Vol.2, Ch.1, P.3
The clank and clamour of battle burgeoned. But its crescendo now crested from a direction different from the outset: just as I’d thought, the Nafílim’s main forces flooded in from the west instead. By my orders, we had our defensive ranks reinforced accordingly before the clash. The preparations bore fruit: our men met the foe, unmoved by their ruse.
“Keep the ranks filled!” came my command to a captain. “Maintain our numbers and we maintain the upper hand!”
“Aye aye, sir!”
A facet of my reforms saw the formation of a new platoon of sentries, their charge it was to observe the battle from the high safety of a watchtower. There, they would glean any gap in the numbers of both our forces and the enemy’s own. This precious information would then be reported and relayed down to each captain, who would then dictate his platoon to the demands of the battle. A veritable heart, the pulsing arteries of which allowed our numbers to swiftly shift between different sections of the fort as needed.
Such would not have been possible without disciplined coordination. To achieve it, open communication was fostered at the organisational level, after which the platoons themselves were revised and reassembled. From then on were each subject to stringent drills and exercises, all meant to make keen their coordinative capabilities.
The results were unmistakable: no matter where the enemy fell upon us, our men were able to meet them head-on with ample numbers in tow.
The erstwhile lack of flexibility and swiftness had regrettably begat no small number of soldiers left to twiddle their thumbs in the thick of battle. And who could blame them? They were situated in the wrong places at the wrong times, after all, on account of a complacent command.
All that was changed. Now, Balasthea’s men were as blades honed anew, with not the smallest span of their edges left untended.
The battles breaking upon our bulwarks began to lose their teeth as my reforms bore further fruits. In the midst of this heartening trend stood I, judging today’s clash to soon be another success.
Three turns of the hourglass later. Victory was ours.
“The foes’re fallin’ back!” a captain reported. “Might we give chase, sir?”
I shook my head. “Leave them.”
“‘Leave ‘em’!? Fer wot now, ah!?” came Karl crashing in. “Why, we ough’ t’cull ‘em curs ‘ere, ‘fore they come chompin’ at us arses ‘gain!”
“A butcher earns no coin cutting meat that flees fast from his knife, Karl. Besides, we’ve more pressing issues on our hands,” I sternly returned, before looking to the others. “Check for casualties! Report to me your findings!”
“Tch! Yellow-liver’d chick’n, you!” lashed Karl’s tongue, after which both he and the rest of Ebbe’s men made themselves absent from the scene. Keeping the side of my glance upon them, I hastened the efforts to count the casualties.
But there would be none on that day, a fact found out not long afterwards.
An hour had sailed by since I hurried from the fort on horseback. The end of the rush found me in the Arbel fiefburgh proper. Night had set in; the pubs were full-lit and alive.
I pushed open the door of one such establishment, quickly finding in its rowdy innards the shrill of a certain youth.
“Git this! They ran! Wit’ ‘em tails tuck’d under ‘em bollocks like the curs they are! Then I came t’cut ‘em all down, I did!”
There the youth was, with a tankard of ale in hand, thrust high in the air. Surrounding him were Ebbe and the elite guards, to all of whom he sang of his feats earlier in the day.
Feats from pursuing the Nafílim in their retreat.
“Got one o’ them good, I tells ye!” he tattled on. “Biggest o’ them bastards thought t’stay b’hind an’ let ‘is beefin’ brothers run off! Nice fellow wit’ a giant axe, ‘e were! Then I gave ‘im a good scratchin’ on ‘is back fer the noble deed, I did! …Wit’ the keen side o’ me sword, tha’ is!”
The air swelled thick with laughter.
“From the back!” an Ebbe-guard wheezed from the hilarity. “Karl the Coward, cutter o’ hindquarters! Git a cockscomb an’ a wattle on him an’ he’ll look the proper poultry! Haha!”
“Yea, wag that tongue all ye want, brother!” Karl quipped. “This be war, ey! Fuss ‘bout the champs an’ chick’ns ‘mong us an’ ye’ll be on the butcher’s block soon ‘nough, ye will!””
“Oh—! Then I’ll be hangin’ with the ham-hogs right soon, eh!? A charmin’ cut o’ charcuterie, I’ll make! Hwahah!”
