'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
Ghosts were all to be found in the old farm cellar where the Kraunians had thrown Felip after he’d refused to vacate the property.
Though they were considerate enough to provide him with a box of matches and lantern, he hadn’t bothered to light it. What good would it do, besides breathe life to phantoms best left to memory?
His back against a wooden cask, he reached up and ran his fingers along the numbers etched into the side. Eight, zero, two.
Rats scratched at the opposite end of the cellar, near the door. At least three, he figured, hard to tell without eyes on them. He wondered whether they’d been down there long, or if they had gotten themselves trapped, like him.
“Marta, how did we get here?” he reached for the numbers and dug his nails into the wood. This was the last of the 802s. He figured the rest was wasted on the worst kind of scum. Criminals at best. Rich cowards if he had any luck. “I never should have let it go so easily. Should’ve . . . Ah, forget it. Just an old man talking to a barrel."
The slivers of sunlight between gaps in the cellar door were fading. Phantoms came despite the darkness, and a pitch-black, rat-infested cellar was no place for self-pity. Pushing himself off the cold earth, he lifted the lantern and scooped up the box of matches.
At first, the light blinded him, an orange bloom in a tar pit. A half-dozen rats scurried between the crumbling bricks. "Bloody bastards." Felip chastised himself for not properly maintaining the cellar, and he would have, if not for the guilt. Maybe that's why he was here now. Imprisoned in his own home, left to the rats.
No, that wasn't how he'd go.
A collection of dusty wooden cups and a green bottle sat stacked behind the casks. He grabbed a cup and, using the bottom as a hammer, cracked the top off the last bottle of Hawk 802 and poured himself a cup.
The wine flowed a deep scarlet, deeper still in the lamplight. He drained it in a single swig and gasped for air. He poured himself another. Each cup was sweet and smooth and went down with a sharp bite.
Felip kept filling his cup until the bottle was dry. He slipped to the ground and cradled it tight.
Shadows blotted the waning sunlight. Surely, he was imagining things, the wine clouding his senses.
The cellar-door flew open. Two dark figures were thrown in one after the other, one of them wailing. Everything spun, he'd drunk too much. The door slammed shut, followed by the clanking of chains.
"Papa!" a girl screamed.
A girl. What girl? Alba. It was Alba.
And Adrian too. "Thank the gods," he said, trying to stand but instead tripped over his feet and slumped backwards.
None of it mattered, not the pain of hitting his head on the cask, or his drunken haze. His little ones were safe and by his side.
The kids launched themselves into his arms, Alba crying, Adrian shaking. He squeezed tight.
Marta watched over them, after all.
"In the two days since you joined up with us, all I can say is that you're awfully sheltered." Red pushed Hugo into the back of a beat-up truck and tossed him a bag.
He arranged the bag with the rest of the gear and caught another. "Why, because I've never driven a truck?" He strained while hauling the bag, they weren't filled with leaves. He expected explosives to be heavy but the way Red tossed them around, anyone would be fooled into thinking otherwise.
"No, brother, because you've never been in one. Or a car. Or a… bicycle? Please tell me you've ridden a bicycle?"
Catching the next bag, Hugo smiled. "Come on, I grew up on a farm. Out here. What do you expect?"
"Geez, you're like a caged bird. Surprised you never got drafted. A kid like you, well past the age and left to rot on a farm? Figured the republic would be up your ass by now." Red handed off the last of the bags and swung around to the driver's seat. Hugo tied off the tailgate and hopped in the passenger side. "Ready?" Red asked.
Slamming the door, Hugo said, "born ready."
An hour's drive into the countryside, they stopped along a rugged dirt road. As if practiced, Hugo sprung out, grabbed a bag and tossed it into the bushes. Another hour, another dropoff. After a few more stops, two remained.
"Think they'll get here in time?" Hugo asked.
Red tugged at his beard. Of all his habits—and Red had many—he always tugged his beard when he was nervous. "I hope so," he said, "I can't be worried about everyone else. They know the job, and I have to trust they can pull it off."
"Wow. You guys really need that road, huh?"
"We do. Otherwise, it's a detour to the swamp, and the ground there won't hold. Not for tanks. They know this. Our scouts say they got every viable off-road route torn up aside from that road running through your farm. Seems they need it too.
"But, the good news is"—Red threw the shift into drive—"we know they won't get support for another few days. So, we can't afford to drag it out."
"How'd you guys get all those tanks anyway?"
"A story for another day, little bird."
"That's a new one."
A few days locked in a damp cellar would make anyone go mad, but it was certainly no place for children.
