Chapter Four

Ace opened his eyes when his toes began to tingle. Suddenly, he was bombarded with hundreds of noises: weeping, cheering, the little sounds of people milling about, of horses restlessly awaiting something that won't come, of the last, smoldering bits of buildings crumbling or being brought down by men desperate to rebuild before another snow. Wiggling his toes, Ace tried to shut out the noises before his head began to pound. Someone held a shovel down to him, and Ace used it to help himself up. Now, his entire leg tingled, and he shook it gently to get the feeling back.

"We're burying the dead," Carrick's hard, even tone of voice never really changed. "You there," Carrick turned, letting go of the shovel and forcibly reminding Ace that he had to stand on his own. "Hey, you… Don't mess with that. It'll…" Carrick sighed as he watched the ashen building collapse upon the man. "…Like that. Jordan!" He snapped at a soldier who was occupying his time by brushing his horse. "Go help that idiot."

Ace surveyed the weary man. Carrick seemed to never stop, never miss a beat, never slow down. His speckled gray eyes never seemed to close for longer than the split second it takes to blink. "Hey." Ace muttered, his voice crackly from sleep. "Did you get any rest?"

Absorbed in the plight of the man smushed beneath a pile of ash, Carrick didn't reply. Several soldiers were pulling the man from the black rubble, and more people were joining in the effort. When the man was finally retrieved, he looked just like the soot he came from, but he was uninjured. Several people laughed, and most of them walked away, almost disappointed.

"People," Carrick growled. He turned back to Ace. "What'd you say?"

"Did you get any rest?" Ace repeated, stretching and wiggling his tingling fingers.

"Yea, I got a couple hours of sleep. You've been asleep for almost two days, buddy. Your foot asleep?"

They were walking over to the gravesite, and Ace was limping slightly. Every time his foot touched the ground, a new tingle shot up his leg. "How the," he winced as he stepped on a rock, "Hell do you do it?"

"What? Hey – those guys over there need your help. I didn't give you a shovel to be nice." With that, Carrick walked away, calling out to some other men.

Ace walked over, clumsily shaking out his leg as he went, and offered his assistance to the other men with shovels. The bodies were in piles, some near the town cemetery, some in the middle of a field, and some near the town's temple. The men Ace joined were standing in a circle, discussing the jobs to be assigned.

"Those over there," one man said, waving his hand toward the field, "They're the king's dead. We have to be careful what we do with them, or this town could find itself in even more trouble. I need some men to strip their bodies of their uniforms and weapons."

Frowning, Ace took a good look at the man talking. This man had a tired look, remorseful in the eyes, and he sighed quietly at the ends of some of his sentences. He was serious about this. Swallowing back the horror of burying these men, men who probably believed they were fighting for their country, Ace nodded his head with the rest of the group. They were all in agreement, some more than others. Two took particular pride in volunteering for this task. Another three offered to bury each one as soon as he was stripped. Ace did not look at the group anymore. He studied the ground, the shoes in the circle, his own shoes. He listened for the rest of the assignments.

The first man spoke again. "The bodies already in the cemetery," he said, "Are those belonging to the freedom regiment. If their graves can be marked, let them be marked. If they are unaccounted for, so be it."

The agreement for this assignment was far quieter and more or less understood without words. Those who fought with these men would probably be the ones to help bury them.

"The bodies by the temple… well, they are the slain townspeople. If you choose to assist in their burials, you need to talk to the priest, who is, naturally, near the temple. Well, men," he said, "We have a great deal of work ahead of us. Let's waste no time for these poor souls." The group split up, each heading to his area of preference with a shovel and an expression of dull pain.

Ace could hear the cries and moans of mourning or dying men and women from where he stood in the cemetery. This would be something he would never forget. And damn him if he did, he thought, thrusting the shovel into the melting snow. He wondered sometimes about the punch line in life. Was it that everyone dies, that one puts forth so much effort or spends so much time suffering for life just for it to end? He hoped that there was life after death, because if there wasn't, what the Hell are they all here for? Feeling morbid and uneasy, he chuckled at the thought. He'd heard people say that lives are terrible things to waste, but what if they were wasted anyway?

Eventually, the bodies were all buried, but by then, the group helping to bury them had grown, and the number of bodies had increased by almost a dozen. The young woman Ace had rescued from beneath a soldier was among those with shovels, and Ace breathed a sigh of relief when he recognized her. Not everything is a waste.