Friday, December 27, 2019

The Stolen Heart by J.V. Mulcahy

A beleaguered soldier tells of his escape from captivity and prejudice; by J.V. Mulcahy. Also subsequently published in Altered Reality.

I was having a heated argument with my sister Araminta when Arys hailed us.

"Am I interrupting?" he asked, his mild question contrasting with our argument. We sat at a table near the outer wall of the tavern's terrace, surrounded by tables of officers and men.

Araminta shot him a bright smile. Her complexion, like mine, was the rich color of cinnamon, which set off the flash of her eyes in the sunlight. "Just Jorg here, making a fool of himself." She waved our friend to the empty chair opposite her. "He thinks I'm too frail to fight for my own freedom."

Araminta and I were sharing Morgasian ale, while traffic moved past on the crowded main boulevard of Jehan's Lair. In each direction, on both sides, there were tables and carts, with red, and green, and yellow awnings. Flint-eyed merchants, eager farmers and cheating traders sold and bought glassware, weapons, cloth, corn, oats, sacrificial animals, leather; most items that could be found in any small city, which Jehan's Lair closely resembled.

"Look, Araminta," I slammed my fist on the table, causing the wooden cups to jump. "Listen to Arys if you won't listen to me. He'll tell you." I turned to him. "I've been trying to convince her how dangerous combat is. Many's the time I've come home covered in blood and brains. I'll not allow her to be exposed to it."

Arys, Araminta and I had been friends since we'd learned how to walk, though we had seen him only infrequently since his escape from Rahesh. Son of the great General Arys Ironarm, young Arys at twenty-five already looked middle-aged and more tired than I remembered; red-eyed, tough as old boots, but worn. Even when he smiled, his face betrayed a haunted look, as if something had devoured whatever cheer had once been there. His dark brown complexion was sallow, carved with wrinkles I did not remember noticing before, as if by a razor.

A year as a prisoner had thinned Arys's sturdy frame. Though he seemed to be recovering well enough, his movements lacked the sleek grace I was used to. Yet I was sure he'd make my sister see reason.

"There's no problem here, Jorg. You're wrong." He gave a nod as Araminta grinned wickedly at me.

"How can you say that?" I protested, my face coloring. "Your father refused to have any women under his command. He -"

Arys scrubbed his face with both hands. "Father wasn't perfect, any more than I am," he sighed, and beckoned a server to bring a mug for him and more wine. As she bent to serve him, I got a good look into her bodice. She blushed and quickly straightened when she saw me looking.

"You've nothing to be ashamed of," I offered her my best smile.

Under the table, Araminta kicked me. "Don't mind him," she said. "He thinks he's being nice. He's been stepping all over his cock all afternoon."

Arys met the server's gaze and smiled. "We're trying to teach him some manners," he said. She offered him a smile in return. Maybe she recognized him as Ironarm's son.

"What is this?" I snapped. My sister's reaction was no surprise, but Arys's words had floored me. "Arys, you always loved admiring nice tits." I looked from Arys to Araminta. Were they conspiring against me?

"Everything changes," he said softly, rubbing his wrists, which still showed scars.

Araminta noticed his gesture, said, "You must have had a hard time of it," she said softly. "In captivity, I mean."

A frown knit Arys's brow. I wanted to cheer him. "I'll bet you killed a lot of the dogs," I said.

He sipped some wine. "Enough. I was lucky." There was little enthusiasm in his voice, something I found unsettling.

I slapped his back. "I'm surprised they held you at all."

"That kind of overconfidence lost us the war," he said quickly, leaning back in his chair, which forced my hand from his back. "We were so sure we could defeat the Raheshi peasants that we failed to consider any long-range plan or strategy. So when the peasants proved superior to we couldn't deal with it. We let them take charge of the battle, and never even used the assets we had."

The look of triumph on Araminta's face shocked me. I gasped, "But the generals -"

"The generals were wrong," Arys interrupted. "Shall I tell you what happened to me as the Raheshis' 'guest?'"

Araminta quieted immediately. "By all means," she said. He'd always gotten along with her better than I could.

I gave him a flat look, with narrowed eyes and pinched mouth. "Even when we were children, your opinion always counted more with her than mine. If you're going to tell us how you escaped, tell it. But if you're going to spout ideas that'll get you demoted, I won't help you."

Araminta punched his arm. "Jorg, don't be an idiot. Arys won't get demoted. Look around you, for Jehan's sake. There are women soldiers everywhere now."

