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Book I:
Sheepfarmer's Daughter

Chapter One

"And I say you will!" bellowed the burly sheepfarmer, Dorthan Kanasson. He lunged across the table, but his daughter Paksenarrion sidestepped his powerful arm and darted down the passage to the sleeping rooms. "Pakse!" he yelled, slipping his broad leather belt from its loops. "Pakse, you come here now!" His wife Rahel and three smaller children cowered against the wall. Silence from the sleeping rooms. "Pakse, you come or it will be the worse for you. Will you go to your wedding with welts on your back?"

"I'll not go at all!" came the angry response.

"The dower's been given. You wed Fersin Amboisson next restday. Now come out before I come in."

Suddenly she stood in the mouth of the passage, as tall as he but slender, long blonde hair braided tightly. She had changed to her older brother's clothes, a leather tunic over her own shirt, and his homespun trousers. "I told you not to give dower. I told you I wouldn't wed Fersin or anyone else. And I won't. I'm leaving."

Dorthan glared at her as he wrapped the belt around his right hand. "The only place you're going, you arrogant hussy, is Fersin's bed."

"Dorthan, please—" began Rahel.

"Quiet! She's your fault as much as anyone's. She should have been spinning at home, not running out on the moors hunting with the boys."

Paksenarrion's gray eyes glinted. "It's all right, Mother; don't worry. He'll remember someday that he's the one who sent me out with the flocks so often. Father, I'm leaving. Let me pass."

"Over my dead body," he grunted.

"If need be—" Paksenarrion leaped for the old sword, Kanas's sword, over the fireplace. As she lifted it from the rack, the belt caught her shoulders with its first stroke. Then she was facing Dorthan, sword in hand, with the firelight behind her. The sword felt easy in her grip. Startled, Dorthan jumped back, swinging the belt wildly in her direction. Paksenarrion took her chance and ran for the door, jerked it open, and was gone. Behind her came his furious bellow, and questioning calls from her brothers still working in the barns, but Paksenarrion did not slow or turn until she came to the boundary stone of her father's land. There she thrust her grandfather's sword into the soil.

"I won't have him saying I stole it," she muttered to herself. She turned for a last look at her home. Against the dark bulk of the hill, she could see light at the open front door, and dark figures crossing and recrossing the light. She could hear voices calling her name, then a deep bellow from Dorthan, and all the shapes went in at the door and shut the light in. She was alone, outside the house, and she knew, as well as if she'd seen him do it, that Dorthan had barred the door against her. She shook herself. "It's what I wanted," she said aloud. "So now I'd better go on with it."

The rest of that night she jogged and walked down the well-worn track from her father's farm to Three Firs, warmed by the thought of the coming adventure. She went over her cousin's instructions time after time, trying to remember everything he'd said about recruiting sergeants and mercenary companies and training and drill. In the first light of dawn she walked into Three Firs. Only in the baker's house did she see a gleam of light behind closed shutters, and a plume of smoke out the chimney. She smelled no baking bread. She could not wait until the first baking came out unless the recruiters were still in Three Firs. She walked on to the marketplace. Empty. Of course, they might not be up yet. She looked in the public barn that served as an inn. Empty. They had left. She drew water from the village well, drank deeply, and started off again, this time on the wider track that led to Rocky Ford—or so her cousin had said; she'd never been beyond Three Firs.

As daylight came, she was able to make better time, but it was nearly noon when she came to the outskirts of Rocky Ford. The rich smells of cooking food from the inns and houses nearly made her sick. She pressed on, through what seemed to her like crowds, to the market square in the town's center. There she saw the booth that Jornoth had told her to look for, draped in maroon and white silk, with spears for cornerposts. She paused to catch her breath and look at it. On either side, a man-at-arms with breastplate, helmet, and sword stood guard. Inside was a narrow table, with one stool before it, and a man seated behind. Paksenarrion took a deep breath and walked forward.

As she reached the booth, she realized that she was taller than either of the men-at-arms. She waited for them to say something, but they ignored her. She looked inside. Now she could see that the man behind the table had gray hair, cropped short, and a neatly trimmed mustache. When he looked up at her, his eyes were a warm golden brown.

