“I know,” she agreed softly, hating herself as much as he hated her, and hating him barely any less. “I killed them all. I should have killed you, too.”
She wanted to mean this, but she could not. It felt insincere, it felt false. Maybe she should have, rationally speaking, but…
“Do you regret it?” he asked her. “Do you regret killing them? Do you regret sparing me?”
“No,” Syllia breathed. “And… no. I did the right thing. I regret nothing.”
He stared at her, and he felt his throat tighten, constricted like he was now the one being choked. He passed a hand over his face, hating this feeling of weakness.
“I should be happy,” he said. “I should be satisfied. I have avenged my family. I have saved my countrymen. You and your followers will pay for your crimes.”
“And when will humanity pay for theirs?”
Andrew was silent for several minutes, kneeling over her. The screams were stopped one by one, and he heard his comrades shouting out directions to one another as they tracked down the last few rebellious slaves.
These elves’ owners were all dead, and they had proven themselves dangerous. Few would be willing to take them in without some greater insurance. Those who had fought would lose their hands. Those who had bred would lose their children. The males would be castrated as punishment or butchered and flung to the hounds.
The elves were already slowly dying out, and their extinction would be much hastened by the retributions to come. Many would not be satisfied with simply returning the rebels to slavery. Many would demand blood for blood, life for life.
Syllia had gambled on the fate of her race, and she had lost. He was not sorry for them. The elves had made it clear they would show no mercy if they triumphed. But there was still something somehow sad about it…
He shook his head.
“I have done nothing wrong.”
The last screams stopped. Andrew muttered the Oathword he had wrenched from Syllia, ending the torment now that the last of the escaped slaves had been plainly subdued. There was a sudden stillness outside the tent, and a great sigh seemed to go up over the camp.
It was over. Finally, decisively, it was over.
Syllia blinked away her own tears, breathing shakily, trembling beneath the man who had beaten her.
“Thank you, Master.”
Andrew looked at her and found that he could not meet her eyes. He turned his face away, curling his hands into fists.
He should have been glad. But he just felt…
She shuddered with a repressed sob. “Don’t apologize. Please… just end it.”
Andrew looked at the elf’s naked breast, and he gazed into her sorrowful eyes. He understood what she was asking for. She understood what would be done to her if the Inquisition’s troops got their hands on her. It was a fantasy to think she would be merely returned to slavery, placed into the keeping of her lawful master. She was the instigator of this rebellion, and she would bear the guilt for every death that had been wrought by it.
The man grasped a dagger, its sheath concealed on his person, and he considered Syllia’s bare skin, her naked body. She was defenseless. She was defeated. He had avenged his family. He had saved his people. Now, would he turn her over to them, or would he deal with her himself?
He could see which she would prefer. He could see which she was asking for. Compared to what they would do to her, dying at the hand of her master surely seemed like a mercy.
He raised the blade. Somberly, he held Syllia’s eyes.
“It didn’t have to be like this.”
She smiled sadly, chest heaving with a sob.
“I know. I wish… I wish it could have been different.”
Andrew closed his eyes.
“Goodbye, Master…” she whispered.
It was a fantasy to think he would have been able to keep her… wasn’t it? She would be killed. Most of the elves would probably be either killed or crippled. Rising, Andrew grabbed onto Syllia’s hair and dragged the elf out of the tent, out into the middle of Inquisitorial army as they finished subduing the writhing elves. There had been no grand battle, no triumph, no carnage. The Inquisition’s soldiers had not needed to lift a weapon to defeat every single elf in the army… Syllia had done it all for them with a broken word.
The head of the Inquisition, the dark haired Elira, sat on a chair in the clearing like a queen holding court. The wooden edifice served as a makeshift throne as the defeated remnants of the army were brought before her, including all of Syllia’s surviving priests and her guards and generals. With their oathwords released they were only subdued by ropes and gags now, and the hundreds of weapons ready to slaughter them.
