Cold. Wet. Face down in coarse, black sand.
I pushed over onto my back and gazed at the red sky boiling with black clouds and the occasional arc of blue lightning. My lungs burned. My eyes felt dry and swollen. And I shivered uncontrollably, teeth chattering even through a clenched jaw.
It usually takes a minute to adjust. One moment you are basking in the glow of perfection, contemplating lessons learned and lessons that need to be learned and then, in the span of a fleeting thought, you plunge into the physical. The sensations are overwhelming. Devastating even. You think she would give a bit of warning or something.
I flexed muscles to gauge usefulness then rolled again and pushed to my hands and knees. Nausea hit me like a black wave of a cold dark sea.
What am I doing here?
I felt the memory of that stated perfection slipping away like feathered rays of sunlight at dusk leaving only the cold and pain and that simple sense of loss that haunts most of us through life. I wasn’t supposed to be here yet. I still had time elsewhere.
“Why so soon?” I wheezed and then coughed spasmodically. Gods, the pain, and it wasn’t subsiding. If anything it worsened with each gasping breath. Every nerve felt filled with tiny pins. It had never been this bad before.
I opened my eyes and saw slippered feet and the tresses of a silken gown.
“It hurts,” I said.
“You’re slightly out of phase,” her tone soft and casual. “Take my hand.”
I reached out blindly and then felt her slender fingers in mine. Power surged through me transforming jellied bones to steel and wilted muscles to pulsing cords of light. Pulling up, I gripped her hand in both of mine and pressed the backs of her fingers to my forehead relishing the warmth and energy.
“Let’s not be indulgent,” she said and I released her hand. The light faded but some of the power remained. The pain was gone. And I could see.
“Sorry,” I muttered and pushed to my feet. The Goddess stood before me in white robes that did nothing to conceal her shape. Her hair was light colored and cropped short but that could change as fast as her mood. As could her eyes. Sky bright blue for the moment. Deep, rich brown the next. Gentle, forest green or black and star filled when she was thinking deep.
Beyond hair and eyes, she’s difficult to describe. She reminds me of a thousand different women that I’ve never met. So familiar yet so enigmatic. So knowable yet eternally mysterious. I will say that it hurts to look at her. In a good way. Her visage sets ablaze this deep longing, a pleasing ache that makes you want to do great things in her name.
Ethereal perfection. The grace of every woman personified. Any man would kill to hold and touch her yet any man would know that one touch and that perfection would singe one to cinders. At least you think that. Still the thought will pass through a tired mind. Of her in my arms, skin slick with sweat and panting gently with the effort of lovemaking. I’ve told her as much to her face and it made her smile.
Ah, the gentle hope that a woman will give.
I peeled my eyes off of her and looked down at my sand-encrusted body.
“I’m naked,” I said. Which must be the perfect thing to say to a beautiful woman since she laughed and stepped closer.
“Yes, you are,” she said and waved her hand over the sand beside us. The ground melted into a pool of clear water. “Get in.”
I stepped to the water’s edge and tested it with a toe. It was cold. Frigid even.
“It’s cold,” I stated.
She cocked an eyebrow.
“My warrior-poet,” she said. “My veteran of a thousand battles whines like one of my maidens about cold water?”
“Battle is one thing,” I said. “Cold water is another. I don’t think a bit of warm-“
She shook her head and snapped her fingers. The ground beneath my feet melted away and I was in the water splashing and sputtering. She hovered above slowly dissolving into a silvery mist that coated the surface of the water. I found my footing. The water came to just below my chest. I swept my hair back, muttering certain blasphemies I hoped she couldn’t hear. Then I felt her materialize beneath the water in front of me, rising up head back so that the water dressed her long dark hair. Her eyes flashed a deep, royal blue.
“What was that?” she asked.
“Nothing,” I said.
Water traced across full breasts and erect nipples like drops of mercury. She smiled that thin knowing smile as she squeezed the water from her hair with both hands.
“Do you know why you are here?”
I shook my head. “I have forgotten already.” I tried to focus on her eyes but invariably my gaze would wander. “I do know I’m early though.”
“Does that bother you?”
“A little.” time in perfection is precious.
“I do ask a lot of my warrior-poets.” she threw her hair over her shoulder and eased an inch or so closer. “Would you say that I ask too much?”
“No.” Strange sensation. I wanted her even closer yet I fought the compulsion to move away. Beautiful, sacred flame you ache to touch but know will burn.
“Good,” she said. “Because certain opportunities have arisen.” She held out her hand and small delicate plants sprouted from her palm. She crushed them and with a bit of water produced suds. One dollop went into my hair. “Scrub,” she ordered. The rest went onto a course sponge she produced. She then proceeded to remove a layer of skin. She turned me and scoured my back, turned me again and worked over my front and if the water was ever cold it was now warming nicely from my boiling blood.
That sacred flame. . .maybe sometimes it’s good to get burned.
I dropped my hands into the water as if to rinse the soap off and found the line of her hips with my fingertips.
“Hands,” she said sternly. “Up, where I can see them.”
I complied. She continued scrubbing.
“We don’t have time for that now.”
Now. . .
As in “not now, maybe later.” Now yes, it’s just a maybe. But then again it’s a maybe and not a no. A woman will do that. Foster hope with an indefinite yes and the thought of that alone can keep you warm on many a cold night.
“What’s the hurry?” I asked.
“You’re actually a little late.”
I ducked under. When I surfaced she stood on the bank dressed in red silk.
Clambering out of the water, I followed her down a path to a precipice overlooking a valley.
“Why am I late?” I asked.
“Some of the opportunities were unforseen. But it would be foolish to ignore them.”
“Opportunities,” I muttered.
She stopped and turned. “Yes, opportunities.” she stepped towards me. “Remember that destiny is always optional. Situations will present themselves and then it’s your choice. You can take advantage and learn and grow or ignore the situation and go on.” She smiled. “Of course I would prefer the “learn and grow” side of things.”
I looked at my feet for a moment, thinking.
“What if I don’t recognize one of your opportunities?” I asked at length.
“Then you miss the opportunity.” She stepped closer and lightly touched my chest with the tips of her fingers. Warm chills raced through my limbs.
“And that’s alright,” she continued. “Life is dynamic and ever changing. There are no guarantees. None of this could work if there were.”
I nodded. She turned and continued walking.
“I need my sword,” I said after her. “And my armor.”
“Of course,” she replied and as we rounded a bend in the path we came upon three of her maidens standing beside a pile of gear.
“Assist him,” she commanded and the maidens descended on me like a flock of twittering birds. They helped with the leathers and expertly rolled the hauberk of chain mail over my head and then adjusted the fit. Presented me with the belts and pulled at buckles then let me lean on a shoulder as I pulled on boots all the while giggling and chattering in woman-speak.
Finished they each curtseyed and hurried off down the path, still giggling and casting smiling glances over their shoulders.
“Here,” the Goddess called. She sat on a flat rock having at some point changed into leathers herself, black and polished with buckles shining even in the dim light. Her hair was cropped short again. Bright blond and spiky. “Come sit.”
I sat with legs crisscrossed at her feet between her knees facing away so she could brush and braid my hair.
“You know long hair isn’t suited for this kind of work,” I mentioned.
“Yes, I’m sure but long hair suits you. Tilt your head back.”
After a few strokes with a brush, she began the braid at the crown of my head.
“Do you know where you are going?” she asked after a moment.
“Back to the Temple of Fate,” I stated flatly.
She offered no comment.
“You know, I didn’t do very well the first time.”
“It’s not a contest,” she said. “And you did very well the first time. You just finished a bit early.”
“A bit early?”
“Yes, well, you do have a tendency to take certain matters a little too far.”
I didn’t argue. Her lithe fingers gently pulled and stroked and twisted, pulled and stroked and twisted, almost lulling me into a comforting trance. Grooming reinforces social bonds. Which is why she did an odd thing like braid my hair. It provided a quiet moment with casual physical contact that engendered a feeling of comfort, trust and reassurance. The anxiety that had begun to boil in my gut at the thought of the Temple drained away. Not completely. But the challenge seemed less daunting.
“Will I take certain things too far again,” I asked.
“We’ll see,” she said almost casually. “If you wish, I’ll try to give you some warning if things look out of hand.”
I thought for a moment.
“I wish it.”
“Then it shall be done.”
She finished the tail of the braid and patted my shoulders. “There,” she said. “All done. Stand and let’s look at you.”
I pushed up and turned. She changed again. Black hair. Lace. Very formal. She pulled at the chain mail, adjusting the fit. “You look good. Stand up straight.”
“What about my sword?”
“Maybe we should try once without it.”
“I don’t think so.”
She sighed. “Fine.” She pulled my weapon from the folds of her gown. An arm’s length of steel polished mirror bright. My pulse lifted a bit at the sight of it. She presented the grip to me holding the steel with the gathers of her dress and I took it reverently. Tested the weight. Studied the edge.
My confidence inched upward.
I slid the sword into the leather sheath on my back.
“There are coins in your leather pouch,” she said. “Enough to get you started.”
“Thank you. And a name?”
“I was thinking ‘Galen’.”
I nodded and looked around nervously. A fog rolled in filling the valley and edging up toward us.
“Do your best,” she said. “Learn, explore and grow.”
I nodded again and looked down at my boots.
“Anything else?” she asked.
“Yes,” I looked up. “Look ahead, Goddess and tell me it will work out.”
“I don’t need to look ahead to know that it will work out. One way or the other.”
I shrugged. “Alright. Then tell me that you love me.”
She took a step toward me, lifting a delicate hand to cup my cheek
“My dear sweet poet,” she whispered. “If I just came out and said it, what would you have to work for?”
She wrinkled her nose playfully, raking my jaw line with her red lacquered nails as she turned away and dissolved into points of fading light.
Oh well. I think I mentioned before about hope and all that.
Into the valley.
Through the forest.
And to the temple.
Mild trepidation. Tinged with a bit of nervous expectation. I think that would best describe the feelings I had as I turned and stared down into that fog shrouded valley. And the feelings weren’t getting worse but they wouldn’t get any better so there was no sense in waiting any longer.
But still I stood on the brink of eternity gazing down into the unknown pondering oblivion. I took a taste of the fear that tightened my gut and found it lacking. What could I be afraid of? The fog? The unknown? That seemed such a waste to worry about the fact that you just don’t know.
Enough of this, I thought. I have to go or she’s going to come back and boot me off the edge.
