Tales of Raetrethra Vol. 2

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Status: In Progress  |  Genre: Fantasy  |  House: Fantasy Realm


Dezmond and Elfred clash over how differing leadership ideals. Roland and Wynstal test their strategic prowess through a bloodless battle of wits.

Chapter 6 (v.1) - Chapter 6 - Officers, Leadership & Strategies

Submitted: October 21, 2018

Reads: 78

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Submitted: October 21, 2018

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After confirming their direction of travel using the few blinking stars visible through the thick forest canopy, Dezmond raised an arm and signalled.

Move out. The five rangers-in-training continued on their way.

Three hours had passed since they stopped and they were far behind schedule. Elfred strongly suggested increasing the pace, but Dezmond objected. Charging through a forest so dark they couldn’t see anything further than a few meters – in full kit nonetheless – was a recipe for accidents.

One approximate hour later, Dezmond noticed something unusual. With a wordless ‘halt’ gesture, he bade the squad stop.

Despite the thick canopy, the forest floor was carpeted by grass, ferns, and scrubs. Most individuals would deem it impossible to track in such terrain, but that notion was far from the truth. Grass doesn’t bend by nature, twigs don’t snap unless stepped upon, and fallen leaves don’t magically flatten themselves onto the ground. By paying close attention to those details, one could predict how much time had passed since someone passed and how many were present, along with their speed, general health, and even gender.

Dezmond made a mental note of thanking Norah for teaching him how to track.

Thus far he navigated using the stars, but along the way he noticed a trail of footprints, likely belonging to a squad further ahead, and decided to follow them so long as their directions matched. Now however, the trail ended with footprints all over the place. It could simply mean they had stopped here to rest, but he preferred to err on caution.

“Search the area.”

Though perplexed, his squad nodded in reply to his murmured command before dispersing. Within moments, Dezmond identified numerous signs. Bits of uprooted grass, overturned rocks, and broken twigs; all signs of being in a hurry. But from what?

 “Pst!”

Dezmond turned to see a squadmate waving for his attention, and headed there to examine what they had found. An obvious trail of footprints – more than five pairs’ worth – was going in a different direction. He could tell several among them were injured.

“Dez, over here.”

Aria whispered. Indicating the person to not follow the trail, Dezmond moved to join the crouching Avalonian blonde. He scrutinized the spot she indicated and felt a heavy weight sink within.

Drops of dried blood.

His suspicions confirmed, Dezmond clicked his tongue and gathered the squad. When they saw the bloodstain, their expressions hardened.

“They were ambushed. All of them were taken out and led that way.”

Dezmond summarised, pointing in the direction the trails went.

“B-beasts?”

Someone suggested with a nervous gulp.

“Impossible. Beasts don’t take prisoners. They were ambushed by professionals, probably our drill instructors or those acting under their orders.”

Elfred speculated. Dezmond nodded in agreement.

“But they said there won’t be any combat…”

“And when has Cratos ever been honest?”

Cratos was the name of their master drill-instructor, a short man with a shorter temper.

“Should we make a detour?”

Dezmond shook his head.

“We don’t know where they could be.”

“Then, we keep moving?”

“We could, but we’d still be in danger of getting ambushed. Like what happened here.”

The Aszyrian squad leader reasoned. Frustration crept into the squad upon realizing the precariousness of their situation.

Exhaling through his nose, Dezmond wondered to himself.

If Roland were here, what would he have done…?

***

“Goodnight, Vicky.”

“Night Roland, see you in the morning.”

With a slow wave and a small smile tinged with loneliness, Victoria parted ways with Roland at an outdoor intersection leading to separate dorm buildings. While turning, her cyan eyes met his for a brief instant. They told him clearly what she longed for, but she walked away without saying a word.

If Roland so desired, he could fulfil Victoria’s unspoken desire of accompanying her to her dorm. But, they had their reputations to consider. If scandalous rumours regarding two youths from prestigious families were to spread, personal shame would be the least of their problems.

