Far behind enemy lines, Natalia and Orsolya continue on into the depths of Union territory. In their travels they are surrounded tall grass, lonely trees, and old wreckage that has given them a temporary peace. A peace that can so easily be interrupted.
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I remember those days of traveling to the front. The beautiful countryside, cozy towns, fields full of food, sparkling clean rivers. Occasionally the scene was ruined by some wreckage or a patrol going about their business. Still though it was all quite beautiful, something I could stare at and keep my mind on instead of the butterflies filling up my heart. Then the sounds would start to come in and the smell… by God, that horrid smell of death. I wanted to vomit but I kept my wits about me. After all you couldn’t look weak among your mates, vomiting at the first hint of the stench. I still gagged though… I don’t miss one bit of it! Now I’m sitting here in the garden of my home, my lovely wife busy cooking inside. Later tonight I’ll be playing cards, maybe a game of the seven masters, win some money or lose some, doesn’t really matter to me. It beats being afraid that at any moment I could die whether going towards the front, at the front, or even leaving it! Death bounded and now I’m finally surrounded by life.
-Arthur Kinpin, The Time Spent Away from War
From up on top of the hill, Natalia saw the rolling hills covered in grass with streams running between them. The wind kept the grass dancing, the movements disturbed by an assortment of animals coming out of hiding spots with the rising sun’s glow. Tall trees with long branches cast great looming shadows that provided cover for a small family of deer grazing peacefully. Dotting the landscape’s splendor was the occasional piece of wreckage from past battles now rusting away, forgotten.
“What do you see, Orsolya?” Natalia looked to the woman peering through binoculars at a distant object.
Orsolya lowered the binoculars and handed them to Natalia. “See for yourself.”
Doing as ordered, Natalia brought the binoculars up to her eyes. “Where?”
“Right between those two hill crests, you’ll be able to see the road.”
Following the direction that Orsolya was pointing, Natalia set her sights between the hills to see a paved road covered in trucks filled with supplies heading toward the distant trench line to their south. “Why don’t we bomb that road if it’s so important to them?”
“We do, over and over again. Some of the wreckage you see around is our own planes shot down. And they do the same to our supply routes.”
“What a pointless cycle.”
Natalia looked to the hills and spotted a bunker built into the side of one, the cement barely visible beneath the dirt and grass covering it. “Fortifications?”
“Both ground and aerial defenses. They’ve had plenty of time to build them all.”
“I assume you have a better place to cross over than here?”
“Yes, it is further north.”
“I hope it’s close to Barvan,” Natalia said.
“Very close, and with our current route we’ll have few run ins, if any, with Union patrols. Should be nice and easy to sneak into the town.”
Shifting the binoculars up, Natalia could make out the shape of the mountain at the heart of Glodoran, the distance and heavy cloud coverage making it appear hazy. With a shiver, she lowered the binoculars and handed them back. “Do you really think the contact will have Lépurc’s location?”
“According to the mission details.”
“Yea, sure, but the details didn’t mention heavy fortifications blocking a bunch of our potential routes.”
Slipping the binoculars into its case, Orsolya slid the case back into her pack. “Quite true, these eastern batteries do seem a bit more beefed up.”
“I’m sure it is because of what’s happening in the Bosakil mountains, I’m not a fan of being so close to them at all.” Natalia turned around to see the rising hills that led up to the distant mountains to their east, the peaks vanishing into the clouds. She thought of the months of dealing with the cold and snow all culminating in that last test to become a gamayun. I’m so glad to be gone from that frozen torture.
“Most likely, Luncal has been acting up, but it’s the best place for us to travel for now.” Orsolya replied and began to head down the hill heading north. “Neither side’s defenses are as heavy leading up to the mountains due to Ladrei Lake.”
“And what if Luncal does do something finally?” Natalia eyed the Bosakil foothills, expecting something to come from them, but nothing was there besides the edge of the forest.
