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CHAPTER THIRTY-SIX

Herzer wasn't too sure what being in a permanent station would be like, but it turned out to be not too different from training. They still drilled intensively every day, worked their weights and took regular road marches, not to mention a daily stroll up the Hill. In addition, they were put to work building a more permanent camp, making wooden barracks with planked wood walls and floors instead of the tents they had been occupying and making furniture for them. Herzer was fine at the construction but his inability to handle fine woodwork followed him to the furniture making. After seeing his first few disastrous attempts, Jeffcoat set him to other tasks.

The physical area of the camp was expanded and workers from the town extended the ditch and palisades under Herzer's direction. He also found himself in charge of their maintenance and pay and discovered the horrors of paperwork. However, he turned out to be capable of that as well and Jeffcoat, who it turned out was on the near side of functionally illiterate, turned more and more of the administration of the camp over to him. Herzer soon found himself handling pay records, training plans, duty rosters and all the other minutiae that is necessary to a well run military operation. When he found himself generating paperwork he decided that he'd been at it too long and started working on expansion plans in his spare time.

At his suggestion, part of the triari's training was to begin regular "simulated" battles with the town militia. This did two things. The first was that it gave the troops and the militia good training, more realistic than either group fighting decuri to decuri. The second thing was that the militia quickly discovered, and passed along the message, that there was a big difference between the two forces. At the first encounter Herzer, who was acting in the position of triari commander, had been surprised how easily the militia, many of whom had been reenactors before the Fall, had been routed. Part of it was the bowmen, who had set up in record time and "counterfired" the crossbowmen and short bows of the militia before the two infantry forces had even come to blows. The second was the difference in the disciplined shield line and "open formation" of the Blood Lords versus the more-or-less mob approach of the militia.

The militia formed in two lines with a solid line of basically unarmed shield wielders followed by spear and polearm wielders. The "sawtoothed" formation of the Blood Lords, and their superior discipline, permitted them to break up the shield formation and then rout the lighter armed interior groups. And this was without a pilum cast or even engaging the militia with the longbowmen. It went a long way to quelling an incipient war that was developing between the "civilians" and the military forces.

There still was a terrific lack of luxuries or free time in Raven's Mill. Everyone was working nearly nonstop. So on the Saturday evenings when the "soldiers" were let free on pass, the fact that most of them had some money to spend, and the fact that the town so rarely saw the intensity of their daily drill, had caused a fair amount of resentment. There had been a few fights and one stabbing of a soldier, fortunately not fatal. But after the first militia battle, when the militia was so handily and speedily routed, and after it was pointed out that the Blood Lords would be the first to engage any enemy, and hopefully the last, some of the disturbance subsided. There were still a few hotheads, on both sides, but exercise had helped ease the tension. And the fact that it was Herzer's idea brought him, again, to Edmund Talbot's attention.

He was laying out the parameters for the next battle one evening when the door of the triari office opened to reveal Mayor Talbot.

"Herzer, it's Saturday night," Edmund said. "What the hell are you doing still working? When I saw the lamplight, I figured it was Gunny."

"I'm trying to tighten up the scenario for the next battle, Mayor Edmund," Herzer said defensively. "We've got a real problem with not being able to cover enough frontage and I think that the archers could be better employed. But that means making training arrows of some sort or coming up with a scoring system. And Kane's going to argue the scoring system unless I've got good data." He gestured to the books on the desk and shrugged. "I've been going over the accounts of Crecy, Poitiers and Agincourt to define how many arrows are going to do what damage to the opposing force."

"Good God, son," Edmund laughed. "You should have just asked me; I've got those numbers memorized. And the simple answer is that if the militia really fought your group, it would get slaughtered in the first couple of minutes. Even though, you're right, you can't cover enough frontage. Son, you need to take a break. Put down the quill, put away the sword and come on down to the tavern for a drink. I'll buy the first round."

"Well, sir," Herzer said uneasily. "I don't know. I don't actually have much cash at the moment."

"Come on," Talbot said, grabbing his arm and hoisting him to his feet. "You're leaving. All work and no play isn't conducive to good personal development. For that matter, why don't you have any cash? The big argument has been that you troops are overpaid."

