The Shadow´s War
He watched his wife tenderly as she fussed about the house pointedly not looking in his direction as she cleared the breakfast table. Picking up the pack that laid by the door he went through it one more time to see if he had forgotten anything. The crash of a plate on the wood floor made him jump. Natalie bent down picking up the pieces, pricking her finger and she stared at the blood as if in a trance. She sobbed a little and then she looked up at Jacob, her eyes glistening with barely restrained tears, “You don’t have to go.”
“You know I do.” He said as gently as he could. He had been waiting for this conversation ever since the conscription detail had left the day before. “I’ll be labeled a deserter if I don’t show up. It won’t be so bad.” He crossed the room and knelt down beside her, taking her hand in his and kissing it lightly. “I’ll be home and driving you crazy before you know it.”
She laughed a little, desperate, laugh and kissed him. She could not bring herself to move, her hand holding his tight. “Don’t make a promise that you can’t keep.” She finally whispered.
“I’m coming home.” He swore and kissed her, realizing that it could be for the last time.
The two of them sat there for a long time, crouched on the floor beside the table, cradling each other and saying nothing. Jacob slowly pulled himself away and the walk across the room to the door was the most agonizing of his life. He hefted the pack and slung it on his shoulders, now it was his turn to refuse to look back at his wife, he stepped out into the day with his legs barely able to take each step. The countryside outside of Abriciel was a lurid green at this time of spring. The fields where the grape trees should have been tended day after day were empty, the trees shriveling with neglect. The war had sapped the workforce dry. He had never really understood the war, it struck him as a fight between people far away over things that never really concerned him, but now that the fighting was treading onto his doorstep the whole affair felt much more imminent.
He walked down the road all day, a trip he had often taken into Calais for the day with Natalie. The common road felt wrong, foreign despite the familiarity. Jacob could hardly help but think of the song that all the young men had taken to singing in the pub, “Off to fight for the Royalists”. The monarch had certainly never done him any favors but the oligarchy trying to take over had a nasty sound to it. Though he would never say so aloud Jacob often thought that he would settle for the corruption he knew rather than chance one he didn’t. He wondered into the winding streets of Calais with a wary feeling pulling at him.
It was not hard to find the army’s headquarters, they had commandeered town hall to organize the operation. A stream of farmers, merchants, children, and old men were filing in through the great double doors. A wry smile split Jacob’s face, they were not the best, they were what were left to make an army out of. Most of the young and able men were already in the field, or dead. He resigned himself at last to the life of a soldier and took his place in line.
From the second that he entered that town hall onward the next few weeks passed in a dizzying blur. He jostled around giving his name to the clerk and putting on the tunic of the army with the rampant unicorn across his chest. He was ferried out to the parade grounds without ever really being aware of what was happening. Once he was there he found himself drilling with his pike in formation, a desperate attempt to turn Jacob and his lot into soldiers. The exhaustion and the monotony began to wear them all down.
“Jacob? Jacob is that you?” an old man with bushy eyebrows asked him one day while they stood in line for their meal in the yard.
He had to stare for a minute before he realized who the man was beneath all the dirt and grime that all of the new soldiers were covered in day after day. “Martin? How on earth did they ever drag your old bones all the way out here?”
“Said they was taking someone from our home for the army, it was either me or one of my two grandkids. Mary’s the oldest and she’s only nine. So along I came to play warrior for king and country or whatever nonsense they’re spewing about now.”
“I don’t know,” Jacob said quietly, not wanting the conversation overheard, “the king’s a far sight short of perfect but he’s good bit better than this other rabble.”
“A fine set of choices we have eh?” A group that stood off to the side, removed from the rest, suddenly caught Martin’s eye. There was no need to wonder why the group would be looking for solitude, their pointed ears and tan complexion gave them away instantly, they were elves. A small community of elves had moved to the forestland just outside of Abriciel about a decade earlier, and had been roundly hated ever since. For their part the elves returned the prejudice, preferring to be left alone. The government had followed a strict policy of ignoring them ever since they had come to the country, now it seemed that the war was cause enough for them to abandon their policy and press them into service as well. “Lousy pointy ears.” Martin mumbled.
“Just like us, they didn’t choose to be here.” Jacob reasoned before falling silent under Martin’s spiteful gaze.
“Here are the lads.” Martin changed the topic abruptly and headed off toward a group cloistered in the middle of the yard. “Boys this is Jacob, a plow hand from my neck of the woods.”
