The Stolen Heart by Jack Mulcahy

The Stolen Heart
Jack Mulcahy

I was arguing with my sister Araminta when Arys hailed us.

Am I interrupting?” he asked, his mild question contrasting with our argument. We sat at a table on the tavern’s terrace, surrounded by tables of officers and men.

Araminta shifted her expression from the scowl she directed at me to a bright smile for our friend. Her complexion, like mine, was the rich color of cinnamon, which set off the flash of her eyes in the sunlight. “Just Jorg here, making a fool of himself.” With her wooden cup, she waved Arys to an empty chair opposite her. “Thinks I’m too frail to fight for my own freedom.”

Araminta and I were sharing Morgasian ale, while traffic moved past on the crowded main boulevard of Jehan’s Lair. In each direction, on both sides, there were tables and carts, with red, and green, and yellow awnings. Flint-eyed merchants, eager farmers and cheating traders sold and bought glassware, weapons, cloth, corn, oats, sacrificial animals, leather; most items that could be found in any small city, which Jehan’s Lair closely resembled.

Look, Araminta.” I slammed my fist on the table, causing the wooden cups to jump. “Listen to Arys if you won’t listen to me. He’ll tell you.” I turned to him. “I’ve been trying to convince her how dangerous combat is. Many’s the time I’ve come home covered in blood and brains. I’ll not allow her to be exposed to it.”

Arys, Araminta and I had been friends since we’d learned how to walk, though we’d seen him only infrequently since his escape from Rahesh. Son of the great General Arys Ironarm, young Arys at twenty-five already looked middle-aged and more tired than I remembered; red-eyed, tough as old boots, but worn. Even when he smiled, his face betrayed a haunted look, as if something had devoured whatever cheer had once been there. His dark brown complexion was sallow, carved as if by a razor with wrinkles I did not remember.

A year’s captivity had thinned Arys’s sturdy frame. Though he seemed to be recovering well enough, his movements lacked the sleek grace I was used to. Yet I was sure he’d make my sister see reason. “There’s no problem here, Jorg. You’re wrong.” He gave a nod and Araminta grinned wickedly at me.

How can you say that?”My face heated. “Your father refused to allow women under his command. He—”

Arys sighed and scrubbed his face with both hands. “Father wasn’t perfect, any more than I am.”

He beckoned a server to bring more wine and another mug. As she bent to serve him, I got a good look into her bodice. She blushed and quickly straightened when she saw me looking.

I offered her my best smile. “You’ve nothing to be ashamed of.”

Under the table, Araminta kicked me. “Don’t mind him, Anya. He thinks he’s being nice. He’s been making a fool of himself all afternoon.”

Arys met the server’s gaze and smiled. “We’re trying to teach him some manners.” She offered him a smile in return. Maybe she recognized him as Ironarm’s son.

What is this?” I looked from Arys to Araminta. “Arys, you always loved admiring a nice bosom!” Were they conspiring against me?

Everything changes,” he murmured, rubbing his wrists, which still showed scars.

Araminta noticed his gesture. “You must have had a hard time of it. In captivity, I mean.”

A frown knit Arys’s brow. I wanted to cheer him. “I’ll bet you killed a lot of the dogs.”

He sipped some wine. “Enough. I was lucky.” His voice showed little enthusiasm, which I found unsettling.

I slapped his back. “I’m surprised they held you at all.”

That kind of overconfidence lost us the war.” He leaned back in his chair, which forced my hand off his back. “We were so sure we could defeat the Raheshi peasants that we failed to consider any long-range plan or strategy. So when the peasants proved superior to we couldn’t deal with it. We let them take charge of the battle, and never even used the assets we had.”

Araminta’s triumphant face shocked me. “But the generals—”

The generals were wrong,” Arys interrupted. “Shall I tell you what happened to me as the Raheshis’ ‘guest?’”

