Relg was sitting on the border of the circle of warm glow that the fire lit up by Durnik eradiated. His back was turned towards the camp, so that he didn’t have to look at the painfully intense light or engage in a conversation.
The Ulgo heard footsteps behind him, and even without turning around, he knew it was her. For some reason, he always knew it was her. And it was always her, anyway.
Taiba kneeled by the man’s side, far too close for his liking.
“I brought you this” she said, extending towards him her hand with a white towel which smelled of some herbs, unknown to Relg “Polgara said it will help for the graze”
“I’m not hurt”
“Then what’s this?”
Taiba pointed at the area of peeled skin on the Ulgo’s forearm – a gain from his recent clash with the Murgo soldier – revealed by the incautiously cuffed sleeve. The man quickly hid it.
“It’s nothing” he grunted
“It doesn’t look like nothing” Taiba said “Here, let me see”
She took Relg’s arm, but the man tore it away momentarily.
“Don’t touch me!” he hissed.
“You need to have it cleaned” Taiba said obstinately.
She reached for the Ulgo’s arm once more and, again, the man jerked away.
“I said don’t touch me!” he groaned “Don’t ever touch me!”
“I just want to help, why are you being weird about it?”
“You wouldn’t understand”
“What?” he asked.
“Explain” Taiba demanded, handing him the towel
Distrustfully, Relg took it and pressed against his graze, hissing as he felt it burn.
“Thank you” he muttered.
Taiba smiled and he had to look away not to get lost in that smile.
“So?” she asked “Can you explain to me what is it with you and being touched?”
“It’s nothing personal” he said reluctantly, torn between trying to be polite and the urge to discourage the Marag from talking to him “It’s just that you’re non-believers… godless and your touch can contaminate any faithful servant of UL”
“Such as yourself?” Taiba raised her eyebrows.
“UL has spoken to me” Relg said “Such honor obliges to serve him with absolute devotion and avoid sin and impurity at all costs”
“So you don’t want to be near any of us, because we’re not faithful enough?”
“You’ve simplified it, but that’s more or less true, yes” the Ulgo nodded.
Taiba considered his words. Relg’s prejudice against his companions, against her, did seem silly, but, in the end, it all came down to what he believed in. And she’s known people who believed in sillier things. Their gods rescuing them from Rak Cthol, for example. Some were really persistent in hoping that would happen. Some slaves lived and died, waiting for the miracle.
“But you did touch me back there, in the caves” she pointed out “You carried me out”
Relg gritted his teeth, recalling it. The feeling of Taiba’s soft, warm body pressed against his, of her arms wrapped around his neck, of her fast breath in his ear has been haunting him in his sleep.
During daytime, he was haunted by the fact that he enjoyed it.
“It was necessary” he said quietly.
“Was that so bad to you?”
Worse , he thought. Worse than you could imagine . Not only had he been put to the test that was supposed to try the purity of his mind and insusceptibility to low, bodily desires and failed it, but also some part of him enjoyed every moment of this failure and gave into it, which twofold proved his weakness. The rest of Relg – the decent, virtuous part – was screaming in torment.
Something inside the zealot broke at that moment. Truth be told, the pillars of his faith have been falling apart ever since he left Prolgu and he didn’t think he could repair them. He learned things he never wanted to learn and turned out to be as weak as all the pagans surrounding him.
“It was… difficult” he admitted finally.
“More difficult than when you freed Silk from that other cave?”
Relg blinked. He wasn’t aware she knew that story.
“Uh...” he began unsteadily.
He didn't like where the conversation was going.
“Is it because you like my body?” Taiba asked barefacedly.
The Ulgo’s face went red and he turned away from the Marag.
“No” he repeated quickly, but not quickly enough “That is…I don’t…”
“Was it because I was almost naked?”
Relg covered his ears, partially to block out her voice, partially to hide from her stare.
“Stop!” he exclaimed “Stop asking such questions! Stop being… being…”
“But it’s so much fun to be obscene around you, Relg”
“You’re wicked” the Ulgo uttered.
“At least I’m not fighting with myself all the time” Taiba said, getting up.
“At least I won’t go to Hell” Relg snapped.
“Well then, we’re going to miss you there, Relg” Taiba said, purposefully brushing her fingers against Relg’s shoulder.
As she expected, the Ulgo shivered. Taiba chuckled.
“Good night, Relg” she said, bearing off towards the bonfire.
The man buried his face in his hands, breathing heavily. He’ll go mad, no doubt. The woman was as wicked as she was charming and she wanted to contaminate him with this immodesty or drive him insane. Or both.
He should avoid her at all costs, he knew that. Had it not been for UL’s orders he would have ran away as soon as she joined them. At least he thought he would…
Relg realized he was glancing in the direction of the camp, unconsciously searching for her.
There she was, sitting by the fire, chatting with Durnik, laughing. Relg kept staring at the Marag, even though the glow of the fire was hurting his eyes. Part of him wanted to look directly into the flames until his eyes burn out so that he wouldn’t have to endure all the torment he felt when he saw that woman.
Another part of him wanted to sit by her side. Talk to her, listen to her laughing, look at the sparks in her violet eyes that marked her amusement, which often appeared when she was teasing him… Just to get lost in all of it, to succumb to this temptation…
As if she felt he was observing her, Taiba glanced at him and smiled unsurely. Relg turned around quickly, cursing himself. Fool, fool, fool…
“UL, help me” Relg asked silently “Give me strength”
But apparently UL was busy somewhere else for not a minute passed when Relg caught himself staring at the Marag again.