An Abominable Army

Rule #1: Obey orders.
Rule #2: Unless they’re stupid orders. Or misinformed. Or clearly a terrible idea.
Rule #3: Basically, obedience is what helps us maintain the discipline and focus to execute both simple and complex tactics. And intelligent disobedience is what allows us to remove the heads of those who only value servitude.
Rule #4: If your Commanding Officer wants to inspire in you the kind of loyalty that will get you to do something nuts or suicidal, because you have that much faith in them, they’d better earn it. And if it’s really insane, they’d better go first.
Rule #5: Do not trifle with the Envoy.
Note: We’ve never had a chance to enforce #5. Because she always takes care of it herself.

~Training Manual of the Dark Army (Volume I: “Fools Die”)

Those who’ve incurred the wrath of the Envoy like to say that she’s a ball of fury, that she never smiles, that she opens her mouth only to yell, eat, or (if presented with a major artery) to bite.

This is because they’re usually idiots, and this is why the Army doesn’t care that they’re mostly dead now. They’re wrong; if she were that way, she wouldn’t have this job. Fury is sometimes an asset in battle, but hardly in delicate political circumstances. The Envoy is not a diplomat; she is a messenger (some would say a “harbinger”, but that’s pessimistic)—but that’s a job which requires finesse and precision and measured calm. When The General wants someone to take a moment to reconsider an action, when she has a serious proposal to make, when a city has a final chance to avoid being taken apart brick-by-brick and reassembled upside-down and under water, the General sends her Envoy in.

(And if, sometimes, when she visits a place, a royal throat is cut in the night, or an object disappears, best to blame it on coincidence. Because The Envoy is too far away for there to be any point in blaming it on her.)

Sometimes, if she’s fresh from to enacting a visitation upon a hostile territory, she pause in her return to stop by the local troop encampment for an inspection. It’s always good to know your own strengths and weaknesses, especially when you’ve a fresh observation of the enemy with which to compare yourself. And with the upcoming War, and the strategic position of this particular battalion, the General would want to be kept in the loop.

Besides, she was curious; she’d seldom seen any city, friend or enemy, which was so on edge. The streets bubbled over with restless energy as the inhabitants spoke of nothing but the Commander and his marauders. There clearly wasn’t a person in the city who hadn’t escaped near-death from some almost-skirmish. Then again, there clearly wasn’t a missing broom that he hadn’t personally stolen, and, to hear the reports, there wasn’t a single puppy he’d failed to kick. That was interesting; vicious sadists are not often the best leaders of soldiery. That’s because “inflict and enjoy the most pain” is of limited utility. It’s good for certain cultures, certain wars, certain goals. The goal of a commander is to “achieve strategic objectives with the available military resources”. Contrary to popular belief, the two do not always mix.

(She’s not defined by her role; but she’s very passionate about it. The Envoy is not lacking in hobbies; it’s just that her hobbies are military history, meditation, and the study of obscure weapons and poisons. Those are perfectly fascinating things, and while it’s very much like her that they aid and assist her in her avocation, she enjoys them for their own sake. It’s glorious to be out in a forest, looking for a rare and fatal herb; it’s fulfilling to enter a newly-conquered city and eagerly head to its museums and archeological sites; and if you ever want to see a contented look on her face, just find her ensconced in her tent, surrounded by academic tomes relating to the martial past and sipping a cup of tea. Granted, the tomes are likely impounded from recent spoils of war, and the tea contains within it a pinch of poison, but still, happiness is where you find it.

(The poison’s an old Audoghastian trick; if one has studied toxins sufficiently, one realizes that it’s impossible to avoid them completely, if someone both determined and knowledgeable has decided to introduce one into your environment. But if you build up a higher tolerance, you might have a chance of living through the incident, finding your would-be assassin, and deconstructing the unwisdom of their life choices in a thoughtful and impactful manner. You might also die; but that’s a soldier’s lot, isn’t it?)

Altogether, The Envoy’s default working expression was an outer calm which, if you poked at it sufficiently, revealed an inner calm as well. She was skilled, knowledgeable, a valued asset to the Dark Army, and at this moment, she was really, really annoyed at the possibility that she’d need to rip this fool’s head off. Which, seeing as how he was the Commander of a branch of her own Army, would hardly mitigate the rumours that she was feral as a polecat.

She’d arrived mid-morning, and it was now near sunset, and so far, she’d held her tongue. The General was not known for poor choices in personnel; the Commander was a legend; and it’s true that all the troops seemed fit enough.

But—

She’d visited many a salle d’armes, and heart the clash of steel on steel; but it wasn’t usually there as an accompaniment to (as she discovered once they’d made their way inside) a jug band.

