Amid a myriad of moans and groans, the lad opened his eyes to the sharp pain that ran through his shoulders and knee.
Breathing unsteady, vision shaky. After he took a look around, he then looked down nervously at his own body. He had to check whether he had lost any limbs. That was his only concern. After all, this place was where one could face the tragedy of losing an arm or a leg at a moment's notice.
The happy news was that his limbs were safe, without any of them missing. He had been put on a crude bed, and the arrow wounds on his shoulders and knee had been bandaged.
It seemed that he was somehow spared from the worst -- the lad needed some more time before he could feel relief in the fact. He pressed both of his hands on his face, so as to let it sink in that he was indeed alive; all the while, his lifesaver approached from behind. She was holding a tray, on which was a pitcher and two pieces of bread.
"Good morning. You hungry?"
"We're in Antigua Castle. Our home. So, hungry or no?"
"...N-no, just gimme water. Don't wanna eat anything now."
"So you don't want this bread, yeah?"
The lad objected to the question with a light wave of his hand, and Shera asked for a confirmation while pointing at the bread on the plate. Her eyes sparkled, as if being showered with fortune.
If he were to say that he was kidding just now, he would surely be met with a terrible fate. At best, he could expect to be lightly tapped on his wounds.
"Y-yeah, you go ahead and eat. Ain't got the appetite."
"Hey, thanks. It'll be trouble later if I don't eat when I can, you know. Really though, I won't give it back now even if you ask for it, yeah?"
After pouring water into a cup, Shera bit into the not-at-all appetizing bread. A smile of beatitude was painted on her face as she chowed down on the dry, hard bread. Her manner of eating gave the impression of rabbits gnawing intently at carrots.
She would be so happy whenever she was eating, the lad thought.
"...Say, what happened to our platoon after that?"
"Half of Jira Division was destroyed. The soldiers that managed to escape are all worn-out, too. The only ones from our platoon that's left alive are me, you, and... three others. It's a shame, but we couldn't bring our Leader's body back."
Shera took the second bread, tore it into strips, and popped them into her mouth. Seeing how the girl was enjoying it, the lad absent-mindedly reached out his hand, only to be caught mid-way. She intended to make good on her every word, it seemed. The lad ended up grumbling.
"...Would it hurt to spare me a bite or two? It was my bread, you know..."
"And didn't I tell you that I won't give it back?"
Left with no other option, the lad drank the water from his cup. While savouring the coolness that passed through his throat, he was overcome with sentiment.
"So our Platoon Leader's dead, huh..."
"We'll never get bean sweets from him again. What a shame."
There had been occasions when the late Platoon Leader would give away bean sweets of unknown origin. Shera would peck them up like a bird that had grown accustomed to being fed by people.
On rarer occasions, he would also share the gifts that he had received from the harlot folks.
Contrary to his stern expressions, the Platoon Leader had been a surprisingly caring soul.
"...Well, that's true. Real shame, yeah."
The glorious Jira division, upon the loss of their commander, had been routed in an instant.
Upon the news of the Surprise Attack Unit's defeat, Yaldar and the Third Army under his command had caused an uproar out of panic, retreated with the vigour of a startled hare, and slammed their gates shut.
The opposing Royal Capital Liberation Force had absorbed the Jira Division remnants, to say nothing of their rising morale.
The Liberation Force officer who had struck Jira down, the young Finn Catev, had been hailed as a Hero.
The Empire, which had been keeping a watchful eye on the whole picture, had accelerated their military expansion, pronouncing their aspiration of crossing Althia River, the national border. Apparently, the had begun to amass military force in the continental northwest as well. Currently, the opposing nations were exchanging mere glares, but if war were to be declared, the conflict would likely engulf the whole continent.
At the present, it was the Kingdom's civil war, not one that involved neighbouring nations. But it was evident to all eyes that it was simply a matter of time.
"The enemy officer was a pretty big deal, apparently. I got a big reward when I brought back his head. Now, listen up and try not to be surprised..."
"No worries. As if you can do anything to surprise me anymore..."
"They treated me to stew with a bunch'a meat and vegetables. Isn't that awesome?"
