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 Post subject: On the Other Side
PostPosted: Fri 06 Feb , 2009 2:31 am 
A maiden young and sad
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Joined: Wed 27 Oct , 2004 10:49 pm
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Location: Friendly quarters... sort of
[For those of you waiting on a Checkmate post, it's coming, but the muses refused to let me get much farther on it until I got this out of my system. Oh oh, see the aside thread for hot horses and Adunkahor pics!]

The lavish feast at the rug merchant's riverside villa had been intended to impress the king. Indeed, it had been impressive, until a band of rebels burst in with bloody intentions. The initial attack had ended quickly, as the king had not been seated where the clearly had thought he would be, and they scattered amid screams from the other guests.

Tariq clutched his spear as his eyes scanned the room. Some members of his company were fighting a handful of rebels who had not fled the banquet hall quickly enough. Behind him he could hear members of spider company forming ranks and the king swearing at the disruption and probably the wine that had spilled on his robes.

“The king is secure!” the battalion commander yelled. “Scorpion company pursue!” Tariq and the other members of the king's personal guard were in motion instantly. A few paused to help their comrades dispatch the remaining rebels, but the rest followed the path the fleeing would-be assassins had taken, down wide white stairs two at a time to the water gardens that bordered the river. Some had already reached the water and were pulling small rafts out from among the reeds. To their advantage, their dark green tunics became muddied and made them difficult targets for the spear-throwers to hit as long as they remained near the water plants. Some fell, though, when well-aimed spears found their marks.

Tariq handed his spear to one of the more accurate members of the company.

“I thought they were falcons, not waterbirds,” his friend jested, taking aim and sending the weapon aloft.

Red falcons, Tariq thought as he watched the spear slam into an empty patch of raft, for the birds that flew above our city.

The strangeness of fighting against his former countrymen had worn off long ago. Now he saw these skirmishes as simply doing his sworn duty to protect the king. He had been just a few years shy of being called a man when Beldazar had come conquering everything between the mountains and the sea. His city had been the last to fall. He was among the youths drafted into the army and taken back to the capital. Over the years through skill, recommendation and sometimes pure luck, he had joined the ranks of the king's guard.

Now as he turned to follow some of the falcons who were fleeing on foot toward the garden's low walls, he didn't give their identities much thought, instead choosing which one he would target. When he landed on the other side of the barrier, he followed one of the falcons down the side street. It led to what had earlier in the day been a bustling market. Now the stalls and street were mostly empty. The few remaining traders were so busy packing up their wares that they didn't even glance at the commotion.

This particular person seemed smaller in build than the others, he noticed as the chase wore on. Shorter and more slender. He was certainly fast. Tariq's lungs burned and the sweat rolled down his back as he struggled to keep to the pace with his larger frame. Although the sun was low in the sky, the day's heat was still powerful.

Tariq might have been a falcon himself if those who had infiltrated the army had gotten to him sooner. But by the time he heard the rumor that a rebel group was forming, he had built himself a comfortable life in the army and was in good standing. Besides, from what he had heard, it was just a ragtag band of dissidents without any real chance of taking back their city. Over time they had some successes in harassing the king's army and causing trouble. Some of them had handsome rewards tacked upon their proof of death. They were either the minds behind the schemes or prolific killers, and the more those had killed, the richer the reward.

The physical description of one of the latter flashed through Tariq's mind. “Short and skinny,” his battalion commander had said, “with the tattoos. Once you start fighting this one, you win or you die. He never lets one of us go.” He pushed himself to run harder; perhaps this would turn into an unexpected payday.

The falcon darted into a busy cross-street, and for a moment Tariq thought he had lost him. He climbed the statue of some city leader long dead and studied the crowd. Cart drivers yelled for passage while children darted through the throng, their high voices laughing and yelling. Ahead, he saw a person in blue who seemed more eager than most to push past the others. He jumped down and again took up pursuit. It was slow going, but he had a somewhat easier time of it because rarely did a civilian like getting in the way of one of the king's soldiers.

