Blood has a rather strong smell when accumulated in great enough quantities. So when it comes from thousands of people, it is quite noticeable. I can smell it now. Tons of the crimson liquid has thus far been spilled on this great plain. I can taste it. The stench of death is strong enough for my tongue to feel it in the air. Above all else…I can feel it. The cold, dry air that I have lived off of for my entire life has been replaced by a warm, damp murk, covering this cursed spot.
I can’t breathe. I am dieing. It’s over for me. I lie on the ground, watching my comrades fall by the hundreds and my enemies fall by the dozens. The odds say that the half-dragon fiends will win…but I know they won’t. We have something that they don’t—something which has chosen to dominate my mind, even as I approach my death.
I grip the wound on my gut—crimson greets my hands, engulfing them. Yup; that is a lethal wound. I have failed to live. I will die. But all is not lost. I failed, but thousands of others have as well. Yet through it all, we’ll still win. With heavy losses, but we’ll still triumph.
I catch a glimpse of a figure in the distance. Normal humans like me in this army are lucky to kill three of our enemy. Some get five, or even ten, but then they are slain. Magic users can wipe out many times more, but still, they are nothing in comparison to what will win us this victory, what will kill our opponents. They can’t do it alone, and needed my contribution, the contribution of us all. But they will do the most killing and are why we will win.
They are what the enemy does not possess. They are what occupies my thoughts. They are what I will think about until the moment I die. I won’t have a flashback of my entire life. I won’t think about my family, my wife, and my children. I will think about these people. They are…our heroes.
What makes them different from me? From us? We, soldiers, know we could die. As do they. Yet something has been bothering me: what makes it so that they are the ones leading and us the ones following? Of course, we can’t all lead; a leader has to have something to make them command an army…but what is it? I remember when one of our commanders gave us a speech just before the fight. Seemingly minutes ago—how could so many die in any less time?—it was probably only seconds prior to my wound. I am fortunate that I have been under his command—he is one of those heroes.
We had been waiting all day for it. We knew it was coming. An army of half-dragon beasts would overwhelm our city within hours. The afternoon sun was bothersome. I had been raised in the city all life, adjusted to cold temperatures. We barely even have a word for that burning light in the sky. We were all sweating. All of us were wearing heavy armor, and combined with the heat, it was excruciatingly painful. It was a trial.
Then we heard something. At first, it was so weak that nobody knew what it was. I interpreted it as a slight humming sound. If it wasn’t spread across our whole army, I probably would’ve thought it was just a soldier singing a melody. Then it got louder. The hum became a rumble. I could feel the tremors. We all could. As much as the thought of an earthquake would have been relief, we all knew it was much, much worse.
They were here. We took our positions. The sun was blocked out by a dark cloud, foreshadowing great loss. At least we wouldn’t have to take the heat any longer. I rubbed my hand across my forehead and then took a braced position, holding my spear firm against the possibility of any sudden charge. Our leaders made last-minute revisions to the plan, and then my commander—someone not born here, a new face to most people—took command of our section. Our heroes took their turns with their speeches. After each pause, the army let out a cry of its own. I added my voice to the roar.
We could see them, now. My commander was the last one to give his speech. It moved me. Sure, I could have thrown something up myself of nearly equal value, but he delivered it well. I knew he meant it. I knew he wanted victory. And so, I raised my spear and shouted at the top of my lungs with my roar, my will to fight. Not surprisingly, the whole army was with me in this cry.
I had no fear. I knew this was coming. All I would be able to do was my best, and that’s all any of us could ask for. I knew I would likely die, being one of the men in the front. The men there almost always die first—and they know it. Do we have nothing to lose? No; we all knew that we would die. But we do have everything to gain by fighting our hardest. Someone has to be first—if nobody is willing to fight in the front, then nobody will, and it will be a massacre.
They charged. They might be our enemy, but at least they were gracious enough to let us prepare for our death. Instead of bracing for the impact, we charged ourselves. Our section, our commander, was the only section that did. It was part of the strategy. We knew it meant that our side would suffer particularly heavy casualties. But if it meant our victory, what did it matter?
