Numara - Main Street - Go across the bridge and then talk to Ignas (a young boy).
The ramparts will fall to the enemy.
It is just a matter of time.
They will mount their attack at dawn.
The main body of the allied forces
has already drawn far back from the front.
Only the mercenaries are left behind the barricade.
Their orders: defend it to the death.
These men, who have gone from battlefield to battlefield,
know exactly what that means.
"They've just left us here to die," chuckles the one called Toma in darkness too thick for a person to make out his own hand.
"They want us to buy time so the main force can pull farther back. We're supposed to be their shields, performing our final service for our employers."
His dry, papery laugh shakes the darkness.
Kaim says nothing in reply. Other mercenaries must be gathered there around them in the blackness, but all keep their thoughts to themselves.
Mercenaries have nothing to say to each other on the battlefield. They might be on opposite sides in the next battle. At a time like this especially, when they have to defend the barricade against the enemy's withering attack, they can't spare time even to look at each other's faces.
Kaim knows nothing about this fighter called Toma. His voice sounds young. He probably has very little experience as a mercenary.
If a man grows talkative in the face of death, it means that, deep down somewhere, he has a weakness that prevents him from becoming a true soldier. A mercenary with even a hint of such weakness can never cheat death and live to see another day.
It is the law of the battlefield, and a man like Toma will only learn that law in the moment before he loses his life.
"We're done for. We'll all be dead in the morning. We'll have that 'silent homecoming' they talk about. I can't stand it. I just can't stand it."
In the darkness, no voices rise to second these sentiments. It's too late for talk like this. The day they chose the mercenary's path was when they should have resigned themselves to death.
They will sell their lives for a little money. They prolong their lives, a day at a time, by taking the lives of one enemy after another. That's what a mercenary is: nothing more, nothing less.
"Hey... can anybody hear me? How many of us are here? We're all going to die together. We'll just be a line of corpses in the morning. Don't shut up now. Answer me!"
No one says a thing. Instead of voices, the silent darkness begins to fill with a tangible sense of annoyance.
Wordlessly to gather on the battlefield; wordlessly to fight the enemy; and just as wordlessly to die.
That is the rule of the mercenary, the "aesthetic" of the mercenary, if such an expression may be permitted.
But Toma has taken it upon himself to abandon that aesthetic.
"I knew it was hopeless from the start. Headquarters didn't know what they were doing. There was no way a strategy like that could work. You know what I'm talking about, don't you guys? We had to lose. It's a total mess. I wish to hell I had joined the other side. Then we could have gotten a mountain of cash for winning. We could have drunk ourselves blind. We could have had all the women we wanted. I could have gone either way on this one but I picked the wrong side to fight on..."
"Hey, you!" an older voice booms out of the darkness. An angry voice.
"Yeah, what?" answers Toma, his voice more vibrant now at having at last found someone willing to talk with him.
As if to crush his momentary enthusiasm, the other man goes on, "How about shutting up a while? If you really want to run off at the mouth that much, I can send you to the next world a step ahead of the rest of us."
Instantly dejected, Toma falls silent and the darkness grows still again.
The stillness is charged, however, with a deep tension. Far deeper, even, than before Toma started talking.
The veteran warriors know: watch out for a talkative man.
Being talkative means trusting in words--trusting too much in words.
Words are useless on the battlefield. You take up your weapon in silence, you fight in silence, you kill the enemy—or he kills you—in silence. All the mercenaries here have lived this way. All but the talkative one.
A soldier who clings too desperately to words may cling just as desperately to something else--to the sweet trap of betrayal, for example, or the seduction of desertion under fire, or the lure of madness.
Kaim has often seen pitiful mercenaries who, unable to endure the terror of being surrounded by the enemy, go berserk and attack men from their own side.
Will Toma prove to be another such case? The possibility is great, and no doubt the other men are thinking the same thing, too. In the stillness, they turn the same gazes toward Toma that they reserve for confrontations with the enemy, looking for any signs of change in his demeanor. The moment they perceive the slightest threat in him, a blade will soundlessly pierce the left side of his chest.
The silence continues. Not even the usual all-night cries of insects can be heard tonight as they were last night. Perhaps the insects knew enough to clear out in advance of the enemy's dawn attack. The thought reminds Kaim that he saw no birds in the area yesterday, either. Although animals came to snatch food when the men first built this fortification, there has been no sign of them for several days now.
Animals have mysterious powers of foreknowledge that humans have lost. This becomes painfully obvious from any visit to a battlefield.
There can be little doubt that the animals have turned their backs on this barricade.
Right about now, in some distant forest, a huge flock of black birds may be taking wing in search of human corpses to strip of their flesh:
"It's feast time, boys!"
They already know, somehow. Once the sun is fully up, the battle will be over. If they don't get here first, they'll lose some of their feast to a flock from another forest. Their black bodies hidden against the night sky, those birds now are probably flying for all they're worth.
A voice in the night. Toma's voice.
