Old Soldiers Never Die

Old Soldiers Never Die

Illustration by Alan F. Beck

by Robert E. Waters

 

Rina peeled off a juicy wedge of orange and fed it to the head she was sitting on. She heard Captain Petre’s quick inhalations as he sniffed the fruit. He didn’t need to eat, she knew, but it kept him happy and his mouth moist. After two hundred years buried up to his rusty gorget, it was the least she could do. If she had enough oranges, she’d feed all of the heads lined up around her, row after row, as far as the eye could see.

Dried lips and yellow teeth snapped the wedge from her gentle fingers. No matter how often she fed the captain fruit, his quickness startled her. Though trapped in dirt and rock, he was still a warrior, strong and proud, and she tried to respect that. Rina felt herself lift as he chewed the fruit, his muscular jaw working the pulp. He was a big man; his head made a good stool, if not a little bumpy.

She got up and tossed aside the spent orange peel. She dusted off her dress and wiped her mouth clean. She then took a small kerchief from the tassel at her waist, bent down, and wiped the spittle and juice from Captain Petre’s face. It was a strong face, one cupped in a forest of red stubble. A face that never changed.

“Thank you, my dear,” Captain Petre said. His voice was gravelly and hampered by a tuft of grass in hard clay beneath his chin. “You are the sweetest little girl.”

Rina smiled. She liked the captain. She liked many of the soldiers she had met in this field. Many of them were her friends. But Captain Petre was special. He told good stories.

A commotion erupted to her right. She turned and saw her brother’s cur, Grey Jack, lifting his leg over the head of an old halberdier. The poor man tossed frantically back and forth to try and shoo away the mutt, but it did little good. A thin stream of piddle splashed across the russet helm, and a great voice filled the air. “For the love of heaven and earth, will someone kill this dog!”

Cries and whistles, and more than a few chuckles erupted across the field as the Chorus of the Sundered began. That’s what it was called. When the heads wailed in unison, their collective voices were heard for miles around. When the wind was up, or when a rain or snow covered the land, the moaning would go on for days, sometimes weeks. The song could chill the bone and ruin the flesh, some mystics said. But sometimes, when a pleasant eastern breeze wound through the valley, and the warm light of a generous sun brought daisies and wildflowers in bright beds between the columns of heads, their song was melodic and comforting. It lifted the spirit.

Rina shook the thought from her mind and chased the dog away. She stepped carefully between the heads, cautious not to catch a toe on an iron visor or catch her laces on a discarded sword. Many villagers and thrill-seekers had caught their death by the simple prick of the tainted steel that lay afoot. It was forbidden to be in The Field of Heads, and Mama had been most stern about the rule, giving Rina and her brother Kristof an oak switch across their backsides when she had caught them in the past. But Rina didn’t care. Playing among the heads was her favorite thing to do in all the world.

Rina removed the wet, brittle helmet. She recognized the soldier immediately. “I’m sorry, Binus. He’s just an old, dumb mutt. He doesn’t know any better.”

A foot came down on the soldier’s head. Rina jumped back. The crooked frown of her brother met her gaze. “Grey is not a mutt,” he said. “Take it back.”

Rina pushed against his leg, though she wasn’t strong enough to move the big bully. “He peed on Binus. That makes him a mutt to me.”

Kristof snickered, but knelt down and snatched the helm from her hands. He placed it back on Binus’s weathered, pale head. He rapped his knuckles across it as if he were knocking on a door. “He doesn’t mind… do you, old man? Why, it’s the first bath you’ve had in a hundred years.”

“Say you’re sorry!” Rina balled up her little fist and popped her brother on the shoulder. It didn’t hurt, but it threw him back and away. He stood up quickly to the roars of laughter from the heads nearby. Rina braced for a push, but her brother did nothing. Perhaps he was surprised by the soldiers barking at him; perhaps he was growing up a little.

“Don’t be so upset. By the gods, I was just having a little fun.”

A little fun is not what her friends needed nor wanted. Enough people had come to The Field to have “fun” with the heads. Kicking them, jumping from one to the next, leading their livestock through the maze of helms and pikes, letting their animals poop everywhere. And even more sinister and evil sorts would come and take knives to faces or bare throats. Clubs and shovels. Cleavers and axes. All in the name of fun. All in the knowledge that pain could be inflicted, but no permanent damage. So what was the harm? They deserved it, right? Isn’t that what the stories told?

