DISCLAIMER: I dont name names here, but you all know who this is about. At least two of them are the property of MCA/Universal and the good folk at RenPics. There is also a poem whose origin I dont know, which I plundered and changed one word of to suit my evil purposes. My sincere apologies to the (probably long-dead) author. J
As always, my good friend Kamouraskans talented eyes were cast over this, and cast beautifully! Thanks, Kam! And thanks also to Beth, who told me I was creepy! This is a story about someone who cant control their actions. Early mail Ive received (thank you Ex-Guards) indicated to me that some of it may be unpleasant for people who have experienced this particular trauma, so please be advised now and dont read on if you are made uneasy by stories about obsessive behaviour and/or stalking. Feedback is always welcomed and happily answered at: firstname.lastname@example.org July, 2000.
I know a little about women. My wife would laugh to hear me say that if you could find her. It has been seven seasons since she left with him. They could be in Britannia, or Gaul. Or Hades. I know not. But I do know a little about women. I like women. Their softness. Their strength. The way they can look into your heart and still care for you after the falseness they find there. And the way they can love you without saying a word or lifting a finger.
I dont know these women, though. Thats for sure. The tall ones the muscle, Ive decided, and she certainly commands attention, but that doesnt mean the other one isnt strong, too.
I watched them when they came in. My eyes were drawn to them both immediately, so were the eyes of every man in the place, but it was the blonde on whom mine lingered. She made me think of something I saw in Egypt once.
There was an enormous man, I guess he was from Nubia. He had skin the colour of burnished ebony and was a restless traveller, had to be, because there was dust set right into the creases of his skin, like wrinkled tattoos. I remember that he sang, his voice booming through the desert, and when he smiled at me I felt my heart become lighter. There in the flies and the dirt and the gods-consuming heat he was beautiful, and strange and magic, because he was happy. Perched upon his wagon seat, his deep russet voice poured out of him like warm wine from a kings urn and he had with him a cat. Golden, fierce, a monster in a cage.
I stared at that big cat as the wagon creaked past. It never moved, and its stillness hypnotised me. I knew it was dangerous, could feel danger rolling off its tawny hide in waves. There was a fey tenseness in the air. But the cat never moved once. I stood there in the dust and I stared at it while it lay curled on its side in the corner of the barred cage, and it stared back at me with unblinking yellow eyes. My sword stretched cold along my thigh, my fists clenched and I was never more frightened of another living creature in my life. Because if it had wanted to, that cat could have torn my throat out.
If it had wanted to.
The blonde woman has the same, frightening stillness. Not on the outside, no, because I watch her now, pacing the room, I watch her talk with her friend. I watch her hands run through her hair and stop, clasped, at the back of her neck, her head tipped forward as if bowed under a great weight. I let my gaze rest on her when she gestures angrily at something the tall woman has said and follow her when she sits again and smiles with such a soft, forgiving warmth that I feel my own lips curve upwards in response. My eyes are hungry for the sight of her and I cant look away even when I try.
Her stillness is inside. Under her skin. In the way her eyes follow her companion and the way she holds herself, so graceful, so ready so aware. Her stillness is fascinating and I long to know more of it. She, too, is fey and golden and beautiful. And I can tell she is dangerous. She, too, could tear out my throat, but I think she would not.
Even if she wanted to.
When they leave, I leave. I cant help myself; its as if I am tied to her by invisible thread. Through the camp, lost among the thousands of men just like me, I become a shadow with the barest of substance, padding quietly after my own Egyptian cat. The other men watch them too, but I know that not one among their number sees her with eyes as clear as mine have become.
When they stop, I stop. Now I know where she sleeps. Now I know where they sleep, I realise, when the dark woman follows her into the tent and closes the flap. I feel an abrupt emptiness, a loss, and I have to sit down. It is muddy where I land, but I dont care. I am near her and for this night, strangely, that is all that matters to me.