“A hundred and twenty thousand men, women, and children,” declared Elira as her elf captives were gathered before her. “Best that my Inquisition can tell, your pitiful rebellion has killed that many humans in the years since it began. Innocent families, slaughtered in your insane crusade to free their slaves. Women and children dead in their beds, all so your filthy race could pretend to play soldier.” She looked at all the bound soldiers… and then over at Syllia. You,” she said, approaching the still naked dark elf dripping Andrew’s cum with a rune collar that would suppress her magic. Beaten and so helpless, Syllia couldn’t conjure so much as a cantrip. “Your punishment shall be worst of all. The only reason I didn’t butcher them all as they lay there is that you wouldn’t have gotten to see it. You will have to watch as I wipe your wretched race from the face of the world.”
And Andrew said “No, you won’t.”
The there silence for a moment as the clearing took a breath. “Excuse me?” Elira snapped a second later, annoyed at being interrupted.
“She is my property,” Andrew said firmly. “I lay claim to her. She will return home with me.”
Elira looked like she wanted to scream. “Unacceptable,” she snapped. “She needs to witness the executions before she dies.”
“There won’t be any executions,” Andrew said, and Syllia stiffened at the power in his voice, the firmness in his words. “They are all coming with me.”
Elira laughed. “No, they aren’t.”
“I captured them,” he insisted. “I hold their Oathmarks. By Imperial law, that makes them my property… and I can set any price for their lives and bodies I want.”
“You want Weregild?” Elira scoffed as if she couldn’t believe her ears. “So be it, brother. How much?”
“A million golden coins,” he said firmly, his voice solid as the stone beneath their feet. “Each.”
Elira’s eyes narrowed. “You are mad,” she said, her voice low and dangerous.
“Possibly,” he agreed. “I can do what I want with them. You have your victory. I’ll take my property and go. By law, they are mine.”
For just a second, Syllia felt… something. She didn’t even know what to call it… but she felt something. Elira looked like she was about to explode… but Syllia’s eyes were all for her Master. Why was he…
“And what makes you think,” Elira said, her voice flat and so quiet it was almost a whisper, “that I care?” She turned to her soldiers. “Kill him.”
Soldiers stepped towards him, and Andrew took a deep breath. Andrew didn’t need an explanation to understand what was happening. The house of Tarn was dead… but its Legacy had long ago been claimed by Elira. This victory was supposed to be hers. It would be problematic for her if the glory for this victory went to the lone scion of a house that she was supposed to be the last member of, if a no one had saved the Empire rather than her. She couldn’t let him leave with her prizes. She couldn’t let him live.
He had been a vagrant, a wanderer, a man of the wilderness. None in the imperial court would miss him. Few had even known he existed, and fewer still would ever know it what he had done. They were going to kill him, then take all the credit for Syllia’s defeat. A base treachery, and one he should have expected. But he had been too wrapped up in his goal. He had been too naive. Andrew grimacing as he faced the men.
“So that’s how it is…” he muttered. “Cowards.”
Elira smiled. “Farewell, Brother.” She began walking towards Elira with the rune collar again.
Then Andrew drew a knife from within his sleeve and slammed it into his half-sister’s stomach.
Three arrows took him a second later as the screaming started. His leathers blunted it, but not by much… Andrew sagged to his knees like a dropped stone. He gritted his teeth, feeling faint. None of the arrows had hit anything… immediately… lethal. If left to his own devices, he could probably survive this much. He had lived through worse. But it didn’t look like they were going to leave it at this.
Elira shrieked, seemingly less in pain than in outrage. “KILL HIM!” she screamed, seemingly more concerned with seeing him die than she cared about the knife in her stomach. She ripped the thing out of her, tossing it to the side, her magic already healing her.
From all around him, Inquisitorial soldiers knocked arrows or approached with swords and spears.
Something inside Syllia stirred. A hot anger rose inside her.
To be vanquished by the one whom she had spared. To have her people enslaved once more or killed, her race doomed and her vengeance thwarted. To be laid so low and enthralled again, and to surrender herself to her master, only for these scoundrels, these knaves, these vile, verminous dastards…
She could accept being defeated by Andrew. She could accept being killed by the boy she had spared. She had earned that fate, many times over… But she would not hand herself to the Empire, and she would not see him murdered by craven scum like this.