"Well, I haven't been spending it," Herzer replied, blowing out the lantern as they went out the door. "Actually . . . I've been saving it or investing it. Robert Usawe is starting a dredging operation and he's taking investors. Given what the masons are paying for river sand and rock, it looks as if we can make back the investment on the dredges and barges in about five months. And the actual operations costs are relatively low. So I've poured most of my money lately into that. I also stood part value on a loan to John Miller for an expansion of the sawmill. So it's not that I don't have money, it's just tied up."

"And I heard about your deal with young Michael," Edmund said with another chuckle. "Haven't you ever heard 'live for today for tomorrow we die'? Grab what you can while you can, son. There's no guarantee that you'll wake up tomorrow. I mean, yes, doing some investing is all well and good. But you should keep some money for your expenses and some decent living."

The town was filled with people enjoying the pleasant late summer evening and the two threaded their way through the crowds to Tarmac's tavern. The interior was crowded but Herzer saw that there was room at a table that had been taken over by First Decuri of the Blood Lords. Another section of the tavern was being held down by Kane, some of his cavalry troopers and a few of the militia/reenactors who were singing along to some song about barley. The redheaded minstrel was up on the stage—she seemed to have become a permanent fixture—and her band was leading the tune, with her singing loud enough to be heard over the off-key bellowing.

Herzer sat down by Pedersen as Edmund took the seat across from him and signaled to Estrelle for a round.

"What are you doing here?" Deann yelled over the noise. "I thought you'd still be burning the midnight oil!"

"I told him we don't have oil to burn!" Edmund called back, taking a brimming tankard and handing it to Herzer. "And that he needed to get out more!"

"Thass ri'!" Cruz shouted drunkenly. "Eat, drink and be merry, tomorrow we die!"

"And you're drinking on credit," Pedersen laughed. "Because you lost a week's pay to me at dice!"

"Tha' way you gonna make sure I li'!" Cruz said with a grin and a slap on the decurion's shoulder.

"What did you think of training?" Edmund asked.

"Bloody awful!" "Issh . . . ish shou'ln't happppen er a dog!"

"It was . . . interesting," Herzer replied. "I think the death march at the end was a particularly nice touch."

"Thanks," Edmund replied. "That was all mine!"

"Was it you that had us stop at the clearing at the end?" Herzer asked. "What's with the grave."

"That's for you to find out," Edmund replied, somberly. "There's a great man buried there. A great man. One of the finest generals in the history of the world. And totally forgotten except for a few relics like myself."

"Do you put the lemons there?" Herzer asked.

"No," Talbot replied with a grin. "That was implemented before my time. I'm glad to know it's still happening."

"Well, they're not bad," Herzer said with a shrug. "Not as sour as most lemons."

"You didn't eat it, did you?" Edmund asked, askance.

"Uh, yeah," Herzer replied, worried. "Why?"

"Hmmm," Edmund muttered. "You're . . . not having any odd dreams, are you?" he asked, looking the boy up and down.

"No."

"You sit up straight already, is that something you've learned or . . ."

"I've always had good posture," Herzer said. "What the hell are you getting at, Baron Edmund?"

"Well," Talbot replied with a shrug and a chuckle. "Probably no harm done. But if you start lifting your left arm over your head when you're thinking, we'll have to perform an exorcism."

"What?!"

The band had completed their last song and Cruz looked up from his beer bleerily and started banging the table rhythmically. "Cam-BREATH, Cam-BREATH, Cam-BREATH!"

The chant was taken up by others, including the cavalry in the corner and the minstrel shook her head.

"Fie on you soldiers!" she shouted with a laugh. "You're always calling for Cambreadth. I'll give you your Cambreadth!" With that she waved to the band and they started the song, but the lyrics were different than Herzer remembered. He knew the song well; it was practically the anthem of the Blood Lords and they sang it on every march. But this one was so different he began laughing and couldn't stop.

