I don't know how many time I have rewritten this story. It must be at least four. This is, unless my writing makes another grate lep forward, the last time it will find myself needed to rewrite it. As heartbreaking as this tale is among my favourites, even if the original was done for a school assignment. As hard as it was to write then and as hard and draining as each rewrite has been for me, I love it and the story it tells, this part of Jhen Shadowstome's life, is one I love to explore. As with many of my stories, it touches on themes of loss, love, loyalty, duty, sacrifice, darkness, and hope. This is part of the Songs of the North series, the list of which can be found on my profile. It is the first to be written and to meet the outside world. I have included a handful of notes at the bottom for those who wish to read them. I hope you as a reader enjoy this tale and please review if you are able.
Let the Straight Take You
Jhen Shadowstorm—Lord of Grey Ward and former High General to King Julius of Sarath—looked over the darkening battlefield with the hard and tired eyes of someone who had fought far too many wars. This battle—against northerner raiders—had been hard-fought and dearly-won. The dead of both sides yet lay where they had fallen, dark smudges in the misty gloom of twilight.
"Find the wounded," he had ordered his remaining soldiers, "we don't have time to worry about the dead."
Using his mind's eye, Jhen searched for his children and son-in-law, making sure he knew and could pinpoint the location of each. Only three of his six daughters had accompanied him on this campaign, two being too young to go and the other having little interest in the ways of war. Jhen let his mind calm as he looked for his family, feeling the Lifefire of each in turn always provided him with a sense of security.
Lexin—his eldest daughter and valued commander—searching the battlefield for survivors; possessed as she always was with a single-minded determination to do her duty.
Nike—his second born and standard-bearer—with the healers, having her dislocated shoulder seen to.
Arya—his fourth born and heir—for whom this battle had been her first. With her older sister Lexin, also aiding in the search for the wounded.
Then there was Ashton—the handsome young knight who had captured the stoic Lexin's heart three winters before. A frowned darkened Jhen's face as he realized that he could not locate the young man.
He was unable to spend more time searching Ashton, however, for at that moment he received several reports in quick succession. The work left Jhen no time fret or dwell on the fate of his son-in-law.
He is strong, the former general reminded himself, and well-trained. He knows how to look after himself.
Jhen was meeting with a lieutenant on the number of dead—which was fast approaching a thousand—when the tent flap burst open, and Arya tumbled in. Behind her came Lexin, her face empty of any emotion save her grey eyes, which were full of heartbreak. Arya was frantic, her words coming far too quickly for Jhen to understand.
"I cannot understand you," Jhen told his daughter, "slow down and breathe."
"Arya found Ashton," Lexin supplied, her ordinarily clear voice a low rasp.
"Which is excellent news," Jhen said, the tension in his body easing with the knowledge that the love of his firstborn's life was safe, "is it not?"
"Ash is hurt, father," Arya whispered, a terrible fear filling her blue eyes, "I think he is going to die."
The words seemed to break something within Arya because she hugged him then, clinging to his remaining arm and crying as a small child might. Jhen stood, rooted to the ground and unable to possess what he was being told. In the end, it was Lexin, the one with more right to cry than any of them, who stepped forward and pulled Arya—gently but firmly—away from him.
The healers were only a handful of yards from his tent and Jhen was there in seconds. The soldiers had not spent much time on the camp, only the healers and a few of the higher-ranking officers—like Jhen—had tents. Everyone else had merely laid down to rest on the mushy ground. The tents of the healers were little more than lean-tos that gave shelter to the worst wounded; many others were laying on the muddy ground nearby.
Jhen pushed the flap of the main tent, the stench of death and every fluid in the body hitting him as he entered.
Nike stood from her place by the entrance—her left arm bound—and came to stand beside him. She met his concerned eye with her war-hardened gaze.
"This way," she said in a tired voice.
Jhen followed his secondborn to the back of the tent—which had been blocked off for privacy. Behind the makeshift wall was a cot which held a boy he could only just recognize.
The right side of Ashton's face was bruised and cut, and Jhen could see that mottled bruises covered the entire side right side of the young man's body—going as far down as his hip. Ashton's typically lively silver eyes were closed, his dark lashes stark against his ashen skin. His breathing was shallow and ragged and blood staining his lips. Someone had removed his armour—which was in a severely dented heap in the corner—there was no sign of his other clothing. Ashton wore only a light robe one of the healers must have dressed him in.
Jhen bowed his head and sank to his knees beside his son-in-law.
"Ash?" he whispered horsey.
"He hasn't woken or moved since Arya found him," Nike told him in a voice far harsher then it was meant to be.
Jhen only nodded, unable to fully accept what lay before him. Ashton had come to Grey Ward five years before—an orphan with no fighting experience and no home—within a year he had become a trainer for the warhorses and later the head trainer. He had found a way through the walls Lexin had built around her heart when no one else could. Ashton had become the closest thing Jhen had to a son and now.
