The orange and pink horizon cast a beautiful spell over the countryside as Martin walked home. It took him three days to repair the farmer’s fence and the job paid off. He carried the two silver pieces in his pocket, feeling lighter. He watched the sun dip below the horizon. Every war had to end at some point. People would rebuild the broken world one day, hopefully in his lifetime.
“Help me,” rasped a voice.
Martin froze as his eyes darted in all directions. He found the form of a boy crouching in the long grass.
“Are you all right?” he asked, keeping his distance from what could be a thief.
“I am so, so hungry,” moaned the young stranger.
Martin’s heart raced as he stared at the skinny form of the lad in the growing darkness. The boy feigned a Norforthian accent, but the aristocratic smoothness of his tone gave away his nationality. He was Ustrunian.
Martin slowly backed away, bracing for another attack.
“Are you armed?” he asked.
“No!” cried the foreigner.
The strange boy sat up and the moonlight made the whites of his eyes glow.
“Would I be starving to death if I were part of the Ustrunian army?” he asked sharply. “Would I be lying in this damned field?”
Martin did not feel reassured. “What are you doing out here, then?”
“They would kill you for that.”
“How do I believe you are telling the truth?”
The boy let out an aggravated growl. “If they find me, they will kill me and it will not be a slow death. I have to keep travelling north, which is difficult to do when you’re starving to death. I tried to make it to the next town, but then I couldn’t go any further.”
Martin winced. “Why did you desert?”
The Ustrunian eyed him intently. “I do not fear fighting, but I will never sacrifice my life for a country that enslaves and kills its own.”
“You do not agree with their ideologies?” asked Martin.
“I never did. Many Ustrunians do not agree with their king. Is that something you people fail to understand? Our king has gone mad. If we don’t follow his ways, we die. All of us.”
Gooseflesh covered Martin’s body as he stared at the haunted soul in front of him. He defied king and country which was a great sacrifice. He sat in the darkness, shivering and hungry, because he valued honour more than life.
“I’m sorry this has happened to you,” said Martin. “Let me help you.”
He took the beef jerky from his hemp sack and handed it to the boy. “Please eat.”
The boy’s eyes widened. “You are a good man.”
Martin’s throat tightened as he watched him devour the food.
“Do you have any work skills?”
“I’ve worked with horses all my life.”
“I am sorry you have had to starve half to death for doing the right thing. Please, walk to town with me; it is not far. It’s on the other side of the woods. There is a blacksmith there in need of an apprentice. I am not much for blacksmithing and neither is my father. You may find work with him.”
“If no one has taken the job yet.”
“Try not to speak in town. I detected your accent.”
The Ustrunian boy stood; he was roughly Martin’s height, but he looked to be much lighter.
“What is your name?”
“My name is Martin. You will be respected by my family for defying your king.”
Engulf slouched. “This is a debt I cannot repay. I owe you my life.”
Martin felt his stomach knot up. Looking at the malnourished boy was painful. “You owe me nothing. It is a half hour walk back to my family camp from here. Do you think that you can manage?”
Engulf was so frail. Martin doubted he’d be able to make it to the camp on his own feet. All they could do was try.
“I’ve made it this far. What’s another half hour walk?”
“We can rest by the fire once we are back at the wagon. My parents set up a camp there. You can eat well.”
“Just the thought of that makes me want to weep with relief.”
Martin let Engulf lean on him as they walked. He steadied him with his hand. There were undoubtedly many people across the country on the cusp of death due to food shortages, unemployment, and falling temperatures. He wondered how many of them were Ustrunian refugees.
He was grateful for the darkness as they walked into town so no one would take notice of the new face. By the time they reached the main street, Engulf was leaning entirely on Martin. He strained to keep the exhausted lad upright. Most people were in their houses or tents eating dinner or huddling by a modest fire. No one would pay them any mind and ask questions neither of them wanted to answer.
“Almost there,” panted Martin.
“I am sorry,” said Engulf weakly, stumbling ahead. “I’m trying. My legs … they feel like rubber.”
“No wonder with all the walking you’ve done with so little food.”
Martin wrapped his arm around him to steady him. They walked off the main street and ventured past the line of modest homes over to the camp site. Several other travellers had set up tents closer to the woods. Thankfully, the homeowners of the town didn’t bother with the transients too much and allowed them to set up camp in peace. When they reached Martin’s tent, his parents stirred. Their shadowy forms danced in their candlelit makeshift home. Hearing two sets of laboured footsteps must have piqued their curiosity. Both crawled out and froze at the sight of Engulf, who collapsed in the dirt at Martin’s feet, unable to walk a step further.
“Are you all right?” asked Martin.
Mother took a blanket out of the tent and brought it over to the fallen boy, wrapping it around him.
“And who might you be?” she asked.
“Engulf,” he rasped. “I am sorry to trouble you.”
