We had our navy floating within a week. Or whatever an accumulation of oversized rowboats is called. Then as reward I had them practice maneuvering in the harbor, which was as close to the city as I ever let the men return. They were mine now, and this was also as close to rest as they were ever going to get. But they grew nervous when it became clear I was simulating navigation around many obstacles and currents. I finally pressed the issue.
“Why are you afraid of the swamp?” I asked Ash, the first young man I’d met at the Temple. I’d made him into something of a lieutenant. He was by far the most recovered. “I landed alone in the middle of it and walked through unharmed.”
He swallowed, eyes big. “You are very fortunate, Guardian Vala.” Fortunately, the general term for military personnel on Earth had become a high honorific here. Thaeron’s Guardians had been a circle of military peers of that rank such that no higher standing was possible.
He went on. “There are creatures in the swamp that are not natural to this world. Leviathans. Apes the color of the forest. Swarms of vampiric fish. Then there are the usual obstacles of a swamp: disorientation, disease, drowning or entrapment. Redmarak is not safe. Beyond that, it is difficult to say.”
I averred that he should try.
He swallowed again, a gesture I was coming to know well. “Guardian, when the floating cities of Redmarak fell, it was the greatest battle the Augers had ever known. Three million died. Three million in three days. It was the place where the nightwind first fell from the sky. Never before had this happened. We never returned. We did not go back. We are not Augers anymore. But the place is still a scream within our souls.”
Well. Curiouser and curiouser. You never imagined the enemy had psychologies of any kind. Not when their whole modus was to infiltrate yours. What must it have felt for the fifteen million they lost taking the world Centauris? Or, not even on Earth, where casualties had been too large and swift to calculate, but what about just Cibola? Where we killed thousands every single day for two years? And then drove them back?
I nodded once, slowly, a gesture of Jerem Cozak’s. “You are not Augers anymore. And we need Redmarak. But I promise you I will not rest until this entire world is a primal scream for the ones who did this to you.”
He nodded, eyes wide again. I plowed ahead.
“Have the men stop maneuvers. Navigation practice is complete. We break camp tonight.”
He looked at me, incredulous. “Our Guardian?”
“I am no friend to fear. Had I known this we would have left two days ago.”
He nodded twice quickly. “Of course, Guardian.” He turned to go.
“Ash,” I said. He stopped. “I am not prone to explanation. Don’t expect it again. But I welcome input. If you know anything like this about the men or about this world that I might not, do not hesitate. Tell me. I am a stranger here. I won’t let that get us all killed.”
A second thought struck. “I understand that there were refugees released from Redmarak before the floating cities fell. If there are any among those who are also captains, send them to my tent this evening.” I had them divided ten to a boat, sleeping and working and rowing together. “Tell them to bring their dinner.”
“Yes, our Guardian.” He crossed his arms then extended his hands, the Thaeronian military salute. I’d have to think about reforming it. These men were not like any other soldiers the world had ever known. Not the least of which because they had no military training. They were mine, and mine alone, to do with as I chose. I went into my tent and wished I knew what that was.