The forest god woke up tired.
He slowly peeled himself from the ground, shaking off the moss and ivy that had grown over him. How long had he been asleep this time? Months? Years? He raised his head to find a stag staring back at him, its dark eyes curious, its antlers like piercing thorns rising towards the foliage above.
“Hello,” said the god, “do you know what century it is?”
The stag blinked lazily back at him.
The god sighed as he got to his feet, brushing dirt from his clothes and tugging at a particularly stubborn coil of ivy around his ankle. It broke free too suddenly, and the god in his newly recovered wakefulness stumbled forwards. He caught himself just in time against the stag, who made no sound of complaint as the god wrapped his arms around its neck, breathing in slowly and trying to remember his own name.
His name was George.
“Thank you, deer,” he whispered against the animal’s soft fur. “My name is George. I think. I know.”
The stag huffed in response.
“You wouldn’t care, of course,” said George, letting his arms slip from the animal and stumbling onto his own two feet. “But I can make you care about me a little.”
George reached for the ground until his fingers brushed against the dewy grass. In a heartbeat, a bush began to spring from the earth, leaves and branches twisting upwards, curling against George’s fingers for a moment as if to say hello, little god, good morning before continuing their outward expansion. The stag watched the plant unfurl with apprehension, and then interest, as its branches began to grow heavy with berries.
“Go ahead,” said George, stepping lightly back from his handiwork. “It’s a gift.”
The stag approached, sniffing curiously at the cluster of fruit before turning to George.
He rolled his eyes. “I’m not trying to poison you. It’s safe.”
The stag blinked. George blinked back.
“Oh, gods,” George groaned. “The first real conversation I have in years and it’s with an animal that thinks I’m trying to kill it.” He sighed as he settled back against the ground he’d been sleeping on. “I’m a different sort, you know. I’m not like the rest of them.” His mouth twisted with derision. “Sometimes I wonder, too, why so many of us are made for cruelty. Blood god, storm god, god of death, god of war, god of the hunt, what have you. So I can understand your hesitation. You’re not used to kindness without strings attached, are you?”
George reached forwards to pluck a berry from the bush between them. Making sure the stag was watching his every motion, he brought it to his mouth and chewed.
“See?” he murmured, tasting nothing but sweetness. “You can trust me.”
He took another handful of berries and offered his palm to the wide-eyed deer. The stag approached cautiously, its hooves near silent on the soft grass. It ducked its head towards him and the berries; George had to lean back to avoid its antlers. One of its points scratched against his cheek, but George didn’t mind the small hurt.
“There you go,” he said as the deer finally, finally took the berries into its mouth. “You know, you might be the only thing alive that knows my name. I don’t know how long I’ve been sleeping, but it must have been long enough for people to have forgotten.” The stag finished the last of the berries and stared at George wonderingly. George chuckled, plucked another handful to offer to it, and continued, “I’d gone to sleep tired. And I wake up tired. Tell me, do you think that’s fair?”
The stag, because it was a stag, did not reply.
But George didn’t mind that, either.
It was nice to talk, after all his time sleeping with not even the cruel company of nightmares to entertain him. It was nicer still to talk to something that bore no judgement of him. The stag did not care that George had known, from the moment of his first breath, what he was. He’d opened his eyes, and his fate had been sealed. How did he know? How did flowers know how to grow? How did birds learn their skyward route? It was nature. It just was, a simple truth the universe had whispered into his ear upon his awakening: you are a god, you are a god, you are a god.
The stag didn’t care that George had walked the earth with flowers and trees and ecosystems growing in his wake, growing from the dents his footsteps made on soil that had known nothing of life before he came along. The stag didn’t care that George had known the earliest of humanity, had watched them grow together and then grow apart.
He had been a helpless witness of the first war the world had ever seen. He’d felt the pain of every branch turned arrow, every tree turned trebuchet, every flower crushed under the heels of a marching army. He’d felt it all, and endured it all, and by the end, he’d had to apologize to the universe.
Being a god was a bit tiresome, it turned out. So, he went to sleep. Maybe, naively, stupidly, he’d thought when he’d open his eyes again, the world might be different.
That was how he lived the first few eons. Sleeping without dreaming. Hoping without believing. Waking only for a handful of years, or a handful of minutes, to see if his cynicism might be proven wrong this time around.