The Dark Army was fairly informal, for a fighting force. Still, it was not common for a CO to be referred to by his troops as “You with the ugly mustache!”, especially when it turned out that the private had wanted their attention in order to settle a bet as to whether dinner was going to be roast mastodon or fried terror-bird. (“Both, buddy!” the Commander had replied, jovially, “unless you catch us something better from the lake.” The two had then taken up a friendly argument about the best worm to use to try to catch a giant lake trout. It had been insufferable, and they’d only shut up when she pointed out that, this time of year, the young infantryman would be better off finding a big beetle or two. “If,” she’d said sardonically, “your busy training schedule doesn’t preclude hunting around for bugs for a few hours.” The sarcasm was entirely lost on the youth, who thanked her amiably and skipped off into the forest.)

More than once, she noted enemy scouts. They apparently felt fairly secure, because their concealment was fairly minimal. (Granted, she was exceptionally practiced in noticing these things.) Interestingly, no matter what they observed, their pattern was similar: they’d gaze for a few moments from their nominal places of hiding…and then suddenly break and run off at a dead heat, as if four of the seven Hells were opening up behind them.

It was weird.

The City on the plains below, the one whose walls seemed fairly likely to be tested against the mangonels she’d inspected today, was in a panic. And not just about the siege engines (which were, admittedly, clean, well-maintained, and in perfect condition, if you ignored the fact that an off-duty sergeant was using one of the massive slings as a makeshift hammock). The priests, bards, and the Council of the City were vehement; some in denouncing the General, some in denouncing the sinful ways of the world around them; and most of all, in speaking their undying hatred of the sick, demented warrior who was…

…apparently joining a game of kickball with the soldiery. She didn’t know exactly what kind of animal had provided the bladder they were smacking about, but it must have been from something huge. Even as she watched, the Commander knocked the thing hard enough to launch it well over the defender’s heads.

It was a clear point scored…except that a long-legged scout, with a surprising turn of speed, sprinted underneath the thing somehow, and caught it, to the wild acclaim of the spectators, who raised jars of homebrew in her honor.

(The Envoy had seen veteran soldiers drink hard, but that was usually when they were off-duty. Or at least, when the sun was down. Or, you know, going down soon.)

The whole camp was like that. The whole day was like that. They participated (in what the Envoy felt was a manner so overly-familiar it threatened to destroy distinctions of rank altogether)—in a foot race, a horseshoe pitch, and a lunch…

She was no believer in unnecessary austerity, and, as anyone with a reasonable grasp of military history will tell you, an army travels on its stomach. But most mess halls do not serve a 7-course midday snack. With wine pairings.

Fascinatingly, someone shot an arrow into the fabric of the structure. Clearly, they’d intended to send it through and into the hall itself, but even a longbow has limits. From the flopping noise the thing made as it hit the side of the tent, it had clearly been shot from far afield.

The Commander sent a pair of runners (armored runners, and she approved of that much) to fetch the thing. They did. Wrapped around the shaft was a missive. The Commander read it without comment, then dropped it on the table and went back to his honey-roasted quail. (He’d invited her to go hunting with some of the other troops. She’d declined.)

The letter said,

Go back to the Abyss, abomination!” She’d looked inquiringly at the Commander; his only comment was, “Their punctuation is improving.”

And now, at last, they were finally returning to their starting point, the Commander’s ridiculously oversized tent, which was furnished in a manner that would have made any reasonable den of sin and vice shake its head and say, “Really, don’t you think the orange-and-purple shag carpet is a bit much? At least in combination with that giant flamingo drinks cabinet?”

The Commander sprawled in a chair; it was an actual piece of furniture with back support, which almost surprised her. At this point, she would have expected a chaise lounge recovered from the home of a disgraced libertine. (And almost immediately, she saw where her mind had pulled that image: there was such a thing, right over in the corner. It was serving as a third reserve backup auxiliary bookshelf. She recognized some of the titles, and for a moment, she felt an ounce of fellow-feeling. Then she crushed that thoughtwave; she should probably leave tonight, and the news she would bring the General was not good.)

“Commander, I need to speak with you before I leave.”

“But of course.” He poured himself a glass of wine. It was, she noted, an extremely large glass. But he merely sipped it delicately and placed it on the table before him. He indicated the chair opposite, but she ignored it and stood, if anything, straighter.

“Sir. Commander: I have not once, among hundreds of armed camps, seen a stronghold more entirely, inappropriately unprepared for war.”

He raised an eyebrow, a gesture she found inappropriately flippant. She grew quite still. In a perfectly even tone, she stated, “I have found discipline to be lax in every area. Military protocol may be altered, but cannot be inappropriately ignored. You are our bulwark against an absolutely implacable foe, one who is determined to drive you from the face of the globe, and with you, three thousand of my General’s troops, whose only crime was to be under your command. It will be my recommendation that you be replaced in your command, and that you, personally, lose your head. Do you have anything to say for yourself?”

Bravery and idiocy wear very similar faces, and sometimes, it’s impossible to tell them apart. The Commander, rather than being nonplussed, smiled in what seemed to be genuine amusement. “Why don’t you tell me what’s really on your mind, Envoy?”

The Envoy knew at least three different ways to kill someone using your mind alone. None of them were easy or pleasant for either side, but she had to master the urge to try all three at once. “That is what’s on my mind, Commander.”

“No, I don’t think it is.”

