And so it was
by the gift of gods
that to all who sin
the crime of deception
a blade shall be thrust
upon their skin
on man and woman
young and old
and that blade
shall hold the weight of their guilt
and the edge
of their intent
It was an ordinary day at 6:30. Right on cue, the yolk of the sun solidified over the cloud sea. I rose from bed, shifting the quilt with care so that I wouldn’t wake Tania. I trudged into the washroom, splashed a good amount of water on my face, gargled, and spat. A white singlet and long blue pants greeted me in the cupboard. The usual affair. Pulling them on, I dragged my feet out the door and onto the fields.
Something just didn’t feel right. Had I forgotten something? I scanned through the items lying in the wheelbarrow. Hoe. Watering can. Fertiliser. Gloves. Feed. Everything was there. I stopped and scratched my head. The heat must be getting to me. It was the height of summer, after all. There was nothing wrong. It was just a typical, ordinary day.
Sweat soared off my back in bullet spray fashion as I punched the tip of my hoe into the soil and pulled. Heave. Ho. Heave.
“Gah!” My hoe went spinning through the air, ultimately banging into the body of a nearby tree.
Willing my arms to stop shivering, I straightened my knees, then reached for my back. Under the soft fabric of my singlet, my fingers found, amongst the muscle, a single crevasse. And though I could neither see it nor stretch my arm along the span of my back, I knew that it stretched from just next to my right hip all the way up to my left shoulder. A kizu. I cringed as the pressure of my touch set the wound on fire. Breathless, I sat on the ground to rest.
This kizu. My kizu, no. My only kizu, hadn’t ached in more than ten years. The first three months had been an absolute nightmare. Any moment I had not spent resting in bed had been spent crawling the hellish journey from my bed to the washroom and back.
It’s been a long time… since then.
Two faces wandered into my thoughts just then, ghostly as phantoms. My mind’s hand tried to grasp them, but the fingers simply sunk through their smoky wisps. Only dying trails lingered. From them, I could just barely make out the silhouettes of two people: a boy and a girl. They each whispered a word, and though no sound made it across the ravine of shadows that divided us, I could hear them as clear as if they had been whispered from right beside my ears. One from the left: Mari. One from the right: Braig.
It wasn’t an ordinary day after all.
A middle-aged woman crashed through the front door, panting. It was Mrs. Dela from the grocery store. I looked at her, a spoonful of vegetable soup hanging right before my lips. Next to me, Tania’s ladle had fallen into the soup pot.
“Mercenaries,” she wheezed. “A gang of mercenaries are causing a ruckus in the tavern. They’ve already beaten Jaran and Bale up.”
Tania flashed me an anxious glance.
Rising, I smiled and gave her a pat on the head. Then, grabbing my jacket and hoe, I walked out.
“Come on, old man. You’ve gotta have more booze hidden in the back.”
“N-no! That’s all I have, I swear!”
As I stepped into the tavern, I was immediately met with the aged bartender, Mr. Walt, held at the collar by a thug. A scarlet bandana wrapped around his forehead, the only means by which I could identify him as a mercenary was the scabbard of a shortsword slung around his waist and a tattoo of the Mercenary Guild’s emblem on his shoulder. All the way down to the wrist, his left arm was covered in shallow, miniature cuts.
I kicked the chair in front of me, slamming it into the mercenary who, his grip shattered, flew into a table and collapsed.
In response to the noise, the mercenaries seated throughout the tavern started turning towards the entrance. A quick scan of the room told me that there were about twenty. Behind me, Mr. Walt ran out the front door.
“So. Somebody thinks he’s a hero, huh?”
Shoving a table aside, one of the mercenaries approached me.
Without warning, he unbuckled a knife from his belt and lunged forward. I spun out of the knife’s way. Then, gripping the pole of my hoe with both hands, I thrust the bladeless tip into his stomach.
As he fell, four of the mercenaries stood to take his place. Unsheathing their shortswords, they leapt.
Eyes widened, I froze for so long that if their swords had not stopped in mid-swing, I would already have been slashed to pieces.
I knew that voice.
“Leave that man alone.”
A ghost appeared next to my right ear and began whispering a name over and over and over, the volume increasing with each word spat.
I looked in the direction of the voice. At a table in one corner sat a lone mercenary, his back against my eyes. Unlike the others who wore bandanas and black singlets, he alone donned a dirty green jacket and a bronze helm. From the size of the scabbard strapped to his chair, I could tell that his weapon of choice was a broadsword. Their leader?
