The following is an excerpt from the novella, Empty Hands, a stand alone interlude to The Thirteenth Hour.
Tagline: Sometimes the best weapon is nothing at all.
“…I stand before you with open hands that carry no weapons. And though they may prefer to create than destroy, when the time is right to stand, either to defend or protect, then these shall be my weapons, my empty hands …
Legend has it that during the Drawing, His Majesty’s elite, the fabled Imperial Rangers, receive sidearms magically assigned to their strengths and talents. As the first Ranger class in decades, none of the eight Rangers-in-training really knows what the Drawing will entail. In fact, Logan, the youngest, smallest, and seemingly least capable Ranger frankly couldn’t care less which weapon he’s assigned; he’d settle for surviving the rest of his training in one piece. Can he and the others work through their differences and finally come together as one unit? Can they learn enough to take their rightful place beside the exalted ranks of the Rangers of old? Find out by reading this blissfully self-aware martial arts fantasy that owes much to Saturday morning cartoons, Hong Kong kung fu cinema, Dungeons and Dragons, and 80s action films. The true connoisseur of obscure 80s trivia can find clues to a surprise bonus hidden inside the pages of this story.
Like other works by the same author, this novella is a stand-alone expansion to The Thirteenth Hour and comes with its own retro 80s concept EP so while going through the story, readers can click on embedded links to hear the digital synth soundtrack created to accompany the text.”
The punch came sailing toward my head faster than I expected. No matter how much or how long one trained, the shock of actual combat always came as a bit of a surprise. There really was something to that adage about falling to the lowest level of one’s training rather than rising to the occasion. The dodge my body reflexively did at the last moment was neither particularly smooth nor graceful, but I’ll say this – I didn’t get punched in the face.
The big man who had swung the haymaker looked a bit surprised when his hand struck nothing but air, but he, too, had some previous training. With a snarling yell, he checked his momentum enough to deliver a backhanded blow with the same hand. It collided with my forearm hard enough to send a shock up though my arm which would have registered as pain had I not been focused on cocking my leg to my chest and thrusting my body weight forward so my heel would collide with the big man’s lead upper thigh. At least, that’s where I aimed. It would have made a follow-up shot to the head or neck easier. But the adrenaline surge pushed the trajectory of the kick higher than I’d intended, and my foot hit his exposed chest instead, sending him stumbling back into the barstools.
Face red, eyes bulging, he roared something in the Capital City brogue that I didn’t quite catch. I think the general gist was about him copulating with my mother. Or maybe with my brother. I don’t know. The northern accent was still hard for me to understand sometimes. He dusted the dirt off his shirt where my boot had left a fairly obvious imprint. I did catch his next words: “Mind your gods damned business, small fry! I don’t care about you! It’s him we want! He ooooooowes us!”
He shoved a finger as fat as two of mine at the drunken figure sitting propped up against the bar to my rear, mumbling incoherently to himself. I’ll be honest, the guy sitting on the floor wasn’t my favorite human. He wasn’t even a friend. He’d been a thorn in my side since the first day I’d met him, and chances are, the bastard wouldn’t even remember I’d put my posterior on the line to keep him on this side of the ground a little longer. But he was an Imperial Ranger, and we were supposed to take care of our own.
“Hey, I’m talkin’ to you!” the big man roared, pulling out a wicked curved blade. “You hearing me … Aron?”
The Ranger on the floor looked up suddenly and slurred through bloodied lips, “It’s … bronounced ‘Aay – rohne,’ you athhh.”
Aron spat out a mouthful of blood, coughed, and cleared his throat. “Sorry. ‘You ass,’ is what I meant to say. Your buddy got me good.”
And that’s when all hell broke loose.
Let’s take a step back about nine months.
Before that fateful night at the Crimson Blade where a motley group of eight Imperial Rangers-in-training fought a band of fifteen thugs from the Tartecian underground over a monetary dispute stemming from the behaviors of a certain ‘Aay-rohne,’ that very same group of eight, eyes still full of wide-eyed wonder, were lined up at attention in the training hall deep in King Darian IV’s castle in the Capital City. The room had tall ceilings and a large, blue carpeted training floor made for tumbling and taking tumbles, both of which we would come to know well.
Our three instructors would eventually turn the eight of us into experienced, agile, and highly competent combatants – a far cry from our first day, when we were mostly raw recruits. Although two of us had been in the military for some time, we were all basically foot soldiers who had received a rougher-than-rough introduction to hand-to-hand combat by the same drill instructors who been churning out infantrymen for decades. “Pack mules ‘n arrow fodder – that’s what you is!” our drill sergeant would shout. It was his way of motivating us to do more pushups.
Over the next year, under the steady guidance of our instructors, we would go from arrow fodder who might as soon accidentally stab ourselves with our own spears into warriors skilled in not only all infantry weapons but unarmed combat. Of course, it didn’t take long for some of us to realize that while hard work and repetition was unavoidable, natural abilities could significant shorten the learning curve. This was a reality that those with natural talent, like Aron, reminded those of us with little talent, like myself, at least once daily.
“Since I’m the man, at the Drawing, I’m gonna get the double sickles for sure,” Aron would boast, referring to the rumored ceremony near the latter part of our training where we would be given weapons that fit our unique talents and personality.
