Consciousness slowly returns to me. Everything hurts, my body is on fire. The world around me slowly comes into view.
I’m in a cart with a tarp roof. Light pours in from the opening by my feet, and I’m surrounded by food and medical equipment. Two medics are sitting in here with me, chatting with each other. I’m laying on a bunch of sheets, with a pillow under my head, but it doesn’t do much to cushion the bumps and jostling of the wood carts.
I’m thirsty, I’m starving, It’s hard to breathe, my head is pounding.
“Ngh…” I weakly force out.
The two medics turn to me, their eyes rounded, “Izydor!” One yells as he scrambles to the back of the cart and jumps out.
The other takes a knee at my side. “Panopio, you’re okay, your safe. Try not to move too much, you’ve got a lot of broken bones, and you’ve lost a lot of blood.”
I try to nod, but I’m not sure my head moves.
Izydor suddenly jumps in with us and sits at my side, the first medic hangs on the back of the cart as we continue moving. “Pano? Can you hear me?” His voice is soft and gentle.
“I… can hear you.” My throat is so raspy and dry. It hurts to swallow. At least Izydor breathes a sigh of relief.
“We weren’t sure you were gonna make it for a moment. We did the best we could with what we had, but if were any slower stitching you up… Well, we’re taking you back to Port Jahsing for the rest of your treatment.” He looks up and down my body, frowning, “it’ll probably take a while for you to heal fully, but just bear with it for now.”
The cart runs over a rock or a divot. I’m thrown at least an inch into the air and I land hard. “Guaaaaaaaagh…” I moan.
“S-sorry.” He turns to the medic outside. “Go tell him to drive smoother!”
The driver, having heard him through the thin tarp, fusses back that the road is too thin and rough to be careful, there’s nothing he can do. Izydor yells back and I tune it all out.
“I can’t wait… for the bridge… to be finished.” I force out and try to smile. The medic at my side chuckles and that makes me feel a little better, but nobody else listens.
I take a good look at Izydor once he stops shouting. He’s covered in blood and mud and sweat. Much of his clothes have been slashed away, revealing chunks of broken chainmail over his brown padded undershirt. His skin is marked by bruises and cuts.
“What happen-…ed to you?”
“Me? There’s just been a lot of fighting. Oh, you wouldn’t know. Well after you saved Kosman’s life and we brought you back to the medics, everyone was pissed.” He rests his back against the side of the cart. “And I mean everyone. It was a dirty ambush, attacking you guys like that, and they completely ignored Kosman to start hacking at you. We couldn’t let them get away with it, obviously, so everyone started screaming at Kosman and the officers to let us head straight into the jungle and burn down every village that doesn’t immediately pledge fealty to the Protectorate. If they didn’t, we threatened to vote in new officers who would.”
“But… how would they pledge fealty-?” I cough, and the medic puts his hands on my chest, muttering something about keeping my ribs intact. “If I’m not there to translate?”
Izydor scratches the back of his head. “Well, that was the idea. We wanted to burn everything we came across in one big punative campaign. Blood and fire, that was the only thing on our minds.” He gives me a smile, “you’ve made quite a lot of friends during your time here, nobody was happy to see you like this.”
I feel cold, and not just from the blood loss. “B-but Kosman talked them down right? Half the island won’t get burned? I-if this punative campaign is going on then turn this cart around and I’ll translate-“
The medic cuts in, “ma’am, you need to calm down.” He turns his head to Izydor, “don’t get her agitated like this.”
“I’m telling a story!” Izydor sighs, “no, we didn’t go through with it. Kosman and I calmed everyone down. Everyone who knew you understood that you worked so hard specifically to avoid that. We got them to stick to some manner of military discipline, but they refused to wait around camp like the previous plan said. Last I heard, they were gonna march up the mountains and dare the Maneaters to come and kick them out.”
I carefully breathe out, a weight off my chest. “Good… thank you for doing that, I mean it.”
He gives a solemn nod. I made the right choice when it came to defending Kosman, I don’t know who else could have made everyone back down.
It’s hard not to feel a bit of pride when knowing my heroic choice probably saved thousands from the peldaks’ retribution.
“So where are we? You said we’re heading back to Port Jahsing?”
“Along with every other injured soldier, yes. We left the camp, see, so obviously we couldn’t take everyone else on campaign. You’re in the worst shape, so we had to bring you to port regardless. Me and a few other guys volunteered to bring you.”
