flASH fiction: Volume 5: Guilt and Punishment (2)

Guilt and Punishment
By
Jason Pere

Aaron Luckworth had not slept soundly after the battle. Since his time in the crusades to push back the dragoon, he had known precious few peaceful nights. This last conflict had stuck with him more so than the others he had seen. This sight of a slain dragon laying on the field was not an easy image to forget. The lifeless great scaled thing that had one been Stef’han of Black would remain seared into Arron’s memories for the rest of his life. The weight of years wiping the dragoon from the face of the Aeros continent was taking a heavy tax on the Rayward captain’s fortitude. His shoulders sagged more and more each day. Whether it was due to the physical fatigue that was weighing on him or the burden of a guilty conscience, it was no easy to tell but it was plain to see that the man was suffering.

As if his restless night and newly won assortment of cuts and brises were not sufficient punishment enough, Arron found himself engaging in another form of penance that he had adopted during his time in service. The captain had made his way to the medical tent before the suns had risen in the sky. It was his custom to walk the rows of bloody cots and sprawls of white linens covering men and women who would fight no more. While other solders of the regiment would drown their guilt in spirits, Arron would wash himself in the blood of fallen brethren. When other Rayward warriors would celebrate a victory in song and verse, the captain would listen to the grim symphony created by the screams of the maimed and dying. Seeing the full picture of what the crusades cost the people he marched with served Arron in two ways. First, he was never allowed to forget the price in human lives torn asunder that the crusades carried with them. Second, seeing the terrible wounds that his fellows sustained in the lengthy war against the children of dragons always reminded Arron, to feel grateful for his good fortune and ability to escape a similarly grim fate.

He had made this walk enough times before that, Arron had developed a second sense for the feel of death. He felt its familiar grasp tightening his throat and pulling at his lungs. He ceased his morally masochistic trek through the rows of sobbing wounded and turned to his right. He saw a young man, wearing a bowman’s cowl laying on the cot at his side. The man was closer to boyhood than maturity but the war had seemingly accelerated his ageing with extra lines marking his face, like so many of the other of the Rayward veteran soldiers. The bowman had soaked through the white canvas of the cot underneath him with a front to back wound that had pierced his abdomen. His was perfectly still and his eyes were open but had lost the sparkle of life. Arron went to the boy, slowly and calmly as the healers and apothecaries scurried about the massive tent in a flurry. Arron found himself in the eye of the storm swirling around him and after one simple breath that was held just a beat longer than needed, in order to pay respect to a fallen warrior, he pulled the long linen at the foot of the cot over the bowman’s body.

“Wait awhile and maybe you will do the same for me,” came a weakened voice from Arron’s back.

The captain turned at the sound and found his mouth lost in conflict. He wanted to smile as he recognized and old friend but he also wanted to frown as he understood the circumstances for their meeting. “What are you on about sergeant? You look fit for duty as ever. Did they run out of bunks for the enlisted men and you needed a place to lay down?” he said kindly as he moved to the side of the cot where Sergeant Waldor Longiron was stretched out. He noted that the man was apparently unhurt and apart from the generous amounts of mud caking his uniform, he was without any traces of blood on his person.

“Would that I could walk to my own bunk, I would. I will not leave this tent on my own power. The healers have been. No magic or medicine will help. There is nothing for it,” said Waldor with a stoic acceptance in his words. He glared at his motionless legs like they offended him with their very presence.

“How is that? Did the dragoon get a piece of you on the field?” asked Arron with a curios tilt of his head. He grabbed a half filled water cup that had been left just out of reach of the wounded sergeant and offered up a sip to the other man.

“Ha, I wish it had been the scaled ones that ended me. I would at least be able to die with some honor,” Waldor laughed before he took a grateful drink from the water cup. “An archery volley landed the cavalry unit behind my spearmen. The mounted officers got unsettled and then so did their horses. I got run over by one of our own stallions. Broke my back like a twig, so it did,” laughed the sergeant morbidly.

“I am so sorry. You will live though,” Arron said trying to sound hopeful but failing with both his pitch and expression.

“To my shame I will,” started Waldor indignantly. “I will never walk again and what time I have left will be spent wallowing in my own filth waiting for someone to come and help me after I have soiled myself. Excuse me if years of that do not appeal to me.”

“It can not be that bad. Rayward takes care of those who serve,” Arron said with hollow courage rattling about in his speech.

“You know what the worst thing is for me? I could live as a cripple but the way you are looking at me know, that kind of pity. It makes me sick,” Waldor said with a bite of his lips and through a tightly clenched jaw.

“What can I do?” asked the captain.

“I may live out my days in a fine bed and never have an empty belly but who will look after my wife. No duties are paid if she is not a widow. I have to lay here knowing she is starving. I can not, I will not do that,” said the sergeant with a bitter fire scorching in his voice. His anger cooled and he adopted a more composed and somber manor. “You can do something for me. I hear that our officers are given something to send them off quickly in the event they are captured.”

“No my friend…” started Arron with a mix a grief and shock but he was silenced when Waldor forcefully grabbed him by the wrist and pulled him to look directly eye to eye.

“I will be a burden to no one. I will not live like that. I gave more than half of my life to this army. Let me die in her service like I was supposed to,’ Waldor said with deafening Rayward pride and nobility in his voice

Arron held the moment for a few heartbeats, trying to resist the inexorable pull of what he knew had to happen. “It is called Kendra’s Mercy. It works fast and painless so I am told,” he said as he pulled a small vial out from inside of his cloak. “They say that…” he started but never finished as Waldor grabbed the small container of light red liquid from his hand and drank it dry in one fast gulp.

“Bless you my friend. Bless you. You better live to see the end of this war. Some good me need to survive it,” said Waldor as he looked at the empty glass container in his hands.

The two soldiers said no more. Arron only waited and counted the breaths of his friend as the time passed. As was promise by the red cordial, Waldor’s breathing slowed and his eyes closed shortly after imbibing the poison. Not long after that, the crippled sergeant’s breast ceased to rise and fall all together. Arron stood and offered the man one final salute with a gauntleted fist rapped on his breastplate. The captain then took the empty vial of Kendra’s Mercy form Waldor’s corpse and covered the dead man with the linens at the foot of his cot. Arron Luckworth turned and left the medical tent as fast as his feet would carry him He had punished himself enough for the day.