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Chosen for War

Black lashes fluttered as the body of a boy shifted in the darkness. A barefoot curled along the edge of knotted straw, toes rumpling the fabric of pale dyed sheets. The full heel stretched into an arch, its poke from layered wool whisking to kiss the cold. Along his naked spine, a shudder rose through Zoltan, the pores of his ankle closing with the rise of goosebumps. Red skin crinkled as he pushed palm against his nose and, pulling knee in, dragged the foot into retreat, back within the communal warmth of his three siblings.

Traces of moonlight streamed through the air, slipping from the slits in reed blinds. The luminosity lingered, its cast of sallow light falling across a corner of the room. The flittered glow washed in a sprinkle of silver onto weathered hardwood. Pale mist rose to curl from exhaled breaths and swirled over straw bedding; the air pushed through nostrils. The children’s snores stretched softly, their rising and falling chests outlined in silhouettes huddled close beneath the shadowed night.

Fabric crinkled with a mutter as the slide of Zoltan’s callouses spread across the sheets. His fingers flexed to scratch bare chin, a muffled snort rising from his lips. Black hair fell across his eyelids and moved in a disheveled shift as an elusive flood of images crossed his restless mind, immersed in a distant dream. Neck turning, the boy’s face sunk into the folds of a makeshift pillow, the rumpled cloth pressing buttons to his cheek. Eyeballs shifted under skin as light poured into his vision.

Oil gleamed on the rugged side of a coal-black gun, its long-barreled muzzle trained at the boy’s temple. The hands fixed on the rifle slowly eased a finger to the trigger, and pressed. Powder sparked in the chamber, slamming an iron ball forward. Sweeping in a spin along grooved ridges, the bullet burst to pierce thin skin, splintering bone as it caved in Zoltan’s head.

Grey eyes snapped open from the dream as the boy jerked forward; pupils wide, he wheezed in a breathless gasp. Mist clouded from a hot mouth and rose like smoke as a bead of sweat dropped from his temple—the thud of his heartbeat pounding in his ears. Blue veins rose to the surface of wiry arms as pale knuckles trembled, twisting a knot in wool. Blinking rapidly, the boy’s nostrils flared. He shook his head and pushed hands to face, mopping damp skin with his fingers.

An unintelligible murmur lifted beside him as dark brown locks trailed to drag with the shift of a young girl. Muscles locking, Zoltan watched his sister. Ruddy cheeks pinched with the pucker of lips, her pudgy face scrunching. Careful not to wake the seven-year-old, the boy pulled layered blankets over her exposed arm. Setting them on her freckled wrist, he leaned back. Fingers curled, and the girl jerked in the hand. Pulling chin around, she turned her back to him. The subtle rise and fall of her side emitted a stifled snore, and the girl shifted with an awkward mumble.

Sucking in a deep inhale, Zoltan released the breath, and pale eyes drifted up amid the darkness. Expanding to dilate, his pupils absorbed the faint moonlight from the corner blinds. Overhead, broad crossbeams supported paneled cherrywood in a highhanded, reinforced structure built and maintained by generations.

Ancestral hands carved intricate lines of bulbous embellishment, the ornamental designs featuring lattice ridges that wrapped deftly along wooden beams. Varnished by a protective gloss, the motifs of master craftsmen exuded beauty within the shroud of practicality. Interiorly modeled to brace the thatch of the snow covered roof, the multigenerational expanse served as the workshop foundation for five master carpenters across successive monarchial reigns. It was a legacy he wouldn’t inherit.

Not anymore.

Frigid air caressed his skin, sending a chill along his spine as perspiration cooled across his back. He rubbed arms, warming the bareness of his upper half. No, he thought, I’m no longer the heir. They have Tarron now. His gaze shifted to the opposite end of the communal bed. Slack-jawed and pudgy-cheeked, the picturesque innocence of a toddler lay curled in sleep. Short lashes flicked with a fidget, a head full of hair curling behind the tiny ears of his younger brother. Looking down, Zoltan pressed a fist to his head. My destiny… is death.

The fluttered creak of reed blinds tapped the corner frame of a glassless window as a hacking cough rose. Caught in a man’s throat, the cough panned to a moment’s silence and lifted to extend into a deep, guttural snore. A rumbled emittance rose as his father’s whistled exhale reverberated through a lattice partition which separated the sleeping quarters. Casting a glance toward the noise, Zoltan pushed dark hair back with the comb of fingers and released a silent breath.

