When the Gods give you something, use it. Marydyth Shalina Forlan ZelíKaryn was gifted with remarkable speed and reflexes, which she turned into sword skill few could match. Wielding the dragon blood sword, Sang Del Dracl, Marydyth made a name for herself with the Army of Coravia. But it was a name she wasnít happy with ó Mary Death.
The Legend of Mary Death
When the great dragon Dandarshandrake left Luxand, there was a massive upheaval in their society. Without his stabilizing influence, factions sprang up in the provinces, openly revolting against the rule of the Emperors of Lux.
Civil war erupted as the Provincial Governors broke away, proclaiming themselves kings and their provinces kingdoms. Great battles were fought between the fledgling kingdoms as they sought to be independent. The followers of Lady Sahren and Lord Lebawan made matters worse as they also tried to take the place of the great dragon.
But the absence of Dandarshandrake didn’t mean his experiment stopped. The genetic modifications he had made to the people of Lux continued as the people, stratified by society and disposition, selectively bred themselves to reinforce their best traits.
More than three hundred years after he left, those genes combined in a way Dandarshandrake would have approved, and a truly remarkable individual was born.
It was spring in the Kingdom of Coravia during the twenty-sixth year of the reign of King Nelisdan Zel'Darvin. Dust swirled in the early morning breeze as a young Chosen officer rode toward Fort Kel'Norvan.
The soldiers standing watch on Fort Kel'Norvan's tall stone walls saw an approaching rider and noted the brightly shining armor and fine violet cloak that billowed from the combination of the breeze and the horse's motion. Then, as the rider came closer, they noticed something surprising: They were expecting a new officer, but no one had told them it would be a woman. Men pointed and stared in surprise as the rider's gender became evident. Men broke their discipline to wonder aloud what was going on. She was encased in brightly shining armor that would have looked appropriate on a man, but she was all too obviously a woman--and a pretty one at that. As was customary when not expecting battle, she rode with her helmet tipped up to leave her vision unobstructed.
The fort's great wooden gates stood open to the road and a senior sergeant stepped out as she rode forward and stopped. "May I be of assistance…Lady?" he asked, his head tilting to the side and his eyes bulging as he finally realized what he saw.
"Where is the general's office?" she asked, nodding once when the sergeant pointed toward the nearest large building. He looks like someone kicked him in the head. Might be me if he keeps doing that. She rode on, a slight grimace twisting her mouth. She passed through the massive stone gateway, under the portcullis, and rode to the indicated building, taking the circular path around the flagpole in order to reach the front steps.
She stopped in front of the general's office and dismounted. A trooper stepped forward to take her horse's bridle when "Yes, Lady?" the man asked automatically.
She turned to him and shook her head as she removed her helmet. "Is Lord General Kel'Arvey in his office?"
The man did a double take, blinked several times, and then cleared his throat as he nodded. "Yes, Lady. Just go up, if you please. I'll see to your horse for you."
She nodded, adjusting her cloak as she climbed the stairs. This might not be the best idea I’ve ever had. She knocked at the door and a fresh-faced young lieutenant immediately opened it. "Lord? I beg your pardon, Lady. May I be of service?" he asked, swallowing nervously.
She nodded regally. "I am to report to Lord General Kel'Arvey."
The lieutenant blinked, then nodded and stepped aside. "This way, please. You will forgive me, but you said report? Not for duty, surely."
She nodded once again. "I am the Heir of Zel'Karyn. I am here to do my duty to the kingdom so that I may inherit," she replied, looking him in the eye.
The lieutenant stared for a moment before remembering his manners. "This way, Lady Zel'Karyn. We were warned to expect a woman, but not exactly who. I will announce you, if you would please allow me your full name."
"I am Marydyth Shelina Forlan Zel'Karyn," she replied softly, smiling at his nod.
* * *
Lord General Bardelen Kel'Arvey stood to greet the young woman who entered his dayroom. Oh, Gods Below. This one looks like trouble. Or at least a source of trouble among the young men. He spoke softly to cover his misgivings and said, "Lady Zel'Karyn, welcome to Fort Kel'Norvan."
Marydyth snapped to attention as she had been taught by her father and uncles, then nodded once. "Lord General Kel'Arvey, I am reporting as the Heir of Zel'Karyn for my tour of duty with the Army of Coravia."
The general nodded and sighed. "I was warned to expect you, Lady Zel'Karyn. Most young noblewomen are content to serve in non-combat roles, doing their duty by seeing to the army's supply system. Are you still determined to see this through?" he asked, still speaking softly, and looking into her eyes. At Marydyth's nod, he sighed again.