Araminta quieted immediately. “By all means,” I answered. He’d always gotten along with her better than I could. I gave Arys a flat look, narrowed eyes and pinched mouth. “Even when we were children, your opinion always counted more with her than mine. If you’re going to tell us how you escaped, tell it. But if you spout nonsense that’ll get you demoted, I won’t help you.”

Araminta punched his upper arm. “Jorg, don’t be an idiot. They won’t demote Arys, for Jehan’s sake! Look around. Women soldiers are everywhere now.”

She was right, damn her. To my left, perhaps ten yards away, a troop approached, led by a woman in a sergeant’s uniform, shrilling commands in the afternoon air, lacking the authority of a man’s. Who could hear that voice on a battlefield? Worse yet, who would obey it? “Pity.” That brought scowls from them both. I sighed and shook my head. “I give up. Tell us, Arys.”

He looked pained and reluctant as he sketched the details of the raid on the Raheshi outpost, and their surprise when the enemy had been ready for them. “They killed all my men.” He paused. “Would have killed me too, but their commander knew what a great triumph it would be to have the son of Arys Ironarm in their hands, so they threw me into the blasted slave pen. My first nights I filed away my chains. Then I strangled the jailer. But they caught me and hauled me to a courtyard, where they tied me to an altar.

They built a huge fire, and rounded up all the slaves to watch. To a drum’s steady pounding, they tore my tunic open, baring my chest. They danced around me like ghosts in the firelight, shaking spears and swords at me. I fought the leather thongs, but succeeded only in bloodying myself. Around and around me they danced to that drum’s steady pulsing, their cries and chants a counterpoint. Sometimes one would spring out of the dark at me, and a wizard in blood-red robes jabbed his dagger at me. I could smell my fear-sweat. I prayed to Saint Jehan.

But I’d need more than prayer. The Raheshis quit chanting and four approached, one from each direction, each holding the end of a thick chain. At the center where the four chains met, lay a jewel the size of a man’s fist. It seemed to squirm, eager to be free. They brought the gem close, yanked away the chains, and the stone landed on my chest and began turning red. I felt something tear into me, and feared I would catch fire.”

He halted a moment, and I’d swear he shuddered. Not Arys the Younger, I told myself; not the son of Arys Ironarm. He looked like a stranger.

The shaman’s voice was the next sound I heard,” Arys continued. “I’d never been so terrified. That old demon shouted something in a strange language. The jewel was now entirely red. That drum sounded again, much more softly, and the wizard tore the jewel from me, leaving a small wound that healed in an instant. Just long enough for me to realize what had happened.

They’d stolen my heart, and imprisoned it in the jewel. I lived somehow, but my body felt sore and empty. My heart, the source of my courage and my warrior’s spirit, now beat in that crimson stone.

I cringed as they untied my wrists and ankles. They struck me with their spears, but now I cowered, covering my head with my hands, whining like a cur. I seemed still to feel the beat of my heart, but that was only its pulsing in the prison of the gem. My heart, my courage, my spirit had fled.

From that day, they kept me in a cage on all fours, shown off to visitors. I ate scraps they dropped on the floor. Every day I became less a man. Before my escape attempt, I’d boasted of my prowess to the slaves, vowing I’d free them all. I remembered the light in their eyes when I’d say we’d all be free soon. Now their hope was gone. I’d let them down. I’d sworn to protect them, yet I couldn’t even protect myself.” He lowered his head, clenched his fists.

Araminta gently touched his forearm, and he squeezed her hand. “I’m all right.”

I did not understand the look that passed between them, but the change that had come over him troubled me. I didn’t believe that my friend could have fallen so far. “Of course you’re all right.” I wanted to console him. “You’re a man. You kept trying, despite what they did.”

He turned away and wiped his mouth. “Jorg, you don’t understand, do you?”

I grimaced. What was there to understand?

I was as broken as any horse. They’d stolen my heart. You cannot imagine it. I lived in my own filth. Even the slaves gave up on me. Alone at night, I could hear them whisper. Each day, I saw more and more of them hauled to the auction block, and fewer returned.”

