Kaede breathed a sigh of relief as she looked upon Pascal’s sleeping face. She stood up from her chair in his expandable cabin and pulled up the comforter that covered the young man to his neck. He had fallen asleep within a minute after consuming his medication, which was remarkable considering his prior moodiness.
“Exactly what did you give him?” The Samaran girl asked as she looked to the table where four empty vials now laid. Next to it lay a tray with not one, not two, but three bowls — which had been filled with a thick, hearty beef stew that Kaede had recently fed Pascal.
“Two immunity boosters, a digestive aid, and a sleeping aid.” Fleurette, the young healer girl with short, fluffy hair answered. She took a few more moments to assess Pascal’s condition through the transparent, quartz crystal ‘tablet’ in her hands before explaining further.
“His Grace’s immune system is still weak from all the damage his body received. He needs plenty of rest and food in equal measure, which is not exactly good for digestion. The sleep potion I gave him was also laced with a Lingering Slumber spell.” She added with a sympathetic smile. “It will last up to sixteen hours and distort his biorhythm in the short run. So please do not feel alarmed if he seems to sleep too much over the coming week.”
Kaede had learned during their chats in the wagon that Hyperion medicines were made entirely from herbal extracts. These came in the form of potions, balms, and even marshmallows — which Kaede had fed to Pascal when he was still unconscious to dissolve in his mouth.
These medications were sometimes imbued with magic right before use. The idea was that a bio-alchemy or enchantment spell would have an immediate effect in altering the body’s biochemistry, which set a pattern that the more natural and less intrusive herbal remedy would exploit. It was a synergistic combination that sought to maximize the advantages of both while reducing the downsides.
However, because of the natural repulsion mana had towards foreign sources of mana, this method worked poorly on mages.
Thankfully, Pascal’s aptitude in gem magic meant he was a longtime practitioner of imbuing his mana into precious crystals for storage. At the healers’ insistence, the Landgrave had poured most of his available magic into an aquamarine-tinged diamond that Kaede had retrieved from his ‘jewelry box’. The process left him exhausted — a normally undesirable state for patients. However, his magical depletion also made it easier for his body to accept foreign spells.
Now, the door to the wintry air outside opened as Sir Ariel stepped into the cabin at the exact, appointed time. The elderly healer with salt-and-pepper hair nodded wordlessly towards Kaede before he sat down on Pascal’s other side with a grumpy-looking frown. He took a moment to examine the young lord for himself, then reached out with a gloved hand and began to cast a Regeneration Boost spell.
Healer Ariel hadn’t been happy about this task, which required him to visit Pascal thrice daily at the expense of his other responsibilities. However, the order to apply the spell himself had come directly from Princess Sylviane. And Ariel’s sense of professionalism had so far ensured that he did a perfect job.
There was no doubt that it was an ‘abuse of power’ on Sylviane’s part. Yet, considering Pascal was family and this was an issue that could affect his whole life…
Kaede smiled wryly to herself. I guess for once I’m benefitting from privileged treatment.
The Samaran girl was still watching Ariel cast when she heard a ringtone in the back of her mind. She squeezed her enchanted, right earring between two fingers to receive the Farspeak call.
“<Hello? Kaede speaking.>” The familiar responded as she wished her earrings could identify the caller as well.
“<Kaede.>” Princess Sylviane’s voice began inside the familiar’s mind. Her tone was part gentle and part authoritative as she requested: “<Could you come to the command cabin? We are about to discuss plans for tomorrow, when the army will cross the Hafren River in force and relieve the Siege of Roazhon.>”
“<Ehhhh.>” Kaede was hesitant as she looked at her master’s sleeping face. “<Pascal is asleep, and will likely remain so for the next sixteen hours.>”
“<I’m not asking for Pascal. I’m asking for you.>” Sylviane clarified, which only left the familiar feeling more bewildered.
