The war had ended too long ago. The war hadn’t ended yet. Nights are both short and too long to her liking, a dark abyss where the stars once were keeps filling her heart with an unspeakable dread. Sometimes, she whispers to the darkness, letting her worries get carried by the wind through the grove. A whisper can and does disappear eventually, but the heaviness in her chest remains. She doesn’t do this often, but she does it enough to think of it as a constant in the dull life she lives now.
What is also a constant is the screaming; either his or hers.
They weren’t exactly keeping count on who did it more often, but she has the feeling they’d say the other one, never themselves. Maybe to not admit as to how much they’ve suffered, how much they are suffering still. She sometimes wonders if he sees events similar to what she does, in her nightmares.
Does he dream of blood in his mouth, of the rot that accumulates on a battlefield and of the pain that still lingers on parts of his body when he wakes? She wonders if she’ll ever dream of anything that doesn’t reek of ghosts and burnt skin, or would that be too selfish?
It’s unusually cold, at night, but she feels good about it. Cold means she could be on edge and not feel as ashamed as she usually does.
She knows how others look at her, in the village, how they’re whispering about the hollow-eyed knight that must’ve deserted, but in her- in their- home, she feels at peace. Or at as much peace as she thinks she deserves.
Her toes curl and uncurl almost involuntarily, a sign it’s getting colder. She doesn’t seem to care as much as she should. Cold meant her feet numbed the longer she spent out of the comfort of the bed, making her almost relive the battle in some twisted way, when her muscles ached and screamed and pulled themselves thin.
When her side bled crimson as she dug her arrow into the enemy’s throat out of desperation.
When she clawed her way out of the pile of bodies, the only survivor of her platoon.
When she was a soldier. Not a person.
She digs her nails into the white nightgown and the skin beneath it. She wants to forget, but still holds on to the memory as if it’s the only one she has. Maybe, in some twisted way, it is.
She remembers little else, of her life before the war, of her mother and father and little sister and her home. She does remember growing herbs in the garden back in Ostian, knees and fingers and clothes covered in dirt, hands clasped to her mouth and praying quietly in her mother’s tongue for a good harvest, despite her just planting the little sprouts, and them growing three times the size they were the next day.
She remembers stories of the free folk, of the Steppe and of witches that live amongst the trees and place curses on those who’ve wronged them, living carefree and in bliss. Her mother, once a witch in her own right, would often tell her that memories are their anchors to this world, and no matter how rusted or broken the anchor might be, it still served a purpose. Memories are powerful tools, she could still hear her voice so clearly in her mind, and sometimes, in the quiet hours of the night, almost before dawn, she wishes she could let that anchor go. Cut it loose and let herself be free, drifting on the waters that just barely separate the waking from the dreaming world. Forever alone, but never lonely, with memories of others but not her own.
As though on cue, she hears him rustling beneath the bedsheets and turns, limbs stiffer and almost mechanical in nature. ‘Once a soldier, always a soldier’, she muses in her head, suddenly feeling looser.
She wishes she could take the nightmares away from him, keep it all under lock and key inside her and let him enjoy the life he deserves to live. Maybe they’d break her, but she took on worse traumas. What’s a few more vivid nightmares next to him being happy?
Her strides are long when she closes the distance between the door and the small bed. His breathing is quiet and comes in short intervals, and her heart sinks into her stomach as she sits on the wooden bedside.
He makes her heart do such unordinary things, sometimes. Leaping, sinking, almost stopping…
He makes her feel like a human. Like a coward.
‘How strange’, she thinks, ‘that we’re both here because we decided to be cowards for just once in our lives.’
His eyes are bloodshot, and he’s lying still, like a fawn trying to hide. She brushes a lock of hair from his face and smiles gently, her own eyes tired. She couldn’t bring herself to use his own words on him, but she can hear them in her mind, clear as day. ‘I’m here. We’re safe. There’s nothing to be afraid of.’
With the tenderness only he possesses, he takes her hands by the wrists, bearing a smile only he has- one that lights up a room and gives her the warmth of the sun without the scorching heat. She’d scream if it were anyone else, pull away and hurt whoever held her, but she knows him, and she lets herself be guided wherever he takes her. She’d recognise him by touch alone, if it were necessary.
His smile reaches his gentle green eyes, and he puts her hands around his neck. Soft skin against her calloused fingers feels wrong, so wrong, but she has the urge of a soldier to kill. The urge of a desperate archer to finish off her enemy in any way she can. Her fingers curl, and uncurl, and she’s horrified with herself. Her shoulders shake, and he can still talk, which means she’s not squeezing hard enough, and it’s the only thing that keeps her grounded, in the moment.
She never truly saw how much the war affected him, too. Of course she knows about the nightmares, but this.. this urge to die is new to her, and her stomach turns. She feels sick just imagining what she would have done had she been just a bit more in tune with her training. He’s laying still, but now she’s the one afraid. Not of the nightmares, but of the things that haunt him aside from the horrors he’d seen.
She tries to pull away, but he does not let up. He’s still not holding her tightly, and she’s so tired of fighting back, so they come at a pathetic stalemate. He tells her he just wanted to feel something, in an eerily earnest, if a bit quiet, voice. The warmth he possessed moments ago is now gone, eyes looking more hollow than she’d ever seen them before. What a terrible thing, war is. What gruesome things it brings out of even the gentlest people.
She doesn’t realise she’s crying until she sees droplets on his cheeks, carefully letting him go and placing the now free, cold hands, on them so, so carefully. Then, as a final plea, she puts her forehead to his.
There are whispers to him about how she won’t let him get in harm’s way, how he deserves to be happy despite the things he’s done, how she wouldn’t be here without his help, but she has a hunch he doesn’t believe her.
She didn’t believe it herself, when she heard the same soothing words from him. Now she has no choice but to believe.
Her mother once told her to never make someone her anchor. There’d be too much pressure on them, they’d break eventually, that’s why they have memories to ground them all.
A ship shouldn’t love its anchor, but she can’t do anything but. She loves him more than anything in this world or the next, and she’ll do anything to prove it to him.
She feels tears fall across her hands, and they’re so cold, but she holds on to them and kisses them away gently.
Maybe it’s wrong to love someone as much as she loves him, but she’ll worry about the consequences for that love later, when they come.
For now, he’s here, and he’s alive and he’s her everything, and she’ll keep him safe.