Natalia has set off on her latest mission. The first step is a tour among the front lines. What horrors await within the mud of the trenches?
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Chapter Five – To the Front
The military of the Derdainia Imperium is a complex structure with a variety of ranks, some earned through battle and others by blood. At the lowest of level, the infantryman is grouped up with eight others called a Lance. One of the nine members is the leader of the lance and is known as a lance vezeto. Two lances form up into a cespaut with a vezeto acting as it’s leader. Finally, two cespauts form a lacespaut with a sergzeto as its leader. Typically, the lacespaut will be accompanied by support roles such as heavy armaments, a runner, communications, et cetera. In the end the group totals out to a minimum of forty individuals. This structure seems to work for the nation on the front lines and I think much can be learned from it. However, there are fatal flaws that the Savant should consider. The most obvious is that failures of humanity can cause the sergzeto to lead thirty-nine others into ruin. I believe the Savant should still value the single soldier over the folly of the group mind.
-Auruko Tem, Study on Military Structure
The heavy rattling of metal and the churning of the engine drowned out most sounds behind the metal walls that made up the truck. Natalia sat at the back of the carrier. She was slumped forward, watching the muddy tracks left in their wake. Her eyes were in a daze as her mind played through a slew of different memories with Revu, all culminating to her final hug before leaving her with the caretakers working in the encampment. She tightened her grip on the railing of the back of the door until her knuckles turned white.
A distinct odor came to her nose that caused her to frown in distaste. The smell of the trenches, a mix of mud, unkempt soldiers, animals, and the constant lingering presence of rot and decay.
“What is that horrid smell, Vezeto Erőshal?”
Natalia glanced over to see the broad-shouldered vezeto sitting in a chair at the front of the tight truck, arms crossed. Erőshal’s hardened gaze took in the thin, lanky young boy sitting squished on the bench.
“It’s death, Lumek, a truly beautiful mistress.” Erőshal continued.
“If I had to guess, you’ll be one of the first to meet her!” Another man said across the bench from Lumek, a grin visible across his chubby face.
“Careful, Crav, or you may meet her instead.”
“What do you know, Teiver? You-” Crav spat, his focus turning to a straight-faced woman with crossed arms.
“Enough!” the vezeto barked. “Focus up, we’re getting close to our destination!”
Natalia looked away, her mind turning back to the peace of the forest with Revu last night. What would I give to be back there? Or even better, back home. I wonder if big sis has had a child yet. She covered her nose with a gloved hand. The smell is getting worse. Natalia poked out slightly to see to the sides of the truck towards different tents and equipment set up in the field with some artillery pieces.
“The smell is getting to you, I can tell.”
Natalia sat back and saw the man across from her, his hands squeezing the dark gray helmet in his lap. “Yes, surely, it isn’t only from the trenches, right?”
“No, it is.”
“It’s that bad?”
“There’s nothing great about it, but you’ll make it through. Just keep your head down.” He studied the talon emblem on her shoulder before leaning forward slightly. “We haven’t formally met and seeing how you’re the gamayun attached to the lacespaut… I’m Lance Vezeto Vykter, leader of the first lance under the first cespaut. You’ll meet Windstor soon, he’s the second lance leader.”
Natalia averted her gaze under his black-eyed stare. “I’m Natalia Ludmila, a first gamayun.”
“I’m curious, you’re new to the trenches and yet experienced enough to be a gamayun. What battles have you taken part in already? If you don’t mind me asking that is.”
“I’ve been up in the Bosakil Mountains. I’ve seen the trenches from the distance on occasion. It just seems like a big mess…”
“That’s one way to describe them.” He chuckled, his grip on the helmet tightening slightly before he relaxed again.
“The Bosakil Mountains you say?” An orange-haired girl asked, leaning forward to take Natalia in with keen eyes. “What’s it like up there? I’m sure a lot colder.”
She shifted in her seat, “Well, it’s a lot quieter than here.”
“Oh? Everyone too scared to shoot at each other cause it’s cold?” The girl giggled. “My name is Lulilia.” She playfully pushed against Vykter’s shoulder. “I have the duty of protecting this sorry fool, while Hukven gets to take all the glory with his bombastic attitude, then sleep the rest of the day off.”