Nothing to fear. I know fear. I know its meaning. I know its purpose. And at this moment, it has no meaning, no purpose.
Then why did my gut twist even tighter as I stepped over the edge and began working my way down through the fog. . .
The last faint memories of perfection faded as I reveled in the physical. I breathed in the rich smells of loam and earth and tested textures with my fingers. I drank deep from a cold clear stream and stared up at the towering trees and streaming sunlight. So beautiful. So real.
I found plenty to eat and a rock ledge or fallen tree provided adequate shelter from the occasional downpour. I will admit I saw no reason to hurry. I ambled and tarried and took long sunbaths lying naked in tall grass in open fields. The temple would be there for its lessons and trials and tribulation. For the moment I wanted as much of that primitive existence as I could get. Life is rarely so simple and pure.
Then one night I heard the howl and I knew the hunt was on. I usually slept without a fire wrapped in my cloak, sword across my lap. I had met no threats of any concern but I was expecting the beast. So when the mournful, angry keening drifted through the forest I was up and moving toward it. I had to find my charge before it did and the chances were good it already had his scent.
The Goddess demands little from her warriors. She appreciates devotion as any woman would, but she requires only one thing. That we protect the innocent. I knew some how some way the beast would make itself known on my way to the Temple. Don’t know how I knew or why I knew, but I knew. The beast only hunts the innocent to maim, sometimes to kill. Unless I can stop it.
So I moved swift and silent avoiding the puddles of moonlight. Soon I smelled smoke and in the darkness ahead saw a speck of flickering light. A fire.
I listened for the beast and tasted the wind for it’s pungent scent. Nothing.
Slowly, I eased forward until I could see the fire clearly. A boy with a mop of shaggy hair patrolled the clearing brandishing a large stick and staring wide eyed into the darkness.
I debated whether to approach or observe for a while. He had a stick. He had a fire. Maybe he didn’t need my help. If he could somehow tackle the beast himself it would be infinitely better in the long run. But I would stay close nonetheless. Just in case.
Then the beast howled again and it sounded close. The kid dropped his stick and stood trembling before the sound of the thing crashing through the foliage. I moved, bursting into the clearing. The kid spun to see me charging toward him drawing my sword and then spun again to see the beast explode into view. It moved like a gorilla, massive and all muscle but it had a wolfish head with bright red eyes and snapping, drooling snout. The only place the boy had to go was down. He dropped to his knees and covered his head with his arms.
The beast loomed over me and the child as I let my sword fall behind me and slammed into the thing with my shoulder hoping to drive it back away from the kid. But as we rolled it bit down hard into my shoulder. I heard links of chain mail pop and a red haze of pain blinded me for a second. It released suddenly and I bounced away, found my feet and spun, swinging the sword in a low arc that connected solidly on the lunging beast. It screamed in pain and fell back clutching it’s bleeding mid section. I stepped back defensively. It crouched, glaring. I bled freely. It covered it’s wound with taloned hands.
Slowly, the beast edged away, it’s red eyes narrowing before it turned and lumbered into the darkness.
The boy still cowered on the ground.
“It’s gone,” I said as I began to shrug out of my armor. “It shouldn’t be back tonight.”
He lifted his head slowly, scanning the darkness with red rimmed, puffy eyes.
“Are you sure?” he sniffed.
I nodded. “You have to help me now.” I bent at the waist to let the chain mail slip over my head and almost passed out.
“It won’t come back?”
His terror at the thought was obvious.
“But I’m here now,” I said. “I will help.”
I picked up my cloak to rip a strip for a bandage. Not being the sort to think to far ahead I hadn’t gathered any medicinal herbs during my time in the forest. Direct pressure and water would have to do.
“I need you to pull this tight,” I said, wrapping the wound with the strip of heavy cloth.
The child stood there staring.
“Why would you help me?”
I looked up. “Because I can.”
The boy looked to his feet obviously still unsure.
“Hey,” I said. “If we stand here too much longer, I’ll bleed to death and you’ll be alone again.”
Which wasn’t necessarily true, but it did spur him to action. He walked over and I knelt down.
“Grab the ends of the bandage and pull it tight.”
With his mouth set to a line of grim determination, he pulled and I almost blacked out.
There was something in the wound, a bit of broken tooth probably. But we couldn’t worry about that right then.
“Alright,” I wheezed. “Make a knot over the wound and then wrap what’s left around the shoulder again and pull it tight.
Oh this was going to hurt. He did as he was told quickly and efficiently and when he pulled tight he did not hold back. A white, searing light radiated out from my shoulder completely eclipsing every sense and sensation.
But the bleeding stopped. The kid stepped back and watched me pant and groan. He probably wondered who was going to help who.
I shook off the pain and pushed to my feet.
“Get some sleep,” I said.
His terror returned. “I can’t,” he stammered. “It comes when I close my eyes.”
“It won’t come back tonight. It’s hurt worse than I am. But just in case, I’ll stand watch.”
He shook his head again. “When will you sleep?”
“Tomorrow during the day.”
He still seemed unsure but we fashioned a bed out of grass and moss and he lay down with his eyes wide. I turned to tend the fire and when I turned back he was asleep.
It was a long and painful night.
But then the sun came and even though I couldn’t see the horizon, I faced east and tried to feel the dawn. I closed my eyes and breathed as I sensed the planet moving beneath me, the sunlight illuminating an inch at a time until the light broke across the forested hills and splashed through the campsite warming my chilled flesh and igniting a dampened spirit. I breathed in as much of the energy as I could and the throbbing in my shoulder subsided a bit.
When I opened my eyes, the boy stood before me.
“I set snares yesterday,” he said. “I could go check them and then we could eat.”
I nodded. “You do that. I’m going to sleep.”
He selected a stick from his wood pile and struck out into the woods.
Setting snares, building fires. The boy had no problem with the forest during the day. It was the night that brought the terror. The predation of the beast.
Time to sleep. I fluffed up the moss and grass bed and collapsed into dreams of perfection and the hope that a woman will give.
I woke to the smell of roasting rabbit.
My shoulder had stiffened and it took several minutes of stretching and gentle movements to get even partial use from it. Hopefully, it would loosen up before the beast returned.
The boy presented me with choice cuts of rabbit served on a broad leaf.
“I found cattails at the river,” he said. “They’re roasting in the coals.”
The kid knew his stuff. But his fire was too big again.
“You need to dampen that fire,” I said. “A small fire needs less wood.”
“But...” he began, then stopped and thought.
“The wood pile would last all through the night,” he said at length.
I nodded and took a bite of rabbit.
“The beast isn’t concerned with fire anyway,” I said and almost regretted it. The boy crossed his arms and squatted down, obviously afraid.
“I don’t want it to be dark,” he whispered.
“But it will be and you have to decide what to do.”
His eyes snapped up.
“You said you would help.”
“And I will. But I stopped it once. I can stop it again. But a third time? A fourth time?”
The kid almost moaned in terror.
“Like I said, you must decide what to do.”
His eyes rimmed with tears, he shook his head. “What can I do?” he cried. “It’s...” He held his hands out remembering its size. “And I’m only...” He looked down at himself and let his arms fall and hang limp with frustration.
“Well,” I said, shifting around. Shoulder was stiffening again. “You are approaching the situation blinded by fear.”
He looked at me incredulously. “Have you seen that thing?” he stammered, pointing into the forest.
“And I saw your reaction to it.”
He shook his head. “You’re telling me I shouldn’t be afraid?”
“No I didn’t say that. But I would suggest that you move through your fear and then view the situation through the filter of love.”
“Love?” he almost sneered. “What would a warrior know of love?”
Cynical little bastard.
“Not much perhaps,” I said. “But I am also a poet. And a poet must know love. He must know it and spread it thick on a slice of life, season it with a mundane emotion or two and then devour it like the sweetest candy.”
He looked at me blankly.
“I don’t get it.”
“Oh.” I thought for a moment. “Let’s put aside the word “love” then it makes things a bit mushy anyway. Instead, let’s search for understanding.”
“Right. Now what do we know about the beast?”
He shrugged, “It’s a monster.”
“No, it’s a beast.”
“What’s the difference?”
“Calling it a monster makes it more than it is.”
He sat silent, thinking.
“You stopped it,” he said. “You cut it. You made it bleed.” he looked up. “So it can be destroyed.”
I nodded. “But what if you can’t.”
“Maybe. Or it could destroy me first. Then what?”
He shook his head and held up his hands.
“Let me ask this then,” I shifted a bit and winced as pain burned in my shoulder. “What does the beast want?”
“To destroy me.”
I held up a finger. “Are you sure?”
“It could be trying to defend it’s territory.”
“By destroying me.”
“It may just want to drive you away.”
He stood up.
“I’ll leave,” he said. “Point the way.”
“Or it may just want your attention.”
“My attention,” he shook his head. “Why?”
I shrugged. “Who could know the mind of the beast?”
He threw up his hands in frustration.
“You tell me to understand, then tell me that?”
I smiled, “It’s called a contradiction. Get used to them.”
He turned away hissing in disgust and began pacing. I watched and worked my shoulder, stretching, pulling. It had to work better than it was before night came. The boy ran his fingers through his shaggy hair muttering to himself, thinking deep. He had a chance. He was strong and quick. If I could hold the beast back long enough perhaps he could puzzle the situation out and deal with it on his own terms. Big “if” there.
I pushed a thumb into the wound in my shoulder and pain lit like lightning, lacing through my arm and across my back. Something was definitely there. But even so I could give the beast a fight. Or at the very least a corpse to chew on.
Something flashed against the fringes of my consciousness. Something about finishing early...too soon... I don’t know. Couldn’t remember. The boy needed help. And I would give it regardless.
He stopped suddenly, reached deep into his rough cut shirt and pulled out a length of silver cord.
“The lady gave me this before she left,” he said. “She said it was a measure of restraint.”
I smiled. “That just might be what a beast would be looking for.”
He twisted the cord in his hands. “How do I use it?”
“I don’t know.” I stood up. “You’ll have to decide that. But for now we need to gather more wood. It’ll be dark in an hour or two.”
The boy nodded and returned the cord to his shirt. The dark cloud of fear still lingered around him but he moved with determination and purpose. At one point as we moved through the forest he stopped, turned and almost said something but then he simply nodded and turned away. He was thinking. The fear had lost it’s grip. It was still there, mind you. But it didn’t cloud his perception or cripple his reason.
The chance he had was getting better and better.
