A Grave Mistake

A Grave Mistake

 “No -no -no!” She whimpered to herself. She blinked the blurriness from her eyes  The night air felt like ice on her tear-stained cheeks, and her lungs strained painfully against it. Still, she pushed forward, away from the dimming firelight of the camp, into the darkness. “Not this, ” This was not like the panicked flight from The Pride, frantic and exhaustive. No, these were measured steps and measured breaths with quiet intention. This was the marathon of a woman trying to put as much distance as possible between herself and her guilt. “Not again!” 

Sa’ro barely heard the clatter of armour before sharp pain shot through her thigh and she stumbled. As she tumbled head of heels she spotted the massive claw snap out in the darkness and take her. 

Sa’ro waited in some distance way until she saw Alynn exit before she entered. The cool shade of the large tent was a salve after spending the afternoon in the blazing sun. As her eyes adjusted to the dim light Sa’ro looked about the twenty-foot square room to see several members of the WhiteFeather resting on mats of woven straw. She stepped quietly between them trying not to disturb anyone, though there was the occasional sharp breath, often followed by a groan or whimper, as the wounded tried to find comfort. She found Armand lying on his back in the middle of the tent. Sand was packed tight around him to restrict his movement and a hempen rope was crossed back and forth over his body, staked into the ground on either side to further immobilize him, and a scarf was likewise secured over his eyes and head, from turning.  She sat down next to him and gently placed her hand on his forearm.

Outside, as the sun set on the Cardy Desert, she could hear the low murmur of the Clan congregating in the distance, where she’d spent the afternoon. After several moments the murmurs turned to a hush that slowly began to rise in depth and volume until it took on a consistent and prolonged hum. The longer she listened the more able she became to pick out individual voices, not that she could tell one person from another, so much as she could differentiate where one voice paused for breath and another took its place. The layered repetition of these voices created a subtle reverberation, like that of a tuning fork. Sets of voices split off into harmonic rhythms that built up until she could almost feel the music reverberate in her chest. Sa’ro had never heard the WhiteFeather’s ceremonial rites before and the Celestial-like song raised the hair on her arms and tears welled up in her eyes.  As she listened to it, considering what she could say to the child before her. 

“Hey, little man,” She whispered, trying not to disturb those around her. The boy shifted slightly against his bindings and hissed a groan. She lifted her hand and watched as his chest settled back into the rise and fall of heavy slumber. “I’m sorry,” Sa’ro sighed heavily, unsure of what else to say. Afraid to disturb him further, she placed her hands in her pockets. “I thought I was doing the right thing, “ Tears spilled down her cheeks, clearing streaks through the dirt and grim of the afternoon's work. Breath came to her in hitched gasps, and her voice quivered as she spoke, “ I should have …” a desperate gasp for breath interrupted her, and she took another to calm herself before she started again. “I should have listened to Rita,” She exhaled with deliberation, to continue managing her breathing despite the sadness and guilt welling inside.

A tear dropped from the young woman’s chin, creating a dark spot on the lapel of her cloak. As it soaked quickly into the corners of the tightly woven material, it dredged old memories up to the surface. Memories of a similar apology to her best friend, and another to a young girl by a riverbank, she remembered apologizing in tears to the twins and their mother as they sat crying in the dirt and ash; Gods, how many apologies had there been? 

“I should have stayed with you, “ Inside her pocket, she found the Iron Bullet and began fidgeting with it, rubbing the surface with her thumb, then flipping it over to do the same on the other side. “But you never should have followed me!” She thought to herself, “What were you thinking?!” At that moment she heard Rita’s voice from earlier that day,  and her heart stopped. She dropped the bullet back into the bottom of her pocket and placed her hand gently on the boy’s chest, “I’m sorry I wasn't there to protect you” She whispered through her whimpering.

“I don’t need protecting,” Armand said quietly. 

