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Bitter

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Everyone looked at her strangely.

Faye knew things had changed right away, coming back to Ram Village. It took more time for the others.

Her mother embraced her with tears in her eyes; her father stroked her hair and kissed her forehead. They showed her to her old room, untouched since she had gone away, and they left her there. She wandered among her scattered belongings, fingers trailing over the soft bed quilt and then the rough wooden dresser: a straw doll lay atop it, a toy from her childhood. She picked it up between her hands and turned it over, trying to recall why she'd been so fond of it. She squeezed her hands and snapped it in half, then dropped the pieces on the floor.

“Welcome home,” she whispered.

Her mother and father were terrified the first night she woke them with her screams. Her soft blanket was soaked through with sweat, her nightgown clinging sticky to her frame the way her hair did to her face, and she woke up clawing at the air above her and yelling until her throat became hoarse. When they tried to touch her, she scratched and bit at them, but still they would not let her go. Finally, she exhausted herself and fell back to sleep. In the morning, none of them spoke of it.


Her father recruited her to help with the farm work the day after she returned, against her mother's protests. Faye was unbothered, and she joined him in the fields with all the other village men. Before the war, she had done children's work, collecting loose stones and plucking weeds while the grown men tilled the land. Now, she pulled the plow herself as her bewildered father looked on. The other men teased him about getting weak in his old age, but they watched her nervously all the same. In days, the jokes had shifted from his age to the brute of a girl he had raised. You sent your daughter off to war and she came back a man, they said. They laughed, but there was as much fear as anything else in their voices.

The boys she had gone to war with were not burdened by it. Tobin and Gray had become knights; Kliff left home in pursuit of knowledge; Alm, the dearest of her heart, was king. The boys had come out of this war the better for it.

Doing the work of boys did not make her one, though. Her nightmares continued, her weakness prevailed. One morning, her father asked her to stay home, and from then on, she did. She helped her mother garden, sew, and cook, all womanly pursuits meant to dull her sharp edges. Or perhaps to sharpen what had been dulled. When the jabs at her lack of femininity faded away, it meant little to her, though it seemed to please her parents.


Her dreams were filled with corpses.

The faces she saw weren't of those she had killed in the war. Those, she could scarcely remember for how numerous they'd been and how quickly they'd gone. They had tried to kill her first, tried to kill the people she loved, even. They deserved what they got. She told herself that.

(There were a few that remained: the boy about her age who had dropped his lance and cried in his final moments; the soldier whose last words were a solemn prayer to Mila, whom she worshiped just as well; the airborne knight who hadn't even seen the attack coming, the shock still clear on her dead face after she'd fallen.)

Mostly, the faces belonged to the knights of her youth. They had died in a graveyard, and that seemed wrong to her, somehow. It was a place for the living and the dead, not the dying. Was there a place for the dying? Some days, she thought that place was her head.


“She's not the same,” her father said one day.

“She's heartbroken,” her mother replied. “You know how taken she was with that boy.”

“'That boy'? He's a king now, hardly a boy! And king or no, for what he's done to her...”

“Hush, now! You're being silly!”

Her father sighed, deeply and sadly. “I just want our daughter back, our Faye.”

“She will come back,” her mother said. “We just need to give her time.”


Time taught her at least to remember her smile, even if she rarely felt it. The wary glances on the street became warmer, old neighbors suddenly glad to greet her as she passed. It was almost as if she'd never left, if only the sun would never go down.

Her heart became lighter, if it never stopped weighing her down. There came the day when a young man chose to court her, someone a few years younger than her who had only escaped the war by virtue of his youth at the time. When she turned him away, the villagers laughed at his attempt. “You're going up against the king of all Valentia,” they said, with more humor than vitriol. Faye made no attempt to correct them; they weren't quite right, but they weren't entirely wrong, either. She didn't think she would ever love anyone so desperately as she had Alm.

“Apologies to the king, but I won't be so easily swayed,” her suitor liked to answer. And he wasn't swayed, pursuing her for the better part of a year with honeyed words and what paltry gifts he could afford. She would refuse him often, and then she would go home to her cold bed and suffocating dreams and wake up alone and frightened.

The man was strong and sturdy and willing, and she wanted a wall against her fears. She said no and no and no until she finally said yes. His smile then was unlike anything she'd ever seen, and for the first time, she thought maybe she could learn to love him, even just a little.

On the day they were married, as they moved her few belongings from her parents' home to his own, he held her hand and rubbed it softly. “I'll do my best to make you happy,” he told her shyly. “I know I'm no king, but to me, you may as well be a queen.”

That's not what I am, she thought, irrationally angry and then angrier still for feeling it. “I never wanted to be a queen,” she told him honestly. She wondered if he understood. That night, he held her gently, and she very nearly felt alive. Almost, but not quite.

When her nightmares woke her, he slept through it.


Their first child was born within a year of their wedding. Faye screamed right along with her as she came into the world, and for once, the noise from her mouth did not feel intrusive. The baby was bright and healthy. Faye thought she took more after her father.

Faye loved the little girl, who was the light of her father's eyes from her very first breath. “We're a family,” her husband whispered, staring in awe at the infant cradled in his arms. “The three of us, Faye. She's incredible, isn't she?”

Faye reached out to stroke the wisps of her daughter's hair, the child sleeping soundly. Her face was honest and pure, an embodiment of the things Faye had lost. Something to be treasured.

“She is.”


The nightmares, though, could never stay away. Not a week past the birth of her daughter, she was jolted awake and away from the faces of the dead, the visions worse still for how long it had been since the last of them. She woke in her bed in the arms of a stranger, full of terror and confusion, sure for a moment she was 18 again, a child playing at war, and she couldn't imagine how she'd got so far from camp. Her entire body revolted against her mind; she could not move her arms or legs.

