Chapter One. Minara
Minara sank forward against the seat straps, fighting to hold back the tears stinging her eyes. Everything had been taken from her, now there was nothing left, and it was all her fault. She took a shuddering breath, and her logical mind clashed with her raging emotions. The testing official had pushed her too far. They were checking her poise and grace and he had nudged her, causing her to stumble. She had lost it when he denied his action and she had hit him. It wasn’t that he had denied pushing her, but the satisfied smirk on his face was more than she could bear.
It had crossed her mind the official had been bribed by her uncle, who made no secret of the fact he detested her, because as she grew older she looked more and more like her aunt, his late wife; the abuse had started once she had reached fifteen. She pushed the memory to the back of her mind with a shudder, because there was nothing she could do about it now anyway. Who would believe her word against that of a high-ranking officer of the government? Especially since she had been disgraced and banished from her home and family for failing the selection process. She was too violent to become what she had been brought up to be, as the daughter of a high-ranking family. She would never be mistress of her own household, would never be matched with a lifetime partner of the same rank as she was. Even the chance for a family of her own had been destroyed. It had been taken from her by one stupid slip and an abusive uncle. There was only one place for such as her, the Army.
The jolt of the shuttle docking with the military starship, that was to take her to the military training grounds, caused her to wipe her eyes with the heels of her hands and sit up straight. The hatch opened and an officer stepped into the cabin. She was the only new recruit in the shuttle so he looked directly at her.
“Minara?” His voice was harsh and unfriendly.
She nodded. “Yes sir.”
She did as he ordered her to, but with leaden feet. Even her second name had been taken from her in her disgrace. Only high-ranking citizens had a second name, but since she was reduced to nothing she only had one. The officer spoke to her as he led her through the ship.
“During the journey you will be fitted with a battle suit keyed to you, ready for your training. As we will be traveling near to enemy space remember that we have a code of conduct?”
Minara nodded. “Yes sir. Never be taken alive.”
“Yes, and in addition ensure you wear your battle suit when facing the enemy. It will destroy your remains if you are killed, ensuring the filthy vermin cannot use it to develop chemical or biological weapons to use against us.”
The armory sergeant raised an eyebrow as they entered and she heard him mutter under his breath, “Not another female failed the selection process.” He saluted the officer who indicated Minara.
“Get a battle suit set up for her sergeant, will you.”
“Yes sir, right away.”
The officer turned and left. The sergeant’s dark hair and eyes gave him away as a member of the lower artisan classes, a Grojani, so at least he would not judge her, she hoped. The sergeant smiled at her. “Cheer up, it’s not that bad. Make a go of it in the Army and you will be respected, do well and you will be honored.”
He walked round from his desk and placed a hand on her back to guide her to the fitting room. She shuddered; the only other man who had touched her was her uncle and the emotions were still raw. The sergeant misunderstood her reaction to his gentle touch. “Hey, it’s OK, the fitting is painless, the machines take care of everything.”
“Thank you, sergeant.” Minara stepped into the booth and the door closed behind her. She heard the sergeant’s voice from a speaker in the wall of the booth. “Please shut your eyes while the scanner builds a picture of your measurements for the fitting system.” Minara closed her eyes as requested.
Moments later the door opened. “All done, you can come out now.”
Minara stepped out of the booth. “Is that it, sergeant?”
He laughed. “Yes that’s all. If you go across the corridor you will find a waiting room, I will come and get you when it’s ready.”
Just over an hour later the sergeant appeared carrying a wide thick belt. “Please stand up and put this on.”
Minara did as he requested then turned to him. “And now?”
“Push the two buttons either side of the buckle so I can check the function.”
She pushed the buttons and her suit unfolded from her belt, covering her in thin flexible armor.
“It is impervious to most of the enemy’s hand weapons and is self contained, so no biological or chemical agents can get to you. It is also a short term space suit.” She nodded, marveling at the suits lightness and her freedom of movement. “This suit will be yours until you leave the military. If you do leave you must hand it back.” He held out a tablet computer. “Please sign here.” He tapped the bottom of the screen.
