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The sky was a dark grey with the promise of approaching dawn as the army waited, prepared to assault at the command. A few stars lingered on; their fading light soon to be overtaken by the onset of daybreak. The camp pitched for the night was dismantled, fires were put out, and ordered lines were formed. Weapons and armours were checked, the cavalry’s mounts were readied and in a tent some way away, maps and plans were folded up and put away after one final look as captains departed with orders, to ensure all was ready.
A damp early morning mist lingered in the air sticking to everything leaving stagnant all around the smell of smoke and burnt wood mingled with that of horses and men, and an exotic whiff of fresh water and trees straggling in from the river far away. It carried along voices and sounds as commands were given out; ringing through the stillness of dawn, conveying to man and beast what was expected. Metal clinked, hooves thumped and footfalls sounded out through the pale hours before sunrise.
They would be off soon as they had before, to fight a battle; and once again, the air would ring loud with the same sounds - metal against metal, hooves, footfalls, the cries of men and horses - and intermingling with the strange concoction of smells that rested heavily in the air then, would be the odour of blood, fear and despair. The same odour he had known the last time he had ridden out to battle, to man an outpost that common wisdom felt would best be left unmanned. Blood that was shed to defend one’s land, fear felt for what lay ahead, and despair from the knowledge that whatever may lie ahead, for him there was nothing to look ahead to.
The battle then had raged fierce; an attempt at defence that had turned soon into a retreat as the enemy had advanced inexorably on. The air had been full of the sounds of war then, full of the portents of death assaulting all his senses, and worse still the portent of defeat. Defeat not just for the army but more so, for him. For he had fought as one with no hope, and with no will to survive.
That had been the time he had ridden out to war with no words of farewell, but from his old guide and friend. A few words of advice meant to give him peace, but to no avail, for if there was none to bid him a safe return, none who promised to await his return; who would there be to return to? And what would there be to return to, but resentment and bitterness. One he loved had gone never to return, and the one remaining he looked to please would never be placated. He had lost his love, if ever he had held it, forever. What manner of return would placate one grieving not just the loss of a loved son but impeding defeat?
There was naught to come back to. No matter what his friend had said, he was not needed. And the one who was needed was not coming back. All that loomed ahead was darkness, inescapable darkness, drawing everything in its fold. They would fight, but to what avail?
The air had hung heavy with listless hopelessness, whether his own or that caused by the darkness soon to engulf them he had not known. He had simply fought on, as one with nothing to look forward to, as one with nothing to live for. He had heeded not the advice given to him. In his own mind, he was there to acquit himself of sins he himself was not sure of. But sins there must be, his weary mind had told him. Sins committed long before unknowingly, sins committed recently, knowingly, and worst of all the sin of dreaming a dream that brought nothing but sorrow in its wake.
What manner of return could he strive for, for the one who mattered to gaze at him with love and pride? Finding no answer to that, he had settled for the only option that he had felt was left for him - the ultimate honour in a battlefield. And so he had fought, and led what men he could, to defend; if not for himself, for those that had stayed behind. A command that he would fulfil, no matter the consequences, because he was asked to. He was commanded to.
It was folly, a known folly. But he had accepted it to show that he could take the place of his brother, that he could emulate him. Emulate him in more ways than one, for he did not see himself returning, not alive. Or perhaps not, because he did not see himself wanting to return, and his brother would never have fallen prey to such a vile notion.
He had left without promise of a welcome for his return. There was no doubt in his heart over whether he was loved or not. He had convinced himself that he was not. He had suppressed the slight feeling deep inside that told him that his return would be welcomed, by telling himself to forget such a notion. It was nothing but a dream and dreams would take him nowhere. They had served to bring nothing but loss and unhappiness. He would not let another dream give him a false hope.
This was his reality then and there. He would carry on the pretence of a fight, but in his heart he had given up.
He had stayed his ground as he was commanded to, holding onto the tragic remains of a city long abandoned, stayed when it had fallen for they had but little strength left to hold it, stayed when defence turned to retreat, sending back what men he could, for there was still a living city to hold to. He had stayed with the rearguard, for while he might have given in to the admission that he no longer cared to return, he could not let others do so. He had stayed with the depleted rearguard so as to prevent a rout. But rout it did become, and when the limited succour of added forces did arrive, he had slipped into the realm he desired to enter.
But the peace he yearned for refused to come and he was left standing at a threshold awaiting his fate, a confused state where he thought he had heard what he wanted to hear but found he could not acknowledge it. He remained there until he was pulled back, back into that same hopeless vortex of life and living. For a brief moment he had felt there might be something to return to, and that the one they had waited for had returned. But the darkness still remained, and fight it they had to - without him.
Without him because he had selfishly succumbed to his feelings; left to await an outcome seemingly hopeless yet again, but without the option of acquitting himself in battle. It was while he had wondered with bitterness as to why he had been awoken if it was only to face all over again the same desolation, that he had seen her, and the cloud had lifted. She had turned his eyes away from the darkness towards hope; given him a dream for a future, albeit a tenuous one, and then rejoiced him by acquiescing to share that dream. The sun had entered their lives.
That was all that made the difference between now and then. That was all that left in the air the sights, smells and sounds of war, without the despair. No matter what he did, he had nothing to atone for. His was to defend and to fight, and that was all. His was not to prove, to yearn and to look for the unattainable. He had all he hoped for. All that was attainable, he had attained.
So that he no longer rode to battle as he had that fateful day, grieving for the mood of one left behind so much that to never return felt a better alternative to return to one of such mind. All his years he had strived to please him, to give him joy, to give him pride in his existence; one who cared for his return but did not know it till too late and whose grief in the manner of his return had gone unseen by him while he awaited a release, whose love for him had never seen a vocal admission. Its existence he could believe in only by the account of others. And he chose to believe in it now, because deep in his heart he knew it to be true. His father had loved him.
He now rode knowing that there waited someone who cared. He knew and that was all that he needed. To know - that was all the difference between this time and the last; that there had been one to bid him to return, no matter what.
When he had left he had not had to rely on consolatory words. He had her love.
She wore the mantle he had given her, and the stars upon it had shone as the pale fingers of dawn made their way over the horizon, lighting up a line of silver, edging the blue material. It was symbolic, he thought later, for to him she had been the silver lining in the dark cloud he had seen ahead of him.
He knew this time was different because now he had one he wanted to return to. There were no words of farewell; merely a glance, and a touch, and those in themselves conveyed more than a thousand words could have. The stars edging the hem of the blue mantle shimmered as one slender hand rose and quietly covered his, grasping it slightly, her eyes grey as the sea, bright with varied emotions. He had looked back at her face, long and deep for he had thought that if unlike the last time, this time he might not be so fortunate, he would at least have her face imprinted in front of his eyes always.
He watched the few remaining stars left in the sky and he knew she could see those same stars from her window, as she stood awake. He knew she would be awake. Stars like those in the mantle she wore to ward off the chilly air. And he thought of the love that would reflect off her eyes, when the light from those stars shone down on them.
He would fight all day, long and hard, cutting and hewing his way through, leading his men, for the honour of the king who had returned, for the land he loved, his mind focused on the job at hand, but one little corner would keep for him the image of one who looked for his return. This time there was no despair in his heart to match that brought about by the very presence of his enemy.
He had conquered the despair. He would conquer the enemy. And then he would return home.
This time there was no doubt. He would return, because she wanted him to, because he had a duty to uphold and she made him want to uphold it, and because she made him want to live. For her, and for himself. For them.
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