"Northern Lights" by Liz Carlson Excerpt
Chloe Daniels stood on the edge of a cliff, long hair tied in a bun, staring off at the body of water below, her gaze following the rock she’d knocked off by getting too close. By the seconds she counted from the top of the cliff before it splashed in the water, it was a thirty-foot drop and Chloe wasn’t having it. She was brave and saying that was enough. She didn’t have to jump off a cliff to prove that to anyone. It just wasn’t necessary. Or at least that’s what she told
herself when she turned back around to Lieutenant Oliver Grayson and attempted an escape, saying, “Absolutely not. You’re not convincing me. No.” She turned back and if her hair was down, her ginger locks would’ve flipped over her shoulder and ran down to her thighs, a sign of Confidence.
Lieutenant Grayson leaned on a tree a few feet from Chloe, his shaved head cool in the early morning fog. His tanned skin blended into the fog, which mixed the colors of both morning and night. The yellow light illuminated the slight wrinkles he’d just begun to get. Chloe guessed that he shaved his head now to avoid grey hair filling in where he once had long black locks. There were a good fourteen years between them and a few more in terms of experience. Or
trauma. Lieutenant Grayson wore a look Chloe knew well. It was the you’re doing this command. Chloe folded her arms as he stared back at her. “You’re not getting out of this one, Daniels,” he stated.
Chloe didn’t move. She wouldn’t let Lieutenant Grayson talk her down. Not this time. Lieutenant or not, this wasn’t an order. This wasn’t training and Chloe didn’t have to be interested. She wouldn’t do it. “No.” She was trying her best.
“I wasn’t asking, Daniels.” His voice was imposing this time. This wasn’t her dad’s best friend anymore - it wasn’t her Godfather, Uncle Oli, and they weren’t playing at the lake by Chloe’s home. They were miles away from her city-state Drum. Much had changed since she was young and dad and Uncle Oli weren’ stopping by between missions out west. He was her lieutenant - soon to be general - now and this was a direct order.
Chloe had never disobeyed a direct order, nor did she ever want to. This was fear talking for her. Chloe had a mind and that mind came with curiosities, but not often did she make the decision to act on them. Had they been anywhere in the military camp, Chloe wouldn’t have questioned him. It was only here and now when they were alone that Chloe gave much thought to understand his reasoning. Still, he was the Lieutenant of Combat with the official uniform to
match. The pin stuck into his lapel verified his claim to his title, decorating the long green button-down. The uniform was rather opposite green light shirt and shorts he was permitted to wear during training, but this morning he didn’t have a choice. After sunrise there was a small council meeting and he would be required to show up in proper uniform.
This was a perk of being Lieutenant Grayson’s favorite recruit, Chloe supposed. It was a treat for him to wake her up at the crack of dawn, take her out of the camp, and force her into cliff diving. But, she should’ve known better. This was the type of relationship he had cultivated with her when he started her training. She was no ordinary recruit, no regular soldier. She was Lieutenant Grayson’s apprentice which meant he was conditioning her to rise through the ranks as quickly as possible - to rise above thousands of other recruits to take over the single spot everyone was pining for. To be a general - one day.
It was a favor to her late father - the infamous General Daniels of Combat, who died just two fortnights ago. Chloe had been at basecamp when he died and had already been following in her father's footsteps by volunteering at seventeen, as soon as she was allowed. Oliver was harder on Chloe than any one of the thousand other soldiers in the King’s Army and Chloe refused to disappoint. She wanted, more than anything in the world, to fill the shoes her father
left for her and if pleasing Oliver got her there, she’d do anything he asked and follow his orders without question.
“You won’t have all this time to think about it when they’ve cornered you to a waterfall with spears, you know,” He added when Chloe wasn’t moving quick enough for him.
