"I did hope that you would react exactly as you did," Farrin admitted smugly. Keziah sat in front of him in his office, an untouched drink on the table beside her. The look she gave the rebel Commander was pure venomous hate.
"I could have killed someone," she muttered sulkily. "I would have, given the chance."
"But the gun wasn't loaded, as you found out." the man said placatingly.
"What's that got to do with anything?" Keziah wanted to know. "I could have broken their necks, strangled them, smashed their heads in with the weapon…and then three men would have died for your little game, your childish tricks."
"I do realise that now," Farrin admitted ruefully. "The idea behind Givlin's little charade was to see how well you could fight. I knew you couldn't be completely defenceless from some of the things you told us before, and curiosity drove me to find out exactly how far your skills stretched. And a wise man once told me that real character is exposed only at the point of death. Though your character, Keziah, is a little more dangerous than we bargained for."
"You condescending bastard," the girl spat. "I put three men in the sick-bay so that you could see my character."
"I thought I had covered the possibility of defeat by putting three of my best fighting men on your case," Farrin sighed. "Sadly, it seems I underestimated."
"Those are your best fighting men?" Keziah snorted in disgust. "I'm surprised you've lasted this long against the army."
"Unarmed combat is our weakness." The admission was made unwillingly, painfully. "And this is where you come in."
"What do you mean?"
"Well, as you so eagerly pointed out you did put my three best fighting men in hospital. For that, you must pay."
"Well make sure you give the executioner a loaded weapon this time."
"That's not what I had in mind," Farrin objected. "I want you to assist Givlin while his arm heals."
Keziah stared, opened her mouth to object, closed it again, stared some more.
"You're joking," she said finally, as if that were the only conclusion she could come to.
"Far from it."
"You want a fourteen-year-old girl to take charge of your army." Even as she said it, Keziah was hit by the ludicrous nature of the request.
"Alongside Captain Givlin, yes."
"An army trainee…who you were going to have executed because of it."
""A criminal, wanted by the CSOs for murder."
"Quite possibly, but I am also the best leader and tactician this motley band of rebels has ever had leading them. I know talent when I see it."
"But how do you know I'm not a spy?"
"Because I know everything about you," Farrin replied easily. "Spies have quiet backgrounds that are hard to verify. They try to appear normal and harmless, sliding into your lives under the radar until they are close enough to stab you in the back. It took me just three calls to verify your entire story and get your complete background. You've made no effort to get on my good side, no effort to join my organisation, no attempts to extract information about me or anyone else here. In a nutshell, Keziah, those are the exact credentials I require in an employee."
"Maybe those were my instructions, my mission."
"Not even the army would use the death of a CSO to buy their way into my favour. Or sanction the burning of a large inner-city apartment block and the hi-jacking of an official CSO vehicle to create a plausible excuse for leaving the academy. To be honest, Keziah, your life is just so crazy I have no choice but to believe it."
"I might still betray you. Academy trainees must have some ideas of patriotism to join the army in the first place."
"You could," Farrin shrugged, "But by doing that you'd be giving yourself up at the same time. You'll be doing almost as much time in prison as your psycho-murderer academy friend. And I thought the whole point of all this was to rescue said friend. Somehow I don't think joining him in prison would exactly satisfy your needs."
Cornered, Keziah sat back and regarded him through thoughtful eyes. He did seem to know an awful lot, and yet he couldn't know the biggest thing about her or he would shoot her himself there and then. Her parents, her childhood, her true nationality, that was still a secret.
"If you know about Kiv, then you know I won't stay here and leave him to rot in prison."
"You'd prefer to wander aimlessly through the mountains and deserts in the vague hope of finding a labour camp on the off-chance it might be the right one so that you can plan an outrageous rescue attempt with absolutely no resources or man-power." Farrin was making her sound unbalanced, and Keziah had to admit there was something in his opinion that wasn't entirely untrue. But there was something in his voice that made her think he wanted to deal.
"What's the alternative?" she asked cautiously.
"Stay here and work for me until your friend Tam is fully fit and my Captain is back in one piece. Train my army in unarmed combat for three months and assist in any missions, give us the full benefit of your experience and give me absolutely no reason to doubt your loyalty, and I promise I will help you locate and rescue your friend."
Keziah held his gaze, looking for the usual hesitation or awkwardness that could be concealing a lie, but found nothing to fuel any doubt. He was serious about everything. He thought he could learn enough from a scrawny teenager to outweigh any reservations he had about her affiliation with the army.
"What changed you mind about me?" she asked.
"You didn't hesitate," Farrin said quietly. "You would have killed Givlin without a second thought, and that's not something they teach at the academy. There's more to you than meets the eye, and I think its something that could be of use here."
He watched the girl consider his proposal, mull over the reasons he had given, and finally come to a conclusion.