The rebel turned a corner just as the way in front of Tariq cleared. He sprinted toward the side street and collided with the rebel as he came running back out after discovering an ox cart stuck in the narrow lane. Tariq saw green eyes above the scarf that masked the rest of the rebel's face as he tried to get a grip on clothes or body. He dodged kicks and had just gotten a good hold on the other's arm when the falcon yelled, “Let go of me, Tariq!”

He did, out of pure surprise at hearing his name. The rebel took the opportunity and bolted, but this time he did not have a large advantage. The king's man followed, now trying to piece together a puzzle. That voice had sounded somewhat familiar, but he couldn't put a face to it. There were lots of green-eyed folk where he had come from, but most of the boys he had wrestled and joked with were long dead or in other parts of the military. Then the memory of a face long buried came to mind, and he stumbled as he rounded a corner and found himself in an alley.

The falcon was trying to scale the wall at the end, searching for a handhold halfway up. Gasping for breath, Tariq grabbed the falcon's shirt and threw him to the ground. Before Tariq could draw his sword, the falcon was halfway to his feet and coming at him with a dagger. Tariq kicked it out of his hand, but the falcon shifted and threw a punch that glanced off his cheek. His own blow landed squarely on the jaw, sending the falcon to the ground with a cry. It wasn't good form to kick a fallen opponent, but the self-preservation instinct didn't bother with good form. Tariq sent a solid kick to the ribs that stopped the rebel's crawl toward the blade.

Tariq leaned against the alley wall and tried to catch his breath. A guess as to the rebel's identity was taking shape, and for once he hoped he was wrong.

“I knew a girl once,” he said as he wiped the blood from the corner of his mouth. “Back home. She would sing while she did her chores even though she couldn't hold a tune, and she would dance at the festivals even though she couldn't keep the beat. She would laugh.” Stooping to pick up the lost dagger, he murmured, “Do you know what happened to her?”

The fallen figure snorted. “The music in her life was silenced when Beldazar's armies lay siege to her city. She died.” Labored breathing eased as burning lungs filled with the cool breeze coming up from the river filled with the scent of lotus blossoms. “I knew a boy who boasted he would never bow his head to an invader's rule.”

Tariq shook his head. “He realized the world is not as simple as youthful bragging makes it. I think we both understand that now, Suraya.” He saw her flinch at her childhood name. A moment's hesitation, and then he went over and helped her to her feet. She swayed, her vision still blurry from the punch he had thrown, and she leaned against him heavily.

He stood still, for once unsure what to do. His orders were clear, but falcons flew away all the time, didn't they? Return to the barracks with enough bruises and blood stains and no one would ask too-curious questions.

“Do you remember when we danced at the midwinter festival?” Suraya asked suddenly.

Tariq allowed a small smile and looked down at her, but her face was still turned aside and masked. “I remember we tried,” he answered happy memories, lost memories, coming back to him. If he listened, he could hear the bonfires crackling as they shot sparks into the longest night and the lively tune the fiddlers and pipers played. Their dance had not been masterful, as their nerves at dancing for the first time together in public combined with the uneven ground and shadows made for several clumsy steps and stumbles.

“That was the last time I was really happy,” she said.

Smiling fully now, he slipped his arm around her shoulders – and froze when he felt a strap and sheath under her shirt by her shoulder blade. She caught her breath, and he felt her tense as well. The soldier took over as he tightened his grip and ran his hand up the sheath until he came to where a hilt should be. Nothing. The blade that had been there was now tucked into his belt. He sighed wearily as Suraya relaxed.

“I want you to go,” he stated. “I don't want to ever hear that you've been anywhere near this city.” He lifted her chin so she had to look at him. When he reached to pull aside the cloth covering her face, she pushed his hand away. “No,” he whispered. “I know why you wear it, and I don't care.” This time she did not resist, and for a moment he wished she had. He had expected the scars from the burns that had seared the left side of her face, but the row of small tattooed talons that ran from under her right eye almost to her ear shocked him. He cursed and stepped back. “Have you really killed that many of us?”

