There were so few of them left. When we set out three days prior to meet enemy fighters on the outskirts of the kingdom, there were nearly one hundred and fifty warriors and mages following me: Some on foot, some on horses, all dragging packs of supplies and weaponry to defend our home. Now, on our desolate return to the castle, there were less than a dozen left. We stopped the invasion -- at least for now -- but at what cost?
My head throbbed behind my eyes; every step I took echoed in my bones. I limped ahead of the meager battalion after giving up my horse for some of the more severely injured survivors. I've let them down enough, I thought to myself, Princess Elora, too. They all deserve someone who will at least pretend she's strong enough to lead them home. And so I limped. Never mind the black eye I surely had, the ache in every part of my body, the cuts along my arms and back. I had to give them something.
The sun had set far enough down that it was just crowning over the top of the castle as it drifted into sight. I shut my eyes to the light, finding even the red glow through my eyelids was too bright after the day's travel through dense woods. One of the mages behind me coughed and I turned to the group just in time to watch him collapse. I rushed to his side.
"Please, Orion. Please keep going, the castle is in sight. There are medics waiting for us." I knelt at his side, cradling his head as he coughed into the ground. A small spittle of blood trickled from his lips into the grass, the dark color a harsh contrast against the fresh greenery. "It's only a little further."
Orion grasped my hand in his. His eyes were shockingly clear given the circumstances. I understood him instantly, as if I could read his mind.
Let me at least die here, peacefully in the setting sunlight.
His grasp loosened. His eyes stayed open, the brightness leaving them in an instant. I closed the lids with a soft motion and stood. Another one I couldn't save.
"We're almost back," I addressed the eight left. "We'll make it. I swear we won't lose anyone else before then."
Finally, a promise I was able to keep. After nearly an hour, we stumbled up the steps of the castle where medics rushed to support the last of my fighters. Once I pulled my breastplate and gloves off, they approached me, too, with kind intentions. I shooed them away.
"They need your attention more. I'll come to you in a bit if I have any serious injuries."
I climbed the grand stairwell to my quarters on the second floor. As the kingdom's highest ranking general, Princess Elora -- who begged me continuously to Please, just call me Elora -- insisted that I reside in the castle near her, rather than the barracks, just in case of a siege. I obliged, of course, if it would make her feel safer.
When I finally stumbled through the door of my room, I fought every urge to lay down on the bed. I stripped off my soiled clothing; it was all caked with dirt and sweat, strewn with blood. Both my own and that of my soldiers. My mages. The ones I couldn't bring home. Tears welled in my eyes as I stared at the stained white tunic on the floor They caught onto my lower lashes without quite spilling over.
I left them there on the battlefield. I left Orion on the edge of the forest. I should have died out there with them, too. Why should I have made it back?
I attempted to pull my hair out of the braids plastered to my head, but they were tangled to the point of mats in many places. In the bathroom, I filled the bathtub with water as hot as it would go. I dipped in, chills running up my spine as the water met my stiff muscles and the open wounds covering my skin. Once I was sitting, the tub deep enough to reach my shoulders, I submerged my head.
Would it be less noble if I didn't come back up for air? Why should I, when hundreds of innocent fighters will never be able to.
I came back up and gasped for air, haunted by Orion's face lighting up the darkness of my closed eyes.
What am I supposed to tell Princ- Elora, just Elora, about Orion? That he made it off the battlefield but died within sight of the castle? That I couldn't even get him home.
Orion was Elora's favorite mage. He had worked closely with the Royal Family for decades, his ancestors a vital part of the castle since it began engaging in magic. She would be devastated. She would be furious. I was devastated. Furious.
I worked soap into my hair, trying to pull some of the tangles out with my fingers to little avail. I settled on scrubbing the grime from my body, wanting to get out of the now disgusting water as quickly as possible. After pulling the drain cord, I wrapped myself in a thick linen towel and emerged from the bathroom.
