness!” he exclaimed. “I will accompany you there, and make the introduction myself!”
“Very kind of your, Governor, but hardly necessary,” Parno replied.
“It’s the least I can do, milord,” Harkin insisted. “Besides, it will give me a reason to leave this office, even if it’s only for a few hours.” Parno laughed.
“Then I accept, and gladly, Governor,” he said. “Far be it from me to deprive you of a few hours peace.”
The Jax prison was small, with no more than three hundred inmates. Compared to the one in Lana, Capital of the Gera province, it was almost non-existent.
But among those three hundred or so prisoners might be one or two that Parno could make use of.
“Welcome to Jax Territorial Prison, Your Highness,” Warden Bates bowed after the introduction by the Governor. “Myself and staff are at your disposal.”
“Thank you Warden,” Parno replied graciously. “I have no desire to impact your duties, however. I am, as the Governor explained, here on a Crown matter. Right now, I’d like to begin by reviewing the records of all prisoners in your custody. Afterward, should I find any suitable candidates, I will require only a minimal guard to escort the prisoners to me, and then back to their cells. Will that be a problem?”
“Of course not, Highness,” Bates replied. “I must add my opinion to Governor Harkin’s though, that this enterprise is unlikely to be successful. The sort of men you are likely to find suitable in other ways will likely prove uncooperative.”
“I doubt it not,” Parno smiled. “Yet it is a Royal Order, thus I have to try.”
“Of course, Your Majesty,” Bates replied with a small bow. “I will set you up in the meeting hall, and provide you with the records you seek. I will assign a clerk to you as well, to help with the records.”
“That’s more than helpful, Warden. Are there any of your inmates that you think might bear special scrutiny?”
“Well, milord, there are a few poachers among the prisoners who are excellent woodsmen, and skilled archers. They are here for hunting on King’s Land. Whether they would participate or not, I cannot say.”
“Send me their records first then,” Parno ordered.
“As you will, milord.”
“What a sorry lot,” Nidiad offered an hour later. He and Karls Willard had been helping Parno peruse the records of inmates confined in the prison, and so far had found only two dozen or so likely candidates.
“What did you expect, Darvo?” Parno asked with a chuckle. “As you yourself pointed out, these are criminals.”
“Aye, that I did,” Nidiad nodded. “Still. . . .”
“Here’s an interesting one,” Willard offered. “Blacksmith. Killed a man in a drunken brawl. Felled him with one blow. Only the circumstances kept him from the noose.”
“Never in trouble before, and the man he killed started the fight,” Willard said, still reading. “Had this case been sent before the Bench in Nasil he’d never have gone to prison. Ah,” Willard added suddenly, “now I see. The man he killed was a minor officiary. Off duty constable, also drunk. Apparently he was nephew to the Judge who pronounced sentence.”
Parno took the file, reading for himself. Willard was correct, it seemed. In a proper court, such a case would have been dismissed. Clearly the judge in question had allowed his own sentiment to interfere with his duty.
“I’ll bring this to Memmnon’s attention when we return to Nasil,” Parno murmured. “Meantime, we’ll add him to the list.”
“That brings us to a grand total of twenty-nine likely candidates, plus the poachers Warden Bates mentioned,” Nidiad informed the Prince.
“Let’s start talking to them.”
“You are Brenack Wysin? Currently serving a life sentence for the slaying of a Provincial Constable?” Parno asked.
“I am milord” the giant in the chair opposite the Prince rumbled. Corded muscle bulged beneath the thin prison shirt, and Wysin’s giant neck threatened to burst the collar. Rough hands carried the callouses associated with long hours and hard work. Parno wasn’t sure he’d ever seen such a large man before. Wysin was easily a head and a half taller than Parno himself, and Parno was six feet three inches tall.
“So tell me, Brenack, what led you to slay a Constable?”
“Strong drink, milord,” Wysin replied at once. “I am unused to such, and it fogged my mind. When the constable accosted me in the tavern, I struck back much harder than I should have.”
“Should you have struck a Constable at all?” Willard asked.
