Don’t Disappear

A snowy field under an expanse of stadium lighting, glowing electric in the night.

I’m walking on the opposite side of the street, on a sidewalk crawling up a hillside in the quiet past the cheery downtown restaurants, so I’m looking down on the field from above. All around, the world is clouded with shadows and tiny flecks of snow stinging the wind like sand, but the radiant stretch of grass is clear and bright. There are students on the field, dark bulky silhouettes, cross-armed, shivering, or bending over and tossing snowballs. I can’t see their faces. I wish I could. I wish I could go to them, but the road is vast and black between us, and if I tried to cross it I would lose myself forever.

I stand apart and above, lonely, and I watch them.

I feel I am about to witness something significant. The field is clear and gleaming like the polished wooden boards of a stage, and the students’ movements feel rehearsed like something out of a movie, every curve of their faces well-lit, every turn choreographed just so, so the snow turned up on their heels splash up like the hems of swirling white ballgowns. The snow that falls between myself and the students like a curtain soaks up the sounds of life into a velvety silence; a silence that is somehow full rather than lacking; murmuring with the hushing of snowfall, which is a silence full of portent, like the footfall of the hunter stalking a hart on the mountainside.

The silent draw of his bow.

When life disappears into darkness, there is no sound. It vanishes like a secret that no one ever dared to whisper, and its meaning rots and disintegrates like a corpse.

I cannot hear the students’ games. They must be talking and laughing, but the words are insignificant, as are their shadowed faces. It’s the movement that’s important. The dance, the pantomime. The wide field is hallowed with streaming light, and it grants a holiness to their presences, so their snowball fight becomes an enactment of a ceremony. The field becomes and altar, or the stage of a nativity play. Soon the curtain of night will close, and the players will go home and sleep in soft warm dreams. The snowfall will melt. Most will not return, and any that do will no longer be the same.

Someday, it will snow again and the field will fill with revelers, basking in the snowy artificial light that vibrates like the hollow-humming sign above a cinema. The scene will replay, as before, on the same stage, in the same light, only the actors will be different. I too, will be different, somewhere else and far away, and, in an indeterminate number of years, dead. Dead as the snow. But the scene will play on, indifferent to its witnesses, like the tree felled in an empty wood.

Only the stars will bear witness to the scene repeated, again and again into perpetuity. The ballet enacted in a perpetual rehearsal for a showing that will never come, trying to find meaning in itself, repeating, repeating, stuttering itself into utter absurdity.

I look at the snow, and I find it beautiful, but I can’t imagine what this means. These streets are familiar. I’ve walked this path so many times, it feels like I’ve been pacing in circles. I hardly notice where I am anymore. The scenery fades into the background, until all that’s left is me.

This is how things fall apart. When you become too familiar. Like a well-loved book whose pages have been turned a thousand times, a million times, until they crumble from overuse. That is what my life has been. Still, I resist the urge to travel from this place. I lack the energy for futile endeavors. No matter where I go, it’ll still be me, with my same thoughts, my same life. Just a different place, a different room reflected around my edges in the mirror. And myself, a little older. I too am being worn. I am wearing out my face like an old costume that I can’t take off.

I don’t know what the seasons are trying to signify to me or anyone when they cycle again and again. I wonder if the earth gets bored of the same old dance, or if it looks forward to the day when it is swallowed by the sun. But we know that the earth’s death is not the death of the universe, just as my own death will not be the death of the universe, only my ability to perceive it. And it seems too that the death of the universe will not be the death of all things.

All things circle in on themselves. There is no end. Eternity grinds everything down to meaninglessness with its gravity; flattens them out until they’re featureless. There is death and there is birth and there is what exists in between before it forgets itself. The universe is a grinding, furious engine of perpetual forgetting.

It is. It is. It never stops being. It denies language or explanation.

I’ve left the stadium now, on to my destination. I walk out over the dam in the dark.

The earth is littered with snow. There are trees. There is water. There are homes in the distance, peeping out in the woods, stairs that lead to doorways that contain the secrets of human lives, but their movements are obscured to me. I’m closer to the people in this town than anything else in this vast stretch of meaningless star-scarred dark, but I’ll never know them. There are other people on the hill beside me, too, sledding down into the dark, drinking beers despite the cold, laughing screaming as they whisper down the steep incline, vanish into the dark and reemerge, grinning. I’m alone. I whisper past them like a ghost. I don’t think they notice me. I’m alone. The skin of the lake is cloudy with the first formations of ice. Molecules arranging themselves, according to the physical laws of the universe. That’s why everything’s here, according to an arbitrary rulebook written by no one, in gibberish, constantly trying to interpret itself. That’s how the world was born, by accident, a freakish unwanted child.

The snow falls for no reason whatsoever. Down, down, gravity grinding everything to dust, because it can, because it should, because it could have never been otherwise. The night is not dark. It is alive with lights. Snow gathers on the branches of trees, and every second is a still life, perfect, crystallized. The water is flat and rheumy like a stretch of polar emptiness. It is beautiful. It is impossible in its perfect beauty, and that keen beauty enters my heart like a knife, and it kills me.

I am not the same.

I decide I want a cup of coffee. When I turn and walk away, I leave a shade of myself standing perpetually on the hillside. She’ll never escape. I can never rescue her from the cold. It is cold here. The snow falls forever. I know it will never cease.

I try to remember a time when I was not alone.

Advertisements

The Bearded One

Some people take well to loneliness.

Jehan was one of those types. I’d see him around town, drinking alone, surrounded by the patient branches of smoke from his cigarette. Always with the drinking– tea, coffee, beer, shots, Red Bull, appletinis, didn’t seem to matter– and always with the cigarette, even in the winter, when he’d be the only one sitting outside, collar pulled up, brow furrowed, puffing away like a disgruntled pigeon. When I first saw him, he had a well-tended beard. I was at a point in my life where I’d discarded my utter distaste for beards, but I still couldn’t say I found them compelling in the least. A beard is a secretive hairstyle. It’s hard to get a good feel for someone’s face or disposition when they’re all covered with hair. It’s unsettling.

But I was immediately attracted to gingery, pale, hapless-looking Jehan, with his dark eyes and broad shoulders, even despite the beard. Not sexually attracted, mind you. Merely intrigued. It suited him, the beard. Made him look despondent, like a thwarted Russian intellectual who’d been strong-armed into a career of lumberjacking. I guess you could say he looked like a hipster, but I wouldn’t. He didn’t look like he had the energy for sustained irony. He always looked kind of dazed, actually. Too dazed to notice anyone more than five feet from his nose, anyway, let alone worry about how he presented himself to people. He’d give his attentions to the barista or bartender, settle at his usual table (at every establishment he and I both frequented, he had a usual table. I on the other hand could never settle comfortably anywhere, preferring to imbue my life with that small illusion of adventure. Where will I sit today?) and promptly lose himself in some intimidating looking volume of poetry or, God help him, the Bible. In Clemson, South Carolina, where we lived, it was not uncommon to see people sitting in coffee shops, pens and journals and laptops spread impressively over the tabletop like a banquet, poring over the good book like it contained all the secrets of life. Which, I guess, they thought it did. I consoled myself that when Jehan read his Bible he wasn’t haughty about it. He looked bored as ever.

Nevertheless I tried to ignore the Bible.

I tended to watch him, nervously of course, over the rim of my book or coffee cup, hoping to catch his eye. I’d gotten it into my head, you see, that we were kindred spirits. That’s the kind of thing I was always thinking when I saw someone alone. A coward, my instinct was always to hone in on the stragglers, and Jehan never seemed to belong to anyone. Just to himself and his books.

It was summer when I first saw him. I was hanging around, reading Love in the Time of Cholera on the front porch of my favorite coffee shop, All In. It was upwards of ninety degrees outside and sweltering, but I was on a rocking chair in the shade with an iced coffee, trying to medicate myself with fresh air. On the horizon, a black tide of storm clouds brooded behind the Tillman bell tower, sharp and ominous as if they’d been drawn in charcoal. From the distance, I could hear thunder grumbling moodily like someone’s upset stomach. I wondered if the storm would carry cool rain over to downtown, and determined that I would monitor its progress. I wanted the storm to come. I liked sitting out in the rain, sheltered under the porch roof. It was nice, and Clemson needed the rain. There was a drought at the time. The lake had been dry for ages, no longer even a sodden, muddy crater as it had been in the earlier days of the drought, but a sea of overgrown grasses stretched out under the boardwalk. I missed the water.

Anyway, that was when Jehan showed up.

I glanced up when I sensed his approach– I always glance up when I hear someone coming. I’m that nervous of a person. Usually I look right back down after I’ve determined that the one approaching isn’t likely an assailant or government agent or old acquaintance that I really don’t want to talk to. But if the person looks interesting enough, he might hold my attention for a little bit.

And I found Jehan striking. Despite the fact that we were in the depths of summer, he had the tragic look of a dying choleric orphan. Skin so pale he seemed to glow. Auburn hair, long enough to look pleasantly wind-tossed. And that intoxicatingly awful beard. How he could stand having what was effectively a sweater glued to his face in this weather, I could not understand. But Jehan was a trooper. He made no concession to the heat. He wore a long-sleeved t-shirt, dark jeans, and a flannel jacket, and walked with one hand thrust in his pocket, the other gripped around a book so thick and bursting with post-its and folded pages that he could barely clutch his fingers around the spine.

I watched him enter the shop. Handsome sort, I thought. Makes it all the more unfortunate about the beard. Then I shrugged and went back to my book.

It wasn’t holding my attention. I was having one of my headaches, and was in a state of mental agitation. The usual thoughts that plagued me when I read a good book. What am I doing with my life? Whose stupid idea was it to allow me to exist? I have no talent. I’ll die a failure. Etcetera. Even my worries about my own banality were banal. Alas. I fancied myself an author, but I the more I read of Love in the Time of Cholera that day, the more convinced I became that not only was I not any Marquez, but that I should let myself quietly expire in a gutter somewhere, eyes cast to the stars, hand clasped to my breast as my heart sputtered to blessed silence, for the crime of being such a deplorably mediocre writer.

Mediocre at bestI corrected myself.

At least I was no slouch when it came to melodrama. Maybe I could make a career in writing maudlin gay romances. There was big money in gay erotica, I consoled myself, and briefly imagined my illustrious career writing classy pornography. Yes. There was always that.

It was fucking hot. Sweat tickled my thighs and gathered at my hairline. I pressed the back of my hand to the damp of my forehead. The humidity buzzed in the air like a swarm of mosquitoes, and my iced coffee had gone warm. I watched the dark clouds trundling across the skyline and wished they would hurry. I closed my book. Considered opening my laptop and writing something, but the thought exhausted me. Too hot. And my head hurt.

The door jangled and I looked up. The bearded one, I thought. He has returned. Using my novel as a shield, probably not as subtly as I imagined myself, I watching him settle down at a table to my left, in the full torrent of the scalding white sun, and open his book. Certainly he was going to catch some sort of cancer, I mused, that wan redhead baking in the heat like an albino lobster. He was fearless. He had a mug full of steaming black coffee as well. It was almost one hundred degrees, the fool! I was astounded by his fortitude.

You see I lead a very boring life.

I turned my attentions back to Love in the Time of Cholera more determined than ever to make a go of it. I had a mind to impress the bearded young man much has he had impressed me. And so we sat for an hour or more, he the unknowing object of my ridiculous sidelong glances. I was lucky that Jehan was oblivious. I kept checking on the progress of the storm too. The sunlight became murky and somber, and a cool-tinged breeze rolled in, playing with the pages of my novel. I simmered in quiet triumph. When the rain came, the bearded kid would be compelled to relocate under the umbrage of the roof. Next to me. This was the sort of thing that could kindle some sort of conversation, I knew. Only I never actually conversed with strangers. For all the cafe-lurking I did as a writer, I never bonded with my fellow regulars. What are perfect strangers supposed to say to one another anyway? I had not a clue. There mere ghost of possibility for friendship, however, sustained me.

What was left of my coffee had melted into a swampy, watered-down mess. I slid back into All In to order an iced tea.

I opened the door to the watery laughter of bells, and the cool, conditioned air embraced me. I breathed in relief and headed to the counter. The barista, a doll-like blonde named Colette, smiled at me in greeting. She was slight and composed looking, with a neatly pretty face and her hair pulled back into a respectable ponytail, secured behind a black headband. A few feathery wisps of hair escaped the band and curled around her brown eyes, and this, along with her freckles, made her look more approachable than she would have otherwise. I could imagine her as a nun someday, but for now her flushed, cheery youth softened her natural severity.

“Hey-hey,” I said, and grinned. I hoped my smile didn’t seem forced. I was actually, truly happy to see Colette. She was a sweet-tempered, funny girl and I enjoyed talking to her. There’s just a gap between my feeling something and my ability to emote. Left to my natural inclinations, I’d be monotone and expressionless, despite my admittedly high sensitivity. So I’m put in the position of having to playact as myself. Not sure how convincing I am. Probably not very.

“Hi. Bernard, right?”

“Uh, yeah,” I laughed, and scratched behind my ear self-consciously. Man, I’d figured that by now Colette knew my name. What a life.

“I thought so. Sorry. Terrible with names.”

“No-no. No worries. I am too. Besides, I never talk. So. Well. Wouldn’t expect you to know.”

Colette laughed, “But you’re here all the time!”

“Yeah, well. It’s awesome here. Best coffee in Clemson by quite a measure.”

“That’s right. Gordon would be glad to hear that.” She glanced behind her shoulder, to the kitchen. Gordon was the owner.

“I do what I can.”

Awkward silence. Help me, I screamed into the void.

“You’re Dillan’s roommate, right?”

Brash, loud-mouthed Dillan was everyone’s best friend, so it made sense that I’d be known as that quiet dude who hung around him sometimes. “I do have that honor. Heh.” I grinned again and pulled at my hair.

“That must be a blast.”

“Oh, yeah. It is. A blast and a half, really.”

Colette beamed at me.

I bit my lip. “Errr…”

We both giggled. I scratched at one of my sideburns. I had a pimple growing under there. Good God, that was disgusting.

Colette looked off into the distance.

I wanted to keep talking to her, but I wasn’t sure if she still was keen on conversing with me. Maybe she wanted me to order. But I didn’t know how to transition from small-talk Bernard to customer Bernard. Small talk was horrible. I briefly wished I had stayed home and spent the day masturbating. I’d have been so much happier.

Colette took charge. “You wanna order something?” She struck a friendly, business-like tone. The consummate professional. I was impressed by her coolness.

“Oh, yeah. Yeah, uh. Can I have…”

And I ordered my iced tea blushingly, taking heart in the fact that Colette had not ceased smiling. She did not seem to begrudge me my awkwardness. After I’d paid, leaving a generous tip, she twirled her finger around one of the pale wisps of hair tickling her forehead, and then brushed it primly behind her ear. “You know we have Bible study on Wednesdays?”

“Yup.” I did. Oh man, where was this going.

“You’re welcome to come.”

“Oh!”

If Dillan was there, I might have been tempted to formulate an obvious dirty joke (welcome to cum, you know, something mature like that) and smile at him slyly, but I was alone, and I’d been caught off-guard. I didn’t know how to respond.

So, Colette wanted me to go to Bible study. That was a revelation. I’d figured that the staff of All In realized that me and Dillan weren’t the Bible-types, since we’d often hold riotous, gigging conversation about man-ass, of all things, over endless cups of coffee. We were generally irreverent, even when we weren’t discussing sex, which wasn’t often honestly. That’s what Dillan and I had in common. Our favorite game was called “Does He Want to Do You– or Do Your Hair?” and basically consisted of us running a series of grueling tests on our respective gaydars. All In presented a unique challenge, because it was swarming with Christian boys, and, interestingly, it’s often very difficult to distinguish whether a guy is very religious or very gay. Or both. But basically, I’d thought it obvious that me and him weren’t well-suited to their mild Bible talks about finding your path, avoiding temptations and resisting worldliness, interpreting scripture, saving souls, and whatever else. But, no. My tastes for debauchery and chaos had gone undetected. I felt simultaneously proud of myself for seeming so goddamn respectable, and deflated. Colette had no idea about me.

