Amidst the sand
8 The prestige of war
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Amidst the sand
Author :Sighe
© Wuxiaworld

8 The prestige of war

Are we all capable of judging whether we are good? Are we able to determine this for ourselves or do we need an outsider' point of view in order to see the complete picture?

Exploring these newfound perspectives regarding my past, I find myself conflicted. Even though I lived for decades as a human, it's nothing, considering my time as a tree has been longer and more significant regarding the forming of who I am today.

And today, I see my days on the throne the same way another may look back at his puberty, a learning process, a period of mistakes and wonderful memories, a time where some things seemed more significant than they actually were. I used to think of myself as a righteous man, feeling justified and proud of my virtues. Being nobler and purer than the common, vulgar, weak mob. And yes, I may have done things that are far crueller than the acts of these men before me.

During my contemplations, the soldiers continue their ravenous quest. A father who begs: "Aren't we subjects as well?", is tied to a column and gets boiling tar to drink.

The healer who says: "we have already known so much misery, surely the end should be in sight," his tongue is cut off. They bind his feet to a horse and give a great blow to the animal' rear so that it runs off in a wild gallop. The head comically bumps against the pavement as they turn a corner.

A mother who is braiding the hair of her dead daughter is split in two. Her son takes a sip from a bottle he pulls from his breeches and is about to throw himself at the soldiers, yet remains trembling behind the altar, "maybe it's a disease, you start killing, and you cannot stop."

'Perhaps,' I ponder, 'it gets easier, that I can tell you with certainty.'

The crying boy shivers, hiding his head in between his pulled-up knees. He almost seems to laugh. Naturally, he isn't laughing, there is nothing to laugh about, he just has a harelip.

The chief' deep voice resounds through the building, he looks at the survivors one by one, some are kneeling, some bow their head, all are listening to the verdict being read aloud. A long letter with many parentheses and intercalations that nobody understands, "obey the messenger in everything he says. He was sent by the Holy Roman Emperor and his message contains no statements or questions, but an order."

I can't protect you, sweet believers, I could offer you shadow, I can burn when you light me, but I don't float when I end up in the sea and you cling to me. I am not a lifebuoy, nor a talisman. The golden leaflets stuck to my skin may make me look like I'm worth a lot, but the embezzlements are nothing but a way to distract you that I'm nothing more than a halfway burned piece of wood.

Then suddenly the verdict passes the lips of the chief: "because of inflammatory thoughts that dispute the authenticity of the Holy Church, we must condemn all those present here. You are all under arrest. The wagons to take you to prison are awaiting, you will be taken to your cell, tomorrow your trial will take place," he pauses a moment, "the day after tomorrow you will be executed."

One of the survivors looks up and strokes through his hair, "It's... It's..." he faints, pulling along his wife who desperately attempts to remain upright. Another tries to help them but is halted by a trembling hand.

They are lead towards their fatal end by young boys who only just grew the first hairs on their chins. Who take the votive gifts, me included, as their bounty, returning to their barracks with heavy pockets.

I come to know them better during my days in the barracks, during the wonderful care-free hours these young soldiers cherish. Over us is the blue sky, on the horizon floats a flock of sunlit birds between the many white clouds. The young men listen to the rummage of the squares and flirt with girls on markets, showing off in their uniforms.

They often rest on a modest hill just next to the barracks, where the flowery meadow stretches around us and the grass sways their tall leaves; the white butterflies flutter around and float on the soft warm wind of the late summer. Together they read letters or drink, they take off their helmets and lay them down beside them. The wind plays with their hair; it plays with their words and thoughts.

There is Giotto, who eats like a swine, yet stays thin as a pole; there is Ulisse, a stern man with hopes to become a teacher in Bologna; there are Pietro and Jacopo, two brothers from Verona; and then there is the soldier who keeps me in his pouch, Lorenzo Baradigi, who enrolled in the army in order to make his father proud.

At night, when they can't sleep, they set up the lid of a wooden carton on their knees and play cards or dice in the light of a single candle. One by one they fall asleep, while the notes of a faraway lute float by. Often they lay aside the cards and dice and look about them. One of them will say, "You remember.." or "It was quite horrifying that one time.." And for a moment, they will all fall silent. I see in each and every one of them a feeling of constraint.

I have to correct myself, these aren't boys from conquered lands, but young men who enrolled in the army after being convinced of the glory of war and battle.

"After dinner, he used to give me and my younger brothers long lectures," Lorenzo tells Jacopo one night when all others have fallen asleep and are unable to catch them together in bed, "until the three of us went under my father' shepherding towards an army post and enrolled. I still remember it, how he used to glare and speak to us in a moving voice: 'You should go and bring glory to this family.'"

Jacopo' beautiful eyes wander over Lorenzo' face and his long fingers stroke the hair on the back of his neck, waiting for him to continue.

"My youngest brother hesitated at first and refused to fall in line. He used to be a plump, homely fellow, with a big heart. In the end he did allow himself to be persuaded. We didn't have the faintest idea what we were in for."

The understanding smile of Jacopo usually consoles Lorenzo, and it does so again tonight.

"I can't bring myself to blame my father though, even though his actions brought forth my brothers' death. There are thousands of fathers like him, all of them are convinced that they are acting for the best - in a way that doesn't cost them their own life."

"You sound as if you don't believe that the old man cares for you..." Jacopo whispers.

"I'm sure he does, in his own way."
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"But you do feel as if he let you down..."

"For his own sons, he was ought to be a mediator and a guide to the world of maturity, to the world of work, of duty, of culture and progress. We often made fun of him and played jokes on him, but in our hearts we trusted him. The idea of authority, which he presented, was associated in my mind with insight and wisdom. But once I saw my brothers die on the battlefield... the experience shattered that belief."

I cannot bring myself to listen in on their conversation anymore, my thoughts are pulled mercilessly to my own sons who I send into battle. Did they think of me like this as well? I cannot imagine it. My sons were enrolled in the army as commanders, they didn't think the same way a regular soldier might.

Yet, no matter their positions, one of them did die with his sword in hand and a cut open heart, bleeding out between corpses, rusting metal and human waste.

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    《Amidst the sand》