Snowflakes and Embers Chapter 3

Irend didn’t  arrive before dinner was brought in and Deseem tried to squash his  disappointment. It would have been nice to share a meal with someone, something  he hadn’t really been able to do since his sister had wed. He missed having a  conversation over a meal, it just seemed to make the food taste better.

Traveling and  boredom mixed with the anxiety of being away from the rooms he was comfortable  and used to left him tired and strained at night. He knew he was retiring early  while they traveled but beyond his practice and lessons which were seldom  during this trip, he had nothing to do to occupy his mind. Once dinner was  cleared away the biggest thing for him to consider was to wait to see if his  brother would arrive or simply prepare for sleep.

The choice was  made for him. As the dinner dishes were removed and the small collapsible table  with it, the servants bustled to bring in tall poles with a thin gauzy fabric  stretched between them. The poles were secured and his tent suddenly was  discreetly screened from entrance. It made his heart leap a little, it meant  company and that could only mean his brother.

Deseem sat silent  as his brother finally slipped into his tent. He wasn’t supposed to speak  first, that had been a difficult lesson to master, and he sat hoping his  brother planned to stay.

“Leave us.” Irend  ordered of the servants and they bowed and filed out. They trusted to the  fragile, easily damaged fabric to secure Deseem’s untouched state. A normal  level of touch and the threads would snap or tangle and contact would be shown.  It was a risk only allowed for a close family member and even a brother was  only trusted within reason.

“Brother.” Irend  greeted.

Deseem bowed  deeply.

“None of that, our  time is short.” He moved and sat down as close to the fabric as he could. “How  are you?”

The question made  Deseem pause and think. No one had actually asked him that since his sister  wed. “I’m well. I heard you married.”

Irend nodded. “She  is a good wife. I’ve barely seen her, so long do I linger here with the  fighting.”

He dared to glance  up and was surprised by the growing bruise on his brother’s face. “What’s  happened?”

“Nothing.” He  shook his head. “Our Lord Father, he is not pleased the woman captive is  missing her mask pendent. I swore to him with sacred vows that she was not  wearing one when we caught her but he didn’t believe me. He accuses our Uncle  of stealing his prize. The man is growing more and more irrational.”

“I never hear  word.”

“The war goes  against us yet he throws more lives to it as if he can wash defeat away with  enough blood.” Irend squared his shoulders and drew a long slow breath. “Enough  of this, it would bore you to hear. You know the reason you’ve been removed  from your cloister to travel with our Lord Father?”

He’d be a fool not  to. “He seeks a husband.”

“Yes. After what  happened with our sister, many who might consider Bentan have been slow to  agree. He hopes that by showing your pretty amber eyes and your meek manner  around he’ll entice more suitors.”

“What?” The  compliment to his manners and eyes went unheard and Deseem blinked and tried to  gather his thoughts. “What about our sister?”

“You have not been  told?”

He shook his head.  “I’ve heard not a word since she wed.”

Irend sat back and  the strength melted from his shoulders. “She had a child, a daughter. Deseem,  two months ago they found her babe dead, smothered by her own hand and when the  sought her out they found her hanging by her neck from the post of her bed, one  of her scarves around her neck. I’m sorry, I thought you would have been told.”

The news fell upon  him like a horrible, crushing weight. He felt tears well up into his eyes in  response to a pain so deep he couldn’t really feel it and his breath hissed in  short gasps from his lungs.

“Deseem… Brother…  stop… compose yourself… stop it…we haven’t enough time for you to mourn now. I  will be gone soon enough and you’ll be alone and can grieve her death in  private.”

A woman’s scream  broke across quiet camp and Deseem nearly jumped from his skin. It was a cruel  sound and made worse with the memory if his sister’s screams so fresh in his  mind. “What’s that?”

Irend frowned and  ducked his head to hide the unpleasant look in his eyes. “Father wished to  question the captives himself. He is angry with how the war goes. Try not to  listen too closely and remember, they are enemies and would happily murder us  without a second thought to it.”

Deseem nodded  because he knew better than to disagree with a man but he wanted to ask his  brother if that made it any easier to sleep at night, believing that it was  justified.

