Chapter 9 Scene 2

by Richard Perkins
This entry is part 33 of 65 in the series Doormaker's Fall

After a late breakfast, Fronek and Devon took stock of the farmhouse and its surroundings. Part of the roof had collapsed. Most of the building was a total loss. But the hearth in the large central room was still sound. The chimney above it had held up a section of the roof when the rest of it gave way, leaving behind a cozy lean-to complete with functional fire place.

It would do, Fronek thought to himself as he put Devon to work cleaning out a useable area. He could see the boy struggling with his curiosity, but Devon did not question their actions.

After an hour of silent chores, Fronek sat cross-legged in their new shelter. He motioned for Devon to do the same. “Devon, never be ashamed of your innate desire to understand. It is one of your greatest strengths.” This comment left Devon looking more confused, if anything.

Fronek sighed. “There are times when you must question your orders so that you may understand them. And there are times when you must act immediately and save your questions for later.”

Devon looked up at Fronek. “But how will I know the difference?”

Fronek chuckled, shaking his head. “Learning to distinguish the two unfortunately takes experience. For now, if you have a question, you may ask it.”

Devon nodded. “What are we doing?”

Fronek smiled. “Isn’t it obvious? We’re cleaning.”

“I know, but that’s not what I meant!”

“Then consider this your first lesson. Always say what you mean, especially when questioning orders from a superior. You may only have the chance to ask a single question about your assignment, so make it count boy. Take the time to frame the question in your mind before asking it. Try again.”

Devon looked at his hands for a moment before his second attempt. “Why are we still here, and how long do you expect us to stay?”

“That’s a better question. Two better questions actually. I’ll answer the first in two parts.”

Fronek held up one finger. “Before you can join a trade caravan as a guard, you need to understand what will be expected of you. Training.”

Fronek waited for Devon to nod in agreement before holding up a second finger. “Before I can vouch for you as my apprentice, I need an understanding of your capabilities, and your weaknesses. Testing.”

Fronek lowered his hand. “Both require space away from distractions and prying eyes. Here we have access to training grounds with varied terrain. We have shelter. We have solitude. Now in answer to your second question, I will ask a question of my own. Did anyone arrive at Guardian Village this morning before you left the inn to track me?”

Devon raised his head to look at his mentor. “The messengers from a trade caravan.”

Fronek nodded. “I thought they might. That means the Bazaar will start in two days. The early merchants and smaller factors will leave within a quint. The larger factors with more to protect will stay a couple days more, especially if a second trade caravan arrives. And the last stragglers will hang around a few days beyond that to soak up any coins the factors leave untaken. Who will be most likely to hire us?”

“The factors?”

Fronek shook his head. “You’d think that, but not usually. Large factors have deep pockets, but they often travel with their own private guards. Smaller factors do occasionally hire mercs if they have unusual trades, so we can’t rule them out. But our best chance for a commission will probably come from a smaller outfit in a later caravan. They won’t have private guards, and probably will have left the Fertile Plains too late to hire mercs there. On the return trip they’ll be carrying more coin, and have a greater need to protect it. We can name our price.”

Fronek paused, looking at his charge. “So Devon, you tell me. How long will we be here?”

“We’ll need to be back in town just before the factors leave in two quints, in case one of them has a commission.”

Fronek nodded, as he rose to his feet. “That leaves us eight or nine days for training and testing. Come. We have much to do, and little time to do it.”

The next several days were a blur. Each morning, they spent the first hours of every day drilling. Fronek pushed him hard, testing the boundaries of his skill and endurance.

At the end of every session, Fronek would give him a series of solo exercises to complete. These routines increased in complexity daily. Though Fronek never explained what the routines were meant to achieve, Devon never questioned them. If nothing else, they gave him time to recover from sparring practice with his mentor.

In the afternoons they scouted the foothills. Sometimes they would return to camp with fresh game. But more often than not, they just observed trail signs which Devon would interpret under Fronek’s watchful eye. Fronek only corrected the boy a few times, otherwise agreeing with Devon’s keen observations.

After several days of following trails, they started talking about hiding them instead. This topic was new to Devon, and the tactics Fronek taught him were both inspired and devious. Devon found himself thinking about trail signs in a whole new way, and the lessons made him an even more formidable tracker than he already was.

In the evenings Fronek taught Devon about history, geography, philosophy, and any other subjects that sparked the boy’s interest. He brought out maps and had the boy redraw them from memory. He described the politics of the Desert Tribes and the Fertile Plains. He described weather patterns and their effects on military tactics.

