From the Diary of James Thresher
I am James Thresher, son of Samuel Thresher, of the village of South Salisburg. I was in my eighteenth year of life when I met the bastard thief known as Jeremiah Cobbler, and my life fell to pieces. I was caught with his stolen money, and sentenced to five terms of war in the Black Cradle. After the recruiter took us from the stockade, he chained us to the back of the wagon, and made us walk all the long, cold road to the capital city—Grendon. I think it is a terrible name for a city so grand, but my opinion does not matter in such things. My opinion matters in very few things it seems. In the long miles we walked, the group grew, as the recruiters did their job, and re-filled the ranks of the King’s army. Me and Jeremiah, however, were the only two convicts taken in. This meant that no one in the group would talk to us, and we had to do all of the chores, at least until the group grew too large. Walking all the way to Grendon was terrible and boring and tiring and cold, but it was also the most exciting thing that had happened to me yet. I had never been further away from home than the village of North Salisburg, where we occasionally visited my cousins.
Initially I refused to speak to Jeremiah, as he was the reason my life was ruined, but homesickness combined with him being the only person in the group willing to speak to me finally broke my resolve. I learned that he was only a few years older than me, but experientially, he was ages beyond me. He had been a thief since the age of eight, when his parents died of plague. Apparently, he was fairly good at it. He had traveled all throughout the land, never staying in one town long enough to get caught. Despite my incredible dislike for him, I felt a certain admiration for him, because he seemed to have so much more life under his belt than I.
After I got over his criminal ways, and the trouble he caused me, we became friends of a sort. We knew why we were in the King’s army, but often wondered why these other people were. Why risk your life in wars that meant nothing to you or your family? Once, one of the new recruits deigned to respond to our question.
“I know that some of the men here truly are fighting for their families. Most of the King’s wars are fought on the northern border where raiders come down to pillage. By joining the army, they contribute to the army that has saved their homes year after year.”
“Perhaps that is true for some of these men,” Jeremiah responded, “but how likely is it that every single one of these men comes from a border village?”
“That is true; I certainly did not join for that reason. I joined for the honor. I am the fourth son of a shoemaker. If I am ever to be respected, it is not going to be because of my craft.”
“Peh. Honor is not worth dying for if you ask me,” Jeremiah retorted.
“I would not ask the opinion of a member of the Black Cradle,” spat the new recruit as he walked away.
“Splendid, Jeremiah. You have managed to alienate the only recruit here who has ever spoken to us,” I complained.
“Well, from what I saw, it was no great loss on our part.”
And so it was. He would always play the cheeky, insulting part. He was always so sure he knew best. One time I asked him why he was able to remain so confident when we were surely going to die at the first engagement. He simply responded that “we haven’t died yet, farm boy.”
Eventually, our train arrived at Grendon. We were quickly deposited in the care of the Black Cradle’s locked barracks. Despite the fact that we were basically in prison, it was a significant improvement over walking miles each day in the cold. On our first day in the barracks I noticed that only a few of the soldiers had the uniforms of the Black Cradle. I made the mistake of asking one of them in the lunch line why this was. He spun around and punched me, then knocked me to the ground.
“I have a uniform because I have earned it boy!” he growled.
I was too frightened to move. Jeremiah quickly came up beside me and pulled me away.
“What on earth were you thinking?” he berated me.
“I was just wondering why he had a uniform and none of us did.”
“Silly boy. He has a uniform because he is a veteran. They don’t bother giving us new conscripts uniforms until after the first battle.”
“Why is that?” I asked with a sinking feeling.
“Because they are cheap. Most of us die after the first battle anyway. Why waste money on the meat-shields?”
After that, we pretty much stuck together, and did our best not to upset any veterans. Despite the fact that there must have been 10 newcomers for every veteran, the veterans clearly ran the camp. The guards were outside the walls, not inside. We were criminals—they did not care what we did to each other.
About a month after we arrived at the barracks, winter fully set in. No more new additions arrived. I think that there must have been nearly 1000 men in the barracks. When weeks passed, and still no newcomers came I began to get worried. I had assumed that they had been holding off on training us because they were waiting to train us all at once. Now, however, it seemed that they were never going to train us. I brought the subject up with Jeremiah.
“Yes, it is troubling, but what did you expect?”
“Perhaps my notion of the King’s paid soldiers training us was a bit silly,” I agreed, “but I had at least hoped that the veterans would teach us something of how to survive.”
“You clearly have not been in the same barracks I have. These veterans care only for themselves.”
I instantly realized the truth of his words. But, I was unwilling to be sent into battle without any training at all. I began to train my strength each day. The first time I woke up before breakfast and began doing the exercises that I had seen an entertainer do once, Jeremiah laughed at me. When I explained to him what I was doing however, he grew silent and thoughtful—not an easy feat for him. The next day he joined me in my morning workout.
After about a week of our workouts, some of the men in our dormitory approached us. They too had realized that we would see no training before our first fight.
“But do you really think that doing press-ups on the ground will help in a fight?” they asked of me.
“I have no idea what will and what will not help in a fight, but as I am an innocent man, I do not intend to sit here and wait to die.”
A few men saw sense in my words, and joined us in training every day. I would hardly call it combat training, but at least, after a month or so, we were all fighting fit, if not fighting trained. Then, near the end of the winter, the veterans called together an assembly of the barracks. Their leader—the only man alive to be on his fifth term—spoke to us.
“I care not for your lives. I care not for the lives of the King’s army. However, I will not be killed on my last term because you idiots died too quickly. Therefore, we will commence the training games.”