“There’s a chance we may have to deal with them, but for now there is a small window that we can slip by before Union really starts to dig in due to Luncal’s encroachment.” Orsolya waved her hands to the surrounding area, “And based on our surroundings, I’d say I was right!”
Natalia shook her head and quickened her step to keep up with the taller woman, “Doesn’t mean there can’t be something over the hill. These medallions are nice hiding us, but I hate that we can’t reach out without ruining the affect.”
“Many tools have a disadvantage in some way, especially magical ones.”
“Of course.” Natalia sighed.
The pair reached the bottom of the hill and began to follow a stream that snaked its way down from another hill. Pebbles were kicked and crunched beneath their boots. Shadows of small fish darted away from the surface while insects flew in all sorts of direction seeking food. The family of deer stopped eating to look up at the two women passing, ears flicking and tails swatting at the insects buzzing around. Natalia smiled warmly to the deer, as an urge to settle by the gentle flowing stream and enjoy the peace nearly stopped her.
“How far north do we have to go anyways?” Natalia asked.
“A little more than a day’s travel, maybe longer depending on how many kilometers we cover today.”
“How many kilometers do you think we’ll cover?”
Orsolya turned from the stream to stay on a grassy path between two hills. “Hopefully twenty.”
“Twenty!” Natalia stopped in shock. “And without a mount?”
Orsolya looked back at Natalia with a raised brow. “Of course, it’s a typical distance to travel on foot.”
“My feet are going to kill me by the end of this, aren’t they?” Natalia groaned and hurried along behind Orsolya. “I wish Revu was here.”
“You should be able to handle it without Revu.”
“I know, it’s just I’m used to having her around to do most of the walking and heavy lifting.” She pulled her coat tight and adjusted the straps to her pack. “Surely not every mission will have me separated from her?”
“I’m sure in the future you’ll be with her again, just not this one, dear.”
“I really hope so.”
A pair of deer ahead of them stood from their cover beneath a tree and began to gallop away. Natalia watched their bronze streaks lit a fiery glow in the sun’s light. Reaching the tree, Natalia looked up to catch glimpses of a few lizards scurrying along the complicated network of branches seeking out any insects coming out of holes in the bark.
Past the tree, the two women moved from the space between the two hills to climb one and head down the slope on the other side. More of the trees dotted their path providing brief moments of shade from the growing intensity of the sun. The constant breeze and clouds above helped further keep them cool. Any patches of snow that had been left from over the night had long since melted away, the fresh dew that hung on the bladed tips of the grass all dried up.
They crossed over several streams all snaking their way from the Bosakil foothills to the east. In that direction, gray clouds from the mountains were beginning to gather and make their way westward, promising afternoon showers. From within the clouds, a small plane emerged which quickly vanished into another group of clouds, its shape too distant to discern which nation it belonged to.
The rolling hills all around them were becoming more gradual as they headed further north. The streams started to lessen, and groups of trees became more common. The wreckages of old military craft that dotted their path became sporadic as they moved further from the trench line.
A low rumble high above of passing planes caught their attention as they hurried under a tree for cover. From within the shady cover, Natalia saw the three planes soar on to the south. “I wonder where they’re going.”
“A bombing run I’d imagine,” Orsolya replied with a shake of her head. “Now that one barrier was knocked out the Union will try anything to cause more damage before winter, I’m sure.”
“That’s not good at all.”
“Not one bit, but as long as our comrades are there when we return, that’s what matters to us the most,” Orsolya said and turned to keep moving on.
Natalia watched the planes for another moment before turning to follow. “You know, I thought I had enough for breakfast, but I’m already getting hungry again.”
“You brought plenty of ration bars, yes? Eat one of those, we can’t waste time stopping quite yet.”
“I was hoping you’d say we’d take a break.” Natalia sighed and stopped to shake a foot of a growing sore. “Have we gone at least five kilometers?”
