I love you as certain dark things are to be loved, in secret, between the shadow and the soul.


    **Homo hominis lupus est

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    Tariq
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    **Homo hominis lupus est

    Post  Tariq on Wed May 31, 2017 2:12 am

    The sky was no particular colour at all - the bruises of night leached away in anticipation of the sun - as he prepared to ride out on the day that would see him die.

    The cold mist of dawn eddied about his legs with every moment. He clasped his paludamentum over his chest in a practiced motion, fastening the catch over one shoulder with ease despite his lack of sight. The cloak was grey, the undyed wool far better cover through the trees than the conspicuous scarlet or extravagant purple of men of status. It fluttered behind him like the wings of a pale bird when he stepped outside.

    The camp still slumbered - he had only just beaten the dawn and the accompanying call to rouse. The charred smell of woodsmoke mingled with the salt of horse-flesh and unwashed men, their sleeping grunts and murmurs following him on both sides as he carefully picked his way through the rows. He held his cane with all the poise of a soldier with a spear, although its point was not much needed in this familiar space.

    He was startled by the greeting that met him at the well. He could not recall the guard’s name but returned the salutation with equal civility. The man shuffled off without further niceties, which did not surprise him - he knew he had a reputation.

    There had been more aspersions, once, until he had cleaved the thumb and better part of the meat of the palm from a would-be thief who had crept into his quarters one night, hoping to take advantage of the blind eques. That same blind man claimed he had been awoken and lashed out in self-defense but that was a falsehood. He had overheard the man drunkenly bragging about his intended prize and lain in wait for him silently in the dark, his dagger in his palm and anger a cold stone in his chest.

    Had the man been fool enough to poke his head through the doorway first, he would have slit his throat. There had been fewer whispers when he passed a crowd after that.

    He filled his canteen with the cool, clear water of the well and was splashing it indulgently over his face when the bleating of the buccina call rang through the air. He hastily rinsed and turned toward his destination, loathe to mingle with the impending chaos as the camp began to stir and wake.

    He was not beholden to the brass calls of the instrument or these soldiers’ dreary timetable. His reason for being there reared up in front of him as he rounded a corner, her nostrils flaring as she stamped and snorted belligerently.

    The horse had come from Persia with high hopes. She had been chosen for her formidable size and almost immediately discarded for her temperament. She was high-strung and poorly trained, and had shattered a man’s jaw with a precise kick during her training.

    But she had been expensive, and even the worst horseman understood you could not buy a war-horse in the raw only to have her sliced into steaks when she did not perform. And so she had been handed over to him for refinement.

    He clicked his tongue as he approached and could hear her settle anxiously, the point of her sharp hoof cutting grooves in the earth. Unhurriedly, he reached into a pouch and extended the dry carrots in his palm. This got her attention. At his approach she stretched out her neck to greedily mouth the treats from his hand, her muzzle whiskery on his palm and her teeth crunching. He pat her sturdy neck with his unoccupied hand, whispering gentle encouragement.

    When she had finished and impatiently nuzzled his hand for more he began to tack up, moving with exaggerated confidence as he secured each piece of equipment. Bridle, bit, and reins all went on, as did a saddle blanket, but he declined the saddle. He slid the gnarled wood of his cane into the straps intended for a sword.

    This was accomplished with minimal fuss, the occasional carrot slice proffered from his palm sufficient bribery to keep her occupied. He mounted up, his seat low and decidedly patrician despite the lack of saddle.

    They began with a slow walk - and they were a “they” now, he felt, as the muscles of her back rippled beneath him - before easing her into a trot. She balked at the command, tossing her mane, and he strained forward with his calves to lay across her neck and murmur in her ear. The horse snorted but obliged, quickening into a business-like trot.

    They crossed the camp at an easy pace. The ring of her hooves clopping on stone and hardened earth was enough warning for pedestrians to duck out of the way and he did not bother to veer to avoid them. They would soon pass out of the fortified castrum and into the field beyond but he hesitated, slowing the horse to a walk and then a stop. He paused for a moment and then one more, clearly deliberating, as the sounds of the awakening camp began to increase around him, before dismounting. He quietly promised it would only take a moment and slipped through the hospital’s austere entrance.