Fortunately, there had been plenty of dried fruit and meat in the stores. Unfortunately, it attracted the rats. At least the oil barrels kept the lantern burning day and night. For that, he was glad to have been over-prepared for a dry summer.
Alba and Adrian made the best of it, though. As Felip pondered their escape, the kids played a game of their own making, jumping between lines they'd drawn in the dirt. However, night and day, their constitution drained. At first, they both whined, couldn't comprehend being trapped. Over time, they'd resigned to the isolation, let it take them.
Children are resilient, Felip thought, even if I don't make it through this, they will.
The treeline rolled into view like a distant memory as Hugo and Red closed in on the farm. Much of it had been butchered, rough-hewn and haphazard. At the top of the hill, a patchwork copse masked their approach.
They turned off the road and hid the truck behind a row of hedges before getting out and pitching the last two bags to the grass.
Red zipped open the first and handed Hugo a rifle, sidearm, a helmet and bandolier, then drew the same for himself. From the remaining bag, Hugo pulled a mortar tube and two dozen shells, some marked with painted red strips. Hugo smirked. Of course they were.
After gearing up, Red checked his timepiece and stroked his beard while Hugo made one last inspection.
Being so close to home and not able to step through the door, greet his father or neg his siblings, snapped something inside of him. Everything he'd ever known was right there and in peril, yet he was cut off by those . . . monsters. They ruined everything. He was powerless. But not for long.
If he had his way, he'd shoot every last one of them.
Felip, Alba and Adrian huddled together in the corner near the cask marked "802." The children fared poorly at night and trembled in Felip's arms.
By lamplight, they watched rats scurry about, chewing holes into sacks of grain, and darting everywhere looking for more. The rodents eventually grew tired and left through their holes. Even rats had a way out.
The rats had a way out.
"Stay put." Felip crawled to a rat hole near the door.
The bricks were never tightly set, just enough to seal the space. When he built it, he only intended to use the cellar for food storage, but it had long outgrown its original purpose.
The older sections . . . just maybe.
The first brick came free, easy. Dirt and old mortar crumbled. He tried another, and it loosed just the same. In a minute, he'd wrenched out enough bricks to create a small hole. A child-sized hole. Some of the others might budge if he had a hammer, but he didn't.
"Hey, come on over here," he said. The children did as ordered.
"What is it, Papa?" Alba asked.
Adrian picked at a brick.
"I think I know how we're going to get out of here. The rats. They come and go through these holes." Felip pointed.
Alba peered into the hole, her face twisted in terror.
She would never make it. He couldn't risk her getting stuck or worse. Then there was Adrian, who was still scratching the stones. One came free and fell to the floor. He tried to lift it, failing. Smiling.
Just maybe . . . Felip dropped a hand on his head and tousled his hair.
The first of the flares lit up the night to the west. Hugo turned to Red, "it work?"
"Hard to say. First Squad's on the move," he said.
A second flare bloomed in the east. This one splitting into brilliant shapes. "These fools are going to be so confused."
"They're expecting tanks, not a light show. Make sure you're ready. When we shoot ours off, they're going to start up the road."
"And that's what we want, right?"
Red nodded, tapped his timepiece, then glanced up. A wild red explosion filled the northwest sky. "That's three," he said, "two more."
For once, Adrian's size was a blessing, one that Felip wouldn't curse again. The boy fit into the hole like it was made for him, and the earth behind the wall was so loose from the rodents, he was able to scoop it away like sand.
As proud as he was, it ate away at Felip to watch him disappear into that hole. "Adrian, son, don't forget, when the dirt gets hard, dig up. You should come up underneath the porch. Then run around and unclasp the chains on the door."
"I can do it, Papa."
Thank Arete the boy's not a coward, too.
Alba clung to Felip, and her eyes told him she was holding back tears. He was grateful for her company, for her strength. If he'd had to watch his son climb into a hole underground without her by his side, well . . . he's not sure he would have. He noticed Alba clutching a handful of valley flowers. Through everything, somehow, she'd kept them safe.
Outside, a deafening crash was followed by bright, flashing lights.
"What's happening?" Alba gripped tighter.
"Whatever it is, we better we get out of here sooner than later."
The door shook with the cascading explosions. Something had changed.
Soldiers yelled, and engines started. One more loud blast went off. It rang close, just outside.
There was a clanging of metal on the door. Felip and Alba bolted over.
"Papa," Adrian said, his voice muffled behind the hardwood.
"Oh, sweet Tyche, thank you. Thank you." Felip exhaled, relieved.
"Someone's near the porch," Adrian said, the chain banged against the door, "I can't. . . Oh, I got it."
