By Greta Flanagan
He’s been here before. Back when he was a scuffed-kneed child playing imaginary games near the creek, making up kingdoms he would rule and laws he would create. He still remembered all the landmarks from his fictional monarchy. The tree hollow that he used to squeeze into was the master bedroom of his castle, the creek housed his many farmers and peasants, and the clearing in which he now stood was a battlefield, where he once would fight nonexistent enemies with a hefty branch.
Now, though, the clearing was a battleground. The dew-dropped grass was marred with dried gore; and the once pure, clean daffodils were stained scarlet. The surrounding trees were littered with bullet wounds.
He numbly brushed the desiccated blood with the toe of his boot. This place was changed. The once comforting memory of his childhood safe haven was now scarred with the horrors of the war. The glade would never be the same.
The fray that took place here was the most recent one. It was one his faction had lost horribly. Not only were they chased off the territory, they had suffered tremendous losses. The second-in-command, Mik, was gravely injured during the quarrel.
But he didn’t care about Mik. He never cared for the man.
His student, a child no older than fifteen, was fatally wounded. He wasn’t stationed at the front, he was not there to protect her. She returned to the hospital still bleeding profusely and ended up dying in his arms not even an hour later.
And now, barely a week later, every time he shut his eyes he remembered her blood on his hands, the sticky red gleam that stood out against her short, dark hair. The grime and cuts that littered her tiny, tiny hands. The optimistic shine in her eyes had faded that day, and so did any hope he had left for this goddamned war. It winked out of existence like a miniscule match succumbed to a harsh breeze.
He brushed a hand through his short, graying hair, before dragging it down his face to the gruff, unshaved stubble upon his chin. He had always dreamt of a child, a family of his own, someone to care for and teach and raise. And he knew, had known for a while now, that Meira was the closest thing he was going to get to that fantasy.
He didn’t know how long he had stayed there, staring at the earthy colors of the grass clearing. It wasn’t until he heard the sound of disrupted leaves on the forest floor that he was jolted out of his stupor.
He whipped his head around at the noise, his eyes zeroing in on a spot between two thin tree trunks, catching sight of tell-tale brown hair before the intruder stepped out of the shadows.
The monotonous sound of boots on damp grass filled the silence of the glade as he stared, his eyes narrowing as she closed the distance.
She was here.
To hide his trembling, he hid his hand from her view behind his back, before gritting his teeth and glaring with enough venom he hoped it would kill.
She stopped a few feet in front of him. Her shoulders were squared and her back straight. She took great care in giving off the air of commander. She was no leader though. That was one lesson he learned in the past months. It was just a deception to claim the support of her people. It was a lie. She was a lie.
And then she smiled.
He shocked himself by the absolute rage that filled him then. She was trying to force some sort of normalcy on him. As if she didn’t betray his trust. As if she didn’t take away one of the best things in his life.
As if she didn’t kill Meira.
The cold weight in his back pocket felt heavier at the notion.
He stared at her with disbelief, watching as she smiled, the corner of her lips not quite reaching her eyes. Her green, green eyes that looked viridian when she laughed his mind supplied, but he quickly squashed the thought.
“Somehow, I knew you’d be here,” She tittered, watching him nervously.
And where once he might have joked back, he now stood and glowered as she shifted from foot to foot.
The small smile she wore fell at his lack of response, her lips pressing into a thin line.
“I didn’t mean to… I didn’t want to…” she trailed off, her fingers fiddling with the hem of her shirt, tears glistening against the black of her eyelashes.
“Didn’t mean to kill her? You mean? Didn’t mean to kill a child?” he spat out. It angered him to no end, watching her cry for Meira, when she was the one who took her away.
“I-” she started, before he cut her off with snarl.
“You knew her, you helped her—you helped both of us. You promised her you’d end this war—you’re a damned liar. How does it feel? Standing here? Knowing you’re the one who cut her life so damn short? How does it feel, Kari?!” He was shouting now, his voice echoing against the cluster of trees that surrounded him. His entire body was shivering, and he knew damn well it wasn’t because of the cold.
She had flinched when he said her name, and the tears that once hung on her lashes were now falling freely onto her pale cheeks. And when she spoke again, he knew whatever restraint he had, had snapped.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered. He barely caught the words amongst the sound of wind whistling through the trees.
Before she could utter some sort of elaboration to her apology, he had reached into the back pocket of his slacks and gripped the handle of his pistol, before whipping it out in front of his body and pulling down the safety with a solid click.
Seconds passed without a sound, but it felt like hours. Both of them staring at each other, blue eyes meeting her green, the gun aimed straight at her chest.
“You won’t shoot me,” she stated, her words confident despite the nervous look in her eyes.
She was afraid, he noted with satisfaction.
“And what makes you think that?” he grit out. His hand tightening against the cold metal grip of his gun. He was aiming to scare, to threaten. To have her racing away from him, but she just stood there.
God, why didn’t she just leave? Turn tail and run, she was afraid, she could escape now with a still beating heart. So why wouldn’t she leave?
She held his eye for a heartbeat, before uttering a sentence he would replay in his mind years after this was all finished.
“Because you still love me, Caleb.”
He pulled the trigger of his gun and watched the bronze bullet careen towards her at too high a speed to catch.
He heard her lifeless body fall to the grassy floor with a sickening thud.
And then he turned, heading back in the direction of the rising sun.
No, the glade would never be the same.