Old Soldiers in a Time of War
by Laine Perez
Hen woke from uneasy dreams and cautiously lifted a hand to
brush aside the
curtain to scan the sky. It was empty.
Through the wall, she could hear her neighbor Yanna’s coughing, which
kept her up for most of the night. She stretched and stood up from the
narrow bed, dressed, splashed her face and rinsed her mouth with water
the kitchen sink, put the kettle on the stove, and turned on the radio.
The announcer said that the war in the east was nearly won, and the war
the south was growing worse. Last year, the war in the south was nearly
won, and the war in the east was worse. It had always been this way,
when Hen had served ages before. She still dreamed of the battlefields,
smells of blood and sweat and decay, the shadows of the dragons soaring
overhead, and the slain reptilian and human bodies attracting flies,
and left to rot.
It was still dark when she left the apartment, walking two streets over
wait for the streetcar. Over away in the north, she could just see the
broken windows of the closed munitions factory where she used to work.
people who had lost their homes occupied the factory’s empty floors and
rooms. There had been talk of eviction, but no impetus behind it, so
people remained, their fires lighting up the building at night.
The streetcar arrived, clattering and coughing, and waited impatiently
her to board before it continued, jerking through the streets, trailing
noise and smoke. It rolled past buildings gray with soot and grime and
crossed over three bridges before stopping outside the giant bronze
that shielded the smart area of town where the streets were wider and
with trees, and the air was easier to breathe. Hen still had to walk a
way to get to the fine house where she worked. The streetcars were too
and too dirty to travel closer.
The path to the servants’ entrance wound through the extensive gardens
where Hen labored in the summers. In the winter, she spent her time in
greenhouse, growing the most impractical and expensive of flowers. She
been directed to take special care with the costliest ones and was not
allowed to make cuttings. This job was for the lady of the house, who
poor work of it.
At the end of the day, Oscar, one of the cooks, spread out the uneaten
from breakfast and lunch on the wooden kitchen table. The day laborers
lots for the best picks, and Hen, terminally unlucky, went home with
bits and pieces no one else wanted.
It was nearly dark by the time she boarded the streetcar for home,
with the detritus of the day littering her clothing. The car lurched
from the wide, clean avenue, and the gates closed behind them.
The ride home was crowded and uncomfortable. Hen gave her seat to a
who wouldn’t stop stepping on her feet. When she climbed off the
her joints were stiff from the cold, and she was already looking
burrowing into bed.
As the sound of the car faded, another sound arose, a great downward
of wind. Hen looked up. A dark shape was falling from the sky. She
see the outline of wings and a tail and then there was a dragon in
her, battle-scarred and shining green-blue. The creature studied her
liquid-warm eyes and then sat back to wait.
Hen sighed. “Yes,” she said. “All right.”
The dragon leaned forward, lightly nipped Hen’s shoulder and then,
completed her duty, turned away and crouched down, diving straight up
A crowd had collected at the edges of the street, their faces still
upturned, aching for one last glimpse of the dragon. The blood was
into Hen’s sweater, which would now have to be soaked in the sink to
the stain. And, of course, the wound would need to be dealt with as
Yanna appeared at her side and threaded her arm through Hen’s. “Come,”
said. “Let’s get you upstairs.”
Hen could take care of herself, but it was easier to indulge Yanna, let
feel good for helping her old, fat neighbor.
In the shared washroom, Yanna helped remove Hen’s sweater, carefully
pulling it away from her skin. The bite wasn’t deep, and it was simple
“Not too tight?” Yanna asked, smoothing over the bandage.
“No,” Hen said.
“I’ve started dinner,” Yanna said. “If you want to share.” Hen
the food that she had been carrying. She had carelessly left it on the
street, and it had likely already been claimed.
“No,” Hen said. “But thank you.”
“Oh, it’s no trouble,” Yanna said and steered Hen into her apartment.
Hen sighed. “I can help,” Hen said.
