Come Play

I decided to run from my parents that day, wanting to explore the mist inside the forest, tendrils hovering over the leaves and branches, like arms waiting to catch something.

I bolted.

My mother gasped, and called my name.

My father cursed and gave chase, so I went into the underbrush where he would stumble and thrash.

The thorns and branches snagged my clothes and nicked my skin with small cuts, but I ignored the pain.

The mist came slowly down to shroud me, concealing me from my father’s sight.

He called, and threatened, but his voice held a note of desperation and fear. A pang of guilt interrupted my guilty pleasure, and I started back.

It was after some moments that though I heard his voice, I couldn’t tell what direction it came from.

I was now as lost as he, and when I went to call him, the mist muffled my voice. It came back to me as if I’d put my hands over my ears; it was dull and flat, lacking resonance, little more than a croak.

I kept calling, my own voice giving rise to my own fear.

“Hush, boy. Come play.”

I whirled to see who’d come so silently behind me.

A girl, leached of all color, but pretty all the same, was looking at me with a pleased fascination, as if she’d found something shiny and new.

“Where am I? Can you take me to my dad?”

She giggled. “You’re in the mist, silly. There’s no returning from it.”

“What do you mean? That’s stupid. I know this forest–” I turned, looking into it, but there was nothing to see but grey-white vapor, slowly roiling through the air.

“Then find your own way, boy. But if you like, you can come play.”

“Play? Play where? Play what? Why do you have no colors at all?”

She laughed again. “So many questions…”

I grew angry. “Take me back.”

She grew serious. “There is no going back. Can you hear?”

“I heard you just fine, but I don’t believe you.” I didn’t hear my dad calling anymore, but I could hear my mother crying.

I smothered my anger. “Please, you have to take me back. They’re worried.”

“You were the one who ran away.”

“I was only joking with them; I didn’t know all…this …would happen.”

“But now it has, boy. And there is no going back. Come play.”

“Stop saying that!”

She stared at me in patient silence; I turned and stared some more into the forest.

The mist grew thicker, and soon the sound of my mother’s crying was gone too.

When I turned back, she was standing closer. “Come play.”

I tried to hit her with everything I had, to knock her flat. To knock her out.

But my hand ended up holding hers, and I saw the color begin to fade, no sign of blood or pigment.

I felt my veins harden, my heart slow to almost nothing, and it seemed that the mist slipped into my nostrils when I remembered to breathe again.

I heard the sound of children singing a rhyming song.

There was laughter, and music, and all hue was drained from me as she smiled, looking at me with those shadowy, beautiful, colorless eyes.

“Come play.” She caressed my face with her pale, bloodless hand.

“Let’s go,” I said, following her through the mist we breathed, the sound of children’s laughter echoing in my ears.

 

Trial by Combat

He sat on that enormous throne, cloaked in inky shadows, gazing down at me with eyes full of starlight, silver-white, penetrating much more than darkness.

I couldn’t stop trembling under that patient, terrible gaze.

“Do you know why I summoned you?” His deep voice reverberated in the high ceiling and bounced of the stone walls surrounding us.

“N-n-no.” I wanted to say more, to protest, but I was shaking so much I didn’t want to risk stammering too. I put the tip of my tongue on the roof of my mouth and swallowed what I wanted to say.

“They told me that you wish to leave. Is that true?”

The lie was on my tongue, but not before the blush was on my cheek.

I said nothing.

He leaned forward, terrible visage close to me, putrid and scarred, and th oozing  a pungent liquid that had ribbons of blood laced through it.

“Have I not been a good master?”

“No master of another man, no matter how beneficent, is good.”

He raised a brow, and let out a wheezing laugh.

“I’ve always admired you for not going down without a fight. But rest assured, Laras, you are well on the way down.”

“I’ve heard enough,” I said, straightening despite the pain in my back, enduring the pain of the whip scars that broke open and wept, hissing as it trailed across my skin.

Venom.

“It wasn’t enough I called you ‘king,’ but you wanted ‘master’ as well. I can’t give you that.”

The pain brought me to my knees, in spite of my will. “I won’t give you that.”

I passed out.

****************

Perfumed ministrations roused me, and the sound of muted flutes.

He left me alive.

Someone was watching me, coming into focus, thinly clad, with large eyes that observed me with a blend of curiosity and the desire to kill.

“Your Highness?”

“Nailah, to you.”

She pulled me up by the thick braid I wore, and I braced for the pain, but there was none.

“I begged him for your traitorous life, Fihr. And because he refuses me nothing, he granted it.”

She wrapped my braid around her fist, and kissed me hard.

I tried to break it, but she grabbed me and held harder.

I gave in, and against my better judgment, kissed her back; her moan of triumph led to other things, and my first waking hours were occupied for a time.

*****************

They came for me in the morning, not bothering to knock, startling the princess as they plucked me from her bed like a feather, struck me to the floor, stomped me into it, and carried me out to the barracks.

A test, and I failed.

The day was full of rigorous training, and I was the target; fighting to the point of numbness, I prevailed over most of them, not having been trained in their way. I drew more blood than I spilled, which angered them more.

The sun was westering when I cried out; “How much more do you need from me?”

Call me ‘master.’ Say it, and know peace once again.

Every part of me hurt, every heartbeat an effort, every breath a trip uphill with a large stone to keep in front of me. He wanted it at every cost, and it would cost me nothing.

And everything.

I shook my head.

They began shouting curses at me now, but with a glimmer of grudging admiration in their eyes; nevertheless, they would redouble their efforts to break me now, before sunset.

