The Courage of the Dead

By Nightsong

The woman gazed out at the still waters of the lake. Not the slightest ripple marred its surface. She had been crouching there, on the lakes pebbled shore, for almost an hour. She had not moved. Her hands rest on her knees, careful not to touch the sword at her side, the mark of her destiny. Pebbles run down the hill, clacking against each other. The sound pierces the mind of the daydreaming woman and she turns.

"Hail Otista!" cries the woman.

"Hail Shasta-Chosen One!" Otista cries in return,

"When do you leave?"

"Soon," returns Shasta, "Very soon."

An awkward silence falls and Otista fidgets. "She's glad she doesn't have my responsibility." thinks Shasta, "I don't blame her. I know I don't want to die. But I am the Chosen One, and that is my fate."

The legend of the Chosen one is known by everyone of the clan. Ask any small child and they can tell you of the woman of blood, the hero of the clan. The woman of blood fought fiercely along-side the men in a hopeless war for freedom. Because of her courage, the men gained strength from her and won the war, but at a cost. The woman of blood died at the hands of her peoples' foes. She was buried a hero. Every since then, at every war, a woman is chosen to represent the woman of blood, and by her example, lend courage and strength to the men. And every single one of the chosen women has died in battle.

"Otista, I don't mean to offend, but, I need to be alone."

"Oh, of course." Otista replies, visibly relieved, "Good journey."

Shasta watches Otista disappear and turns her gaze back to the lake. "The lake is so calm, it cares nothing about the passage of time." Shasta thinks to herself, "The lake will live on, watching everything around it die. It never suffers, it doesn't care about matters of honor or courage. It is immune to those things."

Shasta turns her back to the lake and puts her hand on her sword. "I will not be defeated by my own fear!" She shouts, but no one is there to hear.

The pack straps pull against her shoulders as she trudges up the rocky slope. One side of the path is sheared away, leaving a sudden and deadly drop to the rocks below. Ahead lies her future, and her doom. Shasta knows tat she will probably not survive this battle. None of her predecessors have. She must keep her courage, whatever the cost. She is the woman of blood. If she loses her courage, then the men will fail. For without her courage, they will have none of their own. As darkness falls, Shasta gathers wood and starts a fire. As the flames glow in the fading light, Shasta eats her supper, consisting of a piece of bread and a strip of dried meat. Standard travel fare.

Tomorrow will mean more walking, more walking toward a certain death. Shasta shakes her head viciously. "At this rate, I will have defeated myself before I get there." Shasta chides herself. She throws more wood on the fire and stretches out on the ground beside the fire. Soon, she is fast asleep.

The day Shasta was chosen, some say, was the most beautiful anyone had ever seen in the valley. The sky was a clear, deep blue with a few puffy white clouds gracing its perfection. The air was fresh, warm and still. On that day, the grass seemed greener and the lake seemed bluer. The choosing, itself, was a simple affair.

The day the men marched into battle, the clan leaders met to decide who would be chosen. Within the meeting hall, Tiron, the eldest, rose to speak.

"As you all know," spoke Tiron, "We must decide who will be chosen to represent the woman of blood. Being the eldest, it is my right to chose first. My choice is Shasta."

"The orphan?" asked Shilack, the second eldest, "Is she of age?"

"She is a woman." answered Tiron, "And she has been so for three years. She is the best choice, not only because she has no family, but because she is strong-willed. She also has had some experience at sword-handling, so her lessons will go much faster and she has a better chance of surviving 'till near the end of battle. She is the best embodiment of the woman of blood"

"The longer she lives," spoke Criron, "The more she will rally the men."

"Yes, these are valid points." spoke Shilack, "I say we vote now."

And so they did, sealing the fate of Shasta.

As the rain poured down, Shasta huddled glumly near the fire she had built under a rock ledge. There would be no traveling today. The path was slick with rain and one wrong step could send a person to a bloody death on the rocks below.

Shasta griped the hilt of the sword at her side and pulled it free of its sheath. She held it upright, letting the firelight run like liquid up its blade. There was nothing special in the swords appearance. It was a plain, silver colored blade with a plain silver colored hilt. The only decoration was the scrolling on the handgrip to make the grip sure. It looked like the mass produced sword it was.

But this sword was special. This was the sword that the first woman of blood carried into battle. Since then, it has taken on a symbolic essence, a mystical quality. No one dares to attack the bearer of that sword until she steps onto the battlefield.

Someone once dared. A bandit killed the 15th woman of blood on the path and dared to steal the sacred sword. The men ceased fighting and tracked down the bandit. It took him five days to die.

There have been 57 women of blood, with Shasta making 58. All have died. Shasta's future seems far from sound. Shasta stares hard at the blades edge, coursing with liquid heat.

"Is this my future I see?" thinks Shasta "Will I die in the fiery heat of battle, only to become a number in the eyes of my own people? If my blood is spilt on the battlefield, another woman will take my place in the next battle and die the same horrible death.

We, the women of blood, have ceased to be sacred. We have become merely fuel for the great fire of war. The time has come for the women of blood to gain their proper respect again. But, am I the one to do it? Am I that strong? It would mean my going to battle, not a lamb, but like a lion. I could not hide behind the men's shields. I would have to fight alone, and die alone. That would change things, but for how long? Would my sacrifice be in vain after the next woman of blood? Does it really matter? I'm going to die anyway. The only difference is that I would die sooner. Yet, life is precious. Shouldn't I try to live as long as possible?"

