'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.
The ride into Nicnevin was bumpy and cold, and none too luxurious for two days crammed in the back of an old farmer's truck. At least the scenery was a nice change from the craggy barren coastline where Hanne Thorsen and the other rookies had spent most of their lives; fresh mountain air set the stage for vistas that stretched on for as far as one could see. They'd even passed roving goat herds clinging to sheer cliffs and spotted hawks circling below the clouds.
For all that awe and wonder, Hanne couldn't shake the chill in her bones.
At night, Hanne and the others huddled together under moth-eaten wool blankets on a bed of damp hay but weren't fooled into thinking sleep would come. The driver rarely stopped for a rest, only once at a checkpoint for fuel. They travelled so far north, that the country had turned strange, too. The dark lasted forever. Any sense of hour or place slipped away as she drifted in and out of consciousness.
The truck crawled to a halt. Hanne snapped awake to the trickle of gravel dancing against rubber tires.
They arrived at a small recon station somewhere in the Silts near the border of Falheim. From what she could see, the station seemed in dire need of repair. With a few rundown radio towers, a row of rusty barracks, and command tents, it wasn't exactly where she'd dreamt of apprenticing. Nonetheless, she was excited to begin training, and that rush of anticipation stirred her senses.
She hopped off the back of the truck and followed her comrades. The driver tossed the keys to a man covered in grease who then lifted the hood, his face disappearing behind it. A crew of muddy, wearing-looking soldiers hopped onto the back of the truck, like twisted reflections of the youths who'd only just arrived.
No one had come to greet them, they had no real orders, and even the mechanic had little to say, only muttering to himself before slamming the hood and turning back to the barracks.
"So that's it then? Thanks for the chat, mate," said Magnus, a ratty youth with a wispy mustache. His fatigues were too big. Standing there, sulking, he resembled a grey pile of goo.
"Should we head for the Barracks?" said Astrid, a tall, freckled girl. "Follow the driver, yeah? Surely, they mean to feed us."
"Don't you think we'll be reprimanded if we're someplace we're not supposed to be?" Hanne said. "That's how it was at the camps, right? They won't care if we're ignorant. Don't know about the pair of you, but I don't mean to spend my novitiate years scrubbing latrines."
"But—" The rat-boy started.
Astrid stepped up to Magnus, getting in his face. "You know what happens when they start you with cleaning shit?" She looked him up and down, put a cigarette in her mouth, and lit it with a match. "You'll always clean their shit, and soon everyone will see you as you are: a steaming pile of shit. Is that what you are, Magnus?"
"Well . . . I mean, what kind of question is that? No—"
"Good. Idiot. So, sit down, shut up and wait for orders," Hanne said.
The others chuckled under their breath as Astrid blew smoke in his face.
In the hour that passed, the truck had pulled out of the station. The rookies had moved from standing idly on the road over to a small tree near a patch of withered grass made warm by the midday sun. While most had succumbed to sleep, Hanne stared at the horizon, tracing the layers of mountains with her finger. She made a game of it, pretending to draw a line by connecting all the different snowcaps until she reached a dead end. Then, she picked out a new spot and started again. They were like long-forgotten roads to the heavens. She imagined the trees were shadows of ancient soldiers marching along and pretended they were targets, delighted at the prospect of picking them off. One, boom. Two, gone. Three, dead. It wasn't the most exciting game, but it passed the time.
"Okay, I'm sick of this. I'm starving and have to piss." Magnus stood and paced.
"Go piss over there, you lump. Why are you whining?" Said Astrid.
"Why are they keeping us waiting so long?"
"Who cares. Could be hazing, or some kind of test. They're probably just busy," Hanne put in.
Magnus picked up handfuls of gravel and, one pebble at a time, fired them at the two girls. "What the hell, asshole." Astrid tossed the stone back at him, catching him square between the eyes.
