From her desk at the front of the command tent, Casora watched the large group of riders approaching. She wore the regulation leathers and enough of her armor to disguise her slender body. By reflex, she reached for her helmet to hide her face as well. No outsider ever saw the face of a Deathless.
The tent stood on a little rise overlooking the camp, where the flag bearing a circle of seven stars on a dark blue field could be seen for miles around. It was also above most of the mud, although the smell of wet earth, damp horses, and manure still reached her on the stiff breeze that whipped the flag above her.
The rise gave Casora a good view of anyone arriving at the camp long before they reached her. More than enough time to note that these riders were all redheads, not a common hair color outside of Astraea. Casora grinned and set her helmet back on the corner of the desk. They were replacements. No need to hide her face from them. They were about to become Deathless themselves and they wouldn’t be shocked to find that the second in command of the famous war band was a girl only a couple of years older than they were.
As the riders made their way down the central road, between the orderly rows of tents, she took note of their condition and readiness. The horses looked good. Someone had thought to stop and groom them before riding in. Very shortly before, by appearances, since the mud from the recent rains didn’t rise above their fetlocks. The riders’ spears had been polished and sharpened, too. Replacements usually tried to make a good impression.
The effect was spoiled by the ease of the riders and their ragged line, strung out like a hunting party. And the shiny weapons were held too loosely. In a skirmish, they’d be overwhelmed before they could get those spears into position.
The new ones always thought they’d been trained back home, but they always had so much still to learn when they got here. It’d be Casora’s job to figure out what that was and see that it happened right quick, before they had a chance to get themselves or a comrade killed.
Training, she knew. She was good at that. She grimaced as she thought of all the other work these riders would mean: billets to be found, supplies that the veterans would already have, armor to be refitted, paperwork. Casora hadn’t come close to being comfortable with that part of her new job as second in command of the Deathless. She’d only been moved up from the much smaller job of commanding the archers when the last group of replacements arrived two months ago.
Then again, maybe all that would be someone else’s worry. It was an unusually large group of replacements. Thirty people would be going home, nearly a tenth of the band. Maybe Casora would be one of them this time. Winter was coming on; this would be the last batch of replacements before the passes closed. If one of them wasn’t carrying her name, that would mean another dreary winter in camp, without even any fighting to liven things up while the snow was on the ground. The honor of being among the longest serving of the Deathless was frankly wearing a little thin.
Four years was a long time to be away. She’d be seventeen this winter. Grita would be marrying any time now. Casora’d like to get home before her sister up and fell for some plowboy or cowherd and moved away. Grita was lucky. She could marry whoever and whenever she chose. Having been born free of the Curse, Grita wasn’t required to be a warrior. Casora and Marcian would have to wait until their duty permitted more.
Others of the war band began to gather around the command tent, shouting greetings but too disciplined to ask the question on everybody’s mind. Anybody who’d served for more than a year hoped this might be their ticket home.
The replacements rode right up to the command tent before dismounting and Casora got her first good look at them. They looked barely old enough to be allowed to ride over the mountains and into a foreign country on their own, let alone fight a war. It seemed like the replacements got younger with every batch. Seven gods! Had she ever been that young and that green? Must have been.
Casora drew breath to bark an order when she heard Captain Ledan step out of the tent behind her. Casora exhaled soundlessly. Not her place to give orders in the Captain’s presence.
“Report!” Ledan’s order cut through the chatter like a blade. The more experienced Deathless quieted immediately; the replacements looked around with wide, frightened eyes. Green as grass.
“Beran, here to replace Captain Ledan,” the first one said proudly, as if replacing the commander somehow made him special. The effect was somewhat spoiled when his voice squeaked through a half-octave change in the middle of it.
Won’t make you the commander, boy. Not by a long road. A chill swept down Casora’s back as the full impact struck. No, it’d make Casora the commander. Seven gods! She’d have to be the one to lead the Deathless into battle, make the decisions that could get some or all of them killed. Her stomach knotted. She wasn’t ready for that. Casora bowed her head to hide the panic in her eyes. A leader couldn’t show fear; a leader had to be strong and confident for the band.
There had to be some mistake. Sure, Casora did most of the training, but that was a long way from leading them into battle. For a dizzy moment she was positive the next name would be hers. The generals back home had to know that she wasn’t ready for this. They’d sent someone else out to take over. She didn’t even need to look at those fresh, young faces to know that wasn’t true. None of the replacements would be carrying her name. They simply would not call back the first and second in command at the same time. Panic warred with disappointment and won.
Maybe, with Marcian and Varana to support her, she could manage without making a complete ass of herself. Maybe.
She could almost feel the breath being held by every member of the Deathless, waiting for the next name.
“Telar, to replace Deathless Marcian,” the second boy said, snapping to attention much better than the first boy had.
Gods, what have I done to offend you that you would leave me here in command of this circus and send my love back home? It’s going to be a long, cold winter. Absently, she rubbed at the tiny scar above her right eyebrow. She bent her head over her work, recording the names of the new replacements and those called home in separate columns on her tally sheet.
Her head almost snapped back up when the fourth replacement spoke in a high clear voice that had to belong to a girl of maybe thirteen. “Dalora, to replace Deathless Varana.”
Her best friend, too? Casora looked back down at her list. None of those called home had only a single year of service. All of them had as much time as Casora or nearly as much. Ledan, of course, had more. They’d called home all of the most experienced of the Deathless–all except her.
Perfect. Marcian was–or had been–also her logical second. Him or Varana. Now it’d have to be Ravan. She spotted Marcian at the front of the watching Deathless, grinning fit to split his homely face and staggering from the others’ hearty slaps on his broad back. His smile faded a little when their eyes met. Casora forced a smile herself, unwilling to spoil his moment.
As the band broke up, drifting back to their individual tasks or dragging both the new recruits and those about to go home away for a celebratory drink, Ledan’s hand fell on Casora’s shoulder.
“I felt the same way when they called Keltan home and left me in command.”
“You had more than a couple of months as Keltan’s second.”
“True,” Ledan said. “You’re readier than you think you are, Casora. Don’t let them see uncertainty.”
Casora gulped and managed a nod.
“Come on, we have work to do before we can help them celebrate,” Ledan said.