Kristof tugged at her shoulder. “Come on. I want to show you something,” he said.

Rina hesitated. “What is it?”

But he had already trotted away towards the cobbled road. “Come on. Don’t be such a baby.”

Rina stamped her foot. She wasn’t a baby. She just didn’t like the heads on the other side of the road. They were the enemy, Captain Petre had declared. They were thinner and almost always bald with tattoos and other dark markings. And what helms had survived the years of torturous weather were sharp and many sealed to black iron mail. They were disgusting. She didn’t like them. But she was no baby. She stepped over the road and followed her brother through the sea of heads.

They were active this morning, barking obscenities and other foul things across the way, in an attempt to anger the other side, to get them to bark back. It was a game they played, and sometimes the shouting became so awful that Rina was driven from the field.

“Where are you going? Wait for me!” Rina yelled to her brother.

He waved her on, almost stumbling over a thick patch of helms, spears and barding.

There were a lot of horse bones on this side of the field. It was scary but Rina did her best. The horses had not been cursed, but they had been driven into the ground like their riders. Soon they all had died, their flesh and muscle rotting with the seasons, leaving bleached rib cages and leg bones and skulls in shifting heaps. A lot of it had been removed by smugglers and thieves, but enough remained to give off a blinding white glow when the sun was at its zenith. Rina shielded her eyes and kept moving.

Her brother disappeared into a patch of wood. Here, the line of ancient infantry was its thickest. It was difficult to step without kicking a head, and more than a few choice words escaped the mouths of the soldiers around her.

“Watch your step!”

“Do you mind?”

“If I were free and had a sword, I’d lop off your head!”

Rina was used to their nastiness. She couldn’t blame them. If she were stuck forever in the hard ground, she’d be nasty too. She ignored them, gave a few dirty looks, stuck out her tongue at one of them, kicked a little dirt into another’s eyes, and plunged into the woods. Near a cropping of rock, she saw her brother and his yappy dog. Grey Jack was barking and nipping at something, but this time, her brother held him back, keeping the dog from biting and scratching the sharp, dirty helm covering a head.

“What is it?” Rina asked, out of breath.

Kristof smiled and motioned her closer. “Are you ready for a look?”

Rina waited, her hands on her waist. Kristof pointed downward. He grabbed the pointy top, turned it slowly, then lifted it off.

Rina looked into the face of the head revealed. She gasped and fell down.

* * * * *

“Why didn’t you tell me you had a twin brother?”

Captain Petre turned his head from Rina’s inquiring eyes. She moved into his view. “Don’t turn away. Please tell me.”

“Tell her the story, Captain,” a head nearby said. It was Kellin, Captain Petre’s aide-de-camp.

“Yes, tell her!” A chorus of voices spoke up. Rina could feel their vibrations through the ground. It tickled her feet.

The cries became too great. “All right! Just shut up, the lot of you!” Petre screamed. “I will tell her the story, if you’ll just pipe down. Your yapping is making me ill.”

Captain Petre cleared his throat and looked up. “Sit down, child, and I will tell you about my brother Regan. He is dead to me, but I will tell you, if only to keep these bastards around me quiet.”

Foul curses erupted again. Captain Petre waited until it stopped. Then he began…

* * * * *

…the writhing mass of the grand army of Saint Fydorov excited him. He had seen them march before, when he was just a boy. But now, as a man, Petre Gorov looked upon the columns with renewed pride. His heart raced. Pike and halberdier, knights and swordsmen, as far as the eye could see. Their martial music marked tempo with the constant shift of boots upon the ground. Their colorful banners waved proudly in the misty air. If there was a time that he should join them, it was now. They were moving south. They were going to face Lord Hrudiz and his grand force of the Liebstag. They had met him many times before on bloody fields. They were going south, and they would return victorious… or not return at all.

“I must go,” Petre told his father that night. “There will never be a better time.”

His twin brother Regan stood nearby, listening intently, waiting to hear their father’s answer.

Father shook his head. “No. You are the eldest of the house, born before Regan. I am too ill to work the fields, and therefore The Saint can make no claim on you. You are needed here to serve me, your mother, your brother, and your sister. That is my decision.”

