Excerpt for An Armour of Light by , available in its entirety at Smashwords




An Armour of Light





Jiah Joseph


The Shrine was in a clearing in the heart of the forest. It was the time of worship, but the altar was bare and no chants resounded in the air. Outside the shrine, a girl sat on the floor, threading garlands with the poise of a princess. She cast a coy look over her shoulder as she heard a footstep. Then her smile faded and she tossed her head.


“Oh, it’s you!”


The boy looked down at her with an expression of distaste. He knew very well that she had expected it to be a certain warrior who used to visit her. He asked, “Aren’t you worried about her?”


“Her?” she laughed scornfully. “Why should I be? She can look after herself.”


The boy said, “She’s a woman and alone, and the forest isn’t too safe.”


“Then you go and rescue her!” the maiden said. Her eyes twinkled maliciously, “That’s what you’d love to do, isn’t it? Rescue your precious Priestess? Go ahead. Your enemies would run away in terror at the sight of that face, thinking you a devil of the forest.”


She had touched a nerve. He swung his disfigured visage away from her to hide the drop that rose up in his eyes. He slunk back into the Shrine. Her malicious laughter followed him. He sank down on the floor and buried his face in his arms. He did not sob. He stayed immobile until he felt a soft touch on his shoulder. He threw up his head eagerly and glanced at the smiling face of a woman about ten years older than him.


“What is bothering you, little brother?” she asked kindly. He saw the compassion and affection in her eyes and turned away. He asked brusquely,


“Why were you late?”


“I was – delayed.” She laughed. “By a pack of robbers.”


He turned around. She laughed again and added, “Don’t worry, nothing happened to me. I was saved by the Knight of the Forest, the masked stranger in an armour of light!”


“Oh!” squealed the maiden who appeared to hand her the garlands, “Did you meet him? How romantic! I heard my friend talk about him – he’s met him! He says he’s such an incredible swordsman! And what he doesn’t know about jujutsu! And he’s so handsome!” she shot a sly look at him and ran away, giggling.


The Priestess glanced at him in concern. He turned away, his face impassive. She turned and entered the Shrine and started the ritual. Only, when she closed her eyes, she could not erase the image of a tall figure in white robes and a silver mask, mounted on a white stallion, his long sword flashing in the sunlight like a burst of laughter.


She did not notice her novice bend down to a petal, which had fallen from the garland and which now lay in the dust with the imprint of her foot on it, and she did not see the agony in his eyes as he pressed his lips to it.


*****


They crossed the forest, their lances sweeping aside the low-hanging branches and climbers that curtained the forest from the rest of civilisation. They were a dozen in number, in lamellar armour, the customary two swords at their belts, a lance held aloft in challenge. They wore huge helmets with grotesque patterns etched on them. They were the Samurai, indomitable warriors for whom peril was a way of life. Yet their fingers were clamped too tightly on their weapons now, and one or two of them glanced nervously out of the corner of their eyes. In front of them marched the Shogun, a tall, thin figure in impeccable black. His helmet was completely black and it covered his face, revealing only the thin slash that was his mouth, seeming to spit contemptuously at everything it encountered. He walked erect, almost casually, unburdened by the heavy armour that encumbered the men who followed. His only weapons were the onyx ring on his finger and the black pearl-studded dagger at his belt. It was enough.


The Captain of the guards stopped abruptly as they entered the deserted Shrine. The Shogun followed his glance.


The Priestess sat cross-legged on a piece of cloth on the ground, her arms raised to the sky, her head tilted back. Her lips moved in a silent chant. In a circle around her burned fragrant incense sticks. A cool breeze blew, showering a few blossoms on her as if in blessing. The soldiers shifted uneasily, each one unwilling to be the first to break the serenity of the moment. Then the Shogun stepped forward and cleared his throat.


She opened her almond eyes and gazed at them from beneath long, dark lashes.


“The Emperor wishes to speak with you.” The Shogun said in his harsh, raspy voice.


“Let him come.” Her reply was calm.


“The Emperor come to you?” he laughed. “What an idea! We have come to take you to him. It is his royal command.”


She smiled sweetly at him. “I obey commands from a higher source.”


His boot kicked the incense sticks aside. “There is no higher power than the Emperor. Come, or we shall be forced to take you away.”