Damn her, but she was right. To my left, perhaps ten yards away, a troop approached, led by a woman in a sergeant's uniform. She shrilled commands in the afternoon air, but to me her voice lacked the authority of a man's. Who could hear that voice on the battlefield? Worse yet, who would obey it?

"Pity," I grumbled, but now both were scowling at me. "I give up. Tell us, Arys."

He looked pained and reluctant as he sketched the details of the raid on the Raheshi outpost, and their surprise when the enemy had been ready for them. "They killed all my men," he paused, then said, "Would have killed me too, but their commander knew what a great triumph it would be to have the son of Arys Ironarm in their hands, so they threw me into the blasted slave pen.

"My first nights I filed away my chains. Then I strangled the jailer. But they caught me and hauled me to a courtyard, where they tied me to an altar.

"They built a huge fire, and rounded up all the slaves to watch. To a drum's steady pounding, they tore open my tunic, baring my chest. They danced around me in the firelight like ghosts, shaking their spears and swords at me. I tried to free myself, but the leather thongs were tight, and all I did was bloody my wrists and ankles. Around and around me they danced, their cries and chants a counterpoint to the steady pulsing of that drum. Sometimes one would spring out of the dark at me, to frighten me, and a wizard in blood-red robes jabbed his dagger at me. I could smell my fear-sweat. I prayed to Saint Jehan for courage.

"But I'd need more than courage. The Raheshis quit chanting and four approached, one from each direction, each holding the end of a chain. At the center where the four chains met, rested a jewel the size of a man's head. It seemed to squirm like it was eager to be free. They brought the jewel close to my chest, pulled the chains away, and the stone landed on my chest. I felt something bite into me. The gem began turning red. I thought my body would catch fire."

He halted a moment, and I'd swear he shuddered. Not Arys the Younger, I told myself; not the son of Arys Ironarm. He looked like a stranger now.

"The shaman's voice was the next sound I heard," Arys continued. "I was never more terrified in my life. In a loud voice that old demon shouted in a strange language. The jewel was now completely red. That drum sounded again, only much more softly now, and the wizard tore the jewel away from me, leaving a small wound that healed in an instant. Just long enough for me to realize what had happened.

"They'd stolen my heart, and imprisoned it in the jewel. I lived somehow, but my body felt sore and empty. My heart, the source of my courage and my warrior's spirit, now beat in that crimson gemstone.

"I cringed as they untied my wrists and ankles. They hit me with their spears again, but now I cowered at each blow, covering my head with my hands, whining like a dog. I seemed still to feel the beat of my heart, but that was only its pulsing in the prison of the gem. My heart, my courage, my spirit had fled.

"They kept me in a cage on all fours, shown off to visitors. I ate whatever scraps they dropped on the floor. Every day I became less a man. Before my escape attempt, I'd boasted of my prowess to the slaves, vowing I'd free them all. I remembered the light in their eyes when I'd say we'd all be free soon. Now their hope was gone. I'd let them down. I'd sworn to protect them, yet I couldn't even protect myself."

He lowered his head, clenched his fists. Araminta laid a hand on his arm, and he squeezed her hand. "I'm all right," he said.

I did not understand the look that passed between them, but the change that had come over him troubled me. I didn't believe that my friend could have fallen so far. "Of course you're all right," I said, trying to console him. "You're a man. And you kept on trying, despite what they did to you."

He turned away and covered his mouth a moment. "Jorg, you don't understand, do you?"

I grimaced. What was there to understand?

"I was as broken as any horse," he said. "I, who've been free all my life. They'd stolen my heart. You cannot imagine it. I lived in my own filth. Even the slaves gave up on me. At night, all alone, I could hear their whispers. Each day, I saw them hauled to the auction block, and fewer returned."

His powerful hands quivered as he poured more wine. It was like seeing a stranger in my friend's form. He paused a moment and gave me a look that made me squirm.

"Months passed. I had no idea what they'd done with my heart. I could not imagine working up the nerve to steal it back, even if I could somehow get out of that cage. I'd be a captive still, if not for that Songweaver."

"Songweaver?" I asked. "What Songweaver?"

Arys's head jerked back. He looked like a man interrupted from a dream. "Have you been listening?" he asked, scowling, chin jutting out, mouth a hard line.

I glared right back at him. "Yes, I've been listening," I growled. "But you didn't mention a Songweaver before."

