Downfall of a Dream

Two lives, two hearts deeply in love. But when the dark clouds veil the sun and rumors of famine and war echo from the South, even the strongest ties crumble and fall - and some of them go as far as to become tragic demonstrations of how devastating the fear and hardships can be for a relationship.

1

A Harvest Festival

When the annual harvest festival took place at the market square, the entire village was thrown into a lot of hassle and hum. It was one of those beautiful afternoons at the end of august when the sun was comfortably warm and the wind still lacked the icy touch of the fall. It was that harvest festival where I met my destiny, and as it would eventually turn out, also my demise. She was wearing a cream-colored dress, white shoes, and a selection of daffodils in her fair hair, celebrating the season of the sun with their colors shining almost as brightly as her mesmerizing smile. I have to confess that the suave and elegant motion of her supple body captivated my eyes very early that night. I wanted her more than I wanted the crop to grow on my father's fields, which really represented the difference between survival and starvation for me. But so hard I fell for this girl that I would have given up everything for her, even the new, strong workhorse I had just bought from the local breeder – absolutely everything.

I asked her to dance, almost certain that she would reject me. I was nothing but a farmer, and she could easily get some fancy townsman if she wanted to – maybe a wealthy smith or a trader. But for my great surprise, she looked at me with her sparkling blue eyes and smiled playfully. The graceful nod that marked the promise of a dance ignited my heart into thousand flames. I took her to the middle, where people had formed a circle for the dancers to use, and I danced with her like never before, for I wanted to wrap my arms around this lovely summer flower to keep any other candidates far away.

We played and we laughed, then we ate and we drank. And when the mild evening began to gain shades of blue, I suggested that we should find a peaceful place to continue our night of wonders. She answered with her glittering eyes full of excitement, sighing her agreement softly into my ear. The silvery moon watched us as we frolicked through the open fields to a barn where I knew we could unleash our passion in peace and privacy. While most of the crop had been harvested, the few remaining stalks in front of the barn swayed mildly in the warm summer breeze. We wrapped tightly around each other in the shadowy dimness, feeling the heated beat of our hearts as we dived into the depths of our newly born love.

When the sun rose in the eastern horizon, flickering playfully through the heavy branches of the enormous oaks and ash trees standing at the edge of the field, I took her to my father's house I had inherited about a year earlier, when he had passed away. Mauled by a pestilence that had not manifested itself around these lands for a long time, his struggle in the hands of the jigglecough had been furious but short. The cleric of the local church, who also worked as the healer of the village, had been very concerned by the sudden outbreak. He suspected a repugnant insect or a worm for delivering the sickness; the swift bite must have gone unnoticed while wandering the fields and woods of his own farm. It turned out to be a sporadic incident that did not seem to spread anywhere from the farm, so a few days after my father's death, the quarantine was lifted and life was allowed to continue at its normal pace.

After a brief funeral service, my father's body was burned to make sure the illness stopped there. It was highly unusual way to treat the late, but under the prevailing conditions it made perfect sense even for a simple farmer like me.

But I did not spend too much time to think about my father anymore, not now that she was around. All my worries and fears seemed to vanish in the breeze when I glanced at her. The life as a farmer was not easy and always full of hardships, but the cozy warmth that seemed to radiate from her pleasant figure would certainly lighten the burden tremendously. With her by my side, even the most ordinary task seemed like dancing among roses.

* * * *

There was a certain aspect of mystery about him when he approached me. I did not know him at all, but I thought he was quite handsome as he halted in front of me, glanced at me rather shyly, and asked me to dance with a deep tone that could not entirely hide the nervousness underneath his sure voice. His pale blue eyes had a warm glimmer, and the light smile together with a strong jaw formed a very pleasant sight for my young eyes. I did not think twice before I accepted his invitation, knowing very well where it might lead to. The annual harvest festival gathered all the boys and girls from the nearby villages to celebrate before the fall would give way for the silence of the winter. A large portion of all marriages in the area had received their first spark from this event, and as a girl who had just recently reached the proper age, I was both curious and concerned. It was an expected commitment to find the best possible spouse and settle down quickly, for those who failed to find their love in time often ended up as wenches in the roadside taverns and inns. Those girls were filthy and dirty, unworthy of true love, used by the traveling men for their pleasure, and never able to find an honorable man to take care of them. I had decided very early that my fate would be something better than that. And there he was, my dream come true in those serious yet tantalizing eyes, a shy smile full of promise and mystery, and broad shoulders unafraid of hard labor and effort - everything what I had been taught to look for. But I had never imagined that all of it would arrive to me in such a lovely package.

