A breeze, and with it the scent of balsam, caressed him as he stood in the doorway of the ballroom. The large chamber was decorated like a hall of the harvest, sprinkled with festive trappings and garlands of fall flowers. To the left, several musicians prepared for the night’s revelry, arranging their chairs and tuning their instruments; playing lively little tunes to the empty hall and the flowers. A group of tables stood clustered to the right; empty now, but the evening would find them overflowing with food and drink. At the far end of the hall, a fountain murmured. Water flowed from the pitchers of three maidens, each as lovely of face and figure as had ever been captured by artist’s brush or sculptor’s chisel. And within its basin, more flowers floated.
The flowers of the harvest.
The flowers of life.
Life; that was what would be celebrated here tonight. Life in all of its glory, all of its wonder, all of its beauty. Music would play, dancers would whirl, people would laugh and love and live. It was what these decorations were all about. Life.
The man turned from the doorway, misty eyes cast downward. “‘Life,” he thought, “a celebration of beauty and joy; a gift given us by the gods.’” He remembered the words that he had been taught as a child, not so many years ago.
And the memory made him sad.
Later, as the musicians played and the dancers spun, the man stood alone, expressionless, in his small room. From there he could hear the music drifting on the evening breeze. In his mind’s eye he could see the dancers in their graceful movements. He could hear them and he could see them, but he could not feel with them. The celebration of life was lost to him; as though life itself had been lost to him. In one of his hands he held a small piece of parchment, badly creased and tattered; in the other, a small circlet of braided hair. These two pieces of his past were more precious to him than any other possession, yet at this moment, his aching heart wished that these gifts, and the accompanying memories, would vanish. He brought the circlet to his face, and with it he caressed his cheek. Through the smell of leather and smoke and sweat, he could still smell a hint of balsam, her favorite scent. Or did he just imagine it? He closed his eyes and a tear fell onto the ring of memories.
His mind drifted to his experience with, in the opinion of several of the stable boys, the wisest man in Magnus. He had gone to ask if there were any way to forget the past. Instead of an answer, the sage made several strange requests. One was that he was to visit often with slate and chalk. It was obvious that the sage wished to teach, though the subject was a mystery. Also, the sage requested that the youth attend the victory celebration tonight. That was one request that would have to go unfulfilled.
He thought back to the day when the army had ridden into the city. He felt grand, proud and dignified. He rode just behind his knight, Sir Luthias, but in his mind he imagined that the cheers were for him alone. The people cheered for the return of the men, and for the ending of the war as well. It had been bitter and costly affair, and many of the men who had ridden from the gates of this city in the past months would never return. He looked into the faces of the people in the crowd. Those drawn and haggard faces belonged to people who had been starved and beaten and besieged. Yet he saw only their looks of appreciation and awe. To him, this was a glorious time; to them, a time of relief, of weary thanksgiving for the end to the madness. Looking back on it now, he remembered what he hadn’t noticed before; and he understood.
He drifted back even further. He thought of the battles, the death, the pain that he had seen. He had witnessed the best and the worst of mankind; the honor and courage on one side, and the cruelty and the savagery on the other. He remembered with sickening vividness his first melee, seeing his enemy fall before him with a cry. He remembered his first wounds; the pain, the fear, the bitter disappointment with himself. It seemed that he could remember much about the war, but very little of it was pleasant.
Except for the letter and the braid.
He carefully unfolded the parchment, creased and worn from many months of handling. He had taught himself to read all of the words, so he wouldn’t need someone else to read it for him. Now, he re-read the words that he could have spoken from memory.
‘Please forgive my mother for saying those terrible things. We have spoken long about this, and I understand her fear. My father was a member of the militia. He died at Oron’s Crossroads.’
“Yes. The battle at Oron’s Crossroads was a bloody rout from which very few of the Baranurian soldiers escaped with their lives. It was one of the worst defeats of the war — and one which would not soon be forgotten by the many wives and children who lost husbands and fathers in that massacre.”
‘My mother didn’t want me to know the same pain that she had known.’
“How well I can understand her sentiments. My father also died in this war; as did my sister. Yes, I think I know something of the pain that she spoke of.”
‘She said “I will not have my daughter marry a warrior”, but I asked her if she would keep her daughter from marrying a knight!’
“Oh young and innocent child! There is only one difference between the two. The knight must fight bound by rules and codes as well as armor and shield, while the warrior has only his weapon and his courage. They both fight with anger and fury and terror and pain. They both hear the sounds and smell the smells and taste the tastes of fear and horror. They both bleed. And they both die.”
‘You will be a knight someday, Derrio. This I know in my heart. When you return, I will marry you, with or without my mother’s blessing!’
“Would you still wish to marry me now, dear girl? I have changed. I have become sad and cold. I have become a killer of men whose only fault was to be born on the wrong side of some imaginary line which divides two nations. They fought because they were told to fight, and they died because I knew that, if they did not, I would. Sometimes, when I think about it, I loathe myself.”
‘I wait for thee, my knight to be. Be safe and be well.’
“But you didn’t wait. I did as you asked — I stayed as safe as I could, although there were many days when I faced the wrong end of a sword. I stayed as well as I was able, although I was sickened by the sights and sounds and smells of death and battle. But you didn’t wait. I came back to you, for you, but you didn’t wait for me. Why!? WHY DIDN’T YOU WAIT FOR ME!? WHY DID YOU HAVE TO DIE BEFORE I GOT BACK?!!