There are stories from the first days about monsters in the sky that chase the sun seeking a hot meal and the chaos that darkness would bring. It was something to think about as the sunlight retreated behind the horizon somewhere beyond the trees. The boy rekindled his fire with shaking hands after which we settled in and waited. I nibbled on left-over rabbit and cattail root. The boy wouldn’t eat.
He shook his head and held his arms over his gut.
“I’m scared,” he said.
“Good,” I said. “There’s reason to be.”
“I don’t like it.”
“But you need it.”
He looked up. “Why?”
I shrugged. “Fear charges up the body. Prepares you to run or fight. Trick is not to let it overcome your reason.”
I leaned forward and pulled my sword from its sheath and placed it beside me.
Shouldn’t be long now.
“I don’t like it,” the boy said.
“I don’t either.”
He stood and made a slow circle around the fire, studying shadows.
“But it’s necessary,” I said in the wake of his silence.
I nodded. “There are beasts in the world and fear tells you when to run and when to fight.”
“You’ve said that already.”
“It can’t be said enough. Fear is a tool to be used. Not a lifestyle to be lived. Let fear serve it’s function but don’t forget to move past it and judge a situation on it’s own merit.”
“Easy to say.”
“That’s just it. Everything about life is easy to say. Living it though...” I pushed to my feet and recovered my sword. “...that’s another matter entirely.”
The howl pierced our clearing tearing through spirit and chilling flesh. It was close. The boy’s eyes went wide with panic.
“Remember,” I said. “Move through your fear. Do not try to bury it or conquer it or ignore it. Listen to what it tells you, feel the changes it makes in you and move through it.”
He nodded, took two deep breaths and dug into his shirt, presumably for the silver cord. I wouldn’t know. I heard it break out of the foliage behind me and turning I charged.
The thing moved low and fast so after a short distance I set my feet and lifted my sword high for a heavy downward strike. Too soon though. The beast lunged and caught me around my waist and we went to the ground in a rolling tangled mass of fur and limbs. It bit and I punched which seemed useless but I had to hold it, had to keep it from the boy, couldn’t let it win, had to protect the innocent.
We rolled again and I landed on bottom, my forearm braced against its throat, holding it back. It snapped and snarled and drooled inches from my face. I could feel my wounded arm giving way, going numb as I choked against its hot, rancid breath. This was it. Nothing left. Bad way to go but it had given the boy a chance. Don’t think he used it, but that wasn’t the point. Point was the opportunity was there.
Suddenly, silver flashed across my eyes and the beast yelped and fell away. I panted and wheezed and rolled to my side. The boy had the beast. He had looped the silver cord around the thing’s neck and held on as it bucked and shook and spun. With the cord wrapped around one hand and his other gripping the thick fur of the beast’s neck, he moved with it, his face a mask of grim determination.
A light flashed and the beast was no longer a beast. It had reduced in size and became more wolfish. Light flashed again and the wolf was younger and smaller. The boy’s eyes went wide but still he held on, drawing up the slack in the cord. Once again the light flashed and the boy almost fell. He found his feet and stood stunned. He held a puppy by the scruff of the neck.
He looked at me.
“It’s a puppy,” he said.
I nodded and the last of what I had dissipated and I passed out.
Someone tapped me on the forehead.
I ignored it. My body hurt and my shoulder radiated with a special pain all its own. I just wanted to sleep.
“Hey,” a gravelly voice said. “Lady says your still late and you need to get your sorry ass along the trail.”
I opened one eye. An old man stood over me dressed in buckskins, beads, tattoos and a black top hat.
“Hello, Criket,” I said through a dry mouth.
“You look like shit.”
“About how I feel.”
He nodded, “I’ll mix you some go juice but then you got to git. Lady said.”
Criket was an old dead shaman that seemed to follow me from life to life. Don’t know how. Don’t know why. He shows up with advice and healing or a message and then moves on. I learned a long time ago not to question such things.
Squatting beside the fire, he produced a wooden bowl from the bag on his hip. Then came the herbs. Pinch of this, handful of that, water from his canteen. He let the concoction steep for a while then set it on the ground beside me. I sat up and looked into the bowl.
“You’re not going to tell me what’s in it,” I stated.
He thrust his lower lip out and shook his head. “Better not to know,” he said. “Just drink.”
I pushed the floating herbs back from the edge of the bowl and took a quick sip.
By the sacred mother it was horrible. Criket laughed, but motioned for me to drink more. I downed the rest of it. A warmth filled my chest that spread quickly down to my toes. I handed back the bowl and Criket dumped the dregs into the fire. Hiss, pop, crackle and a plume of blue smoke lifted into the breeze. He was showing off a bit but shamans do that.
“I’m taking the boy to his destiny,” Criket said as he packed his bowl. “That trail over there leads to the temple.”
A cold chill hit me hard, dampening the warmth the potion had provided. I had almost forgotten.
Criket snapped his fingers to get my attention. “Hey,” he said. “All that crap you told the boy about fear?” He pointed a bony finger at me. “You remember that.”
He stood up. “Don’t make me come save your sorry ass. I got things to do.”
“Like what,” I scoffed.
“Like none of your business.”
He winked and called the boy as he walked to the edge of the clearing. The boy ran to his side pulling the puppy along with the silver cord.
He paused. Looked my direction. Waved tentatively, his expression unreadable. Then followed Criket into the forest.
Didn’t matter. He was alive. And I had the Temple to content with. Time to move on.
One might notice that I never asked his name though I could bet it would have had a familiar ring to it.
The reason is selfish. What if the beast had gotten past me? What if it had torn my throat and left me bleeding and then gone for the boy. What would my dying eyes have witnessed even as the life left my body.
I truly believe that sometimes it’s best to work without the details.
But even as I approached the Temple I could feel the details slipping to the edges of consciousness. There was no way to discern how much I would lose once I actually entered in. Chances are I would remember my mission, who I serve and who serves me. But beyond that...
The Temple loomed over the landscape, an eclectic mix of gleaming skyscrapers, gothic architecture, medieval stonework, crystal spheres and spires all twisting up through banks of clouds and dressed with arcs of lightning.
Best not to look at it too long. Best just to walk straight, eyes on the trail ignoring the shadows and shades that swirled and dogged every step whispering discouragement. Wayward souls who succumbed to the fear and refused to enter the Temple. Walk on, walk on. Choose one of a thousand doors and enter the Temple.
Simple as that. I truly believe there should be a bit more ceremony to the matter. But there isn’t. The heavy door or gate swings open as you approach and you step across the threshold and into a blinding white light. Energy swirls and bends and something pulses. Then you are there.
The market bustled and hummed with a mild level of chaos. I felt dizzy, disoriented. Must be the wounded shoulder, the loss of blood. I needed an inn or tavern. Someplace to rest.
I worked my way to the edge of the street. People bumped and brushed past and my shoulder throbbed. Smells of cooking, sewage and livestock crawled up my nose and threatened to pull the bile from my gut. I was definitely hurt worse than I had thought.
I found a pole supporting something and leaned against it breathing heavily. This wasn’t good. If I passed out I would wake up in an alley naked or worse.
“Hey, you’re bleeding.”
I looked at my shoulder and saw blood seeping from the wound.
Great. Just great.
I looked to the voice. A huge man, muscles bulging, blond hair and full beard, wearing heavy studded leather armor trimmed in fur.
“I need a place to rest,” I said.
“You need more than that,” he said. “And I know just the place. Good and discreet and not far away.”
I nodded. Discreet, for some reason, sounded good.
“This way,” he said and started off. I moved to follow and stumbled. Cat-quick he cought me under the arm and pulled me up.
“Whoa, friend,” he chuckled. “Must’ve been one helluva fight.”
“Like to hear about it. First let’s get you racked out.”
He pulled me down the walk.
“I know a surgeon or two but there’s a girl in here that’s just as good.”
He made a sudden right turn into a doorway. My eyes adjusted to the dim interior. A tavern. Fireplace. Heavy, wooden tables. Stairs that lead to rooms upstairs.
“Evelyn,” the man bellowed.
A middle aged woman, well rounded with red hair stormed out of a back room.
“What Kreig, what do you want? We don’t open till noon.”
“Obviously. Does he have any money?”
“Dammit, woman, I have money. He needs attention.”
“Since when do you have money?”
“Finished a job yesterday.”
“I... I have money,” I stammered even as my knees turned to jelly and my vision faded to nothing.
“Dammit Evelyn,” I heard Kreig say. “Now I have to carry him.”
I awoke suddenly to find myself naked in bed straddled by a dark-haired beauty. The downside being she held a cruel looking pair of pincers in one hand and astringent soaked gauze in the other.
“I thought you were coming to,” she said. “I was hoping you would stay down long enough for me to get whatever’s in your shoulder out.”
Did I mention she was a beauty? Brown hair pulled back into a tail, dark eyes and olive skin. She wore a simple dress and a bodice that pushed her full breasts up, producing ample cleavage.
She waved the pincers in front of my eyes. “You with me?”
“Yeah,” I choked. My tongue was thick and cotton covered. “How long?”
“Just a day. I paid Evelyn with one of your gold coins. That gives you a week.
I nodded. “My sword?”
“Leaning against the headboard to your right.” She smiled. “I know warriors.”
“Don’t thank me yet.” She snapped the pincers ominously.
“Whatever’s in there has to come out.”
“Do it then.”
“I’ll go get Kreig to hold you down.”
“No need. Could use something to drink.”
She placed the pincers on my chest and reached for a cup on the bedside table, pressed it to my lips and tilted it up.
“Drink fast,” she ordered. “This will kill any fever.”
It was thick and foul tasting.
“Damn, woman,” I gasped. “You know Criket don’t you?”
She shook her head. “Don’t think so. Here. This is water.”
“You alright?” she asked.
She retrieved her pincers and pointed them at my nose.
“Don’t throw up on me.”
I almost smiled.
“I won’t throw up on you.”
“And you’re sure we don’t need Kreig?”
“We don’t need Kreig.”
She studied me for a moment then nodded.
“Fine then. Put your arms to your side.”
She lifted her knees and pulled my arms in then settled down again across my abdomen. She pressed her thighs together securing my arms.
And, Goddess help me, even in my condition, sexual thoughts ran rampant. She leaned down to examine the wound, dabbing the edges with the gauze. Her hair smelled clean and floral.