He took me away to a dreamland and danced me until I was dizzy from the constant whirling motion, as well as from the mead we enjoyed without much self-control. The latter side of the night was a sweet blur from light chatter and laughter to a beautiful sunset and admiring the enormous shadow of a Skywhale gliding across the starlit sky.

The air was filled with the lovely song of the robins as he led me away from the festival through the vast, bare fields around his estate. He did not take me all the way to his house though, for we were too merry from all the mead to walk that far. I am sure he knew of it being there, but as a pleasant surprise for myself, we came by a barn that was conveniently along the way. I replied to his playful smile with something that was supposed to be just an innocent yet allusive blink together with a slightly seductive smile, but it came out with a longing sigh that left very little room for guessing, thus completely ruining my graceful move. We both laughed cheerfully, for it was nothing to be ashamed of. We both wanted it to happen, so we walked inside, hand in hand, still laughing at my failed attempt to be smooth and mysterious.

Then we made love in the barn, and the rustling hay got stuck on our clothes and hair as we dived into a bliss, arms and legs wrapped tightly around each other. The enormous Skywhale watched over us, and even though I could not see it, I was willing to bet that the trusty old guardian of the world was smiling at us as it glided across the sky.

2

Descending into Black

As it had become apparent during our first night that she lived in the next village upstream, I began to make arrangements for her to move together with me as soon as the blur of the festival had disappeared from my head, and a natural part of this process, of course, was marriage. It was practical to become officially united as fast as possible. The world was not friendly or fair; settling down and working for the common future were priorities that no farmer could afford to take lightly.

We lived in the countryside, far from the rumpus of the town, so the wedding celebration was kept modest and plain. But still, we managed to come up with a nice, festive ceremony at the local inn, where the same cleric who had escorted my father to the silence of the grave, blessed our union in front of all our neighbors and the family of my beautiful bride.

From what she had told me, I learned that her family worked for a noble landlord, which made days that much longer and harder. The daily quota had to be met, and at the same time their own living had to be ensured. This, of course, meant that her family could not visit us very often, but she embraced her new home and all the responsibilities that came with it. Unlike the rented farm of her parents, my land was completely my own. A nobleman residing in a distant castle or a mansion would never be profiting from my hard labor. The fields around our house would secure the future for us and our children. Nothing was standing in the way of our happiness and freedom. I could provide her safety in a way a whole lot of men could not in these troubled times. Then of course, so very little I knew of trouble. No, my problems were on their way, but had not reached me just yet.

The first year went by quickly. We had a plentiful crop to help us through the winter, which fortunately came slightly milder than those up in the North. A rather light layer of snow usually covered the land at some point of the winter, but we were well prepared and faced no difficulties during the cold season. However, what came later struck me, as well as the rest of the world, completely by surprise. It was the year 2145, the year when the Eclipse1. would begin, and we had no clue that the pale sun of the fall would be the last ray of light we would get from the sky in our lifetime.

The rumors from the South were painted with fear and uncertainty. We were simple farmers, and thus it was hard for us to understand the ruckuses of the big world, but what we heard was most disturbing - even to us. There was talk about an accident, an unspeakable flaw in the experiments of the mystics who dwelled in the City of Palantheon. Some said that the city had been destroyed and some terrifying evil had slipped into our world, and was now preparing to conquer the entire Angarath. The church was outraged by these mishaps, accusing the mystics for their inconsiderate carelessness.

We had always known that something like this would happen, sooner or later; there was simply no trusting on those shady folks of Palantheon. But at the same time we felt quite safe and confident on the ability of the Paladins to resolve this incident in a timely manner. The archbishop had dispatched the entire legion of his finest knights to encounter this problem. There was no question of who would turn out to be the winner at that point. The Paladins of Astaroth were the best trained and equipped military force in the whole known world. Of course, we were completely unaware of what exactly they were riding up against.

