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       The Hollow, p.4

           Andrew Day
 
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personal growth. I left happily, and of my own accord.”

  “After they kicked you out.”

  “I told you they didn’t...” Justin gave up. He set into his breakfast, pointedly ignoring Kaitlin’s victorious expression.

  “What about you... Serrel, wasn’t it?” Kaitlin asked.

  Serrel nodded. “I don’t think anyone in my family has ever been magical at all. My father’s a carpenter. A good one. I suppose he always thought I’d join the trade, but...” He paused. “I just had this urge to see the world. I may have fallen for the recruiter’s spiel.”

  “Serve the Empire and see the world!” Victor said with mock feeling. “Make your mark on history and be remembered forever. Ha! You poor sap.”

  “Yes... well. Why did you join then?”

  Victor shrugged. “Die here, die somewhere else, what’s the difference? Anything had to be better than sitting around that damned monastery.”

  “Were you a monk?” Kaitlin asked in amusement.

  “With a name like Blackwood, he’s an orphan boy,” Justin said.

  Victor nodded. “Raised in Blackwood Monastery. But religion didn’t become me.”

  “Not the religion they practice in Blackwood, right, orphan? The stories about that place true?”

  “I thought you didn’t read stories, Tremmel?”

  “He’s a Lord,” said Kaitlin, “He probably can’t read. He pays someone to do it for him.”

  “Not the Tremmels,” Victor gave Justin a slow smile. “Can’t afford to. Not even after selling the silverware.”

  “What would you know?” Justin shot back.

  “Tremmel, everyone knows. All us peasant types enjoy hearing about lordships being brought low. It gives us a warm, fuzzy feeling inside.”

  The two stared at each other along the table. Serrel thought one of them was going up in flames any moment.

  “Wish I’d ‘ad someone to read for me,” Greasy Tim said quickly in the tense silence. “When I realised what was written on that scroll I’d made me mark on, bloody ‘ell I was livid. Two bloody years in the Legion, I thought to meself, they must be ‘aving a laugh.”

  “Why sign in the first place?” Serrel asked.

  “That’s the thing, innit. I was minding me own business down inna Market when this ugly bloke grabs my arm and says, “Ah ha, gotcha, squire.” He was a recruiting sergeant he was. I swear that ugly git knew I was gonna take his purse. I bet he was waiting for me to take it. I call that bloody cheek. “Ah ha,” he says, “Now you listen, squire. You can either sign for a glorious life in Her Imperial Legion, or you can take a short drop with a hemp necklace like the little thieving sod that you are.” Well, what was I gonna say? I like my neck the way it is, thank you very much.”

  The others laughed, but at least Tim laughed with them.

  “What about you, Mouse?” Serrel asked the other girl. “Why did you join?”

  Mouse retracted into her clothes and mumbled something inaudible.

  Kaitlin was left to explain, “Oh, Mouse used to be a chambermaid for some fancy pants lord or other. Her whole family worked for them. But after her mother died things became... unpleasant.”

  “Wondering hands,” Mouse muttered.

  “Like all stuck up lordlings,” Kaitlin said with feeling.

  Mouse whispered something else Serrel didn’t catch.

  Kaitlin translated, “She says she joined the Legion so she could get a sword and learn how to use it, and then she wouldn’t...” Kaitlin paused, then went on in a low voice, “Then she wouldn’t be afraid so much. She didn’t think they’d care about her being able to weave.”

  Mouse mumbled, “Thought they meant baskets...”

  “Thought I’d get a sword, too,” said Bull unexpectedly, making everyone jump. “Or an axe. They give me a stick instead.”

  “Why did you join, Bull?” Serrel asked.

  “Ma and Pa dead,” Bull said simply. “Horses dead. Cows dead. All dead. No point staying. Join Legion, they’d give me a sword. Or an axe. Didn’t think a stick.”

  After an awkward pause, Kaitlin asked tentatively, “What happened to your... your Ma and Pa?”

  “Plague. Killed ‘em. And horses. And cows. Not me.”

  He scraped his bowl clean and then sat staring at nothing, in silence.

  “Moving on,” Justin said. He turned to Edgar, “What about you, fatty? I’m going to guess... pig farmer?”

  “You are such an arse,” Kaitlin told Justin.

