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Words for a Life (Sae P.O.V.) [Story | Closed | Open to OOC]

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Sixth Astral Era ~ 1572


How long had it been? I lost count after the first four hours, then my mind caught up to the exhaustion that my body felt. My back was sore, and my legs ached terribly. All I wanted in that moment was to stop and rest my tired feet. It wouldn't be long. I knew that the forest wasn't safe to idle in overmuch, and I could smell the stench of burning trees--the Twelveswood, but it was far downwind. Surely we wouldn't burn if we took a moment's rest. That was all I wanted. My frustration grew with each silent, sore footstep as I trailed behind my identical brother. He had taken it upon himself to take lead through the woods, and I followed him willingly. I didn't mind him playing leader, usually, but he was driving both of us too hard, and the more we ventured out, the greater my anxiety grew.


“My feet hurt," I mumbled, mostly to myself, but I assumed the complaint would reach my brother's normally sensitive ears.


He was quiet, but I was certain he heard me. Was he perhaps ignoring me? Or maybe he was as exhausted as I was, and wasn't paying attention. It wasn't the first time I'd complained, so I imagined he was probably intentionally disregarding my words. He never listened when he didn't want to. We were both quiet for a long, tense moment. I pressed my lips together, ears flat back against my head.


"Li," I said, attempting to capture his attention, hopeful that he simply hadn't realized I meant for him to hear my grumble. "My feet really hurt." I flicked my tail from one side to the other, mildly annoyed, but my voice didn't carry any irritation. Just exhaustion. Still, he ignored me.


"We've walked the night away," I continued, quieter now. Despite my irritation, I was feeling unsure of myself. Whenever he ignored me, I felt like I'd done something awful to deserve the treatment.


I looked to his feet, walking their steady pace before me. An alternative theory was that he hadn't succumb to the reality of how exhausted his body ought to have been, or maybe he really was just naturally stronger than me. I didn't know. But I thought that if he didn't feel the pain of sore muscles, he would surely remember his hunger. We hadn't eaten since, well, who remembered?


"...And we haven't eaten." He was still silent. Feeling like a ghost, I spoke more loudly. Maybe he'd gone deaf. "Do we have te walk on sore feet with empty bellies?"


Still nothing. My ears swiveled forward, then drooped tiredly, and my tail slowed to a disheartened, slow, tired sway. "Brother," I said, if for no other reason than to fight off the tense silence that could have passed between us. "Can't we just sit for a few minutes?"


I heard him grunt dismissively. At first I wondered if the sound had come from me. Our voices were as identical as everything else we shared, but it was definitely him. He didn't look back at me though, and it was still barely an acknowledgement. The way his ear twitched still gave me the impression he was irritated, which I believed confirmed his need to rest as well. "Every step I take," I grumbled, "feels like my legs're gonna buckle."


Once more he refused to acknowledge me. "Li," I said, insistent. "Aren't ye tired?" He grunted again, but it wasn't as dismissive. "So let's take a break."


Silent again. I rolled my eyes upwards, then stretched my arms out behind me to press against and crack my lower back. It made an alarming sound--a cascade of pops and cracks that I would have expected my knuckles to make--not my back. The pain it caused made my entire back burn, and that made it all the harder to continue on. I wanted to stop then and there to stretch out on the forest floor to allow my back to loosen up. Just then, I thought of my mother. When I was just a child, I had wounded my back in a fall, and she had seen to my injury afterwards with a tenderness that was arguably uncharacteristic for the normally very strong, stoic woman. Even years after that injury, if it troubled me or ached, as it often did, she would tease the knots from my back while I lie on my stomach. I would often fall to sleep in that manner.


"That was me back," I complained to my brother, wondering if he'd heard the sound. He made quite the show of looking alert and dutiful, disregarding me. His posturing me realize how foolish we were for setting out on our own without waiting for mother. We were mere children. Adolescents, rather, barely grazing the line to manhood. There had been panic when we departed, certainly, but we could have gone back hours ago, and our mother would have seen us through safely. I wondered what she was doing now. No doubt searching frantically for us. While these thoughts crossed my mind, I spoke. It was a nervous habit. I spoke about my back, my legs, and my mind, each in pain and each exhausted.


"A few minutes-" I began, when Li had stopped suddenly.


