I close my eyes before I kill him.
Just in the final seconds as my swordpoint hits fast and straight through the hole in the chain mail under his arm. In order not to see the expression on his face, his eyes bulge, the gasp of breath when he realizes it was a killing stroke. There’ll be pink bubbles on his lips as his knees hit the muddy ground, and his own weight jerks his body off my sword as long as I square my feet.
It’s the worst way to do it, to not watch. Anything could happen, but I can’t do it any other way.
As he falls I look again, in time to turn heavily and block another attack with my shield. But Deck knocks the new enemy over by grabbing his collar and flinging him back. My brother stands over the fallen soldier and guts him before grinning at me through a blood-flecked beard. He’s just managed to grow it.
I lower my sword because the enemy band is withdrawing back into their forest. It was only a score of them, down to a quarter of that now, and their long shadows stretch back toward us through the trees, promising more tomorrow. And the next day and the next, through the gods know how many more weeks. Here on the southern front, there’s almost no winter to speak of, and so no pause in the king’s war.
Deck bares his teeth at their backs. “Run!” he screams after them. “Run from us!” And he claps me on the shoulder, making me stagger. I sink the tip of my sword into layers of fallen leaves for balance, thinking of how Captain would cuss at me for it. Your sword is your life, boy, don’t treat it like a stick – what if there’s an enemy behind you and you can’t bring the sword up fast enough? You want to do nothing but fling mud in some banger’s face as you die? I breathe through my teeth, as if I can stop the thick smells from sticking to my tongue: blood and rot and that sharp smell of the evergreens around here.
“Let’s go, Half,” Deck says, not waiting before he begins tromping back toward camp. I kneel down, ignoring the ache in my right thigh from an old scar, and set down my shield beside Deck’s gutted enemy. He’s clutching at his stomach, where blood leaks through the wide round metal joints of his armor, and I smell his death easily enough. But it won’t be easy for him, and I pull my dagger from the sheath on my gauntlet. He’s hissing and his big eyes stare up at the purple sky as I tug off the helmet skewed on his head and set my blade against his throat.
He’s doomed, and this will be better than him gasping and bleeding here until the wolf-priests come to collect our dead and burn the enemy overnight. This is the right thing to do. The good thing.
But I close my eyes again, while the knife pushes gently into his dirt-crusted neck. It’s got to be done. It’s just another practice thrust, Half. Do it.
And I do. I should’ve taken my gauntlet off first, but it’s already got blood soaked into the cracks and this spray won’t make it too much worse.
As I drink thick broth at the fire that night, my sword hand begins to tremble.
I set down my mug and clench a fist, tucking the offending hand against my side. I’ve only been back at the front for eight days. I should be good for at least twelve more before fatigue sets in, before I’m anxious again and jumping at the cracks from the fire.
Around me my fellows yell and joke and tell the stories from their days. Brag over how many bangers they killed, how smooth the strokes were, how when they rotate back to
Just City after their front-shift they’ll only need a few hours recovery before hitting the Ro.
I was there just last week, and Minister Jet stamped hale on my wrist so I could report back to the front. This was impossible. I hadn’t had a worse day scouting than usual, hadn’t killed any more men or been injured. None of the usual things to make a man fatigue out faster than he’s supposed to.
Unclenching my fist, I stare down into my palm. The orange firelight makes it impossible to see veins or much anything but for shadows. But there, more than a little, my fingers tremble.
Deck reaches over and clasps his meaty hand around my wrist. “Shit,” he says, and drags me up to my feet.
The Free Temple in Just City isn’t a real temple, and they only call it free because the cloth walls could rip out of their stakes in a strong gale and go flying. I’m on a mat at the end of a long row of mats, arms under my head, staring up at the un-dyed cloth ceiling high overhead. There’s nobody to my right, and the entrance flap is only a few steps on my left. Through the entrance there’s an antechamber with resting pillows and wide bowls of water for visitors. Voices spread out in all the empty space above me: the murmur of nightmares, quiet conversation, Minister Jet’s urgent voice calling for something from behind the panel separating the sick room from surgery.
