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With the Strength of Light and Fire

A Fantasy Short Story

There was nothing to be done for it. Not anymore.

Katya crawled up the muddy hill, boots slipping on the slick surface of the mound of earth and vegetation that rose above the town. Icy rain saturated the wool of her beret and sent cold fingers down the back of her neck where her scarf soaked through. Her waxed canvas jacket was holding its own, at least. That gave her thick woolen sweater a fighting chance of keeping her from hypothermia at least. She called it her sweater, but really it was his.

But he was dead, now. Another thing past saving.

Katya’s lungs screamed with the effort of the climb through the scrubby bushes and the occasional tree clinging on for dear life. Darkness was falling, but she had to keep going. She had to catch up with the group ahead. They were no longer within sight or easy hearing, which meant she wasn't safe. Not here, not now. Not yet.

Her boot slipped on a patch of wet leaves, slowly composting themselves back into earth. She caught herself, barely, wrenching a muscle in her side. The scent of rain and mouldering leaves filled her nostrils, sending a sharp pang of longing through her. A longing for a snug home and the hearth where she burned twigs and small logs as François made them tea.

Those safe, secure nights felt far away here. And they would never return, would they?


None of us ever safe, the Professor used to say, during late nights in the café smoking cigarettes and drinking sour red wine that could clean rust off a carburetor. She missed those nights, too. She missed the laughter and the choking cigarette smoke. She missed the Professor, scratching at his scraggly beard and peering at her through the dirty lenses of his round glasses. Most of all, she missed François. Her first love.

Well that wasn't completely true, as her young heart had loved before. But he was the first one she had given both her heart and body too, spending night after night offering each other the warmth and comfort so hard to come by these days.

And now she was alone. Parents dead. Sister lost somewhere. The cat run off to fend for itself. And François, dead in a ditch with a single bullet embedded in the beautiful brain inside his skull.

“Keep going.” Katya gritted her teeth and ground out the words, fearing that she had indeed fallen too far behind her comrades up ahead. If that was the case, she would be lost. They could not afford to stay behind for anyone, let alone a person with her limited skill set.

Her skills were useful for their overall mission, but not critical for surviving acute situations. This was an acute situation. And she was expendable.

Despite the screaming of her aching muscles, Katya put on speed and intensified her efforts to climb this muddy hill. She could feel the rubble of the town they had left behind. And the bodies of their friends. She felt the gun in her pocket and the knife strapped to her waist.


She could also feel the blood beneath her finger nails, and almost sense the lingering warmth of that blood when it was fresh, and seeping from the soldier’s neck. She had to slit his throat from behind, just as the Professor taught. Sharp as night, quick as dawn, was what he always told her. Even though the words never made any rational sense, she felt them in her soul.

She caught sight of the gray jacket of Luis just ahead and let out a sigh of relief. Part of her it's been afraid they had left her behind. She was not the strongest of the group, nor the smartest. She always knew if anyone was expendable the first to go would be her. But luckily, it did not seem as if today would be that day.

Katya rounded a clump of bushes that were likely lovely in daylight, but in the dumping rain and gathering dark, looked like sinister trolls, waiting to snatch her up and carry her to their stony lairs. Something flickered up ahead. A small light through the trees, which were more plentiful all of a sudden. Funny, she didn’t recall seeing a heavily wooded area on the hill before. Must be some strange trick of contouring that hid the forest from below. Regardless, Katya hoped against hope that the flicker was coming from her comrades. Had the Professor or one of the scouts found shelter? That would be welcome indeed. Anything to get the pounding water off her head and some warmth back into her fingers and toes.

Katya staggered and sneezed sharply into her elbow, before dragging an already sodden handkerchief from a coat pocket to wipe her nose. It was the little things she found, that helped to keep her sane. Even something as an ineffective as wiping her nose with a wet handkerchief in the middle of a pouring rain.

Squinting her eyes, she tried to focus on the light ahead. It shimmered, which was odd. That did not look like a cooking fire. She slowed. This would need a careful approach, not that anyone could see her moving, half covered in mud, through the sodden bushes and thicker trees.

Katya called upon all of her training, regulating her breathing and stepping carefully, slipping like a wet shadow from tree to tree, carefully skimming her feet across dead leaves and errant stones.

The shimmering light grew brighter, glowing as if someone had lit a candle in a hall of mirrors. What in the world could it be? A weapon of some sort? Had her comrades stumbled into a trap? Katya had heard stories from some of the Professor’s hangers on, deep in their cups, about the strange things they had seen while on watch. Glowing phosphorescent orbs and the like. She had chalked it up to the wishful thinking of drunken men trying to seem more important in her eyes. That was more likely than they had seen these new chemical weapons it was rumored the fascists had.

