The bow and arrows were heavy to walk with, causing Agnita’s knees to buckle several times as she walked. She stumbled as she walked up yet another hill. The highlands seemed to go on forever. Her mouth was so dry that she could barely swallow. It had been a couple of hours since her last swig of water, or at least she thought so. It was becoming more difficult to keep track of time as she became thirstier. When she passed through a lusher area and a brook finally came into view, she collapsed to her knees in relief. Crawling on all fours over to the water, she dropped her lips to the little rapids and drank.
As she splashed her face with the cool liquid, Frenz’s boyish smile flashed across her mind. She re-filled her canteen and forced herself to stand and run through her fatigue. She reached the top of a rise and nearly fell over again, but the sight below transfixed her. For a moment, she thought she was dreaming, or hallucinating. Every bit of her hoped that she was.
Countless fallen bodies lay on the plains. The battle already happened. The armies moved on, leaving their dead behind. A low groan emerged from her chest and exploded into a scream. Men and boys were slaughtered in battle and left to rot without the honour of a burial. Their families would never have a chance to find them and bury them. They were lost to the world forever.
She descended the hill as terrible imaginings of her best friend lying mangled in the grass infected her. Frenz. He had been a part of that battle. So many were dead.
“No. He can’t be dead,” she said aloud. “He had to survive.”
She covered her mouth as the rancid stench of death assaulted her. She nearly fainted as she stepped over the first dead body. There was no way around them. They stretched out as far as the eye could see. There were piles of them. She stepped over and on them, gagging at the sounds they created as she was forced to walk on them. Flies swarmed everywhere and scavenger birds circled in the air above the field. Her legs froze when her eyes rested on one of the bloody faces. He wore a Ustrunian uniform, but nothing about his person was recognizable. He had been hacked to death starting with his face by the looks of things. He didn’t seem like an enemy under those circumstances. He was just a man, a young man with hopes and dreams like her, forced to fight for his country.
She looked away from the grotesque remains and bellowed curses at the sky as she continued through the sea of the dead. She looked down again, drawn in by the silent call of the dead. She wept for the faces who appeared far too young to be soldiers. They were like Frenz, but Frenz was not dead. He survived, she knew he did.
A murder of crows landed close by and began to peck at the slowly decaying bodies. She looked away from the sickening sight. The blood, dead flesh, severed body parts, birds of prey, and insects all blended together into a horrible collage. The overwhelming smell reached deep into her lungs as she breathed rapidly. Bending over, she emptied the contents of her stomach on a patch of blood-splattered grass. The dead seemed to go on forever. If only great bolts of lightning could strike the fields of parched grass and burn them all. Instead, they would be left to the elements and scavengers. At the thought, she heaved again.
When she found her footing, she broke into a run, nearly retching again. A loud groan sounded from behind her. Stopping, she turned in the direction of the noise. A badly wounded enemy rose to his feet. He was huge. At least twice the size of her father which was saying a lot. The monster’s eyes were wild from the pain, thirst, and rage inflicting his body as he limped toward her. The dead man walking held a broadsword, but his bloody grip was so weak that he was barely holding onto it. Meeting his icy eyes, she screamed. He stared at her, but it didn’t seem like he really saw her. His only purpose was to kill what was in front of him and that’s what he would do until he was dead.
She took an arrow from her quiver and stretched the bowstring taut.
“Stay back!” she cried.
He inched toward her, unaffected by the threat, nearly dropping his weapon, but gripping it tighter at the last minute. His resolve strengthened. She shuddered.
“Don’t make me shoot you!” she shouted.
Her voice sounded hollow as it echoed over the grasslands. Still, the Ustrunian shuffled toward her. The muscles in her arms shook as she aimed the point of her arrow between his beady eyes. Before she let go of the arrow, the man fell to his knees. After a pathetic attempt to get back up, he rolled onto his side with a growl. His body trembled rapidly as he struggled to hold on to life until only his hair swayed in the breeze and became dead like the rest of them.
