Sajik waited outside the medical tent while the battle waged on only a stone’s throw away. The constant torrent of humanity at its worst, ringing in his ears. The High Marshal’s forces were dwindling as western invaders gradually crumbled their center. Scale Backs, the westerners heavily armored elite, had been sent in and were wreaking havoc on their own comparatively light infantry. It wouldn’t be long until the battle was lost.
Over the din of chaos and death, the High Marshal barked out orders, sending what remained of their reserves into the charnel house that was the center.
Sent to their demise, Sajik thought, watching as the Scale Backs continued their slow grind forward. Thick, overlapping plates covered their torsos, shoulders, and thighs; rebuking blades from nearly every angle. Their arms rose and fell in a slow, yet steady rhythm of violence.
The only way to break them would be to come around on their formation. They moved too slow to protect their rear, but no such opportunity arose. As it stood, the High Marshal’s foot soldiers might as well be fighting a wall of steel.
A runner came up to the tent, wearing the violet and gold of the High Marshal’s staff. Dark skin flushed under the high sun.
“The Marshal requires the Peregrines to take flight.”
It took a moment for Sajik to realize the youth was looking at him to answer. He was second in command, after all, but the idea of the Captain being out of the fight was not a reality he was prepared to face.
“We wait for the Captain.”
The runner’s eyes grew wide, “The Marshal demands…”
“He demands an order from my superior. I cannot give one while he retains his command.”
“He’s not dead?”
Sajik resisted the urge to strike the youth. Speaking of a man’s death before it occurred was bad fortune.
He’d seen the Captain’s mount go down, brained by a lucky blow. His stallion’s front legs buckled, launching the man from his saddle. The dyed white and red falcon feathers atop his helm were the last Sajik saw before the Captain crashed into the packed bodies of the enemy.
Fear had gripped him then. What were the Peregrines without Captain Asma? It was fear that caused Sajik to call for a double back, taking point on the assault. First out of the saddle, he battled his way to where his Captain’s horse had gone down. He found the man alive, but not in any way that a soldier would want to be. Both legs were angled in unnatural directions. The Captain’s once stern face had been swollen and drawn, his left cheek sunken, likely broken. Sajik ordered the men to gather him up and fall back.
Now they waited to hear of his fate.
Sajik looked at what remained of the Peregrines; two hundred, a few more?
All had dismounted and waited outside the medical tent. Horses were being watered, some of the men rushing back and forth from the supply train, acquiring new lances, replacing broken sabers. Their withdrawal from the enemy flanks wouldn’t change the direction of the battle. They’d simply been delaying the end result until now.
This battle was lost before it began.
Sajik was about to send the runner away when the doctor emerged from the tent, rubbing his eyes with thin, almost skeletal hands.
“The Captain would speak with you.”
Sajik nodded, following the doctor inside while the eyes of the Peregrines watched him go. He could feel their hope as though it were a tangible thing. The power of it forcing Sajik to step in and confront, what he suspected to be, his Captain’s deathbed.
Eight years as a Peregrine and three more as an infantryman, Sajik had seen his share of death. Two major campaigns and numerous border skirmishes had hardened him to the cruel realities of life in a centralization nation, surrounded by power-hungry regimes. His was a life of conflict. He’d seen friends fall to war and disease. Had held the hands of men he’d fought alongside for years as their lifeblood sank back into the earth from which all men were born. Even so, Sajik didn’t want to see this.
Through it all, Captain Asma had been a focus of strength which Sajik drew from. Having faced the cruelties of the world, Asma had somehow managed to be a man of honor and discipline. To Sajik, he was superhuman; a paradigm of what it was to be an Altrusian man. Sajik steeled himself to see his idol brought low.
The tent flap was pulled back, and Sajik entered.
The swelling had encompassed half of the Captain’s face to the point that one eye was little more than a slit. Naked, but for his small clothes, Sajik noticed the deep bruising along his ribs. His legs had been set, but the skin appeared to be on the point of bursting. Attendants busied themselves around the tent, more than there should have been.
But then, he reasoned, where else could they go? With westerners on the verge of victory, they could only hope to be offered continued servitude if seen to be in the pay of a lord.
“How goes the battle?” the Captain asked, voice clear, if not a bit short of breath.
Sajik expected the man to be sedated with his injuries. Eyes set with a narcotic glaze before death came to return him to the earth. Many men requested henbane or poppy before the end. However, the Captain’s one tawny brown eye appeared sharp as ever.
“Poorly, sir. We’ll lose the center soon enough and no withdrawal has been issued. It’ll be a route.”
