Till the Battle’s End (Flash Fiction Contest)
Till the Battle’s End
by Kristalyn Vetovich
They’d met before, Charlie and the beast. Always the same circumstances, always the same weapons—claws versus blade—always here in this small assemblage of trees, away from anyone Charlie knew. And not once had she bested the beast. Never had she come close.
But her confidence never wavered. They would face each other, Charlie’s sword held firm and the beast, with its sickly sweet smile, welcoming Charlie in the only way he ever had: with claws on display to remind her what was coming.
And with a nod from both, as usual, they lunged for each other. The sound of metal scraping against bony claw was a welcome thrum in Charlie’s ears. This was a release. Even when the beast knocked her back into the sturdy trunk of a tree and the sharp thrill of pain ran to the base of her spine, it was better than having to tell others what she was thinking… What she felt. They always asked, but how could words describe it?
The beast never asked questions. He did all the talking—most of it the slinging of insults.
“A bit slow today, Charlie. Trying to stretch our time together?”
Charlie only smiled and hefted the sword to swing for the beast’s shoulder. He dodged the blow. He dodged them all. Charlie couldn’t recall ever landing a hit on the beast, but he would follow through once the battle bored him. Yet he always returned to her, looking for another fight. That was the nature of their relationship: hatred toward each other, but a love of trying to wound.
It had started years ago, when Charlie first came to this small clearing to brood over the problems life seemed eager to deal out. The beast had been there, waiting, with a grim solution on his lips.
“Are you even trying, Charlie? You must defeat me someday, you know. Or I’ll grow tired and put an end to you.”
Sweat ran a cold line down Charlie’s temple. It was never pleasant to remember that there would be an end one day. If someone had to win, it should be her. It was only right. She had to try. The beast had made it clear over these past years how to defeat him. She was aware of his weakness.
With a shout, she heaved the sword into the air and brought it down over the beast’s head.
Blocked again, and with a swipe to her arm as punishment. He left a thin line of red down her forearm and she lunged again, trying to even the score with a slash to his belly, but he leapt back with catlike reflexes and leered.
“Not good enough!” His voice echoed off the trees and back to Charlie’s ears. Words she had heard all too often. Words that had brought her to this clearing from the start.
A flare of anger bubbled up through her numbness—enough to drive the sword toward the beast’s neck.
The beast deflected with one hand, loosening the sword from Charlie’s grip and slinging it across the clearing.
“Have you come here to play, Charlie, or have you come to win?” he reprimanded her. “I’m not even the fiercest monster you could face. Your strength is not becoming of a true fighter. You disappoint me.”
Charlie’s eyes pinched into a glare. It was no surprise that the beast was disappointed. She had disappointed many—and accepted it—but it didn’t make it any easier to hear.
As she hurried to recover the sword, the beast gripped her wrist in his claws, pressing hard on the cut and making it sting.
“If you claim that sword, it had better be with determination. Make an effort, or, so help me, I will end this today. Show me what you’ve learned.”
When he released Charlie’s arm, he left three more scrapes for good measure. The skin flared and reddened around them, but Charlie felt only the thrill and determination of battle. Adrenaline and endorphins had begun to flow. If it was an effort the beast wanted, that was what he would get.
Maybe today would be the day. Maybe today Charlie would exploit the beast’s weakness and fell him. The clearing would be calm and quiet, and it would be hers alone.
She made a show of spinning on a heel and striding toward where the sword stuck in the ground. She drew it from the damp earth and brought it down with the graceful skill only practice could give. No more games; it was time to dance.
Charlie was familiar with the weight of the sword, the balance between the blade and the hilt, and accepted it as an extension of the arm that held it. Breathing deeply, she shifted between one foot and the other, readying to move light and quick, and float across the clearing if necessary to catch the beast off guard.
“Yes!” the beast drew out in a long, pleased tone. “That’s it. That’s the child I’ve been grooming for battle. This is what I want to see. Now, show me what you can do with your skill.”
Charlie’s eyes opened to reveal flares of challenge and arrogance. The day had come: their finale. The blade was sharp—as sharp as the beast’s claws would ever be. Charlie had the advantage, if either of them did. The blade was long; it could put distance between them and strike at the same time. Why had she not thought to use it to its potential before now?
She let instincts take control, too. One foot moved, and it was all out of her head from there. Arms moved on their own and feet skipped and strode in circles. The blade spun over her head and sliced across the back of the beast’s shoulders, eliciting a feral cry that spooked the birds from their perches in the trees above them.
That was it—Charlie’s first point in their twisted game. Anything was possible now. Victory never seemed so attainable, but here it was, within sight. She brought the hilt of the sword down into the beast’s lower back, drawing out another roar, and spun away, lowering the sword to block its next strike.
The beast, shoulders heaving with rage, bore his sharp teeth and tipped his head to the side. His pupils had gone dark with bloodlust, chasing all light from his eyes. He lowered his shoulder to make his next move, but Charlie knew the beast well enough to anticipate his favored attacks.
That shoulder had knocked Charlie to the ground many times, leaving an opening for the beast to beleaguer her with blows and scratches, and that would be the end of their time together. She never recovered enough to fight once the beast moved the brawl to the grassy forest floor.
But that did not happen. As the beast charged, Charlie stepped aside and brought the heel of the blade down at the back of his neck. With a grunt that sounded something like approval, the beast hit the earth and tumbled to his feet, a hand pressed to his neck where Charlie had struck.
He attacked again. Without thinking, Charlie slapped his clawed hand from the air with the flat of the blade.
The beast curled his fingers into a fist intended for Charlie’s gut, but she knocked the side of his head with the sword handle, making him see stars and roar in frustration.