“I didn’t know he was a Constable, sir,” Wysin answered. “He was drunk as well, and wore no uniform of office. He decided that he could beat me. He was mistaken.”
Parno nodded thoughtfully. According to the record the Constable in question had been a man of small stature. Many such men, when under the influence of strong drink, seemed to fell that brawling with larger men was a way of proving themselves. The Constable’s choice of ‘victim’ had cost him his life in this case.
“Tell me, Brenack,” Parno said, “are you a good blacksmith?”
“I was a good smith, milord,” Wysin corrected. “Now I’m merely a prisoner.”
“Are you skilled at weapon making?” Parno asked. “Sword making perhaps?”
“I have made swords, milord,” Wysin nodded. “Their quality I must leave to those who own them. I myself have no skill with a blade.”
“Brenack,” Parno said, leaning back in his chair, “I am here recruiting men for the army. For a new type of unit. I have need of a blacksmith, more than one actually. I also have need of skilled sword smiths if any are to be found. Does that sound like something that might interest you?”
“Would I be out of here, milord?”
“Yes, but on conditions,” Parno replied. “Your term of service will be equal to your prison sentence. You will be paid, and eventually be able to earn freedom of movement, if you prove trustworthy. But desertion carries the penalty of death, Brenack Wysin. I ask you to consider that before giving me your answer.”
“I accept, milord,” Wysin said at once. “Any chance of freedom is better than this.”
“Very well, Brenack,” Parno said after a pause. “Your name shall be entered upon the roles. You will remain here for a bit longer, perhaps two months or so. You will then be transferred to our post, in the Tinsee Province. Once there, you will begin your service to the Crown as a Regimental smith and armorer.”
“Thank you, milord,” Wysin said, his deep voice threatening to crack. “I will work very hard to reward your confidence in me.”
“I have no doubt,” Parno nodded. “I will see you again, in Tinsee.” The guards entered, escorting Wysin back to his cell. Willard watched him go, then turned to Parno.
“Milord, you may not find another useful soul in all the prisons of Soulan, but there is one you’ll not have cause to regret.”
“I agree,” Nidiad said at once. “That one will be loyal to the death. Well done lad. Well done indeed.”
“Let’s see if there’s another among our choices, then.”
Parno’s spirits had deflated quite far when the guards escorted a small oriental prisoner into the room. Twenty-four men had been seen since Brenack Wysin. Some had declined the offer, others had been deemed unsuitable by the panel. Outside Warden Bates’ poachers, only three men remained. Three men and this foreign monk.
Cho Feng entered the room slowly, dragging a large quantity of heavy chain with him. Fettered hand and foot, the monk could barely walk.
“I take it you deem this man a danger?” Parno asked the guards.
“Orders, milord,” the senior guard replied with a small bow. “The prisoner is well behaved, but dangerous. He has fighting abilities the likes of which none of us have ever seen. Nor can we compete with.”
“How interesting,” Willard murmured.
Feng took his seat, where he sat stoically, not speaking, not moving. Parno studied him closely. The man was small, compared to most, but a wiry strength was evident, strength that would prove surprising to those who looked merely at the man’s size.
Cho Feng had been arrested as a pirate by the Navy on the Southern Sea. Claiming to be a paying passenger on his way to the continent, Feng had pleaded ignorance of any pirating activity. He had paid for passage north from the southern countries, he said, and was not a member of the crew.
Unfortunately, his deal had been made with the Captain of the pirate vessel, and he had not survived the encounter. Unable to prove his story, Feng had been convicted of piracy. A charge which carried at the least a life sentence.
“Tell me, Cho Feng,” Parno said at last, “why were you coming here to ‘the continent’ as you put it?”
“I wished to see the Face Mountain,” Feng said finally. “Such a thing is not seen in my lands. I wished to see it for myself.”
“And you just happened to book passage on a pirate vessel?” Willard asked.
“It was the only vessel in the Brazees coming this way,” Feng replied. “One must use the means one is given. It was take passage aboard the ship, or walk. One does not walk through many of the southern kingdoms alone. Not if he wishes to live. I did not know the vessel was that of a pirate. It was clean, and appeared well kept. I thought it a merchant vessel, and inquired of the Captain if I might pay or earn passage north.”
