Free Short Story: “Rules of War” by Fran Jacobs

Rules of War
By Fran Jacobs

The creature in the cage wasn’t moving. It sat still and silent in the centre of its prison watching Arathy approach, impassively and unconcerned, with its dull violet eyes. When Arathy’s father, Kyther, had returned from patrol duty and unloaded the cage from the cart, the creature had been shouting in its own language and rattling the bars that surrounded it, but it had quietened down when Kyther had threatened it with an iron rod, and it hadn’t moved since. Even so Arathy still felt nervous as he crept towards the cage. His heart was pounding, his breathing was ragged and his palms were slick with sweat, but he knew that was as much to do with the fear of his father coming back out of the farm house and catching him avoiding his chores, than because of the nervous anticipation he felt at finally being able to see one of the fey.
They had been at war with the faerie race since his great grandfather’s time, but Arathy had never actually seen one. He’d heard stories about them, though, ever since he was a child, how they stole mortal children and enslaved them, made women and animals infertile, spoiled crops, soured milk and sank ships, but he had always thought that he would have to wait until he was eighteen, and joined his father and older brother, Rodir, on patrol, before he would catch a glimpse of one. He’d never dreamed that his father would actually capture a faerie, so he had no intention of wasting this opportunity, even if he would face a thrashing if he were caught.
Inside the wooden cage, cringing away from the iron disks that Kyther had hung to the outside of the bars, was a female faerie. She was a slender, androgynous creature, but her breasts, small and delicately formed, clearly defined her sex. She was probably as tall as Arathy, but in the small space of the cage, with her long limbs curled up around her, it was hard to tell. She seemed to be wearing nothing more than a sheer piece of gossamer as a dress. It was like a spider’s web draped around her, cut low at the back where her wings would have been, only they were gone now and all that remained were two stubs, surrounded by red, torn skin, and dried blood. Kyther had chopped the wings off to make sure that she couldn’t fly away, before cauterizing the wound and wrapping the wings in cloth. He would take them both to market, to sell separately, and could expect to make a small fortune, as faeries were always popular, especially women and children. Male faeries were less desirable, they were considered to be more dangerous, but Arathy wasn’t sure about that. The look in this faerie woman’s cat-slit eyes was one of pure murder.
But she looked scared, too.
“Can I get you anything?” Arathy asked her softly, not sure that she could even understand him. “To eat or drink?” There was a pause and then the faerie woman shook her head, milky-white hair flying about her face. “Are you in pain?” There was another pause and then an uncomfortable nod. “I-I’ll get you something, some water from the well, try and clean you up. Just hold still.” Another nod and Arathy turned and hurried away, heading towards the well.
Arathy worked quickly to fill the bucket with icy cold water and then stumbled back to the cage as fast as he could across the uneven ground, spilling a little of the water as he went. When he reached the cage he gave the faerie a nervous smile, one he hoped would comfort her, before heading around the back of it to squat in the dirt behind her. He soaked the hem of his cloak in the cold well water and carefully reached through the bars to dab it against the faerie’s pale skin.
The faerie girl cried out at his touch and flinched away.
“I’m sorry,” Arathy whispered. “I really am–”
“No,” the girl said, in a soft, lilting voice that showed that she could not only understand him, but speak his language. “Please, continue.”
Arathy hesitated but the girl squared off her shoulders and shoved a fist into her mouth to mask any cry that she might make, leaving Arathy no choice but to take a deep, slow breath and raise the damp cloak corner again to dab at her back.
He did his best to clean away the dried blood and soothe the sore flesh without hurting her, but every now and then the faerie would hiss in pain, or flinch away from his touch. Arathy didn’t blame her. Her once glimmering wings were gone and nothing remained but the stubs and sore and cauterized flesh. It had to hurt, but there was nothing that Arathy could do to except be as careful as he could.
And then his mother was calling him in for breakfast.