The beast became reckless, unleashing a flurry of uncalculated and hasty attacks that Charlie blocked and countered with ease, until the beast had had enough abuse. He dropped to the ground and swept a leg at Charlie’s feet, but even that failed.
Charlie leapt back and out of the beast’s range. She tripped to the ground, but rolled to steady feet without hesitation, face set downward and glazed over, ruling every movement with pure instinct rather than reason.
Another swipe, another parry. Another punch, another blunt blow to the softness of the beast’s side. Then an elbow to his temple, and finally the tip of Charlie’s blade to the beast’s jugular.
He did not rise. He looked at Charlie with awe for a moment before his face shifted toward a sneering pride.
“You’ve had this in you all along?” he inquired, half surprised, half exhilarated. “Why have you kept it from me?”
Charlie’s jaw set itself firm. If the beast had seen her skill before now, their time together would have ended and—the realization hit in the same moment the beast struck with the back of his meaty hand—Charlie wasn’t ready for this to end. What would be left without these mornings in the glade with the beast proving that life was a loathsome struggle? Victory meant a continued struggle to never lose again. Victory gave too much hope for the future and survival in a world bent on beating Charlie down. Fights with the beast were much more tolerable than facing the entire world with a strength she did not have. Better to tire by the beast’s claws than by the judging looks and whispered lies of peers who called themselves friends to her face.
“Well done.” There was a resigned tone in his voice that Charlie couldn’t bear. “You’ve bested me. Now finish this and face what’s ahead of you.”
He gripped the blade with his own hand and pressed it further against his neck, drawing a bead of blood, but Charlie resisted him.
She would not. Instead, she tugged the blade from the beast’s grasp, leaving him hissing as it sliced his palm and fingers. The sword was thrown to the ground, followed soon by its master.
The knees of Charlie’s pants soaked through with dew, sending a chill that brought her back to the moment: kneeling before the beast, under his disgusted gaze.
“Why have you retreated?” the beast demanded, pushing himself to stand tall and overbearing. “Get up.”
He took up the sword and rested the blade on Charlie’s shoulder—to either knight or behead.
“You will take this sword.” There was no room for questions. “You will stand and face me till the battle’s end.”
When she didn’t move, the beast took it upon himself to yank her up by the collar and shoved the sword against her chest.
Without thinking, her hand drifted to catch the handle as the beast let it go.
“Raise your sword.”
She did, but it hung in the air like it was hanging from a string, rather than held aloft by a strong set of hands.
“I could kill you, child. Do you not understand that?” He looked away, hissing air through his teeth. “Perhaps I should have, if this is all the fight you’ve got.”
Charlie stared at the grass, numb to the insults.
The beast sighed and shook his head. “I don’t want to kill you, Charlie.” They’d both understood this before, but this was the first time either of them had admitted their stalemate out loud. “I see a strength in you that is untapped, and I will draw it out if I have to bring you to within an inch of your life. I will show you what you’re capable of—and then I will leave you.”
Hot tears stung the corners of Charlie’s eyes. His leaving was what she was avoiding. Why take on the world when the beast was challenge enough?
“You’re meant for more than this. Don’t you understand?” The pleading in his voice surprised her, but not enough to change her mind.
What did he expect her to do? Talk to someone? Tell them of the feelings that wouldn’t come out in coherent words no matter how hard she tried? These battles were lethal, but they were the only excitement—the only happiness—that Charlie had. Why did the beast want to take that away?
She met the beast’s eyes, showing him the stubbornness of her resolve. He set his mouth into a thin line, a soft growl rumbling from his throat.
“So be it.”
His hand shot out and gripped Charlie’s wounded arm, pressing hard to remind her of the precious pain—the reminder that she was alive. He spun her into his chest, bending her arm in an unnatural way, and whispered into her ear. “If your will is this weak, then perhaps you yourself are a lost cause. My time is wasted on you.”
The side of Charlie’s mouth tugged into a weird grin and the beast shoved her away with a repulsed sound behind his teeth. Charlie’s cuts reopened, and the high returned.
She turned to face the beast and saw his raised claws looming overhead. Still smiling, her eyes slid closed in acceptance. There might be pain, but between leaving the glen and facing death, Charlie chose whatever the beast offered.
It was a shock when the tearing sensation didn’t come. Instead, the beast’s gentle hand landed in Charlie’s hair.
When she looked, the beast’s head was low, his eyes hidden by his messy mane of hair.
“I don’t know why I bother,” he sighed. “But somehow, I still believe in you, Charlie.” He raised his head to meet Charlie’s gaze, begging her to hear him. “I know you can defeat me. I am not your friend, and I need you to remember that.”
He took her injured arm in gentle hands—somehow more human than ever before—and Charlie’s breath caught at the realization that, although their meetings were not over, something had forever changed. Something was lost.
Fear gripped her chest, the heart there beat too fast for her to catch enough air.
“Don’t worry,” the beast assured her. “I’ll see you again, but this cannot last forever.” He brushed her cheek with the back of his rough knuckles. “I need you to accept that.”
His hand fell, and he stepped away from her. Their time was ending on his call, and despite the sorrow, Charlie still took comfort in knowing the beast’s words would bring them back together again.
She opened her eyes to the white tile of her mother’s bathroom, a cat brushing against her legs. The yellow fluorescent light blinded her, and the mirror reflected her tipsy smile.
No one had seen the battle because the beast and his glen weren’t real. Not to anyone but Charlie, who stood from the edge of the tub and dressed her arm with gauze, tugged her sleeve down to the wrist, and shut her eyes against the oncoming rush of shame at what she’d done. She hid her blade in the usual place, left her shelter to face the terrors of a new day, and vowed never to visit the beast again—knowing it was a lie.