Making Out Like Bandits
A serialized novella by Alexandra Erin.
The battle began at first light.
“Raged” is the poetic action or emotion typically ascribed to a battle, but it was not accurate in this or most cases. The battle did not rage. It panicked. White hot xenophobic hatred and red-hot patriotic fervor had gotten the soldiers into the camps and then onto the field, but it would not take them any further.
That vantage was far enough for the soldiers to see plenty. From there, they could peer across the valley and see row after endless row of enemy soldiers, too distant to make out any details save for three that could not be ignored: the soldiers across the way did not look so different from those to one’s side, there were a lot of them, and they were all armed.
For well over an hour two sides each stood there in their neatly ordered rows, which is to say in the rows into which they had been ordered, and then from somewhere far in back of one of the lines, the word was given and signals went up and orders were issued and just like that each of the two great armies lurched to life like a well-oiled machine that was rapidly disintegrating under pressure, because even the best lubrication can only take one so far in life.
The battle panicked, and it panicked on all morning, masses of foot soldiers running into spears and volleys of arrows and each other. Neither side had uniforms, but instead each unit had devices on their hats or shields or coats that theoretically served to identify them to their allies in other units, provided they were visible and not lost and even known to the ally in question in the first place, assumptions that became shakier and shakier the longer the battle panicked.
By midmorning the early fog had burned out of even the lowest of the valley, but it had been replaced by dust and smoke. The turf was strewn with corpses and stomped into mud. The survivors of both sides existed as scattered bands under the control of isolated officers, mostly minor nobles, assuming their commander had not succumbed to enemy action or sudden desperate mutiny.
Even those soldiers who had disposed of their officers could not escape the battle, though. Moving in the open meant being visible and being visible meant being vulnerable to fusillades of arrows or stones. Even creeping about the lowlands and skulking in the brush was not safe, for whenever a body of soldiery met another, the frantic melee that resulted was frequently brutal to both sides.
So the battle panicked on through the afternoon and into the evening. Sunset did less to quench the terror than it did to quell the battle, as it made the archers and catapults all but useless. The surviving infantry, most of which no longer held any illusions relating to sides, fled under cover of darkness in whatever direction seemed most appealing. Some of them made it back to the fortified encampments behind their lines. In a few noteworthy cases, they did so on purpose.
The brass hanged enough of these poor fools who straggled back into camp over the next several days to serve as a warning to anyone else who might have a similar idea. The charge was, of course, dereliction of duty. It must be imagined that the leadership on each side would have preferred to hang those among its ranks who did not return, but as the saying goes, one prosecutes deserters with the army one has, not the army one wishes one had.
Neither side had lost many soldiers in the valley, as they counted such things. It had been an expenditure of resources more than it was a loss of them, and there were plenty more where they came from. Losing the cavalry or, worse, the horses, would have been quite a blow. Losing the stands of archers or the artillery crews would have been unthinkable. Serious losses among the elite, experienced troops at this stage of the war would have been unforgivably sloppy, which is why no such forces had been committed in a way that exposed them to unnecessary risk in this early offensive.
Among the less valued troops, the casualties on both sides had been about equally brutal. A draw of that sort was not ideal, but it was acceptable. Every dead soldier on the other side was one that need not be killed later, and if it cost a soldier to achieve that, so be it.
They had not been professional soldiers, those expendable masses, but a mix of conscripts and volunteers. That was to say that most of them individually had been somewhere between a conscript and a volunteer. It’s a grand old life in the army, they had been told. It’s a way off the farm, a way out of debt or indenture, a way to become something.
For some, it certainly had been. Of every seven likely sorts who had been rounded up, handed a spear or club, and marched into the valley of death, one had become a corpse. Two more would die of wounds or disease within a week. Two more would succumb to illness or starvation over the coming months. Of the two that remained, one would certainly be pressed to ride into the jaws of death again, while a lucky one in seven was estimated to have deserted in earnest and broken away cleanly. Though how most such individuals fared cannot be known, we must imagine the breakdown to be somewhat grim in contrast to the rosy picture we have painted thus far.
Our story concerns itself with two of those lucky one in seven who were luckier than most. It does not begin the day of the battle, or the day after it, but the day after that, when a young soldier who had possessed the great good fortune to fall facedown just above the waterline of a weed-choked pool woke up.
Des woke up to a pounding pain in her everything and a distinctly earthen taste filling her mouth and nose. She could see nothing, and she was cold, so cold. Her first coherent thought drove any semblance of further such thought from her head: I have been buried alive.
