The next day, Vioré was on the move. Under the commands of Chrysalism and the guidance of Walfus, the boom town was swiftly transformed into a chain of supply wagons, following the 8,000-some brave Brykian lads that marched and rode off to war.
“Hey, excuse me! Philius, is that you?” Philius was having a conversation with the red-headed bandit when he heard himself being hailed from behind.
“Me?” He responded, turning to see a young boy maybe 15 years of age looking up at him with unabashed respect.
“You’re Philius, right?” He asked, the excitement plainly visible in his eyes. “They tell me you’re Chrysalism the Conqueror’s right-hand man, and you’re only 17!”
“The Conqueror?” Philius raised an eyebrow. “Is that what they’re calling her now? Besides, who told you that? I’m 19, and already an elder by Chronian standards.”
“Oh, were you 19? Me and the lads thought you were younger.” The bandit interjected.
“So it was you, damnit?” Philius shot back, lightly punching the bandit in the ribs. “Show some respect to your elders!”
“Oh, so you’re not 17?” The boy looked a little deflated. “Well, either way, where do I go to join the army?”
Philius and the bandit exchanged looks.
“Er, look kid…ah, what’s your name?” He started
“Marwynn”. The boy responded.
“I feel like I’ve heard that name before.” He mused.
“No wonder, it’s pretty common. Like one in every ten kids in Bryke is named Marwynn.” The red-headed bandit explained. “I mean, even my name’s Marwynn. I was born in Bryke, but I joined the General after he caught me trying to rob him.”
“Your name is Marwynn?” Philius was surprised. “I always just referred to you as “redhead”.”
“You never even knew my name?” The bandit punched Philius back. “Now who needs to show some respect?”
“Er, you were saying?” The boy interjected.
“Right.” Philius straightened up. “So, here’s the thing, Marwynn. Where we’re going, there’s a high probability of death. As a Chronian, I don’t have to worry about it, but you’re too young to come along with us. Where are your parents?”
“You leave my parents out of this!” He shot back. “I’m old enough to die for my country if I…”
“His parents are right here.” A voice from behind his back caused him to freeze in his tracks. Approaching rapidly was a gruff man in his thirties, and behind him was Xandria, the woman that had collared Swimfa'alafr and Chrysalism.
“Come along and stop making a fool of yourself, Marwynn!” Xandria reprimanded him, grabbing him by the ear and dragging him after her.
"No, damnit! I have the right to be a solider too! I’m going to fight for Bryke, with or without your blessing!" He yelled as he was pulled away by his mother, back to the wagons as he struggled in vain.
“He’s a brave son.” Philius commented to the father, trying to break the awkwardness.
“He’ll be a fine citizen when he grows up.” The father nodded. “But it’s a parent’s job to ensure he lives long enough to do so.”
Without waiting for any further response, the man turned and walked away, towards the infantry column instead of after his family.
“Are all Brykians this way?” Philius asked the redheaded bandit, as the two walked back to their horses.
“There’s a reason why I left.” He sighed.
From what Philius understood, scouts had determined the path the Toscav army would take, and Chrysalism’s army was now moving to intercept them near a rocky ridge that split the scrublands, aptly named Xarando’s Spine.
It wasn’t until Chrysalism cornered him while the army stopped for lunch that Philius learned that was the full extent of the plan.
“The General won’t advise me.” Chrysalism explained in a voice that edged on total panic.
“He’s in a mood, to be sure.” Philius admitted. “I still haven’t managed to get to the bottom of it.”
“There’s nothing for it;” Chrysalism decided. “You’ll have to bring him ‘round. I certainly can’t, they expect me at the head of the column each time we march.”
“Why can’t you just come up with a battle plan, Chrys?” Philius suggested. “Your speech went flawlessly, after all.”
“Dear Phil,” Chrysalism replied in a pained voice “Giving a rousing speech is one thing, leading 8,000 men to war is quite another. I was able to fake a patriotic enough attempt at an address seeing as I travelled to Bryke some decades ago and have a passing knowledge of their culture, but I mean really! Do you want someone like me responsible for your life?”
“I mean, I die in four days regardless, so no skin off my back.” Philius shrugged.
Chrysalism passed a hand over her face. “Look Phil, for the sake of everyone else, please get the General back on his feet, or I swear I’ll just order a full charge as soon as we see the Toscavs.”
“Don’t threaten me with a good time.” Philius joked. “Still, as awesome as that sounds, I’ll see what I can do.” He turned to leave. “I’ll try asking the sarge what he knows.”
“You do that.” She nodded.
“What do you want to know?” Smigg grunted, polishing his scabbard thoroughly.
“Well, I’m not quite sure how to put it.” Philius admitted.
“It’s not so complicated as all that.” The sarge replied, not looking up. “You’re wondering what’s got the General in a funk, aren’t you?”
