Martin sat next to Engulf’s bed with an unravelled scroll in his hands. His finger traced along the first sentence then he read it aloud. His friend’s wounds were healing, but the emptiness in his gaze was troubling. Engulf sat up slowly as he read. Martin stopped to pour a glass of water and gave it to him to drink. Engulf then gazed forlornly out the opening of the tent. His dark purple bruises faded to shades of yellow. The cuts and scratches had either scabbed over or healed thanks to Mother’s special ointment. Despite the cruel beatings, he had no broken bones. Still, pain was written all over his face.
“I have been thinking. About many things as I lay here,” he muttered.
Martin set the scroll down on his lap. “I spoke with Mother and Father. We are going to set out for another place. I sold another wagon yesterday. It’s enough to cover the building’s rent and buy all the supplies we’ll need.”
“You are all so kind, but I need to go home.”
Engulf must have been hit hard on the head. What a delusional statement.
“You can’t leave,” stated Martin, standing. “Going home would be suicide for you.”
Engulf smiled sadly. “I can leave.”
They stared at one another, each one’s defiance intensifying as the moments passed.
“Your idea is insane,” said Martin.
“Before I was forced to enlist, I caught wind of a growing movement that is working to resist the king.”
Martin frowned. “That is all well and good, but now you are here. Your travels to get this far nearly killed you. Now imagine what you will go through if you try to get back there. Let this opposition force do what they must without you risking your life to join them.”
“I am not the first man to risk his life for a cause greater than himself. The war is full of such men, Martin.”
Martin threw his hands up in the air. “You would go back there after everything you went through to get away?”
Engulf glared at him. “I had to leave my sister behind in the care of strangers. You know, I tried to make it here. I really did. Then I realized over the last few days that I must go back for my sister to see if she is well. Then I will join the resistance if they will have me.”
Martin knew nothing of being forced to enlist nor did he have any little sisters to care for. All his sisters were grown and married.
“Engulf, you are like a brother to me. I can’t lose you.”
Engulf stared ahead into a world that was visible only to him. Martin longed to go there with him.
“We are brothers, yes, but I must do this for my sister,” said Engulf at last. “She is still so small. I can’t leave her there alone.”
He was determined in his mission and Martin could no longer blame him for that. Terrible things happened to Engulf during his short time spent with him and his family. Despite their success with the new business and forming a bond, it was not enough for Engulf to stay.
“How would you make it across the border without being discovered? You could be hanged, or worse.”
“I will pass in the same area that I did before.”
Martin crossed his arms. “Then there is nothing more to say.”
Engulf leaned forward. “Please try to understand. You saved me from starvation. Now I need to do my part in ending the violence that my country inflicts on its own.”
“I understand. I just don’t want you to go.”
“I know,” said Engulf, smiling.
Martin wondered for the first time if his attempts to make an income for his family were trivial in comparison to what he could be doing to help end the war. Boys younger than him were off fighting. Many of them were dead. Once he turned eighteen, he would be expected to fight if the war was still going. He would be seventeen in the fall. One more year to go.
“I feel like a coward,” he said, hanging his head. “I have yet to leave the comfort of my parents and look at you and everything you have done.”
“Martin, business and currency exchange are still needed during wartime. Just think of the families you have been helping by making affordable transportation available to them. The towns will like you more when you have money to buy the food and supplies they sell. You are fair and kind and you have saved me from having my skull crushed in a couple of times now which is no small matter.”
Martin blinked back threatening tears. “What am I going to do without you?”
“I’m not gone yet.”
“I know, but …”
“Let’s enjoy our final few days together rather than mourn our separation before it happens.”
Martin learned the hard way that mourning for friends before they were gone did him no good. He lamented the fact that all of his school chums left his hometown before him instead of making the most of their last days together. He didn’t want Engulf to remember him as a sad, pouting boy.
“Would you like me to keep reading to you?” asked Martin..
“I was wondering if we could go into town.”
“As long as you feel fit enough to go.”
Engulf stood and stretched. “I’ll be fit to be tied if I spend another afternoon laying in that bed.”