We’d caught a glimpse of one of the instructors whirling around a set of those weapons when we’d arrived early one day, and since then, Aron had been fascinated not only by the flying sickles but by the Drawing. The idea was not that a weapon was chosen for you by the instructors or the castle wizards, but rather that the weapon chose you based on some combination of your personality, fighting style, strengths, and a dash of magic. No one was really sure how it worked, which lent an air of nonsense to the whole thing, but after the wizards mentioned it enough times, we couldn’t help but wonder when we looked at the display rack of weapons beside the blue carpeted floor.
“In the days of old,” Wally the wizard said after one training session, “when Rangers started their training in childhood, the Drawing was the ceremony that signaled that a Ranger was no longer a child. He or she was now a fully-fledged Imperial Ranger fit for active duty. But, that was long ago. We have shortened the training down to the barest essentials with your class. As you know, there haven’t been Rangers in many years. And now …” He cleared his throat and paused. “And now, with the King’s decree to reinstate the Rangers, we felt there should be at least some of the traditions of old. And so, for the first time in decades, there will be a Drawing ceremony. It won’t serve as your graduation, but it will signify the start of the more advanced aspects of your training. After which, you will be fine-tuning the basic skills you have acquired up until now.”
After Wally left, we milled around the wall of weapons, chattering excitedly.
Lance, who had been a fencer prior to joining the Army and already favored the sword above all other weapons, said, “I hope I get the sword. I’d have to change my whole way of fighting if it were something else.” He employed the same lunging attacks for unarmed combat as he did with the sword, and even though it wasn’t always effective, since his only real weapon was a lead-side punch, it was a strategy of sorts and kept his style consistent regardless of whether there was a weapon in his hand or not.
“I’m sure you’ll get a sword,” said Ben, a tall, sturdy fellow who moved and talked slowly. “And if not a sword, at least something you could use like one. A stick or club, maybe.”
“Hmm, not the same,” Lance said, nervously eyeing the other choices. He reached out to finger one of the blades hanging on the wall and, in the process, knocked over a staff that had been balanced precariously near it.
Aron caught it and smirked. “Like I always say, it’s all in the reflexes. Let me tell you what else I usually say in situations like this …”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” said Jake. There was no official leader of our group since all had the same rank, but if there were one, he’d be it. His leadership didn’t extend to offering me a spot at the card table at night, but then again, he’d never denied me a spot, either. “We know. You’re the man.”
“I am. And let me tell you. Those twin sickles are a man’s weapon,” Aron said with a nod.
“Why do you guys want to get so close? I like my opponents right where I can see them – far away,” said Blake. “Give me a bow, crossbow, or blowgun any day,” he said.
“Yup,” said Phil. “Second that. Hell, I’d take a shepherd’s sling and a few rocks. You guys can keep your sticks and swords. I don’t go in for that caveman stuff.”
Aron shrugged. “Real men know where it’s at. Ain’t that right, Logan?” he said, jabbing me in the ribs with the point of his elbow. I stumbled to the side, and Allan, the largest Ranger, caught me.
“Why must you insist on tormenting him?” Allan asked Aron, looking him square in the eye. Aron eventually started to squirm under his intense gaze and muttered something under his breath about me reminding him of his kid brother, who “is also kind of an idiot.”
Like Ben, Allan spoke and moved slowly. Fighting him was like hitting a tree trunk – the guy just didn’t budge. But as he often said himself in his deep, slow voice, “I detest violence. I would much prefer a more civilized way of dealing with problems.”
“I think you’ll get one of the staves, Allan,” Jake said, referring to the selection of magic weapons adorning the shelf.
“Ahh, yes, I do hope so,” Allan said. “And what about you, my friends?” he asked, referring to Jake and Ben. As the heavyweights of the group, they were typically matched together for most of our sparring drills and were alike in the amount of damage they could dish out. Although our trainers suggested that hitting each other full contact all the time was not a great idea, we sometimes forgot, especially in the heat of a match. I learned quite quickly that the best way to stand a chance against big men like Jake, Ben, and Allen was simply to stay out of their way.
“I like the quarterstaff,” Ben said. “It’s simple, and I like the fact I can make one easily from any stout hardwood branch in the forest. And, I’m not as fast as some of you guys. So it gives me a reach advantage.”
“Hmm. Good points. I’m tempted to say the staff as well. Or maybe the twin rvygerns,” Jake said pointing to the curved Elven blades that were part bush knife, part short sword. “I really like how they fit my hands.”
“Yeah, that’s a good choice,” nodded Aron. “Don’t get me wrong; I’ll take the sickles any day. But the rvygerns are solid.”
“Glad I have your approval,” Jake said, rolling his eyes.
The voice of Clavus, one of our instructors, suddenly came from behind us, startling everyone. “Don’t get too attached. You’re still expected to pass proficiency tests with all the basic weapons and unarmed combat prior to graduation. You’ll just be spending a bit more time with the weapon you’re assigned following the Drawing. But remember, the idea is to be able to use any of these.”
In decades past, the instructors would have been former Imperial Rangers who’d managed to live to the age where they could still do the physical skills required of the profession but also had enough experience to teach it to a new generation. But since there had not been Imperial Rangers in years, our trainers were pulled from other parts of the Imperial Army. Clavus, our lead instructor, had been teaching King Darian’s all-female Imperial Guard hand-to-hand combat prior to this assignment. Rizor had been a weapons instructor for the regular Army, and Tershel, who’d been an acrobat in a travelling circus prior to joining the Army, was teaching physical fitness to the regular Army when the wizards came with orders direct from the King.