“<Yes, you.>” The Princess stressed before she launched into a lecture. “<Kaede, I don’t think you properly appreciate the position you are in. I didn’t make you a chevalier just because you’re huggable and cute. You may lack experience in leadership and tactics, but you certainly do not lack knowledge and potential.>”
Kaede frowned. Perhaps it was because she came from a modern society, but she had a lot of trouble trying to see herself as anything more than an amateur. Battle plans should be drafted by career soldiers like Pascal, not someone who had only read a few books like herself.
“<Furthermore, you are Pascal’s familiar,>” Sylviane continued. “<I realize that most people have treated you like a servant. However, familiars serve an unique role for mages as they can also act as their master’s surrogate. This means that anything you say, do, or deliver in an official setting may be considered an action taken on Pascal’s behalf. It is a power and privilege that you should learn to take advantage of.>”
The familiar thought back to the Battle of Nordkreuz, when she accosted Major Karen with orders that supposedly came from Pascal. The Major didn’t know Kaede at all back then. Yet she accepted the orders with no more than a moment’s hesitation.
“<By ‘surrogate’, do you mean… legally speaking?>” Kaede felt astonished. Pascal never said a word about this!
“<Yes.>” The Princess declared. “<I believe I mentioned this when we discussed my plans for the Grand Council. A familiar’s attendance counts as the presence of their master. They may serve as a proxy and cast ballots on behalf of their master. Some familiars have even been trained to sign contracts in their master’s stead.>”
The Samaran girl’s eyes were wide as saucers by the time Sylviane finished. She couldn’t help but wonder if Pascal didn’t explain all this at first because he was worried she might abuse her position. After all, she did attack him, twice, during the first twelve hours after they met. And by the time Pascal had come to trust Kaede, he likely forgot to mention it.
“<So come to the command cabin. Nobody needs to know that Pascal is currently asleep.>” Sylviane repeated her request in an almost playful voice this time. “<As far as they are concerned, anything you say will be on behalf of your master. Though I must regretfully say that anything you contribute will also be accredited to Pascal and not yourself.>”
“<That’s not important.>” Kaede smiled as she thought ‘family is family — we’re on the same team to begin with.‘
“<I’ll be right over then, elder sister. Just let me check with the healers real quick.>”
“<Don’t take too long.>” Sylviane acknowledged before ending the call.
“Do you think Pascal might be fine without me for a while?” The familiar asked aloud as she looked between the two healers. Sir Ariel had just finished casting his Regeneration spells on Pascal’s face and arms. Meanwhile Fleurette was massaging Pascal’s bandaged legs in preparation for their turn to receive healing spells.
“Why not?” The younger healer answered with a bright smile. “His Grace’s condition has been stable for days and he will be asleep for hours to come. I see no reason why you must stay by his side twenty-four hours a day as you have done for the past five days.”
“I’m just worried that…” Kaede’s wispy voice trailed off as even she couldn’t think of a reason. It elicited an audible sigh from the senior healer instead.
“Sometimes I forget that you really are a familiar.” Sir Ariel said as he looked upon Kaede with his wrinkled gaze.
What is that supposed to mean? The Samaran girl couldn’t help feeling a hint of annoyance.
Yet the elderly man smiled slightly. It was the first time Kaede had ever seen him do so in Pascal’s presence.
“My daughter is correct though. There is no need for you to stay by your master’s side all the time. Especially not when he can reach out to you immediately, assuming you remain inside the range of your familiar telepathic link.”
Wait, she’s your daughter? Kaede was caught off-guard as she looked between them again. The young, freckled, but nevertheless pretty Fleurette didn’t look like her father one bit. They didn’t even share the same hair or eye colors. And Ariel’s professional demeanor hadn’t given away a hint about their relationship until now.
It made the Samaran girl wonder if Fleurette was adopted.
“Just be sure to come back around eight hours’ time when he needs his next batch of medicine.” The younger healer added. “Speaking of which…”
She then pulled out a wicker box the size of Kaede’s forearm and handed it to the familiar. It was filled with vials of potions on one side. Meanwhile the other was separated into two compartments of white marshmallows. There was also a small piece of paper on top with a reminder on dosage.