"It is your right, Lady, and the king's will." His voice strengthened, and he straightened to attention himself. "Very well. Kneel before me," he commanded, and she obeyed, going to both knees and looking up.
"Lady Marydyth Zel'Karyn, you come before me to take your place with the Army of Coravia. Do you swear to obey the orders of your commander, to uphold the traditions of the Army, and to honorably complete your two years of service as required by the law?"
"I do so swear," Marydyth said in a strong voice.
"Stand up, Lieutenant Zel'Karyn," the general commanded and she obeyed. "Even with your willingness to abide by the same conditions as your fellow heirs, you are by definition a special case. Lieutenant Kel'Boral, take Lieutenant Zel'Karyn to the quarters that have been set aside for her."
* * *
The lieutenant saluted and turned away without any comment beyond, “Yes, Sir.” Marydyth copied his salute, then followed Lieutenant Kel'Boral, steeling herself for the walk across the compound. Lieutenant Kel'Boral glanced over his shoulder as she followed him down the wooden steps.
"Well, Lieutenant, you're really in it now. It was only the king's approval and personal message that convinced the general to accept you. We've set aside a private room for you, but it's a small one. Since there's only one officer's bathing room, you'll be required to wait until last to bathe. You'll be required to see to all your own needs. You will not have a matron or maid."
Marydyth spoke in a cool tone as she replied, "I was warned, Lieutenant."
"Perhaps so, but it bears repeating. Yours is also one of the few rooms that has a lock on the door. That little luxury is normally reserved for captains and above." He led her across the cobblestone-paved compound to a large stone building with many close-set windows. "This is the Bachelor Officer's Quarters," he explained as he led her through the building. "Unmarried officers below the rank of major are housed together here. Normally a junior lieutenant such as yourself, or me for that matter, would be housed with another of the same rank. Since that is impossible in your case, you get this room." He led her up to the second floor and opened the door to a closet-sized room with a narrow bed, wardrobe, desk and shelf, and chair.
Marydyth quickly looked the room over, not that there was much to see. The lowliest servants back home have bigger rooms than this. I’m not certain, but I think I can touch both walls at the same time if I stretch.
Marydyth stepped over to the wardrobe and hung her cloak. "My things..?" she asked, tilting her head to the side and smiling in an unconscious move that had melted the hearts of men far older than the young lieutenant.
Lieutenant Kel'Boral swallowed his reaction and jerked his head over his shoulder. "Your things are with your horse. Follow me. You'll be required to see to her, him?, as well. General stable duty falls to the rank and file, but caring for your mount is your responsibility in the fort and in the field. Your armor is your responsibility as well. You'll only be wearing it in the field, or on parade. The rest of the time you'll wear a uniform like mine." He gestured to his own deep blue uniform with its red piping.
"Sergeant Bel'Farley is going to have a fit when he sees you." He paused to grin, a twinkle of mischief shining in his eyes. "Most of the time he makes new officers stand there naked while he finds uniforms that fit. He won't dare try that with you."
Marydyth blushed and ducked her head, but she was grinning. "I understand, but it won't be necessary. My father had ten uniforms made for me before I left home."
"That's surprising. Or maybe not, given your circumstances." Lieutenant Kel'Boral led her into the stables and asked for her horse. The sergeant in charge of the stables stared slack-jawed as he pointed to the left, and Marydyth appeared to ignore him as she walked down to where her horse was tied. Am I going to get this reaction everywhere? It’s like they’ve never seen a woman before.
Her stallion tossed his head when she reached his side. "Well, fella, here we go," she whispered softly as she undid the saddle. Lieutenant Kel'Boral and a dozen lesser-ranked men watched as she saw to the stallion in a fast, professional manner. When the horse was stabled and there was feed in the manger and water in the trough, she returned to the lieutenant's side and came to attention.
"Is all of that your gear?" he asked, looking at the large bundle by her feet.
"Yes. As I said, I brought my uniforms, along with other necessities that aren't normal army issue." Marydyth's eyes danced with mirth when it occurred to him what she meant. He’s cute when he blushes.
"Lieutenant Zel'Karyn, we do have women in the fort," he said with a shy grin. "Many of the senior officers have their families here."
Marydyth nodded and hefted her sack over her shoulder, nodding toward the BOQ. Lieutenant Kel'Boral led her to the front of the building.
"Is there anything you need right now, Lieutenant? I should return to the general."
Marydyth smiled softly and shook her head. "No, Lieutenant, thank you."
Lieutenant Kel'Boral smiled in return and nodded. "Please report back to the general's office in uniform with your personal weapons. I'll be taking you to see Major Kel'Enrey as soon as you're ready." She smiled again and nodded as he left.
