So often in the course
Of life's few fleeting years,
A single pleasure costs
The soul a thousand tears.
- Francis William Bourdillon, “Upon the Valley’s Lap”
A war has been raging in his mind for a long time now. Finally, one side has won.
As he steps out from the shadows, he relishes the flash of hurt and betrayal on her face. Even now, as she stands before him as the enemy, he finds her beautiful.
He had not wanted to get involved, to get tied down. But she was so different from all those other wenches he had taken. She exudes a quiet courage even as her eyes reveal the scars of countless battles and immeasurable loss. Through their travels, he had watched her grieve for those that fell, and bleed for those she tried to save. Through it all, he had admired, from a distance, how she never once complained about her unchosen fate, at times making him wonder at himself, on what could have been had he been less resentful of his own circumstances, on whether it is too late now to change…
Yes, she had nearly changed him, hadn’t she? Almost managed to turn him around with her beguiling charm. Unlike their other companions, she was never brusque with him despite his pointed ogling and crude remarks. Instead, temptress that she was, she had teased him with kindness and compassion, chipping slowly away at his emotional defences, until the walls of indifference came crumbling down, leaving him hopelessly drawn to her cause – and to her.
The depth of his feelings scared even himself. At first, he had held back, hiding behind his mask of apathy and open hostility, unwilling to set himself up for a possible rejection. But the night he encountered her in the woods outside the keep, seeking a brief respite from her burdensome duties, smiling so invitingly as she asked if he would like to take a walk with her…well, he would have kicked himself if he had said no.
He led her to a secluded glen fed by a tiny brook. She was smiling at something he had said when, before he could stop himself, their lips met. A shudder coursed down his spine, and he had pulled back quickly, fearing he may have played his hand too soon, when she suddenly cupped his face in her tender hands, and pulled him in for another kiss. That gesture erased the last vestiges of doubt for him, and in that moment, a dam inside him burst, releasing a feral hunger he never knew he had until then.
Under the stars and by the light of a thousand fireflies, they had made love – twice. The first time was frantic, needy, passionate to the point of being animalistic, selfish on his part, as he quenched the desire that had threatened for so long to explode inside of him. In their frenzy, the old amulet he hung on a worn leather thong was ripped right off his neck. When they were spent, he had, in a moment of euphorical weakness, blurted out those three accursed words:
“I love you.”
He had instantly regretted it. Her face became unreadable, her bright eyes wide. She still held his amulet in her hand, and in an effort to dispel the awkwardness of the situation, his next comment, out of sheer habit, was a biting one about how she would need to get him a replacement charm that had to exceed the old one in value. In response, she had shaken her head, an amused smile on her face, and had said:
“Your love doesn’t come without thorns, does it?”
With a naughty wink, she called him a rose with spiky thorns, and had laughed that seductive laugh of hers when he balked at being compared to something as effeminate as a flower. That laugh had an infectious way of making him smile. He kissed her again, long and deep, and his amulet was cast aside and forgotten. As his lips traced her delicate features, she twitched involuntarily as his facial stubble grazed her skin. With a smile, she caressed his coarse cheeks.
“My prickly rose,” she whispered.
Then, for the second time that night, he took her. This time, the urgency was gone, and he made sure to be tender, probing, as he explored every inch of her delicious body. When they finally climaxed, it was unlike any he had experienced before, for this time, something in his heart swelled, and he realised that there was no turning back.
In that instant, he would have done anything for her.
Then, a few days later, she had betrayed him.
He remembers how shifty she had been that day, sneaking around, acting coy, making excuses when he looked for her. Something was definitely up, and so he had pretended to leave the keep to go hunting, only to sneak round the back to spy on her.
Ah, suspicious heart, seek to know and the truth shall hurt you.
He found her up on the walls of the keep with the paladin. In the moonlight, he had watched in mute horror as the other man cupped both her hands in his, rapt in secret conversation. Then, to the silent screaming of his dying heart, they had snuck off to her Captain’s suite.
How could he have been so foolish? He should have known that he could trust no one but himself. Yet he had allowed himself to be led on by her, used and cast aside like a toy…
His mind raged with emotions: love, grief, confusion, anger, self-pity…but at that moment, one emotion rose to quell all the others – hate. He hated her, hated himself, and he wanted to hurt her, just like she had hurt him.
And so, he had quickly rebuilt the walls around his shattered soul, and erased all foolish notions of trust and love from his mind.
And he betrayed her back.
Now here they are, in the final battle, only this time he does not fight beside her, but against her. He holds her at arrow-point as he coldly recounts to her everything he saw, challenging her to lie to his face. A hot flash of anger shoots through his veins as she proclaims her innocence. Nothing happened…we were just talking…he is mildly impressed by how she could lie with such a straight face.
He pulls his bow string back a bit more, and delights in seeing her eyes widen. She continues to plead with him, to appeal to the man she claims to love, the one she knows lies deep within him.
But the man she speaks of has died, and all that remains is this cold empty shell.
His shoulders start to ache from keeping the bow string taut for so long, yet he waits, listening to her pathetic excuses, revelling in the control he has over her now, wanting her to feel how helpless he had felt as he watched her consort with the paladin. Her words mean nothing now, and he hardly listens to what she is saying.
She moves. He sees her hand reaching towards her belt, towards the hilt of her sword. Instantly, he releases his bow string.
The hollow sound of the arrow thudding point-blank into her breast is amplified a thousand fold in his head. She looks at him with an expression of surprise, mixed with a tinge of sadness, as she slowly sinks to her knees, and crumples onto the flagstones of the keep. With a surge of triumph, he savours the taste of sweet retribution.
Looming over her body, he looks down at her, coldly watching as her breath starts to come out in short, ragged gasps. He sneers, intending to make his gloating the last thing she hears before she dies. Then his eyes fall on her hand, clenched into a fist.
Whatever she still clutches looks nothing like a sword handle.
Despite himself, he kneels down and pries her fingers open.
A silver chain, expertly crafted to look like a spiky vine, with golden thorns dotted all along it. In the centre of her palm, an amulet encrusted with rubies, set in the shape of a rose in full bloom.
“Your love doesn’t come without thorns, does it?”
As he picks up the exquisite charm, he feels the powerful protective magic it holds within. Clearly, whoever wears it will be well-shielded. It buzzes on his fingertips in the same way his skin tingles when he is in range of the paladin’s aura. In fact, it feels like it is his aura.
He pictures her and the paladin again, on the battlements, his hands cupping hers…
…as if admiring something in her palms.
His hands start to shake uncontrollably as he turns the elegantly-carved rose over. A tiny inscription catches his eye. He could hardly make it out through the mist clouding his vision.
“My Prickly Rose”
Oblivious to the battle around them, he gathers her dying body in his arms. Gripping her hands, he strokes her face and runs his fingers through her hair, as if his touch alone could bring her back from the brink of death. Kissing away the lone teardrop at the corner of one fast dimming eye, he tastes its bitter saltiness.
I’m so sorry…
He holds her tightly to his breast, and as her final breath escapes in a soft caressing sigh, the first of a thousand tears begins to fall.