She rose gracefully, with a soft rustle of silk. “I would advise you not to try.”


“Then come with us.” He snapped. She glided forward. The men closed around her and led her forward. They passed into the heart of the forest.


None of them saw the silver light that glimmered among the trees for an instant and then was gone.


They reached the edge of the woods and stopped. A gilded palanquin stood there and in it, leaning against the bosom of a slave girl, lay the aged Emperor. He rose upon seeing her, his lips drooping. He pushed the girl down casually. She whimpered in pain as her head hit the side of the palanquin. He stepped out and walked towards the Priestess. As he approached, all the soldiers knelt before him, their foreheads touching the dust. The Priestess stood erect and watched him with a quiet smile.

He came up to her and took her chin in his palm.


“So delicate.” He whispered and she felt his fingers rub her cheeks. His eyes roved over her body. “And such a waste.”


“Take your hand away.” She said coldly.


He smiled and raised her face to his. He licked his chops and bent down to kiss her. Immediately, he felt a ringing slap across the mouth. He released her and moved back. There was a flash in her eyes. He smiled again.


“Good. You have spirit. I like you.”


He moved near her and caught her arm in an iron grip. She flexed her muscles, but could not free herself. He said, “Be my bride. You can have gold – pearls – silks – power – anything, the whole country is yours to ask – if you will be mine.”


She laughed in his face. He released her and stepped back, his face darkening in anger.


“You refuse my offer?”


She laughed even more. “Refuse? I spit on your offer!”


“Shogun!” the Emperor shouted, “kill this bitch.”


The soldiers rose up and moved towards her. She stepped back. They drew their double swords. Suddenly, they paused, hearkening to a thunderous sound – the sound of galloping hooves. A figure in white, riding on a white horse, flashed out of the woods towards the group. In a second, he had neared the woman. He bent towards her and snatched her up, lifting her up in front of him. Before the stunned soldiers could react, the horse, rider and the abducted woman had disappeared into the forest in a silver blur.


The Emperor’s ring-studded clammy fingers dug into the Shogun’s black collar. “Who is he?”


The Shogun’s eyes were stormy. “I know him. He is a Ronin, a masterless Samurai. He calls himself the Knight of the Forest. No one has seen his face, for he wears that silver mask. He guards the forest. The Samurai do not interfere inside the forest, and he has never interfered with the Samurai – until now.”


The Emperor rasped, “I want her – alive – at any cost. Immediately.”


“Yes, Highness.” The Shogun bowed ceremoniously. “And him?”


“I leave him to you.”


The Shogun smiled grimly. “His head shall roll at your feet.”


The Emperor leaned towards him and said, in a low, dangerous voice, “I hope you succeed in your mission, for if not, it shall be your head that rolls.”


*****


He felt her soft warm body against his as he pressed her to his chest with his right arm. His left arm held the reins. The horse sped on through the dense forest and he guided his swift steed with a light touch. Once or twice, she tried to scramble up, but he held her tightly and soon she quietened down and lay still. He could feel her heartbeat against his forearm, he could feel her breathe, could inhale her fragrance. His arm around her was like an iron strap that imprisoned her, yet she knew it was an embrace.


Suddenly, they emerged out of the forest into a clearing. She looked up and gasped. It was a scene out of a fairy tale. They stood at the bank of a shimmering azure lake that burned in the sunlight. In the middle of the lake was an island, dense with tall cherry trees in full bloom.


“Lighting, go!” the rider whispered to the horse.


The horse leapt into the water and swam across. She felt the cold, dark water on her ankles and shivered. The wind breathed on her neck like a host of hovering spirits. But his arm was tight around her and she lay still.


Her eyes widened in wonder as the horse emerged through the trees. A beautiful wooden hut stood in the midst of the island, shielded from curious eyes by a wall of trees. The horse stopped before the hut. The rider alighted and helped her down. Brusquely, he drew her inside and locked the door from outside. She looked out through the window and saw that unreadable silver mask.


“Who are you?” she asked.


He turned away without answering.


“What are you going to do with me?”


“Keep you safe – for the present.”


“Where are you going?” she cried as he walked away. Silence greeted her.


