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Authors: Michelle Hauck

Grudging

BOOK: Grudging
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DEDICATION

For the dreamers who refuse to give up.

Take chances.

 

CHAPTER 1

R
amiro guided his horse to the waiting ranks of the
pelotón
, taking his position at the back of the long file of riders along the dusty road. Sweat slicked his palms inside his leather gloves, and his helmet wobbled despite the chinstrap. He maneuvered his mare, Sancha, sidestepping her into position among the other soldiers. In their rightful place, he laid the reins across his knee, signaling that he'd be using his legs to guide Sancha, not the leather straps.

Ramiro wedged his feet in the stirrups as Alvito moved his mount alongside, pinning Ramiro between him and the next man. “Don't look so pale,” Alvito said with a grin. “You'll not earn your beard this day.” He stroked his own neatly sculpted black whiskers, adding a wink to cut the sting of his words. His beard was artwork, all straight lines and right angles, shaved to the edge of the jaw with a square patch under his lower lip. His hair tended to curl, a fashion Alvito encouraged with musk-­scented oil. The heavy aroma didn't seem to discourage women; Alvito never seemed to be without at least one hanging on his arm.

From Ramiro's other side, Sergeant Gomez gave him a playful push with a fist the size of a ham. The force would have knocked Ramiro off his saddle if he hadn't locked his legs. Gomez's beard was a study in opposites from Alvito's. A nest of brambles to his chest, his hair grew wherever it could sprout. “Rookie. You'll stay the
bisoño
until we tell you otherwise.”

A gentle ribbing to let Ramiro know they remembered this would be his first real ride. “Peach face,” someone said from the middle rank.

First ride.
First time as something other than a trainee squire brought along to clean armor or mind the warhorses. First chance to earn his beard and be considered a man. Bare chin or not, he was a part of it now, and no amount of needling was going to take that away from him.

At the front of the
pelotón
, Captain Salvador raised his sword to indicate they hold position. The captain wore his beard trimmed short and covering chin and jaw—­neat but not fanatically styled.

Ramiro touched the flattened metal coin bound close to his throat. His gloved fingers couldn't trace the image of San Martin, but San Martin would send his blessing anyway. A blessing from one soldier to another.

Only then did he register what waited sixty yards up the road under the spreading mesquite trees. Here, the way narrowed between two steep hills, creating essentially a box canyon. The Northerners had positioned themselves into a square, extending themselves across the road and onto the sand along the edge, wedged defensively like a cork in a wine bottle. They ranged right up to the spindly trees at the edge of the sheer hills, pikes protruding like six-­foot spines from a hedgehog and shields tight. Like all the Northerners they'd seen, these had no horses.

Their commander, who couldn't be bothered to lift a weapon, strutted across the front, a proud rooster in his black-­and-­yellow uniform. Why would he need a weapon when the Northerners outnumbered them by better than ten to one?

Ramiro swallowed, the motion tight against his helmet's strap. This was no line of straw-­stuffed practice dummies. They were experienced soldiers. The pale-­skinned, unbearded Northerners had appeared one day by the thousands, snapping up each
ciudad-­estado
before the sun set on the next. The city-­states that included Ramiro's home were unused to working together, and too often they resorted to petty bickering. Vulnerable in their independent isolation, the
ciudades-­estado
were easy targets. And now the Northerners blocked the most direct route to their closest neighbor, which meant that in order to find out what happened with Aveston, they had to go through the hedgehog of spears.

Ramiro stroked Sancha's neck. “We'll be fine, girl.” He said it as much to assure himself as his horse.

A single desert wren called in the distant trees, signaling a mate with its come-­hither song. The men of the north began to shift, their ridged ranks rippling. Ramiro frowned, trying to determine what would cause them to break formation. Their officer gave a shout, his words lost on the summer breeze. His meaning became clear soon enough.

Two men broke free of the hedgehog, pushing a handbarrow ahead of them. They raised the handles and shoved. Bodies toppled out. Ramiro hid an embarrassing flinch from his companions and squinted to gain a better view, lifting himself in the stirrups. Splashes of green-­and-­gray clothing.

By the saints, it was their missing scouts.

