Warning: This work has been rated 16+ for language.
It snowed the day Caden and his colleagues graduated from training. Big, fluffy flakes floated from the pearly gray sky and began to blanket the training field where they stood. It was cold and their thin, military issue jackets did little to keep the trainees warm. Caden’s fingers were deathly white, and he squeezed his hand into a fist as he waited for his commanding officer to finish with his graduation speech.
“- And with that, my final words are choose your factions wisely. You have all trained hard and well, and I expect to see many of you doing well in the capitol in the years to come. Congratulations. Tomorrow you’ll choose your faction straight after breakfast. I wish you all luck in your new lives. You will be adults tomorrow.” Commander Haas finished his speech and said, “You are free to enjoy your last night as trainees.”
The trainees broke formation and Caden met Finn on the way to their cabin. Finn’s already pale face was almost luminous in the meager winter evening light. “Do you want to go to the mess hall? I heard that they were keeping it open late tonight.”
Caden didn’t really want to go, but Finn’s hopeful eyes made him agree. He nodded and their boots crunched through a thick layer of frost to get to the mess hall. Inside it was warm and the dull roar of conversation washed over Caden; he allowed Finn to lead him to a table and they sat down.
“What faction are you going into, Caden?” A boy asked. “I’m sure your scores are good enough to get you into the Military Police.”
It was true, Caden’s scores were good enough to get into the Military Police, but that wasn’t the reason he decided to join the military. “I’m going into the Scouts,” he said, hoping that the topic would be left alone.
“The Scouts?” someone said. “Do you have a death wish?” The whole table murmured their agreement.
Caden’s gaze turned icy cold, “I wouldn’t expect people like you to understand. The Scouts actually help people. The Garrison just sit around getting drunk instead of doing their job and the Military Police is full of cowards and slackers.”
Finn’s face paled, “You can’t say that, Caden!” he hissed. “What if someone heard you? That’s treason!”
Caden waved him off, “None of the officers heard me,” he assured Finn who pursed his lips. Caden turned his attention to the rest of the table. No one said anything for a minute; he stood, pushing his chair back with him, “Come on, Finn. I’m tired.”
Wordlessly he started walking away, hearing all too clearly the squeak of Finn’s chair against the wooden floorboards and the sound of his hurried footsteps chasing after Caden. He could almost imagine her, his mother, scolding her for treating Finn the way he did. Like a puppy that was all too happy to follow, no matter how badly treated. He wanted to protest. Finn didn’t mind, he knew that Caden didn’t do it on purpose. But the one who was scolding him wasn’t there and telling Finn would be an apology unasked for.
Halfway to the cabin was when Finn finally caught up, a gloved hand touching Caden’s shoulder. Caden kept walking, but slowed down, Finn fell into step with him, his shorter legs matching Caden’s stride for stride.
The cabin was little more than a shack, ill suited for the cold winters. Its wooden slats had darkened to a strange gray, the thin door squeaked, and if left to swing closed, it would do so with a loud clack.
That door was what announced Caden and Finn’s arrival to the cabin. Even though their breath no longer froze to vapor, inside was not much warmer than out. Thankfully, the cabin was equipped with a tiny wood stove not meant for cooking, but for warming the tiny building. A dwindling stack of logs leaned against the pewter stove, Caden grabbed two and opened the tiny grate setting them inside. He struck the steel for the spark that would set the logs alight. Sure enough, he was able to coax a tiny flame from the first spark.
“I’m sorry, Caden,” Finn said.
“Whatever for, Finn?” Caden asked, moving to sit down on his own bed.
“I didn’t stand by you. I should have. We’re all we have now,” Finn’s pale blue eyes glinted in the soft glow coming from the stove, the fire must have taken off.
Caden should've told Finn that there was nothing to apologize for. That he was the one that should apologize. Caden shouldn’t treat Finn so cruelly. But he said nothing, Finn knew Caden never meant it.
But he didn’t know! He didn’t because Caden never told him. Though Caden knew this, he kept those feelings to himself. They were too precious to speak out into the air. They could float away and be lost to him forever.
They sat there in silence, the only sound being that of the fire. Caden could almost hear the sound of the snow falling outside. Each flake landing with the barest of brushes against its brothers. Caden’s eyes burned, he was awful. Terrible. Finn deserved better. He closed his eyes, heat pressing from behind his eyelids, tears spilling and warming his cold cheeks.
What next? He was done with training. What if he did die? Was he really at peace with that? He shifted to lie down, opening his eyes and letting the tears run down his face. He could feel Finn’s eyes on him. Hurriedly, he wiped the tears away and dried his eyes. Strong, he had to be strong for Finn. He always had and he always would be.
After the thunk of boots being kicked to the floor and the shuffling of blankets Finn mumbled sleepily, “Good night.”
As quietly as he could, Caden did the same; taking off his boots and setting them on the floor. He maneuvered under his own covers and whispered goodnight as well, falling asleep to Finn’s steady breaths.
Thenext morning Caden awoke on his own. It was chilly, the fire having gone out hours ago. He wiped at his eyes and slowly slipped out from underneath the covers wincing at the cold.
