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24: Conscripted

I had come down through holes in the floors; I found the stairs back up by following the noise. Men toiled with grim-faced efficiency to reinforce charred ceiling beams, to make safer their futile efforts to do something that mattered. They hardly noticed me as I danced around them up the spiral stairs and into the rubble of the courtyard. A heavy canvas had been stretched over the mouth of the stairs to keep the rain out; the debris of the structure that once had stood there had been pushed to the side in hasty piles.

Captain Baldwin saw me before I saw him. “Martin,” he called out. He stood in another impromptu shelter nearby, giving orders and trying in his own way to perform a meaningful role in a place abandoned by meaning. By his demeanor I had to assume he was the senior officer still breathing. Kat stood next to him, grim-faced. Elena and Bags were not with them. I crossed the distance slowly; the rain was cleaner now, providing a welcome chill.

“What did you find?” he asked.

“Dead people,” I said. “A lot of them.”

“Did you arm yourself?”

With a sigh and a roll of my eyes I reached for my poorly-concealed distractor weapon.

Baldwin shook his head. “Don’t bother.” He reached behind him to where some stones that had once been part of a tower had been arranged to form a crude table. He handed me a bundle and a folded piece of smudged paper. The bundle I recognized — my knives! — but it was the paper that held my attention. Baldwin pressed it into my hands and said, “By the power given me by his majesty the king, you are now conscripted into his majesty’s army. This warrant,” he pushed the paper more forcefully into my unwilling hand, “makes you an officer. Don’t lose it; it gives you the ability to give orders, and more important, to not take orders from officers with no commission.”

I gazed at the disastrous, traitorous piece of paper. A contract that required no signature from me to be binding.

“I am your commanding officer now,” he said.

I glanced over at Katherine. “Bags?” I asked.

“Likewise,” Baldwin said. “The Baroness remains a prisoner of the throne. It is beyond my power to change that.” He gave a little half-smile. “I know you are not the sort to take orders, Martin, but that piece of paper will make it easier for you to do what we both know must be done.”

I stood in silence until he articulated his version of what must be done. “Get Elena to the King,” the Captain said. “He needs her. She needs him. There must be a reason the Soul Thieves are trying so hard to keep them apart.”

I nodded. What he said made sense. As much sense as anything else, at least.

Baldwin squared himself in front of me. “You and Bags will take Elena to the King. You will also escort the Baroness to face trial.” Perhaps there was a hint of a smile as he said that. “You leave immediately. I have allocated horses and traveling supplies.”

I stood frozen for perhaps three long seconds. “May I speak to you privately?” I asked him.

He nodded and stepped out into the rain. I followed. After a few steps he said, “Try to say ‘sir’ when other people can hear us.”

“I will,” I said. An important part of doing what needs to be done is being who you need to be. I could be a soldier for a while. “Sir.”

Neither of us had been terribly dry before, but now we were soaked. We stopped at a broken wall and looked over the valley. I was distracted by the clean precision of the blackened circle around us. “What did you find down there?” Baldwin asked.

“One of them,” I said. “Still alive. He knew Elena’s name. I smashed his brains in.”

Baldwin drew in a long breath through his nose. I watched his profile in the gray light as raindrops gathered in his eyelashes, to fly away each time he blinked. “Likely there’s one or more in town as well. All the more urgent you leave quickly.”

I thought, then acted before I could think again. “There’s something in the well,” I said.

“What sort of something?”

“I don’t know, but the commander of this place died protecting it.”

“His name was Harrick. He was a good soldier. Anyone else know?”

“I don’t think so.”

Baldwin looked out to where the sun was peeking under the edge of the storm clouds, sliding through a gap of clear sky to once more be hidden by the mountains to the west. “I wish I hadn’t met you,” he said. He turned and looked back at the activity around the stairs. “Whatever’s down there, don’t leave without it.”

“Yes, sir,” I said.

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