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       The Hollow, p.9

           Andrew Day
 
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others followed nervously. Serrel stared at the sergeant defiantly.

  “Am I going to be kicked out?” he asked.

  “Anyone else might be. I don’t kick mages out of the Legion. I can’t afford to, no matter how pigheaded they are. I just whip them into shape as best I can, and hope.” He regarded Serrel with a long, thoughtful stare. “You know, I’m having a hard time understanding you. I mean I understand the others, the reasons they signed the papers and took the Legion’s bronze. Bullock’s used to being told what to do. This isn’t anything new for him, not really. Paum thinks this is the easiest way to provide for his family. Greasy Tim is just looking for the angle. Astral has allusions to greatness, and a legend she thinks she should live up to. She knows the destination, but she hasn’t planned on the path she’s taking. She’s in for a shock. Mouse there,” he gestured to the tiny figure still standing by the sea, oblivious to the tide now lapping at her feet, “I don’t know exactly what happened to her in her previous life, but it’s made her a tight coil of repressed anger. If she doesn’t open up, the best I can hope for is to make sure she’s pointed at some worthwhile target when she finally explodes. Hell, I even understand your friend Blackwood. He’s a stone cold killer. As certain as I am standing here. You can see it in the eyes.”

  “Victor’s not a bad person,” Serrel protested.

  “He’s not good or evil. He just looks at the world a different way from most people. Some people are just born that way. And raised in that monastery by killers and men who have performed unspeakable acts, what else would he be? At least he’s on our side. That makes him useful. Him and his dozen bloody knives. But we were talking about you, Hawthorne. Why are you here?”

  “I had nowhere else to go.”

  “So I thought. I heard you were a carpenter. You struck me as the craftsman type. It’s in the way you weave, that same careful attention to detail, the concentration. The pride when you know you’ve done the best job you could possibly have done. A good carpenter were you?”

  “My father was better.”

  “But you would have been as good? In a few years perhaps, and then you would have taken over the business, or perhaps started your own?”

  “Probably.”

  “And you would have given that up? For this? What happened?”

  Serrel exhaled in irritation. He wasn’t interested in having this conversation, especially not with Holland.

  “There was a girl, right?” Holland guessed correctly. “That’s not a new story. A lot of recruits end up here because of a girl.”

  “She was the daughter of a Lord. It didn’t end well.”

  “What was her name?”

  Serrel sighed in defeat. “Daphne Kraeter. My father and I did work for her father. We... liked each other. I thought I was in love. Hell, I thought she was in love. She wanted us to go off and start our own business away from everyone. A new life together. But her cousin saw us together and told her father. You can imagine his reaction.”

  “Seen it for myself on more than one occasion.”

  “He summoned my father and accused me of trying to defile his daughter. His exact word, defile. He decided to make an example out of me. I had to leave town, and never return. His idea of leniency. My family had no choice but to do what they were told. I can never go home. I joined the Legion because it was the quickest and cheapest way to get as far the hell away from there as I could. I honestly couldn’t give a damn about glory, seeing the world, or any of that shit the recruiters were spewing.”

  “And now?”

  “Now? Now I might not be a carpenter, but I have this.” Serrel held up his staff. “I used to love working with wood, but this? That feeling I had when I finished carving was nothing compared to the feeling I get when I weave the ether. This is what I born for. And I am very, very good at it.”

  “No arguments here.”

  “And that obnoxious twerp, Tremmel... He thinks he’s better than me? Because he has more money? Better clothes? He gets to decide what’s best for me? His lot’s taken enough from me. This is mine. I keep this.”

  Holland nodded. “Obnoxious twerp he may be. Rich? Not so much. Powerful? Ha! Tremmel may act like one of the nobility, but you need to remember something. He isn’t your old mate Lord Kraeter. Not the father, not the cousin. That annoying superiority complex is about all he has, and though he rightly deserves a good belt around the earhole every now and then, you are not the one to deliver it. Tremmel is not the enemy. He can’t take anything from you that you won’t lose for yourself if you act like he is. You understand what I am trying to tell you, Pond Scum?”

  “Yes, Sergeant.”

