Rhian’s fingers shifted around the hilt of the knife, rearranging her grip. The blade turned, caught the sunlight for half a moment. She blinked. For the space of a breath, she seemed to look at something between her and Seryn. Then her gaze focused again. One heel turned out, balancing her stance.
“I’m not going to let you kill me,” she said clearly. Her voice was tight now, and perfectly honest.
Thought fell back, perfectly silent. The rustle of the breeze came through like the whisper of thunder. The ground held firm. The run of Seryn’s blood went quiet, along with every other thing inside her. Warm and calm, Seryn blinked back. “Put the knife away,” she murmured.
Rhian looked hurt before her expression tightened enough to call it anger. “We heard the stories,” she said, each word distinct. “About your first kill.”
Seryn felt the bite. Somewhere, that hurt. She imagined she might feel it later. Now, she felt the weight of her own hands, measured the seconds it could take Rhian to close on her. She watched Rhian’s face. The edges of her vision would best catch the roll of her shoulder, the shift of her hip before she moved.
“I know it was one of us,” Rhian said.
Seryn didn’t nod or shake her head. She only met Rhian’s eye.
“They say she fought you at first,” Rhian said. “And then she fell, laid down and let you take her lungs.” Her jaw tightened. “Do you think that’s what I’m going to do?”
“Soldiers like to tell stories,” Seryn murmured. “War is boring.”
“What?” Rhian demanded.
“War is boring,” Seryn snapped. She slapped the words down, then slowed again, her voice never rising. “You’ve never been. You don’t know. But all it is, is hundreds of us walking from one place to another, practicing things we already know, waiting for the opportunity to die heroically. It’s boring. So, soldiers tell stories.”
Rhian took a heavy breath, staring to shake her head.
“She wasn’t my first,” Seryn told her. “She was sick. I did as I was told.”
Rhian’s hand tightened on her knife. “You had to?” Three words, and her voice almost stopped itself up trying to get the last one out, almost a plea.
Seryn didn’t give her an answer. She might have. It had felt like mercy in the moment, coming up beside her when the rest of her squadron of armed and armored soldiers were afraid to get close. After, she had never been able to point to whose mercy it had been.
“I saw them take Daan out of the barracks,” Rhian said. She raised her chin a little, gathering herself back together into a hard column of muscle and bone. “He’d been talking to air. I thought… I didn’t know what they would do. But they never brought him back.”
Seryn hesitated. She had never heard of anyone coming down sick in the barracks before. In an instant, she wished she had never heard of it, and tried to pretend that she hadn’t. They trained too much – trained in everything – when they were young enough to still spend all their time in the old camps, sleeping on the old cots in the barracks. It might have been something else.
“I’m fine,” Rhian said. Her chin had fallen a little, so Seryn wasn’t sure which of them she was assuring until her eyes snapped back up. “I know what’s real.”
“You don’t,” Seryn said. “I’m sorry.”
Rhian gave no warning before she moved. She came in a curving line, the motion itself too much warning of the attack at that range for her to believe that her opening cut would land. Instead, she curved to the outside, twisting around to come at Seryn’s ribs from the side and as far to the back she could reach. She forced Seryn to turn with her to keep her in sight, forced Seryn to put one foot back onto ground she couldn’t actually see.
For one moment, it paid off. Seryn put her foot down toe first, trying to steady herself as quick as possible. Her foot caught in a root, came down awkwardly. Rhian pushed in, sliding the blade against Seryn’s side. It caught in her shirt, ripped, and left a stinging line along the soft skin between ribs and hip.
Seryn pulled back, ducked the next swing, and stopped the next with hard block that caught Rhian at elbow and shoulder. Closing her fists on the younger woman’s shirt, she yanked her down and to the side, and threw her into the ground beside her.
Rhian rolled as she fell, skidded onto one foot and one knee and looked up at Seryn with bright eyes. She was already breathing hard, afraid, but her expression was folded into a sharp point of pride.
