This story contains violence, death, graphic violence and death, animal death, and quick mention and intimation of suicide. Reader discretion is advised.
18th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2008 D.C.E
Kingdom of Franz, City of Calvado — Von Krupp Salient, XIII Corps Line
22 Years Before The Solstice War.
It was his first time stepping outside the soil of the fatherland.
Though he was still on the continent, the young man had charged from the Federation of Northern States to the Kingdom of Franz. God help him; he was in another country. He was the invader; it really was a war. To think he was at war with the renowned gentlemen of Franz. With the men who had devised everything he knew about war. God help him.
Before all of this he had thought men could settle their differences through rhetoric and rationality, finding common cause and understanding. He was no longer so sure of that.
XIII Corps had a prolific season in central Franz. While Army Group A in the North and Army Group C in the South had floundered spectacularly (C’s mission to invade both Franz’s south and Lachy’s northern border, dividing its forces, was especially disastrous), Army Group B had managed to create a bulge in the line, extending half-into the city of Calvado. It was able to use all of its forces without obstruction or diversion and as such had managed to deploy considerable combat power against its enemies in the year’s final campaign season. Franz’s hard drive against the fledging Nochtish Republic halted.
Dreschner felt a sense of dread in the air around little Calvado. Here the bulge created against the royalist lines was called the Von Krupp Salient after the general whose troops had sweated and bled to push it forward. Now that very General, under orders from President Lehner, called for a cessation of movement and a strategic reassessment. Winter was coming, and the ravages of the war had taken too hard a toll on the Republican forces.
Every corps started preparing its defensive positions for the cold. Oberkommando was confident that the heroic men of the salient, who had fought so well, could hold anything.
But the summer was over; Army Group B was not the force it was in the Yarrow’s Sun.
Private 1st Class Einschel Dreschner could see the evidence of that all around him.
His line was almost empty — only his loader was with him, staring nervously out into the street ahead. His commander was sleeping inside a nearby house and three riflemen were pacing up and down the edge of two foxholes they dug into the soft street. Dreschner and the men had been ordered to form a fighting position on the intersection of Loum street just a few blocks up from the city center. It was a bad place to be fighting defensively. Most of their platoon had been wiped out in the last offensive. Support was long awaited.
Dreschner sat around, fantasizing about leaving the wretched infantry.
He had longed, before the start of the war, to be a cavalryman. To ride fast, to feel the wind at his face and the whipping of the air as he sliced his saber into the enemy. To take them down from the flanks with his bayonet and his dragoon pistol. Infantry were mired in mud and trapped behind trenchlines. Dreschner had seen so much of that. Infantry were just useless, nothing more than fodder for large artillery formations. But the cavalry, they were yet untried, yet unsent into the fray. As he waited in this hole he wondered what victories, what gallant triumphs, could the cavalry score, if they were finally committed to war.
But he was not a cavalryman. He was assigned infantry, the wretched, dirty line infantry.
And he was silently despondent. He showed no inkling of his cynicism, but he was spent.
Should he die, however, he and his fellows would never see home again, let alone a horse.
Regardless of their condition the enemy was still out there. And so, they labored. To block their captured road they built a little barricade from scrap wood, bricks and sandbags. It was haphazard, like a spiked pillar toppled over between the height of the intersection and the broad, open park; nevertheless they set their machine gun behind it and they waited.
It had been a long day, a lonely one, since they set up. Hours in the sun changed their priorities rapidly. They had gone from waiting for the enemy, to waiting for support, to waiting for the food carriers and finally, to waiting, longingly, for the sundown. It was a humble wish, for the cold of night to banish the too-hot fall sun. It was all they had.
At first he thought it was a horse, and was elated for a second, but it wasn’t.
He heard the distinctive rattle of a bicycle gear, and saw a man coming in behind him.
Could it be a food carrier? No; they were never as well decorated as this man.
Dreschner turned around and stood at attention for Major Walter Weddel from Battalion Recon command, riding on his big-wheeled courier bike. The Major seemed to have no time for the pleasantries, and he set aside the bike, and charged to the barricade. He pulled up a pair of binoculars and peered with frantic energy into the city center, looking past the park and the roads and the blown-out, crumbling town hall. He gasped for breath.
