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Of Birth and Battle
This could have been avoided.
All of it, really—the gashes, the wounds, the bodies of blood strewn across the length of the sweltering battlefield. There isn't a night that exists that I don't hear the collision of sword blades, meeting together to the background of raging cries and groans of agony from soldiers fallen. A day doesn't pass that I don't bare lifeless holes into the woven walls of my ranking's home tent out of simple misery. Of course, there's practically nothing I can do that would cause any change to the current situation. The war's begun, and after nearly two years—one of which I've spent here—I see no quick end in sight.
I prefer not to fight in combat; it feels as if I'm betraying my people if I willingly hurt them on the field, even for a cover-up. Instead, I've become acquainted with the invisible sidelines, doing unnoticed, pesky tasks as serving the meals (assuming we have them that day) and dragging the bloodied, chainmail-clad soldiers in heaps off the battlefield when they can bear their swords and shields no longer.
My hands fumble through the thinning sheets of my cot, searching for the one reason that I'm even in this place: my scroll.
The Omega army, of which I consider myself an important part, has assigned me an undercover post on Alpha's base. I'm to observe their habits, seek information on their future battle plans, and report immediately back to my superior using the scroll.
"Every piece of information you can get your hands on is vital to the survival of our army," the head of my corps directed diligently. "You will write anything and everything you hear on this scroll. The ink will disappear in a few ticks, and if we possess the time, we will reply in a scroll of our own. There's a spell upon it, and whatever we write, you may see."
My fingers glided delicately over each crevice in the parchment, purposefully yellowed for the role. It still held that fresh-parchment smell. I snapped my head up from the scrutinization of the scroll to give my superior a quick, determination-brimmed nod. I could do this.
And yet, here I sit, with an empty scroll and far too many nightmares to go unaddressed. I can't do this.
This could have been avoided, yet here I am. And here I'll stay.
Dawn brakes as always the following morning, but as I struggle for the strength to slide from my cot, I find myself alone in my tent. The other cots stand, empty and dismal, as the bleak rays of first light slither through the roof's fabric. Across the field, the cacophony of battle is none.
A meeting of strategy should be held soon.
It's the only explanation—one meeting of future battles' details is held every time the Omegas retreated to regroup, allowing me to gain access to large clots of information.
I blow a sigh from cracked lips before stretching my arms above my head as dots swim across my vision. My fingers slip beneath the hem of my tunic, muddy and battered, flipping it over my head with a crack of my neck. The air is all humidity and pinpricks.
I'm undeniably vulnerable in this position, with my back exposed and my Omega birthmark—a crescent moon and star—revealed. I stay wary of situations like these, but my tent is void of other soldiers, and despite the lack of laundry service on a field camp, I can at least give my tunic a good beating from dirt and dust.
That is, until a sharp gasp pierces the air behind me, followed by a growl worth a thousand sins.
"Traitor!" the voice screams as my organs practically leap out of my skin. I turn sharply, realizing a stranger, decked out in rusted chainmail, standing in the entryway and eyeing my birthmark with an expression of utter blasphemy and betrayal. I've been compromised.
"Uh... H- hello?"
The man growls again. I shift backwards until my knees knock the frame of my cot, causing me to nearly fall into the metal before the stranger's hand surges forward and clutches my naked, freckled shoulder with a vice grip. He hauls me forward into to the dirt floor before dragging me, kicking and screaming, out of the tent.
"Piece of Omega filth... Worthless anarchist..." I hear the man mutter, seething with rage. I attempt at fighting back, to detach my arm from his fist and make a run for it, but there's a reason that the Omega army assigned me as a spy instead of a soldier.
Tents and buildings, umber-colored and weather-worn, pass my line of vision, but I'm unable to predict where the man is heaving me. The clinic, the informational tent, the General's headquarters...
Dried-down, powdery mud cakes my bare feet and sprays up into my hair as the man nears a stone-block building. He halts for all of two seconds, re-gripping my shoulder so that his large paw of a hand gains a firmer hold, and trudges through the doorway, down the mossy stairs.
A cell. He's taking me to a cell.
He practically tosses me, all hundred pounds of light gold skin and bones, through the opening as we near the end of the corridor, trapping me inside the musty prison. The door slams shut with the ping! of a lock closing.