Asma nodded, as if expecting as much.
“The High Marshal is a proud man. He hasn’t tasted the ash of defeat. Such lessons are difficult.”
Sajik turned on the doctor, thinly veiled rage held by a threadbare leash. A man such as Asma shouldn’t be allowed to suffer through his injuries, “Why has the Captain not been made comfortable?”
The doctor opened his mouth to protest, but the Captain interrupted.
“Leave him be, Sajik. I won’t have my mind muddled by that shit. I’d prefer it clear for what’s to come. Doctor, send out for my attendants.”
The doctor shook his head but complied. Sajik watched him leave, confusion growing. What was the Captain thinking? They were about to be overrun.
“I don’t understand sir.”
The Captain coughed, face scrunching in pain, then after a few settling breaths, looked up at his second.
“What’s there to understand Sajik? The end is upon us and I’ll not face it in an inebriated stupor. I’ll stand before it with the full knowledge of what is to come. No man should shy away from his end; it’s a sight he will only glimpse once.”
“There are other options, sir,” said Sajik.
“Oh,” asked the Captain, battered face fixing onto him. “And what might those be?”
“We fight on,” Sajik said quickly, “seek to break the right flank and hope we can overwhelm them before our center collapses.”
The Captain gave him a frail smile, “Even if we manage it, in the grand scheme of things, the battle will still be lost. What else can we do?”
Sajik hesitated. There was one option he was inclined toward, one that would allow him to survive this debacle. However, he also knew the repercussions for speaking such sentiments aloud.
“Speak your mind,” Asma said, sensing his hesitation.
Sajik took a steady breath, “We run. The Peregrines can fight beneath a different sky. The command here will be executed to a man, the survivors ransomed or dragged into slavery. Even if the Emperor suspects our desertion, he’ll not refuse two hundred of his finest.”
The Captain nodded, “That’s the safe bet. Life is, after all, our most precious commodity, is it not?”
Sajik nodded, thinking of his home, his wife and four daughters he’d leave behind if they were to stay.
The silence between them stretched for a time. The Captain focusing on breathing while Sajik stared at his feet. He felt shame for suggesting such an act but was content in knowing the Captain understood the desire.
“I will not be leaving the field today Sajik. Not like this,” the Captain said, waving a hand at his broken legs. “The Peregrines are yours to command as soon as you step out of this tent.”
The sudden mantle of responsibility weighed on him like an iron chain, wrapping about his shoulders and constricting his lungs. He never wanted to receive his command like this.
“I would ask,” he said, a cough wracking his body in a series of painful spasms. The Captain took a moment to steady himself. “I would ask that you consider my final request.”
“Anything sir,” Sajik said, approaching the prostrated man.
“Leave this place and live. Take the men back to the capital and support Altrus at the Emperor’s behest.”
Sajik felt immediate relief followed shortly by guilt. The two warred within him in as much a fashion as the men outside; relief gradually took the upper hand. He tried to speak, but found his breath caught in his throat, his chest tightening.
“Yes sir,” he whispered, though better words may have been ‘thank you’.
The Captain lay a hand on his, “When you reach the capital, tell the Emperor what transpired today. Don’t hide anything from him or he will see you for less than you are worth. He is a man of iron, but his heart is compassionate regarding those who speak the truth.”
Sajik could only nod.
Attendants entered the medical tent, carrying the Captain’s armor; freshly polished. Likely to dress the man in his best before the end. Tears burned in Sajik’s eyes.
“Go,” said the Captain. “Leave this place while you can.”
Sajik wanted to say something more but found that words refused to form. Instead, he left the tent without so much as a final farewell to the man he’d looked up to for his entire adult life.
Stepping out of the tent was like entering a new world. The cries of the dying hitting him like a fell wind. The center still held, but by a razor’s edge; the Scale Backs were in the final minutes of breaking the men of Altrus.
It would be a rout soon.
He felt the combined weight of the Peregrines eyes upon him.
“Full mount,” he called.
There was only a brief pause as the men understood that the mantle of authority had been handed off. When the realization passed, the men gave sharp salutes before transitioning into their normal disciplined routine. Gathering horses, double checking straps, a rush of actions all second nature to those who earned their place as Peregrines. Sajik watched it all unfold, surveying his new command.
There was no better cavalry in the known world. Each ma a master of the saddle and lance. While they lacked the heavier armor of the western lands, their speed and mobility were feared by all. Like their namesake, their strike was devastating.