Changing clothes would have been absolutely unbearable in the cold, so Caden settled for a change of socks instead. Peeling off his day old socks proved to be agonizing; he recoiled at the cold air hitting his warm skin. Quickly, he pulled on a clean pair of socks and shoved his feet into his boots, lacing them up as quickly as he was able.
His cloak - strewn carelessly beside his bed - was resituated around his shoulders, the hood pulled up over his head. Taking care not to let the door slam, Caden stepped outside. He sighed, his breath hanging in the air for a moment before dissipating.
Caden stepped down from the porch, his boots crushing the freshly fallen snow. Regret twinged in his stomach at the thought of ruining the glittering white field that lay before him. But he went forward, each footstep sinking into the pillowy cushion beneath him. He turned east, the sun peeking out from behind the Aurren mountains. He could see ice glittering from miles away, the sun glowing a pinky orange. The sky was tinted the same color, painting the mountains below.
He half smiled before turning slightly to face the capital, the highest peak. Fluaupt. The city carved into the very mountain, the castle reaching out into the sky. He would live. He would fight. And he would kill every last scolopendra that lived on this earth.
Before he could think anything else a voice pierced through the silence that had settled around him. “Caden, how long have you been up?”
Caden turned around, Finn’s pale, golden hair was dusted over with melting snowflakes. He sneezed and Caden realized that Finn wasn’t wearing a cloak, not even his thin training jacket. “Not long,” Caden replied, leading Finn back to the cabin. “You forgot your cloak,” Caden said, his voice almost on the verge of scolding.
“Ah,” hummed Finn. “So I did.” Caden handed Finn’s cloak to him and Finn pulled it over his shoulders, hooking the metal clasp.
“Let’s go,” Caden’s green eyes shone. “They’ll be serving breakfast soon.” And after that, the time would come to choose factions.
Finn hushed him, “Caden, be quiet. There are still people asleep.”
Caden nodded and they both went outside, retracing footsteps to the middle of the snowy white clearing. The sun had just cleared the mountains and was shining a warm orange triumphantly, as if it didn’t rise over those same mountains every morning. “Come on, I’m getting hungry.”
Finn nodded and walked alongside Caden, a lone bird sang from just inside the forest to the left of them. Another bird answered, a third bird called from right beside Caden. He looked over, startled, only to find Finn whistling with the other birds. Caden laughed and Finn smiled, his eyes crinkling like always.
Inside, the mess hall was mostly empty, only a few trainees were up early. All of them were those who would be choosing a faction that day. The smell of cooking meat wafted through the air and Caden’s mouth flooded with saliva. Meat; a rare treat.
“Mmm,” Finn groaned. “That’s good… It must be for graduation, I suppose it’s a good thing. The Scout headquarters is a long ride away from here; we’re going to need the strength.” Finn’s face turned sour.
Caden laughed, “Poor Finn. Doesn’t like riding does he?”
Finn tried to scowl but his eyes were bright. “Don’t tease me!”
Before Caden could reply, a cook called out, “Breakfast is now being served!” The two boys joined the small line of cadets waiting for food. Soon the mess hall would be stuffed to the brim with trainees, but for now they could enjoy their food in peace.
Their breakfast was meat and bread and the last of the summer berries, also a rare treat. Not much grew so high in the mountains, but Caden could remember a time when he could have berries any time he pleased. The weather was not so cold, the soil not so rocky. Remembering that time filled him with a warmth, fuzzy around the edges. A slight smile tugged at his lips.
Beside him, Finn was slowly eating the berries; savoring each tiny bite of sweetness, his teeth were stained a red purple. He remembered too. His face softening like a child’s. When was the last time such a precious memory had come to Caden and he hadn’t hidden it away?
Both of them savored their breakfast; it filled their stomachs with a comforting weight. Caden sat back in his seat with a satisfied sigh. Despite his stomach being full, it was suddenly empty and he was cold. “Are you nervous?” he asked, leaning slightly against Finn. His thin but warm body soothing him.
“I don’t really know,” Finn stated. “A little, I guess. I try not to fret about things before they happen.”
Caden nodded, “I know, and then when it’s happening you lose your mind.”
“Don’t say that,” Finn admonished. “I do not.”
“Yes you do.”
“No I do not!”
One of their roommates sat down across from Finn, “I don’t know what it is that you two are arguing about, but Caden is probably right. He knows you too well.” Marijn was tall and complected like most Aurreni: pale skinned, pale haired, and pale eyed. He was tall and his hair was cropped just above his ears. He smiled good naturedly, “You both are going into the Scouts, right?”
I nodded, “We are.”
“But I thought your score was good enough to get into the Military Police. Are you going into the Scouts to stay with Finn?” he asked, pale eyebrows were drawn close to his eyes, creating a wrinkle between them.
“We joined with the goal of ultimately joining the scouts,” Finn said, effectively cutting Caden off. “Neither of us planned on joining the Military Police in the first place.”
Marijn nodded, “I understand. Duty and all that,” he said it as if Caden was just another star struck child who thought he could save the world.