“What will be… will be,” he muttered.

Straw rustled under sheets as he shifted trousered legs over the edge of the bed. Peeling back corners of blanket, the boy bit his lip against the cold and planted heels to hardwood. Sparing a look at his sleeping siblings, he groped for his floor slippers and slid the fur-lined leather over toes. His body twisted in the reach for the cloth of his makeshift pillow, and with a shake, the dark fabric unfurled into a tunic robe.

Hastily shoving arms through the garment, Zoltan buttoned the front as he crossed the dark room to a row of hooked coats. Standing adjacent to the back door, the adolescent lifted the heavy girth of fur-lined wool with misted breath. He shrugged on the outerwear and eased a finger beneath the bound reeds of the window to squint outside.

The full brunt of chilly air pulled into his nostrils, and cheeks reddened as he eyed a frosted land reclaimed by winter. Pearled snow glistened in pale moonlight, the distant luminescence shaded by a film of thin clouds. Spindly trees laden with the burden of snow cradled the stick of snowflakes rather than leaves. Gardened ground, once rich and fallow, had disappeared under the freshness of white powder, which on the surface, deceptively appeared to be even.

Sniffing, Zoltan rubbed his nose, and his gaze dropped down to the home’s extensive wrap veranda. Stretching long across the paneled wood in moonlight, a dark shadow moved. The boy pulled back and straightening, placed his hand on the cold bone of an antler handle. In a pull, he slid the door open along floored grooves and appraised the stunted visage of a long-faced woman. Small eyes sunk into weathered skin, her face a wrinkle of folds. Thin legs dangled off the edge of the frosted deck as she sat in silence, a fluffed coat of rabbit fur buttoned to her throat, one hand on the head of an old sheepdog.

The elder’s neck turned with Zoltan’s creaking step onto the raised platform, black eyes watchful as he shut the door. Her crinkled hand lifted, and she beckoned to him, shrunken teeth widening in a yellowed smile.

“Zoltan…” she said and patted a spot beside her. “Sit, grandboy.”

Head bowed, he did as he was bid, folding legs beneath him. “Yes, grandmama?”

She waved a hand at the starlit canvas of the night sky. “Soon, it will be time for you to leave us. Do you understand?”

His nod was slight. “I understand.”

“You are such a quiet boy.” The woman put a hand on his head, spindly fingers combing down long, soft curls. “Are you afraid?”

Zoltan bit his lip and squeezed eyes shut for a moment before straightening, his smile lifted with strain. “It’s an honor to be chosen to serve the state.”

“Honor….” Flat-lipped, the grandmother slipped her hand from his hair, returning chipped nails to her lap. For a long moment, she stared in silence at the near-full moon. “Who is not afraid of war?” She extended a gnarled finger. “I have lived long, but out there, amongst the beasts of the cold, you will fight. Honing your training after your soldier’s draft, you will be forced to kill or to be killed, and in the end… you will become a beast, just like your grandfather.”

“Grandpapa was a hero, wasn’t he?”

The woman looked at him with hawkish eyes. “Medals don’t make a hero, my dear boy.” She poked his chest. “One’s heart does. What we do defines us as people. Our words are rubbish before our actions. A bloody sword tells tales that a clean one doesn’t. What’s the use of awards and medals if, in the end, you have taken someone else’s time? Robbed them of their life?” Her head turned away. “His nightmares plagued him. The faces of those slain, comrades, victims, and civilians… I heard him in the night as he had his fits beside me… for years, he shouted into darkness, calling dead names, waiting for their reply. I hope now that he has passed on with his ashes scattered, he’s made peace in the afterworld. It was all he prayed for.”

Zoltan’s voice was soft. “You never talk of grandpapa.” 

“That is because…” the elder paused, petting the dog. “In comparison, between the two of them—your father is so innocent. He was never chosen to serve. He’s a boy… a man now, that has never tasted the hardness of war, only the plow, the field, and the rough bark of felled trees. He carves the wood like he was taught, married as he was told, and had children as I bid him. But it’s not right that his eyes remained bright. Not right at all. He’s a man but is not truly hollow. Not as you will one day be.”

“I see.”

