Ghosts of the War
The soldier wandered through the forest, as proud, observant and regal as a queen. The shadows mocked her; whispers spoke of a past that couldn't- shouldn't be mentioned. They told of how she had not only lost her way, but her husband, her daughter, her spirit, and her mind.
She glanced up as the last, blood red rays of sunlight desperately clung to the horizon, but to no avail. They sank below the tree line, and the vast forests of the north were once again under the cover of darkness. A soft breeze played through the trees, and stars appeared one by one in the dusky night sky. Inside she felt no admiration or pleasure at the sight. She was a survivor of war, a conqueror of death and she had seen far too many lives taken by her enemies to surrender to emotions such as happiness or joy. Fear and anger governed her heart.
A rustling in the undergrowth caused the soldier to look away from the eerie sight. She raised her rifle in an act of defence, then lowered it again with a sigh. A simple bush rat was preparing for a night's hunting, her whiskers quivering, though she was unaware she was being watched by a barn owl, perched in the low branches of the pine tree, waiting for the perfect moment to strike. The soldier shook her head and continued on as a wolf's howl to the full moon echoed around the forest. More rustling and the sound of crunching dead leaves signalled more nocturnal animals going out to hunt for the night. She sighed, now comfortable with the sounds of the night, and ventured further, looking for a clearing small enough for her to camp in.
The river was close by; she could hear the trickling of the water as it made its way down to the plains. If the sun was warm enough tomorrow, she reasoned, she would bathe, and hope the water wasn't too cold, being directly from the icy mountain streams. This in mind, she headed towards the river, planning to camp on the banks, not too close to the water so she would be easy prey for wild animals, but close enough.
Setting up camp was simple; it consisted of nothing but unpacking her bedroll and lying it on a comfortable piece of earth, preferably under a tree. Only a few ties held the roll in place. When she unclipped them, it was just a matter of finding a nice tree to lie under, away from insect life such as ants. When the task was finished, she sat on her blanket and stared out at the water, which was only about ten yards away. Food was scarce; she was hungry all the time, and she was living on just a few nuts and wild fruit. Not enough food to keep her alive and healthy, but enough to keep her alive. She shook her head; thinking of food made hunger worse, she reminded herself, and searched her mind for another topic of interest.
Her name was Riza, she knew. Her last name she had forgotten. But she did know her name was a shortened form of Elizabeth.
The last time she had looked into a mirror she had seen her eyes as a dark, crimson red, her hair a golden blonde, and her skin clean and milky white, even after her long hours of training with the military.
That was right, she thought. She had been part of the military. She had joined when she was eighteen, the only female in her class, and the best with guns; rifles, pistols, she was deadly accurate with all types. And she was put to the rank of First Lieutenant to a man –a Colonel- who she had ended up marrying after more than a decade of serving under him. She smiled slightly at the memory. She had taken leave when she had fallen pregnant, and eventually gave birth to a baby girl, whom she and her husband, Roy, had named Elspeth, the Gaelic form of her own name.
Not long after the birth, her husband was promoted to the rank of General and her colleagues, as well as she, were moved up in the ranks. Elspeth grew up in the company of a small group of kind-hearted military men. Riza brought her to the office during the day, completed her paperwork quickly, then took her home in the afternoon for naps.
And for five years, life was good, peaceful. The small family was content. But.
'There's always a 'but', isn't there?' She asked herself humourlessly, and threw a small round pebble into the river.
But then the war had started. It had begun small, and her superiors had thought they had a fair chance of containing it. Soon enough, however, all military personnel were dispatched as walking artillery, Roy and Riza among them.
'No matter how much death one sees or causes, you can never get used to it,' Riza thought bitterly, quoting something her husband had said once when they had been required to attend an execution.
After six months of sleepless nights waiting, watching for a surprise attack, she had been sent home for a short stay, a holiday, and a chance to see her daughter.
When on a break from fighting, one does not expect to wake in the middle of the night to find your home afire, your village burning, your neighbours screaming and your husband dead on your doorstep, riddled with bullets, your daughter kneeling, crying silently beside him.
Instincts forged by years with the military had kicked in, Riza shoved her feelings of horror, and the overwhelming urge to vomit to the back of her mind and stomach, grabbed her rifle and the by-then six year old Elspeth and ran for shelter, into the forests.
Then they had started falling from the sky like rain. The enemy's ultimate weapons. The weapons that couldn't be stopped unless the aeroplanes they arrived in were shot down well away from their target area.
The explosive power and heat that blasted from the bombs as they hit earth tore what was left standing of Riza and Elspeth's village to pieces. Riza shoved her daughter in front of her, turned and aimed at the soldiers that were suddenly there, spilling from the roads.
