It was the kind of forest to which one fled when one’s soul was full of pain, fear, or secrets. His bore all three.
The wild crashing of his boots through the underbrush calmed as his strength waned. He was not a weak man; muscles strained beneath the sleeves that the saplings’ fingers had shredded, but even the simplest of village doctors knew that losing too much blood could kill the strongest man.
Especially a man who had lost his will to live.
He slumped against the nearest tree and slid to the ground. Twigs and dead leaves crackled beneath him. He closed his eyes and groaned, gasping for the breath that drove daggers through his lungs.
His hair – not trimmed in months – fell across his face in a matted mess. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d combed it. Since…that day…he’d seen no reason for caring for himself.
No reason for living.
He groaned again, almost a scream this time, as the pain intensified and blurred his vision. The trees that filtered dying sunlight gave way to smeared browns and greens, swirling in a dizzying dance. He blinked and the blur cleared into a face.
He gasped with pain again, and something in him kept him from shaking her image from his mind.
“Gable.” The memory of her voice was gentle, quiet…urgent. Her eyes held onto his, and once again he saw in them their pleading.
“Gable…you are more than this.”
He clawed for his leather knapsack and dug in the front pocket. His blood-crusted fingers closed around something, and he yanked it up before his eyes, staring. Staring at the piece of himself reflected in the tiny mirror.
He forced himself not to wince. He made himself take in the dirty hair, the beard full of leaves, the young scars, the bloodshot eyes.
He met them with bold recklessness, staring deep into the eyes as though searching for a treasure he’d buried there long ago. Desperate for some affirmation that her words were true…that he hadn’t lost the last hope of being the man she’d believed he could be.
He searched in agony.
He couldn’t find it.
This time the groan was a roar, and he flung the mirror away. It shattered against the rock face that rose before him, and he turned his face away, gritting his teeth.
“You know I was right, Fern. You know I was right.”
Delirium carried his mind away, taking it on a wearying journey through pieces of his past. He saw again his mother, laughing and applauding as she watched him fight off imaginary enemies with his wooden sword. His father teaching him how to adjust his hold on the sword, how to lunge, how to thrust, how to twist the blade just so.
And Fern. Ever Fern.
Laughing with and at him. Listening to his wild stories, his clumsy jokes, his deepest fears. Calming his soul. In the reflection he’d caught in her eyes, he’d seen a hero. A bold warrior. A worthy man.
“This is not who you are, Gable!”
He remembered the flash he’d rarely seen in her eyes. Anger. Righteous anger. It had snapped in her eyes and lit a kindred fire in his heart.
“You tell me who I’m going to be?”
He’d stormed off without her…but a piece of him hoped she was right.
Even in his delirium he tried to shove away the memory that came next. His groaning rose, and he gasped her name.
“I never meant…I never meant to leave you for life…”
The trees swirled into darkness, and miles away, even more years away, he saw two teenagers: young, clueless, blinded by hope.
“I will always, always be there for you, Fern. Always.”
He had never seen eyes so trusting. “I know you will, Gable.” The breeze carried her voice now from years ago… “And I’ll be here for you.”
“Where are you now?” His scream bounced off of the rock face. “Where are you now?”
Screaming at her ghost felt better than acknowledging his own broken promise…for a moment. But silence – as always, now – met his question, and he sobbed.
“But I couldn’t…I couldn’t have protected you. I couldn’t have saved you, Fern…”
Some enemies, he’d learned, could not be fought off with a sword.
I wrote this one from the prompt words mirror, iliad, empathy, blood, toss, and crack. This was meant to be a stand-alone flash fiction piece, but now I want to know more about this story! XD
Photo by Tom Morel on Unsplash