'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.
Flowers for Marta
A farm isn't a farm until the first seeds are planted. Before those first seeds are sown, a shelter must be built. A home. It all starts with that foundation, which is, in essence, like a seed; it provides everything necessary for flowers to bloom.
Like all farmers before him, Felip had once planted seeds. With care and patience, they did what seeds do: sprouted roots and flourished.
One late spring morning, Felip stood on the porch of the house he'd built, plank by plank, with his bare hands. The day was warm, and a light breeze carried the scent of fresh growth. He packed a pinch of dried tobacco—his own reserve, of course—into his cob pipe and lit it with a match. Puffing on the pipe, he leaned on the railing and admired his work. Rows and rows of healthy, fruitful olive trees stretched out before him. A large barn sat at the edge of the field across the yard. Just beyond it was a small plot of grapevines.
The olive trees had only just begun to bloom, their branches heavy with white flowers. Felip smiled thinking about the first tree he planted, the first time he'd put spade to earth. That was a long time ago.
"Hi, Papa," Alba said, slumping into a chair next to him. She held on tight to a small straw doll.
"Mornin' Baby girl," Felip said and planted a kiss on his daughter's forehead.
His eldest son, Hugo, came up on the other side of him and leaned on the railing. Never far behind was his youngest, Adrian. At fifteen, Hugo was like a god to him. Felip thought Adrian was too soft, cried too much as a toddler, was too quiet as he got older.
"So, it's Mama's birthday today," Hugo said, "well, Alba got it in her head to—"
"No. Let me tell him." Alba grabbed Felip's hand. "Papa, it's Mama's birthday, as you know . . . so I was hoping, maybe . . . we could ride out to the valley to pick some flowers?"
Felip turned to Hugo, winked and gave him an exaggerated frown.'
"Oh please, pleeeease," She said and dropped to her knees, clasping her hands together. It didn't take long for Adrian to join her in her makeshift prayer. As if answering a silent question between them, Hugo offered his father a loose shrug.
Felip tousled his youngest’s hair and picked him up. As if Adrian’s oddities weren't enough, he was small for his age too.
"What do you think, Hugo?"
"Frankly, I think there's work to do, and Mama would've tanned our hides if we'd skipped out on chores to go pick flowers."
"Aye, that she would have." Felip laughed. "In truth, there's not much work today. You kids go on to the valley. Pick some big ones for me, now."
Alba jumped up and nearly choked Felip she hugged him so hard. "Thankyouthankyouthankyou." She ran into the house, leaving behind the doll in her glee. Adrian squirmed out of his father's arms and followed her.
Despite his siblings' excitement, Hugo seemed put off. He turned to face the fields and crossed his arms over the railing. "Don't think it's a good idea."
Hugo was a great kid, and Felip was proud of the man he was growing into. More disciplined than he was at his age. Strong, confident, and a fine hand. One day he'd take it all over, and Felip had no doubt that he'd be the right man for it. "Ah . . . Some time with your brother and sister will do you good. I can't even remember my brothers' faces. Got drafted when I was younger than you."
"I s'pose." Hugo spit over the railing.
"You take Snake and put them two on the mule. Ride out there and get back before dinner."
"Yeah," replied Hugo. He pushed off the railing and started toward the kitchen. Felip grabbed him by the shoulder and stared him dead in the eye.
"Make sure you take one of them rifles in the shed. If you see anything that seems . . . out of place, or you meet anyone you don't recognize from the village—especially if they're in uniform—you head straight for the village. Don't wait." Felip straightened the boy's collar. "You understand me, son?"
Hugo stiffened with a jolt of confidence from the trust his father had given him. "Yes, sir." Turning to join his siblings, he said, "Mama would have hated this whole thing."
The midday sun bore down on Felip's shoulders as he watched his kids ride down the main road out of the farm. Hugo rode ahead leading the kids' mule. The young ones flailed around, baskets in hand, giddy with excitement.
They would have a good day his heart didn't ache any less watching them go. It reminded him of the day his wife went down that road and never returned. Killed in action, they say. Most he ever got was a letter stating so. It was dated a year prior to its arrival. People who go to war often never came home. Felip was one of the lucky ones.