I think of the time I was in surgery, two years ago from a short arrow bolt in my thigh. Two fingers different and it would’ve hit the bone instead of only forcing me into weeks of healing and this constant ache. I might’ve been out of rotation permanently.
Which might end up being the case anyway – if I’m fatigued after only eight days, that number won’t ever get higher again.
When I shut my eyes I see the stretch of my first battlefield and the crystal blue sky at dawn, just as my band charged. It was better then, when the battles were fought in the open, under a sun so you knew how much time you had, how long you had to survive. When you saw your brothers fall, and knew where the enemy was. For the past three years we’ve had to go hunting for them, in smaller bands because of the foothills and the thick evergreen forest the king insists we must win. If we take Camden Wood we’ll be immortalized, boys Captain says.
I know there’s someone beside me before I hear anything. I should be safe here, and alone! But someone is definitely there, kneeling beside me. The healers and Ministers all say my name when they approach, a subtle warning, so it isn’t one of them. I stop breathing to listen for the sound of metal, but there’s only the rapid pulse of my heart in my ears. My muscles feel like taught bowstring.
There’s a touch on my forehead and I snap up.
She cries out, flashing something blue and white. I barely manage to stop the attack, and pay for it with the hard way I catch myself on my elbow.
It’s a girl with heavy curls and a blue dress. Her skin is so white and clean she’s never stood in the sun. Like a different race from us who’ve been changed by the southern front in a way that’s burned into our skin.
“Are you alright, sir?” she asks in a breathy voice. I lower my eyes and nod, ignoring the ache in my arm. She shouldn’t be calling me that, but she must be afraid. I’m rough and there’s bloodstains on my shirt that nothing will ever get out. We keep our hair short against our heads, too, those of us on rotation. Uncivilized hair that won’t hide any flaws.
On her hands are a series of silver spiraling rings, but missing the crests of a noble house, so I don’t know who she is. I’m staring at her hands, and she folds them together as she says, “I am sorry for startling you. You simply looked so calm.”
I nod again.
“How old are you?” she asks, sitting back onto her heels. Her voice is still soft, and I wonder if its because she doesn’t want to disturb any other patients of the Free Temple, or because she isn’t supposed to be here at all.
“Seven-four.” I give her the years since I was taken from my parents, and the years I’ve been in combat-rotation.
Her lips pull down for a brief moment before she says, “I only just turned seventeen, too. What are you called?”
“Half of what?”
“When I started, I was half a man smaller than most of my band.”
She tilts her head as she looks me up and down. “You certainly don’t have that problem anymore.”
I don’t need to answer. And she doesn’t wait for me to before saying, “My father called me Hope because he said the war would end before I turned seven.”
Shock raises the hairs on the back of my neck: I don’t think I’ve been surprised since I realized how much pain a simple arrow could cause. It’s no wonder she doesn’t have crests on her spiraling rings. She doesn’t need them.
The princess sighs as she gets smoothly to her feet. “I suppose it shouldn’t be my name anymore.”
I talk to Jet every day after lunch, lamely answering questions about grief and fear and anger in order to heal the fatigue. It’s always worked before, but there isn’t anything for me to tell him. I don’t know why my hand is shaking now, why I keep moving around a room until there’s nobody behind me. That is – I do know why: it’s battle-fatigue, obviously, what happens to all of us when we’ve been in combat too long.
That’s why they instituted the rotation schedule years before I was even a warrior. Twenty-four days at the front, a week off, fifteen days at the front, four days off, then over again. All year round, in and out, always resting in the safety of Just City or farther if the Minister says we need it. We fight at peak efficiency that way, and almost never fatigue out unless there’s a massive injury of body or mind that makes us more vulnerable. So I know why I’m shaking. I just don’t know why now.
I’m supposed to have my first year off in one more full rotation, and Minister Jet suggests that’s my problem. I’m not upset about fighting, I’m upset at the prospect of not fighting. I tell him I don’t know, because I’ve never been not fighting since I was a little boy.