Today was meant to challenge all of my preconceived notions, apparently.

Maybe Colette did know I wasn’t religious, though. She might want to save my soul. The thought should have offended me, I guess, but I’m easily flattered by attention. The idea of someone trying to rescue my eternal soul from hellfire could be romantic, in a certain light.

“Thanks,” I said. I yanked at my hair some more. A characteristic gesture. It was likely I would soon grow bald. “But I…”

How to explain?

Colette flourished her hand, as if dispelling a magical curse. “It’s an open invitation, if you ever happened to be interested.” Her smile was sweet and wholesome as fresh cream. I didn’t know how she managed it.

“Thank you,” I repeated. “Really.”

“And here’s your tea.”

“Thanks.” Again with the word. I said it so much it lost all sense.

“Going back outside?”

“Yup.”

“It’s supposed to rain, you know.”

“I know. I could see the clouds over campus, out there. But I like watching the rain. Very cozy. Very peaceful.”

“But what if your book gets wet?”

“Meh. It should be fine. If it gets too bad I’ll come in. Besides, there’s a mysterious bearded man outside reading a mysterious book and I’m trying to gather intel.” I put my finger to my lips. “Always heartening to see someone in Clemson reading a book that’s not for class or, uh,” (I realized my mistake too late and finished the sentence in a lame whisper) “the Bible.” Then I laughed loudly to compensate and cocked my eyebrow.

Colette laughed too. “Mysterious bearded man?” she said. “You mean Jehan?”

And that was how I learned his name.

“The Blinding,” Part 6

OK, kind of going back on what I said yesterday…

did write this section fully intending not to share it, but, once I freed myself from my perfectionist expectations, I was actually able to write something I’m fairly proud of. So, I decided that I might as well post it, since it’s the conclusion of the Gareth section of the story, and I don’t want to leave people who’re reading hanging (hur hur) unless I absolutely have to.

But seriously, after this, I’m not posting anymore until December!

Hope you all enjoyed reading it 🙂

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

Part 5

Gareth felt rough hands on his body. Faintly, Gareth felt his body strain under the weight of the cold chains that were clasped to him. Something tugged at him. There was a creaking. Gareth felt the ground disappear beneath him. He was being lifted up into the open, pine-rattled air.

Then his bonds went slack, and Gareth was laying face up in the snow. The impossible coldness, which had caused Gareth such pain hours before, did not touch him now. His flesh was numb and frozen. Gareth’s eyes were sewn shut with ice, but he could tell by the stirring of the air and the lavender light filtering through his eyelids, that it was nearly morning. It was time, Gareth realized. He was really being taken to die.

Above him, a confused jumble of voices. Gareth tried to track them; tried to get a grip on reality.

“Look at him,” he heard a man say. “What’s the fun in killing a man when he’s more than half-dead already?” Someone nudged Gareth’s stiff form with a steel-tipped boot. Gareth could feet its point like a sword’s through his thin clothes.

“Stand aside,” said a deeper, authoritative voice. Gareth heard the quick shuffle of feet in the snow. Someone hauled Gareth up by the back of his collar so that he was sitting upright.

“What’s the point, sir?” said the first voice. “Look at him; he’s at death’s door. What’s that going to help?”

“He only need be revived for an hour, or less. Beyond that, what does it matter? This will get him on his feet.” A calloused hand pinched Gareth’s nose, and tipped his head back. Gareth felt his jaw pried open, the metallic rim of a goblet on his teeth and lips, and a searing, bitter liquid poured down his throat. Gareth’s throat stung as if he’d swallowed fire. He forced his eyes open in shock. His eyes stung and streamed fresh tears in the cold, screaming air. He coughed. Hacked up a rheumy substance, marbled with veins of blood.

As Gareth’s head cleared, the sensation of pain returned to him, vivid as a knife. He looked about, turning his head on his stiff neck, and blinked. He tried to lessen the blur of his vision, and to see his captor’s faces as they stood about him in the stark, predawn glow.

“There we go,” said the second voice; the one which belonged to the man who had administered the potion to Gareth. Gareth could not make out his face through his cloud of fevered exhaustion, but he could tell the man was a captain, by the plume he wore upon his helm. “On your feet,” he said loudly. Gareth hastened to obey, but his legs buckled beneath him. One of the soldiers at his side stooped to help him.

“Thank you,” Gareth said, surprised that he could still form words. Once he was up, Gareth was able to hold himself steady, and the soldier slowly stepped back from him. Gareth was glad, at least, that his body was still capable of this. It made him feel braver somehow.

“A cart will be here shortly to conduct you to the gallows,” said the captain.

Gareth said nothing.

“Do you understand?”

“Yes,” said Gareth, though he did not know why it mattered.

“Here,” said a third voice, gentler than the others. “Let me take him to stand by the fire a bit, until it is time. He looks as if he will die of cold any moment.”

“As you wish, Whitefell,” said the captain, his voice betraying an edge of annoyance. “This is your prisoner, after all. Do what you will.”

“Come,” he said, and lead Gareth about fifty yards to the east, where a huge bonfire burned, magnificently, like a second sun.

As soon as they were out of earshot from the other soldiers, Gareth said, “Corrin! So it’s true, I didn’t dream it.”

“Hold on, Gareth. Nearly there.” They reached the edge of the flames. Gareth’s extremities throbbed as they began to thaw in the purifying heat. “You remember?” Corrin asked as they stopped walking. His hand was still on Gareth’s arm.

“I think so.” Gareth closed his eyes, and visions of his vivid nightmare from the grave played within his mind. He shook his head, trying to chase away the memories; scatter them to the winds like banished ghosts. “I’m not sure what was real.”

Corrin removed his helmet and brushed his honeyed hair back from his eyes. He gave Gareth a sorry look, seeming as if he wanted very much to hold him, but could not. “You were so sick. You kept flickering in and out of waking. You were talking in your sleep. I tried to hold you and comfort you, but I didn’t think I could reach you, wherever you were.”

“You did,” said Gareth, wondering which of the memories that had flashed their many faces before him had been real. “Corrin, do you hate me?”

Corrin’s grimaced. “Gareth, how could you think that?” He touched Gareth’s arm and looked at him, his eyes golden wells of infinite regret.

Gareth tried to pull his arm away, straining his neck to look out toward where the other soldiers stood, out near the dim horizon.

“Don’t worry, Gareth,” said Corrin, “They know that you’re my friend. Everyone knows we fought together, remember?”

Gareth nodded.

And so the two stood for moments, stark in the harsh glow of the winter morning, Corrin with his hand on Gareth’s arm, and Gareth staring out toward the mountains, his look unreadable. Neither said anything. They stood in quiet, mournful understanding.

Gareth felt Corrin’s hand tremble against his skin. He knew what it meant. He drew a deep, shuddering breath. I’ve got to keep calm, he told himself, That’s all I have. Corrin’s fingers were gripping him tight now. Gareth looked into his friend’s eyes, and saw that they were closed tight. Corrin’s face pointed to the ground while the wind, shining with tiny flecks of snow that were gold and purple in the half-light, played in his long hair. This, Gareth realized, was probably the most beautiful thing he would ever see again; his friends dear face haggard in the snow-lit dawn.

“Don’t worry,” Gareth told him, “I’m not afraid anymore.”

Corrin nodded, but his face remain drawn with his internal pain. It was obvious that he knew Gareth was lying.

A rude cart, lead by two great, black horses, mouths frothing and steaming in the cold, creaked toward them, and stopped beside the bonfire. The driver, cloaked in black, stepped down into the deep snowfall, and gave a slight bow. “Gareth Tehngir?” he said, loudly.

“Yes?” said Gareth, pushing the tremor from his voice.

“It is time.”

Gareth did not wait to be directed. He alighted the cart, and sat upon the little wooden bench within. Corrin followed him, holding his arm, Gareth realized, no longer as his friend, but as his executioner, leading him to his death. The driver took his place in front, and turned around. Corrin gave a grim nod, and the driver cracked his whip with a cry that shook the birds from the nearby ground. There was a whinnying of horses, a stamping of hooves, a scream of wood and metal as the wheels fought the snow, and, with a jerk and a bump, the cart began its journey to the gallows.

Gareth watched the landscape roll by, one last vivid, glorious display of the world he would be leaving behind. He saw the clouds, sighing and hurrying restlessly across the sky, painted in soft shades of gold, white, lilac, blue, and dust. The pines all about the path waved their branches in a flurry to greet the changing winds, spilling purple snow and blue shadows over the earth. And all around, the snow was still falling, a silent blessing poured from the sky over the hills that rose and fell like an arctic ocean. In the distance loomed the Baler Mountain’s, stamping their shadows across Gareth’s vision. Even when he closed his eyes, Gareth could see them glowing against his lids, their imposing peaks shattering the ground into jagged teeth. Gareth thought about the wild lands, all green and grey with pines and snow melt, beyond those peaks. Freedom, he thought, was so tantalizingly close.

“What are you thinking?” asked Corrin quietly.

Gareth looked at him, and felt the salt of tears bite his eyes like freezing ocean water, despite himself. “Just that,” he said hoarsely, gulping down the snowy air and trying to steady his voice, “I’m going to miss– everything.”

“I’m sorry,” said Corrin.

“Ssh,” said Gareth, shaking his head, “I know you are. But– you don’t have to be. I’m sorry. I am.” He was rushing to speak now, words spilling from his mouth. “This was my fault, in the end. I betrayed you, Corrin. I’m not saying I deserve this, because everything within me tells me I don’t, but– I should have thought about this. I should have. And I should have thought about you, most of all.”

Corrin put a finger to his own lips. “Gareth, don’t do this. I forgave you so long ago.”

Gareth nodded quickly.

Gareth looked about, in apprehension. They were so close now, he knew. So close. He clenched his muscled as tight as they could go, and tried to relax them, but his mind was racing, now, uncontrollably. This is it, he kept thinking. This is it. This is it. This is it.

Corrin leaned over, to meet Gareth’s gaze. “Gareth, I’m going to have to put my mask on, now, alright? I’ve got to, before we get there.”

“Wait!” said Gareth. He took another deep breath and said, more calmly, “Just let me look at you a moment.”

“Of course, of course,” said Corrin sadly.

Gareth leaned forward and cupped Corrin’s face in both his palms, for his wrists were still bound together. Corrin covered Gareth’s hand with his own gloved one, and closed his eyes. Two quick tears burned a shining path down Corrin’s frost-dusted cheek, and Gareth saw a shaky sigh escape him as his breath glowed in a thick burst of cloud. He drew in another breath, through his nose, and opened his eyes. They were a rich, golden brown, still wide with boyish innocence, and sorrowful. Gareth wondered if that haunted look would ever leave him, after the war, and after what he would have to do today. Gareth then fully appreciated the strength it took for Corrin to take on the task he had. In just a few minutes, now, Gareth would be gone, but Corrin would have to live on and on, many years in this hateful town, never able to escape the bitter memories.

Overcome with feeling, Gareth choked, “I love you!”

Corrin took Gareth’s purpled, frost-bitten hand from his cheek and kissed it, with infinite tenderness. “I love you, my dearest friend.” Then, he took Gareth’s hands and placed them gently in his lap. He looked Gareth full in the face. Gareth nodded.

Corrin reached into the satchel which hung from his belt and pulled out the executioner’s mask. Gareth couldn’t help but shake in his fear of seeing his friend’s sweet face disappear behind that mask forever. Corrin took the black cloth, lifted it to his face, and secured it behind his head. His features were gone, erased behind the all-encompassing darkness of that piece of leather. There were holes for his eyes and mouth, but Corrin’s eyes seemed shadowy and unfamiliar, isolated from the rest of his features.

“Gareth!” said Corrin. “It’s still me, see?” He took Gareth’s hand and gave it a reassuring squeeze. “It’s me. I’m going to be right here by your side.”

Gareth nodded, but he could no longer meet Corrin’s eyes. He craned his neck to see the landscape behind him. His heart began to march a frantic pace in his chest, and he could not quiet it. Just off in the distance, and drawing closer by the second, he could see a crowd of people gathered on the hillside. And, to the left, a great black tree rising up to the white sky like a corpse’s withered, twisted hand. The platform where he would be forced to stand, and the lever Corrin would pull so the ground fell out from beneath his feet. And the rope. White and studded with frost, and the beads of snow that clung to it, it swayed in the chill wind as the snow milled round. Gareth could feel it choke him. So close now.

“Gareth, I’m here. I’m right here. Stay with me.”

The cart moaned to a halt. Gareth’s body was blazing with a dread deeper than anything he had ever known could exist. How was this happening? How had it come to this?

“Gareth Tehngir!” rang a luxurious, deep voice from the ground beyond. “Step forward and prepare to answer for your crimes against Tehngah!”

Corrin pulled Gareth to his feet. He lead him to the edge of the cart, stepped down, and then extended his arms and helped Gareth climb out. Gareth moved without feeling or thinking, as if he were floating to the edge of a seething, greedy fire, whose flames licked at his feet with gluttonous delight.

Gareth was standing, only half-within his own body, facing the man with the unctuous voice, who had spoke earlier. With faint recognition, he realized it was the Lyr, Raenia’s father, who stood before him. He had thick, silvering hair, which was curled and styled to frame his long, wrinkled face. Each furrow in that brutal face seemed blackened and cruel, as if outlined in charcoal. His black eyes regarded Gareth with a mighty disdain. Gareth turned from him to look out over the faces of the crowd. There were so many people, and so many of them familiar. Dolbrek, Agathine, Grange, Porter, Salburn, Gaileth Panroe; too many to name. Their features swam before his eyes. Did they not pity him?

Gareth sought only one face, and he found her. Raenia. She was seated at the very front of the crowd, on the far right. She had been dressed for the occasion, he saw, in an extravagant gown of  blood red silks and lace, beaded with rubies on the bodice, and up around the thin column of her neck. Her shining hair had been pulled into an elaborate maze of black braids, studded with gems and woven with many ribbons, so it sat atop her head like a fearsome crown. She was sitting with her back straight, and her head proud, like a queen. Gareth felt a wave of pity, but also of admiration for Raenia’s courage and defiance in the face of being put on display like this, for people’s amusement; so she could be taunted and tormented. Raenia’s face, more gaunt than he remembered, and even more beautiful, was as pale as the snow that fell all around her like a veil, except for two furious blotches of red that burnt on her face like twin suns. She had been staring ahead, her black eyes fixed unblinkingly upon the gallows, but, at that moment, they met Gareth’s. Her eyes widened in an expression of horrified disbelief, and the remaining color drained from her cheeks. Gareth attempted a small smile, wanting to share in her defiance of the crowd, but he couldn’t feel his face. He thought he must have managed it, though, because Raenia returned his smile. Her face shone with warmth as she did this, and Gareth felt a tiny prick of gladness.

And then Gareth saw the bundle in Raenia’s arms, which he hadn’t even noticed before, stir fitfully. It was their daughter, he realized numbly. He recalled vaguely Corrin telling him her name the night before, but it did not come to him.

“Look at me,” ordered the Lyr, and Gareth did. The Lyr smiled. “Ah, yes, I have long wanted to look into your face,” he said, his voice pitched low so it did not carry out into the crowd. “The man who ruined my daughter.” He drew his long-fingered hand from within his sweeping sleeve and grabbed Gareth by the jaw, hard. He looked at him for a long stretch of moments, with his glowing black eyes, so like his daughter’s. The Lyr’s face twisted with disgust.

“Pathetic!” he said, raising his voice to a velvety bellow that rang over the hillside. “That my daughter wasted herself on a low, weak thing such as you!” He turned and looked directly at Raenia, who met his gaze with her own steely glare. Gareth saw her hands clutch the baby closer to her breast.

“You have no idea, the pleasure it will bring me to see you ended.” The Lyr’s smile widened, and he spit in Gareth’s face, letting it go from his clenching grasp. He turned to the Priestess who had come forward from the crowd, and hissed, “Get on with it.” He glided back to his seat, beside Raenia, his long, black robes snaking sinuously behind him, sat, and folded his hands in his lap. Once her father’s eyes were no longer upon her, Raenia’s expression changed from one of hatred to one of quiet sorrow. She smiled at Gareth again, but this time it was a small ghost of a smile.

