X Marks the...
The candle burns low. It’s one of those short and squat ones, just hitting the peddler’s market a moon ago and branded as “longer-lasting.” She glares at it, it sputters vindictively back and threatens to go out like five of its brethren scattered around the floor of the tent. They look so much like biscuits she’s half-tempted to pass them out as extra rations to her grumbling troops. She huffs a sigh and leans her elbows onto the wooden table, resting her chin against the dovetail of her fingers. The map spread out in front of her is hefty, ambitiously trying to achieve the actual size of land they were scrabbling over. It’s not difficult. She’s almost certain there are nobles with estates larger than this scrap of no-man’s land. Her eyes flit to her camp, marked by a shiny riverstone she found a fortnight ago, resting at the feet of a hill. She drags her eyes across terrain marked, as smooth (smoother than her captaincy, at least), curving as the bend of a river comes into view and snagging at the next checkpoint, a stretch of woods. It’s the traditional path to trek through; the enemy camp is based right past it, sheltered under a short precipice. Several crimson X's had been scribbled on the forest by her predecessors. After all, X marks the spot, and nobody had been able to go past that. She picks up her ballpoint pen and rolls it between two fingers, watching the weak light hit the blade-like curve of its side, before drawing in her own X. Deed done, she closes her eyes and leans back. The candle goes out.
She takes deep breathes, and her arms tremble from how forceful she’s crushing the edges of the table. The rough planks dig into her palms, almost breaking skin, and the marks on her hands pulse in lieu with her heartbeat. She’s staring down at the map, and her vision blurs. Not from tears, she’s still in shock from losing half her warriors in one vicious, one-sided battle, but from the blood dripping from a cut on her forehead. And suddenly, a deep rage rose up in her, and with it comes the inexplicable urge to rip up the cursed thing in front of her. She whips her her helmet off the table with one violent sweep of her arm, and it smashes into the haphazard pile of bloodied armor near her feet. A squeak answers the resulting clang, and she hears footsteps— probably belonging to some poor green-eared soldier tasked to seek her out—scuttle away from the flap of her tent. X marks the error. She’s a fool. An entire history of failure is laid out in front of her, and she blindly follows the footsteps leading her off a cliff. Wait. Off a cliff… She slowly straightens. The plan crawling out of her mind barely has a shape, and is most likely insane, but this whole battle is insane. She picks up the pen.
The campaign ran for three years, five months of which had been under her leadership. She is the first to come back to the kingdom with something other than the death toll weighing down her head. She only bows her head to receive Knighthood in an extravagant ceremony. She has succeeded.
Shunmel Syau is a seventeen-year-old writer from California. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Paper Swans Press, Liminality, and Star 82 Review, among others, and has been recognized by the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards. She is the co-founder and editor-in-chief at Shallow Oceans (https://shallowoceans.wordpress.com/), a nonfiction reader at BioLiterary, and the social media manager at Moledro.