Bonus Story: Traveling Soldier

on May 25, 2008 in Other Tales

Happy Memorial Day.

Convallaria 17th, 193 (afternoon)

A road snaked through the middle of Paradise Valley, coming down out of the mountains to the north. At either end of the valley, it ran right alongside the sparkling Aranaska River. Further on in, it passed between fields containing a bewildering variety of crops which seemed to have been planted in patchwork. At the middle point of the valley, there was a small cluster of buildings… locally-owned businesses that catered to the needs of travelers.

A post office, general store, a small inn.

A cafe.

In the spring of 193, the Paradise Valley road wasn’t yet one of the broad and flat Emperor’s Roads. It was well-maintained, though and it connected two major Roads that ran parallel to each other on the north and south ends of the hilly lands of Aranaska.

The farming families who made Paradise their home depended on their road, but there were many among them who looked upon it with a measure of dread and suspicion. It carried their produce to the road to the south, and onwards to distant markets where their specialty produce was in high demand. It brought back the necessities and conveniences their own valley could not produce.

It represented a connection to the wider world. That was why the farmers depended upon it. That was why they dreaded it.

It wasn’t an Emperor’s Road in the spring of 193, but it was too useful a route to remain in independent hands indefinitely. Progress would come to the valley sooner or later, and then there would be taxes and tolls, and roadside restaurants and tourist traps springing up to compete with the local accommodations.

Government oversight. Crass commercialism. These things were the enemy.

At that time, roads like this one were carrying young men from all over the Imperial Republic to distant ports, where galleons and airships were waiting to carry them overseas. They were newly-conscripted legionnaires, enlisted into a battle of ideologies that was fought with men of flesh and blood.

The stream of young men who passed through their valley were served in the cafe and general store the same way as anybody else, if they didn’t mind icy glares and an occasional muttered word or two. If the letters they sent home never arrived, it wasn’t any fault of the valley’s post mistress, unless ill-will had some effect on the workings of the mail. If their coaches stopped for the night, they could count on getting exactly the services they paid for in the inn, and nothing more.

They were afforded every courtesy, in other words, except for courtesy.

Many of the men, away from their home villages for the first time and facing an uncertain future, shrank away from the disapproval of the locals. During short stops, they stayed inside the coach or clustered around it if it was hot, smoking and playing cups, trading stories. Rarely, one of them would be high-spirited enough to commit some minor act of retaliation against the townsfolk, which would only make sure the next troupe of troops to come through received even worse treatment.

This was the atmosphere in the valley when an old coach broke down on a sunny Convallaria afternoon. Its wheel had struck a rock coming down the mountain, weakening the front axle. It held out on the descent and finally snapped clean through when the travelers were down in the valley, half a mile from the little trading outpost. With one of its primary components broken, the enchantment which kept the coach moving was broken, too. Injuries were minor as the contraption shuddered to a halt, but most of the passengers would be stranded for a day or more, until a replacement arrived.

Not so for the five clean-cut young men dressed in red. They had an appointment which could not be delayed or denied. Arrangements were made swiftly. They would find places on the coach which came through that evening, even if it meant displacing another passenger.

In the mean time, they were stuck… trapped in a Paradise that wouldn’t have anything to do with them.

Four of the newly-minted infantrymen had a game of cups going in a corner of the cafe. The fifth, an olive-tan young man with hair that had somehow managed an impressive amount of curl considering how short it was cut, carried a lute case in addition to his haversack. He sat alone at a table, drinking tea and tapping his fingers nervously on the table.

He had started with coffee, a few hours ago. Sally Hammond, waitress and cook, had downgraded him to tea after the tapping started. She’d long since stopped counting how many times she topped off his cup—nothing in the cafe said that refills were free, and so for the boys in red they weren’t—but she was on the verge of easing him down to one of the local herbal blends.

“You poke a hole in that table, you’re buying us a new one,” she warned him as she gave him another refill.

He jumped, staring at her as if he couldn’t believe what he was seeing. That was the most words she’d said to him since he’d came in and sat down. She hadn’t even said anything when she started bringing him tea.

“Sorry, ma’am,” he said. “I guess I’m just nervous.”

She snorted, then covered her nose with her hand. She had a tendency to snort when she laughed, which embarrassed her, as she felt her nose was too big for her face. She had nothing to worry about. It was a bit big, but she was still quite pretty, with flaxen hair done up in pig tails with ribbons on the ends.

“What?” he asked.

“What you got to be nervous about?” she asked. “You and your friends are the ones carrying swords, wearing armor…”

“Where you think you gonna be, when you wake up tomorrow?” he asked.

