Necessary, Not Casual
By Eric Lewis
Linet was excited, though she knew she shouldn’t have been. Just a patrol, she told herself, it’s just another patrol. Except it wasn’t. Today was her turn up front, in the lead. Perrim had complained that fourteen was too young to be granted full privileges, to be a full member of the Heron King Rangers. But what did she know? The war had left the independent band of forest defenders severely undermanned, and such precious concerns seemed foolish to Linet. Besides, Aerrus had vouched for her readiness; that was what mattered. Linet stole a glance at her mentor while he strung his bow in the armory, nervous that she was being judged already. The man’s face was unreadable as always.
“Ready to head out?”
“I think so,” Linet answered. Her voice cracked just a bit, and she hoped to all the gods that that idiot Braygin hadn’t heard.
“Liar.” Aerrus jerked his chin behind Linet, where a full quiver of arrows leaned against the wall. “Yeah, you might need those. I mean, hopefully not, but maybe.”
“Crap…” Linet laced the quiver to her belt, red-faced, fingers fumbling awkwardly while a cruel chuckle taunted her.
“Shut up, Braygin,” Aerrus snapped, “unless you’d like to share the glorious story of your first up-front?” Silence. “Listen,” he said, laying a hand on Linet’ shoulder, “calm down. You know what to do, you’ve trained for it all your life. Hells, you fought in a war at a younger age than most of us did. This is child’s play, yeah?”
“I guess,” Linet said with a sigh. “I didn’t do much fighting though… never even killed an enemy.”
“Be thankful for that. Okay, you’re set. Once we step outside the Lodge you’re the boss. Lead on!”
The Lodge was a marvel of engineering, a stone hall hewn from underground caves with its own water source and ventilation system, all concealed from sight on the slope of a forested mountainside—the ideal secret base from which to prowl the Marchlands on the lookout for bandits, raiders, and associated riffraff. Linet frowned as she stepped from its hidden northern portal, feeling very exposed all of a sudden.
“Don’t be so glum,” said Aerrus, “patrol’s a small price to pay for freedom from what His Fluffy Grace the King calls the ‘ordered security of feudalism.’”
“Ordered security,” Braygin sneered as he hopped out of the narrow entrance into the noonday sun, “hah! I’d like to see any noble hooplehead just try and bend my knee—”
“Quiet,” said Linet with more confidence than she felt, “we’re in the open now. Run silent.” Aerrus gave her an approving nod, and they hunkered into a crouch and fanned out to leave no tracks on the ground as they went. They were six— half a sheaf, as they said— Aerrus, Braygin, Vander, Drissa, Athewen… and me, Linet thought. Couldn’t they have added someone close to my age? Though it was satisfying to be able to order Braygin around.
She’d chosen a patrol route that would take them past a nearby clearing, within sight of old Fort Nostrado, and only a quarter mile from Firleaf Ford. It was a route she’d followed many times, and as the afternoon wore on her mind began to wander. Thus it was with a great sense of shock that Linet stepped around a wide tree and came face to face with the stranger. It was a face that would haunt the rest of her days, as it turned out.
One look gave away the fellow’s station— he was grizzled, dirty and wild-eyed. A veteran most likely, an outlaw most definitely. Linet locked eyes with him for only a split second, but time enough for him to pull a knife and slash clumsily at the lanky girl. Linet stumbled back as the outlaw made a break for it.
“A-alarum!” Linet almost squeaked it as she tripped. “All, to me! Here!”
Out of the trees the others began to appear, blades and bows at the ready. From the clearing in front of him a woman equally disheveled stood with a rusty sword in hand. “You little wench,” she growled. “Teach you to sneak up on— Aargh!” An arrow appeared in her shoulder. Athewen charged the woman and locked blades with her own long knife. Vander appeared behind the woman and drew her blade across the woman’s throat, but not before Athewen took a slash to the arm, tripping over the loot strewn at their feet—an assortment of goods all freshly stolen from unwary travelers, no doubt.
By the time Linet shuffled back to her feet Aerrus’d arrived to punch her in the arm. “Hey, after the other! Be sure, the rest of the gang’s nearby.”
They chased the bandit down, his loud tramping through the woods an easy trail to follow. Drissa shot an arrow that missed but caused him to lose balance when it whizzed by. Linet slid to a halt to nock an arrow of her own. The man tumbled down a short incline to land on his rear in a muddy puddle. Linet had him in her sights; no one else did.
