The warrior plunged his hands into the icy river.
He watched the blood swirl away with the current like red storm clouds. He was still covered in mud and gore but for some reason rinsing his hands made him feel less defiled.
His armor was beginning to feel heavy and his body started its first complaints as the anesthetizing effects of adrenaline began to wear off. His shield lay in the embankment next to him and his sword stood erect in the soft mud like a monument to unbroken fortitude; or a burial marker. He was exhausted. He snatched the sword from its earthen scabbard and bent to retrieve the shield as his back protested. He was getting too old for this. But soon he would have the comfort of the veteran’s ward and the companionship of those who had survived the long and weary years of campaigning to end their days manning the first of the three borders between him and the comfort of home.
Gods, the fucking wards again.
For untold generations, each time the warriors of his people returned home from campaigning, they had to pass through the wards; the three invisible gates to his homeland. The Sisters of the Veil taught every child that in the beginning times, before the wards, some men would return from war mad with a bloodlust still in them and a sickness in their soul. They would shriek in the night and chase phantoms through the villages like demons. Some sought to bury the nightmares in honey mead or the nectar of the dal-al plant. But they would only wither away. The Sisters called it the wraith death. They said the shadows of their crimes and the horrors they had seen had wounded them just at mortally as any blade. When the council was established by the first Sister, a seer of great power and renown, the wards had been created to ensure that all those who returned from the battle, were free from the darkness. She had proclaimed an end to the old order and founded the Sisterhood, where young girls were trained in the secret arts of the body and the mind; that they may be the caretakers of the community, just as the warriors were its defenders.
He ignored the pain in his body and walked back up the embankment, cresting the small ridge that separated the river from the army encampment. The large field was filled with fluttering pavilions and scurrying camp followers; making their way to and fro, servicing the soldiers who had survived the long war and were now gorging themselves on women and drink; anything to put the past away, if only for a night. He thought the festive atmosphere was perverse, somehow dishonoring all those who had so recently fallen. True, victory was sweet, and as a young man he had joined the revelries just as eagerly as these boys did now; but somehow his vision had been warped through the lens of time, and now the whole spectacle seemed grotesque. Others would tell him it was a celebration of life, that the dead would be best remembered and honored by living. He put the thought from his mind and made his way through the lines of tents, pausing momentarily to take a long drink from a wineskin absently tossed into his hands by a soldier chasing a topless girl who squealed gleefully. He wondered how many of them would make it past the wards. No doubt they were as drunk on invincibility as they were on wine and cunt; surviving a vicious campaign does that to a man, and this had been a savage war. Tens of thousands had died on both sides. Now many of them would fall to the blades of the Sisters, the priestesses who decided who could return, and who would nourish the land. He never questioned the wisdom of the wards, as other cultures did, as his enemies did. It was a hard path to be sure, but one proven by time and tested through battle. As a warrior he understood better than others how decadent and depraved other societies became as they blindly embraced men who had lost their souls on the battlefield. They earned laurels and fame in combat only to return haunted shells of their former selves, consumed by an inner darkness, spreading the sickness among the young and the women, infecting the civic body. No, to die at the hands of a Sister was preferable to the wraith death or to be a burden or danger to your people. With her at least, you would die a warrior. He shook off thoughts of the Sisters, they were the last ward, the first two would be much easier to manage; the veterans and the widows. The veterans who spoke the words of reconciliation and loss, who released the grief of the soldiers in honor as only another warrior can. Then the sacred symbols of passage would be inscribed upon his forehead and the warrior would be free to move on to the next ward. The widows who blessed the returning heroes as the strength of the community, the lovers and fathers, returned from blood and fire, to farm and family. They had no men, and the warriors who were blessed by them embodied the loss and love they both shared in service to their homeland. Then came the Sisters. Despite the merriment, a bitter wind still blew, causing the pennants to flap crisply atop the pavilions. Winter was just beginning to yield her grip, but small tufts of snow still occasionally swirled through the air; and the laughter of those dancing around the fires came out in puffs of white cones; like souls escaping the body.