"Jealous, eh?" asked Shera as she produced an elated grin.
"...Good for you. Never thought I'd be hearing food talk at a time like this though..."
"Oh, and they made me the acting Platoon Leader. I was just a private, so I've been promoted to Temporary Second Lieutenant. So, yeah, all that happened. I'm your superior now. Nice employing you."
To Shera's abrupt words, the lad choked up.
"GEH-HOH--! Your ridiculous scythe is enough of a joke as is, dammit. My wounds're gonna open up again..."
"Hey, I wasn't lying. Dunno how, but it did happen."
"...For real? Good gods, it's the end of the world... The hell was the top brass thinking?"
From the lost battle, Shera had brought back the heads of enemy soldiers. Furthermore, she had also carried back heavily wounded comrades.
She had not been promoted to succeed the Platoon Leader, so to speak; anyone would have been fine to fill the role. Apparently, selecting one to command a miscellany of reservists was a choice of no consequence.
Shera had been more happy about the food she had been treated to than the position she had received.
An extravagant meal, served only to high-ranking officers. The Company Commander, deeply impressed by Shera's achievements, had treated her to such an exceptional meal.
By the demerit of being in aftermath of a lost battle, it naturally was not a full course, but she had gotten the chance to relish stew with meat and vegetables aplenty. A luxurious stew, even its bean ingredient was on a whole nother level compared to what Shera had eaten up until then. Its thick, scalding pottage looked as if it was enchanted. She had been deeply moved when she stuffed her cheeks with its contents together with bread; she would likely remember it for the rest of her life. Having momentarily lost her sense of reason, she had devoured it with great greed.
Forgetting that the lad was right in front of her, Shera revealed a look of ecstasy.
"...Oy, you still there? Your eyes are going places, lass."
Shera's daydream was interrupted. Having been brought back to reality, she scowled at the lad.
"Pretty rude to talk to your superior like that, don't you think?"
"How about you act the part first? You got to be Platoon Leader for a bit and all."
"Too much work... Which reminds me, with your injuries, you won't be able to return to your duties for a quite a while. So when you're back home, you'd best to live a quiet life to your fullest. Work your sweat out in the fields, and if you have the chance, send me some delicious food."
"...Oh yeah, that's true. Good goods, I'm so lucky... or maybe not."
"You're lucky, I say. You won't have to go out and fight anymore, just like you wanted, right? I'm glad for you."
"...Am I really, though?"
The lad was, deep down, relieved. He had all his limbs intact, and he would live on without having to participate in this increasingly violent conflict. As if to vomit out a myriad of emotions, he heaved a sigh.
"We might never meet again after you're out of here, so... Take good care of yourself."
Shera held the tray under her arm, turned on her heel, and started to walked away.
The lad hurriedly called out to her. He had forgotten to say something important.
"Ah-- w-wait a sec!"
"What is it?"
Shera walked back to the lad's side.
"Th-thanks for saving me. I really mean it. I would've died if not for you, so... thanks."
The lad lowered his head, so as to not make eye contact. It was out of pure impulse; he feared that the Death God's scythe would be brought down on his neck.
He and Shera had bantered as good friends, but when he remembered the earlier spectacle, fear resurfaced from the depths of his mind.
"So how about you treat me to a meal someday? With cheese, if you can get some. It's a promise, yeah?"
Shera smiled, then left the patient-crammed hospital ward with bread in hand.
There was not a trace of the so-called Death God left in her retreating figure.
[Headquarters, Antigua Castle]
One middle-aged man, indignant in expression and vexed in voice, was shouting at the feeble Staff Officers. From his conduct, one might even mistake his intellect for that of a brigand.
This firmly-built man was General Yaldar, commanding officer of the Third Army Corps of Yuuz Kingdom. He was a man of short temper and lacking prudence, but he was feared as an unrivalled figure in the Kingdom when it came to military offence.
His division of heavy infantry and cavalry, nicknamed the Steel Division, specialized in repeated, fierce forward charges. Boasting the tenacity of an iron fortress, they were proud soldiers which Yaldar had raised with his blood and soul.