"Sae, quiet," Li said to me sharply. I was vaguely hopeful that he would turn to me and admit he was fatigued, that we might have taken a break, but I was disappointed.


Li leapt upon a giant, knotted root and sniffed at the air, like mother would have if she suspected danger... or prey. Part of me was annoyed, but a larger part was apprehensive. I felt myself shrink, peering around for any sign of danger. The woods had been quite dark since we fled. I lifted my head slightly and sniffed only once before lowering my nose again. Nothing had changed. It was the same burning stench. Was he sensing something that I wasn't?


I watched him for a long while, waiting for an explanation, standing below him, alone, in the darkness. It was hard to make him out, but his eyes were closed. Was he resting, then? A minute passed. Then two. Then three. My legs shook, and I moved closer, peering up at him. He wasn't resting. Something was wrong. Something was bothering him.


"Li?" I asked, unsure of myself. My voice wavered.


He looked down at me coolly at first, then he blinked. It was too dark to see, but I thought there was a shine in his eyes alike to tears. Before I could confirm my suspicion, he dismounted the root and continued on his straight path through the forest. Was he really going to carry on like nothing had happened?


"Li?" I repeated, sharper now. More urgent.


Li drew in a breath and exhaled. "What?"


I felt as though I were a child scorned. Moments like these made me feel as though the minutes between our birth were in fact years. My reply hitched. "...We should go back 'n find mother." If we had to keep moving, I thought, we might as well head back. We were helpless as we were, and we both needed her now. "The wind's not like to turn," I continued softly, "So if we move upwind o' the fire, we ought to stay safe from the flames..."


"No," said Li, not turning around. There was a finality to his words that made my tail curl. I desperately wanted to convince him that we were truly wandering children who couldn't possibly make it on our own. We'd go hungry or thirsty first, or one of the creatures of the woods would claim us.


"...But Li," I protested in a small voice after a stretch of silence. His ears tilted back, growing irritated. "We don't have any food er anything te hunt with..."


"We can't," he said as curtly as he had before, ears tilting further, nearly flat against his head.


"...Why not?" I asked, looking over my shoulder, then to the sky. "D'ye really want te sleep out in the sun?" I shuddered slightly. We normally slept during the daytime, but I couldn't sleep outside, nor could he. The heat alone would keep us from a comfortable rest, and the brightness... "It's te bright," I continued. Besides, I couldn't sleep on the bare ground with my back troubles. My thoughts were disjointed as the anxiety bore down upon me heavier and heavier. I wasn't certain if I was speaking sense. "Ye know that I can't..."


"I said no," Li nearly growled. He was growing shorter and shorter with me. He could be so stubborn.


"...But..." What I had proposed was not unreasonable, but he wouldn't see it any way but his own. But why did we carry on? What exactly did he hope to achieve? I had been concerned that if we didn't turn back, we would be separated from our mother for days, if not weeks... Maybe longer. The thought of being apart from her so long was a dismal one. "What if we can't find 'er tomorrow?"


I nearly toppled backwards when my brother turned on his heel suddenly, seething with hot anger. Disgust and contempt smoldered in his violet eyes. "Mother is dead Sae!" he barked.


My heart pounded against my ribcage then, threatening to burst free. I felt ill. I couldn't believe what I'd just heard. I wanted to process it. To rationalize it. But-


"She's dead! And we're like to be dead te if ye don't still yer fool tongue 'n walk!"


I winced. My eyes were burning, and I could barely bring myself to look at Li. I stared at his forehead, to pretend the bravery of meeting his angry eyes.


"Have ye considered that I wouldn't possibly lead us away from everyone like this unless we hadn't no other choice!?"


I hadn't. I was so sure he was being arrogant-


"I know ye've not room enough for wit in that head of yers," Li growled, continuing his verbal assault, pounding my ego to the ground with a thoroughness that would make even the proudest creature in the forest feel shame.


My gaze broke from him, mind reeling, trying to digest both the unreal revelation of my mother's death, and my brother's raw, unfiltered opinion of me. That was when I saw it. It happened in barely the span of a single second. At first it was a dark shape that moved behind my brother. It seemed further off, until my eyes focused on something hard that flashed forward, catching the dull traces of light before disappearing behind Li's shoulder. What happened? My mind and my heart were racing, but my body was still as a statue.


