Behind Cold Eyes

by Evelyn Floyd

Harcort stared at the stranger in the military uniform. The man was an officer, a captain at least. His uniform had once been blue, now it was the nondescript color of mud. It was torn in places, and showed splashes of crimson. Harcort knew what the dark stains were. Those were blood stains.

The military officer sat slumped against the tree, his eyes closed. He was alive, but seemed to be sleeping. Harcort looked down at the basket he held in his hands. It contained a few pieces of dried meat and a handful of ripe Hola berries. It was probably more food than the other had seen in a week.

As Harcort crept up on the sleeping figure, he noticed a random pattern of flashes out past the distant hills. A battle. The war continued, even as the officer sat this one out. Harcort has seen many soldiers come into his village, some wounded, and a few of them had been buried there. The war had been going on for a long time. Harcort had been born after it began and he knew it would still be going on long after he was gone. He had seen many terrible things in his life. He was only seventeen but he seen a lifetime of horror in a few short years.

As Harcort moved closer to the soldier, he felt something strike him below the knees. He gave out a cry as his legs went out from under him and before he could react, there was something heavy lying across his chest. The basket was knocked from his hand. Harcort felt something jagged pressing against his throat. He was stunned, but he knew what to do. He went limp, offering no resistance. The steel blade at his throat was lifted and he looked up into the coldest pair of eyes he'd ever seen. They were blue. The color of deep mountain ice, the sort of ice that never felt the warmth of the sun. Harcort saw something else behind those cold eyes. It was indescribable. He struggled for a word to explain it. Nothing seemed to fit.

The officer raised up onto one knee, taking his weight off Harcort's chest. The boy felt himself being lifted up and then he gasped as he was roughly pushed against the tree. The officer stood over him, breathing hard, but not speaking. Harcort felt those cold eyes boring into him, and he shuddered in anxiety. As Harcort struggled to catch his breath, the man moved off a little ways, stooping down to reach for something on the ground and then he came back. In his hands was the basket. The top had been broken, and it was askew. Harcort watched the man who stood before him. Now that he was closer and the soldier was awake, he saw that the officer wasn't as old as he had seemed at first. Harcort saw that, like himself, the soldier was a young man.

That only made sense, Harcort realized, for as the war dragged on, the older soldiers and their leaders would fall in battle against the ruthless enemy. They would be replaced by new, and therefore younger, recruits. It was a sad thing, he knew, that in war, young men died as swiftly as their elders. This officer was no more than a few years older than he himself was. Harcort watched the individual who stood over him, and wondered where his home might be. He seemed to be a long way from home.

"Yours?" The figure asked, his voice sounding harsh and dry. Harcort could not speak, as his breathe would not come. He nodded, waving his hand weakly. The officer opened the basket, shook the food into his hand and smelled it. As Harcort watched, the soldier ate the berries, but didn't touch the dried meat.

The other grimaced as he chewed and then swallowed. Harcort watched him with curiosity, wondering why the soldier had refused the dried meat. It was sariwa meat, a very high source of protein. Harcort had raised the animals himself, back in the village. After a few moments, Harcort felt the air come back into his chest. He could breathe again. He took a deep breath, clearing his mind, feeling a little better. He had been stunned but he was uninjured.

The soldier was sitting nearby on a low boulder, watching him. Harcort offered an awkward smile. The soldier nodded, but said nothing. He seemed unable to smile. Then he turned his back and Harcort saw him working with some items from his pack. Soon Harcort smelled something delicious. It was the sariwa meat, heated with water and made into something more than a sum of its parts.

The officer held out a metal cup. It was warm in Harcort's hand. He lifted it to his lips. It was a form of stew, the water and meat thickened with some type of spice or grain. Harcort drank from the cup, feeling it warm him from within. The officer drank from his own cup, and after they'd both taken their fill, the soldier took the empty cup from the boy's hands and brushed it clean with a handful of sand. It went back into his pack. Now they just stared at each other, neither one speaking.

Harcort spoke first, describing his life in the village, telling of how his people had helped other soldiers, treating their wounds, feeding them, and burying the dead. The officer listened with genuine interest, but beyond that, offered little of his own story. Harcort understood why the other was reluctant to share. He'd seen a darkness in those cold blue eyes. No words could describe what he'd seen there. For all that Harcort had seen in his village, the soldier had seen ten times more in the ways of death and suffering. The figure spoke, his voice rough and weary, explaining that he was an officer of the Eighth Squadron, sent here to Harcort's world to defend it from the Skareee. Harcort nodded, he knew only too well the ways of the Skareee.

The Skareee were ruthless conquerors, a race of reptilian warriors that had slaughtered millions all across the galaxy. Harcort's world was just one more stepping stone in the Skareee invasion. Harcort knew this; he'd lived through it his whole life. His family had been taken from him by the invaders. All he had left was an older couple that had taken him in. They had been the ones to send him out with the basket of food. The crippled old man had seen the soldiers moving in the hills below the village and told the others. The few people remaining in the village knew the importance of feeding those who fought for them. They didn't have much, but they were willing to share. Every able bodied person in the village was sent out with food to give to the travel weary soldiers.

Harcort studied the military man, the one who had shared the food with him. He saw the soldier as a hero, but he kept that opinion to himself. The soldier likely saw it differently. He was just a young man, barely out of his teens; but more importantly, an officer who had suffered, and led others into harm's way, he probably did not consider himself a hero at all. He was simply doing his duty to the Planetary Corps. Harcort knew this, and he respected it. Harcort took the blanket the soldier had offered him, and later, when the twin moons overhead had set, and the night grew colder, Harcort moved to sleep alongside the soldier. He was offering the warmth of his body, and something else, a form of companionship as well.

The other awoke briefly, turned to take Harcort in his arms, and they moved together in a way that was beyond words. Afterwards, when the other was no longer inside him, Harcort felt himself drifting off to sleep. He was content, and Harcort knew the soldier would sleep better than he had in a very long time. Harcort felt no shame in the act; for it was the way he offered thanks for the soldier's selfless duty of protecting his world from the invaders. He'd known other fighting men in this way, and he took satisfaction in giving them a sense of comfort in a situation where solace was often difficult to find. Life was an uncertain thing; made even more so in war.

In the morning, Harcort awoke alone. The officer he'd spent the night with was gone, having moved off to engage in battle with the Skareee down in the valleys. Harcort pushed the blanket to one side, feeling cold in the cool mountain air. He gathered up his clothes, dressing quickly and as he reached for his basket, something bright and hard fell out of it.

It was a small dagger, made of a glittering form of metallic crystal of a type he'd never seen before. He studied the weapon. It was a war prize, probably taken from a Skareee commando. Harcort smiled, for he knew it was a gift left to him by the officer. Harcort smiled, and put the dagger in his pocket. He would cherish the gift forever.

Off in the distance Harcort saw a brilliant flash of light and shortly afterwards, a rumble of thunder echoed out across the cloudless sky. He knew the battle continued, and he found himself hoping that it was going well for those brave men battling the Skareee invasion forces. He said a silent prayer for the officer he'd spent the night with and hurried up the rocky trail towards home.

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