RUỘT GAN NGƯỜI CẦM BÚT
Một năm có 12 tháng, một tháng có 4 ngày thứ bảy cuối tuần, có tháng đến năm.
– Biết rồi cha ơi!
Tôi hằn học nói với anh Sơn Nam như vậy. Hể cứ mỗi khi đến tối thứ sáu là ông ta bồn chồn nhắc đi nhắc lại hai bên lỗ tai tôi:
– Mai mình đi xuống báo công an.
Vào những năm 2003 – 2004, lương tháng một nhân viên bảo vệ chỉ có 500.000đ. Vàng khoảng 8 triệu đồng. lượng.
Số báo công an TP. HCM thứ bảy hàng tuần, trang văn hóa đều có mục “Nhà văn Sơn Nam kể chuyện” lấp lánh chân dung và những bài tạp bút của ông.
Hể cứ kỳ số báo ấy phát hành còn nóng hổi, Tôi chở ông đến sớm tòa soạn đường Nguyễn Du Quận I. Ông vào ký lãnh tiền nhuận bút còn nóng hực trên tay.
Với cái tâm và nghiệp vụ, báo công an đối với quãng đời qua của cố nhà văn Sơn Nam trọn lòng nhân hậu, vẹn toàn đạo nghĩa và thực tế.
Hằng tuần với số tiền 800.000đ bài viết định kỳ, hằng tháng ông còn cộng tác nhiều đề tài khác mỗi lần đăng không dưới một triệu đồng.
Chí đến những năm 2006 trở đi, trên mặt báo công an, đồng nghiệp còn hết lòng kêu gọi quí Mạnh Thường Quân bốn phương, hỗ trợ mọi mặt cho nhà văn Sơn Nam điều tri bệnh và các vết thương tai nạn giao thông ngặt nghèo.
Tại TP. HCM có nhiều nhà xuất bản in mới, hoặc tái bản những tác phẩm của Sơn Nam. Có lắm nhật báo, tuần báo, đặc san, tạp chí… Đến các hãng phim, đài truyền hình. Các ban ngành chức năng từ các tỉnh thành nhiều nơi, tìm đến nhà văn Sơn Nam thực hiện kịch bản, các ấn phẩm văn thể mỹ.
Nhà văn chúng ta còn thường đi tham quan, dự hội thảo, thuyết trình… trong túi cũng kha khá tiền nhuận bút.
Chưa hết, hễ đến ngày cuối tháng, tôi đều chở Sơn Nam đến tiệm cầm đồ của em chồng con gái lớn Sơn Nam, ở Phú Nhuận, lãnh tiền trợ cấp hàng tháng. Lắm lúc hai vợ chồng con gái còn lên Gò Vấp thăm cha quà cáp và trực tiếp cho tiền thêm để chi tiêu.
Thế nhưng, xót xa quái lạ thay. Bấy nay trong gia đình và mọi người sống bên cạnh hoặc gặp gỡ Sơn Nam đều thấy ông mang một căn bệnh trầm kha muôn thưở: lúc nào cũng túng thiếu.
Bắc thang lên hỏi ông trời.
Bạc tiền trong túi nó rơi đường nào!
Ức quá! Tôi nghĩ con người này hồi nào tới giờ không xì ke ma túy, chẳng đỏ đen bạc bài đề đuôi gì ráo trọi, cớ sao ra nông nỗi này?
Chọn ngày lành tháng tốt buổi đẹp trời, xe gắn máy lau chùi bóng loáng, thay nhớt mới, xăng đổ đầy bình. Quyết tâm giờ Tý canh ba tôi chở Sơn Nam thẳng tiến vùng tam giác biên giới hướng Tây Bắc vạn dặm.
Bấy nay ở nơi huyền bí này, tiếng đồn lừng lẫy có một thầy Quảng Đông cao niên, gốc Miên xem tướng số, chỉ tay vận mệnh “bách phát bách trúng”.
Dưới gốc cây cổ thụ rợp bóng ven bìa rừng, chim kêu vượn hú, suối reo róc rách… hào quang thanh khí. Thầy quắc thước, ánh mắt rực sáng tựa sao băng, tọa trên thảm hoa. Đợi đúng giờ ngọ mới đến lượt ông Bính Dần Sơn Nam bước vào.
Thoạt liếc thấy Sơn Nam tướng đi chẳng giống ai, thầy lắc đầu. Nhưng khi đã đến sát, ngắm tổng thể dung nhan. Thầy chỉ ngón tay vào cái đầu của Sơn Nam nói:
– Ngọc ẩn trong đá!
Tiếp đến xem hai cái tai bự của Sơn Nam to ở thùy, (miếng thịt chỗ phần dưới hai vành tai) thầy nói:
– Quí tướng!
Tiếp đến đưa bàn tay trái lên xem thầy nói:
– Bàn tay lá sen!
– Là sao? Bạch thầy. Tôi thưa.
– Bác ái! Phật!
– Dạ ổng đâu có ăn chay!
– Hút thuốc lá, uống cà phê, uống bia ngắm… trừ cơm cũng được xem như ăn chay trường.
