We woke at dawn and were ready faster than we ever were for duty. There was no time to waste; we were free for a morning only, and both eager to escape the confines of the camp.
“Ready to have some fun?” David asked, his grin extra wide that day. He looked so young in the morning light, but this time I didn’t feel the almost nine year gap in our ages like I usually did. I felt younger mounting that horse and riding off with him into the dawn. I felt stronger and healthier and… happier. I could hardly wait to pull out my notebook and jot down some lines when we got to where we were going.
“Lead the way,” I deferred.
David kicked his horse into action and they rode off. I followed close behind, then caught up with a little burst of speed. We rode in silence for a while, just enjoying the crisp morning air and the crunch of fallen leaves. There was a winter chill creeping into the air, but it was nothing but refreshing to us. Every time I glanced over, David was grinning. I couldn’t help but join him.
We often rode side by side into battle - when we had to fight - but it was nothing like this. There was none of the tension, none of the worry that he could be shot at any minute. Or that I could. This was something good, pure, free. Everything that David deserved.
After a little while, a town materialized in the distance. “Is that where we’re heading?” I asked.
“Sure,” David replied. “I could die for a tea cake right now.”
“No one’s dying today,” I muttered. Louder, I added, “You can get as many tea cakes as you want. They’re on me.”
David shot me a smile, the kind that lit his eyes. “I’m not looking that gift horse in the mouth.” He spurred his horse to go faster. With a little laugh, I did the same.
We found a tea house just on the inside of town and tied our horses out front. It was a cute place, quaint and small. A little bell rung as we walked in, and a kindly lady immediately guided us to an empty table by the window. “Straight from the front lines, are ya?” she asked, wiping down the already clean table as we sat.
“Yes, ma’m,” David replied, turning his charm to her by reflex. “Do you get many soldiers in here?” The woman smiled. “Oh, a few. Now and then.” She straightened and looked between us. “So, what can I get you?”
“A pot of your favorite tea,” I said, then gestured to David. “And whatever he wants.”
David pulled a handful of coins from his pocket and slid them across the table to the hostess. “One of every cake you have.”
“Every one?” she asked, hesitating to reach for the money. “Sir, it’s early- we’re fully stocked. We have over twenty kinds of tea cakes.”
David smiled up at her, pushing the pile of coins a little closer. “Then one of each sounds great.”
I shook my head fondly as she took his money and headed back to the kitchen. “I hope you’re hungry.”
“I hope you are,” David replied. “You’re going to help me eat these.”
He just smiled. The townspeople wandered about outside the tea house’s window, and David and I watched them for a while. Our breaths came easier, and we lounged in our seats, our muscles glad to escape being held at attention. The sound of clinking glass around us was calming, and the silence was peaceful rather than awkward. When the hostess had come and gone, we each sipped at our little cups of tea. It was quiet but for the chatter in the shop until David asked, “What do you miss most about home?”
I looked down into my cup with a fleeting smile. I could’ve avoided the question. I could have said my mother’s berry cobbler or my dog, but I was honest. I was always honest with David. “My brother.”
“You have a brother?”
My gaze was gentle when I looked up. “Had.”
David blinked, his expression changing. “I’m so sorry.”
“No, no. It’s… good to talk about him. Remember him.” He still looked apologetic, but nodded. I didn’t give him time to apologize again. “What do you miss most?”
Quirking a smile, David glanced at the window, then back at me. “I miss the woods by my house. I didn’t live there for long - it was just being built - but I fell in love with the woods first. I’d sit out there for hours and just… listen.” He grinned at me. “I could only imagine the poems you could write there. They’d surely stop the hearts of our enemies with their sheer beauty.”
“You’ve already bought all the cakes in the shop; you’ll gain nothing from this flattery,” I deflected with a smile. Meanwhile my heart picked up speed.
“Not all is for gain,” David commented.
The hostess came then with trays full of little cakes the size of my fist. They were decorated with delicate swirls of icing and miniature flowers - colorful, sugary and perfect.
“Enjoy, boys,” the lady said with a warm smile. “I daresay you earned it.” She collected her trays and headed to the next table, whose occupants were eying us in either jealousy or disapproval.
David’s brown eyes were wider than I thought possible as he surveyed the array of sweets in front of him. “Where should we start?”
I waved a hand. “Anywhere,” I said, echoing his words from the night before. He grinned and picked up a white cake with his fingers, manners be damned.
At the first bite, David let out a little moan of happiness, and I laughed. He offered the rest of the cake to me. “Try it! It’s… it’s heaven.”
I took it from his sticky fingers and stuffed the rest in my mouth, laughing through my bulging cheeks like a child sneaking cookies. I felt so young, so free, so… unlike myself. It was glorious. “Incredible,” I breathed after swallowing.
David’s eyes gleamed. “You pick the next one.”
By the time we had finished all the cakes, I felt sick, but in the best way. I drained the last dregs of my tea, hoping it would calm my stomach. David seemed to be in just as much joyous discomfort. “I can’t remember the last time I ate that much.”
“Neither can I,” I admitted. As I looked at him, my voice turned soft. “Thank you for this, David.”
“For the cakes? You offered to pay,” he said, waiving me off.
“No,” I replied, shaking my head. “Thank you for this. You have… considerably…” I struggled with my words, and chose them carefully, “brightened up my days here. Thank you.”
David smiled at me, his eyes brighter than I had ever seen them. “I’m glad you were the first one I met, Siegfried. I’m so glad.”
If I had known then what was to happen before the year was out, I might have said more. I might have begged him to run away, to desert his position and go somewhere he could indulge on tea cakes until he vomited. I would have come with him. If I had known…
But I did not.
Oh God, I did not know.