    It was cool and quiet inside. There were few wounded within - the soldiers were meant to quell the rebellious impulses of the frontier-peoples who insisted on disrupting the occasional trader or razing the odd village to the ground. They were ill-equipped savages, not warriors, and the display of Roman might had resulted in little more than bloodless skirmishes. The interior of the building smelled perpetually of stringent herbs and, faintly, the metallic taint of blood.

    He cleared his throat and called into the empty hall, “Stryx?”

    “Salvē,” a voice replied and he followed it into a room deeper within, ducking past the shrine to Asclepius from which wisps of fragrant smoke coiled like the stone snake writhing at his side.

    The temperature fell as he approached this room, as though the cold squatted over it like a jealous toad. He heard the physician long before he came upon him - the clink and clatter of the pendants and charms slung about his throat, the jingling of the bones sewn into his clothes. He was soft of tread but loud of accoutrement.

    “I am going into the woods and thought to ask if you needed anything.”

    Stryx hummed an approving tune. “I do, of course I do. Ippomarathron, ra, aristolochia, aloe… ah, but I am running very low on millefolium and there is a good patch of it just across the river.” His voice muted as he turned away, followed by the clinking of earthenware and glass, the various sounds of tinctures and tonics being sifted through. “Is it that abominable dun, Kor?”

    The nickname brought a prickle of pleasure, as it always did. “The Persian,” he confirmed, folding his arms as he leaned in the doorway. “Would you care to accompany us? It is a beautiful day to pick your flowers.” His tone was teasing.

    The physician snorted. “I think not.” It was impossible to place the accent that stirred like golden motes of dust beneath his otherwise impeccable Latin. “Beasts belong in the wild, where they can murder each other without involving me. Breathe in.” He had crushed the flower between the fingers he was now proffering. Kor did as he was bade and inhaled. His mind filled with a whorl of spice and delicate florals and beneath it, the coppery scent of Stryx’s skin.

    “Achillea,” he continued. “Staunchgrass, woundwort - it grows to here.” He drew a line just beneath Kor’s knee. The skin prickled through the cloth where he indicated. Kor knew all this, had been sent on this errand many times, but let the healer talk. “Cut from the root and, quaeso, do not bruise the flowers to a pulp. I need them whole. Do you understand?”

    “Is that all?” He could hear the smile in his own voice.

    Nōn! Cut your hair so they do not mistake you for a barbarian and shoot you off that damn animal.” The physician’s long fingers were on his skin, cupping his chin. Kor had to struggle not to shiver beneath them.

    They were quiet for a moment, together, the hand cool on his skin. The volume of Stryx’s voice fell until it was nearly a whisper. Stripped of its jest it was rich with an emotion that he did not have a name for. “You seem older now that your hair gone to snow, amīcus. I have to remind myself you are so very young.” His tone was a familiar one - it held the same pride he himself had when he discussed his horses. Kor couldn’t say it displeased him.

    “Not so much younger than you,” he ventured, and the healer laughed. Kor flushed with the pleasure of drawing that mirth from him.

    “Perhaps not.” He paused and when he spoke again, his tone was solemn, his diction ginger. “The courier passed through a town on the coast where a woman was looking for you. He said she asked for you by name.”

    The joy that had warmed his heart abruptly crumbled to ash. His breath caught in his throat but he forced out the words, “A letter?”

    “Would you like me to read it?” The confirmation of its existence struck him like a lash.

    Did you read it?” It was his shame that blackened the words, made them jagged and hard.

    “No, amīcus.” The empathy in his voice was maddening. Stryx chose his next words carefully. “You knew what it was you were agreeing to.”

    Kor silently stretched out his hand and Stryx delicately placed the folded vellum in it. He tucked it underneath his shirt, against his breast where it beat like a heart cut away from a chest.