“Well, let’s do it.:
Pain is the body’s response to excessive stimulation. I tried to clear stray thoughts from my mind in an attempt to prepare said mind for the massive input it was about to receive. The body can take almost anything. It’s the mind that must be controlled so that it doesn’t overreact to the excessive stimulation. Control the mind. Control the pain.
That would be the theory anyway.
Cold metal touched raw flesh and then plunged into the wound. The pain raged and stormed but I breathed deep and slow letting it circulate and flow never allowing it to concentrate or congeal. I felt her touch the object and almost lost it when she pulled.
“Got it,” she said, pushing the gauze into the spout of blood.
I continued to breath deeply as the storm of pain subsided and an actual wave of relief washed over me.
“That better?” she asked.
I nodded. “Much.”
“I’ll dress the wound and find you something to eat.”
“Soup or something. Nothing heavy.”
“How much do I owe you?”
She shrugged as she pushed off of me and stood beside the bed.
“When I paid Evelyn, I broke another gold into silver and took three. That’s about what I would have made downstairs.”
“You deserve more.”
She shrugged again and gave a shy smile.
“What’s your name?” I asked.
I held her gaze intent on losing myself in her beauty. She blushed suddenly, dropped her eyes and turned for the door.
“Sorry,” she said. “I’ll get food. If the wound bleeds again press the gauze in hard. I’ll bandage it when I get back.”
“I’ll be right back,” she said and hurried out of the room.
I must have offended her. Dammit. It’s so hard not to look at a beautiful woman. I search for poetry in the arrangement of their face and the lines of their bodies and relish that poetry for as long as they let me.
But maybe I should get to know them better first. Something to keep in mind for the future. Although she couldn’t have been that offended. She did say she would be back.
I rested for two days after which I decided I was healed. The shoulder was sore but it would be fora long time and since fever never set in there was little sense in laying around any longer. I asked Kyana about baths and she directed me to a room downstairs next to the kitchen. She mentioned that at that time of day the tub should be full, fresh hot and if I hurried I would be the first in. I slipped on pants, grabbed my sword and money and went downstairs. The tavern buzzed with patrons and smelled of cooking meat and smoke. I worked my way to the back, found a door marked “Bath” and entered the small room.
A boy poured a bucket of steaming water into a huge vat. He nodded when he saw me.
“It’s ready, sir,” he said as he passed me. “I’ll bring soap and a towel.”
In short order, I stripped off my pants, leaned the sword against the edge of the tub and eased myself an inch at a time into the hot water.
A bath is truly one of the joys of living. The heat soaked into flesh and bone dissolving
twists and knots. I pulled out my braid and ducked under for a moment. Hopefully, Kyana could braid hair. When I surfaced, the boy stood with a lump of soap and a towel.
“Towel on the floor,” I said. “Toss me the soap.”
He pitched it and I missed the catch and had to go searching.
“Need anything else, sir?” the boy asked.
I shook my head. “No, get my coin pouch off my pants and get two silver.”
He did so with a smile.
“Thank you sir,” he said on the way to the door. “You want me to get one of the girls for you?”
I wasn’t hungry and I doubted Kyana would let me drink.
Damn soap. Where the hell could it have gotten to?
“No,” I said. “Just tell Kyana where I am.”
He nodded and left.
Found the soap. Scrubbed down. Rinsed Scrubbed again. Washed my hair. Rinsed. Then with a sigh of contentment, leaned back and let my arms rest along the edge of the vat.
What to do now? Find a job obviously. Tomorrow I could get out and explore a bit and hopefully discover options. That was tomorrow though. For now I decided to soak until they kicked me out. And, Hell, it might take two or three to do that.
The door opened. I lifted one eyelid and saw Kyana standing in the doorway, fist on a cocked hip.
“Tonton said you wanted me.” she stated then suddenly stormed forward. “Your bandages are wet.”
I just looked at her, once again enraptured by her beauty. Backlit the way she was she reminded me of someone. Couldn’t think of who though. But the sense of familiarity sent a tingle down my spine.
“Why do you look at me like that?” she asked.
“Sorry.” I dropped my eyes. “It’s just...”
She walked to the tub, hiked her skirt up and stepped in. Sitting on the edge, her shapely calves exposed, she worked on the bandage.
“A wet bandage will bring fever.” she commented.
With the gauze and padding removed she examined the wound.
“It’s sealed,” she said. “You heal quick. You’re looking at me again.”
I frowned. “Why is that wrong?”
She shrugged. “I’m used to looks. But you look deeply like you’re studying the marks on my soul.”
“Oh damnation, you’re a poet.”
“Is that bad?” I asked.
Depends. Poets can say whatever they like and not mean a word of it.”
“I always mean what I say. I just can’t always live up to it.”
“That’s even worse.”
I smiled and nodded slowly.
“Perhaps it is.”
She actually returned my smile. Granted it was stocked full of cynicism. But it was a smile.
“But what if my words are inspired by your grace and beauty?” I asked, “What then?”
“Meaningless,” she hissed, “Poets keep words like arrows in a quiver.”
Had to think on that one.
“Besides,” she continued, “I don’t need your honeyed words. Pay the price and I’m yours.”
Pay the price.
Spirits, I’m dense.
Thinking back, the tavern did seem a bit overstaffed.
Pay the price.
“Let me guess,” I said. “Three silver.”
“She nodded, then frowned.
“Are you offended?”
“No,” I said and laughed. “I just thought that maybe you’re a little attracted.”
“Who says I’m not? But the price is still the price.”
I held her gaze for a moment.
“Alright then,” I said. “I’ll pay the price.”
She smiled brightly and loosened the laces of her bodice with practiced ease. With a smooth motion she pulled the dress over her head and let it fall to the floor beside the tub and I lost my breath. How perfect can a woman be when each woman is perfect in her own right? Still perfect. Still glorious. Still art in motion, the ultimate expression of divinity in the physical with gently lines and swelling curves, the glint of candlelight on soft hair. Perfection.
She sank into the water, hands searching. She found my thighs and worked her way up, nails raking slightly until she found her mark and discovered me more than interested. With a smug smile she moved to mount but I dropped my hands to her hips and held her.
“Wait,” I said.
“Is there a hurry?”
She settled back a bit.
“Well no,” she said, confused. Suddenly her hand shot out of the water and she pointed a finger at my nose.
“No kissing.” she said sternly.
I smiled, “No kissing.”
She dropped her finger, letting it trace across the muscles of my chest.
“Three silver only covers so much.”
“I just need a moment.”
My hands drifted from her hips across her abdomen to her breasts. I spread my fingers and let them gently drift across her nipples. She shivered.
“A moment for what?” she asked, her voice catching slightly.
“Forgive me but I’m stealing this moment.” I traced the lines of her neck and pushed my fingers into her hair. I wanted to touch her face, explore each dimple and feature. I was afraid she would find that too personal though.
“I don’t understand,” she whispered.
“Someday soon I’ll find myself alone again away from the world. It’ll probably be cold and my fire will be small but it won’t matter. I’ll have this moment. This perfect moment given by a perfect woman for a mere three silver.”
She shook her head slowly.
“I’m not perfect.” she said softly, tears welling in her now gently eyes.
I took the chance and traced the lines of her cheek.
“You’re as perfect as you need to be.”
“Who are you?”
“A warrior-poet of little renown, a stealer of moments.”
She kissed me suddenly, tentatively then again more forcefully, her fingers gripping my hair and pulling me to her.
“Damn you,” she said against my lips and proceeded to give me more than three silver’s worth.
Later that night, I lay in my bed, staring at the ceiling trying to remember. I was here for a reason. But the reason wasn’t forthcoming. Not much to worry about really. Sooner or later the reason would materialize and I would deal with it then. Perhaps there was more than one reason or even no reason at all.
Regardless I would sleep and tomorrow find a source of income. I was down to three gold. Another week at Evelyn’s, food and a night or two with Kyana.
Well maybe more than a night or two. She was an incredible woman. Vibrant. Sensuous. Responsive. My pulse quickened at the thought of her.
The door opened. And closed. I heard soft footsteps and felt the covers lift. She lay next to me, her head resting on my arm.
“Tell me to leave,” she whispered.
“I don’t want you to leave.”
I pulled her close. She nestled into my shoulder and draped a leg across my hips.
“This can’t be much you realize,” she said softly. “Not with things the way they are. A relationship right now...”
“This will be as much as you need it to be.”
“Even if it’s just sharing a bed?”
“If that’s all you want it to be.”
She was silent for a moment.
“That’s all it can be.”
She sighed and nestled against me. Soon she slept and the sound of her breathing eased me into the dreaming as well.
She was gone before I woke. Which was just as well. I dressed quickly, tied my hair back in a simple tail and went downstairs.
The tavern was empty of patrons but the girls were busy cleaning, sweeping preparing food. Kyana rushed by, shoved a bit of meat wrapped in bread at me and then hurried on. Dishes crashed in the kitchen and Evelyn screamed. I moved toward the exit and met Kreig coming in.
“Hey, you’re up,” he said.
I nodded. “Thanks for your help.”
“Nothing to it.” He poked a finger into my wounded shoulder. Even through the chain mail it hurt like hell. Didn’t react though.
“You healed?” he asked.
“I need a partner.”
“Kreig!” Kyana shouted from the kitchen door. “I just put him back together. You break him again, I’ll break you.”
Kreig held up his hands. “Aw, now love”
“I’m no man’s ‘love’.” She gave me a hard look and turned into the kitchen.
“What’s that about?” Kreig asked.
“I honestly don’t know,” I said, a little stunned.
“Well, no matter. You want the work?”
“What’s the work?”
“Security. Merchant on the south side is delivering goods to the north tower. He won’t tell me what the cargo is but the pay is good and we should be finished by nightfall.”
“Splits will be even.” He extended his hand and I shook it.
The job was simple and a bit boring. That night Kreig dropped five gold into my hand which seemed fair.
Kreig was good company. He laughed a lot mostly at his own jokes but turned deadly serious when necessary. He told good stories and asked non-intrusive questions. By the time we returned to the tavern I knew I had found a friend.
“I’ll scrounge more work for us tomorrow,” he said and crossed the room into the waiting arms of two young ladies. He swung them around while they protested meekly then they sat him down and fussed over him, feeding and pouring wine.
I actually had reservations about returning to the tavern after Kyana’s cold comment. But even as I turned to leave she appeared with a plate of food and a flagon of ale.
“Hungry?” she said with a caring smile.