A smattering of greeting came from them around mouthfuls of food. They were a motley group but Jacob could not help but stare at the youngest of them, the boy could not have been thirteen years old. “How old are you?” he asked before he could stop himself.
“Twelve.” The boy said unfazed.
“Aren’t you a little young to be in the army?”
“Ain’t you a little old?” the boy shot back with a laugh. “Cristobal at your service sir. You on the pikes too?”
“Yea,” Jacob was a little taken aback by Cristobal’s forthright attitude. “Why did you join up.” He asked weakly, not sure of what else to say.
“Got a girl back home that I aim to marry. Her papa said that would be fine with him if I came back a war hero. So when we get back don’t none of you forget to mention how many times I saved your beat up old butts.”
“Yea, that’s when a man and woman decide that they want to live together for the rest of their lives.”
“Yes, I know what marriage is.”
“Anybody know why the pointy ears decided to come down here and grace us with their presence?” a small guy with a high voice in the middle of the crowd balked with a casual nod to the elves.
“They are here on my invitation.” A commanding woman said behind them. They all spun around to find themselves face to face with General Beruth. She was middle aged, but still held on to the powerful look a woman in her prime. She wore a cloak wrapped tightly around her, her goat legs were only just sticking out from under the wool. “After all, we are all one army with one goal are we not?” She was not scolding them; it was more as if she was trying to encourage them to open up to the new comers.
“No offense miss,” Cristobal spoke up without any hesitation, “but they ain’t one of us.”
“My goodness,” Beruth marveled, “you can’t possibly be old enough to fight.”
“Old enough to fight and old enough to win miss.”
“That’s a good attitude to take young man. All the same it would be a favor to me if you gentlemen and ladies would be kind enough to swear to me that you will look after this sprightly young man.”
“Of course we will miss.” Jacob offered at once, he was still shocked that he was actually talking with General Beruth; she was the defender of Abriciel and one of the greatest generals in generations.
“I wish we could keep you here for another few months but General Raven is moving on this city fast. You should all eat up, we’ll be moving out in a few days.”
The general’s grim warning turned out to be true, less than a week later the new recruits were marshaled and marched to a valley pass south of the city to wait for Raven’s Army to meet them. The camp was a bundle of nerves, shaking hands, and sleepless nights. Jacob was among the most nervous, he always thought he could hear the sound of the enemy marching toward the valley. He tried to eat but his appetite had left him.
The wait stretched on unendurably. Soon they had been waiting in the pass for over a week and still there was no sign of the enemy anywhere. Secretly Jacob began to wonder if that was not Raven’s plan all along, stretch out the wait as long as possible to frazzle Beruth’s new raw recruits. As he looked around at the terrified men and women all around him he began to realize that soon they would be useless in any fight.
When they finally heard the steady drum of the enemy army marching up the pass the thunder of the drums only drove the tension in the camp to the edge of anarchy. Raven herself broke onto the valley plain ahead of her army. She was a centaur, her lips blood red shined even from a distance. Behind her troops stepped up into formation steadily locking into place. The disturbing efficiency that they all moved with was more terrifying to Jacob than all the waiting had been.
“It’ll be in the morning.” Martin whistled.
“You think so?” Jacob asked dubiously.
“Good.” Cristobal rubbed his hands together excitedly. “About time.”
That night they all tried to sleep but there was nothing they could do. They all lay awake trying to mount their courage for the next morning. The enemy kept up their drums until morning and with the sunrise there was sudden and disturbing silence. The trumpets sounded calling them all to form up in lines. The two armies stood facing each other across the valley. The moment of battle had come at last.
Raven called for a charge first, her front lines running across the field with a roar. The arrows were soon falling among the ranks and Jacob’s nerves were rattled as they waited for the clash. They did not have to wait long, they lowered their pikes to try and form a line. Most of their phalanx broke before the enemy even hit them, fear driving them away. Jacob and several others stayed put and the fury of the battle was swirling around them. Jacob speared one man on the end of his pike and tried to spin around to take another. Martin swung his pike wildly, a strange gleeful look flashing across his face just before a sword was driven deep into his gut. There was only a spilt second when he looked surprised then another swing took his head off at the neck. A silent scream came from Jacob’s lips as he froze, standing still in the middle of all the chaos around him.
Cristobal ran about, only just come above most of the enemy soldier’s waists, his pike he had tossed aside and pulled out his knife instead. He slashed at several of them, most of the wounds superficial. When Martin died the boy went mad with rage, he jumped onto the back of the nearest man and tried to slit his throat. The boy was thrown to the ground and surrounded by a pack of soldiers. Jacob came back to his senses and tried to run to the boy’s aide but before he could get there the troops had already slaughtered Cristobal into pieces.