"Rambo Frog travels by the moon,
Meets with Mr Red Raccoon—
Soon they're joined by Tortoise & Hare,
To make sure the animals all play fair-
A fight's broke out near the water hole,
The natives have all lost control-
Froggy's boys come from on high,
'HOW MANY OF YOU CAN CATCH A FLY?' " 

When it got to the part where the frog was attacking the heron, Herzer was laughing so hard he had a hard time staying on the bench.

"Boy definitely needs to get out more," Deann laughed.

Herzer didn't realize that the first mug of beer was done until he was halfway through the second. And since the two beers had gotten together, they decided they needed some friends. As the evening went on it got a bit blurrier right up until both the groups were singing "Yellow Ribbon" and one of the cavalry troopers was suddenly shouting at Cruz.

"It's cavalry trooper you idiot!" the drunken trooper yelled, coming over to their table.

"It's legionnaire you pencil-necked horse-lover!" Cruz said, standing up.

"Yellow is the color of cavalry, you slope-browed moron!" the apparently suicidal trooper said. He was at least a head shorter than Cruz and at least twenty kilos lighter.

"Hey, hey, hey," Herzer said mildly, standing up and putting his hands on their chests to separate them. "Yel-low," he enunciated carefully, "is the col-or of the cav-al-ry, Cruj." Then he turned to the, yeah, pencil-necked cavalry trooper. "On the other han', the song is tradit . . . tradeee . . . of'en sung with udder symbo . . . udder stuff," he finished.

"Get away from me you cowardly fisk," the trooper said.

"What did you say?" Herzer asked, dangerously.

"You cut and ran on Doctor Ghorbani," the trooper sneered just before the fist crashed into his face.

Herzer didn't really remember most of the next minute or so. Later he had a clear view of Kane's face flashing past his eyes, apparently propelled through the air when trying to stop him and the cry of "BLOOD LORDS" from behind him. But the next thing he actually was aware of was a small, lithe body pressed into his back and holding his face to the floor with an absolutely unbreakable, and tremendously powerful, wrestling hold.

"No more drinks for you, Triari Herzer," Estrelle said calmly.

"Yes, ma'am," Herzer replied. The homunculus had his legs pinned in some sort of a scissors hold, his face braced into the floor and both of his arms twisted behind his back. And when he tried to writhe out she gave just enough of a twist for him to realize that she was only letting him have both shoulders stay together because she was programmed to reduce necessary harm. "I'll be good."

"Let him up, Estrelle," Herzer heard The Gunny say in his most Gunny voice.

Estrelle unwound herself and lifted his well-over-a-hundred-kilos weight as if he were a feather.

"What happened here?" Gunny asked.

"It was entirely my fault," Herzer said, miserably.

"There were words exchanged, Gunnery Sergeant Rutherford," Kane said, waving his hand as if to dismiss the incident. "One of my troopers made, quite loudly, a rather unfounded accusation. And Herzer took . . . violent exception to it."

"How is he?" the Gunny asked. "The trooper, that is."

"Well," Kane replied, rubbing a bruise that was starting to purple on his forehead, "we'll all live. But I think we might have to consider giving the cavalry and the Blood Lords different nights off."

"Herzer, did you lay hand on Cavalry Master Kane?" Gunny asked, coldly.

"I'm . . . not sure, Gunny," Herzer admitted.

"It was all a bit blurry to me as well," Kane said quickly. "I'd really suggest that bygones be bygones. Hot words, a few . . . clashes. They're soldiers, Gunny."

"No, my troops are Blood Lords, and they fight who I tell them to fight," Gunny said. "Herzer, return to the barracks. You are confined to quarters until I decide how this will be handled. You can consider yourself stripped of acting triari status. You are dismissed."

* * *

Herzer was lying in his bunk with his fingers interlaced behind his head when the other Blood Lords stumbled into the decuri bay.

"This is a fisking disgrace!" Deann said angrily. "That arrogant horse-fisker needed to be punched out. We can sing any damned thing we want!"

"I didn't hear what he said," Cruz said. "What the hell made you so angry; you practically punched him across the room. What a sweet sight, by the way."

"He said that I had cut and run on Doctor Ghorbani when she was raped," Herzer said, simply.