The man stood halfway, saw Linet’s arrow aimed straight at him. A beat.
“Shoot,” called Braygin, still a ways off. “Shoot him!”
The man shook his head, slightly. No. An intimate, pleading gesture no one else would ever have seen. Linet’ arm began to waver at the strain of holding the bowstring taut. Shoot, she ordered herself, what’s wrong with you?
Out of nowhere Aerrus materialized, tackling the outlaw back into the mud. Linet relaxed an aching arm while they wrestled. Aerrus came out on top, his victim spitting curses and arm twisted backward already tied to the other with a stretch of cord produced from somewhere. Linet skidded down the hillock to help, but it was already over. The others formed a circle around their captive, Athewen holding a bloody arm close.
“Alright, up. Get up!” Aerrus dragged the outlaw to his feet and tied a gag over his mouth lest he cry out to any others nearby. “I’d say we can cut patrol a bit short today. You agree?”
Linet was a moment realizing Aerrus was addressing her. “Uh, y-yeah, sure,” she stammered. “I guess so.”
Aerrus nodded to Athewen. “You hurt bad?”
The ill-tempered woman shook her head once. “Nothing can’t be stitched up. One more scar for the collection. But, can we go now?”
They made a straight line back to the Lodge, single-file. No one remarked on Linet taking the rearmost position, but Braygin spared a moment to turn back and smack her upside the head. “Nice going genius. Next time you get a clear shot you fraggin’ shoot, you hear me?”
“Braygin,” barked Aerrus from the front, “can it!”
Linet fell further back, wishing she were invisible, wishing she could erase all memory of the disaster that’d come of her first up-front. They’ll never promote me now…
“I’m actually not at all surprised,” said Aerrus between sips of mint tea. “It was bound to happen. Soldiers get used to taking what they want in wartime, then get cheated out of their pensions, can’t handle when peace returns… it was only a matter of time till they started infesting the Marchwood.”
“Hmm.” Perrim frowned for the hundredth time from the opposite end of the council table. Sunset’s twilight danced across her face, filtered through the waterfall that concealed the Lodge’s only window. The conference room was the most secure part of the Lodge, the Heron Kings’ sanctum sanctorum. But to Linet it now seemed more a prison, and she shifted uncomfortably on the bench set alongside the table. “And,” Perrim continued, “you think there are more lurking around?”
“No doubt,” replied Aerrus. “Only two, this far out here? No way. There are more nearby I’m sure. I say we put our captive to the question as to that.”
“Agreed.” She turned to Linet with a look of sympathy. “I’m sorry about all this. It was just supposed to be a plain old patrol. It’s my fault really, I knew you were too young— ”
“Ahem,” coughed Aerrus a bit too obviously. “Actually, I’d say just about the opposite!”
“It was Linet’s cool-headed forbearance that let us capture the rogue alive. Any information we get outta the man, credit it to her.”
Linet sat with dropped jaw, and Perrim eyed the pair with suspicion. “…if you say so.”
“I do.” Aerrus’ words had an air of finality that insisted the matter was closed. “Now, I think tonight’s as good a time as any for the promotion—”
Perrim waved them away. “Fine, fine! I’ll be there, just leave me alone for now— I have to arrange for the proper care of our, uh, ‘guest.’ Go, and send in Braygin.”
Only when the chamber door was shut tight behind them did Linet let out a nervous exhale. “Wow, thanks.”
Aerrus raised an eyebrow. “For what? Everything I said was true.”
“But… cool-headed? I froze! At the most important moment—”
“That’s one interpretation, and I don’t hold to it. Killin’ should never be casual, even when it’s necessary. Otherwise we’re just as bad as the lords out there in the world. I won’t have to worry about that with you.”
“But what if when it is necessary, and I can’t?”
“Better that than the other way ‘round. Listen, don’t worry now; tonight you get your sword and bow— relax and enjoy it!”
“Yeah, about that…” Linet looked at her feet, suddenly a bit nauseated. “I don’t know if I feel too comfortable with this…”
Aerrus let out a hearty laugh, clapped the girl on the back. “How you feel about it’s irrelevant. Get used to that. The others need this; been too long since the last one.”
