'A Chronicle of Ashes' is a series of short stories exploring the extended Foxhole universe. These are unrelenting tales of human struggle in the face of apathy and violence, borne by a world in a constant state of war. Content Warning: A Chronicle of Ashes depicts scenes of violence and war.
They'd marched for forty-two hours, deep into the eastern mountains; sixteen hours on the move, with eight hours rest each night. Hanne and Astrid were each tasked with night-watch, eight hours a post. Neither got much rest.
In that time, Hanne hadn't gotten to know much of the squad. Dragoons were often talked about as the Sorov elite. Lions. They were first to field, first to action and first home. At one time, Dragoons were cavalry, royal guards, but in recent decades became known for Sorovian first reconnaissance operations. Hanne should have felt honoured, but she didn't. It wasn't what she expected. Whatever she felt, it wasn't honour.
Most of the time they marched at night. So far into the mountains, the roads were precarious, never knowing whether your next step would be solid ground or open air. Each member of the squad made a point to keep pace with the one in front of them. Daylight burned fast in Nicnevin, and Lieutenant-Corporal Joren Fisk ensured his squad hit their intended milestones each day. They were rarely given meaningful orders other than to march and follow close behind. He was a quiet man and spent little time actually mentoring. Hanne didn't know much about him other than what she could glean from Astrid's gossipy whispers.
"I hear he's turned down promotion several times just to stay in the field. He could have a cozy command position by now, they say." Astrid adjusted the rifle slung over her shoulder.
Hanne shrugged. "Why? For what reason?"
"He's a damned fine sniper. At least that's what I've heard anyway. No wonder they call him Crow. Look at him." Astrid nodded in Crow's direction. The wind tossed his grey jacket around like a wildfire. He was thin and wiry, like the bird he was named for. His helmet had that crow painted on the right side, which always seemed to be mocking you no matter where you stood. Crow was the one who had thrown the pistol at her feet. "He's at least in his late thirties, right? Someone lives that long in the field and they've not been promoted to command? Something strange there."
The pair all but stared at him, lingering at the rear of the column.
"So if he didn't want command, why would he take on novitiates like us? Isn't that usually a way to fast-track it?" Hanne said under her breath.
"Beats me. Maybe knows he's getting on, and if he's going to stay in the shit, he needs to change it up. If he's as good as they say, I reckon it'll be soon." Astrid's freckles seemed to glow in the midday sun. It did nothing but make her expressions seem smugger than they usually were.
Hanne rolled her eyes. "Where are you getting this from?"
Astrid slipped a cigarette between her lips and smiled. "Been chummin' with the squad, Thorsen. You should try it sometime. Don't be such a recluse." She struck a match off a leaning outcrop and—shielding the flame with her hands—lit the cigarette.
"Not too wise to smoke up here. Hard enough to breathe as it is."
"For you, maybe," Astrid said mid-drag and blew smoke in Hanne's face, giggling. She jogged to meet the others and inserted herself into another conversation.
That morning they'd reached a mountain road the locals had coined "The Tower" on account of the way it spiralled up from valley to peak. There had been no life for days, and it seemed like a far cry to encounter any opposition. The mission was a routine patrol between established checkpoints, so in truth, none wasn't expected. Hanne had hoped they'd see wild Nevish mountain men, or stumble across a squad of Wardens, but she didn't get her hopes up. The Nevish were in dire need of support, so that was their job. It didn't matter if the patrol seemed fruitless.
Hanne was still inexperienced and reminded herself that it wasn't her place to question orders. Still, she felt a pit in her stomach.
Out of the corner of her eye, she caught a glimpse of a hawk. The thing let out a shrill cry and spun round and round through the clouds.
When she looked down, everyone had moved ahead a considerable distance. Shit, she'd fallen behind. A sigh escaped her lips as she moved to keep pace. The squad had stretched out along the road, no longer in a tight formation.
There was a loud crack in the air. The squaddie closest to her—she never learned his name—was thrown against the rockface, followed by a trail of crimson mist. She watched his head bounce off the wall before his body crumpled onto the road.
"Down, now!" Crow called out, and the Dragoons flattened to the road like running water.
