An eccentric leader, and the men who would follow him into the darkest of nights…
by: Art Rosch
There were five thousand men assembled on the parade ground of the Gorisovo Fortress on Mt. Brazbek. There were five regiments of a thousand men apiece, with each regiment dressed in its distinctive uniform. Some were attired in modern battle drab, with their helmets resembling two bowls, a small one atop a larger one. These men held carbines at parade rest position, standing at ease in perfectly ordered rows, the butts of their rifles tucked into the soles of their right boots. Other regiments, like the Avengers of Vestrachi, still wore traditional high-collared turquoise waistcoats stitched with silver and black epaulettes and navy blue pants trimmed in gold at waist and cuff. They held lances with fluttering guidons, each triangular flag depicting the death of Baron Vestrachi. A regiment of light cavalry called the Wolves of Paltysh bestrode small ponies, sabers held pointing upwards at right angles to their thighs so that they gleamed in aligned ranks, like carefully tended metallic plants. The regiment of the Tola River Cossacks sat on larger horses, their tunics stitched with rows of cartridge holders sloping across each breast. Baggy pantaloons of crimson-dyed cotton were tucked into knee-high leather boots. Every tenth horseman held a large flag of black and silver depicting a skull whose hollow eye sockets encompassed crimson poppies with stems emerging from broken-toothed mouths.
Onto the mossy field rode General Losef Surijatsky, astride the intensest horse to be found in all of Evra. The horse’s name was Prodigy. Its hooves were like whiskey kegs, its mane braided in lanky ropes, and its tail wrapped in silver bands. Racing between the horse’s hooves was the General’s dog, Fyoto, a tiny, hairless creature with large, protruding eyes.
The General presented a bizarre spectacle: he wore, like the Cossacks, baggy crimson pantaloons tucked into high boots. His helmet had a pyramidal spike attached to its top by a tapering shaft, and a stiff leather strap running under his chin. Beneath this helmet, the General had tucked a voluminous woman’s wig of blonde flounced hair, curly and long. This made a stark contrast to the General’s black and grey handlebar moustache and the long wild rectangle of beard that fell onto his chest full of medals. These medals were pinned to a pink chiffon dress that fell in cascades of material to the General’s knees. On his hands, stiff leather gauntlets held the reins of the immense horse. A saber was sheathed in a golden scabbard, hooked to a blue sash that gathered the General’s dress about his waist.
General Surijatsky was a pure eccentric, with an original and very nimble mind. He had taken to wearing such garments in his teen years for one purpose only: to pick fights. He was a man of diminutive size. Many men of small stature have been known to be pugnacious to compensate for their sense of inferiority. But not Surijatsky. The General enjoyed fighting for its own sake, and as an intellectual challenge, for he endlessly pondered how to bring down men twice his size and how to bring down three or four attackers at a time. The General’s garb had become his trademark. Only the un-initiated laughed at the hero of the Battle of Krayna Voyna, nor the Commander of the Legion of Universal Terror. Surijatsky had worked his way through the ranks. He had fought in forty-five battles, mostly leading from the front. He had authored a text on hand to hand combat that was taught in the military colleges of the four continents.. His analysis of the Klute Civil War, “The Tactics of Despair,” was a classic, as was his thin but pithy book on strategy, “The Forms of War.”
The General galloped his horse down a corridor between the regiments to the center of the field, where an earthen ramp had been built to give officers sufficient elevation to see the gathered assembly. The dog, Fyoto, lept facilely onto the General’s stirrup. Surijatsky reached a gauntleted hand down, and the animal jumped the remaining distance onto the old soldier’s lap.
The General sat there astride Prodigy, the tiny dog on his thigh, and viewed his ranked regiments, watching the wind whip guidons and battle flags. Here and there in the lines of soldiers there were men who were new to the army, men who had never before seen Surijatsky. They could not conceal their astonishment. They stood at attention but their mouths hung open and one or two snickered as the General turned Prodigy in a circle to display himself equally to each regiment.
“I’m an old soldier now,” he began to shout, “so I’m no longer inclined to beat the shit out of every private who laughs at me.” His voice was amazingly powerful for such a small man. “However, if there is anyone here who wants to fight me, hand to hand, I shall be more than happy to oblige.”
He looked around fiercely. The curls of his yellow wig lifted with a brief gust of wind, showing the greying stubble of his shaved head underneath.
“No takers, eh? No one will fight the ridiculous old general? A shame…”
The General made an eye signal to a regimental commander in the front of the rank of Tola Cossacks. The Commander launched an apple towards the General with a sling.
