Desert of Stars
:III: Set during and after the Scanran War. Violent, depressing, VERY sad, slightly bizarre, Kel/Baird—don't like, don't read, definitely don't flame. I put it as romance/tragedy, but it's also very angsty and, of course, lots of drama as well. If this story confuses you in any way, please leave a review or email me, and I shall attempt to fix it. I tried to make this as well-written and different as I could (with hopes of making it stand out) without making Kel completely OOC, but I'm afraid I've not done a very good job…you tell me. I hadn't originally intended to post it but decided to just to give you all something to read, since I haven't been writing much lately, sorry. Well, enjoy. :III:
"If you are placed together, will you watch him?" asked Baird suddenly. "He respects you, despite the difference in your ages. You're sensible and levelheaded. He listens to you."
Kel stared at the duke, then nodded again. "I will look out for him if I can," she replied honestly.
—Lady Knight, Chapter Three: "Long, Cold Road"
II—IIA tribute to Dom's Lover, who ingeniously came up with the idea for Kel/Baird pairing, and inspired me into writing this little fic, which is insignificant in comparison. She gets the credit, not I. (Go read her KB, Box of Rain, because it's exceptionally well-written and lovely. GO NOW.) Disclaimer: Protector of the Small and the places, characters, and otherwise related entities therein belong to Tamora Pierce. II—II
Maybe, if she hadn't gone to him, things would have been different.
Maybe, if everything hadn't been so confusing and grievous, it wouldn't have happened.
Maybe, if in that small moment of eternity, his eyes hadn't reminded her so strongly of Neal, nothing at all would have happened.
Maybe it wouldn't have.
But it did.
She remembered, it had been a dreary autumn afternoon. She remembered the sun's faint beams hardly penetrating the grey clouds that sheathed the sky. She remembered the leaves tinged with red and gold, the cold wind that whispered in her ear, the dismal black all around her.
It wasn't as if she hadn't seen death before, she reminded herself as she hid behind a smooth stone façade. She was a knight. She was accustomed to death, in a strange, cold sort of way. She'd killed men before. But no vast amount of experience or discipline could prepare her for something like this.
It was strange to think of death as a kind of void, but that's all she felt then. A void. An empty place in her heart, knowing that it would never be filled. She knew it was going to be so difficult to learn to adapt, to truly realise that he was gone, that he wasn't coming back no matter how many tears she cried. Tears like the rain that gathered in the clouds above but refused to spill. And so it was that she held her tears and anguish within her, locked in behind emotionless hazel eyes.
The sky seemed to press down heavily, as dismal and desolate as the deep ache that plagued Kel's heart. She closed her eyes tightly, trembling. She remembered so well that fateful moment, etched into eternity, tormenting her mind.
She had watched it.
She had watched it all.
She had tried.
But she couldn't save him.
It wasn't her fault. Not really. But she remembered the heat of the fight, the bitter, harsh stench of blood and torn flesh, the sharp clanging of steel against steel and then steel ripping into flesh, and wished she could have done something, anything. She remembered the enemy swarming onto the Tortallan troops like insects over food, insects roaring and thrusting swords through armour and laughing maniacally as they drank in the rasping cries and anguished screams of the dying. She remembered frantically searching for Neal—of everyone, he was the one who mattered most. She remembered stepping over dead bodies, dead bodies that she recognised, even with blood leaking from a hundred wounds and their faces twisted, distorted in pain. She remembered shoving past fleeing soldiers and—and she saw—
She saw him.
He was fighting so bravely. She was, for a mere moment, paralysed, frozen, petrified. She watched his flashing emerald eyes as he stood over the corpse of a familiar man in the blue uniform of the King's Own whose dark hair was matted with blood and blue eyes unseeing. She watched his sword as he swung it viciously, in a furious frenzy of rage, at a huge warrior who loomed over him, blocking Neal's blows with an enormous broadsword. She remembered feeling faint, both at the sight of the fallen King's Own soldier and at the overwhelming odds Neal was facing. She felt sick—Neal's shoulder was bleeding from a wound that soaked his tunic, and he defended himself weakly from the other warrior's ferocious blows. Kel was frantic. She rushed forward with a cry to save him.
But it was too late.
She watched in horror as the immense warrior leered at Neal, their swords crossed perilously, and forced Neal onto his knees. The beast grinned cruelly—
so horribly, so passionately pleased—
Oh gods I've got to save Neal! Bright Goddess, there he is and he's—
she was so petrified with shock and terror—
she couldn't think, couldn't move, just watched—watched as—
as with a roar, the Scanran brute drove his broadsword into Neal's chest.
Kel felt time slow. She heard her own ragged breaths echoing in her head, loud and ominous, as she bounded forward. She saw Neal sink to the ground, hands clutching at the gaping wound in his chest, and slump onto the dirt.