Although none of them were Imperial Rangers themselves, they were better instructors than any of us had ever had up to that point. Unlike the “pack mule ‘n arrow fodder” attitudes of the senior officers and drill sergeants who had taught us in regular Army basic training, Clavus, Rizor, and Tershel weren’t just there for the paycheck. They could also each do everything they asked of us and perhaps because of that, gave direct and practical advice.
“The first thing I want you to do is burn that damn thing,” Clavus had said on our first day as Imperial Rangers, when we’d entered the training hall carrying the little manual we’d used during basic training. “I’ve been trying to get the Army to rewrite it for years.” He took one of the manuals and started flipping through the pages, shaking his head at the combat techniques illustrated with black and white line drawings.
“That technique is garbage. That one might work with a compliant partner. And this one … this one will probably get you killed. Burn it. Make a gods damned bonfire and stay warm tonight. That’s about as much good as this shit will get you. We’ll have to start from the ground up.”
True to his word, we had. Forgetting the techniques we’d learned in the crash course on being a soldier hadn’t been hard for me since I had no basis for comparison and could never get any of it to work anyway. It was a bit more difficult for Jake and Allan, who’d been in the Army for years, but they were naturally bigger, stronger, and more coordinated, so they relearned fast. They very rarely got the critiques of, “No, that’s not right. Again!” that I did every few minutes.
Looking back, I have to commend Clavus, Rizor, and Tershel for having superhuman reserves of patience. Not only did they endlessly correct incompetents like myself, they very rarely became angry or flustered. They might have gotten irritated when we did something truly boneheaded, but it was usually to teach us a lesson. I’m not so sure I could have been as accommodating.
As a case in point, one afternoon many months into our training, we were working on a sparring drill where one partner would advance with a series of attacks. The defender had to either counter, parry, or avoid the blows. “Every move you make should have a purpose!” Clavus shouted amid the flurry of arms and legs. “Remember, economy of movement!”
“Aron! Go easy on the jumping, okay? Remember, at the very least, you’re probably going to be carrying 10-15 pounds of additional gear with your uniform, boots, and survival belt. And a few times that amount if you’re wearing packs, not to mention body armor. If you’re going to jump, at least cover some distance or use it to gain height to do an attack you can’t do with your feet on the ground.”
Aron bounced like a human pogo stick, shadow-boxing in place, while repeating “Yeah, yeah, yeah,” in a monotone suggesting lip service compliance only. He then adjusted his pads and readied himself for the next flurry of attacks from Blake, his partner for this round.
Blake advanced with a jab to Aron’s head, which Aron avoided by leaping backwards, putting him a bit too far out of range to effectively counter Blake’s next move, a lunging side kick done in an unsuccessful attempt to chase Aron down the floor. Aron skipped backwards again, then delivered a jumping roundhouse kick to Blake’s head followed by a jump spinning backfist – both of which missed, by the way. This didn’t stop Aron from congratulating himself.
“Yeah. Nailed it,” he said as he continued hopping from foot to foot.
Clavus looked on the verge of saying something in response but seemed to contain himself. “Time!” he shouted, and we all stopped. “Blake, if you’re going to go chasing Aron like that, at least don’t leave yourself wide open. Aron, you had a perfect opportunity to capitalize on Blake being overextended and off-balance. Here, do the same attack at me, Blake,” he said.
Blake threw the same lunging side kick. Instead of leaping, Clavus simply slid back with both feet still on the ground, shifting his hips back to avoid the kick. For a split second after his kick missed, Blake was off-balance, making it easy for Clavus to bring his lead arm down to both parry and strike the incoming leg, making Blake hop, then stumble to the side. With a few deft movements, he mimed a few follow-up counterattacks. “It doesn’t have to be so complicated, Aron.”
“But what happens if you can’t avoid the kick in time, Sir?” Blake asked, rubbing his calf. “You’ve obviously practiced that and knew what I was going to do.”
“Yup,” Clavus said, with a shrug. “What happens if you can’t avoid it? You get kicked.” He shrugged again. “Remember, the Imperial Rangers are not foot soldiers. Your main goals have historically not always involved fighting. We spend a lot of time on fighting, yes, but that’s just insurance. It’s also why we say avoid fighting unless you have to. Because if you can’t, you’re probably going to take some damage, as most of you have already figured out – even in here, where things are relatively controlled. Imagine I were doing this in the snow or in mud. What then?”
“I don’t think I’d be kicking,” Blake said.
“Probably not,” Clavus said.
Aron continued shadowboxing in place, exhaling forcefully though his mouth with every strike. Clavus gave him a slow burn with his eyes before continuing. “After the Drawing, we’ll lower the amount of contact you’ll be doing, but you’ll be training in all the gear you’ll normally be wearing – your uniform, survival belt, boots, your preferred weapons, and body armor. “Things may be a bit different then. You’ll need to move differently based on the extra weight. It’s fine to try the fancy stuff or the more advanced techniques here – you have to work on them somewhere – but just remember, things don’t always go as planned. In a stressful situation, you don’t rise to the occasion. You just fall to the lowest level of your training.”
Aron’s hand shot up. “I know you always say that, Sir, but shouldn’t it be ‘to the highest level of your training’?”
Clavus shook his head. “I say ‘lowest’ since, in a stressful situation, it’s unlikely you’ll be able to pull off something that you haven’t learned very well. But you’ll be able to rely on a basic technique that you’ve drilled a thousand times or more. And keep in mind that your ‘basic’ is going to be much more refined than the ‘basic’ of a raw recruit. Yeah?”