Expending his fatigue and world-weariness with a short sigh, Roland turned and walked the way they came from, opposite in direction to his dorm.

Since it was still within the residential wing of the Guardian Headquarters, Roland reached his destination not long afterwards. He had to cross a bar/dining area along the way, a smaller yet much more well-furnished establishment compared to the plain mess hall where he and other trainees ate their meals. The few patrons nursing their liquor at the bar turned at the sound of his entrance and gave him dubious stares. No surprise, since this was the officers’ lounge.

In the meantime, the bartender jabbed a thumb at a doorway to the side and grumbled.

“Third door on the left.”

“… Thanks.”

Wishing he’d sounded more confident, Roland headed down the indicated hallway and stopped outside the third door. He was about to knock when a voice on the other side called.

“Come in.”

Figuring it was his footsteps which gave him away, Roland turned the doorknob and stepped inside. Under normal circumstances, it would be a decent-sized meeting space for half a dozen individuals to sit around the oval wooden table placed in the middle. However, half of said table was covered by a detailed map with small coloured blocks placed here and there. The other half was occupied by files strewn about. It resembled a war room.

On one side of the oval table, Wynstal slouched in his chair reading an open file, head propped by a fist planted on his cheek. After finishing the lecture and earlier in the day, he had called Roland aside and invited him for a late-night chess game.

Indicating further inside with his free hand, towards a small table with two stools on opposite sides, the senior officer bade.

“Take a seat and set the board. I’ll be there soon.”

At Wynstal’s lazed bidding, Roland went around the oval table and sat on one side. Atop the small table lay a square checkered board and two small boxes, each holding exactly sixteen black or white pieces.

Roland arranged each piece on their respective squares on the board. It was easy to imagine why for centuries strategists touted Chess to be their favourite pastime activity. Even in times of peace, one could wage battle anytime they wanted.

By the time Wynstal rose with a yawn, stretched, and moved to sit opposite Roland, the stage was set.

“You start.”

Wynstal offered. After a moment’s pause, Roland tentatively nodded made his first move. His opponent followed suit.

“’Tis interesting how this game keeps being reinvented, time after time.”

Roland paused to consider his strategy and Wynstal’s remark, and replied while making his move.

“Do you mean how each country has its own version and rules?”

Judging by Wynstal’s expression, his delay had nothing to do with contemplating strategy.

“There’s that too.”

The older man’s vague reply piqued Roland’s curiosity, but he hadn’t the time for worry; not when his Knight’s being threatened by an upstart Pawn. Having hailed from a family of soldiers and attending military academy, chess was a common pastime game for Roland. While he ranked near the bottom in every kind of physical examination, his academic scores were above average; particularly in subjects related to strategy.

And in the last five years, he could count the number of times he lost a game of Chess with one hand.

Minutes of silence ensued, save for the soft thuds of pieces being moved. In the end, four pieces were removed from the board; two identical pieces from each side. A draw.

“Well played, Ironheart.”

Wynstal’s uttered with an amused smile. Roland resisted the urge to exhale with relief at his hard-won defence.

“Thank you, sir.”

More turns passed as each side checked the other’s pieces and prepared for the next big conflict. From time to time, Roland glanced at the older man as if expecting a conversation, but no such thing occurred.

“Be at ease, Ironheart. I called you here purely for a friendly match. There’s no ulterior motive, and winning using intimidation isn’t my style.

While saying so, Wynstal deliberately hesitated between pulling back a Bishop that’s being threatened by Roland’s Queen, or foolishly allow it to stand its ground and be captured without repercussion. How kind, offering his opponent time.

Realizing Wynstal wouldn’t make a move until receiving a reply, Roland relented.

“I understand.”

Nodding his approval or perhaps assertion, Wynstal made his move. The bishop stood its ground. With a tight frown, Roland captured it.

“Let’s say these pieces represent members the Guardian Organization. Which piece do you think represents you best?”