Marydyth climbed the stairs to the second floor with no apparent effort, though the combination of her armor and other belongings almost doubled her weight. She went into her room and closed the door, then sighed in relief as she undid the buckles of her armor and let it slip onto the bed. She spent a few moments unpacking her belongings, though just enough for her immediate use. Her uniforms had been carefully packed, and her father had purchased a spell to keep them wrinkle-free. She was dressed and ready in short order, and walked back to the general's office, ignoring the stares as well as she could.
Lieutenant Kel'Boral met her and stopped himself from saying anything, though he obviously wanted to. Oh, Gods Below. Marydyth sighed at his reaction, finding the trouble earlier than she had hoped.
"Say what you’re thinking, Lieutenant."
"Um, Lieutenant Zel'Karyn, I had thought that the armor was...accentuated a bit." He was swallowing nervously and trying not to look at her breasts.
Marydyth shook her head. "No, it was specifically made snug to keep these things from bouncing around." She glanced at her breasts and watched him blush again. Men! Or, in his case, boys! He’s sixteen or seventeen, but boys mature physically far sooner than they mature emotionally. If they ever mature at all.
"Uh, yes. The general is busy right now, and wants you to be evaluated by Major Kel'Enrey first. I see you have your own sword. May I?" He held out his hand, but Marydyth shook her head.
"It's spelled. You wouldn't live to regret touching it." She smiled to keep from bruising his feelings and received his nod in reply.
"We heard a little bit about that. Very well. Follow me, please." He led her across the compound to a sandy area that was fenced in with peeled aspen rails. A middle-aged officer was leading a group of men through basic sword drill. He noticed them and walked over as the men continued exercising.
"Well, what have we here?" he asked as he stopped.
Lieutenant Kel’Boral snapped to attention and said, "Sir, this is Lieutenant Marydyth Zel'Karyn. She has reported for duty, and the general wants your evaluation of her weapon's skill as soon as possible." Marydyth copied him, and remained at attention as the major walked around her, inspecting her minutely.
"Well, well. So you're the next heir of Zel'Karyn. I take it you've brought your family legacy."
"Yes, sir," Marydyth snapped.
"Draw it, please," the major commanded, and she obeyed, bringing the sword up to her face in salute. The sword drew stares from the men who had gathered around her as the arm-long, blood-red crystal blade glowed in Arandar’s light.
"Gentlemen," the major said loudly to those around them, "this is the Zel'Karyn family sword, Sang Del Dracl. Legend holds that the Great Dragon Dandarshandrake made it from his own blood and presented it to one of the lieutenant's ancestors as a reward for his service. The spell on it only allows a member of the Zel'Karyn family to touch it. For anyone else, it means a slow, agonizing death as your body crystallizes. You have all been warned, so if you die for a stupid reason, it will be your own fault." Looking back at Marydyth he nodded. "Sheath it now, Lieutenant." Marydyth complied and he nodded again as she completed the task smoothly.
"Your father had a cover for the hilt to protect anyone from accidentally touching it. Do you have it?"
Marydyth simply nodded as she wondered, How did he know that?
"Cover it now,” the major continued. “He also had a good practice blade that matched Sang Del Dracl in length and balance. Did you bring that as well?"
Again, she nodded, though there was a crease of puzzlement marring her brow. How does the major know so much about Dad and my sword?
"Place Sang Del Dracl and your other things over here, and we will begin. I will be evaluating your skills personally." He motioned her toward a clear area and she quickly obeyed.
"Slowly to begin, show me the ten basic forms," he commanded, and Marydyth slid gracefully through the basic drill. "Very good. Now fight your shadow," he commanded, and Marydyth began the most advanced shadow dance she had mastered. The major was nodding and rubbing his chin by the time she had finished. "Very good. Far better than average, Lieutenant. Who taught you, and how long have you been practicing that?" the major asked.
Marydyth came to attention before answering. "Sir, my mother asked Swordmaster Deion Kel'Doran to tutor me when I turned twelve."
There was a murmur of surprise from the surrounding men as she named her teacher. Deion Kel'Doran was the reigning Swordmaster of Coravia. Major Kel'Enrey nodded, then looked around and grinned. "Would you care to tell us why he would agree to tutor you?"
Marydyth blushed and caught her lower lip between her teeth, then nodded. "Because he's Mama's baby brother, and she threatened to tell us something embarrassing about him if he wouldn't."
That admission drew a burst of laughter from the men around her, including the major. "Good enough. I'm no match for your uncle, but I may still be able to teach you a thing or two. Guard!" he suddenly snapped and Marydyth brought her sword up just in time to block his. He pressed his attack as the onlookers scattered to watch from beyond the rails.