She put her arrow back into the quiver, turned away, and ran, stopping only when she reached the shade of a tall, solitary tree. She leaned against the gnarly trunk and unstrapped the quiver from her back. She dropped onto the hard ground and closed her eyes, falling into darkness.
The prison located at the top of a grassy mountain was humbler in appearance than the previous one. There was no secret passageway and no advantage of surprise. They were about to charge into a small battle as the prison guards awaited them.
Viggo forgot to breathe as he watched the red-caped guards line up in front of the building.
“Draw your swords!” ordered Commander Voniz.
Viggo released his blade from its sheath. He kept his eye on the prison’s entrance as Voniz charged his horse into the first two Ustrunian guards. Viggo also charged his horse through the line of prison guards, knocking down a man and colliding swords with another. Making it through unscathed somehow, he urged his horse to make a run to the building. If he could make it inside, he would free the prisoners and make his commander proud.
He reached the flight of steps that led to the entrance and jumped out of his saddle. He ran up the stairs, bashing in the front window with a swift kick. He ran down the hallway then slowed to a walk, looking at all the doors flanking the hallway. He went through the first one on his right and made his way down another hall. He stopped in front of the cell full of prisoners.
Gaunt, pale faces stared at him with hollow eyes. Most of them were women. Their cries and frantic questions blended together into a horrible mess.
“Quiet down,” he hissed. “We don’t want the guards to hear you before you’re freed.”
That silenced them.
He stood back and swung his sword at the lock’s chain several times until it broke. He opened the barred door and the prisoners slowly shuffled or limped out.
“Where are you taking us?” asked the first one to step outside, an elderly woman.
Viggo brought a finger to his lips. “Be quiet and follow me,” he whispered.
He tried to ignore the sickness growing in the pit of his stomach as he led them out of the prison. They were all so frail, struggling to walk after months of malnutrition and being cramped inside of a dark cell.
An armed Ustrunian bumped into him as he rounded the corner. Their swords slashed together and Viggo’s knees buckled from the force. Lying on the floor, he blocked another swing and kicked at the man’s shin. The enemy yelled and fell to his knees, but then crawled quickly toward Viggo. Voniz stormed up from behind and stabbed the man.
Viggo met the commander’s furious green eyes. He looked like he was about to spew forth a round of obscenities, but he looked over the prisoners instead.
“Follow him. He will lead you all to the river where boats wait to take you back to Norforth. The rest of us will cover you.”
A round of relieved cries echoed off the stone walls.
Viggo took long steps and looked over his shoulder to make sure that no one fell behind as they made their way down the dusty hallway. The warm sunlight felt like Heaven against his skin when he opened the door and led them out of the stale air and outside. They sighed as they breathed in fresh air for the time in weeks, months even.
“Keep moving toward the river,” he ordered. “You can enjoy the fresh air once you’re safely on your way down the river.”
His eyes darted about, half expecting another enemy to jump out of the bushes at him. Instead, it was Iric. There was a strange flickering in his eyes as he emerged from the shadows like a wolf stalking its prey.
“What are you doing there?” asked Viggo, confused. “Shouldn’t you be with the others?”
“Thought you’d go off on your own to save the day, did you?” he asked.
“Even now you taunt me, you fool?” shouted Viggo.
Iric’s lips upturned into a devilish grin. “Commander Voniz was so disappointed with you for disobeying his orders. Take that with you to the grave.”
He needed another punch to the face. “What the hell are you talking about? We have prisoners that we need to escort down to the water because I took the initiative to set them free.”
Iric shook his head. “You know nothing, street boy.”
Eight Ustrunian soldiers emerged from the trees and surrounded the retreating prisoners.
“No!” cried Viggo.
The prisoners howled, huddling together before being separated by the enemy. The sound was so pathetic that even hell itself couldn’t have sounded more miserable. Viggo’s knees grew weak, realizing there was nothing he could do to stop it.
