Silver Key Flash Fiction by Charlotte
Her Father's Daughter
I sat astride my horse, a quiver of arrows slung across my shoulder, a bow in my hand. The battle wasn’t going well. Understatement: it was going terribly. As I watched my forces below getting slaughtered, I couldn’t help but think what my father would have done. I knew the answer: surrender. My father avoided conflict at all cost. “Is a small portion of our great territory worth the death of our loyal people?” he always used to ask me. My answer, “yes.” Our land, heritage and power was worth many lives.
Surrendering now meant not only a portion of our land would be given to the Mongols but the whole of our domain. Loosing this war would mean the end of the Byzantine Empire. And it would have happened under my rule. I would be known to future men as Empress Kestral, the Surrenderer, and the Ender of the Byzantine Empire. I couldn’t accept it. I would not be my father. I had already made such progress; taking back our land from the Bulgarians and much of our stolen property from the Arabs in a five-year conquest.
An arrow whizzed past my face. Alerted, I looked down at the burning battlefield. Some Mongols had fallen, but many, many more Byzantines lay limply face down in the mud. The Mongol who had shot the arrow shouted at me from atop his horse.
“Our forces are weary, but not defeated. We will return, and win. Whether it be easy or hard. That is in your hands.” They retreated back across the plateau of death, their cloaks billowing in the wind. The soldiers made sure to guide their horses so that they would tread on the Byzantine dead and injured. I spat down at them from my perch on the cliff top.
I swept among the lifeless bodies, my cloak stained with the blood of my countrymen. Screams permeated the otherwise silent night. Artavis was close by my side, marking a paper with every bloodied body he saw.
“What’s the count?” I asked, bracing myself. I had to know.
“Three thousand my lady.” My heart broke, three thousand men who had pledged themselves to me, and I had let them down. I could hear my own words ringing in my ears. How fake they sounded now, how childish.
“We may not have more resources, or more men or more money than the Mongols. But here’s one thing we have that they don’t…heart and loyalty. We want to win more than they do. We NEED to win. That gives us the biggest advantage in the world. With heart, loyalty and drive, we are unstoppable!” Cheers roared up from the soldiers.
Lies, lies, lies! We had no chance against the Mongols, I knew it then, but I was delusional. I was angry with myself and angry with the Mongols.
“Those mangy dogs!” I muttered. Artavis heard me and smiled.
“I’ll drink to that, my lady.”
I tried to smile but my lips were made of hardened clay.
“What are we to do?” It was a cry, a plea, more than a question, but Artavis answered it anyway.
“We have two options. Either you continue to fight or you surrender all of our territory.”
I already knew this but hearing it made aloud made it so much more real. I sank to my knees.
Artavis kept talking, but I heard his voice as if from a long distance away.
“If I were you, I would surrender… and I’m sure your father would approve. “
I looked up at him. “I don’t give a damn if my father would approve or not, I will do what is best for my people.”
“Very good, my lady.” Artavis retreated and left me curled up in a pool of blood to think.
The rising sun reflected the body-strewn battlefield, blood red and giant. The Mongols would be returning soon to claim their new territory. Would they anticipate a fight to the death? If so, they would be disappointed. The idea of what I was about to do still shocked me. Was I making a mistake? Artavis seemed to think I had made the right choice, but only because it was what my father would have done.
A sea of horsemen rose over the horizon. I could tell, even from this distance, that they were Mongols. There were many of them, too many to be an accompaniment. They expected war and I was dying to give it to them.
I felt sick. I was about to give up my home, the place that generations of my ancestors had given their lives to build, and that’s when I knew what I would do. It made the whole idea more bearable.
But was there enough time? The Mongols were nearly upon us.
“Artavis, stall them, I must do… I have to, um, excuse me.” I stumbled over my words; I was suddenly breathless. I ran from the palace steps, dashing through empty corridors and heavy, oak doors. Up the marble staircase I went and into my chamber. I lunged toward my jewelry box with its engraved flowers and ornate beading. I opened the clasp searching, searching; I threw gold headpieces and jangly silver bracelets behind me in my rush. I pulled out the first velvety level and there it was. A beauteous silver dagger, its hilt bejeweled with glowing rubies and hand crafted gold in whimsical patterns of leaves and wind. I grabbed it and ran again from the room, down the stairs and into the entry hall. I took one last look at my palace-its high stone ceiling and painted walls depicting scenes from the Bible, the curving, noble staircase and the soft, flickering light from the glowing candles.
A lump formed in my throat. Breathe, I told myself, just breathe. Tears filled my eyes waiting impatiently to stream down my face, but I wouldn’t let them. I could do this. It was better this way, much better. I would not have to face the shame I had brought upon my empire, my family and myself. My trembling breaths were the only sound, echoing from room to room in the dormant castle. There would be no place for me or my people in the Mongol Empire, of that I was sure. I would rather spare myself from witnessing the slaughter that I had wrought. It was my fault, all my fault, I was a coward. As this realization hit me, the tears still pooled in my eyes exploded outward and cascaded down in a deluge of salty water. My father had been a coward and so was I. I had not changed the leadership of the Empire as I had set out to do when my father died. The leadership had changed me-just like it had changed my father, just like it would change my successor and his successor, whether they be Byzantine or Mongol. Leadership changes a person, any person no matter how tough they think they are. I wiped my eyes on a red velvet sleeve and gained control of my rampant emotions. Once my eyes were dry and the redness was faded from my cheeks. I pushed open the heavy double doors and found Artavis looking bewildered and nervous and the Mongol king flushed and angry.
“If she doesn’t come out in five seconds, I’ll storm this castle and kill the stupid girl myself!’ he bellowed at Artavis, spit flying from his mouth. Then the two-caught site of me standing on the top step, clutching the dagger pointed directly at my chest. In a split second, Artavis had taken in the scene and realized what I was going to do.
“Empress! No!” He lunged toward me.
I took a deep breath, my last breath.