He had subjugated insurgents and bandits on numerous occasions, and had attained countless victories against the Empire; he was a military man who prided himself on his achievements.
It was a grave disgrace on his part that ten-thousand soldiers had been lost in the enemy ambush, and that his trusted friend, Jira, had been struck down.
Tormented by enough rage and shame to pop his veins, he grated his teeth until his lips bled.
"Damn them, damn them, damn them--! Damn the Rebel scum! They're sullying the glorious name of the Third Army!"
"...Your Honour, please calm yourself. It is true that we had lost ten-thousand men, but our main force is still flawless. It is vital that we fortify our defence of this castle posthaste."
The Chief Staff Officer, Colonel Sidamo Arto, calmly advised. At first glance, one would see him as a gentle man, but in the Staff Officers' sagacious eyes, he projected severe strictness.
Born to a fallen noble household, he had risen thus far with nothing but his wits. For the sake of success, he had been painstaking in establishing personal connections, and had endured countless dishonours to his pride.
As results, he had attained not only his position as Chief Staff Officer of the Third Army, but also Yaldar's trust. Still at the young age of thirty, he could anticipate further success if given good support.
He had been opposed Yaldar's idea for surprise tactics, but had failed to stop the enthusiastic officers; all he could do in the end had been to give some polite warnings. If Sidamo were to provoke any of his superior's displeasure, his social status could vanish in an instant; there was no way he could have stood firm in his objection.
"That goes without saying! However, we had been entrusted with command over a hundred-thousand men from His Majesty himself -- We cannot afford to simply take the defensive! Else, we'll be made a laughingstock of the other armies--!"
Yaldar spat as he unleashed his fury.
In the Kingdom, disputes over the seat of Field Marshal had been intensifying among fellow Corps Commanders. Yaldar had been one of the prime candidates, but had been knocked down the ranks in the wake of this lost battle. He could not afford to lose the next one.
"The Liberation Force -- no -- The Rebel Force had placated the Jira Division soldiers who had surrendered, adding their numbers to their own. Furthermore, they are moving forward in the expansion of their influence."
Another Staff Officer reported the status quo of the Liberation Force.
"Keeping our arms folded will only serve to feed the Rebels' impudence. Those fools have forgotten their obligation to the Kingdom! We shall exterminate them, family and all!"
Yaldar displayed his aggression in slamming the table. Documents scattered, and one among the Civil Officers gathered them in a hurry.
"Across the border, there is currently no movement on the Imperial Army's part. Reports from spies indicate that they are stockpiling armaments and training their men, however. Taking careless action is dangerous, I fear."
One among the Staff Officers offered his counsel so as to refrain others from making hasty decisions, but was flat-out rejected.
"Deception by misinformation and false alarms, I say. Has this not happened time and time again? Manipulated by suspicious sources, going on a fool's errand; do not say you have forgotten!"
"Fortifying defences of the Kingdom's territory is common practice. Calling it a fool's errand is an exaggeration, do you not think? What do you plan to do if the Empire were to break through the national border!?"
"So what if they do? As if it matters how many weak soldiers they send!"
With the exchange as the trigger, the Military and Civil Officers started quarrels of their own accord. Such was frequent; Sidamo could no longer stop them. It would be asinine of him to intervene.
"Your Honour. The Rebel Force is drunk with victory; now is a great opportunity. Our troops overwhelmingly surpass their numbers. Strategies are unneeded; let us crush them with a frontal attack, open and aboveboard!"
When one among the Division Commanders valiantly raised his voice, other Military Officers followed up in agreement.
'They never learn -- Not even the hard way.' Sidamo was exasperated, but it did not show on his face. Brawn over Brains -- Such had oftentimes been the Third Army's priority.
"Mm-hmm, your proposal is agreeable. Let us strike fear in them as the Steel Army Corps! Chief Staff Officer Sidamo, do you have any comments?"
"Yes, sir -- The location of Rebel Force occupation, Salvador Fortress, is heavily deteriorating and is unfit for defence. Though I fear it is likely that we will be ambushed while marching on Althia Plain."
