I suppose I’m not that pretty. My mother would talk endlessly about how I was growing into such a beautiful young lady, I guess that’s just what mothers do. When Sander the Young, commander of the New Butcher company of hirelings came to my country he never spoke a word over my appearance. He was impressed with my literacy.
Imagine. A woman. Reading! To me it wasn’t that strange, with no markets, no other families and nothing but flat plains for a horizon there wasn’t much else to do than learn. We had lots of scrolls at our little cottage, when my father and brothers would leave to work in the field I would spend hours looking at those little letters. Eventually, I taught myself to read. My father showed eerie foresight encouraging the practice. It’d be easy to wave it of and say he just wanted me to have something to do all those lonely afternoons, but I think he knew it’d be useful to me one day.
Sander wanted me in his tent all the time during his encampment in the area, we would talk about history, poetry, philosophy, man stuff. When it was time for the New Butchers to move on he demanded I was gifted to him. My father didn’t put up much of a fight, he new I had no future there, nobody to be wed to and not temple to serve in. Hirelings are notoriously stingy and poor but Sander managed to scrounge up a well-bred steed for my father as a payment for me.
I travelled with the other concubines, servants and army property. It was a procession of cattle, food carts and women, pillaged from cities and farms during the trek through the country. Right now this was the most important part of the company, the biggest enemy of the New Butchers wasn’t soldiers but starvation. The biggest challenge an army faces is keeping itself fed and happy while trekking to its target.
On all sides were warriors, forming a protective square around the supplies. Before us marched the hoplites, heavily armored shock troops that carried spears, these were richer, more experienced hirelings that had been able to buy an expensive suit of armour. Behind us were equestrians, men on horseback. Sander had commanded that the fastest type of soldier travel at the back and the slowest and the front so the army wouldn’t fall apart and need time to re-group after a long night of marching. On our sides where less powerful troops, the lightly armed but dexterous peltasts. They used slings and bows to perform hit-and-run tactics on enemy scouts. Once in a while one of them would break formation to grab an apple or pinch his girlfriend’s ass.
The other women had no appreciation for these factoids. The oldest woman sharing my cart, Desda was her name, had to eventually shut me up. “Antilla” She sighed. “We stopped listening when you started talking about bronze weapons. Can you please stay quiet and enjoy the view?” It was indeed a nice view, I had never seen mountains before and now they were popping up with increasing regularity on the horizon.
After hearing this, a red-headed girl, not much older than me looked at me with her jaw slightly open. I didn’t know her name back then but I would learn that is was Nester. “You’re Antilla.” She said, touching me on the shoulder. “I know.” I responded, I couldn’t help myself. “You’re Sander’s consort.” I nodded. “Sander is the condotierre.” She explained to the rest of the group. “He commands the entire army.”
I smiled. “He has advisers.”
“What’s he like.” She said, a twinkle in her eyes.
“He’s so… young” Desda said, staring in the distance. She had seen him too. It was true, he was young, younger than even me.
“I thought that was just his name.” Nester pouted.
“Aye” Desda turned towards her. “He’ll be Sander the Young until Sander the Old dies but right now, he’s young.”
A third girl spoke up now, a dark skinned, foreign-looking lass. Her name was Neen. “If he’s so young, why is he the boss?”
They all looked to me. How could I explain to them what I had seen? The absolute ruthlessness of his tactics, how he did calculus with peoples lives, deliberately sending his own men to certain death to save one or two more in total. How he played with the minds of his enemies and broke taboos and sanctities to get a winning hand. I had seen how he ordered the mass murder of a village of amazons, local monster people. He had explained to me how their value system was completely incompatible with ours and they could never be anything but enemies. He had insights like that. They could never respect his inhuman humanity like I did.
“He’s…. really smart.”
