Image: LEONARDO CARBONE
Arabella was a buxom lass with sparkling eyes and a smile that would light the hearts of all who saw it. Before the first whispers of the impending war, she had served at the border helping in the collection of tariffs and examining the baggage and persons of women entering the land via her station.
The war had begun more precipitously than any had imagined. She watched on in hope of a swift return to normality as the “brave” lads of her country’s expeditionary force crossed the frontier near to her post. Many young lads momentarily lost the chilled look of fear from their eyes as she smiled in their direction, while some of the veterans made catcalls or urged her for a “good luck” kiss.
Behind the marching column were a large gathering of well-wishers, sweethearts, and parents who cheered as the last of the warriors crossed the boundary line. There was quite a party on the customs house grounds which lasted into the afternoon, but began to wind down as the sun began to set. Soon after, the last of the merry makers and their shouts of, “It will all be over by Gunten’s Day,” departed back to their homes leaving Arabella and her fellows again alone at the border.
That had been a month ago. Five days after the crossing, a lone rider came galloping from the far side of the border shouting that they had met and routed an enemy force near the Tino River. He then road on towards the headquarters in the capital.
There and been no word of the expedition since then. Though a unit of engineers had arrived from the capital six days ago, and had begun to erect barriers and dig trenches. “Just a precaution,” a major explained to Arabella’s station chief.
Then yesterday, dust was seen on the far horizon. A column of mounted men was approaching. To Arabella’s horror, they were soldiers of the Sultanate, The cavalrymen dismounted just beyond bow-shot and began to establish camp, and causing quite a commotion among the engineers on Arabella’s side of the frontier. The major immediately dispatched two riders to headquarters.
Hayden had been frightened to his wit’s end. He had never seen a battle before, much less taken part in one. He could not have imagined the terrible carnage that ensued as they crossed the Tino. No sooner had they made the far bank, that they were met with a rain of javelins. Brice, a lad that Hayden knew from the village, was struck in the belly and lay doubled over on the ground crying out for his mother as the dark blood oozed between his fingers as he grasped the wound.
Hayden’s attention was drawn away from the scene by a sharp slap on the back of his helmet. “The enemy is in front of you, not on the ground, son,” the sergeant chided.
Hayden adjusted the strap on his shield, and drew his hanger and joined his colleagues in the advance directly towards the javelineers. He really didn’t remember much of what had happened afterwards. Their were flashing images of blood and carnage in his mind, but no coherent narrative could be given to them. All he knew for sure is he found himself in a circle of cheering men, shouting “Victory.” He was bone-weary, drenched in blood and human detritus, but he was alive, and they had won.
After that, the enemy began a series of retreats, each one drawing the expeditionary force deeper into the interior. Most engagements were minor, but each built his countrymen’s confidence.
How quickly fortunes change. There was another of those staggered shows of force by the enemy. A wave of javelins fell short of his line, and the attackers then fled over the crest of a hill. As had become their custom, the expedition men advanced in careless order after them. This time they were not met with the fleeing backs of the enemy, but an arrayed army three times their own number.
If Hayden had thought the Battle of the Tino was carnage, he was sadly mistaken. It was but childhood games in comparison to what happened beyond that ridge.
For a week now Hayden had been on the run. He was weaponless, he had discarded his helmet, and his dented breastplate chaffed against his bruised ribs. He had taken to sleeping , when he could afford such a luxury, in gullies and behind jagged up-crops of rock. He had filled his belly with moss, and had only secured a few mouthfuls of brackish water each day. But now he could see the flag of his homeland waving in the breeze above a stone blockhouse. The problem was, he could see a large body of enemy cavalrymen between him and the refuge.
Arabella stared out through the window on the border-ward side of the customs house. It was then that she thought she saw movement in the early morning light. The enemy soldiers were still largely abed,with only a few sentries wandering the camp, but this was something else.
She spied the motion again. Something, no someone was crawling quickly towards a gully just on the far side of the frontier. She shifted her position, and reached for the viewing glass that was on a hook by the window.
Yes, it was definitely a person. As she adjusted the focus, the features of a freckle-faced, curly haired lad of about her age became clear. He had a gash on his forehead, and his uniform was in tatters, but he was definitely one of her countrymen.
The problem was that he couldn’t make his way from the gully to her side of the newly established “no man’s land” between the enemy cavalry and her own engineers without being seen and captured, or worse.
Arabella knew she had to act. Though it was not yet the time of year to wear a heavy winter skirt, she donned one anyway. It was a long grey garment which swept the ground as she walked. Perfect, she thought to herself as she glanced at herself in a mirror.
She then went to the small custom house kitchen and grabbed the bucket of vegetable peelings from next to the scullery. As nonchalantly as she could, Arabella crossed into no man’s land and towards the gully. A couple of the cavalry men watched her initially, but lost interest when the saw it was a woman, and that she was dumping refuse into the gully.
Keeping her back to the enemy warriors, Arabella lifted the hem of her skirts to mid-calf. “Come on, get under here quickly,” she whispered. “What are you waiting for?”
Hayden scrambled to climb under Arabella’s skirt, and he did his best to keep pace crawling, as she slowly turned and made her way back to the customs house.
Once safely on home soil, she said, “You can come out now.”
Hayden didn’t seem to respond. So she pulled her skirt out from over him. “What made you wait?” she queried.
“I was – um – was. . . sorry,” he said red-faced.
“Oh, um -Oh!” she said, beginning to blush herself.
“Thank you for saving me,” Hayden said quickly, in an attempt to change the subject.”
“You’re – um – welcome,” Arabella replied, turning her face away to hide her embarrassment.