But that night, as the moon fell behind the clouds, Petre and Regan ran away. They followed the army south, and when they found it, they volunteered on the spot. Petre was made a swordsman, Regan a pikeman.

For years they campaigned against Lord Hrudiz, from the Shokolov Steppes to the massive pinewood of the Tandorov Valley. Tens of thousands of soldiers died, and a thousand score innocents who stood in the way. Both Petre and Regan rose through the ranks, gaining prestige and glory in battle after battle. But neither side could capitalize on the fortunes of their victories, and things grew desperate.

Then Saint Fydorov decided that the long-standing policy of officer exchange no longer applied. Lord Hrudiz countered. Then no quarter was allowed at all, as each side tried to out-murder the other. It was a time of terrible, bloody strife.

In this time, Regan Gorov was captured, and his brother Petre presumed him dead. Then one day, as Captain Petre’s men advanced onto a grassy ridge in the center of the Bitikov fields, he saw a familiar man atop a grey dun, wearing the red-and-black-stained mail of the enemy. The enemy charged, and Petre’s swordsmen stood their ground. The cavalry struck and a great battle ensued. Then in the midst of the slaughter, Petre saw the man again, thrown from his horse. His sharp helm fell away and what was laid bare to all enraged and saddened him. It was Regan, fighting and killing for the enemy.

Petre, feeling the tears well in his eyes, raised his sword and charged. The traitor counter-charged, and they fought.

“You were captured,” Petre said through ringing sword blows. “You were killed.”

“It isn’t so,” Regan said, parrying a thrust. “I live.”

“You are a traitor,” Petre said.

“No, that isn’t true,” Regan said. “I have seen the light, my brother. Saint Fydorov’s crusade is a perfect evil. He means to destroy the world.”

Petre jabbed with his sword again. “You lie.”

“It is true. Look around you. He was the one who first declared no quarter. He is the one who orders the slaughter of every innocent woman and child. He is the one dragging this war out infinitely. A peace has been proffered, and The Saint refuses to accept.” Regan held out his hand. “Come with me, brother, and help me end this war.”

Petre answered with a sword swing, but before further discussion could be made, reinforcement cavalry raced up the hill, and Captain Petre ordered his men into a fighting retreat. As they fell back, he could not take his wounded eyes off his brother, his younger by mere minutes. The traitor to his people, to his mother and father, to his own brother. And through the chaos and smoke of war, Regan’s face faded away…

* * * * *

“…and that was the last time I saw him,” Petre said, then closing his thin lips.

Were those tears in his eyes? Rina wondered. She had never seen the captain cry before. She didn’t know it was possible. “That’s so sad.”

“Yes. Regan’s treachery was profound.”

Rina shook her head. “No, I mean, it’s sad that you haven’t talked to your brother, or seen him, for so long. You never saw him again?”

Petre gave his head a little shake. “Jeshok, the God of All, hammered us into the ground before our armies could meet.”

“Do you miss him?”

Petre hesitated, then said, “Despite my better judgment, I do. I’m surprised of it, actually. I’ve spent so many years thinking about his deceit, his dishonor. But now… now that I know he lives, and just over the ridge, I—”

The captain could not continue. Another tear escaped his eye. It ran down his face, leaving a mark through a crust of dust and dirt.

The sun was setting. Soon, Rina’s mother would wonder where they were. Kristof had already gone home and so had Grey Jack, much to the joy of Binus. Clouds were forming in the east. The rains would come soon.

“It’s time for you to go, little one,” Captain Petre said. “Get on home to a warm meal and a good bed. You can come back tomorrow if you like.”

Rina stood. She waited for a moment, looking down at her friend, down at the uncountable rows of heads.

She wanted to cry too.

* * * * *

Kristof ’s eyes were fixed on Rina as they walked up the mystic’s path. “You’ve lost your head,” he said. “Mama will beat you silly when she finds out.”

Rina ignored him. She had already explained her plan twice. She was not about to explain it again. He had promised to come with her so she didn’t have to face the old shrew alone. He agreed. That was that.

