There was so much blood. It soaked into the ground, staining the pale river sand. The evening bugs sung and banners snapped in the wind, the only sound among the dead. I stepped over another body, her eyes staring open to the sky. Her braid of white hair claimed her as Amarian, but the man beside her had the brown hair of a human. I averted my gaze and kept walking. I long since lost count of how many Amarians had fallen, and with each one I passed, I felt a new pain in my chest.
"Zyra," a voice called out. I didn't look back, ignoring the curses and mumbles. The stench of death was beginning to rise, and already carrion birds were gathering in the treetops. I knew before long, there would be much larger beasts waiting in the shadows. "We need to get back. There's nothing we can do for them now."
I shook my head in defiance. There were so many. There were mothers and fathers who would never go home to their children, and children who would never see their parents. There was a sister who would never see me again. Bile rose in my throat. Helios was right, though. They were no longer in the land of the living. They were charges of the gods now.
I turned to head back when a sound reached my ears. It was a scream, shrill and terrified. I reacted without thinking, leaping over the bodies and leaving my best friend behind. The dying man was away from the main battlefield, somewhere on the other side of a band of trees. There were fewer bodies here, and a weighty pressure on the air. I could hear the spirits before I saw them. Their great bodies smashed into the earth, their snarls raising the hair on my arms. I tried to quieten my steps, but the man screamed again. Before I could break through the final stretch of trees, a hand snatched me back.
"He's not one of ours," Helios growled into my ear. Fear made his body tense and his arms shook as the wrapped around me. Against my back, I could feel the pounding of his heart. "You have no business getting in the middle of their fight."
"Let go." I struggled out of his hold, slamming my fist into his shoulder as I turned.
He didn't budge, but instead framed my face between his palms. "Consider it their revenge. The humans have tainted this land with their filth and greed, tearing away at the forest. He deserves this."
I stepped away, turning to peer through the brush between the trees. They were by the river, where the grass was thick and tall. With the fading sunlight, their bodies became iridescent. With each shift of their muscles, the spotted fur of the great leopards shimmered, their eyes glowing red. Between them, a figure struggled to hold a broken arrow, as if that would do any good to protect him. The bigger of the two spirits swung a paw at the man, who cowered into a ball. He whimpered and then screamed as another paw came at him again, intentionally missing. They were toying with him, like a cat plays with a mouse.
"Come out, little girl," one purred, though their mouths did not move. "Why don't you come enjoy this meal with us?"
They two creatures sat on their haunches, ignoring for a moment the prey at their feet. As I stepped through the trees, the man stared at me with a look of terror. I felt a twinge in my heart as I walked closer. He wasn't a man. He was a boy.
I forced my attention to the spirits, whose eyes had faded to a bright green. I had to lean my head all the way back to meet their gaze, their heads level with the treetops. The largest bent until his nose was at my height. He turned his cheek, until one emerald eye blinked at me.
I bowed at the waist, my hands pressed against my thighs. I didn't speak or move, even after he rose to his full height.
"Would you like to kill him, healer," he asked me, licking his teeth. "He is, after all, the one who killed your beloved sister."
My palms clenched, my heart speeding up. I tilted my head enough so that I could stare at the boy, who looked back at me with dread etched in his eyes. I gave him a once over, noticing the blood stain at his side and on his hands. I found what I was looking for strapped to his belt. It was common for humans to take back a piece of their kill. His was a long, silver braid. He had looped it around like a whip, and tied it with a leather string. It could have been anyone's braid, but at the end of it was a trio of painted eagle feathers, each bearing names. Ren never went into battle without them.
"She said they brought her luck," I choked out. "Said they reminded her why she fights."
A hand touched my elbow, running up my arm until I was wrapped in warmth. I curled myself against Helios' side for a moment, before snatching his dagger from his waist. I pulled away, stomping towards the boy with murderous intent. He wouldn't live anyway, with a gut wound like that. So what if I ended his life early, I thought as I fell to my knees beside him. He deserved it.
But, as I looked into his blue eyes, I stopped myself. I held the dagger poised over his throat, his brown hair clutched in my fist. Tears spilled over his temples, his mouth whispering a plea of forgiveness. I felt his movement, watched in my side vision as he fumbled at the tie holding Ren's hair. He couldn't untangle the knot, his fingers too slippery with blood. The more he struggled, the harder his tears fell, and the faster his lips moved.