She drew back at the sound of his accent, bringing a hand to her mouth.
“It’s all right,” said Martin. “He’s a deserter from their army. I found him on my way home. He’s half-starved. We need to get him water and some food.”
Father brought over a canteen of water and a sandwich.
“Drink slowly,” he cautioned, bringing the opened vessel to Engulf’s mouth.
They sat in silence as the Ustrunian boy drank all the water out of the canteen and devoured the sandwich.
“Thank you. For all of this,” said Engulf, looking at each of them wearily.
“You need to sleep here,” said Mother. “Poor thing.”
“How long have you been travelling on foot?” asked Father.
“Since the Ustrunian border. I swam across the river. To be honest, I’m surprised I’ve made it this far alive. I am forever in your debt.”
“You should rest to keep your strength,” pressed Mother. “We’ll talk more in the morning.”
“Thank you,” said Engulf with relief written all over his face.
“I’ll pitch another tent with the extra canvas we packed in the back of the wagon,” said Martin.
It didn’t take long to create Engulf’s refuge. Martin helped his father prepare a bed for him with the extra blankets they brought just in case. That turned out to be a great decision. They were bound to meet a lot of homeless and hungry people on their own quest to find a home. It was impossible to help everyone, but they could do something for a brave young deserter.
Engulf settled into his new bed and fell fast asleep.
“Do you think he’ll be all right?” asked Mother, closing the entrance of Engulf’s tent.
“He will be just fine,” said Father.
“What I mean is, will he be able to outrun this war? Or will it catch up to all of us one day?” she asked.
Her haunting voice brought heaviness to the air. Her question received no answer, but it continued to ring in Martin’s ears as he stared up at the starry night sky.
The aroma of roasting meat greeted Agnita’s nostrils as she guided Maiden closer to the military camp. It smelled as good as heaven after days of eating nothing more than staling bread and hardening cheese. Once she neared the camp’s entrance, which was lined with guards, a man in a commander’s uniform approached her. She halted her horse and saluted him.
“Good day, Sir,” she said in her deepest voice possible.
It was difficult for her to maintain eye contact with his hard gaze, but she did.
“Are you here to join our resistance, boy?” he asked.
It was so strange to be addressed in that way. No one ever looked at her like that before. The world really did look at boys differently. For a few moments, she nearly forgot that she was a girl herself.
“Yes, Sir,” she said.
She spent the past hour rehearsing how she would speak to the camp officers. He eyed her for a moment, probably noting how painfully young she looked, then turned around to walk back into the camp.
“Get off that horse and follow me,” he called over his shoulder.
She jumped down and one of the guards took her horse to the stables. She felt like a small child as she walked behind the commander. He was one of the tallest men she had ever seen. His long cape, boots, and armour were immaculate, emphasizing his imposing size.
A small newcomer was something to behold for the men. Their stares followed Agnita’s movement through the camp. It was like they could sense the presence of a female even though there was no physical evidence of one. She slouched more and put her hands in her pockets, appearing as boyish as possible.
The commander stopped at the entrance of a white tent.
“Wait here, boy.”
As the commander disappeared inside, reality hit Agnita. She would not be the one to determine where or how she would serve in the military. There was no signup paper to say that she preferred to be a drummer or a water boy. If they saw her fit enough to join the front lines, they could enlist her for combat where she would meet brutal death or terrible injury – and she might never find Frenz before that happened. Her heart beat furiously as reality hit her. She was about to offer her life up to the cause and there would be no going back.
The tall commander returned with a slightly older, but equally large warrior in tow. His steely gaze scrutinized her small size. She wondered why he bothered himself with assessing such a lowly potential recruit.
“I am Commander Ulen. You are willing to fight with us, lad?” he asked.
His voice sent shivers down her spine as she looked up at one of her country’s most legendary men. Self-consciousness warmed her cheeks.
“Yes, Sir,” she said, not as strongly as she meant to.
The general looked surprised. Her quick answer surprised even her.
He stared at her with eyes that were as black as coal. They didn’t seem evil, far from it, but there was an aura of emptiness in his gaze. To him, she was little more than a pawn. A disposable young boy. She took a deep breath in an attempt to relax. She wondered if the two men could sense her terror, her girlhood hidden beneath the masculine clothes. As they quietly discussed her fate, she scanned the camp in a vain search for Frenz. All she could see were strangers. Many of them looked like they would die before winter’s end. They were so skinny and most of them coughed like there was no tomorrow. Some sat warming themselves by small fires and roasting what they could, but the sight was dire. It was a cool late spring, an unkind season for people who had to spend a lot of time outside.