“Major? You shouldn’t be at the front! It is dangerous!” Dreschner said.
“You’d know far better than I, but I still can’t just sit around!”
Dreschner knew Weddel tangentially, from some previous engagements.
The Major had never been to the front before. For him to have to move, meant that the Battalion was truly, utterly exhausted. There could have been no available underlings.
Fearing the worst, Dreschner cast eyes down the road along with the Major.
He kneeled next to Weddel and waited for orders or information. Every movement he made brought his skin tightly into contact with his gray coat, and he felt a fleeting cold from the sweat at his back and on his chest. Despite the onset of winter, fighting under the sun, without even the smallest tree for protection, caused him to sweat like a pig on a spit. Noon seemed to have brought the sun directly over them like the eye of the devil.
“Dreschner, reconnaissance planes picked up on a column of Frank horses incoming.”
“Horses? How many?”
“Too many. They must have spotted the gap here. Where is your commanding officer?”
“Sleeping. Over there.”
Dreschner pointed to an abandoned house nearby, an ornate little Frank house with a second floor, a gabled roof and a wide balcony on its face. Like every other building it had been defaced by shells and bombs but it was only mildly damaged and stood freely on its own strength. Since he first saw it, Dreschner’s commander had claimed the house and gave strict orders not to be disturbed while his men worked outside to defend it.
Major Weddel looked upon the house with frustration.
“Dreschner, this place is nothing but a hole in the lines. You’ve got barely a squadron here and we have fifty or sixty horses coming. Your commander must have an auxiliary machine gun somewhere. You need to wake that slob up and get it set up, now!”
Peeling off the line with his heart thrashing in his chest, Dreschner rushed into the house nearby. It was a fine little house, like a gable-topped cake, creamy white with wine-brown trim in the form of glossy wooden frames and doors. There were decadent halls leading upstairs and into the heart of the home, but their treasures had been shaken off their pedestals and out of their cases by the quaking shellfire of the previous week’s fighting. All along the sides of the halls were crumpled paintings and smashed glass and pottery. It was a miracle a shell had not blown open the roof or collapsed the walls. Most of the damage to the exterior and to the supporting structures was barely superficial.
In the drudgery of 2008 warfare, a house was a great prize. Being able to command from a house, or fight from a house. It was like heaven compared to a muddy trench-line.
No doubt, the commander was asleep on a fine bed somewhere. Dreschner hurried.
Upstairs, he called out for his commanding officer several times, hoping to wake him.
There was no response, and Dreschner ran from room to room seeking him out.
He turned around a corner and into a open door into a bedroom with a balcony.
He paused at the doorway; what he saw quenched all of his panicked energy.
Dreschner was forced to halt by the sight of his commanding officer, lying dead on a princely bed with a peaceful face, hands on his chest, eyes closed. At his side was a small girl, blond-haired, in a fur coat a size or two too large and little fur-trimmed boots and a dirty little dress. She had a pair of glasses on her face that were also a size too large.
Though he had seen terrible things in this war, this sight was incomprehensible. Not the dead soldier — soldiers died, even the officers did. It was the child that confounded him. How was she here? Why was she not taken? War was a place without children or animals or anything soft and vulnerable. It had to be. Dreschner had seen men drown in mudholes between trenches; he had seen artillery shells explode and vanish men from existence, taking even the dust of their bones so that nothing could be buried. He had heard the wails of gore-strewn soldiers caught in traps in the no-man’s-land, awaiting death.
Dreschner was a child himself, compared to the men around him.
But he was not this small. Something this small just couldn’t survive this carnage.
He was afraid for this girl, afraid for her mortality and afraid of how she reflected on him.
He was afraid of vulnerability and felt a drive to be strong for this girl.
And yet he did not quite know how to be tender or comforting or even whether to be. Could this child be an enemy? Could she have killed the C.O.? Those sounded like insane things. Things no man should dare indulge. But he had seen so much of this war that anything made sense now save for the existence of a simple innocent in these grand battlefields.