She looked around the hut. It must have been used, for it had furniture, and vessels and firewood in the kitchen. But there was no other sign to show that a human being had lived there. She thought of Bushido, the code of the Samurai. Yet her abductor was not a Samurai. He was dressed in light, loose white robes and carried only one sword. She remembered the scene with the robbers, the swift flight of the sword, the skilful jujutsu.


She heard the hooves approaching after a long while. She hurried to the window and drew back the curtains to see him alight. He unlocked the door and met her smile with a curt, “Why did you open the window? What if I’d been one of them?”


Her smile died. “Where have you been?”


“To inform your two novices of your whereabouts, so that they don’t kill themselves with anxiety.”


She looked at him in surprise. He noticed her glance and turned away. She caught his arm, asking,


“Who are you?”


He twisted out of her grasp with surprising speed and agility, moving back to face her in a fighter’s stance with legs apart. She moved back. He relaxed.


Then he said, “It’s not important.”


“Why did you do this?”


He gazed at her silently. She wished she could see the eyes behind the mask. She watched him go out and close the door. Defiantly, she moved to the window and drew back the drapes. He glanced up and said nothing. She could have sworn that he was smiling at her defiant expression, and this impression was strengthened by the tone of his voice when he said,


“You can sleep safely; I’ll be here to guard you.”


She put out her hand. “Won’t you at least accept my thanks?”


He reached out and clasped her outstretched hand. He saw her long, slender fingers in his palm and the world in her shining nails. She raised his hand and kissed it. She could feel his shock. She dropped his hand, drew the curtains and disappeared from his view. She did not see him standing there, looking at the invisible yet indelible mark of her lips on his skin, until the first rays of dawn.

*****


The Shogun glanced down at the young Samurai warrior who knelt before him. His lips curved in a smile which did not spread to his eyes. He said, “Good. You bring valuable information. You shall be rewarded.”


The boy looked up and smiled in pleasure and gratitude. His smile died when a servant brought a beautifully ornamented dagger and presented it to him. He looked up at the Shogun, his eyes widening in shock. The Shogun answered the unasked question:


“You should have left her to me. Your behaviour has been a violation of the Bushido. You betrayed the woman who loved you.”


“But —” the boy began, then stopped when he met the ruthless eyes. He bowed his head. A drop fell from his eyelids. Then he snatched up the dagger and plunged it into his side. Gritting his teeth, he slashed across his stomach to the other side and ended in an upward thrust. At the same moment, a guard cut off his head.


The Shogun stood over the disembowelled corpse and said softly,

“If you could betray her whom you loved for the sake of your loyalty to me, you might as well betray me, my boy. Sleep tight.”


*****


The horse emerged into the clearing and stopped as the rider reined in. For a moment, he was immobilised in shock at the scene that met his eyes. Then he jumped down and ran to the lifeless body of the maiden novice. He knelt and turned the corpse over. What he saw made him gag. He leapt up and away from the body, ripped off his mask and leaned against the horse’s neck, breathing deeply. After a long moment, he pulled on the mask again, his own features as rigid as a mask, and mounted his steed.


“Quick – before we are too late!”


The horse turned and disappeared into the forest.


*****


She heard the hooves approach, and rushed to the window. As her hand reached out for the curtain, she remembered his curt warning. She smiled and sat down demurely in a corner. The hooves stopped. Suddenly, she heard a blow on the door, and leapt up.


“Open up, or we’ll hack it open!”


She glanced wildly around the room. The sound of an axe hitting the wooden door brought her back to her senses and she hurried to the kitchen in search of a weapon. Nothing, not even a log of wood was left. She heard the door crash open. Her hand went to her waist-band, and pulled out a dagger. She raised it high as footsteps rushed in. She closed her eyes, aiming the dagger at her stomach.


“No, you don’t!”


A hand caught her wrist and twisted the dagger out of her grasp. She fought like an animal, biting and clawing any man who dared to approach. Finally, it took four men to hold her and drag her out into the carriage that waited outside.


