As the rosy light of dawn struggled through the grey clouds to stain the pristine white hills pink, further down into the valley something else was staining the landscape a similar color. Blood. Blood, mud, and bodies littered the valley floor. The battle that had created such carnage had only ended an hour ago. Those who had died in action were now long since stiff and frigid to the touch; the lightly drifting snow did not melt but settled like a thin blanket on their skin. Those who had survived their wounds but were rendered immobile remained upon the defaced field, still writhing and moaning through their chattering teeth.
Picking through the maze of bodies were figures dressed either in white or beige. Areas where tanks and other such vehicles that churned up earth in the wake of their path, mud was abundant which encrusted their government issued boots. Despite the discrepancies in uniform, all were stained with red. Blood. Those in white had blood on their hands and frocks. These were the nurses and other such medics sent to save whomever they could after the wake of battle.
Those in beige were soldiers, stained in their own blood or that of an enemy. The muzzles of their guns were trained on the ground. While the nurses were there to save, the soldiers were there to continue the destruction they had started. Ushers of death, these soldiers were figures of mercy to their suffering comrades and cruel dispatchers to foes. Yet all were met with the same end. A bullet cutting through the brain.
Eulalia's breath steamed in front of her face as she knelt by the side of a man who's chattering teeth had stilled only a few minutes ago. A bullet had pierced through his lung, causing a slow, agonizing death of suffocation as blood filled the organ. There wasn't much she could have done for him even if she had gotten there faster. It might have been better if one of the roaming soldiers had found him first and swiftly put his suffering to an end. Quietly, she tallied off the man's death as a number in her mind. He had been the third she had watched die that day. Out of the amount she had seen over the course of her employment, he was number thirty six. The sound of a gun firing nearby her didn't even make her flinch as she packed away her medical supplies into a leather bag.
"A soft voice whimpered out to her.
Eulalia's eyes scanned the masses of lifeless bodies in front of her, trained to pick up even the slightest sign of life.
"Please, h-help me
A puff of breath that formed those words wisped towards the grey sky, Eulalia quickly made her over to the voice. Her boots sunk into the muck as she methodically picked over the carnage. There, with the side of his face pressed into the horrid mixture of mud and blood, was a young man. Piled on his back was a corpse which rendered him immobile. Eulalia kneeled and rolled the corpse off to the side, to reveal the rest of the wounded soldier. It was then that she noticed the color of his uniform. It was a greenish color instead of beige. A soldier of the country that was invading them. An enemy.
Like something mechanic, Eulalia noted the distance separating herself from her country's soldiers. A gunshot sounded once more. She noted that the man weeping and brokenly pleading for his life at her knees was more of a boy than a man. No older than eighteen. She noted that the boy's only wounds were two clean shots, one through his shoulder and the other through his leg. Excruciating wounds, but easily treatable since major organs were missed and the bullet wasn't lodged in the body. Another gunshot sounded, this time closer. The boy was frantic now with his rasping voice rising, his good arm reached and clutched at her soiled frock.
"Please. Help. Help me-"
"Quiet," Eulalia covered the soldier's mouth with her hand. His wild eyes darted between her and some place behind her back. With precision, she pulled out a pair of scissors from her bag and brought towards the boy. He uselessly struggled against her hand. Tears tracked down his face to wash away streaks of mud. Quick, she used the scissor's edge to cut into the green uniform. With careful snips of the blade, the thick fabric fell away and into the mud. Underneath the uniform was a bloodied shirt, which thankfully was not green. Somehow she had known, in some part of her mind, that under the uniforms of beige or green, they were all the same.
"Stretcher!" Eulalia called out to her fellow medics as her hands deftly began to bandage the wounds of the now silent boy. Yet his eyes communicated to her everything. Everything he could have said in that moment and everything that language didn't even have a word for. With his good hand he grasped her cold, bloodied one. Even when the medics arrived he refused to let go. They placed him on the stretcher as gently as they could but he had to bite his tongue to keep from screaming. Still he refused to let go. With their hands clasped, Eulalia followed by the side of the stretcher from the field and into the infirmary tent.
Along the way she had surreptitiously pocketed the boy's identification tags. When her fellow medics asked the soldier who he was, he thankfully stayed silent except for the occasional groan of pain. The medics seemingly brushed it off as trauma and did not pry further into the matter. Eventually, he slipped into unconsciousness from either pain, shock, or exhaustion; and finally released her hand from its death grip. As Eulalia mechanically tended to his wounds, her ever calculating mind was finally able to slip into her own thoughts. Her first thought was: Why?
She knew the dangers and punishment for harboring an enemy and yet she had done it anyway. Despite the repeated question whirring in her head, she also knew that she couldn't have left that soldier on the barren battlefield to die. The second she looked into that boy's scared eyes she knew she couldn't do it.
The battle that day had caused them to sustain so many losses of life and limb that the infirmary was full to overflowing. A few golden-hearted medics and nurses volunteered to house the wounded within their own tents. Eulalia was among them. This sudden generosity wasn't from her benevolent heart but more of her mind. An instinct of preservation of herself, the boy, and their secret.
Night warred against the day, but Eulalia stayed up long in the darkness. Her cold eyes watching over the sleeping figure in the cot by hers. She studied the steady rise and fall of the soldier's chest. His dark hair was parted to one side and brushed over his forehead like a wing. Her fingers traced over the name stamped on the metal identification tag in her hand. James. His name was James Cervant. Number 000398075. Fourth company. Unit Delta. In that moment, Eulalia's frosty heart ached as she uneasily drifted off to sleep, her silent vigil ending only to welcome dreams.
