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.
"Catori," a deep voice called out. I didn't look back, ignoring the curses and mumbles from my companion. I listen to his footsteps behind me, the creak of his battle leathers loud in the silence. 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. Mato was right, though. They were no longer in the land of the living. They were with the gods now.
I turned to head back when a sound reached my ears. It was a scream, shrill and terrified. I looked towards the tree line, looking for the presence I felt in my mind, but the evening sun hid them. My ears popped and my head began to throb at the temples. They were old, and powerful.
I reacted without thinking, leaping over the bodies and leaving my best friend behind. The dying man was away from the main battlefield, somewhere close to the source of that unyielding pressure. There were fewer bodies here. I could hear the spirits before I saw them. Their great bodies smashed into the earth, their snarls raising the hair on my arms. The ground shakes beneath my feet, the leaves falling from the treetops. As the sun dipped beneath the trees, casting the forest in shadows, I spotted the break in the trees. Just before I could reach them, and hand snatched my arm, pulling me away from the chaos.
"He's not one of ours," Mato growled into my ear. Fear made his body tense and his arms shook as the wrapped around me. It was common for even Amarians to fear the spirits. They were the gods of the earth, and to anger one was a sure and sudden death. Against my back, I could feel the pounding of his heart. "You have no business getting in the middle of their fight. They'll kill you."
"Let go." I slipped out of his hold. My eyes burned into his. Even among my people, I was a stranger and try as he might, Mato would never understand. I could not stand here, and not do anything.
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."
"No one deserves this kind of death, this torture." 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 visible to the eye. 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, missing on purpose. He whimpered and then screamed as another paw came at him again, this time slamming into the ground near his legs. They were toying with him.
"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. Crimson eyes watched me with joy as I stepped between the trees, making sure my back was straight. I felt a twinge in my heart as I moved closer. Their prey wasn't a man. He was a boy.
I forced my attention to the spirits, whose eyes had faded to a bright green. I could hear Mato whispering behind me, but he quickly stopped when the smaller spirit hissed. Ignoring him, I leaned my head all the way back to meet their gazes, 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 studied the way the grass moved with his breath, the way my thick braid grazed the ground. I didn't speak or move, even after he rose to his full height. The leopard purred.
"Would you like to kill him, healer," he asked me, licking his teeth. I remained bowed, my lower back beginning to throb. "He is, after all, the one who killed your beloved Ren."
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 Mato's side for a moment, before snatching his dagger from his waist. I pulled away, stalking 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 moving, though at first I couldn't hear the words. My mind struggled to understand the foreign language, to piece together the words the refugees taught me. In the end, they were lost in his pitiful sobs.
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 in a strange language.
"Stop," I whispered, repeating the word over and over, my hand tightening on the dagger's hilt. "Stop, stop!"
The cats purred at the boy's frustration and Mato was insistent with me to kill him, and take the revenge that was mine. Meanwhile, he still struggled with the knot, and I finally understood 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. Those words were among the few I really understood in the Creasan language. Many refugees had begged me to save their lives, even as the light faded in their eyes. I could imagine my friends and family saying those words, begging the gods for a miracle they would never get. Those words touched a spot within me, tore open a hole in my heart, and I knew I couldn't kill him. Not by my own hand.
I pressed my forehead against his, imagining he was an Amarian instead of a Creasan. 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. Don't let him die like this."
"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.
"Your parents would be proud." He bent down, drawing in my scent as he nudged me with his nose. "They always knew you were 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, discomfort 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 cousin, 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. I knew he couldn't understand my words, but I felt them leave my lips anyway. "She promised me before she left, that she would let me help pick out her flowers."
"Catori, don't do that." Mato 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. He sighs in defeat and begins picking at the grass, though his vigil never wavers. I stare at the shadows of the woods, deeper now that the sun has dipped beyond the horizon.
The boy's breathing is shallower, his face pale in the light of the full rising moon. A blood moon, I think, feeling a chill down my spine at the pale red shade. I etch the planes of the boy's face and the scar at his neck to memory. I don't hear the stranger, but Mato does, and it's his movement that jolts me to attention.
"Stay where you are," Mato growls in Amarian. Standing between us, he draws his sword, holding it ready.
The cloaked man stops, holding his hands above his shoulders. I lean forward so I can watch from between Mato's legs, still grasping the dying boy's hand. A golden clasp holds his cloak at his right shoulder. Squinting, I barely make out the eagle head in the darkness.
"Brother," is the only word I understand as he speaks.
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," I hear the Creasan man say in Amarian. I jerk my head at this one word, spoken in a language I didn't think any Creasan would bother to learn.
Mato yells at the man, who winces at the anger and fury in the tone. "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 -"
"Mato." 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. Flickers of firelight can be seen through the leaves, the howls of the wolves having caught my scent.
As I reach the tree line, waiting patiently for Mato 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. When he speaks, it is in perfect Amarian, "The next time we meet, I won't hesitate to kill you."
And so, I think as I make my way towards my people, the moment of peace is once again broken.