Their swords clashed, the sound carried the fury of the battle.
“You’re gonna have to do better than that, sis!”
“Oh, that was just a teaser, Niko. Get ready, here comes the full thing!”
The battle raged on. The sunlight glinted off the steel of the swinging blades, the echoes of battle bouncing off of the sparse trees and carrying for hundreds of yards. Neither of the siblings let up, not even for a moment. They were evenly matched.
After battling like this for a good while, they found themselves facing each other, swords drawn and only about 30 feet of empty land separating them. Both found themselves breathing heavily, exhausted.
“I hate to admit it, but you’ve gotten a lot better.” he remarked. “You may even give me a run for my money someday.”
“I think I gave you one today! You’re getting rusty!”
He smirked, “Oh, I’m not rusty. I’m just giving you a chance to try to win before I take you down.”
A cocky grin broke open on her face, “You wouldn’t do that. You’re just sore that I’m beating you, and you know it.”
“Like I said, you’re not beating me. I’m just giving you a chance to try.”
“Oh please! You’re so weak a pup could beat you!”
Anger burst across Niko’s face. “What did you say?!?”
“You heard me.” she replied, readying her weapon.
“That’s it, Shaya!” Niko raised his blade and sprinted toward his sister who was now crouched with her weapon at the ready.
As Niko reached his target, he took a mighty horizontal swing, but as he did so, with a graceful leap, Shaya jumped up and over her brother, doing a flip and a turn in midair and landing on her feet behind Niko who was, now, open for her to jab her sword into his back.
“Ow! Dammit…” Niko said despondently. “You know, any harder and that could have actually hurt me.”
Shaya smiled, in victory. “Yeah, good thing I pulled the blow at the right time. Plus these practice swords aren’t really sharp.” she said, sheathing her sword. “You put up a good fight this time. That was actually a challenge! But you fell for it again.”
“Fell for what again?”
“You took the insult to heart again. You do that in a real fight and you could die.”
“I know that! I don’t need a lecture on it from my little sister!” Niko snapped.
“Right, I guess you wouldn’t…” Shaya trailed off. She paused for a few moments while Niko got up and sheathed his sword. “It’s getting close to dinner time, we should probably head home. I really need to get a bath!”
Niko snickered, “Yeah you do, you really smell!”
She smiled, “You’re one to talk! You need one too! Probably worse than I do! I could smell you a mile away with a human’s nose!”
“Yeah, yeah…” He blew off the comment, “Let’s go.”
The pair walked down the beaten path that led from their unofficial practice field toward town. The path was lined with small, sparse trees every hundred feet or so, the grass underfoot green but browning due to the lack of rain for the past few weeks. The sky was turning red with the sun just beginning to set at their backs, the sound of birds settling in for the evening echoing through the twilight. It was a beautiful, peaceful evening. Suddenly, Shaya spoke,
“Are you doing alright? You were off today.” Niko stayed silent, eyes dead set on the path in front of him, his face stern. “Is it… him?” Niko stopped, closed his eyes, and paused for a few moments. A flash of pain crossed his face but disappeared quickly. “It is the anniversary.” She said.
“It is, isn’t it?” Niko said, his voice sullen and calm, reflecting on the thought. He started walking again. “I can’t believe it’s been 8 years…”
She nodded. “It’s been a long time.”
“Yeah… I guess I’d rather not talk about it.”
“Are you sure? It could help.”
He looked at her and, though his face was void of emotion, she could see the pain in his eyes begging her not to push the subject. “Okay…”
They continued down the path, taking them over a large hill. Once over its peak they could see their home town, once a proud city before the war, now mostly ruins of buildings from ages long past. The twilight reflected off of pieces of broken glass, giving the desolate city life that it had only known before its own twilight came upon it. In the distance could be seen the faint glow of candles being lit in the windows of their town leading them home. As they came closer, they recognized the familiar smell of Shaya’s favorite dish wafting through the air.
“No way! Mom made Schweinshaxe! C’mon!” Shaya motioned for Niko to follow and started to jog toward their home.
As her figure retreated into the distance, Niko continued the pace he had kept since the field, thoughts and memories dancing their haunting dance through his mind. Memories that, if not for the pain that now came with them, would have brought a smile to his now grim façade.
‘Schweinshaxe was Dad’s favorite, too…’ he thought, trying to hold back tears, running his hands over his face through his hair and over his ears which were now flattened down and away from his head. He punched the brick wall on his left. “Why did you have to go, Dad? Why did you have to leave us to survive on our own? Mom? Shaya? Mika? I can survive on my own, but why leave them? Why couldn’t you have stayed?” He gritted his teeth and unsheathed his sword from the holster on his back, “URRRAHHHHH!!!!” he screamed, and with a swift swipe, he sliced some of the green ivy that was growing along the wall’s surface. He breathed heavily, and after a few moments he sheathed his sword on his back and headed toward home.
Niko walked up to the door of their two-story home and entered.
“Niko!” An excited, small voice yelled, followed by a young girl with long, light brown hair flowing down her back. “I heard Shaya kicked your butt.”
“Did you, now?” he looked at his youngest sister with annoyance, “Did Shaya also tell you about the dirty trick she used to beat me?”
“She called you a pup, again, didn’t she?” Mika coyly mocked.
Niko scoffed, “Yeah.” This solicited a small chuckle from Mika. “Where’s Mom?” he continued.
“She’s in the kitchen making dinner. You know, you should get a bath, you stink. I think Shaya’s almost done. I’ll let her know to draw you some water.” She ran upstairs. Niko went on to the kitchen down the hall.
“I’m in here!” his mother’s sweet yet firm voice drifted from the kitchen, the smell of dinner in tandem. “How did practice go?”
“Oh, you know, Mom, the usual.”
“Shaya beat you?” she smirked.
“She wouldn’t have if sh—“
“Hadn’t called you a pup. I know, I’ve heard it before. You’re going to have to get over that. You’re a great fighter, Niko, just keep your head in the battle.”
Niko sighed, “Yeah, you’re right. You always are. So, Schweinshaxe?” he asked, peering down at the freshly cooked pig’s leg.
“Mmhmm.” She replied, chopping some cabbage.
Niko’s shoulders tensed. “Why?”
“Why wouldn’t I make it?”
“Because it was his favorite…” he said dejectedly.
She paused, turned, and faced Niko. “I know. But it’s not like I’m going to stop making it.”
“Do you realize what today is?!?” Niko exclaimed angrily. His mother’s kind face suddenly turned angry.
“Of course I know what today is! How dare you even think that I would forget?!?” She stabbed the knife into the cutting board and pointed at her oldest son, “I will never forget this day! The day that my husband, your father, died.” Tears started to shine in her eyes. “How could I forget?” She leaned on the counter top and started to cry, Niko began to get up to console her when she raised her hand to stop him before wiping the tears from her face. She then looked at him with reddened eyes, “Niko, you’re so much like him, and I know you loved him, too. I also know that you’re angry. Angry with the ones who took your father from you, and I am, and always will be angry with them, too. But there’s nothing we can do except move on and honor his memory.” She turned back to grab the knife out of the chopping block but it was stuck. “Niko, could you grab this for me?”
Niko got up and walked over, grasped the handle of the knife and pulled it out of the block. He then set the blade on the countertop, turned to his mother, and embraced her.
“I’m sorry, Mom. I love you.”
“I love you, too, Niko. Now do me a favor.” She said as she pulled away from the hug.
“Sure, Mom, what is it?”
She sniffed the air, “Take a bath, you really stink.”