The requisitions officers arrived at the Spiral Sanctum at dawn, their banners high and their horses nearly frothing at the mouth. Captain Jodariel cleared them for entry. They rode through the square and tied them in front of the offices, where she met them for breakfast and for their reports. She knew why they’d come and knew what they’d ask of her. News of the Battle of the Red Hills had reached the Spiral Sanctum two days ago. Some of the younger children ran out to take their gear and their horses, Ruvi and Julius were eager to see the soldiers up close, Katya and Soli wanted to earn an extra coin or two as a tip. Despite the grimness of his task, the lead officer nearly laughed as his horse reared at their approach. It was an irritable, exhausted beast, its nostrils flared and its hooves scraped on the ancient cobblestone of the Sanctum’s broken roads.
“Mind that one,” said the lead officer. He flipped little Katya a Lun as she picked herself up. “She’s a wild one.”
“Leave it to the cadets,” said Jodariel, stepping out to meet the unit. They stumbled over their salutes. The children gave theirs with smart familiarity.
“Yes, Captain,” said Ruvi and Julius.
“Captain,” said the requisitions officer. She didn’t recognize him or his name. He must have been fresh from one of the noble houses in the South to have such a low-risk post. Jodariel decided then and there it wouldn't be worth remembering. “It’s good to see you.”
“Speak for yourself,” said Jodariel, simply, but her reputation was well known, and the requisitions officer held his tongue as she gestured him into her offices. He knew better than to argue with her. Her good will was vital to his particular mission.
“More than ever,” said the officer, as he shut the door. The children knew they were not supposed to crowd at the windows when the Captain was taking military visitors, but she knew it didn’t stop them from peering through the keyhole instead. “Good luck for us. They must keep you busy!”
“The survivors from the scouring in Bren,” said Jodariel.
“Ah, that’s right,” said the officer, sobering some. Everyone knew about the scouring of Bren three months ago, in which the Highwings had razed an entire civilian town in a day. No one wanted to talk about it.
“Sit,” ordered Jodariel.
The officer did. He didn’t waste any more of her time. He couldn’t afford to. The Commonwealth called the Battle of Red Hills a ‘decisive victory,’ but it had come at the cost of five units and a full encampment. Not that the Commonwealth considered this a set back at all, oh no, a convenient improvement to the structure of their assault units would just so happen to make up for any casualties wrought by the Highwings. It was not to make up for a loss of men at all. It was a new direction reviewed and decided by the High Astralists themselves. If it was written in the stars, surely, victory would be soon upon them.
The High Astralists had predicted that the Battle of Red Hills would be a rousing success, too, but no one mentioned that anymore.
Still, this particular officer recited the party line with dutiful enthusiasm. Jodariel could almost admire that amount of pep from someone who’d ridden at full pelt for a day and a half. He let her know what the frontline force needed: 1000 lbs of grain. 500 shells. 50 sets of armor. 100 muskets, 200 shortswords. Jodariel took stock of each of these with the skill in memorization that had once earned her praise in the brief school days before her recruitment.
Then came the requests for manpower. “If you have anything to recommend to us, we’d really appreciate it,” said the officer. “Of course, we hate to take away from the Sanctum guard, but everyone knows your trainees are a cut above average.”
Meaning they died slightly less than the others. Jodariel stared at him until he started to fidget.
“Out with it, then” she said, after a time.
The officer stammered a little, but he got to it.
“Commander Nakai lost some messengers up in the foothills.”
Merium and Ravius were the fastest of her graduating recruits. Good at running. Better at dodging. A vital skill when moving between lines on the front.
“Chief Physician Oralech needs more medical assistants out at the summit.”
Jana and Ravi. They had looked after the Bren survivors when they’d come in. They were mindful, hardworking, and didn’t flinch at the sight of blood.
“Captain Liesel needs five men to to train up into the Wing Cutters. Any recommendations?”
The Wing Cutters were a special assault force. Jodariel drummed her fingers on her desk for a minute or two, before she recommended Taran, Azelas, Sarisa, and Renn. Renn in particular had a fascination with explosions. Sarisa liked to start fights.
When the staffing requests were done, Jodariel summoned one of her adjutants to relay the offered positions to the relevant recruits. Then, almost as an afterthought, se offered the requisitions unit food and rest. He took the offer heartily. She dismissed him. As she saw him out, the children scattered from their space against the door, and tried to look as though they’d been busy cleaning the steps or playing with rocks.
“You will find space for your men in the barracks,” said Jodariel. “The staff and supplies should be sorted by noon. I will send a detachment to see you off..”
