To Lose and To Find
The wind is the only sound for miles around, whistling a melancholy tune across the frosty ocean. He stands on the deck where the battle had been fought, taking in the scattered bodies that seem to have fallen asleep on crimson rugs. Although he knows that most of those who lie here aren’t his men, there are still those who will not be celebrating this victory with the rest of their comrades tonight. He lets out a silent breath that freezes in the arctic air, and takes in another that tastes of iron and the salty breeze.
“Captain Rowan, I think you need to see this.” Rowan turns towards the sound of his lieutenant’s voice from inside the ship. The urgency in her voice prompts him to hurry after her down the corridor, matching her short hasty steps with his long strides.
“What is it?” he demands. She turns to him, as if about to speak, then furrows her eyebrows and shakes her head, her auburn braid swaying as well. She stops suddenly, and he watches as she slams her weight into a section of the wall. It gives in and swings open, revealing a narrow stairwell going deeper into the ship. He follows her down, and the door behind them swings shut, trapping them in darkness. They continue to wind downwards, lower than what he had estimated the ship’s depth to be, until they stop at a door framed with the flickering light of torches. She pushes it in, and then steps aside to let her captain through.
What hits him first is the smell, a rancid concoction of bile, blood, and rot that makes the upper deck seem fragrant in comparison. His eyes adjust to the brightness of the torches, and he begins to make out the faces of his men, some terrified, some only disgusted. “We’ve checked all of them, and they seem to still be alive,” his lieutenant says behind him, “but just barely. They’re all Colonials.” He turns to face her, and she echoes his thoughts. “This ship was meant to transport prisoners. It isn’t a battle ship like our intel suggested.”
When she speaks, he realizes what it was that made his skin prickle with unease. There is no sound; no demands to be released or even groans of pain. Rowan looks at the limp figures shackled to the walls behind the bars. Some seem long since dead, with tendrils of greasy hair covering their face, while others stare at him with glazed eyes. He tears gaze away from them, and turns around to face the group of people who await his orders.
“Right then. The king has made it clear that there are to be no prisoners this time. You know what to do.”
An uneasy murmur sweeps through the room as hesitant glances are exchanged. Futara stares at him with a look of disbelief tinting her face the auburn of her hair. “Captain, I think that’s—”
“Futara, after we are through, we will be sinking this ship, and then the ocean will drown or freeze them, which I’m sure will be a more painful death than one from our swords. Killing them now is an act of mercy.” He meets each of his men’s eyes, cerulean to grays, greens, and browns, and sees the reluctance crumble as each person shifts their gaze away. “Any more objections?”
Rowan sees the muscles in her jaw twitch once before she turns away towards the door. The shrieks of rusted metal fill the room as she pulls down lever after lever, raising the cell gates. A dozen eyes follow her until she disappears behind the wall of one, sword in hand. They hear the sound of metal piercing through flesh, then a quiet thump. No screams, not even a whimper. As the rest of his men soundlessly follow her lead, Rowan steels himself and faces the prisoner behind him, a woman, who looks up at him with a quiet pride. Her lips part, trembling, as if she’s about to speak.
He draws his sword and lunges.
“Sir, I believe that was the last one.” Rowan takes in their scarlet-splattered armor and haggard faces, and knows without looking that he is no different. The day has left both their bodies and spirits ragged and tired, despite their victory.
He musters up a smile. “Then I think it’s time to start rounding everyone up and get back to our ship.” A sigh of relief fills the air as they file out, casual conversation already replacing the grim silence. Futara closes the door behind them.
“Is there anything else?” he asks, looking up as he stuffs the blood-soaked polishing rag into his boot. Her eyes are trained on the ground, her lips pressed in a hard line. He lets out an airy groan. “Whatever it is, spit it out so we can get out of this bloody place.”
She gives him a look that lasts a moment of a moment, the kind of pleading, begging look that he used to know so well, before brushing past him and walking towards the back of the prison. He follows her, irritation and anxiety snapping more viciously at his chest with every taciturn second that passes. She stops at the last cell and steps aside. “I found him back here at the beginning, and told the other soldiers to stay away.” Her voice shakes with each word. “It…he’s still alive.”