The Afternoon sun glistened on his tanned elven skin, radiating off in waves that made him shimmer like a mirage against the desert behind him. Sweat trickled down his lean frame, clinging desperately to the sculpted muscles that rippled beneath them. It gathered into a tiny stream that followed the hollow of his spine, and as it disappeared beneath the waistband of his low-slung trousers, a visible shiver ran through him. A similar, sympathetic shiver ran through the transfixed young woman. With a flip of his long silver ponytail, he threw his head back and raised a waterskin to his fine silver moustache and firm lower lip beneath it. She wet her lips as droplets spilled from the corners of his mouth, tumbling down his silver beard to join the tiny beads forming on his chest. Her head tilted slightly, mimicking the extension of his neck as he took a long draught and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “Here!” He tossed the waterskin to her, startling her from her reverie, “You look thirsty.”

A handsome Elven man

Sa’ro’s cheeks flushed as she fumbled the projectile before catching it, and she drank from the skin as much to hide behind it as to quench her thirst. She splashed a small amount in her palm and wiped her face to cool herself down. “You’re looking a little rosey,” Imbole smiled gently at her as he drove the shovel into the ground. He tossed the sand onto a slowly growing pile held back by a makeshift wall of scrap wood, much of it tumbling back into the hole as it settled. He repeated this, stepping into the hollow he’d made and turning 

to dig in the other direction in a seemingly endless cycle. “You should get out of the sun for a bit.” Imbole suggested with a little smile, “Unless you want to spend the rest of the day in a tent next to Armand!”

“What the fuck does that mean?!” Sa’ro barked back. Her cheeks flushed again, this time in embarrassment and anger, the hair on the back of her neck standing on end. She jumped to her feet, not realizing she’d been sitting, and threw the waterskin at him from a similar pit only a few feet away. The elven man twisted to the side as the projectile sailed past his face, brushing the edge of his moustache.  “That wasn’t …” She began to scream, but as her mouth opened to release the venom, she was interrupted.

“I didn’t mean …” He dropped the shovel from a hand that he raised in surrender. His bright green eyes shifted to a deep, worrisome green, and his charming smile dropped apologetically open. “I’m sorry, “  His voice dropped to a more solemn register, “That wasn’t your fault.”

“Yeah, well,” She flopped back down, deflated. Rita’s anger echoed in her head, enhancing the memory of Alyn clutching her son’s hand and crying. That memory dredged up an older one of her best friend, Thori, wrapped tightly in his weeping mother’s arms. She blinked away the tears welling in her eyes, hoping they would wash away the memory, but it was replaced with another of blame-filled murmurs and pointed fingers, both long past and recent.  “You’d be the only one to believe that.” 

“That doesn’t make it any less true.” He stood his shovel in the sand and sat. He stared into the ground with distant eyes filled with regret. He held a long sigh before he continued. “I’ve worked next to some of the most skilled fighters, thieves, con men and creeps from Catun to BeePool. From and through them, I’ve earned a reputation for being impossibly lucky” He reached down into the hole near his feat and picked up a small clump of sand, about the size of a walnut. “Talent, training, skill,” He tossed the clump a few inches into the air, “luck?” He questioned as it hovered at its apex, only to drop into his hand and smash into a pile of loose dry sand. “Inevitably a moment comes when no amount of it is enough, and you have to come to the realization the universe is just gonna do what the universe does,” He watched the sand tumble between his fingers and fall to the ground, the smallest of which were carried on the slightest of breezes as they drifted furthest away from their once firm structure. “We are but grains of sand, carried on the breeze.” Sa’ro recognized that last phrase as a saying among the elderly of her village as a means of dismissing blame. “Still,” Imbole continued, looking off toward camp as he brushed the sand from his hands, “It doesn’t ease the guilt.” 

She followed his gaze. The distant shadow of the lonely bluff rang with the noise and clamour of the WhiteFeather setting up camp around the healing tent. “No, it doesn’t.” She thought he had watched them build that tent around the young boy and Rita’s anger echoed in her head again, causing her to look away.  When her eyes found the handsome Elf hunched over, elbows on his knees, staring into the sombre sand pit like the companion to her misery she reached out.

