Harter ducked. A heavy blow came from his left side, but the current issue was the beast in front of him. It jabbed its massive horn towards his stomach, trying to gut him without grace. Hot breath streamed from the nostrils that Harter used to hold himself steady to his grey hide. Groaning, he tried to ignore the small being who stabbed uselessly at his side. The blade would not enter the impenetrable, skin of his horchef race, but that did not mean each blow came without an irritating pain, and bruise.
Using the thrust of the beast’s head, Harter swung his long legs knocking the man to the ground in mid-assault. His head snapped against the stones, and he moved no more. But Harter spend little time concerned with the death. Grunting, he pulled himself up the face of the beast, and leapt from the horn to its back. It screamed with anger, kicking out its legs, trampling all that lay under his feet. Harter pulled its ears, back, back, bending his head skywards. The beast grunted, and pulled, unable to beat Harter’s study grip. “Down beast,” Harter whispered, his own breath hissing through the thick hairs that protected its ears. “Down,” anger scrapping his throat, “Down.”
One leg fell, shaking the rocks with his weight. Harter leaned against its balance, using his own strength to knock it to the ground. It quivered, helpless now to Harter’s will. The beast was on its back, eyes white around the edges and breathe coming in uneven puffs. A squeal passed between them, a plea. Harter looked at the skies, green with the coming storm.
With one swift cut, Harter left his kill behind, walking deeper into the fight. Horchefs killing with ease, their declared enemies clutching the ground with anguish written deep into the lines of their faces. Not one of them had a chance in victory. They had each had become the walking dead by choosing to meet the horchefs on this field. Without thought, Harter ran his blade through the back of a man, who clung to his brother. Jeston nodded his appreciation, but Harter kept walking. Another’s blood was now running down his face, but he did not take the time to wipe his cheeks. Another beast came down, heaving the loose rock into the masses of bodies.
Harter looked back at the growing clouds. Another blade, too dull to pass into his body, was jabbed into his back. He held back the groan, and turned to face the foe. A small man, no, a boy looked up at him with determination. With a weak arm, he held the blade tremblingly between them. Lifting its sparkling blade up to Harter’s face. He could not help but smile at the spirited boy, fighting an urge to tap him on the side of the head. Around them lay the bodies of his people, their faces resting in puddles in blood, but the boy blinked away fear. Harter lowed himself, almost taking a knee as he came to the child’s eye level. “Are you frightened?”
“No,” there was no hesitation.
“Do you know you cannot win?” Harter’s flashed a smile, letting his white teeth reflect in the little sun that was left in the day.
“I do,” the boy nodded.
“Do you want death?”
“Do you?” Harter’s eyes widened for an instant at the boy’s retort. “You march around, killing, invincible. No one can beat you, where is the victory in that?” The boy held his blade to Harter’s neck, “If you can’t lose, how do you call this winning.” The blade was thin as it pressed against a vein that would be the easy death to any other life. Harter felt his blood rush against the point, an easy cut. But this blade would not cut his skin, it couldn’t. Not even if the boy wanted to cut him, or if Harter wanted to be cut.
Harter leaned into the boy’s weak arm with his throat. He snarled, raising the corner of one lip, “I am the universal victor,” he grabbed a rock between his fingers. “I was made to kill,” he held the rock in the air between them. “It is my right to choose who dies,” without effort, the rock blew as dust from his now open palm. The boy did not flinch. “I am the victor.” The boy smiled, and before the fear touched his eyes, Harter turned the blade on him. There was no resistance or hold as the sword pushed though the boy’s chest, spirit was gone before his body hit the ground.
Harter stood. Fist clenched, he walked away not looking back the small body. He did not need to, his face, his blue eyes were burned into every dark shadow of the battlefield. Stepping over the bodies, he made for the nearby woods. It’s where the others of his people would be hiding, as they waited for the fight to end. That boy’s family would be waiting for him to return. Though, this massacre should not surprise them. It would not be long before Harter’s people went to find them. Kill them. It was their right.
He pushed into the dark branches of the trees, feeling the cool shade on his head and the soft padding of leaves under his feet. The relief from the fight was too great. He closed his eyes, thinking the boy, that defiance. Even in his fear, he managed to find the weakness in Harter. There was now one less enemy on the battlefield for his companions to deal with. Stopping, Harter fell back against a tree, leaning against it’s sturdy trunk. “How do you call this winning,” the words cycled through his mind. For years those words had been flirting with the ideals that were pressed into Harter since he was a child.
While being shaped into a warrior with his peers, Harter only once questioned their actions. Asking his father why they had to purge the universe of all those who stood in their way of a greater plan? What was the greater plan? But, his father ignored Harter’s curiosity and proceeded to recite messages of strength and violence. “Never surrender, never leave the enemy alive, kill, kill, kill.”
And, Harter would say the words back. At first they were just words that agreed with the aggression that seemed to quake in each of his limbs. He never thought about those words. Then, they became the meaning of his life, his career, his goals, his soulmate. Kill, kill, kill, he would breathe as he flexed and rehearsed the ways to end life. But in more recent times, in the more recent assaults, those words again began to fill Harter with questions. How could this be the anthem for a dominant race?
“Never surrender,” it made enough sense. It made you look weak to walk away form a fight, and weakness was not natural. But what if your opponent was weak? Would it be strong to kill something so weak? It seemed as though the harder task would be to walk away. Leave the guilty alive so that they may change their ways. But then the phrase “Never leave the enemy alive,” gave no choice but to kill. If they were left alive they would forever be an annoying fly, trying to stick a dull blade into your side. If you left their family alive, they would do the same.
