A country home had been gutted of all its life. Once filled with books, instruments, laughter, and warmth, it stood as an empty shell about to be burned. Martin lit a torch from the growing bonfire close to the house where most of his family’s belongings perished. They could only pack the most essential belongings, for it was a small and light wagon. If they didn’t burn their house down, the Ustrunians would once they passed through the area. Father lit another torch. Standing side by side, Martin and his father stared at their house for a final moment. Mother was the one to pour what was left of the spirits onto the kitchen floor to aid in the burning process. It was just as well. None of them drank overmuch in the first place.
Mother went to the wagon and sat there, unable to watch her house burn. Martin and Father tossed their torches through the open window and watched the flames grow inside. Their home would soon be nothing more than ashes blowing in the wind. He turned his face away from the place where he grew up, never able to return to its comfortable confines that once smelled of aged wood and fresh bread. He took a deep breath and reminded himself of the futility in being attached to inanimate things. He had both of his parents with him and they were all healthy. That was enough.
Martin secured the barrels and boxes in the packed wagon. A gentle hand rested on his shoulder. He looked into his mother’s soft grey eyes.
“I promise you that we will never go hungry,” she said. “We have some money saved and we’ll build a new life somewhere far from the war.”
Her voice was so determined that he could not think for a moment that it was a false promise. She was the town’s savviest merchant before the country’s financial depression hit. The fruit and vegetable store fared well, allowing their family to give food to the less fortunate. That was until the war hit and the army took most of their yield that season.
“Going hungry is not my worst fear, Mother. I worry of becoming an eternal transient.”
“As long as I am alive, I will make sure that you become a somebody,” she said, her voice lowering an octave. “Wars don’t last forever. We just need to survive this one.”
At the age of sixteen, Martin could tell whenever a storm of ideas raged inside of his mother’s mind. He held his tongue.
Father slowly approached the wagon. He still stood tall and proud despite the tragedy of losing the home he built as a young man.
Blinking back tears, Martin climbed into the back of the wagon. Mother’s posture straightened. She was trying not to cry as she gave Martin and Father a brave smile.
“Look at how strong your mother is,” said Papa. “You’d never know that she was a pampered lass in her younger years. Back when I almost broke my back trying to court her. She was a difficult girl to please in those days.”
Mother gave him a sidelong glance. Martin couldn’t help but smile at his parents as the flames cracked and popped close by. They were still crazy about one another despite decades of hard work and sacrifices along the way, even as their beloved home burned right next to them.
“Well, it’s time to get out of here,” muttered Papa.
“Never look back,” said Mama.
Martin shifted uncomfortably in his seat as the pungent scent of smoke infiltrated his nostrils and stung his eyes. He resisted the urge to look at his boyhood home one more time. It would do him no good to tarnish the memory of the beautiful dwelling. The life that they knew vanished before their eyes. All he wanted was to go far away where the war could never touch them, to start a new chapter. It was going to be a very long ride, for they had no idea where they would go.
“It’s an adventure in the true sense,” said Martin.
“Everything’s an adventure when you’re young,” said Father with a sigh.
As they passed through the main street of their deserted town, it was difficult for Martin to look at the familiar landmarks. The place was devoid of soul. Some of the buildings were already burned down. Others were spared, perhaps in hopes of returning to them one day if they were somehow spared from being destroyed by the enemy.
In the distance, long trails of smoke rose from the burning buildings across the countryside. Whoever won the war would inherit a torn world.
“I will make sure that you can still go to school once things have settled.”
“I don’t want you to worry about that.”
“You heard the boy,” piped in Martin’s father. “Let him be.”
His mother’s wide eyes showed the pain that she often hid so well. It deepened the pain of leaving everything behind.
“Martin loves arithmetic. War or no war, our boy is going to reach his dreams.”
Martin watched as his parents held hands. He did not want them to focus on him so much anymore. It was harsh enough fleeing everything familiar with no assurance of finding another good place to live. They could be traveling from place to place for months. Years even. There was no telling how far the enemy would invade their country.
As he found a somewhat comfortable place to rest on the bumpy wagon, ideas turned over in his mind. His daydreaming ceased when they passed through the next town. He was unable to see the sky through the thick smoke as more buildings burned. The world was falling apart right before their eyes.
Agnita strummed the strings of her fiddle as she stared out the window. It was difficult for her to be in a musical mood when the sun was shining as it was. It was a perfect day to find Frenz and go fishing at the lake, but he was acting so cross with her lately. She worried about being a bother to him, that he was outgrowing her. Did he really see her as just a girl? Would he want to start spending more time with boys around his age?
“Are you going to play that instrument or just toy with it all afternoon?” asked Ma.
Ma was on both hands and knees scrubbing the floor with a dirt-stained rag. Guilt swept over Agnita and she set the fiddle down and looked at her mother.
“Do you need help, Ma?”
Her mother stopped working for a moment to stare at her with weary blue eyes. She wiped her wet hands on her off-white apron. She was the image of the woman that Agnita never wanted to become – tired, bound to the home, uninspired after years of drudgery.
“Who has just possessed my daughter?” Ma asked with a laugh. “You never ask me if I need help with anything.”
“I could go help Papa feed the animals if you don’t need me here.”
With an eye roll, Ma stood up and rubbed her knees.
“Go. I am nearly finished. I do not suppose that you prefer helping me cook dinner instead of feeding the hogs.”
Agnita set down her fiddle and rushed to the door. “I’ll go make sure the animals are fed,” she said without waiting for Ma’s response.
Agnita all but flew outside to the barn where her father shovelled fresh straw into the stables. She stuck her head into the barrel that held dried corn and then inhaled its fresh aroma. How she loved outdoor smells. Indoor scents made her feel confined. With a deep sigh, she scooped a large helping of feed into a pail and started toward the pig pen.
Loud whistling sounded behind her. She turned and laughed at Frenz’s ridiculous gait as he skipped toward her like the jester in a play. He acted like a fool when he hoped to make her smile and it worked every time.
“Good to see you in high spirits today!” she called.
Perhaps it would turn out to be a great day after all.
“Stolen helpings of grog will do that to a man,” he said with a grin.
She shook her head and he grew serious.
“My father let me take a swig of his drink because I’ve worked so hard this year. I’m a man now.”
“A thirteen-year-old is hardly a man.”
“Almost fourteen,” he corrected.
