They called him a soldier. He was a soldier, yes, but he was also a killer. Every day he murdered, and ever night he saw the blood staining his hands, hands that he could never scrub clean.
They came for him when he was five. The Army told his parents that they were recruiting, and his parents told the Army no. He could still hear the noise of the shots as they splattered into his parents' chests. He didn't know then that he would hear that noise, produce that noise himself.
"It's a new program," the Army told him after they'd silenced his tears. "The best soldiers start young. Train them up early. You'll like it."
Little boys are easily twisted. Blood and more blood, that was his childhood. Watching the films, performing well in the drills, never failing, never falling, because to fall meant death.
One day, when he was twelve, his best friend Danny fell. Danny'd been sick that day, but he'd tried to hide it, because illness meant death too.
"Weak!" the drillmaster barked, and they dragged Danny away.
Later they gave him Danny's uniform, stained with blood. "That's what happens if you fail," they said.
They knew of his weakness. That he flinched when the bullets pounded into bodies on the screen, that he cried out when he was struck and slashed in practice. That he loved.
Oh yes, he loved.
He'd seen her while out on march. He was fifteen. She was too. He didn't remember love; he didn't know what it was, but she did. He saw it in her eyes, full of light, and her hair, extravagantly long instead of shaved brutally to the scalp.
At night he thought about her, wondered what it would feel like to touch hair so long and beautiful. Like touching feathers, maybe.
Those days were rough. They were trying to make the boys into men, but they hadn't discovered that men weren't made through blood and sweat—only monsters were. He'd had to shoot three prisoners in the space of a week, and every night he tasted their splattered blood on his lips. I would have been in school, he thought when the images of brutality flashed before his eyes. I would have been learning. Maybe had a girlfriend.
But the images of her kept him awake too. She danced in the woods sometimes. All alone, with no partner to lead her and hold her. Her long hair swirled around her, and her eyes sparkled with joy in a joyless world. He wanted to be in that gaze of pure bliss; he wanted to be the reason for that happiness.
When he got his first assignment, he couldn't look the victim in the eyes as he shot him. That cost him a lot. He thought the flogging would kill him, but it didn't. Instead they left him to lie on his bunk in his blood, stripped to the waist and shivering. It was his eighteenth birthday. He would have been a man. Instead he was a killer.
When he woke from the feverish infection, he heard her singing. So he left the barracks and stumbled outside. The snow burned his feet through his cracking boots, but he didn't notice. The song called him. Its loneliness burnt his heart more.
He had never ventured into the woods alone. He wasn't allowed out, and the barracks should've been guarded, but tonight it wasn't. And there she danced—body graceful like a doe's and eyes alight like a bird that cried into the sunrise.
He had never been so close to her. He watched, weariness gone, breath coming deep and long even in the icy wind. He still felt the blood on his hands—it dripped, staining the virgin snow with the hated scarlet of death. The snow didn't hurt him, strangely enough, despite its soft iciness touching his bare chest.
Suddenly she stopped, her arms floating back down to her sides, her shining hair settling around her waist. She turned, and she looked at him. He thought she would be afraid. Don't you see the blood? Don't you see what I am?
Instead she watched him, no fear in her eyes. Her look was that of a deer that had never met a hunter—innocent, uncertain, curious. He was the hunter. He felt the urge now, the sick, dark energy they'd instilled in him since he was a boy—to kill. The blood ran down his hands.
Then she spoke, neither frowning nor smiling, solemnity in her eyes.
"What's your name?" he asked, as if he would die if he did not know.
A flicker of a smile ran across her face, before it died like his parents.
"Who are you?" he went on. You're beautiful, he wanted to say, but he was afraid.
She stared at him still, before taking a step closer and reaching out a hand. Tears glistened on her lashes, and he wanted to wipe them away, to hold her until she knew she was safe, even as nobody had ever held him when he was afraid or upset.
"What's wrong?" he asked.
"It is so dark," she finally said in a whisper, the tears falling from her cheeks. When each one hit the snow it turned into a drop of blood. "But I have come to bring you into the light."
He took her hand, and joy and warmth spread across his body.
When they found the deserter, he was leaning against a tree, his body frozen and blue. But he was smiling like he'd been given the greatest gift in the world. Nobody understood it, and they buried him with the other dead soldiers in a nameless grave.