The sun shown through the thickening cloud-cover, enough rays squeezing between the cracks to lighten the town. Not all were appreciative of their effort. A figure within a large wooden house only glanced up momentarily to glance at the label of a bottle illuminated in the abrupt lightening of the window.
"There it is..." he murmured to himself when a young girl of some three years ran in, shoving the door open recklessly. The man leaped forward and grabbed it before it could shake the wall upon which many a shelf was littered with glassware of all shapes, sizes and hues.
"Da! Da!" she cried, throwing herself upon his legs and wrapping her small but amazingly strong legs about him. He overbalanced and grabbed the child as he fell, rolling to his back so that she fell atop him.
"Ella..." he groaned as several vials shattered at the conclusion of his concussion. The little girl giggled and pressed her nose against his.
"Fessival! Fessival!" she crooned, treating him to a great whiff of peppermint. "Pleeeeeease!"
"What, after you come running in like a banshee?" he scoffed, crossing his eyes comically to look into hers.
"Yes? YES?" she demanded questioningly, and treated him to a big, sloppy kiss on the cheek.
A slim woman then entered, unusually tall, taller than the man, almost queenly he would often comment, though commonly possessed of a look of mischievious amusement that rather ruined the affect. She put a hand on her hips and gazed down at her husband upon the ground.
He glanced up and his eyes darted from side to side in mock panic. "Michaela, I can explain this. She forced herself upon me! I was but helpless to her feminine wiles."
"Mmm hmm, oh well, you were beginning to bore me anyways. She can have you, I will be off! Oh, the fickleness of men." the woman replied, putting a hand to her forehead.
"NO!" the girl cried, scrambling off her father to run to her mother.
The man laughed as he climbed to his feet. As he straightened he put a hand to his back with a grimace.
Michaela lifted the girl and hugged her tight, "Oh, oh, I'm not going anywhere. Except... maybe to the festival!"
As the girl's face instantly brightened her mother looked to the man with a smile, "And perhaps we shall have the company of the best healer in the entire territory?"
"Nothing would make me happier. But being the best," he said with the sudden assumed arrogance of jest, "as you so rightly say, means everyone wants his attention. Widow Ezra is down with the croup. The second time this year. She'll be needing a bit of care today. But you believe me, I'll be there for the candle lighting."
"Well, alright. The things I must put up with so that you can save lives. I'm too good for you, y'know." the woman responded, leaning over to kiss him.
"And always will be," he responded, returning the kiss firmly.
The memory of that morning, it was as bright and clear in his mind's eye as it had been in reality. They had come that night, this was also engraved within his mind, no less so than that before. She had been right, there was no pain to it, merely simple rememberance. He continued to recall as he leaped over a fallen log...
"I'm here!" he whispered loudly, wrapping his arm around Michaela's waist. She nearly dropped her candle in surprise and steadied herself.
Up above the full moon had risen, the snow clouds above enormous square patches that moved in the wind like ethereal waves across the entire sky. It seemed as if the glowing brightness above were sailing within them, the frigid breeze carrying it along, though it was un reality only the clouds that were wandering. The man reached down and lifted his daughter, wrapped snuggly in several shawls and clutching a doll. He pointed his candle wick first so that his wife could light it with her own, and joined in with the singing crowd. Several large fires burned in bricked pits, within which chestnuts roasted and those standing too near the flame, overdoing the effort to stay warm. Moths, perhaps escaped from their feasting within the tailor's shop, wheeled and flittered near the flame, only to veer off as the smoke became too much.
"Oh!" his daughter suddenly cried, looking up as the first few snowflakes began to fall.
Those were the first to fall. White, clean snow. Not the muddy slush or red-soaked frost that was to come. An army had invaded that night, one the townspeople had only heard rumors about. They lay only on the very outskirts of the territory of the Lord Remar, and their was always much lively debate if they were any truth that he ruled over them. They had never come within even a league, but tonight that was to change.
Enough warning had been given so that the women, children and elderly could be sent off into the mines to hide. A defense had been mounted, and though it were a large town and the soldiers hardly more than a raiding party, the battle would not be won quickly.
"Hammond! We have a new bunch coming in!" an elderly man, barely able to wield his sword, shouted, then ducked out from the tent.
The man cursed under his breath, and finished sewing up the belly of his current patient. Two of his assistants grabbed each end of the wounded man's blanket and carried him out.
He quickly cleansed his hand in a basin already stained with blood and ran out. A wagon had pulled up next to his tent, and from within issued the cries and moans of which could not be men. An old woman sitting on the edge, holding a screaming Ella, looked up as Hammond approached.
"The soldiers, they found us, and tried to take our supplies. Michaela, she wouldn't let them, so they... they..." she faltered and glanced to a blanket in the middle of the wagon. Hammond leaped up, and dashed to it. He pulled it up, and underneath was the face of his wife, pale with death, a great wound in her chest.
He looked up into the snow falling upon him and shook his head, mute with the motion boiling inside him. He looked back down and ran his hand across his wife's freezing face. His head then jerked around as Ella coughed horribly behind him. He jumped off the side and ran around to the back.
"Ella, was she hurt?" he said, his voice so pained that the old woman almost wept.
"I don't think so. She just keeps coughing..."
Hammond quickly unwrapped the shawl and blanket from his daughter to looker her over. He bit his lip so hard that it bled when he felt the depression in her chest. Her breathing was becoming more labored, and some blood had begun to trickle from her mouth.
"Her ribs are broken, she can't breathe." he said in a tight voice, and took the girl from the woman's arms.
Rushing her into the tent, he set her down upon the table and had several more heated bricks placed around her. He pulled the cork off of a bottle and held it under her nose until she stopped moving. Despite this her hand closed tightly over her doll. He was choosing a scalpel when the sound of screams was heard outside. He dashed over to poke his head out when something dark momentarily blocked out the moonlight and was slammed against the side of his head.
