Martin looked over the battlefield in the distance. The summit of Mount Beauty provided a bird’s eye view of what was left of both armies. A section of the Norforthian army had stopped the enemy from catching up to the retreating people by interjecting their path. He marvelled at how selfless his countrymen were, sacrificing themselves for their cause, for him and for the people he escaped with. Some of them were younger than he. He crossed his arms, choking back a sob. What a terrible waste of life. So many lay dead on both sides.
“It’s over for now,” said Agnita at his side.
“I think it’s only just begun,” he said.
“My friends are down there somewhere. I wish that I could know what happened to them.”
He looked over at her and his heart lurched. Most likely they wouldn’t have survived. By the looks of things, roughly one hundred Ustrunian men still stood. “I can’t stop thinking that I should be down there. Not up here.”
“Oh, but you’re wise to be up here,” she said.
“Wise or a coward?”
“I saw you risk yourself to help all those people back in the city. You are one the bravest people here, Martin.”
He took in a deep breath of air, inhaling the pungent scent of smoke. The city still burned in the distance.
“Agnita!” called Lady Jaquelline.
She cast a final painful glance over the field of the dead. “I should go down there. I need to see for myself if my friends live. We could help the wounded.”
“Go, Agnita,” he said, gently pushing her in the direction of her guardian. “It wouldn’t be good for you to go down there and see what violence has left behind.”
“I already have. I’ve already seen a battlefield filled with dead bodies.”
“Haven’t you seen enough?” he asked sharply. “You nearly got yourself killed back there.”
He shook his head at her. She was insane. “You would have been trampled had I not stopped you from shooting more arrows while being directly in their path.”
She fired him a caustic look. “I had to do something.”
“You could write to one of the military camps and ask about your friends’ whereabouts.”
“I will,” she said, nodding sadly.
“If your friends are alive, they’d be preparing to march soon after burning the dead bodies and transporting the wounded back to camp. I know it’s hard, but you need to write to the camp and then move on, Agnita. There’s not much else you can do.”
Jaqueline called for her again. She exhaled loudly and left.
He stared on at the surreal sight below and thought of Engulf. No matter what happened to him, he wouldn’t have to die mangled on some battlefield. For that Martin was grateful. What a sickening mess he’d avoided by deserting the army. They all lay together, mortal enemies, dead to the world, covered in blood, mud, and soot.
Martin mounted his horse and was about to ride to his parent’s wagon as they travelled down the road, but a dark figure in the distance caught his attention. He stopped to look at it. It was the female unicorn. She stood atop another rise looking in his direction. His heart raced as a chill rushed down his spine. Why was she following him?
She reared up on her hind legs and then disappeared into the hills.
Helena could not keep her eyes off the sunset. Striking shades of red and orange bled from the horizon, flooding the sky. A battle raged somewhere far away. Thousands lay dead, freshly killed or rotting into the earth. She closed her eyes and tried to imagine the sheer loneliness of dying on a battlefield with no one to hold your hand or bury you after you’ve passed.
She took a step closer to the edge of the cliff, holding her breath. The wind picked up and thick dark clouds were coming in, blocking out the fiery colours. Her chest ached as she thought of her father, of Erne, of Gladyssa, and her dragon. They all left her behind in some way. Even the handsome boy named Martin would never be back in her neck of the woods. He likely found a proper job somewhere or even enlisted in the army.
Mother was still grieving for father. Though she did her best to go about her usual daily duties, her forlorn look and disinterest in talking made home feel empty.
Helena was little more than a pathetic child to everyone. No one wanted to be around her and she was so very alone. A deep darkness that rivalled that of the oncoming storm clouds filled her being. She looked down at the great valley below. Even in the dim, the deep blue lake looked stunning. As the cooling winds raced over her and rustled her long brown hair, a tragic thought raced through her mind.
“If I jump, I can be with father. I can leave this horrible place behind.”
She inched closer to the tip of the rock she stood on, feeling chills rush over her. The thought of jumping no longer scared her as she drank in the beauty all around her. The darkness collided with the light of the setting sun. It was a sign that there was beauty in death, that light came to those after they passed.
Looking heavenward, she thought of father. Could he see her there? Would he be angry with her for giving up?
“Oh, Papa. I have done my best to be a good girl, but I can’t go on like this anymore. Life is too hard. I can’t do this any longer. I hope you’ll understand.”
She felt weightless, ethereal as she took a further step. Peace. Then the solid ground was no longer beneath her feet. Panic flooded through her veins as she fell. She opened her mouth to scream, but she couldn’t breathe. Mother’s face flashed through her mind. Sheer terror filled her chest as she clawed at the air. She closed her eyes, grieving her thoughtless decision, waiting for darkness to come when it was over.
A sharp shriek sounded above her and then suddenly she was no longer falling. She was flying. Barely able to breathe, she opened her eyes. She glided over a canopy of trees like a bird. It was then she felt a tension across her chest and stomach. Something was holding her up by the back of her dress. She looked over her shoulder and caught sight of the unmistakable form of a flapping dragon wing.