“When who’s cornered me?” Chloe asked. She tapped her toes against the soft soil, both waiting for an answer and becoming aware of how underdressed she was in the autumn wind. The tight black pants clung to her legs and the thin, forest green uniform shirt did the same to her upper half. The gold crescent moon and star over her left chest plate shimmered in the rising sun. She hadn’t had time to change into the official uniform for her squad, the Kingsmen, which left her in clothes she’d slept in - the simple training uniform for new recruits. On a normal day and later on, she’d change into the clothes of the Kingsmen - the red crown proudly displayed on one shoulder patch and the symbol of Magnus pressed against the other. But for now, the three-quarter length of her bottoms and short sleeves allowed for the sight of her tattoos. On her right calf was the symbol of her home city-state, Drum; it was a black snowflake attached to a circular border. On her left shoulder, her family’s coat of arms was sewn into her skin with an inky concoction. It was a Labrys ax inside of a shield and beneath the head of a knight. On her other shoulder, her Sergeant's brand was still wrapped. She’d recently been christened as a Sergeant and the brand itself was still healing and often still burned. It was in the back of her mind that a jump in the water would most likely affect its healing rate. Just another reason she wasn’t interested in going cliff diving at dawn. She scratched the back of her neck, confused, and her wrist brushed against the cold metal of her population clip, puncturing the cartilage of her ear.
“Bandits, thieves, anarchists. Anyone.” Lieutenant Grayson confirmed, his eyes rolling dramatically. Oliver had little patience for questions and only amused Chloe when they were alone like this. She was advised repeatedly not to continue with such antics in the camp - he refused to promote such behavior.
Chloe glanced over her shoulder at the cliff. She took a deep breath, letting it out at the same time a breeze blew through her clothes. She shivered and goosebumps covered her arms, legs, and neck. Her ponytail blew with it and pulled at the hair tie, which was hardly holding her bun at this point anyhow. Having just passed into fall, the sun was hardly brimming at the horizon, just a dark orange color in the east. These were the moments that Chloe could’ve sworn she could hear every organ in her body working to keep her alive. She could feel and hear her heart rate rising with the speed of her breathing. The very act of willing herself into action was enough to feel her blood pumping through her veins. She sped for the edge of the cliff.
“You’re getting a roommate today.”
Chloe threw dirt off the cliff as she whipped her body around to her superior, “What?”
“What have I told you about losing your focus?” Lieutenant Grayson quipped and the attitude was avid in his voice. “You need to focus on the task at hand.”
Chloe grumbled at the lecture.
“Try Again.” He tapped his foot.
Chloe swallowed and took a few steps away from the cliff to resume her ready position. This time her feet were moving before she could think it through any longer and she ran for the edge. Her last step landed one foot halfway on the fringe, which she used to push off with all of
her might away against the oncoming wind. She threw her hands above her in an attempt to dive and turn her body upside down as gravity pulled. It was far from the perfect dive, but it was acceptable enough not to get hurt and with a splash - she landed in the lake below.
The water was a glacial subzero temperature that caused goosebumps to form across her body. From diving so high up, she landed deep down in the water, so deep that she could hardly see the light that bounced off the surface. All at once the crashing waves, the birds chirping, the blowing wind, it was all gone. The water filled in with a white noise that came with being fully submerged and for a split second, she wished reality would not come back. She wished she could stay in the submerged water forever with nothingness. But obligation quickly got the best of her and Chloe kicked her legs and swam to the top and the first thing she saw before coming back to the surface was Lieutenant Grayson - standing at the top of the cliff and staring down at her. Chloe didn’t realize how in need of air she was until she emerged and took the breath into her lungs.
“Alright, get back up here. You have early morning training and I’ve got a meeting to get to.” That was Lieutenant Grayson-speak for Good job. Chloe swam for the edge of the lake, dragging the extra water weight soaked into her clothes out with her. As she walked out, mud seeped into her bare feet and kicked up her calves. Still, the weight didn’t feel like much to carry at all - she walked with her shoulders up and a sense of pride in her chest.
