“The sooner you embrace darkness, the sooner your eyes adjust.”
This is just one example of the many odd things she would say to you, whether you were deep in conversation of no relevance, or simply passing a mundane greeting.
Of course, it was different. We were in of Mage Stelma’s Third Division Infantry. That meant we were marksmen of sorts, but gods know we used blades more than arrows. War gets messy like that. Beyond that, expert conversationalists. Words were our secondary art, because it passed the time, it settled into our hearts; we savored every syllable, or tried to, with the full knowledge that today or tomorrow was likely our last.
She had a name before she came here. A real name, I mean, passed down from parents. A name that held childhood memories. I suppose that’s why we try to detach ourselves from those.
We all called her Sigh, because that was the sound her bolts made as they flew through the air.
It was a stark contrast to the noises her targets emitted.
I understand, already this story has gone sour. I am focusing on one marksman instead of the entire infantry. You don’t have a clue as to the battles we fought, what they looked like, or even what war we waged, whether in our hearts or with the opposing sides.
I apologize. This story is not about the war itself, rather the poetry of bloodshed it inspired. You’ll just have to come to grips with that. Your narrator is not intelligent enough to understand the machinations of political or economic dominance from one culture to another.
I just shoot things. And if I am not too tired, I think about it after I do.
“How’d you sleep last night?” I asked Sigh one morning. The weather was not dismal, but it was threatening. Thick, grey clouds boasting a storm which would drench all of us and our equipment. We all silently prayed it would not.
“We awaken, thinking we’ve just stepped out of a dream, without realizing we merely passed into another.” She grinned at me, with chapped lips and impossibly brown, dirty eyes. I say impossibly, because I had never met someone quite like her, and I always thought she deserved some features less common than the ones the gods had given her. Regardless, I found her beyond beautiful.
“That being said, how about you?” she asked me.
I returned the grin. “I slept well. Well enough. Better than most nights.”
Last night, we heard deep rumbling in the distance. Many of us huddled into our coats, imagining thunder. The smarter ones, particularly Sigh, perked their ears, stopped fidgeting with their heirlooms and trinkets that kept them company away from home, and realized it was not thunder at all.
It was far more frightening than ominous weather. Far, far more frightening. The truth: the opposing army had devised some kind of machinery that could shake the ground so horribly, could produce sounds so booming that it was reminiscent of thunder.
We all quivered, after Sigh and a few others had pieced it together.
Still, I wasn’t lying. I slept very well. What can I say? I have a propensity for not caring.
That morning, the booming had mysteriously ceased. Now, as the silence settled in, we prayed it would rain, and prove the possibilities all wrong.
“What do you think made those sounds?” Silver Thomas asked no one in particular.
Here we were, crouched peacefully over some frying eggs and a slab of oat-bread that Sigh was cutting into portions.
“And here you are, interrupting a perfectly peaceful morning,” I groaned. “Can’t you just eat your oat bread, sometimes?”
“What?” Silver Thomas muffled through a mouthful. “I’m merely wondering what you all think.”
“Be comforted that you do not know when death comes. It is the only thing in life that you can reserve your laziness for: you do not have to plan for it,” Sigh said as she handed out clay plates with the eggs.
A clap of thunder. Her hand was outstretched towards Silver Thomas, who had his silver eyes upturned toward the sky, and an odd expression on his face.
The next moment, it was gone, buried into the ground under a heaping mound of fiery steel, coal, and metals spewing out like a crack in the earth itself.
It took his body with it, several feet into the earth, as well as his breakfast.
Sigh snatched her crossbow and dove for the trenches, disregarding the rest of us, all sitting dumbstruck and shocked around the campfire—admittedly looking less impressive next to the ball of hellfire.
She was never much of a comrade. Didn’t find excuses, nor any opportunities, to risk her hide for us.
She contributed the light spitter to the armies, as we preferred to call it. With this brilliant device, she called it even and made her own survival priority.
Fair is fair.
She personally drew the plans and an engineered example, shown to Mage Stelma herself, several months prior to our being issued onto the fields. Sigh had a comprehensive education in rune magick that bordered on expertise, before she volunteered to be a marksman for the Moon-elves during the War of the Eclipse.
