It was a day that spoke—its language one of low-hanging clouds and an ice-cold drizzle—of terrible things to come. It was no different than the day before, or even the day before that; the rain had been falling and the sky had been threatening for three days already. Lady Lyndis of Caelin had waited by the large bay windows that looked out over the expanse of land directly in front of Castle Caelin for every single moment of those three days.
Blinking was a luxury.
Her hands and her forehead pressed against the cold, foggy glass in front of her. Even in the places where she had smeared away the fog, everything from the sentries to the stones of the castle were distorted through her limited vision.
Three days was a long time to wait, but in actuality, she had been waiting much longer. Only three days previous had a messenger arrived at the castle with the news that the Caelin Knights had been victorious in their march to rid the southeastern villages of a recently formed group of bandits. Sons of farmers they may have been, she had scowled, but pillaging and killing and taking women and children was a crime that was punishable by death.
She was truly a lady of Caelin, now. Lord Hausen was on his deathbed, and had been for many weeks. She had assumed his place, and as soon as the news had arrived, she had taken her post at the window. Sleep had been hard to find, food had been hard to stomach.
She wanted to be left to her vigil, left to wait for them, for her men, for her knights, especially Kent and Sain.
Perhaps she was selfish, skipping meals and making others worry about her. It had been nearly a month since the Caelin Knights left the castle, and it had been the loneliest month of her life since before she had happened upon an injured tactician on the plains of Sacae.
Her heart ached to think of them fighting without her, but she was a lady now, and as such, she had to stay within the castle walls where it was safe. Did it make her selfish, then, to wonder why it was that it was okay for Kent or Sain or Nameless Knight A to put their life on the line for her and for Caelin, but it was not okay for her to do the same? It just wasn't right, she told herself as she sighed against the glass, fogging it up again. It wasn't fair that her men, her precious knights, especially the two men she had come to love most in the world…were out fighting while she could only wait.
Her eyes were nearly closed when she saw the horses, saw the flags, and for five minutes that seemed to stretch on for an hour, she watched them advance, watched the equine's necks get skinny, then fat, then skinny again as they moved, their figures passing over various swirls and chips in the window glass that separated them.
Then she was slipping, running, her shoes forgotten on the stone floor as she ran like she hadn't dared to run since returning to Caelin, since becoming a lady. She shouted orders in her best don't-sass-me tone, and nobody dared to argue with her. In due time, she met them halfway to the gate.
She stopped in the grass, her bare feet cold and wet, her hair dampening with every breath she took, and she looked at the men before her.
Used to their laughter and gaiety in the mess hall, seeing them so quiet and somber scared her, worried her, made a chill go down her spine that didn't seem to stop. The Caelin flags were torn and dirty, ragged. The horses thin, the men thinner. She hardly realized that she was hugging herself in an attempt to stay warm. No, her eyes were fixated elsewhere.
On the burlap.
She knew what was inside that burlap, knew with every fiber of her being, with every little shudder that wracked her shoulders. Was it the cold, the rain, the blades of grass tickling the bottoms of her feet? No, it was connected to the sickening, violent churning of her stomach and the nausea that built up and nearly made her gag.
The flatbed wagon had several burlap rolls lying on the wooden planks, and her eyes scanned the men standing around; she scanned and scanned and scanned with frantic, reckless abandon until finally—finally—her eyes lit upon a familiar face.
A face that was familiar from the auburn hair to the color of his armor. But the rest of him was unfamiliar to her. His armor was scratched and dented, his left arm hung uselessly at his side with a bloody white rag tied around his bicep as a makeshift bandage, his chin was dotted with stubble, and his face was haggard; it was as if he had changed, had aged years and years and years since she had last seen him.
"Kent?" she asked, sounding lost, asking more than one question without saying anything except his name.
Slowly, she took a step forward, and the knight commander said nothing, nothing at all, but several other knights stepped forward, blocking the wagon with its burlap burdens from her view.
"Kent?" she asked again, almost desperately, the timbre of her voice carrying fear and worry through the sound of the drizzle.
When nobody answered, she ran forward, ran into the arms of the Caelin Knights. She ignored their hard, metal, bloodstained armor and pressed, pushed, fighting and insisting and dammit, she had a right to—
She broke through, somehow, and perhaps it could have been attributed to the fact that the men hadn't eaten well in days and they were exhausted and tired and Lady Lyndis was their superior and if she really wanted to see, then by all means…it was her right.
