Short Fiction ~ Soufyaan Timol
A battle is one stride, the first and the last. The next. Always the next.
Asukai had seen the great masters of Nal-Har manipulate the grace of this stride like mummers manipulate puppets, had seen them exercise a command so absolute over their motion that even the slightest detail would not escape it.
You could not hide such control.
She knew almost instantly; the man standing twelve paces from her was no novice. Not even an expert. Beyond that. In how he moved, and how he did not move, she knew. The Linewalker tried to hide his mastery, to act green and brash but, the moment he entered a stance, she understood she was facing someone who had reached the top, and who dwelt there.
A cool breeze swept over the open plain, through the naked blades of grass and up the hills a few miles west. Veins of crimson streaked through the cloud-laden sky, nightfall close. But for the two of them, not a man breathed for leagues around. Not a man to witness, not a man to contemplate the beauty of what was to come.
Asukai doffed her cloak, let it fall with a gentle thud. The muscles in her back stretched when she reached for the daggers in her boots, which she discarded; they were bothersome during a duel. "What is your name, Linewalker?" she asked. "That I may know it before I take your life."
He chuckled, but only softly. "Shichiro. I assume the Cutthroat is only a brand?"
She flashed a grin, entering the Dark. "Asukai Kelsatra, from Nal-Har." Shichiro Ka. The name was famous enough, in taverns and among ruling outlaws. Not simply a Linewalker. One of the best swordsman of the nation. Asukai rolled her shoulder. We’ll put that reputation to the test.
Last, when she had removed any piece of fabric that might slow her down, the woman unsheathed her longsword. The winds of early summer whispering against her bare arms, she brandished it towards the Linewalker. "You people do the job of bounty hunters these days?"
He raised his own blade, an inch shorter than hers, with his left hand. "What you did is way beyond bounty hunters."
Asukai took a step forward, a single one. This was where the battle began, where everything else ended. A mistake now, a slip or a lapse, was death. "I killed a few men. What? Fifteen, sixteen at most."
He did not answer, but his pretty eyes said everything. Not how many you killed, who you killed.
Calm as the silence before a storm, they circled each other, neither of them making a move to attack. A sudden wind blew from Shichiro’s direction. She caught a strong earthy scent, like fresh cut wood. It reminded her of the forest marshes after a dry season. His limbs pulsed with every step, on the very edge of attack, of a lethal strike. But no, her guard was up, and any half-good swordsman could recognize such a trap. Four seconds and Shichiro’s sword fell into his right hand. All conceit lost from his demeanor, all softness shredded from his gaze. Asukai sighed inwardly. Few were those who did not underestimate her, the same few who usually wound up being hard to fell.
A sudden shiver ran down her back, a caged fear she had not known in years-
They pounced at the same time, not a split-second between their charges. The blades collided in muted whistles and metallic clacks. Red and blue sparks soared. Death edged close, to be stopped by another manner of death. Just as easily, they broke apart, unscarred. The exchange had lasted less than a heartbeat.
Shichiro's eyes met hers, rimmed with exhilaration. Chilled with vigilance. He was not surprised, not anymore.
A battle is one stroke, one brush. May it last a few seconds, or an eternity, the dance is one unbroken movement.
Where the earthen ground, dry with chill, had been a thirsty battleground instants earlier, it now lived single held breath. Quiet, more fearful than anticipating, like a plague-struck village awaiting its incineration. She treaded on the balls of her feet, her footfalls resounding like hollow drums.
The Linewalker thrusted for her chest. A sidestep, block, strike, and they slipped past each other.
Asukai did not blink at the sudden gust of dust-laden air. Have I met my match? They revolved around each other, drawing ring upon ring of choked anticipation. Is he the one to fell me? She had killed two hundred and sixty-eight men over the last two decades, half in open combat, and twelve in duels. Three had been Linewalker masters. Two different martial arts she had mastered, her body and mind become a sculpture of polished marble, where not a hair's breadth of imperfection was allowed to exist.
And here... here was a Kenesiro light-haired who defied every notion of that reality.
Asukai struck. Her blade found his side, slicing through hardened leather and coming just short of flesh. She retreated.