His blue eyes sparkled. It was good to see the life come back into him.
“Good,” said Martin. “I have something that I want to show you. You can’t leave Norforth without seeing it.”
The shadows appeared like monsters to Helena as she stopped digging for a moment to take a drink from her canteen. She still hadn’t grown accustomed to the creepy dimness of the cave let alone the gruff workers who hacked at the rocks all around her.
When at last the bell rang for everyone to go home, she followed the crowd. Everyone was anxious to escape from their dreary sentence for another evening, acting like they would soon be free when they knew it was far from the truth. Most of them barely spoke a word to one another. Their minds were off somewhere else, perhaps to better days in the past before war and economic collapse forced them all to work there. Gladyssa was able to take the day off somehow to visit with an old friend from her schoolgirl days. The thought made Helena bristle. How she wished someone would rescue her from the mine for a day, but no one ever came to see her.
Sunlight greeted her when she rounded the corner and followed the path that led her back to the outside world. Though she was shorter than everyone else, their depressing shadows still did not blot out the beautiful sun.
An unusual rumble sounded above her loud thoughts before she reached the cave’s mouth. Panic flooded through her veins as the workers around her screamed and pushed past her.
“Everybody run!” shouted a man from the entrance.
A storm of rocks and sand fell in front of them and dust filled the air. Helena coughed and leaned against the wall, fearing it would also collapse, but too afraid to move. A large rock fell close by and hit one of the men. Then it started to roll in her direction. She and the others yelled as they jumped out of the boulder’s path.
Helena moved in and out of the fleeing people to get to the man who had been crushed by the rock. She sunk to her knees and searched his face. He was dead, crushed by the formidable weight. She needed to see with her own eyes that he wasn’t suffering. He has gone elsewhere, maybe to where Papa was.
Wiping away tears of fear and exhaustion, she ran ahead through the thick cloud of dust as sections of the tunnel continued to cave in and more people screamed. When the collapse ended, a wall of debris formed on both sides of the tunnel.
“We’re trapped,” said a man.
“We’re dead,” said a woman.
Helena collapsed to the dirt, panting, desperate for a breath of air that was not filled with dust. She was going to die and it would be in the place she hated the most.
The sound of picks burrowing through the impossible barrier filled her ears.
“It’s going to take fays to get out of this place,” someone groaned.
“It’ll take even longer if you just stand there like a useless bastard,” growled another.
“What if our digging causes another cave in from above?” cried someone else.
Helena hugged her knees and wept. How she longed for her father to come get her and carry her away from the disaster.
“But he’s gone … he is really gone,” she whispered.
He was never going to come back. Real life was nothing like the fairy tales. She shivered in the corner as the older workers either moved rocks with their hands or picked away at the larger rocks. A sudden pull on her hair made her shriek. She looked up at the angry, dirt-covered face of an older woman.
“Stop hiding in the corner, you little gnat!’ she shouted. “Get up and work.”
Frozen in panic, Helena let the woman pull her up by the shirt collar. Once on her feet, the woman put a pick into her hands.
“We all have to do our part,” she said.
“I know. I’m sorry.”
Swallowing hard, Helena gathered her wits and stepped over to the pile up. She clenched her jaw and used all her might to take the first hack at the rocks. Only a small section chipped off. She slammed into the rock again, screaming as she worked harder than she ever had before. A hand rested gently on her shoulder, and for a moment, she thought it was her mother waking her up from a bad dream. It was the same woman who pulled her up from the corner earlier.
“It isn’t a dream,” said Helena. “I’m really in hell.”
The woman shook her head. “If you keep hacking away like that, you’ll wreck your arms. Slow down, girl.”
Even the largest men were barely making progress, already exhausted from working all day. Her contribution was pitiful, but it was better than being crumpled up in a corner feeling bad for herself.
“It feels like we’re never going to get out of here.”
The woman’s gaze softened as she studied Helena. She was not much bigger than her. Taller, but with a slight build. There were a lot of fine-boned women who worked in the mine and it always made her wonder how they lasted so long in such a joint shattering job.