But now? She wished she’d paid better attention.

Tucking her wet wool scarf over her nose and mouth, she grimaced at the smell of damp sheep and dog. But better that than inhaling whatever strange fumes might be ahead. Besides, the dark scarf covered her pale skin, increasing her stealth.


Then she realized her boots were stationary in the mud and leaves below, her body unwilling to move forward, as if some animal sense had frozen her there. How long had she been standing, rain filling her clothing, on the now completely dark hillside?

Dark except for the light, still shimmering ahead. It was brighter now. That was what had stopped her. There was no crackle of flame consuming wood through the sound of rain. No smoke scent snaking its way through the damp.

Katya forced her right boot forward. Forced every muscle to move carefully, despite everything wanting to seize up from the chill. Inhale. Exhale. Step. Left foot. Same. Centimeter by centimeter she moved. One more step. She froze again, terror filling her limbs. Rain still fell steadily down the back of her neck. But the front of her?

She reached out her arms. The air was dry. Scented with apples and flowers. One more step. A second.

Instead of the dark of night, she stood in an apple grove at dusk, facing the source of the shimmering glow.

It was a woman with rich golden hair cascading down her back, and pale skin tinged with gold. She wore soft leather trousers and a pale blue blouse of some fine material. A deeper blue shawl wrapped around her shoulders like a blanket.

Dark brown eyes tilted up at the outer edges, and gazed at Katya, head canted to one side as if the woman was a bird and Katya a very tasty beetle.

At least the woman did not appear armed. She beckoned Katya closer. Katya took half a step before catching herself. It felt as if a slender cord tugged her toward the woman.


What would the Professor say? He would say trust no one. Hold your ground. So Katya willed her boots to stillness once again. Her stomach growled. She really wanted one of the apples she saw growing on the trees surrounding the golden woman in the rich blue shawl.

Strange. The trees held both fruit and small white flowers. How was that possible? “What is this place?” Katya croaked out. But in her heart, she knew.

“Welcome to my realm,” the woman said. “Some call it Elfland, others Faery. Some say Underhill, or heaven, or the Summerlands. Still others say this is Freya’s realm. What do you think this place is? It changes, you know, according to your need.”

Katya’s mind swam, trying to make sense of the woman’s words.

“Where is the battle? The town? My comrades?”

Shit. She should not have said that last. Best for the woman to think Katya worked alone. The Professor would not be pleased.

“Far from here, and nearer than you think.”

Cryptic.

The woman beckoned again. “Come. Wash your face and hands. I have food and drink for you.”

Katya looked around, not spying any other people. As a matter of fact, nothing here looked like a threat. Except for the lack of rain and dark and the fact that this place felt as uncanny as the woman standing in front of her.

Katya leveled her own brown eyes at the woman, who smiled. The smile was blinding as the sun. Katya blinked. “Who are you?”


The woman tipped her head back and laughed like the ringing of one thousand bells. Katya stood, blinking rapidly, trying to clear her head of all the impulses that told her she was safe here, and to simply relax and enjoy what the woman was offering.

Those impulses that the Professor had diligently trained out of them all. Be wary, was the oft repeated phrase. Those who forgot the lesson usually ended up dead.

Was that what had happened to François? Had her lover dropped his guard? Had a golden woman tricked him before putting a bullet in his head?

“I am who you need me to be.”

Rage kindled in Katya’s heart at that answer.

“Who I need you to be?” she spat the words as if they were bullets. “Who I need you to be is a nurse to bring my lover back to life. Who I need you to be is an avenging goddess to squash the tyrants with their boots on our necks. Who I need you to be?” Katya’s voice cracked, throat tight with tension and the effort to force the words through. Behind the woman, three apple blossoms slowly swirled to earth. “Who I need you to be is something impossible to imagine.”

“Imagine it, then,” the woman said, moving swiftly forward, right hand outstretched. Katya move to block a blow, but all she felt was the gentle tap of cool fingers on her brow.


*** She woke up sore but comfortable. And she was warm. And laying on something silk- soft. Her skin felt clean for the first time in a month. She was naked.


Katya scrambled against the sheets and blankets, fingers grasping, hoping for the small knife she kept in her boot. Hoping for her gun. Her garrote. Hoping for any number of weapons secreted throughout her clothing.

Her clothing was draped, also clean, over the back of a wooden chair. Her eyes raked the small room, from the wood on the floor to the wood above, to the white curtains wafting from the open window, letting in that damned apple scented air.

