Antietam

The old man sat polishing his armor with a faded white cloth. It was evening, late summer – the wind idled through the flaps of the tent but he gave it little notice. The cicadas were loud, but he gave them less. All of his attention went into the final corner of his breastplate, even though the dull iron would benefit little. All except a sliver of mind for the wheezing youth who lay dying in the cot near the entrance.

His armor was old, the stink of sweat and linseed oil inescapable. The leather scar-tissue that bound it all together had been replaced dozens of times, was due to be refit again. The old man made a note to seek the proper skill at the next city of note. The boy on the cot gave a snore that was half-choke and half-gasp. The old man kept polishing without hurry.

The hand holding the cloth constricted of it’s own accord and the cloth slipped free. The old man sighed. He was growing used to his hands and knees and even eyes and mind turning traitor. He leaned forward to snag the cloth from the floor and the wind idled through the tent flaps again, with more force this time as if it had remembered what it had forgotten there. It brought with it the smell of the fire from outside, the chicken and barley in the stew his men tended, and undeniable and soft at the end: the smell of pine and cold, the smell of home. He forgot the cloth but still felt the breastplate’s weight on his knees and breathed in deep.

“This is what no one will tell you, young man.”  His words were careful, pitched where only the wind and boy in the cot could hear. “You are alone. You can fill your life with noise and faith and toil and love and drink and battle, but it always goes quiet. It’s never real. Not even your memory is lantern enough. Stumbling in the wind and dark…”

The boy gave a noise that could have been a sob or just another wheeze. The old man shook his head and stretched his aching arm to pick up the cloth he had dropped. The cloth was faded white, but it was daubed pink and brown and darker crimson. At least the armor was clean.

The old man stood up with a spider’s care. He put each part of his armor in its proper place on the stand, then moved to the dying youth’s side. The old man gave his full attention at last and laid a firm hand aside the boy’s bloody face.

“At least you may rest now. You kept faith-or didn’t know the tale I needed. And still you keep breathing though you are empty and broken and choking on your own end. What honor there is in that, I give it to you gladly. Travel on, Child of the South.”

It was the work of a few moments to join his two old hands on the boy’s throat and close them tight. They did this job well, they did not betray. And then there was only the old man and his clean armor. And the idle wind bearing the memory of cold.

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