“Bless your stars,” said the officer. He dismissed the rest of his unit and went in search of a bath.
There was one child who didn’t dash off. One of the Bren orphans. The boy had set himself up next to the requisition officer’s unruly horse, close enough the beast could step on him. It was the flash of red that gave him away. Jodariel turned suddenly.
“Hedwyn,” said Jodariel.
The boy looked up at her with wide eyes. He had a bucket of feed strapped to the beast’s mouth. Far from anxious and angry, the horse was sedately chomping away, while the boy held a brush, paused on the formidable mount’s still-heaving flank.
“She wanted a brushing,” explained the boy. “She’s tired from the road.”
“Carry on,” she said, and went on her way. “See me in the stables at noon.”
It was the most she’d heard from this particular child since he’d come in, three months ago. The Bren survivors had been found in the basement of a schoolhouse, after the Highwing Remnants had firebombed the rest of the town. Twenty children, one or two teachers. They’d emerged covered in soot and blank-eyed. They’d been brought to the Spiral Sanctum for lack of anywhere else to go. Most of the people of Bren were local farmers and craftsman, whose families had never gone far from their source. Whole families got wiped out that day.
The teachers had found a place among the staff. The children had been integrated with the rest of young cadets. Most had begun to show signs of improvement, with regular meals and a good solid schedule. Some, like young Hedwyn, had not been so responsive. He had to be coaxed to eat. He stayed off to the side during the ball games. He flinched during training. He didn’t speak to the other children. Jodariel had made inquiries of the medical officers, and the soldiers involved in the rescue: Had he been struck in the head during the scouring? Had he inhaled any smoke while trapped in the basement with the others? None of the above. He’d come out with a few bruises and a minor burn on his forearm and shoulder, but the majority if his and the other Bren orphans injuries were to their spirit. It was to be expected. They’d lost so much.
Which was why it mattered to Jodariel she find a place for each and every one of them. She’d managed with most of them. Found them chores that were involving, but not too hard, find them games that distracted them, lessons that strengthened them, offer them a strong arm when they cried at night. Hedwyn didn’t even cry. It was as though someone had simply snuffed out the light behind his eyes, and Jodariel knew well enough that fire was the hardest to rekindle once it was well and truly out.
Which was why -- after she’d had done her rounds, after she had met with the various staff officers to confirm the transfer of goods, after she had visited all her departing recruits to see their faces one last time and tell her how capable she felt they were, after she hugged a crying Jana and clasped hands with a delighted Sarisa -- Jodariel made a diversion to the barracks and caught the requisitions officer as he’d emerged from the bathhouse, fixing his scarf.
“Captain,” he said, with a surprise. He backed up automatically. The Captain was half a head taller than him, and he knew it. “Is something wrong?”
“Your horse,” she said. “It’s thrown a hoof.”
“Again?” he sighed. “By the Black Saddle, that one’s been trouble since day one.”
“Take one from our stables,” said Jodariel. “You need not delay.”
“Thank you, Captain,” said the officer. Her her sudden generosity surprised him. Jodariel was known more for her iron will than anything else.
By noon, the supply carriages had left. Jodariel found young Hedwyn already waiting in the stables. He was waiting by the nearest door, where she’d had the hands take the requisition officer’s wild black horse. The beast had its head over the stable door, its ears pricked forward. Hedwyn had, at present, offered it a peppermint, and stroked its nose.
“It’s ok,” he was telling it. “It’s ok now. You’re safe here, for now. They won’t take you back, I promise.”
“And how would you intend to do that?” asked Jodariel.
The boy jumped. The horse snorted and backed away, eyes flaring. Jodariel crossed her arms as she leaned against the stable door.
“It is besides the point,” said Jodariel. “The officers have already gone. He sold her to us, for what good it does us. But I am curious: what did you have planned?”
The boy’s eyes fell to the ground, his face almost as red as his hair.
“Can you ride?”
The boy shook his head miserably.
“Would you like to learn?”
The boy glanced up, blinking.
“Take that saddle off the wall,” said Jodariel, simply, “and I will show you. On one of the draft horses, first. It is no service to us to have you break your neck on your first day out.”
It was a gamble. It took the boy a second to catch her meaning, but when he did, she knew she’d finally found the right course for him. His head came up, and his dark eyes went bright. He didn’t quite smile, but she could tell he was struggling to keep it down.
“Captain?” asked Hedwyn, in a wavering voice.
“You will make no more promises you can’t keep,” said Jodariel.
“Yes, Captain,” said Hedwyn, and that was when she knew he would do just fine.