"It doesn't count if you're already planning your defeat. You must be prepared to defeat but aim for victory always. Only the victory matters." Were the words of my mentor before releasing me to the contest that could save us both. So much was at stake: our lives, justice, glory, my love. I don't feel prepare, but there isn't time or way to prepare myself for what I need to do.
Each step makes me review my life.
There are only two things that you have no control in your life: when and where will you born. Lady Fate put me in the second lower class only above the nameless. Mother died to give me life, and my father never showed up to reclaim me. A fifth tier orphan and bastard girl sentenced to grow up in a war camp. Cursed to have a big mouth, and a mind to good for your own class tier.
A hundred feet to the arena.
Orphans belong to the Scarly's army as soon as they can walk by themselves and understand orders. My first words were the curses the Drill Sargent shout to the rookies. By six, I learn to lit a fireplace anywhere was needed. By seven, I could fix any boot, tent, or uniform. Eight, I could clean armors and blades. Nine, I could recharge a musket in twenty heartbeats. Ten, I could understand any code my army used. Eleven, I learn to patch simple wounds. I become a messenger in my twelve name day.
Eighty feet separate me from the arena.
Before that day, I was the girl twenty-two. I proved to be useful when needed, although my lack of capacity to hold my tongue before superiors. I didn't have anything that I cared about that could be used against me. The Scouts are a little more important ones and better treated than resources, so, as a nobody, they allow me to choose my own name. I choose Bayonet. My world only had words related to war and weapons. I was a thin thing, sharp, always throwing myself over any danger, what pretty much describe my name.
The scout life is almost the second most dangerous in the army and was my goal. Good messengers that learn to track animals, food, and how to survive a fight, was promoted to scouts. However, there is a trick that no one could formally teach you. Scouts must be clever, and that is my most valuable possession. I learned a little about each language talked in camp, as well as how to identify herbs and roots. My ambition didn't have much time to develop. Two years later, the camp suffered a night ambush.
The Tarkan army left us two options: yield or die. "While there is life, there is hope." were the words that guide me in the next years as a slave. My class tier wasn't high enough to make me a war's prisoner worth a rescue. The slaves from the Tarkan army were used as pack animals, stone breakers, and baits. Never let near food, tools, or weapons. Food was just to have the energy to work and don't rebel. My bad temper rewards me with many scars, days tied to a pole, and countless bruises. Every day they fill me with hate and motivation to revenge myself.
The gods didn't care about us when we were free. As slaves, the status didn't change. Enemy soldiers saw us as bugs to step on. Camp helpers fear us. Help only could be from other slaves. In Scarry's army, everybody keeps their hair short cut to prevent diseases and weakness in the battle. Slaves were left to be filth and sick. My hair grew long and full of curls that, without proper cleaning, become a dark mane. I learn to take any opportunity to improve my pitiful condition. Craft comb with a piece of wood, find useful herbs between the weeds that sprout in the camps and roads, learn to use the rain to clean my body, and reduce the thirst. Everything learned with the help of Harte, my Harte.
Harte was already there when I arrived, the first who came to me. I knew that in the north, "harte" means toughness, which made him at least a third-tier class young man, a position that deserves a rescue. It took him six months to tell me he was the sixth son, and his parents didn't want to pay the seventeen golden pieces, one for each year he had, for his freedom. He was excellent with his hands, taught me how to craft many things. I teach him what the soldiers talked about and how to find food anywhere. We are partners, each day closer, each day more in tune, each day more in love.
We had plans to escape from that nightmare and to have a life together. We plan to find meaning beyond the war environment we were born in. Lady Fate had other plans. Two years and a half after my capture, each day precisely counted, the camp was attacked by a battalion in indigo and gold, the Namir's army. It was a perfect time to escape in the middle of the battle's chaos. I took from my hair a nail modified by Harte to double as a lock pick. I free myself and Harte and left the nail so others can escape too. Quickly we go to the battlefront to steal some soldier backpacks, full of provisions. We were so happy to escape that there wasn't space for prudence. Smoke, fire, and screams were our cloaks, but without any color to match a uniform, we are enemies of both sides. We were almost entering the woods, the gate to our freedom when I hear the familiar explosion and saw Harte falling.