Some hours, three space jumps and a shuttle ride later, she was standing in a line with other recruits. As she looked along the line she saw most were males. She sighed, she was going to have a lonely time of it, but at least she was far away from and out of reach of her family. An officer stepped in front of the line and started to speak.
“Welcome, ladies and gentlemen. You will find this basic training hard and tiring, but through hard work you will get on. Slack and you will suffer.” He glared at them all. “At the end of your training here you will have the basic knowledge and skills to fight and kill humans. You will then be transferred to your specialist units. Over there,” he pointed to a gray barrack block, “is where you will be staying during your time with us. Your room allocation is listed there. Go and settle in. Training starts first thing tomorrow morning.”
Minara walked to the barrack block and quickly found the notice board. As she stood looking at the list she felt a tap on her shoulder. She turned to find a young woman around the same age as her smiling at her and revealing filed front teeth. Minara had not smiled since she had suffered the same fate. Her beautiful even white teeth were now filed to ugly points, marking her out as a failure. This young woman seemed proud of her disfigurement.
Minara smiled back; perhaps she would not be alone after all. The woman said, “Hello, I’m Varna. It seems we will be sharing a room while we are here.”
“Hello Varna, my name is Minara.”
“Hey, don’t look so sad, Minara. It doesn’t matter a fuck we failed the test to be good upright Grojan wives and mothers. Those fucking bitches are nothing better than slaves anyway. We are free! We will learn to fight and help clear the galaxy of the vermin humans. Then when it is over we can do what the fuck we want with no one to stop us.”
Minara looked at her wide-eyed, aghast at what she was saying and the un-ladylike language. “I… I… suppose you’re right, I had not thought of it like that.”
Varna slapped her on the back. “Of course I’m right, now let’s go and find our billet.”
As they walked, Minara turned to Varna. “Do you know why the humans are considered vermin? After all they are sentient beings?”
“How should I know?” She shrugged “What does it matter? Killing humans is far better than working in a bar or some other menial job, like a dirty Grojani.”
Minara slept the first night in the training camp, and dreamt of sticking a large knife into her uncle’s guts and watching his innards spill over her armored feet.
Chapter Two. Arron
“Stand up straight!” the drill sergeant yelled into Arron Johnston’s face and the sergeant’s spittle landed on his cheeks. He stood impassively, as to flinch, or heaven forbid, wipe his face, would probably result in fifty press-ups. Arron hated the sergeant with a passion reserved for raw recruits against their drill sergeant, probably since the time of the Romans. For an eighteen-year-old, such treatment seemed pointless. He had joined up to fight the Grojan, not put up with crap like this. The sergeant moved down the line and Arron sighed quietly to himself. Only two more days, you bastard!
All the recruits would get their posting orders that afternoon, and although they tried to appear nonchalant it was the most important part of their time in basic training, as it would determine the future path of their army career. They had all sat a personality profile test, and while they were permitted to express a preference, for the most part they were allocated their particular position or role based on the profile.
Arron had hoped for and requested the Space Corps infantry; he rather fancied jumping out of transports in full battle armor and taking out a whole bunch of Grojan. The fact that the mortality rate was high and the Grojan battle suit was far more advanced did not enter his head.
The sergeant dismissed the parade and they filed towards the canteen. A group had already gathered by the notice board and some looked delighted whilst others appeared less so. Some had even been backtracked for a few weeks to go over the failed training modules again. Arron made use of his above average height, pushed forward a little and read his posting. He was, with immediate effect, to report to transport, not to join in the passing out parade as he had been allocated the Intelligence Corps. Arron’s gut twisted. I don’t want to be a fucking spy! I want to fight and kill fucking Grojan. But he knew there was nothing he could do, he was now a small cog in a vast machine not particularly noted for its competence.
As he turned from the notice board, his section corporal stepped in front of him. “Private Johnston, pack your kit and report to the transport section in one hour.”
Arron hurried to do as he was ordered. As he packed, members of his section drifted in and out and he found he was constantly answering the same question. “Where are you going, Arron?” When he answered, he usually got a “Tough luck, mate,” or a “Glad I’m not in your shoes mate,” which did nothing to improve his mood.
When he arrived at the transport section a mini bus was waiting. A sergeant with a clipboard stood by the side door. “Johnston?”
