"Some of them were my friends too," she whispered, looking down. "But you are my brother! I can't bear to lose you."
One arm freed from its cloth restraints, Melvin cocked his fist and smashed it hard into her face. Blood prickled her tongue. She stumbled back, tripping over her long satin robes to sprawl upon the cold floor. His stark, barely furnished room reflected the straightforward approach to life he took.
"And it shames me you were even born from the same womb as me! How could the gods see fit to give you the magic of sight?"
After a vision in which he sacrificed himself to save his company, she'd resolved to prevent it. He, the lithe, proud warrior, had naturally refused to hear her pleas to sit out the battle. He wouldn't even acknowledge that he'd most likely die, insisting that a man made his own fate. If knocking him out, tying him up, gagging him, and staying in his room all day to deter visitors was what it took, so be it. Even if it might cost her his love...
"How do you know you would have been able to make that much of a difference? Even if you fought, your friends might still be dead."
"I have faith in my abilities," he spat. Disdain bored into her from his moist eyes. "You say you love me, but don't you believe in me? I am a grown man, who knows the risks of what he does. Don't I have the right to make my own decisions?"
He had been the strong one since childhood, always arguing on her behalf in his matter-of-fact way and giving her the needed encouragement to do things she was afraid to. Even scaring the nobles' daughters who mocked her with his fists, heedless of the punishments he would receive afterward.
"I believe in you." She broke down, sobbing. "I believe in my own abilities too, though. Don't you know everyone I've dreamt of dying has died before? I've never tried to defy fate as directly as I did with you. I don't even know the consequences of that. But I did it for you."
He undid the last of his bonds and stormed past her, kicking her hands away when she reached for him. "The consequences are that you've lost a brother." Exiting the door, he slammed it shut.
She wiped her eyes and left the room. Her close friend Albert met her in the hall. "What happened?" the stocky young warrior asked, inspecting her bruises with clenched teeth. "Did he hit you?"
"I'm all right," she said, rubbing down his arms to try and sooth his rage. It could be dangerous for him to be angry at Melvin, with the bloodlust of battle not fully gone from him yet. "What I'm really worried about, is if he'll ever regard me as a sister again."
Albert hugged her, allowing her to cry on his mailed chest. "Of course he will. He loves you, too; a little argument can't change that. I'm sure he'll forgive you in no time."
"I hope so." She leaned back, and looked at him with eyes full of fear. "But even if that's the case... what if it happens again?"
Only three months later, Courtney had a vision. She dreamed her brother led the charge through the enemy lines, only to be boxed in and dragged down with a spear through his guts. When she cradled his body after the battle, his warm, sticky blood felt so real she had to wash her hands upon waking. Was fate displeased, and in a hurry to correct the disruption her intervention had caused? How long she could defy destiny she didn't know, but she would preserve him to the best of her ability. That he had been promoted to lead his own company, however, might make that a little harder.
She met Albert in the enclosed herb garden where they always talked. As many times as they'd argued here, they had come for each other's support much more. "I can't let him lead the attack, but everyone expects him out there. His men will be more suspicious of me now if he doesn't show. How can I stop him?"
"Maybe you shouldn't do anything," he said in a sad tone. "What happened last time hurt him very much, and holding him prisoner again would do no favors for his manhood."
"But it's his life we're talking about here! If he goes out there, he'll die. How much can his pride matter compared to that?"
"You'd be surprised how often men choose to risk their lives before their pride, myself included. And it's not just pride. There is a responsibility and duty that comes with being a leader. But I can understand your view too." He shrugged. "You're pretty skilled yourself. Why don't you go out there with him and protect him?"
He didn't mean it seriously, of course. Though extensively trained to defend herself, a seer and female at that would hardly be allowed on the front lines. But his jest inspired a crazy thought. "Wait! Melvin isn't much bigger than me, and he always wears that frightful closed helm when he goes to battle. If I fought in his place, wouldn't that maybe help salvage his reputation?"
"If you did well, perhaps. I doubt he'd wish to be credited for your efforts, though."
Courtney acknowledged that would do Melvin's pride little good, but the idea had already wrapped itself around her mind. "But it would be a way to keep him safe without drawing suspicion, right? As long as people think he's out and fighting, they won't go looking... elsewhere for him."
"So you want to beat your brother up and leave him tied up somewhere again. Have you considered that if you replace him, you might also inherit his manner of death?"
"I'll just have to hope fate doesn't work that way, and that I'm skilled and lucky enough to survive whatever troubles I encounter."
"You have absolutely no experience on the battlefield."
"So did you and Melvin at first. There's a first time for everyone, no?"
He stared into her eyes with intense, almost intimidating concern. "Are you sure you want to do this? It's really dangerous."
