The cold, sharp point of her narrow sword pressed lightly against my throat; but I did not swallow. Somehow, for all these years I'd known in my heart that I would face my death at her hands. Even here, kneeling in my garden eight days' journey from the border, I was not surprised that she had found me.
Though she said naught, I recognized her when she tossed back the hood of her dark blue cloak. Her features, though clearly Corinian, were so fine, so strong, so close to what I'd imagined my own daughter's would have been. And the red birthmark that stained her neck like dribbled berry juice made her identity unmistakable. Her thick, wiry dark hair marked her as my enemy, though her simple green homespun tunic, woolen pants and brown leather boots could have been made in any kingdom. But there was a clarity in her brown eyes - a slant to her eyebrows that even now - sixteen years later - robbed me of my breath.
Sixteen years ago those eyes had been filled with terror - now they were filled with scorn and hatred. They were adult eyes, determined eyes. Deadly eyes.
I met her gaze without flinching. Our peoples had been warring for three generations now - no, I corrected myself - four. I was staring at the fourth. Our hatreds ran deep and bloody. Corinians had killed my husband and daughter twenty four years ago, and I had killed many of them in return.
"Are you Ryantha Lonsdaughter, the one my people called `Bloodhand'?" she asked in her heavily accented tongue.
I sat back carefully on the heels of my wooden clogs and let the trowel slip from my stiff fingers into the freshly turned earth of my garden.
"I am," I said. The sword point quivered against my flesh.
"You killed my parents," she said huskily.
"Your people killed my husband and my four year old daughter." The bitterness in my voice was not lost upon the girl. Her eyes widened, then narrowed.
The sword nicked the top layer of skin across my throat, and I felt a warm stickiness seep down my neck beneath my collar. Her parents had died without a fight. Their daughter was doing better.
"I did not come here to talk!" she grated.
"Then kill me quickly," I said, tired of waiting. I was tired of many things these days, I reflected. Tired of the fighting. Tired of death. Tired of being alone. Tired of life. It would be good to finally join my family. I was getting too old to go on living.
She kicked dirt in my face and stepped back. "I want to fight you, curse you!" She slashed the air with her sword. "Fight!"
I wiped the dirt from my eyes and stared at my bare hands. "I have nothing with which to fight," I said honestly. I had not held a sword in sixteen years. Not since I'd looked into her eyes as she stared in horror at the bleeding corpses of her parents - and first felt the dragon's claws coldly clutching me.
She gestured towards my cottage door. "Go fetch your sword, then," she said haughtily.
I smiled and shook my head. "I have no sword."
"Don't lie!" she spat. "You are the Bloodhand! What Bloodhand has no weapon?!"
"A retired one," I answered softly.
She kicked me in the stomach, then, and I doubled over in pain, gasping for breath.
"I've heard stories of you, Bloodhand. I've heard how men would run from you in terror. I've heard the names of those you killed. But I'm not afraid of you - not now or ever!"
I inhaled to reply and choked on a breath full of dust. Coughing, I straightened up, and smiled ruefully. "I am an old woman, girl. You are young. You have nothing to fear in me save a vision of your own future."
"You're not so old," she said scornfully. "Your hair is barely silver. I remember you clearly - and you have not aged so much."
I snorted. "Then it is my soul that has aged."
She stared at me suspiciously.
"You did not come here to talk," I reminded her. "You have traveled far in enemy lands to find me; get it done. Undoubtedly your people need you back."
She grabbed my tunic and hauled me to my feet. I was surprised by her strength. With her face mere inches from my own, she spat in my eye.
"Fight, damn you!" she hissed.
I wiped away the spit. "I will not."
With one foot she swept my legs from beneath me and shoved me backwards with her arms. I landed upon my back with a loud thud in the dirt. She towered over me, her face flushed with frustration and anger. Her eyes were wild.
I smiled. "I am not, nor ever have been a coward." I pushed myself up to my knees. "Why are you so angry?" I asked. "Is it because I rob your revenge of pleasure as you robbed me of mine? Did you envisioned killing me in a fair battle, warrior to warrior?" For some reason the thought amused me. It had never occurred to me that she might hesitate for the simple reason that she was too honorable to kill an unarmed opponent.
She stepped back, her face contorting in anguish. "You butchered my parents without a fight!"
"And your people butchered my daughter without a fight!" I shouted back. "She was only four - so full of love and joy and happiness..." I closed my eyes against the grief which was always there and never quite went away, hoping that cold steel would end the pain quickly.
It did not happen.
"Why did you spare me?" Her voice was tight and high, like a child's - filled with warring emotions and wrenching agony - unspoken questions - unwanted answers.
I opened my eyes. Her face was screwed into a damp mask of misery. She clutched her sword like her child self had clutched a small, ragged doll.
"Because..." I began, but my voice caught in my throat. I swallowed once. Was the truth so hard to speak? I tried again. "You reminded me of my daughter."
She hacked at the ground with her sword. "DAMN YOU DAMN YOU DAMN YOU DAMN YOU!!" she shouted, punctuating each blow with the words. She looked up at the heavens so that I wondered if she was cursing me or the Gods - or both. "Damn you!"
I stood up slowly, and wiped my dirty hands on my patched trousers. I turned my back to her and walked into my cottage. She did not stop me.
I still had it, wrapped in rags in an old wooden chest which also held my rusting armor. Two pieces of a thin-bladed sword. I lifted them from the chest and carried them outside.
She watched me with hatred I understood too well.
I unfolded the rags and let the pieces drop at her feet.
"I broke this sixteen years ago," I said. "I have killed no one since. Revenge, you see, is a dragon. Hungry. Insatiable. It eats its own tail in a circle that feeds upon itself - revenge needing revenge feeding revenge needing revenge - there is no end to revenge, girl. There is no end to the misery caused by it. I do not fight you because I will not feed the dragon any more. It lives on blood taken from unwilling victims. So I give my blood to you freely. I am not afraid to die."
Her sword quivered in the air, and she breathed heavily, as if she had just been running hard. But her tortured face did not change expression. "I'll never forgive you for killing my parents."
I lifted the point of her sword til it touched my chest. "I do not deserve your forgiveness."
Her eyes narrowed, and her hand shook. "You're pathetic," she finally spat. "Too pathetic to kill."
She whirled away and jerked up the concealing hood of her cloak. When she reached the road she stopped, and turned slowly back to me. The hatred and tears on her cheeks were clear to see. With a motion swift and sure, full of suppressed anger and unspent hatred, she flung her sword at me with all her strength.
I stepped aside easily as it flew past and stuck quivering, blade first, into the fresh earth behind me.
"We're all pathetic!" she shouted, and walked away.
Slowly, wearily, ignoring the sword and the ache of new bruises, I picked up my trowel with stiff fingers and wondered what her name had been.
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