“Yes, that!” Philius exclaimed. “Er, how did you know?”
“I can’t see why else you’d be talking to me.” The man shrugged. “Not that I think you’ll be able to do anything about it. He gets like this every now and then, it usually lasts a week or two.”
“Well, I don’t have a week or two.” Philius declared adamantly. “What’s the story?”
“Well, for starters, do you know how we bandits started?” Smigg asked, setting aside his work.
“Is…that relevant?” Philius asked.
“It’s the starting point.” Smigg returned. “You see, all of us used to be part of the Jortnan military, under General Phelps himself.”
“That’s…quite a development.” Philius admitted.
“Shut up and listen to the rest.” Smigg grunted. “You see, General Phelps is, or was, something of a legend. He shot through the ranks at a young age, and was one of the most successful generals we Jortnans ever had. When the General went to war, we used to say the only question was whether we won now or later, and it was usually the former. As you might’ve guessed. Sagittaria is a bit of a powder keg, and it wasn’t long before the General racked up more victories in battle than he’d seen birthdays.”
“We are talking about the same general, right?” Philius interrupted.
Smigg ignored him. “This all changed when we ended up in what was later called the Turncoat War. You heard of it?”
“Something tells me it involved a betrayal.” Philius commented wryly.
“Betrayal’s too tame a word for it.” Smigg spat. “One of our oldest allies, Eurenthia, sought our help resolving a border dispute between them and their neighbour, Erwitt. General Phelps rode out with a full three legions of true-blue Jortnan soldiers and set up camp between the two nations, ready to back up the Eurenthians when they made their charge.”
“They never showed up, did they?” Philius commented.
“Oh no, they showed all right.” Smigg growled. “Did they ever. As you may or may not know, Jortnan has used messenger ravens for military communication since the dawn of our nation. Our General installs himself in a secure location close by, and is brought updates by our talking ravens, allowing him to instantly be everywhere at once on the battlefield, and command it from a bird’s eye view, as it were. Imagine the general’s surprise when suddenly our legions were surrounded and fighting for our lives, five soldiers to every one legionary.” Smigg shuddered.
“The General was furious. How had we allowed the Erwitts to get behind us? Why were their numbers so much larger than our scouts had reported? And where were the Eurenthians? No matter how he maneuvered us, what tactics he employed, we were losing, and he wouldn’t stand for it. In a mix of rage and indignation, he then did what no general ever does.” Smigg paused.
“What did he do?” Philius breathed.
“He took his horse and rode out from his hiding place to see the situation with his own eyes.” Smigg answered grimly. “It was a hellscape. We didn’t notice it from in the center of the fight, but Eurenthia and Erwitt had forged an alliance, and were crushing us between them like a nut in a press. It turns out they both had their eyes on a rich iron deposit of ours that bordered their nations, and by luring us between them, they intended to take it and split us down the middle, half each.”
“Now that is bad sportsmanship.” Philius declared.
“And how.” Smigg nodded. “Anyway, sneaking through their camp at night and warning us of his arrival with his ravens, the General found us reduced to a mere legion and a quarter, stacking the armoured bodies of our fallen comrades around us as a makeshift wall. Death was about us, and for the first time in his life, the General understood what it is to be a solider on the field.”
“And then what did he do?” Philius whispered.
“He did what any sane man in that situation would do.” Smigg answered, leaning closer. “He despaired. He could see no path to victory. By rights, as Jortnan soldiers we should have sold our lives dearly, then and there. But instead, he chose a different path. Unable to ask us to lay down out lives for king and country anymore, he had us strip off our legionary armour, and under cover of night, we crawled our way to safety.”
Smigg paused. “Several men preferred to stay behind and die as legionaries, but out of respect for the General, they said nothing, and simply didn’t follow after the rest of us. It’s thanks to those men’s deception that the Eurenthians and the Erwitts never realized we escaped.”
Smigg sighed. “Of course when the General found out, he demanded we go back for them, but by then it was too late. Dawn broke, and as ay textbook will tell you, the 101st, 102nd, and 103rd legions died nobly, fighting to the last man.”
“So that’s why he said he’s only seen combat on a map.” Philius commented.
“That much is all in his head.” Smigg grunted. “All of us look up to the General. He led us to victory after victory, and in the end, saved our lives. However,” he paused, “And this is just between you and me, kid.” He cautioned.
“Philius.” He corrected.
“Fine, Philius then.” He amended. “Honestly, the men and I are glad of this new opportunity. By rights, we should’ve gone out in a blaze of glory with out brothers then. Having this chance to risk our lives to protect good old Jortnan one last time is all this old soldier could ask for. But again,” He continued, “We want our General leading us. I respect Chrysalism greatly, but if I’m to take orders, I want them to come from the man who values our individual lives above his own honour.”
“But what do I tell him?” Philius asked in dismay. “Frankly, now I’m more confused than ever.”