His powerful hands quivered as he poured more wine. It was like seeing a stranger in my friend’s form. He paused a moment and gave me a look that made me squirm.

Months passed. I had no idea what they’d done with my heart. I could not work up the nerve to take it back, even if I got out of the cage. I’d be a captive still, but for that Songweaver.”

Songweaver?” I asked. “What Songweaver?”

Arys’s head jerked, like a man interrupted from a dream. “Have you been listening?” He scowled, chin jutting out, mouth a hard line.

I glared right back at him. “I’m listening. You never mentioned a Songweaver.”

He crossed and uncrossed his arms. Scratched his jaw. Shrugged, as if arguing was too much trouble. I swore under my breath, even as he said, “Every day, they dragged the slaves off to be sold, and bring some back later, the Songweaver among them. I guess she was too stubborn. Too small. Too feisty. Then she called to me from her cell.

“‘Aurigan,’ she said. She was skinny, a perfect match for me, the Raheshis said. ‘Are you ready to seize back your freedom?’

I couldn’t ignore her. “‘It can’t be done. You saw what happened to those who tried.’

She stared at me, not answering. I winced at the marks on her. How could she even think of trying to escape?

“‘Tomorrow.’ It was as if the others weren’t there. ‘Tomorrow they send me to the holite mines. No one returns from the mines. How could anything be worse than that?’

“‘But they’ve stolen my heart,’ I protested. ‘How could I escape without it?’

She laughed at me. ‘Fool! How could you live with no heart? It was all mummery and sham! Would your father have believed such lies?’

When I jumped, she nodded. ‘I know you, son of Ironarm. I am Grania, a Songweaver, daughter of Shirah the Healer. Your father thought we needed protecting. I’ll either prove him wrong or die in the attempt.’”

Araminta said, “Don’t you see, Jorg? He wouldn’t let women near combat. So when the war came, we were ill-prepared.”

I frowned at her. I’d made sure my sister was protected; so why did she say ‘we’?”

“‘I fought at Tur Magdath.’ Grania knotted her fists and clenched her teeth. ‘I heard men scream as they burned them alive. They’ll not cow me. My Magic blocks the effects of the lotus flowers they grind into our food to keep us docile.’”

She went silent, and I could not make her speak further.

Later that night, I slept fitfully, and snapped awake at the scrape of a sandal. It must be a slave using the chamber pot, I thought. Then a dark figure appeared and my cage opened. I tried to get up, but my body was too stiff. ‘Arys the Younger.’ Grania sang a few words and the stiffness left me. Something stirred in my belly. ‘We have need of your power.’

She stood with her fists on her hips, legs spread, limned in the golden light of torches at her left and right. The remaining captives joined her. When Grania gestured, two split from the group to watch down the halls. I looked over this unlikely force and saw grim, determined faces, all of them clad in rags, shadowed by the torchlight. One was a girl, not more than ten. What could Grania be thinking, exposing a child to such danger?”

Teaching her how to stand up for herself,” Araminta broke in. “Which Jorg never did for me.”

As I squirmed, Arys continued, “‘I told her I had no power. But I walked over and looked her in the eye.

She gazed at me, direct and unflinching, and demanded, ‘How could you face each day in that cage, if not for your great courage?’

She was a fool, I told myself. They would all be captured, and our captors would do even worse things to them. How could they not see it?”

When Arys paused, Araminta gave me a pointed look. How many times had I told her I was only trying to talk sense into her? “How did she get out of the cell?” I asked “You make it sound as if she didn’t need you at all.”

For the first and only time while he was telling the story, Arys grinned. “Oldest trick in the world,” he answered. “She tampered with the bolt so it only appeared to be locked. She’d learned it from her father. And why she needed me, you’ll find out, if you’re still listening.”

He quaffed some wine from the moist-sided pewter mug. I noticed that the sergeant who was drilling the squad now had them march in formation down the boulevard, directly past our inn. It surprised me how perfectly straight the lines of men and women were, and how each held his or her lance exactly the right distance from the soldier in front.

