Excerpt from “Silver Branch, Golden Bough”

by Kyle Kepulis

The soldier sat underneath the large oak tree, taking a well-deserved rest and wondering about his future. He was walking home, but he didn’t know where that was anymore.

At nineteen years of age he had signed up for the King’s Army, eager for glory in battle and Medals of Honor. What he earned instead was rough training and grueling hours of marching. And then he was brought into his first battle and there the real lessons began. He saw his own friends wounded, maimed, and killed. He heard their death cries and saw the ground stained with their blood and entrails. He joined the army thinking he was a man, but it wasn’t until the battleground that he realized he was only a boy. It was there he killed his first man.

At first he didn’t know what to do. His gun lay lifeless in his hands. A figure was running towards him, eyes on fire, red with bloodlust. The soldier’s mind had stopped working. All he could feel was heat and steel. All he could hear was the beating of his own heart. He raised his gun, pointed it between the two fiery eyes in front of him and shot. It was in that split second that the soldier lost all interest in the world.

Years passed by. Killing grew easier for him. Soon all enemies became faceless and thus nameless. They simply marched towards him to be shot or daggered. He became a ready slave to the killing field. He only felt alive there. All other places felt numb and obsolete to his aching body. He was only alive to make sure there were those who were not.

The soldier grew older. His twenties passed by in a flurry of dirt, mud and blood and his thirties even faster and dirtier. Now well into middle-age it was this morning that the King’s Army decided he was no longer useful and discarded him by the side of the road. They had tried to pretty it up by shaking his hand, thanking him for his good service, handing him a certificate of honorable soldiering and giving him a spare amount of money to go home on. But it all led up to the same conclusion – he was no longer young and strong and foolhardy. He had lost his worth to them.

And now he was supposed to go home. But where was that? He had no father—only a mother who would probably not even recognize him if he walked through the kitchen door now. He didn’t think he could look her in the eye, after all that he had been through and done. He would only see a hundred men’s dead eyes staring back at him. How could he explain to her what his life had become? How could he talk to anyone about such things? Best to be alone instead.

And so he had sat under the oak tree and pondered what the rest of his life would be like, when he saw an old woman walking down the road.

She appeared to be like any other old traveling woman—leaning on a thin, wooden walking stick, a bundle slung across her back, eyes aged but still quick and sharp about her surroundings. She had sat down next to him, and heaved a long sigh.

“Mornin’, good man,” she said in a raspy but inviting voice, “Nice day for travelin’, isn’t it?”

“Yes, indeed, Marm,” The soldier said, “Although you look like you could use a good rest for a spell.”

“Indeed, indeed,” the woman stretched her left leg out and rubbed a sore spot. “These old feet have done their fair share of walkin’ for one day. But I’m afraid I must be on my way shortly. I’ve no food nor drink left in me satchel. Got to get to town if I want some good sust’nance.”

“Here, Marm,” the soldier said, handing her his well-worn army bag and jug. “I’ve plenty of bread and wine for two. Please, have as much as you like.”

The old woman smiled a wide smile, showing that she had only one or two teeth left in her whole mouth. She let out a tittering giggle.

“Why, thank’ee, good sir. Thank’ee most kindly,” the old woman said, heartily accepting the soldier’s gracious offer and taking the bag and jug. To the soldier’s surprise she wolfed down a good quarter of the loaf of bread, her gums smacking the exterior of the bread in absence of her teeth, and she had a fair fill of the wine. When she was finished she leaned back and let out a good, long belch.

“Oh, thank’ee,” she repeated after a spell, “Thank’ee most kindly, good man.” Then she closed her eyes and seemed to drift off to sleep.

The soldier grinned, quietly gathered his things and rose to leave. He still didn’t know where he was headed, but he figured the road would let him know, as roads often do. But as soon as he was a few steps away from the oak tree, he heard the old woman’s raspy voice call out behind him.

“A generous deed, good man, comes freely from a generous heart.”

He turned around and found the old woman mysteriously standing right behind him. He didn’t think she could possibly have moved so quickly from her resting place under the oak tree, but decided he must have misjudged the distance.

“One good turn deserves another,” The old woman went on. She reached into the bundle which had been slung upon her back a mere half hour ago and brought out a large woolen cloak. “Take this, my good man.”

“But it’s a fine, strong cloak,” the soldier said, “I couldn’t accept such a thing. You need it to keep you warm on your travels.”

“This cloak is made for comfort of a different kind,” the old woman explained, “I see in you a man who needs to see without being seen. A man who thinks the world would be better left to others. Take this and remember our meeting.”

The soldier looked down at the proffered item and reluctantly took the cloak in his hands, feeling the coarse wool underneath his fingers. When he looked back up the woman had vanished. There was no trace of her anywhere on the road. A chill ran down the soldier’s spine for the first time since he was young. His life had been frequently marked by the affects of human hands but never by the supernatural kind. He didn’t like it. He quickly packed the cloak in his bag and made off, trying to get away from the oak tree and the place where he met the mysterious woman as fast as he could.

Night soon found him, and a chill, cool wind with it. He found shelter in a farmer’s lean-to in the middle of barren countryside. A fit of shivers finally made him decide to wrap the woolen cloak around his shaking body, much to his own chagrin. He hadn’t wanted to even touch the cloak after the old woman’s strange disappearance, but it appeared he had no choice. It was either wear it or die of cold.

As soon as he felt the material touch his clothed skin a slight change came over him. It wasn’t a sudden realization that anything was different, or a drastic transformation of his own body, but he slowly came to realize that something was different. He felt stronger somehow, less afraid. He felt protected. In a matter of moments he drifted off to sleep, the most peaceful, serene sleep he had known in his entire life.

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