Blood of Angels, Wings of Men, p.1Jon Jacks
Blood of Angels,
Wings of Men
Other New Adult and Children’s books by Jon Jacks
The Caught – The Rules – Chapter One – The Changes – Sleeping Ugly
The Barking Detective Agency – The Healing – The Lost Fairy Tale
A Horse for a Kingdom – Charity – The Most Beautiful Things (Now includes The Last Train)
The Dream Swallowers – Nyx; Granddaughter of the Night – Jonah and the Alligator
Glastonbury Sirens – Dr Jekyll’s Maid – The 500-Year Circus – The Desire: Class of 666
P – The Endless Game – DoriaN A – Wyrd Girl – The Wicker Slippers – Gorgesque
Heartache High (Vol I) – Heartache High: The Primer (Vol II) – Heartache High: The Wakening (Vol III)
Miss Terry Charm, Merry Kris Mouse & The Silver Egg – The Last Angel – Eve of the Serpent
Seecrets – The Cull – Dragonsapien – The Boy in White Linen – Porcelain Princess – Freaking Freak
Died Blondes – Queen of all the Knowing World – The Truth About Fairies – Lowlife
Elm of False Dreams – God of the 4th Sun – A Guide for Young Wytches – Lady of the Wasteland
The Wendygo House – Americarnie Trash – An Incomparable Pearl – We Three Queens – Cygnet Czarinas
Memesis – April Queen, May Fool – Sick Teen – Thrice Born – Self-Assembled Girl – Love Poison No. 13
Whatever happened to Cinderella’s Slipper? – AmeriChristmas – The Vitch’s Kat in Hollywoodland
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It’s the last village before the new border; how many of our dead troops have they seen come forlornly walking back through here?
You can sense the fear, the hopelessness here.
Is it any use me asking them if they’ve seen Bjorn?
He’s dead, I’m sure of it. Every soldier who’s gone out to the new border has only ever come back dead.
But I’m also sure he’d want to get a message to me; that he’d want to deliver it himself, if possible.
And now I’m so close to where he must have fallen, there’s an even greater chance of me meeting up with him once again.
Even if it’s only for him to repeat what he’d told me when he was still alive.
That my regiment should turn around. That, if they don’t, then I should desert my troop.
They’re all going to die anyway.
One less amongst their number is hardly going to make much of a difference.
I slip down from my horse with a grateful sigh, taking off my helmet and letting my hair tumble free, relishing the coolness of the air.
All around me, the other girls are doing the same.
Not that we can rest just yet. The horses have to be fed, watered, and gradually cooled down themselves to make sure they don’t fall prey to any maladies.
We ignore the iron-hard stares of the villagers.
Any solider is hated, but the female troops are abhorred far more than the men.
You could see that loathing in their otherwise blank, joyless eyes as we rode in, the lack of any horns rising up from our helmets the only thing to differentiate us from the male troops, but enough for them to regard us with an extra dollop of scorn.
The villagers know our sacrifice is a hopeless gesture. They don’t admire us for trying to keep the enemy at bay; they loathe us for our inability to send our foes falling back to wherever it was they came from.
And therefore they blame us for the danger they’re in.
They know that soon – even though they’re not trained for it; they’re just farmers, fishermen, carpenters – they’ll be the ones left to defend their village from whatever onslaught eventually comes their way.
The women, even the children, will be expected to lay down their lives in a vain attempt to prevent the village from falling. That’s why the women hate us so; because, of course, being mothers, they would prefer that their children at least were spared. Yet as girls like my troop have demonstrated that we can fight – that we can die – as well as any man, then they have no excuse to flee.
As for the men of the village; we make them feel even more especially worthless.
Girls defending the borders; while they stay home to plough the fields, or their fat little wives.
What use is food to keep us alive in a land that daily falls to the enemy?
What use offspring if they are soon to die?
If the children lived long enough to fight – then they might be of use to us!
On the sour faces of the villagers gathering around us, I can see they are thinking the same as I am; what’s the point of it all? All this striving to gain a living from a tormenting land, only to face death at the hands of a merciless foe.
They know we’ll leave only to – probably less than a week later – forlornly return, walking blankly through their village as we make our way home. Seeking out our loved ones, to see them one last time before we at last give up the ghost.
When the souls of the dead walk by you like this, it’s a disconcerting experience; if they pass through you, you’re left feeling cold, clammy.
There’s no warmth to them. No joy.
Their new mission is only to say goodbye, and they don’t wish to be interrupted from their self-appointed task.
Yes, you can stop them if you wish, to ask them the most fleeting of questions: ‘Is everyone dead?’ ‘Are you from the Eighth Legion?’
But what’s the point of asking such questions anyway?
