We found Waldo playing in the trash this week. Somehow, it didn’t surprise us in the slightest. What did surprise us, however, is the rare gem that he found among the garbage. After pushing away old pizza boxes and coffee tins (and a bottle of whiskey or two – don’t ask me how they got there), our favorite mischievous imp stumbled upon something that is only ever found on beaches and in cheesy 80’s songs: a message in a bottle.
So, this week, we’re opening the bottle and unraveling the notes in this unique short story about a Crow Runner in The Other Side. Enjoy!
18 August, 1906
Sergeant says I can’t tell you where I am, nor what I am doing, nor who I am with. What a nightmare for you, to not know what your daughter is doing with her days! I still remember your rules for boys; an itinerary, a guest list, and home by ten. Well, I will not be home by ten tonight, or the next, or for quite a while, I fear. But know that I am in good company. These are good men and women I fight beside. They would die for your daughter, and I for them. Let us hope that is not necessary.
I can tell you that the weather here is beautiful. The days are harsh, but at night the sky is full of stars, and the sunsets are like a jewel cut from blood. We move so far ahead of the army that its clamor does not reach us. It is peaceful. I like to find a high place, and turn my back to the sunset, and watch its last light fall on the dreadnoughts as they power down for the night. It is like a little city we bring with us, the army, buildings and all.
I think often of you and Ebo, sitting by the hearth as you prepare dinner, and father in his workshop. The food on the march is terrible. We have kinche that we must mix and eat cold, and the only coffee available is stolen from the Barbary and is hardly worthy of the name. We sometimes hunt, but Yonas is not as much of a cook as he claims. After the war, I will bring him to your hearth, and let you teach him how to make a proper wat.
Hug father for me. He would not speak to me before I left. I know this is not what he wanted for my life, but the days in Amara were long, and going nowhere. Try to understand. And do not let Ebo follow me. That boy would be more of a nuisance to his compatriots than he would to the enemy. Keep him occupied with his maths, and away from that Aifa girl.
Your faithful daughter,
2 September, 1906
I know I promised weekly letters when I left, but things on the front are difficult. I’m trying to get this in between patrols, when I ought to be sleeping, or eating, or praying, but I find I have little interest in these things. And you deserve a word from your daughter.
Bit of a scare last week. Sergeant had us on a long sally, trying to find the flank of the enemy’s lines. We were part of a larger force probing the west, but were cut off when our supporting elements were counterattacked and driven from the field. Rather than circle back, we pressed on, hoping to get clear of the enemy’s attention so we could find our way home. Three days in the bush, and let me tell you, Yonas’ cooking does not improve in the wild, though it does not seem to affect his mood. I swear, that man’s smile could light up the sky. It would have been a longer journey without him.
I hesitate to mention this. Sergeant is strict about these things. If he hears us talking about it around the fire, he scolds us, and tells us we’re children. But I must put it in ink, in case… just in case. There was something in the darkness, hunting us long after the enemy patrols had given up. I saw it once - a water thing, but on land, with teeth like daggers. There have been stories of these things among the ranks. I did not believe them, but now I do.
I do not like this new world we have created, mother. We have enough war already, always pressing on our borders. But a war with monsters? With demons? Sleep is difficult enough without the nightmares coming true.
Speaking of sleep, I find it necessary. Another patrol in an hour. Hopefully we will be back on friendly ground before the month is out, and then I can write more frequently.
My love to father, and Ebo. Do not worry, mother. Your daughter is strong.
12 December, 1906
I do not have words to express my sorrow, mama. Your letter about Ebo was much delayed. You will have already buried him. I can’t help but feel this is my fault. If I was there… if I had known… if I could have come home. But I wasn’t, and I didn’t, and I can’t.
I wish I had something to comfort you with. The war is grim. We have fallen back and fallen back, until it feels as though we have nothing else to lose. And maybe we don’t. Fool that I am, I miss Yonas and his cooking. We lost him on the long run back to the river. Our advance was turned before we reached the valley, and then one of the dreadnoughts fell to heavy fire, and the rout began in earnest. This was supposed to be an easy fight. The The Barbary League may have made a deal with the devil, I think, or perhaps the Guild. I’m not sure which I would rather face. Sarge would say that I shouldn’t be telling you all this, but he’s in the belly of some hellspawned monster, so what say does he have in it?
What was I saying? The river, and Yonas. After the rout began, Sarge tried to get us to press forward, but there was no hope of that. The Barbary rolled across the valley like ants, their guns rattling and their cannon turning the ground into dust. There was no way forward, so we ran. A group of us went through the woods, thinking to put some cover between us at the front lines, but they were waiting. I have never fought like that. It was desperate and bloody, and when it was done we were running again, this time to the river. Yonas lies in that forest, somewhere among the trees. You would have liked him.
Once we got away from the main body of the rout, things calmed down for a while. We were numb, in body and in mind. Word came that the boats were waiting, that we could escape, if only we could reach the river. So we ran, harder than I’ve ever run in my life. We passed a lot of dying people. We should have stopped, to help, or to give them mercy. Ebo would have stopped. But to stop was to die, and so I ran.
Of course, the boats were gone. More than gone. They were destroyed. I stumbled half-mad into the river. Sergeant was yelling, but all I could think about was that this wreckage, these floating boards and bloated bodies, they were supposed to be my salvation. And then sarge was pulling me out, and I saw them coming. Not the League. Something else. Something from the water.
Sarge saved me. It cost him his life. This thing… this creature… rose up from the water and bit him in half. I can still see his legs, wobbling in the shallows. Like sausages. I lost my mind. I must have run. The river turned into a boil of humped backs and squirming limbs, a pot overflowing with teeth. We went back the way we came, straight into the Barbary charge. It was the monsters who saved us.
They found me two weeks later, sifting through the banks. Another army, this one clean and bright and full of hope. They’re marching to retake the valley. They gave me a new rifle, and a new sergeant. There is a man in my unit who laughs like Yonas, but he does not cook. I am marching with them, but your daughter is still in the river, praying.
I will hug Ebo for you. Give father my love, and tell him he was right.
Click on the image of Makda above to download the PDF of this story!