Silence from the Broken
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Twenty-five winters. The war was twenty-five winters ago. Steelbark had fought for King Shield, for the Plant Kingdom, and then he broke. He remembered rage and a mace.

The cell was empty except for him. The walls were made of stone, solid but for the one small window. Through it the sun shined down on his teal flesh and thinly-ridged body, and highlighted the large parallel scars cutting from stem to edge. Why didn’t you shine on me during the battle?

The village he had come from was small, most collected rainwater in their barrels to trade, the wells had gone dry long before he was born, yet groundwater was cheaper, and all he could afford. He had just left the village mother tree when the commander visited.

“I see a soldier in you!” he had said, “the Hill and the River killed our Root! It is time to show them who the sun shines on, and that is King Shield. Fight for the king, for the sun!”

I tried to find him again after I broke, how petty, petty little Steelbark.

The training wasn’t difficult, learn how to poke with a spear, pray to the sun, obey your commanders. The army wasn’t a new concept, there were those at the village who had fought their way through King Spear’s unification. The tales they told, maybe that’s why I said yes, and why I should have said no.

The mountains were difficult. The Province Under the Sun was flat, sure you could see the mountains on the horizon, but they were just there. As he was moved closer he saw how real a wall of stone could be. For the next few moons wagons buckled as they were pulled through passes. Deer broke their legs and had to be put down. Rocks fell from above, either by the enemy or the mountain itself. Sunglow would joke that the mountain was fighting in it’s own way. Sunglow, he was fun at least, careless though… probably why he disappeared. He remembered others, like Sparks the veteran, who never talked his hideous burns no matter how much they asked.

His first ambush was painful. Those of the Hill Province had skinny stems and spear shaped body and arms. Their maces were made only for pain. His brothers in arms were ripped to shreds. Steelbark only used his spear once, he wounded a single soldier who disappeared into the trees with the rest. The ambushes would keep coming, he found himself thinking less about his King, off on the other side of the Kingdom fighting the same monsters, but the Kingdom knew what the King was doing. When they found and joined up with another unit he thought the death was over. He remembered rage and swinging a mace.

His first battle killed him. It was on the foot of the mountain, the King of the Hill was leading the force, though he only saw glances of him. They had the high ground too, the odds had been stacked against them, yet Steelbark still fought for his King, and killed for him. The Hill soldier that came at him was silent, maybe broken like him. Didn’t matter, Hill soldiers always used the same tactic: grab the enemy spearshaft between the blades of the mace, pull it away, and finish the job. Steelbark knew the routine, and he pulled the mace away instead. He remembered grabbing it, he remembered rage and swinging a mace down, over and over again.

When the sun was setting he was far away, in the forest alone. He was in the City on the River drinking on the shore when he heard the fate of the King he had glimpsed on the battlefield. The Betrayed, they now called him.

He was practicing the floorharp in the City of Ash when he heard of his glorious King’s death to the fire plague, and the King that had taken his place. King Stone, at least, had been more sensible. Of course he heard the tales of the metal bird that had flown over the City Under the Sun, and he was lucky to have left the City of Ash before Branch Sunswish honored his King with daily pyres and screams.

Though he could no longer hear any loud noise without reaching for an imaginary spear, music could make him forget for a moment. I’m alone, I will soon die…

“This one is for the broken,” he said aloud, as he had in every tavern he sang for, every village center, the sides of streets when he was at his lowest, “the broken who have remained silent, the soldiers who survived.” Most paid that no mind, though some sitting against the walls with scars and silence would give a nod.

”I drift in silence.”
”Broken and dead.”
”The battle, still raging.”
”In my broken head.”

"And so I drift."
"In silence far away."
"And so I drift."
"Broken and dead."

"The spears they cut."
"The shields they break."
"And so I drift."
"The battle, still raging."

"And so I drift."
"In silence far away."
"And so I drift."
"Broken and dead."

"While the dead they cut."
"The heads they break."
"And so I drift."
"With my broken head."

"And so I drift."
"And so I drift."
"Broken and alone."
"I drift."

Those who didn’t know… they looked at me like fools. Those who did know, they bought him a cup of rainwater at the end.

He never returned to his village, or the Province Under the Sun itself. Until recently. Why did I come back? This isn’t my home anymore. Did I think I would be healed? Steelbark you idiotic fool. He remembered rage and a mace. Deserter, they called me. Let them, I died long ago.

The door creaked open, the priest and the guard hopped in, he knew why.

“Steelbark,” the Priest said, “I am to ask that I bless you for your trip to the afterlife, will you die with the sun shining on you on the Great Tree forever? Or will you die in darkness?”

Steelbark didn’t hesitate, “I died swinging that mace on the battlefield, I want it all to end.”

“Then darkness it is. Farewell Steelbark.”

The Priest bowed, Steelbark didn’t. The guard lowered his spear behind him, Steelbark hopped out. Past cells with thieves and murderers, and to the outside. Spectators watched below him, the half circle of stone in front of them. In the middle of the stone were the marks from a hundred executions. Steelbark hopped forward, careless of the spear behind him. He bent over the stone and looked into the faces of the young villagers, from the same mother tree he had come from.

One face in the back stood out to him, he had no name, but Steelbark remembered his tales of glory and battle from when he was a budling. They gave each other a small nod as the executioner hopped forward with his long blade, raising it high.

Thank you.

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