You know the answer to the first, while the second answer will hardly enlighten you in any meaningful form; if the Eighth Legion were the last to pass this way on their way to the front, then the chances are the dead filing past you are their returning souls.
As the dead had silently passed trough our troop, I’d naturally looked out for Bjorn.
I’d flattered myself that it would be me that he would be searching out to say his final goodbyes to; not his parents, his brothers.
I must have been wrong, for I never saw him.
I have heard of the legend of the Twentieth Legion and the Ninth Troop.
It happened so long ago, supposedly, that no one could be really sure if it had happened or not.
I’d like to think that it did happen, of course.
As the women of the Twentieth had made their way into battle, the men of the returning Ninth had flowed through them; and there were so many lovers amongst them that both formations briefly came to a tearful halt as the living and dead enjoyed a last embrace.
Unfortunately, it seems there’ll be no such last embrace for Bjorn and I.
Towards the edge of the village, there’s a burst of excited cries as one of our patrols returns, escorting a dilapidated wagon driven by a miserable-faced farmer.
Two of our soldiers stand alongside him on the seat, clinging to the wagon’s partially covered, overarching steel frames. Their horses are being led by those still mounted, with tightly bound prisoners – two women, although one of them appears particularly tall, even seated – in the saddles. A large, mangy dog happily runs alongside, completely oblivious to the trouble his master and mistress are undoubtedly in.
They’ve probably fled their farm, though I can’t see why that’s led to their detention; no one expects anyone to attempt defending anything so small and worthless.
No farmer could afford that. Only a soldier.
And if she’s alive, then it can only be because she’s a deserter.
Not that she remains completely useless to us.
She’ll be made an example of; to make sure no one else even considers deserting the troop.
Even worse for her, that ‘example’ will entail a slow, extremely painful death: and not simply to make the ‘example’ more memorable for us all.
She will accompany and help transport our shaman into the otherworld, where we might obtain answers to more complicated questions than those we can ask our own dead.
I glance over to where I last saw our shaman; yes, he’s looking towards the deserter with an eager grin on his face.
Our shaman will have many questions to ask in the otherworld.
How many do we face?
Where are they most likely to attack us?
How long can we expect to hold them off?
There’s no point asking if we might win.
Once again, it’s one of the questions we all already know the answer to.
Our only hope is to take as many of them with us as we can. (The truth is, I’ve heard fearfully whispered, is that every enemy who falls takes out maybe forty, fifty of us.)
As the deserter undergoes her lingering death, no one watching could possibly wish to risk ending up in the same position.
I’ve seen it many times, as many of our soldiers have, cringing internally at the judicious slicing of skin and sinew, the severing of body parts, all of it as unhurriedly well-ordered as any other religious sacrament.
As the man or woman screams for mercy, you would willingly grant them the swift death they crave, if it weren’t for the fear that you’ll end up taking their place.
Anyone who’s seen such a thing can never fail to wonder why so many continue to desert.
Even so, of the two bound riders, it’s the other woman who appears to be the most ashamed and frightened. She hides her bowed head beneath a wayward tangle of hair she’s thrown forwards across her face.
The soldier rides tall and straight, despite any beating she must have undoubtedly suffered.
She holds her head high, as if in reality she’s some commanding officer only captured after a worthy and admirable fight.
As if she’s still worthy to be called a warrior, rather than the coward she really is.
As the troop and their captives draw closer, I at last begin to make out more of our deserter.
I was wrong when I thought this solider was a woman; it’s a man, but he no longer has the horns that would once have risen proudly up from his helmet – these have already been severed by his captors, the well deserved fate of any deserter.
The closer the deserter approaches, the more I can make out his facial features – and I’m surprised to see that, despite his deliberate humiliation, he’s keeping his jaw firm, while his eyes are set sternly facing straight ahead.
I couldn’t fail to recognise that arrogant nonchalance.
Now I know why I hadn’t seen Bjorn pass us by as he made his way back towards our own village.
He never died.
And there was me, telling myself I was worrying unnecessarily, that he was probably one of those who preferred to stay by the battlefield, lamenting the loss of so many good warriors for so little purpose.
Even if he’d headed home, I’d reassured myself, he would simply have taken a more difficult, more challenging route – just for the hell of it all.
That would be just like Bjorn – the Bjorn I thought I knew.
Now he has managed to bring his message to me; a message of the utmost shame for both of us, for in cavorting with him I have lowered myself to having relations with a coward.
As for any brat coming out of that unfortunate relationship, he or she would have been better off staying with the gods rather than forever being branded as the spawn of a coward and a fool.
Even before the scouting party draws to a complete halt in the centre of the village, some of the girls dash forward to unceremoniously drag Bjorn down from his horse. With his arms bound, there’s no way for him to absorb the worst of the fall, other than to throw himself into the best roll he can manage under the circumstances.