She tapped on the door. It was dark inside. Rina could feel her heart race. Visiting mystics was definitely not allowed. They were creatures of magic and arcane lore. Some in the village used them for medical purposes and for divining the future. But there was never any account that Rina could remember of a mystic doing anyone any good. But she had no choice. What she wanted needed the power and experience of someone like Madam Plotka.

A withered crone opened the door. She was small and bent at the knee. Her black shawl covered a crooked frame of pale skin. The wrinkles on her face at first seemed sharp and angry, but as she waved Rina and Kristof in, they smoothed as a smile crept across the leathery landscape of her cheeks like the cracks of an earthquake. Rina liked her immediately.

“Come in, come in,” Madam Plotka said, waving them forward. “It isn’t often I have children visit me.”

The old lady moved past them slowly, her cane knocking around in front of her. It was clear that her eyesight was not the best. Rina hoped that she could see well enough to help them.

She ushered them onto stools, then took a chair herself. Her knees creaked and she gave a small yelp as her bony rump met the wood. Rina tried to keep from laughing. Madam Plotka caught the little girl’s smile. “There is no humor in getting old, child. Even your friends in the Field of Heads can attest to that.”

Rina’s mouth popped open. “You know?”

Madam Plotka laughed, a high-pitched squeal that tingled the ears. “Everyone knows about Jeshok’s Curse, girlie. And I’m a mystic. I can read minds.”

“Then you know why I’m—, why we’re here?” Rina looked at her brother for support.

“I know everything, child.”

Rina appreciated Madam Plotka’s confidence, but she doubted the old woman’s honesty.

“You doubt me?”

Rina shrugged. “I don’t know you well enough to say, miss. But I’ve been told that you sometimes… exaggerate.” Rina shrunk a little on her stool, as if she expected to be smacked.

Madam Plotka leaned forward. She ran a thin, dark tongue over cracked lips. She winked. “You are wise beyond your years, girlie.”

Rina wished it were not so. But she had grown up quickly. Her father had died of a stampeding horse when she was four. She had witnessed it. She remembered him looking up from the mud, his face covered in grime and blood. He had smiled. She had reached out to him. He tried to do the same, then went slack. She cried for days. It wasn’t easy, but she had gotten over it, tried to forget it. And living with Mother was difficult. A widowed woman had it tough in the world; she was not respected. Mother refused to marry again, though suitors had called upon her. Rina found it hard to make friends, especially with a brother who constantly teased. The heads in the field were her friends, and they neither judged nor criticized her. It was nice having friends that never died.

“So can you help me?” Rina said.

The old lady rubbed a finger across her hairy chin. “You want me to bring Captain Petre out of the ground, and his brother too, so that they may meet once more. Is that what you’re asking?”

Rina nodded.

“This is stupid!” Kristof said. He tried to get up, but Madam Plotka stared him down with a dark stare.

“Indeed it is,” Madam Plotka said, “but are you always this disrespectful in someone else’s house, young man?”

Kristof stopped, shook his head, then sat down. He crossed his arms and looked away.

“He is right, girlie,” Madam Plotka said. “It is a foolish thing you are asking. Fiddling with Jeshok’s Curse is a quick way to die.”

“But he’s my friend,” Rina said, “and he misses his brother.”

“He should have thought of that before joining that bloody war… and angering the gods.”

Rina had heard the story a million times. Captain Petre’s version was always the best, the most enjoyable, the most exciting, despite its sad ending.

The armies of Lord Hrudiz and Saint Fydorov had clashed for days on the Girtok Plains. It was the greatest battle in a war that had been waged for decades, and while both sides seemed infinitely prepared to continue the slaughter, the gods grew tired of it all, especially Jeshok, Lord of All. He was tired of seeing his creations kill themselves needlessly. Many peace offers had been proposed, but not one of them accepted. Jeshok’s children ignored his pleas for peace.

The armies lined up, row upon row of sword and pike and horse, all regaled in their finest plate and chain. Again, Jeshok warned them to stop, and sent his angels to urge their compliance. Again, Man refused. And just as the two forces moved to engage, dark clouds formed in the sky, as if a mighty flood would come. But what came out of the clouds was even more powerful, more devastating. Men looked up and saw a fist, dark and ethereal, a massive rock of black, angry smoke. Before they could run the fist struck, pounding scores into the bloody ground.