It was like a crossbow without strings and bolts, had a long handle and a wide, hallow muzzle. Each spitter took about a year’s preparation, so many of those with enough knowledge in destructive magick and runes were called to cease their studies, halt their lives, to instead craft these weapons with as much speed and efficiency as possible.
Under penalty of treason, imprisonment, or simply death.
War makes allies threaten allies. Isn’t that silly?
The weapon was powered by the moon. Every marksmen was trained in activating a charging rune at night, setting it down in the open before bed so that it could soak up the rays.
The following day, it could issue a few dozen shots before fizzling out. A few dozen incredibly powerful and fatal shots, that is.
A whole slew of runes were charged by various practitioners in the crafting process, such that dumb folks like myself could simply put his eye down the sights, aim, mutter a word, and press a thumb against an insignia that fired it.
Not many of us understood how it worked, but it saved the poor blacksmiths in neighboring towns and villages some time. They still had to forge arrowheads, just not so many.
Sigh had two of her own, but preferred her crossbow and bolts nonetheless.
“Magick is a fickle friend,” she’d say as she twirled a knife around, telling us about her education at the colleges. “After all those years, I still prefer metal. It won’t backfire. Magick, in the wrong hands, will often backfire. No matter how much you plan, think ahead, for the most complex spells, something will almost always go wrong. And before you know it, you set your kitchen on fire, your mother is screaming at you, and the dog has become a rabbit with talons and wings. All because you wanted to try and warm your bedsheets before you went to sleep.”
“Is this from personal experience?”
Sigh sighed. “Yes.”
Anywho. Back to the carnage.
Trebuchets. Empowered by, oh, you guessed it, fire magick. Combined with some more mathematically inclined minds—Sun-elven blacksmiths who knew a thing or two about trajectory—the combination of wood, steel, iron, rope, and we had hellfire on our hands.
Quite literally, raining down.
When you are presented with chaos, your mind oscillates—very briefly—between two choices: shock, or decisive action.
I saw, as I turned my gaze to the skies, countless meteors in a myriad of shapes, sizes and color, dripping with silver, fire and ruin … as well as a whole flock of messenger ravens.
Dead ones, mind you, half-scorched. All stiff and clenched up from rigor mortis.
One of them landed in my lap, still twitching, staring up at me with sizzling feathers and black eyes.
That was when my mind chose the second option.
I spotted Sigh. She was running not away, but toward the enemies, sprinting for the bordering forestry with spitters dancing on her belt, her weapons barely clinging to their leather loops with how fast she clipped the soil.
I jumped up and out of the trenches, dodging a cluster from the trebuchets as I did.
Someone behind me screamed, “Wait, Will!—” before another cluster cut him off, filled his throat with molten steel.
If there was anyone smart enough to survive this, it was Sigh. Sometimes, you have to kill the hero’s instincts in you so that, maybe tomorrow, you can actually live to fulfill them.
It felt like the ground was trying to shake me off of it. I toppled over, scrambled to my feet, and jumped into my strides instead of stepping into them, because even the air shook with such a ferocity it seemed bent on escaping the hold of my lungs.
Ash and smoke stuffed my senses. I felt rain on my face, and wiped it off.
No, that was Silver Thomas’ blood.
There was more of it—hotter—on my arms. I assumed several people had left parting gifts on my skin, as I ran with just as much of a lack of consideration for them as Sigh, toward the shelter of the trees and bushes.
“Left, Will!” I heard her scream.
She said my name! I somehow made room for that thought.
She was crouched beneath several canopies, far away, and her shouts reached me.
I blindly followed, dove to the left, and felt the searing heat of another cluster land just behind me.
Then her mouth opened again, but it hung, stopped short. She had the look of someone staring at a corpse.
I braced myself for death. Which is to say I took a breath and did something between a whimper and a chuckle.
She whipped out both her spitters, took aim, and shouted MIRA!
I thought that she was aiming for my head, to end my misery sooner than the hellfire would.
Violet light shot out of the muzzles, displacing the cluster just as it singed my hair. The light ricocheted off and flung into the sky.
I didn’t bother with anymore second chances and rushed to meet her in the safety of the forest.
“The Sun-elves,” she said, “they fired, betting that most of us would retreat. Oh, how right they were. Come,” she tugged on my arm and we went deeper into the trees.
“Sush. We’re still going to die,” she promised. “I just made yours last a little longer. Still grateful?”