The temperature in the room dropped precipitously; there have been ice ages which were warmer. And her voice was sub-glacial:

“If that was a flirtation—”

“—then I’m a dead man right here and now, obviously,” replied the Commander. “I’m not an idiot. I have no intention of serving our General by seeing who, among two of her officers, can draw a blade faster, especially when I’m fairly sure it’s you.

“You’re a professional. I imagine you don’t get mad unless you need to; or at least, you don’t let it out. Honestly, you’ve looked steamed since afternoon cocktails. If I wasn’t deeply confident in your self-control, I wouldn’t be anywhere near you without about three layers of honor guard and, preferably, a couple of spiked trenches. I recognize that. I thought a typical day in our camp might be a pleasant break in your routine. But apparently not.”

There was a pause. Then she spoke:

“Fine. I just want to know what the Hell is wrong with you. You’re supposed to be the backbone of our forces in this region, and you know this region’s strategic import; you must know. And you’ve been using our army’s resources to run what appears to be a full-scale dress rehearsal for Saturnalia!  Seriously, man, what’s wrong with you?”

“Why, haven’t you heard, Commander? I am an abomination. What could be more wrong than that?”

She probably wasn’t going to strike him, but he hastily put up both hands in a warding gesture regardless. He went on hurriedly:

“Our enemies are speaking of my endless atrocities; every day they tell more hideous stories and the legend grows, and they are more and more terrified.. Their morale is destroyed, their thoughts are scattered, and their will is broken.”

“But you’ve clearly done nothing besides indulge yourselves and lounge about in dissipation!”

“Not true! We often take bracing exercise and drill in our weapons; how good for the soul it is to work up an appetite for one’s meal with energetic display, and how lovely we all look, marching about in our uniforms! We are in the best of spirits and in excellent health; and if our aim is true from hunting game and making merry sport, rather than mere target practice, how much the better?”

She could have controlled her exasperation, but why? He was right; she was angry, and if he was going to be cavalier, then she’d be direct. Moreso than usual. “Dammit, you’ve done nothing to harry and harass the enemy! Your reputation for savagery and barbarism is wholly inaccurate!” The Commander smiled. “Ah, but consider our opponents.. They despise us. And though they’d never admit it, they love to do so, and that means, like all humans, they make bigger and bigger stories, each one seeking to outdo the next in outrage and anger. The less we do, the more they imagine we’ve done. The one thing that’s impossible, in their minds, is that we are civilized creatures.

We harry the enemy by living well. You’re an historian; you know the import of morale. How could ours be any higher? And how could theirs be any lower?”

The movement of a weapon ought seldom reveal itself before it reaches a point of commitment; a fighter should expect that the next strike could be at any target, from hamstring to carotid artery. The Envoy would not be who and what she was if she believed every first instinct.

“Why does the City hate you?”, she asked.

“I was once military advisor to a member of their Triumvirate. When our friendship ended, he chose to make sure he would not be blamed for the rift. So he spread word far and wide that he’d fled my company because of my perversity and unquenchable inner darkness. My own comrades told me to ignore it, that truth would shine through. The results of that belief…well, they are why my sole commander is the General now.

“And thus, their scouts see us at table, making conversation, and they assume we we can’t simply be eating venison, as they do; our plates must be full of nightmares, and we must be insouciant cannibals. They note our parade discipline and believe it’s because we are possessed by demons, because why attribute actual skill to a beast? And so they look at all, and see what they most desire. The less we act like a fearsome army, the more they’re sure that’s exactly what we must be. They can turn anything we do into a tale of our horrific natures.”

The Envoy thought of the boiling City. Her time there, both in the open and in secret, had been filled with exactly such stories. She was confused; but take enough blows in combat, and you need to learn to get past even the most jarring hits. Her tone was now one of genuine curiosity:

“But will we win this way?”

“Ah, my friend,” the Commander said, carefully filling a second glass from his bottle and handing it to her, “We already have.”

She sat, and she drank. Outside were the sounds of a bacchanal coalescing. She looked at him. “Do you need to go join that?”

“Nah, it’s my night off. They’re roasting a boar; they’ll bring some over later. Hopefully.” He walked over to the tent flap and shouted, “Orderly! Cup of tea! Please.” He moved back to the bookshelf, pulled out a volume that had to weigh as much as the shortsword at his side, placed it on the table in front of him.

She stood up. “I should go.”

“And what are you going to tell the General?”

She waited a moment, as the orderly came in, threw a jaunty salute at him (and then a rather crisper one at her), and looked over at the other officer, book in his hand, tea and wine within easy reach.

“I’m going to tell her that you really know how to party. For an abomination.”

And then she was through the tent flap and gone, as if she’d vanished into the sweet-scented twilight air.

Jeff Mach Written by:

“There and NEVER, EVER BACK AGAIN: Diary of a Dark Lord” is the first novel by Jeff Mach, playwright, event creator, and certified Villain. If you'd like to meet Jeff Mach, or if you're simply a Monstrous Creature yourself, you should come to Jeff's new event, Evil Expo.

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