The next morning a ceasefire had been called to collect the frozen dead. Eulalia stayed in her tent, hand feeding soup and changing James' bandages. They didn't speak to one another, they didn't need to, the silence was the only comforting luxury that they could afford. Another day passed by, the wind howled and the snow grew higher. Then another. Whispers began to circulate of this strange, silent, unknown young man that the frigid nurse was solely caring for. Eulalia was not known for infatuations or random acts of charity. On the third day, while she was sponging fever induced sweat off of the boy's brow; she turned to the sound of someone opening the flap of her tent. At the entrance letting the cold wind in stood an uninvited, imposing man in a beige uniform. Lieutenant Richardson.
With precision the lieutenant shoved Eulalia to the ground with one hand, and with the other took a pistol from his hip. At point blank range he shot James through the skull. Eulalia felt something warm and wet splatter onto her face. The reverberating sound of the gunshot was magnified by the abject silence that followed. If she hadn't already been on the ground Eulalia's legs would have buckled by then. She was in shock. Her usually ever thinking and analyzing mind was silent.
"Now, Ms. Nurse Emory
" Lieutenant Richardson began as he lit a cigarette and breathed in a lungful of smoke, only to expel it when he said her name, "We have incriminating evidence that you are indeed harboring a man, an enemy soldier at that." Eulalia's blue eyes dazedly looked over at James' body staining the cot. Part of his skull was shattered. She shuddered. The man continued with another drag, "Now that the enemy has been neutralized, you still have yourself in a precarious situation. You know the punishment for such an act if discovered is death by firing squad." The lieutenant kneeled down so he was at her eye level, two of his fingers curled around a strand of her blonde hair, playing with it. He breathed another smoky breath, "You're an attractive woman, Ms. Nurse Emory. An extremely attractive woman. Hate to see that go to waste." Eulalia blinked owlishly at him and vaguely wondered how that strand had been spared a matting of blood that flecked her face. Richardson stood, still smoking, and without another word exited the tent.
Eulalia sat there on the hard packed dirt inside her tent for what felt like an eternity, her eyes blank and staring at nothing. A moment passed and she raised her eyes to James' ruined mess of a face. And in that moment she realized through the comforting silence they had shared, she had never told him her name. It was only then that she started to weep. A harsh and broken sound of sobs clawed its way from her throat.
Somehow, on that floor of dirt, she had collapsed and cried herself to sleep, into a dreamless exhaustion. The ghostly light of the sun palely rose over the horizon. Bleary eyed and shivering, Eulalia awoke inside her tent. The first sight to meet her eyes was the creamy white hem of the bottom of a dress, brushing flush against the ground. Confusion and suspicion were sluggish in seeping into her mind as she slowly righted herself, eyes inching up the form in front of her.
"You're awake," the statement hung suspended in the air. The lips that had spoken them were set into a thin line as if in disapproving, and eyes dark like twin chips taken from the winter night sky. Eulalia looked into the bottomless eyes burying into her soul in silence. Those thin lips opened to speak once more, "Your story, Eulalia Agnes Emory, is nearing its end. The final page is turning. But there is need for you yet." The blonde nurse blinked, her voice cracked as she struggled to speak.
"Lady. Lady Ink."
The pale woman continued to speak and as she spoke, Eulalia studied Lady Ink's spindly form. The strange woman had a practical and calculated grace about her, her name seemed apropos with her long, inky black hair flowing down her back. She and Eulalia could have been opposite sides of the same coin. She half listened to Lady Ink's clipped and precise words and half wondered how this woman got into the guarded camp in such elegant attire without a stain. Eulalia picked out certain words such as The Book of Stories, Unraveling, Champion of Order, Gift, Construct, Locations, Archetype, Figments, and then something about Mud. The final term suddenly reminded the young woman that she was still covered in combined grime of dirt and dried blood.
With that remembrance, Eulalia turned around to view the cot laden with James' corpse. Sometime during the night his body had lost all warmth and was tinged a pale bloodless blue. There were no flies or stench of decay, just the lack of life and a jagged piece missing like a puzzle. "Are you prepared?" Lady Ink's question caught the young woman unawares and was startled from her reverie. Eulalia looked about the tent and then stared mutely at her empty hands. "Yes," she said, a hint of a spark glimmered in her blue eyes, yet still kneeling, her form was in abject submission to the powers greater than herself.
Silently, Lady Ink's thin finger traced a pattern in the air; an inky form took shape a hovered just above her hand. "This is my Gift to you," she stated, and handed the flat form to Eulalia. A hint of annoyance crossed the dark woman's features when Eulalia asked, "What is it?" Lady Ink tersely replied, "Anything you want it to be."
Eulalia looked down at the solid circular object in her grasp contemplatively. It was indeed a circle, smooth without beginning or end. She murmured, "It's a ring," and as soon as those words left her lips, the object shrunk in her palm until it was a size that could snugly fit on her fourth finger as a thin and unadorned band. The ring seemed to warm against her flesh. After the transformation, Lady Ink once more traced her finger through the air, "This is your Temporary Construct. It will take you to the Realm of Stories." The ink solidified and settled in Eulalia's other palm.
It was a spiral. It was a flat form in the shape of a spiral. She tried to think of what it could be, what it reminded her of, but her now rapid thoughts couldn't settle. It was a dark and spiraling vortex. A hole gouging into the earth. A whirlpool. A tornado. A spiral staircase to a high tower. With these comparisons in her mind, a strange wind began to whip around her body that was so forceful Eulalia had to shut her eyes. The last sight she had of the old world that she knew was Lady Ink's eyes, twin chips from the winter night sky.