The heat from an explosion burned her back and the blood drained from her face. Riza turned to look where her daughter had been running only to find a small but deep, smouldering crater. A heap of burned cloth to the left of it showed nothing remotely human; but for a small, pale arm with an ugly black gash running from the wrist to the elbow.
With a cry, Riza had leapt forward only to be knocked back by a large, burly-looking man in uniform with fists the size of hams and a face like a pug. An acute pain in the back of her neck told her she'd been kicked or hit from behind. She had fallen to her knees and pitched sideways. The last thing she saw was her daughter's arm. A single tear slid from her eye and she had blacked out.
'I wish I hadn't blacked out,' Riza thought, angry at herself. When she'd woken she had been alone but for the corpses of family and friends scattered around her, the village still smoking from the fires. She had taken to hiding in the forest, alone, living on the supplies of the village, dealing with heartbreak, and the indelible thoughts of guilt and failure. She had nearly lost her mind, living in that forest. But then the nightmares had started, recurring until she followed them. They had led her to where she was now.
'And if they had not started when they had, I would be insane by now,' Riza mused, saddened by the thought.
She sighed and stood, preparing for sleep. An owl hooted softly up in a nearby tree and a bat squeaked, probably trying to locate food. She knelt down beside her bedroll and pulled back the covers. Then something made her pause.
A cry of anguish split the night. Riza looked up, her military training once again kicking in as she pinpointed the source of the noise. A slight smile spread slowly across her war-hardened features. She pulled on her boots, packed up her bedding in record time and broke into a swift soundless run, all the while thinking, I'm so close. Ha, and they think I'm insane… Little did she know, the voices, the faces of the nameless people who called her failure and mentally unstable, were all just products of her mind, made half crazy by the endless days, weeks, and months accompanied only by the silence of the forest.
The cry came again, louder now, and followed by crestfallen sobs. She slowed and stopped. The sounds, the sobs were achingly familiar, in a way Riza did not even wish to consider. It couldn't be true. She was imagining things.
Desperate to draw her mind away from that train of thought, she concentrated on moving forward, not making any sound, and keeping the crunching sound of dead leaves and branches underfoot to a bare minimum.
A pale blue light, dull and ghostly in the moonlight to her right caught her attention and held it. Without considering, she followed, knowing that she had finally found what had haunted her nightmares, and she wasn't going to lose it.
In the centre of the light, she could make out a small figure, the figure of a young child, though it looked like what she imagined the wraith from her mother's stories to look like. It stopped and beckoned to her. Riza's senses screamed at her, to run, get away as far as possible but she was drawn to it, like a moth to a light. Fear wasn't necessarily a new emotion to her, but she welcomed the feeling nonetheless; it made her feel more… human.
The child-wraith turned and walked away and Riza followed. She followed for what felt like hours, never slowing, always staying a few paces behind, in case she scared whatever it was, off. Anxiety gnawed away at the back of Riza's mind; what she had been looking for was there, before her, and yet she didn't know what to do about it.
Eventually the wraith slowed as they came to a clearing, barely visible in the dense trees. As it broke through and into the clearing, the witch light died, as if it had never existed. Riza blinked, startled by the sudden darkness and waited for her eyes to adjust to the gloom. When she could see, however, she wasn't awed to the point of her jaw dropping. She felt no awe at all, in fact. To the left was a slowly decaying log, on which the child-wraith sat, and to her right was a small pile of bones. Human bones. A child's bones.
Riza swallowed at the sight, feeling nauseous. She levelled her rifle at the wraith's chest. She was not going to be a midnight snack.
A soft, shy, painfully familiar child's voice broke the silence. The soldier jerked back, and she quickly scanned the clearing for the source, only to conclude that the voice had come from the figure sitting scant metres in front of her.
"Will you help me? Please? I need help…" it whispered. "The shadows frighten me, they tell me of what I was… I only want to know who I am."
"What are you?" Riza asked, equally soft. The question was a blunt one; Riza didn't care. This person didn't look as if it should even exist on this planet. Yet the voice… she couldn't place it. It was as elusive in her mind as a trail of smoke.
"I don't know," it replied. "I want to know. I want to know a lot of things." Then its voice sparked with recognition, "I remember your face. You must know me, then!" It sounded excited.
Riza blinked, confused. "What?"
"You know me, don't you?" the wraith said, its voice barely above a whisper. "I know you know me. Who am I? Where do I come from? Do I have a family?"
"I'm sorry… but I don't know," Riza said carefully. "I know your voice, but I can't place you."