At first it was barely noticeable, nothing more than dark grey wisps gathering in the sky, leaving the graceful figures of the Skywhales behind a thin veil of blackened mist, almost as if the sky was tarnished with ash that even the rain could not wash away. As time passed, and the winter began to turn toward spring, the sky remained silent and black. The grass refused to grow like it had done before, the birds remained quiet in the murky light of what was supposed to be the best of spring. This was the first time we got truly worried, for the latest news from the South had not reached us yet, as if the world had completely frozen for the moment. No rumors of valiant victories, no news of retreating enemy – just vague stories of traveling merchants. I honestly had hard time to believe any of it, for they sounded more like rotten fruits of twisted imagination than anything real.

The depressing darkness when the brightly shining sun should have been climbing up in the clear blue sky, the constant thick mist that surrounded the grim, dripping wet scenery got us both a little on edge. But despite the disagreements, our love continued blooming, and we were sure that once the vivid laughter of children echoed in our house, everything would seem much better no matter how horrid the weather turned.

That summer brought poor crop, and as the fall creeped to our doorsteps, I found myself gradually more concerned over the lack of children. We continued trying, but I was beginning to suspect that my dear wife might be unable to have children, which was an unfortunate flaw in women sometimes. I enjoyed sleeping with her, but I knew that if she could not bear children, I might have to seek an heir for myself from someplace else. It was going to be such a shame, for her body was a magnificent artwork of the Immortals if I had ever seen one, and I loved her gentle personality. But at some point such tenderness had to come to an end as more important matters pressed on. The farm required proper workforce, and of course I wanted my bloodline to be continued. Currently it seemed like she was unable to provide neither.

* * *

The wedding day was the happiest day of my life. Although the location was not the fanciest possible, the ceremony was beautiful and touching. I was wearing my prettiest clothes, and I am quite sure that my parents were satisfied with the way I performed. My dear fresh husband told me later in the evening how beautiful I had looked at the ceremony, and there were no words to describe how glad and warm that made me feel inside.

The family house he had inherited from his father was a roomy and rather cozy shelter that offered us more than convenient place to begin our journey together. Of course it lacked the womanly touch, and so I spent the winter months by working on the interior in order to bring that homely sense to the house. We sat on the porch in the evenings a lot, watching the Skywhales sailing by. The stars were shining their silver like distant candles dripped all over the welkin as I returned his warm smile with sparkling eagerness. The last rays of the setting sun poured their gold upon the fields as we shared a long kiss before escaping the approaching night inside the walls of our little haven, completely unaware of the darkness that was deeper than any night rising far in the South.

We began the spring sowing as early as we could to give it best possible chance to grow tall and plenty. But of course that chance dried out like a droplet of rain in the breeze. Over the first winter we sensed a change in the air, an unspeakable coldness that gave us shivers at nights, but we could not really tell what exactly it was other than the wild rumors we kept hearing. A darkness had crept into the woods and hills of the world, and while it made me feel uneasy and scared, I had no clue how bad it would get and how enormous impact it would have on our lives. The sun that had secured our living in the ages past had suddenly been veiled by this black layer of clouds, impervious for the light. A dim, grey haze was all we got, and the spring brought no relief.

The stories, the few we finally heard from the passing travelers at the inn, told of great battles and betrayal; how the Trevlins of Angarath had turned against the mystics and helped some kind of a monstrosity to enter Telwar. There was talk about a man named Raghtar, who had somehow foreseen the arrival of this darkness and raised the people of Angarath with false promises to confront and question the rule of the mystics, thus causing great disorder among the city and watering down any serious attempts to defend it. All that sounded very vague and distant, and it would have not bothered us too deeply, but the clouds that stole the sunlight, slowly strangling the world with their dreadful presence like a deadly disease that was a very tangible result of what had happened. It was something that fell upon every soul in the world.

Soon after these ill news, another problem arose from amid ourselves, or perhaps it was just me. But it was slowly becoming obvious that we had problems having children, and as the following summer barely gave us enough to eat, things began to slide downward much faster, aggravating the grim thoughts we were both having. More mouths to feed might sound like a terrible idea, but it was common to think that the more hands you had working in the fields the better chances you had to survive, so to put it short: what was happening to us was an utter disaster.

My husband, once familiar and pleasant, was becoming distant and cold. He still welcomed me to his bed at nights, but there was no intimacy before or after the acts. It was more like a mechanical task to relief some of the worries hanging heavily upon his shoulders, and I was glad I could give him at least that. But I feared that if things would not improve soon, I might have a reason to be truly concerned over myself. He stared at me sometimes – far too long for it to be just an admiring glance. No, he stared at me deep in thought, as if he was not quite sure what to do with me, and that saddened me greatly, but also raised certain fears at the back of my mind.