Under the ebbing light of sundown, they danced. More than not, a spear's length of palpable tension stood between them, waiting to be crossed.
Night fell easily, with time frozen in a sphere around them. Starlight glinted off his blade, the gleam matching that of his dark eyes. A shallow cut appeared on her left arm, another on her leg. Inconsequential; Linewalkers did not poison their blades.
Unprompted, a part of her studied Shichiro Ka, beyond her active scrutiny of his form and movement. His skin the light tan of northerners of this country, eyes the shiny black of polished crystals, with a face made of hard lines and a body even harder, he looked younger than what his gaze told. A man of focus, she could tell, of patience and sober determination. There was yet a streak of defiance in his poise, something she could not exactly identify. As far as her own duty went, he did not look like a rapist. Then again, who does, really? He was a murderer, only a lawful one. She permitted herself the slightest smile at the thought. And attacked.
Their swords met like abrupt lightning, thunder made physical and shaped into blades. Once, twice, left, right, a slash and a stab. He fended off her every strike, and her every one of his. The impacts vibrated through her weapon and up her arm. From nowhere, his fist slammed into her ribs. Nearly panicking, Asukai managed to withdraw, earning another cut down the length of her back.
The woman raised her guard and exhaled. Trickles of blood seeped from the laceration, infusing the sweat.
A battle is one moment, one heartbeat. Time matters not, for time exists only beyond the battle.
Into deep night they fought, and further still. When Winter Wolves howled in the distance and glacial gusts rolled across the expanse, they did not stop. When her ten-time gashed limbs weighted heavy as oxen and her head agonized of exhaustion, they did not stop. Even when the faint yellow of false dawn appeared to the east, they did not stop.
Roars and screams escaped her throat in the early morning, when her strikes did not accomplish death. The Linewalker, shirtless and covered in blood, panted with every step.
At one point he rushed her, loosing a flurry of jabs and thrusts and stabs. Asukai, on the edge of collapse, willed strength into her limbs and dodged. And ducked and parried. When she escaped, bled and bruised, he fell to one knee, eyes wide, uncomprehending. She would have attacked then, charged him and bored her sword through his heart. It might have been the intrinsic knowledge that he would somehow fend her off, or simple exhaustion—beyond what her body could take—but Asukai's legs gave out. She knelt. Only her sword, embedded a few inches into the ground, kept her up.
Ribbons of sunlight shone upon their bowed forms, casting long shadows to their right. She gazed at the golden clouds, severed by the sheer power of daybreak, and coughed a ragged, painful laugh. All night they had fought, an eternity and more. A thousand nips and nicks lined her body, as much as his, and still both of them lived. Both of them held on. Shichiro raised his bloodied brows at her, then chuckled, as if they shared an inside joke.
For what might have been a few hours, neither of them moved.
There is a darker side to a battle, darker than the blood and the maiming and the death. Deeper too, deep enough that most men, almost all men, never see it. Had she known it? I've known it my whole life, it birthed me, but I never understood it. Now she felt it. That pain, oh such pain. Not the one borne by the blade or the arrow, not what came at defeat or loss. You could slaughter hundreds, and not even see the shadow of this agony. But here she was, at the end, and the pain was no stranger anymore. To strike him down would take everything away from the queer, queer bond the night had forged, to strike him down would be surrender to that darker side. Their eyes found each other, red and black. Black and red. The knowledge, she saw, bloomed into his mind.
A force unknown and unbent kept them staring at each other.
Last, when all apprehension had died, Asukai rose. She donned her belt and sheathed the sword, then limped towards him, every step a torment. She needed a bath, a cold one to numb her muscles and joints, and a hot one to wash off the grime and sweat and dried blood and fresh blood. That would come later.
She offered him a hand. "Let's go."
"Where?" His voice was a rasp. His expression only half-confused.
"Home." She did not know exactly what she meant by that, but they would find out eventually.
He grasped her hand.
Soufyaan Timol lives in Mauritius and has published a couple of short stories in the yearly anthologies Collection Maurice. He aspires to be a writer and is currently working on an epic fantasy novel titled Killing Gods.
He can be reached through his email address : email@example.com