“I doubt it… maybe three.”
“But everything is changing so much around us!” Natalia replied while eying yet another grouping of trees ahead with a small stream passing through.
“You noticed the change when you reached the trenches for the first time, did you not?”
“It’s all the same region.” Orsolya headed for the group of trees to step between the trunks and into the hidden cove they created. “Where we came from is the result of the battle at its start eleven years ago. The trenches were dug shortly after and thus the battle became narrower. At least that’s what I was told when I asked the same question years ago.”
“That explains why it seems so… blank, just hills and grass.” Natalia paused to admire the stream at the heart of the gathering of trees. A silver snake made its way through the shallow waters before darting after a fish and vanishing from sight. “More plants and animals and different kinds too!” Natalia said turning her gaze to a bed of flowers around a tree near the heart of the small haven their red petals glistening with dew still, untouched by the sun.
Orsolya paused to look back at Natalia then around to her surroundings. “You know, I normally don’t stop to admire it all, but I guess you’re right. There really is a lot more variety.”
“For sure!” Natalia said and walked over to a fallen tree covered in a bright green moss with pink flowers. She pulled off her glove and ran a finger along the moss enjoying the soft texture against her skin. “I’m glad we came this way; it’s been a while since I got to see such life! There has been so much death and war recently, everything is so miserable.”
“The rats don’t seem to mind.” Orsolya spat to the side, “So, that’s something, right?”
Natalia made a disgusted face and shook her hand. “Why’d you have to remind me of those rodents? I accidentally touched one a couple months back; it was covered in some slime.”
“Probably from crawling in a dead corpse.”
“Orsolya!” Natalia whined and gagged at the thought as she quickly pulled on her glove as if she was touching the rat at that moment.
“Relax my dear!” Orsolya laughed and took Natalia’s hand into her own. “Relax, there’s no rat.”
Natalia took a deep breath. “Okay… okay…”
“At least until we get to Barvan. It’s filled with rats!”
“You’re lying!” Natalia ripped her hand away and looked at Orsolya with a hurt face. “You have to be lying, right?”
“Of course, I’m lying, Natalia!” Orsolya laughed some more, hugging herself to fight back a growing stitch. “I thought you liked nature!”
“I do, doesn’t mean I need it crawling all over me!” Natalia spat back. “Now let’s keep moving.”
Orsolya wiped a tear from her eye and turned with a wave of her hand to Natalia. “Alright, alright, let’s do that.”
“Finally,” Natalia grumbled and reached for a ration hidden along the side of her pack. She paused as her hand gripped around the ration and she decided to zip the pocket closed. Damn rat ruined my hunger a second time.
Stepping from the shadows of the trees, Orsolya headed for another group of trees further ahead. “Tell me Natalia, what do you fight for anyways?”
“That’s quite the sudden change of topic, don’t you think?”
“Well, our talks last night got me thinking and I’d like to know what makes you fight.”
“Isn’t surviving good enough?
“I’ve never met anyone who fights only to survive. Typically, there is another reason. Money, power, drugs… Is it drugs, Natalia?” Orsolya looked back with a grin, “Did you lie to me and you’re actually addicted to the blood?”
“No, definitely not!” Natalia scowled at the mention of the vials.
“Of course.” Orsolya reached out for a tree to step over a bed of roots and rocks as she headed into the next grouping of trees. “If I had to guess it’s whoever’s in that locket of yours?”
Natalia ran a hand over the locket’s hiding place. “If you must know, then yes.” Natalia followed Orsolya over the roots taking extra care in stepping from gap to gap before making it into the clearing beyond. At the center of the trees an abandoned truck twisted and mangled from its former self was covered in moss and flowers. A ray of light pierced through the canopy that made the yellow and white flowers sparkle in the light. Butterflies fluttered all about in the light. A sweet smell filled the air.
Orsolya paused to admire the sight. “You know, no matter how many times I cross over to this side there are always new things that I miss. What do you think, Natalia? Beautiful, isn’t it?”