What was happening to us, and what we could do to prevent it from going any further?

3

The Blistered Love

The second year showed no improvement in either weather or our relationship. The endless rain turned the crop into rotten mush, and what little was spared, the howling wind ripped out and scattered around the grim scenery. We managed to save some, but it was clear that I would have to hunt a lot more during the coming winter if we were to survive. My wife still carries no signs of pregnancy, and my patience is running thin. With great envy I gazed at the neighboring farm, a very similar to our own, but with an exception of a healthy woman who had already given birth to one baby boy. What made me hurt even more was the fact that they had married several months later than us! Great frustration and anger were growing inside of me, gnawing the bones of my worn body. I still loved my wife, but I could not help the feelings of disappointment and disgust every time I looked at her, and I am sure that she knew of these feelings, for she had grown silent and reserved lately.

There was no chatter in the house anymore, no cheerful laughter or pleasant evenings out in the porch. It seemed as if the same disease that possessed the land had found its way into the structures of the building, and even into our very souls. I knew it was only a matter of time before it ate us all alive, leaving nothing but dead shells to suffer in the thickening gloom.

Our supplies diminished down to a bare minimum. We continued hanging onto a fool's hope that somehow, miraculously, everything would get all better in an instant, even though there was absolutely no signs of such blessing in sight. We hoped, but with each passing day our hope died a little as we slid toward despair. The memory of what we once had could not hold up the illusion of normality; we were barely able to look at each other without a shiver of discomfort, and the deeply cutting edge of despise. We argued – or I argued, as my dear wife chose to respond with uninterested ignorance to everything I said, driving me deeper into madness. I began to drink the mead we had stored in our cellar, saved for the warm summer nights when the soft, soothing flavor of honey together with the refreshing coolness felt like a true bliss in the mouth. It was certainly not the cheap kind served at the roadside inns, but rather classy drink made from the best ingredients available to us. Now it served me to numb my troubled head and ease the stormy mind, but while it certainly did that, it also brought out all the filthy and loathsome thoughts and impulses I had tried to bury deep into the muddy waters of my poisoned consciousness.

Foul things came out of my mouth, encouraged by the strength of the mead. I cannot be but embarrassed and ashamed by the words I used, and yet if I was put into that same situation under the same circumstances again, avoiding the recursion would be unlikely.

I became menacing and malicious. Once the locked chest of all ill-minded secrets had been opened, the wave of malignant filth was too much for me to hold back. I made all the flaws known to her. All those disabilities that had failed to satisfy me on so many different levels. I told her how remarkably insignificant she had become, and while she was bravely holding up the shield of silence, I noticed how the color disappeared from her face – little by little every day. That was how I killed her spirit before my foggy mind decided to punish her physically for the misery she had somehow cast over us with her plain existence. And when she glanced up to me with those misty eyes, bloody stream running down from her nose, I cringed. There was no hatred in her eyes, only deeply heartbreaking sorrow for the love that had been lost during that winter. I saw the ugly truth in those eyes, the twisted image of myself that I had become, and I hated her for it. A punch after another after another, I wanted to wipe away that sickening pity from her face. She cowered in the corner of the kitchen, trying to protect herself by raising her arms to ward off some of the force of those scathing whacks, but her attempts were in vain. My fists hammered her head against the floorboards as all the anger and frustration suddenly bursted out in one violent rush. I am not sure how long I continued, but at some point I realized that all her moaning and motion had ceased, and it felt like I was merely battering a full sack of sand that lied in a slowly spreading pool of crimson liquid.

I threw up on the kitchen floor. With stomach burning, feeling dizzy and disoriented, I stumbled outside where the cold rain of the early spring cooled down my heated skin. I felt sick for what I had done, but I could not feel true regret. She had it coming for her arrogant and completely inappropriate behavior.

In time she recovered, and her wounds healed, but the couple of scars that were left behind would remind her, and me, forever about the steep step downward we had taken that day, and I did not have the least bit of confidence in coming back from this dark hole we had fallen. The sun had died in the sky and taken the light of my sanity away with her. I still loved my wife, even with all the disappointments she had caused, but the crushing anxiety for the unknown future demanded a way out or my poor head would give in. Thus, while it was the first time I abused my wife in order to remain sane, it was certainly not the last - and as a little more time passed, the violence became more calculated and cruel.

