Zit road through and out of hamlet on a broken down, tired horse. A horse the people saw, knew, and couldn’t believe had returned. They knew not the young man who sat stride the familiar beast, carrying an even familiar sword. Tethered behind the horse was an unfamiliar nag but they knew the armor slung among the heavy burden bowing the nag’s back. Dented. Scuffed. Rusted.
Yet the hamlet remained oddly silent as Zit rolled through. No welcome. The people stared. Eyes young and old, as beaten down as Zit felt. They knew war. And shrank away from the soldier but curiously kept watch, knowing Zit’s baggage.
He recalled the hill a short ride out of the hamlet, familiar only from fireside tales. Tales reminisced by an aged man who’d still had a sparkle in his eye for adventure but whose weathered face carried the heavy burden of the battles fought instead. Zit longed for the old man’s stories. For his hope. Wisdom. His companionship. But alas… no more.
Coming back here, riding into those tales, was the least Zit could do for Bruce.
I wish it were you, Bruce, riding back home on Clopper instead of me, Zit mused.
He patted the neck of the horse, its head bowed, mane as brittle as straw.
“Just a bit further, girl,” Zit promised the horse. He coughed into a fist, a rattle deep in his chest.
The beast’s ear twitched in silent comprehension. It looked up. Head turning. Mane falling over its eyes. Snorting at the air in faint recognition and the silent steadiness of knowing it had come home.
Zit, his borrowed horse, and the nag trudged up the hill with the hamlet retreating behind. The walls stone from the nearby quarry, nearest the quiet river. Roofs covered with thatch. The sole road muddy from the recent rain Zit had to sleep out in the night before, from which he attributed his oncoming coughing fit. Residents went about their business. Children played. Local dogs barked and chased little heels. Some of the elders tore themselves from chores left better for younger backs and watched as Zit crested the hill.
Jagged stone markers topped the hill like broken teeth. A weathered tree little more than sticks, barely good for fire wood, stood as a poor sentinel.
Weary from a week on the road, Zit dismounted the equally exhausted horse and guided the beast to the widow tree to secure the reins around a branch.
Again the horse got a brushing from Zit’s hand and the beast leaned into the downcast soldier who’d found his way to the hill but still felt lost.
Zit wandered amongst the markers, the silent residents of the hamlet paid him little more attention the living.
After a time, when he thought about simply falling to his knees and digging in an open plot, Zit found the marker he sought.
A angel with wing’s spread, hands together in prayer, eyes cast away from the fallen sword at her feet, topped the marker. Bruce had described it well. Chiseled in the marker was a single name.
Zit unsheathed the sword across his back and leaned it against the marker.
Hand over his mouth Zit allowed a blast of coughing to erupt, to bend him over. He wiped his nose and sniffed before falling to his knees to the right of the angelic marker and the sword she refused to acknowledge.
He began to dig.
He dug until his hands bled. Until his hands shook. His coughing came in a destructive wave that stabbed spikes of pain into his chest.
Zit had arrived at the hill before noon. When he’d dug deep enough the sky had darkened to a bruise.
Rising to his feet Zit brushed his hands on his pants, the knees caked with damp soil. He tore a piece of cloth from his cloak and wrapped his hands in cloth not much cleaner than the earthen hole he strode away from.
He returned with the bundle the nag had carried from the battlefield at Cairen Mooreheart.
Reverently he placed the bundle at the bottom of the freshly dug grave.
At the grave’s foot, Zit hunkered down on the balls of his feet. He scooped up a handful of soil, weighed it in his grip absently as he cast a vigil down upon the body wrapped faded brown cloth.
“You’re with her again, ol’ friend,” Zits told the wrapped corpse. He brought a fist up to his mouth to stifle another cough but emotion choked his words instead. “Rest with her and find the peace you fought so hard for and traded much for in return.”
Zit closed his eyes softly, felt his chest shake but not from the coughing, and after a moment drew in and exhaled a long breath.
Then he pushed the excavated dirt over the bundled corpse, filling the grave, patting down the mound.
Zit stood and took the sword he’d leaned against the marker, hefted it with effort and a grunt, the point down, and slammed the weapon’s steal into the earth, at the head of the grave and next to the angel marker. He made sure the weapon was secure but with no illusions about the sword staying sheathed at its master’s side for long.
Someone else will hear Bruce’s stories. Some other stupid boy with eyes set to adventure and on brave deeds.
A wry smile creased Zit’s face as he walked on back to the tethered horse and nag.
He walked the two beasts back down the hill and toward hamlet.
Three children had ceased their playing and wandered to the edge of the hamlet to witness Zit.
He spoke to the lone boy in the ground. “Can your parents find use for a retired soldier? Not afraid of some work. If the work is honest.”
The boy looked around to his playmates, unsure if the soldier was speaking to him. “Guess pa can use a hand. He never turned away an empty hand before if it want to hold a tool. So he says.”
Zit nodded and handed over the horse’s reins to the boy, stroking the beast’s neck one final time.
“Take care her. She’s seen much and never looked away. Deserves a good retirement.”
The boy seemed nonplussed, saying nothing as Zit turned and led the nag away from the hamlet with a set of inherited armor and his own sword slung at his hip.