Melissa’s gaze was fixed on the whip in my hand. Slowly, she turned her eyes on me. Her lip quivered. “Logan?” her whisper filled the plaza. My hand dropped, as I let my name from her lips engulf me. After so much time, she’d finally…Everyone was watching.
“Turn around,” I said harshly. Harshly enough that no one heard the quaver in my voice.
A small tear traced down her cheek, visible only to me. But she didn’t move.
“Turn around,” I repeated through my teeth. Come on, Melissa, I thought desperately. If you cooperate, it will be over so much sooner. But it was too much to ask of my beautiful, independent wife. Two soldiers moved forward, grabbing her by the arms. She stiffened, but didn’t cry out. “Don’t!” I snapped. They jerked to a halt, releasing her at once. I strode forward and gripped her shoulder, turning her so her back faced the square. She closed her eyes, as if she couldn’t stand being so near to me. As if this was somehow my fault.
I backed away, the creaking wood the only sound in the square, and lifted the whip. The rope hung in the air, heavy with the weight of hundreds of eyes. I can’t do it. I held the rope so tightly it bit into my hand. I had to. It was the only way to keep her safe. It was! I slashed the whip through the sky. The whip landed right between her shoulder blades. Red streaked through her white dress. One.
Melissa stumbled forward, a sharp cry escaping her lips, but she remained upright, proud as ever. So brave. Fire ate my heart.
“Mommy!” Leila lunged towards us, but her brother held her back. “Daddy, what are you doing?” Her voice was high-pitched with tears. She would hate me now. She had a right to.
I raised the whip again. For her. I love her.The sharp whistling carried through the silence. Then, a sharp shwack. Two. This didn’t feel like love.
Johnathon looked at me with such betrayal, such hatred. I struggled desperately to summon the armor that had protected my soul from guilt, from fear, from emotion. My son. There was something in Johnathon’s eyes, something dangerous. Fear made my heart tremble. Fear of what he might do and the consequences.
The pain. It was too much. I am a soldier of the emperor. Obey without question. A mantra recited time and again in battle. I am a soldier of the emperor. The whip flashed through the sky. Hssss. Three. I am a soldier of the emperor! Tears pricked at my eyes. Why did I still feel? I was a soldier! Obey.
The emissary was smiling. He fed off pain, off suffering. Just like them all. Where was my armor? I couldn’t see through the tears in my eyes. And still Melissa stood. Her shoulders pressed close to her ears as she braced for the coming impact. She was holding back tears. I felt her pain across the few feet that spanned us. Self-loathing filled my mouth with bile. And still I lifted the whip.
The rope was sweaty in my palm. I swung the whip. The smack echoed in my eardrums, making my heart heave. Four.
Melissa fell, her knees hitting the wood, smashing my soul. Murmurs spread through the crowd. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw my soldiers tense, preparing for battle. More blood, but at least it wouldn’t be Melissa’s. My arm dropped to my side, as I struggled to draw in oxygen. Melissa put one foot on the ground and then the other. She swayed for a moment, but then caught her balance. I turned my gaze slightly on the emissary, he had his arms crossed over his chest. Still not satisfied.
My arm was lead, but still I lifted it. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. Down slashed the whip. Five.
She would never forgive me. I would never forgive me. I was doing this for her. I was doing this for her. I was doing this for her. Wasn’t I? My arm trembled uncontrollably as I lifted it once more, a sob hitched in my throat. The whip slashed through the silence. Six.
I was almost glad when the sword appeared between me and my wife. But the blade was too fine, a blade fit only for a sergeant’s son. Without lifting my eyes, I knew whose hand held the blade and my heart took a desperate plunge. Not him too.
But before I could say a word, the traitor guard had leapt free, pulling a dagger from his boot in the same movement. The drawing of weapons happened in the blink of an eye. It was a battlefield. The peasants stood, holding a cacophony of weapons, from axes to meat mallets. Time slowed, every moment dragged through molasses, every color vivid. It was a move much too coordinated. And there was not a trace of surprise on my son’s face.