-Tiền bạc tài lộc của bổn mạng này dồi dào như nước mưa của trời túa xuống. Mà cái bàn tay lá sen nó cũng có đọng lại được giọt nào đâu.
Tạ ơn thầy tôi chở Sơn Nam rút lẹ.
Sợ còn xem tiếp “bói ra ma, quét nhà ra rác!”
Trước kia thôn nào của huyện này cũng có trồng trầu nên còn có tên gọi “Thập bát phù viên”. Địa chí, nhân văn lịch sử ở chốn này nhà văn Sơn Nam đã từng viết dày trang sách khảo cứu của ông.
Trên những con đường làng đất đỏ màu, phẳng phiu, chúng tôi vào ấp Thới Tứ xã Thới Tam Thôn. Nơi qui tụ khá đông nghệ nhân họ Đào, đi sâu vào tận nhà cửa êm đềm tĩnh lặng, đâu đâu cũng vườn cây trái ngọt trĩu cành. Bờ rào, hàng cau thẳng tấp một màu xanh ngắt, lá cành lay động qua cơn gió thoảng.
Bà con sống trong những căn nhà trệt lợp mái ngói âm dương, tiền diện hướng ra đất rộng của cha ông để lại. Họ lập vườn hoa kiểng trồng cây trái quanh bốn mùa. Tôn thờ truyền thống sinh thái, thanh khiết thơ mộng. Chúng tôi được gặp gỡ các bậc cụ ông cụ bà chơn chất. Đầu tóc trắng phơ tựa bông bưởi, da dẽ hồng hào tươi vui đôn hậu. Quanh suốt tháng năm chỉ ăn chay trường đạm bạc, thăm hỏi, chúng tôi kinh ngạc tuổi họ đã xấp xĩ một thế kỷ.
Nhà văn Sơn Nam, tác giả “THÚ CHƠI CÂY CẢNH – NON BỘ (nxb Đà Nẵng 1990) rất tâm đắc khi bước chân vào ngôi nhà vườn từ đường họ Đào của các nghệ nhân Đào Văn Sáng – Đào Văn Dúp, cùng họ với vợ và các con ông ở Mỹ Tho – Tiền Giang. Tọa lạc tại 1.7A tại ấp này.
Với khuôn viên thửa đất 1.400 mét vuông, ngôi vườn là cả một quần thể tuyệt mỹ đa dạng. Tạo hình bằng cây trái, nào ngôi nhà mát thủy tạ. Cổng trời, bàn thiêng, bờ rào lập thể sắc bén, thẳng góc, nhấp nhô.
Hài hòa vô số hình tượng Long – Lân – Qui – Phụng… sự tích trong kho tàng văn hóa dân gian. Tất cả chỉ bằng cây lá hoa kiểng vun trồng từ lòng đất đất mẹ vươn lên tươi mát uốn nắn tạo hình truyền thống điệu nghệ.
Các nghệ nhân hoa kiểng và tác giả bấy nay đã được xuất hiện khá nhiều trên các phương tiện đại chúng. Truyền hình, báo chí… phát huy đề cập đến lãnh vực văn hóa bản sắc dân tộc. Hội văn nghệ dân gian Việt Nam đã chính thức tặng các nghệ nhân Hóc Môn danh hiệu “Nghệ nhân dân gian”.
Từng bước chân vào “vườn thượng uyển dân gian” ngoại thành, lòng sao thanh thoát lạ thường. Sơn Nam và các nghệ nhân cũng đều xuất thân là nông dân của đồng ruộng quê làng. Bấy nay Sơn Nam vẫn mãi là cốt cách một lão nông. Tuy nhiên Sơn Nam tuổi thành thị nhiều hơn tuổi quê. Nay về đây như thấy lại chính mình.
Tôi đưa Sơn Nam vào vài gia đình ở địa phương còn đủ tam đại đường. Ông bà, cha mẹ, con cháu sum vầy. Họ đang sống trong những ngôi nhà cũng giống như ngôi nhà hiện nay của gia đình Sơn Nam tại ấp Bắc Mỹ Tho. Xây cất khang trang, tân cổ hài hòa.
Trưởng nữ của ông còn có một ngôi nhà lớn ở Quận 8 TP.HCM. Bấy nay vợ và các con các cháu của ông đều khẩn thiết đem ông về hai nơi này, muốn ở đâu thì ở. Tất cả họ chăm lo đầy đủ, chu đáo mọi điều kiện sống yên vui cảnh già.
Tôi đã ray rức bao lần hỏi ông tại sao từ năm 1995 lúc bỏ nhà ở Bình Thạnh ra đi. Ông không chịu về với những tấm lòng nhân hậu của vợ hiền con thảo, và đàn cháu cưng?
Chỉ có tác phẩm và cá tánh của con người Sơn Nam mới đáp được điều đó. Nay khi đang nằm sâu vào lòng đất, hồn quê, hồn văn của Sơn Nam càng bừng sáng ở cội nguồn. Cây đại thụ có nhiều cành, nhưng chỉ có một cái gốc.
