Love, Death, and Loneliness
Douglas R. Brown
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the authors imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental. The publisher does not have any control and does not assume responsibility for author or third-party websites or their content.
Copyright ©2011 by Douglas R. Brown.
Cover art and by Steve Murphy. Contact Steve by email at stevemurphyfineartist.gmail.com or visit his website and facebook page at http://www.stevemurphyartist.com and http://www.facebook.com/ stevemurphy.fineartist
All rights reserved.
Rasi lay next to a small fire on the cold stone floor of his cave home. His stomach tore at itself, letting him know his rationed berries and nuts weren’t enough to quell his starvation for long. As he drew his knees tight against his chest, he longed for some kind of protein—a frost beetle, a filthy rodent squank, anything to push him through another brutal day in his mountain exile. But even those creatures knew enough to find refuge from the ongoing mountain blizzard.
Slowly, the outside world hid behind a growing mound of whiteness at his cave’s entrance. It was days like these—miserable days when boredom and depression grabbed hold, days when he did little but sleep—that he wished he’d never survived the Heathen Wars. He missed the world. He missed the company of others. But most of all he missed his wife, Edonea.
Though he had only been awake for a moment, Rasi closed his eyes again. He used visions of Edonea to push away the pain of his throbbing shoulder, to push away his guilt and loneliness, but inevitably, though his memories allowed him to drift to sleep, they ended leaving him deader inside than before.
As he lay on the hard rock ground, content to sleep through another day, he focused his thoughts on the moment he met her. The cave walls faded from his groggy mind, replaced by images of bright summer skies and bustling Epertasian citizens throughout the capital city of Thasula.
He was a young soldier again, standing outside of the town’s general store. A petite young woman caught his eye as she struggled to lift a bag of grain onto her horse’s back. Her mare shuffled away from each of her attempts, causing the bag of grain to thud to the dirt again and again. She sighed in frustration and quietly scolded her uncooperative steed.
Rasi set his burlap bag of supplies next to a hitching post and hurried to her side.
“May I assist you, ma’am?” he asked, at first startling her.
“Why, thank you, sir,” she answered with a soft voice worthy of song. Strands of her long auburn hair tickled her cheek and she gently tucked them behind her ear with a shy grin. “You are quite the gentleman,” she said.
“Any man would do the same,” he answered.
He helped her onto her mare. As she rode away, she glanced over her shoulder one last time. Her magical smile etched into his mind forever and he vowed to one day meet her again.
Lying on his cave floor, thoughts of her smile still lingering, his eyelids grew heavier.
And then the violent dreams returned.
He recognized the desolate landscape beneath the half-moon, but more importantly, he recognized the blood-thirsty foe attacking him as one of the savage heathens from the wastelands. He squatted and, with his sword, laid the hatchet-wielding heathen open at his gut. Another heathen replaced the fallen one and Rasi shoved his sword through that heathen’s black heart as well. They kept coming and he kept sending them to their gods. With a deep cleansing breath, he pictured Edonea’s gentle smile and charged toward the next round of death.
He continued fighting while his face burned with fever and his side stung with each movement tugging at its day-old stitches. The pain wasn’t enough to slow him, nor was the fatiguing infection, and he had to trust the doctor’s moldy concoction would kick in soon. This fight was too crucial for him to rest. He couldn’t let up—his best friend, Terik, would not survive the night if he did.
Wolf, his friend and fellow soldier, howled as he attacked alongside and Rasi couldn’t tell if his howls were rage or sick enjoyment. He dispatched three more heathens to the dark road of death with a sword and a sick smile before glancing to Rasi. He shouted with a snicker, “Prince Elijah’s going to kill us for this.”
Rasi nodded—he needn’t Wolf’s words to understand how angry the prince would be at his defiance. While Prince Elijah’s decision to not give chase was based on a sound strategy for war, Rasi’s was based on heart. He’d die before he’d let those bastards torture his friend.
He and Wolf ended more and more heathen lives as they plowed through the retreating death squad. In the distance, a crude rock wall stretched as far as Rasi could see in either direction. The heathens, with their captured prize, disappeared through a narrow passageway between two boulders of the wall. Rasi’s stomach turned at the knowledge that somewhere on the other side heathen reinforcements waited. The two men quickened their pace.
