03/13/2014 § Leave a comment

Again Horace woke up before the first hour and watched the diminishing sun grasp at the mountains to the east. The coldness was almost in his bones. He sat up and bent his head, but the words faltered in his throat.

The others woke up shortly and by the first half-hour the men were well on their way, walking with haste. The road stretched downward and to the northwest and as they walked the hills gave way to flat meadows, a sea of dying grass, gray with frost, pockmarked here and there by withered shrubbery and odd groves of leafless trees.

At the first quarter of the third hour they stopped near a small pond to rest a spell. A thin sheet of ice had formed around the outer edges of water’s surface, that had to be broken before they could draw water.

As Horace knelt by the water and filled his waterskin, the old man from the day before joined him and said, “It won’t be long now.”

Horace nodded.

They sat by the pond and each took a long swig of the freezing pond-water.

“You played well,” Horace offered after some time.

“Ah. Thank ye— but it was a foolish thing to do, I think. They way it ended… You saw it yourself, did you not? It would have been better not to have sung those songs at all.” Then he shrugged and said, “As my father liked to say, ‘Only the dead can afford regrets.’”

Horace knew the rejoinder. “In life, death is the only regret.”

The old man raised an eyebrow, bemused and impressed at the same time. “Good earth! The wisdom of my forefathers, from an foreigner’s lips!”

At this, Horace allowed himself a meek smile. “I’ve walked this country a long time,” he said.

“Truly? Then you must know—” The old man’s voice trailed off and became almost a whisper. “You must know what’s been done to it.”

The smile vanished from Horace’s lips. Knowing where it would lead, he regretted having started the conversation, even as that regret turned to scalding shame. “I do,” he said soberly.

“What evil does man wreak upon his own kind…” The old man shook his head, pulling at a tangle in his beard, and after a long pause he began to speak, distantly, as much to himself as to his foreign interlocutor. “Before all this, before I came to be this sorry sight before you, I lived in Austihaven. Aye—Austihaven, born and raised. I owned a woolshop in Stone Quarter, nothing grand, no, but it was my pride and joy. I’d built it all on my own, from a little meat stall in Oldtown to a proper shop with four spinners and two weavers… Something a man could pass on to his children, when his time came.”

Here the old man swallowed hard, seemingly overwhelmed with his recollection. He took in a deep breath, held it, and let it our slowly. He went on.

“The war had been going on for the better part of three years. But the shop was getting on well, and the word on the street was peace, so when a breeder in Anderfoot wrote me he’d bred a honey-coat, I went to see it. That’s—that’s when it happened.”

“The Scouring,” said Horace, in a voice that was a groan and a whisper, feeling the sickness in his stomach.

The old man looked at him, stared as though he was seeing him for the first time. Then he closed his eyes, the deep and sunken lines making shallow graves of his orbits. It was the kind of look that made Horace want to gauge out his own eyes. But he could not allow himself to look away.

“When the news came, I couldn’t believe what I was hearing—how could I? How could anyone? That such a thing is—could even be—thought of… But when I returned… What I saw… My wife, my sons and daughters, my little granchildren… And all my kin, my brothers and sisters and nephews and nieces, cousins, uncles, aunts, all gone. Soul-sucked. Friends, family, everyone I’d ever known, just like that…”

Horace could not say that he was sorry, though the words tore at his throat like a clawed animal.

“I only wish I had died with them. I do not know why I go on like this—truly I do not.” The old man’s eyes were now open and filled with tears, the dying sunlight gleaming queerly on his pain.

Just as his own silence was becoming unbearable to Horace, the old man wiped at his eyes and cleared his throat. “Well. As my father liked to say, ‘Forgive an old man his memories.’ Tell me now, do you know the match for that one?”

“I’m afraid I do not,” said Horace.

“It goes: ‘And the young, his ambition.’”

Someone hollered that they were getting back on the road.

“Suppose we should get walking too.” The old man said and got up with a grunt.

Horace got up and followed him wordlessly.

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