CHÚ THÍCH ẢNH: Tổng thể vườn hoa cảnh của các nghệ nhân họ Đào Hóc Môn.
4: The blurred line of life and death
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust
Heian Jidai (Heian Period), 1179, mid-winter, Heian-Kyou
“I…” Lilia stiffened, uncertainty underlying in her voice. Despite the fact that her countenance worn a mingled expression of low perplexity and equanimity, her heart, deep down in her chest, was thudding, and beating loudly against her ribcage — as if it was trying to break free from the constrain of her chest.
Penetrating gaze pierced through Lilia’s well-hidden anxiety like the sharpest blade, a mischievous grin shaped itself on Wendy’s cadaverous visage as she mused over the other’s rising fears. Breaking the intense atmosphere that hung heavily between them, Wendy giggled almost melodiously, she slowly turned the stiffened Lilia around to face her, letting their views intersect.
Lilia, twisting petrified body around, with the little help from Wendy, and as the image of her captor came into view, Lilia was dumbfounded again. The young woman held no resemblance to the image of her Lilia had created in her fancies, for, she had imagined the woman to be cunning and stealthy, with an aura that challenged the beholders to bow to her grace.
Lifting her gaze, Lilia immediately grew aghast, immensely shocked at what her eyes had just beheld. A young woman of a ghastly pallid face, almost artificial, yet of the rarest beauty, stood before her in an austere manner.
Even the white powder that masked her face entirely could not cover up the beauty of her features, and if one were to miss it, they probably weren’t probably perceptive enough.
And those purple eyes, of the rarest shade of amethyst, allured her soul, captivating her entirely — both body and mind. They bored so much resemblance to the young man that captured her heart with just a single glimpse. Lilia glanced once again at the woman in front of her hurriedly, and then closed her eyes.
But while her lids remained thus shut, she ran over in her mind her reason for shutting them.
It was almost an impulsive movement to gain time for thought – to make sure that her vision had not deceive her – to calm and subdue her fancy for a more sober and more certain gaze. In a very few moments, almost too brief to have been noticed, she again looked fixedly at Wendy.
There she stood, with faint lights of the evening besprinkled over her face. The bloody red petals — their exceeding beauty spoke to the hearts of its beholders in loud tones, of love and of the glory of God.
Here, and there, they fluttered in the atmosphere, like wilderness of dreams, sprang all over the branches of the fantastic plum blossom trees, whose tall stems stood not upright but slanted gracefully towards the fair woman, as if bowing to her beauty, for it shamed all the celestial bodies in the vast expanse of the universe.
“Do not fear, young one, for I have no interest in knowing who you are and where you came from. The past holds no importance, and a great one shall always keep her eyes set upon the future. Tis the future that one’s fate lies in, not the past.” Wendy said, her voice, like a lulling melody that had been softer than the wind-sharp of Aeolus, more divine than all.
“Pray, tell me, what is troubling your mind at this exact moment?” She drew on, her eyes twinkling of mischievousness and an underlying danger.
It then became manifest to Lilia. This was a chance given by God, to commence on a new journey where her past shall take hold of her no more. Holding no more hesitation, Lilia aligned her vision with Wendy’s, letting those fierce, defiant crimson orbs, so full of ardour of passion, and challenged those almost devious amethyst ones.
Lilia threw herself hastily at the feet of Wendy, and offered up a vow, to herself and to Heaven.
“I call the Mighty Ruler of the Universe to witness the pious solemnity of my vow, that I pledge full loyalty to my lady Nataly, for her ladyship’s wish is my command, and her ladyship’s deepest desires are mine deepest desires. And a curse I invoke, if I am ever proven traitorous to that promise, a penalty of exceedingly great terror shall be brought upon me, and take me to the hidden chamber of hell where my soul shall be tortured for an eternity long.”
A smile of satisfactory was all that presented on Wendy’s face.
That night, Wendy brought Lilia to the nearly disserted part of the Taira household — the place where she called a home, if it was ever one. Rita scrutinized at Lilia silently, her eyes revealing distrust, have said nothing, because she trusted Miss Wendy’s judgements.
Bending down to pour the herbal tea she had prepared earlier for Miss Wendy, Rita allowed the scent to fill the air they breathed — it was like the perfume from the censers of the angels.
“Some tea, Miss Wendy?” Rita asked, handing the delicate tea cup to Wendy’s frozen hands. A hint of concern flashed in Rita’s eyes, but it disappeared as quickly has it had surfaced. Keeping her head low, as a sign of obedience, Rita then added. ”It shall warm you up a little.”
“Thank you, Rita.” Wendy sat down, or rather kneeling down. It was an ancient Japanese tradition that one must kneel down into a sitting position, her bottom resting on her feet, as a way of showing her elegancy. Before taking a sip of the heart-warming tea, Wendy saw an awkward Lilia still standing in near the door on the fringe of her vision, and gestured the other to take a seat next to her.