    He was struck then, with a vivid recollection of how his wife’s pregnant stomach had felt in his hands - hard and round and taut with potential. It had scared him. There was something that inspired awe about this, that she was forming a creature of clay and blood inside her. It was godlike, to create something that was made only of her and a tiny sliver of him.

    Or at least, potentially him. Stryx was right: he had known what he was getting into before he agreed to marry her.

    “Will you visit me, tonight?” The healer’s words broke into his thoughts. They rasped gently in his throat as though scored with feeling. “I have something I wish to discuss with you… to ask of you.”

    Kor nodded silently and turned away. His stomach felt cold. This was not how he had wanted this farewell to go.

    “Kor?”

    He paused in the doorway.

    “The courier was under the impression it was something to do with your son.”

    He did not respond. He strode out into the grey light of morning, mounted his horse, and took off for the forest.

    --
    The pair of them - horse and rider - quickly established a natural order. He let her take the lead, picking her own path through brush and trail, issuing corrections sparingly. He rode low on her broad back, his chest bent against her withers and neck where he could easily speak into the delicate shell of her mobile ear. This low seat had an ulterior advantage - he had been unseated by one too many low-hanging tree branches in his youth and had learned from the mistake.

    He took her through her paces patiently. If she balked, he waited or adjusted the command to better suit her mood. Eventually she grew less quarrelsome under his instruction and they passed the hours pleasantly together.

    They broke for a brief meal at a stream from which they both drank deeply. Kor refilled his canteen and then lay back against a wide tree trunk to contemplate as the horse munched the barley he had provided (enough to sate her but not so much that his treats would lose their appeal - he found hunger to be of irreplaceable benefit). He did not reach for the letter that he could feel burning against his chest.

    They roamed far from the camp. Kor found her anxious around others and wanted to be sure her footing was sure in the uneven trails and so he took her deep into the wilderness. It wasn’t until late afternoon, the both of them mute with fatigue, that he began to consider the best path home.

    He patted the side of her neck, stroking the sweat from her fur. Her chest rose and fell in deep heaves. She was solidly built, her muscular shoulders shuddering beneath him as she picked her way along the path on powerful hooves. She was a beautiful animal and it was a shame she had yet to find a master worthy of her.

    He clicked his tongue along his teeth and felt her ears prick. “Let us pick some flowers and get you home, amīca.” She huffed as though in agreement and they turned back the way they had come.

    The horse heard them before he did.

    If exhaustion had not been thrumming through his body like the pumping of his own blood, he would long ago have noticed how the woods had fallen silent around them. The birds were still, hushed. It was as though the very land were holding its breath.

    The horse began to falter. Her ears twisted wildly and she snorted, skittering away from the path she had been following. He reached instinctively for the dagger clasped to his waist.

    And then he heard it. The thunder of horse’s hooves; not beating out a trot made for longevity, but plunged into a headlong gallop. They were approaching rapidly, on squat and heavy horses that only the native tribespeople used.

    Merda,” he cursed under his breath, and swung the horse in the opposing direction. She fought this instruction, straining against the rein, fear gibbering in her throat.

    And then they were upon him. They shouted words he didn’t recognize in a language he could not understand and he urged his steed on, faster. He could hear the clanging of weaponry, swords being unsheathed and shields rattling against iron. There were at least five of them, maybe more, and as he was trying to pick apart the cacophony of noises he heard the thwip of an arrow being loosed from its bow and slamming into its target with a sickening, meaty crunch.

    The Persian horse trembled and reared, screaming. To try to cling to her mane was folly - he tucked and rolled, letting himself fall, hitting the earth hard enough to snatch the breath from his lungs. He rose to his feet panting but something - perhaps his own horse’s hoof, bucking in panic - slammed into the back of his head and he crumpled to the ground. He tried to rise but the ground lurched treacherously under his feet. He struggled, staggered, and fell back on his hands and knees, the muscles in his stomach clenching painfully as he retched up the remnants of his hasty meal.

    Bile coated his mouth. The shouted commands of the horsemen circling him flickered in and out like the spokes of a wheel.