“You’re like me, then, I guess.”
Lines of their soldiers were already halfway across the fields, all but waltzing with drawn swords towards our demolished camp and trenches, while we ducked our heads beneath bushes and pulled our hoods up.
Amidst the carnage, they must not have spotted us. We both checked our belts for what we had to survive.
Sigh, as per usual, had everything if she needed to last for a handful of days, all in the various-sized pouches hanging from her belt, including rations, bolts, and materials for starting fires.
I had a dagger, a sword, a spitter, and a dead raven in my hands.
Not all marksmen are created equal.
I had been clutching it so hard during the chaos, if whatever the Sun-elves did to it did not kill it, I certainly had choked the poor thing to death.
Some of its feathers stuck to my bloodied hands as I pulled away from it. There was a message tied to its talon. Even Sigh was curious.
We opened up the small scroll of parchment.
Our scout had written a series of symbols which meant: They’re faster than anticipated. Retreat with all haste.
And the Sun-elf who’d caught him, presumably, had saved some of the stores of his inkwell by writing in the scout’s blood: Hah!
The crunch of branches and idle conversation drifted through the trees. I raised widened eyes to Sigh, who responded by putting a steady finger against my lips.
She whispered in the smallest voice, “Death is most efficient, most merciful, when she arrives unexpectedly,” and grinned.
She set down the two spitters, unhooked her hand crossbow from her belt, and readied a bolt. She then, with another finger, hushed my hand, which had reached for a spitter, and shook her head.
Oddly enough, everything was quiet.
The screams, the thunder. My mind had echoed it into the time that stretched beyond the initial chaos. Now it was all still again, wind through trees, silent, grey skies and a calm, afternoon sun. And a river.
There was a river to the right of us, at the edge of the forest, running peacefully. It was the picturesque scene of a placid morning.
I suppose it was because many of us had died so quickly.
The Sun-elves, dressed in elegant, gold-trimmed black raiment, strolled past us, laughing and chortling. A stark contract to our mismatched, grey, black, and sage wools and leathers.
The elf on the far right of the trio had caught Sigh out of the corner of his eye, before she buried a bolt in his head, another in the left, while I sprang up and slew the one in the middle, who hadn’t time enough to draw his own weapon.
Not a scream. Just three, soft thumps to the ground.
“She is a merciful mistress, indeed,” Sigh said, checking their pulses before going to their pockets. “But she's much work to do through my hands, before the day is done.”
I tried to keep up with her as the day wore on, but she was too nimble, too harried. Often, she took risks as we delved deeper behind enemy lines. I pestered her about what we should do, what our plans were. How we were to get word back to the other encampments before more blood was shed on our side of the war. Because, gods be true, we were losing it. Not just today, but for the past two years.
She just kept up with those strange sayings, as if she was passing off mundane conversation per usual.
“Why haven’t we turned back?”
“If we spoke the language of the trees, we would be too interested in what they said to ever turn our ears any other place.”
“Damnit, Sigh! We’re leagues away from any camp. Where are we going?”
She stopped, grabbed my arm, and looked me straight in the eyes, in a way she never had before.
She said, with a tilt of her head, and I swear, a look of affection: “Once, I lost my timepiece. When I found it, someone had stepped on it. It was all cracked and dented, the hour hand trembling like a heart trying to beat a dead body. I’ve not tried to keep track since then. And I hate timepieces.”
I thought it had been too much. The war had smashed her sanity, just how someone had smashed her timepiece. So I nodded. “All right, Sigh. I understand.”
And I think, as I said that, she really thought I did.
Night arrived all too quickly. We found ourselves at the edge of the river, miles downstream from our camp. I felt like I had been following a ghost the entire day. When we came near the Sun-elf camp with the trebuchets, she stopped for a few minutes, the only few minutes she allowed herself not to move, besides to avoid attention from other soldiers.
When she did, she brought out a notepad, a quill, an inkwell, and scrawled notes, glancing up every now and then at their machines, before folding it and giving it to me. She was analyzing how they were designed, I thought.
They were quite daunting, towering things. The height of castle turrets, with all the complex rigging and cogs you might imagine.
“Sigh, you should have it. You should give this to Mage Stelma yourself.”
