It was autumn in the city of Charleston, South Carolina when the Civil war finally struck Morris Islands. William could hear the winds shrieking and moaning as they swept through the countryside, leaving the tress barren in their wake. The sun was cold and pale, throwing down weak lances of light that didn’t quite touch the ground.
William reached out a thin, trembling hand to ring the bell that sat next to his bed.
In his prime, he had been quite handsome: tall and broad-shouldered, with sharp blue eyes and brown hair that teased the sides of a firm jaw.
People had whispered that he had never once smiled, not in the thirty years since he had first arrived at the Tarly mansion, but William knew that was nothing but fishmongers’ gossip. In fact, those thin, pale lips had curved into something resembling a smile twice: once when he was told of his inheritance of the Tarly lands owing to the untimely death of his father, and second: when his first and only son had been born: the illustrious Michael.
Now, though, his face remained as stoic as ever, his eyes hard and severe despite the sagging skin beneath it. His body bulged in the tunic he wore, his belly flowing over his leather belt. His cheeks were sunken and hollow. Ninety-two years had taken their toll on him.
He rang the bell twice again, annoyed.
“No fear of any of us, not anymore,” he croaked underneath his breath.
A man scurried in, holding a tray bearing a glass of wine and a silver bowl. The metal clattered as the the man's hands shook.
William was not known for his patience.
When death was knocking at his door, however, he found he had no time for such frivolities. All that had ever mattered to him was his land and his son. His land was all but lost- the war was not going well for the Southerners- but he could not afford to lose his son as well.
He dismissed the man with a flick of the hand and leant back on his bed. Gingerly picking up the glass, he brought the wine to his lips, when a knock sounded on the wooden door.
“Master, the Commander has arrived. He demands to see you at once.”
“Send him in.”
A man in a blinding white shirt and a lamp-chop sideburn walked into the room.
“William.” He nodded curtly. “How are you?”
“Half-dead and dying, Commander, that’s what I am.” William harrumphed, setting down his tray and attempting to stand.
“There’s no need for such formalities. Sit, sit.” The man paced the room nervously before sitting down himself, clutching a tiny, ornate box in his fist behind his back.
An awkward silence followed.
“I came to speak of Lieutenant Michael.”
“Yes. My son. I’d sent word for my son to return. I’d like to see him once. Before I-. He is to take my place after. ”
The Commander was silent. He loosened his iron-grip on the tiny box, almost bringing it out front, opening his mouth to speak when William cut him off.
“The Doctor said I had but a week left. Would you deny a dying man his last wish, Nelson?” William asked softly.
A flicker of pity flashed in the Commander’s eyes, gone so fast, William half-believed he had imagined it. The Commander straightened, crushing the box in his fist, his voice firm.
“It can’t be done. The country needs him now. Not a man can be spared.”
William’s eyes hardened, all traces of friendliness gone.
“Michael has served the country well, for all his life. As have I.”
“And he shall continue to do so. All who are capable of fighting are on the battlefield. Thousands have died. Thousands of more will. The dead do not ask for rewards. We all do our duty and the country expects nothing less.”
William’s voice was velvety smooth. “Must I remind you, Commander, that the bulk of your provisions come from my lands.”
The Commander flinched. “If you withdraw your support, the country will have no choice but to take it from you by force. We would prefer for this to remain a pleasant agreement. But you must understand, we will not hesitate if it comes to that.”
“What I do understand is that you do not have the men, if it comes to that.” William remarked. “I am a dying man, Nelson. What will I gain from refusing to help my homeland? I only wish to see my son, just once, before I leave. There is no need for any unpleasantness.”
“No. There is no need.” Nelson sighed. He set the box down, out of sight of William.
“Write him a letter, if you will, and I shall see that it is delivered.”
There was no mistaking the sorrow in his voice now.
Why was he behaving so strangely?
William attempted to push himself off the bed, the effort sending him into a fit of coughing. A man rushed to help him, handing him a glass of water and a handkerchief. The white cloth was streaked with blood when he handed it back. When he recovered, he closed his eyes and leant his head back on the headboard. His voice was tinged with anger.
“A letter. 30 years of service, more than half my life’s profits to the army, and a few empty words is all I get.”
“It is more than most fathers got.” The Commander replied stoically.
William glared into his eyes, spitting on the marble floor beside him.
“A letter, then.”
He clapped his hands twice.
“A parchment and a quill.”
The man handed the paper over to him.
William bent over the page, writing in smooth, elegant penmanship. He faltered once or twice, grasping for words to convey emotion that couldn’t be reduced to ink, but finally managed to get the ordeal done with. A single tear had stained the parchment on the lower right corner, making the ink there bloom and spread across the parchment.
The Commander looked away at the rare display of emotion as he rolled the letter and sealed it, clearly uncomfortable.
“I will see that it reaches him. You have my word.”
William nodded, his eyes hostile.
“Is there anything else I could do for you, William? For old time’s sake?”
“I would like for you to leave, Commander.”
Nelson opened his mouth to speak and then closed it, nodding.
“As you wish.”
He clutched the box in his hand and got up, tiredly. He seemed to have aged a decade in the past half-hour.
As he turned his back to leave, William erupted in a fit of coughing once more, blood splaying everywhere. Nelson whirled around. The marble floor was streaked with red, and William was bent over, clutching his chest as he heaved. His breath whistled as he inhaled, the coughs loose and wet.
“Call the doctor. Now.” He ordered, before rushing to kneel beside the bed, grasping the man’s hand in his.
“Listen to me, William. Just breathe through it, the Doctor will be here any moment. Do you hear me? Breath, William-”
“Commander.” William wheezed in as he spoke, blood clogging his lungs. “The letter. Give it to- to him.”
“I- I will. Stay with me, William, the Doctor’s on his way. Your son needs you. Do you hear me? He needs you to be alive. For him.”
William shook his head, smiling ruefully for the third and last time in his life.
“D- damn you, Nelson.” Those were the last words he ever spoke. He coughed again, and blood splattered over the Commander’s white shirt.
The door opened and the Doctor rushed in, hustling to the man as the Commander moved aside. After a few moments, the coughing subsided. The Doctor turned around and shook his head. The silence in the air was heavy with grief.
Nelson walked over and closed William’s eyes softly with his palm, muttering a prayer.
“He was a good man.” the Doctor offered quietly.
He sighed. “That he was.”
He sat down next to William’s unmoving body. Blood dripped slowly down from William’s chin to the white bed sheets. After a moment, Nelson took out the box and opened it.
Inside were ashes.
“Commander,” the Doctor began tentatively, “His testament, the will, did he write-”
“The lands will be given to the government, along with all his property.”
The Doctor frowned. “Didn’t he have a son? Michael-”
The Commander looked up. Tears glistened in his eyes. He gestured to the box. The Doctor’s eyes widened.
“I-I tried. That’s -that’s why I came. I tried to tell him. He loved his son. If it was the only good thing he did, he loved him. How could I tell him now? I spared him that, at least. It was the least I could do.” The Commander’s voice broke off.
The Doctor was silent. “How-”
“On the field. Last week. Bullet wound. It festered. I promised I would keep him safe and-”
He closed the box and set in on William’s chest, tenderly placing the letter next to it. A tear dropped over the blood on William’s shirt, blooming red.
“Bury him with it.”