He groaned as the spearhead was pulled from his shoulder, and the air began to smell like blood. He was in my arms for a brief moment, howling in pain, while I tried to support him, scared out of my wits. All I could find the wit to do was to scream his name.


Li pushed me back and turned on his heel, crouched low and poised to attack. I staggered back, and it took me even longer to realize what we were facing. An Ixal scout, more imposing in the flesh than one had ever been in the tales we'd been told. I saw the spearhead, dripping wet with blood, and the red stain bleeding through my brother's shirt.


They were still for a heartbeat when the Ixal screeched and charged us. Li was as graceful as mother was, leaping to the side, claiming a rock from the ground and throwing it in the Ixal's face. I thought he would land painfully and hurt himself further, but he tumbled and was on his feet again in one fluid motion. His body shook, either with pain, panic, or both, however. I had scrambled backwards, tripping over myself and landing on my rump like a fool, terrified that the Ixal's attention was focused on me for that brief window of time when Li moved out of its path.


The beastman's attention was caught by the glancing blow from the rock, and he scraped at Li, digging his talons in to the dirt, then slicing at him with his spear. I squeezed my eyes shut, heart beating at a terrible speed, unable to pull myself to my feet, paralyzed with fear. I could hear it. My brother's movement, and the Ixal's, all around me, drumming in to my sensitive ears. I heard a thunking sound and my heart settled in my belly, believing that the spear had been buried in my brother.


"Ss... Geh-!" I heard Li shout. My eyes shot open, finding him dancing around a skinny tree, the Ixal opposite of him, screetching and hacking at the trunk.


"I'm sorry, I-" I started, when I saw him stumble over a root, exposing himself to the Ixal, who raised his spear to kill him. "No!!"


I was on my feet then, and stunned a second time when I saw him fly forward and in to the Ixal's chest. I couldn't tell what was happening, even as I ran closer, but the Ixal was trying to tear him in every direction. Still scared out of my wits, I couldn't be certain of how I ever managed to make my way toward the chaos, nor how I thought to dip beneath them to find the Ixal's spear, with the Ixal standing on the wooden shaft of the weapon. I couldn't recall what I felt when I realized I couldn't pull it free.


Then I heard the scream. It faded in to a harsh growl, and blood pooled on the ground before me. It was coming from Li. He roared, pleading. "Do something, Sae!"


I tore back as hard as I could, but the spear wasn't giving way. I roared and pulled harder, blood boiling, surging with adrenaline. My brother would die. I could no longer afford to succumb to my fears and self-doubt. I was flung back when the spear's shaft broke, and I hit the ground with a thud, reeling from the pain that my landing shot through my back. In a few short seconds I was recovered, and I had a clear view of the broad back of the Ixal. It strained its neck as it bent to snap its beak at Li.


I turned the spearhead in my hand and climbed to my feet, wielding it like a dagger, then I charged. Like a fool, I charged. I didn't know what I was doing. I had never fought an Ixal. I had never killed one, nor even learned how to. But even if I had failed, and the beast had only turned his attention from Li to me, it would have been a victory. I leapt in to the air and crashed down upon the creature, sinking the spearhead in to the flesh between its shoulder and its neck. Blood practically exploded from the wound, and it grew weak. Its hold on Li released, and it fell to its knees, then fell on to its back, limp and lifeless.


I watched helplessly as my brother fell with it, beating at its chest and tearing in to it with what ferocity he could muster, but his movement was sluggish and weak. His wound was gushing, and his eyes were half-lidded.


"Li," I said in a trembling voice. It was over, but Li didn't seem to realize it was. He was still fighting for his life, as best he could. He nodded off for a moment, then jolted and resumed his ravaging attack as though nothing had happened. His lifeforce was draining steadily.


"Li," I repeated, kneeling beside him. His eyes saw nothing but the enemy before him, still beating him with his weakly balled fists. "Please..." I said, wrapping my arms around his waist, embracing him, but he didn't react. I drew in a breath and rose, pulling him with me. Blood spilled from his shoulder again, and it took him several seconds to realize that the Ixal was dead, and well out of reach. Then he was still.


I held on to him tightly for just a moment before he groaned and reached for his shoulder. He didn't touch it, but the gesture was enough to make me realize that he was suffering from the pain of it now, more than he had before. He jerked free from my hold, then reached for my hand and gripped it tightly enough to make it hurt. Then, we ran.