She hated how he talked so much about growing up. It made her chest ache and her eyes twitch.
“You are going to drive me mad, Frenz,” she said between clenched teeth.
He answered her with a shrug as he looked skyward. Boys were so stupid. All she wanted was to be happy and carefree before the autumn harvest, but it couldn’t be that way for him. He had to have danger without any thought of what that would mean.
“Well, it’s still summer and we’re both still thirteen,” she pressed, longing to lighten the mood. “Do you want to go fishing with me after dinner?”
He stared at her. “I signed up to fight in the army.”
It was a joke. A bad joke and no one was laughing. He was stone-faced.
“Are you just going to look at me like that or will you say something?” he asked in annoyance.
“You are lying.”
It couldn’t be true. His parents wouldn’t be stupid enough to let him do it. Life couldn’t take him away from her like that.
“I leave tomorrow for camp in Esston,” he said.
She blinked, realizing that he was being perfectly serious. Her heart pounded against her ribcage.
“Tomorrow?” she echoed.
She found it difficult to breathe as the painful truth weighed heavily on her little chest, threatening to crush her heart. Esston was miles away. It might as well have been on the other side of the world.
“How could you throw your life away for a cause that will dispose of you without thought or remorse?” she cried.
He took a step closer to her with a menacing glare. It was a look on his face she had never seen before.
“You sound like that bloody queen of ours. You know what I hope for? I want our king to find her and kill her!”
The dark story of Queen Jasmine’s near assassination and flight from the throne reached every corner of the country, even their tiny village. Frenz never liked her ideals, but to hear him say those words sent a vibrating chill down Agnita’s arms and legs. The queen’s rise to power had always been an inspiration for her.
“Frenz, how could you say such a thing?” she cried.
“Well, if you ever grow up, which I hope you do, you’ll realize that not everything is about the individual. It’s about protecting everyone, preserving our country.”
“That sounds like propaganda to me,” she said, shaking her head. “What about your plans? Our plans?”
“Plans change, Agnita.”
She covered her mouth in shock and turned away from him. She never, ever wanted to let him see her cry, but she had no idea how to handle the fact that he was going to leave her. He stepped closer to her, gently wrapping his arms around her. She did not want a hug; she wanted him to stay. Deciding not to fight him, she leaned against his chest. He was getting so tall. There were so many things that she wanted to say before it was too late, but her mouth couldn’t form the words.
A lump formed in her throat and it hurt to swallow or speak. His warmth surrounded her as his long arms encircled her slender body, making her feel very small.
“I will come with you,” she whispered. “You won’t have to go alone.”
He immediately drew back. “Do not be a fool!” he shouted.
Her entire body quivered at his harsh tone. She took a step toward him. “I swear to God that I will sign up if you go!” she cried.
Her throat closed up as sorrow welled up in her chest. She fell at his feet, weeping as though he were already dead.
“Get up, Agnita. Stop acting like a child.”
His turning happened so quickly that she would never be able to accept his changing.
“I can’t let you go,” she said.
He ran a hand nervously through his dark, wavy hair. “You can and you will.”
“How can you be so straight-faced about this? It’s like our friendship means nothing at all to you.”
He sighed. “You know that’s not true.”
His voice lacked conviction. It almost seemed like he wasn’t really there with her. His eyes gazed past her at the horizon. He was being pushed into premature adulthood by the war, but he was nowhere close to being ready for it. Boys like him never thought about what battle would really be like. He was no match for seasoned warriors. He would be easily replaced. She knew that, but no one could make him believe it.
“I just don’t understand your need to run into a battle that will rip you to shreds,” she said.
He rolled his eyes and looked down his nose at her. “Where is all of this infinite wisdom coming from? What makes you think that I won’t kill them all for trying? They will train me and mould me into a soldier and there’s nothing you can do to stop it.”
“How are we any better than they are if we are so excited by the idea of killing them, too?”
His face softened as he moved nearer to her again. “You think like a girl, Agnita. Fighting is the only way we can win this war. Men don’t sit around talking about important matters over tea. We act, fight, and resolve.”
She balled her fists, longing to punch him in his stupid face. “Well, maybe they should use their damn heads.”
He rolled his eyes. “Dream on.”
She was losing him. “Couldn’t you wait just one more year? Please?”
He shook his head. She had lost him.
“I am doing this to protect you and your family, you know. Do you understand what would happen if they reached this far? They kill civilians without remorse and burn every last morsel of their existence. The thought of them hurting you … do you understand what they would do to you? To your mother, even?”
She closed her eyes and shuddered at the way his voice changed as he asked that question. “I can use my imagination, Frenz.”
The air around them became very cold. Was the devil close by?
Frenz crossed his arms. “Can you really use your imagination? You don’t seem to be able to.”
“How can you insult me like this? What is wrong with you?” she cried.
“I need to leave now.”
“Just like that? Not even one last fishing trip?”
He hanged his head. “There is no time to lose.”
She waited for him to say something else, anything else, but all he did was stare at her.
“How am I supposed to let you go?” she asked.
He blinked quickly, staring at the grass. “Keep busy. Make new friends in town. Pray for me … if you can ever forgive me.”
Her entire body trembled as she looked up at him. “I don’t want new friends! I can’t forget about you by ‘keeping busy’. It doesn’t work that way.”
His face reddened. She wasn’t sure if it was from anger or what.
“Then try to forget me for a little while, Agnita. I just need you to try.”
He turned away from her and ran. Her breath caught at the sudden movement. He fled like a wild animal escaping a snare. She leaned against the fencepost, watching him, unable to accept that he was really leaving until he disappeared into the maize field.
Viggo couldn’t move as he struggled to open his eyelids. He longed to venture away from the darkness, but his whole body felt like a pile of bricks.
“Get up, Viggo,” said a deep voice.
He groaned when he tried to move his stiff limbs again. A cool sponge chilled his forehead; his eyes popped open. Everything was blurry at first. His throat was so dry that it hurt to swallow. Commander Voniz sat next to his cot staring at him.
“You have to sit up now,” he commanded.
“I can’t get up,” said Viggo.
“You can. You have to.”
Voniz held a glass of water up to his lips. Viggo took the drink with trembling hands. He choked from swallowing it too quickly.
“Take it easy,” said the commander.
Once he recovered and caught his breath, he guzzled down the rest of the water.
“Have I been sleeping long, Sir?”
