This story is by Samantha Wray and was part of our 2022 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Through the gentle drizzle of the rain and the cover of my hood, I made out the shape of buildings and the signs that hung above them. Reading the first one and deciding to search no further, I ran across the muddy street and onto the porch where I pulled back the hood of my cloak and shook off the water that still clung to me.
To my left, I noticed the presence of two other men. Judging by their attire, they had once been soldiers like me. They laughed together as they sang songs and drank in the waning hours of the day. My shoulders drooped as envy suffocated me with her grasp. No doubt they had been in the same battles I was, saw the same terror I did, yet there they sat enjoying life in each other’s company.
I shoved my way through the door and into the warm dry air of the tavern. It smelled like heaven if heaven were the scent of roasting beef and steamed vegetables. I made my way over to a vacant seat at the bar and allowed my body to mold against it as exhaustion set in. My hands found the contours of my face and began fingering the ridges and lines that covered the skin. The feeling disgusted me and I remembered when I began wishing I had died in battle rather than live like this. I used to dream of the life I would have after the war, but that was a distant memory now.
I would never have that.
Not like this.
“What can I get you?” Said a female voice.
I removed my face from my hands and met gazes with the most beautiful woman I had ever seen. Her hair flowed in brown curls around the warm olive of her skin, her eyes a chestnut brown that shone with sincerity and joy.
“I—Uh.” My words failed me as my heart began to beat a little faster.
“What’s your name?” She asked, “I haven’t seen you around here before.”
“My name?” I asked, because that was the best I could come up with.
She is more beautiful than all the stars, and here I sit a broken man who could never be loved by someone as beautiful as her.
She laughed and it made me wonder how one sound could be so delightful. “Yes, your name.”
Damaged, ruined, broken.
“Wystan.” I said.
“Nice to meet you Wystan, I am Amara.”
Amara, the name of eternal beauty, I will never be worthy of a woman like her.
“So what can I get for you?” She asked again.
“Um—I’ll have whatever smells so good.” I chuckled and looked back down at my hands. My ugly scarred hands.
“Coming right up.” She flashed me a kind smile before she disappeared into the kitchen.
My heart pounded louder in my chest, the sound pulsating in my ears. Fate was taunting me, placing a woman who was kind, beautiful, and sincere, right in front of me and knowing that she would never see me as more than a monster who had once been a man.
Amara appeared a few minutes later carrying a hot plate of food. “Here you are. Can I get you anything else?” She asked as she set the plate down.
“No, this will be good.” I muttered and gave her a half-smile which she returned as she continued with her work.
What if I tried to talk to her? Start a conversation and get to know her? Would she be interested? Or would she be polite before making herself scarce?
“So where are you from?” She asked appearing right in front of me.
I jumped, my fork dropping onto the counter with a tinkling sound and I looked up to see Amara covering a laugh with her hand.
“I’m sorry I didn’t mean to startle you.”
My surprise fell away and I chuckled softly, “It’s okay, I was in another place I guess.”
Maybe she really does want to talk to me. No, that is absurd.
“I am from the Northern Lands.” I said answering her question.
She gasped, and placed a hand over her chest, “Were you in the war?”
I nodded slowly and lowered my head down to my half-eaten plate. She surprised me once more as she placed one of her hands over the top of mine.
“I am grateful that you are here.” She whispered with deep sincerity.
“Why?” I blurted, clearly she wasn’t thinking straight.
She smiled and tears were beginning to well up in her eyes, “Because my brother died in that war and I know that his death wasn’t for nothing if it means that you are sitting here.” Her voice broke and she pulled her hand away.
I half smiled and quickly changed the subject, “Are you from here?”
“Yes, this is my mother’s place, I am helping her out since my… well since I am all she has left now.” She began wiping down the bar and it was then that I realized she and I were alike. We had both felt pain and sadness in our lives, but somehow she managed to keep on smiling. After a moment of me staring she looked up from her work and gave me a gentle smile. My eyes quickly found another place to look and I silently prayed that I wasn’t blushing.
She’s only being polite she isn’t interested in you.
“You’re pretty shy huh?” She said and this time I don’t look up.
“You don’t have to talk to me, it’s okay.” I whispered and rubbed my hands together.
“You have better things to do and I’m sure that you really don’t want to have a conversation with me.”
“Why would you think that I don’t want to talk to you?” She asked.
“Because look at me,” I sighed, gesturing to myself, “I am a broken, and forgotten man, I don’t deserve your time. I gave up on happily ever after a long time ago.” My shoulders slumped and my gaze fell to the counter top.
“If you truly believe that then the only thing that is broken is your way of thinking.” Her tone had changed from sweet and calm to filled with passion and conviction.
“Come with me.” She demanded as she stepped around the counter and began walking toward the door to the tavern. I reluctantly followed behind her as she led me outside and around the side of the building where a flourishing garden was nestled. Inside the enclosed garden grew a variety of herbs, vegetables, and flowers and in the middle was a pond with dirty-looking water that you couldn’t see through but on the surface, several flowers bloomed in varying shades of pink and white.
“You see these flowers?” She asked pointing to the pond.
“They are lotus flowers and they thrive in the filthiest of waters and bloom in the worst conditions. It should be impossible for them to grow but here they are.” She said with that fiery passion in her voice.
“I don’t understand.”
“Like the lotus flower, you too can bloom in spite of all you have been through. You have a beautiful life ahead of you. That doesn’t stop because of what happened in your past.”
My eyes focused on the water where those beautiful flowers rested, I thought about what she said for a moment, wondering if that could be true. “No one has ever put it like that before.” Our eyes met and as she was about to speak when a sound from outside the garden caught our attention and we both turned to see what the commotion was.
A little boy with blonde curls and blue eyes stumbled into the garden panting heavily, his eyes wide as he stared at me.
“You’re him.” He breathed.
“You’re Wystan, The Great Warrior of the North.” The boy yelled excitedly, jumping up and down now.
Surely he has me mistaken with someone else. I’ve never been called that. Or have I and I never knew?
“My father has told me so much about your heroics, he said that you saved his life and at least a dozen others. You are the bravest man he has ever met.” His voice was filled with awe and he had taken a few steps forward now, his eyes still wonderstruck.
“You are my hero.” The boy said as his eyes began to glisten. He closed the distance between us and wrapped his arms around me and whispered, “Thank you.”
I turned back to look at Amara, my eyes beginning to glisten with the onset of the tears I was fighting to hold back. She gave me a comforting smile and as we stood there an old feeling fluttered through my body. One I’d nearly forgotten.