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A. Sparrow

  Chapter 8: Gondelfi’s Army

  Three months earlier, on the outskirts of Ubabaor …

  Not a wisp of cloud tempered the midday sun. A searing wind waggled a haze of glaucous foliage against Seor’s brow. She squinted uphill to the dry clump of shrubbery where Pana and Salin had vanished incommunicado, despite her clear insistence that they report back frequently. She worried it meant her ambush had been ambushed.

  The rest of her squad blended so completely with the terrain that Seor felt entirely alone, though she knew it would only take a whistle to generate their company. It was a simple power, command, but exhilarating nonetheless. That same authority, however, eroded her gut and sleep. She knew it would soon be put to use for purposes more serious than war games.

  Tired of waiting for naught, Seor rose and loped through the antelope grass towards the head of the gulch. Salin popped out of the shrubbery and waved her back down frantically. She dropped and crawled the rest of the way, finding Pana perched at the brink of a ledge, longbow slotted with a dummy arrow in his lap, Salin right behind him.

  “They’re coming!” said Salin.

  “Why didn’t you signal me?” said Seor, exasperated.

  “We did,” said Pana. “They’re walking right up the wash, just as you said they would.”

  Seor squeezed between her scouts and peered down the gully. She counted seven cadres walking down from the carriage road to the head of the wash. With crossbows lashed to their pack frames, they obviously expected no resistance.

  “Be right back,” said Seor, excitedly.

  She scurried back to her previous position and spotted Vul craning impatiently around the trunk of a gnarled thorn tree.

  “Bring. Them,” she mouthed and pantomimed.

  A subtle trill sounded from the thorn tree. Eight scouts appeared, heads bobbing across the wide swath of antelope grass. Seor slunk back to the edge of the gulch. Months of tactical humiliation at Iorgol’s whim were about to be vindicated.

  Seor had noticed in previous exercises how their trainers would retire up the gulch at midday for some unopposed relaxation after a vigorous morning of surprise attacks and ambushes. This time her band had beat them to their favorite spot, though getting there unseen had required some unauthorized traversing beyond the bounds of their training area.

  Across the valley, a dust cloud swept down the length of the main carriage road. Abruptly, it shifted its axis and propagated down the side track towards them.

  “Who’s coming?” Seor wondered out loud.

  Iorgol and his group stopped before the mouth of the gulch, then turned and doubled back to the road.

  “Damn it all! We almost had them.” Seor bit her lip. Heat flushed her face.

  Vul hustled up, looking crazed. “Why are we not attacking? Shoot them!”

  “They’re too far,” said Seor. “We won’t register enough hits for it to matter.” She took in a long, slow breath.

  The dust on the side track blew off, revealing an elegant, painted carriage drawn by four sturdy grey horses.

  Captain Iorgol held up his hand and called a halt to the exercise with a warbling yodel that carried far on the wind. He faced the plain where Seor’s squad was supposed to be practicing maneuvers against another band of scouts playing adversaries along with the cadre.

  “Everyone. Stay under cover, go back around the boundary,” Seor whispered.

  “Too late,” said Vul morosely. Ren was already traipsing straight down the gully.

  Seor had hoped to save the maneuver for another day. So much for that. Iorgol seemed quite amused by their appearance in the gully. His expression told her that he knew exactly what they had done, though he showed much less disapproval than she had expected.

  Iorgol stood with a supremely fine-dressed man, someone who would look out of place even in a large provincial town, never mind this no-mans-land of uncultivated savanna.

  “Comrade Seor, forward please,” said Iorgol. “You’ve been summoned by one of your Councilors.”

  “Me?” said Seor, shocked. “What have I done?”

  “Don’t worry, you’re not in any trouble,” Iorgol grinned. “This is Secretary Hermash. He works for Councilor Gondelfi.”

  The secretary took Seor’s dust-caked hands and greeted her, bumping shoulders as was the inland custom. He was finely groomed and very clean. She stared at his fancy slippers, the kind village folk who could afford such extravagance would save for the most special occasions. “Congratulations,” he said. “There’s to be a ceremony in your honor.”

  “In my what?” She wasn’t sure she had heard correctly.

  “You’re to receive a commendation for your actions in the Battle of Croega.”

  Seor racked her brain, confused. She couldn’t recall doing anything special. Had they mistaken her for someone else?

  “About time,” said Iorgol. “What has it been? Two years hence?”

  “But we lost,” said Seor. “Routed, in fact.”

  “Yes, but your unit escaped to fight again,” said Hermash.

  “Because we ran,” she blurted, laughing morbidly. “Saved our skins. That’s all it was.

  “Which … in light of what happened that day,” said Hermash. “Was remarkable. A remarkable accomplishment.”

  “Please. It wasn’t because of me. I just did my job. No more. No less.”

  “Seor, don’t argue,” said Iorgol. “Be gracious. Accept this honor. I’ve seen lesser deeds lead to even more acclaim.”

  “I don’t deserve this,” Seor insisted. “It’s embarrassing.” She took a deep breath and said no more. She would explain it all to the Councilor before plans advanced too far. It was all a mistake. She was no hero. More fiasco than battle, the Battle of Croega never deserved its moniker. She had succeeded in putting the incident out of her mind and didn’t enjoy being forced to remember.

  At Croega, the enemy had breached both flanks and about to completely encircle them. Seor had called the retreat in lieu of their fallen commander. Someone had to do it. It was only common sense. And it was good fortune that saved them more than anything. As they abandoned their position, the wind shifted and screened their retreat with smoke from a burning farmhouse.

  “Has the ceremony been scheduled?” said Iorgol. “We would be glad to adjust our training schedule so all the instructors and militias can attend. Seor is very special to us.”

  “It will happen soon,” said Hermash. “The Councilor will be discussing those details with her.” He motioned towards his carriage.

  Seor felt flabbergasted. “Me? Go in that?”

  “Please,” said Hermash. “After you.”