The Priestess strode forward, and Gareth saw that it was Laria. As she had promised, she would also stay beside him until his bitter end. He tried to take heart in her presence, but he couldn’t feel anything through his fear. Gareth had nothing left inside him but all-consuming fear.

“Kneel, child,” she said gently.

Gareth obeyed.

“Child of Tehngah,” Laria recited in a high voice, “You have committed a terrible crime, a crime that has offended Tehngah and her people deeply. Your only hope in the face of damnation is to beg her forgiveness, here, before the eyes of Tehngah, and before the eyes of her loyal followers. Will you do so?”

“Yes,” said Gareth.

“Then confess your crime!”

“I profaned my body, with which Tehngah so generously blessed me, which Tehngah bid me to use only in her service, and, in doing so, profaned the body of another.” Gareth recited these words, which he had been forced to practice in his cell for weeks leading up to his execution, with no emotion in his voice. His mind did not even register their meaning.

“And you know, child, that your body is stained, and can never be made clean?”

“I do.”

“And what shall you do, then, to redeem your soul in the eyes of your Most Holy Creator, the Being who bestowed you with your life and with your most precious soul?”

“I shall offer up my own life in forfeit,” said Gareth through chattering teeth.

“It is well that you should do so, child. A gallows has been prepared for you. You will be bound, your face concealed by a hood, lead to the platform, and a rope placed about your neck. Then the call will sound, the drums will count ten seconds, and you will be hung by the rope until dead. Do you understand?”

“I do.”

“And do you agree?”

Gareth’s voice broke. “Yes.”

Laria smiled serenely and touched his face. Her moon-like eyes regarded Gareth with love. “Then come,” she said gently, taking him by his frozen hands, “And do not despair, child. You have nothing more to fear.” She leaned forward and kissed Gareth’s forehead, letting her warm lips linger on his skin, and brushed a strand of his hair from his brow with her long, silvery fingers. As Laria withdrew, she whispered, “I promise.”

Gareth had about fifty feet to walk from where he stood, to the gallows. With Laria on his right arm, and Corrin on his left, Gareth made his way slowly to the great yew tree, which seemed to taunt him and his helplessness as it loomed larger and larger in his vision. On the far side of the platform, a single drummer beat out a slow march as Gareth walked. He was only vaguely aware of the sounds of cheers floating up from the crowd of spectators. In vain, Gareth strained to take heart in the presence of his dear friends, who were there by his side, but all that existed to Gareth were his two feet, carrying him against his will to his annihilation, and the drums counting out the last beats of his heart.

Finally, but all to soon, the drums stopped and Gareth was halted before the black, leafless tree. He was made to turn and face the crowd. The people were riotous, shouting in glee for his death.

Laria continued onward, until she was right before the gallows and the rope. She knelt in the snow, her arms thrown forward on the ground, and began to chant her prayers.

Corrin retrieved a key from his pocket, and undid the chains on Gareth’s wrists and ankles. They fell silently to the snowy ground. He then unhooked a length of rope from where it dangled from his belt, and bound Gareth’s hands tightly with it.

“Do you have any last words?” Corrin asked.

Gareth shook his head mutely, too terrified to speak.

And then, Corrin took a a black hood, and began to lift it to Gareth’s face.

Before he could strangle it, a small cry rose from Gareth’s throat. He couldn’t bear it; the thought of never seeing the world again. His eyes strove to see past the crowd and far out on the horizon. He could just make out the first, far glow of the sun, porcelain white and beautiful as fire. He, Gareth, would not live to see the full face of the sun shine again. He noticed that the sky in the distance was clear and ice-blue. The snows had ceased and the air was empty; hollow like the wooden, lonely song of a fife. And so blue.

The blackness descended over Gareth’s eyes. He would see no more of this world. Gareth felt as if he had already died.

But the worst, he thought, was still waiting for him. Patiently, the rope was waiting; the rope which longed, he knew, to close around his neck. Snap it like a twig.

His face hidden from sight, Gareth let himself finally dissolve into quiet tears. He wanted so badly to live. His breath, against the stifling cloth which closed over his mouth and nose, was warm and wet with his small sobs.

“Come,” said Corrin.

Up the steps now. Gareth’s feet would never touch the earth again, he realized faintly. Six wooden stairs. Each creaked under his weight. And then three steps forward, to the last place he would be forced to stand. Corrin turned Gareth, once again, so he was facing the crowd. They were so loud; Gareth wished they wouldn’t cheer so.

Gareth would never walk again.

And then, gently, Corrin placed the rope about Gareth’s neck. For the second time, a moan escaped Gareth’s mouth. He had wondered for so long, how it would feel, in these final moments. The rope caressing his skin like a dead lover’s hand. How is this happening? Gareth kept thinking, I cannot die. Someone will save me, someone must! But he knew. It was almost over, his small bit of life.

Gareth heard Corrin’s footsteps retreat, back down the platform, to the place where he would pull the lever, to open the trapdoor below Gareth’s feet. Oh Goddess, save me! Gareth thought.

And then Corrin’s voice rose. “Gareth Tehngir, gather your courage, and prepare your soul, for your time is at hand!”

There was no courage in Gareth’s heart, only a fear as gnawing and all-consuming as fire. It engulfed him.

The drums pounded a frenzied pace, and Gareth’s heart pounded to match it, furious, as if wildly protesting, knowing how little it had left to beat within him. This is it, Gareth thought, I’m going to die, oh, goddess, why, please, this is it, I don’t want to die. I don’t want to die.

The drums stopped.

No, no! 

Gareth heard the groan of wooden gears. His body went numb.

He felt himself fall.

“The Blinding,” Part 5

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

The sound of heavy footsteps in the snow woke Gareth from his sleep.

Pain lanced through his body, and he remembered where he was. With a swoop of fear, Gareth lamented that he had lived through the night.

The cage door swung open. The snow that had accumulated upon it fell through the grates and into Gareth’s grave like starlight. Silhouetted by a brilliant sky, the dark shadow of a man appeared at the edge of the earth. He descended into the pit, on a thick, knotted rope. To Gareth’s surprise, the soldier closed the cage behind him.

“Who are you?” said Gareth as the man approached him. He couldn’t manage to make his voice rise above a hoarse whisper. The act of speaking made his head splinter and lights dance sickeningly before his eyes.

“Sssh, don’t say a thing,” said the soldier. His voice was familiar. He removed his helm, revealing a head of ragged light-colored hair. His face was smooth and handsome, but his brow was furrowed and he was frowning.

Gareth’s heart rose to his throat. It was Corrin.

Gareth attempted to rise from where he lay to meet his friend, but doing so made him feel like his head was being split by an ax. Corrin came, knelt beside him, and carefully moved his arm beneath Gareth’s neck, pulling Gareth toward him until he was being cradled in the soldier’s arms.

“Is this happening?” said Gareth.

Corrin placed his finger to Gareth’s lips, and nodded.

Daring to hope, Gareth asked, “Have you come to free me?”

Corrin shook his head.

Gareth closed his eyes. “It’s just as well,” he whispered, after a moment, “I’m sure that I’m dying.”

Corrin explained, “Gareth, there are guards all around this place. I’m the only one right here– but they’re in a perimeter on the edges of the field. There’s nowhere we could go. I’m sorry.”

“What time is it?”

“Not fifteen minutes past midnight.”

“Ah,” Gareth sighed. “When will I finally be done with?”

“Soon.”

Gareth laughed. Blood trickled from his mouth. “Why have you come, then?”

“To help you in what way I can.”

“And how’s that?”

Corrin paused. “I thought you should know, that– that I’ll be the one to execute you tomorrow.”

Gareth started. “Why are you telling me this? Get away from me!” He tried to shove the larger man, but his arms were useless.

“Gareth–”

“– I know you despise me, but, Corrin, why must you come to torment me? Surely you can see I am already miserable.”

“Gareth, just be quiet,” said Corrin harshly. “I just told you that I was here to help, so don’t interrupt me.”

He sighed, and tried to explain, “I talked to Laria about it, and she told me that things will go badly for you if the Priory has their way. There’s a new law that’s been passed in Bath; one that they’re pushing here. It forbids for prisoners to be hung by a long drop.”

“It doesn’t matter; I don’t want to hear about this!” said Gareth.

“You do,” said Corrin. “Do you know how they want to kill you, love?” He traced his fingers lightly over Gareth’s throat.

“Stop it.” Gareth wished he had the strength to free himself from Corrin’s embrace.

“They’ll force you to ascend a ladder–” Corrin moved his fingers at the base of Gareth’s neck, tapping out the motion of steps on his skin “–then they’ll tie a rope around your neck–” he moved his hand softly, as if to choke Gareth “– and then they’ll just– pull the ladder away, and let you hang there.” Corrin brushed his lips with his thumb, the way he had long ago, when they had loved each other. “Gareth, have you ever seen anyone die like that?”

Gareth had.

Years ago, only a month after Gareth had been sent off to war, he had been the only one from his platoon to survive a terrible battle. He’d fled, unarmed, into the mountains, knowing a friendly regiment was stationed there. But before he could reach his people, an enemy scout apprehended and took him prisoner.

The man was taking the Gareth back to his leader’s camp, when Gareth, in desperation, launched himself at him. He knocked away the scout’s blade, which flew off the side of the mountain path and out of reach. Gareth then had beaten the poor soldier, with his bare fists, until he was sure that his prisoner wouldn’t be bodily capable of escape.

Gareth wanted to bring him back to his General, an informant, but he quickly realized that the man was not capable of making the journey back up the mountainside. A polar night was beginning to fall. The darkness would last days, and Gareth would certainly not survive without shelter or resources. He had no choice. He couldn’t let the man live, and risk compromising the army’s position.

So Gareth dragged him to a tree. The man was begging for his life. He was a boy, really, even younger than Gareth. Gareth tried to ignore him. He tied his rope to the thickest branch, tested its sturdiness, and fashioned a noose with his trembling hands. The man had gone limp. Gareth hoped he had slipped into unconsciousness, but when Gareth let the rope go slack, he started struggling– kicking his legs helplessly, clutching at his neck. Gareth was crying. He climbed onto a boulder beside where the soldier hung twitching, and tried, hysterically, to push the man’s head down so he’d die faster. It didn’t work. Gareth thought it would be better to throttle this man with his bare hands, but he was too much a coward, so he stood there for nearly fifteen minutes until the boy’s struggling ceased, and he was finally dead. Gareth untied the rope and stowed it– he’d need it for scaling the mountain. Gareth hid the body in a snow bank and, in shock, made his way back up the mountainside.

It was the most terrible thing Gareth had ever done, and the most terrible thing he’d ever seen.

Corrin knew this. Gareth had been moved to Corrin’s regiment shortly afterwards, and they were assigned as partners. They slept together in their foxhole every night, and, every night, Gareth had dreamed of the boy struggling for his life at the end of that rope. Corrin had heard Gareth’s cries that first night, as he’d kept watch. Corrin did not ask what Gareth had dreamed, but suggested, practically, that he gag himself before he slept, because they couldn’t afford any noise. It was months before Gareth confessed his terrible secret to his friend. When Gareth finally did, Corrin had simply held and comforted him, telling him it wasn’t his fault. It was war. It was the king’s fault. Gareth had only wanted to escape this war with his life. There wasn’t anything wrong with that.

Corrin smiled coldly. Corrin’s hand was tight on his throat. “You remember, don’t you, Gareth? Don’t you? I know you do, sweet Gareth. You remember his eyes, the way they went wider and wider as he struggled for air. Slipping that noose over his pale, young face. You remember how he was warm with life as you dragged him to his doom, and how he was so very cold and stiff after you’d finished him. You little murderer, how you stood there and watched a person die, like that! How could you?”

“You think it’s– poetic– don’t you? For me to– die– like this. I probably deserve it.” Gareth was shivering.

“Gareth, please, please, don’t talk like that. I’m not going to let them do that to you, love, I swear.”

Gareth was confused. He tried to focus his vision. Above him, Corrin’s concerned face was haloed with starlight. Corrin’s hand was stroking his hair.

“They haven’t passed that law officially here, though, not yet. As of now, your executioner can choose how you’re– hanged. That’s why– oh, Gareth. It was all I could do. I’m going to make sure you don’t have to suffer, don’t worry, please.”

“Corrin–” But why are you here? Why did you come to me, to me,

in my grave in the night through so much snow and danger, you could be in trouble, terrible trouble

— Oh, the PRIORY

“Laria wanted me to make sure. Because the Prioress is sure that you’re soul won’t go to Tehngah unless you die the way proscribed by the Priory.” Corrin rolled his eyes.

(and also to see you, gareth or to feel you breathe in my arms one last time. to kiss you? the snow looks purple from here, aren’t you very cold? your mother will be here soon, she will)

sing you to sleep

Ridiculous, everything. the stupid, absurd priory

“I just want it to be quick,” said Gareth.

“I knew you would.”

Corrin, please stay with me. I’m so scared. Will you take me away from this place now?

–Gareth, can I ask you something, while there’s still time?

anything

–Why did you fuck Raenia? That was a stupid thing to do. Didn’t you love me?

I can’t remember anymore. Do we have to talk about it? To be honest, I absolutely hate her.

–She lied to you, stupid.

she had the most perfect black hair. i loved her very much. did you hear, she had my child? did you hear, they’re going to burn her. can you imagine?

“It’s a girl. Her name is ___”

MY BEAUTIFUL CHILD how wonderful it is that you exist?

— Gareth, listen to me. I know you’re so tired. But it’s not fair

none of it’s fair, none of it. I just want to go home, now

(It’s not real, Gareth. Don’t think about it. This isn’t really happening.)

— I lay beside you so many nights. You had the most beautiful face I’d ever seen. Your strong jaw, your kind brown eyes, the way the snow clung to your hair, and, your hair! how it fell over your brow, catching the sun. You had such a hardened face, except for your eyes and mouth, which were soft. I knew I had no choice but to love you. You always seemed so scared. Otherwise, I would have died of loneliness.

Corrin was kissing him, and Gareth kissed him back with all his heart. Gareth wasn’t in pain anymore. The chains on his wrists and ankles glowed in a black fire, and fell from him in a pile of cinders.

“This is only temporary,” Corrin reminded him. “Tomorrow, I’m going to kill you.”

Gareth remembered.

Corrin kissed Gareth on the throat. “Poor Gareth!” he said, “You have such a lovely neck.”

Gareth clung to Corrin; took one of Corrin’s hands in his and dragged it over his icy hair. He wanted to be comforted. “Please just hold me until dawn,” he said.

“You know I can’t stay that long,” said Corrin, but he acquiesced, laying Gareth on his side against the cold, hungry earth. Gareth felt Corrin stretch out his warm body beside him; wrap him gently in his arms until Gareth felt less cold, and safe. For a few minutes, Corrin did nothing but run his hands over Gareth’s body, which was covered in a thin sheen of ice, where his sweat had frozen on his skin. As he did this, Corrin leaned his face to Gareth’s ear and whispered, “My poor Gareth. My poor love. Gareth.” And he repeated his name over and over, like an incantation.

That’s not even my real name, thought Gareth. He wondered what name his mother had given him, or whether his parents had even bothered to name him at all. Even then, Gareth thought, he still had a family name, one that belonged to him, which he was fated never to know. He wondered whether his mother would feel sorry for him, if she knew, now, what had become of her son.

Corrin kissed him hotly, all over his ears, jaw, and neck. Gareth, whose body wanted nothing more than to revel in it’s own brief, startling aliveness, grew blazingly hard. Immediately, as if he could sense Gareth’s hardness, Corrin moved his hand and gripped Gareth’s cock. “Of course,” he whispered savagely, biting Gareth’s ear, “I knew this is what you’d want. You’re such a little whore.”

