If you don't have the time to read, you don't have the time or the tools to write - Stephen King, On Writing, p. 147
Déchiré - Notre Dame De Paris
He ran through the crowded streets, elbowing his way between gaggles of gossiping women and ducking under the loaded baskets carried on the heads of serfs. He was deaf to the curses of the vendor as he vaulted a cart laden with fresh loaves and blind to the fruit that bounced across the cobbles as he staggered an older woman and upset her tray. Chickens hurtled out from under his pounding feet in clouds of dusty feathers. A feral cat shot under a stall and bared its decaying fangs at him when he narrowly missed standing on its tail as it eyed the fish stall.
He was momentarily halted as the hilt of his sword tangled in a display of woollen shawls, fringes knotting instantly about his fingers as he wrenched himself free. The young girl watching the stall whilst her mother fed her newborn behind a curtain was quickly convinced that complaining was not an option after one look at the wild eyes in the face of soldier who was already disappearing into the throng. His progress could be marked by gradually fading shouts of outrage and occasional clatter of goods being scattered.
Only when his breathing began to cause searing pain in his chest and his legs started to fail beneath him did the soldier realise he’d reached his limits, gradually becoming aware that he was running through silence. He stopped, fell to his knees and buried his face in his hands. The sun was climbing the sky but the grass under his knees willingly gave up its dewy coating, soaking his leggings, pale red stains seeping out of the fabric and turning the tips of his fingers pink as he leaned his hands on his knees, hitching breath in whooping gulps. The fire in his chest cooled but it did nothing for the inferno in his mind.
He curled into a ball, rocking, unconsciously pushing his stained fingers through his mass of sweat soaked curls, clutching, tugging, wanting the physical discomfort to drown out the pain in his spirit. His sword dug a shallow groove in the ground, widening with each rock of his body. It worked on a bruise as the pommel dug into his ribs. Anger flared and he ripped the sword from his belt, hurling it up and away. It described graceful arcs through the dead, dry air. As graceful as the arcs his arm had made when he’d wielded it. His heart lurched, clutched by misery’s fist. The sword fell, skidded and buried itself in a tussock of limp grass, juddering.
He rocked back onto his heels, unable to take his eyes from the object of his sin. How had his judgement failed him so greatly? His mind whirled, filled with bloody images, of accusing faces. Her parents and family streamed past his staring eyes, wailing, demanding revenge. Fingers pointed, mouths bled curses as they gathered about the ruby stained sheet on the floor. Her mother pulled it back, revealed the horror beneath, turned empty eyes on him. Eyes that ran with unstoppable tears of loss. Loss for everything her daughter would never have, for what her mother would never see.
“I couldn’t stop it”
His voice in the stillness broke the spell his mind had weaved. He swayed, his skin burning, his eyes dry marbles in their sockets, aching with unshed tears. He deserved to burn. This was his personal hell and he could not run from it, would not. Let the sun sear the guilt from his body, the misery from his heart, the death images from his mind. The heat, dehydration, isolation, all would grant him emptiness, make him nothing. He was worth less than the earth beneath his feet.
He staggered to his feet, kicked off his shoes, shrugged out of his clothes. Time had passed. He knew that but not how much. His mind would not recall his training, would not let him do more than stare into the sun, unable to gauge the time. He blinked, white light filling his vision, changing to sharp black afterimages. Walk then, walk and forget. Forget the pale oval of her face, the creamy skin of her shoulders and the burnished copper of her hair. Walk and let her pass away from his mind.
He stepped forward, crossed the border between earth and sand. Naked, he set his feet onto the baked surface. Heat bloomed deep in his skin, red flames that tried to compete with the red images in his head. Images of Sarah, promised one, wife who would never be his. Her green eyes so wide that they were perfect O’s of horror. Fluttering hands twisting in her braided, silken hair. Her light, childlike voice; ‘How could you?’
It had been her. She had demanded it. Everything he had wanted, worked for, gone if he did not comply. Sarah gone, leaving him disgraced, demoted, outcast. His heaven denied, his hell assured. A simple thing, done a thousand times without thought. A quick thrust and over. Heaven regained, hell denied. Was he not a man? What did one woman matter?
He stumbled, his head pulsing, silver stars exploding behind his eyelids. His skin stretched, taut, ripe to tear, to bleed. Let it. What did it matter now? Let his blood pour, flood the world, remind them how a man could be torn apart by a single desire. So much blood, too much. A battlefield saturated was nothing. A job, his job. A woman, alone, vulnerable, a lover to betray...