“Wonderful,” Yanna said and handed her a knife.
While the soup was simmering and Yanna was preparing a small loaf of
bread, a short, precise knock came at the door.
Yanna opened it, her dark head disappearing around the door frame. She
turned back to look at Hen. Hen stepped into the hall to see a man
the colors of the royal couriers. He bowed. “I have a letter for the
selected,” he said.
“You can give it to me,” Hen said.
“I will need proof before I can authorize delivery,” he said.
Hen showed him her bandaged shoulder. The man examined it closely. He
stepped away, put his hand into his bag, and pulled out the letter,
on heavy paper and sealed in wax. He bowed again and left abruptly,
marching down the stairs.
Hen slid her finger along the wax and peeled away the seal. The letter
short and written in an appallingly neat hand: “The queen appreciates
sacrifice. Report to the Revenue Department for compensation tomorrow.
presence is required at the Dragon Ceremony three days from today.”
“Everything okay?” Yanna asked, leaning around the door.
Hen handed her the letter. She scanned it, mouthing the words to
then folded it and handed it back.
“You don’t have to go,” Yanna said.
This was foolishness. No one stole property from the crown. Still, Hen
said, “I know.”
Yanna nodded and turned her attention back to the soup.
Hen waited until most everyone had departed for work and then locked
herself in the washroom. She peeled away the bandage and carefully
down the stiff, grayish skin expanding outward from the bite. Then, she
rewrapped her shoulder and went down to wait for the streetcar.
The Revenue Department building was tall and narrow, squeezed between
neighbors. At the end of a long hallway on the first floor, there was a
sitting at a small wooden desk surrounded by towering stacks of paper.
glanced up when Hen entered and pointed at a wooden bench settled
The room was cold, nearly as cold as it was outside. Still, Hen was
lightly by the time the man cleared his throat and said, “Next.”
Hen fished the letter out of her coat pocket.
“I received this letter,” she started.
The man held his hand out for it, spreading it out on top of the other
papers on his desk.
“There’s no one here to help you now,” he said, handing the letter
“You have to wait.”
The morning drug on. Around midday, the man stood up. Hen stood as
disappeared into a room behind his desk. Hen sat back down.
Time passed. The man at the desk came back and resumed shuffling
his piles of papers. A woman came downstairs. She handed him a note. He
read it, and without looking up, snapped his fingers at Hen and said,
The stairs creaked and whined as she traveled upwards. The man on the
floor had a small brass nameplate on his desk that read Henry Carrier.
was young and nicely dressed, a pair of glasses perched hastily on his
“Where is your letter?” he asked.
“Oh,” Hen said and searched her coat pockets.
“You should always have your documents ready to present,” Mr. Carrier
“We don’t have time to waste.”
“Yes,” Hen said.
She handed him the folded letter, and he placed it on his desk.
“First, I should thank you for your sacrifice,” he said.
Before she could answer, he stood and strode into a maze of shelves
him. Hen heard a drawer open, and he reappeared with a file in hand. He
“No property,” he said.
“No,” she said.
“Sixty-three years old,” he said.
“Yes,” Hen said.
He nodded and then pulled out a piece of paper and began to write out a
series of calculations. Finally, he opened a ledger and recorded the
number. He turned the book around to face her.
“This is what your beneficiaries will be owed,” he said.
The number was smaller than she had estimated. “It’s not,” she said,
not quite what I was expecting.”
He nodded. “Yes. I’ve included a small gift that the state offers to
compensate for the loss. And, of course, I had to subtract the amount
to your employer for their inconvenience,” he said.
“All right,” Hen said.
He pulled a document from his desk drawer, filled out all the blank
and turned it to her along with his pen. “State your beneficiaries,” he
Hen’s people were all gone. She put down Yanna’s name.
“Sign at the bottom,” he said.