    His fingers tightened on his dagger and he realized with a start that it was still in his hand. His grip was slick with sweat. He heard, distantly, the sound of dismount, hard-soled boots crunching on the earth. His muscles tightened and he leapt. It was a clumsy attack but he felt a surge of triumph as the blade sank into something soft. Someone shrieked near his ear and he was buffeted away. He lost his grip on the blade fell, rolling to a stop in the dirt.  

    He could smell the stink of blood and his stomach lurched again. Sick chills furrowed into his flesh. The horse was screaming, thrashing wildly. He did not have the chance to rise again before they slipped the rope around his throat. He felt it snatch his consciousness away from him with the brutal efficiency of a hook jerking a writhing fish from the water, and he knew no more.

    --
    He awoke to confusion. He gasped for breath, suffocating, trying to claw at his mouth but his arms would not move. He realized, in quick succession, that they were bolted with heavy chains that fixed them in place, and that cold water had just been poured over his head. He coughed and sputtered. His clothes were dripping with water and he thought dimly, “They let me keep the clothes,” struggling to understand the significance of this thought.

    Someone was shouting in that language he did not know. A woman’s voice was raised and he realized she was arguing with someone, a man.

    His head was jerked back roughly by his sopping hair and he snarled. Hoarse laughter erupted. The hand released him and he let his head drop. His limbs were shaking, with anger, with shock.

    “Do you speak Latin?” the woman asked in his mother tongue. Her accent was startlingly metropolitan - she had learned it in the city.

    He didn’t lift his head. “Everyone speaks Latin.” The words were almost embarrassingly rural in his mouth but he infused them with as much disdain as he could muster.

    There was a ripple of laughter in her reply. “I don’t know that our friends would agree.”

    Your friends,” he said pointedly, shifting his weight to rattle the chains that bound his arms.

    “No,” she said. “There is more than one way to be a prisoner.”

    A guttural voice impatiently interrupted and she responded cooly. The prisoner’s muscles tightened beneath the bruises as they discussed in that barbaric tongue and he thought fiercely, savages. There was a coil of unease in his stomach that he feared would grow into unbridled panic.

    “What is your name?” his interrogator cut back in his mother tongue.

    “What’s yours?” he retorted.

    “Here they call me Lena, mostly, when they are not using my services as a translator,” she said, the words carefully devoid of emotion. He suddenly understood what she had meant, what sort of prisoner she was, and was dizzy with gratitude that he had merely been born blind and not a woman.

    “That is what they call my wife,” he croaked, and regretted it at once. Lena was silent for a moment before her interlocutor goaded her and she said, “They want to know if you are the escort to the witch.”

    It was “escort” that stung him and it was only a second later that he realized what she meant by witch. His heart sank.

    “I know no witch,” he began and was struck hard in the mouth. His head spun and blood rose on his tongue. He spat it angrily to the floor, his teeth showing red.

    Futue te!” he snapped, jerking against the chains that bound him. His teeth clenched so hard they ached and he wished fiercely it was one of their throats between them. That hoarse laughter rose again.

    She tried to speak. He could hear the sympathy in her tone and it stoked the anger in his stomach to a white-hot rage. “What did you do with my horse?” he demanded, interrupting her.

    “Your... ? Oh,” she said. He could hear the answer in her tone before it came and the remaining hope he had quietly gave up the ghost. “Its leg was broken. They killed it and dragged it back for the meat.”

    This time, his host’s angry voice was punctuated with the sound of a slap. Lena gave a stifled cry and spoke in a gasp, “They say they want the witch.” She gulped, steadying herself, and continued, “You are from one of the forts, yes? Tell them which castrum he is in and they will let you go.”

    He luxuriously allowed himself to consider this idea; that these barbarians weren’t lying, that they would let him go free. A blind man, struggling through the wilds, alone without mount or supplies. He imagined the cramps of starvation, dying slowly of exposure and dehydration long before he ever made it back to the burnt-out camp, ransacked by these brutes on some personal vendetta.

    He lifted his head. The raucous group around him quieted in anticipation of his answer. Blood trickled from behind his lips like the guttering of wine.