“You compromised the rest of your unit by trying to be the hero,” said Iric, still grinning. “I was counting on that to happen, you know. You just had to prove yourself, didn’t you?”
Iric suppressed a laugh as he unsheathed his sword, pointing it at Viggo. “You are not incorrect.”
Viggo sheathed his sword and knelt in surrender. He stared at the ground and wished that the earth would open up and let him fall in.
“Look at me!” shouted Iric. “I want to smile at you one last time before I walk away and leave you to rot here.”
“No,” said Viggo.
The flat side of a sword hit him hard on upper arm. Gritting his teeth, he looked up at the smirking traitor. He had never wanted to kill someone so much in all his life.
He failed miserably on all accounts, accomplishing nothing for his homeland. The vultures that used to watch him on the street returned to his memory. He imagined them circling around him, mocking him with their ugly yellow eyes. They knew all along that he wouldn’t survive no matter how hard he tried. It would have been better that the army trampled him in the streets back home. He only made things worse for everyone, including himself. The prisoners tasted freedom only to be locked up again. Because of him.
Iric’s cruel laugh grated his nerves like a gnawing rat as the Ustrunians rounded up the prisoners like cattle. Iric stood over Viggo and watched the cruelty taking place. The victims’ hopeless cries as they were shoved back into the dark building infected the air, shattering what remained of Viggo’s composure. He buried his face in the dirt and wept.
“Nice to know you,” sneered Irik, walking away.
A prison guard took his place. “Get up and follow me if you want to live.”
As the guards closed the entrance to the prison behind Viggo, musty air and darkness surrounded them once again. Viggo’s throat began to close up in protest. He struggled to breathe.
Voniz and the rest of his unit were already locked away in a cell. Viggo’s heart nearly stopped as he locked eyes with his commander.
“Why, Viggo?” asked Rel, who stood next to Voniz.
“I wanted to help. I thought you would be proud of me,” he said, his voice hoarse. “I didn’t think this would happen.”
Voniz looked away from him as did the rest of his comrades. Viggo moved past the cell as Sheol rained down on him.
The guards put the prisoners in the cell across from the soldiers of Norforth, but they blocked Viggo from entering.
“We have a special place for the stupid one,” said a guard, looking down at Viggo.
The others laughed as he poked Viggo in the back with the point of his sword, forcing him to move down the hall. It was so dark; he could still hear the women’s weeping echoing off the high walls.
“Stop!” ordered the guard.
Viggo froze as he opened a small cell with a solid door. It was so dark inside.
“No,” begged Viggo.
The guard picked him up like the child he was and threw him into the place, quickly shutting and locking the door. Black surrounded him like a thick, stifling blanket. He stared at the door. There was not even a crack or a hole that connected him with the outside world. Even after a matter of seconds, he felt like he would never get out, that the tiny black room became his reality forever. He was destined to die alone in the darkness, knowing that he failed all those closest to him.
Frenz’s vision blurred as he crawled out from the pool of blood after being pushed into it by other fighters. Covered in red, he rose to his feet and found his wounded war horse. He stared down at it in a daze. Everything looked blurry. He was losing focus. Soldiers weren’t supposed to form attachments to horses, but he did with this one. He knelt next to the selfless animal and kissed his forehead as violence and death raged all around him. He ended the moaning horse’s misery with a quick stab to the heart with his sword.
A yell close by rattled him, reminding him that as long as he was still alive, he had to keep fighting. He couldn’t stop until he was dead. There was no time to blink, let alone grieve. He barely escaped the last battle two days ago, fleeing for his life along with the other retreaters when the enemy gained the upper hand back at Red Hills. So many Nortforthian men fell that day, literally turning the hills red. The Ustrunian forces never seemed to end. When they killed hundreds of them, hundreds more came.
“We’re losing!” cried one of his comrades.
“Shut up!” shouted Frenz, feeling anger work through him like a caustic poison.