She threw aside the green and blue woven blankets and the soft white sheets and began to shove her limbs back into her clothes. Her weapons were all gone.

“Shit!” Katya hissed. But no weapons was to be expected when a resistance member was felled behind enemy lines. She had trained for that eventuality, as well.

What she had not trained for was to wake up clean and naked in the lap of luxury, with, what was that on a small table beneath the window? Fresh baked bread, white cheese, a pot of jam, and tea with cream and sugar. And an apple, gleaming red.

Her stomach growled. As soon as she was clothed, freshly cleaned and polished boots back on her feet, she dragged the chair to the table, sniffed the food for poison, then fell upon the feast, figuring it was better to die with a full belly than without.

There was apricot jam in the small pot. She smeared the bread with cheese and jam and groaned as the mingled tastes hit her mouth. She polished off the tea and all the rest in short order, and had just placed the apple pips on the wooden plate when a knock came at the door.

Shoving back the chair, Katya was on her feet just as the door opened smoothly onto the face of the Lady with her uncanny eyes, and her golden skin and hair.


Katya growled, deep in her throat.

The Lady laughed. “Such a greeting!”

“You knocked me out,” Katya spat, fists clenched at her sides, wishing for her knife.


“You fainted,” the lady countered.

“I. Don’t. Faint.” The Lady had done something to Katya, she was sure of it. But she couldn’t quite recall what. A brush of fingertips across her brow, then blackness.

The Lady arched an eyebrow and quirked her head to one side, like a robin looking for a worm.

And Katya was the worm.

“What did you do to me?” Katya took a step toward the lady, whose mouth quirked up in delight. But was that a flicker of uncertainty in her eyes?

They both stood, unspeaking for a moment, their mingled breath the only sound in the room. Warmth pooled between Katya’s thighs, filling her with a shame at betraying François, who had died for the cause. Who was this person to affect her in this way? Katya let desire stoke her anger. Anger is good, The Professor often said. Let it hone you like a knife, but do not let it control you.

So, just enough anger then. Katya unclenched her fingers and rested her hands on her hips, not tense, but ready to strike.

“You are correct,” the Lady finally said. “You were barely standing, and heading into danger, so I spelled you and brought you here.”

Katya blinked. “Why?”


The Lady looked down, as if uncertain, before raising her head once more. Uncertainty did not mix well with her proud nature, just as sorrow settled uneasily in Katya’s heart, pushing some of her bravery away.

“Your friends were ambushed and you were walking toward capture.”

“That still does not answer my question. Why help me?”

“Because, if those whom you oppose shall win, it is bad for us all.”

It was Katya’s turn to laugh now, harsh as a crow’s call. She looked around the finely appointed room, the softly wafting curtains, and the twilight outside. It had been twilight when she arrived, too. She had a feeling that it always was, just as there were always buds, and flowers, and fruit upon the trees.

“Here? In this place?” A frown creased her face. “Wait. Are you Freya? Am I dead?”

Katya fought the urge to cross herself. A childhood superstition that only inserted itself when she was in uncharted situations. Like right now.

Raised Christian by her father, her mother had told her tales from the ancient peoples around the world. And she remembered her mother’s voice, speaking of the Golden Lady of Love. She who lived with the elves of light. She who welcomed those who fought and died with honor, but only those of her choosing. Those who fought and died with honor, and for love.

“Call me what you wish,” the Lady said. “And no, you are not dead. Simply in need of my aid.”

“Well, what aid shall you offer, then?”


“Come with me, child,” the Lady said. “Let us sit together beneath the trees and I shall tell you.”

***

Katya didn’t know how long she remained within the Lady’s realm. When she emerged, it was dark and snow covered the hill. She was stronger, having eaten the first good food she’d had in months, and having trained with the Lady’s best warriors.

Two of them accompanied her now. She thought of them as a man and a woman, though they were as uncanny as the Lady, so could well be any race or gender.

She still grieved for the Professor, François, and all the rest, but her heart was filled more with determination than with grief.

Leading the two warriors behind her—they had procured stout boots, and pants and coats that fit her time—she made her way to the city’s edge, and the burned out ruins there. A few lights glimmered below. She didn’t know if they belonged to the fascists, or to friends. She didn’t know if the war was over, or continued still.

There was far too much she did not know. And not knowing was dangerous.

Katya let her boots lead the way, sniffing the air for chemicals or for the cigarettes the enemy soldiers smoked by the case. All she smelled was a hearth fire or two, and the stink of burned out buildings and singed hair, all blessedly muted by the snowfall and the cold.

