For the last two days, they followed the young corporal deeper and deeper into the dense disorienting forests. The Corporal was as hopelessly lost as any of the men behind him, but the burden of rank weighed heavy in this instance. Faith in his leadership and the fact there was nowhere for any of them to desert to keep the ragged soldiers in line despite the jungle’s many unrelenting torments.
The saturated hair wrung every last drop of moisture from their flesh, beating a scarlet red by the sun that seemed to burn closer and brighter here than it did on the shores of the Atlantic. The raw, untested conscripts terrified by stories of cannibal shaman and other ferocious man-eaters that resided in the enigmatic orient spilled their powder cartridges trying to shoot at imaginary monsters in the bushes.
They did finally catch a break. Thier salvation came in the form of bursting shells in the distant tree line. The rumbling guns were like a beacon to the marooned men who followed the glowing fire like forlorn sailors chasing a star.
As they got closer, they could see a sloping hill rising from behind the trees. Perched at the summit was an imposing ebony fortress of sharpened stone spires. Shells were bursting above the walls like colorless fireworks that dispersed clouds of searing steel shrapnel. Bateman breathed a sigh of relief. They had almost made it.
The banks of the river were clogged with refugees fleeing the iron onslaught of the invaders. They waded into the rushing current desperately trying to claw their way onto overloaded boats. Many went into the water offering up their children to strangers they hoped might ferry them to relative safety. Some of the smaller unbalanced vessels tipped spilling their human cargo into the water to be swept away by the current.
For General Charya it was a heart-wrenching scene. He drifted through the chaotic exodus with as much stoicism as he could muster but every time he had to turn his back on a group of his fellow countrymen begging him to take them on his boat his heart sank just a bit further. Charya was a man of resolve though and viewed every incident in human history no matter how immense in scope or tragic in character as part of an imperceptibly larger moment. With dimensions and implication impossible to perceive for those living it.
It was pointless in the long term to relive the temporal suffering of 1 or even 100 people. Victory over the invaders was the only true and sure path to salvation and to achieve that Charya needed the rallying power of the king. That’s what compelled Charya to slip through the ring iron of iron closing around his army. The general knew time was short and he left behind everything that might impede his journey. The gold embroidered ceremonial robe that denoted his rank, the engraved gems sacred to his lineage, anything too cumbersome no matter how holy he discarded for the sake of speed.
To besiege is in essence to entrap. It was a position too isolated for the energetic commander to stay in for too long. Trapped behind the fortress walls listening to the incessant thundering of the enemy cannons the common cause that united his men was being gnawed away at by the harbingers of defeat namely famine and pestilence.
Charya was dutiful and waited for any word from his king, but none came. Finally, he decided if the outside world wasn’t going to ride to their rescue on its own than he would have to go out and prod it. His departure led to mutterings of imminent defeat and accusations of cowardice were hurled at Charya. The general had one such accuser beheaded and thrown over the wall promising to deliver a similar fate to anyone who would willingly sabotage the defense of the kingdom. How effective his example was he would only know if and when he was able to return.
Bateman had somehow wondered directly into the very shadow of the looming fortress. This his surprise besides the shelling which abated significantly over the last few hours everything seemed quiet.
They came to a clearing where a great hole had been dug but not filled in. A cloud of bloated flies swarmed in the heavy stench ascending from the pit. The smell of blood and decay clung to the air. They held their breath and approached the edge of the crater. The buzzing insect wings vibrated in the air and assaulted the ears with almost as much ferocity as the stench. Ever the valiant leader Batmen was the first to look down at the floor of the pit and immediately spewed out the last ounce of fluid he had in his stomach.
The ground was covered in a black sludge, human and animal parts were dissolving in the liquefied pool of decay as if it were a stew. Massive oxen skulls stripped clean of their flesh stared up at the sky with hollowed caverns where their eyes once sat. Grotesque insects unimaginable to the Europeans slithered in and out of hollowed human hosts, fattening themselves on the parts their compatriots hadn't yet been desperate enough to fillet themselves.
“Corporal come quick!”
Bateman was grateful to be pulled away from the flesh filled trench rushed out of the clearing. There was a group of Orientals standing around holding up a thrown where a towering figure in a flowing robe of silk and gold woven into indescribably complex patterns sat and observed his white adversaries with Stoney eyed contempt.
Batmen’s men quickly pointed their rifles at the cadre, but Bateman promptly backed them off.
“Hold your fire! Stand down!” He ordered until the last gun was pointed at the ground. They stared at each other in silence both parties seeming unsure of what to do next. Finally one of the men standing under the old man in the regal robe stepped forward with his hands held up.
“Hello pardon one moment. This is Grand General Kosal," he motioned towards the silent figure. "He wishes to ask for surrender.”
Charya, having no way of knowing his supreme commander had surrendered to a 20-year-old corporal and his pathetic band of recruits was nearing the objective of his futile mission. Once he was far enough up the river the war seemed just to disappear. There was no gunfire to be heard, no hordes of refugees, no burning villages just the serene ambiance of the jungle. The general thought maybe he’d taken a turn into a wrong channel of the river until he saw a crowd of boats gathering around a long pier. Elegantly dressed dignitaries surrounded by swarms of servants were docking there under the watchful eye of royal troops.
“I’ve made it,” Charya whispered gratefully.
The General was almost turned away by functionaries at the pier, but a royal guard recognized him, and he was permitted to enter the palace grounds. The king’s winter palace rather than being the setting for war councils was where the princess's 13th birthday was being celebrated.
At first, Charya thought he might be dying of heat stroke but what he saw was no mirage. Drunken minsters stumbled between rows of banquet tables set with mountains of food. The royal family presided over the whole affair looking down from an elevated position on the hellish scene of debauchery. The partygoers seemed to be without shame and conducted themselves with no regard for ancient and dearly held protocols.
They drank themselves sick and even fornicated in the presence of their king. They had no intention of fighting this war with their people only fattening themselves on the scraps. This was the end of they saw fit to give the kingdom their ancestors forged with blood. It was the same kingdom Charya had ordered countless young men to die to defend, and now he was seeing what it was all truly worth to the noble families who held its destiny in their soft hands.
That’s where the war ended for Charya. He wandered into the jungle to find a suitable place to die alongside his beloved kingdom. Time dissolves everything, and in the tropics, entropy works that much faster. General Charya returned to the soil of the home that was now just a memory.