The thought of the final ward filled him with foreboding.
One battle at time.
The warrior wrapped his cloak around him and passed silently through the crowd back to his tent; a shadow, felt but unseen by the warm bodies of the revelers.
After three days of debauchery the commanders of the army held their council in the high pavilion of the Lord Protector, who up until then, tradition dictated, was said to be in seclusion, mourning the dead, and making preparations for the encampment to disburse. In reality, he was usually as deep in drink and flesh as his men; in some cases openly. But for the most part the Lord Protectors respected discretion and dedicated at least a portion of their time to the host of logistical problems which plagued them. After the ceremonial horns had blown, signaling that the council had adjourned and the campaign had officially come to an end, the encampment began to break up. The warrior watched from the small ridgeline, a solitary figure on horseback overlooking the plain. He felt naked dressed in only a traveling tunic, pants, and his leather riding boots; his sword at his hip while his cloak flapped lightly in the cold breeze. His shield was slung over his back and his armor was carefully wrapped in oiled linens, stowed in saddle bags strapped to the side of the horse. Breath steamed from its nostrils as a light rain began to fall through the dim gray blue light of morning. The warrior cocked his head skyward and smiled bitterly.
“Drenching us in blood wasn’t enough, you sick fucks?”
He pulled the cowl of his cloak over his head and cast a final glance at the scene below. The vale was a hive of activity. No laughter or revelry; now it was all business and efficiency as the peddlers of wares and flesh scurried like rats from a spent carcass. Soon the roads would be quagmires of mud and filth; a final effort for the long slog to the veteran’s ward. He hung his head against the cold and rain as the horse moved unbidden towards the first border and barrier to home.
The cloaked figure on horseback slowly emerged from the mist. A crow took flight from a nearby tree, cawing in annoyance; breaking the otherwise eerie damp stillness that pervaded the gray day. After two days of riding, the two large white marble pillars, carved in bas relief with the faces of stern warriors and scenes of battle, finally greeted him. They rose some thirty feet from the ground and seemed to glow in the gloom of the overcast day. The pillars of the first ward were always welcomed with conflicting emotions. They were a sign that the campaign was over and home was near. But they also represented the test to come and the fear that everything endured would end at the edge of a Sister’s blade.
But not before the veterans and widows have their look, the warrior reminded himself. Gods, let’s just get it over with.
He knew he would be the first to arrive at this gate. He was always the first. The gate to the outer ward was actually not a gate at all. It was one of many entry points to the first ward consisting of two pillars of passage and a small stone veteran’s house. There were dozens of such gates spread along the entire border; an invisible barrier that had to be passed by all the true folk of the realm. The warrior looked at the mist clinging to the wide base of the embossed pillars, stark white against the gray day. It would be so easy to just walk around.
I cling too; like the mist.
The ward gates were always positioned near a natural hot spring. Tradition held that upon arriving, each warrior would strip naked and bathe in the purifying waters of his homeland. Next he would light the ceremonial fire signifying the rebirth of light in his mind and soul, driving away the darkness and shadows of war. The horse whinnied softly as the still air was suddenly permeated with the sweet aroma of burning cedar logs and incense. His presence had not gone unnoticed. He dismounted and allowed the horse to wander off to graze. That was part of the ritual too. He knew it wouldn’t go far. He gripped his shield and sword as if preparing to go into battle and stepped towards the gate. As tradition dictated, he dropped his shield first, and then plunged his sword into the ground with great emphasis; then he stepped between the great pillars. Strange how such a simple, inconsequential act could have such an impact on the mind. The air around the pillars was the same as that in between them; and yet somehow different. An invisible portal was somehow traversed, a thousand miles in an instant. He had performed this ritual two times in his life; two bloody wars, two campaigns, two homecomings. Each time he had stepped through the sacred gate he had felt its effect, the immediacy of home, the war somehow more distant, the faces of the dead receding. But this time he felt nothing. He looked up at the great stone monuments looming above him and was totally numb to their supposed meaning; the world looked the same on this side of the gate as on the other. He smirked and wondered how he had ever been young enough to be moved by two pieces of carved rock next to a stone hut in the middle of nowhere. He felt oddly liberated by his indifference.