Pushing herself back to her feet, she swung toward Seryn again, pointing fist and blade toward the tear in Seryn’s shirt. Seryn leaned back to let it slide past. She started to reach back for her own knife, then stopped push the next swipe away with open palms. Rhian dropped the knife into her other hand, came at her from the other side, and Seryn had to keep her hands up to push that aside too.
Seryn grabbed Rhian’s shoulder, lending a little weight to turn her swipe into a sideways twist. Rhian yanked lose before she could grip her arm to bend it backward.
Rhian slid away. She gave Seryn another direct, fierce look. Her lips almost stretched into a smile and Seryn felt cold.
They eyed each other for a long moment.
“You’re not going to win this,” Seryn said.
Rhian shook her head, just a little. It seemed almost enough to inspire the rest of her smile. “But you’re the one bleeding.”
Seryn watched her take in another breath, and another, and another.
“I’m fine,” Rhian said.
Slowly, Seryn understood. It wasn’t about winning for her. It wasn’t truly about fighting. She only cared to stand in front of Seryn and state as loudly as she knew how that she was no broken thing kept around on leniency or mercy. She was only saying that she wanted to stay alive, and that she deserved it.
Seryn ran her tongue along the inside of her teeth, scraping the sour taste away.
When Rhian lunged toward her again, Seryn didn’t think. She twisted to one side, caught Rhian’s shoulder and pushed her down as she brought her knee up. Rhian was nearly silent as the breath rushed out of her, then coughed trying to bring it back in. Seryn waited while Rhian pulled herself upright, then stepped inside Rhian’s reach when she aimed for her again. Blocking her swing, Seryn drove the side of her hand into the weak nerves of Rhian’s upper arm, twisted her arm, stepped around to her side, and twisted harder.
Rhian dropped her knife when Seryn hit the next nerve. The blade fell into Seryn’s waiting hand.
Rhian twisted, straightening her arm and throwing herself toward the ground and Seryn had to stumble back to keep from going down with her. The younger woman tried to kick out Seryn’s feet, then jumped upright, swinging hard.
Seryn knew immediately her forearms would be bruised from blocking the hit. She might care later. Keeping her hands up, she stepped backward, letting Rhian chase her for a moment while she took a breath. She collected more bruises.
She only needed Rhian to slow for a moment. She only needed her to take one too-short step to avoid a tree root, hesitate and leave Seryn enough room to block her with one arm and reach around to her back for her own knife.
Seeing the flash of the second blade, Rhian lunged too far. Seryn stepped to the side and let her carry herself forward, then slammed the butt of one knife behind Rhian’s shoulder. Rhian gasped. Arching her back, she lost any speed in turning around and Seryn stepped in close. Swiftly, she cut two straight lines a few inches to either side of Rhian’s spine. She hoped she hadn’t cut too deep, and hoped she had cut deep enough. She wasn’t sure of either as Rhiancrumpled forward, landing on her knees.
Rhian caught herself on her hands. One breath, and then two, and she didn’t pick herself up. Her shirt split across her shoulders, displaying dark bruises along her spine. It took a moment for Seryn to see the blood run in lines onto lighter, clearer skin. Rhian’s hands clenched in the scrub on the ground. She gasped out a breath, then a second that sounded like the beginning of a sob.
The breeze ran over head and the leaves hissed and settled.
Seryn took a few slow steps around Rhian’s side. Crouching carefully in front of her, she rested on her toes, elbows on her knees.
Rhian’s eyes were screwed shut, her face twisted against the pain. She held her breath, as if letting it out would collapse her.
“They say it hurts like hell,” Seryn murmured.
Rhian breathed hard as soon as she opened her mouth. One, two, three gasps, just to raise her head and open her eyes. She focused on Seryn’s face, not hiding her fear anymore.
“What did you do?” Rhian asked.
Seryn traced the straight lines of her arms, the edges of her shirt where it stuck to her back now. She watched her ribs expand to drag air in again and again.
“Why does it hurt so much?” Rhian asked.
“Because you’re not dying,” Seryn said. “If you’re lucky, I just fixed you.”