In an instant, she realized that she hadn't heard a particular voice, light and cheerful and absolutely, resolutely careless in speech. It was in that moment that she came to a halt, that her eyes landed on the wagon pulled by two horses that stood just behind Kent's own steed, that one of the horses pulling the wagon looked awfully familiar, that it had no rider, and that sticking out of one of those rolls of brown burlap was a lock of hair the color of sand.
She stood there in silence, only the sound of water hitting armor registering in her mind, and then, with a cry and a stumble, she was running toward that wagon, toward the hair.
Kent blocked her way. "No, milady," he said firmly, his grip on her shoulder so tight that it hurt. She didn't know how he had gotten off of his horse so fast, didn't know why he was standing in front of her.
She looked up, tilting her neck, blinking as the tiny drops of water clung to her eyelashes, making them heavy. His brown eyes were dark, and she could see the little wrinkles at the corners of them that hadn't been there a month ago. She longed to smooth them away, somehow, to make him almost-smile the way he had been as he bid her farewell and promised to return to her.
"No," he repeated again. It was so unlike him to tell her what to do. So unlike him to say that she couldn't do something. His grip on her shoulder tightened further; she scarcely realized that he wasn't using both hands, that he couldn't lift his other arm at all.
"Kent…" it was a mere whisper, cracked and broken-sounding.
His hold loosened just a fraction, "Please don't, milady." The knights of Caelin all kneeled to the ground behind her, around her, and their redheaded commander spoke again, "He left us honorably a week ago." His own voice cracked, and he bowed his head, his soaked hair clinging to his forehead and the back of his neck. "Please do not look."
But she ignored him, pulling roughly out of his grip and trotting over to the wagon in a gait that resembled a lame horse. It had been on her order that they had marched, after all, she told herself. Pausing in front of one of the rolls of burlap, she tried to ignore the stink of the dead and reached one hand out to touch that hair, the wet hair that resembled damp sand, the hair that belonged to the head that had the face of one of her dearest, most treasured friends.
"Wait, O beauteous one!"
She remembered it as clearly as if he had spoken those words only yesterday and not more than three years ago. Oh, he was silly and goofy, flirty in a way that made it hard to take him seriously, but he was honorable and kind, goodhearted to a fault; he always tried so damn hard to put a smile on everyone's face, especially when the yoke of war had settled around their shoulders, a weight hard for anyone to bear.
Isadora had smiled, Harken, Eliwood, and even Vaida, though she had been certain at the time she would end up mopping her silly knight up off of the grass afterward.
Such a good, gentle man, she thought, trembling fingers petting his hair, the only thing she could see; she was afraid to see the rest.
She didn't cry.
But if she did—if she did shed any tears—they would mix with the rain and nobody would be able to tell the difference.
"Oh, Sain," she cooed softly, sweetly.
And then she moved to the next man, and the next, until she had looked at the brown burlap that held each corpse. They had died on her order, she thought again, and her shoulders slumped the smallest bit with the added weight, the guilt of sending men to their death.
But death was a part of war, and they knew their job was to risk their lives the moment their country called for it. She looked at them, at the nameless men, and at Sain, patting his hair one last time before she hugged herself tightly, her dress completely soaked through, the cold making her shiver.
She stepped away with some measure of reluctance, and turned to face her men, most notably Kent, who was still standing, looking at her almost apologetically though she knew he had lost far, far more than she. Her eyes roved over the knights that still kneeled, and with a wave of her hand, they all stood at attention.
She could see the injured, the weak. Their wet shirts clung to them, their armor had chips and dents and holes, their bodies were scratched, dirty, their faces exhausted, their bellies empty; they were all cold. Perhaps they were sick from marching in the rain.
"Bury these men," she ordered, her voice firm though her legs felt weak. "Mark each of their graves, as they have died honorably for Caelin's sake."
The soldiers all nodded gravely, and she went to stand next to Kent, putting her hand on his good arm in a pathetic attempt to offer what little comfort she could give him.
"And then," she said slowly, her voice breaking, "I want all of you to go home. Your families… Your families need you now."
And with that, she mounted Kent's horse behind him and joined her men for their march into Castle Caelin.
The ending is left almost incomplete for a good reason. Death is final, but only for the one who dies. Those of us left behind do not forget, and by that same token, I ended this where I did. This idea crept into my head and wouldn't leave me alone, so I had to write it.
Another note on glass. This seems really silly, but until fairly recently, glass windows were not clear and easy to see through. In fact, in windows merely 100 or so years old, the glass distorts everything you view through it, as it is warped slightly. The further back in time you go, the worse the glass was. Interesting facts! It's how you can tell if you have old (sometimes original) windows in an old house.
Thank you for reading! Feedback and constructive criticism would be much appreciated, as always.