It wasn’t an unusual question. In fact Roland had already considered it, and so answered with nonchalance.

”A pawn, probably.”

“Oh? Why is that?”

“Well… because it’s the weakest piece?”

“Hmm. Is that so?”

Roland looked up at Wynstal’s disappointed mumble. The older man’s lazy eyes drifted around the board.

“You might indeed be correct, so long as you keep underestimating yourself.”

With that remark, Wynstal punched through Roland’s frontline with a pawn, which was promptly captured. No more words were exchanged as each person made their moves within mere seconds of the other. The line of retired pieces outside the board grew.

Within two minutes, less than a third of the starting pieces remained. Roland’s countenance looked grim.

“No one bats an eye at sacrificing a pawn, ’tis true.”

Wynstal murmured.

“But no piece is as feared as a pawn who reaches the last square. Checkmate.”

A groan escaped Roland.

“One more round?”

Wynstal offered, and Roland nodded with more vigour than necessary.

“You’re not a pawn, Ironheart. If you were, I should be ashamed at myself of how much effort it took to force a defeat from you.”

***

“You’re being reckless, Dezmond.”

Elfred hissed as he strode after the Aszyrian. The strain in his voice was obvious.

“This isn’t even in the right direction. We’re wasting time…!”

Earlier, Dezmond ultimately decided to attempt rescuing Hector’s group. Aria was the only person who supported his decision.

“They’re not in any real danger anyway, so why the heck are we trying to rescue them?”

Judging by the glances exchanged between the other two members of the five-person squad, they agreed with his reasoning.

“We’ll definitely finish after the time limit at this rate, doesn’t that bother you!?”

Elfred growled again at Dezmond, at which the tanned-skinned man finally stopped and turned.

“You’re not bothered with leaving them behind?”

“They’re not in any real danger, so no I’m not.”

“Elfred...” Aria stepped between the two men. “I know you disapprove, but Dezmond’s the squad leader. His decision is final.”

“And it’s a terrible decision.”

The Aragonian declared without delay.

“If they were in real danger, would you still abandon them?”

Dezmond demanded, but Elfred’s hardened demeanour did not waver.

Elfred remembered; back when he still held the rank of sergeant in Aragona’s line infantry, his final act of insubordination which resulted in his discharge and transfer to the Guardians. He abandoned his unit and engaged the enemy alone and almost died for it. Why? To protect helpless civilians. The distinction between now and then was obvious.

“We’re soldiers, Dezmond. Danger is part and parcel of our job. If this wasn’t a field exercise, would you still abandon the mission for them? Even if the consequences meant more than just our lives?”

As expected, Dezmond’s resolve faltered. But Elfred didn’t blame him. The reason he could make such difficult decisions was due to his experiences as a real soldier, risking his life time after time under vainglory and incompetent superiors.

Sensing the heated confrontation shifting towards acceptance, Aria reluctantly backed down. Though she still supported Dezmond, Elfred’s arguments were infallible. Reality could not be denied.

“You’re right.”

Some time passed before Dezmond murmured, and Elfred’s indomitable stance relaxed.

 “Everything you said makes sense. But, I won’t abandon them.”

Upon saying so, the tanned Aszyrian stared at my subordinate head-on.

“I’m going after them. I won’t stop you if you wish to go your own way.”

Leaving that as his final remark, Dezmond turned and continued after the trail, leaving Elfred, Aria, and two other flabbergasted squadmates. A moment’s hesitation later, Aria went after him. The two other squadmates followed suit.

Standing there by himself, Elfred rubbed the tension from his brow. Heaving a deep sigh, he turned and went the other way.

***

“Ohoh, a good game, Ironheart. Victory may be mine, but only by a hair’s width!”

Wynstal proclaimed with great cheer after facing Roland in their second round.

Midway through their match, Wynstal had to step outside when someone knocked on the door. Upon returning with a stack of papers, he unceremoniously dumped them onto the table before resuming the match, claiming he would deal with them later.