“You will not  become a priest, littlest brother.”

“I know.”

“I’m sorry.”

“It is the will of  God.”

“I can not stay, I  can not protect you. I failed with our sister and I am just as powerless to  shelter you.”

“I know.”

“But I want you to  remember I am always thinking of you.” He whistled softly and the tent flap  opened. “This is one of my men. He’s been be-spelled by a healer, while intact,  he is magically as any eunuch. I’ve gained permission to give him to you, he  will have restrictions. He is unable to be alone with you, unable to attend  your bed or bath but he will prevent as much harm to you as he can. He has  sworn loyalty first to me and second to you and my orders to him are to obey  you.” Irend glanced up to the hulking fellow, a battled hardened warrior now  with his dark hair shaved off and a filigree, bespelled band around his  testicles. What the man was doing was a huge risk and an even larger sacrifice  but it was necessary. “This will be the last time we speak brother.”

“Surely you’ll  attend my wedding?”

Irend smiled  softly. “If God wills it so. My oath is to Bastion first and I must see to the  well being of the kingdom above all.” He stood and the smile grew sad. “You  would have grown into being a fine man and a powerful priest, brother, it makes  my heart ache to know you shall never be either.” He glanced into his man’s  dark eyes and saw the understanding there.

“Are you leaving?”  He felt a desperate need to keep his brother with him, suddenly frightened he  really never would see him again.

“I ride back to  Uncle tonight. Know that I love you brother.”

Before he could  think of an answer, his brother was gone. He wanted to throw himself on his bed  and weep for his sister, for his own solitude, for the loss of both his  siblings. He wanted to throw something in impotent rage at knowing without a  bit of doubt that he was to be Bentan and become a bride, that even if by some  chance he was to see his brother again he would be sister to him. It all  churned together in his stomach but nothing reached the surface and he sat  there unmoving as his servants returned and removed the screening fabric and  eyed their new arrival with suspicion.

He was still  sitting there, hours later when the sounds of pain and tortured finally eased  and his servants prompted him to sleep. There was nothing in him to protest and  he let them unbraid his hair, wash his limbs and feet and dress him for sleep.  Even as they extinguished the lamps he lay awake with his eyes open, feeling trapped  and powerless, haunted by the memory and guilt of his sister’s own  screams.

The camp had grown  quiet and dark and Deseem was still awake. Sleep refused to take him and he lay  there with his eyes open in the dark. Before he was to be Bentan he would have  prayed but now he didn’t believe anyone would hear his prayers let alone  consider answering them. Before, just the meditation of prayer would have  soothed him but even that seemed false and distant.

There was too much  to feel to really feel anything. Learning of Marla’s suicide  had struck him like a physical blow but now,  when he was alone and able to grieve and mourn, no emotion was willing to  surface. He just felt guilt, disgusting, weighty guilt and having stood by and  let them torture her. The Marla he’d known would never have taken her own life  before her mind had been burned and her body sold in marriage and he’d allowed  that to happen to her.

It just reminded  him of how powerless he was. He was going to be bartered off, not the  priesthood for favor from God but to some noble for far more earthly favor.  He’d have no more say over it than Marla would and in a years time his eyes  would be as sad and knowing as the Bentan’s he’d met. It made him want to  scream with rage and shatter every breakable in his tent, to claw at his face  and rip out his hair but instead he just lay there, unmoving, struggling to  hold panic at bay. Worse, if his father was going to question the prisoners, he  wouldn’t even have the distraction of travel to break up his thoughts, he’d be  stuck in his tent for days until the captives broke or died, listening to them  scream and feeling like he should be screaming with them.

In the darkness he  suddenly hated his father. Not just the blind, cold indifference or the trained  empty loyalty or even the shivering fear he often felt when he saw his father.  He felt none of that now, just cold, deep, freezing hatred. It was his father’s  fault that Marla had been cleansed in the old ways and had her mind shredded.  It was his father that had picked her husband, a man that surely had not been  kind to her to make her take her own life to escape. It was his father that  drove his brother to fight in an endless war. Worse, it was his father that  would make him into being Bentan, forced to give up his very gender and live  the rest of his life as a woman. The source of all his misery was his father  and he felt as helpless against the man as a fly did against a giant.