He turned and used the flat of his sword to block a would-be fatal blow to his neck just in time. Strength flowed through his arms as he recovered from the initial shock and made an arc motion toward the enemy’s chest. The man was large, but surprisingly quick. He dodged the attack and came at Frenz like an angry giant. Commander Ulen leaped to Frenz’s side and stabbed the Ustrunian through the side with his sword. Frenz helped finish him off by slitting the formidable man’s throat.
“Help each other or you’ll all get your heads lopped off!” shouted Ulen, pointing at two other boys standing idly close by.
The boys visibly trembled.
“Come on. Let’s slay some devils today,” said Frenz, giving them a wicked smile.
He didn’t really know what he was doing, but he was dodging attacks left and right even after hours of battling. His new followers mimicked his movements, escaping grievous wounds along with him. Being much smaller than their enemy was working to their advantage. Most of the hefty Ustrunians couldn’t be bothered trying to keep up with their quick, impish movements.
The boys formed a small pack with the others that were similar to them, attacking lone enemy soldiers together. The lives that they took blended together as the minutes passed into hours. Other Norforthian soldiers fought in a similar tactic, staying in groups of three or four. For the first time, Norforth was gaining the upper hand. More red-caped bodies lay in the dirt than black-caped bodies.
Frenz’s sore limbs numbed as he collided swords with enemy after enemy. He stumbled at one point, landing flat on his face. He lay next to a fallen Ustrunian who had purposely tripped him. The man was so close that Frenz could feel his hot, rank breath on him. He punched him hard in the face. Dazed, the enemy lay flat on his back, staring at the sky, half dead. Frenz brought the tip of his sword to his enemy’s neck. Without thinking, he looked into the eyes. That was a mistake. He lowered his gaze to the blade that touched his opponent’s throat. He saw a pulse – the man’s last rush of fear. He noticed such fine details whenever he was close enough to see a dying man.
He drew his arm back and quickly cut into the Ustrunian’s neck, killing him. Shaking, he stood, staked his sword into the mud, and leaned against it for support. He needed a moment to rest his trembling arms. He glanced out at the horizon and it was red. Even the sky was bleeding as men’s blood soaked the earth, but he had to keep fighting somehow, even though it hurt just to stand.
Cries of surrender filled the air and his vision focused. Could it be?
One of his pack members stood beside him. Though he didn’t know the boy’s name, he felt a strong kinship with him. They looked on as red-caped warriors fell in surrender, begging Norforth to spare their miserable lives.
“It feels like we’ve lost almost everyone,” said Frenz. “Hardly a victory.”
“I know, but look,” said the other boy. “They are defeated. Just think how angry their king is going to be at us for winning.”
Frenz let out a lungful of air. So many lay dead for as far as the eye could see, but for once they put a stop to unending influx of enemy soldiers. They had travelled as far as the prison building, which meant that they managed to push the enemy back several hundred miles in the last few days.
Commander Ulen drove the Norforthian flag into the soil. Every black-caped man who still stood cheered. Some even leaped with joy despite hours upon hours of fighting for their lives.
Frenz wiped the tears from his exhausted eyes. The battle was finally over. It was the second one in only five days and they won. He survived. Again.
“Make your way over to the building, men! Let’s get those prisoners the hell out of there!” shouted their commander.
Frenz mustered the last morsel of strength he had and marched with those who still could. It was then that he became fully aware of the blood and dirt caked on his face and body. He had never been so filthy in all his life, and it was some measure of comfort that his cleanliness, or lack thereof, still concerned him. The prison camp was an ordinary building, but he did not want to imagine the atrocities that took place within its confines. It must have been hell on the inside. The perimeter of the property was lined with even more dead Ustrunians. So much darkness hovered around them, but everyone ignored it. Someone already broke into the prison by the looks of things.