Weak though she was, drained and pained and racked by the Oathmark, by her rape, by her suffocation and subjugation and her broken hope, Syllia found the strength spit a word of power. The weapons carried by the approaching soldiers sundered in their bearer’s hands, splintering with a flash of light and twisting like a serpent in their keepers’ grips to bite him. A dozen soldiers fell as the arrows that had rested on strings plunged into their own breasts, a dozen more with swords fell back with cries as their weapons into the sniper’s breast. The man fell back with a cry, his heart pierced and his hands burned.
Syllia was weak, and she had been vanquished, and she had surrendered herself to Andrew already. The magic within her had been much sapped, and her will had been nearly broken. She could not move the powers arcane as she once had been able. She lacked the resolution of that unyielding hate, the drive of that ever-present fear. But she was still more powerful than these curs. She still had her tongue, and she still had her hands.
But she was weak, and her reflexes were slow. As she staggered to her feet, enraged and rising to the defense of her mortal foe, her lawful master, Elira held out a hand and unleashed a torrent of magic. The spell took the form of a writhing mass of wires, tangling and slicing through flesh when they contacted it. The dark haired woman was no minor mage, almost certainly the greatest that Syllia had faced and at the moment she seemed to actually surpass Syllia in resolve if not in skill. The spell flashed towards her and she could not summon a counter from her mind and will fast enough. Slashing blades of conquered magic swept her right hand from her wrist and scored a crimson gash across her neck. She pulled back at the last second, which was the only thing to spare her from decapitation, but she could feel the blood pouring out, the hot pain of her windpipe exposed. She gurgled and choked, and she tried to will her magic to heal these wounds.
But Elira would not stop to let her mend her body, and with her throat slashed open, she could not invoke any of the spells powerful enough to guard her or heal herself swiftly enough to respond. Not in time. The Inquisitor howled in rage, her eyes wide and mad as she stepped forward, conjuring another deadly spell. Oddly, Syllia didn’t feel fear that she was about to die. She closed her eyes…
And that was why she didn’t see it as Andrew’s dagger blurred in his hand, snatched up from the ground in the seconds bought by Syllia’s intervention. He slammed it into the side of his sister. With a strength born of desperate anger, he threw the Elira down and twisted his dagger between the woman’s ribs, digging it in deeper and carving his would-be assassin’s chest. Syllia opened her eyes, shocked to still be alive, and saw Andrew standing between her and the mage.
Syllia staggered back, feeling her throat slowly stitching itself back together, the wound gradually closing, the lost blood replenished as quickly as she could manage. But she was weak, and in her haste, she could tell that the healing was botched. With time, maybe, it would mend properly, but for now…
The revenge-crazed Inquisitor screamed and the dagger shattered in Andrew’s hand, all but shattered it into random meat. With furious rage and fearsome strength Elira grabbed onto the last scion of the house of Tarn. A blast of power knocked him off her, sending him flying a dozen feet away to land in a boneless heap. “Bastard!” she spat, rising to her feet and stomping towards him. “You deserve to die too, brother!” The other soldiers were still rushing forward… only seconds had passed.
Syllia, weakened by trauma and covered in her own blood from a million small cuts and her severed hand, felt something surge. In a rage, acting before she could think, Syllia forced her voice from her throat. She felt the effort nearly burst the skin fresh open, felt the cords of her voice straining and snapping, and spitting up blood, she coughed out a hurried incantation, and with her remaining hand she gestured, raising the stump of her dismembered arm to cover her throat in its stead.
With masterful precision, an unerring purpose and an unyielding will, power exploded outward from her like a dreadful torrent. Elira spun, throwing up a barrier, and Syllia pushed against it with all her might… pushing… pushing… screaming and bleeding and pushing… she had to protect them. Protect them all.
All around her, the Inquisitorial army began to transform into crystal, frozen in place in a rigid lattice… but Elira resisted still, throwing all her hatred against Syllia and snarling. “No…” she growled. “I… will… I will… Kill… you…” Her legs began to harden. “Kill… you!” she snarled, unleashing her barrier and striking back out as the crystal crept up to her chest. Heedless of her own mortal wounds, Elira acted as a scorpion that stung the heel of the woman who stomped it into the dust. She threw a final deadly spell at Syllia, desperate to take the elf with her as her body hardened into crystal and Elira solidified into something less than human.
