The realization finally struck Diluc. This is really happening, he thought with mounting terror. . This was no drill. This was not practice like back in the camp. This was real. And he was not ready. Not ready at all. He was sweating, and his legs were wobbly with fear. He was a coward. He should never have left the farm! He should never have–
"Boy?" asked a voice from behind. "What's your name?"
Diluc couldn't answer. His tongue felt heavy. It was difficult to speak anything while watching that other army form lines across the battlefield. It seemed so civil. Neat. Organized. Spearmen in the front ranks, javelins and cavalry next, and the archers at the sides. They wore equipment like Diluc's: leather jerkin and knee-length skirt with a simple steel cap and a matching breastplate. The officers and commanders had full suits of armor. They sat astride horses, their guards clustering around them with breastplates that gleamed river blue and forest green.
"Boy?" asked the voice again, loud and firm. Diluc turned around to face a gnarled and weathered veteran soldier. "Name?" he asked.
"D-d-diluc sir," he stammered.
The veteran nodded. "Good. Diluc. You know you're named after a great war hero?"
"Yeah," Diluc answered. His father had named him after Sir Diluc the Dragonheart, a great warrior from centuries ago. He did not like being reminded of that. The minstrels sing that Sir Diluc alone could fight ten men at once on the battlefield and still win. At the moment, Diluc was trying to fight his full bladder and was losing spectacularly.
The veteran pretended not to notice. "Well, that doesn't matter now, I suppose. I'm guessing this is your first fight. Are you scared?"
Diluc looked up miserably. "I’m going to die, aren't I?"
"No." The man had a gruff voice, but somehow that was comforting. “You’re going to be just fine. Keep your head on straight. Stay with the squad.”
"But look at that army! They're all so prepared and menacing and ready. I can barely hold my spear! I'm dead meat. Dead mea–"
"Boy," interrupted the veteran. He placed his hand on Diluc's shoulder. "You will be fine."
"How can you know?" it came out as a plea.
"Because lad. You are in my squad."
Diluc realized with a start that the veteran was his squad leader Varkov. He'd heard about him from the other soldiers. A good soldier and a brilliant leader. But he was still not convinced. "So?"
"My squad never loses men. Never. All you have to do is follow my orders and stick with the squad."
Before Diluc could say anything, a horn blew from behind. Varkov turned around to face the rest of the squad. "Get ready soldiers!" he called out.
The men around Diluc shuffled, anxious. The vast army repeated the sounds, the stillness giving way before eagerness. Hundreds of feet shuffling, shields slapping, clasps clanking.
Varkov walked up to the front and addressed the squad. "When you hear the horn again, run. Right at the enemy. Don't falter. Just charge."
A soldier next to Diluc spoke up. He did not look much older than Diluc and looked just as scared. “Run? But we’ve been trained to march in formation! To stay in our line!”
Before he could answer, the horns blew.
"Go! Run!" came Varkov's orders.
Diluc didn’t have much choice. The entire army started moving in a clamor of marching boots. Some men began yelling, the roar taken up by others. And in a few seconds, the line disintegrated, and his squad broke into a dash, running out into the front at full speed. Diluc scrambled to keep up, panicked and terrified. Suddenly, the ground wasn’t as smooth as it had seemed, and he nearly tripped on a stone. He righted himself and kept going, holding his spear in one hand, his shield clapping against his back. The distant army was in motion as well, their soldiers charging down the field. There was no semblance of a battle formation or a careful line. This wasn’t anything like the training had claimed it would be.
The enemy had a lot of archers. Diluc's panic climbed to a peak as the first wave of arrows flew into the air. He stumbled again, itching to take out his shield. But Varkov, who was right ahead of him, grabbed his arm and yanked him forward. Hundreds of arrows split the sky, dimming the sun. They arced and fell, dropping like bolts of lightning. The other squads in his army raised shields. But not Diluc's squad. No shields for them.
And the arrows slammed into the middle ranks of the army, behind him. Diluc glanced over his shoulder, still running. The arrows fell behind him. Soldiers screamed, arrows broke against shields; only a few straggling arrows landed anywhere near the front ranks.
