This novella is the first piece of my novella series, called Cinderlight. The novellas published so far aren’t in chronological order, but if you want the full picture regarding the protagonists’ lives and adventures, you can read the previous parts here: Fay, Family Visit and Revival.
After that last battle Alexander needed some time alone. That is why he was now wandering in the forest, where the colorful autumn trees were his only company. He was well aware of the dangers of roaming around just on his own. Was it a good or a bad sign that he did not care? He long shed all his stripes and insignia, he looked like exactly as any private under his command. So he supposed he was as safe as any of these days.
The forest was eerily silent, the birds, foxes boars and who knew what other kind of animals were long scared and chased away from the woods. And it was far too cold for any insect to be left to critter. Just what he needed, silence and solitude. The cannon booms still hadn’t left his ears as the smoke of the battle also lingered in his nostrils.
Slowly he felt his normal self to return. The one who wasn’t jittery, who wouldn’t jump at any noise, who wouldn’t shoot first and ask questions later. He felt almost civil again. Almost. And then he heard the calamities nearby. Muffled shouts and noises caused by struggling bodies. What? May that be spies in their side of the woods? How could they let them get so close?
Before he could stop himself, he altered his track and set for the direction of the noises. He only had his revolver with him, one more irresponsibility from his side. But if he could get close to the source of the noises stealthily enough, he may gather some information to be used in their advantage later.
He soon arrived to a clearing among the trees, and great was his surprise to find his own men there. Two were restraining a third, his face bruised, his arms tightly tied up before him and with a noose around his neck, and a forth soldier on the verge of pulling the unfortunate one off from his feet, up to the tree.
„What the bloody hell are four of my men up to in this deep into the woods?” He asked. His deep rumble startled the soldiers.
„Hanging the witch, Captain…?” It was voiced very carefully, warily even, the soldier’s face guarded. It wasn’t really a question, but was not a statement either.
You should hang the bloody Fay… He kept this thought to himself, he couldn’t imagine to explain about an apparition tormenting him during his disturbed sleep lately. He said instead „What witch? I only see a ruffled soldier like anyone” of us he wanted to finish, but one of the men interrupted him.
„With all due respect, Sir” he said „if he’s not a witch he well might be a spy. He told us this morning that our eastmost trench may be ambushed later today, and that the enemy may break through our lines.”
„And this is what had happened exactly” added an other one.
„I know. But I still fail to see your point. Everyone in their right mind know that the eastmost trench is very inviting for the enemy. Our medical bay is close with all its supplies as the kitchen ward and our food. There were ambushes lately. They even managed to damage the trench walls with all their shell-fire…”
„That’s right, Sir” and Alexander was interrupted again „but he sent thirty men there to make them mend the walls. That was when the next wave of attack hit us. The weakened wall got blown to the skies, and everyone there just vanished under the piles of dirt. When we managed to dug them out, they were all dead. So you see… he had to know they were coming or maybe he was the one conjuring the attack.”
Alexander cannot keep his pained laughter at bay. He glanced at the man with the noose around his neck. It was Sergeant Thomas Bel. The laughter died on Alexander’s lips. Sergeant Bel’s only crime was to carrying out Captain Noble’s – his – orders. Alexander was the one ordering the trench walls to be mended, he was the only one to blame for the heavy losses at the eastmost trenches.
Alexander felt loosing his temper. Witches and spies indeed! What the hell had happened to the world’s sanity? Maybe that wasn’t the best question in the middle of the war plunging the whole world into destruction.
„And none of you had ever heard of premonition. Or the soldiers getting the feel of the bullet or shell with their name on it? Or none of you heard of orders, delegated from senior officers to lower ranking ones? It was my order Sergeant Bel was acting on.”He inhaled a calming breath – which wasn’t doing much good to him, his temper still flared. „The hell with you all. Get out of my sight.”
„Sir?” asked one of the other three soldiers uncertain whether they should flee or stay.
„Get out. Before I change my mind and send you through the no men’s land to spy on the enemy trenches.”
The other three decided that fleeing would be the best course of action for them. The wisest thing to do would be to get away before the Captain changed his mind. So Alexander was left alone with Sergeant Bel. He came a few steps closer to him, grabbing the rope in his hands, and pulling it off from the thick tree branches.
„Let me help you with this” he said letting the rope hit the ground, then hoisting the noose from around the Sergeant’s neck. Then he took out his knife from the sheath on his belt, and cut the ropes binding the other’s hands. „I’m so sorry, Sergeant.”
„Do not apologize, sir” Bel brushed away his concerns. „Senior officers should not apologize to their subordinates.”
„Yes, they should” protested Alexander. „This God-forsaken war would not have happened on the first place if the world leaders had learnt to practice the art of apologizing when necessary.”
He clamped his mouth shut. He should not speak like this before his subordinates. But Sergeant Bel wasn’t ruffled by it, not a least bit. On the contrary. He started to laugh. Alexander could hardly believe it. The man narrowly escaped death, and he still… but maybe all Bel could do was to laugh.
