Short Story by: Jade Casey
Life was a constant struggle. Citizens often relied on their sovereign to keep them safe from invasion and keep them from starving to death. The strong and powerful people protected the weak and defenseless. Among this strong and powerful group was one young man who was making a name for himself.
She remembered the first time she had laid eyes on him. As far as she knew, he had no family left. Father and brothers were killed during battles; she did not know if any of his relatives were alive. That day, the king’s army was coming back from battle victors over their enemy. The king’s banners flapping in the wind announced the arrival of the troops. He was black and blue, bloody and dirty, but alive. She had spotted him because his face stuck out among the other warriors. He had a grim expression on his face even though they had won. Her father knew him, and she just knew he was the man her father spoke of so highly. He was not very tall but he was agile and cunning, or so she had heard. Despite his young age, he had quickly proven his worth at developing innovative offensive and defensive strategies. He was definitely a smart person.
There was a feast that night to celebrate the king’s victory over his enemy. A feast that would be set up in the palace’s largest rooms lit by torches to make it almost as clear as day. First, these warriors would see a healer, and then given whatever services they wished, be it a bath or intoxicating drinks, or even women if they wished so. Life was hard and whichever luxury treatments they would ask for, the king would provide as a reward for their loyalty and bravery. I wonder what he is going to request, what he wants the most. I wish there was a way to know, she thought.
She knew this from her father, who was the king’s blacksmith and responsible for the king’s artillery chambers. She always asked questions; her thirst for knowledge was unquenchable and despite being of a young age, her father had told her. She knew he would have anything he wished, simply because he was the reason they were victors. War strategies were not his only set of skills; he was the best spy the king had. He knew how to get near their opponents without being caught, and should it happened, he knew how to talk himself out of any predicament or how to escape. He was that highly cunning. She had heard tales of his skills from her father, who had made her promise to keep this man’s secret. However, she could hardly reconcile these skills with the profound sorrow he exuded upon coming back from battle. He looked defeated, worn down, unable to rejoice at their victory. He could not be so ruthless and cunning and feel so profoundly; it made little sense.
A few years later, they were introduced to each other. It occurred at midday while she was bringing food to her father. She was allowed to the smithy; the guards knew her. On that day, he was there discussing with her father. She felt a gaze on her the very moment she set foot in the smithy. Scanning the room, she saw her father had company.
The two of them froze, unable to fathom why they did, and then her father had introduced her to him. All she knew was that he was as enticing up close as he was from afar. Something in him appealed to her: his assurance, his sharpness, and his sense of purpose were all attributes she liked. From then on, he greeted her whenever they saw each other. Shortly, she could deny neither that she was interested in him nor that something was happening between them. His sheer proximity induced feelings in her, feelings she knew nothing of, feelings she could not explain, and it unsettled her. These feelings were both exciting and scary, making her feel wary, unable to be at peace knowing he did things to her without even touching her.
Months later, she found out he had visited his father and requested her for himself. When her father insisted on marriage, he agreed without much hesitation. His future father-in-law was a man of convention and held traditional beliefs; he would have his daughter married, not just given away.
“I will care for her, treat her with the utmost respect and I will protect her with my life”, he assured her father.
The father agreed to their marriage, pleased that a young man of such fine reputation and in such good grace with the king would find interest in his daughter. With her father’s permission, he soon started spending time with his betrothed; he told her he wished to get to know her. Though she had not known what he expected of her as none prior to him had laid eyes on her this way. No one had ever voiced such wish. He intrigued her. Deciding she trusted him wholeheartedly, she agreed to his wishes.
The more time she spent with him, the more she found him interesting, the more she enjoyed his company; he was a man of a complex nature. Though he excelled at the art of war, he had the deepest thinking when it came to deities and humankind, and he held beliefs she had never heard of. Neither a shallow-spirited nor a narrow-minded person herself, she enjoyed that he was so uncommon. She enjoyed the fact that his views were broadening her own conception of the world and enjoyed that he challenged everything before making up his mind about something. They spent hours conversing on every topic they could think of. They talked of religion, of their dreams, of their arts, and of their future. He shared with her all he could think of, and so did she. The more time she spent with him, the more her feelings for him grew. She did not know what it was but this man was very quickly taking up a lot of place in her heart.
Though he had full duty as the king’s most prominent strategist, he managed to spare time and visit her often until he accidently discovered he could communicate with her in another way. Few were those who could read and write their new writing system. It had first been created to make managing resources easier, and keep records of different things. Only scribes mastered it and some other people working for the kings. Her father had learned it since the artillery chambers were his to manage. He had taught his daughter when she asked him what he was doing once she found him checking the inventory of the chamber. A few explanations on the system and she quickly learned it on her own. From then on, he sent her missives whenever he could in addition to visiting her. She loved reading his kind missives, but there was one in particular that she held dear to her heart.
