As much as it hurt, Xev knew that there was some truth in Kestyn’s words. With Xiyana’s level of skill, he couldn’t be certain that she would be alive, or even have a complete corpse by the time they found her. The wildlife in the depths of the forest was already enough to kill her a thousand times over. That’s not to mention the questionable food supply. Furthermore, she had that warlock with her. Who knew what the man’s motives were?
Xev ran a hand through his hair. The odds were so far against her survival right now. He closed his eyes. If he were a better general, if he were a better man, he’d take the men back to the camp right now. There were too many dangers out there. The wounds and sacrifices that the men could receive in the process weren’t worth the exchange with a possible corpse.
But as dangerous as the depths of the forests were and as unlikely it was for her to still be out there alive, he didn’t want to let go of even a sliver of hope. If she was still out there, he wanted to bring her back. He’d go, regardless of the cost to himself. But the men. He couldn’t ask for them to do the same.
He turned to look at them, as they ate. Some smiled and waved back. They were good men. They were loyal. But many still had families. He couldn’t ask for them to risk themselves, and endanger their familys’ survival for him.
He drew his lips together. He had to let them know that they had an option. He was their general, but they had the freedom to go back. This wasn’t an obligatory mission. This wasn’t something asked of them by the country. This was a personal matter. Something that his selfish heart wanted. Something that they didn’t need to be part of, regardless of what the commander said.
He felt a hand clap his shoulder behind him. He turned. Albirtos. The man had accompanied him on more battles than he could remember. The compassion and empathy on the man’s face brought him a sort of comfort. The man understood. He smiled at the man, grateful for the emotional support. As gruff and violent Albirtos could be in battle, he was also one of the few men he knew that could entirely relate to the emotional turmoil currently going through his head.
A few years back, the man had to endure to the kidnapping of his entire family. To make matters worse, the information that the kidnapper wanted wasn’t open to disclosure. The poor man had to endure the anguish of knowing that he could save his family, but morally being unable to do so, due to the impact that the reveal could have on the entire nation. Without a way to communicate with his family members, the man had to go days without knowing whether they were dead or alive. Days without knowing whether the country’s forces would be able to save them.
The uncertainty. The fear. Feelings that he wouldn’t wish onto anyone. Not even onto the families of the men in his unit. He sighed. He’d been wrong to bring them all.
“Men.” He addressed, returning his focus to the rest of the men. “I know many of you are tired and worn out from the recent pace of travel. And I’m sorry for being so inconsiderate.”
“No need to be so formal, general!” One of the men shouted. Karif, a man had once been so soft-spoken, so shy, when he’d first met him. Over the past few years, he’d grown to be one of the most open of the bunch. “We understand.” Karif continued. “You’re just worried about your sister.”
“That I am.” Xev answered. “With her present status uncertain, I can’t help but feel anxiety pushing at my heels, urging me forward. I can’t help but want to travel faster. So, I sincerely apologize for the extra burden that I’ve placed on each and every one of you.”
“General, don’t worry about it!” Another man shouted. Meyon. The most frail of the bunch. The lad was the most quickly worn out on every expedition, despite his efforts to double down on his training. “We don’t mind. Really!”
Looking up, Xev could see the other men nodding in agreement. He bit back tears, their support meant a lot to him. But they were too loyal. Knowing them, they were likely thinking entirely for him, rather for themselves and for their families that waited for the back at home.
“The mission will be dangerous. Some of you could die.” Xev added. “It’s not a risk any of you need to take. Kestyn is right. I’d been too blinded by my own urgency to see, but all of you should return back to the camp. The food that you each carry in your packs should be enough to last the entire trip back.”
“What about you, general?” One man asked. Jurith, one of his most capable fighters.
“I’m going to continue looking for her.” Xev answered, with a sigh. “I can’t bring myself to go back knowing that she might still be out there. That she might still be alive. I don’t think I’d be able to live with myself knowing that I once had a chance to save her but chose to leave her to die.”
“Then I’m going with you.” Jurith replied.
“So am I.” A man in the distance chimed in. One by one, each and every one of his men volunteered to join him rather than go back to camp.
“Your families.” Xev began.
“Our families were aware from the day that we’ve enlisted that we could die any day.” Albirtos said from behind him, cutting him off. “Besides, I trust that with you in command, we’ll all make it back alive.”
He looked up to find that all the other men nodding in approval.
“Where General Xev goes, we go!” A man shouted.
“Thank you.” He said, truly grateful. “Thank you everyone.”
Kestyn might be right, but he wouldn’t abandon his sister to die. Not when there was still the distinct possibility that he could save her. He smiled at the men. He was lucky to have their support, and he would work hard not to let them down. He would not only find and save his sister, but also bring each and every one of his men back to the camp. Alive.