“Have him drink the potions when he’s awake. And feed him the marshmallows when he’s asleep. This should last you for the next week, by which point he should have finished his recovery.”
Or at least, all that he is likely to recover. Kaede nodded before she looked back to the sleeping Pascal with concern. She still remembered Sir Ariel’s warning that Pascal might never regain full functionality of his body as before.
—– * * * —–
“The Cataliyan infantry is packing equipment in their camp even as we speak.” Kaede heard the gruff voice of Colonel Hammerstein as she entered the command cabin.
Several other heads turned to the familiar’s entry, but none of them said a word. Only Ariadne, who stood beside her superior, sent Kaede a warm smile. The other officers in attendance included the Oriflamme Paladins Edith-Estellise and Vivienne, the veteran leader Duke Lionel, the Hospitaller commander Lady Anne, the Ranger commander Lady Lynette, and the recently arrived General Caradoc.
Caradoc ap Gwydion was the commander of the Army of Ceredigion. He appeared to be in his early thirties, which for a mage meant he was likely over eighty years old. His rough face featured a bent nose and a pair of fearsome, gray eyes that seemed full of murderous intent. His intimidating presence was further amplified by the wolf’s head he wore over his left shoulder, which had its jaw removed so its canines were on prominent display.
The Dread Wolf. Kaede shivered as even a cursory glance from the general sent chills up her spine. It seemed clear that the nickname was not merely descriptive of his tactics, but also a metaphor for the man himself.
The Samaran girl also noticed that the forest-green cloak Caradoc wore over his right shoulder was decorated with several intricately corded knots woven from greenish cords. It identified him as a follower of the druidic faith instead of belonging to the Trinitian Church.
Must be why Edith and him are on opposite sides of the room, The familiar surmised.
“Many of their supply wagons have already departed south over the past two days. We’ve also spotted their sick and wounded being transported away.” Hammerstein explained further. “The Cataliyans have also pulled back their forces west of the Hafren River. This means they no longer have Roazhon fully surrounded. I’d reckon that the Caliphate is withdrawing their army, and they’ve little intention of facing us in an open, pitched battle.”
“Yet, not only have they refused to negotiate with our envoy when we offered terms. They also failed to completely divest from Roazhon before the arrival of our forces.” General Caradoc pointed out as he gestured to the map table. A handful of markers in Tauheed green remained around the Avorican capital in a semicircle. “Not sure if they’re indecisive, slow, or just plain incompetent.”
“It’s possible their leadership has been in turmoil over the past few days.” Sylviane commented thoughtfully as she pressed a finger against her lips. “We’ve heard from some of the prisoners taken that the Caliphate’s front commander, General Salim, was unreachable during the second half of the Battle of Glywysing, which contributed to their failure to conduct an organized retreat. It’s even possible that he might have been killed, and there are disagreements between his remaining sub-commanders.”
“All the more reason for us to smash their army.” Duke Lionel growled. His right arm was wrapped in a sling, as his bones were still healing after being shattered by a mace at Glywysing. “There are still at least twenty thousand left on this side of the Gwilen River.”
Edith, Hammerstein, and Caradoc all nodded in agreement. The Weichsen Colonel even bared his teeth in a ferocious grin that seemed hungry for blood. Yet, as the desire for vengeance spread across the room, it was the petite familiar who went against the crowd and spoke up:
“How would that benefit us though? To kill twenty thousand more southerners?”
“How–!?” Lionel spoke with a dumbstruck expression. It was as though he couldn’t believe what he was hearing. “Might I remind the little miss that they are the invaders and this is a war!”
“Yes. But our ultimate enemy isn’t the Caliphate now, is it?” Kaede challenged before she turned towards Sylviane and appealed to the Princess’ wisteria gaze. “We should not forget that it is the Imperium who is Rhin-Lotharingie’s greatest foe, both as the instigator of the current conflict and our historic nemesis.”
