My fears I leave behind

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My knees hit the ground at the same time as the blade does. It bites deep, down my neck, into my shoulder. It burns, like nothing I have ever felt before. Like there is too much pain to be trapped into one spot, so it radiates everywhere. Into my chest, into my shoulder, down my arms. It spreads warmth, washing, gushing over me, down my shirt, like I am drowning in it.

I think of Ysabel. When she died, the knife struck upwards, straight into her skull. Clean and quick and painless. And this blow, downwards and uneven — not as clean, I must have shifted to the side. I don’t want to go. I’m not ready.

***

I can hear Lupo screaming. I know the sound of his voice, when he laughs, when angry, when he barks orders and expects to be followed instantly. He’s an arm’s reach behind me, forcing the line back over where I lay, where the blood spills over the grass and I am trapped and trampled between two opposing sides. His command is so simple, yet amidst the shouting and screaming and dying, I can barely hear it, and it’s not a command for troops, but one for me, only for me–

“TAKE MY HAND–”

My shoulder doesn’t want to work, and my hands are red with blood, slippery. I slip my hand back towards him, as if to simply touch his hands in a blessing, as if reaching out one last time. I don’t know what I expect–so to be yanked so forcefully, dragged through legs and blades and spears, it hurts. And the wound at my neck deepens, and there’s no breath left in my body to scream. It comes out as a meek whisper. A sigh.

***

It doesn’t feel like a battle anymore. It feels like a warm spring day in the middle of Winter’s bite. The fighting is far away, and my brother is at my side, along with this Navarri who is trying to assess the damage to my neck. He’s gentle, and kind, and I am not afraid of him as I normally would be. Even the pain has left, far away where I cannot reach it and it cannot reach me. My thoughts wander, as he presses marrowort in, to slow the bleeding, as he bids me eat some vervain, though I can barely swallow it down.

“It might be close,” he says, “and she may yet live, but she needs surgery NOW.”

I want to know his name. I want to know what striding or steading he is from, and I want to add it to my Reckoning book, as he works so hard to save me. “It might be close,” he says, more for the benefit of those around me than for myself. His eyes are gentle, and I can only smile at him. I know I’m on the threshold.

***

There is a camp, not 100 yards away. A staging post for the Jotun, perhaps, I don’t know. But they argue, discuss amidst the fighting. Can they take it and hold it long enough to save me, to stitch the wound that runs so deep. I have no voice, no say in the discussion; I am a commodity, incapable of self-determination, something to be moved about and fought over. It vexes, but the emotion is halfhearted at best, as I struggle to simply survive. No one asks what I wish, what I would do. I do still have a voice, but no one has the ears to listen to me.

I wish they would listen. I wish Gabriel would honour our banner oath, and I wish Rodrigo would remember that I am a priest of Loyalty still — and that sometimes, sacrifices need be made. Though I want to live, how could I knowing that to save me, others might be injured, hurt, killed? I love them, so truly, so terribly. I wish, just once, they would trust me as a Priest to choose the Virtuous action. Enough of the arguing.

“Someone take me to the standing stones. I will sit, and wait, and survive. I can hold on that long.”

***

The day is beautiful, and I am awestruck by the sight of everything around me. The grass here is so green, I feel like I have never seen the colour before in my life. I am like a child, marvelling at the enormity of the sky, of the shapes of the clouds, of the sun warming my skin, which feels so cold. It is a burst of spring in the middle of winter, warm enough to forget about the chill in the air.

I could so easily lay down, content in this little pocket of Spring, and just let nature wash over me. It seems a monumental task, to hold on, to keep my hand pressed against my throat to stem the bleeding that refuses to stop.

Everything is just so beautiful.

***

I see them coming before any of the others do. The massive column of Jotun reinforcements, that will swarm and overwhelm where the gateway will open, will wash over us all. The first Dawn line is folding already. There are seconds to choose. I don’t even have to think.

“Drop me and go. Fall back to the League troops.” I can see it in people’s eyes, the refusal, the betrayal they think they are performing by even considering doing so. Please let this be the one time someone listens to me.

