Bridge Builder: Chapter 6

Once more, I wake with Izydor at my side. He’s asleep, one hand gripping the handle of his sword, the other on its scabbard. He has bandages over his face and arms, covering the shallow wounds he received the previous day.

I slowly push myself to sit up, but my whole body aches. We ran all the way to camp last night, and I remember collapsing the moment we reached safety. Izydor must have brought me to his tent afterwards. He’s sleeping peacefully, though his brow is tight and he keeps mumbling.

He deserves to rest, killing so many filthy cannibals must be tiring. Ignoring the soreness as best I can, I leave the tent.

The camp is a bustle of activity. So many faces I don’t recognize, all 1,000 soldiers of the expedition, and their 200 helpers, are busy doing something even this early in the morning. Trees are being knocked down in the surrounding jungle and the camp is being expanded to make room for everyone. It was a smart move by Kosman, bringing everyone together. It’s hard to imagine the Maneaters assaulting this place.

While the original camp was only on top of the hill, the expanded one reaches all the way down the slope and even a bit beyond. One section of the camp is even on the far side of the river, and the men are building a bridge to easily cross it. They’re also building trenches just outside the walls and filling them with wooden spikes, and creating barricades of mud. All the chefs have gathered together and are focusing on making dinner for so many of us, all the blacksmiths are working on repairing and sharpening weapons.

I look outside the camp and see a group of men trying to knock down a tree. Most of the trunk has been chopped away, but there’s one strip of wood left and they’re all working together to have it fall outward. They’re arguing, trying to push it down, but that last bit of wood won’t fall. Eventually they tie ropes around the higher branches and pull towards the jungle while one man uses an axe to hack the last bit, letting it fall. The wood splinters and the higher branches split as they get caught on trees. All the peldaks dive out of the way in time and nobody is hurt. They go on to split the tree into manageable logs and haul it away for various purposes around camp.

I haven’t regained my appetite after what I saw yesterday, so I head to the infirmary tent instead. Izydor wasn’t injured beyond a few cuts, but Izydor’s a monster. Everyone else who went on that ill-fated diplomatic mission, save Kosman, myself, and another soldier, are being tended to by the medics.

They’re all in high spirits, surprisingly enough, and they greet me with broad smiles. They ask me how I’m holding up, and I tell them I’m doing well, despite the soreness. Some got nasty hits from clubs that messed up their chainmail and left them with broken ribs and deep bruises. Others were wounded with only minor cuts, but those cuts ended up infected. A few messed up their hearts from so much activity. The medics explain that peldaks have two hearts, both smaller than mine, and each predominantly controlling one side of their bodies. Heart issues are common for peldaks, and these men, sadly, didn’t warm up before we had to run for our lives.

But they should all make full recoveries in time. Since each man saved my life more than once yesterday, I help the medics care for them. Fetch food, give them water, chat, help with bandages, scratch backs, anything an untrained girl like me could do. They, in turn, share all sorts of war stories. The world beyond my island, and the stars beyond that, are far more violent than I realized.

After a few hours of helping in the med tent, one of the soldiers mentions that I should go see Kosman and let him know I’m alright. I’m not sure I want to see him, but I guess he is my boss.

Though when I talk to him, I’m not sure what I’d rather hear. Did his ‘show of force and confidence’ plan work and a lot of tribes really won’t fight us, thus making all of that worth it in the end, or did his plan fail and it was all pointless? On one hand, I want what we went through to be worth it. On the other hand, I don’t like the idea that it was necessary for me to have seen three murders and a live cannibalism up close.

Since there’s no taking back what I saw and went through, I guess it’d be better if his plan worked.

Kosman’s tent is the biggest around and the inside features a table that was built with the first tree they chopped down on the expedition. I enter through the tent flap to see Kosman sitting with the nine officers who work under him. On the table is a map of the island, showing port Jahsing and the jungle up until the mountains. Certain areas are color coded as red, blue, or white.

The expedition is made up of 1,000 soldiers, a brigade. The brigade has 10 companies, each one having 100 soldiers. The 100 soldiers of a company vote on who they want to be the leader, the lieutenant. The 10 lieutenants then come together to decide who in the brigade will become the major in charge. By being the major, Kosman not only has the trust and support of the men, but he’s also a veteran of countless campaigns, which gives him the right to lead.

Each of the nine lieutenants before me are well loved soldiers. They form the beating heart of this military encampment. Based on what I saw yesterday, they have the military force to easily wipe out every tribe on this island. But can they hold their soldiers back from killing non-combatants? How many people will die in the event of a war?

“Oh, sorry,” I say. “I didn’t realize you were in a meeting.” I pull back to leave, but Kosman puts a hand up.

“Ah Pano, you’re awake. Come in, you should hear this too.” His voice is devoid of the excitement and energy I’ve come to expect of him. I guess he’s overseeing a war now, so it’s normal for him to be all business. He directs me to sit on one of the empty seats near his end, and the lieutenants give me polite greetings as I pass. I don’t know any of them personally though.

“To get you up to speed,” he says to me,  “the locations in blue are our territory. The ports, the tribes that pledged they wouldn’t send forces against us, and our location. The locations in red are those directly under the Maneaters banner, and extends both north and south along the mountain range, off the map. The white ones are those we’ve not heard word back from.”

“That’s a lot of white,” I say, my voice hoarse.

