6. One Episode in Decades of Combat

The ink dried on Tereus’s quill long ago. He sets it aside, covers his face with his hands, blocking out the fading light. His jaw is clenched, his throat is working. He’s trying to bring something up, or hold it down.

Long before the events of that day, during his first command, he came upon six soldiers — all young recruits — standing in a circle. He heard bursts of laughter, saw that two of them were half-turned, clearly sickened. He couldn’t quite make out what they were doing, so he walked up, more out of curiosity than from a desire to impose discipline. He thought perhaps they had an injured animal, a badger or a snake.

They looked up at him. The ringleader’s face was open, conspiratorial, inviting: Look what I found. The others were seeking direction.

A tiny corpse lay at their feet. Not graceful or pretty, but unmistakably female. Dead perhaps two days. Her throat had been cut, and she’d bled out or died of exposure. She was wrapped in a cloak. Her face and hands had a purplish hue. The ringleader was bent over, fingers in her hair. He had an implement of some kind — a knife or razor.

Tereus turned away, overcome by sheer physical loathing. He walked away rapidly, then realized what he’d done. He knew he had to act, but didn’t know what to do — the simple mechanics of how to confront soldiers defacing a body, how to impose discipline. He searched out the chaplain, a man whom he trusted and admired.

The chaplain said, “Go back immediately. Bring two military police. Tell them that they’ve broken the law of war. They will be confined and court-martialed. What they’re feeling is natural, but you are their commanding officer. Contempt for the enemy must never find expression in your presence.”

Tereus returns to the sideboard, refills his glass. He drains it as he stands there, fills it again, wanders back to the desk.

He knew when he gave the command that the Drow officer would either fight to the end, or abandon the wounded and withdraw. He knew that his own men would find the evidence, process and record it. The alternative was to leave an assault group stranded and supply lines under fire. They were at war. He did his duty. In the light of midmorning and the press of battle, he issued the command swiftly, without hesitation, and felt gratified at the outcome. That night, as he read the report, he felt keen moral horror.

He thinks of it all the time: His command and its consequences. The dead Drow. His troops’ shock and grief and disgust. Their stifled laughter and fascination and nausea at the sights and sounds of that day.

It was one episode in decades of combat.

The sun has set, and the room has become dark. The window panes appear black. He lights a branch of candles, draws the curtains.

He finishes his glass and opens another bottle. His hands are still steady.

He sits down at the desk, rubs his eyes, brushes back the stray locks that have escaped from his queue.

He never knew her name. She never spoke, though he knew she understood him. He learned nothing of military value.

Contempt for the enemy must never find expression in your presence.

He doesn’t hate the Drow. He regards them with something approaching tenderness.

She didn’t speak, but she understood. Her cell became his confessional. Certainly everything he felt found expression there.

He fills his glass again. This time he takes the bottle with him, drops down onto the chaise lounge. His gaze drifts over the gold leaf on the crown molding and coffered ceiling far above. He strips off his neckcloth and jacket, removes his riding boots with some difficulty. He’ll be damned if he’ll ring for his valet to do it.

The ringleader had curly black hair and green eyes. His plump, tender face appeared untroubled, innocent. Tereus knows the carnal satisfaction of cruelty — he’s known since early boyhood. The ringleader was court-martialed, convicted and flogged that very night. After that, he deferred to Tereus with the special servility of a bully.

The others: Choked, shocked, too weak to act.

The chaplain, unyielding in his compassion.

When Tereus gave the command, he knew that her soldiers would die, and his would suffer moral injury. He had to act, and he acted correctly.

He lives with this knowledge. It’s simple, and unbearable.

He does not hate the Drow, or warfare, or the black-haired, green-eyed ringleader, or the field commander who lacked the stomach to give the order Tereus gave. He doesn’t even hate himself.

He does not hate the Drow captive. He sometimes thought of her as Lucy, absurdly, and felt affection, curiosity. She had a scent all her own — deep and savory, like woodsmoke, wild mushrooms, rosemary and living earth. She hated him, of course.

He remembers how she felt in his arms: Stiff and infinitely small. As she refused to eat, she became terribly thin, and her hair looked dull. That made him sad. He wanted her to eat. He wishes she would have accepted food and drink from him. He wishes they could have spoken about what happened that day, that they could have comforted each other. He believes she understood how few choices he had, the constraints on what looked like limitless power.

He pours out the last glass. He’s not drunk, but but he has to steady the lip of the bottle against the edge of the glass. As he drinks it, he imagines he can feel her stiff, unyielding body, the sensation of forcing himself on her.

He gave the command easily. The men under his command broke open a burned-out barn and found three firing teams of two Drow each, dead and lashed to their stations. They died as a direct result of his actions. When did they know they would be abandoned? What little shifts and tricks did she use to conceal her plans? A lie or two would do. She’d been trained to do it, just as he’d been trained to confront recruits gathered around a body.

He drains the glass, sets it down. He miscalculates the distance. It doesn’t break, but there’s an uncomfortable ringing chime.

He’s had all these thoughts before. They never really stop. Words and images, yes, but most of all, ceaseless attempts to find an action or command that he missed, something that would have allowed Lucy to spare her injured troops.

It was one incident out of decades. Somehow, he can’t dismiss it or find comfort.

He opens one more bottle. Before he pours the next glass, he locks up the document.

He lies down again, bottle and glass within easy reach. Alcohol opened the window. Now he will ease it shut again.

To read about Tereus’s rape of Philomela, click here; the story of her pregnancy and Inglorion’s birth is told here.

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

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