Normally I try to keep these articles independent, but this time ’round I have to suggest you read the previous two parts before this one. You can keep going, just be warned a lot of this may not make sense.
Last time I stated that a unit like the 3rd Guards Regiment cannot exist without affecting the plot. Not only did I mean it, I meant it to a much deeper extent than you may have realized. The unit’s mere existence changes the world over which they fight. You can’t have a unit like the 3rd Guards and still expect most fantasy tropes to work.
Including the Guards, you see, isn’t just including the Guards. It’s including all the worldbuilding elements that bring about units like them. It’s the social, economic, political and yes, military circumstances which lead to their unit, which determine its composition, it’s the history behind their style of warfare. I hope to come back to this in a redux series of worldbuilding articles in the future, but worldbuilding elements don’t exist in isolation.
Let’s say that my story’s protagonist is a young man doing his early-on hero’s journey malarkey. He too is part of the war. He’s on the same front as the 3rd Guards, fighting in the same battles. Of course, since it is the start of his journey, he’s a conscript in the 119th Line-Levy Regiment. It’s a passably-equipped but woefully trained batch of cannon fodder, hundreds of equally hapless youngsters sprinkled with a handful of bitter dead-enders. A bigger problem: protagman is on the opposing side. Against the 3rd Guards regiment.
Now, you may recall the 3rd Guards have been getting mauled in the past few battles. You’re likely thinking this means the odds for our protagonist are better than they at first seem. Ha, well, they’re actually worse. I’m afraid I may have misled you a little. Wars do not happen all in one place, you see. Not in the kind of world that can hold the 3rd Guards Regiment.
Let’s get some proper context here: Deinhard and the 3rd Guards are part of 5th Corps in the 1st Army of the Kingdom of Stoßdär. Our young protagonist, Yurislav, and the 119th are part of 13th Corps in the 4th Teman Army. Each force represents only a reasonable fraction of its father/motherland’s military might; the 5th Corps fights alone while the 13th has all three of its sister units, the whole 4th Army, behind it. So, where’s everyone else? Yurislav, cursed with intelligence, has been asking himself the same question. He’s no general, but the enemy commander’s actions seem off.
He continually harasses the Teman forces, never tries to outmaneuver or escape them, yet he never completely fortifies any of the natural defensive positions his army passes through. And there are plenty of those positions! The landscape is honeycombed with abandoned towns eked out of old volcanic bluffs, lava-cut ravines beneath brooding jungle, wide freshwater rivers surging down towards the vast saltwater channel dividing Stoßdär in half.
These ready-made redoubts appear every few miles, yet the 5th Corps hardly ever uses them.
How does this reflect on the 3rd Guards, you may ask? The 3rd Guards are an elite formation comprised of veterans culled from other units. They’re a rare resource forged from other rare resources. The 3rd Guards are one of fully fifteen such regiments currently assigned to 5th Corps, nearly a quarter of its combat strength.
All of which begs the question, why are these precious regiments fighting a painful retreat deeper into their heartland? Why are they under the command of a general who seems unable to use them well? Who is that general, anyway? That would be Gerd Schleicher; he’s supposed to be a master of defense. Certainly the Temans have never been able to pin his force down and destroy it, but they’re whittling it away.
It’s been said Gerd was much shaken by the death of his eldest son in the battles southward across the channel; perhaps he’s finally losing his grip?
Yurislav can’t help but feel this is all going too well. It seems like they’re forgetting something. He goes to sleep on a relatively quiet night with the fires of the enemy camp brightening the trees just past the next ridge. You remember how I said that Stoßdär’s 5th Corps is part of the 1st Army? By now you may have realized the rest of that army has been conspicuously absent.
The heavy thunk of speguns–effectively, arcane muskets–and sudden explosions jar Yurislav awake. In his haste, he knocks out the support peg at the foot of his pup-tent. By the time he untangles himself and scrambles to his feet, spegun in hand, the enemy are advancing into the encampment from all sides. Smoke wraps panicked soldiers trying too late to form some semblance of lines, haggard officers in half their uniforms darting every direction.
There isn’t really a battle, as such; that suggests some kind of resistance, a clash between opposing forces. And tonight, few oppose the Stoßdärer troops. Yurislav is swept up in the wake of a “company”–really, a hundred or so soldiers from nearly as many different units–who fix bayonets and break through the thin screen of enemy troops in front of the ridgeline. Others follow behind them, dodging crossfire from both sides.
Yurislav just has time to pick out that the Stoßdärer troops–orange and ghostly in the burning camp’s light, at the edges of the treelines–are firing at oblique angles to each other so as to rake more of the camp and avoid hitting their own units. The Teman gaggle flees over the ridge and directly into the waiting speguns of the 3rd Guards Regiment.
Yurislav, feeling frozen mid-step, stares into the first rank of muzzles in the heartbeat before they discharge. In other stories, this is where the whistling shot fells all the men around him, leaving him to be captured intact. But there’s no plot armor in wars that forge the likes of the 3rd Regiment, and these old Guards don’t miss. Yurislav is fortunate enough to be cresting the ridge, putting him above the volley’s main line, and the ball “only” takes his left leg off at the knee. He nearly passes out from pain on the spot; hot arterial blood spurts on the dark slope below.
The 3rd Regiment fires by rank, three volleys more before they press in with bayonets. Figures still in their bed-clothes tumble and fall around Yurislav, some howling, some winter-still. It’s a short melee before surrender calls echo out.
A Guard in his fine uniform coat, battle-scarred breastplate and plumed sallet looms above. He shifts his grip on his spegun, lining the bayonet up with Yurislav’s neck. In the night further down the ridgeline, someone barks something in Hafensprache, the common tongue here in the Black Havens. The Guard doesn’t move for a long second; then he tilts his spegun upward and bellows his own orders.
Later, Yurislav will realize that an ordinary soldier would’ve killed him before he could be stopped. The 5th Corps have had enough of Teman charges for ten lifetimes, and many of their regulars are leaning to terror tactics. Still, two more Guards jog over and haul Yurislav up between them.
“Congratulations, boy,” the Guard says, in halting Teman. “Leutnant Keil is today your mother. You live still.”
This is where Yurislav’s real ordeal begins, of course: as a prisoner of war, missing a leg, under interrogation by Leutnant Keil. The bleeding’s been stopped, but that’s the only good news. The Leutnant isn’t some bleeding heart; he’s a ruthless Stoßdärer officer whose patience with this war is nearly gone, with a half-burned, ravenously gaunt face and graying hair. He presses Yurislav mercilessly, but does not torture him though he’s clearly tempted to. Leutnant Keil is an officer, and officers have standards to follow.
Yurislav doesn’t escape, though he certainly tries; the 3rd Guards have been ordered to keep him, so they’re going to keep him. After the second time, Platoon Leader Deinhard orders them to “put him fasting” until his behavior improves. Yurislav’s behavior improves.
Eventually, the war ends; Temana’s ambitious invasion has backfired horribly, and the entire continent’s balance of power has shifted. Yurislav, after a few weeks more, is released. He’s been provided a peg-leg and a cane to help while he relearns how to walk. If he can get home, his parents have a farm and a large extended family. If he can get home, Yurislav will tell his children’s children that he met the 3rd Guards Regiment muzzle to muzzle, and lived.