“Lilia, this is Rita, my lady-in-waiting, and the only lady-in-waiting in this compound. You don’t have to be so cautious around her. I entrust her with my all, and you shall do the same.” Wendy introduced, her voice light and tender, but her eyes remained capricious. “Come, come and take a seat.” She hurried.
Finally sitting down, Lilia felt extremely uncomfortable. She didn’t know why, but she could feel a strong sense of unwelcoming from the timid purple haired girl. The air was once again, heavy of an unforgiving silence, but Wendy didn’t seem to have minded it.
She continued to take little sips of her tea, unaffected by the insolent exchange of glares between the two girls.
“Lord Eriol and the troops are leaving early in the morning, immediately after sunrise. We must be ready for the departure as well.” Wendy shot a glance at Rita’s way, the other’s slight tremulousness did not escape her sharp perception. “Rita, prepare two backpacks for tomorrow, just a few clean clothes and some food and water will do the job.”
Biting her lower lip, Rita gnawed at the corner of her mouth, her worries were now fully evident, almost twisting her beauty. “Miss Wendy… are you, absolutely certain of joining the army?” She asked, timidly. “If you are discovered, you will be…will be…” Stammering, Rita tightened her fists, as if the words she was about to speak were poisonous.
As if giving her all, Rita gathered up all the courage she had and whispered. “You will be put to death if you are ever to be discovered!” Though, the words were rolled off her tongue with exceeding difficulty, she knew she had to say it straight out, hoping in vain that the word of death shall bring some fears into Miss Wendy’s strong, almost fearless mind.
A hiatus that seemed to have lasted for a century long, Wendy finally let out her chuckled. “Rita-dear, if I have to fear of everything I do, I might as well not do them in the first place. Besides, my past actions all could bring me the fate of being killed if I was ever discovered. If my fate is to be put to death, then let it be. I fear do not fear death, for living is more fearsome.”
Dark shadows were cast over Wendy’s pale face, adding lines and sketchy shades over her features, making her hauntingly beautiful. Lilia, who remained silent through the entire period, was even more impressed by the fearlessness of Wendy’s nature.
Like a phoenix imprisoned in a cage made of the finest gold, she shall rise and break through it one day. It was only a matter of time.
If she was a man, she could dominate the world with her bravery and intellects. Lilia pondered upon the subject silently, a small smile, almost too faint and trivial to be noticed played on her lips.
But Lilia was no weakling either.
Two women, embarking out on a journey that was thought to be marched by men only, how fun could that be?
It is up for Fate to decide.
The world was bathed in the ethereal lights of late dawn, as if dripped in a pool of orange paint. There, in the afar, came the marching soldiers, in neat, well-organized lines. It looked like a moving mass of black, with its leader at the front, wearing armours that shined so brilliantly under the blinding rays of the sun, as if it was to catch on fire.
Citizens of Heian-Kyo watched the troops march through the main streets of the city, to the distant horizon where the rebels were currently at. Weeping Mothers tried so hard to peer through the black moving masses to find the familiar face that occupied their most treasured memories.
Fathers, sons, or husbands were amongst the marching troops; their face stern and full of solemnity. There were moments where doubts fleeted in their minds, where the urge of giving their loved ones one last look rushed into their bosoms — but were all oppressed by these sense of honour and passion which had for centuries distinguished their race.
It was a heart-aching moment for all. The ones to be sent to the battlefields where they must fight to protect their emperor, their country, and their loved ones, might never come back alive again. For some, this shall be the last chance they have to take a glimpse at their loved ones, to remember them forever in their hearts. For others, this was going a beginning of the glories that shall dominate their futures.
Wendy stood on amongst the crowd with Lilia standing silently by her side. Therein the shower of pale yet still brilliant lights, her eyes found their ways to a certain man, dressed in shining silver armours. For an instance there, Wendy almost thought he outshined the Sun.
He was perfect in every single way, witty, beautiful, rich and powerful, and especially of the way he treated women, with such delicacy and respect. She could see how easily one could fall in love with such a man. He was a hero to his people, proud and kingly. She could’ve fallen for him, if he wasn’t Taira no Eriol, if she wasn’t Wendy Dao.
Sadly, he was who he was, and she was who she was. And if they weren’t who they were now, how could they even have met?
Pushing aside her own muses, Wendy eyed Lilia, muttering under her breathe. “Let’s go. We must not lose track of them.”
For days, Wendy and Lilia have had trailed behind the tramping troops in vicinity. With the heat of the sun baking their backs, and exhaustion swelling up in their limps, they carried on their great march with exceeding difficulty. They roamed onto the vale, with a wide range of giant hills that hung beetling around about it.
The foliage of many thousands of forest trees brushed harshly against their clothes. Their feet, crushed to death the glories of many millions of fragrant flowers. They were careful of keeping a close and careful distance with the troops, thus choosing a more dangerous path which allowed them to keep their sense of direction, but also keeping them out of the sights of Eriol’s sentinels.
Or so they thought they were careful of their actions.
“Reports from the sentinels, general!” A young soldier in his late teens kneeled down by Eriol’s horse, halting the tired advancing troops into a full stop.
