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Old 10-15-2012, 01:41 AM   #15 (permalink)
Deus Machina
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Join Date: May 2006
Location: Brandon, Florida

Well, here's my second before bed. I'll enter my third and best, if anyone else joins in.
Left intentionally rough, sort of The Road-ish.

Of Distance

It was the hardest thing he had ever done, taking that first step.

Worse than he remembered running home at the first sight of the smoke, to find the small town in ruins. Everything of use or value taken and all else destroyed. Set ablaze. Himself newly orphaned, one of a handful left to pick numbly through the remains and weep helplessly.

You can go home now, they said. He could not answer. There was nothing to return to. Not even graves. There were none to dig. Homes had become pyres.

It had dulled his mind to walk, then, strike south down the seldom used road. Time let the ache in his legs overcome all else. He did not sleep, had not thought to bring supplies. Looking up only brought memories back, to match the new smoke pillars from south and east.

You can go anywhere now, they said; you are a great man. No. Great men do not have memories like this, no. Stretches left to darkness or fractured. The remaining brightened by signs of the army's progress, rutted roads and damped campfires, signs of stragglers, hope for his first soldier to kill.

Great men do not remember so clearly their stumbling discovery of one of the stragglers. Do not have memories of finding the stone in their hand but not of picking it up. Not charging without thought, roaring without hearing, stone raised high, colliding with the lagging soldier without stance or attack thought out, only momentum. Enough to send them both tumbling and breathless, confused.

Great men do not remember scrambling back atop that soldier, little more than a boy, no older than him. Recruited or conscripted, probably on promise of seeing outside his hometown and sending money home to a mother or betrothed.

Great men do not remember that voice, wordless, expression snapping from surprise to fear, yelping to terrified screams as stone came down again and again, until skull cracked and confused sobs fell quiet.

He did not cry. He did not hear it then. This scared him the most. He heard it now, in the quiet of dark. A mother or betrothed never would hear from him again, did not even receive a letter. This is not what good men are made of.

He had drained the canteen in great gulps, body's demand overcoming lack of thought. He took holster and scabbard only because the weapons were in them. Dragged rifle behind him, gripping the muzzle.

Go to your friends, they said; friends stay together. He remembered them. Should have remembered them better. They had eaten, laughed, shared good and bad, fought beside or with each other, laughed moments later or held the anger and still came to the rescue.

He remembered the joy with them, their faces, the times they shared. They were stories passed down. It was a legend his eyes and ears told him second-hand.

These are the people that make the legends. The happily ever after. Only in the stories. The hero always loses too much for 'happily,' usually too much for 'after.'

The thin pale northerner lost his life saving him, thrown himself at soldiers to buy time for the rest and laughing while he did. Like it was a joke he had to share with them. The winemaker lost little weight but most of an arm and the weaver's daughter, easily a foot taller, went home with him after losing her father. The farmer lost his stock and meager savings but found himself pulled into leading his town as it rebuilt.

She, she had lost more than enough.

He first saw her at the end of the road. This town was broken and burnt like his, with more survivors. The travelling army had passed through more quickly, took much but slaughtered only those who could not flee. She worked to heal the wounded. Calmed children, cleaned bloodied or ash-dark faces, a bustling beacon of hope. Paused when she found him wandering into town, barely on his feet.

Her smile preceded her, reaching him as her hands did, breaking the hold his pain had on him and allowing his slip into unconsciousness. The first sleep he had since leaving his home, the first food anyone had forced him to eat. She nursed him until she could not keep him from leaving. Then settled the other survivors in and followed, smile in place.

Stay here, they said; you are a hero. He could not face that. They could not look him in the eye. They could not speak to him as a person. He was a hero to them, not a man. She was the only person that saw him as he was, now. The only person who embraced him as a man who had endured. The only person who would grin at him, not the idea of him, or from pity alone.

She never stopped smiling. She had different smiles, but it was always there. One for the nights at an inn raising a glass, another for the nights they could not find dry shelter or firewood. One for telling stories of the northerner's travel with them or for changing the winemaker's bandages, which brightened easily when he had taken to a knee before the weaver's daughter.

More than once he had found himself in her arms after losing blood or will. Awoke to find her gently rocking him and murmuring quiet prayer. She was never worried. Only determined; her smile a focus for prayer's aid.

Her hands were not clean. No. But she did not mark as the others. Of all of them, she knew best that the most help she could give was strength. To be the first to lift a sword. Not as he did. She was not clean, but ended unmarked. She would hold no malice; anger leaves blood deeper than one's hands.

He tried to focus on the ache in his feet, in the scars on his leg. Tried to focus on the wind rustling the leaves that had begun to grow back. Tried to distract himself with checking his weapons, pitted but happy for the first oil they had seen since he had taken them; the rifle's butt still scoured and gouged where he had drug it along. He could feel her smile on his back, knowing well what she read in him. Knowing his path. Still hoping.

Stay here, she said; with me...

It was the hardest thing he had ever done, taking that first step.
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