"So... this is goodbye?" Thea looked at me and asked.
We had dropped her purchases at the inn and found a small tavern around the town’s edges. Although tavern sounded a bit too grand.
Some benches and a few broken tables scattered along the roadside. A girl singing old ballads for coins. And families selling dinner and wine through their windows. Half-burned bread, thin soups and stew, foul-smelling, rotted fruit juice. Nothing I would have called food back in my old life. But now I looked forward to it.
A cheap meal was more important than a delicious one.
The small street was bustling with farmers and craftsmen wasting their wages after a day of hard work. Drunk men argued with their frantic wives, lonely drunkards tried to feel up the girls, while imposing fathers used each squeeze to earn some extra money.
But after weeks and months in a tiny village this scene appeared cozy and welcoming.
"I mean, you heard her speech," I answered Thea's question. "She said she needs us. So I'll join her and fight against the leprechauns."
It was the Sword Maiden's call to battle. What else was there to do?
"Is that so?" An offhand reply. "So you really are an idiot."
Was she annoyed? Her entire demeanor changed after I had told her my decision earlier. Even us going out, squandering money, was her idea. But why though? It made no sense.
"Don't talk like that," I appeased her. "You were there with me. She needs people who can fight. And that's something we can do."
"We?" She sighed. "There's no we in this plan. Tomorrow I'll leave for our village. They are waiting for us to return."
"But you saw her! We can’t sit at home and wait. We have to fight against the leprechauns before they devastate the villages."
“No, we don't. This entire thing has nothing to do with us. We should go home, tend to our fields, and survive for another year. The others need your help. Not some random girl."
Random girl? HER?
"She's not some random girl. She's the Sword Maiden. Better to follow her instead of hiding away like a coward."
"You believed that?" Thea pushed her lukewarm stew to the side. A strange look in her eyes. "Let me make this clear. There is no giant army of leprechauns."
"Bullshit," I bellowed. Did she really think the sword maiden was lying? "Why would she lie to me? Those leprechauns are out there. Even the merchant caravans stay in the city. All of them are scared."
"They are always scared."
"How is it any different from last year? Or the year before that? Why do you think a blacksmith recognizes someone like me? Because he has seen me so many times, he remembers. Because I had to come here year after year because the next merchant got scared. Bandits, beasts, weather. They are always scared. Nothing has changed."
"What about the rumors about the missing caravans? And the dead merchants? Everyone on the market complained about the threat. Believe her, they are out there. And they kill us humans."
"Something might be out there," Thea agreed with a frown. "But it's not an army of leprechauns."
"They are out there!" Why wouldn't she understand? It was so clear, so easy to see. "Why would the Sword Maiden lie to us? To me?"
"I don't know. And I don't care." Another sigh. "But even if there is a giant army of leprechauns. What will you do? Fight them?"
"Of course I'll fight!"
And I would stand beside her until the end.
"Together with whom? Those farmers? They are nothing but ragtag, with no chance for victory. They'll die without a grave and you'll lie besides them."
"We won't lose with the Sword Maiden on our side. She'll lead us to victory." It was so obvious, wasn't it? She was a genius commander who would change the face of this continent. No way she could lose against some cheap goblin knockoffs.
"You. Will. Die."
"Stop cursing me. I've become much stronger. You won't knock me down again. So don't look down on me either." She was a village girl with a club. This was outside of her little world. "And even if I die, it's better. I don't want to hide and wait for my death."
"Is that so?" Thea looked me into my eyes. "Then what about the villagers who need you? What about the things you promised auntie? Or Elder Rolf? The new traps? The harvest season?"
"That..." My voice faltered. Her words made sense. In some weird and twisted way I felt guilty. As if I owed them a debt of gratitude. But still. This was my chance to be with the Sword Maiden. I couldn't miss it or she might be gone forever. "The others will understand. I told them everything they need to know. It's easy..."
"I'll come back after we won," I reassured her.
Okay, even I understood how hollow this promise was. Like all those school kids going >We will call each other soon< on graduation day. And half a year later you meet someone while shopping. Completely awkward. But you still smile and continue the farce. >We should go out and do something soon. And we should invite all the others.< Yeah, not going to happen.
But what else could I do? Waste my life in a lonesome village? A slow death just to repay them?
"As I thought... we shouldn't have... with us..." Thea muttered something to herself.
"What was that?"
"Oh, nothing." She looked apologetic. "But I knew you would stay in the city..."
That wasn't nothing. Her face told me as much. So she wanted to trap me in the village. Wanted me to slowly die. Now even her disliking the Sword Maiden made sense. But wasn't that too underhanded?
"So you won't stay?"
"It's... you have to understand!"
"No, I don't have to. And I don't want to." She became louder, stopped halfway, and sighed. "I'll tell auntie you found some work. No way I can tell her you stayed to die."
"I. Will. Not. Die." Why would she say all that? Was she envious? Just because the Sword Maiden got all the attention? "She'll save me."
"Then she'll die together with you."
"We won't die! And even if... dieing beside her is a thousand times better than rotting in some village."
"So you felt that way..."
A soft voice dieing out.
A grimace on Thea's face.
And silence between us.
Pain? Sorrow? Frustration? It was hard to understand with only her face. But my words had caused it.
"I... I'm sorry. I didn't mean to... um... I... you see... what I wanted to say..."