    “I would rather you kill me,” he said.

    --
    He spent three days chained to that post.

    He was fed greasy scraps of meat on the first day, hard gristle and bone that he had to gnaw down to the marrow. His hosts laughed as he struggled. He knew it pleased them to watch him devour his own horse - the thought made his stomach twist and he carefully avoided memories of her broad back, the scent of her mane, how her sides had heaved, how she had screamed in her final hours - but to eat was to live. He swallowed what was placed in front of him without complaint.

    The second day, he was not fed. They had brought out the lash and Lena had come to plead with him, to surrender something so trivial as a location, a name, but he had turned his head away. She watched as they tore his back to great black ribbons that dripped wet with blood. To her credit, she did not cry out. She did not flinch as he took the whip, did not cringe when he broke and the screams came, every profanity he had ever known burning from his dry lips. He repeated the name of all the gods he could recall and then, as the flies buzzed over his ruined flesh, he blacked out.

    On the third day, Stryx arrived.

    He had been fading in and out of consciousness all night. Morning arrived, pale and bloodless, but he did not have the sense to recognize it. A roaring filled his ears. He weakly shook his head, seeking to dislodge the sound, but it grew louder. It was soon accompanied by screams.

    Someone was shouting in front of him and he blurrily sought to make sense of the words. A command, eaten away by panic. He mouthed a word, a voiceless question, unintelligible even to his ears. And then he stiffened, his eyes widening and his mouth a circle of incomprehensible pain as a spear was driven through his chest.

    That was very nearly the end of his narrative. Had it pierced his heart, he could not have been revived. As it was, the sharpened point of the spear punctured his lung, and the delicate organ crumpled like the wings of a moth in flame. He wheezed for breath and realized, distantly, that he was struggling for air with a throat full of blood. His rasps quickly turned to gurgles.

    His consciousness flickered in and out. The next fragment he could recall was the sound of weeping. His arms were free but when he tried to move them they felt leaden. There was a clinking, as of chimes, and a voice in his ear that made his fading heart gallop in his chest.

    “Do you want to live?” the voice asked. It was sharp with urgency. “Do you want to live forever, Kor?”

    He thought he ought to recognize that voice. He fought to recall but it was elusive, fading before he could grasp it.

    And then, as simple as taking a breath, he was gone.

    He would hear, secondhand, the desperate attempts Stryx had made to revive him. You were not meant to give your own blood to one still living but he had done it, frantically, scoring his throat with his teeth and mixing his own blood in the gashes. He had kissed the dark blood from his still mouth, licking it from his teeth, and torn his own wrist, pouring the scarlet droplets that splattered from the wound between the dying man’s lips. Their blood mingled freely, turning the earth to mud, staining their skin like bruises, like wine, like rot.

    He chased the beat of his heart, clinging to the hope that he could be brought back to answer the question, to make the decision, to choose. But he was too far gone and so, the choice was made for him.

    He awoke panting. Everything was clear unto agony, the very smoke coiling in the air etched in his mind with clarity, and for a bewildered moment he thought he had gained the ability to see. A spear of light from a crack in the window seemed to burn the flesh where it illuminated his hand and he quickly snatched it away, his breath coming in frantic heaves.

    His mouth ached. His teeth hurt. And he was ravenous with a hunger whose depth made him dizzy.

    He did not realize Stryx was there until he spoke - and how could he have missed him! How different he seemed now! He sat wearily before him and seemed somehow to be a corpse, a dead creature infused with life that animated his clever hands and made his eyes gleam with knowledge that now struck him as terrifying, too old, too potent.

    The healer’s voice was suffused in a wretchedness that Kor hoped to never have to hear again, steeped in regret that chilled him in a dark place he hadn’t known he possessed.

    “I am sorry, amīcus.” His hand when he brought it to Kor’s face flooded his chest with warmth. “Your lives are so short.”

    “I hope you will forgive me for what I have done.”

      Current date/time is Fri Nov 17, 2017 3:45 pm