John C. Nichols
Arual sat regally in the high-backed, carved wooden chair, eating silently. The mahogany chair had flowing vines intertwined with crucifixes. The chair seat was covered with a roan velvet cushion filled with goose feathers. The chair's talon-like feet tightly gripped some small forest-dwelling creature like an eagle clutching a rabbit in its claws.
In her tormented grief, Arual had fallen into the habit of eating alone. She tore her bread into small pieces and squeezed the pieces into small balls between her thumb and forefinger. On the long oak table sat her pewter chalice. She reached for the chalice with her pale fragile hands and brought it gently to her lips. The red wine trickled slowly past her cherry lips and left a scarlet blemish at the corner of her mouth.
She had been reclusive for the longest time. So long, in fact, that she could no longer remember when she had first withdrawn.
She rose from the table and paced toward the tall windows that overlooked the vast acres of land that belonged to Lord Draegus. As she walked her long lack dress swirled about her shapely curves. Looking out the window, her arms hugged around her, she longed for the sun, feeling trapped as a prisoner.
Children played in the yard below and a scraggily haired dog kept watch over them. Arual saw all of this but nothing seemed to register in her vacant eyes. Her mind had been dwelling on the past for a long time. Her tears, when she thought of the deaths of her father and brother, were wringing life from her.
She spin on her heel and strode toward the far wall of the banquet hall where an enormous portrait of the young Prince Bjorn hung, her half brother. It had been painted during the boy's sickness, shortly before he died. She gazed at his brutish countenance, his black eyes and black hair striking against his milky skin. How she missed him! If only he were here to share her thoughts. If only she could escape for a moment...
If only the man she hoped and dreamed of would come. That would be the day she'd leave the gloomy castle and her father's fiefdom. Suddenly the portrait's features transformed before the power of her imagination, the cold scowl beame a warm loving smile. The hair became golden, graceful and full of life. His green eyes were gentle and soft and seemed to peer into her soul. His face flushed and smooth.
Arual sighed with pleasure, then blinked.
Bjorn's face reappeared in the cold, dark portrait.
She turned from the portrait and stalked toward a large oak door that opened to the stairs. She darted up the stone steps to her chambers where she fell to her knees and cried until her eyes were puffy and bloodshot.
"How could my father's choice think of me as 'just a woman'?" she sobbed. "Am I not beautiful enough? Am I so insignificant?"
"And how," she breathed between coughs and tears, "could his other choice, more conniving than the first, say that I am worthy yet claim that the first choice was only using me? How could he tell me that he loved me and yet crush my heart in a mighty vise? I hate them both! They are scoundrels who twist women's hearts to get what they desire. Squeeze us in their grip until we are nothing more than a feast for vultures. Still I love them both... I'm torn between the two. How can a woman truly love two men at once?"
Arual pounded her fists violently on the bed. Anger flowed from her as a torrent after a raging storm.
Then a voice, as from afar, whispered "Arual, Arual, Why do you cry? Is not my love enough for you?"
Arual spun around, seeking to discover the source of the voice.
"Why do you torment me, Oblec? Leave my heart to me. You have torn it enough."
"But do you not desire my return from amongst the dead, Arual?"
The voice swirled around the pale woman as she frightfully tried to silence it.
Suddenly, a hand gripped her shoulder, digging in and drawing blood with its claw-like fingernails. Aural wailed in pain; she screamed in terror clenching her eyes shut. The hand spun her around, and the pain stopped. When Arual opened her eyes, she found that she stared into the glinting orbs of a rougish young man. Oblec took Arual's arms in his hands and kissed her full on the mouth. She screeched and pulled herself away, slapping the man in the face.
The blow never fell.
Her hand whooshed through Oblec's airy viasge, as if he were merely a figment of her imagination.
Arual gasped as Oblec smiled and answered the woman's unspoken question, "Yes, my love, I am dead, but I am very much alive in your heart and head. I feel no pain, only passion. Passion allows me to kiss you, but you cannot hurt me."
"But how?" she began.
"Your desire has brought me back from beyond death, forcing me to return to this pitiful existence you call life. You weep and moan for the ressurection of the dead, but you know not what awaits you after you die! I tell you, I am truly living! I beg you, join me in death, in love!"
Then a thudding sound echoed from the stairs below.
Then the door burst open and another man strode gallantly in.
Then Arual's heart skipped a beat.
Then it broke.
Arual knew that there was no escape from this trap.
"I have come to save you, milday," he said, his round face glistening with perspiration. "Taborr has come to your rescue!"
He brushed his long black hair out of his face with a slide of his hand. His dark eyes burned with passion. To his enemy he said, "Oblec, you cur! Take your hands off of her! She loves me and me alone. I'll not let you touch her, you...you fiend!"
Oblec turned from Arual to face Taborr. "Young fool! To think that you, a mere child, would dare to claim a woman of this high stature as your own takes my breath away."
"Not than you breathe in case," Taborr said dryly.
Silence filled the room for the briefest moment. A slight reprieve for the tormented woman.
"Have you won her heart, boy?" Oblec asked sincerely.
Taborr could voice no reply.
"Just leave us, and I won't have to hurt you," Oblec continued.
"Oblec, please stop this," Aural pleaded, "I...I just want..."
Arual saying his name gave Oblec pause. "No milday," he replied. "This fool has brought judgement upon himself."
