In the Army Now
The following is an excerpt from The Thirteenth Hour by Joshua Blum, a fantasy adventure novel about a young man named Logan who comes from a small village and is drafted into the King’s Imperial Army. The King hopes to pare down the new recruits until only a small force of highly trained soldiers are left, capable of venturing to the four corners of the world to find the secret of eternal life. But Logan doesn't yet know of this ulterior motive, and here, he narrates his first impressions on life in the big city, reflects on small town-solidarity (or lack thereof), recalls his first (mis)adventure with alcohol, and tries to guess what’s in store for his future.
When we got to the training grounds near the castle, we were unloaded from the cart. I practically fell out after having been cramped on the floor for half the day. Our group of fifty was the last to arrive, and since all the best blankets and beds were already taken by the other recruits, we were told we’d have to make do with what was left.
The recruiter asked us to huddle around, and he began to speak quietly.
“Well, fellas, this is the end of the line for me. Good luck, and remember — it’ll be easier if you don’t hate it so much. And,” he said, giving us a conspiratorial wink, “though most of the officers you’ll meet in the next few days act like the kind of pricks whose mamas dropped ‘em on their heads one too many times, just do what they tell you, and you might be ordering them around in a couple years. Oh, and remember. Always address ‘em by ‘sir!’” They get real pissed real fast when ya don’t. And you guys stick together. Towns like Aquaria … well, they may be small and in the middle of nowhere, but there’s nothin’ like small town solidarity, lemme tell ya. Nothin’ in the world. Well, fellas, I’m out.”
Then he smiled and gave us a wave as he turned back to his cart, leaving us with unsteady legs on the muddy training fields.
A few officers in brightly colored tunics appeared. They kept shouting out orders, but I’ll be damned if I understood what they were saying. Like many northerners, they had an accent, and although I had heard it once or twice before, their words meant little to me. Apparently the other men understood better than I, because a line was formed and men began reciting their names.
Finally a beefy looking officer reached me. He grunted something that sounded like a question.
“Pardon? I mean, ‘pardon, sir?’”
“First name!” he shouted, and I did not know what was stronger, his accent or his breath.
He wrote it down.
I paused. I didn’t have one.
“C’mon, spit it out! I ain’t got all bloody day!”
I didn’t know what to answer, since at the orphanage we all had one name, and that was it. So I answered, “Um, I–I have none, sir.”
He scribbled something down.
“Ehh … how the hell you spell that?”
I must have looked confused, since he gave me an exasperated look and said, “Look, genius, did I spell it right or not?”
He showed me what he had written. In the space beside “Last name” he had written “IHAVNUN.”
“I meant that I don’t have a last name. Sir.”
“Why didn’t you damn well say so?” he said, scratching out what he had written. “Where the hell you from?”
“Huh, just like the rest of this bunch. Well, that explains everything,” he said, turning back to face all the new recruits. “You poor bastards are really gonna love it here in the big city! What with your funny way of talking, I daresay you boys are gonna go over like a lead balloon!” he yelled, then let out a bellowing laugh. “Now everybody drop for pushups! Fifty! Count’em, loud!”
When my arms began to tremble at thirty, the beefy officer immediately noticed and threw me a menacing glance. At forty five, just as my arms were about to give out, I heard the officer mutter something about “these damned kids” while he grabbed the back of my collar and rammed my chest down into the mud.
With another yank, he yelled, “Up! I don’t hear you counting, dammit!”
As I struggled to spit out mud, he bellowed, “Fourty–six!”
“Down!” Another faceplant into the mud.
“Up! I can’t hear you!”
And all the way to fifty. Even though he was helping me, those last three were the hardest three pushups of my entire life. As I lay there, trying to catch my breath without swallowing undue amounts of mud, I looked up to see a man next to me. He towered so far over me that I couldn’t quite see his head completely. I felt even smaller than I had when I left Aurora in the orphanage. He said, “Nice way to start off. Thanks for embarrassing us. Nobody, I mean nobody, embarrasses me. Or shames where I come from,” he said, hacking on the ground and kicking dirt into my face. He was an Aquarian, and that was the Aquarian way of saying you wanted to fight. Classy, huh?