“Put your kit in the back and get aboard, you’re the last.”
Arron dumped his kit in the back of the bus, slammed the doors, then walked round to the side door and boarded. Three faces looked at him and nodded. He didn’t know any of them, which was not surprising as several hundred recruits were being trained at any one time. They nodded at him but remained silent. Arron was happy to remain silent himself. All he knew about the Intelligence Corps was that it was a shadowy organization that reported directly to the planetary government, bypassing the normal military hierarchy. Some things it did were rumored to be on the fringe of human military activity and well outside of what once would have been considered ethical conduct.
They were bussed to a military spaceport then split up. Arron found himself on a military shuttle to Ganymede.
Thirty-six hours, and his first interplanetary jump later, and he was being escorted by a sergeant to his new dormitory. There were several bases on Ganymede and he had found out this one was the smallest and most secret. Other than that information, his enquiries had been met with stony silence.
The sergeant knocked at a door half way along a short brightly lit corridor. Arron noted that each corridor had an airtight door separating it from the central main hub. A muffled. “Come in” and the sergeant pushed open the door. “A new bunkmate for you, sir.”
“Thank you, sergeant. That’ll be all.”
The sergeant saluted, turned on his heels and left. A tall, dark skinned young man around Arron’s age stood and offered Arron his hand. “James Martin, welcome to Ganymede. That was Sergeant Smithson,” he indicated the door the sergeant had just closed. “A good sort, but make sure you stay on the right side of him though.”
James raised an eyebrow and Arron remembered he had not introduced himself. “Sorry sir, Arron Johnston.”
“Hey, you don’t have to sir me, we are the same rank.”
“But I’m just a private.”
“Not now you’re not, Arron, you are a junior officer now, and once the training is finished you will be given the rank of Captain in Special Ops. I suppose they have not told you anything?”
“No er… James they haven’t.”
“Bloody typical. Well, first off make yourself at home, that is your bunk, desk and chair. He indicated a bunk on the opposite wall reached by a small ladder built over a desk and cupboard. A small chair was pushed under the desk. “That, Arron, is your sole private world for the next two and a half years.”
Arron quickly found that James did not know much more than he did. He had arrived the day before from Mars and had been kicking his heels in the common room since then. All he had found out was they had been automatically given the rank of Second Lieutenant.
The next two and a half years were filled with specialist weapon training, including knives, swords, sabotage, explosives and even details of captured Grojan ships, although the actual ships were badly damaged and the computer cores destroyed, so they had worked on reconstructed mock-ups. They were told that a Grojan had never been found dead or alive, they always fought to the death and their battle suit had some unknown bio-monitoring system that disintegrated the body once the heart had stopped.
Their primary role was to be dropped onto populated alien planets then to melt into the population with the false identity that would be set up by an advanced initial contact team. They were then to watch for Grojan activity. When one student asked the obvious question, how would they know when no one knew what a Grojan looked like, they were told that any invading or alien visitors were to be assumed Grojan and any unusual activity at all was to be reported. If command believed an advantage could be gained, their role was to change and they were to take every opportunity to sabotage the Grojan. Otherwise, the agent was to remain hidden in the population and continue reporting the alien activity.
At the end of the two and a half years, students were allowed leave to visit their family for the last time and to make their final goodbyes as once plastic and cosmetic surgery was started, contact with anyone other than specialist Intelligence Corps personnel was forbidden.
Arron stood trying not to look nervous and uncomfortable in his dark grey Intelligence Corps uniform with his new captain’s pips shining on his shoulder. He stood at the bus depot waiting for his father to pick him up. People tried not to stare at him and he had found, even on the crowded bus from the airport, no one sat next to him. It was blatantly obvious people mistrusted the almost black uniform.
A car hummed round the corner and stopped in front of him. The passenger door opened and a familiar voice shouted, “come on then, get in, my son.”
Arron ducked down. “Hi Dad.” Then he opened the back door and threw his luggage onto the back seat and closed the door. He grabbed the front passenger door, swung himself round and sat down in the passenger seat of the car, shutting the door after him. His father held out his hand, a big smile on his face. “Hello, my son.” Arron took his father’s hand in a firm grip. The older man then held his free hand over Arron’s.
