Under the Oak Tree

Chapter 451 Side Story - Nightmare at Eth Lene Part 2
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Chapter 451 Side Story - Nightmare at Eth Lene Part 2

His hearing became muffled as if he were submerged underwater. Shoving Hebaron Nirtha aside, Riftan ran into the tent, where a faint light spilled out. Inside three or four figures were crowded around a bed. His breath caught in his throat as he approached. The face on the pillow, barely visible through the gloom, left him rooted to the spot.

The crouched cleric leaped to his feet as soon as he spotted Riftan. "Thank the Lord! The coalition army has returned-"

"Why aren't you treating her?"

The cleric flinched at the sharp reproach. "W-We have done all we can," he stammered, though his tone was defensive. "The external wounds and broken bones have been healed, but...man depletion and internal bleeding are beyond the healing capabilities of magic."

Riftan turned his head to the cleric. "Internal bleeding?"

Beads of sweat formed on the cleric's wrinkled face. "It saddens me to inform you...that Lady Calypse was with child."

A ringing filled Riftan's ears. His vision began to blur, but he willed himself to stay focused.

"The bleeding usually stops after the fetus is expelled," the cleric continued mechanically, "but...there seems to be remnants still inside her. Such a case isn't unheard of, but it cannot be treated with magic. We can only strengthen her with magic and hope the bleeding ceases."

After a pause, the cleric's voice grew heavier as he said, "I suggest you prepare yourself for the worst. If the bleeding does not stop...."

Riftan furrowed his brow. The old man's rambling made no sense. A thick, invisible wall seemed to separate him from the world. Sounds were muffled as if he were deep underwater, and a hazy fog shrouded everything around him.

And yet, the cleric's wrinkled lips continued to move. After staring blankly at them, Riftan lowered his gaze back to the bed. The sight of her pale face struck him, and he felt his heart plummet. A cold sweat broke out across his back. His eyes must be deceiving him; this could not possibly be real.

He reached out to touch her colorless face, his fingertips freezing at the coldness of her skin. After feeling her cheek and neck, his hand moved under the blanket. Her cold, wet skirt clung to his fingers like seaweed. It was then that realization hit him.

She was bleeding.

"We...We have to stop the bleeding," he mumbled in panic, eyes darting left and right.

The bleeding had to be stopped, but how? Lukewarm blood steadily soaked her skirt. It felt like every nerve in his body was ablaze. If they failed to stop it, she was going to die. He was going to lose her.

Trembling, Riftan shot to his feet and tore a pile of linen from the rack like a madman. As he started to strip away the blanket, he hesitated, worried that she might be cold.

His mind felt blank. He watched her shiver, at a complete loss for what to do. A moment later, he hastily covered her with a blanket again and slid his hands beneath it to feel her cold, damp leg. As the sheet grew wetter, a chill coursed through him, as if he were the one losing blood.

In a purely instinctive action, he pressed the linen between her legs. There was only one thought in his head: Stop the bleeding.

Just then, someone walked up behind him and placed a hand on his arm. "You must stop, Sir, Riftan. This won't -"

At that moment, the taut string barely holding him together snapped. He furiously shoved the interfering hand away, sending the man tumbling backward. Something shattered behind him. Hearing the commotion, several knights burst into the tent.

"Commander! What on earth -" boomed a husky voice, followed by a strong hand grabbing Riftan's shoulder, pulling him back.

Riftan struggled fiercely, fighting against those trying to separate him from her. The cries of a beast echoed in the distance.

It took a moment for him to realize that the heart-wrenching sounds were his own. More people rushed in, trying to pin him down. Riftan thrashed about without knowing why he was struggling. Four pairs of hands, or perhaps more, restrained him like chains.

Riftan's struggles became more frantic, like an animal caught in a trap. The sound of breaking objects and alarmed shouts filled his muffled ears while strong arms pressed him to the ground.

Soon, he found himself lying face down on the floor, panting like a bound beast. The man pinning him roared in his ear, "Get ahold of yourself, damn it! Her ladyship will be fine. Absolutely fine!"

The tent was in shambles by then. Riftan's gleaming eyes took in the chaos before he pushed himself up. To his horror, he realized that his hands were covered in blood.

At first, he feared it was hers. That was before he saw the spreading stain on the tapestry and realized it was his own.

He tried to focus his vision. Despite the oozing blood and exposed bones of his knuckles, he felt no pain. His very spine might as well have been pulled from his body. He felt numb, his mind wiped clean. Even the act of steadying himself felt like an impossible task. He let out a ragged breath.

Then, a delicate voice cut through his paralyzed thoughts. "R-Riftan."

His head snapped up, meeting a pair of unfocused gray eyes. Furiously shaking off the hands that bound him, he stumbled to her side.

"Where....is..." she muttered, her voice barely audible, "Rif...tan?"

"I'm here," he said breathlessly. He clasped her hand, quivering and as cold as a dying bird, within his own trembling one. Her brow furrowed; could she not see him?

He leaned in, and the words tumbled out in a rush.

"I'm here, Maxi. I'm right here."

Her lashes fluttered, and she muttered like a drowsy child, "I...I'm cold."

A searing pain scorched his throat as if he had swallowed a hot coal. Choking on a half-sob, he grabbed every piece of fabric within reach and began draping them over her.

