Salvador J. Ojeda
Avor Antos stared at the envelope given to him by Commander Briav, nearly crumpled against his chest. It had the border and seal of a discharge that was neither honorable nor standard.
“Commander, you can’t be serious!”
His commander, Balinor Briav, had already turned his attention back to the war table in the center of the tent. Avor winced as the light from the lanterns bounced off from the elven commander’s glasslike hair, sending a prismatic spray of rays toward his eyes. Without facing him, the commander spoke plainly. “My decision has been made. Return home.”
“I’ve only been here for a week, sir!” Avor was tempted to tear the missive, but knew it would only make his situation direr. There had to be some way of convincing the commander to reconsider. “Surely you’ve gotten the reports from training. I was the fastest instrumentalist in my platoon. My flute was second only to an elven vocalist. I haven’t even had an opportunity to prove myself on the battlefield!”
“Precisely.” The commander flared his fur cape back at Avor, the silver lining -the subtle and lone symbol of his rank- acting as further dismissal. “Better you leave now before you get yourself killed. An instrument is only as good as the fingers that play it are steady.”
Avor’s hand gripped his wrist tightly, his frustration mounting. “Is it because I wasn’t blessed with the voice?” His hands flew forward to cover his mouth, but it was too late. The commander had finally turned, eyes wide at the accusation.
“No, excuse my outburst, sir! It was unacceptable.” Avor gave a quick salute, but with the wrong hand. After a minute passed with no response from the commander, Avor dropped to the ground, prostrating himself. He didn’t know if there was a punishment for false accusations of prejudice, but he dreaded the possibilities.
“Private, enough. Cease your groveling.”
Avor stayed on the ground, but finally stopped smacking his head into the dirt to look up at the commander. While he was visibly shaking, fist clenched, the commander spoke calmly.
“I can assure you, Private Antos, my decision isn’t out of blind contempt for man. You see plenty of other men in this camp, correct?”
“Yes, though I was the only human in the mugic unit.” Avor lowered his gaze to the ground again. His teachers did always complain that his tongue was quicker than his senses, but it was never this bad. He hadn’t even used the proper title of “tonalcrafts” for his method of warfare, instead using the name that was common in the rural areas.
The commander scratched his thick glass beard. “I suppose that can’t be denied. You were indeed the only human assigned to the tonal battalion. Still, my decision did not come from such a petty basis. Rather, it came from your character.”
Avor finally rose, if only onto his knees. “Could I be so bold as to ask what in particular?”
“A tad late to ask for permission now, wouldn’t you say?” Commander Briav offered his hand. Avor took hold at the wrist and picked himself up onto his feet, wiping his forehead with the back of his other hand. The commander motioned him to follow, as he approached the table again.
Avor could see it was not just a map of the valley they were assigned to defend, but of the entire region between the capital and their destination. There were markers, marblestone soldiers, positioned just as the troops were around the camp. As Avor tried to count them all, the commander began.
“Each soldier here represents a squad of five men. In total, we are 300 strong in this camp alone. At least eighty of those being human.” Avor shrunk his head into his shoulders as he felt the commander glancing over at him.
“Of these 300 men, ten including yourself are being sent home tonight. Four are elven.” The commander whistled, a flash of blue emanating from his hair and lips, as two markers from the camp jumped, landing in front of Avor. “This is because you are all showing far too much fear.”
“So we are expected to be fearless, sir? Even in the wake of this strange enemy?”
“Rarely is the enemy not a stranger to an individual in wartime, private.”
“Sir, I have heard,” Avor’s hands fumbled behind his back, “things about the enemy.”
“Do tell. I’ll confirm what I can.”
Avor paused as he gathered his thoughts, trying to not let his tongue get the best of him. “They say that the enemy has crossbows that yell and shoot hot metal.”
The commander offered nothing in response save for a matter-of-fact nod.
“Carriages that roar and move on their own.”
“Fire that rains from a clear-blue sky.”
“And we are expected to show no fear?”
“Now, I never said that. However, we are to show courage in the face of danger.” Avor felt the commander’s hand on his back as he was urged back to the table. “Do you notice anything else about this map, past our position?”
Avor scanned the map again. Nothing seemed strange until he looked to the northeastern corner. There were markers there, despite that the camp was well in the south of the map. As he looked closer, he noticed markers that weren’t soldiers mixed in. Civilians. This was the village they had passed two days ago.
“Each of those represents fifty citizens. In total, 757 innocents are behind us. You see, we need courage not just for ourselves, private.”
Avor watched over the small civilians, his eyes ultimately landing on the shape of a woman. Carrying a child in a sling, it reminded him of his mom and his little brother. He could hear his brother’s first words, various combinations of “mama” and “potato”. His eyes soon drifted over to a stocky male figure, that looked just like his dad if he had ever decided to shave again. His father had thankfully been kept from the draft. Instead, his forge was kept active day and night producing sharp steel for weapons and core strings for guitars, as well as pieces for finer instruments such as joints for flutes and bells for brass horns.
“I understand, sir. What you’re saying, and also why you chose to dismiss me…” He took another look at the envelope. “I would still ask you to reconsider.” Avor stepped back from the table, saluting with such fervor that he was likely to have a bruise in the morning. “I’ve sworn an oath! To the people of this nation as much as to those I hold dearly. While I still have the same fears, I would much rather face them myself than force them onto those I am sworn to protect.”
The commander stood quietly, watching Avor. As Commander Briav’s gaze moved over him, sizing him up, Avor could hear the sounds of the camp.
Hammers hitting tent stakes. Weapons being sharpened. Elves whistling intensely to start fires, or singing for leisure. Men tuning instruments, or telling stories. It was now so clear to Avor. The same fear he held in himself was hanging in the air, over every action in the camp. He was far from being alone in his fear, and yet he was one of the ten shaking in his boots. The shame that had begun gripping his heart was forced away by the resolve to stay.
Finally, the commander rolled his shoulders and breathed a heavy sigh. He reached into a drawer of the war table, pulling out a pair of fine gloves. “Hand over the notice.”
Avor placed the discharge into the commander’s outstretched and gloved hand as if it was his death sentence being overturned, the relief flowing through his arms as the paper was freed from his grasp. The commander tore it to ribbons and cupped what remained in his hands. As he brought it to his mouth, he began to whistle. As the piercing sound grew louder and the glow in his hair and lips brightened a bright orange, the paper slowly rose out of his hands and began to catch fire. Once he hit the right pitch, the entire swarm ribbons erupted into a short-lived blaze. Avor nearly jumped back, but kept his back foot planted into the ground.
“I… I didn’t expect such a formality for a simple private, sir.”
“Private, I have lived for far longer than any deserve, and have learned many things. One, is that a life is nothing to scoff at.” He ran his hand across the edge of the table, his eyes set intensely on the camp location. “It can pass in an instant. For a soldier, possibly even quicker. Those like you, who would willfully put their faith and life into my command, have my full respect.”
Avor stood dumbfounded, unsure whether to bow or salute. So, he did both.