"Listen, you guys... I don't know how many of you are out there, but we're all going to die in the morning... or most of us. Maybe one or two will live to escape, no more. Think about it: those are lousy odds. You've all been through this before. You're veterans, war heroes, you're probably not scared. But even so... even if you're not scared, don't you think this is stupid? Huh? Tell me! You've been through a lot more battles than I have, so tell me... what the hell are we here for? We don't hate the enemy, we don't owe the leaders on our side anything, but we've got to kill the enemy and follow our leaders' orders... and we're still going to end up dead. Tell me you guys... don't you think it's pointless? Don't you think it's stupid?"
The only response to Toma is the impatient click of a tongue in the darkness followed by someone else's sigh of annoyance.
"I can't take it any longer," says Toma. "I hate this..."
And now he is sobbing.
"All I wanted was some money and maybe something better to eat and maybe nicer clothes. I would have been happy with that. What a mistake I made, taking work like this. I never should have done it..."
Kaim keeps all his senses open for movement in the night.
Aside from himself and Toma, five other soldiers are crouching down in the darkness. Not bad: all are experienced warriors. They would not have been able to put up with Toma's whining otherwise. If they let themselves get angry and started shouting at him or grabbing him by the throat or whaling away at him, they would just end up consuming their strength and energy before their "work" started at dawn.
If this is an assemblage of men who know how to keep their silence, the chances for "life" are that much greater, assuming, that is, that the talkative, weeping man does not become too great a burden for the rest of them.
Still sobbing. Toma continues to curse his fate.
Suddenly, something is different: something stirs in the silence.
This could be bad, Kaim thinks, sharpening his attentiveness still more.
When dawn breaks, Toma will get in our way. Because of him, the possibility for "life" will wither. The mercenaries know that, and because they know it, they might do whatever it takes for them to secure for themselves even the slightest added chance to live.
"I don't want to die here. I tell you. Not now, not here, like a worthless dog. You guys feel the same way, don't you?"
Moonlight shines down from a rift in the clouds.
For a split second, Toma's tear-stained face appears in the darkness. He is even younger than Kaim imagined from the sound of his voice. He is practically a boy.
The clouds hide the moon again, and thick black darkness enfolds everything once more.
A dull light stirs in the deph of the darkness.
Without a word, Kaim darts, wind-like, toward it. He was able to gauge the distance between himself and Toma during the flash of moonlight.
Kaim grabs Toma's arm. Something hard falls to the ground. The dull light flashes again, this time at their feet, and melts again into the darkness.
A knife. Driven by the fear of death. Toma was trying to slit his own throat.
Toma twists away and tries to free his arm from Kaim's grasp, but Kaim chops him in the solar plexus.
Without uttering a sound, Toma passes out.
With Toma slung across his back, Kaim strides through the darkness.
Eventually Toma wakes and thrashes his legs to get loose.
"Stop it! Let me go!"
Kaim lowers him to the ground.
"Every once in awhile, the moon comes out. Check your direction when that happens. Go straight toward the setting moon," Kaim says gently.
"What the hell are you talking about?"
"It's the only way you can get out of here."
Kaim has chosen the thinnest part of the enemy's encirclement. Of course, there is no guarantee that getting through here will save him. From now on, Toma will have to believe in his own luck and abilities.
"Are you coming back, too?" Toma asks.
"No, I'm going back. You escape alone."
"Why? You come, too. Let's both escape. Come with me!"
Toma clings to Kaim's arm as he pleads with him, but Kaim gives him a hard slap on the cheek. The flesh of that cheek is too soft to belong to a veteran warrior. It is the flesh of a boy. A kid.
"You go alone."
"To live, that's why."
"What about you? You want to live, too, don't you? You should run away with me. You don't want to die, do you?"
Want to live? No. Kaim has no great desire to live. He lives because there is nothing else he can do. He lives because he has to. Toma is far too young--his own burden of life far too fragile--for him to know the pain of such life.
"We live to fight. That's what mercenaries do."
"Get the hell out of here. You're ruining it for the rest of us."
"You guys'll never win this battle. So why not run away?"
"It's our job to fight."
With that, Kaim turns on his heels and starts back the way they came.
Toma stands there, watching Kaim move away, and a moment later he himself darts into the western forest.
To fight or to flee: Kaim cannot know which holds out the greater promise for life. He also believes it is better not to know.
"I hope you make it, boy," he mutters, walking on.
The eastern sky is beginning to brighten little by little. Soon the enemy's attack will begin.
From the western forest, a few birds take to the air.
Perhaps it means that a small-scale battle has started in the silence. Or that the poor young mercenary has been felled with his back to the enemy.
Kaim does not look back or break his stride.
He feels certain he has seen that talkative mercenary before. Before the war broke out, the boy was selling fruit in the market along the highway. He was a good boy, took good care of his mother, the women of the market were saying.
Live a long, full life, Kaim wishes for the boy as he himself walks on, glaring at the lightening eastern sky.
ShaydeTweak 16:30, 12 March 2008 (UTC)