PARADISE ENDS LIKE THIS
Perseopia – 146 years ago
Dust coated Toler Ramone’s face, forming a gritty paste at the sides of his mouth and stinging his eyes. He wheezed as he breathed it in and choked on the stench of twenty thousand terrified men. Tension was rising as they squeezed through claustrophobic streets, manifesting itself in twitches of the head, and faster, more erratic movements. The men wanted to get to the fight, wanted the excruciating crawl to be over. The crowd jostled Toler back and forth, but always onward. Men in heavy chainmail and cloaked in midnight blue were pressing in on all sides; bodies crushing inward, then spreading out, and back in again. Metal armour plates clanking, squealing across each other. The air thick with dirt churned up from the ground. The noise was overwhelming. Men were shouting, chanting. Some were crying. There was no dignity in war; only the uncertainty of battle, the build-up to the fight.
“Mantis!” Toler shouted to the man behind him. “Stay close!”
“I’m trying,” came the reply from behind. “We’re moving too slowly. We should be there already.”
Only the golden dome of the palace was visible over the heads in front; their destination. The Sultan was in there somewhere. That was the only thought rattling around Toler’s head. Perhaps it was a good thing; no time to dwell on forthcoming events as the tide of men pulled him on, relieving him of his indecision. No choices to be made. Only to allow himself to be swept forward.
Aratta was a city he’d been to many times, although not so often in recent years, and never in such circumstances. He stared up at the sky. Clouds skipped carefree across the azure. The same view he’d taken in all those years ago on the farm at Whitstrom. The brotherhood had sent him to Fione’s farm to stand guard against the return of Razin’s mercenaries. Two years earlier they’d stolen her money and made a widow of her, and word was they were on their way back. Fione was a strong woman; she’d struggled on through the heartache of losing her husband, carried on tending the animals and the crops, and still found time to raise her daughters. Toler didn’t know how she’d managed it.
He’d spent sixty days and nights at the farm waiting for Razin’s thugs to arrive to collect their protection racket. And those days had been the happiest of his life. During the day, he helped Fione work the land. In the evenings, they played in the fields with the children. After supper, they’d put Sissi and Peonie to bed, then lie outside in the long grass and watch the sky turn red.
Toler made short work of Razin’s men when they arrived. And, when it was over, he received his orders to move on. He wanted to stay with Fione, to be with her and become part of her family. He wanted to raise Sissi and Peonie as his own, but he didn’t; he couldn’t. He’d been given his orders to move on and that’s what he’d done. He told Fione he’d return one day, when he’d made Perseopia a safe place for the children, and he often wondered if he’d be able to honour that promise. Perhaps today he would. This was the final push. They would breach the palace and restore the Sultan to the throne. When the day was done, he would leave the brotherhood and never look back. He would return to Whitstrom, marry Fione and become the father of her children. His hand went to the bead necklace that little Peonie had made him. Crude wooden beads, hand painted. He closed his eyes while he turned them on the string. The farm appeared in his mind’s eye. And he tripped over a body.