The Long March of Ares, Part 1
Written by Azmodi, Edited
by E.A. Morrissey
The Long March of Ares
Part 1 of 3
In his ears, he heard the pant of
his own breath and the weight of his comrade heavy against his body. The dark
forest floor swayed before Frederick Derych’s ash-colored eyes. In the
distance the sounds of bombs and American war cries moving his steps; with his
free hand, he wiped the stickiness from his flat features, the blood caking
across his hardened skin. His grey uniform, once faded from the years of war,
was darkened now, stained with the draining lifeblood of the smaller man
supported by Derych’s right arm.
The sergeant slowed his pace;
grimly looking over at the private, Elger Garrick’s wan features pale in the
diminishing sunlight, the sun weakly sinking below the distant German peaks.
Frederick surveyed the damage as he hurried through solemn timbers, the
cacophony of war, the ever present rushing of the Rhine fading to his ears, yet
never leaving him. The young private’s eyes flickered, Elger’s addled mind
careering in and out of consciousness - the dazzling shift between living red
and the cold, dim grey.
Even his iron lungs began to
rust, the steel cords of his body beginning to fray. Derych eased himself to a
brisk walk, the din of gunfire and crushing of branches now nearly inaudible -
the Americans had turned away, satisfied with the deaths of the sergeant’s
squad and uncaring of his own. The sight of his men gunned down before his eyes
sprang back, but Frederick pressed on, the florid memories washed away within
the countless waves of war. The past was ended and the future unwritten...
Frederick pressed on, moving with each passing second of the present. His
thoughts diminished and he simply moved, every part of his being moved as they
had within the bodies of his ancestors on the African plains, long ago.
Erlen’s booted feet dragged
limply through the old-fallen leaves, those landed years before beginning to
rot, unable to endure. The private groaned, his head lolling, catching fractured
glimpses of towering giants that seemed to stare down with eyes obscured in the
rising mist; the twisted branches spread out in a canopy of accusation, pointing
out at the world. A call rang out and for a moment, Erlen thought it had issued
from the sergeant; his daze returning, Garrick realized it was an animal.
His face set grimly in iron, the
grease of combat painting the shadows of his visage in deepening rust. Frederick
continued the pace, even as the forest thickened and any sense of familiarity
drifted away with the last shafts of warm sunlight. The sounds of nature
enveloping the two soldiers, Derych glimpsed a far-off glimmer of orange,
vibrancy misplaced in the dark maw of the forest. Moving on with growing vigor,
the orange light flickered through the trails of mist yet was never completely
lost; it grew as Frederick approached, the artifice smoothing the shadows from
The sergeant stopped at a crooked
wooden sign pounded into the ground, its surface almost completely green with
moss; fingers of fog curled around the sign’s post, refusing to release it.
Frederick leant down, squinting, making out the faint letters, their identities
nearly erased by years of exposure.
Confident now it was the village
he approached and not a military camp. Derych trudged through the fallen canopy,
unconcerned with the fate of his younger comrade - it was Frederick’s duty to
aid Erlen, but if the private died nothing could be done to stop it - everything
The weeds and lichen of the
forest proper began to shrink away, bowing down into a rough path of velvet
grass, overgrown yet obviously trampled by feet not only of animals. The scent
strong, Derych followed it to its source, the path widening to accommodate a
small settlement - primitive buildings of wood, the light of fires shining
through foggy windows. Frederick’s grey eyes flashed in the darkness as he did
his best to make out the details, ensuring there was no ambush.
No more than two dozen houses;
farm tools attached to the sides of some, a stable. A well sat within the middle
of the town, and in the murk of deepening night Frederick reasoned he saw fields
of fallow; at the opposite end a hill sloped back up into the dark maw of the
forest. Uncaring, his instincts satisfied, Derych pushed on, choosing the
nearest house to intrude upon.
Harshly the sergeant knocked on
the door, and Erlen moaned in his stupor, the sound of knuckles thunderclaps to
him. A moment and then the door opened, a middle-aged man opening it. Frederick
pushed his way inside, explaining in a clipped, commanding tone the situation,
the dire state of his companion.
The inside of the abode was
rustic, wooden boards, the separations extenuated by the shadows cast by the
fire. The flames were set in a small fireplace; several burlap bags of
belongings were piled before it, ready to be removed.