*

The barn where Kyther moved the faerie, to keep her out of his way, was draughty and cold and hung all over with tatty cobwebs that fluttered in the breeze, but at least it was private. He’d moved her there later that first day, and, since then, he hadn’t shown her any interest at all! Instead he’d left her care to Arathy and Rodir, after setting down his stringent rules: they were not to spend any time with her, other than to push her food through the small slot in the cage and to empty her chamber-pot; they were not to talk to her; they were not to look her in the eye, and they were not to touch her. Faeries were evil creatures, Kyther had said, and could cast a spell on a man just by looking at them, so they had to be very careful.
But in the days that followed Arathy couldn’t see anything about the faerie that seemed evil, in fact, she seemed rather vulnerable and sad. And, even though he knew that he should heed his father’s warnings and avoid her, he couldn’t help himself. She was an exotic creature, strange and mysterious, with her violet eyes, white hair and feline features, and he couldn’t keep away. He was captivated.
He tried to win her affection by taking her gifts: his mother’s healing salve, for the wounds on her back; a blanket, to keep her warm at night; a comb and a mirror, so that she could make herself look pretty; and food, that he stole from the larder and supper table so that she wouldn’t have to eat the table scraps that his mother set aside for her. And the faerie girl certainly seemed to appreciate his care and attention. After only a few days of coaxing she’d told him her name, Ash’ia, and had started to smile when he entered the barn. Soon after that she’d started to ask him how his day had been, and that had quickly led to a proper conversation and now, only a week later, Ash’ia had taken to telling him stories about her home and talked to him as if he was an old friend.
Arathy loved to hear her stories about her life back in the Faerie Realm. Although she avoided telling him anything that was personal about herself, she was full of tales of her brothers and sisters, one of whom was a scout in the Queen’s Army, a warrior, which Arathy found incredible. A woman fighting alongside the men! But, judging from Ash’ia’s stories, things were very different in the Faerie Realm. Women could rule, they could fight, they didn’t have to get married and have children, they were equal to the men and worked alongside them. Ash’ia had actually been horrified at the idea that, in the Mortal Realm, a woman was expected to stay home and raise children and she couldn’t understand why any woman would accept just this for herself. And it was these differences, and the stories that she told, that intrigued Arathy more than anything else and lured him back time and again to see her.

 

“It’s good to see you this evening, Arathy,” Ash’ia said, as Arathy slid into the barn. “I grow bored alone in here. It’s nice to have someone to talk to.”
“I brought your supper,” Arathy said, digging out the food that he had stolen earlier in the evening from his breech pocket. Ash’ia took it with a bright smile, her soft hand gently touching his as he passed them through the slot.
“Thank you.” She took a bite of the apple. “How…how much longer will it be until I’m taken to market, to be sold?” Her voice shook a little as she spoke but that wasn’t surprising. She had to be terrified of what was to come. Arathy knew that he would be, too, in the same situation.
“We’re taking you next week,” he said quietly.
“Oh.” Ash’ia’s mouth twisted. “Oh.”
“Will you be all right?”
“Would you?” she countered. “If you were locked away in a small cage, with no room to stand up, would you be all right? I can’t stretch my arms or legs, they’re so cramped that they’re a mass of pain.” Her violet eyes welled up with tears. “It hurts so much, that I’m actually looking forward to being taken to market! Can you imagine, I’m looking forward to being paraded around in front of gaping mortals, listening to their catcalls, being bid on as if I were a fine cow, just so that I can get out of this damn cage!”
Arathy swallowed. “I-I wish that I could let you out…”
“I know,” Ash’ia said, with a forced smile. “It’s all right. I do understand. I’m an exotic creature, a pet, I’m worth a lot of coin, you can’t take the risk that I might escape if you were to let me out for a bit.”
Arathy flinched as he shook his head. “No,” he said. “It’s not that. I can’t let you out. My father has the key for the lock and he keeps it with him all the time, I don’t see any way that I could steal it from him to be able to let you out for a little while. I’m sorry.”
“Oh.” Ash’ia’s gave him another weak smile. “It’s all right. I…I will be free of this cage soon enough and you have made it very comfortable for me. Thank you.”
Arathy laughed nervously. “My father would tan my hide if he saw half of this! I wasn’t even supposed to talk to you! He said you would put a spell on me!”
“No,” Ash’ia said sadly. “No spell. If I could use magic in such a way I wouldn’t be here now, away from my family, from my friends.”
Arathy blinked. “Yes,” he said. “Yes, I suppose that’s true.” He bowed his head, reaching through the bars of the cage to touch Ash’ia’s slim fingers gently. Her touch was warm, her fingers calloused beneath his. “You…you don’t blame me for this, do you?” he whispered. “I-I couldn’t bear it if you blamed me for all of this.”
“Why would I blame you?” the faerie asked. “You’re just a child, it isn’t your fault. Our people are at war, this is how your people fight, they kill our men, imprison and sell off the women and the children. It is one of your rules of war and I knew what might happen to me when I came to your world, I knew the risks. This is no one’s fault but my own.”
“I’m not a–” Arathy began, but he stopped before telling Ash’ia that he was fifteen, almost a man, and not a child. It wasn’t her fault that she hadn’t realised that, after all, she was a faerie, from a strange realm, she couldn’t understand how things were in the mortal realm and he didn’t want to make her feel bad by correcting her. “Oh,” was all he said instead, then there was a long pause as he tried to think of something else he could say, but in the end he just shrugged. “Will…will you tell me another story? About your home,” he added quickly.
Ash’ia smiled fondly at him as she shook her head. “It’s getting late, Arathy, your father will wonder where you are and I would like to eat my meal in peace. I will tell you another story tomorrow.”
“Can I get you anything? Do you need me to tend your bruises… or…or…”
“The stubs? No. No they’re fine, your mother’s healing salve did a good job, I would thank her for it, if she did anything more than spit at me.” Ash’ia yawned, a clear sign of Arathy’s dismissal. “Good night, Arathy.”
“Good night Ash’ia,” Arathy whispered, getting to his feet. With a heavy heart he left the barn, closing the door on the faerie firmly behind him.