Voniz helped him sit up. “You were out for three days, which was a damn good thing for you. The surgeon cleaned your wounds and stitched you up good as you slept deeply. He says that you are healing up well. You will be sore for another week or so, but you’re fit enough to ride after a hearty meal.”
The thought of riding made Viggo feel dizzy. He was still getting used to sitting up without feeling like the world was spinning.
“Yes, Sir,” he forced himself to say.
“Here, drink some more.”
The commander poured more water from the pitcher into his glass. Viggo wondered why the man subjected himself to such a humble task when any foot soldier could have done it. He finished the second glass and set it down on the table as a soldier brought in a plate of food. Viggo’s stomach growled from the intoxicating scent. Boiled potatoes and salted pork never tasted so good.
Voniz left as he ate.
Once the food filled his belly, he fell asleep only to wake up abruptly to strong hands grabbing him by the shoulders.
“I can’t yet, Sir,” groaned Viggo.
He felt even more tired than before. Voniz pulled him up by the collar of his shirt. Viggo’s right leg and left shoulder throbbed in protest. Wincing, he put all his weight on his left leg and forced himself to stand upright. He looked up at the imposing warrior who saved his life.
“I am sorry for failing you, Sir.”
“You have not failed me even if you lay cold and lifeless in the mud, boy.”
The tone of his voice gave Viggo chills and his words confused him.
“Now, put on your boots and follow me,” said the commander.
Every step shot sharp pains up and down Viggo’s leg as they stepped out of the tent and into the drizzle. He forced his legs into a limping walk so he could follow Voniz at a reasonable pace. The cool air eased some of his grogginess at least. They ventured away from the camp toward the woods. A thick mist hovered over the fields like a heavy spell. He did not like the uneasiness that welled up in his chest and he wished that he had a right to ask where they were going.
“You will learn to think past the pain,” said the commander. “This is good practice for you. You’ll grow stronger from it.”
“Yes, Sir,” said Viggo, wincing at every painful step.
His injured leg numbed by the time they reached the forest. A young man with jet black hair emerged from the trees and rode up to greet them with a pensive expression. He reminded Viggo of a raven.
“At your service, Sir,” he said, saluting Voniz.
“At ease, soldier. Viggo, you will serve under Lieutenant Otto until further orders are given. He is leading a mission that is very important to winning this war. You will do everything that he tells you. Understand?”
“Keep your posture straight, boy.”
Viggo found it difficult to hide his disappointment in being handed off to someone else. That was his punishment for failing in battle.
“Yes, Sir,” he said, straightening his exhausted posture.
Voniz looked at the younger commander. “Otto, report back to me once the mission has been completed.”
“Yes, Sir,” said Otto.
He started back toward camp without a second glance at either Viggo or Otto. They studied one another in uncomfortable silence. Upon closer inspection, the young man was actually a very tall boy who was maybe a couple of years older than Viggo.
“What sort of mission are we going on, Sir?” asked Viggo.
“We can’t afford to waste more time here. Jump on.”
Viggo climbed awkwardly into the saddle behind his new superior who seemed a little too young to be leading a military unit.
They made their way deeper into the forest and stopped close to a river a good time later to refill their canteens and allow the horse to drink.
“We are going to rescue prisoners,” said Otto. “That is our mission.”
Viggo’s eyes widened in surprise. “Where are the prisoners to be rescued from, Sir?”
“They are at one of the camps close to the enemy’s new border.”
“I am very glad to be a part of this mission.”
Otto threw him a harsh look. “It does not matter whether you are glad or not. We do what we are commanded. Understand, soldier?”
His head rattled from the sharp command.
Otto raised his chin and looked down his nose at Viggo.
“Stand up straight now. You are a soldier of Nortforth. Commander Voniz saw something in you that makes you capable of this mission. Whoever you were before the army has no bearing on who you are now. Understand?”
Otto did not smile, but sincerity warmed his brown-green eyes.
Viggo nodded. “Yes, Sir. Thank you, Sir.”
“Too many ‘Sirs’,” said Otto dryly.
Viggo cringed. “Sorry.”
Ten other mounted soldiers emerged from the shadows created by the thick foliage. They were all young – under twenty years old. Their horses were pitch black. He nearly commented on the small size of the group, but kept his mouth shut.
One of the boys led his horse up to Otto. He held the lead of another dark horse, which followed close behind. It was Otto’s horse by the looks of it.
“Thank you, Iric,” said Otto.
Iric nodded as his unusual bright eyes wandered over to Viggo. He seemed to be skeptical of his worthiness.
Viggo felt self conscious as the others watched him mount his new horse trying not to aggravate his hurt leg too much. Once he was secure in the saddle, he followed them into the woods.
The bright sun mocked Helena’s melancholy as she started on the long walk home from the mine. Her feet were so sore that she wondered how she would be able to do the same routine all over again the next day. Gladyssa seemed to possess unlimited energy, despite the hard work. The job gave her focus and purpose, but the cave’s stale air and thick darkness sucked the life out of Helena.
Helena stopped attempting to match her sister’s quick footsteps and trailed behind on the road. As Gladyssa rounded the corner, Helena stopped to look down at the lazy creek that ran parallel to the road. How she longed to sit next to it and dip her swollen feet in the cool water. Maybe she could even throw in a shiny rock or two and watch the little fish and frogs scatter about. She longed to feel like a child again, even if it was just for a little while.
Her heart ached at the memory of her father teaching her how to fish in that same spot. A mere week before he passed away. She could almost feel the warmth of his hand on hers as she sat with him in those final moments. Memories have a way of teasing their victims with images of what would never be again. She hoped that he was proud of her when he had the chance to look down from heaven. She was trying her best to take her new circumstances in stride, but there were moments where she was unsure how to continue. Some days she missed him so much and the world seemed darker than any nightmare.
“Hurry on!” called Gladyssa.
Helena ran to catch up with her sister. Once they walked through the front door of their house, she all but collapsed on what used to be Papa’s chair. She curled up and snuggled against the soft cushion, imagining him telling her one of his humorous animal stories. His familiar scent of cigar and pine faded from the fabric over the weeks, vanishing from existence. Like him.
“Oh, Helena,” sighed her mother, who stood at the stove stirring a pot of stew.
“She is one exhausted girl,” said Gladyssa. “But she did well at the mine.”
Helena met her sister’s look of pity. She did not mind the sympathy. In fact, she craved it.