I am not sure at which point I began to use a knife, or when exactly was the first time I yearned the feeling of control so badly that I saw it proper to rape her, but somewhere along the way I noticed a change in her eyes. The gentle and kind glance had been replaced by a cold and emotionless gaze. The love that had persisted for longer than I would have ever thought was finally gone, broken and dusted into the wind. It silenced my conscience, but one thing bothered me more than anything - she never fought back. She bewailed, sobbed and whimpered, but she never yelled in anger or screamed in fear, and those were the signals I was so desperately trying to find. I can honestly admit that none of those would have offered absolution or forgiveness for all of her shortcomings, for I had gone too far to turn back. She would have to pay the price, which, without a slightest doubt, was going to be her life - nothing else could end this vicious spiral.

Of course I was not able to fully understand it yet, but I must have felt it somewhere at the back of my head. I never planned to do something so horrid. It just happened.

* * *

Somehow these changes in the weather and the terrible news from the foreign lands had upset my good husband so radically that it shook the balance of his mind. I knew something bad was going to happen when the talking ended. The days of oppressive gloom and misery weighed heavily on him, eventually suffocating the warming fire of his kind soul, turning it empty and cold. His weary, darkened eyes followed me as I tried to continue with my daily chores around the house. The lack of children, the shortage of food, and the general feeling of failure in everything we tried had all caused such a grievance that could not be repaired with a smile or kind words. But I tried - the Immortals be my witnesses - I tried to stay happy and take care of all his needs the best I could, but it was not enough. And in the end, I believe, he became blind to anything I attempted to do for him.

It was becoming harder and harder for me to get up in the morning as the time crawled on, one agonizing day at a time. The love we made, more like an angered rush completed upon the urge of a moment, was aggressive and dull. I could not bring out the feelings I once had for him, so I just laid still and waited patiently until he finished, knowing that he would lose his interest as soon as he reached the mild climax. I was losing my will to live, and the brightest days turned out to be those when my husband went out to hunt food for us, for then I could breathe for a moment without feeling the icy stare constantly on my back.

Every day I walked half a mile to fetch water from a well we shared with the neighboring farm. We had our own well by the house, but a thirsty animal, I am not sure if it was a young deer or some larger rodent, had reached out for a drink and fallen into it. Sometimes I played with an idea that it was a house mouse that had inhaled too much foul air inside, became too bloated from it and jumped into the well to end her torment. How much I wished I could have followed her example.

Whatever it was, the mere stench around the well was something so sickening that I could not approach it anymore, and my husband could not bother to take a look at it - let alone pulling it out. The neighbor did not seem to mind me using the shared one, but then again, it was not his main well either. I believe it was used to provide water for the animals, and a small piece of a plantation where he used to grow some slightly more exotic vegetables during the short summer season, which of course had become impossible since the beginning of the Eclipse. At that time I had grown very tired of all the shortcomings the world had thrown at us, and I could not quite understand that something much worse was coming for me. I was certain I could not drown any deeper into the filth of self-pity and regret. I still existed, but I was not truly alive.

I knew of his drinking a long time before he opened his mouth and unleashed all the worms upon me. I knew of it because sometimes I stored a bottle for myself, and I saw how the quantity decreased faster than I could ever consume. Of course there was no real reason to count anything as the grimy, disgusting smell around him that nearly latched my breath was enough to tell me what was going on. And it was only when he was drunk that he still attempted to sleep with me, but I rejected him firmly, for I had no passion left for this mockery of a man, who kept mistreating me like I was the source of all misfortune that was so abruptly cast upon us.

He yelled at me constantly, and I found myself building a solid wall of ice in between us. I wanted to shelter myself from all the hurtful words by creating this shroud of silence around me, and for a long time it seemed to work perfectly, as it helped me to withstand the fury of his verbal attacks billowing at me.

While the veil of ignorance somehow protected my heart from being shredded and shattered into pieces, it could not reflect back the fist that hurtled at me without any forewarning, it could not hold my husband from raping me by the same fireplace we had made love before, and it could not keep the knife away when he had an idea to bleed the inner dirt out of my veins. I was able to take the words, but these new manifestations were too much for me to bear. The flame of sympathy I had spared for him in my soul flickered and died, and a deep cold emptiness took over. In many ways I welcomed the pain, for it felt better than the endless allegations I had poured upon myself during these dark days. I crawled to the corner and waited as his fists battered my head against the shelves and walls. I could have tried to break free and run, but there was nowhere to run to, and so I closed my eyes and silently wished that one of his pounding hits would be a fatal one.

