The blaring of trumpets sent shards of crystallized agony through Ledram’s head, and he felt as though he was about to wretch. His hands over his ears he shot up, and began to bellow.
“Thrice-damned shit-stirring horns!” he cried, his eyes screwed shut. Every ounce of willpower he possessed was focused on drowning out the brassy wail, but will alone could not silence the horns. He rocked in place as they let out their dirge, trailing off until finally going quiet.
Ledram’s relief was short lived, however, as Tors peered into the tent. “Off your ass!” he scolded, pulling Ledram’s hand away from his head. “It’s bloody dawn!”
“I don’t care if it’s noon! I was sleeping!”
“On the empresses coin!”
Tors paused. “Is your nose bleeding?”
Ledram reluctantly opened his eyes, and patted under his nose. Dried blood crusted his fingers. “Damn it all!” he spat, wiping away the gore.
“A fight?” Tors asked.
“A drug peddler,” Led replied, “gave me some powder and told me to snort it.”
“By my ancestors bones,” Tors exclaimed, “you were stupid enough to try it?”
“The first bit was free.”
“Of course it was free!” Tors scolded, “he wants you coming back! Now get off your drugged up ass out the bloody tent!” Tors grabbed Led by the arm and hauled him into the street like a child. The sellsword stood in the glaring light for a moment, dazed, until Tors shoved a bundle into his arms. “Put your gear on,” he said, “we have to report to that bastard Isaac, and I’ll be damned if you show up in your scivvies.”
Ledram shrugged, unrolling his padded jacket and pulling it over his arms. Grumbling he donned his patchwork chainmail coat, and secured his sword-belt round his waist. Finally he dusted off his aged helmet, which bore a fresh coat of blue paint.
“You look like hell,” Tors hummed, “but it’ll do. Now let’s go.” He turned on his heels, and marched through the street.
“What about breakfast?” Led asked, catching up to Tors.
“Forget food, you’ll be lucky if Isaac doesn’t have you flogged for being late.” Tors shook his head. “I’ll be lucky if I don’t get flogged for being late.”
The pair wormed their way through the camp, navigating through clouds of dust kicked up by the mass of men running about. Sharp eyed Telucians and colossal northerners glared at the islanders as they passed, but Led was in too much of a rush to glare back.
Eventually they reached the edge of the camp, which opened to a dusty scrubland. Sellswords collected here, in groups of ten or more. The Telucian companies stayed far from the bulk of the congregation, while the pale Anwexians huddled in the cool shadows of the city wall.
It was there Tors led his friend. A group of eighteen, clad in thick padded jackets and blue helmets huddled around a stern figure. He was an islander, pale and blue-eyed, of an emaciated build. Middle aged, he had lost much of his hair, and what was left had gone grey. A freshly cleaned coat of chainmail clung tightly to him, and a simple breastplate covered his torso. It too was painted blue.
“You good for nothing sods!” the man cried. Led concluded that this was Isaac. “What does dawn mean to you, Toots? And you, lead man, you just crawl out of bed?”
Ledram scowled, but remained silent. Tors cleared his throat. “We had some difficulty navigating the camp.”
“My ass,” Isaac spat, “you got a bite to eat, and toothless here was still snoozing!” He shook his head. “If you lot were my men-at-arms, I’d have your fingers lopped off.”
Ledram growled, but was silenced by Tors. “It won’t happen again, sir.”
“Damn right,” Isaac agreed. He stepped back, and examined in the mercenaries assembled before him. “Just my luck,” he hissed, “I ask for soldiers and I get bloody milksops.” He planted a finger on the chest of a nearby man. “Lemme guess, back home you were chasing bandits for loose change?” He moved to the next man. “Bet they had a lard-ass like you watching a damned pastry shop.” He gobbed a ball of phlegm into the sand. “Pathetic.”
Ledram seethed. This was the reason he refused military contracts. He’d always be at the mercy of some puffed up blaggart with more bark than bite. Led wanted nothing more than to put him on the ground, but better judgement, and the promise of pay, kept him from slugging the bastard.
“Alright you lot,” Isaac began, “don’t know about you, but I’ve fought in wars before. Stormed castles, fought alongside kings. Real battle.”
Before you started extorting tolls and robbing carts? Led questioned.
“Listen to me and you might bloody survive this mess.” He glowered at the sellswords. “And you will listen to me. You might be on her imperial majesty’s payroll but your in my damned unit.”
When no one spoke, he continued. “Good. Now, on to business.” He put his hands behind his back. “Our target is a village three miles inland. It may be a stroll away, but we’re expecting to meet armed resistance. We wipe out the treacherous whoresons, storm the village, and burn it to the bloody ground.”
A few sellswords whispered to one another. “Shut your damned mouths!” Isaac exclaimed. “We’re being joined by a royal detachment, the empress’ captain of the guard and his retinue. He’ll be commanding the mercenary army, and watching our wet work.”
Isaac leaned towards the group, and slowed his speech. “My future employment relies on you dregs to do your damned jobs, and do them good. And if it’s in my best interest, it’s in yours.” He began to hiss. “Be merciless, be vicious. Don’t. Bloody. Die.”
He leaned back, and put his adjusted his belt. “Now get to it!” he cried, “you’ll eat on the march. And be ready for a fight! The sand will be red by the time the day is done.”