"Stop," I whispered, repeating the word over and over. The cats purred at the boy's frustration and Helios was insistent with me not to kill him. Meanwhile, he still struggled with the knot, and I finally caught a piece of his mumbling words.
"I don't want to die."
My hand wielding the knife dropped to his side. The blade fell to the bloody grass, and I cradled the boy's head in my hand. I could imagine Ren saying those exact words as she lay on the field, bleeding out with her hair shorn. I could imagine a lot of my friends and family saying those words, begging the gods for a miracle they would never get.
I pressed my forehead against his, imagining he was an Amarian instead of a human. For a moment, I let myself see silver hair and gold eyes, with the crescent sigil of my father embellished on his clothes.
"Please," I turned my face to the spirits, who watched me quietly. "Don't kill him."
"He is going to die anyway, healer." Green eyes met my gold ones. The smaller of the cat stood, shaking his fur. With a nod to his companion, he walked towards the forest, fading into a scattering of fireflies. I looked back to the remaining spirit. He bent, drawing in my scent as he nudged me with his nose. "You are the one."
With his cryptic message, he disappeared into the night. With their departure, the weight in the air dissipated, leaving only the cool bite of autumn. I removed my cloak, pillowing it beneath his head. I moved the blade out of reach, and untied the braid from his belt. Setting it aside, I took his bloodied hand in mine, and sat watching the fireflies.
Now that the spirits were gone, awkwardness rose between us. Here was my enemy, who had killed my people without second thought, had murdered my flesh and blood, and I had saved him. I bit my lip and refused to look at him. He was dying. Allowing the spirits to eat him would have been a quicker death. This, I felt, was a type of torture. I should have ended it myself.
"Thank you," he croaked, drawing me from my thoughts. I kept my gaze intent on the fireflies, but tightened my grip on his hand. At least he wouldn't die alone, like Ren surely did.
My eyes burned at the thought of my older sister, who marched off valiantly just that morning for battle. Her golden eyes had shone, her war cry drawing the others to bravery. "Her mating ceremony was to be in two moons."
A newfound tension built between us. He coughed, his fingers tightening around mine. "She promised me before she left, that she would let me help pick out her flowers."
"Zyra, don't do that." Helios knelt beside me, wrapping his own cloak around my shoulders. "We should go. It's getting late, and they've likely sent out a hunting party to search for us."
"Not until he's gone." To make my point, I give my best friend a shove until he is sitting on the ground. He sighs in defeat and begins picking at the grass.
The boy's breathing is shallower, his face pale in the light of the rising moon. I stare at him, etching the planes of his face and the scar at his neck to memory. I don't hear the stranger walk up, but Helios does, and it's his movement that jolts me to attention.
"Who are you, and what do you want." Standing between us, Helios draws his sword, holding it ready.
The cloaked man stops, holding his hands above his shoulders. I lean over so I can watch from between Helios' legs, still grasping the dying boy's hand. A golden clasp holds his cloak at his throat. Squinting, I barely make out the eagle head in the dimness.
"I just want my brother," his words bring me up short. I look down at the boy, whose name I never thought to ask. He stares blankly at the stars, his chest still. His fingers are limp, and it is my grip that keeps his hand from falling. "Please, let me have him."
"Why should we? You never allow us to give our men and women proper burials. Instead, you steal a piece of them away, as if they are trophies. You -"
"Helios." I fold the boy's hands across his chest, closing his eyes. "That is enough."
Standing, I force my head high, my shoulders and back straight. I step to my friend's side, watching the man with wary eyes. For a moment, I think he is going to speak, but the silence stretches on, leaving the noises of the night between us. Tapping my warrior on the shoulder, I walk away towards the main battlefield, where my name can be heard over the crickets and river.
As I reach the tree line, waiting patiently for Helios to back step his way to me, the man picks up his brother. He looks at me, and in the shadow of his hood, I can feel the weight of his stare. "The next time we meet, I won't hesitate to kill you."
And so, I think as I make my way towards the light of the torches, the moment of peace is once again broken.