Keenin sat with a bucket of water and a brush, scrubbing the dirt from his boots outside his assigned tent. Rumors of ghosts were spreading through the camp again. For a group whose leader summoned the dead they sure were superstitious. There were even paper charms pegged to tent poles that supposedly warded away the spirits.
Keenin had been haunted by his personal ghost long enough to know that bits of paper didn’t work. Salt did, but if he was going to see ghosts here it would have happened already. He was more interested in what people didn’t talk about.
Rumin had kept his word in giving him a defensive position in the fight. Keenin had spent the early part of the night sitting in one of the circular pits, crowded by other soldiers wielding bows, swords, and whichever weapon was favored. He had been given a crossbow, which was easier to shoot and aim than a usual bow, and had only been expected to shoot oncoming enemy soldiers. It would seem Iscara simply wanted them to show a level of dedication. Keenin had not been expected to use magic, though he could see a wandering fog that Aron was conjuring and was sure that Harris would be experimenting with his metal manipulation. Keenin had been sure that when the field was clear of sun crested soldiers, he would be asked to help move the catapults that had been sitting unused behind their defense, but instead he had been thanked for his time and sent back to camp.
Why had they taken the time to defeat their enemy only to retreat? Had there been a threat? Had they expected Clide to attack in revenge? Keenin was grateful not to be out there, but still.
Emerging from his thoughts Keenin became aware that water dripped from the heel of the boot he held to clean while his other hand rested on the brush that was on the ground. He released the brush and gripped the lip of the boot with both hands to wiggle it on over the sock on his foot. Then he stood and picked up the bucket of grey water, carried it to the edge of camp, and emptied its contents. He wasn’t the first to do so. Garbage and other waste lay there too, as though to mark the fowl beginnings of the battleground. Keenin was splashed again as Aron came to stand beside him and flung soapy water from a large wash basin.
“Nice shirt,” Aron commented.
Keenin wasn’t wearing one. He had taken it off to wash before he started on the boots.
“Where did you get that?” Keenin asked his friend.
He had been looking for a larger bucket to clean his clothes.
“The ladies let me borrow it,” Aron admitted. “They might clean your clothes if you ask them nicely.”
“So what were you doing?”
“Bathing,” Aron said. “You should try it.”
Keenin held out his hands.
“Give me that and I will.”
“Oh, no. You have to ask the ladies for this one. Same as me.”
Keenin smiled. There was the self-righteous kid he knew.
“We both know that my charm cannot compare to yours,” Keenin said. “Go give your thanks. That cool cut you got over your eye isn’t going to stay there forever.”
Aron grinned, highlighting the thin pinkish line over his eye and left with his tub to find the girls. Keenin walked back to his tent to see if the shirt he had left drying was ready to wear. Keenin had managed to get Rumin to talk to Aron about the purpose of the war. After all, once it was understood that this desperate group only needed the resources to settle in peace, the fighting seemed silly. The City of Meladona should have let Iscara’s people take shelter. Right.
He let the thought fade from his mind as he reached the door of his tent and grabbed hold of the door flap. There was a silence he wasn’t ready to face.
“Keenin,” Harris called out before he could duck inside.
Keenin looked to his other friend. The blacksmith wore an armor of his own design. Since he had figured out that he could mold metal like clay, he was becoming more elaborate in his creations.
“Did you get the news? Apparently the catapults took a chunk out of the barrier. Seems all that they have is a bit of ice and a pissed off dragon.”
“Oh, good for them.”
Keenin entered the tent and grabbed his damp shirt from where it had been left hung tucked into a supporting tend pole and pulled it over his head. Getting to the city without bothering to fight the war wouldn’t be so bad either.
“Uh,” Harris said from outside. “Before you finish cleaning up do you mind practicing some sword moves with me. Being able to change the shape of weapons is useful, but I could use some practical testing.”
Keenin looked in Harris’s direction and could just barely see him through the gap in the tent flaps. He would rather be left alone.
“Did you ask Rumin?” he questioned towards this end.
Rumin was their combat master. Surly training with an expert would better compliment Harris’s natural talent for weaponry.
“Nobody can find him.”
Keenin sighed. That man had a double agenda. He had said things.
Harris pulled back the fabric blocking the entrance, letting sunlight flood the space. Keenin blinked and he rubbed at his eyes as his friend regarded him.
“I mean if you’re tired, I can…
“Sorry,” Keenin said, trying to push back his growing doubt. Rumin had said things.
“You should ask Aron,” Keenin continued to say.
He didn’t like to push his friends away, but he was starting to feel sick inside, an uneasy mix. Keenin started to remember the larger scale of his fight, that long ago talk with the god of death. He needed a bit more time to convince himself to fight for Rumin. He had to save himself. A bit longer.
“Then can I just ask?” Harris said distracting him. “Why you don’t use fire? I mean why don’t you use your magic? If you’re worried about control, you should just practice.”
His friend was funny. Practicing magic brought back good memories. Using it, not so much.
“Harris,” Keenin said, knowing that this at least he could answer. “It’s not that I haven’t used the magic. It’s just I can’t imagine where it’s use would stop. The first time I used fire against a person I was honestly overwhelmed, and sad, and I felt that there was nothing else that I could do. But I still feel that there should have been another way out. People should have certain chances and I shouldn’t take that away with some instant kill ability. Besides, it seems like the sort of power that would make people afraid. Like I would only be the bad guy. I think winning can happen without it.”
“You really worried about that, huh. That makes me envious.”
“I don’t mind taking advantage where I can. Great for myself, but as a leader, you would be the best choice.”
“Heh, Aron’s more noble than I’ll ever be.”
“And that’s why you’re the best. He would stumble over the details and please everyone and no one. I think you could handle a bit of give and take.”
