by Steven Reid
The crack of the whip as it connected with flesh ripped through my ears and terrified me beyond all I’ve ever felt. As the second strike rang out, tears flooded my eyes to the point where I couldn’t see. The third made my knees buckle, but I stood firm against the onslaught. Yet they continued. Twenty lashes. I lost count in the middle: there was no difference between the sixteenth and the seventeenth. A numbness had set in that tore at more than flesh.
The silence that followed the twentieth strike of the whip brought me out of my stupor. I looked across the courtyard at the man I loved, strapped to the post, bleeding and unconscious, his flesh torn to shreds by the captain’s hand. The assembled group began to disperse, many chatting banally about going to the pub for a pint. I stood there at the railing, unable to move. I should be there beside him, but he had protected me.
It started when he came into the infirmary complaining of a toothache. A few swigs of brandy and a pair of pliers made short work of that problem. I should have sent him on his way, but something in that handsome face bolstered my confidence. I told him I should keep an eye on him for a few hours and sent word that he was relieved until the following morning. Nothing wrong with spending a little more time with him. I assumed it would be nothing more than a couple of hours of conversation and a pleasant memory for later when I was alone in my rooms.
As someone surrounded by soldiers, I’m accustomed to the raw masculinity that seeps through every chink in every suit of armor, from every rider atop every horse. From the stealthiest scout to the strongest swordsman, it filled the air. As the son of an apothecary, I spent my childhood picking herbs, not fighting with swords. I became a healer to suffuse myself with their strength. Though I knew it could be nothing more, experiencing their strength somehow strengthened me.
As the evening progressed, the brandy continued to flow to ease his pain (and to build my courage); my guarded demeanor began to fall away. Although it’s a bit embarrassing, I admit I contrived every excuse to touch him. Many times, I needed “to get another look at where the tooth had been” or “change the gauze” (even after the bleeding had stopped). And, he let me.
The depth of his soulful brown eyes and the lopsided grin when he caught me staring joined together to intoxicate me far more than the brandy. I longed to reach out and touch him in a manner more intimate than a healer uses with a wounded soldier.
This presented unspeakable dangers. If these feelings were one-sided, I would be ruined. He could report me to the captain and have me flogged and removed from my post. Or he could kill me himself. It would end my career, or perhaps my life. But in the early hours of the morning, I asked to check his tooth yet again. As I leaned in to take a look, he leaned in and kissed me. And so it began.
It’s not uncommon for a soldier to need the services of the infirmary. Even in these times of uneasy peace, training accidents occur daily. While broken fingers and ribs are the usual fare, occasionally I see someone who requires more intensive treatment. It would be fair to surmise that I see each of the men every month or so.
But in the days following the tooth extraction, he became a routine visitor in the rooms of the infirmary. I pondered the idea that he hurt himself on purpose as an excuse to come for a visit. I asked him as much when I was setting his nose, which had obviously been broken at least twice before.
“Have you considered ducking when someone comes at you with a sword? I know the practice ones are made of wood, but they can still do damage.”
“If I ducked, I’d be out there and not in here,” he said with a crooked smile.
Prior to my time with him, the tavern had frightened me. This was the domain of the rugged soldier, not the timid healer. The idea of being surrounded by these men terrified, but exhilarated, me. Thus, emboldened by my time with him, I made my way to The Crossed Swords one evening. After all, if he could endure a broken nose to see me, I could brave the pub to be with him. The crooked smile that greeted me when I pushed the door open told me I made the right decision.
So began our ritual. We came and went separately, so no one was the wiser about our time after leaving the tavern. No one suspected that he followed me home or that he spent his nights in my rooms. The warmth of him beside me every night filled my heart in a way I never knew possible. He’d depart before dawn and creep back to the barracks before anyone awoke, leaving an emptiness in more than just my bed.
On evenings when the ale flowed too liberally, I would have to remind him of the dangers of our being discovered when his hands began to wander. He would remind me of the strength of his sword arm and how he was there to protect me forever. I could see by the set of his jaw and the devotion in his eyes he meant forever. Was forever possible for men like us?
One night after we had consumed far too much ale, he followed me out as I left. Grabbing me by the arm, he pulled me into a dark alley a few streets from the tavern. Before I knew it, I was pinned against the wall, his lips pressed to mine. The drink from the evening encouraged our perilous behavior.
Neither of us heard the soldiers until they were at the opening of the alley. Though I was shadowed from view, they easily could see it was two men in the darkness.
“Run!” he whispered as they approached.
And I ran.
He was battered and bloody when they brought him before the captain the next morning. I had offered to treat his wounds but was told that filth like him didn’t deserve it. I stood and watched as they continued to beat him, demanding to know who the other man was. He never looked in my direction. He protected me the night before; he protected me still. He remained stoic when he was sentenced to twenty lashes and expelled from the army and from the kingdom.
It took much convincing on my part, but the guards allowed him to be taken to the infirmary so I could see to his wounds after the captain had finished with him. With tear-filled eyes, I packed the wounds with healing herbs and covered them with bandages. I worked as quickly as possible hoping he would remain unconscious until the painkilling plants had begun to work.
“That sod needs to go. Now!” barked the guard as he burst through the door.
“How do you expect him to do that? He hasn’t moved since they brought him in,” I said.
“He needs to be out of the city before daybreak, or our orders are to kill him on sight,” he said, slamming the door behind him as he left.
Daybreak. It was already past midnight, only a few hours remained for us.
I had sat in the corner for some time, my gaze unwavering, when his eyes jerked opened at last.
“Why am I here?” he asked in a panic.
Moving to sit beside him, I placed my hand on his to allay his fears. I also needed to touch him one last time before his exile began.
“I needed to tend your wounds.”
“They could suspect it was you who was with me last night.”
“I tend everyone’s wounds. There’s no need to worry,” I said, stroking his cheek. He pressed his face into my palm, closing his eyes at my touch. I could feel his panic subside, then he asked, “When do I have to go?”
“Sunup. A couple of hours.”
I could see him steel himself with a courage I attributed to enduring the pain. I could never have anticipated the words that followed.
“Come with me.”
The look of fear on my face must have given my reply. The look of sadness on his face told me the pain I caused was far worse than that of the captain’s whip. He withdrew from my touch and rose slowly to his feet.
Unable to move, I watched as he turned and left the infirmary. From the window, I could see him disappear into the night, pulling my soul with him into the darkness.