Its day before I move again, and only because she comes. When she steps from the tent, stretching in the dawn light, my weariness falls away from me in joyful, breathless exhilaration.
Again, when she leaves, I will follow. In a camp as big as this, I will never be stopped, never be questioned. I will not be missed by my captain. He may even presume me dead in yesterdays battle with the Persians. So I am free to follow her as far as I wish. And in my heart I am beginning to realise just how far that would be.
Im a little scared of these new feelings. It has been a long time. I dont understand where her power comes from, or why this woman unknowingly wields it over me. All I know is that when I look at her, I see something my soldiers heart has yearned after for as long as I can remember. Peace. Warmth.
Shade for a blistered soul.
Again, I watch as her companion joins her, as dark as she is fair, eyes scanning the encampment with a possessive, fleetingly suspicious gaze. When they reach me, they pause. I turn, adjust my armour, but when I look back she is still staring at me.
I have marked you, those blue eyes say to me. I know your face. And my fingers curl into fists without me realising it.
When they leave, I dare not follow. Instead, I strain to watch her out of sight. Theyre gone gone to another meeting of advisors, gone to some distant council which a soldier like me could never hope to be a part of, either now or in the future. Gone to a place where people greater than me decide my fate and the fates of my fellow men.
So I enter her tent.
I cannot bring myself to think of it as their tent. It is hers, hers alone, and I will cherish every sensation I experience. Warmth. Warmth is the first feeling, the morning sun trapped beneath the dun eaves, touched by the scent of her. Is this what she will smell like when I hold her in my arms? Spices and musk?
I sit at the foot of the bed, breathing her in, and am suddenly aware of the shadows crossing and re-crossing the walls of the tent. Other men. I am momentarily sorry for them, because I know something they dont know.
There is a bag on the ground at my feet, the same one I watched her sling over a chair back last night. Should I open it? I decide no. I decide to leave. I decide to stay. I decide to bury my face in her pillow and stop time for a moment. I decide to calm my thundering heart by walking away from this like a sane man should.
But I am no longer a sane man. I am not even the man that I was this time yesterday, because I have been touched by something unearthly and beautiful. I open the bag and exhale a little. Scrolls. Quills. Ink. A leather blotter. A lock of midnight hair, woven through red ribbon. A wooden lamb, stained with the oils of her skin. A polished stone, amber and rich. A bracelet of feathers and ivory. Letters. Twine. A brush, still with golden strands laced through it. This is enough for now, and I pull them loose gently, trying not to break them. I pat them into my pocket and take a deep breath. Somewhere in me I am aware that I have crossed a boundary, but I have no control now.
By the afternoon, I have found her again; ceaseless hours of walking the trenches paying off in a single, blinding moment of joy.
She is fighting. I am awed.
Man after man falls to her pointed weapons, their dull metal made brighter by her beautiful face. She stops, and I watch her go among the fallen, holding out a hand here, giving a smile there. She is careful not to shame any of them. Her gentleness is at such odds to her fighting fury, yet this, I know, is the real her. The cat is subdued for the moment and has become purring, warm and kind.
I know that I love her.
When the sparring begins again, I step up, into the practice area. There are men ahead of me, but I watch only her as her eyes narrow in concentration and a little line appears on her forehead. A light sheen of sweat has broken out across her body, and as I think of spices and musk, my own sweat begins.
And then she is in front of me, only me, a foot of air separating me from her feet and fists and blazing feline eyes. I am a tall man. I tower over her, two heads higher and far heavier, but it is I who feel small. I am lost.
Before I can move, before I can even think, I am eating dirt, feeling a tooth jarred loose in my skull and a hot scratch of metal across my chest.
I welcome the pain. It is the first gift she has given me.
I stay down and wait for her to finish off the men behind me, because perhaps she will stretch a hand to me as she has done to others. Perhaps.
She moves away, and I am left to haul myself to my feet. As I do, and I turn, she catches my eye. She smiles and touches her face apologetically.