He crossed and uncrossed his arms. Scratched his jaw. Then shrugged, as if it was too much trouble to argue with me. I swore under my breath, even as he said, "Every day, when they dragged the slaves off to be sold, they'd bring some back, the Songweaver among them. I guess she was too stubborn. Too small. Too feisty. Then she called to me from her cell.

"'Aurigan,' she said. She was skinny, a perfect match for me, the Raheshis said. 'Are you ready to seize back your freedom?' she demanded. I tried to ignore her.

"'It can't be done,' I told her. 'You saw what happened to those who tried.'

"She stared at me and did not answer. I winced to see the marks on her. How could she even think of trying to escape?

"'Tomorrow,' she said as if the others weren't there. 'Tomorrow they send me to the holite mines. No one returns from the mines. How could anything be worse than that?'

"'But they've stolen my heart,' I said. 'How could I escape without it?'

"She laughed at me then. 'Fool!' she cried scornfully. 'It was mummery and sham. How could you live, with no heart? Would your father have believed such lies?'

"When I gave a start, she nodded. 'Aye, I know you, son of Ironarm. I am Grania, a Songweaver, daughter of Shirah, the Healer. Your father wanted to protect us from war. I will either prove him wrong or die in the attempt.'"

Araminta said, "Don't you see, Jorg? He wouldn't let women near combat. So when the enemy did come, we were ill-prepared for them."

I frowned at her. I'd made sure my sister was protected from the battle; so why did she say 'we'?"

"'I fought at Tur Magdath,' Grania said through clenched teeth. 'I heard men screaming as they burned them alive.' She knotted her fists. 'They'll not cow me. And my Magic can block the effects of the lotus flowers ground up in the food to keep the slaves docile.'"

But she went silent, and I could not make her speak further.

"That night, I slept fitfully, and snapped awake at the scrape of a sandal on the stone floor. It must be a slave using the chamber pot, I thought. Then a dark figure appeared and my cage opened. I tried to get up, but my body was too stiff. Grania sang a few words and the stiffness left me. Something stirred in my belly. 'Arys the Younger,' Grania said. 'We need your power.' She stood with her fists on her hips, legs spread, limned in the golden light of torches at her left and right. She was soon joined by all the slaves that remained in the pens. At each side, Grania gestured and two of them split from the group to watch down the halls that joined this one. I looked over this unlikely army and saw grim faces, all of them clad in rags, shadowed by the torchlight. One, I realized, was a girl, not more than ten. What could Grania be thinking, exposing a child to such danger?"

"Teaching her how to stand up for herself," Araminta remarked. "Something Jorg never did for me." She looked directly at me when she said this.

Arys continued, "'I have no power,' I said. But I stood, walked over and looked her in the eye. Her gaze was direct and unflinching.

"'How could you face each day in that cage, if not for your great courage?' she demanded.

"She was a fool, I told myself. She would be captured, she and the others, and our captors would do even worse things to them. How could they not see that?"

Arys paused. Araminta gave me a pointed look. I stirred in my seat, feeling the blood warm my cheeks. How many times had I told her I was only trying to talk some sense into her?

"How did she get out of the cell?" I asked. "You make it sound as if she didn't need you at all."

For the first and only time while he was telling the story, Arys grinned. "Oldest trick in the world," he answered. "She tampered with the bolt so it only appeared to be locked. A trick she'd learned from her father. As for why she needed me, you'll learn soon enough, if you're still listening."

He took a drink of wine from the moist-sided pewter mug. I noticed that the sergeant who was drilling the squad now had them march in formation down the boulevard, directly past our inn. I was surprised at how perfectly straight the lines of men and women were, and how each held his or her spear exactly the right distance from the soldier in front.

Arys resumed his tale. "Grania and the others left. My cell door remained open. Seeing how she refused to listen to reason, I decided to follow, to try and keep them out of trouble. At least I could protect the little girl. Sweat chilled my skin as I ventured through the dark corridors. I remembered the drum's steady pounding the night my heart had been stolen, and faltered for an instant. Then I thought of Grania and the little girl, and I kept on.

"When they turned the corner, I hurried to catch up. The guards were sure to find them, and I wanted to prevent that. They paused at another junction where our corridor stopped at a crossing. Grania looked both ways and frowned. A look of puzzlement crossed her face. Then another woman murmured to her, and she nodded, then signalled for the escapees to resume their flight. As the last of her charges passed her, Grania looked back and saw me. She had a queer look on her face, with less surprise than I'd have expected. She asked, 'Are you coming to rescue me from freedom, Arys the Younger?'

