Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Bound By the Knife

The thin, fine blade bit into the back of Saul’s shoulder, making him narrow his eyes and furrow his eyebrows in pain.

“Are you okay?” came a sweet voice.

Saul didn’t even need to look up to see the speaker. He knew every detail of his new wife’s face intimately, and he was even fairly sure he knew what her expression would be, just by the tone of her voice when she asked the question.

His eyes opened fully, and he looked up. Sure enough, Ardith’s face held a look of intense concern. Saul smiled at her. “It’s just annoying, really. It’s a sensitive area. I’m fine, really.”

The blade dug into his shoulder again, but Saul didn’t wince this time. He wanted to make sure Ardith knew the pain wasn’t bad. And it really wasn’t all that terrible. Still, the concerned and rather frightened look didn’t leave Ardith’s face. Saul mouthed the words, “I love you,” and smiled at her. He wanted to reach out and hold her hand, but the inker wouldn’t let anyone get too close– for safety and cleanliness reasons, he said.

Saul was allowed a moment of almost-painless reprieve as the pigment was rubbed into the wound. He had been subjected to the inker’s knife for over an hour now, and there was still probably another hour of pain to come. Then it would be Ardith’s turn. Neither of them had gotten tattoos before, but once they got married, they had decided to mark the occasion by getting matching ones.

Ardith bounced slightly as she watched the inker take the knife to her husband again. This had been her idea, and she had actually been a little surprised when Saul had agreed. She was nervous; she didn’t know what it would be like to be inked, so she had asked Saul to go first. She wasn’t sure if she could take the pain of it like he could– as a guardsman, he was subject to injuries all the time. It was rare for him to come home at night without a new bruise or a shallow gash. But Ardith earned her part of their money performing songs and dancing at the inns and taverns– tastefully– and except for aching feet and the occasional sore throat, she didn’t experience much pain from day to day like Saul did.

Finally, the inker told Saul to get up off the table. The tattoo was finished. Saul picked up his discarded shirt and turned so Ardith could see his new mark. “How does it look?”

Ardith hugged him gently, careful not to press too hard, especially in the rather raw-looking right shoulder area. “It looks just like we wanted. Did it hurt terribly?”

Saul shook his head and walked back to the inker to have the tattoo bandaged. “It wasn’t bad, just... lengthy. And annoying. You know, you don’t have to get on if you’re worried.”

Ardith shook her head firmly. “I want to. It’s for us, remember?” There was no way she was going to back out now.

The inker finished bandaging Saul’s shoulder and prepared to work on Ardith.

Saul didn’t move from his spot while the inker worked on his wife. At the first touch of the knife, a little bit of a surprised look came over Ardith’s face, but she didn’t squirm, make a cry, or do anything that normally resulted from pain. There were moments in the two hours she was being inked when she clamped her eyes shut, but every time she opened them, Saul was ready with an encouraging smile and a loving gaze. Before either of them knew it, the inker was finished with her tattoo, which she had chosen to have placed on her left hip.

Ardith was bandaged, and the inker smiled as Saul and Ardith took their leave. They went straight to the tiny two-room house they had in the city. Saul half-flopped onto a chair before the movement made his shoulder throb, and he very nearly jumped back out of the chair as a result.

“Careful, honey,” Ardith said, her sweet voice filling the room without effort as she carefully lowered herself into another chair. Her voice filled the room easily, but without being loud or overpowering. A moment in the chair set her tattooed hip burning, and she stood up again. Saul stood, too, although probably not for the same reason. He gingerly took his wife in his arms and kissed her.

“You did wonderfully under the inker’s blade. I told you it wasn’t so bad.”

“I believed you, Saul.”

The door opened, revealing a scruffy-looking man in a guardsman’s uniform. “Saul, I need to talk to you. It’s urgent.”

Saul gestured the man to come inside and sit. Saul and Ardith remained standing.

The man sat only for a moment before standing up and walking behind the chair, but he was there only for a moment before he walked to the wall and leaned one arm on it. “We’re at war. The Dolerins launched a night attack on one of the port cities, I don’t remember which one, and the King is calling together as many new recruits for the army as he can get. The Captain says we’re all to enlist. We’re supposed to gather at the town gate to head for the capital in the morning.”

Ardith rushed to Saul and threw her arms around him. Saul hardly winced as her hand rested right on top of his bandaged shoulder.

“He can’t go to the King’s army! We’ve only been married a month!”

The guardsman shrugged nervously and headed for the door. “Sorry, ma’am, but those are our orders. Tomorrow morning, first light, Saul.” He ducked out the door. Saul stared after him.

