It sat on a low ridge, giving those within a view of the plains beyond that stretched for hundreds of miles. And now, as black smoke rose in as many pillars as towers that once stood within its thick walls, there was likely not a soul for hundreds of miles who couldn’t see it, too.
Pushing the filthy cap back on his shaggy head of black matte, he turned and spat through his graying beard, before straightening to focus on the foreground interest; fourteen men stood side by side on a platform facing the city as it went up in flame, the tall tower at the height of the hillborne metropolis collapsing as they watched, erupting in a bout of flame and smoke that connected all the others in one massive pillar rising miles into the sky.
Harper didn’t have to listen to what the man with the scroll was yelling. The man stood upon the platform facing the condemned, surrounded by thousands of soldiers in filthy brown coats and caps, a hodgepodge of men from all over the country. None had had much sleep in months, and none needed to hear what the crier was announcing.
The fourteen were evil men, had used their power to abuse others, and when the call went out, tens of thousands of ordinary men left their homes to fight them back into the holes they’d crawled out of. And now they stood facing the grand fortress they’d constructed in which to engage and hold their power.
When the men dropped, the crowd erupted in cheers and hollering. Men whooped.
Harper’s eyes began to well with tears, but he did not smile. He hefted his rifle over his shoulder, turned, and pushed his way through the crowd. Getting free of the main group, he trudged across the field where hundreds continued cleaning up the bodies of men, both from his side and the other.
He looked across them as tears continued running into his beard.
Lefty spotted him from the back of the crowd as he plodded through the battlefield, and turned to catch up to him, jogging and walking from exhaustion.
Stopping only to cut boots from a dead man, Harper moved without pause back into the crop of trees, which he and his fellows had used last night before this morning’s battle, and gathered his pack. Pushing the top of his rifle through the straps looping over the top of the leather pack, he hefted it and pulled it on over his gray coat and turned, without looking, to continue on his way.
Harper slowed as Lefty caught up and walked up beside him.
“Where you going? We just beat the bastards! We get to eat tonight and sleep in! I wanna celebrate!”
“Then you stay and celebrate,” Harper patted Lefty’s shoulder and took a few steps.
“Wait, but why are you leaving? Aren’t you happy we won?”
Harper paused and turned back. “I didn’t come here to kill men, Lefty.”
“What?” Lefty took a few steps closer.
“I came here to prevent my family from getting hurt,” Harper’s eyes glassed again. “And I have seen many men die to accomplish that.”
“And now we can celebrate!”
Harper shook his head. “This was never about victory, Lefty. This was about doing a dirty, filthy task no man should ever have to do, but can never walk away from. I came here to end the threat. It’s ended. And I’m going home.”
“But, but you can’t even wait a night?” Lefty was incredulous.
Harper just hefted his bag and started walking.
“I don’t get it!” Lefty yelled.
Harper didn’t respond, just trudging with his thin-soled shoes with a hole in the left toe that kept letting pebbles in.
Across the flat lands and into the forests, stopping long enough to kill dinner, cook it and sleep, Harper walked. He waited until his shoes were falling apart before he pulled on his new pair, still covered in dried blood.
Through rain and wind, sun and heat, he pressed on. A month passed, his beard now down to his chest.
On a cloudy day in fall, Harper finally turned at the oak tree onto the small wagon trail that led into the valley. He continued his trudge, exhausted but eager. The road turned into thicker trees before descending into the shallow the stretched for several miles around the four sweetwater creeks — Thule, Smyrna, Cobblestone and Souptop. He crossed the first without taking off his boots, a pour of sunlight glittering across the creek nearby as he pushed up the other side.
Turning onto the walk trail that shortcutted the wagon route, he climbed down into a small gulley and pulled his way back up the other side. It was overgrown now, and he had to push through it.
Harper stopped for a moment as tears welled for the first time since he left the battlefield. Swallowing more, he trudged again, across the grass and between a few more trees. By the side of the house stood a tall boy chopping wood. He paused to see the figure approaching and turned, walking toward the grungy man when he tripped.
“Pa?” he walked forward. “PA!!” He ran up to his father and stopped, staring up at the hairy, unkempt figure who stared back at him with teary eyes. The man unshouldered his pack and grabbed the boy, pulling him in a tight brace, the boy beginning to cry.
“What is it, Ian?” his mom walked up to the edge of the screen porch rubbing her hands with a towel when she coughed, dropping the handtowel and pushing the door open, lifting her skirts to run faster.
Harper squeezed his boy and then let him go as she got to him, leaping against him, gripping him, both crying.
Then came running a young girl of nine. “PA!” She crowded to one side as he grabbed her and pulled her close to him and his wife, then his boy, getting them close. He kissed his wife for the first time in a year, then dropped down to get a better hug out of his little girl. Picking her up in one arm, he grabbed his wife’s hand and the family went inside.