She nodded and looked away, her green eyes filling with tears. “I told you the girl you knew had died.”

Tariq simply stared at her. Now he understood why battalion commander's reward for her life was so rich. A cold dread began building inside him. He couldn't let her go. He had to let her go.

Would she be as gracious?

He took another step back, his hands loose at his sides. “In the harbor, find the captain of a small cargo ship that has a cat curled up on the mast. Tell him you want to book passage to the place where there are no more wars. He'll know what you mean.”

Suraya dabbed at her eyes with her mask and repeated quietly, “The place where there are no more wars. Is there such a land?”

He tensed as she closed the space between them and reached up to run her fingers along his sandy-brown hair, dark with sweat and clipped to regulation length an inch below his ear. “No,” he admitted, “but it's far enough away where you won't be hunted.”

With a sigh, she rested her head against his chest and put her arms around him. Without thinking, Tariq began to return the embrace, but he caught himself and returned his hands to his side. A fingertip brushed against the dagger in his belt.

A few blissful moments passed in silence. Each could almost imagine that the last fourteen years had not happened, that they were standing in a far different city, by a different river. But the scars on their bodies and their spirits could not be forgotten or undone. Not even for a lost lover.

“Do you really have the king's scorpion branded on your shoulder?” Suraya whispered, feeling him shake slightly.

Tariq made his plea through gritted teeth, “Suraya, I beg you, go to the harbor.”

She sighed, then a spasm racked her body. She turned away and began coughing violently, her far hand clutched to her side. As she whirled back around, he grabbed the dagger and plunged it through her scarf and into her throat. For a brief second, shock flashed across her eyes. Then they began to lose their brightness. The slender knife slipped from her hand and clattered to the street.

Sobbing, Tariq caught Suraya as she fell, her blood staining his uniform and skin. His knees gave way, and together they sank to the ground. He cradled her in his arms as her breath gurgled and she stilled. “Forgive me, please, forgive me.” His voice choked on the words. With a trembling hand he stroked her hair, dampening it with her own blood. “Wait for me on the other side,” he whispered hoarsely. “You can have your vengeance then.”

How long he sat there he did not know. At last his weeping stilled and he drew a shaky breath to steady himself. Now he had a different dilemma. He couldn't turn her in, for the commanders would not be kind to her even in death, and the idea of throwing her on a plague cart repulsed him. He looked up as a white gull squawked and swooped between two nearby buildings.

+++

“Take her to where there are no more wars,” Tariq said, ignoring the horrified stares from the crew members who had gathered. They ventured no closer than the mast, where a painted yellow tiger twisted and clawed its way up the wood, teeth bared.

The captain of the Sea Cat rubbed his chin nervously as he looked at the shrouded body lying on his deck. “This isn't a funeral boat,” he muttered. “We aren't equipped to handle bodies; we usually just send ours to the sea. It'll be a two-week voyage at least. The stench alone –”

“Buy whatever is needed tonight from one of the embalmers and I will repay you,” Tariq said wearily. He gazed at Suraya's still form for the last time. “Just take her to where there's no more fighting. Maybe then she'll be at peace at last.”

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Ithilien, the garden of Gondor now desolate kept still a dishevelled dryad loveliness.

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 Post subject: Re: On the Other Side
PostPosted: Sat 07 Feb , 2009 3:50 pm 
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Joined: Thu 28 Oct , 2004 6:24 am
Posts: 499
Location: snake-hunting
This is an excellent story, LoR. Makes me want to read more about the protagonists and their world, as much history is hinted at. Even though it's short, there's a lot of depth and atmosphere. And it's so delightfully sad and tragic ...

Actually, I wish I had read this story two weeks earlier, because we had to chose a short story for an assignment at uni (to write an essay about it). Had I known it then, I would have taken yours. The one I took was "Araminta, or, the Wreck of the Amphidrake" by Naomi Novik, from "Fast Ships, Black Sails".

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Approaching novel-length: The Snake's Checkmate


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