With his children gone for the afternoon, perhaps hard work would clear his thoughts. The stables needed cleaning and, if he was to meet his quota in time, the chickens needed tending. There's no work, what a bald-faced lie. He chuckled, opened the shed, stretched and reached for a shovel.
With the horse and mule out of the way, the stables were cleaned in record time. He moved on to the barn and collected a respectable dozen eggs. A few of his chicks were getting big enough to cycle them out with the older hens. It was perfect timing. With the next quota coming, he would be ahead of schedule, which meant he could store away or trade the extra supplies.
While changing out the rushes, he noticed a sudden, loud rumbling on the wind. An engine revving, maybe. It grew louder, and so he stepped outside to get a better feel for where it might be coming from. There weren't often many vehicles this far out in the country. It was a truck, he thought, more than one and they were in decent condition by the sound of them.
Felip darted to the shed and exchanged his shovel for a rifle. It was an older model, a Volta Repeater he'd kept from his days serving out east in Mesea. With the practiced movements of an expert, he pulled a handful of cartridges from the shelf, loaded them and cocked the lever.
By the treeline, where the road twisted from the farm, a pair of trucks pulled around the corner as Felip closed the shed doors. Rifle crossed over his chest, he calmly strode to the middle of the road awaiting their arrival.
A bead of sweat crawled down his cheek.
The first truck came to a stop, not ten feet in front of him. It was a modified farmer's truck, chips of red paint-filled the gaps between faded forest camouflage. A second and third weren't long behind the first. The third was bigger and filled to the brim. It was covered. One corner of the oilcloth tarp flapped in the wind.
The driver's side door opened. A big guy—at least twice his size—climbed out. Dust swirled as his boots hit the dirt. Another hopped out of the passenger side, he was smaller and had sharp eyes, like a reptile. His gaze turned Felip’s stomach to knots. These men were Kraunian, he knew. The sigil on their shoulders seemed familiar. Republic Rangers.
He rested the rifle on his shoulder, puffed up his chest and casually moved towards the truck. "Something I can help you boys with?" he said, not wanting for an answer. "Quota's not due for a month yet." These men weren't here to collect. That much was clear. Collections were always the same crew, they never sent rangers. Felip liked them, made sure they left with full stomachs.
Reptile eyes spoke first. "This your land, friend?" He walked toward the hood of the truck. Those damn eyes didn't get any friendlier up close, even though his voice was affable, warm even.
"Sorry," the big man said, "where are our manners? My name is Simon Dauphin, and my steely comrade here is Lutz." He turned to the farm and nodded. "Little piece of paradise you got here, friend."
Felip shifted the rifle to his left hand and reached out with his right. "Felip Romero." Simon shook his hand. Firm and confident, as expected. Lutz extended a hand as well, had a grip like a shallow stream. Weak and clammy. Felip first judged a man by the character of their handshake. He would be keeping an eye on Lutz.
"Fellas. It's a pleasure, to be sure. Now, I say again, what can I do for you this afternoon?"
Simon turned back to the fields. "Mind if we take a look around? Won't take but fifteen minutes."
"Anything in particular got you boys all the way out here?" Felip set the butt of the rifle between his feet. He had to be careful. They weren't grunts and certainly weren’t forthcoming about their intentions.
Lutz eyed the Volta, then turned to Simon as if scanning his face for an answer. "Routine patrol is all. Got word there might be . . . trouble in the area."
Felip thumbed the muzzle, scraped the inside with his nail. His finger came away black. "No trouble for me, sirs, go right on ahead. I'll be up at the house if you or your boys need anything." There was no use in denying them. If he let them poke around, maybe they'd find what they wanted and be gone before the children returned. Oh Tyche, stay in the valley.
Lutz lifted his chin toward Simon, who waved at the line of trucks. At his command, a dozen or so armed soldiers poured from various parts of the convoy. Simon retrieved a rifle and joined them. They spread over the fields like sand.
Now that they stood by the trucks alone, Lutz stared him down. "Mind if I join you? Shouldn't be too long now."