“It’s really good to see you, Arron. Your mother and sister are at home, waiting eagerly for you. His father looked back over his shoulder and moved off. Once they had joined the freeway the car switched to auto and Arron’s father leaned back in the seat. He looked over at his son. “Well, you look great in your uniform, but what made you decide on the Intelligence Corps?”
Arron sighed. “Actually, Dad, I didn’t have a choice. I wanted the infantry, but due to the results of my profile I got posted to the Intelligence Corps.”
“It’s probably just as well, there have been a few disasters lately, but I expect you have already heard about that?”
“Yes Dad, but not much more than you I don’t suppose. We aren’t really kept informed as to what is happening with regard to the war during our training.”
“Humm… between you and me, my son, if things keep going the way they are we are in danger of losing.”
His special leave was for just a week and he did not want to dwell on depressing thoughts so he changed the subject. “How are Mum and Sophie?” He wondered about his little sister, it was nearly three years since he had seen her and she had only just celebrated her ninth birthday when he left, would he even recognize her?”
“They are waiting for you at home. Your mother wanted to give you a proper welcome, not at the bus terminal.”
Arron smiled to himself; his mother had always been reserved and shy, the opposite to his father. He often wondered, as he grew older, how they had gotten together.
When they arrived at the house, with its neat garden and picket fence, Arron’s heart missed a beat; he had not realized how much he had missed his family home. His father parked the car in the drive and Arron stepped out, turning towards the rear door for his bags.
A streak of cream and pink grabbed him round the waist. “Arron.”
He laughed; he had no need to worry. His sister, while she had grown, had not changed. If anything, she seemed smaller than he remembered, her head pressed against his chest, her light brown hair pulled back into a braid. He kissed the top of her head. “Sophie.”
He looked up, and his mother was walking down the path towards them, a warm smile on her face.
His sister had stepped back and was jumping up and down for his attention. “Arron, so much has happened, and I’ve so much to tell you.” She jumped into his arms again. “I’m so glad you’re home.”
His mother put her arms round them both. “I’m so happy you’re home, my son, even if it’s for such a little while.”
The week passed quickly, but his happiness at being home was tinged with sadness. Many of his friends had joined the forces at the same time as he did and some would never be coming home again. Arron hated the Grojan and regretted he could not face them and kill them like many of his school friends where now doing. There was not even a reason for the war, but the popular story was when a human ship had first come into contact with the Grojan they had apparently been friendly, then the ship disappeared and nothing was heard of them for a while until suddenly they had attacked without warning or provocation.
The day of his departure came and his mother and sister had cried. His father was stoic, but Arron knew deep down they believed they would never see him again. His father drove him directly to the spaceport, hugged him farewell and watched until he passed through the security barriers out of sight.
The orbital transport took him to a military station orbiting the moon. From there he boarded a cruiser that took him in two jumps to a station orbiting a planet in the Epsilon Eridani system. The final six months of training consisted of the specific detail an agent needed to fit into the population of their designated planet and changes to their body so they looked identical to the target alien species. Once that stage of the training had begun a student could only have contact with others being posted to the same planet. Arron found himself alone; his allocated planet was primitive and isolated, so it did not require more than one agent.
The nurse who prepared him for his operations told him he had been lucky, that since the planet was in a strategically unimportant sector and had no technology of any use to either side in the war at least he only had to suffer minor changes to his ears and cheekbones. Some Planetary Monitors on more important planets had, according to her, to undergo major changes to their bodies.
When he had woken from plastic surgery he had found that as well as his ear shape and other minor differences they had changed his hair and eye color. His hair was now a burnished gold blond instead of brown and his green eyes almost aqua marine. He had no idea how they had done that as he had assumed he would have to use hair dye and contact lenses. When he had asked the nurse she had shrugged and said it was all part of the disguise so he would fit in.
Once he had recovered from his surgery his training and preparation was completed, so he was to be shipped off immediately. He was kept in isolation during the trip on the battle cruiser, and when they arrived at the outskirts of the target solar system he was ordered to report directly to the docking port, where his transport waited for him. He met no one during his short walk and he found the rear ramp of the transport was already lowered waiting for him and as he walked up the ramp the airlock closed. The area he was in contained supplies consisting of hand weapons, explosives of various types for sabotage and miniature long-range communication equipment, all contained in two back packs. There was also local clothing made from a kind of wool, leather and linen.