“What news do you bring with you?” Eriol frowned in displeasure, and urged. “Speak.”
“Your lordship, we have captured two spies of the enemies.” The young solider responded proudly, but was afraid to meet the eyes of the general of his greatest admiration.
“Spies?” Eriol drawled, but the iciness that underlined his voice sent shivers down everyone’s spine. His lips were pressed together into a thin line, forming a beautiful curve, revealing danger and unsaid promises of a fate worse than death for those who dared to oppose him.
“Bring them to me.” Ordered he, with one of his hands tightening its grasp on his sword.
“Yes, your lordship.” The young soldier answered, and eyed two other soldiers to bring out the prisoners. Within instances, two young men, possibly of the age of sixteen or seventeen were brought to Eriol’s feet. Their clothes were torn and ripped, their hair had fell lose with a few strands hanging upon their faces, masking their expressions.
One of them had familiar looking purple hair. And this caused Eriol’s heart to skip a beat. It couldn’t possibly have been her. She might be a brave and quick-witty woman, but coming to the battlefield? She couldn’t be that brave. Could she?
Irritated and disturbed by his own thoughts, Eriol gave out another order, hoping it could prove his instincts wrong.
“Tilt their heads upward and reveal me their faces.” The words seemed to have rumbled out of the cores of the ocean.
Wendy felt someone pulling her hair upward, and there, she saw a man, astonished and bewildered. Never in his wildest dream could he have imagined their eyes aligning in a place such as this, and in a circumstance such as this. Ignoring the pains from her body and head, she lifted the corners of her lips upward, just ever so slightly.
“Your possibly forgotten acquaintance; Nikki Ryuichi, at your service, my lord.” Wendy smirked, bowing politely to the speechless Eriol. “And this young boy beside me is no spy of the enemy either, for he is my childhood friend, a loyal servant to the Emperor and the people of Heian-Kyo-”
Before Wendy could finish her brief introduction of who Lilia was so she could clear off Eriol’s suspicion of her, Taira no Atsumori cut in, exclaiming vivaciously. “It’s you! I recognize you! Brother and I met you in the-”
“Atsumori, be quiet.” Eriol growled at the overly-excited boy. Feeling a horrible migraine coming at his way, Eriol forced himself to remain calm so he could have a clear mind to sort of the mess placed before him. “Tell Julian to lead the troops to the river bank for a short recess. And take Mr. Nikki’s childhood friend with you, for I’d like to have a private audience for the conversation that I shall have with Mr. Nikki.”
Wendy could almost hear the gritting sounds of his teeth as he forced the words out of his mouth. Suppressing the urge to chuckle, she took her arms back from the grips of the soldiers and watched them walk away in perplexity. Suddenly, she felt a strong grapple on her frail arm, the force was almost enough to crush her bones.
“What on earth do you think you’re doing here?!” He hissed harshly into her ears, his warm breathe tickling her neck.
“I’ve come to provide my services to your lordship.” Wendy answered calmly, putting on her perfect act, utterly oblivious to the true reason behind his fury. She thought that it came from her reckless actions of following the troops without telling him so, but oh she was deeply wrong. It’s just she hadn’t realized that yet.
Her words only angered him more. “Drop the acts, Mr. Nikki, or should I say, Lady Nataly?” Eriol challenged, letting his words perish the pretence and defence set up by Wendy, shattering them all with the ultimate truth of her identity. He saw her eyes widening, those beautiful amethyst orbs that tugged at his heart relentlessly.
For a moment, he almost thought it was worth the price, to see her tough acts been torn off of her. It was almost thrilling in a sense, to know that he was the one to crack her perfect mask.
“How… how did you know…?” Wendy demanded breathlessly, but she was able to quickly hide away the franticness revealed in her eyes a moment ago. Within seconds, her returned to her recollected state, as if the momentary chaos that embraced her mind was only a trick on the eye.
“Because-” Before Eriol could finish his sentence, a loud sound of the horn was heard. It was the sound of emergency situation, with the purpose to alarm the soldiers of the attack of the enemies.
“We are under attack!! Regroup and change into defence mode! Quickly!” Cries and curses resonated in the atmosphere embraced by chaos, followed by the clangour of swords and the hisses of the bolting arrows. The scent of blood saturated the air, stirring the fears and the beasts within every man’s heart. The beasts and thirst of blood-shed was awakened in their hearts.
“Find Atsumori and hide!” Eriol bellowed at her, rising his voice in an attempt to suppress the wails of men and the clashing sounds of metals. “NOW!!!” He gave her arm a rough push as he tried to distant her from the chaotic battlefields.
Wendy nodded frantically, her cold, sweaty hands fumbled their way to the sword she had prepared herself with earlier, in case of emergency. But she never thought of herself using it this soon. She came to join the army, not to fight in battles, but use her extensive knowledge of military sciences and war strategies to gain herself a position in the army.
