A Lily, Finely Inked in Black

Submitted into Contest #106 in response to: Write a story about a character who’s secretly nobility.... view prompt


Fantasy Drama

I should be dead.

Perhaps I was, for a while. All I know is that I gave up, and I lay down in the snow, too tired to carry on. A year ago I wouldn’t have believed anyone who told me that I would ever be too tired to keep living. I would have laughed, said that fatigue was all in the mind, that the human body (mine especially) was more than capable of transcending tired – especially when the stakes were life and death. 

Keep going, keep suffering, and you might live. Or lie down, rest, and be certain you will die. In my youthful pride, my blind trust in myself, I would never have thought that I would choose the latter. 

She is there when I wake up. There is a glow of firelight, and smoke, and for the first time since my nightmare began there is more colour in the world than white. It takes a while for me to focus, and when I manage to do it I suppose I must be too out of it to think anything more than that she must be an angel. I hurt, everywhere, for a long time after that. All I know is that in the pain there is warmth, water in a dented tin cup, a hand to help me up. 

“Do you have any food in there?” 

It is the first thing she says, or at least the first I remember. It is night, and I am sitting on the sandy floor of a small cave, holding my hands out to the flames. Out of the man-sized entrance I can see mountains, dimly lit by moonlight. Smoke collects around us, making me cough, then makes its way lazily out, masking the blackness. My daypack is beside me, the buckles still fastened. I try, but I cannot undo them. “In here,” I say, pointlessly, pushing it over to her. 

She has the straps undone in a second. She pulls out the wooden box and looks up, confused. 

“Inside,” I say, feeling like a fool. “It’s fruit. Candied fruit.”

She opens it, carefully, as if it is a treasure box. (And perhaps it is.)

“Frozen,” I say, my voice cracking as it used to before it changed to a man’s, as if the last few days have taken me backwards, as if the cold and the wind and the snow have stolen my manhood. 

She looks at me, as if trying to work out if she can trust me, then sets the box down on one of the stones encircling the fire. One by one, she takes out the pieces of fruit and begins to lay them out, bright against the pale stone like scattered jewels. Lemon, orange, melon, strawberry, glowing like cats’ eyes, like glass. I watch as she works. I am numb, broken, overwhelmed with a clash of relief and disappointment.

I am alive. There is smoke in my face, and I am weak, so weak I can barely speak. Each breath is a chore.  

My stupidity and arrogance have not killed me after all. 

There is something odd about her. She says she heard a noise and went outside to see what it was. That she found me there, collapsed. The snow was so thick in the air that she would not have seen me if I had fallen two feet further away. She says she pulled me up and I walked in, but I have no memory of that. I am in my uniform, my thick coat lined with fleece, my army cap bearing the rebel badge, my boots steel-toed, made in the factories across the border. She wears men’s clothes, a labourer’s clothes, the dark green wool jacket reaching down to her knees. I have never seen a woman in trousers, not in all my travels through our own country, even into the Empire and beyond. Hers are grey, dirty with mud, tucked into her shoes. Her nails are black with dirt, her gloves clearly home-made. 

It’s her shoes that make me suspicious. They are more like slippers, really, filthy as the rest of her but embroidered, with small flowers in what was once pink and green thread. She sees me looking at them as she kneels at the fire, blowing on it, and sits back as if to hide them. 

“You are a soldier,” she says, as she slowly sucks at a piece of orange. 

“Yes.” A stupid question, I think. But then it was not really a question. 

“You got lost.”

I nod, reluctant to admit the truth. “The storm surprised me. I was … scouting.”

“Alone?” She is right to be sceptical. 

“It was my own stupid fault. I don’t want to talk about it.” It’s more than that. I am ashamed of myself. I was with my company a few miles away; I set off alone when I should not have; I ignored the signs thinking no black sky could get the better of me. Then the blizzard began and I got lost. It is not hard to understand. But she is a woman in a cave in the middle of nowhere, in man’s clothes and fancy slippers, starving even if she does have a fire. 

And the way she speaks is strange. 

“Are you foreign?” I ask, even though I sense she is not. 

She shakes her head. 

“Were you on your way somewhere?” 

She looks up, and for a moment I see unbearable sadness there. “I was on my way to freedom,” she says, lifting her chin. “You would not understand.”

I open my mouth to challenge her, but then I look away. She saved my life. I will not press. 

“Do you know Juntai?” she says, after a while. 

Juntai? It is a hamlet, a tiny village near here, or near at least to where I lost my way. We passed it on our way to our camp. One of the men in my company had a grandmother there. He went to see her and brought back a basket of dried plums. I nod. 

“I want to get to Juntai,” she says, wiping at her face. “If I survive this I’m going there.”

It makes no sense to me, but I say nothing. She has to be running away, from a father or a husband perhaps. How she plans to find freedom in Juntai I do not know. My idea of freedom has always been riches, a big farm, a name among men. A wealthy wife, servants to rule. Influence, and power. I have never doubted that I will find all of it, after the war. There will be spoils when our cause is successful, and I intend to claim my share. 

I stumble outside to fetch more wood. This is wilderness, and there is plenty about. I feel weak as a child, but little by little I build a pile, in the entrance to block the worst of the wind. We make the fruit last as long as we can, but we are both so hungry. She has not eaten for three days, she tells me, and my last meal in the barracks feels forever ago. I had emergency rations in my pack but they are long gone. 

“Where did you get the fruit?” she asks. She is sitting with her back against the cave wall, hugging her knees. She has big eyes, a pretty nose, lips that might be rosy if she wasn’t at the end of herself. 

