The Seventh Guard
A story from the history of Ayinchirr.
They were the Seventh Guard, not the elite of the army, no, not by any stretch of the imagination, but hardly the casting-offs of the other Guards. Solid, reliable troops, not as creative as the Third or as powerful as the First, but they never faltered, even when they'd been faced by three companies of the Chirrum. And that was due to the fact that very few of the Seventh Guard had anything to return to, once the Ayinha would finally win the war or collapse from the costs of maintaining thirty years of aggression. They'd come from the slums of Tal Eilum, the back alleys of Tal Eidri, from Kir Teldran and Kir Felsar and the hundreds of smaller, unknown towns that covered the Ayinha territories. Why else would they be unafraid to clamber into the steepest breaches, to fight vastly unnumbered, to confront any danger?
Well, almost any danger.
Ejnar, Sergeant Major and occasional brevetted Captain, stood just outside the gates of Kir Teldran, leaning on his spear with an expression usually reserved for those about to be hung. Twice a year, his Guard passed through this neighbourhood. Ten chances. Yet only now, when age and wounds had forced him to take two moon's leave from the Seventh Guard, had he dared even to consider walking through those gates.
He didn't want to. None of the Seventh wanted to, not even those who had lived there originally. Every time one went on leave, or when they marched past Kir Teldran, they would look at one another, wishing that one of them would go and do the duty, but none wanted to. But he was Ejnar, Sergeant Major, and if the latest Captain wouldn't do it, then the duty fell to him.
Five years was long enough. It needed to be done. He drew a deep breath, and walked through the gates.
The Ayinha-Chirrum war was nothing new. Ever since the Chirrum and Ayinha had crossed over the Hal Draketh Mountains, they'd fought. Fought for the land controlled by the Ragne, fought for the ocean coast that would bring trade of copper and gold, fought for the sheer sake of fighting, until they were compared to the Tevarii of the east. Not true, of course: The Tevarii were all insane. And though the Ayinha might have liked to call their ages-old foes mad, it would have suggested that they were unable to defeat someone who was insane, and that would never do. There was a treaty, once, that lasted almost a decade, but no one had ever dreamed that it would last that long. And then it was broken, though no one knew which side had done so, and the Huntress Queen Aidana led the Ayinha back to war. This was the thirtieth year of that war. It had lasted longer than many of the Seventh Guard had been alive.
Ejnar could remember, vaguely, a time before the war. He'd been born the second child in as many years, the population shooting upwards as the hundreds of men taken away by the war returned to their homes and found partners. His father, doubtful that any peace could last very long, took it upon himself to train his children for war and, as though he were a prophet, the war resumed a little after Ejnar had turned eight, dragging him back to the ever-shifting borders. Yet since his father had insisted that it would continue, Ejnar was baffled as to his mother's surprise. He'd said it would happen, hadn't he?
And, like so many of those who lived in the major cities of the Ayinha territories, Ejnar joined the army at fifteen, marching to the borders to protect a country he didn't particularly care about. The pay was good enough, and there was food and usually shelter, two bonuses over many of the jobs that would have awaited him back home. Now, there was very little that could have convinced him to leave the army. The army was home, a place where he'd made Sergeant by twenty-three and Sergeant Major by twenty-seven, dancing up occasionally to Captain before someone noticed and put him back in the ranks. It was where he could find all those he had grown up with, who he'd run into battle with time and time again, with whom he'd shared stories of home and dreams that stretched beyond a good pair of boots and a warm breakfast the next day.
None of the Seventh would forget Dorell any time soon.
He wound his way through the streets of Kir Teldras, his thin boots alerting him as to when the streets turned from packed earth to stone to wooden planks. He sighed—the boots had been well-soled when he'd lifted them off the body of a dead Chirrum soldier last year, but constant marching was awful on them, and the army was stubborn about paying for new boots only once every five years.
Five years. Two chances every year. Ten chances.
After seeing the same shop sign for the third time, he entered instead, deciding to get directions before his already shaky resolve could falter. The roof over his head made him nervous of blood and fire magic attacks manifesting next to him, as they so often did in forts, and the close quarters had him looking around warily, uncertain as to who or what might cause a threat.
"Back from the border?" the man behind the counter asked sympathetically. A closer look revealed that he was missing his left arm—a veteran. "Don't recognize the crest, though. Fourteenth?"
"Seventh. Can you tell me how to get here?"
The shopkeeper's expression softened even more upon seeing the solemn grey parchment the name was written on. "No. But if you were to go to Kaven's Seat, I'm sure someone would know. Probably somewhere to stay, too. Third street on your right, then straight to the square. Can't miss it."