“Definitely,” Natalia said looking in awe at the display of bright colors lit by the backdrop of sunlight. “The truck seems very old; just how long do you think it’s been sitting here?”
“Based on all the moss growing on it? It may have been here during the skirmishes before any trenches were dug.” Orsolya looked back at Natalia. “Let’s get back on the original topic, tell me more about this locket, please?”
Pulled away from the sight with the question, Natalia rolled her eyes and faced Orsolya. “I honestly rather not talk about it.”
She shook her hands. “Sorry, I’m not trying to pry, just curious is all. We’re stuck with one another for a while, figured why not learn a little about one another?”
Natalia reached up to the locket and pressed her hand around it. “Maybe another day I can tell you about them. Just not right now.”
“That works for me.” Orsolya laughed and turned on her heel to continue. “Or you can never tell me, though I think it’d be great to talk about something besides the mission; it’ll help pass the time.”
“Well, I suppose I can’t disagree with you there.”
Orsolya came to the other side of the clearing and stopped before the thick wall of trees. “If you’d like I can tell you some of my hist— Hold up!”
Natalia froze at Orsolya’s raised hand and listened. A distant buzz fluttered on the air slowly growing in intensity.
Tip-toeing forward, Orsolya led the way to the edge of the wall of trees and peered out to the distant mountain range. “Looks like a scout heading our way.”
Natalia looked in her direction and saw a pair of planes flying high in the sky. “I can’t tell which faction they are.”
“Luncal, Sween, Yenvark, doesn’t really matter, they aren’t friendly to us. Let’s pull back under the cover and wait for them to pass,” Orsolya said heading back towards the moss-covered truck.
Watching the pair of planes for a moment longer, Natalia narrowed her eyes trying to discern any detail before finally giving up and following Orsolya back into the shadows of the trees. “The skies seem active today.”
“Yes, fortunate for us there is plenty of cover to hide in.” Orsolya took a deep breath before digging into her pack for a ration bar. “Either way, you wanted a break to eat, and you got it.”
“I’m not exactly hungry anymore,” Natalia replied and found a spot of soft grass to sit in. Settling her pack on the side, she lay back, her body relaxing in an instant.
“Let me guess, the rat?” Orsolya left her pack in the dirt and began to meander around the truck at a sluggish pace while chewing on her snack.
“Not funny,” Natalia growled, her muscles tensing at the thought. Seeing no response from Orsolya who was intrigued by the truck, she closed her eyes. The buzz continued to grow as the planes drew near. “They don’t sound like Swenork planes,” Natalia said.
“How can you tell?”
“I took part in the battle for Ultar six years back. Their planes are terribly built and crashed all the time, but they seemed to always have an infinite supply.” Orsolya spat to the side in disgust. “I wouldn’t be surprised if some of them flew with the plan to crash into their targets.” She looked up trying to catch sight of the planes through the canopy. “That high pitched squeal to their engine, damn I hate it, if only we could focus our forces so Father could finally strike those feathered freaks out of existence.”
Natalia looked up to try to catch a glimpse of the planes through the canopy. The high-pitched buzz grew louder. With a groan she rubbed at her ears before covering them altogether. “What an awful sound!”
The buzz slowly began to die down as the planes passed by, heading off into the distance.
She saw Orsolya’s boots step close, and she looked up to see the woman offer a hand to her.
“Let’s get going; they’ve passed us.”
Natalia took the offered hand and was hoisted up to her feet. She lifted her pack and hurried in step to catch up to Orsolya who was exiting their hidden cove. “Where do you think they’re going anyways?”
“If I had to guess, to scout out the Union’s defenses in preparation for their main force to leave the mountains.”
Exiting into the waiting field of grass, Natalia felt the touch of the sun on her skin, its warmth a comfort.
