'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
Flowers in the valley swayed gently as Hugo reclined in the shade of an old plane tree. He picked at something between his teeth while watching over his siblings; they played some kind of game in the field, running between the nearby stream and patches of hyacinths and daisies. Their baskets were each overflowing with flowers of different shapes and colours. Next to Hugo, tethered to the tree, Snake and the mule grazed the tall grass, their tails batting away flies.
It was, by all accounts, a peaceful afternoon. He’d managed to dismantle and clean his rifle, groom snake, and forage around the valley for useful herbs. He’d gathered enough to fill a saddlebag pouch. It hadn’t been a total waste of a day after all, and his father would have made good use of a farm free of children, even though he said there was no work.
Snake fussed, shaking her head, whinnying. Her ears pricked up. “Settle down now, girl.” He patted her leg gently, which did little to calm her.
The mare kicked at the ground, stepping side to side. It wasn’t long before the mule joined in and he had to deal with two panicking animals. Hugo hopped to his feet and grabbed the horse by the bridle, and rubbed her nose.
“Shh . . . Shh . . . Come on. What’s gotten into you, girl? There’s nothing out there.” Even as he said it, he wasn’t so sure himself and pivoted around for what might have spooked them. Wolves. A wildcat. Anything.
The mule tugged at the reins tied to the tree, once, then twice, braying loudly. It was enough to send Snake reeling back into a full panic.
While she was flailing, the mule pulled loose and dashed off toward the stream. Hugo chased after it for a time but stopped and ran a hand through his hair.
Now was not the time to be chasing donkeys. It was long gone. He’d have to search the woods later with Snake and the kids, or maybe he’d try to get them home first and come back out in the morning.
Now to get home, he’d have to lead the kids on Snake. Damn fool, he thought. Losing the mule would cost him.
No. Really, it would cost his father.
Dwelling wasted time, so instead, he checked Snake’s tether and re-tied it, just in case. He gave it a few sharp tugs, really pulled at it. She wasn’t going anywhere.
Something peculiar caught his eye on the other side of the valley. A dust cloud crept on the horizon near the road to the village.
A heat flooded over him as a twinge bit through his stomach. “Alba, Adrian . . .” he called out. They didn’t answer, but he heard them giggling. “Hey, you two, listen up,” he yelled, “come over here, right now.”
Adrian barrelled towards him, of course. He nearly tripped over himself trying not to crash into Hugo’s legs. Alba trailed behind.
“Pleeease don’t make us leave,” she said in an exaggerated whine, “we haven’t picked enough yet.” Flowers of all kinds spilled out of her woven basket as she hopped toward the tree.
Hugo pulled the rifle from the saddlebag holster and moved into the valley for a better look. “Wait by the horse and don’t move.”
“Where’d the mule go?” Adrian said in his quiet voice.
“It ran off. I lost it. Get on the horse, now.” The words came out more severe than he’d meant them to, but as he turned toward the dust cloud, he saw what kicked it up.
At least three of them, flanked by a convoy of trucks and what he figured to be armoured transport vehicles. He’d never seen them in the flesh, only in drawings.
“Hey, you two . . . gather your things, I think we need to leave.”
Taking a few steps back, he tightened his grip on the rifle and kept his eyes on the convoy. It went on forever, he counted another three or four tanks, bigger than those leading. Shit, he thought, this can’t be good.
As he turned back to the tree and the horses and his siblings, something slammed into his face. Hard.
His vision blurred, and everything went black.
Hugo blinked and woke to a blinding pain above his nose. His lips were wet; he tasted blood. People were talking. He didn’t recognize the voices, and they said things he couldn’t understand. The words came out just fine but made no sense. The world was a blur, so he felt around and was relieved to find his rifle next to him. Behind him was a wall of bark. He pulled himself to a sitting position, using the rifle as leverage.
“The boy’s awake,” a voice said.
“Hey, hey kid, you okay?” Another asked.
Sounds poured from Hugo’s mouth, but they didn’t form words, just a jumbled mess.
“Did you have to hit him so hard?” The blurry figures waved their hands in front of his eyes. He managed to get them to focus on a finger.
“My face hurts,” he said finally.
“Ah, right, okay, he’s fine. Thank the gods.”
There were two men holding rifles, and a woman stood behind them next to Snake, with Alba and Adrian.
Hugo winced and tried to stand. His feet were wobbly, but he managed to balance. “Hey, you keep away from them.” Searching for his rifle, he lost his footing and toppled over.
“Woah, woah,” the man next to Hugo—he wore a full black beard and had deep-set eyes—caught and held him steady.
His partner scooped up the rifle and tossed it to Hugo. “Sorry about the shot to the head. Thought you were some kind of scout, didn’t see the two little ones with you. You local?”
“Yeah. There’s a farm back a few kilometres. Name’s Hugo Romero.” He reached out a hand. The two men returned the gesture without hesitation.