“Starving,” I said and let her escort me to a table. She sat next to me and made polite conversation which mostly amounted to tavern gossip which I knew nothing about and cared little for but it seemed important to her so I listened. After I finished eating, she cleared the table and returned with more ale. I produced a freshly earned gold coin.
“Will this cover everything?”
She took the coin and palmed it away into some secret pocket. With a bit of flourish she sat down in my lap.
“More than cover,” she said. “I keep track of any extra. If you trust me that is.”
That seemed to make her happy.
Kreig joined us and the remainder of the night wore away with laughter, singing and drinking games that left kreig under the table and me stumbling up the stairs with Kyana.
Such was life at the tavern. Kreig would find us work escorting, guarding or intimidating. At the end of the day, Kyana would meet me at the door with food and wine or ale. Laugh, sing, drink, stagger upstairs and engage in bouts of furious love play. Kyana would slip off to finish her chores then return to sleep with me, nestling against my shoulder with a contented sigh.
Evelyn came to consider Kreig and I more than just regulars. A fact which became apparent one night when a band of six strangers proceeded to get rough with the girls. Evelyn stormed out of the back, surveyed the situation, turned to me and said, “Galen, I want them out.”
Six to one. Her confidence in me was flattering. I stood up, dumping Kyana out of my lap, stepped up onto the table then hopped to the floor in front of the largest. I pulled the woman he slobbered on out of his clutches and spun her out of harm’s way.
“Leave,” I said to the thug.
He rose to his full height and stepped to me so that we were almost nose to nose. His breath stank of garlic and ale.
“And if I don’t?”
I put my knee into his groin and backhanded him to the floor. His closest friend whipped out a dagger. I took a step back and reached for my sword.
“No killing!” Evelyn screamed.
Fine then. I snatched a platter from a table and swatted at the knife smashing the platter and most likely the bones in his hand.
“Mind the dishes!” Evelyn cried.
Dammit did she have all these rules posted somewhere?
The other thugs moved to rush me. Kreig hit them in the flank, plowing through tables and chairs taking them to the ground. He secured one in a headlock, scissored another between his legs and proceeded to crush the wind out of him. That left one who staggered to his feet just in time to catch my fist with his nose.
Kreig and I shoved, pulled, pushed and rolled the men out the door and into the street.
“Messin’ up my fine evening,” Kreig growled as he pitched the last one out.
I laughed. Kreig relished his leisure time and knocking heads, as far as he was concerned, was work.
“And we’re not even getting paid for it,” he said.
“Yes you are,” Evelyn said. “That’s a weeks rent for both of you.”
Kreig gave me a big, toothy grin, slapped me on the shoulder and kissed Evelyn.
“Ale!” he bellowed as he wandered off. “By the Mistress, I’m entirely too sober considering the hour.”
Kyana approached, hand on hip, wearing a thin smile.
“You hurt?” she asked.
“Good,” she said as she moved close and encircled my neck with her arms. “I need you fit.”
She kissed me gently. Dare I say lovingly.
“My chores are finished,” she whispered. “The rest of my night is yours if you want it.”
The color of her eyes, the taste of her lips, the scent of her hair filled me with a gentle pain some would call love. She didn’t want that though. She wanted the attention, the sharing, the caring. But not the tribulation of love.
Could I live with that?
Theoretically, one should be able to live in the grips of such love but leave it unstated. Bask, glow, revel but never say the words. But saying those words makes it so much more real. It’s an admission to the universe. An acknowledgment of a connection. Not to mention the hope, the gentle desperate hope that words will be returned in kind so that the connection will evolve into a bond, a blending of souls.
But she didn’t want that.
And the question remained.
Could I live with that?
I could for the moment. I scooped her up in my arms and took the stairs two at a time. In our room, our clothes melted away and we devoured one another. We had been together enough so that lovemaking was a perfectly choreographed dance of fires in the night, blending, burning, merging, glowing brighter and brighter until drunk with passion, bodies slick with sweat, conscious thought lost in ecstasy, the two flames become one blazing, perfect light bright as a star in a cold, black void. The edge of perfection. Perhaps perfection itself.
... until she pushed me away, almost punching my chest. She swung her legs off the bed and sat panting.
“I can’t believe you said that,” she gasped.
“What?” I stammered. “What did I say?”
“Poet or not you know nothing of love. Men know nothing of love. It’s just a word they use to get what they want...”
She gathered her clothes quickly. “You’ve ruined everything.” she said choking back tears and was out the door.
“But...” I said to the door and the darkness.
I didn’t understand.
Well, actually I did. Someone had hurt her and so love was not an option. But I wasn’t the one that hurt her. Why couldn’t she give me a chance?
But then why should she? If she equated love with pain, why would she take that chance?
And what was my responsibility in the matter? Should I try to prove her wrong? How long would that take? Venturing into such a one sided relationship seemed a bit daunting. Perhaps she would relent tomorrow. Or the next week. Maybe a year?
I didn’t know what to do.
Nothing changed. But it wasn’t the same. Kyana still met me at the door every evening with food, drink and simple conversation. And she still shared my bed. But the passion was gone. The wall was up. A foot thick shield of crystal clear ice impervious to gentle words or even a special caress.
It was all very comfortable in a way. Needs were met and a certain level of loneliness was abated. It was something. Not what it was. But it was something.
Still didn’t know what to do.
Then came the fire festival. Three days celebrating the rites of spring punctuated by a bonfire and a dance on the last night. Kreig and I decided to go. I asked Kyana to join us.
“I have chores,” she stated.
“Nothing that can’t wait,” Evelyn said as she passed.
Kyana looked after, obviously irritated.
“I have to work,” she continued. “I need the money.”
That was a lie.
Fine. I was going. I wanted to drink and dance and take in the sights and sounds and smells and bask in the gathered energy. If she wanted to work she could work. I was going.
Kreig and I left our armor and weapons at the tavern and purchased red and yellow jerkins on the way to the square. Then we fell in behind an ale wagon that was headed that way. The ale wagons were one of those sights to see. A simple two wheeled cart lavishly decorated and loaded with open barrels of ale and mead. For a piece of silver, a scantily clad woman would fill your tankard and perhaps even yield a kiss. Needless to say, by the time we reached the square my mood had altered severely toward the positive.
At the square, chaos reigned. In a good way. The fire at the center blazed high into the night. Ale wagons made slow circles through a very eclectic crowd. Loud, drum laden music permeated the air. Those close to the fire danced. Others paraded behind the ale wagons. Still others hovered in the flickering shadows at the fringes, their intentions and actions cloaked in the darkness.
Kreig slapped me on the back and went off in pursuit of an ale girl that had caught his eye. I moved into the crowd and had my tankard filled by a passing wagon. The music was perfect. Loud. Driving. And thick with beat. Mesmerizing. Energizing.
I drained the tankard and let it fall to the wayside. A woman appeared before me, kissed me deeply and then vanished into the crowd. I pressed forward, ignoring groping hands and pressing bodies. I could feel the energy of the dance blazing bright as the fire. The rhythm descended on me like a spirit that took my body and moved it to the music.
The shamans of old taught me to dance. Surrender to the music they said. Music is the heartbeat of the world. The pulse of the Goddess. Let it flow through your spirit like water, let the currents lift your limbs and move your feet. Make love to the wind, tease the sky, pull at the fringes of ecstasy with flourish and grace and passion and movement.
And so I danced. I danced until the sky lifted and the earth melted away. Only the dance remained. The music pushed me to the brink of trance and I drifted there free and unfettered and I swear I could smell perfection, feel it out there just beyond my reach.
My jerkin was gone. I didn’t remember taking it off. I looked down at the soft hands running across the sweat-slick muscles of my chest. Then looked up into perfect blue eyes in an angel’s face. My hands found her hips and we moved together discovering our own rhythm. Hands roamed, tongues tasted, lips met and Perfection could tease us no longer. We were perfection. Motion unified into a creature of passion.
She took my hand suddenly and led me away from the circle into the dark fringes. At an entrance to an alley she put her back to a wall while pulling at the laces of my pants. Once she had me exposed, she threw a slender leg over my hip, pulled her loin cloth aside and drew me into her.
“Hard, please,” she whispered. “And fast.”
I complied. She interlaced her fingers behind my neck and pressed her head into my chest. She rode and writhed and flexed against me until she convulsed and cried out which pulled me over the edge and I finished with three... hard... thrusts.
We stood there panting, trembling for a moment. Then she carefully tucked me away and cinched my laces while I adjusted her loin cloth. Nothing was said. I kissed her gently and she touched my face. I turned and walked out of the alley.
And there was Kyana. Flowers in her hair, a beautifully revealing dress and so much pain on her face that I should have died right there. I should have died and with my last breath choked out some perfect explanation that would have made everything alright.
Or maybe I just wanted to die rather than face the pain. Now I was the one that hurt her, destroying her faith in love. Any other became irrelevant.
“Kyana, wait,” I said and moved towards her. She stepped away like a frightened doe.
“Kyana, please,” I said. But her tears started. She turned and ran into the crowd. I moved to follow but stopped.
What could I say? What could I possibly say that would justify the situation. What defense did I have? What explanation?
Another good thing about the chaos of the fire festival: I could rage and sceam at the sky and noone would notice.
Kreig found me sitting on the battlements of the east wall waiting for the sun to rise. He dropped my sword and bundled belongings on the walkway and sat down next to me.
“Evelyn and the girls talked her into going,” he said. “Prettied her up and everything.”
I didn’t respond.
“Needless to say, you don’t have many friends left at the Tavern.”
I nodded. Kreig continued.
“I tried to explain that you weren’t really to blame. She didn’t want to go and that sort of thing happens at fire festivals. Hell, that’s the best reason for going.”
I looked at him. He shrugged.
“Needless to say, I don’t have many friends left at the Tavern.”
“Sorry,” I said.
“Nothing to worry about,” he sighed. “I’d worn all the women out anyway. Besides it’s probably time to move on. The work’s good here but I think it might be better up north. We can get horses and leave today.”
“Shouldn’t I try to talk to her?”
“Why? It’s done.”
“I could say something.”
“You can’t say anything. There’s nothing to say. And I’m not passing judgement. I merely speak from my position outside of all this emotional crap. You see.”
“Emotional crap,” I said slowly.
“And if I love her?”
He hissed a dismissal. “Love,” he said shaking his head. “Love is just a word women use to get what they want. It’s all about sex, that’s all. Baby making. And the powers that be made it enjoyable to encourage the baby making. Why all this emotional crap has to get attached to it I’ll never know.”