"I know. But my brother's always protected me, and now it's my turn to protect him." She took his hands, smiling. "Besides, you'd be there with me, wouldn't you?"
"Well, I would," he said, unable to help a grin. He must be proud she trusted him so, even after their young romance failed to work out. "Can you at least take care of subduing him by yourself?"
"He'll be on guard around me now. I might need some help."
"You know that just because he doesn't have the heart to rat you out, doesn't mean he'll have the consideration to do the same for me." Albert sighed. He seemed flustered with her, yet even if he did not fully agree with her intentions, he said, "I'll do it."
She would have done him a similar favor without question, after all. It was what best friends were for.
"So what is it you want to show me," Melvin asked in a sharp tone, "a crack in the basement wall? Faulty architecture is hardly my top concern."
"This is a really big crack, though," Albert's insistent voice said in response. "It could endanger the integrity of the castle's structure, or even have been put there by enemy sappers!"
Behind a nearby door, Courtney waited for them to pass by her. Reaching the wall she had scratched a line across, Melvin walked ahead of Albert. "What are you talking about? I don't see any big crack. That little nick doesn't even look like it goes de-"
Albert grabbed him from the back, pinning his arms behind him. "Courtney, now!"
She ran out and swung her truncheon. Unfortunately Melvin ducked, and she hit her friend instead. "Albert!" Courtney cried, right before Melvin slipped free of the stunned warrior's grasp and knocked her down with a kick to the midriff.
"I knew it!" he said. "No wonder you started looking at me like that again. Now I'm going to teach you a lesson about minding your own business."
He advanced on her, and Courtney scooted back in fright. The fury in his eyes struck terror into her pounding heart. Melvin reached for her, features contorted around bared teeth. Without thinking, she swung the truncheon at his knee.
To her shock, a loud crack accompanied the impact, and his leg buckled sideways. He fell to the ground, screaming at the top of his lungs, and she stared in horror at what she'd done.
"Damn, did you break his leg?" Albert asked, rubbing his bruised forehead. "You didn't have to go that far."
"It was an accident!" she said, biting her lip. Melvin was in such agony he couldn't even turn towards them, and curled whimpering in a ball instead. She couldn't even look at his twisted leg due to the guilt. "I thought it would barely slow him down."
"Lucky shot, or unlucky depending on your perspective. Well, he's not dead. Let's tie him up and get on with the plan."
"Albert, you traitor!" Melvin managed to gasp. "I'll have you strung up on a pole for this!"
Patting Albert's shoulder to reassure him things would be all right, Courtney helped him bind Melvin with sturdy ropes.
They left Melvin in a little-used closet and went to his room, where Albert helped Courtney don her brother's gear. His light plate and chain suit felt a bit loose in the arms and tight at the hips, but she was athletically built enough to manage. She didn't know how she would face Melvin after this, but saving his life came first at the moment. She just hoped the bird-like visored helm, so heavy and unfamiliarly restrictive to her sight, wouldn't cost her hers.
"Should I get you another sword?" Albert asked. "You already look pretty burdened."
Courtney tested the balance of Melvin's heavy bastard sword and shook her head. "No, I'll be fine with his. We don't want anyone wondering why he isn't using his favorite." She pitched her voice low, chuckling despite herself. "Does my voice sound deep enough?"
"Just about. The helmet should help."
Together, they headed out to meet the enemy arrayed before the castle. Damn local lords, always infighting among themselves. Not trusting her throat as much as she'd like, she let Albert do the talking whenever she could. Thankfully, Melvin was a fighter of few words too. Her shout when she led the charge forward might have betrayed her, but the soldiers seemed too riled up to notice.
Armored flesh and sharpened steel grew in her vision ahead, reminding her that she fought for real now. Even on foot, her foes seemed giants, and their long spears added to their appearance of power. Her pulse raced under sweat-dampened cloth; she struggled not to faint from the heat that came from within her as much as without. She hoped no one could see her inexperienced hands shake. Yet she did not slow Melvin's horse down, his hooves thunder beneath her. For the sake of those she led, not to mention her brother's honor, she would provide an inspiring example.
Her mounted company crashed into the opposing line, lances negating the reach of the spears to slay many a man. Courtney herself planted the tip of her lance into a burly warrior's exposed throat, winced at the touch of jetting blood and urged herself to be strong. But she knew she would hear the screams a lot more in her nightmares. Their possible fate if they pressed on fresh in her mind, she signaled for her allies to pull back. They broke off their attack and made a wheeling retreat, then turned to charge again.