A young soldier brought a platter of cooked meat and steaming vegetables inside of the general’s tent. The roasting meat clearly wasn’t for the soldiers. It was only for the army’s high-ranking men. The thought made her feel even hungrier and she wondered how well men could fight with such meagre food rations. She longed for Ma’s hot, hearty stew as she stood there shivering. Though they didn’t eat a lot back home, Ma’s meals were always delicious. She had a magic touch when it came to preparing food. How strange it was to be standing with a growling stomach in the company of great military men who would one day make history.
“What is your name?” asked Commander Ulen.
He nodded grimly. “Peter, I came out here to see with my own eyes how young the new recruits are becoming. Some boys your age are already dead and rotting on bloodied battlefields. You are too small to fight. Go home and wait another year at least.”
Panic gripped her insides as she looked at him frantically. “Please, Sir! I know how to work hard. I grew up on a farm. I can even help out in the hospital if fighting is not an option.”
He shook his head. “I cannot take a boy younger than fourteen for any duties. If all our children die fighting in the war, what will we be fighting for?”
The younger commander shoved her away from Ulen. “Be on your way, kid.”
“Sir, have you heard of a boy named Frenz?” she blurted, looking frantically at the general. “He joined your camp a couple of days ago.”
The military leader gave her a sympathetic look. “We have had a lot of boys travel here to be with their big brothers and friends.”
“Is Frenz here, Sir? I have ridden three days just so I can see him before you go to battle.”
Ulen gave a quick nod to the younger commander. He exhaled loudly. “Wait here, boy.”
She felt out of place in a camp full of uniformed men, yet a commander was going to the trouble to find Frenz for her. She would never forget Ulen’s kindness, as much as his decision ripped her apart. It meant that she would have to go back home.
“Rejected were ya?” asked a scraggly soldier who sat close by carving a piece of wood.
“They think I am too small,” she said, shrugging.
“You’re a lucky one,” the man winked. “I was held at gun point in my own home. If I refused to fight, I would’ve been sent to prison for the remainder of the war – or until I froze or starved to death in my cell.”
“Oh,” said Agnita, gaping at him.
What a disturbing thought.
“I tell ya the truth, kid,” he said, leering at her.
Did he suspect that she was a girl? She backed away from him, smelling the alcohol on his breath.
“I-I’m sorry,” she stuttered.
“Peter?” called a familiar voice.
Agnita turned to face the commander who called her out, but her gaze met that of the tall boy standing next to him.
Her heart rose up into her throat, or so it felt. There he was standing tall, looking older and even more handsome than she remembered.
Frenz. How could he look so different after only a few days?
“I can’t believe it’s you,” he said hollowly.
His face was neutral, but that fiery stare cut to her core, sending the butterflies in her stomach to flight.
“I rode three days to get here and help you with the cause,” she said.
“I’m aware of how long it takes to ride here,” he said sternly.
The commander left them to address the issue. Frenz stepped closer to Agnita with an expression that could have made her blood freeze had it held any physical power.
“Are you insane?” he hissed, suddenly grabbing her by the wrist. “You could have been injured or killed!”
She pulled her wrist away from him, crossing her arms to appear brave even though his tone was like a sharp dagger stabbing through her chest.
“I told you that I would sign up if you did.”
He shook his head. “You should have known they wouldn’t let you in. Commander Lene told me all about your attempt to enlist.”
“I just wanted to see you. Our parting was so sudden. You ran away from me.”
He clenched his fists. “I thought it would be easier that way, but you had to go and be a stupid little girl as usual.”
His harsh tone cut her deep, but she refused to cower away.
“Please try to understand me. Aside from Ma and Pa, you’re all I have.”
“I told you that I am doing this to protect you and your family! Now look at what you’ve done!”
She blinked away threatening tears. It was all wrong. He hadn’t missed her at all. He hated her.
“You look ridiculous,” he said, shaking his head.
She rolled her eyes despite everything.
“Charming as always.”
“Now you will be by yourself for another three days as you ride home. I wish I could go with you to ensure your safety, but we are marching for battle tomorrow morning and they can’t spare anyone.”
Her heart lurched. He was going to war and she was going to be left behind no matter what she did.
“I managed riding here alone just fine,” she said, holding his gaze.
“You are such a fool.”
“Do not speak to me like that!” she cried.
Everyone within earshot was watching them. It became more than apparent that she was a girl dressed up as a boy. She let out an exasperated sigh, taking off her hat and displaying her long blonde hair. Frenz’s eyes wandered from her exposed golden hair down to her mouth.
“Peter,” he sneered. “Great name choice.”
He rested a hand on her shoulder, which deepened the pain that bore through her chest and burned her heart so slowly.
“How could you do this?” he asked softly.
“I care for you very much,” she said. “I had to see you.”
He wrapped his arms around her, surprising her. It felt so wonderful. She melted against him.
“I thought it was obvious that I care about you a lot. This is why I am so upset with you. You’ve put yourself in danger and now there is nothing I can do to secure your safe travel back home.”