“Did you know her?” The question seemed ridiculous the moment it left her lips, and she felt fresh embarrassment rush to her cheeks. Of course, he did! He had been a member of the Clan much longer, and she had met nearly everyone in only a few weeks since being accepted. Her heart pounded His eyes remained distant but he nodded slowly, a smile emerging on his face. 

“Galadrie, ” He stated simply. Sa’ro recognized the name from overheard conversations, mostly about or making fun of her, as she was quite standoffish and distrustful, even of the other Clan members. The few times Sa’ro had seen her, she had been quite polite with those around her. She had long, straight, black hair that shone blue in the sunlight, enhancing the piercing blue of her eyes, and beautiful Elven features like the man before her. In the sad longing of his eyes, she realized an intimacy between them. 

Another wave of shame washed over her as she considered this. Clearly, they were lovers. She was among the most beautiful of the clan, and he was tall, beautiful, and kind, and of course, they would be drawn to one another. Dear Gods!, had she just been fantasizing about this beautiful, gentle man while he dug a …

“She was my Mother.”  He replied, with a quiet voice. 

“I’m so sorry …“ Sa’ro offered in condolence, “I never met her, but she seemed nice.” He raised a hand in a manner that suggested the gesture was unnecessary but also conveyed his appreciation. Moments passed in awkward silence, both of them staring into the depths of the blazing desert sand. At some point Sa’ro picked up a small clump of sand and tossed it into the air as the handsome Elven man had; it too crumbled into loose sand in her palm.  

“My mother presented well, “ Imbole offered with a snicker, “But she was a nasty old crow. A real ‘Salt of Xhorhas’ type of woman.” He declared with a hint of disgust in his voice. Sa’ro stammered, shocked by the accusation. She remembered the stories from her childhood, of the people of The Lost City being turned to salt for their cowardice by the dragon, Nunnabu. The area is now known as the Sculpted Desert and, allegedly, the pillars remain to this day. “Everyplace she went, she salted the dirt with her lies.” He stood and grabbed his shovel, “My mother had a gift for inserting herself between two people and slandering them to one another, to hobble the relationship,” He picked up his shovel and drove it back into the ground to punctuate the statement. “Then she took what she wanted from each of them, and blamed the other, to secure herself from accusation.” “She did it again and again, dragging me from lived …” He stopped and corrected himself with a smirk, “We lived on bridges that burned from both ends.” 

He took his shovel in both hands and moved the sand about in the hole as if smoothing it out. Unsure of how to respond, Sa’ro stood and mimicked his behaviour, moving the dry sand bout the bottom of the hole, smoothing away any lumps or uneven spots. She’d never dug graves before and had been taking her cues from her handsome tutor. She stole glances at him in the arid awkwardness. “Did you know him?” 

“He didn’t like me very much.” Sa’ro nodded, remembering the night she’d met him at the tip of a spear. In the weeks since he had softened very little towards her, and always looked at her with suspicious eyes.

“Oh, I doubt that.” Imbole smiled, “He takes those …“ he stopped, pretending to clear his throat and started again, “He took his security responsibilities seriously, and he liked to act tough but he was kind of a softie. It took me forty-two days to get him to smile.” He smiled as if suggesting she should give him some time, then realized the mistake. As the smile faded from his empathetic eyes, Sa’ro felt a pressure in her chest, as if her heart had suddenly filled beyond her body’s ability to contain it. 