Caden clenched his teeth, “That’s not why,” he said, struggling to find the right words. “Duty isn't a childish thing.” He stood, placing his hands on the table."I grew up in refugee camps because of the scolopendra. It's my duty to make sure it never has to happen to anyone else." Finn placed a hand on Caden’s shoulder, pulling him down.
“That’s enough, Caden.”
“You haven’t seen them either. Not really. I watched as she died, Finn!”
Finn’s face broke. It shattered into a million tiny pieces and it was all Caden’s fault. And the worst thing? Caden didn’t even feel bad. “I’m sorry,” Finn whispered. He was always sorry, sorry for things that were Caden’s fault.
They fell silent, Marijn left, Caden rested his head on the table, and Finn didn’t once look at Caden. Minutes passed and the dining hall filled steadily, the quiet murmur of conversation growing into an amalgamation of hundreds of voices. More people joined their table.
Over the commotion of the room a voice rose above the others, hushing the graduates. The voice belonged to a tall, thin man with pale hair and sallow skin, “The time has come for you to choose which of the three military factions you will enter into, I am Commander Groser of the Military Police. I will begin by calling the names of those eligible to join our ranks. Ivo Acker, Wilma Dunn, Erhard Daehler, Nikola Granger, Oskar Gottlieb-” Though the list really wasn’t that long, Caden still didn’t pay any attention until the sound of his own name pulled him out of his head, “Caden Muerr.” He startled and looked around, everyone’s eyes were on him. When the next name was called, he breathed a sigh of relief.
After the last name was called, a different kind of silence fell upon the room but it was quickly broken by the sound of another voice. A woman this time, beautiful and terrible, her face pretty yet commanding, “Adela Bauer, Commander of the Garrison. All of those who would like to join the Garrison may leave and begin to pack their belongings. I expect you to behave like soldiers,” she raised her voice as trainees began to get up and start talking, the crowd hushed again at her words. She stepped away and the last of the commanders took her place, Commander Schaefer.
He was small, unassuming, and dark, nothing like the other commanders who were fair skinned and exuded authority. His eyes roved the room, surveying what was left of the trainees. “So this is what I get this year,” he muttered. He took a sauntering step forward, a wry grin on his face, as if he was used to being disappointed. “More than last year, and if I’m right I’ll have two top scorers… Go and pack your things, we’ll meet by the stables and head out once everyone arrives.” Slowly, everyone began to stand, but were hastened by the sharp, “Hurry!”
Together, Caden and Finn stood, following the few trainees left out the door. The cold outside air hit them like a brick wall, but it only invigorated Caden, breathing in the crisp air. “Come on, Finn!”
Finn’s stoic facade broke and his grin brightened his entire face, he raced after Caden, laughing, “Wait up!”
“Never!” Caden shouted back. Together, they stumbled up the steps to the cabin breathless and laughing. They fought over who got to get in the door first, Finn managed to squeeze through laughing.
“Come on, let’s get packing,” Caden said, kneeling at the chest behind his bed, its hinges creaking as he opened it. Finn nodded and began to open his own chest. Caden didn’t have many belongings: a few shirts and a couple pairs of pants, his military jacket and cloak, his razor, and a small golden band that had been his mother’s wedding ring.
All of it went into his bag, excluding his jacket and cloak, which he would wear on the journey to the Scout’s base. “You done?” he asked Finn.
“Mhmm,” Finn hummed, shutting the chest. They stood and looked at each other, eyes meeting. Finn pursed his lips, “Are you scared, Caden?”
Caden shook his head, “No, but it’s okay if you are.”
Finn’s face flushed with something like embarrassment hand he shook his head emphatically, “No, I’m okay. Let’s just go.”
Caden nodded and began walking to the door, pausing to take one last glance around the room that had been his home for the past four years. Finn place a hand on his shoulder and the walked out together, neither one of them looking back as they walked through the big white field, leaving the last tracks in the snow they would ever make there.
They were the first to arrive, the commander directing them to tack up horses for the long ride to the Scout’s headquarters. As they waited, Finn stood as far as possible from his horse, a dark gelding. He held the reins at arms length, leaning his head as far as possible from the horse’s probing muzzle.
“It’s not going to hurt you,” Caden said, giving a soft pat to the side of his own horse’s neck.
That’s what you think,” Finn grumbled, ducking to avoid contact with the animal.
Caden burst into laughter, “Finn, you’re going to have to ride all the time. You can’t afford to hate horses.”
Finn growled at him and swatted at the gelding who had progressed to attempting to munch on Finn’s hair. Caden laughed even harder at the sight, which quite frankly, was ridiculous; a graduate of one of the harshest military training camps in Aurren being cowed by an overly friendly horse.
“It isn’t funny!” Finn gasped; the horse was nibbling at his neck. “Make it stop!” he demanded.
“It’s time to move out!” Commander Schaefer shouted, voice cutting like a knife through the chatter. At once, all of the gradu- no - cadets mounted and followed the commander down the hill to the dirt road used to go in and out of the camp.
Their journey had begun.