The Samaran girl thought back to her discussions with Sylviane over the past few days, when she learned of the casus belli behind the current Tauheed Holy War. The religious strife and turmoil that engulfed the southern Lotharin kingdom of Garona had been exaggerated by Imperial propaganda to ridiculous proportions. The people of the southern continent were led to believe that there was an ongoing ‘religious genocide’ against Tauheed worshippers. This — combined with border disputes between the two powers — led to the start of hostilities between the Empire of Rhin-Lotharingie and the Cataliyan Caliphate.
Both Lady Anne and Duke Lionel looked like they were about to burst with verbal rebukes towards Kaede. However, it was the Princess who stopped them first with a raised hand.
“Let her finish.” Sylviane ordered before her eyes returned to Kaede. Though the Princess’ own gaze was hardened by animosity towards the people who attacked her country, just like most of the others in the room.
Only Lady Vivienne — the petite Winterborn who looked as though she was Kaede’s “twin” — gave the Samaran girl a faint smile and a slight nod of much-needed encouragement.
Kaede closed her eyes for a brief second and took a deep, calming breath as she prepared herself. She was woefully underprepared for this meeting. And against a roomful of people who exceeded her in both authority and rank, it was going to take every nerve she had to stand her ground and make her case.
“Yes, the Caliphate is the aggressor in this war.” Kaede began first in a slow, calm voice by reminding everyone that they were on the same page. “The Cataliyans invaded us. They conquered our lands. And they killed our people in the tens of thousands.” The Samaran girl deliberately used ‘us’ to remind everyone that they were on the same side, despite the fact she was not a Lotharin but a foreigner.
“However, we should remember that they did so because they were manipulated, beguiled, fooled by the machinations of the Imperium. The same Imperium that kept the Lotharins under their boot for a thousand years, that supported Duke Gabriel in his coup to cast our nation into civil war, that — even now as we speak — prepares its legions for a military intervention that would amount to little more than naked land grab!”
Several officers, including Lady Lynette, tightened their jaws as they remembered the history of the Lotharins’ hard-won independence. Even the fuming Duke Lionel looked to the Imperium’s lands on the map table with gritted teeth, as he remembered whom he had spent most of his life fighting against.
“Your Highness, I implore you.” The Samaran girl’s voice took on a pleading tone. “What Rhin-Lotharingie needs above all is a negotiated end to this conflict. More blood spilled will not help that! It will only create more hatred and resentment between the Empire and the Caliphate — two states that until recently, have largely lived in mutual peace and shared a common adversary.”
“You ask us, the followers of the Holy Father, to negotiate with the infidels?” Edith countered in a voice that clearly found Kaede’s argument offensive.
Yet her response was downright tame in comparison to the outrage expressed by Mother Abbess Anne. The Knight Preceptor lashed out as she glared at Kaede: “What does a Samaran heathen understand of the conflict between Holy Trinitian and the foul Tauheeds who pervert our Lord’s scriptures?”
This is the problem with moralizing disagreements. Kaede sighed in exasperation.
Whether it was religion, cultural values, or forms of government, those who moralized differences of opinion always made it difficult if not outright impossible to listen and make compromises. Instead, they always devolved into simplistic propaganda slogans that caricatured and dehumanized those on the other side.
“I’ve read that the Tauheed also sees Hyperion the Savior as a chosen prophet of the Holy Father.” Kaede easily kept her wispy voice gentle and free of antagonism as she pointed out. “They merely believe that the Trinitian Church has erred in its ways. And as a result, they claim the Holy Father has sent yet another prophet to guide the faithful. I cannot comment on the validity of their prophet. But surely even many people in Rhin-Lotharingie would agree that the Church has grown too corrupt in its ambition and avarice?”
A pained look flashed across Edith’s face as Kaede voiced her final statement. Even Lady Anne bit down on her lips as though she struggled to refute it.
