Today’s featured Tale of the Underworld is one of our shorter entries, but a testament that a powerful story need not be lengthy. Without further delay, I present, “The Warrior and the Flower” by Tekkamansoul.
The Warrior and the Flower
The warrior opened his eyes.
Cold, hard ground. A far-off glow. The sound of a river.
He tried to move, but his body wouldn’t listen. His eyes refused to focus; his brain, to recall where he was or what he was doing.
With a forceful grunt and an exertion of muscles strained beyond their limits, he managed to prop an arm beneath him and roll over onto his back.
Thud. The pain was unbearable.
He screamed. Once he reclaimed his breath and the red in his vision cleared, he could dimly make out the arched rock ceiling far above him, dripping with stalactites. He couldn’t help but feel as if the cavern itself was preparing to pierce his chest and finish him. The reverberations of his scream came echoing back, solidifying in his mind the size of the expanse he was lost in. How undignified.
A cavern. Of course. The Catacombs.
A drop of water fell onto his forehead from the menacing spikes above, rolled down his cheek, and touched his lips. The salty, mineral-ridden water was anything but refreshing.
The warrior noticed the hand resting on his chest was sticky and warm. He brought it with some effort before his face and saw what he dreaded.
Blood. A lot of it. Looking down, he could see the outline of his fractured armor, exposing an open wound in his gut. He put his head back and closed his eyes, grimacing as he attempted what he already knew was a futile effort.
Just as he was afraid of. He couldn’t feel his legs, much less move them. His situation was becoming clear. Now is not my time, he thought desperately. Vainly.
The warrior strained his ears to hear anything he could over his own labored breaths. There was the quiet rushing of the underground river nearby, the occasional plop of water into one of the Catacomb’s many eroded pools, and the faint far-away scratching of some tiny creature.
He was alone. Alone and dying in this cold, wet hell with no escape.
It was starting to come back. The last thing he remembered was accepting the job. A weasely-looking man covered in pockmarks had offered him a none-too-generous sum to escort him and his goods to the other side of the mountain range that separates the continent. Going through one of the shallower levels of the Catacombs was a common enough shortcut, and one that the warrior had taken before, though it wasn’t his preferred route. Somehow the dirty merchant made it sound like it was his idea from the beginning.
He swore, his voice a thin rasp. Thieving bastard. He pieced together what had happened. He should have been more careful, but he was too sure of himself, too proud. In a blind grasp at a few extra coins and, with luck, a bit of glory, he was led right into a trap.
The spearhead of the merchant’s goon was probably still lodged in his belly.
Not my time, he thought again. Though what difference does it make? What mark have I even left on this world?
The warrior had lived a lonely life. Not necessarily by choice; that was simply the way things were. He traveled whenever he could, fought in his share of violent battles (with both humans and daemons at the other end of his blade), and had seen more adventure in his few short years than many did in entire lifetimes. In the end, however, his nights were spent alone.
Had he caught the eye of the odd barmaid? Of course. He had even spent many a quiet hour poring over the great sonnets of bards past as reference for his own amateur love poems, always clumsy but full of emotion, to give to his sweetheart of the season. But, as they say, ’twas not meant to be.
The smiling faces of his past brief romances floated to the front of his mind in what he now knew were his final hours. They were of no comfort, but he smiled back anyway.
Most of their names escaped him. Not that they mattered anymore. They had almost certainly moved on, found new lovers, and started families as the warrior wandered on.
He thought of one, still, often enough. He used to see her face in the clouds, on the surface of a serene lake, in paintings of royalty. He heard her voice from time to time in love ballads and sad songs. He smelled her hair on the breeze of spring mornings and felt her touch on the finest of linens. He was painfully mindful of all the feelings he was never eloquent enough to put to words.
He was brave enough, or perhaps stupid enough, to take up a life of adventuring, but never brave enough to go back to her and confess his feelings. And it was too late. It was too late a long time ago. How many years had it been? He dimly recalled a time when the future had been filled with a million unexplored possibilities and his youthful heart ached not with love but wanderlust.
What was her name? the warrior asked himself. Strange. He had always remembered. The other women in his life eventually faded from his heart, but her, he had always remembered. Her eyes, at least, he would never forget: they were an icy blue that reflected the quiet sadness within.
Yes, he couldn’t forget those eyes. She was a poor girl growing up and had faced more hardship than most. The warrior felt both hatred and love whenever he looked into those sad eyes. Hated the pain within, but loved that he could break that ice with a smile when he tried. Her laugh was the most beautiful sound in the world to him – a veritable reason for living.
But rather than staying in his hometown, he chose instead a life of danger and excitement. He would come back to visit of course, from time to time, but things were never the same. Eventually, after his parents died, he never returned.
What was her name? he wondered again. The pain was less now, and the warrior found himself lost in his memories. He strained to remember. She was blond, he knew. Her hair was dazzling in the sunlight, and her skin was fair. They had spent many nights together on the knoll, gazing at the stars and talking until sunrise.
They never kissed, regrettably. Her lips, they were –
The warrior was getting tired. He let his head roll over and his cheek touched the wet rock. That’s when he saw something he was surprised to see there.
A flower. A single yellow flower, blossoming somehow from a stale patch of dirt nearby. It was young yet, but healthy. How did it get here? Why choose such a desolate, depressing place to bloom? The warrior stretched out his arm, but the flower was just out of reach.
He struggled, tried to think back to the day he left home, but a fog was settling in. Had he gone to see her? Did he even say goodbye? Her name, perhaps it was the name of a flower….
The flower was so close. The warrior strained himself one last time and pulled himself nearer to the small miracle. He touched it as his last thought entered his mind once again –
What was her name?
“Lookit this poor sod. Probably met the same fate as the other two we saw a ways back.” The gruff adventurer kicked at the dead man’s boots.
“Wallet’s gone, too. What a waste.”
His companion, a bard with long, flowing dark hair, knelt down next to the warrior and studied his face as he brushed a stray strand behind his ear.
“Wonder what his story was,” he mused quietly.
“Who cares. Let’s get outta here in case those bandits are still around,” his partner sniffed, glancing around with a trained eye.
The bard stood and stepped over the warrior as he followed the other, careful to avoid disturbing the outstretched arm gently grasping the stem of a lone, unplucked weed.