“It’s over. We’ve killed hundreds, yet we’ve survived. We’re alive, and we’ve conquered our enemy. And now, our lord is allowing us to take as much as we wish to for ourselves.”
A door is opened. The dim light of a torch is the only illumination given to the room, a torch held by the figure opening the door to their wealth. A rush of the cold air contained within the chamber swirls through the man, forcing the flames of his light to dance. The flicker of the flame produces constantly changing shadows, bringing the room to life. And even through the minimal lighting, he can see the reason that he is there: every single place the light touches, a shimmer greets him, a sign of the reflection which most like him can only dream of. He smiles. The rush of cold air and the quantity of this material reveal to him a pleasant fact.
“We’re the first ones here. We get the best picks at the spoils of war.”
He takes a step into the room. His metal boots meet the cold stone floor, sending an echo throughout the room. He finds a slot on the wall next to the door and inserts the torch there, freeing his hand. Immediately, he rushes into the center of the pile, beginning to take a few trinkets only.
Another figure enters from behind, also sifting through the pile, looking for what to keep and what to leave for the others. His look is grimmer, less joyous. After taking only a few golden necklaces, he straitens his back and begins to head to the door, satisfied with his earnings. His comrade looks back, somewhat startled.
“You don’t want more?”
The man sighs and turns to face his friend. He bends his neck down a little and then lets his left hand greet it, to take the weight of his head and let him rest. After a few shakes of his head, he explains why he has taken so little of such a great plunder.
“I don’t like taking even this much.”
“This stuff belonged to other people. It belonged to those we conquered. Even though we defeated them, taking their stuff seems…wrong. I know; I’m resting assured that it wouldn’t make any difference to take none. The lord specifically said that anything we didn’t take, whatever was leftover, was going to be his. This is our bonus in addition to our normal pay.”
“Yea, but you’re well within your rights to take more. This is just one chamber amongst many; if we wanted two, just us two could clear this chamber and still leave enough for all the soldiers alive in our army.”
“I don’t want any more. If I take more than what I need…then I’ll become greedy. I’ll become no better than our lord, a monster.”
“Well, I can sympathize for you. I’m taking rather a good deal, but I’m limiting myself to what I can carry. I just want enough to make sure that I never have to work a job with any kind of significant risk to myself, to basically retire from the military. I wanted to join the army to support my family. The pay is good and the lord guaranteed that anyone who was slain in combat would have their families supported for life. But once in combat, I fought for survival, because—while my death would guarantee their well-being for life—there’s no way to replace a lost father, husband, and son. I need to retire.”
“Basically the same for me, but I’m willing to serve the military afterwards. I’m only here because of what’s happening at my home.”
“And what would that be?”
“I live in the northwestern district of our lord’s domain. That’s where our enemy’s forces were concentrating their assault. We only won this because we went around them, captured their fortresses, and then attacked them from behind. My home could be significantly damaged, and these are for repairing the losses—something which our lord did not promise us.”
“Ah, I see. Well, good luck to you, my friend. I hope you live a happy life.”
“Same to you, my good friend. It’s been a hard fight, one that we didn’t want to be in, but participated in because we had to. We’ve been together for a while; it’s hard saying goodbye.”
“Yea, but we’ll both manage. Things like this are going to be worth thousands of times their original value to merchants; even with just a pocket load of stuff, you should have more than enough.”
“I hope so. We’ve ended so many lives by fighting, and ruined ten times as many. We’ve even destroyed a lifestyle, their way of life. Even we have been changed for the worse by this war. It’ll scar me forever, and my conscience shall never be fully cleared by what I’ve done.”
“Same here. But what can we do?”
“Nothing. Though, really, it doesn’t matter. To be honest, I just want to go home to my family right now. The last time they wrote was before the attack, so I’m sure they’re anxious to hear from me.”
A man walked a dirt path which he has traveled many times in his life. The important thing is that it had been years since he last walked the road. He had left his buddy behind. They had walked their separate ways to their different homes. Now he would come home. He would come back to his village, where he was born and raised. He had long-since sold his prizes and had them converted into his currency…just enough to repair the worst of the worst possible damage to his home, his farm.
