Broken Swords: The Last in Line
“A soldier survives by being either a coward or a hero. You take a great risk provoking one. Especially an old one.”
- Anonymous, Annals of the Swords.
“I’ve been eating crap for a fortnight. I’ve had to shit in a bucket because we’re not allowed to dig dump trenches. I’ve had to chop firewood for the last three days to keep warm even though we’re not actually allowed to build a fucking fire. Yeah, I’m pissed. If those assholes on the other side of that wall don’t give up soon I’m going to start taking it personally.”
- Punch, Bear Team, 3rd of the B2
The old soldier looked the mule square in the eyes. “You’d rather be anywhere else, wouldn’t you?”
When the mule refused to empathize or respond, the old soldier shrugged and went back to making sure its shoes were secure. Then he scratched gently at the torc around his own throat. Metal and cold as the rain.
Seven Hell's, how he hated the rain.
“He answered yet?”
The flickering torchlight of the encampment barely managed to hold the dark of the jungle at bay, everything cast in a haze of shadow. He gave a quick glance as the young soldier flipped the tent flap up and tossed a heavy rucksack inside.
“Ask me that again and i'm going to…
“...put your foot so far up my ass when I run my mouth everyone will see your toes. Yeah, yeah, I got it.”
The old soldier grinned and the young soldier rolled his eyes. Both of them looked overhead as the rain continued to fall.
The younger soldier sighed and sloughed some of the rain off his arms, thick as tree trunks. “God's be damned I hate this fucking rain.”
The old soldier started to chuckle. The look the young soldier threw his way made him laugh harder.
“What's so funny?”
The old soldier coughed a few times and put on a serious face, cocking an eyebrow as he stood. “Stop complaining. This is good ground and pound weather.”
The young soldier's dark skin only intensified the gleaming stare he gave the old soldier. “You say that about all the weather except when it's actually nice out.”
That tipped the scale. The old soldier set to laughing so hard his face reddened and he had to cough to get some air.
The younger soldier grinned big and wide then turned to head towards the tent. Before he took more than a half dozen steps, the old soldier watching him, he stopped.
“So, what do you make of this? This ‘thing’ in the mountains?”
The old soldier’s face grew hard. “The first campaign is always the hardest, you’ve probably been told that numerous times now. But for you, and the other recruits, this should make the rest of your time with the Swords almost...pleasant.”
The young soldier stared at him a long time, emotions flitting across his face. But the old soldier knew; this one has the instinct. Just watch.
Barely another heartbeat passed and the young soldier burst out laughing, full and heavy. “I like you, old timer.” Then he threw the tent flap and disappeared inside. By the sounds of it he was prepping to get some shut eye.
“Feelings mutual, lad” the old soldier mumbled after the lamplight inside the tent faded away.
He stood still for a long while, hand resting gently on the neck of the mule, deep in thought. The mule flicked its head and the old soldier absentmindedly dropped another three inches of oats into the feed bucket, which it promptly set to inhaling. The morning sun, above the canopy of the dense jungle trees, was getting ready to peak over the horizon to the east. Most in the camp, except those coming off night watch, were beginning to stir to life.
The old soldier sighed again, scratching the mule behind the ears. “Don’t let Malador push you around.” It nodded and huffed in apparent agreement, then went right back to devouring the oats.
Satisfied, the old soldier shouldered his ruck, grabbed a nearby torch and headed out past the perimeter of the camp, nodding to one of the guards on watch who smiled and nodded in return. He had no real destination in mind but he had a very definite purpose.
Glancing toward the unseen sky and the rising sun, he grunted to himself. Looks like the rain is going to burn off. That’d be a welcome respite considering it had been raining for four days straight now. Or was it five? Hell, who can remember; long campaigns like this one tended to play tricks with the mind and time. All you could keep track of was the last three meals in your belly and the last three of your team who had gone to the Sword Halls.
Willow, Sharptooth and Feather. He had been pretty fond of Feather who always had a laugh and a rather bawdy joke, damned be the circumstances. The one about the cock and the hound had been particularly funny.
Then again, for him, time was virtually irrelevant. He was forced to remember every soldier who died. Every single face he’d seen. Every voice he’d heard. That was the one thing he was never allowed to forget.
And it really did make him tired.
He willed his feet to stop, blinked a few times to clear his mind back to the present, and took in the air and the smells around him. He was well past the line-of-fire clearings the unit had spent the last three days clearing, in preparation for the assault that would undoubtedly arrive sometime this coming night. The blanket of the jungle blotted out much of the light above into perpetual dusk. Except at night when everything became black. The dark, lush green glistened with the drops of rain still trickling from leaves, though much lighter than they had moments ago.
The sounds of wildlife were springing to life with morning melodies of the dawn. Somewhere off in the distance, nearly drowned out by the sounds of the camp behind him, a bandersow bellowed. He should let Moonstone know, where there’s one, especially banders, there’s bound to be more and the meat of just a few would cover several weeks worth of food for the company. The old soldier smiled wryly, that cook could run circles around the fancy chefs and charlatans that sat their fat asses in castles and high-end inns across the land. Feeding forty soldiers was a walk around.
He licked his lips, anticipating the meal, then blinked and shook his head. Time for food later.
He stepped into a small clearing within the thick foliage, spilling more light and offering some slight reprise from the oppressive dim. Aside from one of the dark-striped cats chasing a needle hare deeper into the jungle it was relatively quiet and unassuming.
Good a place as any. He scratched an armpit, hacked up some phlegm and spit downwind, then dropped into a squat, shrugging his rucksack onto the ground with an unceremonious plop. Placing the torch gently against a stone, he rummaged through the sack a moment before coming out with a small, simple box. It was so well-worn the hints of color that had once decorated it were faint as to be non-existent, as were the patterns in the wood the colors were meant to accentuate. The latch was bent and had seen much better days. Around the edges of the lip above the latch the wood was dark, stained with the gods-knew-how-many years of thumb and fingers flipping it open and closed.