“The gods blessed me when you came into my life. Your eyes shine and your heart sings, you are the most beautiful woman I’ve been blessed with meeting. You are the fresh air I breathe, the balm that erases the horror I have witnessed, your smile makes life shine with vibrant colours and you make me believe again. I cherish every moment I spend with you, I cherish your beauty, inside and out, but above all, you are my own piece of heaven on this Earth, you are my very soul. Without you, there is little worth to being alive. I love you with all that I am and though I feel unworthy of you, you make me a very happy man by agreeing to have me as your husband. I promise to love you and to cherish you every day that I live.”
This was the first time he professed his love for her. This warrior had the soul of a poet, and even though he hid it from everybody else, he let her see the depth of his feeling for her when people did not surround both of them. She believed wholeheartedly that he loved her. The way he touched her hands and her face, the way he looked at her, the way he spoke to her were all wordless tokens of his feelings for her. When any other man would have let his body speak of love, he behaved appropriately. He respected her, her innocence, her pace, and her wishes. Until the king and the high priest officially perform our union, I will love you and preserve the things I most admire about you, he promised himself.
Many nights she lay down in her bed and thought of him, wishing to understand the complexity of this man and the depth of his feelings for her. She sensed his depth, and his willingness to let her in, yet she felt she was not even close to understanding who he was. She wanted to understand him. Unsuccessful at fathoming his inner workings, she had to accept him, in all that he was, and to love him despite her inadequacy to comprehend all facets of him. She admired him for his feat, marveled at the depth of his mind, and believed he was truthful with her. He was a good man; he had a good head on his shoulders and honorable values, and he was gentle with her in every way. As far as she knew, the sun rose and set with him. She was utterly smitten, completely blinded by the man she saw in him and by what she sensed from him. No men were his equal; no other man would get to her the way he did. They were special to each other.
Their union ceremony was a short and quiet affair. He requested an audience with the king, gave word to have the high priest attend his audience, and brought his betrothed and her parents with him to meet with the king.
"What is the purpose of this audience", the king said.
"I wish to take a wife and I would like you to sanction our union. My betrothed, her parents, and the priest are here for that purpose."
"Do her father and she agree to this union?"
"I have her father’s permission to take her as my wife and she accepted my offer."
The king turned his gaze to his blacksmith and his family. The three of them nodded to confirm.
Then he turned to the high priest and said,
"Perform the ceremony. I will stand as witness."
He vowed to take care of her, to protect her and to cherish her until the day he died and then sealed his promise with a kiss. Afterwards, he brought her to his home and made her his wife. Bliss was too faint a word to describe how she felt. She was starting on a new journey with the man she loved who also loved her back. She was happy to be with him. He had been a wonderful lover, caring of her pace, gentle yet passionate. He had given her an exquisite experience and told her “I love you” so many times and in so many different ways, she glowed with happiness.
For years, they were happy. The kingdom was prospering, they were in times of peace and harvests were good. She bore him three children: two boys and a girl. Then one day, the world as she knew it came to an abrupt end.
The guards came to arrest him and bring him to court. He stood accused of treachery. Many vials of poison had been found in the artillery chambers her father still looked after. Rumour had it that the king’s favourite war strategist had been plotting the king’s death and had set in motion an ambitious plan to take over the kingdom. The vials had been found, whispered conversations had been reported, and meetings with her father had been reported as well. Deeply humiliated, the king quickly voiced his decree without giving him a chance to defend himself. The king was furious over disloyalty, fuming for having been duped for so many years, humiliated for having trusted the wrong man; a man who he thought wanted him dead now:
“For your crime, you will witness the beheading of your family as they also are accomplices in your dark design. Your own death sentence will be carried out a week later. Tomorrow, you will first witness the death of your mother-in-law and your sister-in-law. The following day, you will witness the death of your father- in-law and your brother-in-law. Then you will watch the death of one of your own children on each of the following three days. On the last day, you will watch wife die from a sword through her heart and you will hold her until she dies in your arms. A week later, you will be tied up to a pillar and you will die from 8 deadly but painful and slow to bring death sword wounds , one for each family member who died because of you. Guards! Gather the culprits and lock them up each in separate cells. They are not to speak to one another. There is no possible appeal. ”
Ever unseen, she stood in the back to listen to the decree, silent tears rolling down her cheeks. He stood accused of having committed an unspeakable act, the utmost betrayal. The accusations against him made it so that he had condemned her whole family to a horrific death. Hurt, angry, betrayed, she tried to swallow the lump in her throat, tried to breathe properly, and failed at both. Her legs gave way but soon she was picked up by two guards, tied up, and then jailed.
She counted the days, and cried her heart out over the loss of her mother and sister, and then over her father and brother. On the third day, she knew her oldest child would be beheaded. Enraged, she screamed and cried all day, the injustice of their children’s fate too flagrant to go unspoken. They were innocent; they had done nothing. Paying for their father’s crimes was a grave injustice she could not forgive. They were infants! For three days, she screamed her anger from dawn until dusk, but no one heard her. No one listened to her complaints. They ignored her for three whole days, heartless bastards that they were. They had no compassion for innocent children. These three days took out the life out of her. Her sentence was a mere formality; there was nothing left to live for.
