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       The Hollow, p.10

           Andrew Day
 
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other, regular recruits. They practised shielding large groups of soldiers with magic, getting the regular soldiers used to the idea that their lives would be in mages’ hands. Whenever there was an unexpected injury, Pond Scum were expected to attempt to heal it magically first. The regular soldiers were absolutely thrilled about that. Especially after Kaitlin vomited on the first one.

  The idea was that every soldier in the Legion would know how to work alongside, and often with, mages. It was slow going for some. Outright impossible for others. Pond Scum was sometimes met with outright hostility. In such cases they had to band together. They had no choice.

  There was one group of recruits, five or so led by a big, mean and stupid young man named Fenton, who made absolutely no secret of their hatred of the trainee mages. Whether out of jealousy, or fear, or simply because mages got double rations, Fenton and his gang never gave up an opportunity to try beating one of Pond Scum, insulting them, or stealing their things. Fenton was too big and stupid to be intimidated by Bull, but instinctively knew better than to try starting a fight while Victor was around. Victor had finished adjusting his clothes to his liking. He started to carry around his knives along with the rest of his gear, hidden in a variety of hidden loops and pockets amongst his clothes. No one ever saw the knives. One could just appear in his hand, seemingly by magic.

  That was actually impossible. You couldn’t make something solid like that out of the ether. The regular recruits didn’t know this. Victor scared the hell out of them. To be honest, Victor was starting to scare the hell out of the rest of Pond Scum as well.

  Though presumably not Kaitlin, at least not that much. Whenever they had a free moment, the two of them had a habit of disappearing. To where no one was quite sure, and for what purpose became a topic of much discussion, mostly by Greasy Tim who made up a series of increasingly lewd and absolutely terrible limericks about the subject. He didn’t share them with Victor, of course. You didn’t do that sort of thing with someone who carried around twelve knives and could put a thrown dagger into the middle of a training dummy’s forehead each time, every time.

  Fenton didn’t pick fights with Victor. Everyone knew, but no one said aloud, that Victor, if he ever felt the need, would probably just kill Fenton then and there, and feel absolutely nothing about it afterwards. But Victor and Kaitlin were usually elsewhere, and the rest of Pond Scum were fair game.

  The situation came to a head one night, when Fenton and four others cornered Mouse by herself while she was on her way back to the women’s barracks.

  It was bad. Early the next morning the five of them were found, beaten half to death and badly burned. Mouse escaped suspicion as the sergeant in charge of the women’s barracks swore on every god she could remember that the two female mage trainees had been with her all night, particularly during the time of the incident. She had little sympathy for the so called “victims” whom she felt didn’t quite understand the idea that in this, the modern Imperial Legion, a woman stood as equal amongst her male peers.

  Holland was just relieved that the girl had indeed managed to find a worthwhile target for her rage. For a while, he was starting to worry it would end up being him.

  For Mouse herself the incident was almost... cleansing. Her own personal Hollow filled with fear and anger was vented, allowing something else to take root. Self assurance perhaps. She seemed more present in the days that followed, more substantial. She didn’t hide away. She even spoke more than a sentence a day.

  During lunch one day, just over a month since they had started training, Mouse told the others, “They’re going to send us to war any day now.”

  It was still strange to hear her speak so casually, it took the others a moment to respond.

  “How do you know?” asked Justin.

  “I talk to the stewards and the other servants. They get everywhere, and they hear everything. Including what goes on in the officer’s mess.”

  “So what did they hear?”

  “That the Faelands declared war on us. They’re going to cut short our training and send us across the sea to fight.”

  Everyone but Victor seemed to lose their appetite.

  “They wouldn’t. Would they?” asked Kaitlin.

  “Why not?” said Victor. “It’s what we’re here for.”

  “But... Surely that’s just a rumour, Mouse.”

  “We’ve been hearing it for weeks now,” Victor said.

  “How can you still be eating?” Kaitlin demanded.

  “Because I’m hungry,” he replied. He was not in the least bit fazed.

  “Might be nice in the Faelands,” Greasy Tim said with forced cheer. “I hear it’s warm there.”

  “Warm, sure,” said Justin gloomily. “And filled with monsters.”