*

Ash’ia was quiet as she carefully dabbed healing salve onto the large, fresh burn on her arm. It was starting to blister and it looked extremely painful. Arathy wouldn’t have believed it was caused by iron touching the faerie’s skin, if he hadn’t seen it for himself.
When he’d come into the barn that afternoon, following his chores, he had walked in on his brother threatening Ash’ia with an iron bar and mocking her with tales of what would happen to her when she’d been sold. Arathy had been furious, when he had seen his brother threatening his faerie, and told him to stop and threatened to fetch their father. But the older boy had just laughed and Arathy had lost his temper and struck him, the first time in his life that he had laid a finger against his bigger, stronger brother. It had taken Rodir by surprise, but, once he had recovered from the initial shock of it, he had struck Arathy back and the two had fought until the commotion had brought Kyther running.
When he could breathe easily again, Arathy had explained what had happened and the burn marks on Ash’ia’s skin, from where the iron had touched her, had been enough proof to convince Kyther that Arathy was telling the truth. He’d beaten Rodir for what he had done, called him all sorts of names, angry that Rodir had damaged his prize, then forbidden him from entering the barn again, leaving the faerie girl solely in Arathy’s hands, much to Arathy’s secret delight. But the look of pain in Ash’ia’s eyes, as he had returned to hand her the healing salve, had quashed that. He’d wanted to be the only one to take care of Ash’ia, but not at this cost. He didn’t like to see her hurt.
“Are you all right?” Arathy asked Ash’ia in a quiet voice. The faerie girl nodded her head, but the tears shinning in her eyes betrayed her. “I’m sorry about that…about Rodir…”
“No,” the girl said, “you saved me from him.”
“He wouldn’t have killed you! Just…just…”
“Tortured me?” Ash’ia shrugged. “I’m glad that you came in when you did. I’m glad that it was you who saved me.” She lifted her eyes. “Was…was it true what your brother said?” she asked in a quiet voice. “Am I to become a whore?”
“I…I don’t know,” Arathy whispered. “I have heard that there are brothels in the cities now, where a man can buy a faerie woman to bed…but Rodir was just saying that to be cruel. I’m sure it won’t happen to you. I’m sure that you will be well taken care of–”
Ash’ia’s face became very pale and pinched. “As well taken care of,” she said slowly, “as I have been here? Locked in a cage in a draughty barn, threatened with iron, mocked and called a…a monster?” Arathy swallowed back a tight lump that had formed in his throat and he slowly shrugged. Ash’ia’s jaw set. “You have been kind to me,” she said in a flat voice. “But I’m not foolish enough to think that I will always be so well looked after. I’m to be sold into slavery. If I’m lucky, I will be put on display like a prized animal, if I’m not, I will be raped day and night while men pay another man for that privilege! This is the life that awaits me and I don’t see why I should lie to myself and pretend it will be otherwise.” She tilted her head to regard Arathy with flat eyes. “But you can pretend it’s otherwise, Arathy, if it will make it easier for you to spend my blood money. You can pretend I’m well, with kind masters. You can pretend that I don’t miss my family and my friends, or my freedom, if it makes it easier for you and your family to enjoy your new farm tools or new clothes, or whatever else your father and mother purchase with coin for my life! You can pretend what you wish, Arathy, but do not hate me if I don’t do the same!”
“I-I could never hate you!” Arathy gasped. “And please, please, don’t talk like this. Ash’ia, please! You said that you don’t blame me for this, that this isn’t my fault!”
“I don’t blame you, Arathy,” Ash’ia said, in a flat, empty tone of voice. “I blame no one for my fate but myself.” She turned her back, presenting the still fresh scars from where her wings used to be. “Please, leave me. I want to be alone.”
“Ash’ia!” Arathy whispered, a protest, as a tight lump seized his chest. “Please, I’m sorry, but none of this is my fault! Ash’ia, you said yourself that it is a rule of war! It’s what we do! I-it’s not my fault…” But the girl’s back was a hard line and when she refused to even acknowledge him, Arathy had no choice but to leave.