They weren’t particular happy with my answer but it opened up a discussion on what men had claimed us and why we were travelling with the army. Desda wasn’t a consort at all, she was here as a healer and a cook, as vital to victory as any soldier, more-so even. Nester was one of several girls belonging to a sub-commander overseeing the horse-riders, she was completely smitten with him, it was pathetic. Neen was a slave, I had never seen a slave before but Desda told me not to pry. Other girls would have been able tell their stories but the weather took a turn for the worse.
Dark clouds packed together above the skies and a heavy headwind almost stopped us in our tracks. “The sky was blue a few minutes ago!” Desda screamed over the tempest. “This is no natural storm!” I was confused, what other types or storms were there? We were then distracted by the sounds coming from the peltasts on our right. The marching as good as stopped. There was screaming and growling but the dark clouds had blocked out almost all sunlight and it was hard to make out what was happening. At times I thought I saw flying creatures swoop down on the troops, but I couldn’t be sure.
We spend some time listening to sounds of skirmishing, over time the noise died down. That was the most worrisome part, what force could so completely overpower a force of hundreds of men? Over the complete silence in our midst the sound of approaching hoof-steps was impossible to mishear. The figure in the mist only became solidly defined and visible when it had come incredibly close.
It was Sander’s sub-commander, he had stepped out of the equestrian regiment he controlled to inspect the noise. Bringing his horse to an abrupt halt in front of our cart he screamed over the wind. “Nester! What has happened!?”
Nester pointed at the inky blackness where the battle had taken place. “They’re gone! They’re just gone!”
He adjusted his helmet for a moment and made a decision. “I’ll get Sander! Don’t go anywhere!” Then he stormed of to the front, to find Sander with the hoplites.
Well we didn’t, where we would have gone I don’t know but we took the advice to stay put to heart. For some reason we got it in our heads to never speak unless in absolute whispering, like the battle wouldn’t be able to find us if we were quiet enough.
Eventually the storm died down. The clouds went as quickly as they had came and the sky went blue. With the mists cleared we could see the rest of the procession standing around and looking confused. Hundreds of women were looking at the sky and the empty fields around us, looking for the men.
They were gone. All of them. An army several thousand strong had gone up in smoke and left its most valuable possessions stranded in the middle of hostile territory. Eventually it was Desda that took initiative. “Al right. Everybody. Girls! We’re forming a circle! Everybody! Move the caravans!”
For a few hours we had something to do, everybody was hurrying around moving caravans and lifting valuables. You don’t know somebody until you have worked with them. In those few hours we all learned of our friends who the spoiled brats were, who the hard workers and who the natural leaders. Desda had that matronly presence but for planning and insight everyone eventually started turning to me. I oversaw the movements of the big carts from a distance and had Neen run back and forth to relay my instructions to Nester.
By nightfall we had a decent fortifications going on. In case whatever took the men came back we would be protected by the thin planks of wood and crates of fruit from our carts. In the middle of our giant circle we lit a large bonfire to banish the darkness of night and we did the only thing we had been doing, the only thing we knew how, we waited.
The night was fearful and tense, we had told each other every story we knew and thoughts of the outside creeped in. This existential fear was disturbed when in the middle of the night we were awakened by exited screaming.
Sander had come back. Alone. His horse dragged him in, barely conscious after a humiliating defeat and long trek. After Desda had tended to his wounds he was finally able to tell his story. The new butchers had been led here on false pretences. Or at least that was his position now, because the same woman that had solicited their services had attacked them here. What was supposed to be an auxiliary force for the coup of the mountain kingdom had instead been made prey to the demon army. Hungry for men the monsters of this land had kidnapped the butchers for their own purposes, which were far from political.
Nester was in tears, Desda stared into the distance, I was trying to comprehend the scale of the incident. Neen spoke first. “So what happens now?”
Sander fell on his back, staring at the tent ceiling. “What happens now? The new Butchers are gone. All that’s left is the caravan, deep in hostile territory. Staying here we’ll never survive, going forward is pointless and going back there’s about 700 miles of angry tribes and lusty monsters. I have to admit. It’s a good question, you’ve got me stumped.”
It wouldn’t be until the very next morning that it was clear to me what we were going to do.