“How?” he yelled at Varkov. “How did you know?”
The man grinned. “They want the arrows to hit where the men are most crowded. Where they’ll have the greatest chance of finding a body.”
Diluc nodded. He knew he should feel sorry for his comrades from the squads behind, but he was just glad to be alive at that moment.
Varkov scanned the battlefield. He shouted at this squad. "We'll crash into the enemy lines in a moment. Get into a V formation. Shields up! Spears out. Stick together and poke them bastards. When one's injured, the man behind him will take his place. No matter what happens, don't break the formation. You get that?"
The squad cheered and got into their positions. Diluc was herded down to an end of the V formation, a more protected spot than the others. The enemy was getting closer. The squad braced. Diluc took a shaky breath. The leader raised his spear. He heard a hundred voices yell. And the enemy was upon him.
The squad met the enemy in a crash of spears and shields. Bodies shoved on all sides, and Diluc was spun about. In the jumble of friend and foe, dying and killing, he grew overwhelmed. So many men running in so many directions. It was pure chaos. Sounds of clanging, crunching, and screaming churned in the air. Diluc's heart hammered in his chest. He kept stabbing at anything ahead of him. At one point, an enemy soldier managed to yank his weapon from his hand. He nearly killed Diluc when Varkov flew out of nowhere and knocked the enemy out. He was gone before Diluc could thank him. After a few more minutes of soul-wrenching mayhem and confusion, the tide of the battle suddenly passed his squad. The enemy was now engaged with the main part of his army. Behind them.
"It's done," boomed a voice. Varkov moved from his position and signaled the squad to do the same. "Our work is done. Now the cavalry and the main spear body will do the rest."
The squad let out a collective sigh of relief. The field doctors rushed up to the squad and began checking their injuries. A man was knocked unconscious from a blow to his head, but the doctor declared that the man would be alright and have nothing but a bad headache for a few weeks. Many others, including Diluc, had stab wounds, cuts, bruises, and scratches but nothing serious. No one had died. Diluc did not die.
Diluc sat down on a rock, nursing his bandaged arm. He looked around the battlefield and saw many soldiers, friends and foes, wounded, groaning, and dying. Some were sliced open, their insides spilling out. He grew nauseated. Varkov walked up and sat down beside him.
"Just like I told you would."
Diluc gave a slight moan and bent forward, hugging his knees. Tears ran down his eyes. "I am not going to do this. Ever again. I'm leaving the army. I'll go back to my father's farm and plow those fields for the rest of my life. I am not made for this–"
The man stopped him, "You can't."
Diluc looked up. "What? Why?"
Varkov put a comforting arm on Diluc's back. "When you signed the army contract, you pledged to serve here for a minimum of four years. If you try to leave before that, they'll punish you. If you do manage to run away, you'll be branded as a deserter and hunted to death."
Diluc's eyes widened. "I...what? How? They told me that–"
"They lied. They know peasant boys can't read. They fool you into signing a contract you don't understand."
Diluc felt miserable. He squeezed his eyes shut. "So this is my life now. Shitting myself in every battle until I die in one."
Varkov spoke kindly, "Now lad, you'll definitely die if you keep saying that. I know this is difficult, but you have to accept your reality. You're a soldier now. You belong to a squad. You'll fight in dozens of wars. And in each battle, you'll fight for your life. And you'll have no one but your squad to aid you. They will be your spear and your shield. And that's true not just for you, but for every soldier in the squad. Now, if you want to live, you want a disciplined squad. And that's what I'm trying to make here. Discipline is the soul of an army. It makes small numbers formidable and procures success to them all. So stick with your squad at all times, and you'll do just fine."
Diluc looked into Varkov's eyes. "Even then. It's all so...uncertain. What do you say to yourself after every battle? How do you keep going on?"
Varkov smiled. "What do I say to myself? I just remind myself that I finished one more dance along the razor's edge. I might've almost died yesterday, maybe I'll die tomorrow, but I'm alive, gloriously alive, today."
Author : Sai Srujan Reddy