I was fighting on instinct and adrenaline now, and soon there would be nothing left.

I was bleeding, and never felt the cuts, pummeled, and never felt the blows, but I remained standing, shaking on legs that wanted nothing more than to kneel, the word ‘master’ thick on my tongue like sour ale mixed with blood, and maybe a tooth or two.

I spat, and with that, my wavering ended.

I would rather die.

The sun was a red rind on the horizon when the last form broke from the ranks, moving unlike any of the others.

She was thinly clad, but well armed, and moved like a hunting cat in her prime.

I’d made love to her repeatedly only hours before. “Nailah…”

She was crying now, tears glimmering in the crepuscular gloom.

She took her stance. “Yield, Fihr; don’t be a fool. Yield now, and come back to bed. Say the word.”

Say the word, and be the most favored among them all.

Say the word, and know the comfort of a woman’s sheathe. I will let her have you, and give you men to fight your battles, and women to do your bidding. She is but the jewel in the crown I offer you.

“YIELD!” she screamed.

I saw the soldiers around us gaping in disbelief at my hesitation, saw the silver -white stars begin dotting the cobalt sky. Those eyes from the throne…

I heard the wind soughing among the trees.

Saw the last of the red sun’s rays reflected in the water on her cheeks, making them look bloody.

The memory of her scent, her arms, her kiss, and the things she did with her lips and hands flooded back into my mind.

It was so simple to say, and no one would know.

“Yield, please.” She sobbed this time, not wanting to kill me.

He was behind it, I knew, as surely as I knew my name.

“Yield.” Her voice was lowering with resignation as I hesitated.

Drop the sword, and all is forgiven…

“Yield, my darling. Please.

My own tears hot against my cheeks, I shook my head, and took my final stance.

Her cry of rage at my rejection tore my heart, and with all the last- stand vengeance of the defeated firing her eyes with hate, she charged.

 

 

 

Children No More

In the late evening light, when shadows lengthened and the realization of what they’d just done began to sink in, the strongest among them laid the logs for the pyre.
By the time they were done, a deep yellow moon filled the sky and the stars played hide and seek among the gold-limned night clouds.
“You’ll light the fire, Elari.”
“Angelus, I can’t.” Her eyes glimmered with unshed tears.
“They’re dead; they’re not coming back.”
“We don’t know that!” She turned her back on him, wiping her eyes on the sleeve of her dress.
Angelus almost slapped her, but that had been the Old Way; they’d have been there to stop him from harming, and killing.
Without them, he would have to be better. He wanted to be better.
Indeed, he needed to be, to lead them into this new age they’d so violently embraced.
Elari turned back to him, brave and sadly defiant, like a wilting flower refusing to accept the inevitability that there’d be no rain.
“They were our parents, Angelus. They protected us. Provided for us. Loved us. And this—“ her sweeping arm took in the high pile, “is how we repay them?”
Angelus was not one easily surprised, but Elari’s standing up to him now, speaking as she did, was a new thing. He had the wry thought that things were already improving for her, and she didn’t know it yet.
It was good to see her do this; he would need someone to rule at his side. She was beautiful, and smart. This new fire kindled in her only added to his attraction; he admitted, to his delight, that he was secretly pleased, but this was no time to indulge it.
“They threw your little brother on the fire, Elari. You wept in my arms for hours. Did you forget?”
His quiet words checked her rising fear; she’d opened her mouth to protest, and found no argument.
***************
Her emotions were raw, her eyes sore from weeping, her voice hoarse from pleading, her knees hurt from kneeling, but her father did not relent.
   “The gods call, and we must answer. It is the Old Way, and we honor the gods and our ancestors.”
    “A god that calls for the new lives he created to be consumed in such a horrid way? You and mother lay together, and made him. He is only just growing, and he deserves –“
   Her father wheeled on her, and just for an instant, she saw the inner struggle; he buried it with an ease that shocked her, and straightened to his full height, her little brother fidgeting in the tightening embrace.
   “You are out of place, child. Don’t presume to speak to me in such a manner. I will hand you over to the Elders Council, and gladly, if you say another word.”
   The thought came to her, oh-so-tempting, that she would bare her ass to the Council.            The old fools would be so shocked and get so randy they wouldn’t know what to do;  she’d seen their surreptitious glances in her direction.
   She stood up, and looked at her father; her words had almost cracked the anvil of his heart, but she’d entreated and abased herself long enough. She simply couldn’t go on.
   Coming toward him, she pried her baby brother from his arms, soothed him, andd took him into the room they shared.
   “I’ll give him back to you for killing,” she said, “when the time comes.”
   When the time came they hunted her with dogs, surrounded her with weapons, anthe squalling infant from her arms.
   She stayed in the forest that night, not caring what happened to her.
   The smell of smoke was faint in the air, the evil god they served making sure she got a whiff of that little body writhing and screaming in the flames.
   She hated her father with all her heart, but there was that moment he almost broke.
   Almost.
*****************
She turned away again, looking at the dark tree line. “No, Angelus. I remember everything.”
“Then you’ll light the fire?” He came to her, put his strong hands on her shoulders; in spite of herself, she leaned against him.
The word was a weight in her throat, and her heart warred with her mind.
Angelus was patient; she had to decide for herself, and then he would know what to do with her.
She nodded.
“Say it, Elari.” He flexed his hands on her shoulders, lending her strength, and pushing her over the edge to the New Way.
She drew a deep, shuddery breath, trembling under his hands.
“Yes.”