Shasta sheathed the sword and laid beside the fire. But, sleep was long in coming.

As she walked the path this day, she could hear the sounds of battle far off. It would not be long now. During the many days of her journey, Shasta had seen many things. She remembered the rushing waterfall that threw fine mist into the air, creating rainbows. She remembered the grassy field where her only companion was a cautious deer that watched her with beautiful and shy eyes. She remembered many things.

"I have changed." she realized, "I am someone else. I do not feel the same. Soon, I will come to the place of battle, and I know what I must do." She walked on, never stopping or hesitating. Always keeping a firm grasp of her realization, holding it like a shield before her.

Soon, she crested the last hill and looked down upon the place of battle. Her mind refused to function at the site of the carnage. She had never seen such destruction. Before her was a swirling mass of bodies and blood. The dead fell and the living trampled them.

Everywhere there was shouts and screams and moaning. Her eyes darted about the madness like storm-raged ships, despite to find someone she knew.

At last she did. Below her on the battlefield, her old childhood friend fought bravely against his opponent. "I have not seen him for many years, my how he's grown." Shasta thought to herself. She watched the muscles in his arms flex with strain and his sword point flashing in the sun. His wicked blade danced in the air, occasionally sending up sparks when I met his opponents. It was almost beautiful. Just as she was readying herself to call to him, his opponent found a way past his guard and stabbed him through the heart.

In that moment before he died, his eyes opened wide and his mouth opened to admit a noiseless scream.

Then, the light simply faded from his eyes and he slumped forward onto the blade. His opposite tore the sword savagely out of his chest, tearing a great wound he could no longer feel.

Shasta stared, she couldn't think, her mind refused to function. She stood and gazed at him, her lips dumb and her mind blank. Thought would not come. All she could do was stare at his mangled corpse. The red stain of his blood spread over the ground, making it appear wet. "So much blood, how could so much blood fit into one man?" Shasta thought.

At last, the scream that had been building inside her tore its way up her only to be blocked by her lips that were to numb to move. She strangled on her cry, desperately fighting for air. At last she succeeded, drawing air into her starving lungs with an explosive gasp. Like the man she saw killed, she could not voice her scream.

She looked at the man she once knew, seeing his once muscled chest ripped and torn. His face was blank, staring sightlessly up at the uncaring heavens. How could this be, that someone could be so alive one minute and so dead the next. Was life so fleeting? Was it so cheaply ended? Thoughts crashed around inside Shasta's head.

Finally, one thought surfaced that she could hang onto like a life raft. "There must be vengeance!" Shasta thought fiercely to herself. All other thoughts were pushed out of her head by the intensity of that one thought.

She drew the sword one last time from its sheath and thrust it high in the air. She threw her head back and screamed her battle cry. So intense was the sound that the battle stopped and all eyes turned toward its source. Shasta punched her sword higher and screamed again, a sound of pure and untainted fury. Then she charged down the hill, eager to spill blood.

From that day on, the battle belonged to the clan. The future had been shaky until the woman of blood appeared. After that, the clan destroyed its rival with ease and without mercy. They followed the woman of blood throughout the battle, confident she would see them through. Never since the first woman of blood had they felt such confidence. It could be seen in the way they moved. Shasta roared through the battle, never losing the battle fury that had engulfed her.

She now had to actively seek out opponents since they fled before her, unable to defeat her in her rage. She seemed to be a holy creature, shining with massive power and all-consuming rage. As the end of the battle drew near, Shasta found herself still alive. She was surviving on adrenaline alone. Her body was bleeding from a score of wounds, the loss of blood should have collapsed her hours ago, yet she fought on.

Only at the battle's end did she fall. And when she fell, she never rose again. A nearby soldier ran over to her and cradled her in his arms. She would not die alone. She looked at him and found that her eyes did not focus.

She also found that it mattered little.

"My friend," spoke Shasta, her lips numb, "Do not concern yourself with me. I know that I am dying, but that is unimportant. What is important is this, the women of blood must continue. We are the heart and the spirit of the clan. But we must have out rightful place. We must be treated with respect. Tell everyone this, make them understand."

"I swear to you," replied the man with emotion choking his voice, "It shall be as you say."

Shasta smiled. She had no words left to thank this faceless man. She was grateful for his company. "I am no longer the woman I was." thought Shasta, "I have stepped over the boundaries and become someone else. I am the woman of blood. My spirit is now joined with those who have come ahead of me and those who come after. To them, I offer my blessing." With that, she closed her eyes and quietly gave up her soul.

The woman of blood was carried back home in a blaze of glory. The men struck their shields with the butts of their swords and sang about her bravery at the top of their voices. The sound threw itself from peak to peak and flung itself to the four corners of the wind.

They scattered throughout the town singing her praises and built her funeral pyre in the middle of town. As the flames leapt high, the men sang and danced and the woman beat the drums in rhythm. They told about her bravery and how no one could stand before her holy rage. Her message was spread through the voices of the men and resonated within the hearts of the clan.

Shasta had been more then a symbol, she had been a hero. She would live on forever in the hearts of her people and her name would be whispered in the ears of the young.

Out in the frosty peaks of the mountains, her song echoed on and on. Some say it echoes there still. And on a cold, silent night you can hear the men returning from battle, singing a song of praise to Shasta, the woman of blood.

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