Reaching out, he ran the fingers of his living hand though Ashton's raven hair—stroking it gently—the movement allowed Jhen to feel as if he was doing something. Ashton remained unmoving, but he had expected that—the boy was far beyond the reach of any mortal words.
Hearing footsteps, Jhen turned and looked up to see a young healer—a girl only a little older the Ashton—standing behind him.
"Lord Jhen," she said, bowing her head.
She was dressed in the soft grey over robe and dark blue tunic of a fully qualified healer, but without the silver trim of a master. The colours contrasted well with her ebony skin and long carefully braided hair.
"How is he?" Jhen swallowed painfully before adding, "Be honest, please,"
The young woman met his eyes gravely, and when she spoke, her tone was calm and even.
"Not well. The internal damage is great, and Sir Ashton has lost a great deal of blood. There is damage to his spinal column as well, and at least three splintered ribs, which have punctured organs and contributed to the internal damage."
Jhen nodded slowly, thinking. The wounds the young healer spoke of were consistent with a mace blow—likely more than once—to the chest. Jhen had seen such injuries before and knew that they were not ones many survived.
"Can anything be done?" he asked.
When the young healer did not immediately reply, Jhen knew what her answer would be and held up his hand.
"I understand. Keep..." Jhen choked on the words, "keep him comfortable."
Jhen could not stay in the tent any longer, feeling compressed and utterly helpless in the face of this tragedy. Standing, he made his way out—pushing open the tent flap with a violence that surprised him—sucking in a deep breath of cold air as he stepped into the open. His daughters were waiting for him outside along with a number of the others. Arya stood and started to come to him, but then caught sight of his face and drew back, thinking better of it.
Jhen nodded to them—unable to speak for a moment—then told them softly,
"Ashton is... not well."
Those words the only ones he could manage at that moment, he could only hope they were enough. For without any others he turned a walked away, leaving those standing by to whisper among themselves. Jhen knew that he ought to stay with them, and comfort them—Lexin especially—but he could not bear to go to them.
Jhen walked across the camp and sat down on a log beside one of the large cooking fires that had been set up. Almost immediately, people were gathering around him, wanting to ask his opinion of different manners, asking how the brave young Sir Ashton was. Even before he could wave them away, Nike was there, talking to them and directing them in his stead.
Taking a few deep breaths, he attempted to compose himself. A gust of wind ruffled his dark hair—wich every passing year seemed to add more silver too. The air bore the smells of both the camp and the battle, ones more familiar to Jhen then his daughters faces. He sighed and leaned back, feeling vulnerable in a way he had not anticipated.
They had lost many men in this war—too many brave and loyal men. But not his children or those he love—at least not in this war. Six years before had been Tatiana they had mourned, then the tragic death of Gaelyn in the Last Winter War, only two years ago. But this time the Gods were asking too much of Jhen—of his family—Ashton's fate.
If only the Gods where merciful, he thought bitterly, then would this world be genuinely peaceful.
Making up his mind Jhen stood and nodding to Nike, giving his daughter silent permission to continue with what she was doing, and returned to Ashton's side.
"Has there been any change?" he asked the healer—a different one—who now sat with Ashton.
"No, my'lord," the healer said sadly.
"I will sit with him," Jhen told the man, "you have earned a rest."
The fact the man went willingly and with no protest from Ashton's bedside told Jhen everything he needed about his son-in-law's condition. He brought one of Ashton's hands to his lips—pressed a gentle kiss to his clammy skin—then he gently pulled the boy's head into his lap.
How can I be so selfish as to want him to live? Jhen wondered, running his fingers absently through Ashton's night-dark hair, How can I justify such a thing even within my mind. Even if cruel miracle occurs and Ashton somehow survives there will be no end to the pain he will endure. Lexin would love him no matter what, but it would not be fair to him.
Jhen was still sitting there stroking Ashton's hair and thinking when the flap was pushed aside, and Arya stepped in.
"How is he?" she asked in a whisper. Her pale face reminded Jhen that she had been the one to find Ashton on the stricken battlefield.
"I'm afraid he won't survive the night," the words came to his chapped lips effortlessly—through no healer had spoken them—Jhen knew them to be true.
"He won't suffer too long then," Arya whispered, voice breaking.
It was the same thing he kept repeating to himself and hearing it from one of his daughters only served to strengthen his resolve.
"Fetch your sisters and tell them," he told her softly, "should they like to see him."
Arya stood and nodded, accepting her duty as she always did,
"Of course, father," she said, managing a watery smile before leaving the tent.
Lexin will come, Jhen thought, but she will not stay. She knows Ashton would not wish her to linger here watching him die. That's what had made them such a perfect match during these last years.
He leaned over and pressed a kiss to Ashton's forehead,
"You have given the greatest gift anyone can," he whispered, the words in his native language, "you gave the gift of fighting and falling for those you love and what you believed in."