“I promise you that I will be fine. My mare is fast. I am an excellent rider.”
He shook his head. “You can’t promise that. There are a lot of unsavoury characters wandering the roads after dark to catch silly runaway girls.”
She smirked. “I had no idea that runaway girls were so common.”
He gave her a serious look. “Promise me that you will write me the moment you return home. We will pass through Capotun late next week. Send your letter to that post.”
“I will,” she said quickly. “That is quite close to the border, is it not? Will you have fought in battle by then?”
He cast a gaze heavenward. “It is not for you to know.”
“Frenz, please tell me!”
“The Ustrunians are holding one of our ports hostage and we need to win it back. There is a battle on the forefront.”
“Good grief,” she said, closing her eyes, wishing it wasn’t real.
The corners of his mouth lifted into a smile as he really looked at her.
“You are brave, you know. I didn’t think you had it in you to ride this far alone.”
Seeing him right there in front of her in the waning light seemed more like a dream than reality.
He unstrapped the quiver full of arrows from his back and handed it to her.
“What are you doing?” she asked.
“You should have it for your journey home. I can explain your situation to my commander. I think I prefer using the sword, so I won’t miss it.”
She took the quiver from his grasp with a racing heart. “You’re serious? You’re sure you won’t need this in battle?”
“Of course! Come with me to the archery field. I need to show you how to properly use that so you don’t kill yourself.”
He helped her secure the strap over her upper body and then gave her the bow. She followed him to the archery field adjacent to the camp. He demonstrated how to properly position and aim the point of an arrow and she found it difficult to pay attention. The warmth from his closeness made her feel like she was floating. It was wonderful to be near him even under the strange circumstances where they were talking about weapons in a dirty military camp. They were together again, but in another world. Agnita knew they would never again be two children racing up and down the hill back home. War stole those simple moments from them.
“Let’s see what your aim is like,” he said.
She drew back her bow and lined the tip of the arrow up with the center of the bull’s eye. She fired. Her shot hit outside of the crimson circle.
“Good,” said Frenz.
“Good?” she asked, frowning.
He grinned. “Well, in a battle situation, you would’ve hit roughly around his shoulder, assuming your target was his head or neck. Not bad. You wouldn’t kill him, but you’d stun him, definitely slow him down.”
She blinked back threatening tears. “I wish that I could do something more for the cause than ride back home.”
He moved closer to her again. “You are helping more than you know by going home to your family. I joined the army for you, to keep you safe.”
“Oh Frenz, when will this war end?”
He stared at the ground and furrowed his brow. “I wouldn’t know,” he said quietly.
She swallowed hard, taking in the moment, wishing it would last.
“Use your bow when there is any threat against you. The sight of it should deter most predators. Besides strange wandering men, there’s also wild animals. Focus and aim for the head. Understand?”
“I will, Frenz.”
He reached into his pocket and placed two bronze coins in her palm. “I earned them last night for sharpening the most swords. They’re yours now.”
“Oh, Frenz,” she sighed, fighting back the urge to cry. “Are you sure you can spare these?”
“Of course, I can.”
The extra funds would keep that old farmer at bay. It would buy them enough food to last for the next few months. Part of Ma’s magic was knowing how to make food ingredients stretch for weeks upon weeks.
“I am going to be so worried about you,” he sighed, taking her in, gazing into her eyes.
“I won’t let anyone kill me,” she whispered. “I promise.”
“Frenz!” called the commander from across the camp.
Frenz winced and straightened his posture. “I need to report back to my commander,” he said.
His tone was even, but the sadness in his eyes broke her heart. She longed to wrap her arms around him and never let go. If only they could disappear and go anywhere but that place.
“I will be praying for you every day until I see you again,” she said.
He took both of her hands into his. “Ride fast, but be aware of your surroundings always.”
She nodded. “I will. Good-bye, Frenz.”
He turned away. An invisible knife sliced through her chest as he blended among the other soldiers. She avoided meeting the men’s stares as she strode back to the stables to retrieve her gentle mare. The secret was out that she was no boy. She remounted Maiden, embraced the mare’s strong neck, and then fled from the suffocating camp. Home was the last place she wanted to go as the cooling night’s air kissed her dewy skin. Going back would only make her miss Frenz more. Everything familiar would remind her of him and how much he would change as he went off to fight in the war.
She needed to be in a different place, even if it was just for a little while. A girl rarely received such freedom, but in the moment, freedom was all hers. As grief infiltrated her veins, she knew an adventure was the only thing that could soothe her sense of loss.
The sunset enticed her to chase it. So, she did.
The wind whistled over the large field as the army rode toward the Ustrunian camp in broad daylight. The enemy was ready for them, standing tall with their red capes blowing in the gale. They would attack a Norforthian camp in the middle of the night while the soldiers slept, but General Kaloun believed in the classical art of war. Norforth fought fairly regardless of what their enemies fought like. Frenz wished that his superiors were a little less honourable; attacking such a formidable force without the element of surprise was a daunting feat.
