A Night of Ruses
Jobe massaged the dimpled scars marring his left cheek. They echoed with pain from a life once lived, their shame enduring more than anything physical. Sometimes, when he touched them, flashes of violence awakened, thrashed, and subsided back to the grave of his many lives. Anger stirred in his gut in response to the fragmented memory. Something primal and undying.
“Quick.” Souda gripped his tunic and pulled him close, baring canines. “Bind me before I do something unreasonable.”
Jobe caught her wrist and planted a kiss on the sensitive place beneath her palm. He breathed her in. The scent of sweat and the underlying jasmine soap she used this morning. “Love is never unreasonable.”
She smiled, a low growl inviting him to the recklessness she proposed. “Silly bard. Your words stir something in me. Do not speak them unless you are willing to die in my arms tonight.”
“Always.” Jobe pressed her hand against his face. “Cut me first. We need to show them a struggle.”
She snatched her hand back as If burned. “I will not. Your face is too pretty.” The dangerous smile returned, baring the tips of her teeth. She edged closer, pressing her body against his, her mouth close to his neck. When she spoke, her lips brushed against his skin. “Now, this neck. A mark to claim you.”
He chuckled into her wild hair; a dark mass unyielding to the draw of the earth. “Whatever will make you happy, my love.”
Her lips opened on his neck, the sharp threat of her savagery teasing the artery. Her hand cupped the side of his face free of his dimpled shame, curled and dug into his flesh. He felt her nails lengthen. With a sudden jerk, she cut his face.
“There.” She pushed herself clear of him and examined her work. “Not too deep. It will heal and still convince the foolish townsfolk.”
Jobe resisted the urge to wipe away the blood. The ploy needed to be authentic. A quick show will grant them a night’s respite. Enough to gather their things and escape into the night.
The rest of the ploy demanded more from Souda. Jobe lifted a knife from his belongings piled on a seat in the corner of the room and unsheathed it. Some drunk noble had gifted it to him for a night of Jobe’s service. Gray sealskin wrapped the hilt and sheath, with a large lapis lazuli carved to show the crescent moon above the Tree of Wisdom. It was a decorative piece, but the bronze blade cut as true as any other.
He placed the edge against her bare ribs. She inhaled at the bite of cold metal against her skin, drawing his eyes to her body. A low growl responded to his attention. Souda lifted his chin and forced his eyes to meet hers.
“Careful, love. Your eyes speak in place of your delicious lips.” She placed her other hand over the one holding the knife and pressed the blade until it parted her flesh. Her eyes closed as she drew the blade down, carving a long wound.
Blood seeped down her dark flesh. Her hand squeezed his to the point of pain. She yanked him close. Lips snarling, and eyes swimming in passion.
Jobe dropped the knife. “Have I hurt you?”
He knew she would heal soon. Her kind possessed that uncanny ability. But they were not immune to pain, and they had endured a history of pain.
“You give yourself too much credit, bard.” Souda licked his chest and pushed him away. “Bind me before I kill those townsfolk for another night with you.”
“Dress first.” Jobe gathered a length of rope from the bed and watched her do as he suggested.
He had asked her to wear a white tunic for the ploy. When the fabric touched her wound, a stain blossomed, large and convincing.
“Are you going to deliver your prize in the nude?” Souda undid the ties at the collar of her tunic. “Or have you reconsidered?”
“No.” Jobe cocked his head as he examined her. “It’s not enough.”
“This pleases you.” Souda’s hand shifted into a claw. She dragged the point of one claw down the center of her chest, spilling more blood down her tunic. “Happy?”
“We can play your games later.” He pulled both her arms behind her back and bound them with the rope.
She grunted and leaned into him. Her hair smothered his face and filled his nose. He breathed in her scent again and pushed her away. Time didn’t allow for distractions, and her ideas of distraction required too much time.
He dabbed his face with his tunic before dressing. The townsfolk didn’t need to see his wounds, only the blood. Now that the time neared, a knot twisted in his gut. One skeptical witness would make all this effort meaningless. The whole point was to convince them to return home, bloodlust sated, so that he wouldn’t need to kill them all.
That was the agreement. Souda had chuckled at his concern, wild eyes sparkling with amusement. Why take so much precaution for these backwater people when she could have silenced their anger with her own?
A song swirled to life in his mind. An ancient piece honoring the story of the maiden of the forest and the curious prince. The lyrics changed with the passing of the song from one bard to another, but the core remained the same. The prince had fallen in love with the maiden and given up his claim to the throne in exchange for her bed. As the years passed and he had yearned for the city of his birth, she had remained behind, forgotten. He hummed the accompanying music as he buckled his sword belt.
“That is a new one, bard.” Souda ran her tongue across the bottom of her teeth. “I will know it.”
