Did you see me through her eyes, beloved? Did you see the pain you had caused me by leaving? Or perhaps you were as oblivious to her as she was to you. I like to hope you would have come back if you had known how it hurt me to see a stranger in your body. But hope is not belief.
In the months and years you did not return, I grew to know you better than I ever had while you were here. When I finally understood, I wept for the suffering that had brought you to me. But selfishly I could not wish it otherwise. Even knowing how short our time together was, I would not sacrifice it. For a long time I blamed the stranger for taking you from me. But you have not been her prisoner all this time. Indeed, it seems at times the opposite has been the case. I will not blame you for seizing back your life. But what have you done with it? You could have returned to me, had you wanted to. I thought we were happy together. Were you happy, or simply waiting for something better to come along?
Did you borrow her beauty, beloved, or she yours? Such distinctions no longer matter, if they ever did. You need it no longer. May she have better luck with it than you did. Whatever lies ahead of her, she will face it without you. You cannot undermine her plans. You cannot steal her pleasures, nor shield her from her pains. And soon enough, she will die. Perhaps you will meet in the hereafter, you with your body and she with hers. Perhaps then, when you no longer need to fight for control, you can finally make peace with one another.
But for now, once again it is you who have come to me and she who will be leaving. Seeing your beauty on her face, I wish I could make her stay. But she is not you. She does not know me, nor I her. She may have taken you from me once, but before that she brought you to me, and for that I am thankful. I am thankful that she led me to see the truth that she does not suspect herself. And I will repay her the only way I know how: by freeing her to walk the rest of her path alone.
Goodbye, my beloved. You promised yourself to me long ago, as I did to you. And though you tried to be false, in the end you did come back to me. I will say the farewell you denied me so many years ago. And you will never leave me again.
I waited for you to come back. It was not the first time you had gone wandering, and always before you had reappeared eventually. Then, after a few weeks, I thought you had returned to me. I did not know that it was a stranger wearing your face. It took me years to understand.
I had never met a man like you, beloved. A man, you left no doubt, but soft and beautiful like a woman. I never knew such a delicate body could please me as you did. I doubted that such soft lips could kiss me so urgently, but you never doubted yourself for a moment, and you proved me wrong.
Soft of body, but with a soul as hard as bronze. You never liked to talk of the past that made you so, but I wanted to know you. I collected the hints that dropped from your lips, and treasured them all the more for their rarity. Of the hunger that drove you into hiding. Of the freedom you found here on the mountain, to be yourself after so many years.
You spoke little of your past, and if you had I would not have understood. Even today I may not understand, had the stranger not come to see me. Brief as the visit was, it was the key to unlocking your past.
I guess that’s where he learned about poisons in the first place. Say what you will about them, mountain nymphs definitely have a way with herbs. Maybe if he’d stayed on the mountain, he would have learned about antidotes too. Maybe if he’d stayed, he wouldn’t have needed an antidote. Maybe if he’d stayed, she would have wanted to help him.
In the end, she did use her skills to help him. In a way. She gave him something to end his pain. Right to the end he probably thought she would save him, no matter how badly he had treated her.
I must have come down with something on the journey, because I woke up to find I was also under her care. Typical. I survive ten years under siege, as plagues come and go, then the moment I’m out in the fresh country air I get sick.
But the nymph looked after me as tenderly as any old lover could have hoped for. Once, I think I found her kissing my fevered brow as I half-woke. It’s hard to be sure of anything when you’re in that state. But maybe the family resemblance was as striking as they’d said, all those years ago.
It would be so tempting to stay here. But I have responsibilities back in the city. I should be there, helping the people I love. This rural idyll was his life once, but never mine. For better or worse, my home is back in the city.
For however much longer it stands.
Maybe I should be happy he’s gone. But it’s all too late. Much of the damage is already done, and the rest is coming, no matter what. It’s like being on a burning ship. The flames will go out when it sinks beneath the waves, but there’s not much comfort in the knowledge. All you can do is wait for events to run their course. That’s what it’s like in the city now. Waiting for the end to come. I guess there’s a slight consolation in knowing he won’t be there to see the fruits of his handiwork. But it’s so, so slight.
He didn’t even have the decency to die on the battlefield. But I guess that’s fitting. You live by the poison arrow, you die by the poison arrow. And in his agony, he just would not shut up. Kept going on about how his wife was the only one who could heal him. His first wife, that is. Not the one who was tending him by his bedside. That must have made Helen feel good about her life choices.
Eventually he got his way, like he always did. I had to go with him, of course. Nobody else in the city knew the area as well. It’s a miracle he survived as he was dragged, writhing and screaming, up the mountain. Dying along the way would have been uncharacteristically thoughtful.
After all these years on the harsh mountain, I wasn’t even sure she’d still be alive. So many aren’t, back in the city. But there she was, as if she’d been waiting for him since the day he left.
I guess I got knocked out pretty early in the proceedings, and he decided slitting my throat like that was beneath his dignity. I don’t imagine my side were lining up to rescue me. Maybe I should feel insulted that I’m still alive. But try as I might, I just can’t.
However I got out of it, I don’t intend to put myself in that sort of danger again. I’ll stick to what I know. When it comes to manipulation, I’m strictly supply-side. And I may not have had a sword on the mountain, but I wasn’t too shabby at hunting with a bow. I can make my contribution that way.
Hector wouldn’t approve of course, but that’s the kind of attitude that got him killed about a week later. Better him than me. After what he talked me into, I may have been the only one in the city who never shed a tear for him. But the gods must be fans of irony, or perhaps it was my dry eyes that let me see clearly enough to avenge him. It wasn’t my best shot of all time, but with enough poison on the arrow, a hit in the foot is as deadly as anywhere else. That one lucky shot turned the tide, and in an instant I went from coward to bona fide war hero. However much they sneered at my methods, there’s no arguing with the results.
It’s possible that I may have won this war for our side. And with Crown Prince Hector mouldering in his grave, there’s a job opening for an heir apparent.
I just may end up with all the marbles after all.