Armies, thousands of men with lives and concerns and loves and cares every bit as true and important as yours and mine coalesced into little figurines on a map, and the Queen, worried by the bigger concern of protecting the realm, studied their positions.
Along with the ministers and advisers, she looked for supply lines, military outposts, deployments, geographical features, anything, anything that could give their army a tactical, strategic advantage. They desperately needed one.
The kingdom was under attack from three sides, from four armies that had colluded to overthrow the greatest Empire in the land. They had the numbers to win. Easily.
The Queen pored over the maps and saw nothing in her Empire that she could work to her advantage… save its size. She proposed a distasteful plan, and her ministers, after working the visceral reactions out of their systems, agreed that it was the only way to preserve the Empire.
Her plan was to give the aggressors what they wanted. In part.
She would divide her army into two factions. The first would be distributed along the periphery of the state, in the villages and towns close to the borders. The second would defend the capital, remain in the heart of the Empire. All the villages, towns and cities between the two factions would be stripped of anything and everything that could function as provisions. All food was to be removed, ponds and lakes poisoned, and cattle killed.
The first faction would engage at the border, fighting for every inch given. But the inches would be given, for the only purpose of the first faction was to weaken the enemy. An outright victory was, obviously, impossible. The enemy would then have to tramp through the plains, and that is where they would be bled out.
Once inside the Empire, they would find no supply lines, and would have to depend on what they had brought at the beginning of the battle, an amount that could at maximum feed the army for two days. Thereafter they would have depended on plundering the vanquished villages to feed the army. They would find nothing. The march would take well over a week, and the enemies would have to survive on wild game and whatever water they could carry from the river. By the time they reached the capital, they would be starved, dehydrated, broken, an easy rout for the second faction.
At the cost of half the Empire, and in all probability, all her army.
It was at this point, that her son walked into the Council. Her son, the Prince, the prodigy, he who impressed his masters with his quick mind, his voracious appetite for knowledge, and his already formidable skills in physical combat, all at the mere age of twelve.
He walked in and informed his mother, that he would be fighting in the upcoming war. He recognized the crisis they faced, his sense of duty would not let him remain in the sidelines, and his pride would not let him cower inside a castle, waiting for the big bad men to come get him. He was courteous, and spoke gently, but his will was firm.
A mother wailed her frustration, but the Queen remained impassive.
She looked at him gravely, titled her head, granting permission, and dismissed him. And the Council broke into uproar.
“He is a mere child! He is untrained!”
“He is to be the King! Who would lead if he were to die?”
“Your Majesty, do not let emotion cloud your judgement! The Prince is accomplished, but on the field he will only be one sword, he cannot alone turn this battle!”
“One sword?” The Queen’s voice rang out. “My son, one sword? The blood of nine generations of emperors flows through his veins, emperors who built and held this Empire. In a little over a decade, he has proven his worth, and won the love of his people. He will fight. He will lay low all who stand before him, and inspire every warrior to give a better reckoning of himself. With him, we will hold the barbarians at the borders themselves.
“Send out word. Every able bodied man without dependents is to take up weapons, and fight. They will fight for their Prince. You have your instructions. Now leave.”
With muted muttering and shaking heads, the ministers filed out. Only the Prime Minister remained.
He said as gently as he could, “Your Majesty, he is only twelve. He won’t survive.”
The Queen looked at him, and as she did, her shoulders fell, her head lowered and she placed her hands on the table, as though steadying herself. With tears in her eyes, she said, “Of course he won’t. He is twelve, so he won’t have command. When… If he falls, the army will still retain structure. But the people love him as they would love their own son, and if he falls, every man will fight like a father would fight to avenge his murdered son. Where numbers fail us, the tenacity of humans might pull through. His death will give them all the more reason to fight. His death could save half the Empire from being burned to the ground.”
The Minister had to work the words before he could speak them aloud, “You would do this? You would give up your own son, for an uncertain reward?”
“How many children will die if four armies tramp through the Empire? How is my choice any different from the choice the mother of each soldier in our army? As it is, my son can protect himself better than most men.”
“But he would be king!”
“Another will be found.”
The Minister looked at her askance, conceding her logic, but unable to digest the fact that a mother was sending her son out to die. He stammered, “How can you…?”
The Queen, in a voice like broken crystal, said, “Empires thrive on sacrifice.”