The first Northforthian soldiers to reach the prison gained the honour of breaking in and freeing the prisoners. Women and a few children stepped out of the building. They were so thin and ghostly that it was painful to look at them, but one could hardly glance away. A handful of imprisoned Norforthian soldiers walked out into the sunlight as well. It appeared that they hadn’t been in the prison for as long as the civilians. They all breathed in the fresh air, closing their eyes in relief of feeling the bright sun on their faces. It made him wonder what the point was in keeping such defenseless people as prisoners. They must have committed some sort of treasonous act for the Ustrunians to not kill them on the spot and move on.
Frenz swallowed hard, noticing how dry and swollen his throat was. He hadn’t had a shot of water in hours.
Close by, one young soldier helped an elderly victim by offering them water from his canteen. His weary eyes met Frenz’s.
“We are grateful for your bravery,” said the boy, who appeared to be around thirteen or fourteen. “They recaptured us after our failed rescue attempt. We would be nothing more than ashes had you arrived a day later.”
“What do you mean?” asked Frenz.
“We were all scheduled to burn tomorrow morning.”
Dread laced his words. Horror did special things to men and they were still just boys.
“Are you all right?” asked Frenz.
“I am still breathing. Thanks to you.”
“Whose command are you under?”
“Commander Voniz. For now,” he said, hanging his head.
“My name is Frenz and I serve under Commander Ulen.”
They shook hands.
“My name’s Viggo. Let’s fill up all the canteens we can find and give them to those rescued prisoners, then we’ll quench our own thirst.”
Frenz tried his best not to look any of the prisoners in the eyes. He had seen enough sorrow and fear for that day. He needed sleep, but dreaded it. Though he silently mourned for his fallen comrades, it was the eyes of the men he killed that haunted him when he dreamed.
Agnita awoke to the sound of a deep voice muttering something close by. The ground shook beneath her. She was too weak at first to do anything more than try to open her eyes, but when she found a little more strength, she forced her eyes open. It was so bright so she had to extend her hand to shield out the sun.
“Where am I?” she asked, her voice squeaking.
“Sir, she is awake,” said a younger, higher-pitched voice.
She realised that she was lying on a bed of straw at the back of a cart. She squinted at the tanned face looking down at her from his high horse as he rode alongside. He wore a soldier’s armour and the long black cape of a commander.
“We found you half-dead by a tree,” he said. “You’re lucky we decided to travel up this way.”
He reached down to give her his canteen. She drank several gulps of water.
“Thank you,” she breathed.
It was then that she remembered her bow and arrows. She reached for them, relieved to see them next to her. Not only were they a gift from Frenz, they had become a part of her.
“What’s a little girl like you doing so close to enemy lines?” asked the commander.
She winced, remembering everything that had happened since she hid under that bridge from the rain.
“I wanted to warn my friend that spies were coming, but circumstances prevented me from doing so.”
He didn’t respond.
She propped herself up on one elbow and realised that the cart was surrounded by several mounted soldiers. She was travelling with an entire regiment. As relieved as she should have felt to be rescued from death, disappointment etched her insides.
“Where are we going?” she asked.
“We are joining Commander Ulen and Commander Voniz and their regiments. Not you, of course. We’ll have to leave you somewhere safe. You know, the vultures might have finished you off had we not seen you.”
She cringed at his dreadful words. Some of the men within earshot laughed. For the first time, she longed to be back in her mother’s comforting arms. Her horse was dead. She walked through a field of dead men. She had no idea if Frenz was still alive and she nearly died herself. What a depressing adventure.
The commander rode ahead to discuss something with one of his men. She was nothing more than a nuisance to them. It made her wonder what in the world would become of her being so far away from home and so close to the war. Once again, her life was under someone else’s control.
Rolling hills extended out to the sea and the sweet smell of the water wafted into her nostrils, but nothing could erase the hell she experienced. She closed her eyes and nearly fell asleep again when she heard voices talking about how they were nearly upon the camp. Entering another military establishment did not make her feel any better. It made her miss Frenz terribly. Knowing the futility of searching for him did not stop her from standing and searching over every dirty face that was close enough. He served under Ulen, but there was a chance he could be there. It was common for low ranking soldiers to be passed from commander to commander.