"WHAT?" Deann screamed. "When he gets out of the infirmary I'm going to kill him!"

"Deann," Herzer said quietly, "there's only one problem."

"What?!"

"It's true," he replied and rolled over on his side.

* * *

Kane came into Edmund's office when summoned and looked around at the others. Besides Edmund, who was behind the desk with a stony expression on his face, there were Gunny Rutherford and Daneh Ghorbani now swollen with child.

"Kane," Edmund said, gesturing at the couch next to Gunny. "Would you mind telling me, your side of the events last night. All of it, please."

"One of my troopers apparently tried to pick a fight with the Blood Lords over them changing the lyrics to a song," Kane said. "I was getting ready to drag him off when Herzer intervened and tried to separate them. The trooper, Trooper McIerran, then accused Herzer of having 'cut and run' when . . ."

"When I was raped," Daneh said, rubbing her stomach.

"Yes. At that point, Herzer punched him. Hard."

"His jaw is broken in multiple places," Daneh said. "I've tried to put it back together but he's never going to be much of a talker again. Fortunately, I might add," she said, spitefully.

Kane's face worked and he shrugged. "McIerran has . . . never been one of my best troops. The problem is that he was thrown across our table when Herzer hit him and a couple of my other troops took exception to the action, whether it was the blow or the drinks spilled everywhere. And then Herzer was going after McIerran as if to kill him. So we attempted to . . . intercede. Two of my other troopers and a couple of militiamen are . . ."

"Down for at least a few days," Daneh sighed and shifted positions. "Herzer is . . ."

"Herzer is the question we have to address," Edmund said pinching the bridge of his nose. "The problem is, according to Daneh, the accusation is true. Something she had so far failed to make clear," he added, stonily.

"True and . . . not how it sounds," Daneh sighed. "He was with McCanoc's band, but from what I have been able to glean they weren't doing anything wrong up until then. They were just . . . surviving. It was a confusing time. He was lost like most of the rest of us and he knew McCanoc and . . . Aggh!" she threw up her arms. "You know what that time was like! I shouldn't have to explain it!"

"Go on," Edmund said, quietly.

"Some of McCanoc's men caught me and brought the rest, including Herzer. He told McCanoc I was a friend of his and McCanoc's answer was, more or less, that that was good, he could go first."

"Ouch," Kane said, shaking his head.

"McCanoc had drawn his sword. Herzer was unarmed and outnumbered. If he'd tried to fight he would have died and it wouldn't have changed anything!" Daneh snarled then winced as the baby made a sudden motion. "This is my honor and my body that we are talking about and if anyone should be angry," she added, looking pointedly at Edmund, "it should be me."

"And you're not?" Kane asked, surprised.

"Herzer was my patient," she said with a sigh. "Before the Fall. I put a lot of work in him. I would prefer not to see it wasted." She paused and sighed again. "What other feelings I have beyond that are mine."

"Did Trooper McIerran actually have information about this?" Edmund asked.

"Well, he's not talking very well," Kane admitted. "But he indicated that, no, it was a shot in the dark. I've . . . heard the rumors too." He shook his head and shrugged. "Herzer has become popular in the community. He's well known to some of the major members of the community and his actions at the roundup are already legendary. Including his . . . somewhat intense heroism. That has caused a degree of envy. Some of the sequence of events are known about your . . . attack, doctor. Not this sequence but that Herzer was there even before anyone else."

"Rachel," Daneh said, pursing her lips.

"Probably, but not generally," Kane corrected. "Rachel to some friend to another friend all getting mixed into rumor. A nice juicy rumor to pull down somebody who just comes across as too Simon Pure to be true. A rumor which, unfortunately, now appears to be true."

"Gunny, effects on the Blood Lords," Edmund said with a sigh.

"Bad. Herzer's one of their natural leaders. They're not sure how to handle him now. Being a hero is what they're all about. 'Fight until you die and drop.' He ran. He's a coward in their eyes. They're very black and white about that. On the other hand, he's one of them. More now that he's not triari. They're rallying around him, but you can tell they're uneasy about doing it. We've had two more fights in the last two days."

