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Last Miracle Standing
Jag leaned on a wooden sword and eyed the new recruits striding into the practice arena. The youngest ones probably weren’t sixteen yet.
One of them stationed himself in front of Jag, formal and too clean. “Your name, please?” the kid said.
“Left it at home,” Jag growled. “Before you were born.”
The kid’s jaw tensed. “The chief told us to ask that.” Into Jag’s silence, he added, “My name is—”
“I don’t want to know.” Jag raised his wooden sword in the first drill stance. The kid lunged toward him with practiced ease.
Jag's company had just arrived here—6000 men from the heartland to prop up the sagging western front. He’d already heard a lot about the new chief, his 2000 young "sons," and their miraculous battle. This kid had also just arrived, with 60 more new recruits who'd been too young to join up when their 2000 older brothers went to war.
The kid knew the drill forms, and he held up well under the grueling practice. Better than battle fodder, anyway—a brave, obedient baby.
Jag swiped sweat from his face without dropping his guard. “Where’d you get that rip in your tunic? You just got here.”
“It’s my big brother’s tunic.” The kid blocked Jag’s thrust. “An enemy spear ripped the hole during their first battle.”
Their only battle. Jag stepped back; the kid’s sword swung through empty air.
But the kid made a good recovery, blocking Jag on the backswing, then leaning in and shoving hard. He almost managed to throw Jag off balance.
“They all lived,” the kid said, not even breathing hard. “It was a miracle.”
“Sure,” Jag said evenly. “You must be proud of your brother.”
Eyes shining, the kid lifted his chin and opened his mouth to answer.
Jag feinted left, lunged right, and elbowed inside the shield. He jabbed hard in the gut with his hilt; the kid doubled over. Jag tripped him, whacked his wrist, and sent his sword flying.
Gasping for breath on his back, the kid stared cross-eyed at Jag’s sword across his throat.
“Pride’s a sin, kid.” Jag’s mother used to say that. He wasn’t even sure what it meant.
“Thank you…soldier,” the kid croaked.
Jag withdrew the sword. “The chief tell you to say that?”
The kid nodded and sat up stiffly as a horn signaled the end of practice. Jag gave him a hand up. “Miracle or no miracle,” Jag said, “you still have to think for yourself.”
“I do think for myself.”
Jag raised an eyebrow.
“Chief told us to say that.” The kid winked.
Jag grinned back, relieved to find the kid had a spark of humanity. Relieved, and irritated. Now he’d have to think of those boys as people, not sawdust-stuffed targets.
“You can call me Jag,” he said.
His buddies had nicknamed him Jaguar years ago, when they patrolled thick trees like the stealthy, deadly cats.
The kid’s smile broadened. “And I’m—”
Jag slapped the kid’s bruised belly. The kid winced. “We’ll call you Thud.”
After supper, the new chief called a camp meeting. He was talking when Jag arrived. “And they told me, ‘We do not doubt our mothers knew it.’”
“Who knew what?” Jag asked the nearest soldier.
“The new kids didn’t doubt God would deliver them. Shh!”
The chief went on in that vein for a while—faith, miracles, obedience. Jag had his personal doubts, but he didn’t doubt his own mother had known those things—back before the enemy cut her to pieces, in the early days of the war. Even if your city had a deep ditch and a high, spiky wall, the guy on the watchtower could still sell it to the highest bidder.
"We will take back the city Cumeni." The chief had started talking about actual battle plans while Jag’s attention wandered. “We have the forces and supplies for a siege."
Jag nodded. It was good strategy. Camp in the jungle for a few months, push back enemy offensives, cut off supplies. Better than attacking an enemy dug into his stronghold. Maybe this chief knew what he was doing.
But Jag left when the praying started.
The chief’s strategy for taking Cumeni had worked, as Jag knew it would. After a couple grueling months of siege, the enemy had surrendered. When they’d marched the prisoners out the broken gates, a weight had seemed to fall away. Now they could shore up the wall, secure the city, and let the civilians start piecing their lives back together.
Jag’s captain had ordered him to take out a squad of the new recruits to patch up the city’s foundation. Now he worked in ankle-deep mud with Thud and three other kids he called Stick, Toad, and Elbow.
