Agnita willed for her legs to climb the hill faster so she could catch up with her best friend, Frenz. Once she reached the top, he was already there, overlooking the river. Hearing her approach, he turned around to grin at her.
“You run well enough for a girl,” he said mockingly.
She lunged at him, aiming her fist at his upper arm, but he jumped back just in time. She hated when he said things like that to her. She used to be faster and stronger than him, but he had grown a lot bigger since the last solstice. With a pout, she brought her attention to the frothing rapids below. Before the late summer rains came, the water was low and lazy enough for them to wade across.
“I wish that summer would stay with us longer,” she sighed.
“It won’t be summer in this country again while Ustrunia still exists.”
“Well, this is a serious turn in conversation,” she said with a sigh.
“This is reality, Agnita. The war is becoming a part of our lives now.”
Agnita glared at him. “Why are you being so grim? They will never make it this far north with General Kaloun protecting us.”
A skeptical look crossed his face. “If this war is not over in a month, I am joining the army.”
She felt her little heart lurch. “Frenz, you cannot!” she cried.
“I can and I will.”
“But you are only thirteen! They wouldn’t let you.”
They wouldn’t do it. It made no sense to recruit someone who would die within moments on a battlefield.
He raised his chin to look down at her. “The army is now accepting fourteen-year-olds. I will convince my father to allow me to go.”
Agnita crossed her arms. How could her country be so careless, so desperate to win that they would accept boys far too young to fight? Worse than that, he wanted to go. He would leave her to go risk his life and possibly never return.
Desperation raced through her veins; the world darkened all around her as she looked up at her friend.
“Then I will go as well,” she said.
He grimaced. “Wearing pants and playing boy’s games will never erase the fact that you are just a …”
“Oh, shut up!”
She was about to slap him, but then thought the better of it. He looked away from her with an aloof shrug. She crossed her arms, trying to swallow back the anger and hurt that welled up inside of her. This was not how things were supposed to happen. A year ago, they did not speak about anything remotely close to war. She didn’t want him to grow up before his time. It was difficult to stay young when the world seemed desperate to end childhood as soon as possible. When she gallivanted with Frenz in the highlands, she was no longer just a girl. She was free. Nothing was more special to her than those moments. The thought of those times coming to an end suddenly made her feel very empty, even as he stood there next to her.
“What am I going to do if you don’t come back?” she asked.
His hazel eyes met her blue ones. They softened a little, but his jaw was still set with his usual determination.
“It is my duty.”
She couldn’t fight back the tears as she stared at him in disbelief. “Your duty, if you ever had one, is to stay here and help your parents on the farm!”
He gave her a hard look. “You are such a simpleton sometimes!”
His words stung her so much that she could not open her mouth to spew out a retort. She shook her head and crossed her arms, looking away. How could he speak to her that way?
“Look,” he said suddenly, pointing toward the river.
A black stag trotted over to the riverbank. His antlers’ large size told of the many seasons he escaped from both huntsmen and wolvins. Perhaps his presence would bring them some good luck. Agnita couldn’t help but smile at the sight. It was often said among the farmers that when you saw an old buck, fortune befell the viewer. Alas, the deer perked up his ears, sensing their presence. He galloped away.
An idea formed in Agnita’s mind. She looked at Frenz with a grin.
“Are you going to get all stormy with me again?” he asked with a frown.
Rolling her eyes, she turned away from him. “You are starting to sound like my father, you know.
“Hey! Come here you!”
She broke into a run down the hill.
“I’ll beat you!” she called over her shoulder.
She was half-way down when Frenz caught up to her.
“Be careful!” he warned.
Ignoring him, she picked up her pace, nearly tripping, but then her balance righted and she gained momentum. Reaching level ground, she glanced back at him.
“I won!” she shouted.
He shook his head in mock annoyance, but the corners of his mouth lifted in a slight grin.
“Fine! You won this time,” he said, panting.
She placed her hands on her hips, grinning triumphantly. “And it will not be the last.”
Viggo rubbed his horse’s smooth neck as the rhythmic pounding of battle drums travelled across the foggy field. The mare stepped deliberately with the calm demeanor of a trained war horse. He was just a boy riding into a battle with the world’s most feared army. It didn’t feel real.