Marydyth kept her poise and countered his every move, but was unable to initiate an attack of her own. She slowly backed around the circle until she saw him flick his eyes at her legs. Then, rather than dodge away to avoid his expected strike, she surged toward him and began her own attack. Her uncle had never let her win. He had driven her hard and made her earn every victory, and now all those lessons came forth.
Marydyth's blows fell lightning fast as she drove at the major, forcing him back. He countered her, but was obviously hard pressed to keep her from striking him. Suddenly her tactics changed, and she sent his sword flying from his hand.
Marydyth shouted, "Yield!" and he stepped back with his arms spread, nodding.
"Better than your father at his best. Excellent, Lieutenant Zel'Karyn! Excellent!" he shouted, surprising everyone. The major had never praised a new officer, but then, no new officer had ever disarmed him before, either.
Marydyth executed a sword salute, then sheathed the practice blade just as if were the real thing. Coming to attention, she waited for him to continue.
"Since you are beyond my tutoring, you will be my assistant. We’re supposed to get three new officers, and I get first pick this time. Lieutenant Kel'Boral," he said, turning to the young lieutenant, "please inform the general that Lieutenant Zel'Karyn is in no need of training with weapons, and that I request she be assigned as my assistant." Lieutenant Kel'Boral snapped a crisp salute and turned away. His eyes flicked toward Marydyth once before he departed, but his expression was unreadable.
Major Kel'Enrey caught her attention again. "If he didn't warn you, your father was my mentor when I first joined the Army. That doesn't mean I'll be easy on you. I'll be watching out for you, but it would be a disservice to you and your father if I let you be anything less than you are capable of being."
Marydyth nodded, then recalled her manners and saluted. "Yes, sir. He didn't mention you, sir, but I'm supposed to find someone called Briar."
The major grinned. "That's me. Someday I may tell you where that nickname came from, but for now you have a duty to perform." He gestured over to where ten young men in ill-fitting uniforms were standing. "These are the newest recruits we have. They arrived yesterday. Begin by teaching them the basic forms."
Marydyth nodded as he stepped back. The men all looked at her with a mixture of surprise and trepidation as she strode over to face them. "Pick up your swords," she commanded, and the men obeyed. She was, after all, a member of the highest tier of their society.
* * *
Lauflin Kel'Enrey stepped back and watched as his friend's daughter began teaching swordwork as if she had been born to it. Sighing and shaking his head, he returned to his own students. How in the Five Hells am I going to keep her safe when she is determined to place herself in danger? At least she’s actually as good with Sang Del Dracl as Carver’s letter said she was. He glanced at her again and shook his head. She’s prettier than Narilia was at sixteen. I’m going to have to keep her out of that trouble as well.
* * *
After four or five spans of trying to get the young men to at least hold the swords properly, Marydyth felt like she had been chopping wood all day. Sweat dripped from her brow, though the men seemed to still be fresh. Looking at them with wide eyes, she asked a simple question.
"Haven't any of you ever held a sword before?"
"No, Ma'am," they immediately responded.
Major Kel'Enrey walked over when he noticed her frustration. "Lieutenant Zel'Karyn, you must remember that these are farmer's sons, not Warriors or Chosen. They have never been allowed to legally hold a sword before. You must not assume they even know the difference between a thrust and an overhand stroke."
Marydyth looked at him for a moment, then softly replied, "Yes, sir." Turning back to her charges, she straightened her back and held her head a little higher as she started over with the most basic sword instruction.
"Very well, men, we begin again. Place the blade of your sword flat in your left palm. Now gently wrap your right hand around the hilt so that it nestles into your palm." She held up her own practice blade and demonstrated what she wanted. "A sword is not a club with an edge; it is a precision instrument of death." Marydyth watched as her men struggled not to grab the swords like they were axes. Sighing, she sheathed her own sword and stepped forward to help each man achieve the grip she had been taught to use most of her life.
"Close enough for now,” she said as she stepped back. “Now we will begin with Guard Position number one." She drew her own sword again and took the proper stance. The men tried to copy her, but she felt her frustration grow again as they failed.
* * *
Major Kel'Enrey smiled and walked away as she began chivvying each man into the proper stance and posture. Patience was a lesson she needed to learn, and these ten boys might just teach her--if she doesn't kill them first. A chuckle rumbled in his chest as he walked away, but he kept it soft.
