Title: The Return
Author: Marxbros (Marxbros16@aol.com)
Summary/Author's Notes: This is a short vignette on Ardeth and a group of Med Jai warriors returning from a mission to protect the City of the Dead. I think that one could almost read this as prose poetry, if that makes sense, because of the sparseness of the descriptions and the denseness of the language.
*The line "Duty could be a very ugly word," was taken directly from Aulizia's story "The Demitica Challenge III." The line was originally spoken by Velocha, a female Med Jai warrior, and I think it is a perfect description for how the duty of the Med Jai is a double-edged sword.
It was late, deep into the night. The sky was inky black, oppressive and heavy over their heads. Above them the crescent moon glowed, illuminating the dark desert below. The dunes gleamed, oddly beautiful in the moonlight.
The warriors moved slowly but purposefully across the somber desert, noiseless atop their horses. The steeds, too, were silent as they trekked homeward, the sand shifting soundlessly under their weight.
The desert stretched around them, silently watching the exhausted men. The rolling dunes a quiet accomplice to their deeds.
Reaching the camp, the Med Jai wearily dismounted. The men tied their horses to the troughs, covered them with blankets. They did not speak, the burden of their duty weighing heavily on their shoulders. They did not meet each others eyes, the knowledge of what they had done fresh in their minds. Ardeth watched his men with a lump in his throat.
For all the men I have killed, for all the blood I have drawn, may Allah forgive me.
The camp was silent and still as the men slowly made their ways home, the women and children long asleep, warm in their beds. Ardeth walked home, his muscles aching as he moved.
He approached his dwelling, his home, but stood outside, his hand stretching towards the door. He gently pushed aside the flap of the tent.
She was sleeping.
Silvery moonlight stretched, slanting across the floor. In the dim light, he could make out her form on the pallet.
A flicker of a smile crossed his face, for a moment masking his exhaustion.
He leaned up against the tent pole, watching her, his form dark against the moonlight seeping in from behind him. He lightly stretched his sore muscles. Something in him hesitated, unwilling to disrupt the peaceful scene before him.
I am at the threshold between goodness and bloodshed. Will I taint that within, or emerge purged, clean and new again?
He ran his fingers through his hair. He had never been so tired of responsibility, so weary of devoting his life to a single cause. Duty could be a very ugly word.
Compelled by some deep, primal need to be held, to be comforted, Ardeth moved towards the pallet with the ease and grace of a warrior. He moved as silently and stealthily as a panther.
As he approached her still form, he loosened his robe. The fabric parted, falling loosely about his shoulders. It revealed the rippling muscles of his shoulders, leading down to his strong, broad chest. His hair fell in waves, black against the dusky copper of his skin.
He sat on the edge of the bed, his weary limbs aching, watching her chest rise and fall. In the stillness of that precious moment, Ardeth longed for nothing more than to be an ordinary man. An ordinary man, who, after a hard day of labor, was returning to his home and the woman he loved.
My love, sometimes I wish I were not what I am. May my ancestors forgive me.
He reached for her, gently touching her arm. His heavy form shifted on the bed.
She stirred under his touch, shifting her weight. After a moment her dark eyes opened, and in the dimness of the tent they gleamed softly. "Ardeth?" she asked sleepily, sitting up slightly, wiping her eyes.
His response was to nod, his face drawn and serious. She noticed his dark expression.
"And you–" she began, but he answered her unspoken question.
She sighed, relief evident on her face. If something had happened to you–
It was then, in the gleam of the moonlight, that she noticed the red stain on his robe. She looked up questioningly. As their eyes locked she reached forward gently. Her fingertips grazed the drying blood, already crusting in the cool air.
Ardeth did not speak. He had no answer for the wordless question in her eyes.
But she reached for him, forcing him to look at her. His features partly obscured in the darkness of the tent, she cupped his face in her hands and tilted it up, examining the prominent jawline, the high cheekbones. Her fingers explored him gently, touching his forehead, lightly down his nose, softly holding the chin.
But even as she looked into his eyes, he pulled away from her, masking his face in the shadows.
"Ardeth," she admonished painfully, keeping her hand warm on his cheek. Do not turn away from me.
He could not tell her about the two men who were now dead, their blood on his hands. He sighed heavily, looking down at the bloodstain on his robe, the blood that was not his.
Two ignorant men, a stain on the robe of their murderer the only evidence to mark their deaths. Even the place where they had fallen in the desert was lost, the blood drying and sinking soundlessly into the shifting sand. Nothing remained to honor the fact that they had lived.
To stop a monster, what do we become ourselves?
But in his tortured silence she knew him, better than he knew himself.
In the darkness of the tent she reached for him. She drew him to her breast, holding him close, the silent comfort worth more than any words she could say. They lay back on the bed, his head heavy on her heart.
No man can know the ways of the Gods, my love. Some sacrifices are worth the price, however heavy, that is paid.
"I love you," he whispered, holding her, pressing himself to her warmth. She was soft and her arms offered him solace.
"I know," she replied softly. Her dark hair was silky and soft to his touch. He took a deep breath, smelling the jasmine in the long locks. In the warm bed, with her warm body pressed against his, Ardeth relaxed, the tension flowing from his body.
He lay heavy on her breast, tender as a child. Her heart and throat filled with love for this man, a man she called lover, who others called brother, leader, warrior. A man controlled by duty and destiny.
This man who held her close, who made love to her with both passion and gentleness. A smoldering gaze from him, a certain heat in his eyes, and she would shudder, imagining, remembering, him rising above her, fulfilling her burning desires.
But he was so much more than a man to warm her bed. She ached with tenderness for him, to hold him, to be held. He could make her feel more beautiful than the stars.
His hand slowly moved up her side to rest on her soft belly. He gently cradled her stomach in his warm hand, caressing her skin softly. It was the place where the seed of their future child might grow, the place where the root of their progeny would someday bloom. A warm feeling of love and belonging spread through her limbs. She placed a hand over his own, lacing her fingers through his.
Her other hand gently stroked the hair lightly tickling her neck. She understood him and she loved him. She would honor him until the day that she died. He completed her. And in the silvery moonlight, in the tent where they lay, her heart spoke to him.
We each have our duty, our place in the world. Your people honor you.
Ardeth could hear the words in the still air as though they had been spoken aloud. Her voice flowed through him.
How did she have the power to soothe him, to make his burden endurable? In that moment, he did not know what she was, or what mystical knowledge she held. She was mother, sister, lover, wise-woman, queen. She was the Great Mother on whose breast men lay their heads, seeking comfort. And in her arms she offered forgiveness.
As every woman I am part human, part Goddess, the other half of your soul. You turn to me for salvation.
His eyes watered, and when he opened his eyes in the dark, looking up at the ceiling, his lashes were wet with tears.
"Are you real?" he whispered, looking up at the stars he could not see.
She smiled gently, stroking his hair. "As real as yourself, Ardeth Bay."
He laughed softly, humorlessly. "Then how is it you save me?"
I do not let your nightmares plague your dreams. I save you from your own conscience, from your guilt. When you despair that night is falling, the glory gone from the task of your ancestors, I am by your side. My leader, my lover, my king–I save you from yourself.
The answer hovered above them in the silence. And in the darkness of that night, in the arms of the woman he loved, Ardeth was redeemed.