Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Lonely Among an Army

            Ander Red sat in a corner of the camp, enjoying a few minutes of calm. They were running him ragged with missions from dawn to dusk. Everyone else was just as busy, so he couldn’t complain, but it didn’t make him any less tired.
            He could see the entire camp from his spot, as well as the valley below him. If he strained his eyes, he could see tiny dots moving through the hills below. Scouts. They were constantly sending people out to comb through the area. So far, there hadn’t been much, but if they found what they were looking for… Ander shivered.
            Ander rubbed his eyes, feeling how puffy they were from lack of sleep, before turning his attention to the camp itself. It had been hastily slapped together, little more than a collection of tents and stones built up as small fortifications. They had arrived earlier that day and they would leave by morning. People moved around quickly, securing the area, building, or delivering messages. One man was rapidly approaching Ander.
            “Hooded Elite Red,” a man said, saluting him with a fist over his heart. “I have a report for you.”
            Ander studied the man. He was young, in his mid-twenties, but he wasn’t highly ranked in the military. It made Ander feel slightly self conscious. He was only eighteen, but given how the man was treating him, being a Hooded Elite meant he outranked him. Ander never quite got used to the feeling despite being a Hooded Elite for four years. “Go ahead,” Ander said.
            “We just received word from General Bister’s group,” he continued. “They were about two days north of here. His men found Raskin of the Desert Rose there.”
            “How many men did he have?” Ander asked.
            “General Bister had three thousand men under his command. They cornered Raskin. He was alone.”
            Ander frowned. Three thousand against one. It was the kind of battle that seemed so unbalanced that it bordered on cruel. But he knew what was coming. Men had already started calling this conflict The War of the One Man Army.
            “General Bister and his men were killed. There were five survivors.”
            A silence followed. Ander let it sit, thinking of it as a small honor to pay the dead. “Thank you for your report. Is there anything else?”
            “No, sir.”
            Ander nodded and the messenger left, leaving him alone with his thoughts. It was hardly the first time Raskin had destroyed a Regostian army, but it was the largest group he’d taken on. It would be a blow to the morale of everyone, but it also presented a more fundamental problem. How do you fight someone who can take on an army alone?
            They knew very little about Raskin. In fact, Ander could sum up everything they concretely knew about him with three facts. Raskin was powerful. Raskin didn’t tire. And Raskin wanted to burn the Kingdom of Regostia to the ground. Everything else was speculation.
            If those three things were true, then it didn’t matter how many men they threw at him. There were plans in the works to attack him with Hooded Elites instead of regular soldiers. A Hooded Elite could probably fight a hundred soldiers, nowhere near as many as Raskin, but it might level the odds. Maybe a few dozen could take him on.
            “You’re Ander Red, aren’t you?” someone asked. Ander realized he’d gotten stuck in his thoughts and brought himself back to the present. The person talking to him was his age, wearing the same black cloak as Ander. Another Hooded.
            “I am,” Ander said, shaking the other man’s hand. “I’m sorry, I don’t recognize you.”
            “That’s okay,” he said with a smile. “I met you on one of your missions down south, but you were in a rush. I’m not surprised you don’t remember me. My name is Joran Tanner.”
            Ander’s eyes flicked down to Joran’s wrist, decorated by several stars. “You’re a Hooded Elite,” he noted, a little surprised.
            Joran gave him a mischievous look. “I am.” Joran sat down next to him. “What happened to you?”
            It was an odd question, but Ander immediately understood his meaning. No one reached Hooded Elite without seeing some truly horrible things. Given enough time and training, anyone could rise through the ranks, but only those with something at stake were willing to suffer the path to get there.
            “My parents died when I was young,” Ander replied. “I had to protect my two little brothers, Damon and Cyril. To keep them safe, I joined the Hooded.”
            “Ah, family,” Joran said, with an emotion Ander couldn’t quite place. There was a story behind that word for him. “You want to get back to them, don’t you?”
            “Of course I do,” Ander replied. “But if it keeps the war away from them, I’d rather be here.” Joran nodded. “How about you?”
            “I’m from the Martolac,” he replied, talking about a slave state down south. It made Ander pause. “Born and raised in slavery. I don’t know how old I was, but I started running. I hid for a while. And when hiding didn’t work, I fought. I wasn’t trying to, but I somehow got over the border and ended up in Regostia. They found me and realized I would make a good Hooded. I think I was eleven when I joined.” He rolled up his sleeve, revealing a long horizontal scar that raced up his arm from his wrist. “I got this just before I made it over.”
            “I’m sorry,” Ander offered.
            Joran waved it off as he covered the mark. “It’s all in the past. I got lucky. I lived and I escaped.” He paused. “I just hope some day I can go back. Help all those people who weren’t so lucky. I owe it to them.”
            The heart beating in Ander’s chest broke at the pain in his voice. “I hate what’s happening in the Martolac,” Ander said delicately. “I hope I can help you free them some day.”
            Joran smirked. “I guess we have to survive this war first. If they send Hooded Elite after Raskin, we’re likely candidates to fight him.” A brief silence followed. “You know, I’ve been wanting to talk with you for a while, Ander.”
            “Me? Why me?”
            “Because you get it.” Ander hadn’t been expecting that answer. He raised an eyebrow as Joran continued. “Everyone looks at you and sees the young genius who became a Hooded Elite before he was twenty. A force to be reckoned with. Unlimited potential, but a little too young right now. I know what it’s like; people have told me those exact things to my face.” He paused. “But it’s not really what we are.”
            Ander studied Joran’s face. There was a profound sadness hidden in his eyes. It mirrored something deep inside Ander and he was tempted to say something, but didn’t know what he could say.
            Joran smiled. “We’re both lonely, driven by something no one can see. Both of us carrying around something that hurts to even think about. And we can’t even share it with anyone else. But I can see the fire in your eyes. You’re the kind of person who will keep going no matter what. You want to move forward, not get shackled to the past.”
            His words resonated with Ander. For a moment, he was tempted to tell him the full story of why he was there and what his goals were. He forced himself to take a deep breath and refocus as he realized he really didn’t know much about Joran. But he knew that he was a kindred spirit.
            “I know what you mean,” Ander said, keeping his thoughts in check. “Sometimes, all we can do is move forward.”
            Joran chuckled. “Listen to me going on. We have a war to fight and I’m talking about loneliness.” He stood and shook Ander’s hand again. “Good luck.”
            “You too. If we’re both free, we should talk again sometime soon,” Ander said.
Joran just grinned.

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