On the 15th anniversary of the Long War’s end, the most attractive man Laurea had ever seen slunk into the New Rose tavern and drank with his back to the wall, alone. As the evening deepened, the New Rose filled with proud soldiers from Fort Trifften nearby, roaring louder than the hearth fire and exchanging old victory tales over uncountable pints. The attractive stranger did not join in.
By ten o’clock, Laurea had gathered the courage to ask why.
“More White River Lager?”
The solitary man looked up. His eyes were red-rimmed with old nightmares and his jaw rough with growth, but under this, his face was arresting — its symmetry, its power. He leaned forward to attend her, and his muscles rolled beneath his shirt like waves upon the sea.
Laurea set down the fresh pint she bore. “On the house. For the hero.”
He rested one broad hand around the glass. “I’m no hero, miss.”
“Of course you are. You’re here this night because you fought in the war, yes?”
“And you survived. That alone’s an honor.”
He replied in a low voice, and Laurea had to half-guess his words beneath the booming refrain of “The Dark General’s Rotten Hide” sung out across the room. “Hardly. I’ve survived by cowardice. I stopped fighting at the end, and turned and ran.”
Laurea stacked his empty glasses. “But you did fight.”
“I didn’t finish it.”
“But you helped.”
“No.” He stared down into his untouched lager, as if performing augury with the foam. “Others helped. My actions negated that, and worse.”
“But — ”
“I was not a mere footsoldier, miss. I had men under me.”
Laurea searched for something comforting to say, but came up empty.
“Betrayal like mine’s monstrous when the scale’s made large, and the cost of cowardice becomes measured in lives.” He finally raised his pint. “Imagine how many, for me to drink alone.”
Laurea’s eyes widened. “Half a moment. If all your men got killed — then you must be — ”
“General Ralon.” Laurea’s face grew hot. “They sing folktales about you. Everyone says you just disappeared, not died, but — ”
“I’m not General Ralon.”
“…Oh.” Laurea glanced to her right. A knot of men were banging their mugs on a table, chanting for more ale. She smiled at them and raised a finger, and said to the lone soldier, “General Horn?”
“Colonel Vance, then?”
“Wrong again.” Though his glass was full, he stood and withdrew his coin purse. “Two silvers will cover it all, I think.”
“Please.” Laurea set a hand on his arm. “I’m sorry. I don’t mean to embarrass you.”
The men at the nearby table whistled in impatience. “Shake it, miss! Ale! Ale!”
“In a moment!”
The stranger moved to go. Laurea tightened her grip and said, “I just thought… today of all days… you might want someone to listen to your story. Without judgment.”
But Laurea’s next words were lost when he met her gaze. His eyes held not just a soldier’s despair and loss, but death — an endless legacy of it, stretching so far back into the past, the point of genesis became unknown. Death wrapped his being. It buried him. “No man may know my face, miss, but every man on this earth already knows my story. And they’ve already judged me.
“I am no hero.”
Laurea stared. The man broke away from her grasp and slunk out the door, chased by a final, mocking refrain:
“What’s beneath that dragon mask
And lofty, flowing pride?
And promises of fine conquest?
The Dark General’s rotten hide!”
“Miss! Ale for my brothers, or d’you have no shame?”
“Coming.” Laurea went back to the bar, leaving the man’s proffered silver untouched.
They’d been singing for hours. She knew his story well enough.
This story originally appeared in Every Day Fiction.