“Nice to meet you, Hugo. You better get on home now, it’s not safe out here for kids right now.” This one was tall and lean, with cropped hair and a long chin.
Their third companion—a woman with shorn black hair tied back save for the few strands that curled in on her chin—joined them and shook Hugo’s hand as well.
The strangers carried weapons, a rifle, a pistol and on the bearded one, he counted at least three knives. Their belts were dotted with pouches and they wore large rucksacks. Hugo didn’t spot an insignia and they weren’t in uniform. If they weren’t soldiers, why were they so well-armed?
The valley was bathed in a yellow-orange glow. It would be dark soon.
“That convoy earlier . . . those tanks, they’re yours?” Hugo asked, wincing as he rubbed his nose.
The three stared back and forth at each other. The woman raised an eyebrow at Hugo. “Afraid so. Even more of a reason to get you kids home.”
“Who are you. None of you seem like soldiers. You got names?”
“Friend, I promise we’ll get you home safe. You’re better off knowing less than you already do.”
“If it’s all the same, I need something to call you. Be pretty rude of me to just holler if you’re to be our escort home.” Hugo said, leaning on his rifle.
The three strangers glanced at each other again as if they were speaking to one another with their eyes.
The woman spoke first, “call me Lucca.”
“Name’s Red,” the bearded man said, “this here is Blue.” He pointed toward the tall one, who nodded. He was chewing on a reed.
Lucca lifted her chin toward the horse. “That little one is a handful. Nearly bowled me over trying to get to you earlier. Had a hell of a time getting him up on the saddle.”
Hugo made his way over to Snake and laid a hand on Adrian’s shoulder. The siblings pressed their heads together. It was hard to ignore the heavy scent of flowers. They reminded him of their mother.
“Let’s get home. Papa’s probably already out looking for us.”
They’d spent an hour on the road before Hugo pointed out the treeline marking the Romero’s farmland. It was a ways off still, probably another twenty minutes on foot, but from where they were, they had a clear view of the road as it disappeared into the brush. Everything was as it should be except for smoke pouring over the treeline.
At first, he took it for chimney smoke, but then, the placement, it was all wrong. He spotted another thin trail. And another. Vapours struck the sky in black ribbons.
“Something’s wrong.” Hugo stopped and stepped back toward the others. The smell of burning wood finally hit them.
“You sure, kid?” Red said, “We’re pretty close. You’re farmers, right? Maybe he’s burning away some old scrap or diseased plants. My dad was a farmer, did all kinds of weird shit I didn’t understand.”
“We never do burns. Tried it once, we damn near burnt half the house down . . . ” Hugo was distracted by several loud voices. “Something’ s—I gotta get down there.” He spun the rifle from his back and sprinted toward them.
The entire party chased after him, but he kept running, steadfast and foolhardy. Lights flicked on ahead, and Hugo slowed. The closer he got, the more he counted.
They came from trucks. From fires. Carried by men.
Men in uniform.
Armed men in uniform.
The others came up behind him. “Who are they, friends of yours?” Hugo asked, panting.
Lucca pulled a pair of binoculars from her satchel, turned a couple of dials before peering into them. “Kraunians,” she said, “Dammit. How’d they know? The fields are torn up. They’re trying to cut us off. We need to go, now.” She wheeled the horse around, eyes on the road.
The children reached for their brother.
“This road is the best route to get our gear through the countryside,” Blue said and kicked the dirt.
“It’s fine. Now we know. We need to get back and tell the others,” Lucca said.
Hugo clenched his teeth, steadied his rifle and continued walking down the road. The farm was his home, not theirs to use . . . and for what? Shaking, he picked up his pace.
Red ran after him. “No. Nonono. Kid. Don’t do whatever you think you’re going to do. Trust me, being a hero is not worth the trouble.”
They had no choice but to follow. Hugo heard the chattering at his flank but kept moving. He needed to know the state of things. That his father was okay.
Blue whispered to Red, “we’ll just pretend we’re friends, we’re not carrying that much gear. Hunting trip. I mean, it’s not much of a lie.”
“With no quarry?” Red whispered back.
Blue grimaced. “A bad take?”
A truck sped up the hill right toward them, headlights cutting through the haze of dusk. At least a half-dozen soldiers bobbed around in the back. It skidded to a stop as they hopped to the road, spreading out in front of the group.
One man in front towered over the rest, “Sorry folks, road’s closed,” he said, his tone seemed pleasant enough.
“Oh, truly sorry about that,” Lucca said, “we’ll just turn back and—"
Hugo stepped in front of her. “This is my farm. Let me pass.” He dug his fingers into the rifle so hard, his nails dug crescents into the wood.
Snake huffed and puffed, restless.
Lucca shook her head, mouth agape and turned to her comrades.