Once, he’d woken to find that the forest he’d been sleeping in had been burned to the ground. The fire had left him curled like a child in a crater of dust and ashes, the only survivor of another one of the mortals’ petty squabbles. He’d gasped for air through lungs full of smoke and had thought, Oh. So not this century, then? before closing his eyes again.
The stag didn’t care about any of that. It only knew him as the man who was feeding it, and it was enough. George wanted it to be enough.
“There you go,” George whispered to the stag as it finished the last of the berries from his palm. “You’ll be alright now.”
The stag watched as George steadily got back on his feet, its tongue flicking the remaining pulp from its lips.
“Well,” said George, rolling his shoulders until he heard the satisfying pop of his body catching up to him. “Enjoy my gift, then. This is where we part. I still have to find out what year it is, this time from someone with less fur and a more sophisticated vocabulary.” He gave the deer a little wave. “Bye-bye.”
The stag stared.
“Oh, come on.” George rolled his eyes. “Don’t give me that look.”
In return, the stag bumped the edge of its antler against George’s hip, almost sending him crashing back to the ground. He was more unsteady than he expected to be. He struggled to regain his balance, and decided he couldn’t be seen in the world like this: clumsy and shaking, like a newborn fawn.
The world would eat him alive.
The stag was still staring. He could see himself in the reflection of its eyes: his tussled hair and his exhausted expression, the forest crowding in behind him as if the trees were also waiting for his decision.
“Fine,” relented George with a sigh. “I guess I can afford to stay. Just for a few days.”
He spent years in that forest.
The seasons passed beyond his notice. Spring to winter, fall to summer, back again in cycles that meant nothing to him. He was a god, after all, and months were seconds to him. He could hold a human’s entire lifetime in the cup of his hand.
Most days, he walked.
He found that it took him two weeks to walk the forest from end to end, not counting the breaks he was forced to take on account of the stag that insisted on following him around, lured by the promise of more berries. It probably wasn’t helping matters that George always had some in his pocket. Sometimes, they would find rivers for the stag to stand in while George tossed him berries from the banks, his trousers rolled up to his knees, the cold rushing water almost sweeping him off his feet. On one occasion, he did get swept into the currents, and he floated easily downstream with the rest of the forest’s debris. He didn’t struggle, didn’t even try to swim to shore. He could feel the world blurring around him, and was alright. He was alright.
And then he heard the bray of an animal in distress, and opened his eyes to see the stag swimming after him. You stupid bastard, he’d thought, even as panic began to fill his soaked chest. He’d grabbed the first low-hanging branch he passed under, and then he’d grabbed the stag, and he’d hauled the both of them to the muddy bank, and said, out loud, “You stupid bastard!”
The stag merely got on shaking legs and pressed its nose against George’s trouser pocket.
George gave it a berry. “You stupid bastard,” he whispered, but he didn’t know to whom this time.
Afterwards, they avoided rivers.
They kept to themselves, George and his deer. They walked and ate berries and took shelter under trees that were almost as old as George himself. Often, when he was lying on the grass with his cheek pressed against the soft belly of the stag, George thought about how easy it would be to slip into another long sleep. But then the stag would sigh or huff in its own fitful slumber, and George would keep his eyes open.
And when their walks brought them to the edge of the forest, George’s bare feet just a step away from the sun-warmed grass of the open fields beyond, he thought about how the world ahead would disappoint him in all new ways, and he would run his hand over the stag’s warm fur, and they would go to find another tree to rest under.
The stag never brought him back to its herd, and it didn’t take George long to realize it was just alone as he was. And so they went, god and animal, living and lonely together. For days. For weeks. For years.
Until the world came to collect.
It came in the form of a distant war and soldiers on their way to answer the rallying call of some foolish mortal king, another in a long line of human hubris at the expense of human lives.
George had felt murmurs of it through the uneasy earth, but had been too preoccupied with keeping his stag away from ravines and poison berries and other methods of untimely death to notice that the soldiers had set up camp in the field right beside their forest.
And soldiers, as George knew well, needed to eat. They needed to hunt.
He heard the shouting before he saw the fires.
The sound stopped him in his tracks, and the searing glow of a dozen torches passing between trees stopped the beat of his immortal heart.
“Hey,” he warned the stag, pulling it behind the nearest tree.
It was supposed to be a normal nighttime walk. He had just wanted to go on a godsdamned walk with his godsdamned deer.