Jacob was frozen again, not sure of what to do next. When he stopped and looked down at the hacked body he wretched. Then he felt a sharp pain on the back of his head and fell forward in a daze.
Hours later Jacob opened his eyes, there were bodies lying all around him and blood pooled on the ground. He looked around, trying to recall what had happened and wishing that it had all been a nightmare. Then he saw the chopped up pieces of Cristobal’s body and Martin’s head staring at him. When he tried to lift his head up to look around a shooting pain coursed through him. He reached up and gingerly touched the back of his scalp and felt crusted dried blood. He rolled over in agony and saw the aftermath of the battle all around him. There were hundreds of dead and mutilated bodies strewn across the valley. A single look told him that they had lost; there were far more royalist bodies on the ground than there were revolutionaries. He tried to hoist himself to his feet but couldn’t, his legs were too weak. He crawled his way to the top of the pass, it took him most of the day but even when he reached the summit and looked down on the city of Calais he was not ready for what he saw.
Calais was a smoking hulk. Many of the buildings were still on fire. Revolutionary soldiers were still stalking the streets and there were no signs of any of the royalists still fighting. They had been pushed out once again. A slow thought began to work its way through his mind; he was now behind enemy lines. Jacob realized that he had to get back to the army before it was too late. He tried to stand again but his legs still would not work. When he attempted to force himself up anyway he collapsed back to the ground with a cry of pain and passed out.
When he came back he had no idea how much time had passed, but the sun was starting to rise again in the east. Jacob tried his legs again and though they were wobbly beneath him this time they held him up. He started working his way down the side of the mountain, carefully moving from tree to tree to try and keep himself upright. It took him two days to make it down the pass that he and the army had marched up in half a day. He approached the city warily, thinking that it would be safer for him to avoid the place altogether and strike to try and find the army. He could see the sentries walking their routes around the city in tight patterns, ready for an assault. He changed his mind and spun around, setting off for home. The promise he had made Natalie was ringing in his ears. All day as he limped toward home he replayed everything that his wife had ever said to him. He could recall the first words she had ever said to him right down to the words of parting she had told him as he left.
Then he saw the army, at first he almost laughed, thinking that he was safe, then he saw the banners waving above the soldiers and noticed the tight formations moving along. He had found Raven’s Army. Jacob turned and moved in the other direction as quickly as he could but was still hobbled and was not sure if he had been spotted by a lookout or not. He only just made it to the cover of some trees and started trying to move in a determined pattern to throw anyone who might be following off his trail.
Then the trees parted and he found himself stumbling into a small town that he had not even realized was there. His eyes were darting around, confused and startled, and all he saw was curious faces looking back at him. An old man came up to him and eased Jacob to the ground gently and kneeled down next to him. “You from the army son?”
“You were with Beruth up at the pass weren’t you?”
“Them revolutionaries near here?”
“Then I think you had better come with me son.” The old man hefted Jacob up with care. It was only while he was nestled close to the man that Jacob noticed the old man’s pointed ears. “You’re an elf?” he asked stupefied.
“That I am son.”
“I thought elves didn’t get old.” Jacob was nearly delirious with exhaustion and only just managing to keep himself conscious.
“Not until we get very old indeed.” The old man told him with a slight laugh. He had carried Jacob to a barn on the far outskirt of the little village. After seeing to it that Jacob was tucked in to the straw he leaned over him and whispered softly, “You stay right here and get some rest. We’ll watch over you.”
Jacob slipped away into another deep sleep as soon as the old man was gone. The straw was prickling at him but he was too exhausted to even squirm. The acrid smell of smoke brought him back awake. He coughed uncontrollably as he crawled to the edge of the loft. He looked around, the whole barn was ablaze. He cursed himself for trusting the elves and scrambled to the ladder, it was no good, the whole thing was in flames. He jumped to the ground and crumbled to the ground. He had to crawl out of the barn again and looked with horror. The entire village was burning, a brilliant display against the night sky. The revolutionaries were scattering back into the forest and the bodies of the elves lay broken on the ground. Jacob looked at them with a broken heart. He struggled to his feet, weaving his way down the street checking the bodies. When he was done he sat down, tears flowing freely. He marched back down the glowing street and into the darkness. He knew what he had to do now, trapped behind enemy lines, he had to become a shadow.
All rights belong to its author. It was published on e-Stories.org by demand of Jeremy Lee.
Published on e-Stories.org on 03/02/2008.