…Or so, he thought. He was in the fresh cold air of his home. He was back in ordinary travel clothes. He was back to being his old self, and was going to see his family for the first time in years. They would certainly be waiting for him, glad to see their soldier back from a bloody war that claimed many lives. He could feel the wind rushing against his skin, as if he were running through the plains like he did when he was younger. He could almost smell the aroma of his wife’s cooking, of the delicious steak she would make for his return…
And then, the smoke came into vision. He froze. He had been frozen for over a minute, still thinking it through. Could it be that the attack had still left damage? Surely that was it. Perhaps a bonfire in the village to celebrate victory? For two minutes, these thoughts ran through his head. And it was then that the most horrifying thought of all occurred to him. He sprinted faster than he ever had done before, rushing towards his home, to find his family…
Flies hover around the village, laying their eggs in the bodies of the deceased. A thick smoke covers the area, preventing a visual range of anything more than three feet. Smoke fills the lone man’s lungs as he rushes into the center of the village, terrified of what he might find. An unusually strong heat wave covers the area.
To anyone else, this would be too much physical and mental trauma to handle. To him, it is something he had seen thousands of times. He keeps his hopes up. He can see a few corpses lying around the center of his home, but most of them are enemy soldiers. He had caused scenes like this to unfold dozens of times, so only one thought keeps him on edge, on the verge of breaking: in those dozens of times, he had been doing it to others. Now, his home has an eerie similarity. A few thoughts of regret reach him, but are blocked out by a larger emotion: fear. The scene is identical, but is in his home. The soldiers scattered around suggest that his side won the battle…but no matter the victor in the fight, over half of the people in the town would usually die.
He repeats it again. Surely the townspeople would have evacuated? They had been warned of the attack coming, and knew that staying would be suicide. He leaves the town once more to survey the area again. He scavenges the ground, looking for signs of the enemy. If the town is inhabited, the smiths would send their apprentices to retrieve every scrap of metal.
He finds them all over the place. He keeps on looking around, keeping up hope. Just because the smiths hadn’t scavenged the place doesn’t mean that there wouldn’t be life in the area. He circles the town and finds metal scattered everywhere. And then, he realizes what that would mean:
The town had been surrounded. There was no escape. If the enemy soldiers had sieged the poorly protected village, then there would be little hope of escape. It was a tactic that his side had rarely used, but the enemy resorted to a good portion of the time. The results were often lethal.
Panicked yet again, he rushes back into the village, screaming out for any signs of life. He gets only echoes. He screams the names of his family, and those of the village elders that he can remember off the top of his head. Friends, family, their friends and their family; he tries calling them all.
And he receives only silence. He takes a look at the front wall of his neighbor’s house. The two are rather a distance apart, being the farmers that they are, but in situations such as the one he sees, the results rarely differ from one house to another. The walls are black. The roof is charred and collapsed. The livestock is missing or dead. He could tell from afar that the plants are gone as well.
But one terrifying feature dominates his view of the area: right in front of the house are four graves, each marked with the name of one inhabitant from the residence. His neighbors had died in the fight, as proven by the names engraved, by the marked graves.
He rushes around the village, looking for any deviations. Some houses have no graves, signs that the family within has escaped and either moved on, or has yet to return. With some signs of hope, he rushes for his own home, on the edge of the village. The only wall remaining is the entrance. All the other ones are burned to the ground. Even this wall has holes and is colored an ashy black.
He looks inside: everything is burned. He looks around some more and sees that all the items he cherished have been burned or removed. The fate of his house is something which he had expected. And he is relieved to see that in the front, there are no gravestones. His family must have survived.
He lets out a sigh. They would be back. They would be safe. They would rebuild. With the money he had procured, they would be able to live their lives again from scratch, have the life back which war had taken from them. They’d be happy. All he would have to do is wait for them to come back. He had heard from the merchants he traded with that most inhabitants in areas attacked would be returning from their shelters in three days and that he was lucky to catch them when they were low on business. That was two days ago. If his family would return, it would be in one day. If not, then he would use some of his earnings to find them. All he would have to do is wait.
