“Enter,” said Captain Sarovy in response to the knock at the door. It cracked open, and Lieutenant Linciard slipped in, giving an inquisitive look to Scryer Mako who still sat by the captain’s desk.
“Eh, you sent for me, sir?” said the big Wynd.
Sarovy nodded, and gestured to one of the other camp-chairs leaning against the wall. As Linciard picked it up and unfolded it, Scryer Mako started to rise. “If this is something personal…”
“It has to do with the recent altercations between certain of our soldiers,” said the Captain. “I would like you to remain here for perspective.”
“About us fighting with the Jernizen, is it?” said Lieutenant Linciard, perching on his seat with a wry smile.
“And the Corvishman, and the Darronwayn, yes.”
“I don’t know what to say, sir. It’s just a…” Linciard paused for thought, then shrugged helplessly. “It’s a Wyndish thing. Been going on forever.”
“What, fighting with everyone?” said Scryer Mako as she settled back into her chair.
“Heh. Wynds don’t like anyone, ma’am. Not even each other.”
“So I have gathered,” said Captain Sarovy, “and it does not please me that this trait is so widespread within Blaze Company. Nearly a sixth of the company is Wyndish, many of them officers, and they are easily second in disciplinary problems to the Trivestean soldiers. I include you among the troublemakers, Lieutenant.”
Linciard grimaced. “Specialist Weshker’s not trustworthy, sir. Not useful either, and his girlfriend… I don’t see why you—“
“Stop. I don’t want to hear another tirade.”
Ducking his head, Linciard said, “Sorry, sir. I guess I can’t help it.”
“So I’ve seen. I need to comprehend this, Lieutenant. I can’t have some of my best soldiers, my best officers, constantly at each other’s throats. What can be done to ease this?”
Linciard looked away, scratching at his short blond beard. “Honestly, sir, I can’t think of anything. It’s how we are. The way we were raised, I guess. Maybe it’s in the blood, even. All I know is that this is pretty calm for a bunch of Wynds all flung together who aren’t family.”
Sitting back in his chair, Sarovy said, “Explain.”
Linciard grimaced, then sucked in a breath. “Well, sir,” he said, “you’re from the far east—you and the scryer. And I know your two people don’t get along, but you’ve always been kinda over in the corner there, hissing at each other, fighting, just the two of you. Wyndon, well, it’s the one route from east to west, so we’ve always been smack in the middle of all the fighting, I guess.
“I think that’s why we don’t like any outsiders—from either side. Always coming in, trying to tell us what to do, trying to say they own us, only next month to have the other side stomp in and say we belong to them now. Under the Empire it’s been…all right, I guess, because we’ve been under just one rule for so long, but still we have people coming in from the east saying ‘do this’ and from the west saying ‘do that’ and we don’t like it.
“We don’t like being told what to do, sir. Maybe that’s why –all right, this is gonna sound weird but I think that’s why so many of us are in officer positions or else completely useless to the Army. Some of us can bend enough to obey but still be, y’know, independent-minded enough to run our own command without constantly having to pester our higher-ups. Lots of higher-ups like that, so those of us that can, uh, brown-nose well enough get promoted. The others get kicked out.
“I mean, it’s not the officers who’re causing the problems, right?”
“The officers, you included, have been more obstructive than directly problematic,” Sarovy confirmed.
Linciard grimaced. “Well, like I said, sir. Independent-minded. It’s not a trait we can really act upon back home, so maybe that’s why it comes out so much here. I mean… You know Wyndon is all divided into baronies, and all the baronies bow to the king, who in turn bows to the Emperor. The barons, they have total control over the land and people in their territory, and they like to exercise it, and of course that breeds discontent, but it’s sort of a vicious circle, because…
“Well, because we have a long history of overthrowing our barons. Or attacking other baronies. Or just plain attacking our neighbors. Sometimes it seems like we don’t even know why, just suddenly they’re logging a tree too close to our border or we can hear their stupid singing from our cottage or…” He shrugged helplessly. “So the barons know they need to keep a short leash on us, otherwise we’ll just foment ourselves into some kind of craziness, but we feel that short leash and think the barons are out to get us, which makes us talk behind their backs and start plotting…”
Sarovy arched a black brow. “Yes, you had mentioned your people’s problems with their own nobility. You had not mentioned this…spiral of tensions though.”
Linciard shrugged again. “I can’t explain it, sir. Maybe it’s like territory, or… All right, here’s a thought.” He sat forward, gesturing as he spoke. “So our ancestors came from Jernizan before it was Jernizan, right?”
“The Altaeran Empire?” said Scryer Mako.
“Yeah. Back in the days just after the Drowning of Lisalhan and the rise of the Rift. So Altaera stretched from the Border Forest at the west end of Jernizan all the way here to the Rift, covering Averogne and Illane to about….Bahlaer, I think. But they wanted the rest of the north. And the empire in the east, um…”
“Ruenwyn,” Scryer Mako supplied.