The sounds of his wracking sobs carried to the window, where they mingled with the music from the banquet hall.
Tired and weak from crying, he staggered from the room and into the street. He ran from the happy music, which haunted him like a spectre. He fled blindly, not knowing or caring where he went. He slowed as he approached the docks. Few ships were docked there, for most of the piers were charred or smashed. One ship which was docked there, the Ganness Pride, was missing an entire mast and a spar. Its railing was missing in places, and, near the back, a gaping hole was torn in her side. The war had touched the docks. He walked on.
He came to a section of the city which had been the scene of intense fighting. Men had fought from house to house. Alleys were won and held and lost again. Buildings became objectives to reach, prizes to be won, goals to be paid for in blood. Here, a broken shield lay discarded in an alleyway; there, part of a mail shirt colored by the brown stain of dried blood. He stopped before a building which was familiar. Once upon a time, children had met here at night and told dark stories by candlelight. Now the door had been torn from its hinges, and in several places, sword nicks and blood patches marked the passing of recent events. The war had touched here, too. He moved on.
Suddenly, he knew where his feet were taking him. Turning the corner, he saw the doorway from which a woman had once called to him, telling him not to be afraid. Within the walls of that house, he had eaten a meal, spoken of himself to a stranger, and proposed marriage to the woman that he loved. Now the doorway, the walls, all of it was charred and blackened. For blocks, from here to the edge of the city, a great fire had swept. It was said that magic had moved the fire along; and that the Benisonians had hoped to use the fire, and the chaos that it caused, to sweep deeper into the city. The city had been miraculously spared total destruction by a freakish rain squall, but not until an entire quarter of the city had been ravaged. Not many people were in their houses, they had fled to the keep for safety; but many more were lost to the inferno.
And she was one of them.
He walked slowly toward the doorway, its blackened frame beckoning to him like a succubus. His heart rebelled, screaming in terror to flee, to stop, to do anything but walk through that portal. His mind, however, had to see, had to know for certain that his eyes saw the truth. He hesitated at the threshold, then stepped inside. A hole in the roof allowed moonlight to enter, casting strange shadows in the gloom. The destruction was complete. The walls were shattered and broken, the furniture was ashes. With his foot, he toyed with a pile of ash in a room where meals had once been served. A small cloud of dust rose, then settled quickly, or disappeared into the unlit corners of the room. Another room, and more piles of ash and broken memories. He walked to the back of the small house. Here the entire roof had collapsed, leaving ghostly half-walls pointing jagged fingers at the moon. It was impossible to tell what this room had held. Perhaps it had been a bedroom. What dreams had been dreamt here? What plans had been made, then remade, then discarded. Had this been her room? Had she slept here?
Did she die here?
He sat down and leaned his tired body against an unsteady wall. He had been angry, but that had passed. He had cried the bitter tears of mourning, but they, too, had dried and disappeared. He looked with sadness at the moon, shining its light on the desolate scene. He found that he was holding her braid of hair in his hands, caressing it. He held it to his face, trying to once again smell the smell that reminded him of her. Was it there?
After their entrance into the city, he had found her mother among the throngs. He looked at her face, into her eyes, and at once knew that his love was gone. For what he saw in that sad woman’s eyes was the same vile emptiness that he felt when he held his sister’s broken body in his arms. “She is missing.” she had said, “I haven’t seen her since the fire. I’ve looked and looked, but she just isn’t here.” He didn’t believe her then, and had searched for her himself, for days on end. He neglected his duties as a squire, but Luthias didn’t need him much these days, busy as he was with other things. Finally, Luthias had confronted him and made him face the truth. “Death is a part of life that we cannot avoid.” Luthias was obviously speaking from experience, since deep within his voice was a compassion and a sympathy born only of intense, consuming sorrow. “You must face it now as you faced it in battle, with courage and strength.” His courage had lasted until he had reached his room, then he fell upon his bed and wept in agony.
That had been days ago. He rose and wiped the ash from his trousers.
“It is time to walk from the past into the future. I must let you go, my love. I must accept the truth and walk on.”
He turned and walked from the house, a final tear wetting his cheek. He gently placed the braided circlet back in the pouch where he had carried it for so many months. And he walked; past the house where they had listened to stories, past the streets where they had walked in the moonlight, past the docks where they had met. Again he could hear faint strains of music, the celebration was still going on. He entered the keep and strode quickly to his room. He changed his clothes, brushed his hair, and pulled on his good boots. Then he turned and left again, only this time he walked toward the music.
He entered the hall and was almost overwhelmed by the crush of people. He could see that the dancers were occupying most of the floor, and what was left was taken up by people eating and drinking and talking and laughing. He searched carefully, and finally found Sir Luthias standing near the fountain. He worked his way onto the dance floor, which was only slightly less crowded than the rest of the hall. Sir Luthias saw him coming, and smiled.
“I am pleased that you decided to join us.” The knight’s voice was soft and gentle, and in his eyes was the light of understanding.
He said nothing, but walked instead to the fountain, whose quiet mutterings were barely audible above the music and revelry behind him. He gazed into the water, breathing deeply of the mingled scents of the flowers that floated within. Behind the fountain hung boughs of balsam. He breathed, and for the first time in days, felt a peace which had eluded him.
He turned back to Luthias and bowed slightly. He gently drew the circlet from his pouch and showed it to Luthias.
*I* *Say* *Goodbye*