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Survivors were trying to climb from the pit. It was night.
—Sort those out would you? said the commander.
So the soldiers sorted the survivors out. They went at them with bayonets, then trooped onwards once the climbing had stopped. The youngest soldier, a mere child, caught glimpses of plunged metal and wet soil in the dark and was not afraid. All he believed in was freedom.
Later they camped in a barn and the farmer’s wife brought out a tureen of stew. She was obliged to host them out of fear and the boy could hear the trembling of her ladle against serving bowls.
—Mind and be respectful, said the commander.
So the boy nodded to the wife as he ate.
They slept all together in piles of hay and sometimes you heard noises like some of the soldiers were romancing each other. The boy kept himself out of that, being still too small. It was the commander himself who conscripted the boy straight out of his home village, coming through on horseback, saying there was wickedness to be stopped this side of the continent.
All the child believed in was freedom. It was a simple thing to believe.
After dawn the farmer and his wife entered with rifles, firing upon them, blasting away soldier after soldier. One man’s skull opened up like smoke.
—Here it is! screamed their commander, tumbling to hide. —Here is our end.
And the boy went running, because truly that was what he believed in. Over the bellowing of mass death from the barn, he scrambled onto a field and flew himself free.
He lay by a wild stream and watched for followers and when none came, finally he gasped.