Ardith wouldn’t let go. “You can’t go, Saul! You’ll be killed! You can’t go into the army!”

Saul closed his eyes solemnly. “I have to, Ardith. Orders.”

She looked up at him, her eyes welling with tears. “No, you don’t have to ! We can just stay here! Someone has to stay to protect the city! I’m sure some guards will stay. You can be one of them! You have to stay here!” She buried her face into his chest, her tears falling onto his still-bare skin.

Saul hugged her tightly, holding her to him. “I have to follow orders, even if I don’t want to. That’s what I do.”

She shook her head, still not lifting it from his chest. Her voice came back muffled. “No, no no no no! If they try to make you, I won’t let them! We could... we could run away! Tonight! And go away from here!”

Saul worked a hand under her chin and lifted her face so she looked at him. “What are you talking about? We can’t leave here.”

“Yes, we can! We can just leave, and they can’t make you fight in the army! We’ll be safe, and we’ll be together. I can’t lose you, Saul, I just can’t!” She gently freed her face from his grip and rested her head against him again.

“I don’t want to lose you, either.” He closed his eyes and held his wife in silence for a few moments. “So where will we go? We’ve got to get some things together if we’re going as soon as we can.”

Ardith looked up, her face still wet with tears. “You’ll come? We’ll go away together?”

Saul nodded. ““I’m not going anywhere without you. Let’s get what we can carry, and we’ll leave tonight.”

Ardith kissed his chest. “Do you mean it? You’ll disobey orders?”

“You know I’ll do anything for you.”

Two hours later, under cover of darkness, Saul and Ardith crept out of their little house, each carrying a pack with food, blankets, a few extra sets of clothing, and whatever else they could carry. The night guards were few tonight, probably because of the traveling they would have to do in the morning. Even with as few guards as there were tonight, leaving the city unnoticed wouldn’t be easy.

The weight of the pack on Saul’s shoulder caused a pain that was constantly on his mind. The few extra layers of clothes he had put on did little in the way of padding. But he knew Ardith was feeling the same pain on her hip, from walking and her skirts rubbing against it. He had tried to talk her into wearing a pair of his pants to make traveling easier, but she had adamantly refused. They were going to be doing a lot of walking.

Saul led the way towards the gate, along the sides of buildings, trying to keep to shadows. Most, if not all, of the other guards men knew him on sight, probably because he was one of the biggest of them, and the only one who went completely clean-shaven. Patrols were random, so there was no telling when a night guard would appear.

Ardith heard footsteps and quickly grabbed the back of Saul’s cloak sleeve. He very nearly fell, but he didn’t move forward into the light. There was a guard coming. Ardith held her breath as she and Saul pressed themselves against the shadows on the side of the building they were by. She could feel Saul holding his breath beside her.

The breastplated guard came into view– a young man, probably no more than seventeen or eighteen years old, with only a shadow of a beard on his chin. His hand rested on the short sword at his hip comfortably, though. He was young, but he knew what he was doing. His eyes darted around, taking in all the movement around him. He paused a few steps past them, a few paces in front of the building, and his head turned to look around. His hand eased his sword in its sheath, and he kicked the toe of one booted foot on the ground.

Ardith’s chest began to pound for air. This young guard was only perhaps five paces from the shadows she and Saul had concealed themselves in. Any sound they made would surely be heard. But the young guard didn’t move on.

There was a loud banging sound, and Saul and Ardith felt the building shake a little. The sounds of raucous and probably drunken laughter came loudly from nearby, and after a moment, a large group of staggering men wandered into the street. Not a moment had passed before two of the men began to brawl in the middle of the mostly-deserted road. The young guard quite visibly rolled his eyes, shook his head, and headed towards the group.

Saul let his chestful of held air out slowly and quietly, and began to breath again. Beside him, Ardith followed his example. But even a few moments of trying to calm down did nothing to slow either of their pounding hearts. Still, they moved on, behind the tavern and further towards the city gate. There were two guards posted at the gate itself, so sneaking out through the gate was practically impossible. Neither Saul nor Ardith had thought of that.

“We’ll have to scale the wall,” Saul whispered.

Ardith looked up. Made of plastered stone, the wall was high and thick, meant to protect the city from invasion. The stones made natural foot- and hand-holds, perfect for climbing, but the wall was amazingly high. She’d never thought what was meant to keep someone out could prove to be such a barrier for keeping people in.

“We can’t climb this, Saul. Perhaps you could, if you weren’t carrying a pack, and if it weren’t dark, but I know I can’t. We must find another way.”

