The three men came to a halt just before the dingo border. The leader of the three examined his map while the others wiped the sweat from their brows. “So,” Kiros asked, “Are we there yet?”
“Uh, yeah, I think so,” Laguna replied. “Unless this map is messing us around again.”
“Yeah, because it’s the map’s fault that you’ve been holding it around the wrong way.”
“C’mon, give me a break. I said I was sorry about that!”
“Sorry doesn’t take back our trekking in the completely wrong direction for two hours, does it Commander?”
“Why do you have to call me Commander all sarcastic like that? I’m you’re commanding officer. Why don’t you treat me like it?”
“If you’re my commander, why don’t you start acting like it? I’ll give you respect when you earn it.”
“You don’t have to be so mean, I’m doing my best.”
“I don’t have to be so mean?” Kiros echoed, his voice incredulous. “Yeah, because I can really respect that, my commanding officer whining and crying like a little kid. Anyway, knock it off. We’re almost there, aren’t we? Let’s just scope out the village, rent a room for the night, and get this mission over with.”
“You know, Kiros, anyone would think you didn’t want to come to my old hometown.”
“You lived here during your extended vacation after you quit the army. I wouldn’t call that a hometown, would you? Actually, the way you talk about this place, I’m surprised you’d want to be here, you know, considering the situation and the mission parameters. Oh, and let’s not forget that it’s a bloody hole in the middle of nowhere. And not just any old nowhere, but in the middle of a blasted dessert. I did not appreciate walking for hours after the truck ran out of fuel. That was down to you too, wasn’t it, commander? I am not looking forward to the return journey. I can tell you that.”
“Okay okay, I get it. Jeeze, you whine a lot for an ex-soldier. Why can’t you be more like Ward? He hasn’t said a word— oh, sorry,” Laguna said with a nervous laugh.
The tallest among them gave a dismissive look.
“Anyway, we’re almost there, right? What´re we doing sweating out here in the Sun? Let’s get goin´!”
“I’m glad you took the day off, Squall. You’re exhausted.”
“Yeah, well, I thought I should hang around in case pigtail girl’s parents caused any trouble. Besides, I’m getting sick of Ellone telling me to rest and relax. Maybe she’ll stop if I hang around home for a while.”
Squall and Zell were seated outside a local cafe. It was a hot day, but their table had a parasol to shield them from the Sun, and the tropical smoothies they sipped were enough to keep them cool.
“Don’t worry about us, Squall. I don’t think her parents are gonna give us any more trouble. Not anymore. Ma sorted them out.”
“What about Pigtail girl?”
“You know, she has a name, Squall. I wish you’d use it. Everybody else does.”
“Just answer the question.’
Zell sighed in exasperation. “Bella´s gonna be living with us now.”
“That house was crowded with only the two of you there. Can you really manage with her moving in?”
“I dunno Squall. Do you and Ellone want to trade?”
Squall put his lips to his straw before answering.’
“It’s alright. We’re fine the way we are.”
“Oh, I’m so happy for you two,” Zell dryly retorted.
Squall had to admit, he was impressed. He didn’t think Zell was even capable of sarcasm.
A momentary silence washed over the two friends, punctuated by a hushed exclamation from Zell. “What the hell?”
Squall casually glanced over to where the blond was gaping, and he had to say, he was equally shocked at the unusual sight, even if he wouldn’t voice it aloud as his extroverted friend had done.
Three men, all of whom wore the most bizarre attire. Full body armour from their shoulders down to their boot covered feet. Only their heads were uncovered, and allowed the youth to make out their faces. The one in front had long black hair that reached a little past his shoulder. The one in the middle had dark skin, unlike anyone Squall had seen around Winhill. This one also had long hair, down to his waist in fact, and dreadlocked. Whereas the man in front had an average build, the second was taller and thinner. The third man, bringing up the rear, was taller still, and larger. He was a behemoth, at least two metres tall, and who knew how wide? His bald head was adorned with scars, and his four limbs were like tree trunks sticking out of his body.
“Who the hell are these guys, soldiers? What does the army want with us?”
That was when Squall noticed it, on the right shoulder of each identical suit of armour. It was dark red, almost Brown. An odd shape, a lion, maybe? It didn’t matter what it was, exactly. Squall knew what it meant. It was a symbol, and the brunette knew exactly what it represented. It was death, war, famine. It was Griever: The Queen’s insignia. What the hell did she want with Winhill? Had she imposed a draft on the slums now? Were they recruiting soldiers, were they collecting tribute, or had the war come even this far south?
“These guys are suspicious,” Zell commented. “They’re wearing armour, but I don’t think they’re soldiers.”
Squall raised an eyebrow. “Why?”
“Look at them. Soldiers are disciplined. Thousands of men fighting as one unit for their queen. These three look more like thugs or mercenaries.”
“Don’t forget whose army they’re from. You said they fight for the queen. I wouldn’t be surprised if being a thug was a requisite.” Squall paused for a moment in thought, never once letting the soldiers leave his sight. “They are suspicious, though. Keep an eye on them. The queen might have sent them, or they might be here for something else. I don’t know, and I don’t really care. All I know is I don’t trust them. Keep an eye out for any sign of trouble. We can’t have them starting anything. If we’re lucky, they’ll just be passing through.”
“That’s all well and good, but Squall, c’mon, we’re just students with bare bones training, not even military, not really. Those are fully armed soldiers, three of them, and veterans too, by the look of it. If they turn hostile and start killing people, just what the hell are we supposed to do? It’s not like we even have guns or anything.”
Squall looked away and for a long time, remained silent, until finally, “like I said: If we’re lucky, they’ll just be passing through.”