The Call of the Seven Peaks
The first Centurion Lucius threw the file he’d been reading onto the table and leaned back against his chair. He smoothed his hands over the well-worn edge of his desk and looked for a way to calm his anger. His eyes swept over the files scattered on his desk before traveling to survey the small room that served as his office. The metal cabinets lining the white walls seemed to mimic the proud rows of Unbreakables that he commanded. Finally, he let his eyes travel up and down Eliot Sanders, his lieutenant, his supposed loyal and obedient officer.
Eliot stood at attention, his eyes forward, his raven hair, olive skin and aquiline nose screaming high nobility to anyone who had lived in the Alliance. Lucius’s attention involuntarily zeroed onto the green eyes of his lieutenant. That color was the only thing at odds with the picture of nobility his young subordinate presented. Green eyes were not of noble blood. Green was the wrong color for a son of First Families, but it did nothing to take away from the young noble’s arrogance. Eliot’s posture was perfect, as was expected of a good Unbreakable standing before his first centurion, but there was no deference in this young noble, no note of apology in his tall frame.
Lucius was usually good at controlling his emotions, showing anger only at his will and command, but looking at Eliot’s stubborn scowl, real anger rose in the first centurion. His men, his officers followed orders with a precision that was the envy of all the other forces. The Unbreakables, the elite of the Alliance military, didn’t suffer the burden of spoiled noble brats running amok.
“I’m waiting for an explanation for this report, Lieutenant,” Lucius said, only after he was sure his voice would not betray his anger. Uncontrolled anger was beneath the man wearing the golden eagle on his shoulder.
Eliot Sanders continued to stare in rigid silence. Lucius wondered for the hundredth time what he’d been thinking taking a Calatis into the Unbreakables. Nobility and the Unbreakables were supposed to be separate worlds. Worse yet, Eliot Sanders was not just any nobleman. Despite Eliot’s own objections, he was still heir to the Calatis house, one of the nine families that controlled and ruled the entire Alliance of Free Provinces, hiding behind the semi-elected public puppets. Taken by the man’s promising tactical mind and battlefield skills, Lucius had jeopardized the long standing tradition of keeping the Unbreakables pure from political influence and had given the blue beret to Eliot. Now that decision haunted him.
“Lieutenant, you went from one disaster to another with this mission.” Lucius stood up, going around his desk, to stand right before Eliot. “You disappeared for over six hours with no contact. You left your men in hostile territory, wondering whether their commanding officer was dead or alive, and that was with the mission already jeopardized by the death of your contact.”
A small flicker of protest passed over Eliot’s face. Lucius held up his hand, silencing Eliot even before the other man could speak.
“You disappeared on your men and then turned up with a stray Shiraki boy. I can imagine no reason for such dereliction of duty. Do you have one?”
“The boy was dying,” Eliot spat the words through his teeth. “He’d been beaten, stabbed, tortured and thrown into the trash to die. He would have died if I hadn’t rushed him to the hospital.”
The noble brat had the audacity to be angry over the reprimand. Lucius considered the boy before him for a second. “It’s Shirak, Eliot,” Lucius said in a forceful tone. “It’s no holiday spot. It’s a wasteland. People die there every day. You’ve been with us for three years. I know you’ve seen war, and I know you’ve seen Shirak. Dead and wounded on the streets isn’t news.”
Eliot said nothing. His jaw tightened further and his eyes turned harder.
“And now,” Lucius went on, “you’re recommending—” Lucius stopped with a small shake of his head. “No excuse me,” he let the sarcasm bleed through his words “telling me to take a sixteen year old Shiraki national into the Unbreakables.” Lucius smacked the heel of his hand against the surface of his desk. “Have you lost your mind completely?”
“The boy is the reason we succeeded on our mission.” Eliot shifted his eyes to Lucius, who was reminded once again why taking this young noble into the Unbreakables had been a bad idea. Three years in the Unbreakables and Eliot Sanders failed to understand basic obedience and deference to his commander. Eliot wasn’t an insubordinate soldier. The stunt he’d pulled in Shirak was far from his usual modus operandi. But Eliot’s conformity with orders was rooted in his own convictions. With every arrogant look and self-assured pose Eliot broadcasted loud and clear that he would follow only until it suited him, and today the first centurion had found out where that obedience ended.
“If it weren’t for Ronan we’d still be there, flailing around like headless chickens, trying to figure a way of completing our mission. He led us straight to our target.”
“Eliot, we routinely employ local assistance for missions; our contacts don’t become members of the Unbreakables. If they did, the Unbreakables would be the largest armed force on the damned planet.” Lucius breathed through each word, intent on staying calm. “What’s gotten into you? You threw money destined for the mission right and left on that boy.”
“He needed treatment and I replaced the money,” Eliot replied, his infamous hot temper bleeding into his words.
“Don’t you use that tone with me.” Lucius stepped closer, crowding Eliot. He could see that Eliot itched to push him back. It was a good exercise in controlling his temper for his young, noble lieutenant. “You had no right to touch that money. If I were to take this through the official channels, your military career would be over.”