The moon grabbed the northern horizon as they approached the rocky path.
Wolf tapped Rasi’s shoulder. “We should go around,” he whispered. “Or find somewhere else to scale it.”
Rasi stood silent for a moment before answering, “Terik will never survive if we do.”
With his stomach still a knotted mess, Rasi led Wolf into the narrow rocky gap and what was surely an ambush. They shuffled through, while watching the top of the boulders for any signs of movement. Rasi smelled the pungent body odor and rotten breath of the heathen scum before he saw their shadows or heard their cries.
Wolf slid his sword from its sheath. “Are you ready?” he whispered, revealing he smelled them too. A cloud floated across the face of the half-moon, dimming what little light had previously aided their advance.
Rasi drew his sword with a nod.
Heathens rarely attacked quietly; this time was no different. Their beastly cries echoed against the rocks as they scaled the walls from above. The path ahead clogged with more of their charging foes. Rasi swung his blade over his head, meeting flesh and a heathen cry. Wolf did the same, though his blow was less effective and they swarmed him.
Rasi felled another as their relentless attack smothered his blade. He dropped his sword and withdrew two knives from his waistband. He crammed the first one into an eye socket while slicing across another heathen’s throat with the other. He slaughtered them one by one. Out of his reach, a hatchet raised above the fray and near his friend. He screamed warnings but the heathen howls drowned out his cries.
The hatchet drove downward and, to Rasi’s dread, blood sprayed from Wolf’s head onto the rocks. His friend collapsed to the stone path. Rasi sliced and stabbed through the thick crowd of killers, trampling their dead and dying bodies along the way. His own flesh opened at their blades though none of their assaults were as deadly as his own.
He reached his motionless friend. The pursuing heathens hesitated, perhaps sensing Rasi’s bloodlust and re-evaluating their attack. Rasi nudged Wolf with his foot and, to his relieved surprise, felt his friend squirming.
“If you can hear me,” Rasi said, “this would be a good time to get up.”
Blood poured from Wolf’s head but the warrior rolled onto his side and shook away his fuzz. Slowly, he staggered to his knees. Rasi plodded forward; the heathens stumbled back. He collected his sword from atop a dying heathen and continued toward them.
Wolf crowded against his back, wobbly, but rapidly gathering himself. He pressed one hand against his gaping wound while lifting a discarded sword with his other. The heathens backed away and into wide-open terrain. Tactically a good move, Rasi thought, giving them more credit than they deserved.
They formed a semi-circle in the openness. He counted eight but more important was what he saw behind them. A heathen stood, holding a blade at Terik’s throat. Their attempt at a final stand was their acknowledgment that they’d failed in their escape and knew it. They charged.
Though dazed, Wolf leaped forward with murderous zeal. Rasi followed his lead into the assault. Even wounded, Wolf wasn’t slowed or any less skilled and three heathens immediately met their bloody end. Rasi deflected a heathen blade, kneeled, and skewered the attacker.
As he fought, he noticed Terik, whose arms were still bound, wrestling with the heathen who was once at his side. The heathen’s blade laying on the ground revealed Terik’s successful first strike. The over-powering heathen crawled onto his chest.
Rasi plunged his sword through another heathen’s throat, ripped it free, and charged. He was almost to his friend when the heathen rose up with a hatchet held above his shoulders. Rasi swung his sword with a grunt. The heathen let out a yelp sending warm crimson splattered across Rasi’s face. The heathen’s forearms tumbled through the air. Rasi breathed deep, excited breaths.
He kicked the heathen from Terik’s chest and then freed his friend from his restraints. Wolf finished the last of the scum before joining the reunion “We’d better get back,” he said while catching his breath. Terik nodded, which was more of a thank-you than Rasi needed.
By the time they reached the outer Epertasian guards, the suns floated just above the horizon, squashing any hopes they might have had of returning before Elijah awoke. The outer guards smiled and greeted them with tepid congratulations. “Elijah’s looking for you,” one of the guards shouted as they passed.