“The forms will be filed in the morning. Approval will take two months
then allocation of funds should follow about three months after that.
funds are not released by this date, your beneficiaries can come here
refile the forms.” He offered Hen his hand. “I hope your needs have
Hen stood but hesitated.
“You can go,” he said.
She fell asleep on the streetcar home, her head tucked into her chest.
rode past her stop and had to walk five extra blocks home.
The morning of the festival, it rained, a quiet drizzle that was
Yanna was curled up asleep in Hen’s bed, having come over with slightly
stale pastry hours earlier. She started to fade around the middle of
night but did not want to return to her room, saying she feared leaving
alone. Hen had turned down the covers for her, and Yanna was snoring
Hen then packed her bag, carefully folding and stacking each item. When
bent over, she could feel the small, tender protuberances that had
through the skin of her back the day before, little nubs on her
blades and above her tailbone.
She picked up her good coat, the one she had repaired only two weeks
and her warmest mittens and sat at the table to wait.
The knock came before she thought it would, but the hours had stretched
then compressed so much that she had no sense of what time it was.
A courier stood at the door. Hen looked back at her bed where Yanna
lay asleep. The courier said, “Come now. We’re on a tight schedule.”
Hen stepped into the hall and pulled the door softly closed.
The ride into the city was quiet. Hen sat in the private streetcar, her
pressed to her body, hands resting on top. They looked old. She
this had been true for a while, but she was rarely still enough to
When the car stopped outside the palace, she was ushered up a tall
staircase, across a wide portico, and placed in a small room, carpeted
plush. She was afraid to sit, but she did remove her coat. Outside,
and garlands and hothouse flowers were being placed on the portico’s
columns. The crowd, those wealthy enough to be selected to attend the
ceremony, waited outside the gates to the central courtyard.
A woman finally entered the room. “We’re starting,” she said and
for Hen’s arm to pull her outside.
The ceremony seemed endless just as it always had when Hen sat at home
listened to it on the radio. There were the same speeches by the same
people about the ritual and honor of the sacrifice, the strength and
of the country. The blessing came last. A priest from a religion Hen
not follow washed his hands and placed them on her head. He said a lot
words that didn’t mean much. The crowd clapped and cheered when they
meant to and filed out after standing in the cold for two hours.
Hen hadn’t considered what happened after the ceremony was over, where
sacrificed people went. She was placed into another streetcar. This
ended at the docks. There was a large ship, and Hen was led up a plank
across a deck and then down into a room with a tiny window, a bed, and
table and chair. The doors closed and locked behind her.
She sat on the chair. There was nothing to do and nothing to look at
though she was tired, she was too uneasy to sleep. It took an age, but
ship finally began to move. After dark, a small knock came at the door.
There was another knock.
“Come in,” Hen said.
A man entered, holding a small lamp and a plate of food. In the light,
could see that he was older than she had assumed, perhaps only slightly
younger than herself. He put both the lamp and the plate on the table.
“It’s not much,” he said, his voice aching and raspy, “but it’s warm.”
Hen was not hungry. “Thank you,” she said. “Can I ask where we’re
“East,” he said.
“To the front?” she asked.
“Can I know your name?” she asked.
“Simon,” he said. “Please. Eat.”
Hen considered the food. The smell of it made her nauseous. She would
liked for it to be taken away but looked up to find that Simon had
Despite the bed’s discomfort, when Hen laid down, she fell asleep
immediately but woke soon after feeling sick, unmoored, and unsettled
the dark. She turned over and vomited on the floor. The smell, rancid
sour, spread quickly.
It took her hours to return to sleep.
Someone else was in the room. She opened her eyes, and a young man was
kneeling by the bed with a rag and a bucket.
“I’m sorry,” Hen said.
He looked up at her and shook his head, an approximation of a smile on
face. He finished his work and slipped from the room. He had left a
of water and a cloth on the table.