Next to my desk littered with novels from the Royal Library and battle plans hung a gold-framed mirror. I could hardly look at myself. Not without knowing how many members of our kingdom I had lost. But I forced myself to look, if for no reason other than to assess the wounds on my face. My right eye was ringed with purple, not so severe that it had swollen shut, but caused by a deep cut through my right eyebrow stopping just above the lid. A gash on my hairline and a series of small scrapes on my cheek. The tears formed again as I dabbed iodine on my brow. I turned away from my own reflection as I did. I couldn't bare to look at myself.
The door of my bedroom flew open and before I could turn in defense, footsteps raced across my floorboards. I looked up into the mirror in shock and saw Elora rushing towards me with her arms open. Her thick, black hair bounced around her shoulders and she was dressed in her robe. She was probably reading in her study.
"Oh, Caelia! Thank God in Heaven you're alright. I didn't see you in the infirmary and I thought... well, never mind that, you're here! You're alive! Oh, I'm so glad to see you," Elora cried as she threw her arms around my shoulders from behind. I was suddenly acutely aware of the injuries on my face and the cloth I was wrapped in.
"I heard it was a terrifying fight from the others. You were outnumbered, ambushed. It's a miracle anyone made it out, let alone that you were able to force them into a retreat..." she rambled on as she paced next to my bed. I could hardly look at her.
"Princess, I..." I could barely speak, "I... I lost Orion. I lost almost everyone. I'm so sorry. I couldn't save them."
She stopped in her tracks and looked at me solemnly.
"Yes. Yes, I heard about Orion. I'm heartbroken, of course. But you shouldn't be sorry, Caelia. You could never have predicted an ambuscade. They had dozens of soldiers lying in wait. I'm just..."
I remained silent, staring at my swollen, bruised bare feet.
"I'm just glad you made it home safe. We- I need you here."
What? You need a failure of a general here? Someone who couldn't possibly predict a sneak attack? Someone who couldn't protect more than three-quarters of her army? You would probably be better off if- my thoughts were interrupted by Elora approaching me gently.
"Let me help you with this. Is that alright?"
She motioned to the iodine resting on my desk next to the mirror. I started to protest but she grabbed the rag and bottle anyway. She held my shoulders and slowly backed me into a sitting position on my bed. As she leaned over me, blotting the stinging cut on my brow, I could see that her eyes were bloodshot from crying. Probably over Orion, I told myself. She cleaned and dressed the wound on my forehead, too, and backed up to check her work.
Elora smiled softly. "Much better," she said. She pulled me up and turned me toward the mirror. I kept my eyes closed for a moment before I could face my own reflection again. The cuts were clean, one covered with a piece of white gauze. Though my eye was still purple and the scrapes on my cheek were still bright, Elora was right. Much better.
"Let me get you some clean clothes," Elora said, stepping towards the trunk at the end of my bed. I realized I hadn't said anything in minutes.
"Elora, it's alright. You've done plenty. I'm sure it's late and you're tired," I finally croaked out, my throat raw from yelling and thirst.
"You can't get rid of me that easily, Caelia."
She pulled a soft beige sweater and linen shorts from the trunk. Both pieces of clothing were provided for me by the Royal Family when I came to work for them; I never would have chosen, let alone been able to afford, such comfortable clothes.
"I'll let you change," Elora said, handing me the clothes and moving toward the door, "I'm going to fetch you some food from the kitchen. I'm sure you're famished."
I hadn't even realized how hungry I was. When Elora left, I shrugged the sweater and shorts on and stood in front of the mirror once again. Using a comb, I tried to work through my hair one more time. It was still damp from my bath, but the mats were nearly impossible to work through.
Your soldiers, dozens of your people, are dead and you're concerned about your knotted hair?
Elora returned with a bowl of soup, steam curling from the top of it, and half a loaf of crisp cheese bread. She set it on my desk and moved towards me. Cautiously, she reached to take the comb from my hand. Her fingers brushed against mine and a shiver covered my body. Without hesitation, Elora started to gently work the knots from my hair. I looked up at her in the mirror. Her tawny cheeks were flushed, still probably from crying, and her wide brown eyes still bloodshot. I will never forgive myself for making her cry.