“Maybe because it makes babies.”
That gave him pause. He thrust out his lower lip and cocked an eyebrow.
“Maybe so,” he said. “But in your case it shouldn’t be an issue. Hell before she met you she was getting paid for it. Why should it matter if you do it with someone else?”
That was something I hadn’t even considered.
“You mean she wasn’t getting other business after she met me?”
“I’m not helping am I?”
“There’s nothing that could help.”
The sun broke, edged over the horizon and splashed us with golden light.
“There,” he said. “See? New day. New world. No sense in worrying about the past. Live, learn and let’s go.”
“Learn,” I muttered. “What am I supposed to learn from this?”
“It’ll come to you. If not now then later.”
“I really should try to talk to her,” I said.
He shook his head. “Trust me. There’s nothing to be said or done. I doubt Evelyn would even let you in the place much less talk to Kyana. Forget it. It’s time to move on.”
My chin dropped to my chest and I sighed.
Time to move on.
“Words,” I replied and continued writing.
“Words about what?”
“This and that.”
He muttered something unintelligible. He was bored. And cold. And nursing a foul temper as he watched rain soaked clouds rolling over the horizon.
“Maybe we should head south,” he said. The idea stirred something unpleasant in my gut. Even a year later I couldn’t stand the thought of, even by happenstance, facing Kyana. I wore the wound from the experience over my heart like a badge of dishonor and used it as a shield against any kind of a relationship with a woman beyond a night’s pleasure. My honeyed words I confined to paper. I tethered passion to the point that even the act of lovemaking was just an act. Just a release. An answer to an urge.
It seemed safe that way.
“The money’s good here,” I stated.
“Yeah, but the work’s boring as hell.”
That I could agree with. Militia work. The occasional demon hunt. But mostly guarding some point on a map from a perceived threat that never seemed to manifest. Or filling space in a formation on a field while two nobles hashed out terms. We had seen a few battles of moderate proportions but for the most part our lives consisted of boredom interrupted with bouts of drunkenness.
We were camped outside of Farcastle, a walled city nestled against an imposing range of mountains that marked the northern boundary of the provinces. The free company with which we were currently employed consisted of a motley band of mercenaries and thugs. Good men mostly. Our mission amounted to a roving defense of the outskirts of the province. Ride out, look for signs of demons, ride back. Sit around for two three days. Ride out again.
Kreig was right. Boring as hell.
“Maybe we should start our own company,” Kreig said.
“Maybe,” I replied as I packed away my book and stylus. I could hear activity on the north end of the camp which meant we were about to move.
“Maybe two companies,” Kreig continued. “You run one, I run one. More money that way.”
“That might work,” I said.
“We need to do something. There has to be more to life than this.”
“I don’t know. It just feels like... I don’t know. Like there should be more to it than just this.”
He sat silent for a moment staring at the ground.
“Then again,” he said. “Maybe this is all that was meant to be.”
“I doubt it,” I said, pushing to my feet. “Someone told me once that life is dynamic and ever-changing.”
“I hope it changes soon.”
A dark chill ran through me. Source unknown.
“I think we’re moving,” I said.
Kreig stood up and craned his neck to see between the rows of tents. Voices of sergeants screaming orders echoed across the camp.
“Finally,” Kreig said. “By the mistress, riding in circles across the countryside is better than sitting here.”
It took us mere minutes to tear down our camp and saddle the horses. But before we could mount, Herris, the captain of our company pulled up in front of us. His massive warhorse snorted and stomped up clouds of dust.
“We have word that a gate is open,” he said. “We are moving to the lowlands to meet the hordes but I have an ache in my gut that warns me something’s amiss. My lieutenants have suggested I find a position for both of you. I offer you this chance to prove yourselves.”
Kreig grinned and stepped forward. This was the chance he had hoped for.
“There’s a pass north and east that leads to a hamlet in the mountains,” Herris continued.
“Ride out and report back. It’s probably safe but we need to be sure. If they come out of that pass, they’ll swarm over our flanks before we can maneuver.”
Kreig nodded. “I know the pass. Less than an hour away.”
“Fine then,” Herris said. “Report directly to me on your return.”
“This doesn’t mean much,” I told Kreig on the way out. “We’re just scouting.”
“Yeah, but it’s a start,” he said. “He’ll know our names after this. That could lead to opportunities.”
I didn’t want opportunities. I didn’t want to command men. I just needed money for food and to acquire the attention of women. And I saw little problem with my lack of ambition. As I told Kreig, life was dynamic and ever-changing. Opportunities would present themselves and then I would decide a direction. I saw no reason to pursue opportunities that lead in directions I had no desire to go.
But Kreig wanted it. And he backed me up on more one occasion so I would back him up. Perhaps he would get his command and I could serve under him. Or perhaps I would move on. Kreig and I were like brothers but we were by no means joined at the hip. But at the same time we had worked together so long, I could hardly imagine working without him. We had seen things and done things, suffered through our share of hardships and ducked and doged a few close calls, always together, always covering for one another, one always pulling the other through. In a sense, I couldn’t understand Kreig’s melancholy. We had lived and seen more than most. But Kreig wanted more. And I was in no way sure how much I wanted.
In less than an hour we came to the pass, a narrow trail banked by high cliffs and rock formations balanced precariously throughout. It twisted and climbed through the mountains and was little used due to the danger of slides and falling rocks.
“Smell that?” Kreig said.
I nodded. An acrid, sour smell that mixed oddly with the sweet scent of the coming rain. Thunder boomed suddenly and echoed against the cliffs and high walls.
“A gate’s open,” I said.
“Maybe,” Kreig said. “Could be strays.”
I shook my head as I tried to calm my nervous horse. “Smell’s too strong.”
“Let’s ride in a bit and see what we can.”
I thought we had seen enough. The smell was more than enough and the storm should have been enough for anyone. It rolled toward us swallowing the mountains with ink black clouds laced with a web of dark blue lightning. It was anything but natural.
We started in, climbing the twisting, treacherous trail into the mountains. Darkness fell like fog and the wind howled.
Kreig pulled up and spun his panicking horse around.
“I think a gate is open,” he screamed against the wind.
“Really? Do you really think so?” I screamed back. “I think we can go back.”
He nodded and then we heard them. Voices on the wind. Tiny, pitiful wails of desperation.
“They sound like children,” Kreig said. “But it could be a demon’s trick.”
“We have to see,” I said and spurred my horse up the trail.
We found them only a little further up huddled together under the protective arms of a man we presumed to be their father. Three children. All girls.
The wind stopped. Lightning flashed and the shadows moved. Kreig and I looked at one another then rushed to the family and dismounted.
“Take the horses,” Kreig shouted at the man.
“My wife,” he cried. “They took my wife and my youngest.”
I grabbed the oldest girl and lifted her into the saddle, followed by the youngest.
“My wife,” the man whimpered and Kreig turned and slapped him.
“Wake up, man! Save your daughters.”
The man rubbed his cheek, his expression a mix of agony and confusion. Then he clambered into the saddle and Kreig handed up the last daughter.
“Ride hard,” Kreig told him. “Find a captain called Herris in the lowland and tell him the horde is in the pass.”
“But-“ the man began. Kreig smacked the flank of the horse and they were off.
We stood in the dim light, silent, listening. Hoofbeats faded in the distance. Claws skittered across rocks in the deep shadows. Thunder cracked and rolled as lightning briefly lit the landscape. The horde of grinning demons surrounded us. Slobbering mutants, centaurian nightmares, classic horned humanoids with blistered skin and long claws, every shape, size and configuration born in the darkest of dreams. They hissed and screamed quietly whispering promises and threats in the same breath.
“Well, ain’t this some shit,” Kreig commented.
“It would be that.”
We heard them close. Our swords came out and we spun so that we stood back to back. They scurried away a bit. We wouldn’t be an easy kill and demons are, for the most part, cowards.
“Any ideas,” I asked, fear welling up in my gut like bile.
“Fire would be nice,” he said.
“Rocks don’t burn.”
I saw a flash of red glowing eyes and sharp teeth. My hands flexed on the grip of my sword.
“They eat their dead,” Kreig whispered. “Killing the big one may keep the little ones busy.”
“That’s all we got.”
A glow appeared in the north. A deep, rich red that illuminated our surroundings. The demons hovered a short distance away, a hideous twisting mass of blasphemy.
“I think I preferred the dark,” I said.
They were thicker to the north but still we were encircled.
“Galen,” Kreig said. “It’s been good.”
I shook my head, eyeing the ranks of demons for threats.
“It ain’t over yet,” I said. “What are they waiting for?”
“I’m just saying,” Kreig continued. “I’ve enjoyed our time together.”
I turned to face him, put the point of my sword in the dirt and leaned on it.
“You’re giving up,” I said.
“I am not giving up.”
“After all we’ve been through. The close calls, the last minute escapes, the pitched battles–“
”I said I wasn’t giving up.”
“We find ourselves surrounded and slightly outnumbered and you’re ready to lay down and die.”
He turned to me his chest swelling. “I didn’t mean it like that. I just–“
I stepped toward him. “Then shut up and think of a way out of this.”
He turned and surveyed the scene.
“Fuck!” he screamed, then pointed at the horde to the north with his sword. “We should hit them hard before one of ‘em does the number.”
“So, we charge?”
“Yes. We charge.”
In three bounding steps, we slammed into their ranks hacking and slashing and the fear boiling inside my chest erupted into elation as the demons fell away from us. Then they caught the scent of the black blood of their fallen brethren and surged toward us. Kreig and I fell back, our weapons cutting black swathes through the horde.
“They’re behind us!” I shouted over the screeches and screams. A small winged devil landed on Kreig’s back and buried sharp teeth into his neck. I lunged forward gripped it by a wing, threw it to the ground and crushed it’s skull with my boot heel.
“Down,” Kreig ordered and I dropped as he swung his sword over my head. I couldn’t see it, but hot blood sprayed across my back.
The smaller demons descended to feast on the fallen. We maneuvered to cover each other’s back as the horde swarmed and circled searching for openings, darting in only to be driven back. We bathed in black blood and struggled for footing in the muck and slime and twitching body parts. The stench and screams tested sanity as I surrendered to the rage.
The rage. Perfect. Consuming. The Beast released dancing to the infernal rhythm of combat, duck, cut, step, slash, twist, thrust, muscles tearing, breath coming in raged gasps between screams and the spirit burns with a chant, a mantra
I will not die.
