The Unrepentant Warrior
He rode and walked beside the mule until it foundered. For seventeen nights they had trekked into the desert, living off the food and water the mule carried, resting by day and travelling by night. Now only one waterskin remained, partially emptied. The mule’s breath rasped in and out, and it could go no further.
His instructions had been clear: leave the animal as soon as it fell and move on immediately. But he found he could not. The mule had been given no choice on this final journey, but had accompanied him without complaint, and the success of his holy mission would only be achieved because of the mule’s perseverance. Offering a prayer to the protector of animals, he tipped the waterskin, and allowed a trickle of water into the mule’s mouth – a last kindness to a devoted, dumb animal. He sat beside the mule until it perished, stroking its neck, willing it to die easy. Then he walked deeper into the desert, the conclusion to his task close at hand.
As soon as the horizon lightened, he took off his vestment and tore it into small pieces, dropping a scrap every hundred paces, making certain the breeze scattered each one. His black skin would be some protection against the sun, but he fashioned the Holy Parchment into a shade for his face and head as he’d been told, and walked on. He ignored his thirst as long as he could, but at last, feeling light-headed, he drank deeply of the brackish warm water and looked for a suitable resting place for the seed.
He dug a pit with his hands at the base of the largest dune he could find, ensuring he was on the leeward side, so further winds would cover it completely. He was careful not to overtax himself, and when sand spillage threatened to engulf him because he’d dug deeply, he took the pouch from around his neck, loosened the ties and looked away. Leaning over, he shook it upside down and heard the seed fall to the sand. He thought a voice spoke and quickly scraped at the side of his excavation until a cascade of sand covered him to the knees. Risking a glance through the Holy Parchment, he was relieved to see nothing but sand. He climbed out carefully, and used his hands to fill the small crater in. By scooping the side of the dune, he induced a fall that enveloped it further, and a sizeable mound now covered the seed.
He sipped water, read the words from the Holy Parchment aloud, then tore it into small pieces and scattered them, before turning his back and walking further into the desert. He chewed the dried beef pouch and thong with his dwindling water supply, consuming them completely – his final meal. While he still retained the strength of mind and body, he drank the last of the water, then unpicked the skin as he went, shredding the leather with his teeth, discarding it piece by piece.
He walked into the next night, driven by zeal, and the promise made to him by The Patriarch. At some point he heard the mule walking alongside, and reached out to stroke his wiry neck, glad of his company. This was the last thought he had, and it is perhaps strange that a man’s sentimentality to an animal should save the life of The Unrepentant Warrior.
Gabriel tensed his legs slightly and eased an inch up from the saddle. The resultant tightening of his abdominal muscles compressed the gas that had been building up, and it escaped. Loudly. That was the problem with leather riding gear, it formed a second diaphragm around his sweaty arse, so an echo followed. Plap-lap. Brother Imrad’s horse jerked his head at the noise, ears twitching.
“Will you stop that!” hissed Brother Imrad.
“Certainly, which way did it go?”
Young and zealous, Imrad wore the orange robes of the novitiate, and his hair was tied back in a neat queue. His attempt to grow a moustache and beard was laughable, overshadowed by a long pinched nose. Gabriel had tired of Imrad’s whining lectures about The Patriarch’s glory, and wondered if he could squeeze another fart out. Not without shitting himself probably, but if he thought that would make Imrad ride with another of the guards, he was sorely tempted for a moment. He smiled broadly as Wilhelm broke wind behind him. The man was legendary in riposting fart for fart, and he heard hands slap together. Imrad turned to glare, twisting in the saddle.
“I caught it!” Wilhelm called cheerily, and the men laughed.
Gabriel looked back. Wilhelm rode alongside Jürgen, and stared at Imrad with blue-eyed innocence, one fist raised in the air. As he opened his hand he farted again.
“Damn it! Got away,” he called.
Slim, with long dirty-blond hair that was unkempt and swept his shoulders, Wilhelm barely looked old enough to be a soldier, let alone a chosen guard. Many a man had made the mistake of thinking him a boy, paying the price in blood, and on more than one occasion Gabriel had stepped in to save Wilhelm’s opponent. Jürgen clapped Wilhelm on the shoulder, laughing, showing even white teeth above his bushy beard, and Gabriel shook his head. How those two had become friends was beyond him – Jürgen happily married with children, Wilhelm the worst philanderer Gabriel had ever known. Jürgen would shake his head each time Wilhelm broke another heart and left through the back doors, but they saw something in each other that made them inseparable as friend and guard alike, and Gabriel could not have asked for better fighters.