“If we can’t get out, then we will die trying,” said the woman. “We’re not going to let this thing keep us inside of it without a fight, eh?”
Helena raised her chin. “Right.”
Viggo watched as the freed prisoners sailed for Blivina, a small northern village located on an island far from the threat of invasion. Despite his grave mistake, Ulen’s army came to the rescue and freed them from a terrible death. The breeze carried the scent of the sea to his nostrils and he longed to jump into the cool water.
Frenz stood next to him and together, they watched the vessel disappear into the fog.
“What did they do to you in there?” he asked.
Viggo cleared his throat, unsure of where to begin. “It’s not what they did. It’s what they said. I thought that living alone on the street was hell, but being alone in that cell surrounded by darkness with only their voices to keep me company … I would rather slit my own throat than experience that again.”
Frenz nodded solemnly.
“The smell of death was the worst,” continued Viggo. “And the children’s cries. It surrounded me every moment. They wouldn’t clean up the dead bodies. They would never open the window even once to air out the place. They came in to my cell several times every day to remind me that they were preparing the fire pit to burn us alive in the slowest method possible, then they’d leave me a mouthful of slop in a bowl from their filthy kitchen.”
Frenz flinched. “Did they torture you?”
“Not physically, no.”
Frenz stared at him. “I can’t imagine.”
He was still afraid he might wake up from a dream and find himself back in the dark prison, destined to burn soon after watching the others burn before him.
“It was my fault. I raced ahead to free the prisoners by myself, which compromised us all.”
“Well, you are free now.”
“All I could think about were the children. I could do nothing to help them. I was the reason they were back in there.”
“The men who imprisoned you were bred to be monsters since their youth. You are not to blame for that.”
Viggo shook his head. “I can be hanged for my wrongdoing. I’m a disgrace.”
“Voniz won’t do that to you.”
“You’re sure about that?”
What did they know? Both of them were just disposable kids.
“Mistakes don’t sentence you to death here.”
“I hope you’re right.”
Viggo opened his eyes again and scanned the dead bodies around them. They were mostly dead Ustrunians, but one seemed familiar. It was the eyes. He walked to the lifeless form of the boy who had betrayed his brothers.
It seemed fitting that he died wearing a Ustrunian cape since he loved serving them so much.
Frenz joined Viggo and stared down at the traitor.
“You knew him?”
“He was one of us. Well, he pretended to be. Then he betrayed us.”
“Yes. I always knew there was something off about him.”
“It takes a special breed of man to befriend an enemy for the purposes of betraying him.”
Viggo turned his back on the dead body. A great weight rested on his chest and he lost his breath.
“Saddle up, men!” called Voniz.
The fire-haired commander rode up to them with a scathing glare at Viggo. He did not want to look his superior in the eye, but he had no choice.
“Sir,” Viggo saluted.
“Viggo, you will go with Commander Ulen to his camp.”
“I want you to take some time and reflect on the destruction that your impulsive decision caused. You will be in charge of escorting a girl home. She’s in Ulen’s camp.”
Viggo’s jaw dropped involuntarily open. A girl. Otto rotted away in some cruel prison, but they wanted him to waste time on some female.
“Yes, Sir,” he forced himself to say, trembling in anger.
Without a word, the commander turned his horse around and rode away. Viggo bristled at the thought of being pushed off to the side to do some menial task.
“Good luck with that,” said Frenz with a smirk.
“Thanks a lot,” said Viggo, rolling his eyes.
Frenz shrugged and tried to hide a grin, which only fuelled Viggo’s agitation.
Voniz signalled for his unit to follow him to Venat where they would join forces with Commander Kjeld’s regiment to reclaim their land. He had washed his hands clean of Viggo. Soon he would be forgotten by the great warrior. That was worst punishment of all.
Viggo reported to Commander Ulen and then made his way to the stables to saddle up his new horse. Frenz met up with him there.
“Look, it’s better to escort a girl to safety than shovelling horse manure for a month.”
“I’d prefer the shit.”
Frenz chuckled. “Maybe she’ll be pretty.”
“I doubt it.”