Before she knew it, the two were walking back toward camp, through a forest in the midst of the fall change over as yellow, orange, and red fell from the trees and wilted beneath their feet, leaving summer far behind them as they went. Chloe could smell the change of season in the crisp morning air - in the musk of the lake and distinct smell of fog - as the sun rose behind them; Covering the day in the orange glow that came with autumn - the dying shrubbery, shorter days, and longer nights. She would not be as excited about this change soon, knowing full well that in a few months, winter would drift over the east coast and drag them into the bitter cold of winter storms with only fires to keep them warm. Between the blizzards and the solar storms, winters were hard on everyone in the basecamp. Even now her wet clothes were freezing in the wind and her pants made a smacking wet sound with each step. She puffed her chest out to pretend it wasn’t hard to walk.
“So, a roommate?” Chloe hadn’t had a roommate in the two years she’d been at the training site, which most others would’ve been ecstatic about. Chloe wasn’t one of those people. She wanted to have a roommate, but the tent she stayed in was practically made for her. It was one of the ones made for the family of high ranking officers, like hern. Chloe Daniels was, after all, the daughter of the previous General of Combat, Matthew Daniels, whose death was still a
fresh wound to Chloe, to the camp, and to Lieutenant Grayson. Lieutenant Grayson had been with Chloe’s father out west when he passed away, a few days before Chloe’s Nineteenth birthday, and ever since, Lieutenant Grayson had taken over her training. He even named her his apprentice. That being said, her status came with perks. One of those perks included her tent, which was on the front line of the basecamp. Her tent was for children who upheld a legacy from a general.
“I just got a pigeon from the southern peninsula, from General Clarke.” Oliver chuckled at her curiosity, “They picked her up almost a week ago now. Should be here by sunset.”
“She…” Chloe repeated the words under her breath, a clue to whom her new roomie was, “Well, who is she?” Chloe had to admit, since volunteering two years ago and since she got a tent all to herself, she often felt alone in the camp. She was a diligent recruit who worked hard
every day to uphold her father’s legacy, but that legacy came with both respect and insults. Other recruits in the camp either pitied her for the loss of her father or insulted her for receiving special treatment. The idea of someone rooming with her who didn’t have any idea about the rumors about her was thrilling. Maybe for once, she wouldn’t have to be alone when she wasn’t training. Maybe for once, she’d have someone to talk to.
Oliver watched her with a squinted expression, before reverting back to the trees as leaves circled him in the breeze. They walked through the treeline that opened up into a larger field. “Bell’s kid.” With each step, they neared the fifteen-foot stone wall that stood between them and the army camp. The forty foot stone wall that surrounded the same was topped with guard posts. From up there, they could see for miles, in case of a surprise attack. All recruits
were required to take a few night shifts manning the wall to learn the basics, while the day shifts were given to the members of the security branch. The stone wall was huge and once in a while, Chloe enjoyed taking a stroll on it - just for the view.
Chloe frowned, “Bell...Like General Noah and Lily Bell?” Gears turned in Chloe’s mind.
Chloe stopped walking and Lieutenant Grayson turned around to look at her. Her eyebrows were dented inward. General Lily Bell had been the previous General of Medicine, who’d passed away giving birth, long before Chloe had volunteered. General Noah Bell, on the other hand, was the General of Engineering Chloe had not had many conversations with over her years at the army base, but he was on the same mission as Chloe’s dad and they had both died in the field, together. Chloe’s jaw dropped at the idea of rooming with a girl who not only was new to the campground but shared trauma with Chloe that no one else could understand.
“Yes. That’s the one.” Oliver was getting impatient with her, “Is there a problem, Daniels?”
“No…” It came out as more of a question, her voice hoarse and primitive in comparison to the assertive attitude she had held onto earlier, “No, not at all.” Lieutenant Grayson continued on while Chloe was left with the anxiety that had already begun digging into her chest. She tried not to think about it too much, tried not to come up with assumptions about her new roommate before they ever met.
“So, what’s the meeting about?” Chloe caught up with Lieutenant Grayson as an armed officer let them in through the thirty foot, shrieking iron gate. As they opened, she stared at the two banners hung on each side of the gates. On the right, the same gold symbols as their uniforms hung on a green banner and on the other, the black star in a circle hung on a red banner.