The streets were quiet, with not even a dog making the rounds in the cold. There was noise ahead, and more light. Looking warily around her, Katya sensed no danger. Perhaps

the fascists—the enemy—had been defeated, or moved on. They did that, she knew, when they felt a place had been subdued enough, and they had stolen what they could.

Like the lives of her comrades and friends. Her mentor. And her lover.

Her lover whose memory she had betrayed between the Lady’s thighs, and with her lips. But that was the arrangement Katya had with François. The arrangement so many had during wartime. You take what love and pleasure you find where you can get it. And you don’t begrudge love or comfort to your friends.

Katya’s thoughts were interrupted by the fact that her boots had stopped in the middle of the street.

“Why did you stop?” asked the broader of the two warriors. The one she thought of as a man. His comrade sniffed the air for danger.

“I...no reason.”

But there was a reason. It was the brightly lit café just ahead. Her home away from home. The place where she had drunk coffee and wine, shouted arguments and whispered plans. The place she met François. The Professor’s classroom.

“I can’t believe its still here,” she whispered to the frigid air. Then her boots were moving once again, as if of their own volition. Did Katya have any choices of her own any longer?

Her body knew what her mind and heart did not. She had made love to the Lady, eaten her food, and trained with her warriors. Katya was on this street because the Lady had decreed that it was time, and Katya’s gut agreed.

And she would walk into the café the same way, by doing her body’s bidding.


One step at a time. Cross the winter-hushed street. Follow the faint sounds of voices in conversation. Up the two creaking wooden steps. Through the wood door set between two glowing windows. Turn the knob. Open the door.

She was hit with the smell of tea and wine. Conversation ceased. One of the warrrior’s shoved her lightly, to get her across the threshold. Right. She was gawping like a fool and putting all three of them in danger.

Except there was not danger here, just the smattering of weary faces of people she once knew. “Katya?” Marianne hurried toward her, wiping reddened hands on a white towel. The woman was more gaunt than last time Katya had seen her, but her worn brown shoes and patterned brown and blue dress were the same. “We thought that you were dead.”

She allowed herself to fall into the other woman’s embrace.

“So did I.”

Marianne pulled away, watery blue eyes searching Katya’s brown. “And the others?” Katya shook her head, unable to speak the hideous truth. The Lady’s warriors had finally broken the news that her ambushed comrades were all dead.

Pain crossed Marianne’s face and she shook her head, then drew Katya further in. “You and your friends, sit. I’ll bring you wine. Then you can tell us why you’ve come back.”

Marianne turned, but Katya gripped her arm. “The fascists?”


The other woman screwed up her mouth as if to spit. “Moved one on. For now. After taking what they wanted, and killing what they did not.”

“But how... how are you all here?” Katya waved a hand around the room, and the wary eyes still trained her way.

Marianne jerked her head toward the floor. Of course. The town was riddled with cellars. That is why there was still wine. And the people here must have hidden when things got too bad to resist anymore. And Katya had not been here to help them.

But she was here to help them now. The Lady had sent her with a plan.

***

The fascists were one town and one village over, on the other side of the Lady’s mountain.

But they would not be there for long.

Katya and the warriors had rallied the remaining members of the Resistance. Two weeks later, they were joined by more of the Lady’s people. There was some skepticism from both sides at first, but soon they were all working together just fine, with only the occasional squabbles that reminded Katya of her old comrades.

The comrades she was here to avenge.

And now they were gathered in pre-dawn on the far side of the mountain, looking down on the peacefully slumbering town. If a twin filled with fascists could ever be called peaceful.

Swiftly, Katya’s people—and the Lady’s—surrounded the village.


“What now?” Marianne had locked up and left the café behind, insisting on being part of taking down the bastards who had killed so many friends and comrades.

“We cause a distraction. The Lady said she’d do the rest.” Katya’s eyes raked the village down below. Whether she sought a sign or was looking for trouble, she didn’t know. But the Professor had trained her to look and listen, and so she always did.

“And if this Lady doesn’t?”

Katya turned to her old friend, feeling a feral grin split her own face. “Then we slaughter the fascists the way they slaughtered our family and friends.”

Marianne gave a sharp nod, satisfied.

Then Katya gave the sign, and with swift boots, their crew raced down. When they were just outside the village, four of their crew spread out and began lighting barns on fire, opening the doors to let the animals free as they went.

Shouting arose inside the village and someone sounded a horn.

And then light filled the sky and a shimmering rose from the earth. Katya blinked, trying to clear away the dazzle. The ground hummed beneath her feet.