"Leave's nearly over. But thanks."
"We soldiers have all got to stick together. All the Queen's Lords will have us for dinner, elsewise."
The comment reached him just as he was walking out the door, and he stiffened. Dorell had said that, too, or something close enough to it that it made no difference years later.
Five years. Ten chances. All wasted.
Dorell was, first and foremost, an oddity in the Seventh Guard. Most were there because there was food and warmth, which was better than most jobs, but it wasn't really much of a choice. Food and a chance at death or cold and humiliation for what wasn't their fault? Easy decision. But Dorell's father was one of those rare men whose job was vital for the continuation of the war, a cartographer that they couldn't risk falling into enemy hands. He could have continued in his father's trade, but a strange sense of duty, combined with the more understandable motivation of wanting to be able to marry later on, had sent him to a recruiting center to pick up a spear and haversack.
As though the recruiters communed about those they had brought to the army before placing them, all off those men who were slightly odd somehow made their way to the newly formed Seventh Guard, under the sometimes brilliant, usually bizarre Major Leris. Though he couldn't remember the incident that had sparked the conversation—Dorell would have remembered, but he was strange like that—he could repeat the words from memory.
"Enjar. I've got a question for you. What's the best place for a spear?"
A flash of a grin, more suitable for a meeting of friends than a training hall. "In a Chirrum, of course."
And all around them, similar questions and jokes being made, glee at finding someone who knew their hometown, delight at being able to compare quirks of former trades with someone else that had been thus trained, the ties that brought them from a hundred raw soldiers to the Seventh Guard. From an assortment of strangers to a tight-knit group that could, on a moment's notice, recite ten people who needed new boots, the last man to lose a spearhead in battle and who'd helped them back to the physician's tents the last time they were injured in battle.
After the battle of En Kelsar, throughout which the Seventh Guard had held the fort against four companies of Chirrum and the Blood and Fire mages that accompanies them by picking and choosing which of Major Leris's commands were more genius than insanity and sheer determination, they'd sprawled across the battlements. It was dark, for they still flinched at any sight of fire, but at least they'd been immune to the sight of having their unwary companions begin to spurt blood due to a Blood spell. That was common enough. Yet this time, Queen Aidana had come down from Tal Eilum to set up shields against the mages of the Chirrum, and they'd cheered her with the bizarre mixture of energy and exhaustion that came after a day of hard fighting.
Dorell, tightening the screws that held his spearhead in place, stared out over the battlements, eyes haunted as he watched the faint fires that marked the camps of those who'd accompanied the Queen. The Queen herself had chosen to stay in darkness, though whether from exhaustion or respect, none knew.
Ejnar spat over the battlements. "They're done for. They've not got a Huntress on their side."
"A Huntress can be matched with enough Mages, though. And a Huntress cannot guard against everything."
"We're paid to take care of the rest." Ejnar, currently a brevetted captain, though he knew the rank would soon be stripped, fumbled at his belt and then pulled forth a water skin. "Brandy?"
He accepted the offer gratefully, taking a swallow before tugging a clumsily made chain off his neck. "Look." The dim light provided by the half moon was enough for the captain to see that it was a locket, and the picture within. "Her name's Selene. She's promised me we'll be bonded next time I have leave time. I think I'm owed enough that she should be able to start a small shop to support herself."
"She's pretty," Ejnar said uncertainly, too tired and too long away from his last leave to remember just what it was that he looked for in a girl, or whether it really mattered at all. "And she's waiting for you?"
A flash of a grin. "She told me she'd wait till the day she returned to the Hunt Lord."
"Lucky." Was that lucky? Maybe, maybe not. Ejnar considered it to be enough that he had the brandy, and another skin somewhere else. "But then you have to come back for her."
"I'll meet her again no matter what. Even if I have to stay with the Hunt Lord for an eon before she comes to him."
"Huh. Well, if you do meet him that soon, ask him to do something about those damn Chirrum mages."
"Thought Aidana was doing that for us."
"Shush. You're still thinking. Have some more brandy."
It was the opposite of En Kelsar, a vicious fight for a small Chirrum fort, the back half of which was impossible to attack due to the Hal Draketh Mountains it rested in. As before, spells flew thicker than arrows as the ground buckled and twisted beneath the attackers, the defenders, if the mages spoke truly, finding their water had turned to blood or arrows were burnt in half. Queen Aidana was absent from the spell casting, for she and her Mage siblings were involved in a vicious feud to the south with the mages of the Chirrum, and the Guards took heart from this. There could have been more magic going on.