There were nods of understanding. Even Aron stopped bouncing around and seemed to be contemplating the answer to his question with some consideration. Clavus raised his arm for the drills to recommence.
Tershel chimed in, “Hold up, Clavus. Before we start again, Logan, show me what you did with Lance.”
I paused. I wasn’t entirely sure what I’d done. “Ahh, I …”
“What did you do with your glove?”
“Oh. Well, it … came off, Sir.”
“Yea, in my face,” Lance sputtered, twitching his moustache.
“Oh, really?” Tershel asked. “It just happened to fly off his hand into your face then.”
“Yes, he threw it or something, Sir. It was unfitting behavior for someone of our station … and very unsporting,” he said with a nod of his head and a swipe of an imaginary saber.
“Really?” Tershel exclaimed with a wide grin. “You know, that is … fascinating. Now, I’m no Imperial Ranger, and after you graduate, you gents can do whatever you want. But, for now, indulge me,” he said, eyeing every single one of us, “exactly how ‘sporting’ do you think anyone you face out there is going to be? You think, for example, that some giant Nevan weighing a deuce and a half who’s used to eating Imperial Army soldiers for breakfast is gonna … care about your code of conduct?” Tershel shrugged while we all squirmed. “I’m just saying. So – you two, show us slowly what you did.”
Lance repeated his usual lunging punch attack but at half speed. I blocked his arm, and Lance advanced again with the same lunging lead side punch.
“My glove started to come off here, Sir,” I said, looking down at the lacings going up and down my forearm. “I couldn’t get back it on in time so … I ripped it off, and I guess I kinda threw it.”
“You ‘kinda’ threw it.”
“Well. I meant to throw it on the ground and just get out of the way. But it ended up going a bit higher, Sir.”
“I see. But you didn’t stop there.”
“Well. He was open, so …”
“So, you took the opportunity to kick a distracted, helpless man.”
“I … I … um. Well, I guess I did, Sir.”
Lance sniffed and wiggled his moustache indignantly.
Tershel looked at the other Rangers then stared at me. I could hear Aron stifling a giggle, and I felt my ears going red.
Tershel finally nodded. “Good,” he said, and I snapped my head up, confused.
“Keep in mind that the pads you wear on your arms and legs are there not only for protection in here but also because they simulate the body armor that you might be wearing out there.” He walked over to the weapons wall and picked up one of the gauntlets that covered the knuckles, wrist, and back of the forearm. It was made of layered sheets of steel riveted together on top of a fine layer of chain mail to protect the areas that needed to bend. Underneath the metal was a leather and cloth-padded area to add a cushioning layer between metal and body. He tossed it casually from one hand to the next then flung it to Phil. “Here, catch,” he said.
While Phil fumbled with the gauntlet, Tershel said, “It ain’t light, is it?” Phil shook his head.
“Now imagine getting whopped in the face – even lightly – by something like that,” Tershel said, eyeing us closely. “I’m making a point here because even though Logan losing his glove might have been an accident, things like that will happen, and you can use them to your advantage. Like I said, there might be rules in here. There are none out there.”
Tershel let that sink in for a moment before noticing Aron’s hand. “Yes, Aron?”
“Sir, if these pads are supposed to simulate body armor, why is it I don’t got nothing to protect my nuts? The regular Army guys do.”
Tershel looked at Rizor and Clavus. They shrugged and smiled. Tershel turned back to Aron. “That’s the first sensible thing I’ve heard you say today, Aron. I don’t know. You guys didn’t historically wear that much armor, including helmets, from what I can see in the texts. We have you wear headgear in here for safety, since it’s what we do with the regular Army guys. But as far as we’re concerned, you can wear whatever armor you want in here or out there. Just remember that you’re going to need to move differently with it on, though.”
After we’d finished for the day, I eyed the wall of weapons. Frankly, I wasn’t especially attached to any of them. Not the way Aron was to the sickles or Lance to the sword. In fact, the idea of cleaving someone open with a bladed weapon and seeing their tortured expression was nauseating. I’d grown up around bows, since they were tools to put meat on the table, and while the Army ones were nicer and more powerful than the rough ones people in my village had used, I didn’t think of them much differently than, say, rakes or fishing poles. The only one I’d taken any interest in was the sling, and that was only really because in order to use it, we had to go hunting for smooth stones to use as ammunition. The stones reminded me of one of my favorite pastimes as a child – skipping rocks over the water – though my accuracy was so horrendous that I might as well have thrown the damn things.
The only weapons exercise I actually enjoyed didn’t even involve weapons in the traditional sense. It was a weekly session jointly taught with the wizards where we were given random objects from daily life, like umbrellas, gardening rakes, toothbrushes, and in one case, potted plants. We then had to defend ourselves from a partner coming at us with a haymaker or an overhand sword strike (supposedly the two most common attacks we would be facing). You could use whatever orthodox unarmed or magical techniques you wanted to defend yourself … or you could think fast and come up with a creative way to jury rig the household item you were given for your defense. I was only fair with the unarmed stuff and horrible with magic, but coming up with a new way to use an ink bottle or a folding chair for self-defense was probably the only fun I had in our combat training. However, that was a very small part of the curriculum, and before long, it was back to more repetitive drills with the sword or spear.
Of course, there were no household items on the weapons rack for the Drawing. Like I said, the whole thing seemed overhyped to me. But I did have to admit, I was attracted to the idea of how the Drawing worked. Did the weapon pick its wielder? What about that person made an inanimate object gravitate toward him or her? Did the weapon actually float to its new owner? Was there a flash of light or some other magical sign that signified what had happened? Finding answers to these perplexing questions made me look forward to the ceremony regardless of what weapon I was assigned.