And the singing began. Song like she had never heard before, filling her, body and soul. Insinuating itself into her heart. Healing the rifts and tears there. Lending her strength.

From inside the village, terrified screaming rose. The hairs stood erect on the back of Katya’s neck at the sound.

“Let’s go!” Katya raced into the village, gun in one hand, knife strapped securely at her waist. Her comrades boiled around her, dark shadows in the dazzling light.


The Lady floated above a central square, wearing her soft leather trousers, blue shawl billowing around her, long fingers pointing this way and that, directed her warriors.

The fascists piled up like cordwood, dead at their feet. Still others knelt on hard packed earth, clutching their skulls and keening, whether in pain, or fear, or sorrow, Katya could not tell.

“Get the villagers out!” she shouted to her comrades hovering at the edges of the fight. Then she dove into the fray, helping the warriors battling those still standing.

She shot a man in the back before he plunged a bayonet into a warrior’s side.

“For François!” she bellowed as the man crumpled to the ground, blood staining his dark clothing. Whether he had pulled the trigger on her lover did not matter. Any fascist would do.

She fought on through the dazzle and hum, stabbing out here and shooting there. She moved as if filled by the Lady’s magic light. Filled with the strength of a holy fire. Her body sang with the humming of the earth. Her hands and weapons flew as if guided, hitting every target in her way.

She laughed into the shimmering, blinding air, and looked up at the Lady. Then something struck her from behind, engulfing her in blackness. Katya’s last thought before she fell was, I hope that we shall win.

***

She awakened in the Lady’s bower, naked, limbs splayed out on silk-soft sheets. “Katya.” That was the Lady’s voice.


Katya blinked at the dusky spring light through the billowing white curtains, then craned her neck toward the tall figure standing just inside the doorway. Breathtakingly beautiful.

“Am I alive?” Katya croaked out. Her throat felt like someone had gone over it with a rasp and an ice pick threatened her right temple. Must be alive then. Death shouldn’t feel this bad.

The Lady stepped forward, gliding across the floor. She held out a hand, one tapered finger sliding across Katya’s brow. The ice pick withdrew. The Lady sat on the edge of the bed and peered at Katya with those slightly tilted brown eyes. Her golden hair formed a pool on Katya’s thighs, and her gold-tinged hand rested on Katya’s bruised fingers.

“You are very much alive. You took a blow to the head from behind, but one of my warriors got you to safety. When our task was done, I brought you here to rest.”

Katya struggled to sit, finally wedging a pillow behind her back, and blinked at the Lady.

“And my comrades? Your people? Did we win?”

The Lady’s smile made Katya shiver.

“Oh, we were victorious. Your comrades are fine, or resting in their own beds. My people barely sustained a scratch. Those poor excuses for humans shall not bother you or your comrades for quite some time. I sent my best warriors to their stronghold.”

“And?”

“It is burnt to the ground. And their leaders are all dead, gone to whatever realm will take their kind.”

Katya sank back against the pillow, the tension holding her upright releasing her muscles once again. Her stomach growled. The Lady laughed.

“I shall send for food and drink.” She rose and placed a kiss as light as a butterfly on Katya’s brow. Watching her walk away, Katya realized she did not know what to do. The Resistance had been her whole life for the past four years. With no François and no Professor, who was she? With nothing to resist, what was her compass?

She heard the Lady speak to someone in the corridor, and looked out the window at the eternal twilight and the scents of summer and spring, mingling in the sweet air. It smelled like a promise. But the promise of what? How long could she stay inside this unchanging realm?

The bed dipped again.

“What are your thoughts?” the Lady asked.

Katya studied the planes of her face.

“I don’t know who I am now. Now that this is done.”

The Lady’s smile was gentle this time.

“You do what every warrior does after long battle. You rest. You eat. You make love. You walk the land. You rebuild your home.”

“But where is home?” Katya mused.

“Home is with your friends, and your village. And home is always here, with me, should you so desire.”

“I don’t have to choose?”


How could she choose? Between rebuilding the human realm with her friends, or staying here, in this twilit space with the most beautiful woman she had ever seen?

The Lady leaned close, until Katya could feel her apple sweet breath on her cheeks. “You have the power to choose as many things as will make you happy, and kindle purpose in your heart. Let no one take that from you. Not even me.”

Katya reached out and drew the Lady closer, until their lips pressed warmly against each other. Katya was hungry for more than just food. She was hungry for life. And, for the first time in years, hungry for possibilities that included more than fighting for survival.

Wasn’t defeating fascists about restoring the power to choose? “I choose it all,” Katya murmured into the Lady’s hair.

“Then our victory is complete.”


 

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