As Roland reorganized the checkered board for one more round, Wynstal spoke.

“By the by, have you considered what you would do after gaining your commission?”

Roland paused at the senior officer’s query. Normally when Guardian trainees graduated, they remain as a team under a commissioned officer. After some time they could be transferred or offered specialist training. Otherwise they did their duty, earned their stripes and ranks, and either retired early and returned to civilian life or remained until age or injury forced them to.

But for Roland, upon graduating he would be a commissioned officer. He would immediately be ranked higher than everyone else in his team; even other enlisted Guardians with decades of service. As an officer he had two options: be assigned to a team and serve with them in the frontlines, or be assigned to some department within the Guardian organization.

“If possible, I would like to stay with my current team.”

“Hm, I see.”

Wynstal grunted at the officer-in-training’s humble desire. In the meantime, Roland finished setting the board. This time, the senior officer made the first move by direct confrontation.

“That’s a shame. One of your instructors said you’ve exceptional problem-solving skills, and with the right guidance would make a fine staff member of Command and Intelligence.”

Hearing such a prestigious role being associated with himself shocked Roland. Despite its humble name, staff members of Command and Intelligence were the lifeline of the Guardian Organization. They managed personnel, issued orders down the chain of command, and planned operations and logistics; overall ensuring everything functioned as best as it could. Its chief-of-staff was none other than General Bealus, who answered only to the director.

Furthermore, members of staff were often handpicked by the general. In some cases, promising talents were scouted early on and groomed for the role.

Noting the young man would remain stunned until he said something, Wynstal continued, at the same time launching his forces against Roland’s defensive line.

“However, serving with the front lines would also be a good experience. There’s also no reason to separate you from your squad, so rest assured. Though, I am curious, who would your second-in-command be?”

Wynstal’s next query indeed shook Roland out of his stupor. When silence ensued, it was due to the latter considering his reply and taking stock of the enemy lines. Roland answered while making a strategically unexpected move.

“Elfred, most likely.”

“Oh?”

Wynstal uttered as such to bid Roland explain why, at the same time voicing his shock at the sudden counterattack on his flank. The cornered mouse had bitten the cat’s tail.

“Elfred is a veteran. He knows the military better than everyone else. He is a sensible choice.”

“Mmm, perhaps. However, being a mere paragon of soldiering won’t be enough.”

Roland frowned; not merely from considering Wynstal’s statement, but also from scrutinizing the gap he had created in Wynstal’s rear line.

“Experienced veterans are rightfully sought after as invaluable second-in-commands, but they can be a double-edged sword when placed in the wrong circumstances.”

As Wynstal spoke, he and Roland battled on the checkered board, capturing pieces left, right and centre.

“Elfred Alcast, a decorated Aragonian sergeant who inspires awe and invokes jealousy among his peers. He is an exemplary soldier; brave, selfless, and capable of independent decisions while keeping in mind the greater goal. But, his authoritarian leadership style may not be to the liking of his subordinates. Ah… what a shame.”

Wynstal slowly shook his head with a mournful grimace. His reaction also fitted with the current status of their match; within the exchange, they descended into a conflict of mutually assured destruction. Only a handful of pieces remained, embroiled in a bitter duel in a corner of the board.

A sudden rap from the door jolted both men.

“What inopportunate timing… pardon me.”

Wynstal excused himself before rising and moving to open the door. The man outside looked like he’d spent days trekking through a forest. He spoke in a hushed tone to avoid being overheard. When he finished, Wynstal turned and gave Roland a rueful shrug.

“Apologies, Ironheart, but our match must end here. I shall invite you another time in the near future.”

Wynstal bade Roland goodnight and waited for the officer-in-training to leave before inviting the other man in. The man stared the chessboard at the end and smirked.

“It seems I stopped you from claiming victory, sir.”

“On the contrary, you just saved me from tasting defeat.”


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