It had been a memory from several years ago.
The child’s face brightened as she received the flower.
At first, she blushed with uncertainty, but as she cautiously brought it closer to her nose to smell its fragrance, Tarhan’s fingers began to tingle.
It was not a significant action by any means. Just seeing the flowers blooming profusely by the roadside on his way back reminded him of her face. However, seeing her, who genuinely liked it, made him regretful. He felt remorse for not giving her flowers until now, to the point where he wanted to scold himself.
The action she took afterward was also sparked by a sense of guilt.
She gently placed the flower in a broken container filled with water and then placed it conspicuously along the path she passed by.
As he picked the flowers and brought them back, a few crushed petals kept catching his eye and were repeatedly stepped on.
He thought he should have chosen and picked the prettier ones…
While he contemplated a few more times, the flowers dried out. Even though the withered flowers had become dry, she couldn’t bring herself to throw them away and instead hung them on the wall. Despite having dried, the flowers still looked quite beautiful, perhaps due to her gentle touch.
Thinking about it, it was always like that. She could never easily discard even the smallest pebble he gave her.
Whenever there was an occasional moment of leisure, it was the same when we were in the fields or by the riverbank. Every time he found something shiny, he picked it up and treated it like gold, diligently wiped it clean, placed it neatly in his pocket, and brought it back.
Every time, Tarhan didn’t know what expression to put on, so he just sighed and watched her. There were much prettier things than those, after all.
He now stood at the dim end of fading memories.
The marketplace in his hometown, Petra. The vivid pink scenery enveloped the entire city as the sunset. During times of prosperity, traders lined up all the way to the shrine. Various perennial plants were used for food and medicinal herbs, bronze from smelting and refining, valuable animal bones, seafood, and monster hide…
Among them, jewelry and handicrafts made with gold and gems undoubtedly caught the eye.
It was the day when his youngest sister was born.
It was a strange occurrence.
Now, even his father’s voice was fading away into the depths of his memory, and yet there was a faint sense of expectation in his father’s eyes as they examined necklaces in the marketplace. His father, leading his eldest son and returning home faster than usual, acted a bit differently.
Tarhan brushed aside the painful memories that only hurt to recall and sarcastically murmured.
‘Compared to such things, even these stones aren’t particularly pretty…’
Every time he saw the crude pile of pebbles in the treasure chest she tried not to show him, Tarhan felt like he was getting tangled up.
The more he couldn’t buy a single thin silver cord for her, the more his own position felt pathetic. Nonetheless, he couldn’t show it. Accusing his own incompetence in front of her only highlighted his miserable situation.
Even so, she didn’t leave him wallowing in his small-mindedness and despair.
It was another memory.
They had returned home together, and they were playing with six or so pebbles lined up. Her little hands, trying hard to hold so many pebbles, made his lips twitch involuntarily. To avoid showing it, he also focused, playing with the pebbles, and ended up winning all five rounds.
When he finally came to his senses and lost the next five rounds, he couldn’t help but laugh at her bewildered expression.
When he laughed out loud like that, she was initially so startled that her shoulders jumped. Then, his lips, which had been drawing curls, froze. He was already taken aback by the way he laughed, so how strange must it feel to her.
When awkwardness and silence flowed in an instant, he truly didn’t know how to react. In his heart, he wanted to escape from that spot immediately.
…But every time, she would tug on his hand.
The dirty and foul-smelling, ugly hands.
She took those repulsive hands and rubbed them against her clean cheek. Even though he should have avoided her, he couldn’t bring himself to reject her touch.
When she acted like that, he wished she would just rip his heart out and strangle it. She ran those hands across her tender, leaf-like skin, looking at him with eyes that seemed on the verge of tears, smiling at him.
Each time, Tarhan was consumed by a sense of helplessness and defeat, yearning to kneel before her, gripped by an inescapable sensation of powerlessness.
Why did this girl enjoy it when he was happy? Why did she celebrate with him when he was happy? He was nothing.
…He was a wretched, shabby man who he himself couldn’t even stand.
He always thought about it.
Why did this girl occasionally plunge him into such unbearable pain? Why did she keep subjecting him to these trials when she wouldn’t provide relief?
What was the point of her looking at him like this?
It was as if she was looking at him long before his eyes were filled with contempt and defeat. Before, the disgraceful label of being a defeated country’s native was attached to him, as if the time when he was surrounded by family and friends was not an illusion.
All while she wouldn’t take responsibility.
While she was going to disappear in the blink of an eye, dying or getting sick… leaving him with painful memories forever etched in his heart.
Now, he couldn’t stand her constant intrusion into his empty heart, trying to slip her fingers inside his chest. Even though he despised her, he was often overwhelmed by the impulse to expose himself to her. Wanting to push her away when he couldn’t bear it.
Still, it was a battle that was never meant to be won from the start. In front of her touch, it was meaningless rebellion and feeble resistance.
She swept and cleaned the floors of their home every day, removing cobwebs, clearing gravel and pebbles that came in, and cleaning the hearth and dishes.
He had always known.
What she was cleaning was not just the floor but much more. Her hands, many times, had stretched out to touch Tarhan’s deformed and twisted heart whenever she gazed at him as if she were holding something so precious.
* * *
Tarhan opened his eyes in the cold, painful hunger, remembering these things.