“A gift,” I say, reluctant to explain that I charmed them out of a general’s uninteresting daughter. 

In the morning the snow is still blowing horizontally across the entrance. I wrap myself up as best I can and take my bow, and when I return with two pigeons she stares at me as if I am a god. When I begin to prepare them she looks away, horrified. 

I cut off the heads, gut them. I pull out feathers, impale the birds on sticks. When I give her one to hold over the fire, her hand is shaking. I am beginning to understand. 

She watches me as I eat, doing what I do. When we are done, when every tiny bone has been sucked dry, when our mouths and fingers are black with inevitable ash, she lets out a contented sigh and raises her arms to remove her bonnet. 

My first thought is that she is lovely. 

And then I see it. 

The lily on the side of her neck, fine black lines perfectly inked, only as big as her baby finger. The petals filled in with yellow, the leaves with green, the work of a master. The stem curling wistfully down towards her collarbone, intricate tendrils telling me what I might have guessed had my mind not been so occupied with survival. 

She is nobility. An enemy of the people. Her horrible clothes and the marks of want and suffering have not erased what she is. 

Juntai is nowhere, and if there is a friend waiting there for her I can understand why she might find freedom there. 

She sees the path of my eyes, and fixes me in a gaze that shows no fear. 

“You saved my life.” It is all I can say, although she knows I want to ask why. 

“I think you have done the same,” she says, pointing to the neat pile of bones beside her. 

“You trusted me.” I think of my bow, the knife I wear at my belt. 

“I had a brother,” she says, looking away. “I saw you and thought of him. That’s all.”

It cannot be all. She knows I could take her in and there would be no freedom, only a prison camp.

I look away, and she covers the lily with her hair again. 

Days pass. The storm rages on, unceasing. There are moments when I wonder if the world as I know it has ended, if this is Armageddon. I need to go further to find wood, and birds. But they are easy to find, roosting in the bare trees. They give themselves up to me as if heaven is raining them down. We eat and we sleep. We tend our fire. We talk, and now I understand her odd speech, her smooth hands, her silly shoes. I tell my story; she tells hers. She has lost, I realise, far more than I have, family and comfort and love, and except for saving me she has been, I decide, wise and strong and hopeful. I, on the other hand, have been waiting for my life to start, taking what I can get. I think of my ambitions and my loud boastfulness and I am ashamed. 

The blizzard continues, relentless. I have lost count of the days and count time in pigeons. And then there is a night when I wake to find her weeping, the fire gone out and her hands over her face, the sound that comes from deep inside her curled-up body like a child’s keening, like I remember a baby’s cry from the days when I lived among families. I get up and I fix the fire, leaning over it to blow gently on the coals, coaxing life out of the embers. She does not move while I work, only stays lying on her side, her hands over her face, gasping, then breathing more slowly, hiding her despair from me. And when I am finished and our warmth is restored, I go over to her and lie down behind her, and I wrap my arms around her shaking body and hold her close. She does not push me away, and as the flames leap up, casting odd shadows on the cave wall, I know there is nothing in the world more important than this: to forget the names we give each other and the hurts we carry, to be to another human being the comfort I need myself, to give kindness without blame. I keep my hands over her stomach, and she covers them with hers, and I lean forward and kiss the lily on her neck, lightly, because I know my lips are cold. Her breathing slows, and we sleep, together, two people united more by trouble than divided by war. 

When I awake, my face buried in the fur of her bonnet, she is still asleep. I am stiff and sore, but I stay where I am for a moment, wondering what is different. I lift my head, slowly, to see sunlight. And in that instant I know it is over, that the glaring day will mask the truth I have found. In that moment I don’t think I will ever forget it, and it makes me want to weep too, because it would all just be so much simpler if I could. She wakes to see it too, releasing my hands from hers, sitting up to stare out at the sky no longer black with judgement. And she lifts those slim, soft fingers to her face, and then she turns to me, and I think what I am feeling is mirrored in her face. 

The storm is over. We can go on; I can return to my old life and she can start a new one. The cold has not killed us after all, and the war has not murdered our humanity. Instead it has, in bringing us close to death, awakened it. Her fingers move to the lily, tracing its pattern as she looks at me. 

“Blue sky,” I say. I try to smile.

“Daylight.” Her voice is rough, as if her throat hurts her. 

“I will take you to Juntai.” I don't think my attempt at a smile is successful. “I’ll buy you some new shoes.”

“Thank you.” She wipes at her face, but only the tracks of tears are there. “But I will buy my own shoes.”

We walk, slowly, looking around in wonder at a world we have almost forgotten. Sometimes we hold hands; once she falls through the snow and I haul her up. By evening we have found the road, and we walk through the night, heading for Juntai. Our progress is slow, her stupid shoes slowing us down, but for once in my life I am not in a hurry. In the morning, exhausted to tears, we stand at the crest of a hill and look down at houses, animal pens, smoke rising from chimneys. She turns to me, kisses me on the cheek and walks away. 

I turn around, lifting my face to the sky, feeling a hundred years older. I have travelled to the brink and cheated death. I saw the mark of an enemy and instead of acting to purge the threat to our people I treasure the memory of it, so finely, perfectly inked in black. I have, in these few days, lost faith in both my cause and my old self. I have no choice but to return to the barracks as if from the dead, and to see the war through. And perhaps, in whatever life I make for myself when it is over, the memory of that lily will stay with me, the petals filled in with yellow, the leaves with green, the stem curling wistfully down towards her collarbone.  

August 12, 2021 08:31

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