Clockwork, part 3 of 6
I remember... being nineteen years old and commanding an imaginary battle in my father's barn, just as I had before he took me to the city and gave me to the clockmaker's guild. What my imagination had provided in my childhood was now brought to me by scouts and runners - maps, troop movements, supply information. All was laid out before me on a table taken from the abandoned farmhouse. Much like the combat I led before, there was no blood, no death. I pushed bits of painted wood around the map and made notes, entire battles playing out in my mind with no consequences.
My superior officer was watching me, drinking some sort of foul-smelling alcohol from his flask as always. "You believe these people? The countryside is lousy with them." I just nodded, focusing on the maps. So many contingency plans to make. So many conditions. If there's another dust storm, if they reach high ground before us...
"The ignorance of some people, thinking they're descended from characters in some fairy tale."
"I suppose, sir. It's a common enough fairy tale, sir."
He squinted for a moment, nearly sneezing but stopping short for the hundredth time. Recovering, he sneered at me. "You think your mother was the bogeyman?"
"No, Commander. Not that I remember, sir."
My only memory of my mother was of her telling me that very fairy tale, brave soldiers with swords of fire chasing down evil witches and sorcerers. Those soldiers, fairy tales or not, were the ones I pictured myself leading as a child.
"There's another being brought in now." He said, standing and walking over to lean on the table where I had eaten all of my meals for the first five years of my life. He ran his hands along the worn wood, across the carved letters that spelled out the imaginary warrior's oath of loyalty. "So many. You don't seem bothered, tactician."
"I trust your judgment, sir. I'm just more concerned with the enemy at the moment."
His face tightened, and he leaned in close to me. I could smell the alcohol on his breath, dripping from his pores. "What about the one yesterday? He was in possession of an active rune! That's blasphemy, tactician." As always, he nearly spat out the title. I hadn't earned my status as a junior officer as far as he was concerned. "Doesn't that make him the enemy?" It had been an active Power rune, handed down in his family no doubt. It was carved into a square of marble, glowing a bright green and covered by some type of small white crystal I had never seen. I had wanted to examine it so badly.
"Of course you're correct, Commander." I lied.
The people on the outskirts of the cities were the ones most suffering from the endless drought. They had nothing, and were attacked by bandits or forced to abandon their land. Either way, half of the farmhouses we came across were empty, like this one.
When the guards brought the next accused before the Commander, I remember thinking that he looked familiar. I had probably seen him around my father's farm. He was bone thin, his clothes threadbare and filthy. Behold, the face of the enemy. That was the first moment when I started to wonder if the actual enemy was any more deserving, any more a threat. They were just the people who had the misfortune of living in the next country over. They weren't causing the drought or the political tension any more than this man. One guard pulled out a leather bag with the seal of an inquisitor on it. I could already feel what was inside the bag, and I reached out with my mind... I kept my face calm, looking at the map in front of me.
"Just this?" the Commander said, disappointed.
The metal plate he held was tarnished, and the four runes on it were barely visible. With them inactive the charge was far less; it was possible they would even release the man - who had masked his surprise at seeing the runes dark better than I had expected. My superior looked at the runes, probably trying to justify a greater charge, and at that moment that he squinted again - the ever-present dust threatening to make him sneeze. To the guards, it must have looked like he was concentrating.
Almost involuntarily, I directed my will at the runes and lit them.
As the guards took the drunken bastard away, I looked from the runes to the carving on the table. Two of the words certainly matched. The other two were some of the only runes I had never found translations for... My mother's voice floated through my head as she told me of the soldiers pledging themselves to the cause, wholly and completely. Could I truthfully say that any part of me was dedicated to this? Real battles were being fought so close to me, the only imaginary thing was my loyalty. More to the memory of my parents than to any army real or otherwise, I spoke those four words again.
Heart and Mind, Without Conditions.