I didn’t have a whole lot of fight in me after those pushups. Never mind that it wasn’t all that fair to begin with, him being so much bigger. It was all I could do but roll over and pant up at the sky. He balked at this apparent display of cowardice and looked like he was about to walk off in disgust when he stopped, studied my muddy face, and said, “Wait, I remember you now. Yeah. You’re that kid from the orphanage, aren’t you? The one no one wanted? I’ve seen you a few times at the stables, hanging out with that weird girl who works there. Maybe you should just go back there, where you two can shovel manure and leave the fighting to the real men.” Then he walked away with the rest of the crowd.
So much for small–town solidarity. And that, folks, was how I began my career in His Majesty’s Imperial Army.
* * * * * * * *
That first day began a month of basic training that all recruits were required to go through. Nobody told us why the King had sent for us, and when we asked, we were told to just shut up and stop trying to think. I had some trouble with the training in the beginning, but after that, I surprised myself by being able to keep up just fine. I was used to physical labor, and this wasn't much different. A few of the older men, though, unused to climbing, running, and crawling on the ground, collapsed after the first week and had to be carried off the field on stretchers. This happened to one of the Aquarians a few days into our training. He happened to be not far from me, and when I saw him collapse on the field, I went over to see if he was okay. But he pushed me away and, spitting out some mud, said something that sounded like “piss off.” I think he also spat out something about going back to the orphanage, but I couldn't make it out. Whatever it was, it wasn't friendly, and I left him to the medics.
Every morning at six sharp, we had to line up for morning exercises. Then came the obstacle course, which was pretty hard at first because the old soldier babysitting us — fat, half–blind, and unable to do half of the things he made us do — didn't feel like showing us how to do it. He was also frequently hung–over, which didn’t help.
His first lesson, dare I even call it that, was on marching. I was a miserable failure at marching, and, to be honest, never did learn to do it right. Our marching exercises consisted of an endless and, in my opinion, rather pointless array of drills. March left. Now right. Spin left. Then right. Whatever! I always ended up in the first row since I was the shortest, and although I could manage forward and backward, every time we had to turn left or right I got all mixed up. My right or the instructor’s right? If I had eyes in the back of my head I could have cheated by seeing which way the other recruits turned, but inevitably, I screwed it up and got glares and whispered threats from the proud Aquarian men.
So you might be wondering, what about the good stuff? Well, the drill instructor was technically responsible for teaching us how to use weapons — things like swords, spears, and bows. The problem was that there were never enough to go around, since the “real Army” got preference over us recruits. So we often spent most of this time sitting around waiting until someone else was done with the rusty sword or whatever we were supposed to be using that day. Not that it really mattered in the end; after one of the men accidentally shot himself in the foot with an arrow, the old soldier in charge of training us didn’t trust us with live weapons. He was afraid he might accidentally–on purpose be in the way the next time. Can’t say I blamed him; morale was pretty low, even in the “real Army,” and no one felt like extending himself any more than he had to, especially if there was danger involved. After the arrow incident, all we got were branches chopped off a tree.
“Here, pretend this one’s a spear,” the drill instructor would say, handing out the wobbly saplings. “But that’s no damned excuse for not put the ol’ killer instinct to work!” he would yell. “Stop thinking these are sticks. Like I told you yesterday, they’re spears, damn it! Spears! So when you thrust, yell! When you charge, yell! I want some spirit! All together, now, lemme hear it! Kill! Kill! Kill! Hey, why am I the only one shouting?”
Really, I’m not kidding. The old man was nothing if not cracked. And, true to form, every day, he had us line up at the western corner of the training field, where there was a thin row of midget–sized trees.
“Come on, ladies, one tree to a man, just like yesterday. Now watch the master.”
He delighted in this demonstration. He’d take a stance about ten feet from some poor shrub and began to twirl his stick around. Then he’d stop, look menacingly at the pint–sized tree, and, with a blood curdling whoop, charge forward and begin smacking the trunk, each time, shouting his “Kill! Kill! Kill!” routine punctuated with an occasional, “How do you like that, huh?” One time I swear he even said, “Not so tough, now, are ya … tree!”
After a bit, he’d get tired and, turning to us while leaning on his stick and sucking in more wind than a geriatric racehorse, he’d explain that was the kind of energy you needed to attack with. “Now you!” he would bark, and a recruit had to repeat what had just been demonstrated.
The instructor had been satisfied only once, when an unlucky recruit had hit a patch of mud on his charge, and instead of hitting the tree with his stick, hit it full force with his sliding body instead. The young, slender tree simply recoiled from the blow, sending the recruit flying back into the mud. Tree: 1, human: 0.