The man next to Natalia stirred from his nap, “Lulilia, anyone tell you that you’re too damn loud?”
“Someone’s gotta do the talking around here!” Lulilia retorted.
Natalia heard a comment from the vezeto down the aisle and turned her attention away while everyone else listened. She muted out the talking and focused on the task of pulling her gloves from within a pocket along her coat. Her fingers rubbed along the leather of the gloves before she pulled them on. Eagerly she rubbed her gloved hands together, finding them comforting in the rapidly chilling air of the oncoming night.
The slow setting sun gave off glimpses of its final rays from behind thick clouds that promised another freezing rain soon. The barren fields became ablaze in that orange glow. The dirt path trailing behind her became replaced by a thin forest of beech trees, their branches devoid of leaves for the coming winter. The trees were torn and bent; many nothing more than stumps of dead bark. The forest drifted away to make room for more fields of pale green grass and weeds only broken by the occasional tree.
She looked away from the sun’s rays at the sound of someone clearing their throat.
Erőshal stood up, his hand taking hold of a strap bolted into the frame of the canvas shielding the truck. He looked up and down the two benches full of men and women. “A few of you have been here before, so this may come as old news, but I still expect you to listen. When we disembark, you’ll find yourself on the famous Glodoran Trench Line. This line has been held for eleven years between us and the Union. Here we stopped the Union’s advance and shall push them back!” Erőshal paused to take his time in meeting the gaze of the different faces of the soldiers full of fear and dread at what was to come. “You all are integral in helping the Imperium advance.
“Yes, sir!” The assortment of soldiers barked.
Natalia nervously nodded, her gloved fingers running between one another. Seeing the men and women across from her visibly shaking or tensing up caused a shiver to run through her. Some of them are even younger than me. She glanced over at Vykter to see his eyes closed, hands running over his helmet.
“Glad to hear,” Erőshal chuckled. “I expect you all to show enthusiasm for any task given to you, is that clear?”
“Well, with that out of the way. I want to see you all for the return trip. Our Great Father would be disappointed to see any of your bodies litter the battlefield.” The truck began to slow before coming to a complete halt. “Make him proud, now then out all of you and into formation!”
Natalia climbed out of the truck and stepped to the side. Her attention drifted to the sight beyond, walking towards it she stopped at the edge, her heart beating faster in anticipation. From her vantage point a line of trees went in either direction. Sitting in the field before the trees were various artillery pieces with crates full of shells waiting at the sides. Soldiers walked among the pieces, talking and laughing as they loaded the artillery. Low hanging thick gray clouds drifted slowly bringing with them a cold chill. It’s just beyond those trees.
“Get into formation!” Erőshal barked, walking along the two rows of soldiers quickly forming. “I want us situated in the trench before the sun is finished setting!” He paused in his march to look over to Natalia. “Gamayun Ludmila, will you be joining us?”
“Yes, sir,” she absentmindedly replied, her free hand squeezing her heart to try to dull the beating. She began to turn from the view before pausing to squint her eyes. A barrier? She watched a shift in the air high above the Imperium trenches. “It has to be, that’s fortunate.” She murmured and began to make her way back to the group. Each line consisted of eight soldiers with another nine walking over from a separate truck. There’s so many people. More trucks were bringing up the rear along the muddy trail with a light armored vehicle driving past to head down the hill towards the artillery, its large wheels churning up mud along the descent. The roaring of engines starting to calm down as the various trucks parked to let their load of soldiers disembark.
“Admiring the view?” Erőshal asked at the front of the group.
“Yes, sir.” Natalia replied, and took up a spot at the edge of one of the lines of soldiers. Relax. She took a deep breath and exhaled trying to calm her nerves.
“I’m glad to hear that! Erőshal laughed, “The view is even better on the other side of the trees.”
Of course. Natalia leaned on one foot and adjusted her rifle along her shoulder. She watched Erőshal walk over to the approaching group of soldiers, the one in the lead saluting the vezeto with a tap of his boots.