Barely visible behind a pile of rusted weapons is the curled form of a young boy, no more than six or seven. A gruesome slash runs down from behind his hair to where it’s hidden again by a torn jacket, stained black from dried blood. The flesh has begun to fester, and dried pus has collected alongside the wound. It was nothing short of a miracle that there is still the slightest shift in his chest as he breathes.
“Is there a reason why you didn’t get rid of him?” he inquires, facing his lieutenant with growing annoyance. Futara’s eyes widen in shock.
“He’s only a boy! And not a criminal either, there aren’t any shackles in this cell.” She looks at the wounds on his body. “What kind of savage could do this to a child?” Her voice still trembles, but this time with rage.
Rowan sighs. “What will you have me do? Train him to serve on our ship? Futara, he’s one of them.”
“He’s the same age Alton was!” she blurts out. Rowan stares at her as if she just drew her sword and leveled it at his neck. He sees the tears pricking at her eyes for a split moment before she looks away. “He’s the same age Joss was,” she says in a softer voice.
A shadow of pain and doubt darkens his cerulean eyes to gray, but it goes just as quickly as it came. He turns his back to the silent tears that roll down her cheeks. “I’ve told you ever since the beginning that you weren’t cut out for war. You’re too soft.” He hears her armor clink as she tenses at his words. “Leave if you don’t want to watch.”
Firm fingers dig into his arm and turn him around to face her. “I’m fighting in this war to rid this world of those people,” she breathes, “not become one of them.” His arm falls as she lets go and steps back. “And if you do this, then you’re no better than those monsters that killed your son and my brother.” The cell is silent and still for a few moments before she walks away, leaving her look of hurt betrayal imprinted on his sight. Footsteps echo throughout the chamber, and then the slamming of the door is the only voice that he hears.
Rowan takes in a shuddering breath as he turns around and unsheathes one of the daggers that hangs from his waist. Torchlight dances off the metal blade, enlivening the deadly instrument and illuminating the boy’s face.
The townspeople huddled together in the safety of the hill’s forest, watching in dread as the black ships of the Colonies docked at the shoreline and rows of soldiers, clad in brilliant crimson armor, filed out like fire ants. Ellard ducked through the crowd, his cerulean eyes scanning desperately for the hulking form of—
“Lisanna!” he called to the young woman with auburn pigtails. “Where’s your father?” She smiled and waved him towards a tall man in the front, who turned at the sound of his daughter’s name, and raised his hand to greet his old friend. The man dropped it, frowning, as Ellard pushed towards him with eyes wide with panic. “Robert! Where’re Alton and Joss?”
Rowan grips the handle tighter as the memory suddenly floods through him. He takes a step forward and grits his teeth, trying to expel the thoughts from his head.
Robert’s expression twists to match his. “I thought they were with you and Sarah.” Ellard felt his heart constrict at those words, and shook his head. The people around them suddenly grew silent, and they both turned their heads towards the village. Rippling flames spread from the rows of soldiers throughout their streets and buildings, growing faster even as they watched, horrified, as everything went up in smoke.
Beads of sweat trickle down his skin, his breath rings in his ears, and the slight tremors in his hands begin crawling up his arms. The silence surrounding him right now is so unlike the fierce crackle of that fire, and just like the harsh stillness in the night that had consumed them afterwards.
When he finally found the burnt remains of a shack on the far side of town, it was the odor that made his insides plummet. Masking the smell of burnt wood was a smell like the leg of deer he tried to cook the night Sarah was out of town. Two charred figures in the back of the room lay slumped over each other as if asleep. What remained of their leathery skin had already peeled off, revealing pieces of bone that stuck out at the strangest angles. Their heads were ebon skulls, eyes screwed shut and mouths stretched taut. Cracks spiderwebbed out from a hole in the center of each forehead. Bullets; the beasts had given them quick and cold deaths. Not out of mercy he knew, but because a burning building this small was too easy to escape from. His eyes soaked in the scene, forcing himself to remember every last detail despite his rolling stomach screaming at him to back away.