Hen tried to push herself up. Her shoulders slumped forward, weighted
by the swollen nodules on her back now the size of potatoes. Her legs
ached, her hips sore and her knees and ankles swollen so badly the
the joints had nearly disappeared. She pushed one foot to the floor and
then the other and, with significant effort, rose to her feet. She
heavily against the wall, hauling herself over to the chair.
She sat, and it took her a moment to regain her breath. Then, she set
the task of removing her clothing and cleaning her skin which had
sticky with sweat. She wiped her face and her neck and slipped the
down to the grayish skin of her arms and chest. She scrubbed underneath
weight of her breasts, around and under the folds of her stomach,
the cloth over her legs and in-between her thighs. Redressing was a
She could not fathom the journey back to the bed. Outside the window,
fell on the sea. The light was gray and hazy. She wondered what time it
was, how many hours she had been traveling and how many hours she had
Suddenly, she was afraid in a way she hadn’t been since she was a
There was a knock on the door.
“Yes,” she said, unable to keep the eagerness from her voice.
Simon entered with a mug cradled in his hands. “Do you need help?” he
asked. “To the bed?”
“Yes,” she said.
He let her lean her entire body into him and placed her down gently,
pulling up the blankets over her legs.
“Here,” he said, nestling the mug into her hands.
“Thank you,” Hen said. She sipped at it. It was overly sweet, but the
warmth was a comfort. Her fears still crowded close. “Where are you
“North. Over the mountains, by the sea,” he said. “But I haven’t been
in a long time.”
“Will you tell me something about yourself?” she asked.
“Not much to say,” he said.
“Anything,” she said.
He folded and unfolded his hands. “I used to think I wanted to be a
musician. A fiddler. But I suppose that isn’t all that unusual.”
“Do you still play?” she asked.
“No.” He took the mug from her. “I have to leave,” he said.
“Oh,” she said.
“I’ll come back,” he said. “If you like.”
“Yes, please,” she said.
The day passed, each hour unrepentantly longer than the last. It was
by the time Simon returned.
He sat down in the chair, handed her another mug, and waited quietly.
“Have you done this before?” she asked.
“Many times,” he said.
“The others, were they frightened?” she asked.
“I suppose,” he said. “The younger ones were angry. They would throw
until they couldn’t anymore. The older ones were more like you. Most of
them didn’t want to talk though.” He rubbed his hands against his
and looked out the window. “This used to be easier when I was younger.”
“How much longer? Until we arrive?” she asked.
“Two days, a little less,” he said.
“I served. A long time ago,” she said, a useless statement since
served unless they could pay someone else to do so for them. Still, he
“Will you tell me something about yourself?” he asked.
She didn’t know what to tell him. No one had ever asked her this
Her life had been an insignificant one. She’d had small desires,
that diminished as the years passed. She thought. “This is the furthest
have had ever been from home,” she said.
“Yes,” he said. “They keep pushing further and further afield.”
She wondered what they would do when there was nothing left to take.
rose to leave.
“You can’t stay?” she asked.
“I’ll be back in the morning,” he said. “Don’t worry. You won’t be
She shivered and pulled the blanket up around her shoulders.
In the morning, she woke feverish. Her limbs were too stiff to move.
doors opened, and two people entered. One said, “It will be soon. Stay
“Yes, sir,” Simon replied.
A cool cloth was wiped over her face. She opened her eyes. Simon sat
her. He was quiet for a very long time. Then, he began to tell her a
She could not follow it, the threads and strands unravelling as soon as
they were woven together, but the shape of it was familiar. The day
on. Simon’s voice faded. She opened her eyes and found that he had
Her body felt overheated, and she suddenly, urgently, without warning
explanation, knew that she needed to be in the water. Her hands,
like claws, pulled her up and out of the bed onto the floor. She
agonizingly slow, to the door and rapped on it until her knuckles were
She tried to call for Simon but could only make a sibilant hiss. No one
came. She lay on the floor, sweating and shivering.