Frederick is loathe to go; did Rodrigo make him promise to not leave my side? I might have dreamed it. It takes just the slightest raising of my eyebrow before he nods and passes me to Maria. He is a priest of my Virtue, he understands the hard choice. And I am so, so proud of him for it.

Maria leaves me by a tree, as I scream at her to go protect Flora. “Courage is making a hard choice! RUN.” I smile to Flora, who looks alarmed, until she is bundled off by the Order of the Golden Heart. It’s not hard to do, to smile for her. I swore to her, on my Fox ring, that she was family, and always will be family to me. A cousin Barossa. And I remember my banner oath. “With my life,” I whisper contentedly, “I shall keep them safe.”

***

I am not afraid.

The Jotun don’t see me, or if they do, they assume I am for the grave already, instead of one foot in it. More fool them, though I could not lift my weapon to defend myself if they did come.

My options are simple enough, to sit and wait… only, I can see, crushed before the standing stones, a Dawnish Lance. Purple, purple…. Frederick had tried to teach me all the heraldry. Vandale? The rest of Dawn has been pushed back, and if I do not go, no one else will be able to. But I am unlikely to survive the attempt.

A new set of options is before me. And I think, to all the promises I have made to those I love. I will be safe. I will survive. I will come home. My feet are moving towards them before I even realize that I am breaking those oaths. Will they forgive me?

***

“Though all before me is darkness, yet shall Virtue be my guide.” My bloodstained fingers tend them best as I can. I have the herbs, I have one last potion; it is only the trembling of my fingers that slows me down. My neck is bleeding again, with my fingers no longer applying pressure to it.

“I shall not be left to wander the twisting drifts of the Labyrinth.” And there are moments where my vision and my head spins, and an all encompassing blackness starts settling into my vision. I staunch the wounds as quick as I can, breathing shakily, trying to reach over a body to tend to one who is a physick, and can then work in tandem.

“For my brothers and sisters shall find me,” I don’t even know where my family are at the moment. Where is Frederick, is he safe? A heavy weight hits my heart, that so focused on the task to hand, I have forgotten those most important to me, and made a choice that takes me away from them. I whisper to one, stay down until the time is right, protect me if you can for I cannot fight.

“For there is no darkness in the path of Virtue.” My fingers are fumbling through sacks of herbs, until they pass over the potion bottle Gabrielle slipped into my pocket, in case of emergencies. I had forgot it entirely. I douse the contents into the last Knight’s mouth — was I dancing with him only last night?– as fire stems through my arm, cutting deep, down to bone, and a stab into my back follows soon after, before I can think, before I can process. The Jotun came back.

“And nothing we have wrought shall be lost.”

***

The knights are up, fighting fit again, and everything is a flurry around me, and my blood drips down into the ground. I lose track of time, of the movements around me. I don’t know how long I am alone, and how long I have been bleeding for. I don’t know my surroundings, I don’t know the arms that pick me up or the faces around me, and I think I slip into the blackness a couple times, amidst trying to work out whether I am carried by friend or foe, and did I succeed in healing the knights? I don’t remember now.

The air shifts and forms around me anew, as each time before, and I know I have either fallen, or been pulled through the portal back to Anvil. I don’t know who carries me, I don’t know anything anymore, except for the feeling of being slowly, inexorably drained of life and warmth.

***

I am gathered, or poured, into Gabrielle’s arms, and I cling to her sleeves, relieved, as if life is a little clearer when she is near me. They have brought me home. I feel the childish glee of familiar faces and being where I belong again, as I try and cling on to life. Gabrielle’s face is so determined, as she lays me down, supports my neck and immediately starts stitching deep into my throat and shoulder.

My sister is so beautiful. I cannot speak, lest I disturb her working so diligently to save me… though I don’t think I can be saved anymore. And she tries, with her face inches away from mine, she tries so hard, and I let her, patiently, for I think I know.

She feels my pulse, tries to find it, weak and fluttery as my heart beats. I can see the exact moment that she knows, as I think I know. I can see the ground fall from underneath her, can see the panic in her eyes.

All I feel is peace.