Sajik had been so proud when he earned his feathers. He had proved to the world that he was more than just a soldier. Then, as he rose in the ranks, his name was known throughout Altrus with each growing victory. He was the right hand of the legendary Captain Asma. With him at their lead, they were invincible.
But now Asma was gone and Sajik was alone. His first action as Captain of the Peregrines… to abandon his post. The reality of that decision was still sinking in.
The High Marshal’s infantry began to peel away as the Scale Backs surged forward. The enemy command banner followed close behind, their general urging the victory on near the front, now that the threats were removed.
Sajik prepared to raise his voice to call the withdraw when a rider darted out from behind his ranks. Riding a black stallion, armor glinting sunlight, lance leveled, and white feathers pinned back against the wind, the rider charged toward the broken center.Sajik and the Peregrines watched the madman with disbelief and awe.
It was Captain Asma.
Suddenly, all of the attendants around the Captain made sense. He must have ordered them to get him back in the saddle. The pain of riding in the condition he’d been in was completely beyond belief. At any moment he expected the man to fall from the saddle, and yet he remained true to his course, leaning into his lance before impact. Despite the heavy armor of the enemy elite, it offered no protection against the former Peregrine Captain’s lance at full charge. The target took the lance through the neck, nearly ripping the man’s head off entirely.
Sajik felt a surge of pride course through him as he watched the Captain rush toward his inevitable end.
Pride and despair.
Here he was, prepared to flee while better men died. Would it not be more honorable to fall on the field, following the Captain in one final assault?
Or was it that he now feared the scrutinizing eyes of those who would know him as a deserter. They would say he left Asma to die alone. That he turned his back on those who needed him most. The stain on his name would follow him the rest of his days.
Would his family not be better served living off his pension after death than as a family with a marred reputation?
He would still be Captain, he told himself. Yet the words were hollow. All glory would be gone without Asma at the head. Sajik’s decision weighed on him. He wanted to run, had been ordered to do so by the Captain himself, yet to bear the dishonor that followed…
Sajik looked at his command. At the men whose lives were in his hands. His next decision would dictate their fates as well. Could he not bear the dishonor on his name for his men and their families?
Sajik raised his voice.
Sajik heeled his mount forward, following the Captain into the very jaws of death with two hundred Peregrines at his back. Each man let out a series of whoops and battle cries as their horses barreled toward the broken center.
The Scale Backs that had broken through hesitated as they found themselves faced with the wave of leveled lances speeding toward them. Slow as they were, there was no place for them to run. Sajik let out a high pitched cry of his own, filled with the knowledge that he had consigned them all to death.
At least he wouldn’t have to think on it long.
His lance rammed through the chest of his intended target. Feeling the weight of the armor, it was pointless to try and hold on. Letting it fall, Sajik drew his heavy cavalry saber and continued his assault, keeping his eyes on the Captain’s back as he somehow managed to remain upright in his saddle, despite the heavy blows upon him.
Sajik’s arm rose and fell, denting armor and breaking bone just as his mount trampled Scale Backs. Blades licked up at him, most without harm, but a few bit into the flesh of his arms and legs. His momentum gradually slowed as the weight of numbers began to work against him. Sajik heard horses going down, saw those in his peripheral vision removed from their saddles and knew his men were dying. He could see the Captain’s white feathered helm bobbing up ahead. Even in the midst of the chaos, Sajik realized what the Captain’s plan must be.
With the Peregrines at his back, the Captain was attempting to kill the enemy general. The western fool had seen victory in his grasp and sought to take the glory for himself. As Sajik and his men closed the distance between them, it dawned on him that this day could still be won.
Something entered his side, sending hot agony through him. Sajik removed the offender’s hand at the wrist and grit his teeth against the pain. A heavy blow landed against his knee and another glanced off his helm. His mount had slowed to little more than a trot, but he felt the presence of what Peregrines remained at his sides and back. A cavalry charge could only go on for so long before their momentum faltered.
A charge without an exit route was how cavalrymen died. To Sajik, it seemed that victory would remain just out of reach. And yet, he could still see the Captain’s white feathered plume as he reached the enemy command. The Captain needed them now and Sajik wouldn’t let him down.
He had already made one selfish decision today, he’d be damned if he made another by dying here.
Urging his horse on like a man possessed, Sajik felt the sting of a dozen blows and ignored them. His fatigued sword arm momentarily revitalized as he sought out weak points in armor. He was determined to follow the Captain’s example, to the bitter end if need be. For a time, all he could hear were the screams of battle. His own voice giving out as he struggled for air.
