Kiernin walked on the battlements, gilded by the morning sun. The soldiers watched in respect as he passed by, all chattering hushed, eyes glued to the figure of their leader. He nodded at them and gazed over their armored heads at the blue valley sprawled out before the city. The valley …
His smile faded, and his pace quickened. At last he reached the end of wall, where he stopped and rested his arms against the sturdy stone of the rampart.
He was tall, muscular, clothed in the generic red tunic and glittering silver that all soldiers in the army of the Allies wore, the gold strips on his shoulder indicating his high rank. His dark blue eyes would have been considered handsome were it not for the steely coldness that lurked in their depths. His soldiers revered him, trusted him even, but they knew not to disturb him when he was in one of his moods — one of those silent storms that manifested themselves in his hard jawline and taut muscles.
He was in such a mood now, as he faced the valley, the valley that haunted his thoughts, whose presence reminded him of the past he’d tried to escape.
His brooding was interrupted by the high-pitched voice of a messenger boy. “Sir?”
He turned. “What, boy?” He hadn’t meant to sound so harsh, and he regretted his tone as the boy quailed slightly.
“A message from General Montorl, sir. Urgent, sir.” The boy handed him a scroll.
Kiernin took it and ran his finger over the official seal. A sudden chill crept over him, despite the sunniness of the morning. Why was General Montorl writing to him? Their last mission was so recent, what could have happened between then and now?
Suddenly, he realized that the boy was still waiting, and he waved him off.
“Thank you, boy. Go back to General Montorl and tell him I received the message.”
The youth replied with some formality, but Kiernin didn’t hear. He was already opening the scroll. When he finished reading it, he lowered it with shaking fingers. Well. That was unexpected. Or was it?
“Oh my …” he whispered, turning to face the valley. The grassy hills on either side of it seemed taller, darker, more menacing, gleaming though they were in the sun. He could see faint shapes trudging along the tan strip that ran through the center of the dale, the only road by which the city could be reached. That was the road he had run on so many years ago, shedding his past and his own guilt — or so he’d thought. Unfortunately, the guilt had followed him even here, even now that he was a prestigious general among the Allies. Still the shame clung, and still he pressed it down. And now …
Fragments from the scroll crept into his mind — attack imminent … outcome could decide the fate of this war … General Jarnvis to be leading the enemy forces … deploy your troops immediately …
“I have to leave,” he muttered, and then rebelled. No, no, he couldn’t do that. He couldn’t run again. But … but if he stayed, his men would find out the truth. If he stayed, he would have to face him, Jarnvis, the enemy that had once been Kiernin’s dearest friend.
“I have to leave,” he said again, louder, and this time he felt resolute. He would leave orders for his second-in-command to take over, and his soldiers would have to learn to manage without him. It was the only thing to do, really.
Boulders sprouted from the grassy meadows that surrounded Kiernin as he sped up the secluded path on a hill to the left of the valley. The sun has reached its zenith, and it bore down on him, hot and fierce, as if it hated him. Well, fine. Let it hate him. The whole world would, soon.
How long had he been running? Five minutes? An hour? His whole life? Yes, that was true, he had spent a lifetime of running, of hiding, and perhaps he would spend an eternity doing so. For could he ever stop? The thought sent a chill down his back despite the sun’s frowning rays. He didn’t want to run forever, but … but maybe he did. His actions certainly seemed to indicate that he did.
He ran on. The incessant pounding of his feet echoed through his mind, becoming all he could think about. Thud, thud, thud, like the footsteps of doom that he could never shake off his trail. Today they were closer than ever.
Small, scraggly bushes began to line the path, and the birds nesting in them shrieked and flew away whenever he passed. Their harsh cries seemed to mimic the tormentors in his head: Failure. Coward. First you side with the enemy, then you betray them. Then you side with the Allies, but as a liar, for they don’t know of your past. Then you betray them, too. Traitor. That’s all you are, a despicable, cowardly traitor.
And they were right. That’s what he was, and he almost didn’t care anymore. Almost.
A voice pierced his morbid introspection, and he jolted to a stop, glancing around wildly for the speaker. No one else was supposed to know about this path! Who …?
“Watcha doin’, mister?”
It was a … child’s voice. A girl’s. He finally located her, a small, green-clad figure standing on a boulder to his left. Her bright eyes stared down at him with curiosity.
“Oh, hello, little maid,” he told her, wondering what she was thinking. He must look a wreck, hair sweaty, face smeared with dirt, clothes torn and stained — all part of his hasty disguise.
“Hello,” she grinned. The, cocking her head, she asked, “Do you wanna see m’ sheep?”
He ground his teeth. He didn’t have time for this, he had to get far away before they realized he’d left, but he couldn’t just rush off, either. What might she tell her parents, what suspicions might her words raise? They might — wait, what was that she had said? “You watch sheep?” How old was she, seven?
She nodded proudly, waving around a staff he had overlooked. “Yup. Dada said I’m a real big girl.”
He nodded at her. Best to appear friendly and harmless and hope that she would dash off soon. Surely she couldn’t spend too much time away from her sheep. “Indeed you are. But aren’t you ever afraid? You aren’t as big as your Dada, I’m sure.”
“I’m never afraid!” She stomped her little, leather-shod foot. Then she giggled. “Well, sometimes I was, when I was littler. I used to run away from all the big animals, ‘cause I was scared. But not anymore.” She shook her head emphatically, golden curls swinging.
“And why not anymore?” he asked, amused and genuinely interested.
“‘Cause running only makes the problem worse, and you can’t hide from your problems forever. Facing ‘em is the bravest step you can take and the most … uh … oh yeah, triumphant moment of any battle.”
She sounded like she was quoting someone. “Where’d you learn that?”
“Oh, m’ Dada”.
“Aha. Well. Your Dada is … he’s a wise man.”
“Yup,” she replied with the carless innocence of youth. “Well, I gotta go now, mister. Don’t want m’ sheep to run off without me. Enjoy your runnin’.” With that, she hopped off the rock and dashed into the sloping meadow beyond.
Kiernin watched her disappear into the gently waving grass and sank down onto the rock she’d just stood upon, slightly dazed. Her words echoed through his mind. They were just the words of a humble, farming father to calm his young, sheep-herding daughter, but he couldn’t help but feel that they were meant for him.
Kiernin groaned, and twisted his fingers together, sweating from more than just the sun. The girl’s words and the letter’s words ran together in his mind, a turbulent cacophony that threatened to tear him apart. Only mades the problem worse — attack imminent — can’t hide from your problems forever — outcome of this battle could decide the fate of this war — the bravest step you can take — General Jarnvis to be leading the enemy forces — most triumphant moment of any battle — deploy your troops immediately — and then the voices stopped their tug-of-war, and only one remained, calling across the scarred field of his soul: Face them.
“No!” he howled, but it was already over.
He rose, panting, and faced the direction that he’d come, the dusty road still bearing the imprints of his panicked feet. Going back would be hard, very hard. The hardest thing he ever did. And what if he didn’t even get back in time?
“Enjoy your runnin’” she’d said. His running had almost destroyed him, but maybe it wasn’t the running so much as it was what he was running towards, what he was running for. Once he had run to hide, to cower in fear, to destroy those around him. Now, he would run to rebuild, to fight. And at last he would enjoy the running.