"You really thought you could outsmart us, boy? Eat Alpha food, steal Alpha information? You'll burn for this," the man bellows and spits through his dark beard. "Just wait until the General hears."
And with that last stomach-churning statement, the man is gone.
Time passes—exactly how much of it, I'm unsure. The sunbeams glimmering down from the top of the stairs die at brick #2,669.
Through the dark and the musk and the faint squeaking of a mouse somewhere past the bars, footsteps approach, followed by the flicker of a lighted match and a candle wick accepting the flame, casting a faint glow of orange across a young man's face.
His finger lingers against his lips in a shushing motion, silencing any whimpers of protest that might have escaped my mouth. An item, grasped in his other free hand, jingles lightly as he lifts it for me to see—a set of keys! He's-
He's freeing me? But- but...
A thousand questions bounce around my skull, knocking against the barriers of my head in sporadic motions as The General inserts the only key on the ring into the cell's lock. The door of iron bars swings forward.
The General peers down at my fumbled, conflicted expression, my eyebrows crossed, blonde hair plastered against my forehead with mud and cold sweat. He looks much better than I—shoulder-length, dark tresses gleaming in the candlelight, bronze skin free of any dried, unhygienic fluids.
"Are you the Omega that I've been hearing of?" he asks mischievously, his quiet voice thick with an intriguing accent that's impossible to place. I deliver the tiniest, jerky nod, and a smirk flirts at the corners of his mouth. He shoves a wad of fabric—my tunic, I come to realize—into my arms. "What is your name?"
When I take a breath to speak, my voice ejects fuzzy, quiet. Soaked in static. "Private- Private Jude... Saidley." The sentence alone nearly makes me wince as I pull the article of clothing back over my torso.
The General breaks into a silent chuckle, then grins at me in a way that I can't quite describe. "Well, Private Jude Saidley. My name is Alford Sebastian Black III, late General of the Alpha army. Though, you may call me Alfie." His gaze falls to the base of the staircase. "And I'm asking you now-" he murmurs, eyes shifting back to my presence, "-will you run away with me?"
Obviously, I say yes.
"Why... why are you helping me?" I ask tentatively, the first chance I find. We've descended barely a few miles down a patchy trail, previously hidden by the thick wall of forest the Alphas claimed as a settling sight. The moonbeams from above cast through the overhanging limbs of trees and shine down, illuminating our trail. I had requested to retrieve my scroll, but The General—Alfie—only shook his head sadly at that.
"I'm... sorry, Jude. But after you were discovered, they burned your possessions. All of them."
The other man sighs, turning his head softly. "The same reason you accepted my offer, I suppose." We've halted now, standing close on the narrow path. "It's not common for a General of an entire army to be so young, I'm sure you're aware. My father... was a much more ruthless man than I. When the Omega riots started, when your people were finally tired of being trampled on by Alphas and Betas in society, he was the one that initially led our troops to beat yours back. He died in battle, however, and as his son, I was forced to submit to the role. Needless to say, I didn't quite share his... passion... for war."
Alfie meets my gaze. His eyes are iridescent, no color yet every color at once, under the reflection of the moon. "It's exhausting. Physically, mentally, economically... I never signed up for this role. To kill. To lead."
"Nobody did," I offer in a way that I hope is comforting. "My- my mother, she did everything to keep me on my feet, even in the worst of poverty. Gave up her food, sent me to school all the way across our region... With no father and no riches, she alone raised me to the best of her ability. I enlisted for her. In the army, I mean. I'm certainly not much, but I did it anyway, for her." I chew my lip around for a few moments before adding quietly, "If only I had been able to come back to her before her illness did."
Alfie gazes at me, and I gaze back, and I think an invisible barrier between us has broken down somehow, now.
I chew my tongue around for a few moments before lifting my hand up, smoothing it over Alfie's shoulder and down the length of his arm. As my fingers reach his palm, I notice his Alpha birthmark, a sword and shield, on the back of his hand.
Alfie only smiles, albeit a bit sadly, before curving his body away from mine and into the distance ahead. "We should continue forward, Jude. We have plenty of ground to cross before it's safe to set a night camp."
