After I went through Verishim, I too joined the troops on the battlefield, as was wont by tradition. I was an accomplished fighter, I won’t deny, for I had practiced the arts of the blade and bow since I could first learn to grasp them in my small hands. It was not difficult for me to learn to kill with efficacy.
But my first battle was a mere skirmish.
We had arrived near the Demali camp a few hours after nightfall. Twilight cascaded over the rugged landscape, casting everything in blue and purple. In the fading light, the soldiers moved like shadows. The men stepped with care, avoiding twigs and fallen leaves, muffling their weapons with cloth or their hands. I twisted my sword nervously in circles in my palm. I held it drawn in front of myself and followed the soldiers before me, and more soldiers trailed behind. Ryukou, High General Oimé, and Father walked ahead of me. I watched their backs apprehensively in the dark.
At Ryukou’s suggestion, we had tethered our horses a few miles back, hiding them among a group of trees, but we had yet to run into any Demali. It had been a little over an hour since we had been searching on foot. I was sure we should have met them by now…
I spotted smoke rising up into the gradually blackening sky in the distance. I pointed it out to the others, and several of the soldiers around me gripped their sword hilts and nodded their heads to one another. At the sight of the smoke, the entire group seemed to buzz with energy. We kept walking until the source of the fire, a group of campfires, was visible; we halted at a wave of the King’s hand, stumbling to a stop like a line of dominoes. For several minutes, we listened to the sound of foreign conversation over campfire.
“Forward!” the King shouted, pulling his sword from its sheath, and the soldiers charged toward the camp, yelling and drawing their weapons. “Archers, at my command… NOW!” A line of arrows swarmed the sky and fell down upon their unfortunate victims in the camp, eliciting bellows of pain. The Demali scrambled for their weapons, their motley armour pieces clinking, an array of unique colors, designs, and materials blurring together in a frenzy of motion.
A few of the Demali soldiers broke through the front of the brigade, and I gripped my sword hilt tighter as they came toward me. I was met by a warrior brandishing a savage-looking axe, and I panicked, just barely ducking in time to avoid being decapitated. I spun to the side, swinging my sword right with the momentum. A jolt shot up my arm as the blade collided with something hard—bone—and blood splattered onto my clothes. The man collapsed in a solid heap without a sound.
I hardly had time to register what I’d done before I was faced with another enemy. Another Demali came at me with some kind of misshapen club with spikes, and after a few swings, I stabbed the soldier through the stomach with one solid strike. I killed two more men in a similar fashion, parrying blows, dodging weapons, twisting and spinning to the side, and ending it with a swift motion of my sword through flesh. It was purely instinct that that controlled my limbs. My blood pumped like hot bellows in my veins as adrenaline filled my body. I could hear my pulse thumping in my ears.
I scanned the surrounding camp, now turned battlefield. Several of the fires were now only a pile of scattered embers, while others blazed undisturbed. Most of the Demali had been killed, from what I could see, and the rest were being finished off. And I realized, with revulsion, that four of those men were killed by me alone. With my adrenaline fading, I was now filled with heavy exhaustion and a sinking disgust. I glanced down at the sword hanging at his my side from my left hand, blood dripping from the tip, and dropped it, vomiting the entirety of my lunch in the grass. I dry-heaved for a full minute before I was able to get up.
I wiped my mouth, then cleaned the blade wordlessly in the grass. After sliding it into its sheath, I crossed over to Ryukou, who had finally felled the Demali soldier that had come upon him at the last minute, and he was now cleaning his own blade.
“How are you faring?” I asked, my voice slightly coarse.
Ryukou let out a sigh. “I’ve been better,” he said. “I really just want to eat something warm and go to bed, but we have all these bodies to deal with.”
I was stunned by how my brother could refer to people who had been alive and breathing minutes before as simply “bodies.” What sickened me more was that I had subconsciously decided that the Demali were empty vessels before I even fought them. It was bizarre how the brain worked.
Without responding, I shifted my gaze to my father, who was ordering men to gather the bodies in a large heap. Bodies… There was that word that my brain automatically replaced for the people who used to be.
“Are you okay, Izrekiel? You look pale?” Ryukou watched me in concern. “Did you get injured somewhere?”
I shook my head. “No. I’m… I’m just tired.” But I couldn’t meet Ryukou’s eyes. So this is what it felt like to kill.
After a moment of silence, Rykou said, “Come on, let’s go help.”
I quietly followed my older brother toward the others. We helped the other soldiers carry the dead and dig the large hole that would serve as the Demali’s final resting place. It was a shared grave, where all the bodies were thrown into the hole in a heap, with no gravestone to mark it. A criminal’s burial.
Once we and the other soldiers were finished tossing the bodies in and covering the top with a layer of dirt, we began to make our way back to where we had picketed the horses. I walked by the edge of the group, thinking about everything yet nothing in particular. The speech of those around me faded into the background.
To my right, I heard someone’s boot snap a twig, and my eyes instinctively shot up to meet the source of the noise.