He spent the next two hours talking with his children and listening to their stories about what had happened since he had left. Then when dinner was prepared, they all sat down around the small table and ate a small meal. As it neared, his wife placed her hand on his. “Go outside and get out of those clothes. I will draw hot water for you to clean yourself. You two get to your chores.”
Harper nodded and did as he was told, walking outside around to the small shed where they kept the small copper tub. Stripping slowly, he peeled everything off. One piece of his shirt had sealed to him and he had to hiss as it stretched at his skin. He then stood there in the cool evening air seeping under the shed door holding his soiled clothes over his parts.
He wanted to feel absolute joy at being home. Instead, he felt the first threads of a long cord beginning to unravel in his head. When the door opened, he froze, unused to being nude to anyone. When his wife walked in with a heavy pot of steaming water, they both took a moment before she set it down and shut the door. Pouring the water into the tub, she turned, not looking. “I’ll get some more water.”
He waited patiently, feeling the cool packed earth beneath his feet and, despite his thick calluses and blisters, felt grateful he was standing here. A few minutes later, she returned and poured the rest. It was just enough to sit in. He waited, watching her.
Harper had spent months away from his wife. He wasn’t quite sure how to react to her being here in the flesh. He had forgotten how to speak to her or touch her. He’d spent the past few hours doing as he’d been told. He wasn’t sure what he was supposed to do, now. As she poured it out, she stood, watching him.
Neither spoke before she turned and left, closing the door behind herself.
Setting his clothes down next to him, with a habit of never letting his possessions far from his sight, he carefully toed the water and hissed. He hadn’t had a hot bath since he left. Taking the rags and brushes in a box next to the tub, and the rough-hewn cube of fat, he began soaping himself and scrubbing everything he could get to. Using the little bucket, he doused himself and kept washing until the water was cold and black. At a knock, he froze.
“I brought you more water.”
Blinking, he climbed out and stood to the side so only those who entered would see him. “Come.”
She unlatched the door and stepped in, shutting the door before turning to see him, visibly surprised at his nudity. She looked at him, then stepped up to the edge of the tub. They both lifted it and tipped it near the side of the shed where the dog had dug under the wall and left a gulley out. Setting it right, she poured the fresh water in and he stepped back into it with care and sat.
“I will help you,” she whispered and took the brush, scrubbing at things he couldn’t see. When she was finished, he crawled out onto the ground and turned around, dunking his head into the water as she rubbed some of her oils into it, washing it through. The water was almost clear before he dunked his head into it. When they were finished, the water was black, and Harper’s hair was gray.
She retrieved his old clothes and with her help, he put on his underclothes, his white shirt and a pair of trousers with suspenders. She looked at him and his big beard and slid her arms under his and around his back, laying her head against his chest. He hugged her tightly.
“I love you,” she whispered.
He tightened his embrace, both standing in the dim candlelight for a few moments, before they left the washing material there and went back inside. There by the fire his son had built, he took his old chair and watched his two children finish up their chores. They stared at his gray hair. He had only started to gray when he left. Now he was fully peppered.
He relished the clean, dry clothes, warm fire and comfortable chair. When his wife came and sat next to him, she touched his hand. “I have something for you.”
She handed over a rolled kit. He took it from her and untied the binding, unrolling to reveal his trim kit. He smiled and took her hand, squeezing it. Sitting forward, he took out the handkerchief in his pocket and laid it on the floor and began to cut at his beard. He trimmed it, the small hairs drifting down to the fabric. When he felt satisfied with its length, he wiped them clean and rolled it away, then took the chaff and shook it out in the fire. Sitting down, his children joined them. His daughter climbed into his lap as his son took the other side in his own chair.
“Pa, what was it like? War?”
Harper took a deep breath, looking at his daughter, and at his son, both of whom had grown so much. He took a long, hard minute in thought before taking his wife’s hand.
“I left to protect you both from it,” his gravelly voice filled the room. “War is not glory. It’s a chore, just like the ones you do around here every day. It’s the longest, nastiest of chores. I did it alone to spare you from it. Maybe one day you’ll have to go,” he looked at his son, “but I stayed not a minute longer than was necessary to complete my task. When it was done, I came back. I love you both more than I could ever love war or glory.” He squeezed his daughter around her waist.
“Pray you never have to face it, but if you do, go and complete it. To live in a society sometimes means doing things you don’t want to do, but what I did, I did for you.” He turned toward his wife’s teary eyes shining in the firelight. “And for her.”
She bent down to kiss his hand, holding it to her face.
Tears fell from his eyes as he squeezed her hand.
“I’m home,” he smiled. “I’m home now.”