by Harule Stokes
They took everything from Vladimir Usky. His cart, his horse, his goods and all of the gold he made that day. Then, after taking so much, they chose to also take his dignity. They beat him with his own belt as one would disciple a disobedient dog. Unsatisfied with this abuse, they began to punch, kick and spit upon him and forced Vladimirto remove all of his clothing, despite the freezing cold. They laughed as he begged them for mercy. At dusk, they finally they left him beaten and bloodied in the snow.
The men that took so much from Vladimir were bandits. They were without honor, without respect, but he knew this when he hired them to burn the fields of his trading rival, Gregor Demoria. They were men who would do any number of villainous acts for the clinking sound of silver in their purses. Why would he think they would serve him without question or envy?
‘Oh why did I show them the fruit of their labor?!’ he thought, shivering as he walked along the cold barren ground of the Frost Lands, blood seeping from his swollen eye and dribbling from his mouth. His bare feet, numb and dead, plunged into calf-high snow with each step. He needed to find shelter before he froze to death, but he was so far from any nearby towns. He would not give up, his wife and son needed him.
It was his own greed is what brought him to this state, simple and plain. For as long as he could remember, he wanted to rule the marketplace. He stamped out all other rivals, with the except of Gregor. He knew if he were to ruin Gregor’s harvest it would completely cripple his ability to sell at the market. Although he pondered the thought that such an act could put the entire Demoria family in dire straits in the coming winter, the glint of shiny silver drove him to commit a villainous act. The Frost Lands were not forgiving. There would be no additional harvest after autumn as the ground would be too hard, the air too cold. They would have to struggle to survive with a fewsurviving crops and little silver to purchase provisions.
He didn’t care.
‘I’m going to die,’ he thought, as his teeth chattered uncontrollably. He looked back to where he was, his eyes following a trail of blood streaks and droplets that have partially melting the snow where they fell. He had not traveled very far from the trees he thought they would hang him from, but he was certain the road leading to town was where he needed to go. He could see the deep depression in the snow, marred with dirty corruption of wagon wheels and horse waste. It would be a pleasant walk during the summer, but naked in winter… he prayed that he would reach the salvation of the hearth at Raven’s Inn. They knew him there and would be fine opening a tab for him. It would be expensive for certain, but he had the resources to pay the cost. He just had to reach it before he died.
Vladimir shook so violently, he thought he’d fall before he could reach the roadside. With each step, more of his body grew painfully numb. He began to cry as knocking knees lifted his dead feet for another step. He reminded himself he had much to live for, and prayed to his gods for help. Yet, the truth is ever present. He was certain to die here. He’ll never make it to the Raven. He was going to freeze to death, laid prone and frozen until spring or wolves.
It was then, he heard the sound of a large wagon. It was quickly approaching from the south, four horses pulling it through the snow.
He could barely yell the words through a mouth that shuddered on it’s own accord.
He could see the man at the helm lean forward, peering at him on dead legs that continue moving him towards the roadside.
He started to cry as the wagon began to slow down.
“Help me… help me, please.”
“Vladimir? Is that you?”
It was Gregor Demoria, his rival. He exposed his identity when he pulled down his mask to get a better look at his beaten and bloodied Vladimir.
“By the gods,” Vladimir mumbled, stunned to see the man he endangered for nothing more than coin and control of the marketplace.
“Why are you nude? Who beat you?”
“I… I need, help.”
“Come Vlad, help is here. Joseph, come out and bring blankets!”
Vladimir fell to his knees almost immediately, his eyes overflowing as he stared at Gregor with the eye he could still see from.
Gregor’s son leapt from cart, furs and blankets in hand as he rushed to Vladimir. Together, the two men covered him, protected him from the cold he was surely soon to succumb to.
“Can you stand Vlad?”
Now sobbing aloud, Vladimir knees refused to cooperate, unable to hold the fullness of his weight. Only the arms of Gregor and Joseph held him aloft.
“I’m so sorry,” Vladimir replied weakly, through shivering, aching lips.
With a nod to his son, the two men lifted Vladimir into the large cart and laid him on his side. Through tears he looked upon the many winter provisions his rival purchased from the marketplace to get him and his family through the long winter of the Frost Lands. As he laid there, he continued to repeat his apology. There was much for him to apologize for.
“Was it bandits that attacked you?” Joseph asked.
Gregor sucked his teeth. “Scoundrels! I hope that damn sheriff does his job and puts an end to their violence.”
“Father, he will not stop shaking.”
“He will be fine, but it will take time for him to recover, Joseph. He will have to stay with us a few nights.”
“But father, does he deserve--”
“Deserve? Bah! We are human, yes? We are men. It is in our nature to both compete and aid one another. But, know this my son, it is not the actions of another that determines your righteousness. Even a man that paid bandits to burn our fields deserves care if his life is in danger. We should never allow vengeance to burn away our humanity.”
Vladimir’s tears flowed quite freely at Gregor’s words. No further words were spoken as they continued towards the home of Gregor Demoria. All that could be heard upon the freezing winds was the sounds of horses, the wheels of a large cart and the wailing of a poor soul that found itself filled with nothing but the searing pain of regrets and love for his fellow man.