”You know, Captain, if we could have more officers like you, the war would be less of a Hell…” he said wiping at the tears in his eyes.
Alexander sucked in a harsh breath. No, it was not true. His presence did not alter anything in this bloody war. If anything, it aggravated it. How many died because of his orders? He remembered all of them along with the disfigured, blinded, mutilated or paralyzed wounded unfortunate enough to survive and be subjected to a torturous life.
No. He could not go there. If he did, he would break down and shatter into pieces right before his subordinate. He did his best to suck in a shuddering breath, but the air simply refused to enter his lungs. He felt like drowning, all the more so, when he noticed the human-like figure standing behind Sergeant Bel.
It was the Fay. Womanish figure, genderless still, with deadly white skin, blood red lips and fair hair.The Fay looked at him, looked into his head and soul with its dead, vacant eyes. That gaze sheared his hollow insides, forcing the air out of his body, till his blood started to boil in his veins. He would faint… oh, God he would faint under the Fay’s accusing scrutiny.
The world blurred around him, darkness seeped in his vision from the edges. All he could see was the Fay’s gaunt frame and its piercing eyes.
„Captain? Sir?” How was Sergeant Bel still here? Why didn’t he go back to the others, to his friends? „Are you all right?”
Yes. No. „Yes” he chocked out finally. Alexander managed to turn back towards Bel, looking at the Sergeant helped him to take in much needed air. „It’s just…” he did not know how to continue, what to say. But Sergeant Bel seemed to understand.
„Nerves. I know” he said and his concerned gaze helped Alexander to root himself in the present, in reality. „Sometimes nerves get the better of us.”
Maybe. But I cannot show any weakness. How could I order men to march into their death if I’m weak? But most importantly why it is decided I have the right to do so?
Words swirled in his head, dangerous phrases he didn’t dare to utter. Instead of those he worded other thoughts. „I’m fine, Sergeant. No need to fret over me. We should head back, before someone raises an alarm thinking we went AWOL.”
Bel nodded and followed Alexander. They fall into step side by side. They walked in silence until it started to become oppressive. Then Bel spoke up again.
„I have not thanked you properly, sir, for saving me, I mean.”
„It’s not worth mentioning. I’m not the one into superstitious executions. You may think otherwise but I prefer my soldiers alive.”
„What makes you say that?” Bel stopped short looking at Alexander dumbfounded who barely met his eyes. “Why do you think anyone would speak ill of you?”
„Why, indeed. I hear what the others say behind my back. That I like to send them out into the grinder without considering the dangers or firepower of the enemy.”
„They are just angry because of the war. And their losses.”
„All caused by me” Alexander added with a faint hint of smile on his lips. „Don’t look at me like that. I think it’s not a bad thing. If it weren’t for me, there may be other who would give orders with even less consideration.”
Bel grinned. „You are a wise man, Sir.”
The Fay walked beside them his gaze fixed on Sergeant Bel. Alexander did not dare to look at it. What if Bel noticed his gaze wandering into nothingness? As far as he knew nobody beside him was able the see the Fay.
„If you need anything, Sir” Bel started.
„I’m fine, Sergeant, thank you” he interrupted, he didn’t need half-hearted offerings. Not from this man, who’s presence did funny things to his insides, who’s proximity made his chest to tighten. This man, who’s beauty took his breath away, and his genuineness in his sparkling eyes made his heart hurt. „Shall I need anything, I ask my superiors.”
„What about a friend, sir? Strictly out of battles and military obligations. Only in idle times.”
Alexander looked at Bel. Really looked at him, and for the first time, he managed to see an honest man under the uniform. And there it was again. That genuineness from before. And something other also shined in that brow-green gaze. Hope.
Oh, how Alexander needed someone. If not a friend, then someone to talk to when the obligations started to become too much. The Sergeant always was there for him, helping with the men, carrying out his orders, never asking for anything in return. Even now, he was offering. Friendship this time. And Alexander was weak and greedy enough to accept is. Even if he should distance himself from others in order to defend himself against losses.
He had doubts. Would it be wise to let himself feel friendship or anything? He had thrown away anything what could cause him pain. There were more feelings in a rock than in him – he heard his subordinates’ whisperings. But it was fine. A stone couldn’t hurt, right? But, God, he was so tired of being so cold and hollow in his heart. He wanted someone to fill that void. And Sergeant Bel was willing to offer friendship… feelings. And he was inclined to accept. He made up his mind. Tomorrow be damned, he would take it. One day at a time.
„I may be able to accept that” he said finally with a little smile tugging at his lips.
„It was long overdue” the Fay muttered beside him before disappearing.
Alexander wouldn’t look. Wouldn’t think about what this meant. The important thing was that Thomas Bel and Alexander Noble became friends. Yes. Without the ranks. Just the men.