"One, two... thrust!"
"Breit, have you not eaten? Straighten your posture!"
"Eyes ahead! Strike!"
Drill commands issued by squad jarls echoed across the camp. However, the subordinates stayed silent. The usual scenes didn't play out. Everyone seemed to be on their toes. They knew the ongoing meeting would impact their superiors' future. If things went south, they were done.
They were all inadvertently glancing at the green tent in the middle of the camp. Finally, the tent opened and the platoon jarls came out.
Some astute soldiers greeted them.
"Looks like you're done, Platoon Jarl Monde!."
"Good day, platoon jarl!"
The jarls were too bogged down by their thoughts to give any more than the curtest of responses, however. The soldiers had at least some understanding of their thoughts, vaguely, and returned to their drill without fuss.
Wyr was the last to come out. He walked directly to the centre of a platoon performing a drill. "Fetch Jersson and Locke. They're to meet me in the eastern yard."
A couple men immediately darted off to find the two officers.
When the excited soldier came to Locke and passed the order on, Locke knew he had succeeded. He was met with envious glances from fellow soldiers as he advanced to the yard on his own.
The yard in question had never been open to the grunts. It was for the platoon jarls' exclusive use. Although it was only used by about ten people, it was no smaller than the other yards made to be used by hundreds of men.
Jersson was waiting at the entrance when Locke arrived. Both men saluted the guard on duty and entered together.
"Sir Wyr is waiting inside," the guard said as he stepped aside.
Jersson, in his 30s, had served almost as long as Yoshk. He had a slightly yellowish complexion and a tall, wiry build. He had a good reputation, so his promotion did not come as much of a surprise.
"I never doubted you would be one of the picks, Brother Locke. You are quite well-liked by all the men," Jersson said without hesitation, already trying to establish a friendly relationship.
"Let's dispense with flattery, Brother Jersson. You were promoted as well, after all," Locke said affably, "Which reminds me. Do you have any idea what our new posts will be? To which platoon are we to be assigned?"
The question didn't surprise Jersson. They were both from platoons which still had their platoon jarls, so they were obviously going to be transferred.
"I'm not quite sure, Brother Locke. I expect the news will spread quickly through the camp as soon as someone hears though. I bet rumours are already making the rounds, in fact," Jersson replied.
"No doubt. So let us not make Sir Wyr wait. Best to head off the wilder of the rumours with the truth," Locke smiled.
Jersson was Locke's senior in terms of both physical age and length of service, enough so that Locke ought to have been far more deferent than he was, but Jersson had taken the initiative to equalise their positions and Locke was not about to deny the chance to elevate his standing. Neither would ever truly forget who was whom's senior, hierarchy was as baked into the army as it was into the nobility, even those of seemingly equal rank had superiors and inferiors, but at least Jersson's attitude was clearly that he did not wish to stand on ceremony.
The two, still talking, came to a halt in the middle of the yard. It was anything but basic. Tents filled the vast yard and fences partitioned it into multiple sections. Wyr waited in the largest of them.
The two approached him, courteous and deferent smiles affaced, and greeted once they were within earshot. Wyr nodded his acknowledgement and started pointing at the surrounding facilities.
"You can come here and train from now on, I will give you guidance from time to time as well. You can use the equipment as much as you want but don't break them," Wyr began, pointing out the racks of pikes, swords, and even a few suits of plate.
"You have no doubt guessed the reason you are here now. The official ceremony will be soon, so I won't drone. You're here to be taught Falconim today."
Wyr was a knight. As a minor noble, he was expected to keep a certain social distance between him and the commoners, but they were still his peers in army rank now, or would be officially soon, so it was expected that he treated them better than he would other commoners, which Locke supposed he was, but there was a different kind of contempt in his voice. Jersson noticed it as well, and both became even more different despite not knowing why exactly Wyr was throwing his weight around.
"Falconim is Falcon's own impetus technique. We pass it down to the corps' platoon jarls upon their promotion as well as to first-class soldiers. It is a precious technique that allows a soldier to become a knight. Before we start, you must swear that you will not teach it to other people."
"We swear we shall not breathe a word of it to anyone!" they both answered at once.
"Very well. Next, I will teach you the breathing technique and the method to condense your impetus seed. Listen carefully..."
Locke spent his afternoon under Wyr's guidance. The sun's red glow finally peeked through the curtain clouds, speckling the skies with crimson, several hours later. The two jarls were as crimson as those speckles, their bodies contorted into a horse-like stance. They were busy condensing their impetus seeds under Wyr's watchful eyes. Had they been born nobles, they would have started this first step in cultivation at the tender age of twelve, but they weren't, and so they were only starting now, well past their prime cultivating age. They had the advantage, however, of being rare specimens. They had proven themselves in combat and stood out amongst hundreds of candidates. Their situation was less than ideal, but if anyone could make the best of it, they could.