Jag sat on a boulder that he was not looking forward to moving and pointed at Thud. “We should change your name to Mud.” All four boys were covered in it, in an unspoken contest to see who could get the dirtiest.
He remembered when he’d been this young and almost this energetic, when he’d ripped his tunic down the front and run down the street after the general’s flag. He’d vowed to fight for honor and justice.
Shouts went up at the gate. Jag and the kids paused to watch as three scouts staggered out of the jungle and into the city. A short while later, Jag’s captain strode down the outside wall. He scowled at the remaining holes. “Get those big rocks in place,” he ordered, “then get inside. Huge enemy force, headed our way.”
As the man walked on, familiar rage clouded Jag’s vision. “Huge” forces didn’t appear out of the air. Someone had hidden those movements from the chief until now.
Honor and justice always fell to betrayal and lies, in Jag’s experience.
And these kids would end up paying the price. He turned toward them, ready for trembling lips, nervous jokes, sudden anger. But the kids just met each other’s eyes. As one, they strode to the largest boulder. Jag joined them. Jaws set and shoulders heaving, they pushed it together through the thick mud and into place.
That night, Jag lay on his blanket inside the shaky walls after the customary prayer meeting. He looked up at the stars the mud-clay buildings didn’t hide, thinking about the chief’s “sons.”
He’d served with those kids for months. Near as he could tell, they neither feared nor hated the enemy. The murky politics and avoidable disasters of war hadn’t disillusioned them, either.
Jag dislodged a stray rock under his back. Of course, it was easier not to hate the enemy if you believed he couldn’t hurt you.
Or if your mother believed that.
His own mother had believed. Hell, maybe her faith had preserved Jag all this time.
He shook his head. Couldn’t be. He’d never been as sure about anything as those kids were about everything.
Jag glared up at Heaven. “Hope those nursery tales hold up in battle.” It was the closest he’d come to praying in a long time.
The sun was fading late the next day, and so was the army. Jag threw aside his splintered sword, grabbed a battle hammer from a dead comrade, and ducked behind a broken wall. Wave after wave of enemy troops had beaten the chief’s forces back, through the broken gates and into the city.
Jag hated street battles: you couldn’t see anything, there was no room to form up, and there were thousands of places for enemies to hide. And there’d been no time to set traps or conceal snipers.
“Stand fast, damn you!” Jag’s captain bellowed: his last words before he fell, screaming, under enemy blades. Men fled as their own captains shouted and died. Jag focused on holding his patch of ground. Strike with the hammer, stab with the knife, wade through the blood.
He glanced off to his right, where the chief commanded his young volunteers in small, tight formations. With no semblance of orders remaining, Jag cut his way toward them.
Several of the boys had fallen, bleeding heavily. Had their mothers said anything about the enemy cleaving open their bellies, half-severing their limbs, slicing veins? The opposing forces surged, and more boys fell—dead? Jag couldn’t tell. But none ran.
He reached them just as an enemy soldier hacked through a boy’s leather armor, into his left shoulder. When the boy staggered back, Jag recognized Thud. Blood spurted; Thud screamed but managed to hamstring his attacker as he fell.
Jag vaguely registered the chief ordering a squad of boy-warriors toward Thud. But for a long, dangerous moment, Jag stood there like a useless tree, mouthing No, staring as his young friend struggled to rise.
An arrow whizzed past Jag’s ear; he jerked up his shield just in time to deflect a sword.
As he grappled with his attacker, Jag glanced around at the battle. Thud’s friends were fighting their way over, but not fast enough. He needed Jag’s help.
Jag finished the fight, shoved away the enemy’s bloody body, turned toward Thud… and hesitated. We do not doubt our mothers knew it. The kids said that all the time. Whatever their mothers believed in, it sure as hell wasn’t Jag. What if he lurched in trying to help and somehow kicked God’s hand askew?
Thud tried to push himself up from the ground, to grip his sword as three armored warriors closed in. It was more than Jag could hope to fight off himself.
But then the answer to last night’s half-formed prayer rattled through his battle-numbed brain: You’re the last miracle standing, soldier.
Jag stepped between the injured boy and the enemy blades and raised his hammer.
Lee Ann Setzer holds a degree in speech-language pathology and works as project coordinator with a free early literacy project at Brigham Young University.
Artwork by Jorge Cocco.