"This is a recruiting station for Duke Phelan's Company," he said as he met her gaze. "Were you looking for someone?"

"No. I mean, yes. I mean, I was looking for you—for a recruiting station, I mean." Paksenarrion reddened with embarrassment.

"You?" The man stared a moment, then looked down briefly. "You mean you wanted to join the Company?"

"Yes. My—my cousin said such companies accepted women."

"We do, though not so many want to join. Look—mmm—let's get a few things straight before we start. To join us you must be eighteen winters old, healthy, with no deformities, strong, tall enough—you have no problem there—and not too stupid. If you're a drunkard, liar, thief, or devil-worshipper, we'll throw you out the worse for wear. You agree to serve for two years beyond your basic training, which takes four to six months. You get no pay as a recruit, but you do get room, board, and gear as well as training. Your pay as a private in the Company is low, but you'll share any plunder. Is that clear?"

"Aye," said Paksenarrion. "Clear enough. I'm over eighteen, and I'm never sick. I've been working on the moors, with sheep—I can lift as much as my brother Sedlin, and he's a year older."

"Mmm. What do your parents think of your joining an army?"

"Oh." Paksenarrion blushed again. "Well, to be honest, my father doesn't know that's where I am. I—I ran away."

"He wanted you to wed." The man's eyes had a humorous twinkle.

"Yes. A pig farmer—"

"And you wanted someone else."

"Oh no! I didn't—I don't want to marry at all. I want to be a warrior like my cousin Jornoth. I've always liked hunting and wrestling and being outdoors."

"I see. Here, have a seat on the stool." While she sat down, he fished under the table and came up with a leather-bound book which he laid on top. "Let me see your hands—I have to be sure you don't have any prison brands. Fine. Now—you like wrestling, you say. You've arm wrestled?"

"Surely. With my family, and once at market."

"Good. Give me a try; I want to test your strength." They clasped right hands, and on the count began to push against each other's resistance. After several minutes, with neither moving much, the man said "Fine, that's enough. Now let's go left-handed." This time he had the greater strength, and slowly pushed her arm to the table. "That's good enough," he said. "Now—was this decision to join a sudden one?"

"No. Ever since Jornoth left home—and especially after he came back that time—I've wanted to. But he said I had to be eighteen, and then I waited until the recruiting season was almost over, so my father couldn't trace me and cause trouble."

"You said you'd been on the moors—how far from town do you live?"

"From here? Well, we're a half day's sheep drive from Three Firs—"

"Three Firs! You came here from Three Firs today?"

"We live up the other side of Three Firs," said Paksenarrion. "I came through there before dawn, just at first light."

"But that's—that's twenty miles from Three Firs to here, at least. When did you start from home?"

"Late last night, after supper." At the word, her stomach rumbled loudly.

"You must have gone . . . thirty miles, I don't doubt. Did you eat in Three Firs?"

"No, it was too early. Besides I was afraid I'd miss you here."

"And if you had?"

"I've a few coppers. I'd have gotten some food here and followed you."

"I'll bet you would have, too," the man said. He grinned at her. "Give us your name, then, and let's get you on the books so we can feed you. Any girl who'll go thirty miles or more on foot without stopping to eat ought to make a soldier."

She grinned back. "I'm Paksenarrion Dorthansdotter."

"Pakse-which?"

"Paksenarrion," she said slowly, and paused until he had that down. "Dorthansdotter. Of Three Firs."

"Got it." He raised his voice slightly. "Corporal Bosk."

"Sir." One of the men-at-arms turned to look into the tent.

"I'll need the judicar and a couple of witnesses."

"Sir." The corporal stalked off across the square.

"We have to have it all official," the man explained. "This isn't our Duke's domain; we must prove that we didn't take advantage of you, or force you, or forge your signature . . . you can sign your name, can't you?"

"Yes."

"Good. The Duke encourages all his troops to learn to read and write. Now—" He broke off as a man in a long maroon gown and two women arrived at the booth.