She kept quiet until they reached the city, waiting for her opportunity. She could not see anything outside, as the carriage was surrounded by the Samurai. The carriage swept in at the palace gates. She closed her eyes. Not a chance. As she was pulled down, she glanced wildly around for a face she knew. She started. She had seen the ugly face of her novice and caught his eye for a second. Then he had turned and disappeared into the milling crowd outside the gates, and she was pulled inside. Had he recognized her? Had he understood the plea in her eyes? Could he find a way to let the Ronin know? A chill coursed through her nerves. Would he help her? Or would this be the form of his revenge on the world for what he suffered? How had the Samurai found out the hut? Only the two novices were informed. Which one of them had betrayed her?


One guard whispered to another, “They say the Emperor has ordered a sacrifice for tomorrow. And three guesses who will be the sacrificial offering!”


His neighbour replied, “After what she’s in for tonight, she’ll beg for death, sacrifice or no sacrifice.”

*****


The horse sped forward, spurred rather by a sense of urgency than by his master’s spurs. The moonlit city flashed by them. He bent down, his face close to the horse’s ear, and whispered, “Faster, Lightning, faster. Now is the time for you to show me your mettle!”


The hooves flew over the earth, raising a cloud of dust. In the distance, the Emperor’s palace gleamed.


*****


Her face was wooden and expressionless, her hands hung limply by her side, she moved as if in a trance. She was robed in white silk, and bedecked with precious stones and exotic flowers. Her long dark hair was coiled up on top of her head. On either side of her walked a maiden bearing platters on which burned fragrant incense. Before her and behind her walked six armed guards, skilled Samurai warriors with lances and double swords.


The procession reached an ivory door. The chief of the guards threw the door open.


The Emperor looked up from the heavily decorated red satin-covered bed and smiled. “Ah! The bride! Welcome!”


*****


“Halt!” a guard cried, running up in front of the gate to stop the white horse and rider.


The Ronin raised his sword. The horse sped past the man. He withdrew his sword. It was dripping blood.


Guards were running up from every part of the palace grounds. The horse crouched low for a second and then flew through the air, scaling the gate. He landed in the midst of the guards, scattering them. The sword flashed again and again, reaping a harvest of heads. The horse sped forward, leaving a pile of corpses behind.


*****


“Move.” The chief of the guards pushed her. She did not stir. A dozen lances were immediately pointed towards her. Still she did not move. The guard lost his patience. “Move, I tell you.”


The Emperor watched the proceedings with idle curiosity from the bed, one hand playing with a string of pearls, the other hand caressing a ruby-studded dagger. The guard turned to him. He leaned back and scratched his neck with the dagger. “The bride seems shy. Escort her here.”


The guard caught her arm and dragged her into the room and threw her down at the Emperor’s feet. She stifled a gasp. She felt the Emperor’s fingers caress her head and clamp tightly in her hair, pulling her up. She bit her lips to suppress any sound that would betray her pain. She looked the Emperor squarely in the eye. He said to the guards, still looking at her,


“Vanish. We shall not need you now.”


The retinue vanished with a flourish. The door banged shut, imprisoning her with the man she despised the most. He pushed her down onto the bed and leaned over her, pinning her down with one arm. He chuckled softly and said,


“And now, my beautiful little witch, we shall see who is the master.”


*****


The hooves clattered on the palace steps. Surprised servants scattered in all directions. Guards rushed about in confusion. He reined in and looked about. There was a staircase at the end of the hall. The hooves clattered up the stairs. The bloody sword was held aloft. No man dared to approach.


“Cowards!” shouted the chief of the guards in a fury. “He’s only one! Do none of you dare to face him? Alright, then I will.”


Drawing his sword, he rushed up the stairs. The horse stopped, waiting for orders. The Ronin slid off his back and whispered,


“Lightning, wait for me under the balcony.”


The horse turned and galloped off. The Ronin stood, sword uplifted, and waited for the guard to approach.


“I waste no words, intruder!” the guard snarled and thrust at him. He parried easily and stepped aside. The surrounding spectators watched in awe as steel flashed on steel and the hall resounded with the clang of metal on metal.


*****


She crouched low and moved back, her right hand frantically moving on the sheet behind her. It hit a string on pearls – useless! – and then – her fingers closed around the hilt of a dagger. She held her breath and stabbed him on the shoulder with it.