Kel felt a scream ripped from her throat. She hurled herself at the giant warrior, thrusting her sword anywhere she could reach. She heard a gurgle of protestation as the brute collapsed onto the ground beside her. She had struck its throat. Kel continued her attack, her vision blurred with tears and gore, until blood soaked her armour and sword. She stared in horror at her red-streaked Griffin and dropped it, looking at her bloodstained, trembling hands.
Then she remembered.
She turned and saw him. Only now, he was no longer a valiant warrior defending his kingdom. He was a fallen hero. She threw herself onto his body, gasping for breath as she carefully removed his armour to examine his wound. But it was too late. Blood drenched his clothes, seeping sluggishly from the stretching gash across his ribcage that had sank too deeply through him to be healed. Kel tasted bile and salt water in her mouth—this was it, she realised, hardly able to think over her pounding heartbeat.
"Neal," she murmured, her voice dry and cracked. "Neal."
He was pale and cold, but still he heard her. Neal's eyes slowly opened and focused on her as he smiled gently. "Kel," he answered, his voice soft and broken by his laboured breathing. "I…I'm sorry."
She bent over to him, feeling the fragile wisp of his breath against her cheek. Tears mingled, his and hers. "No, Neal." She wanted to assure him that it would be all right, that she would save him, but she knew it would be a lie. She couldn't save him. She had already failed. "I'm sorry. I tried, I—I—"
Neal's smile remained, he let out a wheezing gasp that faintly resembled a laugh. "Stop patronising yourself, Kel," he scolded. Kel smiled through her tears—here was her Neal. "Don't be ridiculous. You've saved my life enough already—now let me go."
She felt her throat catch. Kel stroked his white, bloody face, still so beautiful as he lay in her arms slipping away. The battle raging all aroung them didn't matter. The moans and screams of the wounded didn't matter. The slaughter didn't matter, nor the dead, the blood, and enemy. Only Neal. "I can't," she whispered, a whimper escaping her throat. "I—can't. Can't let you… how will I…"
He lifted a trembling hand to grip hers with his shaking grasp. "You have to," Neal rasped, his eyes clouding with pain and sadness. "You have to. You're a knight. You're a commander. You're a leader, Kel. Your people need you."
"I need you," Kel told him, her tears slipping down her cheeks and onto Neal's fallen form.
He shook his head, the merest motion. "No," Neal whispered. "No." He lowered his hand, still gripping Kel's, onto his chest and closed his eyes. "I didn't—I didn't think this would happen," he murmured, more to himself than to Kel. "But—it happened to Cor and Jesse and Daltan…I never really thought it would happen to me. Not now." He squeezed Kel's hand, the slightest pressure, but still comforting. "I know that you need me. But they need you more."
"Neal." The word was a mere whisper, pleading and desperate. Kel thought of all the things she wanted to say, of the time slipping by with each breath she drew, of the brief moments—perhaps seconds—that her best friend, her truest, dearest friend, had left to live. In the end, all of the vows and confessions and memories and pleas that Kel tried to say all resolved in three simple words. "Neal…I love you."
He smiled, the broken smile of a man whose life has been spent on a bloody battlefield of shattered limbs and hearts and souls, the smile of a man who has no more to lose, the smile of a man who waited too long. "I know." His breath rasped, caught, shuddered. He had only the strength for a last reply. "You're all that matters. Now, and—forever."
The light in his eyes faded, like the waning starlight in advancing daybreak, only there would be no dawn, no sunrise, no greater light after this. Only night, eternal night, shadows and darkness.
His eyes closed and did not open. His hand on hers tightened briefly, but slackened after. He spoke those words—he will be silent now, for forever. He drew a last, trembling breath…
He did not take another.
Her sobs fell on deaf ears, her wild-eyed gaze on blind emerald eyes, her tears on pale, lifeless skin. Her kiss, first and last and sweetest, fell on his cold, dead lips.
"Neal…Neal! Neal!" Her words faded into the heat and haze of the battle, into the bleeding air, into the empty, barren desert of her broken mind. She remembered.
She watched as they set fire to his body, her rigid will keeping the tears safely within. Everyone came for his funeral. She saw their eyes—pale, wet, unbelieving. Her eyes were dull. Her eyes were dry. Her heart was cold, hard, empty. She knew the absurdity of her feeling that there was nothing left, when really there was everything. Everything except him. A world without him. A whole world had been robbed of a wonderful, unequaled man, and few would ever know him. A world that would never again know his laughter, his smile, his comments that, sarcastic and tender alike, would always bring a brief happiness to her. She wasn't sure that she was ready to face that world.
Kel looked around hesitantly, her eyes drifting past the black-clad figures who all seemed so frail, so lost, so distraught. Her gaze settled on a tall, stern man, also in heavy black attire, who was clenching and relaxing his hands. Kel looked closer. Dark green eyes flooded with tears as she watched, but they did not spill. She saw the agony reflected like a dozen burning, throbbing stars in his eyes, pain and anger and such a beautiful, dark anguish that mirrored the shadows in her own heart. She cried for him, cried silent tears caught behind her eyes, and she wished she could tell him that she was sorry, that she'd failed, but he turned and met her eyes and she told him everything then, without disturbing the beautiful silence with even a whisper.