One of the Northerners held a severed head by its dark hair. A gash of red covered the lower jaw. The beard had been hacked off, leaving the face mutilated. No doubt other parts had been equally violated. Ramiro kept a check on his anger and tried not to imagine the scene in detail, glad the distance between them let him avoid seeing the staring, sightless eyes of men from his home city, not to mention the thick cloud of feasting flies.

The Northerners did the same to any civilians they caught, regardless of age or gender. Ramiro had helped bury what was left often enough to know the enemy's depravity.

Growls came from the men around him, and many spat, their eyes hard. As if he were in church, Ramiro brushed his fingertips against his body's centers of emotion to clear his pathways of unwanted passion: mind, heart, liver, spleen. Only cowards disfigured the dead or camped in front of cities, relying on starving women and children instead of engaging men in honest combat.

Captain Salvador turned his mount to face his
pelotón
. He had no need to raise his voice like the rooster peasant of the Northerners. Breastplate and armor gleamed bright silver, while the sleeves of his green-­and-­gray, close-­fitting uniform were neatly crisp and crease-­free. The eagle feather of his rank waved proudly on top of his helmet. His beard and mustache were the same thickness, without a scraggly patch, and for some reason, the neatness of his appearance steadied the men. “Ready?” he asked, meeting their eyes with a nod and an unwavering gaze.

“Hi-­ya,” rippled through the ranks. Men set their shoulders and drew their swords. Here and there, they tapped fists to breastplates for luck. The
caballos de guerra
, warhorses, shook themselves and tossed their heads and tails, sensing the anticipation in the air.

“Hi-­ya.” The corners of Gomez's eyes creased as he grinned. His white teeth were a sharp contrast against skin the color of black olives. He set his helmet over the dark stubble of his summer-­shorn hair. The gleaming dome of silver rode low enough in the back to cover even Gomez's thick neck. Gomez touched each of his weapons in turn with ritual somberness.

“Hi-­ya,” Alvito agreed, giving a last curl to his mustache.

Captain Salvador pierced Ramiro with his sharp gaze. “Ready, brother?”

“Hi-­ya,” he managed, though his belly wanted to reject his last meal of cheese and bread. He tapped his steel breastplate, then gripped the horse bow tight and gave a nudge to the quiver at his knee to be sure the arrows were loose and ready at hand. “Brave and bold,” he whispered to Sancha. Captain Salvador's trick would work. It had to.

Salvador's sword came down, and the
caballos de guerra
responded without a sound. As one, the
pelotón
broke into a canter, a hundred varieties of dapple-­gray horseflesh. They took advantage of the smoothness of the road to risk an all-­out gallop.

Ahead, the hedgehog of Northerners drew in on itself, then solidified. Their officer scurried behind the protection of their ranks.

Fifty yards.

Forty.

Ramiro gripped his bow and tried to glory in Sancha's speed and the companionship of the
pelotón
. Wind caught their standard, lifting it out to display San Martin as a simple priest.
I am death. For the saints, I bring retribution.

Thirty yards.

He eyed Gomez and Alvito to make sure Sancha held perfect position, nudging her forward a little. Now he could identify individual features among the Northerners, their too-­pale skin, odd hair colored like sand, and, worst of all, their light eyes. They looked kin to the swamp witches though surely even those legendary murderers would not want to be related to these mutilating barbarians.

Twenty yards.

Death! Retribution! For Colina Hermosa and
Santiago!
The road thundered with hooves. Ramiro kept the horse bow hidden behind Sancha's mane as Salvador had instructed, seeing Gomez and Alvito do the same.

His heartbeat thudded in his ears, and his vision tightened in on the points of the pikes. The steel heads were sinfully sharp, a good five inches long, ready to pierce flesh whether it be horse or man. To tear and rip while impaling.

Screams of defiance burst from the throats of the thirty men surrounding him. He added his own to the din. “Death! Retribution! Santiago!” The Northerners remained eerily silent. They didn't even understand the tactics of true war. They simply steeled themselves for the impact of this suicidal charge into their wall of spears.

They would find out the truth soon enough.

