The Present Will be Infernal
That was what the prophecy said: “The present will be infernal.” My Da always added, “and the past and future don’t look so good either.”
Most of our suffering was on account of the war. Anytime we managed to get some small crop, seemed like either an army came along and requisitioned the whole thing, or two armies came along and held a battle atop our fields, trampling them to mudholes.
Corpses don’t make for good fertilizer, at least not right away.
Our village always managed to just scrape by, but it wasn’t pretty. That explained Da’s take on past and present. As for the future—our village won’t have one. The armies took our young men. They’d always taken some, the ones who itched to get out, or who thought they wanted an adventure. But this time, King Tellert declared a muster, and claimed every male of fighting age. He defined “fighting age” pretty broadly. I wept when my Da left, side by side with my brother.
The chances were slim that we would meet again, in this world or any other.
When we all got over our shock at losing sons and brothers and husbands, and any men we might have courted, we realized the future was gone too. With only a few young brides, none of them in the family way, our village was doomed. No men, no babies. No babies, no future. With the war raging by, it’s hell now, but soon enough it’ll be…nothing.
“There’s only one thing to do.” Our headman, Balthazar, could barely stand, but we paid attention. If we didn’t, he could still swing that cane he leaned on. “We must leave. Find a new home with another village.”
“How could we survive?”
“Silence!” Balthazar’s voice cut through the babble of frightened women and elders. “Leave, or stay here and die slowly. Each of you,” he looked from face to frightened face, “must make that decision for yourself.” Silence fell as women realized they must decide alone. In a handful of cases, they had to decide for children, though those were precious few. Not many youngsters were born to our war-trampled village, and fewer survived infancy. They turned to each other, bewildered.
I turned to no one. Da and Paulo had been my only kin. If they lived, they would know of nowhere to find me but our village. I didn’t know what to think. We had already lost everything to the infernal past and present, and now the future passed out of reach.
Balthazar had one more thing to say. “I will not go. I cannot walk so far.” Voices interrupted to clamor that they would carry him, but we all knew that was a lie. Several ancient men and women hobbled to his side. “We will wait together,” Granny Teela said in her cracked voice. She didn’t say what they would wait for. She didn’t have to.
“Who will protect us on the road?” The woman who asked that wept as she clutched the hand of her young daughter.
Sheena stepped forward at the head of a half a dozen women of our age. Two men, too old for the army but still able to wield a spear, joined them. “We will guard.” Sheena looked at me, questioning.
I shook my head, and looked at the cluster of our eldest elders. My path was clear.
“I will stay. The elders will need someone who can bring water and cook.” And, I did not say aloud, fight. The present might be infernal, but I would not see these elders into hell without a fight.
“Alone?” Sheena didn’t bother saying I would be little use. I shrugged.
“You will need all the arms you can get to survive your trip. I have no family. I will stay.” I knew what I was saying, and Sheena met my eyes with a look of pity and respect mingled. She knew, too.
Seven of us stood in a silent cluster and watched the ragged column of our past and future shuffle away into the distance. Since the army had taken all our draft animals, and even the goats, the women were bowed under burdens far beyond their strength.
When they had passed out of sight, I limped to the well and drew a bucket of water. The elders went into the village hall, where people had placed many of the things they could not take: the best beds, food, enough to last out our short lives. I collected bows, spears, and even a couple of swords that the men had left behind when taken off by the army.
I would face hell with a full armory and with a full belly.
When the army came, they marveled that the village was silent and still, save for a single line of smoke from a single chimney.
I stood in the doorway and watched the long columns approach. This wasn’t the army that had taken Da and Paulo. Thus my last hope fled. I would die alone. I touched my sword, and clutched the spear in my left hand. Beside me, four bows thrust through the arrow slits, but the arms that wielded those bows were weak and wasted.
“There is nothing here for you,” I called out to the soldiers. “We are the remnant of a dead village. Ride on.”
Their general threw back his head and laughed. “Ride on? Why not take what we might, and kill those who remain?”
“Why not indeed? Though you will find little enough to take, and why kill those who are already on the brink of another world?”
My people came from the shadows to stand beside me, and the man stared.
“It is as you say,” he marveled. “Only the old and dying, and guarded by a girl-child with a crooked leg.” He turned his column and they marched away.
The present would remain infernal.