“Yeah!!! That boy has the kinda attitude I want!” He even went over the help the dazed boy to his feet. “That’s what I’m talkin’ ‘bout, boy. Next time you just make sure to show that tree who’s the damn boss. Watch and learn from the master.” Then he took a swipe at the errant shrub himself but missed and, cursing and spitting, fell flat on his ass. That was the end of the lesson for the day. Tree: 2, human: 0.
* * * * * * * *
The days passed by slowly. I was pretty tired by the end of the day and usually ended up falling asleep not long after my head hit the pillow. Occasionally, I thought of the orphanage, with its long dark halls and constant chatter, but now that I was away from it, I found I missed it less than I thought I would. Aside from Aurora and the staff, like Mrs. Brunscomb, there were few consistent presences there, as the children came and went every few months. But I had, overall, good memories of my time there, especially my times with Aurora. She … I did miss. Sometimes I thought of things we’d done or talked about; sometimes I just heard her voice or saw her face in my mind. Sometimes as I lay on my bed after supper, I rolled her skipping stone through my fingers, listening to the chatter of the men in the barracks. And when I was waiting during practices I could almost see her talking to her horses in the stables while brushing their hair.
Unfortunately, my reveries never lasted long since there was little time for daydreaming. Our days usually only quieted down at night, and although on weekends we were often left to our own devices, we were generally shuffled into the bustling capital city so the barracks and their washrooms could be cleaned (more poorly that had ever been done at the Aquarian orphanage, I might add. If Mrs. Brunscomb saw the barracks, she would have fainted). I tried to stay behind a few times but, each time, was found and booted back outside. We were generally only let back in the castle for meals. The city could be exciting if you had the money, but there was little we could afford, since we received no real salaries. When one of the men asked why that was, an officer cuffed him over the head and said, “The honor of serving under His Majesty’s Service should be payment enough for you.” The soldier walked away, rubbing his head and muttering, “Honor, my ass.”
I was initially a bit infatuated with the bustle of the capital city. Even though I had no money, it was entertaining to wander the streets, eyeing the goods for sale in the shops and markets. There was so much to see, so much to potentially do — it was a veritable feast for the senses. The honeymoon phase lasted a few weeks until it finally dawned on me that I was becoming more and more irritated with each city outing. It wasn't so much that I couldn't afford anything (as I could afford precious little back in Aquaria), but I found myself progressively hating the rotten smells, the dirty water in the street, and the abject poverty of the people begging outside shops that sold the finest wares and restaurants that served the most expensive delicacies. There had been contrasts of society and money in Aquaria as well, but they were much less extreme, since most people really had very little, and for the most part, were satisfied with their lot, probably because they didn't know what they didn't have. I don’t think I was ever quite able to reconcile how a city full of people and possibilities could leave me feeling so grimy, dejected, and alone at the end of the day.
But not everyone felt that way. If you liked bars and made fast friends, you might be able to connive a local into buying you a few rounds. A lot of times the men would come back drunk and would spend the whole night shouting, laughing, or hugging the outhouse toilet seats. Then they made sure to go to church on Sunday morning to confess so they could repeat it all again the following weekend.
I’d tasted alcohol only once before, a year ago, when I’d wandered into the inn to look for Aurora. The innkeeper, Mr. Cromwell, said she was out back with the horses and told me to have a seat while he went to find her. Some of men there noticed me, and mistaking my small size as an indication of my age, thought it’d be fun to get me drunk. And I had naively accepted the first tumbler of hard liquor they merrily poured out for me, mistaking their generosity as an indication of friendliness.
It burned on the way down and tasted awful. After downing that first one, I instantly wondered what possessed them to drink whole bottles of the stuff. I began to cough, and my face suddenly felt hot and flushed, but the men assured me, with plenty of cheers and back slaps, to go for the second shot.
“Make a man outta ya!” they shouted.
I suppose that must have been good enough for me, because with a shaky smile, I lifted the second glass. “Well, to manhood,” I silently proposed. I looked at the glass solemnly, and, like a total idiot, fully expected the change from boy to man to happen right then and there. The second shot was even worse, despite the roars of approval from the drunken village men. Damn it, I didn't feel any different. I just felt sick.
After that, I guess I kind of lost track of the time. I remember at one point I staggered back and fell flat on my behind. An even bigger roar emerged from the men and, between giggles, they helped me up and tried to pour me another shot while I, already slurring my words, tried to refuse. Their hands were so unsteady from their fits of laughter, or perhaps their drunkenness, that they kept missing, but eventually they’d spilled enough to get some in the glass. I was still shaking my head, but strong hands clamped my shoulders down and another pair of hands pried my mouth open.
