'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.
Waves of heat pulsed over Hanne even though she stood several feet from the pyre. Back home in Sorov she’d never seen a funeral like this. A warrior’s funeral. They insisted on it. He served, they said, despite how little he accomplished, he died for his country. It didn’t matter that he was used as an example.
The air smelled of burnt meat. Between flashes of black smoke and yellow flames, she could see that Magnus’s arms were crossed over his chest, his fingers still wrapped around the pistol as they turned to ash.
He was weak, she thought, he deserved this. She didn’t believe the words she told herself.
Despite a trying first day, it wasn’t long before the rookies had settled in. The following week was filled with high altitude conditioning and daily aptitude exercises. They were testing the rookies for the purposes of placement, to decide with whom they would be assigned as a novitiate.
On the fifth night, Hanne rested in her bunk, impatient for the morning when she would receive her assignment. Planked on her stomach, Hanne reflected on her training, marking notes in a small handmade journal. She noted her strengths in marksmanship, of course, and the areas she wished to improve. Breath control was marked with a ragged underline. It got hard to breathe in the mountains, and natural talent would only bring her so far. Now she needed focus, discipline. She would be assigned to someone based on her skills, and it was all she could hope that she wound up apprenticing with a marksman.
If that were to happen, there would be no more room for hesitation or doubt. Not a day passed that she didn’t see Magnus in her dreams. It was his own fault, the idiot, he was weak, and death would have found him sooner or later. Once again, her reassurances didn’t take, though, and she still felt the weight of him tumbling over her foot when she lingered on the thought.
“This is our last night as green rookies. Let’s sneak out tonight,” Astrid said, slung over the edge of the bunk above.
Hanne rolled her eyes and said, “You and I both know that’s a bad idea.”
“Stop being an uppish bitch. This is what I’m talking about, you overthink. Let’s go. In a couple of hours, it’ll be lights out anyway and no one will care that we’re gone.”
“What do you mean?”
“Where are we going?”
“Out. For a walk. I promise it’ll be worth it. Meet behind the barracks in twenty. Bring your rifle.” Astrid flung herself off the bunk, scooped up her own rifle, a satchel and lantern, and made for the door.
“Why do I need a rifle?”
The pair of rookies managed to avoid the night watch and slipped through a small hole in the fence behind the barracks. They made their way into the mountains via a thin path that stretched alongside a terrifying drop. Occasionally the lamplight would catch where the edge would dive deep into the abyss below. It was so silent that snow crunched under their feet like explosions.
“How much farther?” Hanne asked.
Astrid gave a nonchalant wave of her hand, too focused on climbing the precarious path ahead. “Not far.”
“I feel like you’re trying to get us killed out here.”
Frigid wind buffeted the road and whirled snow around Astrid. It looked as if she might tumble at any moment the way it tugged on her jacket. She didn’t seem so tall then, ducked against the wind, her straw-coloured hair whipping around. Hanne got distracted by a small fire piercing the dark, far off in the distance. Probably a patrol, she thought.
“Hey, so. Where do you think you’ll be assigned?” Hanne said.
“Hm. I don’t know, I hadn’t much thought about it. Just eager to get out there.” Astrid shouted over the wind.
“But if you had a choice, where would you want to go?”
“Well . . . Seeing as we’re stuck at a recon station, I guess infantry is out of the question.” Astrid laughed.
Hanne pulled her scarf over her nose. The wind was getting stronger. “I hope I don’t get Dragoons.”
“What? You’re mad. That’s where the action is. Where to then, Thorsen?”
“Intelligence. Support maybe? I don’t know if I could handle a post like that.”
Astrid turned her head and scoffed, snow tearing through the lamplight. Her nose was red as a radish. “I suppose I do want Dragoons. Take me to where I can shoot something.”
As they reached the end of the climb, the terrain ahead flattened out, the road continuing west. The flats were surrounded by towering cliff faces only visible as black figures on the pale blue night sky. In the clearing, several glowing orbs blinked to life.
“The hell . . .” Hanne staggered backwards as if she’d run full throttle into a wall. Was this some kind of trick of the light?
Astrid chuckled, grabbed her by the arm and pulled her the rest of the way. “It’s fine.” She lifted the lamp as they approached a bunch of scruffy goats and sheep huddled together in the clearing. To her surprise, they didn’t back away and instead crowded around Astrid.
What the hell is going on? Hanne thought. Why did Astrid bring her there on such a cold night for some dirty mountain goats? Astrid pulled a leaf of cabbage from her satchel and broke it into parts before feeding it to the begging goats. They took to it like rabid dogs, some jamming their noses into her bag searching for a source.
