Final Road Home
By: Tanner Childs
A heavy rain drop splattered across Desmon’s face, jolting him awake. The harsh shriek of a crow split the air as it fluttered in and landed on the ground. Thick smoke clung to the land, swirling in the mists that had been brought in by the storm. The rancid smell of death hung heavy in the air, leaving Desmon coughing for breath.
He tried to pull himself up, but a sharp pain shot through his side. He fell back down, gasping for breath as he struggled with the straps of his armor. The metal was bent against his skin, the cold iron cutting into his flesh. His chest felt constricted, as if a great weight was bearing down on it. He loosened the straps and slipped free of the metal prison. He rolled to his knees and immediately fell back to the ground screaming. Countless bloody corpses lay about him, their limbs severed and their bodies broken. Blood mixed with the rain and dirt to form a thick, gritty mud that clung to everything.
Desmon’s heart hammered within his chest. He looked about, allowing his memory to slowly trickle back. The bodies that lay strewn about the hillside were his men, his soldiers. Birds of prey and small rodents had already begun to feast upon the carnage, diving into the flesh to feed their shrunken bellies. There had been a battle, a war. The skeletons of war machines smoldered several hundred yards away, providing the thick smoke that choked the lungs and obscured the vision. The bodies of horses clad in thick armor lay among that of the men, all fallen in the bloodshed, all lost to death. Nothing moved except the birds.
Desmon reached up and pulled the helmet from his head, casting it among the bodies. He forced himself into a sitting position and looked about the hill. He suddenly lurched to one side and was violently sick. It was not the carnage that made him so, he had seen battles before and knew of their horrors, but something different. It simply felt as if everything within him had a desperate need to escape. He vomited until his stomach was empty and he was left breathless and exhausted. A raven landed on a corpse nearby and began to peck at the sightless eye.
“Hey, hey!” Desmon shouted. He threw a fist at the bird, falling over on his side in his attempt. The raven gave an agitated shriek and fled from the attacker.
“Get out of here!” Desmon cried.
He fell silent, listening to his voice echo about the desolate hillside. Words sounded unnatural in this place. The dead never spoke, and words spoken were like ghosts among the living, foreign and unwelcome.
Desmon pushed himself to his feet and tried to clear his head. His sword, where was his sword? He never went anywhere without his sword!
He cast about the bodies, but knew it was hopeless. To find a single blade in the sea of discarded weapons and bloodied bodies was impossible. That’s if it hadn’t been taken. Desmon ran one scarred hand through his eye and tried to clear his vision. What about Jacob? Where was Jacob?
“Jacob?” Desmon screamed. “Jacob?!” But the only response was his echo.
“Maybe he got away alive,” Desmon said to himself. But he didn’t believe the words. He couldn’t, not with so much death around him.
He searched through the bodies about him but he found nothing. Each soldier he recognized as serving under him, but he knew none of them by name.
What had happened? The last thing he could remember was leading a charge to destroy the enemy’s siege equipment. The front line of the enemy had been at the top of the hill, waiting for them, so why was he near the hill’s base? Had they been flanked? Was it all just a trap? It had to be. There was no other explanation.
Desmon shook his head, clearing his thoughts. He had to get away from the battlefield, from the death. He rummaged through the bodies until he found a descent sword and scabbard. He stripped the last of his armor off and strapped the sword to his waist. He took one last glance at the fallen soldiers. Men from both sides, each serving their country bravely, lay strewn across the ground like broke toys discarded by a child. Now they were destined to rot in the sun after being picked clean by the scavengers. They deserved better, even those Desmon had fought against. But there was nothing he could do for them, and he set out quickly to get away from their bereavement.
At first Desmon felt unsteady on his feet. He tripped and fell to the ground several times, but with each step away from the battlefield his head became clearer. Within a short time he was striding across the grass of the prairie headed back towards Gale, his hometown. He moved through the flattened grass, the rain beating down upon his head. Lighting forked across the sky behind him as he marched. It was as if the heavens were weeping for what had taken place while screaming out their rage in the thunder.
Desmon came to a stumbling halt and leaned against a solitary tree that stood defiant against the endless grass. He slumped down to the ground, gasping for breath. His heart pounded in his chest and a deep ache spread through his body. He leaned against the tree as the clouds raced overhead, casting everything in a grey light. Desmon’s eyes fluttered. Exhaustion overcame him. His head lulled to one side and he slipped into unconsciousness.
“I still don’t think it’s fair. You have already served the emperor longer than any of his generals. Why should you have to go back?”
“Because it is my duty Synthia,” Desmon said. He pulled on his leather gloves before leaning over and planting a kiss on his wife’s cheek. “The invaders are advancing faster than expected, and everyone is being call to duty.”
“But he retired you,” Synthia argued. “I just… I just don’t want to loss you again.”
“And you won’t,” Desmon whispered. He took his wife and pulled her close. It tore him apart every time he was forced to leave home to perform his duties, but what choice did he have?
“Death itself could not keep me from coming home to you.”
Synthia laughed coldly and pulled away from her husband. “That may be so, but I still don’t like it.”
Desmon turned just in time to catch his daughter as she threw herself into his arms. “Hey, Terisa. What is my big girl up to?”
“Hugging you,” the little girl giggled as she squirmed in Desmon’s arms.
“See, how can you leave this?” Synthia asked. Her voice was tense and her face strained.
“Don’t do this to me,” Desmon growled, turning Terisa away from her arguing parents. “You think this is easy for me? You think I enjoy leaving?”
“Then don’t,” Synthia begged.
There was a light knock at the door. Desmon set Terisa down and moved past his wife. He threw the door open to find a tall man with sharp features and a strong jaw mulling about on the front step. He gave Desmon a weak smile and nodded.
“Evening Desmon,” he said.