Imrad turned back, his face angry.
“Why am I beset with fools and degenerates?” he said between clenched teeth, then glared at Gabriel. “Your men are a disgrace to The Patriarch – foul-mouthed, foul-smelling, with no piety, and the manners of pigs. Why am I burdened with you and your…” he sneered, “… your men?”
“Because we’re good at killing.” Gabriel replied quietly.
“And fornicating!” came the shout from behind, followed by Jürgen’s laugh. “Fucking and fighting, that’s us.”
“How can you stand to be with them?” Imrad asked. “You are an educated man.”
“Because I love them.”
“Forget the fornicating!”
“I shall complain to the Proctor when we return,” Imrad said, smouldering.
“But at least you shall return,” Gabriel said.
“We are in no danger.”
“Truly, because my men guard us.” He continued before Imrad could reply. “How many men do I have, Brother Imrad?”
“Four, of course.”
“That’s because you don’t see the other four. They shadow us day and night, watching for those who hold the Patriarch in contempt; those who would swoop down and hollow out your innards with a blunt knife, delighting in your screams of agony. My men risk their lives for you, and shall express themselves any way they care, with my sanction. When battle is joined you’ll hear much worse, but thank The Patriarch he entrusted my troop to guard you.”
They’d been hugging the shore of the lake, following the bank as it curved northeast. For two days after they’d left the lakeshore stockade all they’d seen were fisherfolk at work on the water, and according to Gabriel’s map the meadow stockade was close.
“Captain.” Jürgen’s voice was urgent.
“I see her.”
Katelyn galloped down the slope towards them. Her horse flew across the grass and Gabriel reined in. The men closed up, fanned alongside him and Imrad. Wilhelm and Jürgen to his right, and Dalton with Anders the other side of the cleric.
“Bounce a bit more,” Wilhelm pleaded, watching Katelyn approach.
Her blouse was flattened against her body by the speed of her mount, and she stood in her stirrups. Though she absorbed the motion through her hips and knees, the jolting of the horse bounced her breasts up and down in perfect time to his hooves. Her jet-black hair was tied in a tight plait, which flew out behind, like the pennant of a kite, swaying from side to side with her motion. She reined in, turning her horse side-on. Dark-eyed and olive-skinned, the curl of a tamarind flower tattoo wound its way from her forehead, across her left cheek to the jawline, ending in a swirl on her neck. Whipcord muscles braided her arms and shoulders.
“The stockade is a few minutes ride from here,” Katelyn said to Gabriel, breathing hard. “Conrad has spotted something in the forest, coming up from the south.”
“What is it?”
“He’s not certain. But it’s… unusual.”
Katelyn hesitated. “There are barbarians, at least forty of them, but… something else, something big. Conrad didn’t get too close, says there’s something not right about it. He thinks they’re driving it, he’s concerned it’s an abomination.”
Imrad snorted. “Abomination? There are no abominations in this world, Captain Gabriel” he said, sneering. “The Patriarch condemned them all to the underworld, along with the defeated gods.”
Katelyn glanced at Imrad contemptuously, then back at Gabriel.
“The barbarians are down the valley, moving slowly, heading for the stockade,” she said. “Conrad sent me to raise the alarm, and they have a complement of eight. Two ex-soldiers, but elderly. By now the male children are hiding.”
“You told them we weren’t conscripting?”
“They don’t trust us. Conrad thinks the attackers will overcome the stockade.”
“Shit. Let’s hope they’re good with crossbows.”
“They’ve barred the gates, won’t let any of us in.”
“Captain Gabriel, this is ridiculous,” Imrad said. “There are no abominations – what your man saw is likely nothing more than large bears, foraging in the woods. I cannot believe you’re listening to this… this…”
Katelyn’s eyes darkened and Imrad’s mount stepped back a pace, shifting its hooves nervously.
“This is the idiot we’re charged with bringing safely to the stockade?” Katelyn said. “Patriarch protect us.”
“That’s brother idiot to you, Katie,” Wilhelm said, smiling.
“Don battle armour,” Gabriel ordered, and the men swung down from their horses and began unstrapping their packs. “Katelyn, use the bow. Wilhelm, you’ll shield.”
“Captain Helbrecht, I protest!” Imrad called. “To approach fully armoured will jeopardise our mission – they may never open the stockade gates to us, if they feel threatened.”
“A bigger threat approaches them, and they may all be killed,” Gabriel said, pulling a cuirass around his body. “Is that what you want?”
“Your stupidity will not go unpunished,” Imrad hissed.