“Are you lost?” He asked.
It was the first sensible-sounding thing to land upon his tongue.
From the bed, the child raised her head and gave Dreschner a blank, tired stare.
“Je ne parle pas Noetais.” She said in Frank. Her voice was a little deeper than he expected, more of a woman’s voice than a child’s, but maybe that was all his shell-addled brain.
Dreschner knew a little Frank; possibly enough to speak to a child.
“What happened?” He asked. Que s’est-il passé?
“He drank. He drank from Mama and Papa’s special bottle.” She said in Frank.
Her Frank was easy to understand. Concentrating on it, he could hear in Nochtish.
She pointed to the bottle, lying on the ground amid a pile of other debris, books and clothes and other things, perhaps pulled out by soldiers hoping to find loot.
Dreschner raised his hands, hoping not to scare her by approaching.
She did not even look at him as he moved.
He picked up the bottle and raised it to his nose.
There was a strong scent of something dire and chemical.
In disgust he dropped the bottle and coughed. It was a fatal preparation.
Dreschner turned to the girl and was surprised to find her speaking again.
“On the radio the king said not to leave our houses. Mama and Papa were very scared of the bad people coming. They put something in that wine bottle to drink, in case the bad people came in. But then they heard shooting, and they ran away. They disobeyed the king and left all of their treasures behind, even me.” She said in a listless drone.
Dreschner blinked, stunned.
“I’m a good girl. I obeyed the king and stayed in the house. Like we should. But the stuff in the bottle smelled gross. So I didn’t drink it like Papa and Mama wanted, before they ran.”
“What is your name?” Dreschner asked, unable to bear the scene any longer.
She looked up at him, making direct eye contact for the first time.
“Cecilia Nouvelle.” She said.
Dreschner nodded. “Cecilia, please go to the basement and stay there. You’re right, for now, it is a good thing to stay in the house like the king said. But later, it may be time to leave. If I tell you it is time to leave, will you leave the house?” He asked, trembling.
Cecilia turned her head and stared at the ground, kicking her little feet softly.
“You’re one of the bad men. But I guess you won the big fight. So I’ll do what you say.”
Without another word, Cecilia dropped off the bed and tottered off to the basement.
Dreschner looked at the corpse of his commanding officer. She must have arranged him, closing his eyes, putting his arms on his chest. Maybe even even cleaning up his face.
He was astonished by this child, so much so he nearly forgot his own mission.
Rushing back down to the street, he called out to Weddel.
“No dice, we’ll have to hold with what we have!” He shouted.
“Are you serious?” Weddel shouted back.
Dreschner kneeled behind the machine gun, his bewildered loader mechanically putting another belt into the MG-99 while an additional rifleman supporter replaced the water jacket. Weddel pulled up his binoculars and stared out into the city before them.
“Dreschner, what happened?” Weddel asked.
His voice trembling, Dreschner replied, “You can go in and look if you want to.”
Walter Weddel seemed to have no desire to do that. Sighing, he resigned himself.
“May god have mercy on us.” He said.
“May god take our fucking side for once.” Dreschner added.
Dreschner took the handles of the machine gun and placed his fingers on the spade grip trigger behind them. He looked down the sights and breathed in, and waited, as he had been waiting. Without the artillery or the sound of shooting the air was still and the city too quiet, yet too noisy. Every pebble dropping from a mound of debris, every mechanical cry from his gun and its unlubricated components, every rustling of a man’s coat. Little sounds became incongruously large, too large, they made Dreschner very nervous. He tried to keep as still as possible hoping no one else would hear the sounds he was making.
He could hear the sounds of his spit going down his throat as he swallowed hard.
When the hoof-claps came it was a tidal wave of noise, ever approaching.
Then Dreschner saw the men in the distance, with their tall plumed helms, sabers, guns at their backs, gallantly clad in their glaringly patriotic red and blue uniforms, and riding on beastly brown horses that seemed like elephants as they rode en-masse. Dust blew in their wake, a dreadful cloud that seemed like it could rival the plumes of a shell-fall. They were a blunt arrowhead, charging without ceremony from an interior street and into the city center, charging the barricade. He had fought them before, but never like this.