“What’s going to happen to the bandit? Lin called him our guest, but I don’t think—”
“Look,” said Aerrus, leaning in close so his voice wouldn’t echo down the stone hallway, “he’s inside the Lodge now, so it’s a matter of internal security. Meaning it’s on a need-to-know basis, and you don’t need to know. Thankfully neither do I. Just try not to trip over your own feet tonight. Last chance you’ll get to make me look bad, so you better not!”
Linet knew the joke was meant to put her at ease but it didn’t, not really.
“We give up a lot to live like we do. We take no husband, no wife, we beget no children. We come from the orphaned, the unwanted, the forgotten. But while we live, we live free! We bend knee to no one on this earth. We let the world alone and the world lets us alone, and when it doesn’t we strike, in a chain unbroken for two hundred years. Tonight, we’ll forge a new link in that chain. Linet!”
“Get your ass up here.”
Laughter rippled through the crowd. Linet shoved past her fellows who took great delight in hindering her progress. Overhead two crescent moons shone weakly through the trees, and the Antabolid meteor shower that presaged the end of summer. They’d gathered in a grove just outside the southeast portal illuminated by a few peripheral fires, and Linet couldn’t help but notice how thin the attendance was. Aerrus was right; the war had taken its toll. Please don’t let me screw this up too, she prayed as she approached Perrim. She held up the instruments, just like they’d practiced.
“What are these?” Perrim’s voice seemed to boom through the trees.
Linet cleared her throat and took a breath. “A sword, ma’am, and a bow.”
“Your sword and bow?”
“No ma’am. They belong to my brothers and sisters.” Except Braygin, Linet thought privately, screw that guy.
“Then why should I give them to you?”
“Because…” Even now she found it hard to say the words, still feeling very much the charlatan. “…because, I am a Heron King! My skill and loyalty are proven by service, by judgment. I live and die for my fellows and they for me.”
“Is this true?”
Aerrus stepped forward and gave a shrug. “Well…” More laughter. Linet shot him a terrified glance, and Aerrus grinned. “Yeah, sure. It’s true.”
Smartass. “Give me my weapons! I’ll put them to good purpose.” Yeah, right.
“Then come take them.”
Linet had checked weapons out of the armory many times then dutifully put them back later, unused. To be given a set of her own for as long as she lived, well, that was a very different thing. She’d chosen a bow of simple but fine manufacture—yew with ramshorn nocks, much like the one Perrim had carried during the war before being broken in a battle. The sword was short and of the old leaf-shaped style like the one Aerrus carried. Linet reached out with quivering hands…
“Gone!” The wild howl made her jump, made everyone jump. Heads turned as one toward the disturbance, and Vander appeared out of the darkness to fight his way to the center of the gathering. “He…he’s gone!”
“Who,” demanded Perrim, eyes blazing fire at the interruption, “Who’s gone?”
“The prisoner, the bandit,” Vander said between heavy breaths. “We were taking him for interrogation, and he surprised Kordd. Broke ‘is nose! There weren’t many guards cause of, well,” he spread his hands to encompass the gathered. “He just ran straight out the front door.”
“Gods curse it all,” spat Aerrus, “if he tells his buddies where we are…”
“After him,” ordered Perrim, “now, go! Everyone!” Like a hive of hornets suddenly roused to anger the crowd broke.
“But where? Which way?”
“The same direction he fled the first time I’d wager,” said Aerrus, “but… I don’t remember exactly which way that—”
“I do,” blurted out Linet. “I know exactly, I’ve been there—”
“Then lead the way.” Aerrus grabbed the bow Perrim still held and pressed it unceremoniously into Linet’s hands. “Let’s go!”
They flitted through the night forest like bloodthirsty fairies, still remarkably silent for all the haste. Linet ducked around trees, hopped over rocks and logs as the evening wind whipped through her hair. At some point she became aware of Athewen running awkwardly next to her, arm bound to her side with bandages.
“Here,” Athewen huffed while holding something in her other hand. “Carried it… out of habit… no use to me now!” It was her arrow quiver. Of course. Linet had been in such a hurry she’d forgotten, once again, to take arrows.
“T-thanks,” she answered, grabbing the leather tube and tucking it under one arm. Athewen fell back while the others charged downhill, past the place where Linet had first stumbled upon the outlaws, then past the place where she’d failed to shoot…
And all at once Linet realized where they were headed. There was an old priory of the Polytheon near where the hills met the river, long abandoned by the brothers. The perfect hideout for bandits. Linet had often played there when she was younger, back when there’d been time for more than training, and patrols, and wars. Close now.