"Just then, a guard rounded the corner and saw us. He ran toward us, swinging a club. I would have seized her and tried to drag her out of the way, but before I could act, she ducked under his swing, squeezed a certain spot on his neck with her thumb and fingers, and he dropped like a stone. I heard the crunch of bones as she broke his neck.

"A fell light came over her face, 'I can do more than weave songs,' she said in a grim voice. 'Will you join us, Arys the Younger?'

"She darted away to catch up with the others. Stolen heart or no, I followed. I could not abandon her. Before long, we heard the rumble of booted feet. The guard. 'Do we flee?' Grania asked her companions. 'Or do we stand and fight?' Not one chose to flee. 'Make the bastards pay dearly for us,' she said.

"The women, even the little girl, had picked up pieces of wood along their way to use as clubs. Grania had taken the sword from the man she'd downed, and another woman had his cudgel. Now that Grania had defeated the lotus blossoms, I saw three had Magic; there was a Weaponer, who could turn anything she touched into a weapon; a Tripler, who could split into three of herself; and a Healer. Poor arms against swords, spears and clubs, I thought. But none faltered. A passion to be free blazed on each face.

"Fifteen soldiers confronted us. They marched on us, not hurrying, certain we would flee. And I would have fled. I wanted to flee. I wanted to fall to my knees and beg for mercy. But I saw the look on Grania's face. The same look was on the faces of the rest, even the little girl's. I knew that if I panicked, many of the others would, too. It dawned on me then how much they were counting on me. But could I do this?

I fancied I heard my father's voice, cutting through the noise of battle, forcing himself before my mind's eye. 'A warrior is tested many times,' he seemed to say. Perhaps I had passed such a test when I'd chosen to follow this courageous woman, regardless of my reasons.

"The lines the enemy formed across the corridor actually gave us a slight advantage. In the narrow space, the Raheshis had no room to maneuver and get around our flanks. I yelled for Grania to get some of the women keeping the rear attackers busy. It mattered little how they did this, so long as my back was covered. Then I gave a roar and leapt into the fray. In the thick of battle, my training took over, and it was as if my heart had never been taken. Perhaps Grania was right. What did it matter, that I'd been caged nearly a year? I was Arys the Younger, son of the greatest warrior Auriga has ever known, and I must continue his legacy.

"I had to stay on my feet, concentrating on attacking the enemy's eyes and throats. My movements became mechanical. Knock one out of action, go on to the next. Keep on my feet, and do not go to ground. Crush one man's windpipe, smash the next one's nose, gouge his companion's eyes out, kick another's face in.

"Behind me, several women had been soldiers before their capture, and were applying many of my techniques. Soon all were grappling with the Raheshis. The women surprised me with their tenacity and their ferocity. They fought like tigresses protecting their cubs. Even the little girl took part, clubbing guards that fell."

Arys paused, and took another drink of his wine. Araminta had been riveted to Arys the whole time he'd been telling his tale, and now she said, "So you defeated fifteen men with your bare hands?" There was more than mere admiration in her voice.

Before I could speak, Arys said, "Those women were as ferocious as any man I've faced. And they fought without restraint. Some would have literally torn their opponents to pieces had not others restrained them."

"But it's strength." I protested. "By Fehtan, the Warrior Goddess. It's all strength."

It surprised me to see Arys's face harden. "There are ways to overcome your opponent's strength. Perhaps if you truly heard me, you'd not have so much trouble understanding. Are you going to listen and stop insisting yours is the only right opinion, or not?"

Araminta kept nodding and smiling. I stared at her, wondering at this. "You've told this much," I said to Arys. "I guess you should tell the rest."

Arys shrugged, cleared his throat, and continued, "We defeated them. Oh, we knew there would be more battles ahead. We weren't foolish. But we were proud, that night. As we ran through the darkened corridors of the prison, seeking a way out, I could hear murmurs from the others, murmurs of fierce pride."

He paused again, and brushed something out of his eye. "Suddenly, in front of us stood the old black demon who'd stolen my heart. My muscles seemed to turn to water. The wizard raised both hands, and flames jetted from his palms, burning me. I fought as best I could, but still that power forced me to my knees. I was lost.

"But then Grania leapt in front of me and sang with her Magic against the sorcery. She linked her spirit with mine, giving me a sudden surge of energy. Grania's power met the priest's sorcery. There was strain in her face as her Magic gradually pushed back the flames. Back and forth she and the priest fought. Sweat soaked her face and dripped from her nose and chin. Her whole body trembled with the strain of the forces she was summoning.