“Yes, I recognize that as Trinitians, you disagree with the Tauheeds in many aspects of theology.” Kaede took the opportunity to continue by acknowledging their discord first. Only by doing that, could she focus on what they shared in common: “However, both the Caliphate and the Empire can agree on one principle, which is that the self-righteous Holy Imperium needs to be toppled from its position as the hegemon of Western Hyperion.”
More leaders in the room nodded in agreement as Lionel and Hammerstein joined in. Even Sylviane’s gaze burned like glowing daggers as she stared at the central position the Imperium occupied in the Inner Sea. There, they dominated not only transportation and trade, but also the flow of information across Western Hyperion and the southern continent of Eurypha.
“So tell me, if we needlessly kill another twenty thousand southerners, would we not make their countrymen, their siblings and their children weep and swear revenge?” Kaede looked across the room as she made her soft-toned challenge. “When those children fight your sons and daughters in future wars to perpetuate the cycle of violence, who is it that benefits?”
After sweeping the room, the familiar’s gaze met that of the Crusader Saint. To Kaede’s surprise, Edith said nothing in retort. Her eyes were filled with turmoil as Kaede’s words had clearly sunk in. Nevertheless, her scowl made it clear that she remained discontent if not in disagreement.
However, the same could not be said of Mother Abbess Anne. Recognizing that the tide of opinions was turning against her, Anne turned to Princess Sylviane instead as she warned: “The Holy Father would never approve of a compromise with infidels against our fellow Trinitians, no matter how astray the Church may be.”
Now you’re just kneejerking with ‘us vs them’. Kaede frowned before she countered. “Hyperion also preached mercy and compassion for our enemies.”
Even with piety and virtue as the standard of measurement, the Samaran girl still felt that Cataliyan General Salim had conducted himself with honor in the overall campaign. But Anne couldn’t admit that because she could only see through the lens of religious identity.
Meanwhile, General Caradoc was nowhere as diplomatic as the Samaran girl as he stared sideways at the Mother Abbess. His voice was dripping with sarcasm as he snarled at the Hospitaller:
“May I remind Her Holiness,” he deliberately spoke ill, using the style that was meant for addressing the Pope, “that I am also a heathen, as she so kindly puts it. And so is our former queen whose creations saved your butts at Glywysing! So lest you believe your ‘moral righteousness’ may win you this war alone, I suggest we focus on strategy and not the Trinitians’ failing moral legitimacy!”
Anne’s eyes flared with anger as she reached for the handle of her sword. However, before either of them could make a move, the Princess raised her hands towards each side in a gesture that demanded peace.
“Religion is not part of this discussion, to that I agree.” Sylviane declared as she put down her proverbial foot. “Kaede is correct though that ultimately, the best outcome to this war is a negotiated peace. The Empire may be able to push the Caliphate back towards the border. However, we do not have the strength and resources to defeat them outright. Furthermore, we must keep our eyes on the big picture — for if we Lotharins and the Tauheeds maul each other to exhaustion through bitter hatred, it is the Imperials who will gleefully celebrate.”
Her Highness offered a slightly-forced smile as she turned to the familiar with a thankful nod. “What does Pascal suggest then, Kaede?”
The Samaran girl tried to keep the amusement out of her eyes as she recognized Sylviane’s game. Pascal’s plans for the battles of Gwilen River, Lysardh Point, and Glywysing might have a mixed record. However, his strategy had proved successful overall, and the heavy losses he inflicted upon the Caliphate had proved that he was a capable tactician as well. That didn’t even include his growing reputation as a fearsome archmage who would wipe out thousands with only a single spell.
“Pascal suggests we cross the Hafren River tomorrow morning in force, with the trees leading the charge,” Kaede advised. “However, we should advance at a slow and steady pace and use illusions to further bolster our ranks. This will make it adequately clear to any Tauheed commanders that they cannot hope to win. It would force their withdrawal by crushing their morale, and further emphasize to the Caliphate that they cannot win this war without intolerably high losses.”