She screamed as the shock wore off. The thought of being dropped and falling all over again consumed her.
Her dragon carried her over the darkening countryside as thunder sounded in the distance. Shivering, Helena hoped with all her might that the dragon’s grip on her dress would hold. Her heart raced so quickly that she couldn’t hear a thing above her throbbing eardrums.
They landed at last close to Helena’s home at the edge of the small patch of woods. The dragon set her gently on the grass, flapping her wings quickly to stay airborne. On solid ground once again, Helena looked up at her saviour. How she had grown.
“My dragon,” she breathed. “You saved my life. Thank you.”
The dragon lifted her head and screeched along with the roaring thunder. She then landed next to Helena. Her wingspan already doubled Helena’s height. They stared at one another as the rains came and the thunder and lightning ceased. Helena’s dress was soaked within moments.
“My beautiful saviour,” said Helena, slowly reaching her trembling hand out to pet her dragon’s forehead.
She let her, but only for a second. The dragon stretched out her wings again and took off into the night. Helena fell to her knees and wept.
The view of the macabre tower rose above the leafless trees. A small regiment led by Commander Voniz rode toward the prison. Viggo veered away from the army, as previously discussed with his commander, and headed toward the side of the building. Saving Otto was his reward for surviving the attack at Phyllis Cove. The rest of the men would break in at the entrance of the castle, while Viggo would take a roundabout way to free Otto from the depths of imprisoned agony.
Viggo stared up at the formidable place in front of him as he got down from his saddle. It seemed bigger than before. He tied the horse to a tree and stepped fluidly through the remaining area of the woods. Once he gained a decent view of an entry point, he saw that there were two Ustrunian guards standing near it, oblivious to the fact that they were no longer standing on Ustrunian territory. Norforth was taking it back.
He focused on the window at the side of the building and crouched down once he was away from the protection of the trees. He got down on his belly and crawled through the tall, swaying grass toward the prison. Staying low, he remained out of the guards’ sight. It seemed like they were smoking something as they talked. He moved slowly toward the side of the building. Once he was right below the window, he stood and bashed the glass in with his elbow. Aggravated voices followed the break-in. He gritted his teeth, mentally preparing for a fight, while climbing through the broken pane. He unsheathed his sword and flattened his back against the wall next to the window, waiting for the oncoming guards.
The first one climbed through and Viggo impaled him through the stomach with his sword. He lunged for the second Ustrunian, but he backed out of the opening and disappeared around the corner.
“Damn!” shouted Viggo.
He decided that he did not have the time to pursue him, instead running down the hall to look for Otto. He slowed down once he reached the barred doors, breathing in stale air and the gut-churning scent of body decay. They only seemed to like burning people while they were still alive.
“Hello?” he called, his voice cracking.
He walked down the dim hallway of the jail. Every single cell was empty. It was a terribly familiar scene.
“Otto? Otto! Where the hell did they put you?” he shouted. “We are here for you, Otto!”
Overcome with emotions, he ran to end of the hall and stormed through a large door. It led to a stairway that took him down to a lower section of the building. It was so dark inside that he could barely see his hands when he held them in front of him. He should have taken one of the torches from above. There was probably no one in the lower section either, but he had to be sure.
“Hello?” he called.
Rapid panting rose above the stagnant, still air. He followed the sound and grunted when his body collided with a solid door. He instinctively tried the knob, but it was predictably locked.
“Otto?” he called.
“Viggo …” came a muffled voice from below.
Viggo next to the door as his body shook with uncontrollable sobs. He covered his mouth, trying in vain to compose himself.
“I’m here, Otto,” he sobbed.
“Do you have a key?” rasped Otto, speaking through the tiny crack at the bottom of the door.
“I’m a damned fool! I need to go get one.”
Standing on weakened legs, Viggo ran back to where he left the dead guard. He sifted through the guard’s pockets until jingling filled the air like music. Keys. He yanked them from the leather strap around the Ustrunian’s neck and ran back down the long hallway to the lower part of the prison.
Three guards formed out of the darkness and blocked his way before he could reach the bottom of the staircase.
“Stupid boy,” growled one of them.
“You are all twisted bastards!” yelled Viggo.
Stone silence followed before they charged. Strengthened by rage, he swung at the closest man with all his might and jumped backward as he blocked an attack from the second guard. With the first man down, the other two came at him. He blocked their swings and stabs with his sword and armoured forearm, losing his balance in the process. The leaner one slashed his leg. The blade pierced through an imperfection in his chainmail, slicing through his skin.
Viggo shouted more from anger than from pain as he swung his sword for the enemy’s neck. He grazed the man’s shoulder instead, drawing blood that splattered everywhere. He took advantage of his foe’s shock and drove his blade through the man’s heart.