“Well, hurry on then. Commander Ulen is about to leave. We don’t want you to get into more trouble.”
Viggo mounted his horse and rode to catch up with the mounted soldiers heading to camp. He took his place at the end of the line, taking a moment to look back at his old comrades as they rode in the opposite direction.
Martin and Engulf rode over the foggy moors.
“It’s this way. Over the hill,” said Martin.
“I want to hike up the hill,” said Engulf.
Martin studied his friend. “Are you sure?”
Engulf gave him a look.
The sun was low on the horizon. It was the perfect time. They dismounted their horses and made their way up the steep incline. Martin led the way, feeling energized as he climbed slowly with his friend following close behind. When they reached the top, they peered down at the swollen river below. The horizon was aflame.
“This is an amazing view,” breathed Engulf. “You have a beautiful country, you know. It’s civilized, but you still have so many wild places.”
They both sat in the grass. Martin longed to hold on to the peaceful moment. “I wish we could make time stand still. Or, at least to be able to draw it out for a little longer.”
“Sometimes life just seems to be one big lesson on how to let go of people.”
Martin nodded. “I know what you mean.”
The fog thickened; hoofbeats broke the quiet. A herd of wild horses emerged from the mists like a dream. The long-limbed, elusive creatures stopped at the river to drink.
“They are so beautiful,” said Engulf.
“I hope they stay wild,” said Martin with a sigh. “The army has been catching a lot of them for the cause.”
“In Ustrunia there used to be wild horse herds, but they were all captured and tamed several decades ago.”
“That is a shame. They are a rare sight, even in this country, but a magnificent one all the same. You should see a herd of unicorns at least once in your life.”
“You saw unicorns?”
“Yes. They weren’t far away, but not close enough to be a threat. They are stunning creatures.”
“I’ve heard horror stories about unicorns.”
“From what other people have told me around here, they’re true.”
Engulf inhaled sharply. “Thank you for showing me. I will never forget this day.”
“Nor will I.”
“People like you are changing the world for the better. You and your parents have shown me that there is still kindness in the world.”
“I wonder if I should enlist.”
Engulf shook his head. “Please, don’t do it. Your family needs you and so does the new business.”
“I can start a new business after the war.”
“It would kill your mother if you enlisted. Don’t.”
“A boy can’t abide by his mother’s wishes forever.”
Engulf grinned at him. “I think you will stay where you’re meant to be.”
Martin ran a hand through his thick hair and shook his head. “Your departure has set me on edge, because I worry for you. So much could happen to you before you before you reach the Ustrunian border. When I found you, you were half-dead. Are you prepared to risk going through that again?”
“When I fled for your country, I was unable to say good-bye to my friends and family. I left in a rush and without a plan. When I leave your country, I will have you seeing me off. Who would recognize me as an enemy now that I’m wearing your clothes?”
Martin swallowed past the lump in his throat as the wild horses disappeared back into the fog. “We should go back.”
Back at camp, Mother packed Engulf bread, cheese, and beef jerky that would last for weeks so long as he was careful to ration it. Father packed him a dagger, rope, and two wool blankets. Everyone was quiet that evening. No one thought going back to Ustrunia was a good idea besides Engulf.
The next morning before sunrise, Engulf ate a final breakfast of pork rump strips and scrambled eggs. The four of them sat around the fire under the stars. Martin made a strong pot of coffee for them all to drink before the parting. When Engulf was ready to go, he hugged Mother and Father. Their final words were quiet whispers. Martin blinked back tears and saddled up two horses.
As the sun rose, the boys rode out past town. Engulf turned to face Martin and the horizon glowed behind him.
“Maybe we will meet again,” said Martin. “One day.”
Engulf’s eyes misted over. “I know we will.”
There was so much that Martin wanted to say, but couldn’t. Some things could only be felt and set free. Everything in life was so uncertain, even friendships.
“Please be careful,” he said.
Engulf nodded, smiling sadly. “I hope you understand why I need to go.”
“I do. I wish you and your sister well.”
“Thank you. For everything, my dear friend.”
Martin swallowed past a lump in his throat. “Good-bye, Engulf.”
