As it turns out, the medics were able to find enough people to bring the total number of survivors up to an auspicious 47. So we only lost nearly 85% of our force in that one brief charge over open ground. After doing our best to salvage what we could from the supply depot (which ended up being just about nothing), we made camp for the night in the ruins of the demolished buildings. At least we didn't have to dig trenches this time--though Vladimir was
assigned to personally dig all of the latrines by a grinning, vindictive Haraldur. Something about insubordination.
Vlad would never be insubordinate, so they clearly had the wrong guy.
I woke up early the next morning, but wasn't the first one up. Klore and Haraldur were both sitting around a central campfire talking, so after an indecisive moment of rubbing my hands together to warm them up in the morning chill I walked over and joined them.
"Morning, Endymion," Haraldur said, nodding at me as I sat down. "You're up early."
"No earlier than you," I said. "Besides, early to rise, early to strike."
Klore laughed. "Never thought I would hear that
old platitude again."
"So what's going on?"
Haraldur indicated a datascroll. "This came from Headquarters last night. Orion's pulling back his troops and civilians and trying to draw us in, stretch out our supply lines and exhaust our charge. As we experienced here, Genesis is taking a scorched-earth policy: leave nothing behind for the Flame Dawn to use."
"Is it working?"
"Is the strategy working? Are our supply lines being stretched too far? Is our advance slowing?"
Haraldur shook his head. "Not considerably. There's not enough Genesis-controlled territory to retreat through for that to work entirely, and Bromich's been hard at work on the logistics end to make sure we don't run out of soldiers, food, or bullets--though the lack of any materiel to scavenge is certainly putting some of the larger battle-groups in a pinch."
"So where to next?"
Klore took the datascroll and swiped down, revealing a map. "Here. Genesis Industries forces have been blowing bridges, but they've kept this one up to evacuate civilians. Our job is to take it before they can destroy it so we can use it to move forces into their heartland."
"But we don't have any transports."
"Astute observation, soldier. No puffy we don't have any transports, but you know what? We've got feet. So we're going to use 'em. Travelling light, we should outpace the Genesis refugees and arrive before they're all across. In the confusion we'll be able to take the bridge with minimal losses."
"There are only 47 of us, including the wounded."
"Your powers of observation are as keen as ever, soldier. Have you considered telling Bromich of your gifts? There'll be another battle-group right behind us, a division of knights under Kali. Good veterans. If we can hold the bridge until they arrive, or at least slow down the evacuation until they arrive, we'll be victorious. Those bleeding-heart GIs would never blow the bridge until all of their citizen-employees are across." Klore spat. "We do this the Flame Dawn way. Strike fast, strike hard, and keep hitting them until they give up."
It was then that a horn announced the wake-up call to the rest of the troops and the entire camp began to stir. Haraldur stood up, and I was reminded of how comparatively short he was. "If you don't mind, I'm going to use the latrines one last time before we break camp," he declared with a smile. "Endymion, I suggest you gather your things and get ready to march. It's going to be a long day."
Within the hour, the soldiers who were combat-ready (some 32) were marching along a paved road in a column, cursing the clear skies and bright sun. "What a day, though," I had said, marching alongside Lysimachus, Vlad, and Gwendolyn, who had also survived the charge. While none of us had ever really interacted with her before, we were basically the only survivors of our original group of aspirants so we had decided that 1) she must be pretty lucky/brave/skilled and 2) we may as well stick together.
"Ah yes, I always wake up in anticipation of unnecessarily brutal violence and a long day of worthless scavenging." At this point, I shouldn't have to tell you that Vlad was the one who said this.
"You should really cut back on the sarcasm," Lysimachus noted. "You're already in enough trouble with Haraldur as it is."
"Besides making me dig latrines, which I'll admit is certainly not my idea of a good time, there's little our brave leader can do to me," Vlad said with a wave of his hand. "Trust me, latrine duty is a small price to pay for the relief of being able to use sarcasm."
"You're too much, you know that?" I said bitterly, rubbing my one leg as we marched. Apparently the wound hadn't completely recovered, and after the previous day's charge my muscles were extremely unhappy to be marching.
"If you've got breath to speak you're not marching fast enough!" Klore shouted from the front of the column. "All soldiers, increase pace!"
"Puffy," I swore under my breath.
"That's what you get," Gwendolyn shrugged as she stepped up the pace to keep up with the rest of the column. We quickly sped up as well.
By the time that a halt was called for dinner and to make camp for the night, my legs felt like they had been through Torment and were actively trying to find more ways to make me feel pain. I really don't want to know how far we marched today
, I thought, before adding or how much farther we have left to go.
As we ate our field provisions, Haraldur stopped by our campfire. "Good news is that the Genesis position is within our reach. Moreover, their scouting drones haven't sighted us yet, so we still have the element of surprise."
"Any word from Headquarters?"
Haraldur nodded. "Kali's battle-group is close behind us and fresh. Once we've taken the bridge we're also all going to be promoted. By the end of tomorrow we'll be footmen--and a footwoman," he added, nodding to Gwendolyn, "of the Flame Dawn."
"Excellent," I said, the pain in my legs fading just a little bit.
Haraldur nodded. "Indeed. I think we can all look forward to real food and being treated as real soldiers instead of as cannon fodder."
That was a disturbing thought, and it stuck with me that night. Given my exhaustion from the day's march I should have fallen asleep right away, and most people did, but I couldn't. "Cannon fodder." Was that all we aspirants were to the likes of Bromich and Aberion? Klore spoke of how a tactical retreat or delay could save lives, but the Dawn had put little effort into us as soldiers. We were just bodies with guns and swords who charged forward into obliterating fire. Cannon fodder. Not "real soldiers." Part of me didn't want to believe it, to think that way, but it made a grim sort of sense. There were so many people who joined the Flame Dawn as aspirants and so many people who died in the process that devoting resources to every soldier from the start was, technically speaking, wasteful. So you waited for the ones who survived, who proved their worth and bravery and luck. And after a few battles culled the aspirant pool, then
you started to train them. To invest resources into them. To make them into fine soldiers.
The mortality rate as you moved up in the ranks dropped markedly. The vast majority of aspirants died. With footmen, it wasn't quite so bad but still many, many died. Once you were a knight, you were much more likely to survive and retire. And the paladins, the elite, well they practically never fell in battle.
But cannon fodder? It's as though we weren't being treated as fully human until after enough of our fellows died and we lived. What separated me from those who were cut down? Were they less brave? Slower to move, to react? Just unlucky?
The next morning we woke up and marched towards the bridge, moving as fast as we could. But before we even got there, the entire face of the war had changed. No, it was more than that. The entire face of existence had changed. After that morning, things would never be the same.
So I added in another section to this chapter to better transition to where the next chapter starts (by the way, don't fall off that cliffhanger). But really, this is the end of this chapter. For real this time. But as always I am open to feedback (please, give me feedback!). Although I may not get to chapter 3 promptly, I definitely plan on continuing with this work.
On a different note, I went back and looked at my original (and very brief) attempt at writing this, which took a very different take on things. It was kinda funny, looking at how the story progressed between then and now. Some things I just transferred right over, but a lot of fundamental aspects to the story have changed since then.