There was no noise inside the tent other than his ragged breathing and the whisper of the wind. The air smelled faintly of smoke and carnage, things that came with any battle. Ashton's breathing was quieter than Jhen's own—as though he had relaxed and accepted fate.
Soon the tent flap moved again, and Jhen looked up to see his daughters standing there—waiting.
Lexin was upright and pale, her hand white on the hilt of her sword.
Nike was quiet and dignified—her stance as steady and unyielding as Grey Ward's walls.
Arya in silent tears—her body shaking with the might of the fight Jhen knew was raging within her heart.
"Ash can't die." it was Arya who spoke the words, but her eyes betrayed that she knew the truth, even if she had not accepted it. She hung by the door of the tent when her older sisters entered, clearly unsure as to what she should do.
"Everyone can die," Nike said simply, looking at Ashton's limp form with an unreadable emotion in her hazel eyes, "we just hope to do so standing for what we believe in."
Lexin may look like me, Jhen thought, but it is Nike who got my spirit and will.
Lexin looked between Ashton and him—now visibly upset. Jhen knew that she would take Ashton's death hard—as she had the right to.
If only because he is not ment to die, Jhen thought, at least not like this.
He could see a glimmer in his eldest eyes and knew that he would need to be on the lookout for her to do something courageous and at the same time very reckless.
"You may leave," Jhen told his daughter's softly, willing them silently to obey his words, "neither of us could fault you for it."
"Father, we can't leave you," Arya said, squaring her shoulders and brushing a hand across her face, "it would not be right,"
"Go," Jhen urged, trying to smile. "there is nothing you can do here. Ashton would not want you to sit by and wait for him to die."
Arya nodded and fled wordlessly and without looking back. Nike nodded and turned to follow her younger sister, but before she could, Lexin caught her hand and pulled her across the tent. Jhen watched as his eldest knelt beside her dying husband and kissed him softly—getting his blood on her lips in the process.
"I love you," she whispered before fleeing.
Nike—not to be bested—squeezed Ashton's hand and kissed him on the cheek.
"Go in peace and love loyal knight," she whispered before following her sisters in a less speedy exit.
And now when it comes to it, Jhen thought, this task I have appointed myself, I wish I had let them stay. Yet I can not involve them; it would not be right to ask my daughters to share this burden with me.
Before he could lose his resolve Jhen reached over and grabbed a handful of the herbs that had been used to treat Ashton. In a small dose, this particular one was an excellent painkiller, well in a large doses fatal. Taking a deep breath, Jhen took the glass of warm water—meant for a small dose—and added the entire bag.
The liquid turned a peaceful shade of green and added a faint sweet smell to the air. A bit coaxing was all it took to get it down Ashton's throat. The young man soon relaxed in Jhen's arms—growing limper steadily as the moments passed. Jhen rocked him gently, humming at first and then beginning to sing,
"Sleep, little one,
For your deeds are done,
Let the darkness carry you away,
No need to pray,
Let the starlight take you,
To where dreams are made."
Jhen heard his voice crack, but he continued singing—hands twisting into Ashton's dark curls.
"Sleep, little one,
Close your weary eyes,
No need for the tears you cry,
Your sword was swift, and forever you will drift,
So let the starlight take you,
To where dreams are made."
Jhen did not know when he started to cry, but he was barely aware of the tears slipping down his cheeks as the song's last verse flowed from his lips.
"Sleep, little boy, of whom I am proud,
You fought so well,
Yet you wear the defeated's shroud.
Your eyes close now, for this is my solemn vow,
And let the starlight take you,
To where dreams are made."
His voice faded into an echoing void of silence—a place where not even the wind could be heard.
"I love you," Jhen whispered as Ashton's chest stopped moving, "forgive me."
It was Nike who came to check on them near dawn and found Jhen still stroking Ashton's peaceful face. But so long as Jhen lived, he told no one of those last few minutes in the tent, and when he passed into the hands of Morrígna—Goddess of Death and the Queen of the Night Lands—the secret went with him.
Thank you for reading, and I hope you enjoyed this story, as painful and touching as it is, please review if you can and if you have any feedback you do not want to include in a review just shot me a PM.
The Title: aside from being a line in the song, I will leave it up to interpretation.
The Song: was written with the help of my best friend for this story. I also hate how it is formated but could not find a better way to do it. Also, please don't steal it.
The Cover: was made with images found on Pinterest and my own scant abilities in using free photo editors.
On The Name Nike: well best know now as a shoe brand the name itself is that of the Greek goddess of speed, strength, and victory. I chose it as the name of Jhen's secondborn because of the theme of her elder sisters name, which is a shortened form of Alexandra, meaning 'defender or protector of man' and is the female form of Alexander.
Character Age: when this story was in its original form someone asked how old the characters were supposed to be, from then on I have included, especially in short stories that are part of a series, a list of the character's ages.