Forgotten Soldiers - Joshua P. Simon


Not even hell could be this bad.

I heard that phrase repeated above all others in the decade I spent in the army. During the early years, those few words sent a cold shiver down a man’s back. It often did mine for what they implied.

I heard a private say it while dragging his dead buddy over to a funeral pyre after a battle. I heard it pass through a captain’s lips as he watched survivors from a burned out town beg for bread or offer their emaciated bodies up to passing soldiers in exchange for the smallest morsel of food. I heard that same captain say it again, correcting himself, when one of those survivors got their food and refused to divide it with the sickly children pleading for their share.

The captain’s whisper still echoed in my mind. “Gods Tyrus, I was wrong. Not even hell could be this bad.”

I heard soldiers and mages of all ranks in the infirmary say the phrase, usually between sobs while they stared at a missing limb. I heard physicians and healers mumble the words over and over after their shifts, drowning themselves in a bottle of whiskey, hoping they might forget the horrors of their profession for at least a little while.

Not even hell could be this bad.

In time, the saying slowly changed, taking on a new flavor and becoming something lighter, too light in my opinion.

Dealt a bad hand of cards? Not even hell could be this bad.

Got a bad bowl of stew? Not even hell could be this bad.

That same stew gave you the drizzles? Not even hell could be this bad.

In-grown toenail? Not even hell could be this bad.

I’m ashamed to admit that even I uttered those words a few times myself over the years in the context they were never intended. It was hard not to when you heard them used so often without real conviction.

Those few words nearly rolled off my tongue once more as I watched unit leaders clamor inside General Balak’s command tent. I clamped my lips down before the expression tumbled from my mouth, bitter I had subconsciously treated the phrase with the same irreverent attitude I loathed so much in others.

The back of the tent allowed me a good view of unit leaders acting like unseasoned fools. They fought to gain the position closest to the general in hopes he’d notice them. I shook my head, letting them waste their time. If they hadn’t yet figured out that Balak hated men who kissed up to him, they never would.

Only one thing got Balak’s attention and that was success. Excel or fail in your mission, he’d remember you. Therefore, the best course of action was to succeed, but with as little fanfare as possible.

Looking back on the early years of my forced enlistment, I wish I had taken that middle of the road approach. Gaining command of my own unit early on had done strange things to me. Traits I had never shown before the army became defining characteristics. The chip I wore on my shoulder grew with each success until I had to draft others to help me bear its weight.

Everyone under my command had taken their share of the load with pleasure. Being part of my unit became a point of pride because we didn’t just excel, we outclassed everyone to the point of causing resentment among other units. Admittedly, rubbing our success in their faces didn’t do much to ingratiate us to them.

If I could go back in time, I’d probably punch that version of myself in the jaw, but not before telling him to get his head out of his arrogant rear.

Over the years as I matured and others died, forgot, or just plain didn’t care anymore, I managed to smooth things out with many of those who once resented us. As a result, my unit didn’t stand out as glaringly.

Balak, though, never forgot about us or what we could do.

He expected more out of us.

The general noticed me in the shadows, bushy eyebrows meeting as he glared around the tent. He scowled, making the lines on his face deepen. “Tyrus, close that tent flap and get up here.”

“Yes, sir.”

My attempt to avoid his notice failed again.

I found a place around the table filled with maps and reports. Two lamps secured to posts above our heads, provided decent enough light. The smell of burning oil made my eyes water.

Many considered the eleven other unit leaders at the table the elite of