“Hey Pawel, better clean it up! There’s a lady present!”
Anna snorted as she finally made it to the central car as the machine gunner and would-be guitarist was between verses. “I know it’s not the dog’s nose getting kissed, don’t mind me!”
Pawel stopped with his last stroke across the cords, the acoustic echo reverberating in the second or so before chuckles ran across the train car. For all the death and destruction they had escaped from, they were in high spirits.
“Get her a Rycerz suit, Adolf!” called one of the riflemen - Zenon - as Anna made her way to the set of lanterns being used as a makeshift campfire and stood next to him. “If she drinks as well as she snarks, she’ll fit right in!”
“We’re not all women!” shouted the burly man with a half-removed exosuit at the far end of the train car, resting against the dismounted shield and arm-cannon of his suit. “Besides, she’s too skinny!”
“I’m only sixteen,” Anna tossed back as the rifleman handed her a bottle. She took a sip and immediately winced. “And this is Rusviet vodka, isn’t it?”
Zenon grinned as she passed the bottle back to him. “Helenka found a whole crate of it up front. She almost crushed it while sitting down for the suit.”
“Well, at least our potatoes aren’t going to complete waste. I’ll take some kvass if you have any, but first: Pawel…”
“Oh come on, you too?”
It was surreal: here she was surrounded by men from across the Polanian Republic, men who all had either chosen to risk court martial or had volunteered to fight for a single commander rather than the actual army - and this was after the Great War was officially over!
Yet as they bantered, laughed, sang, toasted the fallen and the achievements of what they had done today, it felt… right. It felt just like the fetes that would be on the Zalesie green. Hearing Antoni telling his tall tales, or the shock of seeing the parish priest enjoying the same comforts as his flock. Even though she barely knew any of them, it felt right sitting down with them.
But as her uncle had said, Anna needed to avoid celebrating too long. The fact that much of this was trying to forget how many had just died - some right in front of them as they thought they would be safe - kept things from being too happy. Sure, once Pawel’s guitar was in the hands of someone who could actually play they happily sang of beer and ladies, but despite it all she could not shake a sense that however normal it felt, something was wrong.
“Hey, Marcin!” Zenon called as the grenadier was walking by, “Something I’ve been meaning to ask you since we freed that waystation.”
“Who’s this Jean of Arc everyone keeps mentioning?”
Marcin chuckled. “Frankish farmgirl turned chevaleresse five hundred years back who, guided by visions the Saints conveyed to her, led the Franks to free their country from Albion’s grip! And she was the only thing they ever cooked properly.”
Anna laughed - or at least tried to, as she ended up almost spraying the grenadier and his bandolier of ammo as she had been drinking at that moment. “Don’t let the priests hear that one!”
“Oh and the Pope canonized her back in May. Then again, when was the last time you were at mass?”
Zenon let his indignity spill into his tone. “We haven’t had a chaplain since Father Konrad, remember?”
Marcin paused, head tilting side to side as he nodded. “Fair enough. Anyways, despite being from an obscure village she rallied the Franks to arms, enough that they broke the Siege of Orleans and saved its starving citizens. She inspired hope, no matter how much of the kingdom was infested by invaders.”
“And now we’re riding to Kolno with a train car full of food…” Zenon turned to look at Anna, smirking, “I get the comparison.”
Anna felt her cheeks turning red. “Except I’ve killed dozens.”
“Eh, my old man always said history rhymes. The Rusviets won’t know what hit them!”
More death. More killing to be done. More lives she was going to take - probably with her own two hands if they had to storm fortifications again. But it would free Polania, right? Or at least be a step on the path?
“Excuse me,” Anna said as she pushed herself to her feet. “I should make sure Wotjek doesn’t get into the food.”
“Sure,” Marcin grinned, not catching or ignoring how weak the excuse was, “Meanwhile I’ll educate this sinner on all he’s missed.”
She left them to their mutual hazing, and was out of the train before her expression fully faltered as it hit her.
Anna had taken the comparisons in stride at the time - even when Zenon was hyping her up as some amazonian bear-rider after only a few skirmishes en-route to the first makeshift prison - as she had simply been too focused. Too narrow minded in trying to find her father, bless his soul, to really stop and think about what she was doing. Too confused by what she was learning to consider how her life had turned upside down so fast.
How within a day she had gone from farmgirl desperately listening to rumors of the outside world to being a de facto lieutenant in her uncle’s ragtag army. And now she was riding with the army that would break the Rusviet siege of Kolno, as the foreigners sat on so much of Polania, all to get a cargo train full of food to starving citizens?
Her uncle had not brought up that comparison idly. Marcin, while trying to catch up after being rescued from the aforementioned railway prisons and trying to understand why his platoon was suddenly under some farmgirl’s command? Sure, he goes with the first thing he can think of. Not her uncle, though. Not with his study of military history, his near-obsession of learning as much as he could to become the exemplar of patriotic Polonian prowess as he saw the Great War coming. He made that comparison between her and a Frankish saint knowingly.
And now, hand on the door to the train car the two and Wojtek were waiting in, Anna had to wonder. Was she okay with this? Did she really want to be the Polanian Jean of Arc?