Felip pushed the door open and lifted his son, embracing him. "Okay." he set Adrian down. "Come on, you two, we need to move, get to the road."
The three of them made a train, Felip holding Alba's hand, who led Adrian. He spotted his Volta leaning against the porch as they passed, so he slung it over his shoulder and turned to the back of the house.
The explosions rattled the Kraunians. Their trucks were missing and the fields—where rows of olive trees had made way to rows of trenches—were teeming with soldiers.
Footsteps closed in on them amidst the shouting and pulsing din of crickets. Felip pushed the children against a nook in the wall, leaving no room for himself as he prepared himself for a fight.
A sudden blinding glow blotted out the stars, raining sparks and ash over the farm.
Kraunian trucks peeled past Red and Hugo, turning away from the hill and them.
"What do we got left?" Red asked.
Hugo checked the stack, "Three." He loaded a shell into the mortar.
Red tapped his timepiece and raised a hand. "Hold. We need to wait until the trucks are out of the way. After this one, mount up so we can move in."
"Don't call me that, we're not them. Just get that thing on the truck, when we drive by and light em up."
"Sorry, I know, it's just . . ." Hugo fiddled with the metal handle on the tube, "my dad, he's always talking about respect. Until a man shows you otherwise, you look him in the eye and shake his hand. Dad preaches old Maragan traditions. Guess it rubbed off on me."
Red checked his watch then pocketed it. "You never said why they let you be. You're what, sixteen, seventeen? They scooped me up when I was half your age."
Another barrage cracked the sky somewhere to the north. It hung there like a lingering bolt of lightning.
"Dad was always good with them. One of the guys who comes to collect, he brings gifts for birthdays. Once, he brought a pig for Apokreas. He's supposed to collect food from us, not bring more."
Red snickered, eyes on the time.
As the light faded, Hugo studied Red, who said nothing.
Everything would happen fast. Hugo expected to be afraid, but he wasn't. Instead, he smiled, determined. Fear meant doing nothing.
"So," he continued, "I figure it's because they respect him. And he respects them. My mother too. It's funny, she never stayed home long. Even after Adrian was born, she took off as soon as they'd let her. It's not like she wanted to be away from us. I think she just loved the danger of it all. In a way, she stayed out there for us, so they would respect us, and my father ensured it."
Red tossed his empty bag into the back and slipped into the cab. "Sounds like you take after your mom."
"Is it time?"
Red retrieved his pocket watch. "Time," he said and closed the door.
No turning back. No time to hesitate. No regrets. Hugo was ready. He wanted his home back. If it went south, he would die knowing he'd fought to the end. Dread had no place in his heart anymore.
Red tapped on the window and gave a thumbs up. Hugo steadied the tube and fired it into the sky over the farm. This one emanated a shade of vermillion and split off into clusters.
On queue. Two armoured vehicles roared down the hill. As they passed, Hugo caught a glimpse Lucca and Blue mounted atop them. Guardia. As planned. They took a sharp turn into the trees. Machine-gun blasts boomed down the hill.
Hugo climbed onto their truck and rapped a knuckle on the cab, giving his signal to move. He loaded another red shell and positioned the tube at an angle.
"I hope this works," he whispered.
The truck tore through the bushes and careened toward the farm.
The soldier closing in on Felip and the kids had been blindsided by the explosion with everyone else. Felip wasted no time gawking and charged at the man while his back was turned, dug the rifle under his chin and wrung it across his neck. Fingers scrabbled against the farmer's hands. Fingernails dug deep, blood welled.
The soldier went limp and crumpled to the ground. Felip dragged him out of sight and beckoned Adrian and Alba.
Two heavily armoured vehicles bounded through the trees. Spurts of gunfire spread out over the fields, causing the children to duck and latch onto one another.
Felip pushed them to the corner of the house farthest from the fields. Once there, he peered back around the edge. A handful of Kraunians stood guard, armed. No path was safe. One way, trenches filled with soldiers and machine-gun fire. The other, armed officers who harboured no love for him after he raised a gun to their commander. Behind them, patrols in the woods, or worse.
Yet, still. There was a chance.
"You two." he brought the little ones to the ground, pushed them together. "Stay here. Do not move until I come for you. Run if a soldier gets too close." He pointed away from the house. "Get into the woods, and you don't stop until you find a villager. No uniforms. You hear me?" if everything went to shit, they'd have to risk it. "Tell me you understand."
The pair nodded, tears streaming from their eyes.
Felip rounded the corner and didn't look back, even though he wanted to.
Hands raised, he called out to the Kraunians, "sirs, I wish to leave the grounds."