At less than five yards, close enough to see the Northerners' gritted teeth, Captain Salvador swerved. Instead of throwing themselves onto the pikes, the head-­forward charge of the
pelotón
became a gentle arc, following their leader in perfect formation. Their screams changed, becoming full-­throated, mocking laughter. Taunts and jeers erupted from Ramiro's companions.

“Motherless goat fuckers!”

“Twice cowards!”

“Saintless barbarians!”

Captain Salvador passed the hedgehog close enough to give one of the pikes a slap with the flat of his sword and added his own jeer. “Dogs! You're not worth our time,” he shouted as the
pelotón
thundered after him, reversing direction to curve back the way they had come.

Whether the Northerners understood the language or not, the intent was unmistakable, and their pale skin turned blotchy red. Astonishment turned to outrage as the enemy streamed by just out of reach of their weapons. As Salvador predicted, the first Northerner broke ranks—­a short man with a thatch of dirty, straw-­colored hair—­to stab his pike in their direction. The
pelotón
corrected, adjusting to maintain their distance.

Another man charged forward some steps, taking his neighbor with him. Then another left the hedgehog formation.

Exactly as Salvador had planned.

Just coming into range, Ramiro lifted his short, curved bow, drawing back the string. He aimed not for the men who broke ranks, but for the infantry left vulnerable behind them. He released and sent his arrow into a Northerner's chest. The hum of Gomez and Alvito's arrows echoed around him.

He scrambled for a second shaft, and released in a blur, unsure whether he'd struck true. Then Sancha completed her arc, and he was away, following the rest of his troop back to their starting point.

The
pelot
ón
kept up the insults, but now the laughter sounded unforced. Ramiro checked over his shoulder and saw the Northern officer burst forth from the hedgehog. Gone was his strut; now he screamed in a hoarse language at his men. A gleam of steel appeared in his hand, then the short Northerner with the strange thatch of hair crumpled. Unable to catch his mounted opponents, the officer had turned on his men, who'd broken ranks.

Alvito muttered a curse at having to break away and not satisfy his bloodlust against the Northerners. Ramiro pushed down his own surge of disappointment. He wanted to turn and give fight—­only in close, hand-­to-­hand combat could he earn his beard—­but they had their orders. Search and report only. There would be other days.

Many of them.

Captain Salvador slowed their withdrawal to a trot, letting the horses breathe and heading them toward Colina Hermosa, leaving a handful fewer of the Northerners to trouble them and something for the barbarians to think about.

R
amiro's helmet swung from its strap on his saddle, allowing the cooling breeze to reach his neck as they followed the road back to Colina Hermosa and home. His breastplate straps weighed heavy on his shoulders. Sancha swished lazily at flies with her tail, the skin over her flank quivering as the hum of cicadas filled the afternoon air. Olive trees grew in the stony soil on one side of the road, while the other side contained grapevines woven across metal wires. A windmill spun in a slow circuit, pumping water from deep wells to irrigate the fields. Smoke rose in the distance, the column too thick to be a campfire. The Northerners had done little damage to crops, only burning small sections of land, mostly grainfields. They were too assured of their eventual victory to ravage the rest. But humans and their habitations were another story: Neither were left standing.

Other members of the
pelotón
remained vigilant, looking for ambushes or enemy patrols, but such was not Ramiro's duty on this day. He could allow his mind to wander . . . or would if his companions ever closed their mouths.

“Still got that razor, I hope,” Alvito teased, touching his artwork of a beard. “I think you're going to need it for a while longer, kiddo.”


Bisoño,
” Sergeant Gomez said fondly from his towering height, his bushy beard thick and ratted as a magpie's nest. “We shall keep you in our pockets as a mascot.”

“Perfect idea,” Alvito said. “A mascot. Why, we'll keep you safe as a newborn lamb.”

Ramiro rolled his eyes. “I took down two.”

“Two, he says.” Alvito laughed and touched his bow. “Didn't you see my three? Two is the work of a child.”

“Or a mascot,” Gomez added. “I believe I may have hit four. But the bow is a coward's weapon. One should not brag about such kills.” He glanced toward the olive trees as coyly as a modest maiden seeking to avoid praise, a laughable sight from the mountain-­sized man. “Skill with a bow is necessary, but one shouldn't pretend it gives honor or can make you a man.”

BOOK: Grudging
12.1Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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