character writing - ral winstead
(playing with voice. this is the old, tired, country grandad voice.—ben)
Tell ya what you do, stranger—if'n you want to see what this war did to the land and the folks hereabouts, head down Cosdon way 'bout a day and a half—you'll get to parcel of land what we knowd as 'the Windward Hill'.
In the middle of this hard flat, yer'll spy a hill, powerful steep. It has two crests, smaller'n on the windward side of the hill. Back in the day, a stranger headed that way'd've noticed a stout barn and stables at its base, and a longhouse top o' the high hill. The little 'un 'da been covered in fruit trees and berry bushers, yer north side of the rise rich with beans, corn, and taters. A great mess of mixed garden could be seen just down y'hill from the longhouse. Several brown mares and the orneriest white stallion yer'll ever meet was fenced in 'round the barn with dozens of cattle, sheep, and goats feeding on down the greenery west. The fields north of the small hill were sown with hay—danced like an ocean of spun gold when the breeze blew, and it always blew—right up onto the porch. It looked like a place where a happy man might live, with his family.
This wasn't far from the truth—but head that way now. Yer'll see a field and a hill gone fallow. The barn's a pile of burnt poles, the fences all busted down. The orchard is filled with these scorched trees squeezing out a few meager leaves every spring, choked back with morning glory. The blackberry bushes got stingy and prickly, and have taken the small hill as their own.
The house stands empty—the thatching spare and still scorched. The furniture inside scatterred a'piece, and anything worth anything has been long since pilfered. The south end is all thick with razorvine, black as a murderin' heart. It was once a house of life and love—now it stands, a tribute to its owner, full of cold and death.
Once, a man named Ral Windward lived there. His father owned the land, and passed it to his oldest boy when it was his time to go. Ral could get the most delicate flowers to grow right from the cold stone, and those what knew him would swear the hay from Windward Hill could cure any sick what ailed any'n their stock. He had a whole mess of fine boys, (Tom and Tyler were the oldest if memry serves), and this sweet wife, name of Holly. (There was a woman what was easy on the eyes—no little waify thing, that one.)
It was in the fall when the battle happenned, five thousand men descending on that clear plain with the intention of doing each other in. They cut up his trees for strategic position, and burned those hayfields for the smoke. They ran him out of that house, and took the horses for their men. He nabbed Hank (that was that twice cursed horse) and sent his flock on down the road toward Holly's folks' place.
Now, I weren't there ta see it mind you, but the way it gets told round here is after he send his woman off, he went into that barn—which was still all afire—and fetched his plow. Ral, he was a mountain of a man, but gentle as a country mouse—that day though he just tore that plow right in twine, hefted the pole with the blade on over his shoulder and headed for the short hill.
Now, the battle fell out like this—the side what was tearing up Windward Hill was outnumbered, but that didn't matter none. They had two men to the other side's three, but they'd seen some fights and the other side was just spring chickens. And if that weren't enough, they had this feller Mastus commanding, and word was he was one of the best chess players in yer war. Given all that, the numbers side was taking a beating, and it was clear they weren't going to have the numbers on their side for long, even with that cavalry regiment they had. They was looking grim for sure.
And it's about noon when Ral's made his way up that hill, and walked up to the battle commanders. Without so much as a by yer leave, he took that plow and chopped Mastus down to his knees. Wasn't much of a fight, I admit, and that farmer ended up with a knife in his gut for his trouble, but without even showing he knew it was there, he turned round and told the others they had until the rest of the day to get off'n his land. Then he walked up the house, and waited.
It was pretty quick work after that for those cavalry boys. With their commander face down on the small hill, they didn't stand much of a chance—it was blood fed the field that day. When the Knight leading the Cavalry walked up to the house to thank the man, he was still white hot, even though he was bleeding out his guts.
From then on, Ral fought—on the side of the farmer. Five long years he was in that war, fighting on both sides. Old soldiers what knew him still talk about the way he fought—that sword of his cuttin through the ranks of the enemy like he was reaving wheat. They called him that—Ral the Reaver. Some still do.
It hardened him up some for certain, but with his blood money in hand he returned to his farm and sent for his kin. Come to find out, his wife thought he'd kicked it, and married some other fella, who was raising the boys as his own. Ral settled in anyhow, and worked the land like he used to. But just as he'd gone hard, so had the ground. He couldn't turn up so much as a rutabaga out of that soil. From spring til fall he worked on that patch of ground maintain his faith and still having no luck at all.
Come winter, near starving and angry as a bull, he set out for the fighting again. He shook his fist at the heavens, and cracked the Shalm's shrine right in two with his fist. The he walked away, vowing to ever come to the aid of the farmers what stayed on their land—what he shoulda done. Now he spends his days takin' justice out on the men who took away his life—waiting until he's done enough good he can grow his crops again.
Word has it round here that the Shalm had turned his back on ol' Ral, took away his green thumb. The man'd gotten so good at takin' life away, the Green Master took back his powers to get if back from the soil. Nowadays, nobody can grow nothin in those parts, and precious little lives on the Windward Hill save for shadows and rats. That shrine stone is still there on the small hill, covered in thorns, the stone black with that curse.
If ye head that way, you might see him. He still sits there on the broken down porch some days, remembering happy times, tears streaming down his face. Bud Smith said he even saw him trying to plant, tilling the soil a few months back, sifting that ground through his fingers like he was wondering what was wrong with it. But either its cursed, or he's cursed, and nobody's asked the Shalm which it is—don't 'spect they will be anytime soon.
But that's what happens to a man and the ground when there's a war. And that's just one man. There's plenty more like him roamin around with thoughts of vengeance in their heads and fallow fields at their back. Don't talk to me about states and barons and rulers—it's the farm folk what suffer. Kids growing up without fathers, gardens gone brown without tenders. And scars appearing on the men who fight and the land itself. It a nasty thing, War. And no matter what's on the books, it ain't over.