There was nowhere to run for miles. There was no cover. There was nothing but rock and road for kilometres aside from a few rotting wooden guardrails. All they had was a height advantage.
Hanne's heart pounded so hard her teeth chattered. Pebbles and dust flew from the rocks around them. Booming shots followed on a short delay, the bullets like bolts of lighting.
"Pup!" Someone called. With all that adrenaline pumping her heart out of her chest, she couldn't make out where it came from.
"Bloody hell. Private!" He yelled again. Sounded like Crow. It had to be Crow.
"Sir," she said, crawling toward him.
Propped up on his elbows, leaning casually on his rifle, Crow turned to the horizon. Hanne slid into the line next to him, scraping her elbows on pebbles of gravel.
"First firefight?" Crow asked.
"Sir." She struggled to stay calm and kept cursing under her breath.
"Keep your head down."
One of the senior ranks turned and said, "Crow, you see anyone out there?"
"Not a damn thing," Crow said and adjusted a dial on the scope of his rifle. He peered through the lens and sighed. "Keep your eyes on that road across the valley." He squeezed the squaddie's shoulder and pointed. He turned to Hanne, pulled her up next to him and shifted aside, freeing up space in front of his rifle. "Look there, what do you see?"
Hanne pressed her eye to the scope. Across from the Tower was a winding cliff road, like so many others, except that it ran above the valley connected by a series of precarious-looking bridges and had lots of little caves and crevices where intrepid shooters could easily hide. At this time, the sun was against them, draping the entire cliffside in shadow with the squad bathed in golden light.
Hanne spotted two shimmering specks barely hidden by an overhanging stone outcropping. "Trucks," she said and sidled away from the rifle. Crow pushed in.
"Yes, trucks," He replied. "Wardens by the look of them."
"I thought Wardens were our allies, why are they shooting at us?"
"We're in Nicnevin," Astrid put in. "Whoever they are, we should take them out." Of course, she just had to try to gain favour with everyone, didn't she? Always the star pupil.
The entire squad had lined up along the cliff's edge, prone against the gravel. Wisps of dead grass poked out between them. They'd all but forgotten their fallen comrade who lay silent on the road, swaddled in his crimson blanket. Hanne let out a cold, heavy breath.
"Right, so, the better question is, why are there Warden trucks so deep in the mountains?" Crow said, "We expect Republic flanks, not Wardens."
Another flurry of shots plucked against the rock wall behind them. Debris trickled to the road as delayed thunderous booms echoed off the rocks. Hanne and the Dragoons were trapped. If they moved farther down the Tower, it would only expose them. Climbing up put them at a dangerous angle. Something about the timing and location of the attack roused Hanne's suspicions. It all lined up somehow, and she bet that Crow knew The Tower well.
To his left, Astrid stirred, "I see movement." She pulled up her rifle and took potshots at the road in the valley. In one swift movement, Crow snatched the rifle out of her hands and tossed it to the path behind them.
"Are you bloody stupid, pup? Did I order you to shoot?" he said, "I ought to put you down. You might've just got us killed." The rest of the squad grunted in agreement.
"With respect, sir, I think they've already got our position," Astrid replied.
Joren huffed. "Did I give you leave to fire, private? Sit down, shut up, and wait for orders." He turned to Hanne, "pup, you tell me what happens on that road." He handed her a pair of Binoculars and returned to his scope.
Hanne instead watched Astrid slide backwards across the gravel and into a crouched stance. She duck-walked toward her rifle out in the middle of the road. As she scooped up her weapon, there was a sharp snapping sound, followed by trickling rocks and that familiar delayed crash. Another random volley.
Then Astrid fell.
She clutched her neck, dropped to her knees and cried out. Another smattering of impacts hit the rock face. Blood welled between her fingers. Hanne spun on her elbows and knees and inched toward her as fast as she could, careful to keep her head down. Pebbles and sand scraped her cheeks, and she felt a wet heat spread across her face. The crawl took all of thirty seconds but felt like an hour. Astrid buckled forward. Hanne gently pushed her onto her back, covered her chest and put pressure on the neck wound.
"I don't—what do I do?" she started, "med—do we have . . . is there a medic!?" she yelled.