The camp was silent, save for the burning of a torch here or there. The snoring of a soldier supposed to be on watch, leaning against a tree close enough that we could make out how his breath parted the hair falling over his face each time he exhaled.
“Words are like birds. Catch them as they come,” she whispered to me. “Some are prettier than others. Don’t bother reaching out to the ugly ones, Will, for they’ve been handled too much, and are boring little things. Take time, and be patient, for the ones which really catch your eye.”
Her hand lingered on mine as she gave me the note.
“I will, Sigh,” I said. “I promise.”
I almost forgot. And I apologize. I’m not very good at this storytelling business. I just needed to get some of this out.
One of the most peculiar moments we shared. An hour or so before the conversation beside the camp with the trebuchets, she stopped, felt the tiny quiver at her waist, and looked down at it.
When she looked up, there were tears streaming down her face. My tired heart throbbed; I wanted to hug her. I almost did.
“I’ve only three bolts left,” she mumbled.
She did not always speak in riddles, in words of wisdom of little relevance to what was already being said.
That started after her brother died. That was when she felt inspired to design the light spitters. Her revenge.
After she had passed the note to me, she walked to the riverside, and stepped into the water as normally as one might keep walking anywhere that is not freezing.
Despite it being springtime, the water had pieces of frozen ice here and there. We were, after all, in the Runelands. It was the reason for the war in the first place, to fight for this wasteland of eternal winter. The Sun-elves wanted a whole continent for their own race, to call the home of the highborns.
“Sigh, what are you doing? Come out. Let’s go home.”
I wondered what I meant by the last word. If we had one, I mean.
She waded deeper into the water. A log passed her, slapped against her thigh before drifting downstream.
It was not a log. It was an arm. Its sleeve bore the patch of our division.
More logs came, varying in sizes and shapes. Some still had heads attached.
“When I was a young girl, I had a dream that I was a puppet,” she said, plucking one up by the finger. “It was only when I was older that I realized no one tugged on my strings but me.”
Her face was devoid of all expression.
I couldn’t do much for the tears on my face. “Where are you going?”
She immersed herself in the water, pale as snow, and let the current lift her up on her back, carry her away. Even I was shivering from the cold, but she was still as stone.
I realized, as I watched the current take her, that she was not mad. She was raving sane.
We were the mad ones, trying to carry on normally while the war tore us apart, both literally and figuratively. It severed our heart strings, cut our mind off from the grace of poetry; it made killing our art, survival a craft with many different mediums, some of them terrifyingly bloody.
I didn’t join her in the water; I crossed to the other side of the river, and kept up with her, as I watched the bodies from the Third Division crowd around her, embrace her as one of their own.
Fetid steam rose up from the water. Moonlit rays fell through the fog, glinted on their icy eyes and frozen lips. A nightmare of unparalleled beauty.
I lost track of her. There were too many bloodless bodies, and her face was just as pale as theirs. She stared up at the stars, with the same thoughtful revelation as the dead have when they first meet death.
Soon enough, the flames and torches of another enemy camp came into view. That is when I slunk away into the trees. I didn’t remember much of the training I had as a scout. They had declared me a marksmen after I lied, told them I could not see very well.
Apparently, they did not sympathize with me.
The thought of being not only across from enemies, but behind them, terrified me. Yet I found myself in the role I had scurried away from.
They were waiting for them.
The Sun-elves, with tankards in their hands and laughter in their throats. The laughter of victors. The war had been waging for three years. We were in our death throes, and they were entertained by our erratic behavior on the battlefields. Our last-ditch strategies to overcome an army far better equipped and trained than our own.
“Don’t suppose they’ll have much on ‘em. They were running, after all,” I heard one say.
I climbed into a tree, careful to choose the heavier branches that would not sway so much under my weight, and watched from above, thinking of the raven and wondering what words they would write all over my body with my blood, if they caught me.
There were three of them at the riverbank, but dozens in the camps just a few walks away. This camp wasn’t asleep, like the other.
The bodies started to arrive at the riverbank. They already had a pyre ablaze, ready to incinerate our remnants.
I thought for a moment, foolishly, that Sigh was just handing herself to her enemies, to join her comrades that she had treated with a curt coldness, to reprimand herself, atone for her lack of concern for their wellbeing when we were caught in crossfires.
Instead, she made an appearance with numb, freezing, and dripping fingers.
