Liberty or Death
Hazel, as she had privately named herself for her eyes, had never rebelled much. She saw what happened to those who did, so she kept her head down and survived. She educated herself as much as possible by observation, never daring to go further than keeping a scrap of paper to study the writing on it. She also tried to help others in little ways when she could, but anything overt always ended badly for both parties. But then, one strange twist of fate changed her life forever.
Hazel had, for most of her life, borne indignities and even inhumanities by living only in the current moment, focused on what she was doing. Any pain or unpleasant tasks were left behind the moment they ceased.
This method stuttered and failed after she was sold to the rich man’s whelp. He was an aristocratic dandy who respected no one and valued nothing but his own pleasure. He didn’t even bother to name her as others had. He simply called her “girl”. It was in his service that Hazel learned a new emotion: hate. It swelled in her every day until she loathed the very sound of his voice. She could be glad only when he was out of the house. Perhaps it was her treatment from this new owner, or perhaps it was simply her current stage of life—passing through adolescence, though not quite in reach of adulthood—which led her to make her choice.
The day came when Richard decided that despite her scars and utterly low status, the girl was decently pretty. Enough, anyway, to satisfy him. The maids noticed his looks and whispered that someday soon, the girl would be in his bed. Hazel never gossiped nor listened to it, so these whispers escaped her.
So it was that when Richard summoned her to his bedchamber one night, she was completely unprepared for his demand. She felt a hot spark of indignation rise in her. She drew herself up to her full height and, for the first time in her life, said, “I will not.”
She knew quite well that she could be beaten or even executed for such flagrant disobedience, but she did not care. She would not allow this pampered brat to take her virtue from her. If she held on to the least scrap of dignity, it was that.
Richard’s face contorted in anger and he raged against her. She stood her ground, watching his tantrum with contempt. This man—this boy—was less of a being than her. He, with all his wealth and status, was beneath her, and she a slave almost since birth, knowing no kindness and paid only in beatings and harsh words. In that moment, Hazel realized her worth. A slave was still a human. She was human, equal to any other on the earth.
“I’ll have you flogged for this, girl!”
Hazel tilted her chin defiantly. “You will not.”
This simple, quiet statement, uttered with absolute surety, threw Richard into an even worse temper. “You presume to tell me what I will and will not do? You go too far, slave! It is time you learned your place!”
Richard’s choice of words was unfortunate. A faint smile crept onto Hazel’s face and held there. “Time indeed,” she replied. “I, a slave, nameless, hated, challenge you for my life and my freedom. As the challenged, it is your right to choose weapons as well as time and place. I shall defeat you or die, rather than spend my days doing your will.”
That silenced him. He considered it, then nodded imperiously. What a perfect way to end this upstart. When she was begging for her life he might choose to grant it, provided she was subservient from then on. “Very well. Swords, on the west lawn at noon tomorrow. Best of luck finding a suitable weapon,” he jeered.
She did not deign to reply and left his presence standing tall. She did not sleep that night. She was on the west lawn before dawn, keeping vigil until Richard appeared. He was late, having taken an early lunch first, and dressed in ridiculously fine clothes. It was obvious that he did not take the challenge with any sort of seriousness. Hazel presented him with a paper, on which a formal agreement was written in neat letters. “If you would be so kind as to sign this, and have a witness sign as well,” she said.
Richard took it, suspicion clear in his manner, and read it. “You can’t be serious,” he told her.
Hazel shrugged. “If you prefer to instead swear an oath with the local pastor as witness, that is also acceptable.”
Richard tore the paper in half. “I do not allow a slave to dictate my actions. Those present are witness enough,” he pronounced. “Last night, this impudent wench challenged me to a duel. The terms are that if by some miracle she manages to defeat me, she gains her life and freedom. If—I apologize, when—I win, she will never again even think to disobey me.”
His ‘friends’ who had gathered to watch the spectacle chuckled appreciatively in the correct moments and solemnly (not bothering to hide their smiles) agreed to bear true witness to his oath.