Many bodies were around us, uniforms of both sides dirty from mud, blood, and things beyond recognition. Harte had a wound in his leg just below the knee. Not lethal, but he couldn't run for a while and would need a cane for a time. I drag some bodies, pilling them up, building a barricade. Both armies cornered us, and we lie behind the bodies barricade gasping. I order him to craw to the woods when I sign, and to prevent any protests, I kissed him, saying it wouldn't be our last moments. It was time to act. I took bullets and a powderhorn from the backpack and gathered all weapons I could find. The first shot was hard to make, but by the second, I didn't feel any regret. Harte recharges for me at the beginning, but in the tenth shot, I order him to leave. I keep shooting without a break until my bullets were over, and they knocked me down with a pistol-whip from behind.
They start to call me the Black Lioness. The first time I woke up was tied to a pole, and in Tarkan general camp, with a captain telling me that I was sentenced to die for my treason. "You can only betray what you love or have sworn to protect, and I didn't remember to had done neither to this army," I said. His answer was beating me until I faint. The second time I woke was in the auction, almost fifty persons tied to shackles to a wooden floor, being measured by twenty persons in honor uniforms. The chosen ones were dragged together with their pickers to the wagons, and leaving the place in a cloud of devil dust. My head was still spinning, and I didn't have a clear understanding of the situation.
The tallest woman I ever saw crouch in front of me. She had a black eye, a wounded leg, and some grey hair. "Hey girl, look at me. I need that you answer me honestly. Do you want to live?" She asked in a hoarse voice. "I am here only because I wanted to live, woman," I answer. She smirked. "What would you do to escape death?". "You can't escape death, only delay her visit, and for that anyone sane does anything," was my answer, splitting some blood. She stood up and said, "Maybe I can save our lives, but for that, you would need to obey me blindly." I laughed and said, "Those who follow someone blindly accept to be just a tool. I wouldn't be it anymore. But if you are thought and can save us both, I could follow your lead to the hell and back, and you can trust that I would make sure our return". Captain Violet Veritas save my life that day.
Five steps and the gate is already open.
Tarkan is a nation that loves violence and doesn't care about human lives. Every year the capital RedCastle held a special game. Captains that had shamed the nation's name receive an opportunity to not lose their heads. They can choose a prisoner on death row and train them to be a gladiator of some sort. They have three months to prepare the chosen one to survive and win three games, all while inside a prison. To the winner: freedom, the return of ranks, and the rescue reward of a first-tier class.
I enter the arena, bowing, and waiting at my corner. The king starts a speech, the last thing before I make my life's hardest decision.
The tower was my home for the last three months. A whole floor for me and my mentor, the biggest cell I have ever lived in. I spent the first two weeks restoring my forces and showing what I knew and could do. Lady Violet knew my past, and that was her reason to select me. She made a soldier of me. My new scars are proof. She told me the game consists of three parts: survive the hunt, surviving and killing a beast, and the last, killing the other opponents. The first one would be easy for me, so her mission was preparing me for the other two. I trained from dawn to dusk for two and a half months.
The King's speech was over, dragging me to the present. Lady Violet is at the tribune looking at me. Sharp eyes that say: Win.
I breathe deeply, kneeling, and clearing my mind of the recent memories. The menacing two hours running in a maze dodging bullets, arrows, and traps. Playing possum to be forgotten by the hunters. The hours fighting lions armed just with a weak spear and wooden shield, and won with the cust of lives that distract the beasts. Besides this, a thought haunted me. The image of Harte in the opposite corner of the arena. The glory to see his golden hair and tan skin and the misery to know we are here to die.
The drums had begun, and I stand blank, ready.
