Xaesan sucked air through her teeth and used her left arm to pull herself to some semblance of shelter. It was a part of the citadel that had crumpled during the first battle here, but for now, it kept enemies from seeing her and either slicing her throat or putting an arrow in her chest.
As soon as she was decently hidden by the cover, she moved her right hand from the side of her stomach she’d been trying to… she didn’t really know. A small part of her brain wondered if humans were hardwired to put their hands on new wounds, to stop the bleeding. Even if it was a base human instinct, it wouldn’t have worked. There was something different about this injury, compared to the ones she’d had in the past.
Moving her hand let her get a decent view of the wound. It was deeper than any injuries she’d seen in the camp thus far. A cold dread set in, lighting up her nerves. The people she’d seen in camp had survivable wounds. The fact that no one else had a cut this deep did not reflect well on her chances.
Xaesan let out a heavy breath, watching the blood seep into the cream-dyed fibers of her military uniform. She nervously used her unbloodied hand to adjust her headscarf. This was it. A laugh bubbled up. She really was going to die in this war. She leaned her head back against the rubble behind her and looked up.
Clouds were starting to gather above the sand dunes. It seemed like the area would be getting some much needed rain. It would be a shame she wasn’t going to be there to see it. She smiled, the grin on her face feeling much more confident than she’d expected. At least Yeifa would have something to enjoy soon.
Xaesan shuffled, attempting to find a comfortable position to die in. She hissed as the motion pulled the edges of her injury. All in all, it felt a little pathetic. Some part of her was glad that Yeifa was probably working somewhere else. She’d done everything she could to get Yeifa out of combat, away from the battlefield. Now she just had to hope it had worked.
There was a moment of quiet. Not completely quiet, but quiet enough. The shouts from the frontline had moved forward- a sign that her side was winning. At least she’d die a hero, in a battle won. She hummed softly.
“...Xae?” The voice was filled with disbelief, and it cut Xaesan even deeper than the blade had. Xaesan inhaled sharply, cutting off her hum.
Xaesan looked up, and there was Yeifa. She looked oddly pristine amongst the decimated landscape. She’d tied her dark curls back, and the magistrate’s tunic she’d been made to wear was a lovely orange, contrasting the beige of the rest of the landscape. Xaesan wished she could stand, just to put her hand on Yeifa’s cheek for a moment. Yeifa’s leaf-colored eyes met Xaesan’s.
“Yeifa.” Xaesan coughed, and when she pulled her hand back, there was blood. A great sign for her health. “Yeifa, you’re not supposed to be here. You’re supposed to be on your way back.”
“I jumped off the caravan, I couldn’t leave you here,” She said, dropping her gaze from Xaesan’s eyes. Xaesan could almost feel the way Yeifa’s eyes swept up and down her form, catching on the wound. “Stars, Xae. We need to get you back to camp. They can fix you there.”
“I don’t think there’s any fixing this.” Xae tried to bring back her earlier confident grin, but tears had started welling up in her eyes. “It’s ok, Yeifa. I knew what I was getting into.”
And she had.
Almost a year prior, Xaesan had been taking a break from her camp duties and watching the new recruits. She poured a cup of water for herself, and one for her friend, Khilais, before settling next to him onto a bench and handing him the cup.
“Promising group this year, ey?” He’d said, before gulping down half the cup in one breath.
“You’ll make yourself sick if you keep that up,” Xaesan had said, playfully smacking him on the shoulder. “And if I have to clean up your puke, I’m making you do all of my duties for two weeks.”
Khilais had a wide smile, which he flashed at her often when trying to get away with things. “Fair’s fair, I suppose!”
A whistle brought the pair’s attention the the sparring field where the recruits were going through opening trials. Two people stepped onto the stage used for what everyone else called ‘Newbie Smackdown.’ One was a tall, thin person, with their hair in short braids. The other was Yeifa. Xesan had a hard time picturing her after this first impression, but she always remembered the intensity in her soft green eyes.
“Match… START!” called the instructor.
Yeifa moved how one would think a tempest, personified, would. Two wooden daggers seemed to appear in her hands, and she was instantly on the offensive. Her opponent had just barely enough time to move their polearm into a block before Yeifa was on them. She was grinning in a way that looked more like bearing her teeth.
The match was really decided by the second move. A polearm works well when you’re able to maximize distance, but Yeifa had not let her opponent even consider gaining this advantage. She used one of her daggers to fein an attack, while kicking her opponent’s legs out from underneath them at the same time. The other person collapsed in a huddle, and Yeifa pointed a dagger down at them, only looking up when the match was called.