He, however, had heard his wife’s screams, he had heard her and felt her pain. Such sorrow and anger were soul wrenching. He had not plotted the coup he was accused of, but the king would not find in his heart the compassion to listen to his plea. Somebody wanted him in pain and wanted him dead. He had no idea who framed him and he could not investigate. He was in a cell and no request would be granted as he was sentenced to death. Even if he could, asking for help would get the other person killed as well. From day one, he pleaded with the king to let his family go because they were innocent and he offered to be tortured for the next following 12 days to save them from their death sentence. The king did not hear to his plea.
He had seen beheaded bodies before, he had been at war, and yet, none of the gruesome war memories had hurt him as much as these beheadings had. Watching his children die, one by one, had hurt him most. He felt guilty as they died because of him. He felt angry for being so helpless at saving the people he loved the most in this world. Bound and held by four guards, he could do nothing to keep his children alive. He screamed each time to release his anger and the smothering pain building up in his chest, raging against the injustice and a deep sense of helplessness.
Then came her turn. The guards brought him and his wife to the location used to carry out the death sentences. Not even once she looked at him. She was the shell of herself. Her children were dead; there was nothing left. She could not forgive the fact he caused her so much loss. She had nothing left to say, no more tears to shed, no more time to be angry; she was going to join her children and he could very well take his cunning ways and wrap himself up in them to keep warm.
One look at her told him she was defeated, resigned to die and that she blamed him for everything. She had nothing more to give, nothing left to believe in. He knew she had been angry, and angry with him. He had not been able to tell her he was innocent, had not been able to tell her how badly he felt over the loss of her family, how torn apart he was over the loss of the children they had created together. He had not been able to tell her how deeply he loved her. The gods willing, he would set things right before she died. As he had done five time before, he pleaded with the king to let her go and to let him take her place. As he had done with every other request, the king denied this one as well.
Her sentence was carried out in a matter of minutes. The guards held her and the executioner thrust his sword through her heart. Her blood soaked her garment and was soon pooling at her feet, one drop at a time. She stood for as long as she could, her gaze on him. She could not speak; she almost wished he could read her mind.You betrayed the trust I had in you. You betrayed everything we believed in by setting in motion an arrogant plot to take over the kingdom, broken everything we held sacred. You knew what would be the consequences of your choice. She would never trust him again, or trust any man for that matter.
Once she fell to the ground, the guards untied his hands. He went straight to her, took her in his arms and whispered to her.
“My angel, I’m so sorry for what happened. I’ve done things I’m not proud of, but I haven’t done this. I wouldn’t have put our family in such jeopardy just for thirst for power. I’ve been set up. You and our children are my life, my pride, and my joy. I don’t need a kingdom, I need you in my life.”
He raised his head slightly to look into her eyes. Where he used to see stars and light, he now saw pain and sadness. Her life was quickly slipping away.
“I will forever love you deeply, this I vow to you, heart and soul. Wherever you are, I will find you, and I will love you for all eternity”.
This was the promise she heard him utter as she lay in his arms, dying. His words made her heartache, and it surpassed the pain she felt from the blade. He had made promises before, pledged to protect her with his life when in fact, he sorely failed. She looked up to him at him and thought, how can you vow eternal love when our children are dead because of you? Then she saw in his eyes the pain he felt, making her slow beating heart hurt ten folds greater. Feeling the life draining from her, she remembered their time of happiness, how much she loved him. Because of these memories and despite her anger toward him, she promised herself to give him a chance if he ever followed through on his vow, and then left the plane of the living. He kept whispering, unaware she had passed away.
“Angel, I promise you, I will honour life in every way possible and I’ll keep away from violence: no weapon, no death caused by my hands”, he said, silent tears rolling down his cheeks.
He kept whispering to her, telling her he loved her, telling her he will never stop, telling her she is his life and that he is looking forward to his own death, wishing he would be allowed to be with her for eternity.
The guards had to tear her from him. He would not let go of her lifeless body, although he was unsure whether he held on to her for her sake or his. He held on as long as he could. He ached all over. There were no parts in his body that did not hurt, no parts in his heart that was spared from the loss of those he loved most, and no parts in his soul escaped the sadness brought forth by the look in his wife’s eyes moments before she exhaled her last breath. He would make it up to her, love her even more, put up with anything until she forgave him. He would spend eternity setting this right, until she found in her heart the love they shared, and forgave him.
A week later, he was tied up to a pillar and looked forward to his execution. He had not eaten all week and was weak. He had wept the whole week, allowed himself to feel his pain over the loss of his wife and children. He only stopped the day of his execution, knowing it all would soon be over. He would be relieved of some of his pain. Within the next hour, he received eight wounds that were potentially mortal yet slow in bringing death. Being cut open to bleed to death hurt, but it did not hurt as much as he had hurt during the last two weeks. He groaned with each new wound but quickly felt relief. He bled slowly, each new wound depleting him of enough blood that there was little blood left to shed from the last wound. He looked forward to following in death his wife and children. He would keep his vow and find her, then love her until she loved him back as she used to. Breathing was getting more and more difficult, he knew he was about to leave the Earth. He smiled with what little strength he had left, his last conscious mental image being one of he and his wife tightly hugging each other in happy times.
© Copyright 2017 Jade Casey. All rights reserved.