4

Dead End Trail

I was becoming concerned over my wife's daily water retrievals. I did not feel comfortable with her to walk over there, for I was growing suspicious of my sweetheart's loyalty. She went more often, stayed longer, and brought back less water each time, which were clear signs that something odd was going on. But when I asked, she responded with an icy stare and ignored the question completely, just like she had done for the past couple of years. So I made my own conclusions, and it drove me insane. How could she? A despicable, barren cow, who had way too big delusions of her own position in this family. She would have to pay for her wrongful ways - pay like never before to make sure this kind of lunacy would never happen again.

She looked beautiful that morning while standing there in the dim, grey light of the early morning. Her gloomy eyes glanced at my sullen face for less than a second, but I could swear I saw guilt in them. I did not speak, for I had nothing to say, and knowing my wife's stance that had not changed during the long winter, I would not get an answer even if I did. The wall of silence was thick, impervious and insuperable like solid rock, but I had decided to break it and crush it into pieces. That day she would feel my wrath for all the disappointments she had caused me - all the lacking qualities a good, proper wife should have.

My hands shivered slightly as I took another sip of my morning mead. It burned in my throat like the anger that burned in my faintly gleaming eyes. I needed it to deliver the punishment for her infidelity, and I did not have much time. She was about to leave for her daily visit to the well, and the image of her in the arms of another man danced vividly before my eyes, and eventually it was enough to push me over.

"You know what?" I muttered without expecting an answer, as there never was one. But as I continued, my voice grew stronger, pummeling against the wall she had been building for longer than I cared to remember. "You're a devious, two-faced whore." I hissed through my tightened lips, looking like a grimacing wolf that was about to unleash his rage. I saw her shoulders tremble barely visibly, but still the only response was silence, which only fueled my anger.

"Every day you walk out to fetch water from the well, but don't fool yourself, for I know what's going on." The words dropped off my lips like venom of a serpent, and with each breath I aired the fire within, encouraging it to grow into flaming chaos that would burn away the last remaining bonds that had prevented me from rendering out the horrors that I had imagined during the dark hours of the night.

"You are nothing but a foul travesty of a woman, unable to do anything worthwhile around here, but I'm sure our good neighbor loves to dip himself into your wet, little spring. Why wouldn't he? I'm sure you've told him how the seed of a man gets wasted in you."

I think I saw a bright sparkle of spite in her eyes at that moment, and I knew for sure I saw her forming silent words with her mouth to defy my statement. However, I was not quite sure whether she was too shocked from the sudden accusations of unfaithfulness, or if she was simply too infuriated to speak, but after her attempt to produce words had failed, she randomly grabbed an item from the top of the stove and tossed it at me in her burning frustration. It was an iron kettle that crashed harmlessly by the table I was sitting at, but it was the final straw that broke the dam.

"You shouldn't have done that, wench," I growled like a beast as I stormed toward her. "I'll teach you not to raise your hand against me, filthy whore!"

She tried to pick up the knife that had been lying next to the kettle, but I was faster. Twisting her wrist painfully, I forced a sharp yelp from her otherwise sealed lips, and it gave me a strangely satisfying feeling of achievement, as if I had just managed to hammer through the fortified wall around her.

But I wanted more. I wanted her to squeal and beg; moan and cry in my hands, for I had had enough of her arrogant, most vexatious behavior haunting me for months and months. I had to find a way to make it stop once and for all.

I pulled her away from the counter and pressed her wriggling body against the sturdy kitchen table. She tried to fight back, but I was too strong for her. Holding her arms tightly under mine, I forced her to lie on her back, then I moved one hand from her arm and wrapped my fingers around her slender throat. Using my superior strength, I pummeled her head against the table for a number of times, turning the wooden surface moist and slimy as blood smeared on it from the cuts in her head. She had one hand free now, but because of my violent actions, she concentrated on trying to get her throat free instead of attempting to hurt me. I pushed her tightly against the table cover and began to squeeze as hard as I could. She coughed and gagged, and her hand began to reach for my face, but her moves were affected by the pressing panic, and so she failed to do anything more than a few harmless scratches. I released her other arm, too, in order to gain more strength for my grip, so now she had both hands free, but she was still unable to help herself.