* * *
Her ten recruits had finally managed to hold their swords and take the proper stance for Guard Position One by the time Major Kel'Enrey called a halt to the exercise. "That will be enough for today, Lieutenant. You men, return your weapons to the rack and report back to barracks. Tomorrow after you eat, you will report back here to Lieutenant Zel'Karyn."
The men said, “Yes, Sir!” then saluted and walked away while Marydyth tried not to wilt.
"Not bad for a first day," the major commented with a grin as he motioned toward her gear. "Go put your weapons away and clean up for the evening meal. The general will be introducing you, so be prepared. There are a number of officers here who oppose your presence."
"Yes, sir," Marydyth snapped and saluted. She took her things to her room as instructed, then tidied herself up. A gentle knock at her door drew her attention. Opening it, she found a young girl waiting.
"Lieutenant Zel'Karyn? I'm Mandy Kel'Enrey. Papa sent me over to see if you needed anything."
Marydyth smiled. "No, thank you, Mandy. Could you direct me to where we are supposed to eat? No one thought to point it out to me, and I don't want to be late."
Mandy smiled brightly. "I'll take you. It's on the way home."
Marydyth nodded and closed her door, locking it with the key that had been on a peg just inside. Mandy led her through the compound to a long, low building. "This is the officer's mess hall. You'll see where the junior officers are. See you." Mandy bounced off while Marydyth climbed the stairs.
The general buzz of conversation died as she entered the room. This, of all the things she had been exposed to today, was the least unusual. Her looks and heritage had been a conversation stopper since she had turned twelve. Ignoring it, she made her way to where a group of junior officers were gathered. Nodding to Lieutenant Kel'Boral, she smiled at the others.
"Greetings, gentlemen, and you too, Bert."
Lieutenant Kel'Boral cleared his throat, then glanced at the others. They were all as stunned as he had been when he had first seen her, except for the foolishly grinning Lieutenant Zel'Coy. "Lieutenant Zel'Karyn, please allow me to introduce you to our compatriots. To your left is Lieutenant Zel'Coy."
Bertrand Zel'Coy smiled and nodded, his blond hair shorn short to army standards. "We've met, Northan. The Zel'Karyns are our neighbors back home. It is always a pleasure to see you, Mary. How is your mother?"
"She's well, Bert. No one thought to tell me that you'd been assigned here."
Bertrand gave her a lopsided grin. "That's a surprise, considering how hard they were trying to marry us off to one another. This young man to my left is Lieutenant Evarlan Kel'Farin, to his left is Lieutenant Stavorn Kel'Garin, and rounding out the group is Lieutenant Darinnal Zel'Karval." Each young man nodded to Marydyth when he was introduced, and she greeted each respectfully. Lieutenant Zel'Karval received a smile as well.
"I am very pleased to meet you all. Lieutenant Zel'Karval, I am doubly pleased to meet you. We have several of your paintings in our home. Young Lady in Spring, Bouquet of Lilacs, and Autumn Breeze, if I remember the names correctly."
Lieutenant Zel'Karval nodded, blushing a little. Then he grinned. "Young Lady in Spring was originally titled Rat in the Mud. That's my little sister Amelly ruining her best dress."
Marydyth joined in the subdued laughter, smiling broadly. She was no longer above any of these men, and in their laughter, she was able to let loose a little of her reserve.
Lieutenant Kel'Boral interrupted them. "The general's frowning at us," he whispered, and all of them quieted.
The brittle ringing of a glass bell announced that it was time to take their seats, and Bertrand guided her to a seat beside his. "Just pay attention, Mary," he whispered. Marydyth nodded slightly, assuming her place behind her chair and coming to attention just as he did.
General Kel'Arvey looked around, glaring at the few officers who weren't quick enough to reach their seats. When everyone was standing at attention behind their seats, he addressed them.
"Gentlemen, we have a lady among us now. Lady Marydyth Zel'Karyn has chosen combat duty to fulfill her obligation to the kingdom, and the king has allowed it. She has already proven her expertise with a sword, and has been assigned to Major Kel'Enrey as his assistant. This is in accordance with normal procedures. And that, gentlemen, is what we will continue with: Normal procedures. While we must, for the sake of propriety, make certain allowances for the lieutenant's gender, she will receive no other special treatment. She has agreed to this, both before she arrived and after she was sworn to the army."
The general looked around the room at his officers, his gray eyes noting the sour look on the faces of his senior staff. He knew that no matter what he said, he couldn't allow Marydyth to be subjected to the sort of things that the young men were normally subjected to. Hazing, such as making them stand naked and shivering while they were being fitted for uniforms, was totally unacceptable in her case. Fortunately, he had already received word from Lieutenant Kel'Boral that she had brought her uniforms with her. Clearing his throat, he nodded sharply.