The average time it took to condense a complete Falconim seed was three days. It didn't matter how fit one was physically, since the seed was not formed from physical effort. It was a somewhat ethereal thing formed from sheer willpower. Neither had heard what their new positions would be, and despite their affable introductions and earlier interactions, neither was going to give the other an edge which might influence their possibly as yet undecided positions if they could help it. Even if it didn't, however, they were officers from different platoons in the same division, and their competitiveness, only further strengthened by the natural rivalry between units, had taken over. They could no more not compete than two predators could not fight over a kill.
"Come on!" Locke suddenly shouted as the last smidge of colour faded from the sky behind the clouds.
He shouted again a few seconds later and a small, rice-grain-sized spot appeared below his belly-botton.
Jersson shouted only a few second later as well and after a final groan of effort, looked down to see a similar grain of rice below his own belly button.
Wyr, who'd actually at some point pulled up a chair, stood and inspected the two.
"As expected of long-time soldiers. You actually managed to condense your seeds on your first day! You should rest well tonight and practice Falconim by yourself starting tomorrow. Come look for me if you have any questions. I'll be around here somewhere."
Wyr turned and left his words behind.
Locke and Jersson gazed at each other, both still panting, for three long seconds, then their faces cracked into broad grins and laughter bubbled out of their mouths. Despite their actual ages, they both looked like twelve-year-olds. Their boyish grins were most unbecoming officers of their new station, so it was a good thing none of the men could see them now. At this moment, however, they wouldn't have cared even if their men could see them. They had just stepped into a circle of elites and gained just the smallest sliver of control over their fates. No matter how skilled a soldier was, he was ultimately subject to the whims of others, his fate was not his own to decide, only those who controlled impetus had some say over how their lives went in the grander scheme of things. The two stood thus, grinning like two schoolyard boys, for several minutes until two guards came over to escort them back to the rest of the camp.
They were both platoon jarls now, so they would dine with the baron from now on. Today's dinner had already been served, however, and they had not yet been officially promoted, so they would have to eat leftovers in the mess tonight. That had been their thoughts, at least, but it seemed the cooks had other plans for the two. They found a table set with what had to be a specially made meal waiting for them when they stepped into the mess tent.
The 'feast' only consisted of white bread and beef soup. But Locke was certain the cooks had been more liberal with seasoning than they were with the normal meals; not that he would have cared even if they hadn't. He was too hungry for the meal to taste anything other than amazing. His first bite was of the sweet white bread. He was one of the few men who preferred harder, drier bread, and this one was almost more biscuit than bread. Locke didn't bother with eating utensils, neither did Jersson. The two quite literally stuffed themselves hand over fist. The head cook, Kelley, had apparently known what to expect and had left them with six generous portions of white bread, and a big put of specially-spiced beef soup.
The two ate in silence, at least as far as speech was concerned. They were everything but quite where the sounds of eating were concerned. The meal finished, the two parted ways for the day. They found the camp already settled for the night. The usually bustling camp thoroughfares were quite, almost abandoned, saved for the watch doing their rounds. Teasing, joking, arguing, and other general sounds of life still spilled out onto those same thoroughfares from the tents, however, as silhouettes danced on tent canvas, backlight by torches and braziers like a show of shadow puppets.
Locke wandered, waddled really, back to his tent. Were he to be honest with himself, he'd admit he'd badly overeaten. But today had indeed been a rare occasion. Meat was a regular, almost daily feature in camp cookery, but it always lesser meets, and almost always pork. This had, in fact, been the first time in Locke didn't even remember how long, if not the first time ever, he'd had Beef in an army meal, and he had not been willing to let any of the soup go unconsumed. Jersson had clearly been of the same mind, however, and the two had actually fought, friendily of course, over the last spoonful. They had both preserved enough presence of mind to not lick out the pot at least; and Locke said a silent prayer of thanks for the minor miracle. He didn't want his officerial dignity dashed before he'd even been officially given the rank.
The man on watch duty outside his tent noticed him when he was about five metres away, just as he stepped into the pool of light splashed around the tent by the light spilling out through the canvas.
"Brother Locke's back!" the man shouted into the tent.
The tent was empty before his last word had left his mouth and the men were on Locke. He smiled at them warmly, but very nearly had to fight them off as they crowded around him firing questions off faster than Caen could arrows in the hottest of battles.
His warmth faded quickly at their incessant questions. They asked them so quickly he didn't know how, or even if, they expected him to answer, and it was quickly beginning to irritate him. The dim light let him hide that fact more easily than it would have inside, however, so the men didn't notice. He caught himself before he barked out a reprimand which he decided would have been all too inappropriate for a new, if yet unofficial, platoon jarl, and sighed instead. He waited for them to calm down, carefully noting down each of the questions as they came at him slower and slower, then started retelling the days' events in the tone of a teacher or parent patiently explaining something rather more simple than they cared to admit to the children in front of them for the umpteenth time.