I’d asked Wally the wizard about the magic behind the Drawing at one point, and he’d simply smiled and said that I’d find out in due time, which wasn’t very helpful. When I’d asked one of the Imperial Guards that I sometimes ran into, she’d just shrugged and had said it was a weird Ranger tradition and was probably a crock cooked up by some wizard a long time ago.
“No offense, kid,” she’d said. “But the Rangers have always done some really cockamamie shit. If there were any left, you could ask them, but … you guys are the first ones in a long time.” Then she’d thrown in her usual line about Rangers not living very long and how I’d better take my opportunities now if I wanted to reproduce. “Better get with the program, kid; you might not be around tomorrow, you know? Make those gorillas take you along with them next time they hit the pubs. You never know. You might get lucky, eh?”
She’d taken her own advice and had three rambunctious little ones of her own that were constantly getting in trouble during mealtimes. I’d once asked why their father never seemed to be around to help out.
“Fathers,” she’d corrected. “One dead, second a deadbeat, and the third – disappeared.”
“Oh,” I’d said. “Sorry …”
“Nah! The hell with those guys. Never did a damn thing to help anyway. I get plenty of help here during the day, and the kids get free schooling. Better than anything I ever got as a kid. And as for the menfolk, let’s just say I’d like to think I have higher standards now than when I was younger. Hope I learned a thing or two. For everything else,” she said with a wink, “there’s my stash,” she said, holding a finger over her lips as she referred to her secret trove of ragged pornographic magazines she’d somehow acquired and hidden in a treasure vault only known to the Imperial Guard. I’d accidentally stumbled on one location a number of months back, resulting in its relocation, but the new spot was unknown to me.
“So,” she’d said, “you looking forward to the Drawing? Rumor has it everyone has already picked out which weapons they want. We girls are placing bets.”
“With who? Aron?”
I’d shrugged. “Of course. I don’t really care which one I get. I’m more interested in seeing the magic behind how they match the weapon to the person.”
The guard had nodded. “Yeah, me too. I’ve never seen one of these ceremonies, so it’ll be a first for me as well. Hey – I gotta run and get the kids down for a nap. Good luck at the Drawing if I don’t run into you before.”
As it turned out, I needed luck a little sooner than that. At that afternoon’s training session, Rizor was leading us through another spear drill. The spear was the standard infantry weapon, and its natural reach advantage meant that we tended to spend more time with it than anything else, but to be honest, it bored the hell out of me. In retrospect, boring would have been preferable to what happened next.
The drill had been a simple one – parry the incoming spearthrust to the midsection by side stepping and deflecting the spear with your own followed by some kind of counter attack – and we’d done it hundreds of times. We weren’t wearing any protective gear, since we were told to stop any attack short of actual contact, and in a way, perhaps that led some of us to pay less attention than we should have. I’m not sure if it was my natural disinterest or the fact that I was still in the post-lunch slump, but I never even saw the tip of Ben’s practice spear until it nearly skewered my ribs. Even though the tip and edges of the spear were not sharpened, the spearhead still managed to rip a hole in my shirt and leave a long gash on my abdomen. An inch to the left, and my ribcage would have had a painful new addition. I felt the glancing impact, but the pain of the cut didn’t immediately register. It was mostly shock that caused me to gasp and drop my own weapon, grabbing onto Ben’s spear for stability.
“Hey, let go, Logan!” Ben shouted amid the din of clanging weaponry when I continued clinging, stuck in a catatonic freeze. At least that’s what I thought he said. There was a whooshing ringing in my ears that muffled everything. “Let go!” I think he yelled again. I detected anger in his voice, but my body seemed to be moving in slow motion. To emphasize his point, he jabbed again with the spear, overextending himself. Following the path left by the previous blow, it missed me but ripped an exit on the other side of my shirt. I felt my knees buckling.
“Time!” I heard Rizor yell, but it seemed a long way off. “Get a medic!” But in anger and desperation, I don’t think any of that registered. Survival mode kicked in, and I continued with my own counterattack. I tugged the spearshaft towards me, then slingshotted the butt-end back towards Ben. It was more a reflexive shove than anything. I don’t know if his hands were sweaty, making his grip faulty, or whether he was caught unawares in his off-balance position, but the shaft passed through his hands, and like a pool cue striking the last ball home, came to rest firmly in the pocket of his groin. Despite the pain that now registered in my abdomen, I winced. Ben’s eyes bugged out a minute, and he slowly sank to his knees, head to the floor.
“Make that two medics!” I think I heard Rizor yell. Ben’s face, now a snarling crimson red, lifted, and he looked at me with bulging eyes, spitting through clenched teeth, “That was not a good idea, pipspeak!” Anger was inescapable in our line of work, and Ben had a temper known to all of us. But I had never, ever seen Ben this angry before, and it was the first time I’d ever heard him insult someone, which was impressive given that we were surrounded by guys like Aron who dropped insults every five minutes. Then again, I did ram the butt-end of a spear into his genitalia. Most men are protective of such things.
