This story is by Jada-Leigh McGregor and was part of our 2023 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
He looked at her, dark skin glazed blue by the moon. A fresh cut journeyed down the side of her cheek, glittering an inflamed red. He pressed the alcohol-soaked rag against it, holding her sharp chin in place. She didn’t so much as flinch, gaze still affixed to the thin smile of the horizon.
Their whole world was on fire. It was something she took personally.
“Did we just lose the war?” she said, voice heavy with eventuality. She brushed away the rag, and with it his hand. Over the past five years, he had watched the war line her features and streak the front of her hair white, the stark contrast framing her heart-shaped face.
The hills sprawled out in front of them, cascading down into unruly valleys that bucked up against the jagged cliffs of the southeastern plains. Their land was the pride of their people; it was what they fought for. But the flowering meadows he used to play in had long been reduced to ashen battlefields. Even if his people were victorious, what spoils would be left to gain?
“Perhaps this loss in battle will win us the war.” She scraped blood off her dagger and twirled it across her knuckles in an effortless pattern he couldn’t follow. “I wouldn’t bet against you,” he breathed. She looked at him then, and he felt his chest swell.
“It’s not me I worry about. We’ve been fighting for so long…” she trailed off, looking around the encampment. Their tent was one of many dotted on this hill, each one housing a warrior and her attendant. The hillside gave them a vantage point and cloak of darkness from the northern battleground.
Her head tipped up. “But if we are weary, so is the enemy. We will ride out at dawn.”
“So soon?” his shock unfurled his tongue. His head dipped under her heated gaze. Beats of silence rolled between them.
“To fight to live, you must be ready to die,” she said, and slipped inside the tent.
Shame burned his insides. If he couldn’t ride out under her charge during battle, the least he could do was ease her mind after it ended.
He could hear her breath slow as soon as her head hit the ground. Slumber blanketed the rest of the camp soon after. Lanterns were put out, until the only light left was from his own and the moon.
One by one, the stars winked into view. Laying on the plush grass was the best he felt all day, yet he found himself floating into the tent to check on her. He was being foolish again. What could he have done if someone had tried to harm her as she slept? Offer to dress their wounds? He scoffed at himself.
Men are not fit for war.
He had been told this his whole life. Taught that his body was more suited to the long labor of gathering and carrying grain. Women preferred the waiting game of hunting. Squatting in bushes or trees for hours, as still as lake water, until the moment came to turn prey into supper. In his youth, watching the warriors train had never ceased to fill him with awe. He shuddered to think how formidable their enemies must be to cause such skilled fighters to falter.
He watched her motionless face and his chest swelled. She was whole, fully fledged in her life’s purpose. His existence felt pale in comparison. He had watched her bloom while still being rooted in soil. He only wished he could bloom the same way. With the tide of the war, he felt his center of being shift: slowly, but surely away from himself and towards her. Attending a warrior meant dedicating your life to her needs. He was a healer, a weapons and bomb maker, a cook, a horse trainer, a confidante, everything, for her. Everything except the one thing he wanted to be. Was it too much to wish he could wield the swords he sharpened, flanking her in battle? Frustration threatened to cave his chest in. He didn’t know what he wanted more: her love or her respect.
Her eyelids lightened under his heavy gaze and he stepped out silently, extinguishing his light so as not to disturb her.
Dawn crackled at the edges of the sky. The women mounted their horses in unison, his warrior at their helm. As she rode off, he prayed to the War god. For only the god of War could grant peace.
His waiting was anxious and energetic. His hands busied themselves with scrubbing weapons raw and taking inventory of them. He scraped splinters off spears, sharpened arrows. He cooked breakfast for the attendants, noting then ignoring that their rations were dwindling. He spoke to no one but the War God for the next three hours.
The sun was at the highest point in the sky when panic descended on the camp like a flurry of arrows. Pain. They’re in pain. His throat felt raw with someone else’s cries. Help us. He saw warriors at the base of the hill and instantly knew. Defeat.
His vision blurred as he rushed down to their side. Several warriors were draped over the backs of horses, unable to walk. Others were on foot or crumpled on the ground. He knelt down, tipping his canteen of water to the lips of the two closest warriors. His throat filled with dirt as he pressed a cloth to a warrior’s shoulder threatening to cleave into two. All the while, his eyes wandered.
He searched, felt his heart sink, then searched again. No.
“Where is she?” he asked the second-in-command as he helped her down from her horse. Her leg was twisted at an unnatural angle.
“Still in battle. She saw we were losing, but she also saw our enemies leaving their rear exposed as they advanced on us. She went to the trees to ambush them,” she said with gritted teeth, yelping when he set her on the ground. His hands hovered over her knee and she braced herself. “She ordered the rest of us to take the injured back.”
Her words made it easier for him to snap her leg back into place. She yowled in pain, back arching to the heavens.
He waited for her screams to turn to heavy pants, blood boiling his veins. “How could you just leave her there?” Betrayal soured his tone.
Her head snapped back in disbelief. “What would you know?” She batted away his hands and struggled to her feet, leaning on her attendant when he suddenly appeared at her side. One by one, each attendant found his warrior, ready to treat her wounds and help her up the hill. He was the only one alone. “We are her sisters and could not convince her otherwise. But we trust that she knows best. Who are you to question her actions?”
“She could die!” He all but yelled. The others around them balked at his insubordination.
“This is war!” the lieutenant roared in his face. “If she dies, she will do it as she fought: for her people.”
He couldn’t look at her or anyone else. His gaze flickered to the closest horse and her eyes widened.
He straightened his back, felt the muscles in his legs tighten. “She won’t die alone,” he swore, and sidestepped the lieutenant as she lunged for him, broken leg and all. His heart leapt as he did, onto the back of her horse. It neighed loudly, so startled that it reared up on its hind legs trying to throw him. Her attendant dragged the lieutenant back before she could get trampled. The horse returned to all fours with a huff.
“Live or die, she has been blessed by the War god, so don’t pretend you’re doing this for her. She would be the first to cut you down and you know it. Men are not fit for war,” she warned.
He met her glare with conviction. “Then may the War God bless me.”
She tore out of her attendant’s grasp. “You are not a true warrior! Do you think War will give you glory, save who you love, make you more of a man?” He froze. “Can’t you see? You’re not fighting for what is just, you’re fighting for what you think you deserve.” She pointed a sword up at his chest. “We know your heart, and so does our god. War cannot bless you, it will only corrupt you.”
He stared at them all, eyes darting between attendants and warriors. All of them shared the lieutenant’s hard, pleading eyes.
Maybe he was wrong.
Maybe the love and respect he sought from his warrior could only come from himself.
“I’ll save my prayers, then.”
The lieutenant didn’t have to look down to see the exact moment he resigned himself and jammed his heel into her horse’s side. He careened forward and shot off, thundering hooves sounding his ruin.