Yellow light from the oil lantern washed over the bayonet as Nikolay ran it along the sharpening stone. He smiled; the glint of freshly honed steel was satisfying to his eyes.
“Sir, what shall we do with the prisoner?” the lieutenant asked.
Without missing a stroke, Nikolay replied, “Kill her; dump the body in the river.”
“But she’s just a girl, not a combatant.”
“She’s a rebel sympathizer. Do as I say.”
“But sir, the men… I mean… there are customs, even during war. They… they…”
“They what!” Nikolay’s head snapped up. The lieutenant looked away; afraid to challenge the captain’s dark eyes. Nikolay smirked, they were all weak. “Never mind, I’ll do it. Go get the horses and prepare to depart. We must rejoin the main column. Enough time has been wasted here as it is.”
The lieutenant quickly, and gratefully, left the small stable where they’d been interrogating the girl.
Nikolay rose, wiped the blade against his pants leg, and let his eyes examine the girl tied to one of the wooden supports. Tousled, black hair hung around her slouched head, hiding much of her face. All the better; the beating she’d taken without telling them anything had been severe. He had to begrudgingly admit, however, she had mettle — more than most men he knew.
He approached, put the tip of the blade under her chin, and lifted. She grimaced and raised her head. One eye was swollen shut, the other bloodshot. It peered up at him. “I won’t tell you anything,” she mumbled through bloodied lips.
“I know,” he said softly. “We’re done.”
With some effort, she pulled herself fully upright, the back of her head resting against the pole. “So it is time.”
Nikolay nodded. She knew what was coming, but the fact she faced it so casually aroused his curiosity. “Do you not fear the reaper?” he asked.
“Living without hope under the heel of the regime is worse than death for us… and for those whose lives are yet to be.”
“You’re very young to be so political.”
“And you’re not so old as to be so blind. How can you be in the service of such scandalous souls?” she asked.
Such questions were meant to buy time — she probably hoped for a miracle rescue — but that wasn’t about to happen; her comrades were dead. He glanced through the open stable doorway. The lieutenant still tended to the horses outside, Nikolay had a few minutes to spend, and her question had prompted a remembrance. Something he hadn’t talked about for a very long time. “It was the first year of the war, and the third of my daughter’s life,” he said. “Rebels overran the installation at Berkova and slaughtered all the civilians there. My wife included.” His voice briefly wavered. “They did savage things to her… things I cannot speak of but you know my meaning.”
“And your daughter?”
“They took her; she’s been captive now for fifteen years, although I’ve never lost hope of finding her. I keep my eyes aware. I’d recognize her even now.”
“You are sure?”
“I am sure.” He stepped back, thinking about what she’d said earlier. “Are you married, are you with child?”
“No, not married, at least not in the eyes of the state, but in the eyes of God, my love is as true and… I do carry his child.”
Nikolay snickered. “’Tis better then that I kill you now rather than risk letting a bastard son of the rebellion be born to fight another day.”
“Your soul is dead,” she replied. “You care nothing but to assuage your anger.”
“I fight for my own reasons,” he said. “That’s enough.”
The first rays of dawn slipped through the doorway, a soft gold that illuminated the side of the prisoner’s battered face. She sighed. “Sad it is that you are so blind.”
“Twice you’ve said that, explain your meaning.”
The un-swollen eye flashed. “I simply mean that we fight for the same reasons, but you see it not.”
“Oh, but we do. You fight to gain revenge and perhaps find and free your daughter, while I fight to gain revenge on those whose boots trample common dignity and to free all daughters from their tyranny.”
“Political rhetoric, not worth sand,” Nikolay scoffed.
She paused, thinking. “If I were your long-lost daughter engaged in such pursuit, would you say the same?”
“You are not.”
“How do you know? From what you said, I am of her years, and I, myself, was taken in as an orphan at an early age. Could I not, therefore, be the one you seek? And, if so, would I not represent the ultimate victory of the rebellion over you. Blood against blood?”
Her words set him back on his heels. Was there any chance she was right? There was one way to make sure. His daughter had a birthmark, a heart shape on her left shoulder. An area currently covered by the girl’s long hair. Hair the same color as his departed wife’s. He carefully probed with the bayonet.
She flinched. “What are you doing?”
“My real daughter has a birthmark.”
“If you find it, what happens then? Would you despair that your daughter fights against you? And if you don’t find it, might that merely mean she fights the regime’s tyranny somewhere else?”
The girl was provoking him. He put the tip to her throat. “You intentionally vex me. Do you want to die?”
She smiled. “You should ask instead if you want your own life back. Spare me if you choose, but do so only if you have the courage to allow the daughters of all men to live free.”
“Sir, the horses are ready,” the lieutenant announced from the stable doorway.
Nikolay considered the bayonet pressed against the girl’s throat. One quick thrust and it would be over. In the end, did it matter if she was a rebel, if she was also his child?
Perhaps, for most fathers, that was an eternal question.
James C.G. Shirk… just a guy living between the Cascades and the Olympics who likes to put words on paper.
This story is sponsored by
Clarion West Writers Workshop — Apply now through March 1 for 2014’s six-week workshop with Paul Park, Kij Johnson, Ian McDonald, Hiromi Goto, Charlie Jane Anders, and John Crowley, June 22 – August 1 in Seattle.