In the time of swords and shields, and of pike and bow, there lived a porcupine in the city of Hysteria.
He worked tirelessly day in and day out at his family’s sticker shop, painting little pictures on loose leaf paper.
He’d wake up and paint by daylight and, in the wee hours of the night, he’d paint by candlelight.
He painted all kinds of medals. Open paws, gold stars, and sharp swords!
He didn’t understand why his family was making them, or where the medals eventually went after they were done with them. But, then again, there was a lot he didn’t understand. He just assumed that these designs were simply fashionable at the time to whoever was buying them from their little sticker shop. Fashionable in the days of the porcupine of Hysteria.
One day, Howard awoke to a great commotion. He heard his parents chittering in the room.
“They’re calling to arms,” Howard heard his father say softly to his mother. Then, he felt his father’s shaking, in an attempt to rouse Howard from his slumber. Howard opened his eyes and saw that his father had an opened envelope and a piece of paper in his paw.
“Go on now, Howard! You’re wanted at the sheriff’s office,” his father said with a proud grin. “You don’t want to be late! And Piper forbid if you were to not show up!”
“The sheriff’s office?” Howard asked as he rubbed his eyes with his paws. “But we have work to do! Why do I have to go to the sheriff’s office?”
Howard turned his attention to his mother, whose eyes were glazed and lip was quivering.
His father nodded at him, pulled him up from his workbench, and began shoving him towards the front door.
“Whoa—hey! Stop! Hold on a second!” Howard protested.
“There’s no time! Quick! Move, move, move!” his father responded.
As Howard was being delivered to the door, he quizzically studied the furrowed lines in his mother’s forehead.
“Okay! Alright!” he cried out, shoving his father off of him and walking himself to the coat rack.
He looked back to see his father’s face, gleaming brightly with pride.
“I’ll be back soon!” Howard called out to his mother as he lifted his coat from the coat rack—hoping that, by saying those words, he could make that worried look on her face disappear. But, it didn’t. In fact, the very same words that he had hoped to make her feel better caused her to break down into an ugly sob.
“Don’t mind your mother,” his father said. “You go on now. Hurry!”
Howard frowned at the scene, and was about to step out the front door when his father stopped him.
“Wait!” he said.
His father ran to him with some bottles of ink and a couple sheets of loose leaf paper.
“In case you want to write us,” he said.
Howard’s mother started bawling.
“Don’t worry, darling,” Howard’s father said. “He’ll be fine. After all, the Piper has always watched over us, and look! No harm has even befallen…”
Howard walked out the front door and, as he shut it, his father’s voice and his mother’s sobbing faded.
The street before him was buzzing with activity. Carriages pulled by thin wood skinks rumbled down the cobblestone roads. Storekeepers at their roadside stall loudly marketed their wares. Howard waited for a porcupine pulling a fully loaded cart of leafy greens to pass before stepping out onto the street and crossing it.
Howard set off to the sheriff’s office, passing many a fellow citizen on the way. He was tempted to stop at one of the hot noodle stands—he didn’t even mind cold noodles, and he knew just the spot that served the kind he loved—but decided to press on through the small town, through the banging and clanging of the busy blacksmithing district, until he arrived at a dull, brick building with a long trail of porcupines standing in a line leading to its door. He joined the queue and waited for his turn to enter.
He stared at a poster on the wall of the office building. It had King Calamus pointing a finger right at him in a stern manner. Under his visage were words that read:
What is called by others
What is told by others
That I summon
To claim any hill
Are asked of me
“Next!” a gruff voice called out from inside the office.
Howard shuffled forward with the line as it moved.
The smell of smoke from the smithing upwinnd drifted down upon the street where Howard stood. The porcupine scrunched up his snout, then glanced about at the others in line. Some were young, some were older. Some looked eager, some looked nervous.
But they were all called there for one thing, and that was to fight for Weseria. More specifically, to fight for the Kingdom of Mus as a regiment of mercenaries. In other words, as an auxilia unit of Quills.
Howard turned around to find a big, scary-looking porcupine behind him standing with his chest all puffed out and a large scar across his left eye. His shoulders were broad and his face was very serious. He glared at Howard, forcing him to turn back around and gulping. Before him was a smaller porcupine that looked malnourished. Howard looked down to find that the porcupine’s hindlegs were trembling, and it sounded like he was reciting a prayer to Piper.
“Next!” the gruff voice called out again.
The line shuffled forward once more.
Howard heard the small porcupine in front of him dry-heave.
“You alright, porc?”
The small porcupine shook his head. He looked up at Howard, hyperventilating.
“They’re going to make us go out there,” he sputtered, fighting to contain the contents of his stomach. “Out there!”
“Out where?” Howard asked.
“Onto the fields of glory,” Howard heard the big porcupine behind him say. “It’s been some time since I was last in the service of the Kingdom of Mus but, by Piper, it’ll be good to be back out there, shoulder to shoulder with fellow comrades and a piping pike in my paws.”
“Is that why we’re standing in this line?” Howard asked.
Both the porcupines blinked at him in disbelief.