“Big ol’ butcher’s shop’s all it is, innit! War! Ahahah!”
A soldier I’d enquired back at the fort was right on the money: Ebbe and his brutes were wont to patronise this pub straight after a battle. There they all were, pissed out of their wits, bellies bulging with downed bitters.
I had not a mind to join them. No, grilling these men was precisely why I came to this watering hole in the first place. To their tumultuous table I went, and raised a matter with one of those seated.
“You’ve got something to spill, Ebbe?” I growled at the vice-commandant, who was sat quiet and content, soaking in Karl’s gloating.
“…None, Commandant. Not from this empty cup o’ mine,” he deflected.
“‘Leave them,’ I said,” came my cutting reminder. “Only you didn’t.”
A shrug. “What I do with my men is up to me, Commandant.”
“And what you do is up to me, Vice-Commandant. Not least when we’re in the midst of battle. I promised only to keep your guardsmen out of my reforms. Nothing else.”
My words seemed to sting Ebbe’s ears as he forced out a sore sigh.
“Commandant! Commandant!” barked Karl from the side. “Give us a break, will ye? Right jigger’d we be from ‘avin t’cut an’ kill the devils, all whilst ye sit comfy on yer ungraced arse!”
“Insubordination—that’s what you’ve committed, Ebbe,” came a bark of my own, sparing Karl not a moment of my mind. “Report to my chamber first thing on the morrow.”
Pressing the matter any further here was futile. With my command firmly given, I turned from the men and made for the door, catching a click from Ebbe’s tongue.
“Oh, wot! Come on, Commandant! Where ye be ‘eadin’? ‘Ave a gulp wit’ us, yea? Why, I’ll even throw in a free lecture: ‘ow t’swing a sword all proper-like!”
Again, I ignored Karl’s drunken drolling as I parted from the buzzing pub.
The next morning.
I stood within the commandant’s chamber, having received a particular guest from Arbel.
“Buckmann,” said he, a man none other than the lord of this land: the Margrave Aaron Ström himself. “The very first of our meetings, yes?”
“And one overlate; my sincerest apologies, Your Excellency,” I bowed. “My hands were tied in turning the fortunes of the fort; I hope your generosity sees me fit for forgiveness.”
“Fit or no, I care little. Even my generosity can be tested in having to humour an ungraced. I’m a busy man, you see,” he brushed off, with a smile bending that moustached mien of his.
He seemed not much more than an ennobled bourgeois: conventional to a fault, with not a speck of scrupled inspiration in his eyes.
“You find Ebbe’s actions to be lacking in ‘lawfulness’, I take it?” the margrave went on. “He is quite the capable commander, I’ll have you know. You’d do right to learn a thing or two from a man like him.”
To that, I had no words. The margrave’s smile faded.
“Do not deign to discipline him for his deeds,” he warned. “Have I made myself clear, Commandant?”
“…Yes, my liege,” I yielded. I was but an exile of the Order, a soldier bound to this borderland; disobedience would be not brooked by its lord before me. “And you are come for other business, as well, I presume?”
“I am, indeed. A send-off, if you will.”
To the window, he pointed. The view from the commandant’s chamber encompassed the gate leading to Nafílim lands. There, I found a conspicuous congregation, its constituents neatly lined up.
Two-hundred men and more they were, freshly deployed from the fiefburgh.
My eyes narrowed at the sight. “They move to attack? My liege, I’ve heard naught of this.”
Balasthea was but a bulwark, the shield of Ström and nothing more. Thus it stands to reason that the force formed before me was not the fort’s own, but the margrave’s: the Fiefguard.
“I’ve given speed to the schedule,” the margrave remarked. “The fort is well-defended of late, and the Nafílim seem content to lick their wounds and wallow in their cowardice. Not least in thanks to yesterday’s pursuit by Ebbe and his men; ‘twas a fruitful routing they’ve accomplished.”
In the outside view, a peculiarity caught my eye.
“Your Excellency. A matter, if I may?”
“The covered waggons,” I pointed out, gaze locked upon the vehicles below. “Rather large, are they not? Yet they bear nary a load upon their decks. What is their purpose?”
“Even one as dim as you ought to know.”
I turned to the margrave.
“…To pillage, my liege?”