“Society’s reverted to the barbaric ways of the past,” Helena muttered angrily. “So much for progress.”
“Come eat dinner, dear,” said their mother. “You look famished.”
Her comment went unaddressed as usual. She stood with a groan and sat at the table. She longed to eat under the covers of her bed instead. Then her gaze went to the soiled work clothes she wore all day.
“Child, what is wrong?” asked Mother.
Helena closed her eyes.
“Look at how dirty we are, Mother. You prepared such a wonderful meal for us, then we walk in here like a pair of senseless oafs.”
“Stop this nonsense,” berated Gladyssa. “We worked hard today and I refuse to do anything else until I fill my hollow stomach.”
Mama smiled graciously. “It’s all right, girls. I am forever grateful for your hard work. I wouldn’t be able to go on without you.”
Helena took her seat at the table and the three of them joined hands to say grace. Gladyssa gave her hand a comforting squeeze while their mother said a quick prayer to God.
“I am so proud of you, little sister,” she whispered with a smile.
“If you say so.”
“This is all temporary,” said Mother, forcing a smile. “You’ll see.”
She was speaking of grief and they all knew it was a lie.
It took a while before Agnita moved away from her perch on the fence, for she knew that as soon as she left it, another part of her life would begin. It was a chapter that she was not looking forward to – one without Frenz. Staying where he left her would freeze time, she hoped. What a fool she was. No wonder he left. She gave in at last and walked back to the barn. Papa was shovelling hay and manure out of the stables.
“Hello, Pa,” she said in a shaky voice.
She couldn’t talk about Frenz yet.
“I thought you’d be out at the river with that lummox friend of yours,” he said, stopping to wipe the sweat off his brow.
She turned away from him as tears filled her eyes. They should have been at the river. Would they ever be there again?
“Not today,” she said, nearly choking on the painful lump in her throat. “Do you need help with the animals?”
“I always need help,” he stated.
The sound of footsteps made them both look over at an approaching man. Old Farmer Bram, as Agnita called him. He lived down the road roughly two miles away.
“Good day, Vitali and dear Agnita,” called Bram cheerily.
Agnita and her father only nodded. She couldn’t recall the conservative man ever seeing him look so animated. It was strange.
“What brings you by?” asked Pa.
“I want to talk to you about something. I’ve taken it upon myself to see how your crops are faring.”
Pa glanced at Agnita before walking away with the older farmer. She shrugged it off and walked out into the pasture to call the horses in for the night. The two mares and the gelding trotted over to her, knowing that she would reward them with some fresh oats once they were in their stalls.
Pa returned and joined her in the task, taking in the gelding while she attended to the mares.
“You really know your way around the horses now,” he remarked. “It was nice of you to help today.”
“I enjoy outdoor work,” she said.
“Bram stopped by to tell me he has an offer. His crops have been doing well this season.”
“Oh? Does he want to sell you more seeds for next year?”
Pa looked down, appearing conflicted. “No.”
“What is it then?”
“Agnita, we aren’t going to have a good yield this year. He knows this and he’s offered to take you in if things get really bad for our family.”
Her stomach felt like it was twisting and falling simultaneously. What a strange old man to march onto her family’s property and suggest such a thing.
“Who does he think he is?” she snapped. “We had a bad crop last year and we’ve managed just fine.”
Her father shook his head, staring at the yellow grass with sad blue eyes. “This is worse.”
She blinked, trying to process what he was trying to say to her. “Take me in. You mean as his servant?”
“No. As his wife.”
She backed away, unsure if she heard correctly, realizing that it was probably true, but not wanting to accept it. Some of the girls in the area were not much older than she when they were sold into marriage by their parents. No one referred to it in that way, but that was exactly what it was. Girls she knew from early childhood had already been bartered off to older men who promised to take care of them during harsh times. She thought such a thing was below her parents, but she was wrong. They planned to sell her off if things got bad, after all.
Her hands trembled as she looked at her Pa. “I don’t understand. It’s just the three of us here. We can make things work so I won’t have to go live with that old goat.”
She shuddered at the thought. She couldn’t imagine touching the man let alone doing what needed to be done to consummate a marriage.
Pa glared at her. “Agnita, he’s our neighbour and my friend. Don’t be rude.”
“Can you blame me?” she cried.
Frenz’s boyishly handsome face appeared in her mind’s eye. He was free. What sort of hell did he leave her to face alone?
Sensing something amiss, Ma rushed out from the house and greeted them in the middle of the yard. Papa cast a gaze heavenward, clearly not wanting to add another stress to his life. A horrible day had somehow become worse.
“What did Bram have to say?” she called.
“He knows about our failed crops.”
“Oh, does he?” she replied sharply.
“He’s offered to take Agnita in.”
Ma froze, appearing momentarily shocked before regaining her composure. She looked at her young daughter with a sad smile.
“Well, I suppose things haven’t gotten so bad yet, have they?” she asked gently.
Relief swept over Agnita. Ma was on her side.
“No, Ma. I want to stay here.”
Agnita had to use every fabric of her will to stop from crying. Of all the days for Bram to stomp over to their property and try to meddle with her life, he had to choose that one. Frenz’s last words still echoed in her mind like a cruel melody. She would grieve for him later, after dark when she could be alone.
“I am going to be very honest with you both,” began Pa. “We face a real risk of going hungry this winter. Our harvest in the fall will be very low with the drought earlier this spring. Insects got to most of our potatoes as well. I am so sorry to tell you this. I tried. I really did.”
“Well, as true as that may be, surely there’s other options than … that,” said Ma, shuddering.
Agnita felt a renewed respect for her mother as her heart raced rapidly. The final decision rested with Pa, which was another harsh reminder of who ruled the world – men.
Crossing her arms across her chest, she shook her head in disbelief. Queen Jasmine was a great inspiration to her when she was younger, but even she nearly lost her life simply for being a female ruler with a good heart. Her uncle tried to have her killed despite being the rightful heir to the throne.
Pa threw his hands in the air with an exasperated sigh. “She would be safe and well cared for if she lived with Bram. He has a life savings and his farm is thriving right now.”
“Traitor!” cried Agnita, gaping at him.
“Settle down, child,” warned Ma, taking her place next to her husband.
Pa rarely put his foot down on matters, but this time he seemed so determined like a king putting order in his castle. He had never looked so serious.
“I can’t marry him. He’s old!” she cried.
