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CHAPTER THIRTEEN

"Today is your first taste of war."


Julian pointed to the four-armed dummies set up on the frames. They were the simplest possible effigies of a Mardukan: a head, two horns, four arms, and two legs, all connected by a long, dangling tube. Ropes ran to the tops and bottoms of the frames so that they would stay in place, and two more ropes ran to either side. The sergeant watched the recruits regard the dummies with perplexed and very cautious eyes and grinned ferociously.


"Now we get to have the fun of good training!" he told them loudly. "Fain! Front and center."


The Mardukan squad leader marched up to the human and came to a position of order arms with his pike. It was the real thing now, wicked meter-long steel head and all.


"You've been instructed in the use of the pike, correct Squad Leader?" Julian asked as St. John (M.) and Kane gripped the ropes attached to either side of the center dummy.


"Yes, Sir, Sergeant Julian!"


"You are now going to demonstrate your proficiency. On command, your job is to advance at a steady pace and drive your pike through the dummy, just as you will in combat against the Boman enemy. Can you do that?"


Fain didn't even look.


"Yes, Sir, Sergeant Julian!"


"Very good. Now, I will be behind the dummy. If it makes it easier for you to stick it all the way through by thinking that you might get me, too, you can feel free to envision that. Clear?"


"Clear, Sir!"


Julian stepped around behind the dummy and waved to Corporal Beckley.


"Take it," he said.


"Private Fain! Order arms! Private Fain, advance arms."


The Mardukan automatically dropped the butt of the weapon to the ground at the first command, then pointed the weapon at the target on the second.


"Private Fain will advance with determination at my command. Advance by half-step! Two, three, hut, hut, hut . . ."


The private stepped forward at the slow, balanced advance of the pike regiment until the pike was in contact with the dummy. Despite the simplicity of its construction, it was difficult to drive the weapon into it, and realistic enough to make him feel as if he were committing murder, but he put his weight behind the slow-moving weapon and tried to press it into the thick leather of the dummy's "body."


At the first hard thrust of the pike, the two Marines began to yank on the ropes while Julian, out of sight behind the dummy, set up a horrible, heart-wrenching wail as if from a soul in Hell.


The Mardukan private, horrified by the dummy's "reaction," flinched backward. And—inevitably—the instant he did, he found the diminutive Corporal Beckley at his side, screaming as loudly as Julian.


"What the fuck do you think you're doing, you four-armed freak?!" she shouted. "We told you to kill that bastard! You will advance with determination! Advance, two, three . . . !"


The shaken Mardukan grasped the pike firmly in two sliming true-hands and raised his shield as he advanced. This time, he expected the reaction of the team behind the dummy and drove forward despite it as the dummy apparently died in shrieking agony. For his pains, as the pike penetrated, a concealed sack of blood burst and went spurting out on the ground.


That red flood was enough to send him stepping back again, only to be verbally assaulted from behind. He drove forward once more, and this time, with a final, desperate thrust he stabbed the razor-sharp pike all the way through the target.


Julian's screaming ended . . . so abruptly that Fain was afraid he'd actually skewered the squad leader. His momentary fear, followed by elation that he might truly have killed the sadistic little two-armed shrimp, was short-lived as the sergeant came around the blood-drenched dummy.


"Listen up!" the Marine barked. "What we've just demonstrated here is the training technique you will all use. Two of you will pull on the ropes while a third stands behind—well behind—and simulates the sounds of a person dying. This will prepare you, as well as we can, for actually doing it. We will be participating in other training to prepare you, as well.


"This may seem hard, but hard training saves lives—your lives. And if you think that this is hard, wait until you actually face someone with a weapon in his hands, trying as hard as he can to stick it into you before you stick yours into him.


"You won't like it, because killing a person with steel, up close and personal . . . well, that really sucks."


* * *


"Their drill sucks," Honal groused as he waved for his company to wheel to the left and take the opposition cavalry in the flank.


The other contingent, also from the Northern League but from Shrimtan in the far east of the Ranar Mountains, tried to react to the flanking maneuver, but the ill-led mass of civan became tangled in its own feet and reins. The leader of the troop, who'd been a very junior officer when he led his own band of refugees south looking for any shelter from the Boman storm, waved his battle flag to call for a halt.


"True," Rastar said. "But we'll change that, won't we?"


"We'd better," the Therdan cavalry leader grunted. "From what I've been hearing in the city, it might be just us and the humans in the end."


"May the gods forfend," Rastar said with a grimace. "We've taken their gold and their food, and I would be bound to our agreements. But I truly wouldn't care to try for K'Vaern's Cove with the Wespar between us and the hills."


"Aye," Honal said as he spurred forward to "explain" to the other Northern lordling that "drill" meant doing things in a certain way, at a certain time, the same way, every time. And beyond the hills? The rest of the fucking barbs—including the true Boman.


 


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