After all — ‘supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting.’ Kaede thought of the famous quote from Sun Tzu.
“Though to that end, the morale impact would be greatest if Your Highness allowed my chariots and our air cavalry to harass the enemy as they retreat,” Caradoc added with a sneer that looked more like a wolf about to devour his prey. “They may scurry back to their lands with their lives. But we will ensure they do so as a shattered, routed force.”
I’m not sure that–
Kaede was still trying to grasp her ill feeling about Caradoc’s proposal when Sylviane gave her approval in a conclusive tone:
“I concur. We should also focus on ‘persuading’ them to abandon as much of their supplies and equipment as we can. The Empire will have a need for them in the days to come.”
That’s true. The Samaran thought with a silent sigh. She buried her half-hearted objections while the rest proceeded to create more detailed tactical plans.
It wasn’t until the end of the meeting, after people began to depart from the command cabin, when Kaede received a Telepathy link from Ariadne.
“<That was your idea, not Pascal’s, wasn’t it?>”
“<You could tell?>” Kaede raised her eyebrows at the noblewoman with a charming smile.
“<It isn’t like Pascal at all to go easy on his battlefield opponents.>” Ariadne expressed. “<Still, it does make strategic sense.>”
Though that wasn’t my motivation. Kaede thought to herself. Her explanation to Sylviane was more of a justification than a goal on its own.
Nevertheless, the Samaran girl responded with only an amused smile as she stepped out from the cabin behind Ariadne. Both of them followed Colonel Hammerstein to where their mounts had been kept. It gave the two girls a moment to catch up before Ariadne had to return to the city to prepare for tomorrow’s action.
—– * * * —–
The next day, Kaede watched through her arcane binoculars as her unvoiced concerns manifested into reality.
The familiar sat in her saddle near the front lines. She was still in nominal command of her banner of sixty rangers, though unlikely for much longer. With Pascal unconscious, Kaede simply hadn’t had the time to pay proper attention to the men. She had already recommended to Lady Lynette to merge the banner into another — one which had remained behind enemy lines in the Roazhon area and was down to just two dozen veterans.
Regardless, Kaede had one last assignment as their commander and she would see it through.
“Sir, should we be just waiting here? The battle is almost over!” Her second-in-command, Sergeant Gaspard, asked with impatience.
“Our orders are to stand by as a reserve for the right flank.” Kaede reiterated unhappily without taking her eyes off the action. Though to call the fighting at the Gwilen River crossings a ‘battle’ was giving it far too much credit.
“What need is there for a ‘reserve’ now?” Gaspard expressed. “We wait any longer and we’ll miss our chance to kill those invaders!”
That’s exactly what I’d prefer. Kaede replied in her thoughts. Though her exasperated sigh seemed to convey the opposite to her frustrated men.
The Caliphate’s remaining forces in the Roazhon area had begun withdrawing at first light. Their infantry and wagons moved south to the Gilwen River, where eight pontoon bridges had been built. Their pace quickened after they spotted a forest of migrating trees fording the Hafren River in the morning mist.
In order to ‘persuade’ the Caliphate to abandon their supply wagons, Saint Edith and Colonel Hammerstein led the allied air cavalry on an attack against the bridges. An air battle ensued when the Weichsen knights and Ceredigion wyverns met in the Cataliyan rukh riders and wasteland drakes. Amidst the fighting, a platoon of pegasi knights led by Ariadne managed to break through the Cataliyan air defense. They released dozens of explosive barrels as they climbed out of their dives, which destroyed all but two of the bridges.
At the same time, General Caradoc crossed the Hafren with eight hundred chariots of the Ceredigion vanguard. He unleashed them upon the Cataliyan rear. The Tauheed army, after losing almost all of their cavalry at the Battle of Glywysing, could not even provide a mobile screen to shield its withdrawing columns.
Now, Kaede watched as swarms of chariots harassed the Cataliyan infantry with javelins. The light, Ceredigion chariot was a platform built of only wood and wicker. They were each pulled by two horses and had a two man crew, which left them with almost as much maneuverability as light cavalry.