“You did not fight the Navy when they took the ship, I see,” Nidiad spoke.
“I did not,” Feng agreed. “One does not fight authority in my land. I had broken no laws, and did not expect to be sent to prison. As it turns out, no law breaking is required in your lands for one to be sent to prison.”
“Thus you claim to be innocent,” Willard said.
“I do not claim anything,” said Feng, his voice tinged with bitterness. “Your own record tells you that I did not resist your navy. No proof that I am or ever have been a pirate was presented to your court. I was labeled a pirate because I was aboard the ship. Having paid the equivalent of three years wages for passage here to see the Mountain of Faces. Which I will now never see.”
Parno said nothing, studying the man closely. If his tale was true, and Parno suspected it was, then he didn’t blame the man for being bitter. Cho Feng fairly radiated a quiet dignity, a formal bearing which spoke of good raising and education. This man would be a boon to his work, of that Parno was certain. He wasn’t sure how, at the moment, but knew it for the truth.
But could Feng be trusted? How could Parno decided if the man was trustworthy? A sudden inspiration seized him. He looked at the guard.
“Free him,” Parno ordered.
“Milord,” the guard began hesitantly.
“Mind yourself,” Nidiad warned, and the guard acquiesced, quickly removing the chains.
“Leave us,” Parno ordered. The guards didn’t argue this time, but withdrew hesitantly. Parno nodded to Nidiad and Willard.
“You as well,” he added. Now it was Darvo’s turn to protest.
“Go,” Parno ordered. He looked at Feng.
“Cho Feng, are you an honorable man?” The oriental was caught by surprise at the question, but nodded.
“I have always sought to be.”
“May I have your word of honor that you will not seek to harm me, or to escape?”
“I will not seek to harm you, on my honor,” Feng answered. “I cannot give you my word not to try and escape, for I do not belong here. Any chance I have to flee this horrid place, I will take.”
“Fair enough,” Parno nodded, convinced now that he was right. “Go,” he ordered again, and this time Nidiad went, Willard having already gone through the door.
Once they were alone, Parno sat quietly for a moment. Suddenly he picked up an apple left from lunch, and drew his knife.
“Would you share my apple, Cho Feng?” he asked, cutting the apple with a deft slice. He handed one half to Feng, made a small cut on his left hand, and re-sheathed his blade.
“You have cut yourself,” Feng pointed.
“The blade must taste blood once drawn,” Parno shrugged. “I have no other knife, and the apple must be cut.” Feng’s eyes registered surprise, but he said nothing as he ate the apple.
“Cho Feng, I am Prince Parno McLeod, third son of Tammon McLeod, King of Soulan. I must warn you, however, that you will gain no bargain by taking me as hostage. Indeed my father would be more likely to reward you for killing me, than for setting me free. Though he wouldn’t. He’d hang you and play the bereaved father.”
“I know who you are, Prince of Soulan,” Feng said. “And I have given you my word, regardless of your father’s reaction.”
“Yes, you have,” Parno nodded. “Tell me, Cho Feng, do you believe in fate? Believe that all things, regardless of time, happen for a reason?”
“I do,” Feng nodded, surprise again evident in his eyes.
“So do I,” Parno said between bites of apple. “I have heard of a bare-handed fighting ability among sailors who sail the orient. Is it this type of skill that inspires such fear among the guards?”
“I am skilled at many disciplines of combat,” Feng replied with a smile. “I worked for many years as trainer to the Imperial Army in my homeland.”
“I thought as much,” Parno nodded. “Here is my problem, Cho Feng. I have been given a task. To take men from prisons such as these, and make them soldiers. You may know that the kingdom to the north, Norland, is much larger than our own, and has a much larger army.”
“Three times in recent memory, including once in my father’s reign, Norland has attacked us. Each time we have been victorious, but the cost in lives was ruinous. Our land is much smaller, much less populous, than the Nor’s. We cannot continue to face them on the battlefield on equal terms.”
