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The banners and the blood

The first leg of the Circuit out of Trad follows the Red river south, up a wide valley and towards the mountains. On that route are only a couple of temples, at Cask and Regnon, and not a single bangai. On foot it takes about a fortnight before you reach a split in the river at Markhall and can begin your climb into the mountains in earnest.

Rich pilgrims take a train up the lower Red and then come back west over Wickham pass to the great temple complex at Junrei-Ichii. The poor and the resolute follow the upper Red through a rough canyon. Although the pilgrim’s road there is well maintained it consists of a long series of steep switchbacks cut into the raw rock, high above the river.

Since the pilgrim’s road is closed to vehicles and even horses or mules, unless ridden by pilgrims too sick or injured to walk, it is not generally used for commerce. But there are others who travel by foot and they sometimes take that route as a shortcut.

Thus it should not have surprised me when I heard the drums of a small Army coming our way, moving downhill against the flow of pilgrim traffic. At first I felt a stirring in my blood at the sound; a familiar rising excitement. Like most upper-class boys I had grown up knowing I would serve in one Army or another and when I was younger would abandon any game or chore to rush out and watch a passing Army, marching noble in their uniforms. Battle banners held high.

Then I remembered and stopped on the road, my blood suddenly gone cold. Massey continued a couple of paces and then turned to look at me, one eyebrow raised.

I didn’t know what to tell him. I felt a need to flee, but there was nowhere to go except back down the way we had come. Finally I blurted out, “I don’t want them to see me.”

Both eyebrows went up at that. But instead of asking why Massey merely shrugged. “They are not likely to see you as you; to such as them pilgrims are scenery, not people.”

That took me aback enough to cut through my growing panic. I remembered marching with the Urbane Demons. Chanting our war songs, our heads tilted proudly up. How many of the people lining the road to watch us did I really see then? Outside of the prettier girls anyway.

Massey pointed at a small shrine chipped out of the rock face behind us. “Let us stop there and pray until they pass.”

So we turned back and went into the shrine, next to a small waterfall that was channeled under the road. There we knelt, myself facing away from the road but Massey facing towards it and digging in his pack for his begging bowl.

“What are you doing?” My panic was coming back.

“I am going to beg alms,” said Massey calmly, “an Army is always ready to ask a blessing from a Junrei monk.”

I started to protest, but cut it short. The Army was rounding the switchback above us and other pilgrims were joining us to get out of the road. Instead I looked down at the gravel and fought back tears.

Just then the Army started into a war chant, a familiar call and response, and I knew at once who they were: Murphy’s Wolves. I shuddered. There were those I had once called friend among them.

“What do we march for?”

“The banners and the blood!”

“What do we long for?”

“The banners and the blood!”

“What do we die for?”

“The banners and the blood!”

“How do we fight?”

“We win!”

“How do we fight?”

“We win!”

“What do we fight for?”

“The banners and the blood!”

The Wolves were already passing us, marching perfectly in step with the pounding drums. I could feel each tread as a rebuke, each chant an indictment, each snap of a banner in the wind a condemnation. Out of the corner of my eye I saw one crimson and grey uniform break out of the pack and move towards us.

“Your benefaction uncle?” Despite the noise I heard coins dropping into Massey’s bowl. I recognized the voice at once: Vince Nguyen, commander of the Wolves. He, at least, had never been my friend.

“Gladly. May your men be valiant, may the spirits of your fallen march with you. May your every battle be honourably won and every enemy honourably defeated.”

“Thank you uncle.” Vince paused for a moment. I could feel his gaze upon me, though I dared not look up. “We go up against Trad United in a three-way with the Screaming Eagles next. I hope for honor, if not victory.”

I waited for Vince to ask about me or to step around for a better look, but it didn’t happen. Instead he crunched away across the gravel and rejoined the Army as the last of it passed by us. I should have felt relieved, but felt only the deepest shame. I was sick and shaking with it.

Massey scraped the coins out of the bowl and said, thoughtfully, “We are going to have to talk about why you are here…”

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