  “No, he’s right,” said Edgar with resignation. “We were pig farmers. Were.” He shot Justin a hot glare. “Until Lord Pendleton decided he wanted our land for himself and kicked us off. Bastard took everything. I couldn’t get any work anywhere else. So I joined the Legion. I’m going to be sending everything I make back home. I just hope it’s enough. It probably won’t be.”

  Justin squirmed uncomfortably under Edgar’s obvious dislike. “Well don’t look at me like that. I didn’t take your blasted farm.”

  “You, Pendleton, you lot are all the same.”

  “Now, you look here, you chubby little oik-”

  “Oh, I do love to see such camaraderie between recruits,” came an ominous voice. The group looked over at Holland, who had seemingly just appeared out of thin air behind Justin. “Such a close knit and familial band of brothers and sisters you are. Well, if you’re quite done with your bonding session, Pond Scum, I want the lot of you out in the courtyard right this second.”

  “But you said we had until the first bell-” Justin protested.

  Holland’s rod rapped him sharply on the arm with a meaty thwack!

  “In the legion we are expected to be ready at all times. The enemy don’t toll a bell when they plan on attacking, just so you have time to have a leisurely breakfast. And I did say now,” Holland hissed. “And I don’t intend to repeat myself. Why are you all still here?”

  The recruits tripped over each other in their mad rush to escape. Nearby, the cook cackled at the display with undisguised glee.

  “You show ‘em, Sergeant. Pond Scum! HA! You sure can pick ‘em, Sergeant.”

  Holland turned his cold glare onto the cook, who wilted. “Shut your rancid trap, Rat Turd.”

  “Yes, Sergeant.”

  Holland explained: “There are two kinds of exhaustion: that of the body, and that of the mind. Just because you’re suffering from one, doesn’t mean you get to stop and have a breather until you’re feeling better. You can be stuck so far down the Hollow you can’t see daylight any more, doesn’t mean the Legion isn’t going to expect you to still put in a solid day’s marching. Likewise, if you’ve been marching from sun-up to sunset we’re still going to expect you fighting fit and ready for war the second you reach the battlefield.

  “To that end, we are going for a brisk and invigorating run down to the beach, followed by a nice refreshing run back uphill. We will then spend the remainder of the time practising our weaving skills until you either die, or I am satisfied that you aren’t wasting my time. The first person to fall down or pass out gets cleaning duty for the rest of the week. And may the Gods have mercy if anyone of you even thinks of dropping their staff, because I sure as hell won’t. Move it, Pond Scum!”

  So Pond Scum ran, through the gates, and down the winding track to the edge of the cliffs. They followed the edge of the cliff south, the sound of the sea pounding endlessly against rocks on one side, the wrath of Sergeant Holland on the other, until the ground sloped downwards and they came to the long beach that ringed the great Bay of Amell. Serrel thought it would have been a nice, picturesque spot on a good day, with the fort towering over one end, and the town of Port Serenity at the other.

  This was not a good day. The sky was dark and getting darker, the wind blew, the surf was wild, and an irate Sergeant-Magus was yelling threats at anyone who began to lag behind. When it started raining, no one was particularly surprised.

  Most of the group had spent a large part of their lives performing so
me tedious and laborious task or other. Cutting wood, scrubbing floors, mucking out the pig sty, generally working long, exhausting days. They were not completely out of shape and incapable of exercise. But the morning’s exertions while weaving, for some the first time ever, as well as the rapid pace Holland made them set, quickly sapped what little strength they had regained.

  Serrel thought he was close to collapse by the time they reached the beach, and still Holland pushed them further. Kaitlin started strong, pushing to the front of the group with her typical desire to be ahead of everyone else. That didn’t last long. She was soon struggling alongside Serrel.

  Victor seemed to have limitless stamina, taking the lead at the start of the run and staying in front for the duration. His pace never faltered. Serrel found himself hating the other boy for that. At the other end, unsurprisingly, was Justin. He expended what little energy he had early on, not wanting to be outpaced by Edgar. By the time they reached the cliffs, he had fallen behind and was struggling. This did give Edgar unexpected reserves of energy.

  They had just turned around on the beach and were halfway back to the cliffs when Serrel tripped and fell onto the sand. He tried to get back up, but his arms and legs were in open rebellion and refused to cooperate. The thought occurred that maybe Holland would just let him lie there and die.

  The others at least were grateful, as Holland screamed them to a halt. He came and stood over Serrel impatiently.

  “At least you kept a hold of your staff,” Holland said with a sigh. “Thank the Gods for small mercies.”

  He
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