Another long night of keeping watch without a fire. I can smell olives on the trees. There is noise all around: the stirrings of a breeze, a restless unseen creature, or something more sinister? The air feels like a coming squall. The moon has disappeared above and I am left with only the stars till morning.
The roads are dangerous. Life is dangerous, after a time, when all the consequences from things done and choices made begin to make themselves known.
I can just make out your form through the darkness. I long to lie beside you, to press up against you and feel the contours of your body. It has been months since we had such luxury, every moment of passion has been a stolen one. A few minutes here as we rest out of sight of the road, or a few minutes there as we trade off the watch, one of us still filled with the sleep, the other driven to frenzy by boredom.
It is such an empty life now, it is hard not to feel despair, especially in these bleak moments when the darkness is my only companion. When did life become so absent of anything but survival, our days all the same, repeating themselves one after the other? I cannot recall. Every choice seemed beyond doubt, essential to our beings. Now I can hardly recall them. They seem barely to matter.
The world has just gone to fire. All of us tearing at each other in a frenzy, until nothing remains but the bones.
My bones are cold this night and I find myself shifting from foot to foot to keep warm. The air is taking on an autumnal chill. Winter will not be far behind. And what then? Where will we go? There are a hundred other questions that come to mind, but none of them bears thinking just now.
We will not be alive by then anyway, so it is pointless to worry. A sinister whisper in my head. Though I try to ignore it, I know the truth of it.
A sound, different, flowing against the current of the surrounding night, catches my attention and makes me go very still. A misplaced footstep? A sword being slipped from its scabbard? A bow being pulled taunt?
My hand is on my own sword and I crouch low, hoping I will be able to discover whoever is coming before it is too late. I wait, but no further sound comes, and slowly I allow myself to breath again. My hands are tingling from the cold and I blow on them and stuff them in my pockets as I straighten up.
Perhaps a fox moving through the forest and that is all. The thought is not reassuring. I do not believe it. There is something out there, I am certain of it. But what? Who?
I step forward uneasily, glancing over to where you lie. If someone has found us, if they are stalking toward us as I stand here, I should be waking you. But I do not. Is it doubt that stays my hand, or something else?
I decide to investigate on my own, reasoning that, so long as I do not stray too far, I can wake you with a shout or whistle if need be. This is foolish, of course. We are stronger if we stay together, easier to pick off apart. If I am fallen upon while distant from you, I may be unable to warn you.
I pick my way among the olive trees, taking care to be light on my feet, heading in the direction where I think the noise came from. Nothing stirs, the wind has gone still. The grove seems to be waiting for this drama to play itself out. The drama that is, in all likelihood, in my head alone.
I go a little way and then pause, straining at the darkness for any sign of what is out there. A sound, a scent, a shape, in amongst the shadows. There is nothing. I go a little further and stop again, resting my hand against a tree. Nothing still.
Farther and farther I go, with nothing revealed, before I begin to retreat back the way I came. There is nothing here, I tell myself, nothing at all. Still I take care as I return to you, lest my own steps betray me to the shadows.
I have a vision, as I go, of returning to the place I left you, only to find that you have gone, vanished without the trace. The night stealing you for its own. Panic seizes me and I have to resist the urge to run. You are still there, asleep, breathing steadily. I want to touch you, to take you into my arms and hold you until morning breaks. We did that once, but no more. These endless days have taken that from us as well.
It is as I am calming myself that I sense their presence and come to a halt, standing absolutely still, not even breathing. Two points of darkness, darker than the darkness, pass nearby toward where you lie. If I move now, draw my sword and fall upon them…but then I hear the approach of another from the other side of the grove. A twig snapping, and an indrawn breath, before silence descends again.
How many are there? If I attack these two now, will you awake in time to face the other? And if there are more? If I shout to wake you, will we both be able to flee and escape? So many nights we have spent making these calculations. When to run, when to attack. Only to have to do so again and again.
We called ourselves slaves once. And we were, in a manner of speaking. Our lives were nothing to those we were bonded to, and they treated us as though we were implements to be worked until broken and then replaced. We threw off those shackles and set to flames all that we had built, and in doing so left ourselves with no safe harbor to turn to. Through all the hardship, through all the battles, as our comrades splintered and factions divided, we told ourselves the suffering we endured was different. Because we were free and the choices were ours.
Noble thoughts, but untrue all the same. This misery will know no end.
I do not move from where I have stopped, listening as the three forms approach where you lie. There is a low whisper, an order, and I want to cry out, to warn you. But I do not. Instead I begin to drift away, back further into the grove. I am far enough that I almost cannot hear your cries as the swords fall.
Image: Van Gogh’s The Olive Trees