Why'd it have to be him? Felip thought. "Can I interest you in a cup of wine? Got my own vineyard around back." He pointed.
"Splendid." Lutz grinned, but the dead in his eyes betrayed his smile.
Felip cracked open a vintage, one bottled on Hawk, 802, the year before his wife Marta died. He was saving the entire cask for when she returned. When she didn't, he bottled it and started selling to fences in the village. They weren't shy about coughing up garlands for good wine. Overseas, the stuff made a killing on the black market. Still, he kept a few bottles around for special occasions.
He poured Lutz then himself a glass and took a seat across from him. They clinked their glasses together hard and sipped. A well-worn formality.
Light from the afternoon sun broke through the kitchen windows, bathing the room in warm light. Outside the windows, soldiers combed the fields and scanned the perimeter, casing the farm. That wasn't good news. Why here? What did his land have to offer? Felip set down his cup and turned to Lutz.
"It just you out here? Farm this size is a whole lot of work for one man." He sniffed the wine and smiled. "Good wine, this. You should be proud."
"Just me, I'm afraid. The wife was KIA a few years back. Every now and then I’ll hire a hand or two from the village. You must've passed it on the way in."
"Indeed," Lutz replied. "No children then? Place looks mighty lived-in."
Felip prayed Hugo would know what to do if he spotted soldiers on the farm. They'd gone over the plan time and again. He was to make for the village. The innkeep there owed Felip a favour (or three).
"Never got so lucky, sir."
“Hmm . . .”
Simon suddenly burst through the door and addressed Lutz. "It'll do. If we clear the fields, it'll be a good site with a wide berth from the road. The trees’ll make for good lumber. It's all clear from the treeline on out to the hills north," he said.
Felip curled his hands into fists. "Sorry, what are you saying?" They ignored him.
"Great news, Simon. Get the men to work, I'll follow you out." Lutz plucked his cup off the table, drained it and slammed it down. "Today, good sir, is a fine day!" He quickly followed after Simon only pausing a moment as he crossed along the porch.
Felip chased them outside. When he reached the stairs to the yard, it was filled with soldiers unloading trucks and deploying all sorts of equipment. Simon and Lutz were spitting out orders, their hands flew in all directions. A small group pushed past him hauling crates of supplies into the house.
Felip climbed up the stairs, retrieved his rifle from inside the doorway and rushed back to the fields. A couple of rangers were piling up spades and shovels and saws. One carrying a shovel stepped up to the first row of olive trees.
Marching toward the ranger, Felip lifted his repeater and pulled back the hammer. "Stop right now!" He tightened his grip. "Nobody moves another inch 'till I know what's going on. He stepped up to the soldier and pressed the muzzle to his cheek. He was a boy, no older than Hugo, peach fuzz on his chin.
Lutz made his way to Felip, tapped a finger on the barrel of his repeater and pointed it toward the ground. "Mr. Romero. This land is now the property of the state of Kraunia, as granted by the Mesean Senate for purposes of the betterment of the Republic. You waive any and all rights to this land and its contents or face a penalty of execution."
"This. Is. My. Land." Felip trained the rifle on Lutz.
Lutz swatted the muzzle away. "Sir, I do not wish to see you shot. You’ve been kind to me, so I'll ignore this outburst. Just once. There’s no need to be hasty. Besides, what would your children do without you?" He tossed a small doll at Felip's feet. Alba's doll.
Stupid, I never should have lied. Of course they'd find something. He lowered the rifle.
"Don't fret." Lutz held something else in his hand. A small bag. "You're to be awarded a stipend for your services." He tossed a bag to Felip. It was nothing, a few garlands.
He stood in front of the rangers, defeated. The repeater held loose in one hand, a measly bag of coins in the other and Alba's doll at his feet. What would become of his farm? It was his land, his home. He'd built every last inch with his bare hands.
Smoke and burning wood wafted on the afternoon wind. A fire had been started on the far side of the olive fields. One soldier passed him carrying at least three headless chickens. The young ranger with the shovel cut deep into the earth then heaved it aside. It crashed down into a scattered pile, covering Felip's feet and the face of Alba's doll.
Written by Matthew Rigg