“Sure. The empire in the east was all spiritist back then. No mages, no gods. I guess they’d driven all the godfollowers north and west along with the ogres. Anyway, Altaera decided this meant the east was easy pickings, because Altaera had tons and tons of mages. They had the whole Silent Circle on their side.”
“Back when we were stationed out of the Citadel at Darakus,” Scryer Mako added, nodding. “The east did have a few mages but you’re right; when Altaera decided to make war upon Ruenwyn, the eastern mages were either assassinated or forced to join the Altaeran side. It was the first time we behaved politically.”
“Yeah,” said Linciard. “So with magic they got over the Rift easy, and the Ruens were surprised, because, well, they’d considered the Rift to be their main defense against the west ever since it rose up. And the first area the Altaerans came to over the Rift, of course, was Wyndon.
“It wasn’t the way it is now. There was still the Forest of Mists to the south, but to the north the whole area was called the Forest of Night, and the people we call the Corvish and a lot of the folk who’re now the Darronwayn used to live there. ‘In perfect harmony’, as they like to say, but I doubt that. Anyway, there weren’t any of what you’d call Wynds.
“The Altaerans stormed through, trying to reach the Heartlands, but Wyndon is basically one long, narrow corridor stuck between wooded cliffs, so the Forest of Night folk shot the shit out of them. The rest of Ruenwyn just sat back and laughed while the Altaerans tried to figure out how to get through.
“What the Altaerans realized, though, was that the tactics they’d used against the Lisalhanians and the Aervacheen in the old wars of Empire wouldn’t work in this setting. So they started splitting the army into little groups to go hunt the archers and basically destroy every bit of civilization they could find in the woods. No more horses and shiny armor, but a lot of men just combing through the woods and taking or burning all the food sources, destroying homes, killing every forest-dweller they found. Because what Altaera had was numbers, endless numbers drawn from the vast fertile plainsland, and they found out that even though hunting in the forest wasn’t much like hunting in the plains, it wasn’t any deadlier. The Forest of Night didn’t have grass dragons to contend with, heh.
“So basically Altaera flooded the Forest of Night with men, cutting roads straight up to the foothills of the Khaeleokiels. And they drove the Corvish and the Darronwayn before them, forcing them completely off the land. It was a real big success when it was done, and they went about building fortresses and more logging stations to keep clearing the forest to keep the native folk from having anywhere to hide, to regroup. And then the rest of the Altaeran army pushed on into the Heartlands.”
“Where they were eventually defeated,” said Captain Sarovy thoughtfully, “though it took decades.”
“Yeah. Wrecked Ruenwyn as an empire and brought about the kingdoms we have today,” said Linciard. “But though the Altaerans eventually got butchered out of the Heartlands, they left their mark in, uh, in a family way.”
“Polite way to say they did as much raping as killing,” said Scryer Mako flatly.
Linciard reddened but nodded. “Yeah. Some people call it the Great Blond Streak, some the Great Yellow Streak, but it stretches all the way from Jernizan through Wyndon and into northern Amandon, southern Darronwy, Daecia. All the blond in the east comes from that push by Altaera into Ruenwyn. And the mass amount of it is in Wyndon, because Altaera never really lost Wyndon. It just kinda…let go.
“There was a revolution in Altaera, I think. Because of the failure of the war. But all the Altaerans left in Wyndon, with their fortresses and such, just got abandoned there by the empire. So they kept fortifying and fighting the Corvish and the Darronwayn, until eventually the fighting died down and they started breeding in with the locals. You see a lot of Darronwayn features in us these days—the build, y’know, bulkier than Jernizen—and I guess there used to be lots of redheads among us too, but, uh. Not anymore.
“Now, we’d managed to cut our own country out of someone else’s land, so you’d think that we could just hold strong against them and not be fighting with each other all the time, but you’d be wrong. Because we weren’t on the plains anymore. We couldn’t just get away from each other when we had to, which is what the Jernizen try to do—they’re nomads mostly, even though all that land could be completely turned into farms. They just can’t stand to settle down and live all packed in together.
“Which is what we were having to do, with those fortresses and logging settlements. It was for defensive purposes, but we really need our space, so internal relations would inevitably disintegrate and one group would overthrow another, exile the old group, all that mess. We had a king only because he had been the area’s commander when the rest of our Heartlands incursion fell, so we still listened to him as a matter of respect and eventually gave him that title to make things formal. Somehow it became hereditary.
“Don’t say you heard it from me, but we don’t really like our king right now. He took away the roadside barons’ right to set up toll collectors on their stretch and said all tolls had to be paid to the crown, and he forced the forest barons to give over control of a lot of the mines to him too. So now the money and the metal all goes straight to Thynbell, and he has the Gold Army there to help him enforce his will on the barons if they try to disobey… The crown never had that before we joined the Empire. It was always reliant on the barons to raise the military forces, but now with Gold soldiers and mages…
“Well, I’m getting off-track. Uh…
“Oh, the barons. They called themselves barons because that sounded formal and official too, even though they were more like Biggest Local Thug. Everyone else kind of wanted to be the Biggest Local Thug but also be protected against the Thugs From Over Yonder, so we ended up with everything very hierarchical in the big towns, everyone jockeying for position or bitching about their lack of it.