Are you okay? she mouths at me, at me alone, and I am stricken. Because I cannot speak. I cannot speak.
Before I can force my traitorous mouth to form words, she is past me and gone. Toward the warrior.
The warrior has been watching all this time. Of course she has. My stomach clenches and a new pain surfaces as my golden one reaches her side. She is proud. They are both proud, mine of herself, and the other of mine. It glows on their skin. And she does not look at me. I scream to her in my mind, but still she doesnt look.
Instead, the warrior turns toward me. Carefully. Knowingly. I stare back this time, because there is nothing wrong about my presence. She cannot challenge me here. I am allowed to be here. I am allowed to look. She cant stop me. But Im afraid anyway, and in the end her eyes will break me and she knows it.
My golden one follows her gaze, but her eyes slip past me with a blindness that breaks my heart. I am invisible to her. Cant she see me? Doesnt she understand that I am hers?
The warriors gaze has turned steely, and I glance sideways to see other men staring at me now. I know why. I am heaving for the breath stolen from me by her face, and my sword dangles from my fist, dragging in the dirt. I am conspicuous, and still she does not see me.
So I leave, and the warriors scrutiny leaves with me.
It is late now, and I have followed her to a fire on the edge of the camp, where she sits alone.
Alone. Like me.
She should never be alone.
I can fix this. I could fix it for both of us, if by the gods I could will my feet to move. I edge forward, one inch at a time, feeling like a child dragged toward school, but my heart wanting to rush to her like a deer to the river in summer.
She hears me, or senses me, because she turns. My heart stops. I put a trembling hand on my sword hilt and try desperately to look as if I wander the edges of camp on some important business, as if I am greater than I am and have good purpose for skulking in the darkness.
Its her. I glance behind me, but there is no-one else. Shes speaking to me.
Hello. I can speak. Hello.
Arent you cold? she says to me, the corners of her lips rising in a smile. I knew her voice would sound like that, like sunlight spilling through my fingers.
Im hot-blooded, I tell her, and I move a step forward, suppressing my shivers. She has spoken first, and this is acceptable. She invited me here. She invited me into this conversation. This is acceptable. Two steps, three steps, before she speaks again.
War makes many things of a man, doesnt it?
And of a woman, I reply, stepping forward again. And you are no ordinary woman, I can see that.
I am well within the circle of firelight now, and the flames flicker hotly on her face. My heart thunders and my palms are slick.
Have you always been a soldier? Her eyes betray nothing, but I can sense the cat stirring within her. Too far. I pushed too far.
Always, I tell her, turning away a little, hiding my face from the cat, giving it room to sleep again. I look into the darkness and remember my life as a fisherman. Always, since I was a boy, I repeat, and put out my feelers again.
The cat is still there, but one eye is closed now.
You must have seen many things, she says, her voice a warm question, inviting me to speak to her.
Madness, I tell her, shifting on my feet until I face her again.
I have seen it too, she says. She smiles at me, a smile for two creatures whose paths are one, and my soul floods with light. She understands me. We are one.
I am about to reply, but she looks past me, into the shadows, and I know what she sees. I can feel the knowing eyes on my back, and I flinch a little under their battering as the warrior strides into the firelight.
I missed you. I expected you hours ago. Here, sit with me, the fires beautiful.
Her voice is warmer for the warrior, richer, and the rage surfaces before I can stop it.
Godlike the one who sits at her side
Godlike. Indeed. What has she done, this dark warrior, that she inspires such devotion from my golden cat? And what might I do to inspire the same love that I see on her face now? How do I become the one at her side?
who watches and catches the laughter which softly tears me to tatters
The warrior leans close to her and whispers something. My golden one laughs quietly and it is the sound of clear water on the river stones.
Nothing is left of me each time I see her
The warrior glances at me, then turns away and rests her weary head briefly on my golden ones shoulder. I cant stand this any longer and I wheel away, into the darkness again, wiping furiously at the tears that are scalding my cheeks.