“Evening Jacob,” Desmon replied. “How are things?”
“As best as they can be at the moment.” Jacob sighed. He looked past his friend and nodded. “Evening Synthia.”
“Jacob,” Synthia sniffed between her tears.
Jacob nodded uncomfortable and turned back to Desmon. “You ready to go?”
“Almost.” Desmon said. He turned back to his family and knelt down to Terisa. The little girl giggled as he tickled her under the chin. “Alright Terisa, I need you to take care of mommy while I’m away. Can you do that?”
The little girl looked up at her mother with a smile and nodded. “Yes!”
“That’s my girl.” Desmon chuckled and ruffled Terisa’s hair. He pushed himself up and looked at his wife. Tears were welling up in the corner his eyes and he struggled to control them. He tried to speak, but she threw herself in his arms and held him tight, pressing her face into his shoulder.
“No matter what happens, come home to me,” she whispered.
“I will,” he gasped.
“I’ll wait for you. Every day I’ll watch out the window until you return. Promise me you will come home safe.”
“I promise.” Desmon pulled away and smiled at his wife. He wiped a tear from his eye and turned towards the door.
“Desmon.” He turned back as his wife held out his sword and scabbard. “Don’t forget your sword. Can’t defend your country well without it.” Synthia reached around her husband and strapped his sword on, giving him one last kiss as she did.
Jacob gave a slight cough, separating the couple from their embrace. Synthia put a hand to her lips and stifled a sob.
“Now, you make sure he comes home safe Jacob, you hear?” she said from behind her fingers.
“Aye miss, I’ll be sure he makes it home in one piece.”
“Thank you,” Synthia sighed, wiping away her tears.
Jacob gave a slight nod. “Come on Desmon, the men are waiting.”
“Alright,” Desmon sighed. He ducked out the door and blew one last kiss to his wife. “I’ll be back before the first snow falls.”
“Make sure you are,” Synthia called out as she hugged Terisa close.
Desmon took a deep breath and followed Jacob down the small dirt lane towards a group of fifty cavalry. “I need you to promise me something Jacob.”
“Oh, what’s that?” Jacob asked.
“I need you to promise me that if I don’t make it through this, that you’ll take care of Synthia and Terisa for me.”
Jocab ran a hand through his hair. “Desmon I…”
“No, no arguments this time. Just promise me.”
Jacob closed his eyes and swallowed against the lump in his throat. “Alright, I promise. But don’t think for one second that I’m going to let you die in this war. We’ve been through too much for me to let that happen.”
“Maybe,” Desmon said as they reached the end of the lane. They mounted two large stallions and kicked their horses into a trot. “I just don’t want to leave anything to chance.”
Desmon jolted awake as a crow cawed close by. He sat up and gripped the hilt of his sword, his chest heaving. The memory of leaving his family burned through him like fire. It had torn his heart out to leave them, but what choice had he had?
He blinked, trying to clear his vision. Mist swam before his eyes, shrouding the world from sight. Desmon rolled to his feet and took a step forward. The tree fell away behind him and the mist lifted in a flash of light.
“What?” Desmon whispered. He stepped out into the open plains, staring at the small cottage that stood before him.
“I don’t believe it. I’m home.” He rushed through the grass towards the small house, his sword slipping from his waist. A light snow began to fall as he reached the front door, the fat, white flakes muffling the world. He pushed the door open and stepped into the dim room.
“Synthia!” Desmon cried. “Synthia, I’m hom…” His voice fell away as he stepped into the living room. Synthia sat in a rocking chair staring out the window, rocking gently back and forth. Tears rolled down her cheeks and she pressed a hand to her face.
“Synthia,” Desmon whispered, a smile creeping across his face. “Synthia, I—“
Desmon turned as Teresa walked in from the other room. She walked over to her mom and leaned against her. “What’s wrong mommy?”
Synthia wiped her eyes and sniffed. “Oh, nothing dear. Nothing.” She pulled Teresa into her lap and held her tight.
Desmon walked across the room and stood before his wife. “Synthia?” he said. “Synthia. Synthia, look at me. Look at me!”
Rage exploded in his chest. He reached out and threw a table aside, sending glasses and plates flying through the air. They shattered as they struck the ground, littering the floor with shards of crystal. Both girls jumped and Synthia covered Tersa’s head. Her eyes swept the room, frightened and confused.
“Look at me, damn it!” Desmon screamed. He raised his hand ready to strike when a knock at the door reverberated through the house. Desmon turned and looked towards the wood frame. Synthia placed Teresa in the chair and rushed to the door, Desmon only a step behind her. She flung it open and stepped out into the snow.
Desmon froze just inside the house. His chest suddenly felt constricted and his throat dry.
Jacob stood on the front step, tattered and bloody. He was still in full battle gear and his arm was splinted to the elbow. Tears filled his eyes as he shook his head. “I’m so sorry, Synthia. I did everything I could, but… but there were too many.”
“What?” Synthia asked.
Jacob reached behind his back and pulled out a broken sword. Desmon felt his breath catch in his throat. It was his sword.
“They were drawn in and flanked. There was nothing I could do.”
Synthia let out a wail when she saw the sword. She struck Jacob in the chest then fell into him, sobbing on his shoulder. He wrapped his good arm around her and held her tight, tears spilling down his cheeks.
“I’m so sorry, Synthia. If only I could…”
“No,” Desmon cried. “No, Synthia, I’m right here…” He reached out for her, but stopped halfway. He turned his palm up, feeling his heart slow until it was still. His hand was covered in blood. He took a step back and looked down at his chest. A bloody hole opened up where his heart should have been.
“He’s gone, Synthia,” Jacob said. “Desmon’s gone.”
Desmon took a step forward, feeling suddenly empty. He reached out to his wife, but the wind came and carried him away.