He stood, removed his helm and turned to face me.
I knew those sharp blue eyes.
“It’s been a long time. Rex,” the voice had grown many times rougher, but the underlying tones, the ways the words blended were still exactly the same.
“Braig,” I said, breathless.
“I never thought I’d find you of all people in a place like this,” I said.
“…Neither did I,” said Braig.
The two of us were lounging against a fence nearby, watching his crew of mercenaries clean up the mess they had made in the tavern. It was an odd sight, seeing a group of muscular, full-grown men mopping, wiping and sweeping in pristine aprons, Mrs. Dela and Mr. Watt chasing them around furiously with brooms.
“I don’t want to see a single speck of dust beneath the counter, you hear me!”
I took a swig of water from my canteen. “So… how did you end up working for the Mercenary Guild?”
“Circumstances,” he said.
“Money’s hard to come by nowadays.”
“By nowadays,” I said. “You mean now that the world’s no longer in peril and no one’s willing to pay for a hero’s work, right?”
Braig sneered with a chuckle. “There aren’t any heroes in this world.”
“Weren’t you once one yourself?”
Braig turned away slightly, as if recoiling from a sting. “We were just idiots.”
“Idiots we may have been. But the ones who defeated the Apollon Dragon and saved the world were none other than you, me and Mari.”
Keeping a shadow over his aimless gaze, Braig didn’t respond.
“How long has it been since then?” I asked.
“…I don’t know,” he said.
“Sixteen years, I think.”
A thoughtful look danced across his features. Just for an instant.
“That’s a long time,” he mused, at last.
“Yeah,” was the only thing I could think of as a reply.
Above, the eavesdropping clouds sailed across the azure with a deliberate lethargy.
“What about you?” he said.
“A farmer?” he sneered.
I laughed. “It pays the bills. It was a little awkward at first but once I got used to it, I really came to love the feeling of the morning sun on my shoulders, the smell of freshly tilled soil, the crispness of the air that flows around crops growing.”
Braig chuckled. “You always were a nature person.”
We turned our attention to the sky for a while, just relishing the sunlight and the breeze.
“You were supposed to be dead,” he said.
There was a pause before I answered. “I know.”
“Why did you fake it?”
Leaving the fence, I took a couple of steps forward and stopped.
“I needed a reason to leave the two of you,” I said. “I knew that no matter what kind of excuse I could have possibly come up with, you two would definitely-”
“Of course we would have followed you!”
I turned. Braig had left the fence as well. Breathing heavily, his arms were stretched out in two crescents, the hands half-clutched, the fingers shaking.
“We were comrades, weren’t we!” he roared.
“Yes,” I said, turning away. “We were comrades. The best kind.”
“Do you know how many days Mari spent crying?”
“Of course I know. She was in love with me after all.”
“Then why did you-”
“Because you were in love with her!” This time it was my turn to face him and raise my voice.
“And you weren’t?” he said.
“Of course I was!”
I sighed. Turning around, I returned to the fence. Braig kept his eyes on me all throughout.
“The two of you were meant for each other,” I said. “I don’t know why she was interested in me but it was a mistake. I had to go so that she could finally notice the man she was supposed to be with.”
Braig kept his eyes trained on me for a moment. Then, dropping his head, he returned to his place beside me.
“This is a sick joke,” he said.
“No,” I said. “It’s reality.”
I inhaled, then exhaled, focusing my attention through the tavern window. The mercenaries were running all over the place, frantic.
“So,” I said. “How’s Mari?”
A long pause.
“How?” it was more of a croak then a question.
Braig stepped away from the fence. “Let’s talk about this somewhere else.”
Braig leading the way, we walked out of the village and towards the mountains, a silent hour spent through wavering grass and barren soil. When a hill emerged on the left of the horizon, Braig diverted his path towards it. It was a while before we reached the summit, low as it was, adorned by a single tree with leaves of deep burgundy.
“Nostalgic isn’t it,” Braig said as he walked past. “It looks just like our favourite tree from our village.”
“Come on,” I said, slipping my hands into my pockets. It was getting a bit chilly. “Our favourite tree was green.”
Braig chuckled without turning. “Do you remember the promise we made when we were twelve? At that very tree?”
A scene played out in my mind automatically. A scene of two boys and a girl standing around a tree. Each of them had their right hand placed on the worn wood, left hand on their chests, eyes closed, all muttering the same thing.