“He’s not much older than your Pa,” said Ma, frowning.
So much for having an ally.
“We could sell one of the horses,” suggested Papa, casting a glance back at Agnita.
“No. Not Maiden! She is my horse.”
“That might be one of the few options we have left if you want to decline Bram’s offer. We don’t need three horses. We could even get by with only one.”
“I will decline Bram’s offer!” cried Agnita. “And there’s no need to sell any of the horses.”
The mere thought of being in the same room as that man everyday made her skin crawl. She could hardly breathe as her parents stared at her. Bram wasn’t only old, he was ugly. With balding grey hair and wrinkled leathery skin, he might as well have been an ogre as far as she was concerned.
“Please try to calm down, child,” sighed Ma. “None of us have the energy for an argument like this right now.”
“It’s as though you’ve all gone mad! Frenz has gone off to war and girls my age are being sold off to old men and pushing out their disgusting babies. I’ll tell you what – why don’t you both just send me straight to hell?”
“Agnita!” cried Ma.
“Let her go,” said Pa with a wave of his hand, fed up with the situation.
Agnita sprinted for the house, desperate to be alone. Once she reached the safety of her room, she locked the door and flung herself onto her bed. Alone at last, she wept.
Agnita woke up surrounded by darkness and threw off her warm covers. Her parents hadn’t disturbed her sleep, so she missed dinner. It was just as well. She turned over and peered out the window at the quarter moon. It was veiled by wispy clouds. So beautiful. She imagined Frenz sleeping in a tent somewhere in Esston. She wondered if he missed her at all, if he thought of her. Even if he did, the army would dehumanize him until he could shoot and kill without a second thought. He would forget her as the months passed.
She sat up on her bed, eyeing the clean shirt and trousers hanging up in her closet. If she were to run away into the night, no one would be able to stop her. Her parents slept soundly after using up all their energy to keep the home and farm going during the day. They would not hear her escape if she was careful. However, they might skin her alive once she returned home. That would be preferable to a forced marriage, at least.
“I’ll worry about that later,” she whispered.
Despite the dangers, she entertained the thought of running away. If she stayed home, her mother would urge her to spend more time indoors to help with the mending and cooking in preparation for the marriage market. If it wasn’t Farmer Bram, it would be someone else. Every girl in the country knew that no matter how many wonderful dreams they had about their future, her parents were more than willing to pawn them off to a lonely bachelor if times got tough.
She sat up on her bed and stared out at the moonlit countryside; a strange sense of urgency formed in the pit of her belly. As a child, she once thought that the world would be hers for the taking when she grew up. Stories of Queen Jasmine’s slow rise to power inspired her then, but reality caught up to her all in one day. Boys marched off to war in the pursuit of freedom while girls were denied their freedom entirely to marry ogres. She had to take control over her own life before someone else did like Queen Jasmine had. If she could explain her plight to Frenz, surely he would understand.
It was madness; it was genius. Adventures would not be adventures if they were completely seamless and safe. The risk was what made them worth the effort.
She went to the window with a racing heart; her breath fogged up the glass. She traced her finger over it and drew the shape of a star. Excitement overpowered her fear as she looked back at the work clothes hanging up in her wardrobe. With a farmer’s hat and her loose clothing, she could fool the army into thinking that she was a male long enough to find Frenz in the camp.
She tied her hair back and changed into her clothes, leaving the door open to avoid even the smallest noise. Her father’s loud snoring reassured her as she reached for the front door’s latch. She took a step back and silently asked herself if she could really leave and worry her parents to death.
The ink, quill, and parchment on the table caught her attention. She tiptoed over to write a short letter to her parents. Once it was finished, her decision would be final. She would go.
She quickly wrote the message and set the quill down on the paper with shaking hands.
The cold air chilled her face as she walked out to the barn. Once inside, she walked up to her horse’s stall.
“Hello, Maiden,” she said softly.
The friendly mare greeted her with a muzzle rub.
“Yes, I know it’s early,” she cooed. “Today we are going on an adventure. Just you and I.”
She gently ran a hand along the horse’s smooth neck. Saddling up would only waste more time and she had to be conservative with it in case one of her parents awakened somehow. She climbed onto her horse’s strong back and reached over to open the stall door.
A bright orange hue pierced the low part of the navy sky to signal the inevitable dawn as she rode out of the barn. The passion inside of her burned as she steered her mare in the direction of the sunrise. Toward Esston.
Two rats fought over crumbs next to the dilapidated bakery. The squeaking rodents were oblivious to the crowds waiting in line to purchase overpriced bread before it was sold out. Martin did not want to think about how far away he was from the beginning of the line. The stress of the past few days suppressed his healthy appetite, but he still needed to eat something. The sign out front said that there was free soup for all patrons, but a moment later, the baker ran out to cross out the sign.
“All out of soup now,” announced the baker with a loud sigh.
“Bloody hell,” muttered someone bitterly behind him. “This feels like a jail sentence.”
Several other voices sounded above the howling wind, voicing their agreement.
A man’s loud, agitated voice rose above the monotonous murmurings in the lineup.
“My damned fence broke down this morning. Soon my animals will escape if they haven’t already!”
Martin searched for the voice’s source and found a middle-aged man standing with his friend a few places behind him.
“Just fix it, you idiot,” laughed his friend.
“You jest! I’ve got calves to help deliver over the next few days and I need to feed all the beasts on top of it all. I have no time to mend fences.”
“Pardon me, Sir!” called Martin.
Both men stared at him.
“I can repair the fence for you at a fair price. I am experienced with mending fences.”
The farmer grinned. “Shrewd little eavesdropper, you. How much do you ask?”
“You decide the pay, Sir.”
“How about you repair it for two pieces of silver?”
Martin’s heart raced. “Thank you, Sir. That is very generous.”
It seemed a little too generous. There had to be a catch.
A chilling breeze rustled everyone’s hats and scarves.
“Now, if only this cursed line could move faster so we can both get what we want,” groused the man.
“Indeed,” sighed Martin.
He hoped that the long wait would not give the man time to change his mind and fix the fence himself. He never imagined that he would one day be standing in a line full of half-starved people begging a stranger for work. Though his parents had some savings, their money would be used up within weeks on food, wagon repairs, shelter, and other incidentals. Life could change in a heartbeat; he would never forget that.
The small elderly lady in front of him turned around. Her light blue eyes sparkled as she faced him.
