Only the Brave Die


Used with Permission from Carole Pilgrim

So wanders yet another legend into the desert’s waiting hands. So waits death to take his long escaped prey, finally come to die. But when the final tally comes to collect an old man’s deeds, just what will it find hidden behind the mask of a wanderer?

Bim Peacock, Photo Editor

Over the hills flows the lonely song of the wind on the dunes, whistling, breathing, crying across the sand.  Swirling its dead streamers high into the air, a lifeless partner in a wretched waltz.  Forever will the wind be caught mid-dance.  Forever will the wind twirl on the high.  Forever will the wind sing alone.

Ah, but its partner of numb beauty needs no life to give her being.  The sands, the golden sands, they carry life beyond life, character beyond existence.  For deep within the dunes, deep within the billows of the desert’s wispy gown, lie the legends long forgotten.  Worlds fallen to dust.  Heroes crumbled to ash.  All who face history and myth, they all disappear in the end.  Some fade before others, but all vanish from memory.  All fade away.  All return to the sand.

For the desert always remembers.  The Dead Dancer never forgets that which passes through her fingertips.  For within the grains so beautiful on the breeze, within each and every shatter of a crystal, hide the stories forgotten from the minds of man.  The legends only the desert can recall.

What have we here, dear dancer, dear dancer? asks the wind of the dunes.  To the shifting earth it gazes, feeling that which has disturbed its flow. What here has blocked the wind?

There it is: the variance in the dunes.  No, not just a variance.  A figure.  A… man.

Ah, when was the last we saw of a man in these dead lands, dear dancer, dear dancer?  Ponders the wind curiously.  To the earth it swirls, reaching out to sense this anomaly from head to toe.  Through the stranger’s clothes flows the wind, feeling the strange tough fibers of his long thick coat, tanned like scorched flesh in the sun.  Across his face it caresses, feeling his ragged gray beard short against his chin, filling the creases of his age weathered face.  A wide nose so crooked with beating.  A brimmed hat so faded with age.  A set jaw so sturdy with frown.

What is it you say, my dancer, oh dancer? queries the wind of its wife, so observant in her peace. Look to his eyes, you say?

All at once the gale halts its movement.  All at once the sands cease their stream.  All at once the desert fades to silence, in awe of the story of his eyes.

Cracked emerald peaks splinter across azure skies.  Rivers of the purest sapphire spiral across fields of hazel.  Crimson crevices of hellfire split across wastelands of ebony.  Every site of wonder, of beauty—every sight of fear, of death.  Every vision his ancient eyes had witnessed left a scar upon their waters.  Cracked, spiraled, splintered scars of every peak, every ocean.  From the highest mountain to the darkest cavern, the wind sees every story the eyes hold.

The stranger blinks, blinks those eyes of legend, and gazes up to the sky.  His hand rises to his chin, stroking his beard as if perfectly at ease in the dead dancer’s hands.

“Would seem I have your attention,” escapes a voice like the tired sea from his lips: ancient and strained, yet resilient as the tides.  “If it is of your interest, I’d much rather skip the petty supernatural small talk.”

Warily shifts the wind, curious yet cautious.  Something which it doesn’t understand now stands before its presence, and when one is as old as the earth it rules, that which is new serves as quite a shock indeed.   Silence rules the desert as the wind carefully considers, then tentatively, it rises once more, “Dear human, oh human. What is it you seek, out here, where all the Earth has fallen?  Out here, where the Dead Dancer reigns?”

Not a flinch touches the stranger’s body at the words, words themselves larger than his existence. To the skies he simply gazes, crossing his leather bound arms serenely.

“I come for what all others have come.  For what all others fall to dust.  Whether the same fate will befall me… well, I haven’t decided yet.”

“Legends don’t come to the desert to find glory. They come to be remembered.  They come to become one with the sands.  They come to die.”

“True.  Whether I allow death to take me is another matter,” chuckles the stranger, a grin of teeth splitting his beard.

Slowly spins the wind, sensing all this figure has to offer.  From the creases in his hands to the weight of his footprints behind him, the wind fills and feels all.  A fighter for sure, by his scars and his stance, but not a soldier.  A thinker most certainly, by his words and his air, but not a scholar.  A rogue?  A philosopher?  Neither, nor.

Once more touches the wind to his eyes, yet dances away just as quickly.  Those eyes, so twisted with color…they are beyond the wind’s understanding.  And that, of all else, terrifies it beyond measure.

“Who are you, human, strange human? Who speaks of death as an old companion?  Who faces the Earth’s voice without recoil?”

Naught but silence passes his lips. Naught but stillness stirs his body.  Simply he stares to the skies, with those eyes so frightening to that which feels no fear.

And finally his arms unfold, slowly shifting to the inner folds of his coat.  From his pocket comes a swath of rose cloth, crimson initials printed at the bottom.  Away from the sky the stranger tears his eyes, gazing longingly to his token of mystery.  The wind recognizes the way he holds it: the ginger touch, the reverencing gaze.  It knows the touch, the look in his eyes, for it is the way it carries the sands.  How it caresses the dunes so fondly.  In the wind’s fingertips outreached, it feels the echo of a tear in the stranger’s weary eyes.