  “Manticores,” agreed Edgar. “And Satyrs. They live in the forests. I’ve read all kinds of horrible things live there. Things that have long died out in the Empire.”

  “And the elves,” said Mouse with a shiver. “They ensnare you with magic and spirit you away.”

  “And eat you,” said Edgar.

  They looked at him.

  “Elves don’t eat people,” Justin said, with a lack of conviction. “Do they?”

  “Most don’t. They used to be beautiful, magical beings. Nowadays they’re twisted and evil. They’ll eat anything, even each other.”

  “That’s just fairy stories, Edgar.”

  “Keep telling yourself that, when you’re being slowly digested with a side dish of roasted moon fairy.”

  “Look,” said Victor impatiently. “If it happens, it happens. There’s nothing we can do about it.”

  “Do you have to be so damn... stoic about this?” Kaitlin snapped at him.

  “I’m trying to be pragmatic. Would it help if I ran around in circles, screaming? Would that make you feel better?”

  “YES!” Kaitlin pushed her plate aside and stormed away in a huff.

  “You made her mad,” Mouse told Victor helpfully.

  “Thank you, Mouse. I noticed.” He sighed and pushed his own plate away, appetite finally lost.

  “She’s just being tetchy. Women are like that,” Justin explained.

  “Oh, really?” Mouse asked him. “How would you know?”

  “Years of experience.”

  “Oh, just shut up, Justin.” Mouse turned back to Victor. “Are you in love with Kaitlin?”

  “What?” Victor stared at her.

  “You are aren’t you?”

  “I’m... She’s... It’s complicated. Gods, I think I liked you better when you never talked.” It was Victor’s turn to storm away.

  “I think he’s in love with her,” said Mouse.

  “That’s the impression we’re getting, yes,” commented Serrel.

  The rumours were put to rest the next morning.

  The population of Fort Amell assembled in the courtyard, where a tall imposing woman in impossibly bright and shining armour stood on a raised platform waiting to address them all.

  “Who’s that?” Serrel asked Kaitlin.

  “General Dillaini. She’s the new leader of the Imperial Legion. I think she’s the Empress’s half sister. She once drank at our tavern.”

  “Really?”

  “She drank all her men under the table. They didn’t realise I was serving her water.”

  “So she’s our boss.” Serrel regarded the General. She was quite scary looking, but somewhat younger than what Serrel thought a general should be.

  While he waited, he asked Kaitlin, “Have you made up with Victor yet?”

  “Not until he stops acting like a complete twat.”

  General Dillaini stepped to the edge of the platform.

  “Legion!” she greeted them. “My name is Arch-General Jadia Dillaini. I am afraid that I bring grim tidings. Two days previous, in the city of Vollumir, the forces of the usurper Vharaes executed our ambassador to the Faelands. His death was prolonged and agonising, but with his last breath, he cursed the usurper
as a demon and a false monarch. May we all remember such bravery in the face of death.

  “Since then, the usurper’s forces have laid siege the city. The fighting in heavy and brutal, and though the Patrician of Vollumir will never surrender, we fear defeat is at hand. As such, the Empress has declared our allegiance to the true rulers of Vollumir, and we are now in a state of open war with the usurper and his dark armies.

  “Tonight we sail for the Faelands, to put an end to this madness. Two days hence you will arrive on the shores of the Faelands and in the name of the Empress and all that is light, we will cut down and vanquish all who stand in our way! We shall show the usurper that you cannot take with force what was given to us by the Gods themselves! As of this moment, you are all true members of Her Imperial Legion!

  “We shall fight for justice! We shall fight for the Empress! Long may she reign!”

  “Long may she reign!” intoned the crowd.

  Serrel swallowed. “And to think we were worried.”

  The fort ended up in near chaos as the all the newest members of the Legion attempted to prepare themselves at the last minute. The veterans and the unit commanders did their best to keep control and ensure everyone was outfitted correctly and knew where to go. Pond Scum had an easier time than most, since there was only eight of them, and Holland had always keep them on a fairly tight leash.

  They all received their standard issue legion gear, including a pack with limited supplies, the standard Legion dagger (which Victor declined), and a leather armour jerkin and skull cap that the master of arms assured them would be no protection where they were going,
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