“Oh, really?” Eliot locked his eyes with Lucius, an arrogant smirk spreading over his face.
“Kneel!” Lucius thundered, putting the entire power of the first centurion behind that one word.
Lucius watched the struggle on Eliot’s face. Open gestures of deference were hard for Eliot. Used to being revered and obeyed since he was old enough to walk, Eliot never had any exercise in obedience before joining the Unbreakables. Eliot had managed to stay in the Unbreakables only through his monumental stubbornness. Most of the Unbreakables were simple people. Unlike most of the army where the officer ranks were crawling with nobility, the Unbreakables were commoners and career soldiers. Recruits knew they lived and died in the Unbreakables. For twenty-five years their life was forfeit to the troops. There was no escape to a safe desk position or retirement to a family company with a few shiny medals. Even as first centurion, Lucius saw more combat than most foot soldiers in any other division. The nobility preferred safe and comfortable, not an inglorious battlefield in the driving rain or the prospect of a near flaying alive for a breach of the Unbreakables’ Code.
For a short second Lucius’s mind went back to his noble recruit’s first days in the Unbreakables. Eliot with his blue blood, highbred accent and arrogant demeanor hadn’t been welcomed with fanfare. The Unbreakables were a brotherhood. Their bond was their very essence. Hazing of any kind was prohibited and ruthlessly punished, but Lucius hadn’t been oblivious to the hard time the men were giving Eliot and the small betting pool on when the noble brat would run back to his grandfather, the Lord Calatis. Lucius had looked the other way. Perhaps curious to see what Eliot would do, or perhaps realizing that was the real test of measuring Eliot’s desire and commitment to the troops. Even he had been surprised when Eliot, instead of reporting the betting, had gone and placed a bet on himself staying when he discovered the illicit bookmaking.
“Stay there,” the first centurion ordered when Eliot finally managed to force his knee to bend. “You are an Unbreakable now, Eliot. You kneel to me. You bend to my will. You belong to me, Lieutenant. If you want to flaunt your name around and live like a spoilt brat, you should have stayed away from the Unbreakables.”
Eliot stayed on his knees; the struggle clear on his young face. Despite his earlier anger, Lucius understood Eliot’s struggle. This wasn’t easy for the young noblemen. The determination with which Eliot had moved towards truly becoming an Unbreakable was the reason Lucius was sure that accepting the man into the Unbreakables wasn’t a complete mistake.
Lucius retreated to his desk, but didn’t go around it. He leaned against it, his body looming over Eliot, and studied him. “Are you regretting the choice you made? Joining the Unbreakables?”
Eliot shook his head.
“You’re not a sullen teenager. Answer me properly.”
“Then what’s this? Your men are trying to protect you, Eliot. You’re taking them down with you.”
“If you must punish someone for what I did, punish me. Leave my men alone!”
Lucius watched angry fire flare in the young noble’s green eyes, as the lieutenant fought to stay put. “You fool boy.” Lucius stepped toward Eliot and grabbed him by his chin, forcing his face up. “I’m not the enemy. I’m not looking for reasons to torture my men, and you are my man, no matter how much you’d like not to be right now.”
Eliot stayed silent, those eerie green eyes that were so out of place on a noblemen’s face staring at Lucius with no sign of deference.
“Get up,” Lucius commanded and Eliot complied eagerly. “You will send that boy away, and we will never speak of this.” Lucius turned around and walked to his chair, indicating the conversation on that particular matter was closed.
“I will not.”
Lucius turned to look at Eliot.
“It wasn’t an invitation for a debate, Lieutenant. You do as you’re told. You are sworn to me. You have no independent will. You want to have a say in the matter, go back to being Lord Calatis. I’m not going to turn the Unbreakables into your personal harem.”
“Ronan is not a toy.”
Lucius studied the man before him. The anger cascaded down from the hard emerald eyes. No wonder the boy was used to everyone bending to his will. Holding those eyes was troublesome even for Lucius, and he was the first centurion. He could only imagine what Eliot’s men felt when those eyes swept over them. Despite the initial resistance to accepting Eliot in their midst, Eliot had made a place for himself in the troops. Those who have served under Eliot were more than willing to give the man their loyalty. Even Gaius, Eliot’s current second, who had been very vocal in his opposition to Eliot leading the Primi, the spearhead of the Unbreakables, was now in Eliot’s corner.
“He deserves to be in the Unbreakables. Ask Gaius, ask any of them. That boy is a born warrior,” Eliot said with stubborn glint in his eyes.
“He’s also a foreigner, a Shiraki for that matter, and he has no education. What do you think this is, Eliot?”
“I’ll fix it all. He’ll have citizenship, and he will have education.”