"You will all have a chance to meet her in the course of your duties or hers. I will say this only once: There will be no allowances made for her, but there will be no, absolutely no, overt abuse heaped upon her for refusing to conform to tradition. She is the Heir of Zel'Karyn and she will be treated as such. Be seated." The general sat, and everyone quickly followed his example.
Marydyth found herself facing a captain across the table, and resisted the urge to smile at him. For his part, he managed to keep his eyes locked on hers, and not look at her more than generous bosom. He was sitting stiffly, his hands on his thighs, and she copied him blink for blink, looking for clues as to what she should do.
Stewards in immaculate white uniforms began serving, starting with the general's table. Once the general had nodded his approval of the meal, they began serving the rest. The junior officers were, of course, the last to be served. The captain still sat at attention as if waiting for some signal to start eating. Marydyth noticed that everyone else seemed to be waiting as well and kept her hands in her lap. The glass bell rang once again, and everyone relaxed and began. The buzz of soft conversation rose as the officers ate.
Lieutenant Zel'Coy noticed Marydyth's hesitation and that of the captain opposite her. "Captain Everit Kel’Falin, may I present my friend, Lieutenant Mary Zel'Karyn." He smiled as the captain swallowed nervously and nodded.
"I'm pleased to meet you, Lieutenant. You're quite a surprise," he said softly.
Marydyth nodded in return. "I am also pleased to meet you, Captain."
"Please call me Everit, Mary. At meal times we drop rank, to some extent at least. Bert has told us all some stories about you, and you certainly seem to match his description." Now his eyes did dart down to glance at her breasts.
Marydyth considered being insulted. After all, he was well below her in the social hierarchy of their kingdom, but here he was a senior officer. Therefore, she took her slight offense out on Bertrand.
"Oh, really?" she asked in a playful purr. "Well, I can match him story for story. Did you know that Berty used to get his butt whipped on a regular basis for peeking up my skirts?" Her eyes danced as the attention of everyone within range turned to a furiously blushing Bertrand Zel'Coy.
Bertrand finally laughed, wagging a finger at her. "Worth every welt, let me tell you."
Now it was Marydyth's turn to blush. The exchange had broken the ice, and now those close enough to speak to her without being rude to others began questioning her. She found that most of them seemed to be more interested in her skill with her sword than anything else. The identity of her teacher had spread quickly, and she was asked again and again if she would consent to tutoring a few marginal swordsmen.
“I would be happy to, gentlemen, so long as Major Kel’Enrey agrees.”
The meal progressed smoothly, and Marydyth was surprised by the food. Basic fare such as she would have expected in a poor inn, it was nothing like what she had been raised on. There was thin sliced bison in runny brown gravy, peas and carrots, and hard-crusted bread with butter. No one else seemed to even notice so she dug in, though she was being far daintier than Bertrand. He seemed to think that stuffing his face as fast as he could constituted proper table manners here.
Everit noticed and took a moment to speak softly between bites. "Eat quick. They sometimes pull a drill in mid-meal to simulate an attack."
Now Marydyth dug in, eating the bread and meat quickly. She would eat the carrots and hope for an interruption before she reached the peas. I hate peas. A loud gong interrupted her thoughts. Before it had sounded a second time, she was the only person still seated. She scrambled to her feet and moved with Bertrand toward the door.
Major Kel'Enrey caught her before she reached the steps. "With me, Lieutenant!" he shouted as the gong continued to sound.
Marydyth was close on the major's heels as he sprinted toward the armory and practice field. Six men were already there handing out weapons to the troops as they filed by on the run. The major looked over his shoulder to ensure that she was there, then shouted, "Grab a sword!" Marydyth did as she was told and grabbed a saber that was surprisingly comfortable in her grip. The major had grabbed a broadsword and kept running, and she followed close on his heels.
The walkways along the top of the fort’s stone walls were manned in a short time, and Marydyth was caught between excitement and fear. Outside the fort, there was no sign of an opponent. The gong sounded once, and everyone relaxed.
"Well done, men," the general shouted from the porch of the mess hall. "Dismissed to quarters."
The men began filing back to the armory, laughing and joking on the way. Marydyth joined the major in ensuring that the weapons had been racked properly before bidding him a polite goodnight.
In the BOQ she returned to her room and waited, idly stroking the smooth wooden paneling next to her bed with one hand. After an indeterminate length of time, there was a soft knock at her door. She opened it to find Bertrand standing there with a slight grin on his face.
"Bathing room's empty, Mary. Do you want a guard on the door while you bathe?"