It was just easier to kill them all. It made sense to kill them all. But what of the children, the innocent one’s who have yet to see their own blood? Would it be right to fill them with the violence of their father’s mistakes? Maybe they were born for a reason, born to bring their civilization back under control. “How do you call this winning,” Harter slammed an elbow into the tree.
Leaves and branches rained from above. This kid, that innocent had hit him harder than any physical blow. That kid had found the doubt Harter tried to suppress in the back of his mind. He slammed the tree again, “I was born into this,” the veins in his neck exploded with aggression. Elbow to tree, he banged out his frustration, “It is our right to choose.” Twigs fell. Bam, bam, bam, Harter shook the tree as he fought with the weight of his right as a horchef. He did not want to believe himself, or that boy. Half a century he had been instructed in these ideals, and they had been taught centuries before him. Not one horchef was strong enough to stand up against his own people, and Harter seemed to be alone in his doubts.
He slid down the tree. It’s bark pulling up at his shirt, but leaving no scrapes on his back. Rain began to fall between the thick canopy of the forest and onto his head. The heavy drops of water flattened Harter’s thick hair to his skull. The battlefield would be cleaned by this storm. The blood of once heroic men would be wiped away. The memories of the fathers, brothers, husbands, sons, would be all that remain from the battlefield. Harter knew well, better than any of those that now surrounded him in the woods, that not a single one of their loved ones would return. And then soon, the memories of those men would be gone, as their mothers, sisters, wives and daughters were each killed in turn.
The crime, meddling. The fault, weakness. The punishment, death. This, the horchef judicial process. They had never found a stronger race. They were the royalty of the universe and simple peasants were subject to their rule. Many civilzations, never meeting the great race till their judgement day when the horchef ships would land on their planet. Their punishment, death.
“Hello,” a soft voice brought Harter back to the woods. He blinked looking into the dark clearing before him. A child, much smaller than the last was standing, gripping to a fistful of twigs. “Hello,” she asked again, tilting her head. Long, blond hair fell over her shoulder, and she took a step towards him. Harter shot up from the ground, towering over her, but she did not run. Petite steps brought her to stand right in front of him, her head barely passing his knee. She looked up at him, big blue eyes questioning his appearance, “Why are you covered in red water?”
Her little finger was thick as she pointed at the blood that was staining his shirt and face. Harter made to speak, but realized that no words had come to defend him. “Are you okay?” She stared up at him, putting a small hand on his leg. He flinched, took a step back and steadied himself on the tree. Battles, blood and violence had never turned his stomach in the way that this child’s touch had. “You’re very pale,” she stepped closer. Her tattered dress skimming the top of his barefoot.
“Get,” he finally coughed out, “Get away.” He took big steps around the tree. Putting its wide trunk between her and himself. Tension was growing his fingers, into his wrist and up his forearm. He gripped the trunk, holding back his trained reaction to snap her neck. She stepped around, looking up at him, and a piece of the tree broke into his hand. “Please, just go away,” he said through gritted teeth.
“Are you hurt?” Harter again spun around the tree to get away from her as she reached to touch blood on his trousers. She circled around the other side of the tree, meeting him in his flight. “Are you busy?” Harter looked out towards where he entered the woods just a few moments ago, was he busy? He should be killing her uncles right now. “Would you play with me?” Mouth dropping, Harter looked down at her. Her rosy cheeks were bright against her pale, round face, “My brother has gone to play with older boys.” Harter looked away, playing with the older boys. “Would you play with me instead?”
A holler sounded, and another. The forest began to echo with the final victory call of the horchefs. They would enter the woods in moments, ready to kill all those waiting. Hiding. The child looked around the woods, eyes wide. “Is that my father,” she asked, not looking at Harter. “Is he coming home now?” Vibrations could be felt pounding against the earth, the horchefs were marching. They were coming. She turned to him, “Should we go meet them?” He crouched, placing his knees into the soft dirt by her side. There was no fear in her eyes, the same blue as the boys. Harter’s heartbeat grew violent.
He put a hand on either side of her neck, each palm wrapped around her head. He could feel the small life that beat between his hands, a beat that matched the footfalls of the horchefs who were approaching. It would be better to kill her now, in her bravery, then in fear with the hands of his brothers. Harter’s arms tensed. It would be better to kill her now.
She looked at him, a curious pout on her lips. “What are we doing?” She asked. Harter looked over her head, the trees were starting to move. A small hand touched his wrist, bring his attention back to the child between his palms. It would be better to kill her now. Tensing his fingers, his arms made to snap her neck, but Harter only froze. Her long eyelashes batted and small frown began to shape on her lips.
A tree fell into their clearing, and Harter reacted faster then his conflicting morals. “We’re running,” he picked the girl from the ground, and holding her tight, ran into the woods away from his invading brothers. How could you call this winning? Killing innocent bravery? She had walked up to the largest threat in the woods and asked him to play. How could killing her make him more victorious? How could letting her live make him any weaker? It took more strength to keep her alive. Harter looked down at her somber face, as she studied his own. It was clear she understood something had changed in this moment. “Only you,” Harter promised himself, “I’ll only ever save you.”
This can also be found on the online publication “TIME FRAME” along with other art submitted by Kristin Bergene.
(c) Kristin Bergene 2011