Two people who desire national independence set out to assassinate their benevolent but foreign ruler. (one-shot)
Atia shook her head and whispered a string of profanities. She had told Dominic that they should have gotten a dog or two to pull the sleigh but he said they could not afford anything else which could make them easily traceable. Instead, she had to strain her back while all he carried was a repeating crossbow and some bolt cartridges. Some gentleman he was.
"Dom, can we stop soon? The sun's setting."
He turned around to face her. Stopping was not something he wished to do. He was starting to regret having asked her to come with him. No one else would have done it but she was proving to be more annoying than useful. Had he set out on their mission alone, the extra supplies would not have been necessary.
It was not true, he knew. He needed her and he needed their equipment sled. His wife had begged him not to leave; she said he would end up getting himself killed. She did not approve of what he had planned, either. Atia was the only person who saw any merit in it. He wanted to prove to everyone that he was right; Atia wanting to stop only endangered them. They should have pressed onward. Their destination was less than five hours away.
"Dominic!" Atia had stopped and was sitting on a sack of bolt cartridges. "I am not moving from here unless it's to the bank of the river."
He nodded and pointed a little way upstream, "Fine, we'll stop in that cluster of trees. Tomorrow, we'll be up early and get this thing done."
Atia motioned for him to help with the sleigh. Once he was ready, they hauled it across the ice and up into the small grouping of pines. They broke off some branches and tossed them into a pile. Atia then started looking through their provisions. Dominic assumed she was looking for the tinderbox and drew his knife.
"Didn't pack flint or anything. I don't need it," he said, kneeling in the snow. When she gave him a puzzled look, he rolled up his left sleeve and dug the tip of his blade into his arm. His eyes closed and his mouth moved as though he was speaking. As his blood dripped down, the wood began to glow orange. He squeezed the skin around the wound, dropping more blood onto the wood until it burst into flames.
He grinned and licked the cut. "Too bad there's not enough blood coming out to heal it."
"You didn't tell me you could do that," Atia said as she tossed a sack into the snow near the fire. As she sat down, she pointed at where he had slit his arm. "Do you do it a lot? I mean, you must be used to it if you didn't even flinch."
"Not much. Only when it's something small, but I was taught a lot of the hexes growing up. Haven't practiced most of them, though." He caught a piece of chicken which Atia tossed at him. "Fully cooked, right?"
She shrugged. "Drip a little blood on it."
"It doesn't work like that."
The sun was low on the horizon, setting for another three day period as it usually did around the winter solstice. Atia said, "Okay, maybe we should have set out sooner. I should have paid attention to the calendar. You can't use any of the light hexes if the sun won't be up for the next three days."
"Wintersday was a day before the sunset last year. This year was a bad choice to act but since the next three years will be a Wintersnight, we had to do it now." Dom looked over at her as he tore off some chicken. "I don't want my daughters to have another solstice celebration under the rule of some foreign bastards."
Atia nodded, "I understand you, Dom. You know I'm one of the few who do; I wouldn't be out here with you if I didn't." Her fingers played with the laces on the front of her tunic. "I have my own reason, though. You should understand that they're not bad people."
He snorted and took another bite. Dominic was fully convinced that the people who had taken their country as a colony were indeed "bad people." They had come in uninvited and taken control of trade. After that, they had abolished the state military and stationed a legion of their own soldiers in the country. They had treated the native religion like uncivilized shamanism. "I don't care how good you may be to those who obey your laws. If you come in and force a sovereign people to kneel to you, if you make their faith illegal, you are not a good people. And if you're not good, you are bad."
"Black and white, Dom? I thought you were a little more enlightened than that. Belief like that is probably why they think what we do is uncivilized."
He glared at her. "Why are you here? Are you even on my side?"
Atia held up her hand to tell him to allow her to say her piece. She did believe their people deserved to be independent but she also believed that they had good lives even under foreign rule. "I'm here to kill the governor and his lackeys, just like you. I just don't think they're evil or anything. I do, however, want them gone. I want them gone because I'm scared."
"Of what? Like you said, they don't do anything unless you break their laws. And the only law you've broken is by being part of this."
She shook her head, bit her lip, and started untying the laces on her top. "I'm scared of them finding out about my sins." After loosening the tunic, she pulled it open to expose much of her chest. Her skin was marked with parallel scars running along the top of her breasts. Dominic watched silently as she pulled her sleeves up to her elbow, revealing more scars left over from cutting her arms to draw blood for their magic.
"That's why you know about those hexes, isn't it." He reached out and ran a finger over a very long scar that ran down her wrist. "You use it more than I do."
"I used to be addicted to it, to the power of it all...really, really addicted. And that one there...," she touched his hand to make his fingers stop on the long scar, "I got that when the soldiers came to prove they were superior. Brennus would have bled to death if I hadn't been there to heal him with my own blood."