He takes a look at his barnyard, one of the few unburned locations in town, a perfect place to rest. His family would find him sleeping there in the morning and he’d be able to have the happy reunion that he had wanted for years. He opens the door, expecting to find maybe some hay to rest on.
But instead of relief, he is met with pure terror. Three objects stick out of the barn, and those three are the only items in the room. Gray stones, sticking out of the ground. Disturbed soil lies beneath them. From even this distance, he can see what each of the three stones say. He collapses, defeated, destroyed, never wanting to get up again. With a bed of hard soil, he begins to cry, and doesn’t stop. This was not what he had wanted.
A small group enters the ruins, returning after an absence too long for them to bear. They each have had their share of pains, their share of sadness. All have experienced loss. All have to start over from nothing. Yet all are willing to do it, for one simple reason: this is their home. They had lost much, but had survived. That was more than enough. Now, they would rebuild.
After a while, the damage is assessed. People take a good look at their homes and begin to immediately get to work. From homes who they know no longer have owners, they scavenge every last piece of usable material. An old man walks towards the edge of the town. His friend’s son and that man’s family lived up there. He knows that the man had gone to the war and had not since returned. A sad thing, but the way of life. While he would wish to respect their property, in this hard time, he would have no choice.
Immediately, he spots the barnyard. He walks over to it, knowing what should lie within. He was there when it happened. He was there when he witnessed the crime. He had to deliver the memorial service. So he figures that he would yet again pay respects to some of the first losses in the war that they had experienced.
What he sees inside is not what he expected. A figure blocks his view of the graves, and instantly, he knows just who it is. When the figure moves, confirming life, he recognizes just what had happened. He can see the red eyes of the man, the streaks of tears running down his cheeks.
“War is what happened, my son. You knew that this area would come under attack.”
“And I was assured that you’d all be safe! That our forces here would be enough to protect you while we went off and conquered them.”
“They were. We’re a little deep into our territories, and were the last ones attacked before you achieved victory. But still, in war, there are losses. The rewards are as light as a feather when put on the same scale as the losses. This is what happens in war. There are losses. Properties will be lost. But most of all, people will die.”
“Why wasn’t I told?”
“Because we all thought you were dead. We thought that all the soldiers that had been sent out had died, because the enemy had managed to get this far. After they were defeated, we had to leave and only now could return. I’m so sorry for your loss, but it is one that we all share.”
“I did this for them. I went away so that my family would have a good source of income. I did it so that they would live happily. Above all else, I did it to protect them, to fight the enemy at their hearts so that their arms couldn’t strike at my soul. I won, I survived, so that I could see them again…so why did I fight, if to come home to this?”
“For the rewards. You are a rich man, now, my son. You have more money than most people would have dreamed of back in my day. You did it for the possibility of victory, for the rewards. You had a noble intention. I am sure of that. Through the years, that fact about you could not have changed. You aren’t corrupt. You aren’t our lord; you’re not a king. Yet at least some part of you was there for the money. And here you have it.”
He cries some more and hits his right fist to the ground. The man can see that it is already bloody, but he keeps on hitting it all the same. A slight jingling sound alarms him and he looks to his pouch. He tears the large sack off and throws it to the far end of the barn, then wails in his loss before hitting his fist to the ground one more time.
“I…couldn’t have…I should never have left. I killed them. If I were here, maybe I could have made the difference. They could be alive right now. We might have been poor, but at least we’d all be alive. Property can be replaced, but lives cannot. I…”
“You can never know what would have happened, my son. You might have ended up dead, like them. Be grateful that you lived. Be grateful that you have something to hold onto, even if your reason for living is gone.”
The man points to the bag of coins in the distance. Yet again, he punches the ground, but the man gently makes him lift his head to look. To him, he sees only a sin. Only proof of how he is evil for doing what he has done.
“Hold onto what your intentions were. You wanted to save lives. So, for that, you fought on. And while the result is not what you wanted, at least you have something to show for it. Hold onto what you gained from it. Accept the good that comes with the bad. So is the way of life, of war. Remember…the spoils of war.”