Gareth felt ashamed, and a whimper scratched his throat as Corrin undid his trousers and pulled them down to Gareth’s knees, but his shame was not great enough to overshadow his overwhelming, terrible desire. With a shudder of ecstatic pain, Gareth felt Corrin begin to move roughly inside him. As he did this, Corrin said, “It’s only right, though.” He ran his hand up and down Gareth who, longing to place his lips on Corrin, kissed and bit his own arm instead. “It wouldn’t have been right for you to die, having fucked Raenia, but having never been fucked by me.”

They didn’t speak for a time.

Gareth was on his knees, both of his hands pressed to the earthen wall of his grave. The frost and sharp rocks bit at them. Corrin was behind him, hugging Gareth to his chest with his right arm. His left hand was stroking Gareth’s cock.

Gareth realized there was a noose around his neck, dangling from the cage above. Corrin tightened it. Gareth began to cry.

“You are so pathetic,” sneered Corrin. He took a chunk of Gareth’s brown hair, and yanked at it, so Gareth was forced to meet his eyes. “Aren’t you?”

“I am,” agreed Gareth, with all his heart.

“But you know what I think?” said Corrin, tightening the rope until Gareth gasped for air.

Gareth shook his head from side to side, violently. He was sputtering

“I think,” Corrin said, biting Gareth’s neck right below where the noose had begun to bruise it, until he drew blood, “you want to die. Don’t you?”

“No!” shouted Gareth, and he had never meant anything more sincerely.

“You do,” said Corrin, “And you are going to tell me so, right now, or I’m not going to let you finish.”

“I won’t!” Gareth screamed. “I won’t, I won’t!”

“Yes, you will,” said Corrin, and he pulled the rope tighter around Gareth’s throat. “You need to.”

Finally, desperately, Gareth choked, “Alright! Please!” Corrin laughed, and loosened the noose.

“Go on,” he said.

“I want to die,” whispered Gareth, choked with tears. As the words passed his lips, they settled and weighed on him like heavy chains.

“No no no,” said Corrin, moving his hand faster until Gareth’s every nerve cried for release. “Say it like you fucking mean it, Gareth!” he threatened in Gareth’s ear, and yanked the rope.

“I want– to– die!” screamed Gareth with all his strength, like the world was ending.

He collapsed. The rope was gone, and so was Corrin. Semen was still pumping freely from him, like blood. Gareth, in horror, realized he couldn’t make it stop. Panic closed over him, and he felt he was surely going to die, here, and in the morning the guards would find him and gather round and laugh in disbelief. Semen poured through his hands like milk and spilled onto the earth. Gareth gripped his cock and moaned. He closed his eyes.

He opened them. The earth below him was shifting. Gareth thought that, surely, hell was opening its maw to swallow him whole.

A woman, all in white, with pearly skin, silver hair, and blood red eyes, rose from the earth. The dirt fell from her as easy as water. “Gareth,” she said. It was Raenia.

“Quickly,” she said, guiding his had to her belly. He realized it was round and full and glowing from within. Like a rosy, veined moon. “Gareth, please!” she begged, “You’re the only one who can help me.”

Gareth knew what he had to do. He knelt at Raenia’s feet. Semen still streamed down his thighs, but he didn’t care anymore. He reached his hand between her legs, and inside of her. Raenia howled as if she were being torn asunder, but she didn’t move. “Hurry, hurry!” she cried. “I don’t want her to be here when it happens!”

Gareth knew this was important, so he pushed back his rising nausea, and closed his hands around the thing that grew at the center of Raenia’s lamp-like belly. He yanked it out, with all his might. Raenia bellowed, a sound more terrible than Gareth had ever heard a person make.

Raenia collapsed to her knees, and drew her hands together in thanks. “You’ve saved her!” she said.

Gareth looked at the object in his hand. It was nothing more than a small root, not larger than his palm. He looked back to Raenia, wanting to understand. But Raenia was in flames. She did not scream. In the rainbowing light of the fire, she was no longer ghostly white, but dark-haired and rosy as she had been in life. The flames rose hungrily and closed around her like a flower bud drawing shut in the moonlight. A column of white smoke snaked to the star-flowered sky, and Gareth knew that Raenia was gone, and that he was truly and utterly alone.

“The Blinding,” Part 4

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

It was only right, Gareth mused tiredly, that his final thoughts be of Raenia. After all, she was fated to suffer even more terribly than he would. He wondered if she would be watching tomorrow when they killed him.

Gareth remembered, with unspeakable regret, when he had made love to her. That night, Gareth had been drinking at Dolbrek’s, as he did most every night after work. He had been watching the people pass like shadows outside the window, cupping his mug in his hands, and remembering the war. He had only been back a couple of months, and life in his quiet village still seemed surreal and foreign.

Chimes rang cheerfully as a patron entered. It was a girl Gareth had never seen before, dark-haired with a round, lively face and a wide, laughing mouth. She sauntered to the bar, and ordered a mug of mulled wine from Dolbrek, wearing a crooked smile. Gareth watched her with curiosity. The girl had a certain quality that attracted him.

To Gareth’s surprise and chagrin, the girl took her drink, met his gaze, and headed in his direction. He looked around from side to side, in a way she must have found comical, trying to figure out who she was walking towards.

Oh fuck, Gareth thought when he realized, at the last second, that she wanted to sit with him.

“Hi, Gareth!” she said with such enthusiasm that Gareth felt sorry for her. Who, he wondered, could have such a sad life that they’d feel excited to talk to him. She sat on the table, and Gareth couldn’t help noticing her voluptuousness. Shit, he thought, I’m not getting out of this conversation.

“Uh.” he said. “Hello?”

“Good to see you! It’s been a while.”

“I guess it must have been,” said Gareth. “Do I know you?”

Raenia!” she laughed, and she shook her head at him admonishingly. “You don’t have a very good memory, do you? You shod my horse! We talked!”

“When?” he asked, searching his memory frantically.

“Oh, I don’t know,” she said, sipping her wine and holding a finger to her mouth thoughtfully, “two years ago? A bit longer?”

“Two years?” said Gareth, incredulous. “A lot’s happened since then. Sorry.” He hoped this girl would leave him alone soon.

“I know,” she said, slamming her drink on the table dramatically and leaning her grinning face closer to Gareth’s. “You went to war– how was it? Was it just awful? You can tell me! I’m all ears. Seriously. I’m entirely made of ears.” She laughed loudly at her own joke.

Annoyed, Gareth decided to cut this conversation short. “Look, girl, you’re drunk, and I don’t feel like talking. So, can I just have my drink in peace?”

“Gareth!” Raenia said, drawing his name out into a long whine, “I saw you watching me! You know I just got here, so you know I’m not drunk. I’m just this naturally humorous and charming. It’s a quality in a woman you could use. Evaluate yourself honestly. Because, while the brooding handsomeness is working in your favor, you’ve got to know you’re a bit cheerless, right?”

Gareth sighed audibly, his face red. He couldn’t think of what to say, so he decided to just ignore her.

Raenia sighed as well. She got up from her seat on the table, and sat down on the bench across from Gareth. She folded her hands on the table and rested her chin there. She looked up at him with large, black, thickly lashed eyes, imploringly. “Oh, come on, kid,” she said in a softer voice. (I’m older than her, Gareth thought) “I’m sorry. Really. I know my personality can be grating to a guy like you, but I promise, I’m nice. And I really like you, a lot.”

Gareth looked at her. She was pretty. He shifted uncomfortably in his seat.

Raenia smiled. “You’re very handsome.”

“What? Why do you keep saying these things?”

Raenia pulled a comical face. “Why do I keep saying these things to you?” she repeated. “Hasn’t anyone ever took time from their day to just tell you nice things?”

“No.”

“I think that’s very sad.” Raenia stopped for a moment and sipped her wine, not moving her eyes from his. “Gareth?” She paused. “Gareth? Gareth?”

“Oh, Goddess, what?

“You know, I think it’s a good step that you’re being so mean. When I met you, you seemed like the type to not tell anyone they were bothering you, even if they were really grating your nerves.”

“Well, you have a talent.”

“Oh, I have many. But really, Gareth?”

“I said, what?”

“Has anyone ever kissed you?”

Gareth looked extremely uncomfortable now. He fidgeted with his sleeve and looked out the window. Finally, through gritted teeth, he said, “Yes.”

“Oh, really? I wouldn’t have guessed that. Who?”

“Just– someone. Someone I met during the war.”

“Aaah,” said Raenia knowingly. “Some foreign girl? Good for you, Gareth!”

“Sure.”

“But she’s not here is she?”

“Not really.”

“Well, then.” Raenia clasped her hands together, business-like. “Would you, Gareth Tehngir, like to kiss me?”

Gareth laughed. “Raenia, really. What about this conversation has led you to believe that I’d want to kiss you?”

“Well, I just made you laugh. I’m going to hazard a guess that that doesn’t happen too often.”

She had a point, Gareth thought. In all honesty, he was enjoying her attention, which he found quite flattering, even if he didn’t know how to respond to it. But he had known since she’d first started talking, given that subtlety obviously wasn’t one of her many gifts, that Raenia was flirting with him, and he didn’t like where it was going.

Gareth had grown up with girls, and women. He was surrounded by them at every moment of every day. He’d seen the girls swim naked in the fountain on hot summer afternoons, he’d braided their hair, he’d seen the priestesses, a few times, walk about in their thin night-things on balmy nights, their breasts visible through the material as they leaned over his bunk to administer his medicine. Gareth had never really thought anything of this, or taken particular notice of the females around him.

When Gareth left the Priory, and began to make tentative friendships with other boys, they all asked him questions about growing up with all these women, and Gareth slowly realized that they thought he should have been more attentive to these pleasures. It was hard for him to understand, so Gareth began to feel like there was something wrong with him. He had read, in the Priory’s library, about men who scorned the company of women, and chose, instead, to love other men. Gareth wondered, fearfully, if he was like that, and hoped it wasn’t true. Tehngah’s law was that such behavior was only permitted during times of poverty or famine, when having more mouths to feed would be more of a burden than a blessing. Otherwise, it was forbidden– it was a man and a woman’s duty to marry and have children, and to spread Tehngah’s law. The penalty for a man loving a man was death. The thought of being put to death filled Gareth with trepidation.

As he grew up, though, Gareth’s fears became realized. He noticed the boys around him with admiring eyes, the way the other boys noticed girls. It didn’t matter, Gareth told himself– if he ignored his feelings, they wouldn’t affect him. He ignored his feelings all the time, so this wouldn’t be very different.

Of course, Gareth had been wrong about that.

Raenia sighed. For the first time that night, she looked defeated. She tugged at her thick, curling hair self-consciously. “Alright, Gareth. Really, I’m sorry I bothered you. You just seemed– nice. But not so nice that you’re boring, you know? And quite good looking. So, I figured– eh, I just wanted someone to be with tonight, and I thought of you.”

Gareth watched her, torn.

His thoughts turned to Corrin, remembering how they’d cradled each other at night in their bunker, as they listened fearfully for approaching danger. How he’d run his thumb across the soft bloom of Corrin’s pale lips while the snow fell silently all around. The way his skin burned where Corrin had touched him under his coat, and of biting the hollow of Corrin’s neck and crying silently against him, as he ran his hand over Gareth, stirring him to a state of unknowing, unreasoning ecstasy.

But, Gareth thought, mentally shaking himself from his voluptuous musings, the war was over. He and Corrin would not be together, and he, Gareth, was almost twenty, and expected to marry soon. Maybe he should see what it was like, to be with a woman. He wouldn’t be able to avoid it forever.

“Don’t be sad, Raenia,” he said, unsure of how to be flirtatious, “It’s– weird.” His face got very red, but he drove onward. “We could– I mean– sure. Kiss. Whatever.” Gareth looked at the ceiling in a gesture of helplessness. “I feel strange. I don’t know what to do. Is it normal for girls to act this way?”

“You know, I really don’t think so, Gareth. Not at all. I wouldn’t even, normally, but, don’t think about it too much! ‘Cause you’re lucky!”

Gareth wondered what Raenia meant, and what was making her behave so strangely, but he decided not to ask. “So. Should we– do you want to go somewhere in particular?” Two unbetrothed young people kissing, while not illegal, was something that was heavily frowned upon in Grel.

“Yeah, there’s a grove of apple trees on my land, that’s not far from here. Shall we?” Raenia beamed sweetly.

So, she’s rich, thought Gareth, as he rose from the table to leave with Raenia.

“Aren’t you a gentleman!” she said loudly. “Well, bye, Gareth! It was good to catch up!” She raised an eyebrow at him as she walked lightly out the door. Gareth mentally smacked himself. Of course, they couldn’t be seen leaving together.

He sat back down and finished his beer slowly, as he usually did, still in shock. It was strange, he thought, that this evening had started out like any other, but had taken such a turn. Gareth tried not to think too much about what was going to happen. He couldn’t really imagine it, and merely hoped it wouldn’t be awful.

Presently, he rose from his seat and headed out the door into the bitter, smoky autumn air. Gareth didn’t see Raenia immediately, but, figuring she had some sort of plan devised, he continued slowly down the road, the way he normally went home. Sure enough, a little ways on, Raenia scampered in front of him, with a jaunty wave.

“Hullo!” she said in a staged whisper, giggling. Gareth smiled shyly. Raenia took his hand and backed against his chest, bringing his palm against her breast. The bottom of her head barely touched Gareth’s chin. Raenia pointed her face up towards his, and he looked down into her shining eyes. He had to hand it to her; Raenia was very well-studied in the art of cuteness. “Come on!” she said, in the same comical voice. She slung Gareth’s arm over her shoulder, took his large hand in both of her little ones, and, goose-stepping merrily, led him down a path through the trees.

Once they were well into the little wood, Raenia stopped him. “Here, we are, Gareth,” she said, turning around girlishly to face him.

Gareth kicked some rotten apples across the grass, nervously.

“This sure is far to go for one kiss,” Raenia said. Gareth had to agree. “I hope you’re good!”

With a sickly swoop of in his gut, Gareth decided to get the thing done with. He leaned in toward her  face, but Raenia held her hand up.

What?” said Gareth, raising his voice. This was too much.

“Sssh!” said Raenia, suddenly serious. “We don’t want anyone to hear.”

Gareth nodded, and Raenia quickly pulled her smile back up. “Aren’t you going to talk to me first?” she pouted.

“Talk?” said Gareth, nonplussed. “What do you want me to say?”

“It wouldn’t mean anything if I told you, would it?” Raenia looked at him thoughtfully. “Here, let me tell you what. We don’t have much time, so tell me one thing about yourself that no one else knows, and then tell me the thing you like best about me. Then we can kiss! Got it?”

Gareth briefly entertained the thought of telling Raenia about Corrin, which seemed oddly hilarious, then quickly realized that this was seriously going to happen, and panicked. What would he tell her?

“Here,” said Raenia, “I’ll go first.” She took Gareth’s hand in both of hers and gave it a small kiss. “Something no one else knows about me. Hmm. I guess– you really can’t tell anyone about this, got it?– I don’t believe in Tehngah. The thought of this all-powerful Goddess sitting around in heaven, able to do, literally, anything– and what she really cares about is watching us humans, making sure we don’t swear, that we don’t spread our legs for the wrong type of guy, that we don’t eat deer, or that we wash our hands a certain way, or else– that just makes me think, well, that there’s no way. Absolutely not. So, sorry if that bothers you.”

Raenia gave a deep sigh. “It sure felt good to say that! I’ve been holding that in for a while.” She made little circles with her hips, still holding Gareth’s hand and looking into his eyes with a smile, half sweet, half impish. “And now,” she said, raising her hand to Gareth’s cheek, “What I like best about you, Gareth Tehngir.” Her smile softened, and Gareth couldn’t help smiling back. Surprisingly, her touch made his heart flutter pleasurably. Gareth savored the tingling feeling that coursed up and down his spine.

Raenia took a deep breath. “What I like about you, Gareth Tehngir, is that I can sense that you’re the sort of person who wouldn’t care that I don’t believe in Tehngah. I could be wrong about that, but I don’t think I am. Do you know how rare that is, Gareth? Everyone in Grel is so fucking caught up in that ridiculousness, but you, you were raised by those people, and you still had enough brains not to buy into it. You’re smart. You definitely think for yourself, and you don’t feel the need to parade it in everyone’s face. You just go along with your life, and ignore everyone else. You probably have all these thoughts and observations, all these secrets, but no one to share them with. I like that. I like looking at you and imagining what you’re thinking. You know, I’m pretty good at reading people; I just understand them. But you– I can make a pretty good guess at what’s going on behind that handsome face, sometimes, but usually I can’t. You’re inscrutable, and I like that.”