“I can forbid it, Eliot. You are mine, Lieutenant. I cannot allow you to throw the weight of your family around every time you want something. What you do now reflects on us. Unbreakables have a code of honor. You need to understand that.” Lucius was calm now. It wasn’t a struggle to keep his temper any more. This was his officer. He had seen potential in Eliot and he hadn’t been mistaken. The men followed Eliot. In as little as six months of being head of the Primi, Eliot had managed to put every single one of his men under his spell. Eliot intuitively understood the burden and responsibility of being in command – he was impossibly demanding, yet fiercely protective of his men. It was Lucius’s duty to teach him the rest. “Eliot, I know you aim for a bird on your shoulder, and I make no secret of the fact that I think you could even hope for the golden eagle.” He tapped the small golden insignia on his own shoulder, the rank insignia of the first centurion of the Unbreakables. “But if you are to lead these men, you first need to be able to subjugate yourself to the duty of the Unbreakables.”
“I’m loyal to the Unbreakables.”
“You are ready to dishonor the code your brothers live by. You are ready to turn your back on them. You put that boy before your men during a mission, Eliot. That is not the way of an Unbreakable officer.”
There was a shadow of unreadable emotions over his young officer’s face, and Eliot dropped his gaze down for the first time, admitting surrender.
“Eliot, you can’t lead the Unbreakables if you’re not one of them. And you will never be one of them if every time you want something you run back to your family and its power. You need to decide. Either you’re one of us, or you’re one of them. You need to grow up. You’re like a child who has yet to discover that wanting doesn’t mean having.”
“I can’t give him up.” The words were a whisper, as if torn from the young man’s lips by force. “It feels the same as giving up a brother. You should be able to understand that.”
Lucius sighed and shook his head. “Of all my men, I never figured you to be the one I needed to worry about being overrun by rampant emotions.”
“This is not about irrational emotions. He is worthy or he will be once I help him get his education. He is a true warrior. Gaius saw it; every single one of my men saw it.”
“Gaius also thinks the boy is damaged, Eliot. Those were his words.”
“Gaius is just being a hypocritical bastard. He is hysterical over the fact that Ronan killed a man.”
“He executed a man in cold blood.” Those details hadn’t gone into the report, but Gaius had come to see Lucius. The boy, Ronan, young and untrained as he was, clearly had promising skills. But Gaius was adamant the boy was damaged, a victim of battle fatigue, and unable to function in a normal environment. Gaius was a good soldier and a better judge of such things than Eliot would ever be. Eliot’s own propensity for ‘the end justifies the means’ made Lucius uneasy at times. They weren’t do gooders from fairy tales by any means, and if Gaius was worried about the ease with which the boy had killed, they all needed to pay attention. “You accepted it is as the price for his help.”
“The boy had every right to ask for such a price. That man had been among those who had tortured him for days, killed his friend, and left him for dead.”
“We are not judge and jury.”
“And we are not personal protection for every depraved bastard out there. I just didn’t stay in the boy’s way. Ronan is an asset. Allow me to train him, and he will become one of the best warriors you’ve ever seen.”
There was so much conviction in Eliot’s eyes, and so much passion in his words that it was infectious. Lucius knew he allowed Eliot to sway his decisions far too often. And that was the danger of Eliot Sanders – too much power and too much skill in wielding that power--and Lucius was ready to hand him yet more power and skills one day in a form of a bird of prey on his shoulder.
“I will give you a week’s leave. Go home, clear your head. Sort things out. Stay longer if you need to, but when you come back, I expect you to be over this foolishness.”
Eliot brushed his hands over his face and looked at Lucius with an unwavering gaze. “Then it’s the weighted whip for me, sir, because I’m not going to give up on Ronan. I can’t give up a brother.”
Lucius was stunned for several seconds. Eliot was bullheaded, but this was monumental stupidity. “You have lost your mind, Eliot.”
“No.” Eliot shook his head. “I can’t explain it. I just know he needs to be by my side. I just know here.” Eliot pushed his fist against his heart. “He’s one of us—a brother. He is a warrior and he’s mine.”
Lucius almost took a step back; he almost yielded to the command in those green eyes. Any other man would have. Eliot Sanders was demanding, ordering, expecting subordination and obedience without reservation. Lucius held the fiery gaze, wondering irrationally for a second if this was the legendary fire of the great lords of the Calatis House who had built this nation, doubled its size, and defeated the long standing enemy on its northern border.
“I know this is insane,” Eliot said, a split second of youthful hesitation breaking the spell.
“Go home, clear your head and if after that you feel the same way, I’ll talk to the boy.” Lucius couldn’t believe he was saying those words, but it was clear to him that short of killing Eliot nothing would work. Perhaps it was time to trust his young protégé’s instincts. “But, Eliot,” Lucius warned, “if after I talk to the boy I don’t find him suitable, you will forget about this insanity.”
“Thank you, sir.”
Lucius nodded. “You’re not getting off scot-free. Unbreakables rely on absolute loyalty and strict discipline. You will suffer the consequences of your foolish actions.”
“Yes, my Centurion.” Eliot went to one knee, as he brought his right fist to lie against his heart in a formal gesture of an Unbreakable yielding to his commander.