***

It is a long walk back to our tent, and I can barely make it. But there are suddenly so many people that I need to talk to, so much to do, and I have so little time to do it — every breath is an effort, and I know if I stop, then I will not start again. Adelina supports me, holds me up, though I am fighting her, trying to do all that needs doing.

She snaps at me. Of course she would, I am fighting her, fighting for …. And suddenly it hits me.

And now I feel it, the terrible drawing away, the finality, the deep, inescapable knowledge that I am leaving, and I will not be back to see them in this life, and that I will break these people if I die. All my calm, my Courage, deserts me.

I whimper, then weep, then cry, as they take me back home; I am hurting others, and I cannot mend it. I am dying, and I cannot stop it. And this is all the mourning I will get, for all that I wanted in life, and all I am leaving undone.

***

Frederick is so silent. There is so much I want to say, but he is silent, still, waiting, as he always did — waiting for me to be ready. I want to hear his voice, I need to hear he forgives me, that he loves me…

There is so much I want to say, and I cannot; now that I am home, I feel cold, I feel distant, I feel drawn away, like water through the fingers. I wish someone would prompt me, anchor me, keep me here longer. I want my family closer, touching me, hugging me, toasting me and the life I lived. I wish someone would sing. I want to die with a song in my heart, not this terrible silence. I want to die in my bed, with the man I love kissing my cheeks and holding me tight, as I drift off to sleep.

My brother holds me. I want to curl up into him like a child, held against bad dreams in the night. I want to tell my Prince that I love her, that she is loved. I want to tell Gabriel that I longed for his praise. I want someone to tell me that I lived a good life. I need to know I was loved.

***

They start reciting the banner oath. The words we lived and died by, in all our lives, and for all our lives to be.

“I have died, and been born again.”

“I have lived a good and Virtuous life.”

“My fears I leave behind…”



Possession

King’s Stoke, Autumn Wassail 380YE, Saturday.

***

It is becoming progressively harder to separate out what is what.

It begins in the morning, at the first sight of the Jotun in King’s Stoke, when her one hand reaches for her knife, and the other draws Lupo’s sword from his side in a swift moment. But the grip is not hers — and she’s never fought with two weapons before. If only she could get them out of the village, away from the others! It’d be easy to cut them down like the harvest. Vitória asks why the orc is looking at her, staring– Frederick says a name, corrects her that that is not a Jotun Orc, but an Imperial Orc, a citizen, that she was with them in Kalino at the wedding. There’s a moment of disconnection — because she knows there were no Jotun were at the wedding, and Frederick would not lie to her. So what is true? That the orc staring at her is a Jotun infiltrator, come to threaten Stoke and her family, or that the man she loved would lie to her? The discord does not sit well, like missing a step on a staircase; it’s easier to ignore what does not fit the narrative.

When she finally gets her weapons practice, when Lupo finally obliges her, everything about it feels wrong. Her hands feel clunky, untrained, her footing unsure. She was never the best soldier or bravo in the world, but she’s not so… untrained as this. Youthful, unskilled like hands playing with father’s swords when he’s not looking. Everything about the weapon is wrong, everything about her stance is not right. And then there’s the push back, the surge of emotions and all of her fear is channelled to hatred, and this is no longer practice… the only moment the anger subsists is when Vitória’s blood is gushing out from just across her ribs, and Lupo is trying to staunch the wound with pressure. This is too similar to… something dark, unremembered. She’s unsure; her mind recoils in horror and it’s better to not think on it.

There is another bout of disconnect, after Beatrix has reset her nose forcibly, and she’s shaking and on edge and trying to be grateful for the help while simultaneously wanting to push Beatrix off the bed into a pile of mud when the same Jotun Orc who was staring earlier enters their borrowed house, is looking for Victoria Barossa, and thankfully everyone surrounding her is now as on edge as Vitória has felt all morning. The Orc has a message to pass on, urging her to not fight–too young, too inexperienced, and it’s all too easy to rebel against that wish. Gabriel is the one to step forward, run interference and draw the attention as if she wasn’t in the hut, and amidst the blood trickling down her throat and out her nose, she’s momentarily confused as to who is family and who isn’t. She could slip between Beatrix and Gabriel, she could be on the intruder in a moment’s notice — but Frederick, beside her, has his hand across her knife in her lap, his palm caressing the edge; one move and she’ll hurt him, and she can’t bear the thought, no matter the danger and fear pressing down on her.