The black star was the symbol of the Magnus Military Base. She wasn’t really supposed to ask and he wasn’t supposed to tell either, but it never hurt to ask.
“You know it’s classified,” Lieutenant Grayson reprimanded, “Stop being nosy.”
Chloe turned back to walk forwards when they got further into the campground, ending their walk around the front of the center of the base camp. The center of all the King’s Army operations were held inside the building. Its exterior had been diminished by weather attacks over the decades, but overall it’s structure stood strong. White columns held up the archway double doors that led inside - dawning the variety of city-state flags on them. The white of the building had become a drab, rusty color from surviving almost a century of solar weather. It was deemed the best building to be redeemed from the old world because of the tunnels and training centers hidden beneath it and a tall enough roof for the proper surveillance. Chloe had heard rumors that people of the old world used it to house their king. Inside, the building had some floors courted off for high ranking officers, but the tunnels and courtyards were reserved for
training and open to everyone. They walked toward the center of the camp, on the main path that all of the tents lined up around. The main path ended at the stairs of the White House. “Is it so really classified if you tell your apprentice?” Chloe gleamed at her Lieutenant.
“Keep talking like that Daniels and you won’t be anything.” It was a joke, or at least Chloe hoped it was a joke. She couldn’t ever tell with Lieutenant Grayson. In the long run, she knew he thought highly of her because of how hard he pushed her to train. On the other hand, the briefly serious tone Chloe could hear when he spoke made her skin crawl. Being the legacy of the previous General of Combat and Lieutenant Grayson’s apprentice, she was in line to one day take the general position, but that didn’t guarantee anything. She had to show potential to do that.
They stopped at the steps to the White House where they would split off to their separate responsibilities. “Besides that, if you really want to be a general one day, you have to show leadership qualities and I haven’t seen you lead anyone lately. Actually. I don’t even think I’ve
seen you make a friend and if you can’t do that, I don’t know if you’ll ever be able to lead. Maybe you can try that out with your new roommate.”
“I can make friends.” Chloe snapped back and she immediately felt shame for how defensive it sounded. “I’m just too focused on everything else to care about having friends. But I’ll do it. You’ll see.” The foghorn sounded and the basecamp began to stir with recruits popping out of the tents. To the people passing them, the conversation would’ve sounded casual, but to Chloe, she knew it was more. Chloe was the only girl of thousands of soldiers training in the combat division. To be the General of Combat, she’d have to work harder than she ever had in her life and she knew this was Lieutenant Grayson’s way of giving her a subtle reminder.
Oliver watched the Sergeant and Chloe tried to keep a strong rapport. “Sure, sure.”
Chloe backed away and if it wasn’t for the fire of her hair, she could’ve disappeared into the sea of recruits lining up for the morning run around the camp. She shouted back to Oliver, “I can lead, you’ll see.” Chloe almost tripped looking back at him. “You’ll see.” Chloe dashed back to her tent to change out of her wet clothes before sunrise training. Her tent wasn’t much special other than its location on the front line. It was the same long, crescent-shaped tent built into a
trench to shield it from bad weather.
She slipped in between the flaps and into the slightly warmer climate her tent kept in overnight. She succinctly thought to herself about making time to clean up the clothes left around the floor and training guides strewn across her nightstand before she met her new roommate. As she did, she noticed, on the nightstand next to the wolf pelt blankets atop her cot, there was the Magnus Empire flag, tri-folded and displayed in a glass case.
Chloe stopped in her tracks and stared at the wooden, embroidered edges of the display case. The hand-carved wood oak that bordered the glass on all three sides of the forest green flag highlighted by red ridges and gold symbols. She traced the wood before daring to recognize the flag itself. Finally, she pushed herself to give attention to the clear representation of her nation - the nation she’d so willingly lay her life down for. The world around her seemed to stop rotating as she stared. Sounds disappeared when she landed on the center of the flag - the gold crescent moon beneath the star representation of Hollis. Chloe let the words on the bottom transcript fall out of her mouth in a whisper - Novus Ordo Seclorum. She knew, despite the dead language lost in an accidental fire years ago - it meant New Order of the Ages.