“Damn, don’t ask me.” Smigg shrugged, rising. “If I knew the words that’d absolve his self-inflicted guilt, I’d’ve told him long ago. But don’t forget, Philius.” He looked the Chronian in the eye. “You set this whole thing in motion, whether you realize it or not. If you hadn’t convinced the General, we’d all still be robbers killing time in Eldarth, and Chryslalism’d be dead. So see this through, Philius.” He thumped the Chronian’s chest with his fist.
Philius nodded wordlessly in response, and turned to go find the General.
Unfortunately, the call to remount came before Philius could locate Brogan, so he spent the rest of the ride to suppertime immersed in apprehension and self-pity. What was he supposed to tell the General, anyways? In fact, why had he gone and opened his big mouth in the first place? All he had wanted was to do a good deed before he died. No way was all this worth the effort!
Plus, he and Chrysalism had been talking. As things stood, they had a very good chance of victory, at least when it came to delaying the Toscavs. But death was Chrysalism’s objective and his inevitability, so where did that leave them? With barely three days left, Philius had to think long and hard about his own pending demise.
“I suppose getting my own statue would be too much to ask for.” Philius sighed, and rode on.
Against Philius’s wishes, night fell and the army settled down for the day. By the scouts’ estimates, Xarando’s Spine wasn’t far now. In fact, they claimed they should see it by midday tomorrow.
There was no time left. And so, Philius left the confines of the camp and headed to where the General was just finishing his supper, at the base of one of Swimfa’alafr’s trees.
“Evening, General.” He shakily started.
“To you as well, lad.” The General gestured to a spot next to him. “There’s still a hint of sunset left to take in, if you hurry.
“General, you gotta come back and lead us!” Philius blurted out.
The General sighed. “Can you at least wait until my sunset has finished?”
“Ah…okay.” Philius assented, dropping down beside him, as the last rosy glows of the sun dipped beyond the horizon. Soon, darkness fully swaddled the land like a dusky knit blanket, light gleaming through its stitches in the form of gentle starlight.
The General broke the stillness first. “You’ve already spoken to Smigg, haven’t you?” He inquired.
“You knew?” Philius turned.
“It was a matter of time.” The General shrugged. “You and Chrysalism deserved to know. If he hadn’t, I’d have told you myself.”
“I’d be lying if I said I didn’t see you in a whole new light. “Philius admitted.
“And surely you can see why I can’t go and lead Chrysalism's army?” He turned to lock eyes with Philius. “I was foolish. I hoped that I could go out in a blaze of glory, fighting alongside my men at last, but that sly devil of a man Walfus called it for what it was.”
The General sighed, his upper lip causing his mustache to dance a quivering jig. “It’s all hubris, lad. Why should I get a final chance to die gloriously like those brave lads gone by? I, who commanded men to their deaths like so many pawns on a chess board? No, I could never be so brazen.”
The fire gone from him, the General slumped back against the tree, his mustache still now.
“And what’s wrong with being brazen?” Philius asked, breaking the silence.
“What are you on about, lad?” The General looked up.
“You heard me!” He continued, standing up. “Who says you don’t have a right to go out in style? Look at Chrys and I, planning out deaths like it were an afternoon tea, and Swim uprooting herself just to tag along and look after us! Look at that snake Walfus, joining us for the hell of it, and even your men, riding back to fight for their homeland one more time, as if they didn’t just spend decades as lawless highwaymen.”
Philius paused and drew in a deep breath. “Look, forget about redemption and honour for a moment, and choose for yourself. Just between us, before my life runs out in three day’s time, Chrys and I plan to make a suicide run into the enemy base, a real desperate attempt to try and take out some siege weapons, or maybe an officer. Honestly, both of us would just rather go out in combat rather than wait complacently for death. If you want to join us, there’ll be a spot open for you.”
There was a silence. A breeze tussled the long prairie grass. Then, Brogan spoke.
“What would you have me do, Philius?”
Philius snapped. “Oh, for the love of Yoru, why does everyone ask me? I may be an Elder, but I’m still only 19!” He paused and took a breath. “But I will say this. Once you’re dead, you aren’t around to care about whether people thought you lived like a saint or died like a dog. Stop worrying about trivialities like “redemption” and “honour” and focus on the one immutable fact; 8,000 lives are at stake, not counting those we stand to save in Jortnan. We need someone qualified to lead them, so not one life is spent in vain. In this whole damned army, there’s only one person with that kind of qualification, and I think you know who it is.”
Philius kicked the tree and turned to leave. “Figure the rest out for yourself.” He called back over his shoulder.
Walking aimlessly, Philius found himself alone again, a stone’s throw outside the loose confines of the camp, his eyes unwittingly drifting to the scattering of early stars above.
He sighed out the cool night air.
“I could have phrased that better.” He decided, and headed to bed.ns18.104.22.168da2