Freedom Fighter

Whitney Carter

She was a general, a freedom fighter, one of the most dedicated ever to grace the Rebellion with her presence. Perhaps too dedicated though; the ideals she fought for burned so brightly in her mind that she edged towards creating chaos in her own camp. It was small things at first, a messenger's missive ignored, a plan altered slightly with no word passed to others. Never enough cost them a battle or the obtaining information, but enough that the other commanders took note. They called her willful and reckless and they were not wrong. They could see her going down a path that could create the destruction of them all, but they let her walk it because she was good at what she did. They thought the loss of her skills and cunning would not outweigh the annoyance of her subversion.

Not until the moment when the scales were tipped against her did they move to revoke her power, though many would say that at that point it was already too late. She was beloved of her men for her fierce spirit, loyalty to the little soldiers and her habit of charging into battle at the head of the column. She had their love and their loyalty such that rifts began in the camps where there should have been a united front. So that when she finally overstepped her bounds as one single commander in a council of twelve, her warriors followed her and a battle they could not have afforded to lose was lost.

She was never a bad person, never truly sought to undermine the wisdom and authority of the council or her elders. She followed that spirit that burned bright within her, that told her always there was a better way, a more devastating way to deal a blow to their bitter enemy. She simply did not have all the pieces of the puzzle, and if she had, perhaps she would have been less likely to charge off on her own that day.

But it was done, and too late to change it. The council saw now that she had outlived her usefulness, though they knew well they could not simply dispose of her, lest they rend what remained of their forces apart. They could try her for disobeying orders, and the subsequent loss of that latest battle, in all fairness though and that was what they did.

So the great warrior woman was brought before the tribal war council trussed and ruffled, with the common folk scattered around and pressed close. She was unarmed, but a sentry remained at either elbow, lest she try anything nefarious. She realized then how little she was understood here, for she fought for her people and her land; she had given them everything. She would never seek to harm those who also fought for and protected her people. These men and women who sat to judge her were not her enemy, though as the trial continued she began to realize that mayhap they should have been.

It took few enough hours, an indication to those who knew how to understand the politics of the era that her fate had been decided before the thing had began. She and eleven others, deemed to have actively supported her in her treason, were to be banished into the were-wood, to survive for eighteen days. Shock and clamor ran through the peasant folk and even those warriors with blood so recently on their hands seemed to balk. It was a cruel and unusual punishment, though it was typical for a guilty party to prove her innocence in some trial chosen by the council. The were-wood though was a dark place filled with monsters that only had voice in legends. Nursemaids told stories that once those great and horrific creatures spread as far south as the ocean, but as humanity had evolved they had been driven further and further to the borders of the world, so that now they only inhabited the mystically beautiful wood to the north, the border of which was writ with blood spells bound to deep-rooted stones.

The warrior accepted her fate without struggle, graceful in her guilt and quiet in her protests. A day hence, she and her comrades were taken to the border, where a witch unwove the blood spell between two stones, breaking the circle to create a doorway. One by one they were put through to the other side, each with a small pack of supplies. When they had all crossed, the witch began to weave the spell back, slicing her palm open deeply to re-activate the inlaid magic. And so they stood there for a time, twelve on the side of death and more than a dozen on the side of life. The warrior held no faith that they would relent, or allow her eleven followers to be spared this ordeal. When she finally moved from the invisible border deeper into the woods to vanish quickly among the green, her banished followed her.

A single day in the were-wood would be a challenge even for the great warriors of legend; to be sentenced to eighteen was nothing short of gruesome death. And for seven of them, that was what it was. One fell from a ledge the second day as they were chased by a saber-toothed cat, and another fell to a similar creature the following night when he strayed too far from the camp's fire to relieve himself. On the eighth day Boris fell while fighting a monstrous bear; he had been known as the Bear Tamer, for in his own homeland he often fought the creatures barehanded, but this one was like no other he had ever faced. Another became sick after eating berries of poison and perished on the eleventh day after struggling for three; his body was left like an offering to appease both gods and beasts. Transas was wounded while hunting on the twelfth day. A pack of wolves found them on the thirteenth day and claimed two more; and that night the sixth slit his own throat amid protests and shouted pleas. They told him he was so close to the eighteenth day, and he said he could take no more. Transas perished from infection the morning of the eighteenth day.

They left Transas where the fever took him and made their way south, back toward the border, spending hours apparently lost in woods that should not be difficult to navigate. Some said that the forest was enchanted, that once you wandered in it would not allow you to leave. But even the tree spirits know how to honor the gods' trials, and after playing with the remaining five they were released back to the place where first their nightmares had begun. Each one was drawn out of the were-wood by the same witch, and as she cut her hand again to re-seal the border, the council passed judgment. The four were pardoned, having proven their loyalty and innocence of any malicious intent by surviving. The warrior though, they could not return to her former position, or even allow her to stay within their people. They feared her too much and her ambition, while apparently tamed now by eighteen days on the verge of violent death, would surely return. And so, in an act of cruel cunning, the council pardoned her for crimes committed, and announced her soul pure again. But, they added, she was still too dangerous to let loose among their people, and so she would be banished from them for as long as she should live.

This was a terrible blow to the warrior, who had fought so hard to live for so long. She knew what they said was true, that she would forever be too great an influence to not be under their tight control. But as she had fought against wild beasts and starvation and thirst, she had not thought about the politics she might once again play at; she had dreamed of her little daughter, and the plan to retire from active duty she had contemplated for some time.

But it was not to be; she alone of the surviving five was banished, and not allowed to gather her things or say goodbye to her child. Despite how her heart cried out to have taken the child with her, she would not have done it. The world outside their homestead was a cruel place, and she did not want her little one to know of it. She was safer, in the nest of vipers that had turned on her mother, and forced poison to run thick through her veins.

And so she left, bone-weary with her head held high, leaving behind the soldiers she had led and the men she had been banished with. But she was not sent off quietly, or alone. Word traveled quickly through the people, and soldiers loved to talk.

They flooded the road from the were-wood to the border of their land, a much more tangible thing than that which kept the northern monsters at bay. They clanged their spears and swords against their shields and wept and screamed and raged. They shouted her name until each one of them was hoarse,

"Kiah! Kiah! Kiah!"