The difference, however, was that as each chariot expended its ammunition, it dropped off a heavily armored infantryman. These soldiers then reorganize themselves into formation before launching a coordinated charge against the Cataliyan rearguard. Meanwhile, the chariot and its driver would disengage and return to the Lotharin lines. There, they would pick up a new soldier and more ammunition, only to restart the process.
Pressured from all sides and reduced to only two bridges for escape, the Cataliyans’ morale began to collapse as rumors of their precarious situation spread.
Through her binoculars, Kaede could see thousands of levied Caliphate infantry abandon their marching formations. They ran to the remaining pontoons in small groups, where chaos broke out as the officers tried in vain to keep order. A giant, messy crowd formed as soldiers began pushing their way onto the bridge while shoving others out of their way.
They’ve already lost control. The Samaran girl thought as she saw even a Cataliyan colonel pushed into the river.
Hundreds of supply wagons now lay abandoned on the northern banks of the Gwilen River. Their drivers ran to the bridge in droves to save themselves. Soldiers were packed from shoulder to shoulder on the last remaining bridges, as the mass of men squeezed their way through the bottleneck.
Meanwhile, the air battle continued to rage overhead. But it was clear the Cataliyans were losing. Every giant, bird-like rukh and wasteland drake that fell from the skies only made it clear to the soldiers on the ground that time was against them.
Kaede observed as a section of Phantoms rode down and hurled several grenades onto the crowded eastern bridge. Dispel and Ignition spells then followed, which turned the ‘grenades’ into powder barrels that detonated. The blast tore apart the center of the bridge and killed dozens, if not hundreds, within the blink of an eye.
The Samaran girl didn’t even notice her jaw drop as she watched the explosion send a wave of human blood, limbs, and other remains flying in every direction.
That was not in the plan at all! Kaede protested in silence.
The eastern bridge was left broken in two, though the floats and reinforced girders kept it from being destroyed. Several Cataliyan mages quickly ‘repaired’ the bridge by summoning wooden ramps over the destroyed segment. Nevertheless, hundreds of soldiers couldn’t wait as they leapt into the river and swam for their lives.
The Gwilen River was two hundred paces wide even at its narrowing point. Its water, which flowed down from the South Lotharingie Mountains, was icy cold in the early February weather. Kaede could see the freezing water sap the men of their energy. Most of them didn’t even know how to swim. Instead, they merely floundered about before the weight of their equipment pulled them underwater.
It’s worse than Napoleon crossing the Berezina. Kaede watched as the disaster unfolded before her eyes.
Panic had even broken out among those on the remaining bridge. The pushing and shoving of the soldiers grew more erratic and forceful, which sent many men at the edge of the platform into the waters as a result. Meanwhile, those who lost their balance and fell on the bridge were immediately trampled underfoot. Their pained cries could be heard by the familiar’s keen hearing even from nearly three kilopaces away.
“Sergeant Gaspard,” Kaede began as she pretended to receive a Farspeak call with two fingers pressed against her temple.
Her words immediately drew the eager eyes of her second-in-command. However, her following statement quickly disappointed him:
“Orders from His Grace and Her Highness — tell the Ceredigion banners over there to stop their attack!” Kaede made it up as she pointed at the hundreds of infantry that the chariots had dropped off from their first wave. They were currently fighting one of the last Cataliyan units that had maintained its discipline and formation.
“Stop!? But–” Gaspard gawked at her as though he couldn’t believe his ears. His expression was mirrored by several of the rangers adjacent to him.
“Yes. Stop the attack and offer surrender to the enemy!” Kaede stressed as she stared at them. “Don’t just look at me! Pass the orders. NOW!”
“Y-yes Sir!” The rangers finally acknowledged. “YA!” Three of them, including Gaspard, finally spurred their horses and rode off.