After the army arrived at a camp outside of Kjelad, the country’s capital, his brief military training began under the watch of Commander Voniz. He learned how to sharpen a sword, how to jab and block, and how to give his horse commands that could save his life. His lesson in sword fighting involved using wooden swords; he lost every duel because he was so small and weak from the harsh life he lived on the streets. Though the thought of dying from battle wounds was unsettling, so much so that he felt bile rising up his throat, he did not fear death itself. He spent many cold nights thinking about dying during his days on the street, knowing that starvation would take him one day. At least if he died, it would be with a full belly far away from the vultures that used to eye him from their perch on the tavern roof. How he hated those things.
Commander Voniz rode past giving him a hard glare.
“Don’t look them in the eyes. Focus on what their hands are doing,” he said sternly. “Always be ready.”
He doubted being ready would help him much, but he saluted his commander. “Yes, Sir.”
Red-caped soldiers emerged from the thick mists. Viggo’s hand grasped the hilt of his sword, which was still sheathed at his hip. A week ago, he never would have dreamed that he would be equipped not only with a sharpened weapon and a war horse, but with a sense of pride. Those privileges alone were worth fighting for. If only his father could see him sitting up straight in a saddle and riding alongside a great commander of Norforth.
The enemy’s drumming grew louder. From the front of the line, General Kaloun’s battle cry pierced through the sound of the drumming. He sat on his black horse staring down at his soldiers from the top of the rise. The general lifted his broad sword high above his head.
“Let’s bring those bastards to the ground and soak the earth with their blood!” he shouted.
An eruption of shouts filled the air, rumbling Viggo’s armour and penetrating his nerves. Viggo kicked his horse’s sides, urging her to keep up with his line as they forged ahead. His throbbing ears deadened at the sound of clanging metal, men’s shouts, tearing flesh, and shattering bones.
Viggo yanked the sword from its sheath as his first enemy came at him. His father’s reddened drunken face attacked his mind’s eye, replacing the warrior’s.
“You will always be a failure, you stupid boy,” rasped the voice.
“Shut up!” screamed Viggo.
His sword collided with the Ustrunian’s shoulder armour; the impact rattled his joints. The foe backed away, sizing him up. Viggo hadn’t expected to meet terrified blue eyes and a smooth, beardless face. The other boy leaned back, holding his sword out in front of him, seemingly too afraid to do anything else with it. He seemed a poor specimen of the undefeatable foreign monsters everyone always talked about. The two boy soldiers stared at one another as the battle raged on all around them.
Memories of the hungry vultures flying overhead in Blackston haunted Viggo. He felt paralyzed. His arms fell down to his sides as the battle raged all around them, the hilt of his sword resting loosely in his weak grip. The enemy boy stumbled backward, disappearing into the sea of battling men.
The temporary escape from reality ended violently as something crashed into his shoulder armour. Nearly falling off the saddle, he held onto his horse’s reins with one hand and blocked a wide swing with his sword bearing hand. Crying out, he looked up at the much larger Ustrunian. The impact of the blow tore the muscles in his upper arm. He hollered. Cold grey eyes greeted him that time. His frenzied heart slammed against his rib cage and he choked back a frightened sob. The Ustrunian warrior threw another blow to his torso that knocked the air from his lungs. Viggo fell off his horse and landed in the blood-streaked grass, gasping for breath. He lifted his head and crawled over to retrieve his blade when agony tore into the front of his shoulder. His mouth fell open to let out a silent yell. Warm, sticky liquid splattered all over his face. Black dots blurred his vision. He couldn’t move, frozen from the shock of indescribable pain. He was certain that his arm was missing.
He rolled onto his side, writhing in pain, too weak to wipe away the tears that stung his tired eyes and soaked his sunburnt face. A terrible scream emerged from the pit of his stomach, but it was cut short by the vomit his stomach was forcing out of him. He lay on the field like a dying rat about to be eaten by starved vultures.
Shadows of the fighting soldiers and their horses blocked out the sun above. He shivered in the cold. Then a pair of strong hands lifted him from the death-ridden ground. His head spun as he was placed upright onto a saddle. He groaned as he felt the blood pouring out of his throbbing wound.
“Hold on to the saddle horn and stay awake or I will lose you!” shouted the commander in his ear.
A swift slap across his face jolted him out of the distress-inflicted trance. Viggo shuddered, fully aware of the death and suffering surrounding him.
“Are you still with me?” asked Voniz.
“Yes, Sir,” he managed to say.
With the commander sitting behind him in the saddle, Viggo forced his eyes open and held on as the horse lurched forward.
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