“Welcome”, said a deep resonant voice, snapping him out of his heresy.
He turned and saw an old man standing near the large glowing ceremonial fire pit, about thirty feet from the cottage.
“Hail Keeper.” He said, performing the ritual greeting with a convincing reverence in his voice.
The old man was a veteran for sure; aged, but powerful, like an old oak. Time had not yet eroded the foundations of his strength. The creases in his face were like rivulets of invisible flowing sorrow. A large white and pink scar ran the length of his left cheek, like a plummeting comet. It was the perfect face to see upon entering the first ward; a face that conveyed understanding to any young warrior, a face that contained the wisdom and knowledge of what war truly meant. Without another word the warrior walked towards the fire pit while pulling the loose travel tunic he wore over his head. Though he had seen forty winters, his torso and arms were lean and muscular, marked with the scars he had received over the years; mementos of a life spent in martial service to his country. A soldier’s tunic was the deepest layer of padding beneath his armor. The second skin, as it was called, absorbed all the sweat, blood, and some would say sins, of a soldier during combat. The ritual shedding of this skin into the fire was the second step in passing through the gate of the first ward. The veteran watched him impassively, leaning against his old walking staff, which the warrior noticed he could probably use to kill a man half his age in the blink of an eye.
“A fortunate man”, the veteran intoned, “to shed such a clean skin. Pure white I should say, but for a few days of travel.”
The warrior tossed the tunic onto the pyre and watched it smolder for a moment as the flames burned through it, turning the white to black. He scoffed at the waste of such good material.
“It was but newly purchased in the camp.” He answered the veteran without taking his eyes off the dancing flames. For some reason he didn’t want to part with the tunic he had worn during the war. True, it was blood stained and tattered, but it was also soft and comfortable, and reminded him of all that he had endured. The veteran said nothing.
“Does this mean I won’t receive my marks of passage?” He tore his gaze from the fire and flashed a dangerous smile at the old man; who frowned unperturbed.
“I mean nothing boy, regardless of the symbols I paint on your brow.” He said with a sigh. “She will decide your fate.”
The warrior turned back to gaze at the flames. The day was still gray and cold even though the sun had risen somewhere in the thick bruised clouds above. Everything was silent except for the crackling of the fire; a dull, thick, heavy quiet, like when the snows blanket the pines in the mountains to the east.
“I know” was all he said, watching the last of the tunic turn to ash. “Is the spring hot?” Despite the fire, his muscles protested at the damp cold that closed in around him.
The veteran laughed, “Hot and soothing lad, like slipping into a whore with a fever.”
The warrior smiled in spite of himself. He would enjoy breaking his fast with this man. He would listen to his stories; all old men liked to tell stories, and pretend to be moved by them, to be brought into a greater understanding of the sacrifice and honor of all who had died, of the sanctity of what had been preserved. Then he would receive his marks of passage and be on his way, to the widow’s ward, where he hoped to rediscover his ability to feel, though he doubted he would. So far the wards had only made him feel more alone. He followed the veteran down a small path to the hot spring; the pool of purification. He stripped off his remaining clothes and eased his way into the steaming water, feeling each muscle uncramp and yield to the deep penetrating heat. The veteran just sat on a nearby stump, looking off into the distance. Neither of them felt the need to break the silence; they were warriors. After nearly twenty minutes the veteran finally spoke.