He spread a map on the table and pointed to the location of the plain.
"So be it. Our heavy cavalry will round them up in one fell swoop."
The Heavy Cavalry Officer moved a horse chess piece all the way to Salvador Fortress.
"Small numbers will be the death of them. Crushed if they stay in the fortress, overwhelmed by our numbers if they come out to the plain. Victory is in our grasp, would you not say?"
Laughing in good humour, Yaldar took a drink of water from his cup.
"There is no doubt in my mind that the enemy is formulating a plan. Sufficient caution against a fire attack is imperative, lest we repeat Major General Jira's mistake."
Sidamo warned, but the Heavy Infantry Officer brushed him off.
"The battle will be on an open plain; it is useless to worry about fire attacks. Even if they were to ambush us, they are few in number. We shall trample them down!"
"The enemy must be anticipating our path of advance as well. I am certain that they are laying down some sort of trap. We must not be negligent."
"I see that you are sick with worry, My Lord. You might die young at this rate."
The Officer in charge of Antigua's defence cracked a joke, and the other Military Officers raised some laughter.
The trio of officers sang of positivism. Yaldar had assigned them to their esteemed posts for their valour, and together with the late Jira, they had been called the Big Four. It could be said that their divisions made up the core of the Third Army.
"Your Honour. There is no such thing as excessive caution. We ought to dispatch scouts and exercise utmost vigilance."
"I know, I know. Chief Staff Officer Sidamo's comments are agreeable as well. As you say, we shall be sufficiently cautious... and also thoroughly crush the enemy. Sidamo, my man, will that be good enough?"
"Yes, sir -- For my ideas to be accepted into consideration, I am grateful!"
Sidamo lowered his head in a gesture of respect, and Yaldar nodded several times in approval.
"Now then, we of the Third Army have determined our course of action. We shall raise the heads of the Rebel wusses, so as to dispel Jira's regrets. We will attack with a force of eighty-thousand, and the remaining ten-thousand will defend the castle. The day after tomorrow, we depart for the front. All hands, get your preparations in order posthaste!"
The Military Officers saluted, then took their leave from the Operational Headquarters.
Sidamo pondered things over for a short while, but after lightly shaking his head, followed the rest outside. Their course of action had already been determined. At this point, all he could do was focus his effort into achieving victory.
[Campground, Antigua Castle]
Since an army of hundred-thousand had just arrived, Shera's company had been expelled from the barracks that hey had originally occupied. Forced to camp out, they set up shabby tents and gathered to relax around a bonfire.
"Good gods... Thanks to the oh-so-honourable officers, the chill's hurtin' me to the bone. Ahh, so bloody cold. I'm gonna freeze to death, man..."
It was currently winter. The season may be harsh for one to stand by outdoors, but the rank and file were not permitted any complaint.
"If the Military Police heard you grumbling like that, they'll be happy to give you a preaching, you know. Don't get me involved."
"I swear, the time I die and the time I get a preaching don't sound so different at all... Don't abandon me, man."
"Shut up. And go over there. I don't swing that way."
"Ugh, they're giving us less food, too. And our new Platoon Leader is, you know, her. What were the higher-ups thinking?"
One among the soldiers grumbled while idly throwing pebbles.
"Heh. If only she had some meat to her chest, I wouldn't ask for anything more. She just eats so much, so where'd they all go to? Man, how I wish she was a bit bigger..."
"It's all about the arse for me. Shame that our dear Platoon Leader ain't got a lot anywhere."
The soldiers liberally shared their opinions on their new superior officer.
A platoon formed by merging the parties that had been devastated by the previous battle. Such was the unit that Shera would lead. A unit it may be called, but its troops amounted to a meagre ten.
A man, glancing sidelong at the soldiers as they evaluated Shera as they pleased, started to mutter in an odd, gloomy expression.
"...Shera -- I mean, Platoon Leader Shera -- She saved me. She may look like that, but her skill is the real deal. She massacred the enemy by herself. You all should know that much."
"Yeah, yeah. Heard that lotsa times already. But y'know, with someone that mighty as our boss, we might get to live long lives."