Eyes wide in shock, the Ustrunian fell backward.
“I’ll kill you, you little bastard!” rasped the last standing guard.
“Didn’t expect such a fight from a little boy, huh?” taunted Viggo.
Man and boy duelled back and forth. The Ustrunian was able to predict Viggo’s next move, which was more than unnerving. He felt his strength waning, finding it more and more difficult to fend off the repeating hits, but the thought of Otto dying alone in that dark prison drove him to keep going. He had to survive, to kill.
Viggo leaped backward, wiping the sweat from his forehead. His keys fell out of his pocket, landing loudly on the hard stones. The Ustrunian laughed darkly then he lunged forward. Viggo ducked under the near-fatal swing. He leaped behind him and slashed at his back. The guard’s growl echoed through the prison.
With his entire body trembling, Viggo waited for the hulking guard to come at him again, keeping a close watch on his arm movements and foot positioning to predict what the man would do next. He side-stepped when the guard took a jab at him again and then quickly turned his torso to deliver a well-placed stab into his side.
Doubling over in pain, the Ustrunian sputtered up blood. Viggo brought the blade of his sword to the man’s neck and glared into his tired, dark eyes. He gestured toward an opened cell with his free hand.
“Get in there.”
“What?” shouted the guard.
Viggo stomped his foot. “Just get in! Enough men have died today and this will keep you out of my way.”
“Little Norforthian trash.”
“Maybe I should slit your throat instead, stupid bastard!” yelled Viggo.
The man complied, grousing as Viggo locked him in his prison cell.
“How does it feel?” taunted Viggo.
He picked up the keys he dropped on the cold floor and went back to the stairs. He clumsily unlocked the door with his shaking hands and gagged at the overwhelming smell of human waste and body odour. He covered his mouth and stepped inside.
Otto lay on his back. A tiny, closed window covered in thick dust was his only light source. Viggo bent down and picked him up, carrying him through the prison and out the back door away from where the small battle would be. Otto was nightmarishly light with protruding bones everywhere.
“Viggo,” whispered Otto.
“Save your strength. First let me give you water.”
When they broke out of the prison, the fresh air kissed his dirty, clammy skin. Otto moaned in relief. Viggo placed him on the soft grass and drew back at the sight of the lacerations and bruises that covered his face and arms. Tears stung his eyes as he opened his canteen and brought the opening to Otto’s lips.
“Drink it all and then we will ride to camp where you can recuperate.”
Otto shook his head, flinching. “They broke my legs, Viggo. I don’t think I will ever be able to use them again.”
The hopelessness in his voice sent a cold rush over Viggo’s sweat-covered body. He knelt next to Otto and rested a hand on his shoulder. His body was so frail, his immense pain visible in his eyes. His limp legs stretched out uselessly in the grass.
“You will get better with the proper care,” promised Viggo. “The army doctors will take care of you.”
Otto stared up at the sky with an empty gaze. “It’s a bit late for that, I think.”
Viggo swallowed down a painful lump in his throat. He wished with all his heart that he could have saved him a month ago. Telling him so was futile.
“Why don’t we ride to the river? Everything will seem better there. I’ll help you cool off in the water.”
Otto smiled through the agony. “You have a good heart, soldier. I chose wisely to let you lead the others away from danger. That situation feels like a lifetime ago now.
“No. I have done some stupid things.”
“You never betrayed your army or your country. I assume Iric finally revealed himself to you.”
Viggo nodded, surprised that Otto suspected. “He’s dead now.”
Otto nodded grimly. “It’s just as well. I sensed he was a spy from the beginning.”
“I would have come sooner for you, but …”
Otto held up a hand to silence him.
“I know,” he coughed. “The army has other priorities.”
Viggo’s heart wrenched as he looked down at the shell of a boy.
“I’ll get my horse and we’ll ride far from here.”
When Viggo stood, he felt a pull on his side. Otto had slipped his sword right out from the sheath and held the blade to his neck.
Red-hot panic raced through Viggo’s veins. “No! Stop! Give me the sword!”
“Look away, soldier.”
Viggo reached down to grab the sword from Otto, but not before a terrible gurgling sound filled the air. Sputtering up blood, Otto lifted the blade from his slit, bleeding throat and drove it quickly through his heart. Viggo dropped to his knees and brought his face to the earth.
Two boys lay next to an empty prisoner of war camp. One lay dead while the other grieved for the dead. The living one wept until the sun went down. In the darkness, he knelt next to the boy warrior who so bravely sacrificed his life for the cause. He secured his own sword into the fallen boy’s hands. So young and determined, even in death.
I intended originally to write a sequel to A Season To Fight, but I have since decided not to (at least for the time being). I wrote this story in hopes of sharing the brutality of war and how it affects children in particular – regardless of time or generation. Perhaps one day there will be a sequel, but I hope you enjoyed following the stories of these brave teenagers. May all children who died as a result of war rest in peace.