She moved to one end of her trench and turned around, coming face to chest with the glistening man as he stepped in to join her. Startled, she stumbled, the shoring at the back of her legs preventing her from stepping back. She threw her arms out as she fell, the shovel in her hand swinging up toward Imbole. With cat-like reflexes, he swatted the shovel away with one hand, as he slipped the other arm about her waist and pulled her in. She hung there for a moment, his muscular thigh clutched desperately between hers, her hips tight to his, his strong arm about her waist; her back arched over it. Like her the moment stretched back to eternity, the shovel spun through the air in her periphery while, before her, the glistening bronze rogue leaned back, an arm extended out as if trying to keep his balance atop a bucking beast.  A wave of warmth flushed through her as she and time snapped back and she crashed against the rippling, chiselled shores of his chest. In the momentum of their sweat-covered bodies coming together, her arms wrapped around him and her hands grasped at the ripples of his back. A broad hand clasped about the nape of her neck, holding her firmly against his heaving body while her breath returned to the rhythm of his pounding heart. Once equilibrium was established they loosened their grip on one another and she looked up into the deep green pools of his eyes. “These are deep enough.” Sa’ro almost replied out loud, before realizing he was referring to the holes they’d been digging. She tried to back away, again forgetting the retaining wall at the back of her legs and stumbling again. “You look hot, “ He lowered her to a stable seated position and tucked a rogue curl behind her ear, “Let me get you some water.” 

Reeling awkwardly, embarrassed by the interaction, she grasped for anything to recover the conversation. “Do you know how he …” She allowed the question to trail off, quietly cursing herself for returning to such a dismal topic. 

“That’s right, you were up the ….” He stood at the edge of the hole, looking out toward the rocky bluff nearby bluff with a fresh smirk. “Ballsy move, by the way!” He turned and walked past his pit to retrieve the waterskin from its landing site. “He was killed protecting the children,” Imbole, replied over his shoulder as he walked several yards past his hole in the sand, to retrieve the waterskin from where it had landed. “But you, taking them from behind? You may have saved us from a slaughter.” When he turned back to toss her the water, she was gone.

“What the fuck did you think you were doing?” Rita barked. If there was any compassion in her voice, Sa’ro didn't hear it, or perhaps she wouldn’t. Her body felt shivery, though her cheeks were flushed and sweat trickled down her spine. In her pocket, she fumbled nervously with the iron bullet. 

She’d been found atop the bluff and had been carried down to the riverbank with the other wounded. On regaining consciousness she’d rushed to Rita ranting about the bandit that had escaped, eager to get after her. She thought Rita would be proud of her, for her resourcefulness in circling behind them, for her strength in taking down three of the bandits on her own. (note)“You sent me back with the kids! I’m not a fucking child!!” Sa’ro barked back belligerently. 

“YOU WERE SUPPOSED TO PROTECT THEM!” Rita shouted back, drawing the attention of some of the crowd, many with tears in their eyes, a short distance behind.  Rita cupped her hands over her face and took a deep breath to compose herself. She continued with a tone that was stern and authoritative. “You don’t know our tactics, and you don’t speak our language, but I thought I could trust you to help keep the children quiet and safe. I guess  …” She trailed off, looking over her shoulder to the small crowd. The crowd shuffled open, revealing a small figure lying on the ground. Witha, the WhiteFeather’s Cleric, rose from his side, asking the others to stand back to give the boy room. Alyn sat beside him with tears streaming down her cheeks, clutching tightly to young Khali. Others about her whispered amongst themselves as they pointed up the cliff face above the boy. that Sa’ro had climbed. Witha’s fiery braids swayed beneath her round, freckled face as she approached, interrupting with an apology. Her usual bright green eyes and glowing smile were solemn, and she fidgeted with a copper ring that hung from a leather cord about her neck while she told Rita that the boy should be fine but would need to remain on his back for the next few days. “We could use the time to bury the dead and tend the wounded.” 

“Dead?!” Sa’ro stammered, looking at the boy lying in the sand. She pressed her thumb into the face of the bullet in her pocket to fight back tears. 

“Yes, Dead!” Rita exclaimed with frustration. “If you had been where you were supposed to be, you would know that!” She didn’t look at Sa’ro, instead watching Alyn stroke her son’s hair with a forced smile as the Cleric approached. “Go find Imbole; he’ll show you where to dig the graves!” When Rita turned back, the girl was gone, and she quietly cursed herself.

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