Sometimes, on these icy cold nights, when I squat by the campfire, my ears still ringing, my muscles still aching, my hands still red, I stare into the flames until their flickering takes me back to another place where I let the wafting of incense cover the stench of blood and gore, and the chanting of ancient verses drown out the clash of swords and the cries of the dying.
On other nights, all that comes back to me is the drill master’s roar.
‘Lift those lily-white, dimpled knees, you sleek toads. Keep those pale, spindly little arms pumping. Now down, fat bellies to the ground. Arms straight. See if those spider arms of yours can hold up your great fat arses. Now bring each knee up to those dangling breasts. By the gods, your mothers suckled you on flatter paps than those. Faster. Faster. Imagine you’re running away from a raging snowbear eager for a nice feed on your tasty fat thighs. You little maggot, wake up. You’re not in prayer hall now. Do you want me to put some pepper up that great long nose of yours? Now for a few push-ups and let’s see if any of you milk-livered lumps can do more than one without bursting into tears. Four, five. Keep it up or I’ll personally kick your plump little arses into the next kingdom. Nine, ten. Come on, come on. My old grandmother could do better and she’s long dead. Nineteen, twenty. Keep it going. Keep it going.’
How I hated the sound of his voice, his shouting, curses and insults from sunrise to sunset. How my lungs had come close to bursting, my legs throbbed and my arms felt like they would fall off. This was not the life of a monk – stripped of my robe, drilling out in the sun with hundreds of my fellows, until, too sore to sleep, I fell onto my pallet, praying to the gods to take me in the night and relieve me of this torture. Only the gods could rescue me, for though many had begged to be exempted, there had been no exemptions granted, no excuses heeded. It had taken at least a moon before my muscles got used to the drilling and I began to sleep at last.
As tall and dark as a lord, the drill master was like no nobleman I had ever seen. He wore his grizzled hair cropped almost as short as a monk’s. His weather-beaten face was pock-marked and scarred, his teeth brown and worn. Nor did he speak like a nobleman, with his ear-splitting bellowing and never-ending stream of invective. He spoke a language close to our own, though the ‘e’s had become ‘i’s and the ‘i’s ‘u’s, and there were more than a few words we had never heard, and many of ours he did not know.
It had been the first moon of spring when the drill master arrived with a vadonatus from the capital. He had stood silently in the prayer hall while the vadonatus preached to us. The sky-gods were not gods of complacency, had been his theme, but gods of war, and as his monks, we did not honour our gods solely by studying the ancient texts and praying, but by fighting to protect our god-king, our land and our people. Still bewildered by this change of tune, all of us who had not seen forty summers were sent out into the precinct where we removed our robes and stood in nothing but our tunics, while the drill master inspected each of us, sending away the weak and the bent. Those that remained were issued breeches, exempted from prayer services and told to reassemble at first light.
It was two moons after the drilling started that I had a visitor. I had been expecting to see my mother, for she came at least once a moon and was overdue. But it was not she who was waiting for me but Alvar, the eldest of my three younger brothers. I had not seen him since I entered the monastery. I would have turned back if I were not so hungry for news of my family.
Alvar held out his arms as though he would embrace me. ‘Gaspar, you great dolt. Come here.’
I kept my distance. ‘Where’s Mother?’
‘The poor old girl’s exhausted, so she sent me. We took in Naimar’s bastard last phase and the little tyke hasn’t stopped crying, day or night. Ma got so desperate she even took it back to the nunnery so Taneli could feed it, but the slut had already left. Shows how much she cared, for all her whimpering.’
‘So, what are you feeding it?’
‘Kalevi tried suckling it since she’d just weaned our latest, but it wouldn’t take to her breast.’
Too sour, I thought, swallowing a snigger.
Alvar scowled. ‘It puked up the karvel milk, but Ma managed to get it to hold down some pikka milk, so guess who’s going to be chasing and milking pikka twice a day for the next year or so, as if we don’t have enough to do with Naimar gone. Not that he was much use. We’re well rid of him as we are of you, always shirking your work and hiding behind Ma’s skirts.’
‘I have an aversion to whitebeet.’
‘You have an aversion to work. Just look at you now. No more complaining that you can’t breathe or that your stomach hurts, now that you can sit around praying all day.’