“Yes!” they cried out in unison. “That’s why you’re here!”
“But I don’t want to go!” Howard exclaimed.
The small porcupine squeezed his eyes shut before violently suppressing his urge to vomit once more.
Howard gave him some room.
“But have you seen the pay rate?” the big one rebutted. “Trust me, it’ll be well worth your time…”
“If you make it back, that is,” he added.
The small one retched all over his feet. The line groaned in disgust. The porcupines around him distanced themselves from the mess.
“I’m… I’m sorry,” the small one wept.
The big one looked embarrassed for him. He averted his gaze and blushed.
“Come on,” he snarled. “Pull yourself together, porc. We Hysterians have been fighting for mice for ages. And you want to know why?”
The small one shook his head, but the big one answered anyway.
“Because we’re the best damned mercenaries around!” he continued, beating a paw against his puffed-up chest. “Yessiree, we’re dependable and effective. You won’t see a line of Hysterian Quills dissolving even in the face of inevitable doom. We’re the best there is!”
“Wh-wh-what about the Erethian pike units?” the small one asked. Howard could tell that the question caught the big one off-guard.
“Wh-what about them?” the big one huffed.
The line shuffled forward. Howard made sure to avoid stepping in the small one’s throw-up.
“I hear they’ve got better formations than us,” the young one continued, wiping up the side of his face with the back of his paw. “Started mixing in some crossbows and greatswords to their pikes, thereby able to deliver more firepower as the enemy approaches.”
The big one scoffed.
“Bah,” he retorted. “Bah!”
There was an awkward silence.
“Bah!!” he repeated once more, sending spittle flying as he did so. “What you know about fighting, porc? Those Erethians are mad to be mixin’ in so many other weapons. Why, it’s going to confuse their commanders. They’re going to have too much to juggle, and in the heat of combat is when you don’t want to be caught juggling.”
“They’re mad alright,” the small one said with tears of rage in his glistening eyes. “Mad rich. The whole reason it’s been so long since our last contract by the Kingdom of Mus is because we haven’t adapted to the ever-evolving battlefield, and the only reason why they’ve decided to go with us this time round instead of the new and improved Erethian troops is because they’re low on coin. We aren’t dependable. We aren’t effective. Not anymore at least. The one I’m certain we are is affordable, and it’s exactly why we’re all standing in this Piper-darned line.”
More awkward silence.
The big one opened his jaw to speak, but slowly shut it. They stood in silence for quite some time until the voice inside the office called out again.
The small one was right at the door now.
“Oh, Piper,” the small one cried out as he shuffled forth. “Piper save me.”
“Hey,” Howard said. “It’s going to be alright. We’ve been training every week for this, since we were wee porcupettes.”
The small one flashed him a bitter look. Howard was taken aback by it.
“We are the unworthy dead,” he said helplessly. “And soon, we’ll litter the dirt with our bodies.”
Howard stared in shock at the small porcupine who went back to crying with his head in his paws.
“Next!” the voice from inside cried out.
The small one sobbed as he passed through the door, vanishing from sight as the door slammed shut.
Howard shuffled forward and stared at his feet in silence.
“It’s not true, you know,” the big one said. “What that pipsqueak said.”
“Uh-huh,” Howard replied, still staring at his feet.
“We’re tough. We don’t need the finest armour, the newest formations, the sharpest daggers…”
“We don’t?” Howard asked.
“No!” the big porcupine said. “We’ve got each other, and when we’re shoulder-to-shoulder with our wooden pikes raised, there’s nothing that can stand in our way.”
“If you say so—”
Howard gulped again, then received a nod from the big porcupine before entering the sheriff’s office. He found himself before a porcupine in a smart uniform seated behind a desk.
“Name,” the sheriff requested.
“Howard,” Howard replied. “Howard Spikerson.”
“Alright, Spikerson, I’ll get right to it,” the sheriff said without looking up. “The reason why we’ve called you here today is because we need you to go combatting for us.”
Howard’s stomach sank.
“But I don’t want to combat!” Howard exclaimed.
“Our ally, the Kingdom of Mus, needs us,” the sheriff replied without missing a beat nor looking up at Howard, as if well primed and ready to handle his objection. “And as a citizen of Hysteria, you are obligated to observe the kingdom’s defence policy and serve when conscripted by His Majesty, King Calamus.”
“But my parents need me at the sticker shop,” Howard protested. “We’re getting high volume orders of products lately and, without my help, I’m not sure how they’re going to be able to keep up.”
“Without your service, your parents’ shop won’t stay standing when the rats invade,” he said with finality. Howard shrank.
“They’re coming here?” Howard asked. “The rats?”
The sheriff looked up at him and nodded.
“If we don’t take the combat to them,” he replied grimly. “They’ll bring the combat to us, if not tomorrow, then for sure at some point in the future.”
The sheriff pointed at a door.
“Go through there and see the quartermaster,” the sheriff said. “He’ll give you your combat armor, and your pike.”
Howard opened his mouth to protest further, but was interrupted by the sheriff shouting at the top of his lungs.