The familiar scowled as she raised her binoculars back to her eyes. She would have ‘passed the orders’ herself if she trusted her riding skills to stay in the saddle at a gallop. Nevertheless, as morale collapsed even in the Cataliyan rearguard and they began to rout, Kaede wondered if she had waited for too long.
Most of the Tauheed troops would still manage to make it across the river. Many would do so only after they abandoned their weapons and shields on the northern bank. Nevertheless, the rangers estimated by nightfall that over three thousand enemy soldiers had either been killed, trampled to death, or drowned. Meanwhile another four thousand had become prisoners.
Thus, as Kaede looked upon the countless corpses that floated near the banks of the Gwilen River once more, she couldn’t help exhale a deep sigh.
Had this truly been necessary?
—– * * * —–
Later that night, in the Caliphate encampment twenty kilopaces south of the Gwilen River, the Marid Hakim sat next to his partner’s bed as he held onto an ailing hand.
General Salim was almost bald as his hair had shed over the past week. His skin was sloughing off in chunks, exposing unsightly ‘burns’ and blisters all over his body. Three ulcers had popped around his lips, which left gaping sores that added to the nonstop bleeding from his nose. The entire tent smelled of vomit and diarrhea, as Hakim had lost track of how many times he had to cleanse Salim’s bed with magic.
The healers had all given up, despite Hakim’s reward offer which included decades of his accumulated wealth. They had declared earlier that Salim’s body was on the verge of multiple organ failure. It was extremely unlikely that the General would live past midnight.
Perhaps if Salim had returned faster from the Ceredigion Forest, they might have had a chance. But Salim had tried valiantly to save the few units he could from their ill-fated march into the Kingdom of Ceredigion. Since then, his condition had rapidly deteriorated, leaving him unable to even exert command over the fracturing army.
It didn’t help that Salim had lost all of his best brigadiers in previous battles. Instead, the army was left with only its second-rate leaders, including several who had more vainglorious ambition than tactical insight. They accused Hakim of cowardice when the Marid pushed for the army’s withdrawal as Salim had requested. The resulting power struggle had delayed the army until it was almost too late.
Now, as Hakim squeezed the hand of his longtime partner, he felt his face contort with anguish and his chest constrict with pain. Salim wheezed with bulging eyes as though he was drowning from a lack of breath. It was not far from the truth either, as his lungs had began to fill with his own blood and fluids.
The two of them have worked closely together for over sixty years. From the courthouse to the battlefield, from the arid savannah of Eurypha to the northwestern forests of Hyperion — the two of them had spent more time together than Salim did with even all of his wives combined.
They were the truest of brothers.
A crystal blue tear of magic-infused water slid from the Marid’s eyes as he watched his partner die slowly and in the most agonizing manner imaginable. Yet, despite all his innate magical talents, the Jinn was helpless to do anything about it.
“Hakim…” the General coughed out one last breath. “Please… take care… our men.”
Thousands of troops had been lost during the retreat from Roazhon. Nevertheless, twenty-four thousand men had been withdrawn south in time. Over two-thirds of them were either support troops or shattered formations, which meant they had little actual combat strength. Yet, for reasons that escaped Hakim, the Lotharins had acted with unusual caution and forfeited their window of opportunity for pursuit.
“I promise.” Hakim vowed as he barely held his composure together. He watched as the light slowly faded from Salim’s gaze. His hand trembled as he gripped his partner’s fingers, only to realize from their limp state that Salim had just passed away.
The past month had cost the Caliphate over fifty thousand soldiers on the Avorican front alone. But even the sum of all those lives could not compare to the loss of his longtime companion. Baha ad-Din Salim ibn Ziyad was not just another ‘statistic’. He was not just another faceless name lost in the lengthy casualty reports.
No, he was the dearest of friends. And Hakim would never be able to forget it.
“I swear… I will see our army back to the Caliphate. I will see it rebuilt.”
The Marid vowed to himself, to his partner’s ascending soul, to the Prophet and to God himself.
“And I will take revenge upon these infidels.”Author's Comment
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