I wanted to protest. He needed to hold still and rest or he would bleed out, but a chilly fear settled over me again. If I called to him, would he stop? Would another Ixal find him and take advantage of the distraction I'd so helpfully supplied them? My brother had good sense, and it was my fault he had been distracted, then injured as a consequence. I was fool enough to think he was being arrogant, but he was naught but wise and alert. Even thinking what I thought, I had to consider the possibility of the presence of other Ixal. If what we had encountered was indeed a scout, no doubt his comrades would notice his absence soon enough. We needed to move clear of the place it fell, so I bit my tongue and pressed my lips together, remaining silent.


Li was breathing harder and harder as we made our way in to thicker woods and underbrush. His running became a sluggish jog, then a slump no faster than a brisk walk. When his foot couldn't rise above a tree root, his hold on my hand loosened. Before I could grip his in turn, he fell to his knees, grasping at the trunk of a tree for support. I reached for him, and his muscles relaxed, causing him to fall limp to the forest floor.


I moved to his side, crouching and resting my hand on the pressure point along his jaw. His heartbeat was slow, and his eyes were completely unfocused. If it hadn't been for the pulse, I would have thought him dead, but even though he wasn't, I feared he would be soon.


My voice came out as a weak croak, and I only realized why when the tears spilled from my eyes, to my cheeks, to his. "No... please..."


I knew nothing about healing arts. I couldn't save him. He was going to die because of me, and because of my trivial complaints. If I had only kept my mouth shut, he wouldn't have been wounded in the first place.


"Li... I'm so sorry. Li..." I wrapped my arms around him and turned him to his side, staring down at him as though it were the last time I'd ever be allowed to look upon my brother--the person I shared a womb with, a childhood with, a mother and a home with. Because my feet hurt. Because I was hungry. Because I wanted mother.


He winced and his eyes focused on me. He looked momentarily annoyed, before succumbing to the pain of his injury again. I held him closer, holding on to him as though letting go would be truly letting him go. He mumbled to me groggily--something about a thief in a bed. Given the gravity of the situation, I wasn't sure why I chuckled. I might have been hysterical by that point, because my chuckle gave way to laughter, and my laughter gave way to sobs.


Breath escaped from between his dry lips like the wind dying between the treetops. I laid him back, gently, consumed with despair. I thought this would truly be the end, and that he was going to die. I desperately wished he would make a miraculous recovery, taking his hands in mine and leaning down to press my cheek to his. When we were children, we comforted each other this way. Only some years earlier had I been the one on my back, while my brother touched his cheek to mine, apologetic for the accident that hurt my back.


His breathing stopped, and I choked weakly. "Please don't die, Li. Please..."


All I could do was weep. I couldn't even bring myself to speak, to beg him further, because I felt like my voice was poison. I would dig a dagger in to my throat and cut out my voice if only Li would live for it. Words for a life. A life for a life if that was what it took.


I opened my eyes to find that the ground was bathed in a pale blue light. My face was wet, but the tears had slowed as I sat up and looked upwards towards the Lover, who was peeking out behind the smoke and the clouds as though witnessing what had befallen us. She was listening, so I prayed.


"I pray to you, oh Lover," I began softly, swallowing a lump in my raw throat. "My prayers in the past've been selfish, 'n many." It was true. I often prayed for my own desires. It was no surprise that I rarely saw them fulfilled. Although now, I was not praying for myself, but for my brother, who stood to lose much more than I did.


"Now I pray for me brother. Spare 'im his life, and I'll cast away 'at which brought 'im harm." Perhaps it wasn't necessary, but I felt, and will always feel, that the sacrifice was a very small price to pay. "Because my words tore 'is attention from the danger that surrounds us now, I'll never speak another word."


I wanted her to know that my prayer was serious, and so I dug deeply in to my heart. "This I swear on..." I hesitated, choking slightly. This pain was new, and hadn't begun to be laid to rest yet. "This is swear on me mother's grave."


"Please..." I cried, lowering my head and resting it on Li's chest. "Just let 'im live. Please..."


As I cried in to his chest, I felt it rise, and fall. Rise... then fall. Rise, and fall again. His hand tangled in to my hair and stroked my head weakly, while I listened to my brother's steady breathing. I listened well in to the dawn, and I held my tongue obediently, although I wanted to shout the most sincere of thanks to the Lover, for my brother survived.

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