The Once-White Cloak

“They’re waiting for you, my lord.”

The old man sighed. Bones ached and muscles cramped. The cold air eased the lump in his throat, but his joints groaned in protest. An old man. Some thought too old.

He leant on the window frame, cracked wood groaning under his weight. Stared out at the snow beyond. Tossed the apple core across the room; a lazy, dejected movement. Heard the clunk as it hit the wall and fell into the steel bin below. Eyes never left the plain.

Dark and still, the world beyond the glass seemed almost peaceful.

Somewhere nearby, a woman screamed.

He snorted. Almost. His beard shook as he chuckled, rough with dirt and sweat and blood.

“Thank you Raymond. I’ll be right out.”

Shadows whispered behind him as the door closed. Floorboards creaked in the hallway beyond. The air hummed with anticipation. With unease.

Gloved hands rubbed together, fingers clenching to work out the stiffness in his joints. He watched something dart from the trees outside, small and dark, a blur that soon disappeared out of sight. Enjoyed one last moment of peace.

Lights flickered in the distance. Torches, burning in the night.

They were coming.

The courtyard outside was stone and dirt, filled with the leavings of an army. Some bowed as he passed, others barely noticed. One stood amongst the chaos, calmly reviewing a clipboard. Shouting instructions at any who slowed long enough to listen. He paused at her side.

“Where is he?”

She stopped for a moment, to look up and frown, then returned to her clipboard. “Leading the way.”

The old man sighed. “Of course he is.”

Every war needed a champion, he supposed. He left her there, amidst the chaos. Weaved between crates and sacks, children and the elderly, headed for the building on the far side of the courtyard.

Out of the cold, he walked to the room at the end. Where the Once-White Cloak was kept. It hung as it had for most of the year, alone in a locked room. A thousand battles had long since darkened the thread. Only the crisp white edges remained of what had upon a time been pure. The last vestiges, untouched by the war.

Unlike the rest of it. Of us.

Reaching for it, he hesitated. It haunted his waking steps, this cloak of false hope, bringing cheer and smiles when he walked in its embrace. But no longer did it comfort him. He’d walked through the fire. Seen the blades cut deep. He knew it for what it was. Mere cloth and empty dreams.

The shadows moved and twisted behind him. He felt it coming. Stepped aside and pivoted away from the first attack. The blade carved through the air where he had stood a moment before. The second strike was slower, less controlled. He caught the wrist as the blade passed his face. Twisted and squeezed, pulled the smaller man off balance. Struck once. Twice. His hand bloodied his attacker’s face. The blade clattered to the ground.

He kept squeezing. Mercy wasn’t in him anymore. The Cloak had seen to that. The smaller man cried out in pain as his wrist snapped in the vice grip.

“A disappointing effort, all things considered.”

Raymond cowered before him. Blood streaked his face. Fear and pain marked his eyes. The old man drew a blade from his belt. Raymond’s eyes widened.

“How-“

Steel silenced him, and he slumped to the floor. The old man shook his head. Heard someone running. Doors thrown open. Turned away from it all. Back to the Once-White Cloak. He lifted it from its mantle, shrugged it on over the thick leather he wore. Felt the aura of the cloak begin to warm him.

The footsteps stopped suddenly. “My lord, Raymond is-“

Her voice left her when she saw the scene.

“On the list,” he finished for her. “I know.”

By Tom Wells. © 2013