Warning: This work has been rated 16+ for language.
The riding was hard, the terrain rough, and the hours long. Nobody talked, a sort of hush seemed to have fallen upon the cadets, a nervousness electrifying the air. They rode fast and the cold air bit at Caden’s face and hands until his nose and cheeks went pink with cold and his hands paled to white and went numb. Finn fared no better, his lips cracked and bleeding and his hands well on their way to the same state.
They rode for hours before they finally stopped. Climbing off of the back of his horse, Caden let out a sigh. Finn slipped off his horse and stood next to Caden, letting Caden rest his head on his shoulder. “I’m so tired,” Caden groaned.
Finn made a soft grunt of agreement, his legs wobbling from the effort of standing. Their break wasn’t long, and there was no time even for a fire. They had to keep riding to reach the base before dark.
Getting back on his horse was agony for Caden after having had a break. A few hours later the trees were sparser and sparser until it was just them and their horses riding the hardest they ever had. Wind ripping through his hair and whistling in his ears, biting at his face and crawling down his throat, making it hard to breathe.
Just beyond the hill, in a valley a mile away, Caden could see it: the base. Finally. After so long. After so much pain, he was finally there. Following Schaefer’s lead, the cadets stopped at the top of the hill, looking down at the building. The place where Caden had aspired to be for so long. “Let’s go,” the commander barked, and they began to ride again, but Caden didn’t feel cold. Excitement, hot excitement shot through his veins. He whooped, spurring his tired horse on further, pulling ahead of even the commander. The excitement spread like a virus through the tired soldiers, each one letting out a cheer and galloping at breakneck speed down the hill.
As Caden entered the tall stone walls surrounding the building, he threw his head back and shouted once more. He was finally here.
“I’m here,” he whispered. “I’m finally here!” His face was a cauldron of emotion, contorting from a wide smile to biting his lip. A chorus of soft “woahs” ended the song of hoofbeats on snowy ground.
Not long later, the lone hoofbeats of Commander Schaefer’s horse thundered into the courtyard where the other cadets waited. “Follow me to the stable, put your horse into an empty stall. There are stable hands that will care for your horses.”
Caden and Finn both led their horses into empty stalls then followed the commander through a door from the stable to the main building. The interior of the building was immaculately kept; there was not a speck of dirt on the stone floor and the air was fresh and clean, not musty and closed up.
Commander Schaefer didn’t pause for a moment, he continued leading Caden and the rest of the cadets through the building. It didn’t take long before the party came to an abrupt halt, and the commander opened the door, leading the cadets into a large room.
“This is where the males will be rooming. But listen up ladies because I’m only going to say this once: there are four beds to a room and you’re the first to get here so you have the pick of the rooms.They’re all exactly the same. If you do stupid shit there will be consequences. And there are doors leading outside in both common rooms. You’ll find latrines on either side of the building.”
The commander left with the female cadets in tow. There were only twenty cadets from the camp. Of those twenty, 12 were male. Caden was the first to chose a room, just picking a door and walking in, motioning for Finn to follow him.
They put their belongings away in silence. Caden placed each item with the utmost care inside the cedar chest at the foot of his bed. A window let in pale winter light, barely enough for him to see.
“I wonder if we’ll have any roommates,” Finn mused, breaking the silence.
“I dunno,” Caden replied, turning his mother’s ring around in his hands. Then after a moment he said, “Should I get a chain for this?”
“For what?” Finn asked, shutting his chest with a small thud. He walked over to where Caden kneeled and peered over his shoulder. “Your mom’s ring?” Caden nodded, rubbing his thumb over the burnished gold. “That’s a great idea.”
“You think so?” Caden asked.
“Yeah,” Finn said. “You could always have her with you then.” His voice trembled. “I wish I had something to remember my parents by. Sometimes it seems like they’re fading away. I can’t remember the sounds of their voices anymore! I don’t know the color of my mother’s eyes. But I still miss them so much!”
He sank to his knees and rested his face on Caden’s shoulder, hot tears soaking into Caden’s shirt. Caden turned his head until his cheek was pressed into Finn’s hair. Finn let out a shaking, shuddering sigh and sat upright. His eyes were red and his lashes were wet and clumped together, still he forced a smile on his face. “Look at me,” he said. “I’m such a crybaby. I’m sorry for that, Caden.” He wiped his eyes with a sleeve and stood, “You go out to the common room, let me stay in here a bit. No one else needs to know how silly I am. They’ve been gone for years, I should be over it by now.”
Caden nodded slowly and stood up, walking out of the room. The majority of his peers were already out. Someone had started a fire in the fireplace and the cadets chattered amongst themselves.