"Oblec, how dare you claim that right!" Taborr shouted. "You cannot hope to cast judgement upon the living!"
"Stop, stop it at once!" Arual screamed. "Can't you see what you...you...children are doing to my heart? It is breaking...it is being crushed." The miserable woman collapsed onto the floor again, crying desperatly for freedom. The two specters rushed toward her from either side, their ghostly beings colliding.
"Leave her be! She needs my promise of love!"
"No I shall never leave her side. She needs my comfort not your petty promises!"
Arual shrieked thrusting her hands through the two ghosts, escaping the chamber. She sprinted as fast as her frail legs would carry her. Toward the door....
Toward the meadow and the forest....
How could I have been so foolish, she cried to herself. What have I done? How can I free myself from their clutches?
Then she burst through the tall oak door, running. Slower, slower.
Arual glanced up at the bright blue of the morning sky, the flock of birds sailing through that ocean overhead.
Caught off-guard by the beauty of life, she stumbled and fell.
The bright sunlight warmed her as she lay silently in the soft, vibrant, dewey grass.
Arual lay there unmoving, her chest rising and falling rhythmically. The white pallor of her skin and the midnight darkness of her dress against the green canvas of the lawn created a portrait of beauty. A lonely tear slid down her pale cheek and into her mouth. She coughed as she breathed in the salty tear. Birds chirped in the trees near her prone form, and the smell of roses and violets filled her nostrils. Here she felt alive.
But her mind returned to the two specters haunting her. "Oh, what have I done?" she cried aloud. "Why must I be tormented so? Can this not be simpler? Must I love one and not the other? How long must my heart stand between two men?" She sobbed.
"You must choose me," Oblec cried, materialzing at her side.
"Don't listen to that fool, Arual. I know that you love me," Taborr said appearing across from Oblec, glaring at his foe.
"Oblec, Taborr, stop this at once!" Arual commanded. "I you. cease this tugging of my heart!" She rose to a sitting position. "My heart is being rent asunder!"
"Yes, leave us Taborr, you fool!" Oblec taunted, each word paining Arual's already broken heart.
"I refuse!" Taborr shouted. "You leave and she will be at peace!" The two figments of Arual's imagination fell again to fighting and arguing. Barely any time had passed before the two were shouting the most profane curses known to man , in vain attempt to woo their prey.
"If you two both don't stop this I will kill myself!" Arual screamed with a power she never fathomed she had. It must have been the invigorating life around her. "I will end my life if you both do not cease this stupidity. Oblec, Taborr, you should know that my soul shall never wander this Earth as yours do. I will pass on into the Paradise of Sham'ah. Your dark desires will never again be able to touch me"--angry tears coursed through the snowy vales of her cheeks--"and I will finally be free! I will do it! Do not doubt my words! I just want to live!"
Arual stopped, and a divine silence filled the meadow she lay in. No one spoke.
Then Arual continued, "Oblec, I loved you once, but your time has passed. Taborr I never loved you. I ran to you and fell into your arms when my brother died and my father vanished. When my mother died from grief, I came to you. Regardless, both of you are dead. How is a woman supposed to love that which lives no more?"
Realization struck the two spirits, and they hung their heads in silent sadness. As Arual's renewed strength brought wholeness to her mind, the two specters evanesced. Arual laid back and rested on the grass, feeling peace for the first time in years. Birds still sang, making music as beautiful as a minstrel's song. A calm breeze blew through the countryside. Arual shivered. Her raven hair, splayed like a black halo behind her head, undulated with the breath of the sky.
Arual smiled, feeling the warmth of the sun on her face.
Staring upward at the passsing clouds floating lazily across the azure depths of the sky, Arual noticed a soft golden glow slowly arise outside the range of her peripheral vision. She lifted her head and gasped.
Surrounded by a radiant aura of golden light, a rider sat perched atop a blazing white stallion. The rider was handsome, though his features were indistinct because of the brilliance. The rider pulled on the reigns, bringing the stud to a stop.
The rider spoke from the saddle of his mount in a voice as loud as thunder, yet as soft as a lamb's wool, "Lady Draegus, I have come to take you home." The voice was silky and smooth. Arual saw that the aura surrounding the rider gave everything it touched a more colorful hue. It was as if the rider was Life itself.
"Home?" Arual asked as if in a dream. "I am home. My home is just beyond you." She was in awe of this strange man.
"No Arual, this is not your home. Your home is where your heart is, and your heart is beyond this place. I have come to take you to where your heart lies." The rider dismounted gracefully, and Arual could see his face for the first time. A full, flushed face, green eyes, red lips.....
The portrait! The face I've dreamed of!
"I... I'm not ready to go home yet."
"Then I shall wait with you until you are ready if it please you, Arual." The rider was perfect.
Arual nodded and the rider reclined next to her, gazing deeply into her eyes. His green orbs pierced her soul. The rider toook Arual's hands in his and held them, not letting go. His hands were smooth and gentle. Arual felt her fetters start to bend and break, falling around her feet like a pile of refuse.
"Milady, I shall wait with you until the coming of the Last Days, in which the mighty King of Heaven and Earth will split the skies. Throughout any trial this world can heave upon me, I will stand by your side until you are ready, my bride."
Through storm and flood, through drought and plague, through life and death, the rider waited for Arual to say the words that would send them on another journey called Eternity.
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