More astonished I could not have been when after a short wait the order came for all of us to remain in our encampment.
At once, murmurs of defeat arose, and of surrender. But the Guardian spoke to us once again, and assured us that Hestia would never yield to any foe, however mighty, and that her armies would know naught but victory until the end of the world! She wished to ride out alone to meet the mighty host marching to destroy us, and look the Okasti king in the eyes as she blessed the battlefield on which he would know his destruction, so that he might behold the strength and courage of the Faith embodied in her, and his spirit be unseated by the sight.
Many were bewildered by this plan, and feared that Her Holiness risked being murdered by our foes, who knew nothing of probity and honor, and who would slay even a lone woman without remorse, be she garbed in the cloth of the Faith or not. But the order was given, and we obeyed. I doubt that there was a man among us that day who did not look on in trepidation as she left, a lone storm-gray rider on a white steed, receding swiftly into the shimmering air where the red earth of Okast joined with its bleak and empty sky.
It is shameful, one commander cried out, that we should hide from our foe while Her Holiness should face the savages without means of defense.
Her faith will be her shield, the Emperor responded, and ours as well—but nothing will shield the Okasti from our holy wrath when we ride against them, as we shall once the Guardian returns!
Many still muttered concerns that the Guardian might not return at all. But we waited as ordered, anxious for news of her fate. The morning grew old, and the sun’s heat waxed more murderous than on any day we had hitherto spent in this parched land. Many among us prayed. Some wept. I was consumed by nagging doubt. What if word came that the Guardian lay dead, slain by the iniquitous Okasti? Would I be able to hold on to my faith, in the face of so dreadful a calamity?
As I write this, I am ashamed to remember that I had such thoughts. But I had suffered, and seen much death, and the heat was eroding my will. I am but a simple man, and simple men will doubt. I am proud to say that in the end, I held to my faith, even before salvation came. Even when, with salvation, came an hour more dreadful than any I have ever lived.
For the Guardian did return.
Our hearts leaped with joy as we spied her snow-white horse from afar.
She rode at once to the Emperor. They exchanged but a few words, then Our Liege addressed his army.
Ride, he said. Ride and find the great host of your foes that thought to challenge Hestia’s ascendancy over this world. Ride, and slay them. Slay them all, to the last man that marched with them, that their errant souls may be gathered into the Faith.
We cheered, and eagerly grasped our weapons, and mounted our horses.
My Liege, spoke the commander who had earlier objected to the Guardian’s lone encounter with the Okasti host—My Liege, we lack not in faith. But what of their numbers?
He spoke the question that occupied us all. According to the scouts, each one of us would ride to meet three foes, if not more.
I thought the Emperor would scold him for voicing such doubt, which might sow fear in the hearts of his men, but Our Liege merely nodded, and smiled, and said: Ride, and you will see what the arms borne by ten thousand shall avail against the faith of one.
And so we rode, and I learned faith.
And I learned fear.
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