5. Part of the Flesh Itself

After tea, Tereus shuts himself in the library to consider Lucius’s words. He lights a cigarette, kicks back, props his feet up on the massive, marble-topped desk.

Lucius is right, of course. In his misery, Tereus has managed to recreate the atmosphere of stifling terror that cloaked the house when Agamemnon was alive. And no wonder. He’s as cruel, capricious and violent as his father was. He indulges in withering mockery alternating with bursts of physical violence. There are differences. Agamemnon was more social, and naturally his companions were dreadful creatures, men Tereus would have warned off the property with a crossbow. Agamemnon refused to maintain even a semblance of normal family life, and scorned to hide his vices from his sons or the servants. It’s easy to list the differences; as Tereus considers this in the privacy of his lair, he knows that the similarities matter more. He contemplates this bitter fact, allows it to assume mass and shape.

If he thinks back two decades — 23 years, to be precise — he remembers the real pleasure of that time. The challenges were daunting and constant. Making war required all of his physical and intellectual powers, and gratified him in a way that nothing has since.

Enforced retirement is terrible, but it doesn’t explain his distress.

He remembers the night when things shifted. He thinks of it often. He cannot stop thinking of it, no matter how he tries. It’s always half-present, standing behind his chair now, watching from the corner of his bedchamber at night. He cannot account for this brooding presence, although he can describe the events of that day and night. 

On March 9, 1696, he received word on the battlefield that Drow troops had occupied a walled farmhouse within bowshot of gray elvish supply lines. Attempts to dislodge them had failed, leaving a half-dozen injured gray elves pinned down inside the compound. Tereus consulted with the commander on the scene, and gave him orders to withdraw their troops, make a firebreak, and set fire to buildings. 

The operation was successful. They drove out the Drow, and even took a high-value prisoner: A young commander carrying the token of a ducal house. He ordered the commander on the scene to provide a full after-action report, and prepared to interrogate the prisoner personally.

His memories of that day are few, fragmented. The burning and capture of the farmhouse was a single incident in a 16-hour day spent in the saddle. He remembers the facts, and a sense of almost animal satisfaction. The troops’ relief was palpable; he felt paternal pride at relieving their misery with a single decision.

Tullius, his aide-de-camp, brought the after-action report to Tereus’s quarters that night. He remembers the setting with painful clarity. He was seated in his shirtsleeves at a map table equipped with a portable writing-desk. The document was brief, a few pages in the neat script of some anonymous clerk. He took notes as he read it, to focus his mind and prepare for the interrogation the following day. He’d had a glass of the local wine — strong, tannic, with a slight fetid note. He’d become perversely fond of it.

With a sense of inevitability, Tereus goes to the sideboard and pours out a glass of wine. There’s nothing that vile in his cellar now, so a Malbec will have to do.

The original report is probably archived in the old city barracks. It includes his annotations and notes from the interrogation, and therefore contains classified military intelligence. Of course, he wasn’t permitted to take such things with him. At the time, he had Tullius make a clean copy of the incident report. That unclassified version found its way into his personal papers.

He unlocks the single, locking drawer in his desk, removes a folder, places it on the blotter.

Tullius has the neat, generic handwriting of a clerk. Even the paper and ink are standard.

He trims a quill, lays out paper and ink. 

Everything is just as it was. Even the month and hour are the same. 

The report begins with a summary of objectives achieved, and a sketch of the area of operations: The two-story barn and hayloft, the farmhouse, tannery and privy, the number and location of red and blue forces. The appendices, too, are standard: Lists of casualties, a summary of the prisoners’ condition, ammunition expended. 

The core of the report is a chronological summary of events, followed by observations. In this case, the author went to some trouble to collect summaries from each of the team leads: The NCO who took command of the gray elvish forces trapped in the compound; a civilian siege engineer; the lance corporal whose troops encircled and captured the escaping Drow; the team lead who carried out the battle damage assessment. 

Tereus reviews the sequence and timing of events, then skips to the observations. Though he hasn’t read it in years, the words are as familiar as liturgy. Almost unwillingly, he returns to certain passages:

The condition of the Drow troops was difficult, but not desperate. The farmhouse was equipped with a working well and cached food. The Drow had 40-50 crossbow bolts in reserve, and three secure firing positions.

The gray team within the compound had fought off an attack the previous night, which ended at dawn. They had no access to fresh water, and limited rations. All five were injured; three critically. 

It was observed that the Drow made no attempt to bury their dead. Fatal casualties were abandoned where they lay, or brought to the farmyard under cover of darkness, presumably to segregate them from healthy soldiers. 

During battle damage assessment, it was observed that retreating Drow troops bound their injured fellows in place at their firing positions; all six died from some combination of smoke inhalation and burns. This is in accordance with Drow field procedure on the rare occasions when a command is given to abandon a position.

The Drow don’t give surrender, or take it. When Tereus gave the order to set fire to the compound, he knew his opponent had two alternatives: A final stand in daylight in a burning building, or an equally suicidal attempt to break out. The nearest egress point was a day’s march away, through gray elvish lines. In daylight, the Drow had no realistic hope of fighting effectively or hiding in unfamiliar terrain. 

The commander onsite hesitated, not because of the risk to his troops, but because the Drow had suffered casualties; he knew their commander would butcher her own troops.

The deepest, most ingrained value of the gray elvish army is to care for the wounded and bury the dead, whether civilian, enemy or brother in arms.

Before Tereus’s arrival, the gray elvish soldiers stood under fire for 48 hours. The Drow attacked from dusk to dawn, picking off sentries and the odd unfortunate infantryman who ducked out to take a piss. The commander onsite ordered an assault. It failed, leaving five men stranded, injured, suffering from hunger and thirst, and desperately low on ammunition.

Even then, he didn’t have the stomach to end it. It’s unsurprising. There’s an intimacy to siege warfare, even if the enemy remains unseen. His men knew that the Drow had abandoned their dead. The trapped assault team probably had an excellent view of the corpses, and may have given them nicknames.

In the hours between when Tereus left the scene and Tullius delivered the report to his quarters, the commander took statements from the team lead who searched the burned-out structures and retrieved the bodies. They would have been buried onsite if a priest was available; more likely, they were lashed to stretchers, carried over a mile of rough ground to the field hospital morgue, and given a pauper’s burial.

Tereus can imagine how it would have gone. He has witnessed and participated in similar scenes. A fallen enemy must be treated with compassion and respect — the gods demand it, and good order and discipline require it. There’s a natural reaction of shock and contempt, however, which is difficult to overcome, and there are moments when the devil breaks through: Awkward laughter followed by a fusillade of vile jokes.

The smells and sights and sensations of an afternoon like that cannot be washed away or easily forgotten. The moral injury becomes a part of the flesh itself.

A fuller account of Tereus’s capture of the Drow commander appears here.

For a linked table of contents, listing all of the Shelawn family adventures, click here.

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