Her mistake was that she screamed.

She didn't mean to, and some slowly creeping piece of her consciousness knew she wasn't in danger, knew where she was and who she was with. But it was drowned out by that overwhelming panic dredged up by her mind's deep sleep and the numb limbs that she still couldn't move.

Her husband's mistake was that he tried to stop her.

He placed one hand over her mouth, pleading with her to quiet, but all his words rolled over her like biting cold and she reacted without thought. Reaching deep, she called forth the magic she hadn't touched since the end of the war, the life-taking spell she'd known too well and used so often without a second thought.

It came forth like an old blade, dull from misuse and wild in accuracy, shooting out every which way in a weak burst of light. Her husband's eyes widened the moment before he was thrown from their bed, hitting the wall of their room with a dull thud. There he lay, chin drooping down limp and hair hiding his face.

For a moment, she could only watch, still paralyzed, head turned in horror. Then the feeling in her body began to return, and she pulled herself to the edge of the bed by her fingers and fell to the floor recklessly. She crawled to him weakly and held out her arms, tears streaming down her face. As she reached him, he looked up, eyes dazed and confused and then suddenly clear and terrified. She froze, hands hovering over his face.

“The baby!” he cried, stumbling twice in an effort to get to his feet. Faye fell back away from him, unable to stop or to help. At last he found his balance and staggered to the cradle at the foot of their bed. She could not take her eyes off the pained look on his face as he reached inside and picked up the swaddled infant.

His look faded into relief, but none came for her. By the time he turned to face her, she was already gone.


She didn't know how long she stumbled through the night, bare feet cutting along rough ground, grass and rocks and branches. She came back to herself in the cemetery, nightgown stained with dirt, braids plastered to her neck with sweat. She was sitting against a headstone, legs curled up in her arms. Her feet were a mix of black and red, mud and blood.

Why had she come here? It had all begun in this graveyard. This place for the dead, for the living and the dead. Her body had come here to meet with her mind, and she didn't belong. She closed her eyes and saw their faces, the knights whose ghosts would always haunt these grounds. The past she would never be free of.

And she felt herself split in two, the emptiness and the confusion a separate being entirely, until she was left with only pain and freedom. It was a relief to feel again, to see herself so honestly. The moon was bright in the sky, the deep night a taunt. She hung her head, but she did not cry.


It was only her aching breasts that drew her back home the next day, the call of the sweet child who needed to feed. Even that was nearly not enough to pull her from the shadows, but the daylight shattered the taunt of the night, and she stepped around the scattered pieces to find her way home.

Her husband met her at the door, folded her into his arms and held tight, the refuge she had always sought from him. In the day, at least, she felt his strength and made it her own. He led her inside and he did not hesitate a moment to give her their daughter, who took to her at once. Faye wondered at her husband's lack of caution. She took in the circles under his eyes, the strain in his smile, and she thought perhaps he hadn't slept at all, either. Perhaps he was simply too tired to realize the danger she presented.

Perhaps he had finally realized what he had gotten himself into. Perhaps he no longer cared.

He did not ask where she had been.


There were two more children in the years that followed, both as precious as her first, and she outgrew the fear. She outgrew the feeling as well, and more and more she would slip away from the village for days at a time, wandering the solitude of the surrounding forest. She felt almost like a child again, as brief as the experience had been the first time around. Beneath the trees and open skies, her memory regressed. She had no family, no friends, no home. She had no past. She simply existed, no different than the birds over her head or the grass under her feet.

The ghosts followed Faye, but out here, there was no Faye.

When at last they would return and she would come to herself again, she would find her way home, to the family waiting with worry in their eyes. She regretted only the resignation she saw there, a feeling with which she was intimately familiar, that she had never intended to cause in anyone else. Yet it was darkly amusing, in some ways, to see herself so clearly reflected in her children's eyes, as much as she wished it otherwise. But they smiled and laughed, and they had their father in them, too.

Her husband, too, was worn down by the years with her. There were days he strained to look her way at all, a bitterness she herself had cultivated, and it made her feel validated and ashamed all at once. They had traded places over the years, and in some ways, she had returned to the foolish girl she'd been in her youth. She felt no surprise at the realization that she had grown to love him, only for him to have forgotten his love for her.

“I'll always be fighting his shadow,” her husband muttered one night as she returned from her latest escape into the woods. She knew by his state of disarray, the stench on his breath, that he'd taken to the bottle for comfort after her absence. He cornered her at the door, hands on her shoulders, and she stared at him, at the pain in his expression, the shell she had turned him into. She wondered if he would hit her. She wondered if she would feel it.

Instead, he cried.

Maybe it was kinder to let him think her heart was stolen away, to keep his failure from him. He was meant to be her wall against the darkness, but instead, she'd shrouded him in night. The shadows he fought were not cast by the Saint-King, but how was he to know that? Her love for Alm had faded long ago, and it had in part been replaced by a love of her husband. But he would never touch those ugly parts of herself, the parts she had only managed to bury by way of her fanatical devotion to her childhood savior, the place in her mind where the dead lived on still.

She took him to bed, at least one duty she knew how to fulfill. And in the morning, in the light, she held her husband and her children near, and the darkness went away. Only for a time, and she knew it would return, that she would repeat this game until the day her family refused to play along. But until then...if those days lost in the woods could sustain her until then...

Even so, she thought it wouldn't matter. Because Faye had always known the truth, felt it like a chain around her neck: she would never be free of the dead.