My words earned a turn of his own to me. There was puzzlement plastered on his face, but it soon congealed into a look of pity.
“I see the grace of wits has also been denied to you, Buckmann,” he softly scoffed. “Frightful indeed, to be abandoned by so warm a mother as Yoná. Oh, mercy!”
“I fear I do not follow.”
“Buckmann… poor and pitiful Buckmann! We do not pillage the Nafílim, no! Hoh! Your pate has parted too many a passūs from its tracks, my dear and derailed cart of a Commandant!”
The margrave’s words were far from uncoupled. It was common sense itself, whether within Londosius, or in the mind of Man.
We are at war with the Nafílim.
To plunder their property or their person is not an act to be lambasted, but one to be lauded instead. After all, our enemy’s extinction is this war’s very aim. Mind not whether they be of the soldiery or the citizenry, an infantryman or an infant, a grim garrison or a humble home. All is to be spoiled. None are to be spared.
Of course, such would not be suffered between nations of men. It would be labelled as a “crime” or an “injustice”, an affront to human dignity. But the tone swiftly turns were the Nafílim the target, “baneful barbarians” as they are branded. This is the collective conscience of Man, his unbending and unchallenged truth.
But it is one that I cannot, for the life of me, fathom nor affirm.
Why must we maraud the meek?
And that is to say nothing of the citizens we seize and send to who knows where.
This is our “justice”, a holy banner raised for our own convenience, its weave unstained by the spit of dissent.
Those covered waggons—empty they were now, but certain to brim with riches upon their return.
And included in those spoils?
Labourers to be damned to enduring indenturement.
This, too, is “just”, acts whose barbarism Man is blissfully blind to, for they bring to him boons of too much benefit.
But my eyes were unclouded, and they could not bear the sight.
“Your Excellency,” I said sternly. “With all due respect, I find it meaningless to sully so hard-won a prize as peace. Pillage, and we but vilify ourselves beyond all vindication. Such vices ill-become the lordly name of Londosius—even should the victims be the Nafílim.”
The margrave’s face furrowed. “‘Pillaging’ the Nafílim ill-becomes the term itself, Buckmann. The subtlety escaped you, has it?”
“‘Virtue’ is what has escaped from all of this, my liege,” I returned. “None is to be found in taking from those who cannot fight back. Yet say the victims are of a different sort, a different blood, and you would not only praise the act, but partake in it yourself. Surely the sophistry is not lost to you?”
“Buckmann!” barked the margrave. “‘Tis the Nafílim we speak of here! The nemesis of Man! The kin and kindred of crawling beasts! Our sworn foes from the days of fair St. Rakliammelech himself!”
Even in the face of much fury, I could not back down.
“Your Excellency, pray give ear to these humble words: accustom ourselves to wanton rape and robbery, and we debauch our hearts in the act. We are men of war; it is our lives we wager on the frontlines, not our morals.”
“Hmph! Sophistry, indeed! I see the sophist before me!” he seethed, stamping his foot and thrusting a finger to me. “To rape and rob the devils is morality itself! You would do well to remember that, you want-wit, you!”
“Victory can be ours without this villainy, my liege! That much is certain!”
“Commandant!” frothed the lord’s lips. “Their labours, their luxuries—we make them all our own, that their brethren—our foes—might flounder and we, flourish! For every prize we procure, for every devil we indenture, another of our meek and misfortuned might be spared the pale hand of Death! Sear these words into your ill-starred soul! For I am long drained of all generosity to further discuss so evident a truth!”
“But, my liege!”
Reason cannot reach him.
I could scarce see myself being in the wrong here. No matter how painfully I peered. No matter how much I mulled. Yet all that I aired were as the howls of a heretic, words long parted from Man’s wicked wisdom.
And that was why the margrave and I could not see eye-to-eye. Realising it, I found myself silent, hands and teeth clenched hard.
Afterwards, the margrave made his return to Arbel, whilst the Fiefguard funnelled through the gates and marched into Nafílim lands.
I stood there in solitude.
Overpowered by powerlessness, I watched on as the covered waggons wheeled close behind.
(plural: passūs) A unit of measure used by the ancient Romans, taken from the length of a pace (2 steps). 1 metre is equal to 0.6757 of a passus. A passus, therefore, can be roughly equated to 1 and a half metres.