As he stumbled between the patch of grass and the road, Hanne stuck out her foot. Magnus tumbled headfirst into the gravel, inhaling a mouthful of rocks on impact. The recruits cackled. It was a sound that had become all too familiar. With a face full of dirt, he shot Hanne a glare and spit.
"Attention!" A voice bellowed from out of sight.
The rookies snapped up and froze, straight as boards, except Magnus, who struggled to peel himself from the earth.
A large, important-looking man stepped onto the road where the truck had been, followed by a handful of armed soldiers. His coat was adorned with medals, his clothing pristine. The man rested an arm on the rifle slung across his chest.
"Bloody hell, I said attention. Did your mums teach you lot to wipe your ass, or is that on me too?" Magnus moved to stand, but the man pressed a boot to his back.
"Please . . . I can't br--" Magnus squealed.
"What was that? I'm not sure I heard you," said another tall soldier, this one missing half an ear and had a crow painted on his helmet. He pushed to the front of the lineup. "Be aware that you're addressing Brigadier General Absolon. Likely, you will not get another opportunity. You will refer to him as such, and will always—and don't make me remind you—address your superiors as sir. Am I clear?"
"Sir!" The rookies barked.
Magnus struggled against the weight of Absolon's boot. "I can't hear you, worm," he said.
Magnus tried to reply, but only managed to get out what sounded like a hiss.
"Why do they send me these spineless children?" Absolon turned to address the rookies. "At Stødtand Post, we run recon patrols from the mountains and into the valleys below. We do so to aid the Nevish Alliance, a proud and lasting organization of which you all should feel privileged to be serving."
Absolon sighed, his steaming breath shot from his nose like an angry beast about to charge.
"Before me, I see squirming insects pretending to be lions. I need lions, you realize, not cockroaches. Lions do not tolerate a weak pride. The weak do not survive. The strong kill the weak. We are no different. So show me. Which of you are lions?"
The officer with the crow helmet looked down at Magnus, pulled a pistol from his belt, and tossed it at the feet of the rookies.
No one moved.
"Show me!" Absolon's voice boomed.
Everyone’s eyes were on the pistol, but not one of them moved for it. Hanne felt this was a test. Surely he didn’t really want them to shoot Magnus? It made little sense. But then . . . maybe there was more to it. Hanne had seen her share of brutality back home at the training camps. Northern children are well acquainted with death. The station had little in the way of storehouses, so what was one less mouth to feed? Perhaps they saw his weakness as a liability. Or, it could simply be nothing more than a test to see which of the recruits would step up to the challenge. It was reasonable in a Barbaric sort of way.
Absolon made a gesture with one hand, and the soldiers lifted their rifles, taking aim. "Are you all hard of hearing or just willfully ignoring my command?" he said in an even tone.
Shaking, Hanne knelt and reached for the pistol. It was heavy in her hands. Though she'd shot many a pistol in training, this one felt foreign and she couldn't tell if it was loaded. It had a thin, long barrel of polished steel and a fine wood grip. She lifted it, trained the barrel on Magnus, and let her finger rest on the trigger. It should have been easy, she never liked Magnus much. He always got in the way and never excelled. In fact, she'd always wondered why he'd been sent into the field at all. With one squeeze, she could prove herself right now, in front of everyone. All that was left was to find courage. Her aim was true, she knew that. She excelled at marksmanship and could get the job done. Just squeeze the trigger! she thought.
Yet, despite her desperation to show strength, Hanne felt her arm drop.
Astrid stepped in front of her and tore the pistol from her trembling hand. Without flinching, Astrid stood over Magnus and unloaded the clip into his skull. Those final hollow clicks rang louder than the blasts that came before. She tossed the pistol back to Hanne, who fumbled with it in shock.
A scarlet halo spread over the pebbles.
The officer took the pistol from Hanne and pressed it into Magnus’s hand. Absolon let out a smirk, shot a look to his men, and pushed over the twitching corpse. "One lioness has teeth. The other, it seems, is still a pup."
Written by Matthew Rigg - *Minor edits made for clarity and grammar.