George put a hand on the animal’s snout to keep it from braying in protest and drew it down between the tree’s large roots. It was not the best hiding place, especially for an animal whose intricate bone-white antlers stood out starkly against the dark brambles. George ordered the branches to crowd towards them, but even that would prove to be insufficient cover.
George pulled the stag close to his side and held his breath. He listened to the forest, to every twig breaking under the boots of the intruders, every animal disturbed from sleep.
“There’s something there!” A gruff voice, too near, too close—
The fires were on them.
The stag began to thrash against George’s hold, trying to break free and sprint into the dark, but George didn’t let go, even as a torch was thrust right against his face, the flames licking his cheeks before drawing back.
“It’s a… a man,” another voice said in confusion.
“Hey!” the first voice demanded. “Who are you? A spy?”
“Leave,” George croaked, burying his face against the stag’s trembling side. “Just leave us alone.”
“A deserter?” a third voice chimed in. “Or just some poor shmuck lost in the woods?”
I am never lost here.
He knew every tree and rock and pond, every insect and beast. And they knew him in turn.
“Leave this forest,” George said. “Nothing here—none of this is for you.”
A scraping laugh. “Who the hell do you think you are?”
George raised his head, at last, squinting against the firelight to find a dozen men caging him against the tree behind him. The man who had spoken was closest to George and looked to be their leader, his coat emblazoned with more medallions than the rest. He had an indistinguishable face, as unremarkable as all the other faces that swam in the muddy swirl of George’s memory.
“Just go away,” George said exhaustedly, noting the swords strapped to their waists. The bows and quivers of arrows. His grip on the stag tightened. “Find another forest to destroy. Not this one.”
“I don’t take orders from you,” the leader said, nostrils flaring, as arrogant and as pathetic as all the mortals that came before him. “Grab the bastard’s little pet, boys. We’ll be having roasted venison tonight.”
They grabbed the stag first, and that was how George lost.
If he’d been any other type of god, he could have fought, could have called down fire or lightning and end it before it could begin. But he was only George, god of the forest, and he was not meant for this.
So he could only watch as four of them dragged the stag by its antlers, threatening it with fire and sharp blades to keep it docile as they marched it out of the forest. They made George follow with a sword at the nape of his neck and several arrows pointed at his still heart. As if that could break him. As if he wasn’t already broken.
At the very edge of the forest, the stag began to resist. It pulled and flailed and groaned, trying to make its way back to George, trying to return to their forest. Because beyond the last line of trees was a wide, unfamiliar place: rolling hills dotted with the tents of an entire army, scattered like white beads from a snapped necklace. In the distance, the jagged points of the mountain range loomed menacingly.
One of the hunters dug his knife into the stag’s side to silence it, but it only made it scream louder.
“Don’t hurt it,” George said, trying to keep his voice from cracking. “Tell your men to not hurt it.”
The leader, who kept pace with George, grunted. “Worry less about your animal and more about yourself.”
“I could—I could give your army all the food it needs,” George began. “If you let it go, I’ll grow your food for you. Let me prove it.”
George tried to reach towards the earth, to show him what he could do, but instead the hunting leader pulled him roughly upright by the scruff of his tunic.
“Bargain all you want,” the man said roughly. “No one’s listening.”
With a single push, George was out of the woods.
They led him and the stag to the heart of their camp, drawing a hungry crowd.
George could feel their eyes on him and on the animal, already cutting and weighing it. He could hear the whispers, staking claim on its thigh, its marrow, its antlers for decoration. George’s hands curled into trembling fists. He’d heard these words a thousand times before.
They kicked him to his knees in front of a roaring bonfire. A rope went around the stag, pinning it to the ground beside him. A god and his deer, presented on a silver platter.
The leader began to speak about the spy or the deserter or whatever he’d decided George was. He spoke loudly, arrogantly, to the gathered crowd, detailing how exactly he would make an example out of George.
George couldn’t bring himself to care. There was only him and his frightened, trembling stag.
“Don’t be scared,” George murmured, reaching slowly to put his hand against its warm fur. “I’ll get us out of this. I always get us out things. I’ve never failed you before.”
The stag grunted as if it understood, as if it believed him.
The hunting leader turned to George with a sharp glare, his inane speech interrupted. “Tell your dumb beast to be quiet.”