The question took her aback. She scrutinized it in her head, making sure it wasn’t some sort of threat or trap, before she answered.

“In my bed, of course,” she said.

“Where’s that?”

She gave him the look she thought he deserved. Why would one of the Emperor’s goons need detailed directions to an innocent young girl’s bed?

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m just curious. I’ve never been through here before. There doesn’t seem to be much of a town.”

“The town proper’s on the other side of the river,” she said after several seconds hard thought. “Did you see where that road branches off, right in front of the post office?”

“That little track?”

She nodded.

“That goes to the Aranaska Bridge,” she said. “We live on the other side of that. It’s a real town, with a school and everything. Fifteen hundred people.”

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I didn’t mean to put it down.”

“You shouldn’t,” she said. “We’re proud of what we’ve got here.”

“Don’t act like it,” he said, turning away and resting his chin on his hand. His fingers continued to tap absently, only on his cheek instead of the table.

“Excuse me?” she said. She tried to laugh it off, but it was too absurd even for that. “We are plenty proud. This valley is the jewel of Aranaska Province. Our crops are the envy of…”

“The way you greet visitors, you’d think you were ashamed to have them see the place,” he said.

“We know how to treat visitors,” she said. He stared at her, his face impassive, utterly motionless. Even his fingers had ceased to move. “We know how to treat soldiers of the emperor, too,” she added, though she turned away from his gaze.

“What’d we ever do to you?”

“Nothing personal,” she said. “But you would, if you were ordered to. I mean, that’s what a soldier is, isn’t it? You’ll rape and murder folks over there and say you’re just following orders, so the only thing that stops you from doing it here is nobody’s ordered you to yet.”

“You really believe that orcshit?” he asked.

She nodded, stony-faced.

“I’m a soldier of the Imperial Republic,” he said. “The empire is the emperor, but the republic is the people. When I go over there, I’m going to be fighting for you.”

“Yeah, well, I didn’t ask you to,” she said. “I’ve got other tables.”

She turned away, though the only other people in the cafe were the card players, and they were eating their own snacks and drinking beer they’d brought themselves. They were friends, all from the same town, and this was an adventure.

“Listen,” the soldier with the lute said when Sally returned to his table almost an hour later with another cup of tea. “If things were half as bad as you act like they are, do you think you’d be allowed to act like this? Snubbing men in uniform? Spitting in our food?”

“I never…” She sighed. “Well, maybe we’re just too small to be noticed, with the war going on, but that doesn’t mean the legions won’t march into the valley and burn our fields some day.”

“I hate to break it to you, darling, but I think if Magisterion XI really wanted to burn your fields, he could spare a cohort and an afternoon to do it.”

“That’s slick. You should be writing propaganda,” she said. “Anyway, if people aren’t willing to resist even the smallest acts of oppression, he just might get it in his head that he could get away with something like that.

“Acts of oppression like bringing a little extra business to your valley?” the soldier asked. “Putting a little extra copper in your pocket?”

“You can keep your copper,” she said, and she headed into the back to mop tiles that had never been cleaner since the day they’d been laid.

“You know, most of the boys who go overseas didn’t ask for it,” the soldier said the next time she showed herself.

“Yeah? What about you?”

“Me? I signed up.”


“I guess I’m stupider than I look.”

This bit of gentle self-deprecation caught her off-guard, and she smiled a bit.

“Nah,” she said. “Couldn’t be.”

He laughed. She did, too.

“Do you know why I asked you where you’re gonna wake up tomorrow?” he asked her.

She shook her head.

“Tomorrow, I’m probably going to wake up on a coach, if I get to sleep at all,” he said. “A day or three after that, it might be a camp, and then I’ll be put on a ship or skyboat, and a bit after that I’ll be sleeping in a tent, or under strange skies, but it won’t really be so much a matter of where I wake up as if I wake up.”

She said nothing. Her throat seemed to want to do something, but it couldn’t make up its mind whether it was going to bring something up or take it down.

“You asked me why I’m nervous,” he said. “That’s why.”

He looked up at her, directly at her, for the first time, and as a consequence she looked at him. So skinny. The skin seemed to be pulled tight against his skull. He looked so young. He had to be older than she was by at least a year… unless the old men were right and they really were conscripting children now… but he looked so young. The man sitting in the cafe in a heavily enchanted leather cuirass openly wearing a sword on his hip had become a boy.

“What’s your name?” she asked him, her voice barely above a whisper.