Heart-racing and limbs quaking, Frenz did his best to focus on staying atop his horse without dropping his weapon. He charged in unison with the other soldiers. They became one large mass as they raced ahead with one will: to take down the enemy. Even the youngest and newest army recruits in Norforth were given war horses to ride. The same could not be said for Ustrunia. The shortest and presumably the youngest soldiers stood in the front line. The mounted warriors were well behind the foot soldiers. At least the beginning of the battle would be easy.
Frenz rode close to the front of the line himself, aware of his compromising position. Being easily expendable, the youngest and poorest soldiers were ordered to ride in front. Everyone understood the reason behind it. The general and his commanders wanted to save his best men for later in the battle after the stupid idealistic boys sacrificed themselves. Frenz wasn’t sure what he expected what happen when he first signed up, but it wasn’t to ride in the third line from the front for his first battle.
His jaw clenched in defiance. He would show Commander Ulen just how capable he was. No one was going to slay him that day.
His head raised in pride, despite the fearsome situation standing in front of him. He recalled his intensive military training over the past days. When he focused ahead again, the whites of their eyes infected his vision. They were so close. He gripped the hilt of his sword as a blood-curdling battle cry thundered all around him. He yelled along with his comrades, ready to fight, determined to kill.
The first line of mounted Norforthian soldiers charged through the first line of standing Ustrunian soldiers. Not an ounce of pity was spared for the poor bastards that day. They ploughed through the enemy’s foot soldiers. The sick sounds and sights of it made Frenz cringe, but he moved forward, thinking past the noises.
Pulse pounding in his ears, he unsheathed his sword, so close to entering the conflict. He rode over fallen bodies from both sides. He raised his weapon and brought the blade down swiftly on the first Ustrunian within reach – a boy sent to the front lines just like him. Frenz’s assault severed the small head from its body, sending blood splattering everywhere. Jarred from the impact and the gruesome sight, he watched as the bleeding dead body toppled to the ground. Another enemy replaced him, screaming in anger.
Frenz repeated the motion with his sword, slitting the throat this time instead of taking off the whole head. His heart lurched at the realization that he had just killed two men within no less moments. He stared down at his blood-covered hands before casting a gaze up at the clear blue sky, forever changed. He was a killer. His lieutenant drilled into him and the other new recruits the notion that taking a moment to mourn for a kill would cost them their lives, but he couldn’t help it. He hadn’t realized that there would be so much blood, that a head could be sliced clean off a neck so easily. He expected monsters, not boys.
The world slowed down as Frenz’s countrymen and enemies fell all around him like tin soldiers on a child’s play table. He couldn’t let empathy for the enemy slow him down. Such a thing was pure stupidity, suicide. This was war.
Taking a deep breath, he focused on the sea of fighters ahead. He shut out all the horrific sounds around him, focusing on what had to be done, charging ahead, prepared to kill again. And again.
Helena sat on a boulder outside of the mine waiting for Gladyssa to finish speaking with the supervisor. She braided her long brown hair in order to occupy her impatient hands. She could hardly wait to wash the scum out of her strands the moment that she was home. A hot bath was long overdue. A new life would be nice, too.
“Excuse me, Miss,” said a strange voice.
She shielded her eyes from the bright sun and looked up at a tall boy walking up to her. His smile and unique grey eyes chased away her misery at once. He was so handsome with dark wavy hair and smooth, olive skin. She cleared her throat in embarrassment. What a fool she must have seemed to be staring at him like that.
“Good day,” she said at last, aware of how dirty she looked. “Are you applying for a job here?”
“Yes. Do you know who I will need to speak with?”
“Have you been working at this mine for long?” he asked.
“Yes … well, no. Nearly a month now. It already feels like years.”
His easy laugh made her smile. He was too kind and cultured for that place. Heaven couldn’t exist simultaneously with hell. That was impossible.
“Are you here alone?” he asked. “Or do you work with anyone from your family?”
“My older sister works with me. Trust me, you may want to find work somewhere else. It is terrible being in that mine all day. I feel like I’m working with ghosts most of the time.”
He laughed harder. She wasn’t sure if he found her daft or if he found her hilarious.
“I didn’t mean to be funny,” she said, feeling hurt.
He stopped laughing, but his eyes still danced as he studied her.
“You find me humorous?” she asked, unable to resist the urge to raise an eyebrow.
He grew more serious, sensing her mild annoyance. “You seem like a bright girl. Keep your sights high and I am sure that a better position will open for you soon. Things are always changing, including industry.”
“And hopefully the war.”
He fiddled with the top button of his coat. “Indeed.”