It is smarter than you and all your men combined. “I am not a spy,” said George. “Or a deserter. But I can be useful to you. I can be everything for whatever cause you’re fighting for, if you only let the stag go.”
The leader’s eyebrow quirked upwards. “You? You look like you’re one strong gust of wind away from keeling over.”
“And you look like you couldn’t lead a pack of toddlers down a straight road, let alone an army, and yet here we are.”
A small laugh from the crowd, quickly silenced by a sharp look from its subject.
“Oh,” George said. “Did I hit a nerve? Struck too close?” He met the leader’s hard stare without flinching. “You look young. Let me guess, this is your first war, your first big role, most likely given to you by your rich father or by all other qualified candidates valiantly biting the dust. Don’t look so surprised—I can smell your inexperience from a mile away. Your men expect nothing from you, and so you have everything to prove. And you think the way to your army’s heart is to make big, bold threats against some random man with no armor, no weapons, no ill intent. But, let me make this clear.”
George stood. The leader, on instinct, drew his sword.
At least he had enough smarts about him to understand what a threat looked like.
George ignored the sharp blade pointed straight at him. He stepped as close as he could, let the tip of the sword just graze the front of his tunic. This close, he could see how brown the other man’s eyes were, how wide, how pitiful.
George had to smile.
Gods, he’d missed being a god.
“I have seen better men than you stand alone on battlefields, abandoned by even their most loyal soldiers. What makes you think yours won’t do the same to you? What makes you think you’re big enough, great enough, good enough, for these people to die for you?” George cocked his head to the side and levied the man with the weight of his full attention. “Go on. Ask. Ask them if you’re worth dying for.”
The man’s eyes shifted, seeking out a defender, his arrogance dissipating with the answering silence of a hundred soldiers. George watched with mild curiosity as the leader’s expression went from dismay to frustration to fury. His lips drew back from his teeth as he turned back to George.
He shoved him with his sword, its point digging into George’s chest and sending him crashing backwards onto the ground. George caught himself against the stag, just as he had all those years ago, when only one of them had been young and the other exhausted with the world.
“Who cares,” the hunting leader snapped, spittle flying, blade poised to deliver on his promised punishment. “They’ll do it anyway, because I said so. Because this is my army—”
“Ah,” said a distant voice, cool as the night air against George’s skin. “Has anyone ever told you you look absolutely pathetic when you’re lying through your teeth?”
The crowd that had gathered to witness George’s execution parted with the sound of shuffling feet and nervous murmurs. Just a minute ago, they had been wondering if there was anything worthwhile in George’s pockets to pilfer after he'd been drawn and quartered, and now they looked like chastised children, ducking their head to hide their embarrassment. Coming up through their ranks, cutting through them like a plague-bringer no one dared approach, was a lone man, dark-haired and dark-eyed.
Watching him walk towards them, George knew he’d been right. All the hunting leader’s posturing was all so he could prove something to someone, and George was looking right at it.
The newcomer stopped between the hunting leader and George, his mouth a thin line, his arms crossed against a chest that bore no gold medals, though it was immediately clear to George that he outranked everyone around them: from the gathered footsoldiers to the man who'd falsely claimed them as his to order around.
“Who the hell is this?” the man demanded of the hunting leader who, to his credit, didn’t flinch.
“Found him in the woods. Spy, or deserter, or some sort.” The hunting leader mimicked the man’s stance, perhaps in an attempt to salvage some of his bravado, but the result was akin to watching a child wearing his father’s too-big clothes. “And you have some nerve, strutting around like you own the place—”
“I do own the place,” the man said, utterly unimpressed as he looked down his nose at the hunting leader. “It’s a bit sad, really, that you still think you’re in control. That you were ever in control. Your father hired to me be a glorified nursemaid, and even that job you managed to make difficult.” The man scoffed. “I guess it’s on me, thinking a little walk in the woods would be enough to keep you pacified for the night. I tell you to get food and you get me—” A cursory glance at George. “—some random bastard that looks like he hasn’t bathed in weeks and one stupid antelope?”
“Hey,” George protested weakly. “It’s a stag.”
The man turned to him again, this time with more curiosity and focus than before. “I should be apologizing for the inconvenience my court jester of a subordinate caused you, but loathe as I am to say it, he does have a point. If you’re a spy or whatever it is he thinks you are, then I won’t waste another word stopping these people from tearing you apart.” His dark eyes gleamed in the firelight. “I might even give the order myself.”
