The Birth of a Lancer
(An excerpt from Life Lived With Lance, by Aelius)
People often ask me why I chose to make my reputation with a lance. I suppose I could concoct some heroic tale of my early training, my dedication, how I dreamt of the day I’d be distinguished by my superiors for greater things, but in fact this was never the career I was aiming for. The career I was aiming for was “idler.” My parents, on the other hand, were set on my entering the priesthood. I admire a nice suit of robes as much as anyone, but what kind of self-respecting castanic becomes a priest?
That argument was lost on my mother, one of a small castanic minority who look to Kaia for spiritual sustenance, though I doubt Kaia cares, having her divine hands full with the amani. My father, in the interests of peace and harmony, likes to agree with my mother. So on my twentieth birthday, having succeeded for some years in avoiding both a higher education and a job, I was facing the choice between a seminary in frozen Kaiator and a visit to the Federation recruitment office, if I didn’t want to collect my belongings from their doorstep. The argons were invading again, but that was in northern Shara, a world away. In Castanica, things were pretty peaceful. A military career it would be, then.
And so fate propelled me to the lance; or rather, fate propelled me to Decurion Harkin. Literally. I had gotten as far as putting my weight against the heavy door of the recruiting center, when it was pulled open from the inside, and I was wrenched forward against the metal-clad chest of a beefy human whose ice-colored eyes were two feet over the top of my head. I bounced off his armor and onto my backside at his feet.
“I’ll take this one, and I’ll take that bet!” Harkin boomed at a seated officer, as he pulled me to my feet by my horns. “I’ll prove it to you—give me anything at all, and I can turn it into a lancer!”
He nearly lost that bet a hundred times over, but eventually, money did change hands.
My first lance was a fragmenting chunk of lumber that was unfit for firewood before the first argon invasion, and my first shield was a crumbling cowhide stretched over a warped frame, and strapped onto my left arm with two lengths of light mooring line. Splinters and blisters were my constant companions for the first two weeks of training. And those were the places that felt good, because trying to hold up a weapon two meters longer than I was while aiming it at one or another head of an oncoming cromos (then inevitably forgetting to put my shield up against counterattacks) meant I was bruised, bitten, and beaten to a pulp when I fell onto my cot every night. The priesthood was starting to look genuinely attractive.
“Hit, hit, hit, stand! Hit, hit, hit, stand!” Harkin shouted over and over, like some maniac dance instructor. “Raise your shield and set your feet, you lump of castanic worm food! And put some muscle into those lunges—you’re not gonna bloody tickle him to death!” The conventional lancer wisdom was that when I recognized the movements that predicted my foe’s next attack, I could set my feet and raise my shield in the posture Harkin called “stand fast,” and my shield would absorb the blow. Of course that depended on getting the shield up before the blow actually fell, and that, more often than not, was exactly what I was not doing. Time and again, it fell to Harkin to wade in and dispatch the monster in question before it could finish me off.
Any sane man would have recognized me for a lost cause, but Harkin persevered with the single-mindedness of a charging ghilliedhu. “I said I’d make a lancer of you, and let none call me a liar,” he said a month after our first meeting, when he handed me my first regulation lance and shield. I was proud in spite of myself.
Now that I had equipment that didn’t punish me for using it, Harkin moved on from “hit, hit, hit, stand,” to more sophisticated skills and tactics. I learned to stun enemies with a blow from my shield, and perform lunges, thrusts, and charges with real power. I learned to scream defiance at my foes and make them attack me rather than weaker comrades. And one day I realized I’d become a lancer in spite of myself.
Soon after, the argons launched a massive offensive in northern Shara, and Harkin and I were called to the front along with the rest of the Ascension Valley Lancers and dozens of other local Valkyon units. Was I afraid? Was I wishing my mother would come and take me home? Was I quaking in my Federation-issue winter boots like the rest of those mewling cowards? You may safely wager on it. We didn’t even have the luxury of two prolonged marches punctuated by an extended sea voyage to store up reserves of courage—the Federation sprang for long-distance teleport to the frozen outskirts of Kaiator (fate, it seems, had marked me for Kaiator one way or another). Now there was only the forced march to Val Tirkai between us and an enemy whose strength and cunning we could barely imagine, and staring at Harkin’s broad back was the only thing that kept one foot following another up that road.
My first sight of the argons turned my blood to ashes and my bowels to water. If I never see anything that terrifying again, I’ll die happy and grateful. My only consolation was that they seemed to have that effect on everyone—even Harkin, though he was better at hiding it. And he was truly magnificent at turning his fear to rage against the enemy. We learned that from him—those of us who lived to march out of Val Tirkai again when the battle was over.
The argons came in their thousands, and we killed them, and they sent more. And when we were numb from killing argons, they sent their mindless servants, who had once been men, women, and children of races overrun by argon forces. Those were the hardest to kill, and that’s what the argons were banking on. I’ve heard some say argons don’t think, but only a mind that thinks and hates and exults in the terror and sorrow of its enemies—a monstrous mind—could have devised such a plan.
In time the war became a way of life, as we were tested in argon fire and Kaiator ice. By the time some many-tentacled argon horror bought me a ticket back to Castanica with a wound the frontline surgeons couldn’t fix, I’d received a battlefield promotion to centurion, and a later one to primus, which meant that technically I outranked Harkin, but until the day an argon tore him in two in the wilds of Val Kaeli, he never let me forget that when I stumbled into that recruiting center door, I’d been castanic worm food, and it was he who had made me a lancer.