Arys resumed. “Grania and the others left. My cage remained open. As she refused to listen to reason, I decided to follow, in case of trouble. At least I could protect the little girl. But sweat chilled me as I ventured through the dark corridors. I remembered the drum’s pounding the night my heart had been stolen, and faltered, until I thought of Grania and the little girl

.

When they turned the corner, I hurried to catch up. The guards were sure to find them, and I wanted to prevent that. They paused at a crossing. Grania frowned. Puzzlement crossed her face. Then another woman murmured to her, and she nodded. She pointed and signalled for the women to resume their flight. As the last of her charges passed her, Grania looked back and saw me. She had a queer look on her face, with less surprise than I’d have expected. ‘Are you planning to rescue me from freedom, Arys the Younger?’ she asked.

Then, a guard rounded the corner and ran toward us, swinging a club. I would have tried to drag her out of the way, but before I could act, she ducked under his swing, squeezed a certain spot on his neck with her thumb and fingers, and he dropped like a stone. I heard the crunch of bones as she then broke his neck.

A fell light came into her eyes. Her voice was grim. ‘I can do more than weave songs. Will you join us, Arys the Younger?’

She darted away to catch up with the others. Stolen heart or no, I followed. I could not abandon her. Before long, we heard the rumble of booted feet. ‘Do we flee?’ Grania asked her companions. ‘Or do we stand and fight?’ Not one chose to flee.

“‘Make the bastards pay dearly for us,’ one said.

The women, even the little girl, had picked up pieces of wood along their way to use as clubs. Grania had taken the sword from the man she’d downed, and another woman had his cudgel. With the lotus blossoms defeated, I saw three had Magic; a Weaponer, who could turn anything she touched into a weapon; a Tripler, who could split into three; and a Healer. Poor arms against swords, spears, clubs. But none faltered. Freedom’s passion blazed in each face.

Fifteen soldiers confronted us. They marched on us, certain we would flee. And I would have fled. I wanted to fall to my knees and beg for mercy. But I saw Grania’s face, and on the faces of the rest, even the child’s. If I panicked, many of them would, too. They were counting on me. Could I do this?

I seemed to hear my father’s voice in my mind. ‘A warrior is tested many times.’ Perhaps I’d passed such a test by choosing to follow this courageous woman, regardless of why.

The the enemy formed lines across the narrow corridor, giving us a slight advantage, for they had no room to flank us. I yelled for Grania to have some women keep the rear attackers busy to cover my back. Roaring, I leapt into the enemy horde. My training took over, as if my heart had never been taken. Perhaps Grania was right. I was Arys the Younger, son of Auriga’s greatest warrior ever. What did it matter, that I’d been caged nearly a year?

I had to stay on my feet, attacking eyes and throats. Instinct drove me. Knock one out of action, go on to the next. Keep on my feet, and do not go to ground. Crush one foe’s windpipe, smash the next one’s nose, gouge another’s eyes out, kick his comrade’s face in.

Several women had been soldiers, and were applying many of my methods. Their savagery amazed me. They all fought like tigresses, ferocious as any man. The little girl was clubbing guards that fell.”

Arys paused, and took another draught. Araminta had been riveted to him through his whole tale. Now she said, “You defeated them all barehanded?” There was more than mere admiration in her voice.

The women did more. Some tried to tear the men to pieces, but others restrained them.”

But it’s strength.” I protested. “By Fehtan, the Warrior Goddess. It’s all strength.”

It surprised me to see Arys’s face harden. “There are many kinds of strength. If you truly heard me, you’d not have such trouble understanding. Are you going to listen and stop insisting yours is the only truth, or not?”

Araminta kept smiling. I stared at her. “You’ve told this much.” I sighed. “I guess you should tell the rest.”

Arys shrugged, cleared his throat, continued, “We defeated them. We knew there’d be more battles ahead. We weren’t foolish. But we were proud. As we ran through the darkened corridors of the prison, I could hear fierce murmurs from the others.”