“But then lots of people couldn’t take being so close, so they lit out for the forested areas. Became hermits or isolated clans. Anyone who wandered into their territory, well… You see lots of skulls hung from trees in certain parts of the woods, and those aren’t for decoration.
“Families, though. Families stick together. Sometimes not so much in the towns, but the far-flung cottages and hermits in the high woods all shutter their places when winter draws close and move to the clan-hall. Every extended woods-family has one. Everyone brings all their harvests, their treasures, their trade goods, and for a couple months we all share food and heat in the hall and make sure the old folks and the children are looked after. Not sure when it started—maybe way back when the war was still going on, when we’d settled Wyndon but didn’t yet control it. In the woods, people are vulnerable year-round but it’s the winter that brings the Corvish down from the mountains to try to wreck us. So banding together in the clan-halls keeps us from getting picked off as individuals. Lets us fight back in force.
“Anyway, that whole…needing space thing, it’s why we don’t always do well in the army. Especially not when stuck in a camp instead of marching, sir.”
Captain Sarovy nodded slowly, digesting the rambling tale. “I see why you would take issue with the Corvish,” he said, “and the Darronwayn if they also raided you. But the Jernizen, your ancestors?”
Linciard snorted and shook his head. “They’re jerks, sir, plain and simple. I can’t really explain it. Maybe we became eastern while they stayed western, or maybe they were the ones who changed, but we’re just not the same people anymore. And they have this sense of superiority I just can’t stand, and they have a really low opinion of a lot of eastern behaviors, and generally just act like—“
“Yes, yes,” said Sarovy. “I’m sure it does not help that we were recently at war with them.”
“Exactly, sir. Hard to shake that.”
“Still, I need you and the other Wynds in this company to restrain your resentment. Both toward the Jernizen and your comrades and toward your commanders. It is our job to give you orders, and your duty to follow them.”
“Maybe some more outside-time, sir?” said Linciard. “Y’know, stretching our legs. Most of us here, we’re from the backwoods. Used to running around, chopping down trees, throwing rocks at each other. Not standing guard, or just…waiting. You Trivesteans are really good at staying perfectly still and staring at one thing for marks upon marks upon marks, but I swear I’d chew off my own arm to escape that if I could. I need to do something, or else I start looking around at everyone and thinking, ‘He’s looking at me funny, he’s in my way, I don’t like how he makes his bunk, he has a stupid beard and I’m gonna cut it right off his face’… Things like that.”
“And you think that if I let the Wynds roam around town, you’ll be less likely to get in trouble?” said Sarovy dubiously.
Linciard cleared his throat and looked aside. “We’d make less trouble amongst ourselves.”
“And more amongst the civilians.”
“I could have you run laps until you keel over.”
“Yeah, but if it’s just that…” Linciard shrugged loosely. “You’d get a bad reputation among us, sir. No offense, but if any of us thought you were making us do stuff just so you could watch and smirk… That’s grounds for revolt.”
“You would stage a coup,” said Sarovy blandly.
“Me, no! No sir! I’m just saying!”
Steepling his fingers, Sarovy regarded Linciard over them. It did not take long for his silence to make the bigger man squirm in his chair, gaze sliding over everything but his commander. “You have no other recommendations?” Sarovy said at last.
Linciard started to shake his head, then paused. “Um. Well, kickball back at the base camp always seemed to take the edge off, sir. Even if there was inevitably some pummeling. I mean, as long as we were doing it as part of the game, no one really got their hackles up. There’s a difference between playing rough and plotting each others’ painful demise, after all.”
“And you expect me to approve something that will send a continual stream of broken bones to the infirmary?”
“Hoi, better than a shank in the back, right?”
Sarovy’s mouth twitched, and he sat forward to make a note on a page in charcoal. “I will take it under advisement, lieutenant. Have you anything more to say about your fellow Wynds?”
“They’re good men,” said Linciard firmly. “Thick-headed and suspicious, sure, and not exactly the soul of loyalty, but still good. And you’ve done well by us so far, sir. Saying why you do what you do, answering our questions instead of brushing them off, not acting like we’re just game pieces… We appreciate that. Being treated like people and all. Don’t think that means any of them like you, but they respect you for it, sir. They’re not gonna turn on you unless you take some grave misstep.”
“Good to know,” said Sarovy. “I hope I can rely on you to inform me of any misstep I might be about to make.”
“’Course,” said Linciard, cracking a smile. “That’s what I’m here for. To make sure you don’t choke on your own dainty little foot.”
Sarovy gave him a cool look, ignoring Scryer Mako’s muffled snort. After a moment, Linciard’s smile wilted, and he added, “Uh, sir.”
“Dismissed, lieutenant,” Sarovy said flatly, and worked hard to restrain his own smile as Linciard rose and fled.