“Ah!” She cried out, feeling a barbaric and crushing grasp on her shoulder that was so powerful that it knocked her off her feet. Shutting her eyes impulsively, she felt her cheeks smash against the sandy ground. But she was quickly lifted upward again. Hearing a low, husky voice that spoke of dalliance, Wendy gulped with difficulty. “So you’re the boy General Eriol wanted huh… and quite a beauty too…”
“Get your dirty hands off her!” Eriol snarled at a distance away, as he skilfully killed his way through the chaos. He even forgot about hiding her true identity. The sight of her capture stirred his heart and filled his mind with franticness.
Blood and dirt stained his beautiful face, giving him a fearful appearance, as he thrust his sword into the chest of the enemy soldier that blocked his view of Wendy. There was no way he would let that barbarian harm her, absolutely no way, unless he was dead.
“Her?” The tall masculine man looked down at Wendy in bewilderment, and let out a loud almost barbaric laughter. No wonder General Eriol wanted the boy captured unharmed. With a beauty like that, genders did not matter anymore. “If you want her back, come and claim her!” With those taunting words left behind of him, he threw Wendy and himself onto the horse and dashed away.
“Atsumori, follow Julian’s orders!” Handing the chaotic battlefield to his younger brother and his best friend, Julian, before jumping onto his horse, Eriol narrowed his fierce sapphire eyes, and chased after the macho-man and cross-dressing wife.
The blurred line of life and death
Living nor dead, and I knew nothing,
Looking into the heart of light, the silence.
Heian Jidai (Heian Period), 1179, mid-winter, near Heian-Kyo
The harsh wintry winds jabbed at his skin like a thousand needles striking a surface, but Eriol minded none of it, his sole attention was set upon the blurred image of a dashing rider and his prisoner. Behind him, was a quad of the enemy troops chasing after him in a desperate attempt to aide their commander in his escape.
Furrowing his eyebrows in displeasure, Eriol lowered his body to reduce the air resistance of his body. With a slight tilt of the head, he whispered into his house’s ear, as if it could understand its master’s commands. “Show them the meaning of haste.” The white beast neighs, calling upon the blazing wind to its aide, accelerating to a speed that could rival the speed of light.
Behind him, the enemies followed in close vicinity. They pulled out their bows and arrows to aim at their target and take him down in vain, disregarding the fact that it was ten against one. The arrows, thrusting through the roaring wind, like lightening bolts ripping the fabric of the air into pieces before striking their target.
Eriol’s well-trained ears picked up the almost indiscernible sounds and quickly tossed a look over his shoulder to get a glimpse of where the arrows were coming from. Ducking his head, and pulling hard on the rein to direct his horse to stray from the path of the arrows.
A soft sigh of relief was breathed into the intensified air as Eriol watched the arrows meeting each other in a single point. He would’ve been used as a practicing arrow target of the enemy if his reflexes quickened enough. He might have dodged a bullet right there, but more was coming at his way and the longer they rode like this, the more dangerous was it for him. And the more dangerous it was for Wendy.
He had to end it fast, real fast. His mind raced at the speed of light, conflicting thoughts and sensations rushed through him as his calculative mind tried to come up with the perfect plan in a limitedly short amount of time. Pressing his lips tightly together as his mind grasped one dangerous tactic, Eriol himself was not found of it, but he was left with little choice.
On a battlefield, there was rarely any room left for doubts and time to dwell upon useless things. Eriol knew it, better than everyone else. The impetuous fury of the gust of wind that came so abruptly against the riders – almost lifted their horses off the ground. The quad pursuing Eriol were inevitably slowed down by the wind, and their attacking arrows were halted into a stop before they could reach mid-air. The wind, almost acting like an invisible child, protected its hero and his horse.
Eriol immediately acted towards advantages provided by Mother Nature and made a dash for the rider in front of him. This was his only chance, and his horse, could only keep this pace up for a few minutes. Even for the king of all horses, such maintaining such speed would be exceedingly difficult.
Hasty in his movements, Eriol drew out his sword and forcefully exerted himself upwards, as if diving into the air. In a blink of an eye, for perhaps even quicker than that, he threw it towards tall masculine rider of his target, striking upon the head of the rider, who rolled off his horse, taking Wendy with him.
He, the once proud and brutishly man, couldn’t before what he was feeling – the burning pain, gnawing, and the fatal wound sucked the life out of him and he could feel his life slipping away. If he dies, he will bring the girl with him, thought he bitterly before his mind became entirely blank.
Falling before Eriol, the man tilted his head to perceive one last look at the man who took away his life, with a lingering sense of fervent hatred before finally giving up his pesty breathe with a shriek so horrid and harsh, and withal so piercing that Eriol had fain to close his ears with his hands against the dreadful noise of it, the like where of was never heard before.
Quickly recovering from it, Eriol uplifted Wendy unto his horse and picked up his speed from before, as if riding on the wind. The soldiers tracking them down, witnessed the ruthless killing in great shock – it all just happened too fast. If they hadn’t beheld the events with their own eyes, they probably would’ve thought it was a deceptive trick played on their minds.