"Got another one before the deadline, eh, Stammel?" said the man. The women, one in cheesemaker's apron and cap, and the other with flour dusting her hands and arms, looked at Paksenarrion curiously.

"This young lady wishes to join," said Stammel shortly. The man winked at him and took out a stone cylinder with carving on one end. "Now," Stammel continued, "if you'll repeat after me in the presence of the judicar and these witnesses: I, Paksenarrion Dorthansdotter, do desire to join Duke Phelan's Company as a recruit and agree to serve two years in this company after recruit training without leave, and do further agree to obey all rules, regulations, and commands which I may be given in that time, fighting whomever and however my commander directs."

Paksenarrion repeated all this in a firm voice, and signed where she was directed, in the leather-bound book. The two women signed beside her name, and the judicar dripped wax underneath and pressed the stone seal in firmly. The cheesemaker patted Paksenarrion on the shoulder as she turned away, and the judicar gave Stammel a final wink and leer.

"Now then," said Stammel. "I'm Sergeant Stammel, as you may have gathered. We usually leave a town at noon; all the rest of the recruits are at The Golden Pig and have eaten. But you need something in your stomach, and a rest before we march. So we'll wait a bit. From here on, you're a recruit, remember. That means you say 'yes, sir' and 'no, sir' to any of us but other recruits, and you do what you're told with no arguing. Clear?"

"Yes, sir," said Paksenarrion.

An hour later, seated by a window, Paksenarrion looked curiously at the other recruits lounging in the courtyard of The Golden Pig. Only two were taller than she: a husky youth with tousled yellow hair, and a skinny black-bearded man whose left arm had a tattooed design on it. The shortest was a wiry redheaded boy with an impudent nose and a stained green velvet shirt. She spotted two other women, sitting together on the steps. None had weapons except a dagger for eating, but the black-bearded man wore a sword-belt. Mostly the recruits looked like farm boys and prentices, with a few puffy-faced men beyond her experience. Only the men-at-arms and the recruiting sergeant were in uniform. The others wore the clothes in which they'd joined. She finished the sandwich in her hand and started another; Stammel had told her to eat hearty and take her time. She had downed four sandwiches when Stammel came in again.

"You look better," he remarked. "Is there a short form of that name of yours?"

Paksenarrion had been thinking about that. She never wanted to hear her father's Pakse again. Her great-aunt, for whom she was named, had been called Enarra, but she didn't like that, either. She had finally decided on a form she thought she could live with.

"Yes, sir," she said. "Just call me Paks, if you wish."

"All right, Paks—ready to march?"

"Yes, sir."

"Come on, then." Stammel led the way to the inn courtyard. The other recruits stared as she came down the steps. "This is Paks," he said. "She'll march in Coben's file today, Corporal Bosk."

"Very good, sir. All right, recruits: form up." The other recruits shuffled into four lines of five persons each, except that the first file was one short. "Paks, you march here." Bosk pointed to the last place in the short file. "Now remember, at the command you all start off on the left foot, march in step, keep even with the rank on your right, and don't crowd the man ahead." Bosk walked around and through the group, shifting one or another an inch this way or that. Paksenarrion watched him curiously until he bawled suddenly, "Eyes front, recruits!" At last he was through fussing (as she thought to herself) and stepped back.

"Good enough, Bosk," said Stammel. "March 'em out."

For the first time in her life, Paksenarrion heard that most evocative of military commands as Bosk drew in a lungful of air and shouted: "Recruits. Forward . . . MARCH!"

The afternoon's march was only four hours, with two short rest-breaks, but when they halted, Paksenarrion was more tired than she had ever been. Besides the recruits, there were six regulars (Stammel, Bosk, and four privates) and four mules that carried the booth and supplies. In the course of the afternoon, they reviewed (and Paks learned) the correct way to form up, begin marching, and turn in column. She now knew her file number and who her file leader was, and had learned to keep an even distance behind the man in front. Tired as she was, she was in better shape than one of the puffy-faced men. He groaned and complained all afternoon, and finally fell in a faint at the last rest-break. When cold water failed to rouse him, two privates hoisted him over one mule's pack and lashed him there, face down. When he came to, he begged to walk, but Stammel left him there, groaning piteously, until they made camp.