“You can’t fool them you know.” He said calmly. “I once saw a Sister open a man’s throat after he presented her with an offering of freshly picked mountain wildflowers. She casually wiped her blade clean and watched him gurgle and clutch in shock, while the blood pumped through his fingers. She knelt down to offer him the benediction of passing as he died; then looked up at me and said, “He was hiding the sickness behind beauty and soft words; he didn’t have the courage to face the shadow.”
The veteran turned to face him. “Their ways are inscrutable boy. Don’t try to deceive them.” The warrior snickered at being called “boy” by the old man; but the veteran was ancient and deserved his respect. At least he could say that much. After all, he had been to war and knew its horrors. His advice may fall on deaf ears but its source was pure, its intention just. Not like the sniveling sycophants of the half men; the money lenders and merchants, who could never wield a sword for their country but were more than armed with a warm smile and a dagger in the back when it came to protecting their profits; those who would prey just as ruthlessly upon the weak and helpless in the fields and shops, as any scavenger on the battlefield. They would assail him with compliments in the taverns, and pats on the back followed by rounds of drinks; then they would thank him for his service, telling him how they understood him, how they appreciated his sacrifice. What did they know of sacrifice? They never said it directly, but it was their deepest desire to earn his praise, his stamp of approval on the manhood they had purchased so cheaply with coin and paper title to lands they had never stained with their own sweat, let alone their blood. He would humor them, after all what difference did it make, as long as the spiced wine kept flowing, he would shake hands and smile; like a mercenary from the southern port cities, whoring himself out to robber barons and pretender kings.
Lies, He spit.
He wondered how many of them had been woken in the night by the sounds of their own screams. The warrior realized the veteran was still staring at him, awaiting a response.
“Just send me on my way brother.” He said, unable to keep the irritation out of his voice. “I’ve braved their wits and their blades before; I know how keen the edge is to each. I’m done with campaigns and battle and most of all, the fucking wards. This will be the last time I face a priestess.”
The veteran regarded him ruefully and then sighed. “Yes brother, I believe you’re right.”
He had traveled for two days before reaching the next gate. The Sisters called it the “time of reflection”; the slow measured walk where a soldier might reflect on the markings of passage he had received upon his brow from the veteran’s ward. He remembered his first two trips and how profound the journey had seemed; the long hours of solitude and quiet through the plains and wooded hills of the borderlands. He had written poetry, composed a ballad to a fallen comrade,
What was his name?
He couldn’t remember now. Even the strain of the first campaigns hadn’t stayed with him beyond the revelries. Now he felt every ache, and each misstep of the horse sent pain radiating down his legs and back, even after the brief respite the hot springs had given him. His mind seemed the exact opposite of his body, numb with indifference. In his youth, the wars had seemed so important, so obvious in their necessity. When he had fought his second campaign he knew they were necessary but understood their cost. Now he hated all wars, and wanted to curse those who started them. He wanted to slink away from duty and honor and find a small clearing in a distant forest meadow to raise herbs in; to live off the bounty of the land, and if he was lucky, die in his sleep. The widow was already waiting for him when he arrived at the pillars. She was kneeling in prayer at the Shrine of the Fallen; a great granite slab set between two giant pine trees. A helmet looked back at her from upon the altar; eyeless, empty, but full of memories; their last goodbye, the days of her youth, their children if they had any. She was draped in black as was the custom, and the warrior noticed with admiration and pity how clean and well-oiled the sword was which leaned casually against the altar; as if it had been placed there but a moment ago by a hardened, seasoned warrior who momentarily stepped away to get a drink or take a piss.