“I have a feeling we won’t be going this way on our return trip,” Orsolya said looking at the mountains in search of something that was not immediately visible.
“Think Luncal is going to advance before Winter sets in?”
“I’m thinking so if they’re already sending scout planes out, they may make an early advance to try to surprise the Union. By a week or two from now this entire area could become a scene for a battle.”
An explosion high in the sky sounded off to their west.
“Speaking of battle…” Natalia muttered as she looked up to see smoke trailing up into the clouds.
“Our Luncal scouts didn’t get far before getting into a fight,” Orsolya replied and pulled back into the cover of the trees.
Natalia took up position near Orsolya and studied the clouds above in search of a plane.
“That other roar of an engine, it’s a lower tone, must have been a Union plane gliding higher up that ambushed them as they passed,” Orsolya said.
A moment later a shape trailing large plumes of smoke came out of the clouds with another plane falling behind. The two flew for a few seconds unabated by anything before a missile shot out of the sky to catch the rear plane completely off guard. The resulting explosion filled the air with fire for a brief second before debris fell behind a hill a couple of kilometers away from the two women. The other plane trailing smoke began to descend further, its high-pitched engine squealing loudly in desperation to stay working.
“It’s coming right for us, Orsolya.”
“Yes, it is,” Orsolya said and placed a hand on Natalia’s shoulder. “Let’s back up more into the shade.”
From her limited view deeper among the trees, Natalia heard the plane’s buzz growing closer before hitting a crescendo of disruptive noise. She saw the biplane just barely crest over a nearby hill before descending further into the shallow valley they had been walking through. The smoke it billowed behind it caked the field with ash. A fire was visible at the front of the plane by the spinning blade of the engine which abruptly stopped with a sudden jerk. The engine gave out with a loud bang, and the plane stayed afloat a second longer before landing flat against the ground. It slid a couple hundred meters as the left side ripped apart and the entire plane curved to the left before coming to a halt not far from Natalia’s hiding spot.
Natalia looked up to Orsolya, waiting. “What do you think?”
“We wait until the Union plane passes.”
Looking up to the sky, Natalia listened to that lower roar of an engine. It grew louder but still stayed incredibly high up. She squinted her eyes trying to find the plane through the branches but saw nothing besides clouds and the blue of the sky beyond. The roar began to die down as the plane raced off to a distant place.
“Let’s move, now!” Orsolya barked and came out of the hiding spot to march on north.
Natalia followed after Orsolya while keeping an eye on the plane that had crashed at most fifty meters away. The plane was twisted and broken up in such a matter that it was hard to discern any unique details, a growing fire in the engine with smoke coming out further obscuring its shape. She stopped dead in her treks and stared at the growing flames in the plane, a cry of fear emitting from within. “I think the pilot’s alive…” Natalia said surprised as she jumped slightly at the cry turning to shouts.
“Leave him, Natalia.”
“But shouldn’t we at least help him? It’s not like he’s trying to kill us.”
“No, definitely not!”
She turned to see Orsolya standing with hands on her hips and a visible scowl. “Why not? We can help him and at least give him a chance to make it back to his comrades.”
“If we help him then we take the chance of Union capturing him and learning about two Derdainian soldiers trouncing through Union territory.”
Natalia looked back to the fires hearing the shouts grow even further stressed and filled with terror. “Can we at least put him out of his misery? A swift death is better than being burnt alive!”
“And if Union comes here and finds a bullet hole or any trace of us near that plane, the same issue arises.”
“So, we ignore him?” she whispered with a stunned voice.
“That’s correct, now let’s move,” Orsolya ordered. “Longer we stay, the more dangerous this place becomes.”
Natalia watched her go. She placed a hand over her beating heart then over her locket. Mama, I know I have to kill, but this isn’t right… She closed her eyes to the shouts turned to screams before silence came shortly after. This isn’t right! She took a deep breath and followed after Orsolya trying her best to push away her growing frustration and sorrow.
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