The cliff was right before me but I could already feel my lungs burning. The tiny gasps I allowed myself drew in hardly enough air to satisfy my starved lungs. Scrabbling on my hands and knees I made a fast but cautious climb up to the safe spot. I wasn’t sure if I’d be safe yet. Grass clung to my fingers, the dirt sticking to my palms smeared with blood. Was it my own? I hesitated for a moment, a mistake, now that my emotions were playing havoc with me now, the rushing onslaught of memories came back, hitting me so hard all I wanted to do was sit there and cry. But there were others behind me, my kinsmen, my brothers and sisters in arms. How could I let them down? One last heave and I was over, nearly rolling down the other side with the force of my effort. Pain overtook me and I curled into a tight little ball. I felt as if my heart were bursting within me. A gentle but firm hand clasped my shoulder, shaking me, and then realizing that I could walk no further, arms lifted me. I whispered something incoherent before the light turned dark and I felt as if my heart had exploded. The sweet oblivion enveloped me in a blanket of numbness.
A sea of red stretched before me. The colours of our house spread as far as I could see, along the sides of the hills. A beautiful sight if not for the fact that this would be the last battle for some of us. Sven stepped quietly into place beside me, his pale blond hair shining in the morning light. The dawn turned him into a work of art, I thought. It made him shine, no, glow like an angel, his blond hair tuning into a river of gold and his storm gray eyes into black diamonds. I would never forget that morning, the smell of the grass, crushed underfoot, releasing its sweet scent beneath our heavy boots, the impatient snorting of the horses and the occasional jingle of a harness. Blood red pennants snapping in the wind and our house trademark golden hair billowing behind us completed the scene. It was my first battle in the Reds otherwise known as the House of Roth. I had just turned seventeen that month when the House of Azzurro declared a ‘friendly’ battle. There were five houses always at war against each other. Who knows how many youths have died for this bloody honour of being the reigning house? We were pawns in a game none of us could ever fathom the reason for. Merely another fresh army ready to prove their worth, no matter what the reason. Blind patriotism. Even I was as blind as they were, or rather I chose not to see so as to not rock the boat. My kin were taut with the tension and excitement of the coming battle like bow strings pulled tight. I could sense the Azzurro marching towards us and the valley, aptly named the Blood Chalice. My fingers tightened on the hilt of my sword. Sven gave me a knowing smile. He had been in a previous battle barely a few months ago. He was eighteen and slim, more of an archer’s built than a swordsman but his was a deceptive disguise. He’d beat me only two days ago, the feel of my sword sliding out of my grasp as he deftly slid his beneath mine and twisted were still imprinted in my mind. A loud bugle call broke the silence. The sound of a million swords rasping against their scabbards filled the air; the soft twang of bows being drawn back filled me with awe. The high screech of carrion birds already circling the air echoed in the valley. There was a pin drop silence as Adurna lifted her sword arm. I could see the Azzurro captain raising his as well. A formal salute from captain to captain, a signal to us. The red and gold clad arm dropped. And all hell broke loose.
We were fighting back to back, my chain mail shirt digging through my red tunic into my soft skin as I pressed against his lean muscled back. Block, parry, attack, block, parry attack. I wondered when it was going to end. Could this be the glorious battle that we had all dreamed of fighting in when we were children? Because it wasn’t what I had expected. In the last twenty minutes or so I had seen my childhood playmates die by the sword. First Aria and her twin brother Damen, then followed by countless others. Their deaths brought pain, sharp at first, then numbing as the battle wore on into the afternoon. Their faces floated in the distant memory of long ago when we played together, mock swordfights. We had been laughing then as they had been even as the life left them now. I never imagined it would come true someday this way. The heat was killing us slowly but surely. The smell of death permeated the air and turned it foul. Coppery blood not my own mingled with my salty tears for my fallen comrades, but still Sven and I fought on. We had to win this. For our house and for those who died for it. My sword arm was getting numb with the impact of the blows. Each new strike caused pain to flare up and down my arm like tongues of fire. Sven was slowing down considerably, his strikes getting weaker and I was growing dizzy with exhaustion. Suddenly and miraculously there was a lull in the fighting. Both sides withdrew to regroup and count their losses. I whirled around to scare off any possible attacks before turning to see how much damage we had taken. I could not believe what I saw. How a boy or even a man could still be standing with such wounds was beyond me. The pain that I saw in his eyes was never reflected in his calm and steady gaze as he flashed me a weak smile before crumpling to the ground.