“Emperor’s Legionnaire Joseph Hawkins, ma’am,” he said.

“E.L. Joe?” she asked, cocking an eyebrow.

“Somebody had to be named it,” he said, grinning.

“Sally,” she said. “Hammond. That’s me.”

“I’m very pleased to meet you,” he said. “Got a break coming up?”

“I’m alone today,” she said.


“But that means I can take a break when I want to,” she said. On an impulse, she reached for his jittery hand and took hold of it by the wrist. He stopped shaking and took her hand in his, giving her a thin smile which she returned warily.

“Come on,” she said, dragging him past the window where she flipped the sign from “open” to “closed”.

The other enlistees whooped and cheered at them as they headed out into the sunlight.

“What about them four?” Joseph asked her.

“They’re alright,” she said.

“You really mean to leave your store unattended with four baby-eating, dog-raping imperial soldiers in it?” he asked. “Awfully trusting.”

“What are they gonna do? They ain’t going anywhere till the coach gets here, anyway,” she said.

“Where we going?” he asked her as she led him to the path she’d mentioned. “Into town?”

“That would end well,” she said. “Nah, I just wanna get on the other side of the valley.”

The little dirt road had been built up on a wall of earth, keeping it mostly level even as the valley sloped down towards the river. This kept it passable when the river swelled over the side of its banks. The ground on either side of it was flooded, with plants poking out of the water here and there.

“I guess you shouldn’t plant so close to the river,” Joseph said.

“They’re meant to grow like that,” Sally said. “That’s rice,” she said pointing. “That’s water chestnuts, and that over there’s cranberries.”

“Cranberries grow in the water?”

“Where’d you think they grow?”

“In a can,” he said. A flash of movement caught his eye and he whipped his head around to see a fleshy arm sticking out of a rice paddy for a moment before it slipped beneath the surface. “Hey!” he said, setting his lute and pack down and stepping cautiously onto the rock-studded side of the embankment. “There’s somebody in there!”

“No, it’s okay!” Sally said.

“They’re still alive,” he said, turning around and picking his way down towards the marshy ground.

“It’s okay!” Sally repeated. “It’s just a rice nymph.”

“A what?” Joseph asked, looking up in confusion. The moment’s distraction when his foot was already in motion made him lose his balance, and then his grip, and then he slid down the rocky incline to splash ass-first in the paddy below.

“Joe!” Sally shrieked. She started to pick her way down to him.

“No, stay!” he said. “You’ll break your neck.”

“You could’ve broke yours!” she countered.

“Stay there,” he said. “I’ll climb up.”

“No, you won’t,” she said. “We’ll walk back together to where the road’s lower.”

They hurried back in the direction of the trading post, Joseph trudging and splashing towards the edge of the submerged fields and Sally carrying his stuff up on the causeway.

“What did you say that was, now?” he asked her when they met back up.

“A nymph,” she said. “A cereal nymph.”

“You’re pulling my leg,” he said.

“No,” she said. “You’ve heard about nymphs, right?”

“Yes, ma’am,” he said. “Dryads and naiads and such. I’ve never heard of a rice paddy nymph, though.”

“All the fields here have nymphs,” she said. “A lot of the trees up on the sides of the valleys, too.”

“I didn’t think there were any dryads, outside the preserves.”

“There are, here,” Sally said. “We’re working with some other folks on cultivating them, building their numbers back up… getting some legal rights and recognition for them, even. Heck, even our river has a naiad, though old Aranaska doesn’t show herself very much.”

“The river’s named after a nymph?”

“The nymph’s named after the river,” she said. “Her real name’s… well, it’s not something I can tell you, exactly.”

“It’s a secret?” he asked. “Or is this because I’m a soldier?”

“No, nothing like that” she said. “It’s just not the sort of thing you say.” She shrugged and looked away, seeming embarrassed. “I met her, once… fell in the river when I was young.”

“You look pretty young now,” he said.

“Younger,” she said.

“What do you call this place?”

“Don’t you even know where you are?” she asked him.

“No, ma’am,” he said, shaking his head. “We were never meant to stop here.”

“Paradise,” she said.

He looked at her, and a grin slowly broke out over his face. Then he started to laugh.

“What?” she asked.

He laughed harder.

“What?” she repeated, growing annoyed.

“Well, now,” he said. “Guess I’m going to have to make a point to live through this thing aren’t I?”

“Why’s that?” she asked. “I mean, not that I… well… I’d rather you did, anyway.”

“So would I,” he said. “But that goes double, now that I’ve been in the Elysian Fields… and found out they’re all wet.”