They were almost there - just a few more seconds and the train would be moving too fast for the Rusviets to catch them. Conscripts were swarming forward as the Gulyay-Gorod was almost on top of them. Zenon was aboard, Leslaw was in the car behind shooting and Teodor had managed to jump onto the last car too. Walter! Where was-
She saw him to her right, running to try and catch the train. He had lost his rifle, but that didn’t matter right now. She reached out to him as he leapt forward, catching her and as she pulled him aboard. He was firmly on the train, both of them standing-
An explosion rippled from next to the last car. She lost her balance, Walter fell out backwa-
And he had died. Spine ripped apart by the derailed train car skidding over him as he fell face-first into the ground. Leslaw and Teodor had died too, blasted out of the rear train car when the Rusviet mech’s guns almost destroyed it. And if they survived, they were left for dead. So many dead...
How would their families react, once the news went back to whatever home they had? Maybe they had hoped to find their families in Kolno, fighting to save them the way she had tried to save her father? How many Rusviets had and would die, men who could admire the countryside with as much reverence as any outsider could? Never mind how many Polanian civilians were paying the price of the Tsar’s ambitions, like at Zalesie.
The price of freedom was going to be high. She could remember all the times she said as much as she closed the train car door behind her. If she was fortunate, she would live long enough to kill hundreds more in freedom’s cause. If an Ognivo wanted to put her budding reputation as the Polanian Jean of Arc to a fiery trial?
A shiver ran down her spine. She could remember that one Rusviet at Zalesie - the one who managed to get out of his burning mech as the fuel tanks cooked off. Begging for his mother as the villagers cursed him and cheered for his downfall. Somehow, Anna doubted she would receive the same coup de grace she had given him.
Looking down at the bottle still in her hand, Anna exhaled, then threw her head back as she downed the rest. It was mild - she should have stuck with the vodka - but it might help her get to sleep. And if Kolno really was going to be her grave, maybe it was time to appreciate the little things in life. Janek kept mentioning how much a hot shower felt like luxury in his letters. Maybe now she would understand.
Wojtek perked his head up as she rounded the stacked crates - Lech had pulled himself further into the train and looked asleep next to his empty bottles. Moving slowly to avoid making noise, Anna leaned against the bear, meeting his gaze.
She tried to smile, but she could feel how weak it was. Nonetheless, the bear shifted, making it easier for her to lean back against him and both could get some comfortable sleep on the train.
“What do you think?” she whispered, looking out the open train door. “Do you think this will work, Wojtek?”
The bear simply nuzzled her. She was still unsure if he understood her or if it was just tone, but she preferred to imagine the former. “I know, but… are you ready, if we have to die tomorrow?”
The bear stayed silent, save for a hint of a whine.
“At least I’m not the only one worried.”
Wojtek shifted again, letting her sink deeper against him. If not for that harness full of medicine, she could have sank deeper into his fur and drifted off in the warmth despite the cool air outside.
Still, as she tried to fall asleep, she kept looking towards her uncle. Her mind was drifting off again, particularly with nothing to do. Not even the steady pace of just marching. How many men did her uncle have to discard to save the rest, like Leslaw and Teodor, during the war? Would she one day have to be left behind to save the resistance?
And now that she thought about it, would they be able to really break the siege of Kolno? Surely there was a more sustainable way to smuggle food in to buy time for the Sejm to get off their collective backsides and send the actual military to save the city. But no - if they were not responding to this blockade as a breaking of the truce, they would not help. But why? Polania’s people were tired, yes, but the size of the resistance showed Polania had the will, and with the automachines they could mobilize numbers previously unheard of in centuries of neighbors trying to partition them.
And her uncle. There was something about him - something deliberate. It felt like he knew they were going to lose and was doing it anyway. Maybe even planning on losing, for some reason. But no, he was her mother’s brother, he wouldn’t sacrifice them for nothing! Cynical from the war or wary of the odds, perhaps, but he was no fool. Polanian freedom would not be won by pointlessly throwing themselves on Rusviet bayonets - he had to have a plan! But if he didn’t, could she really walk away?
Damn it, why was it all so complicated?!
“Maybe…” she started, but stopped herself. No, she should not wake her uncle up for this. It was probably just jitters. This first real day of being a soldier, and as intense as any Great War battle. The sheer magnitude of the change and not having had a few months of basic training to acclimate her to war.
She just had to get used to it, right? She wasn’t weak like those men who would just sit in a trench and hide, right? The ones that Janek mentioned pitying in his letters. She just had to get used to the sight of death, used to seeing soldiers she had spent most of the day fighting alongside suddenly die horribly at the cusp of victory.
It couldn’t be that simple though, could it? There was a reason their father wanted them to stay in Zalesie, beyond just not wanting Janek to die in some trench. There was far more to war’s cost than farmers having to harvest iron to clear their fields for crops. There was something more, something he never told her, something that left him spiritually scarred and distant despite seeming perfectly healthy other than the metal arm. Was it affecting her too?
Looking out again to the sky, Anna exhaled. “I think I finally understand, papa…”
Despite saying it aloud, hearing the words bounce around her skull, she knew it was a lie.