"Deal," she said.
"You what?" Tam didn't sound exasperated or angry, merely confused. As if he didn't understand how events had progressed so far as to make Keziah acting captain of a rebel army while he had been asleep. To be fair, he had only been lucid for a few hours. It had taken a long time for the effects of the poison to finally lose their hold on the boy, but now his eyes were clear and his temperature normal and he could swallow liquids past his abused throat without too much trouble.
"I didn't think I had much of a choice," Keziah said patiently, not wanting to explain the whole thing yet again. "Despite everything he stands for, Farrin is my best chance of finding Kiv. We just have to keep our heads down and behave here for a couple of weeks, and it'll all be over."
"He threatened to kill me," Tam objected. "He said…he said he usually killed soldiers on sight but in my case he would wait until I was strong enough to walk to the execution chamber under my own steam." He looked thoroughly disconcerted by his ordeal, and Keziah tried not to appear too impatient with him. It wasn't his fault he didn't know how close to actual death his friend had been the previous day. Farrin hadn't just threatened her with words; he or one of his men had put a gun to her head on several occasions.
"He thought you were the enemy," she explained. "Now I've convinced him otherwise he's even got me working for him. All I need you to do is relax, recover your strength, and try not to do anything…stupid."
"But you can't captain an army…you don't know how." Tam wasn't usually this bluntly honest, and Keziah put it down to the medication. Usually she would have appreciated the lack of tact, as it was how she herself operated, but this time she wished he'd shut up. Because the truth was, she had no idea what she was doing.
"Captain Givlin would rather not see you yet," Farrin said apologetically. "He's still in a lot of pain." Keziah fully understood the man's reluctance to speak to the girl who had snapped his arm, tried to kill him, and then, to top it all, nicked his job. Givlin hadn't seemed like the kind of man who would be kept in bed by a broken arm for more than two days, no matter how painful it was.
"I understand, sir," she muttered, trying to appear confident. She was at that moment standing by the doctor's side in front of what she assumed was a large proportion of the rebel population gathered in an unfriendly crowd in the main cavern. This was supposed to be where Farrin introduced her to her future soldiers and they greeted her with open arms and accepting smiles. Handshakes all round. Right now, however, they were sending her highly-concentrated vibes of hatred and suspicion, bordering on death threats. Very much like her class back at the academy in her first year, in fact.
"My loyal warriors!" Farrin roared, in battle-field tones that carried throughout the entire cave system. The crowd snapped to attention as one, any unpleasant mutters dying away instantly. "May I introduce you to the newest addition to our army: Keziah Vaia!"
Keziah felt her cheeks grow even hotter under the intense scrutiny she was being subjected to, and battled with the growing desire to run. Many years ago, times she struggled to remember and when she still had parents, she had been outgoing and confident, happy to be the centre of attention and with a never-ending selection of opinions to share. Events had changed her into someone who fought through life, not even considering other ways of growing older. She craved anonymity, felt safest in the dark, shied away from anyone who tried to get to know her. With hundreds of pairs of eyes now trained on her unblinkingly, she felt the familiar defiant aggression rise up into a well-honed shield around her, ready to strike at any moment. Unfortunately Farrin decided not to allow her any physical outlet for the fear she was hiding. Instead he invited her to give a speech.
She was about to decline, but realised that it was a trap she couldn't escape. Any refusal would contradict the Commander, would make their united front seem weak and untenable. People would think they could get away with hurting her without incurring much wrath from their beloved leader, and Keziah didn't need that added distraction. So, with her heart pounding and her palms sweating, she took to the stage desperately trying to pretend she was Commander J Suze addressing an academy full of first years. She didn't need their respect - just their obedience.
"I'm taking over from Captain Givlin while he recovers from his injuries," she began, flinching at the pathetic high-pitched squeak of a voice that she heard bouncing off the stone walls surrounding her. Not Suze-like at all. "You might think I'm young and inexperienced, but I know how to fight. As far as I'm concerned that's all that matters, and it should be the same for you. Work hard for me, and no one gets hurt. That's all." She turned to Farrin with the last two words, and saw him watching her with amusement.
"You haven't done any lessons at the academy on public relations or motivational speaking, have you?" he sniggered as his disgruntled army dispersed with justified anger and bitterness.
"Not something I ever thought I'd need," the girl said bluntly, and followed the commander to his cabin. "When do I start with the training?"
He gave her the first group within the hour, understanding her need to keep busy. They were slightly above-average soldiers, not elite but far from useless, able to withstand a fair amount of physical stress. They lined up in what was known as the training cave, a large, high-ceilinged space with a deep underground lake at the furthest end from the entrance tunnel. It was lit by yet more fluorescent lamps, but the heat they gave off did little to combat the coolness that spread across from the freezing water.