I kept on roaring. Our battle cry might not send fear into the half-dragons, but it certainly gives morale to those giving it. I made contact with the torso of a soldier on their own front line. My spear pierces through, yet the warrior did not collapse. I kept on charging, piercing another. After a third deflected the spear enough to only get a wound to the shoulder, my spear broke.
I drew my sword in a millisecond. I tried engaging the enemy in combat. They were stronger. They might have been faster. I didn’t care. I blocked a strike from one of their swords, and then lunged through the stomach of another. I gave a powerful slash to dismember the warrior and continued fighting another one.
But I am only mortal. I am only human. Worse yet, I—unlike some of our army—know no magic. It was bound to happen sooner or later. I would lose. I caught a glimpse of my commander again. My sword broke upon contact with an enemy’s shoulder, and I drew my knife. My commander was still using his spear, killing dozens.
Something makes him different. What makes our heroes different from me? They have the exact same thing to protect. They all know they can die. They all are only human. They all care about their comrades. They all do not wish to be fighting. Yet I could tell that he was different from me, somehow.
Is it magic? That is very possible. Most of our heroes use it. But we have other magic users who are just normal soldiers like me. We have a whole division of magic users. They are just soldiers as well, though. It can’t be magic that makes our heroes idles to us all.
Could it be enchanted items? I hear that the commander’s sword is specially designed to cut through dragon flesh and armor. But that can’t be true for all of our heroes, and certainly doesn’t instantly make them more powerful—if that were the case, by simply stealing the sword, I’d be a hero.
Could charisma be the deciding factor? No; while most of our heroes lead, some just follow, yet still hold onto that title. Some of us have extraordinarily high amounts of charisma and can convince almost anyone about…anything. It helps, I am sure, but that, by itself, can’t be it.
I’ll never know. I’m only mortal. We’re all here because we have no choice. I know that I am in the army partially to give income to my family—but in reality, it’s much more than that…I am willing to sacrifice myself, live the life of a soldier…to protect them. That is something that everyone here feels. If this were for money or power, we wouldn’t follow our leaders. We’d let ourselves be conquered because wealth and politics are not enough to risk your life over. But for survival, it is something that few men can refuse to not fight for.
I lost sight of my commander, the hero, and for the moment, was focusing again on my opponent. I drove my dagger deep into the thing’s shoulder, desperate, knowing a single well-placed strike would kill me. Fortunately, my foe collapsed. I took the sword in my opponent’s hand and engaged another. This time, I was not so fortunate. I got ran through, gutted. I was tossed aside. I could feel how lethal it was instantly.
Armor means nothing to those fiends. I collapsed to my knees, defeated. I’ve heard that heroes in this situation would keep on fighting to their last breath—another difference between us and them, considering how I just gave up.
I leaned forward and collapsed to the ground, where I currently reside, waiting for death to come. From here, I saw the hero once more, still fighting strong, hacking and slashing through our mutual enemies. I will die. I won’t be remembered. My brother who I saw slain won’t be remembered. My best friend won’t be remembered. Most of my friends won’t be remembered. We’re just soldiers. We’re just the casualties that make a victory possible. If I am lucky, I’ll be just another tombstone, a name that commemorates this victory. My family will be the only ones saddened by my death, the only ones to remember me.
Maybe the reason I am so willing to let my death come to me isn’t determination. It is possible that I want to live more than anything else in the world. But I am also willing to die. Why? I think it is trust. I place my trust in our heroes. They will win, and will save thousands. Hundreds like me will die. But they will win. I know they will. Perhaps that is why I am willing to do this.
But through it all, my original question remains unanswered, in my mind. Magic, enchantments, charisma, a sense of comradeship, the will to fight, and the will to die to protect your friends and family are things that most of us possess. Many soldiers possess a good deal of all of those things. So it can’t be that a perfect combination of those factors makes them heroes and us soldiers. While it doesn’t matter, I still want an answer, though I know I won’t get any.
What makes them the heroes, and us the soldiers?