“Can you see what’s happening?” Mason asked standing on her toes.
“No, not really,” Rebekka replied trying to look over the shoulder of a burly man in front of her. “Come on, let’s try over here.”
“I really don’t see why we are trying so hard to see this Commander Bastōn,”Mason continued. “It’s not like we should care.”
“Yes, we should. Though we don’t want to be here, it is always best to gather whatever information we can. You never know what you can learn and how that information can serve you in the future.”
Mason sighed. “Sounds like something Jude would say.”
“Hey, it will be fine.”
“Yes, yes I know. I’m not a baby you have to keep saying that too, you know.”
When Mason looked up with a scowl, Rebekka chuckled some.
“Come on. I see a spot over there.”
They pushed and squeezed through several people before reaching an old crumbly statue.
“Up here,” Rebekka said motioning towards the statue’s base. When she stepped up, Rebekka followed. From their position they could see everything clearly.
Following the ID processing, the prisoners placed under Commander Bastōn’s command were pushed out into what looked like a town’s square. The perimeter of the square was lined with guards armed with spears. Obviously, the wardens of the Axon thought their prisoners-turned-recruits were very capable of a possible escape.
In the center of this square was a wooden stage and on the stage, a single podium. Rebekka thought it was strange that the recruits were led to a stage. Of course, she didn’t think they would be watching a performance (that was a ridiculous fancy), but she couldn’t help wonder. Was this commander so important they had to present themselves in such a manner? Or maybe it was for the sake of addressing a sizable group of individuals…
Whatever the reason, it wasn’t long before a cluster of people came from one of the buildings behind the stage. Two of the group, a man and a teenage boy, were dressed in identical robes of blue. Another two, a man and a woman, looked like they were personal servants. These four were surrounded by a group of guards, each suited in red-brown leather and iron arm guards. They each carried a large wooden shield embellished with brass, a black headed spear, and a sword within a scabbard at their side. Rebekka couldn’t see who was at the center of the cluster.
The group stepped up the stairs, the guards peeled away to line the perimeter of the stage, and the inner group of four found their places on either side of the podium. The person at the center was a black-haired woman, medium in stature and dressed in light armor. She would have been considered fair if it weren’t for a scar across the bridge of her nose and the stiff, piercing look she had. She stepped up to the podium, scanned the crowd, and began:
“I am not here today, to welcome any of you to the Axon. I am here to state and forewarn you of what your presence here now means. Your old lives are no more. Your families are no more. Here is your only future which will become your past. I will be your commanding officer. You will answer to me and I expect absolute obedience.
“I am responsible for your training and I do not take this responsibility lightly.” She looked around at the group. “If all of you can understand my responsibility of you and your responsibility to me, we will all get along well.
“You will receive training, beginning next morning. In this training some of you will die. Take it upon yourself to not become one who ends at this death. Strive to overcome and accomplish all obstacles and you will survive. For us at the Axon, we do not have the time to shelter sucklings. We do not have the time to hold your hand. Only the strong will prevail. Understand that you are not here to gain glory or honor. Your only goals should be to endure and live for as long as it is meant for you to.
“These,” she waved to the right of her, where the personal servants stood, “Are your garrison keepers. They will ensure you are dutiful to the upkeep of you living quarters. If any of you choose to challenge them in any way, I will personally ensure you come to face the horrors this Axon contains. Remember these words I have spoken to you on this day and remember them well.”
Commander Bastōn signaled and the guards along the perimeter of the square began to usher the new recruits towards an arch of stone at the far side of the square.
“Come on,” Rebekka said stepping off the statue’s base.
“Wait, what did you learn?” Mason asked jumping down after her and hurrying to catch up.
“Besides the basic characteristics of the commander, those two in blue were wizards.”
“Not exactly. I noticed that the Red Wizard had a robe of the same color, but with a certain richer detail.”
“And that would mean…”
Rebekka glanced back at her. “I see you aren’t very patient.”
“Yeah, I’ve been told that a few times.”
“Hmp, well, I think those two are the Red Wizards apprentices.”
“Does this have anything to do with us?”
“As far as I know, not really, but I have to learn more.”
“So what does pertain to us!”
“Weren’t you listening? The training. From the rumors anyone would know only the most gruesome, most brutal warriors are made at the Axons. The ‘training’ isn’t going to be no easier than trying to climb a mountain without hands.”
“…mountain without hands….. but that’s impossible!”
“No, it isn’t. It’s hard but not impossible. Let’s hurry up. Don’t want to be the last ones through the gate.”
“Impression. Did you notice how the first ones through pushed their way in? They’re arrogant and overconfident. Last ones through are without hope and will break easy. Those in the middle are willing to mold into the situation at hand. They’re focused on keeping their heads down low and surviving.”
“And who’s going to notice this?” Mason asked matter-of-factly.
“Look at the balcony if you want to know.”
The next moment, Rebekka heard her gasp. “The Commander! Why is she just staring at us?”
“She’s a commander, she’ll want to know the quality of her recruits.”
After the recruits had passed through the stone archway, they were led to the garrison. Before entering the garrison though, they stopped in an open roofless area which looked like a corral for horses. Each of them was handed a new set of clothes and arranged single file to get their hair trimmed. Once they had their hair trimmed, they were told to make their way to the bathing rooms. The bathing rooms, as explained were just inside the garrison.