“I plan to create a unit that can fight many times it’s own numbers, and emerge the victor. Skill such as yours could well make the difference in that battle.”
“You wish me to teach your soldiers? A pirate?” Feng’s voice didn’t drip sarcasm so much as ooze with it. Parno nodded.
“I understand your anger. I have read the account of your arrest. I am inclined to believe that you are truthful. And so, I make you this offer. Serve me as instructor of hand-to-hand combat, and any other form you know of that might help. In return, you will be paid, given room and board, and a measure of freedom that depends upon you.”
“And,” Parno added, “if you do so, I will petition the King’s Bench to review your conviction. Failing that, I will appeal directly to the King for pardon. I won’t lie, the fact that I’m doing the asking will work against you. But I will try, nonetheless.”
“If I succeed, you may return to your country, and have the pay in your pockets when you do. It is little to offer, I know. But I believe you to be a man of your word, and I am of mine. All I require is your word that you will not flee, not attempt to escape during your service, and I will take you from here when I leave today.”
“You place great faith in a man you do not know,” Feng said finally.
“I place faith in fate,” Parno corrected. “I need someone of your skills. Fate has placed you here that we should meet. Am I a fool to trust you, and fate? Or a fool to ignore what fate has placed before me?”
Feng sat silently for so long that Parno was about to decide the monk would refuse. That was when he spoke.
“You have patience, young Prince,” Feng smiled. “Such is not always the case with Royalty. Nobles tend to want what they want, now. Regardless of any other considerations. You are also wise beyond your years, Scion of Soulan. Yes, I do believe in fate. For long years I was driven to venture here and see the Mountain of Faces, though I could not tell you why. Do not, even now, know why.”
“It seems,” the monk said, “that fate has indeed placed me here for you to meet. If that is so, then who am I to question such things? I give you my word, Parno Mcleod, that I will neither harm you, nor your people. I will not seek to escape. And I will teach you and your soldiers all that I can.”
“I can ask no more than that,” Parno bowed. “I will be your first student, Cho Feng. I promise I will be an apt pupil.”
“I have no doubt, My Prince,” Feng smiled yet again.
Parno had signed his second man.
“Milord, this is most unusual,” Warden Bates said, “but of course your wishes will be met.” Parno had given instruction for the Brenack Wysin and twelve others to be delivered to Cove by the time Parno had returned there. But Cho Feng would accompany him when he left today.
“I want to thank you, Warden, for your hospitality, and your assistance,” Parno said graciously. “I will inform His Majesty’s Chief Constable of your service personally.” Bates fairly beamed at that.
“Most kind of you, Your Highness,” he bowed deeply.
“We take our leave, Warden,” Parno said offering his hand. “Please inform the families of the prisoners I have selected to be ready to move when the train departs. I will ask Governor Harkin to provide wagons, drivers, and a suitable escort.”
“I will see to it myself, Milord,” Bates promised.
Parno, with Willard, Nidiad, and Cho Feng in tow, walked outside where their horses were waiting. Bates had provided a horse for Feng, until the group returned to Jax, where one would be acquired.
“Where now, Milord?” Nidiad inquired, eyeing Feng from the corner of his eye.
“We shall return to Jax for the night, and depart upon the morrow,” Parno said, stepping into the saddle. “We must see to clothing and accessories for Feng, and the men will likely need a night in barracks to recuperate from a night upon the town.”
“Likely so,” Willard chuckled. “They’re a good lot, mind you, Your Highness, but high spirited.”
“I’d have it no other way, Karls.”
Parno swung at Cho Feng, his right hand driving straight at the monks smiling face. Suddenly the Prince was flying thorough the air. He landed on his back with a loud ‘oomph’. He lay still for a moment, the impact having jarred every bone in his body.
“Well done!” Darvo Nidiad howled with laughter. Willard and his soldiers joined in, having learned that Parno was not one to lord his position over those who served with him.
“You must learn to strike without warning,” Feng was speaking to the assembled soldiers. It was the first night on the road after leaving Jax, and Parno had decided that no time would be wasted. The soldiers and himself would learn what they could from Feng as they traveled.
