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September 1st, 2020


Men rushed past carrying crates and sacks filled with the supplies necessary to relocate a medium-sized camp of soldiers some fifty miles along the mountain trail. The tunnels were buzzing with the angry and excited energy of a hive on the move, after months of stagnation buried in the woods around the Eastern edge of the border they were making their way directly West through the high roads to the other end of the mountain range, stopping for a while near the towns and villages along the way. This was the second instalment of the journey, which would take several months, their part of a much greater plan that wheeled around the capital. 'When we get to La Pobla I want to see you.' The message had come, as they always did, through a neatly folded piece of thick paper that you found tucked into your pocket without any apparent means of arriving there. He found the practice rather romantic and unnecessary, but appreciated the desire for anonymity; no love amongst thieves. He stood in the tunnel and watched men scurrying left and right. He dreamed of rats, every night he saw them, an endless stream of fangs and scrawny tails gnawing at the corners of his eyes until he woke, startled and shaking, his breathing ragged but quickly slowing as he adjusted to the dim lantern light that showed the room empty of rodents. Still till the morning, when the rats would roll out of bunks to play, fight, feed and chew, constant, ceaseless chewing. 'Why have you called me here?' 'Because you are a threat.' He paused to watch the effect of this blunt admission, and was rewarded with a startled expression that was quickly replaced by blankness. 'I mean no harm.' 'I know.' 'Who do I threaten?' 'Not one person in particular, but the whole. The entire cause.' 'Not possible.' The man with the gloves stood and walked two steps to the back of the room where an ornate wooden cabinet was leaning on three legs against the wall. The only other piece of furniture was the heavy wooden desk, covered in various stacks of neatly piled letters, notes, agreements, orders, lists. He looked down and noticed a list of names facing towards him, away from the man by the cabinet. The first several names had been inked out with one straight purposeful line, there were three left unchecked. 'Not possible?' He was holding two glasses, offering one of them across the table. He took it. 'Explain, please. I mean no harm.' The elder of the two sat and took a deep sip of his drink, then sighed. 'The men, they love you. There is not a soul amongst us who is more popular. You are not the strongest, nor the most intelligent. You do not have the natural good looks that women desire, and yet, they adore you.' He could afford this abrupt effrontery, it would not be taken personally. 'I am not a mutineer.' 'I have no doubt of your loyalty.' 'You fear the faith of others?' He nodded, then took another sip from his glass. 'Will you sit?' He did. On a roughly constructed stool. Everything in the camp had to be versatile and portable. Anything that could no be reconstructed for military use, or easily tied to the wagons would be broken down and given a new purpose. 'What do you want me to do?' 'That...' He paused, seemingly lost in thought for the first time since the other had entered, ducking under the low archway, putting one hand to his head in reverence. He generally enjoyed their encounters; the inner sanctum, the Commandant's boys flitting in and out of their warren tunnels, carrying executive commands and death sentences, orders for weapons and food, romantic missives to the furthest reaches of the rebellion. 'That,' he continued, 'is your choice. I do not deem you an enemy of the cause, I have no reason to believe that you would make any worse or better of a leader than I. I cannot command the hearts of the men, I cannot redefine their wills in the manner we combat. Should you draw your knife and strike me down I would fight only as instinct, as the wounded beast rears their horns in their dying deaths. A man would come and you would order my body be removed and taken to some dark place where I would lay down for eternity, surrounded by the peace of my life's ambitions met. The men would flock to your banner and the war would go on. The cost? Who can say. I like to believe that my work here has not been in vain, nor that it will count for nought when I am gone.' A silence suddenly spilt out of him, and hung huge in the air for a full minute before he spoke again. In this time the mind of the other raced and calculated. A proposition that had been discussed at secret length in whispered shadows had been rudely thrust to the surface, and now sat like a decrepit goblin hunched over between them, swaying its misshapen head from left to right, now snarling, now drooling on the hard earth floor. 'Or you may leave. You will be given safe passage to a home of your choice, where you will stay, until the war is over.' This was not unusual. Man came, men went. Questions were not asked. 'There is a man born in La Pobla, who hides here. A young man, who will go on to become a great one. A powerful friend of the Spain to come. Should you choose the route of succession I only ask you seek him out. Use the alondras.' The table between them seemed to shrink away, the whole room fading into darkness until the two men stood in an empty nothingness, a void of glossy black that stretched out from their shimmering bodies. 'So. That is your choice. Everything, or nothing at all.'

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