He was a captain of the guard.
He held his pike in his hand. They had defended the walls of the city for a thousand days. With his men he guarded his ruler and the people within. Dawn was breaking. The invaders had amassed three armies and the city was at last surrounded. The sun was rising as it always did.
‘Savages.’ said the young soldier standing at the Captain’s side.
‘A comforting thought, I am sure.’ said the Captain.
‘You have any sympathy for them?’
‘You have none?’
‘None at all.’
The walls of the city stood taller than any others the Captain had seen. The ancestors of his people had built them from sandstone. The banners of the invaders fluttered miles below.
‘How can they repulse you from so far away?’ the Captain said.
‘May I speak freely?’ said the soldier.
‘They storm their way across the land taking city after city.’
‘They are barbarians, Captain. The thought of what they would do to our home is what I find repulsive.’
‘How are the military academies these days?’
‘Excuse me, Captain?’
‘You must have come from one of them.’
‘I did indeed.’
‘And did they teach you about our enemy?’
‘They taught us of their brutality and greed.’
‘Which they called the truth.’
‘Which is the truth.’
The invaders were setting up their cannons. The Captain knew the signs of an oncoming bombardment.
‘You look upon them with admiration.’ said the soldier.
‘Do not guess my feelings.’ said the Captain. ‘Though on that count, you are correct. I admire them.’
‘Such talk around your superiors could get you executed.’
‘That is why I talk to my subordinates.’
He heard his fellow captains barking orders at soldiers elsewhere on the walls. He gave no such orders. Every soldier under him was already in their place. He had lined them up facing the sun as it crested the distant sand dunes. It cast a warm and yellow light over them. Some bowed their heads and spoke a prayer to the gods.
‘At your academy, did they ever tell you the two questions a soldier must ask?’ said the Captain.
‘No.’ said the soldier.
‘The first question is ‘Who is my enemy?’ That one you know the answer to.’
‘Of course. What is the second?’
‘The second is, ‘For whom do I fight?’ Have you asked yourself that?’
‘I fight for our people.’
‘For the ruler of our people.’
‘He is the will of us all made flesh. To defend him is to defend all.’
‘A lovely doctrine. Where did you learn it?’
The soldier paused. ‘The academy, I suppose.’
‘And whom do you think ordered them to teach it?’
‘It is their belief. They teach it to us of their own will.’
‘Don’t play at being stupid.’
‘You know the answer.’
‘I have told you the answer.’
‘You lie to yourself.’
‘And why would I do that?’
‘For protection. It is what soldiers do.’
‘So what is the answer then?’
‘Our ruler has told them to teach you such nonsense.’
‘Nonsense, you say? You doubt your ruler and your faith now?
‘I have never doubted the ruler’s connection to the divine. I am doubting his connection to the people.’
The Captain could hear the chiming of alarm bells. The people of the city were being forced awake. His ears picked up the cries of children. They did not know the extent of the threat beyond the walls. It made no sense to them why they had to leave their homes.
‘I fail to understand your point, Captain.’ the soldier said.
‘What is confusing you?’
‘How your points relate to each other. You say I fight only for our ruler. You also say I should admire the enemy.’
‘The two are entirely connected.
‘You still aren’t making sense.’
‘I am. You just need to think about it.’
‘We might die today. Do you want to waste our last hours on riddles?’
‘You might learn something. You cannot waste time if you are learning something.’
‘Can you be a more direct teacher?’
‘Very well. Do you know why I have been so successful as a soldier? Why I was promoted to Captain?’
‘I would say it is your skill in battle. Now you have me doubting myself.’
‘Rightfully so. That is what many believe. It is not the case.’
‘Then how did you succeed?’
‘I overcame the belief which burdens you.’
‘The belief that the cause I happen to be fighting for is somehow special. That I have fought for the right reasons. I realised I was not fighting for justice. I was fighting for whoever ruled over me.’
‘Our ruler wages war in the name of justice.’
‘And profits handsomely as a result.’
‘We are all enriched by the ruler’s gains.’
‘Are you still not tired with your doctrines?’
‘With reality? No. Now, on with your lesson.’
‘Once I could see my own cause in that way, I realised I was viewing it through the eyes of the enemy. Then, I could appreciate how they saw their cause as being righteous.’
‘Again, you show sympathy for brutes.’
‘That is what you call them. Were you from among their ranks, how might you describe your mission?’
The ground shook beneath them. The invaders had fired the first cannon volley of the day. It had hit the base of the walls. From what the Captain could see the structure was still holding fast. The soldier spat in the direction of the cannons.
‘Were I among them, I would bay for blood. I would scream and holler and dance under the desert sun wearing only warpaints,’ said the soldier, ‘because I would be a savage.’
‘Can you see them doing such things?’
‘They act civilised now. Wait until they overrun us. Watch how they treat the innocent people caught in their bloody path.’
‘I have seen it done before.’
‘So you admit that I am right?’
‘I have seen it done by my fellow soldiers. It was their butchery that revealed to me the courage of the enemy.’
‘Now you speak like a traitor.’
‘I am telling you what I have seen with my own eyes. Besides, I cannot be a traitor. I am not scared. Traitors are ever fearful.’
‘How can you not be scared when you believe the enemy is courageous.’
‘If I know they share my courage, I know they share my worries. As I know you share mine as well. The difference between us is that I do not think of them as monsters. That is why they do not scare me. They are only human. Humans are easily killed.’
‘You think I fear them?’
‘You spoke of us being overrun. You expect us to be defeated.’
‘I feel only pride, even in defeat.’
‘That which every worried soldier tells themselves. I have seen people die. I have killed people. The last feeling you see in their eyes is always fear.’
‘So you say.’
‘So I know.’
The soldier did not reply. They both looked out. The Captain thought the sun to be particularly beautiful that day.
‘So you admire people you see as ordinary?’ the soldier said.
‘Yes, I do. I admire them much as I admire you.’
‘You might as well compare me to a starving alleyway dog.’
‘It is a great compliment. Place yourself amongst them once more. Imagine facing these walls of ours. They cannot see us. The walls obscure our faces. Their every detail is exposed to us.’
‘Would you not need incredible bravery to dare lay siege to this city?’
‘And there you have it. My conclusions are all part of a whole. Our ruler is a profiteer. We wage war in his name. They know this. I also know this. Thus, I realise that our respective rulers are no better than each other. They are told the same lies as us and the same truth stands. As a product of this, I know that they are humans. They have bravery, which I respect. They also have fear, which I can abuse.’
‘I believe I understand it now. Though I still do not care for it.’
‘Neither did I, at first. You will come around.’
‘We will see.’
The Captain stumbled when the next round of cannon fire hit the walls. He regained his balance and leaned over the edge to watch the invaders. They had broken through. In the midst of the conversation he had ignored the sounds of orders. Around him, soldiers raced with pikes in hand. They were going to reinforce those defending the point of the breach. In each face he spotted the same confidence that the young soldier beside him had been sporting.
‘Let us see if this really is an army of savages.’ the Captain said.
‘Or an army of men.’ said the soldier.