No, You’re not reading it wrong. That is the correct title, reasons/explanations are in the announcement. Please make sure to read it carefully. I’ll be on standby to answer all questions.
This was originally a Patron-only special I never got round to releasing. It was supposed to be an interlude, a sort of day in the life of Squad Two. However, I was not satisfied with the original ending to this book. Realising that with a bit of work this could be a more poignant ending, I modified it and the chapter before it and slapped it on.
Let me know what you think of it.
Chapter Forty-seven: Farewell
Soon, it was time to depart. However, just before he left, Valerian saw Captain Walters walking up. With him were the remaining members of Squad Two. A few of them looked reluctant and with his hearing, Valerian could actually hear Tamara grumbling. They stood a few metres away with Captain Walters pretending to cry, dabbing his tears and waving with his scarf at the same time, As with all his acts, it seemed completely real and yet felt fake.
Valerian watched them through the window, feeling strangely touched. He had not expected them to come, especially after how things had ended the night before. It was an unfamiliar emotion to Valerian and one, he realised, spoke to how much he had come to care for his squad. He could confidently say that before coming to Strapping’s, the sum of people he cared a hoot about amounted to less than twenty people. Now, that number had doubled and the people standing there, watching him leave, made the bulk of the new additions.
The beasts in front of the carriage lowed and began to clop forward, signifying that he was finally about to leave. Struck by an impulse, Valerian waved at his squad, suddenly realising that he might never see them again. Slightly hesitant, Petilia waved back. Surprisingly, she was joined by Raphael and Laura. With them leading the way, James and Berengar hopped on the bandwagon, followed by John. Tamara and Drusilla continued to look surly but he got the sense that even they were sorry to see him go. Alenwaa and Cybele were the hardest to read. The former simply stared, watching him go and the latter made it a point not to look in his direction, trying instead to rope Tamara into a conversation.
Valerian couldn’t help but sigh mentally, his mind going back to simpler times.
They sat and, in some cases, lay around the fire, stomachs full of roast boar and steamed vegetables. The sun was setting in the distance and many of them had gone quiet only Berengar who never seemed to tire of talking and the girls, with the exception of Drusilla, were chattering on. Berengar was telling John and Raphael about some great fire daemon he wanted to one day have as a mount and the girls were chittering to each other softly.
“So…?” James said raising his voice, poking at the fire with a stick. “What exactly are we going to be doing for the next week?”
Everyone turned to Valerian, looking to him for an answer.
“I’m not sure. Our task is to survive but I’m sure we can do that easily enough. What will you have us do?” he asked the group.
“Whatever it is, it has to be exciting”, Pugio piped in. “I’d rather not simply sit around the camp all day with nothing to look forward to but Valerian’s cooking.”
“I second that!” Berengar quickly added. Valerian chose to ignore their antics.
“What is our objective exactly?” Cybele asked. “I know the Captain said survive but that can’t be all there is to it.”
“Something tells me that’s it”, Valerian answered.
“Minimal instruction and supervision. Just an objective and a pool to splash around in. That seems to be the Strapping’s way”, he added, finally venting some of his less than stellar opinions about the centre’s teaching system.
“I’m sure Captain Walters will be right there to tell us everything we did wrong in this mission without actually giving us any instruction on how to do it right. Anyone else see a problem with that? In my experience, you teach first and then let the students practise. Here, it’s the other way around. Honestly, I’m having trouble coming to terms with it.”
“Me too”, Petilia confessed.
Soon there was a chorus of assents.
“I think that’s what it’s supposed to do though”, said Laura. She was the first to offer a different view and appeared very self-conscious about that. “I was told Strapping’s would deinstitutionalise my thinking and teach me initiative, adaptability as well as improve my reasoning, decision-making and combat skills. My uncle said that Strapping’s doesn’t train people to follow orders. It trains them to solve problems and think outside the box. We give the orders and when we speak, others listen.”
It was an interesting opinion and one Valerian hadn’t thought of. It sounded reasonable. Laura’s uncle sounded like an alumnus or at the very least, someone who thought highly of the centre.
“Is that why you joined?” he asked her.
“In a way”, she said hesitantly. “Military school is supposed to toughen you up. This is one of the best. I want to be tough so here I am.”
“I also came to Strapping’s for the training. I plan on establishing my own private force one day. This place will teach me what I need to do that and more. Plus, it was the only avenue my parents laid out when it came to doing what I want”, Drusilla said with a laugh.
In a poor imitation of a grouchy male voice, she added, ” First join the army Dru and then we’ll talk about these fool plans of yours.”
She followed that with her normal voice, saying, “Apparently, joining the army is more respectable for a young lady than starting a mercenary troop. If I wanted to be a tomboy and roll around in guts and blood I, at least, had to be respectable about it.”