A smirk crossed the soldier’s mouth. “Ah, the prodigal son returns. Your father’s waiting for you.” He moved toward Hugo, put a hand on his sidearm and pointed with the other. “The little ones, they family?”
“Well—” Hugo started.
“No. No, sir. Those two are our little bundles of joy.” Red tossed an arm around Lucca and winked, “just walking the boy home. Neighbours.”
The soldier scanned them up and down. He wasn’t buying it, any idiot would know they were lying. A wave of dizziness washed over Hugo as he considered options.
There were too many soldiers now, the situation had turned on them. A few more from nearby patrol joined the pack. Why were there so many?
Of course, they could run, but the kids wouldn’t make it. With so many guns on them, none of them would get far. Trembling, he moved his index finger toward the trigger.
The soldier peered back, made a gesture with his hand and said, “these three are Guardia rebels. I’m sure of it. Keep them alive and throw the kids in the truck.”
Hugo lifted his rifle, but before took the shot, Lucca tossed a pair of canisters at the soldier’s feet. Two loud pops followed.
A wall of white smoke billowed over the road. Hugo turned and dashed into it.
It stung his eyes and strained his breathing. Gunshots and screams filled the air in front of the farm. Amidst the shouting and chaos, Snake galloped out of the smoke toward the truck, knocking a few soldiers to the dirt.
Flower petals filled the air, caught in the smoke like it was a spider’s web as they fluttered to the dirt. The kids tumbled off the horse somewhere near the truck.
Hundreds of multi-coloured specks dotted the road.
The rebels—that’s what Guardia was, a violent rebel group, or so Hugo had heard on trips to the village—tossed another set of canisters in various directions.
Blue handed Hugo a grenade. “Pull the pin!”
It was heavier than expected, but not so heavy he wouldn’t be able to get some distance on it. How could he be sure his siblings wouldn’t get caught in the crossfire? Alba’s bellowing came from the other far side of the truck.
Hugo pulled the pin as instructed and hurled the grenade through the wall of smoke, but not too far, just enough to hit their feet. The rebels took his cue and followed up with a flurry of their own. The explosions popped Hugo’s eardrums as he turned and ran up the road through another hazy layer.
His head pounded as he ran, debating with his conscience whether to keep running or turn back for his family.
But they were alive, at least. It would take a miracle for him to bowl past the soldiers and somehow extract them.
The road was blanketed in pillows of white. He could run, the smoke did a decent job of covering their tracks. It was the best chance they had.
Hugo and the rebels ducked into the woods and didn’t stop.
Night fell before they’d reached the village. All four were barely able to fight their exhaustion. Hugo’s hair clung to the sides of his face, his clothes soaked in sweat. No one had said much since the farm, they just ran.
What happens next? he thought. There hadn’t even been a moment to think. All that mattered was making sure the Kraunians didn’t follow them back to the village.
As they approached, Hugo recognized the convoy from before. Dreadful machines lined the perimeter of the village. Up close, they were towering metal beasts. A hallway of cold steel; creatures out of a nightmare. He’d seen the damage a rifle could cause, but these tanks were something else. He couldn’t fathom the kind of destructive power they might display.
It was clear that rebels had garrisoned the village, which was bustling with the din of people calling out orders and supplies taken from homes and moved onto trucks.
Lucca set a hand on Red’s shoulder, locking eyes with him for a moment before Blue tapped her side. She broke away, and the two peeled off, disappearing into the mass of rebels.
Hugo barely noticed, his jaw slacked in awe of the monstrous machines surrounding him. “Do you guys really use these . . . things?”
“Come on, let’s get you inside,” Red said, his breathing ragged and pushed Hugo onward with a hand on his back.
The inn had been transformed into a makeshift headquarters. There were tables stacked with equipment, radios, and paper scattered everywhere. Red led Hugo through the temporary base to a small room with Lucca and a man who buzzed with an air of importance. He wore a fancy-looking cap and had a scar over the left side of his mouth. Something about how he stood, confident and postured, made Hugo straighten up, mask his exhaustion.
Red moved next to Hugo and threw an arm around his shoulder. The camaraderie was a comfort if nothing else. It didn’t last. Now that he’d had time to reflect, the pit in his stomach tore at his insides. He was terrified.
Was he an orphan now? What about his brother and sister? Were they as scared as he was? Should he have stayed and fought for them?
The man turned to Hugo, “son, Lucca filled me in on everything you’ve all been through today. A shame. Damn shame. Until things settle down, I’m afraid you—”
Hugo swung his rifle around and slammed it on the table between them. “Sir, let me fight for you. Before you say no, let me make my case. I’m decent with a rifle, and I know you’re going to tangle with those assholes at my farm. I want to be there when you do. Besides, I know that land better than anyone else you got.”
There was no time for fear, so he reached out a hand. No more words were said; none were needed. The rebel leader shook Hugo’s hand and smiled.