With a primal scream, Ben lunged forward at me, both arms outstretched. He caught me around the neck, slamming me to the floor before I knew what was happening. The floor was matted, but it still knocked the wind out of me. As I gasped, my vision started to go spotty as Ben’s massive hands squeezed for what seemed like forever. A few Rangers tried to pull him off, but he bucked and elbowed them away. I tried levering the point of my chin under his hands to give me a little more room to breathe, but he was too strong, and I was too late in attempting it to do much good. With my remaining strength, I tried slamming my hands down on whatever parts of his body I could in a vain effort to get him to let go, but it was no use. I saw a few of the other Rangers standing over me, doing not a damn thing. I remember thinking, “Screw you guys. Why don’t you help, you bastards?” I would have shouted it if I weren’t dealing with a 250 pound gorilla, teeth clenched, face contorted in rage, trying to choke the life out of me.
More black spots danced before my eyes, and my head started to swim. It was hard to form thoughts, and my mind and body seemed to slow to a crawl. The only thing keeping me going was some primal urge from deep within. Perhaps it was a small inheritance I had received from my parents and those innumerable generations before, going back to when the world was young – that little bit of instinct that we humans still retained – the will to do whatever it took to preserve life.
My hands, empty of anything that could help preserve whatever life they still carried, finally settled on something small and hard – a rectangular amulet Ben wore around his neck that was now dangling in front of me. “For good luck,” he often said. That day, it may not have been lucky for him, but it was for me. I couldn’t see it from where I was, but my fingers wrapped around the thin metal bar. I blindly tried to ram the end into his Adam’s apple. The amulet hit the soft pocket of skin below instead. He yelled in pain but only applied more pressure.
I was desperate now, and for better or worse, I did what desperate men do – the same damn thing over and over, hoping despite evidence otherwise that it will work. With every strike, I could feel myself growing weaker, and by the last one, there was barely anything left.
But it must have been enough, because Ben sputtered, loosened his grip, and, color draining from his face, let himself be pulled away by Jake and Allan. He clutched his neck, which had started to bleed, and sat on the floor, rocking slowly back and forth as he panted heavily, eyes shut, sweat dripping from his brow.
It was hard for me to move, and as I welcomed gusts of cool, wonderful air, I was only dimly conscious of a medic ripping open my shirt to clean the wound on my abdomen. The medic was a grey haired woman wearing an officer’s uniform sporting a long scar along one cheek, leaving a pale slash in her otherwise dark skin.
“I’m Captain Hayes. You were lucky. A little more this way,” she said, motioning to the wound, “and …” She didn’t finish. “It’s not too bad, though. I don’t think I’m going to put any stitches in. It’s not really deep enough, and you’ll just blow through ‘em. Just try to keep it clean and wrapped tight. Come back tomorrow, and I’ll change the dressing. How’s your head?”
I croaked out something that must have satisfied her while she looked at my neck, eyes, and in my mouth.
“Aside from a few burst vessels in your eyes, I think you’ll be okay,” she said, shaking her head. I recognized her as one of the Imperial Guards. Although we didn’t share practice sessions with them, we did sometimes cross paths, and a few of them moonlighted as medics or Army instructors to make a little cash on the side. We had gotten to know a succession of medics in our training, though this was the first time I’d met Captain Hayes.
She and a few of the other Rangers helped me into a seated position against a stack of mats, and then she stood. Looking straight at Rizor, Tershel, and Clavus and then at the rest of the Rangers, she shook her head, and said, “What little I saw, I did not like. Lieutenants Rizor, Tershel, and Clavus, please explain.”
I could see their faces reddening. Either they were embarrassed or weren’t used to being questioned. Maybe some of both. Our medics weren’t usually senior officers, either.
“It … it was an accident, Captain Hayes,” Tershel said quickly. “We probably should have had the men use the fencing gear,” he added, motioning to a pile of protective equipment at the base of the weapons wall.
“That’s up to you. Look, I’m not here to police you. I’m here as a medic today. But a word of caution coming as a fellow officer in this Army.” Her eyes narrowed as she glared at our trainers. “Accidents, like anger, are unavoidable in our line of work. But what I saw, men cheering on the equivalent of a schoolyard brawl, was avoidable. There is a difference between battle and training. In battle, all the animal instincts come out. It is unavoidable. But that is what the training is for. We train for control. To control ourselves. In a few months, these men will be on their own. They will need to work together, as a unit. Clearly, they are not there yet. But you have time. You three can still shape them. Am I clear?”
Our instructors weathered the critique with silence and slight nods of assent, which clearly did not convince Captain Hayes. She continued staring them down until Rizor finally started, “You make good points, Captain. I … I think …”
Aron, who had been jostling side to side like a Labrador itching to be let out, shot his hand up at that moment, blurting out, “This all would have been avoided if we had something for our nuts, Ma’am! Maybe you can tell the King that we …”
He was silenced by incredulous glares from the instructors and an upheld hand from Captain Hayes. “Thank you for that enlightening piece of information, soldier. But were we talking to you?”
She held his gaze until he ground his foot in the mat and said with downcast eyes, “No, Ma’am.”
Captain Hayes turned back to Rizor. “As you were saying, Lieutenant?”
Rizor nodded. “Thank you, Captain. With the Drawing coming up, perhaps we should be thinking of ways to have the men function more cohesively rather than pitting them against each other.”
The Captain shook her head. “That is not what I meant. People in this Army have always learned soldier against another. How else are they supposed to? Training dummies,” she said, pointing to a worn, stuffed mannequin suspended from the ceiling that we used to practice strikes, “don’t hit back. Look, like I said, it’s your job to teach these men. I’m not here to interfere. What I’m saying is that …” she paused, sighed, and looked around to see who might be listening. “… there’s a lot of shit in this Army, especially at the top. But that doesn’t make it right. Any monkey can learn to use a spear. But not everyone can use it in the right way, at the right time, and know when to show restraint. We don’t always expect this of our regular rank and file. But we do of our Imperial Rangers. Or, at least, we used to. Do you catch my drift?”
