...continued from pt. i...
i was standing in the middle of eternity, the countryside rolling in gentle swells as far as the eye could see. gone was the river of blood, where upon its blood-muddy banks i had sat with the pomegranate priestess. instead of the river, now i could see the rippling plains covered in barley swaying in the breeze which held a touch --a mere hint-- of ice.
it was the time of year when late summer was just changing hands with the darkening autumn, the chilled fingers of the turning seasons reaching into the heat of midday to raise goose chills on my skin even as I dripped sweat in the heat.
i stood alone on a hilltop, dressed for battle save for the general’s helmet tucked under one arm, its crest of red plumes fluttering ever so gently on the restless air. i looked around, expecting to see the pomegranate priestess with her blood tattoos, but she was gone. strands of hair had worked themselves loose from my braid and blew across my face; the breeze came from the north. death was in the wind this day, i knew. i ran my hands across the heads of barley and knew somehow this was the last moment of peace i would see for a long time, and i wished time would stand still.
even the breeze stopped and the barley froze in mid-sway. every tiny detail of the world stood out in cruel relief, simple as it was: the sky cerulean perfection, flawless; the hills so gentle it seemed the land was flatter than it truly was. it seemed i could run to the horizon and never get winded; the breeze sent the barley bowing and swaying in waves; the air crisp and fresh and smelled like…
i blinked my eyes and the peace shattered before me. suddenly i was sitting astride a warhorse just as garbed for battle as i was, a huge chestnut steed with black mane and tail. it had a red saddlecloth with gold trim; a red to match the plumes on my helmet. i alone in my army wore red, however, as was i the only one to have a horse.
this horse was no gelding and only half broken, fierce and rearing and whinnying and difficult to control. no one else could ride this horse, i knew, but even i had to give all my concentration to controlling my mount. i couldn't handle this horse casually at all but give it my full care and respect.
all this i knew in an instant as time resumed and i found myself suddenly astride this massive warhorse, my war party behind me shouting and roaring and beating their swords on their shields to get their blood racing.
i drew my greatsword from its sheath and pointed it forward, heralding the charge downhill. my enemies were here, concealed in the barley, occupying the beauty of the picturesque landscape in the heart of my queendom. “Onward!” it was a full-throated roar as i kicked my mount to full gallop.
the rest of my army, one hundred elite warriors of legendary skill and power, ran afoot alongside my mount. the horse, i knew, was a necessity born of the fact i could never have kept up with my companions running as easily as they kept up with my horse galloping.
i led the charge downslope, no enemy in sight and yet i knew that we were not alone in that vast field of barley.
And we fell on the enemy. the first of many: Fear.
i was screaming Fear’s name, waving my sword in the air and spurring my horse even faster. the bloodlust was a roar in my ears and a fire in my veins. there would be a reckoning this day!
and then i was upon her, and my horse was gone. i was on foot. my companions were fighting as well, but i could not see their adversaries. unseen foes accompanying Fear, nightmare conjurations of every form imaginable, but all i could see was Fear herself. my companions kept Fear’s minions away from me, defending me so i could face my enemy unhindered.
i raised my sword, screaming in the heat of battle. i looked into my enemy’s eyes.
my first mistake.
again time lurched, slowed to a crawl. i took in the sight of Fear from head to toe. her eyes held me. they were my eyes.
she had my round face, the scar on her bottom lip, her left cheekbone slightly puffier than her right from the day in high school when she cracked it. she was exactly my height; her hair exactly the length of mine; the mole on her neck; the scar on the knuckle of her right forefinger that i saw as she held up her hands…everything. she was me.
Fear was me.
i hesitated, my sword trembling in my hands. i wanted to weep. i was terrified. horrified! i would just as soon turn my sword upon myself!
Fear fell to her knees, hands in front of her face as if to deflect the blow she knew was coming. i knew exactly the expression i wore because Fear wore it as well, and i knew she would not weep no matter how terrified she was unless i wept first. it was then i noticed she wore no armor, no protection. all she wore was one of my favorite grungy, layered outfits i had loved back in middle school: forest-green shirt with a pocket at the left breast, faded and fraying denim shorts, black leggings underneath, black socks, black boots, black sweatshirt tied around her waist.
how could i kill an unarmed child? she certainly looked twelve years old again. i was trembling. an enemy as my equal, met face to face in armor and armed to the teeth i could slay, but i would not be a butcher of children! oh, how i trembled...!
...and then i realized this was her tactic; this was Fear’s great Weapon. she manipulated me as if i were the child!
anguish welled up within me. screaming anguish and defiance, i brought my sword down and sliced Fear clean across the chest, a diagonal gash that gaped horribly from her left shoulder down to the ribs on her right side. her breastbone made an ugly, wretched crunch as it was crushed. her blood sprayed across my face, splattered my armor, but i did not wipe it away.
upon the death of my first foe, my army rose up in a deafening cheer. “Onward!” I called, jabbing my bloodied sword straight up into the air.
to pt iii