It keeps happening, more swiftly, easily: Vitória passes Gabriel with a smile and a wave, while promising Grandpa Gregory that she’ll be back with her armour and weapons. She rows with her father– who’s also the Orc? This is the source of the discord– who’s still pleading with her to listen to him, to her brothers. And she understands, she does: of course it’s wrong to let a child go off to war, but she can’t make them see that there’s no use running from the incoming Jotun, that she’ll follow Grandpa Gregory anywhere and that she wants to fight, that she’ll never become a sla– at the word, the thought, she feels a powerful connection instead of dissonance, two souls working to the same purpose– never be a slave to anyone. Isn’t it better to die fighting, than submit and have no Virtue? Benedict is still rambling about his pigs, and Rachel–Bo?–no, Rachel is adamant that they would all survive if they joined the Jotun.

And finally, finally, the monk James gets back to her and confirms that yes, she is being possessed. It’s all Vitória needs in order to relax, and let it happen, just like in Ennerlund. Now she understands, she knows what to do.

***

“Tori?” Gabriel calls out to her as she passes, and she turns, smiles at him. “It IS Vitória?”

“Of course it is, Gabriel.” What an odd thing to question.

“Felicity? Felicity!” Vitória turns to the call, shouts back that she’s on her way.

“Don’t worry, Gabriel,” she tries to reassure him. “This isn’t my first possession.”

Preferences, not Desires

I can taste butterscotch, as danger approaches.

I turn half a step, look over my shoulder back to where friends should be, and am faced with the hulking mass of an ogre separating me from the spread out Foxes. Jotun handlers on each side urge it forward, flanking it in a three-versus-one.

I do not like my odds. I would prefer better odds.

Robbie should be at my back; I cannot hear his footsteps or his eager war-cries. We had pressed forward together, but now I have lost him and cannot turn my eyes from danger to search, or to warn him. Are there allies around I can shout to? I cannot tell. The ogre lets out a great bellow, as the warriors that flank it press forward. It is impossible for me to do anything but stand here and fight.

I feel the lack of emotions more acutely now.

Slowly, despite the best guard I can maintain, I am pushed back, first a few feet. Then more. I do not like this. Somewhere inside me, or behind me, there is an emotive briar screaming, trying to push emotions forward as if I could gain strength from them to fight back. She would rather die feeling–feeling pride, and love, and fear. The Jotun to the right manages to catch my knee, steel biting into muscle. They know they have hobbled me; I could not escape now.

This is where I die. I would prefer to not die.

I do not know at which point it happens. Whether the caged briar escaped, whether the desire to live broke free of the taste of butterscotch and the deadening of emotions. But like a flash it is over; one of the handlers I cut down, an ogre stands confused as his weapon is hewn from his hands by my spear. And I am screaming my loudest at the figure suddenly in my eye line behind the danger.

GABRIEL! HELP ME.

I would prefer to live.

***

Five

“Gabriel.”

It’s the only word I can say, in the look that passes between us, there is so much more.

Please, let me participate.
Let me do this.
This is the banner that I lost.
They wrenched it from my hands.

Don’t leave me behind.
Don’t let me sit and watch as the family tries to right my wrongs.
Right wrongs done to me.

Let me stand with you.
Let me fight.
Let me have your back, and let me remember what it is to know you have mine.

Tell me that I’m worthy to fight the Jotun for Catia’s banner.
Don’t pass me over because I’m not a warrior, I have the heart for this.
Let me bleed beside you.

Win or Fail, let me be counted for something.
When I leave this world, let this be something I did, fearlessly, and be proud of myself for.

And then, you nod, and beckon me forward, one of five to stand against the Jotun champions. And a weight is lifted from my soul, that I might be worthy to bear the Barossa name.