I had to breathe deeply to stay calm. I had put up with abuse like this and worse all my life from my fathers and brothers. Mother had told them that the healers in the monastery had discovered what ailed me, but they would not believe that it was merely avoiding whitebeet that had cured me. Only my youngest brother Naimar had shown me any friendship and now he was gone.
Alvar scoffed and stepped up close to me. He made a crude gesture with his fist and forearm. ‘At least Kalevi has two real men to give her what she needs.’ Sneering, he jabbed me in the stomach. ‘Got any messages for Mother? I’ll tell her you’re looking as fat and sleek as ever, shall I?’
I was trembling with anger after Alvar left. I had been called less than a man all my life. Not even my mother treated me like one. But as angry as I got at their taunting, I had never been able to stand up to them, my fathers and brothers, because, in my heart, I knew they were right. When had I ever been able to do a man’s work or a man’s duties?
Every family in the village had at least one child in the monastery or the nunnery to bring some spiritual merit and temporal prestige to the family, and to remove a hungry belly from around the table. It was rare, though, for the eldest son to be given up, but in my case, I had readily obeyed when my mother decreed it should be me to enter the monastery, much to the amusement and chagrin of the rest of family who saw it as just one more instance of my mother sheltering me from the hard work of tending the fields of whitebeet we relied on. Though I was no great scholar nor devotee of the gods, life in the monastery had been bearable, if not the life I craved.
That day, though, I might have been able to rebut Alvar’s insults, for under my robe, I was no longer so fat and sleek. My belly had begun to flatten and my arms and legs to grow hard. But that would have meant telling him about the soldiering, and we had been sworn to secrecy.
At the end of the third moon, the drill master deemed us ready to start weapons training with bow and arrows, axe, mace, dagger, short sword and shield. At first he had said nothing of killing and maiming with these instruments, making their use seem like little more than an extension of the drilling regime, until, after another moon, we began to practise on man-shaped targets. By then, even the gentlest of us had become hardened and proud of our strength and prowess, keener to impress the drill master than we had ever been to serve the gods.
At the end of six moons we were issued with our soldier’s rig. Over pikka-wool tunics and breeches we would wear a leather vest and leggings, with long boots and a tight-fitting leather skull cap. On a leather belt we would carry two daggers and a short sword in its scabbard, and strung on our backs a round shield and a quiver carrying a short bow and a dozen arrows. Our robes were handed over to be parted in front and cut off at the knees to make a short, hooded coat and tabard.
A phase later, the drill master lined us up in straight ranks and, standing in front of us, flanked by several noblemen, he addressed us. ‘Well, lads, I never thought this day would come. Through hard work and discipline, we’ve managed to form an army of men out of a gaggle of girls. Today I hand you over to your commanders, your Subahdar, the knight Adolar, cousin to the Royal Regent himself, and his Sirdari, the knights Casobar and Piroskar. Mark their names well, for from now on they will be your Vadonus, your mother, your fathers and your gods. You will obey them, serve them, give your very lives for them. Do you hear me? … Do you hear me?’
‘Yessir,’ we soldiers roared.
The officers who gazed at us with chins held high were as tall as noblemen, but fairer of skin and hair. They wore a soldier’s rig like our own though of much richer materials, and their swords in jewelled scabbards hung from gold encrusted bandoleers. Their long hair was divided into a multitude of braids under hats of pure white snowbear-fur. Their coats were also of pikka-wool, but bleached white and intricately woven. The noblemen who stood behind them regarded us through narrowed eyes. Like the drill master, they wore their hair short under a leather skullcap and held shiny, fur-trimmed helmets under their arms.
‘Now, your Subahdar has left to me the selection of a dozen havildari to lead squads of twenty odd men. I must admit, it wasn’t an easy choice. I had a hard time finding a dozen of you up to the mark, so don’t embarrass me by falling short, or I swear by the God Tevus, I’ll come after you myself. Do you hear me?’
‘Yessir,’ we roared.
And so the drill master read out a list of names. Not expecting to hear my own, I let my mind wonder under the hot sun until my neighbours nudged me to go forward and accept an insignia of rank. The drill master scowled at me. ‘Not bad, Gaspar. You might not be a soldier yet, but you’ve got the makings of one.’
I believe I flushed with pride as I brought my fist to my shoulder to salute the officers who barely dipped their chins in recognition.
Before light the next morning we set off to march to Taivaros, joining squadron after squadron as we approached the capital, to defend and protect with our lives our god-king, our land and our people.
© Pauline Montagna 2022