“Do you still close your eyes before killing?” he asks me with resignation, rubbing one finger into the wrinkles at his temple.
I close my eyes just in time to see the bloody-pink bubbles on the lips of that last dead banger.
When I leave his office, my stomach crunching, Princess Hope waits with four soldiers in the blue tabards of the king. She walks straight for me, no fear in the world, and I bow. “Half, I was hoping you might show me around the city. I understand you’ve been here for your rest many times.”
To her guards’ clear discomfort, she takes my arm. “I want to talk to a soldier.”
“You have four behind you.”
“You’re from the front. I want to know about it.”
I tell myself not to argue, because she’s the princess, but I say, “I’m battle-fatigued, princess. I’m not safe.”
“Tell me what that means.”
After a moment of silence she says, “I know the symptoms. Anxiety, panic, self-isolation, violent nightmares, waking-nightmares, and sometimes suicide. You don’t seem anxious. When you were sleeping you weren’t having a nightmare.”
I stop moving and hold out my right arm. The trembling is so slight I’m not certain she’ll see, but she does. “Oh,” she murmurs, sliding her fingers in between mine until our palms press together.
That makes my shaking worse.
The princess comes into the Free Tent every evening. First she spends time with the patients worse off than me. The bleeding and dying, the ones in surgery. She pauses at every mat, touching and whispering and smiling her pretty, sad smile.
She ends with me, every time. She brings a sip of cool water, and a question. She seems to understand that talking isn’t a thing I do, and hasn’t asked more than one question a night. First it was What is it like on the battlefield? I tell her it stinks. Do you think we can win? I say I don’t think about winning. Should I try to stop this war? I manage to tease her by saying then I’d be out of a job. How many times have you been injured? Does your scar hurt? Do you remember your family? What was your boyhood name? Tell me about the wolf-priests. What are your rotation brothers like?
Are you afraid to die, Half?
This one makes me pause for a long time and she touches my hand, taking back the question. But I wrap my arms around my knees and tell her no, I’m not afraid to die.
“What are you afraid of, then?” Hope whispers. She wraps her soft hands around mine, and sits with her knees drawn up, too. The toes of our boots touch.
I don’t want to answer, but she’s the princess. Her lips remain in their flat, earnest line. Her eyebrows arc just right to make her appear invested in my every word. “Failing,” I say.
“Isn’t that what… dying is?”
“Not if I die but my brothers live. Not if I die but I do it where I’m supposed to.”
“Where are you supposed to die?”
“That’s your fourth question tonight.” I smile, and Hope blushes. There’s only rich sunset light soaking through the tent walls, coloring her face with red shadows.
She says, “I have to build them up, for I’ll be going home soon.”
Home. A pain shoots to my stomach, making it crunch all over again. Something must show on my face because Hope lifts herself onto her knees. “Half? Do you have a home?”
I spread one hand out to indicate the Free Temple.
“This place isn’t what you’re fighting for,” she says ferociously.
It is – this place and my rotation brothers, who will die if I don’t fight. If I don’t stop shaking and get back to them. But how can I tell that to the princess?
“Half, you’re fighting for the soul of this country! For the lands of our ancestors. For justice and our way of life. For hope!” She grasps my face between her hands and pushes forward so I have to part my knees. The princess is there in my lap, gripping my face, her eyes so bright.
“We do this,” she says, her voice trembling harder than my hand ever did, “because we must. Because we believe in my father the king, because we believe in what our kingdom stands for.”
I steady her with my hands on her hips.
“Half, answer me – we do this for a reason. Don’t we?”
She’s panting, her lips parted, her fingers digging into me. If Deck looked at me like this, I’d report him for fatigue so quickly he wouldn’t have time to sit down. “I don’t know,” I finally say to her.
Her breath flutters fast over my cheeks like a spray of blood. “Oh, Half. Look what we’ve done.”
Just before she kisses me, I close my eyes.