All movement ceased for a moment, but Gabriel nodded, and the men continued to garb themselves with their armour. Katelyn slipped off her manica and greaves, stowing them She pulled a heavy leather kilt out, stepped into it, fastening it at the waist, then pulled her britches off, showing tanned muscular legs. She swung herself back into the saddle. Wilhelm dragged his hair back, tying it with a leather braid.
“Do you have a mirror, Brother Imrad?” he asked, smoothing his hair down.
“I do not need to see myself,” Imrad said, angrily. “I have no vanity.”
“Oh,” Wilhelm said, disappointed. “Katie, flip up your kilt, will you? I want to show Brother Imrad what a cunt looks like, he’s never seen himself.”
Jürgen laughed, and Gabriel hid the smile that threatened his face.
“Mine’s got a better beard,” Katelyn said.
Jürgen guffawed and beat the pommel of his saddle in appreciation. Imrad flushed red. He looked about to kick his horse on, but Katelyn pulled her reins lightly and her horse stepped back, blocking Imrad’s.
“Stay with the group, Brother Imrad, it’s safer,” she said. “Insult one of us, you insult us all. You need to understand the stockade dwellers worship the Patriarch, but they have no love of his minions, who take their children away to fight his wars. Already, they think us conscriptors.”
“They fight his Holy War,” Imrad said, staring ahead. “They should be chastised if they withhold from us.”
“Granted,” Katelyn agreed. “But conscription weakens their defences against raids from the east, and the stockades have served the Patriarch well for many years. Compassion is the quarterstaff of the just, it must be wielded with gentleness, by the hand of the righteous.”
Imrad stared at her, astonished.
“Though he who transgresses shall be shown the error of his ways,” he said.
“And brought back to the fold with mercy and truth,” Katelyn finished.
Imrad’s mouth worked but nothing came out. Katelyn stared at him, neutral, giving nothing.
“You are a nun,” Imrad finally managed. “A… nun…”
“The last of the Order of Blesséd Mother Aleyd.”
“Yet… yet… you dress like this… and curse, and—”
“Kill the Patriarch’s enemies, yes. Protect the weak, yes. Be a shield against violence, yes. Minister to those who need help, yes.” She looked away for a moment, across the lake to the far distance. “All those I could not do, when the barbarians sacked the convent, and slaughtered my sisters. I hid in the altar and prayed to the Patriarch for my life, that I would be avenged. He saved me, and I shall be avenged.”
“They said no nuns survived,” Imrad whispered.
“None did. My final vows were interrupted by their raid, and I took it that I was not meant for a life of piety and prayer. Thus you see me, an instrument for the Patriarch’s retribution.”
Imrad stared at her, blinking, then became aware of the humming, low in the throats of the men. He turned in the saddle. They were dressing their armour, checking the saddles, the hooves of their horses, ensuring weapons were easy in the scabbards, and all trace of boorish, uncouth individuals had gone. In their places stood men. Men standing tall, pride etched in their demeanour, purpose in their moves. Only Wilhelm stood apart, scowling, checking the movement of his blade in its scabbard. The other men hummed the Patriarch’s Battle Hymn, and as they reached the final verse, as one, they turned and faced north. Imrad wheeled his horse to mimic them, right hand on his heart. Caught up, he sang the final words, slapping his hand to his heart as he gave the three oaths, hearing the men beat their chests with their fists in unison to each declaration.
“I honour. I repent. I submit.”
Gabriel’s voice was quiet, but in perfect timing the men raised a foot to a stirrup and swung up to the saddle. It would not be bettered on any parade-ground.
“Katelyn, with me. The rest form up. Fast walk.”
Gabriel touched his heels to his horse and fell in beside Katelyn, who’d wheeled to face up the hill. She leaned towards him and spoke quietly.
“An ambush was set on your way, Captain. We dealt with nine mercenaries, but none of them knew who recruited them, beyond him being a fat man with greying hair. Their orders were to kill you all, including the priest.”
“Any left alive?”
“No. The one we questioned died of his wounds, though we tried to keep him alive.”
“Shame. Once we’re in the stockade we’ll tell the others, but don’t mention this to Imrad.”
“Lead on,” he said to Katelyn, and spoke over his shoulders to the others. “Three abreast.”
Katelyn nudged her horse ahead of Gabriel and Imrad came alongside him, with Wilhelm next to him. The others fell in behind, in close formation, and the horses trotted urgently up the slope.
“Have you ever seen a better arse in your entire life?” Wilhelm said in a conversational tone. Katelyn raised her middle finger to him.