The old soldier

The rain seemed without end. Days of either strong downpour or a misty cover had left the boy soaked through and through, where the only thing that kept him warm was wool and labor. He was scouring the knights armor for what seemed the hundredth time already. Rust would appear in small spots around the joints and hinges, threatening to slow the user’s movements and costing him his life. It had to be kept clean, no matter how difficult or hard it was to do so, that much he had learned. As he ran the wet rock over the surface of the metal, his gaze wandered over towards the dense forest they had camped outside of. The trees would have provided some cover from the rain, but posed too great a risk should lightning strike the ones they were sleeping under, so they instead opted to sleep in the fields. The boy could not hear any birds or any other animals at all from the forest, and he thought to himself that they must be hiding from the rain. He noticed that the leaves had taken on a darker shade of green, appearing almost black in the evening gloom. For a moment, the old soldier’s face flashed before his eyes, and he quickly turned his attention back to the work at hand. He heard a sound coming from the forest, a rhythmic steady beat, something being swung against a tree again and again. The boy sighed. He would have to spend an hour sharpening the sword after dinner, as the blade would no doubt be blunt upon his return. 

The banging continued for a long time, with only slight pauses in between. And the boy was working on the final part of the helmet when the knight returned with crudely chopped logs in his arms. The boy watched him go back and forth between the woods and the camp, as he stashed the mail and plates under their tarp, even only to keep the water away a little. He knew the knight would prefer to start the fire himself, so he did not bother with the wood, and merely sat and waited for him to finish.

After a few attempts, a thin stream of smoke was rising from the campfire. The knight had strung up a bit of tarp to protect the fire, and shielded the newborn flames with his massive body. When he was certain the wood would catch, he leaned back satisfied and signaled to the boy with his hand. The boy ran, without a word, to the horses in the field, and untied the two rabbits hanging from the saddle. He handed them to the knight and watched as he did his usual routine, skinning and cleaning the creatures, making sure not to damage them and even saving what could be eaten of the offal. The boy noticed the bandage on his left arm had taken on a rosa color, and he thought the wounds must have opened during the woodwork, but it was to be expected.

“Sir? Can I ask you something?”

The knight did not look up from the meat or the fire in the slightest.

“It’ll be the first of three questions I will permit you tonight.”

The boy nodded and weighed his question carefully before asking.

“Why did you kill the old soldier?”

The night reached under the tarp and pulled a black iron pot that he placed on the flames. He carefully laid each rabbit on its side in the bottom of the pot. 

“You will clean the pot tonight as well, rust is coming on in the bottom of it.”

The boy did not say anything. He knew the knight would answer his question, as long as he didn’t annoy or push him too much. 

For a while, the only sounds were that of the sizzling meat and the falling rain. Finally, after a long while, the knight answered.

“He was not a soldier. He was a deserter. By the word of the king, any and all who betray their duty are to be put to death.”

“I know that, sir. But why did you kill him? Why not leave him be with his family? He wasn’t hurting anybody there.”

The knight held up three fingers towards the boy without looking at him.

“That’s three, boy. You’ve spent your words for tonight. I will answer your questions, but you will not speak again before the sun is high in the sky tomorrow, understand?”

It was a trick, the boy knew. Before he had protested, and after that he had just agreed, but he now knew the only way to avoid the knights strike was to say nothing at all. The boy nodded, and the knight seemed satisfied.

“You learn, boy. Good. Now wait, while I contemplate my answer.”

The knight carefully reached into the pot and turned the meat. He wiped the fat on his fingers away with his rain soaked tunic and leant back, looking into the trees. His beard had grown longer and unruly during their travels, and it had been many weeks since they were offered shelter and baths. He put a few more logs on the fire, and looked at the trees once again. 

“As for why, I gave you the reason plain enough once I learned what he was. I had no choice, as it was my sworn duty to enact the king’s justice. Had I turned a blind eye, I myself would become a deserter, not only in the eyes of the king, but to my training and my vows as well.

He knew this and chose to meet his death like the soldier he once was. I gave him that mercy at least.”

The boy looked at the pot, and watched the flames dance around its round base, spotting the rust near the handles. The answer did not satisfy him at all. They sat in silence for a long while, where neither of them took their eyes off the pot, and the two rabbits cooking in their own fat at the bottom of it. 

After a while, the meat was cooked through, and the boy remembered that he was hungry.

The knight carefully pulled one of the rabbits from the pot, and held it out to the boy. Their eyes finally met for the first time since the old soldier, and the knight snatched the rabbit away before the boy could grab it. The knight watched him intently, and the boy clenched his jaw expecting the knight to clout him in the ear. 

“You would have had me spare him, boy. Leave him be and move on so that he could live out his life in that forest with his wife and son in that modest hut of theirs. He did no harm, you think, but are you certain his former comrades would say the same? Do you think his commander simply let him go, or that he fled in the heat of battle where he would not be missed? Just as likely that he had to slip a blade between the ribs of a fellow soldier to escape, or that he feigned death as his comrades were slaughtered around him.”

The boy said nothing, still expecting the strike. But the knight simply clenched the rabbit harder before continuing, and the boy could hear the bones pop.

“Had he been found by his lord, he would have been hanged along with his wife and child. While he was still alive his guts would have been pulled, for no man worse in the eyes of a lord, than a deserter. His wife would be deemed a harbourer and his son of a deserter’s blood. Had he been an old man, his son grown and with a wife of his own, they would be hanged too. All for a choice he made for himself in a previous life, a choice that would damn his loved ones to the same fate as he. I undid that choice for him, by taking a choice of my own.”

The other rabbit had begun to smoke and burn in the pot, but the knight seemed caught up in a rage, though his voice and demeanor was calm and controlled as always.

“You might have spared his life, boy, but that would be the true cruelty. By letting that man evade his destiny any longer, you would have damned his family to the same fate. Killing him was not only mercy, it was the easy choice. A life ended means that we can be done with it, and I would choose the same a thousand times over if I had to. Had you seen what I’ve seen, you would see the sense in my words and throw away any dreams you might have in that naive head of yours.”

The silence between them now was oppressive and so thick you could cut it. The other rabbit was still burning, and it seemed it would be entirely ruined before the knight would take his eyes off the boy, but he eventually turned around and recovered it from the flames. He took a large bite of the burned side without a word and stared solemnly into the darkness that had surrounded them. The flames hissed as small drops of rain dripped from the canvas overhead and onto the burning logs. He still held the other rabbit in his hand, but had relaxed his grip a little. The boy could not hold his tongue.

“Months ago, when we were to begin our journey, my father told me that I would learn from you the ways of a knight, and that I was to do everything in my power to learn and absorb from you what I could, so that one day I may be ready to take my vows. I swore to my father that I would, and I stand by that. I wish to learn all I can from you, sir, but I hope in my heart that I never become you, sir.”

The knight turned his head towards the boy, and his eyes were not as hard as expected. After a brief moment,  he held out the other rabbit to the boy and let him take it. He took another bite of the burnt mess before replying with rabbit in his mouth.

“Aye, lad. Neither do I.”

And so it was between them, the knight and his squire.