Their commander was killed, just like that, and how dare he challenge their pride like that! The riders growled like vengeful wolves of the night, thirsty for blood-shed. Men, when enraged, could drive their minds to the verge of insanity – a madness that belonged to primitive beasts only. They would lose their ability to reason and their logics, and act upon impulse and the deep desire for destruction.
The arrows were shot with greater force, each and every one of them aimed for Eriol’s critical points. The attacks picked up on a higher frequency and more brutal force, and dodging them became increasingly hard for Eriol to accomplish, especially with Wendy in his arms. One of his hands held onto Wendy’s thin waist, holding her tightly to his chest for protection, while grapping onto the rein. The other hand, was much too busy with dodging the upcoming arrows with his sword.
A sharp pain shot up from his right arm, and the sound of metal prodding at his flesh, ripping the muscle fibers blended in so perfectly with the hollowing wind. Eriol narrowed his eyes, wincing slightly at the pain, but he did not slow down, he couldn’t slow down. He could feel the warm liquid gushing out of the wound, scarlet and bright, dying his white cloth a dark shade of red.
The sight of blood excited the hunters even more, arousing them and filling their head with adrenaline rush. They snarled, not in anger, but rather, in excitement. And the forthcoming sight a precipitous cliff amused them even more, for, it was the end of the Taira clan’s famous general.
Eriol held his breathe at the scenery before him. It was the cliff of death, but there was no turning back. With Wendy in his arms, there was no way he could battle their way through the ten riders behind them, waiting to rip them into pieces. Both of their lives were in his hands and he only had one shot. Darting for the thin line that divided life and death, Eriol inhaled deeply and whispered into Wendy’s ears. “Hold on tight and trust me. I’ll protect you, no matter what.”
Acting singularly upon impulse, Wendy wrapped her arms around Eriol’s waist and closed her eyes. The violent wind, threw her hair about her delicate face relentlessly, as if threatening to tear her apart. And the pervasive coldness, seeped through the thin fabric of her clothes, biting at her skin. But his words warmed her heart, something that she thought she had ripped out a while ago.
Her cheeks, pressing themselves roughly against his icy cold armours, and her ears, which were muffled by the wind, miraculously caught the sound of his heart beating. Yes, his heartbeats, his rhythmic heartbeats — forming a lulling melody that had been softer than the wind-harp of Aeolus, in murmurs growing lower and lower as she felt both of them sink to the core of the earth.
Their enemies reined their horses into a stop as they approached the tip of the cliff, one of them had a smugly look on his face. “Well, Taira no Eriol is out of the way now… victory shall be ours! Let’s report back to General Andy.”
Wendy tried to open the eyelids that felt as heavy as a tonne in painful attempt. Every part of her body ached with a sharp and almost soul-torturing pain – was all too foreign to her. Wincing silently, her pretty eyebrows met each other in a tight knot at her temple, but she refused to make any noises. She had chosen this path on her free will, a life of death and pain and bloodsheds. The war shows no mercy to anyone, and only the fittest shall survive its wrath. She wasn’t as strong as the men, but she had greater endurance to make up for her shortcomings.
Slowly, her eyes adjusted to its surroundings, and she was astounded at what came into view. They were in a valley, beneath the sun of dusk which threw such ethereal lights about the earth. The valley, embraced by such pleasant tranquility that if it wasn’t for the experience of falling off a cliff, she would’ve thought they came to a wondrous dream land.
No unguided footsteps came upon this vale; for it lay away up among a range of giant hills that hung beetling around about it, shutting out the sunlight from its sweetest recesses. From the dim regions beyond the mountains at the upper end of this encircled domain, there crept out a narrow and deep river, and winding stealthily about in mazy courses, it passed way at length, through a shadowy gorge, among hills still dimmer tan those whence it had issued. There seemed to be a hushing influence in its gentle flow. No murmur arose from its bed, and so gently it wandered along, that the pearly pebbles upon which Wendy gazed, far down within its bosom, stirred not at all, but lay in a motionless content, each in its own old station, shining on gloriously forever.
The margin of the river, and of the many dazzling rivulets that glided through devious ways into its channel, and the spaces that extended from the margins away down into the depths of the streams until they reached the bed of pebbles at the bottom, were carpeted all by a light shade of whiteness, and beneath it, Wendy could almost see the soft green grass, thick, short, and perfectly-even — as if they were hiding underneath the brilliance white for warm.
Wendy immersed herself in its exceeding beauty which seemed to speak to her heart in its sweet, heavenly tones. A small curve formed itself upon her lips, but it quickly waned away at the sight of Eriol. His clothes were torn, stained by dirt and blood, and his face, besprinkled by muddy spots still obtained its handsomeness.
“Here, eat up. You’ll need something to fill up that grumbling stomach of yours.” He passed a half-burned meat to her, and she instantly frowned at its smell. If her noise had no deceived her, the meat most likely had once been a part a great horse. Widening her eyes, she glared at him in shock, as if trying to find hints of remorse or sorrow upon his countenance — but she found none.