“It’s almost your turn,” she said with a wink.
Martin smiled and then looked past her at the shop. He was startled to see how far they travelled down the line while he was in deep thought.
“Soon we’ll all get to go home,” he said.
“And out of this biting wind,” she said with shiver. “I thought summer was supposed to be around the corner.”
“If only the war could finish in the same amount of time it will take for us to get our bread,” said Martin thoughtfully, trying to ignore the chilling wind.
“Ah,” she said thoughtfully. “Life is all about seasons, dear boy. A season for peace, a season to fight, a season to heal. Every generation goes through a cycle.”
The baker’s voice snarled above hers. “Next patron, please!””
“Oh, looks like it’s my turn,” she tittered.
As the woman walked into the little bakery, her words echoed darkly in his mind. Time slowed down as he waited his turn to go inside. Relief swept over him when she stepped outside and he moved away from the crowd’s stench. The scent of fresh bread and the warmth of the oven was overwhelming. Suddenly, he was very hungry. His vision swam at the sight of only ten loaves left on the shelves. There were at least one hundred people in line behind him. So many would go hungry that night.
The man behind the counter studied him with exhausted eyes. “You can only buy one.”
“Will you make more bread?”
“Not tonight. I’ve been working for the last fifteen hours straight and I need to stop before I fall over and never get up.”
Cringing, Martin purchased a loaf and left, fighting the urge to stand there and devour it right there on the street. His hunger returned with the force of a storm. He locked eyes with the man in line who would soon pay him in silver and waited out in the cold with his fresh loaf. People eyed him, but no one bothered to try and fight him for it. When the farmer and his friend bought their loaves, the three of them left the sad place behind. They crossed over a swollen creek on a rickety bridge and walked up a steep hill. The other man parted with them to make his way home.
“Farm’s close now,” said the man with a smile.
“I cannot thank you enough for your kindness.”
“I should be thanking you. I’ve got no help aside from you. My son left to go work in the mines and that daughter of mine ran away with some army deserter three months ago. I hope I can count on you.”
“You can. I’m doing this for my family.”
They reached the perimeter of the man’s property, which was surrounded by a fence that was broken down in several places. Martin resisted the urge to groan. The farmer chuckled.
“Don’t trouble yourself, boy. I will show you what needs to be done and you can come back to finish the rest tomorrow if your work on the front section is satisfactory tonight.”
“Deal,” said Martin.
As they shook hands, the ground shook below them. They turned their heads to take in the view of a herd of black unicorns. Martin was certain that his heart froze for a beat as he watched the ethereal, dangerous creatures galloping across the moors less than a mile away. It was the first time he had ever seen them in his life. Their bodies were longer and more streamlined than a horse’s with sharp horns protruding out of their foreheads. It reminded him of a painting he saw in a church once as a small boy. To see them in the flesh was nothing short of amazing.
“Is it common to see them in this area?” he asked the farmer, breathless.
“I wouldn’t say it’s common, but we see them from time to time. You’d never want to get close to one. They’ll sing a song that will shatter your ear drums and make you cry out blood. Best not to walk too far across the moors alone.”
Martin nodded, amazed. “So, it is true.”
“Never gets old seeing ‘em. They’re pure magic, they are.”
Viggo urged his horse to run faster, but he remained well behind Otto. The older boy glanced back at him with a half grin.
“My horse is the best of his kind,” he called, perceiving Viggo’s efforts, “but I worked hard to earn him.”
Viggo did not doubt that. He was grateful for his ebony mare. They found her for sale outside of the last town. She fetched a decent price, allowing them to purchase more food at the market. They ate very well that day.
Though everyone in the group was very young, there was a hardness in their eyes that only war could inflict. They looked like boys, but their sprits were jaded, hardened. He felt like he was among strong men instead of mere boys.
He enjoyed the breeze that passed over him as he rode with his comrades up and down the rolling hills.
Iric brought his horse close to Viggo. “Dark thoughts today, Viggo?”
There was something odd about the way Iric stared at him.
“There’s a creek ahead,” Otto called, signalling for them to steer to the right.
The sun was already low on the horizon. Once they reached the water’s edge, everyone dismounted and allowed their horses to drink.
“We will rest the horses for the evening.”
Viggo hoped that they would ride a little further before stopping, but he nodded in compliance.
Sensing the group’s discouragement, Otto added, “I know that some of you do not agree with stopping this soon, but it is better to allow the horses to save their strength for tomorrow. We will be riding non-stop beginning at dawn. Iric, it is your turn to start the fire.”
Viggo dismounted, grateful for the chance to rest. Tomorrow, prisoners’ lives would depend on all of them. Though exhausted, he did not expect that he would find much sleep that night. His legs still bothered him, but Voniz was right. He was feeling stronger with the exertion.
Iric brought several twigs, branches, and leaves back to their small camp and then started it by using the fire plow method. The dry tinder fed the embers and a fire formed. Everyone gathered around the heat source, watching as the flames rose so tall.
“Were you planning to roast a giant wild boar with that fire, Iric?” asked Otto.
A round of laughter sounded throughout the camp. It sounded hollow, forced.
Iric shrugged with a grumble. Viggo watched the dancing flames and reached his hands out to soak up their warmth. Fire was his only companion during those solitary evenings on the street.
“There is something so ironic about the war,” said Iric, poking a stick into the dirt.
“What is that?” muttered one of the older boys, Sebi.
Otto rested his elbows on his knees, watching Iric.
“Some of us would have starved to death had it not been for the army willing to take us in.”
“It’s true,” said Viggo. “I don’t think I would have survived another winter on the streets.”
Otto cleared his throat. Tension thickened the air. “Do not be fooled by the main goal of this mission, men. It will be no less violent than a battlefield. I want you all to be prepared for a brutal fight tomorrow.”
“A regiment led by Commander Enist will wait for us by the river tomorrow,” continued Otto. “He and his men already have boats waiting downstream from the prison to transport the freed prisoners.”
“How will we get the people out of prison?” asked Viggo.
Otto grinned. There was an air of recklessness in his expression. His cavalier demeanor brought a wave of worry over Viggo; he wished that Voniz was there to lead them instead.
“An old tunnel was discovered leading from the edge of the forest to the prison. Over a century ago, a count lived there and thought that it was wise to have an emergency exit plan. We are now benefitting from that wise man’s actions.”
“What if some of it caved in?” asked Viggo.