Three weeks into our journey, Alfie reveals a square of parchment, folded into fours by strict creases. As the item blooms open, I realize its exact purpose. A map, stricken with a path of ink leading straight to a Beta base.
When the Alphas and Omegas claimed war upon each other's race, the Betas disappeared from the front lines. The population's majority paid no mind, focusing on the battles ahead, but a good few pondered the Betas whereabouts. Some even speculated that the middle race slinked away from the spotlight in order to organize a plan of peace.
According to Alfie, the rumors are true, and he intends for us to join them, to end the bloodbath. There's only one map, however.
So, we share.
Eight weeks into our journey, we're running out of water.
So, we share.
Twelve weeks into our journey, we're scouring for food on an unfamiliar plane. He manages to reap a few of the land's resources, trapping nearly half a dozen squirrels and rabbits. I, unfortunately, only find berries and nuts.
So, we share.
Fourteen weeks into our journey we're practically camping on ice. The map we so blindly follow directs us north and north again, but as we continue, I can feel winter's claws wrap so desperately around our ankles, licking up our back and draining the life behind our eyes.
The moon has well been hung in the blanketing sky and killed the envious sun by the time the last ember of our tiny fire glows red, then dims. Our only light now is brought by the stars, and even they have seemed to abandon us. It's far too cold to be sitting out, and the ground is far too hard to be sitting on, and Alfie's face is far too pale to be sitting near.
"Alfie," I whisper worriedly. My breath makes little puffs in the air.
"Hmm?" He hums just as quietly. His face is turned towards me, but his eyes are closed.
"We should sleep. The sun has already set."
"The fire's burned out. We're safe." His eyes open at that. "Go to sleep."
He does. We both finally lay down on opposite sides of the remaining ash, what's left of our belongings between us at our feet. The bottom of my spine presses harshly into the ground, and while the endless view of space's canopy is beautiful beyond words in winter months, the only feeling I can process is the harsh ice crawling up my back. It seeps into my bones mercilessly.
I turn my gaze over to Alfie, across the stones we used to contain the previous fire. His dark hair is splayed across his face, but I can see his body shiver. He's shaking. At the sight, I come to realize I am too.
I heave a sputtering sigh, peeling my body from the frozen dirt. My feet carry me over by his side. I let them.
"Move over?" I ask, my whispers horse. Alfie cracks open his eyes, and his gaze locks with mine as I stand over him, albeit a bit awkwardly. The lights behind those pupils are too dim, too dim.
Instead of providing a verbal answer to my hesitant request, he rolls his weight onto his side, almost as if it were an invitation—I take it as one.
With Alfie's arms draped gently around my waist, our legs tied together and my head resting in the warm, soft juncture between his neck and shoulder, I just... breathe. It feels safe.
We can overcome these trials, we must.
Neither of us has enough body heat to survive the slicing bite of winter nights alone.
So, we share.
Eighteen weeks into our journey, survival to the Beta base appears to drift farther and farther away. Alfie and I continue our struggle to maintain vital resources as the yellowing map loses its previously-held promise.
But, as the birthing beams of sunlight stretch across the field with sunrise, Aflie's arm slung around my shoulder and mine slung around his for mobile support, the breathtaking vision of a quant cinderblock building draws on the horizon. A breath hitches in my sandy throat, and I lift my head to gape at Alfie out of the corner of my eye. A collection of people linger outside, and I can't help but feel that they're waiting for us. As if it were all planned from the start.
We stumble as quickly as possible towards the group and the building and our last ray of hope, clinging together, just to prove that this is real.
A few meters from the flat, Alfie finally disconnects me from him, looks at me, and smiles. It blooms through his cheeks and into his forehead, and after months of grueling fight, I can't help but smile back, just as bright, just as beautifully. "We- we made it..." I whisper.
"Yeah. Yeah, we did," my companion whispers back. He lifts his marked hand up, smoothing it over my shoulder and down the length of my arm, just as I had done what feels like so long ago. Only, when his fingers brush past mine, he intertwines them, bringing my palm to his lips and kissing it gently. A sensation of warmth from the man I trust most flows through my hand and into my body.
"Come on, love." Alfie grins softly. "Jude Saidley, I am asking you now... will you save the lands with me?"
Obviously, I say yes.