She swatted him on the shoulder.

“Don’t be cheeky,” she said. She held up his case. “And what would my folks say, if they saw me helping a soldier haul his filthy lute?”

They both laughed at this.

“I wanted to take you to the fields over on the other side of the river so I could show you the nymphs there,” she said. “The ones in the grain fields are less shy of strangers than the water ones.”

“There’s fields on this side,” he said.

“They’re just fields,” she said. “So far. Some day, the valley’s gonna have as many nymphs as it has people, and we’re gonna feed half the republic on the food we grow here.”

“Half the republic?” Joseph asked.

“Well, not right away,” she said. “But once we’ve got the valley full, we can start expanding and exporting, teaching our nymph-lore to others… and then maybe half the republic will be fed by nymphs descended from ours.”

Joseph smiled.

“What?” she asked.

“Sounds awfully imperialistic.”

“Oh, stop,” she said. “It’s a stupid dream, maybe, but it’s a good stupid dream, and anyway, it’s ours. Feed the world.”

“That’s why I enlisted,” he said.

“To feed the world?”

“For stupid dreams,” he said. “Yours, mine, the little boy down the street’s. Some of us have gotta go and fight, so the rest of us can dream our stupid dreams.”

“I don’t believe that,” she said, ducking her head.

“You think I’m lying?”

She looked up, and he saw that there were tears in the corners of her eyes.

“I don’t believe that anybody has to fight,” she said. “Somebody has to choose to fight in the first place. If we threw out all the swords and disbanded all the armies, who’d be left to fight?”

“The first person who took it into their head to pick up those swords and put them to work,” he said. “We didn’t choose to start this fight. We never do.”

“I don’t believe that, either,” she said, turning away.

“Believe what you want,” he said. “Believe that if some little kingdom a thousand miles away decides to go chaotic, that’s got nothing to do with you and me… but smarter men than me say if we let one kingdom fall to chaos, that’s just the beginning. If we don’t stop it there, it’ll happen here… and you can find out what it’s like to live under a warlord instead of our lawful emperor. How long do you think your Paradise will last then?”

“I believe people can choose peace, if they really want it,” Sally said. She turned away from him.

“I do, too,” Joseph said. “But it ain’t a straight road.”

“Damn,” Sally said. She balled her hands and stomped her foot. “Damn it, damn it… damn it!”

“Listen,” Joseph said, putting his hand on her shoulder. “I didn’t mean to…”

“No,” she said, whipping around so fast one of her braided pigtails hit him in the face. She pointed up the main road. “Look.”

“What?” he asked. He could see a distant cloud of dust on the road coming down through the mountain.

“Coach,” she said. “Big one.”

“They must have rushed the next one through,” Joseph said. “I guess… I guess that’s my ride.”

“I was going to show you the nymphs,” Sally said softly.

“Saw one,” he said. “At least, the elbow of one. Look… things are gonna be tight on that coach, and the transport ship probably even more so.” He lifted up his lute. “I brought this with me because it’s all I have in the world and I didn’t have anybody back home to leave it with, but chances are good it won’t be able to make the trip with me.” He held it out to her. “Would you… hang on to it for me?”

“Oh, I couldn’t,” she said, shaking her head and stepping away. “It’s yours… you said it’s all you have.”

“It is,” he said. “And I’d like to know it’s waiting for me when I get back. I’ll have to come back through here on my way home, anyway, right?”

She hesitated for a second, then took it. Indecision weighed on her for another several seconds, and then she kissed him on the cheek.

“I wasn’t expecting anything from you,” he said. “I mean…”

“Oh, shut up,” she said, and she kissed him on the mouth. “It’s ten, fifteen minutes away still. Twenty if we’re lucky. Is that enough?”

“I can hurry,” he said. “Where?”


“Side of the road?”

“Your uniform’s already a mess,” she said. “And this is Paradise.”

Twenty-five minutes later, they were back at the trading post. There was more kissing. Sally all but pushed Joseph onto the coach, so he wouldn’t see the tears spill out of her eyes.

“Ma’am?” one of the other soldiers said before stepping onto the coach. “We helped ourselves to some pie. We left money on the counter for it, and for the use of your table.”

“That’s fine,” Sally said. “Have a… be safe.”

“Thank you, ma’am.”

“I’ll write you,” Joseph yelled from the window of the coach as it began to rumble and clatter away. “Sally Hammond, Paradise, Aranaska Province… right?”

“Paradise Valley,” she corrected. “But you don’t have to.”

