In the evening, some of the men from the village gathered in the central square, by the fire. There were about seventy people present, sitting on the makeshift log benches. This was the local Council that ruled the village, second only to the chief in authority.
There were no women there.
The natives hadn’t heard anything about feminism, and the enlightened customs of the outside world didn’t matter in this village. They lived according to an ancient creed: ‘the husband says it—his wife does it.’ As for the women, they did their best to subtly ‘set their obnoxious husbands on the right path’.
Hadjar, who’d never really gotten a chance to do something like this back on Earth, was content. He was feeling particularly comfortable thanks to the pipe of strong tobacco he’d bought from the merchant.
However, the reason why this meeting had been called was the merchant, and not the men’s desire to sit around and smoke.
The pipe was the only thing Hadjar had bought, apart from an inferior, rusty sword. He’d gotten a whole deer skin after the hunt, as part of his reward. He’d bought a sword and a pipe with the money he’d earned from the sale of the skin, and received a few silver coins as change.
Hadjar had often smoked back on Earth because it had been one of the few activities that his body was capable of. In this new world, he’d managed to forget about the habit. But now he could afford to start smoking again because his practicing body had the endurance needed to do so safely.
After thanking Robin for the honor of being allowed to attend the Council, he sat there, silently smoking and inspecting the sword lying on his knees. Honestly, the misshapen hunk of metal was unworthy of even being called a kitchen knife, but since he didn’t have anything better…
Robin sat down carefully due to his bandaged foot, setting aside something that was all too familiar to Hadjar. It was a wooden crutch, similar to the ones that had replaced his legs for a long time.
“You live in a blessed place, it’s much better than the outside world,” the merchant said, wiping at his lips with his sleeve.
He was small, with a sparse beard, slim as a rake, wiry, and had bright eyes. He looked like one of the pickpockets Hadjar had seen plenty of at the fair.
“What’s going on out there?” The chief decided to ask immediately.
The old man, despite his deceptively simple appearance, was tenacious and meticulous, as a ruler should be, delving into all the details and not leaving anything to chance. He approached this the same way he’d gone about training Robin, who was to take his place in the future. Hadjar learned about all this from the villagers with whom he’d spent the whole day.
When night fell, everyone went home to try and show off their new purchases.
“War,” the merchant replied immediately. “Admittedly, there’s always a war going on out there. But this time, his Majesty is very angry. The Empire won’t help him, so he’s gathering troops to fend off the nomads.”
“Are they attacking from the south?” Hadjar asked, after raising his hand.
No one took any liberties here. Everyone could only speak after the elder’s permission.
“From the South, yes,” the merchant agreed. “They attacked from the south before. But now they’re attacking from the east, coming down from the mountain tops. There are no Imperial legions stationed there, so they come in and freely rob, rape, burn, and ravage the settlements.”
“And what about the King?” The elder asked.
“They say that the King even sent his own son to join the army. He doesn’t love him, but he adores his daughter. People tell amazing tales about her clothes and servants.”
“The King has a daughter?” Hadjar raised his hand again and asked, feeling confused.
“Don’t you know anything, kid? For sure he does. She’s the most beautiful girl in the Kingdom. Her hair is pure gold. Her eyes are like emeralds. Her skin is whiter than snow. And if she’s wielding a sword, you’re better off burying yourself in the ground than facing her. Everybody’s waiting for the day when Elaine becomes a Heaven Soldier.”
Hadjar choked on the smoke he’d inhaled, dropped his sword, cutting himself on it, and then barely managed to ask his question: “Sorry, merchant, what?”
“Yes, you heard right, everyone expects her to become a Heaven Soldier. Primus has hired teachers from the Empire and used the best resources to help her advance to that stage…”
“No, you don’t understand.” Hadjar interrupted him, “What’s her name?”
Elaine... Was it really his sister? No, absolutely not. Why would Primus adopt someone who could one day stab him in the back? But why, then, did Hadjar feel that it was really her, deep in his heart? How could she have forgotten their mother and father? But the description of her hair and eyes fit—it was all exactly as he remembered.
His beloved, flighty little sister was now the daughter of Primus.
No, he couldn’t believe it.
But his heart told him he’d be wrong to deny it.
“So, right now, they’re actively recruiting people for the army.”
And again, Hadjar flinched.
“Do many people join the army?” He asked.
“Enough of them do,” the merchant shrugged, gratefully accepting another bowl of stew. After all, he would be setting out toward a new village tomorrow. “There are a lot of people who sign up to ensure that they and their families definitely won’t be taken to the mine. They’ll also be paid better than most can hope for. The food is decent. They will even be given a chance to advance further in stages, if they have the talent to do so. And, accordingly, they’ll be rewarded with promotions. What kind of soldier doesn’t dream of becoming a general?”
The merchant laughed and Hadjar pondered his words.
“How long will they be recruiting for?”
“Well, the recruitment will be completed at the end of the month. The nearest station is in Spring Town. I don’t think they’ll take you, young man. You’re too... sleek. You look like you’ve never even held a sword in your hands before. It’s necessary to pass an exam, once you get there. Your level must be no lower than the sixth stage, and the nodes must be no older than eighteen years.”
The other men looked at each other and grinned. No one told the ‘stranger’ about Hadjar’s recent deeds. Meanwhile, he was estimating if he could make it.
Less than three weeks remain, and according to Robin, I need more than a month to travel on foot to Spring Town, even without any trouble along the way.
Hadjar stood on a cliff, wrapped up in a cloak Robin had given him. He looked at the water streaming from the cliff, deep in thought. He wondered what lay ahead. How could he find justice in this harsh world? How could he bring peace to the spirits of his father and mother, whose bodies had been buried in the middle of nowhere?
He could become a mercenary and work for many different people in the hope that, someday, he would be able to do more than just mention the King in his prayer. And then he would break through the Palace guard, after hundreds of years of training. This was a very dangerous idea, but it could be implemented...
But there was another way. Much more difficult and bloody, but a lot faster. He could’ve gone to…
“Are you thinking about what you should do?” Robin walked up to him quietly and asked.
Hadjar almost fell off the cliff in surprise.
“Yea, I am!” He nodded.
The old man, groaning from fatigue, stood next to him.
“You’ll go to join the army,” the old man didn’t ask, but claimed. “I remember how much you don’t like soldiers. Why you’re going there is a mystery to me. But I’ll tell you something. No matter what you have to do there, no matter how hard your journey is, I know you’ll get through it. And when you’re done with all that…”
Robin turned and hugged Hadjar so tightly that the younger man felt his bones crack.
“You know you have a home here. You will always be welcome here and there will always be a bed and a hut ready for you to use. Don’t get lost, Hadjar. We’ll be waiting for you.”
The Prince hugged the villager back, swallowed the unwelcome lump in his throat, picked up the bag he’d packed, and set forth through the forest.
He left without turning around because he was afraid that if he did, he would end up staying.