Fictober, Prompt 4 – “Fine, I give up.”
Warnings: implied battle, vague injury descriptions.
Gasping, I fell, my left knee giving out at last. Only my sword, sunk into the earth, kept me partially upright.
Although there was no possible way the gods looked on me in favor, I had no other explanation for why I was still alive at all, truthfully. My ki was too low to manage any more spells, and I was no warrior, was not trained to the sword, not the way those who had pursued us for so long were.
Not the way she was.
I knelt, and panted for air through burning lungs, and stared up at her through one eye that was beginning to swell shut, the other stinging with the sweat and blood dripping down my face. Her eyes, dark, intense, met mine and held.
A strange moment of hush descended around us, even as fire crackled in the distance, mingling with the shouts of those still fighting.
Her face under her horned helmet was unreadable as usual, but there was no anger in her eyes, no hatred, no contempt. None of the emotions that should have been there. I had betrayed her, betrayed my promise. That I hadn’t had any other choice was irrelevant. She would tolerate no such breach of honor.
That she held herself to even higher standards was the only reason that I did not hate her for her part in this pursuit.
But I knelt still, only not at her feet for the short distance still between us, and still she stared, making no move to finish me off.
At last, she stepped forward, the leather scale and plates of her armor creaking, the vibrant red of the silken cords binding them together bright even under the darkening sky. She held her sword still, arm out to the right, its sharp edge turned away from me, point towards the ground.
For a single heartbeat, I wondered if—
The hope shattered in my chest, and I had to close my eyes against the pain of it. I should have known better. She would not even finish me off cleanly. That was too good for the likes of me, undoubtedly. I would have to endure capture, and punishment, and execution.
“No,” I told her, willing my voice not to shake (from the exhaustion, the hurt, the grief).
Summoning at least a face of defiance, I opened my eyes to meet her gaze again.
“Surrender,” she said again, her eyes still strangely intense, boring into mine.
“You must,” she said, still more urgently. Her shoulder twitched, almost as if she were resisting the urge to look over her shoulder.
Scowling, I looked myself, but there was still no one behind her that I could see, what was left of this piece of forest still obscuring the path where it went around the bend toward the rest of the battle. Behind me, the mountains rose, dark rock and trees an unwelcoming wall.
I had fallen, at least, in the single good path that led further in. The others would have a head start, at least, even if I wouldn’t be able to protect them the way I had hoped.
The way I had promised.
I had broken too many promises.
“Give in,” she said, voice low, almost a whisper. Still that intensity in her gaze, still the lack of anger or hatred.
Something in my chest cracked again, and I could no longer tell what kind of hurt it was.
“Fine,” I said, voice cracking too, tears welling in involuntarily in my eyes. “Fine, I give up. I surrender. But—” I had to stop, almost choking on the words, forcing my voice steady, “But please. I know I don’t deserve it but please…make it quick.”
And then I pulled my sword free of the ground and tossed it to her feet. I lowered my right knee to the ground beside my injured left, pressed my palms to the churned dirt of the path, and bowed until my forehead touched the backs of my hands.
“No,” she said, the relief in her voice a sharp contrast to the despair that the word evoked in me.
Then her gloved hands were lifting me, helping me to my feet, and—
And returning my blade to me.
“No,” she repeated, cupping my face, her eyes equally bright with relief, “because there is nothing to be quick about. Thank you.”
And then she turned, took several strides forward, sword held relaxed but ready once again at her side, and set herself in the middle of the path between two of the larger stones that lined it here. Head up, feet planted, her armor seeming barely touched by the fighting, the gold accents on her helmet glinting in the faint light of the moon beginning to emerge from behind a cloud, she still seemed strangely and suddenly as if she were one of those great mountain boulders herself, come down and fallen to rest in the path.
As though nothing human could possibly move her, unless she chose to be moved.
“What,” I said, the word not even a question, my mind blank. “What.”
It had been years now since we had been close, years since I had really seen her at all. How was it that I somehow knew she was smiling?
“You have surrendered,” she said simply, “to me.”
I felt my eyes go wide.
She wasn’t— She didn’t— She—
Tears ran openly down my face as I realized that she didn’t care. Or rather, she cared about the things that I had done, the promises that I had broken…but she also understood.
She would stand by me, even though I had not stood by her.
We had little warning before a group of warriors came around the bend out of the trees, a minor clan by their crests, and they raised a great shout of delight at the sight of me.
“There she is! Get—”
“No.” Her voice was like the steel of her blade, sharp and hard and unbreakable. “She has surrendered to me, and you will leave her to me.”
They drew back in shock, recognizing who stood before them…who stood between them and me. More were quickly joining them, filtering in from the battle that must be over, out beyond the trees.
“Lady,” the leader of the first group said, “surely you- surely you can’t mean to protect the traitor?”
“She has surrendered to me,” was the only reply.
“The clans won’t stand for it!” shouted someone further back. “Justice must be done! Her deeds must be answered for.” More voices rose in agreement.
“If the clans wish to enact what they claim is justice,” she told them, steel-hard, “then they must first answer to me.”
They hesitated, knowing who she was. They muttered amongst themselves, but at last the pulled together and surged forward, urged on by those whose respect was less than it should have been.
Less than it should have been, both for her station, and for her skill. She had set her feet wisely, and they broke against her blade like waves breaking against the shore. She spared them no mercy, and in the end it was they who turned, and ran.
I didn’t know what was going to happen next.
I didn’t know what was going to happen next, but I had more hope than I’d had in- in years, as she turned and joined me on the path, urging me into the mountains, a protective presence at my side, helping me walk on my injured knee. We would find the others, she said, and then make our way to somewhere safe.
I didn’t know what was going to happen next, didn’t know what her plan was. But as her eyes met mine, I could now recognize the intensity in them as worry, and care, and love, unchanged from all those years ago, and that was enough.