Gareth’s face burned scarlet; he couldn’t believe anyone had taken that much time to think about him and his inner thoughts.

Raenia’s smile broadened. “Pretty good, right? I can feel you blushing!” She tapped his cheek with her palm. “So now you owe me something nice, Gareth. I said a bunch more than I had to, and that’s not even counting the nice things I said to you at Dolbrek’s, or subtracting for the mean things you said to me!”

Gareth laughed. It was starting to feel easier to talk to Raenia and, for the first time that night, he felt glad that she had decided to single him out at Dolbrek’s.

“Well. You’re right. I don’t believe in Tehngah, but don’t worry, I know that you won’t count that as my secret. I’ll try to tell you something you didn’t already guess.” Gareth paused to gather his thoughts. “My secret is, that– I mean, you see me. I go around, I give people the impression that I’m indifferent to them. But I’m not. Not– yeah. I want people to like me, but– I just feel, separated? Separated from them, by glass, or something. So, I just keep to myself, and I get used to feeling invisible. And, I suppose I started to like it that way, because I got used to it, and I don’t like for things to change.” He finished his words in a rush, surprised that he’d said what he did.

“I’m sorry,” said Raenia.

“Nah,” said Gareth. He looked at the ground. “Alright. Then, what I like best about you–”

“–Put your hand on my cheek, Gareth, like I did for you!”

Gareth lifted his hand to Raenia’s rosy, full face, carefully tracing his thumb across her cheekbone. He could hear her breath catch in her throat. “What I like best about you, Raenia I-don’t-know-your-surname, is this: You’re kind to me.” Gareth’s blush deepened. “Plenty of people are kind in a polite, meaningless sense. You aren’t polite. At all. But you seem nice in a way that counts. You– pay attention to people. You–” Gareth shrugged sheepishly, as if in apology for his saccharine words, “You saw me for who I was. I really, really don’t know how or why you did. But, Raenia, that means– just– so much to me. You’re surprising. I still can’t believe that we’re having this conversation, and that I’m saying these things. But I like it. Really. Thank you.”

Gareth couldn’t remember the last time he’d strung that many words together. He felt exhausted, so he just smiled down at Raenia.

“Kiss me,” she reminded him in a whisper.

Gareth put his arm around Raenia’s waist and pulled her close against him. He embraced her for a moment, tightly, and then he put his hand under her chin and tipped her face towards his. Her face was milky in the moonlight, and her dark waves of hair moved delicately in the light autumn breeze. “You’re beautiful,” he said, feeling like she should know that he thought so, and he ran his fingers lightly over her pale, extended throat. Gareth leaned in to kiss her on the mouth but, instead his lips found the round tip of Raenia’s chin. He opened his mouth and bit it, lightly as he could. Both of them shuddered.

“Woah, Gareth,” breathed Raenia.

“Raenia,” Gareth murmured, as he moved his hand through her thick cloud of hair. He tipped his face so his mouth touched Raenia’s softly. He closed his lips around her protruding bottom one, and kissed it. Raenia was breathing heavily, now, and moving her hands up and down Gareth’s back. Finally, Gareth kissed her full on the mouth, deeply, and he felt his whole body tense with pleasure.

He let his joy crest over him in waves. This girl, he thought, was so beautiful, and so kind. Her soft body against his felt like a miracle. As he kissed her, Gareth tried to say all of that to her, and more, so she could feel his love and gratitude in a way deeper than his words could communicate.

“Raenia,” he said again, his lips still on hers; his tongue moving inside her mouth.

Finally, Gareth pulled back, wanting to breath, and wanting to see her face again. Raenia’s eyes were wide. “That felt so nice!” Gareth exclaimed, and he immediately laughed sheepishly. Why did he have to say that? 

Through his happiness, Gareth felt some strains of confusion. Why, he wondered, had he enjoyed kissing Raenia, when she was a woman? Gareth had never heard of someone who felt attraction to both men and women. Gareth mentally shrugged, and brought himself back to the moment. He could puzzle those questions out later.

“You sound surprised!” Raenia chided him, still catching her breath. “But honestly, Gareth, that was a bit more than what I expected!”

“Is that a bad thing?”

“No, probably not.”

Gareth pulled back, and the two looked at each other awkwardly for a few moments.

Finally, he said, “Do you want to, well, kiss some more?”

“Yes, of course!” said Raenia. “I just wanted you to be the one to suggest it, oh bashful one.”

Gareth threw his arms around Raenia, and lifted her up by grabbing her under the arms, so her face was level to his. He moved his hands, grabbing her securely with both arms so he could hold her against himself comfortably. “Could you kiss me?” Gareth asked her, and Raenia smiled and nodded. She locked her knees around his hips. She grabbed Gareth by back of his hair, and pulled her face to his, kissing his mouth over and over with enthusiasm.

This was different, Gareth thought, from how things had felt with Corrin. The two friends had never talked much, unsure of how put into words what they felt for one another. They had never had the chance to love each other freely, like this. Every moment the pair of soldiers had managed to steal together had been illicit, under the constant threat of danger and discovery, when they could scarcely move, nor make a noise.

It felt amazing to be able to touch Raenia any way he’d like to– so liberating that it dizzied Gareth. With Raenia’s limbs still locked around him, and still kissing her wildly, Gareth stumbled over to the large tree a few feet away. He shoved her roughly against it, so he could push his body closer and closer against hers. Gareth pried Raenia’s arms from around his neck, and she slowly let go and slid back down to the ground. Gareth pushed up on Raenia’s chin, exposing her elegant, pale neck. He kissed her there, on the throat, and then on the spot where he could feel her life’s blood pulsing within her. Gareth thought, as he did this, tracing her artery with his tongue, what a miracle it was that Raenia was alive, and so beautiful, and that she wanted him.

He pulled at the neck of her dress, exposing Raenia’s shoulder and kissing her there, and then, working his fingers along the edge of her dress’ neck, the delicate protrusion of her collar bone. He moaned, unable to stand it, and he backed away just slightly, moving his hands over Raenia’s hair, face, and body. He unbuttoned her coat with shaking fingers, and peeled it from her, so she was standing in just her thin, close-fitting dress. With hitching breath, Gareth cupped Raenia’s generous breasts in his hands. He pressed his nose against hers, his heart pounding out of his chest.

Gareth could feel Raenia’s body go rigid, so he moved his hands lightly back to her arms, and pressed his open mouth against her soft cheek, panting. Raenia, too, was breathing heavily. She ran her hand over and over Gareth’s chest, while the other gripped the tree trunk behind her.

“This is turning into a bit more than kissing,” she said.

“I’m sorry,” Gareth said, and began to back away. But Raenia grabbed his arm.

“Don’t go,” she said. “I really don’t think I could stand it. Talk to me?” she suggested. “I want to know what you’re thinking!”

Gareth laughed, leaning his face against hers, and he took Raenia’s hand and put it to his mouth. “Honestly, just the stupid things I guess all lovers do. That I had no idea anything could feel this good. That you’re probably the most amazing, funny, beautiful creature in the world. That I want to touch you more, and, possibly, never do anything else, ever. Sorry. Nothing more profound.”

“Aw, Gareth, that’s not bad at all. Especially considering that I’ve never heard you say more than a sentence at a time before tonight.” Raenia stroked his hair fondly. “Well?” she said after a moment, “Aren’t you going to ask me how feel?”

“I figured you’d just tell me,” teased Gareth.

“Ha! Right you are.” Raenia paused. She looked into the distance, looking truly thoughtful; not playfully so, as she had earlier. “I’m thinking,” she said slowly, “that I want you to love me, now, like a husband loves his wife. You don’t believe in Tehngah, and neither do I, so we’re not doing anything wrong. I really couldn’t care less about this law or that. You’re the nicest guy, you’re handsome, you’re weirdly good at kissing for a guy of your type, so. It feels right. Don’t you think so, Gareth?”

Gareth felt overwhelmed. He gulped, and tried to gather his thoughts into a sentence of decent coherence. “I– Raenia, you have no idea, that sounds like– the nicest thing in the world. But– we could get in terrible trouble if someone caught us. You know that, don’t you? They could kill us for something like that.”

“No one’s going to catch us,” said Raenia matter-of-factly. “I told you that I just know things sometimes, and I know no one will find us tonight. Trust me?”

Gareth searched her face, feeling truly torn. He was frightened, but he’d also never wanted anything so badly. In a final attempt at reason, he said, “You could marry me! I know– I know it’s soon, but we’re both old enough, and plenty of people get married to people they’ve never met, so– compared to that– and, also– we could be together, then, and no one would mind. And we could have each other forever.”

“If you’re going to say that, we might as well not do it!” said Raenia, and she stomped her foot. “I don’t want to marry you, I just want to be with you, don’t you see the difference?”

Gareth felt wounded and abashed, and said nothing.

“Besides,” added Raenia, “There’s no way I could marry you, so stop even thinking about it!”

“Alright,” said Gareth quietly.

“So, what’ll it be?” asked Raenia, less harshly, running her hand over Gareth’s face. “Sorry,” she added, “I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings. I really like you. I just don’t want to marry anyone, okay?”

Gareth took a deep breath, and tried to steady himself. He knew that he wasn’t thinking logically, and that realization both upset and tempted him. Gareth had never in his life allowed himself to get swept away by his emotions, which he mistrusted greatly, until he had met Corrin. And with Corrin, Gareth had always reassured himself that his illogical decisions were due to love– and love, he thought, was something that happened once in a lifetime. The true mistake, he had thought, would be to ignore his emotional well-being and deny himself, and Corrin, the one opportunity they both had to experience something so rare and beautiful. Emotions, he reasoned, were a significant component to the human experience, and it would be illogical to try to write them out of the equation. Some risks were worthwhile.

But Raenia– what did he feel for her? Did this sudden rush of warmth he felt toward this girl have anything to do with love?

Gareth’s heart was still pounding. He could hear his blood whirring in his ears and pulsing in his neck and hands. Raenia was standing in front of him, her face hopeful, in her pale yellow gown, which clung tightly to her breasts and the gentle curve of her waist. Her large mouth was flushed dark where he had kissed and bitten her, and her cheeks and nose were red. Raenia’s dark eyes cast their saturnial glow upon Gareth as she raised them to his face, like two dark planets ascending in the night. Gareth trembled under their gaze, in foreboding and in desire. He felt, at that moment, that he had glimpsed something secret within her, something she had not wanted Gareth to see; something which both repulsed and drew him, like the tides in their silvering, lunar dance.

Gareth put his hand to Raenia’s breast, feeling her heart beat its dark tattoo against his palm. “What do you want?” he asked her in a low voice, drawing closer and shivering as their bodies barely touched.

“I want you, Gareth, who you are at this very, very second. Nothing less, nothing more. Is that so hard to understand?”

Gareth kissed Raenia, softly at first, listening to her breathe. He kissed her forehead, then pressed his own forehead to it, as if by doing so he could plunge himself into the blackness of her consciousness, like diving into an underground, lunar ocean. Gareth gripped her wrists, hard, like a drowning man. He kissed Raenia again, and said, “I don’t want to,” in a strangled voice.

“Oh, liar!” said Raenia, backing away so she could look Gareth full in the face. She still held his hands. “Maybe you’re scared, maybe you can’t– and I’d understand– but don’t tell me you don’t want this.”

She grabbed him by the shirt, aggressively, and pulled him so he could feel every inch of her body on his own, running her other hand up his thigh and stroking him where his hardness pressed against her. Gareth gasped, while Raenia laughed, “That is such a stupid lie, Gareth! Really!”

Gareth tried to speak, but his mouth didn’t seem to want to form words. He couldn’t find his breath. He ran his hands down Raenia’s sides, feeling where her waist narrowed, where her hips curved, and down her soft legs until he found the hem of her dress, and began to lift her skirts up over her thighs.

“I’ll take that as a yes?” joked Raenia.

Gareth kissed her and took her face in his hands, letting her dress slide back down to her knees and looking into her black eyes beseechingly. “Raenia, please, can’t you just be nice to me?”

Raenia laughed softly and tapped his nose with her finger. “Gods,” she said with a small smile, “I can’t believe what a sweet guy you are. I don’t want to do anything right now but make you happy, got it?”

Gareth nodded and smiled, moving his hands back around her.

Raenia grabbed his wrist and stopped him. “Look at me. I’m not kidding. Look right in my eyes.”

Gareth felt himself shiver pleasurably as he met Raenia’s eyes, all full and glowing with starlight.

“I want to know that you understand me, because this is important. So answer me, really answer me, this time. Gareth. You are so fucking beautiful that it makes me crazy. And I mean that you are so kind and secretive and surprised by yourself all the time that, every time you speak, I think to myself that I can’t imagine anything more stupidly, hopelessly beautiful. Honestly. And when I look at you, I want to see you look happier than anyone, and I want to know that did that. I want that for you! Got it, Gareth?”

Gareth laughed, “Got it.”

“Good!” said Raenia.

And then, overwhelmed with longing, Gareth threw himself fully into the unknowingness of his passion. Gareth had never felt himself inhabit his own body so completely, as if his spirit were a bright fire that spread to his every extremity, so his fingers, lips, and tongue burned unbearably. He closed his eyes. He pressed himself to Raenia, desperately, wanting to lose himself within her. Her body moved below him like perfect, shimmering water. He ran his hand over her face, wanting to see her, unable to open his eyes.

Gareth moved with pure instinct; with an animal’s primal sense of thoughtless knowing. He had only experienced this state once before– in battle, under the threat of death, and blazing with fear. Gareth, forced to confront his enemy on the field of battle, had wielded his sword– the sword his commander had placed earlier in his dumb, shaking hands– with a bestial, terrifying ferocity, thinking only of his life; of not wanting to die. As he’d fought, Gareth had felt his body moving with a prenatural strength and quickness, while his every nerve burned and screamed for life.

Gareth felt himself drowning in his own solipsistic pleasure. He clung to Raenia’s soft, giving body, trying to drag himself to the surface. He opened his eyes and searched for her face. Raenia’s eyes were screwed closed. Her brow was sparkling with a diadem of sweat, all pearly in the moonlight, and her mouth was soft with labored breathing. She was clinging to Gareth with one hand. The other was hidden amongst the branching roots of her hair. “Raenia,” he said, wiping the sweat from her pale face, “I’m here, don’t worry, I’m right here.”

Raenia opened her eyes and raised her hand from her hair to Gareth’s face. She tucked a strand of his loose hair behind his ear and said, “Gareth, it’s alright, you don’t have to stop.” She placed a faltering kiss on the bridge of his nose.

“I’m going to die,” Gareth said, shuddering. And then he couldn’t stand another dizzying second on the precipice, and he pushed himself against Raenia with all his strength and being, kissing her savagely. For a moment he thought he might disappear into her, forever, and know no more.

Gareth collapsed, sweating and shaking. “Fuck, fuck, fuck!” He rolled over onto the cool grass, pulling his hands to his face. His throat felt hot and strained. Tears stung his eyes.

“Shut up!” whispered Raenia harshly, sitting up and grabbing Gareth’s arm.

“What did I do?” said Gareth, quieter, still in despair. He moaned. “What the fuck? What the fuck did I just do? Raenia! Oh goddess, Raenia, I’m so sorry!” He rolled on his side, looking at her with wide, fearful eyes.

“Calm down, Gareth!” she said urgently. “It’ll be fine. Nothing bad’s going to happen.”

Gareth took Raenia by the shoulders and shook her. He was nearly beside himself. “Are you stupid? You could be with child! What would become of us then?”

“I’m not going to going to become pregnant, Gareth! Look, I know where I am in my cycle, and promise– I’m not fertile right now. I wouldn’t have risked it if I were. Don’t you trust me?”

Trust you?” Gareth was on his feet, fumbling to clothe himself. “Raenia, why do you even know that? Why would you have possibly needed to know that?”