Her eyes leered around wildly among her desperate attempts to push me away. I continued to strangle her, and I noticed how her face turned bright red before it began to fade paler. I felt her muscles working, fighting against my irresistible grip, and then weakening as she had to focus more on gasping air into her lungs, but the brave struggle was utterly useless. At first, the pulse of her racing heart felt rapid and sharp under my fingertips, but then it slowly faded along with the color of her skin. I listened to the sound of her raspy, gurgling breath while watching, mesmerized by the cruel beauty of the sight as she slowly turned loose, and the intense glint in her eyes glazed and died away.

I was breathing heavily, for she had fought back with everything she had in her little body, but I was keeping her down against the table with the full weight of my sturdy figure, which left her without chances to slip away. I kept squeezing her throat until the skin beneath my fingers turned cold, at which point I released my grip with one strong shudder, stepped back and gazed upon the result of my grim task. I wailed and cried for the irreversible loss I had brought upon myself, but everything was not said and done yet. My hunger for some kind of mindless retribution remained unsatisfied as my bitter hatred spawned a new target to focus on. The cursed neighbor should be at the well around this time. How many times he had fooled around with my wife there? How many times he had growled in lust as he watched my wife's face twisting in shameless pleasure?

Without thinking any further, I rushed outside, grabbed an axe that was leaning against the steps of the porch and headed toward the well. My head was strangely empty as I walked across the yard, but at the same time the solid determination that burned in my eyes would have been enough to conquer kingdoms.

To say that I was surprised to see the neighbor's wife at the well instead of the man would have been a crude understatement, but that did not leave me confused for too long. I would have my vengeance by desecrating her body instead, like her husband had tainted my wife.

"Good morning, neighbor!" she yelled when she saw me. I did not respond, just walked toward her with the axe in my hand. She must have intepreted my unfriendly intentions, for she took a couple of steps back, but the polite smile never vanished from her face. She was not sure, unwilling to think anything bad about me, her good old neighbor.

"How— how may I help you?" she tried again. Her body was halfway around as she was taking more steps to grow distance between us, but she moved too slow. I leaped forward and grabbed her long hair tightly in my hand. She screamed, and the sound of her voice echoed in the nearby trees, followed by a haunting silence, as if the world around us ignored her plea with a careless shrug. I began to tear her clothes off, revealing the milky white skin. She stumbled on the slippery, muddy ground, and as she did, one of the firm breasts bounced free from her dress. Another shout left her lips as I pushed her to make sure she could not maintain balance. I stared at her, and I realized that somewhere among the hatred and grudge a frantic lust had appeared. I wanted to feel the legs of this woman around my waist; I wanted her to squirm and wriggle around me and feel the helpless resistance of her body.

In my lustful rush I had forgotten to pay attention to the house across the field. Even though it seemed as if the entire world had died, and no one could hear the screams of this woman, the reality was not quite like that. Her husband, our beloved neighbor, was approaching us fast with a sickle in his hand. He must have grabbed it from the porch like I had taken the axe just a few moments earlier - as a simple, secondary thought. Now he had almost reached the well. My axe lied several feet away in the hay. I had his woman under me, her legs spread out and ready, but the frustrating truth was that I had no time to finish what I had started, for I had to take care of this new nuisance before anything else.

While I was trying to hold the screaming wench down in the ground, I occasionally lost the approaching figure of her husband from my sight, which made it extremely difficult to estimate his location and speed. It was very unfortunate that he reached me much faster than I had expected, and he did not slow down to ask me how I was doing. He rammed the curved blade into my stomach with such force that it pierced my clothes and skin, slipping under the ribcage smoothly like a cleaver through a carcass, where it instantly caused massive internal bleeding by tearing open the vital arteries.

An utter, irresistible weakness was the first sign that something was terribly wrong. I do not believe that I even realized what exactly had happened at that point. I lost the control of my legs and fell down to my knees, watching as our neighbor pulled his lady away from me. I had this brief moment of clarity, a moment when I fully realized what a monster I had become over the last couple of years. And the feeling I had just a second before I fell into the cold, muddy ground was deep and utmost sorrow for all the atrocities I had done. During that passing second, I loved my wife like I had loved her on the day I married her, fervently and unconditionally. These rediscovered feelings could not bring her back, but for a moment I felt like I had grasped onto something that had been the real me in the past. I had found myself again at the gates to the other side. Lifeless and deserted, my body embraced the dirt, exposed and ready for the worms that would consume the earthly remains of my existence.