Helena shrugged and looked away to hide the blush that formed on her cheeks. She felt ugly and stupid in her work clothes, but she was grateful that she let down her hair and braided it before he arrived. He might have mistaken her for a lad otherwise.
“What is your name?” he asked.
“Helena,” she said, turning her face back toward him.
He smiled again. “What a lovely name. My name is Martin.”
“Nice to meet you,” she said with a smile.
God himself must have sent the tall, dark angel to cheer her up. Martin had no idea just how much she needed to talk to someone like him, how awful it was to look at miserable faces all day in poor lighting while she worked.
“Likewise,” he said with a wink.
“Where are you from?” she asked.
“I’m from Blue Cove. What’s left of it. I’ve travelled a fair distance with my parents and I thought I’d investigate this mine while we’re here.”
“Blue Cove,” echoed Helena. “That must be past the Great River. Did you cross it?”
“Oh yes. We found a bridge and the rapids below it were striking. I can see where the river got its name from.”
“Wow. I hope to see it one day.”
He smiled. “I am sure you will. It’s a week’s journey from here. Well worth it, I’d say.”
What a thought to jump in a wagon and set out on a journey to somewhere new.
“Oh, I’d like to travel very much.”
“Helena!” hollered Gladyssa from the entrance of the mine.
The shrill voice of her sister made her flinch.
“Yes?” called Helena, looking back at the dark lair’s entrance where Gladyssa and the supervisor stood.
As Gladyssa approached them, Helena could feel heaven slipping away.
“You will need to walk home by yourself tonight. I need to stay here a little later as something has come up. Oh, who is this boy?”
Gladyssa stopped to stare at Martin. She smiled, which was a rare occurrence. It seemed like she was in dire need of seeing a good-looking male face as well.
“His name is Martin and he is looking for a job,” said Helena quickly, bristling at the interruption.
“Helena, it’s rude to speak on behalf of someone else!”
It was just like Gladyssa to add insult to injury.
Martin held up a hand. “Oh, it’s been a pleasure speaking with Helena and yes, I am interested in finding work.”
Helena’s heart skipped a beat at the thought of him working in the mine with her, but then she realized that he might lose sight of her in the darkness and he would eventually grow to hate everyone who worked there. That wouldn’t do. He’d have his sights set on a fairer lady, one who would never set foot inside of such a dirty place.
Gladyssa stood in front of Helena, blocking her vision of Martin. As they talked about mine work, Helena felt like a child being left out of the conversation.
“I will take you to the supervisor at the mine if you like, Martin. This site is in need of more workers. Helena, you can go on without me. I may be a little while.”
Helena grimaced as her older sister led him away into the dark shroud of misery, but then he looked over his shoulder at her. Her heart nearly leaped out of her chest. He winked at her again.
“Thank you, Helena,” he called.
She waved at him, longing to say good-bye, but unable to bring herself to say it. Judging from his nice clothing, he came from a life of leisure. The cut of his pants, his shined shoes, even the way he walked hinted of a comfortable upbringing. His father was probably a successful merchant before the war ruined everyone’s businesses. She wouldn’t have been so bad off herself had her father not passed away.
Helena had no doubt that the hard-edged supervisor would turn Martin off from ever wanting to come back there. Dejected, she started on her walk home. She reached the path that led through the woods and felt her mood lighten. She enjoyed walks the most when she was alone. There was just something about being in nature when no one else was around. It made her feel like she had some semblance of control over her life.
The tall trees and spicy scent made her feel alive again. She walked toward the stream. It felt like so much time passed since she last slipped her bare feet into the small, chilling rapids. She jogged over to the water, kicked off her filthy boots, and removed her stifling socks. She stepped into the cool water, enjoying the way that the mud and smooth pebbles massaged her sore feet.
“Why can’t life be simpler?” she sighed.
Only the chirping birds in the branches replied with any semblance of an answer. If adults thought more like children, life would be much easier. She imagined that wars and feuds would cease to exist if everyone took more time to explore nature, enjoy their surroundings, and appreciate one another. Sometimes she longed to be a bird and fly far away to a new place, but such girlish notions would only serve her more heart ache.
Martin’s happy grey eyes sprung up in her memory suddenly. His presence was the light that she needed, a reminder that other people existed outside of the sad little town. She hadn’t met someone with such an upbeat disposition in a very long time. It was refreshing and saddening all at once, because life was hard and people rarely stayed. She leaned lay back on a large boulder, stared up at the sky, and allowed herself to daydream about the handsome stranger.
Martin walked out of the mine and felt a load of bricks lift off his shoulders.
“Wait, young Martin!” called the site supervisor.
“Thank you for your time, but I must be going,” called Martin over his shoulder.