The squad didn't stir, only turned their heads as if bothered by some nearby commotion, then turned their attention back to the cliff. A couple of them even snickered.
"No medics in this squad, pup," Crow said.
"What the hell do you mean? What are we doing out here?" a fury welled up in her cheeks. Crow sighed and went back to monitoring the road. "Oh, yeah, right. So these are the great Dragoons," she mocked, "you sit on your asses while one of your squad dies. So noble."
"I don't remember you moving an inch when the other lad was hit. We're expected to die out here, haven't you learned that? This is what we do. Waste of resources to send a medic out on a routine patrol. Keep your head down, you might make it out. Otherwise, be happy, kid, least you'll die doing something. Most folk die in the mud." Crow turned and pointed. "See them Wardens out there? Turncoats they are and it's our job to draw 'em out. Played 'em like a fiddle, too. What's more, got here in time to hold the high ground. Nothing they can do 'less you idiot pups get your heads up before reinforcements roll in."
"You didn't think to tell us?"
Crow laughed. "You're a novitiate. When you're privy to information, you'll get it. Otherwise, you stand where I tell you, you shoot who I tell you, and you shit when I tell you to."
Astrid made a faint gurgling sound and coughed up blood. It spilled down her chin and neck and poured from her nose. Her eyes were erratic, spinning in all directions as if she could no longer focus. She clutched onto Hanne's shoulders and tried to make eye contact. Something like words poured from her mouth, but it was masked by a wet frothing sound.
She tried again. It sounded like she said, "Do it." Although, later, Hanne admitted that it might have been, "Don't."
Still pressed against the ground, Hanne lifted her hips, retrieved her pistol from its holster and drove the barrel under Astrid's chin. Tears welled in her eyes as Hanne released the pressure on her neck and ran fingers through her hair. A scarlet river poured into the dirt.
"Shh . . ." she whispered and repeated, "it'll be over soon." Astrid's hair was wet and sticky and red. She reached out and clawed at Hanne's cheek. She clenched her teeth and squeezed the trigger. Magnus' face flashed in front of her eyes.
The grip Astrid had on Hanne's shoulder waned, her legs went limp, and Hanne watched as the light in her eyes guttered out.
It needed to happen, Hanne rationalized. The two of them weren't assigned to the same squad as competition, but instead as an insurance policy that in the end, one of them might survive with some experience.
Still shaking, she holstered her sidearm, pressed Astrid's rifle into her hands and over her chest. As she secured the rifle, she felt something in Astrid's jacket pocket. Matches. Hanne slipped them into her own jacket. A token to remember her.
She returned to her squad along the precipice. For the rest of the mission, she didn't speak, other than to reply with, "sir."
It was another twelve hours before the trucks came and extracted the Dragoons from the Tower. A support unit had made their way around, flanked the turncoats and, at least three of them, she was told, were captured alive. Mission accomplished. They were all commended for a job well done and with only minor casualties. The reputation of the Dragoons was intact and even more storied than ever, it seemed. Oddly, that made Hanne proud. Not proud that she'd lost another friend. But proud that she was able to keep her composure. Proud it wasn't her.
That pride, however, did nothing to quell the rage rattling her bones.
Back at the station, after they'd settled, eaten, and had time to rest, Hanne found herself awake in her bunk, late at night, staring at the rusted barracks roof. Drops of water from melted snow plunked to the dirt next to her, a metronome to pace her thoughts.
The other rookies asked a lot of questions. Astrid was well-liked, of course. Of the ten that had huddled together in the back of that truck, only six remained. In a little under a month, nearly half of them had been KIA, and she was responsible for at least half of those.
Astrid wasn't her favourite person, and arrogant as she was, in her own strange way, had only tried to help. She knew what it meant to be a warrior.
She swung around, hopped off her bunk and ignoring all the whispers, stormed out of the barracks. The night air bit at her skin. It kept her moving, kept her angry as she pressed towards the officer's quarters.
Bursting through the doors, she yelled out, "Crow, you coward, where are you?'
To the left of the doorway, soldiers sat around a crate, smoking and playing a game of cards. They turned as she pushed in, then went back to their game.