“No, you don’t,” she laughed, and face seized in a hoarse cough. Eyes sliding to their corners, she stared at him. “You don’t at all.” Leaning in, morning breath foul, she jerked his supple hand into a pruned one. “I see you now as though for the last time. It may well be. You with sheep-grey eyes, innocence untouched like the beauty of fresh snow, yet to be muddied… yet to be trampled, blackened, and kicked.”

Zoltan pulled back his hand and rose to his feet without a word, fingers clenched. “Oh?” The grandmother looked up at him. “Grandboy… have I said too much of what’s to come?” She reached and grasped one of his knuckled hands. “Don’t let this old woman frighten you with disillusion. It is only truth.”

The boy slipped from her with a backward step, trembled lips parting with a single word.


The elder didn’t blink. “Go ahead then.”

Stiffly, Zoltan offered his grandmother a bowed nod and turned his back on her. Stepping to the edge, he jumped from the veranda. Untouched snow caved in a crunch, his short legs going knee-deep. Determined with the lift one slippered foot then the other, he moved at an awkward plod. Arms wrapped his body as the edges of an open coat dragged in the alabaster landscape, the cold creeping into his feet with the melt of ice against hot skin. Sodden and thin, cloth trousers soaking to his shin, stuck closer with every step. 

The boy blinked at the drifted fall of snowflakes, their frozen waft catching on lashes as they dissolved on skin, causing rising redness along his nose and cheeks to flare. He sniffed and unfurled arms, thrusting forward at an amble, and passed under high posts that marked his mother’s garden gate. He swallowed, ignoring the burn in his toes which seared bare hands bright scarlet in their flex to stave off cold; his fingers numb with fire. He lifted knees with force, pumping limbs forward to push into a sprint, hot breath streaming to fog behind him.

Lungs screamed and the boy’s heartbeat thudded in a tight chest as he tore down a stretch of white—guided by the spindly branches of winter trees whose pale trunks traced a familiar path. Vision blurred as water rose to brim along his eyes, the heated shame of tears flung as he stumbled. Legs faltered in a stagger as a foot dipped into a snowdrift. Tripping forward, his arms went wide as he sprawled into a roll. Icy powder kicked up, and body tumbled, his head slamming into bark. Frame stilling, jagged wood tore across skin, slicing cheek in his flat fall into snow. 

He blinked, midnight stretching high in a gloss of blackness amid a starless sky, snowflakes flittering in a descent upon his face. White snow shifted as he turned and reaching, he dug his fingers into bark and sat up with a groan, tears sliding as spit dribbled down his chin. Head throbbing, he pulled his knees in beneath him and pressed a gashed temple to the frozen earth. Twelve-year-old body shaking in an uncontrollable shiver, saltwater rolled from red eyes.

“I don’t…” he whispered and hiccuped, hands curving to claw a scoop of snow as he dug elbows to his sides. “I don’t want to die.”

A blistered foot lifted and fell amidst the snow. Dark slippers coated by a sheen of white, crossed arms grasped in vain to warm a thin shuddering body as the boy staggered forth between two wooden posts. Teeth chattered as Zoltan lifted his head, bleary eyed with heavy breaths he reached out to a buxom figure he could hardly see.


A short, thick-hipped woman caught him by the arm. Knees buckling into his mother’s warm embrace, the boy allowed her to pull him in, shivering as she draped a fur quilt over him.

“Oh, my poor boy,” she said, rubbing his shoulders with a squeeze. “It’s going to be alright. You’re going to be alright. Why’d you go out there… hmm? You’re not dressed thickly enough for the weather. Oh, stupid child.”

“Why me?” Zoltan mumbled, bringing frosted hands around his mother, his puffy eyes fluttering to a close. “Why does it have to be me?”

Hoofbeats hit a frozen road, the canter of horses thudded to cast shadows with the rise of dawn as two uniformed men, rounded a bend. In sight of the distant house, they pulled in the reins, tightening the wrap of leather around wrists, they guided their steeds into a walk before the great arced door of the generational home.

Tight lipped, the black-haired woman watched from afar, her arms tightening around her child. Legs swinging over their horses’ backs, the men dismounted, their stares fixed on who she held—her son. Slowly, a broad-shouldered man with a tall frame crossed to the protruding fence of the snowed garden. He put hand on the twined posts and reached into his uniform, producing an emblemed scroll from a sable cloak.

“Zoltan…” his mother swallowed. “The soldiers are here.”

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