Nothing escaped, not even the squirrels in the trees. Everything on the field that day was hammered into the fold, up to their necks. But only the men were cursed, the soldiers who had shed blood, those who had defied Jeshok’s demands and had put themselves above the gods. Now they would live in a prison, never to grow old, never to die. They would endure the passing of time, the changing of seasons. They would know pain, anger, sorrow, fear, desperation, hopelessness. They would endure every emotion perpetually, year after year, century after century, in payment for those lives they had taken, for those they had killed and had denied the right to feel, to fear, to weep, to despair.

Rina would sit for hours and listen to Captain Petre tell the story. It was very exciting. But sad too. So sad. So many lives lost, and for those poor men out there, locked in the ground. How many of them were just following orders? Were they to blame for the decisions of lords and kings and generals… and captains?

“But you can bring them out, can’t you?” Rina said. “You have a way?”

Madam Plotka nodded. “Of course, girlie. That’s never been the question. There have always been ways to get around Jeshok’s Curse. The question is: Who wants to defy the God of All?”

Rina shook her head. “I don’t care about a silly curse. My captain wants to see his brother. It’s been long enough. They’ve suffered enough.” She broke down in tears, letting them run down her cheeks. “Don’t you have any family? How would you like it if you were never allowed to see your brother or sister or father again?”

If you can read my thoughts, then listen to me now. Rina stared deeply into Madam Plotka’s eyes, letting the old woman see her cry. Please help me, and I will give you something that you can use in your magic. Her eyes drifted to her brother who sat there bored, disinterested, looking up at the bare rafters of the house. Rina formed the image of an object in her mind, and she kept thinking about it until the old woman understood.

Madam Plotka nodded, a faint smile on her face. “Very well. I will help you and your captain.” She leaned forward, pressing her wrinkled hands into the nub of her cane. “You are bold beyond your years, girlie.”

* * * * *

Rina led Madam Plotka over the cobbled road separating the armies. The old woman found the light of the setting sun difficult to handle, and the constant shouts from the heads frightened her. In the comforts of her own hovel, she was master. Here, Rina led the way.

She had already freed Captain Petre’s brother, Regan, and the sky hadn’t fallen. No smoky fist had pounded the little mystic into the ground. Nothing, save for the shouts and screams of the heads at their feet. The heads were just as amazed as Rina was when Regan lifted out of the ground. The heads went mad when their comrade appeared, whole, now nearly naked with the passing of time, bits and pieces of mail and plate and leather covering his legs, back and shoulders. Kristof had agreed to help the old soldier walk, while Rina and the mystic worked on Captain Petre.

Teeth nipped at their heels. Word had spread among the heads that one of their own had been freed. From the noise they were making, Rina could not tell if it was a song of joy or sorrow. Some were crying, some laughing. Some seemed angry. But most were afraid, shooting glances skyward, waiting for the clouds to form and Jeshok’s fist to come and nail them even further into the ground.

“Go away, old woman,” one of the heads said. Rina recognized the face but couldn’t remember the name. “You will ruin us.”

They ignored the snide remarks and kept walking. Rina could already see Captain Petre’s face. She had whispered to him last night what was going to happen. The captain cried again, silently so as not to alert his men.

“You should not do this, little one,” Captain Petre had said. “You are messing with forces you know nothing about. You could get hurt.”

Rina kissed him lightly on the head.

Now they stood in front of him. The soldier’s eyes were pensive. What are you thinking? Rina wondered. She could not read minds like Madam Plotka. The old woman must know his thoughts, but she kept silent, her bent form straining under the warm, setting sun.

“Hello, Captain,” Rina said through a faint smile. “We have come to take you to your brother.”

Rina could feel Captain Petre tense. She knew him well enough to know his expressions, how his jaw muscles flexed when nervous, how his teeth gnashed when excited or afraid. The ground beneath their feet vibrated with the shouting of the heads around her. On any other day, she would not mind. Today…

“Quiet!” Captain Petre shouted. “All of you shut up!”

The rows silenced. Other officers, captains and lieutenants, took up Petre’s call and quieted their men. The entire field fell silent. Rina was amazed. Even after so many years, respect and discipline was given to captains and lieutenants, colonels and generals in this field. Leaders were still leaders, and their men still obeyed orders.

“Get on with it, old woman,” Captain Petre said. “The day is waning.”