I sigh, and close my eyes for a minute. My body feels like crap, but I’m happy. I won’t be anywhere near the fighting, there shouldn’t be any unecessary death, and Kosman will destroy the Maneaters army. Hopefully some of their soldiers will get to escape the peldaks’ wrath with their lives, but that army and tribe need to be destroyed for good.
There’s a bit of rustling, and I open my eyes just a crack. Izydor gestures for the medic to get out and, after miming some words and gesturing to me, he does.
Izydor takes a breath. “Hey, Pano. Kosman wanted me to pass on a message. He said he’s sorry for what happened, there are a lot of ways it could have been avoided. He also said he should have just accepted the deal, but I’m not sure what that means.”
“Hmngh.” I try to wave him off but I can’t lift my arm. “H-he had a line in the sand and wouldn’t cross it… Tell him not to worry about it. I’ll get better.”
“Yeah, about that though.” Izydor takes a small mirror from the pile of stuff. He hesitates for a moment, glancing between the mirror and I, but eventually finds his nerve and holds it over me. “You might not feel the same after you really see what happened.”
…I don’t look great.
There’s small cuts all over my body, along with deep gashes along my face and arms. Izydor angles the mirror so I can see the rest of me, and it’s the same everywhere. His chainmail protected most of my body from the worst of it, that’s how I was able to survive, but there’s so much bruising. I’m a shade darker than I should be, and a bit more purple. When the end came, and they broke through the chainmail, that’s where a few deeper cuts managed to get through. Some of my hair is gone too, on the side near my left eye and left ear. I guess they cut my hair so they could stitch the wounds on my scalp. There’s going to be so many scars, none of which will be subtle.
“O-oh…” I take note of the worst ones. One across my nose. One heading from my right eye down to my chin. Another wrapping from my left eyebrow up past my hairline. My left cheek was punctured and I can feel the inside of the stitches with my tongue. There also a few splits in my ears.
“I’m… sorry.” Izydor puts the mirror away. “It’s my fault this happened.” He can’t look me in the eyes, and he squirms in place. He grips the fabric of his shorts and his face tightens like a pulse as he tries to find somewhere to rest his eyes. “I wasn’t the first to notice that they came from the jungle, and even if I was, you were too far away. I should have made sure I was closer.
“You didn’t even want me going out there in the first place, it’s not your fault.”
“But it’s not my place to make decisions like that, it’s my job to follow along and keep you safe no matter what you decide to do.”
“Yeah, well…!” I raise my voice too sharply, it hurts my throat. “I don’t blame you and it was a fine result anyway. The Maneaters will be destroyed, the bridge will be finished, the island will be better off. Though, I’ll probably need to find a new job.”
Izydor raises an eyebrow, “why? Everyone knows what you did and you’ll always have a place in the 19th.”
“Show me the mirror again.” Izydor holds it over me. Somehow, I look even worse than before. “I don’t know how you expect me to be a negotiator with a face like this.”
“Doesn’t it make you more distinguished and battle hardened?”
“Women aren’t supposed to be ‘battle hardened’.”
“Peldak women are.”
“I’m not a peldak.”
“Pssh,” he waves off my concerns, “you look fine. A bit short, a little scrawny, and a touch too delicate, but fine.”
“…I’ll have you know I was considered the most beautiful girl in my village before I left.”
“You don’t live in your village anymore, you live in the Peldak Protectorate. Tell you what,” he leans forward, and a smile grows on his face. “We get you back to Port Jahsing, we get you healed up, then I’ll train you. Muscles, definition, the scars won’t go away but I’ll get you a body that fits them. You know, in some circles, you’re not considered a real soldier until you have a scar or two, and you’re more busted up then half the soldiers in the brigade!”
I consider his words for a moment. “Well, since my goal was to protect Kosman, technically I’ve won every fight I’ve been in.”
“Excactly, haha!” He swings his arm around, intent to slap my shoulder, but thinks better of it and hits his thigh instead.
“But I’ll live in Port Jahsing, which is full of aliens, and people from other islands. I’m sure they’ll think the same as the men of my village and won’t be into muscly, scarred, ‘battle hardened’ women.”
He rolls his eyes, “yeah, yeah, I get it. Then if I’m wrong about this, I’ll just marry you myself, how about that? If no monsoorai would be happy with you, then they’re stupid anyway.”
I blush and recoil at his sudden proposal. That… certainly came out of nowhere, not that I haven’t enjoyed the time we spent together this past year. Is he serious? “Wh-what, uh,” I can’t look him in the eyes, “what was that word? Monsoorai?”
“Hmm? That’s, well, you. This world is called Monsoo, so the people who come from here are called monsoorai. You say islander, but the whole world is nothing but islands. Err, I guess I never asked, but what do your people call your island?”