I will not die.
I will not die.
And death hovers, hangs with interest like a woman with dark eyes, darker intentions and a thin knowing smile that grows to reveal fangs drooling blood beautiful and terrible, so very terrible.
And then it stopped.
The demons withdrew, pulling into shifting shadows and Kreig and I stood panting, swords up, waiting.
“Are they finished?” Kreig gasped.
I shook my head. “Feel that?”
The temperature suddenly dropped, revealing our breath as clouds of vapor. The ground trembled beneath our feet. Then trembled again. Footsteps.
The demons grinned and leered from the darkness.
“Still can’t run,” Kreig said.
“Here it comes.”
Backlit by the red sky, it loomed over us two stories tall and all hulking muscle. A flash of lightning illuminated its demonic features and beard of writhing tentacles. It roared and beat its armored chest and the lesser demons screamed and cheered.
“We can do this,” I said.
“We can take it down and the others will feed and we can get away.”
“It should work.”
Kreig nodded. “I’ll keep it busy,” he said, “you . . . do . . . something.”
He looked at me and shrugged.
“Thanks,” I said.
The demon reached for us but Kreig ducked under and landed a good blow to its shin. I spun and cut deep into calf. The demon screamed and fell to its knees. I struck again and it fell forward. I scrambled across its back. I gripped the collar of its ragged armor and drew back to strike but the demon lurched up. It reached for me, its talons raking across my chain mail. Then it roared again. Kreig must have hurt it. It flailed its arms madly and I struggled to hang on, my feet sliding in its slime. I heard Kreig grunt and cry out. The muscles of my arm burned and my fingers slipped. Had to do something.
Pulling my knee up I braced it near my hand at the collar, drew my sword back like a harpoon and thrust it into the neck of the demon.
That gave it pause.
I wrenched the sword to the side and severed its spine. It cocked its head like it heard an odd noise, staggered a bit, then fell. I rode it to the ground.
Silence. I ripped my sword loose.
“Kreig!” I shouted
The horde began to move. I saw Kreig trying to push to his feet a short distance away. Running to his side, I gripped his arm and pulled him up.
“Can you move?” I asked.
He coughed and blood drooled from his mouth and nose.
The horde closed. I dropped Kreig and stood over him. Black fear boiled in my gut and ran like cold oil through my veins. This was it. All over now. I couldn’t hold them off by myself.
But the horde ignored us, flowing around us like water and swarming over the fallen demon. The feast of feasts commenced.
“Come on,” I said, pulling Kreig up and draping his arm over my shoulders. “We have to move.”
We hobbled through the darkness, tripping, stumbling, cursing but putting distance between ourselves and the horde.
“Wait,” Kreig wheezed.
“We can’t,” I said and pulled him along. He leaned heavily on me and my legs burned, my lungs ached but we couldn’t stop. We couldn’t die. Had to move. Suddenly I lost my footing and we slid and rolled and bounced to a stop. Kreig let out an almost childlike cry of pain and my heart clenched. We couldn’t die. There was still so much to do, We just couldn’t die.
Flame tipped arrows whistled through the night and peppered down around us. I shielded Kreig with my body and took a hit in the thigh. Skin sizzled, flesh boiled and I screamed.
“Gods be damned I said cease fire!”
Herris thundered up on his stallion and dropped to the ground beside us. With the corner of his cloak he smothered the flames on my thigh.
“You’re alive,” he said.
I couldn’t speak. The pain consumed my senses.
“What of the demons?” he asked.
I shook my head. “Coming.” I choked out.
He spun to his feet.
“Advance the line!” he shouted. “And bring the surgeons!”
I fell into a thick darkness that eased the pain.
“Surgeon!” Herris screamed but he seemed far away. “Where are my surgeons!”
From the darkness I heard Kreig choking. I rolled out of my bunk in the surgeons tent and hobbled to him, teeth clenched against the pain in my thigh. Sitting on the edge of his bunk, I rolled him onto his side. He coughed and puked blood.
“Can’t breath,” he wheezed when the spasm ended. I pushed him up, sat beside him and let him rest against me. His breathing evened but still came in ragged gasps.
“Better,” he said. He coughed again and spit into his beard.
“Damn good fight, Galen.”
“That it was.”
“Didn’t see this one coming. Thought there would be more time.”
I shook my head.
“You just need rest.”
“No, I can feel it. The mistress will come for me.”
“We still have things to do.”
“You’ll get them done without me.”
I simply shook my head again, fighting back tears.
“It was good, Galen. This life I mean.” He sighed and his chest rattled. “You’re right. There was more to do. But maybe I did enough.”
“Just rest,” I said.
“Rest . . .yes, I want to rest.”
His breathing evened out. “Carry on, Galen,” he whispered. “And keep the faith.”
He seemed to grow heavier in my arms.
“Keep the faith.”
He slipped into unconsciousness.
I let the tears flow.
I looked up. A woman wearing blood spattered white and carrying a brass bowl of water stood at the foot of the bed.
“The surgeons give little hope,” she said. “They did the best they could.”
I sniffed and nodded. I wanted to be alone but the woman stepped to our side and knelt. With a rough sponge she began to wash away the blood and bile.
“You saved the children and their father,” she said. “You saved the valley.”
“And I’ve lost my friend.”
“A noble sacrifice, worthy of warriors.”
I made to argue but stopped. Kreig stood at the end of the bed. A dim shadow of the man that lay in my arms. The shadow stared down at us, its expression dark and somber.
A trick of the light and a tired mind I decided. But then the nurse gracefully rose to her feet as bits of light swirled around her. She stepped toward the shadow, slowly transforming into a tall woman with flowing blond hair and wearing sparkling chainmail. The shade regarded her as she approached.
“You lived well, Krieg,” she siad. “And you died well. Now it is time to rest in Perfection.”
He looked to his body, looked to her and nodded.
She gently took his arm. “Come with me,” she said but paused and turned.
“An interesting beginning, Galen.” Her eyes, shining orbs of shifting color, transfixed me.
“But it’s just that. The beginning. Press on. Choose a path. And remember.”
“Remember,” I whispered. I knew this woman. From where or when I wasn’t sure. Couldn’t be sure. But what did I care? It was just a dream. A strange little dream.
“Galen,” she said. “Dream or not, are you listening?”
“Then, remember . . .”
Her eyes flashed and swirled from a vibrant blue to a piercing green.
She smiled a thin knowing smile and led Kreig away, fading into the shadows.
An odd, odd little dream.
I held him until his body went cold.
I watched Kreig burn on his pyre and wondered why I was alive. I packed our gear, wishing I had died in the pass rather than suffer the guilt of having survived. I should have fought harder, better, faster. I shouldn’t have left him alone. Or I should have distracted the demon. I was just a bit smaller than Kreig and a lot faster.
Was it my fault? My friend was dead. And it was my fault.
The king gave me a medal and spoke of great deeds of the living and dead. I sold the medal for the gold and spent it all on a night of debauchery. I picked the women Kreig would have picked and drank that foul brand of ale he loved so much, It helped a little. In the midst of it through a drunken stupor I thought I heard him laughing and a song he sung rang in my ears all night. I tried to sing it but I just can’t sing. Then I remembered that Kreig couldn’t sing either but did anyway so I sang. In the early morning hours, money gone, girls gone, head pounding and the bed spinning, I felt drained, strangely empty. Goodbyes had been said. Final rites of passage had been performed.
Time to move on.
“We’ve all lost friends, Galen,” Herris said.
“I understand that sir,” I said.
“Then why would you leave?”
I shrugged. “This was Kreig’s way. I feel the need to explore other options.”
“Fine, Galen, I can respect that. But think of the opportunities. You have a position within my company. The king knows your name. Hell, son, the bards already sing songs of you and Kreig and the pass. You’ll be a legend. Think how far you could go.”
“I have no desire to go that far.”
He looked at me dumbfounded.
“But the opportunities,” he repeated. “With just a bit of work you could gain the king’s ear.”
“And what would I say?”
He shook his head.
“Dammit, man. . .”
“Sir, thank you for these opportunities. But I feel that it’s time to go. And I have no way of explaining my intentions or motivations except to say that this was Kreig’s way. And I need to find my own.”
He stood silent for a moment, hands on hips, scowling.
“Well, then,” he said extending his hand. “Good luck to you.”
I gripped his hand and shook it. “Thank you.”
“A position will be open should you return.”
He smiled, coldly.
I left through the west gate and realized that I had never in this life walked alone. The road seemed wider, longer and uncertainties abounded. Kreig always knew the way. Even when he had absolutely no idea where he was going.
But now I had to pick the path. I had to choose the way. And I wasn’t sure why. Kreig had died for what? To save the family? To save the valley? To put gold in Herris’s pocket?
Dare I as a warrior, comment on the futility of war? Comment on the absurdity of placing a man as a point of strategy on some line to defend the cause of the day? Life is so short and to shorten it even further with the ignorance, the futility of war seems wrong.
Problem being, of course, no one bothers to explain this to the demons.
And there will always be demons.
So some of us must stand as points on the line.
Yet another paradox.
One would think I would be used to them by now.
of a dark haired woman with forest green eyes. She knelt next to a garden of flowers and herbs and as I approached she looked up at me and smiled a secret smile that she reserved just for me. I had no idea who she was. Or did I? Couldn’t remember. But I knelt beside her and kissed her gently and all seemed right. Complete even. Whole. A journey completed. Or just begun.
I hate dreams. Too much information with no point of reference.
And it haunted me, this dream. It seemed a bit too real, too substantial to ignore or forget. Who was the girl? Was she the one? Was she waiting? Was she a figment generated by a lonely mind or perhaps real? What should I do if we meet?
I truly hate dreams.
I stood at the crest of a hill and surveyed my choices. The road I traveled branched off into three paths. So I had four choices. Left, right, middle or back.
Which path lead to the dream girl? Or should that even be a consideration? It seemed like destiny but what if it was just a dream? And destiny is not always a good thing. Maybe I should avoid her.
If she was even real.
I shook my head in frustration. Krieg wouldn’t have hesitated. He would have picked a road and stomped forward without a second thought.
“Are you lost, warrior?” a tiny voice said.
I spun around and confronted a small girl wearing a simple dress and carrying a basket full of bread and flowers. Her golden curls glowed in the sunlight and she gazed at me with sky-bright eyes.