She started screaming, then stopped as her involuntary flailing produced splashes. She was neither bound up within a coffin–a luxury she had never in her life imagined she would ever have in death–nor pinned under loose earth. She was lying prone, more or less flat, amidst a bunch of trampled weeds and reeds at the edge of a muddy pool. Most of her was in the water. Had she fallen even a few inches back, she might have choked to death on filthy water without ever regaining consciousness.
She tried to push herself up, but found she could not. Her whole body was one cold, wet bruise. There was no strength in her anywhere.
I might have died in battle, might have drowned in my sleep, might have had my throat slit by battlefield brigands without ever waking up, but now I get to die of exposure, slowly…
A hand found Des’s, and then her other hand, and then she was sliding free of the muck and onto solid ground. Helped into a sitting position, she found that one half of the world was a painful mishmash of too-too brightness and the other half of the world was still buried in darkness. She reached up to touch the left side of her face, and found it tender and unrecognizable.
“I think it’s just swollen shut,” her savior said. The voice was husky, low, little more than a whisper in a volume, but more forceful. Turning her good eye towards the speaker, Des saw only a backlit silhouette. “We can’t know what it looks like under the swelling, of course, but the overall shape of the thing makes me think the basic structure must still be intact.”
“Structure?” Des rasped.
“Of your eyeball. I don’t think you’ve lost it, or will lose it. At least not anytime soon.”
“Well, that’s a comfort,” Des said, then coughed a harsh, short barking cough that felt like she’d just sandpapered a scab off the back of her throat. How was it possible for her to be so wet and her throat to feel so dry?
“Drink,” the other person said, tipping an almost empty canteen into Des’s mouth. “There’s more, but you’ll need to drink slowly or it might roil your stomach and you’ll lose more water heaving it up.”
“Sounds like you’ve done this before.”
“Oh, yes. Once.”
“You’re not the first one who’s woken up.”
“How many survivors…?”
“Just you and me, that didn’t crawl away or die soon after. They sent troops through, regular troops, to slit throats. You’re lucky that your weapons had already been stripped, your boots waterlogged, and you fell in such a way that you looked drowned. No one messed with you.”
“Nor you,” Des said.
“I was hidden. I was safe. I could see you were breathing, but they didn’t look that close.”
“You could see…?” Des squinted her good eye. It had slowly been acclimating itself to the light of the land of the living, and the image of her savior was starting to resolve itself into a slender form wrapped in a dark green cloak. The features were angular, almost severe.
“You’re a half-elf,” she said.
“I’m not half of anything.”
“Sorry,” Des said. “Well, I feel like half of nothing myself, right now, so we have that much in common.”
“You’re clever enough for a drowned rat.”
“Most people are,” Des said. “I’m Des. What do I call you?”
“What do you?”
“I don’t understand,” Des said.
“Find a name for me.”
“Name me. First thing that pops into your head. First thing you noticed about me, thought about me.”
“Whisper,” Des said.
“That’s what you call me, then. Whisper.”
“So what do we do now, Whisper?”
“Get the hell out of here,” Whisper said. “The wolves missed us, but there will be vultures next, and then rats, and each subsequent sweep by scavengers will use a finer and finer comb in order to find what pickings the last one passed by.”
“I don’t know if I’m ready to move…”
“We’ll go slow, but go we will,” Whisper said.
“You sound fairly confident of that.”
“I am,” Whisper said. “It’s neither my destiny to leave this valley alone, nor yours to die here.”
“No, I’ve seen it.”
“So if I laid back down out of the mud until the feeling came back into my legs, the vultures and rats and all them you were talking about, they’d leave me alone?” Des said. “Or would their knives turn back from my throat, so as not to upset the great destiny you saw for me?”
“I didn’t say it was great, but it’s certainly better than the alternative,” Whisper said.
“Fair enough. But if it’s my destiny not to die here, wouldn’t it be in my interest to stay here? I could live forever.”
“Assuming you weren’t just dragged out of here in chains, sold as a slave and worked to death in a mine, or hung as a deserter,” Whisper said, “you still might die here. It’s not your destiny, but it could happen. The fates pick our paths and they may set us in motion, but they do not control us. If you wish to die here, I think you will find it quite easy to do so, far easier than the alternative.”
“What the hell. My mother said I always have to do things the hard way. Help me up. I expect I’ll be leaning on you most of the way.”
“I expect you will be.”
This is a preview of a story written for the patrons who support me on Patreon. New draft segments are published on my patron feed as they are completed. You can read chapter 2 here: https://www.patreon.com/posts/making-out-like-5731594, by subscribing for $1 a month or more.