Rasi, Terik, and Wolf rejoined their battalion, acting as if nothing was out of order. The army support brigade was ending a long night of replenishing the forces, and seeing Wolf’s fresh wound, two of the nurses diverted him to a first aid tent.
Rasi and Terik joined a circle of their friends to wide grins and hearty welcomes. A nurse cleaned and redressed the previously sewn, seeping laceration on his side while he listened to Terik’s account of his night. Once the wound was dressed to her satisfaction, she moved to the fresh cuts and abrasions that decorated the exposed parts of his body from head to toe. He pulled away from her alcohol-soaked cloth, not as much in pain as in annoyance of her touches’ stings. “I’ll be fine,” he said. “Move on.”
She gave him a dose of the bitter infection-fighting concoction before leaving him to his compatriots. It wasn’t long before Wolf returned from the triage tents, a white bandage with a wide crimson stripe down its middle covering half of his head.
“Rasi,” Elijah’s closest friend, Tevin the Third, shouted from behind. “The prince would like to see you and Wolf immediately.”
Wolf rolled his eyes before joining Rasi on the long, painful walk to Elijah’s tent. He whispered loud enough for Tevin the Third to hear, “Why do we listen to Tevin? He isn’t even a soldier.”
Rasi pressed his finger against his lips.
Tevin scowled over his shoulder though Wolf didn’t appear to care that he’d been heard.
“How dare you defy my orders?” Prince Elijah shouted, the thin tent walls doing little to muffle his voice from the others.
Rasi didn’t answer, knowing the futility of arguing.
Wolf, however, pleaded their case. “Sir, we were trying to save one of our top sold…”
“That is of little solace when you break my rules,” Elijah interrupted. “Both of you—one month leave without pay.”
Rasi nodded, feeling slightly relieved to have escaped with such a lenient punishment. Wolf didn’t argue either, likely just as relieved.
Elijah glared at Wolf, “Get out.”
Wolf bowed and left the tent with a supportive glance and nod to Rasi.
With Wolf out of sight, but doubtfully out of earshot, Elijah screamed, “These soldiers seem to gravitate toward you, only the gods know why, and when you have them disobey me, that is intolerable. I should have your tongue.”
Rasi avoided eye contact out of respect.
Elijah continued, “Do you realize the penalty for such insubordination is death?”
Rasi stared to the dirt ground.
“I asked you a question,” he screamed.
“Yes sir, I realize that.”
“I should hang Wolf just to get that point through your skull but he is too good a soldier and I am acutely aware that hanging you would bring repercussions from the men.”
“Terik is a good soldier as well, sir.”
Elijah’s face reddened and he grinded his teeth. “Rasi,” he said with a grimace, “You take this month off and when you return, if you attempt such insubordination again, you will swing from a rope, I swear. Is that understood?”
“That is all. Leave me.”
Rasi bowed from the tent.
The edge of his land brought him happiness along with his first real mental relief from the shame of being suspended. While cresting the final hill before his house came within view, he suddenly couldn’t breathe or even swallow. What if his findings weren’t as perfect as his dreams had led him to hope? He paused, afraid to cross the peak.
His fears faded with the first sight of his home in the distance, allowing him to catch his breath again. The grass of his front yard was well-trimmed and thick as if the work had been meticulous and the rain plentiful.
He approached the long, neatly kept walkway to his house, his eyes hopeful Edonea would be home. As he neared the walkway, a slight movement alongside his front porch stole his breath again, this time in excitement as opposed to dread. He slowed to a stop and watched for a moment.
His wife backed away from a flower bed, a plain cream-colored handkerchief wrapped around her head and the tops of her hands pressed against her hips. She examined her tedious work oblivious to his return.
He smiled. Even sweaty and dirt-covered with her hair tied back, he’d never seen anyone more beautiful.
She swiped her arm across her brow, stretched out her back, and glanced over her shoulder by chance. Rasi casually waved. She appeared unable to move for a moment. Even from his distance, he could see her wide, dimple-inducing smile crack her lips. He hopped from his steed’s back. She began jogging toward him and then hurried into a full sprint.
It was at that moment he realized it was her face and her smile alone that could erase the atrocities of war from his mind.
