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Once You've Seen

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Just before dawn. Moonlight splinters through branches and glistens on damp leaves. A young soldier stoops over a stream and gulps the cool water. He is lost, exhausted, and now, as footsteps rustle in the undergrowth and a rifle cocks over his shoulder, he is flanked.

“Are you here to kill me?” the flanker asks.

“No,” the soldier replies, fearing the same thing.

“Pity. On your feet boy, turn around.”

The soldier turns around. A man with straggly, grey hair and an overgrown beard steps out of the gloom, tracking the soldier with his rifle, despite the bloodstained blindfold masking his eyes. A friendly - he wears the uniform - navy blue military coat, knee-length - torn at the collar, buttons missing.

“State your business, boy.”

“Got separated from my patrol, sir,” the soldier replies, noticing a faded gold emblem on the man’s shoulder, signifying an officer. “Ambushed in the forest last night, by Gorlians. Outnumbered we were, sir.”

The officer lowers his rifle and nods concedingly.

“You’ll do. Follow me.”

The forest canopy cracks and sways. Leaves rustle as the first hint of dawn sends bats flocking home. Far below, amongst the crickets and rising damp, a blind officer strides upstream, unfazed by wet stones and jutting roots, while an eager soldier hurries carefully behind. At a ruined stone outpost overrun with ivy and swamped by branches, the officer halts.

“It’s from the middle-period,” he says, as the soldier takes in the crumbling walls. “Before the Commonwealth, before these damn wars, before this.”

He holds up his rifle.

“I lost mine in the forest, sir,” the soldier says, touching his belt unconsciously.

“Here, take mine.”

The soldier takes the rifle. The officer marches away and grabs a shovel by the side of a tree, then rams it into the dirt and starts digging. The soldier perches on a stone and warms his hands with his breath.

“What is it you’re digging, sir?” he asks.

“My grave.”

The soldier squints - the rifle is filthy.

“Why are you digging your grave, sir?” he asks, while trying to pry open the chamber.

The officer steps back from the tree’s shadow and becomes a silhouette in the fading moonlight, veiled eyes catching the dawn as he aims them towards the sky.

“When you’ve seen what I’ve seen,” he starts, with a defiant smirk, before pointing his shovel at the soldier. “What else is there to do?”

He sinks back into darkness and carries on digging.

“What is it that you’ve seen, sir?” the soldier asks, unclogging dirt with his sleeve from the hammer and lock.

“Everything,” the officer grumbles, tossing out soil onto the growing mound.

The soldier blows dust from the barrel, wipes the damp wooden frame and peers at the rusty brass inscription on the shoulder rest.

“Are you a deserter, sir?”

The officer stops.

“How could I march? How could I fight?” he protests. “How could I give and take orders, once I’d seen what I’d seen?”

“What is it that you’ve seen, sir?” the soldier asks again, before getting distracted by the rifle chamber finally clanging open.

“Everything, boy,” the officer snaps, and pulls something from his pocket.

There isn’t even a bullet in the chamber.

“I’ve seen the truth; the how and the why; what is and what was and …”

“What is that, sir?” the soldier motions, towards the dark object in the officer’s palm.

The officer barks out a laugh and shakes his head.

“A better question would be: where did I get it?”

“Where did you get that, sir?”

“I killed a man and took it from his corpse.”

The soldier lowers the rifle and stares with sudden interest at the strange shadowy figure standing before him, knee-deep in his own grave - a deserter, a murderer, a thief. Then, as if sensing disgust, the officer, digging once more, says firmly:

“The man told me to kill him.”

Crows patrol the sky. Blood paints the fields. A red sky rises over the eastern mountains - the lifeless audience to an endless war. Somewhere deep in the forest, an officer stands waist-deep in his own grave, while a soldier takes a bullet from his satchel and forces it into a rifle.

“Was thinking, sir, about that man you killed,” the soldier starts. “Why did he need you to do it? Why not just do it himself, if what you say is true, sir?”

“Because he couldn’t.”

“I don’t follow you, sir.”

The officer lowers his shovel and leans back in the hole.

“Do you know that an imperial assassin is hunting me?

“Do you mean a Justice, sir?”

“They’re assassins, boy,” the officer barks, catching himself and immediately lowering his voice. “She crossed the bridge two nights ago. I was waiting on the opposite bank, ready, I thought, to surrender and die. But as she drew closer, and I heard her horse’s breath and it’s hooves on the cobbles, approaching like the drums of my execution, I couldn’t do it. Instead I hid there in the undergrowth until she passed, and fled back into the forest.”

The officer points to the trees and the soldier spies a noose in the dim light, hanging high above his head.

“I couldn’t do it,” the officer sighs.

“Why couldn’t …?”