He shuddered. The man had all but begged him to work there. The poor lighting and dust would ruin his eyes forever if he worked there for too long. He thought of the sweet little girl Helena who was forced to work in the stifling conditions every day. He hoped that she would not have to work there for long. She was too young to be out of school, but children across the country were forced to give up their education to help their families earn enough money to survive. It was yet another example of how far reaching the war was. Though the battle fields were hundreds of miles away, its effect was so vast, affecting people who would never see it with their own eyes.
The memory of Helena’s innocent yet hopeful blue eyes pricked his conscience as he walked briskly away from the place. If his family needed to eat, he would roll up his sleeves and dig for silver at the mine, but they were not so unfortunate. Not yet.
Then there was the matter of Engulf. The boy was close to being half-dead when Martin found him. He needed to practice masking his accent and finding stable work.
Three shadowy human forms in the distance caught Martin’s attention as he entered the tent village. He picked up his pace when he heard shouting. The small group stood around someone who was lying on the street. A skinny boy. One of the bullies suddenly threw a punch at the victim’s head.
“Hey!” shouted Martin.
He broke into a run toward the commotion. He could hear their yells and jeers even above his heavy breathing.
“Stop!” he shouted.
The bullies froze and looked at him as he approached. Up close, he could see that they were boys a couple of years younger than he was. Their eyes widened as he balled his fists and took a step toward them.
Blood and bruises covered the boy’s face. He lay as dead on the cold stones while a chilling breeze swept over them. It was not until Martin really looked at his face that he recognized him. Engulf. A heart-wrenching mixture of anger and sadness infiltrated his veins.
“We have a war going on and here you are ganging up on someone who can barely lift a potato sack!” he shouted. “You are no better than our enemy.”
“This one is a dirty, filthy Ustrunian!” spat one of them.
“He deserted the army, risking his life to escape his country’s cruel king,” Martin shot back, feeling his fists tighten. “Fools.”
He glared at the younger boys, who seemed nervous.
“Get out of here!” he shouted.
The little urchins fled as a crowd gathered around. Martin winced, realizing his error in speaking too loud. If everyone on the street heard that a boy from their enemy nation lay in their midst, there was no telling what they would do to him.
A man from the gathering stepped closer to them. “Did I hear ya say this boy is a Ustrunian?”
Martin glared at him. “It doesn’t matter who is he is. What these kids were doing to him was wrong.”
“It sure as hell matters to me,” snarled the man.
“He’s denied his king and fled the army. We owe him our respect, not our hate and fear.”
“Looky here. This imbecile is defending the enemy,” said another man from the crowd.
“I know him. He’s innocent,” said Martin, trying his best to stay calm.
Everyone ignored him as they moved closer, fixated on broken, beaten Engulf. Then Martin saw his father stepping toward the raucous.
“Father, no! Stay back,” called Martin.
The group of townspeople grew in volume. People of all ages cursed and spat on the lad who lay at their mercy. He gave his father a helpless look. He moved in front of Martin and raised a hand to gain the attention of the townspeople.
“Hear me, everyone!” called Martin’s father, waving his arms in the air. “This boy deserted King Ulrich’s army. He is not one of them and he deserves our empathy!”
Only a few heads turned, but barely anyone listened. In the corner of Martin’s eye, a flash of red took his attention away from what was soon to become an angry mob. His mother walked toward everyone. Tall, slender, and dressed in a red floor-length gown, she appeared like royalty among the cursing villagers in grubby clothes. She carried a pail of water and looked past the mob at Engulf lying on the street.
Martin ran over to her. “Mother, you shouldn’t be here. Go back to the wagon. Please.”
Her gaze remained fixed ahead. “Trust me. I need to do this. For all of us.”
He watched in horror as the crowd swallowed her whole, but as she merged into the masses, singing softly, they broke apart. There on the road next to Engulf sat Martin’s mother holding a wet rag to clean his wounds. She gazed up once into the crowd.
“He is just the same as any one of our own sons. He defied his country and risked his life to seek a better life. How can we fault him for that?”
“He’s a spy!” shouted a woman.
“And even if he is, may we not act out in animosity as our enemy does. We will never win this war if we are not the better people. Violence begets violence, does it not?” she cried.
The crowd continued to murmur, but little by little, they broke away from the gathering until it was only Martin, his parents, and Engulf left. His mother cradled Engulf’s head on her lap as she gently wiped the blood from his face.
“Can you hear me, Engulf?” she asked gently. “It’s all right. You are safe now.”
“Yes,” he replied groggily. “Thank you. I don’t deserve this. Any of this.”
Martin released a breath of relief. “Good God, Engulf. What were you doing wandering around alone?”
“I was being foolish. But you saved me … again,” said Engulf.
Father went to Mother and wrapped his arms around her. “My beautiful, crazy wife.”
His mother was a force to be reckoned with when it came to defending the less fortunate. A Ustrunian boy was no exception.
“Well, it worked, did it not?” she asked seriously.