He killed his battle horse for food, the beast that fought long his side for those countless battles and one that saved him from the verge of death. Yet its ultimate fate was becoming something used to stuff their hungry stomachs up. How ironic. Wendy had only seen the proud beast once, lofty and honourable it was – just like its master – and so gorgeously white. And now, it lies as a piece of overly barbequed meat in front of her.
Biting down at it, Wendy held her breath to prevent the horridness of its smell from reaching her nostrils, and gulfed it down hastily while ignoring the fierce eyes set upon her, as if trying to pierce through her covers. Humiliated she felt, but kept her silence, because if it wasn’t for him, she would’ve died already, and let alone eating the meat of that haughty horse.
“While you were resting, I took a look around this place.” He said, his voice deprived of emotions and she found the coldness of his words almost matching the harsh coldness of the winter. “The chances of us finding a way back to the top is slender, I hope you’re aware of what you’ve brought upon yourself, Nataly.”
Wendy felt her heart skip a beat as he brought upon the one thing that she feared of discussing. She knew it was due to her recklessness that they were brought to this fate. The enemy probably scouted her and Lilia out a while ago, yet they followed so silently behind their tracks, waiting for them to bring disturbance to the tired Taira army to provide them with the perfect chance to strike. However, she felt humiliated by his taunts. He knew, long ago, of her true identity, yet he still toyed with her — it hurt her pride, almost too greatly.
“I fear no punishment, nor death; it was my decision to make, it has nothing to do with my family. If one must be punished, then let it be me.” Wendy retorted, aligning her eyes with his in a ferocious glare, challenging him, luring him into the forbidden realms. “I am just as intellectual and brave as any man. My country is embraced by chaos, with wars coming from its front and side, how could I sit and watch and hide myself behind the shields of men?”
“My husband is battling his life away for the safety of his people, how can his wife be like all those scornfully pity women? A hero’s wife shall be heroic in her own ways.” Wendy breathed heavily as she pronounced her reasons to him, in hopes of touching his pride, just a little bit. He might be a complex man, but strong sense of pride was so evident in his eyes, and Wendy knew, if she had to persuade him somehow, she had to start on his pride.
The air between them was oppressive and unforgiving, and the silence that filled it up — was one that could be broken with a drop of a needle. The only sounds distinctive to the ears – were the whistling of the wind, and the clangour of Eriol’s armours as he sat down. Wendy could feel his penetrating gaze upon her, but she remained calm and collective, for she knew, if her mask cracked right now, it shall remain cracked forever.
“If you managed to stay alive until the rescue team comes, I shall give your suggestion a thought.” Eriol suddenly said, conceding her actions in his own unforgiving way. Lowering his head to take a bite of the other piece of house meat he had prepared for himself, and Wendy noticed something rather strange about the way this particular action was carried out.
He was using his left hand, almost awkwardly, while his right hand fell weakly along his side. And it hit her. Of course, how could she have been so blind? They were chased by hundreds of murderous arrows and fell off a cliff together. It wasn’t a miracle that she remained unhurt. It was he, who protected her from it all with his own body.
Narrowing her limpid purple eyes, she reached over for his right arm, ignoring the perplexed looks thrown at her way. She ripped his sleeve open – the one that was stained with mud and blood – she could no longer tell them apart, they fused so perfectly into each other, and there what came into view made her draw up a sharp gasp.
It was the worst wound she had ever seen. The cut was so deep – it dug through layers of his flesh, cutting countless veins in its path, and reached for his bones. She could almost see hints of them, white and hard. There was a thin, carelessly made bandit wrapped around the deepest part of the cut, which only served the part of stopping his blood circulation so crimson liquid wouldn’t be gushing out of the fissure on his arm.
“Does it hurt?” She muttered a question that she didn’t even know she was asking it, until the echoing of these words reached her ears.
“No. It doesn’t hurt. Not anymore.” He responded distantly, retaining his cold smooth demeanour, but Wendy could tell there was more warmth in his response this time, though trifling it was. It was then, a rare peaceful tranquility saturated the atmosphere between them – rare it was – but it was also brief, so brief that it was shattered before it could take hold of everything.
A loud sound of fabrics tearing perished the serene tranquility once and for all, Wendy had just ripped a large piece of fabric off the cleanest part of her cloth and skilfully wrapped it around Eriol’s disturbing-looking wound. Those slender and tapered fingers abruptly froze in midair awkwardly as the owner of those hands suddenly realized she was deprived of threads to secure the bandage in place.
Within seconds, an idea surfaced in her mind as a smile drew up on her lips. She untied the white ribbon that secured her hair in place and let the silky violet hair cascade over her shoulders. The messy strands were thrown into the air by a gentle wind that just whirled by, tossing them about her face relentlessly. And Eriol felt himself being mesmerised by such ethereal beauty that he almost forgot the fact that his arm still lay in the warmth of her palm.
He felt something tugging at the strings of his heart, just so ever briefly, and the feeling was quickly pushed away by him, almost forcefully.
But he didn’t know, none knew of course, that this was the seed implanted in his heart forever and ever, silently growing into something so great and passionate that shall astound him in the future.
For now, they shall remain as their lofty and obstinate selves…
– Until they fall in love.