Some of the boys cast foreboding looks his way. Otto laughed without humour, startling everyone.
“It has already been scouted. There were no blockages.”
“Then once we break in …” began Viggo.
“That will, of course, be the challenge. This is what we have our swords for. We will practice duelling before breakfast in the morning to make sure we’re all sharp at sunrise.
Nearly everyone stood and started cheering. Viggo chose not to feign enthusiasm and remained seated. Otto held up a hand to gain control over the group.
“Rest easy, men. Remember that we will have the upper hand when we attack the prison, because they will not be expecting us. I will tell you what your part of the plan will be once we are in the tunnel. Now, we sleep.”
Viggo did not doubt Otto’s reasoning. It was his own inability to fight that worried him. His only battle experience was a few sparring sessions at camp and his failed attempts to fend off an enemy during war. He survived only because Commander Voniz took pity on him. That in and of itself was confusing.
The initial energy of the group died out along with the embers of the fire. Iric fed it with more wood. He would likely not sleep that night. Viggo pulled out the wool blanket from his pack and wrapped it around himself. He found a tree to lean against and hoped to find sleep, but all that he could see in the murky darkness were the shadowy forms of boy warriors fighting on a foggy battlefield.
He awoke to the sun’s first rays glowing through the trees, grateful for getting some sleep. The sky was on fire just like his stomach. He went to the bushes to relieve himself and upon seeing the creek down from the rise, he stripped down and went to the babbling waters. He jumped in, feeling clean as the small, cool rapids flowed over him. His submerged wound stung, but feeling refreshed was well worth the pain. He walked out feeling awake and made his way back up the hill to get dressed again.
“Fancied a swim, did ya?”
He froze at the sight of Otto making his way over to him. Viggo’s jaw dropped. The commander was already fully dressed.
“Forgive me, Sir. I wasn’t thinking.”
He scrambled to get his clothes back on, feeling warm with embarrassment despite the cool air blowing on his wet skin.
“At ease. It is no crime for a man to wade in a creek before sunup. Do you agree?”
“Indeed, Sir,” said Viggo.
Otto moved closer. He appeared as alert as a wild animal and his eyes seemed to glow in the dim.
“Commander Voniz informed me that you received little training prior to the battle you nearly died in.”
“That is correct, Sir.”
“He has a soft spot for you, I could tell. It’s not every day a highly regarded commander will peel a fallen child soldier off the bloody grass and save his life.”
“He lost a son a couple of years ago from an illness. He would be about your age today. He had blond hair and freckles like you. Maybe it’s the similarity.”
Viggo swallowed hard. That would explain it. Never in a million years would he think an adult would become so emotionally invested in him, let alone a great warrior.
“Do you miss Commander Voniz?”
He nodded reluctantly. Missing people made him feel weak, but he did wish that he was still serving under Voniz.
“Attachment is something you must let go of, especially in the midst of war.”
Otto unsheathed one of the swords at his hip and gave it to Viggo. “We ought to practice before breakfast. Just you and me.”
Viggo held his sword with both hands and Otto shook his head. “Don’t hold it like that. You need to be able balance yourself with only one hand while holding the sword.”
“Remember what I said about calling me ‘Sir’?”
Viggo cringed and held the sword with his dominant right hand.
“Move it around. Get comfortable with it. Then I am going to come at you and you are going to block me.”
Viggo practised a few stabs at the air and then got ready for Otto’s attack. It was no wooden sword match. A failure to block would mean another wound. The thought of getting cut again made him cringe and he wondered how men of war got used to that.
Otto lunged at him and Viggo weakly blocked his blade.
“Good,” said Otto, slowly backing away. “Now come at me.”
Viggo sprinted toward his commander. He swung his sword for Otto’s shoulder, but his lieutenant stuck out his leg before the impact, tripping Viggo. Winded, he sat on his rump and looked up at Otto, who grinned wide.
“Get up. We’ll go again.”
Back and forth they went, stabbing and dodging one another’s blows. Otto showed him how to deflect a lethal slash to the neck. Though Viggo was still clumsy after their rounds, he had a better handle of attacking and blocking as he got used to the feel of the weapon in his hand.
“You need to become one with your sword,” said Otto. “As foolish as it sounds, it’s the only way you’ll be able to survive this war.”
Viggo nodded. “I understand.”
“I hope you do. At your size, defense and speed are the most important things to learn for a fight,” said Otto. “You can dodge most of those big goons without much trouble. It’s the quick ones you’ll have to be wary of.”
“Some of those enemy warriors are so thick that I don’t think you’d be able to stab one deep enough. Not yet.”
“I guess not.”
Otto gave him a look. “As it stands now, most twelve-year-old girls could beat you in a battle.”
The verbal slam made the skin on Viggo’s face warm.
“There we go,” taunted Otto with his insane-looking grin. “Now that you’re mad, come at me again.”
“With great pleasure,” said Viggo, positioning his sword for another charge.
Agnita rubbed her hands in front of the modest fire she built. She found a clearing in the forest to stop in for the night. Secured to a tree, Maiden grazed quietly close by. Darkness and strange noises surrounded them. Sounds always seemed stranger at night. Every owl hoot or coyote whimper in the distance set her on edge, but she had fire. Even big predators steered clear of flames unless they were of the human variety. She shuddered at the thought of being discovered by a group of Ustrunians.
Though spending the past two nights outside and alone was frightening enough, she did not regret her choice to leave home and ride for the military camp. The thought of seeing Frenz again gave her hope initially, but as she thought about it more, she wondered if he would be angry. Her worst fear was that he would bury her away in his past and pretend not to know her. The way he ran away from her that last day made her feel discarded, forgotten. She needed to know that when the war was over, they would still be best friends. She just wanted to hear him tell her that.
If he accepted her presence at camp even a little, she would talk him into getting her a position with the army working as a medic or a water boy. She was willing to work and do what was necessary to support her country and her new independence. Like him. If he did not accept her, then at least she would not know where she really stood in his heart. She needed to know either way.
Her thoughts shifted back to her parents and how far away they were. The farm was a three days’ ride away from where she was and it was drifting farther behind her as she travelled closer to Esston. Her father did not have the time or the energy to go looking for her. She really was free for the time being.
She did not want to think about how her mother might have reacted when she first read the letter. Pa would be livid. With a sigh, she brought her awareness back to the surroundings that both impressed and frightened her. She stroked her mare’s soft ears, grateful to have such a sturdy and gentle horse with her during the most dangerous experience of her life.