“I’ll sing all the songs I know until you are bored of me.” He grabbed another length of rope and tied it into a noose. “After tonight, we’ll have all the time in the world.”
“I do not think I will ever be bored of you,” Souda said.
He placed the noose around her neck and pulled it tight. Her breath halted, the ghost of fear haunting her eyes.
“We agreed.” Jobe smoothed her unconquerable hair. “If it’s too uncomfortable I can take it off.”
“They would never believe you vanquished me otherwise.” She snapped her teeth at him and smiled. “I am too wild for you to tame.”
Jobe used the rope to pull her close, his hand gentle around her throat. He planted another kiss on her welcoming lips, lingering there until she nicked his tongue with a warning bite. He flinched, tasting his mouth for blood.
“Just a reminder, bard.” Souda straightened, a woman in command. “Lead your prize. Our audience arrives.”
“This isn’t a coronation,” Jobe said. “You must play the part.”
“Yes, yes. Defeated savage at the hands of the hunter.” She slouched. “See?”
“No.” Jobe sighed. “You still look too regal.”
“I am the helpless damsel. Defeated by the skilled hunter.” She lowered her shoulders further. “Better?”
Jobe nodded for her sake. She didn’t look defeated at all. He reached into one of his pouches and retrieved a sunstone, a clear construct of solid light. He pressed the stone to his lips and sang the words of power. Light flowed from the stone around Souda. Each phrase wound the tendrils of light tighter until they clothed her in the illusion of his choosing.
He chose minor refinements. Small illusions that didn’t require too much concentration. Shadows around her eyes, a few creases on her forehead, and a subtle roundness to her shoulders.
“That’s better.” He tugged gently on the rope. “Come along little pup.”
The rope tightened as she pulled back. “I will kill you.”
“You can do whatever you want after tonight,” Jobe said.
She snorted. “It is a promise, bard.”
Outside the night washed the land in silver and shadow, broken only by a sinuous line of torchlight approaching their cottage. Jobe had asked why Souda had taken residency so near a town populated by ignorance. She had thrown back her head and laughed at his concern. He had thought to press the inquiry further, but his mouth soon drowned in hers. All thoughts of her safety smashed against her unyielding desire. A week had passed before he could clear his mind of her and devise this plan.
“On the ground.” Jobe pulled another sunstone and breathed his command over it. A long-handled ax appeared in its place and a fire blazed beside them.
“We still have time.” Souda eyes the fire. “Why do I feel heat?”
“Because a fire that doesn’t give heat is easily identified as a ruse.” Jobe pulled the rope down urging Souda to kneel. “Quick, now. It won’t touch you.”
The train of angry townsfolk neared, their torches burning bright, casting deep shadows on angry voices. They found courage in number, found voice once their source of fear lay bound on the ground. They chanted a verse of their faith, some lines taken from their holy book and twisted by the ugly touch of hate.
“In the Light, the truth is known.”
“In the Light, the faithful walk.”
“In the Light, all transgressors flee!”
Jobe hated the way people forfeited thought when faced with the unknown. Most of these people couldn’t read the words they chanted, relying on one learned priest, and falling into the trap of righteous manipulation. Truth existed in the context of faith, not in the literal. What truth can language comprehend in the matters of the heart?
The leader of the mob stopped a dozen paces away and raised his hand in command. He was the priest who hired Jobe. The third son of some noble family, he was a man of three decades and the smooth features of one who had never bent his back against the harsh sun. His hatred included everything, not just the woman lying on the ground between them. A third son’s future denied him the inheritance of the family and the relevance of station a second son may enjoy.
The mob settled in place, a few still chanting their venom.
“Your reputation is warranted, Jobe.” The priest spat at Souda. “Filth!”
The crowd cheered and offered their own insults. Some edged closer until the space between them and the crowd grew too great, weakening their claim to the collective courage.
“Yes, well, let’s get this over with.” Jobe pulled on the rope when Souda’s pride reacted to the priest. Her movements were subtle, enough for the blessing of the night to hide, but he feared a prolonged exchange would test her resolve. “She’s incapacitated but her kind can heal.”
“Unnatural spawn.” The priest turned to the crowd. “Do you see the power of our Lord? Do you see why we must walk in the Light? There will come a day when we are free of these beasts who cling to the old ways. Hold fast to the Light and the Light will protect you.”
The crowd cheered, devolving into the beasts they hated. The priest turned, his face twisted by the ecstasy of his power. He raised both his hands, either basking in their lust or quieting the crowd.
Jobe sensed the time near. He retrieved another sunstone, shielding it with his hand, and placed it in his mouth. The power of the stone warmed his tongue, eager for release.
“Let us see the end of this corruption.” The priest gestured to Jobe. “With the permission of the Light.”
If not for the stone in his mouth, Jobe would have spat a curse under his breath. The rope slackened. Jobe glanced at Souda who had lifted herself from the ground on both hands, face forward, shoulders taut.