"You have to though!" The wraith lifted its face to stare at Riza. She stumbled backwards when she found two red eyes, like lasers, piercing the darkness. She felt as if the eyes had seen into her very soul.
"Oh my God, what are you?" Riza gasped, her soldier calm evaporating.
"I have told you already," the wraith said quietly. "I do not know." It coughed, and the harsh sounds echoed.
"What do you want?" Riza asked, wondering how a child (at least, she thought it a child) could sound so ill.
The wraith looked up at her a second time. The echoes from the coughing died out and the clearing went eerily silent. The soldier held her breathe, momentarily regretting her words.
"What I want," it murmured. "Is to exist. To find out who I am, and return."
"Return where?" Riza asked, puzzled.
"To the light," it replied simply.
"I will help you," Riza found herself promising. "If you show me your face." 'Wait, where did that come from?' Riza asked herself. 'I don't recall thinking that through…'
"Perhaps if you see my face, you will remember," the wraith said thoughtfully and nodded in agreement. "Okay."
It raised its hands to its cloak tie, both pale and with dirt ingrained into the skin; telltale signs of malnourishment and lack of bathing. Riza watched, rooted to the spot in shock. The hands were that of a child's…
"All who have followed my light and followed me here, have screamed and run far away because they saw my face. They cursed me, named me demon and told tales of the monster of the forest; all because of my scars." A single tear fell from within the shadowy depths of the cloak and spattered on the leaf litter at the wraith's feet. "I was the source of their nightmares," it added as an angry afterthought and it tugged at the tie. When it loosed, the mottled, dead, hands reached up to pull back the cloaks hood. .
"What happened to your hand?" Riza asked, then disregarded the question as the cloak was tossed aside.
The figure was that of a young girl, six, maybe seven years of age, wrapped in rags that hung off a body bone thin. The cloths were stiff, from what Riza could tell, with congealed blood, mucus from infected cuts, water and dirt. Her flesh was little better off; her face was burned, and the majority of visible skin was infected from a scattering of abrasions, including a long thin slice down the length of her left leg and an infected gash in her left arm that ran from her wrist to elbow. Her torso was intact, thankfully. And her eyes, that were shining points of light before, had faded to a coal black, like her hair. Like Riza's husband's.
And perhaps the most obvious difference between this girl and a normal human child was the fact that this girl was glowing a pale blue like her witch light.
Recognition sparked in her mind and Riza had to calm herself before she burst into tears.
"Do you remember me?" the girl asked, her dark eyes hopeful.
"Yes," Riza breathed. "You came from my home town and you were killed when it was attacked. Killed by a bomb." A tear slid down her cheek.
"So that's where the heat came from," she remarked, apparently unperturbed. "I was wondering. I remember a whistling, then a bright flash, and then the heat. And someone screamed. Then everything went black. When I woke up, I was here, like this, and with those." She pointed at the small pile of bones. "Something tells me that was my… remains."
'Oh God,' Riza thought, her heart in her throat.
The girl was speaking again. "Will you show me the way home?"
"I don't know if I can," Riza admitted. "But I have some idea." Memories flooded back; her, reading to Elspeth, her daughter clutching her favourite teddy bear during the tale. It was a story her own mother had told her at least once a week when she was young. The story came to her easily, as it was doing now.
Riza knelt on the ground and motioned for the girl to copy her. She did so immediately, squirming with excitement.
She closed her eyes and tried to remember the story exactly. It told of a man who wished to help the ghost of a young boy find his way home. The man had gotten the child to kneel, and the child had to wish with all his heart to be home.
Riza instructed the girl to wish.
"Close your eyes, and call," Riza said.
"Call to the light. Ask it to come to you. Ask it to lead you home."
"Oh." The small, ravaged, known and loved face scrunched up in concentration.
She opened her eyes a few seconds later. "I think it's working…" she whispered, almost disbelieving. Her light was starting to fade.
"Thank you, so much," she whispered to Riza, her voice growing faint.
The soldier woman smiled. "You're welcome."
Blue sparks flashed through the air, dancing across the girls skin, and in a matter of moments, the girl was healed. And she once again resembled the daughter Riza had known, loved and cherished. Tears leaked freely from her eyes.
"What is my name?" the girl asked.
"It was Elspeth," Riza replied.
"Elspeth…" her daughter tried the name out. "That sounds right! How did you know?"
Riza smiled. "You are my daughter."
The girls dark eyes widened. "Mama…" she whispered, and vanished. A small brown teddy bear, Elspeth's teddy bear was lying on the log.
Riza leant forward and picked up the teddy, hugging it to herself. "Goodbye, my darling Elspeth," she whispered into the night, tears falling in a steady flow now, like rain.
A voice echoed through the trees.