Anthony stopped mid-swing, Cathair’s old sword just barely tapping Frae’s shield with a soft metallic ping before he pulled back and sheathed it again. He looked on, silent as ever, as Frae threw the shield down in disgust and flung her sword to the side, where it stuck, point down in the dirt, its hilt quivering from the force of the throw. She sighed heavily, sparing it only the briefest of glances before she set off towards the side of the house. “...This is hopeless. We’re done for today. I’m going for a walk.”
There was no invitation implied there, and she was glad Anthony hadn’t heard one. As she strode off, she heard the clanking of him gathering up their gear before heading back inside. That probably left her a good ten minutes before Cathair rushed out, all concerned, and bundled her back inside where she would have to stew in her thoughts once more. She loved the man, but those ten minutes would be a godsend.
She had hoped that the sparring practice with Anthony would help take her mind off of things. Combat always did. But...it seemed to have only made the sudden anxiety she was feeling lately worse. Every time he’d come at her, sword raised, it had taken all of her willpower to simply raise her shield, to not return any blows, to let the sword come. What was meant to be a lesson in form and technique instead had turned into Anthony halfheartedly denting her shield, and her struggling with her demons instead of doing anything helpful. It was a disgrace.
She slipped her hand into her pocket, pulling out a charred scrap of red fabric and tracing the edges of it with her eyes, a bitter taste in her mouth. She knew that it wasn’t the same, that the armor she’d taken down the night before and pulled the scrap from was only vaguely similar to Anthony, but evidently...it had been similar enough. All this sparring match had done was serve as a reminder of the night before, and she found herself reflecting on it again now that she was alone.
The armored figure's movements had been slow and ponderous, almost comical, as it trudged over to the man who’d thrown the molotov at Palis's mansion, belying the pure, animalistic terror of his screams as it magically rooted him in place, unable to do anything but watch it approach. It quickly stopped being funny when it scooped him up by the back of his shirt, held him firm, and twisted his neck as easily as you might pop the head from a chicken, cutting the cries abruptly short. The man might as well have been a chicken, with the way it tossed his broken body aside, like an afterthought, before trudging over to the next civilian. Behind it, the other suits of armor meant to be its fellow guards burned, utterly ignored. They were afterthoughts too.
She wasn’t sure when her sword had left its scabbard or her shield had left her back. All she saw was the sight of the armor a distance front of her, awash in red, from blood or from firelight she knew not, the arrow sticking out of its side not even hindering its steps towards its next civilian target. It was all she cared about as she ran full tilt, yelling at the remaining bystanders to run, to run as fast as they could, to forget this night and this monster as though it were just a bad dream, not the reality she ran towards with screams, choked off abruptly, echoing in her ears.
Never again. Never again. Never again.
The cloth crumpled in her hands. They were shaking now, from rage or fear she knew not. She stuffed it back into her pocket, started walking again, but the memory still reamined.
Never again. Never again. Never again.
That was all she could think as she met the armor head-on, a scream tearing itself from her lips as a surge of power filled her limbs with fire. What had happened in Hilfenn could not happen here. Not again. For the sake of Cathair. For the sake of Anthony. For the sake of Nerine, of Pache, of all the people she'd met. For the sake of this town. The resolve tore through her, honed the edge of her blade, and ripped through the armor as easily as a hot knife through butter, paired with the awful, satisfying screech of metal on metal as she tore its helmet from its breastplate with her blade and flung it aside. As easily as one might pop the head from a chicken.
And then it was over. The armor died comically, too, did not fall over so much as crumble into a small pile, like pieces of metal with no body inside were supposed to do. But it wasn’t funny. Not anymore.
It was fear, she realized, as she finished her first lap around the house. The same fear that had dogged her all morning was what was making her hands shake. She hadn’t been scared in a long time, not with what she had faced in the past, and yet now...now she was. Now it weighed down her limbs as it set her mind to racing, unable to focus, unable to concentrate. It was fear, but why? Why did it circle her like a pack of wolves, herding her like a little lamb back to that fight with that armor that was not Anthony, but was just similar enough for him to remind her of it, over and over again? She had seen far worse things than a suit of armor wringing a man’s neck, it couldn’t have been that. But of course it wasn’t. That was just the catalyst.
She made another lap.
It was the surge after, the surge of power she'd felt as she rushed the armor down, the surge that had transformed her normal attack into a smiting strike. That was it. It was a power she was familiar with, had called on numerous times before. Like the holy smites she used to employ, back when she’d been Helm’s pawn. But different, because it came from her, not from some empty god. The power was familiar...but the steps she'd taken to get it were not.
Another lap. Now she was the wolf, circling in on...on something. It hadn’t come to her yet, but it was something important. It was the key to the demons that plagued her now, she knew it, she couldn't let it out of her sights until she understood it for what it was.