“I’m not anything,” George said. “I just want to go back to my forest.”
“Wait.” The man cocked his head to the side as he considered George with narrowed eyes. “Do I know you?”
“I…” George blinked, suddenly unsure. “I think you did,” was the closest answer to the truth, even if George didn't exactly know what that truth was.
“Huh.” The man shrugged as he turned away from George, dismissing the odd sense of familiarity that had passed between them like a bolt of lightning—sudden and fleeting. “Well, you heard him. He just wants to fuck off into the woods.”
“And you just believe that?” The hunting leader sneered.
“Wouldn’t be the first of your bumbling messes I had to clean up.”
“I am general of this army.” The man crossed the little space between him and the hunting leader, and grabbed him by the front of his shirt. “And frankly, I’m getting tired of you forgetting that. I came to fight a war, and I don’t care on which side, so unless you want to make an enemy of me tonight, just shut your mouth and do as I say.”
“You would commit treason?” the hunter—not a leader of anything, as it turned out—demanded.
“Treason only applies if I’m from the fledgling shithole you call a kingdom,” the man—the general, the true beating heart of this army—spat back. “I’m from nowhere, and I owe you nothing.”
“We paid you.”
“Do you want a thank you?” The general scoffed. “Fine, here it is: thank you for wasting three months of my lifetime.” He let go of the hunter’s shirt and shoved him backwards with almost enough force to toss him straight into the bonfire behind him. “Save whatever’s left of your dignity and go find me meat I can actually consume.” He turned to George with a raised eyebrow. “No offense to your buffalo, but it’s not exactly my taste.”
“It’s not a—” George sighed. “Never mind.”
With an amused smirk, the general tossed George one of the daggers from his bandolier. “Cut it free. Then, run and never let me see your face around here again.”
George made quick work of the ropes they’d tied around the stag. It rose on shaky legs, with George supporting most of its weight as it struggled to regain its footing.
“Told you I’d get us out,” George murmured, trying to hide his relief.
It began in his periphery.
A flickering shadow, a trick of the light, a single movement across the valley. Then the shadow became a man became whirling limbs became raised sword.
The dark-eyed hunter, driven by his shame and fury, hurtling towards its prey.
Not the general.
With a guttural cry of a man unused to losing, the hunter swung his blade down towards the stag.
Once again, the world proved to be a disappointment.
There was no hesitation in George’s immortal heart as he swung an arm outward towards the would-be killer, and with a flick of his wrist ordered something to grow. A single bamboo shoot sprang from the earth between the hunter and the stag, quicker than a breath, its sharpened culm piercing straight through the man’s wrist, halting his killing blow just inches away from its target’s antlers.
The man dropped his sword. And then he began to scream.
Slowly, with all the time in the world, George bent to pick up the discarded sword. His numb fingers wrapped around the hilt and then raised the blade for his own inspection. It was not the sharpest weapon he’d ever wielded, but it would have to do.
“Bargain all you want,” George said as he turned to the screaming hunter, feeling nothing beyond the weight of the weapon in his hands. “No one’s listening.”
There was more screaming, coming from all around him. The very crowd that had gathered to witness his punishment had instead witness his reawakening.
He’d tried to tell them. He could have been everything to them. They could have worshipped him.
Instead, they were drawing their swords against him. Not to come to the defense of the foolhardy hunter, of course. They thought they understood George, but they did not, and their own ignorance made them afraid. So they did what fearful humans did best.
“All I wanted,” George whispered to the hunter as the angry mob closed in, swords and spears and arrows cutting through the night, “was to go back home.”
The stag broke away from George’s grip as the army descended on him.
He did not reach for it.
Instead, he reached further, towards the distant forest that had sheltered him for years. He reached for every prowling beast and every taloned bird of prey, every thorn and heavy branch and choking rope of ivy, every ant of fire and deadly hornet and venomous snake.
The forest heard his call, and it answered.
In the end, George didn’t see how the stag died.
He found it lying on the ground, eyes still wide open in panic, its legs splayed like broken twigs. Had it taken an arrow for him in the heat of battle, or had it simply been caught in the crossfire as it tried to escape back to their forest? With its final, rattling breaths, did it call for the lonely god that had feed it berries from his palm?