Sarah must have seen something on his face as he walked towards her that made her cry out and try to rush past him, but he pulled her into a loose embrace, taking care not to harm their unborn child. The sun had already began to cast its bashful light over the broken town before he heard a strangled cry behind him, and knew that Robert had found them as well. When he stepped back out, one of his arms wrapped itself around his wife and Lisanna, and the other reached out towards them. Ellard gratefully accepted his friend’s gesture, and for that small moment, he let his cares disappear. He didn’t care that Lisanna’s eyes were as hollow and dry as his own. He didn’t care that the aching pit in his chest was gone, and left him feeling absolutely nothing. He didn’t care about anything at all.
No better than those monsters.
Again and again, the words echo through his mind in his Lieutenant’s—no, Lisanna’s voice. Lisanna who had called him Uncle despite having no blood relations to him. Lisanna who had cried and begged them to stop the first and only time they had taken her on a hunting trip. Lisanna, the precious little girl everyone in the village knew and loved.
But now that person has been swallowed whole by someone else, someone who could run her enemy through with a sword without hesitation. Yet, maybe not. The person who tried to protect this boy is reminiscent of the girl he knew a lifetime ago.
No better than those monsters.
Wrong. This is nothing like what they did back then. No family would mourn the death of a child they’ve already lost, or perhaps thrown away. No better than those monsters. He would have died anyways. There is no place for him in a world divided in two where neither side wants another orphan. And nothing he could do about it. No better than those monsters.
No better than those monsters that killed your son and my brother.
A savage scream rips itself out of his throat as he slams the dagger into the floor, where it quivers for a few long moments before stilling.
Soft candlelight illuminates the room, casting flickering shadows on the walls. Outside is the sound of drunken laughter and chatter, but inside it is quiet, save for the scratching of an ink pen. The cabin itself is sparsely furnished, with nothing but a desk in one corner, and a mattress pushed against the other, both of which are occupied. A quiet cough draws his attention away from the papers on his desk.
“I’ve done all I can for the boy. Whether or not he lives is up to him now.”
Rowan slips off his glasses and rubs his eyes. “Thank you, Kayson. I apologize for troubling you with this”.
Kayson gives him a weary smile. “Not at all. After all, what kind of doctor would I be if I left someone who could possibly be saved to die?” His eyebrows furrow together and his smile vanishes. “But what will you do if he does survive? The king wouldn’t be pleased with you. A child of the Colonies won’t be accepted by anyone in the Eight Nations, let alone the Capital.”
Rowan hesitates briefly, choosing his next words carefully. “However, my village will not be quite so… judgmental. Especially if I am together with him.”
For several seconds, Kayson stares at his captain in obvious confusion. Rowan watches in amusement as his expression changes from bewilderment to disbelief, and finally becomes a comprehending smile. Kayson chuckles softly and shakes his head. “The king will not be pleased with that either.”
Rowan lets out a short, coughing laugh. “On His Majesty’s list of things he does not find pleasing, I’m sure my resignation ranks quite low. A replacement will be found in no time.”
“In that case,” Kayson says with a deep bow, “let me be the first of many to say that it has been a pleasure serving you these past years.” He grabs his medicine box and excuses himself, exchanging one more smile with his friend before he goes.
For a brief moment as the door opens, the discordant harmony of a song sung by soldiers brushes in along the tiny cracks in the walls, sinking into the floor and the bed and the desk. He catches a glimpse of Lisanna leaning over with a sheepish grin on her face to plant a sloppy kiss on one of his men. Then the door swings back shut, cutting off the sound of intertwining music and voices. He grabs another piece of parchment from the drawer and re-inks his pen.
It’s been too long, too long since I’d left you and Rickon all those years ago. I don’t know how you’ll forgive me, I don’t know if you will, and I don’t ask you to. How can I ever make up the time we had lost? How can I ever make it up to Rickon, who’s grown up without a father? I don’t know. But I’m coming home, and I’ll start somewhere, and I’ll spend the rest of my life trying to if that’s what it takes.
There is a boy who is coming back with me, and I hope he can live with us, if God be kind. He is another casualty of this war, as Alton was. He is the reason why I fight, but he also reminds me why I must return. This war is someone else’s battle now. I belong next to you.