Past Lives: Crossing The River: 5

Sorry about the absence. Generally, I try to update the blog with something at least once a fortnight, but things have been quite hectic (and I’ve managed to misplace my journal where I write all this stuff longhand, so that was rather a blow to motivation). However, my life is settling down again and I’ll make do until I find my journal, so here’s some more story.



Then the prince spoke to the beggar,

“Give a title, or a name,

For we are both men, one and the same;

With whom am I going to cross the river?”

When she returns, he is staring at the fire, mouth twisted and eyes thoughtful. The necklace is back in the bag, but it hasn’t faded from his thoughts.

She’s clutching a dead rabbit, blood still matted in its fur, and when he turns his head, she briefly meets his eye. He hears her sit a few feet behind him, and, as he doesn’t turn around, he hears what he knows to be the sound of her slowly and methodically skinning the animal.

Martin has always had an astonishing propensity for stillness. He has grown up with a mother who ignores cries and tantrums, and despite the events of the past few days, it is usually extremely difficult to rile him. So he sits, listening to the silence, patient as curiosity replaces the boredom of the trudge across the marshes. In his head, he’s still holding the necklace, still turning it over in his hands; still realising that he knows nothing about the woman he has elected so vehemently to travel with. He frowns, still wondering, and suddenly something occurs to him. “I didn’t catch your name.”

“I didn’t give it,” is her quiet reply, but he thinks, briefly, that he hears a smile in it.

He can’t help looking around; her eyes are still on the rabbit, and between her injuries and the shadows, he honestly can’t deduce her expression. “I…” He stumbles in the silence that follows, unsure of what to say, afraid of being presumptuous or offensive. There is a small, clicking pop that hangs in the silence – she has cracked her knuckles.

“Aerith,” she says, saving him from his plight. It’s sudden and awkward, rusty from disuse, the sentence bursting forth like an accident. “And you?”

He looks around once again, and belatedly realises that her eyes are upon him; she is watching him quietly, carefully, like a hunter sizing up whether he is prey or predator – and in that moment, he feels that she is as unsure as he. He looks down, unable to keep her gaze now that the ire of earlier has faded. “My name is Martin,” he replies at last, looking down at his hands, running a thumb over his other hand’s knuckles in a half-hearted attempt at warming – or perhaps comforting – himself.

“Thank you for your name,” she replies quietly, and the silence briefly descends again until he hears her footsteps and she comes to crouch beside the fire, grabbing a stick  and skewering the rabbit, preparing to put it over the flames. Some of the shadows  are stripped from her by the light of the fire, and when he looks around, he sees her features clearly, her eyes bright and curious as she watches him. “It’s not too late,” she says.

It takes him a moment to understand what she means, but when he does, he grits out, “I know. And I refuse to turn back.”

“Is there nothing waiting for you at home?” she asks, looking back at the fire.

“My mother. My sister.” His voice is flat and unenthusiastic, and her head turns rapidly to look at him with an odd expression – it’s torn, somewhere between shock and anger.

“And do they not matter?” she asks.

He sighs, shaking his head and looking at his hands – they’re unable to keep still tonight; tense, he’s pressing them together as if in prayer, clenching and unclenching his fists, squeezing his thumb between his fingers – all the small, annoying habits his mother always used to scold him for. “They matter. Yes. But if you are enthusiastic at the prospect of meeting my mother, then you have obviously not yet met her.” He smiles, but there’s something false and hollow in it.

“She seemed a fine woman to me,” Aerith replies, poking at the fire with a stick.

“Fine in some ways, not in others. I can see why my father ran from her.” An astonished pause. His fingers slip from his lap, and he puts his palms flat on the ground, leaning back to rest his weight on them. Unable to look at Aerith, he focuses his gaze on his knees instead. “No. No. That was… unfair of me. Not something I believe.”

Another pop, another crack of the knuckles – a habit his mother has always called unhealthy, but one that she herself frequently engages in. Aerith swallows. “The voice of a man who has been bitter for far too long.”

With another sigh, he rubs the heels of his hands into his eyes and mutters, “You may well be right.” He looks up. “And who is waiting for you in the next village?”

“Not who. What.” Her voice is matter-of-fact.

He’s growing tired of word games and evasion. “What, then?”

“More road.” She frowns, rubs her forehead; the rub becomes a scratch, and she hisses – quiet and low, in a way that obviously means she doesn’t want him to hear.

He raises a hand to her fingers, lowers them. “The skin is still tender, I know. but doing that helps no-one, and certainly not you.”

She directs a glare at him, snatching her hand away. “I know that.”

Another knuckle-cracking pop behind them

They look at each other in the silence, and he feels his mouth turn dry. “That was…” he begins.

“You,” they both finish, eyes still on each other, then, in chorus, “No.”

She draws her sword, stands in a movement that Martin can tell should be smooth – it’s made slower, jerkier by her injuries – and he pulls himself up from the ground, turns to look behind them.

Sitting a few feet away, further from the light of the fire, his legs crossed and his hands resting patiently on his knees, is a man in the simple clothes of a villager; he is smiling, but there’s something strange in it, as if it has been practised but not quite perfected. He cracks one more knuckle, loud in the silence.



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