Smoke’s pungent scent filled the air and hinted of the military camp’s proximity. Frenz was close.
A tall, red brick estate appeared through the line of trees. The prison camp. It was covered in lush, flowering vines; the building looked deceptively classy; it could have been mistaken for a small castle by a random passerby.
Otto ordered everyone to dismount and tie their horses to a tree. They followed his rapid steps through the forest until the clearing came into view. He motioned for them to get down and crawl, leading the way on his hands and knees. Cold mud soaked through Viggo’s clothes as he moved through the prodding vegetation like some sort of beast. He had grown accustomed to being dirty, but he hated being wet.
Guilt surrounded him like a heavy mist. The prisoners experienced torture, starvation, and hopelessness every single day and there he was, discontent to be covered in mud. After a few days of some privilege, he was already so ungrateful about his discomfort.
“Stop,” said Otto sharply.
He got up on his knees and started digging through layers of leaves and moss. He lifted an iron handle sticking out of the ground and opened the entrance to the tunnel. One by one, the boys jumped through the opening. When it was Viggo’s turn to go inside, he braced himself for the impact. He landed roughly a man’s height below in the dark, musty tunnel.
Once everyone was inside of the passage, Otto closed the door. Thick darkness comforted Viggo like a cloak. For a moment, he felt as though time and reality ceased. He longed to stay there and forget about everything going on outside, to just exist in the darkness even for just a little while.
Otto’s voice interrupted the odd experience.
“Follow me, boys.”
They walked through the black passage in silence. Viggo’s thoughts to wander back to his childhood. His home was warm when only mother was there. When his father came back from working in the mines, he would always be drunk. Mother put out the fire before he came through the door for fear he would fall into the flames or burn the house down in a blind rage. The house was always cold when the man of the house was there. Viggo and his younger siblings would go to bed shivering and hungry, surrounded by darkness. Mother did her best to protect him, she really did. He never faulted her for the decisions that she made with so many little ones to look after.
“Oh, Mother,” he sighed.
“What?” asked Iric, who was just behind him.
“Stop talking,” snapped Otto. “We are almost at the end of this thing.”
Viggo’s stomach churned. The sound of Otto’s footsteps ceased.
“Everyone stop. We are here.”
Silence surrounded them with a heaviness that outweighed the dank air. Otto slowly and noiselessly opened the door that led to the prison. It was nearly as dark in the building as it was in the tunnel. An indescribable stench wafted into Viggo’s nostrils as he pulled himself up and out of the tunnel’s mouth. He covered his nose with his hands as he watched the rest of the boys climb up into the dungeon.
Once everyone’s eyesight adjusted, they realized that they were standing inside of an empty cell.
“What a way to make an entrance,” muttered Rel, the lankiest one of them all. In fact, he was so skinny that Viggo thought he could fit right through the bars if he gave it a try.
Otto reached up and smacked Rel up the side of the head and then pointed to one of the corners where the form of a decaying body rested. Everyone drew back. That explained the terrible smell. He took a chain of keys out of his pocket and carefully picked away at the lock. Everyone watched as he unlocked the barred door within moments. He opened the cell door; they quietly made their way down the hall.
Viggo held his breath as he peered into every cell. There were a few more corpses in the other cells with no living prisoners. Everyone exchanged glances, silently voicing the question that was in all their heads.
Otto stopped next to a solid door. He turned around and then pointed in the same direction that they came in.
“There is no other level, Sir?” asked Iric quietly.
Otto shook his head. “No more questions.”
Rapid breathing filled the tunnel as Otto broke into a run, causing the others to follow suit. Finally, he stopped at a doorway on the other end of the dusty hall that Viggo hadn’t noticed earlier. It opened when Otto leaned into it. A staircase greeted them; he climbed up the steps and opened the door at the top with reckless abandon.
“No,” he said sharply.
His voice echoed down the hallway. Everyone froze, except for Viggo, who bounded up the steps after his leader. When he entered the small room, a single beam of light streamed in through the shuttered window. Otto found a door and opened it. Viggo reached the opening that led outside and found his superior leaning against the railing of a balcony, trembling.
“The prisoners … they killed all of them. Every one. Those who hadn’t already died in their cells were brought out there to burn.”
Several waves of chills worked their way from Viggo’s scalp all the way down to his toes. He didn’t want to look, but he had to. Cautious footsteps sounded behind him. He looked over his shoulder and met Iric’s terrified gaze. Viggo went to his lieutenant’s side while Iric hovered behind them.
“We are too late. Much too late,” said Otto, shaking his head repeatedly.
Viggo looked over at the smoke rising high above a pile of charred human bodies. He did not avert his eyes in time to miss a young, fair-haired woman’s agonized face frozen in death. His gaze rested on the other faces surrounding her. He stumbled backward and almost emptied the contents of his stomach on the balcony.
“What do you see?” asked Iric.
Dread leaked from his voice as Viggo balanced himself against the railing.
“Most of their faces are still intact,” he managed to say. “They only charred the bodies.”
Otto pushed past them and stumbled back into the building.
“Sir!” called Iric.
“They died because we were too late,” said Otto, his voice thick with emotion.
Unsure of how to react, Viggo and Iric stood in silence as their leader leaned against the brick wall and wept.
“What should we do, Sir?” asked Viggo at last.
Otto wiped his eyes and motioned for them to follow him. When they ascended the stairs and reached the other boys, everyone looked to Otto for their next order. He shook his head helplessly.
“My older sister. She is among them,” said Otto. “I needed a moment. I suspected that she was here when she stopped sending me letters, but I didn’t want to believe it.”
Another icy sensation rushed over Viggo’s body. The atmosphere became stifling as everyone hanged their heads. Death had no remorse for youth, passion, or ambition. It harvested lives without a second thought. No words could soften the burning pain of losing a loved one, of seeing them brutalized and left out to rot.
Viggo nearly rested a hand Otto’s shoulder, but hesitated and drew back.
“I’m so sorry,” he said.
Otto inhaled deeply, making eye contact with Viggo for a moment. “It is not your fault. It’s theirs. Let’s get out of here.”
“We can help you bury her.”
Otto shook his head. “No.”
“We’ll avenge her death,” said Rel. “We’ll do the same to them as they did to our people!”
Otto shook his head, looking beyond them. “We need to go.”