When she’d called on her smite before, she’d done it knowingly, had sought out the power on her own to give her attack a little extra kick, to get the fight done faster and get the reward that much sooner. But this smite, last night, had been nothing like that. This hadn’t been because she wanted the power. She’d needed it. It hadn’t felt like a conscious call for power as it had an inevitability, as though her sword had lined up with her heart in just the right way that it would have burst forth regardless, as though that armor had been doomed as soon as she'd turned her sights upon it, sure as the sun sets in the west. Her smites hadn’t felt like that since she had left Hilfenn. Why, all of a sudden, did this one feel like that?
She stopped short when it hit her.
They hadn’t felt like that since she’d left Hilfenn.
Since she’d left Helm.
There it was. She saw it for what it was now, the fear, clutching at her chest like an animal. She shook her head violently, in some vain hope that it would shake loose, but of course it didn’t. She’d found the monster on her back, and like any other fight, once she'd engaged it, she couldn’t just wait for it to go away. So she started walking again, taking the initiative.
And the more she thought about it...the less the fear made sense. That smite had come naturally, yes, but it hadn’t felt holy like it had when she'd served Helm. It had felt like any other time she’d called on it. It felt like her. And she hadn’t felt Helm’s pull in a long time, either, so long that she couldn’t remember anything specific about the last time it had happened. So it wasn’t Helm staking his claim on her again. It couldn’t be. She remained free. That was a comfort.
But of course, if she was still free, that left only one option. The smite must have come from her, as it always had. But the effortlessness of it all still sat, unexplained, and the comfort she'd just found soon twisted right back into fear of a different sort. She only had her freedom because of the oath she'd made when she left Hilfenn...the oath she'd fought for, bled for, would have died for, over the past fifty years she'd been traveling under it...and it hadn't even been considered in that moment. Not once. Not even in hindsight. She didn't smite that armor to defend herself, or to fight back against any god or master that thought it had the right to make people its pawns. No. She’d called on that power, not to free that armor from its master, but to destroy it. To prevent it from killing any more innocents. In the name of her friends, her protégé...the town itself.
The oath she'd always considered fundamental...it hadn't even mattered to her.
Frae’s blistering pace around the house slowed, gradually, until she was just barely ambling along like it was a simple evening walk instead of a crisis of conscience.
Somewhere along the way, she’d stopped caring about just herself. Just her freedom, just her oath. She’d told Cathair her past, an act she would have considered unthinkable just a few months ago. She’d gone out and taken on a protégé, literally picked one up from a dungeon, and felt something almost motherly for him, had resolved to teach him what she could. She’d stopped paying attention to what hidden weaknesses she could glean from Nerine and Pache’s talks, had instead felt something for the two of them and the pain they were facing, so much so that she’d gotten involved in a treasonous plot she’d sworn she would have nothing to do with. She even felt something for the man they were preparing to take down...how could she not? She knew how easy it was to be led astray in the pursuit of justice. Cruz, Arrow, Battaile...they'd all taught her that lesson in Hilfenn. And she'd made herself clear to the others that if the opportunity for it came, she'd teach it to Palis in turn. This didn't have to end in blood.
She didn't want it to. Not again. She’d seen so much of the town of Tra Laghi and its people over the past month, just like she used to in Hilfenn. She had learned some of their names and some of their stories, had laughed and walked among them, had wondered how they were...And it all came together in that one moment, that one pivotal moment, so much like the riots she remembered from Hilfenn, where she’d thought of them, not herself, and the power she’d so desperately needed had burst forth without an ounce of effort on her part.
Nothing was wrong with her smites, she realized. If anything, last night had felt more right than anything she'd done since Hilfenn. That was the real reason why she was afraid, wasn't it? Despite herself, despite Hilfenn...she finally had something to love again. Something she could lose.
“Frae?” She startled at her name, hand moving toward a sword that wasn't even there, only to look up to see Cathair poking his head out the door, looking concerned. At some point she must have stopped walking entirely, and she frowned to herself, wondering just how long she’d been standing out there lost in her own head. She raised her hand, silently acknowledging him, and that seemed to set him at ease a bit. He relaxed his posture to lean against the doorway, still keeping a wary eye on her, but not a half second from leaping to her side like how he'd looked before. “Um...you okay? Anthony came in with your sparring stuff a while ago, but when you didn’t come in after him…”
Frae snorted and shook her head. Ten minutes exactly, she would have bet five gold if anyone had been around to take her up on it. The time certainly flew by. “Sorry. Just...needed some air. I’m fine.” And she was, she realized, as she pulled her sword out of the dirt and walked back inside to rejoin her friends. It was true, she decided, she could lose it all again. But she had something now that she hadn't had in Hilfenn: experience. This time...this time, things would be different. She'd make sure of it.