“Come on. You’re next!” a brawny man carrying what looked like shears in a hand said.
Rebekka had watched how he treated the ones before her and wasn’t so sure she wanted to be “next”, but she didn’t have a choice in the matter. The man roughly pulled her forward by her arm, and then grabbed a handful of her hair.
She watched as locks of her dark hair fell around her and land at her feet. Her hair was yanked at another area. She heard more snipping and saw more of her hair falling. She felt like a sheep at that moment, a poorly treated one, but there was nothing she could do about it. Her hair was certainly nothing to start trouble over, but she did wish the man would hurry. He smelt horrible!
“Alright you’re done!” the man said and pushed her onward. “Let’s go you!”
“Sorry, Druward,” the red headed guard by the name of Bouwer said, “Not this one. She’s got special orders attached. No harm is to come to her. Not one scratch. Not one hair to be touched.”
Druward grunted. “Must be orders from the Keeper. Well, if it’s one less I have tuh do, it’s alright with me.” He pointed beyond Mason, to the person behind her. “You there, hurry up.”
“Guess my job be done here,” Bouwer said and pushed Mason forward into Rebekka. “Be seeing ya at last meal Druward.”
“Ha! If this doesn’t keep me all day.”
“Are you alright?” Rebekka asked Mason.
“I’m fine,” Mason replied appearing slightly shaken.
“Are you sure?”
“Yes, it’s just…”
“Nothing. It’s nothing.”
Rebekka knew something was troubling her but knew there was no use trying to get her to talk. This was especially true since it wasn’t the time or place for it. “…Alright. Let’s go before we cause trouble.”
Once Rebekka and Mason had entered inside, they followed a hallway until they reached one of the garrison keepers. He was on the left side of the hall before a doorway.
“The women’s bathing room is down the way to your right,” he told them. “Matina will be waiting for you.”
Rebekka dipped her head and replied, “Thank you.”
The man seemed surprised at Rebekka’s reply but returned the gesture. Once they had continued on their way, Mason released a deep sigh of relief. At Rebekka’s inquisitive look she began to explain:
“I didn’t know if they had separate washrooms.”
“That’s what you were so worried about?”
“It was just a thought that popped up and I couldn’t get it out of my head.”
“You should know the military doesn’t work like that.”
“Well I don’t. I never been in the military before and never wanted to be.”
“Yes… but no matter how much we try we cannot stop fate…” Rebekka was saying this more to herself, but Mason heard it all the same.
“Eh? What do you mean?” she asked.
Rebekka sighed and replied “Oh, nothing. Just a thought.”
Fortunately, Mason didn’t stay preoccupied with this for long and asked “So, what was that back there about?”
“It’s a show of respect. Respect eventually starts friendships. Starting friendships with the servants of a place is practically the only way to receive viable information.”
“It’s all about information.”
Once they had taken a quick shower in the washroom, Rebekka and Mason were told to where the sleeping quarters were. The sleeping quarters were also separated (to Mason’s good relief.) It was windowless and contained about a dozen bunks, with a pillow and a blanket on each. Three other women were already there when they got there, but they were quiet and secluded to themselves.
“Top or bottom?” Mason asked.
“Bottom,” Rebekka replied with a grin. “You can’t fool me with decency. I know you want the top bunk.” Mason return her grin with a wide one of her own.
Rebekka sat on the bunk closest to the door and crossed her arms. It seemed the farther they had gotten into the Axon, the colder it got. Or maybe it was the cold shower. Mason sat beside her.
“I can’t stand these new clothes,” she said. “They’re so itchy.”
“Yeah, they are, but you’ll get used to it.”
“And I’m hungry. I wonder–”
Suddenly the door to the quarters opened and a guard stepped in.
“Mealtime,” she announced.
Rebekka looked around to Mason. “There’s the answer to your question.”
“Oh good. I wonder what there will be to eat.”
“Ewwwww… What is it?”
Rebekka watched Mason poke at her plate of what ever it was a few times before looking to her own plate.
“It’s a meat pie,” Rebekka said after noticing possible chunks of stew meat and vegetables. “I think…”
“You think!?! How do they expect people to eat this if they don’t even know what it is? They might be grinding up hooves or… or… or nostrils and serving it to you. A nice plate of extra trimmings. Eat up!”
Rebekka scooped up a spoonful, sniffed it, and ate it.
“Not bad,” she said and then cast a glance at Mason. “You should try some.”
Mason looked skeptically at her plate, very skeptically, but gave in and ate a spoonful.
“I guess it’s not bad,” she said and ate another spoonful. “Could use a little salt…. and some herbs.” She consumed spoonful after spoonful without pause until there was nothing left.
“Ahhhh…” she sighed contently and wiped her mouth with her sleeve.
“So,” Rebekka began with a crafty grin. “How was the plate of extra trimmings?”
“Rebekka!” Mason protested with a scowl and gave her a little swap across the upper arm. Rebekka broke into a cheerful chortle and didn’t stop until it ached.
Mason was still watching with her scowl when she was done. “Are you done now?”
(to be continued…)
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