Someone had picked up an arm to haul out of the water. At the end of that arm was a crossbow, bearing a cocked arrow. It was rather comical, how he aimed it for her.
The bolt slunk into the soft flesh beneath his jaw.
As he fell to the ground, Sigh sprang on the other two. I imagined her blue lips whisper mira as violet light shot from the end of her spitter and into the second.
The third? He drew a sword, raised a cry, before falling to her dagger.
The ‘raised a cry’. That was the important part.
“Now, you stay there!” she shouted.
It was for me, not an arrogant cry toward the fresh corpses at her feet. I know this because she shot her head back, toward the direction where I was sitting in the darkness.
The reinforcements came. Sigh was determined to use the last two of her bolts, and did so with poetry on her lips as they sighed through the air and found their opponents.
She twirled the spitters and sent out violet arrows that flickered and sizzled into the Sun-elves proliferating around the riverbank.
More and more came.
She fended them off with an elegance that I can only compare to a virtuoso on a stage.
Even when they came to their senses, and began using arrows instead of swords.
She took those gracefully. Used the momentum of the steel thudding into her body to slide into her next steps, to whisper truths that she’d tell me when I asked her each morning how she slept.
“When the unknown approaches, embrace it like an old friend. Because truly, the unknown is quite common, we see him very often.”
She twirled, the spitters sparking and firing with dazzling effects.
You could see, between brief flashes of light, how her blood sprang out of her wounds as more arrows came.
One of the arrows caught the spitter in her left hand. It fell to the ground, light dripping from the end of it, smoke from its hallow shaft wafting into the air, I swear, in the shape of crows and moths.
“Did you dream of anything interesting, last night?” I had asked her, once. We both found ourselves awake before dawn, and no one else had risen. We were clutching tea and looking into a fire.
“When I met him,” she replied slowly, “he had the air of boyish musings about him. He had the breath of youth untouched by tragedy. He was aware of it, oh, certainly he was. It had touched him. But he kept it away, somehow, I could tell. It didn’t clutch him the way it did with others. And when I hugged him, tighter than I had held anyone else, I think, for the first time, I had loved someone.”
The final spark emerged from her spitter. Then she turned toward me. A doll for hexing poked with too many pins and needles. She caught my eyes, somehow, as more of those needles drove into her back.
I realized, then, that was the first time she had spoken with a response relevant to the question.
Worst of all, I realized she had been speaking of me.
She had never hugged me, before.
That’s what dreams are for, to do things you could never bring yourself to do in life. She had lost her brother, already. Why would she give her heart to me, knowing my hands would soon die with it?
Her words, they weren’t so esoteric anymore. Riddles are merely disguised truths, after all. I divined them all as she fell with my name spending the last of her breath. So now I wasn’t the one carrying a heart to the grave; she’d snatched mine, at the last possible moment, and took it with her.
It took me two days to reach an allied camp. The wounded were groaning and moaning in agony along with the chipper birds in the dawn. My bloodied hands clutched the note Sigh had scrawled out about the trebuchets. I didn’t care about anything, anymore. I hoped I was considered wounded enough to go home, wherever that may be, but I’d not suffered much besides frostbite, which out here, is child’s play. You are laughed at if you cannot handle it.
After word of my arrival was given, I was granted access to see Mage Stelma, and was escorted to her tent. “What happened to our Third Divison?” she asked me, hands spread out over battle plans that had already failed.
“This,” I said, too exhausted to elaborate, handing over the note.
“You’re mistaken,” she said after looking it over.
“Excuse me? This is a description of their machines, how they operate. A brave soul died just to—”
“I understand that was your purpose for seeing me. That you’re exhausted, and I appreciate your undying effort, marksman. But, surely you’ve mistaken this note for another.” she handed it back to me, annoyance slanting her eyes. “Have you not read it at all?”
“No,” I mumbled.
I looked down at the note.
I always wanted to be alone with you. Never had the courage to say so, but I have craved it since I met you. Although tonight will be my last, I think I have enjoyed it more than most others, because it was spent alone with you. I never dared say so, just like I never had the courage to hold you, not your hand, your body, nor your life, for fear of losing it.
Yet, I love you.
“Do you have any other word of their machinery?” her voice came from across the table, across several leagues. “Marksman …?”