The Emperor straightened up with a roar of pain. His eyes blazed. She cowered back in terror, realizing her mistake. She had stabbed him hard enough to hurt but not hard enough to maim. He tried to wrest the dagger from her grasp. She held on to it for dear life. His fingers closed around her wrist and pressed hard. She dropped the dagger with a whimper of pain. He tossed her down on the floor on her stomach and in one swift movement, ripped her richly embroidered gown. She felt the cold air on her exposed back. For a second, nothing happened. She lay on the floor, her eyes tightly shut, wondering.


Then she heard the crackling of a whip and the chuckle of the Emperor.


*****


The two warriors fought on the stairs. The guard thrust savagely. The Ronin blocked, but moved back. The guard was flushed with victory. The intruder was being driven back – single-handedly! – by him! He laughed and went forward, driving him up the stairs, up the long hallway until the Ronin was backed against a closed ivory door. Suddenly, the sword flew out of the guard’s grip. He felt the intruder’s blade at his throat.


“Thanks!” said the Ronin in a voice that hinted he was grinning behind the silver mask.


The guard realized he had driven his opponent exactly where he wished to go. He was standing outside the Emperor’s chamber. He had been used as a pawn. He closed his eyes and waited for the fatal blow to fall. Instead he heard a question. “Where is she?”


“Inside the Emperor’s chamber.”


“What?” the voice was no longer masterful; it was human, and it was shocked.


The guard’s eyes flew open. The sword was still at his throat. The intruder asked harshly,


“Since when?”


The pain in his voice was evident. The guard smiled. He wished he could see the defeated expression on the masked stranger’s face. He said,


“Half an hour.”


The Ronin cursed. The guard thought, what did a little lie cost him? Only his life, as he found out an instant later when the blade tore into his flesh. He crumpled lifeless to the floor. The Ronin stared down at him in disgust.


“You deserve worse.”


*****


She closed her eyes and waited for the sting of the whip on her back. She heard something whiz through the air and tensed, steeling herself for the blow. She heard a choking sound. Still no blow fell. She opened her eyes and raised her head just as the whip crashed to the floor an inch from her. The Emperor stood tottering, a long steel blade driven like a stake through his heart. She scrambled up to her knees as he crashed lifeless to the floor and, standing directly behind him, framed in the open doorway, the figure in white was revealed, one palm resting on his hip.


She gave a shout of joy and jumped up, ignoring her tattered attire, and rushed into his arms. He held her tightly and when he spoke, his voice was thick with anger.


“What did he do to you?”


“Nothing,” she cried, laughing helplessly in his arms.


“I swore to make him beg for death.” He continued, holding her tightly as if afraid she might be torn away from him. “But when I kicked open the door and saw him holding that whip over you, I couldn’t control my sword arm.”


“I swear I’m unhurt.” She said.


His fingers touched her skin between her shoulder blades where the robe had been ripped. He released her and stepped back. She blushed. He took off his long white cape and flung it around her.


“Come, quick.” He pulled her to the window. “I can hear the sounds of running footsteps. We must not be found here.” He ran back to pull his sword out of the Emperor’s corpse. “Lightning is waiting below.”


He helped her out onto the balcony. She jumped down easily onto the horse’s back. He leapt down from the windowsill to the balcony. As he did so, he heard something whizzing through the air towards him. He felt a searing pain between his ribs. He crouched down on the balcony and put his hand to his side. His fingers were soaked in his own warm blood. He pulled the dagger out and stared at it. A black pearl set in a gold hilt. The Shogun.

He heard her frantic whisper from below. He could not afford to stay there. But he could not let her see the blood. He did not know how fatal the wound was. He tore off a long piece of the curtain and wrapped it around his stomach under his tunic. Then he swung himself down onto Lightning’s back behind her.


“Let’s go.” He whispered. The horse set off.


“What happened” she asked him.


“I was – er – detained.” He looked around. There didn’t seem to be any guards anywhere. And no sign of the Shogun. He didn’t trust him. There had to be an ambush somewhere. He told her in a firm voice that brooked no replies and no questions, “Lie down. Whatever happens, don’t stir unless I tell you to.”


And she, who had never taken an order in her life, obeyed meekly. His sword was held aloft as a challenge thrown to the world. He rode straight at the gate, expecting an ambush at any moment.


Suddenly, an arrow whizzed by his ear. He ducked. Archers! How clever of the Shogun! He knew that no one could match him in a sword fight, but didn’t he also know that no arrow was faster than Lightning?