Hazel’s gaze was unwavering, her voice clear and steady. “I swear, as you do, to abide by these terms.”
Richard merely sneered. “Where is your weapon, O Mighty Warrior?”
One spectator offered his own saber. “Fair play, you know,” he muttered, though Hazel wasn’t sure his concern laid with respect for the rules of fair combat; more likely he was looking for a better show.
Nevertheless, she accepted the weapon and faced Richard. Seeing the cold look in her eyes, he felt a twinge of apprehension, but quickly shrugged it off. Pah! The girl had been a slave her whole life! What did she know of weaponry or fighting?
The pair faced each other and saluted stiffly. The tension rose until everyone was leaning forward eagerly...and battle was joined. Richard’s moves were lazy, sloppy almost. He need not exert himself too much when victory was assured, after all. And at first, it seemed as though that might be enough. Hazel’s blocks were slow and clumsy. Having never handled a sword in her life, she was unused to the weight or balance. Once, she nearly cut off her own foot trying to block a low strike.
Then her moves began to be surer. Blocks turned eventually to parries as her natural speed took over. Hazel may not have ever handled a larger blade than a kitchen knife, but she was strong and had seen enough fencing to pick up on a few things. Richard noticed the improvement, but quickly dismissed it. How much of a threat could she be? He would merely have to increase his efforts. So he did.
Hazel adjusted more quickly this time. No sound passed her lips, whether of pain, exertion, or anger. She was utterly—eerily—silent. It unnerved Richard, who was now fighting in earnest. The girl’s parries had turned to counterstrikes and before he knew it, she had taken the lead. She was the one setting the tempo, the rhythm.
Richard was no longer unnerved. He was fearful. Where did this strength and resolve come from? How was this lowly creature—a slave, a female even—posing a danger to him? His blocks became less graceful and more desperate. Then finally, the chance he was waiting for! A wild slash opened a cut along the bridge of her nose and above her left eye. Still silent but for a surprised gasp, she reeled back in pain, dropping her blade as she stumbled. Blood flowed into her eye, rendering her nearly blind. Richard moved in before she could get back to her feet. He set the point of his sword to her throat.
“Yield,” he demanded, breathing heavily.
Hazel stiffened, fists clenching at her sides...then hung her head. Kneeling there in the grass with blood running down her face, she was the portrait of defeat. Her lips moved, but no one could hear what she was saying. Richard leaned closer in order to hear the declaration of surrender for himself.
“—túrë. Rehta ni ulcullo. Lav ni túrë. Rehta ni—”
Richard smirked. He had reduced her to praying in a nearly-forgotten language to gods that no longer existed (if they ever had, which he doubted). “Grant you victory and deliver you from evil?” he mocked her. “You think muttering superstitious, tribal nonsense will save you?”
She stilled. Again she was silent. Then, moving with all the speed she could muster, she wrenched his sword from his grasp. Within moments Richard found their situations reversed. She stood, keeping the blade’s point a hairsbreadth from his eye. “No, but this will,” she said. “An eye for an eye.”
Richard fell to his knees, struck dumb. He couldn’t find his voice, even to plead for his life or argue that he had not, in fact, actually taken her eye. With a look of total contempt, Hazel brought the hilt crashing down on his skull. He slumped to the ground, unconscious.
She faced the rest with the light of triumph in her eyes. To them, she had an almost savage appearance—grubby clothing, sword in hand, and bleeding from a dozen small wounds as well as the one that painted half of her face a wet crimson. “You are all witness to these events. This man swore that in the event of my victory, I should gain my freedom. I could have killed him. Justly, within the bounds of fair combat. Yet I did not. I stand before you now, no longer a slave but a free woman, and take upon me the name Hazel Lerina.”
No one opposed her as she left the grounds, never to return.
Lav ni túrë - Grant me victory
Rehta ni ulcullo - Deliver me from evil
Lerina - free (of things), not owned