Madam Plotka reached into the pocket of her black dress and pulled out a tiny leather bag of powder. Rina led her around the captain’s head in a circle. With each step, the mystic uttered strange words and tossed ground bone and blackpowder onto the ground. Rina had not told the truth to Kristof when he came and asked what had happened to his dog. She feigned ignorance, and he was too stupid to figure it out. It was cruel and hateful what she had done, but this was more important than any old mutt. This mattered.

Madam Plotka finished the circle of blackpowder, then stepped back. With Rina’s help, she raised her cane to the sky, and spoke more gibberish. The heads around them held still and silent, their eyes fixed upon the old woman.

The tip of the cane began to glow white hot. Rina closed her eyes and helped guide the cane down until the burning tip touched the blackpowder.

A flash of smoke and ash flew up from the cane tip, and lightning reached around the blackpowder until Captain Petre’s head was ringed in flame. The captain’s eyes grew large, dark and round. He bared his teeth. A yelp of fear escaped his mouth. Rina wanted to reach out and comfort him, but she didn’t dare. No one entered the circle while the flame burned, Madam Plotka explained. Was she telling the truth? Rina wondered. But she had seen the magic work once already today. To doubt it now would be foolhardy.

With a burst of energy, Madam Plotka raised her cane and shouted into the sky. Rina fell back. Another burst of lightning sprang from her cane and circled the captain’s head. The old soldier cried out as if he were burning to death. Other heads cried as well, begging that it stop. The mystic kept her body rigid, her chant steady, until the fire circle began burning through the soil like a knife cutting out the core of an apple. Deeper it cut, deeper still, until the ground around Captain Petre looked like a shaft of black soil, rumbling and popping and sizzling as the fire seared rock and clay.

Madam Plotka reached out towards the circle and yelled, “Rise!” She lifted her hands again and again, as if she were personally moving the earth. Such a silly gesture coming from such a feeble little creature. At first, Rina had giggled when Regan was released, but she wasn’t laughing now.

The earth moved as Captain Petre rose from the ground, wrapped in a cylinder of dirt. Sharp rocks rubbed together like a millstone grinding grain, breaking roots as they crested the top of the hole. Captain Petre yelled as he ascended. Rina could see the fear and amazement in his eyes. It was really happening. He was being freed. She could only imagine the emotions churning inside him. She felt the roil of emotions inside herself. She would finally see her captain in full, not just his head. He would be a warrior again. He would walk the earth again. The very idea was almost too much for her young heart to bear. Tears flowed.

Rina moved Madame Plotka out of the way as the dirt cylinder fell over like a pile of crates. It rolled and came to rest against a line of heads and broken pikes. Those smashed by the cylinder yelled out their distress, but Captain Petre could do nothing but laugh.

“Help him out, girlie,” Madam Plotka said. Rina helped the mystic to the ground. The stress of the spell had taken its toll on the old woman. She lay there silently, her eyes closed, her mouth open. “I am too weak to do it.”

Rina went to the captain’s side and began to rake away the dirt with her bare hands. It fell away easier than she thought. Like opening a present or peeling an orange. Her glee grew stronger as each rock, each thick chunk of clay, fell away, baring legs, then arms, then chest. Like his brother, most of Captain Petre’s armor had not survived. But bits and pieces remained, along with stiff patches of leather and wool. She couldn’t imagine how heavy and hot such an outfit would be in the midst of battle.

Suddenly, he was free, the years of confinement gone. He just lay there, his bare arms and legs turning pink, then red, then white again as blood flowed once more into them. “I—,” he tried to speak, but the words caught in his throat. For the first time in ages, he tried to raise his head. He shook as old muscles found themselves again. He raised up on his elbows. “Please, help me.”

Rina came to his side. “We must get you up,” she said, and put her hand on his back. He sat up, breathing deeply, showing pain on his face. “It’s difficult,” he said.

“I will help you.” With all her strength, Rina strained to lift the captain to his feet. He struggled, the ground unforgiving and slick with fresh clay.

All around them, the heads exploded in cheers. “Yes, Captain!” “You can do it!” “Do it for us!” Their calls gave him strength, and he pushed himself forward, Rina holding his back for support.

“Come, Captain,” Rina said over the din of voices. “Your brother is waiting.”

