'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.
Horn giggled at the strange man hobbling up the stairs leading out of the cellar. It had been an uneventful day until W-A-L-D-E-N Walden arrived with his super secret special package. Now it was a good day. Aidan had trusted Horn to watch over the sick kids and, by Sun, he was doing quite the job of it if he thought so himself, but he had to get into this package.
There wasn’t much to it. Tightly wrapped in brown paper, it was quite ordinary. When he shook it, it didn’t rattle and a boot to the side didn’t dent it. Boy, Horn so wanted to open it up. But if it was a secret package for Aidan, he didn’t want to be disappoint him.
But… a wee peek wouldn’t hurt.
An older kid who helped Aidan in exchange for an ear of bread or an empty cot had been teaching him knots. The twine had not been tied in a standard parcel knot, but instead a double… or was a single half-snitch? Pitch? Half-pitch? He mixed up the names, but he did remember how to tie it. One end of the string slipped loose with a little tug. The untying part wasn’t difficult, but he was careful to not mark up the paper or tug too hard and snap the twine.
With the package unbound, next was the paper. The seam folded inward at one edge. It wasn’t like any parcel he’d opened. Packages often found their way into the cellar. The older kids called it “shopping.” Food came wrapped in bark or burlap sheets. Sometimes there would be crates or boxes. Paper was rare, paper meant something fancy was inside, and this was fine paper—if a little stained—and wrapped tidily.
Horn snaked his fingers carefully under the inside fold, then pulled gently. It caught on itself, and a fissure tore up the corner. He froze, fingers half inside the fold, then pulled away and dropped the box. His fingernails caught the lip sliding out, splitting the folded edge down the middle, revealing something dark and brown underneath. Too curious to stop now, Horn began unfolding the remaining flaps.
The cellar doors swung open, and Horn slid the box behind him in a panic.
Alba’s clothes dripped, slicking the stone steps with foul-smelling water. Her eyes went wide, and she shot a myriad of signs too fast at Horn. Not that he didn’t understand, but he had no time to register the words. Horn never spoke much as a toddler, so she taught him a few words here and there. It started as something to pass the time, but soon the pair were signing back and forth in their own silent language. Once Horn started talking, he’d translate for Alba if they were together. Now that she was older, though, she stopped coming around as much.
“You’re talking too fast,” he said.
Alba rolled her eyes, then huffed and circled around him to the package. “I nearly died for that!” she said, slamming her hands together. “How did you get it?”
“W-A-L-D-E-N, Walden brought it.”
“That’s what he told me to say.” Horn threw his hands over his head.
Alba disappeared into the room in the back and emerged in oversized clothes with a rag draped over her hair. “Was he short and stupid-looking? Or tall and stupid-looking with a stupid hat?”
Pausing, Horn rubbed his chin. “He wore a funny hat.”
“Bastard. Why’d he bring it here?” Alba said, rubbing the rag on her hair. Before Horn could respond, Alba said, “Doesn’t matter. You know what? I ran into a friend on the way here. A fence. Apparently, he’s got some buyer picking up a few odds and sods. He also happens to like fancy packages. A silver bit and a bag of chips, he said. At least. H, we can sleep somewhere warm tonight!”
Alba did bad things. Horn wasn’t oblivious to that, but this package was supposed to be for Aidan, and he took care of them, took care of anyone who needed it. “But it’s for Aidan.”
Alba huffed, then reached for the package. Horn kicked her in the shin.
“It’s not right.”
“You little idiot, Walden is a crook. No idea why he brought it here, but it’s not for Aidan,” Alba said. “Besides, I need you with me, anyway. It goes faster if you talk.”
A few of the sick kids coughed or moaned, so Horn and Alba paused and made the rounds, refilling their cups, fetched them fresh rags and bandages, and cleaned out their buckets. “It’ll only be an hour, at most,” Alba said. An hour sounded like an awfully long time, but Horn trusted Alba.