They seemed so much more fearsome beyond the trench lines.
Dreschner had seen so much of this war and this sight stilled his heart nonetheless.
To close his eyes to the charge, however, would mean death.
“Engaging target! Free fire!” Dreschner shouted.
With three fingers he pulled the trigger and the bolt went wild.
His loader held up the belt of machine gun ammunition and the MG-99 sucked it up into its boxy shell and spat it out through the barrel. Dreschner heard the water in the barrel jacket bubble and sizzle and froth as a dozen rounds and then six dozen and then a hundred exploded out of the barrel. Steam and smoke blew from the tip of the gun.
It made a sound like a thousand hammers pounding nails in millisecond intervals.
It had an effect like a spear driven right into the heart of the horsemen.
From his fixed position, Dreschner’s gunfire struck the center of the enemy’s formation. In an instant the lead horse was crippled by fire and fell and was trampled. Several more horses tripped over the one falling before them, and the formation was forced to spread and to morph, with men at the flanks riding forward, men in the center halting their gallop to maneuver around corpses of horses and men, creating a generalized confusion.
Throughout all of this Dreschner did not stop shooting.
He traversed the gun from left to right, moving deliberately with steeled nerves, putting down hundreds of rounds that swept across the broad front imposed by his enemy. Long streaks of gunfire sliced the heads and shoulders and limbs off men and left them hanging dead from panicked horses; or struck horses in the center of their bulk like iron fists pounding a slab of ham, and causing the beasts to crumple as if on jelly legs; and in response the cavalry turned into an amorphous mass, groups of horses and men scrambling to avoid the eye of the MG-99, and many running into its fire in the attempt.
Major Walter Weddel stood up amid the cacophony of dying men and blazing fire.
“That’s over a dozen horses down already! We can do this men, stand and fight!”
Weddel produced his pistol and opened fire on the approaching cavalry.
At his sides, the spare riflemen picked up their rifles and joined him.
The Major and his men accounted for a pair of horses, while Dreschner’s gun clicked empty. Frantically his loader produced and fed in a new belt, while his third man replaced the red-hot water jacket, that was steaming and boiling and frothing madly. Beneath the jacket the gun barrel was red hot and smoking fiercely. Soon as the new water jacket was applied, it too began to bubble, the cold water inside cooking from the heat.
Within seconds Dreschner was pulling the trigger and resuming his intense barrage.
Those brilliant, gallant, galloping charges should have deflected the bullets, they were full of such glory that it seemed impossible they could be broken. Each burst of gunfire killed an impossible number, downing horse after horse. Cavalrymen reunited, amassed in new formations, and broke into charges toward the barricade, and died. Five-hundred meters; a group of three horses, their legs exploding and turning them to hanging hams rolling back over themselves. Three hundred meters; a column of horsemen, pistols out, shooting desperately past the barricade, over Dreschner’s own head, before being cut down.
Out a mere hundred meters; two horsemen jumped over a great hunk of concrete, and in mid-air the rifle and pistol and machine gun fire tore the blood and gore from them and sprayed it like fireworks in grizzly arcs and shapes. They fell, turned to meat, and stopped.
It was maddening. Dreschner almost wanted to lose this confrontation.
He imagined himself, a proud young lad on a beautiful stallion, riding to a great war.
And on the opposing end some filth-covered scoundrel in a hole with a machine gun.
He felt as if he was shooting down his dreams, shooting down the only beauty left in war.
Dreschner wept; he mumbled to himself to stop but his fingers felt otherwise.
His fingers, that had held seemingly nothing but guns the whole year.
They knew war, and they knew only to shoot. And so they shot, and they shot.
To say they died one by one is to understate the brutal carnage; men died in disparate groups and in glorious processions and in their lonesome and accompanied by such great burdens that even in death they could have never been alone. They died with horses and without them, they died with bodies whole or broken, they died among themselves and with their comrades and among the ghosts. Dreschner could not look out at what he had done. There was such a gruesome landscape before him that he could not take it.
