Erne looked down at Helena as he sat on his saddle. The moment had come. Another good-bye.
“I will be back soon,” he said. “I promise.”
“How could you promise that with how quickly things change in this life?” she cried, regretting her tone, but unable to restrain herself.
Erne got down from his mount and wrapped his arms around her. She returned the embrace, longing to hold on to him forever.
“If I keep holding onto you, could we somehow escape from this?” she asked.
“Even death itself could never separate me from you. I love you so much, Helena, my dearest little sister. No matter what happens, I am with you. Can you believe me?”
She would have fell to the ground and begged for him to stay if it would have done any good, but nothing could keep him away from the army. He signed his life away to the cause like the rest of them.
“I love you too, Erne,” she said, fighting to keep her composure, not wanting to say something she would regret.
She buried her face into his chest; he held her until she was finally able to let go.
“You have a good heart, Helena. Guard it always.”
She could only nod. They stared at one another, savouring their final moment together in the quiet forest. Mother said good-bye to him back at the house, too shaken from everything that happened over the last year to go with him to the woods.
“When you feel lonely, think of all the wonderful memories we have shared. I will never forget the day that you showed me a baby dragon, of all things. You are the most remarkable person, Helena.”
“Letting people go seems to be my lot in life.”
He frowned. “Don’t say that. You’re so young with a beautiful life ahead of you.”
“I know, dear brother. I know. I’m just a spoiled child who wants her family to stay with her forever. I can’t help it.”
“You are more than that. So much more. You are stronger than you know.”
Helena blinked back threatening tears. She wondered where he got the impression that she was strong. “I can’t hope to live up to those words, dear brother.”
He laughed despite her grievous tone.
“I will think of you often while I’m gone. Your memory will help keep me warm on the cold nights ahead.”
She swallowed back the painful rock in her throat as he remounted his horse. When he rode away from her, she listened to the sound of his horse’s hoof beats until silence was her only companion.
Hanging her head, she started for home. How she loved him. He was like a second father to her. Had he met a woman during his travels? She hadn’t had the chance to ask him. A part of her hoped that he remained unattached, that she was still the most important girl in his mind at the moment.
Leaves rustled from the trees as a strong gust of wind passed through the forest. She wrapped her shawl tighter around her shoulders as the cooling air deepened her sense of loss.
Swaying bushes close by made her stop. A familiar pair of bright, yellow eyes peered at her from the darkness of the woods before slipping out of the bushes. The long reptile’s body was streamlined; striped markings formed on her head that had not been there before. She was already larger than a medium-sized dog, but her face shape still looked much like a hatchling’s.
Helena froze, a little frightened by her dragon’s larger size, but mainly fascinated by her beauty.
“My dear dragon,” she breathed.
With a racing heart, she knelt on the ground to make herself seem smaller and less threatening. Remembering the piece of beef jerky in her pocket, she took it out and held it in the palm of her hand.
“Hello, girl,” she said softly, a slight tremble in her voice.
The creature tilted her head and blinked before scurrying back into the thick brush.
“Come back? Please? I promise not to take you away from the wild. I only want to visit with you, to not be so alone.”
No amount of calling would draw the dragon out of her hiding place. She disappeared back into the shadows, no longer trusting her. An uneasy feeling crept down Helena’s spine as the sky darkened above. A storm was on its way.
Loud, unnerving yells infected the night air. Agnita could visualize the red-caped soldiers trashing the city, looting everything they could before burning down the buildings. Her panic turned into rage as she sat on the bumpy cart imagining how many of her countrymen lay dead on the battlefield. Her eyes wandered to her bow at the back of the cart. It carried enough arrows to kill a few Ustrunians. Her effort would be minimal, pathetic even, but it was better than sitting there like a useless old lady.
Martin rode past them again and Lady Jaqueline scoffed. “He has the uncomfortable look of a boy given too much responsibility,” she said, shaking her head. “There are older men far more capable than him. I have no idea who he thinks he is.”
Agnita exhaled loudly. “Maybe trying to help other people stops him from going mad. Besides, aren’t you a little more worried about the ruthless big men with swords pursuing us right now?”
“Maybe they won’t get that far.”
“They will!” shouted Agnita. “They’re no more than a mile off now. Can’t you hear the sound of their horses as they ride after us?”