She led him across the field. Every few steps, he paused to bend and tap the heads of his men. He smiled incessantly, giggled like a child, his tears flowing freely. Their wails of encouragement led him forward, toward the cobbled road.

He did not have the strength to crest the ridge. He fell to his knees and crawled the rest of the way, Rina holding him firmly by the waist. “You can do it,” she whispered to him. “You can do anything.”

Captain Petre pushed his bare feet into the ground, his old bones straining under the pressure. Rina pushed with all her strength. He let out a yell and fell onto the cobbles. He lay there a moment, breathing heavily.

“Hello, brother.”

Captain Petre stiffened at the sound of his brother’s voice. Rina sat quietly at his side, staring at her brother and Regan beside him, waiting on feeble knees. It was uncanny how much they looked alike. If it weren’t for the different uniforms and the different spread of armor and clothing, she could never have told them apart.

“Hello, brother,” Captain Petre said, waving his arm at Rina to give him aide. She did, and led him forward until he too was kneeling before his brother.

For a long while, the two brothers stared into each other’s eyes. It was like watching mirrors. The shape of their chins, their cheeks, the length of their noses, matched perfectly. Rina smiled.

Finally, Captain Petre spoke. “You look well, brother, for someone over two centuries old.” He cracked a smile.

Regan nodded. “As do you… brother.”

They fell silent again, neither man taking his eyes off the other. This is a good thing I’ve done, Rina said to herself. A good thing.

“Where is your sword, brother?” Captain Petre asked.

Regan looked to his side, where the remnants of a scabbard were held against him by a rotten belt. “I guess I’ve lost it, brother.” He looked up, his smile gone. “Where is your army?”

Captain Petre’s dry lips quivered. “They’re in the same place as yours, traitor.”

Regan leaned forward, a scowl leeching across his face. “You are the only traitor here, dear brother. You followed a murderer.”

“Wait,” Rina tried to say, moving forward. “Stop this—”

“You son of a bitch,” Captain Petre snapped back, his hand shifting to the pommel of his rusty blade. “I’ll kill you—” He pulled his blade and thrust forward, but his movements were slow. Regan fell to the left, avoiding the blow, and Captain Petre fell on his face.

Regan kicked with his right foot, driving his dirty toes into the eyes of his brother. Captain Petre screamed, grabbed his brother’s foot, and bit hard. Regan yelled and tried kicking away, but Petre was on him, pounding his fists into brittle ribs.

The Field of Heads burst into chanting, each side cheering on their warrior. “Fight! Fight! Fight!” The echoes of their rage filled the darkening sky.

Rina screamed, “Stop it! Stop fighting!” She moved towards them, but Kristof held her back. “Don’t be a fool,” he said. “They’ll kill you.”

“Let me go!” she screamed and tore away from his grasp. She threw herself between them, shielding Regan’s body from Captain Petre as he raised his blade and tried to stab down. Just in time, he noticed her and stopped.

“Remove yourself, little one,” Captain Petre said, trying to keep his balance. “This is not your fight.”

Rina shook her head. “No. You will have to kill me too if you kill him.”

“Let them fight!” a voice from the field said. “We want vengeance!”

“No!” Rina screamed, her voice breaking into tearful sobs. “The war is over.”

“It’s never over, girl,” said Regan. “It goes on forever.”

“No,” Rina said, standing up and moving in front of Captain Petre. “I gave you this gift, Captain. I thought you would be happy to see your brother, to talk with him. But you betrayed me. You knew all along that you would attack him, didn’t you? Didn’t you?”

Captain Petre’s eyes filled with tears. He shook, and tried to touch her shoulder. “You don’t understand, little one. You don’t—”

“No, I don’t. I don’t understand how after two hundred years, you think the war is still going on. Well, it’s not. It’s over. It’s over!”

Rina grabbed Captain Petre’s sword. He tried to stop her but she moved too quickly. He reached for her but she pulled away. She raised the sword high above her head. She teetered a little. Even in its decline, the sword was heavy. It had not been made for such small hands.