The second lance got into formation; the man who had saluted walked over to stand besides Vykter. Must be Windstor. He looks way too clean.
Winstor’s uniform was kept in neat condition, even his boots. Muscles brimmed beneath his outfit, and his brown eyes had a determined expression like Erőshal’s. He pulled his helmet off temporarily to run his hand through his short black hair before readjusting the helmet.
As for Vykter… He’s definitely seen the front line, probably a bit too much. Natalia observed the blond-haired man holding his helmet, rubbing its surface again.
“Alright ladies and gentlemen, enjoy the final sight of the free Imperium lands beyond.” Erőshal stretched his arms out to the lands behind him, awash in the golden glow of the setting sun. “From this point forward, we shall defend hill thirty-seven with lacespauts fifty-nine and two-hundred-fifteen and shall stay there until relieved. Thankfully Sergzeto Alatur has gifted our cespaut with the protection of an esper.” Erőshal finished with an elaborate wave to Natalia.
Natalia felt dozens of eyes glance in her direction. She looked to the ground, trying to avoid their gazes.
“Now then, any questions?”
“What’s with the shimmer in the air?” a young girl asked. Her short, thin body shivered in both anticipation and the chill in the air. Her short black hair tickling her shoulders as a breeze passed through.
“An excellent eye, Reita!” Erőshal pointed to the air past everyone, high in the sky. Heads turned to try to catch a glimpse of the thin disturbance that could be seen by the naked eye if the light touched it just right. “That rune-powered barrier is created by the domovoy and protects us from Union shelling. Fortunately for us, in this region the Union do not have one of their own. Thus, we can hit them, and they can’t do anything about it!” He chuckled, garnering smiles from the soldiers. “Any other questions?”
“Are the rumors of a Leviathan being in the area true?” Krieger asked.
She heard the shifting of feet as whispers echoed down the line of soldiers.
“Yes, there have been sightings but its exact whereabouts are unknown.” Erőshal’s mood shifted to a darker tone as he studied the faces of each man and woman.
A woman spoke up. “When will we get to shoot Union scum, sir?”
Natalia turned, looking down the row to see the woman who had taken a step forward to ask the question. She was stocky, a heavy caliber piercer rifle strung across her broad shoulders.
Erőshal chuckled, bringing some smiles back to the group, “The enthusiasm is appreciated, Arulla. You won’t have to wait much longer.” He began to make his way to the front of the group. “Now then let’s get a move on!”
Near the back, Natalia trudged along the line of soldiers beginning to march down the muddy path towards the line of trees. Dread began to creep at her heart again. Here we go. She reached a hand to the revolver on her belt, the grip comforting her. A gentle hum filled the air and just as it came, the noise vanished. Natalia saw high above the barrier dissipate into the air with a gentle shimmer.
“Begin the barrage!”
She looked in the direction of the order to see a man standing behind one of the artillery pieces. The order quickly made its way down the line as the booming of the guns began. The ground itself seemed to shake under the powerful impacts. Turning her eyes to the sky, Natalia saw the arc of the fire vanish into the clouds. She squinted, trying to make out the descent of any of the rounds past the line of trees. A puff of smoke followed by a burst of fire caught her eye. The shock wave of the impact and the crackle of the explosion followed as more puffs of smoke appeared in the distance. “Reload!” The man called out as the operators of the big guns went to work removing the casings and bringing forward a fresh shell to be fired.
Natalia turned away from the guns to the pair of boys in front of her. Both thin with smooth skin, untouched by the front. Their uniforms were clean but not a perfect fit for either of them.
“No, are you, Ormzia?”
“Definitely not, especially with a gamayun with us!” Ormzia laughed and glanced to Natalia.
She met his eager, pale blue eyes, and quickly looked away.
Ormzia raised a quizzical brow, “Are you nervous?”
Natalia turned back, “No, definitely not.” She looked away again. “Just, haven’t dealt with the trenches yet.”
“Neither have we, but our vezeto will lead us to victory, there’s no doubt about it!” Ormzia’s eyes sparkled with excitement.
“Yea… definitely,” Natalia replied.
Lumek began to pull Ormzia forward with a faster step. “Haven’t you heard about espers?” he whispered.