Marydyth nodded. "Thank you, Bert. Just a moment." She grabbed her kit and followed him to the bathing room. A large tub of steaming hot water awaited her, and she hardly waited for Bertrand to close the door before dropping her clothes and climbing in. At least I can be myself around Bert. Their parting five moons before had been both pleasant and intimate. She bathed quickly but thoroughly, washing her hair last. Wrapping her robe around herself, she opened the door. "Thank you, Bert. Daddy warned me that modesty might be a problem."
"Since when have you been modest, Mary?” Bert asked with a grin. “Or were you thinking of these poor, innocent young men who are going to have to put up with you for the next two years?"
Marydyth smiled but didn't blush. "Wouldn't it be a shock for them to find out that however lurid your stories might have been, the truth is worse?" Her grin held just a touch of evil.
"My stories about you weren't lurid, or particularly detailed. They were just general warnings about your nastier habits, and your skill with that sword. And about your temper." Bertrand stopped and turned her to face him.
"Let's face it, Mary, you're too touchy about a lot of things. An offhand comment by someone has set you off far too often. Around here, you're likely to hear some of the same kinds of comments made by men who outrank you. Drawing on them could get you dismissed in disgrace."
Marydyth nodded and sighed. "Daddy warned me about that as well. So did Uncle Deion. So did Mother, Grandfather, Grandmother…"
"The whole clan?" Bertrand asked, grinning.
Marydyth sighed as she nodded. "Even the servants."
Bert tilted his head to the side and shrugged. "Still good advice."
They had continued on to her door and she smiled as she bid him goodnight. She carefully locked the door and slid into her bed, feeling both lost and at home.
Sleep evaded Marydyth for a long time as she stared at the rough-sawn wood of the ceiling. She was where she wanted to be, or at least where she had thought she wanted to be. She was doing what she wanted, against her father's wishes, but now that she was here, she was having second thoughts. Is this really better than life in a Supply Depot? Do I really want to be a warrior? Can I kill? That last thought rolled around in her mind as she finally succumbed to exhaustion and fell asleep.
A bell announced morning. Marydyth snapped awake but didn’t move for a moment, a habit formed years ago, then got up and was dressed and out of her room quickly. No one else was in the halls yet, and she made her way to the privy as quickly as she could. The morning details dealt with, she waited for someone she knew to leave the building before doing anything else.
Lieutenant Zel'Karval was the first to emerge, and stopped dead in his tracks when he saw her. "Wow! None of my sisters can get dressed that fast!"
Marydyth smiled broadly. "Old habit. Where's the morning meal?"
Now he grimaced. "Exercise first. Come along. You may as well be up front with the rest of the early risers." He led her toward the center of the compound where a number of men had already gathered. Their conversation stopped when she arrived.
"Well, not a lag-a-bed at least," an older man said, looking her up and down without any trace of interest. "Tell me, Lieutenant, what kind of shape are you in? How is your strength and wind?"
Marydyth came to attention. She didn't know him or any of the others, but he had a major's insignia on his uniform. "Sir, I have been preparing for two years. I believe myself to be in good shape, with better than average wind." What she did not say was that her father had driven her and her siblings mercilessly during those two years to develop muscle and endurance using both exercise and long distance runs through the Zel'Karyn holdings.
The major nodded and directed her to line up with the rest. He took position on a platform so that he could look over the entire compound.
Marydyth risked a glance behind her and saw what must be the fort’s entire compliment of troops lining up. A crisp "attention" brought her face forward again.
"Very well, men, we begin." The major directed them through a series of calisthenics, watching everyone, but his gaze kept drifting back to Marydyth.
Marydyth found that her father had done an excellent job of preparing her for this. There were no unfamiliar exercises, and she was not the least bit winded by the time the major called a halt.
"By ranks, dismissed to the morning meal," he shouted, and Marydyth joined Lieutenant Zel'Karval in the short walk to the officers’ mess hall.
"I think you annoyed him, Mary,” Lieutenant Zel’Karval said without looking at her. “He expected you to be as soft as I was. That was longer than normal for morning exercises, and I think it was in your honor."
"Who is he, Darinnal?"
"Call me Darin. He's Major Kel'Crandan, Sixteenth Infantry Brigade. He takes turns with Major Kel'Enrey, Major Kel'Gardel, and Major Zel'Harin dragging us through the wringer." Now he allowed a smile to lighten his expression. "He's the worst as far as being demanding. You saying that your wind was better than average sounded like a challenge. He'll probably want to take you for a run. He runs for fun." Darinnal shivered slightly at that. “My idea of fun is painting landscapes.”
Marydyth nodded, but didn’t look at him as she asked, "Should I let him win?"