He paused again, and brushed something out of his eye. “Suddenly before us stood the old black demon who’d stolen my heart. My muscles seemed to turn to water. The wizard raised both hands, and flames jetting from his palms burned me. I fought as best I could, but he forced me to my knees.

But Grania leapt in front of me and sang with her Magic against the sorcery. She linked her spirit with mine, giving me a sudden surge of energy. Grania’s power met the shaman’s. She strained as her Magic gradually pushed back the flames. Back and forth they fought. Sweat soaked her face and dripped from her nose and chin. Her whole body trembled with the forces she summoned. While Grania kept the sorcerer occupied, I seized a sword from a dead Raheshi and chopped him from forehead to ribcage.

But as he died, a crackle of fire shot from him and struck Grania. She went down in a heap, her head striking the stone floor. I called her name. Took her in my arms. Lifted her, her arms limp, her hair like a ribbon of gold. Kept repeating her name. But there was no Grania now, no Songweaver challenging me. I remembered how she’d thrust out her chin and vowed she would escape. The way the veins in her arms stood out when she knotted her fists. There was no will now to form those fists, no one to thrust out her chin and break through the Raheshis’ lies. Skinny little Songweaver with the heart of a lioness.”

Arys paused. All around, it seemed everything went silent, as if some wall had formed around us. Soldiers passed. “It wasn’t the wizard who stole your heart,” I gasped.

Arys’s mouth opened and shut. I had never seen him so. He gripped his cup so tight he might have crushed it.

He continued, “I heard a woman standing watch say, ‘More coming, Sergeant. We’ve no time.’

I hoisted Grania over my shoulder and we fled. Behind us, we heard the guards halt, sizing up the mass of their dead comrades. Their shouts told us they’d found the wizard.

I decided to face them down. I laid Grania down, gently, and told the others to run, not wait, that I would rejoin them. They did not listen. As one we confronted the enemy, our ragtag army with our sticks and clubs and Magic, and a renewed spirit. I felt stronger than I’d felt in many months of captivity, and I realized Grania was right: a man and a woman separately are strong. United, they’re invincible. Shouting our Songweaver’s name, we fought. And won.

The moon was setting as we made our stealthy way for the city’s East Gate. Guards were patrolling; those we avoided. No alarm, thank the Goddess. There were battlements on either side of the gate, with a guard house built into one battlement. We watched the towers carefully and saw movement. We did not know how many might be there, but I left the group briefly. I returned wearing a Raheshi uniform. He would no longer need it.

I marched the former slaves to the Gate. Two carried Grania, as though her captors had punished her into oblivion. ‘Shipment to the mines, Sergeant,’ I told the guard on duty. He grunted, opened the gate, waved us through. There were woods about a half-mile away. All the way there, I prayed to Pel, Goddess of Luck, that they wouldn’t see through our ruse.”

He stopped.

Pel was listening,” I said.

#

A cadet approached. She was tall, with golden hair tied back in a braid, and clear gray eyes. Mud flecked her boots, and her brown uniform tunic and gray trousers were patched in several places. She was out of breath. “Sergeant Arys,” she puffed, snapping a salute.

Arys returned her salute. “Cadet Mikhaila.” His gaze softened, and the hint of a smile played about his mouth. “Remember yesterday’s lesson?”

I’m ready,” she replied, with the confidence of the young. “I’ll surprise you this time.”

Let’s see.” He glanced at Araminta. “I think we can find an extra practice sword. Do you need to be anywhere?”

She almost knocked over the pitcher. “Just with you.”

I watched them leave. The sun had sunk behind the mountains and the terrace lamps provided the only light. Servers bustled among tables, filling mugs, serving dinner, laughing and chatting with patrons. At every table, men and women soldiers shared the evening meal. My friend, my sister, and another female, off to practice combat. Off to pretend war was not as ugly as it truly was.

I lifted my mug. What was the world coming to?

 

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The Stolen Heart by Jack Mulcahy 1

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