He awoke to a splash of icey water. He sat up sputtering and looked up into an unfamiliar face, darkened with sweat and grime.
"You're a healer?" he said gruffly.
"I... yes... my daughter! Where is she?" he shouted, struggling to his feet despite the agony that coursed through his bruised head.
His legs were kicked from behind and he fell to his knees.
"I have wounded men. Our healer has taken ill. You will take his place." the man before him responded.
"So they may rise again to kill my people?" Hammond said defiantly.
"HA! Your people? You have no more 'people'. To the last man we have fought."
"The wounded, what of them?"
"They are no longer suffering if thats what you mean."
He worked on the wounded well into the night, going about sewing up wounds and setting limbs, but he worked as an automoton, his mind dead to all but his motions.
They kicked him out sometime after midnight, no longer of any use, and his aid earning him the chance to live. Had they given him the option it is likely he wouldn't have chosen life. He followed the smell of burning until he found his way back to the flaming village. Within the pits were the smoking remains of dozens of bodies. Fire that had once been warmth and light and comfort had become stinking death and misery. He poked idly around, not knowing what to look for, but unable to think of the next course of action. After some time he stood and was walking off when he noticed one of the moths, a small, white fuzzy thing, slowly beating its wings. It sat atop a familiar doll, the one she had clutched even as she died. A doll he had made for her only a week before for the winter festival.
With the sound of rustling paper it came back to him vividly. He had been searching for more old jars in the attic when he had noticed her old crib. It had had a cracked leg which he had always meant to have repaired, but Ella had since grown to large for it and it had been forgotten. He had sawn off the leg and used it to carve the doll's head and body. His wife had then sewn it a dress, made from the scraps of Ella's old blanket. Michaela had teased him about this, but his sentimental ways was one of the many things she loved about him. Everything in his life was to mean something.
He had then taken the cuttings from his beard, and his wife a lank of her long, dark hair, and had glued them to the doll. Together they had given it to Ella, who had not let go of it since.
Its dress was now in tatters and the hair burned away. He had laughed in a way horrible to hear and grabbed a handful of his beard which he yanked away, hardly feeling it. He pressed them to the doll's head, sticking firmly to the mixture of blood, ash and resin that glistened atop.
He gripped it convulsively and walked to his home, now only half a house, the rest smoldering wreckage. While he stood watching the fire spreading a timber from above fell, and bits of glowing ash were thrown up. They began to wheel about before coalescing into a woman clothed in a black dress. Her dark grey hair cascased nearly to the ground. Her face was old yet young, wisdom etched in every feature, yet unwrinkled. She reached forward to catch the doll as it fell from his grasp.
"Hello Hammond." she said simply.
He simply looked a her dumbly, even her fantastic arrival not inciting much within him.
"Hammond, I know all that has happened to you. You have spent your entire life devoted to others. Your wife, your daughter, all those around you. You gave so much and in return you have been given ashes. I have thus been sent to aid you. What good healer do you wish?"
The glazed look faded somewhat from Hammond's eyes and he looked up, "My wife and daughter, can they be brought back?"
The woman shook her head, "I am sorry. I have no power over death, nor to change that which has occurred."
"Then nothing. There is nothing. I only wish away all this pain, forever." he replied, and looked up to the woman, "Will you take me to my family?"
"I hav already said that death is something I cannot give. Nor would your death be a good thing. There is much you can still do. If not for you, others." she then sighed, "But I can take away your pain if thats what you truley wish."
"Oh yes, that is my wish."
The woman nodded and gestured to an old burlap sack that lie near a tipped-over wagon. "Take that, and search your home. Bring to me what things of value are still left to you."
He did so and she leaned forward to whisper into his ear. After several minutes the faintest of ironic smiles came to his lips and he nodded.
He went about the house, and came to his and his wife's room on the outskirts of the wreckage, still comparatively untouched. He pulled an iron-bound chest from the foot of the bed and opened it. Displayed was a large quilt, carefully folded and clean, though burnt through in several places. He removed it and set it atop his sack. Below it was a singed white dress, lace and silked curled up and browned by the heat.
"With the attire of past hopes I clothe myself." he whispered, putting both within. He then looked back to it. "Her hope chest... thats what she called it. Well, hope has been released. It will instead hold the darkness of my soul."
Scraping away the remains of a dresser he noticed a glint. Grabbing a handful of soot he peered at it, seeing many sewing needles and pins.
"To know I have not died I will feel these forever in my gut, where they shall prod me from apathy all my days."
He searched the ruin for several more hours before coming away, the sack in the chest and the chest gripped with both hands. He set out then for the mines, the source of hope for those that had sought to flee the battle. The soot-woman trailed behind.
His state of almost dream-like reminescening then faded away as his eyes caught the glow of fires up ahead. Those guarding the perimeter gaped as the being leapt into view. Arrows thudded into its chest but it ignored these utterly. He spotted the familiar markings on one of the tents and dashed forward. The general lay upon his bedroll asleep when in a single hand he was grasped and lifted aloft. A vague wrinkling and folding of the cloth and the slit for a mouth made what could have been a face. That and the two marbles that glistened in the lamplight.
"Who... what are you?" the man gasped.
"The one that you killed. I am..."
The figure paused in thought and seemed to be contemplating.
"The ragman." Hammond finally finished, and with a casual twist of his wrist the man's neck snapped.
There was no pleasure in the killing. Merely a vague sense that something that needed done had been accomplished. That was the main surprise he had had when he looked upon himself in a pond those days before. The surprise was he had felt no surprise. He no longer felt anything.