Raenia was on her feet too, still standing stark naked in the white predawn light. She clenched her fists, and said in a savage whisper, “Well, since you just fucked me, I’d say that it’s pretty useful information, wouldn’t you?” She gave him a shove.

Gareth looked for a second like he was ready to shove her back, but he just slumped his shoulders, defeated. He put his hand to his head and stood, tense, for a long stretch of minutes. Finally, he looked at Raenia and said, “I hope you’re right.” His expression softened to kindness and he motioned for the girl to come to him.

Gareth held Raenia to him, stroking her hair. He kissed the top of her head gently. “I fucked up,” he murmured, hanging his head. He felt like his limbs had been pumped full of lead. “Even if nothing terrible happens– Raenia, I still ruined this for you. I was– just– horrible. You have to hate me.”

Raenia smiled up at him and shook her head, making her hair shimmer with stars. “Gareth, I could never. You’re so beautiful, how could I hate you?” She paused and ran her hand down Gareth’s chest. “I loved being with you tonight, so don’t give it a thought, got it?”

Gareth withdrew from the embrace and looked at the ground. The air was beginning to stir with birdsong and dew was gathering like sweat on the grass. “We have to go home,” Gareth said, and wordlessly, he helped Raenia into her things. He tied her dress, helped her back into her coat, dusted the dirt and leaves from her, and smoothed her hair.

They silently made their way back to the road. At the edge of the trees, right before they reached the open, Gareth said, “We should part here.”

Raenia nodded. “Gareth?” she said.

But he had already turned his back and begun to make his way home.

“The Blinding,” Part 3.1

A few notes:

  • Well, I made it through my crisis yesterday. My first crisis of the NaNo season, defeated. Yay, me!
  • This portion of the story is turning out way, way longer than I’d intended, but I’m sure I’ll find something to do with all the extra material in December.
  • On the same note, I produced a ton of text yesterday, so I’m going to split it into multiple sections.
  • If you haven’t read the first two parts, here’re the links:

Part 1

Part 2

Enjoy!

“Well,” said the Prioress, “I hope you have made your peace. Now, come eat, and then you will be made ready for the ceremony.”

Fresh tears threatened to spill from Gareth’s eyes, and he cursed his cowardice. What had happened, he wondered, to the courage and resignation he had found within himself during those hours beside the fire? He had thought himself washed clean of his sorrow and fear, but he had been wrong. Already, fear stole over Gareth’s heart, overshadowing his earlier sense of catharsis. There was no escape, he realized, no holy, untouchable state for him to reach. Even in his final moments, he would never feel true courage in the face of the abyss that yawned hungrily at his feet.

Gareth would die in fear.

The Prioress, who was watching him coldly from the doorway, raised her voice, “This is not a choice. You must follow me, immediately.”

So Gareth left his little cell, warm with the fire and the afterglow of Laria’s presence. The door closed resolutely behind him, and he was standing with the Prioress in the grim, blue-shadowed stairway. “We haven’t far to go,” the old woman told him, as she led the way back down the winding steps over the sanctum.

She wasn’t lying. After less than a minute of walking, the Prioress paused in front of a door much like the one that had enclosed Gareth’s prayer room. She took a copper key from her dress pocket and turned it in the lock, which clicked neatly, and the door swung wide to reveal a dark, cramped room with a table, a stool, and a torch burning in the corner. “Sit,” the Prioress said, and Gareth did so silently. He felt strangely large and ungainly sitting in this claustrophobic room with its small, rickety furniture. He hunched over and stared at the knots of the wood constructing the table, uncomfortable, imagining the forest where this tree had made its home, and feeling sorry that it had been taken from there to be made into this rude, ugly table.

A platter was brought to Gareth, laden with a bowl of steaming soup, a small loaf of brown bread, and a flagon of ale, and he was directed to eat. Gareth’s stomach turned at the thought of food. It was so unnecessary, such a false display of civility, to pretend that his body needed sustenance when he would not live to see another full day. And yet, when the scent of the soup caught his nostrils– onion, just like what he had enjoyed eating in this place as a child– Gareth’s body betrayed him. A day of hard labor had made Gareth ravenous, and he attacked his food with an animalistic ferocity– tore at the stale bread with his teeth, and then with his hands, softening pieces of it in the broth before shoving them in his mouth. He then took the bowl, ignoring the spoon which had been provided to him, and poured the remaining soup down his gullet. He finished the beer in two gulps, and wiped his mouth with his sleeve.

Almost immediately upon finishing, Gareth’s stomach twisted into knots, and he thought for a moment that he was going to vomit. He felt dirty, like he had committed a disgusting act in front of the holy woman who stood guarding the doorway, or confirmed some horrible belief she had about him. It was his lack of dignity that affronted Gareth; the fact that he had proven himself, over and over, slave to his bodily desires. For the first time, Gareth felt that perhaps he did deserve to die, filthy, pitiable soul that he was. For wasn’t it this same lustiness, this unquenchable hunger for life and sensation that had rendered him terrified all day, which had led to his condemnation in the first place? Gareth’s skin crawled.

“Finished?” said the Prioress, and then, without waiting for a reply, “Just a small walk yet, and then your efforts will be done. Stand.”

Gareth did as he was told, newly determined to preserve some small bit of honor; to make the Prioress remember him as a good man, and not as an animal.

“We will go down to the sanctum,” the Prioress continued. “The water has been prepared there, past the Circle, through the door behind it. The ceremony will be completed– you will be purged of this life; cleansed of the sins of the earth and mortality. After this is done, you will be clothed in fresh linens and led to your holding cell, where you will stay until you are called, at dawn.”

Why did she feel the need, Gareth wondered, as his feet unconsciously traced the Prioress’ path, to explain everything to him, over and again, as if he had any choice in the matter? It might be what disgusted him most about this entire ordeal, he thought– the illusion of freedom his jailers granted him; the ability to walk freely; to follow their commands of his own bodily volition. He’d much rather be bound in chains, unable to move, and dragged from one humiliation to the next, not treated like he’d volunteered to submit himself to them like a dumb beast.

While he was walking, toward the bottom of the twisting stairwell, Gareth realized that his stomach was in genuine pain; it felt cramped, and like it might tear if he stood up straight. He doubled over as he walked, and a small groan escaped his throat, but the Prioress seemed to take no notice. She continued to move swiftly as the reached the ground floor, walking the winding path that led to the back of the large hall with brisk steps, as Gareth hobbled behind. She stopped at the far end of the room, and pushed aside an impossibly long red curtain. Gareth looked up to the dizzying heights of the tower; the material seemed to be hanging from somewhere near its very top, out of sight.

The heady scent of steaming, fragrant water met them as they passed the threshold, and the curtain draped closed behind them. The cloud of water vapor which enveloped the chamber smelled intoxicating. Gareth, longing to distract himself from the pain growing in his belly, tried to identify the dizzying array of flora; lavender, rose, plum, lilac, apple, musk, jasmine, but no, there were too many. About a dozen priestesses, who ranged in years from Gareth’s age to, it seemed, upward of sixty, knelt before them. The women were robed in beautiful, ethereal gowns of barege, white and gold, tied below the breast with rosy sashes.

With a start, Gareth recognized several faces from his childhood.

The priestesses were singing, he realized, the same enchanting melody he had heard earlier when he entered the temple. It’s twisting tune, high, ghostly, echoing like light refracted through snow, rang through Gareth’s aching heart, and he wondered what meaning was hidden in that song; whether it boded him good or evil.

“Disrobe him,” said the Prioress.

“No!” burst Gareth in surprise, not trying to contain his anger. He wasn’t sure what he had expected– he hadn’t thought much about it– but Gareth knew he did not want to be undressed; put on display before all these women like a piece of meat.

“Yes, you must,” said the Prioress, “if you want to be sent to your death clean.”

“I can’t,” Gareth stammered, but, despite his protestations, a Priestess, the eldest among them, rose like white smoke from the circle, and, with a small golden dagger, cut his clothes from his body, throwing them into the fire. They were consumed in a hiss of glowing smoke. Gareth instinctually fumbled to cover his nakedness. “Fuck!” he said, no longer caring whether or not he offended his jailers; he wanted to be left alone. He felt sick, violated.

“Quiet!” cried the Prioress. “Do not profane this hall with such language, Gareth!” This was the first time she had used his name. The old woman looked directly into his eyes. Hers were wide with seriousness. “You must obey me, or, I promise you, what suffering awaits you beyond this world will be greater and more terrible than you can possibly understand. Look at yourself, Gareth. You are broken; earthly punishment has already pushed you beyond what you can bear. Think, then, of what tortures Tehngah can devise, and of experiencing them for eternity. How would you cope; how would you stand the unending, unerring pain?”

She knelt beside Gareth, who was crouched on the ground, hiding his body from her eyes. “You have made terrible mistakes, and, by the laws of Tehngah, which govern this world, you are paying a terrible, necessary price. But your suffering can end here, if you choose.”

Gareth felt so much at once, he couldn’t sort one emotion from another. He wanted to embrace the priestess, or else to strike her. She really wanted him to die, he thought, she actually believed he deserved what was going to be done to him.

But she loved him, he thought.

And then Gareth hated Tehngah, who, if she existed, did not deserve to be a god. Gareth hated this ceremony, and this place, for being built to honor a brutal, bloodthirsty tyrant.

He was in so much pain. Gareth tried to remember what was happening, but he couldn’t seem to focus. His thoughts were confused in the overly sweet perfumes, the stench of his sweat, the hot feeling of bile rising in his throat.

Then it was too much, and Gareth scrambled on his knees to the corner of the room and wretched. He clutched his stomach in agony, doubled over, and vomited until he was utterly empty. For a few minutes, his stomach continued to contract, as if trying to rid itself of some poison, but there was nothing left for Gareth to purge. His head felt agonizingly light, and his eyes slid in and out of focus. Gareth steadied himself, his arm extended against the wall, and his surroundings began to make sense again. He felt a cold trickle of sweat down the bridge of his nose, his sore knees, his every muscle wrung with effort. His mouth tasted like copper.

Gareth could sense the shadows of the priestess swaying like trees behind where he knelt; their gazes upon him like cold moonlight. Suddenly, he said, “I’d like to bathe, please.” All Gareth could think was that the warm water might soothe his pain some, and of dipping his head below the surface and feeling the months of accumulated filth rise from his body. He could scarcely remember what it felt like to have smooth, clean skin.

A black-haired girl, who looked not yet twenty in years, offered her arm and helped Gareth rise on his quaking legs, and led him to the deep pool that shimmered beyond an arched entrance way, surrounded by oils and perfumes. Her face was distantly familiar, but no name came to Gareth’s tongue. On his opposite side, an older, unfamiliar priestess grasped his arm. The pair directed him to the edge of the steam clouded bath, and walked with him down the steps that led into the unbroken mirror of the water.

Gareth submerged himself, step by step, in the searing heat of the bathwater, which stung his skin like fire, until he was at the center of the pool, where the water came to the middle of his chest. The two women were beside him in the water, their dresses soaked and clinging to their lithe forms. The younger girl, whose face was so familiar, took her hand and pushed down on the back of Gareth’s neck. Gareth acquiesced to her touch and submerged his entire body beneath the surface. The water closed like a suffocating grip over his mouth and nose, and, for a frightening moment, panic threatened to engulf him again, but Gareth pushed it back. He floated there for a minute, imagining the nothingness of death would be like this– like the nothingness before birth; a safe, warm, suspension, a feeling of being contained in the fullness of love.

Needing to breathe, Gareth pushed his feet against the floor and broke the surface of the pool. He gulped the sweet air down hungrily. The priestess at his left tugged Gareth’s arm, and he was led to the far end of the bath, where the shelves of oils and perfumes glittered like jewels. The two women seated him on the steps there, and began to wash him. Gareth was torn between extreme comfort and discomfort, as the priestesses attentively scrubbed his body with thick, white cloths and, with their smooth hands, anointed him with oil. It felt so impossibly good to be touched like this, the warm water surrounding and cradling his body. He could feel himself grow hard as the younger girl ran her hands across his chest. Unable to help himself, Gareth burst with a harsh laugh that turned into a hacking cough.

“Are you alright?” asked the black-haired priestess.

“Fine,” choked Gareth. The whole thing was so absurd, he thought. In a few hours, he’d be killed because of this temple’s laws, which forbade him from bedding a woman who was not his wife, but first he was going to be bathed in that temple, in the most blatantly erotic manner possible. Was this some sort of test; did these priestesses realize what they were doing? Unable to keep his eyes away, Gareth could see the women’s small, soft breasts through the thin white cloth of their robes, which clung to them around their waists and legs. They ran their pretty, rosy fingers through his hair. Gareth bit his lip and closed his eyes, trying to swallow back a moan of longing. He laughed again, snorting through his nose, and thought that surely this must be purposeful torture. Gareth immediately felt terrible guilt, knowing that he should not be looking at these holy women the way he was, with voluptuous desire. He closed his eyes tighter, gripped the edge of his seat until his knuckles hurt, and waited for it all to be finished.

When Gareth was clean, the priestesses rose from the water, which streamed from their clothes like glistening ribbons. The tantalizingly familiar woman was then handed a fat towel, which she placed at the edge of the basin for Gareth. She offered him a milky pale hand, and he took it, pulling himself from the clutch of the water, which cried off his skin in a shimmering burst. He bent and pulled the towel around his form, very glad to no longer be exposed. The women came to him, with fresh white clothes laid out in their arms. Gareth scrambled to dress himself. It felt good to be clean, and his new clothes were impossibly soft against his skin, sewn from better quality cloth than what Gareth could have ever afforded to wear. He tried with great effort to ignore the ache of his hardness, and hoped desperately that none of the women had noticed, figuring that this was the sort of thing they were likely to find offensive to the laws of Tehngah, and all that. Gareth focused on the anger he felt at that thought, and it steadied him.

The young priestess took his hand. Her long, wet black hair was tied back with a red bow. She gave Gareth a smile that did not reach her eyes. “I’ll take you to your cell,” she said.

“Where is the Prioress?” Gareth asked, as the girl pulled him toward a staircase in the back left corner of the chamber, which headed downward, into the catacombs. The air inside was dank and cold.

“She left,” the priestess said matter-of-factly.

Gareth’s heart felt like it had been plunged into a snow melt. After everything, she hadn’t even bid him goodbye.

“Did you know I used to live here?” he burst suddenly.

“Of course!” the girl sniffed. “You were the only boy who lived here, do you think I didn’t notice?”

“I don’t know.”

The girl sighed as they continued down a long hall. Gareth began to shiver. The air was getting colder. His breath steamed in front of him in the dim light. They were only one floor underground, he noted, and now walking parallel to the slope of the ground outside. The indistinct, ghostly light of the moon and stars pooled in the hall through a series of small windows that were carved every few feet along the very top of the long walls in the passageway. Their walk ended at a small, bare room with a straw floor.

The girl closed herself in with him. Gareth wondered how she wasn’t cold in her thin dress, with her stream of dark, wet hair clinging to her back. “I’m supposed to watch you until the soldiers come to take you,” she explained.

“Soldiers come for me?” asked Gareth, with a start. “I thought I was to stay here to-night!”

“No,” she said to him in a tone that suggested that she thought him particularly stupid. “That is forbidden.”

“Do you know where I am to be taken?”

“No.”

She crossed her arms and stared at Gareth. “You don’t remember me, do you?”

“I’m sorry,” Gareth said, and meant it. “You seemed familiar. What’s your name?”

“Agathine.”

“Ah,” he said, “I remember now. You were a year younger that me.”

Agathine furrowed her brows, and her mouth made a thin, angry line. Gareth wondered why she was so upset. “You don’t believe in any of this at all, do you Gareth?”

“In what? In Tehngah?”

Agathine made a furious buzzing sound in her throat, which Gareth took as a yes.

“No, not much. I guess if I did, I wouldn’t have done what I did, would I?”

“I suppose not,” she agreed, and, after a pause, added, “I can’t believe you’d think that, though, after growing up here. Tehngah’s given you everything you ever had.”