The arena has nine gates, with a person in each one prepared to kill anyone to win the final prize: their own life. I am the smaller one, but the fiercest, bearing a pistol and a cutlass. They run towards me, aiming at the biggest target, the only lioness standing. I stand still, with my fist closed until they are close enough to be blinded by the dirt I collect when I kneel. In the battle, one moment of distraction is enough to lose all. They slice the air in despair. I open two throats and run to hide behind a barricade. I choose a light weapon to have a free hand to use, mainly to catch falling pistols. Without me at sight, the other two attackers turned to each other. I leave them to kill each other, crouching to another barricade. I lose my breath when I look over the protection.
Harte stands beside a body with two others coming in opposite directions, cornered again. I know that this fight favors me, but there is Harte, the man that share food with me, that risk himself to care about me when I was tied to a pole, who fought when they tried to take advantage of me, that every day founds a flower to adorn my hair. My Harte. I sabotage my plans by shooting one of the attackers. The loud sound reports my location, so I flee to another point. In my way, I find a bulky man. He backs in fright, and I attack in despair. I heard a scream, and I know Harte killed his attacker.
Only three lasts.
My heart races beyond my control. I don't know what to do or where to go. I hear the sound of clashing metal. The sound is the snap I needed. I breath deeply before stand up from my hide and run toward the sound. A bald white man fights with Harte too close to make a safe shot. Harte fights with a sable showing a fencing technique that amuses me. The bigger size and offensive stance of the bald man seem to don't matter in the fight. I sneak behind the man slicing his left leg. As he falls to his knees, Harte finishes him, striking through his heart.
Only we remain.
We look at each other in battle stances but with confusion in our eyes. We know what we need to do to survive and what we need to do to be happy again. I lose myself when he blinks at me and attacks, and my body doges before I could think. My body moves to preserve my life as he continues to attack me while I question my life. Was everything a scam to flee? Were my feelings only a tool for freedom? I don't know, but this enraged me. I start to attack too, making him jump.
"You save me each day, and now is my time to return the favor. Trust in me when I say I love you." said the stupid man at my ear, holding me and cuddle my head. When he released me, he falls on the dust floor, blood in my blade, and his eyes and chest froze. I heard the screams and applause of the audience. I won, I accomplished what I most wanted, and I only feel sadness and emptiness. I look to the sky, but Violet's eyes caught me first. Respect and pride and an order to keep walking.
I see something in my hair from the corner of my eye, and a flower was there, where Harte’s hand was before.
My mind was clouded. I remember being guided to a podium with Lady Violet, where the king itself gives me half my age in gold pieces and a letter of freedom, giving me one month to leave the realm or apply for citizenship. Lady Violet gained her rank again but asked to be dismissed from the army. We shared a goblet of wine where I could see in my reflection a flower in my hair.
One lonely tear fell.
Lady Violet promised to escort me to wherever I wanted. I wanted to bid farewell to my beloved mate. She smirked and said it was what she expected. She talked about him, and how I praise his skills and how surprised she was to know that everything was true. Every word hurt me a bit, even knowing she said with good intentions. We are in the morgue in front of Harte body. Lady Violet said I need to be quick before the servants appear to take the bodies to be buried. The way she talked was strange. She seems to be alert and looking around. How could I be so stupid? Everything match now. I touch his chest, and there was no wound, only blood that smells like goat. His breath smell terrible, and his gums were ocher. I took the flower in my hair and put it on his mouth. In ten heartbeats, he jumped alive. The rogue remembers what I teach about herbs and created a scam to survive. We both survive. I look to Lady Violet, the war veteran could recognize a true wound at any distance. We left quickly, and when we were at a safe place, I asked: "Why did you help us?" She smiles and answers: "The hell isn't over yet. I need more hands to shut it over. If you lonely could save us both, I imagined what you could do with your better half."
Three months before she saved me, today, she saves my better half. Together we will free this land and end these hell days.