As soon as he was seated, he felt the craft lift. He noticed there was no access forward to the crew so he was not to have any last human contact. He did wonder why the Intelligence Corps went to such great lengths to prevent him being seen, especially as the changes in his case were relatively minor, but he assumed they had their reasons, and he would get no answers now, so he put the thought to the back of his mind.
The trip was a brief one, and the first that Arron knew of arriving at his destination was the ships shaking as it entered the planet’s atmosphere. Arron gripped the arms of his seat and then was thrown forward against his straps as the breaking thrusters were fired. He felt the ship tilt one way then the other then forward motion stopped altogether and the ship settled.
The rear door opened and the ramp deployed. Outside, snowflakes eddied and swirled. “Great, winter!” Arron grabbed the thick leather fur-lined jacket from the pile of native clothing and pulled it over his flight suit. He pulled out his supplies and piled them away from the shuttle on a small rocky outcrop cleared from snow by the wind. Once he had everything the ship lifted, turned, and disappeared into the thickly falling snow. He stood still for a few moments looking up after the ship and then shrugged. “Well, guys, good bye and thanks for fucking nothing!”
Arron checked his location on his wrist computer. A shallow cave was located behind a jutting outcrop of rock against a rocky cliff. Arron picked up the first kit bag and trudged through the thickening snow. He ducked into the cave entrance and flicked on the torch attached to the back of his left hand glove. The cave was shallow but dry, just right for sitting out the night and storing his kit. He dumped his bag then went for the other and the pile of clothes. Once everything was in the cave he pulled out the emergency shelter, pushed the inflate button, and he watched it unfold. He set a perimeter alarm across the door, crawled into the shelter to wait until daylight.
Chapter Three. Halcyon
Arron had been walking for just over a week. He had left his advanced weapons, explosives and uniform under a low-level force field in the back of the cave, close to where he had been dropped. He wore the clothes of a Halcyon, a citizen of the country he had been assigned to. His identity was that of a junior army captain in the Eastern Division of the Halcyon Army. His papers showed that he originated in the north of the country and had joined the Army and purchased his commission as a member of the Mine Protection Corps in the northern mountains. Being ambitious, he had requested a transfer to the Regular Army. His papers included a letter to the commander of the garrison in the third town of Halcyon, close to the border with the larger and more powerful country of Matheros.
The society was primitive, with little technology, and it reminded Arron of what it must have been like in late medieval times on earth. Communication was slow, transport by foot or by horse-like creatures, whilst either riding them or using a more muscular breed for pulling wagons or carts. They weren’t horses of course, but they were close enough for Arron to call them that in his head. Their real name was marvark, and with shaggy hair and short horns, they looked like slim long legged highland cattle. The people had no concept of planets or space, and certainly not aliens, so the chances of his identity being found to be false was nonexistent. Grojan’s landing on the planet would be instantly identifiable, with their ships and technology, so his task would be relatively easy, and he had been told it was why he was the only agent assigned to this particular planet. All he had to do was check in on a weekly basis using his compact quantum radio by just setting off an automated short transmission. He was not authorized to make personal contact unless the Grojan landed.
As he made his way further south he came to small farms and then villages, all the people he encountered were open and friendly, but all had dark brown to black hair and brown eyes. They all seemed to accept his gold blond hair and aquamarine eyes, but these things marked him out as different. He was certain Intelligence had made a mistake and had seriously considered requesting extraction, but as the days wore on and he became used to the occasional stare he decided against making the request. If he did request to be removed, he was certain he would be jeopardizing his position and career in the Intelligence Corps. Another thing they had told him was that his human name was similar to a Halcyon one, and his paperwork gave his name and rank as Arron, Captain Second Class, and he hoped they had not got that detail wrong as well.
The third day into his second week of traveling, the town walls of Harcross came into view. He reached the main gates by late afternoon. The gates were guarded by two bored guards wearing light linen armor and leaning on stout spears. They surveyed the crowds of people walking and riding through the gates, paying more attention to young females than anyone else.
