“Quickly, No time to explain, you need to come with me!”
The child hesitated looking up at the dirty soldier with wide eyed confusion, he turned annoyed at her delay a scowl swiftly crossed his bloodstained face as he hoisted the girl into his arms bolting away from the carnage.
She screamed frantically, wriggling and panicking in his strong grip forcing him to slap a gloved hand over her mouth holding her even tighter. A muffled sob wracked her tiny body as she went limp in those powerful arms. Her fear became shock as she slumped against the soldier, finally allowing the large man to bear her as he ran along holding her like a floppy rag doll.
Bumped, bruised and shaken she buried her face into his chest, having no idea how long he had been running, she could hear his breath, long laboured gasps, his heart thudded wildly in his chest from adrenaline and endurance. She was cold it had started to drizzle; he paused on his marathon to bundle the child into his uniform to protect her from the stinging freezing rain. That was the first time she actually got to glance at his features the rain had streaked the muck and blood down his face the filth dripping from the stubble on his chin.
His eyes appeared golden in the pale light causing the girl to almost fancy that he was some supernatural creature, almost expecting him to change form and destroy their hunters with grace and ease. But this was no fairytale and the enemy at their heels was frighteningly real. He began to run again and she clung to his shirt, held securely within the reeking attire, the exhausted child finally slipped into an unconscious slumber.
It was dark by the time he ceased running, the rain had stopped yet the stars were concealed by thick heavy clouds which promised more rain before dawn. By now they were in a densely wooded area still following a well worn muddy track through the old trees.
Leaving the path behind them, the lone soldier carried the sleeping child deeper into the woodland seeking some form of shelter for the reminder of the night. Crossing a shallow stream he discovered a fallen tree, not exactly ideal but at least it was an improvement on the war torn landscape they had fled from.
His own body was screaming at him to rest, so the exhausted man clambered under the thick trunk, curling up with the tiny child for warmth and safety, gathering fallen leaves around them for camouflage.
Although his body craved rest, his mind was alert and sleep was fleeting, the slightest sound may be an enemy that had tracked their path and hunted them down. The logical part of his mind argued against these irrational fears, that one deserter and a small child were hardly high on army priorities. Besides, as soon as he found somewhere safe for the child to stay, he could return to his fellow troops and manufacturer the tale that he had become separated from them amongst the fighting.
Sleep came and went in haphazard periods throughout the dark night, but by dawn he was deeply within slumbers grip. Therefore it was the child who awoke first, blinking; she stirred in the great arms of the lone soldier and wriggled free from his slack grip.
The soft sound of the babbling brook drew her attention she followed its call to drink. It felt good to quench her thirst; splashing water upon her face she rubbed sleep from her eyes. Exploring the misty woods in the dull grey dawn, keeping the large mans’ rumbling snores in ear shot, she found a few berries on a thick bramble bush so collected some to share.
That was when the girl noticed black smoke against dark clouds, rising up through the branches. Her fear returned tenfold as she swiftly sprinted back to the slumbering soldier scattering berries as she fled.
It took no effort to rouse the soldier, who near cracked his skull on the thick trunk, as he bolted up alert in an instant. The frightened child appeared incapable of rational speech, chattering so swiftly in her panic that he barely understood the cause of her distress. Before he could calm her and ask for a clear explanation, she started away, paused, returned and tugged him by the arm. Rolling out from under the concealment of the fallen tree he followed the child asking her to explain, however she turned and hushed him sharply gesturing towards the rising smoke.
It was his turn to take the lead, his training and experience guiding his actions in what could be a positional hostile situation. He caught the child’s arm and indicated that she should climb a tree to stay out of sight while he ventured ahead to seek out the source of the dark smoke.
A small peaceful cottage set in an idyllic clearing appeared quiet and totally unscathed from the surrounding war, as though trapped in a time forgotten, a small fragment of serene humanity in a world thrown into chaos. Where conflict was the norm, this simple cottage perfectly represented the peaceful way of life that people were fighting for and dying to protect.
It was beautiful in its simplicity and for an instance the image stole his breath and a rare smile graced his grizzled features.
A soft humming alerted him to the presence of a young woman scattering grain for chickens. He froze unwilling to cause any alarm, yet when she noticed the soldier she smiled warmly and gestured for him to approach.
“Are you lost?” She asked, her accent was thick and he couldn’t place the dialect.
He shook his head, glancing back the way they had travelled, knowing he could rejoin his troops before dusk if this proved to be an ideal location to conceal the child.
The child had to be safe at any cost.
The woman tilted her head to one side as she awaited an answer.
“I seek sanctuary.”
“No, for a child.”
“Of cause, she is welcome here”
A smile of relief crossed his expression.
This is was how the child found sanctuary, a peaceful haven of solitude away from the vile war. Even though she had known the large soldier for less than a day’s span, there were clear tears in her sky blue eyes as she bid him farewell later that morning.
He had accepted a humble feast of freshly baked bread, soft cheese and an apple before parting company with the rescued child. He knelt before her and smiled sadly, only a few words were exchanged and as a parting gift, a near after thought, he handed her his knife. A sharp, well made blade, kept in fine condition, safely kept in an oiled leather sheath.
“For emergencies.” He said as a simple explanation to her confused frown.
She nodded and held it tightly, standing in the doorway to the cottage watching until he was out of sight and long after.
That was several years ago now and the war still raged on, the soldier still fought on, but the small child was often in his thoughts. He longed for peace, to an end to this dreadful lingering conflict. Yet he had no family to go home to, he knew nothing apart from killing and fighting, both of which he was skilled at.
However when they came under attack he was asleep, the enemy crept without effort through tired sentries standing guard, slaughtering many of them with ease along their path overwhelming the small patrol and taking any survivors hostage.
They were cruel wretched creatures, who tortured their captives for their own sport. Starved and beaten, tormented by the enemy, facing foul punishment and cruelty daily. One by one the soldier watched his comrades die a slow agonising death as their bodies gave up against such violent maltreatment. Until he alone somehow survived, broken, famished and deprived of sleep he still managed to cling to life, placing one foot before the other in a monotonous routine, head bowed low, his mind focused on the girl he had saved years before hand and that gave him energy from deep inside.
His strength was commendable, but his captives grew bored so one sunny afternoon they dragged him roughly to a tall tree, he was bound and a rope was tied carelessly around his throat before they hoisted him by his neck from a low branch. They laughed as he kicked and struggled, but the clumsy knot, tangled in the back of his ruined uniform, prolonged unnecessary suffering. The enemy, as usual, lost interest in their torment once he became still and so they marched onwards, leaving their last captive half dead, hanging limp in blazing sunshine, simply awaiting the editable.
A flash of sharp metal caught the sunlight, the keen edge severed the rope easily and he fell heavily to the ground gasping for breath.
A desperate coughing wracked his form, his lungs begging for air through his crushed throat. Barely conscious the tortured soldier glanced up, blinking against the bright glaring sunlight, reflecting from a familiar razor edged knife as the blade severed his bonds. Finally free, yet unable to move he felt surreal drawn back from the edge of deaths grip.
Bright blue eyes shone with an inner life, they were older eyes, in a mature face, had it really been so long? She was a child no more, yet her smile was still innocent.
“For emergencies, yes?”
Anne Harrison 26.09.16