Suddenly he found the whole scene macabre and revolting; a morass of self-pity and wasted energy. He remembered how he had wept the first time he had entered the widow’s ward, how he had held the ancient mother who grieved for her long dead mate. The second time he sat in respectful silence, his heart overflowing with pity. Now he wanted to burn the altar and shake the woman, shouting that her tears meant nothing; that the dead were gone and life was for the living and she would be dead soon enough. She should spend what brief time remained to her with family celebrating life; not mourning dust and the shadows of fading memories. Family. He had never known that peace. He had been an only child and his parents had both died in the black winter. He could still remember their shivering bodies and the boils on their faces. The barracks had taken him and become his new home, his new family. He often thought what it might be like to have children of his own, to see them grow, to shepherd them into manhood and taking their place in the civic body. But the life of a soldier was hard. There had been no want of women but none that had ever made him want to put down the sword for the ploughshare. And any time he had ever dared to hope that maybe he had found the one; the wars had called him away. The letters slowly dwindled to a trickle and then stopped altogether, and then years later he would have a chance encounter with a girl he had loved. She would greet him with a warm smile, a man on her arm, and children circling her. Some farmer or merchant would shake his hand and thank him for his service but be unable to meet the weight of his stare, and unconsciously put a protective arm around his wife as they walked away; a family.
The old woman’s voice suddenly broke through his reverie. He realized he had been staring off into nothing and bowed his head.
“Honored mother.” he replied, looking at the ground hoping she didn’t see the rage and contempt in his eyes.
The widow turned to him and gestured with a gnarled finger for him to approach. He stepped forward obediently to participate in the hollow ritual. She lit a small bundle of herbs from the brazier upon the altar and began to sing softly in a low wailing melody of loss and lamentation. The smoke drifted over him as she waved the bundle in a prescribed series of motions meant to drive away the shadows that lingered in the mind of a soldier returning from war and remind him of the ultimate sacrifice so many before him had made; of the orphans and widows that now depended on him to return a whole man, back to the community. It was his responsibility to fill the void left in the hearts of those whose husbands and fathers would never return from the battlefield. The old woman wept as she gazed into his hollow eyes. Did she sense his indifference or was she lost in the wilderness of her own memories. He remembered how different he had felt before. The incense had been like the spirit of the dead warrior from the altar, commanding him to go forth to a new battle, a new mission; to care for the bereaved and to honor the fallen. After his first campaign he had gone to the Temple of Flowers when he finally made it home, and donated all his earnings and plunder to the children who were raised within its charitable walls. After the second campaign he had purchased better swords and armor for the boys in the barracks. Now all he could think about was his meadow in the forest. The widow’s chanting continued for another hour and he spent the time absently examining the altar and surrounding woodlands. He watched a chipmunk scurry up a tree and get into a loud clicking argument with another of his kind over a small pile of pine nuts. He almost laughed but caught himself before he disrupted the nonsensical solemnity of the ancestral ritual. He stretched his neck from side to side as the widow’s singing blessedly came to an end. He returned her heartfelt embrace with a feigned warmth and appreciation that is ambrosia to the old and irrelevant. He wondered how he had become so cynical; and when? Was it the blood, the cold, the pain, the death? Maybe it was the numbness that creeps inside to protect you from them. No great moment of horror; just a slow, crawling emptiness that fills your soul and makes you its prisoner. He realized the widow was waiting for him to sit and begin the next phase of the ceremony. She would pour him honey mead and serve him berry bread and they would talk about all of the widows and orphans who would need his strength. Then he would recount all of the wounds he had received during the war and she would bless them with more herbs and smoke. Finally he would help her dismantle the altar, symbolizing letting go of the dead. She would inscribe the marks of passage on his brow from the ashes of the incense, and then he would be on his way.
Hours later, as he trudged into the night, he found a small icy brook, and stopped to wash away the stifling stench of decay and weakness that she had left on him. He looked at himself in the shifting moonlit reflection on the water, and prayed in vain that the priestess would be as blind.