Even in the privacy of her own tent, Chloe didn’t allow herself to grieve. This flag, folded in this way and presented as a trophy, was a gift from the King himself. A trophy to honor soldiers who served in the King’s Army and eventually gave their lives for it. An honorable death. Chloe refused to mourn her father’s sacrifice as a loss to herself - how could she diminish the bulk of his life’s work down by missing him so much? Soldiers of the King’s Army didn’t leave the Guard unless it was in an urn of ashes. Chloe supposed that her mother would’ve received his ashes already - Drum was only a two-day ride on horseback and it had already been two fortnights since they’d held his vigil and burned his body.
Chloe spent more days thinking about her father than she’d care to admit, though no one ever asked. It made it harder that before his death, she’d spent more days with him than without. Now, even knowing her position was hard-earned and well deserved, the military camp felt more foreign than it ever had. Somewhere between training sessions and restless nights, isolation set in and she felt the resentment of the other recruits more than she wished she would let get to her.
Somewhere between the lackluster time, she had to sleep and nightmares set in because any dream that involved getting to see her father were nightmares to ever wake up from. In the days that she hadn’t spent thinking about him, she thought about her mother and brother and whether or not they were holding up alright. Chloe shoved those thoughts far down. To the country, she should be proud of his accomplishments and his sacrifice for the betterment of the
world. She wished she could deny the hollowness that his death carved out in her chest.
Through her worst nights, she held onto the memories of her mother sending them off on the day she volunteered - over two years ago now - the day her parents' smiles never seemed to go away and the city-state as a whole seemed to thank her for her service as if it really were her dole to be the General of Combat. Now more than ever Chloe wanted that to become a reality - if only to make her father proud and fillthe shoes he’d left behind with much smaller feet. That’s what her mother would always say - Big shoes to fill, but My girl’s gonna be the first woman to be the General of Combat. Chloe cleared her throat in the silence of the sunrise, as the birds chirped her back to reality.
She wondered if this was Lieutenant Grayson’s doing. It would be a lesson of some kind. Keeping the flag in her tent would remind her what she was working towards or who she was living up to be. She knew she would send it back to Drum and her mother who, after all, would want to hang it in the foyer. It was an imperial honor to be the wife of a General and mother of a volunteer - all in all, a willing widow. It was part of the reason the wives in Drum were so close
to one another because one time or another they knew they would need to lean on each other when the inevitable - though they hoped would always be farther off than it was - came. The flag should’ve been delivered to her mother to begin with.
Her hands were shaking as she took the few apprehensive steps forward. In some way or another, the flag seemed to stare back at her. It was the memorial Chloe never wanted to ever see hanging in their foyer even though she knew there had been a place carved out over their
fireplace for it. A flag to replace a hole too large to ever be filled as if the country itself was trying to put a bandage over the aftermath of an earthquake. He was too young, she told herself the first few nights she woke in cold sweats with tears dried on her cheeks - he was too young.
The very thought made her hate the anarchists that threatened their safety. The ones who lived outside of the Magnus border - the above all reason the Guard existed in the first place. She would one day get a hand taking down such cults to protect the Empire and ensure peace for their nation.
When she was close enough she finally saw the pin - a much smaller item in comparison to the glass-encased flag. It was her father’s pin, signifying his high ranking position in the guard, identical to the new one that Oliver wore. It was a steel circle around a black fist in the center to signify that not only was he a general but he was more specifically the General of Combat. The fist was a signifier for the Combat division of the guard. There were four branches of the King’s Army - Combat, Shield, Medicine, and Engineering - each of which came with their own symbol worn on their uniforms. Chloe could tell by the rusted edges of the circle that it was the exact one her father had pinned to his chest every morning. Chloe threw on a new shirt and picked up the pin from the stand, running her fingertips over its rigid edges. Chloe could feel how dry her throat had become. One day, she told herself, and put it back down. By afternoon,
she’d have the flag sent back to her mother on horseback.
It was nice to say goodbye.