Hanne ignored them, yelling, "Lance-Corporal Fisk!"
Several officers—some she recognized as Dragoons—blocked her advance. "Stop before you do something you regret, girl," one of them said.
"Bloody hell, pup, are you trying to get shot?" Crow said, pushing between two Dragoons.
"Why didn't you just brief us on the mission? I just don't understand. Or better yet, why weren't we part of the briefing, same as you."
Crow shot out a chortle that turned into a long, drawn-out sigh. "Little pup, are you still blathering over your comrade?"
"No, sir, I asked you a question is all. A question to which I demand an answer."
"You don't make demands." Crow's expression shifted from amusement to annoyance. "Now, pup. March back to your bunk and sleep it off, before I put you down."
Hanne drew her pistol, which put everyone else on guard, many shifted their hands to their own sidearm. "Do it then," she said, flipping the handle against Crow's chest, "but answer me first. Why didn't you just tell us? If you had told us what was going on, Astrid might not have been so reckless."
Crow slapped her hand to the side. "No, you don't think so? I knew she was trouble the second the Brigadier General goaded her into shooting that poor lad. You had restraint, knew better than to waste resources, but still manned up to try and follow orders. If she had followed my orders, she would be alive."
"So, why wasn't she just punished for Magnus?"
All eyes were on her, cutting through the cool demeanour she tried to cling to.
Crow's posture relaxed. "Sometimes in this world, we need to be ruthless. Turned out, she was just a dumb pup filled with pride and ego. Look where it got her?
"So that's it. You just—"
"We test you," Crow cut in, "throw you into the flames, see who breaks.
"But. But. But. Forget them. You're still here!" Crow's voice filled the barracks like the gunshots in the mountains. "I've grown tired of this. Should you choose not to address me as 'sir,' I'll reunite you with your dead comrades. Might be what you're here for since that's all you go on about. Get out of my sight, pup." Crow disappeared behind his Dragoons, who then too dispersed into usual activity.
"Sir." Hanne holstered her pistol and left the officer's quarters.
Back out in the cold night, the wind cut at the scratches on her face. Embarrassed, she had no desire to return to her bunk or speak to anyone. Word would spread and fast. Instead, she made her way to the patch at the overlook where she'd tripped Magnus. She sat down at the edge and let her feet dangle free. It was colder there somehow, and even with the heavy lights at the station, beyond the threshold, the entire world turned to complete and utter darkness.
What was next? she thought. Was the void before her all she had to look forward to? Was that all awaiting her in death? If she took just one step forward, one simple movement, she could find out. Certainly, she deserved it.
Forget them. You're still here! The words rang against her skull, coursed through her veins.
Hanne retrieved her pistol, released the clip and pulled a knife from her belt. She plucked out a bullet and, using the knife, pressed it hard against the ground. After a lot of work wrenching and twisting, she was able to free the bullet from its casing.
She tossed it over the cliff into oblivion. The casing, she set aside.
Knife in hand, she took a breath and felt the weight of it. Tightening her grip, she brought it over and carved two straight lines along the inside of her forearm. The cuts were deep, causing blood to well. The pain made her wince, and the wounds seemed to steam in the chill.
She retrieved the box of matches and traded it for the casing, careful not to tip it over or let it be blown away. Hovering over her wounds, she lightly tapped the side. Gunpower flitted across the crimson surface of her skin, mixing with the blood.
The first cut was for Magnus, the second for Astrid.
Not wanting to linger for too long, she struck a match and set off the gunpowder. The first cut ignited, the blaze cauterizing it.
Everything inside her told her to cry out in pain, but she bit her lip and fought it back. Gritting her teeth between bouts of panting for air, she cauterized the second wound and, in a pained rage, grabbed a handful of gravel and tossed it into oblivion.
After a time, the sharp stabbing heat turned to a dull, constant pain.
Hanne wanted to feel the pain, and now every time she looked down at her arm—currently a raw mess—she would be reminded of those she left behind. She knew that this was only the beginning, that she would need to add more to her collection in the future. That she would need to do more remembering. But, it helped; the pain ensured she would never forget.
Written by Matthew Rigg