The energy of Elira’s dying was overwhelming… energy that wanted to burn Syllia from the inside out, wanted to explode her outward into pieces over miles. Syllia shrieked as she fought to contain it, fought to channel it and make it hers, fought to survive it… and with a final cry of agony, threw the power away.
There was a great bang, and energy erupted from Syllia like an explosion. A thunderclap shook the poles of the clearing tent, and the rushing wind of an explosion spell rent the canvass and burst them from their moorings. Andrew was tossed like a weed in the wind. Bound elves were thrown sprawling. Every tree, every tent, every building in the camp collapsed or blew away… and every crystallized soldiers shattered into dust so fine that Syllia would never have been able to tell it had ever been a part of anything greater.
Tears streamed down her face, and unsure even why she was doing it Syllia rushed to the fallen Andrew. She nearly stumbled as she ran, half dead from blood loss. The exhausted, wounded elf nearly stumbled as she ran. She had no memory of reaching him, of turning him over, of pouring healing magic into him instead of herself. She only knew that she was meeting his gray eyes, standing over him, the only human left in the camp of nearly fifty thousand elves. She could kill him. The ingrained instinct of twenty years, the hatred of two hundred years, told her to. He would never be one of them. He would never understand. He would always be one of the family that had enslaved her.
And she would always be the woman that had murdered his. And he had shown her mercy… and she had once before shown him mercy. If one bad turn deserved another, than surely the opposite was true, was it not?
“I hate you,” Andrew whispered, but the words were without heat, without bite. It had the sound of an apology, and he repeated it like a mantra. “I hate you.”
Syllia looked him in the eye, hearing the sounds of her people as they slowly rose to their feet, realizing triumphantly that they were alive and whole and free. Stunned by it. Overjoyed at it. “I hate you,” she answered… but what she really meant was that she was sorry, too. Her voice betrayed the damage she had taken from the sword stroke, and she clutched at the bloody stump of her missing hand… the missing hand that matched Andrew’s. If she had the magic now, the strength, she could reattach it, but she couldn’t regrow it from nothing… she didn’t know a spell to do that. Perhaps with time, and rest, she could come up with a powerful magic to do it, but not like this, exhausted and weak and one handed and nearly voiceless. It was all she could do to stop herself from bleeding to death.
She was too weak for wrath, too tired for hate… and that felt like a weight had been lifted off her chest for the first time in a century.
Andrew woke in a bed, stretching and reaching to brush the hair from his eyes. The stump where his hand used to be touched his forehead uselessly… even after a year of this, it still took him a minute in the morning to remember where he was, who he was. Sighing, he used his left hand to clear his long hair out of his eyes and rose.
The Tarn family mansion had not held up to the ravishes of time and abandonment well. That was just as well, as he wouldn’t have wanted to live in it again anyway. He had, with help, torn it down to the foundation and built something new on Tarn lands… and if it wasn’t quite befitting a high noble lord, he didn’t care. He was happy with it.
He looked out the window, smiling into the dawn. It was early morning but the fields were already full of elves, harrowing the fields that they had turned most of the clearings around his family land into after he gifted it to them. They weren’t good farming, and this first crop had had its disasters along the way, but it looked like it was going to more or less come through ok. Next year would be easier. The next year would always be easier.
Learning to farm hadn’t been the only challenge of the year, of course. Absolutely no one was happy with the solution they had found, and dealing with it had proved… difficult… at the best of times. Many of the elves had… not… be happy about backing down from their attacks. Many of them had masters who still lived… and some of those that didn’t hadn’t yet found the ability to let go of their hate. It didn’t matter. Andrew had all of their Oathwords now, and Syllia refused to kill him… they were his. They could no more leave his lands and continue their war than they could fly so long as he had the ability to stop them with a word. In return, he never used it as long as no one tried to lift their hands in rage. Noble families throughout the empire, on the other hand, wanted their slaves back… and were slow to accept that the population of sex toys that they had claimed for so long were legally held by another now, who had no interest at all in selling them. More than one family member of slain relatives wanted blood, too, and more than one of those had come to his lands trying to get it. In that case, Andrew had felt no need to do anything… without their Oathword to hold them back, that never went well for any human that came here seeking trouble.