Seemingly confused by the tactic they would not have expected Melvin to use, the enemy took devastating losses as they fought to regroup. Courtney felt a spark of confidence at her initial success. She could handle this small part. The strategies to win the wider battle, she would leave to the real officers. When her unit rushed again, however, she found herself surprised to see the the enemy's formation open up and march forward. Her eyes darted back and forth in building panic, and sweat poured down her face anew.
"They're trying to encircle us!" Albert said. "We have to break through!"
Any illusions Courtney had of being in control shattered after that. She pushed on desperately alongside the soldiers who weren't hers, eyes blurred with tears. She'd been so adamant about keeping her brother safe, but how would she feel if she got his men killed while a more tested leader in Melvin might have saved them? Only now did she truly understand how he must've felt. Had she been wrong? Maybe she didn't know better, after all. She realized that Melvin would have been more qualified to make his own choices, and had the right to. Don't think about that! Focus on getting us through...
She spurred her steed ahead, lashing out at anything in her way. Blood spurted from maimed bodies, warming her chilled skin. Her lance wedged inside a breastplate and snapped; she drew Melvin's sword and hacked away. Inspired by her effort, her company found new resolve. They caught up to her, fighting like devils, and much to her relief the murderous crowd before her began to thin. Disastrous as her plan had almost proved, they might yet make it.
A lanky man with wild eyes stepped into her path. Something punched into her middle, and she felt herself lifted out of her saddle. Her vision was lost in agony as her body ripped free of the spear. Courtney fell through the air, helmet flying loose as she hit the ground hard on her back. She coughed blood upwards and felt it sprinkle down over her face. Her arms spasmed from the shock and pain. No! She couldn't stop, not before she'd seen her task done. Blinking away some of the red haze, she tried to raise her head.
Moments later, the iron-shod hooves of her own allies came down and smashed her into the dust.
The battle ended. Courtney's soldiers had stopped after inadvertently trampling her, and formed a hasty ring to protect her. Miraculously, most of them still lived, thanks in part to the morale they had drawn from seeing her stand back up to aid in their mutual defense. Now she staggered towards her brother's steed, clutching the ghastly wound in her abdomen while Albert and the others watched. She struggled to mount the gelding, somehow succeeded and started forward. After a few steps, dizziness overcame her and she slipped off sideways, thumping onto the dirt.
Still she braced her arms and fought to rise, at least until Albert came to her side. The other warriors stared, no doubt marveling at the determination of the female seer unmasked before them. Albert hauled her up, lifted her straight into the air and set her down on the horse's back.
"I'll ride with you," he said softly, climbing up behind her and embracing her about the waist to steady her. She relaxed, allowing her exhausted body to sag and sway the way it wanted. "Shouldn't let you embarrass yourself further by falling again."
"Think Melvin's old horse can handle it?" she rasped. Her throat felt paper dry, and she saw as if through a fog. She barely felt the blood running down the numbed skin of her chin.
"He's still pretty strong. He'll be fine."
They rode back to the castle, Albert making constant small talk with her to make sure she still lived. His worry touched her, but why did he make her waste her voice when she was already so tired? Her eyelids drooped halfway shut, and her replies shrank to whispers. She felt proud, though. She heard the men cheer her on, and that was all the reward she needed for her trouble.
When they reached the main gate, Courtney squinted to confirm she saw Melvin waiting for her. He leaned heavily on a wooden crutch, yet upon getting a good look at her the anger in his eyes faded in favor of concern. "Courtney!" he breathed, and hobbled towards her. "Courtney, you're hurt!"
She dismounted on her own and limped to meet him. Suddenly he stumbled to his knees, features twisted in pain. Courtney crouched to help him, only to lose her balance. As she fell forward, she wrapped her arms around him. They knelt there, holding each other.
"I'm so sorry," she gasped, crying. "I was wrong to take you away from your duty, and your freedom. I beg you, forgive me!"
"Of course I forgive you, little sister. I'm grateful you understand now. Please just don't die!"
Courtney leaned closer to him. "I won't die." She spat a mouthful of blood and smiled. "Sometime when I'm healed, could you teach me to be a proper soldier? I'd like to continue accompanying you... in disguise until we get the rules changed, of course."
He opened his mouth to respond, but she didn't care what the immediate answer was. In time, she knew in her heart, she would convince him that it could only be "yes". For now, though, she needed to rest. She let her eyelids slide down, and her hand dropped away to reveal the entrails bulging from a deep belly wound.
Her dreams were happy after that.
© Billy Wong 2012
Billy Wong is an avid fan of heroic fantasy. His fiction has appeared in many venues including Sorcerous Signals, Big Pulp, and Robots Beyond anthology. A full list of his published works can be found here: http://www.absolutewrite.com/forums/showthread.php?t=58445 .