The locals loved Alba and Horn. Most ignored them, no matter what trouble they got into. Some even chased away bigger kids who might ambush or corner them, because they were Aidan’s kids. If they got beaten especially bad, passersby would bring them food. Soldiers taught them a trick or two to get away or how to throw a cheap shot. However, the overly friendly ones were more dangerous than taking a beating. Alba could always sniff out the rotten eggs. Trust the wrong person, and wind up in the camps, or worse.
They made their way over the canal across a makeshift bridge and through a tunnel to the far side of what all the kids called The Pie. A tight network of alleys came together around a wedge-shaped building. Alba pulled Horn around one side of the wedge and up a fire escape to the roof.
Carrying the package so far took its toll on Horn’s small arms, but he wouldn’t let Alba carry it. If they were going to sell Aidan’s fancy box Horn had sworn to protect, he would carry the burden himself. He’d already tried to open it anyway, so either way Aidan would be cross.
A lanky, smoking youth leaned against a wall on the far side of the roof, reading some tattered book.
“What’s with the kid?” the fence said.
Alba signed and Horn repeated aloud what she said. “I’m–he’s here to make sure you don’t screw me.” If Horn didn’t say her exact words, she would kick him in the stomach. Somehow, she always knew.
The fence chuckled. “Name’s Wyatt, kid.” He stamped out his cigarette. “That the package Prey’s after?”
“Well, and I hope this doesn’t hurt the deal but, when I spoke to the buyer’s associate, they uh, wanted to talk to youse about the package before he’d set a price.”
Alba turned to Horn, then back to Wyatt. “You trust him?”
“Sure. Won’t be here till five on the clock, though. You good to stick around?”
Alba threw her arms back, then slumped into a nearby nook.
Horn set down the package behind him, stared down Wyatt, and sat cross-legged. Wyatt plucked a fresh cigarette from his shirt pocket and struck a match. It smelled of hickory. “What’s that book?” Horn asked.
“Oh, this?” The fence untucked the book from his armpit and flipped it open, feigning disinterest. “It’s a great story. True one too. You want to me to read some?”
That got Horn’s attention. At least the trip wouldn’t be boring. Wyatt had an aura about him. Horn couldn’t help but listen when he spoke. Besides, he loved a good story.
Wyatt licked his finger dramatically, scanned through pages until he found the one he was looking for, ran a finger down the inside of the spine, then began to read.
A long time ago, before war and Wardens and alliances, before guns and black powder, monsters roamed the lands eating people left and right, until–hey! I’m just wigglin’ your ear, kid. Relax.
Okay, I’m starting for real now, I swear.
In times long past, Caoiva—that’s our mother country—had many kings. Too many to count. If you threw a stone, it’d hit a king. These kings led the dozens of clans that formed our great country. Now, if you know anything about kings, it’s that they like power, and what is power? Land. Wealth. Influence. Some were righteous kings, some were dastardly. Some weren’t kings at all, but ruled by a long line of warrior queens, and other clans didn’t even name kings, instead they roamed in wild bands.
As all kings eventually do, they grew uneasy with their close neighbours. Though they held a long history of trade, marriage, and shared traditions, peace is only ever a temporary affair. It started with petty squabbles: an insulting dowry here, a border dispute there, and before long, the entire country became crisscrossed with new borders, riddled with alliances, and soon those squabbles turned bloody. Back then, it wasn’t uncommon for disputes to only last a few months, so when the clans remained in open war for several decades, they weren’t so well provisioned for long conflicts.
It was quite the dilemma.
As fighting roiled on, some clans set aside their pride and joined as one, sharing land and name in a bid to overwhelm their neighbours. It worked… when they got along. Other times… well, let’s just say their names aren’t mentioned for a reason. None of the clans willingly conceded. None wanted to be first to wave the flag, lest they be overrun. This clan war lasted so long they stopped fighting with horse and lance and graduated to musket and powder.
As combat evolved, the lesser clans fell behind and were forced to cede to those with more wealth and access to advanced weaponry. One of these lesser clans, the Callahans, did just that.
What most folk don’t realize about the Callahans, what’s locked deep in the catacombs beneath the libraries of The Fastness, is that they were once the bottom rung of Caoivish royalty. And pray tell, who did they join? The Mercys.
