An old man and an attractive woman were playing chess outside the recruiters office. Here in Canada I guess they aren’t that busy, because they had shut down for lunch. I took a seat at the rough iron seat at the table next to the two chess players and determined to wait.
The woman turned and smiled in a way that made my eighteen year old blood rush lots of places unrelated to my brain, and she gave me a long slow once over look before she spoke in a voice soft and warm as sunlight and honey.
“Oh a big strong boy like you, I bet you would make all the girls swoon in a uniform.”
I had a lot of experience with girls, but her voice made me feel like a twelve year old virgin trying to talk to the hottest grade twelve in school. I was saved from stammering out something lame by the old guy who made a move on the chess board with a sort of brutal shove, then turned to glare at me.
His hair was down over the far side of his face, concealing some nasty scars, and he grinned at me about the way a dog grins at a rabbit it finally cornered. His voice when he spoke was rough, like maybe he had taken some serious throat damage, sounding almost more like a crow croak than a man.
“Don’t you believe it boy. You won’t find one marriage in ten survives an enlistment, let alone to retirement. Broken homes and broken bones is all you will find in there. Nothing for a boy like you”
In his mouth, boy sounded like a curse, and I flushed this time with anger.
“I’m no boy, and I am not afraid of dying.” My voice sounded weak beside his, but I was not willing to be treated like some child on a whim.
The old man grinned and swept his hair back from the far side of his face and leaned close. His empty socket gazed back at me in mute ruin, the scars down his face told a tale of fire and steel that I didn’t want to know. His neck, where I could see it was marked as well, and his hands were traceries of scars layered so thick his skin’s natural tone was hard to discern.
“Nobodies afraid of dying boy, until they see it for the first time. Even then, easier to be brave about dying, less about coming back burned, blind, legless, armless, or paralyzed. There are a hundred things worse than death boy, and every one of them is through that door. You can live a long safe life, never see a scar worse than a paper cut, but not if you go through that door…..boy.”
I was scared, but goddamn it, every time he called me boy my blood boiled. I didn’t have any reply more coherent than a glare, but my glare was a pale thing compared to the lightning bolt that burned in his one cold blue eye. It was like the flash of a sword right before it took off your head.
I pushed back my chair, ready to do, something, although I wasn’t sure what, when the woman let her hand trail down my shoulder to my elbow, and my mind just sort of went away as my body just lit every one of my nerves with pure fire, a hundred times better than my first lap dance, and certain parts of me were in full revolt to the point that standing up would be deeply embarrassing (but good advertising).
Her voice calmed us both, like honey it flowed over us, washing away the taste of anger.
“Now now, don’t mock the lad. You can see he is determined to do his part for freedom, honour and the glory of his nation. You get very few who feel the call, not a lot of knights in shining armour left in this world, and I won’t have you pecking at him, old crow”
When she said it, it sounded noble, just right and holy. I felt myself straightening, felt the pride pull my shoulders back and chest out. When I was a boy, I dreamed a lot about knights in armour, bright banners and glory.
I met the old mans grin, and I felt the cold wash over me. He grinned, that cold, cold grin. I held his eye until I couldn’t any more. My shoulders slumped. I took a deep breath, and let it out slowly. I turned to her and gave the speech that I had rehearsed for my mother, to deal with her objections.
“No ma’am. I guess if I went in that door looking for freedom and glory I would be just as stupid as your friend thinks I am. I guess those knights must have got a lot of glory back in the day, but most of the people just got rode over, robbed or killed. None of them seemed to make it into the stories, or poems either. Just the knights.
I don’t think I am any kind of knight, but maybe I think there are too many people getting rode over, robbed and killed even now, and maybe, every once in a while I might have the chance to do something about it, if I walked through that door and signed up.”
The old man wasn’t mocking me any more. He leaned back and spoke quietly, without the challenge of before.
“You won’t make a difference boy, not really. Pissing into a volcano, or trying to shovel the sea. Nine times out of ten they will lie to you about why you are going, and lie to themselves about if they are succeeding. Best you can do is look after your own, and maybe try to balance a scale or two. Even then, you may do more harm than good, no matter what you try”
This time I challenged him. I turned my own cold green eyes to his burning blue one and asked my first question.
“And if nobody goes sir?”
He lunged forward and grabbed my forearms with a grip of iron. His voice was a whisper, a rasp, the cold grating of a whetstone on a blade.
“Then the world burns boy, the world will bloody burn” His eye burned into me, and mine blazed back into his. I nodded slowly.
The recruiter had come back from lunch, and flipped the recruiting office sign from closed to open. I nodded to the old man. He let my arms go with a quick grin, and sat back.
I stood up and nodded to the one eyed old man, and his scary pretty blond friend.
“Sir, ma’am, if you will excuse me. I need to see the recruiter.”
I walked past them, the woman’s hand caught mine for a gentle squeeze, and gods help me, that little touch shook away the cold sick fear the old man had filled me with. The visions were still there, a hundred versions of myself broken. Dead, half dead, or better off dead. Nobody wants to be the one that pays the price, but the old man’s words burned in my blood too. What happens if nobody steps up, if nobody risks paying the price.
The world burns. Well it is not burning on my bloody watch.
The recruiter smiled as I walked in the door. His smile reminded me of the blonde’s. Sizing up a likely piece of fresh meat. I didn’t make him work that hard at it. I made my choice before I stepped in. Now it was just a case of finding the contract where maybe my abilities could make enough difference that I could do a little better than pissing in a volcano, or shovelling out the sea.
Out front of the office, the old man moved his rook, and took the blond woman’s knight. “Check” he announced smugly.
Watching him take the white knight into his scarred hands she shook her long golden hair and chuckled ruefully.
“They say I am the great seducer” She said “But you seduce them far worse than I do, and you don’t even pretend to be good to them”
Pushing over her king, she conceded this game to her opponent.
“It’s a shame, he will look so good in that uniform. He is a pretty boy, but he would have been a beautiful man if you hadn’t got to him first. Still, if it comes to it, I may still take him from you”
The old man nodded to his opponent as he rose. Chuckling they moved past the recruiting office where a boy signed his freedoms away for what some would call foolishness, and others a higher calling. Had he glanced out, he would have noticed two golden cats running at the woman’s heels, and two dark ravens flying at the old man’s shoulders.
John T Mainer