At first I wasn’t sure what I was seeing. Shadows covered the land like a shroud, and my eyes were tired from being awake for so long. But then I saw eyes shining out from the darkness between the trees. For at least a minute, I stood there staring at the eyes, piecing together the head and body that owned them.
Then, the owner dove out at me, yelling in rage, with a long dagger that shone in the dull moonlight. I quickly snatched my sword out of its sheath and slashed at the attacker, shouting. I missed, but the man fell to the grassy floor to avoid my blade that sailed past his head. I stepped closer, holding my sword out threateningly toward the man’s head, which was obscured in the shadows of the tree’s branches. The man crawled back slightly, exposing his face to the moonlight.
And it was not a man.
I glared down at the horrified face of a boy, probably only a year younger than I was. The boy had the strong, distinguished features of the Demali: a straight, slightly long nose, thick black eyebrows, coppery skin, and loose black curls that hung over his forehead. And out of his large, brown eyes shone cold fear.
“You…” I stopped, unable to find the words to speak, and I seriously doubted whether the foreigner could understand me anyway. Perhaps words weren’t necessary. This person had tried to kill me. I had every justification in the world to cut him down now.
But somehow it felt wrong. My hand trembled around the hilt of my sword, but I forced myself to hold the weapon in place.
The boy began muttering and pleading in Demalian, tears running down his cheeks. My gut tightened as pity washed over me. I couldn’t… He’s only a child.
My arm began to drop to my side even before I made the conscious decision to spare the Demali boy.Eyes widening, the boy stared at me in shock. For several long seconds we just watched each other, neither of us moving.
“Izrekiel!” I heard Father shout behind me. He ran to my side, followed by General Oimé and a few soldiers, with hands on their weapons. He had his own sword drawn, pointed at the boy on the ground.
“Kill him,” Father ordered, with his eyes fixed on the boy.
It was a moment before I could speak. I swallowed hard and said, “No,” my body shaking of its own accord.
Father went stiff, his face changing into a blank mask. “Very well,” he said. “One day you will learn not to be a coward.”
And his sword fell down on the boy’s neck, severing his life forevermore.
That one foreign boy haunted my dreams for several weeks, and even after I had gotten past the nightmares, I still found myself dwelling on it occasionally. I got over it eventually, of course. If there is one thing I learned, it is that humans are very adaptable when it comes to injustice and guilt; at some point, you just grow numb to all the terrible things you witness. Or you simply learn to turn the other way.
It became much easier after that. I left with the troops every time the Demali threat appeared again. Sometimes I accompanied Father, or Ryukou, and other times, I simply fought with the men being led by one of our many generals. I never received any major injuries—a few scrapes and bruises maybe, a broken rib once, and a sprained wrist several times—but I remained mostly intact and healthy when I returned home.
“This happened when I tried to block a blow to my head,” I explained. “My blade slipped, and the bastard got a hit on my vambrace. I’m just lucky it was the flat of the blade.”
“Cursing ill-befits a prince, Your Highness,” my old tutor Bandaro said with disapproval coloring his tone.
I laughed dryly, throwing my head back slightly. “Well, it hurts dammit. When you retain an injury from battle, you tell me, Tutor. Then you will have full right to reprimand my language. Silly old man… It’s not as if I’m in front of a court full of nobles, or even my father.”
Bandaro seemed annoyed by my apparent disregard for manners, but he simply sighed and shook his head.
“I’ve never seen someone so resilient to steel,” the Royal Physician said with a hint of humor while he created a new splint to set my swollen wrist. “I hope these are your worst injuries I ever have to treat.”
“Indeed, I do too,” I said. “This is painful enough as it is.” I winced as the physician tightened the wrappings of the splint. “....And listening to my brother’s constant nagging while my wrist heals will be a demon’s job.”
Physician Hong chuckled once. “Aye, His Highness certainly cares about you.”
“Cares? Ha! He enjoys harassing me.”
“Perhaps only a little,” Ryukou said from the doorway. He smiled and entered the room. “Good day, Bandaro, Physician Hong.”
They bowed their heads to him in response.
“Ryukou? I thought you had gone with Father to settle the matter in Aieto?”
“I did, but we returned a day earlier than planned. We finished the business much easier than was anticipated.” Ryukou crossed to me sitting on the table and glanced down at my wrist. “I see you were injured again. I knew you would be, reckless little brother.”
“Oh so you’ve never been injured before?” I retorted.
“No, I have, but only when I’m faced with a real enemy,” he teased with a subtle smile of amusement.
I rolled my eyes. “You’re unbelievably humble.”
“I am, aren’t I?” Ryukou ruffled the top of my hair, pulling more coppery strands from the messy topknot. “Does it hurt awfully much?” he asked, with sudden sympathy.
“No,” I lied, causing the physician to raise his eyebrows and exchange a glance with Bandaro. “It’s just a small bit unpleasant.”
Ryukou nodded. “I’m not surprised. It seems to be quite inflamed.” There was no sense of mocking in his tone. He knew that I was lying, but he seemed to respect my façade of strength. That was simply how brothers were: we both understood each other’s pain, but we mutually agreed not to talk about it.