“I’ll help you up, Engulf,” said Martin.
He reached down and pulled the other boy to his feet. They started on their walk home on the calm street. The mob fled to their houses, preferring warmth and comfort over coldness and cruelty. His mother had handled the crowds with the gentleness of a dove and the shrewdness of a she-fox.
“I’m sorry for what happened to you,” said Martin, helping him walk back to their tent.
“The black smith did not give me the job when I applied earlier today,” said Engulf, wincing with every step. “Then I felt so hungry and desperate that I stole an apple from one of the orchards. Those boys saw me do it. It did not take long for them to discover that I am the enemy when I opened my mouth to try to explain. I am doomed, even way out here.”
Martin had no idea what to say. Engulf’s piercing blue eyes, light hair, and angular facial features were all characteristic of his nationality. People could suspect him before he even opened his mouth. It would be difficult to keep him away from hostility no matter where they went.
It would not be safe for them to stay in the town any longer. His mother’s act of kindness kept the town’s violence at bay, but some of them would soon be back.
“Are we leaving tonight?” asked Martin.
“We leave as soon as possible,” replied his father, stepping briskly ahead of them. “We need to pack up the tents and blankets right away. You and Engulf will have to make beds at the back of the wagon.”
Engulf groaned. “I could never ask that of you and your family. You don’t have to leave this place on my behalf. I will start my journey north in the morning.”
“You will do no such thing,” scolded Mother.
She slowed her pace so that she could walk in stride with them.
“You can stay with us for as long as you need to,” she said, resting her hand on Engulf’s shoulder. “We have enough food and supplies for all four of us. We will steer clear of towns for a while as we travel north.”
He shook his head. “I owe you all my life.”
“I already told you that you owe us nothing,” said Martin.
“You are the kindest people I have met in a long time.”
“We will figure something out,” said Martin.
“I just want to go home, but I can’t,” he said.
“With General Kaloun leading our forces, the war might end sooner than anticipated,” said Martin.
Engulf flashed him a skeptical look.
“I’ve heard of grandiose ally forces and cutting edge battle strategies,” said Father sarcastically. “We’ll believe it when we see it.”
Engulf took in a laboured breath of air. “I fought in two battles. The sound of the hacking, stabbing, and cries will haunt my dreams for the rest of my life, let alone the sight of it all. I hope you are right about your general.”
Father nodded grimly.
Martin swallowed past the painful lump that formed in his throat. If the battle raged on much longer, the continent would be so torn up that no one would be able to repair it. Martin saw firsthand how battles and wars began. People become fearful of certain ideas, ways of life, or types of people, then they form groups, and soon an entire country becomes prejudiced enough to want to start a war.
Agnita’s warm tears mingled with the drizzle. Her mind was so far away from the present that it took Maiden’s whinny of protest took her away from her musings of Frenz and the war. She shivered as a gust of cool wind swept over the field. Her father would have hit her for pushing the horse for no other reason than to satisfy her urge to wander.
“I’m sorry, girl,” she said.
They travelled for hours without stopping, alternating between gallops and cantering. She pulled on the reins to slow her mare down to a walk. She kept her eyes fixed on the yellow lights ahead which signalled that there was a town a few miles away. Her teeth chattered as the rain fell with a vengeance. Maiden’s front hoof slipped, startling her. They had to stop before they both got themselves killed. Through the wet haze, she made out a stone bridge which crossed over a swelling river. She steered Maiden toward the rock structure; there was enough room for both of them to stand beneath it and wait out the downpour.
She jumped off once they reached their shelter and Maiden shook the water out of her coat. Agnita patted her horse’s damp neck; warm tears streamed down her face as she looked out into the misty distance. She thought of Frenz again. He would be training in the awful conditions, probably covered in mud. For all she knew, he had already been to battle. He would worry for her until he knew that she was safely tucked away at home. Perhaps if she told him about Farmer Bram wanting to marry her, he would find some way to help her out of that situation. She could see both of her parents forcing her to wed him as punishment for running away. She shuddered and cringed simultaneously. Defiance worked its way to her skin, warming it for a moment. No one could force her to marry anyone she didn’t want to.
She thought of her parents sitting by the fireplace, which they often did at that time of the evening. They were safe and warm, sitting close to their heat source at that very moment, she hoped.
Home was far away and the next town was close enough to reach within another hour once the rains stopped. This was her chance to have a real journey, one she could look back on and remember fondly when she was older. With the coins Frenz gave her, she could purchase a hot meal and stay at an inn for a few days. It wasn’t much, but it was something. It would buy time to herself, a chance to explore a different place, to see one more fork in the road before going home.
I hope you are enjoying A Season To Fight so far! If you don’t want to wait until the next installment, you’re welcome to download a copy of the book for only $2.99 for Kindle! Get your copy here.