Arrival II: Frozen Night
A soldier stands in the cold yet a warm heart approaches him...
Story written by Equus at Far Owl Studios
A single set of hoofsteps echoed in the streets. The sound fading away in the cool breeze, only to be replaced by more as they traversed snow and stone. The streets were dark and empty, the Ditlianons returned to their homes and families for the evening. Nothing except the snow and the wind to accompany Verium as he made his way through the Metropolis.
He glanced down at his watch, and then put it away. It wouldn't be a hard journey. No, in fact it was quite pleasant. A respite from the daily life of the army, and a certain break from all the festivities that haven taken the city. Nonetheless, he had a task, and he sought to complete it as soon as he could.
Verium halted. If his old eyes could serve him right anymore, he sworn he could see someone down the square. A lone figure, breathing pale steam in the night air. Verium diverted from his course and approached them. A sudden movement and his old reflexes kicked in. He set his haunches in counter, but quickly realized that it was only a salute.
"What are you doing here soldier?" Verium inquired into the falling snow, slowly nearing him.
“Just patrolling sir," from the darkness emerged the figure fully. Young, short, sort of lanky. Snow matted his face and horns, and a overly large scarf wrapped around his neck, falling all over his soldier uniform.
Verium can't help but chuckle. "Certainly you know all guards have leave tonight?"
“Yes sir, I do," the young soldier replied. "But I know my duty too, so I decided to stay and stand guard." The soldier looks down at his hooves and back up again. "My fellow guards won't get in trouble, right?"
“Don't worry about it," Verium shifted his own winter garb to shake off the gathering snow and continued. "Even if I ordered them to stand guard, I'll let them take a break. It's the Arrival after all," Verium turned to go, and paused. He thought for a moment and then turned back.
“Say, why don't you accompany me?"
Verium explained. "I'm running a last-minute errand. Perhaps you could help me out?"
“Uh, yes sir?"
“Great! Let's go, before the snow gets too bad," Verium waved with his hoof, motioning them to start.
They trotted through the icy city, bundling themselves tighter against the growing cold. The marched along, the soldier never lagging far behind, but Verium could feel the meekness of his hoofsteps.
“So," began Verium, and the young deer's ears perked up. "Left off the greaves tonight?" The young soldier stammered, "Wait, how did you know?"
“Ha! I've been around long enough to learn to recognize when a soldier is wearing his greaves or not." Verium exclaimed.
“Even with wearing the winter leggings?"
“Especially with the leggings!" Verium chortled. "Everybody seems to think that if they can't see it, we don't know. Oh, ho, but we do!" Verium turned around. "Their step is always a little too light, and the fabric is never still. A small detail, but tells everything."
Verium slowed and looked around. He whispered to the deer. "You want to know a secret? Ah, I hate those things too."
The soldier was stunned. "Really?"
“Oh, yes. They would chaff all the time, no matter how much you stand still," remarked Verium. "Some days, I tell myself: I became a general just to get out of those things!" Verium laughed at his own joke and the soldier couldn't help but smile at his superior.
“Ah, those were the days. When all there was to worry about was greaves and who got the next wash duty." he paused. "Tell me, how did you become a guard?"
“Oh, I always wanted to be one, sir," the deer replied. "Is that the truth?"
“Yes! Ever I was a small fawn, I always dreamed of becoming a soldier, rising up to the dangers of the world, and standing with my fellow brothers."
Verium asked "Sounds like you were an ambitious fellow. When did you join up?"
“As soon as I could," the soldier piped. "Woke up at the break of dawn, first name on the list."
“Must have a mighty proud family, ain't you? Perhaps from a long line of loyal soldiers? Tell me, where are you from?" the hoofsteps faltered behind him, and Verium turned his head to see the soldier frozen in stride several paces back.
Verium took a step back. "Soldier? What's going on?" as he neared, he noticed the chest, the ears, flat against his head, racked with emotion, but no sound. "Are you okay?"
“Soldier?" the deer remained silent. "Soldier!"
“I-I p-promised myself I w-wouldn't cry tonight." he suddenly blurted out, his gaze fixed on some point on the ground.
Verium stood there, stoic and quiet. Then he reached out an hoof and put it on his shoulder.
“Son," he asked, softly but firm. "Why are you out here tonight? Really?"
“I- I-," he stuttered. "I have n-nowhere to g-go."
“Just go home, son.”
“I have n-no home."
The final piece clicked in place."Oh."
The wind howled as it blew across the roofs, the lamps dimmed by the curtain of snow. Verium spoke. "Why don't you celebrate from with a friend?"
“I just want them t-to be happy. They don't need someone to barge in."
Verium thought of a long-forgotten memory, one that wasn't eager to relive. He gripped the deer and turned the deer to face him.
“Son, nobody should be alone on the Arrival. Nobody. Not even the lowest deer should be alone." the soldier looked up, ice traced down his cheek. "There will always be those who care about you, so go to them. They will welcome you in, trust me."
The deer smiled-grimaced. "No respect sir, but I don't think I could do that. I would never feel welcome in another family."
Verium looked at him hard, and turned away, lost in thought. Finally, he said, "Are you feeling better now?"
“Yes sir," the deer wiped away some tears. "I am." Verium nodded in response.
They resumed their trip, two hoofsteps echoing each other in turn. The heavier snow was starting to hinder them, but they forged on. Finally, they reached Verium's destination. In front of them, a tightly- wrapped deer was closing shop.
“Sorry to bother you so late, but do you have my order?"
The shopkeep turned around. "Oh, Verium! I was wondering when you would get here! Hold on a moment," he turned around rummaged through one of the many bags upon his back. "Here, this is it." he handed a small box to him. "Happy Arrival!” He took the rest of the bags and headed down the street, vanishing in the flurry.
Verium placed the box in one of the pockets of his coat. And then he turned to the soldier. “Good to talk to you son," he stretched out a hoof and the fellow soldier shook it. "Look," Verium started. "There will always be those who care. If you look, they'll be waiting for you." he retracted his hoof. "Merry Arrival."
“Merry Arrival to you sir." the deer saluted.
Verium smiled and wrapped his cloak around him and disappeared into the snow. As the deer looked on, he felt something in his hoof. He raised and opened it.
The chair was as comfortable as ever, worn and smooth, it folded to his form like a well-met friend. Verium watched as his daughters and their cousins played in front of the fire, gleefully giggling as they chased each other around the room. It was a futile chase, their older counterparts always catching them, but it was somehow endearing to see how they always came back, wanting to play more.
From outside the den, he could hear friends and family chatting idly, a mass convocation of sound and gossip. Someone would swoop in time to time, checking in on the kids and offering Verium to join them, to which he politely declined. He was content with just resting in his great chair, watching the kids.
His wife trotted in from the kitchen, where he could hear boisterous laughter and bad jokes told again and again. She tended to the fire, her newly endowed necklace glinting the light. She smiled at him and planted a kiss on his cheek as she returned to the party.
Verium's eyes began to tire, and slowly, but surely, they drooped. His head nodded, settling in a comfortable position on a cushion. The fire and the mirth warmed him, and he was teetering on the verge of sleep when the bells rang.
He lifted himself up and walked to the door. He opened it to a smiling youth with a large scarf. Nervously, the deer asks. "Sir, I gave it a thought." he rubbed his hoof, "And I decided to take your offer." He opened his hoof, revealing a paper with the address. Verium nodded and smiled. He stepped aside and showed him in, and then closed the thick door behind him, careful not to let the cold creep in.