“They use blood!” Lumek exclaimed, before quieting again. He peeked back to see if Natalia had reacted.
She began to slow in her step to drift away from the two young boys. Natalia sighed with relief once they continued on talking and left her behind without noticing. Always the same inevitable fear from everyone. Just how true is it that espers go crazy with the vials? She pulled her coat tightly around her and lowered her head in an attempt to avoid meeting the eyes of any other soldiers around her. The sickly remains of the line of trees started to surround the wide path on either side. Her downcast eyes took in the details of the scars wrought upon the trees. She looked out the corner of her eye to see the artillery pieces getting loaded with fresh shells before firing off another wave of destruction.
Natalia looked over her shoulder to see another lacespaut of soldiers catching up to her with another further beyond. The woman at the lead looking at her with a scowl.
“Catch up to your cespaut before I—” the woman continued before pausing as she noticed the emblem on Natalia’s shoulder.
Shaking her head, Natalia kept on walking.
Another salvo of artillery shells were shot off. The cacophony of noise took over Natalia’s senses, blocking all thought as vibrations shook her. A hint of the smoking powder fluttered across her nose as a breeze swept around her heavy coat towards the trenches beyond. The final shell was released and was followed by a brief stillness in the air before it was replaced by the liveliness of the camp. Conversations resumed among the soldiers only broken by the landing of the distant barrage.
“Keep moving,” Vykter said, stepping to the side and waved the others onward. With his hand outstretched he blocked Natalia’s path. “I have a question for you.”
She paused before Vykter’s hand. “Yes, Lance Vezeto?”
“If you haven’t been to the trenches before, then just how experienced are you? Are you ready for this?”
Natalia met his focused gaze, “I’ve gotten enough training,” she replied.
“How much exactly?”
“Why the sudden questions?” Natalia brushed his hand to the side and kept walking.
Vykter matched her pace, staying at her side. “I need to know what I can trust you with. You seem friendly enough for a gamayun, but friendliness won’t help us survive out here.”
The path began a steep incline up towards the top of the ridge that helped conceal the line of big guns. The dirt path that she walked on was lined with hundreds of footprints going to and from the trenches. “I can do the job. I have to.”
Vykter took a deep breath. “I suppose you do, and we don’t have much choice anyways.”
Natalia paused along the side of the path at the top of the ridge to look out at the expansive dead field waiting for her. Trenches zigzagged through the dirt in either direction, running parallel to the ridge. A light shimmer caught her eye at the rear of the trenches, the source of the barrier was nothing more than twisted metal nearly obscured by the dirt mound it was built into. In the distance, the puffs of smoke created by the barrage drifted slowly in the wind to reveal glimpses of the Union’s own trenches hidden within the ground. Between both lines was a dead land littered with craters that were filled with an assortment of horrors and diseases waiting to pull in the next victim. The entire scene became swallowed up by the night as the sun finished setting behind. The first moon was rising up in place of the sun to cast its silvery glow across the land. In that glow, Natalia saw it to her left far off in the distance. A towering single mountain alone among the plains rising up in the air, shrouded by low hanging clouds. The Primordial Tower.
“Well, seeing how you are attached to our cespaut, it’d be good for me to tell you everyone’s name.” Vykter took his position by her side and began to point at the front. “You already know the vezeto, with Lance Vezeto Windstor close by his side.” Vykter pointed at the head of the line of soldiers heading towards one of the ramps leading into the trenches. “Behind them is Windstor’s Lance, Yurahn, Randel, Ormzia, Toph, Lushaltor, Igurn, Puxila, and Onzetum.”
Natalia skimmed the lance, her attention mostly on the two just behind Windstor. Yurahn marched with a straight, rigid body, while Randel had a more relaxed pace, the man resting his hands on his visible gut.
“The next lance is under my command, you can see Lulilia and Hukven at the front with Arulla, Crav, Marxun, Lumek, Krieger, and Teiver just behind.”
Lulilia had her hair tied in two orange braids looped together. Hukven trailed just behind with his head lowered, a large dent visible in his helmet.