Darinnal looked at her to see if she was joking, then shook his head. "Only if you want to make him mad."
Marydyth laughed but didn't say anything else. She took her seat with the others and enjoyed a simple but filling morning meal of scrambled eggs, sausage, and biscuits covered with thick white sausage gravy. Then she reported to Major Kel'Enrey and began teaching her students.
As the day progressed, she finally began having some luck with them. They seemed to get over her being a woman at last and really listened. It helped that she spoke to them in the same easy, friendly tone that she habitually used with the servants at home. By the mid day meal, they had managed three of the ten forms.
Major Kel'Enrey walked over and she came to attention. "Very good, Lieutenant Zel'Karyn. Dismiss your men to the mid day meal, then join me for a moment." Marydyth saluted and did as she was told, then joined the major at the armory door. He frowned as she stood before him.
"Mouthing off to Major Kel'Crandan was unwise, Mary. He thinks you need to be taken down a notch, and wants you to join his men for a run after the mid day meal. I can't protect you from yourself." He paused to bite his lips. "Report to Major Kel'Crandan after the mid day meal. Wear a loose-fitting uniform, if you have such a thing, and be prepared. He means to run you into the ground."
Marydyth saluted, then smiled. "He can try, sir."
Marydyth ate lightly at the mid day meal, then went to change her boots. Her old boots were within uniform standards, and were far softer than her new ones. Then she went to find Major Kel'Crandan.
The major nodded as she reported. "We will see how your wind is, Lieutenant. Form up with Lieutenant Kel'Garin." He waited until she had joined the lieutenant and then set off at a punishing pace. Outside the fort there was a choice of the road up through the hills or down across the flatlands, and the major chose the hills. The men behind them groaned, but he kept on at the same pace. Up-hill and down, he led the troops at a pace that was guaranteed to leave them exhausted.
In time Marydyth noticed that Lieutenant Kel'Garin was struggling to keep up, and that the major himself was starting to falter. A nasty grin spread across her face. I trained in the mountains of Zel'Karyn, and the oxygen-rich air of these lowlands is invigorating. Let him try and exhaust me. Taking the initiative, she increased her pace to catch the major. Matching him stride for stride, she brushed sweat-soaked hair out of her eyes and glanced over at the major with a grin. She managed to say, "Lovely day, Major," without breaking her breathing discipline.
The major didn't reply. He didn't have the wind. He did glare as she kept pace beside him. The fort came into view at last, and she let a hint of her temper, and the nastier side of her sense of humor show through as she looked at the major again. Moving slightly ahead to get the major's attention, she panted, "May I go ahead, sir? I have to relieve myself." The major managed to nod past his gasping and she again increased her pace, leaving the troops behind and the men on the walls gaping. No one ever outran the major.
Marydyth used her few moments in the privy to catch her breath and get the hair out of her face before emerging to find troopers still straggling into the fort. Major Kel'Crandan was leaning against the left-hand gate, gasping for breath.
"How..?" he managed to ask as she stopped and saluted.
"My father, sir. My family has been making daily runs through the Zel’Karyn hills for years. Keeping ahead of my brothers became a challenge, but one that I excelled at."
The major simply nodded and then staggered off to collapse. Men still straggled through the gates. Apparently, they had left most of the troops behind as the major increased his pace to outdo her. Marydyth went to the BOQ to change and clean up. It was early enough that she could get a bath in before the evening meal.
Bathed and in a fresh uniform, she reported for the evening meal early and spent her time speaking to the other officers. Her performance so far had become the talk of the fort, and the men inspected her curiously wherever she went. For her part, she struggled to maintain a properly respectful attitude. These men doubted me. It was all she could do not to gloat.
Loren Jones lives near Tampa, Florida. He married Pamela A. Willis in 1983 and they have stayed together to this time, and have three adult children. A US Navy veteran, Loren served as a nuclear reactor operator on attack submarines for six years before his honorable discharge in 1986. Loren makes his living as an instrumentation and controls technician and writes because the stories won't leave him alone.
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The Legend of Mary Death Copyright © 2019. Loren K. Jones. All rights reserved by the author. Please do not copy without permission.
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A special note to TTB readers. All contents of this web site are copyright by the writers, artists or web site designer. If you discover any artwork or writing published here elsewhere on the internet, or in print magazines, please let us know immediately. The staff of Twilight Times Books feels very strongly about protecting the copyrighted work of our authors and artists.
Web site copyright © 1999, 2000 - 2019. Lida Quillen. All rights reserved.
Cover art © 2017 Brad Fraunfelter. All rights reserved.
This page last updated 10-26-19.
Twilight Times Books logo design by Joni.