5

Whispers in the Wind

The accusations, while I should have known to expect them, came out of nowhere, astounding me with their brutal malice and taunt. The wall I had built to protect myself began to quail, the focused hatred created cracks and shaked the foundations violently, causing the entire structure to vacillate dangerously. I tried to prevent it from happening with all the willpower I had left in me, but I could not hold myself together any longer - I shuddered under the devastating fire of his verbal ballista, and he saw this weakness, noticed the crumbling wall. I cannot remember everything he said to me, and there really is no reason to. But one thing I recall as clearly as the twinkling stars on my wedding night, was the uncontrollable fury those words invoked within me. It was like a mass of water that could not be sustained by the weakened dam anymore. There was no sound coming from it, but I certainly felt the sudden, irresistible rush in my veins.

The first item that happened to touch my hand, an iron kettle on top of the stove, flew across the air toward him. But as it was poorly aimed, barely just tossed at his general direction, it missed him by far - but it was the opening for a series of actions that would be the end of the line on our long way down.

Still angered beyond words, I attempted to grab a kitchen knife and assault him with it, but even in his heavily drunken state, he moved faster than I did in my burst of reckless rage. He pressed me against the kitchen table and knocked my head repeatedly against the surface until the wood was all stained and gooey from my blood. At this point I had abandoned all ideas about hurting him. I wanted to escape before I would have something worse than a few bleeding cuts on my head, but he refused to let me go.

When I felt his hands on my throat, I knew what was on his mind. The realization of this turned me into an animal, desperately trying to break free from the trap I could not seem to find a way out. I screamed and yelled, but the tightening grip muffled the sound, and before long it was nothing more than intangible gibberish among the snorts, gags and gurgling as I struggled for every breath. Tiny black spots danced in my eyes as I slowly suffocated in my husband's hands. My throat was on fire from the furious fight against what seemed like an inevitable death. The strained muscles suffered from lack of oxygen, which only increased the pressure on my throat as I was quickly losing the strength to resist.

The black spots increased in number and I began to hear strange hum in my ears, as if high waves of water washing upon a distant shore at a rhythmic pace. All the other noises were surpassed by this new one. I was not able to feel the rest of my body anymore, and the last thing I saw was a blurry image of my husband's red face. The burning, maddened eyes staring intently at me; the grimacing, slightly foaming lips twisted like those of a rabid beast, and it made me very sad. My pain and suffering were almost over, but he would have to continue, bearing the sins of these wasted years upon his shoulders. And for some odd reason, I did pity him. Perhaps it was because of the love I once had for him, the kindness in him that I still remembered.

My last sigh carried out a small prayer to the Immortals, which propably did not sound more than a meaningless, barely audible wheeze. It might have seemed absurd, for the Immortals had not been with us for the last two thousand years, but at that moment I wanted to believe they could still hear us. At that moment it was more important to me than the struggle I knew I had already lost. These little embers of faith were the only thing left that still provided hope for this darkened world, hope that someday the sun would shine again, spreading its comfortable warmth across the land, and the Skywhales would see the world fully healed from this wretched disease.

The wind seems ever gentle and mild for me now, but even when the warm breeze caresses my face, flying my hair in the late afternoon blaze, I still remember the day at the harvest festival, the wedding day, and the moments of love I shared with my husband. I do not know where his soul wanders now, for I have not seen him since that woeful day. I wish I did though, for I would tell him that even in death I have not been able to forget, but that I have forgiven, allowing peace for myself. Perhaps the awareness of my forgiveness could provide him a bit of solace, a bit of encouragement that one day all the suffering would come to an end.

Our tale was one of many that occurred during the dark years of the Eclipse, forgotten and lost like the dead leaves of the fall. So many victims, so many lives lost before the sons of Telwar rose to oppose the tyrant of Angarath and won our freedom in the battlefields of unspeakable horrors - or glory, as the chroniclers prefer to put it.

Once the dust finally settles, the funeral pyres die away, and the songs of celebration fade into the night, our bones have rested in the dirt for ages, cracked and worn. No one will remember the events that took place in our farm, our lives or names. All of them are nothing but faint whispers in the wind, bundled together with so many other stories that bear the sorrow of that time.

1. The Eclipse is a time period of approximately hundred years, when Raghtar Tarathiel ruled the southern lands as an avatar of Zekiel the Winged.

The End

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