It no longer mattered.
George stood over the stag’s cooling corpse, just another body in the valley he’d made a graveyard. Where once tents of a proud army stood, there was only disturbed earth and scattered bodies. There were so many ways a mortal could die. Caught in a stampede, stung from the inside out, clawed or mauled or cut down by an embittered immortal.
George looked down at the sword still in his grip. It was more blood than blade, but between the splatters of red, George could see his own countenance. It held no remorse.
He was made for cruelty, after all.
That was how the other survivor found him: standing silently over a dead deer with a dead man’s sword in his hands.
“Did it have a name?” the general asked.
George glanced at him. Like George, the general was covered in blood and gore, but bore no injuries. He flicked his sweaty hair from his face, more annoyed than anything else, and George understood.
The forest had ensured only a god could have survived its fury. It just so happened there had been two gods on the battlefield tonight.
With an exhausted sigh, George turned back to the stag’s body. “What does it matter?”
“Well,” said the other god, moving to stand beside George, “usually, people have names for things they deem important.”
“We’re not strictly people, though, are we?”
“Fair point.” A silence passed between them, filled only by the howling wind. “You gave me a hell of a fight tonight. Been a while since I’ve met a god that could keep up with me.”
“Let me take a wild guess,” George said wryly. “God of war, then?”
“The one and only.”
“What were you doing, throwing your lot in with this army?”
The war god shrugged. “Immortality gets boring after a while, you know? Had to find entertainment where I could. Didn’t expect you to take center stage, though.” George heard, more than saw, the god’s smile as he added, “Not that I’m complaining.”
“Well, find some other way to pass your time. There won’t be any encores from me,” George said. “I’m going back to sleep.”
“Sleep?” The war god whirled on him, brows drawn in confusion. “Why would you waste your time on that?”
“Because, unlike you, I don’t revel in watching mortals burn this whole wretched world to the ground.”
The war god scoffed. “That’s not all they do.”
“What happened tonight would prove otherwise.”
“They can surprise you, sometimes. If you stick around, you might even get a laugh out of their little lives.” He felt the war god’s dark eyes settling on him, piercing and calculative. “You look like someone who could use a good laugh.”
His words coming out oddly strangled, George said, “I doubt there’s anything for me out here.”
“Leave, then,” the war god replied easily. “Go back to your trees and bushes.”
But George remained rooted on the ground.
“That’s what I thought.” The war god pointed north. “The war we were heading to is that way, but I’m sure we could go any direction we want and find another anyway.”
“Is war all you know?” George asked quietly.
“What else is there worth knowing?” The war god grinned at him. “It will be fun. Or, at the very least, it won’t be boring.”
“I don’t even know what century we’re in.”
George stared down at the animal he’d first said those words to. Just another deer, indistinguishable from all the rest. Stupid little thing, why didn’t you run away faster?
George’s pockets were still full of berries.
“I’ll tell you all about it,” said the war god. “You didn’t miss much.”
George took a deep breath. Beyond the field of bodies, the sun was beginning to rise, the purple night fading into gold as the world spun on, indifferent to all the lives that had left it. The war god was telling him there was something beyond the distant mountains, something worth his while.
His lungs ached with the memory of forest-fire smoke.
He sighed it all out.
“I guess I can afford to stay,” George said. “I have nothing better to do, after all.”
The war god’s grin widened, the edges of it like knifepoints.
What the hell did I get myself into? George thought.
“Great,” said the war god, clapping George on the back so forcefully it would have dislodged his heart if he’d been a mortal. “But first, let’s try to see if any of the horses survived, then let’s find the nearest river to wash all this blood off.”
“Wait,” George ordered.
To his surprise, the war god obeyed. He watched in silence as George kneeled before the stag. With one swing, George buried the point of his sword deep into the ground beside the stag’s head. And from the sword grew the flowers.
Blue petals unfurled over the stag, growing under and then over its still body until it was buried in morning glories.
George stood, brushing dirt from his knees. Then he faced his new companion, who was looking back at him with an expression George was sure was mirrored on his own face. But the moment passed, and they were slowly picking their way across the ruined camp as the sun continued its loyal dance through the pink sky.
The next time they would be in this valley, one of them would not have slept in years. He would have laugh lines set into the corners of his eyes and he would have known what it was to love and be loved in return.
The other would be dead.