The old soldier set the box down much more gently than its simple, common appearance warranted. He glanced again at the sun over-head then behind him towards a far distant mountain range, as if working out the proximity of the two.
There was the gentle call of an owl and the old soldier watched as the bird winged across the copse of trees to light on the outcropping branch of a thicker vine. The owl was out of place for the jungle, thousands of miles from its native habitat. But the old man simply smiled gently and gave it a nod.
Once satisfied, he flipped the latch and slowly opened the box. A golden glow, the hue of candles in the deep night, spilled from the box onto his feet, his legs and his torso. Holding the lid partially opened, he reached inside and withdrew a small figurine. Closing the lid gently, the light winked out. He set the figure on the crest of the box lid.
It was even more worn than the box, its features nearly indistinguishable. Could’ve been male, female, nosck, samada, human. It was impossible to tell. There was something that graced its back: a weapon, a lute, a sack, a cloak? No clear features to indicate one way or the other. There was no paint on it and the stain of many fingers was minimal.
“My honor is your honor.”
He plopped down in front of it, legs crossed and closed his eyes, allowing the sound of the world to surround him and the wind to gently tug at his beard and hair. The owl was quiet so it was easy to hear the rustling of the moss lynx as it skirted the edge of the clearing.
She stepped from the woods, more precisely from behind a tree, and began walking casually toward the old soldier. Her gait was easy, confident. Her face was hidden by the tall, wide-brimmed hat that adorned her head. Full, dark wavy hair, swept from under the brim and trailed behind her in the breeze. Her clothes were clean and so well kept as to seem new. Shades of lavender and umber reflected the morning light. Her immaculate appearance stood in stark contrast to the old soldier’s grime and grunge as she stopped across from him, the small figure on the box between them.
Their eyes had not deviated from one another as she glided effortlessly across the field. They continued to hold their gaze for several dozen heartbeats.
“One of the few surprises I still get in life is figuring out who’s going to arrive each time.”
She smiled, lopsided, and tilted her head to shield her eyes from the arriving sun. They were the color of cobalt, a blue so deep the depths of the ocean might show jealousy. “Many of the others have grown weary of your discourse.” She shrugged. “I drew the short straw this time.”
The old soldier chuckled. “Good point. And you have my sympathy. But, thank you for coming, none-the-less, Arianna.”
“I have a lengthy dinner party to attend in the Serinnian capital that I absolutely cannot miss, so, pleasantries aside, what is it you need?”
The old soldier stood up, unmindfully dusting himself off. “I believe I have found him.”
“Oh.” The woman smiled again, this time a glint of fire stirred within. “Is that so?”
She suddenly released an exasperated sigh and pulled her hat from her head. The dark locks cascaded around her face and shoulders like a silk blanket. Her face was stunning. “Do you really think this is going to work?”
He shrugged. “Don’t much care. If this is the right one, I’m done.”
“You can’t just walk away.”
This time it was the old soldier’s eyes that changed. The brow creased, the eyes grew hard. Eyes that had seen things best left unseen. “What is your price, Arianna? Mine, as you need remember, is memory. And I’ve paid that price, so many times only the All-Father himself can count them. I certainly can’t because I don’t fucking remember. I only remember every damn soldier. Every single one of them. If I say, I’m done, when it is time; I. Am. Done.”
The change in her face was remarkable. The stern look melted away and a soft, gentle and understanding presence grew in its place. “I know. It isn’t easy on you. We all know that.”
The old soldier’s eyes did not falter. But he looked away from her soft gaze and glanced to the sky above. “Don’t patronize me. I’ve spent a long time looking for this. I think he may definitely be it. But you all need to get something through your thick heads. I can walk away and leave this an empty hole whenever I damn well want to. Never forget that. I stay on because I won’t leave a single soldier to the whim of whichever of you assholes thinks can fill my shoes if I don’t find a replacement. I’m going to choose. And when I do, when I find him and can at last be free from all of this, I promise, the very last memory I will let go of...is Time.”
“I did not mean to offend you. You were there when I was chosen, when all the others were chosen. The gods, however, fickle they may be, chose each of us. I have never wished you ill or ever turned my back on you, whatever the others may say or do.”
The last of her words hung in the air around the two of them like a warm blanket on a very cold winter’s night. Several long, still moments passed and at last he seemed to soften, to relax. He wiped a hand across his face, pulling the cobwebs free from the few memories he did still keep.
“I know. I apologize that it is you who must bear this message back. I’d have preferred it be Entillion because he’s still an insufferable bastard.”
There was a brief pause and then she giggled, light and full of life. “Yes, he is that, isn’t he?”
The old soldier gave a sardonic grin as well. Then he bent and with delicate, steady hands set the worn figurine back into the box.
“It was very nice to see you. As always. And I do hope you know that none of this is personal. Well, at least not with you and the others.”
He laughed abruptly. “Yes, even Entillion.” He slid the box back into his rucksack. “But the gods? That’s an entirely different story.”
Her somber look said everything he needed. “And you should know, my old friend, I will never forget you.”
He smiled at her words, opened his mouth to say something else, but his voice caught in his throat and before the burning in his eyes could bear fruit, he clamped down on the pang in his heart and turned away from her. “Farewell, Arianna.”
She watched him walk away, the owl swooping past her to silently follow. Before he disappeared into the far wood line, back to the life of war and strife, she did shed tears. Heavy, wet tears streamed down her face yet only enhanced her beauty. “Farewell, Saint of Soldiers.”