Keziah hid a shiver, and led her troops in an energetic warm-up routine that she knew always had her sweating by the end. It also gave her chance to watch how the men and women moved, how flexible and agile they were, what range of muscle strength they possessed among them, and how relaxed they would allow themselves to become. She wasn't surprised to see that they were about as relaxed as a collection of breeze-blocks; she knew they were only putting up with her for the moment, and only because of her apparent closeness to Farrin.
"Let's start with a drill," she suggested, when her students stood panting in front of her. "If you drill something enough it'll become natural, and you won't have to worry about your mind going blank in a combat situation." She was pretty sure she had quoted Xienna word for word with that, and under the circumstances that didn't seem a bad tactic. The academy Kerita master must have, at some time, said everything Keziah could ever need to run some low-key self-defence class to a bunch of country bumpkins.
Her confidence growing, she demonstrated a basic strike and kick routine for them to practise in pairs. They did so without comment, and it soon became apparent that Givlin had been through something similar with them before. She changed it slightly after a few minutes, wanting to keep them on their toes, and went around the cave correcting and adjusting their techniques. A few seemed open to her suggestions; many did not. Several times she swung round and caught sight of a rude gesture that she hadn't been meant to see. Usually it was turned into a rather unorthodox stretch or punch to disguise the original intent, but after a while the insults became more blatant and aggressive.
"You," she barked finally, realising she would have to make a move soon or lose the pissing contest. The man she chose was the best of the group, over a foot taller than her and more than twice her weight. She had just tried to tell him that his footwork needed adjusting, but had turned back a moment later to find him staring with pure hate at her, not even bothering to hide contempt.
"Come here," she ordered, knowing he would disobey. Sure enough, he didn't shift a millimetre. The rest of the group stopped what they were doing with bloody-minded anticipation of what was obviously about to kick off.
"You think you know better than me," she snarled. "Then come the hell here and show me what you know." It was an open invitation and provocation mixed into one, a challenge that had to start with him making a concession with his first move. After an excruciatingly long two seconds he broke, moving towards her with an expression of unchecked anger in his face.
"I don't give a shit what Commander Farrin thinks you can do for us," he spat, closing fast. "To me you're still the enemy, an army brat who attacked Captain Givlin and who needs putting down before you cause any more damage to our army." He finished his sentence with a wild but powerful swing at her head. Keziah had been expecting it, reading his body language and muscle patterns perfectly, and merely ducked. It was a shame for him that all his weight was on his front foot and he couldn't halt the momentum sooner, because it made it the simplest thing in the world for Keziah to keep the movement going until it eventually graduated downwards and he hit the floor with a crunch. She had her knee in his back in an instant, and her wrist-bone forced into his throat a split-second later. She would struggle to hold such a colossal man if he decided to get up, but few people suffering from oxygen deprivation had much inclination to get up.
"Now listen to me," she said loudly, so that the whole room could hear. The strangle was coming on quickly, as she knew it would, and when he started to convulse she loosed her grip a little. She didn't want him passing out just yet.
"That punch wasn't bad," she continued. "It certainly had power behind it, good use of the hips there, and it would have been bang on target if I hadn't been expecting it. However, it wasn't particularly fast and you certainly broadcast what you were intending from several feet away." She tightened the strangle momentarily as he tensed his legs for an escape attempt, loosening it again when he relaxed again almost immediately. "You also need to work on your balance - you should be able to commit to an attack without cutting off all your escape routes, so if you miss, like you did, I can't use your momentum against you." She was on her feet again and prepared for the next attack before he realised she's let go. The man rolled into a foetal position on the floor, clutching his neck and gagging. His face had turned a nasty shade of blue, but as red was quickly replacing the pallour as she watched, Keziah wasn't too bothered. He would have bruises to remember her by, but no harm done.
"I know what I'm doing," she stated coldly, "and Farrin obviously thinks I can do it. I'm not asking you to trust me, I'm just surprised that some of you don't seem to trust your leader to know where the real threat lies. If he thought I was the enemy, he would have put a bullet in me without a moment's hesitation. You don't have to like me, but you sure as hell have to learn from me." With that, she turned and walked out of the cavern. They could have an early finish for their first training session. She could only hope that the physical demonstration would reinforce her words enough for them to put aside their differences.
She taught five classes that first day, from raw beginners to a group of mountain tribesmen who were trained warriors and taught her just as much of their unique style as she did of academy techniques. This last group seemed to have fewer prejudices about her background, and by dinner time they had built up a good working relationship.
"Sit with us," offered Shi-met, who seemed to be the leader of their little group, as they made their way towards the food buckets. Since she was still on the receiving end of far too many hateful glares from the other rebels, she accepted happily. They sat in a circle in the shadows thrown up by the fire pit, and ate the stew in a comfortable silence.