“The Station’s so out of the way, they’re not used to us yet. The other day, while on break during rounds, a group of us found them here, and they just walked right over.” Astrid stroked one on the head. “A few get hunted, but not enough that they’ve learned to be scared.”
“Crazy.” Hanne felt herself smile and stepped into the rabble, petting the beasts as they sniffed at her—probably in search of more food. Soon they were surrounded by the entire herd, two grey soldiers lost in a sea of white fur. “This is . . . well, it’s something else, but I still have to ask, why’d you take me here?”
Astrid set down the lantern and faced Hanne, who was sure at least one of the goats was eating her jacket. The freckled girl's features were like clay in the lamplight.
“Have you ever killed before?” Astrid said, even and quiet. “As a kid, before camp, my mum took me hunting all the time. You ever been hunting?”
“No, lived in Anker. Dad was too sick to serve, and since we lived in the city, he was put to work in the factories. Died a couple years before I was old enough for the camps.”
“Damn.” Astrid pulled apart another leaf of cabbage and watched the goats climb over each other for it.
“They put me in his place till I was twelve. Never really held a rifle before then.”
“Well . . . Today, we're going hunting.”
Then, Hanne clued into Astrid’s plan. Was she mad? These goats didn’t deserve a pointless death any more than Magnus had. She would not shoot a goat for the sport of it. She would not kill a helpless animal unless it were for food, which, at the moment, they did not need.
“I’ll stand here with the lamp, you pick one. Then, just pull the trigger. You’ll never get an easier kill than this, I can promise you that. They’re just meat. Don’t overthink it.”
Right, just meat. Like Magnus was just meat. Suddenly the memory of burnt flesh tickled at her nostrils.
Hanne gripped her rifle. It wasn’t that she couldn’t shoot one of the goats, more that she didn’t want to. It took everything to not tremble, to stay calm. She didn’t need Astrid to see her as weak. The goats cut through her with those unsettling, beady eyes. Demons in the night chomping away at old cabbage.
“Have you totally lost it? I thought you were just stepping up with Magnus, but now I'm not so sure.” Hanne could hear her own voice wavering.
“When it comes down to it, are you going to be able to do what needs to be done out there? It all starts tomorrow. You find yourself staring down the barrel of some southerner’s rifle, you think you’ll be able to shoot first? You think tripping some witless kid gives you a killer instinct? Shoot one of the fucking goats, Hanne.”
Dumb goats. They all looked up at Astrid like she was a god, hands full of a bountiful harvest, gifts from the heavens. They were just too stupid to realize how wrong they were. Hanne couldn’t take the pressure. She turned and rushed down the path they’d climbed and vanished into the night and wind.
“I won’t count on you to have my back, then, coward!” Astrid’s voice pealed against the mountainous crags. It was followed by a thunderous crash, loud bleating and the scuffling of hooves on stone.
“Pups!” a thin, fox-faced officer addressed the rookies in their barracks the next morning. They stood at attention, some still rubbing the sleep from their eyes—Hanne among them. The cold march into the mountains at night did her no favours. Every part of her cried out, from her skin down to the marrow in her bones.
“As you all know, the Brigadier General joined a convoy headed east this morning. You are all the better for having trained under him as most of us have never had the pleasure to meet someone of his rank and experience. Now. He’s personally evaluated each of you and today’s the day you will receive your novitiate assignments. Once I’m through, you will report for duty in front of the mess hall and await orders from your assigned superior. Is that understood?”
“Sir, yes, sir!” The barracks thrummed.
“Larsen, you’re with Captain Bruun: Communications.”
“Sir,” Larsen replied.
“Toft, you’re with Lance-Corporal Fisk: Dragoons.”
“Sir,” Astrid said, elated, a smirk creeping over her face.
“Thorsen, you’re with Fisk as well: Dragoons.”
Hanne shrunk. Dragoons meant sink or swim. It was a punishment. A statement. It had to be. They knew she wouldn’t cut it. And it was some kind of cosmic joke to be paired with Astrid who had in so many ways already proven herself. On the other hand, Hanne would see combat. Unlike other possible assignments, she would ghost her officer, LCpl Fisk. The officer they called ‘Crow.’ She’d become a part of his unit. There were worse fates, she could be cleaning shit. This, on the other hand, she had to see as an opportunity. Once she did, the possibilities swam through her imagination, and she smiled.
“Sir,” she said and gave a short salute.
The rest of the called names melted away as she waited. It was unlikely they would see one another for a long time, if ever again. A shock pierced through her chest. Then it was gone. This was her duty, after all. It was just how things were. Magnus’s rat face flashed through her mind, and she wondered where he might have been assigned.
Written by Matthew Rigg