“C’mon, don’t fight! It’s good for you! Like medicine, it is! We just want to have some fun, don’t we?”
“Stop laughing, you fool, pour it down his throat before you spill it all! C’mon, this stuff’s expensive.”
Just at that moment, Aurora and Mr. Cromwell came through the back door. “What the hell is going on in here?” Mr. Cromwell demanded. All noise stopped. The men froze and looked up blankly.
Aurora strode forward and stood in front of the men. She cut a small figure against their massive, muscle–bound forms, but she looked straight at them and said, quietly and deathly serious, “You should be ashamed of yourselves.” Then she grabbed my hand and dragged me out of the inn while I still babbled incoherently. She pulled me over to a well, filled up a bucket with ice cold water and dumped it over my head.
“What did you do that for?” I yelled.
She looked at me sternly and said, “I never want to see you like this again.” Then she made me drink a lot of water and helped me home. I protested the whole time, but she would say no more.
Even though it obviously didn't make me a “real man,” I never forgot that experience and was naturally leery about joining the other soldiers for their bar–hopping excursions. Even if I’d had any money, I wouldn't have been able to stomach spending it on something that tasted so bad.
The Aquarians had avoided me ever since that first day, and it didn't take long for the others to realize I didn't really fit in. Even though most of them were much older, much louder, and much rowdier, there were times I wished I could have been included in their antics, just to be one of the guys, but the older men didn't want to have much to do with a kid. It didn't help that I was still having trouble deciphering a lot of the accents in my unit. I was becoming increasingly conscious of my own slow way of talking and tried to keep my mouth shut as much as possible.
So on the rare night off, I usually walked alone around the training grounds, where it was a little quieter. Sometimes I watched the real Army train, and that’s when I realized that you weren't supposed to hit yourself in the head with the shaft of your own spear when you spun it around. They weren't clumsy like we were; all their movements flowed together gracefully, and they made the endless drills look easy.
One night, I overheard two soldiers talking as they sat around a fire. They didn't know I was there, and I didn't think they’d appreciate my sneaking around the grounds alone, so I hid behind some barrels.
“ … and you know why the King ordered all those new recruits a few weeks ago — that’s for one of his big schemes, one of those crazy missions that two people out of fifty come back from,” said one soldier, as he sipped something from a mug.
“Come on. We’re done with that,” said the other.
“Apparently not. The Head General told me yesterday to be on the lookout for a handful of men picked to go on one of those crazy quests.”
“Why the new recruits? Why not us? We’re already trained.”
“I don’t know. I guess not for this kind of thing. Besides, that’s their dumb luck. Let them be the fodder. I’m perfectly happy to sit on my ass here in the castle, thank you very much.”
“Yeah, well …”
“Don’t tell me you actually want to go!”
“Well, no … not really. But, it’s just a matter of principle …”
“Ahh, you and your damn principles.”
“Yeah, but if these guys succeed on their quest, they get all the glory, and we get nothing, as usual.”
“What makes you think they’ll succeed? None of these quests ever achieved anything before.”
“Eh, I don’t know. Sitting around might be fine for you, but it isn't why I joined the Army.”
“Ha! Spoken like a true hero. Well, do this as long as I have, and you’ll get to where I am eventually, kid.”
There was silence for a time. The wheels in my brain started turning. What kind of quest were they talking about? To be honest, a quest sounded better than sitting around to me, too.
“So what kind of men is the King looking for?” said the younger soldier eventually.
“I haven’t the faintest idea. The General didn't either. I think the King’s wizards are in charge of picking the men, but I’m not sure.”
“What? Those wizards wouldn't know their asses from holes in the ground!”
Laughing, the other soldier shoved a stick into the fire and said, “You’re telling me. Anyway, who knows, right? All those people — the King, his wizards — they’re all loony if you ask me.”
At that moment, the soldiers rose, and I snuck away. The soldier said something about new recruits. Did that mean us?
Thanks for reading this excerpt. If you’d like to find out what happens next to Logan, please check out The Thirteenth Hour, available in print and as an ebook for the Kindle on Amazon, or check out the companion site at 13thhr.wordpress.com for additional content, including behind-the-scenes information about the creation of the book as well as audio, video, and picture files related to to the story.