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“Mikael, my friend! Have another ale!” Simeon roared, slapping the shorter man on the back. Mikael lurched forward, subconsciously smiling and accepting the mug of frothy ale. He gulped half of it down, laughing with his friends in the warmth of the local tavern.
But he, as well as his facade, was only part of the milieu. He smiled, laughed, and joked with his companions. And yet his heart remained tormented with the anguished screams of innocence that he had slaughtered. So many fallen, bloodied at his feet. So many dead.
Every night they went to the same tavern, drank the same ale. They flirted with the same tavern girls, watched the same drunks fight by the roasting spit, and heard the monotonous sorrows of the nearest man drowning alone by the door. And every day they took the same orders: crush the Resistance.
The Army of the Dictator was not truly an army. It was a conglomeration of homeless men that were hired to pervert the meaning of government and military. They violated rather than protected lives; a fact of which Mikael was oft reminded. He twisted his mouth into a wry smile, delusional with ale, but sober enough to arouse disgust against himself.
The life of a soldier was not easy. Despite the rumors, he was poor, as was every soldier under the command of the Dictator. Mikael’s clothes were found wanting, and his stomach was permanently cramped with near starvation. His home was only a shanty shared with three other men by the customs house. The infantry was not exotic or well paying, but someone had to take the job. And once a man was in, he served for five years. There was no escape, save by death or desertion.
It was the infantry that shot and killed every man, woman, and child involved with the Resistance. It was the infantry that burned the homes of Resistors, bloodied communities as examples of bad elements, and kidnapped leaders for leverage. Any soldier with a sliver of humanity never grew deaf to the cries of women as they flung their bodies over their children, nor the raw screams as companions were killed, or the weeping of men as their families were slain.
Mikael twisted his face into a grimace, laughing halfheartedly at Ravil’s joke that he barely heard. He stared into his mug, tortured as memories flashed before his eyes.
A fat bald man, tied to a stake; a scholar of some sort, with broken glasses. A wounded woman, dragged to Mikael’s feet. A young boy no more than three, screaming and afraid, as his house was consumed by flames.
Mikael roared in frustration, throwing his ale aside as the boy’s face became etched in his mind. Hatred passionately kindled for the Army and the Dictator. They had turned him into a murderer, not a soldier. His friends remained oblivious to his yell; it was lost in the rumbling tavern sounds and their rude comments thrown obnoxiously at passers-by. The liquor was taking hold of their tongues.
Mikael held his head in his hands, moaning at the pain of harsh recollections. A thumping pain attacked the base of his skull as his vision wavered. Muscles tensed while he became drunk with bloody memories. Angry tears blotted his vision as he recalled the first man he ever killed.
The night was as black as the ink in which he had signed his name. The stars were dead, and the moon was hidden. They had dragged the man to the river, refusing him even one chance to deny and repent his contributions toward the Resistance. The man was fearless, even in death. His eyes held something beyond the mortal life. Mikael was only 19, and the musket was warm in his hands. The man was silenced forever with Mikael’s bullet in his skull.
Mikael hung his head, beleaguered by the image of the man’s face. That was three years ago. That man is long dead. He pulled at his dark hair as sweat broke upon his brow. I shouldn’t remember these things! When polished and well prepared, he cut a handsome figure. But now…
“Mikael? Here, have another drink. You don’t look very well,” Fathus remarked heartily, waving a tavern girl over. “Two more drinks, lass.” He slapped two coins in the girl’s palm, and she scurried away. Simeon guffawed as Ravil fell out of his seat, his eyes glazed over.
Mikael was disturbed and looked away. Some men could stomach the violent oppression that they spread across the entire country. Others…could not. And they, like he, found comfort in the ale that they could afford.
He shoved away his chair and stumbled out the door, mildly sober. The tavern’s noises decreased to a loud murmur at his back. He envisioned two more years in the infantry, and then trembled. Mikael’s clenching stomach threatened to vomit.
You’ll never forgive yourself, boy. I may be able to, but your mind will torture you for time without end, and that is more pain than I can ever hope to give you by revenge, the man’s voice echoed in his ears. Mikael and his regiment had awoken in the darkness of night to raid the man’s home. He dragged the man and his wife outside as his fellow soldiers shot the farm animals and searched the entire area. The man was forced to watch his wife take a bullet to the head. Then he had spoken the words that would never die.
For the first time in three years, Mikael had hesitated. His officer shouted the order and backhanded Mikael across the face, screaming curses and insults. In the end, he pulled the trigger. But he wept with sorrow for the world and for what he had become.
Mikael felt the war clashing within. I am a weak man. A pathetic soldier. He tripped down the tavern’s steps, raising laughter out of a short man nearby. Mikael heaved himself back to his feet and faced the tavern’s glowing doorway. What have I done? The images of the bald man tied to the post nagged him, as did every other sight. His life was inhuman.
Massacring, plundering, and burning were only burdens held by the most heartless of men. Never mind if those lives were stolen by orders of the Dictator. The lives were still lost, at his merciless hands. His entire world was tinted with the blood of the Resistors, and he knew it well.
Mikael swore and strode unsteadily to the water barrels behind the tavern that were just for this purpose: he dunked his head in the cool water and then in the hot, and was sobered quickly enough. Dripping, he gasped in the cold night air and flung the dark hair out of his eyes.
A slaughterer. His life should have been taken instead of the dozens that he had stolen.
“Boy, ye’d better move,” a gruff voice came from behind him. Two burly men were dragging a man outside. Heaving to a count, they threw him in the mud a few yards away. “And if ye come back, you’ll be sorry, mate!” The men guffawed, walking back into the warm building and friendly hubbub.
Mikael caught a glimpse of his friends… who have killed just as much as you, he reminded himself. They young soldier swore again, gripping the sides of his head.
The boy, his throat red with lifeblood. The girl, her flesh burned by the flames of excruciating fire. The man, a professor, tied to a post. He watched them in his minds’ eye, and as his mind spun a dangerous glow kindled in his dark, glistening eyes. Mikael felt something build within him. Lives cannot be rekindled, but lives can be saved.
He fled into the shadows, melding as one into the black darkness that covered the night world. Not once did he turn to look at the hellish world left behind.
That night, a soldier disappeared from a local tavern and was sentenced to death under the charges of desertion. That same night, a nameless man entered the Resistance and became a legend, known for the ferocity of courage that he possessed as he fought against the Army of the Dictator.