“Faster, Lightning,” he shouted, the adrenaline pumping in his arteries. Arrows whizzed behind the as they flew out of the city. Far behind, they heard the hooves that announced the approach of the pursuing archers. He grit his teeth against the burning pain in his side. Suddenly, an arrow pierced his shoulder. He crouched down.


“Faster, Lighting! Into the forest!” they were getting closer, but inside the forest, it would be a different story. They did not know the forest as he did. They would not dare to pursue him into the forest. The Shogun knew too well the idiocy of attempting to beard the lion in his den.


The dark shadow of the forest loomed ahead. Lightning seemed to sense the urgency; he increased his speed. The Priestess hung on to his mane for dear life. He bent over her and whispered,


“Just a few more seconds, my dearest …”


A sudden pain in his back told him another arrow had found its mark. An arrow pierced his left forearm. He did not groan; he did not want her to know. He saw that they meant to converge on him from all sides, trying to block his way into the forest. A man was riding at him from the right. Crouching over the Priestess to shield her with his body, he rode straight at the archer. The man had not expected it. He raised his bow a second too late. But a second was enough for Lightning. The man did not see the sword flash in the air as it was covered with blood. He pulled the arrow, stretching the string. In the next instant, the Ronin’s blade slit his throat. The fingers holding the arrow slackened. The arrow shot up in the air and tumbled to the ground.


Lightning galloped into the forest.


“We did it!” He cried. The Priestess raised her head slightly. Then she sniffed.


“What’s that burning smell?”


He knew even before he whipped his head around and saw the smoke rising up in a semicircle around them.


“A forest fire!” he said in disbelief.


“We’ll have to go back!” she groaned.


“No!” there was steel in his voice. “It’s not a forest fire. It’s a ruse to trick us into returning to them. The fire can’t have spread much further. There is a waterfall a few yards ahead. Lightning, ride on.”


The noble steed made no sound of protest at this command. He rode straight into the mouth of the flames. The Ronin pushed the Priestess down once again.


“Keep your cape about your face.” He ordered. She obeyed. The fumes almost suffocated him, but he could not afford to lower his head.


“Straight ahead, Lightning, I can see the mountains beyond.”


The animal could pick up the sound of the falling water. He flew through the scorching inferno. The Ronin coughed. His eyes watered and the arrows pricked into his back. All the riding had loosened the bandage around his waist and he could feel the blood flowing out, staining his robes. His sword slashed wildly about, hacking down flaming branches that obstructed Lightning’s path.


Then they were out of the flames, breathing in the cool night air gratefully as the horse bounded up the mountainside.


*****


“Your Worship, they have escaped.”


The Shogun did not turn around at the terrified voice that reached him. He clenched his teeth in fury. He had failed. All his plans had been foiled. He reached for his dagger, and then realized it was missing. He didn’t even have the satisfaction of knowing whether it had found its mark or not. He turned towards the Samurai who grovelled at his feet.


“Get me a dagger!”


He paused. The man had run away. Coward! The Shogun shot a seething glance at the flaming forest. Then he opened the top of his onyx ring and raised it to his mouth, draining the contents in one swig.


Failure was punishable by suicide.


*****


Lightning brought them to the top of the mountain. The Ronin dismounted. The Priestess had fallen forward onto the horse’s neck, clutching his white mane. He paused to pull out the arrows sticking into his back, grimaced at the pain and broke them with his hands before helping her down. She stumbled down with his help, still hazy from the smoke. He patted Lightning on his nose and led her forward. Suddenly, he stumbled, and she turned to him in a flash.


“You’re hurt!” she cried, her eyes widening in horror at the sight of the deepening crimson stain on his chest.


“Nothing, just a few scratches from the arrows of those archers. Mere pinpricks!” he assured her with a laugh, hoping his voice did not reveal the pain it cost him.


“And on your chest?” she whispered, her eyes welling up. “A pinprick from a sword?”


He glanced down. The entire front of his tunic was stained crimson. His head spun. She caught him before he fell. He blinked and smiled up at her.


“Just a dagger. A present from our friend, the Shogun.”


“Lie down.” She urged him. “Lie down and rest.”


There were dark circles around her eyes and wrinkles on her skin. She looked pale and haggard. He thought she had never looked so lovely.