For a wild moment  he considered following his sister’s example. It seemed the only action left to  him, the only one that was still his choice. God would surely forgive him.  Suicide wasn’t totally taboo, there were times and situations when it was  expected. To restore honor for one, or when cornered with no other options, or  to repent for crushing failure or shame, all were valid and proper reasons to  consider suicide. He knew all of this just as he knew that cowards went to the  deepest of hells. The trouble was, he wasn’t sure if God would judge him as  being in a situation with no honorable options or as merely the coward he felt  himself to be.

Then an even  wilder idea sunk in. One that terrified him more than facing damnation for  disgrace and cowardice, an idea so strange that he half wondered if in his  suppressed grief he might have gone mad. He couldn’t strike at his father, that  was unthinkable. Nor could he run away because really where would he go? No one  would take him in and he couldn’t survive on his own, he knew that much, knew  he’d been so completely and fully sheltered that the real world would eat him  alive. He couldn’t go back and save his sister, or at the least make the effort  and there was no power in his hands to prevent his own future.

That didn’t mean  he couldn’t place a thorn in the lion’s paw. Small, minor but still a thorn and  even if he pulled it off and was the only one to know he had arranged that  small pain it would be something to cherish. His father had directly requested  Corena Watchers be captured and brought to him. He’d struck Irend because the  woman was missing her pendent. They meant something to his father, something  small maybe and on the same level of pleasure he might receive from a fine  sweet dessert but it would be some tiny amount of pleasure denied. If he was  very lucky, his father would know it was him and he’d kill him in his rage.

The idea was  thrilling and he found himself slipping from his bed. His first thought was to  call a servant to dress him but he grinned at his own habits and foolishness  before he could call out. He may not have much practice but he knew how to tend  to himself and he slipped into his robe with far more speed than he ever could  manage with servants fussing at him.

He moved quickly  and as skillfully as a cat in the darkness. The long travels had earned him  that much, he had spent enough hours pacing his fabric prison to know every  sharp edge of every chest and ever loose corner on ever rug on the ground. He  found the scarf he sought by feel, not caring which it was so long as it was  the long wrap style and he quickly secured it around his hair and over part of  his face. If he was spotted, his excuse of clearing his head in the night air  wouldn’t work if he was modestly covered. Modesty didn’t make him slip a dagger  into his sleeve, that was just practicality.

Just because he’d  never disobeyed didn’t mean he hadn’t thought about it. Some days, plotting  ways to escape his escorting servants and even his cloistered set of rooms were  all he had to hold his mind together. The tent had been no different. Almost  from the first night he’d considered different ways to slip away unnoticed. Not  that he’d ever had the courage to disobey before but just in case he ever  wanted to.

He’d never, not  once in his wildest of day dreams, believed he’d want to risk so much. It  wasn’t a choice of want, he knew it, he had to try this or he really would slip  over that final edge into madness. There was nothing left for him he wasn’t  afraid to risk. What more could be done to him? Taking his life was no threat  and that was the worst situation his mind could create.

There was a wider  gap, toward the back of the tent behind a chest, where the space between stakes  was a little too wide. It was a tight fit but he already knew he could lift it  up from the ground high enough to slip under it. The temptation to slip outside  had been sharp the day he’d found the gap but instead he’d sat on the ground  and peered out, watching the camp life he wasn’t allowed to take part in.

He dropped to the  ground and peered out into the darkness. He saw torches off toward the edges  and the moon was dark but he saw no movement. There would be a guard on the  edges of their encampment but not so close to his own tent, he knew that, they  set the guard the same each time. He dropped to his stomach and nearly froze,  nearly gave up and ran back to his bed and forget the craziness of his idea.

It was only  remembering the woman’s screams and the shouts of the man and how it had  mingled in his mind with the sounds his sister had made that kept his nerve  steady. This was his chance to do something and likely the only one he’d ever  be given. The ground was hard below him but he slipped out into the open with  ease.

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