What did he want? I hear the warrior ask.
Nothing, she replies and my heart breaks all over again. Couldnt she see? Doesnt she know?
Be careful. Ive seen him before.
Its the last thing my ears catch before I am too far away, already sick and gasping with loss.
I cannot sleep this night, and my feet carry me to her tent again. I leave before the sun comes up, but I think I could hear her breathing as I sat outside, stroking the lock of hair that I have smoothed into tawny softness. It comforted me. My skin burns and she fills my mind. I dont know what to do.
It is the middle of the day and they rest near the command tents. I watched her talking with the Captains, her lithe arm pointing to the row of enemy campfires smoking in the plains below us. She saw me, I think, because there was a flicker of recognition on her face and she smiled. I hope she smiled, for the other did not.
It is night again, and this time I know she saw me. But there was no smile. The cat is awake and pacing, I feel it, and I feel that I have sent my love to her on the wind. She must know, has to know, and I will not leave her again.
It is early morning, and she paces the trenches, beautiful green eyes flicking backward toward me as I trail behind her. I dont bother to conceal myself now. She knows Im here and she knows my heart. I can tell.
She stops and turns.
Why do you keep following me?
And I cannot answer. I reach for words that dont exist in a mind that is abruptly, terrifyingly empty of everything but her presence.
She gazes at me and still I cannot speak.
Is there something you want? she asks.
Oh, so many things .
Because youre making me nervous, she admits, eyes on my face, frankness like hers a rarity in a place like this.
I want to answer and tell her that I am sorry for scaring her, that I mean nothing but good things, tell her that if she knew me, she would love me .
But at that moment the warrior steps up to us and places one hand on my loves shoulder, the other loosely on the circle of steel at her hip. Her eyes bore into me and there is a warning in them. Challenge.
Dont let me see you again, she tells me, low, fierce. This is a big camp. Lose yourself in it.
I can do nothing, so I nod, but my gaze doesnt leave my loves face.
Lets go, says the warrior to her, and they leave together. Again. My golden one looks over her shoulder at me before the crowd claims her.
And in that moment I know.
She loves me.
I can see it in her eyes. She loves me and we will be together this day.
I am shaking.
It is hours later and the sun burns down overhead. The battle is postponed yet another day, and the men grow restless and fight amongst each other. I dont speak to any of them, because I am nursing the secret joy I carry. It grows larger each second, burns fiercer than Apollo and is more consuming than a fight to the death.
She loves me.
I watch her in the water, alone, watch her shuck the shining rivulets from her arms and face, and I wonder how it is I became such a lucky man. Wonder why it is me, a soldier, who has killed a hundred men and more, that is rewarded in this glorious fashion. Wonder why I have found my souls shade when there are thousands, millions, who will never be this lucky.
She travelled far for this solitude, almost to the foot of the mountains. There is a closer lake, but the men gather there when they can, and I know that she has chosen this place to be with me.
I am low in the reeds, and I have taken my time to get down here, waiting to make my movements while she is under the water, or facing the mountains. I want to surprise her. I want to see the joy on her face when I go to her. I want to savour every precious second of this, of what will be the first time of many times in her arms.
So I am confused when she screams.
I am in the water to my waist now, heedless to my sopping clothes. Why did she scream? She knew I was coming. She invited me here with her eyes.
It is not a loud scream, more like a gasp, so as I reach for her I decide to soothe her fear away and take vengeance on whatever caused it.
Because it couldnt possibly be me.
She ducks my outstretched arms and sinks beneath the water, surfacing further out, arms crossing her naked chest.
What are you doing here? she asks me, and her voice is different. Higher.
I am confused again. You asked me here, I tell her, moving forward.
No, I didnt. I didnt ask you anything.
She is still swimming backward, so I move quicker, the water reaching my chest now. I feel the embankment slope under my feet and I know that she is out of her depth.
Its alright, I say, making my voice quiet. I love you.
She laughs then, and it reminds me of the flutter of a bird in a cage.