“What about you, Berengar?” she asked.
No one asked why Laura wanted to be tough. They just let it slide.
“Are you kidding?” Berengar asked loudly. “The Slyph Dragoons recruit out of Strapping’s. Why else would I be here?”
“Slyph Dragoons?” Petilia asked.
“They are the kingdom’s finest aerial mounted battalion, the ultimate cavalry force. We’re talking fifteen hundred officers, the least of them a sergeant and every one of them riding some of flying daemon. They are not just elite, they are better than that. If you’re chosen, you’re given training at one of their secret special facilities for three years before you even see a battlefield. When that’s over, they give you a mount of your own and a ceremonial sword called a windfeather”, Berengar gushed.
Valerian quietly noted down the name of the Battalion. This was his first time hearing of them but they sounded impressive. His uncle Vorm’s old battalion, The Saurians, were also considered an elite dragoon troop only they were land dragoons. In his head, he wondered how they measured up to each other. Mentally, he added it to his list of prospects whiles listening to Berengar.
“I have dreamt of joining the slyphs since I was four years old. I came to Strapping’s to fight for one of their slots. Of course, the other dragoon troops are fine as well but the slyphs are what I’m here for.”
“Why’d you come to Strapping’s, Raph?” he asked, clapping the healer on the back.
“Don’t laugh but I came to Strapping’s to avoid becoming a priest”, Raphael admitted weakly. Eyes bugged out all around.
“Really?” Alenwaa asked, suddenly interested. “What happened?”
“It’s a long story”, Raphael said with a guilty smile. “My family owns an apothecary in Stave City. The city is not too far from one of the passes into the Grand Boundary so we always had mercenaries and soldiers strolling through. My family even had a small operating room where we did our own surgeries. I worked there every day as a child.”
Raphael’s tone had grown very wistful at this point and the squad found themselves leaning in to hear more. He obliged.
“When I was sixteen, I performed surgery on a Paladin of the Church of the Golden Sun. He was so impressed he recommended me to his superiors and I got an invitation to study under one of the priests. That man taught me everything I know”, Raphael told them. “For five years, I studied under him and when the time came to join one of the church’s orders I discovered that this man had made a request for me to be placed in his own order, The Brothers of the Giving Sun. Unable to reverse the decision, I ran away, going back home. An old friend of my father, wrote me a recommendation for Strapping’s and I hopped on the first coach here.”
“Why’d you run?” Alenwaa asked.
The Church of the Golden Sun didn’t seem too bad. They were a bit pushy at times but nothing like the old priests back home. As someone who had also narrowly escaped religious duty, he was naturally curious about what caused his fellow escapee to bolt.
“The Brothers of the Giving Sun aren’t just priests. They take very strict, very sacred, oaths. They disavow family, wealth, sex, fame and glory and take up lives of charity and service. I wasn’t prepared to do that. As much as I respect and admire my teacher, that life is not for me. Unfortunately, you can’t just live in the church, eat their food and undertake their training without some sort of contribution. They take debts very seriously. Thankfully, they can’t reach me in Strapping’s and by the time, I graduate, I’ll be untouchable”, Raphael said with his jaw firmly set.
“Wait!” Berengar called out, something finally occurring to him. “Disavowing sex. That’s celibacy, right? You ran away because you didn’t want to be a virgin for life, didn’t you?”
Pugio clapped his hands, seemingly coming to that conclusion as well. “Ahhhh! That makes sense now!” he intoned seriously.
“You guys…!” Raphael sputtered, quickly trying to disabuse them of that notion. He had bared himself before them and this was what he got? The sombre atmosphere that he had created with his story quickly disappeared. Quickly, diverting the topic, Raphael turned to Alenwaa, the person who had been grilling him earlier.
“Why are you here, Alen?”
Alenwaa rubbed the back of his head sheepishly, however, after asking so many questions earlier, he could no longer back out. Choosing to tell some portion of the truth, he freely admitted.
“Actually, I ran to Strapping’s to avoid becoming a priest too!”
“Hold up!” Drusilla butted in. “We have two priests?”
“Are you also here to avoid celibacy?” Tamara teased.
Besides a small furrow in his brow, Raphael did nothing to indicate he’d heard her.
“Which church?” he asked Alenwaa.
“Not really a church. I was slated to become a backol, a diviner of the old plain’s religion”, Alenwaa told them. “My talents were noticed quite early. Everyone knew about the fact that I was marked for the priesthood. The pressure was unbearable. The Morwoko are ardent believers in the old ways. It is considered an honour to be a diviner. At some point, it didn’t matter what I thought or wanted. I was going to become a backol no matter what.
“I considered my options and decided to make my own way, hence Strapping’s”, he finished. Not even giving them time to process what he had said, he singled Valerian out. “What about you?”
