(At last, here is the promised teaser from Alexei’s backstory novella! It’s called The Swordsman, and should be out sometime this year, though I won’t make any promises about a date just yet. This is still technically a first-draft bit, not much edited yet, from the beginning of the story.)
It took Vida Huldari a long moment to identify the sound she was hearing as the wailing of a young child.
Shocked, the mercenary kapteeni cut off in the middle of giving orders to her troops and swung around to figure out where the noise was coming from. How could a child have survived this?
“I think the barn, Kapteeni,” one of the archers said, gesturing with her bow to the burnt-out remains of the building in question.
“But how—” Vida cut her own question short, already striding quickly over the scorched and churned-up earth, her troops following her just as quickly, others converging on the barn from other directions.
The group of raiders who had come over the hills from Lehenn had hit fast and hard. They had been well-organized and well-trained, and Vida suspected that they might have been a mercenary troop from somewhere further west, rather than bandits in the usual sense. It wasn’t unheard-of for the Lehennic city-states on the other side of the hills to occasionally send or encourage raids into Suomilen lands. There were, of course, landowners in Suomen who sometimes responded in kind, and there were mercenary companies here who made themselves available for work of that sort. Vida personally refused to work for any such company; it was one thing to fight and kill in defense of the innocent, or even to take the offensive against a known threat. She refused to become that threat for other innocents, just because they happened to live outside of Suomen.
Thus, she had long been with the Falconwing Mercenary Company, which worked solely defensive contracts; they had work enough regardless. The company had been hired two years ago to guard this part of western Suomen, and Vida’s troop had responded swiftly to their scouts’ reports of the raiders in this area, stopping and killing them before they had the chance to get very far at all. The local villages were all safe, as well as most of the farms, and the complete destruction of the intruders should send a sufficient warning back across the hills to keep things calmer for a time.
Their only failure was here, just at the foot of the border hills, where two isolated farmsteads had been hit by the raiders before the Falconwing troops could reach them.
Vida Huldari did not consider that to be in any way acceptable; better scouting would have to be arranged, or better communication. It was their job to make sure that everyone in the area they were hired to protect was safe, not just those who lived in the easily-defensible places.
She had thought, sad and grim, that the slaughter on this farm had been complete, as it had been at the other…but now there was a wailing child calling her into the gutted remnants of the barn, and leading her to the opening of a now partially-unconcealed storage hole, set deep into the earth below the structure.
The cries were coming from inside. Vida swallowed. “Get the remains of the door off, as quickly as you can while making sure that nothing falls down inside.”
The troops who had followed her obeyed instantly. Examining the area around what had been the trap-door, Vida saw the remains of hay or straw that had been piled over the door, perhaps concealing it, though it had burned away in the fire the raiders had set. It looked as though someone in the family had hidden the child here, hoping that it might survive the raid; whoever lived here would have known that help would come soon, even if it had not come soon enough.
This hope, at least, they would bear out.
The damaged trap-door was gone in short order, and Vida knelt to peer down into the storage pit, one of the other women bringing over a torch to provide more light.
The child stood, somewhat shakily, supporting itself against the dirt wall of the pit and crying more quietly now, wide gray eyes staring up at them uncertainly.
“Hush, little one,” Vida called down to the child, “we will have you out soon.”
It was the work of but a few more moments for one of the men to clamber down and lift the child up to waiting hands before climbing out again himself.
The child, a boy, was passed to Vida, who took him automatically, only remembering once she was holding him that she had very little experience with children herself. His cries had stopped, at least for the moment, and he was watching her with wide eyes. He did not seem very old, perhaps a bit more than a year at most.
“What is your name, little one?” Vida asked. Hesitantly, then with greater confidence, the child began to speak, but the words were still baby-gibberish. Not old enough yet to be speaking properly, then, although he was clearly close.
“Kapteeni?” someone asked, and Vida looked around to find most of the troop gathered around her. “What will we do with him?”
The swordswoman looked back at the child, who stared around at the gathered crowd, and then buried his face against her neck, starting to sniffle ominously again.
“We will look after him for now,” she decided quickly, “and send out word to learn the identity of the family here, and see if he has any other relatives who will take him in.”
“And…if he doesn’t?” That was one of her kersantti, looking at the little boy with a mixture of trepidation and hopefulness. Looking around, Vida realized that he wasn’t the only one; several of the men and women in her troop had similar expressions.
Vida took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “I am sure that he has someone who can take him in,” she said carefully, “but if he does not, then I suppose we will speak with headquarters and see what should be done next.”
With that, she sent them back about their assigned tasks, which everyone resumed with hearts just a little lighter. Heading out of the burnt-down barn, whose remaining structural integrity was questionable, Vida was relieved to find that the child had fallen asleep in her arms. She was able to sit on a stump in the churned-up yard and direct her troops without having to expose the boy to the ruins of his home and family.
Looking down at the wispy golden hair growing over his head, Vida frowned slightly, then sighed and forced the worries out of her mind. Surely the boy had family somewhere, and one of the nearby villages must have known the names of his parents, and possibly the child himself. He would go to his kin, and that would be the end of it.
She and her troops could be glad that they had saved one life here, and truthfully the best thing they could do for him was to work on bettering their scouting and communications to make sure that this never happened again.
kapteeni – captain
kersantti – sergeant
(c) Ethelinda Webb, 2019