"It's okay," she interrupted me. Her voice cold. "I understand. There never was a we in my plans, anyway. Just like there was no we in your plans. Only two strangers crossing their paths for a moment."
"Thea. That's... you have to understand..."
"I don't care." She looked at me. What was that glint in her eyes? Pain? Frustration? Or anger? "No need to fight with someone who leaves."
Now she became hurtful. First spouting her nonsense and now playing the victim card. As if I had chosen all of this.
"I already said I'll come back when we've won. What else..."
"No, you won't. Because you won't win," she interrupted me again, talking herself in a frenzy. "You'll follow that girl. Fight against their enemies. And then you'll die. Alone. And nobody will mourn for you."
Again the talk of defeat. Why wouldn't she understand? The Sword Maiden won't lose. After all, she would save the entire human race. With me by her side. But Thea sat there and insulted her. Again and again. And again. And again.
I wanted to stop her, reprimand her, teach her the truth.
But I couldn't even get one word in as she went on and on.
"And you saw the swords at Master Ansgot's shop," Thea finally concluded her rant. "They aren't worth any gold coins. Not even silver. Same for the armors. And the rations? Some remains, bought with iron. Everything together might not be worth a single gold coin. It’s a lie."
"Um... that was that Houdin's doing. He must have tricked her. She wouldn't do something like that."
"Listen to you..." Another sigh. "But even then. What are your weapons?"
"Swords. You said it yourself."
"But why swords?" The pointed at her side. "Why not a club?" She pointed at me. "Why not an ax?" She gestured towards the surrounding farmers. "Why not a pitchfork or a pole? Something that's easier to use. Something everyone can wield. Why swords?"
"Because the bard sings his praises of them. Even here the girls sing their stories and the boys dream. The hero wields his sword to vanquish evil. It's neither a club nor an ax. It's a sword. And everyone knows those stories. They dream of them. They yearn for glory and riches." She sighed. "Nobody wants to rot on the fields. We all dream of a better life. And we all are willing to die for it. You aren't the only one..."
Another pause. I wanted to object. But I couldn't.
"But what can they do with a sword," Thea asked me, calm again. "What can a hundred farmers do against a giant wave of leprechauns? They'll dream of honor and glory. They'll eat the noble's waste. And die like rats. It's always like that... people like us should know our place. Or our dreams will burn down."
People like us? I wasn't like that! And this time the Sword Maiden was with us.
"No. Not with her. She won't abandon us. She'll save us."
"I don't understand your devotion. This girl... did nothing at all."
Nothing? Nothing at all? Everything she had done for me diminished to nothing? What was with Thea? Why did she pick so much on the Sword Maiden? Why would she bully her like this?
"You wouldn't understand. You can't understand. But she'll become someone great. And I'll stand beside her."
Not like in the game. This time she wouldn't die alone on the battlefield. I could change it. Rewrite her fate.
"Standing beside her? So that's it... her beauty really helped."
This girl... again. And again. And again and again and again.
"Her beauty has nothing to do with it!" My enraged voice echoed through the street. "You just sit here and run your mouth against everyone outside the village. All the merchants are evil. All the city dwellers are against you. The nobles want to destroy everything. You are right, she isn’t perfect. Nobody is. But least she tries to do something. She isn't a coward like you!"
"Coward?" Now her voice answered alike. "I am a coward? And the others are cowards? Did your head stopped working after you saw her?"
"We aren't cowards." She cut me off, her eyes furious. "You are the coward. Go, run to your Sword Maiden and dream of a glorious death. We will work on our fields, struggle through the winter, and cry in our sleeps. But at least we are alive, fighting against the land. We are not running away."
"Then what do you want me to do?!"
"Don't leave us. Be a man and fight against the land. Finish those things you started. And when danger comes, protect our fields and homes with me. Stay in the village. And don't run away because some whore smiled at you."
What was that?
"It's not her fault you are ugly! She's no whore. You are just envious and... um... I mean."
A lonely smile.
And I knew that something had changed between us.
It had cracked.
"So. Your beloved maiden. Do you know her name?"
"Of course. She's the sword maiden. And she... um..." What was her name again? I had read everything about her. Even collected all those useless book pages in the game. She was the sword maiden who sacrificed herself against the evil forces. A radiant ray of hope that illuminated humanity's way into the future. And her name... the lore never mentioned it.
"You see, I know her name. Because all the farmers love her. As the peasant girl who caught a noble's eyes with her beauty. A girl who sold her beauty for status. I had heard her story when I visited last year. And a woman who sells herself is called?"
"No, it's different. She wouldn't do something like that. You didn't even recognize her earlier. All you know are those rumors. And those people, they are just jealous. They..."
"No. You don't understand. It's different. You have to believe me. Why would you even listen to these rumors when they came from the city? All of a sudden those are good enough for you? As long as the others shame her you'll happily..."
"Don't bother," Thea cut me off, took her bowl, and stood up. "I'll go to sleep. Because tomorrow, I must return to the village. My home."
And she left.
Just like that.
Why didn't she understand? It was clear to see. Even an idiot should realize that. Such a major character couldn't be at fault.
And those were details anyway. No need to bother about them.
But to Thea such minor things were enough to snap.
Our argument had gathered the farmers' attention and their looks of pity jangled my nerves.
Hence I forced a smile, waved to one of the girls, and ordered more wine.
And so I sat there, drinking horrible fruit waste.
Between drunk farmers and their annoying wives.
Surrounded by noise and bustle.
And still felt like shit.