When the crumbled tower of the priory was visible in the moonslight above the trees Linet halted and held up a fist. Without thinking about it she spread her palm parallel to the ground, then knelt straight down as she’d seen Aerrus do so many times before. Like magic, a dozen or so shadowy forms behind him followed suit, obedient to the command. That can’t be right, a little voice in her head insisted, there’s been some mistake. Get to the rear! Yet she kept advancing forward, concealed by undergrowth.
They surrounded the priory, and hushed voices could be heard coming from inside. Through a low broken window the dull glow of fire flickered. Aerrus crept up next to
Linet crouched behind the remains of a courtyard wall and whispered, “Good work! I’ll take half a sheaf inside, you stay with the others and watch the perimeter.”
“Right,” answered Linet, drawing an arrow and nocking it to her new bow. Suddenly her hand began to shake again, just a little.
“Listen,” said Aerrus, “you know what we have to do here. They cannot be allowed to tell anyone about us—”
“I know! I know.”
Aerrus nodded. “Alright then.” He motioned to five others, and as one they burst across the priory courtyard. A shape appeared in the upper window of the tower, and a dark streak lanced down to skewer whoever was unfortunate enough to be last in line through the ankle. Almost immediately a handful of shots flew through the trees at the window, and a scream echoed back. Aerrus and the others stormed the front door, and more screams followed.
From what Linet could hear, the numbers inside might have been even but it was no even match. In a matter of seconds a handful of angry shouts were cut short. Finally a single figure tumbled out the broken window, flailing wildly. Linet raised her weapon. But…was it friend or foe?
Others decided for her as five or six arrows again converged on one place, and the well-ventilated man collapsed. Another came charging out the door in pursuit, but even in the dark Linet recognized the unmistakable outline of Braygin’s shaved head and goatee. It’s over, Linet thought. It has to be if—
“Aargh!” Braygin cried out, reached around at his back where something had lodged itself. A small throwing hatchet, it looked like. Braygin sank to his knees, and a third man came out of the priory. Linet knew this fellow very well, better than most— it was the bandit who’d been the cause of it all. How had he survived the fight? No matter. Linet stood fully, her arrow trained on the outlaw’s chest while the others were yet reloading. The bandit locked eyes with Linet once again, sneered with contempt, and raised a blade to finish Braygin off.
Linet didn’t remember shooting, didn’t remember any conscious decision to do so. One moment the arrow was resting snug in front of her bowstring, and the next it was buried in the man’s torso. Nor did she know how long she stood there after it all really was over, only that at some point Aerrus tugged on her sleeve, ordering her to help bear their wounded home.
“It…” she started to say, then faltered.
“It wasn’t anything like I expected. I didn’t even think about it— wasn’t hard, wasn’t easy, it just… was.”
Aerrus nodded. “And necessary, but not casual. Like I said, I won’t need to worry about you. Consider this official permission to trust your instincts.” He made a hand gesture mocking the Polytheon’s benediction.
“I still feel like crap about it.”
“Good, that’ll make you a good leader one day. But like I said, how you feel about it’s irrelevant. One upside—Braygin owes you his life now.”
Linet smiled. “I hadn’t thought of that!”
“Come on, let’s go.”
“What about my promotion,” Linet asked Aerrus as they made their way back toward the Lodge, Braygin moaning profanities atop an improvised stretcher carried between them. “Will we have to do that nonsense ritual all over again?”
“Nah, it was finished the moment you took hold o’ the bow. Your bow. Bit unorthodox, but still counts I think.”
“Huh. I guess when it came down to it, I wasn’t nervous then either. Didn’t have the chance to be.”
“That’s how it usually goes. Welcome to the club; you sure as hells earned it.”
Linet gave an exaggerated shrug and in a mimic of Aerrus’ gruff voice said, “Well… yeah, sure. It’s true.”
Aerrus winced. “You’re gonna get me back for that, aren’t you?”
By day Eric Lewis is an organic chemist navigating the latest rounds of layoffs and learning how to be a person again after surviving grad school. He’s currently assaulting the fortress of trying to get his first novel published. His short fiction has been published in Nature, Electric Spec, Allegory, Devilfish Review, the anthologies Into Darkness Peering, Chronos and Best Indie Spec Fiction Vol 1, and other venues detailed at https://ericlewis.ink/.