“Lie down?” he breathed, feeling the effort it cost him and suppressing a groan. “Lie down and wait for death? Dearest, I am a Samurai!”


She clung to him, supporting him, yet seeking support from him. He turned away, seeing the agony in her eyes, and said, “Dearest, please do not weep. I cannot bear to see my life extinguished in your eyes.” He stumbled forward. She clutched him in terror. Only a few paces separated him from the edge.


He exhaled, throwing his head back and scanning the paling sky, “I used to wish that I might choose my own hour of death. Now I think, if I were to choose, what better moment could I have chosen to die, with you by my side, the banner of my victory held aloft …?”


“Stop!” she cried and the tears coursed down her cheeks, wetting his sleeve as she buried her face in his shoulder. She threw her arms around his neck and held him tightly. He stood rooted to the spot, his eyes closed, his arms slowly rising up to enfold her, savouring the delicious moment. He gasped,


“Now I can die.”


She could not suppress a sob. She gazed up at his masked face and whispered, “Dearest …”


“Yes, my love?”


The words resounded in the air. She breathed, “Say that again.”


“My love. My only love. I love you. I have loved you ever since I saw you.”


“And I have loved you ever since I __” she broke off and moved back, her dark eyes stormy. He saw the crimson stain of his lifeblood on her breast. She spoke slowly, distinctly, “But I have not seen you.”


He knew what was coming. Before he could move back, she was close to him, so close he could inhale the fragrance of her coiled black tresses. Her fingers fumbled at his mask.


“No!” he cried hoarsely, trying to push her away.


She did not stop. He tried to fight her, but she was relentless. Her fingers worked deftly, unmasking him. He felt himself weakening as the life flowed out of him. She tore the mask off and cast it aside. Biting back a groan, he turned and collapsed on the ground, burying his face in his hands. She flew to his side and tried to raise him up.


“My dearest, do not deny me!” she cried with the strength of her passion.


“My dearest, do not force me!” he cried with the despair of his agony.


Her arms were around him, her breath close to his face, her gentle fingers pulling his hands apart. With one last tug, she pulled his hands back and stared in shock at the young, disfigured face of her novice.


She did not realize that she had released his arms. The tears returned. He rose and smiled bitterly, tortured longing in his eyes, and said, “I warned you.”


Suddenly, she began to laugh. He gazed at her in surprise. She laughed in joy, in comprehension. She took his face in both her hands and lowered it to hers. He closed his eyes when he felt her mouth on his. It was too much for him. Happiness, like suffering, cannot be borne beyond a limit. He kissed her back with all the intensity of his passion and the last breath of his life. His hands moved over her body for the first time. He was stumbling, but he did not care about that. Her bosom was soaked with his blood and her long black tresses were falling undone about her neck to her waist, but she did not care about that. They stood entwined about each other at the edge of the waterfall, swaying to the rhythm of their passion. His right hand was held aloft, raising his sword to the skies in a toast of victory.


Then the sword fell as a falcon swooping to its prey, its blade breaking through the waterfall, and then the cascade of water shielded their embrace from the rest of the world.


The waterfall burned with the reflection of the distant fire rising beyond the eastern horizon. The cascade fell as a silver blade thrust into the bare bosom of the rocks, tearing through it with an ecstatic moan. For an instant, there was a glimpse of her white robe churning in the foam, stained crimson by his blood. Then it disappeared, swallowed by the river. Then the stillness of the moment was broken once again by the falling water, the gurgling river and the singing birds.


Lightning neighed and stamped his hooves, foaming at the mouth. In a flash of white, he had galloped forward and leapt in after his master. His neigh was lost in the scream of the echoes of the falling water, reverberating across the flaming forest.


*****


The fire had hardly died down in the forest when a few sparks set fire to the sky and the rosy glow of morning spread across the firmament. Slowly, painfully, a few broken warriors picked their way up the mountain and reached the top. They stared all around. A silver mask lay on the ground, laughing silently up at them. And then there was only the blue sky above and the roar of the waterfall.


THE END.

“Though they go mad they shall be sane,

Though they sink through the sea they shall rise again.

Though lovers be lost love shall not;

And death shall have no dominion.”


Dylan Thomas.



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