Kel saw the people, she saw the flowers and the tears, she saw the priest and the pyre and the last ashes of her love burning into the air, she saw the clouds and the rain slipping down from the sky down upon them, these things she saw, but at that moment the only thing she really saw was Baird, with his blackness and darkness and shadows and the stars in his eyes, searing and pulsating and devouring.
She wasn't sure what happened to her those next few days. She wasn't sure of anything, not then. Only that her eyes felt like barren deserts and her mouth tasted of grief and dust and ashes, and there was a fire that still burned in her heart. But she didn't feel anything else. When she tried to sleep, all she dreamed of was Neal's mirror-emerald eyes, reflecting tiny images of her, and she dreamt she was locked in his eyes forever. When she tried to eat, nothing would pass through her lips. When they came to her door and knocked, with their friendly smiles and heartfelt apologies, she tried to smile and thank them and tell them that she was all right, though it was just bitter lies that choked her throat.
She was drowning, sinking, falling—falling deeply into a huge chasm of grief, of nothingness. He was gone. He was gone, and he wasn't coming back. Ever.
She watched all the other people letting him go, going on with life, recovering gradually but recovering all the same. She wished she could release herself from him, to be free again, but he was still there. Always there. No matter what.
She couldn't let him go.
"The war is over. It's done, Kel. We've won."
Perhaps Tortall's armies had won. Perhaps its loyal knights and warriors had won. Perhaps the Crown, the monarchs, the war generals had won. But she had only lost.
She had lost what was dearest to her. She had lost the one thing she had been trying to hold onto for all of this time. She had lost him.
She had lost him.
There was nothing left for her. There was her family, her friends who still remained, her fatherland; there was her country and her loyalty and her sovereigns; there was her life that lingered though his was gone and she knew within her soul that fate was hers to fight; but all of this was just the desolate desert that steadily devoured her. No, there was nothing left now. Just ashes, ashes, ashes mixed with salty tears and the screams that were building in her throat, withering to nothing before she could open her mouth.
He was one person. One person to millions. But to her, he was everything.
The desert grew within her, consuming and creeping and wasting, until she thought if she screamed, only sand and dust would pour out of her mouth and smother the sound. There was something she needed, burning in the back of her mind, but for so long she denied it and shrank back into her solitude. She needed to live, she needed to fight, she needed to be herself again but she couldn't with that vast desert taking her over. She needed all of this, but the need for Baird was greater, and gradually she admitted this and crept out of her room late one night, when the stars swung high over her, and quietly went to his quarters. She didn't know what she wanted from him, comfort or assurance or maybe just those dark emerald eyes almost like Neal's, but she knew that with every step she took, she felt as though grains of sand were slowly slipping away from her desert.
When she knocked at his door, he didn't open. But from somewhere within, she could hear something rustling. Kel decided to go on in. She carefully reached for the doorknob and turned it slowly, quietly opening the door with a creak that caused the man slumped in a chair to look up. Kel closed the door soundlessly behind her.
Baird rose, his face glistening with the shining tracks of tears, and approached her. "Keladry," he said softly, and he reached out a hand. Emerald eyes met hers, clouded with concern. Kel closed her own eyes with a shudder.
She had cried so many tears that her eyes felt dry, hot, withering in her need to cry, but she couldn't. Her eyes were the desert that she wandered in like a haunted ghost, whispers and emptiness and echoes.
She looked up. Looked up into deep-set green eyes, a shade darker than Neal's but so familiar, like the emerald ocean of derision and tenderness she had once drowned in with her wishes of his love, but never again.
"Oh, gods…Neal," Kel whispered, shaking visibly. "I—I'm sorry. I failed."
Baird gently took her shoulders. She trembled with the strain to give in to her grief, but fought the tears with every shred of her resolution. Finally, Baird's comforting touch against her cheek forced her to abandon any last remnant of strength. The tears came then, hot and burning against her cheeks. Dust, dust and ashes and desert, she thought. That was what she saw. At least, that was what she saw until emerald eyes filled her vision, gleaming with crystal tears and those burning stars, and she did not see the bleak, grim desert that swam in her own eyes, but she saw him and she saw acceptance and guidance and comfort and maybe, just maybe, love. Love as his lips came forward, draining the desert and ashes from her heart, giving her stars and hope and rain.
And maybe, just maybe, her eyes wouldn't be deserts but they would be stars, like his, or resplendent sunsets and pale silvery moonbeams and the promise of the sunrise; they would be anything and everything and they would be reflected in emerald mirrors that were a shade darker than they should have been, but now there was him and only him and it didn't matter.