Chapter III

"It was a dream of independence. Like a son's rebellion against his father, we created the Ranks to show rebellion against the Clans. No lords, no kings, only ourselves. We thought it sounded good, too." -Alban Rekkus to Havier Mimms

I awoke to my mother gently shaking me. There was probably work that needed doing and father wasn't there to do it. He'd probably taken my brothers with him. I turned back over and tried to go back to sleep.

"Cheeky little bastard," my mother grumbled in a surprisingly gruff, masculine voice.

I felt myself suddenly being thrown from my soft, warm bed. Memory surged back to me right as I hit the ground. Realization of where I was came just a moment too late.

"I'm not you're mammy, boy," my tormentor said. He was of a muscular build and had a mane of red hair wildly streaming down his back. "A new bunch of recruits are coming in from Soban and Hiban tomorrow, boy. You're the only runt we've gotten here in the last week, so we've had to import some more from around to make a full platoon. I'm supposed to get you up to speed so you don't slow anyone down when they get here. Understood?"

"Yes," I mumbled, hastily adding, "Sir."

"Good boy," the man said, smoothing back his fiery hair. "Name?"

"Grothanin Janan," I said, rising to my feet amidst a swathe of blankets. Bear wasn't known for its warm weather.

"Good boy," the man repeated. He jabbed his thumb at his massive chest. "Mjolnir Mittilagart. What Clan you from?"

My mouth started to form words, but stopped. The beautifully winged man, Vleugels, had said something about it. If only I could remember what he'd said…

Mjolnir smiled warmly. "Good boy," he said again before I could answer. "I see Corporal Mathis already got around to telling you about that little tradition Soth Maore's installed in us."

"What'd Soth do?"

The flame-haired man gave me a warning glare.

"What did Soth Maore do?" I corrected myself, remembering what I'd heard the previous day.

"Good boy. There's a running bet going around, about what Clan Soth Maore's from."

"What're the options?" I asked. If there's even a chance for money, I'd take it just to get away from these sell swords.

Mjolnir looked at me with a funny expression on his face. "You haven't seen him yet, have you?"

I shook my head. "I just got in last night."

He grunted noncommittally. "You'll understand when you see him. Come on, got to get you ready in case you're called for."

"What're the odds of that happening today?" I grumbled, almost afraid of the answer as he led me through the thin, pine door.

"Vleugels said you were a polyglot? Desperate need for those. Most everyone here only speaks Nord. We'll need some people to translate into Sood for us down south. Troops already being sent over."

"What do they want you to do?" I asked, vaguely remembering the winged man mentioning something about the Bird states.

"Here we did some hired hand work for them," Mjolnir said, nodding in the direction of the city. "Did the guard's work for them, bolstered the army. The best thing that came from it was a flood of new recruits."

I stopped in my tracks. Why would anyone want to join a band of mercenaries? "How many?" I asked.

Mjolnir scratched his head. "Before this, when we were based in Ram, we had a little over a thousand men. Now, more than ten times that number."

Surprised was not the word for it. I had expected a much smaller number. More than three hundred less than two. Ten thousand, though?

"Close your mouth," Mjolnir said, sounding bored. "Wouldn't want flies getting in."

He took me to the mess hall first. Perhaps my stomach had been awake while I slept. The only thing I paid attention to was a pile of rich, crispy bacon. Just like mother's.

There was a glimmer of pain at the thought. I was hundreds of miles away from home and about to go further south. It didn't make sense that it took me this long to comprehend the consequences of leaving. The journey would have been much more comfortable if I'd come to that conclusion a month ago.

I missed the day to day routine of making the shop function, the regular customers coming in and out to get their food for the day. Even the angry old bastard who lost an arm in the war and demanded he get a discount for his pains. He cussed and fussed like no one's business, but father still refused to relent. Father hadn't supported the war and ran south for a spell, much further than I had already gone. He came back a decade later with a foreign wife to find the war was over and a new Clan Lord had been crowned.

After my stomach was satisfied, Mjolnir led me to a large, drab tent filled to the brim with piles and piles of weapons, armor, and gear. Most of it looked like the stuff I'd seen with the guards yesterday. Maybe a bit older and rustier, but similar enough.

A dark breastplate was tossed my way and I was handed a wire brush and a scrap of leather. "Keep it clean," the squat quartermaster warned menacingly. He pointed me in the direction of a crate of other cleaning materials.