Engulf looked away and urged his horse into a gallop. Martin watched his friend depart until he melted into the misty horizon.
Exhausted and sore, Helena dropped her pick and sat on one of the boulders to catch her breath. Some of the women stopped working and huddled together in pain from putting so much stress on their bodies. A handful of men continued to work, growling and groaning as they did so. Their exhaustion could be felt just by looking at them without hearing the abominable noises they uttered. She rested her face in her hands, trying so hard not to cry, but she was unable to stop once the tears rolled down her filthy face. Over and over, her mind told her that she was never going to get out, that her miserable life was going to end in the place that she hated the most. She had never felt so alone, so trapped.
She leaned back against the rocky wall and stared upward, longing for sleep, anything to take her away. Then an idea caressed her desperate mind. She started to climb up the rocks, taking care to ascend slowly. No one seemed to take any notice of her as she did. Her small feet and hands fit inside of the divots well, allowing her to climb easily. She stepped up one more rock and then peered through a hole. She was surprised to see something glowing deep inside of it. The light was subdued, similar to the moon’s diminishing glow as the dawn approached.
“How strange,” she said.
Her heart throbbed faster as her slender frame fit easily through the opening. She wiggled through the narrow tunnel with her stare fixed on the curious light source. It was further away than she anticipated as she crawled deeper through the narrow tunnel. She outstretched her hand and touched something solid. It felt like an oval-shaped rock. She traced a finger along it gently, wondering what in the world it could be. It no longer glowed now that she was close. Was that just her imagination? Beyond it was something far more wonderful. Daylight streamed in through a small opening. Outside. Freedom.
She panted in anticipation as she brought the egg-like glowing object against her chest with one arm and pulled herself ahead with the other. The opening was tight; her shoulders and hips barely fit through. She imagined a few of the women. Some of them would be able to fit through, but she didn’t think they’d be able to climb up to the opening without hurting themselves. The thought made her stomach knot. If she went back inside to tell them that she found a way out, it would drive them all mad. Going back in there wouldn’t do anyone any good.
She sat outside of the narrow escape and lowered her arm to let the rock fall to the ground. It landed gently in a bed of yellow wildflowers. She slowly brought her legs onto the protruding rock just below her. She straddled it and judged the distance to the ground. It wasn’t too high up. She just had to make sure she landed on both feet. She slid off the rock and fell to the grass. The jarring landing took the wind out of her, but she made it alright without breaking or spraining anything. She let out a wail of relief and crouched down to retrieve the rock. In direct sunlight it appeared even more like a large egg.
“Why don’t you glow anymore?” she asked, studying it.
She held it close and broke into a run for the cave’s entrance. Roughly twenty men worked hard digging and picking away at the cave-in. She found her supervisor and ran to him.
“Helena? What are you doing here, girl?” he asked through squinted eyes.
“I escaped through a small opening when I climbed up the rocks! I don’t think any of the others could reach the opening, but I will help you get them out. I can dig.”
The manager shook his head, looking her over. “Go home, little girl.”
The way he said it made her face glow with anger. “But, Sir!”
Helena swallowed back a mouthful of words and moved away from the working men. Her freedom came with a cost, she realized, as guilt rose up from her stomach in the form of bile.
She walked a way off and placed the egg in a hollow tree stump. She couldn’t leave knowing that there were still people inside digging for their lives. Her father wouldn’t have left anyone behind. Every set of hands could be of help in a crisis.
She jogged back to the mine’s entrance, picked up a pick, and started digging with everyone else.
“I told you to leave, Helena,” said the supervisor crossly.
She blinked back tears of exhaustion. “I know, but I want to stay. I need to help them.”
Her mother’s voice broke through her trance and she spun around. They ran to one another, colliding in a tight embrace.
“My baby! I heard what happened here and I was so worried. Thank God. Thank God.”
Helena’s world spun as she looked from her mother to the men who worked to break the cave in. “I was trapped inside, but I found a small passage and crawled through! There are so many people still in there. I need to help them get out.”
