103. The Soldier’s Tale

Many of us died, and suffered.

Many whom I called comrades, and many whom I called friends. It is true, I came to these butchering grounds with my head filled with thoughts of bravery, with visions of valor, and with a fierce faith in my heart. The Okasti and their arrows and axes brought to me the truth about war: that it is a savage undertaking, and that any man, having witnessed the horrors of the battlefield, will leave there something of himself that he can never reclaim. But it is not always his foe who robs him of it. None who fought the Okasti will deny that they are fearsome warriors, with their wolf faces and demon eyes.

And yet it was not from them that I learned the meaning of fear.

For months we had made attempts to take the city of Jontar, the Okasti capital. It should have been an easy conquest. I was told that the place did not even have a proper wall. Nor did it need one: Jontar’s wall is the ferocity of her warriors. Again and again we were repelled, with heavy losses on our side. For every archer, every axe-wielding fiend we took down, three more sprang forth from the barren red rock of their sun-parched land. Where the savages found places to hide and from where to harass us, only the devils they pray to will know. What use were our great longbows, our spears with their sweeping reach and fierce blades, when no target could be found at which to launch them?

The very land seemed to conspire with our enemies against our efforts. Yet the Emperor would not relent, and how could he? Ours was a holy war, a war that could not end in defeat. Though at times, I am ashamed to admit, I questioned our mission. May the Shaper purge from my soul the weakness that led me to such doubts. If the Okasti wished to live and die in the darkness of their ignorance, without knowing the Shaper’s design for this world and all who dwell in it, why not let them, and let them suffer the consequences of their barbarism?

But we all knew these fiends were not going to be content to be left alone!

One day, they would pour forth and undo all Hestia has created, from the peaceful beauty of Taronnis, where spring and summer are forever, to the austere glory of our chill North, to say nothing of the Light we mean yet to bear into fabled Baramond (whose people are far more deserving than the Okasti brutes of the bounty and grace of our message of salvation). Nay, for the Faith, there could be no withdrawal before Jontar, nor terms, had they been offered or requested. We would perish here, or be altogether victorious. I feared, in my darker moments, that it would be the former. Everywhere I listened, there was doubt, and whispers of retreat.

Then the Guardian came.

I had never before seen her, not even from afar. What I had imagined, I can no longer say, but I do remember my surprise when I first laid eyes on her. A slight woman she was, dressed in the most modest garb that seemed to me no different from the habit of a simple village Parson, save for a leather belt around her waist. All the more I was overcome with awe, and felt the fire of the Faith in me. I longed to glimpse her countenance, but it was hidden from my sight, and from the sun’s rude glare, by a heavy cowl. But though the hair that flowed from underneath it was touched by the snow of the years, her posture was straight and vigorous, and her voice when she greeted the Emperor’s army and spoke blessings over us was strong and clear as the note struck from a great bell. Our dispirited ranks were transformed by her presence as a parched desert plant is transformed by long-awaited rain. She retired then to the Emperor’s tent, and we expected to be given the command for a renewed assault on the barbarous city within the hour, while the fervor she had kindled in our hearts was still ablaze.

Our scouts returned with news of a vast army marching from Jontar. Well nigh ten thousand warriors they estimated the host to number, with King Arghan and his sons, the Princes Batochin and Bakogan, heading the vanguard.

Okast meant to deal us the deathblow.

Yet we were unafraid.

The Guardian herself had come to give us blessings. There is no death.

NEXT: Doubt And Faith

 

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