"All this took place in a bare few moments. While Grania kept the sorcerer's attention diverted, I seized a sword from a dead Raheshi and chopped through him, slashing him from forehead to ribcage.

"But as he collapsed, one last crackle of fire shot out from his dying form and struck Grania. She went down in a heap, her head striking the stone floor. I pushed my way through the ring of women encircling her, calling her name. I took her in my arms. I lifted her from the floor, her arms limp, her hair like a ribbon of gold. I kept repeating her name. But there was no one there to hear me now. No one to challenge me. I remembered the way she'd thrust out her chin and vowed she would escape. How the veins in her arms stood out when she knotted her fists. There was no will to form those fists, no one to thrust out her chin and tell me the Raheshis hadn't stolen my heart. Skinny little Songweaver with the heart of a lioness."

Arys paused. All around, it seemed everything went silent, as if some wall had been dropped around us. Soldiers walked past, in pairs and groups. "It wasn't the wizard who stole your heart," I gasped.

Arys's mouth opened and closed. I had never seen him so mastered by his emotions as he was now. He gripped his mug of wine so tightly that he might have crushed it.

He continued, "As if from far away, I heard a woman who had been standing watch say, 'More coming, Sergeant. We've no time.'

"I hoisted Grania over my shoulder and we ran. Behind us, we heard the guards halt, sizing up the mass of their dead comrades. Then we heard the shouts that indicated they'd discovered the wizard.

"I decided to quit running and face down the guards. I laid Grania down, gently, and told the others to run, not to wait for me, that I would rejoin them. They did not listen. As one we confronted the enemy, our ragtag army with our sticks and clubs and Magic.We fought with a renewed spirit. I felt strong, stronger than I'd felt in many months of captivity, and I realized Grania was right; separately a man and a woman are strong. United, they're invincible. Shouting Grania's name, we fought. And won.

"The moon was setting as we made our stealthy way for the East Gate of the city. Guards were patrolling; those we avoided. No alarm went out, thank the Goddess. The East Gate had battlements on either side, with a guard house built into the base of one battlement. We watched carefully, and saw movement in the towers. We did not know how many there might be up there, but I left the group for a few minutes, and when I returned, it was in a Raheshi uniform. Whoever he was, he would not miss his uniform any more.

"I marched the coffle of slaves to the Gate. Two of them carried Grania, as though she'd been punished into oblivion. 'Shipment to the mines, Sergeant,' I told the guard on duty. He merely grunted, opened the gate and waved us through. There were woods about a half-mile away from the city. All the way there, I prayed to Pel, Goddess of Luck, that they wouldn't see through our ruse."

He stopped. "Pel was listening," I said.



A cadet approached the table. She looked tall for her rank, with golden hair tied back in a braid, and clear gray eyes. Mud flecked her boots, and her brown uniform tunic and gray trousers were patched in several places. She was out of breath, as if she'd run a long way. "Sergeant Arys," she puffed, snapping a salute.

Arys returned her salute. "Cadet Mikhaila." His gaze softened, and the hint of a smile played about his mouth. "You remember yesterday's lesson?"

"I'm ready," she replied, with the confidence only the young are capable of. "I'll surprise you this time."

"Let's see." He glanced at Araminta. "I think we can find an extra practice sword, Araminta. Do you need to be anywhere?"

She almost knocked over the pitcher. "Just with you," she said.

I watched them walk away. The sun had sunk behind the mountains and the lamps on the terrace provided the only light. Servers bustled among tables, filling mugs, serving dinner, laughing and chatting with their uniformed patrons. At every table, men and women soldiers shared the evening meal. My friend, my sister, and another female, off to practice combat. Off to pretend war was not as ugly as it truly was.

What was the world coming to?

4 comments:

  1. Well written. Good ending. Kinda reminded me of Game of Thrones and others in that genre.

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  2. Interesting how Arys' views have been influenced by his experiences. I enjoyed the contrast between his way of thinking and Jorg's.

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  3. I will echo the above comments. Very well written and an effectively portrayed world. I find it interesting that it could be placed into nearly any timeline effectively.

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  4. Thanks for the kind words. It's gratifying to be compared to George R.R. Martin, a great writer. You can also find more stories from the same world at https://www.alteredrealitymag.com/authors/meet-jack-mulcahy/

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