Gareth shrugged. He didn’t feel like being lectured.

The silence stretched out thin between them, until Agathine said, “I hear guards.”

Gareth hung his head. “This is it, then.”

“It is,” she said, “Goodbye, Gareth.”

Then Gareth remembered something. “Wait, Agathine, can you do something for me?” He didn’t wait for her answer. “In the chamber where I said my prayers earlier, I left a silver coin next to the fire. Can you find it and bring it to the shrine? Offer it, in the name of a man named Hastfel, and– just say a prayer that good fortune follows him.”

Agathine gave him an inscrutable look.

“Please?” he said, “It’s not for me, it’s for Hastfel. He’s a good, pious man. You’d like him,” he added with a small smile.

Agathine nodded, and exited silently before Gareth had time to thank her, slipping through the half-opened doorway like a thin ghost, and disappearing as the door clanged shut behind her.

Moments later, small platoon of guards arrived. They were decked out in thick furs, and their footsteps caused a great clanging of metal boots, keys, weaponry, and chains. They wore helms of animal heads, which disguised their features behind pelts and snarling fangs.

“Gareth Tehngir?” called the leader in a booming voice.

Gareth stepped forward, steeling his heart with all the courage he had left. The soldier strode heavily into the room, grabbed Gareth by the arm and then, raising his boot, kicked him against the wall. He grabbed Gareth by the back of his hair, pulled a black blindfold from his belt, and tied it around his eyes. He bound his arms, feet, and neck in ice-cold chains. Without speaking, he yanked the prisoner by the chain around his neck, leading him on. Gareth choked and sputtered, trying in vain to keep pace with the large guard on his leaden legs. He stumbled blindly along, until he could feel the grass and ice crunch beneath his feet and sense the snow-scented night air on his skin and lips. Then he stopped. He could hear horses whinny and stamp their hooves on the hardened ground.

Suddenly, he was being hoisted in the air by a pair of beefy arms, and dropped onto a wooden floor. Gareth jerked his legs and turned his head, trying to orient himself. He heard the crack of  a whip, a cry that dissipated quickly into the snow, and the screams of horses. The ground below him jerked, and Gareth began to process what was happening. He was being driven in the back of a wagon, to who knew where.

Gareth tried to steady his breathing, and his madly fluttering heartbeat. Already, the warm fires of the Priory seemed a world away. He crawled as best he could on his chained limbs to the front of his carriage. He shouted, “Please, please! Where are you taking me?”

The driver did not answer. Gareth sat upright, leaning against the side of the vehicle, and pulled his knees to his chest. “It doesn’t matter,” he whispered to himself, and tried to clear his head. Thoughts of his prison; of the merciless, gnawing cold; of the tall tree, from which he would soon hang, rising up like a dark phantom in the night– Gareth pushed them all to the back of his mind.

He concentrated on his breathing; how it felt so good to breath.

The cart was making a slower pace now. Gareth could feel from its motion that its wheels were mired in thick snows. It was snowing all around, Gareth could tell even in his blindness. He could feel the flakes touch his face, hiss and melt on his skin, each a deathly cold kiss. He could hear the low crackle of the accumulated drifts melting and shifting imperceptibly around him. So close to death, now, Gareth’s every sense tingled with wide, painful awareness. The wind moaned over the low, open ground. The sound of trees dancing snow off their hair was dim and distant.

With a lurch of his stomach, Gareth realized where he was to be kept that night. After that, he could no longer control his fear.

When the cart ground to a slow halt, Gareth was in the back, still hugging his knees, shaking like a leaf. He tensed as he heard the crunch of boots approaching in the snow.

The creak of a door swinging wide on its hinges. The clang of metal. The groan of damp wood as it buckled and strained under the weight of another occupant. Two huge hands grabbed Gareth’s limp body, hauling him up by the armpits. Gareth tried to stand, but his legs didn’t seem to work. The hands released him, and his body stung as it hit the floor. Then, he was being dragged by the chain around his neck. It choked him horribly, and he clawed at it with his hands. He was at the edge of the cart, being dragged still. Then he was falling, and then he was laying in the snow.

Gareth screamed. He was wearing nothing but the thin cotton shirt and pants he had received at the Priory. The snow bit his flesh like a thousand shark’s teeth. “Please!” he sputtered. “Please, just let me s-stand!” The tugging at his neck ceased, and Gareth struggled with all his strength to stand, but his legs remained useless beneath him. Gareth flung his arms forward in desperation. “Just h-help me up, p-please, please!”

To Gareth’s relief, someone took his arms and pulled him to his feet. This time, he managed to hold his legs steady beneath him. The soldier extended his arm behind Gareth’s back and held him, so Gareth could lean some of his weight against his body. In this way, Gareth moved forward as best he could through the thick, choking snow, with the tiny steps he could make with his sore feet, which were chained together by the ankles.

Just a short way he walked like this, not thirty feet. The soldier removed his arm from around Gareth. He removed Gareth’s blindfold.

Gareth screamed again, and this time he could not stop. He had been right.

At his feet yawned the grave he had dug that morning. It had been fitted with a caged door. That was where he was meant to spend his final night– in the same grave where he would be buried the next day.

All thought of dignity forgotten, Gareth fell to his knees. He bent his arms and folded his hands in a gesture of prayer. He tried to find the eyes of the soldier behind that fearsome mask. “No, no, no,” he begged, “Don’t make me do this, I’ll do anything!”

Wordless, the soldier dragged him, again, by the chain about his neck, toward the edge of the grave. Gareth writhed desperately. He twisted his head, trying to meet the soldier’s gaze. “You don’t understand!” His voice was rising in pitch. “I can’t, I just can’t!” The soldier released the chain. For a moment, Gareth felt relief.

The soldier kicked him in the chest with his heavy metal boot. Gareth’s body slipped over the edge. He grabbed for it, missed. For a moment, he was falling. Then, his head thudded on the hard dirt. He was disoriented. He heard the scream of metal, and looked up, just as the cage closed above him with a clang like a great bell.

He was trapped.

Gareth was seized with violent claustrophobia. He tried to climb, making a mess of it with his tangle  of strength-sapped arms and legs. It was deeper, he realized, than it had been this morning. Someone must have dug it more. But even if he reached the top, Gareth thought, collapsing, there was that cage.

Gareth didn’t know what to do. How many hours til dawn? He did not know. He forced himself to his feet, not wanting to lay there, not wanting to imagine what it would be to lay in this place forever and ever. He was alive, Gareth told himself. He turned around and around. He put his hand against the dirt, and shuddered. He pressed his face against it, imagining it clogging his mouth and nose, imagining it enclosing him forever, crawling and alive with worms and spiders and maggots.

It was freezing. Gareth was colder that he’d ever been in his life. Maybe he’d die in the night, he hoped wildly, maybe he’d slip quietly to sleep here in the cold, and never wake; spared the final humiliation they had in store for him.

Gareth heard footsteps above. For a brief moment, his heart fluttered with hope, but then he realized there must be a guard standing watch over his prison. As if he had enough strength left to devise an escape, thought Gareth ruefully.

Exhaustion stole over him. Gareth lowered his body to the ground, and closed his eyes. “Please, don’t let me wake,” he prayed, though he didn’t know to whom.

“The Blinding,” Part 2

Part 1

Gareth obeyed, and began the trek from the potter’s field back to Grel. He thought about continuing his conversation with Hastfel, but no words came to mind. Even in his final hours, Gareth thought ruefully, he lacked the courage to connect with the people around him. He’d always told himself that he would grow to have friends; a happy little life with a family, but he had defeated himself in that desire at every turn. Now, it was far to late to think of such things. So Gareth remained silent, instead watching the birds wheel high in the unbroken blue sky; the cold breeze play in the bare branches of the darkened trees.

After thirty minutes or so, Gareth could make out the lights of Grel peeping out from among the low hills to the west. The trees and shrubbery grew thicker here, and smoke rose from chimneys and twined into the air like pale branches greeting the sky. Gareth felt a sweet, heavy pang in his chest. This was the last time he’d see his home. The path Hastfel and he took was a darker brown than it had been out in the field, warm and worn from the steps of many boot-clad feet.

Presently, Gareth and his captor began to pass the citizens of Grel going about their business in the street. Children in little coats and boots stopped to stare; squinted at the ragged, scary man being led in chains past their homesteads. Some pointed, while the more timid ones ran and hid among their mothers’ heavy skirts, screeching loudly. Humiliation reddened Gareth’s neck and ears, and he wished that the earth would swallow him up then and there. It was too much, he kept thinking. He couldn’t face the gaze of these people. And how could he stand returning to the Priory, to the place he was raised, and facing the women who had nursed and clothed him, as a condemned man?

Gareth felt Hastfel’s firm hand on his back, pushing him forward. He realized his steps had slowed, in his reluctance. Go on, he told himself, leave this place, leave these people. So Gareth kept his eyes fixed on the horizon, determined not to look about to see all these achingly familiar places. He could not help, however, seeing in his mind’s eye all the spots in town where he’d passed so many contented days.

Without looking he knew them, by the incline of the path, by the shade of trees; the quantity of light, the smell. Here, he thought, was the butcher shop where he’d gone on the third day every week to buy a fowl, some eggs, and a slab of bacon. The baker’s, where he always received a discount in exchange for the time he had convinced the Prioress herself  to appeal to, and send the baker’s prayers, directly to Tehngah. Gareth could smell the honey cakes from Anise’s cart, hear the empty clink of glasses coming from Dolbrek’s keep, the thud of beer-laden flagons on his wooden table.

There was the spot where Gareth would often sit after work, he remembered, his back and arms sore and numb with exertion, drink a brew, and watch the people pass by outside the window, faces ruddy in the night. He did not envy them, but he new he’d never be one of them. Dolbrek was a large, open-faced, chatty fellow with an eye for women, and he’d often hold court over the bar with his patrons, guffawing loudly about this or that. When Gareth first started his tradition of drinking at Dolbrek’s every evening, he was nervous about making conversation with the man, but he needn’t have been. Dolbrek never attempted a dialogue with Gareth, taking his coin and handing him his drink with a polite nod of his head, as he turned to greet his other customers with a garrulous hello. People seemed always able to sense Gareth’s reticence, and avoided long discourse with him. There was never dislike, just distance. Gareth wondered if his trial and sentencing would have gone differently if he’d earned the love of the people he saw every day– the butcher, the barkeep, the school minister, the shop owners, even the priestesses who had known him since he was small. Would they have rushed to his defense? Would his life have been spared?

Grel was a small town, on the edge of the hinterlands on one side and the great, looming Baler mountains on the other. The structures in the town had been built, mostly, from wood and dirt. Many residences were merely large tents constructed from animal hides and furs, with lanterns strung around the perimeter to frame the yards. The tallest buildings had two floors, but most were one level, perhaps with a cellar to store food and drink. There was only one deviation from this modest and rustic style of architecture within the borders of the hamlet.

On the far west side of Grel, on the highest hill, lay the shrine to Tehngah. It was a massive stone building, with a huge and beautifully carved arch of polished cherry wood in front of it. The arch was draped in woven flowers, scented furs, velvet streamers, and chains of gold coins. Beneath the arch, there was a wide, shallow basin full of roaring fire like a giant, glowing lily floating magnificently in water. This fire was fed by the priestesses day and night; attended with the finest wood and oil, scented with spices and incense. It was said that this great beacon was the connection between the mortal and the spirit world, where Tehngah resided on her bed of lavender, hycinthine, rose, and plum petals. If the fire were extinguished, so to would be Tehngah’s love for the world. Around the fire, day and night, priestesses and penitents knelt, casting offerings into the fire, or else arranging them on the polished stone dais which framed the basin. In recent years, worshipers had begun to come from all across the kingdom, even from the other side of the Farbringur ocean to offer expensive and fanciful gifts to lay at the feet of the Goddess.

Behind the center shrine was a tall climbing tower, which flowered with golden bells at the summit. These would ring gaily every morning, on the solstices, or, solemnly, when a citizen was being laid to rest in the Priory’s yard. As a child, Gareth would run up the stairs, from his room at the bottom of the catacombs, when he heard the bells tremble the air mournfully some evening, knowing that some poor soul had left this world behind. Death had always fascinated and terrified Gareth. He would watch in awe as the priestesses would bless the body with their tears, glass beads, and rose water, wrap it in clean cotton linen, and then close it in a rough-hewn wooden box– wood so unlike the highly polished cherry of the Tehngah’s arch, which loomed like a vengeful angel over the mournful scene. Gareth would always hide his eyes when the box was closed, hating to imagine how it felt, to be shut away forever, never to see the sun or moon again.

Hastfel led Gareth beyond the center shrine, to the forbidding stone doors at the base of the tower. This place was not as familiar to Gareth, whom, as a boy, had never been allowed to the place where the priestesses had conducted their most sacred rituals. The workings of the tower were shrouded in mystery, for here, it was said, the holy women would commune with Tehngah, begging her favor for a good yield in crops, for trade from across the Farbringur ocean, for beloved citizens to be saved from disease, ill fortune, or familial distress. This was also, Gareth knew, where the priestesses would pray on the behalf of those condemned to die, that they might be spared the eternal wrath of Tehngah.

Before they crossed the threshold, Hastfel paused. He made tentative eye contact with Gareth, and then looked away hastily. He pulled the thick, white rope that dangled in front of the door, and, somewhere above, a single, huge bell struck a low, mournful tone. “Alright, Gareth. This is where I leave you. Try not to worry, the women here will appeal to Tehngah. You don’t have to worry about the state of your soul when– well– tomorrow morning. You will have the Goddess’ favor.”

Gareth did not believe in such things; in a Goddess whose good will could be bandied and bought, but he said nothing of this to Hastfel, who was showing him greater kindness than anyone had previously, throughout his trial and condemnation. Instead he said, “I grew up here. I trust the priestesses. And in Tehngah’s mercy.”

“Oh, yeh, I’d heard that,” mused Hastfel half-thoughtedly, his hand rummaging in his deep pocket, searching for something. “Here,” he said, pulling out a single silver coin. It gleamed like a moon in the light of Tehngah’s fire. “This is for you, for Tehngah’s blessing, an offering.”

Gareth could not move, nor think of what to say. He didn’t know how to respond to such a spontaneous act of trust and kindness, or even how to believe that someone cared enough to show him such compassion. A silver coin was enough to feed a modest family for a week, and not something to be given or taken lightly. Finally, he blushed and said, “Why?” looking at the ground, biting his lower lip.

Hastfel put a hand on his shoulder and said, “Gareth, you don’t see it, but there’re a lot of us who think you’re a good man. You don’t deserve what you got, not especially after you’ve shown such valor in battle. The men who condemned you don’t know what is is to face death. They’re cowards, deciding who lives and who dies, when they don’t know– they have no idea– what it means to die.” He paused worriedly, as if he felt he’d said too much, and concluded, “That’s what we think, lots of us.”

Gareth shook his head mutely, clasped his fists together in embarrassed discomfort. His face was red, and he felt heat creep down his arms despite the cold.

The guard chuckled sadly, took Gareth’s white fist, pried the fingers open and put the coin there. Gareth’s fingers closed around it automatically; he could’t unclench his hands if he tried. He was shaking. From cold, from fear, from exertion  The sky overhead was darkening, though it was hours until sunset still. The clouds, which rolled in fast and low, were ruddy and swollen with unspilled snow. The sense of disconnect gripped Gareth more than ever. None of this was real. He felt no cold, his feet couldn’t feel the boots which hugged them, nor the weight of the earth pushing against him. He heard Hastfel’s voice as if from far away, separated by time moreso than distance, as if in a memory recalled only in dreaming. Gareth swayed on the spot, overcome with dizziness and exhaustion.

“Goodbye,” said Hastfel.

“Goodbye,” muttered Gareth.

“Wait a moment, sir.” A third voice, a woman’s, cracked with age like old leather. Gareth blinked, forced himself back to reality. The Prioress was there– the woman who, if it could be said of anyone, raised him. When he was a small boy, three years old, too young to understand, he had called her ‘mother.’

