Coward
By: Stephanie Bardy

The cool night air caressed his fevered cheeks as Merrik stood on the hill. He gazed down on the small village below him. His home. Chandora was quiet in the early morning hours. Almost as if holding it's breath. Waiting.

He took a breath of his own, pulling in the scent of the tree's, the grass wet with dew, and dirt of the road that lead to the town and the smell of the water, ever so faint, under it all. He shifted gingerly on the crutch he had fashioned from an old branch. His leg ached where the arrow had pierced it but not as much as his heart did. He had left this town a warrior. Ready to battle for his life, the lives of his family, and for the town. He was returning a coward.

Ren Daul was creating havoc and destruction across the land to all who opposed his tax and his domination. If you didn't swear allegiance to him then you were destroyed. It was that simple. Merrik and several of the menfolk from town had banded together with the other lakeside towns and formed a small but hearty army. They were not going to let Ren take all they had worked for. Many families had been here for generations, building a life, building history here. What Ren was doing was robbery dressed up in fancy clothes with the promise of protection and a better life. It was all lies. He took what he wanted, when he wanted it with little to no regard to who he hurt. Merrik knew he had to be stopped and he was prepared to die doing just that.

Until it came to that deciding moment.

His little band of farmers, blacksmiths and peasants, had failed. They fell like the ill prepared warriors that they were and Merrik had quickly realized that they were no match for Ren Daul's well trained men. When the arrow had pierced his leg, he knew it was a fatal wound. That was when the fear had set in. He didn't want to die on blood soaked ground. He wanted to die in the arms of his wife. Surrounded by his children. So he had lain, still as could be, as his friends fell around him. His cowards heart had kept him still, kept him quiet, until the battle ended.

In the dark of night he had slowly crawled to the safety of the tree's. He examined his wound, and knew that the only thing that was keeping him alive was the tightness of this leather britches and his sheer will. He had to make it home. One last time.

Now he stood, looking down at his home. He had made it, but to what end? He had fled, he had hidden like a coward, and in the end, the truth of that would come out. Did he want to burden his family with that shame? Once labelled a coward that name did not die with you, it stuck to your descendants like a foul odour. His sons would carry that name, his daughters would live the lives of spinsters. At best his family would be chased from the town, at worst, left to beg and scrounge.

Merrik stumbled to a small rock outcropping and leaned against it. His heart was heavy with the inner battle. The need to see his wife's beautiful face once more, to look on his children once more, waged war over the need to die a hero in their eyes. If he didn't return then the townsfolk would think he died in battle, his family would be that of a hero's. His legacy secure.

He closed his eyes and pictured his beloved. Her long brown hair, braided with flowers, her green eyes, sparkling with laughter. He thought of his two sons, strong, capable men, with the mischief of a child still strong in their hearts, and his daughters, images of their mother, gentle, kind, but strong of will.

A sense of calm surrounded and filled him. He had his answer, he knew his choice. Slowly he stood, ready to make his way into the forest that surrounded the lake, ready to let death come, to let his body return to the land.

As he turned away from his home, he felt a hand rest gently on his shoulder. He felt, more than he heard, the air fill with the sound of wolves. They howled mournfully, almost with a heartbroken wail. They were the Guardians of the after life. The carriers of the souls between worlds.

Before him stood his wife.

She seemed to shimmer, almost fade in and out of his vision, but also burn brighter than the sun. Merrik let a wail escape his lips.

When the med had left, the town was undefended and had been destroyed in retaliation for their disobedience. Every living soul, gone.

Merrik fell to his knee's as his wife slowly approached.

"Blame not yourself my love. We died fighting, we died free. Now it is time for you to join us. Join your family. We have been waiting for you."

His gaze never left hers as he pulled his knife from the sheath and slit his britches down the side. He felt the warm gush of blood down his leg as he sunk to the ground. As the last wisp of life left him, he saw his family, his wife, his children, surrounding him.

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