Paksenarrion and the next newest recruit were set to dig the jacks trench at the camp. This was the tall yellow-haired boy; he told her his name was Saben. He had dug the night before, too, and knew how long to make the trench. As they walked back into camp, the tattooed man sneered, "Here come the ditchdiggers—look like a real pair, don't they?"

The man who'd fainted snickered appreciatively. "It took 'em long enough. I'd say they weren't just digging ditches."

Paksenarrion felt her ears steam, but before she got her mouth open, she saw Stammel, behind the others, shake his head at her. Then her file leader, a chunky dark youth named Coben, spoke up.

"At least neither of them sneaked ale and collapsed like a town bravo, Jens. And as for being ditchdiggers, Korryn, it's better than graverobbing—"

The black-bearded man jumped up and his hand reached for the sword he no longer wore. "Just what d'you mean by that, Coben?"

Coben shrugged. "Take it as it fits. Digging jacks is something any of us might be assigned—I was, and you will be. It's nothing to sneer about."

"Young puppy," muttered Korryn.

"Enough chatter," said Bosk. "Fall in for rations."

Paksenarrion was glad to find that after supper they were each issued a blanket and expected to sleep. She had no problem. She woke early and stiff, and had made her way to the jacks and to the river to bathe before a bellow from Corporal Bosk brought the others out of their blankets. The regulars, she noticed, were already in uniform: did they sleep that way? She folded her blanket as the others did, and turned it in to the privates to load on a mule. This morning she stirred porridge in one of the cookpots; three others were supervised by Saben, Jens, and the red-haired boy in velvet.

A bowl of porridge, hunk of brown bread, and slab of dried beef made an ample breakfast, and Paksenarrion felt no ill effects from the previous day's journey. She was, in fact, happier than she'd been for years: she was a soldier at last, and safe from her father's plans. When she found that Jens and Korryn had been told to fill in the trench, her mood soared even higher.

"I don't mind digging them, if they'll fill them," she whispered to Saben.

"Nor I. That Korryn's nasty, isn't he? Jens is just a drunk, but Korryn could be trouble."

"Recruits. Fall in!" yelled Bosk, and the day's work really began.

In the next few weeks, as they traveled toward the Duke's stronghold where their training would take place, Paksenarrion and the others became more and more proficient at marching and camp chores. They picked up new recruits in most of the towns they passed, until their group numbered thirty-eight. Already friendships had begun among some of them, and Paksenarrion had heard her shortened name enough to feel comfortable with it. Despite having little time to talk, she knew that Saben, Arñe, Vik, Jorti, and Coben were going to be her friends—and that Korryn and Jens would never be anything but enemies.

Stammel changed the marching order every few days, so that they all had a chance to lead a file as well as follow. Marching in front, where she could not see the motley clothing of the rest, Paksenarrion imagined herself already through training and headed for a battle. She could almost feel a sword swinging at her side. Around that corner, she thought, or over the rise—the enemy is waiting. She pictured grim-faced troops in black armor—or maybe orcs, like those her grandfather had fought. Bits of the old songs and tales ran through her mind: magic swords, heroes who fought and won against the powers of darkness, enchanted horses . . . When she marched in back, however, the visions failed, and she wondered how many more days they would be on the road.

At last Stammel told them that the stronghold was less than a day's march away. They halted early, beside the river, and spent the rest of the daylight getting as clean as possible. Paksenarrion did not mind the cold water, but others who tried to make do with a casual swipe at face and hands were ordered back in to do the job properly.

Next day Stammel put Paksenarrion, Saben, Korryn, and Seliast at the head of the first squad files: the tallest recruits. They marched without effort now, and almost without thought, rhythm even and arms swinging. As they came over the last rise, to see the blunt stone walls of the stronghold rise from a narrow plain, squads on the parade fields were shifted out of their way.

Paksenarrion, marching across that space in front of a whole army (as it seemed to her) suddenly felt she couldn't get any air. Only the habit of days on the road kept her from bolting from so many eyes. She blushed a fiery red and kept marching.

 

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