Considering the families have waged political warfare in the centuries since, it’s quite the revelation, I’m sure. Well, maybe you’re a little young for that, but anyway. Back then they had intermarried several times, so they’d grown close and already considered each other allies.
The battling ravaged our poor motherland, and at one time even saw involvement from the then Royal Velian Vanguard and the storied Nevish Whitecoats. Being a country bordering Caoiva had become perilous as trade stagnated.
But there was one young prince who yearned for peace, who wished for an end to the violence that shadowed his life from his first breath. You may have heard of him.
Iain gathered his most trusted men, ten in all, and rode from county to county, fortress to fortress, to meet with the Caoivish kings. The danger he put himself in was perilous, but he loved his country and his people. The man risked everything for a chance at peace in his lifetime, nearly executed on several occasions. Once, upon entering the southern heartlands, Clan Barrony apprehended Iain. A year he’d spend imprisoned there, and he’d lose three of his trusted Hands.
Callahan remained vigilant and the King of the Heartlands rewarded him with the audience he nearly died seeking. The king had become impressed with the young prince’s fortitude, so much that the two became quick friends, and Iain even helped train Barrony’s army to become disciplined and hardy.
There are many such stories between Iain Callahan and the kings of Caoiva, but the outcome was always the same. The kings agreed to a parlay in a neutral territory nestled at the very center of Caoiva, where no king reigned—
“What a load o’horseshite.” A woman’s voice called from behind. “Next he’ll have you believing old Callahan’s mealy corpse crawls out of the ground each Dead Harvest.” The woman dressed in patchy trousers and a denim jacket didn’t move like someone from the streets.
Wyatt snapped his book shut. “Hey, some of it’s true. I think. It’s just a first draft…”
“Right….” The woman turned to Horn and put a hand in front of her mouth as if to hide her words from Wyatt in a mocking sort of way. “Callahan, a prince? Hah! That boy worships the old ghost, believes he should’ve been some god king instead of having to answer to the witan.”
Horn really wasn’t sure what she was talking about, nor did he understand much of the details in the story, but that Callahan fellow seemed pleasant enough.
Alba elbowed Horn, then signed. Horn translated, “Got questions about the package? I’m a book? Oh—an open book.”
“My client would know what you know, of course. He’ll buy the package either way. He has quite the appetite for a mystery, but its value lies in its origin, and I must determine a fitting price. For one,”—She pointed with one of her long, gloved fingers—”the wrapping is torn there. Am I safe to assume this is your doing?”
A wave of guilt washed over Horn’s chest.
“No Mam, it’s as I found it.” Her gestures remained calm, no hesitation.
“You mean stole it.”
Horn squinted. “I don’t understand what she’s saying. Sea man ticks?” This produced a chuckle from the lady.
“I’m told criminals and smugglers are after it?” Alba nodded and the lady rubbed her hands together. “Which smugglers? Local? Hanged Men? Nevish Brutes? Details, girl.”
Alba stroked her chin. “Does the name Prey mean anything to you?”
Whatever that meant caused the woman’s eyes to widen. “I’ll give you a silver bit, a bag of copper, and throw in some iron chips. What d’you say?”
Alba’s wide smile told Horn that was a lot of money, and that whatever was inside the package had to have been important to that nice Mr. Walden, W-A-L-D-E-N. But he trusted Alba, and Alba said Mr. Walden was no good.
The lady handed a bag of clinking coins over to Wyatt, who inspected it before skimming a few off the top. Horn handed over the package. Wyatt tossed Alba the bag of coins once the exchange was over.
Horn waved goodbye, mostly to Wyatt, but had to admit it was nice to not have to carry that dreadful parcel any longer. He hoped to one day meet Wyatt again so he could finish his story. In the meantime, Horn could only guess how it would end.
Written by Matthew Rigg Chapters of this episode of 'A Chronicle of Ashes' will update on an irregular schedule. Keep an eye out on the site or on Discord for announcements of future chapters!