“Lost?” I said. She was the first living being I had seen in two days. And she was asking me if I was lost. “I’m not lost. I just have a choice to make.”
“Are there really any choices?” she said. “Isn’t one path as good as another?”
“I don’t know.” I turned and surveyed the trails again. The left lead into a distant forest. The middle path seemed unremarkable. The right path appeared more treacherous but for some reason it was the path I was drawn to. But why?
“Your hair is a mess,” she said.
I shrugged. No braid and no woman to braid it for me.
“I can braid,” she said, pulling the thought from my mind. She walked to the edge of the road and scanned the ground for ants before setting her basket down. She sat down on a large rock and pointed to the ground.
“Sit,” she commanded.
I sat. Yes, it was strange to meet this waif in the middle of nowhere who spoke of paths and choices but she could braid hair and I needed my hair braided.
“Hand me that brush,” she said. I pulled the thistle brush from her basket and passed it over my shoulder.
“Where are your parents?” I asked as she worked the brush through my hair.
“In the forest or in the fields.”
“They let you wander alone?”
“This is my land,” she said. “I am safe.”
“What do you know of the paths ahead?”
“Only one thing,” she said. “Tilt your head back.”
She began the braid at the crown off my head.
“And what’s that one thing?”
She sighed. “They all lead to the same place.”
“The same place?”
“Yes and it confuses me.”
“What confuses you?”
She tugged at a strand of hair and I winced.
“Sorry,” she said. “Well, keeping in mind I know little of the paths, I wonder why those who travel this way choose the paths they do.”
“How many travel this way?”
“More than you would think.”
“And which path do they choose?”
“The middle,” she said. “The mundane path. Mostly.”
“What of the left path?”
“Through the forest? A beautiful way. Very lovely. It’s my mother’s favorite. But for some reason not many choose that way.”
“And the right?”
“Most difficult. But Mother says it has the most to offer.”
“I felt drawn to it,” I said and tried to turn to look at the paths but she jerked my head straight.
“I’m almost finished,” she said.
“Your mother says the right path is difficult,” I said. “How difficult?”
“Mother says that the difficulty of the path is determined by those who walk it. I do not pretend to understand. Mother says that the strong are drawn to that way. To test their mettle and learn quickly. I think it’s silly.”
“The forest path is beautiful and there is much to learn and see. Why would one choose the difficult way?”
“I . . . honestly don’t know.”
“But you will choose the difficult path.”
“I think so.”
She tsk-tsked . “It’s just silly.”
“Yes, but --”
“I am finished.”
I stood up and breathed a sigh of relief. Nothing better than getting hair back out of the way. No idea why I kept it so long.
“Here, warrior,” she said and gave me a loaf of bread. “For your journey.”
“You are too kind, little one.”
“I must find my mother now,” she said. “She does sometimes worry.”
“Please be careful.”
She frowned as if I had said the oddest thing.
“Warrior,” she said. “Return to me some day and tell me of this difficult path.”
“I will if I can.”
“Or perhaps I will find you.”
She curtseyed and then walked away, humming a haunting song only a child would know. I watched until she disappeared around the bend and her song faded in the gentle breeze.
Well, the path had been chosen. No sense in delay.
I checked my gear, took a bite of bread and put the right hand path under my feet.
I had sold my horse in the last town and was glad for it. A horse would have little use for this rocky, treacherous path. The landscape rolled and twisted and stretched bleakly into nothing. Mornings brought a sickly green fog that seemed to pull at my feet and legs. Afternoon brought the blazing sun burning still air. The nights loomed cold and lonely under a starless sky and an indifferent blood red moon.
Food became an issue. And water. I stretched my stores as far as I could and then, close to desperation, I stumbled into a copse of trees that harbored a small spring. The water was brackish but drinkable. I made a camp and decided to stay a while.
I found some berries and roots to hold off the hunger. I needed to hunt. But I had seen little to hunt for so far. There appeared to be a population of large rodent-like creatures. But without a bow, I could only trap. Or I could craft a bow. I decided I should probably do both and spent a day setting dead-fall traps in various locations and another day working the trees for suitable wood for a bow.
The traps worked and I feasted on roasted rodent while shaving and testing staves of wood. After a few failures, I managed a descent bow. The grain of the wood matched the curves I needed and I sealed it with rodent fat. A cord from my pack provided a string and, after a day of arrow making, I was ready to hunt.
Another week passed and I ate well. Then my bow broke. The wood needed seasoning and I didn’t have time for that. But I had stores of dried rodent meat so I could take my time in the selection of wood for the next bow.
Then the rains came which refreshed the water supply but left me wet and miserable since I hadn’t bothered to build a shelter of any sort. So between cloudbursts I threw together a lean-to. Simple, quick, yet functional.
So I sat watching the rain, idly shaving thin ribbons of wood from the stave that would be my new bow. The small fire cackled and glowed softly and warmed my stew.
How easily I had slipped into this simple life. Survival and simple comfort. A full belly and a dry place. What else did I need? A better bow? A bigger shelter?
I had discovered solitude. At times the emptiness pressed in and I longed for a voice or a face or a warm touch in the cold of the night but then a need would arise and my mind and hands would be busy and the emptiness would fade in concentration. Strangely enough the emotion that nagged me the most was not loneliness but guilt.
What of the rocky trail? Was I shirking destiny? Should I pack up and press on?
Was she waiting?
Then, once again, a need would arise and my attention would divert and the sun would rise and the sun would set and the hunting was good and the rains would come and my thoughts were of the moment and not of the past or the uncertain future.
And this was a good thing. Living in the moment. Focused and pure.
Then I returned from the hunt to find him squatting next to my fire, poking the dying coals with a stick. It was obvious he heard me but made no overt movement so I approached confidently and dropped my rodents on my skinning rock and put my bow under the lean-to.
I surveyed him as a possible threat. He wore a huge knife on a string belt. Numerous braids held back his long, black hair. His lean, taunt flesh held a myriad of black tattoos. He glanced up and his steal grey eyes pierced the veils of reality and conceit and tore into my soul.
“A waste of a journey, don’t you think?” he said and a swirl of sparks lifted into the fading light.
“All that living, all that life out there and you sit here eating rats.”
“It’s my life.”
He cocked an eyebrow. “Is it?”
“Why would you be concerned?”
“I’m not. I’m simply making an observation.”
“Is this your land?” I asked.
“It’s all my land.”
“All of it?”
He nodded. “The land I’m standing on is mine until you move me off of it. So where I stand is mine and I can potentially stand anywhere so, yes. It’s all mine. Why? You want it?”
“I don’t think so.”
“Fine then.” His knife came out and before I could react he skewered a rat and skinned and dressed it and had it sizzling on a hot rock.
“So what’s the plan?” he said.
He twirled a finger in the air to indicate our surroundings. “Is this it?”
“Is this what?” I threw up my hands in frustration. “What exactly do you want?”
He glanced up again and smiled. “Want?” he snorted. “Want has nothing to do with this. This is about need. As in you have everything you need. Or you think you have everything you need. Sad thing is you’ll never have what you want. Not living like this.”
I frowned and knelt down. “I don’t know what I want. And-”
“And you’ll never know what you want if you don’t get moving and start living.”
“I am living.”
“No. You merely exist.”
“But I live-”
“This is not living. You eat, drink and sleep. But you don’t live.”
“Then living is-”
“Living is movement. Living is change.”
“Change isn’t always good.”
“No. But change is living.”
I looked at the ground trying to gather thoughts and form a philosophical defense of some sort. There was none really. I had felt the path calling. A spectral hand pulled at my center drawing me toward the future that waited just beyond the horizon. I had ignored the call and resisted the pull and found things to do and ways to be. The future loomed dark and uncertain and I lived with a dread tinged with fear and I did not know the source and it tortured my warrior’s instincts. I had faced down demons and stood in the storm of battle with blood flowing freely about my ankles and yet the darkness on the horizon gave me cause to tremble.
Why? And why should I pursue the darkness? What was wrong with merely existing? What obligation did I have to the future? That infinite moment of not-now?
“What if I stay?” I asked without looking up.
“Then the journey is wasted,” he said softly.
“And, perhaps worse, you’ve done nothing for the others that agreed to participate in your journey. So their journey’s are wasted as well.”
“Agreed to participate?”
He smiled. His teeth shone white and feral against his dark skin.
“There’s a lot that goes on in the Before.”
“I don’t understand.”
“At this point you shouldn’t.”
“Enough talk. Let’s eat.”
“Look here.” He pulled a canteen from behind his back. “I got good hooch. Trade for the meat.”
I sighed. Answers would not be forthcoming.
“Here,” he insisted as he held out the canteen. “Drink.”
I took the canteen and drank. It was good hooch. Crisp with a bite.
“What’s your name?” I asked as he sliced the meat on the hot rock.
He laughed. “If you ain’t remembering then I ain’t telling.” He offered a strip of meat off the point of his knife. “Besides, if I told you my name then you’d wake up tomorrow and think this was something other than a dream.”
“What the hell does that mean?”
He giggled. “Nothing,” he said. “Don’t mean nothing. Now drink!”
My head hurt. The sun pierced my eyes. Breathing seemed to require extra effort. What the hell had I done?
I staggered to my feet. I looked at my dingy little camp and felt my dinner rising on a column of bile. This was pathetic. Absolutely pathetic.
Sleeping on the ground. Eating rats and roots. How did it come to this?
Rage roared through me like a summer storm and I knew not its source. I kicked at one of the lean-to’s supports and it collapsed. This was wrong. All wrong. I wasn’t suppose to be here. This wasn’t what was meant to be. But what was? What was meant to be? I didn’t want to leave and I couldn’t stand to stay. So I had to leave. But then that knot of weakness twisted my gut and I wanted to stay and eat rats and roots and sleep in the dirt and be simple and happy. But I couldn’t. I just couldn’t.
I dropped to my knees and puked until I saw stars.
In this solitude I let weakness consume me. The company of one would have required me to swallow that weakness, stand tall and overcome. But alone, without that pride to hold me up, that weakness would consume me and keep me hidden from my own life forever.
So I should move on. Or the years would pass effortlessly and my existence would end and my life would be nothing.
What promises had I made?
I slept for a day. Then I left my bow on the skinning rock to rot and returned to the rocky path.
This is a chronicle of a strange jouney of a warrior-poet into the heart of destiny. It's perhaps my favorite literary project and I offer it here online as it is created without apology or excuses.
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