The wind whipped at his cloak. The last leg of his journey through the wards had seen two straight days of northern winds lashing down from the glacial heights of the Great Barrier Range. He could feel each wave sting through his clothing carrying its frigid message from the pristine blue ice far above; like the breath of an angry god. He was cold and irritable and hadn’t been relishing the encounter with the Sister of the Veil. He had thought about fleeing, about becoming an outcast, an apostate, and making his way to the port cities of eastern Kale and earning passage to one of the Feudal Isles. He would drown his nightmares with mercenary coin and willing slit. But all he really wanted was to go home. He knew the shadow was upon him. There was no denying it. Maybe she wouldn’t see it in him. Maybe she would have mercy.
But as night fell the warrior stood under the stars atop a small hill crowned with a large ring of standing stones. Each megalithic block had been placed in some long forgotten age to mark the passing of the years and the positions of the stars. But according to the Sisters there was more to them than that, there was power here; something to do with the land and a convergence of invisible lines of energy. He didn’t know or care if it was true but each of the final ward gates were placed in such a location; some old, some new, but all said to be infused with the power that the Sisters wielded. This site was ancient. He had left the horse and all of his belongings down below at the base of the hill near the two familiar ward pillars. When he passed through them he had known without any doubt that after tonight he would no longer live in fear. One way or the other, his destiny awaited him. She was standing there waiting for him, motionless by the fire, her robes silhouetted black against the night sky, the great hood obscuring her head and face completely; a specter. What was it about the Sisters that was both alluring and threatening? How were they so different from other women? Did they not long to be held, to bear children, to feel the solace and strength of a man? Perhaps, but there was steel in them, and a mystery; something forged in the depths of the temples, early when the girls were young, unafraid, pliable. The order jealously guarded its indoctrination rites and secrets. But he sensed that their ordeals were more than most of the boys in the barracks could endure. Stories were heard, rumors and whispers of the girls who failed their mistresses. They were never seen again. Once a girl passed through the gleaming bronze doors of the temple, they emerged as Sisters of the Veil, or not at all. He had faced the Sisters twice before in his life. The first had appeared as a motherly patron, beckoning him to sit with her by the fire and talk about all of the things he had experienced in the war, and the subsequent journey through the wards. He had been so nervous at first, but as the night progressed he found himself wondering how anyone could be afraid of the priestesses; how their mystique and reputation for ruthlessness must be a misunderstanding. The woman was so wise and comforting. She had made him tea and he had confessed all his sins and fears to her as a child might to a mother after waking from a nightmare. The second time he had encountered an old crone, wise in the ways of battle and death. She had also made him tea and they spoke long into the night of dark secrets that lurked in the hearts of men; of the politics and poison that seeped into their souls. He had sensed strength in her and knew that she held the power of death within her as surely as any warrior. She would not hesitate to take his life as she had undoubtedly taken many others before him. He had known fear then, but wisdom too, and she had made the marks of passage upon his brow with a clawed finger dipped in a viscous liquid that burned like venom. He still bore the scar. Now he saw before him the very image of death; a Sister with no comforting banter or words of wisdom. He felt her eyes upon him from beneath the impenetrable blackness of her cowl, and was thankful he did not have to meet the weight of their stare. He felt naked and exposed. Her silence and stillness unnerved him. He wasn’t sure if he was supposed to say something but he didn’t want to be the first to speak; so he just stood there across from her trying to control his breathing, as the fire danced between them.
“I have been watching you warrior.” She said abruptly.
He was startled as much by her tone as by her words. Her voice was melodious and sweet, unexpectedly incongruent with the wraith before him.
“I…” he stammered, caught off guard, not knowing what to say. “Watching me?”
She moved with a fluid grace, like a cat, as she slowly approached him, her robes swishing in the firelight. Her hands seemed to conjure something from within the folds of her cloak and the warrior saw a small jewel encrusted cup held reverently between her hands. As she moved away from the fire he noticed her breath appearing in small, barely discernible puffs of white. He was breathing harder now, and wondered when it had gotten so cold.
