Milky eyes stare out over the place where a battle has been, from above an ancient nose that seems twisted out of joint. Their owner registers the wails and moans and whimpers of the dying, but barely, as if they were birdsong or the sound of rain heard from inside shelter. She does not take interest in games of politics, not anymore, she hasn’t the energy. But this, the aftermath, still draws her in, because old habits die hard.
It’s a poor show though, today. Not much more than a skirmish. Not how she remembers.
She picks her way past bodies, over limbs, looking for trinkets. Something pretty or meaningful, or interesting, something she does not already have.
A bright glare on the ground reflects the sun. She bends to investigate, fingers curling in anticipation. A silver coin, of a kind she does not recognize. She picks it up, squints at it. It is too uniform in shape, too regular, a little too rectangular. There is no image on it, no human face, no symbol of heraldry—just a name, and some text whose meaning is unclear to her. The chain the coin hangs on is long enough to be worn about the neck. It is a decoration than, possibly a piece of jewelry? This seems perhaps the most logical explanation but does not quite feel right. This is the problem—-new and interesting is rare but unsettling. The world changes, and sometimes she can’t keep up. She casts the not-coin down and shuffles on through the blood and grime, uneasy.
She knows war, knows it intimately, knows the machinations that precede it and the chaos that comes with it, the hasty treaties and reversals of loyalty that so often conclude it. She has survived, after everything, is the last of those like her. She endures, still, when the rest of them are gone. For what? It’s better than oblivion. She has seen so much, and yet this battlefield seems strange to her.
A soldier lies at her feet, glazed eyes staring at nothing, a trickle of dried blood running down his temple to clot in the hairs of his chin. He is, like the others, wearing cloth that looks like dappled sunlight that falls through leaves. It is perplexing—how can it protect a body better than the thick wool and hammered metal she has seen before?
She remembers the armored sons of kings who came to her, begging for control, for mastery of armies, for the power to sway minds and make battles end the way they wanted. Some she turned away, knowing they could never pay her price and live. Not money, but the parts of their souls they needed most: the capacity for happiness. For connection. The ability to see the sun set without knowing fear. If the weight of that destroyed them, what victory would that be for her? Better to know they lived and suffered.
A gentle moan, a whimper, surfaces somewhere to her right. She does not immediately see the source, but something about the sound of it stops her. It sounds…different. And she can’t place why. She hobbles towards it, curiosity sharpened.
The noise is coming from a young woman, injured, armed and clad like the men. About her neck: another shiny not-coin. She carries one of these strange contraptions that look like no more than a foreshortened, misshapen piece of plough, but kick like mules and spit death like hail.
The crone bends to the earth where this strange soldier lies. She thought they kept their women guarded. Locked behind walls of stone. Safe from spoilage. The ones they cared about, anyhow, yet here is one that has been sent to war and permitted a weapon. She is clearly no camp follower, no hanger on, no villager met at battle’s end by a horde of men drunk on power.
She remembers (against her will) what the other old ones did to her, in the time before. Split and used. Broken open. Plundered. She spits out a chunk of phlegm, feels better. She is the last. She has endured. Like this soldier, who still breathes, still whimpers though she does not seem aware of anything, while the dead and fly-blown lie beside her.
The old one has built conquerors, seen empires rise, and watched their fall. She knows the topography of war. Every crevice, elevation, fault line. But she has not seen the likes of this before, must have slept longer than she realized before the scent of battle drew her to this place where blood leaks into the land.
Something surfaces, a glimmer of a feeling she recognizes but cannot identify.
The shaking, shivering body’s over her shoulder before she knows it, and she’s shuffling off again, hardly slowed at all by the extra weight. This is not the kind of burden that makes her drag. Dead men and the almost dead block their path occasionally; she kicks a few of them, for good measure. In case they forget.
She turns and passes through a sliver of air, emerges thousands of miles distant. A cave, a crevice in the rock, somewhere dark at the edge of things. Remote. She likes it, it suits her needs.
The walls of the cave are lined with little ledges, hewn by time and sometimes magic. On them sit her best trinkets: the toe-bone of a once loved but now forgotten saint. Seven metal scales ripped from the mail-coat of a king as he lay dying, a king she thinks they still sing songs of. A lovers’ ring, wrapped round with a lock of auburn hair. She does not know what happened to the lovers. There is a portrait the size of an egg, delicately painted on a piece of ivory, and a device she believes is supposed to measure time—each number engraved on the face to indicate a year, perhaps. But why do they stop at twelve? She could find out easily, but on reflection does not care.
This new kind of trinket is larger than most she has salvaged. It breathes, has a name, for the present still lives. She lays the soldier down on the sandy floor of the cave, swaddled in blankets. Wipes her forehead. Does what she can for her wounds. Prepares a broth for when she wakes. The glimmer feeling resurfaces, and now she can name it. It is “pity.”
This soldier has known pain. She can read it in the lines about her eyes, slight, but present. In the furrow of her brow. In each wisp of hair that trails about her face.
She makes a decision in an instant that has, she sees it now, been brewing for centuries. She will give this woman the knowledge of years. Memories that will not be her own. The keys to unlock minds. Secrets of blood. It is a gift that may not be welcome, but it is what she has to give. It is power, it is a double-bladed sword. What use does she have for it now, anyway? The world has changed, and she is tired, spent, forgotten. Just as much a relic as the objects she hoards so closely.
The old one curls herself down on the sand next to the soldier and fills the cave with a grayish-silver glow. She crumples, shrinks, and relinquishes her hold on breath. The glow diminishes, dies, just as the young one begins to stir.
Sophie Sparrow writes fantasy, horror, poetry, and creative nonfiction, and has work forthcoming in Mad Scientist Journal. She holds a bachelor’s degree from the University of Birmingham, speaks Russian and French, and has worked in the film industry. Catch up with her at www.writersophiesparrow.com.