"I'm sorry. I'm sorry. Let's warm you up. I'll -"

As her eyes closed again, Riftan clutched her hand in panic. He opened his mouth to beg her to look at him, but all that escaped was a strangled moan. He could not comprehend why this was happening.

Just a few months ago, she had been dancing in a field, a crown of flowers on her head. Now, she lay on a bed covered in blood. How had this happened? And why?

What had gone wrong?

When had it gone wrong?

His shaky hand brushed away the hair sticking to her forehead. He desperately took in her bloodless face - sunken eyes, a bruised temple, cracked lips. It was a face he had grown all too used to seeing, one marred by a punishing life. A face overshadowed by death.

A pain struck him then. It felt as though he were being branded with a hot iron. Life had always been cruel, never offering anything unless he desperately fought for it. That was his existence.

And it was he who had dragged her into such a miserable life.

Riftan clutched his head. Being torn apart alive could not have been more painful than this. His body trembled violently, as if seized by convulsions, and his mouth parted to mumble something of its own accord. It took a moment for him to realize he was uttering a prayer.

He had never in his life begged God for anything. In fact, he despised people who idly waited for miracles to occur. But he could not stop his desperate plea.

Pressing his burning eyes, he repeated the words over and over again.

Oh God,

I lay at your feet a lifetime's worth of prayers.

Please do not take her from me.

***

He did not know how much time had passed. From the bright light outside, he guessed that it was past dawn.

When a gentle hand touched his shoulder, he slowly lifted his head, His mind taking a few seconds to recognize the person before him.

It was Ruth Serbel. He seemed to be saying something.

"The bleeding has stopped. Her ladyship is out of the woods now. She will recover."

Only those words pierced through his foggy consciousness. Finally, Riftan exhaled. He had been holding his breath the whole time, he realized. Feeling slightly woozy, he closed his eyes.

"S-Sir Riftan, we must change her ladyship's clothes. Th-They are wet."

Turning toward the new voice, he saw a young female cleric shrink back. As he gazed at the trembling girl, Riftan felt his senses slowly returning.

He glanced away and registered the other female cleric waiting on one side of the bed next to Ruth. The sorcerer watched him as if he were a powder keg that could explode at any moment.

The tent was in disarray as if a storm had blown through. Broken pieces of furniture and crockery were strewn on the floor, and beside the bed lay a heap of blood-soaked linen.

Riftan stared at the mess, as if waking from a nightmare. He stood up slowly, his joints cracking from the prolonged crouch.

He could not tear his gaze away from his wife's pale, unconscious face. Finally, the clerics coaxed him to step back. One of the female clerics swiftly set up a partition next to the bed and disappeared behind it with a kettle and fresh clothes.

"Allow me to heal you as well."

Riftan turned to Ruth's haggard face, not immediately grasping his words. Only when Ruth lifted Riftan's arm did he notice his battered hands. He could not remember how they had got that way.

Ruth's voice, thick with restrained emotion, reached him as he peered down at his exposed joints. "Do you feel better now after doing this to yourself?"

Had he done this to himself?

Intense fatigue rushed over him. His shoulders slumped, and he closed his eyes. A few minutes passed. The female clerics removed the partition, their arms full of blood-soaked sheets and a dress.

"I-It is done."

Wrenching his hand free, Riftan returned to his wife's side. He leaned down to feel the soft breath seeping from her chapped lips.

His trembling fingers touched her bony hands, which were lined with blue veins and covered in scars. Memories of holding this hand on the day he took her from Croyso Castle flooded back. There had been no callouses back then.

A hollow laugh escaped him; it was impossible not to. How had he ever been that smug to think he could give her everything she wanted. His shoulders shook as he clutched his forehead.

He had thought too highly of himself.

Do you really not know where it went wrong?

It was when he had dragged her into his cursed life. The moment he had held her hand.

Squeezing her fingers in his, he buried his face in the bed.

***

By evening, a hint of color had returned to her face. Leaning against one of the tent beams, Riftan kept his eyes fixed on her. His intense watchfulness seemed to unnerve the female clerics, who quietly carried out their tasks with fearful expressions.

Time passed excruciatingly slowly. Dawn broke as he continued to stare at her closed eyes.

Finally, Riftan looked toward the tent entrance, where a bluish dawn light seeped in. Hebaron had lifted the tent flap to peer in. The burley knight stood fully armored, his face grim.

"We have located the monsters. We need your order to pursue them."

Riftan blinked slowly, then rose with effort. "Prepare Talon."

"I can lead the men."

"Do as I say."

Hebaron opened his mouth as if to argue, but soon nodded. Riftan picked up the sword belt he had discarded earlier and cast a weary glance back at his wife. Though his legs protested, he knew it would be better for her if he were not there.

He trudged out of the tent, gripped by the superstitious belief that he needed to stay as far away from her as possible. His heart felt empty, as if he were leaving half of himself behind. Even so, he had to fight. It was all he knew how to do.

The moment the thought crossed his mind, everything became clear. He had to keep hers as far from his troubled life as he could.

But was that even possible?

The sky was brightening by the minute. Riftan gazed up at it for a while before turning to the city gate, where the knights were waiting for him. He cast one final look at the tent, his face hardening, and set out for battle.

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