“Give it time, the ceremony was only yesterday. Word needs to spread of what happened and the tribes need to pick a side. But hostilities have started and we need to tread carefully.” He looks to one of the lieutenants, who gives a summary of what they were talking about.

“From what we in the 6th company have heard, albeit from hearsay, the Maneater tribe has well over 100,000 people under the rule of their ‘Mountain King’. 10,000 men could realistically be mobilized to fight against us.” He notices my face droop, “it’s not that bad of a situation. These would be conscripts, essentially. No combat experience, no equipment, 1,000 peldaks could best them in any fight with relative ease.”

Another lieutenant speaks. “But an open battle of that scale isn’t realistic in this jungle. If this ‘mountain king’ is half as intelligent as Kosman believes, he learned from your fighting retreat and won’t waste so many lives to kill zero of us again. He’ll attack foraging parties, raid supply lines, he’ll try to whittle us down or starve us out.”

Another lieutenant points to the map, “Port Jahsing has their own garrison. We don’t need to worry about them. Similarly, we don’t need any tribe to send us soldiers, so they shouldn’t be a target. I suggest stockpiling a month’s worth of provisions, then going on the offensive.”

“Would the mountain king not simply pull his forces out of our reach? That’s the issue, he has no reason to engage us, he’ll wait for our supplies to run out and force us to return to port.”

The lieutenant raises his chin, “which is why I suggest an aggressive campaign.” He points to the red territories one after the other. “They cannot ‘pull’ their villages away from us. We go in, burn the villages down, crush any resistance, then send the survivors back to Port Jahsing. The Maneaters can’t defend their allies, they would be forced to engage us, or lose face amongst their allies.”

I gulp. That’s the exact thing I don’t want to happen on this island. But, I don’t know anything about war. Maybe it’s inevitable? They are Maneaters, at least.

Kosman gives me a sideways glance, then leans back in his chair. “Everyone’s ignoring the real danger.”

The council turns to him, “sir?”

“They won’t attack us, I agree. But do you think they’ll sit idly by? What do you expect the Maneaters to do with an army 10k strong?” Nobody responds, they wait for the major to continue. He leans forward and taps the various blue and white territories. “That’s their target.”

“Their own allies, sir?” One lieutenant says with an eyebrow raised.

“None of you were there, so perhaps you didn’t pick up on the subtleties of it, I didn’t either until just now. That self-proclaimed king didn’t declare war on us, not really. His targets are those who side with us. Tribes, individuals,” he glances at me again, and I feel a tightness grip my chest. I’m their enemy. “He has no reason to go after our expedition, he can’t win in open battle. He’s created a situation where there are no sidelines. If the tribe pledges loyalty to the Maneaters, we have no course of action but to burn their villages, which wouldn’t exactly be a popular option. If the tribe doesn’t pledge loyalty to the Maneaters, they have a casus belli to go in and destroy them. If we don’t protect these neutral tribes, they’ll turn against us one way or another. If all the tribes are against us, how many men could they mobilize?”

One lieutenant sighs and does the calculations in his head, “20, 30 thousand?”

“More soldiers than Port Jahsing has people. So forget about a punative campaign or going on the offensive. Somehow, we have to defend every non-red bit of territory from the wrath of the mountain king, or the war is lost.”

The lieutenants nod, and immediately get to work bouncing ideas off each other. They use a lot of jargon I don’t understand, much of their strategy is too difficult for me.

But I turn to Kosman as he overlooks the discussions. Keeping my voice low, I lean in. “Thank you, sir.” Not going on the offensive, only defending from the attacks of enemy soldiers… it’s the best I could hope for.

“It’s the most efficient strategy. Though, my subordinates told me that their translators all returned to port. I could arrange transport for you, as you’re in the most danger here.”

I shake my head, “I’m in it for the long haul, sir. You need at least one person to translate their surrender!”

He smiles, then pats me on the back.

The council realizes that they’d only need one or two decisive defences against the Maneaters to trigger rebellions in their ranks. It’ll prove that the star tribe can defend their allies, and that much of the Maneaters threats were nothing but bluffs. The best reaction, they determine, would be if the tribe in question doesn’t realize what’s going on. The Maneaters suddenly attack, then the peldaks suddenly show up and save all their lives.

They get to work organizing a quick reaction force to handle such a plan, and I even hear them speak on the necessity of preventing innocent casualties. The enthusiasm of which they speak of such details puts my heart at ease. The Protectorate will win this war, I’m sure.

I think I’ve been annoyed with Kosman since yesterday. I didn’t want to go to that ceremony, but he pressured me into it, and I saw all kinds of horrific things. Not just the cannibalism, but the wounds I saw these peldaks inflict on our pursuers.

I wondered if it was worth it, but I have my answer now.

It was worth it because Kosman asked me to join him. He needed me to translate.

This is a war for the soul of this island. Who will rule it: the Maneaters, or the peldaks? I’ve spent a year in Port Jahsing, and a year in this expedition. During that time, they never told me to eat human flesh, they never told me to marry some stranger out of political expediency, but they went out of their way to teach me their language and help set myself up. Now, during a war, the Maneaters will slaughter their fellow Islanders, while these paleskined foreigners from the distant stars are making every precaution to keep us safe.

The Protectorate should be in charge here. As bad as Kosman’s negotiation skills may be, he means well, and is the only one I trust in this.

Kosman’s plan to drum up support was worth it, even if I was the only one converted to his side.


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