The Prioress showed no sign of recognition. Instead, she addressed Hastfel curtly, “This is a holy place. The condemned shall not walk past this threshold in chains. He is in Tehngah’s power now, so  make haste and unbind him here.”

The condemned, she called him.

Hastfel bowed and obeyed the Prioress’ command. She was the highest authority in Grel, whose laws were all derived from the teachings of Tehngah and her oracles. Gareth stood stiffly as the guard unfastened his chains. He felt strangely weightless without them, as if he might float up to the sky on the heat of the fire that raged behind him, and the fever that had begun to burn on his brow. Gareth considered, briefly, throwing himself into that fire. A final act of defiance, denying these people the satisfaction of murdering him under the guise of civility and ceremony. But the thought vanished like vapor. Gareth was tired to his core; too tired for such things. If he desecrated Tehngah’s fire, Gareth would be reviled as long as her followers continued to worship the Goddess.

More than anything, Gareth didn’t want people to hate him.

“You may leave us now,” said the Prioress.

Hastfel bowed again, this time low, so his scarf brushed the stone floor. As he rose, he stepped backward respectfully, his hands clasped behind his back. But, before he left, the guard said, “Gareth…” His pale face was passive, but his deep-set eyes showed concern.

Gareth nodded to him, and turned away. Hastfel’s kindness made his chest hurt, and he found that all he wanted was to be left alone. Otherwise, he felt, his emotions would overwhelm him.

“Alright,” he heard Hastfel say, “Your Holiness.”

“Go along, young man. This prisoner is in my care now.”

“Of course, Holiness.” And Gareth heard Hastfel’s footsteps fade into the grey swath of winter.

Gareth raised his eyes to the Prioress’, hoping for some sign of love, or at least recognition. The past eight years had aged her greatly and she looked less like a woman, now, and more a ghost. Her skin, transparent and purpled with veins, seemed thin as vellum, and it wrinkled around her eyes, making them seem small. She had the white eyes of all the Priestesses of Tehngah, and, though hers had always borne the humanity of compassion and generosity within them, they now seemed distant. It was as if age had weathered away her remaining connections to the earth and she was floating, now, like an angel, bound to life and humanity by only a thin tether. Less worldly and more holy, her aged skin seemed to glow, even against the backdrop of snow and fire. Regarding her, Gareth’s hope faded.

“Come.” She raised a hand and gestured to him, the end her long red sleeve gliding along the stone as she did so.

Gareth obeyed silently.

In the inner sanctum, there was another fire, this one in a large stone hearth. Below the steps leading up to it, there was a circular indentation, about forty feet in diameter, in the middle of which there was a raised stone mosaic of the character for ‘lily’ adorned with flowers and flames, depicted with gold flecks, pearls, amethysts, rubies, opals, and diamonds of yellow, black, red, and white. Surrounding this tile, there was a hoard of chests and bottles spilling with strange and colorful treasures. Spices, crushed flowers, many-colored powders and liquids, gemstones, glittering black eyes, faggots of fragrant wood, and many other wonders, of which Gareth could only guess an origin, lay on the floor without any apparent thought or design. And around the perimeter of the circular floor, priestesses knelt, danced, or prayed in lilting songs that wove their melodies together like a tapestry of moonlight and fire.

Despite his desperate plight, Gareth felt awed, perhaps even privileged that he, among all men, had been permitted to see this wondrous place.

“Your place is up the stairs,” said the Prioress. She led the way with feet that were quick and sure, belying her great age, around the prayer circle and behind the fire. The wide stone stairs spiraled up and up, and, as he wound in circles above it, Gareth looked down on the priestess’ worshipful dance in admiration. They walked for some time, and just as Gareth was beginning to lose breath and to wonder if they were climbing all the way up to the belfry, the Prioress held her hand up and, with the other, opened a wooden door.

The door creaked open to reveal a modest room, mostly unfurnished save for a deerskin rug and a low wooden table. A small, barred window looked out over the shrine. He could hear the great flames murmur their strange lullaby, even from so far above, and their arterial light danced against the far wall. There was a small fire in his chamber, burning coldly in an unadorned grate, and a step before it where, Gareth guessed, he would kneel and pray until it was decided he would leave.

“Kneel,” said the Prioress, and Gareth obeyed on shaking legs. He heard her long skirts murmur as she headed for the door, and looked up expectantly, as if anticipating some word of love from the priestess, before she saw him gone from the world, the little boy who had loved her as a mother.

“Do not move. Someone will be by presently to speak with you. Until then, pray to Tehngah with all your sorry soul.”

The door snapped shut. Gareth was alone.

Like an animal, he sprung to the door, which had no handle. Gareth pushed and pushed with all his strength and then, when he found that fruitless, pried at it with his long, untrimmed fingernails, until they were raw and bleeding. Finally, with a bestial, wordless cry, he flung his full weight against the door and then collapsed to the ground with a heavy thud. He grabbed at his hair, raked his bleeding fingers across his face, which was sodden and hot with tears.

Gareth cried and cried, a hopeless, guttural wail of terror that he could no longer suppress. He couldn’t breath. He tried to gulp down air, couldn’t, and clawed in panic at his throat. That’s where it would happen, he thought, over and over. The rope, the rope that would end his existence, his thoughts, his dearest memories. Everything that was a part of him, obliterated.

Gareth lay on the cold floor for a time, in the fetal position, his large body wracked with uncontrollable sobs, sucking in air with tenuous, rattling breaths. He felt like he was being suffocated.

Suddenly, animated by some unknowable impulse, Gareth sprung to his feet with the quickness of a cat and and ran to the window. His hands grasped the bars, like an infant’s small fists grip his mother’s fingers, and his aching lungs drew in the cold, smoky air.

The fresh air calmed him somewhat. It was snowing, Gareth noticed. The pure dancing snow was so, so unbearably beautiful. The weight of its terrible beauty seemed to crush him with a planetary force. If he were a bird, Gareth imagined, he would fly from between these bars, wildly into the open coldness, and live blindly in that white snow, that snow unbound like a woman’s tumbled, tumultuous blonde hair. Hide forever in that blinding white hollowness.

Gareth ran his hands over the stone bricks of his cell, feeling every cold bump and groove of their surface. He kissed the stone wetly, pressed his fevered cheek against its ice, savoring every sensation of his doomed body. He touched his face again and again, memorizing it.

This is me, this is me. Was he speaking out loud?

This thought jarred Gareth entirely out of his madness. Abashed, he thought how the entire Priory must have heard his cries, how the people below the tower must have laughed at his cowardice. I am a soldier, Gareth thought, A soldier. I know how to face death with a defiant heart. I will do this. I will.

And so he gathered his courage and knelt before the fire. Tears still streamed down his cheeks, but they were quiet, cleansing tears. He felt his soul grow light as snow. Gareth pictured the faces of the people he had loved, and of the parents whose features he had only every imagined, and whispered, “Thank you, thank you,” as he silently bid them goodbye forever.

Presently, Gareth heard the hinges of the door squeal. He looked up, and his face broke into a smile of recognition. “Laria!” he cried, and he threw himself at the Priestess’ feet, before he could think about it, or wonder if this would offend her.

“Oh, Gods, Gareth,” Laria swore in a gentle voice, as she softly closed the door behind her. “What has become of you, you poor thing?” She knelt, grabbed Gareth by the arms, and hauled him to his feet. He clung to her awkwardly, and kissed her hard on both cheeks.  “Look at me, Gareth.”

Gareth gazed at Laria with the simpleness of a child– his oldest friend whom he hadn’t seen since he’d been apprenticed to Grange and left the Priory. She’d grown lovely. Her snow-blonde hair was twined and arranged in many braids, and her face conveyed a delicate purity. The fine features that had made her a gangling, boyish youth had become beautiful and bird-like. Gareth drank her presence in like a flowery wine– the smooth planes of her face, her thin nose, her large moon-colored eyes, and the small, red bloom of her mouth. “Gareth?” she said, hesitant.

“Sorry, sorry, yes. I hear you.”

“Listen. I’m going to be right back. I’m going to get some chairs so we can sit and talk. You need to be able to rest comfortably. Is that alright? Is it alright if I leave?”

“You’ll be right back.”

“Yes, yes. Don’t worry.”

And so Laria shut the door noiselessly behind her, while Gareth stood rooted in the spot, and, when she arrived back less than a minute later, he had not moved.

“You must be in shock,” she said, as she dragged two wooden stools to the corner next to the fire.

“I must be,” Gareth agreed. He did not move.

“Sit down!”

Gareth smiled sheepishly and, with a shrug of his broad shoulders, he seated himself. It felt nice to let his body lose its tension. Laria sat across from him, and stared at him with concern. She leaned forward and held his brown, calloused hand in her smooth, pale one. Gareth was suddenly aware of how he must have smelled, and blushed. “Listen,” Laria said, “is there… is there anything you need to talk about?”

Gareth didn’t know where to begin. He looked into the fire.

Laria seemed to understand, and continued to speak, half to herself. “I’ve prayed so much for you. I don’t think you can imagine how all this has tormented me. At first I thought you’d be fine. After all, Raenia’s father is Lyr, and you’re as good as a son to the Prioress–” (At this Gareth winced) “– so I thought for sure you would be shown mercy. And when they sentenced you! I kneeled outside the Prioress’ room night and day, begging for your life. And Raenia’s,” she added, after a short pause. “But she would not listen!”

“She felt betrayed,” Gareth reasoned, in a resigned tone.

“That is nothing but disgusting pride! You are her son! Our brother! Whatever you did with Raenia, her sin of murderous pride is a thousand times more abhorrent!” Suddenly, Laria’s furious voice broke. “To let you die,” she said, touching Gareth’s forehead as her eyes glowed in a halo of tears. Time passed where neither friend said a thing, until, finally, Laria said, “I can’t believe what they’re going to do to you. I can’t eat or sleep. I spend every night before the fire, chanting every prayer I know. I’ve even prayed for the Prioress’ death, so that I might take her place and grant you pardon. But Tehngah abhors me, probably because she knows the disgusting sin in my heart.”

“No,” Gareth said resolutely, “she hates me. Don’t let this weigh on your soul, Laria. You’re going to be Prioress soon. Please, just– remain yourself, the girl you’ve always been, so you can be the fair and wise leader you were meant to be. Please?”

Laria smiled. “You’re different. That’s already more than you ever said to me when we were kids.”

Gareth let out a strangled laugh. “You’re exactly the same. I don’t know why you ever gave half a shit about me. Sorry!” he added immediately, clasping his hand over his mouth.

“Gods, Gareth, just because I’m a priestess now, that doesn’t mean my virgin ears can’t handle a curse or two!” Laria shook her head in laughter, and then, growing somber, she said, “I need you to be able to talk freely to me. I don’t know how much time we have, and you need to unburden your soul.”

He just looked at her blankly, so she added, “Look, I know you like to put on a brave face. ‘Oh, look at me, I’m about to be murdered, no big deal! Let’s grab a beer afterwards! La-de-da, tra-la.’ But I know you’re scared. We all could hear you up here, screaming and crying like a big baby monkey, so don’t act like you have nothing to say to me!” Laria’s thin cheeks were red with anger. She took a deep breath and continued, gentler, “I want you to confide in me. Ready your soul for what’s to come, because you haven’t faced the worst of it yet, and you need to be at peace. And also,” (here she blushed), “you’ve led a lonely life. No one knows you, except maybe some of the men you fought with. And even they only know a small part of you. You’ve got no family–”

Humiliated, Gareth snarled, “Is this supposed to make me feel better?”

“Sorry, just– let me finish. When you die, your family is who carries on your memory after you’re gone. They keep you with them in their hearts, and bear your soul forever with their love. And I– I want to remember you. Forever, just like your wife would, if you’d had a wife. But I don’t know you at all, so how can I? So please talk to me! You deserve someone who will love and honor you.” Laria took both of Gareth’s hands, and looked beseechingly into his eyes.

Gareth didn’t know what was wrong with him. Laria was right. A few minutes ago he’d been bawling on the floor, longing for some act of compassion, and now that his wish had been answered, his emotions felt dulled and flat. Maybe, he thought, it was the fact that he felt so safe and at home with Laria that his imminent doom no longer felt real. But it was, Gareth realized. He was still going to die at dawn. He only had a few scant hours, maybe less, to spend with this girl who made him feel so safe he no longer feared death.

Then, with a shock like ice-water, Gareth remembered something Laria had said.

“Wait. Raenia. Did you say– you said that you begged for her life! Is she– is she to die, then? I thought it was against Tehngah’s laws to kill a woman who is with child!”

Laria’s face fell. “Oh, Gareth, you haven’t heard?”

“HEARD WHAT?” Gareth was suddenly bellowing at the top of his lungs. Guilt surged through his veins like magma and boiled into anger.

“Sssh! You’re going to get me kicked out! Calm. Down.”

Gareth inclined his head stiffly to signify his ascent, but every muscle in his neck was strained with barely contained rage. A vein throbbed in his temple.

“As of now, she’s sentenced to die in a few months.”

Gareth let out a low moan.

“It’s her fucking father,” said Laria with a sneer, “That Goddess-forsaken muckfaced sack of shit. You’re right, of course: under Tehngah’s laws, Raenia’s life is sacred while she carries her child. And once she is a mother, her duty to that child is sacred as well. A child must have family to protect it, at all costs. All the Lyr had to say was that he refused to take possession of the child in the event of Raenia’s death, on the grounds that it’s a bastard, and Raenia would have been law-bound to raise the baby. The Priory could not touch her; she certainly couldn’t have been executed.”

“But the Lyr wouldn’t relinquish his familial bonds to the child– knowing this meant that Raenia would die?” Gareth said in a voice strained with disbelief.

“Yes,” answered Laria quietly. “He said– that she deserved to be punished. As if what she’s been through hasn’t been punishment enough! Having to watch the father of her child die!”

Gareth felt lost. “When? How?”

“In a few months, when the baby is weaned, she is to be burned at he stake.”

Gareth realized with a hollow pang that he was a father. This baby, fated to be an orphan, just like him, was the first family he’d ever really had. And he’d never even get to see his child.

The weight of everything, all the unfairness, crashed over Gareth like an ocean. He grabbed Laria’s thin shoulders, and cried with abandon. His body was drenched with tears and sweat. Laria stroked his long, brown hair, saying, “Ssh. I know, I know.”

“I love you,” Gareth murmured through his tears, “I love you so much!” He kissed her neck and throat, and moved his shaky hand over her braided hair.

“I know,” laughed Laria, “but don’t do that! I know it seems different because you’re scared, but I’m your sister. Right?” She positioned Gareth’s head on her shoulder, and moved his hand down to her arm.

Gareth nodded. “I love you.”

“I love you too, Gareth. You know I do.” And she held Gareth with all the strength her willowy arms could muster, while he cried his heart out, thinking of his orphaned child, the woman who was suffering because of him, and his own sorry, lonesome death, which approached steadily as the light in the window darkened.

When Gareth’s sobs had quieted, Laria propped him up and put her face close to his. “Gareth.”

“Mmm?”

“Our time’s running up. Someone will be coming to take you in a few minutes.” She took Gareth’s face in her hands. “Is there anything you need to say?”

“Just that– you were right. I’ve always been lonely. I wish I hadn’t always been so afraid.”

“Release yourself of that burden. Whatever you go through tonight, don’t feel alone. Know that I’ll be praying for you all night, and in the morning I’ll bless you, and I’ll be beside you until the end. And then you’ll be with Tehngah, and you’ll never be afraid again.”

“Thank you, Laria. I wish we could have talked like this when things were better.”

“I know,” she said.

And then the door moaned open, and there, framed in the hellish light, was the Prioress. “Leave us, Janus-Laria.” Laria knelt so her nose kissed the cold floor, rose, but did not move, standing protectively in front of the chair where Gareth still sat. “The prisoner is to be fed, bathed, and taken to his final holding cell. Your services are no longer required. I do not want to hear a word from you. Leave.”

Laria obeyed silently, gliding out the door, down the stairwell, and out of sight. Gareth watched her go and, already, his heart began to fill back up with despair. His only connection to the world gone, the jaws of the Goddess’ justice snapped back around him, and he was swallowed into the pitiless darkness.