Qasin waded slowly into the ocean until the gentle tide rolled over his knees and pulled at his feet. He looked at the water surging toward him and then away again and grinned. A fitting place for men to die; the currents will pull them out and bury them before they even have time to be forgotten.
“Smiling before a battle, dear? How unbecoming of a king,” Eve said from behind him. “You should be giving a rousing speech or something of that sort: inspiring the men, letting them know of the glory they will earn at the battle today.”
“Let the monsters in their minds and the beer in their guts tell them the words they need to find courage,” Qasin responded, not bothering to turn around. “I don’t have what they are looking for.”
“Aren’t you supposed to though? You’re their king. You’re their leader,” Eve said, resting her arm on his shoulder.
“That is why I am here; that is why I will deliver them victory.”
“It isn’t just about giving them victory. You have to give them hope.”
“You have made it abundantly clear since we started traveling together that I am not cut out to be a king,” Qasin said, frowning. “Now is not the time to try and affect imaginary regal properties when the tangible and real properties I do have will keep many of these people from dying.”
“Qasin, look behind you,” she said, using his shoulders to turn him around. “What do you see?”
He turned to look at the sight. Behind him were thousands and thousands of men lined up across the beaches. The sand on the flat shores crept inland from the water for almost a hundred feet, but none of it could be seen. Instead, the only thing visible on the beach were the feet and bodies of the densely packed soldiers who blocked his view of the shore completely. The soldiers, a mix of White-Horns and Humans, were all armed and armored in their native battle attire. Above them the Black-Wings soared through the sky with bows, arrows and knives. They moved in the sky like it was their home, causing sporadic shadows to dance over the Minotaurs, Satyrs and Humans below them.
What am I supposed to be seeing? No detail stood out in particular. All he saw was troops: men waiting to die and praying to live. What does she want me to see this time?
“Qasin, this isn’t exactly arithmetic. What do you see?” she said softly, pressing again. Her voice, like always, crawled through his ears and wrapped around his mind.
“I . . . I see fear,” he said, not sure if it was the right answer.
“And what do you think will kill the most men on the battlefield today?” she whispered again.
“Fear,” he responded. “Fear kills the weak and thins the cowards from the fight. It keeps a man alive before the battle, but it is the first thing to kill them once the blade is drawn.”
“That’s right. There are thousands of these men serving you, the king, who are afraid. My brother will come, as I promised he would, and he will protect your people from death . . . But until he does, you must protect them from fear,” she said. He was half focused on her words and half focused on the feel of her hands on his shoulder and the hint that her cheek may brush against him. “You must keep them from dying of cowardice before the fight has a chance to turn in their favor.”
“What do I say though?” he asked, turning around to face her again.
“Qasin, they are scores deep. You only need to tell the front few the obvious then assure them that they will be safe,” she said, taking his arm like she had so many times before and allowing him to escort her to within earshot of the men. “They will cheer, the ones behind will cheer, and then the ones behind them will cheer. No-one besides those in the front line will know what you said, but they will all be filled with borrowed bravery.”
Why do I trust her so much? Qasin asked himself as he walked to the front of the line of soldiers on the beach. Why do I get the feeling when I am around her that I am more of a puppet than a man?
“First, you will tell them that they might die. It’s a rather terrible fate, but it’s unavoidable for some of them,” she continued to dole out instructions as they walked. “Then you will tell them that they will live forever in the things they fight here today to protect.”
“I see,” he said, mentally taking notes. Whether he wanted to believe he was a puppet or just a king listening to an adviser, he could feel that what she was saying was the best counsel for him at this moment.
“After that, it’s important to make the opponent seem like the devil himself, which isn’t hard at all given how no one here knows anything about them. So all you have to do is explain that they won’t just convert people: they will burn their homes, rape their wives and enslave their children. The more wicked and intolerable the outcome of a loss, the more vigorously a man will fight to prevent it.”
“What do I say after that?” Qasin said, turning to her. He had spent years listening to councilmen and chancellors give him advice, but none had been so insightful about how to manipulate people. None of their wisdom on how to conduct himself had felt so right.
“Then, my dear, you just tell them the truth: that they can win.” She had stopped walking and motioned him forward with a gesture of her arm indicating that he should go on ahead of her.
Why does everything in life as a king always go back to speeches and talking, he thought to himself as he walked up to the line. Why must I give yet another public speech? When have I ever been good at this? A few years of public speeches made men want to kill me, and now I have to give another? He bemoaned himself, but his feet carried him into position, paces away from the giant armored Minotaurs and Humans who stood in front of him.
Then he saw him: a true coward standing in the front line. It was a Minotaur, so his face was hard to read, but the eyes were a giveaway. He was shaking as he held his axe, and his erratic breathing did nothing to hide his wavering nerves.
“Are you scared?” Qasin asked.
“No, sir,” the White-Horn denied. As a Human it was odd for Qasin to imagine that these bull-like beasts could feel fear, and he might have believed the foul creature had he not seen the quivering himself.
“Really? Because you should be,” he said, sticking to Eve’s script and fighting his instincts to tell the soldier everything was going to be okay. “Out there, just over the horizon, there is an entire army that wants nothing more than to kill you. Even now, they are only mere moments away from being in range to make that a reality. You should be afraid. You might very well die here today.”