"You fight well," Gi-ann, the youngest of the group, said quietly as he set down his empty plate. Keziah shrugged; she knew that already. "The women of our tribe do not fight."
"Then how do they survive?" the girl retorted. Even Afuella, Dann's girl, had taken basic self-defence classes, and she was the most feminine girl Keziah knew.
"We take care of them," Gi-ann replied simply, as if it was obvious. "They are our treasures." This simple statement hit Keziah like a boot in the solar plexus. She tried to keep her face blank as she struggled to comprehend a concept that was so alien to her but which felt like it should be familiar, and knew by the way Shi-met leant towards her that she had failed.
"He is not criticising the way you fight," the man said softly, "just the ways of the world that mean you have to."
"That's the world I grew up in," Keziah said defensively, pulling herself together. "Where I come from, if a girl can't fight she dies."
"And where do you come from, exactly?" This question was thrown at her from another member of the group, a darker man called Ta-fai.
"So who is caring for your women while you are here?" Keziah deliberately and obviously changed the subject, holding Ta-fai's gaze until he looked away and gave up on an answer.
"There are seven of us here, and ten more warriors who went with our tribe. There are also other men who will fight if they have to - hunters and craftsmen."
"Went?" she questioned.
"Our camp was attacked by the military," Shi-met continued, his face dark. "We sustained many casualties. We lost some of our children. That is why I split the tribe; some of us stayed to help fight the enemy, and I sent the others away to the north to be safe."
"You're the leader of the tribe?" Keziah blinked in surprise as she realised.
"I am the headman, yes. You did not think it of me?"
"I did not mean to be rude," the girl said hastily. "I just assumed that you would stay with the tribe…defend your women."
"Members of my tribe were killed in the attack. I will not rest until the enemy is destroyed. There are others to look after my people. We have always pulled together in times of trouble, always survived by keeping to our roles and responsibilities. It is my responsibility to lead the offensive."
"But what if you are killed?"
"Then my son will take over. He is with the tribe now, defending them."
Keziah didn't really identify with some of their ideas, but Shi-met seemed to have everything planned out to his satisfaction. She looked around to find Gi-ann regarding her with concern in his deep brown eyes.
"Do you have no one to defend you?" he asked, his voice sad. "It is not good for women to be forced to fight. That is a failure of the men."
"That sounds more than old-fashioned," Keziah snapped, "it's archaic! I don't need any man to protect me, I fight my own battles. If I get myself into trouble, I should damn well be able to get myself out of it!"
"Gi-ann," the headman intervened, halting the words that the boy was about to utter. "Forgive my young warrior," he turned to Keziah again. "He speaks his mind, but means no harm. The way of life is very different here."
"People still fight and die," the girl said shortly, getting stiffly to her feet. "See you tomorrow."
Commander Farrin found her an hour later, sitting by Tam's bedside in silence. There was no tenderness or softness in the contours of her face as she watched him sleep peacefully, and his trained gaze picked out the tensed muscles in her back and arms that gave her constant readiness for combat.
"You ate well?" he asked softly.
"Yes, thank you," she muttered, standing swiftly to attention.
They made their way past the sleeping bodies that surrounded the glowing embers of the fire, and into Farrin's cabin. He crossed to the desk and brought out some form of alcoholic spirit that Keziah didn't recognise from the bottom drawer.
"Drink?" he offered, smiling when she shook her head and took the only other chair in the room. He poured himself a glass and sipped it as he settled into the seat behind the desk. "I'd have been devastated if you'd said yes," he joked. "There's precious few luxuries out here, and alcohol is very hard to come by. This is the very last of my supplies."
"How do you get your supplies?" Keziah asked curiously.
"Food and clothes we buy from local villages or hunt and make ourselves. Weapons and ammunition we steal from that army of yours."
Keziah looked away at this, uncomfortable at the indecision she had been feeling all day. "I was told at the academy that I would fight in whichever war my commanding officers decided I should. So I guess it's a good thing I've left the academy now, else I might have found myself on the other side of the valley in a couple of years."
"Is that not somewhere you secretly wish to be?" Farrin sipped from his glass with an air of careful nonchalance, as if the answer didn't matter to him at all.
"To be honest with you," Keziah sighed, "I don't know. When I first arrived here I was convinced that you were the enemy, but now I'm not so sure. You must have seen how little allegiance I have towards the academy, or you wouldn't have kept me alive."
"So if I asked you to participate in an attack against your fellow soldiers, you would?"
"I only care about finding my friend, and if that is the only way I am going to gain your support to help me with that, then so be it."
"A loud knock on the door ended Farrin's sentence prematurely, and he crossed to open it. A few muttered words were exchanged with the newcomer, before the commander looked apologetically over his shoulder at the girl.
"You'd better get some sleep," he suggested firmly. "I have business to attend to."