For a brief second, Yeifa’s eyes met Xaesan’s. Yeifa smiled, a catlike gesture.
Khilais had started talking, but Xaesan could only hear her heart beating in her ears. Yeifa broke the eye contact first, turning to talk with the instructor.
Thinking back, that was the moment when Xaesan knew Yeifa would be the death of her.
A year later, they’d gotten the order to march a day early, and Xaesan realized what she had to do. It came to her in the form of two letters.
Her father was a Magistrate back in the city, and at any point he could summon her back to his house to assist him with political matters. She got his summons that morning. He had heard about the battle and wanted to ensure his daughter wasn’t dying there.
Xaesan was a little offended by this. She was one of the best fighters at her camp, trained as a duelist but quick to pick up on battlefield combat. She could handle herself in battle, given she wasn’t distracted by things like this. She’d stay for this battle, and simply pretend she hadn’t opened the letter yet.
The second letter was hand-delivered by a man Xaesan knew to be Khalias’s partner. His eyes were red, as if he’d been crying. Xaesan didn’t need to open the letter to know what had happened. Khalias had been moved a month prior, to a camp much more prone to being attacked with large artillery.
She lay on the bedroll she shared with Yeifa that morning, the letters tucked under her pillow, staring at the cloth roof of their tent. She would not be that red-eyed widower. She would not let Yeifa share Khalias’s fate. She carefully slid the letter under Yeifa’s pillow and fished her tags out of her uniform. All it took was a quick swap, and she was Yeifa Zephiar and Yeifa was Xaesan Pertril.
She slipped out of the tend and whispered something to a soldier she didn’t recognize about Xaesan, a Magistrate’s daughter, ignoring a summons. She’d watched from the shade of a parallel tent as Yeifa was carried out, handed an orange tunic, and taken away, onto a caravan, which would take her even farther from whatever fate would await her here. She pulled her headscarf down as if it would hide her deeds from the world.
It was only as the caravan faded into the distance that Xaesan realized she might have not stopped the tragic end she’d foreseen. She might have only switched the tags.
A drop of rain hit Xaesan’s forehead. She smiled at Yeifa, as friendly as she could muster.
“You’re ok,” she said. “That’s all I ever wanted.”
“Xae. Xae, please.” Tears had begun to stream down Yeifa’s face. “I don’t know what to do without you.”
“You will,” Xaesan said, reaching a hand out. Yeifa took it, falling down to her knees. Finally, Yeifa was able to put a hand on Yeifa’s cheek. She wiped away the tears that were falling.
“You’ve still got so much time. Tell my father to employ you. Live, Yeifa. Live.”
“But what about you? Xae, I love you. I don’t- this isn’t fair!”
The rain had picked up by now. Xaesan couldn’t tell if she was crying or if it was the raindrops that were wetting her face. “Life isn’t fair to the best of us. I’m sorry you had to see me like this, Yeifa. I’m not the solider I should’ve been.”
“You weren’t meant to be a solider at all, Xae! I- You aren’t supposed to die!”
“A little too late for that one, dear.” Xaesan gently pulled Yeifa’s forehead down and pressed their faces together. “I loved you so much. I want you to go live for me, alright? It’s the cruelest favor I could ask, I know, but please. Live.”
Yeifa let out a sob, taking a sharp breath in. “I will. I will. I’ll go live. I promise.”
Xaesan let out a sigh of relief, and carefully kissed Yeifa. “Good,” she said, her voice fading. “I love you.”
Xaesan’s body went limp. Yeifa held the corpse for a time, sobbing. The rain soaked into her orange tunic. It washed the blood from Xaesan’s military uniform. What could have been days passed. Then Yeifa removed Xaesan’s tags and swapped them with her own. She pressed one last kiss on Xaesan’s forehead. Then she stood, and walked back to camp.
She reported the death to her commanding officer, who sent out soldiers for a retrival of the corpse. She got on the first caravan back to the city. She met Xaesan’s father, and delivered the news to him directly.
She ended up getting a job with a painter and started making her own art. She became a popular political artist, showing the horror of war through sets of paintings. She fell in love again. She married, and she lived.
On her deathbed, she locked her steely green eyes onto something no one else could see as she spoke her last words.
“I didn’t break my promise, Xae. I lived.”