“As often as I can,” he said. “And you keep that safe! I’ll be coming back for it, I swear!”

“See that you do!” she called, smiling through the tears.

“I swear!”

The minstrel boy to the war is gone,
In the ranks of death you’ll find him;
His father’s sword he hath girded on,
And his wild harp slung behind him;
“Land of Song!” cried the warrior bard,
“Tho’ all the world betrays thee,
One sword, at least, thy right shall guard,
One faithful harp shall praise thee!”

The Minstrel fell! But the foeman’s chain
Could not bring that proud soul under;
The harp he lov’d ne’er spoke again,
For he tore its chords asunder;
And said “No chains shall sully thee,
Thou soul of love and brav’ry!
Thy songs were made for the pure and free
They shall never sound in slavery!

The minstrel boy will return one day,
When we hear the news, we will cheer it.
The minstrel boy will return we pray,
Torn in body, perhaps, but not in spirit.
Then may he play his harp in peace,
In a world such as Heaven intended,
For every quarrel of Man must cease,
And every battle shall be ended.

The Minstrel Boy, lyrics by Thomas More.
Third verse, traditional (American Civil War).

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8 Responses to “Bonus Story: Traveling Soldier”

  1. chaos jaguar says:

    Aww… this made me a little wistful. Maybe I’m horrible with names and he’s been mentioned before, after this took place, but I hope he made it back ok!

    Current score: 0
  2. Brenda says:

    I really love this one.

    Just like the Dixie Chicks song, it always brings a tear.
    Two days past eighteen
    He was waiting for the bus in his Army green
    Sat down in a booth at a cafe there
    Gave his order to a girl with a bow in her hair
    She’s a little shy so she gives him a smile
    And he says ‘Would you mind sittin’ down for a while
    And talkin’ to me? I’m feelin’ a little low…’
    She said ‘I’m off in an hour and I know where we can go.’
    So they went down and they sat on the pier
    He said ‘I bet you got a boyfriend but I don’t care –
    I got no one to send a letter to…
    Would you mind if I send one back here to you?’
    So the letters came from an Army camp in California, then Vietnam
    And he told her of his heart, that might be love
    And all of the things that he was so scared of.
    He said, ‘When it’s gettin’ kinda rough over here
    I think of that day sittin’ down at the pier
    And I close my eyes, and see your pretty smile…
    Don’t worry but I won’t be able to write for a while.’
    I cried, never gonna hold the hand of another guy
    ‘Too young for him,’ they told her, waitin’ for the love of the travelin’ soldier
    Our love will never end, waitin’ for the soldier to come back again
    Never more to be alone, when the letter says the soldier’s coming home.
    One Friday night at a football game
    The Lord’s Prayer said and the anthem sang
    A man spoke up, would you bow your heads
    For a list of local Vietnam dead?
    Crying all alone under the stands
    Was a piccolo player from the marching band
    And one name read, but nobody really cared
    But a pretty little girl with a bow in her hair.
    I cried, never gonna hold the hand of another guy
    ‘Too young for him,’ they told her, waitin’ for the love of the travelin’ soldier
    Our love will never end, waitin’ for the soldier to come back again
    Never more to be alone, when the letter says the soldier’s coming home.

    Current score: 0
  3. Daezed says:

    *sighs softly, and thinks wistfully of her own absent soldier….*

    Current score: 1
  4. MadnessMaiden says:

    Loved this story. My best friend and my boyfriend are in the military, so it touched me. 🙂

    Current score: 0
  5. celwoolf says:

    well…as a soldier and someone whos deployed right now this story really touched me thank you i think those fear have touched us all over here and isnt something alot of people understand

    Current score: 1
    • capybroa says:

      May whatever force guides our fates protect you and keep you safe, soldier.

      Current score: 1
  6. capybroa says:

    When I was barely a teenager, I was enrolled in a choral performance course at a local music center. I sang “The Minstrel Boy” in front of a few dozen polite parents and family friends at the end of that summer, including my own. For a shy kid who was thoroughly unaccustomed to this kind of attention, it was quite an experience, and it has stayed with me ever since. Not long after, my country went to war, and the stories of horror, love and loss began to filter homeward from the soldiers, minstrels and others who went to fight yet another quarrel of Man. As of this writing, it still has not ended, but I love to see this story step back and acknowledge this very real thing in the midst of a fantasy world. Thanks, Alexandra Erin.

    Current score: 1
  7. Dangflabit says:

    His initials E.L. Emperors Legion instead of government issue clever

    Current score: 1