She stumbled down the ridge and into a small crop of rocks. “It’s over!” She screamed again. She brought the sword down hard. It sparked against the rocks. She hit again and again, each strike resounding across the field and sending sharp pains into her elbows. She brought it down again, and the blade splintered into a dozen pieces. She dropped the hilt and stumbled back. She landed hard, her bottom stinging on the gravel. She closed her eyes, her head swimming with anger and sorrow. I’ve failed. Failed.

You have not, little one.

A voice from the sky. Rina opened her eyes and saw storm clouds gathering. Large, thick and black. Angry clouds like those in Captain Petre’s stories. They blotted out the last of the sunlight. They billowed out over the field. Winds came.

Rina ran up the ridge. Captain Petre, Regan and Kristof lay on the cobbles, curled up like babies, looking into the sky and shaking uncontrollably. He has come, Rina said to herself. Jeshok is going to kill me.

No, Rina.

There was the voice again, ringing soundly in her head. She tried pushing it out, but its echo remained. She went to Captain Petre and hugged him tightly. “I’m sorry,” she said. “It’s my fault. I’ve cursed us all.”

The clouds formed a hand. Not a fist like she expected, but a hand, smooth and soft. A fatherly hand.

You have not failed, Rina. You have succeeded. Indeed, the war is over. It has been over for many years. It is time to move on…

With that, the hand in the sky dipped down until it grazed the field. It then moved slowly left to right, and as it passed each row of heads, the imprisoned warriors were plucked out. They hovered in the air for a moment, then their bodies dissolved into white smoke and drifted away. Rina covered her face when the hand crossed the road. When it was gone, so too were Captain Petre and Regan. Only Rina and Kristof remained.

Rina stood up and watched her friends disappear. Those rows not yet released sang their song, a joyous sound, one of relief and happiness. Their nightmare was over. They were, finally, at rest.

“Wait!” Rina said as she stumbled down the ridge. A sinking feeling gripped her chest and she began to cry again. This isn’t what she wanted at all. “Don’t go. I don’t want you to go. Come back, Captain Petre. Binus. Regan. Come back to me!”

But there was nothing she could do. The curse was broken. Jeshok was gathering his souls. They were his now, forever.

She stopped running. Come back, Father!

* * * * *

It took several weeks before Rina could walk the field again. While local officials, priests, mystics and other dignitaries came to marvel at the sudden disappearance of the heads, she would not dare show herself. And though they tried desperately to understand why, after so many years, Jeshok’s Curse had ended, Rina would not speak. Even her brother Kristof, still upset at the disappearance of his dog, said not a word. Rina kept quiet about everything.

The field lay barren, nothing more than a sheer block of dark clay of weeds and rock. But it still held life for her, and memories of friends and good times. She would not abandon the field, though it had abandoned her. Jeshok had taken away her friends. She was angry about that, but she kept her anger secret. It was not wise to anger the gods.

She walked out into the field. The places where each head had lain were marked with a discolored patch of earth, and rains had sunken some of them to form tiny puddles of water. But not Captain Petre’s. Despite Madam Plotka’s unearthing, his spot was smooth and solid, as if nothing had ever happened.

She walked over to it and stood on the very spot where her friend’s head had been. She pulled up tight and straight, keeping her feet neatly within the colored patch. She smiled. “I miss you, my captain,” she said.

I miss you too, little one.

The voice was strong in her head. She turned and saw a figure, bright and tall, within a patch of trees. Rina started running toward the shape.

“Captain Petre!”

The shape put up his hand. Rina stopped. It was him. She recognized the forest of red stubble on his face. His armor was new, pristine and shining. His clothing red, green and fine. She smiled. He was a warrior again.

“How are you, sir?” she asked.

I am well.

“And Binus? Regan?”

All is well, child.

He smiled, but there was a sadness in his eyes, one he could not hide from her. Even as a ghost, she knew his expressions. She could not read his thoughts, but she knew what that sadness meant.

“This is it, isn’t it? You’re never coming back, are you?”

He shook his head. No, child.

She fought back the tears. “Goodbye, my captain.”

Goodbye, sweet one. Don’t forget us, he said, then slowly faded away.

She turned and on the place where her friend had laid, was a rock, smooth and head-sized. On top of it lay an orange, freshly peeled and waiting.

Rina went to it. She picked up the orange. She smoothed out her dress, sat down, then ripped a wedge of fruit away and popped it quickly into her mouth.

She sat eating… and remembered.

 

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