  “So when you see the obnoxious twerp again, you kiss and make up. And while you’re at it, ask him why he really left the College of Arcania.”

  “Yes, Sergeant.”

  “Let’s go back. I’m hungry, and I’m not missing out on a good meal for the likes of you, Hawthorne.”

  “Yes, Sergeant. What about Mouse?”

  They glanced back at the lonely figure on the beach.

  “She’ll come back on her own, or she won’t,” said Holland simply. “That’s up to her.”

  They made their way back to the cliff and the long walk back to Fort Amell.

  “Ever see the girl again?” Holland asked.

  “Not even to say goodbye.”

  Holland gave a grim laugh. “Same old story.”

  Serrel found Justin lying in his bed in the barracks.

  Greasy Tim grinned when he saw Serrel. “Round two? I want to get my money back from Edgar- Oi!”

  “Come on, you greasy little pillock.” Victor took Tim by the collar and dragged him away. Bull and Edgar followed behind, shooing out any of the other recruits that were lurking around. Presumably for their own safety, should any mystical fire break out.

  Serrel took a seat on his bed. Justin refused to look at him. When they were alone, Serrel summoned up the courage to ask, “So why did you really leave the College?”

  Justin shot upright. “I never got the chance to leave. They never let me in in the first place! Those stuck up bastards wanted some exorbitant sum of gold before they would take me on as an apprentice. I could have joined as an initiate with the other new students but my parents thought that that was beneath me. Like this is somehow better.” He swept his hands to indicate the Legion in general.

  “You really don’t have any money?”

  “My grandfather had expensive tastes and little sense. He pissed it all away. All my father ever inherited is a great pile of debt, and a misplaced sense of pride. Happy now? I’m sure you and the others will get a great, big laugh out of this.”

  “Kaitlin, maybe. But I’m not in a laughing mood.”

  “I was meant to be better than this, you know. My parents have such high hopes. Like I’m going to be winning back the family honour. Why bother? The Tremmels are failures.”

  Serrel didn’t know what to say to that outburst.

  Justin waited in silence. “Aren’t you at least going to pretend to placate me? Something like, no, Justin, you aren’t a failure?”

  “Not really. I don’t particularly like you, and in case you haven’t noticed we all have our problems. And you and your bloody attitude don’t help.”

  “Piss off.”

  “Maybe your idiotic pride is still important to you, but take it from me, it’s only going to get in your way. You should at least apologise to Mouse.”

  “For what?”

  Serrel just stared at him.

  “Oh, right. That. Fine, I shall humble myself and apologise to the little chambermaid. Will that satisfy you?”

  “It isn’t me you need to satisfy. And... by the way. Sorry I broke your staff.”

  “It was just a stupid training staff. It would probably have broken anyway.”

  Serrel thought that that probably wasn’t true, but let it go.

  “Funny thing,” Justin said suddenly as Serrel made to leave. “When I went to
the master at arms for a new staff, he said something strange. He said there was no point getting a training staff, because we were all going to be properly outfitted soon anyway.”

  “We are? That’s good isn’t it?” Serrel just wanted a better staff, but he thought about it some more. “I thought mage training was going take another month, possibly more since Holland hates us.”

  “That’s what I thought. But the way he said it, I think he meant we were going to be outfitted sometime sooner than that.”

  Mouse did return to Fort Amell, and Justin did apologise, although this momentous and borderline mythical event was only witnessed by the two of them, so the others had to take his word for it.

  And Justin wasn’t the only one to hear rumours of their training being cut short. The entire fort was buzzing with outlandish stories that the Empire was about to go to war, but with whom no one was certain. Some said the Faelands across the sea. Others said the Free Cities to the south. Some of the more outlandish rumours suggested the Empire was about to be overrun by rampaging dragons.

  Though training officers refused to confirm or deny rumours, the recruit’s training steadily increased in strength. Now Pond Scum were expected to perform their morning exercise while carrying the equivalent of a fully loaded pack. They learnt new ways to weave the ether, such as into pure energy that could be used as a weapon. They learnt how to transfer their energy into another person, how to absorb energy, how to weave different spells together to make new spells. Holland drilled them mercilessly.

  Soon they started training with
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