Dominic understood what she was talking about. He had had many experiences like hers, only none of his had involved cutting his wrists to save someone else from death. He doubted he could have done that had he been in her position. She could have died if she didn't have solid control over the blood healing rites; they had to ingest fairly large quantities of their own blood in order to heal themselves. He had some more respect for her now. They had not had much time to get to know each other before, she was just the only person in the village willing to go with him.
"I don't do it anymore," she said after a long moment of silence. "I think I've had enough of self-mutilation so I can feel powerful."
"What if I need you to heal a fatal wound?"
Atia shrugged again and smiled, "We'll see how much I still like you at that point."
She set out her bedding on a patch of dirt that had the least amount of snow in the immediate area. Tightening her tunic and sliding her sleeves back down, she readied herself to sleep. She needed it and they did not need to worry about keeping watch. The grasslands were known for their safety, especially in the cold winter months. After lying on her side, facing the fire, she pulled a cloak up to shoulders. Dominic was poking the fire with a stick; it was as though they had never had their conversation.
"I'm not going to let you die, Dominic," she said quietly. "For the sake of your wife and children, I won't let you die."
She fell asleep without getting a response from him. It was not something that required a response though, she had just felt that he needed to know she would see their undertaking to the very end. She slept confident that they would succeed and be back at home before the sun rose again.
Atia awoke to the sight of Dominic cutting his palm. His lips moved, quietly uttering an enchantment as he spread his blood over his crossbow. When he finished, he turned to her and placed her dagger at her side. After licking his palm, swallowing as much blood as he could, he said, "I enchanted it for you. That way you'll have an advantage and won't have to use any magic for it."
It was bright for nighttime when they gathered their supplies to set back out. The moon had just begun to wane so there was more than enough light for them to find their way without torches. They left quietly after covering the remains of the fire with snow. With Dominic helping to pull the sled across the snowy field, they made good time. After a few hours of silence, the walls to the provincial government's garrison were in sight. It rested at the top of a steep hill overlooking the flat, snow-covered grassland.
As they climbed the hill, Dominic adjusted his cloak to hide his crossbow better. Atia did the same with her dagger and extra bolt cartridges. The guards would be more alert if they saw weapons on them right away. Their goal was to leave no one in the fort alive; it should not have been hard since most of the soldiers in the country patrolled the towns. The garrison was always considered perfectly secure.
They would prove that the foreigners were neither safe nor wanted.
The gate opened for them since there were always people coming to the fort; fur merchants frequently sold heavy clothing to the soldiers who were not used to the long, harsh winters.
"Do you have a place where we can warm up?" Atia asked one of the soldiers. She looked at him helplessly, "We came so far with almost nothing to cover us."
They were pointed toward the longhouse, the home of the governor. Avoiding looking into the eyes of the house's guards, they entered the building, leaving their sled behind. Just as they stepped inside, a soldier confronted them. He told them to remove their cloaks and turn over any weapons they were carrying. Dominic smiled and nodded politely, getting ready to kill the man. The moment Atia closed the door, Dominic pulled out his knife and jammed it into the man's throat. In one fluid movement, he had his crossbow up and shot the other man in the room. The bolt sliced through the air and split into four shards, as his blood enchantment had been meant it to do. The shards slammed into the man, knocking him against the wall.
"Let's go, we have to get to the governor before he knows anything is happening," Dominic whispered urgently. They also had to kill him before anyone outside knew what was going on.
Both of them ran through the rooms, quickly silencing everyone they saw. None of them were given the time to alert the others in the garrison. As Dominic cleared another room, Atia turned the corner and ran into an elderly man. She was scared for a moment before noticing how old the man was. He was leaning heavily on a cane and coughed before asking who they were.
"What, you don't recognize me, daddy?" He was not really her father but she knew who he was. He was the governor, and his physical state was not going to stop her from getting their job done. As he gave her a puzzled look, she moved closer and hugged him. Before he could do anything, she stabbed him in the back, just above the left kidney. She let go, allowing him to drop to the floor. With a smile, she said, "Bye-bye daddy."
"That was him?" Dominic said, coming out into the hallway. "Time to get out?"
Atia nodded. "Yep, that was him. We have to get everyone else in the garrison, too, though."
She handed Dominic her extra set of bolts and he set about unclipping the spent cartridge and reloading. Once he was finished, they ran back to the longhouse entrance and mentally prepared themselves for a potential fight.
"Well, we're in the final stretch," Dom said. He was proud of their accomplishment but they had to get back home alive so that everyone would know their sovereign was not an all-knowing and omnipotent force. "I love you, Atia."
She looked at him oddly, trying to figure out what he meant.
He glanced over at her and continued, "I'd be proud to call you sister."