You dont even know me.
I am stunned. How can she say that?
Of course I do, I say, and this time I am close, so close, before she slips away again. Her eyes slide past me, and I wonder what is on the shore that she would rather look at than my face.
You dont even know my name, she says to me.
That doesnt matter, I say, just as my outstretched hand catches her arm. Love doesnt need names. Youre my cat in the desert.
Gods! she yells, and tries to duck away. Her eyes scan the shore again and I am suddenly furious.
Are you looking for her? I shout, shaking. Because you promised youd be with me!
When? she cries. When did I promise anything to you? I dont even know who you are! Let go of me!
She strikes out and her dripping fist hits me squarely in the eye. I dont understand, and the sun on the water is hitting my face and making me see two, three of her. I am surrounded by golden beauty and even in my pain I realise how fortunate I am.
I lunge. I have both her arms now, pinned to her sides, and she kicks me, but the water is deeper than her feet now, and gives her no leverage. I can withstand it. She kicks me again, and I am so lost in her eyes that she could kick me a thousand times before I felt it.
Stop it! she shouts, and I turn her easily in my arms, pulling her back to me until my chin rests on her shoulder and my cheek is nestled against her warm skin. I wrap my arms tightly around her and the monster in my chest is grateful, because this is where it belongs.
Why is she struggling? Why is she shouting like that? I gasp for breath as her elbow hits me, first in the stomach, then the neck. I tighten my embrace.
As she pushes against me, her face slips beneath the water and I hold her there for a minute, to calm her.
Dont you recognise me? I try as hard as I can to make my voice as deep and rich as the wagon driver, so perhaps shell understand. I plead with her, as she struggles and twists in my arms. Dont you see who I am?
She is thrashing now, but not as strongly as before. I can see her hair clouding in the water beneath me, and I press her face to my chest, willing her to understand.
Dont you see me? Dont you see?
I see you, says a voice from behind me.
And the water rushes past me, my hands are empty and suddenly I am on the shore. I am lying on my back, squinting into the sun, with blood running down my arm and the warriors shadow over me.
My golden one staggers from the water, glistening even in her fright. And it is fright that I see now. I can no longer tell myself that her eyes hold love. Her eyes are fear-filled.
What did you think you were doing? the warrior demands of me, and there is a sword in her hands.
I love her, I tell the dark woman, explaining as best I can. Were supposed to be together. Shes my cat in the desert.
Did you think to ask her first? snarls the warrior fiercely, glancing to my love as she dresses even over her wet skin.
I dont have to ask, I-
Dont look at her! Ill cut your eyes out. Is that what you want?
No, I plead. No, I only want her. Please. I only want her. I love her. She loves me, too. We are one, ask her, shell tell you. Ask her!
The tall one bends over me, the point of her sword pressing into my throat, and I can tell that the fury in her eyes is real and the last thing I will see. So I close my eyes, because the last thing I wish to see is not her dark, possessive rage.
And when death does not come and I open them again, she is there. My golden one. Her hand on the arm of the warrior, her voice coursing warm into the air.
Leave him. Please. Im not hurt. I dont think he understands what hes done.
The dark woman shakes her head. My love leans closer and I watch with a dry mouth as her hand moves up the warriors arm. Higher. Higher, her gentle touch leaving a trail of goose-flesh behind it. I look at the warrior and I see the tremble run through her frame.
Come away. Come away with me now. Its time to leave here.
The warriors hands jerk at the words, and I flinch as the sword nicks my skin.
Then my golden one speaks into her ear, speaks so low that I cannot hear the words, but the fury abates and suddenly I know. The tall woman steps back and there is such love in her eyes that I understand. She allows my love to lead her away, gently, so that she does not stumble.
She is the muscle, yes, but my golden one is her real strength. And I will live.
When they leave, this time I do not follow, except with my heart.
The sun skips off the water and blinds me, as much as my tears do. And I know I will never find shade again.
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