Soldiers Know Nothing of Love
She was eleven when he first entered her life. Like refuse blown in by the storm, he drifted into town, all ragged clothing and beaten-down shoulders. But there was still pride in him, whatever difficult paths he had walked. When he moved just right, armor gleamed beneath the torn rags.
A gladius swung at his hip, and his eyes had the haunted look of one who still wanted something from life, who had not slept in days, who had not seen peace in weeks, but who still felt desire. He was thirty, if he was a day, and he moved like an old man. Perhaps it was in the slump of his shoulders, the drag of his toes. But still, those eyes kept him young.
His hair was long, tied in braids, as was the style among Legionaires of that time. His face was all rugged angles, seeming to be carved of stone. He was thin, underfed no doubt, but every part of him that remained was muscle. And there was strength in that gaunt frame.
She had seen warriors before. They drifted into town often enough, and many were in a similar condition as this man, perhaps coming back from the front, perhaps still looking for work. Some were adventurers, men who did not work for money, but instead roamed the wilderness in search of monsters, whose treasures would then feed them.
She had never been much interested in them before. Her mother told her time and again, men like that were nothing but trouble. If you ever gave your heart to one, they would come to make you regret it. Men like that... They knew nothing of love, or how to return it. Their training was in death, not life.
But it was too late for her now, and she knew it. When her eyes first came to rest on him, it was done. Those eyes had captured her. She sat, soundlessly staring as he ambled past where she had been playing. He seemed to sense her look, and his eyes swiveled to meet hers.
He nodded a greeting, and continued without stopping. She was too lost to respond, and then he was gone. But she was not afraid. She would see him again.
The days passed, and she began to worry. She waited by the side of the road, but he did not come by again. She knew where he had been going that first day. He was headed to Stone Toga Inn.
It was where all the warriors went, when they came to this small town. But could he have stayed there this long? She thought he would be coming back her way, headed east again. Could this man have continued west? What was there to find west? the ocean, the lighthouse isle? The best work for soldiers was in the East at the front.
She wanted to go to the Inn, find him herself. But her mother did not let her wander that far into town. "Leave wandering the streets to urchins," she would say. "You have a home, and a family." The girl looked eagerly toward where she knew the Inn to be.
It was on an afternoon, when she came out to the side of the road, as she had on every other day for the last week, that she saw him. She had not been inside for more than half of an hour at the most, but when she came back, he had not only come by again, but was settled down beneath a towering oak, taking his rest in its shade.
She knew she had all the signs of a girl in love. Her mother had told her often enough; a quickening of the heart, shakiness, an inability to concentrate her thoughts. She had all of that as she walked out to the side of the road, to the oak tree he sat beneath. She walked to within a few feet of him, and stood, trying to remember what it was she had planned to say when she was there.
She could not gather her thoughts, and knew she must seem foolish, just standing there, when he turned those impossible eyes upon her again.
"You're a soldier," she blurted. It was a stupid thing to say, but it was the best she could come up with. He nodded slowly. His eyes seemed to swallow hers, and she did not think she would ever get them back. "Aye," he said. He had a funny accent, sort of a heavy slant to the word. She thought she liked it.
"A warrior, at any rate." The silence stretched between them, and he gestured to the earth next to him. "Sit, girl. The day is too warm for standing around in it."
She did, still struggling for something to say. "A warrior is a soldier," she finally offered. The man looked at her curiously, did not speak at first. "What is your name, girl?"
"Natalie," she said. "People who know me call me Nat." "And what should I call you?" He asked patiently. "Nat," she said, a grin tugging at the corners of her mouth.
He nodded judiciously. "Well, Nat. I hate to say it, but I disagree with you. This sword names me a warrior, but I am no soldier." He seemed about to say more, but bit his lip. Uncertainty flashed through his eyes, and she thought it looked terribly out of place there. It made her want to cry, just seeing it in those eyes, even for a moment.
"Why aren't you a soldier?" She asked.
He shook his head. "I don't know. I tried to be, Nat. God knows I tried." He saw her confusion, and decided she deserved more, just for the asking. "A soldier is someone who fights, a man of courage and conviction. He is given orders, and he obeys them. He serves his lord, his country, or his cause, and is willing to give his life for it.
I thought once I could be a soldier, but I was wrong."
She wanted him to keep talking. "What happened?" She asked.
"I broke," he said it so quietly, so solemnly, she almost missed it. "When it came time to prove my courage, I broke. I held my position as long as I dared, but when they started to overrun us, I knew I would die. So I ran."
He fell silent, and she did not know how to comfort him, so she did not speak. She was not sure how much time passed, before she finally spoke. "I think you have courage."
He actually smiled at that. His face did not seem accustomed to it, and strange lines appeared as his lips curled, but the smile was genuine. Even the impossible eyes reflected it. "I'm afraid I face a harsher judge than you, Nat. I wish my judge were so kind."
"Everyone forgives," she said, and wondered why she had said it. She was no longer sure what they were talking about now.
"Not everyone," he shook his head sadly. "Not soldiers. When you risk your life for others, you expect the same of those who stand beside you. If another fails you, they leave you exposed to die. There is a price for everything, Nat.
I've stayed here a week now, arguing with myself, wondering if it was too great price to pay. Is it worth peace for my soul, to seek forgiveness?"
She saw the pain in him, and it broke her heart. Without thinking, she reached over and hugged him. He seemed surprised at first, but then returned it gently, uncertainly. He did not seem sure how to react to such an unexpected thing. Her mother was right -- soldiers did not understand love.
They did not know what it was. But she did. And she saw what she had to do for him now. "Go back," she said. "You have to..."
"...Or I'll always wonder at myself," he finished the thought. "How can I go on, wondering if I am a coward. Wondering if I killed someone with my fear." He sighed heavily. "I started out today, with every intention of returning. I got this far, and my courage failed me.
Thank you, Nat. You've helped me gain my courage back again. If a girl as young as you can have courage, then so can I."
He climbed heavily to his feet, the weight of the world seeming to bear down on him. He reached beneath his tattered shirt, fumbling beneath the armor for something. His hand found it, and he lifted a necklace over his head. He pulled her hand open, and placed it inside.
It was a small trinket, made of beaten copper, hammered into the shape of two swords crossed over a shield. He did not say anything, he didn't have to. It was all he had, and she knew it.
He had given her his most prized possession, the only thing he really had to call his own, beyond the armor he wore, and the sword he carried. There were no words that could make the gift more special, and they both knew it. Perhaps, Nat thought, this soldier knew a lot more about love than she had guessed.
He left, then, walking down the road with that same shuffling gait, his shoulders slumped and his feet dragging behind him. He never slowed, and he never turned his head. He was far away before she realized, she had never learned his name. He was soon out of sight. She put the necklace over her head, the beaten copper symbol resting on her chest. It was all she had to remember him by. He would not be coming this way again.
In the days that followed, she asked her mother again and again, what it was that happened to a soldier who ran in battle. Nat had not told her mother about the man, lying and telling her that she had found the necklace beside the road. If her mother suspected the truth, she never said. Time and again, her mother waved off the question, refusing to answer it.
"You don't want to know about things like that," she would say. But with time, her mother realized Nat would not let this question drop, and finally answered.
"They kill him, Nat. It's considered treason, and they kill him. Now come on, you don't want to think about such awful things."
For the rest of her life, Nat wore that necklace. The man had spoken of not having courage, but she knew he had had more than she ever would.