During a lull in the fighting, they hurried to collect their salvageable wounded and to deliver mercy killings to those gut-wounded and, in some cases, to collect a new pair of boots, although that usually waited until after the fight had been decided. Dorell was helping Ejnar limp back to the physicians' tents as the two men compared the wound in the now Sergeant Major's leg to others they had seen, speculating on the likelihood of it gong putrid or even being amputated. A man hurried past them in the opposite direction, an odd black cloth wrapped about his forearm.
"Bond-slaves." Dorell spat in the man's direction. "Cowards don't even have the courage to run back to the Ayinha. What do they think would happen to them? If you're ever captured, Ejnar, promise me you'll escape. No person, not even one as useless as you, deserves to be bound like that."
"Of course I will." He pretended to consider. "Although you might be useless enough to be left with them, Captain."
"I should leave you here." But he wouldn't, of course, just as he wouldn't keep the title of brevetted captain any longer than Ejnar would.
The next day, a series of spells on behalf of both sides made it impossible to tell who was who. The soldiers, in the mutual sort of decision-making that fueled the Seventh Guard one Major Leris had provided them with their options, stopped fighting and helped one another out of the cloud of spells. Staring wide-eyed at the destruction that their mages had wrought, Ayinha and Chirrum stood side by side, feeling very small.
Somewhere within it all, Dorell disappeared.
Five years ago. Twice a year, as they marched up and down the border, the Seventh Guard passed by Kir Teldras, but none wanted to go into the city. They all knew something about Dorell, be it his face or the fact that he always had new boots, or even if they'd simply helped him back to the main body of the army once. It didn't matter. None of them were prepared to tell his wife that he was dead.
Ejnar made it to Kaven's Seat and, after some questions and some glowering and repeating that he was a Sergeant Major, thank you very much, found out where he could find Selene. But when he finally left the bar, well fortified with brandy that would find welcome back with the Guard, it was to leave the town. He couldn't do it.
But as he walked back to the gate, his step faltered. Hunt Lord take them all, Selene. Standing right there by the gate, staring right at him. He swallowed hard and approached her, a small voice in the back of his mind chanting, Get out of here, get out of here, get out of here, getoutofherenow!
"Excuse me, Sergeant," she asked, voice hesitant. "Would you happen to be of the Seventh Guard? I'd heard that they were passing through, but I'm never sure if Dorell will be coming home for an evening or not."
He could feel the words welling up within him, stumbling over the two glasses of brandy he'd consumed in the past half hour before finally making it onto his tongue, where they waited to leap out and pounce. A lie? Or the truth? Which would hurt her less… And him, too.
"Ejnar! You'd best not be lying to my wife about me!"
The world collapsed around him in half an eye blink, to be built back up in the next half. Dorell, a bit worn looking but nothing worse than a battle might explain, stood at the gates. Selene beamed at him, beautiful, radiant, and kissed him.
"Are you coming home for supper?"
"No." She looked disappointed, which Dorell quickly covered with another kiss. "Ejnar's covering for me. I'm supposed to be looking for him, see? Just wanted to see you, dear."
"Come back soon."
The Seventh guard stared at Dorell, then quickly adapted to the fact with nothing more than a few words from Ejnar. "He's back. Deal with it." And they would.
"Nice spear," the Sergeant Major noted glibly.
Dorell grinned. "Course. The Chirrum was too busy keeping mine warm, so I thought I might as well take his." He stared at the fire and took a swig of brandy. "It isn't fun being a bond-slave, Ejnar. But it isn't impossible to escape."
Not if you have something to escape for, Ejnar thought. But he wouldn't say that. Maybe even a child from the back-alleys of Tal Eilum had something to escape for, be it love or friendship, or even the Seventh Guard.
Maybe that was all anyone needed.
A/N: The Seventh Guard was one of twenty-four Ayinha Guards, compromised of roughly three hundred men each, a remarkable number for the time. Under the eccentric Major Leris, they became one of the backbones of the Ayinha army, until two years after Dorell's return, when over two hundred of them were made into bond-slaves. Led by Dorell, Ejnar and, remarkably, Leris, the Seventh Guard led all of the bond-slaves in a mass exodus that drastically weakened the Chirrum forces.
Less than three moons later, upon the death of her eldest son, Queen Aidana made the transition to Sister of the Blood and destroyed the magical and royal frame of the Chirrum empire, leading to the Ayinha victory. As a small token to the angry Chirrum populace, she renamed her nation Ayinchirr, the name which remainsto the present. The Seventh Guard, on the other hand, does not, although they have been forever immortalized in the game Queen and Shadows, where they serve powers they have no reason but loyalty to care about. And, perhaps, each other.