His mouth dried.
Words of power tumbled through his mind. Spells to cast the area in blinding light, or spells to carve shadowy threats from the night. Anything to buy them time to flee.
“You think I cower?” Souda lurched forward, pulling on the rope. “Do you think me weak? I am eternal! His blade will not harm me.”
The crowd flinched back; their words cut off by their collective gasps. Some threw their torches, thankfully missing Souda. Others raised their picks and shovels. The priest scowled, a hint of doubt pulling at the corners of his mouth.
Jobe tugged on the rope and made a show of raising his illusionary ax. As he did, he noticed another group behind the townsfolk. Smaller in number, an air of danger emanated from them.
Understanding dawned in Jobe. Souda’s words were for them. Her people. A pack within a heartbeat of slaughtering the people who had threatened their own.
Jobe whispered the words of power and slammed the illusionary ax down on her neck. The people saw Souda’s head fall from her shoulders, saw the body fall to the ground, and leak her tainted blood on the dirt path.
That’s what Jobe hoped.
The crowd stilled. The faces Jobe could discern shared confused looks between them. The priest stepped forward, shrugged into the power he had momentarily dropped, and threw his fist in the air.
“Behold!” The mask of ecstasy returned to the priest. “Victory!”
The crowd cheered. Jobe released the breath caught in his chest. This needed to end. He made a show of kicking the illusionary body on the ground before picking up her head. He raised it for all to see and tossed it in the fire.
He shielded his face when the fire swelled with the new fuel. Behind the protection of his hands, he whispered more words of power to add the sizzle and pop of heated fat. As an afterthought, he wove the scent of charred flesh and hair and intensified it to encompass the entire crowd.
The stone vanished from his mouth. He covered his nose with his tunic. “Quick. Away from here. The smell can cause sickness.”
The priest narrowed his eyes but nodded. “Yes. Listen to Jobe. He has experience in such matters.”
The crowd retreated to their village, led by the priest. They chanted anew, something of Light spreading through dark hearts and burning the evil. Jobe stood away from the illusion far enough to comply with his own warning. An itch manifested between his shoulders. He dared not turn to face the source of the burning eyes causing it. Souda’s anger threatened as much as her teeth along his neck.
When the crowd blended back into the night, a man stepped from the concealment of shadowed trees lining the dirt path. He was wide, lean, and a wild beard claimed most of his face except the intense eyes pinning Jobe in place.
“Gifted with the words of power?” The stranger sniffed the air. “Who are you?”
A clawed hand wrapped around Jobe’s throat from behind, the tips digging. “He is a bard.”
“Those villagers are fortunate we understood the ruse, Souda.” The stranger sniffed the air and spat. “I can still taste your burning flesh in the air. Impressive.”
“I’m Jobe. I appreciate—” The claws pricked his throat.
“He is my tool.” Souda sneered. “Mine. None may harm him.”
“But he is one of them.” The stranger lowered his gaze when he addressed Souda. “We should do away with him while we have the chance.”
“No.” Souda entered the personal space of the stranger, her chest thrust forward, and chin raised. “He is mine to do as I will. I still have use of him.”
“As you say.” The stranger stepped back, his gaze on the ground. “Allow me to lead you back to our people. They will be overjoyed.”
“I am not finished, Jara,” Souda said. “Return. Tell them I still hunt the night. I will not stop until I have succeeded.”
Souda snarled, clawed hands straining to either side of Jara’s face. “Do you question me?”
“No.” Jara stepped back and bent lower, hands before his chest and palms up. “Never.”
“Then go. And none of you may turn until you’ve been welcomed by the fires of our home.” Souda retracted her claws and spun around. “Go.”
Jobe rubbed his neck where Souda had threatened his life. He had only known her for two weeks and wondered how often he had been within a breath of dying. She promised excitement, maybe more than he could tolerate.
“So, are you going to tell me what that was about?” Jobe said.
“Perhaps.” Souda crossed her arms and cocked her head. “I have my own stories, bard.”
“You’ll have to share them with me,” Jobe said.
“Would you rather have stories or me?”
“As you so often remind me, I’m a bard.” Jobe dropped his hand and smiled. “I want both.”
“Let us see if you have the stamina for it.’ Souda grabbed his tunic and pulled him close. “You have a debt to repay.”
“Sure. Sure.” Jobe tried to kiss her, but she pulled back.
“No, bard. You will answer to my whims tonight.” She stepped past him and pulled him along by his tunic.
Jobe stumbled back to the cottage. He wondered what she would demand. Logic dictated they should flee while the ruse was fresh on the villagers’ minds, but curiosity demanded answers.
He was a bard, a fool easily distracted by the stories foolish lovers wrote with the shared breath of their nights. And volumes were written that night.