*

Arathy could hear the sound of Ash’ia sobbing as he lay in his narrow bed and tried to sleep. He tried to ignore it, tried to pretend that he couldn’t hear it, but it was impossible. In the past week, since Rodir had attacked her with the iron bar, she hadn’t said more than two words to Arathy. She’d been detached, aloof. Arathy had tried to coax her out of it, tried to make her laugh, or even smile, but she’d barely acknowledged him until, that afternoon when, he had told her the news, that the following morning she was to be taken to market.
Then she had started to cry and she hadn’t stopped. Even now, in the dark stillness of the night, Arathy could hear her crying. He didn’t blame her for it, not for one moment, it had to be terrifying, to not know what awaited you, to be so helpless, to have no control over your own life. And, although Arathy felt sorry for her, for what she would face in the morning, he was relieved too. He was glad that she would soon be gone and he wouldn’t have to look at her or live with the guilt that came with having her trapped in the cage in the barn, because that guilt was incredible. Even though her eyes were violet and her hair was white, even though she had scarred and bloody stumps where wings had once fluttered in the breeze, she was little different to Arathy. She had a family, just as he did, and friends, and hopes, and fears. He found it impossible to see her as a monster, the way his parents did, he didn’t even see her as an exotic pet anymore. No, now she was just a sad, tragic figure and the sound of her crying tore at his heart.
Arathy rolled over, pulling a pillow over his head to try and mask the sound of weeping, only it seemed to be inside his head, echoing through his mind, heavy gasps, whimpers of pain, of misery. It was a never ending flood of tears and, in his mind’s eye, he could see Ash’ia, her pale face red from crying, her violet eyes watering, her slim body shaking. He couldn’t get the image, or the sound, out of his head, it was as though it was trapped there, like a captivating song, and nothing he could do seemed to shift it.
When it finally grew too much for him to bear, Arathy knew that there was only one thing left that he could do. He had to go and see her.
Arathy fumbled to strike his tinderbox, so he could light his lantern and see things more clearly, and then he reached for his clothes. He dressed quickly, his heart racing and his mouth dry, and crept out of his bedroom. He had to walk carefully, avoiding the creaking floorboards, as he made his way through the house, so as not to alert his parents. His heart was thundering inside his chest the whole time, like an insistent drum, and the only thing that drowned it out was the sound of the faerie girl crying.
“I want to go home!” the girl gasped, as soon as she saw Arathy. Her face was red, just as he had imagined it, her nose running; she looked a state, miserable and small. “I miss my sister and my mother!”
“I’m sorry,” Arathy said, setting down the lantern, before sinking to his knees beside the cage. He pushed his fingers carefully through the bars to try and touch her, hoping that would bring her comfort. “I-I really am. I-I wish things were different, I-I wish…”
“They will never find me, Arathy! My family. I sat here and I hoped and I prayed to the gods that they would find me, that somehow they would rescue me, but they haven’t come! They have left me here and tomorrow I will be gone and they will never find me!” She buried her face in her hands and her body shook with sobs that were so violent the iron disks on the cage rattled, clanging together.
With a heavy heart, Arathy got to his feet. There was nothing he could say, nothing he could do. He couldn’t help her. He turned to go, but as he was leaving he caught sight of his father’s tool rack and the glint of metal from Kyther’s work knife. Arathy had it in his hand, and was cutting the ropes that tied the iron disks to the cage, before he even knew it.
“What…what are you doing?” Ash’ia whispered.
“Setting you free.”
“Won’t you get in trouble?”
Arathy hesitated and then he shrugged. “Probably,” he said. “If my father finds out, but I’ll lie to him, tell him I don’t know what happened to you and maybe he’ll think it was someone from the village who released you. Someone who was jealous of the money he would have made from you. Even if he does discover it was me there isn’t a lot he can do. He can beat me, I suppose, but he has done that before. He may decide that I can’t be trusted and try to stop me going on patrol, or something. But I doubt he can actually do that. It is the law, after all, that all men of eighteen take their turn on patrol, to protect us all from the ‘evil’ fey.” He gave Ash’ia a quick smile as the last disk fell away and he turned his attention towards the lock.
“You will join the patrol when you come of age?” Ash’ia asked, sounding strangely calm.
“Yes,” Arathy said. “Of course.”
“And you will kill any faerie that you come across?”
Arathy hesitated before nodding slowly. “It’s war,” he said. “They’re the enemy.”
“Yes,” Ash’ia agreed. “It’s war. But you will not kill me?”
“No!” Arathy said, surprised that she’d even asked. “You’re a friend! I can’t kill you!” The lock broke and Arathy opened the cage and cleared away the iron disks so that she had a safe path to walk along. Then he stood back to watch as she climbed out of the cage and stretched her whole body, the way that a cat would after a nap.
“Thank you for giving me my life back,” she said, and her slim arms slid around him as she hugged him tight. “Thank you so much. Thank you for saving me.” She smelt of dirt and grime, her hair was lank against his face, and Arathy could feel the pounding of her heart, beneath her breasts that were pressed close against him. Her body was slim and all too real, all too warm, in his arms. She was all too real.
A sudden blast of pain shot through his back, making him cry out and pull free of Ash’ia’s grip. Blinking back the sudden flurry of tears that had filled his eyes, Arathy twisted his arm up behind him, seeking out the source of the burning pain.
And his fingers closed around the hilt of Kyther’s work knife, buried in his back.
Arathy gasped, with surprise and pain, and collapsed to his knees with a bone jarring jolt. His mouth was full of blood, it was thick and salty, and when he coughed, dark red droplets sprayed onto the ground. “Why?” he asked. It was all he could think of to say. Tears burned in his eyes and his vision was cloudy as he struggled to stare up at the faerie woman he had considered a friend, the faerie woman who had just taken his knife from his hands and plunged it into his back.
Ash’ia only shrugged. Her violet eyes were suddenly dry and they were clearer and calmer than Arathy could remember them being before. They weren’t the eyes of Ash’ia, the frightened faerie in the cage, now, no, these eyes were cold and calm and they regarded him impassively as he collapsed onto his side, gasping like a fish out of water. “It was nothing personal, Arathy,” she said. “In a few years you would have joined the patrol with your father and killed any of my kind that you came across. I have just saved a few lives by taking yours.” She stepped over his fallen body as she headed towards the barn door. “It’s a rule of war, Arathy, to never leave a live enemy behind you. That’s all it is, a rule of war.”