He howled into the sun, his wide eyes absorbing the white light and then dimming, extinguished.
Why had no-one stopped him? Where was the wise head to tell him one woman could destroy your dreams, take your life from you? Desire had driven all sense of right from his mind, left him bare, open to temptation. As soldier saw no sin in taking what was offered. It was the way of men on the road, marching into the possibility of death. Where was it written that that life was not the way, not civilised? Why hadn’t he seen that scroll, that commandment?
He sagged, went to his knees, cracked sobs choking his throat as he faced unpleasant truth.
Barely a breath but he heard the words, knew he could blame only himself. From the instant he had seen her in the market, watched the sway of her slender hips, heard her easy laughter, he’d known. Wanting her had not been wrong. Taking her had ruined everything. His actions had brought him to his knees, naked and flayed by the fires of his guilt.
She had been innocent, cautious and how he had wooed her, promised her the moon and the stars. A wild beauty, his to tame. Pride had snared him. Greed had trapped him. Lust had ripped his world to shreds. What had she been but a final sowing of seed before he ploughed a single furrow forever? A castaway moment before a lifetime of fidelity. A tale to boast over when his sword arm was arthritic and his manhood failing. She had been nothing.
And yet she had become everything. For two brief nights she had owned him completely. He had become insane with desire, the need to possess her. Two nights in her bed and two days with only her on his mind. Sarah had been locked away, ignored, forgotten in the depths of his obsession. How could he have known that the woman in his arms was known to the woman he betrayed with every kiss, every touch? He could not have known that Sarah had seen him watching the girl, had set a man to watch her.
He struggled to his feet once more, blindly wandering deeper into the shimmering emptiness.
Her man had seen him leave. Nothing more, only his quiet exit. No loving word or a backward glance but undone in the instant he stepped onto the street. Sarah’s eyes had blazed when he answered her call that morning. Shock had taken him. Where had this ferocious woman come from? Where was his soft and gentle bride? Replaced by the monster of jealousy, the harpy of rage.
He had lied. Lied until his head hurt, never able to look into her eyes. Fool he had been. Fool not to see the knowledge behind her even tone, her simple questions. Terror had replaced foolishness. Threats of losing everything had chased away his desire for the girl.
He’d promised, again and again, pleading on his knees.
Lost in fear of material loss he missed the steel behind her eyes, the ice in her voice as she smiled slowly.
Without thought he had agreed, greedy for her forgiveness, no thought to the girl remaining.
He’d almost buckled when Sarah’s man had brought the girl screaming and crying into the room. He’d recoiled as she was flung at his feet, clutching at his ankles. He’d been pierced by her streaming eyes, her low, fearful pleas. His glance at Sarah had revealed only a statue, devoid of emotion. A statue awaiting his promise fulfilled to return to life, to take him back into the fold.
The girl’s soft voice stirred something deep inside his soul. Some twisted thing, black and bitter. It spoke of never being where he deserved to be. Of always losing out to the better man, to the richer man, the man of standing. Everything peaked in that girl. A glaze came over his eyes as his hand went to his sword. He never heard the girl scream his name, plead for her life. Consumed by need, by rejection, he saw nothing but an obstacle to his desires.
The sword fell.
Sarah’s screams had brought him back to the moment. To the blood drenched, horrifying truth. Blood covered his sword, his hands, the front of the girl’s blue shift. Her blank eyes were fixed on him in mute appeal, one hand flung out as if asking him to help her up. Sarah would not stop screaming. Hadn’t she asked him to do it? She denied it, denied she’d wanted anything but to scare him, to scare the girl, absolving herself of any guilt. Rage had blinded him and Sarah’s screams had ceased, her body falling beside the girl, their hands a breath apart.
He’d run. What else could he have done? Now he began to run again, heavy steps that carried the weight of his guilt and took him deeper and deeper into the desert. He crested dunes and ran. He ran through mirages, through oases, through endless plains of shifting orange sand. He ran until he fell and could not rise. Face down in the sand he breathed it in, choking on it, filling his emptiness with heedless, soulless sand. Bury it; bury every thought until there was no thought, no room for thought.
A sweep of stars glistened in the night sky, a crescent moon lazing on its back, idly delivering hazy light. A stealthy movement around a dune, a pause, a second motion. The beetles sidled towards the reddened, crisped lump that lay half buried in the sand. Eventually they swarmed over it, busy jaws tearing it apart.