“Do you see yourself warrior?” She raised her arms slowly, ritually, and offered him the cup. The hairs on the back of his neck stood on end and his gut turned. His body was signaling him to prepare for battle as his mind raced through options for escape. Was she trying to poison him? He could refuse, but something about the figure before him made him pause; and for some reason he couldn’t explain he knew that if he hesitated for even an instant, this woman would kill him where he stood. He looked at the cup and decided to accept his fate as a warrior. He was tired of hiding. He took the cup and downed the entire contents in one long drink.
“I see things as they are Sister.”
She slowly drew back her hood and began walking towards him. Suddenly he didn’t see her as a Sister of the Veil; but simply as the young woman that she was, no more than nineteen, her dark hair and bright eyes glowing in the moonlight. She was beautiful, filled with the promise of life and the comfort of home; the supple curves of her young body were soft and warm and inviting beneath her robes. He felt an odd rush of blood to his head and a roaring in his ears. The cup fell from his hand as he reached for his temple; he was dizzy and rocked back on his heels. Then the shadows began to dance, slowly contorting into the anguished specters of all those men who would never see home again, friends he had known, enemies who had gasped their last breath into his face; men who would never know the comforts of a warm hearth and bed; the soft skin and perfumed hair of a lover’s embrace. He felt surrounded by death and realized how close it had been all these years; ever present, clawing, waiting, beckoning. The ground began to roil and turn to a putrescent mixture of mud and entrails. Suddenly shimmering obsidian hands reached up from the depths to ensnare him, to pull him into the void and the cold oblivion of the grave. He screamed in terror as he kicked and writhed to free himself from their grasp; then he rolled into a ball and clutched his ears to stop the voices. In the distance he could hear a child wailing in despair, begging the gods not to take his parents away. His mind reeled as he wrapped himself in his arms and rocked slowly, desperate to find some shelter from the storm. Then she was there, her hands upon his face, wisps of her long hair caressing his cheek, her breath as warm as a summer scented breeze. The girl was hope. The girl was life. He would live. He wouldn’t let death have him! He would fight! He would choose life! He wouldn’t go down into the shadows!
He pounced upon her with the savagery and skill of a veteran who had survived a thousand battles. The shrieks of the dying filled his head and the clash of steel rang in his ears. Her soft body buckled beneath his onslaught as he tore away the simple cloak and undergarments she wore; all that was between him and life. His eyes were wild as he clutched her by the throat and plunged inside the warm peace he had been so long denied. She screamed as he pierced her to the hilt, and for some reason he thought of a child being born. He thrust into her again and again, pushing back the abyss as the pounding war drums beat in his head and his heart strained to keep pace with the terrifying rhythm.
He was charging into battle. The lines of men collided and were rent asunder by clanging metal and splintering wood. Shouts and curses gave way to screeches and wails. Everywhere was death and chaos.
Keep fighting. Fight and live. Think and die.
Swing after swing; methodical, emotionless.
Somewhere a girl screamed.
The battle was raging around him as another opponent appeared before him; an old man, a young squire, he didn’t care, the blood that sprayed his face was not his own; that is all that mattered; total awareness, a whirlwind of death. No feeling except for the burning, undeniable, unshakable single pointed focus of his existence…
I WILL NOT DIE TODAY!
He roared as he exploded inside her. His body convulsed and slumped. Then he began to shake and sweat. His heart was pounding. There was an acrid taste in his mouth.
Where was he? Then he remembered. He heard a low moan escape his chest and felt tears streaming down his face; not because he knew she would kill him, he didn’t care about that. Death held no fear for him anymore. He wept because he didn’t regret his crime. He hoped she would have a child, twins even, and there would be new life to replace the old; new hope to flourish amid the ruins of his wasted and spent youth. His eyes began to regain their focus. He seemed to become aware of the girl for the first time. She was breathing heavily underneath him and he could taste her breath and feel the tight warmth and moisture of her body, his body, they were one. He closed his eyes. This was a good way to die. He could be content with this. He had slain countless men in combat with a will as cold and hard as ice; but the warmth of this girl had melted it away like spring, and he would welcome her blade. His blood would water the ground of his homeland, just as his seed was seeping into her flesh. He wanted to say so much, but he couldn’t make his voice work. All he could manage was a barely audible and choked,
The girl was out from under him in an instant, a dagger in her hand and at his throat. Her eyes gleamed with a power he had never seen before. The blade was coated with venom that glistened in the pale light. It looked like it was crying. She leaned close, grabbing him by the back of the neck, paralyzing him with her touch; the strange skill that only the Sisters of the Veil possessed. Her voice was a purr of bile.