Arron walked up to them. “Excuse me…”
They turned to look at him. “What the fuck do you want? Just move along.”
"I would like to know where the town garrison headquarters can be found.”
The eldest guard frowned; looking at Arron’s travel-stained clothes, and then pointed his spear at the gates. “Up the main street, last building on the right before the town square. Now fuck off and stop pestering us.”
Arron mumbled a “thanks soldier” and proceeded through the gates and up the main street. The town had a run down and neglected feel about it. There were plenty of people, but they all carried an air of despondency. Arron arrived at the guard headquarters and barracks, which was a decrepit and crumbling building. Well this looks good; he thought as he walked up the steps and pushed open the doors. The ground floor was deserted and an abandoned reception desk stood in front of what once had been a magnificent staircase. With no one around Arron shouted, “Hello, any one about?”
After a few moments a door creaked on the landing above and a gray haired head peaked out. “Who is doing all the shouting?”
Arron started up the steps. “Me sir, I’m looking for the guard commander.”
“Well you found him, who are you?”
“Arron sir, Captain Second Class.”
“Well, Arron Captain Second Class, what do you want?”
“I have been posted here sir, from the North.”
The guard commander looked surprised. “Well you had better come into my office then.”
Arron walked up the remainder of the stairs and followed the commander into his office. The office smelt of stale alcohol, vomit and urine, and Arron wrinkled his nose in disgust. The commander up close was old, his tunic stained with what Arron did not care to imagine. The small of stale urine seemed to be originating from the commander.
“Take a seat Captain.” He indicated a chair piled with folders and lose papers. “Here, let me clear it for you. He lifted the folders and dropped them unceremoniously on the floor. Arron sat and looked round. The office was a total mess; papers and empty bottles vied for space on the desk and the floor was an overspill of the desk.
“Got any papers, Captain?” The commander held out his hands.
“Yes sir.” Arron fumbled in his pocket, then handed the papers over. The commander squinted at them. “Good, excellent.” He took a large swig from a half-empty bottle at his elbow. “Wait there a minute.” The commander stood, swayed, then walked across unsteadily to the door and poked his head out. “Corporal Jerros!” He yelled.
Arron heard a voice from along the corridor. “Yes sir.”
“Come here, Jerros.”
“On my way, sir.”
The Commander ducked back into his office, and moments later a smart soldier in leather armor appeared at the door and saluted.
“Jerros, this is the new guard commander, Captain Arron, he has just relieved me.” He turned back to Arron, who could not believe what he was hearing. “Well, Captain, it’s all yours, I’ve had enough! You can forward anything you might find of mine to my sister’s farm west of the town.” He grabbed his helmet and headed out the door, and with a parting, “Jerros will help you,” he was gone.
Arron got to his feet. “Well I didn’t expect that to happen!”
Jerros stepped into the office. “I’m sorry, sir, he has wanted to retire to his sister’s farm for several years now, but no one wanted his job so he was stuck, until you turned up that is.”
“But I don’t know the first thing about running a town guard!”
“Don’t worry, sir, I’m sure you will settle in all right. After all, you can’t possibly make a worse job of it than him.” He jerked his thumb in the direction the commander had gone.
Arron’s mind raced. “Is there a Nightwatch commander, Jerros?”
Jerros laughed. “Nightwatch? No there’s been no Nightwatch for years. “Place gets pretty lawless at night.”
Arron ran his fingers through his hair. “Bloody hell!”
“You got anywhere to stay tonight, sir?”
Arron shook his head. “No, Jerros is it?”
“Yes sir. There’s the barracks, but it’s not really suitable for an officer, and the commander’s quarters… believe me you don’t want to step a foot in there until it has been fumigated.” His expression suddenly brightened. “My youngest sister owns an inn down the road; you can stay there until you are settled. I can take you there now sir if you like, and then you can start first thing in the morning, nice and fresh after your journey.”
“Thank you, Jerros, a comfortable bed would be much appreciated after the weeks of traveling, and I could do with a bath.”