"I really am so sorry, Elora. I should have done better. You lost one of your oldest friends and so many of your subjects. It's my fault," I told her, my voice barely over a whisper. She locked eyes with me in the mirror.
"Caelia, please. Stop that. I don't blame you and you shouldn't blame yourself, either. I'm devastated, of course. Losing so many people is expected in a territory war, but that doesn't make it any easier. In fact, I..." she hesitated. I couldn't remember the last time she seemed unsure of what to say next.
"I can tell you've been crying, Elora. You don't need to lie to me. I can handle the truth. You're sad, you're angry. You're disappointed with me." My voice was rising uncontrollably.
Why won't she just admit how upset she is with me?
Elora's eyes welled up with tears again but instead of sobbing like I expected her to, she laughed. She laughed. Not maliciously, like she was ready to berate me for my decisions on the field, but genuinely. The sound floated into the air and lingered. She turned me away from the mirror and looked into my eyes. My brows furrowed in confusion.
"Caelia, listen to me," she cut me off, "I was crying, yes. But not because of our losses. I told you, I'm saddened of course, but not angry. Never angry. And certainly never disappointed with you. I was crying because..."
I held my breath, staring into her eyes.
"I was afraid you wouldn't make it back. You, Caelia. You don't understand how much I need you here. In the castle. Out on the field. Here... with me."
My mouth fell open. I had no idea what to say.
You deserve better, Elora. So, so much better. But it didn't come out of my mouth.
"Look, you're our best fighter, our smartest general. We need you to keep us safe. But- but I need you here for more. I just need to know you're alive. That I'll see you again. That I'll see you every single God forsaken day. I need you."
Finally, I mustered my voice enough to tell her, "You deserve better than me. A better fighter, a better general, a better... well, everything."
"Are you fucking kidding me?" Elora cried, a sudden burst of desperation erupting. I had never heard her swear.
"I don't deserve someone better, Caelia! There is no better! You are my better!"
Suddenly, Elora dropped the comb and it rattled to the floor. She pushed towards me and brought my face between her soft hands. I stared into her eyes for a few moments, glancing at her dark eyelashes and deep brown irises. I could feel the warmth of her breath on my face. Tears crept into my eyes again.
"How many times do I have to tell you. You can't get rid of me that easily," she whispered.
Every thought in my mind -- the past days' battle, my knotted hair, my screaming muscles, my unworthiness -- fled from existence in that moment. I glanced at her mouth, now only inches from my own, and gave in. The kiss was tender, meaningful. I wanted to push but, scared to ruin the moment, just rested my hands on her narrow hips and pulled her towards me. Her arms wrapped around my neck to pull herself closer to my height and her hands combed into my hair as much as they could. I didn't want to let her go. When we finally separated, Elora's cheeks were tinged pink and she pulled her lower lip between her teeth with a soft smile.
"So... do you want to eat while I finish brushing out this ratty hair of yours?"
For the first time in days, I smiled.
"Yes, please." I grabbed her by the hip one more time and set a kiss on her temple.
Elora finally managed to work through the knots long after I scarfed down my soup and bread. Placing the comb down, she moved to leave for the night.
"I'm sure you're more than exhausted. Care to join me for breakfast in the morning?"
"Actually, Elora..." I couldn't help but ask, "I'm still a little shaken from the fight. I could use some company. Do you think you might... you know... trade in your Royal-Down-Feather-Mattress for a lowly quarter bed?"
Elora grinned as if she was hoping for exactly that question.
"Nothing would make me happier."
So together, we shuffled under the covers of my bed. I wrapped my arms around her waist and pulled her to my chest. The scent of her turmeric soap wafted from her hair into my lungs. She pressed a kiss into my arm.
"Caelia, no matter what you think, please know that I don't want 'better.' There is no better than you," she said quietly, "I want you."
My eyes drifted closed. I saw a reflection of the bloody battlefield, of Orion's glassy eyes, of the blood-splattered tunic still resting in a heap on my floor. But brighter, bolder, more powerfully, I saw Elora.
I finally let myself drift to sleep, knowing that in the morning she would be there.