“There is no other way. The sentries at the gates won’t leave their posts unless there’s an attack, so we can’t go through the gate. We have to climb.”

“I can’t climb the wall!”

“I’ll help you.”

“Do you want to get through the wall?”

The voice was whispered and sounded youthful and came from a wiry, shadowed form that neither of them had heard approach. Ardith jumped at the voice, and Saul very nearly attacked the person before he understood what he had said.

“Yes, we have to leave tonight,” Ardith replied despite Saul’s gestures not to.

“Follow me.” A dark cloak flourished as the shadow turned and headed back the way they had come. Ardith and Saul hesitated for a moment and followed. The cloaked figure stopped behind a building and waited for them. “You can leave through here.” He placed a hand on the wall, and a dim light seemed to extend from his fingers onto the stone. A nearly door-size section of stone melted away, revealing the grassy plains that gave way to forest on the horizon. “Go.”

Saul darted through the passage as though he were being chased by some fierce animal. Ardith paused before going through. “Who are you?”

“That’s not important.”

“Why are you helping us then? Tell me that.”

“Look, just go. I’ll explain later.” He practically shoved Ardith through the opening and into Saul’s arms. The wall seemed to melt back into place. They were outside.

Without a word, Saul grabbed Ardith’s hand and dashed for the treeline. It was only a mile or so from the city wall. It wasn’t long before they were safely concealed in trees. Only then did they allow themselves to rest for a while.

“We made it out of the city, Ardie! We made it!”

She nodded, setting down her pack and sitting on a fallen tree. “I’ll feel better once we’ve put the city far behind us.”

“She’s right. You should keep moving.” The cloaked figure was leaning against a tree at the edge of the clearing, arms crossed over his chest. The hood of the cloak shadowed his face. “This path will take you straight through the forest and on to Banditan. You should be safe there.”

Saul took a few steps, putting himself between Ardith and the stranger. “Thanks for your help, but who are you?”

“Your wife already asked me that.”

“But you didn’t answer me. And you didn’t when I asked why you were helping us, either.”

He sighed and uncrossed his arms. “My name is Elias. And I’m helping you because it serves my purpose. That should be enough for you. Just don’t get yourselves separated or killed, okay?” He pulled back his hood, revealing the smooth face of a boy only nineteen at the oldest. Moderately long, messy brown hair topped a rather round face with only a hint of facial hair. His blue eyes were sunken in a bit, but they were filled with light.

Ardith stood. ““Thank you for your help, Elias.”

Elias’s eyes darted up and down Saul for a moment, and he stepped forward and placed his hand on his shoulder. “You’re hurt.”

“It’s a tattoo, not an injury,” the man replied, shrinking away from the boy’s touch.

“It still pains you. Let me help.” Keeping his hand on Saul’s shoulder, he beckoned Ardith forward. “You have one, too. I can take away the pain.”

Ardith stepped up to him, and Elias placed his other hand on her hip. His hands glowed dimly again, and both Saul and Ardith felt the aches from their inkings drift away. The feeling was so soothing that Ardith closed her eyes. When she opened them again, Elias was gone.

“What an odd young man,” Ardith commented, looking around. “He must be one of those Mages.” She tenderly touched her hip. As Elias had said, it didn’t hurt anymore.

“Yeah, but we’re in debt to him now. I don’t know if I like that,” Saul replied, working his shoulder.

“He seemed nice enough. But we should keep moving, shouldn’t we? If we want to get far enough away so they can’t find you and force you to join the army.”

Saul nodded and reshouldered his pack. “Let’s move, Ardie.”

They traveled on through somewhat dense trees well through the dark hours and continued even after the sun was above the horizon. It wasn’t long into the day when they heard the sounds of people. Lots of people. Ahead of them, not behind.

“I don’t like this, Ardith. Stay hidden. I’m going to see who’s out there.”

“Please, Saul, be careful.”

Giving his wife a reassuring kiss, Saul picked his way through the dense forest towards the sound. He was out of Ardith’s sight in moments. But he was not out of her hearing. She heard a cry of, “Ambush!” from an unfamiliar, very harsh voice, and she heard Saul pleading innocence. She could not explain how, but she felt the heavy blow that was landed on her husband’s head. He had been knocked unconscious. The sounds of people moving picked up again, and Ardith stood frozen in her hiding place. Would these people leave Saul alone and unconscious in the forest? Or would they take him with them? Carefully, she crept towards the sounds and where Saul had disappeared.

