Blood on the strings of a guitar. No fingers. Drops of blood. One at first and then another and another, in increasing number until drops became a stream. The falling and passing of the blood did not stir a sound from the instrument. There was sound though that night. The sound of horses and guns, the wet slash of steel against flesh, and the panicked, frantic noises of those desperate to not die this day.
The fire was warm, a blaze stoked high to keep back the dark and cold. She could feel its uneven heat against her face and knees. Her front was almost uncomfortably warm. Her back chilled. She drew a shawl across her shoulders.
The faces around the fire were familiar. She had come to know them in the months since she had joined them. Most had been strangers, but among their numbers had been faces she recognized from her village and from the outlying farms. Each face, whether male or female, young or old, looked drawn. Life had never been easy for any of them, but at least there had been food and shelter at the end of every day. Not so now. And rarely a chance for a full night’s sleep. Everyone took a turn on watch and if not on watch than on patrol, scouting the area, looking for signs of hostile presence, making a foray into a sympathetic village, gathering supplies or sharing information.
The crackle of the fire was the loudest sound, though behind her she could hear the shuffle of feet, the occasional snort from a horse at the pickets, and the rustle of the trees as the wind rose. Fires had been allowed this night. There had been no sign of the Imperials. The forest was thick around this clearing. Sentries had been posted. There would be no one to see the fire.
She did not feel relaxed, but she did not feel afraid either. Tiredness was what occupied her mind more than anything. Fear came when she let her mind think on the future. There was so much uncertainty there. If she let her mind wander down that road she would become lost on it. Best then to focus on now. Her life had become a succession of pockets of now. She made each small component of her present her focus. She poured all her attention into it, whatever the it might be at the moment. Eating a meager meal. Collecting firewood. Boiling water.
And moving. Always moving. Never more than two days in one location. But not always a new location. They would circle back. There was no pattern to their movements, none that she could discern anyway, and such details were not shared with her nor those seated around the fire with her.
There was a stir. She could see through the flicker of the flames people getting to their feet. Some were smiling. Some extended hands which were, in turn, clasped by another. Words from the new arrival. Not loud enough for her to hear, but what little made it to her ears had the sound of encouragement. Not false.
She leaned against the person to her right in order to see around the flames.
She gasped, a small intake of air. An involuntary reaction. A response not of her conscious mind.
Beautiful. She had thought to never hear, speak, think or feel that word again. Beautiful. But that is what he was. Dark hair pulled back from his head, tucked behind his ears, and left to spill across his shoulders. Broad in the chest. Slim in the waist. His forearms were thick below the rolled up cuffs of his shirt. His physical attributes were pleasing and she felt a moment of shame for thinking such amid the squalor of the camp. But what brought the word beautiful to mind was his manner. He walked the circumference of the seated, speaking to each, shaking the offered hands, patting shoulders, crouching to meet eyes when someone could not rise due to weakness or injury. His voice was always soft, but with a confidence that was reassuring to everyone. She watched him as he did so, her heart starting to race with every step that brought him closer to her. When he reached her she was already on her feet.
She had to look up to meet his eyes.
“Good evening,” he said. “How do you fare?”
She nodded her head in recognition to his salutation but could not find her tongue to answer his question. She did not fare well. None of them did. But that did not seem to matter now. His presence here reminded her that she was there because of a decision she made. No one forced her. She was there, in fact, so that no one could force her to do anything again. That was why they were all there. Discomforts and tiredness, hunger and the sometimes fear, were inconsequential when stacked up against what they had left. What they sought to change.
“I fare well, sir,” she said, dipping into a curtsy out of habit. Her cheeks flushed at the realization.
He nodded, smiled, and moved to the person next to her.
She sat and watched him complete his circuit. Returning to where he had entered the light of the fire, he did not leave. Instead he took a seat. He stretched his hands toward the fire. “Cold night,” he said. Some of those around him laughed and agreed and shook their heads in wonder.
An older man with more hair on his face than head, reached into the darkness and brought forth a guitar. Its wood was scratched in places worn thin in others, but someone had applied a polish to it recently so that it reflected the dance of the fire’s light.
“Sir,” said the man, “My old hands can’t pluck a tune like I used to, but it would do me good to hear a song. Would you indulge an old man with such a request?” And he held the guitar toward the newcomer.
A hush fell over those seated. All eyes were on the man as he considered, decided, smiled, and took up the instrument. Years fell off the old man’s face.
The silence held.
The man took up position. He rested the guitar on his knee, cradled it with his body, like he was protecting it. He caressed the strings lightly. No sound. He did not fiddle with the tuning pegs. He knew the old man took the best care he could of the instrument.
“Let’s see…,” said the man, getting his fingers into position. His voice was quiet, but all ears heard.
He started to sing. It started as a low hum, words barely audible.
She realized two things very quickly. The first was that he was an excellent singer, perhaps professionally trained. The second was that he had not sung in a long while. He kept his voice low as he literally found his voice.
But when he found that voice it rang out true and clear and the song he sang raised their hearts and soon their voices joined his.
And later the fire burned low and the final note of the guitar hung in the air and slowly faded into the night.
And later she walked to the tent she shared with five others. There were songs in her head, words at the edge of her tongue, and the quiet voices of others in the dark as they, too, sought to maintain what they had received at the fire that night.
And later she would catch wisps of those songs among the tents and on the road.
And later those songs remained only in her head and heart.
And later there was blood on guitar strings.
[20 Minutes is a self-imposed ritual in which I write, uninterrupted, for 20 minutes a day. No self-editing is the goal. Just 20 minutes hammering on the keys. After the 20 minutes, I am allowed to clean up spelling and grammar errors, but the rest must stay as is. 20 minutes a day. Every day. Today is day 7.]