“And last, you have Reita at the rear of both groups, she’s the cespaut’s runner.”
Natalia spotted the young girl who had asked about the barrier from before. A light bounce in her step. “I hope you don’t expect me to remember everyone.”
“Of course not.” Vykter grinned. “I’ll formally introduce you to them all tonight.”
Natalia shifted on her feet. “Tell me, what do you think the vezeto is going to ask of me?”
“I expect not much with the barrier up. He’s already mentioned you working closely with me on the left flank. Something about you being needed there for repairs.”
“I’m not a domovoy…”
Vykter shrugged, “Vezeto’s orders, I don’t know much until we get started on the heavy work tomorrow.”
“What of Windstor’s lance and the other cespaut?”
“Windstor’s is to our right while the other cespaut led by Vezeto Dihetrik is covering the right flank with his two lances.” Vykter began to walk down the ridge towards the rest of the group.
Natalia followed behind him, “How many times have you been sent here?”
Vykter stopped abruptly in his trek.
She watched his weak smile turn to a sober one, eyes downcast at the gray helmet in his hands stained with dirt. “You’ve been here a lot, haven’t you?”
“Yes, it’s usually quiet, but…” Vykter hugged his helmet tighter. “When the charges happen…”
Vykter took a deep shuddering breath and resumed his pace. “I rather not talk about it.”
“I’m assuming it’s bad then.” Natalia kept to his side. “But surely it gets better with experience, right?”
He paused. “If by experience you mean getting promoted so you don’t have to be part of this, then sure. As long as you can live that long.” With a brush of his short blond hair he placed his helmet back atop his head and began walking away.
Natalia squeezed her fists together. This definitely is not very hopeful. She followed behind Vykter at a much slower pace, her head lowered once more. I just need to survive long enough to join up with Orsolya again. “Then its smooth sailing and probably better smelling too.” She whispered to herself while wiping at her nose.
Another artillery barrage drew her attention to the sky above. She spotted the thin trails created by the shells in the low hanging clouds above. Flashes of yellow and red appeared in the distance when the shells met barriers in the air. Several shells made it past to explode against the ground, sending a vibration that hummed along her boots.
Up ahead, she saw the various soldiers of the cespaut filing into an entrance of the rear trench line. A low roof battlement built into the ground was lit with bulbs running all along the walls and the path leading deeper into the trenches beyond. The battered trenches were worn with age and use. Constant bandages in the form of wooden planks, metal sheets, and sandbags were littered across any gaps in the defenses. Soldiers hid all along the line talking in hushed tones and shouldering weapons, their eyes constantly glancing over to the destruction happening on the Union’s side.
“Gamayun Ludmila! Taking your time to get with the rest of the cespaut?”
She turned at the stern, but high-pitched youthful voice to see Windstor standing at the entrance of the trench. “I’m getting some fresh air is all.” She took a deep breath to emphasize her point. And I really would rather be alone right now.
“Well enough of that, protocol states that all soldiers stationed on the front must be hidden as much as possible to avoid enemy detection.”
“Protocol?” Natalia shouldered her rifle and began to slowly make her way towards Windstor. “You sound like a young Baranfel now.”
Windstor raised a brow. “Stolános Baranfel?”
“Well, I’ll take that as a compliment then!” Windstor buffed out his chest more with a big grin. “Now then, come along.”
“You really shouldn’t.” She began to make her way down the path past him.
“Ahh, but Baranfel is quite the tactician!” Windstor chuckled. Seeing no response, he called out, “Well be sure to not go out anymore, best not draw unwanted attention within the trenches.”
Did he forget that I’m a higher rank? Not bothering to respond she made her way through the hall of dirt in a numbness. A chill clung to her skin as the ghost of pain in her side and left shoulder lingered briefly. It’s going to be a long time until I get back to you Revu, isn’t it? She reached for the canteen on her side and unscrewed the top. Even longer before I get home to see Mama. She brought the lip of the canteen to her dry lips. The cool water brought a soothing comfort to her chest. What a long day already. She sealed the canteen closed and made her way through the trench, eyes looking for a place to rest. The artillery barrage continued to linger with its destructive presence.