No sign of him. She sat back down, telling herself to stay calm and to wait.
One of the younger riders brought his horse close to the cart. His eyes were tired, but brighter than the older soldier’s.
“You must be starving,” he said.
She nodded, but it was a lie. She felt ill. The young soldier studied her for a moment; a question was on the tip of his tongue, but it was interrupted from an order being barked by his superior. She was grateful when he left. The last thing she wanted to do was talk.
Another soldier approached her. A lieutenant, probably. All the movement and voices made her head spin.
“Follow me, girl,” he said. “We have an empty tent where you can rest. I will have a plate of food brought to you and then we will arrange for someone to escort you home.”
Her heart sank. She didn’t have the chance to write Frenz a letter either. He would check at the post town and become worried when he received nothing from her.
“Thank you, Sir. May I ask something?” she asked.
“My friend, Frenz of House Jensen, serves in the army under Commander Ulen, but there’s a chance he could have been transferred to another regiment. I wanted to find out if he could be here.”
He nodded knowingly. “I will see if I can locate him here. In the meantime, stay in your tent and out of the way.”
She bit her tongue as a caustic word or two nearly escaped from her lips. She smiled and nodded as girls were expected to do and followed a young soldier to her new prison. Dread clenched her heart. The hospital area loomed in the distance, marked by several white tents splattered with blood. Soft groaning blended with the sound of birds chirping in the trees. She wondered if Frenz was in there. The not knowing ate away at her insides.
She went into her shelter and shortly after, a soldier brought a small plate of boiled potatoes and salted pork with a cup of water. It was more elaborate than she expected, but the potatoes tasted bland. After she finished her modest meal, she tried to sleep, but was unable to. Pacing back and forth, she longed to go for a walk or to do something that would occupy her raging thoughts.
She lifted the flap to gaze outside at the stars. Cool air caressed her dewy skin, enticing her to go venture. Everyone in the camp was oblivious to her presence as they talked, drank grog, nibbled on a piece of bread, or mended their uniforms.
She welcomed the chill that rushed over her as she left the camp’s border and wandered over to the cliff overlooking the gulf. It was a perfect spot, really. The moon’s reflection danced on the calm waters. She pretended that the beautiful scene was arranged just for her. It brought her a small ounce of joy in what she realized was such a wicked world.
The lieutenant from earlier stood right behind her. Her breath caught in her throat as she turned to face him.
“I’m sorry!” she cried.
“You should notify us if you wish to leave your tent.”
“Please forgive me, Sir, but I did not think that a short walk would do me any harm.”
“You are under our care. If something happened to you, we would have wasted precious food and water on a fool.”
His sternness scared and angered her all at once.
“I do not want to be a burden, Sir,” she stated.
“I have a daughter around your age. It’s why I took you in. Other military leaders might have left you there, you know. Supplies are low and taking in a guest isn’t convenient for us.”
Agnita blinked. “I can imagine.”
He cleared his throat. “As for Frenz, he was sent along with Commander Ulen’s regiment to fight the enemy and recover the prisoners who were captured close to Night River. We have received word that they won and successfully completed the mission.”
Her chest tightened. Another battle. More dead bodies lay to rot on a faraway field.
“Thank you for telling me, Sir,” she breathed, resisting the urge to vomit.
He looked down his nose at her. “You are no soldier, girl. No need to keep addressing me as ‘Sir’.”
She nodded, feeling incredibly awkward, and stared at the ground. Frenz was so far away. It seemed like she would never see him again, that the distance between them would keep growing.
“I will grant you some peace and quiet now, but you should go back to your tent soon.”
He left her in peace at last. She inhaled deeply, imagining the horrors her dear friend witnessed over the last several days. If only there was some way to find out how he was doing, where he was.
The water turned black when clouds moved in, blanketing the starry sky, shutting away her temporary heaven.
… to be continued