flASH fiction: Volume 3: Small Reprieve(29)

Small Reprieve
By
Jason Pere

Physical comforts were precious few to come by in Frsotdale. Among the rarest comedies in the wintery land was warmth. This was precisely the reason that Rin took every moment possible to savor the hot bath and shelter that the barracks walls had to offer. His patrol had spent such a great measure of time traversing the wilds of the frozen steppes that the boy had lost count of the days since he had seen anything resembling civilization. The Amurai under his command had pushed themselves to the breaking point and in some cases beyond. While a soldier’s pride prevented many of the men and women on the patrol from approving of the withdrawal from their long walk in the chimera’s realm, each one of the Amurai silently held a measure of rejoice when order for resupply had been issued.

The magnificently soothing water cradled Rin and helped ease his aching joints. The bath loosened up his wrists and knuckles most of all. It was by the graces of the water alone that Rin was able to make a fist once more without instigating a round of popping and cracking from the bones in his hands. The water helped to wash away days upon days of grueling marching and deadly combat. While the few wounds that Rin sustained on the tour beyond the seal wall were practically healed, the sensation of claiming water lapping at his cuts and bruises was most welcome.

Rin had missed the evening meal due to his soak. While his belly craved something more than the meager rations he survived on during the march, not even the finest gourmet banquet, let alone the pedestrian fair served in the barracks mess hall could have enticed him to leave the pleasantness of the water,. The delightful bath offered Rin a means of escape. The water washed away most everything that Rin had accumulated on the long frozen trek into the wilds. All his physical discomfort was banished with a simple bucket of water and copper wash tub. While Rin was a creature of great magical aptitude, the transformative spell that the mundane objects worked upon him did not fail to amuse the boy. A long quiet soak had restored his body to full from and he felt physically able to charge head long into the fray once more.

For all it’s curative properties the hot bath could not mend one thing that ailed Rin. Unfortunately Rin would have gladly suffered the weight of cuts, bruises, broken bones and aching joints if it meant being free of this one affliction. The boy’s spirit was in turmoil and no amount of hot water could wash away the black stain Rin felt marking him inside. The merciful relaxation offered by the bath had put Rin’s body nearly to sleep, consequently while his physical being was rejuvenated by the waters his mind was thrust into a near nightmare whenever his consciousness began to flicker.

Rin’s head snapped back up from the lip of the tub as sleep threatened to claim him once again. It only took the briefest of moments lost to the dream world before Rin was pushed back to reality by the guilt that waited for him in his night time theater. All the boy could see when he closed his eyes was the last battle his patrol engaged in before returning to the barracks. He relived his inability to act in the face of a human enemy over and over. He felt the humiliation of his own failure coupled with the stabbing accusations of his advisor and punctuated with the sadly serene face of the Amurai who had given her life to save his own all blend into a relentless intangible misery.

The Amurai commander shook his head and dumped a few rouge droplets of bathwater from inside of his ears. He hoped that the jarring physical sensation would be enough to pull his mind from the doomed track that it was currently fixated on. A few soft blows to the side of his head was not enough to make him forget his failure beyond the wall but it at least gave him another stimulus to dilute the shame that filled him. Rin let himself slip further down into the tub as the chilling winds that slipped through the cracks in the walls left stinging trails across his bare chest. The boy was able to take some refuge in the water and at least offer his body the kind of comfort he desperately longed for in his troubled mind.

After some mental and emotional sorting Rin was at least partially able to move on form the guilt he felt for Cassidy’s death under his command. He still rued that battle that had claimed her life but no longer for her death itself. Now Rin’s ire was focused on the fact that the bitter engagement had been the last conflict that his patrol had had with the chimera before returning to the barracks. He imagined that the sting of defeat and sour taste of guilt might have been lessened if his fighting force had received the opportunity to meet the horrid beasts at least once more before going back to Frostdale proper. A chance at atonement would have done wonders for Rin’s fractured spirit. Instead the boy had been subjected to a combat tour that was bookended with a crushing loss. He was frustrated that his redemption was to be delayed. All he wanted to do was make amends to the men and women that he had let down with his fear.

As Rin felt the warm water work it simple magic on his tense muscles he let his mind go to thoughts of Errow Cutwick. The boy knew that he and Errow were at odds from the moment he met. He could stand the disdain of someone disliking him because of their own prejudices but now that Rin had given some credibility to Errow’s disapproval it bore a whole new degree of frustration. The rift Rin felt between his personal guard and himself was much akin a deeply burrowed splinter, not threatening or debilitating but unduly irritating. Now the splinter had grown infected and begun to fester where it could not be excised without considerable effort. Rin hated having someone else harbor justifiable animosity towards him, especially one who was supposed to be in a subservient role.

Rin’s inner conflict kept him from drifting off to sleep for a long while. The water of the bath turned from hot to lukewarm and thereafter cool threatening to become cold. A knock at the sturdy chamber door pulled Rin back out of his brooding. He modestly sank down in the tub until his chin was barely above the surface of the souring water. “Who is there?” asked the boy.

“Errow Cutwick, sir,” came the eternally dour sound of the man’s voice form behind the planks of wood.

Rin grabbed a nearby linen and kept it close at hand while he shifted in the tub to ensure that he was not exposing anything embarrassing. Once he was sure that he was safe from wandering eye’s he cleared his throat and responded. “You may enter,” said Rin while forcing his voice to sound confident and in control.

Errow stepped into the commander’s room and upon seeing the boy in the tub immediately adopted a ridged posture that angled away from Rin. He spoke to the boy like he was laying on a bed of spikes and only glanced at him from the corner of his eye. “Apologies for the interruption but reports are in. Two patrols were lost to ambush tonight,” Errow stated grimly.

“Any survivors?” Rin asked feeling like he already knew the answer.

“No sir, wiped out to a man,” Errow said with a sublet bit in his voice.

Rin could sense the latent aggression Errow felt fom him emanating form the man as he stood there like a pillar of stone. Rin could not help but feel some admiration for the Amurai warrior as he was clearly setting aside his personal feelings about the rift between them for the sake of duty. “Is our patrol’s resupply finished?” Rin asked with a narrowing of his eyes as thoughts began to form.

“Yes sir. Provisions were secured and new recruits were assigned just after evening meal. Your patrol is fully restored,” Errow responded with an uncertain tentative measure. His head threatened to look at Rin directly but the man held fast.

“Spread the word to the rest, our patrol will depart in the morning to replace those who were lost tonight,” Rin said purposefully. He leaned back in the tub as he felt a growing confidence with his decision.

“Sir, we may be have new blood and fresh supplies but the warriors who have marched under your command are still worn form the last trek beyond the wall. Many have wounds than have yet to mend,” Errow stated. His tone was not one of protest but rather matter of fact.

“I know we were scheduled for at least a fortnight of recuperation. Things have changed and we are needed. Any who are too poorly to match may remain here. Request additional volunteers form any able bodied fighting men in the barracks,” Rin said firmly.

“Understood,” Errow responded with the hint of something that might have passed for admiration in his voice.

“You may go,” Rin said with a deep exhale.

Errow nodded and left the commander’s room without a sound.

The boy felt the coldness of the water cutting at him but he did not care. The chance to secure redemption for his previous folly had been thrust upon him and he would not miss the opportunity. Rin let himself slip below the surface of the chilly water and found his thoughts turning to oaths of amends to those he had failed and promises of death for the chimera and all who stood with them, even men of mortal flesh and blood.