She focused on one of the horses that was being pulled behind a family’s cart. A crazy thought raced through her mind, one that she wasn’t willing to waste time trying to rationalize. She grabbed her quiver and bow then jumped down from the cart, tired of playing it safe.
“Agnita!” she cried.
She made a run for the horse and mounted it, quickly untying the knot that bound it to the wagon.
“What are you doing?” cried Jaqueline.
“What does it look like?” snapped Agnita.
“Hey, that’s my horse!” cried the middle-aged man driving the wagon. “Give it back, stupid girl!”
She steered the horse in the opposite direction of the retreating caravan and urged it to run. A few of the men reached out and tried to stop her horse by grabbing at the reins, but their momentum was too strong for them to take hold.
She took a short cut and broke out of the woods, catching sight of the Ustrunian’s torches. They were so close that she could fire at them from where she was. Further in the distance below, bright orange flames rose from the buildings of Phyllis Cove. Soon the city would be nothing more than ashes.
She reached behind her back and grabbed an arrow, fixing her eyes on the lights ahead. She gritted her teeth as the desire to kill fluttered in the pit of her stomach. She was as good as dead with them being so close. A chill ran down her back as the realization of her own mortality hit her like a tidal wave. She received special treatment for being a girl, she was supposed to be far from danger, yet there she was in the path of the world’s most fearsome army. She held her breath, but she felt no fear. This was her purpose all along. To sacrifice, to make a stand.
Her blood turned to ice as another sort of battle cry sounded. A large group of Norforthian soldiers appeared over yonder. They glowed orange from the light of the great fire. The general hadn’t given up on the war, after all. The army arrived at the eleventh hour, but at least they came.
Agnita’s entire being warmed with relief and pride. There was a chance she could still get away after firing a few shots.
“I have to stay. I have to do this,” she said, staring ahead at the formidable sight.
She drew back her bowstring with the arrow’s head and fixed her aim on an enemy soldier at the front of the line. She released it, hitting her mark – his chest. He fell off his horse as the others still charged ahead. Breathless, she took another arrow from the quiver and aimed at another Ustrunian. She shot him, sending him to the ground as well. She drew a third arrow with a shaking hand, pressing her luck.
A strong hand grabbed her by the upper arm. She screamed in shock, shooting the arrow prematurely. It bounced off a boulder.
She looked up to see Martin. “You made me miss!” she shrieked.
“Are you insane?” he shouted.
“Let me go!” she screamed, glaring at him angrily.
His hand encircled her small wrist. “We have to ride away from here, or we’re dead.”
“Please, Martin! Let me shoot one more!”
He looked frantically past her at the enemy that was riding toward them. They were so close and there were so many of them. Her ears thundered as her heart raced. How many girls could say that they got so close to battle? Norforth would have to use everything they had to defeat them. The thought made her shudder as she stared at the oncoming wave of warriors in fascination, transfixed by the morbid sight. She couldn’t move.
“Move, you fool!” shouted Martin in her ear, but he sounded distant.
He took her horse’s reins and pulled her along with him, startling her out of the trance. She followed him as he raced ahead of her. Choking down bile, she urged her stolen horse to catch up to his. She didn’t dare look back at the army that would have trampled her.
When they caught up with the fleeing Phyllis Cove villagers, she wiped the sweat from her forehead. She followed Martin past the wagons filled with glaring people. Riding next to Jaqueline’s wagon, Agnita met her angry glare as the enemy’s roars echoed close by.
“What in the devil were you thinking?” cried Jaqueline.
Agnita lifted her chin. “I’m back, aren’t I?” she snapped. “I shot two of the enemies, nearly three, until I was interrupted.”
Some people around them gasped, including Jaqueline.
“I nearly had a heart attack when you rode away like that! Please, never disobey me again or you will be back on the streets.”
The threat was ridiculous as they all travelled at a snail’s pace on the enemy’s path.
“Another Norforthian regiment has arrived. They may take down the enemy yet,” announced Martin.
Many people cheered while others wept.
“Now, return that horse to his owner and get back in this wagon, Agnita!” cried Jaqueline.
Everyone stared at her as though she were the biggest fool to walk the earth. Agnita stared defiantly back at them. “Are you all insane?” she cried. “The enemy is less than a mile away now. Even with our army’s reinforcements, they can still reach us. In fact, they’ll do that just for spite!”
“I’m not doing a damned thing until you return my horse!” snarled the man who she stole the mare from.
When she gave the stolen horse back to him, Martin rode by her with an intense look in his eyes.