“Are you ready warrior?”
He brought his palms together in prayer.
She drew the blade across his throat as he cried out in ecstasy,
He slumped to the ground waiting to feel his blood received by the earth; swooning in the euphoria and redemption that was his death.
A second An hour An age; he couldn’t tell.
I’m dead, he thought. How strange to be breathing.
Then he felt a hand upon his shoulder and he looked up to see her standing above him, silhouetted by the moon; a Sister of the Veil, imperious, statuesque, a goddess. Her bright eyes penetrated his soul.
“Behold; the afterlife warrior.”
He stared at her, confused; his face a contortion of bewilderment.
“I…I don’t understand.” He heard himself say.
She handed him her dagger and he examined it slowly, as if he had never see a blade before. One side was razor sharp, the other was dull and rounded.
“One side is life, the other is death. It is for us to decide who passes the veil.” She said softly.
He looked at her as tears welled up in his eyes. “Why…why did you let me live?” he pleaded desperately, pathetically; broken.
She leaned down, taking her hand from between her legs, then drew the markings of passage upon his brow with her sacred blood; fixing him with a calm gaze wise and powerful beyond her years.
“I didn’t.” He reached for her, and she held him like a child as he sobbed in her arms.
The old farmer wiped the sweat from his brow as the last of the harvest was being bundled. He looked out over the cleared fields of his land and smiled satisfied.
A good year, he thought.
The woman at his side was much younger than he, but there was wisdom and steel in her eyes. He looked at her and smiled. She was so beautiful; and on the nights when he would wake shrieking and drenched in sweat, flailing at the dead, she would be there; the only one who could bring him peace. She felt his gaze and looked up at him, then nestled into his arms.
“Father”, came a young strong voice that pulled him from his reverie.
He turned to see his son standing next to a saddled horse. Beside him was a younger boy holding an old battered shield and well-oiled sword.
“They will be arriving soon.” The older boy said.
The farmer kissed his wife on the forehead and approached the boys. He paused before taking the sword and shield and as he did his demeanor changed and his eyes seemed to flicker momentarily with a hint of madness. Then it was gone, like a storm across the sea.
“Mind your mother and tend to the farm lads. I’ll be home soon.”
“Yes father.” The boys replied almost in unison.
As he mounted the horse, old wounds seemed to complain. He winced at how he had been able to ride for days without rest in another life. He smiled at his family and adjusted the saddle bags the boys had packed for the short journey, then urged the mount forward at a slow walk. He paused at the gate to look back and wave. He knew they would be there to return the gesture. They waved and cheered as was the custom and he turned back to the path that would lead him to the veteran’s ward. As the horse meandered along the trail he gazed out across the land he had spent his whole life defending and cultivating. He watched as the blue light of dusk deepened into soft shades of purple and gray across the low hills and plains. The horse hesitated as if sensing his mood and he couldn’t help but be moved by the beauty surrounding him. He inhaled the cool jasmine scented air and reflected upon his life.
Soldier, farmer, husband, father, murderer, rapist…I am all of them.
The paradox and extremes of existence were a part of his memories and soul. He started forward again without looking back, and let the melancholy and ecstasy of it all wash over him.
Life is an unimaginable convergence of the possible.
Copyright © 2017 Short Stories by Christopher Daniel Barnes - All Rights Reserved.