The smell of food filled the house as he walked into the kitchen and found his dark elf “slave” seated at the table, eating with her left hand. There was plenty more food waiting in on the skillet, so he took a plate for himself and served the food. Handling a fork with his left hand was as awkward as ever… in quick over, he had potato skins and eggs all over his legs. “I hate you,” he growled, resentful of just how effortlessly graceful the elf was.
“I hate you,” she answered between bites, her voice amused. Her tone still had a hint of a rasp to it… that last spell had torn a vocal chord and it had never healed the way it had been beforehand.
The resentment as being enslaved again, as they saw it, galled many of the elves… but their goddess said that they were not, and eventually most came to at least grudgingly accept that. Rebuilding a culture was a long, slow, painful process, but Syllia and Andrew were both determined to see that the nascent culture valued peace more that violence. The Tarn family lands had fields, and forests, and rivers and quarries, and plenty of room for ten times their current number to build a new city for themselves. This would be their new home… a place to rebuild. A place to call their own. Most of the elves had come to understand that.
And as for the rest… well. Andrew and Syllia were both willing to stand between elves and the humans and dare either to try to upset the armistice they had created.
For now, as far as the rest of the Empire was concerned, Syllia and the elven rebels were Andrew’s slaves. The world had known more elaborate fictions, he felt sure. It was better for everyone… it kept the vengeance-seekers to a minimum if they felt that the elves were under control, and that the law protected them as Andrew’s property. He still needed to deal with nearly weekly requests to turn over Syllia for execution, on a variety of charges dozens of cities and provinces. Andrew wished them luck coming to get her… he certainly wouldn’t be sending her.
Syllia laughed as Andrew dropped another fork-full of food, making a mess on his cheek. She reached over and brushed it away, her movements like flowing water even with her off-hand. Andrew knew that she had figured out how to regrow a hand months ago… she had offered to give him back his. Andrew, in turn, hold told her he would be happy to let her… just as soon as she regrew her own, first.
So far, she hadn’t… and Andrew thought he knew why. Occasionally, when the frustrations of an elf’s willful taunting or a noble’s stubborn refusal to sell him one of the dozen or two slaves left in captivity overwhelmed him, he found himself clenching his fist in anger… and each time, he was starkly reminded of the lack. Of how he had lost it. Of what he had not lost, instead. He could only imagine Syllia felt the same… only for hundreds of years longer. She would give herself her hand back, he believed, when she no longer needed a reminder of why she was doing this. Andrew could understand.
Their eyes met, black on grey, and they stared at each other for a long moment. It had been like this for a year now. Leaning upon each other, depending on each other, needing each other to keep the peace. It was a cruel twist of fate, the two people who’s hatred for each other that had nearly gotten everyone killed now needing to rely on one another to keep them alive. Some days Andrew felt sure it could only end in tragedy… but it would be a tragedy he chose, not out of hatred but a desire to do something right.
They walked forward and they didn’t look back.
Maybe it had been folly for Syllia to spare the boy. Maybe it had been foolish for Andrew not to kill her when he had the chance. Both knew doubt, and both felt regret. But they had to keep living. They were survivors, the both of them, and yet they were fools also, born beneath ill-fortuned stars, damned by deeds long, long before their time, forces far beyond their reach. Cast upon the storm-tossed waves of fate, they plunged into the abyssal, unknowable darkness, fleeing from danger into danger. Together they would strive against their doom, and against the very futility of peace. They could not escape each other. Maybe, someday, this peace would serve as a foundation to right whatever ancient wrongs had torn their people apart so long ago that no one remembered what they were… or maybe not. Maybe, after they both were dead, things would return to bloodshed and chaos and destruction.
It didn’t matter. Not today. Today, intertwined, leaning upon one another for support, Syllia brushed food from the face of the boy she had spared when she should have killed. Andrew laughed at the woman whom he had sworn to destroy. They sat there, not as enemies, nor as a human and an elf, nor as master and slave, but simply as Andrew and Syllia. And, for just this moment, perhaps that was enough.