Jerros chuckled. “Then please follow me, sir.” He led Arron out of the building, back along the street he had walked earlier, then turned right down a side street. A little way down the street a tidy looking inn stood out from the rest of the dowdy buildings. Jerros walked up the steps and ducked into the door, motioning Arron to follow. There were one or two people sitting in the bar, but it was still early in the evening. An attractive early middle-aged woman, displaying ample curves and breasts practically spilling over the top of her laced bodice, appeared from the back of the bar. “Jerros, what are you doing here?” She gave him a squeeze. Arron thought her breasts were going to pop out of the top of her bodice altogether as she hugged her brother to her.
She released him and stood back glancing in Arron’s direction. “Well who’s this then?”
“Sister, this is the new Commander of the town guard, Captain Arron, he needs somewhere to stay until the commander’s quarters are made habitable.”
She looked Arron up and down. “My, aren’t you the tall handsome one!” Arron blushed under her scrutiny. “And shy too I should say.”
Arron felt his face flush a deeper red. “Well, Captain Arron, a bit young for garrison commander aren’t you?”
“Well, Ma’am, it was not what I was expecting I have to say.”
“Don’t you Ma’am me, young man; I’m still young enough to give you a good time.” She leant forward, slightly exposing more of her ample curves and laughed. “Call me Jerina, please. Now follow me and I will show you to your room.
Jerros saluted. “Good night, sir, I will see you in the morning.”
“Good night, Corporal, and thank you.”
“You are welcome, sir.” He turned and left.
Jerina had stopped, waiting for him. Arron turned back to her and followed her up the stairs. The room she showed him to was small but neat and clean. She handed him the key. “Dinner is served from seven thirty tonight and breakfast from seven. See you later for dinner, Captain.”
“Thank you, Ma’a… Jerina, is there any chance of a bath?”
“Of course, I will send old Mercus up with a bath and some hot water.” She turned and exited the room, closing the door behind her. Arron had just removed his boots and traveling leathers when there was a knock at the door. He stood. “Yes?”
“Your bath, sir.”
Arron crossed to the door and opened it. An old man with a copper bath over his head walked in and placed it by the empty hearth. “I will get some hot water and towels for you, sir.”
“Thank you,” Arron replied.
About five minutes later the old man came back carrying two steaming buckets followed by a young boy carrying two more and a maid with clean towels. They emptied the buckets into the bath and the maid laid the towels on the bed. “Is there anything else sir? Would you like me to light the fire?”
“No thank you, that’s fine.”
Arron fumbled in his pocket for some small change and put it in the old man’s open hand. The old man bowed, said “thank you, sir,” turned and walked out of the room, closing the door carefully behind him.
Later that evening, much refreshed by his hot bath, Arron walked downstairs to the bar. To his surprise, other than a couple in the corner the place was empty.
He sat at a table and Jerina wondered over to him, “Dinner?”
“Yes please, Jerina, what do you have?”
“I have a nice stew if that is acceptable?”
“Yes, thank you, and a beer please.”
She walked behind the bar and pored him a beer, brought it over, then walked back to the bar and through to the kitchen Arron could see behind the bar. He sipped his beer, and then a little while later Jerina returned with a steaming plate of stew. The stew was lightly spiced and delicious, and he had just finished and cleared his plate with some freshly baked bread that she had brought him when she plonked herself down opposite to him.
He shifted uncomfortably under her gaze. “Yes, what?”
“Do you know what you have got yourself into, my handsome captain?”
Arron shook his head. “No, Jerina, I’m afraid I don’t, I was posted here as a junior second captain, but as soon as I arrived the commander told me it was all mine and he left.”
“The crafty old bastard.” She paused for a moment, regarding him again. “The guard is run by a corrupt sergeant, everything was fine until he arrived, he took advantage of his position and our weak commander let him. As time wore on the sergeant grew more powerful, and as he did so the commander slipped further into depression and the bottle. What you see now is a town oppressed by the very people sworn to protect it with the morale of the people at rock bottom. When you go in tomorrow, please be on your guard.”
She leant forward and grasped his hands as they were lying on the table. “Consider carefully packing and leaving here and not looking back.”
Arron smiled at her. “Jerina, I have been trained as an officer and I will do my duty. Besides, I have nowhere else to go.”