“I’ve… never thought of it before. It’s just ‘the island’. There’s another island on the horizon near my village, and that was just ‘the other island’… hey, uh,” it takes a great deal of effort, but I manage to look him in the eyes. “Were you serious? When you said you’d marry me if nobody else would?”
“Of course!” His eyes are clear of hesitation and regret. “It’s my fault you’re covered in scars, so if that’s really such an issue, I need to take responsibility.”
“Well, I mean, Kosman’s also responsible. In a way,” not that I’d like to marry him.
“Kosman has a wife and, I think, 12 kids. He’s been alive a long time.”
“Ah, I see. Bu that’s the only reason? You’re honor-bound to do it?”
“Yes. That’s why most peldaks get married. Not that I’d be that sad about it though. You’re easy to get along with.” His ears flutter gently.
That’s what my village said too, a few years ago. My response back then was to flee south, but I think it could work with Izydor.
“Well, I think you’re easy to get along with too… it’s fun, being around you. Getting married won’t be so bad.”
“Haha! Slow down there, Pano. It’s only if you can’t find some other man, which I’m still confident you can.”
I narrow my brow, “what if I do find other men who can look past these scars, but I prefer you?”
His ears shoot up and he pulls back, “uh, what?”
“You’re tall, and handsome, you’ve saved my life far more than once, and you’re the greatest swordsman I’ve seen. What if I’d rather marry you than some fisherman I find in port?”
“Well, um,” he pulls a hand up to rub the back of his head. “I dunno, I’ve never had a girl want to marry me before.” I’m almost certain that’s not true, he just didn’t realize it. “But nevermind that, we’ve never even talked outside of a military setting. You have no idea if you’d actually want to spend your life with me.”
Despite the dull agony present all over my body, I force my shoulder and arm to bring my hand over as I rest it on his knee. It takes more effort than I expected, and I’m slightly winded. “Then… stay by my side… in port.” I force all the breath from my lungs in an attempt to steady myself. “And when we talk, just be yourself. I’ll do the same, okay?”
His ears flap wildly and he doesn’t know where to look. It’s kind of cute, a warrior like him, who’s faced down so many threats, acting so flustered just because of me. “Y-yeah. I’ll do that. I guess, uh,” he scratches his chin, “if you were to find someone else, it’d be a little annoying. For me, I mean. I’d rather stay as your bodyguard… even in the port, or wherever you decide to go.”
I smile, and a warmth spreads through my chest. “Then I think it’s-“
“RAID!” The cart driver’s scream echos through the thin tarp, and Izydor jumps up, grabbing his sword. My hand, which was on his knee, falls hard to the floor, and air puffs my cheeks as I hold down a scream.
“A-ah! Uh, sorry! We’ll have to continue this later. Don’t worry about what you may see or hear. No matter what, nobody gets inside this cart!”
He walks to the back and is about to jump out. I swallow the scream and speak through clenched teeth, “h-hey!” He turns back around, backlit by the vibrant jungle outside. “Be safe, okay? It’d be a problem for me if you died.”
He gives off a charming smile, salutes, then jumps off the back of the cart before running headlong into battle, “RYAAAAA!”
The sounds of battle roar from outside, but it’s fine. It’s all fine. Warcries, gunshots, screams, nothing matters. That’s out there, I’m in here, Izydor is keeping those two worlds separate. He’ll swat away those cannibals, and we’ll all return to Port Jahsing, safe and sound.
I rest my head back on the pillow and close my eyes.
When the Maneater’s army is defeated, their entire little society should collapse. No more raiding for sacrifices, no more cannibalism, nothing. The tyrant Maneaters will be replaced with the soft hand of the peldak’s.
Plus, with the Maneaters gone, nobody will stand in the way of the peldak’s bridge. Everyone will know who’s in charge, but the peldaks need a good translator to smooth over the finer details. While my face is a bit of an issue, I need to be that negotiator. I could use a veil to cover these scars up, but I doubt any tribe would send me away. Who would have the backbone to tell the peldaks, hot on the heels of their victory against the Maneaters, who is and isn’t allowed in negotiations?
Then there’s… marriage with Izydor. I like him a lot, I think it could work out well between us. The only issue would be that he’s immortal and I’ve only got another 40 years or so in me. Maybe 60 or 70, depending on how long people in the Protectorate live, but surely he’s already considered that.
My future, as well as that of the island, is secured, it seems.
Everything will be alright.
With all the worries in my head clear, and the battle raging outside, I peacefully drift off to sleep.