“How could I forget?” I said, pausing to feel the bark of the hilltop tree. It wasn’t the same. Could anything ever be?
By the time I looked back, Braig had already removed his jacket.
“What are you-”
He pulled off his shirt off before I could finish. There, on his back, was a vicious scar that stretched from his left shoulder to his right hip. Even though I had never looked directly at my own before, somehow I knew that his was longer, deeper and hurt much more.
“This is my kizu,” he said. “The only kizu I will ever have.”
“Quiet, Mari! Save your strength.”
Served by a lone candle, it was a dimly lit room. The sky was black outside through the window. Inside, the only furnishings were a simple bed, and a tiny stool. A curtain rod was attached to the wall next to the bed, but the curtain itself was despondent, hanging unused. On the bed lay a woman with chestnut brown hair and eyes that sparkled with a turquoise allure. Yet, the shine of her irises was slightly faded, giving way to some form of encroaching hollow.
“Am I… finally going to die?”
“Don’t talk rubbish,” a younger Braig said, hands around hers. “You’re part of the legendary trio that slew the Apollon Dragon. There’s no way some sickness will get the best of you.”
Mari chuckle-wheezed. “It’s managed to keep me bedridden for three years, though.”
Braig had nothing to say.
“But I’m not afraid,” she continued. “There’s a friend waiting for me on the other side after all.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Have you already forgotten?” she forced a weak smile. “Rex is there. I wonder how he’s been doing.”
Gritting his teeth, Braig looked away. “Please. Will you stop talking like that if I beg?”
Feeling a squeeze, he turned back, only to find crystals growing at the edge of her eyelids.
“Don’t look away,” she croaked. “Please. At the very least, I want to make sure the face of the man I love remains in my mind until the moment I have to leave.”
Braig tightened his grip, but even that couldn’t prevent his hands from shaking ever so slightly.
“You won’t die. There’s no way you’ll die. I promise.”
“She passed away the next morning,” Braig finished.
Halfway through the tale, the kizu on my back had started throbbing. Keeping my distance from Braig who stood near the cliff’s edge, I spent a moment walking back to the tree of burgundy and settled with my back against its trunk. It felt different from before. More familiar. More soothing.
“When was this?” I asked.
“Six years ago.”
“And you got your kizu by telling her that she wasn’t going to die, even though you knew full well that it was inevitable?”
Braig shook his head. “No.”
Finally, he turned to face me. Shining trails spilled down his eyes to the edge of his cheeks, the beads metamorphosing into fairy dust as they detached from his skin and were engulfed by the auburn blaze of the setting sun.
“I told no lies that day,” he said. “I truly believed from the bottom of my heart that she would survive. No, perhaps my heart had simply been too weak to acknowledge that truth. All I know is, by the whim of the gods, no kizu was imposed on me for the words I said that day.”
Saying nothing, I waited.
“I cut it myself,” he continued. “I couldn’t bear to keep living with a truth that had only been true to my own desire. A truth that had rotted to become reality’s lie. I needed proof. I needed a sign that could convince me that I had been lying to myself the entire time. Though I hadn’t been.”
I waited a while longer, then started walking towards him. “I’m sorry, I don’t know what to say.”
“Good,” he said, turning away once more. “I hate people who try to say things when they have nothing to say. It doesn’t change anything.”
Taking my place beside him, I said, “So it looks like Mari was the only one who managed to keep our promise.”
Braig nodded. “I’m going.”
“I’m going to walk until I reach a place so far that the gods can’t reach. I’m going to find a place where they can’t scar us for our lies. Maybe then, I’ll be able to erase this pain haunting my back.”
“Is that why you came all the way to this village in the middle of nowhere?”
“Then,” Turning to face him, I punched him softly in the chest. A gesture we had exchanged countless times in our youth. “I wish you all the best.”
He smiled. The first proper one I had seen him make the entire day.
“Thanks,” he said, giving me a punch in return.
“You can always come back here to this village,” I said. “I’ll always be here if you need me.”
Maintaining his smile, he shook his head.
“At least stay the night?” I asked. “My wife makes some amazing stew.”
He laughed. “You always know the best way to get me to do something.”
I grinned. “Of course. We’re comrades, aren’t we?”
Exhaling slightly as he loosened his expression, he looked me in the eye, then grinned.
“Yeah. We are. Always have been.”
Kizuna （絆）Japanese for bond
Kizu （傷）Japanese for wound
Written in response to the Reddit prompt: