A boy with russet-colored hair kept his chin down, head hanging low, lost in the memories of second chances he had failed each day playing in his mind's eye over and over again in a constant, unbroken loop. The clouds hung low, straining to hold back heavy, hopeless tears. Silent mourners lined the path that led to the mouth of an open tomb waiting to receive its newest occupant as it was carried along, step by slow step. His heart, laden with grief, thumped to their listless, steady pace.|
Patria was dead. Killed. The whole world seemed to feel a deep, chilling sorrow for the young woman. Koeri wished he was one of the men bearing her body to its final place of rest.
The tragedy had happened only a mile from their town. Tensions with neighboring territories were high, and violence erupted randomly across the realm. Sometimes it was done by enemies, but sometimes it was done by friends and allies. Koeri had listened to the new merchants and messengers brought as they passed through his town.
A garrison of soldiers savagely raided a village it was meant to protect, left, and then returned a few hours later to aid the villagers as if no one remembered the slaughter. Another story came of a lord, deeply loved, suddenly having to evacuate his children and fight for his life to repel invaders - but the "invaders" were really his own subjects attacking their own town.
These bouts of deadly lunacy were becoming less uncommon and more unpredictable. No one could make sense of it. A pall of fear settled on the land, disabling the people's beliefs in the happy promises of tomorrow. They were trapped by the confusion, suffocating.
The skies had been blessedly clear that day, the sun shining brilliant like a beacon of hope. Koeri, sixteen years old, had been thinking about Patria rather than the troubles of the land. His thoughts often wandered to her, one way or another. They grew up together and spoke about many things, and afterwards he would scold himself for not being more charming with his words or deeds. Despite scolding himself, though, Patria still gave him her beautiful smile with a fond twinkle in her eye that was for no one else. When it came to their feelings for each other, however, they were both quite shy.
Every morning Koeri wanted to tell her about the life everyone saw in her eyes, but he would chicken out or be interrupted by the older boys. He would plan ahead for the daily second chances he would have at supper when all the chores were done. Every day he had two chances and every day they both frittered away, but Patria's smile kept him hopeful for each tomorrow's promise and luck.
One day each year the Women's Council, the town's true governing body no matter what the men said, permitted young women deemed mature enough to bestow a wreath to a potential husband. Koeri's heart leapt when Patria said she would see him that night at the lake. He could have said what he wished to say right there, but he couldn't really bring himself to do more than ask her to meet him. He knew he would make this the last second chance he needed.
He couldn't keep the smile from his face.
After they had spoken, Patria told her folks she wanted to go into the fields for a little while. Her mother gladly granted the request, knowing why. She had nearly finished a wreath of the most beautiful flowers, but it had been mangled and torn apart by a horse's savage hoof, a deep slash across her back.
He would have no first chance tomorrow, just as he had no first chance the afternoon they found her. She would never know how he felt, and they would never have a life together. No more hopeful days or the twinkling, fond smile. No more hello and goodbye.
His final second chance was gone forever. Hope was gone from the world.
The clouds above couldn't hold back their tears any longer, and as the heavy, cold rain fell and people rushed for cover, Koeri's own hot tears streamed down his cheeks to the ground at his feet.