The instructors mulled this over and straightened up to attention, saluting their assent. As if on cue, at that moment, Ben, who was still rocking on the floor, vomited.
After Captain Hayes examined and bandaged him, she motioned for us all to come over. She looked at Ben, put a hand on his shoulder, and said, “Son, I’m not trying to make an example of you or embarrass you. But this is one of those things that … happens. Aside from your neck, your body is fine. But the part of you that makes your body do what it needs to – the nerves, they’ve had a shock.”
Ben nodded, eyes still on the mat, drool dripping from his lips.
She turned back to us. “Have you seen a stress dump before?”
“Sometimes when I’m nervous, I get the shits,” Aron blurted out. Clavus turned sharply to him, mouthing an incredulous “why?” and put a finger to his mouth. “Please, Aron.”
Captain Hayes smiled. “It’s alright, Lieutenant. That wasn’t the kind of dump I was thinking of, though I suppose I set myself up for that one.”
She turned to the rest of us. “After the battle is over, assuming you lived, sometimes the body rebels. Occasionally, it’s just fatigue. But at other times, the hands start to shake, the legs twitch, and the stomach flips flops. And, yes, Aron, sometimes so does the rest of the gastrointestinal system. And that is to say nothing of the mind. Sometimes the body heals fine, but the mind, which you can’t see, does not. The point is, the more you understand these things, the more you will understand yourselves. And the better you will understand your enemies and how to defeat them. If you can get some sense of that and how to work together as a unit in these final months, this Army will have done its job. Got it?”
“Thank you, Captain Hayes,” our instructors said.
Then Tershel added, “We appreciate the impromptu lesson, Ma’am. I’ve never been sure why you have not been added to the training curriculum. I mean, that would only make sense.”
The Captain smiled and shrugged. “Politics. And … to be honest, I’m out of date.”
“The basic training methods haven’t really changed, though, Captain.”
“Well, tell that to the King. Besides, I’m mostly retired these days. I just help train the Guards and do occasional medic duty.”
“Well, it’s not like we have a whole lot of guidance on how to do this job, Ma’am, so … any time you want to drop by and … drop a little wisdom, I know we’d appreciate it,” Clavus said.
“Thank you, Lieutenant,” Captain Hayes said, smiling warmly.
When she was gone, Clavus turned to us and said, “Captain Hayes is the only surviving Imperial Ranger trainer. I think she did their hand-to-hand training back … well, that must have been forty years ago or so, right?” he said, looking at his co-instructors.
“Yeah, probably. Right before they were disbanded,” Tershel said.
“She was a Ranger, Sir?” Jake asked.
“No, just a regular soldier. Like us. It wasn’t always easy to find Rangers to do the actual instructing, so … sometimes they pulled from other parts of the Army. One of those people was Captain Hayes. Somewhere around here, there’s a picture of her,” Rizor added, waving his finger around, scanning the plaques on the wall. “You’ll see it if you look. She’s a little younger there,” he added. “So, hopefully you took something from what she said. It’s given us a few things to think about as well. It’s not like we always know exactly how to train you. There haven’t been Imperial Rangers in a long time. Speaking of which … back to the present. Logan, Ben … what are we going to do with you guys?”
Ben and I looked at each other until he averted his eyes to the puddle of vomit on the mat. He took a towel someone had given him and started mopping it up.
“Don’t worry about that, Ben. I think we should probably stop for today,” Rizor said. “Why don’t we wrap up with the usual conditioning exercises. When you guys are done, meet back here to stretch out. Ben and Logan, stay here a minute.”
While the rest of the guys went off to do pullups and other calisthenics, Rizor took us aside. “Alright, look. I realize this is awkward given that you two, umm … just tried to kill each other, but … you guys got to work this out. Like the Captain said, at the end of the day, you eight are just going to have each other out there.”
After an awkward silence, I said, “I guess Aron was right … groin protection and all. I’m sorry, Ben. It was more a reflex than anything. The butt end of the spear to the … cockerel region, I mean.”
Ben gave a short laugh and shook his head. “It’s okay, Logan. I’ve been hit harder there before; I don’t know why it made me so mad this time. When I get like that … it’s like I have blinders on. I had no idea I’d skewered you with the spear. I’m sorry about that. I just …” He paused and stared at his hands, which were trembling. “I just can’t … I can’t believe … Logan, I … I was going to kill you. That was the only thought going through my head when I had you on the ground. I almost killed you, Logan.” There were tears forming in his eyes when he turned to Rizor, and his voice choked when he said, “I don’t know if I can do this, Sir. I think … maybe I should have been a farmer like my father said I should’ve.”
Rizor nodded. “Well, to be fair, there are a lot of things you’ve said your father told you to do that …”
Ben nodded. “… yeah, that weren’t that great. But … maybe he was right on this. He always said my temper would be the death of me.” He gave another sad laugh and looked at the mat. “I got my temper from him. Except I don’t need to be drunk to lose it. Thanks, Pops,” he muttered, giving an imaginary toast.