Garrick moaned again, the
features of the people elongating, their bodies cast in stone, marble planted to
the floorboards, yet their eyes purple and shining, roving about with the
intelligence cast of years.
Erlen sensed he was moving again,
being dragged from the sanctum, out into the cool night air again, only to once
more be brought into a house, this was one larger, more spacious with a roaring
fire and several windows.
Frederick waited as an older man
stood; his features lined by days in the sunshine, his hair and mustache
bleached a lighter shade of brown. He looked with familiar concern on the
bloodstained body of Erlen Garrick; several red droplets beading on the floor
below the private’s beleaguered self. Behind him, a woman looked on with
mirrored emotions, her belly swollen.
He introduced himself as Irwin
Wenzel, the unofficial leader of Nachtholm.
"I need a room and medical
aid for this man - he has been seriously wounded."
Irwin nodded, the situation
obvious - he pledged a small house for the two men to use, and promised that
various herbs and bandages would be brought swiftly. He sent off the man who had
accompanied Frederick to fetch these things, and Wenzel himself agreed to show
the two soldiers to the house, near the edge of the village.
Walking in the darkness without
aid, his steps perfect, Irwin Wenzel led Frederick and his comrade through
Nachtholm, the buildings haphazardly arranged around a rough central avenue and
the well. There was no conversation, each man serious and devoted to his task.
They reached the house within a
few minutes, Irwin striking a match and lighting the single lamp as Frederick
located one of the three cots in the house and gently laid Erlen down on it. The
single flame danced, casting writhing shadows across the young man’s body as
Derych tore off the soaked uniform, examining the ragged hole in Garrick’s
shoulder, the flesh angry around the dark hole that drove deep.
The older man came in, with
healing herbs, a bucket of water, bandages and some towels. Both he and Wenzel
looked on in silence as Frederick set about his task of cleaning the wound;
Erlen groaned with the touch of water, his eyelids fluttering, angry colors
exploding across the torpid sea of his misery.
Derych called for a bottle of
alcohol and a sharp knife and again the older man was off, returning minutes
later with the requested items. Wasting no time with thanks or replies,
Frederick doused the wound with the amber liquid, Erlen roaring in pain the
moment the first drop touched his torn flesh. Not waiting for the private’s
spasm to subside, Derych jammed the knife into the wound, prying out the blunted
bullet with a single swift motion, only bringing Garrick to new heights of
Blood flowed anew but Frederick
had quickly wiped it away and tightly bandaged the wound. When the chore was
completed, Derych turned to see the two villagers watching their positions
unchanged. Without words the sergeant told them to leave, and they did so,
saying they would speak with him in more depth in the morning and wishing his
comrade good luck.
With the two men gone, Frederick
made a final check to make sure Erlen was in a comfortable position, his wound
elevated, so that he would sleep through the night. Paying little attention to
his surroundings, Derych took the cot across from his wounded companion, blew
out the lamp and surrendered to the fatigue that had been building within him
for so long.
Yet, in the depths of his
exhaustion, Frederick felt alien light when it washed across the outer-edge of
his eyelids, and they opened with painful swiftness. Weak orange strobes
filtered in through the small window situated across from his sleeping cot, and
Derych stood to see their source.
The darkness of night still in
firm dominion, Frederick squinted to make out the sight of several men carrying
lanterns, descending from the hill that rose at the edge of Nachtholm. Their
ages varied, some older then others from what he could see, but all dressed the
same, hunched in grey cloaks; they all carried shovels.
The small party passed quickly
by, the artificial light fading and with it the sergeant’s curiosity - he was
fast asleep again.
The pale light of early morning
slinked through the small single pane and found Frederick, taking him from his
deep sleep. He rose, checked Erlen’s bandages and saw the wound had ceased to
bleed - there was no sign of infection. Garrick rested comfortably and Derych
departed the small house, unwilling to be confined by it or shackled by a long
Nachtholm was half-alive already
in those early hours, some farmers beginning the march into the fields, burlap
bundles of seeds strapped across their backs. From those seeds would spring
life, but Frederick knew how fleeting the children of those seeds would flourish
- in time they would rot and bow, food for the future, trapped.