About the Author

Fran Jacobs lives in the UK and graduated from the University of Nottingham with a Masters degree in Ancient History in 2001. She now lives in Swansea where she runs an online gothic website, Megaera’s Realm. Fran mostly writes fantasy, with a penchant for the darker side of it, and her stories have been published in a variety of magazines including Forgotten Worlds, Nanobison, Chaos Theory: Tales Askew, Neo-opsis, Alien Skin, Dred, Art and Prose and a Tangled Script of Intangible Soul Engravings.

You can read more about her past achievements and future projects on her website:

http://www.franjacobs.com

You can also keep track of her books on her author page:

Books by Fran…

Ellenessia’s Curse Series

Book 1: The Shadow Seer

For generations prophets have foreseen the birth of the Shadow Seer, the oracle of dark visions and fallen kingdoms. But by the time of Sorron, King of Carnia, their warnings have mostly been forgotten and his name is known only to a handful of scholars.

When Sorron’s grandson, Prince Candale, falls deathly ill, the Seer’s legends are brought to light once again by his saviour, a witch named Mayrila. She believes that Candale is the fulfilment of those long forgotten prophecies.  She believes that he is the Shadow Seer…

 

 

Book 2: The Seer’s Tower

Prince Candale has discovered the truth about himself at last.  He is the Shadow Seer, foretold prophet of dark visions and fallen kingdoms.  The witch Mayrilla tried to teach him control, but now she lies dead, struck down by Candale’s own hand, and the ever-watching shadow has begun to talk.

It wants him to go the kingdom of Idryan, to the Seer’s Tower, and tells him that what he will learn there will change everything. It promises rewards, if he obeys, but punishment if he does not.

But is it the voice of the demon, Ellenessia, that talks to him, a voice to be obeyed, or just the beginnings of Candale’s prophecised descent into madness?