He dried his tears, and he stood up, and he let his legs take him away.
“That’s the platoon! That’s the entire platoon!” Major Weddel celebrated. “Dreschner, you rabid dog, I am giving you a promotion, you will go places my boy, I guarantee–”
But he had no one to celebrate with, for Dreschner had abandoned the gun.
Everyone stared. Dreschner could feel the eyes like knives at his back.
He was abandoning his post, like a coward, filth among the filth of the infantry.
But they had already won. So what did it matter?
Perhaps understanding the situation back then, Major Weddel never charged him with any of the myriad penalties he could have faced for turning away from the battlefield.
Free from the shackles of the gun and the fight, Dreschner returned to the house, and behind the basement door, he found Cecilia, just where he hoped she would be.
She was seated on the stairs in the same way she had been seated on the bed.
She was holding her hands over her ears but seemed eerily calm despite this.
He tapped on her shoulder, and she turned around, and put her hands down.
“Can you leave the house?” He asked her.
“If you say so.” She replied. Her voice was listless, dead, inexpressive.
Dreschner took her hand, and they walked back out onto the street.
Her hand was so small, Dreschner thought, if he held it the way he held a gun, he would likely shatter it. He could not squeeze it. He could barely touch it. It was very eerie.
He dreaded what might happen when Cecilia saw the outside.
Nothing at all happened, however.
If Cecilia caught a glimpse of the field of corpses out in the park, she did not let anyone know. She made no sound, no protest, as Dreschner walked her away from the sight.
She was quiet, and followed along dutifully.
Dreschner led her somewhere, not even knowing where himself. His mind was adrift.
He thought, as he walked, of the cavalry, of the beautiful, ill-fated cavalry.
So that was why they did not fight before.
All of his notions, all of his dreams, had left him, and he was empty.
Empty of any optimism or hope but also empty of juvenile notions and illusions.
Perhaps, he thought, being empty was the better way.
Yet he found himself struck with an aberrant admiration of their bravery, their foolhardy resolve. They had been failed; they themselves had been victorious, but they were betrayed by their tools. Dreschner himself, no matter how gallant it would have been, would ever ride a horse into battle. That age was over. Had these men owned metal horses, perhaps the tide would have swung. Perhaps then, Dreschner would ride a horse into battle.
“What are your parent’s names?” Dreschner asked.
“I don’t think I have any now.” Cecilia said.
He marveled at how well she was taking becoming perhaps as empty as he.
Dreschner figured he must have cried more than Cecilia had this entire time.
Perhaps if he failed to win this war, her generation could do it.
Her generation would understand from the get-go that the chivalrous age was over.
General Einschel Dreschner awoke with a start.
He banged his head on the zeiss telescoping sight, and reared back, holding his face.
For a moment, everything hurt, but his breathing began to steady.
As he became aware of his surroundings he felt calm again.
He was not in a house or on a horse but inside the turret of his Sentinel command tank.
It was not 2008; it was 2030.
There was no Northern War; this was the Solstice War.
“Sir, are you alright? Are you hurt? I can get Eva–“
At his side, Karla Schicksal stared at him with wide, almost child-like eyes.
“It’s fine, return to work.” Dreschner said.
Nodding her head innocently, she returned to the radio and put her headset back on.
Dreschner stared at the back of her head for a moment. He shook his own head.
He had been dreaming an anxious dream of a time annihilated from history.
There was no relevance to it now. Everything had completely changed. Hadn’t it?
“Schicksal, what are your thoughts on horse cavalry?” He asked.
Schicksal turned back to him from the radio, staring quizzically.
She opened and closed her mouth several times, ambushed by this strange question.
“Um, well, I’d guess they would be pretty useless when you have tanks and trucks.”
She sounded fairly certain of this fact when she finally spoke, despite her obvious anxiety.
Shrugging nervously, she then returned to the radio.
Not a shred of sentimentality for those bygone days of the war.
Of course not, she would not have known them.
Dreschner felt eerily satisfied with her generation. He laid back in his seat.