Before he can make any attempt to rise to his feet, the girls are on him, striking him hard in the face with their fists, or kicking him hard in the ribs.
They do take care, however, to avoid causing him serious injury.
The shaman is closely taking note of their every action.
He doesn’t want his companion to the underworld damaged in any way that might affect their journey.
All the hurt and agony will come later, as they both undertake that journey.
He frowns angrily as Bjorn refuses to cry out despite the punishment. He rushes forward to carelessly push the soldiers aside.
Bending down by Bjorn, the shaman brutally forces his mouth open, only smiling with relived satisfaction when he sees that the tongue is still there.
Good, you can see him thinking.
That will be sliced later, at the most opportune moment.
Can I really let Bjorn suffer in this way?
Bjorn, who I lay with before he left to go off towards the front.
We had no need to take any precautions as we’d writhed in the long grass of the meadow.
We both thought we would both be dead within the half-year at the most.
Naturally, some girls had got their timing wrong. Particularly those whose lovers went out with the legions who’d left earlier.
The former are already displaying signs that they’re with child. The latter are heavily pregnant, to the point where they're almost completely useless to us, truth be told.
It will be an especially glorious death for them, our commanding officer has informed them – for they will be taking with them their brave offspring, who’ll also be dying for our noble cause.
Their babes will soon be in conversation with the gods they only recently left behind to briefly visit our world.
I’m one of the lucky ones; the ones who passionately parted with our lovers and yet – the gods be praised – we’re displaying none of the usual symptoms announcing that we’ve brought a new life into our world.
Not yet, anyway.
While he has a tightly bound Bjorn at his mercy, the shaman swiftly and uncaringly runs through a well practised examination, inspecting his chosen companion for any marks or injuries that might make him less than perfect for his appointed task.
Bjorn’s wrists are badly scared, horrifically burnt, a self-inflicted childhood injury from when he held them for as long as he could in the flames of a fire, regarding it as a test of his will power. Will that count against him? Could, ironically, that terrible imperfection save him from being sacrificed in the most torturous way anyone could imagine?
The shaman rises to his feet with a smug, satisfied grin.
He hasn’t seen the burnt wrists. They’re hidden from view by the tightly binding ropes.
Bjorn doesn’t seem to be making any attempt to search me out from everyone here, even though he’ll have seen the banners of my troop fluttering from the standards firmly planted in the midst of the village.
As they passed through here, the standards of his own legion most have also been proudly displayed here on the village’s green. As, so long, long ago, the standards of the Twentieth Legion and the Ninth Troop must have also proudly fluttered on some village green.
How could Bjorn have betrayed the ideas of sacrifice and loyalty that those standards represent?
Perhaps I’m being too hard, too unfair, on him.
Maybe he faced insurmountable odds.
Maybe he was knocked unconscious, and awoke to find his whol
Surely, when he talked of deserting, it was only my life he was hoping to save?
Just as, as I see him doing now, he’s making no attempt to include me in his shameful fall from glory.
Or am I simply making excuses for him, simply to assuage my own shame in having loved him?
Whatever the truth of the matter, I realise I can’t watch him slowly die as he’s tortured to ensure the shaman has a companion on his journey into the underworld.
As Bjorn is brutally hoisted up onto his feet, his mouth is also tightly bound now that he’s in the presence of raw troops, of easily terrified villagers.
No one wants to hear his lies.
No one wants to hear thing that might make them fight less bravely.
I stride towards Bjorn. Standing directly before him, staring intently into his eyes to ensure he’s fully aware of the hate and disgust I feel for him, I make a loud proclamation to everyone in hearing.
‘He was engaged to marry me,’ I yell bitterly.
Bjorn’s eyes sparkle; he knows why I’ve lied.
He’s thankful for my lie. He’s proud of me
How can I tell all this simply from the look in his eyes?
I knew him, remember? I loved him.
This is my sacrifice for him.
I’m accepting his shame as mine.
And there’s only one way to alleviate that shame.
It’s a shame that can’t be wholly eradicated, of course, especially Bjorn’s; but hopefully this will spare him the shaman’s torturous journey.
The shaman knows this too – he’s glowering at me with barely withheld fury. He knows how all this must now be played out.
The looks I’m getting from the other girls are no less scornful than his. There are even angry cries of ‘Shame’ and far worse.
‘My task is of far more importance than allowing her to lessen her shame!’ the shaman declares to the nearest captain, effectively calling upon her to adjudicate on how Bjorn should die.
Captain Nerlis glances my way, almost as angry with me as the shaman is for putting her in this position; after all, I deserve to suffer my shame, and the shaman’s journey is indeed of the utmost importance to us.
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