Mjolnir told me to start cleaning the grimy, rusty old breastplate while he talked with the quartermaster. I hoped it had to do with the quality of armor he was storing, and that he was a failure at his job, but no such luck. They instead talked about what I assumed to be local politics and edicts the Lord Bear had spouted out like water concerning the mercenaries. They discussed what their leader's likely course of action would be and how much of an effect it would have on them personally. I didn't understand most of it. All I could really do was concentrate on scrubbing rust and grime off something that ready to fall apart, let alone keep me alive.

Mjolnir prodded my back with the butt end of a spear. "Your weapon," he said, handing it to me.

"I thought it was called the Saber Ranks. Why not a sword?"

"Can you use a sword properly?"

I shook my head.

"Then shut the fuck up and take what's offered," Mjolnir growled. "It doesn't take as much skill to use a spear as a sword."

He snapped his fingers, indicating I should follow like a mongrel dog. Judging from the men we passed and the state they were in, the whole company was just a pack of mongrel dogs trying to survive. If this Soth Maore could keep me alive long enough to find something better, I'd follow him faithfully till then. As soon as I found a safe port of harbor I'd gladly be rid of these strays.

It also made me curious about how to leave the Saber Ranks. Mjolnir gave me the feeling that he'd take it very personal if I left, or if anyone else left for that matter. Like he was a mutt with some blood hound in him, he'd track me to the end of Cernon. I doubted any of the other mutts would feel differently, especially given the latest penchant for branding and mutilating traitors the Clan Lords had been enjoying the last few years. Used to be the Mark was reserved for only deepest crimes against the Clan. It'd only happen once every few generations in situations that had he stuff of legends in them. Now it was every other week.

Recently, the Clan Lords drudged up the old tradition, they figured it was an easy way to get rid of an enemy. One of my uncles in my old Clan's court had been branded. He'd come home and an angry mob had beaten him to death before he could call for help. Never had the chance to meet dear uncle Eamon. Visited his grave once on the holiday, though. Pretty cemetery.

There wasn't much for religion in the old Clan, just tradition. If you saw a man with three marks burned into his eye, you got together with your friends, family, and anyone you could find and did your best to kill the bastard. Didn't even matter if he was from a different Clan. The Mark of Tway spanned Cernon as a death warrant. That was the point. Get the everyday people to do your dirty work for you.

Mjolnir took me to another tent the color of mustard that looked like it was ready to collapse. There were only a couple men in there, standing together in a tight circle speaking either Ost, though I didn't recognize the dialect, maybe Feline or Canine, or Oeste.

He sat me down in a hard wooden chair and spoke with one of them about me. They wanted to know how much Sood I knew.

I finally understood that they were translators. Vleugels Mathis had told me the Saber Ranks would be going south, and so far all the mercenaries I'd seen here spoke natural Nord.

The boss of them sat down in a chair opposite me. Heavy brass rings hung from his ears while thick tribal tattoos circled his oddly colored brow. I picked him for Clan Horse. His skin was the sallow color of old lemons. I had an uncle that color once. Not the dead one. Though, the yellow uncle did end up dying as well. I'd always wondered what made his skin turn yellow.

He said slowly in broken Sood, "What ist thou name?"

"My name is Grothanin," I replied shakily in the same language, though much steadier than the yellow man. "How are you today?" I returned.

The yellow man gave a high pitched laugh, his lined face breaking into an ugly smile. "I'm being good. You?"

"Fine, though I'm curious as to how much of a classical education you've had with the lingo. My mother's from the southern Clans and she wanted my brothers and me to have a good understanding of the language. They don't use the 'thous' and the 'thou arts' any more."

The yellow man looked at me funny. I had the feeling he'd only caught every third or fourth word.

"Slower," he said in an equally broken Nord. I wondered what his native tongue was. It didn't seem to be Nord or Sood, leaving Ost or Oeste. I was tempted to go with my first thought and say Horse just because it was closer to Magdar.

I repeated myself, albeit, slower than before and without the mild insult. Still, the yellow skinned man with his thick tribal tattoos and brass earrings didn't grasp what I was saying. He got the bare gist of it, but not enough to carry on a conversation.

He seemed frustrated by it, his underlings seemed equally unhappy. I got the feeling that they didn't speak any better than their boss did.

"May I ask your name?" I inquired in slow, basic Sood. Kept the words small, didn't want to get into linguistic tangles I saw not too far in my future.

"Gelb Haut," the yellow skinned man said uncomfortably. He waved his hand, signifying to Mjolnir to take me away.

"Who taught you the lingo?" Mjolnir asked later, highly amused.

"My mother's from Shark," I muttered.

"But not you," Mjolnir stated. "Makes me a bit curious about you, don't it?" He looked at me expectantly.

I grunted in return. For some reason, I didn't feel like talking about home.