"What's your take?" Edmund asked. "Where are you, Miles?"

Gunny thought about it for a moment then shook his head. "How many, Doctor?"

"Eight," she said neutrally.

"Armed?"

"One with a bow, McCanoc with a sword and a couple of other daggers."

"Maybe, maybe I could have fought my way out of that," Gunny said. "And kept you alive and unraped doing it. Herzer, no way. Not then. Probably not now. One day, sure even against McCanoc. He made the tactical decision to retreat and leave you behind. Sometimes, you have to cut your losses. When he came back, he was armed, wasn't he?"

"Yes," she said, softly, kneading her stomach.

"He was probably dreading coming back and finding you with your throat cut. If he has nightmares, that is probably them. And if he had, I don't think he'd be alive now, but most of them would be dead as well. He doesn't have an ounce of quit in him. He'll do. I can handle the Blood Lords. I'm not to sure how he's going to take it, though."

"He's liable to kill himself being the hero, is the answer," Edmund replied, gritting his teeth until the rest could hear them squeak.

"Edmund, forgive him," Daneh ordered sharply.

"I will," Edmund replied. "Just do me the favor to give me a little time. All right?"

"All right," she said, unhappily.

"People will be down on him, though," Edmund said. "That's natural. I'd watched people build him up even when he didn't mean it to happen. Now they're going to drag him down."

"I'll work on that," Daneh said determinedly. "I'll bring it up in the next session. And the Ladies will let it Be Known that coming down on Herzer doesn't work."

"Rachel," Edmund said.

"Family," Daneh said, nodding at the others.

"Okay, if that's it . . ."

"Not . . . quite," Kane said unhappily. "You know how you wanted me to send a patrol down valley?"

"Yes?" Edmund said. There had been a report from a pack trader that a "large force" was seen moving north near Rowana. The target could be either Raven's Mill or Washan. The patrol had been sent out to see if it was Washan and another was due to head down the valley to see what was happening there.

"Well, my 'patrol' is in the hospital. The rest of the riders are out patrolling south of Resan. I've only got three left hale, and myself. I'd rather be here for when the others get back. And I don't want to send three out by themselves. Besides, they're all . . . pretty inexperienced."

"Shit," Edmund said, shaking his head. He thought about it a moment longer then cursed. "Ah, hell."

"Yeah," Kane replied. "You just got to the part I got to a while ago."

"Herzer," Gunny grunted.

"He can stay on a horse better than most of my riders," Kane said. "Way better than the three I've got left. I mean, it's him, me or Edmund."

"I can ride," Gunny said. "I can even fight on horseback."

"No," Edmund said. "For the same reason Kane and I can't go. That pack trader said there were a bunch of them and he thought it was only part of the force. If this is the force that hit Resan, I don't want either of you off on a patrol, much less cut down on one."

"And you're thinking of sending Herzer?" Daneh asked.

"He's disposable," Edmund said brutally. "At least, more so than any of the three of us, or you for example."

"So you're thinking of sending him out on patrol with three cavalrymen when he's just put the rest of their squad in the hospital?" she asked. "You're out of your mind."

"Well, they won't give him any guff," Kane snorted. "Not to his face."

"Herzer's . . ." Daneh stopped and shook her head. "He's . . . more vulnerable to stuff behind his back than to his face. And how do you know one of them won't slip a knife in his ribs when he's asleep?"

"Oh, come on, Daneh," Kane said angrily. "They're not that mad. They're more contemptuous than mad. Getting him out of town is a benefit for that matter. It will let things settle down, give people something else to gossip about."

"How long?" Edmund asked.

"Two weeks," Kane replied. "Straight down the west valley then back up the east. Spare horse with fodder apiece."

"Do it," Talbot said.

"Edmund!"

"This discussion is over," he replied, coldly.

"I'll inform him," Gunny said, getting up. "Edmund, Kane, Mistress Ghorbani," he nodded then left the room followed by Kane.

"This discussion is not over," Daneh said, standing up and sweeping up her skirts.

"I'll see you tonight," Edmund sighed, picking up his glasses and turning back to his paperwork.

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