Like he’d learned to from his grandfather, Valerian took his time to consider the question, wondering just how much to reveal. “Ambition mostly”, he ended up answering.
“An uncle recommended it to me. He said it was the centre to enrol in if you planned on a serious military career. That’s what I’m here for, the career prospects. I plan on pushing myself and seeing how far or high I can go.”
“That’s it?” Pugio asked seemingly disappointed.
Clearing his throat, Valerian made a small addendum, “There may have also been a dare involved.”
Pugio and a few of the others laughed. Without anyone pointing him out, the dark youth chose to carry the chain.
“It’s all about the job you know. There are a lot of army folk in my family. Somewhere along the line, we became scouts and runners. My Da was a scout before he died. Sadly, no one ever remembers folk like that. I’m here because I want to be part of the battles instead of carrying the reports. Strapping’s will make me someone people will remember.”
Valerian had to stop his mouth from falling open at the bald-faced lie. He was reasonably certain that Pugio was a trained assassin and that Captain Walters had been tasked with keeping an eye on him. The little he knew about the boy’s origins was enough to make him wary. Still, he said nothing. Whatever the dark youth was mixed up in was something he wanted no part of.
At this juncture, the trend was clear. Everyone had to say something. James went next.
“My master is an alumnus. For me, there was no other school to choose. Master said Strapping’s is what made him great. I had to see what it was like”, he said in his usual drawl.
Everyone waited for him to continue. When it became obvious that he wouldn’t, Valerian tried to prompt him to do so. “And how are you finding it so far?”
“Pretty good”, was the simple response.
John stepped in to fill in for his friend. “I want to become a military officer, reach a high rank”, he divulged.
Taking a glance at Valerian, he continued. “My family is a small one”. “We’re nothing really”, he added clenching his fist.
“My father has done all he can, sacrificed everything to better the lives of his children. We have to take it from there. If…when I become a high ranking officer I can change my family’s status.”
His piece done, he stepped back. The only people left were Tamara, Cybele and Petitlia. Tamara quickly rushed to speak first.
“Well, I came to Strapping’s for the prospects”, Tamara told them. “I am the same as most of you. Respect, power, good prospects, Strapping’s can help you get all of that. It sure beats the finishing school my mother wanted me to go to.”
“I hated being at home”, Cybele said simply. “Had I stayed, I’d be forced to become some sort of garden rose and eventually be married off to some Barons son. I needed to prove myself. Strapping’s is an elite military training centre. More than three-quarters of all applicants fail. Imagine what it means to graduate? I’ll be able to do what I want. Decide for myself.”
They took this in for a bit before turning to the last person to speak, Petilia who was trying everything she could to be overlooked.
“Come on Pet”, Tamara needled. “It’s your turn. Say something.”
Blushing so hard, her face had gone rosy Petilia confessed. “I didn’t actually choose Strapping’s. The first time I even heard the name was when I when I was brought here. My father handled everything.”
Silence reigned for a brief moment, then, Cybele broke it.
“You’ve got to be shitting me!”
“How could you not know?” Berengar wanted to know.
“Y-y-y-yo-you…!” Tamara flopped, her voice trembling. She wasn’t the only one The whole squad was blown away by the admission.
“Easy! Easy!” Valerian said, trying to get them to settle down. Realising that this discussion could be termed as a team building moment, he tried to seize the moment.
“I’d like to thank you all for sharing your motivations. We all have different reasons for coming to Strapping’s but we’re together now. Strapping’s focuses on teamwork. We should take something from that. We came here separately but now that we are together we have to learn to rely on each other. Maybe, by working together we can achieve these dreams.
“As your leader, I am well aware that a significant portion of the burden rests between my shoulders. I assure you, I’ll do my best. I will help you accomplish your dreams.”
Sitting in his coach, Valerian laughed at the big claims he’d made then. He hadn’t known it at the time but his squad weren’t really the type to be moved by speeches. Even so…
Valerian leaned back in his seat, pulling himself away from the window. The coach was nearing the centre’s exit. It was time to leave Strapping’s behind.
‘Farewell my friends’, he said to himself. ‘I am sorry. It does not appear that I will be able to live up to my words.’
Perhaps, if he became successful in the future, he could seek them out and… No. Valerian discarded the thought before it could take root. There was no guarantee that they would meet again. He had to look forward. The past had a way of trapping people in its tendrils. Valerian finished his goodbyes to Strapping’s. He hadn’t been there long but he had learned much within its walls. It was also where he’d made and lost his first real friends.
This is the true end of HoGW Book Three: Fledgeling. I hope you enjoyed it. Thank you for reading this far into my series I greatly appreciate it. Mind taking a short poll, to assess my work.
Take your time to read the announcement so you understand what’s going on.