The other White-Horns and Humans turned their head to follow his movements as he started to pace back and forth in front of the Minotaur. It wasn’t so far for the Minotaur to ever be out of earshot of him, but he decided he didn’t want to just stand still. Many of the Black-Wings had even dropped down out of the air and hovered close enough to listen in.
“In fact, no matter how well you fight today, there is a real chance that a stray arrow or bad footing will get you killed, and there simply isn’t anything I can do to stop that from happening.” Qasin saw faces flatten and twist into frowns as he said these words. I’m doing what you said, woman, and it isn’t working. He wanted to curse Eve as he watched their despair grow. This was not the rousing burst of enthusiasm he had expected from following Eve’s formula.
“However, it’s okay,” he said, stopping his pacing a moment.
“It is?” The Minotaur was wide-eyed, clearly unsure why.
“It is okay because it’s something we have to do if we want to live,” he began, trying to find the words he needed. “Even if we die here today, we won’t be gone. Our families will carry our name, our friends and lovers will carry our memory, and our people will carry our culture. Every aspect of who you are will live on for generations in stories told of the sacrifices you make here today. You, my tall friend, will live on in the hearts and minds of the people you save here today long after you fall in battle.”
The Minotaur’s hands stopped shaking a little bit. His eyes were still wide, but, like the Humans, Satyrs and other White-Horns around him, he looked like he was actually listening intently to what Qasin had to say–a response Qasin wasn’t used to when giving a speech,
“On the other hand . . . If you run, all that you are will be gone tomorrow. These foul fowl beasts–they don’t just want to kill you. They want to kill everything that made you who you are. If you turn around today and try to live your life free from danger, their wings will carry them across the sky faster than you can run, and they will mercilessly destroy everything you love. They will murder your fathers and mothers. They will use and discard your women, sisters and daughters like worn out clothes. They will butcher your sons and infants. Do you know why?”
“No, sir,” the Minotaur said, his snout having turned red as Qasin talked. “Why?”
“Because a giant ball of fire in the sky told them it was okay. Because they wanted to, and their imaginary friend said it was a good idea.” Qasin’s words had rattled out, he was making it up as he went along, but he could feel animosity towards the birds growing.
“What?” a Human next to the Minotaur shouted out angrily.
“I kid you not. They are coming here to kill you in the name of a false god. They will murder and torture everything you love because their priests tell them to do it.”
“No!” A Black-Wing who was listening closely called down at him from the sky. “No they won’t. I will kill them first!”
“Will you?” Qasin arched his head back to respond to the voice above him. “Every person here will have to kill at least two of them to stop them from taking what they want.”
“Forget two! I’ll kill ten of the bird brains!” the Incubus yelled back.
“You can stick with ten! I’m going to kill twenty of those feathered fools!” A Vampire near the Incubus joined in the shouting.
“I’ll kill thirty of those things before they take me down!” A Satyr, two rows back, loudly announced his intentions, slamming his staff into the ground. “If they worship fire, I’ll teach them to fear ice.”
Soldier by soldier, the fear faded, and the bragging began. The fight hadn’t even started yet, and the soldiers were already boasting of how many they would kill. Qasin, who had killed thousands in his life, thought that it was amusing. They thought five, ten, or even thirty was a large number to slay in a single fight.
He was about to say something to interrupt their mirth, but Eve was suddenly beside him again, stopping him by putting her hand on his shoulder. “That wasn’t so hard, now was it?”
His heart felt light for the first time ever after giving a speech. It wasn’t hard; it had worked. They weren’t chanting his name, and they weren’t inspired unto glorious victory, but they weren’t afraid anymore. They were boasting, yelling, and bragging over one another. All across the shore and the skies, one soldier after another was telling his comrades how many of the enemy he would leave dead, and how he would do it.
“No. No it wasn’t,” he agreed, turning around. He wanted to relax and enjoy the feel of the water rushing back and forth across his feet with the waves before the fight, but the sudden shade let him know he’d lost his chance. The men’s valor and vigor were about to be tested. The enemy had arrived, and in such great numbers that their naturally white wings were dark from the shade cast by fliers not even visible higher above them. The king had expected ten or twenty thousand avians to match the five thousand men he had managed to assemble, but it looked instead like fifty thousand birds were split between flying and resting on the boats that sailed towards him.
You’ll kill ten? Twenty? Thirty? You better, or else there won’t be a tomorrow for your people, he thought, pulling out and raising his sword to signal the casters hidden inside the army behind the biggest of the Minotaurs. War had arrived, and given the enemy’s number, it had come on a scale even he had never known before. Thousands upon thousands of men on both sides would die today. He knew that good men would die–good men on both sides–and yet he was stuck with a smile he couldn’t wipe off his face.
“It’s okay to smile,” Eve said before he could muster up the will to feel guilty about his joy in the face of so much impending death. She lifted her hands from his shoulders. “It’s okay to be happy right now. It’s just who you are,” she said, blowing him a kiss before she and her black dress simply vanished into the air.