He was at the edge of a cliff, with thick blades of grass obstructing his view. The cool fog mingled with the dust raised by the herd of Geppas and the occasional cries that echoed through the air, disturbing his ears.
He seemed to have lost his mind for a while.
His broken knife lay pathetically next to him as he was gasping in pain.
Even though he tried to get up, the situation was dire. Encountering the pack of black-clawed wolves along the way had been a disaster. He had climbed up to a certain height, fighting off the wretched creatures that bit his arms and legs.
He lost his footing and then fell to the middle from that height.
As if something were clogging his throat, Tarhan tilted his head slightly and spat out. The dark-red clots soaked the dirt. The dry grass carried by the wind brushed against his blood-soaked forearms and the wound that had passed through one of his eyes.
Although he had thought he had narrowly escaped death many times, this time, he felt a sense of danger that he might not make it.
Beneath the black sky, under the looming shroud of the source of death, a watery mist clung to his blood and sweat-soaked skin.
No rain had fallen on the plain. There was only the hazy fog obscuring everything in front of him. Lying on the parched and rocky ground, Tarhan thought about her while feeling his vitality being drained from his body.
In reality, she was all he thought about.
As Tarhan remembered that part of his body he had left behind on Aquilea, his whole body ached.
‘If I cannot accomplish this…’
It was right after the trial for their coming-of-age ceremony. Before he left, he remembered discovering a dagger under her pillow. Even with death so close at hand, that thought never left him.
Why had she slept with that by her side?
As he thought about it, a distant fear gripped his throat, and his breath became labored.
One thing was certain: if he didn’t get up now, if he didn’t survive and return to her side…
Tarhan chewed his teeth.
As the taste of bitter blood filled his mouth, he lifted his body, which felt like it might break apart, and used his cracked, torn hands like hooks to scratch the dirt while facing forward.
His body roared in a struggle.
Still, he couldn’t stop.
With a staggering movement, he looked only ahead. At the edge of the precipice, he looked down into the pitch-black depths.
Under the precarious cliff that he had barely crawled up from, an enormous pack of Geppas was crossing the plain, raising clouds of dust. In this magnificent yet trembling spectacle, he felt an irresistible force flowing through his spine and into his mind.
His hair fluttered in the sandy wind.
If it were just his life on the line, he would have given up a long time ago. Why did she make him do this, time and time again?
However, he already knew the answer.
He couldn’t die now.
…Since that day when she saved him, Tarhan’s life was no longer his.
Suddenly, as he turned his gaze, grass grew between the rocks. The movement of monster ants crawling near his feet distracted him.
‘Ants are avoiding the rocks.’
With this realization, the possibility struck him like lightning, racing through his veins and igniting his heart.
The old hippi’s host, scabbard, came to mind.
Whatever the situation, the beasts never dared to touch the land where his scabbard was planted. Anti-monster stone. Perhaps that rock was the source of it all.
‘His scabbard was supposed to contain magic… it was all just a lie.’
Tarhan, who finally understood the reason behind Kahanti’s scabbard and the stones adorning his clothes, couldn’t help but sneer. He spread his hands like claws and immediately gathered the stone fragments. Then, he used the cloth and cord he had to securely fasten the bundle of the anti-monster stone to his waist and ankles.
Although he didn’t know how effective it would be, at the very least, it might save him from exploding and being trampled under the hooves of other Geppas when he delivered his first and last blow.
It was just a possibility.
The dust was getting closer.
Tarhan closed his eyes, recalling the reason he had struggled and climbed this cliff. The wind on the cliff was bitterly cold. He wasn’t sure if the height was sufficient, but he had no strength left to climb any higher.
Even though he knew it was a crazy idea to even put a scratch on the tough hide comparable to geppa ores, it would take more strength than he currently possessed.
He had to break through in one shot.
There was only one chance.
‘…I have to survive.’
Despite the absurd and contradictory thought, he felt no shame. He believed that even if the gods struck him down for committing hubris, they couldn’t fault him at this moment. He wanted to live, even in such a ridiculous and paradoxical moment where he would be courting death.
It was a disgusting desire.
He must live.
…No, he wanted to live.
In fact, it was true. He had always wanted to live.
On the night when Kartratina was collapsing in the fiery pit, he had that determination. When the flooding river showed an image of his mother in the form of a hippi, he was determined.
When the rope around his waist came undone and dropped him into a giant monster Feluda’s nest, he fought his way out. Even when he had to cut open the monster’s belly from the inside and survived the ordeal, he returned to life.
All he remembered was her face during those moments of wandering through the verge of death.
He really looked like a wild dog on an empty field.
Tarhan now realized that they were right. He wondered why he had been oblivious to such concepts as shame and humiliation. He couldn’t even feel the need to hide that shameful desire anymore.
Nonetheless, he had cast away any reason for excuses long ago.
He had no need to hide it now. All he knew was that he had to live, that he had to go back to her. As long as she was alive, she had to live by his side.
He wouldn’t abandon her.
He wouldn’t betray the time they had loved each other.
Summoning every last ounce of strength, he ran, and with a final leap, he thought of her as he threw himself down into the magnificent rocks below. He hadn’t been prepared to die in the first place.
Tarhan plunged into the swirling whirlwind of sand, determined to survive.
With one sole resolve, to keep living.