I looked over Johnathon’s shoulder and met Melissa’s eyes. Conflict raged beneath them, the hurt in her eyes so evident it tore my soul in half. But then, a shield dropped into place, blocking me out with a suddenness that made me wince. She reached through an invisible slit in her dress and drew out a dagger.
It was then that the pieces began to click together, forming a picture I wished I could unsee. Her sneaking out, her whisperings with the traitor, the guilt that hid behind each angry word…
My soldiers mobilized in an instant, turning to face the peasants below. Arrows fell on the crowd. Johnathon’s attention wavered, his sword dipping, as he stared at the screaming peasants below.
“Is this what you wanted, son?” I demanded. “For more innocents to die?”
His knuckles were white as he raised his sword back to my chest. I remembered my first kill. The fear, the helplessness, the young woman staring at me from the other side of the gleaming silver. The guilt, the nightmares. The justifications, the walls, the armor.
He stared at me for a moment, lost and afraid, a boy, my boy. He’d been nothing but a scrunched up bundle, sucking milk from my exhausted, but ever beautiful wife. I remembered his first smile, how he laughed when I ran my fingers down his face, how proud I’d been when he came home with a medal. How he stood before me now. I slapped his blade away with my own and his eyes hardened. “Better than being a collaborator,” he spat.
“You don’t know the full story!” My hand was tight on the hilt of my sword, the last thing that was solid, the only thing not falling out from under my feet.
“I know what it’s done to you!” His voice wavered, but he stood tall. I realized my sword was against his chest. My arm was frozen. I couldn’t move.
A gentle hand against my chest called me back from the darkness. “Melissa?” I whispered. Please, help me, I wanted to say, but the words stuck in my throat.
Her hand traced down my arm, sending warmth through my clenched muscles. She placed her hand on mine and I relinquished the sword. I stared down at her, the battle raging below the stage inconsequential. And then the sword was at my throat.
“Tell your men to stand down,” Melissa said.
Fire scourged my soul. Two oaths tore at my being, the first sealed with a kiss, the other with blood.
The choice should have been easy. Everything I had ever done had been for her. She was my wife. And here she was, slapping it all back into my face, laughing at my sacrifices, stealing my children from me! And I had a duty. I was almost at the top, I nearly had the power to make a difference, to stamp out the Resistance…My stomach clenched so suddenly, I swayed, my small grip on lucidity trickling through my fingers. Melissa was in the Resistance.
A series of whistles broke through the battle.
“Leila!” Melissa called sharply, backing away from me. Pain was evident in her steps, but still she pointed the sword at me.
A void opened in my heart, as Leila scrambled to her mother’s side. I stumbled under the weight of desperation. Johnathon had blood on his blade. Oh son, what have you done? People were bleeding on the ground, but the fighting had ceased, as the Resistance heeded the call to flee. Melissa hurried away, leaning her weight on that guard, our children scrambling after her. Several turncoats guarded their escape.
Melissa hesitated, casting one last glance in my direction. Her eyes screamed guilt, but it didn’t make a difference. Melissa was in the Resistance. Melissa was the Resistance. As I watched her walk away, I watched her become my enemy.
It was her choice. She knew what this meant and still she had chosen it. She knew I couldn’t live without her and still she was leaving me. Anger tensed my arms. I took a step forward, not knowing what I was going to do. My soldiers fell into position behind me.
A sharp whistling pierced through my anger. Then, I was flying, praying only that I had calculated the angle right, that the arrow pierced my skin and not hers. The impact of the arrow knocked me to the ground, but I felt no pain. I charged the closest soldier with a yell though I had no weapon. I’m the bigger threat! I all but screamed aloud. Kill me, not her!
A blow to the side of my head made everything go fuzzy. I punched into the darkness, but I couldn’t lift my arm. I had failed her. I hadn’t been good enough. I had never been good enough. “Melissa,” I called into the darkness. The effort of speaking sliced my throat. “Melissa, I’m sorry.”
But only empty air greeted my apology. She was gone. I struggled to keep my eyes open, but what was the point? She was gone.