At last, he clasps the swath tight in his fist and glances back up, furry eyebrows clenched in thought.  “I’ve gone by many names in this world.  Some have been cursed to the heavens in hatred, others whispered in silent awe.  But names are a weak prospect.  They tell so little of us that we might as well simply be numbered off, one by one.”  He grins again, half bitterly, half brightly, and gazes back down to his hand.  “Call me The Rover.”

The wind replies with silence as it watches the stranger so curiously.  How he stands as if he’s faced the world and nearly spelt its end, then turned to fight at its side like brothers in blood.  Dear dancer, dear dancer, what have we discovered this time? I feel its time we find out.

Up rises the wind, pulling sky, earth, soul and sand high into the heavens with the roaring hiss of shifting desert. The Rover replies as the other had done before him, silently watching as all logic is defied at once.  For all gravity seems reverse at this moment, the dunes themselves sinking into the skies, becoming one with the sun and the blue.  Every lesson taught by the wise and the understanding, all becoming obsolete in a rising cloud of gold.

Down plunges the wind, sinking deep into the Earth and across its crust.  Across the once tranquil sprawling desert flows the storm of dead soil—air and desert one in existence.  The Rover coolly braces himself as the tempest swirls about him, sending his jacket flapping madly and his hat flying far behind.

“Always been curious how this part works!” he hollers across the raging desert, grinning with adrenaline.  “Love seeing something new!”

Even as the grains fly across his face with growing force, even as the crystals begin gnawing at his flesh, even as the wind begins tearing through his very existence, The Rover never ceases his smile. Jagged tears split across his braced sleeves.  Ragged strips rip from his flapping coat.  Bits of skin peel away from his face.  Still grins The Rover, still he smiles with absolute glee in the face of death.

Meanwhile, the wind feels agony that it never knew possible. How many stories had it consumed with ease, their bones falling into the sand peacefully?  How many had stood before the desert’s might, begrudgingly or willingly, and fallen away to dust?  How many of the bravest souls had cowered and died as the wind swallowed their stories into memory?

But not this story, though can it truly be called so? So many years… so many secrets… so many memories.  So much pain and torment, hatred and remorse.  So much love and beauty, honor and… wonder. Wonder.  Things the forces of nature themselves never possibly imagined.  The purest sights and sensations, the most beautiful sounds and tastes.  So much beauty… no, too much beauty… too many memories… too much… pain.

The wind wails with soul chilling-agony, a sound never thought possible by spirits nor nature. All at once, the storm collapses inwards.  All at once, the sands fall dead to the earth.  All at once, the wind falls to silence.  Pure, writhing silence.

The Rover himself no longer stands; instead, he sprawls across the tranquil sands, clothes torn and ragged, face shredded and bloodied. Yet, even in his broken state, he wheezes with quiet laughter.  “Is that all you got, ye big beastie?  I have ex-wives that hit harder than you!”  Still, his face bears a grin of utter delight, his eyes shut tightly against the sun bright overhead.

“What are you… Rover, oh Rover?” moans the broken wind. “What could possibly have witnessed what you have seen?”

The Rover barks a laugh to the aching sky and rolls to his stomach. Slowly he climbs to his feet, streams of golden sand falling away from his body. Dragging bloody fingers through his gray shaggy hair, he glances down to his clasped palm and unfolds it.  Without a touch of harm, a drop of blood, a speck of sand to corrupt its purity lays the rose swath, peaceful and beautiful in what was moments before a battlefield.  He gingerly touches it to his lips and gazes back to the heavens with his world shattering eyes.

“The weak claim they are anything more than that which they are. Gods, Demons, whoever any fool may call divine, they’re all cowards.  Petty men hidden behind big masks bleed just the same as any else, and by the stars, I’ve sure shown them that.  Me, though?  I’m just a man.”

He starts to turn, then furrows his eyebrows again in thought. “Or at least, I’m the one who knows how much it truly means to take that title. Man.”

And with those words and a fleeting wink, he turns his resilient back to the wind and saunters back into the wandering dunes.

The wind races into a howling gale. “No, dear Rover, dear Rover! You mustn’t leave! I must have your story!”

“You want a story?” he asks, and without turning back he releases the rose swath onto the breeze. “Take hers.

Over and under swirls the silken cloth on the quieting breeze, dipping to and fro as gravity draws it gently to the earth. Tentatively reaches out the wind, wary of any that The Rover has touched.  With a light flick, it sends the swath to the sky with a puff of sand, watching its story dissipate into the memory of the desert.

Suddenly, with the simple memories hidden within a piece of old cloth, the wind understands. Well, not everything.  Not all The Rover has stood for and turned his back on, for Legend only recognizes the valiant, the heroes who fought and died for the sin of men and gods.  Legend only speaks of those who fight the darkness, not those who fight beside it.  Oh, they are not evil men, no, for they are the few who recognize no such thing as evil, the few who dare to be more than a petty hero.  But they don’t find the pleasure of happily ever after.  They never feel the mercy of falling to ash and memory.  Their story never comes to a valiant end.

They simply walk away.

And as the wind watches The Rover fade into the scalding desert, footprints deep and liquid in the unbroken dunes, it feels that which it has never felt before.