With the honed skills of a skulker, Ivo wormed his way through the narrow cracks in the crowd. Like honey poured over a crusty loaf, he oozed deeper into the packed masses. Most of the people had donned their best outfits: coloured hoods and split tunics, along with long, form-fitting hose and calfskin boots. This made Ivo’s heart jump; the only time the crowd got this fancied up was when there was a burning. Or a beheading. In a land where soot blocked the sun, the people still found ways to entertain themselves. Staring down at his own ragged red tunic, Ivo couldn’t help but feel underdressed.
Halfway into the teaming mass, the speaker’s voice become clear. It was a dry, old voice, one that belonged to a man with enough money to live far too long.
“… and our fair Rendsheim will be the first to find this great gift, and once again make this city one of the wonders of the world!”
Oh great, Ivo thought, he’s trying to sell us on something. No doubt it was one of Rudolph’s lackeys, giving a speech in an attempt to make the Duke appear more personable. This was bound to be a long, drawn out affair. Despite this, Ivo decided to stay, even if there wasn’t going to be an execution. Better than counting the rats in his cellar or watching rainbows in the creosote-choked waterways.
The unseen speaker continued, growing ever more passionate. His voice bounced off the close-packed houses that pressed in on the great square. “This tool of the gods will let us fill the world with the wonders of the ancients! The mighty wyverns and sturdy Wollok will again be known to these lands. And, greatest of all, we shall once again see Cinderbark flourish as it did in the time of our fathers! Once more, the forges will burn with this noble tree, and once more Rendsheim will be the centre of the world!” Another roar rose from the crowd.
Burn it all to cinder these idiots will cheer for anything, Ivo mused.
“But,” the speaker continued once the cheers had died down, “such a venture requires great sacrifice. Duke Rudolph, in his most benevolent wisdom, has surmised that no doubt others would seek the same prize as we do. Even as we speak, the lecherous, conniving Borig of Stahlsheim is mustering a force to march to this fabled temple! The wretch would see the yoke of the old monarchy placed upon Rendsheim once again! With his putrid lineage on the throne!” Ivo chuckled awkwardly, a thin smile crossing his gaunt features. The way they described Borig just about sums up every noble he had ever heard off.
After much booing and hissing directed toward Borig’s name, the speaker added, “…which is why his Royal Sir, Duke Rudolph has imposed a city wide conscription.” The crowd went silent, and the faint sound of armoured boots on paving stones echoed down the side streets.
“Starting in this very square, all able-bodied men between seventeen and fifty winters are required to serve a maximum of two years military service. Any attempting to resist will be punished to the fullest extent of our just and fair courts.”
Ivo froze, eyes stuck open and mouth agape. For a moment, it seemed as if he had simply died as he stood. The thought of conscription scared Ivo more than eating the food from the merchants by the sewers. He was a pacifist; a coward, to the layman. His toughest opponent to date was a plank of pine that was more knot than tree, and though he managed to make a passable bench he was left weeping over his blistered hands.
Ivo knew he had to escape. With uncharacteristic grace, he spun on his heels, only to be greeted by the dull sheen of a regiment of soldiers blocking his planned escape. Ivo’s head twisted around as he realized that during the orator’s rousing speech over a hundred armed and armoured thugs had encircled the town square. Wide-brimmed helmets covered their heads, each blackened from the heat of the forge and left unpolished. Great chainmail coats covered most of the infantry, the rusting rings layered under thick, padded tunics, as stained as their helmets. Worst of all were their weapons; gnarly hooked things that were one part axe and one part pick. These monstrous tools came from the tools charcoal workers used, with hooks to pull lighter logs and cutting edges to trim larger ones. Ivo didn’t want to picture their effect against unguarded flesh.
Frantically, Ivo searched for an exit. In his rush to find a safe way home, he bowled over the old, the sick, and anyone smaller and weaker than he. In his haste, Ivo didn’t notice the soldier until he buried his face in copious chest hair. The infantryman had done away with his mail jacket, and instead wore a greasy aketon. The padding reeked of old broth, onion, and sweat.
Ivo, still vainly spitting out chest hairs, felt a meaty fist clamp his slim shoulder. The soldier bent over, close enough so that the quaking carpenter nearly retched at the man’s rancid, rot-flecked breath.
“Going somewhere?” The soldier rumbled, cocking an eyebrow.
Ivo looked down at his feet, shrinking away from the hulking bruiser. He struggled to say something, anything, to get out of this mess. All he could manage was, “I don’t… not… don’t qualify…”
The soldier’s porcine features took on a quizzical quality, as if the brain behind the face wasn’t quite as small as his appearance suggested. “Well, you do look scrawny for a lad of seventeen,” the man said, mocking sympathy. He brought his other putrid paw up to Ivo’s face. It stank of dung and blood.
The soldier grabbed Ivo’s pointed chin, and ran a thumb across the light dusting of stubble. “But this little patch o’ scrub makes me think you ain’t seventeen. So either you’s be one of the ugliest women I’ve ever seen, or you’s been lying to me.” He leaned in even closer. In a raspy whisper, he added, “An’ you wouldn’t be lyin’ to me, would you, bud?”
Ivo just kept his eyes down. “Good. Then step into line, you little shit!” The soldier shoved Ivo into the murmuring crowd, where he was caught up in the flow of moving flesh. Hundreds of people like him, poor bastards looking for an escape from a miserable existence of drills, rations, and bodily harm.
His dark eyes darted from side to side as he walked on his toes, casting about for some alley or ditch to throw himself down. And though such opportunities presented themselves in the urban sprawl of Rendsheim, Ivo saw that a number of crossbow toting goons had joined their polarm-bearing brethren, bolts loaded and ready to fire. Though his scrawny frame made a small target, Ivo decided not to test the accuracy of the city’s defence force.
Like a rat stuck in the tar pits by the sewers, Ivo knew he was trapped. He looked skyward, eyes watering as he watched the plumes of smoke rise from crumbling chimneys. Thoughts swirled through his head as self-loathing and pity flooded his being. Why did I leave the bloody house?