She saw the moving people before too long, and she understood almost immediately how Saul had stumbled upon them. They were Dolerins– part of the Dolerin army, probably, if not all of it– and they had dressed in greens and browns and fastened leaves and branches and the like to themselves. They looked like moving parts of the forest. And in their midst, draped over the back of a leaf-covered mule, was Saul. He was out cold. The blow had seen to that. Ardith’s head ached dimly in the back of her thoughts. Her foremost concern was rescuing him.

The Dolerins continued on through the forest, towards the very city she and Saul had escaped from the night before. That thought didn’t matter to Ardith now, though. Saul was all that mattered. She kept the Dolerin army in her sights, creeping along in their wake and trying not to be heard or spotted. It wasn’t long before a few camouflaged scouts joined the ranks, and the army stopped their march for the day.

Ardith knew this place. They were near the edge of the forest, and the city was less than five miles from her very position. The army was planning an ambush. But Ardith had set in her mind her own ambush.

As the army quietly mad a small temporary camp, she watched as a pair of soldiers removed Saul from the mule and poured a small amount of water on his face. Saul sputtered, and his eyes opened lazily. Ardith couldn’t hear what was said, but the two soldiers bound Saul’s hands and dragged him and his pack to a man Ardith could only assume was in charge. Saul was thrown to his knees before the man, and he coughed tiredly. Ignoring Saul, the man took the pack and emptied its contents onto the ground. At the sight of Saul’s sets of clothes, some of the cooking things, and the food, the man laughed. Sorting through the clothes, one of the soldiers came upon Saul’s cloth-wrapped sword. The commander’s laughter ceased, and Saul was hauled to his feet. The commander began to speak, but she could not hear his words.

Ardith quietly moved through the trees, trying to get closer so she could hear what the commander was saying.

“...part of the army, no doubt. Possibly... probably a deserter. Find out what he knows. Use whatever means are necessary, but I want him left alive until I’m satisfied.”

Saul’s mouth moved, but whatever he said was too quiet for Ardith to hear. However, it resulted in a solid back-handed slap across the cheek that made Ardith’s face sting as though she had been the victim instead of Saul. The soldiers dragged Saul into a newly-erected tent and out of Ardith’s sight.

For a long while, nothing happened. No one left or entered the tent where Saul had been taken, and the only things going on in the camp were the normal camping things: low cookfires were made, horses and pack mules were cared for, and soldiers were fed. Ardith decided to wait until dark to attempt a rescue. She crept a short way away from the camp and settled down to plan as she wait for nightfall.

She was still at a loss for what exactly to do when the sun began to set. Suddenly, she doubled forward, feeling an intense pain on her back, like she had been beaten with a heavy stick. But there was no one there. The delusory blow came again, and again. The blows fell continuously, and Ardith found her self curled into a ball on the ground, tears streaming down her face. What was happening?

“Seems there was a small side effect from my healing,” came an all-too-familiar voice.

Turning her tear-stained face towards the voice, she saw Elias’s brown-haired head, which appeared to be floating, as his dark cloak seemed to melt into the dark that surrounded them.

“What’s happening?”

Elias ran a hand through his unkempt mass of hair. It did nothing to tame it. “Apparently, you’re feeling your husband being beaten for information. Somehow, healing you a the same time bonded you together. At least, you feel what he feels physically. I wonder if he would feel what comes to you.” He reached down to help her back into a sitting position. The blows were still falling, sending waves of pain all through Ardith’s body, but she was becoming almost numb to them. She hoped Saul wasn’t suffering as bad as she. “Elias, is there anything you can do to help him?”

The boy shook his head. I’ve already endangered myself from helping you so far. I hate to say it, but you’re on your own.”

Ardith felt a horrible sensation in her neck that made her shudder uncontrollably. Almost immediately afterward, she heard the Dolerin commander’s voice curse. “I told you I wanted him alive!”

Ardith knew Saul’s neck had been broken. The pain had ended as abruptly as it began. She began to cry. He was gone. Saul, her husband, the love of her life, was dead. Murdered. They had barely been married for a month, and he was gone.

When she came to her senses, she was alone. The absence of human sounds led her to believe the army had moved on. But had they taken Saul’s body with them? A few moments of walking took her to the remains of their camp. Saul’s body was at the edge of the clearing, and by the position, he had been carelessly discarded before they moved. Ardith gingerly touched a shoulder; of course, there was no response. She turned his body over, from his side to his back. She fought the tears, but it was no use. She burst into sobs, cradling the body of her dead husband to her as if afraid what was left of him would disappear if she let go. She was only dimly aware of the rustling of foliage nearby.