Rizor put a hand on Ben’s shoulder and squeezed. “You know, my first commanding officer was in the Army since he was kid. Lied about his age to get in. He’d been in for, I dunno, twenty years by the time I was assigned to his unit. He taught me most of what I know about the sword. And it was all practical stuff – what I try to teach you guys now – learned the hard way. But anyway, after this battle – my first – he looked out on the battlefield, and it was just … blood, guts, fire, smoke, crying, and screaming … all the stuff no one ever tells you about when you enlist and get the shiny boots and polished armor. And there he was, looking out on it all, and I’ll never forget what he said. ‘Boys, I got you through this – at least most of you – but the fact remains that I also carried out the orders that did this. And I can’t do it anymore.’ He took off his sword belt and his officer’s insignia and threw them in one of the fires burning near us. ‘It’s been an honor to serve alongside you,’ he said and then turned around and started walking the other way. And I never saw him again. Of course, there was all the usual shit. Desertion charges and all that. But I don’t think the Army ever found him. Or if they did, they didn’t get any help from us, because we certainly weren’t going to rat him out. I guess that’s a roundabout way of saying we all have our limits. Like fire, a temper, Ben, can be helpful in certain situations, assuming you can control the blaze. But you probably stand a better chance of learning to control it here than in a lot of other walks of life.”
As I was leaving for the barracks that evening, Rizor pulled me aside.
He looked a bit uncomfortable, as if not sure how to begin. Finally, he said, “You know, I didn’t get a chance to say this before, but you did alright today, Logan.” His words didn’t really register at the time, since our instructors seldom doled out praise, and what little there was had generally been for the ears of other men.
I must have looked at him dumbly, so he continued. “I’m sure it doesn’t feel like it. But you fought a man who wanted, however temporarily, for you to no longer be in the land of the living. And, by your own hands, you lived. No one will give you a trophy, and there won’t be any fanfare or celebration like at the Drawing. Your reward is another day on this side of the ground. A lot of times, that’s all that counts, Logan. Do you get what I’m saying?” I nodded but left as confused as ever. In time, I would understand. I don’t know if the others ever got that lesson. Sometimes, even now, I wonder and wish I could ask them. But it’s too late.
And although Ben’s neck and my ribs healed after a few weeks, as Captain Hayes alluded to, the mental side of things took much longer. I would see Ben’s face, contorted in rage, at random times in the day, and sometimes I had to stop what I was doing at the moment and try to clear my head. And although we were paired together for drills and sparring matches a number of times after that incident, Ben was never quite the same around me. It was as if there was always a part of him that was afraid the same thing would happen again. And, if I could talk to him knowing what I now know, I’d tell him not to worry, to live every moment fully, since, as we were often told, the typical Imperial Ranger didn’t come with a long life expectancy. But that’s another story told elsewhere.
That evening, I was sitting outside, looking at the stars. Although I was generally left alone since the others were busy playing cards, tonight, I had purposefully sequestered myself under the awning on the far side of the barracks. I could dimly hear the sounds of the men laughing over their poker game but could not make out any words. I let out a sigh that had been building up since the incident at the training session.
The night sky had always been a source of comfort for me, having grown up mostly without the comfort of a mother or father’s embrace. There had been a big window near my bed at the Aquarian orphanage where I’d been raised, and sometimes, when I hadn’t been able to sleep, I would look out into the distance, above the tall treetops, into the void. The little orbs of light, ever glowing, were small sources of security. Sometimes, my childhood friend, Aurora, who was two years older and had been in the orphanage even longer than I had, would join me next to the window, and we’d sit there until the morning rays peeked through the clouds.
I’d known Aurora since I entered the orphanage at age five, and the last time I’d seen her was when I’d left for the Army at eighteen. She had been such a consistent part of my life until that point that sometimes I forgot she was elsewhere and got excited, hoping to tell or show her something. Then I’d realize I couldn’t and wasn’t sure of the next time I could, which filled me with a mix of sadness and a kind of bittersweet longing that I wouldn’t understand until I was a bit older.
I wondered what she would have said had I told her about the events of that afternoon. Could I have even explained them? I looked down at my hands, which had started to tremble slightly, and recalled the time when I had left the orphanage for the Army, when Aurora had taken my hands, placed her favorite skipping stone in my palm for luck, and closed my fingers over hers. She had held them there against her chest before giving me a sad smile to send me off. Perhaps because of my early childhood, crying was not something that came especially easy for me as an adult. But that day, it had been easy, though I had tried my best to conceal it. And now, as I looked down at my trembling fingers, remembering Aurora’s hands cupped around mine, I felt tears welling up in my eyes again. There, under the eaves in the stillness of the night, I hunched over my knees. Covering my eyes with those same hands that had given me “another day on this side of the ground,” I wept.
Afterwards, I continued sitting outside until my eyes grew heavy. Eventually, I stumbled off to bed. In the morning, I did feel a bit better. The other Rangers never mentioned the incident again. The only person who ever did, strangely enough, was the Imperial Guard I sometimes ran into. She was coming out of Captain Hayes’ office when I stopped by for my follow-up visit, and after greeting me, she stopped, as if not quite sure what to say. Finally, she asked, “You alright?”
I asked why. She simply said, “Heard you got into some shit. Are you … alright?”
When I didn’t answer, she said, “Well, none of my business, I guess. But, let me ask this – are you gonna be alright?”
That I was confident in, so I said yes. She nodded, and that was that.
Thank you for reading this excerpt. To read more of Empty Hands, look for it for the Kindle on Amazon.
You can listen to the soundtrack that was composed for the book, to be listened to concurrently, here.