"Right...," she said, "Well, let's just get you back to your real family."
Atia opened the door quietly. The guards outside were unaware of them. With quick movements, they each stepped behind one of the door guards and slit their throats. Dominic aimed his crossbow at the other soldier in sight and fired three bolts. Each split and the man was unable to dodge. He went down with a scream, alerting whoever was left.
"Damn it, Dom. Could have done it better." Atia broke into a run, aiming for the gate guards. Despite wishing not to use magic, she sliced open one of her palms as she rushed them. She hurled her dagger at one guard, catching him in the eye. Once she was closer to the remaining man, she flung herself at him, barely missing his spear. As her palm hit the guard's chest, his breastplate imploded, crushing his internal organs.
She rolled off them and turned to see Dominic shooting at a woman struggling to open a cage. The woman pulled the cage open before his bolts struck her down. Atia screamed at him to run as she saw the beast step out of the cage. The massive stones of the creature slammed into the earth, shaking the ground beneath it.
"Golem," she yelled to Dominic. Golems were one of the many abominations created by magic to maintain balance between humans and the rest of the world. The beasts were too large and too strong for either of them to fight.
Dominic did not hesitate. He ran at Atia, screaming for her to open the gate. They could outrun the golem if they could get out onto the plains. She struggled with the door, unable to lift the bar lock. Giving her some extra time, Dominic fired the remaining bolts in his crossbow, hoping to hit the beast's eyes, the only true vulnerable point. All the bolt shards bounced harmlessly off the body stones.
Panicking, Atia grabbed her dagger and cut her other palm. "Get the gate!" she yelled as she ran at the golem, hoping to blow off one of its limbs. She did not get close enough before its stone paw swept her up, closing around her and threatening to crush her. She could not use her magic. The stones tightened around her and she screamed to get Dominic's attention.
It was too late for him as well, though. Just as he removed the lock, the beast swung its other arm at Dominic, slamming into the gate before he could move. The golem pressed his torso against the ironwood. He fumbled for his knife, unwilling to let the both of them die.
"Atia...," he said.
She looked over at him, trying to breathe. The black edges of her sight were getting bigger; she was going to fall unconscious. She could still see him, though. She saw what he was doing. Dominic yelled the end of his hex so she could hear it.
"A life for a life," he said, just before drawing his knife across his throat. As the blood rushed from the wound, the golem howled in pain. The huge stones of the beast lost their cohesiveness. They fell apart around Atia, dropping her to the ground. She covered her head on impulse as the last of the golem fell apart. It was dead, at the cost of Dominic's life.
She crawled over to him weakly, not wholly believing he had sacrificed himself to keep her alive. He did not move when she shook him. In anger, she slapped him. She had promised not to let him die but he had anyway. He was supposed to make it back to his family; she had been sure of her own death.
"Damn you," she growled. Looking at her palm, she saw it still bleeding freely. She had not used its magic yet. Unfortunately, she could not bring him back. Not only could she not resurrect the dead, but he had also died using a death hex. It was prohibited to bring such people back. She placed her palm on his chest and whispered. After leaning down and kissing his forehead, his body turned to ash. No one would know who had come to the garrison.
She spread the ashes around and left to make her way back home. On her own, she would not need to stop or take the sled with her. She just had to get back and tell everyone that she and Dom had succeeded, and that he had been killed.
Once the trip was over and she made it back to Dominic's family, she told his wife what had happened. The woman refused to tell her children about his death.
"No, Atia. His death was sinful on more than one count. He died committing treason and I don't want my children to hear of such things. And they certainly don't need to think of Wintersday as the day their father died."
"But we did it so they could be free. He sacrificed himself for it. Please, Chloe," she pleaded for the woman to let her tell the kids about their father. Nothing she said worked, though. She gave up without convincing anyone that the mission had been the right thing to do.
No one spoke of Dominic for many years; Chloe never allowed her neighbors to speak of him. She mistreated Atia in hope that the other woman would leave them all, removing the last thing to remind anyone of what Dominic had tried to do. None of the children had seen fit to ask about him until the youngest daughter, only seven years old, asked who he was. He had left before she had been born.
The mother knelt down in front of her and touched her cheek, smiling. "He was a merchant, dear. Now he's living in the emperor's capital. He says it's a beautiful place and we should all aspire to be as great as them."
"When will he be back?"
"He won't, darling, but he says that he loves you very much and if you're a really good girl, you might get to visit him. So, how about you go help take care of the horses?" She watched her daughter run off and sighed. It was a good thing Atia had quickly decided she could not live in the village. Atia would have eventually told the kids what really happened, which was why she had had to go. Chloe knew those two had committed a great evil. Dominic and Atia could have brought the emperor's wrath upon her family. No one else needed to know how her husband had died-he had failed, anyway.