“I don’t know,” Keenin said. “I would still rather it be him.”
Between being a maybe savior and a maybe hero, he had enough positions as it was.
“That’s just like you too. You really like to hold onto little things without being noticed. Some people might call that a dust collector.”
“I guess so.”
Harris could have a strange way of comparing things.
“And you know that you can talk to me,” Harris added. “War isn’t easy on anyone. We haven’t forgotten. Were just trying to live through it. Right?”
How weird. At the worst times, people were still trying to make him feel better and he had let himself think that he was alone just because they didn’t understand.
“And…thanks,” Keenin ended.
“I’ll go find Aron,” Harris said.
With that Keenin was left alone in his tent. He looked to the unused sword that he had left lying on the floor in its moss-green scabbard. Having nothing better to pass the time he dug a polishing stone out of his pack of belongings and sat down on the furs he now used as a bed. He set the stone on the dirt floor and lined up the edge of the blade to slide across the rough surface.
Harris had shown him how to polish a sword not too long ago. The meticulous work felt similar to how he helped Alaban prepare plants for his potions, stripping leaves or crushing seeds into powders. He could almost forget why he was there for a while as he smoothly and simply became a part of life and what other people did. People could go on forever just like this. But not…him.
Keenin wondered if Dia would be disappointed. She had prepared him to fight back and he had not moved an inch. He had not found Iscara. He claimed to want a life so amazing and bold, full of courage and new experience, but he had remained where fate had put him. Truth was, he was breaking apart. He was lying to his friends. He was forcing others into positions that suited him. For the price of more time alive he was becoming a cheating, dirty villain who didn’t care about others. It wasn’t a situation he could escape when fate deemed that every path led back here.
As for Dia, seeing her again and facing up against what she thought of him now, was more terrifying than facing a god. Everything between her and him were now made up ideas in his head. It had been so long since they had last seen each other that Dia might not even remember him, or like him. So what was the point in waiting? If he was being honest, Clide could take care of her.
Keenin paused in his work, drew in a deep breath and sighed.
Still. Death was a harsh bargain. Out of all the decisions he had to make, did it have to be that.
“I’m always stuck doing all of the work,” Keenin commented to himself.
Keenin felt a sharp hollow whack on the side of his head and confusedly looked up. His scabbard clattered to the floor from where it had been held by a blur in the air. He thought that maybe Dia…
“Nice job making the situation worse,” came the voice of Tess.
“Tess,” he said surprised.
Realizing that it was her he looked away.
Smudgy might have been the correct description, but it was never good to insult a girl. He was grateful not to have admitted anything in front of her. He was oddly embarrassed and annoyed.
“I picked up a trick on my way with…glee. It was a very, uh, fun trip,” Tess finished.
She seemed more awkward and genuine than usual, but he didn’t want to hear the old saying of ‘I told you so’.
“Go away,” Keenin told her stubbornly.
She was like a bad reminder.
“Hmmm, don’t you have the wrong idea here. You aren’t supposed to let the evil guy win the war.”
There it was, the usual persuasion.
“Iscara isn’t tying to kill me,” Keenin protested weakly.
And since when did she care. Tess just wanted him dead.
“Do you think Iscara would stop at one City?”
No, Keenin guessed not, but he didn’t want to discuss it with her.
“Iscara probably just needs a new home for his people,” Keenin said to annoy her.
Rumin might have had him believing it for real a few hours ago, but the influence of gods or other bad luck had put Keenin back on track.
“You do not think that!”
“Sure I do. Rumin told me so.”
“What about the dragon. Since the barrier became so weak he’s the only thing left between you and the end of the world as we know it,” Tess said.
“End of the world is a bit strongly worded Tess. And it’s not my fault. He should come over here.”
If Clide was serious, the war would be over.
“Why do you think you can avoid this!” Tess asked in frustration.
“I can kill Iscara whenever I want now. I’ve got options.”
“Well, the rest of us don’t.”
He had almost forgotten. The death god was also the only one who could let Tess pass on. Killing Iscara had seemed like a good last idea.
“Right,” Keenin mused. “So I did forget something.”
“Ya, and I have another something to say that you might not have figured out. That guy Iscara can’t control ghosts as well as you think.”
“The death god said…
“Attracts. Iscara attracts them.”
“Then killing him would…
“It doesn’t matter what you do to him. Iscara can’t send ghosts back, the death gods can’t pull ghosts back, and the ghosts don’t know how to leave. Lingering spirits turn into monsters. Dia and I saw it.”
Keenin felt a sharp pain across his palm and notice that he had cut his hand with the blade he had been sharpening. Blood was dripping onto the clean furs of his bed.
“Shit,” he said to himself.
He let go of the sword and grabbed a loose white shirt from under the bed and wrapped it around.
“Please leave,” he urged Tess.
He was feeling sick again.
“I’m not leaving until you see what you’re doing is wrong,” Tess argued.
“I know. Tess,” Keenin uttered weakly in defeat. “I know this place is full of lies. I know you’re right and that I’m being manipulated. I drank the bloody hero potion back on the road and I still remember everything. Tess. I can’t listen to something just because you tell me to.”
He covered his ears to block her out. If only he could have been left alone, he might have done it, he might have died so the stupid world could go on. He might have decided all by himself. His death would have had meaning. It would have been more than just a scripted part. He hated them for taking his willpower away.
“That really hurts,” Tess said. “Did you want to leave us behind that much?”
Keenin held his head in his hands to hold back his teas.
“No,” he whispered.
He had not wanted to leave them at all. That was the point.
“Dia is coming. Decide what you want to tell her.”
He felt the silent withdrawal of her presence. I’m sorry, he thought. Nothing had come out the way he wanted.