“Sven, Sven don’t do this to me,” I whispered through parched lips. He opened his eyes, over bright and unseeing, his arm curling around my side and giving me a trembling embrace. I cradled his head in my lap, tears beginning to drip from my eyes onto his blood matted hair. The blood seeped from his wound onto my tunic, staining it a darker red. I leaned my forehead against his, feeling the short gasps he took shaking his entire frame, his breath rasping against my ear. “Rogue, don’t cry. You’ve got to run before they come back,” he murmured into my hair. I looked up through mist covered eyes and watched as the Azzurro began marching back. I struggled to rise and drag him with me. I hadn’t realized that our army had retreated to the hills, a little way back. I was alone in the middle ground. There would not be help forthcoming. I panted as I pulled him across the uneven ground, not making much progress. He gave a little cry of pain. “Rogue.” It came out as a strangled gasp. I rushed to his side. “Leave me. I’m dying.” Sven said softly with a certainty that chilled me. He shuddered and coughed up more blood. The wound that oozed from his stomach told me the inevitable truth. I held him close once more and kissed him. “Rogue, you know I love you right? Always have and always…” his last word faded into the summer air. “I love you too, Sven. I still will. I’ll come back for you I promise. There’s just one thing more I have to do.” I spoke although I knew he was past hearing my choked response. Quietly, I swiped at the hot tears on my cheeks. Dry eyed now, I lowered him gently to the ground and rose unsteadily to my feet. I’d made myself a target for the Azzurro archers. But now that I had a mission to accomplish, I was invincible. Emitting a battle cry I launched myself at the captain clad in blue and silver, my legendary speed revealing itself at the climax of our bloody battle that had caused me my world. Arrows barely nicked me as I sped across the remaining distance and plunged my sword through soft, yielding flesh. The impact drove my sword right through his body to the other side. I’d reached my destination. The black haired youth looked at me once, surprise and then pain in his eyes. A shout came from the Roth army. I turned to see my kin running to my rescue. “Stand back, Rogue!!!” Adurna screamed as she dived into the clump of warriors advancing to my right. I stood still, oblivious to my surroundings as swords flashed and arrows fell around me. My world as I knew it had ended when my fiancé died. There was nothing else I had to do. I’d done what I said I would for Sven and my house.
They managed to get me back to our stronghold. I didn’t know how but by the time I was conscious, I was back in the fort. The white painted ceiling and the brightly lit dorm told me that I was in the infirmary. Along with many others as it seemed. I could distinctly hear the occasional soft moan. I swung my leaden legs over the edge of the cot and onto the cold flagstones. The cold shocked me back to reality and the backs of my eyes prickled with hot tears. Sven…I missed him. He should be here with me now, I thought to myself. I pressed my lips together and tried not to let the tears spill down my cheeks. A soft rustle caught my attention. Adurna sat in a corner of the room watching me with her clear sapphire eyes. “I’m sorry” she said, her voice clear and ringing across the space between us but still heavy with sadness. I nodded, not trusting my voice. Adurna’s hands shook, she who was a veteran among the youth warriors was trembling like a child for the first time. “Regan was killed as well,” she continued. Regan was Adurna’s fiancé. “They brought them back after the battle,” she smoothed a trembling finger over a stray thread at the edge of her sleeve. “Sven…” I breathed. My legs immediately stood up, trembling as they were. Had to go to him, had to see him and…and what? I stopped short at the doorway of the infirmary. Sven was dead. What more could I do? My legs trembled and I slid to the floor in a heap. How do you mend something if it doesn’t exist anymore?
“I want… I want to see him.” I whispered.
It was colder than ice, colder even then winter in the stone chapel. I moved silently among the pews where so many others before me had come and said goodbye those who would never return. So many coffins lined in the back of the church and so many of them were the same faces I had seen just hours ago. Alive, excited and nervous now cold and white, perhaps with a smile of victory on their faces or a grimace of pain even at their last breath. At last I reached the mahogany coffin. The dark wood smelled of beeswax and glowed softly in the candle light. I laid a trembling hand on the surface, brushing away imaginary dirt and then pushed the lid up. He lay as I thought he would, a silent smile ever so lightly teasing the corners of his lips. I bent down once more and kissed him. This would be goodbye forever.