“I drowned when I was a boy, in the lake by the edge our farm. It was summer, and my father had beaten me and my sisters the previous day, after he caught us in up to our waists. He said the water was dangerous. He said that there were currents hiding under the surface that would drag us down to the bottom, but it seemed impossible to me - the lake was so calm and blue, I thought my father was creating a monster to frighten us. So the next day I went back, threw off my clothes and set off for the other side. I remember the darkness. I remember kicking at nothing and screaming without making a sound. I could see the sun; I could see my sisters - they were so close and yet I couldn’t get to them and I thought: how can this be real? I thought I must be dreaming; I thought that if I closed my eyes it would all be over and that when I opened them again, everything would be back to how it was before. So I closed my eyes.”

“What happened then, sir?”

“I woke up coughing on the bank as my father pounded my chest. He later said it was a good thing. He said it would turn me into a man because now my eyes would be open to the truth of how things really are, and that I’d be stronger for it; but my father didn’t know that only some truths build character; others destroy it.”

The officer picks up the shovel again.

“So, you want to know why that man couldn’t kill himself?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Because he didn’t want to die.”

“I don’t understand, sir.”

“He didn’t want to die – but once he’d seen what he’d seen...”

The officer runs a hand along his blindfold.

“You see, there is always hope, boy,” he says, as if gazing on some distant part of the forest. “There is always the hope that if we just close our eyes, our pain will be gone when we wake. No man truly desires to be dead - even men who hang themselves still kick - and a man whose pain is in seeing everything, well; he’ll even gouge out his eyes before he’ll take his own life. Do you follow?”

“I think so, sir. You mean the man wanted to snuff it, but chickened out every time he tried, so instead he asked you to do it?”

“Such bliss,” the officer laughs to himself. “No matter. Is the rifle loaded, boy?”

“Yes, sir.”

The officer stands up straight in his grave, hands behind back.

“Good. Now aim that rifle and shoot me dead.”

The soldier aims the rifle.

“In the head or the chest, sir?”

“In the ... wait ...” he mumbles. “Just … wait a moment.”

Somewhere in the fields, a terrified soldier is clutching the wound at his throat as axe-wielding Gorlians rush his position; somewhere in the hills, a mother is pleading as Commonwealth soldiers light torches and force her and her children into a barn; somewhere in the forest, an officer is scrambling from his grave and throwing away his shovel.

“I’d rather be cremated,” the officer says, setting off towards the outpost. “I’ll get an axe.”

He disappears inside, curses repeatedly, then storms back out and starts chopping.

“We’re going to need plenty of wood, boy,” he yells, hacking wildly and grunting viciously with each swing.

“Just one more minute.”

The axe comes down.

“Just one more hour.”

The axe comes down.

“Just one more day.”

The axe gets stuck. He fights to wrench it free, growls, pushes down with his foot on the tree for leverage. Then with a crack he stumbles backwards, only the shaft of the axe left in his hand. He pants heavily. He sighs defeatedly.

“I don’t want to die.”

High in the forest the birds are singing, as sunlight breaks through the trees, brightening the officer’s dirty face. He raises his chin and sniffs the damp morning air and a brief smile passes over his lips, before his head whips back violently and blood spits out behind. A deep, red hole appears at the centre of his blindfold, followed immediately by a loud bang that startles birds and echoes through the forest. The officer drops like a stone and lies dead on the forest floor. The soldier darts to the outpost, takes cover behind a collapsed wall. Light footsteps through the leaves, approaching. A woman, the soldier spies through a crack, with a pale face and long black hair. She wears a dark coat, open at the waist, revealing a dagger at her belt and leather boots that barely disturb the ground as she strides towards her victim, smoke still rising from the barrel of a revolver in her hand. She inspects the corpse briefly; drags it by ankles and throws it over the back of her horse; swings up into the saddle; slides on her gloves.

“Go back to your war, boy,” she says coldly, tilting her head like she’s spotted a mouse. “Soldiers live longer than deserters.”

With that, she takes the reins and gallops away through the forest.

Go back to your war, boy.

The warning echoes in his mind, as he gazes at the stone on the bloodstained ground. Though it appeared dark in the officer’s hand under the moonlight; the morning reveals it to be translucent. A smooth, crystallized piece of rock with a deep light emanating from the core, seemingly awoken by the dawn.

Go back to your war, boy.

The soldier creeps forwards - over the shovel, over the axe shaft, through the blood. The stone pulsates and light splinters out chaotically. It burns his eyes but he can’t look away; can’t even blink.

Stop, soldier.

A blissful warmth washes over him, and a terrifying chill. There are voices on the air – thousands of them – laughing and singing, screaming and crying. The light pierces his skull. Thoughts evaporate. Mind fractures. The self drowns and the soul soars, high above the forest and the mountains, basking in sunlight.

How will you march? How will you fight...?

The soldier reaches for the stone with eyes wide open.

...Once you’ve seen?

 

 

Bio:

I recently graduated with a degree in English lit and therefore spent a hell of lot of time studying the classics. I gained a particular appreciation for modernists like Joyce and Mansfield and the key rule of modernism which was always ‘show don’t tell’. I love ambiguous storytelling, I love storytelling that evolves from the ground up, where information is revealed gradually and naturally through language and interactions between characters, and I prefer authors that respect the ability of their reader to respond to such subtlety. I also like fantasy, obviously.

 

 

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