Mother shook her head as tears poured down her face. “These men will take care of it. They understand that you need to go home and be taken care of by your mother for once.”
Helena shook her head frantically. “Don’t say that. You take good care of me. Besides, I am growing up now.”
Her mother smiled. “You no longer have to work in the mine. I have found a much safer job for you.”
Helena was afraid to believe what she was hearing. “Where?”
“At Farmer Davi’s dairy.”
She sighed in relief, suddenly feeling as though she could stand up straight without a tonne of dread pushing her shoulders down.
“Thank you, Mother.”
“Helena, my angel. Let’s go home.”
She remembered the egg that was resting inside the tree and decided that she would come back to get it the next day. She was probably being delusional in thinking that it was anything other than a rock. The mine had finally driven her to madness.
Agnita nearly finished penning a letter for her parents and to Frenz inside of her tent when the loud clearing of a throat interrupted her. Her core tightened with painful anxiety, which was a feeling that she was becoming familiar with over the past week. She stood and opened the flap to see one of the lieutenants and a young soldier not much older than she. It was difficult to determine which one had the grimmest face.
“Sir,” she said, saluting the lieutenant.
He gave her a frown. What a miserable chap. “Like I said before, you are not a soldier, girl. There is no need to salute me. You are required to travel with Viggo here to Phyllis Cove. He will escort you to a lady’s home in the city where you will stay for the remainder of the war.”
Just like that. She caught the eye roll from the soldier named Viggo. If he only knew how painful the situation was to her, too.
She took a step forward. “Sir, I do not wish to be coddled by another family. I came out here to help with the cause and to make something of my life.”
The lieutenant cleared his throat as he gave her a dark look.
“Young lady, the best thing you can do for everyone is to remain well out of harm’s way. The enemy has been known to raid our camps. Do you think they would have mercy on you? Now, gather your things and Viggo will wait here until you are ready to leave.”
He left her and the boy to stare at one another.
“Well, what are you waiting for?” Viggo asked sharply.
“Excuse me?” she snapped.
He glared at her. His eyes were an icy blue. “Please hurry. I have an important mission waiting to be completed once I see to your safety.”
Rage rushed through her. The last thing she wanted to be was a burden to some boy, yet he was acting like it was all her fault. She stomped her foot and re-entered her tent.
“What a grand adventure this is turning out to be,” she muttered.
She had gone from almost signing up for the army to becoming like a helpless damsel in a cheap play. She quickly put her blanket, canteen, and rope into her bag. She strapped the quiver of arrows to her back, grabbed her bow, and stepped back outside. Her cheeks burned when the cool air hit them once again.
Viggo eyed the bow in her hand, seemingly surprised.
“Where are the horses?” she asked.
She rolled her eyes to mimic his earlier gesture then walked ahead of him for spite. She grinned when he had to jog in order to keep the lead. They reached two saddled horses and she chose the black mare. The other one reminded her too much of Maiden.
Her breath caught at the sound of his voice. She looked in every direction until she found him. Frenz broke out from a crowd of soldiers. She squealed, jumped off her mount, and ran to him.
“Frenz?” called Viggo. “What are you doing here?”
Frenz cast Viggo a grin before focusing on Agnita. He collected her into his arms. He lifted her off the ground and twirled her around. The movement made her light-headed. She could have flown away from sheer happiness of being reunited with her best friend.
“It is so good to see you,” she breathed.
“What are you doing here, Agnita?” he asked, growing serious.
She wrapped her arms around him again, grateful to be close to him after feeling so alone and seeing the effects of war with her own eyes. He hugged her back. When they broke the embrace, her arms felt empty.
“You shock me,” he said. “I thought you were going home. When I did not receive a letter from you, I worried. Why are you all the way out here?”
Agnita took a deep breath, gazing into his questioning eyes. “I couldn’t bear to go back there. I was hoping to travel a little further and see another town, but then I saw a group of Ustrunians riding in the direction of your camp. I rode back for you to warn you, but Maiden twisted her bowel and it was terrible. I had to …”
His gaze went soft. “You are very brave.”