He ran toward her, never wanting to lose this moment but, unexplainably, as hard as he ran, the farther away she seemed to get. He strained but he couldn’t reach her, nor her him.
The horizon faded before his eyes and then filled with a dull light that erased the clouds and the distant hills. He reached for her again but she was still too far away. The light grew closer and brighter until the flower garden and his house and the beauty of the summer day blurred and vanished behind her. She stopped and turned toward the light. He cried out but couldn’t stop the world from fading. With every ounce of concentration, he held images of her beauty in his mind but, though it seemed only moments had passed, he started to forget her face and he hated himself for his failure.
And then she, and everything he held dear, was gone, replaced by cold gray walls.
For a moment he lay in the confused world between sleep and consciousness—the world where hope and happiness still filled him even as pain and reality returned. At first his sight blurred like behind frosted glass but he shook away the fuzz. The harshness of the cave walls struck him like the blow from a war hammer.
Alongside, the ashes of his fire smoldered with orange embers. His breath left his lips like a puff from a weed stick. He sat up; his muscles ached and his bones throbbed from the cold hard floor.
He focused his mind on Edonea again and once again he remembered her face. A smile cracked his lips briefly before the guilt and crushing regret stormed back. Memories! He snarled and pushed that smile away. They’re not worth the pain anymore.
The winter had been rougher than his first and he wondered how many more he could survive. He stretched away the kinks.
His back muscles twitched, as they did after each time he woke up since he’d been banished from Epertase, reminding him of his brutal curse. One of the seven long straps of muscle which protruded from his back floated past his shoulder until it hovered in front of his face as if longing to tell him something. He scowled at the violent creature as it held firm before him. He hated all seven of them and, as far as he could tell, they hated him as well. Bastards.
As if angered by his thoughts, the strap of meat lunged forward, stopping a squank hair from his nose. He stood firm, staring, not flinching at its intimidation. The strap flexed and swayed without giving any ground.
Slowly, as with each of their aggressive challenges from before, the creature backed away, thus earning Rasi yet another victory in their constant battle for dominance.
The strap joined the others and all seven of them shot above his head, their focus toward the snow-covered mouth of the cave. The two suns poked light through the gap near the top, giving Rasi a measure of hope that the mountain storm had passed. He didn’t attempt to call back his poised deadly appendages as he’d learned to let them work when they became fixated. Instead, he followed their lead, creeping toward the snowy mound. The closer he got, the more rigid and intense they grew.
Near the mouth of the cave, he crouched and waited. Enough time passed that his calf muscles cramped while in his crouch but he didn’t waver; his straps didn’t waver.
His stomach grumbled and still he waited.
Then, a small acorn-sized hole formed near the bottom of the snow-covered entrance. The muscles on his back tightened. A black speck appeared from the hole for a flash before retreating back into the snow.
Three of Rasi’s straps sprang toward the hole, sliced through the whiteness, and then recoiled with a black snow eel in one of their grasps. The eel thrashed and flopped in the strap’s grip but the strap was too strong, too hungry, and it slammed the squirming eel against the cave floor, ending its fight.
Rasi smiled at the thought of fresh protein imminently filling his gut; his thoughts of Edonea blurred only by his instincts of survival, at least for a while. A vigorous scrub together of his japsy weeds upon a fresh pile of twigs quickly brought his smoldering fire back to life. He retrieved a couple of dry logs that he’d stored in the recess of the cave and within moments had a fresh fire to cook with. He prepared his feast, not letting even the skin go to waste as his straps hovered anxiously above.
The eel tasted like shoe leather and it was wonderful.
With his last bite and the prospect of another lonely day filling his subconscious, he remembered the hate that kept him warm. He chewed on his teeth and curled his upper lip with one angry thought.
Damn you, Elijah, for doing this to me.
Thanks for taking a look at my world of Epertase. If you were intrigued by Rasi and his murderous straps, or enjoyed this peek at the kingdom of Epertase, or just wanted to support a new author, please order my fantasy novel, “The Light of Epertase: Legends Reborn,” from Rhemalda publishing. It releases in August 2011 but can be preordered now. Go to www.epertase.com for more or order it along with other great books from Rhemalda at www.rhemalda.com.