The first wave of pain arrived, her back erupting, the skin stretching
impossibly outward. At its crest, it divorced her from her body. When
came back to herself, she was panting, fingernails scrabbling against
floor. Simon was beside her. His hands were under her head and on her
shoulder. He helped her sit up and held a cup to her lips. She lapped
the liquid eagerly.
“It will go easier for you now,” he said.
He lowered her back down, her head resting on his knee. Her body
waiting for the coming agonies, but before they could arrive, her
“There you are,” Simon said as she drifted. “There you are.”
She could smell salt and feel a breeze on her back. She inhaled deeply
then exhaled, feeling every muscle tense and release. She no longer
All the joints and tendons, organs and fluids, had been made new. Her
contained the same boundless, unflagging energy that she had possessed
child. She thirsted to spring up and fly.
But her body was bound, and nothing would budge past a slight wiggle.
thrashed the tip of her tail in displeasure.
Simon appeared. She ground her teeth inside the metal muzzle.
“I know,” he said. “But you’ll be free, freer, soon.” Once they landed,
meant, though he was too kind to say this aloud, knowing that the
she would be granted would be an empty one, able to move but with no
as to where to go.
Around her, she could hear people moving and feel the vibrations of
speech, the noises of life continuing. Hen stared up at the sky.
Two thick bands of stars, colored
red and blue and gold, appeared. The
night was cool and bright. Her wings twitched, tightly bound to her
Slowly, the deck quieted and stilled.
Simon came and crouched down by her. “All right?” he said. She growled.
He lightly stroked the scales on her neck and then began unlocking the
chains that held her. Each one was removed quickly but with care.
“Go on,” Simon said.
She rose but hesitated.
“Go on,” Simon repeated. “It will be fine.”
She knew that it wouldn’t be; this kindness would only be viewed as
thievery. She wanted to go, but could not, not alone. She crouched
turned to nudge Simon with her head, and waited for him to climb aboard
warm, broad back. From behind, there was a bellow of alarm, but before
anyone could reach them, Hen bunched her limbs beneath her and, unsure
she would fly or fall, leapt upward. Her wings caught an updraft, and
sped over the sea.
Once they were far enough away, she slowed and hovered mid-air,
see the dark outline of the ship in the distance.
Simon leaned forward on her neck. “To the west,” he said. “The
Light was appearing at the edges of the sky by the time the mountains
into view, their lower slopes covered in pine and the higher ones in
and ice. She found a cave small and secluded enough to provide a place
rest. Simon slid off her back and stumbled to sit against the cold
was shivering. While the cold no longer touched her, he was fragile.
She crawled back out of the cave. There were small, insubstantial
close, and they proved easy to uproot. She dropped one at the cave’s
entrance and nudged it inside. Simon glanced at it and shook his head.
“No fire,” he said.
Hen used her body to block the worst of the cold coming in from
Simon still shivered. She huffed and used her tail to poke at him until
moved close to her. She tucked him in close to her belly and watched as
settled and slept restlessly. The dragon, the possessive, little
whispered inside her head: mine. She lazily eyed the birds and rodents
got too close to the cave’s mouth and, having grown hungry, caught a
little mouse as the sun was setting. She felt a brief flash of
the furry creature touched her tongue, but this quickly turned to
satisfaction at a successful and easy hunt. She swallowed the mouse
Night arrived. Simon woke, groggy, and leaned on her heavily as he
away the last bits of slumber and struggled to his feet.
“I think I would like to go home,” he said.
She pushed her body as close to the ground as she could to make it
for him to climb on her back.
“Over the mountains,” he said.
The sky was cloudy, and as they rose up higher, it began to snow. The
grew more powerful, and she battled against it, her body aching with
strain. Coming down the other side of the slopes was no easier, and
she finally reached tree cover, she landed roughly, limbs collapsing
beneath her. Simon rolled off her and pressed himself into her side.
lifted a wing to cover him and lowered her head to sleep.