The piece of fruit flew accurately towards Surijatsky’s face. Drawing his saber, the General struck the apple with an oblique stroke. He bisected the apple and caught half of it in his free hand. He bit into this perfectly sliced fruit, and replaced his saber in its scabbard.
The other half of the apple had landed on Prodigy’s nose. With a whicker and a toss of his mighty head, the animal flipped the piece of fruit into his teeth and crunched happily.
“Well, then….” the general growled. “Let us not waste time on the trivial while great events are unfolding. I speak to you because there is a virtual certainty of war. What can a general say to his men at such a time, to make them fearless warriors? The answer to that question is on the left shoulder patch of each and every one of you.” He was referring to the shield-shaped logo sewn onto the arm of every soldier of the Kesh Republic. It showed a small but gracefully curved bridge. At the end of the bridge, a rising sun glowed with effulgently supernatural rays. Around this bridge, encircling the entire symbol, was an epigraph in the ancient Keshic Script. The archaic writing was only read by scholars in dusty worshiphouse libraries. Its letters resembled gnarled and dying trees.
“Is there anyone here who knows the Old Script?” demanded the General. When there was no answer, he twisted his moustache, refining its points so that it stood more vigorously on end.
Surijatsky spurred Prodigy once more and walked his horse up and down the line of soldiers, kicking up clods of dirt. He paused before one of the Wolves of Paltysh, where he saw an officer.
“You know what it says, don’t you, Ievan?”
The Captain, Ievan, stepped forward crisply and saluted the traditional salute, putting his right arm straight out to his side, then crooking his elbow so that his hand came before his eyes, palm facing outward, quivering as if sprung from a trap.
Surijatsky returned the salute, completing it by slapping his hand back to his side. This allowed the Captain to bring his own hand back to his side.
“Tell the men what the Old Script says, Ievan. Step up to the mound.”
The officer marched up the ramp until he stood elevated, six feet above the masses of men.
“The Motto of the Army of the Kesh Republic says ‘March Cheerfully Toward Your Doom!’”
“Thank you, Ievan, return to your men.”
The officer saluted again and marched briskly down the ramp and arriving at an invisible corner, turned a perfect ninety degree turn, and took his place in the regiment with a ceremonial stomp of his feet.
Surijatsky ascended the ramp once again. Fyoto rested contentedly in his sash, little bug eyes staring out at the panoply of military power and tradition.
“March Cheerfully Towards Your Doom,” the General repeated. “A fitting motto for an army. Think about it carefully, men. We are going into battle soon. If you think you will survive, you are a fool. You are going to die. I have been in forty-five battles, and I have never expected to survive a single one. I live each day as if it is to be my last. I am going to die in the next battle. We are all going to die in the next battle. But in dying, we achieve immortality by our courage, by our example. We die for the Kesh Repubic, for our individual Autonomies, for our Beshas, for the Kesh peoples!”
He blew air from his mouth so that his moustaches twitched. The sun cleared the pine trees that surmounted the heights and sent rays across the field, bouncing from polished blades and spear tips.
“I hope you have fucked your wives, your sweethearts and your whores. I hope there isn’t a single virgin among you on this field. It is a sad thing for a man to die, unfucked.”
The General took his little dog from among the folds of his sash and waved Fyoto in front of his body. “March!” the General iterated. “Like good soldiers, obedient to every command!”
The dog wagged its tail in the air. It was accustomed to being used as an icon of the absurd. Its little legs hung down and its tail went whip whip whip.
“Cheerfully!” The General continued. “What is there to be sad about? Glorious death in battle? No one wants to die old, sick and in bed. It is in our blood to die in battle! To our Doom! We are doomed from the moment we are born! We have been sent here to this mad world to play our parts in the pageant of history, to spill our blood on the Old Peninsula just like our ancestors! March Cheerfully Towards Your Doom! Ooraaaah!”
The General waved the dog in the air.
“OOOraaaah!” Five thousand throats thundered.
The great horse, Prodigy, stood with dignity and aplomb, her nostrils gently expanding and contracting with each breath. Her tail stiffened and rose. A pile of green-brown waste fell from her with a splat on the berm. Surijatsky patted the horse with two thumps of his gauntlets. His cheeks reddened with an effort to restrain laughter. The horse had deflated every ounce of dignity from the proceedings. As if in acknowledgment, a hundred other horses let go and the parade ground became a place of splats and wafted stink.
The general released a gigantic peal of mirth. He tucked Fyoto into his armpit and laughed.
“Go ahead!” he managed to say between gusts. “Laugh! You are at ease! Laugh you bastards!”
The soldiers roared and the roar grew into a great spasm of love for the very strange general who would lead them into an even stranger war.