Suddenly Sajik broke through the infantry, finding himself amongst the enemy command who were thrust into a panic as more Peregrines arrived. There was no sign of Asma, but the general’s bodyguard moved to intercept. Sajik parried an attack and cut the throat of a bearded man as the remainder of his Peregrines arrived. There was a maelstrom of heated combat and flashing steel. Sajik encountered a man beyond his skill with a blade but was saved as a Peregrine cut the tendons beneath the man’s raised arm. Another Peregrin drove his mount into the enemy general’s horse, knocking him from the saddle to be trampled by the battle around them.
The command banner wavered and fell as they continued their mad charge through what remained of the enemy battle line.
An opening appeared and Sajik led them through.
Fresh air flowed over him; a cool relief from the cloying madness he’d left behind in the now broken ranks of their enemy. He glanced back, seeing how, with the Scale Backs scattered, the High Marshall’s infantry had rallied and followed them through. Yet his heart sank as he saw how few followed behind.
Of his Peregrines, he estimated only fifty remained, but even that was perhaps too kind a figure. Many slumped in the saddle, carrying horrendous wounds that would claim them long before they reached home.
The day was won but at the cost of his newly found command.
Or perhaps not quite his command, he thought, spotting the upright form of Captain Asma a few hundred meters away. His horse grazing the grass beyond the battle lines.
Sajik heeled his mount forward, relief blossoming in his chest.With Asma still alive, the Peregrins would rise again. Men from all across Altrus would compete to bolster their ranks. They would be legends once more.
That hope vanished as he neared the motionless form of the Captain; replaced with a dire sense of foreboding.
By the time Sajik reached the man, it was clear Asma was dead. Little remained of his chest plate; perforated as it was with spearheads and a multitude of other mortal wounds. His face, battered and lacerated, bore no resemblance to the man he’d been. Keeping the Captain upright were a series of ropes and straps that had been assembled in such a way as to prevent him from falling out of the saddle. Judging by the number of killing blows decorating the once great man’s body, Sajik realized Asma had likely died within the first moments of battle.
The Captain had never intended to make it out alive.
Sajik had just followed a corpse to victory.
Had Asma known Sajik would follow him on his suicidal charge or had he simply wanted to die on his own terms?
Sajik found himself fixed in place, contemplating this and more. He’d made the call to lead his men after the Captain, fulling expecting to die. Yet somehow they’d managed to turn a suicide into a victory. He wasn’t sure how long he sat there, but eventually, the sound of approaching hooves drew him away.
He turned to see what remained of his Peregrines, flanking the High Marshal on either side. The battle had immediately turned in their favor. In the distance, he could see the High Marshal’s forces encircling the desperate Scale Backs who’d been unable to flee as fast as their compatriots. Some fought on in tight rings of resistance while more dropped their weapons to the ground in surrender.
Dark hair matching his eyes, polished armor untouched by the hand of battle, the High Marshal looked from Sajik to his deceased predecessor.
“I had begun to think we’d been left behind by the vaunted Peregrines,” the High Marshal said, voice accustomed to speaking to large gatherings, “but I see the genius of his deception now,” he chuckled softly, “brilliant.”
Had it been, Sajik wondered? What would have happened if Sajik obeyed the Captain’s final orders? How long would the High Marshal have cursed them all for cowards?
The High Marshal smiled benevolently, “I recognize you soldier, but your name escapes me. Your loyalty should be commended alongside his genius. Not even the most battle hardened men would follow such a command unless their love for their captain and their country was beyond question.”
His love for captain and country? Anxious laughter bubbled up within him. Sajik covered it with a cough; which sent white hot pain through his side where he’d been pierced.
“Sajik,” he said quietly.
“A man should be known for his final words, Sajik. What were those of your Captain?”
Leave this place and live.
Sajik paused, unable to bring himself to say the words and tarnish the memory of the man. If he wanted, he could take credit for all of it. He could come out and say exactly what had transpired in their final conversation. Lie about the reason he’d decided to follow Asma in the first place. Sajik would be elevated, praised as a hero. All he had to do was speak and tarnish a dead man’s name.
One failure was enough for the day, he would not do so again.
“He asked for one last ride,” Sajik lied, voice barely above a whisper.
The High Marshal gave an approving nod.
“I would expect nothing less. To the brave Peregrines and Captain Amus, to one last ride!” the High Marshal called out to those around them.
A cheer rose up. The fabricated words repeated and carried on by the Peregrines and the soldiers beyond.
What kind of leader would he be, now that he knew the weakness within him?
Sajik remained silent, his eyes drawn to the empty saddles and riderless horses of his men, grazing in the field beyond; knowing that question would haunt him the rest of his days.