However, the chit-chat stopped as the door swung open to reveal a woman laden with clothing. “I have the winter cloak that’s a part of the uniform. They’re fur-lined for the cold, ‘cause you’ll be spending a lot of time out in it.” The woman dumped the pile on a chair, “The rest of the uniform will be brought pretty soon, so go put these away.”
Caden grabbed two, one for him and one for Finn and put them away. “They’re bringing the other parts soon,” he told Finn.
Sure enough, the rest of the uniforms arrived. They were told supper would be served at six. At six, the same woman who had brought them their uniforms arrived to show them to the mess hall. “The doors to offices and meeting rooms are all numbered for ease of reference. We will always refer a room as its corresponding number, so don’t worry about finding your way around, it’s a simple system. There is only one other floor, the basement, which is used as workrooms for our engineers and researchers. Tomorrow we’ll hold a meeting after the other trainees are brought here. You’ll learn more of how things are done here then.” She stopped before a large doorway consisting of double doors held wide open. Inside was the mess hall, brightly lit with rows of rough-hewn tables and chairs. “Officers eat first, so just find a table and wait until they get done. The commander is always the last of them to get food, so when he’s done you can go get yours.”
The cadets sat together unlike the veterans who sat spread out and called to each other from across the room. Caden could feel the veteran’s eyes on the group. Their boisterous chatter died into uneasy mutterings. “That’s all?” “Don’t make ‘em like they used to.” “Poor kids, I hope they fare better than the year before them.”
Before Caden even knew how to process the pessimistic comments, the whole room stood up. Caden followed suit, confused until he realized they were lining up to get food. The line was practiced and efficient, it took no time at all for everyone to get through.
Caden ate quickly and left with Finn; the loud, obnoxious manner of the veterans sat uneasy with Caden. They were soldiers, they were supposed to be dignified. Heroes to the people! But here they sat, shouting at each other from across the room like trainees in their first year.
Once they were back to their room Caden began to pace, “What was wrong with them?”
“Wrong with who?” Finn asked.
Caden was shocked, “Wrong with who? Wrong with the veterans of course! They acted like complete idiots!”
Finn furrowed his eyebrows, “They seemed pretty normal to me. People are just like that, Caden.”
“They’re soldiers, Finn!” Caden exclaimed. “Heroes! Shouldn’t they act like it?”
“They’re not heroes, they’re normal people.” Finn said. “You’re a soldier now, do you think you’re a hero?”
Finn stood, his feet planted firmly on the ground and his hands clenched into fists, “They’re normal people! Stop idolizing them. You’re here now, they’re your comrades!” Finn shouted. He paused, then his voice dropped to a whisper “Caden, no matter how much you may disagree with me, you’re not just a soldier. You never will be, you’re you. And all of the others, they’re not just soldiers either. They’re people.”
Caden sighed, “Okay.”
Finn stared at him, eyes wide. “That’s it? You’re not going to fight with me on this?”
Caden shook his head, “I get it. Not everyone has my ideals. It’s a lesson I should’ve learned long ago.”
A shaky, almost wistful smile graced Finn’s face. He let out a long sigh. “I’m glad.”
“Huh?” Caden asked.
“I’m glad you understand. You’re so stubborn sometimes, I’m happy I got through to you.”
Caden didn’t know what to say. No, that was incorrect. He knew what he should say, but he didn’t. He didn’t need to. Finn understood. They stayed that way for a long while, both of them silent, not moving, barely breathing, but not uncomfortable. They were never uneasy around each other.
The spellbound silence was broken by the other trainees bursting into the common room, shouting, laughing, and talking. Caden sighed, he knew that Finn would want to enjoy the company of the other cadets. However, Finn wouldn’t go unless he was sure that Caden wanted to, which he didn’t. But for Finn he would. With that in mind he asked, “Do you want to go out there?”
Finn looked up at him, startled out of his thoughts, “Sure, I mean. If you want to.”
“I do,” Caden lied. Caden was certain that Finn had seen through his lie until Finn shot him a bright smile.
While the rest of Caden’s night may not have been ideal, he managed it. Just that one thing made Finn so happy. So he dealt with the strangely invasive questions brought up by the other trainees. He almost couldn’t blame them. He rarely volunteered information about himself otherwise. Despite that, spending time with people other than Finn wasn’t too terrible.
Caden ended up staying up much later than intended. Even so, waking up on time the next morning wasn’t hard at all. The anticipation was just too much, the other cadets were going to arrive and then his life as a part of the Scouting Regiment could really start.