A dim thundercloud seemed to
float above Frederick’s head, and it was obvious he had no wish to speak to
anyone, though his odd, blood-soaked presence sometimes elicited subdued
whispers from a curious passerby. Uncaring of the opinions of the smaller
individuals, Derych made toward the forest, its darkness foreboding but its
roots set too strongly within him for the sergeant to resist.
Frederick passed a man as he
began the ascent up the hill and realized he was one of those he had seen late
last night, shovel in-hand. For the first time in his memory, Derych found
himself intrigued and endeavored to discover exactly what the Jew and several of
his comrades had been doing so late at night with shovels in their dirt-stained
The trees seemed to bend around
the entrance of the forest, forming a great mouth that led into a tunnel of
deepening natural darkness; Frederick entered and felt at home. The dis-ease
that the presence of others brought him faded, as did the fear of the animal
boiling forth from his stomach and slaking its thirst on the blood of strangers.
Birdcalls rang in his ears, and a
woodpecker not far off hammer away at the dead bark of some massive oak, ripping
away the rot to reveal the vitality beneath.
Bending his tall frame under a
low-hanging branch, Derych finally came to a mound of fresh earth. For a moment,
he was puzzled by the sight, with a small stone marker atop the heap, before
Frederick realized it was a site of burial, the work of the men in the night. He
peered down and read the name from the crude tombstone: Jürgen Berkhold.
A comforting roar suddenly rose
up and instantly Frederick cast his eyes toward the sky, seeing a squadron of
bombers overhead, their bellies filled with the capacity for destruction. From
the sound and his sight, he saw they were American, obviously heading for the
true conflict, unaware of the man staring up at them. Derych was both pleased
and saddened at their passing.
His curiosity satisfied regarding
the gravestone and the activity of the Jews. Frederick wandered the forest for
the remainder of the day, comfortable in his crimson-splashed grey uniform, the
dark patches mirroring the shade of the setting sun as Derych began to journey
back to Nachtholm. His muscles ached from traveling the uneven terrain.
In the village, he was forced to
reason again, as when Irwin Wenzel approached him and began to question the
status of young Erlen, and how they had found the village.
"The private is fine. It
will take several days for him to regain consciousness."
Irwin told Frederick that hot
soup had been set out in the makeshift hospice, along with fresh bread; he asked
if the sergeant would enjoy a change of clothes.
"No. We will be returning to
the front shortly."
Any further questions by the
chief farmer were met with absent gestures of Frederick’s head until finally
the sergeant was glad to shut the door on Irwin’s constant words. He breathed
heavily, more tired then he had been during the long journey to the village
itself. His body ached even more, each syllable thrown his way bringing
corrosive rust to the iron body Frederick had cultivated out of necessity.
He partook of the food, checked
Garrick’s bandages and wound and, finding them both in fine condition,
surrendered himself to sleep.
For several days, the cycle was
the same - Derych ranged in the woods during the day, allowing Erlen to
recuperate in peace and avoiding the prying eyes of the people of Nachtholm. To
them, he was only a shadow that visited them in the nighttime now, fleeing at
the break of dawn and the first painting of the sun’s brush. They could get no
fix on who or what he was and so Frederick remained a mystery in the form of a
One night the sergeant returned
to eat the food given to him and is startled by a weak voice calling his name.
Frederick turned and saw young Erlen searching for his glasses, which Derych
took from his own chest pocket and slipped onto the private’s face.
Shining blue eyes were magnified
in their sockets as Garrick looked over at him, searching for words that he had
"Sir, have you been the one
taking care of me?"
Frederick nodded, resuming his
"I’m grateful, sir -
you’ve saved my life."
He took a spoonful of soup.
"I had feared that one of
them had been taking care of me. One of them delivers the food you eat."
The sergeant tore off a generous
piece of steaming bread, buttered it and swiftly consumed it.
"You may not care, but I do
- I won’t have a Jew touch me."
He wiped his mouth with the
"Are there many of them
here? We’ll have to report this place..."
Derych finished his eating,
reached to blow out the lamp, "Be quiet and get some rest. As soon as
you’re better you have to work in the fields to repay your debt."
The house was cast in darkness
again, and Frederick settled in to sleep. It was long in coming, the persistent
sound of a dog barking driving him to distraction. The sergeant did not sleep
Continued in Part 2
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