“I want you to know that what you did was very brave,” he said.
He stopped his horse so she could get on. Agnita climbed into the saddle behind him. “What I did was like a drop in the ocean.”
“We might just outrun them yet.”
“Martin, I don’t understand why we aren’t hiding.”
He clenched his jaw as he looked down at her. “The time it would take for everyone to get down, run into the thick of the forest, and try to find a good hiding spot would mean that the enemy would already be upon us. It is better that we try to outrun them.”
“Pick up the pace, everyone! There are hundreds of them riding toward us!” she cried.
Jaqueline slowed the wagon so Agnita could climb back in. They were only wasting more time. It made her want to scream, but it would have been drowned out by the beastly men’s unending battle cries. Half expecting a smack across the face, Agnita was surprised when Jaqueline took her by the hand.
“Please, M’lady, we need to move faster or they’ll catch up to us!”
“I understand,” said Jaqueline, cracking the whip and sending the horse into a gallop.
Agnita held on tight as they raced over divots and bumps on the trail. As they fled, she brought a hand to her aching chest.
Viggo tried to step over the fallen, bloodied bodies on the field, but there were too many. He suppressed the urge to vomit as his boots walked over the dead and the dying. They were everywhere and as far as he could look out. He lost track of Frenz and was so spent that he could barely walk straight. He longed for a cool drink of water, but that would have to wait.
The Ustrunians would not lay down their swords and surrender despite their falling numbers. The Norforthian cavalry arrived, but so many men had already fallen by that point; Phyllis Cove was forever destroyed.
A pained cry to his left sent chills over his sweaty body. It wasn’t only the sound of the cry, but it sounded like someone was saying his name. When it sounded again, he looked over at the source of the voice. His eyes rested on a face that was barely recognizable. Frenz, whose face was covered with blood and mud, lay in a pool of more blood. Viggo blinked, hoping it was just a figment of his imagination, the mind played tricks on people when they were exhausted.
“Viggo,” called Frenz in a pained voice.
“No. God no.”
Viggo ran and fell to his side. He used his hands to apply pressure to Frenz’s large torso wound.
“We’ll get you back to camp,” said Viggo. “You just have to stay awake. You will make it through this!”
He tore off his shirt and wrapped it around Frenz’s midsection with trembling hands.
“I’ll take one of those loose horses and we’ll ride to camp,” said Viggo.
“No,” Frenz said hoarsely. “Leave me here.”
“I’m getting you to camp where you can be properly cared for, my friend,” said Viggo sternly.
“But I am dying.”
Frenz’s pained dark eyes bore into his. The sight sent a chill over Viggo’s sweat-drenched body. He shook his head and pointed at a rider-less horse.
“See? Here is our ride back to camp. I will lift you up and then …”
Frenz shook his head, groaning. “Stop! I don’t want to spend my final moments writhing in pain on a horse as I bleed out. I want to look up at the sky, to imagine what life might have been like for me … without the war.”
Viggo angrily lunged after a nearby horse and grabbed its reins. “I will not let you die here!” he cried.
Frenz closed his eyes. The blood had soaked right through the shirt’s fabric. “Please, Viggo. I need you to take care of Agnita for me.”
“Agnita needs you. She loves you, Frenz. Please don’t give up.”
Frenz cried and choked at the same time, fighting to keep his eyes open. Viggo clenched his fists together as a guttural cry rumbled from the pit of his stomach. He was losing him. He was going to lose his friend.
“Promise me you will take care of her,” rasped Frenz. “Please. Tell her I love her. Promise me.”
“I promise I will tell her.”
Frenz’s eyes darted from him back to the sky. “Stay with me … until I go. Please.”
“I won’t leave you, my friend,” said Viggo, taking his friend’s hand and holding it.
The sunrise’s blazing shade of scarlet already filled the sky, oblivious to the agony and terror that filled the battlefield. He stroked Frenz’s matted brown hair, watching him as he struggled to hold on to his final moments of life until his chest rose and fell for the last time.
Viggo brought his hand to Frenz’s cheek. His skin was cool to the touch.
“My dear friend.”
A deep roar rumbled over the field. Viggo looked up to see several Ustrunians bending the knee and laying down their swords, surrendering to Nortforth. It was a victory that was too late. His countrymen cheered at the top of their lungs, seemingly oblivious to the carnage that lay at their feet.