“He’s gone, Ardith. He hasn’t breathed in a number of hours.” Elias’s voice still held that unsettling calm of his that made him seem older, but the sympathy in his tone could still be heard.

Ardith looked up at the young man, her face pale and red a the same time; wet trails left by her tears covered her cheeks. Though she knew he told the truth, that Saul was no longer alive, her eyes displayed her refusal to believe him.

“You will need to move on, Ardith. There is nothing you can do for him.”

“But you can, can’t you? You opened the wall, and you quickened the healing of our tattoos! You can bring him back!”

Elias shook his head slowly, his dark hair falling to make a sort of drape over his eyes.

Ardith clutched desperately at his cloak. “You can bring him back, Elias! You’re a Mage! I know you can! Please, don’t let him be dead! Don’t let him stay dead!”

Elias gently knelt and helped Ardith to her feet, leaving Saul’s body against a tree at the edge of the clearing where he had been murdered. Sobbing the entire time, Ardith let Elias take her to a nearby village untouched by the invading army. He left her in the care of a woman at the village’s lone inn, and he disappeared again.

It was last in the evening on the third day after Saul had been killed when Ardith finally seemed to recover her control and stopped crying constantly. She contented herself (as well as she could) with helping earn her keep around the tiny inn, sweeping, cleaning, cooking, and other such jobs. It was hardly a week after he had died when Ardith began to feel ill in the mornings, and a woman came to see her and told her that she was with child. Ardith’s heart leapt and sank in the same moment; this was Saul’s child, and she prayed every night that it would be a boy, but she wept that Saul would not be there to know the child, and the child would never know its father.

Days more passed, and the news came that the Dolerin army had been defeated and was being removed from the kingdom.

Ardith stayed in the little village, earning her keep in the inn and counting the months and weeks and days before her child would be born, for a long time. After four months of pregnancy, she was showing, and the summer months came nearer. As summer came into full heat, the Dolerin army came to invade again, and the people of the village grew nervous. The inn door was soon locked every night, at earlier and earlier hours.

One night, during a storm nearly six weeks after word spread that the Dolerin army had returned, someone pounded on the door to the inn. The pounding was forceful and seemed urgent, but the fierce wind and rain made hearing the shouting (if any) unintelligible. The innkeeper, a very pudgy red-faced man, hesitated for some minutes before finally opening the door to allow a drenched figure in a cloak to enter.

Ardith was tidying the common room of the inn as she watched the cloaked man– she assumed it was a man, since no woman would be foolish enough to travel in that storm– found a place by the fire and asked in a hushed voice for some food and ale. The hood was pulled back, revealing dripping black hair that fell limply around tanned skin. From her vantage point sweeping, Ardith couldn’t see the man’s face, though why that bothered her, she couldn’t say. The innkeeper approached her. “Ardith, go fetch some of the chicken and some ale for our guest.

“Ardith?” came the man’s hushed voice. He turned round, his brown eyes reflecting the firelight. “Ardith? My Ardith?!”

“Saul?” Ardith’s eyes and ears were surely deceiving her. This man could not be her Saul, but... his eyes didn’t lie. The man had his face, his eyes, his hair– if it was too long, dripping wet, and looked as though it hadn’t ben washed in days. He looked gaunt, like he had bene underfed lately.

“Ardith?” Saul suddenly had her in his arms, and he was sobbing into her shoulder in disbelief.

“How... how?” Ardith could only get the one word out between her sobs. She had her arms around him, holding him to her as well as she could with her pregnant belly between them.

“Ardith... what’s this?” Saul took a step backward and put a hand on her stomach.

“It’s our child, Saul! Our child!”

“Your son.”

The door was open again, revealing another cloaked form against the backdrop of the storm. He pulled back his hood. It was Elias.

“Elias! You...”

“You could say I’m responsible... I know you’re going to ask to repay me, but don’t.”


“I said don’t. Just do me one favor.”

“Anything, Elias. We owe you everything.”

Elias shook his head, spraying water droplets everywhere. “Don’t name him Elias. He’ll hate it.”

In a flash, he was gone.

"Bound By the Knife" I will admit, I am not too fond of. It was a good idea, but I didn't pull it off very well. It would be more suited to a novella than the short story I tried to cram it into.

The idea was supposed to be that Elias was actually their son, grown into a young man, coming back to make things better before he was born, because he was a Mage and had that kind of power. That kind of thing. Clicheed, I know, but hey, I was like 17 or 18 when I wrote this.

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