Feng was much more impressive after a hot scrubbing bath, and adorned in new, proper fitting clothes. He now wore a dirk, and a sword adorned his saddle. Parno had kept his word. Feng was as free as possible in his new role.
“With no time to prepare, your enemy is less likely to parry your attack, and even less likely to counter-attack.”
“Aye,” Nidiad laughed. “I think that the Prince would agree he’s not in any position to counter-attack. ‘Least not at the moment,” he added with an evil snicker.
“Veeery funny, old man,” Parno half groaned, half growled, rising stiffly to his feet.
“I’m not the one picking myself up from the ground, Your Highness,” Darvo pointed out.
“I can arrange that, if you’d like,” Parno smiled nastily.
“Not a chance,” Nidiad shook his great head. “I’m far too old for that sort of thing. But I can see real possibilities in this, I can. Master Feng will make good soldiers better ones, that’s for sure.”
Feng bowed, pleased with the compliment from the old soldier.
“Please take note of the stiffness Prince Parno is experiencing. Such is the result of improper conditioning. There are exercises which will free you from that state, and allow you to roll with such impacts, lessening their severity.”
“We will begin those exercises on the morrow,” Feng concluded. “They will also make long travel by horseback easier on the body.”
“Well, we need another volunteer for the next move,” Parno announced, limping back to his seat. “I don’t think I’m up to another ‘lesson’ at the moment.”
“None of us are,” Nidiad ordered, rising. “Captain, set the guard and let’s to bed. We’ve hard riding to do yet, and Master Feng’s ‘exercise’ will take some time in the morning. Best we be rested.”
Willard saluted, and called for his sergeant. Parno sank carefully into his camp chair, sighing in relief as he did so.
“You have great potential, My Prince,” Feng said. “And you desire knowledge. Such is the true mark of the wise. I have known many great leaders in my lifetime. All were such men.”
“I’m not a great leader, Cho,” Parno smiled, “just a black sheep. A black mark upon the name McLeod.”
“Wool from the black sheep is many times more valuable than that of the others, My Prince,” Feng said quietly. “Do not underestimate yourself.” With that Feng went to his tent. Darvo and Parno sat alone in the failing light of the fire.
“He’s quite the man, Parno me lad,” Darvo observed quietly. “And a teacher of rare value. You have made a good choice there.”
“You seem to have changed your opinion rather quickly,” Parno observed quietly. “Wasn’t because he threw me around so easily was it?”
“Well,” Nidiad smiled at the memory, “I admit that might have played a small part in my decision. But it’s the bearing of the man strikes me hardest. There’s a man knows what he can do, and make no mistake. I doubt there’s a more dangerous man in all of Soulan.”
“I’m of the same mind,” Parno nodded. “If he can teach our men even a third of what he knows, our soldiers will be near unstoppable on the battlefield.”
“An arrow will stop anyone, lad, regardless of rank, knowledge, or skill,” Darvo reminded him. “But I agree in spirit. Soldiers with Feng’s abilities will be a force to be reckoned with, no doubt.”
The morning saw the entire company, even Darvo Nidiad, engaged in Cho Feng’s exercises. The soldiers were skeptical, to say the least, when the first command was to sit upon the ground, one leg thrust forward, the other pulled behind.
“Now, lean toward the extended leg with the opposite hand, attempting to touch the toe of the foot. You will feel the leg stretch to accommodate this action. Likewise you will feel the extended arm and it’s shoulder stretch slightly. Go no further should you encounter real pain. Such must begin slowly, progressing as the body adjusts.”
The soldiers obeyed, stretching first one leg, then the other. Then came what Feng referred to as ‘calisthenics’. More stretching intermingled with jumping, bending and pushing up from the ground. Finally, after nearly an hour, Feng called the class over.
Groaning troopers pulled themselves erect, heading for the meal the cook had prepared. Soon they were in the saddle, riding east. Their next destination was the city of Bingham, in the Alba province.
Parno had a feeling that they would all be in remarkably better condition when they arrived. If they survived.