It was still light out when she woke. She looked around. In the
the forest abruptly stopped, transforming into a wide cavity. She could
see its contours from where she lay, but they were not far from this
She nosed at Simon until he groaned.
“All right,” he said. “Give me a moment.”
At dusk, they began again. Below, the trees disappeared and, in their
place, emerged stumps and wide swaths of brown and gray emptiness. The
land, stripped and vacant, had become a fetid and decaying corpse.
on, they passed over towns that had once flourished and thrived and
now crumbling. In some, mudslides had clawed away walls and
others, vines and vegetation had eaten the remains of what was left.
the last of these, the landscape opened to sand and sea.
“Here,” Simon said.
She landed in the tall, brittle grass. Simon climbed off her back and
walked to the sea’s edge. She followed him and lay down, letting the
slide over her scales.
“The sky used to be filled with dragons,” he said. “People would come
the beach to watch them. I never saw them myself. But my grandmother
When the army came to take the land, they took the dragons too.”
They sat. Simon drew patterns in the sand. “That was home,” he said,
pointing to the dark village to their right. “I can’t stay here. This
isn’t… it’s all gone now.” He sighed, the breath catching in his
and then, overcome, leaned against her and wept.
The sun came up. “Enough,” Simon said, wiping his eyes with the heels
his hands. “That’s enough.” He stood slowly and rested his hand on her
flank. “Stay here,” he said. “I’ll be back soon.”
She stayed, and she fretted. Her body—its bulk, wings, claws, and the
she could feel warming in her belly—was made to protect. And Simon was
hers. He was gone a long time, far too long. The sun was setting by the
time he returned, carrying a sack over his shoulder. He dropped it in
sand and turned away again. Hen nosed around inside it, finding coils
rope, tools, and other human accoutrements, most torn, cracked, or
On the bottom, there was a small wooden case with a broken latch that
housed a fiddle, itself in poor condition. Simon reappeared, dragging a
boat out of the grass. He retrieved the sack, threw it into the boat,
began pushing it toward the sea.
“There’s an island,” he said. “My grandmother used to say that’s where
dragons came from. I’ve never been there, but I heard it’s not too far.
Just far enough.” He looked up at her. “You’re free. You can go where
like. You should. But I thought, I hoped, you might come along. We
make a go of it. For a while anyway.”
Hen huffed. Of course. How foolish to think she wouldn’t come. Where
would she want to go?
She helped him shove the boat into the water and then flapped her great
wings and rose to follow him. She kept the boat in her sight and nudged
along when it seemed that Simon’s strength was flagging.
The moon rose, and over the edge of the horizon, an island emerged,
bleak, and beautiful. It had been empty for some time, but the signs of
habitation were still there, little caves that had once been homes,
that had been carved across the terrain.
They pulled the boat ashore, and Simon built a fire while Hen hunted.
were plentiful and easy to come by. With several clutched in her
she wheeled back around.
The brilliant orange of the fire bloomed in the distance. Above, the
comforting bulk of the island hovered. They would have time, plenty of
time, to explore every inch of it, the mountain crags and frozen rivers
sharp pine trees. Eventually, when the time came, Hen would gently nip
Simon’s shoulder and would see him born into his new body as he was
supposed to be, cradled in the ocean’s waves. Then, it would be time to
reclaim what had been taken from them, the land that had been spoiled
the people that had been flattened by the boots of empire.
For now, though, there was the waiting warmth of the fire and the
of a shared meal.
Hen trilled softly in anticipation and pleasure and dove back down to
water to snap up a fish in her teeth before returning to the beach and
© 2023 Laine Perez
Bio: Laine Perez works at the University of Arkansas and
received her Ph.D. in English from the University of Texas at Austin.
Her work has appeared in Beneath Ceaseless Skies and Luna Station
Quarterly. She lives in Arkansas with her cat, Mauer, who is named
after a baseball player.
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