"I'm hopeful... Well, the important thing is to not die -- whatever else doesn't matter. How about we stay out of trouble, watch from the sidelines, and just hope we end up becoming Heroes?"
"Ha ha ha! Here, a toast to our dear Platoon Leader Shera, our Hero!"
Faces painted with lively smiles, the soldiers began to drink their liquor. Being the most enjoyment they could get in this cold, they downed cup after cup of warmed liquor in great cheer.
The soldier who had originally been Shera's colleague shivered as he tightly grasped his bowl of soup.
"Hey hey, somethin' wrong? Not lookin' so good there, man."
"N-no. It's nothing. Nothing at all."
"What a weirdo, eh. We don't get soup often, y'know. Hurry and finish up before it cools. 'Tis happy booze time right now, so c'mon."
The one who had bailed him out was Shera. If not for her, he would have died out there. Therefore, he could not bring himself to see that he saw a Death God in her.
He would not, even if he were to clearly see the Death God's figure. He feared that if he did, the next one in line might be himself. He would never know where its blade might be swung from. Therefore, he had to make sure not to attract its eyes.
'--But... what is this feeling? My fear is fading, little by little. It's like my senses are numbing.'
'No, perhaps this is...'
After finishing his cold soup, the soldier stretched both his hands toward the bonfire.
An expression of calmness emerged on his face. Before he knew it, the freezing terror in his heart has vanished.
Topic of gossip and newly-appointed officer Shera, boastfully wearing her Second Lieutenant insignia, was sitting down on the rampart.
Though greatly disgruntled that her rations had been decreased, she had found success in asking for bread from the colleagues she had saved. She was now about to enjoy a wonderful meal while gazing at the beautiful stars.
"Mm~hmm~~ Got five o' them. This ought to be a happy meal."
In good humour, she unwrapped the paper package, tore some of the bread into strips, sprinkled them with sugar, then popped them into her mouth. As the sweetness spread throughout her mouth, Shera could not resist smiling.
Using up what little she had of her wages, she had obtained valuable sugar from the Supply Unit. If the gold was paid, they would pass out all sorts of things. When she had happened to see the other soldiers during a transaction, Shera had decided to give it a try as well. Others had approached Shera to barter or gamble for her luxury items, but naturally, she had refused them, having planned to savour all the food to her heart's content.
She took the time to chew thoroughly, so as to keep them until their last taste. They were on a whole nother level compared to the usual bread.
Returning her sight from the starry sky, she looked down at the campground bonfire.
The soldiers were lively, partaking in their meal while laughing in good cheer. She wondered, while they were drinking liquor, what manner of trivial talk they were having.
Though they would always complain about how terrible the food is, everyone would, for some reason, liven up during mealtime.
Looking down at the bread in her hand, she sprinkled the rest of the sugar over it, opened wide, then sunk in her teeth.
She felt, compared to earlier, that its good taste has somewhat diminished.
By the time she finished up the bread, the light from the campground had already been put out. The only illuminations on the castle now were of the moonlight and the rampart watchfires.
The curtain of night has fallen, and the vicinity was enveloped in silence. While licking sugar off her fingers, Shera slowly stood up.
After doing a long stretch, she suddenly felt a presence below the rampart and turned to concentrate her eyes there.
"--Suspicious figures spotted. I've got some free time, so... let's go check them out. This might get me some delicious stuff, too. Would be nice if I got to eat some fruits. It's all been dried stuff these days..."
While imagining some ripe, juicy fruit, Shera instinctively licked her lips.
What stood in her line of sight was a suspicious group of people, looking around restlessly as they moved, and taking extra care to not raise a sound. They were shouldering large bags, looking as if they were in the middle of a moonlight flit. She could see that there were a few people, but not their exact numbers.
"Alright-y... Let's go."
Shera flicked with her finger the Second Lieutenant insignia on her chest, descended the stairs, and ran to the sneaky party.
The scythe on her back shone under the moonlight; its crooked blade gleamed a cruel gleam as if in craving for its next prey.
Next Episode (In Progress)