Devon was avidly curious, and drawn in by Fronek’s lessons like a moth to the flame. He asked countless questions which Fronek never chided him for. But he found himself more tired each evening as Fronek’s daytime regiment took its toll on his body.

The physical training changed subjects as abruptly as the campfire lectures. They started the first day with archery. But Devon’s skill and speed with his bow quickly impressed Fronek, and they moved on to training with other weapons.

The second day they sparred with flexible wands that Fronek supplied. Devon soon had more bruises than he could count. Try as he might, he never managed to score a single touch on the mercenary. Fronek was maddeningly quick, his attacks like a flickering dance, and the patterns of his movements elusive.

After three days of this punishment, Devon ached everywhere that he could reach and several places that he couldn’t. Pain was his constant companion. But he never complained.

They cut their wand sparring session short on the fourth day at the camp. Fronek assigned a longer than normal solo exercise regimen while he returned to the village to buy more supplies. Devon and his bruises were grateful for the reprieve. And their dinner that night was another welcome change from the travel rations they had been eating.

They moved from flexible wands to heavy staffs the next morning. Rather than spar with these, Fronek led Devon through a careful pattern of moves. These evolved into a stately dance with carefully choreographed staff contacts that accelerated as Devon mastered the pattern. Then Fronek changed their roles and they began again.

After a time he began to call out role changes in the middle of the routine. It was draining in both body and mind, but strangely fulfilling. After two days with the quarterstaff, Devon was exhausted as never before.

On the morning after they stopped quarterstaff training, Fronek brought out two pairs of short wands. They sparred as knife fighters, and here Fronek’s quickness and grace was again evident. Devon absorbed as much as he could, trying to mimic Fronek’s style. But as with the long wands, he never managed to break through the mercenary’s defenses. His perseverance earned him a score of new bruises on his hands and arms.

Their eighth day at the camp dawned cold and gray. Clouds bruised the horizon, laden heavy with the threat of snow.

“Devon, come with me.”

Fronek led him away from the camp to a high ridge of exposed rock south of the collapsed farmhouse. Under the lowering sky, they scrambled up onto the ridge, where Fronek stood gazing at the horizon to the south. Devon waited by his side in silence.

“What is it sir?”

“There is activity outside the village. What can you tell me about it?” Fronek looked expectantly at Devon, but said nothing more.

Devon turned his attention southward. Guardian Village nestled in the valley below them. Wisps of smoke curled up from a handful of chimneys to be lost against the leaden sky. Beyond the village a small road wound like a ribbon between the folds of the Barrier foothills separating the town from the Great Desert. And beyond those hills, the flat, empty sands of the desert marched away to meet the sky in a distant stripe of gray above tan.

But the sands weren’t empty, not quite. Devon could see motion on the dunes, and the smudge of dust rising into the air. A haze could be seen above the foothills as well. It could have been the smoke from several campfires, although Devon could not see its source directly. He turned to Fronek, who waited expectantly.

“Well, scout? What do you have to report?”

Devon drew himself up, trying to speak clearly. “Sir, there is a group moving in the desert below the town. There is another group in the foothills. I would guess that they are trade caravans but can’t be sure. I can’t tell any more from here.”

Fronek nodded, and then put his hands behind his back. He pursed his lips as he looked up at the clouds. Then he appeared to come to a decision, and nodded.

“There will be no sparring lessons today Devon. It’s time for you to learn the importance of good reconnaissance.”

“Sir?”

Fronek gave the barest hint of a smile before elaborating. “You said you can’t tell any more about the forces outside the village from here. You were right. But we need more information than that, and you’re going to get it. I want you to treat this as a scouting mission. Your first.

Devon’s eyes lit up at this new task. “What do you want me to do?”

“What scouts do. Find out who’s milling around down there and why. We need to know the composition of each group: how many wagons, drivers, passengers, merchants, guards, livestock, and cargo. Find out where they’re going, when they plan to move, and how quickly they intend to travel.” Fronek smiled.

Devon nodded. “Yes sir. I think I can do that.”

Fronek nodded. “Good. We need that information tonight in order to plan for tomorrow. And Devon, just one more thing.”

Tonight! Devon swallowed hard. “Yes sir?”

“A scout on reconnaissance moves like a shadow on a moonless night. Make sure you are neither seen nor heard. Good luck.”

Devon’s jaw dropped. He thought Fronek couldn’t be serious, but the mercenary just chuckled as he turned to stroll toward the collapsed farmhouse. As he left he called back over his shoulder.

“Best get moving scout. You’re burning daylight.”

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