Flash Fiction: Good Watchmen (1041 words)

The line of recruits held straight, shoulder-to-shoulder as Hemmark passed in front of them. It wasn’t particularly hard, with their heels backed against their packs behind them, and their packs touching the barracks wall behind that. They looked directly ahead and didn’t waver, but that wasn’t hard either when turning would have meant looking into the sun that was threatening a too-bright day in the middle of the gray dawn. Hemmark, coming to a stop at the end of the line, pretended to be impressed with his handful of men and tangle of fresh sixteen-year-old boys.

“Welcome to the City Watch,” he said. He tipped his voice into a pitch that he knew would carry clearly down the courtyard, but did not raise his tone into anything that could be called a shout. Some of the boys glanced at him sideways, blinking into the light behind him, as if he might have snuck up just beside them. Meeting his eye, they immediately snapped their heads forward again and straightened like he’d kicked them. He reserved a smile for later.

“We will give you a bed. We will feed you. We will hand you uniforms and weapons and pay you besides. We will train you into the sort of men that this city will respect and sometimes fear. We’ll make you into the sort of man that the man next to you can trust. And in return, you will protect this city, from now until the day you are dismissed. You will follow orders. You will put yourself on the line. You will fight when we tell you fight, stand down when we tell you stand down, wake we tell you wake, and keep to your feet when we need you.”

Hemmark glanced down the line for the inevitable shifting that always arrived when he gave his speech. Feet shuffled. Shoulders rolled a little forward or squared defiantly. It was always half and half in these recruits, between those who relaxed into the idea of taking orders and those who disliked the idea entirely. But there was no more shuffling than usual and he nodded them toward the barracks.

“Get inside. Take a bunk,” Hemmark said. “Then we’ll take a run around the city to see who can keep up.”

The line split in an instant, everyone taking a step to pick up their packs in ragged disorganization. They turned and knocked elbows and rocked back and turned and clustered, each looking for space to hoist the thick bundle of everything they owned over their shoulders.

Somewhere in the center, a dark-haired boy just waited, letting the boys around him step to the side before he kicked his bag up and hauled it onto his back. His feet barely moved, and spine remained in straight, easy line. Hemmark watched him while the other recruits milled around, waiting for him to take a step that he didn’t have to. But he never moved until the exact space he wanted was open, aiming straight for the barracks door, in long, smooth strides. It put him near the end of the aberrant line as they worked their way inside, but he didn’t seem to care. He nodded to the boy next to him, looped his thumbs in his pack, and kept taking those clean steps.

After a moment, the boy looked behind him. He met Hemmark’s eye, paused, nodded shallowly, and swung forward again.

Hemmark blinked at the back of his head.

Then he dropped into a few easy strides of his own and fell in beside the boy.

“What’s your name?” Hemmark asked.

“Jasen, sir,” the boy returned, quick, smart, and perfectly even.

“And why did you join us?” Hemmark asked. He fixed Jasen with a sharp sideways glance, hoping to see him flinch.

Jasen only raised his chin a little. “My father is in the Teichos Guard.”

Hemmark faced forward again to hide his expression. “Oh.”

“His name is Tranton,” Jasen said. “He was in the Watch a few years back. Did you know him?”

Hemmark couldn’t hold his laugh in at that, but he pushed it back down as fast as he could. “Yes,” he said. “I trained that brat.”

“Yeah?” Jasen asked. He was smiling wide, beginning to laugh with him.

“Don’t do that,” Hemmark said. He pulled to a tight stop.

For the first time, the boy looked unsteady, coming his own abrupt halt while he looked over in confusion.

“I don’t know what sort you’ve been running around, but make no mistake, I don’t talk like that about my friends. I save my insults for people I really didn’t like,” Hemmark told him. “Your father followed orders for exactly eight months, then it’s like he went deaf. He couldn’t hear a command to save his life, and there were more than a few close calls.”

Jasen hesitated and Hemmark watched the doubt creep across his face. His eyebrows pulled together and he started to turn away. “My father is in the Teichos Guard,” he repeated firmly.

Nodding, Hemmark stuffed his hands into his jacket pockets. He smiled tightly. “Heroes of the realm,” Hemmark affirmed. “The King’s own Elite. The best and the brightest and the maddest that history has ever known. The ones that history will remember unto the ages, and poets will write the best songs about. And you know the title that never gets said to their faces? The worst soldiers I’ve ever seen. There isn’t one of them that I’ve trained that would have lasted another five years inside the Watch. Half of them went up in front of a judge for some very, very heroic insubordination before they made it to the Teichos. The other half should have been, but had the silverest tongues in the city.”

Jasen paused again. “You’re being serious?” he asked, quiet.

Hemmark nodded.

Jasen shifted his pack on his shoulder, watching the last of his fellow recruits disappear through the barracks door. “And, tell me,” he murmured. “Was this conversation supposed to keep me line? Or point out the benefits of not being a good Watchman?” Brazenly, he met Hemmark’s eye. Giving his shallow nod again, he strode toward the barracks.

Hemmark tried to find that smile he’d marked for later.


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