“I shouldn’t have pushed her so hard. I’m the reason she’s dead.”
He shook his head. “It wasn’t your fault. I am so sorry you had to experience that.”
He seemed much older even from the last time she saw him. Battle-hardened eyes betrayed his otherwise youthful appearance.
“I just want you to be safe,” he said at last, tracing a finger lightly over her cheek. “I wish you wouldn’t be so foolish.”
“Yet here I am worried sick about the next fight you will be dragged off to.”
His expression went cold. “No one is dragging me anywhere. I chose to protect my country. Be grateful for your safety from battle. You would never want to see what I have seen, Agnita. The weight of the lives I have taken will remain with me until the day that I die. I dream about them every single night.”
She closed her eyes, remembering the field of dead soldiers, unable to voice what she saw. There was no way to get over seeing something like that.
“That was why I so wanted you to stay home,” she said faintly, her words so light that they were carried away by the breeze.
She closed her eyes, feeling ill, realizing that the Frenz she knew would never return. A different boy stood in front of her, but it didn’t matter to her. He was her best friend. She loved him and always would. How she longed to tell him that. She wanted to speak about the sea of dead bodies she had to walk through and how she nearly had to kill a Ustrunian herself, but the words froze at the tip of her tongue. Somehow, it all seemed trivial compared to actually fighting in a battle.
Frenz looked over at Viggo who sat on his horse watching them. Agnita nearly forgot that he was there.
“We meet again,” said Viggo, grinning at Frenz.
The boys shook hands.
“How do you know one another?” asked Agnita.
“Long story,” said Frenz. “Basically, Commander Ulen’s regiment rescued Voniz and a band of spies from a prison. Viggo was one of them.’
She glanced at Viggo. “You were a prisoner of war?”
“For a day,” said Viggo flatly.
She pointed to the black horse standing next to Viggo’s. “That’s my new horse. She’s going to take me to my new prison.”
“No. That’s my job,” muttered Viggo before looking back at Frenz. “Why are you back here?”
“The Ustrunians dodged us. We had spies locate one of their camps, but by the time we got there, everything was gone. They’re masters of surprise, unfortunately. So here I am.”
“Bastards,” snarled Viggo.
Agnita was grateful that the enemy got away that one time. She got to be with Frenz as a result.
“Where are you taking her?” Frenz asked Viggo.
“I have been commanded to take her to Phyllis Cove. A lady lives there and has opened her home to orphans of war.”
“A much safer place for a fair lass,” said Frenz, looking down at Agnita.
She couldn’t help but bristle at how they talked about her like she wasn’t really there. An ache formed in the middle of her chest.
“Agreed,” said Viggo with a nod.
Viggo’s blue eyes studied her in a way that she did not approve of. She looked back at Frenz.
“I have accepted my fate,” she said. “My parents will kill me whenever I am able to return home, but I don’t know when I’ll see them again.”
“Your mother will probably force you to do all the cooking and cleaning for the rest of your life,” Frenz almost laughed.
“Thanks for reminding me,” sighed Agnita.
“Will you write to me from Phyllis Cove?” he asked.
“I will write you the moment I’m settled.”
“I am sorry to break you two apart,” interjected Viggo, “but we need to start our journey. There isn’t much time to lose.”
Frenz’s countenance turned grave. He seemed to be struggling to say something, but unable to say it. Like her. Indescribable sadness gripped her lungs like a vice. She took the letter she wrote to him out of her pocket and gave it to him.
“Here, I wrote this earlier for you. You should have it.”
He took it from her with a smile. “I will read it tonight after dark. Your words will help keep me warm.”
Her heart leaped. “One day we will be back on our hill overlooking the river,” she said. “Maybe we’ll even see another black stag.”
His sad gaze bore into hers. It would be imprinted in her memory forever.
“I long for nothing more in the world than to be back there with you,” he said at last. “I wish we were there now.”
“Me, too, Frenz.”
He kissed her forehead. The warmth from his soft lips spread over her entire body.
He leaned closer, surprising her. She held her breath as he brought his lips to hers. They held one another for a moment that passed too quickly and then he was gone.